Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Gulf Disaster and Filefishes By The Book

I have watched some of the live video feed from British Petroleum showing the oil flow from the wreck of its exploratory well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. At one juncture, I couldn’t stand the silence of the video stream, so for several minutes I gave it a soundtrack – Shapes of Things by The Yardbirds.

Shapes of things before my eyes,
Just teach me to despise.
Will time make men more wise?

An incredibly sobering juxtaposition of sight and sound. But, I could only let the song loop a couple of times – the combination was too depressing. I hope the current effort to seal the well is successful, though I know the nightmare for wildlife in the Gulf is only just beginning.

Among the victims of this oil spill, now being described as the worst in U.S. history, will be some species of filefishes, members of the diverse Family Monacanthidae, with about 32 different genera and 102 species. (Joseph S. Nelson, Fishes of the World, 2006, p. 454-455) These fish are a distinctive flattened shape with a prominent dorsal spine, sometimes joined by another, much smaller spine. Some species come in a brilliant array of colors. Filefishes range in size from ones appropriate for home aquaria to the Orange Filefish (Aluterus schoepfii) which can grow to about two feet in length. Filefishes’ teeth are designed specifically for nibbling which makes it clear they aren’t near the top of the food chain. The pictures below show a Fringed Filefish (Monacanthus ciliatus) (on left) and a pair of White-Spotted Filefish (Cantherhines macrocerus) (on right), two of the filefish species that live in the Gulf of Mexico.

Paleontology has a way of revealing my ignorance, often leading to a research voyage of discovery. A fossil acquisition a couple of weeks ago launched one of those voyages. At a fossil club raffle, I won a couple of fish vertebrae in a small plastic bag. The label identified the contents as:

Filefish sp.
Two vertebrae
Early Pliocene
Yorktown Fm.
Lee Creek, NC

Love the use of “sp.” following “Filefish” to indicate an unknown species – makes it seem so scientific, though, of course, there’s nothing scientific about using the popular name “Filefish.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that, not only did I have two vertebrae, they were fused together.

So, I asked myself, what is a “filefish” and should I have any confidence in the other information on the label?

Lee Creek? I’ve collected there. Two different geological formations yield specimens at this site – the Pungo River Formation (the fossil-producing units of this formation are mid-Miocene, laid down roughly 14-16 million years ago) and the Yorktown Formation (early to mid-Pliocene, deposited about 3-5 million years ago). Though the marine environments were different in both time periods, these were fauna-rich places. In the mid-Miocene, this area was covered with relatively quiet, temperate to semi-tropical ocean waters. During the Pliocene, the Gulf Stream may have diverged into this area meeting a cold upwelling, creating a rich feeding ground. The fossils of a combined total of 104 different species of fishes collected from these two formations, according to Purdy et al., “represent the first fossil record of a marine vertebrate, high use feeding area and the largest and most diverse fossil fish fauna known from the Atlantic Coast Plain.” (Robert W. Purdy, et al., The Neogene Sharks, Rays, and Bony Fishes From Lee Creek Mine, Aurora, North Carolina, Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina III, Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, Volume 90, 2001, p. l88)

Most of my collecting at Lee Creek has been from Pungo River material, so I was startled to find in my collection a group of small vertebrae that were very, very similar to my raffle win. These were clearly labeled as coming from the Pungo River Formation.

Hmm, maybe the Yorktown identification for the new addition to my collection is out of whack.

I then decided to do this “by the book.” The full reach of the fossil fauna or flora at a specific location is sometimes the subject of an amateur or professional paleontologist’s written labor of love, and he or she creates a reference for collectors, a scholarly analysis, or a textbook. These are a godsend to the amateur collector. For more than a decade, the Smithsonian Institution, in its series called Contributions to Paleobiology, has been publishing treatises on the fossils of Lee Creek Mine. The bible for Lee Creek fossil fish is the lengthy article titled The Neogene Sharks, Rays, and Bony Fishes from Lee Creek Mine, written by Purdy et al. (Full cite given above.)

