Palaeontology is inextricably tied to the past in more ways than are obvious. Yes, Tyrannosaurus rex lived and died 65-67 million years ago. Mesohippus, one of the early horses found in Saskatchewan approximately 37 million years ago, was part of a blossoming evolutionary tree of what are commonly grouped as ‘horses’, or Equidae. But, unlike many practicing scientists and their fields of specialities, palaeontology consistently honours those who came before. The shoulders of the giants on which we stand on are so plentiful that we rarely stop to inquire about the lives of those we honour.
In biology and palaeontology, defining the characters of any group of animals or plants is essential for maintaining clarity in our discussions. This falls under the umbrella of taxonomy. The naming of specific specimens based on its unique characters defines also their relation to other species. Tyrannosaurus rex, named in 1905 by legendary paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857 – 1935) of the American Museum of Natural History, was compared with fossil remains of other large carnivorous dinosaurs. Osborn saw that there were enough unique characters to create a new genus and species, that of T. rex. So, when paleontologists compare new discoveries, including that of the RSM’s Scotty T. rex, we always reference the specimen and species as defined by Osborn. We also pay homage in a more continuous fashion than other sciences to not only the specimens, but to the original words spoken about these fossils.
So, if we were to review or at least source some of the literature of taxonomists (whether palaeontologists or biologists), the names of our past keep cropping up. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was the founder of much of our taxonomic structure. In the 18th century, he created a scheme intending to standardize the names we attribute to creatures and foliage. In much of the literature today the name of Linneaus often comes up. There are other ‘giants’ of the name game. Early in the development of palaeontology for example, this naming practice took on some unfavorable zeal with E. D. Cope (1840-1897) and O. C. Marsh (1831-1899). Their vicious competitiveness launched a plethora of new names, at the time based on mere fragments of bones. In practice, whomever names a new species first is recorded for history as the founder of that particular species. A century or more later, the names of Cope and Marsh are still prevalent in the literature, but at times it is not in so much as who named what, but, in a manner of correction, debunking a species in favour of more considered fashion.
George Cuvier (1769-1832) was a comparative anatomist for the Museum national d’histoire nationalle in Paris. It was through his broad training of comparing not only living forms, but also those found in rock that he was situated to weigh in heavily on matters establishing taxonomic names. “And for his thousands of dissections he believed he had discovered regularities that could be rigorously defined” (Farber, 2002). Because he also undertook the study of fossil forms, he also ventured to theorize on what he saw as violent events in the geological past, especially “catastrophism”. By comparing fossil forms with modern forms he identified that there was a relationship between the two, and that at times nature suffered greatly in the past. His idea on this was published under the English title as Essay on the Theory of the Earth. My 1815 edition is just one of many editions to appear outside of the original French. It is popular book, to be sure. The idea which he proposed was that not only did humans cause extinction (several species were exterminated by this point by our own hand), but in the geological past there occurred not only small, but large scale extinctions. The idea that species in the past were not part of the prevailing fauna had broad scale ramifications that extended into philosophy and theology. For a short time he was the focal point of this type of inquiry. Expeditions and their leaders would send Cuvier their discoveries for identification, including for example, the first fossil elephant bones found in North America.
Much has changed since the time of Cuvier (including the successfully launched mechanisms of evolutionary thinking). Still his contributions to science are not lost or forgotten. We are a foundational science, depending on whole or in this case in part, on the footing of those who have come before us. Therefore, it should not be surprising that his name comes up in 2013 in the description of some fossils from the Miocene of Saskatchewan; fossils that are about 12 or so million years old.
In 2013 University of Alberta researchers Julien Divay and Alison Murray described the fish fauna from the Wood Mountain Formation of Saskatchewan (Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, vol. 37, p. 1269-1291). For over half a century researchers who have worked on the Tertiary fossils of this province have done so on mammals; the only exceptions being a scattering of fossil reptile and amphibian remains. These are not complete or nearly complete skeletons, but teeth. Composed of enamel and dentine, teeth are relatively sturdy structures and have survived the rigours of past climates and the fossilization process. The aforementioned authors examined the vertebrae of hundreds of fish, and in Cuvier-like fashion, were able to discern 16 groupings of fish from these samples. Species of gar fish, catfish, and pike were discovered, familiar higher groupings that are still known today. Also, species within these groups were described that are unique unto themselves.
The fish fauna, or ichthyofauna, from these deposits “is typical of a well-oxygenated, lowland fluvial environments, and indicates a wide variety of substrates and flow strengths, as well as the presence of aquatic vegetation in the vicinity”. Each species has not only a unique physiology, but also reflect the environment upon which they thrived. Further, by looking at the collection of ichthyofauna the authors can easily reason like-like patterns; these “faunas are compatible with … warm temperate to subtropical” climes “with temperatures similar to those of northern Mississippi or southern Tennessee.”
Amongst the 16 groupings of fishes, some to the genus or species level, the authorial names under which these groupings were established include Carl Linneaus, who formally identified a fish as belonging to Esox (commonly called a pike) which he established in 1758. Other names appear in this paper, contributors of more recent times who provided further and more detailed assessments of fish relations, but the champions of the past still have relevance today. Scientists cited include George Cuvier, who identified the group Lepisosteidae in 1825. This is family of fish that includes gar fish, the heavily armored fish, found today in southern climates. He also created the family Esocidae in 1817, the family of fish including Esox.
There are many reasons to be thankful to work in an area of science where not only the history of life is explored but in which the history of this science is at least acknowledged. We may skip over the laundry list of names that have come before us but if we pause for a moment, and absorb the tenor of the lives themselves, we can measure how far we have come in understanding previous ideology and practices. We never forget the quote of Bernard Chartres in the 12thcentury comparing his knowledge with those of ancient Greece; that we are small on the shoulders of giants. We refer this small verse to Sir Isaac Newton, who used a modified version in a letter (1676) to a science colleague. Scientists can be reflective at least part of the time. For we all are the sum of our experiences in whatever form these may be. So, as we move forward in building this house of knowledge brick by brick, our ability to view our place at this moment in the tabernacle of the universe is contingent on us appreciating those that have come before us.
Farber. P. L., 2002. Cuvier, Georges. In, Encyclopedia of Evolution, p. 226-227. Oxford University Press.