Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 2)

Greg Onychuk The Fowler                                  The Fowler Imprint (Greg Onychuk;

Of all of the fossils collected during the Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, the most intriguing specimens were those of the footprints of the Elder Things.  As previously mentioned, a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, and a number of living marine invertebrates were discovered near Queen Alexandra Range.  However, also discovered in the sandstones were strange triangular striated marking, about a foot in diameter at their widest point. While Lake, the lead biologist on the expedition found these triangular fossils interesting and curious, Dyer who was the expedition’s lead geologist saw them as nothing more than ripple effects, which are common in sedimentary rock.  Such ripple marks form perpendicular to the direction of the wind or water (current or waves).  In this case, the fossilized ripple marks (see below) are indicative of agitation by water and were symmetrical, so they were probably formed by gentle waves or fast flow water.  In any event, based on the description of the triangular fossils, it is difficult to see how they could be mistaken for ripple marks. However, this was probably just an attempt by Dyer to explain the strange markings.


After flying over the South Pole and conducting some additional aerial surveying, Lake insisted that the new base be established in a westward direction, instead of the planned northwestward direction. This change in direction was sparked by Lake’s obsession with the strange “triangular striated marking in the slate.” Lake was convinced that these marking were not ripple marks but instead of some large, unknown organism, in spite of it being dated to be Cambrian, if not Precambrian.

In Lovecraft’s time, the Precambrian (recognized as the period of time from the formation of the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian about 541 million years ago) was generally thought to be dominated by unicellular life.  It was not until 1950’s when radiometric carbon dating was developed, that it was confirmed that multicellular life existed in the Precambrian. Indeed, the earliest multicellular forms of life are found in rock as old as 1.2 to 1.5 billion years ago. These ancient multicellular forms were a form of filamentous red algae named Bangiomorpha pubescens and were discovered in the 1990s (M.J. Benton; The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction; 2008).

funsia                                                                    Fossilized imprint of the red alga Bangiomorpha, one of the first multicellular organisms

The first recognized ecosystem dominated by multicellular species was during the Ediacara Period (between 635 and 542 million year ago). To be fair, when Lovecraft first suggested that the fossil footprints were of the Elder Things and dated somewhere between the Cambrian / Precambrian, very little was known about multicellular life in the Precambrian. The strange organisms of the Ediacara were discovered in the Ediacara Hills, north of Adelaide, Australia in 1946 by a young mining geologist named Reginald Sprigg (The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Michael J. Benton; 2008).  Many of these Ediacaran fossils looked like jellyfish, branching fronds and worms.  Some say the Ediacara species are the direct ancestors of many of existing marine fauna, while other state these species were so unlike most living forms that the majority of the Ediacaran died out approximately 540 million years ago (Benton, 2008).        The Ediacaran ecosystem in the Precambrian

Additional support for the hypothesis that the Ediacaran species represent some of the earliest known multicellular, animals on Earth was very recently presented.  Specifically, fossil fat molecules (cholesterol) were collected and measured off of a fossil of a species known and Dickinsonia.  These species lived 558 million years ago placing it firmly in the Precambrian.  So why did most, if not all, of the Ediacaran species, die out? Maybe the Ediacarans were an experiment of the Elder Things and for some reason decided to abandon and/or start over with a new “stock” of eukaryotic cells.

1024px-DickinsoniaCostata Fossil of Dickinsonia

Getting back to the fossilized Elder Thing footprints, initially one may ask why they would not be mistaken for another Ediacaran species.  The shape and appearance of the footprints may indicate that they were another flat, soft-bodied, bottom feeder, similar to Dickinsonia.  So why did Lake suspect that these fossils were footprints of some large animal and not a group of bottom-feeding species? It must have been the pattern of the fossils.  One or two fossil imprints would look like a few organisms.  However, a number of the same fossil imprint laid out in a linear arrangement, such as the dinosaur tracks shown below, is definitely an indication of the movement of some larger animal.

La-Rioja-dinosaur-footprints-protected-under-Cultural-Heritage-Law Dinosaur footprints at the La Rioja Cultural Heritage site

It was generally thought that animals did not start colonizing the land until the Silurian, between 440 and 410 million years ago.  However, in 2002 older fossilized footprints of a lobster-sized, centipede-like animal were discovered in some sandstone (see below).  These footprints are approximately 530 million years old (  Thus, it appears that some animals were wading out of the shallow seas and onto the land during the Precambrian.  Thus, these creatures were around the same time the Elder Things were moving over the Earth.  Were the lobster-sized, centipede-like animals special pet projects of the Elder Things or were they just another discarded and abandoned biological experiment, cast out to be subjugated to the forces of evolutionary natural selection?

footprints_160                                                                                                                         Some of the earliest fossil footprints of a terrestrial organism on Earth

Next time we discuss the actual discovery of the “fossilized” Elder Thing specimens.  Thank you – Fred.

img_31131.jpg           Illustration of Elder Thing footprints by Pete Von Sholly

2 thoughts on “Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 2)

  1. Hi Fred, just a question – I don’t have a copy of Lovecraft’s Library on hand, so out of curiosity, do you know of any books Lovecraft either owned or read that were about paleontology? Although I know he did at least own Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.