Titanis: North America’s resident Terror Bird

File:Reconstruction drawing of Titanis walleri.png - Wikimedia Commons
A reconstruction of what “Titanis the Terror Bird” could have looked like in life!
Image Credit: Alexoatss, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reconstruction_drawing_of_Titanis_walleri.png

🎶”Titanis, The Teerror Biird“🎶

Listening to the song “Titanis the Terror Bird” by Howdytoons makes me imagine Titanis as an action movie hero, adventuring into strange new lands and encountering new fierce mammalian adversaries. But what do we know about “Titanis the Terror Bird?”

Before we get into the details, it is necessary to set some groundwork with a bit of Titanis family history. Titanis walleri (meaning “Waller’s Titan”, after Benjamin Walker, who discovered the first Titanis fossils) was a member of the now extinct group of birds known as the Phorusrhacidae. However, many people know this group by the nickname, “The Terror Birds!” They first evolved in South America roughly 60 million years ago during the Palaeocene period. This was not long, geologically speaking, after their close kin, the non-avian dinosaurs, had been laid to rest in the fires of a meteor strike. During this time South America was an isolated continent and was not connected to North America as it is today. As a result, there were few competitors for the throne of “top predator”, and the Phorusrhacids quickly established themselves, occupying this niche for the next 55 million years. The only other carnivorous competitors in South America at this time were snakes, crocodilians and a now extinct group of mammals known as the “Sparassodonts” (whose most famous member is Thylacosmilus, a carnivore which convergently evolved sabre teeth similar to the “Sabre-Tooth Cats”). However, apart from one or two snake (e.g., Titanoboa) and Crocodilian species (e.g., Purrusaurus), none reached the same or surpassed the towering sizes of the Phorusrhacids, and none occupied the top predator niche for as long. But then, 3 million years ago, the status quo changed. The movement of continents brought South and North America closer together and a land bridge formed. This allowed animal life to mix and migrate, with North American animals such as Sabre-Tooth Cats (e.g., Smilodon), the Elephant-like “Gomphotheres”, Horses, Camels and more spreading into South America. Conversely South American animals were able to migrate the other way. This included megafauna such as the Ground Sloths (e.g., Megatherium), giant relatives of armadillos known as the “Glyptodonts” and smaller animals such as the opossum. This event is known as the “Great American Interchange”, and the Phorusrhacids were among the animals that took advantage of this new opportunity.

Terror Bird | See the rest of the story at Rosemary Mosco's … | Flickr
I think this cartoon perfectly illustrates Titanis‘ arrival in North America! (though it happened roughly 5 million years ago rather than 62 million years ago).
Image Credit: Chris Lott, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fncll/2126620964

We know that the Phorusrhacids spread north due to the discovery of Titanis. To date it remains the only Phorusrhacid known from North America, spreading into the continent as it followed its migrating prey. What is fascinating about Titanis’ North American presence is that dating of the sediments its fossils were found in indicates that the earliest Titanis were present in the continent 5 million years ago. At this point the land bridge between South and North America had not yet fully formed and would not do so for another 2 million years. So how in the world did Titanis make it there? Well, since it couldn’t fly it is theorised that it migrated by island hopping across the proto-land bridge. When it finally reached North America Titanis thrived in its new home, with the very latest fossils found in sediments dating from only 1.8 million years ago. After this time Titanis disappears from the fossil record, going extinct probably due to climate change, which affected their prey resources. None the less, Titanis was present on American soil for roughly 3.2 million years, much to the dismay of generations of North American mammalian herbivores!

Unfortunately, when it comes to Titanis walleri fossils, there isn’t much to go on! This is because the fossils are rather scrappy, consisting of just a few toe bones and a couple of leg bones discovered from sites in Texas and Florida. From these fragments it has been estimated that Titanis would’ve stood between 1.4 to 1.9 metres tall and weighed around 150 kilograms. This is around the size of the biggest Ostrich, the largest modern bird. However, there were other Phorusrachids that grew even larger than this! For example, the largest Phorusrhacid found, a 12 million year old South American species named Kelenken guillermi, stood between 2.28 to 3 metres tall and possessed a skull up to 71 centimetres long! So, it’s no exaggeration to say that Titanis and its brethren could grow pretty big! Because of the fragmentary nature of Titanis fossils we can’t be certain as to its true lifestyle. Therefore, to construct a picture of what Titanis was like we must use what we know about its Phorusrhacid cousins and modern-day relatives.

The first thing we can deduce about Titanis is that, like all Phorusrhacids, it was a carnivore. It hunted small and occasionally big game while also scavenging when it could. After all, why waste energy when you can pick up an easy meal! Exactly how Phorusrhacids like Titanis would have hunted was looked at by a study by Degrange et. al. in 2010. This study looked at the mechanical stress limits on the skull of Andalgalornis steulleti, a closely related Phorusrhacid that lived in South America roughly 20 million years ago. The study used computer models to assess the effect of different mechanical stresses on Andalgalornis’ skull. What they found was that it wasn’t great at withstanding lateral side to side forces but could take vertical forces from up and down movements well. The palaeontologists inferred from this that Andalgalornis’ skull (and therefore the skull of similar Phorusrhacids like Titanis) was not adapted for grabbing and holding onto large struggling prey. Instead, Phorusrhacids would have concentrated on small mammals, birds and reptiles where the stresses were less. Furthermore, Phorusrhacid skulls (like in Llallawavis scagliali a species described by Degrange et. al. in 2015) have joints between the skull bones that are more fused than in other birds, making the skull more rigid and robust so it could cope better with sharp up and down concussive movements. However, this doesn’t totally rule out the possibility that Phorusrhacids hunted large prey. To accomplish this, they would’ve used a different strategy. Using their skulls’ high resistance to vertical stresses, and their strong neck muscles they would strike with their beaks at the vulnerable neck and soft parts, inflicting deep puncture wounds and fractures. If repeated strikes didn’t overwhelm the prey, then shock and blood loss would, and as they fell the Phorusrhacid would move in to finish the job. To summarize, they would have pecked things to death! As if that wasn’t scary enough, it is also likely that Phorusrhacids could’ve used their powerful legs to deliver nasty kicks and stomps to their prey and any other predator that was bold enough to try and steal its kill. To add to their already deadly arsenal, some Phorusrhacids were also fast runners, using their speed to catch up with their prey. Titanis is thought to have been a speedster too, however not all Phorusrhacids were. Some, like Brontornis, were more robust and would’ve been ambush predators. You want more nightmare fuel? Their closest living relatives, ground living South American birds known as “Seriemas”, are known to hunt smaller prey by picking up and bashing it over and over on the ground. This strategy is brutally effective at breaking the preys’ bones and tenderising the meat, allowing for easier consumption. It is possible that Phorusrhacids also employed this same tactic, just on a larger scale! Wow, it’s no wonder they’re called Terror Birds!

File:Andalgalornis neck range.png
A figure from Tambussi et. al. 2012 that illustrates the range of vertical motion of the neck of the Phorusrhacid Andalgalornis steulleti. This high range of motion allowed Phorusrhacids like Andalgalornis to make powerful strikes with their beaks!
Image Credit: Tambussi et. al. 2012, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0037701

When hearing about how predators like Titanis hunt, it’s easy for people to think of these animals as monsters. However, it must be stressed that they are NOT monsters, they are animals. Like a lot of living animals Titanis would’ve exhibited other, more peaceful behaviours. Evidence of parental care, courtship displays, and other aspects of behaviour has really been found yet in Phorusrhacids, but we can make informed speculations based on what we know about modern birds. Like all birds Titanis would’ve laid eggs, likely in a nest constructed in seclusion on the ground. The Phorusrhacid chicks would’ve required a level of parental care after birth. The extend of this is unknown but if it is like modern birds, then the young would’ve been raised for a period of months to years by one or both parents. The babies would’ve grown fast under this care, eventually reaching sizes where they would be large enough to fend for themselves. Once reaching adulthood Titanis would’ve been ready to breed. Once again, we can only speculate what courtship between Titanis individuals would’ve been like, but it is common for birds to make a display of some sort to attract a mate. This might involve displaying their arrangement of feathers, using bright colours, making vocalisations in the form of songs or a combination of the three. That 2015 study on Llallawavis scagliali skulls I mentioned earlier also looked at the structure of the inner ear canals and found that they were suited for hearing low frequency sounds, lower than the average frequency range of modern birds. If Titanis’ inner ears were similar, then its displays (and general communication) maybe involved a series of low calls and rumbles to potential mates, or as warnings to rivals. Imagine a Titanis birdsong, with low calls echoing across the plains as males put on their own unique concerts! Furthermore, if we look at large flightless birds like ostriches, emus and cassowaries then maybe Titanis could’ve used its feathers and small wings in display? Plenty of birds also employ bright colours too (e.g., Cassowaries are bright blue and red around their heads), so maybe Titanis could’ve had some bright colours too, potentially around the head and neck area? It’s fun to think about if you ask me!

Sure, Titanis could be terrifying, but you know what, I think this highly successful predator should be regarded as more than just a hunter. I believe it had a softer side that sadly, until more fossils of it and other Terror Birds are discovered, we can only imagine for now.

File:Phorusrhacid skeleton.jpg
A skeleton display of Titanis walleri on display at the Museum of Natural History in Florida. Note the long legs that are built for running. No skull of Titanis has ever been found, so this skull is based on its close Phorusrhacid relatives.
Image Credit: Amanda, https://www.flickr.com/photos/spakattacks/481991843/

References/Further Reading

Baskin 1995 paper describing the occurrence of Titanis walleri from South Texas.

Jon A. Baskin (1995) The giant flightless bird Titanis walleri (Aves: Phorusrhacidae) from the Pleistocene coastal plain of south Texas, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 15:4, 842-844, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.1995.10011266

MacFadden et. al. 2007 paper that rexamined the timespan of Titanis walleri.

Bruce J. MacFadden, Joann Labs-Hochstein, Richard C. Hulbert, Jon A. Baskin; Revised age of the late Neogene terror bird (Titanis) in North America during the Great American Interchange. Geology 2007;; 35 (2): 123–126. doi: https://doi.org/10.1130/G23186A.1

Degrange et. al. 2010 paper that looked at the stresses and physical loads that the skull of Andalgalornis, a medium sized Terror Bird, could withstand and what this tells us about hunting behaviour.

Degrange FJ, Tambussi CP, Moreno K, Witmer LM, Wroe S (2010) Mechanical Analysis of Feeding Behavior in the Extinct “Terror Bird” Andalgalornis steulleti (Gruiformes: Phorusrhacidae). PLoS ONE 5(8): e11856. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0011856

Ernesto & Washington 2005 paper that used mechanical models to estimate the running speed of different Terror Birds.

Blanco R. Ernesto and Jones Washington W 2005Terror birds on the run: a mechanical model to estimate its maximum running speedProc. R. Soc. B.2721769–1773, http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2005.3133

An reposted article by Riley Black for National Geographic, published originally in February 2011 and reposted in May 2012, on Titanis

Black, Riley 2012, “Repost: Terror Birds Ain’t What They Used to Be – A Titanis Takedown”, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com, 29TH May, 2012, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/repost-terror-birds-aint-what-they-used-to-be-a-titanis-takedown?cmpid=int_org=ngp::int_mc=website::int_src=ngp::int_cmp=amp::int_add=amp_readtherest

A reconstruction made by Richard C Hulbert of Titanis walleri.

Revised age of the late Neogene terror bird (Titanis) in North America during the Great American Interchange – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Reconstruction-of-Titanis-walleri-based-on-40-fragmentary-bones-known-from-Neogene-of_fig1_249521166 [accessed 21 Aug, 2021]

Dragange et. al. 2015 paper describing Llallawavis scaglialli. This study provided insights on Terror Bird skull structure.

Federico J. Degrange, Claudia P. Tambussi, Matías L. Taglioretti, Alejandro Dondas & Fernando Scaglia (2015) A new Mesembriornithinae (Aves, Phorusrhacidae) provides new insights into the phylogeny and sensory capabilities of terror birds, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35:2, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2014.912656

Tambussi et. al. 2012 paper analysing the neck flexibility of the Phorusrhacid Andalgalornis.

Tambussi CP, de Mendoza R, Degrange FJ, Picasso MB (2012) Flexibility along the Neck of the Neogene Terror Bird Andalgalornis steulleti (Aves Phorusrhacidae). PLOS ONE 7(5): e37701. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037701

A BBC Earth article published on the 24th July 2015 and written by Niki Wilson on Terror Birds.

Wilson, Niki, “The reign of the terror birds”, BBC Earth, www.bbc.co.uk/earth, 24th July, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150727-the-reign-of-the-terror-birds

Pierolapithecus: The Catalonian Ape

File:Pierolapithecus catalaunicus (Kopie).jpg
A replica of the fossilized skull of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus
Image Credit: Nasobema lyricum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierolapithecus_catalaunicus_(Kopie).jpg

In terms of Mammalian evolution, the great apes (or “Hominidae”) are a recent development. They first appeared around 13-15 million years ago in the Miocene period and would go on to diversify into a variety of different species. Among these are, of course, the various species of human, including the only surviving one, our own (Homo sapiens). This one member of the great ape lineage now has a population of roughly 7 billion, lives across the entire globe, and has changed the landscape of the earth to such an extent that many geologists think that this modern age is its own distinct geological period (known as the Anthropocene). But to understand the earliest evolution of the great apes (and by extension our own species) studies must be made of the often fragmentary remains of these first apes. One such ape was discovered in 2004 in the Catalonia region of Spain. This species is Pierolapithecus catalaunicus.

