Rare Discovery With a French Connection

20 September 2012

The South Australian Museum has unearthed one of its oldest biological specimens on record, to display for the first time.

A chiton mollusc or Chiton elongatus (Blainville, 1825) collected by French explorers in Australia in 1802, will go on loan to the South Australian Maritime Museum to feature in a new "First Voyages" exhibition later this year. It is the first time the chiton is going on show.

The chiton is the product of the exciting Baudin expedition (1800–1803) to map the coast of Australia. French scientists and artists accompanied the expedition to collect new species of animals and plants. It is extremely rare for specimens gathered on early European journeys in Australia to be kept outside of London or Paris.

The South Australian Museum is fortunate to have original material from this voyage, which took place in the heat of the Napoleonic wars between France and Britain. The chiton was collected by French zoologist Francois Péron and artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur.

South Australian Museum Marine Invertebrates Collection Manager Thierry Laperousaz says the chiton has enormous historical significance: "This specimen is amazing because it was first collected in 1802 and may be one of the few specimens kept in Australia from Péron. It also has the handwriting of the collector on the specimen. It's almost like finding something with the writing of Napoleon or Queen Victoria."

The writing, Ile King, describes the location where the chiton was collected – King Island near Bass Strait, north of Tasmania.

Accounts show the French explorers got along very well with Australian Aboriginal people during their explorations and produced notable ethnological studies of Tasmanian Aboriginals.

Despite the fact France was at war with England at the time, the English captain of the Cumberland sent from Sydney to 'watch' the French, ended up negotiating with Baudin and accepted supplies ranging from gunpowder, nails, needles and thread. Also famous is the meeting of Baudin and navigator Matthew Flinders in Encounter Bay, where a rare collaboration between the nationals took place in the name of discovery and science.

Scientists at the South Australian Museum have used this special chiton as a type specimen – or reference object to compare other species of chitons with.

"When people see this in the exhibition they are going to be excited to actually look at something touched by a famous scientist in the early days of Australian discovery by white people," says Mr Laperousaz.

"Although life would have been difficult on the perilous ship voyages, it was a very exciting time because every time they went somewhere in Australia, they were finding new places, new animals and plants – almost everything they were touching was new."

Baudin died of tuberculosis at Mauritius on the return to France. Péron was the only naturalist to complete the three and a half year voyage. He was commissioned to write the history and zoology of the expedition but died before the second volume was prepared. A collection of over 100,000 specimens, including 2500 new to science, was developed over the next 20 years by malacologist Henri Blainville and the great systematicist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

The chiton has been kept safe at the South Australian Museum. It was acquired from a donor in 1932 who had been given the chiton from Commandant Paul Dupuis, a conchologist at the Museum Royal d'Histoire Naturelle de Belgique (Royal Museum of Natural History, Belgium). It is thought Dupuis may have himself acquired the chiton from Blainville.

The latest item out of our vaults, the chiton, is one example of specimens at the Museum with unique and magical tales behind them, just waiting to be unlocked.