HIDDEN GEM: Contributions to a Knowledge of the Hemipterous Fauna of St. Helena, and Speculations on its Origin

The Zoological Society of London has been publishing scientific papers in zoology since 1830, and our backfiles contain a wealth of ‘hidden gems‘ written by early explorers and zoologists. This article by F. Buchanan White, M.D., F.L.S., was published in 1878 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, a predecessor of Journal of Zoology. It is a fascinating early article on biogeography that reads almost like a detective story, speculating on the origin of the native fauna and flora of St Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. As the article describes, St Helena is situated in extreme isolation, nearly 1200 miles from the African continent and 1800 miles from South America, and has no indigenous terrestrial mammals nor any land or freshwater amphibians, reptiles or fish. However, as summarised by Buchanan White, naturalists such as T.V. Wollaston and J.C Meliss had previously reported having found native terrestrial invertebrates on the island, such as land molluscs, various Coleoptera and Hemiptera, as well as spiders and scorpions, many of which were endemic, or ‘peculiar’, to the island. Furthermore, Meliss as well as J.D. Hooker had studied the flora of St Helena and had found 77 species of plants that appeared to be ‘absolutely peculiar’.

P.Z.S. 1878, Plate XXXI: ‘Hemiptera of St Helena’

These findings inevitably induced the question ‘Whence and by what means came this very peculiar fauna and flora?’, presenting a real puzzle for the naturalists of the day, and in this beautifully written article Buchanan White summarizes and discusses the main proposed theories, or ‘speculations’, about the geographical origins of the indigenous fauna and flora of St Helena, and the mechanisms by which they have ended up on this remote island in the middle of the ocean. The author then proposes his own theory, involving the glacial period and possible former islands acting as ‘stepping stones’ for the fauna to spread to the island, referring to ideas presented earlier by other naturalists such as Wallace and Darwin. Buchanan White concludes the paper with species descriptions of Hemiptera from St Helena, collected by Wollaston during his 6 months of exploration of the island. By the time of the writing of this article, Wollaston had sadly passed away, and before his death he had asked Buchanan White to describe all the new species in his collection ‘in a single paper and not piecemeal’, resulting in this remarkable paper from our archives which you can access and read for free.

Elina Rantanen

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