Tuesday, 20 September 2016

What's in a Name? Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943).

It could be argued that one of the most effective forms of education, if one has a mind to put the experience to good use, can be found through travel (whether that be near or far matters not).  My encounter in May with a White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri which appeared on the sea just off the Varanger Peninsular in the Arctic Circle has since my return home taken me down a number of learning paths.  One such route led in the direction of Leonhard Stejneger, someone that until May 2016 I had never consciously given any thought to, and if I’m honest neither had I ever given much thought to the sub-species of White-winged Scoter.

Before moving on to Stejneger let me note that Melanitta deglandi was used by Charles Bonaparte as the scientific name for the nominate (first to be described) species of White-winged Scoter which is a North American species.  The name was used by Bonaparte in 1850 to honour Côme Damien Degland (1787-1856).  Degland was a director of the natural history museum in Lille, France and author of a two volume work on the ornithology of Europe.  Stejnegeri was added to name the Siberian sub species at a later date and thus extended the naming into what is known as the trinomial system, which extends the binomial system when there are known sub species

White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri 
Leonard Stejneger was born in Bergen, Norway and his education included attendance at University in Oslo, and as a young man he studied birds in Norway and the Tyrol.  An interest in natural history began at a young age and by the time Stejneger was 16 he had a printed catalogue of birds and he had acquired skills painting in watercolour.  He went on to study law and had a very brief career as a lawyer.  No doubt stemming from this experience in the field of law, Stejneger had a deep knowledge of Latin and Greek and a number of modern languages.  Shortly after his death in 1943 a friend, Thomas Barbour, acknowledged in an article in The Auk (Vol. 61 No2 1944), that this linguistic skill had no doubt helped his friend’s following of nomenclature over the years.  Stejneger had worked at the Smithsonian Institute for over 60 years and was elected to the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature in 1898.

Stejneger moved to the USA in 1881 and in 1887 became a citizen of the USA.  Within months of his arrival in the USA Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institute found him a position with the Signal Corps.  Baird was noted for his encouragement of young naturalists and ornithologists and ensured that they found places on various expeditions, and in turn they would provide specimens and information for the Smithsonian Institute.  In 1882 Stejneger was commissioned by Baird to go to Bering Island where Georg Steller had in the previous century made his observations and descriptions of wildlife including Steller’s Sea Cow.  Steller’s Eider, Spectacled Cormorant, Sea Otter and Fur Seal where also seen during these explorations.    For eighteen months Stejneger travelled in Steller’s footsteps and on his return he was appointed Assistant Curator of Birds at the institute, of course by the time of this trip the Sea Cow had long been extinct and the Spectacled Cormorant more recently so.  Stejneger completed Bulletin 29 of the U S National Museum on the results of his ornithological explorations of the Commander Islands, which take their name from Commander Vitus Bering, and of which Bering Island is a part, and Kamchatka in which 400 species are described or noted.  In 1889 Stejneger took charge of the reptile and amphibian section of the Smithsonian Institute and eventually wrote over 400 scientific papers on these subjects as well as birds of Japan and the northern Pacific Islands.

Over the years Stejneger made several trips to Alaska during which he was involved in study of the Fur Seals which were now very valuable business to the United States of America.  It is said that in a very short time such trade had covered any costs involved in the purchase of Alaska from Russia.  During his travels Stejneger continued to collect much information concerning Georg Steller which finally resulted in a comprehensive biography of Steller, published in 1936, a few years before Stejneger died at the age of 91.  The biography makes much use of Russian and German records, again showing that the linguistic skills in translation were again put to good use.  In the article in the Auk, mentioned above, his friend Barbour notes that the biography was praised by peers of Stejneger, but the author had been saddened by the fact that it had not been widely read by the general public.   Stejneger dedicated the book to Baird and in the preface acknowledges Baird’s role in sending him to Bering Island and notes how he named the highest mountain on the island Mount Steller and named a rocky arch through which Steller must have often walked Steller’s Triumphal Arch.  I managed quite easily to track down a copy of the biography which was reprinted in 1970 and strongly recommend it for reading by anyone interested in natural history and the early exploration of areas such as Lake Baikal, Kamchatka, Bering Island and Alaska by Steller and Bering (available on Amazon).  Unlike Stejneger, whom Barbour describes as a very talented artist, Steller for all his qualities as a botanist and naturalist, was anything but skilled at art, but fortunately he had his own artists allocated to him on his travels.  These travels of course ended tragically for Steller, Bering and many of the ships crew that accompanied them.

Feather from Steller's Sea Eagle from my collection.
Baird died in 1887 at which time Stejneger was working through the Hawaiian collection of his fellow Norwegian, Valdemar Knudsen.  In tribute to Baird, Stejneger named one of the collection Oreomyotis bairdi, which has the common name of Kauai Honeycreeper.  Unlike a high percentage of honeycreepers that had been found in Hawaii this species is still extant, but critically endangered.  (The plight of the Honeycreepers does not make for happy reading).  At another time he also honoured one of the United States giants of ornithology, Robert Ridgway for whom at the time he worked as assistant at the Smithsonian, by creating the genus Ridgwayia for the species more commonly known as Aztec Thrush.  I’ve also found that Stejneger has links with our local ornithologist Henry Baker Tristram, born in the village of Eglingham, Northumberland, a founder member of the BOU and perhaps best known for his naturalist travels in the Middle East.  This link concerns a petrel found in Japan by Lt. G Gunn of the royal Navy, and which was later sent to Tristram who sent it on to Stejneger.  In an unpublished paper Stejneger referred to this species as Oceanodroma tristrami and this name was later to become the scientific name when applied in a published paper by Osbert Salvin.  Incidentally there is to be a talk concerning the ornithology of Henry Baker Tristram at the Natural History Society of Northumbria on Friday 17th March 2017.

Stejneger is himself honoured in a number of species names including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish.  I’ve been unable to ascertain the true number, although an internet site mentions 2 mammals, 16 reptiles and 11 birds.  I believe that may well be an under estimate and in any event did not include fish and amphibians.  Stejneger’s Petrel Pterodroma longiirostris is one such species, and in this case it is the common name which is recognised.  It is here that confusion can occur as I found that Tristram’s Petrel Oceanodroma tristrami, mentioned above, has also been known as Stejneger’s Storm Petrel!

Whilst I don’t intend to offer a long confusing list of species, it is worth considering some that bear the Stejneger name.  In 1883 Stejneger collected a beach worn skull on the coast of Bering Island and this was later in 1885 examined by Fredrick W True.  The scientific name given to the species was Mesoploden stejnegeri more commonly known as Stejneger’s Beaked Whale.  Perhaps a more interesting species, at least to British bird-watchers is Saxicola maurus stejnegeri, a sub species found in Britain in 2012 and after DNA analysis confirmed to be the sub species commonly known as Stejneger’s (Siberian) Stonechat.  I mentioned Hawaiian Honeycreepers above, and one now extinct species is known as Hemignathus stejnegeri.  Then there are Mindanao Horned Frog Mogophys stejnegeri, Stejneger’s Pit Viper Trimeresurus stejnegeri, both Asian species, and Scaphognathhops stejnegeri, a fish from South East Asia, and so the list goes on.

As I read about Leonard Stejneger I came to the conclusion that he was very well respected amongst his peers and young naturalists whom he supported, and that his services were well recognised.  Stejneger was a life member of the Bergen Museum and in 1900 he was awarded at the Paris Exposition for his work on the conservation and management of Fur Seals.  In 1923 he was elected to the National Academy of Science and in 1939 was made a Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olaf.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.