Clidastes in Limbo

By  |  September 30, 2015
From the series “Skeletons in the Closet” by Klaus Pichler. Courtesy of the Anzenberger Agency: anzenbergergallery.com From the series “Skeletons in the Closet” by Klaus Pichler. Courtesy of the Anzenberger Agency: anzenbergergallery.com

On dry days, when the floodgates lock and the sun shimmers on the waters, a broad shelf of slick white chalk appears along the banks of the Tombigbee River. It glistens beneath the Heflin Dam, a checkerboard of slabs baked from the sea-dust of Cretaceous oceans. It’s a good fishing spot. A steady stream of locals from Greene County, Alabama, pick their way down the rocky embankments and along the chalk, rods clattering, stepping carefully over coiled ammonite fossils and bits of driftwood. You can’t trust the shelf. Its face changes with every storm, torn up by the roiling water that rushes and gnaws at the slabs of flaking stone. When the waters come down, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

One hot day in June 2002, a young man named Chris Gladden walked out onto the chalk with his father, two fishing rods, and a bucket. They were wandering the bank when Gladden paused and looked down. Something odd had caught his eye: five quarter-inch bumps of gray stone poking out of the chalk, arranged in a curving line. It didn’t look like much, but Gladden—then in his twenties—had spent years involved in the family deer processing business, converting carcasses into piles of venison. More importantly, he’d spent a lot of time collecting fossils as a child. Something about the sight tickled his memory.

“That look like a backbone to you?” Gladden asked his father. His father allowed that it did, and the two men took out their penknives and began scratching at the chalk, fishing trip forgotten. Scraping away white flakes, they worked upward, uncovering the back portion of a slender skull. They stopped when they reached the eye sockets. It was no jumble of eroding bones—this was something good. Worried that others might come along and poach their find, Gladden covered the site with debris from along the riverbank. Then he called the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa to see if they’d be interested in taking a look.

Gladden was hoping to reach Ed Hooks, the curator of paleontology at the museum. But Hooks and his crew of volunteers were out on a summer field expedition in Dallas County and missed Gladden’s call. Instead, the news reached Bing Bluett, a retired professor and amateur paleontologist who often volunteered in the fossil lab. With a university geologist in tow, Bluett drove down to Greene County to meet with Gladden, who took them down the bank, past the boulders, and out onto the expanse of chalk where the remains were hidden. One look was enough. Bluett went back and called Hooks. “Drop everything and get out here,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s not as important as this.”

The bones, they discovered, belonged to an ancient marine reptile called Clidastes, a swift and serpentine predator. But the identity of the bones wasn’t what excited Bluett. Most fossils are scraps, distorted by the weight of time and rock. Skeletons shown in museums are plastic copies of real fossil material, the gaps filled in through educated guesswork. Finding a complete, articulated skeleton is rare beyond imagining—the equivalent of searching for pottery shards and uncovering a working Mesopotamian brewery. Visually spectacular and scientifically invaluable, such a find can unlock the secrets of an extinct animal and raise a museum to fame. Gladden had stumbled on one through sheer luck.

Gladden named the animal Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the hunt. She has the potential to be the most important Clidastes known to science. More than a decade later, hardly anyone outside the museum knows that she exists.

 

Seen from above, the Alabama of 80 million years ago would be barely recognizable to modern eyes. A massive bay covered most of the state, the southernmost offshoot of an inland sea that once stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The bay featured a unique mixture of sunlight, shallow waters, and upwelling nutrients, creating the perfect conditions for a vibrant marine ecosystem.

Much of it sported fangs. Listing the prehistoric inhabitants of Alabama’s oceans is like reading a roll call of Hell’s aquarium: goblin sharks, bulldog fish, swordfish with jutting tusks. Marine reptiles shot through the green waters on long flippers, serpentine necks snatching at prey. Most formidable of these predators were Artemis’s kin, the mosasaurs, massive cousins of today’s monitor lizards, armed with powerful finned tails and immense jaws. Several mosasaur species patrolled the warm waters, most of them thirty feet long and ravenous, able to snap up anything—shark, squid, smaller mosasaur—that crossed their path. The largest, Mosasaurus maximus, could grow as large as a humpback whale. At fifteen feet, Clidastes were the smallest species.

