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Fish from last century

Researcher recovers pioneer drawings of England’s

Almost a hundred years later, a letter reaches the right address. In 1904, the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) wrote to George Albert Boulenger, the curator of reptiles and fish at the Natural History Museum in London. He asked if the museum was interested in housing the collection of 212 engravings of fish that he had done during his expedition in the basin of the Negro river, in the Amazon basin, between 1850 and 1852. In the end at letter, he asked whether “there might not be some student available and willing to organize a catalog of the illustrations”.

The material was accepted by the Natural History Museum, and a year later, another curator published a list that identified about half of the species illustrated. But the wish to publish the illustrations could not be fulfilled. In February last year, the letter came into the hands of São Paulo biologist, Mônica de Toledo-Piza Ragazzo, a 35-year old researcher at the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo (MZUSP). She is now taking care of the fish identification, and is preparing a complete catalog with the 212 engravings – of these at least 180 are unpublished – which are a small sample of the fish diversity in Amazon basin. The book, with drawings and the letter, will be published at the beginning of next year by Edusp, the São Paulo University Press, with the support of Imesp, the Official Press of the State of São Paulo.

A self-taught scholar, Wallace was one of the first naturalists to explore the region of the Uapés river, a tributary of the Negro river, which would only be explored again many years afterwards. The observations he made during his trips in the Amazon contributed towards the formation of ideas on evolution, later presented in co-authorship with England’s Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Wallace reached Belém in 1848, in the company of his friend, also a naturalist, Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892). They traveled the Amazon river together until 1850, when Wallace preferred to go on along the Negro river on his own.

The plants and animals collected in Amazon that Wallace was taking back to England were lost when the ship, Helen, caught fire and sank, three weeks after leaving the Brazilian coast. The engravings of fish and palm trees and the notes of his travels were all that he managed to save. In 1853, one year after returning to London, he published ‘A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, translated in 1979 by Edusp. In 1854, he moved on to Malaysia, where he stayed for eight years.

Wealth of details
In 1994, Mônica was doing her doctorate at the City University and in the Natural History Museum in New York, when, choosing the bibliography that would give her support in her work, she came to hear of Regan’s publication, which mentioned two species from the group of fish that she was studying, the Cynodontinae sub-family, called dogfish, with three genera and eight species, of the Characiformes, which also includes piranhas and minnows.

In July 1995, Mônica went to London to examine material in the fish collection of the Natural History Museum. She took the opportunity to see Wallace’s engravings. She was impressed with the wealth of details in the drawings, made by pencil, on three different types of paper, of about 15 centimeters in width and 5 centimeters high. Among the engravings of Cynodontinae, there was a new species that she had described; she called it Hydrolycus wallacei, paying homage to the naturalist.

In her anxiety to conclude her doctorate, Mônica was unable, at the time, to deal with the engravings. But she did not forget them. In 1998, she sent a project to the Museum in London, offering to organize the collection and to recover Wallace’s work. The proposal was accepted, she went back to London, with the help of FAPESP for the tickets and lodging, in the amount of US$ 3,841.00, and she set about researching the history of the engravings and to take care of the identification of the species portrayed in the drawings, so that a catalog could be published later. “Reading the letter, I was touched to find out that Wallace would not only have approved the catalog, he was actually waiting for somebody to carry out his wish”, she said. To put the catalog together, the researcher examined the accounts of the journey and the notes of the Englishman, with the morphological characteristics and the place of capture of the majority of the species illustrated. “Wallace was very precise and the drawings very true to life, even though he was not a specialist”, says the researcher.  She also relied on the vast collection of Amazonian species held by USP’s Zoology Museum.

After identifying the species, Mônica sent a copy of the engravings, for confirmation, to specialists in the different groups of South American freshwater fish, working for institutions in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Paraná, besides museums in Sweden, the United States and France. In this way, the researcher was able to bring up to date Regan’s  work, who had worked on the collection at the beginning of the century. “Even today, we know too little to identify all the species illustrated”, says the researcher. Another difficulty is that the engravings do not always contain the necessary elements for reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

Now, with almost all the species identified, at least as to their genus, she can prove that there are about 190 different species.  Some 40 species were only formally described after Wallace’s return to London, and half of these only in the last few decades. Some of the illustrations represent new species, still not studied.

There is a detail: the engravings are all numbered, from 1 to 215, but not in a complete chronological order. Mônica is trying to find out the criterion for their organization.  “Wallace apparently left no clue for the explanation of the numbering”, she says.  Engravings number 10 to 14, 53, and 210 are missing. Others are numbered twice.  Despite the doubts, the collections and its notes reiterate the value of Wallace’s observations on the distribution and the diversity of the species, which would certainly have an influence on the development of the ideas about the evolution of the species.  Darwin, by publishing ‘The Origin of the Species’, in 1859, received most of the credit for drawing up this theory.  He did not, however, fail to recognize Wallace’s discoveries.

• Mônica de Toledo-Piza Ragazzo graduated in Biology from USP, and has a doctorate by City University/Natural History Museum, in New York.  She is doing post-doctorate studies at the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo.
Project: Fish from the Negro river – Alfred Russel Wallace
Investment: US$ 3,841