Friday, February 25, 2011

The Shuffle of Things: A Museum, A Mummy, and A Cemetery

In describing the three essential possessions of a learned man, Francis Bacon identified a good library, an expansive garden, and, for the third,
a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of many by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, change, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.
 ~ as quoted in An American Cabinet of Curiosities:  Thomas Jefferson’s “Indian Hall” at Monticello, by Joyce Henri Robinson, in Acts of Possession:  Collecting in America, 2003, p. 17 (link provided below in list of sources).

The growing pile of magazines destined for recycling testifies to my self-restraint.  Many year-old issues meet their fate, victims of too little storage space and, for those that are largely unread, of too little time.  On this day, for awhile at least, I avoid the ever present trap in this process, but then an article catches my eye and the whole effort halts abruptly as I sit back and begin to read.

The Fall 2010 issue of Middlebury Magazine ran an article (a pictorial essay actually) titled Tales from the Crypt; it offered a glimpse of West Cemetery which abuts the campus of Middlebury College (my fair alma mater).  History professor Jim Ralph wrote the brief text, Mario Morgado took the evocative photographs.  I later went to the magazine’s website for two video essays – one of a tour of the cemetery with audio commentary by Ralph , the other featuring Morgado describing the pinhole camera “technology” used in the project.

How had I missed this piece when the issue arrived in the mail?  I certainly must have done my usual systematic “page-through” the magazine from back to front (the reverse order makes sense to me because I reach the classnotes and the obituaries sooner that way), but, somehow, I’d failed to spot it.  So, on this day of cleanup chores, I was derailed and had a West Cemetery reverie.

On many days during my freshman year at college, on my way to the gym, I walked through West Cemetery, just down a hill to the south behind several of the dormitories.  A peaceful place of worn markers, many askew, the sweeping lawns punctuated with sudden stands of markers and monuments and deciduous trees (perhaps maples, I don’t remember, though colors there in the fall come back to me).  The whole surrounded by pine trees, a gravel road ran through it.

Over my years at the college, the main attraction in the cemetery for me and a few of my fellow classmates became a particular gravesite, the final resting place of the ashes of a mummy.

How had it come to be here?  Nineteenth century Americans gathered, collected, studied, and displayed objects, commonplace things and curiosities, often from the natural or ancient worlds.  Whether they did so more than their 18th century predecessors or more contemporary successors, I don’t know, but I suspect that collecting, particularly focused on natural history, was a more widespread phenomenon during that century than it was before or after.  Many in those years were busy assembling their cabinets of curiosities.  In many cases, these were literally cabinets; in others, a place or room in the home in which to keep a collection.  Furniture was designed specifically to hold, protect, and display those objects.  In the front hallways or parlors of homes, these cabinets and displays might welcome and instruct visitors.

The impulses behind this collecting were many, among them:  theological (finding God in nature, reflecting the divine order), nationalist (disproving the Old World contention that, in the New World, Nature was dissipated), educational (reflecting the expanding reach of learning within the society and recognition of its importance), scientific (contributing to the nascent sciences, still open to amateurs, through the gathering and describing of objects from nature), or historical (as the pace of change accelerated, seeking to hang on to evidence of the virtues and glory of the past).  (At the end of this post is a selected list of references.)

Henry Sheldon (1821-1907) lived in Middlebury, Vermont, playing music, serving as town clerk, and, most of all, collecting on a grand scale with an undiscriminating eye – nearly everything was worthy and fair game.  As Jan Albers, executive director of the Henry Sheldon Museum (Middlebury, Vermont) has written:
Henry’s first real love was a Diocletian coin he bought for one dollar in 1875.  The thrill of holding a tiny piece of ancient Rome in his hand was almost overwhelming.  He was determined to collect more such interesting objects.  He bought coin after coin, and then turned to other categories:  books, pamphlets, letters, diaries, autographs, clocks, guns, furniture, paintings, household objects, agricultural implements and more.  (Salisbury Man Founded Sheldon Museum 125 Years Ago, article dated June, 2009, on the Sheldon Museum website.)
Albers noted that Sheldon’s focus ultimately narrowed as his collecting shifted to the early, pioneer history of his region and town.

