Museum Tasks

Before the Whitney Wing was completed the Bird Department in the eastern half of the north wing of the museum was very crowded. Chapman, Chapin, and Murphy had offices, whereas J. T. Zimmer and Ernst Mayr sat at small tables in a little empty space among the collection cases. Whenever they needed to compare series of specimens they had to take them to a larger table in Chapman's office. After the department had moved into the new quarters during 1935, Mayr had a spacious office at the north end of the 4th floor with large windows overlooking Central Park (Fig. 3.6).

One of his main tasks at the museum during the mid- and late-1930s (besides his study of the Whitney birds) was to supervise the unpacking, storing, and cataloguing of the Rothschild Collection comprising 280,000 bird skins. The sale of this collection in 1932 had come about by the blackmailing activity of a "charming, witty, aristocratic, ruthless lady" beginning in the early years of the century. She continued her activity so successfully that (it is rumored) Lord Rothschild was in debt around 1930 (Murphy 1932; Snow 1973; M. Rothschild 1983: 92,139, 302; LeCroy 2005). The sale was kept a secret until the deal was concluded. "If Sanford was the shining knight in this tale, she was the dark lady, but just as important to the outcome of Mayr's career" (Bock 2004c), because her activity led to Mayr's employment in New York. In a sense we may say he owed his career in New York to this still anonymous aristocratic lady. Mayr attempted to find out her name for 50 years but was unsuccessful. Historically more important was, however, to what good use through hard work Mayr put the new opportunities at the AMNH.

The 185 wooden packing cases (76 x 76 x 152 cm) in which Rothschild's birds had been packed in Tring under R. C. Murphy's supervision arrived successively in New York during the course of 1932 and were stored in an unused hall at AMNH. They could be unpacked only during the summer of 1935 (Fig. 3.8). The approximately 30,000 New World birds of the AMNH had been transferred to the 5th and 6th floors, the other 250,000 to the 3rd and 4th floors of the Whitney Wing during the course of 1933 and 1934, on completion of this building. For about three months Mayr and several colleagues calculated for each family of birds how many cases or half-cases were required. The calculations turned out to be correct with one exception—the unexpected size of the giant Siberian eagle owls required some last minute changes. The catalogue of the 185 large packing cases prepared by Phyllis Thomas, Ernst Hartert's former secretary, and R. C. Murphy was useful; furthermore Ms. Thomas herself came to New York for several weeks to assist with the organization. The ornithology collection manager Charles O'Brien was in charge of the move, assisted by three helpers: H. Birckhead, T. Gilliard, and C. O'Brien's younger brother. They transferred the birds from the shipping boxes in the storage room to the trays of three different sizes, wheeled them on carriages over to the Whitney Wing, and then placed the trays into the proper cases where they would remain permanently.

"The unpacking of the Rothschild collection is progressing favorably. We are now working on the small birds, of which we can unpack only a case and a half

Fig. 3.8. Examining the newly arrived Rothschild Collection, 1935. Left to right:R. C. Murphy, E. Mayr, J. T. Zimmer, and President F. T. Davison (AMNH Library photographic collection, negative no. 314574)

per day. Some of these cases contain as many as 10,000 specimens. We have, so far, unpacked 61 cases containing 62,000 specimens. This was done in fifteen days, which means that we have done an average of four cases and 4,000 specimens per day. This is just about twice as much as I had thought we could do. The boys who are doing the unpacking really deserve a great deal of credit for their fine work" and "The moving into the new wing is proceeding at a fast rate. By the time you come back from fishing the greatest part of the collection will already be installed in the new wing" (E. Mayr to Dr. Sanford on 5 March and 21 June 1935).

Not surprisingly, these activities consumed most of Mayr's time causing a noticeable drop in the number of taxonomic papers published during 1934 to 1936. After several months of unpacking it took another 6-8 years to catalogue the entire collection. This required decisions which families to recognize and which sequence of genera within each family and which sequence of species within each genus to accept. The consequence of this new classification was a whole series of family revisions by J. Delacour, E. Mayr, D. Amadon, D. S. Ripley and also C. Vaurie's authoritative survey Birds of the Palaearctic Fauna (1959,1965). Mayr's taxonomic work on the Whitney Collections from the southwest Pacific, of course, was immensely facilitated by the Rothschild Collection which provided valuable comparative material including numerous type specimens.

The new classification of the combined collections permitted a species count of the birds of the world, based partly on actual numbers, partly on estimates. The results were 8,500 species (Mayr 1935d) and 8616 species (Mayr 1946a). The stability of these figures would depend entirely on the future development of the taxonomic viewpoint (1935d: 23). This turned out to be an amazingly perceptive prediction, since the application of the concept of allospecies (and super-species) during the 1940s and 1950s led subsequently to the upgrading of many peripheral and well-differentiated "subspecies" to the status of (allo)species so that without an appreciable increase in the number of newly discovered species, the present estimate is 9,500 to 10,000 species of the world (a "quiet revolution," Mayr 1980d).

In the reference 1946(a), Mayr doubted "that in the entire world even as many as 100 new species remain to be discovered" (p. 67). This turned out to be underestimated. 162 "good" species have been discovered between 1938 and 1990. Periodically, Mayr reviewed critically the taxa described as new species in the literature (Zimmer and Mayr 1943b; Mayr 1957a, 1971d; Mayr and Vuilleumier 1983g, 1987c; Vuilleumier et al. 1992m). In 1957, he felt that the bird fauna of the world was then so well known that probably no more than 20 species would be discovered during the next 10 years. This estimate was again surpassed. Thirty-five good species were described until 1965, a rate of 3.5 species per year. This rate has only slightly decreased to 2.4 species per year until 1990 (Vuilleumier et al. 1992m). Most of these new species have been overlooked for so long because they are sibling species or have exceedingly small ranges in regions of difficult access like, e.g., parts ofthe tropical Andes Mountains. Recently, Mayr and Gerloff (1994t) estimated the total of subspecies of birds as 26,206.

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