Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fossils, Race, and the U.S. Military

Fossils can be revealing about aspects of deep time, but, as I’ve often discovered, they can cast light on somewhat more contemporary history.  In the past several weeks, fossils have served as a bridge to two episodes, new to me, involving African Americans and the U.S. military.  One is from the Civil War; the other dates from World War II.  At first I found these episodes both disturbing and fascinating.  Ultimately, they have come to be a source of inspiration.

Dutch Gap Canal and Potomacapnos apeleutheron

The first of these occurred during the U.S. Civil War.  At its heart was General Benjamin Butler, a decidedly controversial figure, known as “Beast Butler” when he commanded the Union troops controlling New Orleans in 1862.  Butler, a politician and attorney in his pre-war life, played a significant role early on in structuring the official policy of the U.S. military toward slaves who had fled to Union lines.  While in charge of Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, he declared fugitive slaves to be “contraband” which meant they would not be returned to their masters as Union forces had been doing.  This policy was quickly endorsed by the Lincoln Administration.

In what I would characterize as an expedient step, but also a humanitarian one, Butler directed that rations be given to all of the refugees under his control, and that the able-bodied among them be employed and paid wages, though their wages would be reduced to compensate for the cost of the rations given to the unemployed.  (Patricia C. Click, Time of Trial:  The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867, 2001, p. 36-37.)  (Admittedly, Butler’s motives in this and nearly any other action he took were, and still are, more likely to be questioned than not.)

This overall approach of employment and care for former slaves was explicitly followed elsewhere as stated policy, including in the freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina,which is somewhat ironic given how Butler and these Roanoke Island freedmen intersected later in the war.  The colony had been established by the military after the Union launched a successful assault on the island in 1862.  Its history, ably described and analyzed by historian Patricia Click, is a sad tale of generally good intentions foundering on the shoals of racism, extensive needs, misunderstanding, and mismanagement.

In 1864, there was no love lost between Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of the United States Army, and Butler who at the time led the Union Army of the James.  Charged with putting pressure on the Confederate capital of Richmond from the south while Grant fought his way from the north, Butler had only managed to get his army bottled up in Bermuda Hundred, a large peninsula formed by the James River.  Historian Bruce Catton asserted that “[p]robably no campaign in all the war was as badly mishandled as that of the Army of the James in the spring of 1864.”  (A Stillness at Appomattox, 1953, p. 209.)

Frustrated by Confederate artillery batteries which maintained control of a long and critical section of the river, Butler decided to avoid the batteries altogether by digging a canal across Dutch Gap, a narrow neck of land created by a loop of the James River.  He reasoned that, once finished, this canal would enable Union gunboats to bypass that portion of the river under Confederate guns and move toward Richmond.  On the map below, a completed Dutch Gap Canal is shown (at the arrow I added) and a portion of Butler’s lines appears in blue, while Confederate lines are colored red.  Several artillery batteries (abbreviated “BTTY”) of both armies are also identified.  (The full map, from which this section was taken, was prepared in 1867 under the direction of General Nathaniel Michler.  I worked with the version of this map published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1883 as #32 in a collection titled Military Maps of the United States.  It is available from the Library of Congress.)

In early August, 1864, African American troops under Butler’s orders began digging the canal which was to run for 500 feet, at a depth of 45 feet and a width of 60 feet.  In typical fashion, the Army turned largely to its black soldiers for this thankless and extremely dangerous assignment.  Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, under white command, were asked to volunteer for extra pay to undertake this hardship duty (described to them as “hard digging” under enemy fire).

Early on progress was rapid, the soil was easily dug, but, in time, “the cutting got down through the top layers of soil and loose clay to the tougher hard-pan,” enemy fire, particularly mortars increasingly took a toll, and disease moved through the ranks.  The canal had become a “horror.”  (As described by Colonel John W. Ames of the 6th U.S. Colored Troops in an article titled Dutch Gap Canal which appeared in The Overland Monthly, January 1870, p. 33, 35.  I have ascribed the article to Colonel Ames based on material appearing in Noah Andre Trudeau's Like Men of War:  Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, 1998, p. 283 et seq.)

When progress slowed and the conditions became ever more dangerous and vile, the men had to be rotated out and the voluntary nature of the effort ended.  Colonel Ames wrote:
The canal was the dread of all troops liable for detail; a butt for the gibes and sneers of the doubters and the personal enemies of the General [Butler].  Court-martials even ventured to punish criminals, by sentence to the canal; one of them epitomized its opinion of the nature of the work and its probably duration, by sentence of a culprit to “two years’ hard labor at Dutch Gap Canal."  (p. 36-37)
War artist William Waud sketched the work underway at the canal in October 1864.  (This image is from the Library of Congress and titled Gen Butlers Canal at Dutch Gap.)

The demand for laborers for the Dutch Gap Canal reached deep into the ranks of black freedmen elsewhere.  In late August, 1864, General I.N. Palmer, of the District of North Carolina, ordered that any available freedman on Roanoke Island should be pulled into the effort in Virginia.  Palmer pledged that the freedmen would be paid $16 a month, though force was used if they did not come willingly.  Later, a letter of protest to General Butler from 45 of the Roanoke Island freedmen who had been impressed by the military, outlined the reprehensible ways they had been swept up by the military and mistreated.  Army guards had scoured Roanoke Island for laborers, grabbing “young and old, sick and well,” indeed, “the soldiers broke into the coloured people’s house’s taken sick men out of bed.” (The quoted text taken is taken verbatim from Click, Time Full of Trial, p. 131.)  Needless to say, the pay failed to materialize as promised.

Work on the canal continued with involuntary labor by freedmen until, on the last day of December, 1864, engineers blew up the final bulkhead that separated the James from the canal, hoping to create a channel that would be scoured clear by rushing water from the river.  Bruce Catton wrote,
[T]he fallout [from the explosion] refilled much of the canal.  An observer called it a “perfect fizzle,” but he could have been describing the whole effort.  (The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson (1996), p. 522.)
By that juncture, events of the war had left the Dutch Gap Canal behind and it never fulfilled its wartime purpose.  The photograph below, dated April, 1865, shows what is identified as the “completed canal.”  (The image is from the Library of Congress.  No photographer is given.)

Fossils connect to this sorry episode because, during the long months that men valiantly labored to dig the canal, they were cutting through sand and packed clay of the lower Cretaceous Potomac Formation.  Indeed, I would like to think that some of the men spotted the fossil plants the clay contained.  Nevertheless, by virtue of their labor, the canal banks were exposed.  In his 1896 publication The Potomac Formation in Virginia, geologist William Morris Fontaine wrote that, though “fine fossils are sparingly and irregularly scattered in both banks of the canal,” they were there to be found, with Dioonites buchainus “by far the most common plant.”  “Impressions of very large leaves” of the Dioonites appeared, sometimes a foot and a half long.  (Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey No. 145, p. 36)  The drawing of leaves of the D. buchainus below is from the Maryland Geological Survey (Characteristic Fossils of Maryland Formations brochure).

For many decades plant fossils have been collected from this site.  Indeed, this year, paleobotanists Nathan A. Jud and the late Leo J. Hickey published an important analysis of three fossils collected at the Dutch Gap Canal in 1971, 1990, and 1991.  They concluded that these distinctive fossils are from a previously unknown genus and species of flowering plant, making the new species among the oldest flowering plant species and the oldest eudicot (identified in part by its distinctive pollen) ever found on this continent.  Eudicots are common today.  The new species is named Potomacapnos apeleutheron.  (Potomacapnos apeleutheron Gen. Et Sp. Nov., A New Early Cretaceous Angiosperm from the Potomac Group and Its Implications for the Evolution of Eudicot Leaf Architecture, American Journal of Botany, Volume 100, Number 12, December, 2013; Evolution, Civil War History Meet in Fossil With Tragic Past, University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, November 26, 2013;  Surprising Science, This Could Be the Oldest Flowering Plant Ever Found in North America, Smithsonian Magazine blog, November 29, 2013.)

