The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: museum Page 2 of 5

Extinction and a matter of time

The Muséum nationale d’Historie naturelle in Paris has a room dedicated to extinct and endangered animals. Entering the room has the feel of entering a chapel for a funeral. It is dimly lit from above with cases of animals scarcely visible. Each taxidermied animal (even insects and plants are on display) is presented in a case with a black background. The labels appear on the sides on the glass to minimise distraction. The visitor is drawn to each specimen as if you were approaching the casket at a funeral. You cannot but feel the weight of extinction in the room.

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Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

In this space, I was struck by the inclusion of a large clock. It was a clock constructed in 1785 at the request of Marie-Antoinette for her Petit Trianon palace to show “Versailles time”. Only 8 years later, the Queen would be executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. The clock was seized and donated to the Museum in 1794. The clock was installed long before this room had the theme of extinct and endangered animals, yet it was fitting to have it there. Time ran out for Marie-Antoinette — her life was intentionally ended and her line died out (only one of her children, Marie-Therese, survived to adulthood but had no children of her own). Time ran out for the extinct species in the cases. Only their preserved bodies remain to remind us of their former glory, just as the Palace of Versailles bears witness to Marie-Antoinette’s life.

There were however also endangered species in the cases, which could mean that they will survive. But the room does not give the viewer hope. It seems that for them too it is only a matter of time.

Coupled with the larger exhibit outside of this one on the relationship of humans and the non-human inhabitants of Earth (which includes sections on domestication, pollution, resource use, etc.), perhaps the museum can help visitors envision ways to avoid the virtual funerals of more species. The reintroduction projects which my research focuses on are one of those ways, at least if the species still exists somewhere to have a population to draw on for reintroduction. But in this room there is power in the presentation of extinct species. It is a dark and depressing experience of death.

A bird in hand or two in the bush

Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen

Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen

At the Horniman Museum near London, a case with two birds stands near a staircase in the back on the natural history exhibit. Unlike most of the other displays that show visitors either related species (like a display of apes) or convergent evolution (like things with wing-like structures), this one puts the history of the species at fore. This relatively new display tells an extinction and reintroduction story:

The great bustard (Otis tarda) once lived in Salisbury Plain and in the breck district of East Anglia, but became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1832, mainly due to habitat fragmentation. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the species both in Britain and on the European continent.

As a historian of reintroduction, the exactness of the extinction caught my eye: in 1832 the great bustard became “extinct as a breeding bird”. Inspired by a post I read yesterday on John Smith and a mermaid sighting, which turned out to be a fabricated history, I decided to go looking for this date.

If you do an internet search for the great bustard and 1832, you will see that a plethora of newspaper articles reference the date, often saying something like the bird “became extinct in the UK that year” or  “the last one was killed in 1832”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website likewise claims “the last bird was shot in 1832”. Of course, that’s not the same thing as the claim made on the Horniman sign, which says the bird no longer bred after that year. That statement is sometimes picked up in newspaper articles, like one discussing the first chick hatched by reintroduced birds. In modern birding books like John Parslow’s Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland (1973), the last breeding date of 1832 is also given. Interestingly, the Great Bustard Group, which is leading the reintroduction efforts, simply states “Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife until the 1840s when they became extinct in Britain due to collectors and changes in agriculture.” But they are the exception to the rule.

Where did this 1832 extinction date come from?

A short communication in The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology for 1833 reported:

A nest of the great bustard (Otis tarda L.) was discovered this season on an extensive warren, in the neighbourhood of Thetford: the female, I have much pleasure in stating, took her young off in safety; and on the same heath a male bird and two females have been seen together very recently. — J.D. Hoy. Stoke Nayland, Suffolk, Nov. 20, 1832.

Here was a 1832 sighting of a nest and chicks! This story of 1832 was repeated in William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds (vol. 2, 2nd edition, 1843), although he said he got it from a Rev. Richard Lubbock. A later version of the story in A History of the Birds of Europe included a post-script that another man who was with J. D. Hoy and saw the young bird ascertained “that the nest was situated in a field of rye, into which the old and young retired when disturbed”.

