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Bloodletting Is Still Happening, Despite Centuries of Harm

An illustration of a bloodletting, circa 1675.
An illustration of a bloodletting, circa 1675.

In the shadow of India’s largest mosque, the gutters run red with blood.

It’s a bizarre scene, if you’ve never seen a modern-day bloodletting. First, men wrap patients’ arms and legs with straps as tourniquets, to control the blood flow. Then they use razor blades to make tiny pricks in the hands and feet, and blood trickles into a concrete trough stained red with the day’s work.

The bleeding people look pretty happy, though. After all, they’ve paid for the service. They come to be cured of everything from arthritis to cancer.

(Video: Meet the bloodletters of Delhi and their patients.) 

But why? How has the bloodletting business, which many doctors today would rank along with reading bumps on the head as olde timey quackery, managed not to dry up?

The appeal seems to be in its simple logic.

Muhammad Gayas runs his bloodletting business in the garden of the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi. He says pain and illness happen “when the blood goes bad,” which is pretty much the same basic premise that bloodletters have sold the public since Hippocrates advocated balancing the four humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—more than 2,000 years ago. 

Bloodletting has been practiced around the world even longer than that, tracing at least 3,000 years ago to the Egyptians. It remained an obsession among many Western doctors through the 19th century, and was still a recommended treatment for pneumonia in a 1942 medical textbook—lest you think it went out after the Middle Ages along with the laying on of leeches. (Oh, and leeches still get some play, too, mainly for drawing down pockets of blood after plastic surgery or vascular microsurgery.)

So Does Bloodletting Ever Work?

It may be helpful for people with a few particular blood abnormalities. Doctors still use bloodletting, for instance, in cases of polycythemia—an abnormally high red blood cell count—and in a hereditary disease called hemochromatosis, which leaves too much iron in the blood.

I also came across a preliminary study suggesting vascular benefits in some diabetics with high iron levels, but this is far from a general treatment for the disease. Another small study in BMC Medicine got a lot of press in 2012 for showing that 33 people who gave up to a pint of blood had improved cholesterol ratios and blood pressure six weeks later compared with people who didn’t give blood, which the doctors also attributed to a reduction of iron levels. (Note that the amount of blood removed in the study was fairly low—a pint is about as much as you’d give when donating blood, which for the record is  a great thing for healthy people to do and is not the same thing as bloodletting.) 

When George Washington developed a swollen sore throat in 1799, doctors drained nearly half his blood and created blisters in his throat. Within a day, he died.
When George Washington developed a swollen sore throat in 1799, doctors drained nearly half his blood and created blisters in his throat. Within a day, he died.
Life of George Washington, Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

But the design of that study doesn’t rule out a placebo effect—which has certainly contributed to bloodletting’s popularity in the past. What’s more, other studies suggest that too little iron is bad for cardiovascular health, so again, the potential benefit of removing blood is unclear.

Meanwhile, depleting the body’s blood supply can be risky. Not only is there the risk of losing too much blood, causing a dangerous drop in blood pressure and even cardiac arrest, but people who are already sick take their chances with infection or anemia. Not to mention that in most cases, bloodletting doesn’t cure what ails you.  

So no, we don’t need to revive the tradition of the neighborhood bloodletter. In a sense, though, their legacy is still around: Red-and-white barber poles represent blood, bandages, and the stick that patients would grip during barbers’ days as bloodletters.

How Bloodletting Bled Out

It took the great bloodletting wars of the 1800s to begin turning the tide against the practice. The prominent doctor Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) set off a fury when he began bleeding people dry during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. By all accounts, Rush was a bloodletting fanatic and in general a real piece of work: “unshakable in his convictions, as well as self-righteous, caustic, satirical, humorless, and polemical,” writes doctor Robert North in a biography.

Rush recommended that up to 80 percent of his patients’ blood be removed, and during the yellow fever outbreak, North recounts that “so much blood was spilled in the front yard that the site became malodorous and buzzed with flies.”

Bloodletting’s detractors grew in numbers after that, and eventually Pierre Louis, the founder of medical statistics, began convincing doctors to rely on statistical evidence over anecdotal “recoveries” of patients who had been bled. A particularly impressive analysis showed that bloodletting did not help pneumonia victims in Europe, and after bitter disputes among doctors in the 1850s, the practice began dying out.

In fact, one history of bloodletting refers to the stamping out of the practice—over the objections of the medical establishment, no less—as a triumph of reason and “one of the greatest stories of medical progress.”

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The Little Boy Who Should’ve Vanished, but Didn’t

He was 12 years old. He was a slave. He’d had no schooling. He was too young, too unlettered, too un-European; he couldn’t have done this on his own. That’s what people said.

Picture of a drawing of an older man and a young boy facing  a vanilla plant with their backs to the viewer
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Edmond (he had no last name—slaves weren’t allowed them) had just solved a botanical mystery that had stumped the greatest botanists of his day. In the early 1800s he was a child on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and yet, against overwhelming odds, Edmond would get credit for his discovery—and for the most surprising reasons. I want to tell you his story. So I’ll start here, with a plant.

Picture of a drawing of a vanilla plant
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

This is a vanilla plant (or my version of one). It’s a vine. It climbs, sometimes way high, and when it flowers and is visited by a pollinator, it produces a bunch of long, stringy beans. Properly treated, those beans give off the flavor we associate with vanilla.

Picture of a drawing of Anne of Austria holding a mug of hot chocolate
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

When Spanish explorers brought vanilla from Mexico, it was mixed with chocolate and became a classy sensation, fancied by kings, queens, and, pretty soon, everybody else. In his book Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid, journalist Tim Ecott reports that Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip III of Spain, drank it in hot chocolate. Madame de Pompadour, one of the great hostesses (and mistresses) of King Louis XV, flavored her soups with it.

Picture of Madame de Pompadour with a bowl of steaming soup in front of her
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, called it a miracle drug that could soothe the stomach, cure the bite of a venomous snake, reduce flatulence, and cause “the urine to flow admirably.”

Picture of a drawing of a man peeing
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And, best of all, it was a sexual picker upper. Bezaar Zimmerman, a German physician, claimed in his treatise “On Experiences” (1762) that, “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.”

Picture of a drawing of a woman laying her head on the shoulder of a man standing next to a vanilla bottle
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Demand, naturally, shot sky high. By the late 18th century, a ton of Mexican vanilla was worth, writes Ecott, “its weight in silver.”

With profit margins growing, a few plants were hustled out of Mexico to botanical gardens in Paris and London, then on to the East Indies to see if the plant would grow in Europe or Asia.

It grew, but it wouldn’t fruit, wouldn’t produce beans. Flowers would appear, bloom for a day, fold up, and fall off. With no beans, there could be no vanilla extract, and therefore nothing to sell. The plant needed a pollinator. In Mexico a little bee did the deed. Nobody knew how the bee did it.

Picture of a drawing of a bee saying 'Shhhhh'
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

What to do? In the 1790s people knew about plant sex. Bees, they knew, were pollinators.

If people could only figure out where vanilla’s sexual parts were hiding, they could become bee substitutes.

Enter the 12-Year-Old

They kept trying. One plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on the island of Réunion halfway between India and Africa, had received a bunch of vanilla plants from the government in Paris. He’d planted them, and one, only one, held on for 22 years. It never fruited.

The story goes that one morning in 1841, Bellier-Beaumont was walking with his young African slave Edmond when they came up to a surviving vine. Edmond pointed to a part of the plant, and there, in plain view, were two packs of vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Two! That was startling. But then Edmond dropped a little bomb: This wasn’t an accident. He’d produced those fruits himself, he said, by hand-pollination.

No Way

Bellier-Beaumont didn’t believe him—not at first. It’s true that months earlier the older man had shown Edmond how to hand-pollinate a watermelon plant “by marrying the male and female parts together,” but he’d had no success with vanilla. No one had.

But after his watermelon lesson, Edmond said he’d sat with the solitary vanilla vine and looked and probed and found the part of the flower that produced pollen. He’d also found the stigma, the part that needed to be dusted. And, most important, he’d discovered that the two parts were separated by a little lid, and he’d lifted the flap and held it open with a little tool so he could rub the pollen in. You can see what Edmond did in this video:

Edmond had discovered the rostellum, the lid that many orchid plants (vanilla included) have, probably to keep the plant from fertilizing itself. Could you do it again, Bellier-Beaumont asked? And Edmond did.

