Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it! Here hung those lips I have kissed I know not how oft! Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Ah yes, The Bard. The greatest playwright of all time, according to every english teacher I ever had. Personally, I'm not that enthralled by him. Oh sure, I find his plays entertaining to watch. You'll note I said watch. Reading them is another matter entirely. And why did teachers always try to get you to reason out the meaning behind the soliloquies in the Bards plays? It was hard enough understanding the Middle English he used let alone understand the obscure meanings behind them.
One thing people sometimes forget though, is Shakespeare didn't just write plays. He also wrote sonnets. And what is a sonnet? Why, it's a type of poem. And what is a poem? It's just a song without music. And what happens when the last workday of the week meets up with music?You end up with.....
Except that the kind of rocks I write about on Fridays aren;t the musical 'and roll' kind. I write about real rocks. Rocks that used to be alive. You know, fossils. Like that skull up there.
Fossils have been around for millions of years. Obviously. But as long as there have been humans, and even proto-humans, fossils have been collected. They were usually kept as some form a talisman. As such, we have no idea who found the first fossil. But they have been written about by such luminaries as Plato. And there is speculation that dinosaur bones led to the legends about dragons.
Dinosaurs are one of the types of fossils we can attribute a discoverer to. Now, it isn't the actual first person to find a dinosaur. But it was the first person to correctly identify them and write a formal paper describing one. And that person was a sneak who stole the credit from the man who rightly deserved it.
I mentioned this man last week. His name was William Buckland. Oh, sorry....I mean the Reverend William Buckland. He was an Anglican scholar/priest. And he robbed the credit from a man who trusted him. He trusted just about everyone. He was a bit of a rube, actually.
His name was Gideon Mantell. He was a country doctor who had a serious interest in geology and fossils. One day, while Dr. Mantell was tending to a patient, his wife was out for a walk on a country lane. She found a strange rock that she thought might be of interest to her husband. And he was very interested in it.
Mantell could see right away that it was a fossilized tooth. He spent years researching the tooth. He even sent it to Paris where it was examined by the worlds leading anatomist, Georges Cuvier, who dismissed it as the tooth of a modern hippo. But Mantell didn't buy that story. He kept doing his research.
One day he was talking to a man who was studying the iguana. He remarked that the tooth looked almost identical to an iguanas. Only Bigger. Mantell identified the creature as a new type of animal, and he named it Iguanodon. He wrote up a paper about it and was going to publish, but first, he showed the paper to his good friend, William Buckland.
Buckland read the paper and complimented Mantell on it. But he cautioned him to move slowly and carefully before presenting his paper. And then quickly released his own paper describing the Megalosaurus. And thus robbing Mantell of the recognition he deserved.
Now, about that skull. What is it? Am I sure it's a skull? Yes, I am sure it's a skull. It's the upper skull of a Merycoidodontoidea. Heh....say that three times fast....Most people call them an Oreodont. Much easier to pronounce.
What exactly was an oreodont? It was a cud-chewing artiodactyls. Picture a goat sized, short faced ruminating hog. That looked nothing like a hog. It looked more like a cross between a German Shepard and a Hippopotamus.
It lived in North and Central America in the grasslands during the Cenozoic era about 48 million years ago to 4 million years ago. And for the last 20 million years or so of it's existence, it was one of the most abundant animals around. And things liked to eat them.
With fossils, it's usually impossible to know anything about the animal it once was. Sometimes fossils will be found that tell us how they died. And looking at several examples of the same species, we can infer how it lived. But rarely do we know specifics about a single animal.
That's what makes the above skull of an oreodont so special. Jut by looking at it, we can tell exactly how it died. This particular oreodont became a meal for some sort of predator. In fact, it was killed trying to defend it's self, which means it was facing it's attacker when it died.
How do we know? Take a look at another picture. (ignore my thumb and finger. I was trying to point out something on the skull, but decided to use arrows instead)
For reference, my thumb is resting in the eye socket. The snout is at the bottom and the back of it's head is at the top.
It's hard to see, but at the front of the skull there are several small chips of bone. These were caused by a tremendous crushing force. Parts of the back of the skull are missing, but the remaining parts show no signs of being crushed. The two arrows are pointing at holes in the top of the skull. These are not natural holes. The one on the left is more well defined than the one on the right.
Looking at the damage to the skull, it fairly obvious that this oreodont died when it's attacker bit it in the face, piercing it's brain with it's saber fangs. Yes, this oreodont was killed by a saber-toothed.....something.
Most likely it was a feline or a canine that did the killing, but we can't be sure. During the Miocene and Oligocene, (parts of the Cenozoic era), almost every mammal had saber teeth. There were even saber-toothed fish. It was one of those quirks of evolution.
This may not be the most impressive looking skull. And for what I paid for it, I could have certainly gotten a better, more complete example. (I could have bought a full skull, upper and lower jaw). But I chose this one. Because, anyone can own an oreodont skull. But I have one that was killed by a saber-toothed critter.
Someday maybe I'll tell you about a truly terrible person, Richard Owen, who was even worse to Mantell than Buckland was. The difference is, even though he was a cheat, a liar, a thief, wholly without scruples or integrity, we owe him a debt larger than could ever be recognized.