In the steps of giants

Here we are, in Paris, for a much too short visit to this great city (though I think both of us are quite anxious to get home!).  We arrived from Bucharest on Sunday afternoon. After unloading a few of our bags at the left luggage storage at the airport (including a blue barrel containing the skeletons of the 4 sturgeons we dissected in Romania… the person at the security counter didn’t even flinch as it went through the X-ray machine). Although I could not see the screen, I can’t imagine that the image of four large heads of fishes, together with about 6 large filet knives and packages of razor blades shouldn’t have at least deserved a second glance…), we took a taxi to our hotel in the heart of Paris, cleaned up, and headed out for a walk.

Our first stop was Père Lachaise Cemetery, an amazing and dizzying array of tombs on top of tombs, probably best known (at least to some) as the final resting site of the Doors singer, Jim Morrison. However, we were here to see the graves of two early French naturalists: Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—the first chair of Zoology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and his colleague, Georges Cuvier (though, of course, we do stop by Morrison’s graffitied head stone).

The grave of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Geoffroy, beyond his other claims to fame, formulated a theory that all animals are formed of the same parts, just different sizes and shapes, and that this showed “connection” between animals. We have come to know these concepts and events as homology and evolution. Of course there has been much refinement since the time of Geoffroy, but these are basic tenets of what we do, and what this trip is all about.

Cuvier, while brought to the museum by Geoffroy, did not accept his colleague’s views (Lamark, of Lamarkian Evolution fame, was also on staff at this time) of evolution, but made his name in other ways, namely formalizing and “proving” extinction as a phenomenon, and by being the pre-eminent comparative anatomist of his era.

The grave of Georges Cuvier

Oh yeah, he also wrote 22 volumes describing all fishes known on the planet at that time, including describing about half again as many (or at least he initiated the project, as he died part way through its completion).

The names engraved on the buildings around the Jardin des Plantes offer the continued appreciation of these 18th and 19th century naturalists: Buffon, Lamark, Geoffroy, Cuvier, Dumeril, and the list goes on and on. And we are here to photograph, handle, and scrutinize the sturgeon specimens they collected, handled, and scrutinized.

The Grande Gallery of Evolution, Jardin de Plantes, Paris.

The collections at the MNHN are stored in a 5-story underground bunker at the northeast corner of the Jardin des Plantes, under the Grande Gallery of Evolution (I like this: the collections metaphorically, and in this case literally, providing the underpinning for evolution!). A small, arched gate, looking much like the entrance to a sewer system, guards the collection, but once inside, we encounter a labyrinth of poured concrete tunnels.

The lab that we worked in is on the second floor down, with nothing but the sound of the air handling systems in the background, spilling forth the cool (ok, cold) conditioned air (good for the specimens, but makes us appreciated the 55° air outside). There we continued our quest – measuring and photographing. Got two more type specimens this visit, including the one for Acipenser dabryanus, from China, one of the few sturgeon species with an original type specimen, described by the original author, still in existence. We also went to look at the oversized collection – the large, stuffed specimens prepared often in the early 1800s, which set on compactors and are neatly arranged so they interdigitate when the shelves are closed!

The entrance to the collections.

Inside the bunker.

The oversized specimen room (the sturgeons at the bottom of the picture are about 10 feet long!)

After work on Monday, we had dinner at Les Deux Magots, a now-touristy café frequented in earlier days by the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and other literary and artistic heavyweights of their days who would argue about and discuss the state of the world, and, at least in the case of Hemingway, fuel these discussions through volumes of alcohol. While we didn’t attempt to discuss the state of the world, or other such lofty topics I like to think we fit somehow into this continuum. We had some good conversations about the state of comparative anatomy, and systematics generally, as a science, the difficult funding climate for such projects, and the need for institutions and agencies to consider that even though we continue 18th and 19th century science, we are applying 21st century technology to these problems that will continue to captivate people like us. As we have told each other so frequently this trip, “there’s a paper in there somewhere!”

About ehilton

Eric J. Hilton received his Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996, and his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, also from UMass Amherst, in 2002. Before coming to VIMS in 2007, he conducted post-doctoral research in the Geology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the Division of Fishes of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. He is a broadly trained vertebrate zoologist, with a primary research interest in the anatomy, evolution, and diversification of the ray-finned fishes, a group of animals that includes over half of all living vertebrates. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to study evolution, drawing on the data and techniques of paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, biogeography, and histology. Other ongoing research projects include the ecology of larval fishes in the Chesapeake Bay, the biology and management of Atlantic sturgeon, and monitoring the population of American shad in Virginian waters. He oversees the growth and use of the VIMS Ichthyological Collection, teaches the course in the diversity of fishes, and trains graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
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