It seems today is national poetry day here in the UK. This got me thinking about poetry that intersects with or has as a theme paleontology and archaeology- the deep time sciences. Given my interest in extinct felids and other carnivores I immediately thought of The Innocent Assassins by Loren C Eiseley. This is the only poem (to the best of my knowledge) that takes its theme and subject as the fossil of a sabre tooth cat. The fossil in question can be viewed here. I first came across the poem and the fossil when I was researching my D.Phil on the molecular evolution of extinct felidae- an excerpt nearly ended up as the preface to my chapter on ancient DNA from Smilodon and Homotherium. (In the end I went with a quote from a contemporary of Eiseley’s, GG Simpson “If, as claimed, the large sabers made it very difficult to eat, the animals took 40 million years to starve to death”.) The innocent assassins that so beguiled Eiseley are not in fact sabre tooth cats in the taxonomic sense. True cats (family felidae) are split into the subfamilies machairodontinae (sabretooths) and felinae (modern conical-toothed cats), whereas the assassins fossil is of a nimravid: Nimravus brachyops. The Nimravidae are sometimes known as the false sabertooths or the palaeofelids. (An excellent publication on the species of Nimravus is available here by the palaeontologist Loren Toohey, including photos of the famous specimen.) One of the first facts you come across while researching sabretooths is that the laterally compressed canines are extremely fragile, and that contact with bone would have been avoided in life to prevent shattering or damage to the tooth. This specimens seems to contravene this accepted wisdom. The Nimravus canine has gone straight through the right humerus it is now bound to for eternity. And apparently without shattering. Toohey suggests that the penetration of the humerus may have been post-mortem and caused by the weight of the overlying sediment, but this seems unlikely to me. Was it caused by intraspecific fighting? Scavenging? Was contact between canine and bone a regular occurrence for this species and can we extrapolate to other sabretooths? I remember reading about a dire wolf (Canis dirus) skull from Rancho la Brea that supposedly was excavated with a Smilodon canine inserted in the braincase. But again whether this was pre or post-mortem is debated.
At midnight in the museum hall
The fossils gathered for a ball
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodontic wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked—
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”
You can listen to the poem and music here. We had “fossils” playing at our wedding, before the bride entered for the ceremony. It gave a few of our friends a good laugh.