Field of Science

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

To promote the international exhibition in the Crystal Palace (Sydenham , London) for New Year's Eve 1853 twenty-one distinguished guests were invited to a banquet inside the unfinished model of an Iguanodon, sculpture made by artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under severe examination of leading anatomist Richard Owen to celebrate the new discovered proudly-prehistoric monsters [...]

The End of the Mayan World

According to the popcorn-movie "2012" (2009) the end of the world will come due increased solar activity that will overheat earth and cause catastrophic volcanic and tectonic storms on December 21, 2012. This premise is so dumb that even NASA declared "2012" as the most "absurd science-fiction movie" of all times, not only because the science is so bad, but the movie exploits also the fear mongering story of the supposed end of the Mayan calendar, first proposed by artist and author José Argüelles in 1987. Almost all of the supposed end of the world tale is nonsense, the various proposed mechanism to explain the destruction of the planet, like solar eruptions, pole shift or the impact of an invisible planet, are unrealistic, as it is unrealistic to claim that the end of a arbitrary time period has any significance for earth.

Fig.1. The goddess Chakchell, with her terrifying snake headdress, is flooding earth with the waters coming from the jar of the gods. She is helped in this task by the dark god of the underworld, with an owl as symbol of his power, and the divine crocodile - even the holy hieroglyphs are crying and the world will soon drown (after the "Codex Dresdensis", ca. 1200-1250, plate 47 "The flood").

However in the last years the Maya Civilization arouse the interest not only of crackpots, but also serious historians and even climate scientists. This ancient society possessed advanced knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and architecture, but 1.200 years ago (750-950 A.D.) the various city-states on the Yucatan peninsula suffered a sudden collapse. Various hypotheses tried to explain this demise: internal warfare, foreign invasions, diseases, overpopulation in combination with environmental degradation and climate change.
The Yucatan peninsula is characterized by a heterogenic spatial distribution of precipitation and seasonal droughts, especially during the beginning of the year (January- May). The climate is influenced by the position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), wind systems that shift position due the seasons and bring moisture to the land. The Maya had to deal with these variations and in response build large artificial reservoirs. The limestone of the Yucatan peninsula is highly permeable and the groundwater is almost inaccessible, if not by naturally occurring caves or cenotes, and there are virtually no rivers.
It was in these cenotes that geologists of the University of Florida collected sediment cores and discovered in the isotope variations of shells a pronounced drought period between 800 and 1000 A.D., coincident with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. A even more detailed reconstruction of the climate of the region was possibly by the research done on sediments from the Cariaco Basin, a basin with limited deep water mixing and anoxic conditions on the ground (and therefore perfect sedimentation conditions) offshore Venezuela. Depending from the position of the ITCZ fossil-rich or clastic-rich layers are deposited, so by studying and counting these layers the former variation of the ITCZ and the amount of precipitation can be estimated.
Also this record shows a climate shift and cyclic multi-year droughts from 910 to 760 A.D.

According to the proposed scenario a population at the margin of environmental sustainability experienced repeated droughts and a demise of agricultural production. The various city-states, chronically involved in wars for power and sacrifice victims, consumed the last reserves in a desperate struggle for survive.

However like in the case of Easter Island considering both evidence from natural sciences and historical and cultural circumstances the scenario could become more complicated. The Mayan Civilization was characterized by religious violence and war was less aimed to destroy the enemy than to catch (and sacrifice) the political elite. This society had also survived previous droughts or phases of increased soil erosion, when in A.D. 550-830 the population reached high densities. The power became concentrated in few city-states, which struggled for power and replaced small military expeditions with great wars. The crumbling central government could no longer guarantee the safety of peasants, when the society was further weakened by climate changes.
In the end the city-states were replaced by a most decentralized kind of society, whit the descendants still living today.


ANSELMETTI, F.S.; HODELL, D.A.; ARIZTEGUI, D.; BRENNER, M. & ROSENMEIER, M.F. (2007): Quantification of soil erosion rates related to ancient Maya deforestation. Geology Vol. 35(10): 915-918
GILL, R.B. (2000): The Great Maya Droughts - Water, Life, and Death. Univ. New Mexico Press: 464
PETERON, L.C. & HAUG, G.H. (2005): Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization. American Scientist, Vol. 93: 322-329

Dear Leaders and a Volcano

Eternal President Kim Il-sung (1912-) and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (1941-2011). In the background Tianchi or "Lake of Heavenly Peace", a crater lake inside the volcano Baitoushan or Paektusan ("white headed mountain"). Tianchi Lake has a diameter of more than three kilometres and is 373 meter deep. The volcanic complex is more than 2 million years old, however the caldera formed only during a large eruption about 965 A.D. Since then at least 3 to 5 eruptions of small to moderate size occurred, the last in 1703. 

Curiously the lake is not only the mythical birthplace of Dear Leader but hosts also a Lake Monster.


SCHMINCKE, H.-U. (2004): Volcanism. Springer, Berlin-Heidelberg: 324

At the Mountains of Madness

December 14, was the 100 years anniversary of the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole in the middle of the continent of Antarctica. Until then only segments of the coasts were known and partially mapped.  

Fig.1. The dog Chris inspecting a grammophone during the Scott Expedition in Antarctica  (photo by Herbert George Ponting, 1911).

It is no wonder that such an unknown land influenced the imagination of many writers and later film directors. 

