A historical review of the Lettered Olive

by Harry G. Lee

    The Lettered Olive is one of the prized finds on beaches from North Carolina (Kurtz, 1860) to NE Yucatán (Vokes and Vokes, 1964: 56). It is Official State Shell of South Carolina, which state is also the type locality.

    On page 19 of his catalogue, Charlestonian Edmund Ravenel (1834; see Fig. 1) introduced the binomen Oliva sayana for a species he no doubt collected near his home. He indicated that he believed Oliva sayana and O. litterata [sic] Say (1830: unpaginated text [see Fig. 2 and note misspelling "literata"] and plate 3 [see Fig. 3]) were specifically distinct from O. litterata Lamarck, which Ravenel placed in Ceylon. There was apparently a printer's error, and an asterisk was placed to the left of Oliva litterata Say rather than to the left of O. litterata Lamarck; in Fig. 1 these have been struck through and pencilled in, respectively, by a previous owner of the catalogue.

    Can we be absolutely sure what shell Ravenel intended for his O. sayana? Tursch et al. (1998: 29) wrote: "The type is missing from the Ravenel Collection, housed at the Charleston Museum (fide Dr. Harry D. [sic] Lee, in litt.," which I can confirm. Lacking a type specimen, can the reference I made above to Say hold up as iconic for Ravenel's species? Gary Rosenberg (2009) wrote: "Ravenel (1834) did not refer explicit [sic] to Say's American Conchology, but must have meant that work, in which Say provided an excellent illustration of the species only four years earlier." I certainly concur with Gary's analysis as there is copious evidence that Say and Ravenel were in contact for a substantial period dating to the latter's attendance at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, not far from Say's haunts at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1819. Thus we may safely regard the Say illustration as the type figure. Coupling this image with his statement "sometimes exceeds three inches," I think there can be little doubt as to the identity of O. sayana Ravenel.

    End of story? Not exactly; there are certainly some loose ends here. What the heck is Oliva litterata Lamarck, 1811? Lamarck (1811: 315; species no. 20) referred to Lamarck (1798: plate 362 fig. 1a, 1b [see Fig. 4 above, bottom right]) as the indication for this species, for which no locality was provided. There can be little doubt that It is the same as Ravenel's species! Thus it appears that Ravenel actually misidentified the Lamarck taxon as something he had examined which originated in Ceylon!

    But there's one more hitch: Röding (1798: 36) coined the binomen Porphyria litterata citing two references, which combine for five indications. Given the heterogeneous assortment and variable quality of these figures [vidi in partim], it is not surprising that various authors have applied this name to several different taxa including Oliva oliva (Linnaeus, 1758), O. spicata (Röding, 1798), and several other candidates, none of which bears any significant resemblance to our Lettered Olive. The type of Röding's genus Porphyria is Voluta porphyria Linnaeus, 1758 by application of the Principle of Absolute tautonomy (ICZN, 1999: Article 68.4). This well-known species is universally regarded as a member of the genus Oliva Bruguière, 1789, which indicts Porphyria Röding, 1798 as a subjective synonym. That synonymy places Oliva litterata Lamarck, 1811 in secondary junior homonymy of O. litterata (Röding, 1798) and thus unavailable for use in formal taxonomic nomenclature.

    Thus, although the species was first illustrated by Lamarck (1798), first named by Lamarck (1811), and first tied to American waters by Say (1830), Ravenel gets the credit for giving it its appropriately eponymous scientific name. While Ravenel saw that Thomas Say was memorialized for his role in this elucidation, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Comte de Lamarck, having suffered the indignity of nomenclatorial disenfranchisement, may take some solace in knowing that he is responsible for the official vernacular name (Turgeon, Quinn et al., 1998: 99) as featured in the title above.

NB: Components of the four figures have been edited into juxtaposition.

ICZN (International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature), 1999. International code of zoological nomenclature fourth edition. I.C.Z.N., London. pp. 1-306 + i-xxix.
Kurtz, J.D. 1860. Catalogue of Recent marine shells, found on the coasts of North and South Carolina. Kurtz, Portland, ME. 9 pp.
Lamarck, J.B.P.A. de M. de [ed.], 1798. Tableau Encylopédique et Méthodique des trois règnes de la nature vers, coquilles, mollusques et polypiers. Tome second. Agasse, Paris. Planches 287-390. 29 April.
[J.B.P.A.deM.C.], 1811 ["1810"]. Suite de la détermination des espèces de Mollusques Testacés. Tarrière. (Terebellum.) Ancillaire. (Ancillaria.) Olive. (Oliva.). Annales du Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle 16: 300-328.
Ravenel, E., 1834. Catalogue of Recent shells in the cabinet of Edmund Ravenel, M. D., Ravenel, Charleston. pp. 1-20.
Röding, P. F., 1798. Museum Boltenianum sive catalogus cimeliorum e tribus [sic] regnis naturae quae olim collegerat Joa. Fried Bolten, M. D. p. d. per XL. annos proto physicus Hamburgensis. Pars secunda continens conchylia sive testacea univalvia bivalvia & multivalvia. viii + pp. 1-199. 1986 reprint of Sherborn, C. D. and E. R. Sykes 1906 facsimile. American Malacological Union, Inc.
Rosenberg, G., 2009. Malacolog 4.1.1: A Database of Western Atlantic Marine Mollusca. [WWW database (version 4.1.1)] URL http://www.malacolog.org/.
Say, T., 1830. American Conchology, or descriptions of the shells of North America. Illustrated by colored figures from original drawings executed from nature 1. Thomas Say, New Harmony, Indiana. [iii + 36 pp., unpaginated] + plates 1-10.
Turgeon, D. D., J. F. Quinn, Jr., A. E. Bogan, E. V. Coan, F. G. Hochberg, W. G. Lyons, P. M. Mikkelsen, R. J. Neves, C .F. E. Roper, G. Rosenberg, B. Roth, A. Scheltema, F. G. Thompson, M. Vecchione, and J. D. Williams, 1998. Common and scientific names of aquatic invertebrates from the United States and Canada: mollusks, 2nd edition. American Fisheries Society, Special Publication 26. Bethesda, Maryland. ix + pp. 1-509 + 16 pls. (unpaginated).
Tursch, B., D. Griefeneder and D. Huart, 1998. A puzzle of highly multiform species: Oliva fulgurator (Röding, 1798) and related American taxa. Apex 13(1-2): 1-61, April 20.
Vokes, H. E. and E. H. Vokes, 1984 [“1983”].  Distribution of shallow-water marine Mollusca, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Mesoamerican Ecological Institute, Monograph 1, Middle American   Research Institute, Publication 54: i-viii + 1-183 incl. 50 pls.