Holy Trilobites!


Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

While drifting through the Invertebrate Paleontology collections one day, I found a tray of lovely trilobites, many of them surrounded by a golden yellow halo.


Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

Though I do not know enough about these specimens to say what caused these halos, it is likely some kind of iron oxide stain produced by a chemical reaction between the surrounding rock material and the organic stuff oozing out of the trilobite during the fossilization process.  In any case, this quirk of preservation gave these trilobites a rather ethereal glow. . . . .

Let’s have some fun with that!


Trilobites are the ultimate Trinity.  They get their name from the three lobes that divide up the main body:  a central axial lobe with two pleural lobes on either side.  Apologies to The Nativity of the Lower Church at Assisi by Giotto (c. 1306 – 1311). See the original fresco here.


Isn’t that better?  No judgmental babies here.  Just a glorious cephalon.  Apologies to La Vierge au lys by Bouguereau (1899).  See the original painting here.

But sometimes Nature shows you something simple and evocative.  No cheap tricks and ersatz Photoshopping necessary.  What do you see here?  A tender “mother and child” pose?  A random assemblage of bodies?  One trilobite headbutting another?

Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

No matter how you view this image and how ever you will be celebrating this time of year, all best wishes from the Curious Sengi!  imageedit_12_8178368203


Snails & Fairy Tales


Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, who is most famous for writing beloved fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Thumbelina”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Ugly Duckling”, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  Image credit: Thora Hallager via Wikipedia.

The Curious Sengi recently spent a few days in Copenhagen, snurfling about that wonderful old city.  Going to visit the iconic statue of The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) was nowhere near the top of my list of things to do, but since I was already walking the ramparts of the star-shaped citadel of Kastellet, I dropped down to the harbor below to take a look.  For a brief moment, I saw her:  alone, looking sadly across the murmuring waves.  But even the wet chill of mid-autumn did nothing to deter tour buses from roaring up the drive and disgorging scores of tourists.  They gawk.  They pose with big smiles and snap selfies.  For a few, maybe this is the fulfillment of a dream.  For others, it is just another check mark closer on the itinerary to lunch.  But standing back and watching the rowdy proceedings, you cannot help but feel a bit pained.  She’s such a poor little slip of a thing, caught in the moment of her greatest despair.


These daily disturbances are the least of the insults The Little Mermaid statue has endured. She has been variously decapitated, dismembered, blown up, and drenched in paint. As an easily accessible and visible tourist attraction, the statue has become the focus of protest statements and simple vandalism (Wikipedia 2016).  Image credit: Curious Sengi.

Though there is a growing awareness that the fairy tales put on the big screen by Disney are intensely sugar-coated variants of the original stories that inspired them, I had to wonder how many of those tourists really knew “The Little Mermaid”, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875).  I certainly had to refresh my memory.  The story is bleak.  Let’s just say that after being abandoned by the prince for whom she had sacrificed so much, the only happiness the Little Mermaid will ever experience is the release of death and the promise of an immortal soul. . . . . or disintegration into sea foam.  I assume there is no noteworthy distinction there.  Andersen’s story is complex, haunting, and even ambiguous.  Then again, so was Andersen himself.

A vignette of Andersen’s life can be found in a small collection of shells at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.  He began collecting local land snail shells because of Jonas Collin, the son of his close friend, Edvard.  Jonas had taken up zoology and enthusiastically collected snails, an endeavor that filled their lodgings with the stink of the boiled creatures and preservative spirits when Andersen and Jonas traveled together in 1861.


Shells of land snails collected by Andersen during his travels throughout Denmark.  The Natural History Museum acquired this collection in 1905.  Image credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark / Curious Sengi.

During this journey, the much younger Jonas proved to be “harsh, insulting and assertive”; the constant arguments and ungrateful attitude on Collin’s part was shattering to Andersen, who confided his tearful feelings to his diary.  But within this tumultuous relationship between the imperious young naturalist and the older doting author, there were moments of happiness.  At the end of their travels together, the pair parted amicably and Andersen would continue poking around gardens with newly acquired interest to find more specimens to send to his friend.  Andersen included this note in a letter to Jonas’ mother:

Yesterday I found a beautifully coloured snail.  I thought immediately of Jonas and took it up to my room, then went to lunch; but when I went back upstairs, the snail was nowhere to be found.  I searched and searched, then found the beast had crept up the back of the table.  I put it in my soap dish and put a lid over it.  Last night, I wanted to make my specimen, boil the snail, remove the body and keep the shell for my scientific friend, but when I came to retrieve my victim, it had disappeared again, and this time it was lost for all time.  The maid had cleaned up and thrown the snail out the window, but Jonas will see that I was thinking of him, and that will appeal to him (Andersen to Henriette Collin 5 June 1862; quoted from Strager 2014).

