Field of Science

How to celebrate New Year's Eve with style: Fun in a Fossil

For the exhibition in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham the organisers had charged the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins with the realization of life sized artificial dinosaurs - the new discovered proudly-prehistoric monsters of Victorian Britain. Under severe examination of leading anatomist Richard Owen soon the first models of all known giant lizard of the time - Ichthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, pterodactyls and the dinosaurs Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylacosaurus, were completed. Owen reconstructed the Iguanodon as large, quadruped rhinoceros, ignoring the discoveries of Mantell, died just some months earlier, who noted that the forelegs are smaller than the hind legs.

To promote the exhibition for New Year's Eve 1853 twenty-one distinguished guests were invited to a banquet inside the unfinished model of Iguanodon. The invitations for the eight-course dinner, accompanied by fine wines and some noble sherry, were written on the outstretched wing of a drawing of a pterodactyl:

"Mr Waterhous Hawkins requests the honour of - - at dinner in the mould of the Iguanodon at the Crystal Palace on Saturday evening
December the 31 st at five o ' clock 1853 an answer will oblige."

Eleven guests could sit inside the belly; ten more places were prepared on a table alongside.
The scene was surrounded by great ribbons of pink and white brocade and plaques bearing the names of the most eminent palaeontologists of Victorian time, Buckland, Cuvier, Mantell and as head naturally Owen as "Newton of Natural History" and "British Cuvier".

Fig.1. "Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham" London Illustrated News, 7 January 1854.

The dinner lasted until long after midnight and according to the reports the temper was excellent, Hawkins himself noted:

"The roaring chorus was so fierce and enthusiastic as almost to lead to the belief that the herd of lguanodons were bellowing".

"The jolly old beast
Is not deceased
There ´s life in him again! [ROAR!]"

Many newspapers reported the event the next days.
The Punch reporter, under the headline "Fun in a Fossil", pointed out that Professor Owen and his friends had

"an exceedingly good dinner...[]. . . Had it perhaps been an earlier geological period they might have occupied the Iguanodon's inside without having any dinner there."

And the London Quarterly Review reported mystified:

"Saurians, Pterodactyls all! . . . Dreamed ye ever . . . of a race to come dwelling above your tombs and dining on your ghosts."


CADBURY, D. (2000): Terrible Lizard - The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science. Henry Holt & Co. Publisher: 383

28 December, 1908: The earthquake of Messina

In the early morning of December 28, 1908 a 30-42 seconds long earthquake with a reconstructed magnitude of 6.7-7.2 hit the Italian cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria. The earthquake damaged 90% of the buildings and broken pipes fuelled a terrible firestorm; however one of the most unusual effects of this earthquake was an 8 meter high tsunami.

The earthquake and tsunami killed estimated 40.000 people in the two cities alone, 27.000 people along the shores of the Strait of Messina - some historic documents claim 100.000 to 200.000 victims – one of the deadliest natural disasters recorded during historic times in Europe.

Fig.1. Photo (December 28, 1908 ?) showing the destroyed promenade of Messina.

Southern Italy has a long and tragic history of earthquakes. The setting between the two larger continental plates of Europe and Africa and various microplates causes highly active tectonics.

In 1783, between 5. February and 28. March the Italian region of
Calabria was shattered by six successive earthquakes, causing widespread destruction and 35.000 fatalities.

Fig.2. Vue de l'Optique composition (=
Hand colored copper engraving used in the Laterna magica technique) showing sea ships and boats endangered in the rough waters of the Messina Strait disturbed by the 1783 earthquake.

The administration in Naples initiated a study, collecting eyewitness reports and hired experts to evaluate the destruction and damage of buildings. Two books were published, the collection of accounts by eyewitnesses with 569 pages and the report by the experts with 372 pages, covering the observations in 150 cities and villages.

The first map of seismicity of the Mediterranean area and an extensive report on earthquakes in Italy was published by the Irish engineer - and self educated geologist - Robert Mallet in the year 1862. 

He got interested by the subject of earthquakes in 1830. Observing a picture in a science book, displaying two columns twisted by an earthquake in Calabria, he decided to study and understand the forces behind these deformations. He noted that damages on buildings were distributed in specific "areas", setting out from a point of heaviest havoc. He noted that these epicentres of destruction were not randomly distributed, but found in "seismic belts" in the Mediterranean Sea.

Fig.3. An early map of the 1783 Calabria volcanoe and earthquake-areas plotted in the mid-19th century (from BERGHAUS 1845-1848).

Fig.4. Simplified tectonic map of southern Italy and map showing the reported intensity after the modified Mercalli-scale (after data released by the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia) for the earthquake of December 28, 1908.


BERGHAUS, H. (1845-48): Physikalischer Atlas oder Sammlung von Karten, auf denen die hauptsächlichsten Erscheinungen der anorganischen und organischen Natur nach ihrer geographischen Verbreitung und Vertheilung bildlich dargestellt sind. Zu Alexander von Humboldt, KOSMOS. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung. 2. Bände - Verlag von Justus Perthes, Gotha: 188
LEWIS, T.A. (ed) (1982): Earthquake (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 134
KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203

MALLET, R. (1862): Great Neapolitan Earthquake- The First Principles of Observational Seismology as developed in the Report to the Royal Society of London of the expedition made by command of teh Society into the interior of the Kingdom of Naples, to investigate the circumstances of the great earthquake of December 1857. Chapman & Hall, London: 399

26 December, 2004: Tsunami

It was one of the strongest earthquakes ever to be recorded - with a magnitude of at least 9 it is probably the fourth strongest event known in modern history, it shook even the rotation axis of earth and raised the bottom of the Indian Ocean by 5m. But the quake itself generated less destruction; it was the resulting wave - a Tsunami reaching 10 to 15m height on the coats of Sumatra, the nearest landmass from the epicentre.

