Tuesday, December 31, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1853: Dinner Inside an Iguanodon


1853: Dinner Inside an Iguanodon

DECEMBER 31ST, 1853... It has been 16 years since the first public recreation of a dinosaur. In 1837, the first publicly released images any dinosaurs, ever, was created in the form of a watercolor painting of an Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus. Since that time, the announcement was made by Sir Richard Owen that this group of animals would now fall under the heading of "Dinosaurs". Other than that though, no other large strides in dinosaur presentation has occurred. That is, until 1852.

In 1852, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was approached to produce several life-sized models of many extinct animals, including the known dinosaurs of the time. The models were being built for the Crystal Palace Park that was created around the Crystal Palace, a building that was recently moved in 1851. These were to be the first life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs ever created. But before they were to be finished, they needed to publicize the park, as well as the dinosaurs that were soon to be within it.

Towards the end of 1853, the models of some of the dinosaurs had started to come into focus. Waterhouse Hawkins, a renowned artist and sculptor with an extensive knowledge of natural history and geology, worked closely with Sir Richard Owen to produce the most accurate scientific models ever possible. Although they are "laughably incorrect" by today's scientific standards, they were more accurate to the scientific knowledge of 1853 than the Jurassic World dinosaurs are to today's scientific knowledge.

To kick off this major enterprise, Owen and Waterhouse Hawkins hosted a New Year's Eve dinner INSIDE the Iguanodon model. Invitations were sent out to prominent people of the time, specifically people who had supported the Crystal Palace Park dinosaur enterprise as well as newspaper reporters in order to publicize the event.

Invitation sketch created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins for the December 31st dinner. Printed in the January 7th, 1854 edition of the Illustrated London News
The dinosaur itself was clearly very large since it was able to hold so many people. Eventually it was determined that twenty-one people were able to fit within the Iguanodon itself for the dinner. In an account given by Waterhouse Hawkins it was stated that:
"The Restoration of the lguanodon was one of the largest and earliest completed of Mr Waterhouse Hawkins’ gigantic models measuring thirty feet from the nose to the end of the tail, of that quantity the body with the neck contained about fifteen feet which when the pieces of the mould that formed the ridge of the back were removed the body presented the appearance of a wide open Boot with on enclosed arch seven feet high at both ends."
Although the actual sculptures of the dinosaurs wouldn't be accessible to the general public until later in 1854, these were the fist images anyone had seen of the dinosaur models. On the same day as the New Years Eve party described above, The Illustrated London News released the following image of the dinosaurs under construction, highlighting the Iguanodon in great detail. While the Iguanodon in the January 7th publication was based on the invitation given by the Waterhouse Hawkins, the December 31st image is assumed to be based on the actual models under construction.

Image of the dinosaurs and other animals under construction for the Crystal Palace Park. Printed in the December 31st, 1853 edition of the Illustrated London News.  
Within the image above, besides the giant Iguanodon (noticable for its nose horn) is the dinosaur Hylaeosaurus on the right (the first reconstruction of this dinosaur), a Palaeotherium in the back left (a prehistoric mammal from the Eocene), the dinosaur Megalosaurus in the front left, and a Dicynodon in the front right (an early synapsid, which is a prehistoric relative to mammals).

So, while these images may be laughed at today, they do represent the greatest leap forward from fragmentary scientific knowledge to full fledged dinosaur reconstructions that has ever, and will probably ever, be undertaken.

Illustrated London News, 7 January 1854, p. 22
Illustrated London News, 31 December 1853, pp 11-12

Sunday, December 22, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1841: Dinosauria


1841: Dinosauria

Before we had the countless species of dinosaurs that most nine year olds could easily school me on, we had a time before dinosaurs were called such. However, scientists started putting together the puzzles that the bones left behind and realized that the bones reconstructed animals that don't resemble anything currently alive.

These discoveries prompted Sir Richard Owen to evaluate what we knew about these fossils. Based on the discovery of animals like Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus, he noticed that these animals all shared a couple of interesting features.
  1. They had columnar legs, instead of sprawling legs, like how modern crocodilians have. This marked them as distinctly different from modern day reptiles.
  2. Their vertebrae were fused to the pelvic girdle.
It was because of this, that Owen gave a talk entitled Report on British Fossil Reptiles. Part II  to the 11th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Plymouth in July of 1841. This report was then published within the Report of the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1841)(p. 60-204). Within the publication, Owen stated:

"The combination of such characters, some as the sacral ones, altogether peculiar among reptiles, others borrowed, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria."

