Thursday, August 30, 2012

“When Time and Duty Permit” ~ Pursuit of Natural History During War

The intersection of natural history and war (particularly the American Civil War – 1861-1865) intrigues me.  Did men with a deep amateur or professional interest in natural history who were swept up into armies during wartime continue to pursue that interest while serving?  Yes, some did, at times even collecting specimens during hostilities.  Perhaps it’s not surprising they did, given the need to find respite from the stress and trauma of war.  (I wrote about this possible benefit from collecting in a post about Robert F. Scott and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1912.  Although the expedition was not technically a military operation, I think it’s relevant because Scott and his men were, at the time, fighting for their lives when he led them on a fossil hunt.)

A new exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, titled When Time and Duty Permit:  Collecting During World War II, pays tribute to American soldier-scientists who, during World War II (1941-1945), collected natural history specimens for the Museum.  Located on the ground floor of the Museum, up against a side wall, it’s small and easily missed – a great shame.

When I delved into the background to the exhibit’s material I found some support for the notion that sending people with a fascination for natural history off to war might, at times, have some untoward consequences – perhaps making for distracted soldiers who forsake the war for the pursuit of natural history, or even leading them (when they’re able) to redefine their military duty to accommodate collecting.

During WWII, the Smithsonian took a proactive role in recruiting and training soldiers to collect specimens, presumably prompted by some of the exotic, tropical places to which the American military forces were being sent.  Soldiers interested in collecting specimens received the Smithsonian’s Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, written by Smithsonian staff and published in 1944.  It was pocket-sized, to be sure (a convenient 4 ½ inches by 5 ½ inches).  Frankly, it’s striking how much the Smithsonian staff packed into the booklet’s mere 118 pages.  Users could read detailed instructions for collecting, preserving, labeling, and shipping an incredibly wide range of specimens, such as birds, mammals, insects, earthworms, mollusks, plants, fossils, and meteorites.  Specific procedures for dealing with certain kinds of specimens were covered, including how to skin mammals and birds, or how to create plaster of Paris jackets for fossils embedded in matrix.

The authors of the Field Collector’s Manual suggested that natural history collecting would provide “welcome and valuable recreation” for servicemen “as their duties permit.”  (p. 1-2)  It was expected that the upper reaches of the chain of command would look favorably on this activity.
It is believed that Commanding Officers will recognize the merit of those men who are seriously interested and will grant them the necessary permission to make small collections.  (p. 2)
I suspect they were a trifle optimistic in this regard, particularly in light of a couple of the stories which I recount in this post.  Anyway, the Field Collector’s Manual is an interesting little volume.  (I found a copy recently on eBay.)

Of the six soldier-scientists recognized in the exhibit (wait, that’s not quite right, not all of them were soldiers, more on that in a moment), only one, Sammy Ray is still living.  Ray, born in 1919, had recently graduated with a degree in biology from Louisiana State University when he joined the Navy as a pharmacist’s mate first class and served with the 1st Marine Division.  Trained as a bird zoologist, Ray was recruited by Smithsonian Assistant Director Alexander Wetmore (shortly to become Secretary) to collect for the Museum.  When the 1st Marine Division was sent to the South Pacific, Ray proved to be a singular asset sending the Museum 171 exotic birds.  The exhibit displays a few of his specimens which, despite the passage of roughly 70 years and their obvious death poses (Ray’s handiwork), still radiate vibrant colors.  (In my picture taking, I am invariably defeated by glassed-in displays.  The pictures below are no exception.)

Ray acknowledged the invariable tension between his military responsibilities and his natural history work when he wrote to Wetmore that he would collect specimens “when time and duty permit.”  Despite being in combat zones, Ray appears to have a struck a balance between duty and collecting that seems to have given collecting a fairly wide range of play.

