Happy Thanksgiving (and a fossil turducken)

Today’s Bloom County cartoon, courtesy of reader Stash Krod (click to enlarge):


Reader John W. sent this salacious Thanksgiving cartoon (if you don’t know what a “turducken” is, go here):


And, for some biology on this day, we have an item reported in September by Discover Magazine and National Geographic: a “preshistoric turducken”.  Yes, it’s a three-in-one fossil find discovered in Germany’s Messel Pit, a remarkable cache of fossils from the Eocene, deposited around 47 million years ago. (Messel is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.) Like a turducken, it shows three species inside each other, though unlike a turducken, the fossils are sequential members of a food chain.  Here’s the fossil (the interpretation is below):


The white arrow above indicates the tip of the lizard’s snout resting inside the snake.

And this is what happened (from National Geographic):

Forty-eight million years ago, an iguana relative living in what’s now Germany scarfed down an insect with a shimmering exoskeleton. Soon thereafter the lizard’s luck changed—when a juvenile snake gulped it down headfirst.

We know this happened because the snake had the spectacularly bad luck to end up in a death trap: the nearby Messel Pit, a volcanic lake with toxic deep waters and a possible knack for belching out asphyxiating clouds of carbon dioxide.

It’s unclear if the lake poisoned or suffocated the snake, fates that more often befell the area’s aquatic and flying creatures. Most likely, it somehow died near the lake and was washed in. But no more than two days after eating the lizard, the snake lay dead on the lake floor, entombed in sediments that impeccably preserved it, its meal, and its meal’s meal.

And that’s a very good thing. That fossil, recently described in Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, is only the second of its kind ever found, revealing three levels of an ancient food chain nested one inside the other in paleontology’s version of Russian nesting dolls—or its culinary equivalent, a turducken.

“It’s probably the kind of fossil that I will go the rest of my professional life without ever encountering again, such is the rarity of these things,” says Krister Smith, the paleontologist at Germany’s Senckenberg Institute who led the analysis and a National Geographic/Waitt Grant recipient. “It was pure astonishment.”

Here’s the reveal (illustration from Kreister R. Smith): the snake is in white, the lizard, Geiseltaliellus maarius, is in orange, and the insect inside the lizard’s gut is in turquoise:


This isn’t the first fossil showing three levels of a food chain. A 2008 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society reports a fossil shark that ingested an amphibian that itself ingested a fish. Thus, unlike the one above, all are vertebrates. Here’s that one, about 300 million years old, which is a little harder to suss out. The caption comes from the Royal Society paper:


(from paper): Figure 1 Triodus sessilis with ingested prey items. (a) Photograph of a specimen from the Lower Rotliegend of Lebach, southwest Germany (UHC-P 0682). (b) Line drawing of digested temnospondyl larvae. Left: an almost complete specimen of Cheliderpeton latirostre with the remains of ingested juvenile acanthodian. Right: skull of Archegosaurus decheni. as, acanthodian scales; br, branchial apparatus; cla, clavicle; ?clei, cleithrum; fem, femur; gs, gastral scalation; fs, acanthodian fin spines; hum, humerus; icl, interclavicle; il, ilium; man, mandible; mc, Meckel’s cartilage; mca, metacarpalia; mta, metatarsalia; na, neural arch; or, orbit; pas, parasphenoid; pf, pectoral fin; pg, pectoral girdle; phal, phalanges; pq, palatoquadrate; ps, xenacanthid placoid scales; r, ribs; rad, radius; sk, skull; sta, stapes; ul, ulna.

The scenario:


If you’re one of those having a turducken today, give us a shout in the comments. I’ve never had one!

h/t: Grania


  1. rickflick
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I’d have to guess that turducken is pretty common. The free range turkey may have just eaten a bug before being harvested for your very own holiday meal. The crop being part of the giblets perhaps contain this bug and will be swallowed by someone at the holiday table. And, I have to assume that, from time to time, the bug eaten is carnivorous and contains the assorted fragments of a another mini-beasty. As long as you wash it all down with a prestigious wine, you have nothing to worry about.

  2. Alpha Neil
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Mmmmmmmmm…snalizeetle… (drools)

  3. Posted November 24, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    No turducken over here but finding the fossil described above fascinating.

    Carl Kruse

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Those are some amazing fossils.
    Today, the Mrs and I and the kids will do our parts to prepare a traditional meal for this holiday, and later tuck into it. After that, we will probably take a nap. After that, there shall be turkey leftovers all week.

  5. Posted November 24, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Spectacular fossil, but I needed the colored in picture to appreciate.

    Turducken is a very fowl concoction.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  6. Alexander
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Glad I wasn’t born 300 million years ago! Perhaps I was, but I don’t remember anything.

  7. W.Benson
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Actually, it’s no longer possible to know for certain the composition of fish and meat (species, genes, and chemical additives) or what offal the animal was fed or the outrages it had to suffer before you buy it at the market.

  8. jeremy pereira
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    The problem I have with a “turducken” is that I can’t get past the “d”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 25, 2016 at 1:09 am | Permalink

      Lol! Now that you mention it, that is unfortunate. 😀

  9. Posted November 24, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Happy Thanksgiving to the those celebrating, and mind those who oppose the holiday!

    Interesting fossil!

  10. Doris Fromage
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    One year, this giant styrofoam clamshell arrived at our door. Inside was a surprise, a turducken, from my husband’s parents! But it was a mistake – they’d ordered the turducken for themselves and something quite a bit smaller for us for the holiday, and the deliveries were somehow switched. So we ate the turducken – it wasn’t very good 😦 Overly spicy and kind of dry. We’ve never been tempted to try it again, but this year we’re going out on a limb and trying a kosher turkey, since the kosher chickens we’ve had have been so uniformly delicious! Happy Thanksgiving to all, and I hope everybody has the day off.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 24, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      What is a kosher chicken?

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted November 25, 2016 at 12:21 am | Permalink

        One that hasn’t been cooked in milk from its mother?

  11. John Conoboy
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Then there is the Turbiskafil, from the TV show Big Bang Theory. Howard’s mother makes it by stuffing a turkey with a brisket stuffed with gefilte fish.

    That snake fossil is one of the coolest fossils I have ever seen.

  12. Merilee
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink


  13. Posted November 24, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    As a kid in Missouri, I once saw a fisherman with a “figasin”. He’d hooked a small fish, which while struggling had been predated by a large bullfrog, which in turn had succumbed to a water moccasin. The snake was still alive, hanging from its fangs, I presume.

  14. Larry
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    That is one incredible fossil!

    High priority question: in the comic with the three bedmates, post-turducken activites, what are the green splots on the wall and carpet?

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted November 25, 2016 at 12:24 am | Permalink

      Ask your parents. If they don’t know, you’re out of luck, because abstinence is the only kind of sex education permitted now.

      • Larry
        Posted November 25, 2016 at 12:44 am | Permalink

        Well, I asked them, and they said to ask you.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 25, 2016 at 1:14 am | Permalink

      Possibly feathers? (But if so, not very accurately drawn.) One could imagine a lot of feathers flying around during the previous activity.

      • Larry
        Posted November 25, 2016 at 3:19 am | Permalink

        Diane…oohhh, could be. Oddly shaped, but I guess they could be feather fragments from frolicking fouls.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted November 25, 2016 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    How can anyone not love biology?!

  16. Bob
    Posted November 25, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Wow! I lived for nearly 15 years not 16 kilometers from Grube Messel and have been to Darmstadt many, many times (Once for a Garlic Festivle.) and never heard of it.

    I’ll visit in July when we return for a visit to Bad Mergentheim.

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