A runcible cockatoo

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

Everyone knows Edward Lear through his nonsense verse and prose, published from 1846 to his death in 1888 at the age of 75. He popularised the limerick form, coined some of the English language's most delightful neologisms, and published in 1871 Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his best-loved and best-known The Owl and the Pussycat, in which the eponymous owl and pussycat:

...dined on mince, and slices of quince,    Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,    They danced by the light of the moon,              The moon, They danced by the light of the moon.

Less well-known is the fact that Lear was also a skilled artist, and as a young man (before his eyesight began to decline at an early age) produced a stunning set of coloured lithographs of parrots, which he published in 1832 as Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.

Through this work, Lear also became a minor taxonomist. While most of the parrots he illustrated were already named, some were new. Lear's treatment was the first description, and hence he is the author, of five Australian parrot species and subspecies, including a cockatoo that he named Calyptorhynchus baudinii, which became extremely taxonomically problematic more than 180 years later.

Edward Lear's 1832 painting of Calyptorhynchus baudinii. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustrations_of_the_family_of_Psittacid%C5%93,_or_parrots_(Plate_6)_(8116333149).jpg

While Lear preferred to paint his parrots from real life at London Zoo and on the estates of those country gentleman who were rich enough to own exotic parrots, he also painted from stuffed specimens. His painting of Calyptorhynchus baudinii was done from a skin in the collection of a London-based dealer in natural history, a Mr. Leadbeater, in 1831. Leadbeater had obtained the skin from a dealer in Paris; it had been shot in 1801 by one of the crew members on the French Baudin expedition to Australia.

Lear's remarkable skill enabled him to create a very convincing living likeness from a very deceased parrot.

Normally, the type of a species is a specimen. However, the skin from which Lear painted Calyptorhynchus baudinii was lost, after it was sold in the 1840s to the Earl of Derby, then sold again in the 1850s on the death of the Earl. In the absence of the physical specimen, Lear's painting became the crucial type for what at that time was called the white-tailed black cockatoo.

This was straightforward until taxonomist Dennis Saunders and other ornithologists realised in the 1970s that there were actually two white-tailed black cockatoo species in Western Australia. One, now called Carnaby's cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) specialises on cracking open the tough nuts of eucalypts and banksias to extract their seeds, while Baudin's cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus baudinii) specialises on carefully winkling out the seeds from marri nuts (Corymbia calophylla).

While a bit tricky to tell apart, they can be readily discriminated by experienced ornithologists by differences in their calls, habits, habitats and—crucially for this story—bill length (particularly the upper mandible). Carnaby's cockatoo, with its habit of cracking banksia cones, has a short, broad bill, while Baudin's cockatoo has a longer, more delicate bill adapted for extracting its diet of marri seeds.

Carnaby's cockatoo (left) has a shorter, more robust bill than Baudin's cockatoo (right). Source: http://birdlife.org.au/documents/SWBC-SouthwestBlackCockatooID.pdf

Lear's illustration clearly showed a long, delicate bill, so his name, Calyptorhynchus baudinii was given to the long-billed species, while the more robust- and shorter-billed Carnaby's cockatoo was given the name C. latirostris.

But, hidden in Lear's painting was a problem, which did not become apparent until, in 2014, the original skin of Calyptorhynchus baudinii was discovered in the Liverpool Museum. Some skilled historical detective-work showed that this was indeed the skin used by Lear, and hence was the long-lost type specimen for the name. The only problem was—it has a short bill. Far from being the type specimen for Baudin's cockatoo, it was actually a Carnaby's.

This discovery had the potential to cause taxonomic chaos. Strictly following the rules would mean renaming 'Carnaby's cockatoo' as Calyptorhynchus baudinii, and providing a new name for 'Baudin's cockatoo'. Nearly fifty years of literature would have been thrown into chaos, including legislation (Carnaby's cockatoo is listed as rare and threatened in Western Australia, under the name C. latirostris) and a great deal of conservation and ecological literature. This was tricky.

Fortunately, there is a readily available, though historically somewhat unfortunate, solution. In 2014 a proposal was made to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (the ICZN), by ornithologist Ron Johnstone at the Western Australian Museum and colleagues, to have the type of C. baudinii (the one collected on the Baudin expedition in 1801, painted by Lear, and currently sitting in the Liverpool Museum) set aside and a new type designated, this time of a 'proper' Baudin's cockatoo. The proposal was accepted, and all is well with the names of Western Australia's black cockatoos.

So how did this happen? Perhaps it all comes down to the sense of whimsy and playfulness so amply shown by Lear in his writing. Careful comparison between his paintings and real parrots shows that he often exaggerated the lengths of their bills. Whether by accident or design, in most cases this was as harmless as his poems. In this one case it was not.

The deceased parrot and Lear's painted Baudin's cockatoo. Lear subtly (and probably unconsciously) exaggerated the bill length, causing over 180 years of confusion. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266376163_Case_3658_Calyptorhynchus_baudinii_Lear_1832_Aves_CACATUIDA_proposed_conservation_of_usage_by_designation_of_a_neotype

Clearly it's sensible to accept the decision of the ICZN regarding Baudin's cockatoo, but personally I plan to henceforth use a new vernacular name for Carnaby's cockatoo: I plan to call it the runcible cockatoo. And of course, since no-one has any idea what runcible means (what exactly did the owl and the pussycat use to dine on mince and quince?), it can mean anything I want it to mean.

You can read a more serious account of this issue in this paper (ICZN Case 3658).

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