Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Not a Giant Snake - Just a Broken Mollusc Shell. Sir John Graham Kerr’s Howler: How was the Misidentification Perpetuated?

Sir John Graham Kerr
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Graham Kerr Building at Glasgow University for a meeting. Still known to the old lags as ‘Zoology’, it is named for Sir John Graham Kerr FRS, Professor of Natural History and then, when the department was split, of Zoology from 1902 until 1935. The 1920s zoology building was very much his building and his empire.

A natural historian of the old school he is perhaps better known now for a horrendous misidentification of a specimen than remembered for his research, on lungfish, for example, for his wrong-headed—but not unusual for the time—views on evolutionary pathways, for his antipathy to experimental biology, for disruptive camouflage of ships, for his political life as a Member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities before such seats were abolished and for his pugnacity.

The misidentification arose from a find among a mass of bones obtained from the Gran Chaco of South America by his friend, the missionary Andrew Pride. Kerr identified the specimen as the fang of a snake and, given its size—nearly 6.5 cm measured on the outside of the curve—a giant snake to which he gave the name Bothrodon pridii which translates to Pride’s Furrow-toothed Snake. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1927.

From Kerr's 1927 paper

Kerr interpreted his fang as being from an opisthoglyphous snake like the Boomslang with the tooth serving to grasp the prey while the poison worked its way down the furrow and into the wound. He then calculated that the fang’s owner must have been about 60 feet long or more. A true piece of deduction from a single part of the anatomy that Richard Owen would have been proud of. Or would he?

Only after a cast of the ‘fang’ was sent to Dr Werner Quenstedt (1893-1960) in Berlin did it become apparent that far from being the tooth of a snake, Kerr’s specimen was the broken off projection from the shell of a Chiragra Spider Conch, now known as Harpago chiragra, from the Indo-Pacific. Oh dear.

Chiragra Spider Conch
from Wikipedia. Photograph by H. Zell

Quenstedt’s correction to Kerr’s identification was published in 1939. However, something odd in the what-happened-next category was noted in a blog post by Dr Karl Shuker. Graham Kerr continued to refer to the discovery of the tooth and to Bothrodon in his book published in 1950, A Naturalist in Gran Chaco. Shuker wonders whether Kerr simple did not accept that he was wrong.

The ‘Bothrodon pridii fang’ was clearly Kerr’s pride (if you will forgive the pun) and joy. Even after Quenstedt’s publication in 1939 Kerr demonstrated the specimen at a Royal Society Club dinner in 1943 (mistakenly reported as 1940 by others). But what is even odder is that Kerr’s successor (and relation by marriage) at Glasgow, Edward Hindle FRS (1886-1973) in a biographical memoir for the Royal Society written shortly after Kerr’s death in 1957 refers to the fact that the specimen was one of Kerr’s favourite exhibits in his departmental museum and praises Kerr for its identification. Hindle continued:
Unfortunately no other part of the skeleton has ever been found but comparing the size of this fang with that of a modern poisonous snake, it is estimated that this monster may well have been some 60 feet long, surely one of the most formidable animals that ever lived.

It is possible that Kerr did not accept Quenstedt’s debunking of his pet specimen as a misidentification. Or is there another explanation?

From Allibone (a book printed by early camera-ready technology)

The Holborn Restaurant at the corner of High Holborn and Kingsway.
Now demolished, this famous London restaurantwas used by the
Royal Society Club for dinners between 1942 and 1944.

Graham Kerr left Glasgow in 1935 for the political arena and scientific retirement. Is it just possible that nobody told him, nor dared tell him, what had happened in Berlin?

It is also possible that Quenstedt’s work was more widely known in the U.S.A. than in Britain. Even by 1939 standards the publication looks pretty obscure†. The outbreak of war 1939 saw contacts cut between German and British scientists. But until the U.S.A. eventually, as W.S. Churchill might have phrased it, declared war on Germany in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, some contact was maintained and publications exchanged.

Edward Hindle’s ignorance is harder to explain. During the 1940s and 50s Hindle was very much the man-about-town gentleman scientist in London. Even though no palaeontologist nor herpetologist it seems odd that he seemed unaware of what had happened as he flitted from this scientific society dinner to that learned society event while ensconced at London Zoo from 1943 until 1951 and the during his retirement. Even had he known of the misidentification and had wished to avoid Kerr, his late first wife’s cousin as well as his predecessor in Glasgow, being remembered for it he surely would have simply ignored the topic in the biographical memoir rather than listing it as an achievement.

Allibone TE. 1976. The Royal Society and its Dining Clubs. Oxford: Pergamon.

Hindle E. 1958. John Graham Kerr, 1869-1957. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 4, 155-166.

Kerr JG. 1927. Bothrodon pridii, an extinct serpent of gigantic dimensions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 46, 314-315. A number of sources quote this paper as being published in 1926.

Kerr JG. 1950. A Naturalist in the Gran Chaco. Cambridge University Press.

†The reference is given as Quenstedt in Kuhn, Oskar. 1939. This must be: Kuhn O. 1939. Squamata : Lacertilia et Ophidia. Fossilium catalogus, 1 . Animalia / editus a W. Quenstedt ; pars 86. W. Junk.