The beast of the woods

I love a good walk in the woods. Breathing the clean fresh air into my lungs. Spotting a bird hop on a branch nearby. Listening to the almost silence as the wind gently rustles the leaves above. Feeling the crunch of the fallen, dried leaves beneath my feet. There is nothing quite like it.

The best part of it: being alone. Away from the emails. The people. The cars. The deadlines. We often run around so much in our daily lives we forget about ourselves. If we take ourselves away from the busy day to day pressures we all have, it can do us so much good. Being outside helps clear our minds. And that helps us more than you might realise.

Without the pressures around us, without the noisy nattering of people, our minds are clear to take in so much more. We can feel the softness of a fern brushing against our legs, or the roughness of the bark on a tree. We can hear the snapping of a twig nearby or the call of a buzzard overhead. We can see the changes in colour as the dappled sunlight flickers through gaps in the canopy above. We can smell the freshness of plants surrounding us. We can even taste the cleanness of the air.

It is almost like an escape. An escape from reality. Just you and the trees. If only for a short time.

A walk in the woods. Nothing but wilderness. Nothing but beauty.

Woods are not just full of trees. They are full of life. There are birds in their nests staying completely still as you walk past. Deer may be hiding, perfectly camouflaged against the shadows of the trees. There are smaller mammals too, so fast and so well hidden they are practically impossible to spot: and the mini-beasts, even harder. But they are there. Scurrying under the dead leaves, zipping around the plants.

Each species living there relies on another species for its survival. Everything in the woods is perfectly intertwined as a whole living system. A beautiful, complex system. James Cameron’s Avatar showed this beautifully with all the plants and animals connected together. Earth is not at all different from the fictional Pandora. Everything is linked together. Remove one species and other species suffer.

There is one animal that I think embellishes the overwhelming connectedness of nature: the stunning deer Eucladoceros. With its extraordinary antlers, this creature looks as though it is part-animal, part-woodland.

The rather spectacular skull of Eucladoceros on display at at Museo di Paleontologia di Firenze. (Image Public Domain)

The name, Eucladoceros, means ‘well-branched antler’, and they are very well branched: the antlers look like a small trees growing out of its head. These antlers, which spread to over 1.7 meters wide, are an extreme evolutionary novelty: at the top of the skull where the antler grows (known as the pedicle),  amazing branching results in twelve tines growing out on each side. Before Eucladoceros came along deer mostly had much fewer points on their antlers. This was the first deer with such complex antlers.

It was a fairly longed lived genus, spanning from the Pliocene (around 4 million years ago) to the Early Pleistocene (around 1.5 million years ago). Fossils have been found all over Europe, from England to Holland, and across Asia as far East as China. With many fossils remains being fragmentary, the number of species in this enigmatic genus are probably overestimated. Around twelve different species have been described, but it is more likely that that there were probably just three species. Palaeontologists have a difficult time identifying species: most of the time an animal from a site is represented by just one fragmentary bone. These are compared to other fossils to identify it, and if it differs enough in shape and size, they can declare a new species. The trouble is that there is natural variation within species (just look at humans: some are small, some are tall, some have brown hair, some have blond hair). Cataloguing the past is difficult work.

The beautiful Eucladoceros from Quaternary Extinctions, pg. 72.

Eucladoceros would have thrived in the rich Pliocene forests that spread across Europe and Asia. With large antlers this beautiful deer would have lived in forests that had well spaced trees. The Pliocene was a fairly warm period, with temperatures around 3oC warmer than today. Towards the end of this period, temperatures started cooling, before the onset of the erratic glaciations in the Pleistocene. Enormous glaciers grew in the north making the local climates drier and colder, which had a big knock on effect with vegetation. Luscious forests shrank and grasslands grew creating more open environments where prey were more vulnerable to predators. With the loss of woodlands and forests, Eucladoceros was more exposed in the open.

We don’t know exactly when it vanished: the last fossils so far found are around 1.5 million years old. But this does not mean the last of the species. It likely survived at least for a good few millennia after in smaller populations. Competition from well adapted animals would have put additional pressures on this beautiful deer. Unlike other species which adapted to the changes in extreme climate, sadly Eucladoceros vanished.

Humans were not to blame for the disappearance of this Twilight Beast. Our species, Homo sapiens first left Africa some 100,000 years ago. One relative with the travel bug, Homo erectus, moved out of Africa by around 1.8 million years ago. These hominins may have seen this mystical animal in Eurasia, but as yet there are no associated fossils to show they were at the same sites at the same time.

I often wonder what our human relatives must have thought when they came face to face with creatures for the first time. In America, our species saw Giant Sloths and Mastodons on the landscape. In Australia we saw enormous wombats and giant lizards. In Asia we saw Gigantopithecus and straight tusked elephants. To see Eucladoceros must have been like meeting a dryad or a nymph; a creature part-animal and part-forest. Did they look at it in awe? Did they respect it? We will never know. We still do have incredible animals that share the planet with us. Many are seriously endangered due to actions from our own species. By seeing these animals with the wonder and respect they deserve may just help save them from disappearing forever.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further Reading:

Azzaroli, A/. & Mazza, P. (1992). ‘The Cervid genus Eucladoceros in the early Pleistocene of Tuscany.’ Palaeontographia Italica. 79. pp.43-100.

Bartoli, G. et al. (2005). ‘Final closure of Panama and the onset of northern hemisphere glaciation.’ Earth Planet Sci. Lett. 237. pp3344.

Dong, W. & Ye. J. (1996). ‘Two new cervid species from the late Neogene of Yshe Basin, Shanxi Province, China.’ Vertebrata PalAsiatica. 34(2). pp.135-144.