Yet, 1832 was by no means the last sighting of great bustards in the UK.  A very thorough article “The Great Bustard” in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in September 1854 detailed all of the documents mentioning bustards by year through 1843 in England. The entry for 1834 stated:

But, notwithstanding this evidence and the story of the last of the Salisbury plain Bustards–a widowed female–coming into a farmer’s barton as if giving herself up in despair, the breed, though greatly reduced, was not entirely extinct in England in 1825, or even in 1833….In the summer of 1834, a nest of three eggs was hatched in an open corn-field about a mile from High House; and in December in that year, three Great Bustards were seen about a mile from it. (p.335)

This article noted that Yarrell’s A History of British Birds, 2nd edition, had reported a female great bustard shot in 1843 and concluded “this is the last instance known to us of the existence of this noble species in Great Britain” (p.336).

Later in 1853, Yarrell, who had written the definitive work on British birds, read a communication titled “On the Habits and Structure of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda of Linnæus)” for the Linnean Society of London. In it, he reproduced a letter from J. H. Gurney of Norwich who stated that

As far as I can learn, the last Bustard killed in Norfolk was a female, which was shot at Lexham near Swaffham, towards the end of the year 1838. The small flock, of which this bird was one, had for some years previously consisted of females only, the eggs of which were frequently picked up, having been dropped about at random in consequence of the absence of male birds, the latter having become extinct at an earlier date. (p158)

On top of that, Yarrell noted three of instances of the bird since 1845, when the 2nd edition of his A History of British Birds was published: a female seen in August 1849 on Salisbury Plain by G. R. Waterhouse of the British Museum; a female shot in January 1850 in Romney Marsh; and another bustard shot in December 1851 in Devonshire.

The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)

The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E. Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)

H.E. Dresser’s A History of the Birds of Europe  included a report by Cecil Smith, which had been told to the Somersetshire Natural History Society on 6 February 1871 and then reported in Nature, that the bustard was even present in 1870 “when one or more small flocks visited out country, and examples were procured in Northumberland, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire.” Dresser even “had the satisfaction of examining in the flesh” a great bustard killed in Middlesex on 29 January 1871.

The 1832 extinction story, even as the last date of hatching, simply doesn’t hold up if you look at the reports near to the date. Yet 1832 is what gets reproduced over and over again. Just as I’ve noted before about searching for the last, extinction stories get reproduced and codified, especially when mobilised to support reintroduction projects. In other words, having a good story about the end, makes the new beginning more memorable.

For his book The Birds of Norfolk (vol. 2, 1866), Henry Stevenson had conducted exhaustive local research on oral histories about the bustard and extant stuffed specimens. He concluded that “the year 1838 is the last when examples known with certainty to have been killed”, but wisely cautioned:

The precise time at which the extinction of the Norfolk bustard took place, like that of the extinction of many other species, is not, perhaps, now to be determined with accuracy.

Perhaps more people should follow Stevenson’s reluctance to speak with certainty about the end of the bustard. 1832 was likely not the end, even though the end would come. A dead bird might have been in hand, but perhaps there were two more hiding in the bush.

Belonging and breed, horse and home

At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Breeds Barn hosts horse shows in which different breeds are paraded out and presented for the visitors. I had a chance to see one such presentation when I visited Lexington for the Agricultural History Society 2015 meeting.

I was struck by how the breeds are presented as belonging to specific countries based on the breed’s history and origin. The horses are each presented with a rider clothed to accentuate the horse’s homeland. Some of these were quite exaggerated with the English shire presented as a medieval knight’s war horse and the arabian in fancy embroidered silk. The horse park has, of course, not invented the connection between breed and place. The names of many horse breeds themselves emphasise their origins: Azteca, Friesian, American saddlebred, Tennessee walking horse, etc.

