Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Onawa Bestiary ~ A Gift

I have a small collection of favorite books, each of which captures the natural history of a specific place.  It includes, among others, Louis J. Halle’s Spring in Washington (1947), Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928), Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), and Vincent G. Dethier’s The Ecology of a Summer House (1984).  Each of these volumes places the author, and, vicariously, the reader, into the midst of the natural environment of a place.  Each author is someone who, to appropriate Leopold’s apt description, cannot live without wild things.  Each is passionately open to the natural world.

To this group of slender works, I add another:  Henry D. M. Sherrerd Jr.’s The Onawa Bestiary:  An Opinionated Survey With Digressions (1988), an obscure, out-of-print work deserving to be more widely known.  I found it tucked away on a shelf in a used bookstore.  In its original incarnation, it was self-published, the copies to be given away as gifts.

Sherrerd’s writing is graceful, intimate, and direct.  He shares with the other authors in this clutch of books an ability to capture those wild things on paper and, in so doing, build an indelible image of the place where they were encountered.

His place is a “camp” (in this case, a group of summer cabins) on Lake Onawa in the middle of Maine, northwest of Bangor.  The lake appears below in Google Earth:

At the time he is writing, portions of the south shore of the lake have become more generally accessible, and so, “along the south shore at least the original Spartan (even Puritanical) back-to-nature way of life . . . finally gave way in the 80s to whatever is meant by the term ‘lifestyle.’  The uplake camps [of which his was one], on the other hand, still live more or less in the Edwardian Age, dependent on boats for transportation and kerosene lamps for light.”  (p. xi)

His camp occupies a peninsula poking into the lake; it is a piece of land looking much like the head of a cartoon duck’s head facing to the left.  The Google Earth link below centers on the Sherrerd camp.

Sherrerd seems to be a jack of all trades.  He studied aeronautical engineering at Princeton for four years, transferred to Bowdoin College, but spent three years in the Air Force in the early 1950s before attending classes there and earning a degree in English.  Later, he did graduate work in Medieval and Old English.  He bartended in the Yukon.  He’s worked on outboard motors and done technical writing in aeronautics.  But, above all (at least in my view), he’s an essayist and a poet.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word bestiary as “A treatise on beasts: applied to the moralizing treatises written during the Middle Ages.”  Sherrerd writes of The Onawa Bestiary, “This book offers a good deal of moralizing and interpretation (not necessarily serious) but very little theology.”  (p. x)  I disagree with him a bit.  In keeping with its title, the book is a collection of descriptions of various “beasts” encountered on and near Lake Onawa.  But these descriptions are only on occasion moralizing; rather, they are insightful, typically idiosyncratic, decidedly opinionated (some of these animals he likes, others not), and often very humorous.  This is a heady mix and therein lies their power and their charm.  Yes, it’s a bestiary, but, in many ways, this is also a rogues’ gallery of the Onawa fauna.

Sherrerd does not use the passage of the months during the course of a year or part of a year as his organizing principle.  The seventy-six, often brief, descriptions of Onawa fauna are presented in alphabetical order, beginning with Bats and ending with Woodcock.  Mammals, birds, fish, insects, and bivalves make it into this bestiary.  To prove Onawa’s Maine roots, the entries include Black Flies, Loons, and Moose.

Sherrerd’s no romantic about nature and its beasts.  In the Introduction, he notes that Onawa
is still much as it was nearly a hundred years ago:  a collection of summer camps in the wilderness, most of them handed down through three and even four generations.  Which is why the wildlife is around to be observed, enjoyed, and in some cases eaten.  (p. xi)
He hunts (though he notes that gave up deer hunting because he “lack[s] the true killer instinct . . . .”  (p. 31)) and is an inveterate fisherman.

In many instances, it's not a gentle world being depicted.  The specimen described in the Snapping Turtle entry is “an ugly sonofabitch, being big – about two feet from nose to tail – covered with slimy green crud, armed with formidable claws and beak, and having an extremely offensive smell.  A singularly unattractive animal.”  (p. 137)  In these pages, predators, such as the mink, do what comes naturally, kill to survive.  Sherrerd’s lack of romanticism extends even to the hummingbirds.  “Hummingbirds are certainly beautiful and their powers of flight are unique, but otherwise they are about as sweet and gentle as a Tiger tank,” aggressively fighting off other hummingbirds who dare approach a feeder.  (p. 58)

