From Mantell to de Ricqlès: A brief history of Paleohistology

Bone microstructure of M. intrepidus (NCSM 33392). From Zanno et al., 2019.

The aim of Paleohistology is the study of the microstructure of fossilized skeletal tissues. Despite that the organic components of mineralised tissues decay after death, the inorganic components of bone preserve the spatial orientation of organic components such as osteocyte lacunae, vascular canals, and collagen fibres.

The techniques for the microscopic study of biological tissues began in 1828, when two British scientists, Henry Witham and William Nicol, experimented by grinding sheets of petrified tree trunk into traslucents sheets so that they could viewed under the microscope. Few years later the new technique was applied to fossil vertebrates by Agassiz. In 1849, John Thomas Quekett published his most important paper on the histological structure of bone in mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. He described vascular canals, lacunae and canaliculi, and trabecular endosteal bone.

Dorsal dermal spine of the Hylaerosaurus (From Mantell, 1850a. Plate XXVII)

The next important advance was the first clear description of dinosaur bone microstructure: Hylaerosaurus made by British paleontologist Gideon Mantell in 1850. In his work, Mantell provides a drawing of a thin section from a “dorsal dermal spine” of Hylaerosaurus. The same year, Mantell described a transverse thin section from a humerus of Pelorosaurus, and notes that the bone exhibits an “intimate structure beautifully preserved; the bone cells, and Haversian canals, are as distinct as in recent bones.” In 1871, John Phillips described the structure of pterosaur bones from the Stonesfield ‘Slate’ (Bathonian, Middle Jurassic, England) and noted that pterosaur bones contained longitudinal “Haversian canals” and figured “lacunae… with many short excurrent somewhat branched tubules”.

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

A century later, the introduction of hard plastic resins, the development of tungsten carbide microtome blades, the use of very thin diamond-edged saw blades, and the examination of bone tissue with surgically implanted orthopedic devices fostered new methods for studying the histology of fully mineralized bone.

Armand de Ricqlès, in the 1960s and 1970s, observed that paleohistological features could be correlated with growth rates and thus could indirectly shed light on the thermal physiology of extinct organisms. He based his conclusions on the neontological observations of Rodolfo Amprino. Quantitative studies confirmed that avascular bone is deposited more slowly than vascular bone, and radial bone is deposited faster than laminar bone. De Ricqlès early histological examinations of dinosaur bones suggested that they did not grow in a manner similar to extant cold-blooded reptiles (which deposit poorly vascularized cortical bone, interrupted by many lines of arrested growth). On the contrary, the evidence indicated that dinosaurs had a physiology that more closely approximated that of extant, fast-growing, endothermic birds. He included pterosaurs in a discussion on reptile bone histology and emphasised the structural similarities with bird bones such as the large diaphyseal medullary cavities enclosed by a dense cortex, with spongiosa in the epiphyseal region. The studies conducted by de Ricqlès opened a new path for paleohistology and his work continues to influence the field today.

Recent

References:
Bailleul AM, O’Connor J, Schweitzer MH. 2019. Dinosaur paleohistology: review, trends and new avenues of investigation. PeerJ 7:e7764 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.7764

Quekett J. (1849) On the intimate structure of bone, as composing the skeleton, in the four great classes of animals, viz., mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes, with some remarks on the great value of the knowledge of such structure in determining the affinities of minute fragments of organic remains. Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London. 1849;2(1):46–58. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2818.1849.tb05102.x.
Mantell Gideon Algernon (1850) XVII. On a dorsal dermal spine of the Hylæosaurus, recently discovered in the strata of Tilgate Forest140 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1850.0018

Mantell Gideon Algernon (1850b) XVI. On the pelorosaurus; an undescribed gigantic terrestrial reptile whose remains are associated with those of the iguanodon and other saurians in the strata of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex140Phil. Trans. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1850.0017

De Ricqlès (1969) De Ricqlès A. L’histologie osseuse envisagée comme indicateur de la physiologie thermique chez les tétrapodes fossiles. Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Séances de l’Academie des Sciences, Serie D: Sciences Naturelles. 1969;268:782–785

Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens, part III.