The name Pierolapithecus catalaunicus comes from the village where the first fossils were discovered: “Els Hostalets de Pierola”. These first finds consisted of cranial (the top of the skull) and postcranial (the back of the skull) elements as well as some isolated teeth. Moving down, further remains were found of the thorax (chest and pelvis), lumbar region (the lower spine near the hips) and the wrist. Reconstructions from these remains estimate that it wouldve weighed around 55 kilograms, around the same as a female chimp. Studying these bones and further finds gave paleontologists clues as to how Pierolapithecus may have lived. For example, the structure of the wrist, thorax and lumbar bones suggests that Pierolapithecus would have spent most of its life in the trees, rather like the modern-day Orangutan.

Pierolapithecus is hypothesized to be a basal (or early) member of the great apes, but while it can be identified as one (e.g. it shared the same facial pattern as modern great apes, with a particularly Gorilla like face), it had yet to evolve all of their features (e.g. their fingers are not like great apes). Think of it as a kind of transitional form, or to use the overused (and misleading) term “missing link”, between the great apes and the “lesser apes” (i.e. Gibbons and Siamangs). Dating of the sediments around the bones indicate that they were roughly 12.5-11.9 million years old, putting Pierolapithecus in the middle of the Miocene period and suggesting that it was one of the oldest of the great apes. These bones also possess marks made by carnivores, indicating that they were either scavenged, or that there were active predators that Pierolapithecus had to watch out for.

Another feature that links Pierolapithecus to great apes is that it is thought to have had orthogrady. This term describes an animal that walks upright on its hind legs, with its spine curved partly upright, for long periods of time. Further, Pierolapithecus’ patella bone (a bone found on the upper knee) is like modern great apes and allows mobile movement of the knee. Combined with its moderately sized hands and a broad and shallow thorax, it suggests that Pierolapithecus was adapted more for vertical climbing and movement rather than suspending and couldn’t swing between branches. This is certainly weird considering that some modern great apes, like Chimpanzees, can swing. Therefore the ability to swing between branches must have evolved multiple separate times in great apes, and isn’t an ancestral trait. Another implication is that if a mostly tree dwelling animal possessed orthogrady then maybe upright walking didn’t originate just for walking on the ground. Instead orthogrady would have been used for walking along the branches of trees first before later being co-opted for a terrestrial lifestyle in humans their closest ancestors. One advantage of this is that it would have freed up Pierolapithecus’ arms to reach and grab ripe fruit and leaves that were previously out of reach.

But where on the great ape family tree was Pierolapithecus? well it is debated whether it is a basal hominid (e.g. ancestral to all living great apes) or a basal hominin (e.g. ancestral to humans, chimps, bonobos and gorillas only). Evidence that supports it being a basal hominid include a study in 2012 (Pérez de los Ríos, Moyà-Solà & Alba 2012) that analysed areas of the skull including the pneumatic structures, nasal area and palate. This analysis showed that these features were intermediate between basal hominoids and pongines (the ape family that contains Orangutans), and therefore that Pierolapithecus was more hominid than hominin. This study seems to have put the hominid idea in the driving seat, but if Pierolapithecus were to be a basal hominin, and on the line that produced humans and their close relatives then this raises another interesting possibility. It is often thought that all early hominid and human evolution took place within Africa. Then human relatives, and humans themselves, migrated out of Africa and spread to new lands in Europe, Asia and (in the case of humans) the rest of the world. However, Pierolapithecus was discovered in the Catalonia region of Spain! If the early human ancestor that Pierolapithecus is closely related to also lived in Europe then early human ancestors must have migrated from Southern Europe into Africa, where they would then continue to evolve and produce multiple human species, and humans themselves. In short, our very earliest ancestors may have originated in Europe, not Africa! Of course, this is just a theory and further fossil evidence from other stem hominids is required to prove or disprove it. It is equally plausible that Pierolapithecus may be an outlier, a side branch of stem hominids that migrated from Africa into Southern Europe while the early human ancestor lived in Africa. It is also possible that the range of Pierolapithecus would have extended into Africa too, we just have only found their remains in Spain at the moment. We cannot be sure right now, but it is a fascinating possibility!

Pierolapithecus, this seemingly unassuming great ape from Spain, is certainly an intriguing primate and a key piece of unlocking the puzzle box that is figuring out how this great, and eventually world changing, lineage came to be.

A diagram indicating where Pierolapithecus is thought to currently lie in great ape evolution
Image Credit: Institut Català de Paleontology, https://www.flickr.com/photos/icp_mcrusafont/6776869406

References/Further Reading

Moyà-Solà et. al. 2004: the paper that first described Pierolapithecus catalaunicus

Moyà-Solà, S., et al. (2004). “Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, a New Middle Miocene Great Ape from Spain.” Science 306(5700): 1339-1344.

Crompton, Vereecke & Thorpe 2008: a paper that described locomotion and orthogrady/pronogrady movement among early stem hominids.

Crompton RH, Vereecke EE, Thorpe SK. Locomotion and posture from the common hominoid ancestor to fully modern hominins, with special reference to the last common panin/hominin ancestor. J Anat. 2008 Apr;212(4):501-43. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2008.00870.x. Erratum in: J Anat. 2008 May;212(5):703. PMID: 18380868; PMCID: PMC2409101.

Hammond et. al. 2013 paper, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, on the pelvic morphology of Pierolapithecus and comparisons with other stem hominids

Ashley S. Hammond, David M. Alba, Sergio Almécija, Salvador Moyà-Solà, Middle Miocene Pierolapithecus provides a first glimpse into early hominid pelvic morphology, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 64, Issue 6, 2013, Pages 658-666, ISSN 0047-2484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.03.002.

Nakatsukasa 2019 paper on the spinal morphology of Miocene apes like Pierolapithecus and the evolution of Orthogrady

Nakatsukasa M. (2019) Miocene Ape Spinal Morphology: The Evolution of Orthogrady. In: Been E., Gómez-Olivencia A., Ann Kramer P. (eds) Spinal Evolution. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-19349-2_5

Pina et. Al. 2014 paper on the structure of Pierolapithecus’ knee bones in relation to its skeleton, and what can be inferred about its climbing and swinging ability

Pina M, Almécija S, Alba DM, O’Neill MC, Moyà-Solà S (2014) The Middle Miocene Ape Pierolapithecus catalaunicus Exhibits Extant Great Ape-Like Morphometric Affinities on Its Patella: Inferences on Knee Function and Evolution. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91944. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091944

• Pérez de los Ríos, Moyà-Solà & Alba 2012 paper that examined the skull areas containing the nasal region, pneumatic structures and palate. Their study provides evidence that Pierolapithecus is a basal hominid.

Miriam Pérez de los Ríos, Salvador Moyà-Solà, David M. Alba, The nasal and paranasal architecture of the Middle Miocene ape Pierolapithecus catalaunicus (primates: Hominidae): Phylogenetic implications, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 63, Issue 3, 2012, Pages 497-506, ISSN 0047-2484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.05.012.

Would a Velociraptor make a good pet?

File:Velociraptor Restoration.png
A modern artistic reconstruction of Velociraptor, feathers and all!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_Restoration.png

If you have no idea what a Velociraptor is, or only know of them from pop culture, then let’s start this blog article off with a bit of creature building. Take a medium to large sized Eagle (like a Golden Eagle for example). Eagles are a good place to start to build as they are also predatory animals that possess a full coat of feathers, long sharp talons and a powerful, wickedly hooked beak. Next we make the Eagle flightless by reducing its wings down until they are not large enough for flight. Then we replace its beak with long, slender reptilian like jaws full of sharp teeth. Then we enlarge both of its legs, reflecting a land based lifestyle, and greatly increase the size of the curved talons on each foot. We finish by lengthening its tail, giving it a strong and rigid bony structure. The resulting animal is close to what palaeontologists believe a Velociraptor looked like; a ground dwelling predatory animal that would’ve looked like a bird but with more basal, classically dinosaurian features. This sort of creature building is incidentally the basis of the “Chickenosaurus Project”. This project involves scientists (e.g. the famous palaeontologist Jack Horner) “switching on or off” certain genes in chickens in order to turn bird like features into more basal dinosaurian ones. By doing this the scientists aim to not only bring a non-avian dinosaur like animal back, but also increase our understanding of the relationships between genes and an animals development and anatomy. The “Chickenosaurus” produced from this would not be a true non-avian dinosaur, both in appearance and genetically speaking. Instead it would look like a Chicken with some Velociraptor like features (e.g. toothed jaws, a long bony tail etc.).

Velociraptor lived in Mongolia and Northern China during a period of the Mesozoic era dubbed the Late Cretaceous, (roughly 83 to 72 million years ago). It belonged to a family of dinosaurs known as the Dromaeosaurs. This group generally consisted of lightly build carnivores (though some of the largest members, like Utahraptor, were more stocky), and are commonly known by their nickname of “raptors”. This is not to be confused with the nickname for modern day birds of prey, who are also called “raptors”. Dromaeosaurs are known by dinosaur enthusiasts as one of the families of non-avian dinosaurs most closely related to birds, and as the description of Velociraptor at the beginning shows, dromaeosaurs would’ve been very bird like in appearance. In fact if they were around today (and especially if you didn’t know as much about dinosaurs) then you might easily confuse one with a large ground dwelling bird from a distance. Now before I go any further I think I need to address the Sauropod in the room, Velociraptor is a name that is familiar to the general public due to its starring appearances in the Jurassic Park films. I’m not going to talk about those particular Velociraptors, nor am I going to point out the huge number of scientific inaccuracies that they possess. There are plenty of blog articles and YouTube videos that cover that topic in great detail. Instead this blog article will concentrate on the real Velociraptor, the one that once walked the same planet that we do now, and try to answer a fun question; Would Velociraptor make a good pet?

Before we get into answering this it must be stated that this question is purely hypothetical. Despite what Jurassic Park or the Chickenosaurus project suggests it is not possible to bring any true non-avian dinosaur back from extinction. This is because DNA, that key ingredient required to clone any animal, is easily biodegradable. Therefore it can’t survive for any longer than a million years or so, and that’s with ALL conditions in favour of its preservation. This is also true even if it’s within blood found within mosquitos trapped in amber! Therefore for this “new pet” scenario we will assume some fictional science will make it possible to resurrect the Velociraptor. Furthermore in all likelihood if Velociraptors were alive today they would probably be (or at least behave like) wild animals and so you can’t just take one from the wild and expect it to be a great pet. So another assumption must be that the Velociraptors in this scenario have been captive bred and imprinted on the owner from birth, or are selectively bred to be pets.

Velociraptor is an interesting little dinosaur, and yes I do mean “little”. A fully grown Velociraptor measured only around 1.8-2.0 metres long (up to 2.5 metres in the largest estimate), less than a metre tall and weighed roughly 15-20 kilograms. This makes it similar in size to a modern day Labrador retriever, which is relatively small for a non-avian dinosaur! The feature that characteristically defines Velociraptor, along with all Dromaeosaurs and a closely related family known as the Troodontids, is an enlarged, sickle shaped toe claw found on each foot often dubbed the “killing claw”. These wickedly sharp instruments might look intimidating to many pet owners. But bear in mind that even domestic cats also possess sharp claws, we just don’t always see them because they’re retracted into their paws a lot of the time. If a Velociraptor were kept as a pet then an owner might wish to get their Velociraptors killing claw trimmed regularly (or even cut off entirely) to avoid furniture, carpet and skin getting punctured by it!

File:Velociraptor size.png
A size comparison between Velociraptor mongoliensis and a human. This comparison is using the upper size estimate of 2.5 metres for Velociraptor
Image Credit: PaleoNeolitic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_size.png

Another factor in favour of the Velociraptor pet movement would be the coat of feathers that covered their whole body except for the feet, jaws and claws. These feathers also included wing feathers on each arm and a long fan of feathers covering the tail. Velociraptor feathers would’ve had multiple uses. A downy coat would’ve kept them warm during cold desert nights, and maybe (and I’m speculating as we don’t know the colour of Velociraptor) they could’ve been sandy coloured to camouflage against the desert sand. Feathers could’ve also aided in courtship and maybe have been used to differentiate males and females, uses both seen in modern birds. Examples include the extravagantly coloured peacocks and birds of paradise, to the male/female colour schemes on some bird species found in the UK, such as Greenfinches; where males are yellow/green all over while females are a dullish grey/brown with yellow wing and tail edges. We can only speculate what a potential Velociraptor courtship display might have looked like (if it had one), but I think it might have involved the male performing a dance routine, consisting of flaps of its short wings, bounding movements and fans of its trail and accompanied by a soundtrack of hoots, rasps and gasps. The wings wouldn’t have enabled Velociraptor to fly (as stated in my Dakotaraptor blog article from late 2019, I couldn’t even imagine how threatening a large flying Dromaeosaur would’ve been!) but would have had other purposes. As well as potentially aiding in courtship, the wings would’ve allowed Velociraptor to maintain its balance when making tight turns at high speed. Flaps of the wings would’ve also been used to help when balancing on and pinning down struggling prey. As a prospective pet these feathers might make Velociraptor look cute to prospective owners! Feathered coats are one of the features that make many species of birds, like parrots or budgies, favoured pets. Furthermore since the body feathers would’ve been more down and fuzzy like it’s not too much to assume that this soft texture would’ve helped the Velociraptors case. Maybe it was soft and cuddly!

