Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Antique Paleoart: Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World

Who does not love the Crystal Palace Park? Looking at old, dorky reconstructions is always fun, so today we will take a look at the official guidebook that Richard Owen himself wrote for the park. The book is mostly text, as you were supposed to look at the real life statues while reading it, but there still are some illustrations in it, which give an idea of what the park used to look like/was supposed to look like before major disrepair and restorations befell it. It is also interesting to compare the illustrations with the statues.

First up we have the title page, showing a full geologic column of Britain accurate for the time. As you can see, the Phanerozoic eras were still called Primary (today Paleozoic), Secondary (Mesozoic) and Tertiary, following the classification scheme of Giovanni Arduino, who himself adapted the scheme of flood geologist Jakob Lehmann. Geologic columns are a staple in many paleontological books, but they are mostly drawn as simple diagrams and not depicted with such a beautiful artistic sense. I especially like the inclusion of the fossil plants.

Here is a neat little drawing of the park with the titular Crystal Palace in the background. Said palace, built for the purpose of holding many World Fairs such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, does not exist anymore. On November 30th, 1936, 84 years after it had been relocated from Hyde Park to Sydenham, a large fire completely destroyed the building, despite 89 fire engines and 400 firemen trying to prevent the disaster. What the actual cause of the fire was is still unknown. There are conspiracy theories that someone laid the  fire to sabotage the work of television pioneer John Logie Baird, who conducted tests at the palace’s south tower. The dinosaurs were unaffected by the fire, but the destruction of the park’s main building led to a massive decrease of its popularity, which in turn resulted in the statues becoming neglected and falling into disrepair. Today, ironically, the park is more well-known for its dinosaurs than the palace which gave it its name. Since Kevin Perjurer has focused a lot on World Fairs recently, the whole story could make for a great Defunctland episode.

Next up is Richard Owen’s original restoration of Megalosaurus. That it aged like milk from a Hittite cow I do not have to tell you, but it is interesting to point out that it is also markedly different from the statue that stands in the park. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ model has a longer tail, thicker legs, a muscular shoulder-hump and a bigger head, resembling a mix between a crocodile and a rhinoceros. Owen’s illustration resembles a reptilian bear. Mark Witton uses this as evidence that Owen and Hawkins did not work as closely on the models as is often purported. Rather, the models seem to have mostly been made according to Hawkins’ own research, while Owen exaggerated his own input to capitalize off the park’s growing popularity.

We are also treated to this restoration of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus, which, based on what I could find, is not a valid name anymore, though I could not find out what its correct name would be nowadays. As stated in the text, Owen thought that plesiosaurs were able to walk onto land, as, he argues, despite their flippers being whale-like, they had four of them and also had better articulation. This idea has largely fallen out of favour, though as Witton found, not because most plesiosaurs would have been too heavy to have survived out of the water, but rather because their flippers were even worse at crawling than those of sea turtles. That plesiosaurs could hold their necks in swan- or cobra-like positions has also been largely disproven, due to mechanic as well as gravitational reasons. Sorry, Nessie.

We also get an illustration of Labyrinthodon (Today Mastodonsaurus), restored as gigantic frogs, as only the head and limb bones were known. Based on the vegetation I believe this is  not meant to be restoration of the creatures in their life and time, but of the statues sitting on the Secondary Island.

This Labyrinthodon is shown in association with the trace fossil Chirotherium, which was a very popular paleoart-meme at this time (Davidson 2008). Chirotherium footprints were quite mysterious from the moment of their discovery, as the tracks resembled human handprints, but with the thumb on the opposite side of the hand. Early interpretations were that, despite their Triassic age, they were produced by some kind of ape or opossum-like marsupial. Then came Owen, who argued that the prints were left by a giant amphibian, in part because Mastodonsaurus skulls were found in the same sandstone as Chirotherium, but also because he thought the weird arrangement of the thumbs was caused by the animal having long back-legs which crossed over the path’s midline with each step (in other words the left footprints were actually produced by the right foot and vice versa), influencing the very frog-like reconstructions from before (Rieppel 2019). Today we know the footprint and the amphibian were unrelated. Chirotherium and many similar trace fossils were produced by pseudosuchian archosaurs similar to Ticinosuchus, though some older footprints may have also been made by archosauriforms, such as erythrosuchids and protosuchians. Mastodonsaurus meanwhile should be more familiar to you as an alligator-like giant newt rather than as a large frog.

