Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Alfred William Howitt

One of the most notable professional collectors Frederick McCoy relied upon was Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), a career public servant, accomplished bushman and author.

Having established his reputation in the forests of Gippsland, in 1862 Howitt was selected to search for the remains of the Burke and Wills expedition in arid central Australia. Travelling light, his handpicked team made two successful trips to the Cooper's Creek area, recovering what remained of the incompetent explorers and their equipment.

Going on to become Victoria's foremost authority on the indigenous cultures of south-east Australia, Howitt published influential early anthropological texts based on his scientific methodologies.

Howitt collected both living and fossil material for McCoy, who reciprocated by honouring him in the naming of several animals then new to science, such as the Gippsland Water Dragon, Physignathus Lesueri (Gray) var howitti (McCoy).

I name the variety or probable species after that excellent geologist, magistrate, and bushman, my accomplished friend Mr. A. Howitt, who, with his multifarious and laborious duties, in so difficult a country to traverse, is always ready and willing to aid in any scientific investigation of the natural products of Gippsland, and who with infinite difficulty succeeded in procuring three specimens for me of this River-Lizard. The proverb that "Cows far off have long horns" is ludicrously exemplified in the case of this Lizard, which has apparently given rise to the rumors of Crocodiles having been seen in Gippsland; a country so rugged and overgrown with forests and almost impenetrable scrub that it is an extremely rare occurrence for a white man to reach the habitat in which the Physignathus is found, in the upper reaches of the Buchan River.

Historical Voices:
Gippsland Water Dragon
Portrait of Alfred William Howitt.
Gippsland Water Dragon, Physignathus lesueurii howittii, by Arthur Bartholomew.