Halloween special VI: Baron Nopcsa and the dinosaurs of Transylvania

The Nopcsa Sacel Castle

Transylvania is mostly known for its myths about vampires. Following the publication of Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), Jules Verne published Le Château des Carpathes (The Castle of the Carpathians) in which Transylvania is described as one of the most superstitious countries of Europe. But of course, the most significant contribution to the development of the Transylvania place myth was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.

Sacel Castle, at the heart of the Hateg region, is the last residence of the Nopcsa family, known as one of the strangest in Transylvania. Among the members of the family, there were governmental counselors and chancellors of the Transylvanian Court, members of the Royal Minister and of the Royal House, and knights of imperial orders. Baron Franz Nopcsa of Felsöszilvás (1877-1933), was one of the most prominent researchers and scholars of his day, and is considered the forgotten father of dinosaur paleobiology.

Baron Nopcsa in Albanian Uniform, 1915

In 1897 Nopcsa became a student of Vienna University and by the age of 22, he presented the first description and paleobiological analysis of one of the Transylvanian dinosaurs before the Vienna Academy of Science: Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus. The holotype, BMNH B.3386, was found in the Haţeg Basin.

The Hateg region, situated at the heart of Transylvania, is the cradle of Romanian civilization, but 70 million years ago it was a tropical island in the Thetys Ocean, noted for the occurrence of aberrant, endemic, and dwarfed fauna. In 1914, Nopcsa theorized that the “limited resources” found on islands have an effect of “reducing the size of animals” over the generations. Nopcsa noted several palaeobiological features in support of his views, including what he perceived as the common presence of pathological individuals, and considered this condition a reasonable result of the ecologically impoverished and stressed environment inhabited by this fauna. The recognition of ameloblastoma in a Telmatosaurus dentary discovered from the same area represents the best documented case of pathological modification identified in Transylvanian dinosaurs.

Doda, left, and Nopcsa, circa 1931. They spent nearly 30 years together. (Hungarian Natural History Museum)

Nopcsa continued to do collecting in the Haţeg Basin, at least until the beginning of the First World War. Among the fossils that Nopcsa studied were the duck-billed Telmatosaurus transylvanicus, the bipedal and beaked Zalmoxes robustus, the armored Struthiosaurus transylvanicus, and the sauropod Magyarosaurus dacus. In addition, he made extensive travels across much of Europe to visit palaeontological museums and to meet fellow scientists. In his field trips Nopcsa was now accompanied by Elmas Doda Bajazid, whom Nopcsa met in Albania and convinced to become his secretary. The men spent nearly 30 years togheter.

On 25 April 1933, Nopcsa’s body and that of his secretary Bajazid were found at their Singerstrasse residence. Nopcsa left a letter to the police: ”The motive for my suicide is a nervous breakdown. The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much. I wish to be cremated.”

 

References:

David B. Weishampel & Oliver Kerscher (2012): Franz Baron Nopcsa, Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology, DOI:10.1080/08912963.2012.689745

CSIKI, Z. & BENTON, M.J. (2010): An island of dwarfs – Reconstructing the Late Cretaceous Haþeg palaeoecosystem. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 293: 265 – 270 doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.05.032

Dumbravă, M. D. et al. A dinosaurian facial deformity and the first occurrence of ameloblastoma in the fossil record. Sci. Rep. 6, 29271; doi: 10.1038/srep29271 (2016).

 

 

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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

 

 

Halloween special IV: Atlach-Nacha and the Spiders of Leng.

The male, Mongolarachne jurassica, and female, Nephila jurassica, were similar in size. Photo: Kansas University and Paul Selden

The male, Mongolarachne jurassica, and female, Nephila jurassica, were similar in size. Photo: Kansas University and Paul Selden

Clark Ashton Smith (January 13, 1893 – August 14, 1961) was an American poet, sculptor, painter and author of fantasy, horror and science fiction short stories. He was one of the big three of Weird Tales, with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.  His work is marked by an extraordinarily rich and ornate vocabulary, a cosmic perspective and a sardonic humor. Among his numerous contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos is Atlach-Nacha, the spider God, first introduced in “The Seven Geases” (Weird Tales, Vol. 24, No. 4, October 1934). Atlach-Nacha resembles a huge spider with an almost-human face. It dwells within a huge cavern deep beneath Mount Voormithadreth, a mountain in the now vanished kingdom of Hyperborea in the Arctic. The bloated purple spiders of Leng are thought to be its children and servitors.

