Wieland with a fossil turtle known affectionately as “Stumpy”
This morning a lovely email came in about my book House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life On Earth. It’s from a writer and radio commentator named Jill Hunting:
“I have just finished reading your book and wanted to offer congratulations on a marvelous achievement … The writing throughout is beautiful and consistent, and I am in awe, frankly, of the soft landings at the end of your chapters.”
She added: “My favorite page is 154.” So naturally I wondered what the hell was on p. 154, and found a short anecdote about an eccentric paleontologist–is that redundant?–named George R. Wieland.
In the late 1890s, Wieland began working in South Dakota on a forest of fossilized plants called cycadeoids, also known as cycads for their resemblance to a variety of modern plant with a woody stem and palm-like crown. He soon became hooked on cycads. They had obvious visual interest, with their intriguing shapes, often resembling a beekeeper’s traditional basket beehive, and with a surface pattern of orderly pockmarks, from old leaf attachment points.
Wieland reconstructions of cycadeoid flowers and cones.
Local ranch families who collected the fossilized trunks as curios described them, Wieland wrote, as “beehives,” “wasps’ nests,” “corals,” “mushrooms,” and even “beefmaws,” for their resemblance to a bovine reticulum, the first digestive organ of a ruminant’s alimentary tract. On repeated trips back to the site in South Dakota, Wieland retrieved more than 700 cycad specimens, giving the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History the most extensive collection of these fossil plants in the world (and also earning Wieland a reputation in South Dakota as a plunderer). He went on to develop various methods of drilling and slicing cycads to study their interior anatomy. But let’s go to p. 154:
Over the years, Wieland became obsessed with his subject, even by the standards of museum curators. He could talk about nothing else, and he seems to have talked endlessly, to the point that it became necessary to
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