Breed show at the Kentucky Horse Park. From left to right: Arabian, Tennessee walking, Andalusian, and English shire. Photo by D Jørgensen

Breed show at the Kentucky Horse Park. From left to right: Arabian, Tennessee walking, Andalusian, and English shire. Photo by D Jørgensen

Flags flying on each horse's stable at Kentucky Horse Park

Flags flying on each horse’s stable at Kentucky Horse Park

This idea of a horse breed belonging to a particular place extended beyond the discussion of their long-distant origins in the display experienced by the visitor. The stables where the horses were kept had flags hanging outside each stall to indicate where the horse called home. Norwegian flags marked the two stalls with the Norwegian fjord horse (called fjording in Norwegian). The plaque next to the stall gave a brief history of the horse, starting with it being found in Viking graves. Invoking Vikings is of course discursively powerful–although the fjord horse wasn’t in the show I saw, a colleague saw one the day before in which it was presented with a “Viking” rider. The text notes the fjord horses’ mild demeanour and use as farm workers in Norway, adding afterward that “Here in America, they are equally at home.” The reference to “home” struck me as ironic in this context in which so much was being made of the horses belonging to other places. These horses are after all living in Lexington and I would guess almost all of them were born in the US. Where really is home?

The American flag carried out at the end of the Breeds Barn show at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The American flag carried out at the end of the Breeds Barn show at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by D Jørgensen.

I think most of the breeds are depicted as belonging elsewhere in order to stress the “homegrown” breeds as patriotically American. At the end of the show, the American saddlebred carries out the American flag and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” plays on the speakers. The audience stands up. In this act, this particular breed and this particular flag are claimed as belonging in this particular place.

The experience of the Kentucky Horse Park reiterated to me how belongingness is place-based, often at the level of the modern nation-state. Political boundaries matter in the conceptualisation of an animal–where it came from and where it should be. In domesticated animals, whether that is horses, cows, sheep, or dogs, place and breed often go hand in hand. The animals become incorporated in the cultural heritage of the specific place which carries over into human understanding of where they should be. We think that breeds belong and horses have a home.

Commemorating war and our losses

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, which remembers the end of World War II in Europe with the surrender of the Nazi forces to the Allies. Of course in addition to celebrating the final success, festivities focus on honouring all those died in the conflict. There are memorial stones and graves to generals, battalions, unknown soldiers, and civilians. Animals who served in war are likewise honoured in permanent form at the Animals in War Memorial in London, the Australian Animals in War Memorial, and the US National War Dog Cemetery on Guam. Modern society has a penchant for commemorating its war dead.

When I visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC in April, I realised that extinct animals are no exception to this impetus to commemorate the lost. The artist Todd McGrain has created a series of sculptures as part of The Lost Bird Project. The bronze sculptures, which have been on display at the Smithsonian, depict five extinct North American bird species as mode of exposing “the tragedy of modern extinction”, according to the website.

Passenger Pigeon, Lost Bird Project, in Smithsonian garden, April 2015

Passenger Pigeon, Lost Bird Project, in Smithsonian garden, April 2015

The passenger pigeon sculpture stood in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where the Once There Were Billions exhibit inside featured stories and taxidermied specimens of the passenger pigeon, great auk, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen. I reflected previously about my experience of meeting Martha, the last passenger pigeon. The statue likewise had a pensive feel, in dark bronze, looking up into a sky which will never again be darkened by invading pigeon flocks.

The Smithsonian Castle garden featured a quartet of birds: the Carolina parakeet, great auk, heath hen, and labrador duck (a species not featured in the museum exhibit). They are lovely representations with smooth flowing contours that move the statues beyond natural history into modern abstraction.


As I looked upon these statues on a sunny spring morning, I could hear the birds singing in the trees. It seemed an appropriate juxtaposition: hearing song and seeing silence.

The text on a garden sign proclaims the artist’s message: “These sculptures compel us to recognize the finality of our loss. They ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.” Commemoration events around the beginning or end of armed conflicts ask us to not forget and to strive to avoid repeating the past losses — these statues ask us to do the same with humanity’s war on nature.

Meeting Martha

I met Martha. Martha the last passenger pigeon.

She sat on a branch with her body facing away from me, her head turning in my direction. I stared at her as she seemingly stared back with a glassy red eye. In a way she looked too life-like to sympathise with, to wonder what she had thought about as she spent her last fews years without her mate George. Now she was placed near a potential mate. A male bird, one Martha never knew, reached out with a seed in beak, possibly as an offering to Martha’s passing. But he too seemed too real, too alive. The bird laying down did not. In front of Martha and the male, a passenger pigeon skin specimen lay red belly up and had no eyes. This skin embodied the death of the passenger pigeon. Behind the birds, images of passenger pigeon hunting were reproduced on a grand scale. The images seemed to suggest that Martha and the male would be next to die.