But, even with the product of such a labor of love in hand, there’s no guarantee of success. Such a bible doesn’t necessarily have the answers you seek, may undermine what little you thought you actually knew, or raise other, more vexing questions. An unambiguous answer from these good books is certainly not a given.

So, when I turned to “filefish” in the article by Purdy and colleagues, what did they have to offer? Just an unambiguous answer. Amazing.

The filefishes, they said, at Lee Creek were Aluterus sp. and their fossil vertebrae are found in both the Pungo River and Yorktown Formations (“common” in the former and “abundant” in the latter). They then spoke directly to me when they noted that two or three of the vertebrae “are often found as a fused unit.” I was thrilled. The picture of three fused vertebrae included in their description of the Aluterus sp. sealed the deal. (The line labeled f is 1.25 cm long.)

I realize now that these are common fossils, well known to the seasoned collector at this site. Though nothing surprising in the larger scheme of things was revealed by this voyage, to this novice, it was exciting.

Still, this voyage was also tinged with sadness.

As a fossil collector, I realize that a specimen I hold in my hand may be the product of a painful death, triggered, perhaps, by some natural disaster. Death and extinction are facts of life. It’s a cautionary thought, but one that doesn’t excuse us for visiting such death upon many members of myriad species through the unnatural disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the picture below, a Scrawled Filefish (Aluterus scriptus) swims in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Credits for Photos

All pictures of extant filefishes are from the NOAA Photo Library: Fringed Filefish,
White-Spotted Filefish, and
Scrawled Filefish.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In Brief ~ Geologist Daniel Barringer on StarDate

StarDate, a daily two minute radio program produced by the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory, is an example of promoting scientific interest and literacy at its best. The science in question is astronomy. Well, not exclusively. The program for today, May 25, 2010, focuses on geologist Daniel Barringer and brings geology and astronomy together with a bang. In the early 20th Century, Barringer, theorizing that an area outside Flagstaff, Arizona, was the site of a meteorite impact, spent his fortune trying to find and mine the iron he assumed was buried under the crater. This site is now popularly known as Meteor Crater, though the scientific community has renamed it Barringer Crater.

StarDate is heard on NPR stations. The script for the May 25th show can be found here and the podcast will be available beginning May 26th ( after the show is broadcast.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Neanderthal Genome

I started this blog, in part, to give some rigor to my thinking about paleontology (and the rest of the stuff that falls within the ambit of a blog with an all-encompassing title like mine has). That’s certainly the impulse behind this posting. I needed to think more closely about the recent research on the Neanderthal genome and get beyond my initial confused reaction. This then offers up a few of my thoughts on the topic (and, in the process, showing how confused my thinking remains).

The news coverage of the recent report in Science about the draft mapping of a portion of the Neanderthal genome centered on what was portrayed as a provocative hypothesis supported by the research – ancestral modern humans interbred with Neanderthals.

I was driving when I heard the first brief reports, which prompted me to engage in a quintessentially modern human behavior – shout a question at the car radio: “How the hell do they know that?” I mean, I explained to the radio broadcaster (and my wife who endured my outburst), they (the Neanderthals) are our closest hominid relatives. Shared genes are a given, so that cannot be the evidence. (More on that later.) It wasn't the claim, it was not knowing the method behind it that had me exercised.

I read some of the print news coverage of this research which did a better job of explaining it. I also read through the Science articles, which the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is making freely available on its website. Reading the Science articles was an interesting experience as I struggled with, and then nearly always detoured around, the language and concept barriers that genetic research erects for the layperson, and sought safe haven in statements I thought I understood.

The evidence supporting the proposition of interbreeding with Neanderthals (or Neandertals as it is spelled in the Science articles) lies in what was found when the Neanderthal genome was compared to the genomes of five present-day individuals -- a Papua New Guinean, a Han from China, a French European, a San from Southern Africa, and a Yoruba from West Africa. These places of origin were chosen deliberately. Neanderthals have been found in France, but not in Papua New Guinea or China.