In 1882, he and a friend bought a mansion near the center of the village of Middlebury.  This structure, dating from 1829, was built by marble quarry owners Eben Judd and his son-in-law Lebbeus Harris.  The new owners divided up the structure, Henry Sheldon taking half of the second floor for his living quarters and installing his growing collection on the third floor.

Though Sheldon shared in the collecting urge of the 19th century, he took a step that most Americans did not and opened a museum in 1884, under an act of incorporation passed by the state legislature.  Still, opening a museum in Middlebury was in keeping with a phenomenon of the age – community after community, large and small, took to hosting museums, one of an array of “urban cultural institutions” that reflected towns’ civic pride and a “genuine concern to live as civilized people.”  (Thomas Bender, Science and the Culture of American Communities:  The Nineteenth Century, History of Education Quarterly, 1976.)

Though, for me, mystery continues to cloak the story, this much is clear, the mummy’s gravesite in the West Cemetery came to be because of Henry Sheldon’s drive to collect.  The highlights of the story I’ve recounted below may well all be true.  I’ve relied for the most part on the account by Helen Husher in A View from Vermont:  Everyday Life in America (2004) (available in part at Google Books), and I’ve also drawn some details from Curious New England: The Unconventional Traveler's Guide to Eccentric Destinations by Joseph A. Citro and Diane E. Foulds (2004) (available in part at Google Books),

Sheldon bought the more than 3,500 year old mummy of a royal Egyptian child for $10 in December, 1886, working the price down from $20 because the mummy was dramatically showing its age.  The mummy may have been briefly displayed in the museum, but, because of its condition, it was probably stashed away in the attic soon after it arrived.  Sheldon never knew much about what he had purchased, and even what he thought he knew was apparently wrong.  After the mummy was rediscovered among the museum’s holdings in 1945, the writing on the plank on which it lay was translated – the mummy of a little girl turned out to be that of a little boy.

Now that it was out of the attic, its fate rested, once again, in strangers’ hands and, finally, it received considerate treatment.  George Mead, chair of the Museum’s board of trustees, “did what he clearly believed was the correct, humane, and theologically defensible thing – he arranged to have the child cremated, and then buried the ashes in his own family plot in the Middlebury cemetery.”  (Husher, p. 183)

So, today, amid the weathered and often tilted stone markers, stands a simple tombstone with the following chiseled inscription:

Ashes of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef
Aged 2 Years
Son of Sen Woset 3rd
King of Egypt and his Wife
1883 BC

Above these words are three symbols.  In the center is a simple Christian cross; slightly below them are two Egyptian symbols – to the left (as you face the stone) is the symbol Ankh for life and to the right is Ba symbolizing the soul.  Here's how it looked in 1987.

Many years ago, when we were young, some of us would gather occasionally at this gravesite.  To what end?  Perhaps to celebrate what “the shuffle of things hath produced.”


The following are useful for exploring the collecting impulses in the 19th century (links provided if works available without subscription or payment on the web).

Shirley Teresa Wajda’s “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”:  American Children’s Cabinets of Curiosities, and Joyce Henri Robinson’s An American Cabinet of Curiosities:  Thomas Jefferson’s “Indian Hall” at Monticello, in Acts of Possession:  Collecting in America, edited by Leah Dilworth, 2003. (Portions available at Google Books)

Waste and Wunderkammern:  Recycling the American Cabinet of Curiosities, by Zoe Trodd, Verb, 2006.

Science and the Culture of American Communities:  The Nineteenth Century, by Thomas Bender, History of Education Quarterly, 1976.

Concluding Remarks:  American Natural History and Biology in the Nineteenth Century, by Keith R. Benson, American Zoologist, 1986.