The booklet ends with this illustration of Dinornis, better known as the Moa. That is interesting, because no statue of this animal ever actually stood in the park. Hawkins did plan to add it on the Tertiary Island, together with models of Deinotherium and other large mammals, but he ran out of funding before he was able to. Was this included as a previwe of what was supposed to come? Or perhaps it was simply included because the discovery of the moa is what made Richard Owen famous in the first place, as in 1839 he deducted based off a single fragment of a thigh bone that New Zealand may have been inhabited by giant, ostrich-like birds once, which proved correct four years later as more remains were found. Based on what was known at the time this reconstruction is pretty decent (yes, they really had no wing- or shoulder-bones whatsoever), though I wonder why so many early moa-depictions show them with diagonally held spines. Perhaps it was to make their size more impressive.

That is basically it. The guide unfortunately only touches on the statues of the Secondary Islands, meaning the Mesozoic/Paleozoic animals, not the statues of Megaloceros, the giant sloth and such. Join me next time though, when we will take a look at an exhibit that never came into existence.

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

  • Davidson, Jane: A History of Paleontology Illustration, Bloomington 2008.
  • Owen, Richard: Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, London 1854 (Facsimile Edition).
  • Rieppel, Olivier: Mesozoic Sea Dragons. Triassic Marine Life from the Ancient Tropical Lagoon of Monte San Giorgio, Bloomington 2019.

Further Reading:

Sunday, 7 March 2021

The Forgotten John C. McLoughlin Book


The dust cover, comparing a Diplodocus and a giraffe. A big theme of this book is how the circumstances of evolution can produce wildly different, yet still similar forms over time. The weird tree of life you see in the middle is actually fully illustrated in the book, but only branch by branch at the end of each chapter.

John C. McLoughlin is one of the more enigmatic figures in the history of paleoart. He is most well-known for his book Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur from 1979, which was one of the earliest books aimed at general audiences that fully embraced the ideas of the Dinosaur Renaissance. Not only that, it was one of the first popular books to portray small theropods as feathered, nearly a decade before Greg Paul would spearhead the concept into the public conscious. Unfortunately, what most people seem to remember him for is McLoughlin’s very, very flawed reconstruction of buffalo-backed ceratopsians, which other writers have already said enough about. For the record, this does not seem to have originally been McLoughlin’s own idea. In 1976 the artist illustrated Dinosaurs of the Southwest, which was written by Ronald Paul Ratkevich, who was apparently the first to come up with this bizarro-concept. Based on the information I could find, Ratkevich was mainly an anthropologist, but also a fossil-collector and Curator of Paleontology at the Center for Anthropologcial Studies Albuquerque. Ratkevich himself may have been inspired by the 1915 book Dinosaurs by William Diller Matthew (very original title there), which features this reconstruction of a Triceratops. He does however not mention Miller in the book’s bibliography, which makes this path of inspiration unlikely. Whatever the case may be, McLoughlin simply seems to have taken it for granted that the guy knew what he was talking about and ran with the idea in all subsequent books of his, making him live on in infamy. Dinosaurs of the Southwest by the way also features feathered coelurosaurs, which I think is significant, because depending on what month the book was released in it could potentially be older than the April 1976 issue of Scientific American. Said issue features Sarah Landry’s illustration of a feathered Syntarsus, often said to be the oldest depiction of a feathered non-avialan dinosaur. Though Paul Ellenberger may have both of them beat by two years. A year after Archosauria, McLoughlin published Synapsida: A New Look into the Origin of Mammals, a sort-of sister-book which showed what our own ancestors were doing before and during the reign of the dinosaurs. It is larger in scope, though the artwork and ideas presented seem a lot less speculative or radical when compared to Archosauria. Its text does stand out however for its occasional cynical remarks on human nature and snarky commentaries on the then current Cold War politics. Not much has been said about it online, though I have the book and definitely plan to write about it in the future. Today we will talk instead about one of his works which does not seem to have any online presence whatsoever: The Tree of Animal Life: A Tale of Changing Forms and Fortunes from 1981. This book details the entire history of animal life from the Precambrian all the way to the present, though in a simplified manner aimed at children. Indeed, it seems that this book, or at least the used copy I own, was used in teaching school classes, as my copy is signed on the inside with “Katy Mary’s class” and has a stamp from the Barrie School Library. By the odd chance you are reading this Katy, thank you for taking good care of this book, as it is still in quite good quality… which now that I think about it probably means you did not read it a lot. I hope that did not impact your education. Then again, Katy Mary may have been the name of the class’s teacher.

