The Way of Nature:
The Science of Frances K. Pavel’s Archelon and the Sea Dragon
Public libraries have provided copies of Archelon and the Sea Dragon since the 1970s. And, to this day, very few copies not formerly owned by libraries remain in circulation. The book has gone out of print and seems fated to one day become as extinct as the dinosaurs. The mission of this essay and the associated video are to preserve this rapidly vanishing book for the future and give it an extended life on the web.
Who was Frances K. Pavel? Little about this author has survived in the public record. The book tells us she was a teacher. We can make an educated guess about why she wrote Archelon. In her story, a mosasaur attacks Archelon and rips off one of his rear flippers. This dramatic narrative moment may in fact be the place where Pavel’s story began. The Yale Peabody Museum houses the largest Archelon fossil ever found, nearly complete except for the skull and a missing flipper (Yale). Did Pavel travel to the museum to see this mighty Archelon specimen, or did she read about it somewhere? Either way, this fossil may have inspired her story. From that inspiration, she wove a tale incorporating biology, paleontology, and geology—and in no small way, a philosophy about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
What of Pavel’s account of the behavior and biology of Archelon and his ancient peers? Is it fact or fiction? More often than not, Pavel remains factual and very accurate. She interpolates Archelon’s behavior from the behavior of modern sea turtles, and science supports this decision. Turtles “have persisted relatively unchanged across the hundreds of millions of years of their existence” (McLoughlin, 21). Archelon’s mother returns to land to lay her eggs just like today’s sea turtles who “migrate long distances to lay their eggs on remote sandy beaches,” something they were doing “millions of years before humans appeared on the scene” (Castro, 179). Pavel’s description of the dangers faced by newborn turtles matches what we see today on those remote sandy beaches.
Pavel may be incorrect that with his “powerful, sharp jaws, Archelon could cut a five-foot fish right down the middle.” Sea turtles rarely include fish in their diets, and their jaws are typically weak regardless of their size. Sea turtles prefer “soft, bottom invertebrates like sponges, soft corals, and jellyfishes as well as hardier invertebrates like crabs and mollusks” (Castro 179). Some writers support this view that Archelon’s “jaws were very weak, so Archelon may have fed on jellyfish, which swarmed in large numbers” (Matthews, 72). The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs agrees that Archelon “would have had a similar lifestyle to the modern leatherback turtle of the Caribbean and North Atlantic” but says that it “probably fed on slow-moving planktonic prey such as jellyfish” (Dixon, 278). But other researchers assert that Archelon turtles “probably had a very powerful bite. Their beaks and mouths seem especially well designed for eating large molluscs, like squid, that inhabited the seas of the Late Cretaceous time” (Black Hills). Even so, little case can be made for Archelon’s devouring large fish.
Pavel writes of maternal ichthyosaurs bringing their young to the surface to breathe. She may infer this behavior from whales or dolphins and a belief shared by the authors of Archosauria: ichthyosaurs “probably resembled dolphins in life” (McLoughlin, 21). But, we observe this behavior most often “in captive dolphins,” whereas in the open sea, newborn calves “immediately swim to the surface” on their own (Castro, 207). Of course, this does not disprove Pavel’s portrait of the ichthyosaur. We know much about ichthyosaur physiology due to a number of specimens found in Germany which “preserved not only the bones, but also the muscles and skin” (Matthews, 63). Of their behavior in life, however, we know very little!
Many artists have depicted mosasaur attacks on Archelon and related turtles, but did mosasaurs really eat sea turtles? Mike Everhart, author of one of the most well-researched and extensively cited online reports about Archelon, believes that even though we have no solid proof, this dramatic conflict is a reasonable assumption. He quotes Belgian naturalist Louis Dollo who claimed marine tortoise remains had been found in the fossil carcass of the mosasaur Hainosaurus, and also crushing injuries on a shell in the Netherlands that appear to be a bite from “something very large and powerful” (Everhart).