Another argument for keeping a Velociraptor as a pet is that, due to their size and weaponry, they might make good guard animals (especially if there’s more than one!). We know from multiple studies that Velociraptor would’ve been an effective hunter, with acute binocular vision (even at night!), a good sense of smell and relatively long legs that powered it through its environment. A study conducted in 2007 by William Sellers and Phillip Manning used a musculoskeletal model of a Velociraptor, built from measurements from Velociraptor fossils, to indicate that it could’ve ran at speeds of approximately 10.8 metres per second. This equates to 38.88 kilometres per hour (kph) or 24.15 miles per hour (mph). By comparison the “average” human speed calculated in this study was 7.9 metres per second, which equates to 28.44 kph or 17.67 mph. In short, a Velociraptor could’ve run faster than the average human! Furthermore the researchers state that these values are a lower range estimate. This is because an animal is rarely needing to run at absolute top speed (why waste extra energy when you can already catch up to prey) or in ideal conditions. As a result it’s likely that Velociraptor could’ve reached speeds faster than this (though it’s difficult to exactly estimate an extinct animals top speed as we only have fossils and computer models to work off of). Another study conducted by Park et. al. in 2014 built a robot Velociraptor (I’m not joking!) in order to reconstruct its locomotion. On a flat treadmill the robot managed to achieve speeds of 46 kph/28.5 mph. However bear in mind that it was a robot, and running on a flat treadmill, so this value is another estimate. Once it caught up with its prey Velociraptor would’ve leapt on top of it, using its iconic killing claw to latch onto and secure itself while using its body weight to pin down its struggling prey. As this was happening it would balance itself with flaps of its wings and use its sharp teeth and claws to tear into its prey, wearing it down with deep wounds. This strategy was most effective on prey that was smaller than Velociraptor itself. So as a result Velociraptor main diet would’ve mostly been herbivores it could outweigh, such as small sized dinosaurs and the young of larger dinosaurs. This “pin down” method is not too dissimilar to how a modern bird of prey hunts, except that they swoop in from the air rather than chase on the ground. A lot of Dromaeosaur depictions show them swarming large herbivores in a pack, and the Jurassic Park movies also show Velociraptor living in groups. However there actually wasn’t a lot of evidence to back up this claim. The main piece was the discovery of several shed teeth and skeletons of a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus alongside a herbivorous dinosaur known as Tenontosaurus. While this was interpreted at the time as evidence of co-operative pack hunting it could also be interpreted in other ways. Maybe several independent Deinonychus had gathered to scavenge on the dead Tenontosaurus? Or they had opportunistically converged to finish off the injured animal without any co-operation? Fighting over the kill afterwards like modern day Komodo Dragons. Furthermore a study in 2020 (Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020) on a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus showed that the Carbon 13 isotopic values were more depleted in adult teeth than in juvenile teeth. Carbon 13 isotope values in teeth are influenced by diet, therefore it was inferred that adult and juvenile Deinonychus were eating different prey. This is not consistent with living and hunting in a pack as all animals in a pack would hunt and eat the same animals, producing similar Carbon 13 values. As Velociraptor is a close relative we can assume with some confidence that it too might have been solitary, however this doesn’t totally rule out juveniles staying together for survival or adults congregating together in exceptional circumstances, as animals such as Crocodiles and Bears do during mass migrations of their fish prey. For our question this means that you could maybe have been okay with keeping just one Velociraptor, though keeping two or even three (especially if all the animals knew each other from a very young age) could also be okay if you can afford it and have enough space.

A skeletal illustration of Velociraptor mongoliensis. This image shows its slender body, proportionally long legs and long stiff tail. These indicate that Velociraptor was built for speed and agility.
Image Credit: Jaime A. Headden, https://www.deviantart.com/qilong/art/It-Lives-Velociraptor-24578261?q=gallery%3AQilong%2F5004771&qo=83

Just like all predators, hunts didn’t always go smoothly, and prey would often fight back aggressively. This is captured in exquisite detail in the famous “fighting dinosaurs”; a beautiful pair of skeletons that preserves a Velociraptor locked in combat with a Protoceratops (a sheep sized four legged herbivorous dinosaur that was an early relative of the Ceratopsidae, the dinosaur family containing the famous Triceratops). In this encounter, a risky one since Protoceratops outweighed Velociraptor, the Velociraptor started the fight by attacking the Protoceratops from behind. This probably happened in dark or low light conditions such as at night, dusk or dawn as these are the times Velociraptor is thought to have operated mostly at. In response the Protoceratops managed to turn and bite down hard on the Velociraptors right arm with its sharp horny beak. The Protoceratops held the Velociraptor in that position while the Velociraptor tried to break free, stabbing and raking the Protoceratops’ chest and belly with its feet while grabbing its face with its claws. Locked in this position, and suffering massive blood loss and fatigue, the two dinosaurs perished together. Then they were buried by a collapsing sand dune to be preserved for roughly 72 million years until it was unearthed again by palaeontologists in 1971. This beautiful fossil preserves a predator prey interaction in exquisite detail and was also one of the most complete skeletons of Velociraptor ever discovered. However Velociraptor had been known to science before this. The first fossils to be discovered were found 48 years prior in the Gobi Desert in 1923. This material consisted of a nearly complete skull and a finger bones, and it was from these finds that American palaeontologist John Ostrom would name the dinosaur Velociraptor (meaning “swift thief”). Today two species of Velociraptor are recognised; Velociraptor mongoliensis, described from those bones found in 1923 in Mongolia, and Velociraptor osmolskae, described in 2010 from fossils unearthed in Northern China.

File:Fighting dinosaurs (1).jpg
The fighting dinosaurs fossil, which captures the final moments of the two dinosaurs in exquisite detail!
Image Credit: Yuya Tamai, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaiyuya/13446145343/

However, while they would make vicious guard animals, you probably would NOT be able to train them to do more than protect against intruders (while holding your arms out to a group of them like in that one scene from Jurassic World). A popular misconception about Velociraptor, one perpetuated by the Jurassic Park franchise, is that they would’ve been highly intelligent. However, while smart for non-avian dinosaur standards, Velociraptors wouldn’t have been on the same level as a dolphin or a primate. Instead would have been similar to other modern day birds such as chickens or hawks, and some mammals like rabbits. That being said their comparatively high intelligence would’ve given them an advantage over other dinosaurs it lived with, especially over their prey. Luckily for the prospective pet owner, it’s not going to be opening any doors and there probably wouldn’t be much chance of it performing complicated routines on command, or mimicking speech like parrots can.

One final thing to consider is how just how Velociraptor would fare being a pet. Plenty of animals are difficult to keep as pets or in captivity, requiring large sums to fund the building and maintaining of enclosures and to provide them with enough food. Owls, Eagles and other birds of prey, as well as Lynxs and large Catfish are great examples of animals that can be hard to keep as pets. A decently sized Velociraptor would perhaps require a similar level of commitment. So only someone with enough time, space and resources could keep one and ensure that it has a happy life. There might also be problems with regards to the pet trade. As well-known and popular dinosaurs, Velociraptors might be regarded as highly valuable, and sadly there would be people out there who would want to illegally profit from this at the animals’ expense.

Velociraptor, the swift, agile thief of the Late Cretaceous, was an animal that successfully continued the Dromaeosaur dynasty. One that had lasted for roughly 60 million years before it and is remembered 72 million years after it had died out. While it is quite different to the silver screen version, in my honest opinion the real Velociraptor was a much more interesting animal than the movie monsters of Jurassic Park. Now to answer the important question, would they make good pets? Well I reckon that Velociraptor would have enough going for it that there probably would be a market for it. Furthermore humans can always selectively breed them over multiple generations to gradually get rid of or dilute the less favourable parts. So if you want to own one the advice would be to always remember to keep the claws suitably trimmed and to give them plenty of food, water and warmth. But most importantly only get one if can afford to treat it well, and when raising one you must love it and treat it like a member of the family. Oh and make sure to take many cute photos of it too!

File:Velociraptor restraining an oviraptorosaur by durbed.jpg
An artistic interpretation of a Velociraptor mongoliensis hunting a juvenile Oviraptorosaur dinosaur. Here it is using the “pin down” (or “Mantling”) hunting method that palaeontologists think Dromaeosaurs used to catch prey.
Image Credit: Durbed, https://www.deviantart.com/durbed/art/Mortal-techniques-II-Velociraptor-279158025

References/Further Reading

Turner, Makovicky & Norell 2007 paper describing the existence of quill knobs on a fossil of Velociraptor. Evidence that these theropods possessed not only feathers, but small wings.

Turner, Alan H., Makovicky, Peter J., Norell, Mark A., Feather Quill Knobs in the Dinosaur Velociraptor, 2007, Vol. 317, Issue 5845, pp. 1721, DOI: 10.1126/science.1145076

King et. al. 2020 paper on the endocranium anatomy of Velociraptor, further proving that it could track prey effectively, was swift and could hear at a wide range of frequencies.

King, JL, Sipla, JS, Georgi, JA, Balanoff, AM, Neenan, JM. The endocranium and trophic ecology of Velociraptor mongoliensis. J. Anat. 2020; 237: 861– 869. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13253

Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020 paper examining tooth Carbon 13 isotope levels in Deinonychus teeth and what the results tell us about Dromaeosaur pack hunting.

J.A. Frederickson, M.H. Engel, R.L. Cifelli, Ontogenetic dietary shifts in Deinonychus antirrhopus (Theropoda; Dromaeosauridae): Insights into the ecology and social behavior of raptorial dinosaurs through stable isotope analysis, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 552, 2020, 109780, ISSN 0031-0182, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.109780.

Godefroit et. al. 2010 paper describing Velociraptor osmolskae

Godefroit et. al., A new species of Velociraptor (Dinosauria: Dromaeosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous of northern China, 2010, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 28, Issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1671/0272-4634(2008)28[432:ANSOVD]2.0.CO;2

Sellers & Manning 2007 paper estimating the top running speeds to Velociraptor and other dinosaurs.

Sellers, W. I., & Manning, P. L. (2007). Estimating dinosaur maximum running speeds using evolutionary robotics. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 274(1626), 2711–2716. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2007.0846

Park et. al. 2014 study that built a robot Velociraptor in order to study its locomotion and tail stability.

J. Park, J. Lee, J. Lee, K. Kim and S. Kim, “Raptor: Fast bipedal running and active tail stabilization,” 2014 11th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots and Ambient Intelligence (URAI), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2014, pp. 215-215, doi: 10.1109/URAI.2014.7057424.

Roach & Brinkman 2007 paper revaluating the idea of Co-Operative pack hunting in Deinonychus, a close relative of Velociraptor

Brian T. Roach, Daniel L. Brinkman “A Reevaluation of Cooperative Pack Hunting and Gregariousness in Deinonychus antirrhopus and Other Nonavian Theropod Dinosaurs,” Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 48(1), 103-138, (1 April 2007)

An excellent YouTube video by “Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” on Velociraptor.

A follow up video also by Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” correcting some information about Velociraptor made in the previous video.

A 2015 National Geographic article written by Riley Black on the feasibility of bringing non-avian dinosaurs back from extinction via the Jurassic Park method and the Chickenosaurus project.

Black, Riley, “What Could Live in a Real Jurassic World? A Chickenosaurus”, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com, 8th June, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/150618-jurassic-world-genetic-engineering-chickenosaurus

A Live Science article written by Laura Geggel (published on the 19th of May 2015) on the Chickenosaurus project

Geggel, Laura, “Dino-Chicken Gets One Step Closer”, Live Science, www.licescience.com, https://www.livescience.com/50886-scientific-progress-dino-chicken.html

Xiphactinus: The Beautiful Bull of the Sea

File:XiphactinusDB cropped.png - Wikimedia Commons
An artists impression of Xiphactinus, showcasing its characteristic face, jaws and Tarpon-like body.
Image Credit: Dmitry Bogdanov, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:XiphactinusDB_cropped.png

The large (but masked and socially distanced) crowd bubbled with excitement as the artist they had come to see readied himself for the presentation of his masterpiece. Behind him is a large rectangular box covered by a brown sheet. His nervous hands sending flutters through the sheet he is holding, he readies himself for the biggest moment of his life.

“This is my latest and greatest work. An unknown fish pulled from the deep ocean, presented and preserved in exquisite detail in the box behind me using a formalin solution!”.

“I give you. Beauty!”

The artist pulls off the sheet, revealing a 5 metre long fish with upturned, bulldog like jaws filled to the brim with razor sharp teeth! The crowd are in complete shock. Beauty is not a word that comes into their mind. After the surprise wears off the crowd grumble their disappointment.

“Is this another example of unfathomable modern art? One naysayer says.

“Didn’t Damien Hirst once do something like this?” another asks

“I don’t get it? It’s just a weird looking fish?” yet another comments

After a while the crowd, once expectant and now disappointed, move on. The sounds of their footsteps carrying them away from the scene are accompanied by the cries of despair of the disappointed artist. Eventually only one person remains. A shaggy haired man who looked like he hadn’t had a haircut for months stares intently at the fish. He approaches the artist, who is wiping away his tears.

“Firstly, that is indeed beautiful!”

“Oh really?! That means so much! Thank you!” the artist replies with excitement.

“Secondly” the shaggy haired man continues. “Where did you get this fish?! It’s supposed to have been extinct for 66 million years?!!”

First discovered in Kansas, USA, in 1870 and named by Professor Joseph Leidy of the University of Pennsylvania; Xiphactinus (Latin for “Sword-Ray”) was a huge fish that had the size and power to compete with the large Sharks and even the medium sized Mosasaurs that it shared the oceans with. Two species of Xiphactinus are currently known to science. The first is Xiphactinus audax. This was the first species discovered, and is the larger of the two. X.audax had a wide geographical range, with fossils being discovered across North America from Saskatchewan in Canada, to Texas, New Jersey, Mississippi, Georgia and Delaware in the United States. The second species is Xiphactinus vetus. This species was discovered much more recently in 1997 and is known from the Eastern United States. This large range is just the North American distribution however! Fragments of an upper jaw bone and vertebrae from Xiphactinus audax were discovered in Patagonia in Argentina, South America, and described in 2020. These finds have expanded its range much further south west than was previously thought. Furthermore Xiphactinus fossils have also been unearthed in Western Europe and even as far as Australia. This almost worldwide distribution indicates that you would’ve had a good chance of spotting a Xiphactinus no matter where you ventured in the Late Cretaceous seas and that this multi-fanged fish was an incredibly successful animal for its time.