In this post I will mostly focus on the dinosaur-part and a few other highlights, but if there is enough demand, I will of course do a follow-up focussing on the many non-dinosaurs featured. Because the book is ungodly large, it was difficult to scan many of the two-page spreads, so I either digitally stitched them together or had to resort to photographing some, which I hope did not impact the quality too much.

Kicking off this book’s Mesozoic is the ancestor of all archosaurs or “thecodonts”. Since McLoughlin does not say what sort of species this is supposed to be, I assume that this is not meant to depict a real species, but is rather a generalized image of what he imagines the earliest thecodonts to have looked like: Basically an unspecialized crocodile with longer legs than usual. This was very much the belief at the time for the origin of archosaurs, as it was thought that their trends towards muscular tails, upright legs and bipedal gait were originally adaptations for paddling in water. This has of course come into question, with the Normanpedia already being doubtful of it in 1985.

On the next page we see the steps out of the water with Euparkeria in a resting and running posture. Although its exact phylogenetic placement is debated, Euparkeria was and still is imagined as the type of ground-stock that true archosaurs evolved from, though it feels like the animal has lost some popularity. The anatomical accuracy here is a bit off, as Euparkeria should have a less narrow, more rectangular snout. As such McLoughlin makes it look more like a derived proto-dinosaur than the more primitive archosauriform it actually was. It also looks very different from the Euparkeria already featured in Archosauria, which had a more accurate head-shape, but also looked decidedly more crocodilian. Because the text does not do it, I want to point out that the animal appears to be illustrated with broad, overlapping scales, which looks a lot like how McLoughlin otherwise illustrates proto-feathers. Back then the thinking was that feathers evolved from frilled scales, though this has since become outdated. I believe the similarity is intentional, as in Archosauria McLoughlin already voiced the opinion that the origin of feathers was older than the dinosaurs… which might turn out to be true, given current findings.

Now here is one of the most fascinating images: What McLoughlin imagines the ancestor of pterosaurs to have looked like. To this very day we have yet to find a gliding transitional form between pterosaurs and earlier archosaurs, but this has clearly not stopped people from speculating what such an animal would have looked like. Rupert Wild already began working on a hypothetical “Protopterosaurus” in a series of papers beginning in 1978, but if I understood correctly (and please, please correct me on this if I am wrong) he did not illustrate it until 1984. This would make the above image three years older and possibly the oldest illustration of a hypothetical proto-pterosaur. Even if it is not, it is fascinating to contrast McLoughlin’s version with Wild’s. While Wild’s proto-pterosaur was merely a gliding lizard, our guy here is an active thecodont with upright legs and a lifestyle similar to a flying squirrel. This is not that far off from current speculation about proto-pterosaurs, such as Mark Witton’s, and even fits with the recent discovery that lagerpetids are the closest pterosaur-relatives. Arguably another example of McLoughlin’s remarkable prescience. The only thing it is missing is fuzz, but thankfully the Rhamphorhynchus on the next page is illustrated with pycnofibers. As evidenced by Archosauria and Dinosaurs of the Southwest, McLoughlin was well aware of pycnofibers and the text in this book even uses it as evidence for warm-bloodedness in these animals. The reason why McLoughlin didn’t illustrate the proto-pterosaur with fuzz is because he thought pycnofibers evolved independently of feathers. The Rhamphorhynchus looks mostly fine and is thankfully not shown skim-feeding, but is it really trying to grab the insect with its right hand mid-flight?

