Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts

By M. J. S. Rudwick; George Cuvier | Go to book overview

7
A POUCHED MARSUPIAL FROM PARIS

Of all the material that was evidently pouring into Cuvier's working space at the Muséum from the gypsum quarries around Paris, one small specimen was so important that it merited a paper of its own (text 8). Marveling at the happy chance of its preservation and discovery, Cuvier referred quite casually to its age as likely to be some "thousands of centuries." Since he was certainly aware by now that the Paris formations were among the youngest known (apart from the loose superficial deposits), the phrase indicates that his implicit sense of the timescale of the whole of earth history was quite vast enough to be literally unimaginable.

From the details of the skeleton, and particularly its teeth, Cuvier suspected that this precious fossil had been a marsupial. If correct, the inference was highly significant, because it would show that the tapir was not the only fossil animal from France whose living relatives were found only in the New World and--in the marsupial case--in Australia. So Cuvier staged a risky test of the anatomical principles that underlay all this research. He sacrificed a part of the unique specimen in order to excavate in search of the distinctive "marsupial bones" that support the pouch in living marsupials. In the presence of witnesses who could vouch for his having stated his prediction in advance, he duly found the crucial bones (fig. 12). It was a spectacular vindication of his zoological principles.1

____________________
1
Good modern replicas of the two halves of the little specimen are prominently on display in the Galcrie de Paléontologic at the Muséum National d'Histoirc Naturcile in Paris. Anyone who sees

-68-

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