Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Assume the Enrolled Position

This post follows a pattern long established for this blog – a fossil serves as a portal into the lives of the people behind it.  And, on this New Year’s Eve, as I look toward the coming year, the opening topic of this post seems sadly relevant in a metaphorical sense.

When threatened, various kinds of animals, including humans, are likely to roll up into a ball.  Enrollment protects the soft underbelly, shielding vital organs, and offers a predator as small a target as possible.  For some animals, this position exposes spikes or other features that may render any bite quite difficult, if not painful.  The pill bug or roly poly probably tops most people’s list of animals that physically curl into a ball.  (These are just a couple of the many common names carried by this isopod which is, in fact, a terrestrial crustacean.)  Those of us who collect fossils are likely to consider the trilobite the posterchild for enrollment.

Trilobites are one of nature’s success stories, having endured for some 300 million years, going extinct shortly before the end of the Permian (about 252 million years ago).  Paleontologist Richard Fortey has characterized trilobites as “veritable fossil factories.”  (Trilobite:  Eyewitness to Evolution, 2000, p. 37.)  These marine arthropods molted many times during their lives, each time shedding the protective exoskeleton they’d out grown.  This process, known as ecdysis, resulted in myriad pieces or exuviae of the exoskeleton – all prime candidates for fossilizing.  Paleontologists study ecdysis in different trilobite species, describing the various ways members of each managed to shed the hard exoskeleton.  (See, for example, Ecdysis in Flexicalymene meeki (Trilobita) by Danita S. Brandt, Journal of Paleontology, Volume 67, Number 6, November 1993.)

Amid all of these exoskeleton fragments can be found many fossilized enrolled trilobites, the remains of living creatures who assumed this defensive posture and died.  From the number of trilobite fossils found in this position, it’s clear that life for these animals was no picnic.

Enrollment is a matter of serious study.  Paleontologists distinguish among several different ways that trilobites might roll up.  A key element is the relationship of the tail section (pygidium) to the head shield (cephalon) – how closely in contact they are and the extent to which the pygidium rests on or under the cephalon.  (Riccardo Levi-Setti has a nice illustration of the several named configurations of partly or fully enrolled trilobites in Trilobites, 2nd edition, 1993, p. 75.)

The conceit of this post is that, though humans can assume the enrolled position literally when threatened, we can also at times do things that, taken together, constitute metaphorical enrollment.  For the latter, I would suggest that we, in various ways, can retreat from aspects of life and raise our shields for protection.  I certainly have done it and the two scientists I profile below may have also (I’m more certain about one than the other).

Pictured below are two trilobite specimens from my collection, both prepared by Marc Behrendt.  These are Flexicalymene meeki (Foerste) trilobites from the Upper Ordovician (about 458 to 444 million years ago).  The first (top picture) is an extended specimen, exhibiting a mostly complete exoskeleton (the pygidium is somewhat folded under the thorax).  The second (second and third pictures) is a fully enrolled specimen in the posture identified as “uncoiled spiral enrollment,” which is “characteristic of the calymenids [of which F. meeki is one], where the pygidium is visible even in the enrolled condition.”  (Levi-Setti, p. 74)
These specimens were collected near Mt. Orab, Ohio.  Though their labels specify that they were found in material from the Richmond Formation, my exploration of the Ohio Geological Survey and U.S. Geological Survey websites strongly suggests that this name is no longer valid.  A likely alternative candidate is the Arnheim Formation, a rich source of enrolled trilobites, but, without any details about the location in which they were collected, there’s little more I can say about this.

There is, on the other hand, a great deal to say about the two geologists/paleontologists who figure in the scientific name for this species of trilobite.  The species name meeki honors Fielding Bradford Meek (1817-1876) and the name in parentheses is that of August Frederic Foerste (1862-1936).  The parentheses indicate that, though this species was first identified as a separate species by Foerste, its name was subsequently revised.

Foerste identified this taxon as a new species and named it in 1910.  He wrote in Preliminary Notes on Cincinnatian and Lexington Fossils of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee (Bulletin of the Scientific Laboratories of Denison University, Volume XVI, 1910):  “For the species so well described by Meek from the Cincinnatian rocks of Ohio, as Calymene senaria, the term Calymene meeki is here proposed.”  (p. 84)  I assume Foerste was referring to, among other publications, the lengthy description of C. senaria that appears in Meek’s Descriptions of Invertebrate Fossils of the Silurian and Devonian Systems (Palaeontology, Geological Survey of Ohio, Volume I, Part II, 1873, p. 173 et seq.).  Renaming the genus name to Flexicalymene was proposed in 1936 by J. Shirley in an article that I’ve not been able to obtain (Some British Trilobites of the Family Calymenidae, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, Volume 92).  Distinguishing C. meeki from C. senaria is not a task I’m prepared to tackle, though Index Fossils of North America (Hervey Woodburn Shimer and Robert Rakes Shrock, 1944, p. 645) makes it sound easy:  the former differs from the latter “in having ungrooved ribs on pygidium.”

Meek, born and raised in Madison, Indiana, apparently suffered from tuberculosis for most of his life.  (Biographies identify the Indiana birthplace, but Meek’s entries in several U.S. Censuses list his birth state as Kentucky.)  It’s unclear how much education he received, though it probably ended with elementary school.  His entry into adulthood was marked by a failed business venture that left him financially strapped.  Despite poverty and ill health, he found the energy to explore local fossils, a commitment to natural history that was recognized by geologist David Dale Owen of the U.S. Geological Survey.  For two years, Meek served as Owen’s assistant helping him to organized the surveys of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  For much of the 1850s, Meek worked in Albany for paleontologist James Hall, studying the paleontology of New York.  During this period, he spent two summers assisting with the geological survey of Missouri, and a third summer with geologist F.V. Hayden in the Nebraska Badlands.  In 1858, Meek joined the nascent Smithsonian Institution and stayed there until his death in 1876.  In his lifetime, he was a renowned paleontologist whose list of publications was quite staggering.

(Details on Meek's life were drawn from the following: Memoir of Fielding Bradford Meek, 1817-1876, read by Charles A White before the National Academy of Sciences, November, 1896; Trilobites, Cincinnati, and The “Cincinnati School of Paleontology,” by Danita S. Brandt and Richard Arnold Davis, in Fabulous Fossils – 300 Years of Worldwide Research on Trilobites, edited by Donald G. Mikulik, et al., New York State Museum Bulletin 507, 2007; and the Meek entry in The Megatherium Club, Smithsonian Institution Archives.)

By virtue of his work with the early state geological surveys, Meek was the first to identify many different species of ancient animals, including many trilobite species.  This was a mixed blessing.  Paleontologists Brandt and Davis have noted that “Meek has a vexing predisposition to publish preliminary descriptions of new species without illustration.”  (Trilobites, Cincinnati, and The “Cincinnati School of Paleontology,” p. 33.)   Meek was a “lumper” (one inclined to group many specimens into existing taxa), and Calymene senaria, according to Brandt and Arnold, was one of Meek’s taxonomic “buckets.”  The Ohio Calymene trilobites were rescued from this bucket by Foerste in 1910.

Though his work on the early state geological surveys and the fossils from the Nebraska Badlands is very worthy of attention, it’s Meek’s tenure at the Smithsonian that really drew me to him, and not for the work he did on fossils.  His ill health dogged him and, according to White in his memorial to the scientist, “[a]s age advanced his periods of exhaustion became more frequent and more pronounced . . . .”  (p. 79)  I wonder if this may have led him to become increasingly asocial.  If so, perhaps the Smithsonian at that time was the right place for him.  I do view that period in Meek’s life as when he may have metaphorically assumed the “enrolled position” in life.

In 1858, the Smithsonian Castle, that iconic red sandstone building on the National Mall, was only three years old and housed the entire Institution, including administrative offices, laboratories, and storage space.  It also provided living quarters to the Smithsonian Secretary and his family.  Significantly for Meek, the building had other unused rooms some of which were allocated to bachelor scientists as apartments.  A descriptive entry by the Smithsonian Institution Archives puts it this way, Meek “lived with his cat in a tiny room under the stairs in the North Tower of the Smithsonian Castle from 1858 until his death.”  This is from the caption to picture 4 of Meek in his Megatherium Club entry.  The picture is seen below and was downloaded from the Smithsonian Institution Archives website.  It has no known copyright restrictions (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 17, Folder: 2).

One might question my assumption that Meek was “enrolled” because, by virtue of living in the Castle, he became a member of the Megatherium Club, that exuberant coterie of “eccentric” (the adjective applied by the Smithsonian Institution Archives) naturalists of the Institution.  They were a wild bunch, known to drink and play music at all hours.
When the club members lived in the Castle they often times drank beer at night and had sack races down its halls. It has also been noted that if the men were feeling up to it, and drank enough that night, they would sneak outside to the windows of the Henry daughters and serenade them.  (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
The “Henry daughters” were the daughters of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Although this association might seem out of character for Meek, reading between the lines of a letter naturalist Robert Kennicott, a cofounder of the Club, wrote home describing its members in detail, the picture I have of Meek remains intact.  Clearly, this was a group that could embrace the unconventional among its members, and, I suspect, Meek probably did not partake in many of the Club’s hijinks.

In his letter, Kennicott began his profile of Meek by calling him “a queer character,” but added, “he is a very excellent and Honorable gentleman with fine feelings and extremely modest though he is now one of our best Paleontologists . . . .”  Tellingly, Kennicott went on to write:
Meek is some 40 years old but quite fresh and boyish in feeling like all naturalists.  He is very deaf and this has made him extremely retiring.  He never goes into society and the uninitiated never know what an excellent fellow he is.  He is wholly devoted to science and scarce thinks of anything else.  (Kennecott, letter sent February 17, 1863 and addressed to “Folks at Home.”)
I love the line “quite fresh and boyish in feeling like all naturalists.”  Would that this always be true.

This other item from the Smithsonian Institution Archives strikes a particularly poignant note for Fielding Meek.  It's a pencil drawing he made of his cat, doing what all cats love to do.  He inscribed it with:  "This is all the family I have."

This picture was downloaded from the Smithsonian Institution Archives website.  It has no known copyright restrictions (Smithsonian Institution Archives, ID:  92-15019, Record Unit 7065, Box 8, Folder: 12).

August Foerste was born and grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and lived nearly all of his adult life there.  He spent his early years “roaming the swamp and woodland of Oakwood [Ohio] and the area south of Dayton.”  (Michael R. Sandy, Geologic Glimpses From Around the World – The Geology of Monuments in Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, Dayton, Ohio:  A Self-Guided Tour, Guidebook No. 8, prepared for the 1992 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, p.19.)  He earned a B.A. from Denison University (Granville, Ohio) in 1887 and then journeyed east for his graduate studies, receiving a Master’s degree in 1888, and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) in 1890.  He then spent a couple of years in Europe, studying in Heidelberg, Germany, and Paris, France.  Throughout his undergraduate and graduate years, Foerste demonstrated strong research and writing skills.  At Denison, he co-founded the Bulletin of the Scientific Laboratories of Denison University which continued publishing into the 1920s.  Beginning perhaps as soon as 1887, Foerste served as an assistant with the U.S. Geological Survey.  Following his European stay, Foerste went back to Dayton and taught physics and botany at Steele High School for some 38 years, until his retirement in 1932.  At that juncture, he, once again went east, moving to Washington, D.C., where he joined the ranks of paleontologists at the Smithsonian Institution and stayed until his death in 1936.  I find no record of his having ever married.

Throughout his adult life, Foerste published often.  He was particularly interested in “the restudy, redescription, illustration, and naming of new species of invertebrate fossils not adequately described or not designated as separate species in their original publications [citation omitted].”  (Brandt and Davis, Trilobites, Cincinnati, and The “Cincinnati School of Paleontology,” p. 38.)  Clearly, the man was a taxonomic “splitter,” finding multiple species among specimens that “lumpers” might group together.  His work on the F. meeki is a case in point.

Many volumes of his field notes are available in a digitized form on the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  I looked through them in search of any substantive references to Calymene meeki (i.e., the Ohio version of Calymene senaria) but came up empty.  The field notes, from the late 1880s through the early 1910s (many are undated), offer a mixture of data.  Most often Foerste recorded details about geological locations, replete with landmarks and descriptions of the rocks found at different elevations at these sites.  Sometimes, he drew stratigraphic columns of outcrops.  On occasion, he sketched the fossils he found.  He kept me reading through notebooks even when they held relatively little interest because at unexpected points he deviated dramatically from his scientific mission.  For instance, there’s the field notebook in which, out of the blue, he wrote down a series of candy recipes.  My favorite digression is the one for Sunday, July 25 that appears in a notebook to which no year is assigned (probably 1887, 1909 or 1915, years in which July 25th is on a Sunday).  Amid day-to-day descriptions of different geological locations around Irvington, Kentucky, Foerste begins this date’s entry with the following list:

2 shirts
1 drawers
2 handkerchiefs
1 stockings

Clothing he needed?  Clothing sent for cleaning?  Priceless.  (Adrianna Marroquin has written a wonderful post (December 8, 2017) on Foerste’s field notes for the Biodiversity Heritage Blog.  It’s good fun.)

When I began to explore Foerste’s life, I was convinced that rather early in his adult life he’d disengaged from some parts of life by virtue of narrowing his horizons to the familiar confines of Dayton, Ohio.  I sensed this was likely principally because I had trouble understanding why in the world, after attending Harvard, spending two years in exciting European cities, and beginning to establish his professional scientific reputation, he chose to spend his professional career teaching high school in his hometown.

There’s no condescension in this comment.  I have taught elementary school and others in my family are currently or were elementary or high school teachers.  Pre-collegiate teaching is a challenging profession that should be much more honored than it is.  Nevertheless, Foerste’s decision to teach high school in Dayton, Ohio, initially struck me as designed to remove him from the academic and scientific mainstream.

In his defense, Brandt and Davis offer paleontologist Ray S. Bassler’s explanation for Foerste’s choice:  he followed this path “because he felt the position interfered less with his scientific research than would a more conspicuous college position.”  (p. 38, quoting the Memorial of August F. Foerste, Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1936, p. 145)  The evidence would suggest that this may well have been true.  Foerste, the high school teacher, remained very active in geology and paleontology at a professional level throughout his adulthood.  He was associated with several state geological surveys, worked with various nationally recognized paleontologists such as Edward Oscar Ulrich, and “earned the reputation in Europe and America as one of the leading paleontologists and geologists of his time.”  (Sandy, p. 19)

(Still, a small voice in my ear suggests there may have been more to it than that.)

I am particularly taken by this picture from Foerste’s time at the Smithsonian.

Foerste is on the left while paleontologist Amadeus W. Grabau is in the middle (he was a coauthor of the initial iteration of Index Fossils of North America), and E.O. Ulrich is happily gesturing on the right.  This picture was downloaded from the Smithsonian Institution Archives website and has no known copyright restrictions (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7177, Image No. SIA2018-055242).

In the end, to be honest, my fixation on enrollment, real and metaphorical, stems largely from own sense that this is the posture I will be assuming for much of the coming year, a year which is likely to be devastatingly challenging.

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