Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The first trilobite

In their early days, scientific journals were much more generous than they are today about publishing letters from experimenters and collectors in all walks of life. The hard wall between scientists and amateurs had not yet been built and all literate people were, in theory, entitled to participate in the discussion. One such person was Rev. Edward Lhwyd (or Lhuyd or Lhwid or Lloyd), the illegitimate son of a member of the minor gentry who rose from genteel poverty to become keeper of collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (an unpaid position, but important in the community of science). The 1698 volume of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific journal in the English language, contains "Part of a Letter from Mr. Edw. Lhwyd to Dr. Martin Lister, Fell. of the Coll. of Phys. and R. S. Concerning Several Regularly Figured Stones Lately Found by Him." The two-page letter is accompanied by a page of etchings of the figured stones or, as we would call them, fossils.

Lhwyd collected his fossils during a trip to Southwestern Wales. Number fifteen, in his etchings, he found near Llandeilo, probably on the grounds of Lord Dynefor's castle. He wrote of it: "The 15th whereof we found great Plenty, must doubtless be referred to the Sceleton of some flat Fish..." A century and a half after he wrote that, Sir Roderick Murchison would place the Llandeilo rocks in the middle strata of his Ordovician Period. A century after Murchison, scientists would date that strata between 461-63 million years old. That is less than ten million years after the first plants took root on dry land and a hundred million years before cockroaches crawled out of the sea looking for a snack.

Lhwyd's "flatfish." Today we call it Ogygiocarella debuchii (Brongniart).

Lhwyd's identification of number fifteen as a flatfish didn't last very long. Today anyone with even a casual knowledge of fossils will recognise it as a trilobite, something more like a shrimp than a halibut. Lhwyd didn't have our advantage of hundreds of years of fossil studies producing thousands of lavishly illustrated and easily accessible books. It would be almost a century before the word "trilobite" would be coined and into Murchison's time before the scientific world would realize that trilobites were not related to halibut or shrimp (or oysters, another contender) but, rather, something entirely their own. Lhwyd was plunging ahead in the dark trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and mysterious corner of nature.

Lhwyd deserves great credit for deciding his little flatfish was worthy of notice and for sending his drawings to the Royal Society, although, sometimes, he gets a little too much credit. His illustration is the first published scientific illustration of a trilobite that we know of, but he did not "discover" trilobites, as some books will tell you. We should always regard any claim that someone discovered a fossil species with suspicion. Trilobites are extremely common fossils and can be found laying on the surface in many parts of the world. Our ancestors were both aware of fossils and, in many cases, aware that they were the petrified remains of once living things. Usually, what an author means when they declare that this person or that person discovered a fossil is that they were the first to describe the fossil in scientific literature. Lhwyd's illustration certainly counts as a description in that sense, but it is not the first description we know of.

No one can say when people first noticed that fossils were different than other rocks except to say that it was very long ago. The first step in making stone tools is to examine stones very carefully, so it is possible that our ancestors were aware of organic patterns in rocks over a million years ago. For trilobites, specifically, the earliest evidence of humans treating a fossil as something specially comes from a cave near Yonne, France. In the 1880s, when archaeologists were combing the caves of central France looking for artifacts, bones, and paintings, they discovered a much handled trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The cave where it was found is now known as Grotte du Trilobite and is also home to paintings of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Because the pendant was handled so much, the exact species of trilobite cannot be determined, however, geologists can say that it was not originally from Yonne. The original owners of the fossil thought enough of it that they carried or traded it from the other side of France. The occupation strata in which the trilobite was found has been dated as fifteen thousand years old.

The oldest known human trilobite artifact from the Grotte du Trilobite.

In the New World, American fossil hunters found plentiful deposits of trilobites in western Utah in the 1860s, but the local Ute Indians had known about them for untold years. In 1931, Frank Beckwith uncovered evidence of the Ute use of trilobites. Travelling through the badlands, he photographed two petroglyphs that most likely represent trilobites. On the same trip he examined a burial, of unknown age, with a drilled trilobite fossil laying in the chest cavity of the interred. He asked Joe Pichyavit, a Ute friend, friend what the elders said about such fossils. Pickyavit replied that trilobite necklaces were worn as protection against disease and bullets. The local Ute name for trilobite fossils translated roughly as "little water bug in stone," indicating that they recognised the organic nature of fossils. Pickyavit then made a necklace for Beckwith in the old style. Since then, trilobite amulets have been found all over the Great Basin, as well as in British Columbia and Australia.

