Category Archives: Sorta Science

Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale

17 March 2014: Massive updates! See below.

Jan Jonston¹ was a 17th Century Scottish-Polish naturalist who appears to have been largely forgotten by English speakers. Jonston made some of his own naturalistic observations (Miller 2008) but relied heavily on the works of 16th Century authors Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi (MacGillivray 1834) as well as the near-contemporary Georg Marcgrave (Romero 2012). Jonston’s work has been interpreted as some of the last done in the Gessner–Aldrovandi style and something of an anachronism for its lack of focus on classification (Asúa & French 2005); Miller (2008) argued Jonston took a unique philosophical approach. The important thing is, Jonston’s work is preserved on a website run by the University of Mannheim and is well worth looking at for the engravings by Matthäus Merian

From Jonston’s Liber V. De Cetis

These are very nice renderings, but holy crap, Jonston needed an editor. This is the second illustration of a sawfish and why both are hanging out with marine mammals is mysterious; perhaps some earlier worker confused the spiracles for blowholes. The competing depictions of walruses as separate species (?) is really mind-bending. The ‘Rosmarus Wallroſs‘ is from Gessner who in turn based his depiction on Olaus Magnus’s… but with wings; the Rosmarus Vetus‘ are from a 1613 illustration by Hessel Gerard (through De Laët) and are reportedly the most accurate walruses until 1853² (Allen 1880). So on the same page, Jonston managed to be cutting edge and behind the curve. Then there’s the mythical Scolopendra cetacea’, a Roman dolphin-faced, Aldrovandi-style whale with extra… footy things³. I think this is a good sample of Jonston’s work: a beautiful, incoherent mish-mash of monsters and real animals.

But enough stalling, what is… Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale?

From Jonston’s Additamentum De Cane Aristotelis

Cete admirabilis forme. Aside from this article, the phrase is only found on the University of Mannheim’s website. It doesn’t even seem to be in Jonston’s own text. Jonston doesn’t even use the word “cete” — “cetis” and “balaena” are used for his whales —so it may be a reference to size rather than affiliations. Or something. I have no idea why it’s grouped with relatively realistic fish, which can be recognized as a chimera, pufferfish, a lumpsucker, and a bream. Except for the lumpsucker (and Wonder-Whale), these fish have teeth specialized for crushing. The Cete admirabilis forme is nowhere to be found in Rondelet’s L’histoire entière des poissons or Aldrovandi’s De piscibus or Marcgrave’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. It could be possible it’s from a more obscure source, represents original research from Jonston, or it’s a fictitious entry.


I would opt for this being a joke because… just what the hell is going on here? The overall body shape is from a cartoon fish, the mouth is Sperm Whale-like, and the head is Basking Shark-like aside from the octopus stuck on it. It’s really hard imagining this having anything to do with reality. Unfortunately, I’ve hit a dead end and I… just don’t know. Normally I don’t publish these, but hey, it’s a new The Lord Geekington. Perhaps some day I’ll make a lucky discovery in an old tome and write a followup. Or perhaps somebody out there on the Internet already knows.

I would really recommend checking out the University of Mannheim’s website; Jonston may have been an iffy researcher, but Merian’s illustrations are well worth looking at.

I didn’t forget about those updates…


Allen, J. (1880) History of North American Pinnipeds. Available.

Asúa, M & French, R. (2005) A New World of Animals. Partially Available.

MacGillivray, W. (1834) Lives of eminent Zoologists from Aristoteles to Linnaeus. Available.

Miller, G. (2008) Beasts of the New Jerusalem: John Jonston’s Natural History and the Launching of Millenarian Pedagogy in the Seventeenth Century. History of Science 46(152) 203–243. Available.

Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. InTech.  DOI: 10.5772/50811. Available.


¹ Also known as John Jonston, John Johnstone, Joannes Jonstonus and Scoto-Polonus.

² Walruses appear to have a particularly bizarre art history… I’ll have to cover this another time.