(I am not addressing what’s probably the most important aspect of this research – the actual mapping of a portion of the genome of an ancient hominid population. It was an amazingly complex process and opens up a whole new avenue of research in exploring the human family, including what separates and joins all of these hominid populations.)

The researchers posited that a robust signal that interbreeding had occurred was if the Neanderthal genome were more closely related to modern human genomes from some parts of the world than others. If it were equally related to the array of modern genomes under study, then, presumably, the separation of the ancestor of modern humans from the Neanderthal happened once and completely, with no subsequent dalliance.

Evidence for interbreeding was found, prompting the news buzz.

But, that wasn’t the really surprising aspect of this finding, after all many scientists had expected some local interbreeding. The unexpected result was that the Neanderthal genome was more closely related to all three of the non-African genomes than it was to the African genome. The authors assert,
A parsimonious explanation for these observations is that Neandertals exchanged genes with the ancestors of non-Africans. (p. 718, A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome, Richard E. Green, et al., Science, May, 2010, Volume 328)

That means, according to Svante Pääbo, one of the authors of the reports,
The most plausible [scenario] is . . . it happens early in a population that goes out of Africa and becomes ancestral to everyone outside of Africa, not just people in Europe and Western Asia where Neandertals occurred.” (Science Magazine Podcast, transcript, 7 May 2010, emphasis added. Pääbo is director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology.)

According to this research, between one and four percent of the genome of modern non-Africans comes from Neanderthals.

I am intrigued by a number of the implications of this research. I’ll mention two, each is probably painfully obvious, but neither was to me.

First, although I’d previously understood the genomic relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans to be close, the closeness of that relationship is startling. As Green et al. write, “Neandertals are the sister group of all present-day humans.” (p. 710) Sisters, not cousins. In fact, the researchers faced a particularly difficult challenge in accounting for contamination of the Neanderthal DNA by modern human DNA because “most DNA fragments in a Neandertal are expected to be identical to present-day humans.” (p. 711, emphasis added)

Second, for the Neanderthal genes to enter the modern human genome, the offspring of modern human and Neanderthal liaisons had to be nurtured, so they could grow up and procreate. The researchers assert that the evidence supports the gene flow as being from Neanderthals to modern humans, suggesting that, very early on, a few modern humans had, what I guess could be called, a cross-species tolerance. But, don’t get your hopes up, it was apparently a very restricted phenomenon, given the limited contribution of Neanderthals genes to the non-African genome (not more than four percent of the genome).

Then there are the issues raised by the research that befuddle me. There are many, but I’ll just mention a couple. Doesn't the concept of species take a hit from this research? I shouldn't be surprised. I'm used to the difficulties in applying the concept of a species – paleontologists distinguish species largely on the basis of physical differences in the fossils found, although breeding behavior is the defining biological attribute for identifying a species (in the biological definition, separate species don’t successfully interbreed). Obviously, the behavior of ancient extinct organisms is unobservable. Or is it? In some way, this genomic research does give insight into possible behavior involving ancient hominids.

This research shows that two separate species in the Homo genus interbred successfully -- the species concept is certainly fluid. As paleontologist Ian Tattersall has noted, “Species just don’t saltate into vastly different other species.” (The Fossil Trail: How we know what we think we know about human evolution, 1995, p. 237)

Then, there’s the sequence of events that led to the non-African genome having Neanderthal traces. The scenario favored by the researchers is a group of early Homo sapiens left Africa, encountered a Neanderthal population, possibly in the Middle East, “exchanged genes,” and then spread throughout Europe and Asia. The authors acknowledge that there may be other scenarios accounting for their findings. One that seems to muddy the waters posits that there may have been a human population “substructure” in Africa, one branch, as I understand it, giving rise to Neanderthals and then that same branch generating the modern human population that left Africa.

Ultimately, I find the favored scenario of this interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals heartening, contrasting, as it does, with the violent one depicted elsewhere to explain the relatively abrupt disappearance of this, our sister group, from the face of the Earth as we moderns made our presence fully known across the broad Eurasian stage. Given who we are, both may well be true.

Tweak to BLM Fossil Collecting Regulations (No Change in Policy)

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a final rule today (May 17, 2010) that, among other provisions, corrects an omission in existing regulations concerning collection of fossils on public lands. It’s just a tweak, though it may be of some interest to those following the implementation of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (P.L. 111-11).

Title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 8360, governs visitor services and rules of conduct applicable to recreation areas on federal public lands administered by the BLM. Previously, the regulations at 43 CFR 8365.1-5(b), which allowed visitors to these public lands to collect certain nonrenewable resources, did not reflect actual BLM policy because they omitted common plant fossils as a type of fossil that could be collected. This final rule amends this regulation to state that visitors to these public lands are permitted to collect “reasonable amounts of the following for noncommercial purposes: . . . (2) Nonrenewable resources such as rock and mineral specimens, common invertebrate and common plant fossils, and semiprecious gemstones . . . .” This is current BLM policy which has already been in line with the PRPA provisions.

PRPA Regulation Pipeline

PRPA regs are somewhere in the pipeline. In the supplementary material to today’s rule, the BLM states that proposed rules on the PRPA will be released “in the near future.”

Interestingly, this statement was made in the context of a discussion of two comments that called on the BLM to clarify its policy prohibiting sale or barter of fossils collected on BLM land by commercial collectors, as well as by hobbyists. The BLM response is a bit confusing to me. It notes that certain terms in the PRPA concerning casual collecting will have to be defined and, so, it is not necessary to address this issue at this juncture. Not sure I understand the relationship between the question being raised about the application of the sale and barter prohibition to the terms used in defining casual collecting.

Forget my confusion, the issue about sale or barter does remind me about how many aspects of the proposed PRPA regulations are likely to cause folks to lose their cool and enter the irrational zone.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Partners in the Hunt? ~ Fossil Collectors and Significant Others

I’ve been exploring some of the literature on hearing in cetaceans – whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The impetus for this vexing exploration through the primary literature is a couple of finds last month. The irritating nature of the effort arises because there’s not much in the secondary works providing a useful guide for the layperson to the topic, particularly, if part of your mission is identifying fossil cetacean ear bones. (So, be advised, this posting really isn't about cetacean hearing, it's about couples. More on that in a moment.)

Here are the fossil finds behind this interest in cetacean hearing – on the left is a badly damaged tympanic bulla (3.2 cm or about 1.3 inches) which housed the middle ear of the cetacean (in this case, given the size of the fossil, I assume it’s from a dolphin), on the right is a periotic bone (2.8 cm or about 1.1 inches) which contained the cetacean’s inner ear (again, likely to be a dolphin).

Both finds are from the Calvert Formation along the Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay, making these Miocene fossils, roughly 20 million years old. The Calvert Cliffs have proven to be wonderfully rich in cetacean fossils for many years. On those days when the fossil gods have hidden away the big shark teeth, cetacean fossils offer me some solace.

One collector of cetacean fossils from the Calvert Cliffs is particularly relevant given the actual topic of this posting. William Palmer (1856-1921) was seemingly a jack-of-all-trades at the Smithsonian Institution, beginning his long career there as a taxidermist and modeler, creating and installing many exhibits for the museum, including some at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Palmer’s career segued naturally into working in the field in search of specimens, and he spent time in exotic places around the world. Over time, he also became a recognized ornithologist, particularly of birds local to the Washington, D.C. area. Then he was infected with the paleontology virus which manifested itself in a consuming interest in cetacean fossils from the Calvert Cliffs.

But, it’s not William Palmer who really intrigues me, it’s his wife, Arminia. Palmer married Arminia Knowles in 1885 when he was 29 and she was all of 19.

Even before I encountered William Palmer and “Mrs. Palmer,” as she was typically referred to, I’d been thinking about fossil collectors and their significant others. Does the couple constitute an enthusiastic unit, both members embracing the pursuit? Or does the significant other say, “That’s Jane’s [or Jim’s] thing. I don’t see the point”? There are some partners, I’ve observed, who will accompany the collector to some fossil-related events, but maintain a distance. There’s, for example, the couple at the fossil club meeting – the active member trades war stories about a productive outing, while the significant other sits contentedly in the shadows, reading a book.