Probable trilobite petroglyph. Beckwith's label reads "A shield (?) shaped like a trilobite."

Joe Pickyavit's trilobite protective necklace made of fossils, clay beads, and horsehair tassels.

Written descriptions of trilobites before Lhywd date possibly from the third century BC and definitely from the fourth century AD. Most ancient literatures include a genre called lapidaries, catalogs of precious stones and minerals along with their practical uses in medicine and magic (often the same thing). Most of the lapidaries included discussions of fossils and one, On Petrifactions by Theophrastus, was entirely about fossils. Sadly, the book has not survived and we know only short quotes from it in the works of later authors. The Spanish geologists Eladio Liñán and Rodolfo Gozalo argue that some of the fossils described in Greek and Latin lapidaries as scorpion stone, beetle stone, and ant stone refer to trilobite fossils. Less ambiguous references to trilobite fossils can be found in Chinese sources. Fossils from the Kushan formation of northeastern China were prized as inkstones and decorative pieces. A dictionary commentary written around 300AD by Guo Pu, refers to these fossils as bat stones because the spines on the pygidium (rear section) resemble the bones of a bat wing. The Khai-Pao Pharmacopoeia, written in 970 refers to the fossils as stone silkworms. Just nine years before Lhywd sent his letter to the Royal Society, Wang Shizhen wrote about the Kushan formation fossils a narrative of his travels in North China.

None of this should diminish Lhywd's place in the history of paleontology. Lhywd's observations were made within the framework of the emerging Western concept of science. The fossils were not interesting oddities that he found in the course of doing something else; they were the object of his outing. Lhywd took an artist along with him on his trip to Wales for the express purpose of preparing scientific illustrations. He communicated his observations to other scientifically interested people with the understanding that they would get further distribution. Finally, Lhywd gathered his fossils and took them back with him to the Ashmolean Museum where others would be able to study them.

As for number fifteen, it's not clear whether the fossil trilobite itself has survived. Modern curators at the Ashmolean have tried to identify Lhwyd's fossils in their collections. They have one old trilobite that approximately matches number fifteen, but they are unable to make a positive identification. The Romantic in me hopes its the one.

Number fifteen?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Plagiarism at the BBC

As if the science blogging world wasn't in enough turmoil this week, we have our own little plagiarism scandal to deal with. People who know me, know I have strong feelings about plagiarism. I hate plagiarists. Today we have a successful and established media figure apparently stealing from a fledgling writer and acquaintance of mine.

Last week, Brian Switek published a short piece on his Smithsonian Magazine blog about the discovery of fossil marks left by a dinosaur attempting to dig into a mammal's burrow. Yesterday, Tom Feilden, a science correspondent for BBC Radio 4, published a short piece on his blog that repeats verbatim sentences from Switek's post including an entire paragraph, which Fielden attributes to the discoverer of the fossils. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate the apparent copying.

On the mammalian score, a specimen of the relatively large Cretaceous mammal Repenomamus robustus described in 2005 was found with the bones of baby dinosaurs in its stomach—-it had apparently fed on young Psittacosaurus shortly before it died.

One clue, which appears to give mammals the upper hand, comes from the fossilised remains of a relatively large mammal, repenomamus robustus, discovered in 2005. It was found with the bones of a baby dinosaur in its stomach--apparently it had snacked on a young psittacosaurus shortly before it died. Score it one-nil to the mammals.

Not only is the wording similar, but notice the placement of the dash and the use of the sports scoring metaphor.

The first trace fossil type was made by a digging dinosaur, probably a maniraptoran similar in form to Deinonychus and Troodon. At first glance it doesn’t look like much-—just a lumpy bit of sandstone-—but if you look carefully, a claw impression and numerous downward-arcing grooves can be seen. It appears that the dinosaur was repeatedly sticking its foot into the hole and raking out sediment, a behavior consistent with the idea that these dinosaurs probably did not use their arms to dig because their feathers would have gotten in the way or been damaged.

The first trace evidence shows scraping marks in the sandstone rocks made by a digging dinosaur, probably a deinonychus or Troodon.

Below the claw marks numerous downward arching curves...


