Switzerland, not just famous for knives and Toblerone

Luke here with a new post, I promise that I will soon deliver a more academic post about the sorts of fossil fish I study but first I thought I would use this post to discuss a very special gentleman. I am not sure how many of your good selves know this, but us fish workers owe a huge amount to this man (fig 1).

Figure. 1 Louis Agassiz

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz or Louis Agassiz for short is frankly the father of Paleoichthyology (the study of fossil fish). Born in May 1807, Môtier-en-Vuly, Switzerland, the son of a protestant Pastor. He was schooled at home from an early age, but after finishing his elementary education at Lausanne, he decided to study medicine which he did at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg and Munich. While at these institutions he made good use of their facilities and became interested in natural history, particularly botany. It’s at this point some of you may be wondering “where is he going with this”…..hold on I’m getting there.  Now up to this point he had not shown any interest in fish but this is how he fell into them as it were, these two chaps J.B Spix and C.F.P von Martius had popped back from a successful trip to Brazil and had collected all manner of things including fish from the Amazon. Spix kicked the bucket long before he got to work on the history of these fish so Martius selected the fresh out of uni Agassiz to work on them instead. By 1829 the work was published as Agassiz threw himself into the work, this was followed by a study of the history of the fishes in the Lake of Neuchâtel. In 1830 he then released a prospectus on History of the Freshwater Fishes of Central Europe which was completed in 1842; 10 years earlier in 1832 he was appointed the professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel. Now a self proclaimed fish addict (well not shouting from the tops of mountains….then again he was Swiss!) it was not long before fossil fish attracted his gaze. Fossil fish were well known from the slates of Glarus and the limestones of Monte Bolca but no one had actually scientifically studied them until Agassiz rocked up (sorry for the pun).

Figure. 2 Example of the Dinkle watercolours

It was this work that would bring him his worldwide fame with his enthusiasm and work effect he churned out 5 volumes of his Recherches sur les poissons fossils between 1833 and 1842, illustrated beautifully by Joseph Dinkel (fig 2), on his travels to different museums (something our Chris is going to understand all to soon!) he met the great Georges Cuvier (French anatomist and all round swell guy) who helped and encouraged him greatly. So while Agassiz was working on these fossils he realised that it was necessary to develop a new classification scheme as there were no soft tissues preserved, instead fin rays, teeth and scales made up the bulk of the collections. To this end he came up  with the four groups based on scales and other dermal appendages viz. Ganoids, Placoids, Cycloids and Ctenoids (fig.3), sadly today this form of classification does not really work on a modern classification scheme as pointed out by A.S. Woodward. As this work continued it was clear that (as PhD students know all too well) he was running out of wonga, luckily aid was at hand in the form of the Earl of Ellesmere who loved Dinkel’s images so much he brought all 1290 of them and gave them to the Geological Society of London (we will come back to this later). The same society gave him the Wollaston medal and made him a foreign member for his services to ichthyology.

Figure 3. a) Cycloid scale (Pike), b) Ctenoid scale (Perch), c Placoid scale (Thornback), d Placoid scale of Rhina and e Ganoid scales (Palaeoniscus

On his first visit to England in 1834, Hugh Miller and other geologists brought to light the remarkable fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of the northeast of Scotland. The odd fish they found like Pterichthys, the Coccosteus were naturally of intense interest to Agassiz, from which he produed a special monograph in 1844-45: Monographie des poissons fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge, ou Système Dévonien (Old Red Sandstone) des Iles Britanniques et de Russie. He went on to do so much more in both geology and zoology and travelled from North and South America a number of times before his death in 1873 at Cambridge, MA. He is buried at Auburn and has a monument at his grave of an erratic boulder from the moraine of the glacier of Aar (this cost a pretty penny I can tell you!) from where he did some of his best known geological work.

So why tell you lovely people all this, well remember I said about those images that were given to the Geological society of London, good because they need your help in preserving them. They are old and knackered and these beautiful watercolours need our help to restore them and allow them to be digitised so all can enjoy them forever. So why not sponsor-a-fish (click the link) just £20 will help protect and keep forever one watercolour out of some 2,000 in the collection each person who donates will get there name on a roll of honour (which is very nice) but more importantly you will be succouring this important bit of scientific history for everyone to enjoy. From July of this year they have made some £6000 which is excellent but their target is £20,000 and would be great if we can help them do this.

So I hope you have enjoyed reading about this man’s impressive life he is not the only key player in Paleoichthyology and I’m sure we will post up biographies on other important fish workers in the future. Until next time stay safe and don’t talk to strange people unless they are you teacher or lecturer then you don’t have a choice.

Text refernces

for a more in depth look at Agassiz’s life click here

Image references

All images taken from google images