Cryptobiosis in Elder Things, Part 1 Antarctica

“10:15 p.m. Important discovery.  Orrendorf and Watkins, working underground at 9:45 with light, found monstrous barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature; probably vegetable unless overgrown specimen of unknown marine radiata.  Tissue evidently preserved by mineral salts. Tough as leather, but astonishing flexibility retained in places.” – from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

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Illustration by Pete von Sholly

The passage cited above is the first time in the Cthulhu Mythos that the Elder Things were referenced and described. A total of 14 specimens were found, 8 being in perfect condition, meaning all of their appendages were intact. The Elder Things were first described as “fossils,” again with tissues replaced by mineral salts, and were estimated to be found in geologic deposits from the late Cretaceous or early Eocene period (approximately 66 to 56 million years ago).

A number of times the Elder Things were described as tough as leather and yet very flexible. Thus, while not explicitly described, the Elder Thing fossils may have been perceived more as mummified remains rather than simple fossils. Such well-preserved, mummified fossils are extremely rare but are discovered from time to time. For example, in Alberta, Canada an extremely well preserved nodosaur (a type of ankylosaur) was found, providing some of the best-preserved examples of dinosaur skin and armor (www.smithsonianmag.com; 15 May 2017).

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Exhibit of a mummified  nodosaur

Once the Elder Thing specimens were brought to the field camp, it appears that an increase in temperature of their immediate surroundings contributed toward reviving them. Other environmental factors may have contributed toward this including exposure to an oxygenated atmosphere and sunlight. However, more than likely it was the rise in temperature, once the specimens were taken to camp to be thawed and dissected, that resulted in the revival of the Elder Things.

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Illustration of fossilized Elder Things by Howard V. Brown for Astounding Stories.

The Elder Things may have been in a state of cryptobiosis when discovered by members of the Miskatonic expedition. Cryptobiosis was first defined by David Keilin in 1959 as “the state of an organism when it shows no visible signs of life and when its metabolic activity becomes hardly measurable, or comes reversibly to a standstill.” Essentially, the organism shows no signs of life and yet is not dead. Cryptobiosis is an evolutionary adaptation that allows an organism to essentially stop all metabolic processes during adverse environmental conditions such as the absence of water, freezing or oxygen deficiency. Once favorable environmental conditions return, the organism will resume measurable metabolic activities. Thus, unknown to Lake and the others, exhuming what they thought were large fossils, exposed the Elder Things to higher temperatures, disrupting their cryptobiosis.  Similar cryptobiotic circumstances, where an assumed dead organism was recovered from the ice and revived as a result of increasing temperatures, occurred in the early 1980’s at Norwegian and American research stations in Antarctica. We know both instances resulted in disastrous results for the human researchers and scientists.

While cryptobiosis may seem to be an attribute of only non-terrestrial life, it is fairly common on Earth. For example, cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) produce “resting spores” called akinetes when environmental conditions turn undesirable. Most frequently this occurs in fall going into winter when temperatures decline and lakes and ponds freeze over. The Akinetes settle to the bottom and when the lake ices out and “turns over,” the mixing brings the akinetes to the surface, where increasing temperatures and sunlight result in increased metabolic activities. The akinetes “hatch” and a new crop of cyanobacteria are growing in the surface waters.

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A filament of the cyanobacteria Anabaena; the enlarged cell is an akinete.

The morphology of the Elder Things is described as a cross between an echinoderm (sea stars and sea urchins) and a fern. In general fern spores are not very hardy. Typically, they are only viable for a few days but under certain circumstances they can be viable for a year or a little more. Using specialized cryogenic techniques, it has been reported that spores may be preserved and viable after 15 years. However, in contrast to fern spores, the seeds of angiosperms (flowing plants), have been documents to be viable for substantially longer periods of times. Frequently, for seeds the key to their viability over extremely long periods of time is low temperature with little to no moisture. There have been reports of 2,000-year-old palm oil seeds, discovered in Israel during an archeological dig, successfully germinating. In addition, it has been documented in the mid-1990s that a Chinese water plant grew from a seed that was dated at around 1,400 years (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/jun/16/thisweekssciencequestions1). Again, the key to this extremely long state of cryptobiosis is existing in very dry and cold conditions. The Elder Things “fossils” were found buried in Antarctica, probably the driest and coldest place on Earth. This, in combination with their extremely tough yet very flexible structure allowed them to remain in cryptobiosis for millions of years – until they were revived by the small upright mammals.

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An Elder Thing by David Maguire.

Next time we will discuss the cryptobiosis of the Elder Things in interstellar space. Also, I want to remind everyone that we have about one week to go before the Kickstarter ends for the third volume of The Journal of Lovecraftian Science. We are about 90% funded and if you are interested please check it out at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-three?ref=user_menu. Thank you – Fred.

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