The Curious Case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’

Stephanie Holt

Recently I have been tagging the letters in British Museum manuscript MS5318, a series of 32 documents sent to Thomas Pennant; this includes 30 of the original letters from Gilbert White which were later altered and adapted for his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. HTML tagging involves taking the transcribed documents and setting them up for publication on the Curious Travellers Project website, whilst cataloguing various elements to make them searchable, including the names of people, places, and things (such as art works). Coming to this from the perspective of a scientist, I suggested we also tagged species—I think this was a popular decision with the team, even if it means more work! But in order to do so, each species mentioned in the document needs to be tied to a modern species name. Taxonomy and nomenclature in the late eighteenth century were still very much in flux, so this can sometimes be a very difficult task. It has turned out to be one of the most time-consuming—though completely fascinating—elements of the project. Particularly when species are from abroad or less well known, you find yourself having to do some serious sleuthing!

Fortunately for me, as I work at the Natural History Museum, I have excellent colleagues that I can call on when I get really stuck, such as in the case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’. In document 7, written on 17th June 1768, White is writing to Pennant on a number of subjects. Mid-way through the letter he asks of Pennant:

Mr Ellis F:R:S: (the coraline Ellis) in a letter to the Royal society dated June 5:1766. is his account of the mud-inguana.an amphibious biper from S: Carolina, — he says that the water-eft or neut is only the larva of the land-eft, as tadpoles are of frogs. Least I should be suspected to misunderstand his meaning. I shall give it you in his own words. Speaking of the opercula or coverings to the gills of the mud-inguana, he proceeds to say, “That the form of these pennated coverings approach very near to what I have some time ago observed in the larva or aquatic state of our English lacerta, known by the mane of eft or neut; which serve them for coverings to their gills, & for fins to swim with while in this state; & which they lose, as well as the fins of their tails when they change their state, & become land animals; as I have observed by keeping them alive for some time myself.”

The species, proving if not impossible, certainly very hard to locate from that name and description, I turned to my colleague Jeff Streicher (Senior Curator in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Natural History Museum) for help. Having not heard of the ‘mud-inguana’ either, Jeff went back to the original paper by Ellis in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,  which can be found here. The paper An account of an amphibious bipes; by John Ellis Esq; F. R. S. To the Royal Society (published 1st January 1766), gives a detailed description of two specimens that Ellis had acquired from South Carolina via Dr Garden. He gives the name ‘Mud-Inguana’ as ‘the name the natives call it’ and then continued to give both a detailed description and illustrations of the two specimens. From this description, Jeff was able to identify the species, and confirmed that it is the aquatic salamander, Siren lacertina. The illustration in the paper also refers to the Siren of Linneaus, so this corroborates this identification.

I had my species name, but Jeff had one more surprise for me. Having seen that the paper was based on the description of two specimens, at least one of which had been preserved in spirits, presented to the Royal Society, Jeff headed for the collection. Lo and behold, we have a specimen labelled as follows:

This specimen was sent by Dr Alexander Garden of Charles Farm South Caroline to John Ellis, who presented it to the British Museum ‘Sire, so called by Linneaus on 26 August 1768 (see B.M. Benefactors Book for that date). Garden also sent specimens to Linnaeus via John Ellis.

The preserved ‘Mud Iguana’ from 1768

The specimen matches the description of the specimen in the paper, and consequently it is highly likely that this is the specimen that Ellis describes. Dating from 1768, it is also one of the oldest, if not the oldest alcohol-preserved specimen in the Natural History Museums collection.

And with that, our mystery of the ‘Mud-Inguana’ is solved!