Halloween special: Lovecraft and the Mountains of Madness.


H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.  Despite leaving school without graduating, in his writings, evidences an extensive knowledge of archaeology, geology, and paleontology. According to his biographer S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft was fascinated by Antarctica since an early age. Much of this fascination is recognizable in his famous novel “At the Mountains of Madness”, written in 1931. The novel was rejected by Weird Tales and finally was published by Astounding Stories in a serial form in 1936.

At the Mountains of Madness” is told from the perspective of William Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University who  flies into an unexplored region of Antarctica. He’s accompanied by Professor Lake, a biologist;  Professor Pabodie, an engineer;  and some graduate students.The basic plot of the novel is the discovery of the frozen remains of bizarre entities from the deep space and their even more terrifying “slaves”:  the  shoggoths. The story could be divided in two parts. The first one is particularly rich, detailed and shows an impressive scientific erudition.

Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957). From Wikimedia Commons

Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957). From Wikimedia Commons

Lovecraft was influenced by Robert Byrd’s first  flight over the South Pole in 1928. He wrote: “On January 6, 1931, Lake, Pabodie, Danforth, all six of the students, four mechanics, and I flew directly over the south pole in two of the great planes, being forced down once by a sudden high wind which fortunately did not develop into a typical storm. This was, as the papers have stated, one of several observation flights; during others of which we tried to discern new topographical features in areas unreached by previous explorers.” 

He also was influenced by the paintings of the Himalayas by Nicholas Roerich –mentioned a total of six times in the novel-,  by the theory of continental drift by A. Wegener and by the paleontological advances of his time, like the discovery of archaeocyathids  found in rocks dated to the Cambrian Period in 1920. This is clear in the following paragraph when he describes something that Professor Lake found : “He  was strangely convinced that the marking was the print of some bulky, unknown, and radically unclassifiable organism of considerably advanced evolution, notwithstanding that the rock which bore it was of so vastly ancient a date—Cambrian if not actually pre-Cambrian—as to preclude the probable existence not only of all highly evolved life, but of any life at all above the unicellular or at most the trilobite stage. These fragments, with their odd marking, must have been 500 million to a thousand million years old”

E. Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 90: Cystoidea. From Wikimedia Commons

E. Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 90: Cystoidea. From Wikimedia Commons

Of course, one of the most fascinating parts of the novel is the description of the Elder Things: “Cannot yet assign positively to animal or vegetable kingdom, but odds now favour animal. Probably represents incredibly advanced evolution of radiata without loss of certain primitive features. Echinoderm resemblances unmistakable despite local contradictory evidences. Wing structure puzzles in view of probable marine habitat, but may have use in water navigation. Symmetry is curiously vegetable-like, suggesting vegetable’s essentially up-and-down structure rather than animal’s fore-and-aft structure. Fabulously early date of evolution, preceding even simplest Archaean protozoa hitherto known, baffles all conjecture as to origin.”

According with  S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft based his description of the Elder Thing in the fossil crinoids drawn by E. Haeckel in  Kunstformen der Natur.

Since Lovecraft wrote his novel, several missions to Antarctica has improved our knowledge of the white continent. For instance,  we know now that the interior of East Antarctica – like East Africa- is a mosaic of Precambrian provinces affected by rifting processes. While drilling into Lakes Vostok, Ellsworth, and Whillans amplified our understanding about the ability of organisms to survive in places with minimal nutrients and without sunlight as an energy source.


Lovecraft, H. P, “At the Mountains of Madness”, Random House, 2005.

Joshi, S. T. (2001). A dreamer and a visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in his time. Liverpool University Press, 302.

Isabel Clifton Cookson, the first Australian palynologist.

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973). From Wikimedia Commons

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973). From Wikimedia Commons

Isabel Clifton Cookson was one of Australia’s first professional women scientists, but unlike Adele V. Vicent, who studied  the importance Silurian-Devonian floras in Victoria,  her scientific work is well recognized.  She was one of the most prominent palynologist of the twenty century. She described a total of 110 genera, 557 species and 32 sub especific taxa of palynomorphs and plants, and published 93 scientific papers (some of them in collaboration with other prominent scientists).

She was born on December 25, 1893 in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating in Zoology and Botany at the University of Melbourne in 1916, she worked for a brief time at the National Museum of Victoria and became interested in fossil plants. 

Between 1916 and 1917 she received the Government Research Scholarship, for work on the flora of the Northern Territory of Australia and was awarded with the McBain Research Scholarship in biology. She also collaborated with some illustrations to the  book The Flora of the Northern Territory by Alfred J. Ewart and O. B. Davies.

Cooksonia pertoni, one of the earliest land plants (Credit: Hans Steur, The Netherlands.)

Cooksonia pertoni, one of the earliest land plants (Credit: Hans Steur, The Netherlands.)

In 1925, she went to England  to study with Professor Le Rayner  and with Professor Sir A. C. Seward, an authority on  fossil plants. She returned a year later as a mycologist in cotton research in the University of Manchester, where she met Professor W. H. Lang.  She started an important and  productive academic relationship with Lang, who named the genus Cooksonia in her honour.

In 1932, she returned to Melbourne and became mentor of many female researchers like Lorna Medwell and Mary E. Dettmann.

During the 1940s , she began to conduct detailed palaeobotanical studies, with emphasis on pollen analysis and demonstrated the importance of plant microfossils  in biostratigraphy  and in oil exploration.

Lingulodinium machaerophorum is a dinoflagellate cyst first described by Deflandre and Cookson. From UCL.

Lingulodinium machaerophorum is a dinoflagellate cyst first described by Deflandre and Cookson. From UCL.

In the early 1950s, she was a pioneer in the study of marine palynomorphs: dinoflagellate cysts, acritarchs and chitinozoans from Australian Tertiary and Mesozoic sediments. She also worked with George Deflandre and Alfred Eisenack.

Although her important work, she only reached the senior lecturer status in the department of botany and officially retired in 1959.

After her retirement, she  continued doing active research work  mainly by self-funding thanks to her skills as an investor on the stock exchange.

Isabel Clifton Cookson died on 1 July 1973 at her Hawthorn home. In her honor,  the Botanical Society of America gives the Isabel Cookson Award since 1976,  to the best paper on palaeobotany presented at their annual meeting.


Riding, James B.; Dettmann, Mary E.. 2013 The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology. 1-33. 10.1080/03115518.2013.828252

Mary E. Dettmann, ‘Cookson, Isabel Clifton (1893–1973)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University


Ischigualasto, and the discovery of Herrerasaurus.

Ischigualasto National Park . From Wikimedia Commons.

Ischigualasto National Park . From Wikimedia Commons.

Ischigualasto is an arid, sculpted valley, in northwest Argentina (San Juan Province), limiting to the north with the Talampaya National Park, in La Rioja Province. Both areas belong to the same geological formation: the Ischigualasto-Villa Unión Basin, which is centered on a rift zone that accumulated thick terrestrial deposits during the Triassic.

The most accepted hypothesis gives the name “Ischigualasto” a Quechua origin, meaning “place where the moon sets”. A second hypothesis suggested that the name “Ischigualasto” has Diaguita roots and means “place of death”.

Time-stratigraphic chart for Middle–Upper Triassic rocks of the Ischigualasto basin. (Currie, 2009)

Time-stratigraphic chart for Middle–Upper Triassic rocks of the Ischigualasto
basin. (Currie, 2009)

During Mesozoic time, the southwestern margin of Pangea produced a region of extensional deformation cratonward of the proto-Andean magmatic arc, and the Ischigualasto basin is one of a series of continental-rifts that developed in the region as a result of this extension.

The Ischigualasto Formation has 300–700 m of mudstone, sandstone, conglomerate, and basalt, and consists of four lithostratigraphic members which in ascending order include the La Peña Member, the Cancha de Bochas Member, the Valle de la Luna Member, and the Quebrada de la Sal Member.

Several thin volcanic ash horizons, indicates that the deposition of the Ischigualasto Formation began at the Carnian Stage (approximately 228 mya).

Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894-1973) Credit: Courtesy of the Harvard University News Service

Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894-1973)
Credit: Courtesy of the Harvard University News Service

Adolf Stelzner in 1889 published the first data on the geology of Ischigualasto, but it was not until 1911 that Guillermo Bodenbender briefly refers to the fossils of the site. In the early 40′s, Joaquin Frenguelli, initiates a geological survey in the western margen of the basin. Later, in 1943, Angel Cabrera described fragmentary therapsid fossils.

On April, 1958, after an expedition of 6 month in Mendoza Province (south of San Juan Province) with negative results, Alfred Romer arrived to Ischigualasto for first time. He found a rhynchosaur skull the following day, and other fossil finds were reported by every crew member. On May 14, Romer wrote in his field notebook: “more and more fossils coming in daily, in blocks and packages.”

In the same year, but a few months after Romer’s expedition, the University of Tucumán sent a team led by Osvaldo Reig and Jose Bonaparte.

Skull of Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis (Sereno, 2013)

Skull of Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis discovered in 1958 by the Harvard Paleontological Expedition (Sereno, 2013)

The first skull and skeleton of Herrerasaurus were discovered by Romer in 1958 (five years before  Osvaldo Reig described it), but the fossils from Romer’s expedition, were impounded for two years at the port in Buenos Aires, and when finally arrived at Harvard they were set aside.