That said, he is certainly not above some anthropomorphizing when doing so captures an essence of a creature; into such descriptions, he often mixes humor.  He begins his entry on Sunfish with a typically blunt note:  “Most fish are just fish:  cold, silent, mindless creatures living in an unseen world of water that is foreign to the human experience.  Even the gamest of game fish, trout and salmon, do not impress me as anything other than fish.”  (p. 127)  But, then, there are sunfish.
The sunfish . . . assumes a definite personality, and a somewhat pugnacious one at that.  A sunfish hanging in the water off the dock stares back at you with very much an air of ‘OK, buddy, what do you want to make of it?’  And a whole group of them in a boat-shadow are much like a gang of drugstore cowboys:  nowhere to go, nothing to do except make wisecracks about the passing minnows.”  (p. 127)
The Swallows entry centers on those individuals occupying the cross beams of the boathouse which functions as Sherrerd’s workshop.  Though actively discouraged from nesting in the rafters, their daily presence is tolerated because they offer companionship.  When he’s working, the birds don’t huddle away in a corner.  No, they cluster close above him.
Their conversational twittering is constant, and it is impossible not to feel that they are discussing whatever I am doing at the moment.  The occasional drawn-out rasping sound is uncomfortably derisory, particularly when I have just made a mistake.  They are so much a part of the scene that I sometimes find myself talking to them, even stepping back to let them get a better view of the work and asking if they approve.  And then I wonder if I really do spend too much time in the woods.  (p. 128-129)
Staying true to the medieval bestiary, Sherrerd describes certain fantastic animals that exist only in his (and our) imagination, such as the Side-Hill Bowdger, the Tree-Squeek, and the Willipus Wallapus.  Take the tree-squeek which usually resides in the upper branches of tall trees and makes its calls when the wind blows.  Even I know it well.
Occasionally, the tree-squeek will overcome its natural shyness and live at lower levels, closer to man and his works.  (This is thought to be a degenerate mutational variety by some authorities.)  These are mostly found in trees very close to buildings and as a matter of fact there is one in the birch tree that has grown into contact with the eaves of the pumphouse.  (p. 132)
The Onawa Bestiary is literary pointillism.  Yes, we learn about the fauna, but, through the accumulation of brief comments and passing observations, portraits of the camp, the lake, the sometimes quirky people of this place, and Sherrerd and his wife Ayako, take shape.

Though I think there is no agenda to this wonderful book (as there is to some of those in my collection), it has a subtext:  the author, and, by inference, the rest of us, fit into nature individually and uniquely.  Indeed, the motto of Sherrerd’s summer camp is, as written in the book:  Chaçun À Son Gôut.  I translate this as “To Each His Own.”

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Another Pleasure Becomes A Vice, Perhaps ~ A Cautionary Tale

I opened my summer cottage last week and then wandered down to the beach to see what the winter had wrought.

Nothing dramatic.  This day shells dotted the shoreline – as many as expected and the usual suspects as far as I could tell.

A few days before, I’d picked up the Washington Post’s Health and Science section (graces each Tuesday’s newspaper) and found an article with the dread-inducing title of Don’t Pick Up the Seashells Down by the Seashore (print version of May 13, 2014, see below for a link to the online article).  The author was science writer Jason G. Goldman.

Damn, another pleasure transformed into a vice.

To be fair to Goldman, I doubt he drafted this title.  Titles in newspapers are fluid things – the online version of the article is titled Collecting Seashells and Grooming Sand May Damage Beach Ecosystems, A Study Finds.

But it’s easy to see why someone chose that specific title for his piece in the print version of the newspaper because Goldman does strike a decidedly negative note, beginning his article with this admonition:
You might think twice next time you snag a seashell from the beach and drop it into your pocket.  You might be altering the seaside environment.
He buttresses this opening warning by referring to a scientific study “more than 30 years in the making” that, he asserts, makes that very claim – collecting seashells could be bad for beaches.

That study, the be-all and end-all of Goldman’s newspaper story, appeared January, 2014, in the open access, peer reviewed science journal PLOS ONE under the title Vanishing Clams on an Iberian Beach:  Local Consequences and Global Implications of Accelerating Loss of Shells to Tourism.  Michal Kowalewski and colleagues report on the results of a detailed analysis of the abundance of empty mollusk shells on Llarga Beach (Platja Llarga), a small beach (slightly more than a third of mile long) in Spain, on the Mediterranean, southwest of Barcelona.  The map below is focused on Llarga Beach.  Zooming out will help orient the beach on Spain’s Mediterranean coastline.

