Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)

The foraminifera are microscopic single-celled marine animals that secrete tiny shells.  Under a microscope, they look like miniature mollusks.  It took a dedicated and observant French scientist, Alcide d’Orbigny, to figure out what these little creatures were all about.

Alcide d’Orbigny was born in the village of Couëron, France, on the banks of the Loire River not far from the coast, on September 6, 1802 (died 1857).  His father, a doctor and naturalist, often took his son to the shore to collect shells, insects, plants and fossils.  By age 11, d’Orbigny was hooked—he wanted to become a naturalist.  His educational background and early occupation are fuzzy, but he was obviously an astute observer of nature, a talented illustrator and an original thinker.

In 1825, he published a paper on the classification of cephalopods, into which he placed the tiny shelled foraminifera (later, he and others realized the mistaken classification and created a separate phylum for these organisms).  He drew exquisite illustrations of many species of foraminifera, and later sculpted plaster models for students to study.  That taxonomic work earned him a reputation as a gifted biological scientist.

Alcide Dessaline d’Orbigny

His reputation landed him an opportunity to explore South America, so he put his work on foraminifera aside for a time.  From 1826 to 1834, he participated in an expedition to study the natural history of the continent.  He visited Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Uruguay, collecting, describing and naming more than 1,000 species.  He drew beautiful renditions of the specimens he collected.  Along the way, he drew the first complete map of South America.  Charles Darwin, who didn’t get to South America until 1832, was envious of d’Orbigny, saying that he had probably collected “the cream of all the good things.”

While exploring the Parana River that makes the border between Argentina and Uruguay, d’Orbigny discovered rich beds of fossils in the exposed cliffs along the river.  He recognized that these fossils, including pollen grains, mollusks and his beloved foraminifera, were distributed in distinct layers.  He reasoned that by aging the fossils, the layers could be dated—an original concept.  He continued his work on tiny fossils when he returned to France, and became an expert on the taxonomy of micro-fossils, naming more than 2,800 fossil species.  His work on micro-fossils later became a major tool in oil exploration, using the fossils in cores to assess the likelihood that oil lay below.

His fossil work earned him a position as the first professor of paleontology at the Paris Museum of Natural History and recognition as the “father of micropaleontology.”  His descriptions of the relationships between fossils and mineral layers in the soil led to the development of the field of biostratigraphy.  His major work on the fossils of France, thousands of pages of descriptions and drawings, was never completed; he died an unexpected early death at age 54. Dozens of species and genera are named in his honor.

A plate of illustrations of foraminifera species by d’Orbidny

D’Orbigny achieved a feat that is coveted in today’s scientists, but rarely achieved.  He was a “T-shaped” scientist.  He was a generalist, working across biological and geological disciplines, developing the breadth associated with the horizontal stroke of the “T.”  But he was also a recognized expert on the foraminifera, both extant and fossilized, providing the depth of expertise associated with the vertical stroke of the “T.”

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  2018.  Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alcide-Dessalines-d-Orbigny.  Accessed July 17, 2018.

Letters From Gondwana. 2015.  Alcide D’Orbigny and the Beginning of Foraminiferal Studies.  Available at:  https://paleonerdish.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/alcide-dorbigny-and-the-beginning-of-foraminiferal-studies/.  Accessed July 17, 2018.

Lys, Maurice.  1958.  Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-1857).  Micropaleontology (1958) 4(1):115.  Available at:  https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/micropress/micropal/article-abstract/4/1/115/84967/alcide-d-orbigny-1802-1857?redirectedFrom=fulltext.  Accessed July 17, 2018.

Scott, Michon.  2018.  Alcide d’Orbigny.  Strange Science.  Available at:  https://www.strangescience.net/dorbigny.htm.  Accessed July 17, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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