Halloween special V: Lovecraft’s paleontological Journey

H.P. Lovecraft’s love for astronomy is well known. As an amateur astronomer, Lovecraft attended several lectures from leading astronomers and physicists of his time. In 1906 he wrote a letter to the Scientific American on the subject of  finding planets in the solar system beyond Neptune. Around this time he began to write two astronomy columns for the Pawtuket Valley Gleaner and the Providence Tribune. He also wrote a treatise, A Brief Course in Astronomy – Descriptive, Practical, and Observational; for Beginners and General Readers. In several of his astronomical articles he describes meteors as  “the only celestial bodies which may be actually touched by human hands”. But Lovecraft was also obsessed with the concept of deep time, so geology and paleontology were also present in his writings.

Lovecraft’s monsters are certainly titanic, biologically impossible beings, from dimensions outside our own. He began conjuring monsters almost from the start of his career. In “The Nameless City”, published in the November 1921 issue of the amateur press journal The Wolverine, and often considered the first Cthulhu Mythos story, he describes an ancient race of reptiles that built the city: “They were of the reptile kind, with body lines suggesting sometimes the crocodile, sometimes the seal, but more often nothing of which either the naturalist or the palaeontologist ever heard.”  

Panorama of Ross Island showing Hut Point Peninsula (foreground), Mount Erebus (left) and Mount Terror (right), Antarctica. Photo: John Bortniak, NOAA

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. 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”. 

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.

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

“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. 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: “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.”

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.

Lepidodendron (fossil tree) on display at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, From Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tunguska forest (Photograph taken by Evgeny Krinov near the Hushmo river, 1929).

“The Colour Out of Space” is a short story written by  H. P. Lovecraft in 1927.  The story is set in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, where an unnamed narrator investigates a local area known as the “blasted heath”. Ammi Pierce, a local man, relates him the tragic story of a man named Nahum Gardner and how his life crumbled when a great rock fell out of the sky onto his farm. Within the meteorite there was a coloured globule impossible to describe that infected Gardner’s family, and spread across the property, killing all living things. It’s the first of Lovecraft’s major tales that combines horror and science fiction. The key question of the story of course is the meteorite. Although “the coloured globule” inside the meteorite has mutagenic properties we cannot define their nature. But as Lovecraft stated once, the things we fear most are those that we are unable to picture.

“The Colour Out of Space” was published nineteen year after the Tunguska Event. On the morning of June 30, 1908, eyewitnesses reported a large fireball crossing the sky above Tunguska in Siberia. The object entered Earth’s atmosphere traveling at a speed of about 33,500 miles per hour and released the energy equal to 185 Hiroshima bombs. The night skies glowed and the resulting seismic shockwave was registered with sensitive barometers as far away as England. In 1921, Leonid Kulik, the chief curator for the meteorite collection of the St. Petersburg museum led an expedition to Tunguska, but failed in the attempt to reach the area of the blast. Later, in 1927, a new expedition, again led by Kulik, discovered the huge area of leveled forest that marked the place of the Tunguska “meteorite” fall. At the time, Kulik mistook shallow depressions called thermokarst holes for many meteorites craters. However, he didn’t find remnants of the meteorite, and continued to explore the area until World War II. In the early 1930s, British astronomer Francis Whipple suggested that the Tunguska Event was caused by the core of a small comet, while Vladimir Vernadsky, suggested the cause was a lump of cosmic matter. (Rubtsov, 2009). More than a century later the cause of the Tunguska Event remains a mystery.



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

Lovecraft, H. P, “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.

LONG, J. (2003): Mountains of Madness – A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica. Jospeh Henry Press, Washington: 252

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




Brief history of the Ocean Acidification through time: an update

Corals one of the most vulnerable creatures in the ocean. Photo Credit: Katharina Fabricius/Australian Institute of Marine Science

About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. Once dissolved in seawater, most of the CO2 is transported into deep waters via thermohaline circulation and the biological pump. But a smaller fraction of the CO2, forms carbonic acid and causes a decline in pH in the surface ocean. This phenomenon is called ocean acidification, and is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years.

Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes, including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, pteropods and other molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae.