³ Perhaps my favorite monster and almost certainly a future subject. I’ve discussed the bizarre 20th Century revival of this beast on Memories of Myspace past or the Cetacean Centipede Rides Again! (from… 7 years ago?!), Return of the Many-Finned!, and The Many-Finned and Cladistics.

Updates (St. Patrick’s Day 2014):

Thanks to Andreas Johansson for pointing out I should have been searching for Cete Admirabilis Formae (or Formæ). This directed me to Allen (1882) which briefly describes the image and attributes it to Carolus Clusius. One edition of Clusius (1605) has an ‘æ’ that looks very much like an ‘e’ at a glance, so I suspect Jonston used that as a source. Nieremberg (1635) also features the whale, but the ‘Æ’ is unmistakable. So what does Clusius have to say about this remarkable, uh, whale? Unfortunately, in order to find out, I will have to clumsily stumble my way across his Latin text. But first, a picture:


SVB finem Novembris ſuperioris, ab ornatiſſimo viro Iacobo Plateau diligente reruna Exoticarum conquiſitore, & quibus muſeum habet inſtruetiſſimum, Cetacei piſcis iconem, quam ex F. Ludovici Granatenſis Catechiſmo excepiſſe ſcribebat, accipiebam: eam licet ſatis negligenter, & ab imperito forſitan pietore, expreſſam, quia tamenmeo argumento ſerviebat, hoc loco inſertam volui, additâ etiam ex Latino Fratris Ludovici exemplari ejus deſcriptione.

So in November 1604, one James Plateau received a naïve picture and description from one Father Lewis.

LUDOVICUS igitur (ut paullò altiùs repetam ejus verba) in fuo Catechiſmo, ad finem cap. XXI. libri de Creatione mundi, hæc ſcribit.

So I guess Father Lewis also wrote this down?

Hoc autem capite declarato quàm admirabilis ſit in horum animalium fabrica, æquum eſt, ut quàm admirabilis ſit in majorum quoque animalium fabrica oſtendamus; ut facile appareat, idem eſſe in omnibus operibus ſuis: utque intelligatur, jure optimo illum Angelum, cuidam interroganti, quod ſibi nomen eſſet, reſpondiſſe, Iudic. XIII…

Something, something, admirable.

…Curmeum nomen interrogas, quod admirabile eſt? In hanc ſententiam poſſem ego huc adducere duas feras, quarum magnitudinem deſcribit idem Creator cap. XL. & XLI. Iobi ſub his nominibus Behemoth & Leviathan: ſic & cete, quæ notiſſima ſunt.

Not sure of the significance of bringing those two up…

Attamen his prætermiſſis, hîc admirabilem cujuſdam piſcis magnitudinem referam, qui anno M.D.LXXV.X.Kal.Maii ad Peniche jam mortuus in littus, è mari ſuit projectus

The animal stranded at Peniche in, uh… 1575? And if I’m looking at the calendar correctly, the 22nd of April? I’m in way over my head here…

[ſinus is est in Luſitania Occidentem ſpectante, vicinus illi urbi qua vulgò Nova Lisbona appellatur, circiter ſeptem aut octo miliaribus ab Ulyſipona distante, panè ex adverſoejus inſulaquam las Berlingas vocant.]

Some further notes about the location, the significance of which I don’t understand.

Hoc nihil admirabilus viſum ſuit umquam: erat enim ejus longitudo quadraginta cubitorum:

The length was 40 cubits. Assuming 45 cm, this would mean 18 meters. However, Portuguese cubits were apparently 66 cm, which would give 26 meters… but who knows how that varied throughout time. So, uh, let’s call it cetacean-sized.

ejus corium in dorſo nigrum erat, in ventre album:

The skin was black and the belly was white, so damn, my illustration was wrong.

caudæ verò amplitudo ab extremitate unius pinnæ ad alteram quinque cubitorum erat, & ejus latitudo quindecim palmorum.

So it seems the tail was 5 cubits wide and… something about fifteen palm trees?! [Edit: Palms, as in the unit, of course. Thanks again, Andreas]

Corporis craſſitudo tanta erat, ut duo homines ſatis grandes in utroque latere collocati vix ſe conſpicerent:

It sounds like the body was so thick, two large men couldn’t span it, or wrap around it, or something.

uterque oculus unius cubiti erat longitudine:

Each eye was a cubit (?!) in length. Huh.

caput in ſublime elatum ferebat ad quatuor cubitorum altidudinem

Apparently the head was held four cubits high, or something?

Os in capite non habebat ut alii piſces, ſed in ventre:

The mouth was more ventrally placed than those of other fish.

majores illius dentes ſinguli erant octo cubitorum:

A comment about teeth and eight cubits I don’t understand.

in ore præterea fexdecim habebat dentes, & cujuſlibet circuitus erat dimidii cubiti, interſtitium verò inter ſingulos erat unius palmi.

I don’t understand a lot of this, but it seems the teeth were separated by a span (half-cubit).

Cujus figuram hîc addere volui, quæ ab Henrico, qui ſempiterno fruitur ævo allata ſuit.

An apparent reference to King Henry?

In hujus piſcis fabrica, Divinæ Providentiæ artificium animadvertendum eſt, qui altum fert caput, ut piſes proſpiciat, quibus nutriendus erat: ſed cùm diſtantia inter caput & aquam magna eſſet, ei os in ventre accommodavit, ut vicinius & accommodatius ad piſcandum eſſet, quod oculisjam eſſet aſſequutus. Illud quoque audivi, hunc piſcem in ventre axungiam ad medendum ſatis accommodatam & magni pretii habuiſſe. Hactenus Frater Ludovicus.

This appears to describe the mouth being in the “belly” and seems to imply that the blubber was valuable.

So far as I can gather from my very, very, very limited abilities with Latin, this sounds like an early, mangled description of a Sperm Whale. The Aliud Cete admirabile which follows is far more unambiguous, and Allen appeared to regard it as one of the very first illustrations. There are still of course some baffling details about the Cete Admirabilis formæ (the head being held up high, the size of the eyes, the unexplained octopus-nose in the sketch), but it seems that even in the early 1600’s it was viewed as being a bit off-kilter.

Merriam’s Bear

A cute, fluffy _Vetularctos inopinatus_ wandering the Arctic Archipelago in an alternate universe.For reference I used and Wikipedia Commons for the bear; for the landscape, I used Wikipedia Commons, and

I’m afraid this will make very little sense without reading The Patriarchal Bear.

Let’s pretend in some alternate universe, C. H. Merriam did not Fail Taxonomy Forever and North America has scores of species of bears roaming around. It’s probably the universe next door to the Cryptozoologicon. One of the bears is something special; a small tremarctine from the Canadian Arctic, just one of two survivors from a once-mighty lineage. Unlike the bear of our universe — which was just an immature female Grizzly with low cusps on some of its teeth — this ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ actually has tremarctine traits such as a short and deep skull, large molars, lateral orbits, et cetera. And just because, let’s say this specimen was actually a large male that wandered a few hundred kilometers south from its normal distribution in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

But which tremarctine is it? Arctodus simus was present in eastern Beringia and may have had a competitive exclusive relationship with Brown Bears (Barnes et al. 2004). So perhaps Merriam’s Bear could be a dwarfed population of A. simus forced into a marginal habitat after the re-invasion of Brown Bears. But, eh, Surviving Arctodus is pretty played out. In our universe, the extant Spectacled Bear descended from the North American Tremarctos floridanus in the late Pleistocene or early Holocene (García-Rangel 2012, citing various); the biogeography of that split is still sufficiently mysterious for me to speculate, hey, why not have a sister species of the Spectacled Bear move north after the Last Glacial Maximum? Reclassifying ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ as Tremarctos inopinatus also opens up lots of interesting ecological possibilities.

Spectacled Bears are omnivores, mainly feeding on fruits and leaves, but they also have adaptations for preying on small prey (García-Rangel 2012, citing various). Feeding heavily on palms, bromeliads and fruits is probably going to be out of the question for Merriam’s Bear, unfortunately. Merriam’s Bear is also not much larger than Spectacled Bears — Merriam described the skull with a basal length of 26.8 cm, Spectacled Bears have a maximum total skull length of 26.3 cm (García-Rangel 2012, citing various) — so perhaps a large individual would be around the 200 kg mark. While still pretty big, this could make macropredation a rare affair and opens up the possibility of predation from Polar Bears, but less mass to support could make survival in a harsh landscape more plausible. 

Could a bear even survive in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago? Barren Ground Grizzlies are typically thought to be absent from that area, but they have been recorded as far north as Melville Islandsuch vagrant bears have apparently fed on pinnipeds and (female and juvenile) polar bears, and could presumably eat sedges, caribou, and muskoxen as well (Doupé et al. 2007). Perhaps Merriam’s bear could feed heavily on hares and lemmings and have adaptations for taking a wide variety of the plants which still grow that far north. It still sounds like a pretty rough existence and I imagine Merriam’s Bear was one of the very last of its kind.

So, to be clear, this is all just speculative biology. I’m surprised that creating a plausible-ish scenario worked out as well as it did. It was certainly easier than for Bergman’s Bear, which doesn’t even exist in this bear-heavy alternate universe. Speaking of which, I should probably take a break from cryptid bears for a while.


Barnes, I. et al. (2004) Dynamics of Pleistocene Population Extinctions in Beringian Brown Bears. Science 295 2267–2270. Available.

Doupé, J. et al. (2007) Most Northerly Observation of a Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) in Canada: Photographic and DNA Evidence from Melville Island, Northwest Territories. Arctic 60(3) 271–276.

García-Rangel, S. (2012) Andean bear Tremarctos ornatus natural history and conservation. Mammal Review 42(2) 85–119.

Bergman’s Bear

I want to try something different on this rebooted The Lord Geekington. I have nothing new to add to my discussion on Bergman’s Bear and Hyper-Splitting, but I also didn’t feel like I was quite done with it. Also, I recently got a drawing tablet.

So what is supposed to be going on here? This is a dubious speculative creature, so I wanted the illustration to feel anachronistic and naive. Trying to put my own inexperience to good use, in other words. I attempted to imitate the old yellowing maps in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance MapsMedieval illustrations of bears, and Olaus Magnus all at once, although the result doesn’t really look much like any of those. 

I exaggerated the short hair purportedly covering Bergman’s Bear to the point where this bear hardly seems to have any. Like my shrink-wrapped bear, this is really an excuse for showing off the freakishly long legs bears have underneath that fuzz. The wrinkles may look familiar to aficionados of hairless oddballs. The long snout is an exaggeration of the morphology Kamchatkan Brown Bears already have; I’m imagining a short-haired animal could look similarly bizarre, but just in case, I’m imagining this is an animal with particularly extreme morphology. This feature was also something of a protest against the prehistoric-survivor-mongering Arctodus¹ hypothesis.

Unlike the Cryptozoologicon, I’m not clever enough to come up with a scenario where this can be a distinct species². The best I can manage is that, let’s see, maybe there was a subpopulation of bears that was extremely adept at exploiting salmon — or maybe marine mammals? —and for some reason insulated themselves with more fat than fur. The longish snout I gave it sorta hints at this, although Bergman and Malaise made no mention of such a feature. But anyways, this purportedly distinct animal is just a relic from the era where people were interpreting one bear species as hundreds; there is absolutely no reason to take it seriously as a potentially unknown animal. Just thought I should mention that again.

¹ Although Arctodus didn’t actually have a short face. Or long legs. The popular image of these animals is nearly mythologized as a cryptid.

² Well, it was recently discovered that Cave Bears were living in far Eastern Siberia… of course they were small… and hundreds of kilometers away from Kamchatka… and thousands of years in the past. Such inconveniences don’t really stop avowed prehistoric survivorists though.

Remembering How to Draw Dolphins

I’m fascinated by erroneous beliefs — hence my coverage of cryptozoology — and I’ve become increasingly curious about why animals in old depictions are usually “wrong”. Not being an art critic or anthropologist, I’m baffled why people would illustrate animals in a way other than as accurately as possible. It appears my culture of viewing animals from a literal, scientific perspective is a quite recent phenomenon in human history.

