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Sonnerat’s ‘manchot of New Guinea’ – in reality, the king penguin
After I’d added a link on various Facebook group pages to my recent ShukerNature post concerning an extraordinary claim by French naturalist-explorer Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814) that the Philippines were home to a species of secretary bird (click here
) – a bird entirely confined to Africa – on 26 April 2013 Mike Grayson commented on my Journal of Cryptozoology FB group’s page that Sonnerat had also claimed that New Guinea was home to various forms of penguin! Never having encountered this weird allegation by Sonnerat before, I was totally fascinated by it, and resolved to research the matter. This I have done, and I now have pleasure in revealing the truly bizarre history behind it. My sincere thanks to Mike for originally bringing it to my attention.
Pierre Sonnerat was also an artist and a writer, and his publications include Voyage à la Nouvelle-Guinée (1776), documenting an expedition that he claimed to have made to the Spice Islands (now called the Moluccas) and New Guinea in 1771. From an ornithological standpoint, this publication is particularly intriguing, inasmuch as it reports the presence in New Guinea of no less than three species of penguin as well as the common kookaburra or laughing jackass Dacelo novaeguineae. His book even contains illustrations signed by him that depict the penguins as well as the kookaburra, and the brief passage in it concerning the penguins states:
“I will mention the three Manchots [penguins] which I have observed, one the Manchot of New Guinea, another the Collared Manchot of New Guinea, and the third, the Manchot Papua.”
In reality, however, New Guinea is unequivocally bereft of any penguin species; and whereas three smaller kookaburra species do occur in New Guinea, the common kookaburra is confined to Australia. So how can these extraordinary discrepancies in Sonnerat’s book be explained? The answer is as startling as Sonnerat’s unfounded ornithological allegations.
First and foremost: Sonnerat never actually visited New Guinea! His expedition there was a complete fiction, and was publicly exposed during his lifetime. Yet somehow he survived the shame with his scientific reputation intact, and the scandal was subsequently forgotten.
Conversely, his New Guinea penguins were not made-up birds. On the contrary, their respective species can be readily identified from the illustrations of them in his book.
Sonnerat’s ‘collared manchot of New Guinea’ – in reality, the emperor penguin
The manchot of New Guinea is the king penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus (breeds on northern Antarctica and various subantarctic islands), the collared manchot of New Guinea is the emperor penguin A. forsteri (Antarctica), and the manchot Papua is the gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua (various subantartic islands including the Falklands).
Sonnerat’s ‘manchot Papua’ – in reality, the gentoo penguin
As revealed in Penny Olsen’s fascinating book, Feather and Brush: Three Centuries of Australian Bird Art (2001), it transpired that a number of bird skins, including those of the penguin specimens depicted in those illustrations as well as that of the kookaburra specimen depicted in its own illustration, had apparently been given to Sonnerat in 1770 at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope by English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who had procured them during his global travels in the 1760s.
Sonnerat’s ‘New Guinea common kookaburra’ – in reality, the Australian common kookaburra
Banks instructed Sonnerat to deliver them to fellow naturalist Dr Philibert Commerson in Mauritius. So Sonnerat sailed there, giving the skins to Commerson’s draughtsman, Paul Philippe Sanguin de Jossigny, who sketched them. Following Commerson’s premature death in 1773, however, Sonnerat not only kept Jossigny’s illustrations of the penguins and kookaburra, but unscrupulously signed them, passing them off as his own work, and including them in his book on New Guinea.
Sadly, vestiges of Sonnerat’s deception persists even today, in the misleading scientific names of the gentoo penguin and the kookaburra, which to anyone not familiar with their correct zoogeographical range suggests that the former species is native to Papua and the latter species to New Guinea.
Engraving of Pierre Sonnerat, engaged in sketching a bird