Thursday, June 30, 2011

Prehistoric Mammal Week: Brontotherium.

Rhinos already look like something out of the past. They have tough skin. They're massive. They look just plain intimidating with those horns. They are built like tanks. Go figure there were a lot of rhinos and rhino-like creatures before mankind took over the world.


Brontotheres were not rhinos (Yes, the ancient rhinoceroses are pretty cool, too, but this isn't about them.) They were rhinoceros-like relatives of the horse that have a very well-preserved fossil record in North America. Like guinea pigs (O.o;?!) they had four toes on the front legs and three on the back.

The title beast, Brontotherium, was one such genus of rhino-ish creatures. They stood 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) tall at the shoulder and lived until the end of the Eocene. They preferred soft leaves and stems to tough vegetation. This restrictive diet and general inability to adapt to a changing climate ultimately led to their extinction.

Rhinos and not-rhinos had cooler headgear back in the Eocene. Many of the brontotheres and extinct rhinoceroses had horns that would look great on boss monsters. Brontotherium itself had a horny growth resembling a slingshot. The horns of brontotheres also had bone in there, whereas modern rhinoceroses only have keratin (fingernail material) in their horns. Since the horns of males are much larger than those of females, it is likely that they were used to attract mates or butt heads a la rams.

Many Brontotherium fossils have been found in South Dakota and Nebraska - where, again, there is very little else. When storms washed up these fossils, the Sioux Indians thought that they belonged to massive horses that produced thunder by running over the clouds. The brontotheres found thus had actually been killed by the eruptions of the (volcanically active) Rocky Mountains. Damn humans, only coming around when all the cool stuff was done!

Speaking of...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prehistoric Mammal Week: Hyracotherium.


The creature above is likely the ultimate Uncanny Valley beast. Its name is Hyracotherium, it lived in Asia, Europe, and North America, and it was about the size of a fox. It lived during the early Eocene (52 mya) - a time when, for reference, we had a relative named "Necrolemur." Hyracotherium looks like a creature that we all should know, but do not. We've seen this animal before, but where? Goddammit, it's on the tip of my tongue...

You have got to be kidding me.That little guy? A horse? He's got to be smaller than the smallest horse in Guinness.

Actually, Einstein is only slightly bigger. Nice going, evolution.

Technically, Hyracotherium is no longer a horse. It's a palaeothere- a type of ancient mammal that shows the starting traits of being a perissodactyl (odd-toed ungulate). There is still some debate over exactly where it belongs, but it did give rise to horses, regardless of whether it can legally be considered an equine or not. The old name for it was Eohippus - "dawn horse."

Hyracotherium is the oldest known ancestor of the modern equines, including horses, asses, and zebras. It started as a small creature with the five digits common to tetrapods. As time went on,  these little fellows became faster and faster, as well as bigger and bigger from eating new plants.The horse family lost toes until only the center digit remained and became encased in a sturdy hoof. They also evolved to love sugar cubes (irony!).

Some scientists also propose that Hyracotherium founded other perissodactyl lines, such as rhinoceroses and tapirs. Those are pretty neat, too; tomorrow will feature a look at brontotheres, creatures that look like rhinos but may have been more closely related to horses. If only Nintendo had some creativity left; Hyracotherium would be a great fossil Pokemon to make a three-way evo out of.

"They Actually Eat That:" Horse.

They get stranger every rerelease...

Apparently there's a new My Little Pony movie (series?) out that has driven some people up the walls. What they fail to understand is that every little girl goes through a 'pony' or 'horsey' phase, so Hasbro marketing the girly counterpart to Transformers to the latest generation was inevitable. The horse has also been very useful to mankind throughout history, so there is certainly nothing wrong with having an interest in horses.

Oh, and horses are also food.

They Actually Eat That?!

In every country in the world except the United States, horses can be consumed as food. Many cultures have it as a meat in the 'gray area,' meaning that it's not illegal, but not necessarily good, either. China, Mexico, Russia, Italy, and Kazakhstan are the five biggest consumers of horse meat in the world and have absolutely no qualms about eating Seabiscuit. That horse head in Godfather would not have been hard to come by at all.

And why not eat horse? The meat is far leaner than beef and much better for oneself. Horses do not produce as much meat as cattle, but what they do make is high in protein and lean in fat. Horse parts can also be used in gelatin, so if you like Jell-O, sorry. One has to do something with a dead horse besides beat it.

Although beating it WOULD tenderize the meat...