The holotype specimen for P. apeleutheron appears below in a picture taken by Nathan Jud and included in the University of Maryland publication cited above.  It appears with his permission.

According to the article, the genus name, Potomacapnos, references the Potomac River “along which the fossils were collected.”  That’s curious, since the fossils were actually collected along the James River and it would seem to make more sense for it to refer to the Potomac Formation (or the Potomac Group as it is often referred to in the literature) where they were found.  Indeed, that’s what Jud is quoted as stating in the Surprising Science blog entry cited above.  Capnos is from the Greek for “smoke” which links the genus to the fumitories or “smoke worts” which its members resemble.  [Later edit:  As noted in the comment below, the article was subsequently corrected to attribute the genus name to the Potomac Formation, not the Potomac River.]

In the species name, a wonderful sense of humanity shines forth; apeleutheron pays tribute to the men whose forced labor created the banks in which the fossils were found more than a hundred years later.
The specific epithet apeleutheron is the plural genitive case of the Greek word apeleutheros, meaning “freedman.”  This name honors the freedmen who dug the Dutch Gap Canal in Virginia during the U.S. Civil War in 1864, exposing the sediments from which this fossil [the holotype] was collected.  (p. 2440)

A Coda:  Paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner and the Triple Nickles

In my most recent post on this blog, A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine , I wrote about Julia Gardner, a pioneering paleontologist.  I described her service during World War II with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Military Geology Unit and, specifically, her role in determining that the balloons carrying incendiary bombs that were landing in the northwestern United States and Canada originated in Japan.  Researching the efforts undertaken to combat the effects of these incendiary devices, I learned about the “Triple Nickles.”

The Triple Nickles (that’s the way it’s spelled) was the 555th Parachute Infantry Company which in 1945 was sent to the west coast where its paratroopers were trained as “smoke jumpers” to help the U.S. Forest Service fight forest fires.  Though constituted in 1943, this company never saw action in the war overseas because its ranks were made up solely of African Americans.  In the segregated U.S. armed forces, the value of black troops remained in doubt.  In Beyond Value:  World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (2001), Patrick K. O’Donnell writes that the Triple Nickles were instrumental in breaking the “racist standards” of the U.S. military.  The unit was among the few all-black units to have an all-black officer corps.

Walter Morris, 2nd Lieutenant with the Triple Nickles and instrumental in forming the unit, recounted later,
They [the U.S. military] didn’t know what to do with all these black paratroopers, but we got lucky because at that time the Japanese were sending over aerial balloons across on the trade winds, and the balloons were calibrated to fall on the western shore from Canada to California.  The Forest Service’s smoke jumpers were not enough to handle the amount of fires that were caused by the balloons, and the campers, and the lightning.  So the Forest Service, whose responsibility was to fight forest fires, called on the army to help and asked the army if they could spare any paratroopers.  The Army was happy to do that because they had the 555th, and they assigned us to that mission.  (As quoted in Beyond Valor.)
Though, apparently, few if any of the forest fires fought by the Triple Nickles were the product of Japanese incendiary bombs, the unit performed admirably, making over 1,000 individual jumps in this service.

In his obituary which ran a couple of months ago (Samantha Hogan, Walter Morris, Original Member of All-Black 555th Army Parachute Battalion, Dies at 92, Washington Post, October 21, 2013), Morris is quoted as having said,
We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute. . . . What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine

I was warned in a dream not to write this post.  Well, at least, that’s how I interpret the part of the dream where I was seated in a stately living room with several people (whom I did not know), and was asked to describe the main character in a particular novel.   After offering my exposition, I was the object of unceasing derision because, “Clearly, you didn't figure out who she is.”  Point well taken, for in the dream, I hadn’t finished reading the novel.
Though I read the classnotes section of my alumni bulletins fairly religiously, looking for submissions by classmates, I have to admit that I'm not sure why I do.  It's not always enjoyable.  The little squibs are a very limited kind of writing with a narrow range of content.  And too often in the reports on milestones concerning careers, weddings, children, (and later, retirement and travel), I've sensed just a faint hint of self satisfaction.  Those offerings on the darker passages in life - illness or death - bring sadness and a strong awareness of mortality.  Needless to say, I'm not one who pens such little feeds.  If I did set out to do one, I know I'd agonize over the wording until the whole exercise would bring only pain.

So it was that, when I came across paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner's six word report (written on a postcard) to the 1933 notes for the Bryn Mawr class of 1905 (her undergraduate class), I was hooked by her words because they didn't exactly fit with my preconceptions of the genre.  (1933 Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, p. 28.)  I was drawn to learn more about the woman who wrote them.  She and presumably most of her classmates had just entered their 50s, a momentous threshold, at least chronologically if nothing else.  If I could trace the arc of her life (the professional, if not also the personal), perhaps I might understand what she wrote, reconstruct her tone if I could.  At the risk of turning this post into a "shaggy dog story" (it isn't), I think those six words need all the context I can give them, so they're best held until the end.

During her professional career, paleontologist Julia Gardner was one of the country’s leading authorities on mollusks and stratigraphic paleontology.  As a woman in a male dominated scientific world, she was a pioneer who reached the top of her profession.  My first encounter with Gardner came when I did research for a post of mine that appeared two years ago, titled Fragility of the Ecphora.  I noted that Gardner had been honored in the naming of the extinct gastropod, Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae Wilson, whose shell was selected later as the State of Maryland’s official fossil shell.  (Though elsewhere I've referred to Gardner as a geologist, which was certainly her official title with the U.S. Geological Survey, she was, I think, first and foremost, a paleontologist.  That was the field in which she earned her doctorate and (my personal bias) it's her work identifying and distinguishing among fossils that has been of most value to me.)

Gardner was born in 1882 in South Dakota and, in her teens, moved to Massachusetts with her mother.  When she entered Bryn Mawr in 1901 and studied geology and paleontology, she was foreordained to be a pioneer because she studied under geologist Florence Bascom.  Bascom, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University and the first female geologist appointed by the USGS, taught and mentored many women who went on to careers in the sciences.

Gardner earned her A.B. in 1905.  Two years later, she became the first “regularly admitted” woman to the geology department of The Johns Hopkins University (apparently Bascom had not been so admitted – indeed, Bascom had taken her courses at Hopkins sitting behind a screen to keep her presence from the men in the classes). (USGS Science Features, Florence Bascom, Pioneer Geologist, October 16, 2012.)

Gardner earned her doctorate in 1911 and continued an on-again, off-again relationship with Hopkins as a paleontology research assistant and instructor until 1917.  In the meantime, she began field work under contract with the USGS; the contract apparently ended in 1917.

Upon the death of her mother and the outbreak of World War I, Gardner was motivated to aid those suffering from the war.  She went to France with the American Red Cross and served as an auxiliary nurse.  With the cessation of hostilities in 1919, she joined the American Friends Service Reconstruction Unit providing humanitarian assistance to war ravaged areas of France.  While with the Reconstruction Unit, she was injured in an accident (about which I have learned nothing); she then returned to the States.

That preceding paragraph is not much of an account of her war experiences, but it may be all she wanted us to have.  In an article Gardner wrote for The Johns Hopkins University Alumni Magazine (Volume 28, Number 2, 1940, p. 37-42), titled Notes on Travel and Life, she dealt with her time in France in an understated, matter-of-fact tone, revealing little.  Indeed, she disposed of her wartime experiences at the outset of the piece:
Late in March, 1920, I entered the port of New York after an absence of more than 2 years in a foreign land.  During that time, I had lived in the present, neither looking back upon the years of training at Hopkins nor forward to the necessity of finding a job in a country basically changed by the World War.
That's it for the war.  The rest of the piece consisted mostly of often humorous accounts of the vicissitudes of field work.  The initial lengthy anecdote concerns her efforts to learn to drive so she wouldn't be a burden on other scientists when venturing out to do field work.  (This puts the lie to the claim made by some that she drove ambulances while in France.)  The article ended on a somber note, given that, in 1940 (when she was writing), “all Europe seems about to crash.”  That ending offers an interesting symmetry to this essay, all the lightness of her anecdotes about her field work travails are straddled by the darkness of two wars.  A glimmer of insight into her character?  I think so; she chose to emphasize the light.

