Episode 387: The Link Between Fossils and Folklore

Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode!

Further reading:

Paleontologists Debunk Popular Claim that Protoceratops Fossils Inspired Legend of Griffin

The Fossil Dragons of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

The Lindworm statue:

A woolly rhinoceros skull:

A golden collar dated to the 4th century BCE, made by Greek artisans for the Scythians, discovered in Ukraine. The bottom row of figures shows griffins attacking horses:

The Cyclops and a (damaged, polished) elephant skull:

A camahueto statue [photo by De Rjcastillo – Trabajo propio, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=145434346]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about the link between fossils and folklore, a topic inspired by a conversation I had with Richard from North Carolina.

We know that stories about monsters were sometimes inspired by fossils, and we even have an example from episode 53. That was way back in 2018, so let’s talk about it again.

In Klagenfurt in Austria there’s a statue of a dragon, called the lindorm or lindwurm, that was erected in 1593 to commemorate a local story. The story goes that a dragon lived near the lake and on foggy days would leap out of the fog and attack people. Sometimes people could hear its roaring over the noise of the river. Finally the duke had a tower built and filled it with brave knights. They fastened a barbed chain to a collar on a bull, and when the dragon came and swallowed the bull, the chain caught in its throat and tethered it to the tower. The knights came out and killed the dragon.

The original story probably dates to around the 12th century, but it was given new life in 1335 when a skull was found in a local gravel pit. It was clearly a dragon skull and in fact it’s still on display in a local museum. The monument’s artist based the shape of the dragon’s head on the skull. In 1935 the skull was identified as that of a woolly rhinoceros.

In 1989 a folklorist proposed that the legend of the griffin was inspired by protoceratops fossils. The griffin is a mythological creature that’s been depicted in art, writing, and folklore dating back at least 5,000 years, with early variations on the monster dating back as much as 8,000 years. The griffin these days is depicted as a mixture of a lion and an eagle. It has an eagle’s head, wings, and front legs, and it often has long ears, while the rest of its body is that of a lion.

The griffin isn’t a real animal and never was. It has six limbs, for one thing, four legs and two wings, and it also has a mixture of mammal and bird traits. I can confirm that it’s a lot of fun to draw, though, and lots of great stories and books have been written about it in modern times. Ancient depictions of a griffin-like monster have been found throughout much of eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, northern Africa, and central Asia. Much of what we know about the griffin legend comes from ancient Greek and Roman stories, but they in turn got at least some of their stories from ancient Scythia. That’s important for the hypothesis that the griffin legend was inspired by protoceratops fossils.

Protoceratops lived between 75 and 71 million years ago and its fossils have been found in parts of China and Mongolia. It was a ceratopsian but it didn’t belong to the family Ceratopsidae, which includes Triceratops. It grew up to about 8 feet long, or 2.5 meters, with a big skull and a neck frill, but while that sounds big, it actually was on the small size for a ceratopsian. At most it would have barely stood waist-high to an average human, so while it was heavy and compact, it was probably smaller, if not lighter, than a modern lion. It ate plants and while it had teeth, it also had a beak, sort of like a turtle’s beak.

Folklorist Adrienne Mayor published a number of papers and a book in the 1990s discussing the links between protoceratops fossils and the griffin legend. The fossils are fairly common in parts of Mongolia and China, and Mayor pointed out that the beak combined with four legs would have suggested a four-footed animal with a bird’s head. She suggested that the head frill might have been interpreted as wings.

As for the Scythians, which we talked about a few minutes ago, they were a nomadic people who ruled much of west and central Asia and part of eastern Europe up to about 300 BCE. They were skilled in metalworking and loved gold, so even though they didn’t have a system of writing, we have some of their metal artifacts found by archaeologists. The Scythians were so important to the ancient world that we know a lot about them from other cultures, especially the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Assyrians.

We know the griffin appeared in Scythian mythology because it’s depicted on some decorative metal items. We also have ancient stories about griffins loving gold and either battling people to steal gold, or mining gold that people stole from them, or some other variation. Scythians had elaborate trade routes that connected Asia and Europe, and as I mentioned, they were hugely influential. I mean, we’re still telling versions of monster stories that the Scythians probably came up with originally.