In 1961, the Argentinian team arrived to Valle Pintado, in the Cancha de Bochas Member of the Ischigualasto Formation, with the help of the local rancher Victorino Herrera, where they found the posterior one-half of a skeleton. That specimen was later designated as Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis.

Jose Bonaparte continued to work in the Ischigualasto Formation periodically in the late 1960s and early 1970′s.

In 1988, a joint expedition between the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia” in Buenos Aires and the University of Chigaco, lead by Paul Sereno and Fernando Novas discovered the first complete skeletons of Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis.

Victorino Herrera and his wife, in San Juan, 1991. From Sereno, 2013

Victorino Herrera and his wife, in San Juan, 1991. From Sereno, 2013


Currie, B. S., C. E. Colombi, N. J. Tabor, T. C. Shipman, and I. P. Montanez. 2009. Stratigraphy and architecture of the Upper Triassic Ischigualasto Formation, Ischigualasto Provincial Park, San Juan, Argentina. Journal of South American Earth Sciences 27:74–87.

Paul C. Sereno (2012) Preface, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32:sup1, 1-9, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2013.819809

Ricardo N. Martínez , Cecilia Apaldetti , Oscar A. Alcober , Carina E. Colombi , Paul C. Sereno , Eliana Fernandez , Paula Santi Malnis , Gustavo A. Correa & Diego Abelin (2012) Vertebrate succession in the Ischigualasto Formation, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32:sup1, 10-30, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2013.818546


Ocean acidification: Anthropocene versus Eocene.

Ammonia beccarii, Benthonic foraminifera. From Wikimedia Commons

Ammonia beccarii, Benthic foraminifera. From Wikimedia Commons

Last week a report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) declared that ocean acidification has reached an unprecedented level in Earth’s history. Since the Industrial Revolution, the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%.
Over the period from 1750 to 2000, the oceans have absorbed approximately one-third of the CO2 emitted by humans. The cost of this is the decrease in surface ocean pH, that cause dramatic effects on marine life.

When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it produce carbonic acid. The carbonic acid dissociates in the water releasing hydrogen ions and bicarbonate. The formation of bicarbonate then removes carbonate ions from the water, making them less available for use by organisms.

Other consequences of an increasingly acidic ocean include effects on metal speciation, reduced NH3/NH4+ ratios and alteration of underwater sound absorption.

Geological context for ocean acidification. (A) Candidate ocean acidification events. (B) Ocean surface pH calculated at 20 million year intervals. (C) Major changes in plankton assemblages. From Kump, 2009.

The geological record of ocean acidification may provide valuable insights for the future of Earth’s climate and how marine organisms could adapt to severe conditions.

The closest analog for today conditions is the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, approx. 56Ma), meaning greater similarities in continental configuration, ecosystem structure and function, and global carbon cycling.

The PETM was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event when temperatures increased by 5-9°C. It was marked by the largest deep-sea mass extinction among calcareous benthic foraminifera in the last 93 million years. Similarly, planktonic foraminifer communities at low and high latitudes show reductions in diversity.

Nannofossil abundance changes during the PETM. From Kump, 2009.

The PETM is also associated with dramatic changes among the calcareous plankton,characterized by the appearance of transient nanoplankton taxa of heavily calcified forms of Rhomboaster spp., Discoaster araneus, and D. anartios as well as Coccolithus bownii, a more delicate form.

Because the PETM is considered the best analog to modern global warming, the changes in the assemblage of calcareous nanoplankton during this event could provide vital clues to the potential response of modern nanoplankton to ocean acidification.

Not only the magnitude but also the time scale of the carbon input is critical for its effect on ocean carbonate chemistry. The time scale of the anthropogenic carbon input is so short that the natural capacity of the surface reservoirs to absorb carbon is overwhelmed.

Comparison of the effects of anthropogenic emissions (total of 5000 Pg C over 500 years) and PETM carbon release (3000 Pg C over 6 kyr) on the surface ocean saturation state of calcite. From Zeebe, 2013

So, the anthropogenic carbon input rate is probably greater than during the PETM, causing a more severe decline in ocean pH and saturation state. Also the biotic consequences of the PETM were fairly minor, while the current rate of species extinction is already 100–1000 times higher than would be considered natural. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.

Trevor Manuel, a South African government minister and co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission stated that “Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.


Zeebe RE and Zachos JC. 2013 Long-term legacy ofmassive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene. Phil Trans R Soc A 371: 20120006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0006.

Kump, L.R., T.J. Bralower, and A. Ridgwell. 2009. Ocean acidification in deep time. Oceanography 22(4):94–107, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2009.100