Upon hearing the news, Jonas responded rather like a pedantic brat:

That you collect snails for me is very touching, but the fact that you let them run away again, in my opinion, balances out the praiseworthy.  I would very much appreciate snails from Basnaes.  You can keep them alive in a dry box with small holes in the lid.  They survive for years without food by sleeping (quoted from Strager 2014).


Image credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark / Curious Sengi.

Though Andersen’s snail collecting eventually slowed to a halt (Strager 2014), he was mindful of pleasing Jonas, almost to an obsequious degree.  Sometimes the young man expressed gratitude, but it can be puzzling why Andersen was so invested in this unbalanced relationship.

One possible way of understanding Andersen’s relationship with Jonas is to acknowledge the intense, and ultimately unreciprocated, feelings that Andersen had for Jonas’ father, Edvard.  There can be a long discussion about whether or not Edvard Collin was once seen as a lover (Bom & Aarenstrup 2015), but it is clear enough that Andersen put both men and women at the center of his romantic and erotic attentions.  In his private writings, Andersen expresses his deep yearnings, all of which seemed to end in rejection and celibacy (Bech 1998; Bom & Aarenstrup 2015).


Andersen with Jonas Collin, around the time of their snail collecting venture.  Image credit: Bordeux Barberon via Wikimedia Commons.

I wonder if during his rambles with Jonas, Andersen learned that snails are hermaphrodites, capable of reproducing as both males and females, sometimes simultaneously.  Andersen seems to have seen himself as androgynous (Bom & Aarenstrup 2015).  Natural history would hint at a sympathetic connection between Andersen and snails — another unassuming, ugly duckling-like character that Andersen identified with.  And yet he cast the snail as an egocentric curmudgeon in the story “The Snail and the Rosebush” as a jab against certain philosophers in his acquaintance (Strager 2014).  No soft spot for snails there and, thus, our natural history fairy tale falls apart.

Like “The Little Mermaid”, the story of Andersen’s life was filled with much more pain and complexity than is perhaps understood.  His collection of snail shells in the Natural History Museum of Denmark is but a small glimpse of that life.


Statue in Bratislava, Slovakia commemorating Andersen and some of his famous fairy tale characters, including the grumpy snail.  Image credit: weepingredorger.

Read Andersen’s short story:  “The Snail and the Rosebush


Bech, Henning.  1998.  “A Dung Beetle in Distress.”  Journal of Homosexuality 35 (3-4):  139 – 161.

Bom, Anne Klara & Anya Aarenstrup.  “Homosexuality.”  H.C. Andersen Centret:  FAQs.  Syddansk University, 11 August 2015.  Accessed 27 November 2016.

Strager, Hanne.  2014.  Precious Things:  The greatest treasures of the museum.  Tam McTurk, translator.  Gylling:  Narayna Press.

Wikipedia contributors.  “The Little Mermaid (statue).”  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 November 2016.  Accessed 27 November 2016.

Behind the Glass — Brontotheres


Mondays are quiet here in the public galleries since the museum is closed to visitors.  So we took the opportunity to squeeze through some tight wall spaces and clamber into an exhibit case for an official photo shoot for YPM VP 12048, the type specimen for Brontops robustus.  The pebble-strewn ground is a lie.  It is actually a perilous game of walking on thin ice:  keep your weight on the bouncing planks of plywood, avoid falling through the chicken wire!  Of course, all those darned loose rocks covering everything make it impossible to see the difference. . . . . . Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.


Up close and personal.  This animal belongs to the Family Brontotheriidae.  Brontotheres are odd-toed ungulates (perissodactyls) and greatly resemble rhinos; however, modern analysis shows that this extinct lineage of mammals are most closely related to horses (Benton 2005).  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.


Though a few areas of this skeleton may be reconstructed, what you see on display here is the real fossil!  This well-preserved and largely complete specimen was discovered in 1875 near Chadron in the northwest corner of Nebraska in Oligocene aged deposits (Osborn 1929).  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.


Brontotheres (sometimes called by their older name, titanotheres) are the subject of a richly illustrated, two-volume masterwork by American Museum paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857 – 1935).  The exact specimen on display today is reconstructed here in an illustration originally published by O.C. Marsh in 1889.  Image credit: Osborn 1929.


The skeleton was actually mounted for display in 1916 under the direction of Richard Swann Lull (1867 – 1957), who studied under Osborn.  Unlike the static standing pose in the Marsh illustration, Lull opted to capture the moment of a charging run, with the pert little tail in the air with rhino-like indignation.  This exact same pose can be seen on display.  When Lull measured the skeleton after it was mounted, he reported the height at the shoulder to be 8 feet, 2 1/2 inches (2.5 meters).  Image credit: Osborn 1929.


