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Region: French Polynesia

Whitney Expedition , map

Principal Collector:

Rollo Beck

Rollo Beck

Commander of the Whitney South Sea Expedition (1921-c.1932)

Beck was hired by the American Museum of Natural History to lead the Whitney South Sea Expedition. His main interest was in ornithology. He hired botanists, and naturalists to collect addition floral and faunal specimens. Beck's enthusiasm with regards to collecting caused the extinction of several endangered bird species - often shooting nine of out 11 of the species that they saw. While Beck was praised by the American Museum for the collection he delivered, his actions were brought into controversy by the public. He had permits to collect, but he would often take more specimens that he was mandated and when he left in 1929 he had 40,000 bird skins. Because of his leadership, he was responsible for inciting drama yet did produce the best ornithological collection in the world and the most comprehensive survey of birds in the South West Pacific Islands.

Other Accomplishments:

-Member of the California Channel Islands Expedition (1897)
-Worked at Berkley University (1908)
-Member of the Brewster-Sanford Expedition (1912)

[Photo courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences]

Rollo Beck

Whitney South Sea Expedition


The Whitney South Sea Expedition was hailed as the longest ornithological voyage in history, and the botanical specimens collected were vital to understanding bird habitation patterns. In 1920, the American Museum of Natural History, with the financial aid of Harry Payne Whitney, funded this expedition to islands in the South Pacific.

Rollo Beck with specimen. Photo from Bulletin of the Cooper Ornithological Club, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1899
Rollo Beck with specimen.
Dr. Leonard C. Sanford—a trustee for the American Natural History Museum—hired Rollo Beck to complete field work with Naturalists Ernst H. Quayle and Charles Curtis. Together they gathered approximately 40,000 birds, plants, and other faunal specimens from over 600 islands.  Many articles written about the expedition have shown that “with the exception of certain specimens given to [the Smithsonian Institution and Bishop Museum]…all the specimens collected by the expedition were sent to the American Museum.”

Beck, Quayle, Curtis, and the expedition team set sail for the Tahitian island Papeete to establish a base that would enable easier travel to the islands of Eastern Polynesia. Along the way, the naturalists mainly focused on collecting birds. However, after observing that the populations of native people and wildlife were dying off on certain islands, they began studying the flora in hopes of discovering an environmental pattern that could potentially lead them to the cause.  No definite connection was found, but an incredible amount of plant specimens were collected.

Dryopteris parasitica; photo from  L. H. Bailey Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (New York, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917) volume 2, page 1079
Dryopteris parasitica.
With a team, Quayle traveled to the Pitcairn Islands in order to survey botanical specimens.  He saw Dryopteris parasitica—an oak fern—growing rampant on parts of the island.  Outside of Pitcairn, this wood fern, with enormous leaves of one to two feet long, would be considered an interesting lush, green plant. On this island, however, it is a weed that takes over the countryside.  On the same island, Quayle encountered another rapidly growing plant.  The climbing dayflower Commelina diffusa stretches itself out thickly along the ground, covering the grass with green roots and blue flowers.  While this plant is often considered a nuisance, the blue flowers can be compounded into a dye for clothing.

Quayle also collected many plants that were living on other natural resources like rocks and wood.  In the Marquesas Islands, Quayle came across the whisk fern Psilotum nudum.  This fern ally grows in swamplands as well as dry rocky cliffs.  While this grass-like plant blends in fairly well with the natural surroundings, the radiator plant Peperomia tahitensis stands out.   Quayle stumbled upon this poisonous plant growing on rotten wood on many different islands.  It has a thick stem, full leaves, and yellow spikes that contain a poisonous alkaloid.

Many plants collected in French Polynesia were not indigenous to the area.  When native populations began arriving in the South Pacific, they brought domesticated plants and animals with them.  One of their most useful domesticated plants is Colocasia esculenta.  It can be grown in both wet and dry climates and produces a starchy food called Poi. Poi is made by grinding and mixing the root with water to forma paste, which then must sit for a few days before it is eaten. The leaves from C. esculenta can also be eaten after they are boiled.

The success of the Whitney expedition provided the American Museum with the largest ornithological collection in the country.  Whitney even donated an additional $750,000 to build a separate wing for the museum to house the collection. Beck’s overzealous collecting, however, led to the extinction of several species of birds.  The botanical specimens did not create as much controversy as the ornithological specimens, but did provide future botanists with significant new information about the plants of the South Pacific.

Chapman, Mark. “The Whitney South Sea expedition.” Science 81 (January 25, 1935): 95-97

California Academy of Sciences. “The Early Years of the Whitney Expedition.” The Pacific Voyages of Rollo Beck, n.d.

Murphy, Robert Cushman. “The Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History.” Science: 56 (December 22, 1922): 701-704.

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