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29 December 2021

Félix De Azara and Pehr Löfling, the First Naturalists in a Great Frontier

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Since the 15th century, Spain and Portugal clashed over the demarcation of the boundaries of their extensive South American colonies, from the Orinoco River to Río de la Plata. Several treaties were signed for this purpose, some of them under the auspices of a Pope, and a number of expeditions were launched. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 18th century when a series of commissions were proposed to settle the matter for once and for all. In two of them, one way or another, resulted in the first systematic research on the flora and fauna of these remote regions being carried out. As a result, hundreds of new animal and plant species were discovered: a true “el dorado” of nature.

Pehr Löfling

 In 1754 an expedition set sail from Cadiz for America, which had been commissioned to demarcate the border between Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Orinoco region – corresponding to present-day Venezuela and Guyana. One of the members of this expedition was young Swedish naturalist Pehr Löfling (January 31, 1729 – February 22, 1756). Löfling was one of the so-called apostles of Carl Linnaeus. At the request of the Spanish court, he first traveled to Spain in 1751 to study its natural habitats and contribute to the dissemination of the Linnaean method for describing and classifying living beings. During this period he conducted several studies on the flora and vegetation across different regions of Spain and Portugal, still vastly understudied, that led to the discovery of new varieties. Even upon his arrival to Cádiz, assisted by local fishermen, he developed a classification of fish species in the area.  In America, he was only able to perform his naturalistic studies over a 2 year period, because he died prematurely in 1756, possibly as a result of typhoid fever. However, despite the tragically short time he was afforded, he managed to identify and describe many interesting plant and animal species.

BBVA-OpenMind-Manuel Ruiz Rejon-Pehr Lofling-Species_plantarum
er Hispanicum, a posthumous publication edited by Linnaeus in 1758. Source: Royal Botanical Garden Library

He described a great variety of animal species, ranging from jellyfish and insects to mammals. Thus, for example, in Systema Naturae, his magnum opus, Linneus included 7 of the fish species that he discovered. But these descriptions were never published under the same work, and therefore are not widely known.

As for the plant species, in 1758, after his death, Linnaeus oversaw published Iter Hispanicus, a compilation of Löfling’s manuscripts on the species he discovered in the Iberian Peninsula and in America. Thus, Löfling is credited with the discovery of close to a hundred plant species, including about 30 new genus, most of them American. This includes the Cecropia, a tree genus that has later been observed to provide a favorable ecosystem for ants and from which different active constituents can be extracted for medicinal purposes. Indigenous people already mixed the ashes from burned Cecropia leaves with coca leaves to concoct a paste that they placed in their mouth and helped them overcome hunger, cold, fatigue….

Löfling’s discoveries have had several consequences and impacts from a scientific standpoint. For instance, Linnaeus included many of his species in his Systema Naturae. A plant herborized by his disciple in the Iberian Peninsula, Löflingia hispanica, was named after him, and several more species of this genus have been subsequently identified. The naturalists who focused on the same area where he worked, such as Humboldt and Bonpland -who studied the region 50 years later- took his findings into great consideration. Finally, botanists have used the specific Löflingii epitet to name new plant discoveries, paying tribute to Löfling’s efforts.

Félix de Azara

Félix de Azara (May 18, 1746 – October 20, 1821) was an Aragonese military engineer who, after serving in a few major battles, such as the battle of Algiers where he sustained significant wounds, directed some engineering works in Spain. In 1781 he was sent to America to oversee the demarcation of the Spanish-Portuguese border in the region of Chaco, Rio de la Plata-Argentina, Paraguay …Once there, in view of the level of stagnation of the operations comprising the subject matter of his duties during his long stay in the region (almost 20 years) he became increasingly interested on naturalism and ended up devoting his life to the study of nature, especially animals.

Félix de Azara
Portrait of Félix de Azara (1742-1821), Spanish soldier and explorer, and also engineer, cartographer, anthropologist, humanist and naturalist. Source: Wikipedia

Unlike Löfling, Azara lacked formal training as a naturalist, but was still able to come up with accurate descriptions for the defining traits of the creatures he observed, assigning them with descriptive vernacular names, rather than scientific names. Almost at the end of his stay, at a time when he had already amassed information on many species, he received the translation of Natural History, the monumental work by great French scientist Count de Buffon, which allegedly covered all species known to man at the time.  Azara realized that many species had been inadequately described by the French – he did not blame these errors on him, but on his informants – and that many of the animals that he had found had not been included; in other words, that they were new species from a scientific standpoint.

Azara discovered and described hundreds of species, ranging from insects to primates and reptiles, amphibians, rodents, etc. He also studied the Chaco vegetation. But, as he himself acknowledged, his descriptions were very brief, using vernacular names, and in most cases limited to an explanation of their potential culinary or medicinal uses.

In 1811, Humboldt assigned the name Aotus azarae to the Marikiná primate previously described by Azara. Credits: Wikimedia

Azara published his findings upon his return to Europe in 1801, and his works, including Travels through South America, Notes for natural history on quadrupeds of Paraguay and Río de la Plata and Notes on Birds, had an immediate impact on several naturalists, some as relevant as Cuvier-Buffon in France, Humboldt or Darwin. Cuvier, for example, made contributions to his texts.  In 1811, Humboldt assigned the name Aotus azarae to the primate named Marikiná by Azara. Later Darwin included references to Azara’s findings in different passages of his books from the 1930s and 1940s, in which he recounted his forays across that part of America and, also, although to a lesser extent, in The Origin of Species of 1859 – he was the only Spanish naturalist that he mentioned. Many other authors, when assigning scientific-Linnaean names to the species described by Azara with vulgar names, recognized the accuracy of the Aragonese naturalist by adding the specific epithet azarae to them:  thus birds such as the arasari were renamed as Pteroglossus azarae, or the pijui as Synallaxis azarae; and rodents such as the agouti became the Dasyprocta azarae, the tucotuco the Ctenomys azarae or the opossum the Didelphis azarae, similarly to what happened to the aforementioned marikiná, etc. This latter species is currently still drawing a lot of attention from researchers, as it is the only eminently nocturnal primate species, something that may partly owe to the fact that these primates’ eye’s photo-receptor cells contain deposits of a fraction of DNA, a satellite DNA, which allows them to have night vision.

Finally, Félix de Azara’s merits have also been earned him recognitions in the areas of terrestrial toponomy –Azara, a city in the Misiones province, Argentina – and lunar toponomy – Dorsum Azara. However, the Azara genus of American plants is not named after him, but after his older brother Nicolás, an illustrious intellectual and diplomat. But after all, everything stays in the family, contributing to the survival of the Azara surname 200 years after Don Félix’s demise.

Manuel Ruíz Rejón 

Professor of Genetics at the Universities of Granada and Autónoma de Madrid

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