Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/January 1903/The Saving of Vanishing Data




FIVE years ago I pointed out[1] that it is well from time to time to take stock of our knowledge and our methods of inquiry, to see whether we are working on sound lines. As the business man finds it necessary to go over his stock periodically and to balance his books, so, also, the scientific man, especially the biologist, should perform an analogous operation, lest perchance he finds out too late that he has been entering on a comparatively non-profitable work, or has been neglecting valuable opportunities. While it is impossible to say that any scientific work will be ultimately unprofitable, it is right to point out that particular subjects for investigation may be of more immediate importance than others.

In order not to complicate the question, we will dismiss the practical applications of science by admitting that they are of immediate importance. This leaves the field clear for the consideration of scientific subjects which are studied solely for their own sake.

We can, perhaps, gain a clear view of the question by looking at it from the standpoint of our successors. What will be the opinion of the naturalist of a hundred, or of a thousand years hence of the work now being done? What is the scientific work he would wish us to have undertaken? This question is not a difficult one to answer.

He would not consider it very necessary for us to elucidate the structure, development or physiology of every common animal; these researches can be pursued at any time. The investigation of the life in the oceans—whether on the surface, in shallow water, or in abysmal depths—can be done by him as well as by us.

The naturalist of the future will certainly and most justly complain if we busy ourselves entirely with problems that can wait, which he can solve as well as we, and at the same time neglect that work which we alone can do. Our first and immediate duty is to save for science those data that are vanishing; this should be the watchword of the present day. Those students of botany, zoology and anthropology who have at all considered the matter are impressed with the fact that the present time is a very critical period for the native flora and fauna of many parts of the world. Owing to the spread of commerce, the effects of colonization, and the intentional or accidental importation of plants and animals, a very rapid change is affecting the character of the indigenous life of numerous districts. This is notably the case in oceanic islands, the area of which is often extremely limited, and whose native forms have been found to be specially liable to be swamped by the immigrants; but it is just those spots which are of especial interest to the naturalist, on account of their isolation from the great land areas. Thus the flora and fauna of many of the most interesting districts for the field-naturalist are in our day becoming largely exterminated before they have been adequately recorded. The investigation of disappearing animals and plants can, in many cases, be undertaken by us alone—and even now much has disappeared and more is fast passing away. Attention has been called to the spread of land species by the agency of man by Mr. L. O. Howard, of Washington. In this very interesting and suggestive article[2] he deals more especially with insects and most of his illustrations are drawn from America.

In other parts of the world the same dislocation of the indigenous fauna is taking place and even the flora is also becoming modified, for example, Sir Walter Buller, F.R.S., has stated[3] that all the more interesting birds of New Zealand are passing away. Not a few species have already been exterminated, many more are on the borderland, so to speak, of final extinction; and some even of the commonest birds of thirty years ago have become so scarce that it is difficult to know where to look for them. The saddest part of it is that it seems hopeless now to arrest the evil, owing to the introduction of stoats, weasels and ferrets that are now swarming over every part of the country and defy all attempts to check their increase. The following facts speaks for themselves. No specimen of the once very abundant New Zealand quail (Coturnix novæ zealandiæ) has been seen for a quarter of a century: of the celebrated Notornis mantelli only three perfect specimens have been obtained; it is probably extinct. Even the extremely abundant woodhens (Ocydromus sp.) are on the verge of extinction, as are the various species of kiwi (Apteryx), the great ground parrot (Stingops habroptilus), the stitch-bird (Pogonornis cincta), the bell-bird, the native robin, and many others, not forgetting the beautiful huia or mountain starling (Heteralocha acutirostris), celebrated in Maori song and tradition. The huia, which is greatly prized by the Maoris on account of its tail feathers—for personal adornment and as a badge of tribal mourning—has, from time immemorial, been confined to a narrow strip of mostly mountainous wooded country forming part of the old Wellington Province.

It is only just to the New Zealand Government to point out that several years ago the provisions of the 'Wild Birds Protection Acts' were extended so as to include some species that were being destroyed indiscriminately and Little Barrier Island and Resolution Island have been set apart as bird preserves.

