Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's In A Name? Part Un

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

So, what’s in a name? Nothing, says Juliet. Everything, say scientists, and sometimes proceed to make a hash of it.

Humans categorize, classify, and distinguish. We name things. Juliet would still have given an unnamed Romeo a name, just as we, if precluded from using the word “rose,” would not call it “that flower.” We are driven to label the objects, all of the objects, in our environment. To attempt to exert control over parts of an unpredictable world? To distinguish enemy from friend? To organize, and so make sense of the world? Yes.

I started out to write a post on scientific nomenclature in general since I spend so much time wrestling with the scientific names of fossils. I find myself tentatively saying a name out loud only to remember too late that the “ch” is a hard “k” sound, or that I have placed the accent on the wrong syllable. More important are those uncertainties born from names so similar for creatures so different. The genus Carcharias is not by any stretch of the imagination similar to the genus Carcharhinus. Still, there are those momentary synaptic pauses as my brain translates the name Carcharias to “Sand Tiger” sharks and Carcharhinus to “Requiem” (or “Gray”) sharks.

I focused on the shark that lost the tooth pictured below (lingual side of tooth on left and labial side on right) – the Carcharhinus egertoni (at least that's my take on it). Its teeth are typically triangular in shape with serrated crowns. Similarity among the teeth from the many species of Requiems poses a challenge to identifying specific species. Requiems are among the largest of the extant shark families, though the C. egertoni itself is extinct, having lived during the Miocene epoch.

Where I went astray was in deciding I needed to know something about the origins of that name and I began with the species label egertoni. As with so many fossil hunts, there are myriad choices to be made and not all of them work out.

My weapons for this hunt were the printed text and the web. The first fruits of the search were easy – the scientific name according to some sources is: Carcharhinus egertoni (Agassiz 1843). Given the protocol for citing the binominal names of species, the material in parentheses was a fair warning that this whole exploration was likely to get very messy. Had it been Carcharhinus egertoni Agassiz 1843, no parentheses, no problem – I would have known that Louis Agassiz, the great paleontologist, had described and named this shark in 1843, and that the name had stuck. Unfortunately, the parentheses tell me that whatever Agassiz named it in 1843 didn’t stick.

Still, Agassiz was a starting point. Amid the debris tossed up by my web searching was a name – Sir Philip Egerton, a name initially connected to Agassiz in Agassiz’s collected letters. Was this the name that became egertoni in homage? Who was Egerton and did it make sense for him to be the namesake?

Turns out that Egerton (1806-1881) was a passionate collector of fossil fishes and, seemingly, a man with a sense of humor (at least once in his life). He studied geology at Christ Church, Oxford, and spent the rest of his life in the pursuit and study of fossil fishes with a close friend, Lord Cole. Well, perhaps he did a little bit more than hunting fossils, since he also served in Parliament.

The Egerton-Cole combination is fascinating. Though they collected together for over five decades and shared what they found, they maintained separate collections, both of which were purchased by the British Museum after their deaths. As a 1904 history of the collections of the British Museum (link here) put it, they not only shared finds, they shared “the counterpart-halves of unique or valuable specimens.” I assume this means that, if, for instance, one or the other found a cast and a mold of a rare fossil, one would keep the cast, the other would keep the mold. That’s teamwork. (I trust they didn't actually split specimens.)

So, was Egerton immortalized by the species name? (And “immortalized” may not be the right word if it’s not obvious that the fish was named after him and nobody knows who he is. Wait, who would be the “namesake”? Turns out if I’m named after my father, I’m his namesake and he’s also mine. English is such an amusing language.)

At this juncture, I’m not positive that he’s the namesake, though I think it highly likely. Seems that in roughly 1830, Egerton and Cole were encouraged to explore fossil fishes by Agassiz himself – their lifelong obsession had its roots with the great man. They, in turn, provided Agassiz with many of the “type specimens” he used in his seminal work on fossil fishes, Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (1838-1844).

Yes, it’s highly likely that Sir Philip Egerton is the one.

For me, two aspects of Egerton’s life are deliciously ironic given my quest for the root of a species name. One of Egerton’s claims to fame is a satirical poem he wrote that ran in the May 18, 1861 edition of Punch. This piece cast a jaundiced eye on some of those scientists debating the consequences of Darwinian evolution for the uniqueness of humans, whether they could remain removed and separate from apes. He wrote from the perspective of, and signed the poem as “Gorilla, Zoological Gardens.” Anonymous! So much for names.

And then there’s his name itself. Turns out, as perhaps with many British with a title, there’s more to the name than at first meets the eye. Sir Philip Egerton was no exception. He was actually Sir Philip Malpas de Grey Egerton.

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