In one incident, his pursuit of birds took him deep into a mangrove swamp where darkness overtook him before he could return to camp.  After spending an uncomfortable night in the swamp, he wandered back into camp the next morning only to find search parties having been assembled to search for him.  Hard to imagine this endeared him to his comrades or his superiors.  Though the exhibit asserts, quite properly, that, “For many soldiers, natural history studies provided a break from the stress of war,” those same “studies” came with their own set of stresses, particularly if the collector disappeared overnight.  Not surprisingly Ray’s commanding officer frowned on his collecting, but they struck a deal.  The colonel overlooked the bird collecting and, in exchange, the pharmacist’s first mate supplied him with medicinal alcohol.

In the exhibit, next to what is described as “box and tools typically used during World War II to collect natural history specimens,” is a picture of pharmacist’s first mate Ray.

Well, the meager equipment (scalpel, thread, presumably needle, etc.) shown in that box doesn’t reflect all that the Smithsonian provided some of its servicemen-collectors.  Ray was given a “collecting gun” – I’m thinking modified shotgun – which used “dust shot” to kill birds without seriously damaging their pelts.  “I was the most-armed non-combatant to ever hit the beach in the South Pacific,” he said.

After the war, he became a marine biologist, earning degrees from Rice University, and in 1957 joined the faculty of Texas A&M University Galveston where he remains.  Oysters have been one of his principal research focuses.

(Though Ray is featured in the exhibit, there’s not much background information provided.  I have relied on several pieces for my treatment of Sammy Ray, including the following:  WWII Navy Corpsman Collected Birds Between Pacific Theater Battles, Around The Mall:  Scenes and Sightings from the Smithsonian Museums and Beyond, July 13, 2012; and Sea Aggies Professor is Recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University Galveston.)

Among the other men identified in the exhibit is S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001).  Now, here’s another fascinating character.  Ripley, who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian, was born to wealth and privilege, and early on fell in love with birds.  After graduating from Yale, Ripley spent much of his time abroad, collecting birds.  Enrolled at Harvard in the early 1940s in pursuit of a doctorate in zoology, Ripley was hired by the Smithsonian as an associate curator of birds in 1942, but soon resigned to join the war effort as a civilian member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he was trained as a spy and a spy master.  (I must admit that I didn’t do due diligence on Ripley having relied, for better or worse, on a delightful profile published in The New Yorker on August 26, 1950, titled Curator Getting Around, by Geoffrey T. Hellman.)

Stationed in such places as India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Ripley did not ignore birds.  Looking back, he said, “I thought about birds all during the war.”  Of Ripley and another Smithsonian scientist who joined the OSS, Herbert G. Deignan (1906-1968), the exhibit notes:  “During their free time, they collected the local flora and fauna to study and send back to the Museum.”  I wonder about the implied secondary status of collecting to duty in that sentence.  Geoffrey Hellman in his New Yorker piece certainly offers that Ripley approached it differently.
The fact that ornithology, like archeology and butterfly-collecting, has often served as a cover for espionage and other extraterritorial political activity constitutes, in his [Ripley’s] opinion, a regrettable subordination of the affairs of birds to those of men and a distasteful violation of the rules of proportion.  He has done his best to restore the balance.  Ripley is as patriotic as the next ornithologist or aviculturist, and he has functioned with airy competence both as a political observer and as a secret agent, but in so doing he has on occasion reversed the politics-and-espionage-through-ornithology formula.  He once posed as a man of considerable political influence in order to gain access to an extremely esoteric birdy terrain in the Himalayas.  During the war against Japan, he took advantage of his position as chief of the Office of Strategic Services’ Secret Intelligence branch in southeast Asia to make an avifaunal survey of Ceylon.
Duty redefined.

And the Smithsonian reached an agreement with him, providing collecting equipment for the bird survey in exchange for the birds so obtained.  Among the tools he received was a shotgun (similar to the one sent Ray?).

