Saturday, January 10, 2015

Cuban Connection

Several months ago, I wrote a  post about the upper and lower shark jaws I had in hand and noted that I believed they came from a Carcharhinus falciformis, commonly known as the Silky Shark.  What I didn’t mention was that I’d initially settled on a different species, the Blacknose Shark.  As I’ve come to expect with such taxonomic misadventures, being misled by a red herring (so to speak) can often be wonderfully productive.  The Blacknose Shark's full scientific name – Carcharhinus acronotus (Poey, 1860) – opened a window for me to an interesting, international (with the emphasis on international) chapter of natural history from the 19th century.

Felipe Poey y Aloy (1799-1891), a preeminent Cuban naturalist, identified and described the Blacknose Shark as Squalus acronotus in 1860 in his work titled Memorias Sobre La Historia Natural De La Isla De Cuba (Memoirs on the Natural History of the Island of Cuba, Volume 2, p. 335).  Though the genus name has changed (hence the parentheses around Poey’s name), he retains credit for being the first to name this species.  According to ichthyologist (and the first president of Stanford University) David Starr Jordan, upon their publication, “The ‘Memorias’ were at once recognized as the most important work on the fishes of Cuba; and as was said long ago by Professor [Edward Drinker] Cope, this work is a sine qua non in the study of the ichthyology of tropical America.”  (Sketch of Professor Felipe Poey, Popular Science Monthly, Volume XXV, 1884, p. 550.)

Poey, born in Havana to a French father and a mother with ties to Cuba and Spain, grew up in France and Cuba.  He studied and practiced law in Spain, Cuba, and France.  But soon he’d given up his legal career and devoted himself entirely to the natural history of his native Cuba.

(This illustration is from Popular Science Monthly, 1884.)

In 1826, Poey traveled to Paris with a portfolio of his drawings of Cuban fishes and a barrel filled with specimens preserved in brandy.  For the next several years, Poey lived in Paris, studying and working with the great naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832).  In 1833, he returned to Cuba and set about cataloguing Cuban wildlife in a series of publications.  He founded the Museum of Natural History in Havana and, in 1842, was appointed professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Havana.

(Biographical information about Poey can be found in Jordan's piece cited above, and in the following: the Poey entry in the interesting online exhibit titled Latino Natural History hosted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library, one of several BHL exhibits created with support of the Smithsonian Women’s Committee; Lindsay Brownell’s article titled Felipe Poey:  Brief Life of Cuba’s Greatest Naturalist:  1799 – 1891, Harvard Magazine, July-August, 2014; and in Aldemaro Romero’s article titled The Discovery of the First Cuban Blind Cave Fish:  The Untold Story, Journal of Spelean History, 2007.)

To say Poey was prolific as the discoverer and namer of new species is an understatement.  Anyone with even a passing interest in modern shark species is likely to have encountered his name.  At least six modern shark species bear it:

Carcharhinus acronotus (Poey, 1860) – Blacknose Shark
C. longimanus (Poey, 1861) – Oceanic Whitetip Shark
C. perezii (Poey, 1876) – Caribbean Reef Shark
C. signatus (Poey, 1868) – Night Shark
Negaprion brevirostris (Poey, 1868) – Lemon Shark
Rhizoprionodon porosus (Poey, 1861) – Caribbean Sharpnose Shark

Looking more broadly at marine organisms in general, Poey’s influence is irrefutable.  According to my calculations, the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), an online, expert-moderated taxonomic database of marine organisms, lists 107 valid scientific names which credit the Cuban naturalist as the one who first named and described the species.  Impressively, of these, 38 are unchanged from Poey’s initial publication.  Further, fully 15 genera of marine organisms presently bear the names he originally gave them.

Poey considered the naming and the describing of species to be a single, fundamentally important endeavor.  He railed against the early naturalists' efforts that involved bestowing a name and a meager description.  These impeded naturalists' true understanding of these species and have "greatly tormented taxonomists," he wrote in Plantilla:  Descriptiva Icitiológica (1870?, I translate the title roughly as Template for the Description of Fishes),  In that piece, Poey quoted the early Danish naturalist Johan Christian Fabricius’ aphorism:  “Nomina, si pereunt, perit et cognitio rerum.”  My translation of the Latin:  “If the names are lost, so perishes the knowledge.”  For Poey, detailed, complete descriptions of the species were absolutely intrinsic to the act of naming them.

Though Poey’s scientific focus was narrow (the natural history of his island, and its fish in particular), and the academic resources available to him in Cuba were decidedly limited, he was not isolated.  In a nice turn of phrase, science writer Lindsay Brownell wrote in her biographical sketch of the naturalist (see citation above) that “Poey built an international ecosystem of colleagues who disseminated his work . . . .”  David Starr Jordan wrote that Poey once told him, "Comme naturaliste, je ne suis pas espagnol:  je suis cosmpolite."  ("As a naturalist, I'm not Spanish, I'm cosmopolitan." - Sketch, p. 552; translation by Google Translate.)

Quite true.  Poey had many, active connections to the scientific communities in the United States, and in Europe, as well.  For nearly four decades, Poey was the Smithsonian’s representative in Cuba handling publication and specimen exchanges.  He corresponded at length with several of the Smithsonian’s Secretaries.  (William O. Craig, Around the World with the Smithsonian, 2004, p. 74.)  Poey’s scientific writings appeared in such publications as the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Annals of the New York Lyceum.  As biologist Aldemaro Romero, Jr., noted, Poey “was a member of almost every major scientific society in the U.S. and Europe, and many of his new specimens and life-size drawings are found in the collections of the United States National Museum (Smithsonian), the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Harvard), . . . .”  (The Discovery of the First Cuban Blind Cave Fish, p. 17.)  He shipped thousands of specimens to the Smithsonian and sent most of his type fish specimens to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology founded by Louis Agassiz with whom he carried on a voluminous correspondence.

Therein lies a wonderful  anecdote.  According to Brownell, Poey’s fish specimens went north to Harvard (and elsewhere, I assume) wrapped in newspapers (some of these Cuban newspapers are the only surviving copies in North America) and in other papers he had at hand.  Indeed, Brownell discovered how indiscriminate or careless he could be in this process of procuring packing material.
In a drawer in Harvard’s Museum of Natural History lies a skeleton of Lachnolaimus maximus, the hogfish, its delicate bones wrapped in a yellowed, crinkled letter whose paper lay untouched for more than 100 years.  “My dear father,” the letter begins in Spanish, “The other day I sent you . . . fifteen and half yards of cloth for wrapping fish.  The barrel left on Saturday, and you should have received it by now . . . .”  It is signed, “Your daughter, Amelia.”
My interest in the diversity and strength of the Cuban Poey’s ties to the United States has certainly been heightened by the current prospect of significant changes in the relationship of the United States and Cuba.  Of note, last year, a landmark agreement was signed in Havana by leaders of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cuban Academy of Sciences committing these organizations to work toward substantial cooperation in certain specific areas of scientific research.  (Kathy Wren, Science Diplomacy Visit to Cuba Produces Historic Agreement, AAAS News, April 30, 2014.)

I find it very fitting that this accord involves the Cuban Academy of Sciences which Poey cofounded in 1861.


  1. Hi Tony,
    I have been following your blog for some time now (about 2 years). I am a Cuban geologist/paleontologists (student), and I really enjoyed this post. Many thanks !

  2. Joha:
    Thanks so much for the comment. Poey, to me, is a great example of how science crosses political and other boundaries.


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