Field of Science

It’s life, Charlie, but not as we know it – Charles Darwin and the search for Extraterrestrial Life

Actor Leonard Nimoy passed away today aged 83. So to remember his famous role as science-officer Spock on board of the USS Enterprise I will share some space-geology-related posts:

In August 1881 the short-lived popular “Science” magazine published an article with a letter exchange by two amateur geologists – British Charles R. Darwin and the German Otto Hahn- discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Just some years earlier Darwin had published a book “On Origin of Species” proposing that complex life forms descended slowly over time from simple ones, however as earth seemed to be too young (based on the erroneous calculations of a certain physicist known today as Lord Kelvin) to explain the observed modern complexity, the origin of microorganisms in space (which existence would predate the formation of earth) could solve this apparent contradiction.

Life from outer space was not a new idea. Already in 1865 the German physician Hermann Eberhard Richter argued that life was an intrinsic property of the cosmos, transported in space on smaller rocky fragments, dormant microorganism could act like seed, evolving in short time into complex organisms after the host-rock impacted on a suitable planet.

Otto Hahn (1828-1904) was a former lawyer turned to amateur naturalist and geologist, with a special interest in the origin of life. Hahn was known by the scientific community due his research on Eozoön or Eozoon (the “dawn animal”) – an enigmatic Archaean fossil described in 1864 from Canadian limestone-formations – believed to be some sort of gigantic microorganism it predated all other known fossil organisms. However it seemed strange that already the oldest life form would be a highly evolved animal and Hahn himself doubted at first that it was even a fossil. In 1880, after carful investigation of some collected rock samples, Hahn changed his mind and reclassified Eozoön as an ancient algae, renaming the fossil Eophyllum (“dawn plant”).

Fig.1. Eozoon specimen, the regular lamination were interpretated as chambers of a shelled organism or growth lines, image from DAWSON (1888): The Chain of Life in Geological Time. However in 1894 similar rocks were found in material erupted by Mount Vesuvius, proving that this texture formed by inorganic processes due the alteration of limestone by heat from underground magma.

After this achievement, Hahn suddenly started to find fossils of primitive organisms in all sorts of rocks, not only in sedimentary rocks, but also ancient, partially melted, metamorphic rocks and even igneous rocks like granite or basalt, completely crystallized from the molten magma. He published his observations in a 1879 book entitled “Die Urzelle” – the primordial cell - arguing that in fact all observable rocks were of some sort of sedimentary origin, composed by the shells of these tiny primordial, yet unidentified, microorganisms – and send one copy also to Charles Darwin, inviting him to promote this revolutionary discovery.

Hahn soon added even some extraterrestrial material to his collection of microorganism-derived rocks. Not surprisingly, also in samples of meteorites he discovered his primordial cells, also what seemed to be sponges and even corals. He published his discovery in the 1880 book “Die Meteorite (Chondrite) und ihre Organismen” (The chondrite meteorites and their organisms), also one of the first books including images of sections of extraterrestrial rocks. Hahn argued that the studied meteorites were remains of a cosmic cloud of gas, vapor and dust from which our solar system formed. In this semi-liquid environment life formed, evolving at least to the stadium of invertebrates. After the formation of the planets, agglomerated chunks of matter transported these primitive organism onto earth, where they continued to evolve until the appearance of man.

Fig.2. Frontispiece of Hahn’s “Die Meteorite (Chondrite) und ihre Organismen” showing a supposed plant- or sponge-like fossil in a meteorite, today reinterpretated as shattered mineral grain (Chondrule).

Also this book was send to Darwin, who – as was his cautious manner – politely thanked for the gift, replying that the proposed scientific hypothesis was sure worth of further investigation (but nothing more):

If you succeed in convincing several judges as trustworthy as Professor Quenstedt*, you will certainly have made one of the most remarkable discoveries ever recorded.” *[Friedrich August Quenstedt (1809-1889), famous German professor of mineralogy and geology]

However Hahn in a private letter to a friend claimed “Darwin pronounced: it is one of the most important elucidations ever made.” Strangely also in the Science article of 1881 other very Darwin-unlike behavior appears. Supposedly Darwin, observing under the microscope the rock fragments, jumped from his seat exclaiming ”Almighty God! What a wonderful discovery! Wonderful!” and stating that indeed “life [came] down!” from space.