The intersection of collecting and duty was not without its moments of revealing levity.  Among the birds Ripley secured for the Museum was a green woodpecker, a Picus chlorolophys wellsi under the following circumstances.  He caught the little woodpecker in Kandy (in Ceylon)
one afternoon in 1944 while tidying himself up for a cocktail party that was being given by Lieutenant General Raymond A. Wheeler, the American Deputy Supreme Allied Commander on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of the South East Asia Command.  At the time, Ripley was living, and shaving, in a palm-leaf hut a hundred yards from the site of the cocktail party, an outdoor affair.  He caught sight of the Picus while in mid-lather.  Dressed only in a bath towel, he grabbed his gun, rushed out, and hanged [sic] away.  [Clearly, “banged away” was what Hellman wrote, though I did enjoy the typo in this transcription.]  His towel fell off, and as he ran up to retrieve the bird, he noticed a number of officers and ladies, Martinis in hand, peering at him over some tea bushes that separated him from the festivity.  He joined them a few minutes later, and modestly advised Mountbatten, who had greeted him a trifle coolly, that the Picus, though up to then unrepresented in his collection, was not unknown to science.
In the picture below, taken in OSS quarters, Ceylon, 1945, Ripley (clothed) is second from the left.  (This photo was taken from the Smithsonian webpage announcing the opening of the exhibit.)

It’s a complicated business this mixing of natural history and war and it plays out in fascinating ways.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Bystander? ~ A Bone to Pick With Cristián Samper

In which the blogger overreacts to a comment and really ends up in the soup . . . of climate change.
Cristián Samper assumed the helm of the Wildlife Conservation Society this month, leaving the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) which he had directed for nearly a decade.  It’s an impressive move for the biologist who compiled a brilliant track record at the NMNH.  The NMNH which has a mission of “inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world,” maintains a collection of some 126 million objects of natural history, employs about 460 individuals, and has annual operating resources of over $68 million.  In contrast, the Society, with a mission to “save wildlife and wild places across the globe,” runs four zoos and an aquarium in New York City, supports 500 research projects in 60 countries, employs some 4,000 individuals, and has an annual budget of  $200 million.

The Society’s gain is the Museum’s great loss, though the pain of the loss has been lessened wonderfully by the recent announcement that paleontologist Kirk Johnson, chief curator and VP of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has been appointed the new director of the Museum.  (Kirk Johnson Named Director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Newsdesk, Smithsonian Institution, July 26, 2012.)

I am annoyed with Samper because of his explanation of why he made the move.  It’s a rationale that really rankles and prompted this post in protest.  But first, some context which, in all fairness, only redounds to Samper’s credit, burnishing his reputation.

Nearly a decade ago, science within the entire enterprise of the Smithsonian Institution was under threat.  The scientific mission of the Institution was being compromised by budgetary pressures, organizational dysfunction, and ignorance in political and public circles of that very scientific mission.  The nation’s “attic” had become a repository of art and “treasures” of various stripes, crowding out, in the perception of many, the scientific work that was, and is, at the core of the Institution’s being.

In response, the Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed a Science Commission charged with advising the Institution about the priorities it should set for research and recommending how it should change to live up to its historic mission in science.  In delineating the Smithsonian’s problems, the Science Commission spoke directly about the status of the NMNH, and particularly its leadership.  Despite being “one of the world’s great museums of natural and cultural history,” the NMNH was hamstrung by
an erosion of staff morale, a lack of coherence of programs, turf battles, strategically poor hiring decisions (including administrative positions), lowered productivity, uneven standards for evaluating performance, and a bunker mentality of entitlement in the face of shrinking budgets. (Report of the Smithsonian Institution Science Commission, December 2002,  p. 36.)
Most telling, according to the Commission, the Museum had suffered from instability at the director’s level for over two decades, failing to recruit the best people for the position in part because Smithsonian’s upper management failed to accord the director appropriate authority and responsibility.

Among its many recommendations, the Commission had this counsel for the Board of Regents:
The NMNH must have a distinguished scientist as Director who, in consultation with the scientific staff and outside experts, will chart and champion a new, more focused mission for the Museum. The next Director must develop a clear, integrated vision that will re-energize Museum science, increase public benefits, expand partnerships and collaborations with other institutions, and drive a long-term development campaign.  (p. 37.)
For biologist Cristián Samper, at the time the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the leadership post at the Museum he assumed in 2003 was a huge step up.  As far as I can tell, the Costa Rican-born and Colombian native Samper has fulfilled every aspect of the Commission’s recommendation, and then some.  During the intervening nearly 10 years, the Museum thrived under his guidance, taking major steps to improve (and renovate) its public face and strengthen its financial position.

