When a new species is identified, its discoverer typically has the privilege of naming it. Hundreds of wildlife and plant species around the world are named for explorers, scientists, and celebrities. Species such as the Humboldt squid, Steller sea lion, Douglas fir, and Stasimopus mandelai, a species of South African spider named in honour of Nelson Mandela, are named for specific people. We talk about these species often but may not always know the stories of their namesakes.

No other person has more places named after him than Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has hundreds of cities, streets, and bodies of water named for him worldwide. There are also wildlife species, plants, asteroids, and physical features that bear his name.

Humboldt in his home study and library, painted by Eduard Hildebrandt in1856.

If you are interested in the outdoors, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most fascinating people to have ever lived. It is a shame that many people have never heard of him. I had never heard of him until a couple years ago when I read Andrea Wulf’s wonderful account of Humboldt’s life in her book The Invention of Nature.

Humboldt’s name permeates virtually every physical scale of the world, from mountains to counties to cities to streets to hotels. Humboldt’s greatest legacy is probably not a little known species of squid that inhabits a section of ocean also named for Humboldt off the west coast of South America.

Alexander von Humboldt

Like the poet Emily Dickinson, Humboldt’s contributions to the world were increasingly recognized and celebrated posthumously. Only with the wisdom of time has the world truly begun to understand the brilliance of this Prussian scientist who lived from 1769-1859. We owe a good deal of our scientific knowledge of ecology and physical earth processes to Humboldt’s work.

Humboldt is well known for his voyages through Central and South America. He first sailed from Spain in 1799 to visit South America as a scientific expedition, intent on studying and recording everything he could find in nature and collecting specimens to send back to Europe for further study and classification. The sheer volume of species and natural features Humboldt documented was astounding. Throughout his life, Humboldt also took trips to the United States and across Asia to the Altai Mountains in Russia.

Humboldt was a figure whose profound contributions to literally every field of scientific study makes it difficult to give his work only passing mention. As hunters, conservationists, and people interested in the outdoors, we would not be where we are today without Humboldt’s life work. If nothing else, it is worth understanding a little about this person whose name we might hear from time to time.

While certainly not an exhaustive reflection of Humboldt’s contributions to our collective knowledge, the sheer number of things we have named after him is indicative of his legacy. In science, naming a species is a highly structured system that is both interesting and important to understand.

Humboldt Squid

For all the places and species that bear Humboldt’s name, most were named after Humboldt by other scientists. While many people might have seen Humboldt’s name on a street sign or a city on a map, probably many fewer are familiar with an obscure giant squid named after him living in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The Humboldt squid lives at such depths and is fairly poorly studied. As a result, there are few high quality photos of the species in its habitat. Credit: NOAA/MBARI 2006

The French naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny first described the Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, also known as the jumbo squid, in 1834 (d’Orbigny named over thirty organisms and himself has several plant and animal species named after him).

The Humboldt squid is a 1.5 meter long, 100 pound carnivore that lives at depths of 200-1,000 meters, primarily in the productive waters of the Humboldt Current. The Humboldt Current is a northward flowing cold-water stream that forms a convergence zone in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The combination of ocean currents creates an area of high productivity that supports high biological diversity.

The species has also been documented in shallower waters along the coasts of South America, Mexico, and California. Humboldt squid depend on both deep water and shallow coastal ecosystems, moving both vertically and horizontally throughout their habitats daily and seasonally in search of prey.

Humboldt squid distribution. The red dot is its known range in the waters of the Humboldt Current. The green squares correspond to documented occurrences. Source: World Register of Marine Species

NOAA fisheries biologist John Field describes them as “voracious predators” known to attack anything they can, including cannibalizing other squid. They catch their prey through the use of ten tentacles, including two feeding tentacles armed with razor sharp circular suctions that pull prey to massive, strong beaks at the front of their mouth.

Humboldt squid have bioluminescent abilities, enabling them to emit glowing light under water and change colours like the lights on a Christmas tree. Fisherman who have observed squid flashing red and white while hunting refer to them as diablo rojo, Spanish for “red devil”.

Humboldt squid are known by a number of names that reflects both their lore and long history. Popular media – in a full embrace of the recent trend in nature media to glorify the big and dangerous – has sometimes characterized Humboldt squid as monsters aggressive to humans. It was a “squid of colossal dimensions” that terrorized the characters of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

1834 to 2017

For much of the time since they were named by d’Orbigny in 1834, Humboldt squid remained poorly understood and only observed in fleeting moments other than on the decks of commercial fishing vessels. Although the Humboldt squid is commercially caught, direct observations of the species in its dark, deep-water habitat have been limited, limiting our understanding of its predatory behaviour and life history.

Dr. Edith Widder is an oceanographer and marine biologist who specializes in the study of bioluminescence. Dr. Widder studies the way animals communicate through light they emit from their own bodies.

As part of the 2017 BBC series Blue Planet II, Dr. Widder used a submersible vessel to film Humboldt squids. Dr. Widder used her own invention, called the e-jelly, “which mimics the bioluminescent distress signal of a deep-sea jellyfish that is under attack, thereby enticing Humboldt squid towards it”. They found Humboldt squid on the first day at 950 meters down.

The difficulty in observing this species has certainly fueled its mystery and intrigue. But the squid’s mystery is most definitely matched by its fascinating behaviour and life.

I’m not sure who first observed a Humboldt squid. But we know that Alcide d’Orbigny provided its taxonomic description in 1834. And in 2017, Dr. Edith Widder and her team filmed the squid its bioluminescent magnificence for the first time. Humboldt continues to amaze us.

How Humboldt Taught Us To Think

One of Humboldt’s most significant contributions was to our way of thinking about the natural world. Humboldt was one of the first European scientists to emphasize the importance of studying nature in place rather than in a laboratory.

Humboldt articulated an idea he described as the unity of nature. A way of thinking that many of us probably take for granted today, Humboldt argued that nature could only be truly understood as one large, living, connected whole where all parts work in relation to one another.

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, also known as the Chimborazo Map, shows his theories about vegetation patterns and climate.
Credit: Entworfen von A. von Humbold, gezeichnet 1805 in Paris von Schönberger und Turpin, gestochen von Bouquet, die Schrift von L. Aubert, gedruckt von Langlois

As a visualization of his unity of nature, Humboldt created a map he called the Naturgemälde, also known in English as the Chimborazo Map. The Chimborazo Map, and other Humboldt maps to follow, presented a view of the world that showed connections between ecosystems based on properties such as altitude, temperature, and geography.

Humboldt’s idea that the world’s ecosystems are connected by physical processes and interact in complex ways are now the very foundation of our thinking about the natural world. His ideas laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the field of ecology.

(By the way, when Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle in December 1831, he kept a copy of Humboldt’s book Cosmos on the small shelf next to his hammock and studied it intently. Darwin may not have have generated his ideas about natural selection without Humboldt’s influence on his thinking.)

Conclusion

It is appropriate that the high biological diversity of the Humboldt Current was named for a person who devoted his life to understanding the interactions of species and natural processes in their ecosystems. One of Alexander von Humboldt’s greatest legacies is teaching the world the importance in observing nature in place in order to appreciate all of its interconnected parts as a unified whole.

There is a fitting sense of shared obscurity to both Alexander von Humboldt and the squid that bears his name. Living in the depths of the ocean, the squid is largely unknown – and most definitely underappreciated – by the wider public.

Humboldt is also largely unknown by the wider public. His brilliance, vision, and profound contributions to the foundations of what would eventually become the conservation movement are deeply underappreciated.

“Nature can be so soothing to the tormented mind.”

Alexander von Humboldt

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