Curiosities and Cabinets:  Natural History Museums and Education on the Antebellum Campus, by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Isis, 1988.

Parlors, Primers, and Public Schooling:  Education for Science in Nineteenth-Century America, by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Isis, 1990.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Taxonomy Apprentice

And they're running! Wet and wetter
get the stairs, the rooms, the hall!
What a deluge! What a flood!
Lord and master, hear my call!
Ah, here comes the master!
I have need of Thee!
from the spirits that I called
Sir, deliver me!
 ~ from the poem Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
 (Translation by Brigitte Dubiel)
The wise systematist wandered out for a breath of air or a nap, leaving me alone, a pupil knowing just enough to unleash a fury, but not enough to steer or rein it in.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve often thought that now was the time to compose this posting only to have my demon muse set before me still more leads to explore – more comments, articles, papers, and books that might, just might, be relevant to the topic at hand.  The futile search for an item that appeared in a 1927 edition of the Geological Survey of Nigeria, Occasional Papers sparked my rebellion and set me to writing.  Still, it grew (and grows) out of control.

[References and links (where available) are provided in a listing of sources at the end of this posting.  Some, though not cited in this posting, are included because they may be of interest.  Some references that are possibly relevant aren’t included because I haven’t been able to get my hands on them, such as the 1927 paper just mentioned.  Also, any references originally embedded in quotations below have been omitted.]

This quest began innocently enough with my high bid, indeed, the only bid (a warning sign?) on a small fossil in a silent auction.  This specimen is light tan and projectile-shaped (first picture on left below), both ends clearly broken off, exposing a dark brown glassy interior (first picture on right).  This fragment is 53 mm long (a little more than 2 inches) and 7 mm wide (a bit above a quarter inch) at the widest end.  Longitudinal grooves (and complementary ridges) cover the exterior.  On one side there’s a single pair of distinctive grooves, wider than the others with small cavities running along their bases (second picture on left).  This pair of unique grooves extends the length of the fragment, with a single, narrow groove between it.  A total of 25 narrow grooves can be counted at the wider end of the fragment, including the one running between the wider pair.  Also, at certain junctures, one of the narrower grooves is seen to die out (second picture on right).

The label for the fossil reads:

Cylindracanthus sp.
Fish rostral spine
Lutetian/Middle Eocene
Blue Circle quarry, Harleyville, SC

I’d never seen a Cylindracanthus before and, to be honest, wasn’t sure what a “rostral spine” might be.  A spine projecting from the rostrum or snout of the fish?  Sticking straight out at the end or at an angle?  How much of the spine did I now have?  What kind of fish might sport this?

All good questions.  Unfortunately, I asked another and unleashed the floodgates – what’s its taxonomic history?

This posting focuses on my effort to uncover and make some sense out of the taxonomic treatment of Cylindracanthus.  The story that unfolded for me is one that stretches from the early 1800s to the first decade of the 21st Century, and, in all likelihood, will be adding chapters in the coming decades.  It involves members of the pantheon of paleontological greats, such as the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz and John Leidy, one of my favorites, who, at the height of his paleontological career, was the dean of this field in the United States.  A host of other players also enter the story.  Each of these, the leading lights and the lesser ones, affects the story, sometimes moving it forward, but often forcing us to go back and work out a kink in the plot.  International in its scope, the story plays out not only in the U.S., but in England and Europe, and elsewhere.

I wish I could say I understand all of the plot twists and their meanings, but I cannot.  This is, after all, the land of taxonomy and fossils, a strange place where not everything is what it seems (as I described in the posting immediately preceding this one).

In the acerbic words of some of its scientific reviewers, the Cylindracanthus genus has been in “taxonomic chaos” (Fierstine, 1974, p. 43), or “long been a taxonomic problem” (Parris et al., 2001, p. 161).  Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of that when I turned to my small collection of books for any mention of Cylindracanthus and then switched on my computer.