Martha and the others are on display temporarily at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC as part of the exhibit “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” timed for the 100th anniversary of her death, and thus the death of the passenger pigeon as a species. I had a chance to visit while in DC for the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting.

Passenger Pigeon, John James Audubon, Birds of North America, 1840-44

Passenger Pigeon, John James Audubon, Birds of North America, 1840-44

The passenger pigeon bodies were complemented with images and texts about the bird. I made two observations. The first was that the bodies in the cases were not as blue as passenger pigeons were depicted by artists who saw them in the 19th century. All the drawings had the males a pretty bright blue and the females vaguely blueish. Perhaps it was preparation or time that had made these birds fade to grey. Second, the story of the passenger pigeon’s demise as told over the last year in honor of the centenary always makes it sound frivolous, but the exhibit countered that claim. There was a cookbook on display with a recipe for pigeon pie and another for broiled pigeon. I wondered how the pigeon pie recipe would compare to chicken pot pie, a dish I’d just eaten for dinner two days before. Wild pigeons were plentiful and cheap, making them ideal food for the masses. This was a part of their extinction history–their usefulness to humans–which had been downplayed. They were not slaughtered indiscriminately.

Carolina parakeets in Smithsonian exhibit

Carolina parakeets in Smithsonian exhibit

Martha and her clan were displayed alongside the Carolina parakeet (the last captive bird died in 1918), the Heath Hen (last one died in 1932), and the Great Auk (extinct in mid-1800s). They each had stories to tell about the end of their species. Warning tales about habitat loss and harvesting.

I saw many people stop and look at the cases when they walked by–although the display was tucked away in a less trafficked area. The story is out there about Martha and the others. Museum visitors were reading it, seeing it. They met Martha, though I’m not sure they all realised the significance of the meeting. But I know that when I met Martha, in a sense, I met humanity. We may be looking at her, but in a ghostly way she is also looking at us, asking us to look at ourselves. How many birds will be on display in the exhibit for the 200th anniversary of Martha’s end in 2115? The answer depends on us.

Burning badger babies

On a Sunday afternoon, 18 May 2008, a rope factory in the urban center of Oslo caught fire. Over a hundred people living in the area were evacuated because of the smoke. During work to suppress the blaze in a garage building, fireman Odd Arne Lande noticed a badger kit, which he grabbed before running out of oxygen. After the flames in the main area had come under control, Lande and fellow fireman Espen Solli reentered the building, which was still smoldering on the roof, and broke through the floorboards to expose the a den where more kits were huddling. The two rescued the youngsters, who according to Lande showed no fear of the men and a willingness to be taken out of the hole. The mother was nowhere to be seen. The two firemen were hailed as heroes of the day and all of the news outlets carried pictures of the men and the recovered badger babies.

Reddet i sikkerhet" (Taken to safety), one of the photos accompanying the news article "Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen," Dagbladet, 18 May 2008.

“Reddet i sikkerhet” (Taken to safety), one of the photos accompanying the news article “Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen,” Dagbladet, 18 May 2008.

"Heroes" is how the newspaper VG captioned this photo that led their story about the burning badger babies. "Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen," VG, 18 May 2008.

“Heroes” is how the newspaper VG captioned this photo that led their story about the burning badger babies. “Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen,” VG, 18 May 2008.

The jubilation was not to last. The following day, the firemen (and the news media) discovered that the badger kits had been euthanised. The firemen were furious! Lande told the national NRK service, “Our purpose is to rescue people, animals, and property. In that order. This feels completely pointless….We underlined when we turned in the animals that they must be treated well. We knew that this would be a media story and we hoped that it would bring forward people who could take care of them.” Solli felt betrayed: “I said clearly – in fact very clearly—that all possibilities had to be sought by those who accepted the badgers.”

