Thursday, March 29, 2012

Life in the Extremes

Extreme places I have gone,
But never seen any light.
      ~ lyrics from Extreme Ways by Moby

I have become inured to the news story, breathlessly delivered, about some organism found living in an extreme environment where life is “totally unexpected.”  It now seems to me that life, usually, will find a way.

Over the past few years, we have discovered organisms surviving, indeed, prospering in such extreme places as the mouth of hot geysers at Yellowstone National Park, the water of Spain’s Rio Tinto which is heavily acidic and polluted with heavy metals and other toxins, or the bottom of a lake in Antarctica where cold temperatures are married to a lack of oxygen.  These creatures are the extremophiles, forms of life (typically microbes) that have evolved the means of living under what we would consider rather inhospitable conditions.

The reach of extremophiles into such places is broad; consider the following list of names, drawn from the Microbial Life Education Resources website, for those organisms living or experiencing optimal growth under specific kinds of extreme conditions (the nature of those conditions is noted in parentheses):

* acidophiles (high acidity levels)
* alkaliphiles (high alkaline levels)
* anaerobes (no oxygen) {includes facultative anaerobes (live with or without oxygen present) and
                                             obligate anaerobes (cannot grow in presence of oxygen)
* endoliths (within rocks)
* halophiles (high salinity)
* methanogens (anoxic or low oxygen environments – these are methane-producing organisms)
* oligotrophs (limited available nutrition)
* piezophiles or barophiles (high pressure)
* psychrophiles (low temperature – 15ºC or lower)
* thermophiles (high temperature – 40ºC or higher)
* hyperthermophiles (extremely high temperature – 80ºC or higher)
* toxitolerants (high levels of toxic waste)
* xerophiles (little available water)

“We know that we are only scratching the surface of what is out there,” asserts biologist Kenneth Stedman of Portland State University’s Center for Life in Extreme Environments.  (John Roach, “Miracle” Microbes Thrive at Earth’s Extremes, National Geographic News, September 17, 2004.)

The proximate spark for this posting is the piece that ran in early March on the PBS NewsHour about researchers from Oregon State University finding life in yet another hostile, extreme place – farmers’ fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Okay, it’s not the place that was intended to be surprising, rather it's the combination of place and life form – fish.  Perhaps the true surprises were the complex, though temporary, ecosystems in the farmers' fields supporting spawning fish, immature fish, amphibians, and myriad invertebrates.  (Oregon Farmers Surprised to Find Fish in Fields, PBS NewsHour, March 8, 2012.)

For more than a century and a half, efforts have been made to mitigate seasonal flooding in the Willamette Valley, which is a river flood plain.  Wetlands have been filled, stream channels diverted, and acres of the flood plain that once connected to the Willamette River have been lost.  Still, winter flooding occurs in these fields on an annual basis, reestablishing seasonal wetlands.  Water fills the ditches that cross the fields, linking the fields with seasonal streams that ultimately feed into the river.  (L.A. Wyss, et al., Grass Seed Agriculture and Invertebrate Communities of Seasonal Wetlands in the Southern Willamette Valley, Seed Production Research at Oregon State University.  2010-Ext/CrS 130, 3/11.)  Significantly, a substantial portion of the agriculture involved is grass seed production; nearly all of Oregon’s grass seed is grown in this valley.  Those farms growing perennial grass seeds till their fields with reduced frequency, much to the advantage of the fish “hatcheries,” compared to fields growing annual varieties which are tilled every year.

The diversity of fish species (some 13 in all) found by Oregon State University researchers in the waterways in these fields from the fall to the spring is striking, particularly given that nearly all are native to Oregon.  This suggests that these fields may play a key role in sustaining native fish, providing them with relief from the non-natives and a sanctuary in which to spawn.  Among the native species found here are rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and Chinook salmon.  (G.R. Giannico, et al., Fish and Amphibian Use of Intermittent Agricultural Waterways in the South Willamette Valley, Oregon Seed Extension Research Program, Seed Production Research Report 2005.)

During summer these ditches are dry, the fish have worked their way to the river, and these seasonal ecosystems are gone . . . until the next wet months.

This NewsHour story would have garnered just a passing “that’s interesting” from me were it not that the piece makes specific mention of an invertebrate inhabitant of those ecosystems.  That was the hook for me – not the fish or the combination of fish and farmers’ fields.  One of my favorite invertebrates is an important member of those ecosystems and it gets about three seconds of fame beginning at 4:13 of the video.  At that moment, two of the researchers are examining some of the various invertebrates in a flooded ditch.  One says, “Oh, man, there’s a lot of ostracods.”  The other replies, “Oh, beautiful.”