Fig.1. Simplified Structural Map of Sumatra with the epicentre of the Boxing Day earthquake 26.12.2004.
Note the Accretionary Wedge formed by the the Indian Ocean subducting beneath the southwestern margin of the Sundaland Craton. The deformation front of the Sumatran subduction system is indicated by the toothed line; spreading centres and transform faults are shown (from BARBER et al. 2005).

Sunday 26 December 2004 was a sunny day on the Indonesian island of Sumatra; the coast soon became frequented by tourists and locals. 15 minutes after the earthquake, at 8:14 the first wave reached the coast. The sea level first regressed and then suddenly a huge wave approached.
The force of the water tore away much of the buildings in its way and carrying with it debris caused a swath of destruction. The first wave cleared the path for the second one, that even faster demolished the interior areas of the coast.

The wave travelled for 8 hours trough the entire Indian Ocean, bringing destruction and death to the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and flooding the smaller islands in the Indian Ocean.

The death toll raised and raised in the following hours and days after the catastrophe - finally estimation counted more than 300.000 fatalities, possibly thousands of bodies remain either lost to the sea or unidentified, thousand of people injured, large coast areas devastated.


BARBER, A.J.; CROW, M.J. & MILSOM, J.S. ed. (2005): Sumatra - Geology, Resources and Tectonic Evolution. Geological Society Memoir No. 31: 304

26 December, 2003: The earthquake of Bam

The city of Bam in the Iranian province of Kerman was an old one, since antiquity it was an important centre for commerce on the Silk Road and known for its religious significance.
Protecting and overlooking the city was the mighty citadel of Arg-e-Bam, build during the reign of the Safawida-dynasty in the years 1501-1736.

Fig.1. The ruins of Arg-e-Bam after the earthquake (MANAFPOUR 2004).

The citadel was constructed in old times with bricks of clay and straw mortar, like many buildings in the modern city, with nearly 142.000 inhabitants, were still constructed in similar matter and with similar materials - a typical house, often with many floors, had a heavy roof of concrete resting on walls of simple bricks.
A poor type of construction, the main weight in height lasting on inadequate support, unsuited to survive even a moderate earthquake.

In the early morning of the 26. December 2003, at 5:26 local time, an 12 second long earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 shattered Kermam, the epicentre only 120 km distant in the south-west of Bam.
In only twelve seconds 80% of the buildings in Bam collapsed, many inhabitants were sleeping inside their houses and the quake surprised them - the toll of deaths was terrible - more than 26.000 people died and 120.000 people lost their homes.

The Iranian minister of the interior Abdulwahed Musawi Lari declared after the catastrophe:

"Bam has become a desert."


MANAFPOUR, A.R. (2004): The Bam, Iran earthquake of 26 December 2003 - Field Investigation Report. Halcrow-EEFIT Report: 59

Nightmare before Yuletide

Fig.1. "Louis Figuier suggested educating children by telling them stories from prehistory instead of fairy tales, but is that such a good idea? Artist Georges du Maurier felt the prehistoric monsters would be more likely to give them nightmares. Ironically titled "A little Christmas Dream", his cartoon appeared in Punch 1868."

"It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.
"The Festival" H.P. Lovecraft (1923)


COHEN, C. & RODARMOR, W. (2002): The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myth, and History. University Of Chicago Press: 336

The discovery of the ruins of ice

"It has already been said, that no small part of the present work refers to the nature and phenomena of glaciers. It may be well, therefore, before proceeding to details, to explain a little the state of our present knowledge respecting these great ice-masses, which are objects of a kind to interest even those who know them only from description, whilst those who have actually witnessed their wonderfully striking and grand characteristics can hardly need an inducement to enter into some inquiry respecting their nature and origin."
James, D. Forbes (1900): "Travels Trough the Alps." [page 17]

Fig.1. C. Wolf and M. Descourtis "La Grosse Pierre Sur Le Glacier de Vorderaar Canton de Berne Province d'Oberhasli", Amsterdam 1785.

Today worldwide glaciers were studied and monitored as climate proxies, and the recent measurements show that almost all of them are retreating fast. The story about glaciers, their influence on the landscape and their possible use to reconstruct and monitor climate is an intriguing one, with many triumphs, setbacks and changes of mind.

For centuries, if not even millennia, the high altitude belt of mountain ranges were a region visited and travelled by man, however also haunted and forbidding places.
The glaciers, masses of ice enclosing peaks and extending their tongues into valleys, were considered the residence of mountain spirits, then during the medieval times the prison of damned souls (the Italian poet Dante Alighieri 1265-1321 imagined the centre of hell as a frozen wasteland) and the playground of demons, who from time to time send avalanches and debris flows into the valley.
Despite these myths there was some early insights of what glaciers actually really are made, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo (63 - 23) describes a voyages trough the Alps during the reign of Augustus and mentions

"…there is no protection against the large quantities o
f snow falling, and that form the most superficial layers of a glacier…[]. It's a common knowledge that a glacier is composed by many different layers lying horizontally, as the snow when falling and accumulating becomes hard and crystallises...[]."

