UF wildlife ecology students merge science, art in project with Harn Museum
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Art and science arenâ€™t always birds of a feather, but a new University of Florida project has them flocking together.
Students from UFâ€™s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences recently worked with UFâ€™s Harn Museum of Art to identify Brazilian birds and plants illustrated by famed naturalist painter Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.
A website detailing their work was launched earlier this year. It can be found here: http://descourtilz.wordpress.com/.
â€śThe museum needed to know the names of the birds and plants depicted, whether they were accurately rendered, and if they were biologically realistic,â€ť said Emilio Bruna, an associate professor in UFâ€™s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
Bruna and John Blake, a professor in the department, co-taught the graduate-level class that led the project. Both are members of UFâ€™s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Students in the class, An Introduction to Tropical Ecology and Conservation, examined five prints â€“ each portraying three to five birds and a plant species upon which the birds are perched. And while some of the birds were labeled by Descourtilz, none of the plants had identification.
The students were asked to accurately classify the birds and plants using modern taxonomic nomenclature and to prepare a report that outlined what the birds eat, where they live and in which part of the tropical forest canopy they reside.
Blake said one of the interesting findings from the project was that some of the birds portrayed together are not from the same part of Brazil.
â€śSome would be from the far corner of the Amazon and others would be from southern Brazil, and yet theyâ€™re all posed together on the same plant,â€ť Blake said.
For example, in one print, the scarlet-headed blackbird, sharpbill and the pampas meadowlark are pictured on the same plant. However, the three birds do not share a similar habitat range and would not likely be found together.
On the same print, the birds sit on a ficus branch. And while the sharpbill may eat the plantâ€™s fruit, the other three birds pictured eat mainly insects.
Bruna said he suspects that rather than being drawn from nature, the prints were drawn from memory or from museum specimens.
The artwork is part of Harnâ€™s growing natural history collection of about 400 prints from the 16th to the 19th century by European and American artists that depict birds, rocks, mammals, plants, shells and more from Asia, the Americas and Europe.
Eric Segal, the museumâ€™s education curator of academic programs, said once information is obtained about artwork, it is kept for later use when writing wall labels or essays.
â€śItâ€™s very powerful information for us,â€ť Segal said. â€śEverything that the students have done for this project is really useful and will come back again when those prints are shown.â€ť
These works arrived at the museum in 2010 as part of an acquisition program initiated with generous loans from Graham Arader, a prominent dealer whose specialties include natural history prints.
They are from Descourtilzâ€™s four-part book of 164 species of Brazilian birds titled â€śOrnithologie brĂ©silienne ou Histoire des Oiseaux du BrĂ©sil, Remarquables par leur Plumage, leur Chant ou leurs Habitudes,â€ť published between 1852 and 1856.
Descourtilz produced them through chromolithography, a process by which an image is drawn in reverse onto stone using special markers, ink is applied to the image and then paper is placed firmly against the stone using a press to make a print. The prints were then hand colored.
The Harnâ€™s work with CALS is part of a larger effort to continue to weave the museum into the academic fabric of UF, Segal said.
â€śThe museum is a world-class art museum, but itâ€™s also a resource for the university,â€ť he said. â€śWe have a long history of working with a wide range of disciplines across campus.â€ť
- Robert H. Wells, email@example.com , 352-273-3569