Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rafinesque's bat

The stark winter landscape looks like a Hockney painting--bright green wheat fields, dramatic orange sunsets against gray trees. When winter descends on deciduous woods, it means easy wildlife viewing. Bats have been really active around sunset this past week. In southeast Missouri, a region devoid of caves, bats live in hollow trees, abandoned homes and behind the peeling bark of old trees.

Three species have been recorded from this area: red, big brown and Rafinesque's big-eared. It's virtually impossible to tell which species of bat is flying around at dusk unless you're in the Ozarks watching a predetermined, no less spectacular display of clustering gray bats leaving a cave. In fact, if you have a bat in hand to determine species by its fur color and the shape of the tragus, a small part of the inner ear, the animal is probably not doing so well; it's either being rehabilitated, is very sick, or you have taken a bat from its roost spot, thereby gravely stressing its fragile system. Based on life history and habitat you can guess which bats are flying around, but the man who lent his name to the Rafinesque big-eared bat was obviously able to see one up close to determine its species. The Rafinesque's big-eared bat (Plecotus rafinesquii) hasn't been studied in Missouri, but studies in other parts of its range have proven that the populations are consistently uncommon. And consistently in literature Monsieur Rafinesque is described as uncommon.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was born in Constantinople but spent his childhood in Marseille, France, teaching himself Latin and botany. He was fluent in Latin by 12 and built himself an herbarium by the time he was 15. At 19 (1802), he moved to America where he became fascinated with the fishes of the eastern seaboard. He collected over 250 species new to science in the course of a few years. Rafinesque returned to Europe after a few years in Philadelphia. On his boat ride home, the boat capsized and in the wreck he lost over 60,000 plant and animal specimen he had collected throughout his life.

Having recovered from the rather serious blow to his scholarship, Rafinesque returned to America in 1817 to teach botany, French and Italian at Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University. He was ridiculed from the beginning of his professorship, being labeled an eccentric genius, a student of all the arts and a master of none. He missed classes, spent "too much time" with the University president's wife, wore rumpled clothes and had messy hair. As a founding member of the Lyceum of Natural History in Philadelphia, Rafinesque was a friend to Bentham and Audubon and was an "intellectual source" to Lewis and Clark. His organizational skills and keen eye to details encouraged him to rename over 2,000 plant and animal species, though only a few of the names are still in use.

Charles Darwin didn't write him off as an eccentric and acknowledged Rafinesque's anti-Linnaean classification system in the forward to his On the Origin of Species. A handful of notebooks (all in French, of course) from Rafinesque's time in Kentucky are at the Smithsonian, along with a beautiful collection of his fish drawings from the Ohio River. He is responsible for separating the white from the black crappie, even putting it in a different genus (Pomoxis) because of physical traits the earlier classification system didn't take into account. During Rafinesque's time in Kentucky, he also became interested in the Midsouth's Native American sites, identifying 148 different sites in Kentucky alone.

Despite his accomplishments and wide array of interests, Rafinesque was always considered an outcast while he was in America. While Audubon respected his vast knowledge and organizational skills, the discovery of the Rafinesque's big-eared bat caused Audubon a lot of anguish. In 1818, Rafinesque spent the night at Audubon's cottage in Henderson, Kentucky. The story holds that Rafinesque had his window open and a candle flickering in his room. Bats began to swarm into the room to eat the moths that were attracted to the candle. Rafinesque, naked, grabbed Audubon's Cremona violin and began violently swatting at the bats, trying to get one close enough to draw or collect as a specimen. Audubon heard the ruckus and rushed into the room. Seeing his prized violin destroyed, Audubon furiously grabbed the violin's bow and managed to kill one of the big-eared bats by swatting it to the wall. Audubon expected a mere apology from Rafinesque and instead got a "it's a new bat!" Audubon never forgave him. The features that separate the Rafinesque from the Townsend's big-eared bat are slight: the Rafinesque's has tufts of hair over the toes and white-tipped hair on the belly. There's a slight difference in the upper incisor teeth, as well.

Several books exist that outline his amazing contributions to science, including a recently published biography, A Voice in the American Wilderness, by Leonard Warren of the University of Kentucky Press. After his death, Rafinesque was buried in Philadelphia among his friends of the Lyceum. In 1924, a small group of botanists lobbied to have his remains placed at the entrance to the administrator's building at Transylvania University. The plaque above his resting place reads: "Honor to whom honor is overdue." The college grill is named after him and the week before Halloween is "Rafinesque Week" on campus.

In southeast Missouri, aside from his Rafinesque's bat, there's a Rafinesque violet and several members of the aster family designated with Raf. after the species, meaning that he reclassified them. His nomenclature is a lot easier to follow than earlier naturalists, thanks to his dedication to Latin and Greek. He named Lewis and Clark's white footed mouse Peromyscus leucopus, "small mouse with white feet." If only they were all that easy. After Rafinesque's death, his journals and field notes were sold as junk, so we'll never know his side of the Audubon violin story.

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