This was news. Big news. Bellier-Beaumont wrote his fellow plantation owners to say Edmond had solved the mystery, then sent him from plantation to plantation to teach other slaves how to fertilize the vanilla vine.

And so the Indian Ocean vanilla industry was born.

In I841, Réunion exported no vanilla. By 1848, it was exporting 50 kilograms (.0055 tons) to France; by 1858, two tons; by 1867, 20 tons; and by 1898, 200 tons. “By then,” Tim Ecott writes, “Réunion had outstripped Mexico to become the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.”

Picture of a drawing of a graph showing vanilla exports from Reunion
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The planters were getting rich. What, I wondered, happened to Edmond?

Well, he was rewarded. His owner gave him his freedom. He got a last name, Albius. Plus, his former owner wrote the governor, saying he should get a cash stipend “for his role in making the vanilla industry.”

The governor didn’t answer.

Edmond left his master and moved to town, and that’s when things went sour.

He fell in with a rough crowd, somehow got involved in a jewelry heist, and was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to five years in jail. His former owner again wrote the governor.

“I appeal to your compassion in the case of a young black boy condemned to hard labor … If anyone has a right to clemency and to recognition for his achievements, then it is Edmond … It is entirely due to him that this country owes [sic] a new branch of industry—for it is he who first discovered how to manually fertilize the vanilla plant.”

Picture of a drawing that says Entirely Due to Him
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The appeal worked. Edmond was released. But what catches my eye here is Bellier-Beaumont’s choice of “entirely.” Our new vanilla business, he says, is “entirely” due to Edmond. He’s giving the former slave full credit for his discovery and retaining none for himself. That’s rare.

Then, all of a sudden, Edmond had a rival. A famous botanist from Paris—a scholar, a high official knighted for his achievements—announced in the 1860s that he, and not the slave boy, had discovered how to fertilize vanilla.

Picture of a drawing of a man with a beard holding a vanilla plant and looking suspicious
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Jean Michel Claude Richard claimed to have hand-pollinated vanilla in Paris and then gone to Réunion in 1838 to show a small group of horticulturists how to do it. Little Edmond, he presumed, had been in the room, peeked, and then stolen the technique.

So here’s a prestigious scholar from the imperial capital asserting a claim against a 12-year-old slave from a remote foreign island. What chance did Edmond have?

Picture of a drawing of a young boy who was a slave facing off with an old scholarly French man
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

He was uneducated, without power, without a voice—but luckily, he had a friend. Once again, Edmond’s former master, Bellier-Beaumont, jumped into action, writing a letter to Réunion’s official historian declaring Edmond the true inventor. The great man from Paris, he said, was just, well, mis-remembering.

He went on to say that no one recalled Richard showing them how to fertilize orchids, but everybody remembers, four years later, Edmond teaching his technique to slaves around the island. Why would farmers invite Edmond to teach “if the process were already known?”

“I have been [Richard’s] friend for many years, and regret anything which causes him pain,” Bellier-Beaumont wrote, “but I also have my obligations to Edmond. Through old age, faulty memory, or some other cause, M. Richard now imagines that he himself discovered the secret of how to pollinate vanilla, and imagines that he taught the technique to the person who discovered it! Let us leave him to his fantasies.”

The letter was published. It’s now in the island’s official history. It survives.

Picture of an etching of Edmond Albius with the vanilla plant in his hands
Etching of more adult Edmond Albius
Etching of more adult Edmond Albius

And Yet, a Miserable End

Edmond himself never prospered from his discovery. He married, moved back to the country near Bellier-Beaumont’s plantation, and died in 1880 at age 51. A little notice appeared in the Moniteur, the local paper, a few weeks after he died. Dated Thursday, 26 August, 1880, it read: “The very man who at great profit to his colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers has died in the hospital at Sainte-Suzanne. It was a destitute and miserable end.” His long-standing request for an allowance, the obituary said, “never brought a response.”

Picture of the Edmond Albius Statue in
The statue of Edmond in Réunion
Photograph courtesy of Yvon/Flickr

But a hundred years later, the mayor of a town on Réunion decided to make amends. In 1980 or so, a statue was built to honor Edmond. Writer Tim Ecott decided to take a look. He bought a bus ticket on the island’s “Vanilla Line,” rode to the stop marked “Albius,” got off, and there, standing by himself is Edmond (in bronze or concrete? I can’t tell). He’s dressed, Ecott says, like a waiter, with a narrow bow tie and jacket. He’s not wearing shoes: Slaves weren’t allowed shoes or hats. But he’s got a street named after him, a school named after him. He has an entry on Wikipedia. He’s survived.

Picutre of a drawing of a man with a beard holding a vanilla plant and looking sad
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And the guy who tried to erase him from history, Richard? I looked him up. He also has a Wikipedia entry. It describes his life as “marred by controversy,” mentions his claim against Edmond, and concludes that “by the end of the 20th century,” historians considered the 12-year-old boy “the true discoverer.” So despite his age, poverty, race, and status, Edmond won.

This is such a rare tale. It shouldn’t be. But it is.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the title of Tim Ecott’s book.

Two books recount Edmond’s story. Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid is the most thorough and original, but How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton tells the same tale and marvels that a slave on the far side of the world, poor and non-white, could get credit for what he’d done. There is also Ken Cameron’s Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation, a book that contains Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream.

Please Welcome Robert Krulwich to Phenomena!

krulwich_lgRobert Krulwich is a host of the show Radiolab, but he’s also a blogger, having written many posts over the years for National Public Radio. I’m delighted to welcome Robert to Phenomena, which is host to his new blog, “Curiously Krulwich.”

(Full disclosure: I’ve known Robert for a long time. We first met to hunt for autumn leaves in my neighborhood. And we’ve carried on a long-running conversation on a variety of topics such as whether parasites are terrible or awesome. Spoiler alert: they are awesome.)

To celebrate Robert’s arrival, I asked him a few questions about his blogging experiences:

You started out in television, then headed into radio. How did blogs make their way into your creative stream?

Like anything in life, first you hear a strange word, blog, and you wonder “What could that mean?” It sounds like something you’d find on a tugboat. Then, knocking around the web, I bumped into a few, and the ones I bumped into six years ago were gorgeously written, dazzlingly illustrated (bldgblog by Geoff Manaugh, Jason Kottke’s daily roundup at Kottke.org, Information is Beautiful from David McCandless, LoverofBeauty from I don’t know who, he never tells), each one wildly different from the other, yet all of them classy, dangerous, totally new to me, and I thought, how do I get in on this? I have story ideas all the time. I like to draw. I like to write. The fact that NPR (where I was at the time) is a radio network, and isn’t exactly into eyeball products, being more into ears, was no problem. They have a website and they let me launch a science based, sometimes meandering blog, Krulwich Wonders, where I wrote about history, animals, plants, puzzles, math, chemistry, music, art — and found a delightful audience of crabby, over-informed, sometimes charming, sometimes maddening readers who loved telling me how wrong I was or how right I was, while mailing me ideas that kept me going many times a week. It was so much fun. One time I even got a note from astronaut Neil Armstrong when I wondered out loud why he didn’t wander a larger patch of the moon when he visited up there. Here’s why, he barked back, sending me a long, fascinating letter that gave me goosebumps. So how’d I fall into blogging? I fell very, very happily, and when NPR downsized last year and let me go, I felt a little empty inside and wanted a new place to do it. This, I am happy to announce, is the place.

Does blogging feel the same as what you do on RadioLab, or does it feel like a different way to express yourself?

Well, the conversational tone is the same. I want to sound like myself. I don’t want what I do to be too studied, too formal, or too packaged. I want to sound like some guy who sits next to you on a train and turns out to be a good storyteller, and to your surprise (and, I’m hoping, delight) isn’t a bore. That’s how I try to be on the radio. That’s how I’ll try to be here. But, of course, there’s an obvious difference. On the radio (or the podcast) I’m playing with sound, and the thrill is to invent into your ear (which I do with my “genius” pal, Jad). On my blog, I’m playing with your eye. Every post I do is intentionally visual; it features something to look at; sometimes a video, sometimes a series of drawings, sometimes a photo, sometimes something I devise with friends that’s interactive and let’s you play with an idea. The important thing is that both Radiolab and the blog are designed to spill something you didn’t know into your head as intelligibly and as joyously and as carefully as I know how. That’s the goal; to make you learn something you didn’t think you needed or cared to know, but whoosh! Now you know it. That’s what I like to do.