After these two, McLoughlin immediately jumps to the Late Cretaceous to show the success of their descendants. The animal depicted here is identified as… Quetzalcoatlus. Yeah, not Pteranodon. It does make sense for the time, however, as up to this point most remains of the giant azhdarchid were just wing-bones, which did not indicate much beyond it being a giant pterosaur. Wann Langston would in fact not publish his findings of more complete remains until the exact same year as this book here came out. It therefore probably made sense to McLoughlin to reconstruct it as a giant Pteranodon, which was previously the largest known pterosaur. This reconstruction-attempt is at the very least miles better than the demonic pin-heads which kept showing up all throughout 70s and 80s kids books. The animal also just looks charismatic and majestic. What probably makes this my favorite illustration in the book is the little description on the right, which reads:

The little ones, the size of seagulls, follow Quetzalcoatlus in hopes that the shadow of their huge relative will frighten some fishes into leaping out of the water.”

This lovely tidbit of information gives the picture such a nice, little charm and makes you think of these creatures as real, living animals. It is a depiction of co-specific behaviour one would arguably see today in All Yesterdays-inspired paleoart and is probably taken from real seabirds, though do not ask me which ones (Do I look like Darren Naish?). What species the small pterosaurs are supposed to be is not specified. The Late Cretaceous is in fact well-known for its lack of smaller pterosaurs, though it is debated whether this was due to taphonomy or true absence. In a modern remake of this image, they would probably be replaced with proto-birds like Ichthyornis.

From that we come to the first terrible lizards, such as Coelophysis, here seen bullying your ultra-great-grandpa. “These were the first dinosaurs, the finest, fastest, smoothest creatures the world had ever seen. Oh, they were good at the game of life!”, to quote the author. The depiction has anatomically much improved over the previous illustration from Dinosaurs of the Southwest and the head-shape is also more accurate compared to the animal’s previous appearance in Synapsida. Curiously however, here the animal is naked, while in Archosauria he illustrated it with indications of proto-feathers. The necks and tails are also quite short and the arm seems to have human musculature. The background, as is typical for McLoughlin, is also very simplified.

Next up the two other main groups of dinosaurs, here anachronistically represented by Plateosaurus and non-descript hypsilophodonts, which have something goose-like about them. I like their stripe pattern. The family tree is much more simplified than the one in Archosauria, which unlike here actually showed pterosaurs being more closely related to dinosaurs. The Tree of Animal Life is a bit ambiguous on what McLoughlin defines as dinosaurs. In Archosauria he was of the opinion that they were only an informal grouping of multiple thecodont-descendants, nonetheless tied together as their own infraclass by their shared warm-bloodedness and distinct from reptiles. This was very much the opinion of Bakker, Galton and many others at the time and would only change to our modern monophyletic model as the 80s wore on. 

This Parasaurolophus is much improved over the one in Archosauria, which looked more like an ornithomimid cosplaying as a hadrosaur. Though it still is a bit too leggy. McLoughlin depicts it alongside a nest and describes hadrosaurs as probably engaging in parental care, due to being found closely associated to their eggs. He is likely referencing the then new research on Maiasaura that Jack Horner was conducting.

