Pierolapithecus: The Catalonian Ape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References/Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woolly Mammoth: The great wonder of the Ice Age

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

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

[See’s that it’s the Woolly Mammoth].

“…..oh boy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References/Further Reading

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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/frozen-remains-help-explain-the-life-and-eventual-extinction-of-the-woolly-mammoth/2011/03/29/AFOPWeMD_story.html

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

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

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16081-frozen-hair-gives-up-first-mammoth-genome/?ignored=irrelevant

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

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

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

http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/m/mammuthus-primigenius-woolly-mammoth.html

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Mammuthus primigenius

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

http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/m/mammuthus-primigenius-woolly-mammoth.html

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

https://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/scientists-discover-unique-carcass-of-extinct-pygmy-woolly-mammoth-on-island-off-siberian-coast/

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

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

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2009/05/mammoths/

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

Titanoboa: The Supersized Snake

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

It’s a giant snake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References/Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enhydriodon: The Bear Otter

Enhydriodon, the bear-otter : Naturewasmetal
An Enhydriodon surprising an unlucky Aepyceros
Image Credit: Joschua Knüppe, https://www.deviantart.com/hyrotrioskjan

Well it was coming eventually! After 24 blog articles on this humble little site, it’s time that an article on Prehistoric Otter was actually about a Prehistoric Otter! There were a few candidates for the otter of choice for this momentous occasion, but ultimately I decided that Enhydriodon shall be the one in the spotlight. So sit back, grab some snacks, and let’s learn about the life and times of the “Bear Otter”.

Enhydriodon lived in East Africa and India from 5 to 2 million years ago during the Pliocene period of the Cenozoic era. As previously stated Enhydriodon was an otter and like all otters it belonged to a larger mammalian group known as the Mustelids, whose members also include Wolverines (the animal not the superhero!), Ferrets and Badgers. The earliest otters evolved around 23 million years ago with the first “modern” otters arriving on the scene 7 million years ago; a full 2 million years before Enhydriodon. Otters evolved from land based ancestors who became semi aquatic partly due to the exciting food resources available (e.g. fish, crustaceans and shellfish) and partly to help escape larger, scarier predators. Modern Sea Otters take this concept to the extreme and have become fully aquatic marine animals but the majority of todays otters still maintain a tie to the land. Otters took to their watery home with gusto and over millions of years they evolved webbed feet and a snazzy waterproof fur coat. This coat is so snazzy that unfortunately humans would hunt otters specifically for it, or even just for sport, to use the fur in the fashion business. Once these adaptations were in place the otters diversified and spread across the globe producing a wide variety of species. Along the way many species came and went, and Enhydriodon was one of them.

The first Enhydriodon fossils were discovered way back in the early 19th century, with the first known species, Enhydriodon sivalensis from the Sewalik hills in Northern India, being described and named by Dr Hugh Falconer of the British Museum. Since then further fossils have been unearthed of other Enhydriodon species. One notable species was described in 2011 and named Enhydriodon dikikae, which was found in East Africa; specifically Dikika in Ethiopia and Kanapoi in Kenya. What we know about Enhydriodon comes from a few fossils of a snout, lower jaw, back of the skull humerus and fragments of a femur. That’s not a lot to go on, but from what palaeontologists do have they can ascertain a few key features. For example, we know that its short snouted skull had a battery of broad incisors, powerful canines and crushing molar teeth. Luckily because we know of other similar extinct giant otters (such as the wolf sized Siamogale from South-West China, which lived just) we can compare these finds against these extinct otters and similar modern day otters in order to give us a rough reconstruction of its probable life appearance.

File:Enhydriodon campanii.JPG
A fossilised lower jaw of Enhydriodon campanii, another of the numerous Enhydridon species, from the Museo di Paleontologia di Firenze in Florence, Italy
Image Credit: Ghedoghedo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enhydriodon_campanii.JPG

So what makes Enhydriodon a particularly special otter? Well, from the aforementioned fossils scientists have estimated that Enhydriodon sivalensis was roughly the size of a panther. However this was topped by Enhydriodon dikikae, which grew to over 2.1 metres long and weighed somewhere between 200-400 pounds, making it the largest otter (and largest mustelid) that has ever lived. By comparison Enhydriodon dikikae was larger than your average Leopard or Wolf and even approached Lion size! This was certainly not the small, cute animal that most people associate with otters today. Instead it was a large and powerful beast (though in all honesty it was probably still cute).

How this otter is thought to have lived is a matter of some debate. The original paper that described Enhydriodon dikikae (Geraards et. al. 2011) concluded that it was more land based than modern otters. However others have argued against this stating that it was more semi-aquatic like an Asian Short-Clawed Otter. However long it spent in water what is clear is that it would have ventured in at least on occasion as its variety of powerful teeth indicate a diet of water and land based prey. Potential items on Enhydriodon’s menu ranged from large fish, such as catfish, and shellfish to even small-medium sized land based mammalian herbivores like antelope. This wide ranging diet is plausible based on what we know of modern otter species. For example the modern day Giant Otter from South America is known to prey on small-medium sized Caimans and Anacondas alongside its usual diet of fish.

The East African landscape that Enhydriodon dikikae lived in consisted of open forest and Savannah grassland, crisscrossed by rivers that fed into the occasional huge lake (not to far removed from today). The animals that this Enhydriodon would see on a daily basis were a real uncanny mix of different species. On the one hand, there were animals familiar to anybody who has either been on an African Safari or watched nature documentaries, like Antelope, Hippos and Leopards to name a few. But on the flipside there were a few strange faces. These included extinct animals such as Deinotherium; a gargantuan 4.5-5 metre tall relative of elephants that weighed twice as much and possessed downward curving tusks; the “Scimitar-Toothed” cat Homotherium, Sivatherium; a 3 metre tall relative of giraffes; and giant species of Wolverines (Plesiogulo) and Baboons (Dinopithecus).

There was another, very special animal that I haven’t mentioned yet that also lived alongside the large and powerful Enhydriodon; our very own ancestors! Those same Dikika and Kanapoi deposits where Enhydriodon dikikae fossils were found also contain the fossils of the 3.5 million year old Australopithecus afarensis (specifically the skeleton of a youngster nicknamed “Salem”) and the 4.2 million year old Australopithecus anamensis respectively. Australopithecus is a landmark human ancestor because it was one of, if not the first, to walk upright, a key feature that distinguishes humans from other great apes. It’s unknown just how much Enhydriodon and Australopithecus would have interacted with one another, but based on Enhydriodon’s diet and the comparative sizes of the two (Australopithecus was only 1 to 1.5 metres tall at most) it’s probable that the Bear Otter wouldn’t have said no to hunting an Australopithecus that was lingering too close to the waters edge. That’s such a strange thought. Nowadays people generally adore otters but in the distant past your great great etc. grandparents lived in fear of being eaten by one!

