The 5 Most Incredible Scenes Ever Preserved by Fossils
Paleontology is a tricky business. While it's easy enough to study living animals -- because they're, you know, right there -- a paleontologist has to work with parts and pieces all smashed up and tossed about by millions of years of geological demolition derbies. However, every once in a while Mother Nature decides to cut your friendly neighborhood dinosaur hunter some slack by capturing a perfect snapshot of something awesome. Like ...
Ancient Predators Caught in the Act of Murder
If you've ever been to a natural history museum, you've probably seen those giant skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs rending each other's neck-meat in epic Tokyo-stomping battles for survival. Of course, dinosaurs never come straight out of the ground like that. The best a paleontologist can hope for is some tooth marks on bones -- anything more elaborate takes a cinematic eye and a whole ream of that wire they use to stitch the bones back together.
Except, that is, when they find something like this:
"Say 'uncle'! Say it!"
Yep, that there is a protoceratops locked in vicious battle with a motherfuckin' velociraptor. This fossil turned up in the Gobi Desert in 1971, complete with the raptor's trademark death-sickle claw buried deep in its victim's neck and its arm broken in its victim's jaws (OK, so maybe "victim" wasn't the right word to use there). They were unexpectedly frozen in their never-ending battle royale when the collapse of a sand cliff buried them, and today "the fighting dinosaurs" are considered a national treasure of Mongolia.
But America wasn't about to be outdone by some Mongolians, and in 2006 a team in Montana went and dug up the classic tyrannosaurus vs. triceratops match-up dinosaur fans have been having stop-motion daydreams about for generations. The "Montana dueling dinosaurs" feature a showdown between a 30-foot nanotyrannus and an unidentified triceratops relative. This brutal battle between equal-and-opposite titans resulted in crushed bones, broken teeth, and mutual annihilation.
They basically found these fossils while digging through your childhood fantasies.
But dinosaurs had more to worry about than other dinos. In India, fossil hunters came across a dinosaur nest full of sauropod eggs. Sauropods were the famous "long-necks," the biggest land animals ever to crush the planet underfoot, and adults were as untouchable to predators as elephants are today. But as tiny 20-inch hatchlings, these would-be giants made easy snacks for all sorts of prehistoric monstrosities, including, in this case, snakes:
If you're thinking that looks more like a fossilized dino turd than a snake, here it is seen through Science's patented Fossil-o-Scope:
Take note of Littlefoot's stubby arms pleading for mercy.
And if that's still not clear enough, here's a full 3D sculpt of the horrific scene:
Snakes haven't evolved much since the age of dinosaurs. No need to change once you've perfected the art of being terrifying.
A mudslide interrupted the snake before it could gulp down the infant, meaning it's really only guilty of attempted baby dino murder.
Two Mammoths Beating Each Other to Death (Over a Woman)
In 1962, a surveyor working on a Nebraska range discovered some gigantic bones sticking out of the ground. The Dinosaur Police were called to the scene, and they found the skeleton of a 12,000-year-old mammoth. At first it was all standard procedure, but as the investigators kept digging, they noticed that something was a little off. Namely, that the mammoth seemed to have way too many tusks.
"We're dealing with a mutant double-mammoth, or possibly some kind of land Cthulhu."
Digging deeper, they made a bizarre discovery that no one had ever seen before: The extra set of tusks belonged to a second mammoth, and the two had died with their tusks tangled up around each other's heads.
The detectives had an idea about how these behemoths might have ended up in such an awkward position: Males of modern animals such as elephants, moose, and frat-house jackasses often engage in savage head-butting contests to impress women, and they reasoned that these mammoths had (literally) joined in battle the same way. But they couldn't prove their hypothesis until 40 years later, when they ran the skeletons through a battery of modern tests.
"Our core samples show conclusively that they were attempting to combine into a Megazord."
Dental exams revealed that the mammoths were both mature enough to enter their seasonal hormone rage, and that they died during the time of year when their murder-boners were pulsing at full power. After getting their faces tied up in a ridiculous knot, they fell and pinned each other down, exhausting themselves in their desperate struggle to escape.
Believe it or not, this painting isn't on the side of a van.
It was a truly grueling death for our two hormone-fueled mammoth teenagers, but as miserable as it sounds, they were still probably better off than the wolf they squished as they went down.
A Sudden, Mass Slaughter
A mere 10 or 12 million years ago, Mother Nature decided to toss modern paleontologists a bone by setting up perhaps the most elaborate fossil photo shoot of all time ... by going into full-on Extinction Mode.
This is what a paleontologist looks like when he's giddy.
A volcanic hotspot in Idaho blew a hole out of the planet with the power of 100 Mount St. Helens explosions, puking debris across hundreds of square miles of North America. A thousand miles away in northern Nebraska, a cloud of fine volcanic ash drifted down like a snow day in Tartarus. The ash was no longer blazing hot, nor particularly poisonous -- which was too bad for the animals of a local watering hole. Denied a glorious fire-and-brimstone volcanic death befitting the circumstances, they were instead treated to a long and painful suffocation. By the time the dust had settled, the entire region was thoroughly buried in ash.
