Written and recited by Jay Artemis Hull
Written and recited by Jay Artemis Hull
There once was a mammal that changed course
and it took the Cenozoic by force.
It looked like the raccoon
that would be here quite soon
but ‘twas really the dad of a horse.
These poems were originally part of a collection Hull wrote for the Michigan State University Museum’s Hall of Evolution. The collection aimed to highlight creatures in the murals by John W. Hope that form the backdrop of the exhibit and to celebrate the fusion of art and science. You can see the exhibit and paintings that inspired the poems in this 360 tour. You can also find most of the poetry collection on the museum’s fossil poetry activity page.
Jay’s first poem features the humble cockroach, a type of insect that is commonly found where people live and is often considered a “pest.” However, most cockroach species do not interact with people and are vital parts of their respective ecosystems. Cockroaches help break down decaying organic material and act as a food source for many larger animals. Cockroaches belong to a group of insects known as Dictyoptera, which also includes termites and mantises. This group appeared around 350 to 300 Million Years ago, during the Carboniferous period. Those ancient dictyopterans looked very similar to modern cockroaches, though there is debate on the exact classification of these insects, with recent studies suggesting that their cockroach like appearance is only superficial and that the “Carboniferous Cockroaches” were a different group of dictyopterans altogether. Regardless, they were close relatives and calling them “500-million-times great grandparents” is pretty spot-on. Jay also mentions “giant dragonflies” in their poem. During this time, dragonfly like insects known as meganeurids flew through the skies with wingspans nearly one metre wide!
In Jay’s second poem, they talk about an extinct mammal known as Loxolophus. Loxolophus lived during the earliest portions of the Palaeocene (66 to 56 million years ago) and superficially resembled something like a modern raccoon or coati. However, Loxolophus has historically been considered a “hoofed” animal of some sort. Jay references this by calling Loxolophus the “dad of a horse”, suggesting its close possible relationship to horses and their hooved relatives. Historically, Loxolophus has often been suggested to be part of a group of early hooved animals known as Condylarthra. More recent studies suggest the condylarths are a group of animals that look like each other but aren’t very close relatives at all. This would make Condylarthra a “wastebasket” group, which is a nickname that scientists give to taxonomic groups of organisms that do not “fit” very well into other groups in a classification and are often lumped together based on a few (often superficially) similar traits that they share. Modern analyses continue to have difficulty to classifying mammals such as Loxolophus, suggesting that it may be an early relative of carnivorous mammals like dogs and cats, a relative of odd toed hooved animals like horses and rhinos, or a relative of even toed hooved animals such as cows and sheep. Therefore, saying that Loxolophus is related to a horse may be proven correct someday in the future as more fossils are found that help scientists determine what the different “condylarths” are related to.
Jay Artemis Hull is a nonbinary poet with an affinity for rocks, birds, and tabletop role playing games. Their work has found home in a handful of literary journals as well as engraved in the sidewalk and arranged to accompany the Michigan State University Museum’s Hall of Evolution. They have hosted poetry events including a drop-in poetry station at the museum’s National Fossil Day and Darwin Day events, workshops at the South Lansing Library, and performances as a guest feature in other venues around Lansing. You can find more about them and their poetry at jayahull.com.