Monday, May 28, 2007

Phoebastria rexsularum

My friend Anne Leightner Kienlen has helped make history! She found a very old albatross bone fossil which was among the specimens used to name an extinct and heretofore unknown albatross species: Phoebastria rexsularum. She donated the bone to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. They returned to her this plaster cast of her albatross bone. Two views are shown below - one with the foot facing up, the other with the foot facing down.

Photos by Anne Leightner Kienlen, used with permission.

Although the Smithsonian Institution Press announced the new species in 2001 (see footnote below), Anne found out about it just this past week when she received in the mail the article which mentioned her by name. How cool is that?!!

The article describes a collection of 10,000+ fossils representing at least 112 different species of birds, only 5 of which were albatrosses. All the bone fossils came from the Pliocene era 5.3 to 1.8 million years ago. These Pliocene fossils were lying about for easy collection rather than buried deep under the earth’s surface because they had been uncovered by the mining operations of the Lee Creek Mine located on the south side of the Pamlico River, near Aurora, North Carolina. The particular bone that Anne picked up was the least-common size of albatross found there.

For any scientists reading this, Anne’s find was a topotypical paratype, the proximal end of right tarsometatarsi. The rest of us need a lot of help with that statement, so let's dissect it bit by bit.

Paratypes are best understood when defined together with holotypes. A holotype is the specimen that’s the ultimate name bearer of the species. Paratypes are next in importance. They constitute all the other specimens upon which the original new species description is based. So Anne’s bone is part of a collection of bones which, taken together, defined the new species, Phoebastria rexsularum.

Topotypical means pertaining to a topotype. According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a topotype is “a specimen from the locality where the original specimen was taken.” So Anne’s paratype came from the same area as the the holotype.

Tarsometatarsi is the plural of tarsometatarsus, which is a compound bone between the tibia (in humans, the shinbone) and the toes of a bird's leg. The tarsometatarsus is formed by fusion of the tarsal and metatarsal bones. This picture should help.

Proximal is most easily defined in relation to its opposite, distal. These two terms are most commonly used when referring to the limbs. Distal refers to structures further from the trunk while proximal refers to structures nearer to the trunk. For example, the foot is distal to the knee, while the knee is proximal to the foot. So Anne’s bone, the proximal end of the right tarsometatari, is the tarsometatarsus of the bird's right leg as described in relation to its body.

My friend Anne is not a paleobiologist, or any type of scientist for that matter. She is an avid and educated avocational collector of fossilized sharks teeth. In pursuit of shark's teeth she occasionally came upon other interesting specimens. By donating her more significant finds to the Smithsonian, she has helped define a new species of albatross. Additionally, she has demonstrated that what we do with our leisure time can be just as significant, possibly even more significant, than our paid occupations.

The authors of the article said, "we owe our greatest debt to the many collectors whose sharp eyes spied thousands of small bird bones on the mine spoil piles and whose generosity in donating the specimens to the Smithsonian has permitted this study." Let me offer my congratulations as well, dear Annie. You have helped to discover an extinct albatross, and just as important, you have shown that it is possible to make a significant contribution using the bits of time left to us after attending to the necessities of life. You are an inspiration to us all!

Olson, S.L. and Rasmussen, P.C. 2001. Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, p. 233-365. In Ray, C.E. and Bohaska, D.J. (eds.), Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III, Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, No. 90.

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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