The most striking feature of Xiphactinus was undoubtedly its short, bulldog like face complete with a protruding and upturned lower jaw. This face was attached to a sleek, streamlined body complete with a “wing-like” pair of pectoral fins, a backward pointing dorsal fin, downward facing pelvic and anal fin, a broad tail and smooth scales. In essence Xiphactinus would’ve looked like a modern day Tarpon but larger and with a blunter, more fanged-teeth filled face. Just like the tarpon Xiphactinus was built for speed. Powerful strokes from its tail accelerated it through the water, and combined with jaws filled with large and sharp teeth would’ve made Xiphactinus a formidable hunter. This appearance is unique and begs the question; who was Xiphactinus related to? Well, Xiphactinus was a member of the Teleosts, a large group of bony fish which are also known as the “Ray-Finned Fish”. Teleosts are a massively successful group, so much so that they make up nearly 96% of all modern fish species, and nearly half of all modern vertebrate species. Yes, this includes ALL mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and other fish alive today! Within this huge Teleost group Xiphactinus belonged to a family known as the Icthyodectidae; a family of fish that became totally extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, leaving no living descendants.

The diet of Xiphactinus included Fish, Small Marine Reptiles, Ancient Seabirds (e.g. Hesperornis, a flightless human sized seabird from the USA) and even Pterosaurs. These potential prey items would have not been easy to catch. But Xiphactinus had a secret weapon. It is theorized that it was endothermic, meaning that it could generate and maintain a higher body temperature than the surrounding environment (in a similar way to mammals and birds). This is actually not unheard of for a fish, who are usually thought to be exothermic, meaning their body heat is determined largely by their surroundings. Bluefin Tuna, Swordfish and Great White Sharks are also able to maintain a higher body temperature, independent of their environment. This strategy gives them the potential to produce the heat (and therefore energy) required to be fast active predators who can swim at high speeds. With this in mind maybe Xiphactinus could’ve leapt out of the water to grab flying animals or while hunting water bound animals in a manner akin to a Great White Shark! Obviously this is speculative behaviour, but what a sight that would have been if it did pull off such manoeuvres! Some remarkable fossils of Xiphactinus have allowed palaeontologists to gain further insight into its hunting behaviour. One fossil, discovered in 1952 at Smokey Hill in Kansas, USA, and stored in the Sternberg Museum (also in Kansas), preserves a complete 4 metre long Xiphactinus skeleton in the process of swallowing a 2 metre long fish named Gillicus. That’s right this Gillicus was half the size of Xiphactinus! It seems that this Xiphactinus perished due to a combination of choking and its internal organs being punctured by the struggling Gillicus. Such a hunting strategy would also helped explain the large fang like teeth and upturned jaw. The teeth would’ve pierced and held the animal in place while the up and down movement of its lower jaw would’ve helped Xiphactinus gulp down its prey. With this beautiful fossil in mind, it’s almost a good thing that Xiphactinus isn’t swimming around in today’s oceans. Being swallowed alive by one would not have been a fun way to go!

File:Xiphactinus audax Sternberg Museum.jpg
The “Fish within a fish” fossil of a Xiphactinus and a Gillicus on display at the Sternberg Museum in Kansas, USA.
Image Credit: Spacini, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xiphactinus_audax_Sternberg_Museum.jpg

Despite its size and fearsome appearance Xiphactinus was NOT the top predator in its seas. A Xiphactinus audax individual, estimated to have been “only” 3 metres long, discovered in Kansas, and described in 2004, was found to have a shark tooth embedded in its third vertebrae. This tooth belonged to an estimated 3.1 metre long specimen of a Late Cretaceous shark called Cretoxyrinha. What seems to have happened is that the shark inflicted a powerful bite into the back of the Xiphactinus, breaking off and embedding one of its teeth in its vertebrae in the process. While it is not clear whether the shark was actively hunting Xiphactinus, or if it was just scavenging its remains, it is clear is that the two species not only co-existed in the same place and at the same time but also actively interacted with each other. As well as Cretoxyrinha, Xiphactinus would’ve had to look out for other large oceanic predators. One such group were the Mosasaurs; Marine Reptiles that were closely related to lizards and snakes. These Mosasaurs included the 13 metre long Tylosaurus and the 15 metre long Mosasaurus (see my article on Mosasaurus for more about these fascinating sea faring reptiles!), both of whom were powerful predators with strong bites. All of these animals lived together in a large sea known as the “Western Interior Seaway”. This was an ancient sea that covered the middle of North America, and was so big that it split the continent into two large islands; Laramidia to the west (which is where the famous dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops lived) and Appalachia to the east. With Xiphactinus, Cretoxyrinha and the Giant Mosasaurs lurking in the water it’s no wonder that Nigel Marven in the BBC documentary “Sea Monsters” called this Late Cretaceous Sea “Hells Aquarium”! Despite Tyrannosaurus rex stalking Laramidia at the time, you arguably would have been better off sticking to the land!

However despite being incredibly successful and widespread, Xiphactinus would end up being lost to extinction. 66 million years ago a large asteroid 10km wide smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This resulted in an extinction event known as the “K/T” Extinction Event, which was so devastating that an estimated 70% of all living species at the time went extinct. While it is best known for wiping out all of the Non-Avian (or “non-bird”) Dinosaurs it also had a massive effect on marine life. When the meteorite smashed into the earth it led to the release of massive amounts of sulfur from impacted rocks into the atmosphere, causing a worldwide “rain out” of sulfuric acid. This resulted in a big drop in the pH of the oceans, making them more acidic. This ocean acidification in turn prevented calcifying foraminifera and other tiny invertebrates from making their shells (as the low pH would dissolve the shells before they formed). Furthermore a number of plankton and algae species sensitive to pH changes were badly affected, leading to a mass die off of these species. These tiny organisms may not seem like much but they are the foundations for the survival of all marine life further up the food chain. Once these small species disappeared, there was a massive ecological collapse. This was because the fish that ate the plankton died off from starvation, and then in turn fish that ate those fish died off. It was this horrible domino effect that ultimately ended up causing the extinction of Xiphactinus as eventually there was not enough food to support them. In fact marine life was so badly affected by the K/T extinction event that it would take roughly 3 million years for marine ecosystems to fully recover.

In conclusion, Xiphactinus may not have been the most attractive of prehistoric animals, but it was unique, innovative and successful. It deserves to be regarded as an iconic prehistoric animal, and perhaps the most successful large predator of the Late Cretaceous seas!

File:Styxosaurus and Xiphactinus.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Xiphactinus would’ve co-existed with many strange creatures in the Western Interior Seaway, including Styxosaurus; a Marine Reptile that was a member of the Plesiosaur group.
Image Credit: ABelov2014, https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Styxosaurus-Xiphactinus-audax-var-1-658020267

References/Further Reading

Ferrón 2019: a paper that built upon previous work and provided further evidence for endothermy in Xiphactinus

Humberto G. Ferrón (2019) Evidence of endothermy in the extinct macropredatory osteichthyan Xiphactinus audax (Teleostei, Ichthyodectiformes), Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 39:6, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2019.1724123

Shimada & Everhart 2004: a paper reporting on a Xiphactinus fossil that possesses bite marks made by a large shark

Shimada, K., & Everhart, M. J. (2004). Shark-bitten Xiphactinus audax (Teleostei: Ichthyodectiformes) from the Niobrara Chalk (Upper Cretaceous) of Kansas. The Mosasaur, 7, 35-39.

Schwimmer & Stewart 1997 paper describing the second species of Xiphactinus; Xiphactinus vetus.

Schwimmer, D., et al. (1997). “Xiphactinus vetus and the distribution of Xiphactinus species in the eastern United States.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology – J VERTEBRATE PALEONTOL 17: 610-615.

Everhart, Hageman & Hoffman 2010 journal article talking about another “fish within a fish” fossil discovery similar to the Xiphactinus/Gillicus specimen.

Everhart, Michael J., et al. “Another Sternberg ‘Fish-within-a-Fish’ Discovery: First Report of Ichthyodectes Ctenodon (Teleostei; Ichthyodectiformes) with Stomach Contents.” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-), vol. 113, no. 3/4, 2010, pp. 197–205. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41309609. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.

Henehan et. al. 2019 paper on the ocean acidification that occurred in the worlds oceans during the K/T extinction event 66 million years ago.

Henehan, M. J., et al. (2019). “Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(45): 22500-22504.

An online copy of a chapter from Richard Cowans 1999 book titled “History of Life” which details the effects of the K/T extinction

Cowan, Richard, “The K/T Extinction”, History of Life, 1999, www.ucmp.berkeley.edu, https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/education/events/cowen1b.html

The Prehistoric Wildlife website factfile on Xiphactinus

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Xiphactinus”, www.prehistoric-wildlife.com, http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/x/xiphactinus.html

A short National Geographic profile on Xiphactinus

National Geographic “Xiphactinus audax”, Animals Photo Ark, nationalgeographic.com, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/prehistoric/xiphactinus/

A University of Pennsylvania archives fact file on Professor Joseph Leidy, who first described and named Xiphactinus in 1870

University of Pennsylvania, “Joseph Mellick Leidy”, www.archives.upenn.edu.com, https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/joseph-mellick-leidy

Paleo Safaris: Ice Age Australia

Queensland, Australia, 50,000 years ago

The last Ice Age is usually associated with cold, frozen landscapes with Mammoths, Sabre Toothed Cats, Woolly Rhinos and Ground Sloths dominating the landscape. However in some places on earth these conditions and animals weren’t present at all. For an example of this look no further than Australia. Instead of colder temperatures, the Ice Age caused Australia to become drier in glacial periods and wetter in interglacials. During interglacial periods conditions were mild enough to allow for more extensive temperate forests and dry grassland to grow and encircle the vast central desert. Just like today, Australia was home to a host of weird and unusual animal species exclusive to the continent. For example there were (and still are) not many placental mammals; the large phylum that encompasses the majority of all mammal families elsewhere in the world, from cats, to whales, to cows and to humans. Instead a completely different type of mammal is dominant here. They are the marsupials. Their main distinguishing trait is their young being born very early in development and then spending the rest of the development cycle maturing in an external skin pouch instead of internally in a placental linked womb. If we journey back 50,000 years we find that Australia’s signature marsupials can still be spotted; Kangaroos leap across the arid land, Koalas snooze in the afternoon sun and Wombats lumber along the forest undergrowth. However among these animals also live a large cast of unfamiliar Australian fauna.

It’s late April, and on the arid plains of Queensland, Central Australia one marsupial munches on the dry grass in the dead of night. It’s bigger than any Australian animal alive today, about the same size as a Rhino but is a close relative of the Wombat. This is Diprotodon; at 3 metres long, 1.8 metres tall and roughly 2.8 tonnes it is the largest marsupial that has ever lived. Diprotodon usually live in big herds that seasonally migrate across the Australian outback, but this young male has become separated from the rest of the herd. He picks up the sound of a disturbance in the bush and notices something moving quickly through it. He looks up towards the sound and readies himself for an attack! The animal emerges! But to the Diprotodons relief it’s not what it was fearing. Instead it is a female Thylacine, on the hunt for prey that is more her size. Thylacines are only a metre long and weigh 17 kilos (smaller than a medium-sized dog) and as such usually stay out the way of the larger animals. Once he realises that the Thylacine is no threat the big Diprotodon goes back to munching on the surrounding grass. In fact the female Thylacine that is more relieved that there was no escalation in this encounter. Getting trampled by the rhino sized marsupial would have been fatal not only to her, but to her unborn baby.

File:Diprotodon optatum.jpg
Diprotodon. The largest Marsupial to ever exist!
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura, http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-5Ckt4LUHKz8/T9dwmTycaMI/AAAAAAAABt8/70-K8CMYL5k/s1600/Diprotodon_BW2.jpg

By late May when we next see her, the female Thylacine has now officially become a mother! Within the safety of her pouch pokes out the head of her joey. Sadly he is the only survivor of an original litter of four. Two of his siblings were stillborn and the other couldn’t reach the pouch and perished in the harsh Australian environment. He is not yet strong enough to leave it yet and is still totally dependent on milk he gets from mammary glands within the pouch. While she’s carrying around this new arrival, the female Thylacine will be keen to take any free meal she can find. She is in luck as the distinctive smell of carrion wafts through the wind. Using her keen sense of smell she tracks the scent towards its source; a Diprotodon that has succumbed to old age and the battering heat of the Australian sun. However she is not the only predator drawn to the carcass. To her left emerges a crocodile! But there is no river or lake for miles around. How can this be?! This is no ordinary crocodile! This is a Quinkana. A 6 metre long crocodilian who, unlike its water loving relatives, is almost entirely terrestrial with legs that are located more underneath its body to allow it to chase down prey. Quinkana is another animal that dwarfs the Thylacine. However she is more nimble, and if she’s careful she can sneak up to the carcass and steal a mouthful or two before the Quinkana notices. She starts to stealthily venture towards the other side of the carcass as the Quinkana tears into it. But then she hears a sharp hiss from the thicket! She flees the scene as another giant reptile enters stage right! Megalania. A 7 metre long monitor lizard, roughly twice the size of a Komodo Dragon! It too has smelt the carcass and unlike the Thylacine it has the size and power to potentially muscle the Quinkana off the carcass. The Megalania grabs the hind leg of the carcass and attempts to drag it away. But the Quinkana isn’t going to let go easily and proceeds to grab onto the carcasses’ neck. A massive tug of war ensues between the two reptiles, one that could potentially escalate further! Understandably the Thylacine isn’t willing to stick around to find out the result and with the two giant predators all over the carcass there is no chance of her stealing anything now. Frustrated, she is forced to move on.

