The Lang-Chapin Zoological Collections
by Gordy Slack
The first scientific exploration of the Congo dates back
to 1816, when Captain James Kingston Tuckey launched an
expedition to the river's mouth. The project was a dismal
failure; most members of the Tuckey expedition died of disease
shortly after they arrived in Africa. Explorers persisted,
but real scientific progress documenting and cataloging
the plants and animals of the Congo proceeded very slowly.
"Before the takeover of the Congo by Belgium's King
Leopold in 1885, the area was practically a terra incognita
from a scientific point of view," wrote Henry Fairfield
Osborn, former President of the American Museum. In the
final decade of the century, scientists from Belgium, England,
France, Austria, Italy, and Sweden picked up the pace. And
in 1910, the first notable American expedition to the area
was led by Theodore Roosevelt.
But while previous expeditions had emphasized big mammals,
the AMNH expedition focused on the entire fauna. Lang and
Chapin collected insects, fish, rodents and everything else
on up to elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.
The total number of specimens brought back to New York
gives a sense of the expedition's scientific import.
More than 100,000
Lang also took 10,000 photographs and Chapin produced approximately
300 watercolor and ink drawings during their six years in
Africa. These works, along with detailed diaries and field
notes, and the great specificity with which they documented
their work, enhance both the expedition's scientific value
and its historical accessibility.
Scores of scientific publications resulted from the expedition,
but perhaps the most renown were in the field of ornithology.
Chapin published his four-volume Birds of the Belgian
Congo based on the expedition's collections. The expedition
brought many new species to science, perhaps most notably
among the smaller mammals. Of the 177 specimens of shrews
brought back, for instance, seven were new species. Of the
800 bats collected, 15 proved new to science.
These collections contribute a great deal to our knowledge
about what lives in the Congo and how those organisms fit
into the bigger picture of evolution and life on Earth.
But they also provide an important tool for those trying
to preserve the many wild ecosystems now under threat in
the Congo Basin. Before conservationists can make effective
decisions about how to protect habitats and organisms, they
must have baseline data showing what was where before the
incursion of threats.
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