That’s a wonderfully apt response when coming upon ostracodes (I’ll get to the differences in spelling in a moment), and one that I’ve voiced aloud often during countless hours spent peering through a microscope on the hunt for their fossilized shells (I’ll get to the fossil record in a moment as well).

These shrimp-like creatures are crustaceans, members of their own Class, the Ostracoda.  I have seen estimates of between 20,000 and 25,000 extant species.  (These estimates, possibly high, appear in two of the sources cited below – the chapter Ostracoda by Anne Cohen, et al., and the Preface by Noriyki Ikeya, et al.)  They live within two shells and usually don’t exceed two millimeters in length, often coming in at under half a millimeter.  The shells, frequently oval or almond shaped, are shed periodically as the animal grows to maturity.  The variety in shell ornamentation is remarkable.  The shell surfaces of some ostracodes are elaborately ornate with ridges, knobs, and grooves, some sport protrusions like wings, others are plain and smooth.  Among the Ostracoda are scavengers, herbivores, predators, and suspension feeders.

Ostracodes appear in a variety of YouTube videos.  A particularly informative one can be found here.  It shows the shell arrangement of some of these animals (fresh water ostracodes, I believe), their mode of locomotion, and variety of sizes (juveniles and adults appear).  The shells of these particular ostracodes are relatively plain.

To get a sense of the intricate patterns that may appear on ostracode shells, here are pictures of shells of extant marine species from the Atlantic Ocean.  (These were downloaded from the Smithsonian Institution and used under the terms of copyright “fair use” as defined by the Smithsonian.)  The first is of Henryhowella cf. asperrima; the second is of Cytheropteron perlaria.  (In terms of size, the first shell shown is 200 microns (μm) or 0.2 millimeters.  The second is even smaller.  A micron is one millionth of a meter or a thousandth of a millimeter.  An inch equals 25,400 microns.)

One of the most distinguishing attributes of these organisms is their ubiquity in water.
They are found today in almost all aquatic environments including hot springs, caves, within the water table, semi-terrestrial environments, in both fresh and marine waters, within the water column as well as on (and in) the substrate.  In fact almost anywhere that’s wet, even if only for a brief period!
This quotation is from Ostracods, found on the Microfossil Image Recovery And Circulation for Learning and Education (MIRACLE) website of the University College London’s Micropalaeontology Unit.  Other basic information about ostracodes can be found in various sources on the web, including Anne C. Cohen, et al., in their chapter Ostracoda in The Light & Smith Manual:  Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California to Oregon (edited by James T. Carlton, 2007).

After this digression regarding sources, I suppose it’s appropriate to address the spelling (and pronunciation) issue.  Ostracode or ostracod?  Either will do.  The scientists managing the listserv for the International Research Group on Ostracoda, a list for the exchange of research on Ostracoda, made it clear that both spellings of the “vernacular” name would be acceptable on the list (“and any others your keyboard may happen to substitute”), though they admit they prefer ostracode.  They really wanted to forestall any replay of the “bitter controversy” over the spelling – “We are as unlikely to settle the issue as we are to unite all religions and stamp out all disease.”  That said, when it’s in my control, I use ostracode.

In the fossil record, ostracodes are known by their shells from the Ordovician – over 450 million years of fossil evidence – not too shabby.  Fossil shells from ostracode-like animals go back even further.  One source asserts that “[o]stracods have the best fossil record any arthropod group,” and that includes the trilobites.  Not surprisingly, given how long they’ve been around, the number of ostracode species that have been identified in the fossil record greatly exceeds the number of extant species.  (Noriyki Ikeya, et al., Preface:  The phylogeny, fossil record and ecological diversity of ostracod crustaceans, in Evolution and Diversity of Ostracoda, Hydobiologia, 2005, p. xi.)  As paleontologist Donald Prothero notes, “A small sample of almost any Phanerozoic [the eon from the Precambrian to the present] biogenic sediment yields ostracodes in abundance.”  (Bringing Fossils to Life:  An Introduction of Paleobiology, 1998, p. 267.)

No question about it, ostracodes are survivors.  Their history is long and their reach is broad.

And fossil ostracode shells are beautiful.  To suggest some of their beauty as fossils, here is a photograph of a Cretaceous fossil ostracode shell, Cythereis ornatissima.  (As with the previous pictures, this one was downloaded from the Smithsonian website.)

I draw some of the fossil ostracodes I find.  As I do, my appreciation for the intricacy of some of the shell surfaces only increases.  This Cretaceous ostracode is a case in point; it’s Fissocarinocythere pidgeoni.