Dwyer, G. S. & Chandler, M. A. (2009). Mid-Pliocene sea level and continental ice volume based on coupled benthic Mg/Ca palaeotemperatures and oxygen isotopes. Phil. Trans. Royal. Soc. 367. pp.157-168.

Martin, P. & Klein, R. G. (Eds) (1989). Quaternary extinctions. University of Arizona Press. [Book]

Robinson, M., Dowsett, H. J., & Chandler, M. A. (2008). ‘Pliocene role in assessing future climate impacts.’ Eos Transactions, American Geophysical Union. 89. 501-502.

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Beauty beyond our grasp

Some prehistoric beasts have been in disguise for centuries. For hundreds of years people across China have been finding giant dinosaur bones and using them to create the myths and stories of dragons. In France ginormous bones form the weird elephant relative, Deinotherium, were thought to belong to giant species of humans. There was one of these wondrous mythical creatures that was dispelled much earlier than any other, only to lay hidden for centuries.

Established in 59BC by Julius Caesar, the Republic of Florence became one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe by the 1600s. It is today as it was back then: money influenced power. Perhaps the richest family in Europe for over 300 years, the House of Medici had an enormous impact on the politics of Florence in the 1400s before becoming monarchs in the 1500s. This powerful family had a huge influence on the city in a surprising way: they had an unusual appreciation of art, funding many commissions across the city, sparking the Renaissance. Many of the great Masters (including those which were later re-christened as mutant turtles Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello) were supported by grand commissions by the Medici family.

It was this openness to art, and more liberal views away from the strict religious doctrine of the time, that was extremely lucky for one young man. And for science.

Danish born naturalist Niels Stensen, studied across Europe in his early 20s. In Holland, he discovered the parotid gland (the largest of the salivary glands). In Paris he was the first to correctly illustrate the complex anatomy of the human brain – no easy feat! He even declared that the heart was just a muscle: a very bold statement at a time when God was seen by almost everyone as the giver of life. Stensen was invited to Florence in 1665, by Ferdinando II de Medici, when he was just 28 years old. To be personally invited by the richest family in Europe was a huge honour.  With the influences around him he soon converted to Catholicism, renaming himself Nicolaus Steno.

Painting of Steno when he was a Bishop in later life, almost two centuries after he passed away. (Art by J. P. Trap 1868) Public Domain.

Steno became Ferdinando’s personal physician and also tutored his sons. Steno was a bright, intelligent naturalist, and insanely curious. He created a moral rule for himself: “What we see is beautiful; what we know more beautiful; what we cannot grasp, most beautiful.” This is a maxim I would happily live by. How can we not behold nature that is so strange, so wonderous, as to be anything other than beautiful?

In Florence Steno had time to explore the landscape around him. He looked at rocks, and found many ‘tongue stones’ known as glossopetrae, which were believed to have been the tongues of giant snakes and dragons. These massive triangular shiny ‘stones’ superficially looked a little like tongues, but there were a couple of people who suggested that they were actually the teeth of sharks. Steno used this as a test: he compared the tongue stones to dozens of different species of teeth from living sharks, and discovered that they were indeed teeth of a shark. Albeit, a bloody massive one. He published his work on his giant shark in a book with the catchy title that roles off the tongue “Introduction to a dissertation on the solid substance naturally contained within solids” in 1669.

The reconstruction of the giant shark drawn by Steno, published in his great work of 1669. (Image Public Domain)

Steno’s published work was way ahead of its time. It spoke about animals that no longer lived – the concept of extinction was unheard of back then. It even suggested that the land had once been the sea – no one had imagined a dramatically changing planet. Maybe because his ideas were so heretical, or just so unbelievable, Steno’s work made little impact on his world. It lay hidden for over a century, and was discovered by Darwin’s idol, Alexander von Humboldt.

Almost 200 years after this giant shark was described in Steno’s work, it was named by the Swiss zoologist, Louis Agassiz. He named it Carcharodon megalodon: you will know it as Megalodon. (It has since been reclassified several times. Today most researchers agree that Megalodon was not a close relative to great white sharks, and belong in their own genus, Carcharocles megalodon.)

Sharks are an incredible group of animals that sadly have a lot of negative views mainly from films, such as Jaws as well as media creating ‘deadly’ encounters. In fact, only around 5 people a year die from shark attacks around the world: a tiny number when you think that in America alone over 250 people die from falling out of bed every year.

Their reputation for deadly killers is quite true. They have been on Earth for over 420 million years, and are perfectly adapted as some of the top predators in the oceans. And some were weird too, like the strange saw toothed shark, Helicoprion. With around 400 different species of sharks living today, they are an extremely successful group. Some are small. And some are big. But there was, and is, no bigger shark than Megalodon.

The weird saw from the mouth of the bizarre shark Helicprion. (Photo by author. Specimen at the National Museum of Natural History.)

Shark bones are made of cartilage (if you put your finger on your nose, that hard bit on the ridge is cartilage). This is softer than the bones in you and I,  and it really doesn’t fossilise well. The majority of Megalodon fossils are teeth – these are tough and hard and are preserved pretty well. A few vertebrae have been discovered, and one almost complete vertebra column was discovered. With the teeth and these few vertebra fossils, we have a pretty good estimate of the size of Megalodon, anywhere between 15 and 20 meters long (the largest great white shark is around 6 meters long).

The ginormous size of Megalodon (in blue). At around 20 meters long, it dwarfs a 6 meter long great white shark! (Image Twilight Beasts)

Sharks continually grow new teeth throughout their lives because they are often broken off when attacking prey or eating. And this means that many teeth sink to the ocean floor. And there have been an awful lot of Megalodon teeth found. They show that this shark was distributed worldwide, but mainly in temperate and subtropical environments. Megalodon ruled the oceans from around 20 million years ago until just the dawn of the twilight, around 2.6 million years ago.

