It’s not every day that a long-extinct animal is discovered, and it’s even rarer when the scientific name assigned to such a find refers to a musician in a psychedelic rock band. Nonetheless, that’s precisely what happened when paleontologist Kari A. Prassack named a pre-Pleistocene river otter Lontra weiri.
Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow, tweeted the news on Friday.
So, how did this all happen?
A jawbone unearthed at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in south-central Idaho in the late 1980s was originally misidentified, according to U.S. News and World Report. Three decades later, a researcher with the National Park Service re-examined the remains and concluded that the bones actually belonged to a type of river otter that lived and died at least 3 million years ago. Upon scientific confirmation of her work, Prassack published her conclusions along with the binominal nomenclature she devised for the newly reclassified otter in the April, 2016, issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature notes that if and when an individual zoologist discovers that a species has been misidentified, they are given the power to nominate a new name. Now that the commission has approved the name, a prehistoric, 10-pound mammal once common to North America will forever be known as Lontra weiri.
For those unfamiliar with binominal nomenclature, the first of the two words defines the genus, or main animal family, while the second name defines the species within that group.
Who is Bob Weir?
Born in San Fransisco on October 16, 1947, rhythm guitarist Robert Hall Weir founded a band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with a banjo-picking guitar player named Jerry Garcia in 1963. The band name was changed to The Warlocks and ultimately, the Grateful Dead. Along with organ player Ron McKernan, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, the Dead were an integral part of the 1960s Haight Ashbury music scene and garnered a substantial counterculture following for three decades.
Weir serves on the board of the charitable non-profit Rex Foundation and currently performs with drummers Kreutzman and Hart, along with bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and lead guitarist John Mayer as the 21st century incarnation of the Grateful Dead known as Dead & Company.
At last month’s Einstein Gala in Toronto, Bobby Weir told interviewer Travis Dhanaraj that he views science and the creative arts as “part of the same package.”
Who is Kari Prassack?
In Prassack’s biography at ResearchGate, she describes herself as follows.
“I am a vertebrate paleoecologist, taphonomist, and zooarchaeologist with a current taxonomic focus on Miocene-Recent carnivorans and birds. I am the park paleontologist in charge of research and collections at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and an affiliate of the Olduvai Geochronology and Archaeology Project.”
Kari Prassack also describes herself as a “Deadhead.”
Born two years after the death of original Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Kari “got on the bus” relatively late. With parental permission, she was 15-years-old when she saw her first Dead show in 1990. Enchanted by the music, Prassack attended more than 100 shows before bandleader Jerry Garcia died in a rehab clinic in 1995.
Admittedly bored in high school, Kari began her college career as an art major but ditched classes and eventually dropped out. While traveling the country as a devoted fan of the San Francisco Bay Area-based band, Prassack made side trips to visit a number of paleontology sites and became fascinated by fossils. Relix magazine reports her as saying the following.
“I really became an adventurous person, much more so than ever before. I decided if I wanted to do something, I could go and do it.”
And do it she did. When Garcia’s demise effectively ended the Grateful Dead, Prassack returned to school, eventually receiving her B.S. in Paleobiology and a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2012, Prassack was awarded a Ph.D from the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies (Department of Anthropology) at Rutgers University.
Kari Prassack has published a number of important research papers, but this was the first time she was given the honor of naming a newly discovered species. When asked why she opted to name the fossilized river otter after a member of the Grateful Dead, she answered simply.
“It was a great opportunity to say ‘Thank you,’ for such a great experience.”
[Feature image by Susana Millman/AP Images]