The Fascinating Mr. Fox

I carefully cradled the shriveled fish in my fingertips and held it so I could read the label secured to the specimen with a small loop of string through the lower lip. The handwriting was executed in old-style ink and at one time would have been bold and easy to read. Now it was faded and the nature of the inscription made it even harder to read because it was in the form of a collection number, binomial Latin designation and a place name. It read “1507”, “Trachidermus alvordii” and “Grosse Isle.” I should probably mention at this point that the specimen was a Mottled Sculpin barely two inches long and that it was also over 160 years old. To misquote a famous philosopher: “When 160 years old you reach, look as good you will not.”

The thing that led me to this particular specimen, and a few others like it, was my current “research” on the history of the Detroit River. In searching for offbeat, yet interesting, facets of the river’s history I was drawn to the story of a few relatively obscure fish that were originally described by a Philadelphia scientist with the impressive name of Edward Drinker Cope. The Mimic Shiner, Sand Shiner, Fathead Minnow, and Brook Silversides were first published as legitimate species in a paper about Michigan vertebrates in1865.

You may have noticed (or not) that whenever you see a scientific name, apart from being a genus name followed by a species name, that there is a name and a date in parenthesis following the heady Latin/Greek terminology. These post names stand out because they are familiar looking – you know, like the name of a neighbor (unless you live next to Constantine Rafinesque). In the case of the Mimic Shiner, for instance, the fancy name is Notropis volucellus (Cope 1865). This means that Mr. Edward Cope came up with the official description in 1865. The specimens used for such descriptions are preserved as so-called type specimens – the first of their kind, you could say. In other words, they are important regardless of how common the species itself is.

  Edward Drinker Cope

Now, please don’t go away yet. I don’t mean to bore you with the kind of thing that only science geeks get inflated about. There were several interesting things going on here. First of all, Cope himself is best known as a dinosaur hunter. He was part of the famous “Bone Wars” of the late 1800’s in which there was a flurry of fossil dino discoveries out west. That a dinosaur hunter would have concerned himself with fish is a fascinating thing within itself. But, there is another point of interest for a Michigander. In all cases the specimens used for these actual fish descriptions came from the Detroit River in the vicinity of Grosse Ile – my backdoor.

Cope did not venture to Michigan to collect these fish; instead he relied on collections made by other folks. This is where a Professor Manly Miles comes in. A Flint native – originally hailing from New York State – Miles became a professor of zoology and animal physiology at the State Agricultural College in Lansing (Michigan State University). He assembled a great collection of preserved animals at that institution and shared them with most of the prominent naturalists of the day- including E. D. Cope.

Rev. Charles Fox

Miles got his specimens from other people as well. This is where the Rev. Charles Fox came in. Originating from England, Fox moved to Grosse Ile in 1843 and officiated as an Episcopal Minister of the church in Trenton and St. John’s on Grosse Ile. He was an avid natural history collector and apparently sent many specimens to various institutions such as the Flint Scientific Inst. and the University of Michigan. Unfortunately he died young on July 24, 1854 after serving only two years on the staff at the University of Michigan as a lecturer in agricultural practices. This was after a series of unfortunate instances in which he lost a son and had his house burn down. Mr. Fox no doubt took some small solace in the collecting of his little fishes.

Douglas Nelson

Thus we are at the point where I contacted Douglas Nelson, the curator of the fisheries collection at the U of M with an interest in seeing if any of Prof. Fox’s specimens remained. In short they did and in long, I was allowed to examine them. Nelson was exceedingly helpful in this regard and even took the specimens out of their jars for handling etc.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see the type specimens for the shiners, minnows, and Brook Silversides mentioned earlier because they are carefully guarded (for the reasons I previously mentioned).  There is little doubt that these fish were also collected by Prof. Fox and ended up in the Manly Miles collection. But, the free access to the ancient Sculpin and a cluster of 13 Three-spined Sticklebacks were satisfactory for my intentions.

Stickleback Specimens

Stickleback Specimen

I here present a few images of these fish which, because they could not have been collected later than 1854, are at least 160 years old. Their white pupils betray the fact that they were originally preserved in pure alcohol (formaldehyde is a much later invention). The presence of half a dozen labels in each specimen jar betrays the fact that these specimens are not ignored or left abandoned. They have been part of research over the years. In fact, the original name on the attached label for the Mottled Sculpin (the Trachidermus thing) has since been changed to Cottus bairdii (Girard 1850).

Mottled Sculpin Specimens

Yes, someone named Girard (Charles Frederick to be exact) had described this particular species in 1850. The original designation tag for the U of M specimen, probably written by Manly Miles (?) in the 1860’s possibly reflected that it was collected before 1850. Wow this is one old fish – a fleshy artifact from well before the Civil War.


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