Quiz Solutions: How Well Do You Know Your Species Seekers?

Quiz Solutions: How Well Do You Know Your Species Seekers?

Richard Conniff
Published: 07/18/2011

Last Friday I posted a quiz about a wild age of discovery, when amateur enthusiasts scoured the earth for new species. It's based on my new book, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. See how you did on the quiz--answers are below.

1. Because they tended to ignore sexual selection as a factor in the evolution of species, generations of male scientists failed to notice what hard-to-miss phenomenon?
A) Displays by the bird of paradise.
B) Musth in elephants.
C) Changing colors in cuttlefish.
D) The love song of the crested bandicoot.

ANSWER: B. We now recognize that sexual selection accounts for some of the most spectacular displays in the animal kingdom, from the peacock’s tail to the courtship dancing of bowerbirds. It’s also an important factor in the proliferation of species. Males are continually competing against other males, and evolving lavish new displays to impress females. In most species, females sit back, survey the possibilities, and then do the choosing. Despite Charles Darwin’s assertion in The Descent of Man that it isn’t enough simply to avoid being killed by predators, famine, or disease–-that species also evolve depending on which individuals do better at attracting members of the opposite sex--male biologists managed to ignore this idea for more than a century. They did so because it challenged an orthodoxy more sacrosanct than the biblical account of creation: the idea that males are in charge. But all that began to change with the arrival of women in science.

One hundred and fifty years later, women field biologists, no longer constrained by false modesty, would take a closer look at elephants. Among other extraordinary behaviors, they discovered that male African elephants experience “musth,” a recurring period of raging hormones when they belligerently compete for sexual opportunities. The phenomenon should really have been hard to miss. (The researchers actually named one of their study animals “Green Penis,” for his outlandish appearance during musth.)

2. You know about U.S. presidents who have had species named in their honor. President George W. Bush, for instance, was lucky to attain scientific immortality on the back of a slime mold beetle, Agathidium bushi. But which president actually described a new species himself?
A) Teddy Roosevelt, who bagged a new species of piranha during his Amazonian explorations.
B) John Quincy Adams, who discovered a new catfish while skinnydipping in the Potomac.
C) Thomas Jefferson, whose work on mastodons helped make the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party.
D) Rutherford B. Hayes, who discovered a new songbird while out hunting (and shot it).

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800/Whitehouse Historical Association.

ANSWER: C. The only American president to have named a new species himself was Thomas Jefferson. In 1797, while still serving as vice president, he described a species based on a huge claw recovered from a cave in West Virginia. Jefferson, who was obsessed with the idea of finding big, fierce creatures in the American wilderness, thought it was a kind of lion three times larger than its African counterpart. He gave it the genus name Megalonyx.

Unfortunately, it later turned out to be a giant ground sloth. But it was at least a new species, and a French anatomist graciously named it jeffersoni after the president.

Because of this work, Jefferson also gets credit for launching the science of vertebrate paleontology in North America. Incidentally, as president of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Jefferson also sponsored important work on mastodons. But it had nothing to do with the eventual GOP use of pachyderms as their symbol.

3. Why was John J. Audubon resented as an upstart by some established American ornithologists?

A) He failed to pay homage to Alexander Wilson, father of American ornithology.
B) He was a Leatherstocking.
C) He knew nothing about birds.
D) He typically killed birds to obtain his models.

ANSWER: A. Audubon first published his Birds of America in England in 1827. It contained 435 hand-colored plates, depicting more than 500 species in spectacularly lifelike poses, and at life size. One French critic hailed it as “a real and palpable vision of the New World.” With his rough clothes, shoulder-length hair, and gregarious manner, Audubon himself became an instantaneous celebrity in Europe, as a backwoods New World type. James Fenimore Cooper had just made an international hit with his new novel The Last of the Mohicans. Audubon, a shrewd promoter, capitalized on the sensation by presenting himself as a real-life version of Cooper’s hero, the capable frontiersman Leatherstocking.

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