I made my first trip to France in 1997 while working as a bench scientist in a R&D group at a small biotech company. At that time I was performing research in DNA polymerases from thermophilic bacteria found in geysers and deep ocean vents for the use in DNA sequencing when I had the opportunity to attend an international scientific conference; Thermophiles 1997 in Brest, France. A scientific meeting on the European continent with exquisitely catered lunches served with wine, bike excursions on the Atlantic Isles off the Brittany coast and Celtic music after party were much in contrast with the expense conscious events that I was accustom to in the States. In addition to expanding my knowledge in my life chosen field, this trip gave me an opportunity to collect the famous Eocene fossil shell beds of the Paris Basin (more on that at a later date) as well as a week of free room and board in Paris due to the generosity of a friend of a friend. One of the many sites in Paris on my visitation list was the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy) of the National Museum of Natural History. I remember well on that overcast day, arriving on the metro to the Jardin du Plantes where the museum resides to find the gallery closed for the first time in 100 years due to renovations. Dejected, I did not know if I would ever again have the opportunity to mark this excellent museum off my bucket list. Fortune however, sometimes smiles as almost a decade and a half later on my return from a business trip to the Middle East in March I managed a fortuitous ten hour layover in Paris. Not to be denied this time, I dropped my bag off in the airport upon my arrival from Riyadh and hopped the train over to the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the short walk to the museum.
Views of Lamark's statue at the entrance to the botanical gardens and the exterior of the gallery.
A display of primitive plants outside of the museum. Right: Araucaria araucana, aka the monkey puzzle tree is of the same genus as the Triassic aged stone logs from the Petrified Forest National monument in Arizona. On the left is another living fossil , the Wollemi Pine Wollemia nobilis. Once thought extinct in the Cretaceous, a small grove was discovered in 1994 in Australia’s Wollemi National Park. Through secrecy of the specific location and seed distribution amongst horticulturists and botanists, it is hoped that this species will survive an accidental plant virus which threatens its original site.
Founded in 1898 the gallery houses an incredible collection of modern and fossil vertebrate skeletons as well as fossil invertebrates. Great 19th century French naturalists are held in esteem here as their busts adorn the exterior walls of the building. Geroges Cuvier’s bust is displayed alongside that of Lamarck both bitter rivals in life who likenesses are now doomed to spend eternity besides each other. Cuvier was a bit of a 19th century Sheldon Cooper, a prickly boy wonder dismissive of his contemporaries, who became the most pre-eminent anatomist of his time and one of the first naturalists to recognize the concept of extinction. He believed that taxonomic turnover at different geological eras was due to great catastrophes. Although much of his thought and scientific reasoning was before his time, he believed in the fixity of species not on theological reasons but due to the lack of evidence otherwise. This clashed with the theories of Lamarck who postulated an early concept of evolution through acquired characteristics in which anatomical traits through excessive use could be transferred by a parent. Although Lamarck’s theory is discounted, it is still noted in most college level biology texts as early evolutionary thought and decades prior to Darwin’s principle of natural selection . Unfortunately for Lamarck, he preceded Cuvier in death. As a result, Cuvier had the honor of writing Lamarck’s eulogy which was so demeaning and condescending that it was never published (http://www.victorianweb.org/science/science_texts/cuvier/cuvier_on_lamarck.htm).
The bust of Jean Baptist Pierre Antoine de Monet aka Lamarck. Lamarck first made his mark in botany before turning himself to the identification of fossil shells from the French Eocene and Miocene sands. Some of the many fossils shells in my collection described by Lamarck from left to right include Campanile gianteum (Lamarck, 1822), Middle Eocene (Lutetian), Damery, Marne, FRANCE; Mitra elongata (Lamarck, 1803), Middle Eocene (Lutetian), Villiers-St. Fredric, Yvelines, FRANCE; Eutritonium nodularium (Lamrack, 1803), Middle Eocene (Lutetian), Villiers-St. Fredric, Yvelines, FRANCE; Delphinula lima Lamarck, 1824, Upper Eocene (Bartonian), LaGuepelle, Val d'Oise, FRANCE; Volutilithes ficulina (Lamarck, 1811), Middle Miocene (Helvetian), Lale, TURKEY.