"At the Mountains of Madness" is a science-fiction/horror story by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), written in February/March 1931 and originally published in three parts in the February, March and April 1936 issues of the pulp-magazine "Astounding Stories" (also one of the first pulp- and horror fiction magazines ever to be published).
The story is written in a first-person perspective by geologist William Dyer, a professor from Miskatonic University, which led a geological expedition to Antarctica in "1930".
The expedition discovers first strange fossils, eons of years older then all other signs of life on our planet, and finally a mountain range, much higher and darker then ever imagined. But after a carefully investigation along the borders of the mountains and the discovery of even more strange fossils, contact get lost with a part of the team and the narrator makes his way to discover what happened at the Mountains of Madness.
Lovecraft incorporates in his story many scientific observations made at the time, especially the discovery of fossils. Little was known about the geology of Antarctica; rock exposures comprise only 1-3% of the land area and are limited to isolated coastal regions and to the peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains, crossed for the first time by the Ernest Shackleton-expedition in 1908. Only in 1928-1930 the Richard Evelyn Byrd-expedition collected the first fossils.
Still today sites with fossils are rare spots; from Antarctica we know some dinosaur species, synapsid species, a plesiosaur, Eocene mammals and a terror bird - however plant remains are by far the most common fossils and especially these plants proofed that Antarctica was once a tropical paradise.
Lovecraft describes the fictional discovery of a cave that acted as sediment trap for millions of years:

"Washed down from unknown jungles of Mesozoic tree ferns and fungi, and forests of Tertiary cycads, fan palms, and primitive angiosperms, this osseous medley contained representatives of more Cretaceous, Eocene, and other animal species than the greatest paleontologist could have counted or classified in a year."

Also other authors located a tropical Lost World near the Antarctic continent. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) published in 1918 the first part of a science-fiction book in the "Blue Book Magazine": "The Land That Time Forgot". Here a primordial world populated by tropical forests and of course dinosaurs is located on the island of Caprona, a land mass near Antarctica, first reported by the (fictitious) Italian explorer Caproni in 1721. The tale inspired two movies: "The Land That Time Forgot"(1975) and "The People That Time Forgot"(1977).

Fig.3. Cover art for first combined edition (1924) of The Land That Time Forgot.


In the science-fiction/monster movie "Monolith-Monster" (1957) fragments of a meteorite are discovered in the desert of California. The strange mineral from outer space starts to grow to gigantic crystals when it comes into contact to water and a heavy rainfall is occurring in the mountains where the fragments are scattered around (the movie is also worth to watch for the geo-babble as noted by Jessica Ball in her Geological Frigthfest review on Magma cum Laude; and you can see here for yourself).  The idea of growing minerals was later adapted in the computer game "Command & Conquer: Tiberium", where an extraterrestrial meteorite brings the unknown mineral Tiberium to earth, that grows by extracting nutrients from all other life-forms.
Every single fragment of these crystals can grow, similar to real crystals; however they are not considered life-forms as they lack the ability to actively self-replicate or even evolve.

On earth the dominant life-forms are based on the element carbon (C) - excluding the case of the presumed arsenic bacteria -  but already early science-fiction writers speculated on alternative forms of life, based on other elements like silicon, nitrogen, phosphorus, boron and even metals like titanium, aluminium, magnesium and iron.

In 1891 the German astrophysicist Julius Schreiner was one of the first to propose silicon (Si) life-forms, the  idea was taken seriously by British chemist Emerson Reynolds who speculated about the habitats that such a creature could be inhabit.
Later H.G. Wells wrote

"One is startled towards fantastic imaginings by such a suggestion: visions of silicon-aluminium organisms - why not silicon-aluminium men at once? - wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say, by the shores of a sea of liquid iron some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace."

Silicon was chosen because its similarities to carbon - it is common in the universe and it can form log and stable polymers, it also reacts with hydrogen (forming the instable gas silane) and oxygen (forming stable silicones) to form stable molecules. Oxidation is used by terrestrial life forms to gain energy and the waste product is the gas carbon dioxide. A silicon creature would however produce a solid mineral composed of silicon dioxide. According to some authors the respiratory system of a silicon life-form therefore must produces sand or even bricks.
The idea became popular in the short story "A Martian Odyssey", published in 1934 by Stanley Weisbaum (1902-1935):

"Those bricks were its waste matter... We're carbon, and our waste is carbon dioxide, and this thing is silicon, and its waste is silicon dioxide-silica. But silica is a solid, hence the bricks. And it builds itself in, and when it is covered, it moves over to a fresh place to start over."

Aliens as silicon life-forms became very popular in TV-productions and movies also after the Monolith-Monster. The "Island of Terror" (1966) is inhabited by artificial "silicates" life-form that feed on calcium of human bones.

As a matter of fact the very incarnation of the extraterrestrial xenomorph -H.R. Giger´s "Alien" - possesses a shell of Si-compounds to protect it from environmental factors. This resistant shell is also very useful to contain the acid blood of the creature.
In the TV series "Star Trek" the crew discovers a silicon-based life-form during mining activities on the planet Janus VI (episode "Devil in the Dark"), however this creature is less hostile than other xenomorphs:

Spock: "Life as we know it, is universally based on some combination of carbon compounds. But what if life exists based on other element. For instance silicon."

In "Star Trek: The Next Generation" some episodes feature living crystals or the dangerous "Crystalline Entity".
In the X-file episode "Firewalker" a mushroom like parasitic life-form (however terrestrial in origin and the result of a parallel evolution process) produces as waste simple sand (that fills the lungs of its host). The parasite is discovered as spores coming from inside an active volcano start spreading. It is interesting to note that geneticist Haldane, J. B. S. proposed that silicon life-forms could survive inside a planet feeding on partially molten rocks.

