The joys of working in discovery

Naming what you find

Matt Borths in East Africa

A long, low creature, looking like a cross between a coyote and an otter, moved through something akin to a mangrove swamp. It had stumpy legs and a long skull full of sharp teeth. On land, it slunk between fruiting trees in whose branches lounged the earliest monkeys. Four-tusked and hippo-like elephants trundled nearby in this lush, tropical proto-Nile ecosystem. When this creature took to the river, it shared the water with early manatees.

It was 34 million years ago—the end of the Eocene—and today’s familiar mammals were establishing themselves and diversifying. Yet not all forms of life would flourish. Eventually the long, low semiaquatic something went extinct, followed eventually by its entire order. Today, its fossilized remains occupy a drawer in the Division of Fossil Primates’ unassuming brick building a few blocks north of East Campus, awaiting a scientific name.

That task will fall to Division of Fossil Primates curator Matt Borths, who can read these bones like a book. Borths is an expert in creodonts—the hyaenodont clade in particular—which preceded the modern order Carnivora as the planet’s dominant meat-eating mammals. He has named five species officially and has two more on deck.

“It’s an incredible responsibility and a rush, just in the sense that this is something that will theoretically last for as long as humans are talking about organisms,” says Borths.

Michael Windham, Duke Herbarium’s curator of vascular plants, knows the feeling. Since 1991, he has named dozens of ferns, mustard plants, and sunflowers, though if one counts nomenclature transfers (moving a species from one genus to another), that number jumps to the hundreds.

“I’m a discovery junkie,” Windham declares.

Taxonomy takes many steps. A paper must be written, reviewed, and published. The taxonomist community must decide whether the author has made a valid case. Acceptance occurs when the majority of scientists in the field start using that name. Once that is all done, what had been just another misidentified fern specimen becomes the holotype—that is, the prime specimen—of a freshly described species.

“This holotype is the thing that is called Akhnatenavus nefertiticyon,” Borths says, holding the flattened, fossilized skull of a hyaenodont he named in 2016. “The original is this, so every comparison has to come back to this thing.”

A scientific name’s primary purpose is to efficiently express an organism’s properties. The species name ecuadorensis, for instance, for an Ecuadorian fern, or nefertiticyon for a doglike creature from Egypt. Within taxonomy’s conventions, however, there’s room for wordplay and in-jokes. “We know Nefertiti from a head that’s a bust, and we know nefertiticyon from a busted head,” Borths says, as he grins.

Maybe it’s the age of the fossils surrounding him, or maybe it’s creodonts’ success—they thrived twice as long as modern carnivorous mammals have—but Borths is modest, almost humble, about his role. Taxonomists, he says, make a small contribution by signaling that a lineage exists—or existed. That it survived for a certain amount of time. That this is how it survived. That this is what made it special. That this is something we didn’t know life could do.

“The animals don’t need to know that,” Borths says. “They don’t care about that. It’s just hyper-intelligent monkeys that care.”

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor