The Shoemaker Taxonomist

Inside the eight-foot tall olive-green metal cabinet are stacks of black, sturdy shoeboxes. Inside these are small cardboard boxes decorated with Victorian-style script announcing that they contain the finest buttons and sewing needles. These little boxes hold hundreds of dried mushrooms with brittle, yellowed tags looped around them, labeled in the faded, elegant hand of Charles Christopher Frost. Everything in the shoeboxes is over 150 years old.

Charles Frost described and named dozens of new species of fungi, collected specimens that are treasured by researchers, and wrote numerous scientific papers. For a living, he made shoes. Taxonomists today may make their living doing other kinds of biological research, but not one of them, as far as I can imagine, makes shoes.

Every day at lunchtime, Frost closed his cobbler shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, for one hour. He spent that hour studying fungi. He did so well at shoemaking that he cobbled together (pardon the pun) a sizable fortune.

Before he became a shoemaker, Frost attended school, but dropped out when he was 15 because a teacher beat him with a ruler. He left the schoolhouse carrying the broken ruler and never returned. In spite of this, Frost was far from uneducated. He consumed books on mathematics, languages, physics, chemistry—anything he wanted to learn, he did so from a book.

When Frost got dyspepsia (known nowadays as indigestion), his doctor prescribed two hour-long nature walks per day. These walks quickly transformed into fungus-collecting trips. He woke up early and stayed up late identifying new species, describing them in words and drawings, and writing scientific papers. His fungus collection was given to the University of Vermont’s Pringle Herbarium after his death in 1885.

Species description is at the core of taxonomy. The Pringle Herbarium archives hold five fat hanging folders full of hundreds of Frost’s meticulous notes and graceful, detailed drawings. A taxonomist today must be as detail-oriented as Frost. Frost couldn’t just say, “I’ve found a new species and it’s called Boletus pretendus.” Whenever a taxonomist claims a new species, he or she must describe in great detail each part of it, every organ, and how it is different from other species. This allows other scientists to judge whether the claim is legitimate.

Today, however, species description is just as likely to include diagnoses of differences in genetic codes as morphological details. Since the 1960s, taxonomy and systematics have undergone a molecular revolution; now both sciences are heavily reliant on analyses of DNA and RNA, though they do still depend on morphological distinctions.

If Frost was alive today, he wouldn’t be able to do taxonomy without access to a laboratory. His delicate drawings and thoughtful descriptions would be rejected from modern scientific journals without a second glance. Shoes, not fungi, would be his purview.

The Charisma of the Drab

Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).

I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.

I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.

Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.

This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.

Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?

I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.

Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.

But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.

This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).

I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.

I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.

On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.

Happy Maggot Land

I came in to my cubicle at school last week to find a maggot squinching across my desk. After a moment of shock and disgust, I thought, “Ooh! What a nice present!”

You know you’re a naturalist when finding a maggot among your things makes you happy.

I’ve been collecting insects, so I naturally thought that one of my classmates left the plump grub for me to add to my collection. Surely it hadn’t come from the pile of soil samples I had on my desk, nor the cache of snacks I had in the cabinet. But yes, it had. I had collected a handful of red oak acorns and left them in an open plastic bag on my desk. Later, when I was working at my computer, I looked over and saw a pale yellow grub with a red face squinching around inside the slippery plastic among the acorns. I examined the nuts and discovered a hole in one of them, about 3 millimeters across.

That was when I got really excited. All I had to do was feed the little creatures and keep them happy, and I’d eventually find out what species they were. So I dug around in the faculty kitchen for a plastic takeout container, poked some holes in the lid with a pen, dumped my soil samples into it, and dropped the acorns and grubs on top. The grubs promptly burrowed out of sight. I labeled the whole thing with a permanent marker, “Happy Maggot Land, Please do not disturb.”

Then I started to worry about my maggots. What if the soil wasn’t enough to make them happy? Did they need something to eat?

I visited Jeff Hughes, the director of the Field Naturalist Program, who recommended I look in Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a recent book by Charley Eiseman, an alumnus of our program, and Noah Charney. I thumbed through and found the name of my maggots: long-snouted acorn weevils.

The female of this beetle species saws a hole in the shell of a red or white oak acorn and lays her eggs inside. The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae eat the acorn meat. Beetles undergo metamorphosis like butterflies do; caterpillars are butterfly larvae, maggots are beetle or fly larvae. They molt five times inside the acorn and then leave their nutty shelter and burrow into the soil to pupate. Pupation in beetles is analogous to the caterpillar cocoon: a usually immobile stage of metamorphosis just before emergence as an adult. In the spring, adults emerge from the soil and fly off to mate before beginning the cycle again.