There survives no hard evidence that Hahn did visit Darwin at Down House in Kent to show him his samples, but it also can’t be completely ruled out. Maybe Hahn, before travelling to Canada for his research on Archaean fossils, did also visit England. His idea of all rocks derived from microorganisms, as strange as it may sounds today, was taken serious at the time, at least by some naturalists. However Darwin had studied volcanoes and their igneous products, so there is no doubt he did not share this part of Hahn’s visions. Also it seems improbable that Darwin believed it necessary to relocate the origin of life in outer space.

Darwin never addressed in public the mystery of mysteries that is the origin of life. His theory of natural selection deals with the diversification of already reproducing life forms and was never intended (as creationists claim) to explain the origin of life. In private letters he proposed a chemical evolution in a primordial soup, but he also acknowledged that his contemporary science was yet not able to test this hypothesis.

As for the supposed to young age of earth and to evolved terrestrial life forms, already Darwin published various rebuttals to Lord Kelvin’s claims in later editions of his “Origin of Species”. There was – so he argued – plenty of time for terrestrial life to evolve, even without extraterrestrial intervention.


PERETO, J.; BADA, J., & LAZCANO, A. (2009): Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 39 (5), 395-406
BRASIER, M. (2009): Darwin’s Lost World – The hidden history of animal life.Oxford University Press: 304
WYHE, van J. (2010): ‘Almighty God! What a wonderful discovery!’: Did Charles Darwin really believe life came from space? Endeavour, 34(3): 95-103

A History of the Use of Illustrations in the Geosciences: I. Seeing is Believing...

The progress made in understanding realistic landscape-views and the rediscovery of ancient encyclopedias (like the works by Pliny the Elder) inspired Renaissance naturalists to adopt an exact and systematic approach to describe the curiosities found in the natural world. As most information as possible should be associated to every studied object – compiled from the works of ancient authors, own observations, may also supposed medical and magical properties, a good description should also include a detailed figure showing the described specimen (at the time a very expensive approach, as artists and engravers had to be hired).
One of the most extraordinary examples of this new approach to nature is the work by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) – his motto was to understand plants and animals there is no better way than to depict them from life“. The commissioned figures for his encyclopedia on animals and freaks of nature are indeed of exquisite quality, even more if compared to the at the time still very popular bestiaries with their fanciful illustrations of mythical monsters. 
Aldrovandi included also some drawings of fossils in his work, not of such high quality as the depicted animals, however good enough to still identify the real fossil models.

The first book to depict in a systematic order fossils was published in 1565 by naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516- 1565). In "De Rerum fossilium, Lapidum et Gemmarum maxime, figuris et similitudinis Liber” (On Fossil Objects), Gesner compares fossil sea urchins with living specimens, arguing that some fossils are lithified organisms. However Gesner observed and shows also differences between living organisms and fossils, arguing that those differences are evidence that other fossils are of inorganic origin. The figures play an important role to support his observations, theories and make them accessible also to other scholars. Also Danish anatomist and naturalist Niels Stensen uses in 1667 a similar approach when showing the organic nature of fossil shark teeth.
Fig.1. Shark teeth depicted in C. Gesner´s "De Rerum fossilium...[]”. Such figures made it possible for other naturalists to compare their fossils with specimens of other collectors or hosted in private, non easily accessible, collections. However the quality of the used wood cuts was still poor and were soon replaced by copper engravings, with a higher reproduction quality.
Naturalist Federico Angelo Cesi (1585–1630) founded in 1603 the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of Lynx, as a tribute to the sharpness of vision of this animal). This Italian association of scholars was devoted to study and classify all of nature, one member, Fabio Collona, predated even Steno in the interpretation of fossil shark teeth. The Accademia supported the use of drawings in the member´s publications and in the end it possessed more than 7.000 drawings and paintings in its collection. Cesi was interested in the classification and origin of what appeared to be fossil wood, emerging from Pliocene sediments of Umbria. In his posthumously (1637) published work, according to the principles of the association, he not only features drawings of the collected and studied specimens, but also – for the very first time – drawings from the field. In Cesi´s field drawings he documents the landscape of the fossil sites, the horizon of the wood samples, also the work done, like the excavation of large logs. Some drawings are accompanied by descriptions of the samples, with measurements and notes on color, shape and weight of specimens. Only 200 years later geological works will equal Cesi´s notes.
Fig.2. Drawing of field site showing a gully with accumulation of fossil wood.
Fig.3. Published plate (1637) of a fossil log as found and excavated in situ.
Fig.4. Fossil wood shown in a classic manner, as collection of specimens.


