By Cathy Hughes
During BioBlitz 2013, nearly 3,000 volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and others embarked on a crash course in the biological diversity of the 23,000-acre Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Marrero, La., across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter of New Orleans.
They formed teams to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible during the 24-hour event May 17 and 18. At least 458 species were identified, highlighting an activity that has been ongoing in south Louisiana for more than 300 years.
“Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana 1698-1840,” a temporary exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection, highlights reports from early European explorers whose natural history observations kicked off a flurry of interest in the New World’s environment that lasted well into the 19th century.
The earliest European explorers in Louisiana were quick to recognize the biological diversity of its varied habitats, including grasslands, barrier islands, bottomland hardwood forests, freshwater swamps, and brackish marshes.
The first of these explorations had a practical rather than an academic focus. In a 1698 letter to the king of France, Louisiana’s founder, Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, declared that the territory would be a good source of lead, for armaments, and timber, for ships. Iberville is said to have sold 9,000 furs in New York after a second voyage to the Gulf Coast in 1700.
The Exhibits Up Close
One of the native creatures that Iberville spotted during his 1699 expedition was a brown pelican, later to become the emblem of the state of Louisiana. The HNOC exhibit includes a sketch of the skeleton of a brown pelican, drawn in pencil and ink in 1690 by Charles Plumier, later to be named botanist to King Louis XIV of France. Also on display is double-elephant folio illustration of a brown pelican by John James Audubon, who published The Birds of America in London between 1827 and 1838.
Reptiles are also well represented in the exhibit, led by a preserved 19th-century alligator snapping turtle, whose permanent residence is now in Paris. A smaller box turtle accompanies it, as do drawings of other characteristic critters of the Louisiana waterways.
One of the New World plants to capture Europeans’ attention for its practical and commercial properties was an indigenous shrub, the wax myrtle, or myrica cerifera. The wax myrtle could be used as a source of bayberry candle wax, obtained by boiling the berries, skimming off the floating hydrocarbons, then purifying the remaining fats.
The HNOC exhibit includes a wax myrtle specimen pressed in Louisiana by Jean Prat in the 1740s. The exhibit also includes a 1752 letter in which Jean-Charles de Pradel complains to his brother about the challenge of dispersing the hordes of hungry birds that gobbled up the wax myrtle berries he cultivated at Monplaisir, a plantation in the area now known as McDonoghville opposite New Orleans on the Mississippi River.
Interest in the plants of the New World presented the challenge of transporting living specimens to Europe for study and propagation. The HNOC exhibit includes diagrams, created in 1785 and in 1798, of ingenious containers for transporting living plants.
Considering that naturalists have been exploring and recording Louisiana’s plants and animals for at least three centuries, it may seem like there can’t be much left to discover.
What BioBlitz showed this weekend though is that for all you may have studied an environment in the past, the ever-changing nature of nature means there are always new things to notice, new species taking root, and old species no longer to be found.
To get the full story, there will always been a place for events like BioBlitz, and exhibits like “Seeking the Unknown.” New Orleans is fortunate this year to have both.
Cathy Hughes is a New Orleans journalist and a volunteer at the Historic New Orleans Collection. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.