"If you look carefully," professor Simpson says, "it appears that the dinosaur was repeatedly sticking its foot into the hole and raking out sediment. Behaviour consistent with a carnivore digging out its next meal".

Both are short articles; these two examples make up almost half of their lengths. There are similarities and exact borrowings in the rest of the two pieces.

Professor Simpson is Edward L. Simpson, the first author listed on the scientific article that both Switek and Feilden are reporting. It is possible that both writers are borrowing from Simpson. Unfortunately, the article is hidden behind the pay-per-view firewall of the journal Geology, so I cannot check that. I know Switek, so I do not think he is also a plagiarist. However, even if both Switek and Feilden were both plagiarizing the same source in the same way, this would not excuse Feilden or diminish his crime. Plagiarism is almost never a one time thing. Plagiarists usually steal not because they are unimaginative but, rather, because they are lazy and feel pressure to keep producing. If they get away with plagiarism once, they will almost always try it again until it becomes a habit. If someone has the time or the energy, they should look over Feilden's earlier work. If he is a serial plagiarist, he needs to be exposed. If this is his first offense--however unlikely that is--he needs to be smacked hard so he will not try it again.

The BBC needs to investigate this and make a quick and public response.

Need a new irony meter

Ben Stein says the unemployed are "people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work." I suppose it's hardly news any more that a wealthy, white Republican feels the need to bash the unemployed as lazy, but Ben Stein manages to add layer upon layer of irony to the mix. This is Ben Stein saying other people have unpleasant personalities. This is Ben Stein, who once worked for Nixon, saying other people have unpleasant personalities. This is also the same Ben Stein, who regularly points out how smart he is, apparently claiming that the number of unpleasant or lazy people in the country has suddenly tripled leading to their being fired.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lots of happenings

The biggest news is that my friend Bora Živcović, better known to many by his nom de blog, Coturnix, is leaving Scienceblogs as the latest casualty of l'affaire Pepsi. This is probabty the clearest sign that what started as an internal crisis at Seed Media Group is resulting in a permananent and major reorganization of the science blogging world. Bora has been the mother hen for a large chunk of the science blogging world, encouraging writers, herding the group around, and making peace. For the time being, he has moved the A Blog Around The Clock archives to a WordPress site. Bora has been a great support to my own blogging. I'll follow him wherever he goes.

Eric M. Johnson, another casualty of Pepsigate, has yet to find a home for his fine blog Primate Diaries. Several bloggers offered to let him guest blog on their sites if the urge to write hit him before he settled down. I'm pleased to say he took us up on it and that the first stop on the Primate Diaries in Exile Tour is at my blog (below), archy. If the title "Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin's Ape-Man Superwarriors" doesn't perk your interest, I don't know what will.

Finally, it may not be the biggest story in the science blogging world, but it's the most personal for me: my all science and history blog, Mammoth Tales has been invited to join a group. Starting to day MT is part of the Southern Fried Science Network. It's still a little rough, I need to customize the template with some mammoth art, but it has all the posts from the old site and will soon have some new goodies. Go check it out and check out the SFSN blogs while you're there.

Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin's Ape-Man Superwarriors

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of his Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. If this is your first time visiting archy make sure to browse some of the other posts on the blog. Thanks. - EMJ

The anti-Darwin industry among fundamentalist Christians has produced thousands of pages of misinformation in their attempt to tar and feather the theory of evolution. I have responded to many of these false claims previously. However, one assertion that is especially outlandish is that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was a devoted Darwinian who funded a program to create "ape-man Superwarriors" in his goal for world domination. As Creation Ministries, publisher of the Journal of Creation and advocate of a young Earth literal interpretation of the Bible, insisted in 2006:
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to rebuild the Red Army, in the mid-1920s, with Planet-of-the-Apes-style troops by crossing humans with apes. . . Stalin is said to have told Ivanov, "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat."

Their only legitimate source for the claim comes from a 2002 paper in the academic journal Science in Context, by the Russian historian of science Kirill Rossiianov. Rossiianov's study follows the ill-fated attempt by the Russian physiologist Il’ya Ivanov to cross-breed humans with anthropoid apes. His research offers an important warning about the ethical abuses that can occur when proper standards are not enforced, but Rossiianov’s paper clearly demonstrates that creating "superwarriors" had no part in Ivanov’s work. The alleged quote from Stalin is not found in the paper and there is no evidence that Stalin ever made such a statement. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Creation Ministries’ assertion has absolutely no foundation.

However, why the Soviets would fund such a human-chimp hybridization program in the first place and what can be learned from this sordid tale of ethical misconduct is an important topic and fascinating in its own right. Ivanov represents a scientist, widely respected in his field, whose dedication to find out if something could be done blinded him to ask whether it should be done. It also reminds us of the role that politics can play in the development of scientific research even if the scientists directly involved are not political themselves.

Contrary to the claims of conservative Christians, Il'ya Ivanov’s interest in hybridization occurred long before the Russian revolution of 1917 and had little connection with Marxist ideology. Following his graduation in 1896 with the equivalent of a PhD in physiology, Ivanov conducted research in bacteriology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris before working with the world famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Ivanov utilized the same surgical techniques that earned Pavlov a Nobel Prize and was successfully able to extract animal sex glands so as to develop techniques of artificial insemination in purebred horses. This research was subsequently expanded to farm animals more generally and Ivanov became the leading international figure in the study of artificial insemination.

One of the hybrids between zebra and horse produced through Ivanov's research, 1913.
Image from Rossiianov 2002, Central State Archive of the Moscow RegionTsGAMO

Ivanov’s first mention of his idea for using artificial insemination to determine if a human-ape hybrid could be produced occurred at an Austrian zoology conference in 1910. There is no indication that he had any plans to carry out such research at this time. However, seven years after the revolution, in 1924, Ivanov was conducting experiments on sperm disinfection at the Institut Pasteur when he was offered the institute’s support for his hybridization scheme:
They offered Ivanov free access to animals at the institute’s recently organized chimpanzee facility in the village of Kindia, French Guinea, but could not pay for other operational and travel expenses of the project.

After several failed attempts to secure funding, Ivanov eventually received $10,000 from the Soviet Financial Commission and his project was subsequently approved by the Soviet Academy of Sciences (Ivan Pavlov was a distinguished member of the Academy and was present the day this decision was made). It was certainly Ivanov’s distinguished reputation that allowed the project to move forward. In his proposal to the Academy he stated that he wanted to test various hypotheses that had been suggested in the scientific literature.

One such hypothesis was that of the German scientist Hans Friedenthal whose analysis of blood cells in 1900 between chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans showed that they were serologically far more similar than had previously been expected. As a result, Friedenthal proposed that anthropoid reproductive cells could be similar enough to result in a hybrid between humans and other apes. In the following two decades other researchers, such as the Dutch zoologist Hermann Marie Bernelot Moens and the German sexologist Hermann Rohleder, sought to test this prediction by inseminating chimpanzee females with human sperm. However, their attempts never got beyond the planning stage and, in the case of Moens, his research plans resulted in him being fired from his teaching position.

With his small budget and use of Institut Pasteur’s facility Ivanov and his son traveled to French Guinea in Western Africa to carry out his artificial insemination experiments in March, 1926. However, his research was hounded at every turn. The "research station" had only two veterinarians on staff and Ivanov’s presence resulted in outrage that he might report on the atrocious conditions:
Ivanov explained that the hostility of the station’s staff arose from their fears that he would report back to Paris about the real problems at the facility. According to the documentation that he managed to see, about seven hundred chimpanzees had been bought from native hunters since the founding of the station in 1923, and more than half of them had died before they could be shipped to Paris for biomedical experiments.

Local hunters had kidnapped the chimpanzees from the wild as infants and all were still juveniles when Ivanov arrived. He only attempted to inseminate three females before being forced to abandon the project as useless. Desperate to make use of his limited funding, Ivanov then made the horrific decision to attempt the insemination of African women with chimpanzee sperm without their knowledge. He made a proposal to doctors at a local hospital about his experiment and was ready to proceed when the General Governor of French Guinea, Paul Poiret, rejected the plan. Out of options and funding, Ivanov and his son decided to return home. By the time the two boarded their ship they had been in Africa for just over one month.

Ivanov hoped to pursue his experiment again in Russia through the use of women volunteers (and he found at least one who was willing to participate). However, when word got out that Ivanov had attempted to inseminate African women without their consent he was condemned by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and all support was eliminated. An investigation concluded that Ivanov’s behavior:
[M]ight undermine the trust of Africans in European researchers and doctors and make problematic any further expeditions of Russian scientists to Africa. Thereafter, the Academy did not want to deal with Ivanov and deprived him of any further support.

While some of his previous support was based in the political ideology at the time, there were strong political divisions that split scientific opinion on a range of issues and Ivanov was caught in between. To some Marxists it was hoped that a program of positive eugenics could lead to an improvement in the population similar to Marx’s description of historical materialism. Researchers in this camp, such as Herman Muller, hoped to use "scientific" techniques so parents thought to have a good genetic background would have more children, a policy in sharp contrast to the negative eugenics later employed by the Nazis that emphasized sterilization. Muller and other geneticists hoped that Ivanov’s research could lead to a better understanding of what qualities to look for. However, other scientists rejected genetic research as bourgeois or imperialist and advocated the inheritance of acquired characteristics (what is commonly known as Lamarckism). It was these researchers, led by the charismatic biologist Trofim Lysenko, who had Stalin’s support at the time.

Lysenko rejected genetic inheritance and advocated Lamarckian acquired characteristics.
Image from Soyfer, V. N. The State and Science (Hermitage, New Jersey, 1989).

In a telling example of the political divisions Ivanov became caught up in, Cambridge historian Martin Richards describes how Muller, one of Ivanov's supporters, sent a letter to Stalin advocating a positive eugenic program. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Lysenko and his followers had warned Stalin that genetic research would lead to eugenics as well as fascism and, now, Stalin was convinced. Muller was forced to flee Moscow for fear of being arrested and, days later, received word that several of his colleagues were shot as "enemies of the people."

It was in this atmosphere that Il’ya Ivanov met his end. After several additional attempts to receive support for his research without success, Ivanov was caught up in the ideological battle. One of his scientific enemies, Orest Neyman, accused him of "sabotage" because some of his artificial insemination farm instruments had apparently malfunctioned. On December 13, 1930 Ivanov was arrested by the secret police and convicted of "having created a counterrevolutionary organization among agricultural specialists" and banished to Kazakhstan where he died two years later. His main accuser took over Ivanov’s position as head of the laboratory.

This history raises a number of troubling issues. The fact of the matter is that Il’ya Ivanov cannot simply be dismissed as a rogue ideologue abusing science for dubious political purposes. Rather, he was an internationally respected leader in reproductive physiology and the foremost expert at the time on the artificial insemination of farm animals. His human-chimp hybridization experiments came out of collaboration with other respected scientists and with the direct assistance of the Institut Pasteur, one of the leading scientific institutions in the world at the time. Furthermore, while there was apparently no overt racism in his research, his decision to inseminate African women without their knowledge or consent can only be understood in the context of a racist and sexist colonial attitude.

While Ivanov doesn't seem to have had a political motivation for his research, some of those involved in supporting his work certainly did. In this way Ivanov's experiment was only made possible because of a network of individuals and institutions with specific political ambitions even though Ivanov himself wasn't directly involved in them. When we consider scientific experimentation today, where do we draw the line between sound research and ethical violation? In what ways are funding decisions based on political considerations unrelated to the direct question a researcher hopes to answer? How does American power influence scientific research, and what relationship do scientists have with those on the receiving end of this power? Even though no one, other than the scientists involved, were ever hurt by this cross-breeding research it nevertheless raises serious concerns. While the question of the "ape-man superwarriors" myth can easily be discarded after examining this history, other questions are not as easy to dismiss.


Rossiianov, K. (2003). Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes Science in Context, 15 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0269889702000455

Richards, M. (2008). Artificial insemination and eugenics: celibate motherhood, eutelegenesis and germinal choice Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 39 (2), 211-221 DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.03.005

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I really hate these people

Another rich scumbag with job security and insurance bashes the unemployed. Brian Kimeade on Fox and friends says "Maybe the unemployment benefits [expiring] will get people to sober up and take some of [the jobs being offered]." Just for the record, Brian, there are currently five unemployed workers for every job opening in the United States. If you weren't such a stone-hearted ideologue you might take that into consideration and stop being such a class warrior.

Update: What is with these people? Now Tom Coburn is making up a job fair in order to slime the unemployed.

Tokyo is doooomed!!!

