Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Old bones by the ton

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, palaeontology

Thomas Jefferson had some; Ben Franklin handled a few; Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell (important names in early Geology) studied and described them...the big bones from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. In Big Bone Lick: the Cradle of American Paleontology Stanley Hedeen takes us on a rapid time-and-space tour of the late Pleistocene to early Holocene Midwest.

When I first saw the book, being ignorant of the Lick, I thought its subject might be the dinosaur wars of the desert West. But I was in for a treat. There appears to be little in the history of northern Kentucky's premier fossil locality of the hatred and rivalry that marked the Cope-versus-Marsh collecting binges of the late 1800s. The earliest visits to the area by Europeans were in the 1750s, and a great deal of collecting went on for a hundred years before Cope or Marsh ever heard the word "Dinosaur".

The "favorite fossil" of Big Bone Lick is the American Mastodon, which was at first thought to be a huge bison, or a giant human. The bones were mostly in pretty poor shape. Salt Licks get trampled, over and over again, as herbivores visit them almost as frequently as they would a watering hole in the desert. From a salt-requirement point of view, a well-vegetated field is a desert. Herbivores don't get nearly enough salt from plants, so they will travel far to a source of salt.

Where many animals congregate, many die; some of predation, more of drowning by crowding. The soft muck through which the briny waters rise facilitates rapid burial of the dead and soon-to-be-dead unwary.

Big Bone Lick was the first place the Mastodon and other species were found, and its mute evidence eventually led Jefferson and others to conclude that extinction was possible, overthrowing the Platonic (not really Christian, but widely thought to be) idea that the species of the earth are static, neither going extinct nor new species arising.

The Lick is also still the largest and most prolific deposit of fossils for the period 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is still a source of collections being studied. The current roster of extinct species of large mammal stands at seven. Thirteen other more recent remains, from bison to dogs, have been found there. The Big Bone Lick State Park web site has details of the modern museum and trails.

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