You work in lots of artwork into your blog posts. What’s the process behind that? Do the artists come to you with ideas, or do you ask them to visualize something you want to write about?

I wish I had artists. When I started “Krulwich Wonders,” I did. I had a little budget and could hire people to help me. But those were the early days when managers were given play money to launch these adventures. The play period has long since ended and now I’m down to me, my box of colored pencils, my desk top scanner and an eraser. I can still call friends, and I do, and I will, but mostly I sit there thinking about, oh, I don’t know, “snail sex,” and I end up looking up pictures of snails, trying to find their genitalia (not the easiest thing to do if you’re not a snail) and sitting at my desk drawing one lopsided snail after another until, eventually, I get the thing right plausibly snaily enough and anatomically correct enough to publish. Then if my wife happens by, sees the drawing, and says, “Oh, what a nice pineapple,” I start over.

The ideas, by the way, come from whatever it is I’m wondering about.

What’s your favorite blog post so far? (Disclosure: my favorite is the one you wrote about the giant insects that were rediscovered on a remote island.)

Thanks, I liked that one too. But if I had to choose, I’d nominate one I wrote about why bees love hexagons, which you can find here. Or another about bees being totally and mysteriously absent from a cornfield, or this short meditation on absolutely nothing.  And, oh yes, a dance I posted that still makes me so happy I use it like alchohol whenever I’m gloomy. It’s here. 

What’s your plan for blogging from here on out?

To try things I’ve never tried before. To scare myself. To experiment with newfangled gifs, loops, slo-mo photography, and, if I dare, watercolor. To go wherever my curiosity takes me, and to take you (that’s right, I’m whispering in your ear, Carl Zimmer, you who know everything I know several weeks before I do), even you are coming with me.

My bags are packed.

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This Is What Happens When You Use Rat Poison: Flymageddon

I killed the rats in my basement ceiling. At the time, they were my biggest problem.

Then I found myself in my car one night with the headlights aimed at my back door, hoping to lure a swarm of carrion flies out of the house. Carrion flies, if you’re not familiar, are the kind that lay their eggs on dead things. So then that was my biggest problem.

It all started with a gnawing sound in my basement, in the ceiling above the family room. The steady crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters didn’t bother me much at first; I just turned up the volume on the TV. But then the entire basement began to smell of rat urine, which turns out to smell a lot like people urine. Eventually, it didn’t matter how much Febreze I sprayed; we had hit, as I called it, RATCON 5.

My next step was to push little green blocks of rat poison into the ceiling space behind the recessed lights. This turned out to be a mistake. Not only is rat poison bad for the environment and wildlife, but this tactic also left the sated rats free to scurry into some far corner of the ceiling space to die. An exterminator poked around up there, and shrugged. “Can’t find ’em.” Soon, my basement took on a new odor: eau de dead rat.

For the next week, I slept with my windows wide open for fresh air, and the flimsy lock on my bedroom door set against possible intruders.

But the gnawing stopped. And I celebrated my hard-won victory. I had toughed out the stink, and the worst was past. I thought.

Two weeks later,  I came home from a trip and opened the door to Flymageddon.

The house was filled with giant flies.  I realized instantly that the dead rats had become a breeding ground for blowflies. Blowflies are described by Wikipedia as medium to large flies, but I would describe them more as flying bookends.

Dozens buzzed around the kitchen, thunking into me as I made my way in. I needed a weapon, and I needed one fast. Years ago, Uncle Rocky and Aunt Martha, who live in Abilene, gave me a gag gift in the form of a giant three-foot, turquoise Texas-Size Fly Swatter. Turns out, it was the best gift ever.

So there I was. I gripped the Texas Fly Swatter like a baseball bat and slowly opened the basement door.  I could hear the hum. My pulse was pounding.

Bluebottle fly. Ripanvc
Kinda pretty, actually. The bluebottle fly.

I flipped on the light and saw thousands of big dark flies, each the size of a dime, peppering the walls and window shades. Flies filled the air, and bumped against the ceiling with little buzzing thuds. Suddenly a squadron broke ranks and rushed straight up the basement stairs at me.

Or at least it seemed like they were flying toward me. I was watching a black wave of flies boil out of a light fixture in the ceiling, so I was a little distracted. But I’m pretty sure I made a noise like a creaky hinge, and slammed the door shut.

Now what? No way was I opening that door again without chemical weapons.

So armed with a can of Raid, I cracked open the basement door, stuck my arm in and sprayed a long satisfying ssssssssssssss. Yessssssssssss, I thought as I sprayed.

Now normally, I’m the live-and-let-live, shoo-em-out the door kind of person. So I also tried opening the kitchen door and stirred up a cluster of flies to usher them out. In return, they promptly flew straight for my head. All bets were off.

I needed a plan—and a partner. I was home alone, but that didn’t stop me from dragging my husband Jay into the scene from 500 miles away. I called him on speakerphone blubbering about flies.

The great thing about being married is that you can take turns being brave, and when one of you is freaking out and ready to burn your house down, the other one can spring into action. And even from 500 miles away, Jay sprung. “Go downstairs and open all the windows to let them out,” he instructed. I politely declined. As in, “What?! NO NO NO NO! Not until some of them are dead. Or most of them.”

Jay thought.

“OK,” he said, “Turn off all the lights in the house, and go turn on the car’s headlights. In fact, put the brights on. Then, open the basement door.” Flies, of course, are drawn to light. It’s not entirely clear why some insects fly toward light, but it’s probably why you’ll find flies clustered on windows. (At least at my house you will.)

Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies. Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies.

It sounded like a plan that might work. So I carefully unlocked the basement door from outside; a couple dozen flies hovered between the glass and the window shade. I pushed the door open and ran for the safety of the car.

“Don’t fall and hurt yourself running from flies!” Jay yelled, still on speakerphone. “They can’t hurt you.” At this point, he’s picturing me laid up with a broken leg, a victim of my own horror of animals that don’t even have mouths that can bite.

“I know that, logically,” I said. But when it comes to a swarm, it’s not about logic. Since I write a blog called Gory Details, you might think it should be hard to turn my stomach, but it’s not. There’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I turn out to be entirely average.

So this is how I found myself in my car at 10:30 p.m., watching flies meander out the door and trying to decide how long I could run the brights before the battery died.

On cue, my mother called. Hoping to help, she looked up flies in the encyclopedia and reported that the pupal stage lasts two weeks. (My mother does not use the Internet much.) Her book didn’t say how long the adults live. “Hm, well, anyway, they’ll die eventually,” she said, “if you wait long enough.”

And I waited. The flies have kept coming. Every morning now, I vacuum up the night’s casualties, and every evening I come home to more. The other day, I arrived at work and dropped my purse on my desk, and a fly flew out. To cope, the Texas Fly Swatter and I have created a no-fly zone in my bedroom.

In the meantime, I have learned a few things about my opponents. I have three kinds; one is big with a shiny blue backside and another small and the prettiest green up close. The big blue ones might be the bluebottle fly Calliphora vomitoriaappropriately named—or  Calliphora vicina, the urban bluebottle fly. The little green guys are probably a species of Lucilia, the nice entomologists at bugguide.net told me after I posted photos.

As those petered out, the biggest flies emerged—flesh flies of the genus Sarcophaga. Like sarcophagus. They’re enormous, and they buzz when they fly, and they are still in my house.

My little Lucilia.  Erika Engelhaupt
My little Lucilia.
Erika Engelhaupt

All three have their charms. Lucilia maggots have an amazing ability to eat dead flesh and ignore the living, so they’re used in maggot therapy to eat away dead, infected tissue. This works fantastically, but of course assumes that you can talk someone with, say, an oozing foot ulcer into letting a mass of maggots eat away at their foot—I suppose you say to the person that they’re only going to eat your dead foot.

I thought talking to a forensic entomologist might help me appreciate my new housemates. Sibyl Bucheli studies insects at Sam Houston State University (home to a great criminal justice program) in Huntsville, Texas (home to the busiest execution chamber in the United States). I knew I’d like her when her email arrived with a photo of her wearing a Wonder Woman tiara. (You should also check out her entomology lab’s Harlem Shake video.)