The bust of Alcide Charles Victor Marie Dessalines d’Orbigny. A disciple of Cuvier, he was a natural historian who not only named many different recent and fossil worldwide species but also explored the South American coast around the same time as Charles Darwin. A few of the fossils in my collection named by d’Orbigny include from left to right Anomia simplex d'Orbigny, 1845, Upper Pliocene, Jackson Bluff Formation, Leon County, Florida; Tritonidea subandrei (d’Orbigny, 1850), Upper Eocene (Bartonian), LaGuepelle, Val d'Oise, FRANCE; Natica noae d’Orbigny, 1850, Upper Eocene (Bartonian), LaGuepelle, Val d'Oise, FRANCE; Ampullina parisiensis (d’Orbigny, 1850), Upper Eocene (Bartonian), Le Chapelle-en-Serval, Oise, FRANCE; Urosalpinx subrusticus (d’Orbigny, 1852), Upper Miocene, St. Marys Formation, Windmill Point Member, St. Marys County, Maryland.
The bust of Henri Milne-Edwards. The 27th child of an English-Jamaican planter and French mother was also a student of Cuvier. His claim to fame was two giant monographs one on fossil crabs and the other on fossil corals including many from the United States. From left to right Diploctenium subcirculare Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1860, Upper Cretaceous (Santonian), La Noguera, Catalonia, SPAIN; Leptoria konicki Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1860, Upper Cretaceous (Maastrichtian), Pallas Jussa, Catalonia, SPAIN; Balanophyllia haleana (Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1848), Lower Eocene, Bashi Formation, Lauderdale County, Mississippi; Balanophyllia desmophyllum Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1848, Middle Eocene, Tallahata Formation, Choctaw County, Alabama; Discotrochus orbianianus Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1848, Middle Eocene, Stone City Formation, Burelson County, Texas.
The first floor of the gallery houses skeletons of modern vertebrates including those from the smallest birds to large whales, many studied and mounted by Cuvier himself. Amongst the numerous mounts were remains from extinct animals such as the Dodo and Steller’s Sea Cow. A display of deformed elephant skulls lend credence to the theory that the Cyclops of ancient Greek mythology could have originated from the discovery on Aegean islands of the remains of pygmy elephants which had been hunted to extinction by earlier human inhabitants.
Views of the first floor modern vertebrate gallery. A bust of Cuvier stands vigil in front of the whales.
A display of deformed elephant skulls and the skeleton of Steller’s sea cow, the largest member of Sirenia which was once abundant in the North Pacific. Within 27 years of its discovery in 1741, it was hunted to extinction for food by Russian whalers.
The second floor contains fossil vertebrates of all eras. Noteworthy amongst the specimens is the skull of the first documented mosasaur, Mosasaurus hoffmani, correctly described by Cuvier as an extinct marine creature related to monitor lizards. Found in a Dutch chalk quarry in Maastricht in 1764, the fossil was already famous when it was stolen from a local museum by Napoleon’s troops in 1794. Also fascinating is the skeleton of Aepyornis maximus and its eggs. The elephant bird, so named because of its size, survived to modern times in Madagascar only to be consumed for food by later human inhabitants and rumored to have still existed when the first western visitors arrived in the 16th century.
Views of the second floor fossil vertebrate gallery.
Skeleton of the Elephant Bird and its excellently preserved eggs from Madagascar with my size 10 ½ foot for comparison and the first described Mosasaur
The third gallery on the uppermost floor contains fossil invertebrates including the largest display of ammonites that I have ever seen. In lesser numbers (sadly for me) were fossils from the famous French Eocene and Miocene shell beds recognized by geological stage names such as Lutetian, Aquitanian, and Helvetian.
Echinoids, ammonites and shells on the third floor fossil invertebrate gallery.
Skeleton of Raphus cucullatus. This is one of my favorite pictures as my reflection on the Dodo’s glass coffin is a rumination on the fleeting existence of species. For an excellent read on elephant birds, dodos, pygmy elephants, island biogeography and extinction check out The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen.