Archive | May 2014

The one with the sabretooth

TwilightBeasts

Smilodon opening wide. The cat could open its jaws to 120º (Painting by Tabitha Paterson) Smilodon opening wide. The cat could open its jaws to an incredible 120º (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Smilodon is the genus of extinct sabretooth that everyone knows. Stocky, hugely muscled, with canines that protrude far below the jaw, it is the archetypal Pleistocene predator. It was a member of the machairodontinae, an extinct subfamily of the Felidae (all modern cats are members of the subfamily felinae), which split from the ancestors of our furry house-pets way back in the Miocene. Interestingly enough, it was almost as different from Homotherium as it was from lions, tigers, and kin. The scimitar-cat split very early on from Smilodon and its relatives. In fact, there are three species of Smilodon known to science. The earliest, Smilodon gracilis, lived in North America during the late Pliocene to middle Pleistocene, and was probably a direct ancestor of the two later species, Smilodon fatalis (found…

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Mr Darwin’s lost sloth

TwilightBeasts

Mylodon A delightfully grouchy looking ground sloth, Mylodon darwinii. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Ground sloths are weird. The two-toed and three-toed varieties of memetic fame that we are left with only hint at the absurdity of different genera such as Eremotherium, Megalonyx, and Nothrotheriops: bear-sized to elephant-sized behemoths, covered in shaggy fur, and sporting enormous curved claws.

The great diversity of Pleistocene sloths shuffled around (yes, they walked on the outside of their pedes, as if club-footed), a wide variety of habitats from frigid Alaska to tropical Florida to bleak Patagonia, and even the Caribbean islands. The species Mylodon darwinii was probably about the size of a giant panda and lived along the western coast of South America, even down into Patagonia. You may have spotted something familiar about the latin name of the species. This sloth was named after a certain Mr Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s Beagle voyage…

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Clan of the cave hyena

TwilightBeasts

A family of hyenas. A family of hyenas resting in the grass somewhere in Europe. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Their deathly hypnotic stare sends shivers down the spine. The long, strong neck gives these amazing creatures additional cause to be feared. Hyenas are infamous for their ferocious ways of hunting in packs (known as cackles, or clans), scavenging carcases and loudly, excitedly, yelping as they rip their food to pieces.

There are four living species of hyenas; the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) and the lesser know little aardwolf (Proteles cristatus). The striped hyena is the only species, in present time, to live outside of Africa; as well as north and east Africa, it also lives in the Middle East and Asia. In the Earth’s recent past, another species of hyena was running around Europe; cackling across the plains.

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