Enhydriodon dikikae | Dinopedia | Fandom
Enhydriodon compared to one of our ancestors. From this image you can see why encountering an Enhydriodon might have been a bad thing for these early human relatives!
Image Credit: Victor Leshyk, http://novataxa.blogspot.com/2012/04/2011-enhydriodon-dikikae-ethiopia.html

So why is the bear otter no longer with us? Well this may again be linked to our human ancestors. Enhydriodon went extinct roughly 2 million years ago during a time of significant decline of multiple large African carnivore species. Coinciding with this was the evolution and diversification of a couple of different new species of human (or “Homo”) such as Homo Habilis; one of the first human ancestors to make stone tools. Some of these human species were starting to incorporate more meat into their diet becoming omnivorous and active hunter gatherers. As a result they competed with Enhydriodon and other carnivores for prey, and this increased competition may have played a role in the otter’s decline. On top of this the climate was also changing, becoming drier and promoting more open Savannah and less forest. This new habitat wouldn’t have been as suitable for Enhydriodon and would have definitely affected its population.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of Enhydriodon is not its size, it’s not whether it was semi-aquatic or not, or even its appearance (though otter fans would surely go bananas if it was alive today). It’s the connection that it has to the history of humankind. As time has passed the relationship between our ancestors and Enhydriodon changed from an animal that was feared by the Australopithecines into one that early human species actively competed with on an equal footing. The relationship between humans and otters developed further after Enhydriodon went extinct with humans hunting its otter cousins for fur and sport, and now to protecting them through conservation efforts. I guess it just goes to show that otters have always had a relationship with the human species in one form or another, and Enhydriodon was the start of it all.

References/Further Reading

Geraards et. al. 2011 paper describing fossils of Enhydriodon dikakae from Ethiopia

Denis Geraads, Zeresenay Alemseged, René Bobe & Denné Reed (2011) Enhydriodon dikikae, sp. nov. (Carnivora: Mammalia), a gigantic otter from the Pliocene of Dikika, Lower Awash, Ethiopia, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 31:2, 447-453, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2011.550356

A book titled “Palæontological Memoirs and Notes of the Late Hugh Falconer: Fauna antiqua”, written by Dr Hugh Falconer where he describes his paleontological discoveries, which included Enhydriodon sivalensis

Falconer, Hugh, 1868, Palæontological Memoirs and Notes of the Late Hugh Falconer: Fauna antiqua, Fauna Antiqua sivalensis.

Mindat.org datasheet on Enhydriodon dikikae

Mindat, “Enhydriodon dikikae”, Mindat.org, https://www.mindat.org/taxon-8570226.html

A 2012 Nature article, written by Jeff Tollefson, detailing Lars Werdelin’s research on how competition with human ancestors may have played a role in Enhydriodons and other large African carnivore extinctions

Tollefson, Jeff, “Early humans linked to large-carnivore extinctions”, News, Nature, 26th April, 2012, https://www.nature.com/news/early-humans-linked-to-large-carnivore-extinctions-1.10508

Bobe et. al. 2020 paper on the ecology of Australopithecus anamensis, which includes details of the animals it shared its environment with (e.g. Enhydriodon).

René Bobe, Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, Carol V. Ward, J. Michael Plavcan, Susana Carvalho, The ecology of Australopithecus anamensis in the early Pliocene of Kanapoi, Kenya, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 140, 2020, 102717, ISSN 0047-2484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.102717.

Basilosaurus: The Tale of King Basil

File:Basilosaurus1DB.jpg
A Reconstruction of how Basilosaurus (and the one and only King Basil) would have looked!
Image Credit: Dmitry Bogdanov, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basilosaurus1DB.jpg

35 Million years ago during the Late Eocene period, in a shallow sea that would one day become the Sahara Desert, a king ruled the waters. His name was Basil, he was 20 years old and one of the largest of his kind. He has reached this age in large part because of the excellent early parental care of his mother, a key trait of mammals like him. He was taught how to navigate, to hunt and his mother used every ounce of her might to protect him from danger. Now he is in his prime, has fathered many offspring and has his pick of food that sustains his enormous appetite. Life is good for the king and there is nothing that can threaten him……for now.

Basil is a Basilosaurus, a name meaning “King Lizard” in Latin. However Basil and his kind are far from lizards! They are part of what was at the time a relatively new group of sea faring animals; the whales. Two species of Basilosaurus have been discovered. The first is Basilosaurus cetoides, which ranged from the coast of what is now Alabama and New Mexico in the USA to Egypt. The second is Basilosaurus isis, which swam in waters covering much of Morocco and Egypt. Combining the localities of these two species we can see that Basilosaurus had a wide geographical distribution, stretching across almost half the globe. Along this distribution both Basilosaurus species are thought to have resided in coastal and shallow water regions rather than the deep ocean; a slightly unusual habitat considering their huge size. Furthermore both Basilosaurus species lived in an ocean which no longer exists! This ocean was known as the Tethys, a once mighty watery expanse that linked the Indian and Atlantic Ocean. During the Late Eocene period it covered where much of Arabia, North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea area are now. The Tethys would eventually disappear around 23 million years ago but the coastal margins of this strange, primordial ocean was a place where Basilosaurus (and many other marine fauna) called home.

The fossilised skull of Basilosaurus isis (top) and Basilosaurus cetoides (bottom). Note the slight differences in teeth and skull shape between the two species.
Image Credit: Ghedoghedo, Ninjatacoshell, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Basilosaurus_isis_and_cetoides_skulls_compared.png

The first Basilosaurus fossils were found in the 1830s. Rather curiously, when they were first unearthed, the large vertebrae were used as furniture! After this the fossils were initially studied by Richard Harlan, a Philadelphia based Naturalist, before being passed on to Sir Richard Owen, the famous British Naturalist who’s best known for coining the term “dinosaur” and for founding the Natural History Museum in London. Harlan at first thought that these bones belonged to a giant marine reptile, partly due to the animal’s unusually long body (like an actual sea serpent!) and superficially reptile-like skull. This is why it was given the name of Basilosaurus, or “King Lizard”. However later studies revealed Basilosaurus’ characteristic mammalian features. For example it was found to have heterodont dentition, which means they have teeth of various shapes each with their own function (in this case sharp incisors and flattened serrated molars). In contrast reptiles have homodont dentition, meaning their teeth are all the same shape and have the same function. Once he realised the mistake Sir Richard Owen suggested that this animal’s name should be changed to Zeuglodon; which means “Yoke Teeth” on account of their distinct shape. However this would have violated the golden rule of scientifically naming an organism; “The first name that is given is the one that is always used (unless the name is already in use or the new organism turns out to actually be one we’ve previously discovered and named)”. Therefore the name Basilosaurus stayed, resulting in the rather bizarre situation where a whale (which is a mammal) is called a lizard (which is a reptile). A great example of how palaeontology is full of weird names that sometimes don’t make sense!

