The Lie Files

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take a dive
Redpoll paintings By L.A. Fuertes courtesy of Cornell University Library.

redpollPretty convincing, eh?
Good hoaxes are. Then the seams started showing on Meinertzhagen's unique population explosion...

Colleagues were skeptical of Meinertzhagen's curious techniques during his lifetime (1878-1967). A swashbuckling British soldier during the first World War, he was nonetheless fired for insubordination. After he turned his attention to birds, he was caught "borrowing" specimens from unwitting museums. When he donated his collection of almost 20,000 stuffed birds to the Natural History Museum, one ornithologist is said to have suggested that the lot be torched to prevent scientific confusion in the future.

Scientists use specimens in natural history museums to categorize new plants and animals. As such, the museums serve as three-dimensional biological reference books.

Despite the long suspicion of Meinertzhagen, documentary evidence of outright fraud only emerged in 1993, when British ornithologist Alan Knox published an expose (see "Richard Meinertzhagen..." in the bibliography). Knox examined almost 100 redpolls Meinertzhagen had donated to the Natural History Museum at Tring, and noted that most had been prepared with the same "average" taxidermy technique, apparently that of Meinertzhagen himself. A few of the best-looking birds, however, had been prepared with a variety of better techniques which, Knox concluded, reflected the work of unsuspecting collectors or taxidermists later appropriated by Meinertzhagen.

Suspicious minds
The conclusion was buttressed a few years later, when researchers looking for a small owl in India deduced that Meinertzhagen had stolen and claimed a rare forest owlet specimen as his own. Audaciously, he had located the find in an area where the bird was never seen (see "Reclusive Forest Owlet..." in the bibliography) -- and where his records did not indicate he had been.

Although the taxidermy did not match Meinertzhagen's techniques, the sample did yield a type of cotton found in forest owlets at the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately for the late Meinertzhagen, those birds had been collected by someone else.

If even Meinertzhagen, who was suspected of sleazy tactics, could pass off bogus specimens, the story shows that natural history museums are subject to scamming.

But why should anyone care about falsification in natural history museum? Aren't they just dusty reliquaries of value only to narrow scientific specialists? Actually, the museums can play vital roles in public policy. The Why Files has already described how bald-eagle eggs from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Zoology Museum helped pin the birds' decline 30 years ago on the pesticide DDT.

Museums can also help answer ecological questions, says John Kirsch, director of the museum whose collection of bird eggs played a crucial role in banning DDT. He says a collector's notes should describe an organism's abundance and ecological situation. If the collector was never present at the point of collection, that information will be missing -- or worse -- erroneous.

As the planet enters a period of rapid ecological change, Kirsch says the costs of counterfeit collections could be enormous: "If you start falsifying the information about species, you lose the opportunity to document historical changes and predict future changes, and to deal with them."

Bogus birds are one thing. How about simulating stone-age people?

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