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.

Paleo Safaris: Ice Age Australia

Queensland, Australia, 50,000 years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References/Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An article written by Alice Klein for New Scientist on Thylacoleo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prehistoric Wildlife’s factfile on Genyornis

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

The Woolly Mammoth: The great wonder of the Ice Age

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

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

[See’s that it’s the Woolly Mammoth].

“…..oh boy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References/Further Reading

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

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/

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/

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.

Smilodon: The Sabre-Tooth (not a) Tiger

Smilodon looking over his kingdom
Image Credit: Charles R Knight, http://www.charlesrknight.com/dinosaur-artist-charles-r-knight/Knight%20article.pdf

Right, I’m going to start off by clearing up a common misconception. Despite often being called it in popular media Smilodon was NOT a Sabre-Toothed Tiger, or related to tigers at all! It was a Sabre-Tooth Cat (or Machairodontinae if you want to get technical). Also, the term “Sabre-Tooth Cat” refers to the family that Smilodon is a part of rather than just Smilodon itself. Other examples of Sabre-Tooth Cats include; Dinofelis, which lived across Africa, Eurasia and North America during the Pliocene to the Early Pleistocene (5.5-1.5 million years ago) and has a reputation for being a hunter of Australopithecus and other early human ancestors (which it may or may not have done). Another example is Homotherium, a smaller Sabre-Tooth Cat species which lived around the same place and time as Smilodon.

With that out of the way, let’s find out more about this large and rather striking extinct kitty.

To start with, the first piece of anatomy that everyone notices when looking at Smilodon is its large sabres (which could measure up to 28cm long – almost as long as a school ruler!). Contrary to popular belief Sabre-Tooth Cats like Smilodon were not the first animals to evolve sabre teeth. That title instead goes to animals like the Gorgonopsids, a group of “mammal-like reptiles” that lived in the Late Permian period around 265-250 million years ago. They, and other “mammal-like reptiles” are a fascinating group of animals in their own right which I’m sure I’ll tackle in a later blog. While the sabres in Smilodon look very formidable they were actually surprisingly fragile, and could break easily if used for usual ripping and slashing attacks. Smilodon also had a relatively weak bite, and needed to open its mouth very wide in order to extend the sabres out fully. As a result it is thought that the sabres were used for careful, quick surgical bites to the prey’s neck in order to puncture the neck and ensure a quick end without too much struggle. The iconic positioning of these sabre-teeth is that they’re exposed on the outside. While this continues to be scientific consensus there have been suggestions that Smilodon and other sabre-tooth cats may have had fleshy lips covering them instead.

A reconstructed skeleton of Smilodon fatalis from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas, USA. As you see the sabre-teeth are certainly eye-catching!
Image Credit: James St John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/15420386216

There are other parts of Smilodons anatomy that also set it apart from modern day big cats. It was larger and more heavily built than a modern lion or tiger, measuring up to 1.5 metres long, a metre high and weighing up to 400 kilograms. Smilodon also possessed thick front leg bones with big muscle attachments. This suggests that Smilodon would not have been a pursuit hunter, but instead an ambush predator, stalking its prey, getting close and then leaping out and pinning them down using their powerful front legs, before then employing the sabres. In terms of behaviour it was a matter of debate as to whether Smilodon lived in prides (like lions) or were solitary like tigers, with reconstructions, paleoart and documentaries switching between the two. However some fossil Smilodon show previous serious injury and not only managed to recover but live to an old age. Also a joint study in 2008 by the Zoological Society of London and the University of California, assessed the large number of Smilodon remains found at Rancho La Brea Tar Pits who had turned up at the tar pits in response to prey distress calls. They compared these with the numbers of modern African predators that turned up to similar distress calls at similar traps. The results showed that the number of Smilodon found compared well to the numbers of pack hunting animals, such as lions and hyenas. Both of these observations indicate that these sabre-toothed cats lived in packs. (On a side note; Rancho La Brea is in my top 5 places to visit in the world!)

Smilodon fossils have been found across the Americas, having first evolved in North America before migrating to South America via the newly formed Isthmus of Panama land bridge. The first fossils, being of the South American species Smilodon populator, were discovered by Lund in Brazil in 1840. Further species discovered, all mostly based in North America, include; Smilodon fatalis (discovered by Leidy in 1869) and Smilodon gracilis (discovered in 1880 by the legendary Edward Drinker Cope of dinosaur fossil fame). Of these species Smilodon populator was both the youngest, evolving only 1 million years ago, and the largest.

A size comparison between 3 different Smilodon species and an average human. Smilodon populator of South America was the largest, followed by the North American Smilodon fatalis and Smilodon gracilis.
Image Credit: Aledgn, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiki_Smilodon_Size.png

Such a beautiful cat would be a sight to witness across the American plains. Sadly, like the rest of the megafauna that lived alongside them, they died out during the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. A few reasons have been suggested for this; competition with humans for prey being one of them. However it is likely that a changing climate, resulting in habitat reduction, and the loss of the large megafauna that Smilodon preyed on (which could have partly been a result of human hunting) were the main reasons. With large prey gone and with Smilodon not having the endurance to hunt the smaller, swifter mammal herbivores that remained, their numbers dwindled.

Still, Smilodon has gone down in history as one of the most striking extinct animals yet described. Its sabres have repeatedly captured the imagination of generations of people in museums and in popular media. Personally I’m sure of two things about Smilodon:

1. If I had to pick a fossil skull to own, it would be one of these sabre tooth cats, and

2. If one of them could speak it would have the voice of Denis Leary!

EDIT: A small addition to this blog. As well as being found in the USA Smilodon fatalis has also recently been discovered to live as far north as Canada, with the paper describing the new Canadian fossils (Reynolds, Seymour & Evans 2019) only published in January 2019.

References/Further Reading

Carbone et. al. 2008 paper on pack hunting behaviour in Smilodon

Carbone, Chris, Maddox, Tom, Funston, Paul J, et. al., (2008), Parallels between playbacks and Pleistocene tar seeps suggest sociality in an extinct sabretooth cat, Smilodon, Biol. Lett.5, 81–85, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2008.0526

An interesting blog by Mark Witton, published on his blog site, on exposed teeth in Paleontological reconstructions. Smilodon is one of the animals he talks about.

Witton, Mark, “Exposed teeth in dinosaurs, sabre-tooths and everything else: thoughts for artists”, markwitton.com/blog, Oct. 9, 2016, markwitton-com.blogspot.com/2016/10/exposed-teeth-in-dinosaurs-sabre-tooths.html

Christiansen & Harris 2005 paper, published in Journal of Morphology, on body size estimates of three Smilodon species

Christiansen, P. and Harris, J.M. (2005), Body size of Smilodon (Mammalia: Felidae). J. Morphol., 266: 369-384. doi:10.1002/jmor.10384

Reynolds, Seymour & Evans paper on the Canadian Smilodon fatalis fossils (For the EDIT).

Reynolds, A. R., et al. (2019). “Late Pleistocene records of felids from Medicine Hat, Alberta, including the first Canadian record of the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis.” Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 56(10): 1052-1060.