Appropriately enough, the taxonomic history begins by offering a choice among three different opening chapters.

First, there’s Leidy with his description in 1856 of some fossilized fragments of “apparent bone” from Cretaceous formations in New Jersey and Alabama (Leidy, 1856).  The best of the fragments was “over three inches in length with the extremities broken off, is straight and gradually tapering, and is perfectly circular in transverse section” (Leidy, 1856, p. 12).  If I interpret his words properly, he saw two small holes on the interior of the specimen.  He remarked on the “ridges” and noted that sometimes they joined to create a single one.

He considered these fossils to be “ichthyodorulites,” a nifty catch-all classification for fossils of detached elements, such as spines, dermal parts, and other growths presumably coming from cartilaginous fishes such as sharks and chimaeras.  Though a much more scientific name than, say, “Miscellaneous Stuff,” it apparently fell out of favor after the early 20th Century.  (Chimaeroids, also known as rabbitfishes or ghost fishes, are truly bizarre with very evident evolutionary roots in the Carboniferous Period.)

Leidy named the fish from which he presumed these ichthyodorulites to have come Cylindracanthus ornatus.  He married the Greek word root cylindro (a "roll" or "cylinder") with either word root anthus ("flower") or, perhaps, canth ("corner of the eye"), I don’t know which.  Given the awkwardness of the resulting combination, I may have the second root wrong.

Or, we can begin this story by taking a decade-long step back and join Agassiz in the mid 1840s as he publishes the fifth volume of his monumental Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Agassiz, 1843).  In it, he described some Early Eocene fossil fragments as “elongated beaks” with a channel running the length of the interior, and named their genus Coelorhynchus.  Clearly, he stated, these belonged to the Xiphiidae Family (swordfish) and he identified two species C. rectus and C. sinuatus.  Agassiz’s choice of the generic name is nicely appropriate – the word root coelo means “hollow” in Greek, and rhynchus is “snout” or “beak.”

Or, there still another choice, begin with naturalist Michel Esprit Giorna of Turin who, in 1805, named an extant genus of bony fish (not my fossil) as Coelorhynchus (see Leriche, 1906).  Though Giorna had best reside in the background for awhile (as he did in actuality), under taxonomic protocols, even those applicable at the time, Agassiz’s name for this fossil was preoccupied and, so, invalid.  But, if no one is paying attention, if the venue is obscure enough . . . .

Does a tree falling in the woods . . . ?

Instead, Agassiz and Leidy seem to demand attention first.  Agassiz, I know, would want it that way.

Leidy’s description had appeared in February, 1856.  Agassiz moved quickly and, by December, Leidy published a second comment on these fossils.  In his typical, gracious fashion, Leidy eschewed controversy, as, indeed, he actually should have:
The fossil fragments of long, conical bones, which I supposed to be portions of the dorsal spine of a fish, Prof. Agassiz informs me he considers to be the snout of a peculiar genus of sword fishes, which he has incidentally mentioned in the Poissons Fossiles, under the name of Coelorhynchus.  The correctness of this view I do not hesitate to admit, and it appears to receive confirmation by the inspection of a figure which I have since observed in Dixon's Geology of Sussex, representing the snout with its free extremity perfect.  (Leidy, 1856, p. 302)
Apparently, when he published his initial comment, Leidy hadn’t been keeping up with his reading.  Not only, as Leidy himself noted, had English doctor and naturalist Frederick Dixon published (posthumously) several drawings of Coelorhynchus rectus in 1850 (see pictures below, Dixon, 1850), but English paleobotanist W. C. Williamson had, one year earlier, described Coelorhychus at some length (Williamson, 1849).