For me, this story of a scientist gracefully and effectively leading a premier scientific institution and then assuming the reins of another is slightly marred by the comment Samper made explaining his move (and reported by Lisa W. Foderaro in the New York Times).  I don’t have much quarrel with his assertion that the constellation of zoos and aquarium of the Wildlife Conservation Society is “much cooler” than the NMNH.  However misguided that opinion, to each his own.  (As Species Vanish, Taking Up a Mission to Protect Birds and Beasts, by Lisa W. Foderaro, New York Times, August 1, 2012.)  But I do take umbrage with what he added.  Samper spoke about the rapid pace of species extinction globally and then noted,
Part of my decision to make this career change is that I feel I can’t be a bystander. This is an opportunity to protect and conserve these species.
I can’t be a bystander.

What exactly does that mean?  Is Samper in agreement with Times reporter Foderaro’s invidious comparison between the two institutions – the NMNH with “a vast collection that lies mostly in drawers and jars” and the Society with “one that actively prowls four of the five boroughs”?  The dusty, long dead versus the vibrant, endangered living?

I appreciate the mission of the Society and recognize its importance.  Samper views his new position as putting him in the frontlines of the fight to protect the planet and its wild things from environmental degradation and the dire consequences of climate change.  Zoos may well serve as the final haven for species on the brink of extinction.  It’s a daunting task that he has undertaken.

Still, I cannot shake a touch of anger that he feels that, for almost a decade at the helm of the NMNH, he was merely a bystander.  If indeed he was on the sidelines, it was not a function of the mission and the science that the NMNH has, and could have, undertaken during his watch.

There are many ways to shape the counter argument which in essence asserts that what we learn from the collection of specimens that “lies mostly in drawers and jars” is critical for fighting the fight which Samper now wages from what he perceives are the frontlines of the battle.  Let me try to make the argument from the perspective of one of the scientific disciplines that is at the core of NMNH activities – paleontology.

Knowledge gained from study of the remnants of ancient life builds our understanding of what life on this planet has confronted and how it may respond to monumental challenges, including that of global warming..  The long look back of paleontology offers us insight into how flora and fauna have, or have not, survived calamitous changes in the environment.  Indeed, knowledge of how the climate changed in the distant past and its consequences comes, in part, from that very study of fossils (and, particularly, microfossils).  The sense of urgency that many have about the fate of the planet derives from the stories that the fossil record has to tell.

This general proposition – that paleontological study informs our perception of the threats faced and helps to identify potential outcomes – was driven home by an article in this month’s Scientific American by climate scientist Ken Caldeira.  (The Great Climate Experiment:  How Far Can We Push The Planet?, Scientific American, September, 2012.)

Caldeira, at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology (Stanford University), is one of those trying to sound a clarion call to action about the factors that are changing the climate and that will probably continue to do so for thousands of years, even if the rate at which carbon dioxide (the currently identified villain in the piece) enters the atmosphere drops precipitously.

As much as critics may disparage the mathematical models upon which predictions of future climate change are based, Caldeira argues that they have tracked well with the changes currently upon us.
Already we are witnessing the future envisioned by many of these models take shape.  As predicted, there has been more warming over land than over the oceans, more at the poles than near the equator, more in winter than in summer and more at night than in the day.  Extreme downpours have become more common.  In the Arctic, ice and snow cover less area, and methane-rich permafrost soils are beginning to melt.  Weather is getting weirder, with storms fueled by the additional heat.
He adds,
The greenhouse that is forming now will have consequences that last for hundreds of thousands of years or more.  But first, it will profoundly affect much of life on the planet – especially us.
In his eyes, what the future holds poses immense challenges to life.  Without action on our part, temperatures will rise, with higher average temperatures moving toward the poles – mobile species may adapt to that, others probably will not.  The planet’s desert bands will creep poleward.  Climate change will probably lead to increased crop productivity overall, though this will be concentrated in countries in the northern latitudes, further impoverishing countries near the equator.  The net result will be to “give more to the rich and less to the poor.”  Increased acidity in the oceans will imperil species dependent upon coral reefs, a sizeable portion of all marine live.  Still, Caldeira is optimistic that Earth will not enter a “feedback loop” that condemns us to a Venusian future.