I’ll conclude with a question triggered by NewsHour piece about fish and farming in the Willamette Valley.
How do the ostracodes return each year to the seasonal wetlands and farmers’ ditches in the Willamette Valley?
This question doesn't include any sense of surprise that they do return – never be surprised by these little survivors.  Rather, it just reflects an interest in the means they use in this instance.  Perhaps the species found darting in these watery environments (and helping to feed the fish) are those whose eggs dry out when water goes, only to be revived and hatch when water returns.  I think it unlikely the animals can swim the necessary distance on their own, but, perhaps the force of the water flowing into and out of the fields is sufficient to carry the juvenile and mature ostracodes back and forth.  Prothero’s description of ostracodes suggests a couple of additional, possible methods ostracodes might use to populate the fields.  “Although they cannot fly, freshwater ostracodes can disperse through the air when their tiny eggs are carried in the mud stuck to the feet of birds, or [are] blown from pond to pond.”  (Bringing Fossils to Life, p. 267.)

A pretty neat little critter.

From the plethora of extremophiles to the abundance of ostracodes occupying nearly all watery niches, it's  hard to escape the conclusion that life usually does manage to make an appearance.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Questing After Species - Tales of Squirrels and Sharks

“What does the Questing Beast look like?” 
“Ah, we call it the Beast Glatisant, you know,” replied the monarch, assuming a learned air and beginning to speak quite volubly.  “Now the Beast Glatisant, or, as we say in English, the Questing Beast – you may call it either,” he added graciously –“this Beast has the head of a serpent, ah, and the body of libbard, the haunches of a lion, and he is footed like a hart.  Wherever this beast goes he make a noise in his belly as it had been the noise of thirty couple of hounds questing.”
“It must a dreadful kind of monster,” said the Wart, looking about him anxiously. 
“A dreadful monster,” repeated the other complacently.  “It is the Beast Glatisant, you know.” 
“And how do you follow it?” 
This seemed to be the wrong kind of question for King Pellinore immediately began to look much more depressed than ever, and glanced over his shoulder so hurriedly that his visor shut down altogether.
                                             ~ T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone (1939)

The King Pellinore of the Arthurian legend, as he is envisioned by T.H. White, is a befuddled, fumbling, gentle old man, in endless pursuit of the Questing Beast, an animal, despite the resemblance of its various parts to other animals, that is so clearly an entity apart, a different thing.  It’s that type of a seemingly eternal hunt that I share with Pellinore (though possibly I share other of his attributes as well).  In my case, I am in search of an understanding of what defines a species when working with fossils; as far as I can tell, this may be a quest without end.  This posting is an inchoate report from the quest.

To the amateur, the non-scientist, the literature on what constitutes a species is often a wild wood sporting thickets of thorny concepts and impenetrable language.  There are some capable guides who will take someone like me along different paths through the wood, though these paths may not lead to the same places.  There are, to say the least, disagreements as to what is a species and how to delimit such a thing.

There is no gainsaying the importance of this effort.  Paleontologist Donald Prothero asserts,
The species is the fundamental taxonomic unit in nature, the only such category that has biological reality.  How we determine whether a particular group is a phylum, class, order, or genus is largely arbitrary – but species have an existence outside the minds of scientists. (Bringing Fossils to Life:  An Introduction to Paleobiology, 1998, p. 35.)
I’ve been reading what the preeminent evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1904 – 2005) believed constitutes a species.  Of particular interest is what he wrote about the change in naturalists’ concept of a species early in the 20th century.  Prior to this period, according to Mayr (What Evolution Is, 2001, p. 161 et seq.), the traditional typological species concept held sway – for the most part, physical attributes were what largely distinguished one species from another.  Darwin, for example, noted in On the Origin of Species (1st edition, 1859), “From these remarks it will be seen that I look at the term species, as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, . . . .”  (emphasis added)  (Darwin, unlike Prothero, acknowledges an arbitrariness to the concept.)

But at the turn of the century, the typological concept, wrote Mayr, gave way to the biological species concept, a concept centered on whether discrete populations could interbreed successfully.  It was a concept and change which Mayr championed.  In his account, the shift was prompted by a growing awareness of two species phenomena that profoundly challenged the typological species concept.  The first of these were cryptic or sibling species – different extant species with virtually indistinguishable taxonomic characteristics that can be found living in the same geographic areas, but which do not interbreed.  Mayr described such species as “remarkably common.”  Based on morphology alone, a clutch of more than one cryptic species would be deemed a single species.

The second of these phenomenon to undermine the typological concept is the reverse of the first, called by some polymorphic species.  (See, for example, Prehistoric Life:  Evolution and the Fossil Record by Bruce S. Lieberman and Roger L. Kaesler, 2010.)  These populations are different in terms of their typological characteristics but they do interbreed; hence, despite their divergent physical appearances, they are not different species.  Assessing just the morphology of a polymorphic species would lead someone to identify two separate species, when, in fact, there is only one.