Between July, 1978, and July, 1981, monthly tallies of shell abundance were conducted; three decades later, the authors undertook a more limited series of counts (monthly from August to October, 2008, and monthly from July, 2009, to June, 2010).

Their findings?

As a proxy for all shells, they concentrate on the three dominant bivalves that appear on this shore.  The average number of such shells for each tally in the 1978-1981 period was 1,506.5; thirty year later, in the 2008-2010 period, the average count was 578.3.  This is a 61.6 percent decline, or, as Kowalewski et al. put it, the “shells at the shoreline of Llarga Beach were almost three times more abundant three decades ago, on average . . . .” (p. 4)

Does this matter?

The researchers describe various functions that shells play in the ecosystem of the shoreline, among them:  stabilizing beaches, providing shelter for different kinds of organisms including algae, hermit crabs, and fish, and offering surfaces for colonization by other organisms.  Further, when dissolved, shell material returns different elements, e.g., carbon and oxygen, to marine waters.

The authors dispose of a host of potential factors that might explain the drop in the number of shells.  It cannot be pegged to loss of a particular species because the relative distribution of shells from these mollusk species differed little from the first period to the other.  There was no significant alteration in beach topography, urbanization of adjacent properties, or the harvesting of shellfish and other fishery activities.  Further, no change in local weather conditions such as average monthly temperatures was noted; average wave heights were little changed (apparently this is enough evidence to show that no change in onshore currents had moved the shells); and there was no evidence of an increase in predation on the bivalves by gastropods.

Having struck down these various potential agents, Kowalewski et al. look at tourism.  They compiled data on the growth in the number of tourists visiting this shoreline and concluded there was a “significant negative correlation . . . between tourism and shell abundance . . . .”  Overall, shell abundance dropped by a factor of 2.62, and local tourism increased by a factor of 2.74.  The correlation was particularly strong during the summer months.  “The increase in strength of the correlation with increase in tourist arrivals [in the summer] is particularly compelling because it suggests that when tourist activity was high shell abundance decreased.” (p. 6)

In my opinion, the authors specifically flag shell collecting by tourists as a possible causal force in the decline in shell abundance.   It’s of special interest to them, because, as they note, at the beginning of the article,
In particular, the removal of dead shell remains by tourists represents one of the most understudied and least understood processes associated with human activities along marine shorelines.  (p. 1)
And then they add, “[r]igorous assessments of shell removal by tourists are needed . . . .”  (p. 1)  The reader (well, this reader) assumes that what follows in their study is such an assessment of shell collecting.

After laying out the data correlating shell abundance decline and tourism, Kowalewski et al. assert that shell collecting “is an important activity along marine shorelines.”  (p. 7)  To my mind, there’s an implied closing clause to this sentence – “with negative consequences for seashell abundance.”  (Of course, one might ask how we know it’s “an important activity” in this context if, as the authors observe, we don’t really understand it and this study isn’t that missing “rigorous assessment”?)  Beyond mapping the growth in sheer numbers of tourists, Kowalewski and his colleagues didn’t do any study of the collecting or other habits of tourists to this Spanish beach.  Further, with regard to shell collecting on this beach, they note that the shells of the dominant bivalve species here aren’t particularly attractive or desirable to collectors.  (Their lack of research on the tourist-related activities is, I believe, a function of the fact that the project had a different focus for the data gathering.  Only subsequently were the data used to address the ecological issue treated in the report.)

They do list a number of other deleterious activities associated with tourism that might work to reduce the number of shells:  disturbing the sand, gathering of live shellfish, camping, driving recreational vehicles on the beach, and grooming of the beach.

When they state that raking and clearing the sand at Llarga Beach with heavy machinery occurred in the summer months during the 2008-2010 period, but not in the 1978-1981 period, I thought, "Here’s the smoking gun of this story."  Not hard to believe that such grooming is likely to have dire consequences for seashells.

But, at that juncture, the researchers punt when it comes to fingering what tourist-related factors might be most responsible for the shell decline at Llarga Beach.  They write, “The relative importance of these various tourism-related processes is impossible to evaluate for Llarga Beach due to lack of relevant data.”  (p. 7)  So, as far as this analysis is concerned, collecting remains as prominent a possible contributor as beach grooming for the shell decline on this beach.

After reading the research piece, I’m not surprised at how Jason Goldman structured his article on the study for the Washington Post or that, apparently, other news coverage of this study has zeroed in on shell collecting.  It’s the sexy, potential villain in the tale and, it seems to me, as written, the research article, itself, might lead journalists in that direction.

