Field of Science

30 September, 1960: Meet The Flintstones

It was the 30. September, 1960 when we meet for the first time “The Flintstones” and their prehistoric, nevertheless so modern looking world. The cartoon series, produced by the Hanna & Barbera Studios, was a parody of the American lifestyle of the sixties and it’s representation in television, featuring typical “Stone Age technology” like a woolly mammoth used as a vacuum cleaner or Fred’s brontosaurus excavator.

Fig.1. Today’s Google doodle.

Columnar Jointing Meme : Legend meets science

Long before naturalist and the columnists of the geoblogosphere became interested in columnar jointing people tried to find an explanation for these strange outcrops.

Fig.1. The "chair of the whitch", old legends in the Dolomites tell about cursed places where whitches gather together...

Fig.2. A fan of columns found in Ladinian (228-237Ma) basalts, Seiser Alm, South Tyrol.

The regular pattern of the columns made of volcanic rocks, resembling the bricks of a wall, sometimes inspired myths of a supernatural mason, able to build such gigantic buildings. Of one of the most known examples – the Giants Causeway in Ireland – there are the following myths:

According to ancient Celtic myth once on the shores of the county of Antrim in Ireland lived a giant named Finn McCool. One day he felt in love with a beautiful giantess living in Scotland. To be with his beloved, he chose to build a bridge, made of basalt columns, so that she could come to him and visit him without getting splashed by the waves of the sea.

Fig.3. "Giants Causeway", copper engraving from a French "Encyclopédie", 1768.

Another version of the myth tells of the ancient rivalry of McCool to another giant living on the other shore of the Irish Sea, the Scottish Benandonner. One day, Benandonner insulted McCool so shamefully, that McCool decided to build a bridge made of basalt columns and invade the reign of his opponent. Soon the bridge was finished, and seeing his furious opponent approaching, Benandonner became afraid of the battle. So he asked advice to his artful wife. She took her husband, dressed him up like a child and hided him in his bed. As McCool entered the castle, he asked who the men was snoring so loud in the bed. The giantess responded: “Oh, it’s only our youngest, my husband will be back soon.“ McCool became properly scared, if this was the child, how big would be the father?! He withdrew, running as fast as he could back to the Irish coast, destroying the bridge of columns behind him – so that’s why we today see ending the bridge in the middle of the sea.

Only in 1693 an expedition of the Philosophical Society of London will confirm the natural origin of the basalt columns at Giants Causeway.

The first scientific figure of prismatic basalt columns near the city of Stolpen (Saxony), was drawn by of Johannes Kentmann. Kentmann named them, after Agricola, "Lapis basalts", and interpreted them as giant crystals, note the - imaginary- pyramids on top of some of the columns to support this interpretation.
The idea of rocks formed by crystallisation from aqueous solutions will strongly influence the history of geology.

This outcrop was illustrated in Gesner's book "De omni rerum fossilium genere" of 1565, and it is the first printed and widely distributed image of columnar basalt.

Fig.4. "Lapis basalts", as seen by Kentmann 1565.

Darwin's rat: a first geological view on mammalian evolution

Charles Darwin in his most famous work, surprisingly, almost didn't mention the fossil mammals that he collected in South America, apart from brief references in the introduction.

"WHEN on board HMS 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species-that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers."

Fig.1. Fossil bones that Darwin attributed to a small rodent mammal - form the formation of Monte Hermoso in Argentina (Pliocene), from DARWIN (ed), 1838, Fossil Mammalia Pl XXXII.

During the first years of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a considerable number of mammalian fossils from different localities in Argentina and Uruguay. He recovered his first fossil at Punta Alta September 23, 1832, and the last in 1834 at Puerto San Julián. The fossils were then sent to England to his former mentor - the botanist / geologist John Stevens Henslow, and deposited in the Royal College of Surgeons at London, where in 1837 to 1845 the bones were studied and classified by the famous palaeontologist Richard Owen.
On the basis of this fossil materi
al Owen will describe a rich variety of mammals of the Pleistocene of South America, including Equus curvidens, Glossotherium sp. Macrauchenia patachon, Mylodon darwini, Scelidotherium leptocephalum and the strange Toxodon platensis. Unfortunately in April of 1941 the paleontological collection of the Royal College was severely damaged by an air attack, nearly 95% of the collection was lost. Since 1946 the remaining material was transferred to the Natural History Museum in London, where it is still housed.

Fossils were known in South America since before the Spanish conquistadors, but had been interpreted as the remains of mythical creatures or giants, destroyed by the gods in a remote time. Still in 1774 the English Jesu
it Thomas Falkner writes:

"On the banks of the river Carcarania ... there are a large number of bones of extraordinary size, which seem human."

Only 32 years later the French naturalist George Cuvier will publish the first scientific publicat
ion on a fossil mammal of South America, the giant sloth Megatherium americanum, followed in 1806 by the description of the genus Mastodon.