However the knowledge got lost, and was only rediscovered during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci´s (1452-1519) is considered one of the greatest Renaissance-geniuses,
he studied anatomy, biology and geology, however regarding the glaciers of the Alps his ideas were somehow confused, the thought glaciers were formed by not melted hail accumulating through the summer. But soon the study of nature experiences an incredible raise, and glaciers find place in various descriptions of travelling scholars.

Between 1538 and 1548 glaciers were labelled (even if not depicted) with the term "Gletscher" on topographic maps of Switzerland. In his account on the Swiss land t
he Theologian Josias Simler in 1574 describes the Rhone-glacier.
The first historic depiction of a glacier is considered the watercolour-paint of
the Vernagtferner in the Ötztaler Alps from 1601. The Vernagtferner was a glacier that repeatedly dammed up the Rofen-lake (named after the Rofen-valley), which outbursts caused heavy damage and loss of property, particularly in the years 1600, 1678, 1680, 1773, 1845, 1847 and 1848.
In 1642 the Swiss editor Matthaeus Merian the Older in his "Topographie Helvetiae, Rhaetiae et Valesiae" published various copper engravings of glaciers, and in 1706 Johann Heinrich Hottinger is interested to explain the motion of "the mountains of ice" in his "Descriptio Montium Glacialium Helveticorum."
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, visiting in the year 1705 the Rhône Glacier, published his observations of t
he "true nature of the springs of the river Rhône" in the opus "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", and confirms the idea that glaciers are formed by the accumulation of snow and they move and flow.

Fig.2. The description of the Rhone glacier according to Scheuchzer´s "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", the engraving shows the "false springs at the mountain Furca" (M, N, O - left and right of the picture) and the "true springs" (J, K, L) coming from the snout of the "great glacier" (A-F), surrounded by the "small glacier" (G, H).

The increasing interest to study glaciers in the Alps is also encouraged by enthusiastic travel reports; in his "Voyage pittoresque aux glaciers" the A.C. Bordier of 1773 describes the Bosson glacier as a "huge marble ruins of a devastated city".
The naturalist Horace Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) is fascinated by the mountains of his homeland, he climbed mountains around Geneva since 1758, and after 1760 he travelled more than 14 times trough the Alps (considering the possibilities in this time an extraordinary achievement). Between 1767 to 1779 the first volume of his "Voyages dans les Alpes" is published, were he reassumes his observations and theories about the visited glaciers, he recognized moraines and large boulders as the debris accumulated by the glacier tongue and proposes to map them to interfere the former extent of glaciers. Despite this exact statement, de Saussure failed to connect large boulders found in the foreland of the mountains to the glaciers of the Alps. He assumed that these rocks were transported on their recent locations by an immense flood. That seemed to explain why most of the boulders found scattered around the plains of Germany came in first place from the regions of Scandinavia, where the same lithology where found in the crystalline continental basement, like Precambrian metamorphic rocks and Paleozoic sediments. The theory worked lesser to explain the foreland Alpine rocks - to transport boulders from the Alps the flood at least had to reach 1000 of meters.
The idea of a flood as the explanation for "glacial" deposits became largely accepted, it seemed to fit the description of the biblical flood; even Lyell and Darwin assumed that huge erratic boulders were transported by swimming ice drafts on top of a flood wave.

That glaciers could propagate far out of their valleys was however not an unusual idea for local inhabitants, who observed and experienced the growth and recess of glaciers. In academic circle this approach was a little more difficult.
A contest thought to demonstrate the former extension of Swiss glaciers initiated by the Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach in 1781 (maybe inspired be the advance of the Alpine glacier in 1770) didn't arise any interest.

"Could it be proven to ourselves on the available documentation that both by the progress of our ice mountains as by our misbehaviour once for pasture most suitable land is currently covered by ice…[]"

There were only careful speculations considering a former expansion of glacier: the geologists James Hutton (1726-1797) and his friend John Playfair (1748-1819) speculated about glaciations of the northern hemisphere. In 1826 a publication by the Danish mineralogist and mountain climber Jens Esmark (1763-1839) was translated into English, in this paper Jesmark discussed the possibilities that glaciers where much greater in the past then today. J.D. Forbes and Robert Jameson (who were the geology professors of Charles Darwin at Edinburgh University, Darwin in his autobiography of 1876 remembers "The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science.") discussed glacial theories during their lectures. And even Buckland, who still in 1831 argued "northern region of the earth seems to have undergone successive changes from heat to cold", in 1837 was converted to Lyell's uniformatism and considered that sudden changes, like an ice age and glacier expansion, simply don't happen in geology.

In 1815 Jean Pierre Perraudin, a chamois hunter in the Val de Bagnes, told to the engineer Ignatz Venetz his theory that the glaciers once covered the entire valley, and Venetz mapped features that made him even recognize that once the entire Swiss was covered by ice. Vernetz´s lecture on the assembly of the Swiss association for natural history in 1829 found little interest, only Jean de Charpentier, director of the salt mine in the city of Bex (Western Swiss), who 14 years earlier had meet and discussed with Perraudin, this time accepted and got interested in this theory.
He begun a detailed mapping project, and in 1834 Charpentier present
ed again before the Swiss association the results of his investigations, but the flood theory had still much supporter. One of the critics in the public was a former student of Charpentier, named Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, respected palaeontologist by the establishment. Charpentier invited Agassiz to visit the city of Bex and surrounding mountains, and to observe glaciers.
In the following year (1837) Agassiz held an enthusiastic lecture about glaciers, ice ages and ice shields, and in 1840 published a detailed study of modern glaciers, their deposits and their spurs in his "Etudes sur les glaciers."
Agassiz experienced the same scepticism as many other ice-age proponents before.

"I think that you should concentrate your moral and also your pecuniary strength upon this beautiful work on fossil fishes .... In accepting considerable sums from England, you have, so to speak, contracted obligations to be met only by completing a work which will be at once a monument to your own glory and a landmark in the history of science ...[ ]...No more ice, not much of echinoderms, plenty of fish..."
Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Agassiz on 2. December 1837

However Agassiz had good connections to the most important geologist of his time. Soon he could persuade William Buckland
and later Charles Lyell. After that the most respected geologist gets convinced, the rest, as always, is history:

"advice - never try & persuade ye world of a new theory - persuade 2 or 3 of ye tip top men - & ye rest will go with ye stream, as Dr B. did with Sir H. Davy and Dr. Wollaston in case of Kirkdale Cave"
Edward Jackson, about an advice given by his professor Buckland in 1832

Fig.3. Reconstruction of the glacier that filled the valley of St. Amarin (southern Vosges, France), probably the first tentative reconstruction of an ice age glacier - from COLLOMB (1847): "Preuves de l´existence d´anciens glaciers dans les vallées des Vosges."

Agassiz research on the Unteraar-glacier established the foundations of glaciology; he recorded the dimension of the glacier, his velocity and even ventured inside the glacier by passing trough a glacial mill. Soon after 1850 the measurements methods introduced by Agassiz were carried out on various glaciers of the Alps and repeated nearly every year.

Fig.4. The Hintereis-glacier (in the centre of the picture), Hochjoch-glacier (left) and the Kesselwand- glacier, drawing by Schmetzer 1891, the Hintereis-glacier is one of the glacier with the longest active monitoring program, values about his length change reach back to 1848, since then the glacier lost 3km of his tongue.
"Aus den tiroler Alpen: Der Abschluß des Oetzthales mit dem Hochjochgletscher (links), dem Hintereisferner (in der Mitte) und dem Kesselwandferner (rechts oben). Nach der Natur gezeichnet von K. Schmetzer (1891)."

These records showed various fluctuations, but from 1850 onward a general trend of recession of glaciers in the Alps is observable. This trend has experienced a strong increase in the last 50 years, causing concern for the fast change in the landscape, the destabilisation of the rock walls once supported by the melting glaciers and the alteration of the discharge and hydrology of mountain ranges.

Fig.5. Temperature rise in the Alps and length loss of the glaciers of the Ötztaler Alps (western Austria) in the period 1900-2010. The valley glaciers with their tongues extending in the valleys showed the strongest retreat and degradation of the studied Austrian glaciers.

Island Life

"When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware is the constant asserted difference between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland Islds. If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts [would] undermine the stability of Species"
C. Darwin's zoology notes of the Beagle expedition in 1835.

Modern legend tells that Darwin's idea of natural selection was mainly influenced by his visit on the islands of the Galapagos archipelago; he later puzzled also about inhabitants of oceanic islands in a chapter of his "Origin of Species". Alfred Russel Wallace, who lived many years in the Malay Archipelago and there independently of Darwin's ongoing research developed an idea of variation and selection, dedicated even an entire book to the life found on islands ("Island Life", first edition in 1880).

Research on the fauna and flora of islands begun in the second hal
f of the 18th century whit the first expeditions sailing the Indian and Pacific Ocean and visiting the numerous islands distributed in these vast seas. For example the young German Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794) acted with his father as naturalist during the second voyage of Captain James Cook in 1772-1775. They visited many islands in the Pacific, described 270 new species and in 1777 Forster published travel accounts that arouse great interest; he even impressed Humboldt so much that he decided to dedicate his life to the exploration of the world, and so many other naturalist later (Darwin himself was influenced by the adventures of Humboldt).
Even the first naturalists noted that islands display important peculiarities in the animals and plants found on them, but it was only with the formulation
of Darwins and Wallaces theory that these phenomeas could be explained.

Islands habitats show an impoverishment in species diversity compared to a similar habitat on the mainland. Darwin reassumed that

"The species of all kinds which inhabit oceanic i
slands are few in number compared with those on equal continental areas."
C. Darwin "On the Inhabitants of Oceanic Islands" in "The Origin of Species" (1859)

However islands encompass unique species and species assemblages - many species are endemic on specific islands, and also the assemblage and proportions of the fauna differs from that experienced on a continent.
Oceanic islands are dominated by birds and reptiles, mammals are r
are and amphibians can lack completely. It is clear that such proportions are the result of different dispersal ability.
Reptiles, like tortoises, survive saltwate
r in difference to amphibians; some mammals can fly, as most of the birds.
Once some individuals reach an island, they can establish a circumscribed population and evolve own lineages.

"Oceanic islands are sometimes deficient in animals of certain w
hole classes, and their places are occupied by other classes; thus in the Galapagos Islands reptiles, and in New Zealand gigantic wingless birds, take, or recently took, the place of mammals."
C. Darwin "On the Inhabitants of Oceanic Islands" in "The Origin of Species" (1859)

So flying animals, like insects and birds, once stranded on the isla
nd tend to reduce or even loss their wings and grow larger in size. Insular species tend to differ notably in size in comparison to related species on the mainland - this is often referred as island rule.
Most species of land snails and beetle species on Pacific islands for example are
unusually small, also the chameleons of Madagascar are known by their tiny size.
On the contrary the remote island of St
. Helena holds the biggest known ear wing (Labidura herculeana) and some species of (now extinct) birds of New Zealand and Madagascar grow to gigantic sizes. Also in mammals a general trend is observed, large species, like elephants, tend to become smaller on islands, and small species, like rodents, tend to became larger.