Despite these promising visions, the structure of silicates is limited mostly on long chains or sheets (minerals). Silicon doesn't form complex molecules, like enzymes in carbon based life forms, and it would be difficult to achieve a metabolism with such a simple chemistry.


REYNOLDS, J.E. (1893): Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Nature 48(477)
WELLS, H.G. (1894): Another Basis for Life. Saturday Review: 676


"Surface conditions on Earth, have been for most of geological time regulated by life…[]…This new link between Geology and Biology originated in the Gaia hypothesis''
NASA geologist Paul Lowman (2002)

The concept of a living planet is a rare but intriguing vision of pop-art and science-fiction. In the Italian movie "Planet on the Prowl" (1966) the gravitational pull of a planet is causing havoc on earth. A team is send into space to destroy the planet, but here they discover that the celestial body is a living (!) cybernetic organism (however artificial in origin) that will not simply surrender without fight. A very similar plot was already used by director Antonio Margheriti in "Battle of the Worlds" (1961), where the mainframe of an alien spaceship is mimicking a planet.
A classic approach to a planet as life form is found in comics in the shape of the evil characters of Ego the living planet ("Thor" Sept. 1966) and Mogo the living planet ("Green Lantern" May 1985). Both planets are self-concious and selfish entities that feed on other worlds.

In 1965 the independent scientist James Lovelock, inspired by research on the possible habitability  of planet Mars, proposed in a Nature-article to see the various spheres of earth (lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere) as an interconnected and self-regulating system. He followed the suggestions by novelist William Golding and called this idea the Gaia-hypothesis, after the ancient mythological titan Gaia - personification of earth (this unintentionally, but supposed religious connection caused most concern in the scientific community). However the general notion that the Gaia-hypothesis states that "earth as a living planet" or a "life form" in the sense of entity or even individual is incorrect.

Fig.1. "SimEarth" is a simulator for life-supporting planets, 1990-1992 by Maxis.

Lovelock argued that both biotic and abiotic processes limit the possible amplitude of changes in the salinity of the oceans, the surface temperature of earth and the atmospheric chemistry - therefore forcing earth into a life-supporting disequilibrium between two stable extremes like the frozen wasteland of Mars or a hellish world as Venus.

In 1971 microbiologist Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) joined Lovelock (here an interview with both scientists in 2011), emphasizing the significance of microbial life and activity for the Gaia-theory and arguing how natural selection, acting on single individuals, could account for the development of (apparently) stable systems. Egoistic organism do not manipulate deliberately the system so it can support them; however if an organisms harms his environment (and the life-supporting properties) it will be naturally selected and be removed from the system. Environments are also not static systems that will not react to biotic changes, but can oscillate around "set points" without loosing their life-supporting properties.

"Some 30 million types of extant organisms have descended with modification from common ancestors; that is, all have evolved. All of them-ultimately bacteria or products of symbioses of bacteria - produce reactive gases to and remove them from the atmosphere, the soil, and the fresh and saline waters. All directly or indirectly interact with each other and with the chemical constituents of their environment, including organic compounds, metal ions, salts, gases, and water. Taken together, the flora, fauna, and the microbiota (microbial biomass), confined to the lower troposphere and the upper lithosphere, is called the biota. The metabolism, growth, and multiple interactions of the biota modulate the temperature, acidity-alkalinity, and, with respect to chemically reactive gases, atmospheric composition at the Earth's surface."

Margulis also emphasized the link between geology and biology - for example:
Plate tectonics is like life (as we at the moment know) a unique feature of the planet Earth. Apart of the size, density and petrological composition, plate tectonics seems to depend from the existence of liquid water on a planet. Without an atmosphere, earth would be to cold to maintain water in liquid form; however the chemistry of the atmosphere is influenced both by the lithosphere (by volcanic eruptions) and controlled by the carbon-circle of the biosphere. Finally plate tectonics modified (and modifies) the surface of earth and the environments, forcing life forms to adapt and evolve - probably even with no plate tectonics life would be still possible on earth, but it surely would be much more monotonous.
So every subsystem is connected to the others and influence them, being at the same moment influenced by all other subsystems.

Today´s legacy of Lovelock and Margulis is the consideration to see geology as part of the Earth System Sciences and appropriately to understand the Earth as a system.


MARGULIS, L. (2004): Gaia by Any Other Name. In (ed.) Schneider S.H. "Scientists Debate Gaia - The Next Century": 7 - 12

It Came From the Ice!

I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic - with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.
"At the Mountains of Madness" (1931/1936) by H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

One of the most classic monster of movies is without doubt the "mummy", mostly of Egyptian origin and with human shape (despite the fact that thousands of Egyptian mummies of various animals are known). Still today we are fascinated by the effort put into the preservation of a body, the ultimate victory above decay, corruption and finally death himself.
But there are not only artificial mummies, nature offers various methods to create "natural mummies". Corpses can be preserved in bog deposits - to acid for decomposing organism -  or tar pits - to poorly oxygenated - or permafrost - to cold for an effective decomposition of organic matter.

Natural mummies discovered in permafrost of ice age mammals offers a broad spectrum for research: taxonomic relations and dispersal history can be studied trough the ancient DNA, the structure of soft tissue can be observed in detail, paleo diet can be inferred by the gut contents and faeces, on some carcasses the circumstances of death can be observed - some animals show injuries, pathological deformations or tissue changes and parasites.
In the Siberian permafrost the best preserved specimens are those of mammoths, especially young and small individuals like the 40.000 years old mammoth calfs "Dima" (discovered in 1977) and "Lyuba" (2007); one of the oldest specimens is the 50.000 years old male "Khroma" (2009). 