In 1838 Owen writes in the opening paragraph of his work on the fossil mammals collected by Darwin:

"It may be expected that the description of the osseous remains of extinct Mammalia, which rank amongst the most interesting results of Mr. Darwin's researches in South America, should be
preceded by some account of the fossil mammiferous animals which have been previously discovered in that Continent. The results of such a retrospect are, however, necessarily comprised in a very brief statement; for the South American relics of extinct Mammalia, hitherto described, are limited, so far as I know, to three species of Mastodon, and the gigantic Megatherium."

Fig.2. Frederick Waddy: Richard Owen "Riding His Hobby" (1873).

The young and inexperienced Darwin identified many of the recovered bones wrong. He attributed discovered bone plates (osteoderms) to Megatherium, following the reconstruction by Cuvier of the animal as an armoured sloth; Owen later attributed the fossils to be part of the giant "armadillo" species Glyptodon.
The molars of Toxodon were interpreted by Da
rwin as the remains of a giant rodent, but even Owen later admitted that these teeth display a certain similarity to those of rodents (in fact there is a bit of truth in Darwin errors, Toxodon is now considered a peculiar form of South American ungulates, a group distant related to rodents).
But also Owen made mistakes, he misinterpreted the relationships of these fossil mammals to modern animals, attributing them or implying to them a close connection
with certain animal groups still existing. Influenced by the proposed classification by Owen, Darwin summarizes that "The most important result of these findings is the confirmation of the law that existing animals have a close relationship with extinct species" (1839), an additional clue for Darwin that species are not isolated entities in time.

During the second half of the 19th century it could no longer denied that species could become extinct, however the much greater problem aroused how these extinctions occur and how
after such an event the planet got repopulated. Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle, even before the formulation of his theory of transmutation, wondered if species may die and are reborn in a continuous natural process (excluding a divine creation), an idea which was also suggested by the Italian geologist Giovanni Battista Brocchi in 1814 (proving once again the profound change of thinking in those decades).
Observing fossils similar to
bones of the modern Mara (Dolichotis patagonum), a South American rodent that resembles a small deer, Darwin realized that species were replaced in time by similar forms (Owen will determine these fossils belonging to a relative of today's tucutucu or tuco-tuco, a small rodent of the genus Ctenomys).
However, these subsequent forms remain concrete entities in space and time. For example, referring to the Warra, the endemic fox species that Darwin could still encounter on the Falkland Islands, in 1834 he still consider it " …indisputable proof of its individuality as a species… ".

Fig.3. The three possible relationships of fossil to modern species as seen by Darwin during his voyage in 1832 to 1835. In case A , a species goes extinct and is replaced by an "different", recent species, as for example the giant sloth is replaced by modern sloths, so the Glyptodont by the modern armadillo. For molluscs (case C) Darwin observed a continuum of species that persist through geological time. The case B is an intermediate version of the first two cases, the fossil remains of the peculiar South American rodents - species are found in distinct geological layers, however showing also a continuum of species, maybe even leading to species still living today (after ELDREGE 2008).

Darwin in a first attempt tried to reconcile the view of species as concrete entities with the observed replacement in time by a sudden transmutation - species could give "birth" to a new species within a short time by a transmutation jump.
However influenced by Lyell's uniformtarism Darwin soon adopted, and in end published, a much more gradual model. Apparent jumps in the species of different formations were according to the new model an artefact caused by the "imperfection of the geological record" (Chapter IX).
This consideration was not new, Lamarck, who considered single "species-lines" mutable, proposed that the discrete limits between species are the artefacts of incomplete preservation of transitional forms during the act of fossilization.


DARWIN, C. R. (1859): On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. [1st edition]
DARWIN, C. R. ed. (1840): Fossil Mammalia Part 1 No. 4 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. By Richard Owen. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.

ELDREDGE, N. (2009): A Question of Individuality: Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson and Transitional Fossils. Evo. Edu. Outreach 2(1): 150-155

ELDREDGE, N. (2008): Experimenting with Transmutation: Darwin, the Beagle, and Evolution. Evo. Edu. Outreach 2(1): 35-54

FERNICOLA; VIZCAINO & DE IULIIS (2009): The fossil mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during his travels on board the HMS Beagle. Revista de la Asociacon Geologica Argentina. 64(1): 147-159

QUATTROCCHIO, M.E.; DESCHAMPS, C.M.; ZAVALA, C.A.; GRILL, S.C. & BORROMEI, A.M. (2009): Geology of the area of Bahia Blanca, Darwin's view and the present knowledge: a story of 10 million years. Revista de la Asociacion Geologica Argentina 64(1): 137-146

Darwinius masillae is still “The Link”

The promotion, description and only considered interpretation of Darwinius masillae as "The Link" to (humans) the group of the haplorhine primates, caused an intense debate, especially by various online communities.
Nearly one year after the announcement and the criticisms, the authors of the discovery have published a response in which they address the claims: GINGERICH et al. 2010.
According to the response, the list of characteristics that confirms the phylogenetic position of Ida didn’t change, especially considering only the modern representatives of the primates.
However the actual statements do not address the dispute of the comparison of the traits of Ida to the fossil representatives of the haplorhine. Many features of modern haplorhine are not shared by fossil specimens’ of the group, so the “unique” features that pose Ida in relation to modern haplorhine, at the same time do remove it from to fossil ones.
It is possible that the observed characteristics, used to reconstruct the position of Ida on the phylogenetic tree by FRANZEN et al. 2009, are misinterpreted examples of homologies inherited by a common ancestor of haplorhine and strepsirrhine primates, or analogies evolved in both groups by convergent evolution.

