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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network