News from the Ray Troll Universe - Category: Natural History News

“A Troll of Desmos”

A Desmostylus, illustrated by Ketchikan artist Ray Troll. (Used with permission from the artist)
A Desmostylus, illustrated by Ketchikan artist Ray Troll. (Used with permission from the artist)
A Desmostylus, illustrated by Ketchikan artist Ray Troll. (Used with permission from the artist)
A Desmostylus, illustrated by Ketchikan artist Ray Troll. (Used with permission from the artist)

Local artist illustrates newly identified species
by Leila Kheiry
October 21, 2015 2:47 PM

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 artist and 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.

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll holds up a Desmostylus tooth. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)
Ketchikan artist Ray Troll holds up a Desmostylus tooth. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

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.

Giant extinct mammal identified from Unalaska fossils
Mike Dunham
October 7, 2015

It had the face of a walrus, swam like a polar bear, was as big as a hippopotamus and sucked its food off the rocks and mud around the Aleutian Islands 23 million years ago. “Ounalashkastylus tomidai” was described by a team of paleontologists from Texas, Canada and Japan in an article published in the scientific journal Historical Biology on Oct. 1.

Louis L. Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author of the study, said in a press release the extinct marine mammal was a vegetarian with a long snout and tusks. It grazed on plants growing along the shoreline, rooting them out then sucking them in like a vacuum cleaner. It was a style of eating not found in any other animal.

The new species, a member of the order Desmostylia (des-mo-STILL-ee-uh), was identified from four specimens found on Unalaska over a period of years beginning in 1950, when fossils were discovered in a quarry. More emerged during excavations for the foundation of Eagle View Elementary School, said Alaska artist Ray Troll, an avid follower of paleontology and illustrator of extinct animals.

Anthony Fiorillo of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, another co-author of the study, told Alaska Dispatch News the find involved a good deal of serendipity. Fiorillo, who has made several important paleontological discoveries in Alaska, had planned to work in the Yukon-Charlie area in 2004, but wildfires and smoke made that impossible.

“I looked at the weather map, and the only place I could find that wasn’t affected was Unalaska,” he said. So he switched his destination. While there he gave a talk at the Museum of the Aleutians, where he learned about the fossils. They were being kept at the headquarters of the local Native corporation. “The Unalaska museum facilitated the loan of the fossils to the Perot Museum where we could study them. Louis Jacobs was with me, so it made sense for us to work on it together.”

The scientists were hampered by the complex matrix of material in which the fossils were embedded and the fact they had not been present during the excavation. The time consuming work was “back-burnered” for a while as the Perot Museum was under construction, Fiorillo said. “We were finally able to get back to it and made the realization that we had something brand new about a year ago.”

Little is known about the tribe of Desmostylians, the only known order of marine mammals to go completely extinct. Fossils are uncommon. “There’s a lot of debate about who they’re related to. Some say elephants, others say horses or manatees,” Fiorillo said. “The bottom line is we have no idea.”

“In my mind it looked a bit like a dugong, but with front limbs and hind limbs,” he said. “We’re pretty convinced it was a vegetarian. Structures in the mouth suggest that it had a very, very different feeding system, that when it was time to eat, it clamped down its jaws, opened its lips and just inhaled.”

Though it had legs, it was primarily a marine animal, Fiorillo said. “Pretty much like seals, it could go on land, but you wouldn’t find it roaming the landscape.” In the water it would have used its powerful forearms, like a swimmer doing a breaststroke or a polar bear.

The fact that several individuals were found in one place indicates they lived “in some sort of cohort,” said Fiorillo. And, as a group of lions is a pride and a group of cows is a herd, Jacobs has proposed calling cohorts of Desmostylians a “troll” in honor of artist Troll, who has made paintings of the animal among his many other paleontological renderings.

One of the Unalaska fossils was of a young animal.”That suggests to me that Unalaska was a good place for Desmostylia to raise a family,” said Fiorillo. “It was probably an area for birthing or rearing.”

Fossils of other Desmostylian species have been recovered along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Japan. The Alaska fossils, which are different from the others, are the farthest north to have been found.