Justify Full
GINGERICH, P.; FRANZEN, J.; HABERSETZER, J.; HURUM, J. & SMITH, B. (2010). Darwinius masillae is a Haplorhine — Reply to Williams et al.” (2010) Journal of Human Evolution
WILLIAMS, B.; KAY, R.; CHRISTOPHER-KIRK, E. & ROSS, C. (2010). Darwinius masillae is a strepsirrhine - a reply to Franzen et al. (2009) Journal of Human EvolutionDOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.01.003

Online Ressources:
Figure from Darwinius masillae article on Wikipedia

AW 27: What is the most important geological experience you’ve had?

The topic of this month's "Accretionary Wedge" is an "important geological experience."

However I was not sure if I could pick up on a specific event, so I decided, inspired also by the contributions of other geobloggers, to choose a period instead of a single situation.

During my years of study I enjoyed to enrol lectures on other faculties aside earth sciences. Mainly for personal interest, but also to profit from the possibility to dive (superficially) into other subjects of natural sciences.
Somehow I came across to botany, specifically exercises in the taxonomy of angiosperms. It was somehow disillusioning to follow the descriptions given in the books of microscopic differences between the bristles of different plant species.
Also the lecturer did n
ot help much, following step by step the numbered lists until, occasionally, you arrived to a conclusion. It's seemed that botany wasn't the right thing for me, even only to try it.

This changed suddenly; the next lecture was hold by a new visiting lecturer - with a complete different approach. Even if the step by step procedure of plant determination was inevitable, the mood was noticeably better, there was an introduction at the beginning of the lessons about the characteristics of the plants we should observe, and inevitable errors perpetuated by us beginners were not ridiculed, but explained and resolved.

It happened by chance that this professor was actually a palaeobotanist, specialised on vegetation history of prehistoric human settlements, asked to take on the course of systematic botany. At the end of the semester he announced that he would hold in the next year an introduction to palaeobotany - so I thought after the positive experience I would give it a try.

I found the use of remains of modern plants and animals to interfere the depositional environment of sediments fascinating - botany so introduced me to Quaternary Geology!

I become intrigued by the stories that mostly unconsolidated sediments of lake bottoms and swamps can tell by their content of organic remains - some of them even recognizable by a geologist.

Fig.1. Who says that only geologists experiences the fascination of collecting rocks and bones... case of a caddisfly.

26 September, 1997: The earthquake of Assisi

At 2:33 p.m. on the 26th, September 1997 an earthquake of magnitude 5.6 occurred, with the epicentre localized near the small village of Colfiorito, in the Italian province of Umbria.
The first tremor was immediately followed by a swarm of weaker ones, distributed along a west - east segment of the Apennines.
At 11:40 p.m. another high magnitude (5.8) earthquake occurred, with almost the same epicentre.

The earthquake damaged heavily the historic buildings and the cultural heritage of the town of Assisi, and killed 11 people. Almost 30% of the ecclesiastical architecture was hit, in the basilica of San Francesco the ceiling was damaged. During a meeting to evaluate the damage caused by the first tremors a second shake caused the collapse of the roof, killing four persons and destroying the frescos.

Fig.1. Fresco by Giotto (ca. 1.200) in the basilica of San Francesco, depicting a mother recovering the dead body of her daughter from a collapsed building. The tradition attributes the destruction to an earthquake, and tells also the miraculous reanimation of the dead daughter by the saint Franceso.

These foreshocks were followed by an intense swarm of almost 8.000 weak (with a mean of magnitude 4) tremors in the following six months, many of them averted by the locals.


BOSCHI, E. (1998): Geofisica - Il terremoto infinito. Newton: 66 - 74

LEWIS, T.A.(ed) (1982): Earthquake (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 134

Fossil Legends - The teeth of the Moon Wolf

Another post inspired by the celebrated "Thorsday", featuring the balefully breed of Fenris.

In Norse mythology Mánagarmr, often identified also with Hati (the "Enemy"), is according to one version of the myth one of the wolf-sons born from the union of the Fenris wolf with the giantess Angrboda.

According to myth Hati chases the moon every night across the sky, until the time when he as Mánagarmr, grown to terrible size by devouring the flesh of the dead, will finally swallow it, initiating so Ragnarök - the end of the world.

The great Austrian palaeontologist Othenio Abel (1875 - 1946) depicts in his book about the use of fossils in myths and superstition a possible representation of Mánagarmr or a similar myth on one of the columns in the church of Berchtesgaden (Bavaria)
Abel reports also the myth connected to this sculpture: In the rocks of Europe can be found strange teeth, felt d
own, so the legend, from the sky during new moon, when the wolf tries to catch his prey. But until this time he was never big enough to swallow it, so he has to release the moon and continue his hunt until the next month.

