Giganotosaurus: Giant Southern Hunter

The Giant Southern Hunter compared with a human. As you can see, it was truly a colossal predator!
Image Credit: Durbed,

In the issue of Empire magazine (released 9th of April 2022), Colin Trevorrow; director of the upcoming film “Jurassic World: Dominion”, talks about the appearance in the film of a Giganotosaurus. He describes Giganotosaurus as “like the Joker” in that “it just wants to watch the world burn”, referencing a quote from the Christopher Nolan film “The Dark Knight”. This didn’t fill me with high hopes for this dinosaur’s portrayal in the film, and instead symbolizes a problem the Jurassic franchise has had since Jurassic Park III; dinosaurs being portrayed as movie monsters, rather than as animals. If any dinosaur started acting like the Joker in behaviour, then it wouldn’t sit well with me because it is applying “human” traits (albeit those of a psychopathic clown!) onto an animal. The animal kingdom can be full of what we might consider dark, cruel and disturbing behaviour. However, there is a difference between giving an animal traits that are plausible based on how the natural world is, and traits that are just not realistic to what an animal would do. I bring this up not to be the stereotypical accuracy obsessed paleo nerd moaning about dinosaur portrayals in popular media (that deserves a blog article of its own). Instead, it is to show why it’s important for any media that communicates palaeontology to have animal behaviour, even speculative ones, that is plausible; people will watch it and believe that what they’re seeing on screen may have at least an element of truth. For example, AppleTV+’s Prehistoric Planet, while being a documentary series rather than a blockbuster film, also has speculative behaviour. But what it does well is that it is behaviour that has a basis in nature (and especially in the animals closest living relatives). Furthermore, it’s behaviour that stems from animals just trying to survive, rather than from more human like motivations. Since a lot of the mainstream publics exposure to dinosaurs is through the Jurassic Park/World series, any unrealistic behaviour that’s shown in these films going to be more embedded into the public consciousness. So, people may come away with thinking that Giganotosaurus was psychopathic. A monster, rather than animal.

So, to link this rant with this blog article, what would the real Giganotosaurus have been like?

Giganotosaurus carolinii (meaning “Carolini’s Giant Southern Lizard, named after it’s discover, the fossil hunter Ruben Dario Carolini), was a large theropod dinosaur that lived roughly 99-96 million years ago in the Patagonia region of Argentina, South America during the “Cenomanian” stage of Late Cretaceous. Its fossils were first found in 1993 and later described in 1995 by Coria & Salgado. These fossils showed that Giganotosaurus had a relatively low skull, robust hind limbs and vertebrae, a reduced shoulder girdle and slightly less forward-facing eyes compared to other large theropods. Furthermore Giganotosaurus and its close relatives (but unlike other large theropods such as Tyrannosaurs), possessed three fingers on each hand rather than two. Giganotosaurus’ skull was also proportionally large compared with its body and was truly massive even for a large theropod (with estimates of up to 1.95 metres long!). You might think such a large head would’ve been a burden, but it was supported by huge neck muscles and had openings in the skull bones, called “fenestrae”, that lightened the skull without sacrificing strength. Also, just like other dinosaurs Giganotosaurus would’ve had a system of air sacs spread throughout its skeleton. These lightened the bones further while also allowing for an extremely efficient, bird like respiratory system where air passed from the lungs into the air sacs during inhalation, then passed from them back through the lungs on expiration, ensuring that a higher proportion of oxygen can be extracted, therefore more is available for aerobic respiration and therefore more energy is available to fuel its metabolism.

A skeleton of Giganotosaurus carolinii on display at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia.
Image Credit: Jonathan Chen,

Giganotosaurus belonged to a group of theropod dinosaurs known as the Carcharadontosauridae. These medium-large theropods were generally among the largest land predators around during the early, mid and early stages of the Late Cretaceous, and have been found in most continents, including Africa, North America and Asia as well as South America. The group eventually went extinct sometime in the Late Cretaceous (roughly 80-85 million years ago), with climatic changes playing a role in their downfall. One other suggested theory for their extinction was that they were outcompeted by newer large theropods, with the Tyrannosaurs being one such group. This is not thought to have been the case anymore, with the incredibly short armed, blunt faced Abelisaurs and the long limbed, large clawed Megaraptorans in the south, and the famous Tyrannosaurs in the north instead growing larger and taking advantage of the open niches left vacant by the Carcharadontosaurs.

This Tyrannosaur connection goes further when it comes to Giganotosaurus. When it was revealed to the world via the Coria & Salgado paper in 1995, Giganotosaurus instantly made headlines as theropod dinosaur that was bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex! As a result (since Spinosaurus fossils other than the ones destroyed in World War Two had yet to be described) this made Giganotosaurus the largest known theropod dinosaur at the time. However, there are always caveats with grand statements like this. The chance that any animal will fossilise is incredibly small. Giganotosaurus itself is only known from two partial individuals out of a total population that likely numbered in the tens to hundreds of millions across the entire existence of the species. Therefore, we barely have a minute sample of the total population. So, whilst Giganotosaurus was colossal, with size estimates ranging from 12.5-13.2 metres long and weights between 6-8 tons, it’s hard to say whether this was an average size for this species or not. We may not have discovered the largest Giganotosaurus, just as we may have not found the largest T. rex. So it’s hard to say which animal was bigger based on our small sample sizes. But from what we DO have, on average Giganotosaurus may have been slightly longer, but T. rex was generally heavier. Since mass is often more important when it comes to judging who’s “bigger” (more mass = more muscle and power), T. rex might have been the bigger animal on more occasions. But, this can easily change as more fossils are discovered! This conclusion is further helped by the discover, after Giganotosaurus had been described, of “Scotty”; a Tyrannosaurus bigger than any previously known T. rex specimen. But not to worry Giganotosaurus fans, there would have been size variation within both species. So some Giga’s may have been bigger than some Rexes. This argument also applies to the largest sauropod dinosaurs. Argentinosaurus is considered by many to be the largest sauropod (and largest land animal) that we know of, but there is a lot of overlap with other large sauropods like Patagotitan and Maraapunisaurus. Also, as a quick side note, there’s a trope in media and with dinosaur fans (and I’m guilty of this too!) where any new supersized theropod is always compared to T. rex! There’s no doubt that T. rex is a superstar, but it’s a little annoying that it’s always this benchmark, and that any new theropod that’s even remotely close in size has to be compared to the Rex rather than known purely as its own thing.

