Tetrapod Zoology

Time for a little game. What does this photo represent? Can you work out what happened here? One clue: the skeleton belonged to a large mammal.

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Sorry the pic is in black-and-white and a bit fuzzy, it’s the best version of the image I have (a colour version exists somewhere – please do pass it on if you have it… UPDATE: thanks indeed to David Bressan of History of Geology). I’ve been looking for this photo for years (it was taken by Katia Krafft), and am grateful to Tony Butcher for passing it on after discovering it earlier this year.

UPDATE: Many thanks to everyone who had a go at interpreting the photograph. As correctly guessed, worked out or stated by some of you, it does indeed show an impression left in cooled lava by the body of a young elephant. The photo was taken on the flanks of Nyiragongo Volcano in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1977: it has appeared in several different publications on volcanoes. The version I initially used was from Schlüter (2006).

While much of the animal’s skeleton remains, the soft tissues have gone, but the shape of the body remains (including what I interpret as the trunk at top left). As stated by Emory Kimbrough in comment 10, fissures opened in the sides of Nyiragongo’s crater on January 10th 1977 and the volcano’s large lava lake was fully drained in less than an hour. About 20 million cubic m of lava poured into the jungle on both the western and southern sides of the volcano, flowing at 60 km/hr or more on the uphill slopes, and forming waves up to 3 m deep. At least 70 (and as many as 400) people were killed (some sources say 2000!). An unknown number of elephants (and surely other animals) were also killed, though I don’t know how many left behind impressions such as this one.

So there we have it. As I’m sure I must have mentioned before, I remember seeing a children’s book about australopithecines mentioning the discovery of a deinothere’s body impression in cooled lava. Anybody know what I’m talking about?

Ref – –

Schlüter, T. 2006. Geological Atlas of Africa With Notes on Stratigraphy, Tectonics, Economic Geology, Geohazards and Geosites of Each Country. Spinger, Berlin.

Comments

  1. #1 Sordes
    November 14, 2010

    Looks really strange. Could it be an elephant which was partly covered with vulcanic ashes?

  2. #2 tai haku
    November 14, 2010

    looks sort of folded up and the ground looks weird (is that tarmac on the right?). I’m going to say a freakish discovery in someone’s garden or something similar which turns out to be a long buried and forgotten circus animal or something?

    In other words I have no idea at all…..

  3. #3 PBurns
    November 14, 2010

    Dead elephant. Caught in mud bog based on fern-like plant in middle (quick growth, frilling leaves) and what looks like flotus around it. Could be poison dart, however.

  4. #4 geoff
    November 14, 2010

    Hello,
    I think you`ve got it Sordes. The black outline has a very elephantine shape. I think an elephant got caught in a lava flow and the corpse prevented the lava from solidifying over a patch of ground. The black shape is ordinary soil and the lighter surrounding surface is sterile solidified lava. Or has a deposit of soil formed in the depression left by the elephant`s body?
    Bring on more mysteries Darren, I like em.

  5. #5 Anon
    November 14, 2010

    Is there a tree growing from the seeds in its stomach? Hard to make out details.

  6. #6 Bradley F
    November 14, 2010

    The photo was taken in New Guinea in 1908. A ropen was flying overhead, luminescing brightly. It flew into a swarm of rods, fatally damaged its wing, and crashed to ground in a huge explosion. It triggered a mudslide, which covered most of its body. But its cloacal gas built up until there was a second explosion which blasted off some of the mud and left a crater around the poor creature’s bones. The light from the explosion was seen as far away as London: you could read a newspaper at midnight.

  7. #7 Krimeg
    November 14, 2010

    A Gorilla killed by a volcanic eruption ?

  8. #8 John Hutchinson
    November 14, 2010

    Juvenile elephant; epiphyses seem lost?

  9. #9 kad
    November 14, 2010

    Can’t say for sure what it is but I’m reminded of the Farside cartoon showing the fossilized remains of a caveman in a Brachiosaur footprint…

  10. #10 Emory Kimbrough
    November 14, 2010

    If the elephant-in-lava answer above is correct, the eruption would be Nyiragongo 1977. The side of the volcano cracked, allowing a large lava lake to rapidly drain. Flows crossed the ground at up to 60 mph, and a lot of people and elephants couldn’t outrun it.