The carcass of Khroma, partially eaten by modern scavengers, was discovered in July 2009 by a local hunter on the banks of the river Khroma. A preliminary study showed that in the carcass fossil germs were preserved, most probably anthracis, which can cause anthrax and black lung disease.  To prevent any possible contamination of involved researchers it was decided to sterilize the specimen. The still frozen carcass was therefore bombarded with a massive dose of Gamma-rays in a laboratory in Grenoble. 
Bacteria can theoretically survive long periods when frozen. In 2007 an international research team announced the discovery of 500.000 years old bacteria with intact and active DNA-sequence in samples of permafrost.

The scenario of a still living pathogen or parasite inside a frozen and preserved body of an ice age mammal is also the main storyline of a TV-horror-production of 2009, named appropriately "The Thaw" (strangely the title for the German release is the exact opposite - "Frozen"). In a remote region of the Canadian tundra a carcass of mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius?) is discovered in a melting glacier. 
(P.S. prehistoric monsters entrapped in ice have a long tradition - see for example "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" in 1953, "Godzilla" in 1954 and "Dinosaurus!" in 1960)

This is a common misconception, the natural mummies discovered until now were preserved all in permafrost soil, which contains local ice lenses of secondary genesis. This ice maybe plays an important role in the desiccation and preservation of the carcass, as moisture migrates from the body to the ice.
Anyway - the warming of the Canadian Arctic due anthropogenic climate change not only releases dead mammoths from the melting underground, but also a deadly and living pathogen - a parasite in from of an arthropod (a - bug - as noobs call it) that needs body heat. To survive inside its host the parasite weakens the immune system (as some real parasites do) - this behaviour would finally cause the death of the host, if the flesh-eating bugs (arthropods) didn't also multiply so fast that they eat their victim from inside.

The movie uses a environmental cause (the disease is released due the warming of the planet caused by our actions) as premise, most of it is however clearly inspired (or copied) from the movie "The Thing" (1982), even if there the parasite - first hiding and then exactly copying its host-  is an alien lifeform.

The Thaw doesn't really explain the origin of the parasite, but it seems almost certain that it is of terrestrial origin and also so deadly that it caused the extinction of the entire Pleistocene megafauna. The idea of an unidentified hyperdisease killing animals was proposed in 1997 after the first epidemics of Ebola in 1976-1979 and 1994-1996. Main vector of the presumed pathogen was Homo sapiens, infecting mammoths and other large mammals during his travels around Siberia and North America. In 2006 a research on the pathological malformations of bones from American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) and bison bones suggested that the animals suffered from an infection of tuberculosis. A relatively large number of geographically and temporal separated individuals showed those malformations.
A recent example how dangerous pathogens can be for an isolated population was observed on the Christmas Islands in the Indian Ocean. In 1899 human colonization and introduced black rats (Rattus rattus) brought a unicellular parasitic protist (Trypanosoma) onto the islands. The endemic rat species (Rattus macleari) was not immune against the introduced parasite and the population suffered a rapid decline - in 1904 the species was considered extinct. However this is an example on a very confined space, involving a single species - it remains unclear how a single pathogen could wipe out so many species in such a short time on almost the entire planet.

Last but not least: a strange movie combines somehow The Thing with mammoths. In the TV-horror "Mammoth" (2006) an alien lifeform assimilates a partially frozen woolly mammoth exposed in a museum. The mammoth-alien-zombie goes on a rampage - killing people by adsorbing their life energy... until stopped by the Men in Black...


JOHNSON, S.S. et al. (2007): Ancient bacteria show evidence of DNA repair. PNAS Vol. 104 (36): 14401-14405
ROTHSCHILD, B.M. & LAUB, R. (2006): Hyperdisease in the late Pleistocene: validation of an early 20th century hypothesis. Naturwissenschaften 93:557-564
WYATT, K.B.; CAMPOS, P.F.; GILBERT, M.T.P.; KOLOKOTRONIS, S.-O.; HYNES, W.H., et al. (2008): Historical Mammal Extinction on Christmas Island (Indian Ocean) Correlates with Introduced Infectious Disease. PLoS ONE 3(11): 1-9

November 17, 1918: The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

"The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" is an 11 minutes long movie written and directed by special effects pioneer Willis O´Brien and released November 17, 1918. It features the - at the time - pioneering technology of "stop motion animation" with five models of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts. The main scene of this movie is also one of the most classic images of monster movies - a fierce battle between Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. Unfortunately the producer Herbert M. Dawley, decided to re-cut the original movie from 30 minutes to less than 11 minutes, most of this material is today lost (however there exists a restored version with 19 minutes). Parts of the footage were reused in the movies "Along the Moonbeam Trail" (1920, a movie were dinosaurs live on the moon) and the documentary "Mystery of Life" (1931).

Invasion of the European Dinosaurs!! Part I: ca. 1800-1900

Fig.1. Archaeopteryx  

The fossil gallery at the recent Munich Show 2011 was dedicated to the "European Dinosaurs" - a good overview of some of the historic fossils (with the classics from Victorian Britain and Germany), but also special apparitions of the newest discoveries from the Mesozoic of the European continent.

Dinosaurs have a long tradition in Europe - the first (as such) recognized "terrible lizards" came from England: it was in 1824 that there Reverend William Buckland described the lower jaw of Megalosaurus

Fig.2. The jaw of Megalosaurus as published in Buckland´s "Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield" (1824).

Fig.3. Isolated tooth, Megalosaurus bucklandi, from the Jurassic Stonesfield-Formation (Oxfordshire), found previously of 1882.

But already in 1677 the English historian Robert Plot (1640-1696) describes in his "The natural history of Oxfordshire" a gigantic bone (today lost), found presumably in a quarry at Chipping Norton (also Oxfordshire), as the bone of an elephant of Roman age.
It seems plausible that in the next centuries ulterior bones were discovered, however only with the advent of comparative anatomy (promoted by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier) it became clear what these bones could be - the remains of large reptiles, however quite different to all living animals. After the description of Megalosaurus soon followed Iguanodon (1825), Hyaeosaurus (1833), Thecodontosaurus (1836) and Cetiosaurus (1836).
The first non-british dinosaur came from the Triassic sediments of Southern Germany, described by the German palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer as Plateosaurus in 1837. 

 Fig.5. Plateosaurus.

Streptospondylus and Poekilopleuron were described in 1832 and respectively in 1838 from Jurassic sediments in France. Archaeopteryx was first described (again by von Meyer) in 1861 based on a single feather, only later an almost complete specimen started an intense debate about the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds. In the same year a distant cousin of Archaeopteryx was described by Andreas Wagner as a sort of very strange lizard: Compsognathus longipes.

Fig.6. The first fossil of Compsognathus, discovered in 1858 by physicist and fossil collector Joseph Oberndorfer.

The British anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley recognized it as example of one of the first complete dinosaurs and based his very cautionary and speculative hypothesis of a possible "relationship" between reptiles and birds on this species. Huxley described in 1868 another small dinosaur species, but this time a herbivore: Hypsilophodon.
In February 1878 miners discovered a bone bed of Iguanodon, the almost complete skeletons enabled palaeontologist Louis Dollo (1857-1931) to reconstruct a large, biped and herbivorous animal

Fig.7. Hypsilophodon foxii, Wealden (Lower Cretaceous), collected previously 1882.


RAUHUT, O.W.M. (2011): Kontinent der Dinosaurier - Europa. Mineralientage München - Messekatalog: 132-146

Collapse !

"Anyone who thinks that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993), American economist

The plot of the movie "Rapa Nui" (1994) is based loosely on native legends and the hypothetical collapse of environment and society on the remote island of Easter Island. This scenario is based primarily on the discovery during an archaeology expedition prior to 1961 of unknown palm-like pollen in sediments of swamps and lakes of the island - which today lacks completely native shrubs and trees.
The movie does compress more than 1.000 years of history in just one and a half hour, presenting a fast and sudden collapse of a highly developed society.

The Toadstone

"Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
"As You Like It" Act 2, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare (1623)

Fig.1. Bufonite as depicted in Ulisse Aldrovandi's "Musaeum Metallicum" (1648). This Bufonite seems to be some sort of concretion or possibly a Bezoar-stone.

The Bufonite / Botrax / Borax / Batrachite / Chelonite / Brontias / dragonstone or Lapis Bufonis / toadstone is a particular form of gemstone that grows in the brains of toads, most often after various toads jumped on the head of the king of the toads. Two kinds of stones exist, one is white, the other black - they differ significantly in their magic properties.
The stone must be recovered by putting the toad on a red blanket or by exposing the animal to heat - it will then regurgitate the stone, now you must quickly take it or otherwise the animal will swallow it again. Ants can also skeletonise a dead toad and expose the stone.

Fig.2. A 1497 illustration by the German botanist and physician Johannes de Cuba, depicting the extraction and use of a toadstone.

The stone protects from magic and misfortune, has healing powers for all sorts of wounds and interior pains. In the vicinity of poison its change its colour and starts to transpire a liquid.
Despite the vague descriptions that exist for this magic gemstone, "toadstones" were identified with the fossilized teeth of Lepidotus - an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods - probably due the supposed similarities of the fossil teeth to the eyes of the toad.

Fig.3. Another kind of Bufonite as depicted in Ulisse Aldrovandi's "Musaeum Metallicum" (1648), these are clearly the fossil teeth of the fish Lepidotus.

Paleoseismology of the Anatolian and Caucasus Region

"The people of Behura fled from my weapons into the mountains of Uschkiani and Banni. I surrounded part of them and killed all. The others that could flee were burned by the earth god Teischeba."
Description of the military campaign of king Argischti I in 780-756 B.C.

Turkey is characterized by two main strike-slip fault systems - the North Anatolian Fault (NAF) and the East Anatolian Fault - that in the Caucasus region merge together in a complex tectonic system dominated by compressional thrust faulting. 
Devastating earthquakes of the last decades occurred mainly along the dextral North Anatolian Fault that forms the plate boundary between the Anatolian and Eurasian plates. This is also a densely populated region with the city of Istanbul as one of the most important harbours of the Mediterranean Sea. 
May 10, 1566 the cities of Rossana and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) were hit by an earthquake that caused the collapse of buildings. Some 50 years earlier (October 10, 1509) Constantinople had been affected by an even worse disaster, killing 13.000 people. 
During the 20th century seismic activity apparently moved along the NAF from the east to the west, in 1999 two strong earthquakes hit the city of Izmit, killing 17.000 people.

In Armenia the strongest earthquake since centuries occurred December 7, 1988, it destroyed the city of Spitak and killed 25.000 people.

Fig.1. Simplified tectonic map of the Caucasus region with the locations of important earthquakes - the recent earthquake at Van, the earthquake of Spitak and the historic earthquake of Behura. Various sections of the North Anatolian Fault show a progressive younger activity from the east to the west (colour coded). According to some models this could suggest that stress is released following the fault system and that Istanbul could be hit again by a stronger earthquake in the future.