Dorsal view of a near-complete specimen of Palaeocharinus tuberculatus in Windyfield chert, showing prosoma (Pr), opisthosoma (Op), and the rear three right leg appendages (RL2-4) (scale bar = 1 mm). Image credit: University of Aberdeen

Dorsal view of a near-complete specimen of Palaeocharinus tuberculatus in Windyfield chert, showing prosoma (Pr), opisthosoma (Op), and the rear three right leg appendages (RL2-4) (scale bar = 1 mm). Image credit: University of Aberdeen

From Greek mythology to African folklore, the spider has been used to represent a variety of things, and gained a reputation for causing irrational fear in humans. Among the oldest known land arthropods are Trigonotarbids, an extinct order of terrestrial arachnids related to modern day spiders. The earliest trigonotarbid known in the fossil record is from the Silurian Ludlow Bone Bed. In 1923, Stanley Hirst described five species of trigonotarbids from the Rhynie cherts under the generic names Palaeocharinoides and Palaeocharinus. These are Palaeocharinoides hornei, Palaeocharinus rhyniensis, P. scourfieldi, P.calmani and P. kidstoni.

Spiders (Order Araneae) are massively abundant generalist arthropod predators that are found in nearly every ecosystem on the planet since the Devonian (>380 mya). The oldest true spiders belonged to the Mesothelae. Mongolarachne jurassica, from Daohuogo, Inner Mongolia in China, is the largest known fossil spider. Mongolarachne is remarkable for being larger than its female counterpart, Nephila jurassica, found on the same site in 2011.

 

References:

Garrison, Nicole L.; Rodriguez, Juanita; Agnarsson, Ingi; Coddington, Jonathan A.; Griswold, Charles E.; Hamilton, Christopher A.; Hedin, Marshal; Kocot, Kevin M.; Ledford, Joel M.; Bond, Jason E. (2016). “Spider phylogenomics: untangling the Spider Tree of Life”. PeerJ. 4: e1719. doi:10.7717/peerj.1719

Garwood, Russell J.; Dunlop, Jason (July 2014). “The walking dead: Blender as a tool for paleontologists with a case study on extinct arachnids”. Journal of Paleontology. Paleontological Society. 88 (4): 735–746. doi:10.1666/13-088

 

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL III: Lovecraft, The Tunguska Event and The Colour Out of Space.

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

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

“And by night all Arkham had heard of the great rock that fell out of the sky and bedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place.”

“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.

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”.

e98c4-lovecraftscientificamerican2

“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.

AmazingStories1927-09

The cover of “The Colour Out of Space” by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, September 1927.

The enigmatic nature of the Tunguska Event inspired several fictional works. In the novel “Extinction Event”, a spin-off book for the science fiction series Primeval, the Tunguska event opened a gargantuan anomaly that periodically opens every few decades. The anomaly is linked to the late Cretaceous, just before the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The Tunguska Event was also included in two episodes of The X-Files (“Tunguska” and “Terma”). The show suggested that the incident was caused by an asteroid impact. In the plot, Fox Mulder and Alex Krycek traveled to the site of the impact, and discovered a military installation where Russian scientists study the black oil found inside the rock, which contained a microbial form of alien life capable of possessing a human body. In the episode “Piper Maru”, the same alien organism infected Krycek.

After 107 years, the Tunguska Event is still a mystery. Recently it was suggested that the Lake Cheko, a 300-m-wide lake situated a few kilometres from the assumed epicentre of the 1908 Tunguska event, is an impact crater, but several lines of observational evidence contradict the hypothesis.

 

References:

Lovecraft, Howard P. (1927). “The Colour Out of Space”.

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

Rubtsov, V. (2009): The Tunguska Mystery. Springer-Publisher: 318