MARRA, A,C, (2004): Iconografia dei fossili tra scienza, filosofia e istificazione. PaleoItalia, No.10: 3-8
SCOTT, A.C. (2001): Federico Cesi and his field study on the origin of fossils between 1610 and 1630. Endeavour, Vol.25(3): 93-103

Charles Lyell´s Quite Futile Hunt for the Sea-Serpent

In October 1845 British geologist Charles Lyell was visiting Boston, when he noted an advertisement proclaiming that a “Dr.” Albert C. Koch would exhibit the 114-foot-long skeleton of “that colossal and terrible reptile the sea serpent” to the paying public. Lyell exposed this claim soon as a fraud, as the skeleton was in fact composed from the bones of the extinct whale Zeuglodon, described by Richard Owen just some years earlier.

Fig.1. The infamous “Hydrarchos” by German fossil collector Albert Koch as displayed in New York. Not only was the animal composed of various specimens of the extinct whale Zeuglodon, but in this illustration even the size of the supposed skeleton is exaggerated.  Image from FOWLER (1846): “The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany”.

Like many other Victorian naturalists Lyell showed great interest in the supposed existence of large marine monsters. A good friend of Lyell, Canadian geologist John William Dawson, informed him of  a sighting in August 1845 at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here two “intelligent” testimonies had observed a 100-foot-long sea snake with humps on the back and the head similar to a seal. Lyell describes this sighting in his book “Second Visit to the United States of North America” (1849) and adds that stories about unusual encounters abound along the west coast of the U.S. He mentions even that a young sea serpent was still preserved in spirits in the Museum of New Haven. However Lyell, seeing the specimen for himself, agreed with other skeptics that it was nothing more than a land snake (Coluber constrictor) with a deformed spine.

Fig.2. Newspaper from Boston with an article about the strange, but true, encounter with the Mountauk Monster – sea serpent in 1817.

Despite the lack of evidence, Lyell confess in his writings that he remains optimistic “for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it.

At Lyell’s time the birth and age of earth was still a controversial topic. Most geologists assumed a gradual formation of earth, characterized by constant progress until the human epoch. In contrast Lyell postulated two important principles for geologic time – processes observable today were active also in the remote past and time is (similar to the motion of the stars) organized in cycles. Large marine reptiles (like the Ichthyosaur or Plesiosaur), but also large marine mammals (like the Zeuglodon), were known to have existed in the past. Their continuous existence would provide biological – and therefore independent – evidence for his geo-theory.
Assuming sea serpents were never captured alive in historic times as they were very rare and almost extinct, the supposed rise in population during the 19th century (as, so Lyell, this could explain the rise in sightings since 1817) was a result of  earth’s history repeating itself. The large prehistoric reptiles of the past, almost gone during the last ice age, would again rise to conquer a warmer world.

Lyell was not the only geologist searching for the mythical sea snake, as many naturalists at the time considered (or explained) monsters as survivors of a former world. However Lyell was aware about the controversy surrounding the topic. In the end he never published such accounts to support his geo-theory and probably it would have done more harm than good to include sea serpents and other monsters in a textbook about geology.

Fig.3. The Ichthyosaurus, only to be found in the museum? The discovery of bones and description of prehistoric beasts boosted the sightings of supposed sea and lake monsters during the 19th century, caricature published in 1885 in the Punch magazine.