The region around Lake Van was repeatedly hit in the present and the past by strong earthquakes. Cronicles report of havoc and destruction in the 4th century and again in the 10th century, in 1976 an earthquake in the Van Province caused 4.000 victims.

One of the oldest earthquakes in the Caucasus region was inferred from historic descriptions and confirmed by geologic evidence -it dates back to more than 2.700 years. 
A French-Armenian team of paleoseismologists searching for suitable sites for their research discovered on aerial photographies the ruins of the ancient city of Behura.
Paleoseismology tries to collect evidence for earthquakes based on both archaeological as geologic proxies to improve the knowledge of the seismic history of a region. Knowing this history of a region can help to estimate the time-intervals occurring between earthquakes of a certain magnitude.
Ancient documents refer to a city located in the area around the Lake Sevan that was conquered in 780 to 756 B.C. by the great king Argischti I, the description of the siege is curious, mentioning fire, ash and clouds (send supposedly by the earth god Teischeba) helping destroying the city. Maybe this is the description of a volcanic eruption accompanied by earthquakes. Nearby the site relatively unweathered and therefore probably young lava flows coming from the volcano Porak were discovered,
In Behura the excavation of a trench revealed a complex stratigraphy of soils, a displaced wall, scree deposits and younger soils, suggesting that the city was in fact destroyed by an earthquake.


HERVÈ, P. & KARAKHANIAN, A. (2001): Der Untergand von Behura. Spektrum der Wissenschaft -Dossier 2 "Die Unruhige Erde": 31-35
JACOB, K. (2006): Istanbul - Warten auf den großen Schlag. Bild der Wissenschaft 2: 48-53

October 23, 4004: The Creation of the World

October 23, has become famous by (non)geologists as earth's birthday - largely due the brief mention in textbooks of the Irish Archbishop James Ussher's (1581-1656) work published in 1650 as the "Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti" (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the earliest beginning of the world). Ussher presents a possible chronology of the 6.000 years old history of earth and humankind based on references in the bible and research of others scholars of the time (most influential was John Lightfoot - 1602-1675 - who published his calculations in 1644). 
For Ussher and other scholars it was important to know the age of the earth to possibly infer the time of the rapture. As for god a day is like thousand days and he needed 6 days to create the universe, the world would was created 4.000 years before Christ and last for 2.000 years after.
The exact date given by the Ussher-Lightfoot-Chronology - October 23*, 4004 B.C., at nine o'clock in the morning - has become ridiculed by scientists as the futile attempt to determinate natural facts only based on the interpretation of Bronze Age myths [* or 6 p.m. October 22, 4004 B.C. according to the Jewish calendar].
However considering the time and the purpose of the work, Ussher's attempts were not too farfetched - his conclusions were based on the information that was available at the time and served well the theological questions that they should help clarify.
Also this age was not universally and uncritically accepted- there were many earlier attempts to determinate the age of the earth and many concluded that earth was significantly older than known human history. Also during and shortly after Ussher there were serious doubts on the veracity of the 6.000 years time interval, manly due the observation in nature and outcrops.
For example in the book "A Tour through Sicily and Malta" the stratigraphic research by the Sicilian Canon Giuseppe Recupero (1720-1778) on the slopes of Mount Etna is mentioned. Recupero discovered a succession of seven lava flows, he dated the youngest to the second Punic War (218 to 201 B.C.) and therefore the oldest could be 7x2.000 years =14.000 years old.
Finally on March 17, 1785 a man will propose a new modern approach - "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."

Fig.1. llustration from Thomas Burnet´s book "The Sacred Theory of the Earth", published in 1684.

A geologist riddle #24

What is this strange rock supposed to be and most important: from where it is supposed to come?

Dinosaurs enter the Atomic Age

Monsters in monster movies - they are the antagonist of our hero, the threat to society, the key element of the movie - we despise and love them at the same time.

The monster movie can be created by human folly - an experiment gone wrong, the destruction or the violation of an isolated habitat - or on purpose as a biological weapon.
The monsters can came from space: actively searching habitable planets or hosts for its lifecycle or it was brought back as sample or unwillingly from a space mission.
This last origin can be mixed or being replaced by the explanation that the monsters came from a different time period, usually the past - trough a time warp or surviving entrapped in ice, mud or on a lost island.

All these different births of monsters reflect the technology and the fear by society of this technology at the time. A classic example of this correlation is the decade of 1950 to 1960. "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is considered the first movie to introduce the atomic bomb as possibility to create monsters - that will go wild. 

Fig.1. The "Rhedosaurus" - first evil dinosaur-star?

The movie was produced by the small independent company "Mutual Pictures", Warner Brothers recognized the potential and released it in 1953, 8 years after the first U.S. atomic bombs and 4 years after the first Soviet atomic test, just at the beginning of the arm race between the two superpowers. First test previously of 1948 and released footage of the test sites at the lagoons of Bikini had already showed to the public the devastating effects of the heat and the radiation of an atomic blast on living animals - the movie is based on and also exploits this fear. 


In the movie during "Operation Experiment" (how inventive by the scriptwriters...) an atomic bomb will be detonated in the atmosphere over the Arctic, the producers used real footage of real nuclear blasts- a common trick to save costs, but maybe also to emphasize the "reality" of the story. The movie introduces the classic scientists and their pseudoscientific techno-babble, an element that will become standard until modern movies.
"20,000 Fathoms" is also one of the first movies to introduce animals/dinosaurs as the main monster - breaking with the tradition of human-like creatures of the early 20th century - and inspire an entire bunch of later movies that will explain the origin of the monsters from misuse of radioactive radiation or contamination of harmless organisms. 