The spokesman for the city of Oslo’s wildlife committee (“Viltnemda”) defended the decision: “We don’t have a system for rehabilitation of badgers. We did not have the capability to call around in the country to find something like that. From an animal welfare standpoint, they were euthanized….It was not so easy to contact organizations on a Sunday.” When the reporter asked why the committee couldn’t have waited until Monday or tried to contact a zoo, the answer was “We thought about waiting, but we didn’t have the possibility to do it.”

Animals in housing areas. Exhibit case in the Natural History Museum of Oslo. The case featured squirrels, ducks, a pigeon, a fox, a badger, and more.

“Animals in housing areas” exhibit case in the Natural History Museum of Oslo. The display featured squirrels, ducks, a pigeon, a fox, a badger, and more.

I used this story as part of a paper I presented last week at a workshop titled “Urbanizing Nature. The Transformation of City-Nature Relations 1500-2000” held in Antwerp, Belgium. My point was that the modern city is actually filled with wild animal inhabitants: squirrels, hedgehogs, pigeons, sparrows, frogs, and many more small critters live within the confines of European cities; it is their natural habitat. Although mice and rats received the most frequent negative response, particularly when they take up residence inside of human houses, many of the others are seen as desirable—indicators of an environmentally-friendly urban area.

Institutions of care for wildlife have been set up in Scandinavian cities. The city government of Oslo, for example, provides information on their website about who to call in case an injured bird or small mammal is found. It is the Viltnemda that is responsible for either finding treatment for the injured animal or ensuring that it is humanely euthanised, both of which are understood as ways to care for the animal.

Although the burning badger babies story did not have a good ending for the badgers, it shows how animals both live in our cities and are recognised as urban residents (thus the Viltnemda’s responsibilities to find care for them). When I presented my first oral version of “Rethinking rewilding” at a workshop in Cambridge, I modified the ending on the fly to show a film of birds singing in a Cambridge garden I had taken that day. My idea was to question the division between wildlife and humans that has been inherent in most of the rewilding proposals. Birds, badgers, and a myriad of other animals belong in many places, including the modern city.

2014 in review

My previous post marked the 150th post of this blog and the year is coming to a close, so I thought it would be a great time to review what I wrote about in 2014. Although this blog is based on my research about beaver and muskox reintroduction in Norway and Sweden, I range far and wide in applying my research insights.

Ongoing news about the beavers in the British Isles was worth comment several times, including coverage of the beavers discovered in Devon and their potential cull because of fears of disease. For some, the beavers are a lost species who is wanted back in Britain. For others, including the media, it’s been unclear whether the beaver has native or non-native status, but that hasn’t stopped proposals for more beaver reintroductions like in Wales. As noted in an exhibit in the Grant Museum, the question still remains whether or not money would be better spent on conserving animals already present in Britain rather than bringing in extinct ones.

Of course, I didn’t restrict my discussions to British beavers. My travels during the year brought me in contact with the histories of beavers in other places, including LatviaBerlin, and my nearby zoo in Lycksele. I also commented on the Canadian beavers which had been brought to Finland. And I can’t forget to mention the flying beavers reintroduced via parachute in the US.

My favourite beaver post of the year had to be about eating beaver for Lent. It’s a great example of how medieval history and modern history can intersect. Of course, being trained first in history as a medievalist, I like to bring older history into the blog, which I did with posts on otters appearing on Olaus Magnus’s 16th century map of the North and the animals in the early medieval Life of St. Cuthbert.

My most read post on this blog is about beavers too, but it’s actually from 2013. “On the time I drank castoreum” ended up being linked to by an NPR article in March 2014 on castoreum flavouring and the result was a huge spike in readership. That post has nearly 1200 views! I had a follow-up this year on castoreum as a driver for beaver hunting rather than just fur, but it’s popularity is nothing like the drinking post.

Muskox, the other main subject of this blog, has to be the worst named animal on the planet since it is neither an ox nor produces musk. Its name is certainly not the only thing contentious about it. It can be an inconvenient animal, especially when it crosses lines over national boundaries (like a herd did in the 1970s) or into urban areas, resulting in sanctioned culls. Financial compensation is often required when muskoxen have caused damage within ‘allowed’ areas. Reintroduction efforts are anything but cheap – in the case of the muskoxen, there was significant fundraising (the beaver reintroduction had required fundraising too).