  11. #11 Emory Kimbrough
    November 14, 2010

    Yep, a little more research reveals it is indeed an elephant from Nyiragongo 1977. And here’s the nice crisp color photo that Darren was looking for. It was taken by the famous vulcanologist Maurice Krafft:

    http://planet-terre.ens-lyon.fr/planetterre/objets/Images/Img213/213-elephant-nyiragongo-01.jpg

  12. #12 strangetruther
    November 14, 2010

    Must be different bracken from what I’m used to.

  13. #13 Jerzy
    November 14, 2010

    It gets better and better:
    Wikipedia:
    “Elephant mold caves are known from the Nyiragongo volcano in Africa, and one in the shape of a Tertiary-age Rhinoceros is known from Blue Lake, Washington (USA)”
    “^ Kaler, K.L. (1988): The Blue Lake Rhinoceros. Washington Geologic Newsletter, 16(4): 3-8″.

  14. #15 BruceK
    November 14, 2010

    The grave of a nineteenth century zoo’s gorilla ?

  15. #16 David Marjanović
    November 14, 2010

    Just popping in to say that this is the 4th most active ScienceBlogs post at the moment.

  16. #17 Wilbert Friesen
    November 14, 2010

    A narcissistic elephant killed by an annoyed triffid ?

  17. #18 Wazza
    November 14, 2010

    I’m going to go with ballistic pachyderm.

  18. #19 Chris M.
    November 14, 2010

    Oh wow, that is definitely an elephant. The outline of the trunk at the front is absolutely stunning!

  19. #20 Adam F
    November 15, 2010

    I’ve heard of that Rhino cave…cool to know there are elephant ones too…stinks for the megafauna involved though.

    Critter in lava was my first guess, but my second was Godzilla droppings.

  20. #21 Chris
    November 15, 2010

    A large animal whose charred flesh left a cavity in pahoehoe lava. It tells a sad but amazing story.

  21. #22 David Marjanović
    November 15, 2010

    Godzilla doesn’t eat, he lives off radioactivity. Somehow.

  22. #23 heteromeles
    November 15, 2010

    I as fooled by that fern too. Thought it was bracken. But the ferns and the lycopods suggest that the body cavity is in the human to horse size range, because there’s no way that fern is four meters tall, and lycopods like the ones around the head cavity are (AFAIK) much less than 1 m tall. That has to be a small elephant, presumably a juvenile.

  23. #24 Marco Tedesco
    November 15, 2010

    It has a very short skull.Elephant

  24. #25 Darren Naish
    November 15, 2010

    Answer now provided above (in the article) – thanks to everyone for commenting.

  25. #26 MarcoPetruzzelli
    November 15, 2010

    1 The fern confirmed is a small animal….
    2 The structure shown in the picture particurarly in the craniun could be a post cranial hole (eroded or brocken)so the skull could not bilong to a proboscidate.. but belongs probably to an ecquid.
    3 The skeleton if exposed at termick “lava cooking” will explode in some parts..In Pompei human, horses and dogs bones for example has exploded (theets, long bones and craniums cracks) because of the “sublimation” of organick body part.
    4 the bones appeared too clean and partially mixed witn the hole infilling. I could ipotesyze the skeleton position to a paracarstisk fenomena, where the hole darains wather and the body after death was transported in the smal depression by wather corrent. (but hole’s caracteristics must be verified)

    Other potions in the taphonomy could be a ritual sepolture …or for third a simple photo falsification.

  26. #27 MarcoPetruzzelli
    November 15, 2010

    Observing better.. other smaller bones and wood peaces still placed in the hole giving place to the wather accumulation hipotesis in a wather absorbing lava volcanick conduct where the tepra infilling material makes a filtering effect blocking transported animal bones diing nearby in that position.

