February 01, 2022
The past and future are alike in one peculiar way: They’re never exactly what we expect.
That’s understandable when looking toward events that haven’t yet occurred. No one ever really knows the future in detail. But anyone who’s dug far into history knows it invariably serves up some surprises, too.
Whitetail history certainly does. In fact, one of the most surprising parts of the animal’s past is its very beginning. At least, the very beginning as pertains to scientific study. How our favorite big-game animal came to be known as Odocoileus virginianus is a curious tale full of twists and turns.
You might assume this story would be simple, because back when early zoologists were starting to name the world’s animals and plants, the whitetail already had been familiar to scholars for around 200 years. But flipping back through the pages of time, we see there are still some lingering questions.
As the Story Goes
The whitetail’s scientific name of Odocoileus virginianus translates back to Greek and Latin roughly as “hollow-toothed deer of Virginia.” Credit for coming up with it goes to Constantine S. Rafinesque, tracing back to 1832.
Where that first confirmed specimen came from — the “type locality” of the “holotype,” in the lingo of taxonomists — has long been given as an anonymous cave. Of course, because the scientific name pays tribute to Virginia, it’s widely assumed that the cave is somewhere there.
Parts of the above turn out to be correct. But not all. As we’ll discover, it’s a hard story to unravel, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.
A Unique Individual
This much we know for sure: Rafinesque came up with Odocoileus, the genus the whitetail shares with its cousin, the mule deer (O. hemionus). He also gave scientific names to thousands more genera and species. The Turkish-born Frenchman was one of the most prolific taxonomists of any era.
To understand how he could have done all that in an era in which gathering data was much harder and more tedious than today, we need to know a little more about the man himself. In addition to being a self-educated expert in Mesoamerican linguistics and native American earthworks, Rafinesque was simply obsessed with the natural world, to the point no less notable a contemporary than John James Audubon called him “crazy.”
Well into the 19th century, much of the natural world remained unknown to science. But the veil slowly was lifted as expeditions showed what was out there. Alexander von Humboldt’s travels through South and Central America awed even Thomas Jefferson. Everyone was spellbound by what the Lewis and Clark Expedition had found. Galapagos Islands explorer Charles Darwin sent science in new directions when he espoused his ideas on natural selection. It was an era of epic journeys to the far corners of the globe.
During their wanderings, these adventurers constantly encountered new plants and animals. Some they named, but often that was left to others to do. Rafinesque was in both camps, being both an avid explorer and what we might today call a “lab rat.” He loved sorting through samples. That dedication helps to explain how he ended up naming around 6,000 genera and 2,700 species. Much of this work he did in Lexington, Kentucky, as a professor of botany at Transylvania University.
The system Rafinesque and other scientists of his day used had been implemented in 1735 by renowned Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Still in use, the Linnaean system utilizes what we call “binomial nomenclature.” It incorporates the classic languages of Latin and Greek as unique identifiers of genus, species and even subspecies.
The first word of a scientific name is the genus, the second the species. Whether we’re talking about modern man (Homo sapiens) or some microbe, every officially identified lifeform has been thus categorized. The system is used worldwide, avoiding language barriers and the potential confusion of common names. (One person’s groundhog is another’s woodchuck and another’s whistle pig — but to science, they’re all Marmota monax.) If there are sufficient differences between specimens of the same species, identification then is refined to the subspecies level.
With an animal as widespread and genetically varied as the whitetail, there are many subspecies. In fact, Rafinesque ended up naming at least one of them. But before we get into that, let’s visit one of the most important places in the whitetail world: a cave in southern Pennsylvania.
An Underground Mystery
In 1832, in an eclectic scientific periodical called Atlantic Journal, Rafinesque wrote a personal account that explains the genesis of Odocoileus. I reproduce selected portions here (greatly condensed, with some needed spelling and style changes made, and a few parenthetical explanations inserted) to get us as close to the event as possible:
“Among several curious fossils of the cabinet of Mr. Hayden in Baltimore, some teeth found in a cave attracted my peculiar attention. Mr. Hayden had the goodness to present them to me. He stated that they had been found in the big cave of Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, by Mr. Wardel, who had broken them from a jawbone sticking out of the lime rock. In fact, one of the teeth is united to its socket and the fragment of a jaw.
“This statement induced me to visit this locality, and new cave with fossils remains, which I did last August (1831?), in hope of finding more bones or teeth in it....it is situated in the big valley between the South and North mountains, about one mile north of Carlisle on the banks of Conococheague Creek . . . The cave is encrusted with stalagmites and limy crust of recent formation, in which the teeth must have been found partly imbedded; it is very probable that they were fossil diluvial bones (produced by flooding).”
Rafinesque then went on to describe the teeth themselves, ultimately arriving at what we might consider a shocking conclusion.
“I have carefully examined and compared the teeth in my possession, and I cannot refer them to any living animal. Mr. Hayden thought they belonged to an extinct animal akin to the hog. It may be so, but hogs have not hollow teeth. Therefore, I have called them Odocoileus, meaning teeth well hollowed. I give the exact figures of them of natural size, that oryctologists (students of fossils, minerals and rocks) may further compare them and reduce them to their proper family: which is perhaps near to the tribe of goats or dwarfish oxen.”
Whoa. The man who gave the whitetail its scientific name actually examined some of its teeth, found in a cave in Pennsylvania, and decided they belonged to no living species? And he said that they were maybe from some long-lost type of goat or ox? Not exactly reassuring. But they were indeed whitetail teeth, based on Rafinesque’s description:
“Grinders trilobate before three large ribs and two broad furrows between, middle rib or lobe longest and largest: convex and unlobed behind. Center with a deep, lunulated (crescent-shaped) hollow with a semi-partition on one side. The enamel covers the whole teeth, even the hollow inside.
“The brim has a suture throughout, evincing a tendency to a double laminar structure. The roots have no enamel, they have two or three unequal conical prongs with a visible hole at the end. Resembling the ribs of oxen teeth but size of a goat.”
Rafinesque added to the new genus Odocoileus the species name of speleus, owing to the fact the teeth had been found in a cave. (In Greek, spel translates to “cavern.”) And so, from this Pennsylvania sample was proposed a new species of animal, one at the time thought to be extinct: Odocoileus spelaeus (or speleus, as Rafinesque originally wrote it).
It’s now clear that these “hollow” teeth the zoologist described were from no goat or ox, but from a whitetail. Ultimately the scientific community made that correction, but it took some sorting out. So did dropping speleus/spelaeus as the species and substituting virginianus, which remains in effect today.
Why Didn't He Know?
Having to massage taxonomy into final form is common. Sometimes it takes years; new information comes along, and descriptions and range maps are amended. Even so, the question remains: How did someone of Rafinesque’s stature make such a mistake? By the time he studied those teeth, he’d been living in whitetail country and deeply involved in natural history research for decades.
Perhaps one conclusion we can draw is that, for all his experience and passion for the minute details of science, the zoologist wasn’t a deer hunter. Had he been, he likely would have recognized the samples as being from a whitetail, not some extinct goat or ox. But neither he nor anyone else at the time apparently knew quite what they were looking at. It just shows that even in something as precise as scientific study, the human element is always a factor.