The description of a large marabou stork would surely have d
elighted both Darwin and Wallace, latter even knowing the place where this new discovery happened, the island of Flores in today's Indonesia.

Fig.1. Artist's impression of the size of Leptoptilos robustus sp. nov. (estimated at 1,8m) compared to Homo floresiensis (estimated at 1.0 m). Drawing by I. van Noortwijk, from MEIJER & DUE 2010.

The island of Flores got already great interest by palaeontologists and the media when in 2004 the discovery of extraordinarily small skeletons, attributed to a new h
ominid species, was published. The estimated 1m high Homo floresiensis would be a dwarf compared even to modern "pygmies" (1,5m high).
The new described marabou stork, Leptoptilos robustus, is the first species of fossil bird described from the island of Flores and was discovered in the sa
me sediments of the Liang Bua cave, site that held also the bones of H. floresiensis. This bird would be large even for our standards, estimated 1,8m in height.
The island of Flores lacked great carnivorous mammals during the Pleistocene and Holocene, so the stork could occupy the niche of a large predator and scavenger.
Also there were an abundant prey supply, very large rodents and juvenile Komodo dragons.

Fig.2. From the island of Timor, near Flores, Australian researchers in 2010 described the fossil remains of a new species of rodent of the genus Coryphomys, with an estimated body mass of 6 kg. The fossils resulted surprisingly young, dated between 1.000 to 2.000 years. Today the heaviest known murids belong to the genus Mallomys, endemic to Indonesia and reaching a mass of 2 kg.
The photo shows the ventral side of the broken fossil skull of Coryphomys (
left) compared to the skull of a modern common rat (Rattus rattus), after APLIN & HELGEN 2010.

From the thickness and dimensions of the recuperated bones it is also probably that this species was flightless, as so many large birds evolved in the isolation of islands.

Fig.3. The islands of Flores and Timor remained isolated even during the glacial periods, when the sea level was 180m lower than today forming the landmasses of Sunda and Sahul. It is part of the peculiar biogeographic zonation of Wallacea with highly endemic species.


APLIN, K.P. & HELGEN, K.M. (2010): Quaternary Murid Rodents of Timor Part I: New Material of Coryphomys buehleri Schaub, 1937, and Description of a Second Species of the Genus. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History: 341: 1-80
MEIJER, H.J.M. & DUE, R.A. (2010): A new species of giant marabou stork (Aves: Ciconiiformes) from the Pleistocene of Liang Bua,
Flores (Indonesia). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160: 707-724
QUAMMEN, D. (1987): Evolution and Extinction in the Galapagos and Beyond. In "The flight of the Iguana." (1988-1998): 161-175

What Bugged the Dinosaurs?

Fig.1. Cimex lectularius, the terrible bed bug.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch! "
Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

Insects entombed in amber were noted since antiquity; however a first naturalistic research and binomial description occurred only in 1779 by Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), just one year after Linne´s death. Bolch studied copal, a fossil tree resin younger then classic amber, ranging only some million years in age.
Most of early palaeoentmological work dealing with fossils in amber or fine-grained sediments was not carried out by professional entomologists, but by geologists, botanist and insect collectors, considering the incredible diversity of insects (925.000 named species until now) an exceptional self-confidence, resulting however often in a chaotic taxonomy, incorrect descriptions or depictions. But it would be unfair to minimize the efforts of these pioneers, they acted in best intent.
With the beginning of the 20th century this general appro
ach became replaced by specific research of professional entomologists.

Insects are the most
successful multicellular animal group on earth today, and there is no reason to assume that in the geological past the situation was different.
Amber so provides us with an unique window in this past, and show the
diversity and various behaviour that insects evolved over time.

Diverse recent organisms make a living by nourishing on blood, most notable the vampire bats and leeches, even some human cultures, especially the Masai of Kenia, have discovered fresh blood as valuable food, but non of these groups is so successful in the habit to suck blood as the insects.
Not all insects that bites need blood to feed, some species use blood only i
n certain periods of their development, for example as protein source for egg production. Some insects are generalists and will attack fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, other are more specialized and prefer single groups or species.
Insects, despite the common claim, don't bite, but saw or cut out our skin. Mosquitoes then punctuate direct a blood vessel, and suck the blood (capillary feeders). Other insects group, like blackflies, biting midges, sand flies, and horseflies lacerate the blood vessels, and lick the blood that accumulates in the wound (pool-feeders).

The insect record is a very old one; fossils are known since the Carboniferous, however in part very fragmentary, most modern groups are known only with the beginning of the Triassic or Cretaceous, and groups that today feed on blood are known mostly since the Cretaceous.

Bloodsucking insects from include different insects groups, however mainly dominated by the "flies" (Diptera) as snipe flies (Rhagionidae), athericid flies (Athericidae), blackflies (Simuliidae), biting midges (Ceratopog
onids), Sand flies (Phlebotominae) and horse flies (Tabanidae).
Fleas (Siphonaptera)
and lice (Phthiraptera) are the second largest group of obligatory blood feeders, and finally also some bugs (Heteroptera) have evolved a taste for blood.
Even if there is no direct evidence that the ancestors of these insects feed on dinosaurs, like a palae-flea fossilised on a dinosaur, the co
ntemporaneity of these groups and dinosaurs makes it highly probable that the insects did benefit from the availability of such large blood packs.
The skin of the dinosaurs comprised various dimensions and patterns of scales or even scutes, some showed scales perfectly fitting each to another, on others the scales or tubercle were embedded in the thin skin, and finally some dinosaurs were also covered by bristles, filamen
ts, proto-feathers and feathers. These various categories however do not exclude each and another, some species possessed body parts covered by classic reptilian epidermis and some parts were covered by feathers.
In every case the skin did not provided an impenetrable wall against all
sorts of bloodsucking organisms.

