Impact of bird fraud unclear

Meinertzhagen's decades-long fraud may be more far-reaching, but ornithologists have yet to understand its full impact on the field

By | October 17, 2005

An extensive analysis of the British ornithologist Richard Meinertzhagen's bird collection at the Natural History Museum in Tring, UK, has revealed that a fraud involving theft and fabrication, uncovered over a decade ago, is more far reaching than was previously suspected. Still, ornithologists remain somewhat unclear how much impact the ever-growing fraud could have on the field.

"As it turns out, Meinertzhagen had stolen the best specimens of other people's collections and then proceeded to fabricate data to go with them," Alan Knox, of the Historic Collections at the University of Aberdeen, King's College, who first uncovered the fraud in 1993, told The Scientist.

The new report, presented at the 123rd meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union last August, has not yet been published, but it is already starting to reveal the extent of the deceit, said co-author Pamela Rasmussen of the Michigan State University Museum and Department of Zoology. "We have listed 23 ornithological books and articles on which we know Meinertzhagen's South Asian bird records impact negatively, and this is a gross underestimate," she said.

Among those articles is Nigel Redman's, of A&C Black Publishers in London. In 1985, upon returning from an expedition to Yemen, Redman published a paper in the journal Sandgrouse in which he mentions two of Meinertzhagen's records. They indicate that the Yemen Accentor, Prunella fagani, can be found in an area in which it has not been seen before, and at altitudes much lower than where it usually breeds. "This represents a very misleading picture, and it makes the ornithological record inaccurate," said Redman, who did not participate in the new study. Still, he added that 2 bad records do not discredit the entire paper.

Aasheesh Pittie, a non-professional ornithologist for almost 30 years based in India, said that until researchers started to reveal the scope of the fraud, all the ornithologists in India considered Meinertzhagen 'a god.' "He was one of the major collectors in Afghanistan and in India, and all the books we have on birds carry his records."

Assessing the full impact of the fraud, however, is not likely to be an easy task, said Knox, who was not involved in the new study. "It's difficult to know who has used the material and where this would have misled them, because there is no central depository of that information," he explained.

In the early 1990s, Knox had to remove a number of subspecies from the British List--a comprehensive record of bird species found in Great Britain that is widely used by bodies enforcing wildlife legislation. The subspecies were there just based on specimens that Meinertzhagen claimed he had collected, and showed several inconsistencies.

Still, some argue that since most people are aware of Meinerthagen's missteps, the impact on the field could be minimized. Pittie, who is also the editor of Indian birds--a newsletter for amateur bird watchers--believes that in the future, people will be doubly careful whenever they come across a Meinertzhagen's specimen. He is also planning to put a cautionary word in his newsletter whenever a record of Meinertzhagen's is mentioned there in the future.

Another difficulty in assessing the impact of the fraud is that few professional ornithologists currently work on Asian birds. "Many more researchers would be affected by Meinertzhagen's records from Africa and Europe, which haven't yet been studied," said Rasmussen.

The fraud is likely to affect a broad range of bird researchers and amateur ornithologists, according to Rasmussen. "Many publications that have Meinertzhagen's records are written by non-professional or paraprofessional ornithologists, but are utilized in many scientific and conservation respects," said Rasmussen. "Because our analysis has not yet been published, most ornithologists will not have a clear idea of just how their work has been impacted. We hope to change that when we publish our paper."

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