Sunday, August 11, 2013

Joachim Barrande

Joachim Barrande was born on August 11th 1799 in the town of Sauges in southern France. During his studies at the École Polytechnique and École des Ponts et chaussées he was interested in natural sciences. He went to lectures of Georges Cuvier, Jean B. Lamarck, Alexander Brongniart and other great naturalists of that time. After his graduation, Barrande worked as an engineer and designed, for instance, a bridge over the Loire River. Then he became the tutor of Henry, Count of Chambord, the grandson of King Charles X. Bourbon. Unfortunately, after political changes in 1830, the Bourbons were expelled from France. Barrande left together with the Bourbons to settle in Edinburgh for a short time, and then traveled to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic).

Cephalopods from Barrande's "Systême silurien..."

Soon after arriving to Prague, Barrande met some of the main Czech literates such as František Palacký or Count Kaspar Sternberg (Sternberg was one of the founders of the National Museum and a great palaeobotanist). Sternberg suggested Barrande to take charge of the upcoming construction of the railroad from Křivoklát to the Radnice. During exploration work Barrande discovered, to his surprise, that rocks all around contain excellently preserved fossils. The project of the railroad was eventually cancelled and Barrande became the administrator of the estate of Henry of Chambord. Because he had a lot of free time, Barrande undertook paleontological excursions around Prague where he collected fossils. In collecting, he was assisted by amateur collectors, often workers from quarries, which Barrande paid.

Brachiopods from Barrande's "Systême silurien..."

In 1843 Barrande invited a Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Murchison to visit Bohemia. Murchison confirmed that all fossils are of Silurian age (Cambrian to Devonian in today's concept). After Murchinson´s pattern, Barrande decided to write a treatise about Silurian fossils of Central Bohemia. The first volume of the "Systême silurien du centre de la Bohême" was published in 1852. In his life Barrande published 22 volumes, which make almost 6000 pages and over 1000 lithographic plates in total. More than 3550 species of Paleozoic organisms (trilobites, crustaceans, cephalopods, bivalves, brachiopods and others) were described and illustrated. Owing to Barrande’s technical education all descriptions and illustrations of the fossils were very precise. That is one of the reasons why his work is unique even for today´s standards.

See Barrande's material from National Museum, Prague in Europeana.

In 1883 Barrande went to Frohsdorf in Vienna, where he found his former ward of Henry of Chambord on his deathbed. A few hours after his arrival, however, Henry died. Barrande took care of Chambord’s testament. He unfortunately fell ill with pneumonia during the work and died on October 5th 1883 at the age of 84. Barrande dedicated his huge collection, library, field notes, and 10,000 Guldens to the National Museum. The region between Pilsen and Prague has been named after Barrande, as well as the Prague city district of Barrandov, etc.

Read Barrande’s work here. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Delicacy and danger from the woods

In many countries in Europe and elsewhere around the world, mushroom collecting is a popular activity especially during summer and autumn. Mushrooms are an ingredience to our meals, although many of them are known to be dangerously poisonous to humans. But did you know that there are animals which are able to resist the poison? Or that collecting mushrooms dates back to the middle-ages when the mushrooms were called “meat of the poor ones”?

Scaly Tooth (Sarcodon imbricatus), edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Danish Mycological Society.

For humans, mushrooms are important in medicine (e.g. Penicillium), as model organisms, are used as drugs (e.g. Psilocybe bohemica) and in gastronomy (Boletus, Agaricus). For example, about 3 000 of large mushroom species occur in Middle Europe, 400 of which are poisonous (e.g. Amanita muscaria)  and 10 can even cause death (e.g. Amanita phalloides, Entoloma sinuatum).

Lacrymaria pyrotricha, edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Mushrooms are world-wide distributed organisms inhibiting a wide range of mostly terrestrial habitats from deserts to tropical forests. In the past, they were classified among plants but are nowadays being considered a sister group to the animals. Mushrooms play an essential role within ecosystems as decompositors of organic matter and thus contribute largely to nutrient cycles. Mushrooms are also important symbionts of for example plants (e.g. trees) and algae (lichens) but they live as parasites or may be associated with animals (incl. humans).

Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta), edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Danish Mycological Society.