Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Ever wanted to meet an extinct animal? Once you’ve heard my story, you might want to think twice about that.
Ever since my childhood I had a huge affinity with dinosaurs and other extinct animals. Whenever a movie or documentary about the subject was to be aired or announced, I quickly looked it up and watched it.
Series like Jurassica on the Discovery Channel, Walking with Dinosaurs and it’s spin-offs Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters on BBC and Prehistoric Park and Primeval on ITV. Movies like Jurassic Park, Dinosaur and even Land before Time. I watched them all or at least as many of them as possible.
But I digress…
This facination for these ancient creatures inspired me to study paleontology. After years of studying and researching, I achieved my dream and got a job at the natural history museum where I did my internship as head paleontologist.
At one point, I lead a fossil hunting expedition in South Africa after the museum got a message from a befriended farmer who stumbled on a fossil-rich sedement layer full of beautifully preserved skeletons of late Permian megafauna upon his land. In case you’re not familiar with Permian megafauna, at this point in Earth’s history, life on Earth was at the edge of the greatest mass-extinction event the planet has ever known. Around twohundered and fifty million years ago, over ninety percent of all life on Earth was wiped out, causing the planet to nearly be devoid of all life. The dominant life forms were a wide variety of strange reptiles, some of them paving the way to the rise of mammals in the late Triassic period, about forty million years after the Permian-Triassic mass-extinction.
The idea of having an exhibition on life in the late Permian sounded tempting and not many museums have exhibitions like that so after months of preparations, we arrived at the quarry.
Some of our finds included a group of five Scutosaurus’s, an Estemnosuchid, several Dicynodonts and a beautifully preserved skeleton of a large Gorgonopsid. The twenty foot long predator only missed a few teeth, some metatarsals, ribs and vertebrea and a part of the lower jaw, but otherwise as good as complete.
I was really excited to find all these extraordinairy creatures in such a well preserved state. These specimens could tell us a lot about a flourishing world before it plunged into an apocalyptic disaster of biblical proportions.
After excavating the fossils for nearly a month, they were ready to be wrapped in a cast and to be shipped off to the museum. But before we could leave, an old skinny black man appeared. He looked like he could be the village fool. In a heavy South African accent he said “Please…I beg you…Leave these fossils where you found them. You’ll disturb their spirits. If their remains are to be removed, their restless souls will haunt you”
As you could guess, I’m not a very spiritual or religious person. I’m a scientist who wants to learn more about long lost ancient worlds and the amazing creatures that inhabited them. I shrugged off the crazy man’s warnings and went back to the museum.
Months go by and during that time, the fossils we dug up in South Africa were unpacked and cleaned up from the rocks they have rested in for the past twohundered and fifty million years and a new wing was built on to the museum to make room for our new Permian exhibit.
After fifteen months, the new exhibition room was ready to be opened to the public. It was a huge succes. That day, the museum was visited by over five hundred people from not just our own home town, but from across the world. Even the befriended farmer on who’s land we found the fossils was invited to see the results of our hard work.
As you go into the exhibit , you’ll first encounter five Scutosaurus skeletons, looking like they were searching for new feeding and breeding grounds, followed by an impressive Estemnosuchid skeleton posed like it was a roaring hippopotamus.
The Dicynodonts were posed like modern day prairie dogs, making them especially popular with the kids.
And in the middle of the exhibition was the pride of the museum; the majestic skeleton of the Gorgonopsid. The missing parts were reconstructed from clay and were painted in the same deep brownish colors as the origina fossil bones so they wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
I was having a blast to see all those excited faces, but that quickly dessipated into nothingness when I saw a familiar face in the crowd. It was the old man who approached me back in South Africa when we were about to leave for home, only he looked older, angrier and more upset.
“I told you to leave the fossils where you found them” the old man said to me in an upset tone. “You’re putting yourself and everybody here into grave danger” Before I could walk towards the old man, he set his hands on one of the Dicynodont skeletons and tore it off the stand, scaring some of the kids and making them cry. He runs off with the severely damaged skeleton when I started to chase him. “COME BACK WITH THAT FOSSIL! IT’S VERY FRAGILE! PLEASE! GIVE THAT BACK!” I yelled, hoping someone could help me to stop the thief
My pleading cries were heard by Matt, an old friend of mine who also worked at the museum, but as a museum guard. Matt manages to cut off the old man’s path and stops him before he could reach the museum’s exit. I managed to take back the severely damaged skeleton while Matt handcuffs the old man.
“You’re making a huge mistake! Please! Return the fossils to their graves before it’s too late” The old man pleaded with thick tears on his face when the police carried him away from the museum. I went back to the exhibition room to appologize to the crowd for the events that just transpired. I brought the scared kids and their parents to the museum’s giftshop where the kids could take home one of the miniature toy versions of our new Permian beasts for free.
What should have been a day of celebrations, it became a day of frights and dissapointments. The Dicynodont skeleton was so severely damaged, it took weeks to be repared and presentable again. Despite what happened, the new exhibition remains a succes for years to come and in that time we didn’t hear anything from the crazy old man who had so rudely interupted our opening day.
One evening however, some of my fellow co-workers and I worked until late to study some of the fossils that didn’t make it to the exhibition because they consisted of just a handful of bones or too imbedded into the rock it wasn’t save enough to remove it without damaging the fossil.