File:Quinkana fortirostrum.JPG
Quinkana. One of the many large predators our Thylacine family has to avoid!
Image Credit: Mr Fink, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quinkana_fortirostrum.JPG

It is now late November and the baby Thylacine has finally left the safety of the pouch and is taking his first independent steps into a wider world. The Australian summer is now in full swing. Conditions are much hotter and drier, and all animals are feeling the strain. One such animal is Genyornis. Genyornis is a flightless bird that is part of the ratite family; the same family that contains the Ostrich of Africa and another Australian bird called the Emu. However Genyornis is a giant, and at 2 metres tall it is about 6 times bigger than a regular Emu. Genyornis is a vegetarian, feeding on leaves and seeds, and it is this that draws it close to a nearby tree. The tree also provides much needed shade and allows the Genyornis some respite from the hot sun. But it is not as safe as it thinks it is. The Genyornis looks round, alerted by a sound coming from the nearby bush. But before the bird can even react a powerful marsupial slams into it and bites very hard into the Genyornis’ neck. It’s all over in just a few seconds. This predator is the largest Mammalian carnivore in Australia; a Thylacoleo. The Thylacoleo looks around, checking that no other large predator has caught wind of the fresh kill, then drags the big carcass up into the safety of the tree to consume at her leisure. Unbeknownst to her the female Thylacine and her joey have been awoken by the disturbance. Thylacines are nocturnal, meaning they operate mostly between Dusk and Dawn, and so the pair were taking the opportunity to have a daily siesta! The mother knows better than to linger around a full grown Thylacoleo and ushers her joey away to find a quieter place to nap. At first glance Thylacoleo looks similar to the big cats that occupy the rest of the world. However like Diprotodon this “Marsupial Lion” is actually another relative of the wombat. Thylacoleo is an incredible animal, perhaps the most unique mammalian carnivore to ever live. The bite that instantly ended the Genyornis’ life is the strongest pound for pound bite of any mammal ever! It’s even stronger than an African Lion despite Thylacoleo being nearly half its size! Like big cats Thylacoleo possesses large retractable claws and these, along with its dentition of large stabbing incisors and sharp shearing carnassials (i.e. molars) make this marsupial quite the formidable hunter. The Thylacine family definitely made the right choice in avoiding it!

File:Leon marsupial, Thylacoleo carnifex 3d restoration.jpg - Wikimedia  Commons
Thylacoleo. The most unique Mammalian carnivore to ever exist.
Image Credit: Jose Manuel Canete, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leon_marsupial,_Thylacoleo_carnifex_3d_restoration.jpg

Fast forward to early February and the end of the Australian summer is approaching. With each passing day the baby Thylacine grows stronger and more independent. He also isn’t the only youngster around anymore. Not far from the Thylacine family a group of Procoptodon (or “Short Faced Kangaroos) lie in the shade of the nearby trees. These giant members of the Kangaroo family grow up to 2 metres tall and weigh 230 kilograms. Despite this size, they are still capable of hopping and reaching great speeds as other kangaroo species are*. They’re also just as dangerous, a fact that two males are demonstrating by sparring together. The kicks from their strong legs can crack bones and result in serious internal bleeding. But in this session both males walk away scot free. The Procoptodon joeys are also sparring, copying the behaviour of the males. But for these youngsters this is more playfighting than real sparring! Life for our Thylacine family finally seems peaceful. But there’s a dangerous smell in the air. The smell of smoke. A fire has started in the east, and to the sides of the flames are the cause. Humans. Their flaming torches have lit the surrounding dry grass with the aim of driving the Procoptodon out into the open. However the fire has also engulfed all the other animals in the area and all around the flickering red and orange flames the Thylacine mother and child hear the terrified cries of animals engulfed by smoke and flames. The fire spreads panic and chaos all over the place and out of the nowhere the mother Thylacine is smacked into by another big animal. Both animals are dazed by the blow and the mother Thylacine looks up at the Thylacoleo, who has managed to shake off the blow and stagger to her feet. This is a nightmarish for the Thylacine and yet all she can think of is the safety of her joey somewhere in the fire. But the Thylacoleo could care less about the Thylacine right now and runs on past her. In shear panic the Thylacoleo had only accidently ran into the Thylacine while trying to escape! The mother Thylacine desperately calls out for her joey. One coughing bark; nothing. Another two barks; still nothing! The fear is absolutely overwhelming now and to her it truly feels like the end of her world. But then she hears a bark, one she recognises! It’s her joey, still alive! The pair run for their lives but no matter which way they turn the fire blocks their path. Running out of places to go there seems to be no escape as the fire surrounds them and starts to burn brighter and hotter….

File:Procoptodon BW.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Procoptodon: The giant kangaroo targeted by the fire wielding humans!
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura, http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-caAabAGbDtI/T9UY-vMc6oI/AAAAAAAABoI/ARER5hK_3Dw/s1600/Procoptodon_BW2.jpg

Later that evening the fire finally dies down. The humans have long since moved on with their prizes. But in their wake lie the consequences of their actions. From black widow spiders, to wallabies, to Diprotodons and Procoptodons all manner of life has burnt to a crisp. Not even the mighty Megalania and Quinkana, those two reptiles vying for top predator supremacy, could escape the flames. As fierce as they were, they were ultimately no match for a species who could wield a superweapon like fire. Luckily our Thylacine family managed to survive the fire by seeking refuge in a large and deep burrow. Walking through the burned vegetation and past the bodies, the mother recognises a familiar face. It is the female Thylacoleo. Once a great threat to our Thylacine, the Thylacoleo lies motionless with smoke floating from her burnt skin like a blown out candle. The Thylacine regards her from as close as she has ever managed before. But this time there’s no response, and after a while the Thylacine and her child, as always, are forced to move on to survive. This tragedy is a sign of things to come for the great megafauna of Australia. Even 50,000 years ago species like the Thylacoleo are in decline and within 30,000 years nearly all of the spectacular animals we have encountered on this journey will have disappeared. While the humans’ efficient hunting strategies are a threat the herbivores of Australia are unprepared for, and one the carnivores can’t hope to match, they are not the main reason why the megafauna disappear. By comparing the extinction dates of the Australian megafauna with the arrival of humans it was found that they were actually able to co-exist together for nearly 20,000 years, a piece of information that doesn’t correlate with overhunting. Instead there is another danger, one more devastating than even the humans; the changing climate. Over time Australia becomes even drier and more arid. This results in habitat loss and without their habitat this Ice Age ecosystem will not be able to survive. As for the plucky Thylacines, they will manage to cling on for a while longer. However even they will eventually be unable to adapt to the new human world. After going extinct on mainland Australia 2,000 years ago they were reduced to a small population living exclusively on the island of Tasmania, leading to their more commonly known name of “The Tasmanian Tiger”. However the arrival of Europeans in Tasmania would put them under even greater pressure than before. Their habitat was destroyed to make way for farms, imported disease would strike them down and Europeans would kill them in the mistaken belief that they hunted their sheep and cattle. The last Thylacine, a male that’s often incorrectly thought to have been called Benjamin, passed away on the 7th of September 1936 in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart Australia. Tragically it is thought that he was a victim of neglect, locked out of his shelter and left out in the bitter cold of the Australian night. It was a truly sad end to a species that was a remnant of a lost world.

pungulv – Store norske leksikon
The Thylacines. The plucky heroes of this safari!
Image Credit: John Gould, https://snl.no/pungulv

*EDIT: This sentence is inaccurate and a mistake on my part! Procoptodon and its relatives, the Sthenurinae Kangaroos, are NOT thought to have hopped like modern Kangaroos do. Instead the currently accepted theory is that they walked on two legs (a bit like humans do). This idea was put forward by a study published in 2014 by Janis, Buttrill & Figueirido and backed up by a 2019 paper by Janis et. al. Links to both papers can be found below in the References/Further Reading section.

References/Further Reading

An article on the National Museum Australia’s website about the extinction of the Thylacine in 1936

National Museum Australia, “Extinction of the Thylacine”, National Museum Australia, www.nma.gov.au, https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/extinction-of-thylacine#:~:text=On%207%20September%201936%20only,the%20time%20of%20European%20settlement.

Rovinsky et. al. 2020. A paper that provides a new size estimate for the Thylacine

Rovinsky Douglass S., Evans Alistair R., Martin Damir G. and Adams Justin W. 2020Did the thylacine violate the costs of carnivory? Body mass and sexual dimorphism of an iconic Australian marsupialProc. R. Soc. B.28720201537, http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.1537

An interesting web page from the Thylacine Museum section on the Natural Worlds website on Thylacine Reproduction and Development

Natural Worlds, “Biology: Reproduction and Development”, www.naturalworlds.org, http://www.naturalworlds.org/thylacine/biology/reproduction/reproduction_2.htm?fbclid=IwAR13a8Y9GJTCG6vT2vR-GNc8Xv96M7t5aYSE8WsQKjCTaojxQFIZJeju6EM

And another web page from the Thylacine Museum on Thylacine sounds.

Natural Worlds, “Vocalisation”, http://www.naturalworlds.org, http://www.naturalworlds.org/thylacine/biology/behaviour/behaviour_12.htm

• A video by Ben G Thomas (uploaded coincidentally while I was writing this blog article) about the Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

An article written by Alice Klein for New Scientist on Thylacoleo

Klein, Alice, “Australia’s ‘marsupial lion’ was a meat-ripping, tree-climbing terror”, New Scientist, www.newscientist.com, 12th December, 2018, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2187990-australias-marsupial-lion-was-a-meat-ripping-tree-climbing-terror/

An article on National Geographic by Laelaps (Riley Black) on the new size estimate of the giant monitor lizard Megalania.

Black, Riley, “Australia’s Giant, Venomous Lizard Gets Downsized”, National Geographic, March 19, 2014, www.nationalgeographic.com, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2014/03/19/australias-giant-venomous-lizard-gets-downsized/

Hocknull et. al. 2020: A study that provided evidence that the extinction of Australias megafauna (specifically in the Eastern Sahul region) was mainly due to a changing climate.

Hocknull, S.A., Lewis, R., Arnold, L.J. et al. Extinction of eastern Sahul megafauna coincides with sustained environmental deterioration. Nat Commun 11, 2250 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15785-w

A 2017 article published on The Conversation, written by Gilbert Price, about Diprotodon and it’s seasonal migrations across Ice Age Australia

Price, Gilbert, “Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape”, 27th September, 2017, www.theconversation.com, https://theconversation.com/giant-marsupials-once-migrated-across-an-australian-ice-age-landscape-84762?fbclid=IwAR0G3JDp8KZo-HTLBPIPGIyu2mMKW6yAZ5RlAipREqCL0VZjckZkZhvvGXM

The Australian Museums factfile on Procoptodon. Last updated in 2018 and written by Anne Musser

Musser, Anne, “Procoptodon goliah”, 4th December, 2018, www.australian.museum.com, https://australian.museum/learn/australia-over-time/extinct-animals/procoptodon-goliah/

Janis, Buttrill & Figueirido 2014 paper on Sthenurine (e.g. Procoptodon) locomation

Janis CM, Buttrill K, Figueirido B (2014) Locomotion in Extinct Giant Kangaroos: Were Sthenurines Hop-Less Monsters? PLoS ONE 9(10): e109888. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0109888

Janis et. al. 2019 paper that followed up the 2014 study on Sthenurine locomotion by examining the humerus bones of these extinct giant Kangaroos

Janis, C.M., Napoli, J.G., Billingham, C. et al. Proximal Humerus Morphology Indicates Divergent Patterns of Locomotion in Extinct Giant Kangaroos. J Mammal Evol 27, 627–647 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10914-019-09494-5

Prehistoric Wildlife’s factfile on Genyornis

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Genyornis”, www.prehistoric-wildlife.com, http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/g/genyornis.html

The Woolly Mammoth: The great wonder of the Ice Age

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Despite their size Woolly Mammoths were not invulnerable to attack from predators like these human species.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hunting_Woolly_Mammoth.jpg

“Alright, so what’s the next animal decided by the voters?”

[See’s that it’s the Woolly Mammoth].

“…..oh boy”.

Woolly Mammoths are HUGE. Not just in size but also with regards to public interest and our knowledge of these mammals. There are dozens upon dozens of scientific papers, journal articles, blog articles, TV documentaries and YouTube videos covering almost every aspect of mammoth biology, behaviour, extinction, evolutionary history and even whether they can be brought back from the dead (more on that later). As a result there is a lot to talk about! There’s so much that I can’t cover everything in just one blog article. So in this article we shall address one basic question; what exactly was a Woolly Mammoth? Furthermore I shall include some facts and stories about Woolly Mammoths that I’ve personally found awesome, interesting, inspiring and thought provoking.

Mammoths have a very long history of discovery, longer than almost any other prehistoric animal. Written records of mammoth fossil finds date back to the 17th century, with one find being recorded from Belgium in 1643. At that time palaeontology wasn’t a recognised field of study and the people who unearthed them thought that they had found the bones of mythical giants. Further remains were brought to the naturalist Sir Hans Sloane in 1728, who studied the remains and published his findings in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society”. This means that Woolly Mammoths were the first prehistoric animals to be studied scientifically! The finds presented to Hans Sloane consisted of tusks and teeth. But they were enough to convince him that they belonged to a type of elephant. However why were elephant bones being found as far north and in as cold a climate as Siberia? It wouldn’t be until the late 18th century when it was deduced that these bones belonged to a new extinct elephant relative; a Mammoth. Some of the earliest Mammoth reconstructions from the 18th century were truly bizarre. One such reconstruction can only be described as a short, round pig with tusks coming out of its narrow snout! This is a far cry from the elephant-like reconstructions of today. Modern day reconstructions of Mammoth species, and the science surrounding them, are put together from evidence not only from fossil bones but also from one of the most exceptionally preserved remains possible in nature; frozen carcasses. These frozen bodies are the result of the poor Mammoths becoming trapped in thick mud. This mud fills the Mammoth’s mouth, nose and throat and combined with the fatigue from the trying to escape the Mammoth perishes. It is then buried under the thick mud and he combination of the cold temperatures (slowing down respiration of decaying bacteria) and the thick, oxygen deficient frozen mud slows down decomposition to a crawl. Therefore when the bodies are unearthed tens of thousands of years later they still have fur, skin, muscle tissue (which is so fresh that it is still edible!) and even internal organs. Some famous examples of frozen Mammoth carcasses include a 2013 specimen (of a 50-60 year old female) from the Stathsky Islands in Siberia that still had blood within it. Another example is a “Golden Mammoth”; a 22,000-50,000 year old “pygmy” Mammoth species (scientifically named “Mammuthus exilis”), only 2 metres tall, discovered in Kotelny Island in Siberia in 2018 that possesses golden strawberry blonde fur. A third example is the Jarkov Mammoth; a 20,000-18,000 year old bull male mammoth discovered in 1997 which is encased in a 23 tonne cube shaped block of ice, except for its tusks sticking out the front. This particular find gained significant internet fame as it is the basis for the “Mammoth Cube” meme. These frozen carcasses are spectacular and each one has its own story to tell regarding their discovery and the life of the Mammoth in question. These stories are so rich and detailed that I have only barely scratched the surface about them in this blog article!