And the morphology of organisms is what paleontology has to go on, and, indeed, only some of those physical attributes of extinct organisms is often all there is to work with in the effort to distinguish among species.  Knowledge of interbreeding is beyond its reach.  So, regardless of how much the reality of cryptic and polymorphic species may put the lie to some of the species identified in the fossil record, such errors may be the inevitable price that has to be paid.

I’ve found Prothero’s treatment of the same topics an enlightening counterpoint to Mayr, principally for the strength of its advocacy of the typological concept.  He indicts the biological species concept, not because it’s wrong, but because it is “so impractical” (i.e., observing mating among even extant populations is highly problematic), and observes that even “most biologists define species on morphological criteria alone.”  But he is careful to ensure that the crucial, ultimate reality inherent in the biological definition is not lost.
[O]rganisms recognize each other as members of the same species, especially when they are choosing a mate.  If the species differences have meaning to the organisms themselves, then biologists view them as the “real thing” that we are trying to approximate when we name species based on morphological features.  (p. 36)
Here then is the essence of my current understanding.  The identification of species based on differences in morphology, which is all we can do with fossils, serves to approximate the biological reality.  Well and good.  But my new appreciation of cryptic and polymorphic species is salutary in this context, suggesting that the physical attributes captured in fossils that are purported to identify species, sometimes may not.  That’s important to keep in mind.  As will be made clear below, I've found the work of paleontologist Alton Dooley to be immeasurably helpful in shaping my thoughts.

Two stories highlight some of the sources of my frustration and interest in this issue, and show that this issue isn’t just academic.  One is about extant squirrels, the other about Miocene sharks.

The Squirrels

Alton Dooley, paleontologist at the Virginia Natural History Museum, posted recently on his blog about the fascinating work he and the Museum’s mammalogist have been doing.  (Updates From the Paleontology Lab, February 29, 2012.)  His posting highlights some of the findings from a paper the two of them have published, identifying a novel way to distinguish the skeletal remains of the eastern fox squirrel, Sciurus niger, from those of the eastern gray squirrel, S. carolinensis.

Separating these two species when all that you have are skeletal remains is exceedingly difficult because of the overlap of some characteristics, such as size, and variation in other characteristics within each species.  Though a tell-tale difference between the two species is a tiny premolar present only in the S. carolinensis, that portion of the upper jaw is often not preserved, rendering that marker problematic.  Instead, in a clever approach, Dooley and Nancy Moncrief capitalized on the fact S. niger has a genetic condition which causes an enzyme to build up in the animal’s bones and teeth.  As a result, the skeletal remains of the S. niger fluoresce under ultraviolet light.  Those of S. carolinensis do not.  Despite several limitations to this test, Dooley demonstrated its utility in distinguishing between the two species in a set of 7,000 year old skeletal remains.

So, without use of an ultraviolet light, a mixture of ancient skeletal remains from these two species would in all likelihood be incorrectly considered representative of a single species.

The Sharks

On a hunt for fossils on the beach at the base of the Calvert Cliffs, I came upon this small block of gray clay that had fallen from the cliff face.

Here’s the tip of jewel circled.

Stumbling on this fossil precipitated one of those moments where time’s arrow pauses.  After several moments, I had the presence of mind to remove my gloves and reach for my camera.  Later, at home, I carefully cleaned away the matrix exposing a relatively large Miocene fossil shark tooth with a nearly pristine set of serrations.

So, what do I have?  Well, that’s a bit problematic.  Though there’s been a simmering debate over the genus name that might be applied to teeth like this (a debate which has everything to do with whether this line of sharks can claim the wonderful, extant great white), I’m persuaded by the camp (seemingly in the majority now) that believes the line this tooth belongs to went extinct in the Pliocene, so no great white on its résumé.  I’m going with the genus name Carcharocles.  (The alternative genus name, Carcharodon, is used by those seeing this line leading to the great white, Carcharodon carcharias.)  (For a useful, though rambling discussion of the competing schools of thought, see Megalodon:  Hunting the Hunter, by Mark Renz, 2002.)

Actually, it’s the species name that raises the real questions in my mind about this tooth and about species designations in general.  My evident choices from the middle Miocene (generally the period producing teeth at this stretch of the Calvert Cliffs - and I cannot be more precise because I'm not sure which bed this tooth eroded from) are C. chubutensis and C. megalodon.  The latter is the holy grail for many fossil hunters, the source of the largest of large fossil shark teeth.  C. chubutensis is generally thought to have preceded C. megalodon; in the words of one source, it was a “short-lived chronospecies,” or a “bridge” from a previous Carcharocles species to megalodon.  (See Carcharocles by David Ward and Jim Bourdon on the web.)

