On this page...

Gould's two great contributions to science were taxonomically describing Charles Darwin's Galapagos finches and his descriptions of Australian fauna.

The Birds of Australia : in seven volumes / by John Gould.
Gouldian Finch Amadina Gouldiae The Birds of Australia 1840 to 1848 Photographer: Leone Lemmer © Australian Museum Research Library Image: Leone Lemmer
© Research Library

Gould was able to recognise specimens that represented different and undescribed taxa, without creating many unjustified names for species with minor variations. Consequently, many of his names have stood the test of time and are still valid. In his lifetime, Gould wrote over 300 scientific articles and identified 377 new species of birds. Gould was fellow of many scientific societies including the Zoological, Linnean and Royal Societies.

Splendid grass parakeet
Splendid grass parakeet Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Australian Museum Research Library Image: -
© Australian Museum

Australian Birds and Mammals first described by Gould

Of the estimated 745 species of birds that live in Australia, John Gould is credited with describing almost half (44%). It is estimated that Gould described between 300 and 328 new species of Australian birds, and 45 new Australian mammals.

'Then came the important Gould era. From 1837, when he produced his first work on Australian birds, to the day of his death in 1881, Australian ornithology was dominated by John Gould; it may be said that practically every new Australian bird discovered during this period passed, in some way, through his hands.'
Hubert Massey Whittell, 1954

There can be no doubt that Gould has left a lasting scientific legacy. So significant was his contribution to Australian ornithology that the Gould League was named in his honour.

Gould's influence on Darwin

On 4 January 1837, Charles Darwin presented 'A magnificent collection of Mammalia and Birds' to the Museum of the Zoological Society. The gift consisted of 450 birds and 80 mammals.

Warbler Finch
Warbler Finch, Certhidea olivacea Photographer: Unknown © Australian Museum Research Library Image: -
© Australian Museum

Gould was asked to classify the bird specimens. A number of specimens from the Galapagos Archipelago caused him great excitement. There were a number of ordinary looking brown finches distinguishable by their differing beak sizes. Gould identified 13 new finch species (now reduced to nine) by this morphological difference. Today these unique finches are known as 'Darwin's finches' or 'Galapagos finches'.

Gould's identification of these bird species played an important part for Darwin when he was formulating his theory of evolution. It was the realisation that the separate species on the different islands of the Galapagos were closely related to species on the South American mainland, combined with fossil evidence, that led Darwin to recognise that populations of similar species that are isolated from each other may continue to evolve separately.