Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Forensic marine biology - testing Maury's smear

"Work of marine biologist is a lot like the work of a private detective" told me my dad once when I was calculating variance of surface water temperatures from an unsuccessful mullet hatchery on the Black Sea. True, to solve a scientific puzzle you unearth facts and go through induction and deduction cycles like Sherlock Holmes, until the answer becomes clear, beyond the reasonable doubt.

This November Marine Ecology Progress Series published an uncommon for it's scope but refreshing article by Randall R. Reeves, Elizabeth Josephson and Tim D. Smith "Putative historical occurrence of North Atlantic right whales in mid-latitude offshore waters: 'Maury's Smear' is likely apocryphal". It is a good example of forensic work in marine biology. No, they did not smear Maury's body fluids onto a glass slide, stained, washed in an acid solution, and then placed under the microscope for examination. Instead, they dissected his science - whaling charts, and concluded that the blue-shaded area in the North Atlantic, where Maury illustrated offshore distribution of right whales in 1852 and 1853 was at least partly and possibly entirely erroneous, based on faulty data extraction and transcription procedures. The verdict is strict: "Our results cast doubt on Maury's charts of 19th century whale distribution more generally, leading us specifically to question the reliability of his depictions of right whale occurrence in offshore portions of other ocean basins."

Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806 - 1873) published one of the first textbooks of modern oceanography "The Physical Geography of the Sea" (1855) as well an numerous nautical charts and sailing directions. Sorry he did not get his whales right.