Extinction of the mammoth and the Clathrate Gun

Joanne Ballard and André Bijkerk (USA) In this article, we will argue that the extinction of megafauna on the mammoth steppes of the Northern Hemisphere may ultimately have been caused by the release of massive quantities of methane in the North Atlantic Ocean at the Amazon Fan near the Brazilian coast and also from the Ormen Lange gas field off the coast of Norway. We will suggest that these events caused significant changes in the flow of water at the surface of the ocean that, in turn, led to very rapid changes in the levels of rainfall. Scientists have already recognized that increased precipitation gave rise to changes to ecosystems (or, more precisely, to biotopes) that destroyed the mammoth steppe. However, much of the evidence we will use in this article to support our argument has been used to support other sorts of explanation for the extinction. Therefore, this primary evidence now appears to be in need of revision. Introduction About 11,000 years ago, all of the remaining herds of mammoths suddenly disappeared. During the Pleistocene, these mammoths once thrived on a vast, megafauna steppe stretching across the Northern Hemisphere. It may have resembled the African steppes of today with lions, hyenas and several species of large grazers being present. However, the debate about the cause(s) of the extinction continues. In North America, things appear to be simple – the appearance of early humans on that continent seems to coincide with the downfall of the megafauna. However, there are also … Read More

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Finders, keepers: The lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes

Martin Simpson (UK) There is a growing misconception that most of the earliest important fossil discoveries were made by a select few famous geologists – established names, who were supposed to have ‘found’ everything in their collections. In reality, however, the true ‘discoverers’ of the original specimens were an often unknown or forgotten assortment of amateurs, labourers, beach-combers, longshoremen or quarrymen: opportunists, who were finding ‘new’ material with surprising regularity. These people not only had local knowledge, but also had the distinct advantage of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to the hours they devoted to searching. On the other hand, the early geological pioneers were fervently adding to their private museum cabinets by whatever means possible. As news of major finds of unusual fossils came to their attention, perhaps by way of the reports in some of the provincial broadsheets mentioned later, the more diligent and successful collectors (the acquirers) put their money where their mouths were and purchased directly from the sources (the finders). Eventually some of this material found its way to the academics and their institutional museums (the keepers). In the case of the Isle of Wight – that classic locality for Cretaceous and Palaeogene fossils – the earliest and most important historical discoveries have been attributed to a small group of generalised geologists. These include William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Fitton, Edward Forbes and the surgeon, Gideon Mantell between the 1820s and the 1850s; and later to a whole host of … Read More

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Dendermonde Mammoth: Fighting pyrite decay and the preservation of unique palaeontological heritage

Anthonie Hellemond (Belgium) Collecting fossil vertebrates is rather popular among amateur palaeontologists. However, little interest is shown in the different stages one should undertake to treat and safely guard these specimens for the future. Loads of fossils from historical collections are currently suffering because of years of storing and neglect. This might seem strange, since the fossils themselves have spent most of their time underground in very humid conditions, but in reality, problems only start right after digging them up. Following-up on the restoration project of the “Dendermonde Mammoth”, we want to give an insight into the problems one can encounter when dealing with the restoration and preservation of Pleistocene vertebrate remains that have remained untreated for the past 20 years. The discovery In the historical Belgian city centre of Dendermonde (French: Termonde), we find the city’s history (including natural history) museum called the “Vleeshuis” museum (the house of meat merchants). It is located in one of the most authentic sandstone buildings in the main market square of “Dendermonde” (a province of East-Flanders). Inside the majestic wooden attic of the museum, the city’s oldest resident watches over the collection, which is packed with fossils and artefacts from the last ice age and prehistory. When walking up the impressive stone stairs that lead to the attic, visitors will encounter the paleontological pride of the “Dender” valley (the river flowing through Dendermonde). When we take a closer look at the information signs, we learn that this mammoth was found between 1968 and … Read More

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Highlights from the Museum am Löwentor in Germany