A serpentine shape isn’t the only feature that differentiated Basilosaurus from modern whales. It also possessed small, stumpy and external hind limbs. While modern whales also possess hind limbs they are internal, hidden beneath the large layers of fat, muscle and skin. These tiny legs are remnants from a time (roughly 20 million years or so before Basilosaurus) when the ancestors of whales were small, four-legged hoofed mammals that were first dipping their toes back into water. Whereas these ancestors used their hind limbs for walking, Basilosaurus’ were way too small and stumpy for such a “feet” (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). Instead it’s thought that the hind limbs were used to help lock and intertwine the long bodies of two Basilosaurus’ together during mating. Basilosaurus also lacked some characteristic anatomy that modern whales possess. This included a “melon” in their heads; a mass of tissue which modern whales use for echolocation. Furthermore Basilosaurus’ blowhole, which it used to take breaths at the surface, was positioned further forward (between the snout and top of its head) than in modern whales. As Basilosaurus preferred shallow water environments it is also thought that they didn’t dive to great depths (like Sperm Whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales do).

Mounted skeleton of Basilosaurus isis from the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Nantes, France
Image Credit: Asmoth, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basilosaurus_isis_fossil,_Nantes_History_Museum_01.jpg

Basilosaurus was a giant of its time; measuring up to 20 metres long and weighing up to 20 tons. This meant that it was the undisputed top predator of the Late Eocene seas. The size of Basilosaurus varied between the two species; with B.cetoides measuring between 17-20 metres while B.Isis was between 15-18 metres. As you can see from this range in lengths there was also size variation between members of the same Basilosaurus species. One reason for this is that they exhibited sexual dimorphism. We know this because on average male Basilosaurus vertebrae measure 20% longer than in females of the same age. In terms of its lifestyle a modern day comparison to Basilosaurus might be the Orca (aka “The Killer Whale”). Both are large predatory whales that are top predators in their environments. Like Orcas, the diet of Basilosaurus consisted of fish (e.g. Pycnodus) and other marine mammals. One particular marine mammal that was on the menu was Dorudon atrox, a 5 metre long prehistoric whale which actually belonged to the same family as Basilosaurus; “The Basilosauridae” (guess what animal the family was named after). Fossils discovered in the last two decades have shown a direct predator-prey relationship between these two whales. Skulls of Dorudon have been found with bite marks that perfectly match the size and shape of Basilosaurus teeth. Furthermore these marks form a pattern on the Dorudon skull that indicate that the bite was across the head, a tactic that’s often used by predators to quickly immobilise and cripple their prey. In addition approximately 50% of these skulls were deduced to be of young Dorudon. This was due to the presence of deciduous (i.e. baby) teeth, while accompanying vertebrate had open growth plates which is the part of the bone that grows, before hardening when animal matures. This suggests that Basilosaurus targeted Dorudon “nursery groups” that consisted of young Dorudon and a few adults. It undoubtedly would have been a waking nightmare for the young Dorudon to see a large and hungry Basilosaurus burst into their nursery. But from the Basilosaurus’ perspective hunting the more vulnerable prey (e.g. young, old, injured and/or sick) gives them a greater chance of getting a vital meal, one that could prevent them from starving, and is a tactic employed by every predator from Lions, to Eagles, to Orcas.

King Basil eventually reached the end of his road as the years of swimming, hunting and fighting finally caught up to him. His latest wounds, sustained from a fight with a younger and faster male, are this time going to be fatal. As blood loss starts to take its toll Basil takes one last breath at the surface, before his body eventually gives out. The king has been dethroned. The younger male has long since swum off to start his own reign, but the line of succession will eventually end 33 million years ago. A drop in sea levels and a changing climate would push all Basilosaurus to extinction. As for Basil his body eventually sinks to the bottom of the sea and over time is picked clean by scavengers, buried by ocean sediment, and undergoes the fossilisation process that will turn his bones into hard rock. 35 million years later his bones will eventually resurface as another Basilosaurus fossil, with an intrepid palaeontologist meticulously dusting the sand of the Sahara Desert away to expose his remains. His final resting place is Wadi Al Hitan, a fossil site located 150km South-West of Cairo in Egypt. This place is also known as the “Valley of the Whales”. This is fitting, as just like the Egyptian pharaohs buried in the “Valley of the Kings”, Basil was a monarch among his own kind.

References/Further Reading

Fahlke 2012 paper that further examined the bite marks on Dorudon skulls, reinforcing the hypothesis that they match the teeth of Basilosaurus and that Basilosaurus actively hunted Dorudon

Fahlke, J. M. (2012). Bite marks revisited—evidence for middle-to-late Eocene Basilosaurus isis predation on Dorudon atrox (both Cetacea, Basilosauridae). Palaeontologia Electronica, 15(3), 32A.

Voss et. al. 2019 paper describing the preserved stomach contents of a Basilosaurus isis fossil

Voss M, Antar MSM, Zalmout IS, Gingerich PD (2019) Stomach contents of the archaeocete Basilosaurus isis: Apex predator in oceans of the late Eocene. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0209021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209021

Uhen 2004 paper that first described the bite marks on Dorudon skulls and suggested that they were due to Basilosaurus predation

Uhen MD. Form, function, and anatomy of Dorudon atrox (Mammalia, Cetacea): an archaeocete from the middle to late Eocene of Egypt. University of Michigan Papers on Paleontology. 2004; 34: 1–222.

Fossilworks database on Basilosaurus species, synonyms and papers related to it

Fossilworks, “Basilosaurus Harlan 1834 (whale)”, Fossilworks, http://fossilworks.org/cgi-bin/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=36681

The New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (try saying that five times fast!) page describing Basilosaurus (written by Robert Boessenecker and Jonathan Geisler)

Boessenecker, Robert, Geisler, Jonathan, “Basilosaurus spp.”, College of Osteopathic Medicine, The New York Institute of Technology, https://www.nyit.edu/medicine/basilosaurus_spp#

A Comparative Anatomy website page, from the University of the Cumberlands, giving an overview of Heterodont and Homodont Dentition

Comparative Anatomy, “The Teeth of Vertebrate Animals”, Comparative Anatomy, https://inside.ucumberlands.edu/academics/biology/faculty/kuss/courses/Digestive%20system/TeethOf%20Vertebrates.htm

“All hail the Great Beast Megatherium!”

File:Megatherium NT small.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
A reconstruction of the Great Beast
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura, (© N. Tamura), http://spinops.blogspot.com/2015/02/megatherium-americanum.html

“Deluded! Madman! Fake Scientist!”