Charles Dickens at his desk, by George Herbert Watkins (National Portrait Gallery. From Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best of times. In the nineteenth century England, the Industrial Revolution started a time of important social and political change. London became the financial capital of the world. Several scientific societies were forming, such as the Geological Society of London, while fascinating discoveries revealed part of the history of our planet. But it was also the worst of time. England was ruled by an elite, meanwhile most of the people were poor. Churches provided schools for poor children and infant mortality was high. During these difficult times, Charles Dickens revitalized the tradition of Christmas and to Victorian England, Dickens was Christmas.  He had only 31, when began to write A Christmas Carol. The novella tells the story of  Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who finds salvation through the visits of the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).

Charles Dickens also contributed to the popularity of geology in the nineteenth century. For him, the ideal science was Geology. In his review of Hunt’s Poetry of Science, he wrote: “Science has gone down into the mines and coal-pits, and before the safety-lamp the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared … Sirens, mermaids, shining cities glittering at the bottom of quiet seas and in deep lakes, exist no longer; but in their place, Science, their destroyer, shows us whole coasts of coral reef constructed by the labours of minute creatures; points to our own chalk cliffs and limestone rocks as made of the dust of myriads of generations of infinitesimal beings that have passed away; reduces the very element of water into its constituent airs, and re-creates it at her pleasure…” (London Examiner, 1848).

Hawkins’ Sydenham Studio. From Wikimedia Commons.

When the Crystal Palace was opening at Sydenham, Dickens addressed the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings to ensure that the dinosaurs he had named, including the megalosaurus, and the iguanodon, were accurately recreated. In Bleak House and Dombey and Son, Dickens encourage readers to perceive the scene of the city as a geological fragment of a much broader spatial and temporal vision. In Bleak House the dinosaurs uncovered by the railway in Dombey and Son move centre stage: “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” 

Among his friends were Richard Owen and Sir Roderick Murchison. Murchinson’s wife, Charlotte, was a very close friend of Mary Anning, the most famous fossilist of the time. Mary has been called “the Princess of Palaeontology”  by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. She discovered (along with her brother Joseph) the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany, and a fossil fish, with characteristics intermediate between sharks and rays, called Squaloraja (unfortunately, the specimen was lost in the destruction of the Bristol Museum by a German bombing raid in November, 1940)

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. By the age of 27, Mary was the owner of a little shop: Anning’s Fossil Depot. Many scientist and fossil collectors from around the globe went to Mary´s shop. She was friend of Henry De la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who knew Mary since they were both children and lived in Lyme Regis. De la Beche was a great supporter of Mary’s work. She also corresponded with Charles Lyell, William Buckland and Mary Morland, Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison. It’s fairly to say that Mary felt secure in the world of men, and a despite her religious beliefs, she was an early feminist. In an essay in her notebook, titled Woman!, Mary writes: “And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly Man? Yes, and was destined doubtless, to become his friend, his helpmate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave…”

The article published in All the Year Round in 1865, about the life of Mary Anning. From the Internet Archive

In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Miss Anning wrote sadly enough to a young girl in London: “I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.” 

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’, died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. About her life and legacy Dickens wrote: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” 

References:

Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870, `Mary Anning, the Fossil-Finder’, All the year round, Volume XIII, Magazine No. 303, 11 February 1865, Pages: 60-63

A. BUCKLAND, ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).

A. BUCKLAND. Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 400 pp. 9 plts. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-226-07968-4

 

The Great Female Scientists of the Victorian Era

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Women have played  various and extensive roles in the history of geology. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public and the history of geosciences has largely been interpreted as a history of male scientists.

