Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Proboscid Is Bigger Than Your Proboscid

The gross-sounding statement in the title of this post was uttered by one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson (OK, I'm paraphrasing). It's not as bad as it sounds - proboscids are an order of animals that includes modern-day elephants, and extinct elephant-like creatures like mastodons and mammoths. Proboscid is short for Proboscidea, which is the actual name of the taxonomic order. As you can guess, these animals all have long proboscises (noses/trunks).

The photo above is from a visit to the Rutgers University Geology Museum. My wife and I visited their annual Open House last weekend. We met at Rutgers, so the trip was nostalgic as well as geologic. The photo is of a mastodon unearthed by a farmer in southern New Jersey in 1869.

But back to Thomas Jefferson ...

Jefferson's fit of proboscid envy was prompted by a man with the pretentious name of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. "Comte" is a French title of nobility, similar in rank to an English earl. He is generally referred to as Buffon, although that is the town he was comte of and not his name.

Buffon was a well-known naturalist in the late 18th century, and made many observations including some that presaged Darwin's theory of evolution. But his observation that got Jefferson's wig twisted was what became known as the Theory of American Degeneracy. The idea was that due to a colder, more humid climate in the New World, the animals there (including humans) were smaller and weaker than those in the Old World.

It's not hard to see that Americans would be upset by this theory, especially being a new country that would not benefit from being seen as weak in the eyes of European powers. Jefferson, being somewhat of a naturalist himself, took on the task of refuting Buffon.

It turned out this was not very difficult to do. Buffon had never been to the New World, and his theories were based on incomplete and misleading information provided by others. Jefferson put together a list of several species that are larger in the New World than in the Old. Exhibit A was the mastodon, which not only was larger than the elephant, but was the largest known terrestrial animal in the ENTIRE world!

Never mind that the mastodon was extinct. At the time, which was before the expedition of Lewis and Clark, many believed that mastodons might still be roaming the interior of the American continent.

To make a long story short, the Americans got over their inferiority complex.

The End (the back end, that is):


  1. not to mention the grizzly bear which is bigger than the European equivalent (whose name I don't know in English, oso pardo in Spanish)

    ditto the buffalo, or were the ones in Poland imported from America?

  2. That's right. Jefferson also made side-by-side comparisons of the beaver, otter, martin and flying squirrel, which are bigger in the New World. For details, see and click on "A Comparative View of the Quadrupeds of Europe and of America".