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If you like Ernst Mayr's story, you might also like:
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Norman Borlaug,
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Jane Goodall,
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Ernst Mayr
Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 3 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

Your current work on biogeography of birds in Northern Melanesia actually brings us to the topic of your expeditions to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. How did that come about?

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: Stresemann said that maybe if I switched to zoology and got my Ph.D. he might be able to get me on to an expedition. He was quite serious about that and he tried very hard. There was an expedition going to Cameroon in Africa and that didn't work out. Another one was to Peru in connection with some American oil explorations, and that didn't work out. Finally Stresemann persuaded Lord Rothschild of England -- the famous owner of the largest private bird collection -- that he should have a collector in New Guinea. Actually Rothschild had had a collector there but he had a stroke and had to give up working, so there was a vacancy.

Again, one of these chance things in my life. Rothschild didn't know anything about this fellow, Ernst Mayr, but was persuaded by Stresemann, in whom he greatly believed. He said, "All right. I'll send him out and I have a very definite task for him. There are some so-called rare birds of paradise..." This was in the days when ladies put birds of paradise and other feathers on their hats. Every year the natives all over New Guinea skinned out birds of paradise and sold them to dealers and the two major dealers were in Rotterdam and Paris, and then the people who adorn hats bought from these dealers.

Once in a while, a unique specimen turns up among all the well-known birds of paradise, something that nobody had seen before. Where these species occurred was a great puzzle and expeditions went out to all sorts of places and never found these rare ones. There were three mountain ranges in Dutch New Guinea that hadn't been properly explored, so my task given to me by Lord Rothschild was to go to those three mountain ranges and collect them thoroughly and see whether I could find one or the other of those rare birds of paradise.

I had no experience, of course. I had never shot a bird. I had never skinned a bird. Stresemann was very -- how shall I say -- optimistic about the whole thing, but I got a rush job training in some of these things and I went over to England and I talked it over with Rothschild and his curator about further matters of collecting. And then, the most fortunate thing was that I stopped in Java at the Dutch Colonial Museum, and they had some very experienced native Javanese assistants who had been on expeditions and were even good at bird skinning, and they agreed to lend me three of those to accompany me to New Guinea. In due time, I got to New Guinea and I established camps in various altitudes and in various villages, and collected, and collected, and collected. In due time I learned from these three Javanese whatever there is to be known about life in the jungle and in the mountains and how to make a camp and how to deal with the natives. And I built up rather beautiful collections.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I don't know whether you are interested in some of my adventures that I had during that period.


Ernst Mayr: Well, the first thing that happened was in the very first camp...

After I had been up in the mountains about three or four weeks, suddenly a troop of -- I think it was five -- of the native police of Indonesia appeared in my camp, and they had a letter which said that the Governor of New Guinea and the Moluccas -- that was one person -- couldn't allow that a person of such distinction as I, because I had letters from the German government, to be unprotected and these five police soldiers should protect me against these dreadful natives. Of course, I had gotten on fine with the natives. I couldn't see any danger at all, but these soldiers, every evening they just became guardians of the entrances to my little camp so that nobody could enter it and do something to me. Pretty soon they saw all sorts of things happening there. They were terribly scared of the natives and pretty soon shooting started. "Oh, but we saw something and we had to shoot at it." I was really annoyed and I was also a little bit concerned because I felt maybe there is something to all of this, and one night they woke me up after another shooting spell and said, "We just shot somebody." And I said, "Oh, my God, that's the end of my expedition here." I said, "Where is he?" So they took me across a little brook that was alongside my camp and I looked around with a kerosene lamp and I couldn't see anything. There wasn't anybody there.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So I sent these fellows to the coast to explain the whole thing and I went inland to a higher village and started a new collecting period. And after about two weeks...

Suddenly somebody rushed into my little hut and said, "Oh, there are a lot of people coming. A lot of soldiers coming." And I said, "Now what?" And I went outside and I could see the ridge that came up from the coast, and the pass was right at the very top of the ridge. There was a column of about -- I think it was 105 people or something like that. There were two white men in uniforms of officers of the Colonial Police Force, and about 20 soldiers, and the rest were porters carrying all their stuff and food and so forth. I still didn't know what it was all about, but I decided to go down in the valley separating my ridge from this coastal ridge. There was a river flowing there, and I went down there, and the leading officer of the other group waded into the river towards me, and he said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're still alive." I said, "I didn't know I wasn't supposed..." "Oh," he said, "The soldiers that you sent back to the coast reported that the natives had attacked your camp and had massacred you and all your people there, and 'we,' -- the police soldiers -- 'by shooting all of our ammunition have been able to escape and get down to the coast." They made up that story because they were embarrassed, appearing on the coast when they were supposed to protect me. And, as it appeared, having abandoned me. They had a court-martial later on and so on and so forth. A long story, but anyhow I was also told I had to now immediately return back to the coast. It was just too dangerous. But I knew that there was a lake even further in and even higher up that I'm sure was very interesting. So I totally disobeyed the order from the Dutch Government and I went up to that lake and sure enough discovered a new finch up there and several rare birds that I had never encountered anywhere else in New Guinea. So I had a really marvelous time.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

That's just one little story . There were two other mountain ranges where I had similar experiences. At the end of that period, in about seven months, I had collected over 3,000 birds. The main reason for my great success was that I knew how to make use of the natives.

After I'd been a little while in this first collecting place, I realized that every bird the natives saw and that they had shot, they knew the name. So I recorded the Latin name that I knew and the name the natives gave me. Since they knew birds so well -- I had three little bird guns -- I gave them to the natives and I told them always when they came with a particularly rare bird, let's say a nieda, I said, "Well, I want more nieda, and then they went out and they brought back nieda and not the common stuff, you know. And at the end, when I finally summarized everything, I found that I had in this locality collected 137 species of birds, and the natives had given me the names of 136 of these. There were only two little nondescript looking little warblers, green warblers, which they had given the same name to the two different species. And I'm sure if I had gotten the right kind of an old man he would have been able to have the name of that 137th species.

So they had a pretty good species concept themselves, would you say?

Exactly. The biological species is an absolutely obvious entity to any good naturalist, and they were very clever. In the pidgin English language of Eastern New Guinea, they would name a male bird of paradise for a particular thing, and if we saw a female and I said, "What's that?" they said, "Oh, that's mama belong..." and then the name of the male. They knew perfectly well that they were not two different species, which by the purely typological species concept might have been the case. They knew exactly which bird had only one egg in the nest, which species have two eggs in the next, and they were superb woodsmen. Very often in certain localities in New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands I would distribute all the guns to the natives and I would go out and collect orchids and other things that the natives weren't interested in collecting.

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