Nevertheless, there will be hothouse conditions and he feels “[h]uman civilization is at risk”  Regional differences in the impact of climate change may fuel social and political unrest as populations seek to move to more hospitable environments.  “The social response to climate change could produce bigger problems for humanity than the climate change itself.”

In light of Samper's comment, what strikes me most forcefully about Caldeira's analysis is the extent to which his understanding of earth’s climate, past, present, and future, is based on paleontology, one of the hallmark disciplines represented by the NMNH's collections and research efforts.

The Cretaceous Period (145 to 65 million years ago), in particular, figures prominently in Caldeira’s article.  According to him, this is the “best historical example” for the future toward which we are moving.  It was a time “when moist, hot air enveloped dinosaurs’ leathery skin, crocodilelike creatures swam in the Arctic and teeming plant life flourished in the CO2-rich air.”  The temperatures at the poles averaged some 14 degrees C (57 degrees F) and in the summer rose above 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).  Ocean levels were appreciably higher.  In short, life and the planet were markedly different.

How do we know all of this?  A significant portion of the evidence comes from the study of fossils, those things stuck in drawers at the NMNH.  A new NMNH website dedicated to the fossil record in the Washington, D.C. area during the Cretaceous has this to say in response to the question of how we know what the climate was like then:
Earth was warmer during the Cretaceous than it is now. Coal beds and fossils show that lush forests grew in Antarctica and in the far north, and many kinds of warm temperature-loving animals, including dinosaurs, lived near the poles. Another indication of globally warm temperatures can be found in the shells of single-celled marine organisms called foraminiferans . . . ; fossils dating from the Early Cretaceous show the chemical signature of growth in ocean waters much warmer than today's seas.  (Revealing Ancient Climate and Terrain in the website Dinosaurs in Our Backyard.)
Samper may indeed be grappling with the growing environmental challenges to life on Earth in a hands-on fashion, but the broader effort is critically informed and driven by paleontological work.  Further, the outcome of battles in the social and political arenas over the issues of environmental degradation and climate change may depend as much on the detailed and persuasive reconstruction of the record of the planet’s past as on impassioned pleas and efforts to save endangered wildlife.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Summer Punctuated in Small Ways by the Unexpected

I was reminded of the role of the unexpected when the Curiosity Rover touched down on Mars a couple of days ago.  John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist, commenting on one of the earliest pictures sent back to Earth, noted that the foreground contained a gravel field.  He asked, “The question is, where does this gravel come from? It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.”  (Kenneth Chang, Curiosity Rover Lands Safely on Mars,  New York Times, August 6, 2012.)  Were this gravel field expected, I have to assume Grotzinger would have had an explanation at hand.

The unexpected catches you without an explanation, only questions.  The search for answers ensues.

For me, this has been a summer punctuated in small ways by the unexpected.

Take, for instance, the Common Periwinkle.  In this scene are a tumble of large rocks and concrete blocks that lie half buried in the sand at the edge of Flanders Bay on the North Fork of Long Island, New York.  Many of the rocks and blocks disappear when the tide is in, and slowly reemerge as the tide retreats.  There’s a mystery here.

The flat surfaces of all these chunks of rock and concrete seem to offer a particularly attractive habitat for barnacles and the cramped nocks and crannies formed when the rocks and blocks abut hold special interest for gastropods.  Stationary colonies of Northern Rock Barnacles (Balanus balanoides) mostly dominate, and are sometimes so crowded the individual barnacles grow tall not squat, creating row after narrow row (a marine farmer’s field).  Gatherings of Common Periwinkles (Littorina littorea) often occupy the edges of the barnacle colonies, and the sides of the stones that are shielded from the sun, as well as the shadowy crevices amid the stones.  Atlantic Slipper Shells (Crepidula fornicata) are sprinkled throughout, sometimes layered upon themselves or the periwinkles, and, through it all, a solitary Atlantic Oyster Drill (Urosalpinx cinerea) or a Thick-lipped Drill (Eupleura caudata) will be slowly wending its way, sometimes crawling atop the periwinkles or slipper shells (I wonder if it’s cruising for a meal).  Barnacles, periwinkles, and a lone Atlantic oyster drill appear in the picture below.

