By Kira Cherrix, Digital Imaging Specialist, Smithsonian Institution Archives
|Rafinesque's notes during his trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky in 1818 shows the Black Dotted Perch and the Ohio Red-Eye, as described by John James Audubon. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 007250, Box 1, Folder 3. SIA2012-6097.|
Constantine Rafinesque was born in a suburb of Constantinople in 1783. From an early age, he showed great interest in the fields of botany and ichthyology. He first visited America from 1802 to 1805, and then returned to make the United States his permanent residence in 1815. Rafinesque was considered by many of his colleagues to be quite eccentric and his peculiar personality often got on their nerves. In 1818, Constantine Rafinesque stayed at the home of John James Audubon for three weeks. He was determined to find new species of flora and fauna, and was overjoyed every time he came across one of Audubon’s drawings of a specimen he had never seen before.
|The fish depicted on the right-hand page is the White-Eyes Barbot, as described to Rafinesque by Audubon. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 007250, Box 1, Folder 3. SIA2012-6096.|
At one point, Audubon decided to play a trick on Rafinesque. Audubon began to add drawings of imaginary fish to his stacks of other drawings. When Rafinesque would come across these drawings, he would copy the drawings down in his notebook and ask Audubon for additional descriptive information about the fish. The most famous of these “fake fish” was called the Devil-Jack Diamond fish. In his book, Icthyologia Ohiensis, he describes the fish as being four to ten feet long with bulletproof scales. Rafinesque claimed to have seen one at a distance, but noted that they sometimes lie motionless on the surface and appear to look like logs.
By the time Rafinesque left, Audubon had convinced him of the existence of ten different imaginary fish. When Rafinesque published his findings, he gave Audubon credit for all of the fake species, often stating “I have not seen this species, but Mr. Audubon has communicated me a drawing of it.” At one point in his book, Rafinesque seems to doubt the accuracy of Audubon’s drawing stating “This genus rests altogether upon the authority of Mr. Audubon, who has presented me a drawing of the only species belonging to it. It appears very distinct if his drawing be correct; but it requires to be examined again. Is it only a Sturgeon incorrectly drawn?”
Ultimately, this practical joke backfired on Audubon. He was still an up-and-coming ornithologist at the time, so when he went to publish his book years after Rafinesque’s book had come out, his critics claimed that he might be making up several of the birds contain within it. They believed that if he could provide such detailed descriptions of fake fish, then what was to stop him from creating imaginary birds? It is said that Audubon later admitted to a friend that his practical joke had cost him a great deal.
Audubon’s Fake Species