Abel continues to philosophize about fossils, and speculates if maybe this legend was inspired by the recovery of large triangular teeth from sedimentary rocks, teeth, as we tody know, from ancient sharks - the so called Glossopetrae of the ancient people.

Fig.1. "It has been in earlier times that the many sculptures on the capitals of columns in Romanesque churches in Germany have been considered nothing more than products of imagination. Today we know, that these pictures possess a deeper meaning and that they express mythological ideas of our ancestors. This capital of a column (according to E. Jung, 1922) in the cloister of the church of Berchtesgaden depicts the moon wolf Mánagarmr. The triangular shape of the teeth of this abomination is strikingly reminiscent of the triangular shape of Carcharodon - teeth, to nothing other animal, known by our ancestors, can it be compared." (from ABEL 1939, 208)

Fig.2. Steno's figure of a dissected shark head, comparing the recent teeth to the Glossopetrae (one of the ancient names given to the yet not recognized fossil teeth), from "Elementorum myologiæ specimen, seu musculi descriptio geometrica : cui accedunt Canis Carchariæ dissectum caput, et dissectus piscis ex Canum genere" (1667).


ABEL O. (1939): Vorzeitliche Tierreste im Deutschen Mythus, Brauchtum und Volksglauben. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Jena: 304

ABEL, O. (1923): Die vorweltlichen Tiere in Märchen, Sage und Aberglauben. Braun Verlag, Karlsruhe: 66

Dinosaurs rewrite the palaeogeography of the Tethys

During the First World War notable effort was invested in the construction of streets and ways to enable the save transport of supplies to the frontline in the Dolomites. In 1917 in the Pasubio Massif (North of Vicenza) a mule-track with 50 tunnels in the 712m high cliffs of the Hauptdolomite Formation was excavated.

Almost 70 years later, during an excursion the geologist Marco Avanzini noticed on the roof of one of the galleries a number of bulges immediately attributed to dinosaur footprints preserved as natural casts.
Many dinosaurian footprints were known from the H
auptdolomit, all preserved in large blocks felt from the cliffs, but this was the first record of tracks found in situ and stratigraphic sequence.
Large theropods tracksites datable to the Triassic were discovered in the Dolomites at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, in the surroundings of the city of Trento and in localities of the more eastern situated Carnia, also small theropods and prosauropod footprints occur in Carnia and in the Dolomites.

The 11 known footprints of the Pasubio Massif represent three morphotypes, one type is attributed to a sauropodomorpha trackmaker, and the other two types are attributed to theropods of variable size. The conserved stratigraphic succession, and the recovery of conodonts as guide fossils, enabled to date exactly the surface with the imprints to the Norian (211 to 206 million years).

In a recent press release the notice of three new imprints, discovered in the same region, but of different age (Rotzo Formation, Pliensbachian 183 - 189 Ma) was reported.

These imprints, attributed to theropods, add an ulterior ichnosite to the long Italian record.

Even if the first dinosaur footpr
int in Italy was described by the palaeontologist Friedrich von Huene in 1941 from Carnian sediments of Mount Pisano in Tuscany, this discovery was for long time considered more an extraordinary case then the rule.
But the discovery between 1992 and 2000 of many sites with dinosaur footp
rints demonstrated that many old preconceptions have to be reconsidered.

Fig.1. Examples of Italian dinosaur tracks recovered during quarrying activity at the quarry of Colmar, from the peninsula of Gargano, Calcari di Bari-Formation, Lower Cretaceous (Valanginian-Hauterivian, ca. 140-130 million years). First two specimens tridactyl footprints attributed to theropods, last probably a chubby footprint attributed to an ankylosaurid dinosaur.

The presence of dinosaurs can have a great impact on the proposed palaeoenvironments and the palaeogeography reconstructions of the Mesozoic Tethys Ocean.
The geological evidence suggested that the northern area of the Tethys was mainly a monotone, shallow marine environment with a vast carbonate platform surrounded by the Ocean. Classic reconstructions placed a deep-sea trough, penetrating from the Far East to the Alpine realm, between the platforms and the southern border of Eurasia.

The continuous and spatial distribution of ichnosites is however compelling evidence that the carbonate platforms of the Tethys surrounded wide land areas and not only small islands as previously thought. The landmasses acted probably as temporary bridges that connected Laurasia and Gon
dwana, allowing migrations. During periods of marine transgression these corridors got interrupted, forcing the evolution of endemic faunas in the now isolated central Tethys landmasses (see also the Hateg Biota).

Fig.2. The reconstructed extent of the carbonate platforms in the Periadriatic area during the Mesozoic: facies distribution in the Periadriatic area during the Norian/Rhaetian. Points indicate the sites with dinosaur fossils. The wide Triassic carbonate platform collapsed during the Jurassic, and became dissected by the Lombardy and Slovenian-Belluno-Ionian Basins, in this phase the dinosaur ichnological fossils were located only on the Trento Platform (DALLA VECCHIA 2008).

