The Devil’s Corkscrews

06 May

The badlands of North America are rich with fossils, as I’ve stated before. The Bone Wars brought forth dozens of dinosaurs from the grounds of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. However, it’s not only ancient reptiles that come out of the ground here. Sometimes it’s much more sinister.

Imagine the farmers of western Nebraska. When you get out that far you start to enter the Badlands. The terrain is rough, dry, and hilly. For agriculture to prosper out here a great amount of earthworks were required to smooth the land, bring in water, and work the soil. This means excavation of large areas, exposing many different geological features.

The Devil's Corkscrew

Few, however, as odd as this one here. Check out the picture to the right.

These fossils could be as tall as a tree, reaching more than 3 meters in height. They twisted around themselves like nothing seen before and plunged into the earth. Perhaps it is understandable why people jumped to the presumption that it was artificially or supernaturally made. Even when the eye of science turned towards these fossils (naming them the daemohelix) they were misjudged, believed to be the roots of large plants or freshwater sponges (?!).

However, the answer came In 1893 when Thomas Barbour proposed they were made by beavers. Let me explain.

Beavers were not always a family of aquatic rodents. For a long time they existed much like gophers or prairie dogs, as middling mammals, fond of burrowing. But instead of a large network of tunnels, one particular genus, Paleocastor (literally ‘ancient beaver’), dug deep vertical helices to reach their nests.

On a side note, don’t these names sound like something out of a bad Dungeons and Dragons game? “The paleocastor used daemonhelix! Rocks fall, everyone dies.”

So how was the debate eventually settled? They found the skeleton of one of the beavers entombed within its own burrow. Classy.


Update: Switched photo to a more readable one. For my original and other pictures of a daemonhelix being unearthed, check out the Proctor Museum link below.

Sources: Proctor Musuem, NPS, Painted-Wolf, Wikipedia, Science Blogs, ScienceRay

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Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Natural History


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