Mayor suggested that the Scythians found protoceratops fossils while prospecting for gold, thought they were the bones of the monster we now call a griffin, and spread stories about them throughout Eurasia. It sounds plausible, so much so that no one really investigated the story until recently.

Just last week as this episode goes live, a new study has been published by a team of paleontologists about the griffin-protoceratops connection. They worked with historians and archaeologists to determine when and where (and if) the Scythians might have discovered protoceratops fossils.

It turns out that they probably wouldn’t have, certainly not while prospecting or mining gold. Gold has never been found anywhere near protoceratops fossils, and in fact the known gold deposits in central Asia occur hundreds of kilometers away from the fossils found so far. Not only that, it would be very rare to find more than a little bit of fossilized bone sticking out of the rock in most cases.

The spread of the griffin in art doesn’t seem to have begun in central Asia, for that matter, and even the earliest artwork doesn’t seem to be very protoceratops-like. The head isn’t huge in comparison to the body, for instance. Early griffins were commonly depicted as lions with an eagle’s head, but sometimes they were depicted as eagles with a lion’s head.

That doesn’t mean that protoceratops fossils didn’t influence griffin mythology at some point, just that it didn’t seem to happen the way Mayor claimed it did.

Another common connection between a fossil and a mythical monster is likewise just speculation. The skulls of elephants and their ancestors have a big opening in the front that looks like a giant eyesocket, but which is where the trunk was located. The eyes are much smaller and more on the sides of the head, and the skull itself does somewhat resemble a really big human skull. The Cyclops, or Cyclopes, was a giant from ancient Greek myth with one eye in the middle of its face instead of the usual two eyes. Is there really a connection between some kind of elephant skull and the Cyclops?

The connection was first suggested in 1914 by a paleontologist named Othenio Abel, who suggested that skulls from dwarf elephants had inspired the myth. Before about 500 BCE, the ancient Greeks didn’t know what elephants were, and the dwarf elephants that once lived in the area went extinct about 20,000 years ago. Sicily and Malta in particular had been home to various species of dwarf elephant for half a million years, so it’s possible that elephant remains were occasionally discovered in the area. Our griffin-protoceratops friend Adrienne Mayor agrees, but there’s no proof either way of this happening.

Stories of dragons living on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland may have been inspired by the pterosaur fossils that are frequently found in the area. In 1649 a man named Christopher Schorer reported seeing a fiery dragon fly from a cave in the side of Mount Pilatus to another mountain, although he admitted that at first he thought it was a meteor. It was probably a meteor, in fact, but he convinced himself it had to be a dragon because they were known to live on the mountain. A so-called dragon skeleton found near the mountain in 1602 had reportedly been crushed flat by rocks during an earthquake, but once science caught up with the finding, it was determined to be a fossilized pterodactyl.

In many parts of the world, especially China, fossilized bones are called dragon bones, but the dragon as a mythological creature probably came first. This is probably the case for a lot of folklore monsters and animals. The story came first, and once fossils were found in the area, they were seen as proof that the story was true.

In Patagonia in South America, there’s a Chilote legend of a monster called the camahueto. When it’s grown it lives in the ocean, but it starts out life living underground. Eventually it picks a stormy night, and it emerges from the ground and rushes toward the ocean, destroying everything in its path. Its single horn may gouge a channel in the ground for a new stream to form, or it may actually live in a river as a young animal and migrate to the ocean as an adult.

An animal named Trigodon once lived in Patagonia. It was a notoungulate, part of an extinct order of hoofed animals that lived throughout South America. It was probably most closely related to rhinoceroses, horses, and other odd-toed ungulates, but it and its relatives are completely extinct with no living descendants.

Trigodon was big and heavy, probably resembling a rhinoceros in many ways, and that includes having a single short horn on its head. On its forehead, in fact, pointing straight forward. It probably wasn’t a true horn but it was a protuberance of the skull. We don’t know if it was covered with skin and hair like an ossicone, a keratin sheath like a true horn, or if it was more like a rhinoceros horn. It might have been something completely different that’s currently unknown among living animals.