The Cryptozoologist had been called these a lot throughout his professional career, (as well as other, more mean things). Time after time after time he had failed to discover any of the amazing creatures’ people claimed to have seen, with the majority being proven to never have existed in the first place. Now, nearing his retirement, he was wandering the amazon rainforest looking for yet another cryptid; the “Mapinguari”. “Just turn around” the voice in his head said (not for the first time). “They’re just stories made up to attract tourists or hoaxers trying to make a name for themselves or misidentified animals. None of them are real!”. The Cryptozoologist sighed, and for the first time in his life he wondered “Maybe I am a crazy old man”. Then he heard it, a crash of vegetation coming from the trees just to the left of him. He turned round, straining to locate exactly where the noise had come from. Then he saw it, and his jaw dropped. What he was seeing was an animal believed to have gone extinct 8,000 years ago. It was a great beast taller than an elephant and just as bulky, which possessed huge claws that it was currently using to pull down branches from a nearby tree towards its mouth. As he took out his camera and frantically took pictures two more large adults shuffled out of the forest, one of which had a baby clinging onto to its back. “They wouldn’t believe me” the Cryptozoologist thought. “But just wait till they see you!”

This “Great Beast” is known scientifically as Megatherium Americanum (meaning “Great Beast from the Americas”). Megatherium is an animal that palaeontologists have known about for a very long time. The first fossils were discovered in 1787, four decades before the first dinosaurs would be found, in Argentina by a man named Manuel Torres. After their discovery these bones were shipped to the Museo Nacional de Ciencias in Madrid, Spain, where they still reside today (another reason to visit Spain!). It was from these bones that French naturalist Georges Cuvier first described and named Megatherium, noting its close relation to modern day tree sloths. After these first fossils more were discovered, including bones found by Charles Darwin from 1832-1833 during the first Beagle expedition. Even nowadays new discoveries are revealing more insights. For example a paper published in 2017 (by Bocherens et. al.) looked at preserved collagen proteins in Megatherium fossils to give insights into its diet. Some people have gone a step further and claimed that Megatherium is still alive somewhere in South America. Stories from Brazil tell of the “Mapinguari” or “sloth monster”; a shaman who was transformed by the gods into a giant sloth-like creature. Cryptozoologists (like the one in the story) think the Mapinguari is actually a late surviving species of Megatherium, however scientists (and yours truly) don’t take these stories seriously due to absence of any concrete evidence.

A mounted skeleton of Megatherium with a awe inspired human for scale!
Image Credit: Beatrice Murch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/3495336846

Megatherium belonged to a large order (or “superorder”) of mammals known as the xenarthans. Modern xenarthans include Tree Sloths, Anteaters & Armadillos, but during the Cenozoic era this group was much more diverse. From their origins in South America they ended up colonising North America, grew to a range of shapes and sizes and occupied a wide variety of habitats ranging from the treetops (e.g. modern tree sloths) to even the ocean (e.g. the swimming ground sloth Thalassocnus). Megatherium itself belonged to a sub-order of xenarthans commonly known as the “Giant Ground Sloths”. These sloths were very different from their slow moving and tree dwelling modern counterparts. They were bulky, ground living herbivores with large and sharp claws. While Megatherium itself was confined to South America other species of Giant Ground Sloths migrated across the Isthmus of Panama into Central and North America. This was during the great American interchange; a time where multiple species from South America migrated into North America (and vice-versa). As a result Giant Ground Sloths established populations in places such as Costa Rica, Texas and California.

Because multiple fossils of the “Great Beast” have been known to palaeontologists for some time we have a pretty good idea of what it would have been like. Megatherium roamed the South American pampas, mostly in Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, from the Pleistocene (roughly 400,000 years ago) to Early Holocene (roughly 8,000 years ago) periods of the Cenozoic era (a timespan commonly known as the “Ice Age”). This beast stood over 3.5 metres tall when fully upright and weighed up to 4 tonnes, making it the largest animal in South America during the Ice Age and the largest xenarthan ever. Its potbellied frame was supported by column-like hind legs that would have given it a long reach. Furthermore preserved Megatherium track-ways and its skeletal anatomy indicate that it could have walked on two legs as well as on all fours. Its front limbs were tipped with large, non-retractable claws which were used for pulling branches closer to them to eat and for digging up roots and tubers. In fact the claws were a reason that Megatherium was initially thought to have been a burrower, living like giant mole! Big claws would have undoubtedly been very effective defensive weapons with Megatherium using them, alongside its large size, to protect itself from predators, such as the large Sabre-Tooth Cat Smilodon populator. Other distinctive features include a relatively narrow snout, a prehensile upper lip (like a black rhino) and a thick shaggy coat. This coat is found on most Megatherium reconstructions and is based on the discovery of exceptionally preserved hair and hide specimens of related Giant Ground Sloths. However a study from 2002 (Fariña 2002) has speculated that Megatherium might’ve been nearly hairless! This is based on the observation that modern large mammals, such as elephants and rhinos, are mostly hairless to prevent them from overheating in hot climates (large animals produce a lot more excess heat). Megatherium may seem very different to what we would think of a typical large herbivore today. However the overall body plan of a large, bulky, bipedal herbivore with large claws has actually appeared a few times throughout earth’s history. One example is the Therizinosaur dinosaurs; a group which lived a full 65 million years earlier than Megatherium but is thought to have lived a similar lifestyle. This is an example of convergent evolution; where two completely unrelated organisms, often separated by millions of years of evolution, evolve similar body plans to live in similar ways. It’s a very fascinating phenomenon that has resulted in a lot of symmetry between modern and extinct animals (e.g. Dolphins and Ichthyosaurs).

A Megatherium looking at the horizon as two glyptodonts waddle by!
Image Credit: D. Bogdanov (DiBgd), https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pleistocene_SA.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

Such a majestic animal is another example how diverse the megafauna were during the last Ice Age. However the majority of these animals are not around anymore. Megatherium’s story is similar to other megafauna. Climate change at the end of the last Ice Age played a part, resulting in a loss of habitat and decline in population. This was combined with the arrival of modern humans into South America roughly 14,500 years ago. Some Megatherium bones bear distinct marks on them that indicate that they were cut by human tools. Furthermore other bones have been unearthed alongside human made stone tools and weapons. Tools, high intelligence and co-operation made humans a terrifying predator for a Megatherium to try and defend itself against and humans were so efficient that Megatherium numbers dwindled further. Eventually the dynasty of the Great Beast would come to a close 8,000 years ago. This unfortunate end makes one wish that the Cryptozoologists were right, and that Megatherium was somehow still living in South America to this day. If this were the case then I’m sure many more people would see what a “Great Beast” it really was.