Frozen Mammoth carcasses like this one (The 42,000 year old “Lyuba Mammoth”) are a fantastic way for palaeontologists to study these immense mammals!
Image Credit: James St John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/34834312015/

The basic body shape of a Woolly Mammoth (known scientifically as “Mammuthus primigenius”) is similar in a few key features with modern elephants, especially Asian Elephants who are the Mammoths closest living relatives. They are four legged herbivores with a domed head, slightly sloped back and a pair of specialised incisor teeth known as tusks. Furthermore they had a mostly grass based diet which they grinded down with a battery of thick, ridged molar teeth. Like elephants, Mammoths possessed a long, flexible trunk that was used for a number of different tasks; from grabbing and pulling vegetation (mainly grasses and flowering plants) towards their mouths, to sensing their environment through smell or touch, to sucking up water to drink and more. However Mammoths differed from elephants in a number of key ways. The most obvious of these was their thick, furry coats, which would grow even thicker and furrier in winter before shedding in summer. This feature was obviously beneficial in keeping them warm in the cold of Ice Age Europe, Asia and North America. Furthermore we know from the discovery of frozen mammoth bodies (and from fascinating cave art made by early humans!) that this coat came in a range of colours from dark brown, to light brown to reddish brown. But it wasn’t just the fur coat that kept them warm. Mammoths also possessed smaller ears and tails compared to modern elephants (to reduce heat loss) and a thick layer of fat that surrounded the entire animal and helped insulated it against the cold by trapping heat inside the animal. These features are typical of large animals living in very cold climates and can sometimes make these animals larger than their warm weather counterparts. This is true of Woolly Mammoths, with their average size coming in at 3-3.5 metres tall and weights of 5-6 tons, which is actually roughly around the same size as a large African Elephant. Woolly Mammoths were by no means the largest Mammoths around though. The Steppe Mammoth (a possible direct ancestor whose fossils have been discovered in the UK) lived up to about 750,000 years ago and could grow even bigger to around 4.5 metres tall and roughly 10.5-14 tonnes in weight. This means that when the Steppe Mammoth evolved into the Woolly Mammoth it actually shrunk to a smaller size! This is probably because of climate change resulting in less available vegetation to support the larger sizes.

Despite their size, weaponry and safety in numbers Woolly Mammoths were by no means impervious to attack. Cave Lions, Wolves, our close cousins the Neanderthals and our own ancestors would have definitely targeted a young or sick Mammoth that was struggling to keep pace with the herd. That being said even a weakened Woolly Mammoth would have been a tough nut to crack. It’s large size and massive tusks would have done considerable damage to these would be predators (even the co-operating, tool using human species). We know that both Neanderthals and Humans hunted Mammoths due to depictions in cave paintings, discoveries of Mammoth bones and tusks that have been altered, and even jewellery and huts made by humans from mammoth bones and tusks. These finds emphasize just how big a part Mammoths were in the lives of these humans, not only as food but also in a cultural and maybe even religious way. Even today Mammoths have marched their way into people’s imaginations through discoveries of their fossil remains and the subsequent reconstructions. Woolly Mammoths are particularly popular in pop culture for a prehistoric animal, being portrayed in numerous books, TV documentaries and even movies (looking at you “Ice Age” and “10,000 years BC”). With how popular they are, it is no wonder that people get excited by the potential of cloning Woolly Mammoths from DNA extracted from their frozen carcasses. This is theoretically possible due to the excellent preservation of the frozen mammoths. Hair from two specimens dating to 20,000-60,000 years old has preserved enough DNA to sequence half of the complete genome of a Woolly Mammoth. It’s perfectly understandable why people are excited, Imagine being able to see such an iconic animal brought back to life for everyone to see again! Even if the animal would only be a hybrid of a Mammoth and an Asian Elephant, made of half, or part of a Mammoth. I’m sure seeing a Woolly Mammoth again will give people the world over the same sense of awe and wonder that their distant ancestors must have felt when they saw Mammoths at their peak. But bringing back an extinct animal opens a whole can of worms when it comes to the ethics surrounding it. If scientists can bring Mammoths back from the dead like this, should it be for a more scientifically valid reason than just “because it would be cool”? Should the purpose instead be to learn more and confirm aspects about Mammoth biology, appearance and behaviour that is impossible with just fossils (e.g. specific herd behaviour, sounds etc.). Furthermore at the end of the day you’re bringing a large extinct mammal into the modern world where it may be difficult for it to live in. Is there a habitat in the world large enough and with the right conditions for a population of de-extinct Mammoths? Or would this small population spend all of their lives in zoos or safari parks across the world? Regardless of whether we can or will resurrect Woolly Mammoths, sequencing their genome has already told us much about their evolutionary history and life appearance. For example we know from their DNA that Mammoths are more closely related to Asian Elephants than to African Elephants and that Mammoths and Asian Elephants diverged away from each other around 5-4 million years ago. Furthermore, DNA evidence has told us that while Mammoths had a range of coat colours some were more prevalent than others, with the Dark Brown colouration being the most common. This is similar to how some human hair and eye colours are more common than others. What’s certain is that the more Mammoth DNA is sequenced, the more discoveries will be made!

An excellent painting of a small herd of Woolly Mammoths!
Image Credit: Kira Sokolovskaia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Herd_of_Mammoths_-_Kira_Sokolovskaia.jpg

Put all these aspects of biology and lifestyle together, and what you get is an incredibly successful herbivore. For roughly 400,000-450,000 years large Woolly Mammoth herds, consisting of mainly females, their young and led by a matriarch, would have been a common sight across Western Europe (including the UK, France and Spain), to Eastern Europe and Siberia, to Western North America. But sadly, no species lasts forever, and this was true of the Woolly Mammoths. The last surviving population, a pygmy subspecies living on Wrangel Island in Northern Siberia, became extinct as recently as 4,000 years ago. Humans have been blamed for the extinction of the Woolly Mammoths, with the theory being that extensive overhunting was too much for the dwindling Mammoth population to recover from. However while human hunting would have affected their numbers it is unlikely that humans were the sole, number one reason for their extinction. Instead it is believed that extensive climate change caused a reduction in the huge Mammoth steppe grassland that they relied on. This were replaced by forested environments, a habitat that was not as suitable for a large herbivore who was predominantly a grazer. As a result the Mammoth populations was in a steady decline leading up to their extinction, and genetic studies show that there was a reduction in genetic diversity up to the end of the last glacial period 10,000 years ago.

So there you have it. That is what a Woolly Mammoth was. A remarkably successful prehistoric animal that managed not only to adapt to, but to thrive in the freezing cold conditions of the Ice Age. They may be gone from this world (for now perhaps) but they have left a rich legacy through fossils and a deep mark in many people’s imaginations. There is no denying that Woolly Mammoths have cemented themselves as one of the most well-known and famous prehistoric animal of all time!

A Woolly Mammoth skeleton on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, USA
Image Credit: Jonathan Chen, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woolly_Mammoth-Field_Museum.jpg

References/Further Reading

•An article from the Washington post, written by Henry Nicholls, detailing the evolutionary history of the Woolly Mammoth


Nicholls, Henry, “Frozen remains help explain the life and eventual extinction of the woolly mammoth”, Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/frozen-remains-help-explain-the-life-and-eventual-extinction-of-the-woolly-mammoth/2011/03/29/AFOPWeMD_story.html

• An article written by David Robson for NewScientist detailing the sequencing of half of a Woolly Mammoth genome in 2008.


Robson, David, “Frozen hair gives up first mammoth genome”, NewScientist, www.newscientist.com, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16081-frozen-hair-gives-up-first-mammoth-genome/?ignored=irrelevant

• A video by the excellent Ben G Thomas YouTube channel that details 5 frozen carcasses. One of the carcasses covered is the Jarkov Mammoth (aka the “Mammoth Cube”) with the others consisting of frozen Cave Lions and the recently discovered frozen Cave Bear

• A fact file from the Prehistoric Wildlife page on Woolly Mammoth. Prehistoric Wildlife is a fantastic resource for information on prehistoric animals and I’ve used it as a resource for a lot of my blog articles.


Prehistoric Wildlife, “Mammuthus primigenius

(Woolly mammoth)”, www.prehistoric-wildlife.com,


• A Siberian Times article about the “Golden Mammoth”; a frozen pygmy Mammoth with golden/strawberry blonde fur


Siberian Times, “Scientists discover unique carcass of extinct ‘pygmy’ woolly mammoth on island off Siberian coast”, www.siberiantimes.com, 12th August, 2018, https://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/scientists-discover-unique-carcass-of-extinct-pygmy-woolly-mammoth-on-island-off-siberian-coast/

• A National Geographic article, written by Tom Mueller in May 2009, about the “Ice Baby”, including history of its discovery and how it became preserved in the thick frozen mud.


Mueller, Tom, “Ice Baby”, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com, May, 2009, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2009/05/mammoths/

Prestosuchus and the Rauisuchians: The Pangean top predators

File:Prestosuchus-chiniquensis (2).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
An artists impression of Prestosuchus chiniquensis. AKA “Prestes Crocodile”
Image Credit: Dmitry Bogdanov, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prestosuchus-chiniquensis_(2).jpg

The Mesozoic era is usually associated with one group of animals. You may have heard of them already, but if you haven’t, I’ll give you a clue; the name starts with D! However, during the first third of the Mesozoic era, a time known as the Triassic period, that famous group were only just beginning to establish themselves and radiate into their early sub groups. During this time the Triassic was instead dominated by other animal groups. These included Dicynodonts; large reptilian pig-looking herbivores who were part of a larger group known as “stem-mammals” (the lineage that would give rise to true mammals) and Cynodonts; small omnivorous stem mammals that often lived in burrows. However the animal I will be talking about here belonged to an altogether different reptile group. This animal is Prestosuchus; a huge four legged carnivore that belonged to a line of reptiles known as the Pseudosuchians (the same group that modern crocodiles would descend from). Despite being part of the same lineage, and possessing similar morphological features, Prestosuchus wasn’t a crocodile. Instead it belonged to the now extinct sister group known as the Rauisuchians. This important group of carnivores I think don’t get the attention they deserve, something that I shall now try rectify!

The first fossils of Prestosuchus (from a species eventually named Prestosuchus chiniquensis) were discovered in Brazil during the war torn year of 1942 by a German Palaeontologist named Friedrich von Huene. However, while he is credited as the discoverer of the fossil he was only able to do it with the help of his colleague; Vicentino Prestes de Almeida. A local self-taught Brazilian palaeontologist Vicentino is who Prestosuchus is named after, (the name translates to “Prestes Crocodile”), while the “chiniquensis” part refers to Vicentino’s birthplace of Chiniquá in Brazil. The two men found these first fossils in a rock formation known as the “Santa Maria formation”. Back when Prestosuchus was alive, Santa Maria was the site of a vast watering hole where animals of all kinds would gather to take a much needed drink. For a predator like Prestosuchus this provided regular hunting opportunities and one could imagine that the area around this watering hole was Prestosuchus’ home, with little need to move far from such fine real estate! (unless it became so hot that the watering hole dried up of course). Since this first discovery, two other Prestosuchus species have been identified; Prestosuchus nyassicus (originally thought to be a different, though closely related, Pseudosuchian named Stagonosuchus nyassicus) and an as yet unnamed species, which sadly will probably not have a naming competition any time soon!

Prestosuchus lived during the early to mid-Triassic period (roughly 241-236 million years ago). During this time all the continents of the world were joined together into one great landmass known as Pangea. Pangea would have been a hot holiday destination, with the dry climate resulting in an arid central region. However towards the coast and away from the equator the climate was a lot milder allowing the growth of wet and dry seasonal forests battered by regular monsoons. It was in these places where Prestosuchus was found and at 6.5 metres long (based on measurements of a specimen discovered in 2010) and a ton in weight it would’ve been hard to miss! As I mentioned earlier, Prestosuchus shares many similarities with its relatives the crocodiles and alligators. These include regular tooth replacement, strong jaws, a thick muscular body and, most notably, a row of hard scaly scutes that ran along its neck, back and down its tail. These hard scutes would’ve given protection from prey violently defending themselves or indeed from other Prestosuchus’ looking to pick a fight. It is also possible (and this is speculation on my part) that like crocodiles these scutes may have had a thermoregulatory function, keeping the carnivore cool by releasing excess heat through them. However these scutes did have one drawback; their weight would have slowed Prestosuchus down, meaning that it probably couldn’t run very fast. However this might not have been that much of a problem for two reasons. Firstly, Prestosuchus is thought to have been an ambush predator. Having targeted its prey using the binocular vision provided by its forward facing eyes (a key predator trait) Prestosuchus would’ve burst out of an ambush site and used its strong jaw muscles (attached at the back of its wide skull) to powerfully crush small animals and inflict massive wounds on any animal large enough to survive the first attack. Secondly the Dicynodonts that were its main food source (e.g. Dinodontosaurus & Stahleckeria) were not very fast themselves. So Prestosuchus could keep up with them just fine. Besides when you have powerful jaws and a heavy body that can overpower anything in your way who needs speed!