    Marco Petruzzelli
    Vertebrate paleontologist

  27. #28 Sordes
    November 15, 2010

    There is a cast of the body of a plaque-victim in the collection of the University of Tübingen. The body was covered with quicklime, and the tissue and clothed decayed. The empty cavity inside the chalk was centuries later filled with gypsum, and shows even the structure of the cloth the man did wear. Sadly I have still not seen this body-cast myself, only as a photo in a book.

  28. #29 Dartian
    November 16, 2010

    Darren:

    As correctly guessed, worked out or stated by some of you, it does indeed show an impression left in cooled lava by the body of a young elephant.

    Very interesting. I have always been intrigued by accounts of wild animals dying in unusual natural disasters, but I had never seen this picture before – thanks for posting about it.

    Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1977

    Nitpick time: In 1977, that country’s name was Zaire.

  29. #30 Valagos
    November 16, 2010

    “Elephant mold caves are known from the Nyiragongo volcano in Africa, and one in the shape of a Tertiary-age Rhinoceros is known from Blue Lake, Washington (USA)”
    “^ Kaler, K.L. (1988): The Blue Lake Rhinoceros. Washington Geologic Newsletter, 16(4): 3-8″.

    Hold on a second… There where rhinoceros species in America? That’s news for me. When did they cross throught? How far south did they reach? Any idea when they went extinct or why? I had always thought that the rhino niche was covered by sloths, glyptodons and other such like in the New World.

  30. #31 Hai~Ren
    November 16, 2010

    Valagos: Actually, much of early rhinoceros evolution took place in North America. Like horses and camels*, rhinoceros were among the most important large mammalian herbivores in North America through the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene; the last of the North American rhinoceros, such as Aphelops and Teleoceras, died out at the end of the Miocene. But while they were extant, rhinos were apparently widely distributed all the way south to Florida, California, Texas and New Mexico.

    *It is important to note that while camels and horses were endemic to North America for much of their evolutionary history, rhinoceros were a significant component of mammalian fauna in both North America and Eurasia since the Eocene.

  31. #32 Pavel I. Volkov
    November 16, 2010

    Acacia sprouts grow from seeds not digested in stomach of elephant because of its death.

  32. #33 Dartian
    November 17, 2010

    Valagos: Hai~Ren already provided most of the answers to your question. I might add the comment that in a paleontological context, one needs to be careful about what, exactly, one means by ‘rhinoceros’. Many of the fossil taxa that were casually called ‘rhinos’ in the older literature (e.g., hyrachyids, hyracodonts, and amynodonts) may not actually be rhinos in a strictly phylogenetic sense. (The rhinoceros mold that Jerzy mentioned, however, was indeed formed by the carcass of a true rhino, probably a Diceratherium (Chappell et al., 1951).)

    How far south did they reach?

    As they apparently went extinct in North America before the Great American Interchange, rhinos never managed to colonise South America. But in the Eocene, at least one ‘rhino’ – the hyrachyid Hyrachyus – did make it to Jamaica (Domning et al., 1997).

    Pavel:

    Acacia sprouts grow from seeds not digested in stomach of elephant because of its death.

    That tall plant is clearly a fern, not an acacia. Ferns, of course, are usually among the very first plant colonisers after volcanic eruptions anywhere in the world. (I’d imagine that the slopes of Mount Nyiragongo aren’t exactly typical savanna habitat, anyway; are there even any acacias there for the elephants to feed on?)

    References:

    Chappell, W.M., Durham, J.W. & Savage, D.E. 1951. Mold of a rhinoceros in basalt, Lower Grand Coulee, Washington. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 62, 907-918.

    Domning, D.P., Emry, R.J., Portell, R.W., Donovan, S.K. & Schindler, K.S. 1997. Oldest West Indian land mammal: rhinocerotoid ungulate from the Eocene of Jamaica. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17, 638-641.

  33. #34 Dave Hubble
    November 17, 2010

    The children’s book you mention – could it be “Journey from the Dawn: Life with the World’s First Family” by Donald Johansen & Kevin O’Farrell (Villard, 1990)?