References/Further Reading

Bocherens et. al. 2017 paper reconstructing the diet of Megatherium from analysis of collagen in the fossils

Bocherens et. al. (2017), Isotopic insight on paleodiet of extinct Pleistocene megafaunal Xenarthrans from Argentina. Gondwana Research, 2017; 48: 7 DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2017.04.003

Billet et. al. 1997 paper examining the inner ear anatomy of Megatherium and what it tells us about its body mass and agility

Billet, G et al. “The inner ear of Megatherium and the evolution of the vestibular system in sloths.” Journal of anatomy vol. 223,6 (2013): 557-67. doi:10.1111/joa.12114

Natural History Museum website article profiling Megatherium and detailing a project that was digitally scanning all the fossils Charles Darwin collected on the 1831-1836 Beagle voyage

Brewer, Pip, “What was Megatherium?”, Natural History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-was-megatherium.html

Fariña 2002 paper suggesting that the largest Giant Ground Sloths, such as Megatherium, were mostly hairless

Fariña, Richard. (2002). Megatherium, the hairless: appearance of the great Quaternary sloths (Mammalia;Xenarthra). AMEGHINIANA. 39. 241-244.

Politis et. al. 2019 paper, published in Sciences Advances, on the discovery of Megatherium remains that show evidence of Human Hunting

Politis, Gustavo & Messineo, Pablo & Stafford Jr, Thomas & Lindsey, Emily. (2019). Campo Laborde: A Late Pleistocene giant ground sloth kill and butchering site in the Pampas. Science Advances. 5. eaau4546. 10.1126/sciadv.aau4546.

Daeodon the Terminator

How the Terminator Pig is thought to have looked like!
Image Credit: Max Bellomio, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daeodon_shoshonensis_.png

Daeodon is an animal that has had a lot of rather intimidating nicknames associated with it over the years. These have ranged from the “Terminator Pig” (which makes me think of a pig wearing sunglasses and travelling through time on a mission to destroy!) to the “Hell Pig” (which suggests a giant boar rising from a fiery pit accompanied by heavy metal!). Even its name “Daeodon” translates as “Dreadful Teeth”, a name that would strike fear into the hearts of dentists everywhere. But what was Daeodon really like? And did it deserve its reputation?

Daeodon belonged to a now extinct branch of the “artiodactyls”, a mammal group that also contains pigs, horses and even whales, known as the Entelodontidae, or “Entelodonts”. In life Entelodonts would have looked superficially pig-like with a long snout, hooved feet, tall shoulder hump, short tail and a round body. The “terminator” and “hell” parts of its nicknames stem from its huge size, Daeodon was the size of a bison, and it’s grotesque looking face which possessed side flanges, bony bumps and fearsome looking teeth. However despite appearances the Entelodonts’ closest relatives are not actually pigs. A study published in 2009 by Michael Spaulding, Maureen O’Leary and John Gatesy found that, whilst studying the ancestry of the artiodactyl group, they were more closely related to the whippomorpha subgroup (which contains hippos, whales and dolphins) than modern pigs. This has changed some reconstructions of entelodonts into a more bulky animal than previously thought, more akin to a land-based hippo than an oversized pig. So maybe the famous nickname of “terminator pig” should now be “terminator hippo”, which is just as horrifying considering how aggressive and dangerous modern hippos are! Entelodonts were a very successful group of mammals. First evolving in Mongolia roughly 40 million years ago during the Eocene they diversified into multiple different species that spread into Europe and North America during the Oligocene and Miocene. Daeodon was in many ways the culmination of this line, being not only the largest entelodont but also one of the last.

The skull of Daeodon showing its strong build and differentiated teeth.
Image Credit: Matt Celeskey, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daeodon_skull.jpg

Roaming the plains of North America from 25-18 million years ago, Daeodon lived alongside a weird menagerie of life consisting of animals both familiar and unfamiliar. Alongside the ancestors of today’s horses and camels were extinct animals like the Chalicotheres, relatives of horses that walked on their knuckles like gorillas and possessed large claws that they used to pull down vegetation, and Hyaenodonts, mammalian carnivores that belonged to the now extinct Creodont group. Standing 1.8 metres tall and weighing roughly half a tonne Daeodon would have been an imposing animal in this environment. The distinctive flanges on its 3 ft. long head covered large cheek bones and were anchor points for large jaw and neck muscles, giving it a very powerful bite. Despite its fearsome appearance however, Daeodon was an omnivore. It possessed differentiated teeth just like in humans; gripping incisors at the front, large canines in the middle and crushing molars at the back. This enabled it to eat almost anything it came across including roots and tubers, fruit, leaves and meat. It would have been a very effective scavenger as a highly developed sense of smell would allow it to locate a carcass accurately from a distance, tracking the smell in a zig-zagging fashion. Furthermore its large size would have enabled it to drive off other animals from the kill. Make no mistake however, Daeodon would have dabbled with hunting live prey as well. It is thought to have been an ambush hunter, using its large size and powerful jaws to overpower and crunch through prey. But it’s not just other animals that Daeodon would have fought. Puncture marks found on the skulls of other entelodont species have shown that they fought each other, whether for mates, territory or both. So in many ways, given its large size and omnivorous lifestyle, Daeodon might have had a similar lifestyle to a modern day Grizzly Bear. Sadly this magnificent beast isn’t around today to give Grizzly Bears a contest. The last Daeodon went extinct around 18 million years ago. This coincided with the first emergence in North America of the large Bear-Dog Amphicyon (see my Amphicyon blog for more!), which had migrated from Asia. This predator, while smaller, was swifter and most importantly; more intelligent. As a result it seems to have partly out-competed Daeodon. Combining this with a climate which was becoming drier as the Miocene progressed resulted in Daeodon being driven to extinction, leaving only their fossils as remnants of a once widespread group.

Speaking of these fossils, the first Daeodon fossils were discovered in 1879 by the American fossil collector Edward Drinker Cope. Cope is a big name in the field of palaeontology, being responsible for the discovery of many extinct species such as the sauropod dinosaur Camarasaurus and the sail backed stem-mammal Dimetrodon. He is also known for his bitter rivalry with fellow American fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh. The two were locked in a race to discover and describe the most new species in a rivalry that has been termed “The Bone Wars”. When Cope examined Daeodon he determined it to be a member of the perissiodactyls, a group of mammals that contain modern day Zebras and Rhinos. It was only in 1909 when it was found that this wasn’t the case and it was actually an artiodactyl. For a long time Daeodon wasn’t the most widely known entelodont, with Dinohyus (meaning “terrible pig”) taking that title. However later it was found that Dinohyus and Daeodon, and another entelodont named Ammodon were actually one and the same animal. Because the rules of species dictate that the first name given to a species is the one that is kept Daeodon was the winner out of the three, with Dinohyus and Ammodon becoming synonyms.

