The Agony and the Ecstasy in the Cretaceous

Sophia and Maddie stand in front of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops skeleton – each pair like buddies in a road trip movie – in the foyer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Other kids and adults walk along the polished floors and their voices echo in this cavern of dead things as they gaze up in awe at these 65 million years extinct animals. “You know,” Sophia says. “These dinosaurs are from the Cretaceous and not the Jurassic. But, you know, Hollywood.”
Crustaceous,” Maddie says, as she continues to look up. “I like those movies.”
We wander through Dinosaur Hall and marvel at the sauropods that rumbled across the earth and the plesiosaurs that used to swim the waters that had covered the present day California’s Central Valley. These animals obtained such great size because the atmosphere was thicker with oxygen. It is fascinating to think that one element in the atmosphere can have such a great impact on the development of life forms, but we also know an overabundance of an element in the atmosphere can destroy life forms.
In a case, toward the end of the first hall, there is a slab that looks like an ancient marble frieze. The carvings are not of heroes or gods, but sea lilies. They look like cephalopods with arms streaming from bulbous bodies like a head of garlic with calcite scales.

Uintacrinus socialis – Sea Lilies. Photo taken at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

I’m puzzled at the name sea lilies and find out the Uintacrinus socialis is a stemless sea lily, unlike other sea lilies, which attach themselves to the sea floor with the stalk. Uintacrinus floated in colonies above the sea floor on the current with its ten arms undulating in the Permian Sea for whatever food drifted into reach. They are all frozen in movement and look as if they still swim in The Western Interior Seaway that covered modern Kansas 87-82 million years ago. They are preserved in a thin layer of chalk from the Niobrara Formation. They have only been found in a 2-3-inch layer out of 800 feet of chalk deposit. The large slab behind the glass, with its rough and uneven surface and cracks and various shades of white, brown, green, illuminated under the combination of museum lighting and sunlight streaming in a window makes them luminous. We stare into an aquarium of ancient life and it’s like when you look at octopuses curled into a hideout or partially buried in sand or gravel and you stare trying to anticipate when they’ll move. About 80 species of sea lilies still exist in our oceans, from shallow waters to 30,000 feet deep. Their colors are a garden of delicate reds, pinks, yellows, some oranges, greens, and blues, waving with current like the long and fuzzy seed heads of ornamental grass in a prairie breeze.
I love bird fossils the most. My favorite bird fossil is on the mezzanine. The Caudipteryx zoui, which means tail feathers, was unearthed in Northern China in the Sihetun area of Liaoning Province. It died 125 million years ago. Embedded in the rock, the two-foot-high bird looks caught at the apex of its flight before it begins falling from the sky. Its head is thrown back and its body is arched as if still trying to ascend to the heavens as it loses momentum. I am reminded of Icarus, and of Auden’s poem “In the Musee des Beaux Arts” and Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Failing and Flying.” Auden writes of how in the scheme of daily and worldly events we are indifferent to the suffering of individuals. In the other poem, how triumph and failing are intertwined, but our greatest achievements only come just as we fall.

Caudipteryx zoui – Bird. Photo taken at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

When Caudipteryx zoui died it became encased in basalt and siliciclastic rocks. The docent says conditions have to be right for a bird to fossilize due to its hollow bone structures and wings. It’s an airframe and while strong in certain conditions, it is delicate and easily crushed and rubbed out by nature. In this case, the shifting earth kept this bird skeleton intact. The geologic forces so destructive, yet so preserving. But, she says, this bird was flightless. Still, she says, the lucky geology to keep such a specimen intact for millions of years.
I’m a little let down. My whole narrative running in my head of this ancient bird falling from the sky begins to unravel. Is it not so glorious that maybe it was running its own Marathon and succumbed at the far reaches of its endurance? What is it about that moment of striving and succumbing that captivates me? To get Hollywood on you, I can’t help but imagine this flightless bird, maybe as flightless as a roadrunner, a wild turkey, a peacock, but with the advantage of high ground or a running start and a favorable wind, can soar. The genetic threads in its inadequate wings, feeling the ache to have air flow over them? It transcending its earth bound life to become an unconscious evolutionary attempt at flight. Something had to try flying before some creature made it. After a few flaps the rich atmosphere create displacement, holding the bird aloft. Imagine the O2 coursing through its veins and nourishing its brain, so that maybe it understands the exhilaration of its first flight, of its life at that moment in space and in time. Who’s to say it’s not smart enough to realize the same wonder and awe a three-year-old human does? Birds now can use tools, remember faces, and for all we know sing out randomly in awe of the sunset, the sunrise, of just being alive. Can mortality be sensed as it struggles to stay aloft? I know it might not have realized much, but panic at the moment of death, the will to survive is evident in the animal kingdom.
Imagine this bird over the Western Interior Seaway – another Hollywood move for sure – but there it is, in this unknown country, soaring into the sky as blue as it has ever known, and at its peak falls backwards, tumbling over and over like a flat spinning jet into the sea. It strikes the water. It sinks through the warm shallow waters. As it does, gasping for breath, it is surrounded by the bright colors of the sea lilies, waving their luminous arms around it as it descends further and further into the abyss, into the stone of time.

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