A large body size was vital for Giganotosaurus as it allowed it to hunt the big Sauropod Dinosaurs that it lived with, such as the Titanosaur Andesaurus. However despite this, even one Giganotosaurus might not have been enough to take an adult on. So, like any large carnivore Giganotosaurus may have focused on sub-adults, or already weakened adults, or gone after smaller dinosaurs, and scavenged if the opportunity arose. If, that is, it was alone! Fossils of a very close relative of Giganotosaurus (also discovered in Patagonia from slightly older rocks) named Mapusaurus, have been known from multiple individuals of different ages that appear to have been buried together at the same time and place. This has led some to suggest that it, and potentially Giganotosaurus, hung around in groups. So if this giant carnivore wasn’t intimidating enough, imagine a whole group of them! The numbers would have helped to even the odds when hunting giant sauropods. Giganotosaurus was also equipped with sharp, slicing teeth that were like steak knives, perfect for slicing through chunks of flesh and causing, as some documentaries would say, “shock and blood loss”. Furthermore, it’s strong forearms and sharp claws would enable it to grip larger prey, supporting it as it bit and slashed at them. It wouldn’t have hunted just sauropods though, with South American iguanodontid dinosaurs also being on the menu. These could be sprightlier than a sauropod, but Giganotosaurus has been calculated (in Blanco & Mazzetta 2001) to have been capable of reaching speeds of up to 14 metres per second (roughly 31 mph), which is roughly the same as a Grizzly Bear. This would’ve been more than enough, combined with surprise (or at least, as much surprise as a near 13 metre, 6-8 ton giant could get!) to ambush and kept up with its prey. Furthermore, even if the initial attack didn’t finish the job those slicing teeth would inflict deep wounds. The resulting blood loss would weaken the prey considerably, so all a Giganotosaurus (or a group/mob/gang of Giga’s) would need to do is follow and wait.

A close up of Giganotosaurus‘ enormous head, from the same Fernbank Museum skeletal mount. Note the multiple blade like teeth.
Image Credit: James Emery,

The idea that Giganotosaurus might have run around in groups raises interesting questions. What would interactions between Giga’s have been like? First off, if they did hunt in groups, it is unlikely that Giga’s would’ve been co-ordinated pack hunters, nor that they had a pride like social structure as Lions do. Just because large carnivores are found buried together doesn’t necessarily complex social groupings, neither does it indicate they had the co-operation to plan lion-like hunting strategies. Instead, it’s more likely they would’ve been more like congregations of Komodo Dragons, Crocodiles or certain Birds of Prey; opportunistic joining together to gang up on prey, but with no co-ordinated strategy. As such when it came to feeding there may have been a free for all! This is where large size would’ve helped. Larger individuals can throw their weight around and intimidate other Giga’s into backing off a juicy part of the carcass, or one that’s being scavenged by another Giga or other large predator. Larger size may also have been a factor in males warding off other males, or females intimidating other females, for the right to attract a mate, with a larger body size equaling a more fit, healthier and therefore more attractive partner. It must also be remembered that even huge carnivores like Giga’s would’ve started as smaller, less able youngsters. Parental care within large carnivorous dinosaurs is often somewhat speculative, as unless there’s a bonebed that preserves multiple individuals of different ages (as has been found with some Tyrannosaurs) or a trackway containing a mix of adults and juveniles together we can only make educated guesses for any animal. In the case of Carcharadontosaurs like Giganotosaurus, as an enthusiast, my own educated guess is that there possibly was some parental care initially (as seen in birds and crocodilians) but then the young would eventually have to fend for themselves. Adolescent Giga’s, being smaller than the adults, likely focused on smaller dinosaurs, the babies of larger dinosaurs, and smaller reptiles and mammals as they were too small to take on giant sauropods. In this way the adolescents would’ve filled a different ecological niche from the adults; the role of medium sized “mesopredator”. Alternatively they joined a gang of adult Giga’s on occasion, picking up the scraps initially inbetween the larger adults. Or maybe they did a mixture of both! These are just ideas I’m throwing around, but maybe in the future there will be an exceptionally preserved fossil or trackway that will give more insight into their behaviour.

Giganotosaurus isn’t the Joker, but an extinct animal whose size and predatorial abilities have made it well known among the paleontological community. Soon, as a result of “Jurassic World Dominion” and other future paleo media, it will be more well known among the general public too, for better or worse!

A scale comparison of some of the largest mega theropods. The Giganotosaurus used in this is on the larger scale compared to the T. rex, which based on the “Sue” specimen (though we now have the even larger “Scotty” specimen). However this T. rex may have been just as if not heavier and there is a lot of overlap between the two!
Image Credit: KoprX,

References/Further Reading

• Coria & Salgado 1995, the paper that described the first known fossils of Giganotosaurus carolinii, which had been unearthed 2 years prior.

Coria, R., Salgado, L. A new giant carnivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous of Patagonia. Nature 377, 224–226 (1995).

• Calvo & Correa 1998, a follow up paper describing a second specimen of Giganotosaurus that was roughly 8% bigger than the holotype (i.e., the reference specimen that is used as the example of that species and is the specimen all new discoveries are compared to).

Calvo, Jorge & Coria, Rodolfo. (1998). New specimen of Giganotosaurus carolinii (Coria & Salgado, 1995), supports it as the largest theropod ever found. Gaia. 15.