What would otherwise be a fairly generic image of dromaeosaurs engaging in pack-hunting is made all the more unique by the fact that McLoughlin identifies the depicted animal as Deinocheirus. Yes, the animal today known as an ornithomimid giga-duck. Back then of course only the impressively large, clawed hands of this dinosaur were known, leading many to think that it was actually a very fearsome carnivore. Here McLoughlin interprets it as a giant version of Deinonychus, capable of even taking down sauropods, making this a very, very bizarre premonition of the later discovery of Utharaptor. The stripes on the tail in fact remind me a lot of the Walking with Dinosaurs Utahraptor. The reason why they are all looking in the same direction is because some competitors for the carcass are approaching. If they are other Deinocheirus or maybe even tyrannosaurs (which are actually entirely absent from this book) is not mentioned, though I do like the expressiveness of the dinosaurs’ faces. I find it intriguing that McLoughlin chose to depict the skin on the sauropod’s feet with a very rugged texture. Fossil footprints from Portugal, found as recently as 2014, actually do indicate the presence of such roughened skin on the front-feet of a sauropod. Were there already discussions about this in the early 80s? Or was McLoughlin simply working from intuition and proved to be remarkably prescient once again… ironically in what is otherwise one of the most dated pieces in this book.

As alluded before, The Tree of Animal Life is uncharacteristically lacking in feathered dinosaurs, but they still do show up. Archaeopteryx is notably improved over its Archosauria-incarnation in that this time the wing-feathers actually attach all the way to the second finger. Its chaser is not identified, though, judging by the subtle feather-mohawk, it is very likely inspired by Sarah Landry’s Syntarsus. The Hesperornis on the opposing page is interestingly depicted with a mouth more similar to the other dinosaurs in the book. This is actually somewhat more accurate to the real animal than the majority of depictions, which inaccurately show the teeth erupting directly out of the beak.

Say the line, Bart! The dinosaur section ends, of course, with their extinction, but also McLoughlin’s trademark bison-ceratops. Yes, he still insisted that the head-frill was attached to the shoulders. At the very least the animal here looks a lot less Frankensteinian than its predecessor in Archosauria. It is also intentionally shrink-wrapped to indicate that is starving in this post-apocalypse, which is probably one of the few appropriate moments to use shrink-wrapping in paleoart. In this book McLoughlin gives an asteroid-impact as the reason for the extinction event. In the previous books he preferred a star-explosion, which was also a popular theory at the time. 

And finally, just to give you an idea of the many non-archosaurian things featured in this book, I present you with this absolutely hilarious Homo erectus hunting scene. Holy moly, look at those facial expressions! I adore the guy in the middle. Looks like he is hyping the reader up for the ultimate stone age smackdown this gazelle is about to receive. I can vividly imagine him yelling “Yeah, boiiiiiiiii!” 

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

  • Matthew, William Diller: Dinosaurs, New York 1915. (Readable here)
  • McLoughlin, John: Archosauria. A New Look at the Old Dinosaur, New York 1979.
  • McLoughlin, John: Synapsida. A New Look into the Origin of Mammals, New York 1980.
  • McLoughlin, John: The Tree of Animal Life. A Tale of Changing Forms and Fortunes, New York 1981.
  • Norman, David: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, London 1985.
  • Ratkevich, Ronald Raul: Dinosaurs of the Southwest, Albuquerque (or however the f*ck you write the name of this city) 1976.
  • Wellnhofer, Peter: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. An illustrated natural history of the flying reptiles of the Mesozoic Era, New York 1991.
  • Witton, Mark: Pterosaurs, New Jersey 2013.


Online Sources/Further Reading:

Image Sources:

  • Fig. 1: McLoughlin 1981, dust cover.
  • Fig. 2: p. 98 – 99.
  • Fig. 3: p. 100 – 101.
  • Fig. 4: p. 102 – 103.
  • Fig. 5: p. 104 – 105.
  • Fig. 6: p. 110 – 111.
  • Fig. 7: p. 114 – 115.
  • Fig. 8: p. 116 – 117.
  • Fig. 9: p. 118 – 119.
  • Fig. 10: p. 120 – 121.
  • Fig. 11: p. 126 – 127.
  • Fig. 12: p. 140 – 141.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Gresslyosaurus: The Eldritch Dinosaur that turned its Discoverer insane?

