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One of the southern constellations introduced by the Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman at the end of the 16th century. Apus represents a fabulous bird of paradise, as found in New Guinea, but it is a disappointing tribute to such an exotic animal, its brightest stars being only of 4th magnitude. The name comes from the Greek apous, meaning “footless”, since the birds were originally known to westerners only from dead specimens from which the feet and wings had been removed.

Apus was first shown on the 1598 celestial globe of Petrus Plancius as “Paradysvogel Apis Indica”. It seems likely that the word “apis”, meaning bee, was a misprint for “avis”, meaning bird. Johann Bayer also called it Apis Indica on his Uranometria atlas of 1603, where it is depicted without wings or feet, suggesting that it was modelled on a dead specimen. Others, such as Johannes Kepler in the Rudolphine Tables of 1627, called it “Apus, Avis Indica” (Apus, bird of India), correcting the apparent misprint, but the alternative usages of Apis and Avis continued to Bode’s day.

Part of the bird’s tail was docked by Lacaille in the 1750s to form his south polar constellation Octans, a somewhat unfortunate amputation given that in real life the tail is the bird’s main attraction. Apus has no named stars, nor are there any legends associated with it.

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Apus seen in the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801), where it was given the alternative title of Avis Indica, the Indian bird, referring to its habitat of the East Indies. The bird’s tail originally extended closer to the south celestial pole, at lower left, but was clipped by Lacaille in the 1750s to make room for Octans.



© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved


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