Jack Wilkin (UK) The Museum am Löwentor in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, is one of the world’s greatest depositories of fossils. The museum was founded in 1985 and, since then, it has built up a vast collection of over 4.1 million fossils and has a 3,500m2 exhibition space, spilt over two levels. It is organised in chronological order. As you progress through the building, you can trace the evolution of life on Earth from the first cells all the way to the present, telling a more-or-less complete story of Germany’s geological history. This brief article will focus on just a few of the highlights at the museum. The amber collection The museum houses roughly 30,000 amber specimens from around the world, including samples from the Dominican Republic, the Baltics and the Lebanon, to name just a few places. The highlights of the collection include the largest piece of amber in the world from the Miocene of Borneo, as well as the world’s biggest damselfly and dragonfly inclusions. Triassic vertebrates There is an extensive collection of Triassic vertebrates from Baden-Württemberg, including, not just complete skeletal reconstructions, but also realistic life models. Fig. 1. Exhibits at the museum.One group that is featured in the exhibit were the placodonts – an enigmatic group of marine reptiles that superficially resemble turtles, although the two groups are unrelated. Many species, such as Placodus gigas, had large, flat teeth designed for crushing shells. The apex land predator of Central Europe at the time was the 5.6m, Batrachotomus. It … Read More

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New museum in northern Greece: The Siatista Historical Paleontological Collection, the first record of a stegodon in Europe and the making of the straight-tusked elephant

Dick Mol (The Netherlands), Evangelia Tsoukala (Greece), Evangelos Vlachos (Greece), Anna Batsi (Greece), Hans Wildschut (The Netherlands), Dimitra Labretsa (Greece) and Wilrie van Logchem (The Netherlands) The Historical Palaeontological Collection of Siatista (HPCS), housed in a school building in Siatista, Kozani, Macedonia in Greece, was studied by the authors during the summer of 2009. The collection was assembled by local people from 1902 onwards, under the initiative of Nikolaos Diamantopoulos. Anastasios Danas, a high school teacher at the Trampantzeion Gymnasium in Siatista, was the main collector and he founded the Siatista’s palaeontological collection in 1906. The recovered records of the collection are minimal and it is not always clear from which locality the fossils were collected. However, the archived documents indicate that all the fossils were collected in the larger region of Siatista. Fig. 1. Replica of the Pleistocene straight-tusked elephant, Elephas antiquus, the eyecatcher of the Siatista Museum In 1972, Prof Ioannis Melentis, famous for his studies and publications on the fossil proboscideans of Greece, realised the importance of the collection and, in 1980, he became involved in the study and management of the collection, which was officially donated to the community of Siatista in 1994. The first exhibition was held in the Trampantzeion in 1982. In 2011, the collection was put on display in this beautiful building in Siatista, which was built in 1888. In a short time, it became one of the attractions of Siatista, telling the story of the large pachyderms that once roamed the northern … Read More

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Twilight of the mammoths

Zachary Sepulveda (USA) Perched upon a grassy hill ancient hunters prepare to make a kill… Blaring trumpets shatter the airTerrified voices echo despairHurtling towards their own demiseA chance at life, their fate denies. The blood of giants spills upon the grassBrought forth by razor-edged volcanic glassMarching closer to defeat with each fresh lacerationPanicking behemoths flee from inevitable damnation. Perfectly adapted to a dying worldTheir fate was sealed when their blanket of ice unfurledTheir fragile world was brought to bear before the fury of the sun And before they even knew it, their time on earth was done. About the author Zachary Sepulveda recently moved to the Pikes Peak region from San Diego, CA. He became interested in palaeontology by visiting the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles as often as he could. He is a junior member of the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society and is part of the Pikes Peak Pebble Pups and Earth Science Scholars Program. Zach is 15 years old and is in 10th grade at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, Colorado. He has also represented the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society and the Colorado Scientific Society at the Western Interior Paleontological Society’s Founders Symposium: Ice Worlds and Their Fossils. The symposium was held at the Colorado School of Mines on 16 and 17 March 2013. Zac presented a poster as part of a section on “Bringing the Past to Life (Artist Scientist Panel)”.