There’s nothing unexpected about this fauna occupying the intertidal or littoral zone of the shoreline.  Indeed, the Common Periwinkles’ scientific name – Littorina littorea – is a Latin redundancy that signals the appropriateness of it being here – littor means “the seashore.”  What is unexpected to me is that this living fauna is not reflected fully in the death record one can read in the empty shells washed up on the sandy shores.  There only the drills seem to appear in just the right proportion.  Empty slipper shells abound, with only a very occasional cluster of hollow barnacles tossed in.  The latter is certainly not represented here as it is on the rocks.

But the most unexpected aspect of the shells on the shore is the absence of empty periwinkle shells.  Over several weeks of walking this beach, I have found just one, small, damaged example.

Why?  Are periwinkle shells particularly fragile, unable, when empty, to withstand the clash of wave and rock?  I doubt that.  The shells seem robust and have to be given that the animal can live from five to ten years.

Is it that perhaps they are a favorite of hermit crabs and so get occupied before they can be tumbled onto the sand?  Periwinkles are, in fact, among the shells favored by the hidden but ever present multitudes of Long-Clawed Hermit Crabs (Pagurus longicarpus); so says A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore (Kenneth L. Gosner, 1978).  But are there enough of these crabs looking to upgrade their housing at any one time to occupy all of the empty shells?

Or are periwinkle shells collected in particular by that population of early risers whose footprints invariably dot the shoreline when I finally make it down?  If so, they’re uncommonly thorough.

This is the first summer I’ve paid any attention to the periwinkle population and so this unexpected disconnect between intertidal zone and beach is new to me and not just a little disconcerting.  Something is happening in the space of merely a few feet that keeps the periwinkle shells from this beach.  It merits some study.

Then there’s the scene further inland, near my summer cottage, where the woods of oaks, maples, locusts, and sumacs offer shade to an undergrowth of English ivy and poison ivy.  There the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) was always an expected denizen and often a visitor to my backyard.  But over the years the sightings became fewer and fewer until for the last several years they have been exceedingly rare.  The once expected is now the unexpected.

When it reappears, unexpectedly, the box turtle is the focus of a celebration.  Twice this summer I have come upon a box turtle hell-bent (well, as hell-bent as turtles can be) on crossing a road or a path to the safety of an expanse of ivy amid the trees.  Perhaps the same one, I’m uncertain.  But I take comfort that, even if just one, it was healthy and unscarred.

Is this one a sign of a revived colony of turtles, a harbinger of good times ahead?  Or is this the “Lonesome George” of its species in these woods?