Fig. 1: Yours truly at the Zoological Museum of Zürich, standing next to a model of Plateosaurus engelhardti, a dinosaur that may or may not be similar to Gressylosaurus, though read on (Image taken by my girlfriend).

For a project of mine I may or may not be working on, I have lately been researching various fossil discoveries made in Switzerland. I have undoubtedly come across some major surprises, for example the discovery of a genuine terror bird, so far the only legit one from Europe, in Egerkingen. Today I will however talk about the somewhat disconcerting history of the little-known genus Gresslyosaurus. The first time I heard of its name I admittedly had to grin a little, as Gressly sounds a bit like “grässlich”, the German word for awful. Gressly is however the name of a person, Amanz Gressly, who dug the bones of this dinosaur out in Niederschöntal (today Füllinsdorf) in the Kanton of Basel-Landschaft and sent them to Ludwig Rütimeyer in the year 1856. To give you a feel for the time period, Switzerland under its current constitution was by that point only eight years old, having recently survived a civil war and the rule under Napoleon. Rütimeyer at first thought these bones belonged to Belodon, a genus of phytosaur, but in 1857 announced that these remains actually represented the first dinosaur fossils known from Switzerland. To honor its discoverer he named the species Gresslyosaurus ingens. Similar to the prosauropod Efraasia it was originally considered a relative of Teratosaurus, a genus infamously thought to have either been the first “carnosaurian” theropod or a large, carnivorous prosauropod, until in the 1980s it was realized to have actually been a rauisuchian crocodile-relative. In the following decades at least three other species were assigned to Gresslyosaurus, G. plieningeri, G. robustus and G. torgeri. The reason why most of you have probably never heard of this genus is Peter Galton, who in 1986 re-examined the bones excavated by Gressly and concluded that the genus is synonymous with the already known species of Plateosaurus, a dinosaur in Switzerland now better known from the Gruhalde quarry in Aargau. This has been generally accepted by workers ever since those days.

Fig. 2: Rütimeyer’s original sketches of the Gresslyosaurus fossils.

But who was Amanz Gressly, the discoverer of these fossils? Born 1814 in Bärschwil, Kanton Solothurn, Gressly originally studied medicine, but in 1834 decided to instead follow his true passion, geology. He taught himself the practice entirely autodidactically and together with friends amassed an impressive private collection of fossils. His personality was generally described as very odd and shy, but also exceptionally intelligent, nice and cordial. While I am definitely not an expert on these matters, based on some of the descriptions it seems plausible that today Gressly’s personality might be placed somewhere on the autism-spectrum. Louis Agassiz, well known for discovering the existence of the ice ages as well as his work on fossil fish, became aware of Gressly and his collection when the latter moved to Neuchatel in 1836. He decided to make Gressly his assistant, borrowing some parts of his collection for his works and even naming the clam genus Gresslya after him. During his time as Agassiz’s assistant Gressly wrote Observations geologiques sur le Jura Soleurois in 1841, which was significant for the history of geology, as in it Gressly was the first scientist to use and define the term facies (used to describe the general characteristics of a rock layer), which laid the groundwork for all later stratigraphy. In the same work he also gave birth to the study of biostratigraphy and paleoecology, discovering that the Jurassic mountains once used to be a shallow sea of reefs. Unfortunately, the completion of this work left a heavy toll, as Gressly suffered a mental breakdown shortly after, which his mental institution made him recover from through an extended stay in the city of Solothurn. Meanwhile, between the years 1833 and 1844, Louis Agassiz had been working on Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on the Fossil Fish), a monumental five-volume treatise, which also included parts of Gressly’s collection. The production, illustration and printing of this project made Agassiz accumulate a massive debt and instead of paying off said debt, he fled Switzerland and departed to the United States of America in 1846, founding the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. During his last years in America Agassiz became most well-known for his unflattering influence on “scientific” racism, such as his ideas on multiregionalism (the notion that the human ethnicities all independently evolved from each other out of different ape species), and also his critiques of Darwinian evolution. In case you were not convinced yet that Agassiz was a less than amicable person, during his exodus to the States he also took with him some of the best fossils from Gressly’s collection, apparently without the consent of the owner. This betrayal by his former mentor and idol burned Gressly out on Neuchatel, already disliking the city for many years (relatable), making him leave it shortly after. The following ten years he spent his life as what can only be described as a nomadic scientist, travelling through, and apparently even living in the wild parts of the Jurassic mountain side, studying rocks and fossils and only settling down for short times in Solothurn and surrounding cities to write and publish papers on what he had found. In these years this wild scientist of the mountains became beloved by the local populace and his colleagues, his sloppy clothes and wild-growing beard becoming his trademark. His obituary in the London Geological Magazine makes him almost sound like a real-life Gandalf:

He was a child of the people, loved and known by all. Possessing vast knowledge and most profoundly acquainted with the structure of our mountains, yet was he simple and unostentatious. Gressly had no enemies, envy and jealousy had no place in his heart; he was, as it were, an echo of another age. No one was more popular than he in the Jura; from the Perthe-du-Rhône to the Rhine there was not a village in which he did not count friends, and where his arrival was not saluted with acclamations.” (Stampfli 1986, p. 19).

In the 1850s his Enkidu-years came to an end as he was hired by the Swiss Central Railway as a geologic surveyor. The geologic profiles he made were integral to the construction of the Hauensteintunnel, one of the oldest railways in Switzerland. During his years working for railway-projects in the alps, nearly all his geologic predictions were proven correct during the tunnel constructions, even earning him the respect of the Geological Society of London. The beginning of the 60s Gressly spent with travelling to Southern France as well as Iceland to study, respectively, their marine life and geology.

Fig. 3: Amanz Gressly with his trademark beard. The photograph was taken in the 1860s, when he had become more sedentary again.

Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. Throughout his life Gressly had been plagued by mental health issues, his breakdown in 1841 only being one of many. In 1864 he had to go into treatment at the Universitäre Psychiatrische Dienste Bern, commonly referred to as the Waldau. What exactly he was suffering from is hard to say nowadays, as the study and treatment of mental disorders was still very rudimentary in the nineteenth century. The Waldau was commonly referred to as an Irrenhaus, meaning a lunatic/insane asylum, which at this time would have mainly been occupied with keeping its patients away from society, rather than giving them therapy and rehabilitating them. One of the few accounts of his life there and the reason why I am even writing this article, I discovered by complete coincidence. It comes from Die Urwelt der Schweiz (The Primeval World of Switzerland), written by Oswald Heer. Heer was a well-renowned paleobotanist and entomologist working at the University of Zürich and the Polytechnikum (which would later become the ETH) as well as a big idol to none other than Charles Darwin. His book, originally published in 1865, is a monumental work which details the geologic and fossil record of the country known at the time from the Coal Age all the way to modern day. It is also filled with tons of great paleoart by the author, even if most of it consists of plants, landscapes and bugs. In the passage describing animals from the Triassic he wrote a few sentences about Teratosaurus and how a fossil found by Amanz Gressly, the Gresslyosaurus, is likely the same animal. In what is merely a footnote he then mentions:

Der arme Gressly, welcher in Wahnsinn verfallen, ins Irrenhaus gebracht werden musste, wurde von dem Gedanken gequält, dass er in diesen Gresslyosaurus verwandelt worden sei.(Heer 1865, p. 66).

Which means translated:

Poor Gressly, who, falling into insanity, had to be brought to the lunatic asylum, was agonized by the thought that he had transformed into this Gresslyosaurus.