    Also, I wonder if the ‘Discovery Kids’ network’s Prehistoric Planet series covered anything like this – episode 10 is called ‘Along Came the Apes’ and is essentially the life story of an australopithecine and its family group.

  34. #35 Michael P. Taylor
    November 17, 2010

    I climbed Mount Nyiragongo in either 1990 or 1991, and looked down into its crater. Strange but true.

  35. #36 blue fantasy pony master
    November 17, 2010

    Did you fall in and die?

  36. #37 Valagos
    November 17, 2010

    Thank you very much Hai~Ren and Dartian for your kind replies. Whenever one thinks of the age after dinosaurs it’s very easy to gravitate towards the Pleistocene and its charismatic megafauna and forget there’s a lot more to the Cenozoic. When I read the caption I thought of a wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) and not one of its older relatives.

    Also thanks for the additional tidbits on Rhino evolution. It has been very enlightening.

  37. #38 Dartian
    November 18, 2010

    Valagos:

    When I read the caption I thought of a wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis)

    Did you perhaps have in mind the various mummified woolly rhino specimens that have been found? Some such remains have been discovered in the Siberian permafrost, but the most complete woolly rhino specimen known is the one discovered in an ozokerite mine at Starunia in 1929*. (Between the World Wars, Starunia was in Poland; nowadays it is in the Ukraine.) The woolly rhino mummy is, IIRC, currently at display in Kraków Aquarium and Natural History Museum, Poland; some pictures of it can be seen here (scroll down the page).

    * Another, less complete woolly rhino mummy was found at Starunia earlier, in 1907.

    Incidentally, speaking of ancient rhinoceros distribution; it is slightly surprising that the woolly rhino never seems to have spread to North America. So many other boreal/arctic large mammals crossed Beringia in the Pleistocene – but for some reason, the woolly rhino did not.

  38. #39 Hai~Ren
    November 18, 2010

    [blockquote]So many other boreal/arctic large mammals crossed Beringia in the Pleistocene – but for some reason, the woolly rhino did not.[/blockquote]

    Another Eurasian species that didn’t make the crossing – the cave hyena.

    Similarly, North American megafauna such as ground sloths, mastodons and short-faced bears were present in Beringia (or at least in Alaska), but did not cross over into Eurasia. One wonders what were the ecological or environmental barriers that stood in their way. Or were they poised to invade Asia, just that they went extinct before they could do so?

  39. #40 Matthew Singer
    November 18, 2010

    These remains seems to be of that of dinosaurs.. Am I right..?

  40. #41 David Marjanović
    November 18, 2010

    Or were they poised to invade Asia, just that they went extinct before they could do so?

    From what I’ve been told, that could well be the case for the sloths.

    These remains seems to be of that of dinosaurs.. Am I right..?

    1) Read the post.
    2) Read all 39 comments that come before yours.
    3) Leave a comment.

    In this order!

  41. #42 Donald Prothero
    November 18, 2010

    Hai-ren and Dartian: indeed, there were rhinos in North America from the early Eocene to earliest Pliocene–over a dozen genera and many more species. I wrote a whole monograph about them (The Evolution of North American Rhinoceroses, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005). After brontotheres vanished at 34 Ma and until mastodonts arrived at 18 Ma, rhinos were the largest land mammals in North America for many millions of years, and in some places were incredibly common (Agate Springs, Ashfall Fossil Bed, Long Island Rhino Quarry, etc.). The Blue Lake rhino cave was apparently formed by the molding of pillow lavas around a floating bloated carcass in a lake. But the ID as Diceratherium is surely incorrect (as we now understand this genus). The material is too incomplete to really tell what currently accepted taxon it belonged to.

  42. #43 Valagos
    November 18, 2010

    “Incidentally, speaking of ancient rhinoceros distribution; it is slightly surprising that the woolly rhino never seems to have spread to North America. So many other boreal/arctic large mammals crossed Beringia in the Pleistocene – but for some reason, the woolly rhino did not.”

    Most herbivores are very intimately tied to the plants they feed on. Perhaps the plants on which rhinos and sloths fed hadn’t made the crossing yet. It does take a lot longer for plants to migrate in the wild. If there were any rhino mummies from Eastern Siberia(thanks for the link on the polish rhinos, by the way) whose stomach contents scientists could check… well, it would be so interesting to see if those plants ever made it through to the other side.

  43. #44 Dartian
    November 18, 2010

    Donald:

    the ID as Diceratherium is surely incorrect (as we now understand this genus)

    Thanks for that information; any informed guesses about which taxon the rhino could/should be referred to instead? (To be fair to Chappell et al., in their 1951 paper they actually do refer to the specimen as ‘Diceratherium?’. But that question mark has apparently been missed by many later authors.)

    Valagos:

    If there were any rhino mummies from Eastern Siberia

    As it happens, very recently a more than 50% complete* woolly rhino mummy was discovered in Yakutia, very far east in Siberia (Boeskorov et al., 2009). Prelimnary results seem to suggest that no stomach contents have been preserved, however.

    * Unfortunately, the right side of the rhino’s body was apparently accidentally cut off by a bulldozer and lost to science.

    Reference:

    Boeskorov, G.G., Lazarev, P.A., Bakulina, N.T., Shchelchkova, M.V., Davydov, S.P. & Solomonov, N.G. 2009. Preliminary study of a mummified woolly rhinoceros from the lower reaches of the Kolyma River. Doklady Biological Sciences 424, 53-56.

  44. #45 Jasmine Croghan
    November 18, 2010

    Darren- Are there any professional journal articles referring to this elephant mold? I haven’t been able to find it in Schluter 2006….
    I picked up the subject because I found the Rhino paper a this year’s SVP. I heard about the elephant, and I’m excited to have stumbled on your post (awesome photo), but I’m trying to work the elephant mold occurrence into a class project and I can’t seem to find much research in the area.
    Thanks,
    ~Jasmine

  45. #46 carly
    November 29, 2010

    i remember seeing that australopithecine children’s book in a library when i was a kid!
    does anyone know the name or author? all i can remember is the female giving birth while running from lava flames or something.
    let me know :3

  46. #47 hcg damla
    December 6, 2010

    1 The fern confirmed is a small animal….
    2 The structure shown in the picture particurarly in the craniun could be a post cranial hole (eroded or brocken)so the skull could not bilong to a proboscidate.. but belongs probably to an ecquid.
    3 The skeleton if exposed at termick “lava cooking” will explode in some parts..In Pompei human, horses and dogs bones for example has exploded (theets, long bones and craniums cracks) because of the “sublimation” of organick body part.
    4 the bones appeared too clean and partially mixed witn the hole infilling. I could ipotesyze the skeleton position to a paracarstisk fenomena, where the hole darains wather and the body after death was transported in the smal depression by wather corrent. (but hole’s caracteristics must be verified)

    Other potions in the taphonomy could be a ritual sepolture …or for third a simple photo falsification.

  47. #48 David Marjanović
    December 6, 2010

    1 The fern is easily a meter high.
    2 Two hours ago I saw an elephant skull. The skull in the picture looks like an elephant skull, and nothing like an equid skull. What, if anything, do you mean by “postcranial holes”?
    3 Likely depends on a lot of circumstances, such as the size of the bones. Indeed, I see lots of bone fragments in the picture, and few or no intact small bones.
    4 How are they “too clean”? They’re just bleached by the sun. Of course they’re mixed with the infilling, because the hole is open! And to talk about karst in basalt is laughable, apart from the fact that it would fail to explain why the hole is elephant-shaped. (Did you even notice the trunk?)

    A ritual funeral of an elephant in massive, hard rock is an extremely far-fetched speculation.

    The photo looks good enough for me. You think it’s a fake? Show us.

  48. #49 Hai~Ren
    December 6, 2010

    Comment #47 by ‘hcg damla’ is a copy-and-paste job, presumably by a spammer, and is an exact reproduction of Commment #26 by ‘MarcoPetruzzelli’. It is hilarious that the original comment itself was made after Darren had revealed the answer and shown that it was indeed an elephant.

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