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.

 

References:

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

 

 

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Osteohistological analysis of Vegavis iaai

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates. Vegavis iaai is the first unquestionable neornithine bird from the Cretaceous and is known by the holotype and specimen MACN-PV 19.748. The holotype specimen MLP 93-I-3-1 (Museo de La Plata, Argentina) from Vega Island, western Antarctica, was discovered in 1992 by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, but was only described as a new species in 2005 (Clarke et al., 2005). Polarornis gregrorii, from the López de Bertodano Formation of Seymour Island, Antarctica, and Vegavis form a monophyletic basal clade of foot-propelled anseriform birds (Agnolín 2016), a group that includes ducks, geese and swans.

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.

Detail of the humerus of Vegavis iaai (MACN-PV 19.748) in polarised light. Scale = 1 mm. (From G. Marsà et al., 2017)

Many studies on avian microanatomy have established a relationship between high bone compactness (i.e., considerable degree of osteosclerosis) and diving behavior. Differences in the degree of osteosclerosis could be tentatively related to variations in diving behaviour. Vegavis was a diver, characterised by a medium level of limb osteosclerosis. Polarornis, with more massive bones, was possibly adapted to deeper and more prolonged diving than Vegavis, as occurs in modern penguins.

The value of Relative Bone Thickness (RBT) in Vegavis is comparable with two genera of extant foot-propelled diving ducks. A high RBT is related with increased stiffening the forelimb, regardless of body mass or depth of diving. Flightless Pan-Alcidae and penguins, have a very rigid, flipper-like wings suggesting that decreased wing flexion and increased cortical thickness of forelimbs are somehow correlated. Based on  the values of RBT present in both Vegavis and Polarornis is possible to infer that these taxa were foot-propelled birds.

References:

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

Agnolín FL. 2016. A brief history of South American birds. Contribuciones del MACN 6:157–172

Clarke, J. A., C. P. Tambussi, J. I. Noriega, G. M. Erickson, and R. A. Ketcham. 2005. Definitive fossil evidence for the extant avian radiation in the Cretaceous. Nature 433:305-308. DOI: 10.1038/nature03150

An avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic.

The Vegavis iaai specimen showing the location of the syrinx. (Adapted from Clarke et al., 2016)

The Vegavis iaai specimen showing the location of the syrinx. (Adapted from Clarke et al., 2016)

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. Their evolutionary history is one of the most enduring and fascinating debates in paleontology. In recent years, several discovered fossils of theropods and early birds have filled the morphological, functional, and temporal gaps along the line to modern birds. The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period and after the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, the Neoaves, the most diverse avian clade, suffered a rapid global expansion and radiation. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates.

In the mid-nineteenth century, T. H. Huxley recognized that birds were most closely related to dinosaurs. He also named the unique vocal organ in birds as the syrinx. Located at the base of a bird’s trachea, the syrinx consists of specialised cartilaginous structures, connective tissue masses, membranes and muscles. The oldest known remains of a syrinx was found within the fossilised, partial skeleton of a bird, known as Vegavis iaai, from the Late Cretaceous (66 mya) of Antarctica.

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

The Vegavis iaai holotype specimen from Vega Island, western Antarctica, was discovered in 1992 by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, but was only described as a new species in 2005 (Clarke et al., 2005). It belonged to the clade Anseriformes, a group that includes ducks, geese and swans. Vegavis exhibits the fusion of cartilage rings and asymmetry between the left and right sides of the syrinx, that are useful for making comparisons with structural data from the present-day birds. Fused rings in Vegavis form a well-mineralized pessulus, a derived neognath bird feature, proposed to anchor enlarged vocal folds or labia. Although mineralized structures of the syrinx in Vegavis and many parts of extant Anatidae show asymmetry, Presbyornis, Chauna and Galliformes lack this feature. The absence of known tracheobronchial remains in all other Mesozoic dinosaurs may be indicative that a complex syrinx was a late arising feature in the evolution of birds, well after the origin of flight and respiratory innovations.

