Thursday, January 29, 2009

Squalodon Premolar -- A Life Fossil

Terminology looms large for me and that’s where this post started, with the question: What do I call the first fossil of a species or genus in my personal collection? Through a wonderful confluence of events, this post really has to start elsewhere, in the world of birding and birders.

I am reading Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, an engrossing and wild book published in 1997. I came upon it only because someone quoted it about what constitutes a species, something I want to write about later, but it turns out to be wonderful for many other reasons. Subtitling his book The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand, Kaufman chronicles his frenetic effort in 1973 to break the standing record for the number of bird species seen (or heard) in North America by a person in a single year – the so-called Big Year record of 626 that had been set in 1971 by Ted Parker.

The world of birding and birders is one that has always intrigued and attracted me, but remains, as of yet, pretty alien. With any new territory, language is a critical hurdle to those who venture into it. And I tripped almost immediately. What are the proper terms – birding and birders, or birdwatching and birdwatchers? I didn’t realize it when I asked it that this isn’t just a prosaic opening question. It turns out to be at the heart of what I took away from this foray to birdland. I consulted with my ambassador from this world about these terms and she told me that she prefers the former to describe what she and others do. On these terms, Kaufman writes,

People always called us “birdwatchers.” But if we had been, there would no story to tell. . . . [I]n the early 1970s, we were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to discover, to chase, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible – and, in friendly competition, to try to find more of them than the next birder.

At its core, Kaufman describes birding as the compilation of lists of bird species seen (or heard), perhaps in different geographical areas, but clearly in many different fragments of time – a day, a month, a year, a lifetime, or even a lunch hour. In this competitive approach to what they are doing, birders are no different from anyone else who focuses on keeping score (though the drive of someone like Kaufman may be pushing the boundaries a bit, no, a whole lot).

We keep score on everything from sports to relationships to political contests. To the issue at hand, I am keeping score on different aspects of my fossil hunting and collecting, including my firsts. For me, coming recently to fossil collecting in a serious way, a new fossil find or acquisition very often constitutes the first example I have from a particular species or genus. If there is specific terminology for such a fossil in a personal collection (other “this is my first [fill in the blank]”), I haven’t discovered it.

Someone suggested to me that the term holotype would apply, but I think not. Holotype is the specimen “which stands alone as name bearer” for a species in the scientific world (Moore et al, Invertebrate Fossils (1952)). I’ll draw the line – the term shouldn't be diminished and applied to something as mundane as a first in my little collection.

So, in my ignorance, I fashioned an idiosyncratic answer to the question that I asked at the outset: What do I call that first fossil of a genus or species in my personal collection? I appropriated and partly modified a couple of terms that birders use in their list making. They often keep meticulous records of where and when they first sight different bird species. These birds are their life birds and they make up a life list. Great terms and I’ve made them mine. I now have life fossils and a life list. To me, life fossil is a double-barreled term, applying not only to a specific fossil, but also to the species or genus it represents.

The picture below captures my first fossil from a Squalodon (a kind of toothed whale) that I found last fall at the Lee Creek Mine (North Carolina) on the last day of a very truncated hunting season. I found the tooth fully exposed, lying on the surface of the gray black phosphate-rich soil that is dredged up in the mining process. Its glossy crown is seemingly still as smooth to the touch as when it was lost some 15 to 20 million years ago. One veteran collector at this site described this premolar with its damaged root as “very pretty.” It is also, using my terminology, my Squalodon life fossil.

Sure, I recognize that this specific terminology doesn’t translate seamlessly to the world of fossil collecting. For one thing, bird and fossil are fundamentally different concepts. Further, the objective of the hunt is very different – birders are collecting the initial sighting of a whole, living creature; in contrast, I’m collecting my initial transformed piece (or trace) of a once living creature and I don’t stop with that initial piece. Despite these differences, I like the idea of a life fossil and, in my book, that means that Squalodon is now on my life list.

And, even if there are terms already established in the fossil collecting lexicon for these things (what are they?), indulge me as I use mine.

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