So, I was amused to discover that Michal Kowalewski, in a comment posted on January 15, 2014, on the PLOS ONE website, felt he needed to warn readers about how his study was being misconstrued in the popular press:
Please note that the role of shell collecting is exaggerated in the press coverage, including news reports with titles implying that our paper documents shell loss due to shell collecting.  This is not correct. . . . At this point we lack robust estimates of relative importance played by different tourism-related processes that may be contributing to shell removal or destruction.
Yes, this is a cautionary tale, but one with more messages than I thought at the outset.  One warning directed to us is about reporters and writers with a penchant for "cherry picking" scientific research.  Another concerns the researchers themselves, who should know that they will be cherry picked and write accordingly.

And, finally, I was quite taken with the conclusion Jason Goldman wrote for the Washington Post article in which he quotes geoscientist Karl W. Flessa, who was not involved in this research.  Flessa told him, "I'd rather assume that there are consequences and be proven wrong than the other way around. . . .I'll keep my hands in my pockets the next time I go to the beach."  Maybe I will, too.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Open Nomenclature and Lagodon Fish Teeth ~ Navigating Between Certainty and Uncertainty

Use of open nomenclature is the procedure by which a taxonomist comments upon the identity of a specimen that cannot be readily or securely determined.
                   ~ Peter Bengtson, Open Nomenclature, Palaeontology, 1988, p. 223.

Coming at scientific nomenclature and taxonomy from the land of amateurs, I am always convinced that the fossil specimen I have in hand has a name, I just don’t know it.  It’s a name I need to discover.  But, sometimes, when I do find it, the name carries a sign that the taxonomist, himself or herself, harbored some degree of uncertainty about the name bestowed.  There remains doubt and this post is about such doubt.

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, administered by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, is “a uniform system of zoological nomenclature ensuring that every animal has a unique and universally accepted scientific name.”  It is my understanding, that the Code itself provides no way of indicating when a taxonomist may have some degree of doubt about the identification of a specimen.

Open nomenclature, an unofficial facet of scientific nomenclature in zoology and unrecognized by the Code, allows scientists to do just that – alert the community to different levels of ambiguity about an identification.  Paleontologist S.C. Matthews captured well the usefulness of open nomenclature:
By giving taxonomy a means of stretching (in an entirely honest and proper way) the limits of existing knowledge, it [open nomenclature] by itself indicates where improvements are needed and in which direction they might be sought.  It permits us to build any such improvements into nomenclature left open for that purpose, and this without any upset of established names.  (Notes on Open Nomenclature and on Synonymy Lists, Palaeontology, Volume 16, Part 4, 1973, p. 714.)
Open nomenclature involves the use of certain abbreviations and punctuation marks (such as aff., cf., ?, or sp.) in the scientific name given to a specimen as a way of indicating the extent to which the namer harbors doubt or some question about the assignment.  Paleontologist Peter Bengtson’s article (cited in the epigraph) has become a key guide to open nomenclature conventions.  In it, he gave several hypothetical examples to help explain how he believed each of these abbreviations and punctuation marks should be used (p. 226).  Relevant to the discussion which follows in this post are the following:
Agenus cf. aspecies – under Bengtson’s protocol, the “cf. indicates that the identification is provisional.”  In this instance, given the placement of the “cf.” before the species name, it’s the species affiliation that is provisional.  “Cf.” is the abbreviation for the Latin confer meaning “compare to.”
Agenus aspecies? – here, the “?” following the species name indicates that species identification is “uncertain.”  If it had followed the genus name, that would have been uncertain.  According to Bengtson, the “?” signals greater uncertainty than “cf.”
Agenus sp. – the species identification “is impossible or has not been attempted.”
My present adventure in open nomenclature began, as taxonomic issues usually do for me, with some fossil finds that I struggled to identify.  But the full story requires a look back more than a century and half.

Medical doctor and naturalist John Edwards Holbrook (1794-1871) gave the name Lagodon to the extant pinfish genus in his book, Ichthyology of South Carolina, first published in 1855.  He offered no explanation for the name, but was clearly responding to the fish’s teeth.  Lagodon is a combined form of two Greek words –  lago for “hare” and odon for “tooth.”  So, the fish genus is hare’s or rabbit’s tooth.  (For better or worse, Bugs Bunny comes to mind.  The common name, pinfish, apparently refers to its small, first dorsal spine.)

According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the pinfish lives in the Atlantic primarily off the southeastern coast of the United States, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico.  It commonly grows to about 7 inches in length, and is a popular bait fish.