 

References:

Julia A. Clarke, Sankar Chatterjee, Zhiheng Li, Tobias Riede, Federico Agnolin, Franz Goller, Marcelo P. Isasi, Daniel R. Martinioni, Francisco J. Mussel and Fernando E. Novas. Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic. Nature, 2016 DOI: 10.1038/nature19852

Clarke, J. A., C. P. Tambussi, J. I. Noriega, G. M. Erickson, and R. A. Ketcham. 2005. Definitive fossil evidence for the extant avian radiation in the Cretaceous. Nature 433:305-308.

Larsen, O. N.; Franz Goller (2002). “Direct observation of syringeal muscle function in songbirds and a parrot”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 205 (Pt 1): 25–35.

Xing Xu, Zhonghe Zhou, Robert Dudley, Susan Mackem, Cheng-Ming Chuong, Gregory M. Erickson, David J. Varricchio, An integrative approach to understanding bird origins, Science, Vol. 346 no. 6215, DOI: 10.1126/science.1253293.

A Permian lagerstätte from Antarctica.

 

Vertebraria solid-stele and polyarch roots colonised by fungal spores (From Slater et al., 2014)

Vertebraria solid-stele and polyarch roots colonised by fungal spores (From Slater et al., 2014)

A lagerstätte (German for ‘storage place’) is a site exhibiting an extraordinary preservation of life forms from a particular era. The term was originally coined by Adolf Seilacher in 1970. One of the most notable  is Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. The site, discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909, highlight one of the most critical events in evolution: the Cambrian Explosion (540 million to 525 million years ago). The factors that can create such fossil bonanzas are: rapid burial (obrution), stagnation (eutrophic anoxia), fecal pollution (septic anoxia), bacterial sealing (microbial death masks), brine pickling (salinization), mineral infiltration (permineralization and nodule formation by authigenic cementation), incomplete combustion (charcoalification), desiccation (mummification) and freezing. The preservation of decay-resistant lignin of wood and cuticle of plant leaves  is widespread, but exceptional preservation also extends to tissues.

The Toploje Member chert of the Prince Charles Mountains preserves the permineralised remains of a terrestrial ecosystem before the biotic decline that began in the Capitanian and continued through the Lopingian until the Permo-Triassic transition (Slater et al., 2014). During the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic, Antarctica occupied a central position within Gondwana and played a key role in floristic interchange between the various peripheral regions of the supercontinent.

permian

Singhisporites hystrix, a megaspore with ornamented surface.

The fossil micro-organism assemblage includes a broad range of fungal hyphae and reproductive structures. The macrofloral diversity in the silicified peats is relatively low and dominated by the constituent dispersed organs of arborescent glossopterid and cordaitalean gymnosperms.  The fossil palynological assemblage includes a broad range of dispersed bisaccate, monosaccate, monosulcate and polyplicate pollen. The roots (Vertebraria), stems (Australoxylon) and leaves (Glossopteris) of the arborescent glossopterid exhibited feeding traces caused by arthropods, but the identification is  difficult since plant and arthropod cuticles look similar in thin section. Tetrapods are currently unknown from Permian strata of the Prince Charles Mountains as either body fossils or ichnofossils (McLoughlin et al., 1997, Slater et al., 2014).

Times of exceptional fossil preservation are coincident with mass extinctions, oceanic anoxic events, carbon isotope anomalies, spikes of high atmospheric CO2, and transient warm-wet paleoclimates in arid lands (Retallack 2011). The current greenhouse crisis delivers several factors that can promote exceptional fossil preservation, such as eutrophic and septic anoxia, microbial sealing, and permineralization.

References:

Benton, M.J., Newell, A.J., (2013), Impacts of global warming on Permo-Triassic terrestrial ecosystems. Gondwana Research.

Rees, P.M., (2002). Land plant diversity and the end-Permian mass extinction. Geology 30, 827–830.

Retallack, G., (2011), Exceptional fossil preservation during CO2 greenhouse crises?, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 307: 59–74.

Slater, B.J., et al., (2014), A high-latitude Gondwanan lagerstätte: The Permian permineralised peat biota of the Prince Charles Mountains, Antarctica, Gondwana Research. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gr.2014.01.004

Seilacher, A., (1970) “Begriff und Bedeutung der Fossil-Lagerstätten: Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Paläontologie“. Monatshefte (in German) 1970: 34–39.

Halloween special: Lovecraft and the Mountains of Madness.

Lovecraft,_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.

References:

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.