Trigodon went extinct around 4 million years ago, as far as we know, but other notoungulates only went extinct around 12,000 years ago. We don’t know very much about most of them, but we do know that at least one other species had a forehead horn like Trigodon’s. It’s always possible that a rhinoceros-like one-horned animal was still alive when humans first settled Patagonia, and that it was so big and scary it inspired stories about the monster Camahueto, a bull with a single horn on its forehead.

Then again, consider the story about the camahueto. It lives underground or in rivers when it’s young, and travels to the sea only during a storm. That might just be a story used to explain earthquakes that open fissures in the ground, and other natural phenomena. Then again, it might have been inspired by fossilized trigodon skulls that are washed out of the ground by torrential rain or rivers. That’s just my theory, though, but it’s fun to speculate.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 256: Mammoths and the End of the Ice Ages

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Further reading:

Million-year-old mammoth genomes shatter record for oldest ancient DNA

Mammoth Genome Project (with pictures of cave art and ancient carvings of mammoths)

The most famous cave painting of a mammoth, from a cave in France:


Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s the last Monday of 2021, which means the very last extinction event episode. There’ve been way more extinction events in earth’s long history than the five we’ve covered this year, and not all of the extinction events I chose to highlight were even necessarily the biggest. This one, for instance.

You may have noticed a pattern when I talk about ice age megafauna. So many animals went extinct about 11,000 years ago. That’s this week’s topic, the end-Pleistocene extinction event.

The Pleistocene is often called the ice age, or ice ages since it consisted of multiple glaciation periods separated by warmer times when the glaciers would retreat for a while. It started roughly 2.6 million years ago and is considered to have ended 11,700 years ago. Keep in mind, as always, that these dates are just a shorthand to help scientists refer to changes in earth’s history. There was no one day where the sun rose and everything had abruptly changed from one era to another. The changes took place over a long time, hundreds of thousands of years, with different parts of the world changing more quickly or slowly than others depending on local conditions.

At the beginning of the Pleistocene, the world’s continents were roughly in their present positions. Two continental plates in what is now Central America collided very slowly over millions of years, which caused the land to buckle up and magma to erupt through the earth’s crust as volcanoes. The volcanoes created islands in the Central American Seaway, a section of ocean between North and South America that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By around 5 to 10 million years ago, the volcanoes and land continued to be pushed up, and sediment from rivers filled in between them, until finally instead of islands there was actual land that connected North and South America. That land is called the Isthmus of Panama and it allowed the great American interchange where animals from North America could cross into South America, and vice versa, but that’s a topic for another episode.

Another result of the Isthmus of Panama’s formation is that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were more separated. Instead of ocean currents circulating between North and South America, they were cut off and new currents formed. Ocean currents help distribute warm water to colder areas and cold water to warmer areas, which affects air and land temperatures too. Around 2.5 million years ago, the ocean current changes had changed the entire overall temperature of the earth, making it much cooler overall. That wasn’t the only cause of the ice ages, but it was a major factor.

The earth gradually became cooler and dryer, a process that had already started due to other causes and was accelerated by the ocean current changes. As the global temperature dropped, more and more water was locked up in huge glaciers called ice sheets, at first around the poles and then farther south. This meant sea levels dropped a lot. North America was connected to Asia by a stretch of grassland steppe called Beringia that had formerly been submerged.

As the temperatures dropped and the climate changed, animals and plants had to adapt. The ancestors of modern elephants had lived in Africa for millions of years, but they started migrating to other parts of the world around 3 million years ago. Because they were already big, they were good at retaining heat in their bodies and became quite successful as the climate grew cooler and cooler. They evolved long hair to stay even warmer and spread throughout much of the world, including Europe, Asia, and North America. You may know them as mammoths, which were closely related to the modern Asian elephant. The first mammoth known was the South African mammoth that lived around 5 million years ago and stood about 12 feet tall at the shoulder, or 3.7 meters.

We actually know a lot about the various species of mammoth because we have so many remains. Our own distant ancestors left cave paintings and carvings of mammoths and other animals in many parts of the world, we’ve found lots of fossilized remains, and we have lots of subfossil remains too. Because the mammoth lived so recently and sometimes in places where the climate hasn’t changed all that much in the last 10,000 years, namely very cold parts of the world with deep layers of permafrost beneath the surface, sometimes mammoth remains are found that look extremely fresh.