According to Dana Ehret, the museum’s current paleontology curator, Artemis herself measured only ten feet when she died. That would have put her squarely on the menu for larger predators. But there were no signs of struggle or scavenging on the skeleton Gladden had found. So what killed Artemis? How did she come to rest, locked in white chalk, every bone unscathed?

 

It took two days to pull Artemis out of the rock. After Bluett’s call, Hooks drove back from Dallas County, his volunteers in tow. The team built a tarpaulin cover over the skeleton to ward off the boiling June sun. Then they began to dig, racing the weather—if the Tombigbee rose, the skeleton would be lost.

Since Gladden had discovered the fossil, Hooks invited him to stay and help pull it from the chalk. Excited by the chance to participate in a real fossil dig, Gladden pitched in where he could, dusting, scraping, moving rock. They worked fourteen-hour days, in the heat, under the idle gaze of local fishermen. Carefully, they uncovered the top of the skeleton, confirming her completeness. Then, working faster, they carved out a trench ten feet long and eighteen inches deep around the bones, crowbars chipping away at the base of the fossil slab. But when they went to flip it over, the stone fractured under its own weight, splitting into three pieces. After checking to make sure the fossils in each portion were unscathed, Gladden and the other volunteers covered each slab with thick jackets of plaster and carried them, one by one, up the rocky bank to the cars. Soon the fossils arrived at the museum’s fossil lab in Tuscaloosa, one hundred and thirty miles west of Heflin Dam. And for a time, there they sat.

Fossils don’t pop out of the ground like buried bones. They are themselves composed of fragile rock, and must be meticulously prepared before they are removed from their surrounding matrix of stone. That kind of work should be done by a professional preparator, someone with steady hands and infinite patience. The museum has no such person on staff, and relies mostly on volunteers to clean material. The arrangement works well for scrappy fossils, but Artemis was delicate, and Hooks decided to leave her in her jackets until the museum found someone properly qualified to uncover her.

Bluett, who hadn’t participated in the excavation, had other ideas. For months, he and a fellow volunteer, David Lueth, begged Hooks to let them work on the fossil. Hooks held them off, but he was in the process of looking for a better-paying position, and Bluett was willing to bide his time. He got his chance in the late spring of 2003, when Hooks accepted a job outside Alabama. The slow pace of museum bureaucracy promised that the curatorship would be vacant for months, if not longer, leaving nobody to supervise Bluett. As soon as he got the news, Bluett marched into Hooks’s office. “Guess what?” he said. “The day you get in your car and leave town, David and I are opening that jacket.” Faced with the inevitable, Hooks told him to go ahead.

Bluett and Lueth were longtime volunteers of the museum, and both had experience cleaning small fossils. They took their time, working methodically over the slab. Bluett spent more than two hundred hours on the preparation, and Lueth spent hundreds more. But they still made mistakes. Tiny flipper bones were nearly lost one day, when Bluett blew away dust from the rock; he had to spend an hour on hands and knees before he found them on the ground. Once the moisture sustaining plaster that had kept Artemis from breaking apart was removed, the fossilized bone dried faster than the surrounding chalk. As the two men worked on the fossil—chipping at the rock—a shift in moisture levels caused several of the delicate vertebral arches to shatter. They had to be glued back together.

Still, the more of Artemis they uncovered, the more remarkable she seemed. Unlike the incomplete remains of most Alabama mosasaurs, Artemis was found completely intact, preserved in three dimensions. Her long, slender body lay pressed against the rock, the ribs still half-buried, the graceful lines of her skull unbroken. The degree of preservation was incredible; the vertebrae were still porous, their bumps and ridges unsmoothed by time or tide. For an idea of how unlikely this is, Bluett said, imagine tossing a dog into a shark-infested pond. The chances of finding a pristine, articulated skeleton at the bottom are “pretty close to zero.”