Williamson is important to the story because he was the first to introduce a completely different notion from Agassiz’s about what these fossils were.  They had never been true bone, he hypothesized, but rather were dermal teeth-like structures.  In questioning the exact nature of what he had in hand, he would be just one of many over the years.  "The true nature of the appendage itself, as well as that of the fish to which it belongs, is yet uncertain . . . .” (Williamson, 1849, p. 472)

English paleontologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward took up Williamson’s hypothesis and joined the debate over the origins and function of these objects.  In at least two works (Woodward, 1888 and 1891), he argued that the Coelorhynchus “spines” were “dermal in nature” and “probably occupied a forward position upon the back . . . .”  (Woodward, 1888, p. 223, 225)  The animals responsible for these “spines” had an affinity to either sharks or chimaeroids.  He favored the latter.

All the while, Giorna and his Coelorhynchus waited.  Actually, Woodward did look askance at the name Agassiz had given these fossils, not because it violated some taxonomic rule, but, rather, as I read his comment, he thought the name was inappropriate because this wasn’t a snout or beak (Woodward, 1888, p. 226).

A century of silence on the name front was broken by Maurice Leriche, a professor of geology at the University of Brussels, who, in a 1906 treatise, declared that Giorna’s prior use of the name meant Coelorhynchus could not be retained for the fossils at hand (Leriche, 1906).  He proposed a new genus name, Glyptorhynchus.  The Greek root glypto means “carved” or “engraved.”   Coupled with rhynchus (“snout” or “beak”), Giorna brought another nice name into play.

Unfortunately, in correcting one error, Leriche committed another.  Leidy’s name, Cylindracanthus, should have taken precedence.  Soon enough, though, he recognized his mistake and, in print a couple of years later, resurrected the name Cylindracanthus for the genus.

Over the course of the next century and more, the name game took back seat to somewhat infrequent consideration of the more fundamental questions of what these structures had been in life, what organism did they come from, and where did this organism fit into the scheme of things?

In 1911, Henry Fowler of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia wrote of the genus that “[i]ts true position must still be considered doubtful” (Fowler, 1911, p. 141).  Nevertheless, Agassiz’s contention that Cylindracanthus’ affinities lay with the swordfish (within the Order Perciformes, including the so-called “billfishes”) was buttressed by several papers from the early part of the 20th Century (ones that I’ve been unable to lay my hands on and so are not listed below).  Specifically, they posited that Cylindracanthus was related to the fossil Blochiidae Family of billfishes.

When, in 1974, biologist Harry L. Fierstine of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, went over the fossil record of billfishes, he came out against the notion that these objects had any tooth-like features or functions, since none had ever been found with teeth.  Rather, they were, he thought, likely to turn out to be “fin spines,” not rostral spines, because there were just too many of them “in the fossil record for each to represent an individual fish” (Fierstine, 1974, p. 43).

Some 20 years later, a specimen found in a Cretaceous formation in South Dakota did, indeed, have teeth, a find that prompted David C. Parris of the New Jersey State Museum and his colleagues in 2001 to re-examine many of the other Cylindracanthus fossils in the fossil record.  There they saw plenty of signs of teeth.  These were rostral projections but, according to Parris, the evidence of when Cylindracanthus first appeared in the fossil record and its cartilaginous nature showed that it was not related to billfishes.  Rather, he posited that Cylindracanthus was akin to sturgeon-like fishes (Acipenseriforme Order) (Parris, 2001).

I find it interesting that in the 21st Century we may still have taxonomic trees falling in the woods with no one to hear them, particularly when one of them (the “tree” that follows) threatens to undo the entire story told so far.

In 2005, Kenneth Monsch of the University of Wrocław, Poland, published a full revision of the fossils of the scombroid (mackerel-like) fishes which include billfishes.  In doing so, he had to decide whether and where the Cylindracanthus might fit among these fishes.  Like Parris, he rejected its placement with the billfishes.  But, after reviewing the research, he leveled a shot right at the heart of this taxonomic story.
The present author is particularly concerned about 'rostrum'-based taxa such as Cylindracanthus; he is uncertain if these can really be assigned to teleosts [largest group of extant ray-finned bony fish] or even to fish at all (Monsch, 2005, p. 484).
Not fish?