The pH within the ocean surface has decreased ~0.1 pH units since the industrial revolution and is predicted to decrease an additional 0.2 – 0.3 units by the end of the century. An eight-year study carried out by the Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification group (Bioacid), with the support of the German government, has contributed to quantifying the effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms and their habitats. Among the many effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms are including: decreased rate of skeletal growth in reef-building corals, reduced ability to maintain a protective shell among free-swimming zooplankton, and reduced survival of larval marine species, including commercial fish and shellfish. Even worse, the effects of acidification can intensify the effects of global warming, in a dangerous feedback loop.

Coccolithophores exposed to differing levels of acidity. Adapted by Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature Publishing Group, Riebesell, U., et al., Nature 407, 2000.

The geologic record of ocean acidification provide valuable insights into potential biotic impacts and time scales of recovery.  Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events in Earth history, including the end-Permian mass extinction (252 million years ago) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, 56 million years ago) may have driven surface waters to undersaturation. But, there’s  no perfect analog for our present crisis, because we are living in an “ice house” that started 34 million years ago  with the growth of ice sheets on Antarctica, and this cases corresponded to events initiated during “hot house” (greenhouse) intervals of Earth history.

The end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record, with as much as 95% of the marine animal species and a similarly high proportion of terrestrial plants and animals going extinct . This great crisis ocurred about 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The cause or causes of the Permian extinction remain a mystery but new data indicates that the extinction had a duration of 60,000 years and may be linked to massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps. The same study found evidence that 10,000 years before the die-off, the ocean experienced a pulse of light carbon that most likely led to a spike of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This could have led to ocean acidification, warmer water temperatures that effectively killed marine life.

Taxonomic variation in effects of ocean acidification (From Kroeker et al. 2010)

The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (120 million years ago) was an interval of dramatic change in climate and ocean circulation. The cause of this event was the eruption of the Ontong Java Plateau in the western Pacific, wich led to a major increase in atmospheric pCO2 and ocean acidification. This event was characterized by the occurrence of organic-carbon-rich sediments on a global basis along with evidence for warming and dramatic change in nanoplankton assemblages. Several oceanic anoxic events (OAEs) are documented in Cretaceous strata in the Canadian Western Interior Sea.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; 55.8 million years ago) was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event. 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. 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.

The current rate of the anthropogenic carbon input  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.


David A. Hutchins & Feixue Fu, Microorganisms and ocean global change, Nature Microbiology 2, Article number: 17058 (2017) doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2017.58 

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

Parker, L. M. et al. Adult exposure to ocean acidification is maladaptive for larvae of the Sydney rock oyster Saccostrea glomerata in the presence of multiple stressors. Biology Letters 13 (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0798

Kristy J. Kroeker, Rebecca L. Kordas, Ryan N. Crim, Gerald G. Singh, Meta-analysis reveals negative yet variable effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms, Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1419–1434
DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01518.x


Vegaviidae, a new clade of southern diving birds

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

The fossil record of Late Cretaceous–Paleogene modern birds in the Southern Hemisphere is fragmentary.  It includes Neogaeornis wetzeli from Maastrichtian beds of Chile, Polarornis gregorii and Vegavis iaai from the Maastrichtian of Antarctica, and Australornis lovei from the Paleogene of New Zealand. The phylogenetic relationships of these taxa have been variously interpreted by different authors. In a more recent analysis, Polarornis, Vegavis, Neogaeornis, and Australornis, are including in a new clade: Vegaviidae.

Vegaviids share a combination of characters related to diving adaptations, including compact and thickened cortex of hindlimb bones, femur with anteroposteriorly compressed and bowed shaft, deep and wide popliteal fossa delimited by a medial ridge, tibiotarsus showing notably proximally expanded cnemial crests, expanded fibular crest, anteroposterior compression of the tibial shaft, and a tarsometatarsus with a strong transverse compression of the shaft.

Histological sections of Vegavis iaai (MACN-PV 19.748) humerus (a), femur (b), polarized detail of humerus (c). Scale bar equals 10 mm for (a), (b) and 5 mm for (c). From Agnolín et al., 2017

The recognition of Polarornis, Vegavis, Neogaeornis, Australornis, and a wide array of isolated specimens as belonging to the new clade Vegaviidae reinforces the hypothesis that southern landmasses constituted a center for neornithine diversification, and emphasizes the role of Gondwana for the evolutionary history of Anseriformes and Neornithes.

The most informative source for anatomical comparison among Australornis, Polarornis, Vegavis as well as other southern avian is a recently published Vegavis skeleton (MACN-PV 19.748). Vegavis overlaps with Australornis in the proximal portion of the humerus, proximal part of the coracoid, scapula, and ulna; with Polarornis in the humerus, femur, and proximal end of the tibia; and with Neogaeornis in the tarsometatarsus.