Immediately upon her return to the States in March, 1920, Gardner was hired by the USGS and began a career with the Survey that lasted until she retired in 1952.  In 1924, she was promoted to associate geologist and then, in 1928, to geologist.  In 1926 and 1929 and, later, in 1937, Gardner traveled extensively in Europe, attending international geological congresses and studying key geological sites.

In the 1920s, she brought out the first five volumes in a seminal series of USGS Professional Papers on The Molluscan Fauna of the Alum Bluff Group of Florida.  Later in her career, she returned to the subject and published several more in this series.  (These reports are available from the USGS.)

During World War II, Gardner joined the USGS’ Military Geology Unit which provided analysis of different terrains of military interest to the U.S. Army.  The MGU produced topographical maps and helped to identify potential airplane landing sites, as well as sources of water, road building materials, and strategic minerals.

There's a fascinating bit of work the MGU undertook during the war which involved Gardner.  In late 1944, balloons carrying incendiary bombs began dropping from the sky in northwestern US and Canada.  Though it was generally believed the Japanese were behind the balloon assault, the idea the balloons were being launched in Japan was dismissed, given the 5,000 miles they would have had to travel.  Among the scenarios conjured up by military intelligence was that landing parties from Japanese submarines came ashore on U.S. west coast beaches and released the balloons there.  The mystery was turned over to the MGU.  Ultimately it was correctly concluded they had been launched in Japan, a conclusion prompted in part by analysis of the composition of the sand from sandbags used as ballast and recovered from several unexploded balloons.  The MGU identified specific beaches in Japan from which the sand might have come.  Gardner's role in the analysis consisted of determining that there was no coral in the sand, meaning it had from beaches along cold water.  In one fell swoop, she removed the southern third of Japan from the search for the originating beaches.

Her time with the MGU was summed up by geologist Clifford M. Nelson and historian Mary Ellen Williams as follows:
 Her geological skills, fluency in languages, resourcefulness, energy, and gentle humor made her invaluable to the MGU and she was revered by her colleagues. (p. 261)
(This passage appears in the entry on Gardner in Notable American Women:  The Modern Periodedited by Barbara Sicherman, et al., 1980, p. 260-262.  This is a well researched resource and I leaned on it a great a deal in composing this post.  There are several accounts of the Japanese balloons and the MGU work on the mystery of their origin.  John McPhee penned a great one titled Balloons of War, one of three pieces he wrote that appeared in the same issue of The New Yorker (January 29, 1996) under the collective title of The Gravel Page.)

After the war, Gardner went to Japan and Palau, receiving an assignment to the National Resources Section in the Supreme Commander’s headquarters where she worked on mapping the geology of West Pacific islands.  Following her retirement from the USGS in 1952, she returned to the Survey under contract to study mollusks in the West Pacific.

In ill health for the last several years of her life, she suffered a stroke and died in 1960 at home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Julia Gardner reached the top of chosen field, published extensively, and had her share of adventures - during and after two world wars.  Paleontologist Druid Wilson (who named a gastropod for her) characterized her publications as “foundation stones and bench marks in Coastal Plain stratigraphy and paleontology that insure [her] a high place with the pioneers in the geology of the region.”  (Wilson’s useful, though somewhat limited piece memorializing Gardner appeared in the Nautilus (Julia Anna Gardner:  1882-1960, Volume 75, Number 3, July, 1961 to April, 1962, p. 122-123.))

She apparently was exceedingly generous.  The paleontological research literature on mollusks and stratigraphy from the period is marked by authors’ notes of gratitude to her, thanking her for her assistance in helping to identify different fossils or for information she provided on the geology of an area under study.  Wilson wrote that Julia Gardner was known among her “wide circle of friends” for having often offered “some kindness, some encouragement, some tangible assistance, timely, but given unexpectedly.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t write an autobiography.  Notes on Travel and Life, her piece from 1940 in the Hopkins Alumni Magazine doesn’t count, and I was dismayed to read that the bulk of her personal papers was destroyed by her literary executor.

So, back to what launched this ramble, what is one to make of her contribution to the notes of the doings of the class of 1905 that appeared in the March, 1933 edition of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin?

All told, there were eight reports from this class, including Gardner’s.  The news from most of the others concerned their children.  For instance, one alum was traveling to England and France with four of her brood, the daughter of another had married a young man in banking (tellingly described as “a graduate of Lawrenceville and a former student at Princeton” – italics are mine), and the three offspring of one classmate were reported to be at Cornell Medical School (a son), working on a master’s at Harvard (another son), and enrolled as a freshman at Skidmore (a daughter, “my baby”).  It wasn’t all children, one alum had been sick, another was the author of a new book – These United States and How They Came To Be (I think this was this a picture-filled children’s history of the U.S.).

Julia Gardner's offering?
Same name, same house, same job.
Lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek?  Bittersweet about choices made?  A touch sarcastic about choices others had made?  Upon reading her words, I laughed, a response I suspect she intended.  But, I'll be the first to admit, I haven't really figured out who she was.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Caecum ~ Stages in a Life

In its old age, does the Caecum snail think back on its life in the seas, on the shells discarded, from when it was first enveloped in tiny, tight whirls, a mere “protoconch,” to when it reached some semblance of its adult self having broken free of those curls, and finally to when it enjoyed full maturity, living within a grand shell, all two millimeters or so of it?  I suppose not.

Still, it’s a life history with a wonderful trajectory, though one that is potentially misleading.  Paleontologist William Healey Dall, writing of the family to which the Caecum genus belongs, noted with some wry humor:
Owing to the remarkably different aspects these forms assume at different stages of growth in the same individual, they are particularly well adapted to lead the unwary into error.  (Contributions to the Tertiary Fauna of Florida, Part II, Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia, Volume 3, Part II, 1892, p. 295)
The error is to identify the different stages in that history as separate species.  Initially, the gastropod lives inside a very small coiled shell.  As the animal grows bigger, the shell extends, still somewhat curved or arcuate.  The whorled end, now vacated, breaks away; the animal moves into the remaining section which is plugged at the break.  In the last stage, a similar transition occurs, as a juvenile section drops off and the mature shell is occupied and plugged.

Just how many stages the Caecum goes through may, perhaps, be in the eyes of the beholder.  Some experts, such as zoologist Harald Alfred Rehder as well as Dall, described three, while geologist Lyle D. Campbell described four.  What appears to be at issue is how many phases separate the protoconch from the adult.  I will come back to this at the end of this post.  (Rehder, National Audubon Society Field Guide to Shells, 1981; Dall, Contributions to the Tertiary Fauna of Florida, p. 295 – 296; Campbell, Pliocene Molluscs From the Yorktown and Chowan River Formations in Virginia, Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 127, 1993, p. 61 – 62.)

My introduction to the Caecum came through an articulated fossil clam shell given to me by a friend.  This shell, some 12 million years old, was found in the Boston Cliffs Member of the Choptank Formation.  Though it always feels a bit sacrilegious to separate any two valves that have endured together for millions of years, it’s the only way to reach the treasures that might be held inside.  So, I opened the clam and, scattered in the sandy matrix, were many minute, white, tubular shells, totally new to me.  One appears below.

This fossil shell is from Caecum patuxentium, an extinct species of the Caecum genus.  The genus itself offers a rich array of living species, perhaps 100 or so, and an additional roughly 25 that have gone extinct.  Scottish naturalist John Fleming first named the genus in 1813 in his Conchology entry in David Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopædia (Volume VII).  Though he gave no explanation of his choice of the name, it’s fairly self-evident.  The term caecum (the American spelling is cecum) in anatomy is, generally, a closed-off pouch, or, specifically, the pouch that marks the beginning of the large intestine.  It originates from the Latin caecum which means “blind.”