Monday, December 16, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1837: The First Dinosaur Reconstruction


1837: The First Dinosaur Reconstruction

One of the most important milestones which propelled dinosaurs into becoming the cultural phenomenon that they have become, is the translation of the numerous bones that have been found up until this point into a visual representation of the beasts. As of 1834, there has been identified three different species of dinosaurs, although they aren't known as "dinosaurs" yet. As time progresses, these monstrous animals are slowly becoming more and more well known. The person who single-handedly had propelled dinosaurs into the spotlight that they found themselves in, was Gideon Mantell. Mantell was known for the naming of two out of those three species, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. Mantell didn't settle with that though. He continued on the lookout for other potential Iguanodon material in the hopes that eventually he would be able to piece together what this behemoth looked like. 

In 1834, after years of finding teeth and other bits of bone, Mantell struck upon a proverbial goldmine. In a limestone quarry near Maidstone in Kent, workers had ended up blowing apart a rock with what looked like pieces of petrified wood in it. The owner of the mine, William Harding Bensted, contacted Mantell who traveled to analyze the rock slab. 
The Maidstone Mantell piece. Image from The Natural History Museum

Gideon Mantell identified the remains as those belonging to the Iguanodon. After discovery of the Maidstone slab, Mantell supposedly created a sketch of what the Iguanodon would look like. This reconstruction looked amazingly like an iguana, since Mantell was so set on the fact that they were homologues of each other, with the Iguanodon really just being a very large iguana.
Purported original sketch of Iguanodon by Gideon Mantell (~1834) (image from The Natural History Museum)
I say that he "supposedly" made the above sketch because I can't find any evidence that he actually made the sketch or where it came from. The best case that I can find, is that he made the sketch within his own private notes and it was never released to the public. Since it was a private sketch, it's not an example of dinosaurs in pop culture because it was never released into the wild. What the sketch turned into though did enter into Pop Culture as the first ever dinosaur reconstruction. 

The Country of the Iguanodon, 1837, London, by John Martin. Gift of Mrs Mantell-Harding, 1961. Te Papa (1992-0035-1784)
In 1837, John Martin was approached by Gideon Mantell to create a reconstruction of the Iguanodon based on what was known about the animal at the time, including the nose horn. Martin recreated a prehistoric type landscape in watercolor with an Iguanodon being attacked by a Megalosaurus, two of the three dinosaurs known at the time. Mantell eventually took this image and made it the frontpiece for his book The Wonders of Geology

As a part of pup culture, "The County of the Iguanodon" will go down in history as the very first dinosaur reconstruction, which had helped propel how dinosaurs were viewed in the centuries to come. 


Monday, December 02, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1833: Hylaeosaurus


1833: Hylaeosaurus 

When Sir Richard Owen announced the term "Dinosauria", he used three previously announced and described species as his hallmark for the group. These include the initially announced Megalosaurus, the second dinosaur named, Iguanodon, and the third described dinosaur, which was named Hylaeosaurus.  

In the previous entry, we looked at how Gideon Mantell requested quarry workers to notify him if they noticed anything that might be of interest to him. Well, in 1832 they noticed something rather significant. The quarry workers had blasted a large block of stone and upon noticing some bone in the fragments had contacted Mantell that was documented in his 1833 publication The Geology of the South-East of England.  
"Upon repairing to the quarry, the considerable number of pieces into which the block was broken, the extreme hardness of the stone, and the unpromising appearance of the fragments of bone that were visible, seemed to render the attempt to dissect it alike hopeless and unprofitable. I resolved, however, to collect the scattered fragments together; and after much labour succeeded in reducing the specimen to the state in which it now appears."
The rock that was blasted apart had a large number of bones, which, even though they were not directly articulated, were near enough that they could be placed within the animal. This was something that has not occurred much up until this point. Previous published descriptions were generally localized bones with the occasional connected bones, but nothing to this degree. Within the cluster of bones, Mantell was able to identify, and describe, a large number of vertebrae, ribs, other bones, and most importantly, dermal plates.

Fossil material of the newly announced Hylaeosaurus from Mantell's 1833 book, The Geology of the South-East of England
Although much smaller than either Iguanodon or Megalosaurus, Mantell realized that this was something unique in it's own right. 
"I venture to suggest the propriety of referring it to a new genus of saurians. The generic characters would, of course, be the peculiarity of the sternal apparatus, and the remarkable processes which are distributed around it ; and I propose to distinguish it by the name of Hylaeosaurus, to indicate the locality in which these remains were discovered."
The name Hylaeosaurus is derived from the name of the Wealden Woods, giving it the moniker of "Fossil Lizard of the Weald". Future discoveries eventually identified Hylaeosaurus as the very first anklyosaurus. This is very interesting given his comments on the vertebrae of the tail that he discovered:
"The vertebrae are lumbar, sacral, and caudal; and there are two of the latter anchylosed, and two others disposed to become so; which is remarkable, for in all my skeletons of reptiles an analogous case is not observable, except where the tail has been broken, and then the bone becomes united by exostosis, which is not the case in these fossils: hence it would seem that these must have belonged to an animal making such feeble use of the tail, that the vertebra' were occasionally anchylosed together."
Even though other eventual dinosaurs are named before the term "Dinosauria" is coined, this was the last verifiable dinosaur of the time before the announcement. The other animals won't be identified as dinosaurs until much later.