Phylogeny with geographical distribution of Vegaviidae. From Agnolín et al., 2017.

The humerus is probably the most diagnostic element among anseriforms. In Vegavis and Australornis the humerus is notably narrow and medially tilted on its proximal half, and the deltopectoral crest extends for more than one third of the humeral length. The femur is well known both in Vegavis and Polarornis, and share a combination of characters absent in other Mesozoic or Paleogene birds, including strongly anteriorly bowed and anteroposteriorly compressed shaft (especially near its distal end)

Osteohistological analysis of the femur and humerus of V. iaai. shows a highly vascularized fibrolamellar matrix lacking lines of arrested growths, features widespread among modern birds. The femur has some secondary osteons, and shows several porosities, one especially large, posterior to the medullar cavity. The humerus exhibits a predominant fibrolamellar matrix, but in a portion of the anterior and medial sides of the shaft there are a few secondary osteons, some of them connected with Volkman’s canals, and near to these canals, there are a compact coarse cancellous bone (CCCB) with trabeculae. This tissue disposition and morphology suggests that Vegavis had remarkably high growth rates, a physiological adaptation that may be critical for surviving in seasonal climates at high latitudes, and  may also constitute the key adaptation that allowed vegaviids to survive the K/T mass extinction event.



Agnolín, F.L., Egli, F.B., Chatterjee, S. et al. Sci Nat (2017) 104: 87. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-017-1508-y

Jordi Alexis Garcia Marsà, Federico L. Agnolín & Fernando Novas (2017): Bone microstructure of Vegavis iaai (Aves, Anseriformes) from the Upper Cretaceous of Vega Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2017.1348503

Junornis houi and the evolution of flight

Holotype of Junornis houi. (From Liu et. al; 2017)

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. By the Early Cretaceous, they diversified, evolving into a number of groups of varying anatomy and ecology. The Enantiornithes are the most successful clade of Mesozoic birds. In the last decades, exceptionally well preserved avian fossils han been recovered from China. The most recent, Junornis houi, from the Yixian Formation of eastern Inner Mongolia, represents a new addition to the enantiornithine diversity of the Jehol Biota

The holotype (BMNHC-PH 919; Beijing Museum of Natural History), from the Early Cretaceous (~ 126±4 mya) of Yixian Formation,  is a nearly complete and articulated skeleton contained in two slabs, and surrounded by feather impressions defining the surface of its wings and body outline. The name Jun is derived from a Chinese character meaning beautiful; and ornis is Greek for bird. The species name, houi honors Dr. Hou Lianhai.

Photograph and interpretative drawing of the forelimb of Junornis houi (From Liu et. al; 2017)

Junornis exhibits the following combination of characters: rounded craniolateral corner of sternum; distinct trough excavating ventral surface of mediocranial portion of sternum; triangular process at base of sternal lateral trabecula; sternal lateral trabecula broad and laterally deflected; sternal intermediate trabecula nearly level with mid-shaft of lateral trabecula; sternal xiphoid process level with lateral trabeculae; costal processes of last two penultimate synsacral vertebrae three times wider than same process of last synsacral vertebra; and very broad pelvis. Non-pennaceous, contour feathers cover much of the skeleton except the wings and feet.

Based on the well-preserved skeleton and exquisite plumage of Junornis, it was possible  make some estimation of its flight capacity. The body and wings of this bird were similar to those of modern passeriforms such as Alauda arvensis and to other small-sized birds that fly using intermittent bounds. The low aspect ratio (AR = 5.5) wings of BMNHC-PH 919 suggest that it may have been adapted to rapid take-offs, given that modern birds with proportionally short, broad wings tend to maximize thrust during slow flight. The low wing loading (WL = 0.18 g/cm2) of this fossil indicates that this bird would have been able to generate a large magnitude of lift at low speeds because for a given speed and angle of attack, birds with greater wing area (and therefore lower WL) generate more lift than those with small wing areas. This value also suggest that this bird would have been highly maneuverable and able to perform tight turns.


Liu D, Chiappe LM, Serrano F, Habib M, Zhang Y, Meng Q (2017) Flight aerodynamics in enantiornithines: Information from a new Chinese Early Cretaceous bird. PLoS ONE12(10): e0184637. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184637