One possible explanation is offered by Randy McCready, who until recently served as the museum’s director. He suspects that Artemis was killed in an underwater landslide, a disaster that swept her over, pinned her, and smothered her beneath the silt. Mosasaurs, he said, probably rested occasionally at the bottom, waiting for unsuspecting prey. If Artemis were lurking on an underwater slope, then she could have been overwhelmed before she had a chance to escape. Trapped beneath the silt, her body would have begun the long process of fossilization, protected from scavengers and the elements.

Dana Ehret and Bluett both agree that this is the most likely scenario. You simply don’t get fossils this good, Ehret said, if they lie exposed on the bottom for any length of time. Artemis’s bones are unmarred by worm trails, oysters, or sharks’ teeth. Her body must have vanished with incredible speed, swallowed up by the seabed in the blink of an eye.

This raised an intriguing possibility. The rapid preservation of Artemis might have allowed more than just her bones to be preserved—perhaps other, rarer traces remained as well. If so, Bluett and McCready believed, Artemis could really be something world class.

 

Alabama has produced its share of spectacular fossils. From the Carboniferous coal veins of the Appalachian foothills to the crumbling Cenozoic clay near the gulf, strata from multiple epochs lie across the state. In the southernmost fields of Clarke County, nineteenth-century farmers occasionally plowed up great vertebrae from the loam, vertebrae large enough to serve as furniture. In 1835, such bones were officially described by naturalist and physician Richard Harlan as parts of a primitive whale, Basilosaurus, a discovery that set off a frenzy among fossil prospectors all over America and Europe. They flocked to Alabama, eager to unearth or purchase more specimens of the strange serpent-whale.

The oddest of these prospectors was Albert Koch, a bombastic German entrepreneur, scientist, and con man. Koch picked his way across southern Alabama in 1845, looking for an artifact spectacular enough to draw a paying public. Later that year, he unveiled a fossil wonder of his own in New York City: the complete remains of a massive sea serpent. Koch dubbed his beast Hydrargos, “master of the seas,” and claimed before packed crowds all over America that the animal stretched 140 feet long.

Hydrargos seemed too good to be true, and it was. Koch had constructed it from the scavenged parts of ammonite shells and at least six different fossil whales, each collected from a different site in Alabama. He also lied about its size; his 140-foot monstrosity was only 114 feet. Still, Koch successfully sold his creation to the Prussian king, who had it displayed in Berlin’s Anatomical Museum over the strenuous objections of its scientists. A few years later, Koch did it again, unloading a second Hydrargos for a tidy profit on a credulous museum owner in Chicago.

For all its duplicity, Koch’s hoax offered a dream that contemporary paleontologists couldn’t quite match. The discipline was a young one, and its proponents were still struggling to make sense of the fragmentary remains they were uncovering. Reconstructions of extinct animals shifted wildly with every publication, each form more unlikely and speculative than the last. In such an anarchic environment, Koch offered the seductive promise of a perfect skeleton: a set of remains so spectacular, so flawless, that they could answer any question about their long-dead owner. Moreover, Koch proved that possessing such skeletons all but guaranteed the attention of an enthusiastic public.

Paleontologists spent the next 100 years chasing that dream. Most went west, lured by the massive dinosaur fossils emerging from the badland bluffs. But in 1945, a staff member from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago happened to swing east after a collection trip in Arkansas. He spent a few days scavenging in the chalk gullies of the Alabama Black Belt and was impressed enough by what he found to suggest a full expedition. The following year the Field Museum came down in force, on a months-long excursion led by Rainer Zangerl, the curator of fossil reptiles. Everything they found was shipped north, to either the Field Museum or the Smithsonian. Almost none of it, Ehret says, was ever returned to Alabama.

That story was repeated endlessly across the state, with basilosaurs, with delicate amphibian footprints, with the whole prehistoric ocean life of the Black Belt. Collectors arrived from outside and left with spectacular fossils. Alabama, with little in the way of a professional paleontological presence, had to watch as its wonders were shipped away. Homegrown collectors consisted of amateurs like Gladden, who mostly found scraps. Even now that the Alabama Museum has taken over the bulk of the state’s fieldwork, most of the really spectacular remains are gone. “Chicago got the good stuff,” Ehret says. “We’re stuck waiting however many hundred years it’ll take for the rock to erode away and reveal new material.”