The "Rhedosaurus" is awakened by the nuclear blast from the arctic ice and goes on to terrorize and destroy entire cities, the military and all the weapons can´t apparently stop it.

Fig.2. Timeline of nuclear test and important movies of the monster genre, note the decade 1950-1960. "The Valley of Gwangi" in 1969 is considered an effort to revitalize the - at the time - dying genre, by introducing western elements in a classic monster story.

Strangely it is a nuclear scientist that will solve the problem - displaying the contradictory relationship of society to the atomic energy at the time - it causes problems but also can solve them. However this somehow positive message of "20,000 Fathoms" will go lost in subsequent movies, when the monsters created by the atom will only cause havoc and suffering.

Video: Footage of the animal tests codenamed "Plumbbob" (1957)  - WARNING Graphic Content!


EVANS, J.A. (1998): Celluloid Mushroom Clouds - Hollywood and the Atomic Bomb. Critical Studies in Communication and in the Cultural Industries; Westview Press: 212

Marie Tharp: The map that changed the world

"The tiny fringe of shallow sunlit waters which has been so frequently treated in books and films is entirely excluded, for in this book we are concerned only with the sunless and little-known abyss which claims over half of the planet."

Marie Tharp was born July 30, 1920 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Already at very young age she followed her father, a soil surveyor for the United States Department of Agriculture, into the field. However she also loved to read and decided to study literature at St John's College in Annapolis, but at the time women were not admitted to study there. So she went to Ohio University, where she graduated in 1943. 
The Second World War changed dramatically the situation in the United States - the nation needed highly educated replacement for the men who went into war, women now were encouraged to choose degrees also in science and technology. Marie enrolled in a petroleum geology programme, becoming so a "Petroleum Geology Girl" she graduated in geology in 1944. Afterwards she worked for a short time in the petroleum industry, however she found the work unrewarding and decided to resume her studies at Tulsa University. 
In 1948 she graduated in mathematics and found work at the Lamont Geological Laboratory of Columbia University. The atmosphere there was relaxed and friendly; also in times of Cold War money for geological projects studying the ocean floor, which results promised to be important for the war with submarines, was abundant. 
She began a prolific collaboration with geologist Bruce Charles Heezen (1924 -1977), who was specialized on the gathering of seismic and topographic data from the sea floor. As women Marie was not allowed on board of the research vessels crossing over the sea to collect profiles of the seafloor, so she started to calculate, interpret and visualize the data when Heezen was on the sea. She co-authored with Heezen a book and various papers; however her role was often neglected. Her employment despite continuous remained insecure, in certain moments the bureaucracy and financial troubles forced her to work from home. 
Between 1959 until the death of Heezen in 1977 she worked strenuously on various maps that would depict the still unknown topography of the oceanic basins - and the results were astounding. The ocean floor was not a flat plain of mud, as previously imagined, but displayed mountains, ridges and canyons, sometimes larger and deeper than any feature found on the continents. The most impressive feature however was a chain of mountains cutting in half the large basins of the oceans - Tharp and Heezen had discovered the backbone of earth, the Mid-Ocean Ridges.

Fig.1. "I was so busy making maps I let them argue,...[]" (photography published in HEEZEN & HOLLISTER 1971). Both Heezen and Tharp recognized the Mid-Ocean Ridges as spreading centres of the oceanic crust; both tended to consider this a result of an expanding globe. Marie Tharp´s cartographic accomplishments were exceptional because she overcame educational and employment barriers that limited opportunities for women of her generation. Without doubts she prepared the field for other researchers; however she will not became directly identified with the era's most revolutionary geological theory  - plate tectonics.


BARTON, C. (2002): Marie Tharp, oceanographic cartographer, and her contributions to the revolution in the Earth sciences. In OLDROYD, D.R. (ed.) The Earth Inside and Out: Some Major Contributions to Geology in the Twentieth Century. Geological Society Special Publications 192, London: 215-228
HEEZEN, B.C. & HOLLISTER, C. D. (1971): The face of the deep. Oxford Univ. Press, New York, London, and Toronto: 659

In search of Punt: The Lost Land of Gold

"Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near…[]…his body was as overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli….[]… it was the prince of the land of Punt…"
"The Shipwrecked Sailor", 2200 B.C.

May 9, 1871 the German geologist Karl Mauch finally spotted after one year of strenuously search was he had hoped for: the impressive ruins of gigantic stone buildings - the remains of a long lost city, at least for the European explorers. The local people of the tribe of the Shona know the ruins well - in their language the buildings were called "dzimba woye" - the venerated houses, build by an ancient African civilization. Mauch however, following the racial ideas of the time, was sure that the buildings "could not possibly being built by Negroes." * He thought that he had discovered the ruins of the mythical city of Ophir, known in legends for the immeasurable wealth treasured there, and of course founded by Asian immigrants. 
The bible cites Ophir as unidentified place from which King Salomon received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks - and all this every three years. Various scholars puzzled about the exact location of this rich land, the African continent seemed to be supported by the tales of exotic animals found in Ophir, but in 1857 the German archaeologist Heinrich Ferdinand Karl Brugsch collocated Ophir on the Arabian Peninsula.
Other scientists associated Ophir with another legendary place - "Ta netjer" the land of the gods, also known by the ancient Egyptians as the land of gold - the mythical Punt.
But Punt was more than a legend - long before 2000 B.C. Egyptian Pharaohs send expeditions to Punt to recover precious metals - gold, silver and electrum, gemstones - like malachite, wood and resin. The successful expeditions were so important, such great achievements, that the Egyptians immortalized them on their temples.
In the temple of Athribis, commissioned by Ptolemaios XII, a relief shows the various and precious trees growing in Punt - apparently Punt was a lush, tropical land.
In 1858 the French archaeologist Auguste Ferdinand François Mariette interpreted a relief in the temple of Deir el-Bahari, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, as realistic depiction of an expedition to the remote and fabled land of Punt. 