• Blanco & Mazzetta 2001 paper that evaluated the cursorial abilities of Giganotosaurus.

Blanco, R. E., & Mazzetta, G. V. (2001). A new approach to evaluate the cursorial ability of the giant theropod Giganotosaurus carolinii. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 46(2).

• A blog post on by Ashley Strack which gives a wonderful outline of Giganotosaurus, including its discovery, paleobiology, behaviour and more!

Strack, Ashley, “Giganotosaurus: Cretaceous Terror Of Argentina”, FOSSILERA,,

• The Prehistoric Wildlife fact page on Carcharadontosauridae.

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Carcharodontosauridae”, Prehistoric Wildlife,,

Palaeoloxodon: Little and Large

An artists reconstruction of Palaeoloxodon namidicus, aka; the Asian Straight Tusked Elephant
Image Credit: Baperookamo,

“Look, Look! It’s a Straight Tusked Elephant! No one at home will believe this!”

I may have adapted that quote from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but I like to think that Samwise Gamgee’s quote about the gargantuan Oliphant’s (or Mûmakil as they were also known) could apply to what members of our own species thought when they ventured into the depths of Central/Southeast Asia and encountered a Straight Tusked Elephant far greater and mightier than anything they had ever seen before. Meanwhile, far away on a Mediterranean island, there were Straight Tusked Elephant species far, far smaller than could ever have been imagined. Both would’ve been wonders of their respective habitats. But what exactly were Straight Tusked Elephants? And how could there be both so small and so large?

Straight Tusked Elephants were part of a Mammalian order known as the “Proboscideans”, a group of (mostly) large mammals that are represented today by African Bush Elephants, African Forest Elephants and Asian Elephants. I think everyone reading this piece will know what an Elephant looks like; a huge, quadrupedal mammal with a dexterous trunk, fearsome tusks and a vegetation diet (including grasses, leaves and woody material). But this family has a long history stretching back roughly 60 million years, and up until relatively recently it included now extinct members such as Mammoths, Mastodons and Gomphotheres. All Straight Tusked Elephants were part of the Elephant family within the Proboscidean order, rather than the Mammoth or Mastodon families, with all Straight Tusked Elephants united under the genus; Palaeoloxodon (meaning “old oblique-sided tooth”). Despite their superficially similar appearance Palaeoloxodon differed anatomically from modern elephants in a few ways. For one, they had a large crest of bone that ran across and around their foreheads like a headband. This crest provided anchoring points for large muscles that supported their heavy heads. Interestingly, these crests were not proportionally the same. A study conducted by Larramendi et. al. and published in 2020 has shown that different species and subspecies of Straight Tusked Elephants can be distinguished by the proportional size of this bony crest. Just like Mammoths, Straight Tusked Elephants are thought to have behaved similarly to Modern Elephants, right down to females and juveniles living together in herds led by a matriarch. We have evidence for this from a site in Huelva in Southwest Spain, where fossilized tracks belonging to juvenile and young adult Straight Tusked Elephants have been found together. Interestingly Neanderthal tracks are also found at this site, showing that our own species weren’t the only humans to encounter these animals! Further Neanderthal/Palaeoloxodon associations come from tools made from Palaeoloxodon bone that were discovered at Castel di Guido, a site near Rome, Italy. The site dates to 400,000 years ago; around the time when Neanderthals were living in Southern Europe, so it reasonable to think that Neanderthal hands made these tools. It is unknown whether the Neanderthals got the bones from hunting the Straight Tusked Elephants, or whether they scavenged them from a carcass, but Straight Tusked Elephants were certainly a key facet of these Neanderthals lives.

Footprints made by Straight Tusked Elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) calves from Huelva in South-West Spain. These incredible trace fossils literally preserve their baby steps!
Image Credit: Carvalho et al. 2021,

As already mentioned, there wasn’t just one Straight Tusked Elephant. Instead, there were a grand total of seven species. The first species that we know of from the fossil record, and the first that human species encountered, was Palaeoloxodon recki, which lived roughly 3.5-1 million years ago during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene period and stood roughly 4.27 metres tall at the shoulder. This species was THE main Elephant species during its time, and was the precursor of all other Palaeoloxodon species, evolving as they spread out of Africa during migration events. Heading into Eurasia our ancestors would’ve seen the European Straight Tusked Elephant; Palaeoloxodon antiquus. This species lived across Europe and Asia, reaching as far west as the UK during the interglacial periods. These were periods of time during the Ice Age when the ice temporarily retreated, and temperatures were warmer on average. We are currently in an interglacial period right now; the Ice Age isn’t over yet! These Eurasian species of Palaeoloxodon exhibit an interesting change from their African ancestors. Palaeoloxodon recki was predominantly a grazer. However, Palaeoloxodons in Eurasia switched to a browsing diet. This switch is thought to have occurred to avoid competition with Eurasia’s other resident trunked, tusked proboscideans, the Mammoths. This difference in diet allowed Straight Tusked Elephants and Mammoths to co-exist and exploit different environmental niches. Mammoths preferred the colder grasslands of the great Mammoth steppe, whilst Straight Tusked Elephants frequented the warmer open woodlands. In the UK, Straight Tusked Elephant fossils have been found in places such as Sussex and Cambridgeshire, and they would have even roamed what’s now London! (alongside Hippos, Narrow nosed Rhinos, Lions, Terrapins and more). Fossils dating from this time have been found beneath Trafalgar Square! But how did these warm weather animals get here? At different times during the Ice Age there was a land bridge connecting the UK and rest of Western Europe. This included a land mass known as “Doggerland”, which is now submerged under the North Sea. This, combined with warmer temperatures and a riverine, open woodland habitat, meant that animals now considered to be native to sub-tropical Africa lived freely in Britain. These “African” animals co-existed with animals that still exist in smaller numbers in Europe today, such as Wolves, Deer, Bison and Bears. Other human species also lived in this world, such as Homo Heidelbergensis, and from about 400,000 years ago, the Neanderthals. So, in this very recent geological past, the UK was once an extremely biodiverse landscape, with Straight Tusked Elephants being its mightiest residents.

