The Father of Taxonomy and the Obviously-Fake Pelican

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is known as the father of modern taxonomy. This accomplished botanist, zoologist, and physician developed the system used around the world to identify all living things by genus and species.

His book, Systema Naturae, started off as a 12-page volume with the 1735 edition. By the time it reached its 10th edition in 1758, it classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants. The massive amount of information cataloged and tracked by Linnaeus prompted him to come up with another innovation: the index card system.

A man of such intellect and abilities could certainly be counted on to speak authoritatively about the plants and animals of nature. He had seen so many representatives of earth’s wildlife that he could easily separate the real from the phony. For this reason, he included a section in Systema Naturae entitled “Animalia Paradoxa.” This is where he listed the fabled creatures that existed only in the imaginations of people.

The enlightened minds of the 18th century needed to know that dragons were not real, despite the stories that circulated among the great unwashed. The phoenix, hydra, and satyrs, likewise, were listed among those who would today be called cryptids.

Nestled among these figments of wild imagination is another creature Linnaeus decided was nothing more than the product of the over-fervent imaginations of New World explorers. The obviously-fake figment of someone’s imagination was the pelican.

What was so unbelievable about this bird? The way it had been described to Linnaeus was as a bird that “with its beak inflicts a wound to its own thigh. The blood that flows relieves the thirst of its young; from the same fabulous tradition. The fable comes from the sac under its gullet that it uses to distribute the food.”

The description, of course, is fanciful and far from accurate. With no first-hand knowledge of the North American bird, however, Linnaeus was forced to conclude that such a fantastic creature could not actually exist.

Borometz (Scythian Lamb)

All things considered, Linnaeus can be forgiven for getting one animal out of over 4,000 wrong. Consider the hit on his reputation if he had concluded that the Borometz (Scythian Lamb) belonged among the categories of actual organisms. Which seems more incredible — a pelican or “a plant shaped like a lamb, whose stem seizes the ‘umbilicum’ of another plant as it erupts from the earth; thoughtlessly said to contain blood and to be eaten by wild animals”?

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