Expeditions to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands 19281930

After Mayr had started his assistantship at the Zoological Museum Berlin in July 1926 Dr. Stresemann, mindful of his earlier promise, attempted to place him

Fig. 2.3. Ernst Mayr, 1927, a few months before leaving Germany for New Guinea (Archive, Museum of Natural History Berlin, Orn. 103,1)

on an expedition. Plans of travels to Cameroon (with the ethnographer Günther Tessmann) or to Peru (with the geologist Harvey Bassler) failed. At the International Zoological Congress in Budapest (October 1927), Stresemann introduced Ernst Mayr to Lord Walter Rothschild and Ernst Hartert and convinced them that he would be the best man to continue A. F. Eichhorn's work in New Guinea (this collector for Lord Rothschild had retired owing to illness).

This was going to be Mayr's great chance. He was 23 years old now (Fig. 2.3). Back to Berlin he wrote to E. Hartert on 22 October 1927 (transl.):

Dear Dr. Hartert!

You can hardly imagine how overjoyed I was by your and Lord Rothschild's assent. For years it has been my loftiest goal some time to be able to conduct a scientific expedition and to become acquainted with those birds in life whose skins have impressed us in the museums as very special rarities. Hopefully I will not have any difficulties to get used to the high Papuan diversity, because I have a very sharp eye sight and an excellent ear for bird voices. So I hope that my journey will have the success which you expect. [...] The steamer of the North German Lloyd will depart from Genoa on 7 February. [...] I hope to be able to collect extensively in the moss forest and around the tree limit. I believe this is where the best things occur. I am a rather persevering climber. For example, I've made excursions in the Dolomites without special fatigue recently: 10 km approach [on foot], then the ascent from 1,000 m elevation to 2,400 m followed by the descent and a march of 15 km. Last Sunday, I walked 40 km and would have been able to continue easily for another 10-15 km. I mention this only to show you that I am not afraid of the mountains, as has happened in the case of certain collectors. [...] Cordially greeting you, your gratefully obedient, Ernst Mayr.

Mayr's first goal was the Arfak Mountains in the Vogelkop region (NW New Guinea) to look for certain "rare birds of paradise." The expedition was financed jointly by the Rothschild Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Hartert informed Dr. Sanford, Trustee of the AMNH, on 25 October 1927 as follows:

Dear Dr. Sanford,

[. Instead ofDr. H. Snethlage who has taken a position at a museum and is unavailable] I have found another man, probably even better, in the person of Dr. Mayr. He is attached to the Berlin Museum as an assistant, but the authorities are willing to give him a year's leave. The expedition will not cost more than L1000 and probably less. Dr. Mayr is an ornithologist and a young, very active and decent man whom I know personally, in fact he was also at Budapest for the Congress. I have arranged for him to come to Tringfor ten or fifteen days to get full instructions and to make the acquaintance of some of the especially rare birds from that region. I have also seen Dr. Dammermann, Director of the Buitenzorg Museum in Java, and he is willing to let him have at least one of their Malay skinners and will assist him with recommendations, permission to stay free of charge in government stations etc. There is one condition, however, that is that they get some duplicates of the birds collected for the Buitenzorg Museum, that is that after the division into two lots, one for Tring and one for your museum, the Buitenzorg Museum is to get a third pick. It will not affect the first two lots in species, only diminishing the numbers of specimens. The help of the Dutch officials is so important that we have decided to agree to this condition and I trust that you will also agree. [...] With kind regards from Lord Rothschild, Believe me, Yours sincerely, [E.H.]

In late November Mayr went to Tring, England:

"My instruction sessions with Hartert went fine with one exception. One time he took a gun, and gave me a gun, and said, let us go out and shoot some pheasants.

To be honest, I virtually never before had a gun in my hands, and of course had never shot at a flying bird. The result could have been predicted. I missed every pheasant that got up in front of me on Chiltern Hills while Hartert, in spite of his age, brought down most of those that I had missed. I rather suspect that Hartert began to doubt my success as a bird collector, but it was really too late to reverse history.

On that occasion and again when, after New Guinea I had gone to the Rothschild Museum to study birds, I frequently encountered Lord Walter Rothschild. I was surprised how shy he was. When Hartert and I were talking and looking at some specimens and Rothschild arrived he stayed at the door until Hartert asked him to come in and join us in looking at the specimens. He had an unbelievably good memory. In my New Guinea collection I had a specimen of a Poecilodryas species, which Hartert had never seen. Rothschild said, oh this was illustrated by J. Gould in his Birds of New Guinea, plate 84. Hartert got the volume out of the library, and lo and behold, Rothschild was right, it was on plate 844. I am sure he could have told us for every other plate number what species it was.

He was a mountain of a man, well over 6 feet tall and extremely heavy. His mother had a special comfortable chair built for him, and every morning Rothschild went to the library where the chair stood, backed against it and then let himself drop into this comfortable seat. It had special steel reinforcement because whenever Rothschild sat on another chair it would collapse. This had happened in the Hartert household. Therefore also Mrs. Hartert offered a special chair constructed with steel reinforcement, on which Rothschild sat whenever he visited the Harterts."