The original motivations to bring the muskoxen to Norway and Svalbard were complicated and political, although practical considerations like its potential use as a meat source as an acclimatised animal were also fundamental. Patriotism and nationalism are key elements in reintroduction because there is often a sense that the animal should belong within a particular nationstate where it is currently absent. There remains the question, though, as to whether previously extinct animals will be counted as ‘citizens’, which often depends in turn on how lines in time are drawn by scientists. An animal’s history and the way in which that animal is remembered in the communal memory can also affect its acceptance–this applies even to introduced species that can become so accepted that they are state symbols. All of these cultural issues factor into how ‘attractive’ a reintroduction is, even if people think they are being ‘scientific’ about their decisions.

One of the most interesting muskox stories this year was the pair of muskoxen traded to China in exchange for a pair of pandas in 1972. Milton and Milton did not fare well in the Chinese zoo and soon died. It was a sad story, although it didn’t get as much attention as the death of Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen zoo in February. That was likewise dwarfed by the media coverage of the 100th anniversary death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who was put on display at the Smithsonian. Of course, it’s not easy to know you’ve seen the last of a species, just as it is difficult to trace the beginning of an idea.

I included a fair share of other species on this blog in 2014 too, including the cultural history of vultures and cod, a suggestion to reintroduce wild reindeer as fodder for wolves, the relationship between American bison and Native American, and the amazing success of axolotls in captivity in spite of their near-extinction in the wild. Insects even made an appearance in posts about beaver beetle specimens and their missing data and parasite co-reintroduction. I was also interviewed for a feature article on responses to raccoon dogs entering Sweden that appeared in the magazine Filter in June.

I had noticed raccoon dogs in an exhibit case of ‘new species in Sweden’ at the Swedish Natural History Museum (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseum), which I think has missed out on telling possible species histories.The Natural History Museum in Brussels, however, was very good about giving animals personality and a voice, and the Field Museum in Chicago included some compelling animal histories. I always keep an eye out for reintroduced animals in exhibits, like the beavers at Oulu University’s exhibit on Finnish animals and in Lund University’s post-glacial fauna of Sweden exhibit. A visit to a parish school museum in Estonia even prompted me to write about beavers on school posters. A northern bald ibis, which is being reintroduced as a migratory bird between Germany and Italy, is being exhibited as part of the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit at the Deutches Museum in Munich.

The Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit highlighted for me the problem of attempts to de-humanise thoroughly human landscapes, especially when humans are treated as ‘unnatural’ in restoration and rewilding discourse. A similar thing happens with deextinction talk that seems to overlook the social and cultural barriers to actually reintroducing previously long-dead species. We have the power to envision wilder worlds, but only if we make humans visible in environmental issues as integrated parts of the Earth.

Over the course of 59 blog posts, that’s what I was thinking through in 2014. None were final thoughts–they are always works in progress. By writing them here I get to work thorough my ideas while sharing them out loud, if you will. I hope it has been as interesting to read (I had over 10,000 page views this year) as it has been to write. I’m looking forward to continuing my journey in 2015 as I explore what reintroduction has meant in the past and what it could mean in the future.

Review of this blog in 2014

Visual insights into this blog in 2014

Welcome to the Anthropocene

On Wednesday, I had a tour of the new exhibit Willkommen im Anthropozän (Welcome to the Anthropocene) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. While the validity of the Anthropocene as a geologic time frame has been been debated, few would debate that human impact on the planet is wide and deep. Humans, unlike most other animal species, have the ability to radically transform the environment through technological artefacts (a subject which you can read more about in my recent article “Not by human hands”). Acknowledging the role of technology in the reshaping of Earth, it was fitting that the first large Anthropocene exhibit be hosted in a museum of science and technology. The physical exhibit, which has a companion online exhibit in English, organises its material onto six ‘islands’: urbanization, mobility, man & machine, nature, food, and evolution. One of these–nature–contains a reintroduction story.

The northern bald ibis, known as Waldrapp in German, as described by Conrad Gessner. Image from Icones avium omnium (1555).

The northern bald ibis, known as Waldrapp in German, as described by Conrad Gessner. Image from Icones avium omnium (1555).