Based on the presupposed affinities in morphological characters of the Italian tracks to tracks recovered on the European mainland, and the temporal occurence of the old and new studied ichnostes, Avanzini proposes an alternative model to the east-west sea-branch of the Tethys Ocean. He reconstructed a more stable and long-lasting land corridor (until ca. 160 Ma) extending much more to the north of the Tethys Ocean, connecting the landmasses to the southern border of Eurasia.
However the last claim is still to be proven by further evidence, considering also that ichnites represent a polyphyletic "taxon" and the inferred relationships are thus questionable.

Nevertheless the possible use of dinosaurs in palaeogeography remains still intriguing.


BELVEDERE, M.; AVANZINI, M.; MIETTO, P. & RIGO, M. (2008): Norian dinosaur footprints from the "Strada delle Gallerie" (Monte Pasubio, NE Italy). Studi Trent. Sci. Nat., Acta Geol.(83): 267-275

DALLA VECCHIA, F.M. (2003): Dinosaurs of Italy. C.R. Palevol 2: 45 - 66
DALLA VECCHIA, F.M. (2008): The impact of dinosaur palaeoichnology in palaeoenvironmental and palaeogeographic reconstructions: the case of the Periadriatic carbonate platforms. ORYCTOS (8): 89 - 106

PAVIA, M. & ZUNINO, M. (2009): Giornate di Paleontologia IX Edizione - Apricena (FG), 28-31 maggio 2009 - Guida alle escursioni 30 e 31 maggio 2009.

Biological collections as a data source for paleoclimatology

Comparing the notes of plant-specimens preserved in collections a new study has analyzed the potential of plants to interfere and reconstruct climatic changes in the historic past.

The variation of climatic parameters, like temperature and precipitation, can influence the growth and life cycle of plants. Modern research based on the resulting phenological data of plants, especially the period when species develop sprout, bud and bloom, showed that in Europe these periods for some species begin today earlier then 30 years ago (MENZEL et al. 2006).

Such observations about the development of plants were collected systematically only since 1950, for longer time periods information’s are scarce or missing.

However the information’s associated to biological collections in herbaria and museums, for example description of site and time of collection, can be a potential source of long-term data for such studies.
The new research by ROBBIRT et al. 2010 examined these information’s for herbarium specimens of Ophrys sphegodes, an orchid species, collected between 1848 and 1958, and compared the time of collection with the recorded peak flowering time of recent populations of O. sphegodes between 1975 and 2006.
In this case the proportions of peak flowering time based on the herbarium data corresponded closely with observed peak flowering times in the field, indicating that flowering response to temperature had not altered between the two separate periods over which the herbarium and field data were collected.
These results nevertheless provide the first direct validation of the potential use of specimens of plants or animals preserved in historic collections for paleoclimatic reconstructions.


ROBBIRT, K.M.; DAVY, A.J.; HUTCHINGS, M.J. & ROBERTS, D.L. (2010): Validation of biological collections as a source of phenological data for use in climate change studies: a case study with the orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Journal of Ecology.

MENZEL, A. et al. (2006):European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern. Global Change Biology. Vol.12(10): 1969-1976

Online resources:

The figure of Ophrys insectifera is taken from:

THOME, O.W. (1885-1905): Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus. Gera.

Fossil Legends - The Mammoth as Unicorn

A very prominent Behemoth in the collectiv imagination is surely the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).
Some authors even claim that the name derived from the Arabian word "mehemot", and passed trough the jewish "behemoth" into the bible verses of Job.
The Mammoth is also a rare example of extinct animals that possess lots of generic names - the Siberian indigenous claimed it "cheli", "uukyla" or "maimant", and interpreted it as a giant rat or mole, guardian of the land of the underground or the dead.

We know very much about this animal, not only by fossils or mumificated bodies found in the Siberian permafrost, but we even have the opportunity to observe ancient (10-12.000 B.C.) pictures of it, like in the cave of Rouffignac, in the district Dordogne (Central-France).

Fig.1. Stamp celebrating the art of the cave of Rouffignac.

What´s the meaning of this art is we ignore, but we remain fascinated of the naturalistic rappresentation of the animals in display.

In ancient civilisations, and later in the medieval times, the fossils of this prehistoric elephant played an important role in myths and legends of remains from giants and dragons, found in the quaternary deposits of Europe.

Even the first "scientific" reconstruction of a presumed extinct animals shows, at least in part, a mammoth. In 1663 the German naturalist Otto Von Guericke tried to reconstruct the "unicornum verum", the true unicorn, from parts of various Pleistocene mammals - the teeth remarkably seems to be the big, striped molars of a mammoth, even if the skull and the rest of the skeleton is probably from a woolly rhinoceros. This historic picture is rappresented in nearly every book about history of the paleontological disciplines.

Fig.2. Reconstruction of the "unicornum" by Otto von Guericke (1678), and later adopted by Leibniz (1749).

The true nature of these bones will be recognised in the year 1799, when the Mammoth got´s his scientific name.

Today, every greater Museum for Natural History has or tries to display a Mammoth-skeleton, or at least one the typical molars of this animal, in fact, no true museum can be without a trophy of the mighty Mammoth, so the Museum for Natural History in Prague, even if it´s seem they have taken the word "trophy" much to serious.

