really bad descriptions

Benjamin Martin Waggoner bmw at UCLINK2.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Oct 12 08:15:09 CDT 1995

On Thu, 12 Oct 1995, Monique D. Reed wrote:

> For a nice discussion of things that got described as other than they
> actually were, check out Stephen Jay Gould's book "Wonderful Life".
> Many of the organisms in the Burgess Shale were pigeonholed into
> known taxa when they were first described.  If I remember correctly,
> the most egregious example was the feeding appendage of some very
> strange arthropod that was described as the back end of a shrimp-like
> creature; the mouth of the same arthropod was described as a sort of
> jellyfish!

Just to hold up the honor of invert paleo: I wouldn't call those "bad"
descriptions except in hindsight; they were quite reasonable based on
the material available, but there are always problems describing
dissociated material. This happens in paleobotany all the time:
_Archaeopteris_ was described as a fossil fern frond, _Callixylon_ as
fossil gymnosperm wood -- and lo and behold, the two turned out to
be parts of the same tree. But until the key specimen was found that
showed the connection between _Archaeopteris_ and _Callixylon_, the
separate identifications were quite reasonable. Same for _Anomalocaris_,
the very strange arthropod; just because a description turns out to be
wrong doesn't mean it's bad.

I forgot to add my favorite bad descriptions, however. Those who are also
on PaleoNet may rememer our discussion of Okamura's work. . . for those
who aren't: Chonosuke Okamura was a Japanese paleontologist who specialized
in fossils (algae, forams, corals, etc.) from Silurian carbonates in
Japan, describing them in a series of _Contributions of the Okamura
Fossil Laboratory_. Very staid papers, these, until number XIII, in which
Okamura described a complete, perfectly preserved, centimeter-long fossil
duck from this Silurian limestone. Nos. XIV and XV monograph the miniature
fauna that Okamura found in this limestone: exactly modern-looking fish,
reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, mammals, even dragons and _Homo sapiens_ -- all
very tiny, none larger than a few cm -- coexisted in the Silurian.
Okamura described subspecies such as _Homo sapiens miniorientalis_,
_Bos taurus miniorientalis_, _Panthera atrox miniorientalis_, _Cervus
elaphus miniorientalis_, plus new genera such as _Fightingdraconus
miniorientalis_, _Twistdraconus miniorientalis_, and so on. . . If anyone
wants more information on what are probably the most surreal taxonomic
monographs ever written, e-mail me and I'll send the exact refs. . .

Ben Waggoner
Dept. of Integrative Biology
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720 USA
bmw at

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