Tag Archives: Antarctica

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 1)

ATMOM_Steamgear_deviantart 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.

Central Transantarctic Mountains

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).


Fossil trilobites

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.

800px-Crinoid_and_comatule 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/).

brachiopod_fossils                                Brachiopod fossils

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.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 2: The Geology of the Mountains of Madness

at_the_mountains_of_madness___concept_art_by_mcrassusart-db53yra At the Mountains of Madness, concept art by Mcrassusart.

The Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica was lead by Professor William Dyer of the Geology Department at Miskatonic. Thus, is it not surprising that a large component of the Expedition was dedicated to “…securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the Antarctic continent…” Such exploratory investigations of Antarctica were certainly warranted in Lovecraft’s day. Only 0.4% of the entire continent is covered by exposed rock with the rest it being under ice. In order to obtain some rock and fossil specimens the expedition’s engineer, Professor Frank H. Pabodie, designed and built a durable yet light weight drill that could bore through rock but also have the capacity of melting ice through the use of copper electrodes.

I could find no reference of the use of copper electrodes in ice drill systems as a means of melting ice; however, more than likely Lovecraft gave rise to this idea through his general knowledge of chemistry.  The thermal conductivity (the rate at which heat passes through a specific material, typically described as the amount of heat that flows per unit time) of copper is higher than zinc, brass, aluminum and steel so it melts ice the fastest among these metals.

When the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition reached Antarctica one of the first large-scale geologic formations they encountered were the Admiralty Range, which is a large group of high mountains located in Victoria Land. Other impressive landmarks were Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror on Ross Island.


Mt. Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica, being 12,448 feet high; Lovecraft estimated its height to be 12,700 ft high. Mt. Erebus has been an active volcano for at least 1.3 million years and is described as being a polygenetic (erupts repeatedly) stratovolcano (a conical volcano built by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash). Thus, in At the Mountains of Madness, when one of the graduate assistants Danforth notes the intermittent puffs of smoke and the lava flows along Mt. Erebus’s snowy slopes, Lovecraft is recognizing that this mountain is indeed an active volcano. Finally, Lovecraft describes the peak of Mt. Erebus as being scoriac; both S.T. Joshi and Leslie S. Klinger in their annotated analyses of Lovecraft’s text indicate that this word describes the dense chunks or jagged blocks of lava that are filled with holes due to gases forming bubbles. Again, this is another reference to the active state of Mt. Erebus.

MtErebus Mount Erebus

A large portion of the initial drilling and geologic activity of the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition occurred at Mt. Erebus. Dyer briefly mentions how the expedition conducted several mineral borings on the slopes of Mt. Erebus and how Pabodie’s drill was successful at boring through solid rock as well as melting ice layers. In addition to observing the scoria lava structures, the expedition may have also noted fumaroles on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. These structures are openings in the Earth’s crust, typically associated with volcanoes. They release steam and gases that can include several sulfur-based gases. In contrast, the fumaroles found around Mt. Erebus form ice towers that produce very little methane or hydrogen sulfide. In fact, the ecosystems that exist in these fumaroles may be some of the most alien on Earth.

Ice_Fumaroles_www.ngssphenomena.com Ice Fumaroles near the slopes of Mount Erebus (www.ngssphenomena.com)

While the Antarctic fumaroles may be on a dry and cold continent, the air inside these structures may have 80 to 100% humidity. In addition, while the surface temperature at Mt. Erebus can commonly be -22oF, within the fumaroles the temperature can be between 32 and 48oF. These warm, moist conditions harbor communities of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.  Such organisms are not dependent on light to produce energy through photosynthesis like almost all ecosystems on Earth. Instead, these microbes utilize chemicals from the bedrock as a source of energy.  These are the same types of bacteria that serve as the base of the food web for the deep sea hydrothermal vents; again, another ecosystem where photosynthesis cannot occur.

Basic RGB                                                                          Various types of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.

While ice fumaroles are not long-lasting structures, typically they are in existence for a few decades, one can imagine shoggoths using them to move through the Antarctic continent. With humid, warmer conditions, coupled with a possible source of energy (the chemolithoautotrophic bacteria), the shoggoths may have used the fumaroles as a sort of underground network for communication and travel.  The fumaroles may have also been used as refuge against the Elder Thing masters; maybe the shoggoths also used the fumaroles as a means of plotting and spreading word about their developing rebellions.

The scoria rock produced by the volcanic activity of Mt. Erebus may have been some of the building material used by the Elder Things to build their great cities in the Mountains of Madness. This volcanic rock has been frequently used as a building material by humans, including the residents of Easter Island. Indeed, some of the statues on Easter Island are composed of scoria rock but most are composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff.

Pukao-Tongariki_scoriarock_EasterIsland_natgeo Scoria rock found on Easter Island (www.natgeo.org)

In sharp contrast to Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror is an extinct volcano and Lovecraft identified it as such in the story.  He also describes it as “…white, ghost-like…” and that it has an altitude of 10,900 feet. Mt. Terror is a large shield volcano located on the eastern part of Ross Island and has numerous cinder cones and domes on its flanks, mostly covered under snow and ice. Based on Dyer, no geologic exploratory investigations were conducted at Mt. Terror.

at_the_mountains_of_madness_by_Earl-Graey-d701u1l At the Mountains of Madness by Earl Graey (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the fossil findings of the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica.  Thank you – Fred.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 1: Lovecraft’s Continent


While we had record low temperatures throughout a large portion of the United States at the turn of the new year, its nothing compared to some of the low temperatures and high winds experienced on Antarctica, the continent where Lovecraft’s tale At the Mountains of Madness takes place. As Joshi describes in this comprehensive biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), Lovecraft was extremely fascinated with Antarctic geography and exploration since he was 10 or 12. In fact he wrote three treatises on the subject: “Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” (1902), “Wilkes Explorations” (1902) and “Antarctic Atlas” (1903).  Unfortunately, these treatises are lost; it would have been fascinating to read these documents and exam the map of the continent Lovecraft illustrated in “Antarctic Atlas.”