The name of the new species combines Unalaska with a description of the animal’s unique, column-like teeth. “Tomidai” honors Yukimitsu Tomida, a Japanese paleontologist who has done research into Desmostylians.

The fact that Ounalashkastylus came to light at all still makes Fiorillo chuckle. “Who would have imagined that the boreal fire cycle of Alaska would lead to the discovery of a new marine mammal in Unalaska?” he said.

Contact Mike Dunham at or on Google+

News from the Ray Troll Universe - Category: Natural History News

Alaska SeaLife Center

Alaska fossil of the bizarre ‘buzz saw’ shark, lost for 29 years, goes on display at the Alaska SeaLife Center

Mike Dunham
May 21, 2015

Story courtesy of Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Sealife Center Summer of Sharks Exhibit

In 1986, Richard Glenn, a 23-year-old geology student from Barrow, spotted an odd shape in a foot-long chunk of rock near Atigun Gorge. It consisted of a series of points arranged in a spiral, like the shell of a snail.

“I don’t have much of a background in paleontology,” Glenn told this year’s meeting of the Geological Society of America in Anchorage on May 13. “I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t know what it was. So I left it there.”

It made sense at the time. Glenn’s project involved mapping the convoluted “jelly roll” of geological formations in the Brooks Range. Fossils were part of the evidence he took under consideration, but they were not very helpful when found out of place. This thing, whatever it was, had dropped from its original location onto a steep scree slope of mixed rock.

The next day his adviser, Gil Mull, arrived from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and, hearing about the fossil, suggested they take another look.

That wasn’t easy, Glenn said. Every bit of rubble on a scree slope looks pretty much like every other bit of rubble. “But we went back and spent the day kicking rocks over.”

They found it and brought it back to camp. Mull didn’t know what it was either. He forwarded the rock to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was identified as the teeth of a Helicoprion, an extinct predatory fish that lived about 280 million years ago.

Glenn noted the name in his master’s thesis, but didn’t see the fossil again. In fact, he couldn’t find out what had happened to it.

Now executive vice president of lands and natural resources at Arctic Slope Regional Corp., he said, “I must have gone to Washington, D.C., 20 times in the last 29 years. When I did, I’d go looking for it, asking around the Smithsonian. But no one knew anything.

“It never came home.”

Mind-blowing teeth

Ketchikan artist and avid fisherman Ray Troll has made an international reputation with his surreal pictures of fish accompanied with quirky titles like “Spawn till you die” and “Fish hard, die free.” He also has a fascination with paleontology. Museums know who he is. They sell his T-shirts and cups in their gift shops. His success as an artist has helped open doors. He gets tours of the back rooms and is on a first-name basis with scientists and curators.

In 1993 he visited the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum, where he saw a rock with a weird spiral pattern, “sort of being used as a doorstop,” he said. He thought it was a shellfish and wondered why it was with the fish fossils.

“Look again,” his host told him. “Those are shark teeth. That thing’s blown paleontologists’ minds for over 100 years and nobody’s ever figured it out.”

Troll’s mind was similarly blown. What was something that looked like a spring doing in the mouth of a major predator? How did it happen? How did it work?

“Staring into the whorl of teeth, I knew my life was forever changed,” he later recalled.

He became obsessed with the spiral. He featured the animal as the “H” entry in his 2002 “Sharkabet” alphabet book. He contacted every Helicoprion expert he could find.

There weren’t many and they couldn’t tell him much. Nor were there many specimens, only about 150 collected from around the world, and they consisted only of the teeth. Helicoprion’s skeleton was formed from cartilage, not bone. When it died and decayed, the teeth were generally the only part that lasted long enough to be preserved.

From the first discoveries, scientists puzzled over where the teeth went and how they were used. They placed them on the animal’s snout, its tail, its fins. They wondered if they were for defensive purposes, snapping out like a party favor, to use Troll’s analogy.

Chop saw motion

Idaho is the Helicoprion capital of the world, with many fossils found in phosphate mines there. One such whorl found in 1950 had impressions of cartilage from the beast’s head. In recent years a team led by Leif Tapanila put that specimen through a CT scan and teased out clues about where the whorl of teeth fit. In February 2013, they published a paper announcing the results in the scholarly journal Biology Letters.

