Back to: Projects

Portarit of Alcide d'Orbigny in 1839
Portrait of Alcide d'Orbigny in 1843

Alcide d'Orbigny (1802-1857)

Alcide d'Orbigny was a prominent French naturalist of the early and mid 18th Century. He made major contributions in many areas, including zoology, palaeontology, geology, archaeology and anthropology. His published output was immense and a huge number of invertebrate animals were first named by d'Orbigny.

Alcide Charles Victor Marie Dessalines d'Orbigny, to give him his full name, was born on September 6th 1802 at Coueron (Loire Inferieure). Between 1815 and 1820 he and his family lived at Esnandes, a coastal village 13 km north of La Rochelle, where his father Charles encouraged Alcides interest in marine life, particularly foraminifera. Serious research on foraminifera began after the family had settled in La Rochelle. In 1826 Alcide published the Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes which overhauled the classification of forams, then thought to be minute cephalopod molluscs, and established 552 new species. In order to bring forams to the attention of those lacking a microscope with which to observe them directly, d'Orbigny manufactured for sale enlarged models of one hundred species. His models are used to this day in many university teaching courses.

Appointed 'Naturaliste-voyageur du Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle', d'Orbigny set sail in 1826 for South America on a seven-year expedition to South America. He amassed an enormous collection of natural history specimens, describing his many findings in the Voyage dans l'Amérique Méridionale. This comprised 7 folio volumes and 2 atlases. After returning to France invertebrate Research & Curation became d'Orbigny's main focus of interest, especially the taxonomy and stratigraphical distribution of species from the Jurassic and Cretaceous. His results were were published in two major works: the Prodrome de Paléontologie Stratigraphique Universelle des Animaux Mollusques et Rayonnés faisant suite au Cours Elémentaire de Paléontologie (1850-1852) and the Paléontologie Française (1840-1858). The three volume Prodrome lists 18,000 species, many new, but is totally lacking any illustrations. The eight volumes of the Paléontologie Française written by d'Orbigny describe approximately 3000 species and contain 1000 plates.

The pinnacle of d'Orbigny's career came in 1853 with his appointment to the first Chair of Palaeontology at the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris. Following a year of illness, however, he died on 30th June 1857 at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, in the northern suburbs of Paris, where his grave can still be seen. More than 100,000 specimens were in the d'Orbigny Collection when it was purchased from his widow in July 1858 for the sum of 55,000 francs. These were catalogued by M. Hupé and are now stored mostly in the 'Salle d'Orbigny' on the first floor of the 'Galerie d'anatomie comparée et de paléontologie' at the MNHN in Paris (the bust of d'Orbigny is among those of famous palaeontologists ornamenting the outside of the gallery on the west side).

D'Orbigny's most important contributions to biology and palaeontology were taxonomic and descriptive. His theories about biotic change through time have fared less well. As a follower of Cuvier, d'Orbigny rejected evolution and believed instead in multiple creations. He divided fossil-bearing strata into six periods (terrains) and 27 stages (étages), most still in use today (e.g., Cenomanian). The Research & Curation found in successive stages were viewed by d'Orbigny as representing the products of separate acts of creation which were wiped out at the end of the stage by a cataclysmic extinction. An important consequence for taxonomy of this belief is that d'Orbigny would give different names to species we now recognise as identical if they came from different stages.

D'Orbigny's work on bryozoans

Alcide d'Orbigny's research on bryozoans appeared between 1841 and 1854 in eight works, four of which are particularly important. His first bryozoan descriptions were published in the Voyage dans l'Amérique Méridionale where he described 46 species of modern bryozoans from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America. Two new genera were described by d'Orbigny in this work - the cyclostome Fasciculipora and the penetrant ctenostome Terebripora - and the first description was given of Escharina torquata, later renamed subtorquata, which is the type species of the important fouling cheilostome Watersipora.

Published in response to delays in the appearance of the Prodrome, a short unillustrated paper in the Revue et Magasin de Zoologie Pure et Appliquée described 27 new genera of fossil bryozoans, including some Palaeozoic forms. The Prodrome itself lists 184 new species and 5 new genera of bryozoans, minimally described. The bryozoan volume of the Paléontologie Française. Terrain Crétacé runs to 1191 pages of text plus 201 plates. About 900 species are described, of which approximately 700 are from the 'Senonien' (i.e., Coniacian, Santonian, Campanian plus Maastrichtian); some Jurassic, Cenozoic and Recent are also included. D'Orbigny introduced 170 new genera in this work, 97 of which are cyclostomes and 73 cheilostomes. The Paléontologie Française. Terrain Crétacé has yet to be superceded (at least in size) as a monograph on Cretaceous bryozoans despite the 150 years that have elapsed since its publication.

The continuing relevance of d'Orbigny's publications to bryozoan taxonomy can be judged by the following figures:

  • he is the author of 113 of 370 nominal genera of cyclostome bryozoans, about 30% of the total

  • he introduced 75 new cheilostome genera of which 40 are regarded as currently available names, representing some 4% of the 1013 genera and subgenera in this order

Partly because of the sheer number of taxa he created, d'Orbigny has generated a lot of work for subsequent generations of taxonomists. Additional problems have arisen from:

  • his failure to illustrate all new taxa

  • the use of stylized figures which exaggerate some features and are composites that cannot be matched with individual specimens and hence are unhelpful in pinpointing unequivocal syntype specimens from among the often substantial material in the d'Orbigny Collection

  • oversplitting due to stratigraphical differences

  • use of the same species names over and over again, e.g., neocomiensis

  • similarity in generic (e.g., Escharifora vs Escharipora) and familial names (e.g., Escharinellidae vs Escharellinidae)

  • introduction of the same 'new' taxon in more than one publication, compounded by uncertainties regarding the exact date of appearance and occasionally by new genera being followed by a different listing of putative type species in the two publications

  • his practice of attributing to himself the authorship of species named by other taxonomists when they were transferred to a different genus

Nevertheless, d'Orbigny was an excellent observer of detail and a prodigious describer of bryozoan taxa. His legacy to bryozoology is enormous and long-lasting.


Gauthier, H. 1993. La collection d'Alcide d'Orbigny et la "Paléontologie française". Geobios, M.S. 15: 163-173.

Heron-Allen, E. 1917. Presidential Address, 1916-17: Alcide d'Orbigny, his life and his work. Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society 1917: 1-105.

Laborde Pédelahore, P. de. 2000. Alcide d'Orbigny. À la découverte des nouvelles républiques sud-américaines. Atlantica, Biarritz, 400 pp.

Legré-Zaidline, F. 1977. Voyage en Alcidie. Boubée, Paris, 140 pp.

Legré-Zaidline, F. 2002. Alcide Dessalines d'Orbigny (1802-1857). L'Harmattan, Paris, 251 pp.

Le Calvez, Y. 1974. Great Names in Micropaleontology. 1. Alcide d'Orbigny. Pp. 261-264. In: Hedley, R. H. and Adams, C. G. (eds) Foraminifera. Volume 1. Academic Press, London.

Taquet, P. (ed.) 2002. Alcide d'Orbigny. Du Nouveau Monde... au passé du monde. Nathan, Paris, 128 pp.

Taylor, P. D. 2002. Alcide d'Orbigny (1802-1857). The Linnean 18(2): 7-12.

Taylor, P. D. and Gordon, D. P. 2002. Alcide d'Orbigny's work on Recent and fossil bryozoans. Compte Rendus Palevol 1: 533-547.

Paul D. Taylor
Department of Palaeontology
The Natural History Museum

Dennis P. Gordon
National Institute of Water Research
New Zealand