In the Victorian times there was the common assumption that the female brain was too fragile to cope with mathematics, or science in general. In a letter from March 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote to Charles Lyell: “Five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution, to be the stronghold of parsonism, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit in which they mix themselves – intrigues in politics and friponnes in science.” Lyell, one of the most famous geologist of his time, was married to Mary Horner, daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner, and one of the many female contributors to geology in the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom. A list that also includes Mary Anning, Barbara Hastings, Etheldred Bennet, the Philpot sisters, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Elizabeth Cobbold, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Mary Sommerville, Jane Marcet, Delvalle Lowry, and Arabella Buckley. Those women formed a framework of assistants, secretaries, collectors, field geologists, illustrators, and as popularizers of science.

Duria Antiquior famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. From Wikimedia Commons.

The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations for building stone. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils. The concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The most popular aspect of geology was the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen,was in fact, “reliant on all classes”. Due to the informal character of the early British geology, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures, but they were still barred from membership in scientific societies. Women interested in geology could attend the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). Also, the public lectures at the Royal Institution were very popular among educated women. About the BAAS meeting at York (1831), Charles Lyell wrote: “A hundred and fifty ladies, and many of rank, at the evening discussion, must also have ‘popularised’ scientific pursuits”.

William Whewell, contrary to some other colleagues, welcomed scientific women to the third meeting of the British Association in 1834. In an invitation addressed to Mary Somerville, he wrote: “I expect Mrs. Buckland and Mrs. Murchinson and several other ladies…”

Autograph letter about the discovery of plesiosaurus, by Mary Anning. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Grace Milne, the eldest child of Louis Falconer and sister of the eminent botanist and palaeontologist, Hugh Falconer; or Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. Althought Barbara Hastings (1810-1858) and Etheldred Benett (1776–1845) published their works independently, the prevailing pattern was formed by women who have worked in the field but acted as assistants to father, husband, brother, or other male geologist that were no relatives. In these cases, the publication of their findings was not part of accepted females activy, and their contribution is often completely concealed under the name of someone else. Even Lyell wrote about the iniquity of the situation in a letter to his future wife, Mary Horner: “Had our friend Mrs. Somerville been married to La Place, or some mathematician, we should never have hear of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” 

Although she was not formally published, Etheldred Benett wrote several manuscripts, which are now in the collections of the Geological Society of London. She was a lady, a member of the landed gentry, and unlike Mary Anning, Etheldred Bennet was in a very confortable financial circumstances. She described the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of fossils of Wiltshire, and for more than 30 years she was frequently acknowledged in the publications of palaeontologist and geologist throughout Europe.

Portrait of Barbara Rawdon Hastings (née Yelverton), Marchioness of Hastings. From Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Rawdon (née Yelverton) Hastings (1810–1858), 20th Baroness Grey de Ruthyn and Marchioness of Hastings was known as a fossil collector and a “lady-geologist” . She is also well known for the “Hastings Collection,” consisting of several thousand fossil specimens from England and Europe. She also studied the stratigraphy of England and published her findings in “Description géologique des falaises d’Hordle, et sur la côte de Hampshire, en Angleterre” (Hastings, 1851–52) and “On the tertiary beds of Hordwell, Hampshire” (Hastings, 1853).

The Philpot sisters (Margaret, ?–1845; Mary, 1773?–1838; Elizabeth, 1780–1857) were also well know for their fossil collection and their friendship with Mary Anning. They came from educated, middle-class London, and after their parents dead, they moved to Lymes Regis and amassed an important collection of fossils. Elizabeth maintained correspondences with William Buckland, William Conybeare, Henry De la Beche, Richard Owen, James Sowery and Louis Agassiz. About Elizabeth, Agassiz wrote: “I have the pleasure to recognize publicly the service, that she rendered to palaeontology and specially to fossil ichtyology, in collecting with much ardour the fossil relicts in the Lias of Lyme Regis.”

Mary Horner Lyell (1808-1873) British geologist. Daughter of geologist Professor Leonard Horner, wife of Sir Charles Lyell.

