The President Discovers a Species
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2011
You know about U.S. presidents who have had species named in their honor. President George W. Bush, for instance, was lucky to attain scientific immortality on the back of a slime mold beetle, Agathidium bushi. But which president actually described a new species himself?
A. Teddy Roosevelt, who bagged a new species of piranha during his Amazonian explorations.
B. John Quincy Adams, who discovered a new catfish while skinnydipping in the Potomac.
C. Thomas Jefferson, whose work on mastodons helped make the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party.
D. Rutherford B. Hayes, who discovered a new songbird while out hunting (and shot it).
And the answer is …
The only American president to have named a new species himself was Thomas Jefferson. In 1797, while still serving as vice president, he described a species based on a huge claw recovered from a cave in West Virginia. Jefferson, who was obsessed with the idea of finding big, fierce creatures in the American wilderness, thought it was a kind of lion three times larger than its African counterpart. He gave it the genus name Megalonyx.
Unfortunately, it later turned out to be a giant ground sloth. But it was at least a new species, and a French anatomist graciously named it jeffersoni after the president.
Because of this work, Jefferson also gets credit for launching the science of vertebrate paleontology in North America. Incidentally, as president of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Jefferson also sponsored important work on mastodons. But it had nothing to do with the eventual GOP use of pachyderms as their symbol.
You can read more about it in The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.
Note: The model giant ground sloth, named Clawd, is on display at the Virginia Museum of Natural History