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Darwin's "living fossils" and the 1856 pterodactyl hoax
Darwin Day was on February 12. This posting was intended for the
occasion but was delayed. But since there are 12 days of Christmas, it
seems okay to me to have 12 days of Darwin as well...
In the 1859 first edition of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
used the term "living fossil" in the context of his new evolutionary
Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species. John Murray, London pp.
"And it is in fresh water that we find seven genera of Ganoid fishes,
remnants of a once preponderant order; and in fresh water we find some
of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the
Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a
certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These
anomalous forms may almost be called LIVING FOSSILS; they have
endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and
from having thus been exposed to less severe competition." [pg. 107]
"Species and groups of species, which are called aberrant, and which
may fancifully be called LIVING FOSSILS, will aid us in forming a
picture of the ancient forms of life." [pg 486]
Darwin is credited with inventing the term "living fossil," which has
been happily adopted by modern biology as an informal epithet to
designate animals, plants, and other organisms that retain primitive
features or in other ways seem to have remained little changed for
extensive periods of geological time. The term "living fossil" may be
handy, but it is also challenged sometimes as misleading or
inaccurate. In fact, all organisms living today have an evolutionary
history of fairly regular genetic change, even if humans may consider
their modern appearance, anatomy, physiology, or behavior archaic
compared to other forms of life.
One point that seems to have been overlooked is that the phrase
"living fossil" had an earlier history with a much less scientifically
grounded meaning before Darwin's use of the term in the Origin.
My current hunch is that Darwin, as a well read naturalist, would have
known the term "living fossil" from earlier sources and, rather than
inventing the term completely, simply repurposed "living fossil" with
a revised meaning for his evolutionary biology. Moreover, his
contemporaries would have recognized that his term "living fossil" was
not original. In particular, some of Darwin's readers in 1859 may well
have had the words "living fossil" still fresh in memory because of a
notorious paleontological hoax in 1856--the "live" pterodactyl
reportedly unearthed in Culmont, France.
The pterodactyl hoax itself had many of the elements of long standing
tales of so-called antediluvian toads or frogs (also called "toad in
the hole," "embedded toads," "toads in stone," etc.) reportedly found
buried deep in the Earth or in solid rock, typically by miners, quarry
workers, or construction workers. The creatures were usually said to
be in a suspended state when discovered, but then revived, apparently
having survived for hundreds or thousands (or millions!) of years
enclosed in rock underground. A common early claim was that they had
survived from before the time of the Great Flood and thus were a
living link to the world of Adam. Such toads were also sometimes
reported to die shortly after being exposed to the light and air,
although stories of healthy toads or frogs that survived were also
recounted. Sometimes it was claimed that a perfect mold of the
animal's body was left in the rock. Other times there was a rounded
hollow in the rock where the animal had survived. Stories of such
toads in stone dated back at least to the Middle Ages, but most
written accounts came from the 1500s onward.
For general info on "embedded toads":
Jan Bondeson. "Toad in the Hole". Fortean Times. June 2007.
Toads in the hole
The toad in the hole
Early scientific opinion was divided on the authenticity of such toad
and frog finds, and their interpretation.
For example, Ben Franklin discussed toads apparently found deep
underground in 1782 while he was in France. He speculated such animals
might survive underground for thousands of years:
MCXV: AN ACCOUNT OF TOADS FOUND ENCLOSED IN SOLID STONE
By the early 19th century, the term "living fossil" was occasionally
applied to such alleged finds, contrasting with the normal "lifeless"
fossil remains typically found in rocks--not only in English but in
German ("lebendiges Fossil/lebendige Fossilien"), Italian ("fossile
vivente/fossili viventi"), and French ("fossile vivant/fossiles
vivants")--well before Charles Darwin made the terms "living fossil"
and "living fossils" scientifically respectable with a new
evolutionary meaning. As a rule, however, a term meaning "living
fossil" was more likely to appear in general audience sources such as
newspapers or popular magazines, not in scholarly or more serious
Here are a few examples of the term "living fossil" associated with
embedded toads and frogs.
This article from a popular American publication in 1835 used the term
"living fossils" for reports of clams found deep underground and of a
toad found in stone that supposedly could have survived from before
Noah's Flood (a common idea):
Anonymous, 1835. Living Fossils. American Magazine of Useful and
Entertaining Knowledge 1: 110
The article was based on a paper by American geologist Amos Eaton
(1776- 1842) in 1829, who did not refer to the finds as "living
fossils" but did accept an antediluvian age. He also made this
observation regarding the clams (note that "Darwin's hypothesis" here
refers to Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather!):
"At any rate, they prove the absurdity of Darwin's hypothesis — that
all animals are perfected at every successive generation, and that man
'probably began his career as a fish.' For these fresh water clams of
three thousand years old, precisely resemble the same species which
now inhabit the fresh waters of that district..'" [pg. 249]
Eaton, A. 1829. Art. III. — Gases, Acids, and Salts, of recent origin
and now forming, on and near the Erie Canal, in the State of New-York;
also living Antediluvial Animals. The American Journal of Science and
Arts 15(2): 233- 249
In 1818, the German artist and naturalist Carl Gustav Carus (1789 –
1869) published a short paper entitled <<Beitrag zur Lehre von den
lebendigen Fossilien>> [Contribution to the study of living fossils]
on reports of amphibians found alive deep in the ground. He concluded
that the creatures had gone into hiberation hundreds or even thousands
of years ago, but, removed from seasonal changes deep underground and
in a some favorable cases not destroyed by the enormous pressure of
the surrounding rock, remained in a very reduced state of life until
discovered, after which, exposed to warmth and light again, they
Carus, C. G. 1818. Beitrag zur Lehre von den lebendigen Fossilien. in
Auswahl aus den Schriften der Gesellschaft für Mineralogie zu Desden.
Bd. 1 1818. p. 143-147.
The topic "lebendige Fossilien" [living fossils] was later mentioned
in geology textbooks such as below, but the supposed survival of such
buried creatures from distant geological time periods was dismissed
C. F. Naumann. 1849. Lehrbuch der Geognosie, Volume 1 page 825
[NOTE: After Darwin's Origin was translated into German, the form
"lebendes Fossil" ("lebende Fossilien") was more often used for
"living fossil" in the Darwinian sense.]
The Italian naturalist Alessandro Rizza (1817 –1866) published a paper
on the topic (although written shortly after publication of Darwin's
Origin, "living fossil" is used in its older sense):
Rizza, Alessandro (1863). 2. Fossili viventi ovvero -- Cenno sulla
prodigiosa longevità délle rane e dei rospi trovati dentro le piètre.
[Living fossils or comment on the prodigious longevity of frogs and
toads found inside rocks] La Corrispondenza scientifica in Roma per
l'avanzamento delle scienze VI. 1863, pp. 217-221.
(I can't find an online link to this text.)
The term "fossile vivant" was also sometimes used in French in a
similar way, as this passage from a novel by Alexander Dumas (1802 –
1870) set in the 1820s suggests with a list of marvels and
curiosities (of dubious authenticity) on public view in a kind of
"sideshow" for a fee of 2 sous. In addition to the spyglass that
Christopher Columbus used to discover America and Voltaire's cane, the
<<... enfin un crapaud fossile vivant trouvé, dans les couches
antédiluviennes de Montmartre par le célèbre Cuvier.>> [... finally a
living fossil toad found in the antediluvian strata of Montmartre by
the celebrated Cuvier] (page 165)
Alexander Dumas. 1854. Les Mohicans de Paris. [The Mohicans of Paris],
Serialization in Le Mousquetaire:
The term "fossile vivant" would presumably be known to the popular
audience for the novel, as well as tales of antediluvian toads found
in ancient rocks.
Perhaps the most notorious use of "fossile vivant" before Darwin's
Origin was the reported discovery of a pterodactyl (identified as the
supposed species "Pterodactylus anas"), freed alive from a large rock
by workers building a railway tunnel in northern France, which first
appeared in French newspaper (La Presse grayloise) on January 12,
1856. The story was widely republished in other newspapers, sometimes
without a skeptical disclaimer. The stories included this phrase:
<<Cette étrange créature, à laquelle on peut donner le nom de fossile
"This strange creature, to which can be given the name of living fossil..."
Another French version of the story used this title:
Découverte au sein d'un rocher, d'un grand animal fossile vivant.
[Discovery of a large living fossil animal in the middle of a boulder]
December 1855 issue of Annales de philosophie chrétienne 72: 521
Note that in French the word *canard* "duck" can also mean a hoax.
Clearly, the supposed Pterodacylus species *anas* (Latin for "duck")
was meant as a clue to the real nature of this news item (if the
details themselves were not preposterous enough!).