For such a giant creature, it needed some pretty big prey. Fossils show that youngsters were spending a lot of time in and near coastal lagoons feeding on fish, turtles and young whales. For the adults, there were a huge number of different whale species. Many fossil whale bones have teeth marks on them made by Megalodon. It would have been a formidable predator.

With just teeth and a small number of bones, we don’t really know what Megalodon looked like. That almost complete fossilised vertebra column that was found provides a bit of a clue. Found in Belgium, it is the most complete Megalodon fossil so far found. It includes 150 vertebra bones, and it is likely that this specimen had over 200 when it was complete. Most sharks don’t have any where near this number in their vertebal columns. Except for the great white: it has a higher number than all other sharks. Megalodon and great white sharks have crazy amount of bones in their spines. Megalodon teeth also provide a clue to what it looked like: they are almost identical to great white teeth (apart from the gigantic size) suggesting a similar lifestyle, and similar shaped body.

The author inside the jaws of Megalodon. On display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. (Photo by random (and very patient) museum visitor)

For such an enormous beast, and a very successful one, it is a bit of a mystery why it became extinct. It had successfully lived at the top of the food chain for around 20 million years (our species have only been on Earth for around 300,000 years). It’s extinction likely had something to do with the dawn of the twilight. The Pleistocene Epoch (starting around 2.6 million years ago) marks the beginning of massive changes in temperatures with enormous glaciers at the poles, and falling sea levels. Ocean temperatures dropped. North and South America joined together which changed ocean currents around the world. All of this had a huge impact on other marine life: whale diversity shrank around this time, and with the giant sharks main food supply disappearing, it too vanished.

Megalodon is extinct. There are no Megalodon hiding in the deep oceans, or the Mariana Trench as suggested in the recent film The Meg (2018). If a 20 meter long shark was still around, we would know about it (particularly as there would have to be a population of them to breed and survive). We like the idea that there are some real giant monsters still out there. There are plenty of species that we haven’t discovered yet, from mini-beasts to mammals. The more we learn about nature, the more beautiful we can see it is. And then there are the unknowns, the what ifs. A shark the length of two double decker buses, that really lived in the oceans. Stenos maxim is so true for us all, even if we do not realise it:

“What we see is beautiful; what we know more beautiful; what we cannot grasp, most beautiful.”

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:
Ehret, D., Humbbell, G., & Macfadden, B. J. (2009). ‘Exceptional preservation of the white shark, Carcharodon, from the early Pliocene of Peru.’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29(1). pp.1-13.

Kimley, P., & Ainley, D. (1996). ‘Great white sharks: The biology of Carcharodon carcharias.’ San Deigo, California: Academic Press.

Kuang-Tai, H. (2009). ‘The path to Steno’s Synthesis on the Animal Origin of Glossopetrae’. In Rosenburg, G. D. ‘The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.’ Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America.

Nyberg, K. G., Ciampagilo, C. N., & Wray, G. A. (2006). ‘Tracing the ancestry of the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, using morphometric analysis of fossil teeth.’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 26(4). pp.806-814.

Pimiento, C., & Clements, C. F. (2014). ‘When did Carcharocles megalodon become extinct? A new analysis of the fossil record.’ PLoS ONE. 9(10): E111086.

Pimiento, C., et al. (2010). ‘Ancient nursery area for the extinct giant shark Megalodon from the Miocene of Panama.’ PLoS ONE. 5(5): E10552.

Prothero, D. R. (2015). ‘The story of life in 25 fossils: Tales of intrepid fossil hunters and the wonders of evolution.’ Columbia University Press.

Shimada, K. (2002). ‘The relationship between the tooth size and total body length in the white shark Carcharodon carcharias (Lamniformes: Lamnidae).’ Journal of fossil Research. 35(2). pp.28-33.

Wendt, H. (1970), ‘Before the Deluge’. Paladin.

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Diving into ancient crap

I was late. I had badly underestimated how long it would take to walk. Distances always look at lot closer on maps.

It was November yet it was incredibly hot and dry. I had walked along unfathomably long ‘boulevards’, devoid of anyone other people. After an hour and a half, and probably a gallon or two of sweat, I was greeted by a life-sized model of a Tyrannosaurus rex in combat with a Triceratops. I had arrived at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

The quite spectacular battling Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops sculptures outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Image by author)

After seeing the amazing palaeontology collections with Sam Mcleod, I walked into Xiaoming Wang’s office. I’m on a research visit to find out how museums in America work with schools, and to find out how these museums are so much more successful at receiving donations than museums in the UK. I feel instantly at ease. Xiaoming’s kind, softly spoken manner emanates genuine interest and enthusiasm for what we were talking about, and conversation flows effortlessly.

His office is a familiar curator’s office (albeit much tidier than mine). Shelves are full of books and articles – I notice a giant ground sloth toy on one shelf. I smile when I spot a ‘I’m a palaeontologist’ badge on the large table where we sit. Next to the small yellow badge were five classic white card, shallow museum boxes. After waiting until after we had finished discussing the schools and donations work, I blurted out, a little too excitedly, “Oh, nice coprolites.” A flicker of surprise crossed Xiaoming’s face before he smiled. Thinking back, there are probably very few people you could say ‘oh, nice coprolites’ to, and not get a confused expression on their face. Coprolite is the scientific term for fossilised poo. I guess it was better than saying ‘oh, nice poo.’

“They are lovely.” Xiaoming said quietly as he picked up a box. “These are very exciting coprolites. They were made by Borophagus.