Dermal bones, otherwise known as scutes, of Hylaeosaurus from Mantell, 1833.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1831: The Iguanodon's "Horn"


1831: The Iguanodon's "Horn" 

One of the most memorable paleontological "mistakes" has to be the placement of  the Iguanodon's thumb spike initially as a horn. But where did that idea originate from and how did it progress from there? 

Although the first illustration of the "horn" was in Gideon Mantell's 1833 book The Geology of the South-East of England (presented below), that is not the first place that the horn was mentioned. In 1831, Mantell wrote an article entitled The Geological Age of Reptiles in which he briefly mentioned that the Iguanodon had a horn. At the time he presented no evidence or background to the story, an oversight he would eventually correct in his 1833 book.
"This creature [the Iguanodon], like some of the recent species of Iguanas, had warts or horns on its snout, and an appendage of this kind has been found of the size and shape of the lesser horn of the rhinoceros!"
Fast forward two years to his The Geology of the South-East of England publication and Mantell provides us with not only details on the discovery of said horn, but also an image of the bone. Since Mantell was the person who initially named Iguanodon back in 1825, it seems apropos for him to further Iguanodon's cultural development. Or, more accurately, Gideon kept himself in the loop, even paying quarry workers to notify him if they find anything of interest. 

Gideon attributes the initial discover of the "horn" to his wife, Mary Ann, who is also credited with the initial discovery of the teeth from which the Iguanodon was named. Mary Ann will have to go uncredited though, until Mantell's 1838 publication, The Wonders of Geology. Mantell describes the discovery such that the horn...
"...like the claw-bone, it was discovered imbedded in the conglomerate of Tilgate Forest."
I find it extremely interesting that the horn, eventually to be identified as the thumb spike, was discovered "like the claw-bone" of the Iguanodon. Such was the time that every little piece of bone became a publication, Mantell actually published a brief announcement on the discovery of the claws in 1829, however they contained no mention of the "horn". 

Mantell, it seemed, was determined to make the Iguanodon into a giant replica of the modern day iguana. Mantell's description of the horn leads the reader to believe that this horn must have been another indication that the Iguanodon really was just a giant iguana. 
"The nature of this extraordinary fossil was for some time undetermined ; and it is to the discrimination of Mr. Pentland, whose high attainments in comparative anatomy are well known, that we are indebted for the suggestion that it probably belonged to a saurian animal. It is well known that some reptiles of that order have bony or horny projections on their foreheads ; and it is not a little curious, that, among the Iguanas, the horned species most prevail. The Iguana cornuta, which is a native of Saint Domingo, resembles the common Iguana in size, colour, and general proportions; on the front of the head, between the eyes and nostrils, are seated four rather large, scaly, tubercles; behind which rises an osseous conical horn, or process, covered by a single scale. That our fossil was such an appendage, there can be no doubt; and its surface bears marks of the impression of an integument by which it was covered, and probably attached to the skull. This fact establishes another remarkable analogy between the Iguanodon, and the animal from which its name is derived."
The original illustration of the Iguanodon's "horn" from Mantell's
1833 book, The Geology of the South-East of England 
Even with the discovery of various bits and pieces of the skeleton over the years, from the teeth to the "horn", Mantell was still hesitant to provide anyone with an illustration of the Iguanodon by this point in 1833. That will come in the near future with a discovery that Mantell will be unable to restrain himself from speculating on what the Iguanodon looked like in real life. 


Thursday, November 28, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1825: Iguanodon


1825: Iguanodon

Despite some question about the event, it is generally believed that in 1822 Mary Ann Mantell stumbled upon a tooth unlike anything she had ever seen before. She presented the tooth to her husband, Gideon, a physician who had an interest in fossils. Based on the location of discovery, Gideon was able to trace the tooth back to its source and discovered several other teeth as well as some other bones. Although Dr. Mantell was unable to link the other bones with the teeth, he still had these highly unusual teeth to interpret.

Dr. Mantell ended up sending the teeth to renowned scientist Baron Georges Cuvier. Although Cuvier was initially skeptical of the teeth and said they were part of a rhinoceros, he later recanted. In a letter that Gideon reprinted in his announcement of Iguanodon, Cuvier expresses his opinion, that based on the structure of the teeth, they were from a very large, unknown, herbivorous reptile. Cuvier recommended finding more material though, of which Mantell was unable to do.