Bucheli told me about the first recorded case of forensic entomology in the 1300s. It involved carrion flies—maybe one of the species zipping around my head as I talked to her. The Chinese lawyer Sung Tzu was investigating a stabbing in a rice field and had all the workers lay out their sickles. Blowflies immediately landed on just one, even though it had been wiped clean, and Sung Tzu knew that the sickle bore traces of blood.

One of Bucheli’s students tested this method, she tells me—and found that blowflies can indeed find a bloodied and wiped-clean surface within minutes, or even seconds.

As for my flies, Bucheli says I’m probably on the second generation by now, at least. The flies have been multiplying, babies growing up and having babies of their own. I suppose it would be sweet, if the family home being handed down wasn’t a dead rat.

What’s more, she gives me bad news about the yellow-orange spots all over my windows. “That’s fly poop,” she says. “Sorry. They’re pooping on your curtains.”

Still, she made me feel a little better about them. For one thing, she’s totally brave about flies, and it made me want to be just like her. Bucheli has been at actual crime scenes, with dead bodies covered in flies. Even then, they don’t bother her. “I feel calm if I’m in a place with a million flies,” she said. “But if I’m in a city with a million people around me, that freaks me out… I understand the flies.”

They’re just being flies—eating, mating, pooping, laying eggs. They aren’t out to get me, or anyone else. “The whole six-legs, four-wings thing is beauty to me,” Bucheli said.

I’m trying to get there. In fact, I only used the Texas Fly Swatter once this morning.

But last night, after I cleared the sofa of dead flies and settled in for an episode of Bones, I heard it. The crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters.

This time, it’s war.

[to be continued]


(Note: I have updated the link to a test for how easily disgusted a person is. It now takes you to the appendix of Valerie Curtis‘ excellent book “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion.”)

Book in Brief: Sex on Earth

Panda sex may have no greater defender than Jules Howard. I mean, presumably the pandas themselves would be more invested in this topic, but as far as I’m aware the bears aren’t usually invited to contribute commentary to the Guardian. They have to rely on Howard, and thankfully he’s been an able defender of the Ailuropoda melanoleuca love life.

More often than not, pandas are cast as cuddly evolutionary mistakes. They seem so backward. On the brink of extinction, some of the captive members of their species haven’t had the good graces to appreciate that we are trying to save them and therefore breed out of gratitude. What a blinkered view of life. Yes, male and female giant pandas have to find each other on just the right day to start the biological process of making an adorable little fuzzball. Yet, Howard points out, pandas were managing to do this for over two million years before our species started destroying their habitat and pushing them to oblivion. We’re the problem, not them, and this goes for zoos, too.

sex-on-earth-howardFor a long time, Howard points out, zookeepers took a very human-centric view of what would turn on a panda. (Panda porn? Seriously?) Given that we’ve all but abandoned our sense of smell to glean information about the world and each other, it took a while for specialists to realize that scent plays an important role in getting pandas ready to mate. The panda baby boom started once researchers finally realized this simple secret. Pandas aren’t evolutionary mishaps. We failed by not only cutting into their numbers, but in thinking that what titillates us would work for a species we last shared a common ancestor with over 66 million years ago. So begins Howard’s new book, Sex on Earth.

I must admit that upon receiving my review copy, my first thought was “Another book about animal sex?” We seem to be awash in literature on the subject, with Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation still the pinnacle of procreation-focused popsci. Not to mention Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno film series and live show.  But, as I quickly discovered, the crowded field is exactly what let Howard to write a book that stands out.

A great deal of writing – and film – on animal reproduction focuses on the superlative and hyperbolic. Who has the biggest penis? Who does the craziest mating dance? Are animals into BDSM? And on and on. But Howard argues that in focusing on the shocking and lewd, or what seems to be so through the humans lens, we’re actually missing what sex is all about. Worse still, we risk misunderstanding the very nature of sex by projecting our own desires and fears upon the staggering diversity of species that do it differently than we do.

Take the stickleback, for example. With bowerbirds and clownfish that change sex, the spiny little fish might seem a bland place to start. But through a visit to stickleback researcher Iain Barber’s lab, Howard explains how critical the fish has been to researchers wishing to parse the science of courtship and mating. For example, in a classic experiment, Niko Tinbergen showed that the red color of ready-to-mate males makes other males get all het up. Unfortunately, Howard points out, some male researchers were so taken with the vigorous, vibrant sticklebacks that they cast the female fish as dull, unimportant, and, as one zoologist wrote, “nothing but a roving gipsy.” It took until about 1990 for behaviorists to finally realize that females play an active role in choosing their mates and are not simply providers of eggs for stickleback seed. This historical perspective is what makes Sex on Earth different. As Howard weaves his tales of glow worms, hedgehogs, penguins, and more, he always keeps one eye on how humans have interpreted – and often misinterpreted – animals as reflections of ourselves.

Howard had hooked me with the sticklebacks and kept me reading on. Not only because of the clarity and humor in his prose, but for his careful consideration of how our species has warped the sex lives of other animals to reinforce our own preferences and taboos. Sex on Earth isn’t yet another catalog of what we might consider bizarre behavior. There are plenty of sticky details for those wishing to brush up their cocktail party chatter, sure, but Howard has done far better than that. Sex on Earth is a refreshingly self-aware exploration of the most intimate moments in nature and how the incredible variety of life has led us to frame our own thoughts about this near-ubiquitous biological drive. Not to mention that anyone who takes the time to set up a camera system by the side of a local pond to watch frogs make the next generation of little hoppers has not only my interest, but my admiration.

[Note: In an early chapter, Howard lists me along Darren Naish and David Hone as part of a gaggle of science writers who see dinosaur sex everywhere. Given that I’m due to give a talk on just that subject at London’s Natural History Museum next month, I can’t deny the charge.]

Battle for the “Bone Wars” Beasts

A few years back, shortly after he introduced me to a splendid fossil alligator, Peabody Museum of Natural History collections manager Christopher Norris led me into a bright room piled high with fossils. I’d seen similar rooms before. As per usual, the larger specimens were cradled in carefully-crafted plaster jackets on shelves while the smaller bones were safely locked in metal cabinets bearing scientific incantations such as “merycoidodontoidea” and “borhyaenidae“. But a series of lumpy skulls arranged along the left wall were what immediately grabbed my attention. These were the great dinoceratans that O.C. Marsh fought so fiercely to defend from his chief rival.

I’m not sure why I’m so taken with Uintatherium and its relatives. Maybe it’s because poorly-made models of the beast were regularly included in the plastic peg bags stuffed with dinosaurs I picked up at the supermarket, despite the fact that – duh – Uintatherium was a mammal and not a ruling reptile. Or perhaps it was The Last Dinosaur, wherein a charging puppet Uintatherium is mistaken for a horned dinosaur. Then again, such mistakes might be a clue in themselves. Uintatherium and its relatives in the Dinocerata – the “terrible horns” – were some of the earliest large mammals after non-avian dinosaurs were ushered off the evolutionary stage, and the combination of the paired knobs on their skulls, long saber-teeth, and rhino-range size may make them look dinosaurish enough to stimulate the same parts of my brain that respond to images of Triceratops and Styracosaurus.

What I didn’t learn until much later was how fiercely paleontologists had battled over these ancient mammals. If you’ve had any exposure to the history of paleontology at all, you should know the names Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. These late 19th century scientists waged the great “Bone Wars” against each other, each of the pair trying to outpace the other to become America’s chief expert on prehistoric life. The exact date and time the two started their “bitter warfare” is lost to history. A sensible starting point would be when Marsh paid one of Cope’s sources to funnel fossils to him in New Haven. Cope’s public embarrassment at putting the head of Elasmosaurus on the wrong end of the marine reptile didn’t help matters. But whatever initially sparked the acrimony that would run the length of both men’s lives, their publication record shows that the two chose Uintatherium and its ilk for their first major showdown.

The battle for the dinocerata started with Joseph Leidy. A Philadelphia polymath, Leidy was less fractious than Cope or Marsh but he nevertheless saw that the two of them – for better or worse – were about to set paleontology on fire. If Leidy was going to continue to leave his mark on paleontology, he’d have to move with speed to establish names and boundaries of scientific territory before Cope and Marsh swept in. So, before he even got home from a fossil collecting trip to Fort Bridger, Wyoming in 1872, Leidy wrote a brief description of two fossil mammals his party had found in the area. From a skull and limbs, Leidy named Uintatherium robustum, and, not realizing that it belonged to the same animal, used a tooth to coin Uintamastrix taro.

