Ichthyosaurus limerick


Isabel Frances Bellows

There once was an ichthyosaurus
Who lived when the earth was all porous
But he fainted with shame
When he first heard his name
And departed a long time before us

Isabel Frances Bellows - c.1900

A pencil illustration of a closeup of an Ichthyosaurus. It's a little chubby, with some realistic marine animal neck rolls. Its sclerotic ring is visible through the skin, and its body is patterned with wavy stripes. Great attention has been paid to the skull anatomy and the way the face is reconstructed around it.
Guest art by Lawrence Banks (@Alloverasaur on instagram)

We first came across this poem uncredited in a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin. After a bit of digging, we learned the author was Isabel Frances Bellows. first published in the 1887 edition of St. Nicolas: an illustrated magazine for young folks. This publication ran from 1873 to 1943 and included poems, songs, and stories for children by various authors.

The natural history of this poem

The focus here will be on the poems mention of “…when the Earth was all porous.” If you want to learn more about Ichthyosaurus, we talk about them in detail in our post: The Ballad of Ichthyosaurus. This line refers to a concept referred to as the Hollow Earth, which is a debunked theory that the inside of the Earth is hollow and filled with other oceans and continents separate from the surface of the Earth. Hollow Earth concepts are old, but they gained some scientific interest through the 18th and 19th centuries. Likely, this was to attempt to explain fossils, as many people alive believed the extinct organisms they found in fossils had to be from unknown regions of the planet, such as a possible Hollow Earth region. This concept of Hollow Earth was brought to the popular spotlight by Jules Verne's classic novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which even today receives modern adaptations. In the novel, the main characters even witness an Ichthyosaurus fighting a Plesiosaurus in during their journey through the Hollow Earth, illustrating the possibility of these fossil animals still existing in a Hollow Earth environment. The modern Godzilla and King Kong movies also focus on Hollow Earth, depicting it as a radioactive place where massive ancient animals thrive deep below the surface.

Today, scientists have thoroughly disproven Hollow Earth theories, using evidence from seismic scans of the Earth that show clearly a solid and liquid hot inner Earth alongside other evidence such as meteorites made of the inside of other planetary bodies, and gravity related math theorems. The Hollow Earth concept is used by a variety of conspiracy groups with hateful and harmful views as part of a variety of conspiracies that forward those agendas. Unfortunately, modern media that is not listed as explicitly fictional, such as documentary-style shows like Ancient Aliens, contribute to misinformation alongside social media posts, helping disingenuous “theories” gain traction. When people believe these theories, they will often find like-minded communities that then introduce them to other conspiracy theories, particularly ones that fuel White Supremacist ideologies.

So, while it may seem like Hollow Earth as a concept it dead and buried, it is important that educators and scientists provide clear and concise summaries of why such theories are incorrect as well as make learning about the real science just as engaging and awe-inspiring.

A pen illustration on yellowing paper. In the centre of the image is the limerick, in whimsical hand lettering. Above it lies a lounging, sort of baggy-looking ichthyosaurus lying in a forest clearing. Its eyes are closed and its hand is raised like it has a very important story to tell, as it speaks into a telephone receiver held in its other hand. The cord from the receiver wraps around the limerick text and is being held by a schoolteacher, who is listening intently and writing the correct spelling on a chalkboard for four schoolboys to read.
This artwork and lettering are from the original publication of the Ichthyosaurus limerick in "St. Nicholas," 1887. Illustration by R.B. Birch.

Isabel Frances Bellows

Isabel Frances Bellows was a prolific American poet and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts, who mainly wrote children’s poems about nature during the late 1800s. Nothing has been written about her, so we’ve had to deduce biographical information from her extensive publications. The best text we’ve been able to find is her article, “A Fatal Reputation,” published in The Wit of Women, 1885. This volume claims to be the first to focus on women’s sense of humour and wit, and is a compilation of poetry and prose. In Isabel’s article, she laments the burden of being known among her friends as a great wit, and the expectations that comes along with it. She shares anecdotes of days where she tries to do her best to be entertaining, even when she wasn’t feeling very funny herself, and in fact didn’t want to attend social engagements at all. When her friends insisted she was the “life of the party” and begged her to attend their picnic (“that most ghastly device of the human mind for playing at having a good time”) she “sighed and consented.” Her writing drips with sarcasm and dry humour, even as she insists over and over that she was not “naturally witty.” Isabel spoke out against the practice of advantageous biographers publishing the unpublished documents and memoirs of people who had passed away, something that was common practice at the time and which palaeopoet George Dawson tried to stop from happening to his father. She was interested in science over what she called superstition, and she believed in the humanity of her fellow writers, for better or worse.