Many fantastic dinosaur stories incorporate numerous dinosaur species without regard for their correct time periods. Pavel and illustrator Jim Lamb correctly select all of their ancient reptiles – tyrannosaurs, ceratopsians, and the marine fauna—from the late Cretaceous, though ichthyosaurs may have been rarer than described:
“As the Cretaceous Period progressed, a drastic change occurred in the nature of marine vertebrate faunas. Although plesiosaurs survived, ichthyosaurs and swimming crocodiles were rare, and huge swimming monitor lizards, the mosasaurs, were now on the scene. With large heads and body lengths as great as 15 meters (about 50 feet), they probably pursued larger prey than those of even the biggest ichthyosaurs. Turtles also invaded the seas on a grand scale. Of the several types that evolved, the largest attained lengths of nearly 4 meters (13 feet)” (Stanley, 122).
However, a casual reading of Archelon suggests a massive super-extinction leaving an empty planet on which mammals only appeared after the dinosaurs all died. In reality, “both dinosaurs and mammals evolved in the late Triassic Period from reptile ancestors,” although “mammals were small and insignificant for the next 150 million years” until after the massive dinosaur extinction (Matthews, 32). Plus, the vanishing ichthyosaurs did not leave the seas empty. Ichthyosaurs “occupied an ecologic niche approximating that of advanced sharks, which replaced them toward the end of the Cretaceous” (McLoughlin, 21). Sharks make no appearance in Archelon, although they were common as far back as the Permian Age millions of years before the events Pavel describes (Matthews, 12). Pavel’s Archelon surveyed the dwindling numbers of swimming reptiles, and she is correct in painting a picture of a gradual extinction. While pop fiction may suggest the dinosaurs became extinct overnight, the reality is that they were declining over periods of millions of years—a longer time period than homo sapiens has inhabited this planet! Pavel’s poignant moments where Archelon watches the mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs disappear does coincide with history as we know it. “Large vertebrates in the ocean failed to make the transition to the Cenozoic Era. Most important was the disappearance of the mosasaur and plesiosaur reptiles and of the largest marine turtles” (Stanley, 137). Stanley’s Extinction also provides more detail about the geographic and geologic changes of the continents over time, including the shallow seas that once covered much of North America. Pavel’s dramatic description of the rise of the Rockies also fits our current knowledge of the history of these ancient mountains.
In the end, Pavel’s Archelon finds himself suddenly buried on the sea floor. Fossil formation depends on such a live or sudden burial to protect the body from the elements and allow for the gradual replacement of once-living tissue with the minerals that become the fossil (Strauss, 33). This process has been known for many years, recounted many times in books such as The Album of Prehistoric Animals (McGowen, 43).
Frances K. Pavel’s great attention to biology, paleontology, and geology makes Archelon a story that educates as much as it entertains. But we perceive that hard science was no more important to her than a world view highlighted throughout her narrative. Pavel shows us a world where both protagonist and antagonist, and all the supporting characters, inhabit a web of eating and being eaten. All her creatures take part in this perpetual cycle. Pavel also takes the long view of biology. Archelon dies, but life continues. One turtle dies, but turtles live on. Life forms and species vanish, but new species take their place. Pavel shows us, too, the geologic perspective. As immense as our challenges and pains may seem, they are but brief seconds on the geologic clock of the planet. Pavel writes of peace and pain, tiny moments and sweeping historical vistas, individual lives and the history of life on this planet. In Pavel’s view, each of these perspectives has meaning. We are neither insignificant nor the center of the universe, but both at once. And that, as Pavel writes, is the way of nature.
Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. The Archelon. 2011, accessed 10/11/2011. <http://www.bhigr.com/pages/info/info_arch.htm>
Castro, Peter and Michael E. Huber. Marine Biology. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
Dixon, Dougal. The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures. London: Lorenz Books, 2007.
Everhart, Mike. Marine Turtles from the Western Interior Sea. 2011, accessed 10/11/2011 <http://www.oceansofkansas.com/Turtles.html>
Matthews, Rupert. Dinosaurs Through Time. China: McRae Books Srl, 2007.
McGowen, Tom. Album of Prehistoric Animals. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1974.
McLoughlin, John C. Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur. New York: Viking Press, 1979.
Pavel, Frances K. Archelon and the Sea Dragon. Chicago: Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises, 1975.
Stanley, Steven M. Extinction. New York: Scientific American Books, 1987.
Strauss, Roberta, ed. The World around Us #15: The Illustrated Story of Prehistoric Animals. New York: Gilberton, Nov. 1959.
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Archelon. 2011, accessed 09/16/2011. <http://peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/archelon>