C. patuxentium, the species in the picture above, is possibly found only in Maryland’s Choptank Formation, and perhaps just in the Boston Cliffs Member of that formation.  In 1904, geologist George Curtis Martin first identified the species, offering only the barest of descriptions:
The only sculpture consists of from 30 to 40 strong, regular, closely-set annulations.
This species bears a strong superficial resemblance to C. floridanum Stimpson, but differs from it in possessing no longitudinal markings.
Length of segment, 2.2 mm; diameter, 0.5 mm.
        (G.C. Martin, Gastropoda, Miocene:  Text, Maryland Geological Survey, 1904, p. 231.)
C. patuxentium was depicted in the accompanying volume of illustrations (Miocene:  Plates, Plate LV, Nos. 11, 12).

I am particularly taken by the small plugs that seal one end of the shells.  These appear, for all the world, to be little stoppers, complete with handles to facilitate removal.  One is shown below in a specimen (and, yes, there is a hole on the side of the shell marking where some predator "pulled the plug" on this little snail).

Geologist Julia Anna Gardner observed that the plug or “septum” closing the end of the Caecum shell differed from one species to another.  (Mollusca From the Miocene and Lower Pliocene of Virginia and North Carolina, U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 199-B, Part 2, Scaphopoda and Gastropoda, 1948, p. 203.)  One source described the plug as composed of “shelly material,” which seems to imply that the gastropod fashions it out of material found in its surroundings.  (Percy A. Morris, A Field Guide to Shells of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and the West Indies, Peterson Field Guide Series, 1975, p. 138-139.)  Or is the plug made of secreted calcium carbonate?  The views I've had of the plugs and my reading of the literature leave me agnostic on this.

The C. patuxentium specimen shown in the first photograph above is, I feel certain, an adult version of the shell.  But, mixed among the myriad shells which tumbled out of the clam were tiny shells with a distinct curl at the end (specimen in the first picture below), and shells looking like the adults though on a somewhat smaller scale (specimen in the second picture below, as well as the one I used to illustrate the plug in the picture immediately above).  (Though I believe each of the specimens shown in the various photographs in this post is complete, some may in fact have broken ends.)

The first of the two photographs immediately above may capture a source of some confusion over the number of stages in the Caecum’s passage through life because it apparently shows two of those stages still attached.  Geologist E. Willard Berry, in a note published in 1925, wrote that, while examining some Choptank matrix for microfossils, he had come upon “several tiny specimens of shells with an initial planospiral and a nearly straight annulated cone . . . .”  (Protoconch of Caecum in the Miocene of Maryland, The Nautilus, Volume XXXIX, Number 2, October, 1925, p. 66 – 67.)  Here’s his drawing of same:

These fossil shells he identified as the “protoconch and nepionic stage" of Caecum patuxentium.  In other words, the initial, protoconch section consisting of a tight spiral is here joined to what is in essence a more mature phase, the nepionic section.  For those seeing three stages to the snail's life cycle, this drawing captures the two stages that precede the adult stage.  The tight spiral will eventually drop away from what will become a somewhat arcuate portion which, in turn, will be superseded by the adult stage.

I think that Campbell found the Caecum to have passed through four stages because he considered the one attached to the protoconch in the specimen studied by Berry to be different from a subsequent, more robust “subadult” one to which the protoconch would definitely not still be attached.  In turn, this would be followed by a fully mature adult stage.  But, in the end, Campbell seemed to throw in the towel on being able to distinguish among the stages, warning that “[s]tages 1 and 2 are nearly impossible to identify specifically, and some caution must be used with stage 3.  Only the adult stage can be identified with any confidence.”  (p. 62)

There is inescapable poetry for me in these various incarnations of the Caecum recorded in the beautiful shells it discards as it travels from the beginning to the end of its life.  This life of stages which we struggle to identify, strewn with discarded shells, mirrors ours.
How sweet the silent backward tracings!
The wanderings as in dreams – the meditation of old
                   times resumed – their loves, joys, persons, voyages.
                                               Walt Whitman, Memories,
                                                Leaves of Grass (The “Death-Bed” Edition)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Summer held on a bit longer and then it was gone.

Autumn winds are stripping the trees of their leaves, winter lurks in the wings, and the little asters I found at the beginning of October decorating the edge of the woods are no more.  It wasn’t the weather, but a mowing of their ragged field, that erased their delicate colors from the landscape.

At a similar time of year, Walt Whitman looked back on a particularly wonderful season of wild flowers (“oceans of them”) and, though white was the predominant color,
. . . there are all hues and beauties, especially on the frequent tracts of half-opened scrub-oak and dwarf cedar hereabout – wild asters of all colors.  Notwithstanding the frost-touch the hardy little chaps maintain themselves in all their bloom.  (Wild Flowers, Specimen Days in America, 1883, p. 122-123.)
So, absent the mowing, they would have hung on longer.

When I found the asters in October, they seemed to offer up a final summer hurrah, a celebration enjoyed for the last time by myriad bumblebees and Cabbage White butterflies.

Asters are a composite flower, the flower head composed of many individual flowers – ray flowers surrounding disk flowers.  These particular asters marked the boundary between field and woods, not with a thick swath of white, but rather arcing patterns of white ray flowers, accented by yellow and purply red disk flowers.  The flowers lined one side of the plant's branches.  A pointillist’s creation.

I believe these are Symphyotrichum lateriflorum, previously known scientifically as Aster lateriflorus and still popularly known as “calico asters” because their mixture of colors resembles the printed patterns of calico cotton cloth.  Over time, the individual yellow disk flowers turn that purply red.

Curiously, though it may have been the British who gave the name “calico” to the cloth coming from Calicut, India, today they might not understand the popular name “calico asters” for these particular flowers.  “Now, in England, [the term is] applied chiefly to plain white unprinted cotton cloth, bleached or unbleached . . . .”  (Oxford English Dictionary.)  It’s in the U.S. where colored prints are the defining characteristic of the cotton cloth called “calico.”

Though I’ve possibly muffed the identification because species of asters can be difficult to differentiate, let’s stay with calico aster.  This species has other common names such as “goblet aster,” “one-sided aster,” or “white woodland aster” – all easily understood references to various aspects of its appearance.  But it's also been called “starved aster.”  A troubling name to be sure.

I think I stumbled on the origin of this one in A Year at North Hill:  Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden (1996) by gardening experts Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd.  Wait, in this discussion of common names, I shouldn't apply the phrase “gardening experts” to them; it fails to do them justice, just as North Hill isn’t really captured by the word “garden.”  Eck and Winterrowd designed gardens, wrote widely, were instrumental in the homegrown food movement, created North Hill in southern Vermont, among other things.  The seven-acre North Hill is considered one of the finest gardens in the world.  As Anne Raver wrote in Winterrowd’s obituary, he and Eck “filled their south-facing slope with tens of thousands of trees, shrubs, ground covers and bulbs, many of which were not supposed to survive a Vermont winter.”  (Anne Raver, Wayne Winterrowd, Gardening Expert, Dies at 68, New York Times, September 24, 2010.)