From Masseti (2008)

This Late Helladic I blade from ~1500 BC unambiguously shows a dolphin, which has been interpreted to show a Striped Dolphin (Masseti 2008). I’m not really convinced the curved lines drawn on the figure represent the markings of that species¹ and I wonder if they could represent movement or waves. Other fairly realistic dolphins are seen in art from the Bronze Age (Fresco at Knossos) and Classical antiquity (youth playing the flute and riding a dolphinvarious coins); however, some depictions from the ancient world are quite fanciful.

From Wikipedia Commons

This figurine — from 330–310 BC Eretria, if Wikipedia is to be trusted — is still recognizably dolphin-like, but the body is unusually long and bendy (even the rostrum is curved) and the replication of fins (and… counter-dorsal fins?) is really curious. I wonder if, perhaps like the wavy patterns on the first example, this is an attempt to capture movement in a static work of art. Say, shouldn’t there be a cryptozoologist citing this as undeniable proof of a Rhinoceros dolphin“? I’ll have to discuss the bewildering phenomenon of people taking these obviously stylized artworks literally another time.

From Wikipedia Commons

In this mosaic of Eros riding a dolphin, the mount is so stylized it would be hard to tell it’s supposed to be a dolphin at all if there weren’t other depictions of the same scene. I would have guessed that this was a mythological creature based on a dolphin associated solely with deities, but several similar creatures are depicted independent of any gods. This particularly extreme style of depicting dolphins was surprisingly influential², as I’ll discuss later.

From GKS 1633 4º: Bestiarius

This 15th Century depiction of a “Delphinus” from a bestiary shares nothing with the older depictions aside from its name and aquatic nature. Other illustrations documented by the excellent website, The Medieval Bestiary, show dolphins as various generic fish. Van Duzer (2013) shows additional illustrations depicting dolphins as generic fish with human faces, but apex of illustrative eccentricity seems to have been reached here. Dolphins are most assuredly not blank-faced merfolk with either eyes or a mouth in their chests. So what the hell happened? According to Montagu (1962), knowledge about dolphins was almost completely lost at some point; it seems the only information remembered was their name and aquatic nature. Romero (2012) essentially concluded that Medieval people were backwards idiots; however, the approach of bestiaries seems dramatically different from natural history and I can’t help but wonder if there are illustrations from other sources depicting more natural dolphins, perhaps under different local names.

From the ‘Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitorarum’

This 16th Century illustration looks nothing like works from the Medieval era and was inspired by Classical dolphins (Van Duzer 2013). These clearly look related to the type of dolphin used as Eros’ mount and they’re very well-rendered, but it’s still not exactly a naturalistic depiction of cetaceans.

From Egerton (2003)

Pierre Belon‘s 1551 is almost a contemporary of the map-monsters above, yet its style is remarkably modern. Belon actually bothered to dissect dolphins and noted anatomical structures such as hindlimbs, lungs, milk glands and hairs, yet failed to connect them to terrestrial mammals (Romero 2012). Monstrous depictions of cetaceans continued for long after Belon’s work, but this seems to be a good stopping point.


Egerton, F. (2003) A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 11: Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology During the 1500s. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84(4) 206–212. Available.

Masseti, M. (2008) The Most Ancient Explorations of the Mediterranean. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 59(1) 1–18. Available.

Montagu, A. (1962) The History of the Dolphin IN: The Dolphin In History.

Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. IN: New Approaches to the Study of Marine Mammals.

Van Duzer (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.

The websites Strange Science and The Medieval Bestiary provided invaluable leads for writing this article.


¹ Aristotle apparently conflated Striped Dolphins with Bottlenose Dolphins and Short-Beaked Common Dolphins (Romero 2012), so it could be possible the ancient Greeks also lumped the familiar species of dolphins.

² It appears this creature or a similar one provided the model for the face of my favorite monster, the Cetacean Centipede/Scolopendre Cetacee.