A skeletal of Daeodon, showing how the bones all fit together and how big the animal was compared to a human.
Image Credit: bLAZZE92, https://blazze92.deviantart.com/art/Daeodon-shoshonensis-419367474

Entelodonts were a bizarre group of mammals, with Daeodon being the most eye-catching and iconic of them all. It dominated the North American landscape and while its size and power certainly earns it the “Terminator Pig” nickname (minus the pig part of course) that was only one side to it. As well as being a big and intimidating hunter and fighting for what it wanted, Daeodon would have eaten its greens, rolled happily in the mud and napped peacefully in the sun!

References/Further Reading

Spaulding, O’Leary and Gatesy 2009 paper on the family tree of artiodactyls, including who Entelodonts are most closely related to

Spaulding, Michelle et al. “Relationships of Cetacea (Artiodactyla) among mammals: increased taxon sampling alters interpretations of key fossils and character evolution.” PloS one vol. 4,9 e7062. 23 Sep. 2009, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007062

Joeckel 1990 paper on entelodont paleoecology and jaw function

Joeckel, R. (1990). A functional interpretation of the masticatory system and paleoecology of entelodonts. Paleobiology, 16(4), 459-482. doi:10.1017/S0094837300010198

A blog, written by Joe Sawchak and published on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History website, about a life size model of Dinohyus named “hyus”. This model was characterised by the weirdly human eyes!

Sawchak, Joe, “Dinohyus: “Terrible Pig” in more ways than one”, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, carnegiemnh.org/dinohyus-terrible-pig-in-more-ways-than-one/

An article, written by Vasika Udurawane and published on Earth Archives, about the rise of the “Terminator Pigs”

Udurawane, Vasika, “Terminator pigs: Rise of the entelodonts”, Earth Archives, 2016, eartharchives.org/articles/terminator-pigs-rise-of-the-entelodonts/

Bear + Dog = Amphicyon

Image result for amphicyon
Reconstruction of Amphicyon ingens: The largest of the Bear-Dogs
Image Credit: roman uchytel, https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A4%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BB:Amphicyon-ingens_reconstruction.jpg

16-18 million years ago, a fierce predator roamed the North American landscape. It had a long snout and a long tail like a modern day wolf, but it also had a stocky build, powerful forelimbs, plantigrade feet (i.e. it walked with its paws flat on the ground) and grew up to 2.5 metres long and 1.5 metres tall. These latter characteristics are much more like a modern bear. This was a weird mix of features. Anybody seeing this animal today, not knowing what it was, would think to themselves; “Is that a mutated bear?” “Or is it a new dog breed?”. This animal has the scientific name Amphicyon, meaning “Ambiguous dog”, however its common nickname is “Bear-Dog”. This is fitting because Amphicyon looks like an animal that would be the result of bizarre genetic cross-breeding of a Labrador and a Grizzly Bear! So the question that I will ask in this blog is, what in the world was it?

The genus Amphicyon (genus being a group of species, i.e. like the big cat group) was a very successful animal in its time, with multiple species stretching across the globe from North America to Europe to Africa. These species included Amphicyon longirams, which stalked what is now Florida, and Amphicyon Ingens; which reached a size comparable to the largest terrestrial carnivore alive today – the Polar Bear. In 2016 there was even a Chinese species discovered which was named Amphicyon zhanxiangi. Amphicyon first evolved in Europe and Asia, before migrating into North America during the mid-Miocene period 18 Million years ago. From this period they out-competed the resident mammalian carnivores such as the Hyaenodonts (large mammalian predators with shearing teeth), the Entelodonts (who have the awesome nickname of “Terminator Pigs”) and other Bear-Dogs to become the top dog (pun intended) of the Miocene landscape.

A map showing the geographical range of Amphicyon. As you can see Europe, Asia, North America and Africa all had their own Amphicyon species!
Image Credit: Noles1984, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Amphicyon_range.png

Bear-Dogs as a whole are thought to have had a variety of hunting strategies that varied between species. Amphicyon, being larger and more stocky in build, would have hunted somewhat like a bear; surprising their prey and pursuing it for a short distance before using their muscular forelimbs and large body size to pin it down before biting at the neck and body to finish it off. Being an ambush hunter it wouldn’t have regularly partaken in long chases, though it was able to pursue prey for longer than other ambush predators. Their size would have allowed them to hunt larger mammalian herbivores, which would have included early rhinos. We know this from a fossil unearthed from Portugal of the lower jaw of the extinct rhino Iberotherium. This jaw has clear puncture marks in it made by the teeth of a large carnivore. A study, conducted by Antunes, Balbino and Ginsberg in 2006, concluded that the culprit was Amphicyon giganteus as it was the only known carnivore from the same time and place large enough to inflict these type of wounds (though whether it did so when hunting or scavenging this Iberotherium is unknown). Meanwhile other species of Bear-Dogs, such as Borocyon, had longer legs and more slender bodies. This suggests that they hunted more like modern day wolves; pursuing their prey over long distances. While Amphicyons diet would have mostly consisted of meat it is thought that other Bear-Dogs might also have been omnivorous to a degree, eating plant matter and berries to supplement their diet. It is also thought that they, along with other Bear-Dogs, exhibited denning behaviour, digging out burrows in which they could raise their young and take shelter. Like all mammals they would have exhibited high levels of parental care, raising pups until they were old enough to fend for themselves. Amphicyon also exhibited sexual dimorphism, just like bears, with the males being substantially larger than the females.

A mural depicting a scene from the 16-13 million year old Mascall assemblage in Oregon, USA, showing an Amphicyon hunting a Miolabis.
Image Credit: National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/joda/learn/nature/mascall.htm

So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog, what exactly was Amphicyon? A bear or a dog? Well the answer is in fact neither. Amphicyon belonged to a family known as the Amphicyonidae, which included it and all other species of Bear-Dogs. This family belonged to an order known as the Caniformia, which also contains the dog and bear families as well as foxes and sea lions. As a result Amphicyon and its kin were actually close cousins of bears and dogs, separating from them in the evolutionary tree around 40 million years ago during the Eocene period. The Bear-Dogs evolved into a wide range of shapes and sizes, filling a variety of niches. However, despite its success, Amphicyon and its kin would sadly go extinct around 7.2 million years ago. The main cause of this was the changing environment at the end of the Miocene. The climate became dryer, which resulted in the emergence of more open plains. This meant that the slower, bulkier Amphicyon could not find the cover it needed to ambush its prey. This meant that they struggled to find enough food to support their large size. Also (rather ironically) another factor was the emergence and success of the dogs and bears. Dogs were more specialised in the endurance hunting style that is effective on open plains, and some had jaws that could crush bone, something Amphicyon couldn’t do despite its impressive appearance! (In fact one group of dogs, named the Borophaginae, are commonly referred to as the “bone-crushing dogs”!) Bears meanwhile had a more omnivorous diet than Amphicyon, giving them access to a wider range of food. Dogs and Bears were also generally smaller, so didn’t require as much food to keep them alive. In addition at about this time the first Sabre-Tooth Cats were evolving, bringing yet more competition. These three groups together took over all the niches that had previously been occupied by Amphicyon and its relatives. As a result this magnificent group of animals were squeezed out and confined to the pages of pre-history.

