Scheuchzer’s “witness of the flood” and similar extinct salamanders, from Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles, 1812.

42. Cuvier, Georges (1769-1832).
Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupedes. Paris: Chez Deterville, 1812.

In 1812, Cuvier gathered together all of the various papers that he had written on fossil remains, added some new material, and published this four-volume compilation.  After this work appeared, it was no longer possible to deny the reality of extinction.  Cuvier demonstrated that the mammoth, the mastodon, and the Megatherium were different from any living creatures and therefore represented lost species.  He tackled a variety of other unexplained or incorrectly-explained fossils and resolved their identity.  He showed that Scheuchzer’s “Human witness of the Flood” was not human at all, but an extinct giant salamander; the plate reproduces Scheuchzer’s fossil, adds another more complete fossil that reveals the amphibian structure, and then provides an ideal restoration of the skeleton.  Cuvier examined a bird-like skeleton found in Germany in 1783 and pointed out, on the basis of its anatomy, that this must have been a flying reptile, supporting its wing with an extended fourth finger. He later named it a pterodactyl, and pronounced it extinct.

To explain extinction, Cuvier proposed that the earth had undergone periodic revolutions, during which animal life was extinguished, and the globe was then repopulated by unknown means.  Cuvier was aware of evolutionary explanations, since he taught at the same institution as Lamarck (see item 17), but he emphatically rejected the possibility of evolution as an explanation for extinction.

Reptile volant or pterodactyl, from Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles, 1812.
Linda hall Library