Mt. Malindang, Philippines, 1905-1907
Turdus poliocephalus malindangensis, collected May 15, 1906
In late 1904, Dr. Mearns traveled back to the United States for six months of sick leave, most of it spent at the Smithsonian. When it was time to return to the Philippines for a second tour of duty on June 30, 1905, his daughter Lillian accompanied him as far as Manila, where she remained as he traveled onward to his post at Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao. Though many of the challenges of Mearns’s first tour of duty remained, the transition from military to civil government in most of the Philippine Islands may have created more opportunities for collecting. Mearns’s field notes, correspondence, and specimen lists seem to confirm this: there are more birds and fewer battles.
In a memo dated April 14, 1906, Major Mearns, Chief Surgeon of the Department of Mindanao, outlined a plan for a “biological and geographical reconnoissance [sic] of Mt. Malindang.” The goal? “To start as soon as an outfit can be assembled and to spend twenty days as high on the mountain as water can be found, gathering specimens to illustrate the gross surface geology, fauna, and flora of the mountain region; also to roughly determine the altitude of Mt. Malindang and the extent of its vertical life zones.” Though this time, Mearns was focused on vertical, rather than longitudinal changes, there are certainly connections between this expedition proposal and the scientific work Mearns had conducted on the International Boundary Survey more than a decade earlier.
The trip was approved, and Mearns’s papers contain a series of telegrams and orders about supplies and which enlisted men had been assigned to accompany the expedition. They established a base camp at Catagan, and from there took trips in smaller groups to the surrounding peaks and rivers, while gathering information about how to summit Mt. Malindang, collecting specimens as they went.
The correspondence that has survived helps to give us a sense of what this trip might have been like: there is a letter noting that the cargadores (Moro porters) they hired didn’t want to work for the U.S. Army; another note instructing that some carabao be returned to their owner with payment; and news that two expedition members had received orders to return to Zamboanga before they’d had chance to even attempt the summit. In their letter to Mearns, they described what they’d learned: “I believe the top can be reached from Jimenez in three to four days…The trail is very rough, and in some places passes over ravines on logs which the Subano, with whom we talked, said could not be crossed by men wearing shoes, but I think it can be done.”
All of this correspondence was hand-carried up and down the mountains over challenging terrain. Some of the notes are hard to read; one asks that the messages be wrapped better because the last one arrived soaked through. These notes allow us to piece together the way Mearns coordinated the group’s movements, supplies, and specimens. On June 4, Private West wrote these instructions from Major Mearns to Sargent Leakins, who was stationed at base camp: “I am sending one deer skin and skull to be taken care of. The Major regards it as the most valuable specimen secured on this trip as it is intirely [sic] new. Also one squirrel skin and a box of birds and rats it is to [sic] damp up here to care for them properly. The trays should be placed near the fire every day until dry.”
Despite these challenges, Mearns and his men managed to collect quite a range of specimens, many of which survived the journey down the mountain and across the Pacific to eventually join the collection here at the Division of Birds. This group of birds demonstrates the diversity of species thriving at 1100 feet. In addition to all the data we’ve come to expect from Mearns, these specimens are also labeled with elevation. (Aneroid barometers were brought along to measure pressure and calculate altitude.)
Take a look at this bird, Buceros hydrocorax mindanensis. Mearns was careful to prepare this bird with the long journey down the mountain, to Manila, across the Pacific to San Francisco, and overland to Washington, D.C. Rather than laying the bird flat, large bill pointed upward, Mearns chose to protect it by turning the head to the side. Even as a specimen, this bird is stunning, but the notes that accompany this skin reveal this Rufous Hornbill was once even more colorful. The colors of a bird’s “soft parts” (bill, legs, and feet, for example) fade quickly after a specimen is collected, so we rely on the collector’s notes for a full picture of what a bird would have looked like alive.
This bird, Bolbopsittacus lunulatus, in the parrot family, demonstrates the wide range of specimens collected on the Mt. Malindang expedition. This bird is an immature female, a kind of specimen often underrepresented in bird collections.
One of the birds, specimen 14134, collected by Dr. Mearns on a side trip to the summit of Lebo Peak (at an elevation of 5750 feet), turned out to be a new bird for science. Here, in one of the bird lists he put together after the expedition, Mearns listed this bird as belonging to the genus Merula. Later, he named it Merula malindangensis, the Mount Malindang blackbird, and wrote it up in a 1907 issue of the Philippine Journal of Science.
This bird, which Mearns numbered 14134 (and which later received a Smithsonian number, 202485) is the type specimen for the species Mearns discovered, Merula malindangensis. Because birds within the same species can present a range of characteristics, a specific specimen is selected to be the type, and serves as the basis for the official scientific description for that species. Types help scientists, ornithologists, and birders to identify new birds they encounter against detailed descriptions of known species.
Mearns’s work in the Philippines yielded several types, many of which he identified and described in scientific publications after he returned to the United States. Other birds existed in the collection for decades before earning their designation as types representing newly articulated species and subspecies. In fact, birds collected by Mearns on the Mt. Malindang expedition were named types in 1947 and 1951. Though Mearns’s specimens offer us access to their history and collection, they continue to play an important role in the production of ornithological knowledge today.
Proposed Itinerary for Mt. Malindang Expedition, Mearns to Brig. Gen. Bliss, April 14, 1906, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 21, folder 3.
Captain J. P. Jervey to Mearns, May 22, 1906, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 21, folder 3.
Pvt. West to Sgt. Eakins, June 4, 1906, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 21, folder 5.
Itinerary for Mt. Malindang Expedition, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 17, folder 21.
Index List of Birds Collected on the Malindang Expedition, May 9-June 11, 1906. (Determinations provisional), Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 12, folder 4.
Edgar A. Mearns. "Two Additions to the Avifauna of the Philippines, Descriptions of a New Genus and Nine New Species of Philippine Birds," The Philippine Journal of Science, October 1907, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 23, folder 3.
Correspondence regarding transport to Philippines, Box 10, Military Correspondence-1905, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
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