In the other group we could find those women who worked with their husbands. The most prominent of these women were Mary (née Moreland) Buckland (1797–1857), wife of Rev. William Buckland; Mary Ann (née Woodhouse) Mantell (1795–1869), wife of Dr. Gideon Mantell; Charlotte (née Hugonin) Murchison (1789–1869) wife of Sir Roderick Murchison; and Mary Elizabeth (née Horner) Lyell (1808–1873), wife of Sir Charles Lyell (Davis, 2009).

Mary Morland (1797–1857) illustrated some of George Cuvier’s work before she became Mrs William Buckland. She made models of fossils for the Oxford museum and repaired broken fossils. She assisted her husband by taking notes of his observations and illustrating his work. After the death of her husband, she continued working on marine zoophytes.

Charlotte Murchinson (1789–1869) was a strong influence for her husband and introduced him in the world of geology. She accompanied him on excursions and spent time sketching the  landscape and outcrops and collecting Jurassic fossil specimens from the beaches.

Mary Mantell and the lithographed of an Iguanodon teeth.

Mary Mantell (1795–1869) discovered the teeth of Iguanodon, which led to her husband’s publication of an important paper announcing the discovery of a new giant reptile (Creese and Creese, 1994). She also made the illustration of Mantell’s work: “Fossils of the South Downs: or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex”. Mary Mantell left her husband in 1839 and the children remained with their father as was customary.

Mary Lyell (1808–1873) was daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. She read both French and German fluently and translated scientific papers for her husband and managed his correspondence. She later specialized in conchology and regularly attended meetings of the London Geological Society.

 

Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was an special case. Despite her lower social condition and the fact that she was single, Mary became the most famous woman paleontologist of her time. She 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. After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

Women were also great contributors to the popularization of geology. One such example is Mary Somerville. She has been called  “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.”  She was also the first English geographer. Her book “Physical Geography” (1848) was the first textbook on the subject in English and her most popular work. It was published three years after the first volume of Alexander von Humboldt’s “Cosmos”. Jane Marcet’ Conversations on Chemistry, also gave a basic introduction in chemical mineralogy. Other examples include Delvalle Lowry, who published Conversations on Mineralogy in 1822, and Arabella Buckley, secretary of Charles Lyell, who wrote books about natural history.

Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.

 

 

References:

BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

Kölbl-Ebert, M. (2007). The geological travels of Charles Lyell, Charlotte Murchison and Roderick Impey Murchison in France and northern Italy (1828). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287(1), 109–117.doi:10.1144/sp287.9

Kölbl-Ebert M (2002): British Geology in the Early 19th Century – A Conglomerate with a Female Matrix.– Earth Sciences History 21(1): 3–25.

Forgotten women of paleontology: Hildegarde Howard

Hildegard Howard with fossil bird from the Rancho La Brea.

The birth of modern science was hostile to women’s participation. The world’s major academies of science were founded in the 17th century: the Royal Society of London (1662), the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), and the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften (1700). Unfortunately, women were not become members of these societies for over 300 years. Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat became the first woman to be elected to the Paris Academy of Science in 1979. Although the Royal Society was less rigid in terms of memberships than the Paris Academy of Science, it was not until 1945 that the first women were admitted as fellows of the Royal Society: the X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903–1971), and biochemist and microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948).

Despite the barriers, between 1880 and 1914, some 60 women contributed papers to Royal Society publications. Meanwhile, in the United States, geology was a marginal subject in the curricula of the early women’s colleges until an intense programme was started at Bryn Mawr College in the 1890s.

Hildegard Howard measures specimens from the Rancho La Brea Collection. Image from The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Florence Bascom was one of the pioneers when geological education at universities became available to women. She received her PhD degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1893 by special dispensation, as women were not admitted officially until 1907; while Carlotta Joaquina Maury attended Cornell University, where she became one of the first women to receive her PhD in paleontology in 1902.