Ah, asters . . . .  Eck and Winterrowd wrote in A Year at North Hill of Aster lateriflorus (the calico aster’s old scientific name),
Each flower possesses a little bristly center that is often called crimson but is really only a dull brownish purple.  The thick bunched stems it produces are all clad in minute toothed leaves that turn to tarnished copper when touched by autumn frost, just as the little flowers are fading toward purplish tan.  It is a plant that might be said to have not one single good feature, but that is, when all its features are put together, entirely beautiful.  Even in the thin soils of clear-cut woods here in Vermont (where it is called the ‘starved’ aster) the thrifty little two-foot-tall bushes, smothered in faded flowers, possess a distinction.  (p. 101)
Pioneers wearing faded calico and making do, struggling to survive on the edges of old hardscrabble fields.  I await their return next year.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Coming Out of Left Field, A Snail Takes a Wrong Turn

The Oxford American Dictionary offers two figurative definitions for left field:  (1) "a position or direction that is surprising or unconventional;" (2) "a position of ignorance, error, or confusion."
A wonderfully funny explanation for the expression that something or someone “came out of left field” or “was out in left field” is premised on the “fact” that roughly a century ago the Chicago Cubs played in the West Side Grounds which had a left field abutting the University of Illinois’ Neuropsychiatric Institute.  So, what came out of, or was in, left field might well have been out of touch, indeed, maybe crazy.  Sadly, that explanation is too good to be true.  Yes, the Cubs played there from 1893 to 1915, but that was well before 1939 when the Neuropsychiatric Institute was built on what had been the West Side Grounds’ left field.  (Rosemarie Ostler, Let's Talk Turkey:  The Stories Behind America's Favorite Expressions, 2008, p. 163.)

One of the better possibilities for the expression's origin rooted in baseball is that many early major league baseball stadiums were decidedly asymmetrical and, apparently, left field was often the deepest part of the ballpark.  So, the left fielder was literally way out in left field (away from the action of the game) and any time he threw a ball back toward the infield, it came from way out of left field.

What came out of left field this past week (via a friend) fit the first Oxford American Dictionary's figurative definition - a surprise (though eventually it led to the second definition).  It was a fossil marine snail shell found on the coastline near the town of Walton-on-the-Naze, in Essex County, England.  This is a Neptunea contraria (Linnaeus, 1771) and dates from late in the Pliocene Epoch (3.6 to 2.6 million years ago).

(Though there’s some debate about the name of the species, I'm sticking with N. contraria as have better and more expert thinkers than I.)

I certainly wasn’t expecting to receive this shell.  What was intended to be the real hook for me about this specimen was that it was still filled with matrix from where it was found, offering an irresistible opportunity to discover microfossils tucked into its curved chambers.  But, frankly, though I’ve begun the exploration of the microfossils (more on that in a later post), I’ve been captured by so much else about this particular fossil that I had to write about that.  Yes, all that came out of left field.

The location where the fossil was found – Walton-on-the-Naze – is a small town located on England’s east coast, on the shores of the North Sea.  The melding of name and location strikes me as quintessentially British.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines naze as:  “A promontory, a headland, a ness.”  The OED observes that its origins are uncertain, though it suggests it may have Scandinavian roots.  Bill Griffiths, in Fishing and Folk:  Life and Dialect on the North Sea Coast (2010, p. 10), speculates that it may derive from the French nez meaning nose.

A view of the area around Walton-on-the-Naze from Google Earth clearly shows the naze, which is the headland, to the northeast of the town, jutting into the North Sea.  Sort of nose-like.

The eroding cliffs from which the fossil came follow that coastline to the northeast.  The London Clay Formation, laid down in the Eocene Epoch (56 to 34 million years ago), forms the base of the cliffs.  That formation is overlain by the Red Crag Formation which is nearly 50 million years younger; this unconformity is the product of marine erosion washing away millions of years of intervening deposits.  The Red Crag Formation, source of this fossil, dates from the late Pliocene Epoch (3.6 to 2.6 million years ago).

Red?  Crag?

Geologist Gerald Lucy explains both in Essex Rock:  A Look Beneath the Essex Landscape (Essex Rock and Mineral Society, 1999).  Let’s take the latter one first.
The word “crag” was formerly a local term used in East Anglia to describe fine gravel and sand but geologists have now adopted it to designate some of the characteristic marine deposits of Pliocene and Pleistocene age in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.  (p. 53)
The coloring (more orangey than red to my eye) is, according to Lucy, the result of a several step reaction:  pyrite (iron sulfide) washed out of the underlying London Clay, the iron in the pyrite oxidized into rust-colored iron oxide which, in turn, stained the sand, gravel, and fossils in the Red Crag Formation.  The white marks on the outer lip and interior of the aperture of the N. contraria specimen in the photo above show that the iron oxide did not penetrate into the substance of the shell, at least not this one.  Indeed, the stain scrapped off quite easily from the interior of this shell as I cleared out the matrix.

I am puzzled about one aspect of Lucy’s explanation, precisely how did (does?) the iron from the pyrite or the iron oxide saturate the Red Crag matrix?  Is Lucy asserting that the iron or iron oxide percolated vertically upward from the London Clay into the overlying Red Crag Formation?  It’s unclear from the photographs I’ve seen of the cliffs whether the coloring is more intense where the Clay and Crag are in direct contact and then fades as one moves up the cliffside.  (Have to travel there and see for myself.)

Perhaps the most far out aspect of this whole encounter with this Neptunea contraria fossil is what stares me in the face when I hold the fossil with the aperture toward me and the apex pointed up – the aperture is on the left.  The N. contraria is left-handed or sinistral.

Evolutionary biologist Geerat J. Vermeij notes that left-handedness is a rare species-level characteristic among gastropods, particularly marine gastropod species.  (The Geography of Evolutionary Opportunity:  Hypothesis and Two Cases in Gastropods, Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 42, Number 5, 2002.)

Left-handed coiling in gastropods poses a fascinating problem.  On the one hand, according to Vermeij, left-handedness is “unlikely to have significant survival-related benefits.”  In essence, it is “apparently functionless.”  On the other hand, it may have a marginally negative impact.  Research on sinistral members of otherwise dextral species has shown that they may be at some slight disadvantage relative to their dextral brethren (Stephen Jay Gould, et al., Consequences of Being Different:  Sinistral Coiling in Cerion, Evolution, Volume 39, Number 6, November, 1985).  So, Vermeij considers the circumstances under which a “functionless” trait with some slight deleterious effects might actually arise as a species-level characteristic.  He concludes that such a trait might emerge in environments “where resources are abundant” but “where predator-induced selection is weak.”  Intensive predator selection would, presumably, magnify the consequences of the adverse effects of sinistral coiling, explaining its rarity.

More recent research suggests that sinistral coiling in snails may in fact offer some advantages, at least relative to predation by crabs.  Crabs are typically right-handed and apparently have some difficulty managing the process of stripping left-handed snails of their shells.  That begs the question of why more gastropod species aren’t sinistral as a result of this advantage.  Paleontologist Gregory P. Dietl and Jonathan R. Hendricks suggest that perhaps this is an instance of sexual selection and natural selection working to offset each other.  But, ultimately, they throw up their hands and quote biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who wrote in 1943,
But why, in the general run of shells, all the world over, in the past and in the present, one direction of twist is so overwhelmingly commoner than the other, no man knows.
(As quoted by Dietl and Hendricks in their article titled Crab Scars Reveal Survival Advantage of Left-Handed Snails, Biology Letters, published online on March 21, 2006.)

That left-handedness among gastropods struck early naturalists as something unusual, if not literally a mistake, is evident by the names given some of these sinistral species.  Neptunea contraria is fairly mild – contraria means opposite or contrary in Latin.  But then there is the whelk whose left-handedness earned it the name Busycon perversum (Linnaeus, 1758).  Linnaeus originally named it Murex perversus.  Perversum is Latin for perverse, perverted, crooked, or wrong.

Speaking of which, the earliest description I have found of the Neptunea contraria is in Samuel Dale’s The History and Antiquities of Harwich and Dovercourt, Topographical, Dynastical and Political published in 1730.  Here he compares members of this species to those of a similar species that coils to the right:
They are like the precedent [the ones previously described] in all things excepting in the wrong Turn.  (p. 287, capitalization in the original)
A wrong turn.  A nicely unscientific assessment for a snail that, to these early naturalists, seemed to have come (had the expression been around then) out of left field.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cusplet ~ Sound and Sight

This is a small post making a small point or two.

