The American incognitum and the History of Extinction Studies

 

Georges Cuvier (1769 -1832) and the painting of Charles Wilson Peale’s reconstruction of the American incognitum

Extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. More than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. But prior to the 18th century, the idea that species could become extinct was not accepted. However, as the new science of paleontology began bringing its first major discoveries to light, researchers began to wonder if the large vertebrate fossils of strange creatures unearthed by the Enlightenment explorers were indeed the remains of extinct species.

In 1739, French soldiers under the command of Baron Charles le Moyne de Lougueuil recovered a tusk, femur, and three curious molar teeth from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, a place known in several American Indian narratives. Lougueuil sent these specimens to the Cabinet du Roi (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) in Paris. In 1762, Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton, a zoologist at the Jardin du Roi concluded that the femur and tusk from the Longueuil’s collection were those of a large elephant, the “Siberian Mammoth,” but the three molars came from a gigantic hippopotamus.

Molar collected at Big Bone Lick in 1739 and described in Paris in 1756. (Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles)

By the early 18 century it was inconceivable for many researchers that a species could be vanished. Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, wrote in 1749 about the extinction of marine invertebrates, but he adopted Daubenton’s view that the Siberian mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, known as the American incognitum, were both northern forms of the extant elephant rather than a vanished species. British anatomist William Hunter was the first to speculate that these remains might be from an extinct species. In 1799, the discovery of an American incognitum femur from Quaternary deposits in the Hudson River Valley led to excavations organized by Charles Wilson Peale. In 1801, the excavations resulted in the recovery of an almost complete skeleton. Peale reconstructed the skeleton with help from the American anatomist Caspar Wistar, and the displayed the mounted skeleton in public in December of that year.

In 1806 Georges Cuvier resolved the controversy about the  American incognitum demonstrating that both the Siberian mammoth and the “animal de l’Ohio” were elephants, but of different species. He described the Ohio elephant as a mastodon and he reached the conclusion that probably represented an extinct species. Cuvier was also the first to suggested that periodic “revolutions” or catastrophes had befallen the Earth and wiped out a number of species. But, under the influence of Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Cuvier’s ideas were rejected as “poor science”. The modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.

 

References:

Macleod, N. The geological extinction record: History, data, biases, and testing. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 505, (2014), DOI: 10.1130/2014.2505(01)​

Marshall, Charles R., Five palaeobiological laws needed to understand the evolution of the living biota, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0165 (2017), DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0165 .

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One thought on “The American incognitum and the History of Extinction Studies

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #42 | Whewell's Ghost

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