A map showing the distribution of the European Straight Tusked Elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). The dots represents sites where their fossils have been found.
Image Credit: DagdaMor,

As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, they also spread further east into Asia. As they reached India, China and Southeast Asia they would’ve encountered the spectacular Asian Straight Tusked Elephant, Palaeoloxodon namidicus. Now, Palaeoloxodon species had been big before, but Palaeoloxodon namidicus was in a different league altogether. Estimates have suggested that it could have attained a mighty 4.5-5 metres at the shoulder and weighed between 14 and 22 tons! This makes it not only the largest Palaeoloxodon, but possibly the largest animal to have walked the planet since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs! No other land mammal has matched it (though the older, hornless, giraffe like rhino Paraceratherium came close). This sheer size along with herding behavior (in females and adolescents) and likely bad temperament (especially during “musth”, which is when bull elephants are in a highly aggressive state due to looking to fight other males for the right to mate) would’ve protected it from any hunter. Even humans, the planets most destructive predators with our big pointy sticks and intelligence, might’ve thought better than to take on a full-grown adult. P.namidicus’ sheer size would’ve made them the most dangerous animal that our species has ever encountered. This is really something considering the other dangerous animals we’ve encountered throughout our history, such as Short Faced Bears, huge Monitor Lizards, Sabre-Tooth Cats, Giant Ground Sloths and more (not to mention modern day animals such as Lions, Sharks, Hippos, Buffalos, Crocodiles and, well, other Elephants!). P.namidicus is thought to have gone extinct roughly 22,000, years ago. However, if a controversial study published by Li et. al. in 2012, which studied ancient man-made Elephant statues with weird, twin lipped trunks, and preserved teeth is to be believed (and it really needs to be taken with a grain of salt), they or a similar species may have existed in Northern China as recently as 3,000 years ago! It really was the closest thing to the Mûmakil of Tolkein’s epic!

A size comparison between a human, Palaeoloxodon namidicus (right) and Paraceratherium (left). The material we have for Palaeoloxodon namidicus is fragmentary (only the partial femur shown in its silhouette) but upper size estimations from these indicate that it may have been the largest ever land mammal.
Image Credit: Larramendi, A. 2015,

Meanwhile on the other side of the Eurasian landmass, tucked away within the Mediterranean, we had Straight Tusked Elephants that were an awful lot smaller, (and a lot less dangerous), than the titans that roamed Asia. On the Mediterranean islands of Malta, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and more, there lived two dwarf species of Straight Tusked Elephant: Palaeoloxodon falconeri and Palaeoloxodon cypriotes. P.cypriotes was about as tall as a person, (which is small enough for an Elephant), however P.falconeri was even smaller, only as big as a sheep! The reason these Straight Tusked Elephants were so small was due to their island homes. On islands, there is a trend for evolution to favour the smaller individuals within large species as they are better adapted to cope with the lack of food and living space. Smaller animals need less food; therefore, they are more likely to survive, reproduce and pass on their diminutive size to their offspring. So, over thousands to millions of years, the ancestors of these dwarf elephants (most likely a population of Palaeoloxodon antiquus that had made their way to the islands when sea levels were lower) steadily shrunk and became genetically different enough to become a new species. Despite their small size these Straight Tusked Elephants shared similar behaviors with their larger cousins, browsing on the island’s vegetation, females and young living in herds and bulls roaming alone. But while these Palaeoloxodon were smaller, some other island residents grew larger. This can create some very amusing scenarios. For example, alongside the dwarf elephants on Malta and Sicily there was also a species of giant swan (Cygnus falconeri) that grew to a whopping 2 metres long from bill to tail (reaching an average person’s shoulder!), had a wingspan of 3 metres and weighed 26 kilograms. This meant that it was taller than P.falconeri! On Malta, the Swans dwarfed the Elephants!

A skeleton of a Dwarf Sicilian Elephant (Palaeoloxodon falconeri). It has been suggested by some that the bones of Elephants found within the Mediterranean and in Southern Europe may have partially inspired the myths of Cyclops. Their skulls, as seen in this skeleton, do have a hole in the middle that could be mistaken for a single large eye socket. In life it was the nasal cavity at the base of the trunk.
Image Credit: James St. John,

The Straight Tusked Elephant lineage was incredibly successful, spanning across Africa and Eurasia, from the UK and Spain to Japan (where the species Palaeoloxodon naumanni lived). They evolved varying body sizes, diets and appearances as a response to the environments they found themselves in. This enabled them to cope with whatever they encountered. That is; as long as it wasn’t too cold and there was plenty of their preferred open woodland. However, despite this, their preferences would contribute to their end. The last of the lineage would go extinct roughly 21,000 years ago, near to the end of the last ice age. It is thought (like a lot of other megafauna) that their extinction was linked to dramatic climate changes and human hunting. The changing climate reduced the preferred forested habitats of these Elephants in favour of less suitable expansive dry grasslands. Meanwhile those efficient, ruthless humans may have put further pressure on populations, with some sites in Southern and Central Europe showing human butchering of Straight Tusked Elephants. Young, old and injured Elephants would’ve been most at risk, and while a full grown P.namidicus might have been safe, other Straight Tusked Elephants may not have had the same luxury.

It’s a shame that they never made it into recorded history. Palaeloxodon falconeri’s bizarrely small size would’ve made it an internet sensation, while a full grown Palaeoloxodon namidicus would’ve made for an incredible war elephant!

References/Further Reading

Larramendi et. al. 2020. Study that looked traced the evolution of Palaeoloxodon skulls, and what this tells us about the different Straight Tusked Elephant species.