Uintatherium, on display in the AMNH's Extreme Mammals exhibit. Photo by Brian Switek.
Uintatherium, on display in the AMNH’s Extreme Mammals exhibit. Photo by Brian Switek.

Historian Keith Thomson recounts the conflict that followed in his book The Legacy of the Mastodon. Up until 1872, Leidy had become a de facto authority on many of America’s fossil mammals. Cope and Marsh occupied themselves with different sorts of prehistoric reptiles, fish, and fowl. Either intentionally or through other experts wishing not to get between the two, they had worked out a way to generally avoid each other. But the wealth of strange mammals flowing from the west brought Cope and Marsh into a vicious whirlwind of hasty descriptions and rushed taxonomy.

It made sense for Leidy, Cope, and Marsh to tussle over the dinocerata. These were spectacular animals unlike any seen before or since. Naming them was a matter of control, and, for Cope and Marsh, whoever claimed them would simultaneously polish their reputation while tarnishing that of their sluggish rival. The telegraph seemed the perfect tool for the job. The same year that Leidy named Uintatherium, Cope sent a telegraph to the American Philosophical Society proclaiming that he had discovered three new species and one new genus of related animals.

Unfortunately for Cope, scientific minutiae doesn’t translate well over telegraph. All the names came out garbled, and, as Thomson recounts, the secretary of the Society told his colleagues that the exact spelling of the names would have to wait until Cope returned. And Marsh was already trying a different technique. He added a note of publication dates to a monograph titled Preliminary Descriptions of New Tertiary Mammals, keeping track of when his pamphlets announcing new fossil names had been distributed. Detailed description of these creatures was an afterthought. Establishing the name was the critical part.

Uintatherium - sometimes labeled as Eobasileus - at the Field Museum. Photo by Brian Switek.
Uintatherium – sometimes labeled as Eobasileus – at the Field Museum. Photo by Brian Switek.

Titles racked up fast. In addition to Leidy’s Uintatherium and Uintamastrix, Cope added Loxolophodon and Eobasileus while Marsh established Dinoceras and Tinoceras. (And that’s not even counting the multiple species being assigned to some of these.) But it was quickly becoming clear that these animals differed little, if at all, from each other. There were fewer genera and species than had been named, but who could rightly claim these creatures?

By rushing to name these fossils the scientists had created a monster out of ink, paper, and telegraph wire. The need to sort through the mess only offered a new opportunity for Cope and Marsh to turn the beast against each other. Marsh was the first to try. In December of 1872, he ripped into Cope’s research and insisted that his names Dinoceras and Tinoceras were the right and proper names for all the “horned proboscideans” in question.

Cope shot back in April. Surprising no one, he insisted that his names – as well as Leidy’s Uintatherium – were right and Marsh’s were wrong, even though he grudgingly accepted Marsh’s suggestion of Dinocerata for the group’s name. Not one to let such insults go unanswered, Marsh continued his own campaign. It was a total trainwreck that their peers couldn’t look away from.

Then Marsh went a step beyond insisting that Cope’s science was shoddy. He attacked Cope’s claim to priority. If Marsh could prove that he properly published names for the fossils first, then Cope would be defenseless.

The telegraphs were Cope’s weak point. Was Loxolophodon named when the first, misspelled telegraph was sent? When it was received? When a preliminary version of Cope’s paper was read? When the pamphlet of the report was received by all competing parties? When?! The American Philosophical Society held a meeting on the serious issue, but came to no resolution. The primary consequences, Thomson reports, were that Cope stopped trying to name species by telegraph and Marsh wrote a massive monograph on the Dinocerata in order to solidify his claim to the beasts, even though Leidy’s Uintatherium won out as the proper name for the slew of names that were in competition.

And what has become of the magnificent mammals that had America’s premiere paleontologists practically at each others’ throats? While  brontotheres, elephants, and other charismatic megafauna stepped into the spotlight, the dinocerata faded into the background. Plastic toy sets still include them, and museums still display their skeletons – either the authentic fossils, or, often, as aged paper mache replicas – but the animals themselves have fallen into relative obscurity. The last major review of the dinocerata was published in 1998, and very little paleobiological work has been done to figure out how these unusual animals actually lived. There’s even some uncertainty about what they truly were. They’re “problematica” possibly related to ungulates but perhaps not. Resolving the issue doesn’t appear to rank high on the list of paleontological priorities.

Looking at the rows of skulls on the Yale shelves – the ones Marsh affectionately called “Dinoceras” and “Tinoceras” – I felt the not unfamiliar pang of regret for the academic path I abandoned. These fantastic skulls helped fuel one of the greatest fossil disputes of all time, and here they sat, waiting for someone to remember what they meant. In another life, perhaps I could’ve been one to revive them in the scientific imagination. As it was, I could only visit with them a while and wonder. And that’s why Uintatherium is still a favorite of mine. Not for what we know about it, but for what we have yet to discover.


Thomson, K. 2008. The Legacy of the Mastodon. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 215, 229-241.

Recapitating Apatosaurus

You may have felt rumblings reverberating through the Internet this week, like the roll of distant thunder. That’s because Brontosaurus might be a valid name again. A new analysis of numerous sauropod specimens suggests that the classic dinosaur possibly had enough unique traits to be distinguished from Apatosaurus, after all.

The longer a dinosaur lives in our imagination, though, the more history the old bones pick up. Stories get tangled up into a new mythology of what the dinosaur means to us. In the case of Brontosaurus, much of it comes down on the sauropod’s head. The “thunder lizard” is sometimes miscast as a chimera – the body of an Apatosaurus with a Camarasaurus noggin.

As with everything Brontosaurus, the real story is intensely complicated. Neither Apatosaurus nor Brontosaurus had skulls when they were named. The features Othniel Charles Marsh used to distinguish the two were in the hips. And, years later, when museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History went about mounting their Apatosaurus skeletons – which they often labeled Brontosaurus – sooner or later they had to create mock-up skulls for their impressive saurians. Since Camarasaurus was thought to be a close relative of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus, a camarasaurish skull seemed a good fit. (As for anything sauropodal, read SV-POW for more details.)

For reasons involving paleontological uncertainty and scientific peer pressure, though, what went overlooked was that the Carnegie’s fossil collector Earl Douglass found a true Apatosaurus skull in 1909. He uncovered the fossil in a Jurassic graveyard that now forms the backbone of Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, and it took almost 70 years before paleontologists realized what Douglass had pulled from the stone. In this video for Dinologue, I cover how that skull was found, lost, and eventually reunited with its ancient owner.

Sciencespeak: Lazarus taxon

It’s a science fiction staple. An intrepid explorer is walking through the woods when they stumble across an ancient organism not seen for millions of years. Dinosaurs are choice for such appearances, but pterosaurs and other prehistoric critters do just as well. In text and on film, they manage to persist in some isolated pocket where extinction spared them. But such scenarios are not restricted to the realm of fantasy.

In July of 1943, while traveling through eastern China, forestry official Zhan Wang heard a tantalizing rumor. In the town of Moudao, the principal of Xian Agriculture High School told him, there grew a tree that no one could identify. That was enough for Zhan. He altered his travel route across Hubei Province to find the mystery tree, and, sure enough, he found it. With a few snips Zhan collected some branches and cones according to standard botanical protocol and was on his way.

Once he had a chance to fully examine his sample, though, Zhan wasn’t sure what the tree was. The plant’s anatomy resembled that of the Chinese swamp cypress – a tree known for decades – but small details of the leaves, branches, and cones were all wrong. Not wanting to go out on a limb, Zhan classified the tree as Glyptostrobus pensilis?, the question mark a reminder that the species might not be the swamp cypress, after all.

The next summer botanist Zhong-Lun Wu was looking through the herbarium collections at the National Central University at Chongqing when Zhan’s mystery cypress caught his eye. It looked like something new. This sparked a flurry of comparison and discussion among China’s botanists and dendrologists that ultimately arrived at a startling conclusion. The tree was not new to science. Astonishingly, it was a living species of Metasequoia – the “dawn redwood” that had been named from fossils just a few years before.

Some called Metasequoia a “living fossil“. Whether the term fits or not depends on what you think about how much the tree has changed in the last five million years or so. But there’s another term that definitely applies to discoveries like this. Metasequoia is a Lazarus taxon.