Into the field to experience the sun, rain, heat, cold, bugs, reptiles, tedium, dirt . . . ? Not likely for the less than committed partner. Except, perhaps, for Mrs. Palmer.

The article memorializing William Palmer that ran in the July, 1922, issue of the ornithology journal The Auk had this to say about Arminia.

In the autumn of 1885 Palmer married Miss Arminia Knowles, of Washington, who proved a faithful and devoted wife. Although sharing in no way her husband’s interests in natural history, Mrs. Palmer always yielded to his plans when proposed expeditions threatened to upset their home life for extended periods. (p. 307, emphasis added)

Well, the Palmers apparently were not one of those teams with merged natural history interests. Now, I don’t know what it means that she “yielded” when William Palmer planned some lengthy trip into the field. Did she go with him despite her disinterest in his mission? Or, did she say, “I love you and I’ll keep the home fires burning, Billy dear”? I don’t find much evidence either way for long trips.

What about the short forays into the local area in pursuit of birds or whale fossils? Well, the evidence is wonderfully mixed.

Mrs. Palmer was certainly not with Mr. Palmer, in 1917, when he was climbing on, or digging in (probably both), the Calvert Cliffs near Plum Point, Maryland. A chunk of the cliffside fell on him, causing serious injury. His only companion was Doll, a friend’s dog. Palmer struggled to free his hands and then found paper and pencil in a pocket. He wrote a note describing what had happened. Getting Doll to play the role of Lassie took some doing, though. Palmer managed to coax the dog to him and then tied the message to dog’s neck using his necktie. Some well-thrown clumps of dirt convinced the dog it was time to go home. Help came soon enough after that. (“What, girl? Timmy down a well?”)

Two things about this story struck me – Mrs. Palmer wasn’t with him and Mr. Palmer was wearing a necktie as he climbed cliffs and mucked around in the clayey dirt. Clearly, that’s what the proper gentleman wore then while engaged in a paleontological pursuit.

Okay, that’s evidence that Arminia left William to his own devices on fossil hunts.

But, there’s photographic evidence that suggests this spouse, who was so uninterested in her husband’s natural history passions that a memorial article on him would state that very baldly, could sometimes get her hands dirty (or, at least, her feet wet) following him to the Calvert Cliffs. The picture below shows Mrs. Palmer on June 1, 1908, collecting fossils along the Calvert Cliffs. She’s wearing what presumably every proper gentlewoman hunting fossils would wear at the time – long skirt, blouse with long sleeves, and a hat, seemingly pinned up in back. Is the hat an Australian bush hat being worn somewhat akimbo? Is that a flower decoration at the top? Simply lovely.

Lest you think, based on this picture, she went out alone, I am certain the other members of her party were just around the bend. Another picture of William Palmer and a party in search of fossils from the area, dated several weeks later, clearly shows Mrs. Palmer pulling up the rear, her hat is unmistakable. So, she accompanied her husband but kept a bit of distance. I cannot tell if she is reading a book as she walked along.


Charles W. Richmond, In Memoriam: William Palmer, The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, Volume 39, Number 3, July, 1922.

David W. Johnston, The History of Ornithologyin Virginia, 2003, p. 73.

Wallace L. Ashby, Fossils of Calvert Cliffs, Calvert Marine Museum, 1986.

Patricia Greene, Hodge Family Tree website, includes the document Descendants of William Palmer.


The photo above of Mrs. Palmer is a portion of one from the Smithsonian Institution's collection and reproduced from the booklet Fossils of Calvert Cliffs (full citation given above) which was prepared with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Twist of Sheep and Fossils

The annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival is reportedly the largest event of its kind in North America. The 37th iteration of the Festival this past weekend was an engaging and sprawling multitude of sheep, sheep farmers, shepherds, weavers, knitters, and others who gathered to display aspects of the many lifestyles that involve sheep and wool.

