Leonardo and the Fossil Whale

Leonardo da Vinci: Self-portrait. From WikimediaCommons.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was the archetype of the Renaissance Man: artist, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, naturalist and geologist. A true polymath. He was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, a town in the lower valley of the Arno River. The majority of Leonardo’s scientific observations were in the Leicester Codex, a collection of writings from the 16th Century. Several excerpts from the Codex indicate that Leonard uses many ichnological principles that are still valid today.

The Codex Arundel is similar to the Codex Leicester. It was written between 1480 and 1518. In folio 155r, Leonardo recounted an experience in a cave in the Tuscan countryside: “Unable to resist my eager desire and wanting to see the great multitude of the various and strange shapes made by formative nature, and having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cave, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my tired hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows, often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two emo-tions arose in me, fear and desire: fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any wondrous thing within it”.

Reproduction of folios 155v (left corner) and 156r (right corner) of the Codex Arundel. From Collareta et al., 2020.

In the next folio, Leonardo described what appears to have been a fossil whale embedded in the walls of a cave:

“O powerful and once-living instrument of formative nature, your great strength of no avail, you must abandon your tranquil life to obey the law which God and time gave to creative nature. Of no avail are your branching, sturdy dorsal fins with which you pursue your prey, plowing your way, tempestuously tearing open the briny waves with your breast.

Oh, how many a time the terrified shoals of dolphins and big tuna fish were seen to flee before your insensate fury, as you lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea, mist and sudden tempest that buffeted and submerged ships…

O Time, swift despoiler of created things, how many kings, how many peoples have you undone? How many changes of state and circumstances have followed since thewondrous form of this fish died here in this winding and cavernous recess? Now unmade by time you lie patiently in this closed place with bones stripped and bare, serving as an armature for the mountain placed over you.”

Tuscan Pliocene fossil mysticetes: (a) ʽPelocetus sp.’ from Le Colombaie, near Volterra (original field sketch by G. Capellini, 1879); (b) Idiocetus guicciardinii from Montopoli (osteoanatomical plate reproduced after Capellini 1905). From Collareta et al., 2020.

In the folio 715r of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo described the same animal as ‘setoluto’, i.e. pro-vided with bristles – an observation that strongly evokes the presence of baleen, and as such, a positive identification of the ʽmarine monster’ with a baleen whale. A recent study suggests that Leonardo saw a fossil whale and recognised it as such, but the encounter was most likely along the flank of a hill, where cetacean remains from the Tuscan Pliocene are relatively common. Leonardo also made taphonomic observations on it and inferred that a considerable amount of time must have passed from the death of the whale in the marine realm to allow for its eventual discovery on land.

Leonardo’s legacy is extraordinary and his contributions to historical geology and ichnology are of special relevance. He wrote about the original horizontal arrangement of strata before Nicola Steno’s seminal work. He also provided the first organic observations on concepts such as actualism, taphonomy, and palaeocological inference. But because he never received a formal education in Latin or Mathematics, his writings were ignored by the scholars of the time. Five centuries after his death, Leonardo still surprises us.


Collareta, A., Collareta, M., Berta, A., & Bianucci, G. (2020). On Leonardo and a fossil whale: a reappraisal with implications for the early history of palaeontology, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2020.1787403.

Etheridge, Kay. “Leonardo and the Whale.” In Leonardo da Vinci – Nature and Architecture,edited by C. Moffat and S.Taglialagamba, 89-106. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Maria Pavlova

María Pávlova (1854-1938). From Wikimedia Commons

The first half of the 1860s was an extraordinary time in Russian history. After the Crimean War Tsar Alexander II took  steps to set the Russian Empire on the path of modernization. In 1868, Russian feminists submitted a request to the rector of the St. Petersburg University to open higher women’s course. The rector agreed, but the Minister of Education demoted the status of the courses to “public lectures”. A year later, Julia Lermontova and Sofia Kovalevskaya obtained permission to attend classes at Heidelberg University in Germany. Only in 1876, Alexander II authorized the creation of higher women’s courses with the same curricula as men’s universities. Finally, the University Courses for women opened on October 2, 1878 in St. Petersburg. Historian K. N. Bestuzhev-Rumin was appointed the first director of the courses (in his honor the courses were unofficially called “Bestuzhev’s”).

Maria Vasillievna Pavlova, nee Gortynskaia, was the first Russian woman to achieve significant national and international success in vertebrate paleontology. She was born in Ukraine in 1854. Her father was a state provincial doctor who encouraged her to study science. In 1870, she graduated from the Kiev Institute of Noble Maidens. Three years later she married a rural doctor N.N. Illich-Shishatsky. In the summer of 1880, after the death of her husband she traveled to Paris to attend classes at the Sorbonne. She studied zoology, botany, geology, and paleontology under the guidance of Albert Gaudry, receiving the grade of specialist in paleontology in 1884. She later worked in the Paris Museúm d’historie naturelle. In 1886 she married with the young geologist A.P. Pavlov and returned to Russia. At the request of her husband, Maria was allowed to put in order the paleontological collection of the Geological Cabinet of Moscow University, where she worked for more than 30 years.