For those who are little shaky on their New Testament stories, Lazarus is the fellow that Jesus is said to have raised from the dead. And while the miracle of finding the Metasequoia was one of science, rather than religion, paleontologists Karl Flessa and David Jablonski coined the term Lazarus taxon for organisms that reappear after their presumed extinction.

The coelacanth is the most famous Lazarus taxon. Photo by Afernand74, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The coelacanth is the most famous Lazarus taxon. Photo by Afernand74, CC BY-SA 3.0.

There are plenty of other examples of Lazarus taxa. The most famous is the coelacanth – an ancient form of fish thought to have gone extinct over 66 million years ago only to turn up in a South African fish market. A genus of ant first found in amber, a midwife toad, and a whole group of marine invertebrates called monoplacophorans fit the bill, too, though the term isn’t restricted to living species.

“Lazarus taxon” was originally coined for organisms – from a single species up to an entire group – that seem to disappear during one of Earth’s “Big Five” mass extinctions only to pop up again in the fossil record. That’s because “fossilization lows” seem to immediately follow mass extinctions wherein, for one reason or another, not as many organisms wind up locked in stone. And applied more widely to the fossil record, the extensive list of Lazarus taxa includes a lineage of weasel-like protomammals called diademodontids that reappear in the Triassic rock of South Africa after an absence of 21 million years and a slew of odd invertebrates that were thought to have gone extinct by 501 million years ago before turning up in rocks 488-472 million years old.

So why do some creatures seem to blink out of the fossil record only to be revived? There’s more than one reason. The simplest is that the fossil record is not only incomplete, but incompletely-studied. There are fossil-bearing strata that have yet to feel the boots of curious paleontologists, and there are always significant specimens that get overlooked. Not to mention that recognizing living Lazarus taxa is an interdisciplinary effort that requires paleontologists and field biologists to be aware of what the other group is doing. There may be living species that count as Lazarus taxa but haven’t been recognized as such just yet.

Then there’s the nature of the fossil record itself. A species or lineage might go extinct in a given area but persist elsewhere. This geographic problem may be why we don’t have a good fossil record for the living coelacanth, for example. The fish may have clung to existence in deep sea haunts that either didn’t fossilize or have not been discovered yet. And in the case of Lazarus taxa that pop up after mass extinction, it may be that populations temporarily fell too low to allow for a good chance of fossilization. The fossil record is a wonderful window to view ancient life, but we need to be aware of the cracks and smudges while gazing into prehistory.

[Note:  I started this feature as “Science Word of the Day”, but it’s not daily and I want to include phrases that are more than one word. So “Sciencespeak”, it is.]


Abdala, F., Damiani, R. Yates, A., Neveling, J. 2007. A non-mammaliaform cynodont from the Upper Triassic of South Africa: a therapsid Lazarus taxon? Palaeontologia Africana. 42: 17-23

Fara, E. 2001. What are Lazarus taxa? Geological Journal. 36: 291-303

Ma, J. 2002. The history of the discovery and initial seed dissemination of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a “living fossil”. Aliso. 21 (2): 65-75.

Ma, J. 2003. The chronology of the “living fossil” Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Taxodiaceae): A review (1943-2003). Harvard Papers in Botany. 8 (1): 9-18

Shao, G., Liu, W., Chen, J., Ma, J., Tan, Z. 2000. Zhan Wang (1911-2000). Taxon. 49 (3): 593-601

Van Roy, P., Orr, P., Botting, J., Muir, L., Vinther, J., Lefebvre, B., Hariri, K., Briggs, D. 2010. Ordovician faunas of Burgess Shale type. Nature. 465: 215-218.

Science Word of the Day: Mastodon

I have a soft spot for the American mastodon. The beast lived at the same time as the famous woolly mammoth, yet the mastodon is not nearly as popular as its tundra-living cousin. I can relate to that. But even worse, the shadow of the woolly mammoth stretches so far that the mastodon is often confused for its shaggy relative. This is not a new problem.

Back in the late 18th century, when paleontology was a nascent science, many naturalists thought that giant elephant bones found in Europe, northern Eurasia, and America were from modern species that used to live there. Elephantine bones found in England, for example, were attributed to behemoths the Romans must have used as pack animals during their occupation, and French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon suggested that huge bones found in Siberia showed that the world was once much warmer and allowed modern elephants to range further afield.

Georges Cuvier disagreed. Remembered as one of the founders of paleontology, Cuvier was just 27 when he stood before France’s National Institute in 1796 and explained that the elephant bones from Eurasia and those from North America – then referred to the “American Incognitum” – actually belonged to extinct species unlike those alive today. “The first suspicions that there are more than one species [of elephant] came from a comparison of several molar teeth that were known to belong to elephants, and which showed considerable differences,” Cuvier explained to his audience, “some [teeth] having their crown sculpted in a lozenge form, the others in the form of festooned ribbons.” And from the fossil teeth, Cuvier concluded, “These [fossil] animals thus differ from elephants as much as, or more than, a dog differs from the jackal and the hyena.”

This wasn’t just anatomical hair-splitting. Cuvier had offered fossil proof that extinction is a reality – a fact some naturalists still questioned despite the fact that humanity had already wiped out the dodo and other species. More than that, Cuvier proposed that the fossil elephants preferred different habitats than their modern relatives. The conditions that had sustained them had been wiped away, perhaps in a terrible environmental catastrophe of the sort Cuvier was just beginning to entertain as he pondered the depths of the fossil record.

But what to call such beasts? The Siberian form – with the ribbon-like pattern on its teeth – was already known as the mammoth. The bumpy-toothed American form was still commonly called the Incognitum, and Cuvier did not offer a replacement in his initial paper on the subject. This oversight came back to bite him.

American mastodon molars figured in Cuvier's 1806 paper on the mammal.
American mastodon molars figured in Cuvier’s 1806 paper on the mammal.

Despite their disparate teeth, the mammoth and Incognitum were often misconstrued as the same animal. Naturalists were not always careful to distinguish the two massive, extinct elephants from each other. Cuvier got fed-up enough with the confusion that in 1806 he wrote a paper that tried to sort out the mess.

Mammoth was still a fitting term for the Siberian animal, but, Cuvier decided, the North American animal should be called the mastodon. The name came from looking the animal in the mouth. Drawing from illustrations created by American artist and museum pioneer Rembrandt Peale, Cuvier noted that the bumps on the mammal’s molars looked like breasts. Since teeth were mainly what he and other naturalists were comparing, Cuvier took the Greek words for breast and tooth to coin mastodon – the “bubby-toothed elephant, as naturalist Thomas Jefferson would later put it.

How the American mastodon got its scientific name is a little more complicated. Scottish researcher Robert Kerr called the animal Elephas americanus in 1792, but, after Cuvier showed that the animal was distinct from all living elephants, German anatomist Johan Blumenbach replaced the genus name with Mammut in 1799. And even the common name can still cause a little confusion in the way it’s applied. By itself “mastodon” isn’t just the name for the American Ice Age species, but an entire group of breast-toothed elephants going back over 28 million years. The American mastodon just happened to be the last member of the group and the first that our species rediscovered as a fossil.

But the initial mammoth-mastodon division Cuvier zeroed-in on as a young scientist still holds true. You can immediately pick out a mastodon by its teeth. The next time you visit the bones of ancient proboscideans, look carefully at their massive molars. If the grinders remind you of toothy teats, you’re looking at the great American mastodon.


Cuvier, G. 1806. Sur le grand mastodonte. Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. 8: 270-312

Rudwick, M. 1997. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 18-24

Semonin, P. 2000. American Monster. New York: New York University Press. pp. 354-356

Old Photos Revive Dinosaur Chase

On the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, hiding in plain sight, there is an enormous anachronism.

Striking a proud pose in the Hall of Saurischian dinosaurs is the bulky skeleton of Apatosaurus, and trailing behind the sauropod’s columnar legs is a series of deep dinosaur potholes. But Apatosaurus didn’t make those tracks. While the bones of the famous herbivore are Late Jurassic in age – roundabout 150 million years old – the tracks were left behind by another dinosaur that tromped around the shores of Early Cretaceous Texas in the neighborhood of  110 million years ago.

Sauropod tracks aren’t the only ones on the white slab. Clawed feet of a large carnivorous dinosaur – something like the ridge-backed Acrocanthosaurus – cross the same slice of time. This fossil is more than static prehistory. The footprints play out a Cretaceous chase.

