Monday, June 27, 2011

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.

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