When Hildegarde Howard began attending the Southern Branch of the University of California (now known as the University of California at Los Angeles), women were still barred from scientific societies. She was born on April 3, 1901 in Washington D.C., but moved to Los Angeles at the age of 5. Her main interest was journalism, until she met her first biology instructor, Miss Pirie Davidson. In 1921, Hildegarde obtained a part-time job working for Dr. Chester Stock, sorting bones from Rancho La Brea in the basement of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now known as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County). One year later, she went to Berkeley to finish her degree.

Dr. Hildegarde Howard, in her office in 1961.Copyright Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

In 1928, she obtained her Ph.D. degree. Her dissertation, entitled “The Avifauna of Emeryville Shellmound”, became one of her most popular works, and remained as the principal reference of its kind until the appearance of the first edition of Nomina Anatomica Avium in 1979. She obtained a permanent position with the museum in 1929. Although she was a curator, she did not receive that official title until 1938. Through that decade, she wrote twenty-four papers on fossil birds in the American Southwest. She was promoted to the curator of Avian Paleontology in 1944, and she would serve in that role until 1951, when she was promoted to Chief Curator of Science, She became the first woman to receive the Brewster Medal for outstanding research in ornithology in 1953.

Hildegarde Howard officially retired in 1961, although continued research on fossil birds, publishing her last paper in 1992. During her extraordinary career, Dr. Howard described 3 families, 13 genera, 57 species, and 2 subspecies, and remains highly regarded as one of the foremost experts in her field. She died on February 28, 1998.

 

References:

Campbell Jr., Kenneth. 2000c. “In Memoriam, Hildegarde Howard 1901-1998.” The Auk, vol.117, no.3, 775-779.

 

The mounting of the cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata.

Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, 1912 (From Otero and Gasparini, 2014)

Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, 1912 (From Otero and Gasparini, 2014).

Diplodocus is one of the most popular dinosaurs of all time. The first remains of a Diplodocus were found by Benjamin Mudge and Samuel Wendell Williston, in the Upper Jurassic outcrops of Cañon City, Colorado, United States, in 1877. One year later, Othniel Charles Marsh named the species Diplodocus longus on the basis of remains of the hind limb and tail. The name Diplodocus means ‘double beam’ in reference to the particular two-pronged morphology of the posterior hemal arches. D. carnegii, was discovered in 1899 during an expedition carried out by the Carnegie Museum to the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming. John Bell Hatcher dedicated the new species of to Andrew Carnegie.

A sketch from the of Diplodocus carnegii, which Carnegie had framed and mounted on a wall at his castle in Scotland.

William Jacob Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum, sent a sketch of the skeleton of Diplodocus to Andrew Carnegie. At the time, the steel tycoon was at his Castle, Skibo, in Sutherland County, Scotland. The King Edward VII of England, saw the sketch and asked Carnegie to give him a specimen for the British Museum of Natural History in London. Holland proposed to Carnegie to make a life-sized replica of D. carnegii to be given to the British Museum of Natural History. On May 12, 1905, the long skeleton was unveiled to a crowd of 300 people, and became an instant star.

Mounting of the cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, Argentina. Arthur Coggeshall and William Holland are second and third from left (Adapted from ‘Caras y Caretas’ magazine, 1912).

Nine replicas of D. carnegii were made and donated to kings and presidents of Europe and Latin America. On November of 1911, Argentinean president Dr. Roque Saenz Peña communicated to Andrew Carnegie his request to have a replica of D. carnegii. His request was accepted, and on July 1, 1912, 34 boxes containing the cast of the animal were sent to Argentina on the S.S. ‘Sallust’. William Holland and Mr. Arthur Coggeshall were in charge of mounting the replica. The site where the replica would be mounted in the Museo de La Plata, would be the Sala III, which was dedicated to invertebrates and plants. Holland insisted that the plans used for the mounting of D. carnegii at Vienna were followed in mounting the skeleton in La Plata. After the skeleton was mounted, the Director of the Museum, Dr. Samuel Lafone-Quevedo, gave a speech expressing his gratitude to Andrew Carnegie and his representatives, in which William Holland was designated an Honorary Member of La Plata University.