Sixteen of Bird's original trackway photographs.
Sixteen of Bird’s original trackway photographs.

The AMNH tracks only tell part of the story, though. In 1940, under directions from the museum, paleontologist Roland T. Bird broke the 30-foot-long trackway into large blocks in order to remove them from their resting place near Texas’ Paluxy River. Bird shipped part of the trackway up to the New York City institution, but the other part of the slab was sent to the Texas Memorial Museum.

Sadly, due to improper housing, the tracks in Texas have deteriorated over the years. What has lasted since the early days of the Cretaceous is in danger of eroding away. In order to preserve a record of the dinosaur steps, paleontologists Peter Falkingham, Karl Bates, and James Farlow have used a technique called photogrammetry to digitally reconstitute the dinosaur chase from Bird’s own photos of the original, intact trackway.

Drawing from seventeen photos and negatives Bird took over 70 years ago, and using photogrammetry software that corrected for “unknown focal lengths and camera types,” the researchers were able to stitch together a 3D model of the trackway as it was seen in 1940. The paleontologists then compared their new model with a laser-scanned version of the trackway and two hand-drawn maps made just before the slab was broken up.

Bird’s old photos weren’t ideal source material. People and tools are at different places in each, the south-facing direction of all the shots mean that the north-end of the trackway can’t be reconstructed in as much detail as the rest of the slab, and some of the theropod tracks picked up by the laser scan don’t show up in the new model. Still, Falkingham and colleagues were able to assemble the model in enough detail to see that one of the hand-drawn maps – “the Rye chart” – is a good match for the original fossil as it shows the theropod and sauropod trackways slightly curving to the left. “This shows that even with poor source photographs,” the paleontologists write, “highly detailed reconstructions are at least partially possible.”

With photos and readily-accessible software, paleontologists can reconstruct long-lost sites and specimens. Old quarry photos can be used to reassemble and relocate significant fossil localities, and, if there are enough shots, maybe destroyed specimens such as the original Spinosaurus skeleton can be virtually resurrected for comparisons with more recently-recovered fossils. The technique may even be a cheap and simple way to create 3D quarry maps that preserve the essential geologic context of fossils as they are extracted from the ground by paleontologists working today. Whether drawing from old photographs or new, photogrammetry is allowing paleontologists to see the past as they never have before.

Related Reads:

From Punting to Tromping
Swim Tracks Undermine Dinosaur Stampede
A Trilobite, Dead in Its Tracks


Falkingham, P., Bates, K., Farlow, J. 2014. Historical photogrammetry: Bird’s Paluxy River dinosaur chase sequence digitally reconstructed as it was prior to excavation 70 years ago. PLoS ONE. 9, 4: e93247. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093247

Dinosaur Culture

Dinosaurs are everywhere. They crumble out of outcrops, are reconstituted in museum halls, star in big-budget films, and sell everything from candy to gasoline. And while dinomania has varied in intensity since 19th century naturalists started giving names to these curious creatures, dinosaurs have nevertheless been cultural touchstones for nearly two centuries. To us, the descendants of mammals that scurried through their world, dinosaurs have stood as prehistoric nightmares, warnings to the danger of investing too much energy in armaments, and reminders of inevitable extinction.

The evolution of dinosaur culture is one of the many points where science and society intersect. Paul Brinkman, a paleontologist and historian at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, has examined this junction between the prehistoric and the modern in his book The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, and is now teaching a course called “Dinomania! A Cultural & Scientific History of Dinosaurs.” Since it’s just as important to understand what we think about dinosaurs as what Mesozoic bones and traces can tell us, I asked Brinkman a few questions about how dinosaur culture has changed through history.

Paul Brinkman holding a jacket at Utah's Crystal Geyser Quarry. Photo Courtesy Paul Brinkman.
Paul Brinkman holding a jacket at Utah’s Crystal Geyser Quarry. Photo Courtesy Paul Brinkman.

Dinosaurs have been used as cultural touchstones since the time they were discovered. Why do you think they’ve lasted as such potent symbols?

Brinkman: There are many explanations for the long-lasting appeal of dinosaurs, but none of them are entirely satisfying – at least not to me. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the popularity of dinosaurs is due to three virtues: big, fierce and extinct. I think there’s certainly some merit to this simple idea, but it cannot explain everything. There’s no denying the odd appeal of big things – especially superlatively big things – including skyscrapers, animals and plants and roadside attractions (like the world’s largest ball of twine!).

Many of the best-known dinosaurs are beloved – in part, at least – for their size, including Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus and other gigantic sauropods. Other popular dinosaurs, on the other hand, are small, including Velociraptor. Likewise, there is something very appealing about fierce or scary things – especially those that don’t pose any immediate danger. Tigers in the zoo are appealing, but holding a tiger by the tail is not. Dinosaurs are appealing in a similar way. Many of them were no doubt very fierce when they stalked the Mesozoic Era, but because the non-avian dinosaurs are long extinct, they aren’t really threatening. Sauropods and other plant-eating dinosaurs seem to be an exception, as it is difficult to imagine a fierce Diplodocus.

The popularity of dinosaurs has fluctuated dramatically over time, but they have been a big part of our cultural landscape for more than a century. That suggests that there’s something inherently interesting about them. But I’m afraid the best explanation for their staying power is that they’ve long been effectively marketed and commoditized, first by museums, and later in books, movies, comics, toys, games, cartoons and more.

New dinosaurs are being named at an astonishing rate, but the most popular ones are still Bone Wars-era classics such as Triceratops. Why do you think that is?

Brinkman: I ask my students what their favorite dinosaur is and overwhelmingly they answer with classics like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. I think the reason for this is simple familiarity. While new and charismatic dinosaurs – Siats meekerorum is just one recent example – are named and described in the scientific literature as a matter of routine, it takes a long time for those new taxa to migrate from specialist journals to museum displays and textbooks and then to movies, toys and other pop-culture media. Thanks to a starring role in Jurassic Park, Velociraptor has gained ground on Tyrannosaurus, who still reigns supreme as the world’s most popular dinosaur. All it takes to make a big splash in the world of dinosaurs is a few marquee roles.

In American culture, especially, dinosaurs are connected to childhood. No one seems to really understand why. What’s your take on why kids are so drawn to dinosaurs?

Brinkman: That’s probably because as children we’re taken to marvelous places like museums and encouraged to wonder (if not to wander). Curiosity and awe are positively reinforced in children by indulgent adults. And what’s more curious or more awesome than a fully-mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex in a typically menacing (yet harmless) pose? As we grow older, however, we’re told to put away childish things. More often than not, dinosaurs are chucked out with the toys and security blankets. Maybe this is for the best, though, as those of us who retain our fascination for dinosaurs into adulthood become obsessive writers, rockhounds and tinkerers with fossils with precious few marketable skills!

Paul Brinkman riding a sauropod during a NC Museum of Natural Sciences clean-up day. Photo courtesy Paul Brinkman.
Paul Brinkman riding a sauropod during a NC Museum of Natural Sciences clean-up day. Photo courtesy Paul Brinkman.

The “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the late 20th century was a major image shift, transforming dinosaurs from plodding monsters to agile animals with a peculiar biology. But that transformation happened decades ago. How has the impression of what dinosaurs really were changed since the 80s?

Brinkman: Modern scientific ideas about dinosaur behavior, including herding, parenting and pack hunting, have certainly made some in-roads. Some of these behaviors were depicted in Jurassic Park, for example. Yet dinosaurs are still commonly used as metaphors for obsolescence, as, for example, in a recent television commercial that shows a smaller, more maneuverable SUV driving between the legs of huge, lumbering dinosaurs. The message is clear only if one subscribes the idea of dinosaurs as slow-moving, swamp-dwelling, dim-witted and doomed to extinction. I think this is a powerful idea with wide popular appeal because it suggests that if you’re smart and adaptable you’ll be rewarded, and if you’ve been rewarded it’s because you must be smart and adaptable. A moral like that makes for a great story that will be difficult for paleontologists to rewrite.

News of meteorite strikes and near-miss asteroids raise the specter of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. Do you think this popular imagery feeds back into the ongoing scientific discussions and debates about how the non-avian dinosaurs, and many of their neighbors, died?

Brinkman: I think it must.

Many films and documentaries these days feature menageries of computer-generated dinosaurs but very little of how we know what we know about these animals. How is that affecting the public’s understanding of dinosaurs and the science of paleontology?