The stars, of course, were the sheep, sometime behaving unsheep-like. Probably shows my ignorance of sheep, but, Lord, they can be stubborn and headstrong. Clearly, my education in things sheep is still very much a work in progress, having begun with a posting in January. The many varieties of sheep represented at the Festival attest to the wonderful effects of selective breeding. Among my favorites are the Leicester Longwool looking so Rastafarian.

I searched for Herdwick sheep, another favorite, but didn’t expect to find any. They are a rugged breed living in the mountainous Lake District of England, championed in the first half of the 20th Century by a leading sheep farmer in that region, Beatrix Potter. The survival of the breed may well be credited to her.

The photo below of Herdwick sheep at Dungeon Ghyll in the Lake District was taken by Paul Johnson and posted on the Discover Cumbria website. It is reproduced here with permission.

Yes, the sheep farmer is that Beatrix Potter who wrote and illustrated so many children’s classics. Though the best known of them is The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I count others among my favorites, such as The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (in which a mouse and rabbit parents outwit Mr. McGregor) and The Tailor of Gloucester (in which mice repay human kindness). There’s no condescending to children in Potter’s tales, and, despite the fact that her animals often talk, wear clothes, and walk upright, the realities of the natural world occupy center stage – rabbits are eaten, cats do kill rats and mice. Her language is to be savored, in part for its humor. This passage is from the Flopsy Bunnies – “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit.” Though the refrain in The Tailor of Gloucester may require a parent to do a bit of research to explain it to children, it’s irresistible – “No more twist! No more twist!” (“Twist” is a thick, twisted silk thread used for buttonholes and decoration.)

As will become clear (well, as clear as things get in my postings), sheep and fossils come together nicely in Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943). She is the subject of a superb biography by Linda Lear entitled Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, published in 2007. It’s a volume that I intended just to dip into in search of the paleontology bits (sort of like hunting for the “nasty bits”), but stayed to read from cover to cover. What a masterful work, certainly worthy of Potter.

And Potter would have loved the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, particularly for its sheep competitions.

Potter’s life can be divided into pre- and post-Peter Rabbit periods, though, as with most lives, nothing’s quite that black and white. The publication of her children’s books, beginning in 1902 with Peter Rabbit, provided Potter, who was in her mid-30s, with the financial and emotional means to gain some freedom from her opinionated, controlling parents, particularly her mother (whom Beatrix labeled “the enemy”). The elder Potters’ domineering ways were compounded by an obsession with social standing. They looked down on people in industry and the trades, a wonderfully ironic attitude because the family wealth had been built in the textile trade. Her parents clearly reflected Victorian England’s view of the proper role of single, unmarried women. Still, Beatrix’s younger brother Bertram also suffered under his parents’ harsh regime, so much so, that he kept his marriage a secret from them for 11 years, clearly afraid of opposition to his wife, the daughter of a wine merchant. The story of Beatrix’s engagement is tragic, while that of her eventual marriage comforting.

The most substantial early step toward independence was taken in 1905 when she bought Hill Top farm in the Lake District. Over the course of the rest of her life, Potter continued to acquire land in the area, deliberately setting out to conserve as much of the natural landscape as possible to keep it from development.

Her spirit of conservation extended to her efforts to preserve the local Herdwick sheep, a breed suited to the Lake District’s wild mountainous uplands, the fells. Herdwick can survive solely by foraging on the vegetation that grows in this rugged landscape, they can endure the unforgiving snows that fall there, and their coarse wool apparently dries out faster than that of other sheep. But, they may be most distinguished by their ability to know the area in the fell where they lived as lambs (their farm’s “heaf”) and from which, as adults, they don’t wander, making fences unnecessary. On its website, the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association gives an example of the importance of the “heafing” instinct for fell farmers: “This is crucial as the central Lake District fells are inaccessible and a sheep which strays from Borrowdale to Eskdale will involve a 100 mile round trip by road for the farmer to collect it.” Potter recognized that these sheep were essential to the viability of farming in the fell region, providing wool and meat.