Sir Walter goes on to point out that there is just a chance that, in the course of time, some of these vanishing species may learn to adapt themselves to the new conditions of things, and take a fresh lease of life. The tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris), a native of the Samoan or Navigator Islands, was supposed to be rapidly becoming extinct, as its terrestrial habits rendered it an easy prey to predatory animals, such as cats and rats, introduced into the islands from European vessels; but late accounts show that it has changed its habits, feeding or resting exclusively on large trees, and that it is now increasing in numbers. Commenting on this, Professor Newton says:

It is in this way, through the struggle for existence, that habits which have been transmitted from parent to offspring through unknown generations are suddenly abandoned, and entirely opposite ones adopted that give the needed protection to life and continued prosperity, which the inherited methods no longer are able to secure.

Now, singularly enough, the whitehead (Clitonyx albicapilla) was forty years ago the commonest bird in the North Island, and at that time a strict inhabitant of low scrubby vegetation, where its habits were gregarious. For many years it seemed to have become extinct, Mr. Reischek, during several years' hunting in the Auckland woods never having met with a single example. During the last few years it has reappeared, but in an entirely new character, as the frequenter of the highest tree-tops, and it appears to be sensibly increasing. On the Little Barrier, however, where it has never been much disturbed, it still continues to frequent the low vegetation.

If so marked a change is apparent on a large land surface like New Zealand, how much more rapid and effectual must be the change in small islands. There is an interesting example of this in the Hawaiian group. In 1890 a committee was appointed by the British Association to investigate the zoology of those islands. The committee secured the services of Mr. Pi. C. L. Perkins, who has proved himself to be a most efficient collector; his investigations prove that quite a noticeable decrease in the indigenous fauna is taking place each season. The district around Honolulu was perhaps originally the richest in endemic forms, but now introduced forms are in vast preponderance; the distinctive fauna of the plains, if there was one, has quite disappeared. Captain Cook found certain birds, for example, near the shore; of these, some are extinct, and others are to be found only in the mountains.

In a letter to S. D. Sharp, dated Lihue, Kauai, July 21, 1896, Mr. Perkins states:

This place has been a dead failure. The country where I camped here was a low-lying, densely-covered forest hog-land, at first sight a paradise for Carabidæ (ground beetles), and differing from any other place known to me. Its fauna is entirely lost forever. I turned during my stay thousands of lop, any one of which at 4,000 feet would have yielded Carabidæ. Of all these there was not a single one under which Pheidole megacephala had not a nest, and I never beat a tree without this ant coming down in scores.

This is an introduced ant which is overrunning the islands, and which exterminates the native insect fauna. Mr. Perkins finds that earwigs alone can withstand this ant, and his only chance of collection of endemic insects is to get ahead of the ant. In the 'Report' for 1900 it is stated that on his return from a visit to England Mr. Perkins found that great changes had taken place in the islands during his absence, and that the forests were being extensively destroyed and replaced by sugar-cane. The grants by the British Association have been supplemented by grants from the Government Grant Committee administered by the Royal Society, and from the trustees of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Eight parts of the three volumes intended to form the 'Fauna Hawaiiensis' have now been published and others are in the press. The inception of this investigation was due to Professor Alfred Newton, and if he had not persisted until he succeeded, comparatively little would ever have been known about the fauna of the Hawaiian islands.

In a communication to Nature[4] Mr. Perkins says that few countries have been more plagued by the importation of insect pests than the Hawaiian Islands; in none have such extraordinary results followed the introduction of beneficial species to destroy them, of the effect of which he gives many instances. He goes on to say:

Why has the success of the imported beneficial insects been so pronounced here, while in other countries it has been attained in a comparatively small measure? The reason, I think, is sufficiently obvious. The same causes which have led to the rapid spread and excessive multiplication of injurious introductions, have operated equally on the beneficial ones that prey upon them. The remote position of the islands and the consequently limited fauna, giving free scope for increase to new arrivals, the general absence of creatures injurious to the introduced beneficial species, and the equality of the climate, allowing of almost continuous breeding, may well afford results which could hardly be attained elsewhere on the globe. The keen struggle for existence of continental lands is comparatively non-existent, and, so far as it exists, is rather brought about by the introduced fauna than by the native one.