He moved the box around. Small white bone fragments caught the light. He looked up and smiled when I said I knew about bone-crushing dogs. These were a group of canids that broke away around 33 million years ago, and lived until just 1.8 million years ago across all of North America. The group are known as bone-crushing dogs because it is thought they ate bone as well as meat based on the anatomy of the skull: a large crest on the top of the skull where a huge muscle would have attached giving it a bite with an enormous force; big strong teeth, similar to the modern spotted hyena. Xiaoming tells me excitedly that these are the first Borophagus coprolites ever found. It was difficult not to share his excitement. As two curators from two different continents, we both had a wonderful understanding of the importance of these few card trays. But I could not write about them just yet. Xiaoming and colleagues were writing an article about these unique fossils.

Four of the coprolites on Xiaoming’s table. They may not look like much, but these are balls of 6 million year old fossilised poo. (Photo by author)

And now the article is published, with a refreshingly simple title for a scientific paper: ‘First bone-cracking dog coprolites provide new insights into bone consumption in Borophagus and their unique ecological niche’. It turns out that you can get an awful lot of information from a few pieces of fossilised crap.

These 14 coprolites were found in 6 million year old sediments. You can see immediately that they were made by a carnivore: they are packed full of bone fragments. Fossils of several carnivores have also been found in this layer, including two species of Borophagus, an ancestral badger, an ancient species of wolverine and an old species of cat. Any of these carnivores could have made the poo, but because of the large size, and that the coprolites are jam-packed full of fragments of bone, it is more than likely that they were produced by Borophagus, more specifically, the commoner species that is found in this layer, B. parvus.

The massive, thick skull of Borophagus on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The only evidence that these dogs were bone crushers were their large skulls and thick, strong teeth. (Image by author)

14 small, round-ish white 6 million year old balls of crap. How important can they really be? “Since we cannot observe the extinct animals, coprolites are the next best thing in terms of studying what they eat,” Xiaoming tells me over email as he is on his way to Mongolia for another palaeontological dig. “Information such as what animals eat are seldom available, and the coprolites offer a wonderful opportunity to make such observations. The fact that large numbers of bones are preserved in the coprolites speaks volumes about their bone consumption.”

And they are packed full of bones. Most of the bones are fragmentary and unidentifiable. But there are a few that hint at a previous animal: a bird bone; a beaver ramus; the rib of a large mammal; and the skull fragment of a medium mammal. This shows that these bones crushing dogs had a very varied diet and ate a large range of animals. Interestingly, these coprolites also show, that unlike the spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) around today, they wouldn’t have crunched up an entire skeleton: the bone fragments in the coprolites were not completely dissolved indicating that the stomachs were not the same as spotted hyenas.

One thing that surprised me, was that this was the first evidence of Borophagus poop ever found. In England, and many sites in Europe, cave sites are full of hyena poop. I wondered whether the bone-crushing dogs were cave species too, or we they living out in the open. “As far as I know, there have never been cave borophagine dogs.” Xiaoming writes. “You are probably right that borophagine dogs are open pursuit predators that preferred open countries.” It also appears that there were less cave sites in North America than in Europe, because the States were drier compared to a more humid European climate producing more water to dissolve the limestone.

One of my favourite early illustrations. William Conybeare drew William Buckland crawling into a cave full of hyenas. This was based on Buckland’s research at Kirkdale that showed the fossils there were from an ancient hyena den. (Image in the archives at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, from here)

As well as the diet, and a hint at the biology of this extinct animal, the coprolites also provide a fascinating glimpse into an ancient behaviour. With such a large concentration of coprolites found in this layer, it is possible that this was social defecating in Borophagus parvus. The coprolites would have formed clusters, just like hyenas and wolves today defecate mark territory. Hyenas and wolves are both highly social animals, and with Borophagus poop in such abundance in this layer, and in such a similar shape, it is more than likely that the bone-crushing dogs were social animals too.

Although common in cave sites in Europe, hyena coprolites break down extremely fast out in the open. Rain water dissolves the coprolites to mush very quickly because of their high carbonate concentration (inside caves the poo is protected from the outside environment). For open country predators, like bone-crushing dogs, evidence of their poo would have been washed away quite quickly. And that makes these 14 ancient balls of poop extremely important.

I asked Xiaoming if he thought we would find any more Borophagus coprolites. As I read his response, I could almost hear him softy say these words with a smile on his face and glint of excitement in his eyes, “One should never say never, but it took palaeontologists more than 100 years to find the first coprolites of these bone-crushing dogs. That gives you an idea of how rare these things are.”

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

This post is based on the research by Xiaoming and colleagues, which is published here:

Wang, X., & White, S. c., Balisi, M., Biewer, J.,Sankey, J., Garber, D., & Tseng, Z. (2018). ‘First bone-cracking dog coprolites provide new insight into bone consumption in Borophagus and their unique ecological niche.’ eLife. 7. 10.7554/elife.34773. [Full article]

Further Reading:

Dalquaest, W. W. (1969), ‘The Bone-crushing dog Borophagus diversidens Cope,’ Quaternary Journal of the Florida Academy of Sciences. 31. pp.115-129. [Full article]

Prothero, D. R. (2006), ‘After the Dinosaurs; the Age of Mammals,’ Indiana University Press. [Book]

Wang, et al. (1957), ‘Phylogenetic systematics of the Borophaginaw (Carnivora, Canidae)’, Bulletin of the AMNH. 243. [Abstract only]


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The End of the Ice Age

The end of the Ice Age. Around 10,000 years ago. This was not only the end of the last major glacial period where great glaciers spread across the northern hemisphere, this was also the end of so many incredible animals. Animals that were so fantastical as to belong in science fiction movies. Animals so stupendous as to be conjured by our imaginations. They were real. Enormous sloths. Humungous cats with sabres for teeth. Massive shaggy elephants. All real. And all walking, stalking, and stomping until very recently.

A new graphic novel by the talented Ted Rechlin, End of the Ice Age, transports you back to a time when these beasts were surviving. Rechlin takes you to north America to see how a family of Smilodon struggles to survive, and over 3000 miles across Europe to witness other species living on the colder tundra.

Life back then was not so different from life now. The animals had to eat to survive. Some animals had to avoid being eaten to survive. Just like animals do today. Living in cities, we are so far removed from the wild, that we often forget that this is a daily struggle for every species on the planet. Find food. Find a mate. Survive.

This book, with its gorgeous comic book style illustrations, opens up this world, making it as real as something today.

We are lucky enough to provide a little preview of the book for our readers below. Take a glimpse of the story. Of the powerful characters. Of the beasts. At the End of the Ice Age.

You can order End of the Ice Age here.

Ted Rechlin has done some other amazing art work on prehistoric life with the publisher, Rextooth Studios.

For more of Ted’s work read Just like the weather.




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[The following autobiographical short was my submission to the Hugh Miller writing competition 2017-2018 for which I received runner-up prize in prose.]

I was about six years old when I first tried to listen to the past. Holding a fossil ammonite to my ear I strained to catch a hint of prehistory, the way you can hear the seaside from a seashell. In a roundabout way, the experience coloured my whole life. I couldn’t hear dinosaurs roaring or ichthyosaurs spouting through my little ammonite, but an early introduction to fossils and extinction boggled my growing mind so much that I’ve spent many of the years that followed immersed in remnants of ancient life. Little me was standing on the island of Raasay- a small, rarely visited scrap of land off the west coast of Scotland. Famous chiefly for entertaining Johnson and Boswell, having its own subspecies of bank vole, and its varied geology, Raasay is not on the tourist trail. The island was and is home to a fervently Presbyterian Free Church. My own dad (a lapsed geologist) took me fossil hunting here, and such is the abundance of material even a small child can find belemnites, ammonites, and the like. My mother’s side of the family, in the beautiful Gaelic phraseology, belong to Raasay. In a way, I do too. My maternal connection ties me to the barest soil of this patchwork island. Linked to the family who entertained Johnson, sheltered Prince Charlie. Memories of childhood summers tie me here with stronger bonds than just genetics.

I remember the first fossil trip, from the pre-Cambrian of my own life, with a startling vividity. We had set off from our wee caravan in Inverarish, the largest village on the island. Walking past the quiet houses. Walking past the silent playpark with the padlocked swings. There was rain, of course. You cannot visit the west coast in summer and avoid it. The drops bounced off the grass at the side of the path and mingled with the mud. The bracken, copious and verdant, was prehistoric in appearance, acting as a signpost to the past we were going to visit. Travelling east through fields of hardy sheep, I remember complaining, as small children do, about the distance, the weather, the time it was taking. Looking back now, I cannot ever remember being happier. Family united in a quest. A father wanting to share the joy of finding. A mother showing the places of her youth. A treasure hunt for understanding. I didn’t realise any of this; I was six. When we got to the coast and I had been shown how to look for stones of the right size and shape I spent some time among the rocks getting my eye in and scrabbling around. Taking my finds to my father and dropping them at his feet he apported a small hammer and gently tapped each one. This was a new kind of magic. There were things inside. Stone cylinders that I learned were called belemnites: the cuttlebones of squidlike creatures that had swum in tropical seas. In one, there was part of a coiled shell: an ammonite. It reminded me of a seashell, I put it to my ear.

Since that Summer, thirty years ago, so much has changed. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother was sick. She died a year later from the cancer that spiralled within her. I grew up and made the study of the past my career. A fractal hope that learning about fossils and extinction would help me to preserve knowledge of my own past. If only there was a taphonomy of the mind that could preserve memories and feelings the way the soft earth does! Since then I’ve striven to keep each memory of my early years properly curated. Each impression must be prepared correctly, adhering matrix removed, content inspected. In my private museum of the mind, I am the curator of memories. They can be taken off shelves for display. Replayed and rethought.

Sometimes they degrade. Sometimes, all I’m left is a shadow of a thought where a memory used to be. Sometimes, what I believed to be treasure is revealed as worthless. A curator’s job is to constantly scrutinise their collection, whether it is fossils or memories. Still, throughout everything, my little ammonite sits on a shelf in the sunshine, waiting to be picked up.

I couldn’t hear the past then, but I can now.

A picture of me and my dad taken on one of our holidays to Raasay

A picture of my mum, Alice Barnett, née Macleod

Written by Ross Barnett [@DeepFriedDNA]

Read more about the Hugh Miller competition here.

Read about Hugh Miller’s brush with deer fossils here.

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From Russia with love

In the frozen desolate lands of north eastern Russia, there is a unique mammoth graveyard. This graveyard is different than other fossil sites in the world. After being exposed for the first time in tens of thousands of years, the bodies are fresh: flesh is soft, the stench of death is overwhelming. Instead of the dead entombed in rock, they are trapped in frozen soil. When this soil starts to melt, it is mushy, sticky, messy. A little like a chocolate cake.

Frozen remains have been found across Siberia for centuries. Carcasses were so fresh that in the late 1700s they were thought to be giant underground rats: these behemoths used their enormous tusks to dig huge tunnels underground. They fed from the Earth. They also knew when they were going to die, for they dug out of the ground to die on the surface, which is why they are found half sticking out of the ground. It’s quite a marvellous idea, but sadly these were not giant underground rats. They were mammoths.

The Adams Mammoth, illustrated in the early 1800s before it was fully excavated. The trunk of this mammoth was scavenged and missing from the specimen. The pointing back tusks may be a nod to those giant underground rats. (Image Public Domain. From here)

Over the years hundreds of thousands of mammoths travelled in great herds across Siberia. Herds moving back and forth, following the seasonal changes, following the food. Many died on this journey. This harsh environment claimed the young as well as the old. The dead may stay dead, but they can speak of their time on Earth.

The most complete frozen mammoth, and arguably one of the most beautiful, was found relatively recently. She was small and exceptionally persevered. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see her on display at the Natural History Museum, London. Only once have I ever seen anything more beautiful.

About as long as my arm, she was almost perfect. Her small trunk curved down and in. The ear was nothing like the modern elephant’s: it was tiny. She wasn’t covered in fur like I expected, this had been lost, but there were two small patches of fur, giving a glimpse of the colour of this little mammoth. She was inches away from my face. Secure behind thick glass, positioned carefully in an environmentally controlled case, she sat silently as I, and hundreds of other visitors, looked at her with awe.

Her name is Lyuba. She is a very young woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). And she is a thing of rare beauty.

The beautiful baby mammoth, Lyuba. (Image Matt Howry. From here)

Today Lyuba is in the collections at the Shemsnovskiy Museum and Exhibition Centre. But she almost never made it to the public eye.

Astonishingly, she was discovered separately three times. Firstly she was seen in September 2006 by a reindeer herder Niklola Serotetto, but he didn’t report the find. The following year in May 2007, another Nenets reindeer breeder and hunter, Yuri Khudi, and his sons came across the small mammoth. Khudi travelled across land to find a friend to speak to about the discovery. When he returned, Lyuba wasn’t there. She was discovered by a third reindeer hunter and moved to the nearby village of Novyy Port. Here Lyuba was placed outside a shop, where dogs had chewed off an ear and most of her tail. She was reclaimed by Khudi, who made arrangements for her to go to the Shemsnovsdkiy Museum and Exhibition Centre.

In honour of her discoverer, and his tenacity at making sure this frozen mammoth was safe for future generations, she was named after Khudi’s wife: Lyuba. Which also means love. Perhaps there is no better name for this animal.

Despite being 41,000 years old, we have found out a surprising amount of information about Lyuba.

She was found lying on top of ice by the side of a river. This is pretty unusual for frozen specimens in Siberia: normally they are found half exposed, with other bits of them still frozen in the ground. Some carcasses are fully exposed, as the ice melts in the summer months, but these are partly eaten by scavengers. Lyuba was perfect, which was a bit of a mystery. After visiting the site, mammoth palaeontologist Dan Fisher along with a few colleagues soon discovered how she became to be lying there. During the warmer months, ice alongside the river melts and sometimes large chunks break off and float downstream. It is likely that Lyuba, possibly still enclosed by some ice, broke off and floated down the river. Luckily, she didn’t float too far, or stay in the water for too long. She became grounded at the side of the river, lying in silence with the high pitched whistle of the wind blowing over her.

She is the best preserved mammoth in the world. Missing an ear and parts of her tail from being chewed off by dogs, and missing her toenails, she is externally near complete. Only a few small patches of fur remain, showing she was (probably) light brown-orange colour when she was alive. A recent study shows that her internal tissues were incredibly well preserved. Strangely, these were very acidic whilst the collagen structures (like bone and cartilage) were broken down. This suggested that lactic-acid bacteria had colonised her body, preserving the internal organs perfectly, in a similar way to how museums preserve specimens in formaldehyde.

A CT scan of Lyuba, showing the incredible details of her insides. (Image Ford Motors, for the International Mammoth Committee)

With this incredible preservation of her insides, we have found out a lot about her short life. Some of her mother’s milk was found in her stomach, showing that she fed soon before she died. Scientists also found some mammoth dung in her intestines. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. Elephants today may eat their own dung, especially during tough times. For young calves, this is a good way of developing their digestive system ready for eating the tougher vegetation that they must when they wean off their mother’s milk.

Lyuba was small. And she was still getting milk from her mother. But do we know how old she was when she died? Incredibly, we do. Detailed studies of her teeth which looked at the neonatal growth lines, indicated she was only 30-35 days old when she died. Looking at the chemical isotopes in her teeth (which can provide clues to what vegetation was growing around the time of her death), we even know that she was born in the early spring.

Her body shows that she didn’t die of any broken bones and was a very healthy calf. Because her organs have been so well preserved, we know how she most likely died. Detailed CT scans show her oesophagus and trachea were all filled with mud, suggesting she suffocated. We would know more if she was found in the original place where she died, as the surrounding area would give more information. Based on what evidence there is, it appears Lyuba got stuck in mud at the side of a river. Her little body didn’t have enough power or strength to pull herself out, and she slowly sunk into the mud and suffocated.

Did mammoths mourn for their dead? Elephants have been seen to push a dead relative with their trunk and feet, and stay by their side for days. Both African and Asian elephants have been shown to carry out this behaviour: an awareness of their dead. Modern African and Asian elephants split around 7 million years ago, and the first mammoths split away from Asian elephants around 5 million years ago. It is very likely that they shared this behaviour.

It is not difficult to think of Lyuba’s mother, with her herd nearby, standing close to the river near the spot where she died. Perhaps trumpeting. Perhaps tentatively moving closer and then stepping back with those huge feet. For a day. Or maybe for a few days. Before the cold, icy Siberian winds blew through their thick fur, pushing them onwards.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Find out more about woolly mammoths in our post about them here.

We wrote about another find in Siberia, which lead to possible cloning hopes.

Discover all ten different species of mammoths in our post here.