Now, the museum’s collection is filled with isolated pieces: jaws, shells, vertebrae by the hundreds. But while these fossils are important, very few of them are on display in the exhibit hall; it’s hard to get people excited about bits of bone. Even so, there’s something exciting about Artemis. She shares that much with Koch’s Hydrargos—both embody the idea of spectacular completeness, the tantalizing thought that by looking at petrified bones, one can glimpse a vanished life.

 

And yet the mosasaur’s sinuous body still lies half-sunken in the shale, like a carcass in the shallows of a frozen ocean. She has never been fully excavated: after the troubles Bluett and Lueth had preparing Artemis’s top half, nobody since has been willing to go in blind and risk damaging whatever secrets might still be buried in the rock. The museum put Artemis on exhibit in 2002, in a case a foot smaller than her complete body—there was no money for a larger case—so the skeleton’s middle chunk is in storage. At the moment, the museum’s complete Clidastes is presented incompletely.

The question the curators face now is what to do with her. According to Ehret, Artemis, if studied properly, could reveal a wealth of information. An analysis of rare-earth elements in her bones could reveal her metabolism. Studying samples from vertebrae might show how old she was when she died, and yield valuable data about growth rates in mosasaurs. The remains of her last meal might linger in her ribs. Before those possibilities can be explored, however, Artemis needs to be both fully prepped and formally described in a scientific journal. The prep work alone would take years, Ehret says, and much of it would have to be done on a microscopic level, on the off chance that skin impressions had been preserved. And without a formal scientific description, Artemis cannot be cited in other studies. She can only be mentioned in passing, as an undescribed specimen, which is the scientific equivalent of not existing at all.

Several things stand in the way of decoding Artemis. The first is a simple lack of finances: in order to move forward, Artemis needs a CT scan to check for delicate features hidden in the rock. Such procedures aren’t cheap, and Artemis won’t be touched again until she gets one. Commercial organizations like Colorado’s Triebold Paleontology have approached the museum about preparing Artemis, a task they would perform in exchange for the right to produce and sell replicas of her skeleton to other institutions. Under a deal like that, the museum would receive a five percent cut for each replica sold. But by keeping the preparation of Artemis in-house, the museum hopes to recoup the costs of the CT scan through selling replicas themselves. Besides, McCready says, if Artemis is to be prepared at all, she should be prepared in the museum. Too many of Alabama’s fossils have left the state. Now that they have something spectacular, they intend to hold on to her.

A larger issue is scheduling. Since 2002 the museum has gone through several curators, all of whom have had their hands full with other projects. None of the museum’s resident paleontologists specializes in mosasaurs, and none of the visiting ones have stayed long enough to work on her. McCready himself left last September, and there’s no guarantee his successor will have the time or interest to navigate the financial obstacles that would be involved in freeing Artemis from her tomb.

 

The Alabama Museum of Natural History is tucked away in Smith Hall, in a nondescript corner of the University of Alabama. Chris Gladden and I met there to pay our respects to the beast herself. We entered through the glass doors and walked up a marble staircase, into a wide gallery filled with wooden cases and hardwood floors. The skeleton of a Basilosaurus hung overhead, the bones of its flippers curled like grasping hands. The hall was empty of all but the occasional student hurrying to geology class elsewhere in the building. Our footsteps echoed in the space.

To the right stood Artemis’s display case, the light from a nearby window playing over the intricate lines of her bones and pooling in the empty sockets of her eyes. Since the sediment of the inland sea compacted her to stone 80 million years ago, continents have moved and oceans have retreated, the rock above her eroding away by inches, until the day the waters of the Tombigbee fell and a fisherman stepped over her bones. Gladden looked down at a placard on the case that proclaimed, in tiny typed letters, that Artemis is the most complete mosasaur in the world. He examined her teeth: the teeth of a swift, powerful hunter. For a moment, he said, he can see her as she was, in a time when the world was younger, richer, and crueler. Sometimes that’s enough.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Asher Elbein is a freelance journalist and short-fiction writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow him at @asher_elbein.

More from Asher Elbein