The confusion arises because the factors used to distinguish these two species, including relative size and the presence of cusplets (small peaks in crowns on either side of the main cusp), are not dispositive.  In the picture below, the cusplets on my tooth are circled.  There’s nothing faint or doubtful about them.

Regarding size, although the biggest megalodon teeth (largest on record is nearly 7 inches) surpass those of chubutensis (maximum is at least 5 inches), there is significant overlap, particularly given that these sharks’ teeth increase significantly in size from juvenile to adult.  Adult chubutensis or juvenile megalodon?  Take your pick.

The presence or absence of cusplets is often treated as conclusive – if the tooth is adorned with cusplets, it must be a chubutensis . . . except, according to those in the know, during this time period, the teeth of juvenile megalodons sported cusplets.  That certainly complicates matters.

The treatment of some of the differences between these two species by Bretton Kent in Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994) captures the dilemma confronting the befuddled amateur fossil collector.
The teeth of C. megalodon differ from those of C. chubutensis in having a slightly broader crown and in lacking cusplets.  However, neither of these characteristics is absolutely definitive.  There are teeth known that are intermediate in form between these two species, such as having very weak, vestigial cusplets.  The understanding of these intermediate forms is problematical, since we lack sufficient information to decide between different possible interpretations of their significance.  Based on the available evidence, which is admittedly meager, they may simply indicate that C. chubutensis and C. megalodon are evolutionarily very closely related, but nevertheless distinct, species.  (p. 69)
The challenge in identifying a tooth like mine is that it falls in the gray zone – where neither size nor cusplets are clear evidence one way or the other.  Were it in the 4 to 5 inch range with cusplets, it would clearly be chubutensis; a similar size or larger without cusplets, megalodon.  The whole process is made incredibly complicated by natural variation, evolutionary changes, growth and change as the organism matures, overlapping ranges and time periods, and the limited physical features of these animals in the fossil record (primarily just teeth).

Closing Thoughts

In both of these stories, there was relatively little success when the physical or morphological attributes of the animals’ remains, fossilized or not, were used to differentiate between species.  And that’s about all that the taxonomist has to go on when dealing with fossils.

I asked Alton Dooley whether his work on the two squirrel species has anything to say about the biological validity of the often subtle morphological distinctions used to differentiate among species in the fossil record.

His answer was incredibly informative and has guided my thinking.  It merits some quoting.  (His full response is in the comment section of the squirrel posting on his blog.)

Paleontologists, he notes, are
using morphological differences as a proxy for reproductive isolation.  While this seems to work pretty well (using extant taxa as a model to test it), there are reasons for suspecting that this is not always reliable. . . .  Even if morphospecies don’t exactly correlate with biological species, they are something we identify and measure, and track through time, so they’re probably good proxies on average.
But given that such morphospecies are proxies for a biological phenomenon, he asks,
[W]hat is a biological species, anyway?  The species problem has been debated with no satisfactory answer probably since Linnaeus.  Darwin spent significant time discussing it in ‘Origin of Species’.  Ernst Mayr spent most of his career attempting to address the issue.  In spite of what high school biology students are taught, coming up with a clear-cut definition of species that applies across all organisms seems to be impossible.  It’s similar to the struggles to define “life”; no one can really define it, but we all know it when we see it.  Usually.  Except when we disagree.  And then there’s this one case that just doesn’t seem to fit . . . .
And so I resume my quest, armed with a bit more understanding and some direction from very capable guides.  I also head forth with a final bit of commentary from Dooley (so relevant to the shark story I just told).
I think most of the fossil shark taxa below the genus level are junk!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

You Know, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus ~ A Taxonomic Statement from The Firesign Theatre

In which the blogger reveals that he’s been thinking way too much about what constitutes a species when dealing with the fossil record (a topic for succeeding posts).  Even an appreciation for Peter Bergman and The Firesign Theatre has not been immune.

Peter Bergman, one of the founding geniuses of the comedy group The Firesign Theatre, died on March 9, 2012, at the age of 72.  Bergman, Phil Austin, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor formed Firesign in the mid-1960s.  As recounted on the troupe’s website,
Peter's audio career was launched in high school as an announcer on the school radio system, from which he was banished after his unauthorized announcement that the Chinese communists had taken over the school and that a "mandatory voluntary assembly was to take place immediately."  Russell Rupp, the school principal, promptly relieved Peter of his announcing gig.  Rupp was the inspiration for the Principal Poop character on "Don't Crush That Dwarf".  [With some trepidation, I corrected several typos in this excerpt.]
There hadn’t been anything quite like Firesign before its creation and the release of its first album in 1968, and there still hasn’t.  The troupe’s relentless, biting, and complex commentary on the human condition remains unique.