Asier Larramendi, Hanwen Zhang, Maria Rita Palombo, Marco P. Ferretti, The evolution of Palaeoloxodon skull structure: Disentangling phylogenetic, sexually dimorphic, ontogenetic, and allometric morphological signals, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 229, 2020, 106090, ISSN 0277-3791,

An article written by Josh Davis and published on the Natural History Museum website about Palaeoloxodon and the study by Larramendi et. al. on on the variation of their headband like bony crests.

Davis, Josh “Weird skulls of straight-tusked elephants reveal just how many species there were”, Natural History Museum,, 18th February, 2020,

Neto de Carvalho et. al. 2021 paper describing the fossilized trackways at Huelva, which included the tracks of young and young adult Palaeoloxodon, Neanderthals and other animals

Neto de Carvalho, C., Belaústegui, Z., Toscano, A. et al. First tracks of newborn straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). Sci Rep 11, 17311 (2021).

Villa et. al. 2021 paper studying the Palaeoloxodon bone tools, likely made by Neanderthals, from Castel di Guido in Italy

Villa P, Boschian G, Pollarolo L, Saccà D, Marra F, et al. (2021) Elephant bones for the Middle Pleistocene toolmaker. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0256090.

Paleo Safaris: The Late Devonian Sea

Ohio, USA, 370 million years ago

Dawn rises over a sea 370 million years ago. This is the Devonian period, and what will become the American States of Ohio and New York are submerged beneath salty waves. There are no birds in the sky, and no whales, dolphins or seals cruising the waters. There are not even any turtles or sea snakes. In fact, the marine reptiles and pterosaurs that co-existed with the dinosaurs will not be seen for another 130 million years! As a result, the ecosystem of this time is quite unique and very different to today! So let us take a plunge, and see what creatures lurk beneath the waves!

Ctenacanthus, a “shark” that is distinguished by its comb spines
Image Credit: James St. John,

The first animal we spot is a fish, for even this far back fish still rule the waters. But not just any fish, but what at first glance seems to be a shark! Sharks are an incredibly successful group, unfairly known by far too many people as large, blood thirsty monsters, and have a hugely diverse and fascinating history. Today, they come in a wide variety of different species, from the slow cruising, long living Greenland Shark; to the peaceful bottom dwelling Nurse Shark; to powerful predators like the Great White Shark. But it was during the Devonian period that sharks and shark like fish first evolved. Our fishy friend is a Ctenacanthus, whose name means “comb spine” due to a set of spines that protrude from its fins. These spines possess tubercles on them, giving them a superficially comb-like appearance. The Ctenacanthus cruises through the sea, using its keen sense of smell to direct it towards its next meal, ignoring the weird suction feeling…..


A bite of between 6,000 to 7,400 newtons almost snaps the shark in two! From out of the depths, a mighty predator uses its jaws to manoeuvre the lifeless Ctenacanthus, and before you can process what has happened it swallows it whole in a big gulp. Satisfied with its meal, the giant male Dunkleosteus closes its jaws behind a thick pair of lips and swims away. It will be back.

Dunkleosteus. Our ambush hunter from the depths!
Image Credit: Entelognathus,

This Devonian leviathan is 8 metres long and weighs almost three and a half tonnes. The bite inflicted on the poor Ctenacanthus is among the most powerful of any animal that has ever lived, and certainly the strongest ever delivered by a fish! He is part of the Placoderm class of fishes, a now extinct group characterized by hard armor plating covering their head and upper body. Placoderms are even theorized by some palaeontologists to include the distant ancestors of the vertebrates that would first crawl onto land. Therefore, at a time even earlier than this your ancestors may have been smaller and more peaceful variants of Dunkleosteus! Dunkleosteus’ size is almost unmatched by any animal at this time in earth’s history, with only the filter feeding Placoderm Titanichthys potentially eclipsing it. Dunkleosteus is not only one of the largest animals of the Devonian period, but also one of the largest animals that has ever existed up to this point in earth’s history.

Another fish that can be found in these seas is Cladoselache. Just like Ctenacanthus, this man-sized fish was another early relative of the shark family. However, Cladoselache possesses a few features that are very un-shark like! For one it had a short, rounded snout, lacked claspers (which are important structures used in reproduction) and was not quite as “scaly” as other sharks, with scales being restricted to the edges of the eyes, mouth and fins. But just like sharks it possessed two dorsal fins (though with a spine in front of each fin), paired pectoral fins at the front of the body, powerful jaw muscles, and it would’ve eaten almost any animal it came across. Using its excellent vision, one Cladoselache pinpoints a golden opportunity appearing into view, a school of ray finned fish. Cladoselache is built for speed, and powerful strokes of its tail allow it to dart in and out of the school, snatching fish using jaws full of branch shaped cusped teeth and swallowing them whole. In defense the school sticks together, co-ordinating their movements and sheer numbers to avoid and confuse the shark. But more Cladoselache join the hunt, attracted by the bounty on offer. There is no real pack hunting strategy here, but the corralling of one shark pushes some of the fish into the oncoming opportunistic jaws of another. The action intensifies into a frenzy of activity, with multiple Cladoselache darting quickly in and out of the school, grabbing all the fish they can. After a few hours the school has diminished in size, and the Cladoselache have quenched their hunger. The sharks once again go their separate ways, returning to their never-ending patrolling the deep blue sea.