Several members of the Idaho team made presentations at the Geological Society meeting, which took place in UAA’s ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building from May 11-13.

Jesse Pruitt, who worked with the CT scan, pointed out one of the key discoveries: The disc of teeth was held in place by a supporting arm of cartilage that projected upward from the bottom jaw. This kept the older teeth on the bottom of the disc from pushing into the jaw tissue when the fish bit down.

The mechanism resembled a circular chop saw, which has given the Helicoprion its popular nickname, the “buzz saw” shark.

Pruitt said the smallest teeth, those toward the center of the spiral, were the animal’s baby teeth. As it grew, new and bigger teeth emerged full size from the direction of the creature’s throat and pushed the older, smaller teeth forward toward the outer lip where they curved downward and formed a coil.

Biologist Jason Ramsay said only 11 of the more than 100 teeth in the whorl were functional. The rest were either emerging, full size or had curled away into the jaw. The circular arrangement resembled the arc of an ulu, but instead of a back-and-forth motion, the circle of teeth cut like an ax. The way the jaws opened forced the food farther back in the mouth. Thus each bite not only further mangled the prey but moved it toward the gullet to be swallowed, probably in large chunks. Helicoprions did not chew their food.

Tapanila said they had tiny teeth on the roofs of their mouths to help hold prey steady as the chomp came down.

But what purpose was served by having teeth grow into one’s throat?

True sharks, related to but not descended from Helicoprion, grow new teeth throughout their lives but shed the old ones. Their teeth, and the teeth of other vertebrates — yours, for instance — each have their own root. But all of Helicoprion’s teeth were attached to a single, continuous root structure. This may have made the whole biting apparatus stronger. But, as each tooth was an integral part of the same base, they could not be shed one by one. So they had to be stored.

(This makes Helicoprion the only animal besides people known to hang onto its baby teeth, though we use little boxes and our reasons are sentimental, not practical.)

The animal needed strong teeth to deliver its lethal bite. Ramsay ran some numbers to show that the jaw of an average size Helicoprion exerted a force equal about half of the that produced by a junk yard auto crusher.

“They could really bite hard,” he observed.

Dead end

How did a warm-water fish wind up in the Arctic mountains? The Brooks Range is formed of seabeds that have been forced upward over time, Glenn said.

And the world was warmer in Paleozoic times. Paleobotanist Kirk Johnson mentioned that he’d found impressions of palm tree leaves in the Matanuska Valley the day before and said that for 85 percent of Earth’s history the poles have been ice free.

“We’re a pretty cold planet, these days,” he said. “The first primates entered the Americas swinging from tree to tree across Beringia.”

Helicoprion tooth whorls have been found over a wide geographic area. They were clearly a successful species — but an evolutionary dead end. They vanished at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, in a great “die-off” that sent 90 percent of Earth’s life forms to extinction.

Today all sharks and bony animals have teeth in bilateral pairs, if they have them at all. A rodent’s incisors, carnivore’s canines or herbivore’s molars have matching left and right sides. But Helicoprions and other shark-like fish of their time had all their teeth in a single line.

The tooth whorl provided a biting mechanism that was solid as rock, could grow with the animal and, in evolutionary terms, solved the space problem by tucking away the outgrown teeth.

Physical attributes beneficial to a species, like locomotion and sight, tend to evolve repeatedly in different ways. But nature never tried the buzz saw jaw idea again. “No other living thing has done this,” Tapanila said.

Troll found similarities in the sperm whale, which only has teeth on its narrow bottom jaw and preys on squid similar to what Helicoprion would have hunted. But whale teeth don’t have a single root, and nothing like a wheel of teeth is found among modern animals.

Whatever other unique features Helicoprion had may never be known, “unless we find that holy grail specimen we’re all waiting for,” Tapanila said — a fossil that would show the body, fins and perhaps even organs of the animal.

Troll clout

Troll’s illustrations were used in Tapanila’s Biology Letters report and the companion article in Scientific American that appeared at the same time. They were also a big part of an exhibit at the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello that opened June 22, 2013, and has since traveled to Tacoma.

