STL Science Center

STL Science Center

07 June 2014

Cuvier's Early Works

I left off yesterday saying that Cuvier's first employment was as a tutor for the Comte d'Héricy. During this time he became interested in fossil animals and, as he was already interested in the anatomy of extant animals, he began comparing the living and the fossil remains of a variety of animals. Mammoths were known to the scientists of his day and Cuvier studied the bones of mammoths, mastodons, and extant African and Indian elephants. His work on the subject of elephants led to his first paleontological lecture in 1796 (thanks in part to his recognition of a famed and on-the-run agronomist he befriended) and was published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d'éléphants vivants et fossiles (Memoirs on living and fossil elephant species). This publication and lecture set the stage for Cuvier's later paleontological work as well as definitively differentiating African and Indian elephants, mammoths, and mastodons as distinct species. For the first time ever the mammoth was officially declared to be an extinct taxa. Mastodons were officially given their name by Cuvier in 1806; their remains were referred to as the "Ohio animal" before that.

Cuvier's early work centered on large fossil mammals. He worked on elephants, named Megatherium, and described giant ground sloths. His papers on elephants and Megatherium elevated Cuvier to a near celebrity status in the scientific community, revolutionized comparative anatomy, and caused the world as a whole to recognize that extinction was a very real concept. Despite this early fame, Cuvier remained grounded and moved on away from fossil mammals. Cuvier focused his attentions on the ocean next. He investigated Mollusca, fishes, reptiles, and then later came back to mammals again. The work he did on fishes, including in depth descriptive comparative anatomy of 5,000 species of fish, was published as a 590 page treatise titled Histoire naturelle des poissons (Natural history of the fishes) and definitely contained a wealth of anatomical comparison between the species of fish. The work of Cuvier did have detractors and negative aspects. Those will be a topic for Monday, however, and tomorrow will remain set aside for younger readers.

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