M.V. Pavlova at her desk at the Paleontological Museum of Moscow State University. 1920s. From Bessudnova and Lyubina, 2019.

Her first scientific work was a description of the ammonites collected by Pavlov in the Volga region but all of her subsequent research focused on vertebrate fossils. She studied the fossil fauna of the Novaya Zemlya islands, and the “hipparion fauna” of the southwestern regions of European Russia. In 1897 she was one of only two women invited to join the Organizing Committee and presentations of the International Geological Congress (IGC) held in St. Petersburg. Between 1887-1906 the nine issues of her celebrated Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals were published. Later she published her monograph Les éléphants fossils de la Russie, followed by her two-volume of Mammifères tertiaires de la nouvelle Russie, co-authored with Aleksei Pavlov. Maria often acquired material for her research from private individuals and exchanged casts of fossil animals with famous foreign paleontologists and museum curators.

In order to introduce paleontology to a wider audience, Maria translated into Russian Henry Neville Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters and Melchior Neumayer’s Die Stämme des Tierreichs. In 1910, Pavlova was invited to head the department of paleontology at Moscow University. It was the first experience of systematic teaching of paleontology in Moscow. In 1925 she was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (in the same year it was renamed into the Academy of Sciences of the USSR). In 1926, the Geological Society of France awarded the Pavlovs with the gold medal  for their geological and paleontological works. She went on her last geological expedition in 1931, to the Volyn district, near Khvalynsk, a place of a mass accumulation of bones of fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos.

She died on December 23, 1938.



Valkova, O. (2008). The Conquest of Science: Women and Science in Russia, 1860–1940. Osiris, 23(1), 136–165. doi:10.1086/591872

Bessudnova Z.A., Lyubina G.I. Main lady of russian paleontology. To the 165th anniversary of the honorary academician Maria V. Pavlova. // Вестник Российской академии наук. – 2019. – Vol. 89. – N. 6. – P. 621-628. doi: 10.31857/S0869-5873896621-628


Introducing Llukalkan aliocranianus

Photograph of the materials in the field. Image credit: Federico Gianechini

The Abelisauridae represents the best-known carnivorous dinosaur group from Gondwana. Their fossil remains have been recovered in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Madagascar, India, and France. The group was erected by Jose Bonaparte with the description of  Abelisaurus Comahuensis. These theropods exhibit spectacular cranial ornamentation in the form of horns and spikes and strongly reduced forelimbs and hands. The Argentinean record of abelisauroid theropods begins in the Middle Jurassic (Eoabelisaurus mefi) and spans most of the Late Cretaceous. The clade includes Carnotaurus sastrei, Abelisaurus comahuensis, Aucasaurus garridoi, Ekrixinatosaurus novasi, Skorpiovenator bustingorryi, Tralkasaurus cuyi and Viavenator exxoni. Llukalkan aliocranianus, a new furileusaurian abelisaurid from the Bajo de la Carpa Formation (Santonian) in northwestern Patagonia, is an important addition to the knowledge of abelisaurid diversity.


Reconstruction of the complete skull and mandible of Llukalkan aliocranianus. Scale bar: 5 cm. From Gianechini et al., 2021

The new specimen was found near the site where the remains of Viavenator exxoni were recovered at La Invernada fossil area, 50 km southwest of Rincón de los Sauces city, Neuquén province, Argentina. This site has provided a valuable theropod record. Other taxa discovered at La Invernada include the titanosaurian sauropods Bonitasaura salgadoi, Traukutitan eocaudata, and Rinconsaurus caudamirus, pterosaurs, multiple crocodyliforms, snakes, and turtles.

The holotype (MAU-Pv-LI-581) is an incomplete but partially articulated skull with a complete braincase. The generic name derived from the word Llukalkan, “one who scares or causes fear” in Mapudungun language. The specific name aliocranianus means “different skull” in Latin.  Llukalkan exhibits some similarities with Viavenator, that include: elongate and robust olfactory tracts; large and horizontally oriented olfactory bulbs; cerebral hemispheres clearly delimited in lateral view; a tongue-shaped floccular process of cerebellum posteriorly projected and reaching the level of the posterior semicircular canal; and elongate and ventrally projected passage for the rostral middle cerebral vein. Additionally, Llukalkan has a small pneumatic recess caudal to the columellar recess, which is identified as a poorly developed caudal tympanic recess. This taxon also presents a T-shaped lacrimal with jugal ramus lacking a suborbital process, that differs significantly from the lacrimal of other abelisaurids.



Federico A. Gianechini, Ariel H. Méndez, Leonardo S. Filippi, Ariana Paulina-Carabajal, Rubén D. Juárez-Valieri & Alberto C. Garrido (2021): A New Furileusaurian Abelisauridfrom La Invernada (Upper Cretaceous, Santonian, Bajo De La Carpa Formation), NorthernPatagonia, Argentina, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2020.1877151