Sunday, July 17, 2016

In memoriam et causa honoris: Johannes Gundlach

The german naturalist Johannes Christoph Gundlach was born on this date in 1810. Originally from the town of Kessel (Hesse) in Germany, he lived most of his adult life in the Caribbean island of Cuba, where he became one of its most productive naturalists.

His contributions are widely encompassing from the invertebrate mollusks to the sophisticated bats, and still relevant today. Gundlach's natural curiosity and keen taxidermy technique are well appreciated and respected by Caribbean biologists and paleontologists. The specimens he collected and prepared are treasured by many museums throughout the World. Many Caribbean species carry his name in his honor.
This post is a small tribute to his life and work and a token for the inspiration he has been in my natural interests.

Johannes Gundlach was the youngest of the seven sons of Johann Gundlach and Marie Cristine Rethberg. Since a young age, the family moved to Marburg, where his father was a professor of physics and mathematics at the Phillips University.

Since young had been interested in the natural sciences. He learned the art of taxidermy or embalming animals from his brother Henry, who was a medical student. But, although Johannes is unsuccessful in his earliest studies, he excels later as a student of zoological sciences of the University of Marburg, where he received a doctorate degree in 1837.

Dr. Gundlach arrived in Cuba in 1839. He came to Cuba, along with other two important German naturalists, Edward Otto and Louis Pfeiffer. He was passing through on his way to Suriname, by invitation of a colleague. However, his colleague died, and Gundlach decided to stay in Cuba: an island he soon fell in love with.

In Cuba, he met Carlos Booth from Matanzas, who invited him to stay at his coffee state near Cardenas. Those years were very prosperous for Gundlach, and soon the Cuban countryside revealed natural jewels to him. Immediately he discovers news species of birds, bats, mollusks, and butterflies. Among these is the Cuban bumblebee hummingbird Mellisuga helenae, named in honor of Mrs. Helena Booth, and first published by the Galician Juan Lembeye in his work "Aves de la Isla de Cuba" in 1850. This is likely the most famous of his discoveries. Others include the bats Pteronotus quadridens, Phyllonycteris poeyi, Nycticeous cubanus, among many other birds, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The list is indeed very long.

Whilst in residence in Cuba, Gundlach collaborated with Cuban, American, British, and German colleagues, to whom he sent specimens collected and prepared by himself. These included the already mentioned Felipe Poey, Carlos de la Torre, William Sharp, Wilhelm Peters, Dr. Lawrence, and others of revered relevance in the world of species classification and naming (taxonomy and systematics of today).

Cuban red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes superciliaris collected by J. Gundlach near Matanzas, Cuba.

His collection grew quickly, and between 1842 and 1852 he established a small museum. Many of the specimens showcased there are preserved today in Cuban, European, and American museums.

The realization of having had the opportunity to hold specimens collected by Gundlach, still with his handwritten tag, had been a lifelong dream until recently. Visit my previous post about museum collections to find out more about this experience.

During his 50 year stay in Cuba, Gundlach published numerous articles, and at least 5 monographs dedicated to the mammals, birds, and crustaceans of Cuba. He traveled throughout the island, and also visited Puerto Rico, where he is today revered too as an important zoologist for his additional contributions there.

Tag of a Cuban red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes superciliaris collected
by J. Gundlach.

Dr. Gundlach died on march 15 of 1896, in the city of Havana. He is buried in the Colon Cemetery. Today he is remembered for inspiring many generations of naturalists and zoologists.

The details for this post come from several sources. Most come from Gilberto Silva-Taboada (1983) Los Murcielagos de Cuba, Editorial Cientifico-Tecnico, La Habana. The others are cited in the following:

Garcia, Florentino. 1987. Las Aves de Cuba: Subespecies endemicas, vol. 2. Electron, Gente Nueva, La Habana.

Garcia Gonzalez, Armando: Gundlach, Johann Cristoph in La Web de Biografias

VilarĂ³, Juan (March 1897). "Sketch of John Gundlach". Appleton's Popular Science Monthly: 691–697.

For additional information in Spanish about Carlos de la Torre and Johannes Gundlach, visit my other blog

1 comment:

  1. You've got wonderful articles! Come check out Touchstone Gallery:)