At the Mountains of Madness by Steamgear (wwwdeviantart.com)
During the Pabodie – Lake, Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, a number of fascinating fossils were discovered, in addition to the dormant Elder Things. Frank Pabodie was a professor of engineering who developed a specialized drill that was used to bore through the Antarctic soils and bedrock, while Professor Lake was the expedition’s lead biologist who oversaw the collection of the fossils and other specimens. In addition to Pabodie and Lake, the other two lead Miskatonic professors on the expedition were Professor Atwood of the physics department (also a trained meteorologist) and William Dyer of the geology department (S.T. Joshi [editor], H.P. Lovecraft – The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, 2001). Over the next few articles we will be reviewing a number of the fossils founds during the Miskatonic expedition. It should be noted that Pabodie’s experimental drill was first used just above Beardmore Glacier approximately 8,500 feet above sea-level on Mt. Nansen.
Beardmore Glacier (www.coolantarctia.com)
Some additional drillings to the west, near Queen Alexandra Range (see figure below) revealed a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids and two molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods. With the exception of the trilobites, all of these identified organisms are still living today. Thus, in order to be a “time stamp” on this collection of fossils, we will first discuss the trilobites.
Queen Alexandra Range (www.michelle-kotnik.com)
Trilobites are a group of extinct arthropods, making up their own class, the Trilobita. These organisms were some of the most successful early animals, living on Earth for almost 252 million years. They first appear in the fossil record in abundance around in the early Cambrian around 521 million years ago. However, there is some evidence to suggest that trilobites may have existed as far back as 700 million years or even earlier. Once the trilobites appeared in the Cambrian, they rapidly diversified into a number of major orders. Trilobite diversity appeared to be highest in the Cambrian but were still fairly common in the Ordovician. However, through the rest of the Paleozoic Era, trilobite diversity and abundance appeared to decline with a number of near-extinctions. Finally, by the end of the Permian period all trilobites went extinct, leaving no known living, direct descendants. It should be noted that the trilobites were not alone in this. Over 96% of all marine species went extinct during the Permian – Triassic extinction event, which occurred approximately 252 million years ago. This extinction event was the largest of the big five events, where a total of 90% of all species went extinct (Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, 2009; Evolution: The First Four Billion Years).
Ferns are a group of “primitive” plants that have specialized tissues such as trees and flowers but reproduce by spores and not seed or flowers. Ferns first appeared in the late Devonian, approximately 360 million years ago. Thus, if all of these fossil finds of the Miskatonic expedition were from the same geologic time, they must have originated from somewhere between the late Devonian and the end of the Permian.
Seaweed (complex algae) may have been some of the oldest multicellular organisms on Earth, dating back more than 555 million year old, well into the Precambrian (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160322134110.htm). Thus, of all of the fossils organisms identified, the seaweeds are the oldest.
Crinoids, commonly called sea lilies, are a group of marine animals that are in the phylum Echinodermata, also known as echinoderms. With the exception of a few specimens found in the Burgess Shale, the crinoid group (class: Crinoidea) was first well represented in the Ordovician period, between 485 and 443 million years. While this class of echinoderms were fairly abundant and diverse in the past, today they are represented by about 600 living species.
A living Crinoid, also known as a sea lily.
The last set of fossils cited in this passage were “…molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.” The Mollusca is one of the largest phyla of animal life, second only to the Arthropoda (the insects and their relatives). Mollusks are soft-bodied animals that have some type of internal or external shell and include clams and squid. Gasteropods are a class of mollusks that include the snails and their relatives (L. Margulis and K.V. Schwartz; Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 1982). However, the term lingulae probably refers to genus Lingula (lamp shells), which is placed in its own phylum, Brachiopoda. The major difference between the Brachiopods and Mollusks is that Brachiopod shells have upper and lower surfaces in contrast to the left and right arrangement of the mollusks.
A living Brachiopod of the genus Lingula.
From an evolutionary perspective, the mollusks are far more successful than the brachiopods; mollusks have approximately 7,600 living species while brachiopods only have approximately 350 living species. In Darwin’s travels, he found the windswept cliffs of the Falkland Islands full of brachiopod fossils. In contrast to the total number of living species, over 35,000 species of brachiopods have been found in the fossil record. At one point, they were the most abundant group of animals on Earth. Given how specific species can be found in specific rocks, brachiopod fossils can be used to determine the age of the rock where a particular fossil was found. This dating technique agrees well with more modern methods of dating rocks (https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/a-trip-around-the-world/fossils-and-living-species/ancient-shells/).
I believe Lovecraft including the lingulae with the gasteropods as members of the Mollusca phylum is an error on his part. I can find no evidence that brachiopods were once considered to be another class within the Mollusca phylum. If this is not directly attributed to an error on Lovecraft’s part, then it may have been an error from his reference source, possibly the Encyclopedia Britannia. This is one of those rare instances where Lovecraft’s research for a story was flatly incorrect.
Next time we will continue to move forward in At the Mountains of Madness to discover what other fossils the Miskatonic Expedition found. Thank you – Fred.