The teeth were found in the sandstone of the Tilgate forest, of which crocodile, plesiosaur, and Megalosaurus, material was already identified within the rock unit. These teeth, and some other bones, were the only pieces they weren't able to identify. Even though he didn't have much material to go on, Dr. Mantell would not be dissuaded and upon visiting the Royal College of Surgeons in London he was shown a specimen of an iguana, brought back from the West Indies by Darwin. Looking at the teeth, Dr. Mantell noticed the extreme similarity between the two, except his was much, much larger. He eventually published on the specimen in 1825 in a journal article entitled "Notice on the Iguanodon, a newly discovered fossil reptile, from the sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex".
"If however any inference may be drawn from the nature of the fossils with which its remains associated, we may conclude, that if amphibious, it was not of marine origin, but inhabited rivers or fresh-water lakes; in either case the term Iguanodon, derived from the form of the teeth, ... will not, it is presumed, be deemed objectionable."

The original illustration of the Iguanodon material from Mantell's 1825 paper, Notice on the Iguanodon...
The naming of Iguanodon made this the second dinosaur ever to be officially named, however it is still over a decade before the term “Dinosaurs” will be coined. Like the Megalosaurus paper the previous year, it was also assumed that these large saurians were aquatic, or at least amphibious. mostly based on their association with known aquatic species like plesiosaurs and sharks. Also, along with the Megalosaurus, no reconstructions were even attempted at the time. The only real description of the animal itself was a ballpark estimate on its size:
"That the latter equalled, if not exceeded the former in magnitude [Megalosaurus], seems highly probable; for if the recent and fossil animal bore the same relative proportions, the tooth, fig. 1. must have belonged an individual upwards of sixty feet long; a conclusion in perfect accordance with thatdeduced by Professor Buckland from a femur, and other bones in my possession."
The initial reconstruction for Iguanodon must also wait, like with Megalosaurus, another decade for a more complete specimen to be found. It is at that time that Mantell will return to the Iguanodon in order to create a what will become one of the first dinosaur reconstructions.

Mantell, G.A., 1825, VIII. Notice on the Iguanodon, a newly discovered fossil reptile, from the sandstone of Tilgate, in Sussex: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, v. 115, p. 179-186.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1824: Megalosaurus


1824: Megalosaurus

Starting in the early 1800's, people began to notice the fossils of extinct animals for what they were, extinct animals. Originally it was assumed that God would never let one of his creations ever go extinct, so these remains that were being discovered must be the remains of something not known in that region. However, as time passed people were realizing that the bones they were finding belonged to nothing that was alive today and therefore must be extinct. 

This trend of identifying unknown, extinct animals really kicked off in the 1820's with the discovery and naming of several aquatic animals like the Plesiosaurus (1821) and the Mosasaurus (1822). However, being aquatic animals there was always a possibility that they could still be around, just somewhere off in the deeps of the oceans. This changed as the first extinct land animals started to be identified. In 1824, William Buckland described and named the first known dinosaur species, however the term "Dinosaur" didn't exist yet. The bones, which were far from a complete skeleton, were discovered in Stonefield, England. Even though Buckland realized that he likely knew he had the bits and pieces of several individuals, he knew he had enough of the animal to determine that this is something the world had never seen before.

Buckland described and named his bits of bones in a paper entitled "Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield". His description included images of the lower jaw from multiple angles, some teeth, some vertebrae still attached, or at least adjacent to each other when found, some ribs, pelvis pieces, scapula pieces, a femur, a fibula, and a metatarsal (some of the bones which were misidentified).

Most of the images of the Megalosaurus material from Buckland's 1824 paper
Buckland references several people who are, or will be, influential in paleontology in the coming years including Cuvier and Gideon Mantell. Mantell will later come out with descriptions of his own dinosaur the following year and it was this discovery which prompted Buckland to publish Megalosaurus as quickly as he could Based on the size of the bones presented, Cuvier would have estimated the animal to be 40 feet in length and weigh as much as an elephant seven feet high. Buckland seemed hesitant to place those exact dimensions on this animal but he did accede that it had to have been larger than any currently living animal. There was also another set of bones assumed to be from the same species that Buckland was describing which was significantly larger than his primary specimen. 
"...the beast in question would have equaled in height our largest elephants, and in length fallen but little short of the largest whales; but as the longitudinal growth of animals is not in so high a ratio, after making some deduction, we may calculate the length of this reptile from Cuckfield at from sixty to seventy feet. In consideration therefore of the enormous magnitude which this saurian attains, I have ventured, in concurrence with my friend and fellow-labourer, the Rev. W. Conybeare, to assign to it the name of Megalosaurus." 
Not knowing anything about the animal itself, Buckland also makes a rather interesting assumption about the ecology of Megalosaurus:
"The megalosaurus itself was probably an amphibious animal, and we might therefore expect (as is actually the case) to find it associated with the remains of other amphibia..."
The reference to Megalosaurus being amphibious was because it was discovered in the same deposit as crocodile, turtle, and plesiosaur remains. Buckland however does not attempt to provide a reconstruction of the animal, a common practice in today's scientific world. He describes the animal in both size, as listed above, and as quadrupedal, but doesn't really give any other description by which someone could recreate the giant beast. It wasn't until the 1850's when the world would see a recreation of Megalosaurus in the Crystal Palace exhibits by Benjamin Waterhouse. 


