In the late 19th century, Nebraska’s settlers came across bizarre, giant “stone screws” vertically embedded in the ground. The big ones could be 2 meters long in a near-perfect spiral. Flummoxed as to what could cause such structures, the locals named them the “devil’s corkscrews”. Paleontologists would argue for over nearly a century about what they really were.
Several “mystery” themed sources state that the devil’s corkscrews were thought to have a supernatural origin because people couldn’t imagine the process by which they were produced. Their location around the badlands (of Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota) added to their spooky reputation. The badlands have plenty of other weird geological features making the landscape look like an otherworldly city of sculpted rock. I can’t find any documentation that people actually thought these spirals were the literal work of the devil, however, the average farmer didn’t know too much about geology so colorful tales were surely told.
Some non-scientific sources appear to exaggerate the mystery of these objects. The first scientists who came to examine them were likely amused by the magical descriptions but figured out in short order that they were trace fossils. It took about 90 more years to finally forge a consensus around their origin.
Erwin Hinckley Barbour named the trace fossil structure “Daemonelix” meaning the “devil’s helix” in Science of 19 February 1892. The spiral, or “fossil twister”, was made of cemented sand and silt that was distinct from the surrounding material. This made for stunning excavations. The fossil corkscrews were readily apparent and sometimes thickly crowded into an area of a few hundred square miles. [Lugn]. Other fossil hunters were also combing the area at this time. Famous collector E.D. Cope, along with colleague T. Fuchs, also studied the objects and in 1893 proposed they were fossilized animal burrows since worm burrows were commonly preserved in sediments. Was Daemonelix a giant worm?
In 1897, Barbour published his research on Daemonelix located in Eagle Crag, Nebraska, about 2.5 miles north of Harrison in Miocene-aged bedrock. His work appeared in the University of Nebraska journal University Studies, Volume 2. In this, Barbour described their shapes as being either an irregular spiral form or a tight, perfect helix – with or without a center column. Often, there were offshoots or a larger area at the bottom. After considering that they might be sea sponges, he rejected ideas that they were related to groundwater springs, geysers, or burrowing animals. Barbour concluded that Daemonelix was a plant root fossil made up of small to large filaments tangled together that spread via rhizomes. He expanded his idea of Daemonelix as a fossilized organism through the description of different forms he noticed in the strata. For the collection of Daemonelix fibers, “cakes”, “balls”, “cigars”, and “layers”, he proposed the evolutionary idea of the Damonelicidae (a group of related organisms).
Scientists working in the area continued to disagree about Daemonelix through the early 1900s, usually either taking Barbour’s side that they were remains of a vine with spreading rhizomes or that they were an infilled animal burrow. In 1909, E.S. Riggs put forward that these were open holes that had infilled with later sediment possibly meaning that whatever filled the hole had decayed. Because animal and plant traces were found in Daemonelix, others concluded that the corkscrew was used as a burrow after the original vegetal remains had rotted. [Lugn, 1941].
Found at the bottom and along the sides of the structure were the remains of rodents and rodent teeth marks. Notably, the remains of the extinct beaver Paleocaster were frequently found within the structure, along with other non-rodent animals. No known modern rodents produced such large spiral-shaped burrows. Though the shape was unique at the time, the structure generally resembled other infilled rodent burrows.
Larry Martin began studying the fossils when he came to the University of Kansas in 1970. He examined more than 1000 of them in the lab. In 1977, Martin and Bennett published their work that conclusively showed that Daemonelix was indeed the burrow of the beaver Palaeocaster (discovered in 1869). Paleocaster used its teeth to dig. The initial hole was excavated and the outer tight spiral was created upwards from the bottom. Other rodents sometimes lived in these beaver colonies resulting in adjacent different-shaped burrows with rodent remains nearby.
The paleoenvironment here had been dry land, not wet as previously thought. The spiral-shaped burrow may have aided in reducing airflow, which stabilized the temperature and humidity of the internal environment far better than straight-line holes. The extensive, dense rodent colonies in the semi-arid landscape of the time may have resembled prairie dog colonies of today. Plant roots invaded the burrows, as did other animals who preyed on the beavers. Barbour’s other “forms” of Daemonelix were likely fossilized dung or mud.
The small dicynodont Diictodon also produced spiral burrows similar to Daemonelix. But the awesome name is still retained in reference to the trace fossil, if not the fanciful organism that made it.
So goes the lesson of the Devil’s Corkscrew, where observers of all walks of life view the same object very differently. As time progresses and new information is gathered, we can count on getting to a better explanation that doesn’t usually require invoking speculative life forms or supernatural forces.
You can view the Daemonelix fossils on the Daemonlix trail at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska.
Bache, Rene. 1892. The Devil’s Corkscrews: A puzzle for geologists. The Strand Magazine (18).
Barbour, E.H. 1897. History of the Discovery and Report of Progress in the Study of Daemonelix. University [of Nebraska] Studies, Volume 2.
Lugn, Alvin Leonard. 1941. The Origin of Daemonelix. Papers in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (362).
Lund, Nicholas. 2016. The Beaver that Didn’t Give a Dam. National Parks and Conservation Assoc.
Martin, Larry D. 1994. The Devil’s Corkscrew. Natural History (April 1994).
Riley, Alex. 2016. A strange, extinct animal made this giant stone corkscrew. BBC Earth.
Sues, Hans-Dieter. 2019. How Scientists Resolved the Mystery of the Devil’s Corkscrews. Smithsonian.
Udurawane, V. 2015. Legend of the Devil’s Corkscrews. EarthArchives.