Fig.3. Mammoth head displayed in the museum for Natural History in Prague.

The Book of Cure from Ignorance

In contrast to the ongoing claims which books should be burned: what an astonishing thing a book is, binding together distant epochs, books break the shackles of time.

During the European Middle Ages the classic knowledge regarding earth was mostly stored inside books in libraries of monasteries or applied to concrete problems in engineering and mining, there was little interest to do research or think about general principles or rules applied to e
In contrast in the Muslim sphere the tradition of naturalistic philosophers, resembling the schola
rs of classic Greek period, continued.

The 'Brothers of Purity' a sect of Shia scholars located in Basra and surrounding areas, between 941 and 982 produced several written volumes, known as "The Treatises of the Brothers of Purity" in which they reassumed their knowledge of natural processes.
Regarding geology, the circle of rock formation and
erosion is clearly stated, and the great amount of time necessary for these changes indicated.

nd know ye brethren, that all valleys and rivers begin from mountains and hills, run in their courses and finally flow to the seas, swamps, and lakes…Then the mountains will break and disintegrate, particularly during storms, becoming boulders, pebbles, and sands. The rain torrents will bring these pebbles and sands to the bottoms of valleys and rivers and carry them to the seas, lakes, and swamps. The sea, because of its strong waves and great turbulence, will distribute these sands, muds, and pebbles along its bottom, layer upon layer, through the passage of time and ages. These will accumulate one above the other and harden, and then mountains and hills will rise from the bottom of the sea…And know ye my brethren that when the sea becomes closed because of these mountains and hills which we mentioned originating on their bottom, the water rises and extends over the coasts to the prairies and open land which are thus covered by water. This will go on through the passage of time, until the place of the prairies becomes the site of the sea, and the place of the sea becomes land.''
(from FISCHER et al. 2010).

Fig.1. Image of Ibn Sina, medieval manuscript entitled "Subtilties of Truth", 1271 (image from Wikipedia).

These ideas doubtless inspired the great Islamic scholar Abu- Ali- al-Husayn ibn Abdulla-h Ibn Sina (981 to 1037), in the western world know
n for his contribution in the field of medicine under the Latinized name Avicenna.
In his opus magnus "Kitab AI-Shifa" - the Book of Cure from Ignorance, he gives an introduction in the fields of stratigraphy, hydrology, mineralogy and seismology:

"We shall begin by establishing the condition of the formation of mountains and the opinions that must be known upon this subject. the first [topic] is the condition of the formation of stone, the second is the condition of the formation of stone great in bulk or in number, and the third is the condition of the formation of cliffs and heights."
(from AL-RAWI 2002).

the specific process of the formation of rocks, which then build up the mountains, he states a process that resembles the formation of flowstone from running water:

"In general, stone is formed in two ways only (a) through the hardening of clay, and (b) by the congelation of waters...[] Stone has formed from flowing water in two ways (a) by the congelation of water as it falls drop by drop or as a whole during its flow, and (b) by the deposition from it, in its course, of something which adheres to the surface of its
bed and (then) petrifies. Running waters have been observed, part of which, dripping upon a certain spot, solidifies into stone or pebbles of various colours, and dripping water has been seen which, though not congealing normally, yet immediately petrifies when it falls upon stony ground near its channel...[] Stones are formed, then, either by the hardening of agglutinative clay in the sun, or by the coagulation of aquosity by a dessicative earthy quality, or by reason of a desiccation through heat."
(from AL-RAWI 2002).

Fig.2. Example of layered flowstone from the Eemian- and possibly Holstein interglacial in the Conturines Cave (Dolomites).

Avicenna also clearly recognized fossils as ''petrifications of the bodies of plants and animals'' and implies that in the past there were major changes sculpturing the surface of earth.

"If what is said concerning the petrifaction of animals and plants is true, the cause of this p
henomenon is a powerful mineralizing and petrifying virtue which arises in certain stony spots, or emanates suddenly from the earth during earthquakes and subsidence, and petrifies whatever comes into contact with it. As a matter of fact, the petrifaction of the bodies of plants and animals is not more extraordinary than the transformation of waters..."

Fig.3. Example of Holocene travertine from a quarry near the village of Pollingen (Bavaria), with enclosed shell of a snail.

''It is also possible that the bed of the sea may have been originally in the shape of plains and mountains, and that when the waters ebbed away, they were exposed. It may be noticed that some mountains are in layers, and this may be because each layer was formed at a different period.''

"It is possible that each time the land was exposed by the ebbing of the sea a layer was left, since we see that some mountains appear to have been piled up layer by layer, and it is therefore likely that the clay from which they were formed was itself at one time arranged in layers. One layer was formed first, then at a different period, a further layer was formed and piled upon the first, and so on...[] Such is the formation of mountains."

"The formation of heights is brought about by (a) an essential cause and (b) an accidental cause. The essential cause (is concerned) when, as many violent earthquakes, the wind which produces the earthquake raises a part of the ground and a height is suddenly formed, In the case of the accidental cause, certain parts of the ground become hollowed out while others do not, by the erosive action of wind and floods which carry away one part of the earth but not another...[]... Their elevation is due the excavating action of floods and winds on the matter which lies between them, for if you examine the majority of mountains, you will see that the hollows between them have been caused by floods. This action, howver, took place and was completed only in the course of many ages, so that the trace of each individual flood has not been left; only that of the most recent of them can be seen."