Why did their numbers dwindle in the past decades?  Indeed, did they in fact decline?  Has the encroachment in this area of houses and particularly lawns on the woods and the fragmentation of surrounding land harmed these reptiles, some of whom, at certain seasons, roam (though roaming to these turtles apparently seldom takes them more than 125 yards from where they were born)?  I have to believe the apparent decline in past years is real.  It certainly is to the State of New York which has labeled the species of “special concern.”  Even where a comparatively large swath of land (613 acres) is preserved and attention paid to its wild flora and fauna, like the William Floyd Estate (though part of the Fire Island National Seashore, the estate is on the “mainland” of Long Island), the survival of the these turtles is not guaranteed.  The landed sides of the estate have over the years become surrounded by residential buildings.  A recent National Park Service report assessing the status of amphibians and reptiles on the estate concluded:
Although box turtles currently appear to be common and relatively well protected at WFE [William Floyd Estate], they reside within a habitat island surrounded by dense residential development, essentially creating an isolated population. The adjoining landscape likely functions as a population “sink” and box turtles within WFE’s boundaries face a number of potential stressors, including genetic isolation, illegal collection, and introduction of disease via release of other box turtles by visitors. Given these stressors, and data collected during this survey that suggest recruitment of young into the population has declined and the estimated population size is not that large . . ., the future viability of this population should not be taken for granted.  (R. P. Cook, et al., Inventory of Amphibians and Reptiles at the William Floyd Estate, Fire Island National Seashore, National Park Service, 2010, p. 46)
As an aside (in a post of mostly asides), the box turtle colony on the William Floyd Estate is of special interest to herpetologists because of the detailed data on it that date back to the early 1900s.  John Treadwell Nichols (1883 – 1958), curator in the department of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, married into the Floyd family and kept records of his wildlife sightings at its estate from 1904 until his death.  (He should not be confused with John Treadwell Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War.) Turtles were of particular interest to Nichols.  When he found a box turtle, he carved his initials, a date, and a specimen number into its carapace.  (I wince at that.  Too much empathy, I suppose.)  Anyway, turtles he marked have continued to show up in inventories of the population on the estate.  In 2002, one was found that Nichols had “tagged” in 1921 when he estimated it to be about 20 years old.  That made it over 100 years old in 2002.  The records of this colony depict the impact of changes in the environment for over a century – from pesticide applications in the past (particularly DDT in the 1950s and 1960s) to loss of habitat outside the estate’s boundaries.  (An interesting article on efforts to save the estate’s turtle population appeared in the New York Times in 1988 – Malcolm W. Browne, A Push to Save L.I. Turtle Colony From Man’s Intrusion, June 20, 1988.)

And then there was the unexpected appearance of a fossil in this part of the island.  Well, that’s misleading and it may be a cheat to include this last incident in this post’s account of the unexpected.  It's a bit unusual in that regard.

My spouse whose interest in natural history is minimal but whose attention to antique stores and thrift stores knows no bounds is the one to whom credit for this fossil find must be made.  In a consignment store out here on fossil-barren Long Island, she spotted, hanging on the wall, a framed piece of limestone from the Green River Formation in Wyoming.  Slashing diagonally across that rock are the fossil remains of a Knightia fish, a herring relative.  The fossil is about 4 ½ inches long.

How unexpected, I thought when I first saw it.  I am never brought in to see something like this in one of her stores.  I bought it, of course.

For me, this find in an obscure consignment store was truly unexpected.  Frankly, I cared not about who had owned it and why it had been consigned to the shop.  Instead, the unexpected triggered questions about the Green River Formation which, according to the typed label on the back was part of the provenance of this fossil.  I have a couple of other very small fish fossils from the formation but had never been prompted to learn about it.  Ah, the power of the unexpected, I suppose.

The Green River Formation is renowned for its incredibly well preserved specimens, and particularly for its fish.  According to one guide to the formation, it “has yielded the richest, most diverse sample of early Tertiary freshwater aquatic communities in the world.”  (John R. Nudds and Paul A. Selden, Fossil Ecosystems of North America:  A Guide to the Sites and Their Extraordinary Biotas, Chapter 11 – Green River Formation, 2008, p. 186)  The formation, created by the sediment collected in a series of three great, fresh water lakes in parts of what are now Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, dates from the early through late Eocene (roughly 55 to 38 million years ago).  If I can trust the label on the back of the slab of rock containing the fish fossil, this one is from Wyoming and apparently from the so-called “18-inch layer” of the Butte Member, the source of the “best-preserved” fish fossils in the formation, according to Nudds and Selden.

Chapter 11 (Green River Formation) in Nudds and Selden's book is a great introduction to the formation.  There are myriad other resources one can consult, including a very nice, very short piece written by Tom Caggiano for the Fossil News.

But, should it have been unexpected that a fossil fish from the Green River Formation would show up at least once in my wife’s wanderings through the dusty recesses of ramshackle antique stores and dingy thrift stores on Long Island?

Actually, not.  It was probably inevitable.  Nudds and Selden cite a report that over a million fossil fish specimens have been collected from the formation in the last quarter century alone.  As for Knightia in particular, Caggiano observes that it is “probably one of the most common fossils in the world.”  And, so, the unexpected has morphed into the expected.
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