It was in the pre-Peter Rabbit period that she developed and honed her scientific skills that continued to serve her as landowner and Herdwick sheep farmer. For all of their control of their children’s lives, the elder Potters gave Beatrix and her brother an amazing degree of freedom to explore nature and bring it home with them. As Lear writes,
The third-floor nursery menagerie included, at various times, rabbits (Benjamin Bouncer and Peter), a green frog called Punch, several lizards, including Judy who was a special favourite, water newts, a tortoise, a frog, salamanders, many and different varieties of mice, a ring snake, several bats, a canary and a green budgerigar, a wild duck, a family of snails, several guinea pigs and later a hedgehog or two. (p. 38)

The Potter parents encouraged the emerging artistic talents of both children. The natural world inside and out of the third-floor nursery was the subject of their painting and drawing, and continued to be as they grew into adulthood.

As a young adult, Beatrix remained drawn to natural history, collecting and illustrating her specimens, including fungi and fossils. Apparently, such an engagement with natural history was not an unusual thing in Victorian England, particularly for women from affluent families. Potter’s interest in fungi deepened in her 20s and she developed an expertise in illustrating and, ultimately, in cultivating them. The story of her effort to penetrate the British scientific ranks with her ideas about the composite nature of lichens (a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and an alga) and fungi reproduction (many going through a mold state), and the rebuff she experienced from the scientific establishment, is told in Lear’s biography and elsewhere, such as the article entitled Helen Beatrix Potter – Her Interest in Fungi, by Roy Watling (originally published in The Linnean, January 2000). Potter's ideas about fungi were ultimately commonly accepted.

She didn’t elevate her work with fossils to the same level as her study of fungi. Indeed, Lear posits in her biography that Beatrix’s interest in fossils was in their collecting, not their study. I’d suggest that the drawings she made of her finds reveal the close attention to details that only a student of fossils could accomplish. The surviving illustrations she made of her finds are very fine. Poor quality reproductions can be seen in the online article entitled Beatrix Potter’s Fossils and Her Interest in Geology, by B.G. Gardiner (originally published in The Linnean, January 2000). Lear’s biography includes a nice reproduction of the drawing of eight marine invertebrate fossils that also appears in Gardiner’s article.

I would like to have included at least one of those drawings in this posting but, as with so many things related to Beatrix Potter and her art, there is a very tight hold on them. I tried to gain the necessary permission but failed and chose not to violate whatever copyright applies. My difficulty in this regard is certainly in keeping with how Potter herself protected her illustrations and books. She was the quintessential merchandiser, realizing early on that there was money to be made with the images of her creations, particularly Peter Rabbit. As a result, her approach to marketing her animals seems very contemporary, involving close control of any use of their likenesses.

Geology and paleontology flared as important interests for her when she was in her late twenties and subsided relatively quickly. During this period, she eagerly scoured quarries and climbed hillsides in pursuit of fossils. Her descriptions of her fossiling forays during this period are remarkable when one realizes that she continued to live at home with her parents and was under their vise-like control. Surprising to think they let her, even if presumably with a chaperon, wander the countryside and search quarries where she’d come under the watchful eyes of quarrymen. Her descriptions of her efforts are alive with humor.

In 1894, on holiday in Scotland, she declared she’d reached some level of expertise in finding fossils – “I have found out which stones to split, and how to use a cold chisel.” (p. 93, all of these fossil-related quotations are found in Lear’s biography)

At the end of this holiday, she declared herself “very sorry indeed to come away, with a feeling of not having half worked through the district, but I have done a good summer’s work. The funguses will come up again and the fossils will keep.” With her customary wit, she added, “I hope I may go back again some day when I am an old woman, unless I happen to become a fossil myself, which would save trouble.” (p. 96)

At one juncture, she was advised to narrow the focus of her fossil collecting. Collectors everywhere can relate to her response to this direction. “I do not feel under any obligation to confine my attention to a particular formation . . . I beg to state I intend to pick up everything I find which is not too heavy.” (emphasis added, p. 98)

Yes, indeed. Stubborn and headstrong, after all.
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