File:Prestosuchus skull diagrams.png - Wikimedia Commons
Skull diagrams of Prestosuchus. Note how wide the back of the skull is. This anchored large muscle that gave Prestosuchus its fearsome bite!
Image Credit: Lacerda et. al. 2016, https://peerj.com/articles/1622/

The Rauisuchians were the top predators of the Triassic. They ruled over nearly all the Pangean supercontinent, ranging from only a metre long to the 9 metre long Saurosuchus (who was very closely related to Prestosuchus). Nearly all of them were covered in characteristic heavy scutes and they were nearly all quadrupeds (walked on four legs). However some Rauisuchians did occasionally break the mold, such as the North American Postosuchus; which possessed reduced forelimbs and is thought to have walked on two legs. The Rauisuchians were so successful that the early theropod dinosaurs, which actually co-existed with them, spend the majority of the Triassic in their shadow. However this wasn’t to last. While Prestosuchus itself went extinct around 235 million years ago the Rauisuchians managed to cling on until the end of the Triassic (around 201 million years ago). At this time the world was going through a massive extinction event that was caused by massive volcanic eruptions that split Pangea apart and fuelled a runaway global warming event and acidification of the oceans. This event is so big that it is classed as one of the “big 5” extinction events, alongside the K/T (65 million years ago) and end-Permian (250 million years ago) events to name two. The Rauisuchians were one of many animal groups that didn’t survive the end Triassic, dying out alongside other Triassic defining groups like the Dicynodonts, Rynchosaurs and other Pseudosuchian groups. Why these groups didn’t survive whilst the dinosaurs did is a mystery. Dinosaurs were not a “superior” species as previous narratives have stated. In fact studies (such as one published in 2008 and led by Dr Steve Brusatte) have found that Pseudosuchians contained more species and more variety between species during the Triassic period than the dinosaurs. Furthermore dinosaurs and Pseudosuchians were so similar to each other that even palaeontologists have classified an animal as part of one of these groups only to find out they were the other!. It is a real mystery and the answer may simply be just chance, with dinosaurs only just managing to fare better in the chaos. If the end Triassic extinction event hadn’t happened it’s possible that the Pseudosuchians would’ve been the dominant animals of the entire Mesozoic instead of the dinosaurs, with animals like Prestosuchus being as successful and iconic as theropod dinosaurs like T-Rex and Allosaurus.

So Prestosuchus and the Rauisuchians as a whole are truly fascinating reptiles and I’m happy that I finally got to talk about them in this blog article. I hope that in the future I will be able to introduce you to other fascinating crocodile relatives, as the crocodile family tree, as shown by Prestosuchus, is a truly rich, varied and colourful lineage!

File:Saurosuchus and hyperodapedon.jpg
Rauisuchians were the “top dogs” in Pangea. This piece of paleoart depicts the 9 metre long Saurosuchus, with Hyperodapedon the animals looking to get away from it!
Image Credit: ABelov2014, https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Saurosuchus-Hyperodapedon-753703812

References/Further Reading

Desojo et. al. 2020 study on the anatomy, taxonomy and phylogenetic relationships of Prestosuchus chiniquensis

Desojo, Julia Brenda, von Baczko, María Belén, and Rauhut, Oliver W.M. 2020. Anatomy, taxonomy and phylogenetic relationships of Prestosuchus chiniquensis (Archosauria: Pseudosuchia) from the original collection of von Huene, Middle-Late Triassic of southern Brazil. Palaeontologia Electronica, 23(1):a04. https://doi.org/10.26879/1026

• A blog article reporting on the 2010 discovery of a specimen of Prestosuchus. This fossil is important as it showed that Prestosuchus was much larger than previously thought

Mike, “Most Complete Fossil of a Crocodylotarsian found in Brazil”, Everything Dinosaur, www.blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk, https://blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk/blog/_archives/2010/05/12/4528166.html

• Another blog article, also from everything dinosaur, that provides more background on Prestosuchus while also previewing a model of it

Mike, “Preparing for Prestosuchus”, Everything Dinosaur, www.blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk, https://blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk/blog/_archives/2018/11/07/preparing-for-prestosuchus.html

• “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs” by Steve Brusatte. Chapters 2 and 3 (“Dinosaurs rise up” and “Dinosaurs become dominant”) details what dinosaurs were like in the Late Triassic, the Pseudosuchians that co-existed with them and the end Triassic extinction event.

Brusatte et. al. 2008 paper discussing the evolutionary radiation of dinosaurs and Pseudosuchians

Brusatte, S. L., et al. (2008). “Superiority, Competition, and Opportunism in the Evolutionary Radiation of Dinosaurs.” Science 321(5895): 1485-1488.

Lacerda et. al. paper analysing the 1942 fossils of Prestosuchus chiniquensis

Lacerda MB, Mastrantonio BM, Fortier DC, Schultz CL. 2016. New insights on Prestosuchus chiniquensis Huene, 1942 (Pseudosuchia, Loricata) based on new specimens from the “Tree Sanga” Outcrop, Chiniquá Region, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. PeerJ 4:e1622 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1622

Paleo Safaris: Dinosaur Island

File:Wessex Formation dinosaurs.jpg
A selection of dinosaurs that once lived on the Isle of Wight. Dinosaurs pictured include Iguanodon (middle left), Eotyrannus (bottom right), Neovenator (top right) and Hypsilophodon (bottom left). One thing to bear in mind is that a number of palaeontologists now think that Eotyrannus, Hypsilophodon and the Ornithomimosaurs (middle right) would have been more extensively feathered than shown here.
Image Credit: ABelov2014, https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Barremian-fauna-660152146

The Isle of Wight, 127 Million Years Ago.

The sun rises over the horizon as another day dawns on Dinosaur Island. Light dapples through the coniferous trees, illuminating the forest in a hazy yellow glow. As the morning continues the forest begins to waken, with the buzzing of insects, the crashing sounds of distant dinosaurs and the calls of the crow sized pterosaur Vectidraco echoing through the trees and creating a Cretaceous era symphony. Making the most of this early start are the Hypsilophodons. These small feathery dinosaurs chirp and bound among the gaps between the trees, nipping away at ferns that grow as far as the eye can see. As the group feeds one Hypsilophodon notices a bright yellow flower blooming among the green ferns. Flowering plants are a new phenomenon on Planet Earth at this time, having only appeared a few million years before this Hypsilophodon was born. Their appearance adds a dash of colour to the otherwise brown and green landscape of the Cretaceous period, and plants like these will continue to grow and evolve across the planet, watching millions of other species come and go and be a staple of the earth’s ecosystem right up to the modern day. The young Hypsilophodon curiously sniffs at the flower for a moment, taking in its distinctive smell, before taking a bite out of it and moving on to the next tasty plant!

Exiting the coniferous forest onto the wide open plains a loud bellowing sound reverberates in the distance. If we follow this noise we come across a large herd of Iguanodon travelling along the banks of a large river. They walk along on all four of their limbs but when they need to run or reach higher branches they rock back and balance themselves on just two legs. This also frees them up to swing their deadly “thumb spikes”. Their hands are like multipurpose Swiss army knives. The little fingers are incredibly dexterous and are used to manipulate and hold branches steady for their beaked jaws to reach. Their thumbs in contrast have evolved into spikes that act as effective stabbing weapons that give them protection against attack from the hungry predators on the island. However two male Iguanodon are currently using their thumb spikes against each other! Luckily for both of them no serious harm occurs this time and the victor of the dispute wanders towards the female he’d just won the right to court. These herbivorous ornithischian dinosaurs are a common sight on the island with their vast herds reminiscent of the large Wildebeest herds in the Serengeti and Masai Mara of modern day Africa. Amongst the large adult Iguanodons are what initially appear to be adolescents. However these are actually not Iguanodon but a close relative named Mantellisaurus. Inter species mixing like this can be seen in modern day, where Wildebeest and Zebra sometimes form huge herds together. So it’s no surprise to see these dinosaurs exhibiting this behaviour too. Lumbering along the outskirts of the herd is another, very different species of plant eating dinosaur. This is a Polacanthus, a 4 metre long four legged dinosaur that boasts a heavy casing of hard armour plating (known as osteoderms) on its back and a battery of sharp spikes lining its back down to its tail that it uses to protect itself. To complete this spectacular gathering of plant eaters are humongous Brachiosaurs; sauropod dinosaurs that tower over the rest of the herd. Palaeontologists currently do not have a formal scientific name for these particular Brachiosaurs yet, but what is abundantly clear is that these were by far the largest animals on Dinosaur Island. They feed on vegetation at the tops of the coniferous trees far above the reach of the other dinosaurs. As a consequence they can co-exist with the other herbivores as they do not compete for the same food.

A restoration of Polacanthus. Their bony osteoderms and spines would have made them tough proposition for any carnivore!
Image Credit: FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), hip armour by Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polacanthus_foxii.jpg

As the sun moves higher in the sky some of the herd notice a bipedal, sharp toothed dinosaur crossing the path ahead. They watch each other for a moment, the herd wary of the sharp teeth and heavy claws of a predator! Luckily, this Baryonyx is not interested in them and instead makes her way towards the river bank. Her lunch today is not of the land living variety. Standing on the riverbank the Baryonyx places her long, crocodile-like snout in the water. Concentrating intently, she uses small sensors on her snout to detect movement in the water, and in combination with her forward facing eyes uses it to locate her prey. Suddenly, sensing a flash of movement close to her, she lunges forward, snapping her jaws around a large fish. She drags it to shore and, held securely by her strong foot, tucks into her hard earned prize. This is the first of many catches that the Baryonyx will need to make today in order to fuel her one and a half ton, 9 metre long frame. This fish eating lifestyle has allowed her kind to carve out a unique niche for itself on the island, one that is characteristic of the spinosaurid order of dinosaurs that Baryonyx is a part of. Later spinosaurids will take this lifestyle even further, evolving shorter hind limbs and paddle like tails to aid swimming. However Baryonyx still possess the stereotypical body plan of a theropod dinosaur (except for its long skull) and whilst they spend a lot of time fishing in the rivers and lakes of the island they’re not totally reliant on them and can hunt on land if they need to. Whilst this Baryonyx left the herd alone earlier in the day she may turn her attention to them at a later date if the fish stocks dry up.

File:Baryonyx life restoration.jpg
A Baryonyx patrolling the banks of a river.
Image Credit: Андрей Белов, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baryonyx_life_restoration.jpg, (Original Image: https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Spinosauridae-773270478)

It is now evening, and as the sun sets the herd begins to move on to other feeding grounds. However just 300 metres downwind the Isle of Wight’s top predator is watching them intently with hungry eyes. He is a Neovenator, a 7.5 metre long theropod dinosaur that is a relative of the mighty Allosaurus, which dominated the Late Jurassic just 25 million years earlier. He edges closer to the herd, keeping as silent as he can and staying downwind to conceal his scent as best he can from the Iguanodons. He needs to stalk his prey precisely to be successful. If he’s too far away he’ll run out of steam before he can catch his prey. If he’s too close the herd will spot him and his cover will be blown. The Neovenator picks his spot and identifies his target; an older Iguanodon struggling to keep up with the rest of the herd. The Neovenator strikes! As he charges towards his target the Iguanodon sound the alarm, making loud calls and sprinting away on their powerful hind legs. But it’s too little, too late, and the great carnivore reaches on his target, tearing into it with his blade like teeth and claws. The blood loss and shock is too much for the Iguanodon and the Neovenator finishes proceedings with a final bite to the neck. It’s brutal and it’s messy, but today it has proven effective. The Neovenator picks up his prize and drags it away to a secluded spot so he can eat in peace.

But the Neovenator will not get that peace today. As he tucks into his meal a small group of Eotyrannus approaches the giant. At only 4 metres a single one of these small feather coated carnivores isn’t going to trouble the Neovenator. But if they work together they pose a much greater threat. They hound the great carnivore like Hyenas do to Lions on the African Savannah today, surrounding and harrying the giant carnivore, using their speed to dodge his aggressive lunges. Eventually the Neovenator begrudgingly surrenders his kill to the group. This is a shape of things to come. In time the descendants of Eotyrannus will evolve larger body sizes, complete with bone crushing bites, and they will take over the role of top predators from the likes of Neovenator. But for now these relatively small, early tyrannosaurs are content with their place in the pecking order.

Today the Isle of Wight is still an island (hence the name). One thing is for certain is that it is a lot colder now than it was 127 million years ago! The dinosaurs that once roamed the island are now found preserved as fossils, and have been unearthed at locations such as Compton Bay, Yaverland and Shanklin. Fossils have been discovered at such sites like these on the Isle of Wight for centuries and new species are still being found today. In August of this year, partial remains of a new theropod dinosaur named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, which lived roughly 12 million years after the dinosaurs we’ve seen on this particular safari, were discovered in the rocks of Knock Cliff, Shanklin, on the east side of the island. Some of the many amazing dinosaur fossils are now on display in the Dinosaur Isle museum located in the town of Sandown, a place that showcases the lost world of Dinosaur Island for all to see. It’s amazing to think that a thriving ecosystem, containing miniature insects, flying pterosaurs and magnificent dinosaurs, once existed right here in the UK. The Isle of Wight is absolutely, unquestionably, the “Dinosaur Capital of the UK”!

File:Dinosaur Hall-Dinosaurisle.jpg
Some of the Isle of Wight dinosaurs on display in the Dinosaur Isle Museum in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.
Image Credit: N.Cayla, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dinosaur_Hall-Dinosaurisle.jpg

References/Further Reading

A page on UK Fossils website detailing the main fossil sites on the Isle of Wight

UK fossils, “Category: Isle of Wight”, ukfossils.co.uk, https://ukfossils.co.uk/category/isle-of-wight/

A website, named Dino Wight, detailing the dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals discovered on the Isle of Wight

Dino Wight, “The Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight”, Dinowight.co.uk, http://www.dinowight.co.uk/

The website of the Dinosaur Isle Museum

Titanoboa: The Supersized Snake

File:Titanoboa 1 (7684792594).jpg
A life sized model of Titanoboa, in the process of gorging on a crocodilian, from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Image Credit: Ryan Quick, https://www.flickr.com/photos/order_in_chaos/7684792594/

It’s a giant snake.

That’s what most people think when it comes to Titanoboa cerrejonensis, meaning “Giant Boa from the Cerrejón”. It looks like something straight out of a straight to video B-list horror movie; an animal that is very familiar but scaled up to gargantuan proportions. The giant extinct shark Megalodon has this same problem and I think just labelling animal like these two as “just an oversized [insert animal here]” doesn’t tell the whole story. In this blog article I shall look at the truth about this giant snake, and find out just what kind of animal it really was.

Now the first thing that documentaries and any paleo-obsessed person will tell you about Titanoboa is that it was very big. They are not exaggerating! The study (published in 2009) that first described Titanoboa estimated that it grew up to 13 metres long; almost double the length of The Reticulated Python, the largest living snake. If that wasn’t enough other palaeontologists argue that Titanoboa could have grown even larger, to lengths approaching 14.5 metres! For comparison that’s longer than a bus (as most extinct animal books will boldly state) and a Titanoboa would have no problem rearing up to tower over a human if it had ever encountered one. Titanoboa lived 60-58 million years ago during a time known as the Palaeocene period. Its size gives Titanoboa the record as the largest land animal that we know of from this time, and also the title of the largest land predator since the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs, which only happened 7 million years before Titanoboa existed.

The first fossil that was identified as belonging to a Titanoboa was a single vertebrae unearthed from a coal mine in the Cerrejón region in Northern Colombia in 2007. This wasn’t actually the first fossil ever found of it, but was the first that was recognised as belonging to a new animal. The snake identification was made due to the fossil vertebrae’s similarities to modern snake vertebrae. From just this one bone, palaeontologists were able to deduce several key bits of information about Titanoboa. Firstly, the vertebrae was very similar to those found in modern day boa constrictors and Anacondas, suggesting that these snakes are Titanoboa’s closest living relatives (and that is reason for the “boa” part of Titanoboa!). Secondly the vertebrae was massive, almost twice the size of an Anacondas, and by scaling with measurements from them the authors of the 2009 study were able to obtain their 13 metre length estimate. After this find, further fossil expeditions to the Cerrejón have unearthed further remains including up to 100 further vertebrae and a partially complete skull. The skull is particularly exciting as snake skulls are delicate and don’t usually preserve well in the fossil record.

File:Titanoboa vertebra 1.jpg
A cast of a fossil vertebrae from a Titanoboa, on display at the Museo Geológico José Royo y Gómez, Bogotá, Colombia.
Image Credit: Rextron, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Titanoboa_vertebra_1.jpg

So how would this supersized snake have lived? Well the answer is that it would have had a similar lifestyle to that of modern Anacondas, just on a larger scale. Like all Boas, Titanoboa would not have possessed venom. Instead it would have hunted in the same way as modern day Boa Constrictor snakes; wrapping its body quickly and tightly around its prey and using its large body muscles to squeeze it hard. This action would break bones and cause suffocation as the prey’s windpipe and chest cavity were constricted. Once its prey had been subdued Titanoboa would then open its dislocatable jaws very wide and swallow it whole, sometimes taking hours to do so. Animals on Titanoboa’s menu included the numerous species of crocodilians and turtles that also inhabited the Cerrejón region. Like modern day Anacondas Titanoboa would’ve spent a lot of its time in water, swimming around the lakes and rivers of its very hot, very humid rainforest home. In these rivers lived another major source of food for the snake; fish. The skull of Titanoboa was found to contain more teeth than those of a modern boa, and the the teeth themselves were more loosely attached to the skull. This would’ve allowed the snake to more easily grab and hold onto wriggly, slippery prey. Furthermore fossils have been unearthed from the Cerrejón dirt of lungfish that grew up to 3 metres long! This large fish would have certainly provided a filling meal for a Titanoboa.

File:Eunectes-murinus -Broghammerus-reticulatus- -Titanoboa-2.svg
A size comparison between Titanoboa (grey), Gigantophis (another prehistoric snake – Red), a Reticulated Python (light green), an Anaconda (dark green) and a human.
Image Credit: Gamma 124, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eunectes-murinus_-Broghammerus-reticulatus-_-Titanoboa-2.svg

To be honest what fascinates me about Titanoboa is not just the snake itself, but the ecosystem that it was a part of. 58 million years ago the Cerrejón was a unique place because it was dominated by reptiles. Indeed journey back only 7 million years and this statement would still be true! But these reptiles weren’t like the non-avian dinosaurs. Instead they belonged to more familiar families. For example living alongside the supersized snake that was Titanoboa was Carbonemys; a prehistoric turtle that could grow as large as a small car! There were also multiple species of dyrosaurs; a now extinct group of crocodilians (the reptile group that contains modern day crocodiles and alligators) which could grow up to 6 metres long in large species like Acherontisuchus. The long standing theory as to why these reptiles could grow as large as they did is that in the Palaeocene period the world was going through what is known as a “thermal maximum”. This is a global warming event that resulted in the worlds average surface temperature was much higher than today, and this heat, combined with 50% higher Carbon Dioxide levels, created a warm and very humid world that was so hot that there were no polar ice caps! To get an idea as to what the Cerrejón region was like imagine the Amazon Rainforest but even hotter, more humid and more waterlogged. These were favourable conditions for reptiles, who could absorb the highly abundant heat and use it to keep themselves active and fuel their internal biochemistry for longer periods at a time. This heat also meant they could generate more energy for growing larger sizes. In fact Titanoboas size has been used by a team of palaeontologists led by Jason Head (Head et. al. 2009) to estimate that the average yearly temperature of the Cerrejón 58 million years ago was between 30-34 Degrees Celsius. This was definitely a place where packing some suntan lotion, loose clothing and insect repellent would have been necessary! But its not just temperature that produced these giant reptiles. After the K/T extinction event (which took place 65 million years ago and wiped out 70% of all life on earth – casualties included the non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles), many ecosystems were left vacant and open for the survivors to claim them. Furthermore mammals at this time had, in general, yet to grow large enough to fill the large animal niches available. As a result other groups were able to claim these open niches for themselves. In some parts of the world these were birds, with some growing taller than a man, and in the Cerrejón it was the reptiles, with Titanoboa taking the job of top predator.

The Palaeocene was undoubtedly a unique and weird period in earth’s history, and Titanoboa is a prime example of what can happen when an extinction event and favourable conditions creates evolutionary openings. While some people will be glad that this snake isn’t around anymore (and it certainly wouldn’t help cure anybody’s ophidiophobia!) I personally wish it were possible to see a living, breathing Titanoboa. It is a paleontological icon for a reason; it’s not just a giant snake, it’s THE giant snake.

References/Further Reading

Head et. al. 2009 paper about Titanoboa and what it can tell us about the hot conditions of the Cerrejón region

Head, J., Bloch, J., Hastings, A. et al. Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature 457, 715–717 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07671

NOTE: This paper has had its critics, with a few other papers being published (e.g. Sniderman 2009, Denny, Lockwood & Somero 2009) offering arguments that dispute the claim that the large size of Titanoboa can be used to estimate the temperature of the Cerrejón region 58 million years ago

An article written by Guy Gugliotta for the Smithsonian magazine about Titanoboa

Gugliotta, Guy, “How Titanoboa, the 40-Foot-Long Snake, Was Found”, Smithsonian, www.Smithsonianmag.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-titanoboa-the-40-foot-long-snake-was-found-115791429/

A factfile on Titanoboa written by Jonathan Bloch, one of the people who first described Titanoboa, for the Florida Museum.

Bloch, Jonathan, “Titanoboa”, Florida Museum, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu, https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/100years/titanoboa/

A YouTube video from the excellent PBS Eons on Titanoboa and the world it lived in

Akmonistion: The Bearsden Shark

“Through shoal and shining flock and froth and freath and freaky frisky flashers, like a liner, The Bearsden shark coasts casually, kinglily, killingly casual, casing the scales, lazily pacing and chasing, lord of the place, of the plaice, lordly diner.”

The Bearsden Shark, Edwin Morgan.

Glasgow was a very different place 330 million years ago. What is now the largest city in Scotland, covered in sandstone buildings frequently splattered by rain, was once a warm shallow sea teeming with marine life. This ranged from molluscs, corals and fish to now extinct creatures such as straight coned Belemnites (ancient relatives of squids) and Sea Scorpions (which could grow bigger than a human!). Just like in today seas, sharks were a key part of this ancient ecosystem. At this point in their history, sharks and their close relatives were still in their early evolutionary days and, just like any teenagers, were going through “a phase”. They were experimenting with different body types and features not found in modern sharks. One of the weirdest shark-like creatures from this time was unearthed in the Bearsden area of Glasgow in 1982 by a local fossil collector named Stan Wood. This shark is known scientifically as Akmonistion zangerli (meaning “Zangerles anvil sail”) but it is more commonly referred to as “The Bearsden Shark”.

The 1982 Bearsden Shark fossil was quite an astonishing find. The cartilaginous fishes (a group that contains Sharks, Rays and Chimera fish), despite having existed on Planet Earth for over 400 million years, actually have a poor fossil record. This is because their skeletons are almost entirely made up of cartilage instead of bone. Cartilage is relatively soft and doesn’t fossilise well at all. So as a result an ancient shark’s body is almost always lost to time. The only exception is their teeth which due to being hard and resilient, and the sharks shedding and replacing them frequently, are more commonly preserved. In fact much of what we know about a number of extinct sharks (including the famous Megalodon) only comes from fossilised teeth. This limits what we can discern about the rest of their anatomy. But the Bearsden Shark was different. The fossil that Stan Wood found in 1982 preserved not just the teeth but the entire body. This happened because, by a stroke of luck, the Bearsden Shark was buried by thick mud very quickly after it died. This protected the carcass from being broken down by scavengers, decay and/or the surrounding environment. The preservation was so good that palaeontologists were able to identify muscles, blood vessels and even its last meal! It’s truly a unique fossil, and if you want to see it for yourself it’s on display at Glasgow University’s Huntarian Museum.

The Bearsden Shark belonged to a group of extinct relatives of sharks known as the Stethacanthidae. This group is known as the “Ironing Board Sharks” due to their most iconic feature; a large ironing-board like structure attached to their back. This board extends outwards into a wide, flat surface covered in small spines and is often described as being like an upturned ironing board or an anvil in shape (hence Akmonistion’s name meaning “anvil sail”). This structure is known scientifically as a “Spine Brush Complex” and only appears in male Ironing Board Sharks. So from this we can already deduce that the Bearsden Shark was male. What could possibly have been the purpose of this bizarre ironing board/brush structure? Palaeontologists still don’t know for sure! The fact that this structure only appears in males could indicate that they were display structures. The male with the largest board would be “more impressive” to the females and more intimidating to rival males. As a result over millions of years this board could evolve to become larger and more extravagant. Another suggestion is that the spines on the board could somehow have allowed males to attach themselves to a female during mating. Outside of this structure the Bearsden Shark (and its relatives) also possessed a patch of spines on the top their head (again only in males) and long thin strips trailing from their front fins (which palaeontologists also don’t know the function of!). Put this all together and you get a unique looking animal that would have been distinctly recognisable if you were out scuba diving in the Carboniferous seas. These features would also have affected the Bearsden Shark’s lifestyle outside of courtship. They meant that it wasn’t as streamlined and hydrodynamic as other sharks. Therefore it wouldn’t have been a fast swimmer and instead it would have cruised the sea floor, snapping at any small fish that wandered too close.

Akmonistion has not only influenced the field of palaeontology (by increasing our understanding of early sharks and their relatives) but has also been an influence on the local community of Bearsden. In 2016 a cairn and plaque were placed on the site of its discovery to simultaneously commemorate it and inform people about it. The Bearsden Shark is even the subject of a poem by Edwin Morgan, which I quoted at the beginning of this blog article. It’s a fun read and I’ve provided a link to it in the “References and Further Reading” below. Not many prehistoric animals can say that they have a poem in their honour!

The Bearsden Shark is an astonishing animal of earths’ past, and a great example of how diverse and wonderful sharks and their relatives both were and are. The week this blog article is coming out is the same week as “Shark Week”, a week-long event that is supposed to celebrate and educate people about sharks. While some places promote incorrect, negative ideas and stereotypes about sharks I hope that through the story of the Bearsden Shark you can catch a glimpse at their rich history, and why they absolutely should NOT be seen as simply monsters.

File:Akmonistion NT small.jpg - Wikipedia
The Bearsden Shark itself!
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura, http://paleoexhibit.blogspot.com/

References/Further Reading

Coates & Sequeira 2001 paper that fully described the Bearsden Shark fossil

M. I. Coates & S. E. K. Sequeira (2001) A new stethacanthid chondrichthyan from the lower Carboniferous of Bearsden, Scotland, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 21:3, 438-459, DOI: 10.1671/0272-4634(2001)021[0438:ANSCFT]2.0.CO;2

The full Bearsden Shark poem by Edwin Morgan

A BBC news article about the plaque and cairn commenerating the Bearsden Shark

BBC News, “Shark ‘fossil wonder’ find commemorated at Bearsden site”, Glasgow & West, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-35092689