Cladoselache. It hunting shoals of fish may be speculative, but it certainly would’ve been a fast hunter of the Late Devonian Sea!
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura,

The Dunkleosteus is not interested in mere fish schools, and is content to cruise the water column, looking for a rocky haven to rest in for the night. All in all, he’s had a very good day; he has successfully hunted and fed himself whilst avoiding serious injury. This sounds like a simple task, but predators of all shapes and sizes often fail in their hunts, and accidents can happen! As a result, it is great to not waste precious energy on an unsuccessful one. On a different day the Ctenacanthus might have been more aware of the danger and could have narrowly escaped the Dunkleosteus’ mighty jaws. Despite this, the Dunkleosteus feels weirdly uneasy. Maybe it’s the strange suction feeling he’s only just noticed…


From out of the depths another Dunkleosteus plunges its sharp plated teeth into the soft tail of the big male. The attack devastates it, scything through muscle and blood vessels, and cripples the males swimming capabilities. Slowed down, and loosing strength rapidly, he is helpless as the newcomer rounds for another attack. The newcomer targets the body, and his 2nd bite cleaves through the male, stabbing into his internal organs. The sudden violent trauma, blood loss and punctured organs are too much for the male and his day, and life, are ended in the worst possible way. Dunkleosteus are opportunistic and eat anything they can sink their teeth into, including members of their own species. Even our male has gone after smaller Dunkleosteus on more than one occasion. After the second Dunkleosteus is done with his meal. Ctenacanthus gather to pick what is left before the body drifts down to the oxygen poor sea floor. Now that the scary predator is just a carcass, he is a lot more inviting for these opportunistic shark relatives! Eventually the Ctenacanthus go as far down as they dare, and after they leave the rest of the male comes to a rest on the muddy bottom. The oxygen quantity is poor here, so the Ctenacanthus don’t follow, and over time the armored head is buried by the movement of murky sediment which, in conjunction with the lack of oxygen, will shield it from further breaking and decomposition. 370 million years from now future vertebrates, in the form of humanity, will unearth the males giant head, where through careful study, they visualize how he looked and may have lived his life!

With the males passing, we end our journey through the Late Devonian Sea.

References/Further Reading

• The inspiration for this Paleo Safari came from rereading “Evolution: The Story of Life” by Douglas Palmer & Peter Barrett. In particular this story first came to mind from reading pages 80-81; “A Giant of the Devonian Deep” with the beautiful illustration of Dunkleosteus and Cladoselache done by Peter Barrett.

Palmer, Douglas, Barrett, Peter, “A Giant of the Devonian Deep”, “Evolution: The Story of Life”, octopus publishing group, 2009, pg 80-81

Carr 2010, a paper about the Paleoecology of Dunkleosteus, showing is preferred habitat and effect on the ecosystem both in life and in death

Carr, R. K. (2010). Paleoecology of Dunkleosteus terrelli (Placodermi: Arthrodira). Kirtlandia, 57, 36-45.

Anderson & Westneat 2009 paper examining the feeding of Dunkleosteus using a biomechanical model. This allowed them to calculate its staggeringly powerful bite force

Anderson, P., & Westneat, M. (2009). A biomechanical model of feeding kinematics for Dunkleosteus terrelli (Arthrodira, Placodermi). Paleobiology, 35(2), 251-269. doi:10.1666/08011.1

A Cleveland Museum of Natural History article on Cladoselache fossils found in the area, their anatomy, lifestyle and how they were preserved.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, “INTRODUCING CLEVELAND’S TOOTHIEST SHARK”, Cleveland Museum of Natural History,,

“A Diplodocus? Dippy the Diplodocus!”

A reconstruction of Diplodocus carnegii, the species that Dippy belong to!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum,

From February 2018 to October 2021, a giant dinosaur has been travelling the UK. It’s had a long journey! Starting in Dorset, its migrated to Birmingham, then across the Irish sea to Belfast, back across to Glasgow, then south to Newcastle-upon Tyne, on to Cardiff, then to Rochdale and finally to Norwich. After a bit of a delay due to a certain virus millions of times smaller than it, the dinosaur finally reached Norwich in May 2021 and stayed there until the end of October. As Norwich is close to me this humble writer went to visit this dinosaur back in August 2021. I had not seen it since roughly the early 2010s, back when it was a star of one of the most famous museums in the world, the Natural History Museum in London. Since it was already well known, and since dinosaurs are always popular, hundreds of people had gathered to see it. The queue at its temporary home of Norwich Cathedral stretched from the entranceway of the southwest doorway all the way back through the cloisters and snaked its way past the front entrance of the cathedral. It took at least 20 minutes, but finally I reached the front of the line and entered the 900 year old cathedral nave that was big enough to house it! As I entered the huge, vaulted space, Dippy the dinosaur came into view. Dippy predates Norwich Cathedral itself by 153 million years and walked the land that would become the United States. But what was Dippy like? And how did this giant make its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain?

The original fossil of Dippy was unearthed in 1899 by railroad workers in Wyoming in the United States. After being fully excavated was put up on display in the Carnegie Museum, Chicago, where it still stands today. Now you might think “hang on, isn’t Dippy in the UK? Not the US!” Well, the UK skeleton we know, and love is not the same as the original fossil that’s at the Carnegie. Instead, it is one of 10 casts (or copies) of those Wyoming bones, (with other casts being present in museums in Paris, Berlin and more). The “Dippy” cast was made and sent to the UK on the order of none other than King Edward VII, who had been shown a drawing of the original skeleton by the owner of the Carnegie Museum, Andrew Carnegie, A Scottish-American Millionaire Philanthropist and Industrialist. Edward VII believed that it would make a fine addition for the Natural History Museum in London. It’s safe to say that he was right, as it has wowed millions upon millions of visitors for 111 years. Originally, Dippy was placed in the museum’s reptile gallery when it was unveiled in 1905. But in 1979 it was moved to its more recognisable position in the centre of Hintze Hall, where it greeted visitors as they entered the museum! In 2017 Dippy was dismantled to be given a deserved rest, being replaced by a hanging skeleton of an even larger animal, a Blue Whale! (Which has affectionately been named “Hope”).

Dippy itself! Standing proudly in Norwich Cathedral!
Image Credit: My own (low quality) photo that I took during my visit.