Fast-forward to 1971. Paleontologist Mike Voorhies was digging in a ravine that had been buried in 10 to 20 feet of ash and found a mass graveyard. Within three short seasons of digging, this virtually bottomless ash hole shat out 200 skeletons of at least 17 animal species -- an entire ecosystem of extinct American rhinos, horses, camels, birds, turtles, and more. Most of the skeletons were in perfect condition, and all had telltale growths on their bones indicating lung failure. Young rhinos were found beside their dead mothers still trying to nurse, and others nuzzled noses as if kissing each other goodbye.
Let's not desecrate this solemn scene with jokes about how it looks like they're humping.
The site is now the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park, and they're still digging up victims over 40 years after the initial discovery, including long-extinct oddities like giraffe-necked camels and saber-toothed deer. New finds are constantly uncovered and left in position so that anyone can take a joyous stroll through the park to witness Mother Nature's grim panorama of despair.
Spiders Caught in the Act of Being Terrifying
Bones are great and all, but wouldn't it be cool if we could see prehistoric animals just as they were in life, frozen in action in some sort of glassy time capsule? That's what amber is good for -- ancient fossilized tree sap that preserves mosquitoes so perfectly that Jurassic Park scientists can slurp still-viable dino blood out of them. OK, they can't really do that, but amber still does a fantastic job at preserving all sorts of creatures, such as this unfortunate gecko:
At least he probably had insurance.
Most creatures found trapped in amber were just crawling around minding their own business, so amber nuggets are typically fairly boring. But on certain rare occasions a critter might get caught by surprise while doing something interesting, and when this happens, it's usually a spider eating something alive. Because if Mother Nature is going to bother capturing a perfect still-life for us humans to enjoy later, why leave behind something awesome like a flawlessly preserved T. rex when she could instead present us with everlasting horror?
We'd feel sorry for this wasp, but seriously, fuck wasps.
Here we have an orb-weaver spider bearing down on a wasp caught in its web, and even after 100 million years the silky web strands are still intact. Today, this type of wasp is a parasite known for injecting its larvae into spider eggs. So either the wasps were already hijacking spider eggs way back in the dino days and this fellow just happened to get caught in the act, or his descendants started a wanton campaign for vengeance, slaughtering unborn spiders to redeem the species' honor.
Baby-killing wasps weren't the only creatures on the spiders' menu, though. This next petrified snapshot shows a female spider devouring her own mate in a fit of coital munchies:
Don't knock getting devoured while having sex until you've tried it!
But perhaps even more unlucky than the lady spider's mate/appetizer is the poor bastard of a beetle who was trapped nearby, presumably while sitting very, very still and keeping very, very quiet:
... and masturbating furiously.
The most chilling aspect of these pieces is that even as they were being swallowed up in gooey tree sap, the spiders clearly didn't give a single shit and kept right on with their grisly business, thus proving that these eight-legged hell-creatures have been dedicated to keeping terror alive since the beginning of time.
You know what's missing from our comprehensive archive of kickass fossil scenes? Disturbing dead animal pornography.
Jurassic flies, boning. And now, our amazing journey through prehistory is complete.
Every single animal living on the planet right now is the product of tens of millions of generations playing vigorous sessions of groin-tag. With those numbers, it stands to reason that sometime, somewhere, somehow, a happily humping couple would suddenly die in a compromising position, and we'd duly post their humiliating pictures on the Internet. Here's a pair of turtles who died of asphyxiation while having sex:
These aren't actually fossils. Turtles are just a bit slow to finish is all.
Trilobites were the dominant life forms of the Paleozoic seas, and they certainly didn't rise to such incredible numbers without stripping off their shells and engaging in vast, slithering, naked orgies:
If there wasn't already a bizarre "-philia" for this kind of thing, we probably just inspired one.
So out of all these fucking fossils, which one takes the crown as the definitive voyeuristic glimpse of the sex that time forgot? To answer this question, we turn to Dorion Sagan, son of "The" Carl Sagan, who waxes erotic on the world's first recorded ejaculation in his book Death and Sex:
Wait, is your mom in the room? Keep scrolling, keep scrolling!
"Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaophyton's antheridium, its male sex organ -- filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the 'money shot' of pornographic films -- an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer's Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record."
We couldn't possibly have put it any better than Mr. Sagan, so we'll just add this single word in closing: ew.
Related Reading: Some prehistoric monsters are still around, like the lamprey (AKA condom full of teeth). For a look at the weird directions human evolution could have taken, read this article and learn about our Hobbit cousins. And did you know the Loch Ness monster might have been a Plesiosaur? It makes sense.