Written by: Joe Staton, PhD
Today, people are drawn to South Carolina, particularly the lowcountry, for the climate and its natural beauty. Large numbers of birds make use of our beaches, marshes and hammocks (small, isolated islands with trees surrounded often by wetlands) for nesting grounds or for feeding year round or along their migration routes. We have diverse mammals, amphibians and reptiles from the upstate to the lowcountry, as well as a diverse insect fauna as a source of food. These in turn feed off the plant life that makes up the inland regions and coastal zones, which is plentiful, especially in the rainy summer we have been experiencing. The region is both alive and diverse—and it’s natural to be drawn to it.
This is not just a modern phenomenon. Beaufort and the surrounding ACE Basin have long been known for their diverse wildlife and natural areas that have attracted many of the renowned naturalists of their time. Of these, John James Audubon was well known for his artistry in Birds of America, and several of his specimens for illustrating this came from the lowcountry. The impact of his work on birds was also recognized in SC, as the state legislature was persuaded to purchase a double-elephant folio set of his plates for the new South Carolina College. Audubon collaborated on his last work (on mammals) with Rev. John Bachman of Charleston on the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
Not so commonly known nowadays is Mark Catesby, whose groundbreaking work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (2 vols., London, 1731-1743) came nearly a century earlier than Audubon. It was one of the most exhaustive of its time with 220 plates of many animal types. While not as precise in illustration as Audubon, his work was state of the art for its attention to detail and its diversity of treatment of the animal kingdom. The publication of the first volume earned Catesby election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in his native England. The American bullfrog still bears its species name in his honor, Lithobates catesbeianus.
Of most local renown was Stephen Elliott, a Beaufort native, a state senator, and Yale graduate, who was a member of the original trustees of Beaufort College. He published his landmark book— A Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1820s. It was another biological first as a comprehensive treatment of plants of this region, and it contained many of the original species descriptions of plant of the area. Elliott’s herbarium collection was the largest in America during his lifetime and is now preserved at the Charleston Museum. His collection aided many of the imminent botanists of his era, and in the latter part of the 19th century—Science magazine described him as the “father of southern botany.”
All of these notables (at least their works) have returned to Beaufort, at our south campus library. From now until at least mid-October, you can see originals and reproductions of the works of Audubon and Catesby. The core of the display has toured other parts of South Carolina. A larger version of this was first displayed for the opening of Greenville’s Upcountry History Museum; it drew over 10,000 visitors in 4 months. Also in our library, are displayed other notable South Carolinians dedicated to early floral and fungal work. Be sure to look for more detail information about the display at: http://library.uscb.edu.
“Yellow-crowned Heron,” plate 336, from Audubon’s Birds of America, no. 68 (London: Havell, 1836). –he painted the birds in this picture in Charleston, South Carolina, in October 1831. From: http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/audubon/case7Audubon%28336%29.jpg
The largest white billed wood-pecker & the willow-oak Reproduction, no. 49 of 50. London: Alecto Historical Editions, 1996. (the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker). From: http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/audubon/case3Catesby1.jpg
An illustration of tawny cottongrass (Eriophorum virginicum) and saltwater cordgrass (now Spartina alterniflora) reproduced from Stephen Elliott’s: A Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia. http://www.botanicus.org/title/b11737645