In early February, 1928, Mayr left Germany all by himself to lead—as it turned out eventually—a three-partite expedition to New Guinea and Melanesia of over 2 years. During this entire period he was on leave from the Museum of Natural History without salary payments from that institution (receiving only about 200 Marks per month from the expedition funds). He returned to Berlin in the first days of May 1930 resuming his duties as an assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History. These three expeditions were administratively independent undertakings and explored the following regions (Fig. 2.4):

(1) Papua Province, Indonesia, or Irian Jaya, former Dutch New Guinea (Arfak, Wandammen and Cyclops Mountains), for the Rothschild Museum in Tring, England, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York; February 1928-October 1928; financed in equal measure by these institutions; for reports see Mayr (1930f, 1932e) and Hartert (1930);

(2) Papua New Guinea, the former German Mandated Territory (Saruwaget and Herzog Mountains) for the Museum of Natural History in Berlin; November 1928-June 1929; supported by the German Research Foundation (Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft); for a report see Mayr (1931l)

4 This was probably plate 6 of Part XVI illustrating Poecilodryas bimaculata (Black-and-White Flycatcher), which is currently placed in the genus Peneothello. Mayr (1931l: 680) had collected a female of this species at "Sattelberg."


Fig. 2.4. Ernst Mayr's expeditions routes (dashed lines) in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1928-1930) and the location of Figs. 2.5, 2.8, 2.10, and 2.11. R Rabaul, S Samarai. Shaded areas in New Guinea-elevations at least 1,000 m. Base map of New Guinea from Beehler etal. (1986).

(3) SolomonIslands,Melanesia,for theAmericanMuseumofNaturalHistory, New York (part of that Museum's Whitney South Sea Expedition); July 1929-March 1930 (for a report see Mayr 1943h).

Since no detailed description of Mayr's expeditions in New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands has ever been published, besides his own brief popular accounts, I present an overview on the following pages and illustrate his expedition routes on four geographical maps.

Papua Province, Indonesia (Irian Jaya, Former Dutch New Guinea)

(1) Departure from Germany and Voyage from Genoa to New Guinea

While Mayr prepared for his departure, he received from Ernst Hartert "15 commandments for a zoological collector" giving instructions based on his own long collecting experience several decades earlier, for example "(1) Always try to collect series (population samples) of individual forms or species, (2) Make nice but at least acceptable skins, (3) Always take enough cotton along to fill the mouth of the collected bird, (4) On longer excursions always be accompanied by a second man for help in case of an accident," etc., but also "(7) The collector should never let himself be infatuated by sirens or Venuses." Mayr answered on 5 January: "I just received the 'commandments' and shall put them under my pillow. I was greatly amused by your wording and shall take the contents to heart" (transl.); see Haffer (1997b: 416-418) for a complete list of these commandments.

On 4 February 1928, E. Stresemann and his doctoral students accompanied Mayr to the railway station in Berlin. New Guinea still had a very ominous reputation and when they said goodbye Mayr could see that Stresemann was wondering whether he would ever see him again. The thought of not returning had crossed his own mind, of course, and in a letter to his mother from Genoa he wrote:

"I told myself all the time that if on this trip something really should happen to me it would be in the midst of a beautiful experience and in the midst of the most important phase of my profession, that is, in free research and that under such circumstances death would be a glorious end to my life and all the incidental accompanying circumstances would be quite unimportant. I enjoy every day on which I can work and make use of the experiences of the past days. But I am not terrorized by the thought of death after a life which, up to now, has been innerlich so happy. Actually, I am quite convinced that I will return in full health, and so it will be. I have penned down the previous sentences only in order to tell you what my own principles are in this situation" (5 February 1928).

The "Fulda" of the North German Lloyd with 160 passengers on board left Genoa on the afternoon of 7 February in beautiful weather and a calm sea. On the 10th they passed Crete arriving in Port Said, Egypt, on 12 February. During the entire voyage Mayr learned Malay with the help of several young passengers living in Java (and also picked up smoking, as he told Stresemann in a letter dated 23 February, which habit he gave up again in August 1939). He wrote a detailed travelogue to his mother about the food on board, the passengers, the flying fish, porpoises and birds observed and also about the activities on board. He was elected spokesman of the passengers in the tourist class and when a concert was arranged, he was the one to invite the captain to attend. He won the first prize (a watch) in one of the sports activities on deck, an "obstacle run," and described to his mother the various other sporting events in which he participated. He was very competitive and emphasized when his team or he himself had won. The ship called at Colombo (Sri Lanka) where he visited several Hindu and Buddhist temples and at Singapore before arriving, on 4 March, at Jakarta (Batavia), Java. Dr. Dammermann and Dr. Siebers of the Museum in Bogor (Buitenzorg), south of Jakarta, treated him generously for two weeks and sent along with him three native museum assistants or mantris: Two preparators and one insect collector. They were good collectors and bird skinners and knew how to organize a camp in the jungle. It was they who educated the totally inexperienced Mayr to become a highly successful explorer.

The voyage to New Guinea commenced on 20 March. The steamer called at Semarang, Soerabaja, Buleleng (Bali), and Makassar (Sulawesi) from where Mayr continued on the SS "Van Noort" to Manokwari (Vogelkop). Traveling through the northern Moluccas was the most beautiful and impressive part of his trip particularly the narrow strait west of the island of Batjan (Bacan). The volcano of Ternate was smoking and covered with dense vegetation almost to the top (1700 m). The "Van Noort" called at Waigeo and Sorong at the western tip of New Guinea and arrived on 5 April at Manokwari, a village on the northeastern coast of the Vogelkop. Viewed across the bay to the south, the towering Arfak Mountains rise abruptly to an altitude of 2,500 m. In those forested mountains Mayr was to search for the "rare birds of paradise" and to assemble a representative collection of the avifauna during the next several months.

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