About Pinctada Margaritifera Var. Cumingii


Nov 18, 2010

It is in honor of the naturalist and great English explorer Hugh Cuming (1791-1865) that Polynesia's black-lip pearl oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera variety Cumingii, has received its name. The so-called "Prince of Collectors" traveled Polynesia in the years 1827-1828 during an eight-month flora and fauna collection aboard the Discoverer, a boat he built in Chile where he was then installed for his business. Hugh Cuming arrived on the South Marutea atoll (described in his logbook as "Lord Hood's Island") in December 1827. Having identified a site particularly rich in pearl shell (which he describes as "Meleagrina"), he decided to recruit divers on Anaa Atoll. He returned to South Marutea in January 1828 and collected in three months 40 tons of nacres from which he could extract 27 000 pearls. But their inferior quality discouraged him from continuing the adventure.
He returned to England a few years later after amassing thousands of specimens during his various expeditions. After his death, most were acquired by the London Museum and his name was attached to many species.

Worth noticing, South Marutea was bought by Robert Wan aka "the Emperor of Pearls" in 1984 from Tahitian pearls pioneer -late Jean-Claude Brouillet (1925-2016). The private atoll still produces today some of the most beautiful and largest Tahitian pearls you will ever see.

Photo ©National Portrait Gallery
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You are welcome! Working with Robert Wan before, I had the great privilege of spending time in South Marutea. It does not get any better. Period! (other lucky visitors from Pearl-Guide, will you agree ?) The english macologist Lovell Augustus Reeve (1814-1865) was the first one -to my knowledge- to describe that specific shell in his monumental Conchologia Iconica (1843-1878, 20 volumes- the shell is found in Volume 10 that was published in 1857), based on the specimens that M. Hugh Cuming brought back to England. At the time, Reeve described that shell as "Avicula Cumingii" - Avicula being a taxinomy genus that is now obsolete, it has been changed to "Pinctada Margaritifera". This is why you will find sometimes : Pinctada Margaritifera, var. Cumingii (Reeve, 1857)

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Its always a pleasure to share ;-) What is even more fascinating about Hugh Cuming is that he visited Galapagos Archipelago on Discoverer in 1829 to collect specimens of fauna and flora - that is before Charles Darwin (who sailed to Galapagos on HMS Beagle in 1835 for a short but very intense five-weeks stay that inspired him to develop his "Theory of Evolution").
This is also why you find so many animals and plants named after Cuming. His only collection of shells contained 83,000 specimens! After his death, it was offered to the Trustees of the British Museum and purchased for £6000.
The article on Hugh Cuming from S. Peter Dance is a must-read if you want to learn more about the Prince of Collectors.