Mosquitoes (Culicidae) are the most familiar group of the blood sucking insect, however they are quite rare in the fossil record and only single specimens confirm their presence during the Cretaceous. Most of the recent forms are opportunists, they will attack whatever host is available, even if preferring mammals and birds, but from 5 genera it is known that they feed also on lizards.

Biting midges (Ceratopogonidae) resemble a tiny version of mosquitoes, in most cases their attack is not noted, only after their dinner a fastidious itchiness remembers their presence. This group is commonly found in Cretaceous amber, and it is probable that they in the past also targeted dinosaurs. Ceratopogonids today are pool feeders, they will attack all sorts of vertebrates and concentrate their effort on regions of a body were blood vessels are easily approachable, like the area surrounding the eye or joints, were scales are smaller or the skin thinner.

lackflies (Simuliidae) are tiny insects like the biting midges; however they are capable to travel for long periods and can come in gigantic swarms. It seems that large quantities of these insects are capable to weakening and even kill large mammals by the suffered loss of blood.
Fossil remains occur during the Jurassic and Cretaceous in Europe, Australia, Asia, and North America, modern forms are not known to fee
d on reptiles, but they feed on birds.

Sand flies (Phlebotominae) are probably one of the earliest groups of flies in which some species evolved the ability to suck blood; they switched from nibbling on plants to obtain liquids to use animal wounds during the Jurassic and evolved in the Cretaceous the habit to actively gain blood. Most of them today are general feeders, feeding on all sorts of vertebrates, some species however prefer lizards and snakes, and have no problem to reach the soft skin und
er the overlapping scales.

Horse-flies and deer-flies of the family Tabanidae were widespread throughout the Cretaceous and today are strong, persistent flies, and appropriately feared as blood pool-feeders on both warm- and cold-blooded animals.
Their "bite" is nasty and often where the insect feed a painful wheal develops. Today at least four species of horseflies are known to prey on crocodiles and anacondas in the Amazon, also turtles and birds can not escape their attacks.

Fleas (Siphonaptera) and lice (Phthiraptera) today thrive under the protection of hairs and feathers on both mammals and birds, and it seems reasonable to assume that they or similar organisms could also accept feathered dinosaurs as habitat. In case of reptilian skinned dinosaurs, it is interesting to note that modern fleas try to avoid reptiles as hosts, probably by the lack of shelter offered by the scales.

Fleas and flea-like insects, like Strashila, have in fact been described from Mesozoic sediments. A robust beak indicated that Strashila may have sucked blood, and claws on the well developed hind legs might have been used to grip feathers or bristles.

Fig.2. Another bizarre, apparently ectoparasitic mecopteroid, Strashila incredibilis, reconstructed from the part and counterpart specimen from the Late Jurassic of eastern Siberia. The huge hind legs were probably used for grasping onto its host. The lobes on the abdomen are an enigma; body length 6 mm (GRIMALDI & ENGEL 2005).

her Mesozoic flea-like insect (it is tentatively attributed to Mecoptera, group related to true fleas), is the large-bodied Saurophthirus longipes, the prolonged proboscis, extended claws, and long legs have been considered modifications for parasitic behaviour on pterosaur wings or to grasp the border of large dinosaur scales.

Lice are highly specific parasites of mammals and birds, and are placed in two categories, the biting (Mallophaga) and sucking (Anoplura) types. The latter all feed on mammalian blood, while the biting forms, thought to be more "primitive" and older then the sucking forms, feed on feathers, hair, skin and blood.
Fossil lice are rare, from the Cretaceous of Transbaikalia the species Saurodectes is known, a contemporary of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and possibly feeding on them.

Fig.3. A large Mesozoic louse? Saurodectes vrsanskyi, photo and reconstruction, from the Early Cretaceous of Baissa, Siberia (ca. 140 Ma); body length 17 mm (GRIMALDI & ENGEL 2005).

Blood sucking insects represent today a particular danger for men and animals.
Despite the possibility to become exsanguinated by billions and billions of tiny flies, the true danger coming from insects is that they are acting as highly movable vectors of pathogens. Research on blood sucking insects conserved in amber showed that many of them carry microbes, resembling modern pathogens that cause Leishmania and Malaria, and also small invertebrates and parasites like nematodes.

It is not clear how much these insects contributed to the ecology of dinosaurs, but surely, as today, they played an important role.


BREHM, A.E. (1892): Insekten, Tausendfüßer und Spinnen. Brehms Tierleben Bd.9. Ernst Ludwig Taschenberg.

GRIMALDI, D. A. & ENGEL, M. S. (2005): Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press: 755

POINAR, G. & POINAR, R. (2007): What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous. Princeton University Press: 296
RASNITSYN, A.P. & QUICKE, D.L.J. (eds.) (2002): History of insects. Kluwer Academic Press: 517

Kangaroos and geologists: The first geological exploration of Australia

It was one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions of all times, the "Geographe" and "Naturaliste" were intended to explore the geology, botany, zoology and anthropology of the distant and largely unknown continent of Hollandia Nova, sometimes referred also as the mythical Terres Australes - today known as Australia.
Despite the discoveries of various previously unknown species, profound insights of the geological past and even a glimpse of evolution, the expedition under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin today is almost forgotten.