CLIFFORD, D.; WADGE, E.; WARWICK, A. & WILLIS, M. (eds.) (2006): Repositioning Victorian Sciences – Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-Century Thinking. Anthem Press: 300
GLENDENING, J. (2009): ‘The World-Renowned Ichthyosaurus’: A Nineteenth-Century Problematic and Its Representations. Journal of Literature and Science. Vol.2 (1): 23-47
LYONS, L..S. (2010): Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: 260
SWITEK, B. (2010): Written in Stone – Evolution, the Fossil Record, and our Place in Nature. Bellevue Literary Press – New York: 320

Bailey Willis - The Man who made Mountains

U.S.G.S. engineer Bailey Willis († February 19, 1949) was known for his unorthodox approach to geological questions. Puzzled by the geological structures he discovered in mountain ranges, long before computer-models were available, he constructed a machine to simulate the mountain-forming process.
In a box with a moveable piston he folded and crushed layers of beeswax and compared the structures with the large tectonic folds and thrusts he had mapped in the Appalachian Mountains. He realized that folds and nappes could form also by horizontal movements and compressive forces – not, as still many geologists argued, only by vertical movements.

Fig.1. Willis´”Compression Machine for Experiments”  from “The Mechanics of Appalachian Structure” (1891).

Fig.2. Miniature mountains made by the “compression machine” – the strata first form regular folds, however as the shortening continues, shear zones develop and single “tectonic nappes” start to pile up.

Fig.3. Folded strata in the central Appalachian Mountains. In later years Willis proposed a first version of plate tectonics to explain mountain formation processes – the Atlantic Ocean was formed when a “bubble” of magma pushed apart the American and European continents, along the borders the layers of rocks were compressed and folded up – the Appalachian Mountains formed. Unfortunately this mountain range is significantly older than the Atlantic

Fig.4. Willis subdivided mountain ranges in a central zone, characterized by folds, and an outer zone, characterized by shear zones (geological map of Cleveland in Tennessee). Today we know that the conformation can be much more complicated than that.

A Biologist´s Dream: The Lost Continent of Lemuria and Human Evolution

Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,  
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem  
Is but a dream within a dream.
A Dream Within A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

In the 19th century naturalists realized that similar species are found on different continents or remote islands. For short distances this was explainable by (voluntary or involuntarily) migration across the sea by “hopping” from island to island, but many distances were too great for large terrestrial animals, especially for mammals.

The British lawyer and zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater (1829-1913) noted the particular distribution of a particular group of primates – the Lemurs. Sclater however included in his Lemuridae more species than modern zoologists – the Lemurs, the Indri and the Aye-aye (found on Madagascar and shown above in a figure from SCLATER 1899), the Galagos (found in Africa), the Loris (found in Asia) and the Tarsiers (found in Indonesia). He observed that “while 30 different species of Lemurs are found in Madagascar alone, all of Africa contains some 11 or 12, while the Indian region has only 3.” In a short essay of 1864 titled “The Mammals of Madagascar“, published in the “The Quarterly Journal of Science“, he provided a possible answer – Madagascar, with it’s rich diversity of species, was the primordial homeland of lemurs which spread all over Asia and Africa by a land bridge connecting once these continents – he speculated even on a connection to America. He named this supposed land bridge/continent appropriately “Lemuria“.

The anomalies of the Mammal fauna of Madagascar can best be explained by supposing that anterior to the existence of Africa in its present shape, a large continent occupied parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans stretching out towards (what is now) America to the west, and to India and its islands on the east; that this continent was broken up into islands, of which some have became amalgamated with the present continent of Africa, and some, possibly, with what is now Asia; and that in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which as the original focus of the “Stirps Lemurum,” I should propose the name Lemuria!

In later works he was more cautious:

This fact would seem to show that the ancient “Lemuria”, as the hypothetical continent which was originally the home of the Lemurs has been termed, must have extended across the Indian Ocean and the Indian Peninsula to the further side of the Bay of Bengal and over the great islands of the Indian Archipelago.
SCLATER & SCLATER (1899): “The Geography of Mammals.”

Sclater was not the first to promote ancient land bridges or even a sunken continent  in the Indian Ocean, as the idea of oceans as drown landmasses was a plausible geological theory at the time.

The French geologist Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire had speculated about a connection between Madagascar and India in 1840, the English geologist Searles V. Wood (1830-1884) hypothesized the existence of a giant southern continent during the “secondary era” (our Mesozoic). Alfred R. Wallace (1823-1913) proposed in 1859 a sunken continent to explain the fauna found on the island of Celebes, but became later one of the most eloquent critics of the theory of sunken landmasses.

In 1868 the German biologist Ernst Haeckel published his “Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The History of Creation), addressed to a general public where he promoted his view of evolution. Haeckel, even before Darwin, applied the idea of a common ancestor to humans, so he considered the earliest humans descending from Asian primates and placed the cradle of humanity in Asia, Africa and very cautiously on the hypothetical island between these two continents. Lemuria played a major role as possible migration route of humans into Africa and Indonesia.
In later editions and the English version of the book, translated by Ray Lankester in 1876, the supposed continent is even emphasised and labelled in the map as “Paradise” and displayed as cradle of humanity.

The primeval home, or the “Centre of Creation”, of the Malays must be looked for in the south-eastern part of the Asiatic continent, or possibly in the more extensive continent which existed at the time when further India was directly connected with the Sunda Archipelago and eastern Lemuria.
HAECKEL (1876): “The history of Creation.

Fig.2. and 3. Ernst Haeckel, “A hypothetical sketch of the monophyletic origin and extension of the twelve races of Man from Lemuria over Earth”, from “Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte”, Plate XV. Note the differences in the German version (1868) without Lemuria and the English version (1876) with Lemuria, after 1870 Haeckel adopted and promoted the idea of a sunken continent in the Indian Ocean.

The probable primeval home or “Paradise” is here assumed to be Lemuria, a tropical continent at present lying below the level of the Indian Ocean, the former existence of which in the tertiary period seems very probable from numerous facts in animal and vegetable geography. But it is also very possible that the hypothetical “cradle of the human race” lay further to the east (in Hindostan or Further India), or further to the west (in eastern Africa).
HAECKEL in 1870.

Haeckels work, as vague at is was, however spread the idea of sunken continents to a larger public, still in 1919 the British author Herbert George Wells wrote:

We do not know yet the region in which the ancestors of the brownish Neolithic peoples worked their way up from the Palaeolithic stage of human development. Probably it was somewhere about south-western Asia, or in some region now submerged beneath the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean, that, while the Neanderthal men still lived their hard lives in the bleak climate of a glaciated Europe, the ancestors, of the white men developed the rude arts of their Later Palaeolithic period.
WELLS (1919): “Outline of History.

The idea of Lemuria, as lost cradle of humankind, was too intriguing for pseudoscientific and esoteric groups and authors not to be incorporated in their worldview.
In 1888 the Russian medium Elena Petrovna Blavatskaja (1831-1891), strongly influenced by Asian philosophy, published her book on “The secret doctrine“, in which she proposes Lemuria as the cradle of one of the seven races of humanity. These beings supposedly possessed four arms and eyes and were egg-laying hermaphrodites, sharing Lemuria with dinosaurs. The mythical Lemuria became part of popular culture…


RAMASWAMY, S. (2004): The lost land of Lemuria – Fabulous geographies, catastrophic histories. University of California Press: 334

Eppur non si muove - Galileo Galilei and the impossible biomechanics of giants

Until the 17th century the discovery of skeletons of giants was a quite common event. In January 1546 and then in the years 1564, 1580 and 1613 bones were unearthed near the castle of Chaumont (France). The bones were identified as the bones of the giant Teutobochus, king of the barbarians, and exhibited in many French cities. Jesuit Jacques Tissot describes the discovery as follows:

The real story of the life and the bones of the giant Teutobochus, king of the Teutons, Cimbrians and Ambrones, defeated in the year 105 before Christ. He was defeated along with his army of 100.000 men by Mario, the Roman consul, and then he was killed and buried near the castle once known as Chaumont and now as Langon, near the Roman town of Daulphiné. On this site his tomb was discovered, thirty feet long, with his name written in Roman letters. The bones in the grave exceeded 25 feet and one tooth was heavier than 11 pounds, all bones were monstrous in size and shape, as you will see in display

Fig.1. Generations of giants, image from “Mundus subterraneus” by Athanasius Kircher (1678). The biggest giant is based on the bones discovered in Sicily, from left to right follows a common man, the legendary Goliath, the giant of Lucerne and the giant of Mauritania.

Today the supposed bones of giants are identified as fossils of extinct large ice-age mammals and gigantic reptiles known as dinosaurs. 

However already in 1638 the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) realized that the basic principles of biomechanics refute the existence of human giants. In his book “Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche intorno a due nuove Scienze Attenenti alla Meccanica & i Movimenti Locali” (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to the Two New Sciences of Mechanics and Movements) he describes how the bones of large and small animals must differ in their proportions as a result of physical laws. A larger bone is not simply a larger copy of a small bone, but its thickness increases much faster than the length to support the increased weight of a larger body. A human giant would never show human proportions, but be a shapeless monster, unable even to move .... Eppur non si muove!

Fig.2. Figure from “Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche…” showing how thickness of a column (and bone) must increase much faster than lenght to support increased forces.

Prothero, D. (2003): Bringing Fossils To Life: An Introduction To Paleobiology. McGraw-Hill Science: 512

Love Can Move Mountains

January 11, 1996 a single seismograph of the Geological Survey of Canada buried in a quiet wooded area on central Vancouver Island started to record an unusual strong seismic signal – slowly, but perpetually increasing in amplitude over time it was recorded only at this station – nearby station (located within a radius of 20km) didn´t show any movements – this was no ordinary 6.8 magnitude earthquake as could occur along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Fig.1. Seismogram showing a segment of the unusual seismic signal, from CASSIDY & WHITFORD 1996.

After one-half hour there was a sudden increase in intensity of the signal. The geologists at the Pacific Geoscience Centre in Sidney, 125 km distant of the seismograph position and monitoring the unusual signal, decided to call the police and a nearby a public school to check the situation.

Meanwhile the signal amplitude continued to increase – and an ever increasing number of puzzled technicians and scientist gathered around the monitoring equipment at the Geoscience Centre. At 4:28 PM – 43 minutes after the unusual recording was first noted – the signal suddenly stopped.

Later it was confirmed that it was exactly at 4:28 PM that the police officers and the school staff arrived at the seismograph site, where they found a young couple, trembling in passion and the source of the recorded Love Waves and supposed man-made quake…


CASSIDY, J.F. & WHITFORD, A. (1996): Unusual “Love Waves” Recorded Above the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Seismological Research Letters. Vol. 67(6): 49-51

Charles Darwin - the Monster Slayer

Today geologist Charles Darwin is not remembered as great monster hunter, despite some Victorian paleontologists and geologists were interested in the topic, but after discussing how geologists tried to capture “Nessie, it´s time to hunt for “Bigfoot“:

Since ancient time people were fascinated by monsters – a term adopted for mythical creatures, but also real animals or humans with grotesque anatomical deformations. In the 18th and 19th century such “freaks of nature” were an essential part of every respectable collection of natural curiosities and naturalists had no problem to mix serious observations with careful descriptions of these monstrosities.

English naturalist Robert Plot (1640-1696) summarizes in his “Natural History of Oxfordshire” (1792) this philosophy as follows:

I shall consider, first, Natural Things, such as either she hath retained the same from the beginning, or freely produces in her ordinary course; as Animals, Plants, and the universal furniture of the world. Secondly, her extravagancies and defects occasioned either by the Exuberancy of Matter, or Obstinacy of Impediments, as in Monsters. And then lastly, as she is restrained, forced, fashioned, or determined by Artificial Operations.”

As therefore even monsters were part of nature, naturalists tried to understand their exact place in the natural order.

Zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), influenced by Lamarck’s idea of mutable species, studied the anatomy of “freaks” (a science today known as “teratology“) and recognized that even such abnormalities follow certain rules in their biological development.

Monsters are not sports of nature; their organization is subject to rules, to rigorously determined laws, and these rules, these laws, are identical with those that regulate the animal series; in a word, monsters are also normal beings; or rather, there are no monsters, and nature is one whole.

For Saint-Hilaire animals and humans with birth-defects, like missing body parts, were simply resurfacing stages of a more primitive (possibly fish-like) phase of animal evolution.

Fig.1. A classic freak of nature – a two-headed calf, from the taxidermy collection of the Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck.

In Victorian England public exhibitions of monsters were a big business. The most popular monsters of every freak-show were the classic mermaid and other half human – half animal creatures. However Darwin’s model of gradual evolution exposed these specimens as what they really are – scientifically impossible chimeras.

Fig.2. “The deformito-mania”, a cartoon published in Punch 1847, mocking the general interest in London´s freak shows.

Darwin himself considered at first a discontinuous formation of species possible and recognized how individuals with birth-defects can significantly differ from a common archetype. However the deformed variations of a species as displayed in the freak-shows are, as Darwin notes in “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication“, also those who are most unsuited to survive. So in the end he favored small changes in the anatomy to provide the necessary variations on which natural selection and evolution acts.

Even if Darwin killed some monsters, in the same time he created new ones. As Darwin’s theory of common descent states that humans and other apes share a common ancestor, the idea of and ape-man-creature as a “missing link“, a term popularized by geologist Charles Lyell and based on a distorted view of evolution as “scala naturae“, became very popular. Soon no freak-show was considered complete if there was not a great ape, monkey or real “savage” (as people of the colonies were regarded) on display.

Fig.3. “What is It?”, advertisement for a natural history exposition at the American Museum, March 1860, note the annotation “Is it a lower order of Man? or is it a higher development of the monkey? or is it both in combination?” (image in public domain).

Still today the incorrect “ape-man” idea survives. For the serious researcher Bigfoot sightings are in fact rare encounters with surviving specimens of Gigantopithecus – an orang-utan relative known only from fossil fragments. For the layman Sasquatch and Orang-Pendek are descendants of an early stage of human evolution, the classic chimera made up by parts of modern humans and modern apes - and despite already Darwin stated that transitional forms do not necessary resemble modern animals.


ASMA, S.T. (2001): Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Oxford University Press: 319
BLUMBERG, M.S. (2009): Freaks of Nature. What anomalies tell us about development and evolution. Oxford University Press: 341
BONDESON, J. (1999): The Feejee Mermaid and other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Cornell University Press: 315
DA COSTA, P.F. (2000): The understanding of monsters at the Royal Society in the first half of the eighteenth century. Endeavour Vol. 24(1): 34-39
DELISLE, R. G. (2012): Welcome to the twilight Zone: a forgotten early phase of human evolutionary studies. Endeavour Vol. 36(2): 55-64
GOODALL, (2005): Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin. Out of the Natural Order. Routledge edition: 288
REGAL, B. (2009): Entering dubious realms: Grover Krantz, science, and Sasquatch. Ann. Sci. Vol.66(1): 83-102
REGAL, B. (2011): Searching for Sasquatch – Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. Palgrave Macmillian Publisher: 249

Geomorphologic Groundhog Day !

We don’t know how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if he could chuck wood, but we know how much sediment he moves per year…

Biogeomorphology, also referred as ecogeomorphology or sometimes as zoogeomorphology, is the study of the links between ecology and geomorphology, or in simple terms between life-forms and landforms. Such interactions range from simple tracks left by an organism in the landscape to the complex cycles of energy and matter transfer (like for the element carbon) between the biosphere and the lithosphere.

The role of animals in the evolution of a landscape is still poorly studied, but one of the most interesting processes modifying a landscape involves digging animals.
Mammals move earth for two reasons – to collect food (digging up roots or other animals) or to dig a burrow. Large rodents, like the groundhogs (genus Marmota), are feared for their burrowing habits in agricultural areas, as the entrance to – or the collapse of – their extensive burrow systems can pose a hazard for machines or the livestock.

The density of burrows varies with the climate and environment, for example a humid mountain area can provide more food and guarantee the survival of more individuals than a dry steppe.
The increased activity of a large number of marmots can influence the surface runoff and erosion of a mountain slope and redistribute humus, moisture and mineral components in the soil profile. 

The research by TADZHIYEV & ODINOSHOYEV (1978) “Influence of marmots on soil cover of the eastern Pamirs” on the digging capacity of red marmots showed that they could move almost 28 cubic meter (that´s almost a medium-sized truck) of earth per hectare  in a single year. This suggests that on local scale marmots and relatives can play a quite important role as a geomorphologic factor.


BUTLER, D.R. (2009) Zoogeomorphology – Animals as Geomorphic Agents. Cambridge University Press: 239
GOUDIE, A.S. (ed) (2001): Encyclopedia of Geomorphology Volume 1 A-I. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London – New York: 1156