Reference:

Alejandro Otero and Zulma Gasparini “The History of the Cast Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii Hatcher, 1901, at the Museo De La Plata, Argentina,” Annals of Carnegie Museum 82(3), (2014). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2992/007.082.0301

BARRETT, P., P. PARRY, AND S. CHAPMAN. 2010. Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon. Natural History Museum, London. 48 pp.

 

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).

 

 

Forgotten women of paleontology: Irene Crespin

Irene Crespin (1896-1980)

Irene Crespin was born on November 12, 1896, in Kew, Victoria, Australia. In her memories, she wrote that her interest in Palaeontology began early in her life, when she was one of the first students to attend the Mansfield High School in northeastern Victoria. The head master of for a short period was the eminent Australian geologist Charles Fenner.

In 1919, she graduated with a B.A. from the University of Melbourne. In 1927 she joined the Commonwealth Government as Assistant Palaeontologist to Frederick Chapman at the National Museum of Victoria. Chapman was an authority on Foraminifera and was president of the Royal Society of Victoria. About her time at the Museum she wrote: “In the early days, we passed through the depression era. Our salaries were reduced overnight. I was reduced to six pounds a week. They were difficult times for us all. One would walk a long distance to save a threepenny tram fare.”

Dr Irene Crespin with W. Baragwanath, Secretary of Mines for Victoria, probably visiting a Cooksonia plant site, c. 1927 (From Turner 2007)

In 1936, Crespin succeeded Chapman as Commonwealth Palaeontologist. On February 10th, she was transferred from the National Museum, Melbourne to join the Commonwealth Geological Adviser, Dr. W.G. Woolnough, in Canberra. About her new position she wrote: “Of course, being a woman, and despite the tremendous responsibility placed upon me with the transfer to Canberra, I was given a salary of about half of that which Chapman received. Later the Chairman of the Public Service Board told me that I was being put on trial.”

She becoming greatly interested in the Tertiary microfaunas, and for some time she was the only professional micropaleontologist on the Australian mainland. Her research took her all over Australia. In 1939, she received permission from the Minister of the Interior to visit Java and Sumatra to discuss the problems of Tertiary correlation in the Netherlands East Indies with Papua and New Guinea.

Crespin’s photo of her aeroplane and crew on an overseas trip to Java, Indonesia, 1939 (From Turner 2007)

Crespin was well respected internationally and was a regular participant in national and international scientific conferences. In 1953, many of her books and specimens were destroyed as a result of a fire in the Canberra offices. The same year, she received Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal. In 1957 she was president of the Royal Society of Canberra, and was awarded with the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

During her career she published 86 papers as sole author and more 22 in collaboration with other scientists. She was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, London, in 1960. She became an honorary member of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1973. She died in Canberra, on January 2, 1980.

References:

Turner, S. (2007). Invincible but mostly invisible: Australian women’s contribution to geology and palaeontology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281(1), 165–202. doi: 10.1144/sp281.11

Crespin, Irene (1975). “Ramblings of a micropalaeontologist”. BUREAU OF MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOLOGY AND GEOPHYSICS.

 

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’.

Duria Antiquior famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. From Wikimedia Commons.

By the 19th century, the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of Great Britain. Women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. England was ruled by an elite, and of course, these scholarly activities only occurred within the upper echelon of British society. Notwithstanding, the most famous fossilist of the 19th century was a women of a low social station: Mary Anning.

Mary Anning was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. He trained Mary and her brother Joseph in how to look and clean fossils. After the death of her father, Mary and Joseph used those skills to search fossils that they sold as “curiosities”. The source of those fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias.

The shore of Lyme Bay where Mary Anning did most of her collecting.

Invertebrate fossils, like ammonoids or belemnites, were the most common findings. But when Mary was 12, her brother Joseph found a skull protruding from a cliff and few month later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. They sold it for £23. Later, in 1819, the skeleton was purchased by Charles Koenig of the British Museum of London who suggested the name “Ichthyosaur” for the fossil.