To this Mr. Howard adds:

One prime reason of success is that the most successful of the imported species have come from another portion of the same great faunal region, while others have been received from the region most nearly allied, viz., the Oriental.[5]

Mr. Perkins then turns to the darker side of the picture for the naturalist's point of view and forecasts what will be the result of all these importations on the endemic fauna. He says sooner or later the greater part of this most interesting native fauna is in all probability doomed to extinction.

Investigations such as those here advocated should be undertaken by a competent naturalist. He should not only be a good collector, but a keen observer, in fact, a naturalist in the true sense of the term; for unless the work is well done it had almost be better left undone. There are many examples of collecting being so imperfectly done as to lead to very erroneous conclusions. It takes time for a naturalist to become acquainted with the local types. The endemics do not show themselves, as usually the conditions of life are such that insects, for example, live retired lives and are not seen, while those that manifest themselves are often foreigners.

It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to point out that the biological investigation of islands is not a matter of interest to the systematist only, but it is of great importance in connection with the problems of geographical distribution of animals and plants, some of which open up fascinating vistas of the extension of continents in former ages and of their partial submergence, while others relate to the when and how of the peopling of remote islands. Then there are to be considered the bearing of specific and individual varieties on the intricate questions of the origin of species and of evolution in general, and the adaptation of peculiar forms to their particular localities as well as those wonderful inter-relations between plants and plants, plants and animals, animals and animals, and between all and their environment. In a word, all those problems which are to be classed under the term ethology[6] require painstaking and immediate study; probably no branch of the study of life is of such pressing importance as this, for everywhere 'the old order changeth' and it is that 'old order' which we have to discover.

The extermination of animal life is more rapid and striking than that of plants, but what has been stated for animals applies equally to plants.

More than twenty years ago the late Professor H. N. Moseley raised a note of warning and the concluding sentences of his 'Notes by a Naturalist on H. M. S. Challenger' are as follows:

With regard to any future scientific expeditions, it would, however, be well to bear in mind that the deep sea, its physical features and its fauna, will remain for an indefinite period in the condition in which they now exist and as they have existed for ages past, with little or no change, to be investigated at leisure at any future time. On the surface of the earth, however, animals and plants and races of men are perishing rapidly day by day, and will soon be, like the Dodo, things of the past. The history of these things once gone can never be recovered, but must remain forever a gap in the knowledge of mankind.

The loss will be most deeply felt in the province of anthropology, a science which is of higher importance to us than any other, as treating of the developmental history of our own species. The languages of Polynesia are being rapidly destroyed or mutilated, and the opportunity of obtaining accurate information concerning these and the native habits of culture will soon have passed away.

Many other naturalists besides Moseley have been impressed with the need there is for the study of native races, indeed most of the zoologists who have traveled afield have turned their attention to anthropology, in the broadest sense of the term and not a few have partially, or even entirely, relinquished the study of zoology for that of anthropology. The reason is to be sought not only in the interest of the study of man, but in the conviction that the opportunities for that study are fast slipping away and fastest in those countries where the most important results are likely to be obtained.

In many islands the natives are rapidly dying out, and in more they have become so modified by contact with the white man and by crossings due to deportation by Europeans, that immediate steps are necessary to record the anthropological data that remain. Only those who have a personal acquaintance with Oceania, or those who have carefully followed the recent literature of the subject, can have an idea of the pressing need there is for prompt action. No one can deny that it is our bounden duty to record the physical characteristics, the handicrafts, the psychology, ceremonial observances and religious beliefs of vanishing peoples; this also is a work which in many cases can alone be accomplished by the present generation.

How often have I, when questioning the younger men about their old custom, been told, 'Me young man, me no savvy, old man he savvy,' and so it was. Even a quarter of a century of contact with the white man will cause the attenuation or disappearance of old customs, the memory of which is retained only by a few old men; when these die the full knowledge of the old cults dies too.

I often wonder what the ethnologist of the future will think of us. The Tasmanians have entirely disappeared and we know extremely little about this primitive people. Howitt, Tison, Spencer, Gillen and Walter Roth have done memorable work among the Australians, but if these few men had not labored how much should we really know about the meaning of the social and religious observances of a rapidly vanishing people?

Apart from the work of Codrington and the special investigations of Parkinson, Danks, Fison, Von Pfeil and a few others, how little is known about the practises and beliefs of the varied natives of the Melanesian archipelago. Our knowledge of their physical characteristics is slight; we have collections of many of the objects they make, but of what they do and think our knowledge is as insufficient as it can well be.

