Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature

A couple of weeks ago, Klaas’s cuckoo and I were featured on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog. You should go read that post – especially the part about Klaas’s cuckoo and the origins of its name.  But here’s a little context.

It’s fashionable in some circles to bemoan the fact that many scientists* rarely cite literature older than a decade or two. There are, of course, many reasons older papers go uncited. Science progresses. Reviewers insist on literature review replete with the very latest citations as a signal of the author’s currency with the field. Journals – well, the less ethically enlightened ones – push to manipulate their impact factors with citations to papers in the recent window that “counts”. And authors, being human, will read and cite what they can download from their desks, rather than spelunking their way through the musty stacks of old paper journals in the library.  All this, though, is a topic for another day.  I’m here to tell you, instead, about Klaas’s cuckoo and me. 

I ran across Klaas’s cuckoo, and the story of its naming, in doing research for my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s SpiderIt’s the earliest example I’ve found of a species being named for an Indigenous person (in this case, a Khoikhoi guide for the French naturalist François Le Vaillant. Eponymous names for species have a definite, but sadly unsurprising, bias to namings for Western men, so I wrote a chapter about some of the exceptions (and pointing out that with millions of species yet to be described and named, we have a clear opportunity to address the problem).  That bit of research was one of many rabbit holes that have led me deep into the older literature.

I mentioned our reluctance to go library spelunking as one reason older literature goes uncited. But that reluctance is a little out of date, because it’s remarkable what you can find online if you know where to look.** I discovered this when I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  In search of the roots of the writing form that would become the modern scientific paper, I read the very first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (from 1665; and let me tell you, there some very strange things in that volume). And in tracing the evolution of the Methods section, I read Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis’ (1737) account of a trip across the Finnish tundra to measure the shape of the Earth. I read Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, (re)read parts of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and more.

My love affair with old literature really blossomed when I began to write Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  That book traces the stories of eponymous species names – and for older names (like Klaas’s cuckoo), uncovering those stories often involves a deep dive into literature going back centuries. I’ll offer just a few examples. I used an online archive of Linnaeus’s handwritten manuscripts to resolve the question of whether Linnaeus named Linnaea after himself. (He did, but lied about it.)*** I read René Lesson’s (1839) account of a new species of mynah bird, which he named Sericulus anais in memory of his daughter, writing “[for] Anais Lesson, deceased at the age of 11 years; may the name of this bird remember a father’s deepest sorrow”. And, of course, I read Le Vaillant’s account of Klaas, and the bird he would name Klaas’s cuckoo. (These stories are fascinating, and if you’d like to know more about them, and many more, you can probably deduce what I suggest you do).

It’s somewhat miraculous that so much older literature – right back to the 1600s – is available, usually free, online.  (I’m not suggesting that everything is – archival research is still a thing, and will be for a long time yet.)  It’s a bit scattered, and takes some finding, to be sure. My favourite treasure trove has to be the Biodiversity Heritage Library – an online portal to scanned literature operated by a worldwide consortium of libraries and museums. It’s particularly rich (as you might expect from its name) in the taxonomic and natural history literature, from the major journals right down to newsletters of obscure natural history clubs in the far-flung corners of the globe. There’s also a marvelous Flickr collection of images taken from that literature.

Some of the older literature is important but dated and stilted. Some of it, though, is marvelous fun to read – tinged with the personalities of the writers in ways that aren’t possible, or at least aren’t encouraged, in our modern literature. Consider, for instance, Colonel Robert Tytler, writing in an 1864 issue of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, to name what he thought was a new species of civet after himself: “I beg to send you the following description of a NEW Paradoxurus which I have named after myself,


The formatting is Tytler’s own, and surely betrays the all-caps-new-line-and-centred personality of the Victorian British army officer. Now, Paradoxurus tytlerii wasn’t actually a new species, and the obscurity into which Tytler has fallen would surely rankle him. But you can still track him down in the literature, and sniff disapprovingly if you like.

© Stephen Heard  November 10, 2020

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a non-profit project and you can support it with a donation here.

Images: Klaas’s cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas; detail). Engraving by William Lizars, from Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library: Ornithology (v. 12, 1853 edition) via Biodiversity Heritage Library; twinflower (Linnaea borealis) © Walter Siegmund via wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0

*^This is often phrased “students don’t cite…”, but only by those too oblivious to realize it’s them too.

**^Or if you know that you can ask a librarian that sort of thing. Actually, you can ask a librarian almost anything. They’re awesome.

***^Thanks to Staffan Muller-Wille for a pointer to what ended up being the key document.

3 thoughts on “Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature

  1. sporesmouldsandfungi

    Nice blog and whole heartedly agree with that naming fungi after white males was done by other white males however, your solution is another white male solution. Here in New Zealand the taking of our indigenous peoples’ language, Māori, and latinising it is seen as cultural imperialism and is increasingly unacceptable. I have written a little about it here (When world collide). The suggested solution is not to name species after people and places but instead give them descriptive names based on their key characteristics. Just something to think about.


      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Thanks for the comment and the link! Your point is bang on that for some Indigenous groups, namings using the Indigenous language would be inappropriate. This is discussed at some length in my book,and with particular reference to Maori has been written about by Judy Wiki Papa, Hemi Whaanga and Tom Roa (2013; “The use of the Māori language in species nomenclature.” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 2, no. 2: 78-84.), among others. (To oversimplify, they found Maori people very supportive of descriptive Maori names but not eponymous ones.) So this will depend on the Indigenous group, and good modern practice is of course to consult.

        Your solution of reverting to the pre-Linnaean practice of using only descriptive names would solve the small problem of offensive eponymous names, but would solve it at enormous cost, and that’s why I’m not a fan. In your post you describe names other than descriptive ones as “significant deviations from the Linnaean ideal for the species epithet: and as lazy names. But this is simply not true! It was Linnaeus who established the practice of eponymous and geographic namings; they are part of the “Linnaean ideal”, not a deviation from it. You capture very well in that post the brilliance of using the name as a meta-data tag – that was the first half of Linnaeus’s innovation. The second half was realizing that once you do that, names need no longer be strictly descriptive, which freed us from the long (often very long) names and constant renaming that descriptive names had forced. There is, to be sure, a middle path in which names are partly descriptive but not fully descriptive, and many, many names follow that path; but it’s not the “Linnaean ideal” at all to suggest that all names must be so. (It also causes significant trouble when one of ten thousand species named ‘flava’ gets revised into a genus that already has another one of the ten thousand). (All this is also treated at some length in my book.)

        Well, that got longer than I intended! All this to say, simply, that you’re entirely right that uses of Indigenous names should proceed with some care; but that I don’t agree that it would be wise to go back to the pre-Linnaean insistence that names only describe.




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