In 1819 the Annings were in considerable financial difficulties. They were rescued by the generosity of Thomas James Birch (1768–1829), who arranged for the sale of his personal collection, largely purchased from the Annings, in Bullock’s Museum in London. The auction took place in May 1820, during which Georges Cuvier bought several pieces for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

Mary Anning’s sketch of belemnites. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

On December 10, 1823, she discovered the first complete Plesiosaur skeleton at Lyme Regis in Dorset. The fossil was acquired by the Duke of Buckingham. Noticed about the discovery, George Cuvier wrote to William Conybeare suggesting that the find was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different animals. William Buckland and Conybeare sent a letter to Cuvier including anatomical details, an engraving of the specimen and a sketch made by Mary Morland (Buckland’s wife) based on Mary Anning’s own drawings and they convinced Cuvier that this specimen was a genuine find. From that moment, Cuvier treated Mary Anning as a legitimate and respectable fossil collector and cited her name in his publications.

Autograph letter about the discovery of plesiosaurus, by Mary Anning. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

By the age of 27, Mary was the owner of a little shop: Anning’s Fossil Depot. Many scientist and fossil collectors from around the globe went to Mary´s shop. She was friend of Henry De la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who knew Mary since they were both children and lived in Lyme Regis. De la Beche was a great supporter of Mary’s work. She also corresponded with Charles Lyell, William Buckland and Mary Morland, Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison.

It’s fairly to say that Mary felt secure in the world of men, and a despite her religious beliefs, she was an early feminist. In an essay in her notebook, titled Woman!, Mary writes: “And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly Man? Yes, and was destined doubtless, to become his friend, his helpmate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave…”

A) Mary Anning (1799- 1847) B) William Buckland (1784- 1856)

On December of 1828, Mary found the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. William Buckland made the announcement of Mary’s discovery in the Geological Society of London and named Pterodactylus macronyx in allusion to its large claws. The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, but Buckland thought that the fragment of jaw in the collection of the Philpot sisters of Lyme belonged to a pterosaur.

In 1829, Mary Anning discovered Squaloraja polyspondyle, a fish. Unfortunately, the specimen was lost in the destruction of the Bristol Museum by a German bombing raid in November, 1940.
From her correspondence is clear that Mary learned anatomy by dissecting modern organisms. In a letter to J.S. Miller of the Bristol Museum, dated 20 January 1830, she wrote: “…I have dissected a Ray since I received your letter, and I do not think it the same genus, the Vertebrae alone would constitute it a different genus being so unlike any fish vertebrae they are so closely anchylosed that they look like one bone but being dislocated at two places show that each thin line is a separate vertebrae with the ends flat…”.

Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche.

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’, died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

Mary Anning’s Window, St. Michael’s Church. From Wikimedia Commons.

In February 1850 Mary was honoured by the unveiling of a new window in the parish church at Lyme, funded through another subscription among the Fellows of the Geological Society of London, with the following inscription: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

References:

Buckland, Adelene: Novel Science : Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

Davis, Larry E. (2012) “Mary Anning: Princess of Palaeontology and Geological Lioness,”The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Vol. 84: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Hugh Torrens, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew’, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 257-284. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

De la Beche, H., 1848a. Obituary notices. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, v. 4: xxiv–xxv.

Dickens, C., 1865. Mary Anning, the fossil finder. All the Year Round, 13 (Feb 11): 60–63.

Before Jurassic Park: The study of ancient DNA.

A tick entangled in a dinosaur feather (From Peñalver et al., 2017)

We all know the story. In the early 80’s, John Hammond, a shady entrepreneur, created the ultimate thematic park by cloning dinosaurs from preserved DNA in mosquitoes entombed in amber. The idea, as Michael Crichton acknowledged, was not new.