In the year 1606 the Dutchman Willem Janszoon, captain sailing for the powerfull Dutch East India Company landed as first European on the Australian continent; however he and following sailors in the next 30 years assumed that they had discovered an ulterior part of the island of New Guinea. In 1642 the Dutchman Abel Tasman begun the search for the mythical southern continent, the "Terra Australis", and circumnavigated the Australian continent until arriving to the Van-Diemen´s-Land, island that later (1853) would bear his name and is known today as Tasmania.
From 1750 to 1800 French and English expeditions begun to explore the Indian - and the Pacific Ocean, in 1770 captain James Cook mapped the easte
rn coast of Australia and take possession of the land for the British Empire.
The French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte hoped to conquer some colonies in over sea, and so in 1800 approved a plan for an expedit
ion to the distant continent of Australia.

In the morning of the 19. October 1800 two ships - the "G
eographe" and the "Naturaliste" - left the harbour of Le Havre behind, for an expedition that would lead them to the opposite face of the globe.
On board were, under the commandment of Captain Nicolas Baudin (1754-1803), 22 naturalists, 5 zoologists, 3 botanists, geographers, astronomers, artists, gardeners and 2 mineralogists - Louis Depuch (1774-1
803) and Charles Bailly (1777-1844), 218 members of the marine and 11 stowaways. In the last moment also the young zoologist, and trained palaeontologist, Francois Auguste Peron (1775-1810), student of the great Cuvier in Paris, joined the expedition.
The geological observations made by Depuch, who will die in the last part of the voyage, are known from various reports to Baudin, Bailly will publish some notes after
his return to France and Peron includes in the official report of the expedition observations of the geologists and other naturalists. Two other young men, official unskilled worker, were invited by Baudin to illustrate the logbook - Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, both will became later the most skilled artists for animals and plants of the time.

During the long voyage Peron and Lesueur became friends and especially interested in the jellyfishes of the Atlantic Ocean - the drawings m
ade by Lesueur of the discovered specimens will much later even inspire the artwork of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel.

Lesueur´s depiction of jellyfishes for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes", published in Paris 1808-1811 (figures from here), Image of introduction Macropus fuliginosus (Western grey kangaroo) also by Lesueur.

In March 1801 the ships reached the Ile de France, the moder
n island of Mauritius, and lost 10 naturalists - they decided to abandon the expedition and remain on the island. The expedition nevertheless continued and in April the two ships left behind Mauritius, on 27. May 1801 the bare land of Cape Leeuwin, Australia, was in sight.

Fig.3. The route of the expedition by Baudin, in the background Louis de Freycinet´s (1779-1842) "Carte générale de la Nouvelle Hollande", published in 1811 as part of the results of the 1800-1804 expedition (map from here and here, modified).

The first naturalists went on land in the Wonnerup Inlet, and begun avidly collect specimens of animals and samples of rocks.
A storm forced the men t
o remain on land, only after several days they finally were able to reach their ships, but during the attempt one man died. The storm separated the two ships, which proceeded with the expedition independently to the island of Timor, a Dutch colony, where the majority of the crew fell ill by Malaria and other tropical diseases.
Nevertheless still the expedition continued, and in November 1801 t
hey reached Tasmania, where they remained for three months.
Peron and Lesueur studied, collected and draw the new and unknown fauna and flora, and also the indigen
ous people which they encountered in the second part of the voyage. Again the two ships lost each another.
The "Geographe" on 8. April 1802 encountered the British vessel "Investigator" under the command of Matthew Flinders. The expediti
on of the "Investigator" will map large part of the southern coast of Australia during the years 1801-1803, and prove that Australia is one large continent, not two islands separated by a strait, as some geographers (and Napoleon) assumed previously. This were bad news, the lack of a strait meant that the British Empire could claim an entire continent for it's own.

The "Geographe" continued their scientific exploration, until reaching on 20. June 1802 Port
Jackson, the modern Sydney, soon followed by the "Naturaliste". The expedition had collected until then more than 40.000 specimens - so it was decided that the "Naturaliste" would turn back to France with a part of the collection; the "Geographe" would proceed to study the southern coast of Australia.
On Kang
aroo Island Baudin caugth, appropriately, a dozen of living kangaroos and some emus, and stored them in the carbines of the crew. The animals soon became sea sick and the majority of them died before the end of the expedition; the surviving specimens were intended as a gift to the garden of the French queen Josephine.

With Baudins expedition the first academic naturalists an
d geologists explored Australia - a continent which geology was completely unknown to Europeans.
The expedition's geologist, Louis Depuch and Charles Bailly, followed a four-fold scheme of rock classification, developed in Europe, and taught by the famous French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu. They recognised primary rocks, such as granite; secondary rocks, such as stratified sandstone and limestone; alluvium; and local volcanic rocks, such as basalts. The French geologists' recording of these four categories of rocks in Australia confirmed their world-wide distribution, an important step to establish general valid categories in geology. Together with the zoologist François Péron, who also carried out geological investigations, the French geologists were the first to establish the presence of a chain of highlands along the eastern coast of the Australian continent.