Before people understood extinction and related natural concepts, some people who lived in areas where dead mammoths occasionally weathered out of the permafrost thought they’d only died recently. That’s how fresh the dead animals looked. The people didn’t know what the animals were, though, and assumed that since they were only ever seen partially buried, they must be underground animals. In parts of Siberia, people thought mammoths lived underground and if they accidentally came to the surface, they died.

In February of 2021, a genetic study of mammoth DNA found in teeth was published in Nature. Nature is one of the most important scientific journals in the world and they don’t just publish any old genetic study these days, now that DNA is so much easier to sequence than it used to be. In this case, though, the DNA came from three mammoth teeth that were more than one million years old and possibly around 1.5 million years old. The teeth were found in the 1970s in different places. Before DNA was successfully found in the teeth, the oldest DNA sequenced was from a horse bone that was about 780,000 years old at the most.

Genetic material breaks down relatively quickly once an animal dies, becoming more and more fragmented as the years pass by. That’s why we don’t have any dinosaur DNA—they just lived too long ago for any usable genetic material to remain. The mammoth genetic study is a big deal since it’s pushed back scientists’ ability to sequence ancient DNA, at least of some samples. In the case of both the mammoth teeth and the ancient horse bone, the remains were preserved in permafrost that slowed the fragmentation of the DNA.

The study found that one of the teeth belonged to an early woolly mammoth and the other two were from early steppe mammoths, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. The two steppe mammoth teeth looked alike but their genetic story was very different. One had genetic markers that identified it as an ancestor of woolly mammoths–but the other didn’t. The one that didn’t is called the Krestovka sample and was found in Russia. Researchers aren’t sure yet if it’s actually a new species or subspecies, but it was obviously part of a population isolated from other steppe mammoths.

But it gets even more complicated, because Columbian mammoths from North America do show that some of their ancestors were related to the Krestovka sample–and Columbian mammoths are also related to woolly mammoths. Researchers suspect that the Columbian mammoth was a species that developed from hybrids of the Krestovka steppe mammoths and woolly mammoths. Over half a million years ago, there were enough of these hybrid mammoths that they were actually numerous enough to form their own stable species. Hybrid speciation is still a relatively new concept but as genetic studies get more sophisticated, we’re getting more evidence of it happening.

Researchers are hopeful that even older genetic samples can eventually be sequenced, but there’s a hard limit to DNA found in permafrost. That limit is 2.6 million years, which is when the permafrost began forming. And that brings us back to the ice age.

Mammoths weren’t the only animals adapted to cold conditions, of course. They weren’t even the only elephant lineage that adapted to the cold. Mastodons aren’t actually that closely related to mammoths but they are an elephant relation.

The woolly rhinoceros was about the size of living rhinoceros species but was covered in thick fur. It had a massive hump on its shoulders that was made up of fat reserves and muscle, much like modern bison. It went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

A giraffe relation, Sivatherium, lived in Africa and parts of Asia during the Pleistocene. Its neck wasn’t as long as a modern giraffe’s but it was still tall, over 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or more than 2 meters, and almost 10 feet tall including the head and neck, or 3 meters. The males had two pairs of ossicones that resembled antlers, a large pair on its head and a smaller pair over its eyes. Ossicones are bony projections usually covered with skin and hair, and modern giraffes have ossicones too.

Mammals weren’t the only megafauna, though. Mega just means big, and fauna just means animal. There were megafauna birds and reptiles too, such as the Asian ostrich. It lived throughout much of Asia and the Middle East until around 8,000 years ago and was related to the modern ostrich. The wonambi was an Australian constrictor snake, not related to the snakes living in Australia now, that could grow up to 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

So what happened to cause the extinction of all these amazing animals? Surely we know more about this extinction event than we do about older ones since it happened so recently, right?