To my ear, there is something melodious and even soothing about the sound of the word cusplet.   Though the word does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or, for that matter, in most other dictionaries, it’s not uncommon in the biological and paleontological literature on teeth, particularly shark teeth.  Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that cusplet first appeared in books in English in the middle to late 1800s and really only took hold in the middle of the 1900s.

(The Ngram Viewer is a fascinating tool which gauges the frequency (Y axis) with which specific words or phrases appear by publication year (X axis) among all the words in millions of Google’s digitized books.)

Bretton W. Kent (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994)), defines a shark tooth cusplet as follows:
a small, enameloid-covered projection lateral to the basal margin of the crown.  (p. 92)
In other words, it’s a little cusp that appears at the base of a tooth’s main cusp.  The sound of the word (at least to me) belies the purpose of this dental feature – grasping a shark’s intended victim.

Visually, for that matter, the cusplets on fossil shark teeth also contradict their predatory purpose, seeming singularly fragile.  Perhaps my reaction to cusplets is a function of how often they have worn away or broken off in the course of the long journey undertaken by fossil shark teeth to reach my hands.  That some cusplets make it through this threat-filled time travel is really quite remarkable.

Take, for example, the cusplets on this sand tiger tooth I recently found at the Calvert Cliffs  The tooth is roughly 16 million years old (mid Miocene Epoch).

I’ve identified this as a tooth from Carcharias reticulata (Probst, 1879), relying on Kent’s Fossil Sharks.  Much of the doubt associated with this identification isn’t a function of my usual waffling.  Rather it stems from debate among the experts because both the genus and species names of this Miocene shark are up for grabs.

Kent’s description notes that teeth from this species are graced with “long, slender cusplets.”  The German priest Dr. J. Probst (1823 – 1905), the first to name this species, identified it as Lamna reticulata and noted that its teeth were distinguished from those of another similar species by “their smaller size and especially by their cusplets.”  (Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Fossilen Fische aus der Mollase von Baltringer, Jahreshefte des Vereins für vaterländische Naturkunde in Württemberg, Volume 35, 1879, p. 145-146.)  To be totally candid, when Probst used the word Nebenspitzen in his description, I departed from Google Translate which rendered that as “secondary peaks.”  “Cusplets” seemed right.

I was momentarily sidetracked when I tried to find out who Probst was.  His birth and death dates come from an article that appeared in the journal Stuttgarter Beiträge Zur Naturkunde in 2002 (Gunter Bechly and Volker J. Sach, An Interesting New Fossil Dragonfly (Anisoptera:  Libellulidae: “Brachydiplacini”) from the Miocene of Germany, With a Discussion on the Phylogeny of Tetrathemistinae and a Fossil List for the Locality Heggbach).  Other than those dates and his two titles – priest and Dr. – I have nothing for him except several papers he wrote, all in German and largely beyond my ken.  Perhaps buried in them is the answer to another question I considered worth pursuing, where did this paleontologically inclined priest come down on evolution?

Both Kent and Probst drew attention to the cusplets on this species, so, it seems appropriate to conclude this “postlet” with a closeup of one of the specimen’s cusplets.

The cusplet has a cusplet.  Actually, Kent notes that this is a possibility with the teeth of this species.  It's quite an accomplishment that these two cusplets survived the vicissitudes of the fossilization process virtually intact.  Admittedly, the secondary cusplet on the other side did not fare as well, but I guess that’s life . . . .

Friday, October 4, 2013

Patrick Principle(s)

My father “influenced me to realize that the most important things in life [are] to understand the natural world and . . . to be kind to my fellow man, even though I might not understand them.”
   ~ Ruth Patrick, Hometown Legends:  Ruth Patrick, WHYY TV, aired October 30, 2004
 Perhaps I’m impressed by trivial connections that I consider insights and the one at the center of this post might be one of those.  Even if that’s true, Ruth Patrick is someone we should all get to know.

Over the past several weeks, I have been reading a couple of informative and entertaining accounts of the Permian extinction, that mother of all mass extinctions – Gorgon:  Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History by Peter D. Ward (2004) and Extinction:  How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago by Douglas H. Erwin (2006).  Ward and Erwin, both practicing paleontologists, certainly know how to write for a popular audience.  Ward’s account focuses on terrestrial extinction, particularly as it is recorded in the bleak and beautiful Karoo region in South Africa.  His is a decidedly more personal story (sometimes too much so) as he plays the starring role; on occasion, it crosses into the “tell all” territory (one wonders whether he has been able to continue to work with at least one of his colleagues, Roger Smith, after the way Smith is characterized in the book).  Erwin’s volume offers a more deliberate explanation of the Permian extinction and a well-structured exploration of the various hypotheses about its causes.  It, too, ventures into the first person at times when it takes the reader into the field.  Good videos of talks on this subject delivered by both authors are available on the web.  There’s Ward’s TED talk and Erwin’s talk at the Santa Fe Institute.

I found one aspect of the aftermath of the Permian mass extinction that both Ward and Erwin describe to be particularly surprising.  Yes, the Permian extinction cut a devastating swathe through the ranks of plant and animal taxa.  For example, according to Erwin, the two pulses of Permian extinction, separated by some 10 million years, eliminated at least 90 percent of all marine species.  I suppose I’d previously assumed (if I'd actually had any coherent thoughts about it) that a devastated, lifeless environment ensued and endured for thousands, hundred of thousands, or perhaps millions of years.  But that’s not necessarily the case.

Erwin opens his book in Utah, where “the Triassic is laid out for anyone who cares to look, although few do,” apparently because the fossils are either scarce or boringly the same.  (p. 1)  Later, he describes formations that were laid down during the early stages of recovery from the Permian extinction, formations that essentially are “pavements built of thousands upon thousands of specimens of the characteristic Early Triassic scallop Claraia. . . . Despite the incredible abundance of some species, the total number of Early Triassic species is a tiny fraction of those alive only a few million years earlier or later.”  (p. 200-221)

Along the same lines is this observation by Peter Ward about fossil hunting in the Karoo,
For reasons still unfathomable, the lowest Triassic strata above the mass-extinction boundary are composed of red beds packed with fossils.  Almost all belong to a single species of mammal-like reptile – Lystrosaurus.  After the hard work of finding the very rare fossils in the youngest Permian beds, the fossils in these oldest Triassic beds were indeed a holiday.  There is an irony and mystery to this.  These beds were deposited soon after the mass extinction.  Yet the fossils – at least of this one species – are very common.  (p. 145)

(The fossil skeleton of the pig-sized Lystrosaurus hedini is shown above in a photograph by Rama, downloaded from Wikimedia and reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license.)

Ward suggests that perhaps this simply reflects that, in the post extinction period, conditions conducive to fossil formation were more prevalent.  But, significantly, he adds, “Or perhaps there were more animals – at least of this one single species.”  (p. 145)

In the midst of my immersion in the Permian extinction and its consequences, I happened to come across obituaries for botanist and ecologist Ruth Patrick (1907 – 2013), who died on September 23, 2013 (Julie Zausmer, Ruth Patrick, Ecology Pioneer, Dies at 105, The Washington Post, September 23, 2013; William Dicke, Ruth Patrick, a Pioneer in Science and Pollution Control Efforts, is Dead at 105, The New York Times, September 23, 2013.)

What a marvelous human being she was.  I am quite taken by her life story and scientific endeavors for many reasons.  One of them is the link, at least I think it’s a link or a connecting insight between Patrick’s signal contribution to science – the so-called Patrick Principle – and the aspect of the aftermath of the Permian mass extinction that I’ve just described – loss of taxonomic diversity.  In addition, a side of her life that I found particularly compelling was her relationship with her father.  I consider both of these topics below.

(This picture of Ruth Patrick is reproduced with the permission of the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center at The University of South Carolina Aiken.)

Patrick was a pioneer in many ways, not only as a woman breaking into the male-dominated scientific ranks in the 1930s and 1940s (talk about surviving in a hostile environment), but also as a botanist central to the modern development of the science of limnology (study of the ecology of rivers).