The story appeared shortly after in English in the February 4 , 1856
issue of the British newspaper the Morning Chronicle (for which
Charles Dickens wrote), using the term "living fossil," but with the
added disclaimer: "...the whole story bears a strong indication of
belonging to the genus Canard, as indeed is estimated by the Latin
name assigned to the animal." The Illustrated London News reproduced
the story in their February 9 issue (page 166) and fit the item in
smaller print at the bottom of a page filled with news from the
Crimean War, under the title "Very Like a Whale"--a phrase understood
at the time to indicate a doubtful tale (taken from Polonius in
Shakespeare's Hamlet, discussing shapes of clouds with Hamlet, who
leads him on, feigning madness). But the lack of a clearer disclaimer
(such as the Morning Chronicle provided) has made the ILN item fodder
for the credulous ever since. (English versions also misprinted the
original "Lancy" as "Nancy," a different city in France.)
" 'Very Like a Whale'
A discovery of great scientific importance has just been made at
Culmont (Haute-Marne). Some men employed in cutting a tunnel which is
to unite the St. Dizier and Nancy railways, had just thrown down an
enormous block of stone by means of gunpowder, and were in the act of
breaking it to pieces, when from a cavity in it they saw emerge a
living being of monstrous form. This creature, which belongs to the
class of animals hitherto considered to be extinct, has a very long
neck, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth. It stands on four long
legs, which are united together by two membranes, doubtless intended
to support the animal in the air, and are armed with four claws
terminated by long and crooked talons. Its general form resembles that
of a bat, differing only in its size, which is that of a large goose.
Its membranous wings, when spread out, measure from tip to tip 3
metres 22 cm (nearly 10 ft 17 in). Its colour is livid black; its skin
is naked, thick and oily; its intestines only contained a colourless
liquid like clear water. On reaching the light this monster gave some
signs of life, by shaking its wings, but soon after expired, uttering
a hoarse cry. This strange creature, to which may be given the name of
LIVING FOSSIL, has been brought to Gray, where a naturalist, well
versed in the study of palaeontology, immediately recognized it as
belonging to the genus *Pterodactylus anas*, many fossil remains of
which have been found among the strata which geologists have
designated by the name Lias. The rock in which the monster was
discovered belongs precisely to that formation the deposit of which is
so old that geologists date it more than a million years back. The
cavity in which the animal was lodged forms an exact hollow mould of
its body, which indicates that it was completely enveloped with the
Illustrated London News (Feb. 9, 1856) page 166:
Note the various details often attributed to "living fossil" embedded
toads--signs of life on exposure to light, then death shortly
thereafter, and an impression of the animal's body left in the rock.
The story was taken seriously and repeated in edited form as a
footnote later that year in the Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine Ser. 5, v.
2 (July - Dec. 1856) page 1113, cited as evidence of sudden geological
upheavals in the history of Earth.
For a discussion of the original French text and Morning Chronicle
English translation version of the "living fossil" pterosaur news
story see (in French):
Versions of the story in French newspapers:
Darren Naish on the DML back in 1995:
"Very like a whale: A phrase applied to anything very improbable, and
denoting disbelief in what is stated. (Shakespeare Hamlet, iii, 2)"
The Encyclopaedic Dictionary: 7: 533
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 3
It seems difficult to image that Charles Darwin was not familiar with
the 1856 pterodactyl hoax story and the associated use of the term
"living fossil," as well as the earlier occasional use of the term
"living fossil" for reports of ancient toads embedded in stone.
His wording in the Origin might suggest that he recognized, with a
touch of humor, a parallel with stories of apocryphal "living fossil"
toads or pterodactyls: "These anomalous forms MAY ALMOST BE CALLED
living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having
inhabited A CONFINED AREA, and from having thus been exposed to less
"...aberrant forms, which may FANCIFULLY be called living fossils..."
Very likely Darwin deliberately repurposed the evocative (but
pseudoscientific) existing term "living fossil" (associated with
supposed antediluvian toads, frogs, and other animals) for a more
scientific cause. For Darwin, the informal designation "living fossil"
applied to a surviving species whose ancestors had followed the normal
course of survival, reproduction, life span, and death for millions of
years in a line of descent, but without major
modifications--contrasting with the earlier application of the term to
an individual animal that had somehow remained unchanged and alive in
a suspended state for hundreds or thousands (or even millions) of
years embedded in solid rock, only to be accidentally brought back to
the light of day by amazed modern humans.
In crediting Darwin with the term "living fossil," it would seem more
accurate to say that Darwin redefined "living fossil" for the purposes
of evolutionary biology as a way to highlight surviving species that
appeared unusually primitive compared to most modern forms, providing
insights in extinct ancient organisms and transitional forms in
evolution. Prior to Darwin, the term "living fossil" was found more
often in general popular sources and not in serious scientific
discussions, which came to view reports of surviving antediluvian
animals found in ancient rocks as absurd, mistaken, or fraudulent.