Fanciful reconstruction of life in a brontothere herd.  There used to be very different grazers out there on the Great Plains!  Image credit: Restoration by Erwin Christman & Charles R. Knight, reproduced in Osborn 1929.


Benton, Michael.  2005.  Vertebrate Paleontology, third edition.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield.  1929.  Titanotheres of Ancient Wyoming, Dakota, and Nebraska, Vol. 1.  Washington, D.C.:  United States Government Printing Of

Part & Counterpart


Two halves of a split rock show two sides of the same fossil — the part and counterpart — of Diplurus newarki, a Late Triassic coelacanth fish from New Jersey. This fossil represents a number of different individuals. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



The tail of one Diplurus arching towards the left. The faint impression of scales are also present. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



An even closer detail of the tail fin shows the individual little bones that make up the fin rays. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



Detail of the trunk skeleton shows, among other things, distinctive “Y” shaped bones. These are either neural or haemal arches.  The neural cord (in neural arches) or the major blood vessels running the length of the body (in haemal arches) thread through this protective arcade of bone like a thread through a needle’s eye.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

On the Wings of Worm Tubes


Box full of Cretaceous polychaete worm tubes.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

A tidy white archival cardboard box is filled with what looks rather like tiny stone churros, barely a few centimeters long.  These are fossilized tubes that once housed marine polychaete worms.  Also amongst this gathering are elegantly curved tubes with distinctive thin flanges or wings.

The old handwritten label identifies the contents as “Hamulus onyx” (now recognized under the name Pyrgopolon onyx), which applies to the churro-like tubes with their longitudinal grooves.  The winged tubes most likely belonged to a closely related species, H. squamosus.  The label indicates the fossils were found in Cretaceous age deposits along the Tombigbee River that straddles the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Hamulus is a genus of serpulid polychaete worms.  Being soft-bodied, worms seldom leave a trace in the fossil record; however, some polychaetes build tubes of mucous, chiton, calcium carbonate, or agglomerated sand/random particles of stuff.  Serpulid worms specialize in secreting protective hard calcium carbonate tubes around them, which are then more likely to survive the fossilization process even if the worms themselves vanish.  As a result, we know that this is an extremely ancient group of animals, with the first unequivocal fossils dating from the Middle Triassic, about 244 million years ago.  Serpulids still exist today, encrusting hard substrates at all depths in the world’s oceans.

While we may think of worms of the earth as force of decomposition, the serpulids are builders that have contributed to the construction of mounds and reefs for millions of years.  But like other marine animals that biomineralize calcium carbonate, the serpulids’ stony shelters are in danger from the dissolving effects of ocean acidification caused by global carbon emissions.  Though many species of serpulids remain abundant and are even deemed biofouling agents that encrust human-made structures, scientific studies show increased levels of dissolved carbon dioxide weakens the structure of worm tubes.  What we learn from these little creatures informs us about the impacts we have on other organisms.  And all organisms — even worms — deserve to have safe, strong homes.

Yoke-bearing calcareous tube worm Crucigera zygophora

A beautiful living serpulid polychaete worm, Crucigera zygophora found off the waters of British Columbia, Canada.  The calcium carbonate tube is like a sheath and houses the body of the worm without being physically attached to the animal.  These worms, including the fossil species, have a little trap-door operculum to block off the open end when the creature is fully retracted into the tube.  The colorful, feathery tentacular crown indicates this animal is a suspension feeder, capturing minute organic particles floating by.  Image credit: Merry via diver.net.



Brusca, Richard C. & Gary J. Brusca.  2003.  Invertebrates, 2nd edition.  Sinauer Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Chan, Vera Bin San et al.  2012.  “CO2-Driven Ocean Acidification Alters and Weakens Integrity of the Calcareous Tubes Produced by the Serpulid Tubeworm, Hydroides elegans.”  PLoS ONE 7 (8): e42718. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042718.

Fossil Invertebrates.  1987.  R.S. Boardman, A.H. Cheetham, & A.J. Rowell, editors.  Blackwell Science.

Ippolitov, Alexei P., Olev Vinn, Elena K. Kupriyanova, & Manfred Jäger.  2014.  “Written in stone:  history of serpulid polychaetes through time.”  Memoirs of Museum Victoria 71:  123 – 159.

ten Hove, H. (2009). Hamulus onyx Morton, 1834 †. In: Read, G. & K. Fauchald, editors (2015).  World Polychaeta Database. Accessed on 31 May 2016.

Wade, Bruce.  1922.  “The Fossil Annelid Genus Hamulus Morton, an Operculate Serpula.”  Proceedings of the United States National Museum 59:  41 – 46.