Arjun Srivathsa

 

Thomas Jerdon :- a pioneering naturalist

by Arjun Srivathsa

The establishment of the East India Company in the 18th century and the consequent reign in India opened up a bounty of genres to be explored. One such aspect was the rich natural biological diversity that the country housed. While this mainly drew the attention of several sportsmen and game-hunters, it also received a fair share of interest from a group of biologists. This group included botanists, mammalogists, ornithologists, herpetologists, surgeons and physicians, the latter generally associated with the British cavalry. One such medical physician-surgeon was Thomas Caverhill Jerdon. A medical surgeon by profession, he is known for his contributions in mammalogy, ornithology and herpetology of British India. He is accredited with the compilation of the first comprehensive book on Indian mammals. His major contribution, however, has been in the field of Indian ornithology.

Jerdon went to Edinburgh University in 1828, where he trained in natural history studies under Professor Robert Jameson, who was also the tutor of Charles Darwin. While at the University, Jerdon was a part of the Plinian Society, a club for natural history enthusiasts. Experiences here probably laid the foundation for his interest in nature.

On his arrival in India in 1836, he was posted in the Ganjam district of Orissa where he was responsible for the treatment of troops affected by fever and dysentery. His passion however lay elsewhere. Therefore, apart from his physician’s duites, he diligently started documenting birds of the Eastern Ghats. This trend continued as he moved to various parts of India – Andra Pradesh, Ooty, Trichy and so on. He obtained information on endemic birds through self observation as well as interaction with the locals. Around 1858, he went to Darjeeling on sick leave and spent considerable time studying the Himalayan fauna. Recognizing Jerdon’s passion, Lord Canning, the then Viceroy, placed him on special duty that enabled him to work on a series of books on Indian vertebrates. This began with his works on the Birds of India, a 3 volume treatise on the birds in the subcontinent. This describes many birds undiscovered earlier, one of them subsequently named – Jerdon’s Courser, a rare noctonal bird found in Andra Pradesh. The following exerpt from the book ‘Birds of India’ describes the bird “…This remarkable Plover has hitherto, I believe, only been procured by myself, from the hilly country above the Eastern Ghats, of Nellore, and in Cuddapah. It frequents rocky and undulating ground with thin forest jungle, and is found in small parties, not very noisy, but occasionally uttering a plaintive cry. I believe it to be a permanent resident. It is an almost unique instance of a species of Plover having such an extremely limited geographical distribution”. Today, Jerdon’s Courser is one of the critically endangered birds. Rediscovered in in 1988, the bird is endemic to the Eastern Ghats of Andra Pradesh and Southern Madhya Pradesh. Apart from the rare Jerdon’s Courser ‘Birds of India’ lists over 1008 species of birds, a collection only surpassed by the famed ornithologist Salim Ali in recent times.

            Jerdon followed this by works on the mammals, reptiles and then fishes. These manuals were some of the most comprehensive works on the flora and fauna of India at that time. Mammals of India published in 1874 provided a comprehensive and brief compilation of all the characters, descriptions and classifications of the vertebrates of British India. The main purpose behind this compilation was to provide a complete data base for observers and sportsmen. Event today, Jerdon’s volumes books provides near complete picture of the wildlife during the British era in India.

In his description of the mammals of India, he points out that the richness in mammalian species seen in the Malabar Coast and Western Ghats is unparalleled when compared to Central and Northern India, excluding the Himalayas.

Leopard cat

As a mark of respect, the Lesser Leopard Cat - Felis jerdoni and Brown Palm Civet - Paradoxurus jerdoni have been named after him. The former is a smaller cat of the better known species Felis bengalensis. These are so called due to leopard likes spots and stripes on their fur. The palm civet was first described in 1885 and the well known naturalist W.L. Blanford, named the species in honor of Jerdon. The civet is endemic to Western Ghats, feeds on fruits and is the major disperser of seeds in the forest.

Jerdon however did not restrict his interests to wild animals alone. He was naturalist with keen interest in plants as well. He is said to have been in regular communication with eminent botanist, Robert Wight, sending him descriptions and drawing of various plants he came across in the Ghats. One of these includes a flowering plant endemic to Western Ghats, which Wight Jerdonia indica in honor of Jerdon. Jerdon has obviously contributed immensely to documenting wild life within the Indian subcontinent. So much so that the manuals written by him prove to be the guide book to this day. 

 


Group of botanists at the Punjab Exhibition of Arts and Industry 1864
l-r, John Lindsay Stewart, Thomas Jerdon, William Jameson, Superintendent of Tea Plantations,
[standing] and Hugh Cleghorn

 

 

References

  • Burton, E F Burton (1888). An Indian Olio. Spencer Blackett, London; p. 61
  • Dickinson, Edward C et al. (2004). The dating of names proposed in the first Supplement to Thomas Jerdon’s ‘Catalogue of the birds of the peninsula of India’, Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Volume 61; part 4
  • Elliot, Walter (1873). Memoir of Dr T. C. Jerdon; History of Berwickshire Nauralists’ Club, Volume 7; p.143–151
  • Jerdon, Thomas C. (1874). Mammals of India- A Natural History of all the animals known to inhabit continental India. (John Weldon)
  • Kinnear, Norman B. (1952). The history of Indian mammalogy and ornithology, Part II, Birds. Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, Volume 51 (1); p. 104–110
  • McMaster, M. C. (1871). Notes on Jerdon’s Mammals of India by an Indian Sportsman and Lover of Natural History
  • Noltie, Henry J. (2007). Robert Wight and the Botanical drawings of Rungiah and Govindoo. Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.
  • Price, Fredrick (1908). Ootacamund: A history. Madras Government Press; p. 167
  • Smith, M. A. (1931) Fauna of British India. Reptilia and Amphibia. Volume 1; p.8-9
  • Sterndale,Robert A. (1884). Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon; p.154
  • The Ibis (1872). Obituary Note of Dr. T C Jerdon; p. 342
Photographs

 

About the Author: Arjun Srivathsa is a Junior Research Fellow with the Center for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore. His research interests include Ecology, Behavior and Conservation of Wild canids and Human Wildlife Interactions

 

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