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Exceptional mammoth discovery from the North Sea

Dick Mol (The Netherlands) If we consider the huge number of fossil remains of ice age mammals dredged up from the floor of the North Sea, we can only conclude that the Pleistocene era must have resembled a paradise between what is now the UK and the Netherlands. The majority of the remains date from the late Pleistocene (somewhere between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), and we are speaking of TONS of bones, mammoth molars, tusks, hooves, teeth, and so on. These are the remains of large grazers, especially the mammoths. It appears that the area between the UK and Holland was not the North Sea we know today. Rather, it was a huge, mostly treeless, dry steppe, where the Thames from the West and the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde from the East meandered into river deltas before entering the Atlantic Ocean way to the North. This was the typical landscape at that time, the megafauna steppe, found stretching across the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere in which the mammoths, rhinos, steppe bison and their associated, large predators were thriving. Mammoths The enormous amounts of mammoth remains in the North Sea suggest that large herds of these pachyderms roamed the area: in terms of a larger time frame, think of hundreds of thousands of animals. The most abundant remains are molars, due to their hardness and durability. The abundance of the last molars, the M3/m3, also reveals that animals were attaining advanced ages, suggesting good health and, therefore, suggests … Read More

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Thomas Jefferson’s mammoth problem

James Smith (USA) Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology. “Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop. The side project of many an eighteenth century American scientist was the study of mysterious teeth, bones and seven-foot tusks yielded by swamps and riverbeds. … Read More

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Mammoths in the freezer

Adrian Lister (UK) As palaeontologists, we are used to relying on the preserved hard parts of extinct organisms – shells, bones, teeth and so on – to reconstruct their appearance and adaptations in life. The reconstruction of soft tissue relies upon our knowledge of related living forms, plus clues such as the scars of muscle attachments on bones or shells. Exceptions include body outlines preserved in the fine-grained sediments of Lagerstätte, such as in the Eocene of Messel (Germany) or the Cambrian Burgess Shale (Canada); or, even more rarely, organisms preserved in 3D, of which the most familiar source is Tertiary amber. Among mammals, the most celebrated case of exceptional preservation is provided by the carcasses preserved in permafrost in Siberia (Russia), Alaska (USA) and the Yukon (Canada), at localities lying almost exclusively north of the Arctic Circle (Lister and Bahn, 2007). Almost all date to the last glaciation, with radiocarbon dates typically in the range 50 to 10,000 years ago. Species from which partial or whole carcasses have been recovered include bison, horse, wolverine, woolly rhinoceros and, above all, the woolly mammoth. The reason for the preponderance of these is unclear, although it may partly be a matter of reporting bias, other species being considered less interesting or less valuable when discovered by local people. Even so, not more than a dozen or so complete or largely complete mammoth carcasses have been recovered to date. While Siberian natives have doubtless been finding these remains for millennia, the first carcass … Read More

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Hunting the Dutch beach of Hoek van Holland for fossils

Bram Langeveld (The Netherlands) Holland is a small country that lies for the most part below sea level, which can be quite problematical. However, if you are a fossil collector hunting for the fossils of animals from the Weichselian (Last Ice Age) and early Holocene, it is not such a bad thing. That is because the Dutch government regularly has sand deposited on Dutch beaches, which is dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea to fight erosion of the beaches by the sea. Taking this one step further, Holland also has large scale land reclamation projects, where whole new parts of Holland are made by spraying sand from the bottom of the North Sea onto a location close to shore until it rises above sea level. Fig. 1. Map of The Netherlands showing Hoek van Holland. Much of this sand is dredged up by big, specially equipped vessels, called trailing suction hopper dredgers, from a location known as ‘Eurogeul’, which is the route for big vessels to reach the port of Rotterdam. Here, the sea is approximately 13m deep, but is deepened to 30m, by removing sand from the bottom. Much of this sand is used to reinforce beaches and for land reclamation projects. However, it is not just sand that is dredged up … Fig. 2. Simple timescale of the late Pleistocene and Holocene.The North Sea Plain If we could travel back in time – approximately 30,000 to 100,000 years ago – we would find ourselves in … Read More

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