I was examining a Platyhystrix fossil, a strange sail-backed amphibean from the same time as the animals in our new exhibition when I heard the pitter patter of tiny feet. At first I thought we had rats so I went to inspect it.
Armed with nothing more than a flashlight, I searched the halls for the little furry intruders. When I arrived at the Permian exhibition hall I started to notice something odd. I found some strange bloody footprints. At first I thought the rats had injured themselves while trying to intrude the place so I followed the prints, expecting to find some injured rats.
But as I followed the footprints, I noticed that they also left behind claw marks. These couldn’t be left behind by a rat. These were more like a monitor lizard’s clawmarks. I kept following the claw marks untill I found a large hole in the wall which looked like it was gnawed on by some rodent like a rat or a gopher.
I started to get confused. No animal alive today had a combination of a monitor lizard’s gate and being able to gnaw like a rodent. When taking a peak in the hole, I noticed something moving, but because it was so dark, I couldn’t make out what it was.
I grabbed the flashlight I had on my belt to have a proper look, but it spooked whatever was hiding in the hole. Before I knew, the mystery creature bit my hand, leaving a large gash. When I had a clear sight of the culprit, I was surprised to see it looked like a pudgy lizard with tusks and a beaked mouth. It was a Dicynodont. A living…breathing Dicynodont. Soon more Dicynodonts came running out of the hole after hearing the distress call of the one who bit me. One of them had some walking difficulties, as if it recently got…..injured when it was roughly handled. That reminded me of the incident with the crazy old man who tried to steal one of the Dicynodont skeletons on the opening day of the Permian Exhibition.
When I realized that detail, I rushed to the Permian exhibit and to my shock, the Dicynodont display was empty. Did the fossils come back to life? No…it couldn’t be. What was going on? Was that old man right about disturbing the spirits while we excavated those fossils. That’s when I heard a loud window crash and walls being torn appart. When I turned around, I noticed something else missing. The herd of Scutosaurus’s was also missing. They too mysteriously turned back to life. I was both spooked and fascinated when I saw the lumbering armored behemoths graze on the fern garden just outside of the museum.
This was my chance to study the feeding habbits of a creature which has been extinct for over twohundered and fifty million years. Fortunately the Scutosaurus’s were very docile creatures. One of them even approached me out of sheer curiousity and wrubbed it’s head very gently across mine like a cat who wanted some attention.
But as I was about to pet the curious Scutosaurus, I heard a loud scream and a viscious roar which even spooked the Scutosaurus’s which I just managed to dodge while they were stampeding out of sheer fright.
When I hurried back inside, to my horror, another fossil was missing. The highlight of the exhibition, the giant Gorgonopsid, which we nicknamed “Hades”, after the greek god of the underworld, came back to life. I heard another scream which I recognized as that of my friend Matt.
That huge predator was chasing Matt. I hurried as fast as my legs could carry me, but I realized I was too late when I heard my friend’s blood gurgling cry. When I finally found the beast, it had already torn off Matt’s head and crushed his ribcage, showing the ribs sticking out and the organs spilling all over the floor.
Hades stood about five feet at the shoulder and was twenty feet long. His skin was covered in both scales and short fur. His blood covered saber teeth were over ten inches long. The ancient beast soon realized that Matt’s dismembered remains weren’t enough to satisfy his monsterous appetite and quickly turned his gaze towards me. As soon as Hades started to run towards me, I ran as fast as I could in an attempt to outrun the giant mammal-like reptile.
While running, I came across a small stool which I managed to lift up and as soon as Hades came too close, I managed to hit the beast in the face with the small stool. Even though it wasn’t enough to knock out the beast, it was enough to distract it long enough for me to have a head start and find a new hiding spot so I could think of a way to take care of the Gorgonopsid.
But before I knew it, Hades found me again. He must have smelled the blood from the wound I got when I was bitten by one of the Dicynodonts earlier tonight. Again, I ran as fast as I could.
Being chased by Hades was like being chased by a grizzly bear that had the agility and stamina of a Siberian tiger. No matter how much I liked prehistoric animals, I refused to end up as a midnight snack for the apex predator of the late Permian.
When I finally reached the museum’s exit, I tripped over my own shoe laces, fell and badly hurt my arms. Before I could get back up, Hades had already placed his right front paw on my chest and slowly scraped his claws across it, leaving severly bleeding and painful scratch marks. The beast then proceeded to play with me like a cat does to a mouse before delivering the fatal blow.
I saw a chance to escape again when Hades didn’t pay attention to me. But before I could get back up again, Hades pinned me to the ground and crushed my spine in the process.
The last thing I saw was the gigantic head of the predator, staring at me with a furious look on it’s face when suddenly his mouth made…speaking motions. “You should have left us in the rocks when you had the chance, but you just had to dig us up” Hades spoke in a clear and terrifying South African accent before making a final roar and tear me to shreds.
The museum was closed for good after that horrendous night and the remaining objects were moved to other institutions across the country.
The Dicynodonts, the Scutosaurs and Hades dissapeared without a trace but if you listen real carefully at night, you might hear the beast roar, searching for it’s next meal.
CREDIT : Michiel Gilissen