Paul Vitello in the obituary for Bergman in the New York Times (Peter Bergman, Satirist With the Firesign Theater, Dies at 72, March 9, 2012) wrote that the group was known for “a brand of sly, multilayered satire so dense it seemed riddled with non sequiturs until the second, third or 30th listening . . . .”  And when that 31st listening occurs four decades later, my most striking realization is that Firesign’s observations are as fresh and meaningful (though in perhaps different ways) as they were when first heard in some obscure college dormitory room.

In the obituary, Vitello struggled to find the place where the group fits (and it does fit) in the grand pavilion of artistic icons.  The weakest effort was his own when he wrote that “they were considered important forerunners of comedy shows like ‘Saturday Night Live.’”  Better was a quote he included from a 1972 New York Times article invoking James Joyce, and almost as good was the Los Angeles Times description, when one of the group’s albums was placed in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Register, that Firesign Theatre was “the Beatles of comedy.”

To get a sense of the company Firesign keeps, consider that when the Library of Congress added Firesign’s Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) to the National Recording Registry in 2005, among the other recordings entering in that same year were Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony’s Adagio for Strings, (1938), William Faulkner’s 1962 address at West Point, and Jimi Hendrix’s album Are You Experienced?  And in a what seems like a delightful Firesign twist on things, also entering in 2005 was a 1930 recording of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Op. 84, as performed by the Modesto (California) High School Band.  (See the full listing of titles in the NRR here.)

Though I was, and am, wonderfully entertained by the group’s political and historical commentary, its send-ups of science are exquisite.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have been certain there was a paleontologist in the troupe, or perhaps a geologist, well, at least, a biologist.  Only someone deeply immersed in the nuanced language of those sciences could have fashioned the “scientific” account of the creation of the earth and the evolution of life that appears in the group’s 1971 album I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.

In the midst of an account of the evolution of life, delivered in the Path of Science exhibit at the Future Fair (an out-of-control Disneyland-like place), appears the following:
Animals without backbones hid from each other or fell down.  Clamasaurs and Oysterettes appeared as appetizers.  Then came the sponges which sucked up about ten percent of all life.  Hundreds of years later, in the Late Devouring Period, fish became obnoxious.  Trailerbites, chiggerbites, and mosquitoes collided aimlessly in the dense gas.  Finally, tiny edible plants sprang up in rows giving birth to generations of insecticides and other small dying creatures.
So perfect – “in the Late Devouring Period, fish became obnoxious.”

As the “story” develops in this album, our main character Clem is riding on the bus to the Future Fair when he is told by Barney, who is seated next to him,
You know, I think we’re all bozos on this bus.
(This can be heard in a brief clip from the album on the Firesign website).  Listening to this Firesign production for the 31st time was actually the first time that I considered whether Barney’s statement was true.  The large noses (“squeeze the wheeze”), wigs, and inflated shoes are dead giveaways for some of the riders, including Barney, but, at least regarding Clem, it’s unclear.  Yes, he admits to Barney, “My mother was a bozoette at school.”  And when Barney advises him to inflate his shoes before leaving the bus, he responds, “Oh, I don’t wear them anymore, I gave them up years ago.”  So, is he a bozo or not?

This is quintessentially the kind of taxonomic question I’ve been asking of fossils all the time.  I have species on the brain.

What is this fossil?

What’s its genus, its species?

Is there something that truly distinguishes one from the other?

Or, are they all bozos?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lessons from the Unknown

There are 15 or 20 sparrows in the backyard
and 2 which may be grackles.  I look it up:
yes – grackles, “black with metallic hues . . .”
but are they also “iridescent in the sunlight”?
          ~ from the poem With Sharp Voices by Roland Flint

I have a small cluster of items arrayed on my desk and on my computer screen that have kept me thinking about what it means when we label something as “unknown” or “unidentified.”  These are the unknowns of this posting.  Two are fossils, two are photographs of people.  I’ve drawn several lessons from my efforts to identify these.
Unknowns are idiosyncratic; often mine are just mine, not yours.
● We may not know what we think we know.
● At times, as in the first stanza (above) from With Sharp Voices, we’re actually dealing with uncertainty, not an unknown.
● Even if our information is wrong, where it takes us may be worth it.
● Serendipitous connections may make all the difference.
Here then are the things I’ve been wrestling with.