The scope of organisms referred to as "living fossils" also has been
greatly enlarged since Darwin's limited examples of animals associated
with fresh water and confined areas (ganoid fish, lungfish, platypus)
to now include a wide range of animals and plants.
The earlier usage of "living fossil" was still understood well after
Darwin's revised meaning, as with these comments from 1889 about frogs
found in a coal mine in Scotland some years earlier:
"EMBEDDED BATRACHIANS.....The depth at, which this frog-bearing block
was found was 330 feet below the surface. Now, if this be a fact, we
must conclude that these frogs were living in the water in which the
sandstone was originally deposited (probably during the Carboniferous
Period), and furthermore, that they were able effectually to survive
the pressure and chemical changes which subsequently hardened the
sediment into sandstone! Poor creatures! how unhappy they must have
been for some thousands of years! It would be only reasonable of those
who believe so far in the vitality of these batrachians to expect some
day to unearth a LIVING FOSSIL in the shape of an Archegosaurus or
other amphibian of the past!..."
Carus-Wilson, Cecil. 1889. Embedded Batrachians. Science-gossip: An
Illustrated Monthly Record of Nature, Country Lore & Applied Science
I won't review the whole history of the " toads embedded in stone"
phenonemon (see general refs above), but a few vert-paleo connections
bear mentioning. The term "living fossil" was not used, however.
Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) included reports of toads found in trees
or stones without air or food as early as his Tableau élémentaire de
l'histoire naturelle des animaux from 1798:
The paleontologist William Buckland (1784 – 1856) conducted his own
experiments in 1825 to see how long toads could survive deprived of
light, air, food, and water, reported in a paper in 1832. He concluded
that claims of toad surviving hundreds or thousands of years were not
Buckland, W. (1832)—On the Vitality of Toads enclosed in Stone and
Wood; by the Rev. W. Buckland, F. R. S., F. L. S., F. G. S., and
Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in the University of Oxford.
Communicated by the Author. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 13(1):
Also in the Zoological Journal:
As head of the natural history collections at the British Museum and
the country's foremost paleontologist, Richard Owen (1804-1892)
apparently could not avoid the topic of toads and frogs entombed in
rocks, a particular fascination in Victorian Britain.
The biography of Richard Owen by his grandson mentions the topic and
an incident from November, 1849:
"Another popular delusion which he set himself to dispel was the idea
that a toad would live years, if not centuries, shut up without air or
food in coal or rock. In defence of this it was urged that in breaking
up lumps of rock, &c., which had never been disturbed before, toads
occasionally emerged, not only alive, but in excellent health and
condition. Mrs. Owen relates how she detected an ingenious fraud which
was got up 'with intent to deceive' her husband". [pg 325]
Owen, R. 1894. The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, Rev. Richard
Owen. Vol. I, London.
In 1862 Frank Buckland (1826-1880) (William Buckland's son) wrote a
letter to the Times of London (September 16, 1862, page 7) to decry a
particular item attracting much attention at the International
Exhibition at South Kensington in London (future site of the Natural
History Museum). The display in question included a frog in a bottle
and the ancient block of coal with a hollow where the frog was
supposedly discovered deep in a mine in Wales. The letter included a
comment from Richard Owen offering a logical explanation for how an
ordinary modern frog might end up in a mine. An ensuing exchange of
letters included clergy who defended the discovery and a letter that
pointed out that there were no frogs in the Carboniferous age when the
coal formed. Punch magazine published satirical versus on the
The idea of living antediluvian frogs and toads was not easily
squelched. Here is a letter from Owen in 1873 to a woman who reported
finding an entombed frog, offering another interpretation of events:
Researching the pre-Darwinian use of "living fossil" in digitally
scanned sources (online and offline) is, of course, limited by the
types of material deemed worthy of scanning and archiving. It seems
likely that a fair number of the less reliable newspapers and
magazines that might have published sensational stories of
antediluvian "living fossil" animals may have crumbled into deserved
obscurity. Nevertheless, I think it's highly plausible that Darwin had
seen the term "living fossil" before he found a new and redeeming
scientific use for it in the Origin of Species.
Perhaps someone who has read an extensive amount of biographical
material on Darwin could provide additional information. I searched
his letter archive online, but did not find any direct mention of the
term before 1859.