(William T. Stearn Prize 2009) “The mighty cassowary”: the discovery and demise of the King Island emu
Pfennigwerth, SC, (William T. Stearn Prize 2009) 'The mighty cassowary': the discovery and demise of the King Island emu, Archives of Natural History, 37, (1) pp. 74-90. ISSN 0260-9541 (2010) [Refereed Article]
Nicolas Baudin's 1800–1804 voyage was the only scientific expedition to collect specimens of the dwarf emu (Dromaius ater) endemic to King Island, Bass Strait, Australia. The expedition's naturalist, François Péron, documented the only detailed, contemporaneous description of the life history of the bird, and the artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur made the only visual record of a living specimen. Hunted to extinction by 1805, the King Island emu remains relatively unfamiliar. It is ironic that a bird collected as part of one of the most ambitious ordering enterprises in early nineteenth-century science – a quest for intellectual empire – has been more or less forgotten.This paper discusses how human error, assumption, imagination and circumstance hampered recognition and understanding of the King Island emu. Poor record-keeping led to the confusion of this species with other taxa, including the Australian emu and a dwarf species restricted to Kangaroo Island, contributing to the epistemological loss of the species. The expedition's agenda was equally influential in the perception and documentation of the species, with consequences for its conservation in the wild. The paper also argues that as a symbolic rather than a scientific record, Lesueur's illustration fostered inaccuracies in later descriptions of the King Island emu, especially when the image was taken out of context, subjected to the vagaries of nineteenth-century printing techniques and reproduced in more recent ornithological literature. Rather than increasing knowledge about this species, the Baudin expedition and its literature contributed, albeit unwittingly, to the King Island emu's textual and literal extinction.
Dromaius ater, Nicolas Baudin, François Péron, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Australia, ornithological illustration, extinction