The exhibit included key Helicoprion fossils and a mechanical version of the buzz saw bite. Missouri artist Gary Staab provided models of a complete 15-foot fish and the head of a 30-footer made to appear as if it were crashing through the wall. Wall decorations and even the upholstery on a couch were based on Troll’s paintings, many of which were displayed to describe the place of the Helicoprion in paleontological lore.

In 2014, when Troll received the Ocean Ambassador Award from the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, he spoke about the shark he’s been obsessed with for more than 20 years, “a shark that has almost driven me mad.”

At his urging, the center — best known for its displays of live fish, seabirds and marine mammals — agreed to host the exhibit starting in April 2015. It’s the first traveling show to come to the center since it opened in 1998.

In February of this year, Richard Glenn was a guest speaker at the center. Someone told him about the upcoming show and asked if he knew what a buzz saw shark was.

“I didn’t, but I did know what a Helicoprion was,” he said. “I told them I’d found one of those fossils in Alaska. And they told me, ‘You need to talk to Ray Troll.’ ”

Glenn was familiar with Troll’s work. He’d noted the Helicoprion in the “Sharkabet” book and said the thought had crossed his mind that he might have an ally in trying to locate his Atigun Gorge specimen.

Troll said he was more than a little skeptical when Glenn called him. “This guy who’s co-captain of a whaling crew in Barrow says he found a buzz saw shark in Alaska? Why hadn’t anyone heard about it? Where was it now? We need to see pictures.”

Mull, Glenn’s thesis adviser, now living in the Lower 48, couldn’t remember where he put the film he shot of the rock in 1986. J. Thomas Dutro Sr, the man who had identified it as a helicoprion had died in 2010. The labyrinthine vaults of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History contained no easy-to-find records indicating it had ever been received.

Troll started making calls and his buddies in the museum world swung into action. “Ray has more clout at the Smithsonian than I do,” Glenn said.

The museum’s collection manager, David Bohaska, began opening drawers, all of them. “Drawers that didn’t say ‘Alaska’ or ‘fossils’ or anything,” Troll said. After a month of searching, Bohaska found the mislabeled rock from Atigun Gorge.

“I knew it had to be part of the exhibit in Alaska,” Troll said. But would the Smithsonian loan such a rare fossil?

“We weren’t at all sure we’d have it,” said SeaLife Center President Tara Riemer. “But just before the exhibit opened, one morning there it was, in a FedEx box on my doorstep.”

This summer Glenn’s buzz saw shark tooth whorl is on display at the center’s “Summer of Sharks” exhibit. Viewers will see most of the Idaho exhibit with a few tweaks that add information discovered since 2013. There’s an eye-opening video of Troll trying out a metal version of a whorl set on a lever handle. Troll and crew gleefully work it on a variety of things, decapitating fish, chopping carrots, dividing cantaloupe, a tube of toothpaste and a can of Diet Coke.

“It’s a really efficient slicing machine,” Pruitt said.

Happy ending

The speakers list for the Geological Society meeting included Troll, whose book and print titles were cleverly incorporated into a series of academic papers on technical topics like “Caledonide influence on evolutionary ecology in the Alexander Terrane” and “Graptolites of the lower member of the Ninini Fourmation, Roberts Mountains, Eureka County, Nevada.”

Troll talked about his upcoming book of West Coast fossils, written with paleobotanist Johnson, in which he had to go back and insert an illustration of a Helicoprion in Alaska after learning about the Atigun fossil. “Is Richard Glenn here?” Troll asked.

Glenn nodded from his seat in the second row and Troll left the lectern to shake his hand. They had spoken on the phone before, but never met in person.

News from the Ray Troll Universe - Category: Natural History News

I Am a Herring!

Some say “Mea Culpa”, I get to say “Mea Clupea” or “I am a Herring!”

Italy’s Dr. Giorgio Carnevale has honored me by naming an extinct genus of Eocene “round bellied” herring after me. The paper was published earlier this spring, so I did a small drawing of my extinct fish and sent it to Giorgio in thanks.

 See :


News from the Ray Troll Universe - Category: Natural History News

Tiktaalik, a Newly Discovered Devonian Fish

Yet another ‘missing link’ is revealed in the great chain of being that “ led ” to you and I!