Fig.1. The expedition to Punt as immortalized in the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The ships are loaded with gifts and exotic animals, (large version) image from Institute for Egyptology - University of Bern.
The reliefs show a fleet, the five ships are loaded with gold, trees and exotic animals like leopards, apes and giraffes - species associated with the African continent. In the sea the reliefs sows various fish species, zoologist identified some of them living on the coast of Africa, but also near the Arabian Peninsula. The plants that produce frankincense and Myrrh, Boswellia sp. and Commiphora myrrha, are native to the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, Yemen) and to Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Northeast Kenya).

Maybe looking at the geology the place of Punt can be traced back to Africa? Still today in Eritrea gold can be found, associated to the old metamorphic rocks of the interior plateau. The river of Nahr Al-qa-sh is known for its gold bearing sediments. Also in Ethiopia gold is associated with the proterozoic metamorphic rocks, found to the west of the Afar lowlands, where cenozoic volcanic rocks mark the Great Rift System of the African plate. The eastern part of this proterozoic basement is found on the northern coast of Somalia. The overall geology of Saudi-Arabia - especially Yemen and Oman- is characterized instead by phanerozoic sediments mostly lacking gold. 

 Fig.2. Simplified geology of north-eastern Africa and possible localization of Punt, Mersa Gawasis was an ancient Egyptian harbour.
Geology can however give us another ulterior clue to find the lost land of Punt. Along the gifts brought back from Punt were also living exotic animals, so baboons (Papio sp.) - as clearly depicted on the relief of Deir el-Bahari. In 2010 researchers analyzed hair samples from 3.000 years old mummified baboons found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. 

Every living organism must drink water and water consists of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Both elements exist in various isotopes, atoms who differ in mass and also (slightly) in chemical properties. The oxygen isotopic signature of a particular spring can be unique and is controlled by geology and location of an aquifer. By comparing the results of the ancient hair samples with hair samples of animals living in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda and Mozambique the research concluded that most isotopic similarity can be found with animals coming from eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.

Mystery solved? Well, the isotopic signature could be identified only from one baboon and the localization is still very vague. The search of a myth continues….

*The British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson proved in 1929 that Great Zimbadwe and the civilization that build these monuments are of African origin.


BROWN, D.M. & LYNCH, J. (1995): Africa's Glorious Legacy (Lost Civilizations). Time-Life-Books: 168
FRANZ, A. (2011): Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt. Bild der wissenschaft 9(11): 68-75
HOULIHAN, P.F. (1996): The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Thames & Hudson: 237

SCHLÜTER, T. & TRAUTH, M.H. (2006): Geological Atlas of Africa - With Notes on Stratigraphy, Tectonics, Economic Geology, Geohazards and Geosites of Each Country. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg: 255

Online Resources:

(2008): Terra X - Weihrauch für den Pharao - Aufbruch nach Punt. (Accessed on 01.10.2011)

The case of the rock, the lady in the lake and a dubious murderer

In 1997 some amateur divers discovered at the bottom of Coniston Water, a lake in the British Lake District, a corpse. The body of a women was wrapped up in plastic bags and tubs of lead have been used as weights to hide it in the  24m deep water.
The woman was identified as Carol Ann Park, disappeared in the year 1976. An autopsy revealed that Ann Park was killed with an ice pick and soon her ex-husband, Gordon Park, was suspected and arrested. The press publicized this crime with the title of "The Lady in the Lake Murder".
However there was no hard evidence against him, only a supposed confession by Park to a cell inmate during the imprisonment on remand, so he was soon released. 

In 2004 Park was rearrested, based on new evidence: a rock. A rock, assumed to have been used also as weight in the plastic bag, and found near the corpse was similar to rocks used by park to build a wall of the family's bungalow. Prosecution's expert and geologist Duncan Pirrie concluded that there were no naturally occurring outcrops on the shores of the lake of this kind of rock, the only possible source was therefore Park's home.
However the defence of Park commissioned two geologists, Kenneth Pye and later Andrew Moncrief, to disprove this important evidence that connected Park to the corpse. Pye studied the rock and his results were astounding. The rock was a sample of Westmorland green slate - a metamorphic tuffaceous sandstone - lithology part of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group not present near Coniston Water, but found in the central parts of the Lake District.
The boulders in the lake, so the final verdict of the two geologists, were of glacial origin, transported during the last glacial maximum from the Cumbrian Mountains to the area of the lake. Glacial till was therefore widespread on the bottom of the lake, the shores and the entire landscape - so were rocks of green slate. The supposed unique connection between Park and the site of discovery of the corpse was disproved by the general geology and galcial origin of the lake.
Despite this devastating setback for the prosecution, the trial, based mainly on circumstantial evidence, ended with a prison sentence for Park.
The judge commented the geological dispute about the origin of the particular rock as follows:

"Rocks, ladies and gentlemen, therefore rocks…[] The science, underlying this research was exceptionally challenging, not true? It was of awe-inspiring quality that none of us has ever been enjoyed…[]… I think the experts managed to formulate their opinions in an understandable way. At least the important facts have become clear, we have understood in which final statements both researchers disagree."