So now that we know how Dippy came to the UK, the next question is what exactly is Dippy? Well, if you were to guess that it was a big dinosaur then you would be correct! More specifically Dippy is a member of the species Diplodocus carnegii, named after Andrew Carnegie himself. Diplodocus means “Double Beam” and it stems from two strange rows of bones on the underside of its tail that helped to support it and promote flexibility. Diplodocus carnegii is not the only Diplodocus species known to science, there are in fact four! (The others being Diplodocus longus, Diplodocus lacustris and Diplodocus hallorum). First discovered in 1878 by the American fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh, Diplodocus were long necked, long tailed, heavily built, four-legged plant eaters that belonged to the group of dinosaurs known as the Sauropods. The first Sauropods appeared in the Early Jurassic period (a period lasting from 201-174 million years ago, exactly where Sauropods appeared in this time is still debated), and the group would last up until the very end of the Cretaceous period (66 million years ago). The ancestors of sauropods were small, upright walking, relatively lightweight generalists, a far cry from the giants that would evolve later! Later, multiple sauropod species, including Diplodocus itself, would occupy the large herbivore niche across the world, from the USA, to Argentina, to China and to Australia. The Jurassic was one of the best times for the Sauropods, with many of the most famous species originating in this period. Diplodocus fossils, alongside other famous sauropods such as Brontosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus, are all found in a Late Jurassic rock formation in the United States known as the Morrison Formation. This formation is HUGE! Geographically it stretches across the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico, while chronologically it contains rock sequences and fossils dating to 155-150 million years ago. As well as Sauropods, the Morrison has preserved many other famous dinosaur species such as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Dryosaurus, an early Ankylosaur known as Mymoorapelta and even an early Tyrannosaur called Stokesosaurus, as well as a collection of insects, fish, amphibians, early mammals, other reptiles (e.g. lizards, crocodilians) and flying reptiles known as Pterosaurs. The environment that Dippy and all these other spectacular dinosaurs lived in was warm, seasonal and semi-arid, that progressed to a wetter climate with floodplains and rivers, varying over the thousands to millions of years. Herbaceous (i.e., non-woody plants) were prevalent, with sporadic areas of woodland. This means that Dippy’s world would have had an almost “Savannah” like feel to it (except without any grasslands), with plentiful resources for all the giant dinosaurs. Sauropods are iconic dinosaurs because of their often absurdly huge sizes. They were so big that even a “small” sauropod would usually still be bigger than an Elephant!

Sometimes when you see your old house, city, or a treasured object again after a substantial number of years, it can seem smaller than you remember. Well, this is not what I felt when I saw Dippy again! On the contrary it seemed even bigger! Not only that but now I know more about Paleontology I can appreciate just how unusual Diplodocus is when compared with other sauropod dinosaurs. Here is what I mean.

First off, Dippy’s head is small, long and slender compared to the rest of its body, and to other sauropod skulls. Furthermore, this head contains a set of peg-like teeth which jut out slightly at the front, giving it an almost “goofy” look. This skull allowed Diplodocus to grab and strip off (or bite off) the leaves of low and medium growing plants before swallowing them whole. To sustain a Diplodocus carnegii that grew to lengths of roughly 25 metres (and up to 33 metres in Diplodocus hallorum!) and weighed roughly 11-15 tons (or somewhere between 25-50 tons in D.Hallorum), a Diplodocus would’ve needed to spend a lot of time eating. Luckily this “grab and pull” method is efficient, and by swinging their long necks around from side to side they could cover a wide area without needing to waste energy moving around. Furthermore, Diplodocus could lower their necks to access low growing plants, and even (briefly) rear up on their hind legs to access plants that would be out of reach otherwise. This skull and teeth did give Diplodocus a relatively specialized diet, limited to mostly soft leaves, but it meant that it could avoid direct competition with the other huge sauropods that it lived with. These other sauropods ate different plants that grew to different heights. For example, Camarasaurus’ boxy robust skull meant that it could have had a more generalized diet involving tougher woody stems. Furthermore, the orientation and reach of different sauropod necks meant they could access different foods. For example, while Diplodocus had a long, gently S-shaped neck and head that was held at a roughly 60 degree angle to the ground, a Sauropod like Brachiosaurus had a neck held more vertically like a giraffe, which allowed it to reach the leaves of the tallest trees. These differences in diet and head/neck anatomy allowed multiple different species of large 15-30 metre Sauropods to establish functioning populations in the same area at the same time. This is like having at least 5 different populations of animals all at least double the size of an African Elephant crammed into an area the size of Western Europe without the ecosystem collapsing!

File:Diplodocus species size comparison.svg
A size comparison between two Diplodocus species (D.carnegii & D.hallorum) and a human. Fun fact, Diplodocus hallorum wasn’t always considered a Diplodocus! It was originally called “Seismosaurus“, meaning “Earth Shaker Lizard”.
Image Credit: KoprX,

Secondly, Dippy had a relatively thin tail, with vertebrae that start off thick at the body end and thinning until they became smaller than your hand. This, along with the “Double Beam” bones mentioned earlier, made its tail strong, but mobile and whip like, very different to the thick and sluggish tails dinosaurs traditionally dragged along after themselves in classic illustrations and movies. Such a tail could’ve had multiple uses. It would’ve counterbalanced Diplodocus’ long neck and potentially been used for communication between other members of its herd (via a recognizable sequence of swings and tail movements). It could’ve also been used as a defense weapon, cracked like a whip or swung into any predators that wouldn’t have been deterred by Diplodocus’ sheer size or strength in numbers. Diplodocus would’ve needed this protection (along with the single row of small spines along it’s back and tail), as the lands of the Morrison Formation was also home to a collection of fearsome threats. Large predators such as the previously named Ceratosaurus (7 metres) and Allosaurus (9 metres), as well as Torvosaurus (10 metres)and Saurophaganax (11.5 metres) would’ve targeted sub-adult, sick or wounded Diplodocus. Also, smaller carnivores such as Stokesosaurus and Ornitholestes would’ve tried to take unwary hatchlings and exposed eggs. Life was tough for a young Diplodocus, but fortunately they didn’t stay small and vulnerable for long. It’s been estimated that, from hatchlings no more than a metre long (that hatched from eggs no bigger than footballs), Diplodocus attained lengths of roughly 3 metres by age 1, 9 metres by age 6, 19 metres by age 12 and the full 25 metres by the age of 20 (though rate of growth and final size attained could vary between different individuals). Just like with humans, Diplodocus kids grew fast and had a growth spurt as teenagers! What fueled this growth was consuming vast quantities of food. It has been found that Diplodocus youngsters had a more generalist diet (i.e., browsing on tree saplings and low growing plants), before transitioning to the more specialized adult diet. This meant they could find food more readily and keep up their fast growth.