In 1982, entomologist George Poinar and electron microscopist Roberta Hess at University of California,  found exceptional evidence for the organic preservation of a 40-million-year-old fly in Baltic amber. They saw intact cell organelles, such as nuclei, and mitochondria, and wondered whether these results were replicable. After a letter from Poinar to a colleague, they received, a week later,  a 70–80 million-year-old wasp in Canadian amber. The wasp also revealed evidence of cellular structure. The realization that amber was a special source of cellular preservation caused them to wonder if it could be a source of molecular preservation, too.

Quagga mare at London Zoo, 1870, the only specimen photographed alive

Poinar and Hess joined forces with Allan Wilson, Professor of Biochemistry at Berkeley, and Russell Higuchi, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral researcher in Wilson’s lab. A year later, they embarked on the first experiment to test ideas about the preservation and extraction of DNA from insects in ancient amber. Poinar selected eight specimens that would potentially offer optimal preservation of DNA. In two of the eight insects were signs of DNA, but no hybridization experiments were done to determine whether the results were due to human contamination.

Soon, Wilson and Higuchi turned their attention to the quagga, a subspecies of plains zebra that went extinct in 1883. The study, lead by Russell Higuchi, used two short mitochondrial DNA sequences from the muscle and connective tissue from a 140 year-old quagga from the Natural History Museum in Mainz, Germany, and confirmed that the quagga was more closely related to zebras than to horses.
The survival of DNA in quagga tissue and in an Egyptian mummy created waves among the scientific community, and in the autumn of 1984, Wilson and his lab submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the first official research proposal to search for DNA in ancient and extinct organisms. They wrote: “This is the first proposal to study the possible utility of DNA to paleontology. If clonable DNA is present in many fossil bones and teeth and in insects included in amber, a new field, molecular paleontology, can arise.”

 

Reference:

Jones, E.D., Ancient DNA: a history of the science before Jurassic Park; Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2018.02.001

Poinar, G. O., & Hess, R. (1982). Ultrastructure of 40-million-year-old insect tissue.
Science, 215(4537), 1241–1242. DOI: 10.1126/science.215.4537.1241

Higuchi R, Bowman B, Freiberger M, Ryder OA, Wilson AC. DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family. Nature. 1984;312:282–284. doi: 10.1038/312282a0.

Peñalver, E. et al; Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs as revealed by Cretaceous amber assemblages, Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 472 (2017)
doi:10.1038/s41467-018-02913-w

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Elizabeth Anderson Gray

Elizabeth Anderson Gray (1831 – 1924) Image: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils, and the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of  Great Britain. The most popular aspect of geology was  the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen,was in fact, “reliant on all classes”. Women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. It was common for male scientists to have women assistants, but most of them went unacknowledged and become lost to history.  However, some women found the way to avoid that fate. One of those women was Elizabeth Anderson Gray.

Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on February 21, 1831, Elizabeth Anderson Gray  is considered as one of the foremost Scottish fossil collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She had little formal schooling but as a girl joined her father, Thomas Anderson, in his hobby of fossil collecting. In 1856, she married a Glasgow banker, Robert Gray, co-founder of The Natural History Society of Glasgow. She took a geology course for women at Glasgow University and she trained her children to document their findings too. She was also friend of Jane Longstaff, a British malacologist and expert in fossil gastropods of the Palaeozoic. The Gray collections, considered important in studies of Ordovician fauna, were sold to institutions. In 1920 a major part of the collection was acquired by the British Museum for £2250. Charles Lapworth, in his work on the ‘Girvan Succession’ referred extensively to E. Gray’s collection in his stratigraphical correlations.

In 1900, Elizabeth Gray was made an honorary member of the Geological Society of Glasgow for her many contributions, and in 1903, she was awarded the Murchison geological fund in recognition of her skilful services to geological science. She continued gathering fossils until her death on 1924.

 

References:

BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

M. R. S. Creese (2007), Fossil hunters, a cave explorer and a rock analyst: notes on some early women contributors to geology, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 39-49. https://doi.org/10.1144/SP281.3