(from AL-RAWI 2002).


FISCHER, A.G. & GARRISON, R.E. (2009): The role of the Mediterranean region in the development of sedimentary geology: a historical overview. Sedimentology 56: 3-41

AL-RAWI, M.M. (2002): The contribution of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to the development of Earth Sciences. Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation. 4039: 12

Online Resources:

Wikipedia: Avicenna (Accessed 19.09.2010)

18 September, 2004: The Thurwieser rock avalanche

On September 18th, 2004 on the southern flank of the 3.641m high Peak Thurwieser (Ortler Alps, Central Italian Alps) a rock avalanche occurred, nobody was harmed and there were no damages to infrastructures reported.
Nevertheless the event scared many mountain climbers (the peak is a popular goal) and caused a spectacular rock avalanche with an estimated volume of 2,5 million cubic meters, travelling in 80 seconds on the underlying Zebru glacier for 3 kilometres and stopping only 1.300m below the detachment area.

Fig.1. Aerial picture of the area involved by the rock avalanche, the Thurwieser peak in the middle, the Zebru glacier on the right. The glacier is partially covered by the debris, while the moraines confine the propagation behind the rocky outcrops. Points A and B show zones of basal erosion (figure from SOSIO et al. 2008).

The detachment of the rock avalanche exposes a reddish surface of weathered and fissured gneiss. Tectonics and resulting fracturing of the rocks contributed to the weakening of the mass. The permafrost degradation is supposed to be the final triggering factor. Similar phenomena, even with lower volumes, have been occurring since summer 2003 in the Alps, for example in the Swiss Bernina Mountains, at the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc, following periods of exceptionally high summer temperatures.

There is a spectacular video that documents the "flowing" of the rock avalanche and the dust raised by the rock fall extending for 4 kilometers.


KOC, O. (2008): Numerical Analysis of Rock Mass Falls using PFC3D A comparision of two cases: Thurwieser Rock Avalanche and Frank Slids. Master´s Thesis Institute for Engineering Geology TU-Vienna: 102

SOSIO, R.; CROSTA, G.B. & HUNGR, O. (2008): Complete dynamic modeling calibration for the Thurwieser rock avalanche
(Italian Central Alps). Engineering Geology 100: 11-26

Earthquake - myths: The terrible Fenris Wolf

Lockwood at "Outside the Interzone" is celebrating Thorsday with an special appearance of Loki, and deepening a bit in the topic I found a connection between ancient Norse Myth and Seismology.

In Norse mythology, compiled and written down in the 13th century
, Fenris or Fenrir (the most common old Norse names, meaning "fen-dweller") is the name given to a monstrous wolf, son of the god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. The inevitable destiny of Fenris is to initiate Ragnarök, the end of the world, and killing the god-father himself, Odin.

"traced prophecies that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them"

Fig.1. "Odin and Fenris" (1909) by Dorothy Hardy.

After his birth, the god's, knowing his fate, decided to bring Fenris to them, to control him, but soon he grow so big that even the most brave god begun to fear him.
So they decided to bind and capture him, two fetters were forged, but the wolf easily tear them apart. But the third fetter, called Gleipnir, was made from six mythical ingredients: the roots of the mountains, the sound of a cat's footstep, the breath of fishes, the tendon of bears, the spittle of birds and the beard of a woman.
This time the wolf, tricked to put on Gleipnir, wasn't able to rip off the magic cord. Gleipnir was fastened through two large stone slabs, called Gjöll (Old Norse "scream) and Thiwir, to the ground, and so Fenris became chained deep in the mountains.

Fig.2. A 17th century manuscript illustration of the bound Fenris, the river Ván, formed by the spittle of the wolf, flowing from his jaws.

When Fenris howls in his anger, the ground and mountains tremble violently and deep fractures form and rocks were thrown around.

This myth and the description resemble what we would expect to see during a strong earthquake, but the Scandinavian Peninsula is today considered a relatively stable craton. It has become clear that Sweden was subjected to an increased seismic activity
at the time of deglaciation, 9.000 to 11.000 years ago, when the heavy ice caps melted and the land begun to rise. But probably these earthquakes happened long before the first colonization of the Peninsula.

However in more recent times, the last 5.000 years, nine high-magnitude palaeoseismic events are recorded. These events were for sure noted by humans; in landslide and tsunami deposits triggered by some of these earthquakes artefacts of the Viking* culture were buried and later discovered.
It's seems plausible that the Vikings*, experiencing the movements and destruction, tried to find an explanation - a terrible, incredible strong wolf, able to even shake the roots of the mightiest mountains.

But in the end I have to admit: Daniel in his blog "sandbian", as an expert of Swedish geology and history, points out various chronological and cultural deficiency of this hypothesis that tries to connect an imported culture with its symbols to possible seismic events happened more than 5.000 years earlier.*And by the way - the Vikings as culture didn´t even exist at these times...