At this stage in the story, people apparently are speaking past each other.

Monsch made no reference to Parris’ 2001 paper that had come out four years earlier, an omission that probably would not have surprised Parris.  In a 2007 piece, Parris noted that the 2001 hypothesis about the placement of Cylindracanthus had “not been further commented upon by other authors, to our knowledge.”  (Parris, 2007, p. 100)  He, in turn, did not cite Monsch’s 2005 study.

And so it goes.

But, I still have to ask, what’s residing in my collection?


Agassiz, Louis.  Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles, volume 5, 1843.

Dixon, Frederick.  The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, 1850.

Fallaw, Wallace.  Cylindracanthus From the Eocene of the Carolinas.  Journal of Paleontology, volume 38, number 1, January 1964, p. 128-129.

Fierstine, Harry.  The Paleontology of Billfish -- The State of the Art.  In Proceedings of the International Billfish Symposium, 1974, p. 34-44.

Fowler, Henry W.  A Description of the Fossil Fish Remains of the Cretaceous, Eocene and Miocene Formations of New Jersey.  Geological Survey of New Jersey, Bulletin 4, 1911.

Leidy, Joseph.  Description of two Ichthyodorulites (February), Remarks on certain extinct species of Fishes (December).  Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, volume VIII, 1856, published 1857, p. 11-12, 301-302.

Leriche, Maurice.  Contribution a L'Étude des Poissons Fossiles du Nord de la France et des Régions Voisines.  Mémoires de la Société Géologique du Nord, volume 5, 1906.

Monsch, Kenneth A.  Revision of the scombroid fishes from the Cenozoic of England.  Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh:  Earth Sciences, volume 95, 2005, p. 445-489.

Parris, David C., et al.  Reassessment of the Affinities of the Extinct Genus Cylindracanthus (Osteichthyes).  Proceedings of the South Dakota Academy of Science, vol. 80, 2001, p. 161-172.

Parris, David C., et al.  Fossil fish from the Pierre Shale Group (Late Cretaceous):  Clarifying the biostratigraphic record.  The Geology and Paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Marine Deposits of the Dakotas:  Geological Society of America Special Paper 427, 2007, p. 99-109.

Williamson, W.C.  On the Microscopic Structure of the Scales and Dermal Teeth of Some Ganoid and Placoid Fish.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1849, p. 435-475.

Woodward, Arthur Smith.  On the fossil Fish-spines named Coelorhynchus, Agassiz.  The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Including Zoology, Botany, and Geology, volume II, 1888, p. 223-226.

Woodward, Arthur Smith.  Catalogue of the Fossil Fishes in the British Museum (Natural History), part II, 1891.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Beginnings of a Taxonomic Adventure -- Words, Rules, and Butterflies

I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises:  as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.
                                                        ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

I, in contrast, have spent a couple of weeks trying to untangle the complex taxonomic history of a small fish fossil (won in a silent auction).  Its label gives provenance and genus, and it’s that name that has led to immersion in a growing generic swamp of papers, articles, and books.  I’m not sure even yet that I’ve successfully wrenched the taxonomic history from the textual muck.

That history will be the subject of a later posting; this one is context setting, offering some random and inchoate thoughts on the science, art, and idiosyncrasies of taxonomy.  This posting is also prompted by news of the validation of an hypothesis published in 1945 by Vladimir Nabokov about the colonization of the North and South America by Polyommatus butterflies.  Taxonomy and Nabokov are conjoined.

For most of us, the first encounter with taxonomy, “the science of classifying,” is a stumble over the scientific binomial (or binominal? see below) name given to a living or once living species – the first name, capitalized, identifying the organism's genus; the second, lower case, its species (this naming protocol was Carl Linnaeus’ brainchild).  There are three detailed international codes for naming and classifying – one each for zoology, botany, and bacteria – anchoring taxonomic decisions and communication about organisms.  To that end, they preclude duplication – under their aegis, no species or genus may have the same name as another, and no name may refer to more than one species or genus.  And, critical to the enterprise, the principle of priority provides that a valid name that is the first published has priority, while subsequently published names are invalid.  The introduction and enforcement of priority addressed the chaos that reigned in the early years of the use of the Linnaean system when names were changed arbitrarily.

To me, taxonomy can be a beautifully logical process, at times even somewhat quaint and charming.  Still, I know I am but an inexperienced tourist in that “country,” coming to understand (appropriating the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between) “they do things differently there.”

Though some of the language used in this country appears deceptively close to mine, I often fail at first to grasp its meaning.  Consider a few examples.  Synonyms, a boon to this writer, are taxonomic poison, violating the rule against duplication – there cannot be different names for the same organism.  Being preoccupied, which I often am, violates taxonomic rules – a name that has already been applied to another organism is preoccupied.  Despite my understanding of the adjective, the trivial name isn’t unimportant in taxonomy, it’s the second, lower case name in a binomial name, the one that identifies the species.  And so on, including generic in the opening paragraph of this posting.

Oh, wait, there’s a small but different kind of linguistic trap for the tourist, one I cited earlier.  Does the Linnaean system rest on binomial or binominal names?  The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature says binominal (Article 5.  Principle of Binominal Nomenclature),  Donald Prothero and others say binomial.  Michael Allaby in the Dictionary of Zoology (2009) accepts either but appears to give greater weight to binomial, because it merits the definition and binominal gets only the cross-reference.

This tourist has enjoyed exploring another part of the taxonomy landscape, perhaps because the guidebooks can be particularly caustic in their reviews of this locale.  The priority principle, that lynchpin of the nomenclature code, has come in for some pointed and witty criticism from within scientific ranks.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fashioned a wonderful story of what happened when a new species was named under less than ideal conditions:

[W]hen Ignatz Doofus publishes a new name with a crummy drawing and a few lines of telegraphic and muddled description in the Proceedings of the Philomathematical Society of Pfennighalbpfennig (circulation 533), it passes into well-deserved oblivion.  Unfortunately, under the [code] of strict priority, Herr Doofus’s name, if published first, becomes the official moniker of the species – long as Doofus didn’t break any rule in writing his report.  The competence and usefulness of his work have no bearing on the decision.  The resulting situation is perversely curious.  What other field defines its major activity by the work of the least skilled?  (Bully for Brontosaurus:  Reflections in Natural History, 1991, p. 82)
Gould concluded that the priority principle, on its own, encourages “petty legalists” who scour the arcane literature to garner some little bit of fame as they upset long accepted names.  He summed it up by quoting Charles Michener (“our greatest taxonomist of bees”):
In other sciences the work of incompetents is merely ignored; in taxonomy, because of priority, it is preserved. 
But, with the adoption of the plenary powers rule (initially approved in 1913), the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature has attempted to compensate for this.  In Gould’s words, these plenary powers provide that 
. . . the first designation shall prevail, unless a later name has been so widely accepted that its suppression in favor of a forgotten predecessor would sow confusion and instability.
(See Article 81 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.)

As I struggled in the taxonomic weeds with my fish fossil, I took a break and read about Nabokov’s posthumous success in the world of Lepidoptera.  Fascinating story and one that reinvigorated me, but, in fact, never took me away from taxonomy.

Nabokov himself defies classification.  Novelist, poet, essayist, translator, or lepidopterist?  As for that last label, in the 1940s, Nabokov worked as a research fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he was the Museum’s “de facto curator of Lepidoptera and one of the authorities on South and especially North American polyommatine butterflies, the ‘Blues.’” (Brian Boyd, Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera, in Nabokov’s Butterflies:  Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, edited by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, 2000, p. 9)

