Carl Mehling (USA)
Things aren’t always what they seem. The fluidity of information and the frailties of human memory allow for a lot of corruption. Innocent assumptions are made. Sloppy mistakes take place. Unforeseeable accidents occur. And deliberate subterfuge is always there as an option when these others fail. Throw a little time at them and mis- and disinformation get lithified, entrenching them in the human psyche and culture. Fighting for accuracy is a continuous battle.
A wing and a prayer
Once almost considered throw-away parts of the bird, chicken wings have soared to unimaginable heights since their transformation into ubiquitous bar food in the 60s. Buffalo wings are so absurdly popular in the US that possibly-calculated rumours often circulate that a wing drought is coming, causing the requisite panic. Sports bars riot over this dearth, prompting half-serious suggestions of breeding chickens with more than the pathetic pair that their lineage has provided. Anything this popular inevitably spawns feuds over priority: Who gets to claim bragging rights for such a powerful, lasting and lucrative phenomenon?
This certainly happened with Buffalo wings. I’ll spare you the gory details, but although hard to prove definitively, most have settled on the idea that the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY began this tangy trend in 1964. However, as it turns out, it can be demonstrated that the origin of buffalo wings actually happened elsewhere, and in 1962. Or, depending how you define origins, in the Silurian, some 420 million years ago.
A few years back, I was reading about the extraordinary Bertie Waterlime, a rock bed in Ontario and New York duly famous for its abundant, diverse and well-preserved eurypterids. Eurypterids were aquatic Palaeozoic arthropods that existed for over 215 million years and included the largest known arthropods of all time, reaching at least 2.5m in length. But the one that really caught my eye was a name new to me: Buffalopterus pustulosus. My familiarity with taxonomic etymologies made me smile, as I realised that its genus meant “Buffalo wing.” Clearly, this was a humorous nod to the wonderfully messy food.
But when I looked up the publication date, I realized that it predated that asserted by the Anchor Bar declaring that Buffalo wings began with them. Buffalopterus, it turned out,was just a fortuitous accident from a world quite distinct from the culinary end of chickens. Which came first? In this case, not the chicken… I mischievously emailed them a pdf of the paper suggesting they’d been secretly scooped, hoping for a smile and an offer to come up and have some free wings to keep my mouth shut. No response came.
Who was the first, ‘gainst beery thirst, to make the chicken hot?
In Buffalo, now long ago, that clearly was the spot.
But such is fame: two made the claim, that they were Number One.
One did insight a chicken fight: the Bar of Anchor Won.
The Anchor crew with rancor true had sought to clip their wings.
But couldn’t know an ancient foe: the harmless scorpion stings.
The date of birth, for what it’s worth, was 1964.
But two years back, from rocky crack, a creature came ashore.
Buffalopterus, from grey necropolis, eurypterid of old.
No epicurean from the Silurian of its tang has told.
“Buffalo Wing” they’d named this thing, not thinking of the food.
The poultry kind: not yet designed. And before the flap ensued.
Buffalopterus might sound like an inappropriate name for such an animal. Yes, the fossils came from near Buffalo, but the animal was obviously wingless (as are, of course, buffalo). As with a great many dinosaurs who share names ending in -saurus, trends guide the nomenclature of numerous extinct groups. And in the case of eurypterids, it’s common for genera to share the suffix -pterus derived from the Greek word for wing.
This same root can be found in the name of the Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx (“ancient wing”), pterosaurs (“winged reptiles”) and helicopter (“helical wings”). The first eurypterid genus to use this form was Eurypterus, meaning “broad wings”, which lent its name to the group. Its swimming paddles are the “wings” in question, since the 1835 namer of Eurypterus felt that Greek lacked anything more appropriate. Ironically, Buffalopterus was not even preserved with its “wings” – in the author’s mind, the name probably meant “Eurypterid from Buffalo.”
The Greek wing found itself as the prefix of another eurypterid genus just four years later: the gigantic Devonian Pterygotus. It would be easy to assume that this new name was launching the trend of winged eurypterids, but this wing flew in from a very unexpected and lofty place.
Scottish quarrymen apparently were the first to find remnants of this animal. Ill-equipped to identify these incomplete relics, they dubbed the fossils “Seraphim” because of their supposed resemblance to parts of the most elite class of winged angels. What were normally found were the ruins of this huge creature whose exoskeleton exhibits a scaly texture and has parts resembling the edges of feathered wings. In 1839, Harvard geologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz noted:
The more I know of this creature, the more I am tempted to believe that it was a fish; but how [to] absolutely decide upon it, when we have neither discovered head nor tail, but only large wings.”
This led him to cautiously name the beast Pterygotus problematicus, or “problematic winged fish,” honouring both interpretations.
Later, in 1858, Hugh Miller described how in the 1840s, after a group of colleagues assembled a collection of Pterygotus fragments that they were convinced were fish bits, the great Agassiz arranged the chunks to restore what he then realized was actually a “huge lobster”. And what were seen as a Seraphim’s wing wound up being what Agassiz called the “terminal flap”: the lobster’s flattened and fringed propulsive tail or telson. The astounded but grateful group saw their winged fish immediately evolve into a strange clawed monster.