All in all, Dippy’s time in the UK has been an unqualified success. The “Dippy on Tour” event alone has been seen by over 2 million people across the country, and the accompanying displays have helped educate people not only about the distant past but also about the current challenges faced by the world today. Not only does Dippy help tell the story of Diplodocus, how it lived, how it ate and the world it inhabited, but it also provides more evidence for why dinosaurs were such successful, remarkable and (yes I’m going to say it!) cool animals!

Further Reading

An article piece on the Natural History Museum website, written by Matthew Prosser, on the history of Dippy

Prosser, Matthew, “Dippy: this is your life”, Natural History Museum, 1st January, 2016,,

Young et. al. 2012 paper that analyzed the biomechanics of a Diplodocus skull to help give clues into how it ate.

Young, M.T., Rayfield, E.J., Holliday, C.M. et al. Cranial biomechanics of Diplodocus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): testing hypotheses of feeding behaviour in an extinct megaherbivore. Naturwissenschaften 99, 637–643 (2012).

Fiorillo 1998 paper that looked at the dental microwear (i.e. the tiny scratches made on an animals teeth by its food, different wear patterns are made by different foods) on the teeth of Diplodocus and another sauropod named Camarasaurus, to figure out how they could co-exist in the same environment.

Anthony R. Fiorillo (1998) Dental micro wear patterns of the sauropod dinosaurs camarasaurus and diplodocus: Evidence for resource partitioning in the late Jurassic of North America, Historical Biology, 13:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/08912969809386568

Dunagan & Turner 2004 paper that studied the depositional environment and paleoclimate of the Morrison Formation.

Dunagan, Stan, Turner, Christine, 2004, Regional paleohydrologic and paleoclimatic settings of wetland/lacustrine depositional systems in the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Western Interior, USA, Sedimentary Geology, VL 167, 10.1016/j.sedgeo.2004.01.007

Parrish, Peterson & Turner 2004 paper on the plant life and climate of the Morrison Formation.

Judith Totman Parrish, Fred Peterson, Christine E Turner, Jurassic “savannah”—plant taphonomy and climate of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic, Western USA), Sedimentary Geology, Volume 167, Issues 3–4, 2004, Pages 137-162, ISSN 0037-0738,

Woodruff et. al. 2018 paper that details the finding of a juvenile Diplodocus, and what it can tell us about its lifestyle and growth.

Woodruff, D.C., Carr, T.D., Storrs, G.W. et al. The Smallest Diplodocid Skull Reveals Cranial Ontogeny and Growth-Related Dietary Changes in the Largest Dinosaurs. Sci Rep 8, 14341 (2018).

• A blog article about baby sauropods, the differences between youngsters and adults, and their growth rates

Mike, “Why does a Baby Diplodocus have a Short Neck?”, Everything Dinosaur, December 12th, 2007,,

Information about the “Dippy on Tour” event, which ran from February 2018 to October 2021 and included places from across the UK.

Natural History Museum, “Dippy on Tour: A Natural History Adventure”, Natural History Museum,,

• A blog article by Darren Naish, from 2009, on the biggest sauropods ever.

Naish, Darren, “Biggest… sauropod…. ever (part 1)”, scienceblogs, December 28th, 2009,

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,

🎶”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,

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,

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,

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:

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.

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,

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,, 29TH May, 2012,

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: [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.

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,, 24th July, 2015,

Pierolapithecus: The Catalonian Ape

File:Pierolapithecus catalaunicus (Kopie).jpg
A replica of the fossilized skull of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus
Image Credit: Nasobema lyricum,

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,

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,

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.

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.

• 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,

Would a Velociraptor make a good pet?

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A modern artistic reconstruction of Velociraptor, feathers and all!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum,

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!

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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,

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,

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.

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The fighting dinosaurs fossil, which captures the final moments of the two dinosaurs in exquisite detail!
Image Credit: Yuya Tamai,

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!

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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,

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.

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,

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,[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.

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,, 8th June, 2015,

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,,

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,

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,

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,

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, 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,,

The Prehistoric Wildlife website factfile on Xiphactinus

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Xiphactinus”,,

A short National Geographic profile on Xiphactinus

National Geographic “Xiphactinus audax”, Animals Photo Ark,,

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”,,

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,

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,

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,,_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,

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,

*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,,,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,

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”,,

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

Natural Worlds, “Vocalisation”,,

• 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,, 12th December, 2018,

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,,

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).

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,,

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

Musser, Anne, “Procoptodon goliah”, 4th December, 2018,,

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.

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).

Prehistoric Wildlife’s factfile on Genyornis

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Genyornis”,,

The Woolly Mammoth: The great wonder of the Ice Age

File:Hunting Woolly Mammoth.jpg
Despite their size Woolly Mammoths were not invulnerable to attack from predators like these human species.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons,

“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,

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,

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,

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,,

• 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,,

• 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)”,,

• 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”,, 12th August, 2018,

• 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,, May, 2009,