It’s a shame too, as a pet Amphicyon would have been not only a cute puppy but also grown to be an effective “guard dog”. It would certainly draw more than a few glances when you took it for a walk!

References/Further Reading

Antunes, Balbino & Ginsberg 2006 paper on Iberotherium jaw fossil showing bite marks made by Amphicyon

Antunes, Miguel. Telles, Balbino, Ausenda C., Ginsberg, Léonard. Ichnological evidence of a Miocene rhinoceros bitten by a bear-dog (Amphicyon giganteus), Annales de Paléontologie, Volume 92, Issue 1, 2006, Pages 31-39,

Florida Museum information page on Amphicyon longirams

Morse, Paul E. “Amphicyon longiramus” Florida Museum, Oct. 5, 2012, floridamuseum.ufl.edu/florida-vertebrate-fossils/species/amphicyon-longiramus/

Sorkin 2006 paper on Amphicyon and Ischyrocyon diet and hunting behaviour

Sorkin, Boris. (2006). Ecomorphology of the giant bear-dogs Amphicyon and Ischyrocyon. Historical Biology. 18. 10.1080/08912960600618073.

Jiangzuo et. al. 2016 paper describing the Amphicyon zhanxiangi

Qigao Jiangzuo, Chunxiao Li, Shiqi Wang & Danhui Sun (2018) Amphicyon zhanxiangi, sp. nov., a new amphicyonid (Mammalia, Carnivora) from northern China, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 38:6, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2018.1539857

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty Gigantopithecus!”

Gigantopithecus as it may have appeared in life
Image Credit: Concavenator, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gigantopithecus.png

If there is one creature that is frequently recycled in pop culture it is the giant ape. They recur over the decades because writers and directors can make them human enough that people can relate, but also fearsome enough to differentiate itself and be a scary threat. The most notorious example of this is King Kong, who first starred in a film in 1933 and has been reinvented on screen a staggering 3 times. He is one of the most famous large movie monsters of all time, tying only with Godzilla (whom Kong will battle on the silver screen in 2020). As well as seeing them in movies some people are convinced that large “ape-men” still exist in the wild. Sightings of animals such as Bigfoot and the Yeti, as well as “evidence” of hair and skin samples, have been reported for centuries. However the fossil record tells us that there were once indeed giant apes roaming the earth, as recently as 100,000 years ago!

The first fossils of this mysterious animal were discovered not during an excavation or stored in a museum, but in a market in Hong Kong. In 1935 A German palaeontologist named Ralph von Koenigswald was wandering through a Chinese market looking for weird curiosities such as “dragon bones”. Suddenly his eye was drawn to a molar tooth in one of the pharmacies. Von Koenigswald deduced that this tooth belonged to a species of primate, however this tooth was much bigger than any tooth belonging to a modern primate! Tracing the source of the tooth to a cave in Guangxi, South China, Von Koenigswald found more teeth and a jaw fragment. He named this giant ape Gigantopithecus blacki, (Greek for “Black’s giant ape”) after a colleague of his called Davidson Black. Since then surprisingly few further remains of Gigantopithecus have been found, with only a few more teeth and fragments of lower jaw collected from China, Vietnam and India. This could be due to the poor preservation potential of the areas that this animal lived in. This problem affects other prehistoric animals, and explains why we know some animals from very fragmented remains only. They have to be reconstructed based on what little we can infer from the remains, information from close relatives and more than a fair bit of educated guesswork!

A Cast of a Gigantopithecus lower jaw on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Jaws and teeth like these make up pretty much all of the known fossils of this giant ape.
Image Credit: James St. John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/32409712905

However, despite the mysteriousness surrounding this animal, palaeontologists have been able to estimate that Gigantopithecus blacki stood 3 metres tall and weighed around half a ton; meaning that it would easily tower over a person and would have been the largest and most physically powerful primate that has ever lived. This size varied between genders, with males being much larger than females (this is known as “sexual dimorphism”). Like Orangutans Gigantopithecus is thought to have sported a long red/ginger coloured coat of hair, which together with its size would have made it a distinguishable sight in the tropical forests of South East Asia. At first glance this description may sound eerily similar to the popular depiction of “The Abominable Snowman”. However before anybody gets any ideas, Gigantopithecus would not explain the myth of the Yeti! For one thing it probably was not a bipedal walker, instead walking on its knuckles like a gorilla. Also its geographical range didn’t stretch to the Himalayas, where most yeti sightings have traditionally been located. That being said, it is plausible that fossil remains of Gigantopithecus collected over the centuries by locals may have been mistaken for remains of a Yeti. Despite its large size and ferocious canines, it is thought that Gigantopithecus would have had a diet consisting of fruit, leaves, roots and even bamboo, using its large molars to crunch through the plant matter. Its size would have given it protection against the main predators that inhabited the forests it lived in, such as tigers and alligators. The similarities to Orangutans isn’t just superficial however. A study published in November 2019 (by Welker et. al.) has shown that modern Orangutans and Gigantopithecus share a close common ancestor. By extracting and studying small fragments of protein from fossils of Gigantopithecus teeth the researchers showed that the two species split from a common ancestor around 10-12 million years ago. This was at a time when the great apes were undergoing an increase in diversity, evolving into the precursors of species alive today (including the early ape-like ancestors of humans).

A size comparison between Gigantopithecus blacki (left), the smaller Gigantopithecus giganteus (right) and an adult human (centre)
Image Credit: Discott, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gigantopithecus_v_human_v1.svg

Gigantopithecus evolved around 6 million years ago and was a highly successful species in its time. However despite its longevity it would eventually succumb to extinction, the last Gigantopithecus dying out 100,000 years ago. One reason for its extinction is thought to have been the loss of its tropical forest habitat due to global cooling. With the reduction of forest went the loss of it’s mainly fruit diet. As a result Gigantopithecus could not find enough food to support its huge size. However before it disappeared Gigantopithecus did manage to come into contact with our early human ancestors, in particular the early hominid Homo erectus, who had just spread into Asia at the time. Whether these early human ancestors would have hunted Gigantopithecus is a matter of debate, however a 3 metre tall bad tempered great ape would have certainly posed a massive threat to any human ancestor brave enough to take it on!

So Gigantopithecus managed to inspire awe in our early human ancestors, as giant apes do in ourselves today. To finish I’ll leave you with one more fun fact about this ape. The character of King Louie in the 2016 live action film “The Jungle Book” is a self-confessed Gigantopithecus!