Brinkman: I believe that the public’s understanding of how paleontology is done is minimal. Recently, however, museums have been doing a better job of trying to explain not only what we know about dinosaurs, but how we know it. In fact, the new wing at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is dedicated to this very approach. I think that if scientists and science communicators did a better job of explaining how science is done to the public, there would be a lot less skepticism and a lot more confidence in their results. Science isn’t hocus-pocus. It’s hypothesis-driven, testable, experimental, and it utilizes common everyday reasoning. Best of all, it is subject to revision in light of better data or more reliable testing. Ultimately, though, it is the responsibility of scientists to convey this idea to the public.

Next year Hollywood will release two big-budget films starring dinosaurs – Jurassic World and The Good Dinosaur. Might these films trigger a new wave of intense dinomania, or have cgi dinosaurs become so familiar that such a paleo revival is unlikely?

Brinkman: I have always been better at describing and explaining the past than predicting the future, but I think every generation has its cultural milestones. If Jurassic World and The Good Dinosaur are as good as Jurassic Park was, then a new wave of dinomania is certainly not out of the question. Is your surfboard handy?

Buzzsaw Jaw Helicoprion Was a Freaky Ratfish

Of all the vexing fossil mysteries that have confounded paleontologists, few have been as persistent as that of Helicoprion – the name given to petrified whorls of elongate teeth that look like 270 million year old renditions on the theme of buzzsaw. What sort of animal did this Paleozoic remnant belong to, and where did the circular blade actually fit on the animal? Today, Idaho State University paleontologist Leif Tapanila and coauthors announce the answer to a conundrum that has puzzled paleontologists for over a century.


Conjuring Chirotherium

Nearly two centuries ago, naturalists made crocodiles and tortoises walk over soft pie crust for science. The flour-dusted experiment was an attempt to capture the movement of an animal that had been dead for an incomprehensible amount of time.

The inspiration for the experiment, organized by Oxford University naturalist William Buckland one day in 1824, was a fossil trackway that had been discovered in the prehistoric sandstone of Corncockle Muir in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. The ancient, multi-toed, vaguely hand-shaped imprints had caught the attention of a Mr. Carruthers, who extricated the fossils and presented them to the Church of Scotland minister Henry Duncan. The reverend used the tracks to decorate his summerhouse, but he also created casts which he sent along to Buckland.

What sort of creature could have made the tracks? The answer wasn’t immediately clear. Discovered in what British geologists called the New Red Sandstone, the tracks came from an age slightly earlier than the great prehistoric reptiles – soon named Megalosaurus and Iguanodon – that had been found elsewhere. Still, as far as early 19th century geologists were concerned, Duncan’s tracks were laid down during a time when reptiles ruled, so it was only natural to turn to modern reptiles for clues about what sort of animal created the traces.


Pin the Nose on the Dinosaur

Brachiosaurus was not a swampbound dinosaur. The magnificent “arm lizard”, over 80 feet long from snout to tail tip, trod over Late Jurassic, fern-covered floodplains now preserved in the 150 million year old rock of the American west. Still, when my much younger self first saw Zdeněk Burian’s restoration of Brachiosaurus submerged almost up to its head, I couldn’t deny that the illustration just looked right. It wasn’t so much the dinosaur’s bulk, but that the sauropod’s nose was atop its head – why would such an enormous herbivore need a dorsal nose unless the dinosaur hid its girth underwater?


P is for Pelecanimimus

At the end of 2012, I took a moment to look back at some of the fantastically fluffy feathered dinosaurs that paleontologists had uncovered during the year. In so doing, I mentioned that researchers have been quite busy ever since Sinosauropteryx – a little theropod clothed in dinofuzz – popped onto the scientific scene in 1996. What I neglected to mention that the little compsognathid may not have been the first feathery non-avian dinosaur ever found. There were other, unconfirmed candidates before 1996, including the strange Pelecanimimus.

Even though Sinosauropteryx was the beginning of a resounding confirmation that many dinosaurs were fuzzy, if not feathery, paleontologists had been toying with the idea for decades. In fact, the Victorian anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley unintentionally anticipated the discovery of Sinosauropteryx when he rhapsodized that the closely related Compsognathus, if covered in feathers, would have looked exceptionally bird-like. Other paleontologists and artists entertained similar visions in decades to come, the most famous being Gregory S. Paul’s 1988 fan-favorite Predatory Dinosaurs of the World – a book brimming with rich black-and-white illustrations of bird-like, enfluffed dinosaurs.

But, prior to the 1990s, restorations of feathery dinosaurs were marred by the simple fact that no one had ever found direct evidence of such body coverings. Hypotheses about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs (or, in Huxley’s case, birds and as-yet-undiscovered dinosaur-like reptiles) hinted that feathers should have originated long before the origin of the first flying birds, and there were only the barest hints that this was the case. Among the enigmatic clues were what appeared to be feather imprints in stone.

In the mid 19th century, American naturalist Edward Hitchcock acquired an impression of what he thought was a resting bird, complete with feather traces around the legs and feet. Paleontologists later realized that Hitchcock’s “sandstone birds” were really Early Jurassic dinosaurs, which raised the possibility of fuzzy dinosaurs. Only, as relatively recent analyses have shown, the apparent feather imprints are actually subtle sedimentary structures the bipedal dinosaur created as it stood up off the ground.

All the same, the skeletal connections between birds and dinosaurs eventually led many paleontologists to conclude that birds are truly dinosaur descendents. Pelecanimimus had the potential to further underscore that idea.

In 1994, a paper in Nature by paleontologist Bernardino Pérez-Moreno briefly described the partial skeleton of an exceptionally-preserved theropod dinosaur with soft tissue impressions. They called the long-snouted, many-toothed animal Pelecanimimus polyodon, and the dinosaur was an archaic ornithomimosaur closely related to forms such as Harpymimus.

Included with the 128 million year old specimen, discovered in central Spain, were “subparallell fibres” found near the lower neck and the right arm. Pérez-Moreno and coauthors didn’t call these structures feathers, nor were the fibers included in the restoration of the animal created by Mauricio Antón, but the paper still counted them as “integumentary structures” that would have covered part of the dinosaur’s body.

Had protofeathers finally been find on a dinosaur? Paleontologists were cautious about the possibility. In fact, in 1997 Pérez-Moreno joined Derek Briggs and colleagues in a reassessment of the Pelecanimimus soft tissue structures that recharacterized the mysteries fibers as muscle remnants. Pelecanimimus truly did have a throat pouch and a crest atop its head, as originally envisioned, but the paleontologists concluded that the dinosaur’s skin was smooth and lacked feathers or scales. As with another small theropod fossil found in Brazil and described by Alexander Kellner the year before, the preservation of Pelecanimimus was so detailed that clear evidence of feathers would have been expected if they were truly present.

Maybe they are. Even though the 1997 study was taken as solid evidence that the sole Pelecanimimus was not preserved with feathers, the specimen deserves another look. After all, Pelecanimimus was a coelurosaur, and, as multiple studies over the past decade and a half have indicated, there was some kind of feather or dinofuzz in every branch of the coelurosaur family tree. Pelecanimimus almost certainly had feathers, and the detecting the presence of simple protofeathers on this dinosaur would alter the often-told story of how fuzzy and fluffy dinosaurs emerged on the scientific scene. Sinosauropteryx may have kicked out the Dinosaur Feather Rush, but we should not forget odd little Pelecanimimus in the history of enfluffled dinosaurs.

Previous entries in the Dinosaur Alphabet series:

O is for Ojoceratops

N is for Nqwebasaurus

M is for Montanoceratops

L is for Leaellynasaura

K is for Kileskus

J is for Juravenator

A-I at Dinosaur Tracking.


Briggs, D. Wilby, P., Pérez-Moreno, B., Sanz, J., Fregenal-Martinez, M. 1997. The mineralization of dinosaur soft tissue in the Lower Cretaceous of Las Hoyas, Spain. Journal of the Geological Society, London. 154: 587-588

Kellner, A. 1996. Fossilized theropod soft tissue. Nature. 379: 32.

Pérez-Moreno, B., Sanz, J., Buscalloni, A., Moratalla, J., Ortega, F., Rasskin-Gutman, D. 1994. A unique multitoothed ornithomimosaur dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Spain. Nature. 370: 363-367

Unwin, D. 1998. Feathers, filaments and theropod dinosaurs. Nature. 391: 119-120