I have named my maggot friends Weevil Kneevil, Do No Weevil, and Axis of Weevil, but I have no intention of keeping them. I plan on releasing them back into the forest to continue to parasitize on oaks. It’s not because I don’t like oaks, but because I like ecology. These weevils create food for other species: one genus of ant lives inside acorns abandoned by weevils and eats the leftover meat. Squirrels eat acorns sometimes just for the grubs inside—that’s one reason why you might find partially eaten acorns.

Having maggots as pets helps me see more when I go outside. I see potential Happy Maggot Lands everywhere—inside plant stems and fruit, in dying tree trunks, and in the soil under my feet. A new way of knowing the world around me has opened up.

The Prince of Plant Collectors and the Largest Cactus in the World

By Audrey Clark

When the Prescott College coastal ecology class for which I was a teaching assistant left the field station on the shores of Kino Bay in early January, the sun shone and the sea was calm.  We loaded the students into a couple fiberglass fishing boats and sped off toward the Midriff Islands.

Kino Bay is about a third of the way down the Gulf of California, in what is known as the Midriff Island region.  There, the coasts of Baja and mainland Mexico pinch in slightly and islands are scattered across the waist of the Gulf.  The Midriff Islands cause cold, nutrient-rich waters to well up from the trenches to the south, which feed an abundance and diversity of life.  Many bird species breed almost exclusively on islands in the Gulf of California, often just on one or two.  The Sonoran Desert blankets the land around the Gulf, so that the largest cactus in the world, the cardon (Pachycereus pringlei), towers next to the dunes and waves.

Cardon cacti are the icons of the Mexican Sonoran Desert.  They form forests, have a trunk that can be over seven feet in circumference, grow up to 50 feet tall, and can have upwards of 80 branches.  You can even climb them like trees because the aged, leathery, lower trunks lose their spines.  Cardon look very much like saguaros, those quintessential cacti popularized by Western films and Mexican restaurants.  The main difference between the two species is that a rather large saguaro might have 10 arms, whereas a cardon can easily have 80.

When we circled the cactus-covered island called Cholludo, we looked up into the backlit cardon cacti to see thirty turkey vultures sunning themselves, their silvery primary feathers glowing against their black silhouettes.  Later, we sped out to Isla San Pedro Martir, the most isolated island in the gulf, on a glassy sea.  San Pedro Martir appears perpetually covered in snow—but the “snow” is actually bird guano and the reek is, at times, choking.  The professor told us that the Yaqui Indians were once enslaved on small islands in the Gulf, forced to harvest the guano for its phosphorus, which was then used by the Mexican military to make explosives.  I thought of the sun, and the lack of fresh water, and the stench.  Now, the island hosts the northernmost breeding colony of red-billed tropicbirds and a substantial blue-footed and brown booby colony.

We sat on the gently rocking boat in a nook near shore, surrounded in the water by curious cavorting sea lions.  We took in with all of our senses the white, cardon-covered black volcanic rocks while hundreds of boobies wheeled above the island’s peaks and tropicbirds circled us like angels.  San Pedro Martir hosts only a few plant species, due to its caustic burden of bird feces.  The cardons survive somehow, even though they are coated with the stuff like paint-splattered furniture.  On our way home, a humpback opened its maw not ten feet from our boat, so that we looked down into its mouth of baleen.

A year later, I came to the University of Vermont for graduate school and was awarded a research assistantship at the university’s Pringle Herbarium.  An herbarium is like a library, but full of pressed plants instead of books.  Botanists use herbarium specimens to understand the differences between species, their ranges, population trends, and more.  Darwin used the specimens he collected on his voyage to develop the theory of evolution by natural selection.

My job at the herbarium was to dig through archives, read books, and interview former employees and then write up a comprehensive history of the herbarium.  In my diggings, I came across an article that mentioned cardon cacti.  The February 6, 1889 edition of Garden and Forest, a horticultural journal, read:

One of the most interesting of Mr. Pringle’s numerous Mexican discoveries is the great Cactus [sic] which now bears his name, and which he found during the summer of 1884 growing among the hills and mesas south of the Altar River in north-western Sonora.

The stems of this remarkable plant, which divide irregularly above the base into numerous large branches, do not attain the great height of its near relative, the now well known Suwarrow [sic], the Cereus giganteus of Arizona and Sonora.  They are sometimes, however, more than thirty feet high and thicker and more ponderous than those of any Cactus known….

Nothing more was seen of this plant until October, 1887, when Dr. Edward Palmer, the well-known explorer of Mexican botany, visited San Pedro Martin [sic] Island, in the Gulf of California, which he found covered with a forest of these trees…one of the strangest and most remarkable forests which has yet been seen in any portion of the North American Continent.

It appears from Dr. Palmer’s notes that San Pedro Martin Island…is partly covered in a deep deposit of guano, which Mexicans and Yacqua Indians are now engaged in collecting for export.  The Cereus is called Cordon by the Indians, who gather the fruit in great quantities.

The Latin name of cardon, Pachycereus pringlei, means “Pringle’s thick columnar cactus.”  Cyrus Pringle, one of the most famous and prolific plant collectors of all time, was the first botanist to collect a specimen of the cactus.

Pringle lived in Charlotte, Vermont for most of his life (1838-1911).  For the last nine years of it, he lived on the University of Vermont campus, next door to his herbarium.  Nearly every year for the last 30 years of his life, he spent several months collecting plants in Mexico.  His specimens are still admired for their completeness and careful arrangement.

Pringle collected the cardon cactus in 1884, on one of his first visits to Mexico.  When I learned that Pringle collected this cactus, I wanted to know two things: how did he collect a specimen of such an enormous cactus without mutilating either himself or his plant press?  And what did he think of his grand “discovery”?

To answer the first question, I went to the Pringle Herbarium.  On the third floor of the 200 year-old building I wandered among creaking wooden cabinets until I found the section containing specimens of Cactaceae, the cactus family.  I poked through folders of spiny specimens until I found the one containing the genus Pachycereus.  It contained one specimen, that of pecten-arboriginum.  Not P. pringlei.  I was shocked.  How could the herbarium that Cyrus Pringle founded not contain a specimen of his most striking collection?  Could it be that botanists just don’t care about charismatic megaflora as much as I do?

Then I remembered that the plant used to go under the name Cereus pringlei.  I shuffled through the Cereus folders until I found “p.”  With mounting dismay I sorted through the “p” specimens, not finding pringlei.  But then—there it was.  Just one specimen of one of the most dramatic plants on earth, in an herbarium containing over 350,000 specimens.  It consisted of a couple strips of cactus flesh and a few fruit sewn to a 12 by 18 inch piece of whitish cardboard, with a yellowed label in the lower right corner.  The label was one of Pringle’s, written in pen and ink in his barely legible hand.  The cardboard was coated in coal dust, a vestige of former herbarium heating systems.

The answer to my question of how Pringle collected the giant cactus was that rather than uprooting an entire individual, as is common when collecting other, smaller plants, Pringle simply cut a few pieces off of it and grabbed a handful of fruit—carefully.  These he squashed in his plant press (having pushed the spines sideways), dried, and then sewed onto the piece of cardboard.

What did Pringle think of his enormous cactus?  At the very least, he wanted it named after himself.  When Asa Gray, a famous Harvard botanist, immortalized Pringle in early 1884 by naming a shrub after him, Pringle wrote, “Well, I am glad not to be commenorated [sic] by some insignificant little weed under the diminutive name of Pringella.  Dr. Gray asked me if I preferred to wait to find some more showy plant; but I thought this as appropriate as anything could be….”  This was probably the first plant to be named after Pringle.  A short time later, Pringle got his showy plant, for in late 1884 he wrote to a friend about cardon: “Please throw out [the name] Cereus ponderosus; [the botanist Sereno] Watson indulged me, and gave the plant my name; it is as large as C. giganteus and only some 70 miles south of the Boundary.”

It didn’t take long for more botanists to name plants after Pringle.  He quickly gained fame for his superb and abundant specimens.  By the end of his career, Pringle had at least 4 genera, 75 species, and nearly 30 varieties and subspecies named after him.

I think Pringle loved cardon because he loved plants and desert Mexico.  He loved plants so much that he collected over 500,000 specimens in his lifetime (“I find complete happiness in this botanical work,” he wrote).  He certainly loved the desert at least as much as I do.  Though friends urged him to make his way toward lusher environs, where plants would be more abundant, he refused, saying that there was still much to discover in the desert.  In spite of the difficulty of traveling by train, wagon, mule, and on foot across Mexico’s arid landscape, into cañons and onto mesas that are still wildly difficult to access, he spent most of 26 years doing so.  In 1884 he wrote, “I spent nearly a month—March 17th to April 12th, on a trip through Sonora to the Gulf. [sic] of Cal.  It is a fearful country to travel, water scarce and forage for horses scarcer still.  It was like a race for life with us.”  He did it, I am sure, for the thrill of discovery and love of plants.

I love cardon for different reasons than Pringle.  I love cardon not just because they are dramatic—though I do love them for that reason.  I love them because they give the coastal Sonoran Desert a character and dimension unlike anywhere else on Earth.  I love them because vultures perch on them and boobies and tropicbirds circle them.  I love them because they are the biggest and strangest trees in the desert.

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