Fig.3. Map of Sweden with areas of recorded palaeoseismic activity. Nine high-magnitude palaeoseismic events are recorded in the Late Holocene. Their ages in yBP are given in black outside the map frames. A few place names referring to noise or fractured rock are given (outside the map frames). 'Svealand' refers to an area from where much of the Asa Creed owes its origin. It seems significant that so many earthquakes and place names are located just within this region (figure from MÖRNER 2007).


MÖRNER, N.A. (2007): The Fenris Wolf in the Nordic Asa creed in the light of palaeoseismics. In PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W.B. (eds) Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 273: 117-119

Images from Wikipedia: Fenrir (Accessed 17.09.2010)

The Geo- Files:The unearthly cases in Geology: Sailing stones

Strange tracks, hundred of meters long, cover a muddy plain, 4,5 kilometres long and 2,2 wide, in the middle of the desert of Death Valley, and give the name to this enigmatic place: Racetrack-Playa.

Most of these tracks end behind dolostone and syenite rocks or large boulders, some of them however start and end without an apparent object nearby. In the first case its seems reasonable to assume that the rocks scratching on the ground formed the parallel furrows, however nobody ever observed them in motion, and some boulders weigh more than 100 kilograms, it's unknown which force could move them, sometimes even uphill (anyway considering that the plain is almost horizontal it´s not such an accomplishment).

The wandering rocks of Death Valley are studied since 1948, when geologists Jim McAllister and Allen Agnew mapped the bedrock of the area and made note of the tracks. Actually a research team of 17 scientists and students from various institutions (NASA, Slippery Rock University (!)- Pennsylvania, University of Wyoming.) are studying them.

In March 1952 the geologist Thomas Clement was one of the first to try to observe the rocks move, but a heavy thunderstorm forced him into his tent. Only the next morning he noted fresh tracks on the ground, and a thin layer of water covering the soil. Most of the tracks also coincide with the wind pattern, channelized by the adjacent mountain ranges in direction from southwest to northeast.
This observations could explain some observed movements, especially of smaller rocks, however to move large boulders the wind alone is insufficient, also there are still tracks not moving into the direction of the wind.
Some boulders, weighing up to 320kg, travelled 18m in a month, smaller ones travelled in the same period 880m, however there is no correlation between form and weight to the distance and the speed that the rocks travel. Some travel straight, some display a curved pattern, some travel pair wise, other chaotic or even describing a circle. From the accumulation of mud and mud splatter on the rocks it was possible to calculate an average speed of 7 kilometres per hour.

The strangest theories arouse to explain this mystery: extraterrestrial influence, animals pushing the stones, a hoax to fool tourists, earthquakes, magnetic or gravitational anomalies and unknown wind and water currents.

In the fifties the naturalist George Stanley postulated a dominant role of ice, not only as slippery surface, but also acting as a kind of sail, when ice plates remain attached to the boulders.
The rocks itself seems nothing extraordinary, aside their movements, however the research by geologist Paula Messina showed that the former lake bottom of Racetrack Playa is covered by argillaceous material and bacterial mats, that in wet conditions can produce a slippery surface.

The ongoing studies by NASA showed that ice can form under the climatic conditions of Death Valley. The ice hypothesis could also explain the apparent maximum of movement in the winter time, the furrows with no apparent object at their end (left by the melted ice), and the apparent deepening of some of the tracks, the loss of ice supporting the rocks causes them to sink deeper in the ground.

However, most modern research agrees that a simplistic, one factor assuming model fails to explain all the strange moving rocks. The presence of different factors and their interaction, slippery underground, algae or mud, wind, rain and ice all together play a role in the movements of the sailing stones.

Online resources:

BOJANOWSKI, A. (13.09.2010): Tal des Todes - Das Geheimnis der streunenden Felsen. SpiegelOnline Wissenschaft (Accessed 16.09.2010)
Image from Wikipedia: Racetrack Playa

15 September, 1914: Gertie the wonderfully trained Dinosaurus

September 15. 1914, the short movie Gertie the Dinosaur, the first dinosaur to appear in a movie, was notified for copyright.
Gertie the dinosaur, also Gertie the trained dinosaur, is a movie with a animated segment by the American cartoonist Winsor McCay and produced in 1914.

McCay was inspired to create Gertie, considered today one the first classic animation figures and the first dinosaur to appear in a movie, in 1912 by a series of drawings depicting prehistoric animals commissioned by the American Historical Association.
However, even in 1905 in the comic adventure of McCay's "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" a "Brontosaurus" skeleton is shown.
McCay presented the short animation part, consisting of 10.000 single hand drawn photograms, of the trained dinosaur the first time in February 8. 1914 as part of his show in the Palace Theatre of Chicago. The show was a great success, and McCay performed it in various cities of the East of the U.S. Later in the year he had the opportunity to produce a version of the show for the cinema, with added scenes caricaturing the production of the animated part. Finally the 12 minutes long movie of Gertie the Dinosaur was announced and released on November 14. 1914.

Figure from Wikipedia.