Paleontologists recently announced the discovery of a new species of prehistoric marine mammal, found in Unalaska. While the fossils were discovered many years ago, the announcement in early October that they were of a separate species was new information.
Ketchikan artistand self-described paleo-nerd Ray Troll had an inside line on the story, and contributed illustrations of the new species for the scientists.
Ray Troll has made a name for himself among the nerdy set with his scientifically accurate paintings, most often depicting fish and, more recently, extinct creatures known only by the fossils they’ve left behind.
Troll arrived at the station carrying a fossil that someone gave him many years ago in Oregon. Troll said that person thought it was a fossilized tooth from an ancient horse.
“Twenty-some years later, I start getting interested in this animal, and I was literally sitting there, googling Desmostylus tooth, looking at them on eBay, and I looked over and said, ‘I’ve got one! That’s what that is! It’s not a horse tooth!’”
The tooth is an odd-shaped square, a little more than an inch on each side. It’s made up of columns, each about the width of a pencil, and one edge of the tooth is worn smooth. Troll said Desmostylia’s name comes from its unusual dental development.
“Desmo means a bundle, it’s Latin for bundle. Stylus means a pillar,” he said. “So, it’s a bundle of pillars. It looks like a little six-pack.”
Desmostylia lived for about 23 million years, and then just died out, leaving behind its fossils.
“They’re found in the Pacific. The north Pacific, to be specific. Ba-dum-bump,” Troll said. “They range from the tip of Baha all the way over to Japan.”
Troll said he became interested in Desmos through his friend, Kirk Johnson, who worked with Troll on a book, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway.”
Johnson was the connection between Troll and Dr. Louis Jacobs, a Texas paleontologist and one of the researchers who determined that the Unalaska fossils were a previously unidentified species.
Jacobs said he had been at the Smithsonian, looking at Desmostylian skeletons, and was about to leave for the day.
“And then, there was the Director of the National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson, coming in,” Jacobs said. “We shook hands and said hello, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him, looking as Desmostylians. He said, ‘I love Desmostylians!’ he said, ‘Ray Troll and I are working on those things now, because we’re doing another book.’”
Jacobs told Johnson about his research, Johnson passed on the information to Troll. The next day, Jacobs got a call from Troll, and, long story short, Troll soon was working on drawings of a newly identified extinct species of Alaska Desmostylus.
Now, some of these fossils were dug up a while ago – in the 1950s — but Jacobs said they were misidentified. The research team spent a lot of time studying the bones, along with other more recent finds that had been in the Museum of the Aleutians, to make sure it was a new species. And, it was.
“We named it Ounalashkastylus tomidai,” he said, and they published their findings – accompanied by the Ray Troll illustrations — in early October in “Historical Biology.”
The researchers decided to honor Troll for his contributions, so from now on, a group of
Desmos will be called a troll.
The troll of Desmos fossils were found where Unalaska’s Eagles View Elementary School now sits. Troll said he’s suggested to the principal that the school change its mascot to the Fighting Desmos, and offered to draw the new logo if the school agreed.
“I got sort of a curious silence,” Troll said of the school’s response.
But, he said, it would be a unique school mascot and would honor a prehistoric creature that’s indigenous to the area.
“Uhhh. At this time, that would take some discussion,” said Eric Anderson, Eagles View principal, in a separate telephone interview. “The school was named Achigaalux, which, Eagles View, so there is some history to the naming of the school. It would be pretty tough to change that at this point.”
The school has, though, and will continue to use the Desmostylus discoveries as a teaching tool for students.
“It’s something that we can go outside of our curriculum, and study a little bit more in depth and get kids excited about studying the past, not just our cultural past, but prehistoric past,” he said.
Troll is contributing to that effort, as well. He’s sending the school a framed print of a Desmostylus, and Anderson said they’ve already picked out a spot to display it.