College, the Spring of 1942

One day in the spring of 1942, eleven women were photographed in front of a building on the campus of a small, liberal arts college in New England.  These were the student leaders of women’s sports.  A photograph was taken and is now a curated piece of college history, residing in the institution’s online digital archives.  And that’s where I found it.  (Respecting my mother-in-law’s privacy, I’ve chosen not to post the picture or a link to it.)

When searching for my mother-in-law’s name on the college’s website, a link to this photograph came up because her name is on the list of women captured in the photograph.  Seemed like a great find until, on closer inspection, I concluded that the young woman in question is not actually my mother-in-law; in fact, my mother-in-law isn’t in the picture at all.  In addition, two of the women are identified as unknown.

Determining who these women actually are shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle for this 70-year old photograph.  We know a great deal about it – general date, location, and possible names of most of the women who posed for it.  If any are still alive, they might be able to fill in the blanks.  Further, my mother-in-law, who is very much alive, might be able to shed some light on the issue, after she gets over the disappointment of not really being in the photo.  So I’ve sent it to her and will see what happens.

Apropos of unknowns, in this instance I didn’t start with total ignorance and, with some luck, the photograph may get into the right hands and some answers may be forthcoming.   Also, some of what was "known" wasn’t – there’s merit in challenging the known.

Incertae Sedis

This fossil (3 ½ inches from top to bottom as oriented in the photo below) shows the imprint of a plant stem and some alternating leaves; I believe their shape is lanceolate, though ends of the leaves are missing.  Disassociated leaves and perhaps another stem appear to be spread across the face of the rock.  On the back is a manually typed label which reads:
Podazuntes lanceolate
Cretaceous Period

This specimen is an orphan from a collection built by a now deceased husband and wife.  I posted previously on the collection’s dissolution.

Earlier this month, I began a simple quest to learn a little more about this fossil’s genus and species.  A search for this genus name came up completely dry, not a single hit for Podazuntes on Google or Bing.  For a moment I regretted that I’d even started this.  I then tried to a more scattershot approach by searching for discussions of Cretaceous plant fossils in Japan.  With that I stumbled on references to the plant genus Podozamites.  Seemed similar enough to the name on the label for this whole thing to be the kind of mistake I might make trying to read my own handwriting while typing up a label.  Seemed more certain I was on the right path when I found this genus frequently paired with the species name lanceolatus.

Cambridge University botany professor A.C. Seward’s Fossil Plants:  A Textbook for Students of Botany and Geology (1919, p. 448) contained the following wonderful drawing of a specimen of Podozamites lanceolatus from the British Museum.

The resemblance of this specimen to my mangled bit of a fossil was sufficient for me to cast it into the Podozamites lanceolatus camp.

Though I found some research pieces that discussed aspects of the Podozamites, the chapter that Seward wrote nearly a century ago was the best of the lot.  He wrestled with some key issues regarding the genus, foremost among them, what was its fundamental affinity?  Is it a cycad (a plant featuring some palm-like characteristics)?  A conifer?  He wrote:
Additional data are needed before we can settle the position of Podozamites, but such information as we have may be said to point to the conclusion that it is nearer to Conifers or the Ginkgoales than to any other group of Gymnosperms.  (p. 451)
Seward identifies Podozamites as a genera incertae sedis.  In taxonomy, the Latin term incertae sedis means “of uncertain taxonomic position.”  (Glossary of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th Edition.)  By applying the phrase genera incertae sedis to Podozamites, I read Seward as saying that the definition of this genus itself, or its relationship to others, was unclear, in an unsettled position.  It’s a great phrase – we know something but not enough.

So, from a work produced a hundred years ago, I’ve come up with an identification that was, at the time, surrounded by uncertainty.  And I think some uncertainty continues to be associated with this genus.  For example, in Paleobotany and the Evolution of Plants (1993), Wilson Nichols Stewart and Gar W. Rothwell suggest some key elements still are not conclusively known, such as the kind of leaves these actually are.  They use the term “coniferlike” which, in my mind, clearly leaves some wiggle room.  Nevertheless, this is better than what follows.

A Rock

A fossil came to me several weeks ago following the death of my wife’s aunt, a profoundly intelligent woman whose breadth of knowledge and interests were legend, as were her attention to detail and the precision of her use of language.  These attributes rose to the fore during her career as a professor of neuroanatomy and in her extensive work on the genealogy of her extended family.  No question about it, she could be counted on to get labels right.

The 3 inch long fossil is shown below.

It came to me with no label, no backstory.  Sans provenance, it’s just a rock.  At first I was surprised that it carried no clearly demarcated history.  That seemed so unlike her, but I realized that the message for me was that sometimes my unknowns may be just mine.  She may well have remembered fully where this fossil came from and, indeed, may have had some knowledge of its biological taxonomy.  Or she didn’t remember, perhaps never knew, and possibly didn’t care.  We have only so much energy and time.  At present, my efforts on its behalf have been minimal.  It remains a rock.