Many cultures either place horse meat on its own altar for ritual slaughter or as low as dog food. Deities such as the Roman goddess Epona received sacrifices of horse meat, and the Nordic peoples sacrificed horses regularly. These both went out of fashion after Christianity took hold, leaving "well, what else would you do with a dead horse?" as the main excuse to eat horse meat.

Until recently, it was legal to at least sell horse meat in the United States. The last horse meat plant in the U.S. closed in 2007, resulting in several wild horses being set free in Illinois (thanks). The banning of horse meat after '07 has created a squeezed sausage effect in North America; Quebec farmers eat horse meat, and Mexico is the second largest producer of horse meat in the world. Give us yet another reason to go south of the border, why don'cha?

So, if you are one of the many that hate My Little Pony now, head down to Mexico and grab yourself some horse meat. It's legal there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Prehistoric Mammal Week: Marsupial Lion.

Ah, Australia. Home of kangaroos, animal fanatics, that weird stuff called vegemite, boomerangs, and deadly spiders. Everything there, even the invasive rabbits, has evolved to tear humanity a new one. Kangaroos can drown dogs and cuddly wombats can smash one's head with their rear ends. HOW could this place get any more hardcore?


Actually, that's not a lion. It's a Thylacoleo carnifex, a giant carnivorous marsupial that dominated the Australian food chain for a very long time. T. carnifex was about the same size as a small lion and could climb trees like a leopard. There is a high chance that it saved some of its kangaroo meat up there for later like a leopard, too. It lived during the Pleistocene, i.e. the era of huge mammals.

For those of you wondering how we know this was a marsupial and not a big cat, dentition is still the main way of determining mammalian evolution. Marsupials have a distinctive dental formation regardless of what they eat. The teeth on T. carnifex were not like those of a modern felid.


Thylacoleo definitely had a nice set of teeth. Hooooooo boy did it have teeth. The marsupial lion had the strongest known bite of any mammal. It weighed half the weight of an African lion but had just as powerful a bite, making those jaws the strongest of any mammal, living or extinct. It is considered the most specialized mammalian predator in existence, sporting more than just the cool teeth.

Like most modern cats, Thylacoleo also had retractable claws - a unique feature among marsupials. It also had semi-opposable thumbs to help it grasp and capture its food. Special bones in its cervix allowed it to 'tripod,' i.e. stand on its hind legs to slash and grab its prey better. That's not a cat - that's almost a furry.

Actually, yeah, kinda like that. 

What happened to these badass psuedo-cats? In a word, man. Men not only hunt giant beasts for fun and profit, but they deprive other giant beasts of their food sources in doing so. There will be a recurring theme of "when humans come around, the megafauna dies" this week. A shame this guy had to go; the way things were going, we could have had marsupial Na'vi. At least they were immortalized in Aboriginal cave drawings.


Marsupials used to be more than just kangaroos and koalas. A lot of them were more like the Tasmanian Devil, the only extant carnivorous marsupial. Most of them were considerably larger than their modern counterparts. Even though the Marsupial Lion was not a real lion, get in the car. Or at least get a spear.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Prehistoric Mammal Week: Palaeocastor.

Rodents are very successful animals. After the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, they evolved to spawn like crazy and chew through anything that their giant incisors possibly could. They are currently the most diverse group of mammal if not the most populous. Overall, they are solid survivors.

They also evolved to scare the f*ck out of modern man. No, we are not talking about the mice that make 50's housewives jump up on chairs. We are talking about giant rats that grew as large as bears, making the current largest rodent, the capybara, look like a kitten. We are talking about gophers with horns that would make any exterminator scream in terror.

We are also talking about rodents that made structures like this:


That is called a "Devil's Corkscrew." These, umm, screwy formations can go up to three meters down into the soil. They appeared around areas that either currently had water or were known to be near lakes in the past. Such areas include Nebraska and North Dakota, places where there is nothing today.

For the longest time, nobody knew what the hell the Devil's Corkscrew was. Some suggested it was a type of freshwater sponge; others said it was ancient vegetation. It was not until a giant rodent's skeleton was found in one of the curls that people figured out what this silly straw of a geological formation was: A burrow.

Now, if I told you all to name a type of rodent found near water, what would you say?

If you said a beaver, congrats: the nutria have not invaded your area yet. The Devil's Corkscrews were indeed made by Palaeocastor (lit. 'ancient beaver'). There were several species of Palaeocastor with varying sizes. These beavers lived during the Oligocene Period in the North American Badlands (told you those places sucked). Castroides, a beaver the size of a bear, evolved later.