Australian scientists discover bizarre prehistoric deep-sea creatures below the Great Barrier Reef

Australian scientists have discovered bizarre prehistoric sea life hundreds of metres below the Great Barrier Reef, in an unprecedented mission to document species under threat from ocean warming. Ancient sharks, giant oil fish, swarms of crustaceans and a primitive shell-dwelling squid species called the Nautilus were among the astonishing life captured by remote controlled cameras at Osprey Reef

Now that they have awakened them, the creatures will do what all bizarre, prehistoric deep-sea creatures do: go do battle with Godzilla while stomping on Tokyo.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dear GOP

Repeating a lie and shouting a lie does not make it true. Social Security is not going bankrupt. Period. Stop trying to scare people into doing something stupid.

That is all.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Indiana Jones and the big-ass disappointment

What a story. Inside one of the most famous tombs in Egypt, archaeologists discover a hidden tunnel carved into the raw stone of a mountain. The tomb of Seti I had been known for over a century when archaeologists discovered the entrance to the tunnel in the 1960s. After removing over three hundred feet of rubble from the tunnel, the diggers gave up without reaching the end or discovering the purpose of the tunnel. It's now fifty years later and the Egyptians are trying again. They have removed another two hundred seventy feet of rubble only to discover that the tunnel leads to... nothing at all. The tunnel, they report, is different that the rest of the tomb. While the tomb of Seti I is famous for its colorful murals, the tunnel is almost devoid of illustration. On of the only inscriptions reads "move the door jamb up and make the passage wider." It took us a half century to discover that the secret of the tunnel is that it is unfinished.

Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass in the tunnel. Source: National Geographic

Give that man an anvil

As much of a Chuck Jones fan as I am, I recognize that it is morally and ethically wrong, as well as illegal, to drop anvils on people and, normally, I would not, under any circumstances, advocate the dropping of anvils on people, but some days I really feel that exceptions should be made.
Last night on CNBC, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore went so far as to say that he can't "see the sense" of allowing cuts for the rich to expire, and then advocated that taxes be raised on the poorest Americans in order to finance more tax cuts for the rich.

I'm not recommending that an anvil be dropped, I'm just sayin' if an anvil was to drop today, I know where I would want it dropped.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Return of the killer mastodons

Charles Stuart Cochrane seems to have been a bit of an eccentric. He came from a well known military family. It was his father, the admiral, who ordered the bombardment of Ft. McHenry while Francis Scott Key, imprisoned below deck, wrote The Star Spangled Banner. After doing his part in the Napoleonic Wars, young Charles took leave of the navy to travel across the newly independent country Colombia scouting out economic opportunities. He attempted to drain Lake Guatavita looking for the gold of El Dorado and recommended copper mines and building a canal across the isthmus of Panama as future projects. Cochrane's memoir of the journey include the first description of the poison arrow frog. After the memoir was published, he picked up a guitar and wandered Great Britain for a year as "Senior Jean de Vega, a Spanish minstrel." The neighbors may have thought him "a little cracked" but that didn't stop him from making a tidy fortune by inventing a superior loom for weaving cashmere.

Cochrane earned a comfortable, if small, place among nineteenth century traveler-explorers. His memoir includes important historical and naturalistic observations that are still quoted today. However, what drew my attention to him was an observation that hasn't received the attention it deserves. Heading west from Bogotá, he stopped for several days in the town of Cartago.
Jan. 12, 1824. In the evening made an excursion with Señor Zereso, Don Luis, and others, to a small hill commanding the town; when, the evening being tolerable, we had a fine view of a ridge of mountains, which divides this valley from the Pacific Ocean: their summits are entirely covered with snow. The smoke of a volcano is to be seen, which is situated on the other side of the summit of the mountains. From a small chain of hills, near to this range of mountains, with a good glass, have been seen numbers of the carnivorous elephants, feeding on the plains which skirt these frozen regions. Their enormous teeth have occasionally been seen: but no one has yet succeeded in killing one of these animals, or, indeed, in getting near to them. There are great quantities of wild cattle in these plains...

I've written about the idea of killer mastodons before. Their teeth are significantly different from those of mammoths and living elephants. Eighteenth century naturalists believed those differences indicated the mastodon was a meat eater. This idea had largely been abandoned by the time that Cochrane wrote but, obviously, still had some partisans. The more interesting question is, what on Earth were his hosts talking about? What animal had they seen on the neighboring plains that they thought fit the description of a killer elephant? I have no answers, but, if it is still out there, I hope we don't do anything to piss it off.