The “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration was a period of time between the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century when there was an intensive and international effort to explore the continent of Antarctica. This unique period of time for Antarctic exploration is frequently cited as being between the “Heroic” and “Mechanical” ages, when individuals tested their mental and physical endurance in conjunction with using new and emerging technologies in transportation and communication. Lovecraft takes full advantage of this merging of 18th / 19th century exploration with early 20th century technology and scientific discoveries in the development of his tale.

HMS_Erebus_and_Terror_in_the_Antarctic_by_John_Wilson_Carmichael HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic by John Wilson Carmichael

James Clark Ross (1800-1862) discovered the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Great Ice Barrier (later named the Ross Ice Shelf in his honor) and two large volcanoes, which he named after his two ships, Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror.  As Joshi has described, the Ross expedition had a profound impact on Lovecraft as well as his development of At the Mountains of Madness. For example, Joshi noted that the ship’s doctor, Dr. Joseph Hooker, wrote in response to his initial view of Mt. Erebus, “This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined…that is really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand.” (Joshi, 2013). With the exception of the mention of the Creator, this passage really describes the cosmic indifference Lovecraft attempts to convey in his tales.

British (English) School; James Clark Ross (1800-1862)               James Clark Ross (1800-1862)

As a result of his expeditions to Antarctica, Ross believed that the continent was actually two land masses, a larger eastern part and a small western part (see below), separated by the Weddell and Ross Seas and their associated ice shelfs.


Lovecraft believed in this hypothesis was well and in fact included a passage in an earlier draft of At the Mountains of Madness to reflect this:

“…west, but radically different from the parts lying eastward below South America, which in all probability form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger by a frozen junction of the Ross and Weddell Seas.” (from The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 2001).

However, this version is not found in the actual tale. Lovecraft modified this passage in the final submission to Astounding Stories in late 1935 to state:

“west, but somewhat different from the parts lying eastward below South America – which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved this hypothesis.” (from Joshi, 2001).

The bolded passages are the ones that were added. Joshi does cite that Lovecraft is incorrect in stating that Byrd disproved this hypothesis; actually, it was Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon who disproved it in late 1935 during the first airplane flight crossing over Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea (Joshi, 2001. However, the fact that Lovecraft took the time and care to make that small yet significant change to the text in At the Mountains of Madness, provides additional support to the claim that Lovecraft made every effort to make his tales as scientifically accurate as possible, with the information that was available at the time.

Mt-Erebus-lg_c9bfa69e-b296-45ca-9655-ec2347a0ddc0_1024x1024 Mt. Erebus on the continent of Antarctica

Next time we will discuss the geologic history of Antarctica as discussed in At the Mountains of Madness.  Thank you – Fred.

H.P. Lovecraft: Geologist and Antarctic Explorer

One of the most impressive components of At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft’s current (for the time) knowledge on geology and the history of life on Earth.  It is one of the many factors that makes the story so impressive and entertaining; HPL was an expert at incorporating real science, history and archeology into his mythos, making his stories all the more realistic and interesting.

Map of Antarctica (www.wikipedia.com)

Not only did HPL incorporate the most up-to-date scientific information in his stories but he actually modified stories based on new scientific research and data that were made available to the public.

It was hypothesized by a few in the 19th century that Antarctica was composed of two separate land masses.  This idea was held by Sir James Clark Ross, a famous Artic and Antarctic explorer of the 19th century who HPL must have read about.   HPL believed this multiple-land mass hypothesis as well and referred to this in the original text of At the Mountains of Madness (The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi; 1997).  In the original text HPL made a specific reference to more than one Antarctic land mass; he referred to the two land masses being separate by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas.  As shown in the map above, it appears as if there are two land masses; a smaller West Antarctica and a larger East Antarctica.

However, after it was confirmed through additional expeditions that Antarctica is one large land mass, HPL actually went out his way to make sure that this fact was corrected in the story.  In fact, the updated text states, “-which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the large one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved the hypothesis” (S.T. Joshi, 1997).  It is interesting that HPL went through his literary agent Julius Schwartz to get Astounding Stories to change that particular passage to coincide with the most up-to-date scientific data on Antarctica.  However, as Joshi cited, in spite of correcting the statement, that Antarctica is not made up of two land masses but one, HPL was still in error about who disproved the hypothesis.  It was not Richard E. Byrd but instead Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon who disproved it by flying completely over the continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea (Joshi, 1007).

Astounding Stories from 1936

While HPL mistakenly credited Byrd for disproving the two-land mass Antarctic hypothesis , the fact that he went out of his way to correct text before his story was published, to agree with the most up-to-date facts, is impressive.  It once again demonstrates how HPL appreciated and cared for science as a means of investing and modeling reality.  It certainly identifies how adept he was at integrating science and fiction into an incredible story.

Next time the discussion will focus on the Spawn of Cthulhu.  Thank you.


Tibet, Himalayas by Nikolai Roerich (Roerich’s paintings certainly influenced Lovecraft in developing At the Mountains of Madness)