Among the research papers Nabokov published in this period on butterflies was Notes on Neotropical Plebejinæ (Lycænidæ, Lepidoptera) (Psyche, March-June 1945) in which he speculated on the manner in which these butterflies came to the New World.
One can assume, I think, that there was a certain point in time when both Americas were entirely devoid of Plebejinæ but were on the very eve of receiving an invasion of them from Asia where they had been already evolved.
They came in waves, he suggested, the first reaching South America before the waves that gave North America some of its generations of “Blues.”  Coming across the Bering Strait made sense to him. 
. . . I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world.
 In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World, January 26, 2011), Naomi E. Pierce of the Museum of Comparative Zoology and her co-authors have built a case supporting Nabokov’s hypothesis in detail, using DNA sequencing, among other tools.  They concluded,
Phylogenetic results support Vladimir Nabokov’s hypothesis that the New World Polyommatus are the product of at least five colonization events through Beringia that occurred successively from ca 11 Ma [million years ago] until 1 Ma.
Pretty neat.

Yet that wasn’t really what distracted me from my own taxonomic quest.  What really hooked me was the stanza from a Nabokov poem that Carl Zimmer quoted in his article on this new research.  (Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Vindicated, The New York Times, January 25, 2011.)

Here are the last three stanzas of the poem, originally published May 15, 1943, in the New Yorker as On Discovering a Butterfly:

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer – and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

“I found it and I named it . . . .” – a paean to taxonomy as well as the virtues of museum collections – “safe from creeping relatives and rust, in the secluded stronghold . . . .”  A bit more taxonomy resides in the poem.  In the second stanza quoted above, “type specimen” is that specimen upon which a species’ original description is based.  A red label (see last stanza) is how many museum denote the type specimen.  Fascinating that, in the poem at least, Nabokov would see this naming, not the creative arts, as the avenue to immortality.

Nabokov collected his first butterfly in 1906 at the age of 7.  From the beginning, he was fixated on finding and naming a new species.  As a young boy, he thought he had, submitting a description to The Entomologist, only to be informed, gently, that the particular creature had a long standing description.  Nabokov noted, in Speak, Memory, that he later exacted revenge on the man who’d named his moth “by giving his own name to a blind man in a novel.”

In 1938, a couple of years before immigrating to the U.S., Nabokov caught two male specimens of a butterfly in the Alps of southern France.  Shrugging off initial suspicions that the butterfly was a hybrid, he subsequently named a new species Lysandra cormion in a paper published in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society (Lysandra Cormion:  A New European Butterfly, September, 1941).  It is the discovery of  this butterfly that is described in the poem.  (See Between Climb and Cloud:  Nabokov Among the Lepidopterists, in Nabokov’s Butterflies.)  Unfortunately, Nabokov’s first impression was right, Lysandra cormion was a hybrid, not a valid species at all.

Pictured below are the species that produced the Nabokov’s hybrid – on the left are male Chalkhill Blues (Polyommatus coridon), on the right is a female Meleager’s Blue (Polyommatus daphnis).


In the words of Dieter Zimmer who wrote the fascinating A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths 2001 (2003, excerpt), “Hence, there is no cormion.”

But, not to worry, Nabokov successfully named several butterflies and moths, such as the subspecies Cyllopsis pertepida dorothea Nabokov 1942, and was honored in the names of others, such as Hesperia nabokovi, Madeleinea vokoban (trivial name is Nabokov spelled backwards), and Madeleinea lolita.

[Later edit:  In these last several paragraphs, I have used the scientific names for these butterflies as provided in Zimmer's guide.]

Note on Sources

I’ve drawn here on several sources regarding taxonomy, including Prothero, Bringing Fossils to Life:  An Introduction to Paleobiology (1998); Moore, Lalicker, Fischer, Invertebrate Fossils (1952); Donald J. Borror, Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1960); The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (1999).)

The pictures of the butterflies are from the Wikimedia Commons.  The Polyommatus daphnis photograph is credited to Ettore Ballocchi; that of the Polyommatus coridon is credited to Entomart.  [Later edit:  The identification of these butterflies given with these pictures appears to be correct but appearances may be deceiving.]
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