The case is not so bad for Polynesia, but even then most of our information is scrappy and many branches of inquiry are practically untouched. Books of travel and missionary records afford ample testimony to the great change that has come over these people. Much is irrevocably lost; but if steps are taken without delay some facts of importance may yet be rescued.

What occurs with almost dramatic rapidity or thoroughness in islands takes place also on the lowland areas where the white man comes into close contact with native races. There are many tracts of Africa which are in need of immediate investigation by trained observers.

Fortunately there is no need to point the moral for North America; although much yet remains to be done, the American anthropologists have not neglected the indigenes whom their civilization is repressing. They, too, recognize that in most cases it is only the fragments of the past that they are able to recover. What they have accomplished has been due mainly to the wise liberality of public-spirited business men.

There is no need to continue, examples could be multiplied indefinitely; our scientific literature is full of laments of the insufficiency of our knowledge of almost every custom or belief in every part of the world. Untrained observers have imperfectly recorded events of which they generally knew little and cared less. Those who have traveled are in universal agreement as to the rapid change that everywhere is taking place, and yet many anthropologists are content to measure skulls or to describe specimens in museums!

A word of warning is not unnecessary. There is still a great danger that travelers will make it their first endeavor to amass extensive collections quite regardless of the fact that a sketch or a photograph of an object about which full particulars have been collected is of much greater scientific value than the possession of the object without the information. The rapid sweeping up of specimens from a locality does great harm to ethnology. As a rule only the makers of an object can give full details respecting it, and no traveler who is here to-day and gone to-morrow can get all the requisite information. This takes time and patience. The rapid collector may get some sort of a story with his specimen, but he has no time to check the information by appeal to other natives, no time to go over the details in order to see that he has secured them all and in a right order. It is probable that many native objects have a deeper significance than would be suspected. This can only be coaxed out of the native by patient sympathy. Some information may be 'rushed,' but the finer flowers of the imagination, the spiritual concepts and sacred aspirations, can only be revealed to those with whom the native is in true sympathy and, quite apart from idiosyncrasy, the time element is most important. No, the rapid collector does positive harm, as, like the unskilled excavator, he destroys the collateral evidence. He may add a unit to a collection, but its instructive value is reduced to a minimum; it is the gravestone of a lost opportunity.

My plea then is for investigators, not for mere collectors, as many of the former as possible and as few of the latter. There is not much difficulty in finding men willing and competent to undertake such investigations if funds were forthcoming. One point is worth mentioning: in most branches of scientific enquiry, later investigations, owing to more minute study, improved methods or a new point of view, are apt to eclipse the earlier investigations. Now this is not the case with ethnological research in the field. The earlier the observations are, provided they are full and accurate, the more liable they are to be of greater importance than later ones. Students continually refer to the oldest books of travel, and they will always do so. From this point of view it is evident that properly qualified investigators should set to work without delay. Every year's delay means that the work will be so much the less perfect. All who are concerned in any field work can have the satisfaction of feeling that students of mankind in future ages will have to consult their publications, and they have the tremendous responsibility that what they write will have to be accepted as correct as there will be no means in the future of checking it.

In order that satisfactory work may be done it ought to be continuous, and two or three good men should be always in the field; to accomplish this an income of at least $5,000 per annum is required. To insure an efficient, economical and fair administration it would be desirable to appoint a small international council of some half dozen members; the council should not be too large, as the business must be carried on by correspondence. This council would decide as to the field work to be undertaken at any particular time and as to the disposal and working out of the material that was collected. Only systematists are aware of the necessity there is that the types of new species should be deposited in the most central institution and regard ought to be paid to the special circumstances of each particular group, independent of country or nationality. Patriotism should not override the practical requirements of science.

  1. Nature, January 28, 1897, p. 305.
  2. Science, N. S., Vol. VI., September 10, 1897. p. 382.
  3. The Vanishing Forms of Bird-life in New Zealand.* The Press, Christchurch, N. Z., January 11, 1807.
  4. Nature, March 25, 1897, p. 499.
  5. Science, loc. cit., p. 396.
  6. 'Natural History, Œcology or Ethology,' W. M. Wheeler, Science, N. S., Vol. XV., June 20, 1902, p. 971.