Monday, November 25, 2019

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1696: Cornelius Meyer's Dragon


Cornelius Meyer's Dragon

Towards the end of the 1600's, Europe was still enmeshed is dragon fever, with dragons still commonly being thought of as real life animals. Nothing portrays that better than the case of Cornelius Meyer's dragon (or Cornelio Meyer as it is inscribed on the skeleton placard). The case of the dragon was excellently laid out in a 2013 publication by Phil Senter and Pondanesa D. Wilkins (Senter and Wilkins, 2013).  
Skeletal display of the dragon as presented by Meyer in his 1696 book.
In 1691, Cornelius Meyer "discovered" a dragon skeleton while excavating for a dike in the vicinity of Rome. The dragon had apparently plagued the landscape, being the blamed as the cause for much of the flooding that Rome was experiencing. The dragon was assumed to have been killed in 1660, however there was debate about the issue, and the dragon was re-assumed to be alive. The locals were skeptical of pissing off the dragon by constructing the dikes, so the dragon needed to be dealt with first. 

In order to allay the fears of the local populace, Cornelius Meyer went out to "take care of" the dragon, which he so conveniently produced the body of for public display. The image above is an illustration of the skeleton that was put on display with the caption "Drago come si ritrova nelle mani dell' Ingegniero Cornelio Meyer" (“Dragon as it was recovered in the hands of the engineer Cornelius Meyer”). 
Reconstruction of the dragon based on the associated skeleton from Meyer's 1696 book.
The image of the skeleton, as well as the reconstruction drawings were reproduced for a book authored by Meyer, Nuovi ritrovamenti Divisi in Due Parti (New Findings Divided in Two Parts), which was published in 1696. The book is mostly a description of dike construction projects in the vicinity of Rome with just a few brief images of the dragon and its reconstruction. Very little information is given in the text about the dragon itself.
Another reconstruction as presented by Meyer in his 1696 book.
This particular dragon was recently brought back into the public conscious as evidence that pterosaurs and humans once coexisted. To quell that idea, Senter and Wilkins went about to describe the specimen as it is presented by Meyer in the skeletal reconstruction. Based on comparative anatomy, they were able to deduce that the skeleton was indeed a hoax (assuming a real skeleton was ever actually presented as it is illustrated). From their scientific analysis they determined (pretty conclusively in my opinion) that the skull was that of a dog, the mandible a smaller dog, the hind limbs were of a juvenile bear's forelimbs, the ribs were from a large fish, and the tail, wings, and nose horn were all fake additions. The skeleton was also presented with "advantageous" skin coverings which hid the joints between the disparate parts. 

I find that the most interesting aspect of the dragon is the continuation of the medieval body plan of the dragon being dragged almost into modern day society. We still continue to see the prevalence of two hind limbs, leathery wings, an elongated fat leathery body, long tail, and a dog-like face. So much dog-like that the skull was determined to be an actual dog! The body itself also appears to be rather small, given that the skull was of a dog. I would estimate that the entire body would only likely be about 10 feet from snout to tail tip and a few feet high standing upright. In general, although they somehow reigned terror in the Middle Ages, they were only about the size of a large lion at the most. 


Saturday, November 23, 2019

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1651: The Mexican Dragon


The Mexican Dragon

Dragon illustration from the Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (1651) by Francisco Hernandez [Page 816].
In the 1570's, a Spanish physician named Francisco Hernandez was tasked to travel through Mexico and document the plants and animals for the region with the intent of publishing a tome with this information. His trip was funded and directed by King Phillip II, whom Hernandez was the physician for. King Phillip II was intent on expanding Spanish influence on scientific matters in the world by directing the first European scientific exploration of the "New World". Hernandez ended up traveling through Mexico for three years with the help of the local Aztecs, constantly cataloging plants and animal species. He eventually spent a small fortune but the trip was considered a success with a boat load of specimens brought back to Spain.

Unfortunately, by the time of Hernandez's death in 1587, the tome wasn't even close to being published. Still wanting to make a profit on this knowledge, King Phillip II tasked another court doctor to finish the publication. Eventually, this new doctor and King Phillip II both passed away without making much headway. Part of the issue was that Hernandez's notes were confusing and jumbled up, adding to the difficulty in organizing them, especially for anyone who wasn't on the trip in the first place. He also often used the local name for species of plants and animals, not knowing how they related to European plants and animals.

