After some monster science* the "History of Geology" blog will be dedicated to "travelling geologists" - the first post will introduce us to a woman who visited (and survived) the "island(s) of monsters": (*anyway Discovery Channel makes a much better job promoting silly science)

"Outside the harbour of the country, neither very near it nor very far from it, there is a small well-wooded isle . . . it remains unploughed and unsown perpetually, empty of men, only a home for bleating goats. For the Kyklopes possess no ships; they build no vessels to serve their needs, to visit foreign towns and townsfolk as men elsewhere do in their voyages"; from the "Odyssey" after Homer (800 BC), translation by Walter Shewring (1980)

Since ancient times the islands in the Mediterranean Sea were inhabited by monsters - strange creatures never seen alive, but their bones found in the caves along the cliffs.

Dorothea Bate was born in the town of Carmarthen (South Wales) in 1878. In 1898 the family moved to Gloucestershire, a region with many caves to be found in the surrounding limestone cliffs. Here Dorothea discovered her love for paleontology, but she couldn't attend university, as women were not allowed to engage in a higher education.

Fig. 1. Dorothea Bate, drawing by her sister Leila made probably in 1906 (image in public domain).

Dorothea decided to approach the British Museum and to ask for a job. Curator and ornithologist Dr. Richard Bowdler Sharpe was at first not too enthusiastic of this decision. He mistrusted the young women and anyway women were not employed by the British Museum. But her knowledge in bird taxonomy impressed him and soon his doubts vanished.

During a private excursion in one of the caves of Gloucestershire she discovered sediments containing a large quantity of small bones. Dorothea extracted the bones from the sediments and contacted the paleontologists at the British Museum to report her discovery.

The fossils of small rodents found in "Merlin's Cave" were considered so exceptional that she was encouraged to publish her research in the prestigious "Geological Magazine" under the title "A short account of a bone cave in the Carboniferous limestone of the Wye Valley" (1901).

In the same year she was invited by some friends to visit the island of Cyprus and in 1904 she visited also Crete. Little was known about the fossils of these islands and most reports were more legend than real science.

The Italian astronomer and cartographer Benedetto Bordone mentions in his "Isolario" (1528), a book describing all the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, entire mountains made of bones to be spotted on these islands. In the "Chronicle of Cyprus", written in 1555 by the historian Leontios Machairas, the petrified bones were identified as those from poor catholic missionaries, presumably slaughtered by the native pagans. On the island of Sicily the bones of giants were regularly discovered and local historians asserted without hesitation that these bones belonged to a race of giants, which surviving the biblical flood settled in the higher situated caves on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Fig.2. The famous figure from Athanasius Kircher´s ""Mundus subterraneus" (1678), showing the various races of ancient giants - the largest giant is based on bones discovered in the caves of Sicily, followed by a common mortal, the giant goliath, the giant of Lucerne (found in 1577 and today recognized as mortal remains of a mammoth) and the giant of Mauritania (image in public domain).

Only after 1804 the French anatomist Cuvier identified these giants as bones of previously unknown species of fossil elephants and hippopotami.

When Dorothea Bate became interested in these fossils, it was still quite difficult to visit the fossil sites described by earlier researchers. There were no harbors for large ships, streets were rare and even much rarer were accommodations for the few tourists venturing inland. But Dorothea was not afraid of obstacles: walking, riding and even swimming she visited various known caves and discovered new ones. She found bones of elephants, like Elephas cypriotes and E. creticus* (today reclassified as Mammuthus creticus, see also the following video) bones of the dwarf Hippopotamus minutes, fossils of an unknown deer species (Candiacervus) and also new species of rodents (Mus minotaurus and Hypnomys morpheus).

Dorothea returned to England, where she stayed for the next 5 years - as unmarried daughter it was expected that she keep company to her aging parents. After this period she travelled to the Balearic Islands and continued her research on the evolutionary adaptations of animals to island environments.

In 1909 she discovered there one of the strangest fossil mammals ever to be found - the "mouse goat" Myotragus balearicus (also referred as rat-like goat, cave goat or antelope-gazelle, emphasizing its strange morphology). Myotragus was a bulky animal, with legs situated apart and the eyes directed to the front (not as usual in hoofed mammals to the sides), probably as evolutionary adaption to climb the steep cliffs. But the most peculiar characteristic were just two, enormously enlarged and continuously growing rat-like incisors in the lower jaw, maybe to better browse the tenacious plants growing on the rocks.

Despite her scientific success, between 1903 and 1914 she published 15 papers, money remained always a problem - she couldn't be employed as a scientific staff member by the Natural History Museum, as this was forbidden for women until 1928.

Only in 1948, with 70 years, she was given an official employment at the Natural History Museum at Tring. Dorothea Bates died January 13, 1951, continuing to work until shortly before her death.


AGNESI, V.; PATTI, C.di & TRUDEN, B. (2007): Giants and elephants of Sicily. In PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W.B. (eds) Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 273: 263-270

GEER, A.v.d.; LYRAS, G.; VOS, J.d. & DERMITZAKIS, M. (2010): Evolution of Island Mammals - Adaption and Extinction of Placental Mammals on islands. Wiley-Blackwell: 479+26 plates

SHINDLER, K. (2007): A knowledge unique: the life of the pioneering explorer and palaeontologist, Dorothea Bate (1878-1951). In BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 281: 295-303