Not many people would respond to the death of a pet by dissecting it. But Carl Linnaeus was an exceptional man. In 1747, Sjupp, his pet raccoon, clambered over a fence at the botanical garden in Uppsala and met a dog on the other side. The meeting was not a happy one for the raccoon. Unwilling to forego the opportunity to describe the raccoon's anatomy and find out where it sat in his system of nature, Linnaeus laid the mauled body out on a slab and picked up his scalpel.

Linnaeus's subsequent account of his raccoon is a perfect illustration of his powers of observation and attention to detail. But it is also a record of tenderness and affection, steeped in the rhythms of daily life at the botanical gardens. It deals with the dead animal's character as well as its anatomy — and in so doing reveals something of the character of the anatomist himself.

Sjupp was a gift from crown prince Adolf Fredrik, known to Swedish schoolchildren as 'the king who ate himself to death' because he keeled over in 1771 after putting away 14 helpings of a traditional pudding. He was also, admittedly less memorably, a keen amateur naturalist as was his wife. The pair acquired thousands of natural-history specimens, according to Anthea Gentry, a research associate at the Natural History Museum in London who has been studying the mammals and birds in the Swedish royal collections.

“For the royal couple, this was an enterprise driven by a desire to establish a collection of the most rare, conspicuous and interesting species,” says Gentry. The queen invited Linnaeus to catalogue and describe what they had acquired. Because they contain the specimens that Linnaeus used to describe various species — the 'type specimens' — the collections took on tremendous scientific significance. “They contain so many type specimens that they are as important as any other collection of similar size,” says Gentry.

Sweet tooth

After Sjupp made the journey from the small zoo in the Royal Gardens in Stockholm to Uppsala he was kept in the royal manner to which he was accustomed. Although he would eat just about anything, “what he liked best were eggs, almonds, raisins, sugared cakes, sugar and fruit of every kind”, Linnaeus observed1. “Should there be any cake or sugar on the table or in a cupboard he was on it in a flash, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. If a student came in who happened to have raisins or almonds on him, he at once attacked his pocket and fought until he had captured the spoil. On the other hand, he couldn't bear anything with vinegar on it, or sauerkraut, or raw or boiled fish.”

Linnaeus went on from Sjupp's tastes to his temperament. “He became very friendly with people when he got to know them, letting them pat and play with him (especially if they ingratiated themselves by means of a few raisins).” But the raccoon also had a moody side. “Anyone who had once quarrelled with him found it almost impossible to get back again into his good books.” Linnaeus's head gardener, who had once panicked and flapped when Sjupp bounded up to him and began to search his body for a tid-bit, suffered this disdain. “From that moment Sjupp developed an irreconcilable hatred of the man,” he wrote. “Every time he smelt him he began making a noise like a seagull, the sign that he was extremely angry.” In short, Linnaeus concluded, Sjupp could be “as obstinate as a knife grinder”.

His rich account of Sjupp's life reveals the many levels at which Linnaeus engaged with the natural world, says Karen Reeds, historian of science and guest curator of a tercentennary exhibition on Linnaeus and America at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia. “Nature really captivated him emotionally as well as scientifically,” she says. Testimony to his lasting affection, says Marita Jonsson, author of a book2 on the power of place in Linnaeus's work, is a watercolour of Sjupp that hung in the study at Hammarby, Linnaeus's summerhouse just outside Uppsala.

Pet portrait: Linnaeus hung this watercolour of Sjupp the raccoon at his summerhouse. Credit: M. JONSSON

Change of status

Linnaeus's study at Hammarby, Uppsala, Sweden. Credit: BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

This fondness, though, held no squeamishness: the meat of his 1747 paper is an organ-by-organ description of the raccoon's anatomy. He named the raccoon Ursus cauda elongata, 'the long-tailed bear'. But by the time he published his tenth edition of Systema Naturae in 1758, he had revised its name to Ursus lotor, 'the washing bear', in the light of new evidence and to bring it in line with his binomial nomenclature system. “It was typical of the way he was constantly tweaking his classification scheme,” says Reeds. “One of the most impressive things about Linnaeus was his readiness to change his mind as new information reached him.”

Today's taxonomists are still struggling to come to an agreement about raccoons, mainly because of an overenthusiastic bout of 'splitting' in the early twentieth century. In a matter of decades, scientists had described more than 20 subspecies of the common Northern raccoon (Linnaeus's Ursus lotor, and now called Procyon lotor). Things got particularly out of hand in the Caribbean, where each island population was designated as a distinct species.

A combination of molecular and conventional morphological approaches has now revealed that the Caribbean raccoons are probably recent introductions to the islands from the mainland population, and therefore undeserving of any special taxonomic status, allowing taxonomists to collapse the apparent diversity of raccoons back down to something more meaningful3.

“In the Bahamas, they were delighted. They instantly changed the raccoon's status from endangered to invasive species and set up a control programme to eradicate them,” says Don Wilson, a taxonomist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. But in Guadeloupe, the locals were far from happy, having taken some pride in the distinctiveness of their raccoon. “They love the little rascals,” says Wilson.

Sjupp himself was no Caribbean exotic; he almost certainly came from 'New Sweden', the Swedish colony on the Delaware River founded in the seventeenth century. Pehr Kalm, one of the 'apostles' Linnaeus sent out into the world to gather its riches, went there in 1748 and reported that raccoons, or more precisely their skins, were an important part of the North American economy. “The hatters purchase their skins, and make hats out of their hair, which are next in goodness to beavers,” Kalm noted in his Travels into North America4. “The tail is worn around the neck in winter and therefore is likewise valuable.” The village Kalm spent his winters in was actually called Raccoon at the time; today, though, it is known as Swedesboro.

Reeds says that Sjupp almost certainly came from this area, as did many furs exported to Sweden and the Netherlands: “It seems plausible that they would have sent a live specimen along with them.” When Kalm eventually returned to Uppsala, “Linnaeus was tremendously excited about what he found out”, says Reeds. Linnaeus was roused from his sickbed where he'd been suffering from a severe attack of gout and returned to his Species Plantarum with renewed enthusiasm, she says. And at some point, he got his hands on a second live raccoon — there is one listed in the 1769 inventory of Linnaeus's menagerie. Whether it squawked at gardeners and snuffled through students' pockets, though, we do not know.