The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) is critically endangered with a main wild breeding colony in Morocco of less than 500 birds. Another separate small colony of 100 semi-wild birds (they are brought indoors for the winter) lives in Turkey and a small reintroduction project has begun in Spain. It is believed that the bird was widespread in central Europe until the 17th century, having been first described and drawn by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in 1555.

A large EU-funded reintroduction project “A Reason for Hope” run by Waldrappteam is attempting to reintroduce the ibis to the Germany-Austria border region. The birds, however, are migratory, which means that the reintroduced animals need to be taught how to migrate to their wintering grounds in Tuscany. A human-led migration using a microlight craft was used in 2014 to train young birds where to fly in future years. The birds are tracked with GPS units and the movements of all of the reintroduced animals can be monitored online.

In the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, the visitor encounters one of the birds who didn’t make it. The northern bald ibis is suspended within a plastic case in flight. It still has its GPS transmitter attached.

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Reintroduction stories are quintessentially products of a world dominated by humans. They epitomise the Anthropocene in three ways. First, in most reintroduction projects, the reason for the species’ decline and regional demise is linked to humans, either directly through activities like hunting or indirectly with greater landscape scale change or climate change. Second, humans are the ones making the decision and taking the action to breed or capture, relocate, and monitor the animals. It is humans who decide where the animals should live or, in other words, where they belong. Thirdly, human technologies play a vital part in the relocation–whether that’s boxes which hold the animals during transport, flying contraptions that they follow to the wintering grounds, or monitoring devices to keep track of them afterward. Regardless of what is happening to the geologic strata under the ground, nature aboveground is being shaped and reshaped by humans. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Animal histories at Chicago’s Field Museum

I had the pleasure yesterday of visiting the Field Museum in Chicago, USA. The museum, founded in 1893 as an outgrowth of the World’s Columbian Exhibition hosted in Chicago that year, is home to one of the world’s premiere natural history collections. As someone interested in museum storytelling about animals, I was looking forward to seeing how the Field Museum approached history in their displays.

I was impressed that animal histories with conservation messages pervaded many of the exhibits. Take the case of this gray wolf (Canis lupis):

The Gray Wolf on display at the Field Museum, Chicago. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The Gray Wolf on display at the Field Museum, Chicago. Photo by D Jørgensen, Oct 2014.


The display not only puts the gray wolf’s decline into cultural context–“Our fears led to the wolf’s decline”–but it also tells the story of this particular specimen and the wolf’s belongingness:

This gray wolf, shedding its thick winter coat for spring, came from Minnesota. Wolves once roamed throughout Illinois, too–even around Chicago–but they’ve been extinct here since about 1860.

In this, the wolf on display becomes more than just a representative of species. It becomes an individual, one who belonged in a certain place at a certain time. The label gives us a mini-environmental history because there is not only the wolf, but also the people in the story. It offers an insight into historical interaction between humans and wolves in space and time.

Guanacos in the Field Museum exhibit 'Messages from the Wilderness'. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Guanacos in the Field Museum exhibit ‘Messages from the Wilderness’. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The “Messages from the Wilderness” exhibit was particularly strong in telling stories about human-animal interactions. There were bison who were nearly hunted to extinction, and guanacos who were identified on the sign as ‘a forgotten native’ because they once were central in Patagonian culture but have now been pushed out by sheep. There were Mexican grizzly bears who are now extinct and muskoxen whose range is reduced to northern Canada and Alaska.

Not everything had a story at the Field Museum, but I was impressed by how many things did. I think that connecting the animals on display not only with their own biology (which was also included as it should be in any natural history museum) but also with humans made the exhibits come alive. They became animals with real histories, not just wondrous creatures from far off lands.

California condors at the Field Museum, Chicago. Photo by D. Jørgensen, Oct 2014

California condors at the Field Museum, Chicago. Photo by D. Jørgensen, Oct 2014

Of course telling histories means that you have to be willing to revise texts if things change. I noticed that the California condor exhibit featured the headline ‘Condors no longer hatch in the wild’. Luckily, this year in July, that has changed with the first confirmed California condor hatched in the wild in Zion National Park. Changing that particular museum sign should be a welcome change–a sign that things may be on the right track for conservation of this magnificent bird.