Heer does not provide a source for this claim, but considering that he knew Gressly personally, he is likely telling some version of the truth here, which has absolutely disturbing implications. The discovery of Gresslyosaurus was perhaps one of the most minor parts of Gressly’s life, so how come then that this dinosaur occupied such a large part of this person’s mind, that in an unstable state he came to think he had turned into it?! Was it simply because the dinosaur was named after him or was there something more bizarre going on? Was it something about the bones or the circumstances of the discovery itself? There is something very eerie about all of this, an untold backstory that a talented writer could probably construe into Lovecraftian dimensions. We may never know what has led to these circumstances, as Gressly took the secret with him to the grave. After initial improvements, he died on the thirteenth of April 1865 of a stroke, still at the Waldau. He was buried in Solothurn, where he liked to reside the most, his gravestone reading:

Gresslius interiit lapidum consumptus amore,

Undique collectis non fuit hausta fames.

Ponimus hoc saxum. Mehercle! totus opertus

Gresslius hoc saxo, nunc satiatus erit.”

Which roughly means:

Here lies Gressly, who died through his odd love of stones,

Which he collected in his house, but did not satiate his hunger.

Let us place this stone. By God! Covered whole in stone,

Lying between stone, Gressly now has enough stones.


Fig. 4: A megalith in the Verena Hermitage Gorge, with an engraving honoring Amanz Gressly. Yes, you read that right, a megalith. According to info-plaques at the place, the rock itself was not placed in Gressly’s honor but was erected inside the gorge in ancient times by iron age people, presumably Celts (Image taken by me).

Gressly is still beloved and well-remembered by Swiss paleontologists and geologists today. Multiple memorials have been erected in his honor throughout Kanton Solothurn, one of which you can see above. Even a street is named after him. Since 2004 the Schweizerische Paläontologische Gesellschaft gives the Amanz-Gressly-Award to people who have done extraordinary work in paleontology. In 2020 the sauropod Amanzia greppini was also named after him (the species name honoring Swiss paleontologist Jean-Baptiste Greppin). Up to that point this species, which was found in Moutier, Kanton Bern, was originally classified as Ornithopsis greppini, before that as a Cetiosauriscus and even before that as a Megalosaurus, as an associated Ceratosaurus tooth was once assumed to be part of the same animal. As for the fate of Gresslyosaurus? Galton’s assessment that the genus is the same as Plateosaurus was not accepted uncritically, already being criticized in 2003 due to significant differences in the vertebrae. In 2020 Oliver Rauhut and Heinz Furrer re-examined a load of prosauropod bones from Schleitheim, Schaffhausen, which had previously all been labelled Plateosaurus and were then largely forgotten. In their analysis they identified and named a completely new species among the remains, Schleitheimia schutzi, which unlike Plateosaurus was a quadrupedal sauropodiform very close to the origin of true sauropods (and also considerably larger). In the same paper they also re-examined the Gressly fossils and noted that, while the data is very fragmentary, the fossils do indicate a prosauropod that was very distinct from Plateosaurus and either was its own genus or is possibly synonymous with Schleitheimia (in the latter case the name Gresslyosaurus would have priority due to being older). The bones are currently being re-preparated for further study, but until then it does seem like the taxon is indeed valid again, in one form or another. In other words:


Gresslyosaurus has risen from the grave!


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Literary Sources:

  • Hartmann, Alfred: Amanz Gressly, in: Gallerie berühmter Schweizer der Neuzeit. Band 1, Baden 1868.
  • Heer, Oswald: Die Urwelt der Schweiz, Zürich 1865 (2. Edition 1883).
  • Rieppel, Olivier: Mesozoic Sea Dragons. Triassic Marine Life from the Ancient Tropical Lagoon of Monte San Giorgio, Bloomington 2019.
  • Stampfli, Hans: Amanz Gressly. 1814–1865. Lebensbild eines ausserordentlichen Menschen, Solothurn 1986.


Image Sources: