Halloween special II: Lovecraft, Paleobotany and The Shadow Out of Time.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft_in_1915_(2)

Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1915.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.  Despite leaving school without graduating, in his writings, evidences an extensive knowledge of archaeology, astronomy, geology, and paleontology. As an amateur astronomer, Lovecraft attended several lectures from leading astronomers and physicists of his time. He  explicitly stated in a letter to a friend that Yuggoth is in fact the then recently discovered Pluto. This was one of the key aspects in Lovecraft’s literature: to reject the old spiritual world and use the advance of science as a source of inspiration.

“The Shadow Out of Time” (1935) was H. P. Lovecraft’s last major story. It’s told from the perspective of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a professor of political economy at Miskatonic University. During five years, this man suffers a bizarre form of amnesia  followed by vivid dreams of aliens cities in ancient landscapes.  Later, Peaslee discovered that a small number of people throughout history suffered the same type of amnesia. They were possessed by the Great Race, a group of cone shaped creatures who developed the technique of swapping minds with creatures of another era with the purpose of learn the secrets of the Universe.

Lepidodendrom leaf cushions preserved in a Mazon Creek nodule. (Taylor et al., 2009)

Lepidodendrom leaf cushions preserved in a Mazon Creek nodule. (Image Credit: Taylor et al, 2009)

Peaslee describes the gardens that surround the cities of his visions with detail. There was calamites, cycads, trees of coniferous aspect, and small, colourless flowers.

Calamites was a genus of tree-sized, spore-bearing plants that lived during the Carboniferous and Permian periods (about 360 to 250 million years ago), closely related to modern horsetails. They reached their peak diversity in the Pennsylvanian and were major constituents of the lowland equatorial swamp forest ecosystems. The Cycadales are an ancient group of seed plants that can be traced back to the Pennsylvanian. Cycads have a stem or trunk that commonly looks like a large pineapple and composed of the coalesced bases of large leaves.  Today’s cycads are found in the tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions of both the north and south hemispheres.

While angiosperm fossil pollen first appears in the Early Cretaceous, molecular data suggest that the first occurrence was in the early Permian (~275 Ma) to late Triassic (228-217 Ma). Recently, a new study describe six distinct pollen types that have angiosperm-like features from the Triassic of Switzerland.


Transverse section of Sigillaria approximata stem (Image Credit: Taylor et al, 2009)

Peaslee’s visions become more and more vivid:

The far horizon was always steamy and indistinct, but I could see that great jungles of unknown tree-ferns, calamites, lepidodendra, and sigillaria lay outside the city, their fantastic frondage waving mockingly in the shifting vapours.”

Lepidodendron was a tree-like (‘arborescent’) tropical plant, related to the lycopsids. The name of the genus comes from the Greek lepido, scale, and dendron, tree, because of the distinctive diamond shaped pattern of the bark. The name Lepidodendron is a generic name given to several fossil that clearly come from arborescent lycophytes but are difficult to assign to one species. Fossil remains indicate that some trees attained heights in excess of 40 m and were at least 2m in diameter at the base. They were dominant components of swamp ecosystems in the Carboniferous and frequently associated with Sigillaria, another extinct genus of tree-sized lycopsids from the Carboniferous Period. The absence of extensive branching and the structure of the leaf bases are the principal feature that distinguish Sigillaria from other lycopsids (Taylor et al, 2009). Sigillariostrobus is the name assigned to the reproductive organs or cones of Sigillaria. Unlike Lepidodendron cones, which were attached attached individually near the tip of the branches, Sigillaria cones occurred in clusters attached in certain places along the upper stem.

Later, on an expedition to Australia, Peaslee – accompanied by Professor William Dyer, leader of the Miskatonic Antarctic expedition of 1930-1931- discovered a manuscript written by himself eons ago when he was a captive mind of the Great Race.


H. P. Lovecraft, The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Books, 2004.

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

N. Taylor, Edith L. Taylor, Michael Krings: “Paleobotany: The Biology and Evolution of Fossil Plants”. 2nd ed., Academic Press 2009.

Kathy Willis, Jennifer McElwain, The Evolution of Plants, Oxford University Press, 2013

Hochuli, P. A., and Feist-Burkhardt, S.. (2013). Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland). Frontiers in Plant Science. 4. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2013.00344

Mignon Talbot and the forgotten women of Paleontology.


Sin título

Mignon Talbot  (From Turner et al, 2010)


The nineteenth century was the “golden age” of Geology, and women began to play an important role in the advance of this field of science. They collected fossils and mineral specimens, and were allowed to attend scientific lectures, but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. It was common for male scientists to have women assistants, often their own wives and daughters. A good example of that was Mary Lyell (1808–1873), daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner and the wife of eminent geologist Charles Lyell. But for most of men, the participation of women in geology and paleontology was perceived as a hobby.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was a special case. She was the most famous woman paleontologist of her time, and found the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany and suggested that the “Bezoar stones” were fossilized feces. Scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. William Buckland himself, persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to award her an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology.

Thanks to the pioneer work of these women,the twenty century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it. Unfortunately, most of these early female scientists were forgotten and none of them reached the fame of their most illustrious predecessor, Miss Mary Anning.

Podokesaurus holyokensis holotype (From Wikimedia Commons)

Podokesaurus holyokensis holotype (From Wikimedia Commons)

Mignon Talbot was born in Iowa, on August 16, 1869. She studied geology at Ohio State University. In 1904 she received a Ph.D. from Yale and then joined at Mount Holyoke College, where she became Professor of Geology and Geography until her retirement in 1935. During her years at the faculty, she amassed a large collection of invertebrates fossil, but published few technical papers. In 1910, she became the first woman to find and describe a dinosaur: Podokesaurus holyokensis (swift-footed saurian). In 1911, she published a scientific description of the fossil. She wrote: “In a bowlder of Triassic sandstone which the glacier carried two or three miles, possibly, and deposited not far from the site of Mount Holyoke College, the writer recently found an excellently preserved skeleton of a small dinosaur the length of whose body is about 18 cm. The bowlder was split along the plane in which the fossil lies and part of the bones are in o half and part in the other. These bones are hollow and the whole  framework is very light and delicate“.  At the time, she was mentored in her investigation by Richard Swan Lull, who suggested that this dinosaur was insectivorous (although, Talbot identified it as a herbivore at a meeting of the Paleontological Society in December 1910). Unfortunately, in 1916, a fire destroyed the science hall and the only specimen of Podokesaurus holyokensis. She died on July 18, 1950.

Tilly Edinger (Photo,Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Tilly Edinger (Photo,Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Johanna Gabrielle Ottilie  “Tilly” Edinger was born on November 13, 1897 in Frankfurt, Germany. She was the youngest daughter of the eminent neurologist Ludwig Edinger and Dora Goldschmidt. She studied at Universities of Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and Munich. In 1921, she received her Ph. D at the University of Frankfurt. When she was preparing her doctoral dissertation about the palate of the Mesozoic marine reptile Nothosaurus, Edinger encountered a skull with a natural brain cast. Her early research was mostly descriptive and she was influenced by the work of Louis Dollo and Friedrich von Huene. In 1929,  she published Die fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains), the book that established Edinger’s membership in the German and international paleontological communities. She briefly worked at British Museum of Natural History after the events that followed the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass). In 1940, with the support of Alfred S. Romer, she moved to Massachusetts to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Shortly after, she was the first and only woman who attend the founding meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). By the early 1950s, she was not only the major contributor to the field of paleoneurology but also the mentor to a younger generation that was following in her footsteps. She died on 27 May 1967 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Susan Turner, Cynthia V. Burek and Richard T. J. Moody, Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2010, v. 343, p. 111-153

Buchholtz, Emily A.; Seyfarth, Ernst-August (August 2001), “The Study of “Fossil Brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897–1967) and the Beginnings of Paleoneurology”, Bioscience 51 (8)

Kass-Simon, Gabrielle; Farnes, Patricia; Nash, Deborah, eds. (1999). Women of science : righting the record. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press.

Talbot, M., 1911, Podokesaurus holyokensis, a new dinosaur of the Connecticut Valley: American Journal of Science, v. 31, p. 469-479


The Poetry of the Ice Age.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Source of the Arveron in the Valley of Chamouni Savoy 1816 (Image from The Tate Gallery)

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Source of the Arveron in the Valley of Chamouni Savoy
1816 (Image from The Tate Gallery)

Glaciers occupy a privileged site between narrative and science. Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamonix“ (1816) used the landscape as a metaphor to analyze the relationship between the human mind and the universe.

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,— still, snowy, and serene —
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps.

And of course, Mer de Glace, on the slope of the mountain, is where Victor Frankenstein reunited with his Creature: “…From the side where I now stood Montenvers was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty…. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependant mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recess….” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,  one of the world’s greatest poets, was also a great naturalist. More important, he was the very first to believe in an ice age. Jean de Charpentier (1786- 1855)  in Essai sur les glaciers presented Goethe’s theories of glacial transport (Charpentier, 1841, p . v).

Jean Louis Agassiz in 1870 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Jean Louis Agassiz in 1870 (From Wikimedia Commons)

In 1837, Karl Friedrich Schimper, a  German botanist and geologist, wrote a poem to commemorate Galileo’s birthday, Die Eiszeit: fur Freunde gedruckt am Geburtstage Galilei.  The expression Eiszeit—“ice age”— appeared for the first time in this poem. One of its stanzas says:

Last vestige of the primal ice,
more ancient than the Alps!
Primal ice of yore, when the might of frost
buried mountain high even the South,
enveloped mountain and sea alike!

Karl Schimper was born in Mannheim, Germany, on February 15th, 1803. During the summer of 1835, he was studying mosses which were growing on erratic boulders in the alpine upland of Bavaria and came to the conclusion that ice must have been the means of transport for the boulders.

Based on the works of Schimper and de Charpentier,  Louis Agassiz (1801–1873) presented his “Discours de Neuchatel,” at the annual meeting of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences on July 24, 1837. In this seminal work, he proposed that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.


Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Tobias Krüger, Discovering the Ice Ages: International Reception and Consequences for a Historical Understanding of Climate, BRILL, 2013.