Tuesday, July 30, 2013

1800's Paleontologists Say the Darndest Things

The best part of lit review is the google images.
Meaghan has been doing a lot of literature review lately. This requires a lot of scouring the back pages of Google Scholar for 200-year old articles, and whining incessantly to her office mate about how people from the 1800's couldn't cite each other (stop making up page numbers and publication dates, Cope!!!). It's sort of like dumpster diving at a really boring library. But sometimes there are gems amidst the miasma of scientific horse shit, and Meaghan presents to you now some of the more bizarre things she's found recently in the dung pile that is Oreodont Taxonomy.



The first man to describe oreodnts was Joseph Leidy. The original oreodont specimen was described in 1848 as Merycoidodon culbertsonii, so named after the person who found it, and because he thought it might be somewhat like a ruminant - Merycoidodon means "ruminant-like tooth". However, four years later Joe-Joe had enough material to better describe it, and decided oh heck yes, this IS a ruminant, and therefore I will give it a new genus name to reflect this brilliant decision!

It's funny how that seemed like such a good idea at the time, but since it was technically not following the naming conventions and rules of the time, it instead led to future bitching and disaster. If only all oreodont taxa had been as lucky as Merydoidon culbertsoni - to only be renamed once, that is. Names, as they conveyed prestige as a researcher, quickly gained a life of their own in Merycoidodontoidea... or is it Oreodontoidea? GODDAMN IT, LEIDY, WHY?! WHY?!

Well, something tells us that J-nuts had a more pressing matter on his mind than the poor karma of giving birth to endless taxonomy fights. Here's how he describes Eucrotaphus's ear bones in 1852: "The auditory bullae forms a large, simple mammillary eminence." Silly old Joe, always talkin' about boobies and how much other things that weren't boobies looked just like 'em.

Leidy staring off into the distance, thinking about titties.

In addition to talking about how things look like tatas, Leidy also talks about hybrids. Yes, fossil hybrids. "Two specimens, presenting greater variation than usual, have been suspected to represent hybrids." These and the hybrid species were all separated by size. Speaking as a short person and a tall person, Meaghan and Amy may or may not have some evidence that this is a thing that happens within a species. 'Course, Amy could also just represent a hybrid between a human and a giraffe or something.

"Notwithstanding I have been led to distinguish three species of Agriochoerus, I am inclined to suspect that all the specimens really pertain to a single one, ad the differences which have been indicated are perhaps partly sexual and in part of the character of individual variation." This one's really fun, because this comes after three pages of describing the two newest species of Agriochoerus. It's like he was too committed at that point to delete. "I could correctly say that there is actually only one species. But I've already written it down, and I'm getting hungry, so I'll just put this side note in here and let future generations figure it out. Oh look, is that a set of knockers over there? Oh dear, nope, that was a two-pack of light bulbs, silly me."

"There can be little doubt that the number of species is less than is here indicated; but it would be futile at present to attempt such a revision as is required." - G.T. Bettany 1876, discussing the then-15 species of oreodonts described. For the record, there are now between 72 and 142 species depending on who you talk to, which by Meaghan's count is just a hair bit more than the original 'superfluous' 15 that Bettany called into question. We're not really sure what this guy looked like, but probably sort of coy and amused.  Maybe like this guy. Probably not like this guy:

Marry, Screw or Kill: G.T. Bettany, Paul Bettany, or Bettany Hughes? Here's a hint: the above is Paul.


"This distinct form is only known to me from a single skull of an old animal." - Thank you, senor Cope. Edward Drinker Cope loooooooved to describe things from single specimens. Sometimes we think he was playing the longest, most passive-aggressive prank of all time, and Meaghan is the victim. For those of you who didn't know, E.D. Cope pioneered use of the term Frenemy when he met fellow paleontologist and Othniel Charles Marsh; their miserable pig-tail-pulling set the tone for incessant renaming of oreodont species through time. To punish them post-mortem, Meaghan has created the following graphic that she hopes will one day become the first pick on Google Image searches for either of their names.

If nobody has yet written Marsh/Cope slash fiction, that is a thing that needs desperate doing.
Yes, everyone, that graphic is written in Equestria, the font preferred by all the classiest of the My Little Ponies.

"Marsh has described a small species from the Uinta formation under the name of A. pumilus... Owing to incompleteness in the descriptions of these species I cannot include them in the above synoptic table." This is from his 1884 "Synopsis of the Oreodontidae," in which he renamed every oreodont that Marsh had ever described. Please note that Marsh included dental measurements and an admittedly shitty description... which is probably better than Leidy's description of Oreodon affinus ("It's a hybrid!") or Agriochoerus latrifrons ("Probably sexual dimorphism but oh well!") both of which Cope gave full species status to.

But just when you thought Cope couldn't get any nastier, he writes a letter that has all the vitriole of a slighted teenage girl. It's hard to choose my favorite quotes from Cope's 1894 bitch-opus, as I'd have to probably copy and paste the whole article, but I'll do my best. The article starts out softly with, "In this paper we have an- other characteristic production of its author. Thirteen alleged new species, three alleged new genera, and three alleged new families, are named...No reasons are given to show that they differ from each other or from families already known."

For those of you who don't speak Academic!Asshole, this is pure, unabreviated shittalk. He follows it up with the oh-so-whiny, "which he, as usual, calls the lower Wasatch, (again in defiance of the rules)" and continues his teardown using exclamation points. Today the exclamation point holds no effect unless multiplied by a thousand of its breathren and interspersed with 1s, but in 1894 a single exclamation point contains enough astonishment to outshine the wonderment of a thousand children seeing their first Disney On Ice show.

"The last feat of Prof. Marsh which I shall notice, is that of naming a supposed new species of Pro- camelus on a figure of the calcaneum only!" Cope concludes defiantely, and then, as a stab in the heart, finishes with "he states that the bones were found in the Pliocene of the John Day region of Oregon, meaning probably Loup Fork. Pliocene beds do not contain the genus Pro- camelus."

Presumably at this point in writing, Cope dropped a microphone and then smashed a guitar on the still-drying ink of his manuscript, before going backstage to lounge dramatically and talk about how nobody understands his art these days.

(and yeah, we're moving into the 1900's here, but deal with it.)

"Many new forms have recently been discovered, and investigation has been greatly retarded by uncertainty as to where many of these should be placed," is what Douglass says in 1906, but what Douglass means is "stop bitches. These are the genera. Try again."

Grandpa Douglass is here to tell you to clean up your room, children.

"Marsh evidently failed to mark the type, but only one skull in the Condon collection corresponds to the type as Marsh designated it." - Douglass the detective, trying to figure out WTF everyone else was talking about. Douglass was talking smack about oreodonts way before it was cool. For the record, designating a type means saying "This is the skull I was talking about when I based an entirely new genus and species off it." So Marsh wrote about this skull then decided to adopt the ways of the pirates and create a terrible treasure map of a description for future paleontologists to use to understand his work. Good job, Marsh. Something tells me that Earl would have liked to take out your brain with a rockhammer, but maybe not, he seemed like a pretty cool cucumber.

The name's DouglASS, cuz I don't take no SASS.
Of course, Douglass also liked to diagnose new taxa from differences in the contour shape of the lower jaw, often only on tiny fragments. FYI: this is a feature that is sexually dimorphic in humans, as well as fluctuating a great deal between individuals (which is why plastic surgery of the chin is a thing!)
Join us next time as Meaghan delves into the tornado of terror that is Schultz and Falkenbach's phylogeny of oreodonts! Because if there's one thing that every mammal paleontologist knows, it's that oreodonts are crazy, but the people who study them are crazier!!!1!1!

Amy managed to only dip her toes in the crazy.

Meaghan's been full-body soaked for a year now. It's too late for her.

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