Actually, no. Although it feels significant to us now, the end-Pleistocene extinction event actually wasn’t very big compared to the others we’ve discussed this year. A lot of ice age megafauna are still around, including bears, wolves, moose, reindeer, horses, bison, elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, camels, kangaroos, tapirs, ostriches, condors, and lots more. Even humans are ice age megafauna since we spread throughout the world during the Pleistocene.

We do have hints of what might have caused the end-Pleistocene extinction event, and one big hint comes from what happened in Australia. Like the rest of the world, Australia’s climate was cooler and dryer during the ice ages and animals that had adapted to the cold lived throughout the continent. This included diprotodon that we talked about in episode 224, along with kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and other marsupial mammals that were bigger than the ones living today. But extinctions in Australia started a lot earlier than they did in the rest of the world, around 45,000 years ago. There’s also no corresponding extinction event among marine animals. By about 40,000 years ago almost 90% of all species of Australian megafauna had gone extinct, while smaller animals and marine animals were mostly just fine.

One specific event that happened around 45,000 years ago was the colonization of Australia by humans. Humans had visited and even lived in Australia as far back as 70,000 years ago, but by 45,000 years ago they were really spreading throughout the land. The animals of Australia had never encountered smart, fast tool-users before and didn’t know what to do except try to avoid them. Humans had weapons like spears that could kill at long range, and humans worked together to kill animals that before then had no predators due to their size. Humans also drink a lot of water because we developed in a part of Africa where water is abundant. Fresh water isn’t nearly as abundant in Australia, so humans would stake out water sources and keep other animals away.

The Australian extinctions were probably a combination of climate change, humans hunting large animals that reproduced slowly, and humans outcompeting animals for water sources. The same causes probably led to extinctions in other parts of the world, but because humans took longer to spread to continents like the Americas that are far away from Africa, those extinctions mostly took place later than in Australia. It’s also important to note that Africa showed almost no extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. Researchers think this is because the animals of Africa evolved alongside humans and knew how to deal with us.

Natural climate change was definitely a contributing cause to the extinctions, though. Ice sheets melted, glaciers retreated, and the world warmed over the course of just a few thousand years. Animals that were well adapted to the cold had to move to places where it was still cold, but those places didn’t always have the right foods or enough food. The sea levels rose too, cutting off access to parts of the world. Beringia became covered with ocean again, for instance, where it remains today, separating Asia from North America.

Humans probably finished off the mammoths by hunting the last ones to extinction, but some populations survived much later than the 10- to 12,000 years ago commonly given as their extinction date. There were still mammoths alive in the world only 4,000 years ago and maybe only 3,700 years ago—but only on an island where humans didn’t live.

Wrangel Island is located in the Arctic Ocean near western Siberia, more than 85 miles from the nearest coast, or 140 km. It has low mountains and sea cliffs and is cold and dry most of the year, which is the kind of climate mammoths preferred.

The woolly mammoths that lived on Wrangel Island were probably cut off from the mainland when sea levels rose and flooded Beringia. They lived on for thousands of years after their mainland relations had gone extinct. Gradually the mammoths became more and more inbred, leading to genetic defects at a much higher rate than in a healthy population. Even so, the mammoths might have managed to survive even longer except for one thing. Around 1700 BCE, humans arrived on the island. Shortly afterwards, the mammoth was extinct.

Wrangel Island is a nature sanctuary these days and home to lots of animals, including polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, seals, reindeer, musk ox, and wolves. All of these are considered ice age megafauna, so although the mammoths are gone, other megafauna remain.

While we don’t know for sure that humans played a big part in the end-Pleistocene extinction event, we sure didn’t help. We can’t blame our ancient ancestors for their actions but we can learn from their mistakes. We’re in the middle of another extinction event right now, often called the Holocene extinction or Anthropocene extinction, directly due to our actions. Habitat loss, pollution, overhunting, and human-caused climate change are driving more species of animal and plant to extinction every year.

It can feel overwhelming, but there are lots of small things you can do to help. Just picking up trash and putting it in the waste bin or remembering to take your reusable bags to the grocery store can make a difference. No one person can fix all the world’s problems, but if everyone does a little bit to help, the big problems get smaller and more manageable. If everyone pitches in, we can make the world a cleaner, better place for animals and for people.

Happy new year! Let’s make it a great one!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!