Know thy namesake: the story of Gordon W. Weir and fossil fishes

The fossil fish Hemicalypterus weiri was named after Gordon Weir. But who is Gordon Weir?

This Saturday, November 11, the U.S. celebrates Veterans Day, a holiday in which we honor and remember veterans who have served and protected our country (as opposed to Memorial Day, which honors those who specifically died in combat). I have been kicking the idea for this post around in my head for a year now, and the timing seems appropriate to coincide with this year’s Veterans Day.

But, what exactly does paleontology have to do with Veterans Day?

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Hemicalypterus weiri reconstruction.

Let’s digress for a bit of context. Last year I published a paper in PLOS ONE redescribing an unusual deep-bodied from the Triassic Chinle Formation. The fish, Hemicalypterus weiri is unusual for several reasons, most obvious being its partially scaled body (the anterior half being covered by thick, enameled scales; the posterior half being scaleless, which likely aided in flexibility). Hemicalypterus also possessed unusual teeth that resemble small forks, which were most likely used for a herbivorous feeding behavior, using the multicuspid teeth to scrape algae off of a rocky substrate, similar to modern algae-scraping cichlids. I published a paper in the journal The Science of Nature detailing the multicuspid teeth of Hemicalypterus, and also wrote about it on my blog.

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Bobb Schaeffer, curator of Fossil Fishes at the AMNH, pictured here with the famous “Woodward Tablecloth” (a story for another day)

Hemicalypterus weiri was originally described by Bobb Schaeffer, the former curator of fossil fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His work on the Triassic fishes of the American southwest has been a guiding force in my own career. Schaeffer described several species of fishes from the Chinle, but his description of Hemicalypterus was based on few, incomplete specimens, all of which were lacking articulated jaws and teeth. Schaeffer did not recognize or describe the multicuspid teeth, and it was only as I was preparing newly collected specimens of Hemicalypterus that I found complete jaws on several specimens, displaying the unique tooth morphology that is found in almost exclusively herbivorous fishes in both marine and freshwater habitats.

But Hemicalytperus itself isn’t the point of this post. The point is its specific epithet, Hemicalypterus weiri. As it says in the footnotes of Schaeffer (1967): “For Gordon W. Weir.”

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A fresh-faced young graduate student perusing Gordon Weir’s geological notes at the U.S.G.S. Field Records collection library.

I had come across Gordon Weir’s name before, several years ago when I was perusing the archives at the U.S. Geological Survey Field Records collection in Denver, Colorado. Looking for more information regarding early fossil collections in the Chinle Formation in Utah, I found all of Gordon Weir’s field notes, government reports, stratigraphic columns, and notes on fossils he had discovered in the region, notably, articulated fossil fishes.

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The handwritten cover on Weir’s report on Fossils from southeastern Utah, amongst reports on uranium deposits. From the USGS Field Collection Records archive.

Weir, along with Y. W. Isachsen (who at the time worked for the Atomic Energy Commission), had discovered fossil fishes while they were surveying southeastern Utah for uranium. As Schaeffer (1967) writes, “It is an interesting comment on the Atomic Age that the search for uranium minerals led to the discovery of abundant and diversified fishes.”

Weir and colleagues reported their findings, as well as some specimens, to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  in 1953. David H. Dunkle, who was curator of fossil fishes at the time, collected additional specimens in 1954, and later brought on Bobb Schaeffer from the AMNH to collect in the region and, ultimately, to describe the fishes recovered from the Triassic deposits.

For Weir’s significant contribution with regard to Triassic stratigraphy, fossil localities, and geology of southeastern Utah, Schaeffer honored Weir with a namesake: Hemicalypterus weiri.

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Holotype of Hemicalypterus weiri.

As I examined new and old specimens of Hemicalypterus weiri for my research, I became  familiar with every aspect of this unassuming little fossil fish: its anatomy, morphology, abundance in the fossil record, localities, etc. Everything but its name. And it felt odd working so intimately on an organism that I did not name; one that already had a name, a name honoring a man I did not know, but to whom I owe a lot.

So when I googled “Gordon W. Weir,” I didn’t expect much. I anticipated some geological papers or reports, and not much else. What I didn’t expect was this:

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Lt. Gordon W. Weir, WWII Pilot. Circa 1944

As it turns out, Gordon Weir was a lot more than a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Gordon Weir was a decorated World War II veteran, a pilot in the Army Air Corps in the 861st Squadron, 493rd Bomb Group, and 8th Air Force. He served 30 flight missions in Europe in 1944 and 1945.

Weir died in 2011, and according to his obituary, Weir did not discuss his time in the Air Force for decades. His son later found three silver navigator’s medals in the bottom of a drawer and was unaware of much of his father’s war history.

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Gordon Weir, circa 1943, on base in Nebraska.

Thankfully, Weir later became active in the 8th Air Force Historical Society, and has also left a legacy of his time in the War via an online memoir, which I invite everyone to check out, because his time in the Air Force during WWII is absolutely fascinating. He flew in over 30 missions in Europe in 1944 and 1945. When the war ended in 1945, he was training to serve in the Pacific Theatre. In one of his missions in Europe, his plane was one of only two of the twelve planes that returned to England.

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Gordon Weir, circa 1945.

Weir’s memoir documents as much as he was able to recall 50 years after the events, but is laced with photos, documents, anecdotes, humor, and honest insight. He talks about everything from navigating a war-wrecked London, boating on the Cam in Cambridge, and flying in a B-17 bomber into German skies. He talks about the deaths of his friends, and the reality of the war. It’s a candid and fascinating read, and I am glad that it persists on the internet even after his recent passing, just shy what would have been his 89th birthday.

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After WWII ended in 1945, Weir enrolled in UCLA to study geology, after which came his long career in the U.S.G.S. in which he, as he put it, “[tried] to comprehend the history of the Earth.”

In addition to his work in Utah, Weir also conducted geological research in Kentucky, Arizona, and Indonesia.

His son described him as “intelligent, caring, and interesting.” And I would agree. I am glad that I got to know him a little vicariously through his online memoir. He was truly a fascinating person, and I wish I had met him in person. But it’s truly an honor to be able to work on his namesake, Hemicalypterus weiri.

Read Gordon Weir’s WWII Online Memoir

Gordon Weir’s obituary

References:

Gibson, S.Z. 2016. Redescription and Phylogenetic Placement of †Hemicalypterus weiri Schaeffer, 1967 (Actinopterygii, Neopterygii) from the Triassic Chinle Formation, Southwestern United States: New Insights into Morphology, Ecological Niche, and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163657

Gibson, S.Z. 2015. Evidence of a specialized feeding niche in a Late Triassic ray-finned fish: evolution of multidenticulate teeth and benthic scraping in †Hemicalypterus. The Science of Nature — Naturwissenschaften 102:10.

Schaeffer, B. 1967. Late Triassic fishes from the western United States. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 135: 289–342.

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Author: Sarah

Dr. Sarah Z. Gibson is a paleontologist and science communicator based in Minnesota. Her research focuses on the evolutionary history of ray-finned fishes from the Early Mesozoic.

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