In 1603, some of his notes were eventually discovered by Federico Cesi, a member of a high-class Italian family. Being fascinated with the papers, Cesi spent a small fortune obtaining all of the scattered Hernandez papers that he could find. He then tasked himself and his friends, which included a young Galileo, to organizing and eventually publish this tome. Years went by and all of Cesi's friends who were working on the publication eventually passed away, except for one, Francesco Stelluti. Stelluti was finally able to bring the final document to publication in 1651, eighty years after Hernandez initially set out to the New World. The finalized work was entitled Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (New Plants, Animals, and Minerals Mexican History).

With so many people touching this manuscript from the time of Hernandez's journey until final publication it is impossible to know which illustrations were original to the author and which were added later. The illustration itself also looks like it was pieced together from several different animals with the head and body of a snake, and the scaled wings unlike anything that I am aware of. I have seen people claim that this illustration, or others like it, is evidence of pterosaurs still in existence, however the body structure and wing plans are nothing like any pterosaur that I aware of. The body structure however does resemble previous dragon illustrations throughout the history of the middle ages in Europe. Specifically like the dragons from Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and The History of Serpents. This strong similarity lends credence that this dragon is completely made up, probably by one of Cesi's crew of workers.

Hernandez, F., 1651, Dracunculus monoceros, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (A New Natural History of the Plants, Animals and Minerals of Mexico): Rome, p. 816-828.

Friday, November 22, 2019

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1572: The Last Dragon Slaying


The Last Dragon Slaying in Europe

Most of the dragons that appeared in the middle ages (AKA the Medieval Times) were fanciful beasts, often feathered, with wings and perhaps a couple of front legs. But they were clearly in the realms of people's imaginations brought about into life by some variety of artisan. This current "dragon" is a bit different, to the point that it is very debatable whether this could even be considered a "dragon" by the loosest stretch of the definition. 

Drawing of the "dragon" in question by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons (page 404), published posthumously in 1640. 
It started in 1572 when a herdsman named Baptista of Camaldulus came across this beast that, as far as he knew, resembled a dragon near the town of Bologna. 
"...the herdsman noticed a hissing sound and was startled to see this strange little dragon ahead of him. Trembling he struck it on the head with his rod and killed it."
Normally this would be written off as nutery, however the person who described the remains of this "dragon" was Ulisse Aldrovandi, a naturalist of some influence who had written many essays on the subject and had slowly built up a museum termed the Theatre of Natural Science in Bologna. Aldrovandi described the beast as reptilian that slithered along like a snake, however it used it's front limbs to help propel itself forward. 

Compared with contemporary dragon illustrations there appears many similarities, however this dragon is notable for its lack of wings. Nearly every example of European dragons (at the time) were two legged, winged, reptilian beasts. And although Aldrovandi's illustration hits most of the salient parts, its lack of wings is noticeable. It may be assumed that Aldrovandi was a quack, or just wrote hearsay articles about dragons without any definite proof, so why put any stock in this image. However, he specifically states in his book where this dragon appears, The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons, that all of his dragons are presented as third-hand knowledge and he has had no direct knowledge of any dragons ... except this one. Why single out this one individual?

For example, here is another dragon illustration from the book, which is specifically of a dragon, not a personally described specimen. This dragon follows the body plan that was more or less laid out at the time.

Another dragon illustrated by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons (1640). Image from StrangeScience.net

As a scientist myself, I wonder if this is some exaggerated specimen of a snake that just ate a large meal, or perhaps a mutated snake with vestigial limbs. Being a naturalist I would assume that Aldrovandi would be able to identify a well fed snake versus a legitimately "fat" snake. This specimen was also apparently kept in his collection at the Theatre of Natural History for a long period of time until it was eventually lost (conveniently), likely sometime in the 1700's or 1800's. Perhaps it was all a hoax at our expense, the world may never know.

Although this would more than likely be classified as an oddity of biology and not a legitimate "dragon" (if it were indeed true), it was often referred to as the "last dragon" of Europe. And Aldrovandi himself referred to the animal as Draco Bononiensis (Bologna Dragon). So I place this here in our history of dragons as cultural influencers, as perhaps this species of animal, whatever it may be, may be our actual link to a dragon source.


Thursday, November 21, 2019

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1260: St George and the Dragon


St. George and the Dragon

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk in St. George, Utah. I had chosen a version of my "Dinosaurs! From Cultural to Pop Culture" to give to the audience when a friend of mine asked if I was going to include the story of St. George and the Dragon, knowing that I had a heavy dragon component to the talk. At the time my talk was pretty well set and I hadn't heard of St. George and the Dragon, so I let it go to be researched another day. That day has come.