The form altogether, from its winglike appearance, its feathery markings, and its angular points will suggest to the reader the origin of the name given it by the Forfarshire workmen. With another such flap spreading out in the contrary direction, and a periwigged head between them, we would have one of the sandstone cherubs of our country churchyards complete.”
Georges Cuvier, often called the “Founding Father of Palaeontology,” was an early nineteenth Century Natural Sciences luminary, well-known for is his Principle of Correlation of Parts. This is often oversimplified as resurrecting an entire extinct animal from a scrap of fossil bone, but in reality, it is more nuanced, and a concept still widely used in Palaeontology.
In 1798, Cuvier wrote of the principle’s predictive power:
Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that—up to a point—one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa [emphases mine].”
A shard of windshield in a junkyard may not be as informative as a hood ornament, but that ornament may be all you need to retrieve the make, model and year of a car.
Miller, comparing Agassiz to Cuvier, said:
… I was as much struck with the skill displayed by Agassiz in piecing together the fragments of the huge crustacean of Balruddery.”
With caution and a huge knowledge of anatomy and function, the principle is, indeed, still powerful. Pterygotus is, in fact, one of the best, early examples of the efficacy of this technique, as its fossils are almost never found intact. Miller goes on to say:
There is homage due to supereminent genius, which nature spontaneously pays when there are no low feelings of envy or jealousy to interfere with her operations: and the reader may well believe that it was willingly rendered on this occasion to the genius of Agassiz.”
Science is best when conducted this way.
And the monster kept on evolving. What these early researchers saw as a crustacean or a “king-crab” (an old name for a horseshoe crab) transformed into a totally extinct group close to spiders and scorpions. (Interestingly, there seems to be a Buffalopterus that was not even a eurypterid. Buffalopterus verrucosus, published alongside B. pustulosus, was later discovered actually to be a phyllocarid crustacean called Mytocaris: a eurypterid that became a crustacean to balance Agassiz’s lobster.)
Pterygotus and its kin wound up being called sea scorpions, but we now know that they were not scorpions and only the earliest ones were marine. They soon spawned brackish and even freshwater forms, with some evidently able to venture out onto dry land for short forays. And the “terminal flap” actually appears to be the gnathobase of a coxa of a swimming leg: sort of a cross between a thigh and a jaw. Another wing that wasn’t a wing.
And circling back to chicken, another thing that isn’t a wing is a KFC Boneless Wing: they are made from 100% breast meat. Gastronomically speaking, “wing”, has come to imply more about the sauce than to what is being sauced. Similarly, if chickens can be said to have fingers they would obviously be found in the tips of the wing bones, but not in the chicken fingers of kid’s meals, also made from breast meat.
With some digging into the strata of etymology, surprises are clearly uncovered concerning Buffalopterus’ wings. But what happens when we hunt the buffalo? Predictably, intuition will lead one astray – the animal called a buffalo had nothing to do with the city’s name. When the French occupied the Lake Erie and the Niagara River area, they called the area “Beau Fleuve” or “Beautiful River”. The next to move in were the Dutch and English who bastardised the French name, pronouncing it “Buffalo”. In fact, even the animal called the American Buffalo is a bit of a misnomer. Old World Cape Buffalos and Water Buffalos – in the subtribe Bubulina – lent their name to the New World Bison, which is actually in a separate subtribe, Bovina, with the ancestors of our domestic cattle.
A look at the common names of innumerable animals (for example, koala bears, pronghorn antelopes and shipworms), plants (for instance, sago palm and blackberries, Christmas cactus), and the foods they may become (for example, Grape Nuts, sweetbreads and Rocky Mountain oysters) should make it painfully clear how common this habit of tacking names onto things that sort of resemble other things is and why scientific nomenclature based on evolutionary closeness is clearer, more defensible and thus preferable.
To recap, the true natures of these things are all disguised by the obscuring cloak of history: Buffalopterus does not exactly mean “buffalo wings”, it wasn’t found with its “wings” and its paddles are, of course, not wings anyway; Buffalo wings are not the wings of buffalos; Pterygotus’ evolution in the human mind was Seraphim cum fish cum lobster cum horseshoe crab cum sea scorpion cum marine/fresh/brackish scorpion relative; Cuvier never claimed the power to resurrect entire extinct animals from a scraps of fossil bone; B. verrucosus was not a eurypterid; the “pter” in “Pterygotus” and “eurypterid” actually refer to different “wings”; Agassiz’s “terminal flap” was a gnathobase of a coxa of a swimming leg; boneless wings are not wings; chicken fingers are not fingers; buffalos were not eponymous for Buffalo, NY; and the American Buffalo is not a buffalo.
But don’t be buffaloed by any of this. Just know that these idiosyncrasies of history, especially etymological, may actually be much more common than the straight-forward, especially the older the story. Instead, raise your glass the next time you choose a spicy chicken nosh from a Buffalo bill of fare and toast its precursor, the “Beautiful River swimming paddle”.
About the author
Carl Mehling works at the Fossil Amphibian, Reptile, and Bird Collections Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.