A few months ago I received an email from my friend Dr. Ted Daeschler at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia telling me about a new lobe finned fish fossil that he and his colleague Dr. Neil Shubin had unearthed in late Devonian rocks way up in Nunavut, Canada. One of the many extraordinary things about this new fish is that it looks almost exactly like an amphibian, except that it has fins instead of legs. How cool is that? These are no ordinary fins though. Look closer at them and you’ll see the rudimentary beginnings of limbs. These lobe fins have joints and finger like structures. This is evolutionary change at its very finest.

Needless to say I was beside myself with inspiration. I dropped everything I was doing and began madly drawing this critter and bombarding Ted with emails. I wanted to figure out what this animal looked like and how it behaved. I wondered about its place in the world and the history of life, acting as a sort of “terranaut” venturing out onto land, breathing air and sliding between two worlds. I wrote a song called the ‘Devonian Blues’. I drew pictures of Charles Darwin ( AKA Chuckie ‘D’ ) embracing it. I enlisted my designer friend Karen Lybrand to help me colorize some of the ink drawings I did.

Undoubtedly this fish was close to our ancestral line. It’s a link between the sea and the land and quite possibly could be the ancestor of every land roaming vertebrate to follow. When you look at it, you’re looking at our tribe. “Mom’, if you will. Heavy stuff if you think about it.

Ted and Neil named the fish Tiktaalik, a local Inuit name for the modern fish we call a burbot.

News from the Ray Troll Universe - Category: Natural History News

A ratfish named Troll

Ratfish Named After Ketchikan Artist Ray Troll

By LEILA KHEIRY, Ketchikan Daily News

“The Artist and the Ratfish”

KETCHIKAN (AP) — Ketchikan artist and fish enthusiast Ray Troll has achieved immortality in the world of ichthyology. A ratfish species found in the waters off New Zealand and New Caledonia in the southern Pacific Ocean has been named in Troll’s honor.

 Ratfish researcher Dominique Didier Dagit, assistant curator of ichthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, identified the Hydrolagus trolli as a unique species about a year ago. She said in a telephone interview Wednesday that she and Troll share a love for ratfish, so she decided to name her discovery for him.

 “It’s kind of nice to be able to name a species for someone,” she said. ”I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to name a fish for someone who’s really interested.”

 But, ”It kind of looks like him, (but) less facial hair.”

 In a recently published paper about the new species, Dagit described Troll as an ”artist of fishes and one of the few true chimaeroid lovers of the world. ”This fish is named in his honor for his valiant efforts to increase ratfish awareness worldwide,” Dagit wrote.

 The ratfish is a distant relative of the shark and varieties exist throughout the Pacific ocean, Dagit said. In Southeast Alaska waters, the Chimaera ratfish can be found sometimes to the annoyance of fishermen. The local ratfish has a spotted body and a long, rat-like tail.

Troll said his love affair with ratfish started about 18 years ago when he caught one while fishing and thought, ”What the heck is that?”He started researching the creature, learning that the fish dates back some 350 million years.

 ”They’re just so cool and weird looking,” Troll said as he described the protruding tenaculum on the male ratfish’s forehead. He referred to the protrusion as the ”girl grabber” because the male fish uses it to hold onto the female during mating.

 Troll said he and Dagit met through their mutual appreciation for ratfish.
”It’s not a big world of ratfish enthusiasts out there,” he said. Dagit said she has studied ratfish for years. That experience helped her identify Hydrolagus trolli as a new species.

 She said its unique characteristics include a lavender color and a longer-than-average nose.
The trolli has other different features on its head, the sex organs are different and the number of spines and its skeletal structure set it apart from other ratfish. The new species is found at depths of about 3,000 feet off the coasts of New Zealand and New Caledonia, Dagit said. A paper about the discovery that she co-authored with Paris scientist Bernard Seret recently was published in the French scientific journal Cybium, which makes the name official.

 Once a species is named, said Dagit, the name stays with the fish forever. ”Like immortality,” she said. ”And you don’t have to put it through college.”


For more info about the “Pointy-Nosed Blue Chimaera” go to :