The story of St. George and the Dragon is a convoluted one through history. Aspects of the story were written far later than the real St. George's life, added to, and adapted from other sources. The primary source for the story of the dragon appears to come from the Legenda Aurea written in approximately 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine. The story goes, that there was a dragon which was terrorizing a town. The people satiated the dragon with sheep. However when sheep alone wouldn't satisfy the dragon anymore they started adding people into the mix with the sheep. And when that didn't work anymore it became multiple people at a time. Until one day the king's daughter was the sacrifice. Despite all he tried, the people would not let the king get away without sacrificing her. He ended up sending he along to the dragon's lair to be sacrificed for the sake of the town. Well, when she was standing outside the dragon's home, the man who will eventually become known as St. George happened to pass by. 

St. George was a good Christian proselytizer who lived during the 3rd century AD. He was born in Cappadocia, which eventually became Turkey, but he was eventually killed by  Emperor Diocletian for refusing to give up his Christian faith, a faith handed down to him through his parents. However, that it not the primary reason he is remembered today. He is known for his dragon tale. 

After St. George passed by the princess, he decided to take on the dragon to save the princess' life.
"Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair."
After defeating the dragon, St. George dragged it back to the town where he promised to kill the dragon if everyone converted to Christianity. Upon everyone's conversion, St. George killed the beast and "smote off his head."  

12th Century icon of St. George and the dragon from Likhauri, Georgia. Image is in the Public Domain

Early works of art depict St. George sitting triumphantly upon a horse with a spear point towards the ground. No dragon is to be seen. Later works though, began to incorporate the dragon at the base of the horse. The earliest work that I could find with the dragon is this 12th century icon of St. George and the Dragon from Likhauri, Georgia. This image of the dragon followed the cultural norms of the time, showing the dragon in a snake-like form with feathery wings and long, pointy ears. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Geology Through Literature - The Periodic Table

Geology Through Literature: The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table was a rich experience with the author, Primo Levi, recounting several stories within his life through the framework of elements on the Periodic Table, hence the name of the book. But here we are interested in the "geology" through literature, not chemistry, so what does this book have to offer us? Quite a bit actually. Here are some of the more geological sections.

First Chapter - Argon
"...[this] Piedmontese dialect, never written except on a bet, and the Hebrew inlay, snatched from the language of the fathers, sacred and solemn, geologic, polished smooth by the millennia like a bed of a glacier."
Although there are known instances where glaciers have moved quickly, they are generally known to have a slow pace to them. Hence the term "glacial" meaning slow. But over time, as the glacier moves, the base of the glacier defrosts and refreezes continually. This defrosting and freezing causes the base of the glacier to pick up various pieces of rocks, gravels, sand, and rock powder. These pieces of the landscape are then forced downwards by the weight of the overlying ice, which can sometimes reach many miles in thickness. These rock pieces, that are being forced downwards as the glacier moves forward, have the effect of acting like sandpaper on the surface of the Earth, slowly polishing the bedrock smooth. Over time that smoothness is ground down finer and finer. This polishing effect also produces powered rock known as glacial flour, just like sandpaper does to a piece of wood.

Sixth Chapter - Nickel
"Yes, all mines are magical per se, and always have been. The entrails of the earth swarm with gnomes, kobolds (cobalt!), nickel, German 'little demon' or 'sprite,' and from which we derive the word nickel, creatures who can be generous and let you find a treasure beneath the tip of your pickax, or deceive and bedazzle you, making modest pyrites glitter like gold, or disguising zinc in the garb of tin: and in fact, many are the minerals whose names have roots that signify 'deception, fraud, bedazzlement.'"
This passage is interesting because it touches on a couple of different aspects of minerals. One is their sometimes resemblance to other, more or less important minerals. And the other is the naming of the minerals, which sometimes goes so far back in history that their original names don't have any direct correlation with what they are known for today.

Visual comparison of Pyrite to Gold from GeorgiaGold.Com
One of the most commonly misidentified minerals would probably be pyrite for gold. Pyrite, often known as "fool's gold", has a strong gold colored metallic luster to it, where people are immediately drawn to assume it is gold.  Pyrite is actually a fairly common mineral, especially when compared to the far more valuable and elusive gold. Pyrite is made up of iron and sulfide (FeS2), while gold is just made up of elemental gold (Au). The name "Pyrite" comes from the Greek word "Pyr", which means "fire". The name comes from the fact that when it was struck with an iron tool back in ancient times it emitted sparks.

The mineral cobalt. From Mining.com.
The name of the mineral cobalt originally came from the German word for goblin or devilish spirit, kobold.  Around 1500 AD (BCE), German miners were mining for silver when they came across this substance, which looked like silver but did not act like silver. And to top it off, when they tried to melt it down it gave off noxious fumes, which caused the miners to get sick and sometimes die. They attributed it to goblins having bewitched the silver ore causing the noxious fumes. One of the problems was that the primary metals known at the time: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury,  were the only known metals since ancient times and the miners had no concept that new metals could even exist. In the 1730's a Swedish chemist, Georg Brandt, was able to isolate the metal and ended up using the same name that the German miners had branded it with.