References/Further Reading

Welker et. al. 2019 paper on Gigantopithecus ancestry

Welker, F., Ramos-Madrigal, J., Kuhlwilm, M. et al. Enamel proteome shows that Gigantopithecus was an early diverging pongine. Nature 576, 262–265 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1728-8

Bocherens et. al. 2017 paper on how Gigantopithecus’ size may have contributed to its extinction

Bocherens, H., et al. (2017). “Flexibility of diet and habitat in Pleistocene South Asian mammals: Implications for the fate of the giant fossil ape Gigantopithecus.” Quaternary International 434: 148-155.

Another paper, Zhang & Harrison 2017, revisiting Gigantopithecus

Zhang, Y., Harrison, T., Gigantopithecus blacki: a giant ape from the Pleistocene of Asia revisited. American journal of physical anthropology, 162 Suppl 63, 153-177 (2017). doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23150.

Name: Elasmotherium, Codename: Siberian Unicorn

An artists impression of the Siberian Unicorn
Image Credit: DiBgd, https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Elasm062.jpg

One evening a man and his wife are looking on the internet for a present for their daughter’s birthday. Their daughters has repeatedly (and loudly) stated that the only thing in the world she wants this year is a real unicorn. The doting father looks for the perfect unicorn toy and after hours of searching he finds one advertised as a “one of a kind Siberian Unicorn!” It is very expensive, however the parents assume that it’s a top of the range item, after all nothing is too much for “their princess!” The day arrives, a large lorry pulls into the driveway. “Here’s your Unicorn” the deliveryman states. The ramp moves down, revealing a strange and unexpected sight; a very large, very furry rhino, possessing one very long horn. The parents look on in shock and confusion; this was definitely not the toy they ordered! Their daughter on the other hand has quite the opposite reaction. “I love him!!” She shouts joyfully as she cuddles the creatures’ thick woolly neck. None of her friends have anything like this.

The “unicorn” in this story is named Elasmotherium (meaning “plated beast”). First described in 1808 by Johann von Waldheim, this animal was a big herbivore measuring 5 metres long, 2 metres tall and weighing up to 4 and a half tonnes in the largest species (Elasmotherium caucasicum). Elasmotherium was related to modern day rhinos and a close cousin to the more famous woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) that it coexisted with. Like its cousin, Elasmotherium possessed a thick coat of fur to keep warm in the cold of the ice age. This fur traps a layer of heat around the body, giving a layer of effective insulation. In addition Elasmotherium had a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, similar to modern day polar animals. This fat, stored partly in the animals shoulder hump (like bison) would not only keep Elasmotherium warm but would also act as a store of energy for when food was less plentiful. The most striking feature of Elasmotherium of course is its large nasal horn, which could measure longer than a human is tall. It’s thought to have had multiple uses; clearing away snow in order for Elasmotherium to reach its main food source of grass; display against rivals; and defence against predators such as the cave lion. Despite its stocky appearance it is thought that Elasmotherium could run surprisingly fast, useful for charging anything it perceived as a threat.

A preserved molar tooth of Elasmotherium, which it used to grind up tough grasses found on the Ice Age steppe.
Image Credit: Ghedo, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elasmotherium_sibiricum_denti_superiori_destri.jpg

Elasmotherium was a widely successful species. Living for around 2 million years its range stretched across Eurasia, from the Ukraine in the west to Siberia in the east. Originally Elasmotherium was thought to have gone extinct around 100,000 years ago. However a study published in 2018, using radiocarbon dating, showed that this animal lived more recently than previously thought, with the new extinction date now being only 39,000 years ago. Around this time modern humans had just reached Europe and Siberia so it is thought that humans could well have come into contact with Elasmotherium. Furthermore it is speculated that this magnificent animal is the original inspiration for the legend of the unicorn. Russian folk tales tell of a great one horned beast, with the body of a bull and head of a horse, known as the Indrik. It is plausible that these stories would’ve spread west into Europe from travellers through word of mouth, evolving over the generations into the story of a one horned horse. There is even a very slight possibility that the Siberian Unicorn could be brought back, or at least a rhino/Elasmotherium hybrid. This is because DNA has been extracted from younger Elasmotherium fossils. Unfortunately, as the DNA is too fragmented to be used for cloning, this is still in the realm of science fiction for now. However this DNA can still give us details on its evolutionary history, showing that Elasmotherium was the last survivor of a lineage that spilt from modern rhinos 43 million years ago.

An Elasmotherium skeleton on display at Azov History, Archaeology & Palaeontology Museum. Note the lack of a horn. This is due to horns not fossilizing. However we can estimate its length from measurements of the attachment point and comparison with other rhinos.
Image Credit: Altes, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elasmotherium_skeleton,Azov_Museum(1).jpg

So Elasmotherium was a spectacular example of the large megafauna that existed at the end of the last ice age. It also proves, if you believe the speculations, that there really were unicorns. They just were bigger, bulkier and more bad tempered than you might think!

UPDATE! (20/11/2021)

New research conducted by Titov, Baigusheva & Uchytel 2021 has shown that the head of Elasmotherium looked very different to what was once thought! From examination of more complete Elasmotherium skulls they have found that section of the skull beneath where the “horn” was was hollow, and would have supported an extended nasal cavity. This delicate structure was protected by a bony structure with a backwards facing top part. This structure was covered in keratin and gave it a horn that looked (at least to me) a bit like an iron. The extended cavity within would’ve given Elasmotherium an enhanced sense of smell, and it’s suggested that it might have enabled it to increase the volume and range of the sounds it made (calls, grunts etc.). Furthermore, this horn was sexually dimorphic (being larger in males than in females, and therefore probably having display and signalling functions) and still could’ve been used to clear away snowfall to reach succulent grasses that were located using smell!

In short, Elasmotherium didn’t have an almost 2 metre long spear on its head. But an iron shaped, all in one grass detector, snow plough, megaphone and advertising board!

References/Further Reading

Kosintsev et. al. 2019 paper on the evolutionary history and extinction of Elasmotherium

Kosintsev, P., Mitchell, K.J., Devièse, T. et al. Evolution and extinction of the giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricum sheds light on late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 31–38 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0722-0

A Natural History Museum article, written by Josh Davis, on new dating of Elasmotherium, that showed that it may have lived alongside Modern Humans

Davis, Josh, “The Siberian unicorn lived at the same time as modern humans”, Natural History Museum, Nov. 26, 2018, nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2018/november/the-siberian-unicorn-lived-at-the-same-time-as-modern-humans.html

A ThoughtCo article, written by Bob Strauss, giving information on Elasmotherium’s lifestyle, evolutionary history and links to the mythical unicorn.

Strauss, Bob. “Elasmotherium.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/elasmotherium-plated-beast-1093199.