Reginald Bathurst Birch?

I have a small collection of cartes-de-visite (CDVs), the small cards (2 ½” x 4”) with paper photographs glued to them which were all the rage in the middle of the 19th century, particularly in the United States.  They reflected a key development in the history of photography – the creation of a reliable process to produce good paper copies of photographs from glass plate negatives.  Most of the images on CDVs are portraits of people.

Several weeks ago I purchased a CDV in an antique store, attracted by the composition of the photograph on the card.  It shows a young man, nattily dressed, staring directly into the camera and, so, directly at the viewer.  Who is the subject?  When was the photograph taken and by whom?  Great questions that I cannot answer.

Unfortunately, the card carries no photographer’s imprint, leaving me with no information about the photographer and depriving me of a key resource for dating the card.  Absence of an imprint doesn’t preclude determining something about the age of the card – one can examine the cardstock used in producing the CDV (e.g., in later decades the cardstock was typically thicker), the edging around the image, as well as the pose of the subject.  In the case of this card, my guess is that it is the product of the 1870s or 1880s.

As to the identity of the subject, the reverse of this CDV does offer a couple of intriguing clues for exploration.  Presumably the subject was 18 years old when the photograph was taken.  I cannot identify the symbol next to the age or the squiggle that follows.  The question written below that appears to have been printed using a ballpoint pen, meaning it was added to the back of the carte sometime after the initial decades of the 1900s.  I took the obvious next step and went in pursuit of Reginald Bathurst Birch, assuming that at best I might find a lead in some genealogical records.  Instead, I was transported to the children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For many decades, Birch (1856 -1943) was one of the premier book illustrators in the U.S.  (For a brief overview of his career, see Drawn to Enchant, by Timothy G. Young, 2007, p. 200.)  His drawings for the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849 – 1924), published in 1886, made his reputation.  His drawings offered the public the iconic images of Cedric Errol as Little Lord Fauntleroy, with his velvet suit, lace collar, frilly shirt fronts, and long, curly locks of hair.  The image below is from the 7th edition of the novel published in 1888 (this suggests something of the incredible success of the novel – only two years after publication, it was already into its 7th edition).

Birch never again achieved the same success as he did with Fauntleroy but he had a long, if bumpy, career.  He produced some fine drawings that graced many children’s books.  I am taken with his action scenes, particularly those involving sword play, as the one below from The Story of Roland, by James Baldwin (no, not that James Baldwin), copyrighted 1883 and 1888.  The edition I’ve taken this image from is dated 1892.

Though the question on the back of the CDV prompted a fascinating bit of exploration, I don’t have an answer to it.  Is the 18 year old captured by in this photograph, Birch?  If so, the photograph was taken in 1874.  That’s possible given the range of dates I’ve proposed for the CDV.  Here is Birch in what I guess is late middle age (image is in the public domain and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons).  Does the teen in my CDV look like him?

Actually, I think he does.  Finding out about Birch was interesting, but, ultimately, it remains only a very remote possibility that Birch’s image was captured in my carte.

Uncle Dave

Though it’s not an unknown that I experienced personally, I was moved to include a brief account of this fifth item because it illustrates so clearly the role of happenstance in resolving the unknown.  As I wrote in an previous posting, the Library of Congress has a large collection of photographs of Civil War soldiers and their relatives on display.  One shows a young Confederate cavalry man.  Though his military unit has been deduced from his uniform and weapons, the Library had no name for him.  He was unknown.

A recent Washington Post supplement on the Civil War ran an advertisement from the Library, featuring a selection of images from the collection, including the one of this unknown cavalryman.  Well, he was unknown until a reader of the supplement glanced at the array of images in the ad and immediately recognized “Uncle Dave,” one of her husband’s ancestors.  The family owns a “crayon enlargement” of the same photograph.  The young man was David M. Thatcher who enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 at age 17 and was killed in the Battle of Buckland Mills in 1863.  (Man in Civil War Photo, Long Unidentified, Finally Gets His Name Back, by Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, March 9, 2012.)  Such a great example of serendipity at work, as well as evidence that one person’s unknown isn’t another’s.

A Final Comment

The first stanza of the poem which began this rambling exposition left us hanging – were there grackles among the sparrows?  Were their feathers “iridescent in the sunlight” as the guide book described?  The next stanza reads:
Hard to tell, as there is little sun today,
yet the primary and secondary feathers are
certainly speckled, as might take a shine,
and the sun comes out, briefly, and they do.
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