Barnes,, I. B. et al. 2007. ‘Genetic structure and extinction of the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius.’ Current Biology. 17:1. pp.1072-1075. [Full article]

Fisher, D. et al. 2012. ‘Anatomy, death, and preservation of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) calf, Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia.’ Quaternary International. 255. pp. 94–105. [Full article]

Fisher, D., et al. 2014. ‘X-ray computed tomography of two mammoth calf mummies.’ Journal of Paleontology. 88 (4). pp.664–675. [Abstract only]

Kosintsev, P, et al. 2012. ‘Environmental reconstruction inferred from the intestinal contents of the Yamal baby mammoth Lyuba (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach, 1799).’ Quaternary International. 255. pp.231–238. [Full article]

Lazarev, P., Grigoriev, S., & Plotnikov, V. 2010. ‘Mammoth calves from the permafros of Yakutia. Quaternaire. Hors-Serie. 3. pp.56-57.

van Geel, B, et al. 2011. ‘Palaeo-environmental and dietary analysis of intestinal contents of a mammoth calf (Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia).’ Quaternary Science Reviews. 30(27-28). pp.3935–3946. [Abstract only]

Posted in Woolly Mammoth | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Under the boot of man

Working in a museum I come face to face with life’s extraordinary diversity every day. Specimens a few hundred years old tell us of the richness of life right beneath our feet. Older specimens provide a glimpse into amazing animals and plants of the past. I am extremely lucky to be able to discover and learn new things daily, and to be able to share this with the public. Individual species; individual specimens; individual collectors: they all have their own little stories. Stories that stop all museum collections from just being ‘in a dusty old store room’. Stories that make sure that millions of specimens do not remain silent in death.

There are dozens of different stories within museum collections. Of course there’s the ‘famous’ specimens from those well-known collectors, but there is much, much more. There’s examples of life’s biodiversity on your doorstep. There’s the curious characters of collectors and the strange motivations of collecting. There’s the evolutionary links between animals, and unique features. There’s millions of years of geological history in a few drawers of minerals. The story of life: museum collections are a record of life, life around us today, and life that has vanished. I could go on.

Perhaps the most poignant story in all museums across the world is extinction. Ancient fossils tell us of life that once was. Memento Mori! Even with modern specimens there are species that are now extremely rare or extinct. These modern extinctions are often the most striking and shocking: because humans definitely caused them. Some extinctions maybe indirectly as a result of humans. Woolly mammoth populations were already shrinking because of the warming climate, and human hunting was an additional pressure that these giants couldn’t save themselves from. The dodo is a classic example of extinction, although humans didn’t hunt them to extinction, it was the other animals that we brought to the island that caused their doom.

There are a number of more powerful examples of extinction. Steller’s sea cow, became extinct just 27 years after it was formally named as a species. It was hunted for its meat and no doubt the sailors had no idea the devastating impact they had. The thylacine is another infamous example of how easily a species can be exterminated forever: purposefully hunted because of their threat to livestock in Australia, these enigmatic marsupials were purposefully wiped out just 82 years ago.

There is one example of extinction caused by humans is the most brutal of all. Brutal. Shocking. Gut-wrenching. Thoughtless. Stupid. It is hard not to get emotional when reading accounts of the mass genocide of the Great Auk.

Differences in seasonal plumage and individual variation in egg patterning in great auks. Public Domain

Eggs of two great auks (their Danish name is Geirfugl, related to the English Garefowl), stored in Copenhagen museum. Image ©Ross Barnett

Pinguinus impennis, the great auk, was an impressive, large, flightless diving bird.  Similar in appearance to its close relative, the cute razorbill (Alca torda), only it was much larger, reaching almost a meter tall. An enormous, sharp, curved, black beak protruded proudly from it’s black feathered face. A beak perfect for catching slippery fish in the cold North Atlantic waters. And it was very agile in the water: small stubby, flipper like wings, propelled it through water with ease. A thick layer of fat kept it warm in the cold north (the scientific name Pinguinus means ‘plump’ referring to the somewhat chubby appearance of this bird). This was an impressive bird. Too impressive to have had such a bloody and brutal end.

A gorgeous wood engraving of a Great Auk by Thomas Bewick. (From ‘A History of British Birds’, 1804) Image from here.

Living off the rich fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, the great auk was found along the coasts of Britain, Ireland, France, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, north east America and the Faroe Islands. This was once an incredibly widespread bird. Whilst spending most of the year in the open waters, they needed land for breeding. Great auks were quite specific about where they bred. Preferring islands that were very rocky, they also needed to have slopes for easy access to and from the sea: these birds were no ballerinas on land. The islands had to be at a good enough distance from the mainland so that polar bears couldn’t get there. Just seven breeding islands are known, although there were undoubtably more in the past. Hundreds of thousands of birds came to these islands once a year to meet their mate: the great auk had a single mate for life. Year after year they would return to the same spot, with the same partner, and spend their time on the island rearing just one egg.

Beautiful painting of great auks nesting. The painting is titled ‘The Great Auks at home’ by John Gerrard Keulemans. (Image Public Domain)

Great auk painting by John James Audubon. Public Domain

In a cruel twist, these islands that created life would become islands of death.

As with so many animals, the great auk had their natural predators. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) would hunt them when they were at sea. And whilst on land nesting, white tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), arctic wolves (Canis lupus), arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) would hunt them. For around 100,000 years great auks had lived and survived with these predators.

Humans have hunted great auk as a source of food for tens of thousands of years. Bones from the incredible Neanderthal site at Gibraltar show that they were eaten around 100,000 years ago. For modern humans they have been captured in cave art around 35,000 years ago in Spain and again in France around 25,000 years ago. Sites across Europe and in North America have held bones of great auk, fascinatingly with many of these sites associated with human burials. One site in Newfoundland, dating to around 4000 years old, had over 200 beaks, suggesting the body was wrapped in a cloak decorated with the large beaks of this bird. There was certainly something that gave the great auk an air of respect to humans all those thousands of years ago.