In 1934, largely because she was a woman and the Depression was in full swing, Patrick who was about to earn her doctorate from the University of Virginia could only find volunteer work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  In recounting her work experiences in science and at the Academy, Patrick was very matter of fact about the sex discrimination she encountered.  Not until 1945 did the Academy begin to pay her a salary.  In time, she established a department of limnology in the Academy, taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania, published over 200 articles and several books, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and received the National Medal of Science, as well as the John and Alice Tyler Ecology Award.

She was a force to be reckoned with.  Her husband, entomologist Charles Hodge, once described his marriage as “like being married to the tail of a comet.”  It is clear in the 2004 WHYY TV show devoted to Patrick that, even at age 96, she remained youthfully passionate about science and about the role of women in the sciences.

Her key scientific contributions came from her study of diatoms (single celled algae), particularly her analysis of the relationship between water quality and the diversity of diatom communities in rivers.

(Photo on left is of Amphiprora alata (95 microns or 0.095 mm long); on right is Achnanthes frigida (no length given).  These images are from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's Phytoplankton Guide to the Chesapeake Bay and Other Regions.  They are used with permission of the Smithsonian.)

I do not pretend to know Patrick's work, reliant as I largely am on others’ descriptions, but it is widely asserted that Patrick was instrumental in a major shift in how water quality is analyzed, broadening it from a narrow focus on the presence of pollutants in the water to an appraisal of the diversity of the communities of organisms living in the water.  Her work on water pollution helped lead to enactment of the Clean Water Act.

Her conclusion that the diversity of species living within a fluvial environment reflects the overall health of this water is sufficiently profound that biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy has named it the Patrick Principle.  He writes,
In 1948 a line of research led by Ruth Patrick on freshwater communities in the United States (principally rivers) demonstrated that the number and variety of species reflected the natural physics and chemistry of a river as well as the stresses to which it was subject (e.g., pollution).  This work, which deserves to be recognised as the Patrick Principle, can be generalized to all kinds of biological communities, i.e., marine and terrestrial as well as freshwater.
Put differently, environmental stresses are all defined as problems because they affect living systems (not just humans).  So whether pollution, habitat destruction or climate change, they all impinge on biological diversity.  Consequently biological diversity is the ultimate integrator of environment change.  When that change is sufficiently intensive and extensive it leads to species extinction.  That, together with the scale and rate of the various kinds of environment change, conspires to create the biological diversity crisis.  (Biodiversity:  Threats and Challenges, in Biodiversity, Sustainability and Human Communities:  Protecting Beyond the Protected, edited by Tim O’Riordan and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann, 2002, p. 34. )
If I interpret the Patrick Principle properly, it’s that in times of environmental stress the diversity of the species that remain within the community is changed and impoverished.  Indeed, it’s possible that some of those that survive the stresses actually thrive.  Perhaps in the three decades since we were first introduced to the terms biological diversity and biodiversity we’ve become so familiar with them and their implications for our understanding of the environment that the Patrick Principle seems like a truism.  It shouldn’t be.

And then, at some point, I made what probably seems to be the pretty obvious connection between the aftermath of the Permian extinction and the Patrick Principle.  The consequences of environmental degradation documented in American rivers and streams by Patrick (the lessened diversity of life, not necessarily its absence) played out in the lowest Triassic – fewer species but, in some places, an abundance of individuals, like the Early Triassic scallop Claraia or the herbivore Lystrosaurus hedini.

Maybe it’s a prosaic insight, but it’s what I had.

There’s another aspect of Patrick’s life that I found particularly appealing – her unbridled admiration of her father.  (I suppose as a father, I’m inclined to make a big deal out of this.)  Her father, a lawyer, not only instilled a love of nature in Ruth and her sister, but also encouraged them to reject the traditional roles that females were expected to play in society, much to consternation of his wife.

Ruth recounted that her father “loved the natural world.”  (This and all subsequent quotations are from the WHYY show Hometown Legends:  Ruth Patrick cited earlier.)
Every Sunday afternoon, from the time I was five to about twelve, I would take a walk with him.  And we would always go to some woods.  Typically I would carry a basket.  And when I was little, of course I collected everything, worms, mushrooms, plants, and rocks, and everything and then we’d go home.  And my sister and I would have our milk and crackers, and, while we were eating and afterwards, Father would identify what we had in our baskets.  And, of course, we felt very proud if we could identify them and tell him what they were.
That her scientific pursuits had her mucking around in fields and streams did not sit well with her mother.  Even as her mother “felt girls should be in the home, not out in the fields, so to speak,” Patrick turned to her father and followed his advice, embracing science, academic pursuits, and the field.  In that day and age, she noted, “Ordinarily, [a] nice, healthy girl, just shouldn’t want to get a Ph.D.”  But, her father “believed that women could accomplish a good deal.  He used to say to me, ‘With your spare time, read, improve your mind.  You can hire people to wash dishes.’”

And, so, into her old age, Ruth Patrick remained focused on “trying to understand the natural world and to understand why we have the assortment of species we do have operating in our ecosystems and how can we protect them, how can we keep it happening.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tales of Rafinesque

For some two hundred and sixty years, thanks to Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, we have been building taxonomic histories for our known species.  The Linnaean system has provided a common framework for identifying species and, as writer Richard Conniff has posited, it kicked off the “great age of discovery about the natural world.”  (The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, 2011, p. 3.)  To me, one of the more appealing aspects of this system of scientific nomenclature is that the name of the fossil you just plucked, perhaps somewhat cavalierly, from the sand may hold a key to an unexpected and rich story of naturalists and exploration.  So it is with a tiny fossil shark tooth I found several days ago while collecting along the shoreline at the northern end of the Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay.  The small tooth pictured below is from a species of Alopias or thresher shark (lingual side on the left, labial on the right).

(An aside:  Material along this stretch of the Chesapeake shore is from the mid-Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million years old.  Besides muddled thinking, the only other excuse for the inconsistent and vague dates I’ve ascribed at various times in this blog to the fossils found here is that the cliffs expose a range of formations, as well as beds within those formations.  They get younger as they get closer to the top, and fossils can be shed from most of these.)

Bretton Kent identifies just two Miocene species of true Alopias found in this area – Alopias latidens and A. aff. superciliosus (“aff.” signals that the species in question is similar though not identical to the named species – i.e., we don’t really know what species this is).  (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994, p. 71-73.)  I’m not sure which of these two species lost this particular tooth, but I’m inclined to label it A. aff. superciliosus because of its narrow crown. Kent says this species, compared to A. latidens, is “more slender and delicate.”  Unfortunately, A. aff. superciliosus is supposed to have a deep nutrient groove in the lingual side of its root.  Just to confound the issue (something that frequently happens in the identification game), there’s none in this specimen.

The body plan of the thresher shark is curious, to say the least.

(This drawing of an Alopias vulpinus is from A History British Fishes by William Yarrell, Volume II, 2nd Edition, 1841, p. 522.)

In general, the big-eyed, small-mouthed thresher shark can exceed 10 feet in length, from tip of the snout to end of the caudal fin (tail).  The tail may make up fully half of its body length.  Leonard Compagno et al. identify three Alopias species alive today, with all of them under some threat to their well being (Compagno deems each “likely depleted.”  Sharks of the World, 2005, p. 179-180.)

What’s the value to these sharks of such exaggerated tails?  It’s really quite amazing.  Of the extant Alopias superciliosus, Compagno writes that it “[u]ses its tail to stun the pelagic fishes on which it feeds.”  Even more intriguing, he asserts that the extant Alopias vulpinus “[h]erds and stuns small fishes with its tail, sometimes cooperatively.”

But the striking body plan of this shark and its creative use of the tail aren’t what inspired this post, rather, the spark was the fish’s complete genus name:  Alopias Rafinesque 1810a.


Even from the outset, not knowing anything about this person Rafinesque, the name seemed to have a certain mysterious flair.  It seemed a lovely, highly descriptive adjective.  Yes, having learned a bit about Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783 – 1840), this would make a delightful adjective.  Someone could be rafinesque if he or she is decidedly eccentric, bounding with energy, and awash with plans but unable to follow through with most of them.  In other words, someone likely to bedevil his or her colleagues.

(This drawing is from Rafinesque’s Analyse de la Nature, published in 1815.  I have provided a link to this publication.  Other books cited below which are available online in full text for free are similarly linked.  Unfortunately all of the articles I cite are set behind paywalls.)

Rafinesque was born in Turkey to a French father and a German mother who held Greek citizenship.  In 1793, his businessman father, on one of his international trading sojourns, died of yellow fever in Philadelphia.  Rafinesque fils grew up shuttling from relative to relative along the Mediterranean.  His formal education was minimal, but he was a voracious reader, having read 1,000 (his number) scientific and philosophical tomes by age 12.  Keeping score was an impulse that manifested itself early as did his attraction to natural history and the collection of specimens.  A trip into the field seemed to trump all other activities.  (In preparing the overview of Rafinesque’s life presented in this post, I consulted various secondary as well as primary sources.  Most are cited at different points below.)

He made his first voyage to the United States in 1802, a journey ostensibly undertaken to further a business career, but business clearly took a backseat to natural history.  He traveled through much of the northeast, often on foot, collecting specimens and, apparently, making the acquaintance of the leading naturalists in America.

A subsequent business opportunity took him to Sicily where he worked for English banker Abram Gibbs, who was also at the time the American consul in Palermo.  In the process, Rafinesque apparently made a small fortune which freed him to engage in his natural history pursuits.  An insatiable urge to identify new species took hold and he began the outpouring of published works that would mark most of his adult life.  In 1810, he published a couple of volumes, one of which, Caratteri Di Alcuni Nuovi Generi E Nuove Specie Di Animali E Piante Della Sicilia (I translate this title as Some Characteristics Of New Genera and New Species Of Animals And Plants Of Sicily) provided the name and description of the Alopias genus of shark (e.g., “extremely long tail” and “minute sharp teeth,” p. 12 -13) and so tied his name to this shark genus.

In 1815 Rafinesque returned to America where he would remain for the rest of his life.  His arrival was dramatic and disastrous.  As the ship he was on attempted to reach New York City through the Long Island Sound, it struck rocks and sank.  Rafinesque lost everything.  By his own reckoning, he had set sail with “a large parcel of drugs and merchanize [sic], besides 50 boxes containing my herbal, cabinet, collections and part of my library [punctuation in the original].  I took all my manuscripts with me, including 2000 maps and drawings, 300 copperplates, &c.  My collection of shells was so large as to include 600,000 specimens large and small.  My herbal was so large that I left a part of it.”  (A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe, or Outlines of the Life, Travels and Researches of C.S. Rafinesque, A.M. Ph.D, 1836, p. 45)  And so the wandering began.

Many of the ensuing 25 years were spent on the move collecting specimens and exploring his new homeland.  Often he went on foot, as he did for several crossings of the Alleghenies, traveling from the east coast to places west, and back again.  As he journeyed to and fro, he collected plants, animals, and fossils.  To say Rafinesque was a field naturalist is an understatement.  He was in his element when hiking back roads and tramping through fields and woods, collecting specimens.

But his range of interests and activities were broad, overly broad.  By his own account, he had been
a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist . . . . By profession a Traveller [sic], Merchant, Manufacturer, Collector, Improver [of course], Professor, Teacher, Surveyor, Draftsman, Architect, Engineer, Pulmist [apparently, one who treats diseases of the lungs], Author, Editor, Bookseller, Librarian, Secretary . . . and I hardly know myself what I may not become as yet: . . . 
He added bitterly,
. . . since whenever I apply myself to any thing, which I like, I never fail to succeed if depending on me alone, unless impeded and prevented by lack of means, or the hostility of the foes of mankind.”  (Travels, p. 148.)
Indeed, he knew failure and tended to blame it on machinations against him.  Even what I believe was his most sustained undertaking, teaching natural history and botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1819 to 1826, ended badly.  And, after a rancorous departure from the university, he wandered back east, coming to rest in Philadelphia where he died in 1840.

How was he as a naturalist?  Writer Charles Boewe described Rafinesque as having a “lust for discovery” which trumped everything, even the proper treatment of those new species he believed he had discovered.  (Rafinesque Among the Field Naturalists, Bartonia, Number 54, 1988, p. 55.)  “. . . Rafinesque never could pause long to think about the meaning of a discovery; he plunged headlong after fresh discoveries – in the field when possible, from other sources where necessary.”  (Boewe, p. 53)

Rafinesque was a taxonomic splitter par excellence, reveling in the identification of new species and genera from the minutest variation (or on the basis of some description he’d merely read!), ultimately to the irritation and frustration of his contemporary naturalists and to the scientists who would come after him and try to make sense of (and frequently undo) his names and descriptions.  (Conniff, The Species Seekers, p. 124.)  Compounding the taxonomic challenge he created by naming new species right and left, was the fact that, fairly early on, the prolific Rafinesque wore out his welcome in the world of mainstream natural history publications and resorted to self published pieces or obscure journals.  Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Rafinesque is credited with the first descriptions of over 100 plant and animal species.  (Bil Gilbert, An Odd Fish Who Swam Against the Tide, Smithsonian, Volume 29, Number 10, January 1999.)

There was, though, some virtue in Rafinesque’s compulsion to see new species everywhere.  He tumbled early to the notion that what might distinguish one species from another could be characteristics that were in flux.  He dismissed critics of his splitting by saying that, even if what he had named were just varieties, not species, soon enough they would be new species.  (Conniff, p. 126.)  When Darwin decided that it had been a mistake not to include, in On The Origin of Species, an acknowledgment of his “intellectual predecessors,” those previous naturalists and thinkers who had paved the way for his new theory, he began to compile a list (which he titled an Historical Sketch) to include in subsequent editions.  It was undertaken in part to ward off the accusations that he had misappropriated others’ ideas.  (Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts:  The Secret History of Evolution, 2012, p. 1.)  By the third English edition of On the Origin, Rafinesque had made the list.  Darwin wrote,
Rafinesque, in his 'New Flora of North America,' published in 1836, wrote (p. 6) as follows:—"All species might have been varieties once, and many varieties are gradually becoming species by assuming constant and peculiar characters:" but further on (p. 18), he adds, "except the original types or ancestors of the genus."  (From the fourth edition of On the Origin of Species, as reprinted in Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, p. 294.)
I was amused to find that, when Darwin corresponded with botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker on December 29, 1860, in search of the publication date of Rafinesque’s New Flora of North America, he wrote of Rafinesque:
Poor Naturalist as he was, he has [a] good sentence about species & vars. which I must quote in my Historical Sketch &; I sadly want the date at once.  (From the Darwin Correspondence Project.)
The Rafinesque tale is replete with strange and wonderful stories.  Particularly delicious is the episode when, during an unexpected and uninvited visit to the ornithologist John James Audubon, Rafinesque was found one night running around his room, stark naked, swinging the remains of one of Audubon’s violins in a futile effort to knock down the bats that had come in through the window and that he was convinced were a new species.  (Audubon, Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, 1831, p. 457; also quoted in Conniff, p. 119.)

And, of course, there had to be some controversy over his death.  That, upon Rafinesque's demise, his landlord attempted to sell his corpse to a medical school only to be thwarted by friends who spirited the body away is, according to writer Charles Boewe, apocryphal.  But, when the naturalist’s remains were unearthed in 1924 and removed to Transylvania University to be entombed there, it was only fitting that apparently the wrong body made its way from Philadelphia to Lexington.  (Charles Boewe, Who’s Buried in Rafinesque’s Tomb?, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 111, No. 2, April, 1987.)

Fascinating tales to spring from a little fossil shark tooth.
Nature Blog Network