Also, it features distinctive incisors and, thus, offers a small paleontological puzzle which involves open nomenclature.

Pictured below is the beautiful lithograph of L. rhomboides from Holbrook’s 1860 version of the book.  Though the 1855 version features a similar plate, the later one is somewhat more colorful and offers additional, isolated views of the fish’s scales and mouth.

That I have digital access to Holbrook’s 1855 publication through the Internet Archive is a marvelous thing because it is a decidedly rare volume.  Only a few copies of the book had been produced in 1855, when the Artists’ Building in Philadelphia, where the artwork was housed, burned down.  In the fire, Holbrook lost all of the book’s original drawings, lithographic stones, and plates.

Undaunted, over the next five years, he had the drawings redone and made some minor edits to the text.  He reissued the book in 1860, at which time, he sought to “recall” all of those copies that had been previously published, offering the new edition in their stead.

For taxonomic purposes, the earlier edition holds sway, no matter the limited number of copies printed and the author’s effort to pull all of that edition from circulation.  As a result, any new name applied by Holbrook in that volume should bear the date of 1855.  So, for example, the Federal Government’s Interagency Taxonomic Information System cites the Lagodon genus as:  Lagodon Holbrook, 1855.

Here’s how Holbrook described the teeth of Lagodon (1855 edition, p. 56):
. . . incisor teeth broad, trenchant, and cleft at their cutting margin; . . . . 
(Based on the various definitions of “trenchant” in the Oxford English Dictionary, I would say Holbrook used the adjective simply to say the tooth had a cutting edge.)  In other words, the apex of the crown spreads out parallel to the jaw line and the crown is split into two cusps.

The paleontological puzzle surrounding Lagodon arises from the appearance in the fossil record, as far back as the Miocene, of teeth that apparently look, for all the world, almost exactly like those in the extant L. rhomboides (the fish pictured above) which is the only species presently assigned to this genus.  (See Lagodon entry in the ITIS Catalogue of Life:  2014 Annual Checklist, Y. Roskov, et al., eds., 2014.)

Here are views (profile and lingual side) of two fossil teeth that I found.  The first was discovered in matrix inside articulated clam shells (Glycymeris parilis) likely eroded from the Calvert Formation along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay; the second was found in material from the Pungo River Formation in the Lee Creek Mine (North Carolina).  Thus, both of these teeth are early-middle Miocene (roughly 16 million years ago, give or take a few million years).

Certainly there are differences between the two.  The Calvert specimen (top) does not have the split crown of the Pungo River specimen (bottom), and is also appreciably smaller (note that the scale bars in the two pictures differ).

But they share some important similarities.  They both have the scoop-like form on the lingual side, the curved profile, and the same orientation of the oval shape of the hollow root, with the longer axis of the root perpendicular to the apex of the crown.  The Pungo River specimen appears to match Holbrook’s description fairly closely.

Are these from fish of the same genus?  The same species?  Are both or either Lagodon?  What should they be called?

In 1932, paleontologist Charles T. Berry described four fossil fish teeth found in the Calvert Cliffs, specifically the St. Mary’s Formation which, though still Miocene in age, is younger than the material from either the Calvert Formation or the Pungo River Formation.  These teeth, he wrote
are relatively short and stocky, tapering towards the root, while the cutting edge is composed of two chisel-like cusps.  About one-third the way down from the cutting edge there is a slight groove which circumscribes the tooth.  Two-thirds of the tooth is covered with a very hard, black, shiny enamel, while the other rough surfaced third comprises the root – which is hollow in the largest specimen.  The side axis is slightly curved inward.  (Some Miocene Teeth Belonging to the Genus Lagodon, American Journal of Science, Volume XXIV, Number 142, October, 1932, p. 303.  This article resides behind a paywall.)
The maximum length of the specimens he found was 2.7 mm.

Berry noted, that, of extant fish, these teeth most closely resembled those of Lagodon rhomboides, and added, “So far as I have been able to find out this is the first fossil record of this genus.”  (p. 303)

These teeth, as described by Berry and pictured in the article, are a good match for my Pungo River specimen (though I cannot, not matter how I study the tooth, find the groove Berry described).  My Calvert specimen doesn’t pass this test.

What I find most fascinating about Berry and his treatment of these teeth is what he did not do. He was remarkably candid in the article about his own internal debate about what to claim taxonomically for these teeth.
With only four teeth to work with it would be unscientific to be categorical regarding the genus, but I think there can be no doubt that these teeth are distinctive enough to prove that they belong to a fish closely related to the modern Lagodon rhomboides.  (p. 305)
Nevertheless, he did place the fish of these fossil teeth in the Lagodon genus (the title of his article made that clear).  Though he came right to the edge of taking the next step, naming a new species, he backed off.  I was surprised at that, given the seductive appeal of naming a new species.  Berry laid out the justification for making such a move and, then, trashed the whole idea as very inappropriate.
It is hardly likely that the existing species goes back unchanged to the middle Miocene, but there is no reason for supposing that the genus Lagodon may not have been in existence at that time.  Although, therefore these Miocene teeth probably belonged to a distinct species of Lagodon, it would be highly improper, despite distinguished precedent, to give them a specific name.  (p. 303, emphasis added.)
I’m not such what really gave him pause.  As he noted, naming a new species on such evidence wouldn’t have been at odds with past practice (or perhaps even his own practice - see below).  Was he more inclined to believe the extant species could have gone back so many millions of years than he let on, so these teeth should be assigned to L. rhomboides?  Were four teeth really too few for him?  I have another paper of his in which he named a new species of Miocene "dog" based solely on two associated molars found along the Calvert Cliffs; his reasoning in that article doesn't appear (to this amateur) to be any more persuasive than the evidence presented regarding Lagodon (A Miocene Dog From Maryland, Proceedings of the United States National Museum, Volume 85, Number 3035, 1938).  I wish I knew more about Charles T. Berry, but the web has been startlingly unforthcoming with background on him.

Several years later, ichthyologist David K. Caldwell in his monograph on the pinfish (The Biology and Systematics of the Pinfish, Lagodon rhomboides (Linnaeus), Bulletin of the Florida State Museum, Volume 2, Number 6, 1957), applauded Berry’s restraint.  He noted that, though Berry expressed doubt that the existing species would be the same as the Miocene species of fish to which the fossil teeth belonged, “he admirably does not elect to assign a specific name to this form merely on the basis of the few teeth.”  (p. 151)

Caldwell also described two fossil teeth found in a site in Florida that are extremely similar to those of the extant L. rhomboides.  This is a Pliocene site (5.3 to 2.6 million years old).  He “tentatively ascribed” his teeth to that existing species and he did so by using the conventions of open nomenclature (yes, I finally did get back to it).  He identified the fossil species as Lagodon cf. L. rhomboides.

As described earlier, the element from open nomenclature here is the abbreviation “cf.” which Caldwell inserted following the genus name.  But, this identification was made in 1957, well before Bengtson’s piece on open nomenclature, so it’s not clear how Caldwell was actually using the abbreviation “cf.”  Bengtson noted that, in the past, paleontologists had been accustomed to use this abbreviation either to convey uncertainty or to make a “provisional” identification.  (A distinction without a difference?)

Parenthetically, Caldwell’s format for the name doesn’t adhere to Bengtson’s suggested protocol because it repeats the genus name (the initial “L.”) following the inserted abbreviation “cf.”  That repetition, according to Bengtson, is unnecessary and introduces a note of ambiguity.

That name has stuck (as has the potentially confusing initial for the genus).  In 2001, when paleontologist Robert W. Purdy, et al., described the fish found at the Lee Creek Mine, they included Lagodon cf. L. rhomboides.  (The Neogene Sharks, Rays, and Bony Fishes From Lee Creek Mine, Aurora, North Carolina, appearing in the Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III, Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, 2001, p. 173.)

My Pungo River specimen is, I’ve decided, Lagodon cf. L. rhomboides.  (I wonder if I am at liberty to drop the “L.”)  The tooth from the Calvert Formation remains a challenge.  I’ve considered labeling it in my collection, using open nomenclature conventions, as Lagodon? sp.  Or, perhaps I should follow the lead of elasmo.com, the excellent website on Lee Creek and related fauna, when it dealt with a similar (e.g., no dual cusps in the crown), though much larger, tooth.  It bumped the identification up to the Lagodon’s family – Sparidae (the porgies) (link here), and described it as a porgy of “undetermined genus.”  Either way, it would signal that I am still in search of a name.  The tooth needs a name.

I am reminded of a poem by Billy Collins titled Osprey in which the poet, while out canoeing, encounters a large bird.  Addressing the bird, he says he will, posthaste, work his way back home to his guide to North American birds.  He concludes (with what I thought was a somewhat misplaced certainty, though perhaps not in this instance) –
. . . I promise I will learn what you are called.
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