Peron noted also on the western coast o
f Australia horizontal bedded sand- and limestone (today referred as Tamala-Limestone and considered an aeolian sediment of the Pleistocene), and concluded, based on similarities in the content of lime and sand, that these sediments were deposited on the beach, and later cemented by calcareous substances (an early insight on diagenesis of sedimentary rocks). However he misidentified larger calcareous concretions as single pebbles, and denominated layers with such nodules as "breccias".
Peron assumed from the position of the single layers above the ocean a change of the sea level during geological time - the sediment was explainable by deposition of sand and consequent retreat of the sea. An important observation at a time when worldwide sea level changes were necessary to sustain the Neptunism-geology, where all rocks form by crystallisation from water and so in the past must have been covered by the sea. Peron wrote:

"One of the greatest achievements of modern geology research and also one of its most indisputable, is the certain knowledge that, in the past, the level of the sea was higher than at the present time. At almost all places in the old and the new world is the proo
f of this phenomenon as numerous as it is evident. Only in les Terres australes was this still to be ascertained as, by virtue of its immense areal estent, it could have proved to be an important exception to the universality of the former domination of the ocean over the land."

Fig.4. Lesueur´s and Petit´s depiction of Van-Diemen´s-Land for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes". The granitic rocks found on the island of Tasmania convinced Peron and the other geologists that the most ancient - the primary - rock was Granite, forming the basement of the continents - in accordance to the geological view of Neptunism.

During the expedition the naturalists and the crew faced many danger, however in part injuries or dead were a result of negligence by members of the expedition.

In Shark Bay Peron and other naturalists went on land to collect seashells, ignoring the orders of Captain Baudin, and soon were lost in the desert. Only two days later they were accidentally found and saved. Baudin confined the rebellious zoologist on the ship.
Peron never forgot, as he saw it, this affront, and later, in the official report of the expedition did not name once the captain of the expedition, and if he mention him he inculpated him to be to careless.
However during the entire expedition only 32 men died, 13% of the crew, a surprisingly low percentage considering the period.
Capitan Baudin tried to proceed until th
e gulf of Carpentaria, following his orders, but soon diseases spread on the ship and the fresh water supply became low, Baudin decided to turn back. Soon after Capitan Baudin died of fever on the island of Timor victim as many others of the dangers and deprivations on these expeditions.

In 1804 the "Geographe" sailed into the harbour of Le Havre, however there were no official welcome or celebration, as three years earlier - the ongoing war between French and England now was more important.
The expedition was the most successful until these times, 220.000 samples of animals, plants and rocks collected, and 73 living animals, 3 kangaroos, 2 emus and 3 wombats - the first of their kind to be seen in Europe - brought back.

Fig.5. The original hand coloured copper engraving of this Short -legged Emu (now extinct) on Kangaroo Island was engraved by F. Lambert after paintings and drawings by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes".

However the achievements of Baudins expedition will be forgotten until the 20the century - why?
One cause was the dead of some of the most important naturalists during the expedition, one of the geologists and the chief-botanist, also Baudin was dead - there was simply nobody of high reputation left to care about the results of the voyage.
A second cause was the lack of support from the authorities. The expedition of the "Investigator " had reassured the predominance of the British Empire in Austr
alia, Baudins expedition therefore was considered by politicians a failure, Napoleon and the government showed little interest in financing further work, like the publication of the results or payment for the surviving naturalist, weak and ill from three years of dangers and deprivations.
Peron can publish the official report and an atlas containg some plates of the travel only in 1807, after hard work and a long struggle for the money, entitled "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes", and dies just three years later in 1810, before the completion of the second volume, published posthumous by the geographer Freycinet.

There was still a possibility for the Baudin´s collection to earn some fame, but again something went wrong.
The collection of molluscs and sea shells brought back from the expedition influenced the work of an important French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck.
Peron had discovered on the coasts of Tasmania a bivalve with a peculiar triangular shape - Trigonia antarctica - and recognized the similarities of this living species with fossil species known until then only from the Tertiary sediments of the basin of Paris and assumed extinct.

Fig.6. Specimen of Trigonia sp. from lower Cretaceous sediments of Bavaria (Germany). Below: One of the many fossil species of Trigonia found commonly in some of the older Secondary formations, as illustrated by Bruguiere for the Encyclopedie Methodique (1797) (after RUDWICK 2005).

In 1804 Lamarck published the discovery; this example seemed to support his idea that species are not fixed entities but change over time.
Unfortunately Lamarck mixed detailed natural observations with wild speculations, he saw correctly that there are differences of organisms through time, however he could not explain why there should be a change beside to a final cause or mysterious force and his explanations were later regarded by Darwin as "useless".
If Lamarck had recognized that there is no distant final cause to reach for an organism - a good example were the many "primitive" mammals of Australia - but only the survival now, he maybe would have discovered the most important theory in biology 50 years earlier then Darwin.
C'est la vie...


GLAUBRECHT, M. & MERMET, G. (2007): Josephines Emu oder Die Geschichte einer vergessenen Expedition. GEO Nr.6/2007: 98-122

MAYER, W. (2008): Early geological investigations of the Pleistocene Tamala Limestone, Western Australia. from GRAPES, R.H.; OLDROYD, D. & GRIGELIS, A. (eds) History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 301: 279-293
MAYER, W. (2009): The Geological Work of the Baudin Expedition in Australia (1801-1803): The Mineralogists, the Discoveries and the Legacy. Earth Sciences History Vol.28 (2): 293-324
RUDWICK, M.J.S. (2005): Bursting the limits of time - The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution.The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708