The fauna of post-glacial Sweden

The Lund University Historical Museum has recently opened a new exhibit ‘Sven Nilsson and Skånes post-glacial fauna’. The natural history exhibit displays a mix of taxidermy and skeletal specimens of the animals which moved into southern Sweden when the glaciers retreated after the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. It is based on the work of Sven Nilsson (1787-1883), a leading Swedish zoologist who published an impressive multi-volume on Scandinavian fauna (first volume in 1820), headed the Natural History Museum in 1828-1832, and then became a professor of zoology at Lund University.

Nilsson looked for both past and present evidence of animal colonisation, arguing that some animals, including bears, beavers, wild boar, and roe deer had entered Scandinavia from the south, whereas other animals, including the arctic fox, lemmings, and hares, had come down from the north. Some of the animals he identified as being in Scandinavia in the post-glacial period existed only as fossils. In a follow-up volume of Scandinavian mammals published in 1865, August Emil Holmgren noted that of the animals identified by Nilsson,

many already extinct here, such as wild boar, aurochs, and more, or on their way to extinction, such as red deer and beaver.

Sven Nilsson reconstructed this aurochs skeleton which had been found in Önnarp, Sweden.

Sven Nilsson studied this aurochs skeleton which had been found in Önnarp, Sweden. Nilsson mentioned this aurochs specimen in his book The Primitive Inhabitants of Scandinavia (1st published in 1838). Watch a video of the curators reconstructing the skeleton for the exhibit.


The exhibit features both kinds of animals–those known only from fossils and those which had still inhabited Scandinavia when Nilsson wrote. Texts with natural history information about individual species is presented both next to the specimens and on touch screens that visitors can use to select the information about whichever animal they wanted. The displays ingeniously use iPads for all the text and images–which has three advantages I can think of: (1) the iPad displays ‘scroll’ through different texts and images, making paper labels unnecessary, (2) the devices could potentially be updated with new information, which would also save on relabelling, and (3) the devices can be relocated in the future to other exhibits if needed and the text easily updated.

I’ve mentioned missed opportunities to tell extinction stories in natural history museums before. In this case, some of the animals’ texts actually did tell those stories. With the moose (Alces alces), the visitor reads that:

Although moose in Scandinavia were almost totally extinct in the middle of the 1800s, the present Swedish population is Europe’s densest.

With the wolf (Canis lupus), we learn that:

The native Swedish wolf population died out in the middle of the 1900s. Single individual have been able to immigrate from the east and today’s approximately 300 Swedish wolves are derived from these.

This wolf text is very interesting in the way that nationality and belonging is ascribed. In it, the wolves that lived in Sweden up to the mid-1900s were ‘Swedish’ but so are the wolves that have recolonised Sweden. There is a distinction between wolves that were ‘native’ and wolves that ‘immigrate from the east’, but they are both still ‘Swedish’.  In other words, I would say that they are considered to belong.

Beaver on display in the Lund University Historical Museum

Beaver on display in the Lund University Historical Museum

The text accompanying the beaver (Castor fiber) includes a quote from Sven Nilsson dated 1847:

Long ago, perhaps before the true historical period, the beaver ceased to exist here in Skåne. … One can see the beaver skeletons which are not infrequently found in peat bogs, which used to be watercourses and lakes.

The beaver by Nilsson’s time was already very, very rare in all of Sweden, but it was and still is very rare in Skåne. In fact, none of the reintroductions by 1940 took beavers as far south as Skåne. The closest was Järnäs in Småland about 130 km west of Stockholm. Beaver is still rare in Skåne (the beaver specialist Göran Hartman does not show it inhabiting Skåne in his distribution map from 1999), but some must be moving into the area from reintroduced populations further north, evidenced by a news article from September in which people were worried about a beaver being ‘trapped’ on a river island in Norrköping. Unfortunately, other than Nilsson’s quote about Skåne, the larger extinction and reintroduction story of the beaver was not told in the exhibit.

Overall the message of the exhibit was that there were once many more animals that inhabited southern Sweden than do so now. And that kind of message is important for visitors to hear.

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