It appears this admiration and reverence disappeared as Europeans began to set sail and explore the oceans in the 16th century. And it was this greed that catastrophically tipped the balance.

The breeding islands were well known by sailors as an important stop off to replenish their food supplies. The French explorer, Jaques Cartier, travelled across the Atlantic in 1534 to search for new rich lands. He was the first European to discover Canada, which he claimed for France. Before landing, his ship stopped at Iles-aux-Oiseaux to replenish stocks. Here they slaughtered over 1000 birds: the majority of which were great auks. Many sailors over the years exploited the breeding colonies for meat and eggs: one captain notes that 100,000 eggs were taken in a single day. 100,000!! For a bird that only produces one egg in a batch, this amount of eggs taken would have been utterly disastrous.

The known range of the Great Auk. The North Atlantic ocean was busy with sailors exploring new lands, which had a huge impact on their populations. (Public Domain image)

They were not only used for their meat. Their thick greasy oil which kept their feathers from getting wet, was used for fuel. Killed in their thousands, fisherman collected thousands of litres of oil. And this oil was good for burning fires too. The great auk breeding islands had no trees or vegetation that could be used to make fires. So the sailors made fires with bodies of the birds. Horrifically, these fires were used cook other great auks.

Fires fueled by the rich oils were also used to boil water that boiled great auks. Boiling the birds was one was of getting the feathers off. Their feathers were very sought after, and hundreds of thousands of these birds were killed to supply the huge feather industry in the late 1700s. Collecting feathers from the great auk was perhaps one of the most brutal ends of the great auk. If they were boiled, the featherless carcass was thrown over a cliff. Often the men didn’t even bother to boil them. Or even kill them first. This is from a 1794 diary extract:

“If you come for the feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.”

Within just a few hundred years since they were first overexploited by Europeans in the 1500s, populations of this beautiful bird had plummeted. So much so that in 1794, Great Britain banned the killing of this bird (except for fishermen using their meat as bait). Bu it was already too late. Where there were once hundreds of thousands, there were now just dozens. Because they had become so rare, collectors were offering large sums of money for specimens. They vanished in Britain in 1840.

Island by island they were disappearing. Their last stand was on Eldey Island, off Iceland.

Great Auk statue on Iceland looking towards Eldey Island. Photo ©Ross Barnett

In 1844, fishermen killed the last two known great auks on Eldey Island to supply a museum collector. The birds tried to run from the attack, but not being very quick on land, their waddle only got them so far. Their necks were wrung. The pair had been sitting on the island with no others of their kind around. They were the last. Alone. But they were creating another. On the empty island, they sat on an egg. The last egg of an entire species. It was crushed under the boot of one of the fishermen.

The Great Auk met a bloody end. Today there are so many animals on the brink of extinction. Pangolins, the adorable scaly mammals, are exploited for trade. Rhinoceros and elephants too often meet horrific deaths by poachers. Tigers are hunted for their fur and bones for traditional medicines. These, and so many more animals, are terrifyingly close to vanishing forever. The story of extinction is not just in the past.

Surprisingly there are only a few specimens in museums today. Around 80 taxidermy specimens and a few dozen eggs worldwide can be seen on display: telling their story in death. And those last two poor individuals brutally killed? Their insides are preserved at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and until very recently, their skins were lost. Genetic analysis of the preserved insides and testing of different skins matched one specimen at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Sadly the female skin is not yet found. For these birds that spend their lives finding each other every year to mate, it would be some kind of wonderful to be able to find the female and reunite them once again.

Soft tissue of the last two auks killed on Eldey. If you look closely you can see the label says “Alca impennis 1844”. Stored at Copenhagen Museum. Image ©Ross Barnett

Postscript: Have a look at #TheLostAuk tweets for lots of amazing images from museum collections around the world.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Bewick, T. (1847). ‘A History of British Birds. Volume 2: Water Birds.’ Newcastle. [Book]

Bourne, W. R. P. (1993). ‘The story of the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis.Archives of Natural History.20(2). pp.257-278.

Cokinos, C. (2003). ‘Hope is the thing with feathers: A personal chronicle of vanished birds.’ New York: Warner Books. [Book]

Crofford, E. (1989). ‘Gone forever: The Great Auk.’ New York: Crestwood House. [Book]

Fuller, E. (2003). ‘The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin.’ Bunker Hill Publishing. [Book]

Gaskell, J. (2003). ‘Remarks on the terminology used to describe developmental behaviour among the auks (Alcidae), with particular reference to that of the Great Auk Pinguinus impennis.’ International Journal of Avian Science. 146(2). pp.231. [Abstract only]

Gill, A., & West, A. (2001). ‘Extinct’. Channel 4. [Book]

Meldegaard, M. (1988). ‘The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis (L.) in Greenland.’ Historical Biology. 1(2). pp.145-178.

Moum, T., Ulfur, A., & Einar, A. (2002) ‘Mitochondrial DNA sequence evolution and phylogeny of the Altantic Alcidae, including the extinct Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis).’ Molecular Biology and Evolution. Oxford University Press. 19(9). pp.1434-1439. [Full article]

Stringer, C. B., et al. (2008). ‘Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals at Gibraltar.’ PNAS. 105(38). 14319-14324. [Full article]

Thomas, J. E., et al. (2017). ‘An ‘Aukward’ tale: A genetic approach to discover the whereabouts of the Last Great Auks.’ Genes. 8(6). pp.164. [Full article]

Tuck, J. A. (1976). ‘Ancient peoples of Port au Choix: The excavation of an archaic Indian cemetery in Newfoundland.’ Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies. St John’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 17. p.261. [Full article]

Posted in great auk | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments