Monday, November 17, 2008

The Big Echinoderm Big Book Blog!!!

(bronze bust of NMNH Echinoderm Curator Austin H. Clark!)
This week, I thought it would be nice to do a nice change of pace and do something a bit odd (and ironic) for the Internet and talk about BOOKS.
So, ya know where a good chunk of those echinoderm (and other) species names come from?

Books. Specifically...monographs.

Monographs are big (LITERALLY-they are Folio oversized!!) collections of taxonomic descriptions, usually to publish on an expeditionary voyage (such as the Challenger) or simply to produce massive compendia of knowledge.

In Taxonomy and Systematics, there are several huge compendia of new species which were written during the late 19th and early/mid 20th Century when people were still exploring the world. What kind of world was this?
  • Biodiversity was called "Natural History".
  • No computers, internet or any electronic media-Communication between scientists was mostly by postal letter, photographs and/or drawings.
  • No electronic databases and until much later not even in-print Zoological Index. Mostly, unfamiliar species were described as new. Comparative information was often hard to come by. No way for people to know if what they had collected in the far-away new land of California if the species they had was even known.
  • The Smithsonian on the east coast was paralleled by the west coast Stanford University Museum of Natural History (the latter no longer exists).
Big Monographic treatments were ways of integrating VERY disparate taxonomic information and were often places to get the most up to date on the thoughts of classification, keys to identification, and relationships/similarity between species. They often had early ideas on evolution and phylogeny reflected in them..

I thought I would introduce everyone to some of the fundamental bases of echinoderm taxonomy. This is the starting point/BIG treatment for just about every major group of Echinodermata....

The citation metrics for these papers would be through-the-roof if each one were measured today in terms of their overall contributions.

I've undoubtedly missed someone's please feel free to correct/comment and who knows? I may follow up with a second post on the subject! (I certainly will follow up with additional monographs of the latter 20th Century)

1. The Austin H. Clark Crinoid Monographs
Austin H. Clark was the first curator of Echinodermata at the Smithsonian's newly developed National Museum of Natural History. He was considered in his day, by many, to be the world's undisputed expert on crinoids (feather stars and sea lillies) but wrote on all of the various echinoderms which came across his door at the Smithsonian.

Austin's crinoid opus was the starting point for modern crinoid systematics-his 5 part "Monograph of the Existing Crinoidea" which covered largely comatulids.

But Austin wrote on more then crinoids and had published papers on butterflies, the sociology of war, science education and a GREAT deal more then I can completely summarize here.
2. The Mortensen Sea Urchin MonographsPerhaps one of the most remarkable echinoderm workers from the early 20th Century was Theodor Mortensen, who was a curator at the Zoological Museum at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Dr. Mortensen's work was amazingly diverse. He worked on a huge number of groups and on different aspects of echinoderm biology from across the globe and studied such diverse aspects as larval mode to taxonomy, especially from taxa in the Southern Hemisphere and throughout the tropics.

Mortensen was also quite a character and in future blogs, I hope to share some of his uh, published..wit and wisdom with everyone..
Mortensen worked on nearly all of the echinoderm groups, but was particularly passionate about sea urchins..and produced one of the most definitive encyclopedic monographs about echinoids ever published.

His "Monograph of the Echinoidea" is physically massive (each book is about 15 x 18 inches, and about 3-4 inches thick) and includes 16 huge books on EVERY sea urchin group, fossil and living and includes comprehensive summary of literature as well as the most detailed figures and plates available for each group at the time (which are in most cases STILL the most detailed!!)

While dated, Mortensen's monograph remains the starting point for MANY a taxonomic identification/systematics project. The Mortensen monograph had a relatively limited print run and while not ultra not commonly encountered intact....
3. The HMS Challenger Echinoderm Monographs

Hopefully, everyone who has taken Basic Oceanography has heard about the HMS Challenger. It collected a huge number of the species known to humans today. Wikipedia put it most succinctly:
... the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76 which, among many other discoveries, catalogued 4,000 previously unknown species of animal. John Murray, who supervised the publication, described the report as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries".
They WEREN'T KIDDING. A good majority of starfish names were described from Challenger material. And a host of other echinoderm taxa are all covered in loving detail in the Reports of the Challenger expedition. Each is a HUGE oversized book...sometimes easily 6-8 inches thick!

Seven massive volumes cover echinoderms of various kinds by several of the most prominent taxonomic names of the day...

Some are quite old..but they were books meant to last..even from the 19th Century!!

And to make things even MORE awesome Many of these are now digitized..

the Asteroidea

The echinoid monographs are here.
Elasiopod Holothurians
Other holothurians

4. The Starfish Monographs of Walter K. Fisher
Probably one of my favorite professional monographs (and authors) is the Starfish Monographs written by Walter K. Fisher. W.K. Fisher was the Director of the Hopkins Marine Station, operated by Stanford University in Pacific Grove, California (now next to Monterey Bay Aquarium).

W.K. Fisher was a contemporary of the famous Ed Ricketts and via Hopkins worked next door to Cannery Row.

Fisher began much of his early career working on starfishes from all around the world...Hawaii, the Philippines and Indonesia/Sulawasi.

He also wrote THE definitive 3 part book set which provided the taxonomic foundation for our understanding of the starfish fauna of the west coast of North America (and parts of the east coast and beyond!).

In some of his later work, he finished his definitive Discovery Report on the Asteroidea but had effectively written SIX books on starfish systemtics and taxonomy. Plus a host of hundreds of papers.
But like many during that time, W.K. Fisher published and was interested in MANY things. He discussed evolution of echinoderms via letters with Austin Clark, as well as took a great interest in ornithology. He published on peanut worms, stylasterine corals, sea cucumbers and a great deal more.


Ron Yeo said...

Wow! Thanks for posting the various links :)

Mary Ellen said...

Cool books! Do you own all those? In cataloging class we call all books "monographs". Then there's serials. And everything else.

ChrisM said...

I do own a few individual copies of books I need..but most of those were snapped from the NMNH library.

I think I tend to reserve the term "monograph" for a huge single treatment with a specific theme. Serials are more regularly published, yah?

They vary..mostly we just call them by the author names...depends on whose using them..

Laurie said...

Hello---I was googling and found a link to your Nov 17th post in RE to W,K Fisher. I'm in posession of three wonderful paintings done in the 50s by his hand (I acquired at a California estate sale)--wondered if you knew of his talent in that field, as well. I found info as to his being a marine biologist at the time I found the paintings in a light research, and learned his wife, who was an author-wrote some books-I believe he illustrated one or two of her books paper jacket covers.....These paintings are so well done--fine art, honestly., subject matter is India-=--he must have traveled there in the late 40s early 50s. Just thot I'd pass that along.
Sincerely, Laurie

ChrisM said...

wow! there remains much of Fisher's life that's always been of interest! I will have to note this down..

pls. feel free to get ahold of me at


Mark said...

My wife bought one of his paintings in Kansas City, MO. at an estate sale.
Called "Serenity" you can see a photo of it at

Bayu said...

My name Vimono.

I interest on sea urchin study especially for taxonomy.

I need information about the expert or curator for Echinoidea
Thank you for your attention, I look forward your information.

best regards,
I.B. Vimono