Leave it to beaver to terrify us all.

Devil's Corkscrews were made by Palaeocastor eating its way through the earth as opposed to digging. As with modern beavers, fossil evidence says that these ancient beavers had large families. Picture that for a minute: A family of rodents with teeth strong enough to chew through the earth. There is a modern rodent that does that, too:

You'll be seeing it in your nightmares. We think the ancient beavers at least had fur. 

What reduced the beaver family from several species to only two extant members? Probably competition. Although beavers were always around water, Palaeocastor were more terrestrial. There was less competition for marine rodents, so the result was the webbed-footed, paddle-tailed animal found all over Canada, the northern U.S., and Europe.

Oh, and Bibarel.

So the burrows and giant beavers are pretty strange, but how about something bigger? Check back tomorrow.

Prehistoric Mammal Week ho!

Okay. I'm still a zombie from twelve plus hours total on a plane, so I really, really hope this entry makes sense. It feels like I owe you all something after being gone for six weeks in Europe (and Turkey, a country that cannot decide whether it is Europe or not). The good news is that I was still clicking around Wikipedia and looking at whatever happened to be around me for inspiration for this blog. Expect more European fauna than before.

That said, let's talk about this week's theme: Prehistoric mammals.

It does not matter that these things are all mammals. You would still run screaming from them just like you would a dinosaur.

When most people think "prehistoric," they think "dinosaurs." That is a false perception. The Mesozoic era (Triassic-Cretaceous Periods) was sandwiched between the Permian and Cenozoic eras, both of which sported mammals or mammal-like creatures as the dominant vertebrates. Dinosaurs occupy a relatively small space of time compared to true reptiles, things that are between reptiles and mammals, and mammals. That chunk of fauna is small in the grand scheme of things. Interesting and popular, but small.

Prehistoric mammals are almost a niche interest. It's harder to find books on mammalian evolution than it is on reptilian evolution by a long shot. It feels like many people are willing to go 'dinosaurs died, now the world is ruled by mammals' while ignoring the necessary transitional steps between those two periods.

This is not to say that ancient mammals are completely untouched in popular culture. The Ice Age series has granted them some fine publicity, but pop culture misleads us about the mammals that once were. For example, in 'dino tubes' (tubes containing little tiny plastic animals), one will frequently see mammoths and saber-toothed tigers alongside Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops/Torosaurus. Giant dinosaurs and giant mammals never (or, for those of you supporting the 'dragons are dinosaurs that lived' theory, rarely) met. Emphasis on 'giant' - the dinosaurs did regularly interact with mammals, but they were very small.

Dear movie producers: The dinosaurs were BEFORE the Ice Age. Talk about misinformation.

So, if the dinosaurs didn't kill ancient megafauna and other extinct mammals, what did? Various things. Some were simply Darwinized out of the system by other mammals. Others were driven to extinction by Neanderthals or what other primitive humanoids have you (why do I say that? find out this week). Some would say that those two are the same thing. In short, Darwin did it, and those strange mammals are now nothing but bones.

This week will show you some of the amazing mammals lost to Darwin over that sandwich time between the dinosaurs and the present. What did they probably look like? How did they live? What killed them? Seven entries, seven mammals that should really get their own movies if they have not already. Look forward to it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Belated Creature Feature: Gompthotherium.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. Not enough people wanted to do theme weeks while I was gone in Rome, then Turkey. To make up for it, I will be doing a whole month's worth of theme weeks, starting with Prehistoric Mammal Week on Monday (jet lag not withstanding).

What? Mammals can totally be cool. Prehistoric mammals in particular tend to be shunted to the side in favor of dinosaurs, but they really are just as intimidating as good ol' thunderlizards. This one, for instance, would cause even the most vicious Tyrannosaurus to think twice:

Circus fans, say a big hello to Gomphotherium, an ancient relative of the modern elephant. He's 3 meters tall at the shoulder, sports four tusks, and can skewer a human like a piece of meat on a kebab. We do not know if he likes peanuts or not, but we are not particularly keen on finding out.

In all seriousness, Gomphotherium was an herbivore. Like the tapir, it had a short trunk and fewer molars than other elephants. Its lower tusks were probably used as a shovel to scoop up vegetation from swamps and lakes. It died out in the Pliocene.

Gompotherium has been found in many places, including Kenya, Tennessee, France, Kansas, and Pakistan. Who knew that Kansas had something badass?

Hot chicks, however, are only seen drunk on Kansas college campuses,