A small chunk of nickel from Live Science. 
In the 1600's the Germans were at it again. This time miners were searching for copper and came across this brownish-red rock that they believed was copper. However, when they tried to extract the copper from the rock they were unsuccessful. They ended up blaming "Nickel" for the lack of copper, who was a mischievous German demon. They called the ore kupfernickel, which means "copper demon". In 1751, another Swedish scientist, Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, was able to extract the nickel from the kupfernickel ore, which was a mixture of arsenic and nickel. He ended up dropping the first part of the name and kept the "nickel" part as the name of the element and mineral. 

Eighth Chapter - Mercury
"That very evening just before nightfall, we heard a great rumble of thunder, as though the island itself was being shaken to its roots. In a few minutes the sky darkened and the black cloud that covered it was lit from below as by a fire. From the top of Mount Snowdon we saw first rapid red flashes leap out and climb up into the sky, then a broad, slow stream of burning lava: it did not descend toward us but to the left, the south, pouring from ridge to ridge, hissing and crackling. After an hour it reached the sea and there it was doused with a roar, lifting up a column of vapor. None of us had ever thought that Mount Snowdon could be a volcano; and yet the shape of its summit, with a round hollow at least two hundred feet deep, could have made us us suspect this. 
The spectacle continued all through the night, calming down every so often, then picking up again with a new series of explosions; it seemed that it would never end. Yet, toward dawn, a hot wind blew from the east, the sky cleared off again, and the uproar gradually died down until it was reduced to a murmur, then silence. The mantle of lava, which had been yellow and dazzling, turned reddish like smoldering coals, and by daylight it was extinguished."
Map of Desolation Island highlighting Mount Snowdon from The Periodic Table
Unfortunately,  Desolation Island, and the mysterious volcano Mount Snowdon, were both made up for the story. I had hopes that they would really exist given the autobiographical nature of the rest of the story, however this chapter was one based entirely in fiction. The original Mount Snowdon, the one from which the story's volcano was named, was formed during the Ordovician period (450 million years ago) along a prehistoric convergent plate boundary in what is now Whales. A convergent plate boundary is when one plate was forced down underneath another plate. This caused the lower plate (the one going down into the Earth) to melt. The liquid rock, magma, then slowly rose over time and ended up forming volcanoes, like the aforementioned Mount Snowdon (the real one). The real Mount Snowdon however has long been an extinct volcano and has been eroding ever since.
Simplified map of the Mediterranean plates showing the subduction zones. From Ring et al, 2013
Although it is never spelled out, there are a couple of locations for which the island could be located. One of those is the Mediterranean based on the eruption style. Within the Mediterranean you have an over abundance of islands, many of which are either volcanoes or volcanic in origin. This is because you have the same situation as the formation of Mount Snowdon (the real one). There are numerous subduction zones, creating numerous volcanoes across the region, specifically in Italy and Greece. These volcanoes form as the subducted plate starts to melt and that melted plate material, the magma, rises up through the crust. Eventually, as more and more magma builds up, the pressure builds up and the volcano erupts. When the magma moves through continental crust it picks up more silica based minerals, which melt at a lower temperature and produce more explosive eruptions, like the ones seen from Mount Vesuvius. The story of Mount Vesuvius/Pompeii is very reminiscent of the story that Levi told in the The Periodic Table with lava and ash clouds erupting from an unknown volcano.

However, Levi points out at the beginning of the chapter that Desolation Island is located 1,200 miles to the southeast from an island known as St. Helena. St. Helena is actually a real volcanic island that is located in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean. It's claim to fame is that it was the location of Napoleon's final exile/imprisonment and where he eventually died. Although the island is a volcano, it's last eruption was 7 million years ago, when the island was situated along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a divergent plate boundary, which means that two plates are pulling apart from each other. This pull-apart results in a very long volcanic mountain chain located beneath the oceanic surface. While most of the volcanoes remain below the surface of the ocean, some do break the surface, with St. Helena being one of those examples. Eventually the island moved along with the plate as the plate spread out from the divergent plate boundary. This movement moved the volcano away from its source of magma, making it an extinct volcano, likely never to erupt again. The type of eruption that came from St. Helena would be vastly different than the one from Pompeii as well. While Pompeii would contain an explosive eruption with lots of ash and volcanic gasses and clouds, St. Helena would more resemble a Hawaiian eruption, with a steady stream of low-viscosity lava and very little clouds.

Ring, U., Gessner, K., Thomson, S., & Markwitz, V. (2013). Along-strike variations in the Hellenide Anatolide orogen: A tale of different lithospheres and consequences. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece47(2), 625-636.