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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

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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

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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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An elk that wasn’t an elk

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A herd of the giant Megaloceros giganteus. Standing proud: A herd of the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus during the closing years of the Pleistocene. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

To see an Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) in all its glory, visit the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin. Here, skeletons of this magnificent beast are articulated, proudly towering higher than the visitors. What really stands out are the incredibly enormous antlers, spanning 3.6 metres across! Standing face to face with a skeleton of Megaloceros you can imagine the awe-inspiring beast, roaming in herds across Europe around 13,000 years ago, at the very twilight of the Pleistocene.

Known as ‘the Irish Elk’, Megaloceros was neither exclusively Irish, nor an elk. This giant was the largest deer to have ever existed; it’s closest relative, the Fallow Deer (Dama dama), was half the size! There were elks in Ireland, many of which are found in ancient bogs around 13,000 years…

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The forgotten sabertooth

TwilightBeasts

Homotherium latidens. A powerful, confident and rather thoughtful European Scimitar Cat (Homotherium latidens) roaming the Middle Pleistocene. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

If the Pleistocene megafauna held a popularity contest then I’m certain that some species would pop up more than others. The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the giant ground sloth (Megatherium americanum) and sabretooth cat (Smilodon fatalis) are probably the gold, silver, and bronze of extinct mammals. Diego from the Ice Age films, the striped menace in 10,000BC, and (perhaps showing my age) the sabretooth in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger are all clearly typical of Smilodon sp. The long thin canines protrude well below the lower jaw, and the robust bear like bodyform that this genus is known for are obvious in all three cinematic depictions.

The reason that Smilodon fatalis has embedded deep into the collective unconscious can be put down to…

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Clovis hunting an African elephant

Clovis_Rummells_Maske

Clovis points, some showing signs of damage and retouching, by  Billwhittaker at en.wikipedia

One of the advantages of having entered academia after the internet revolution is that the majority of my library is virtual. My laptop PDF paper collection is currently at 6,288 items (and there are another 1,000 or so waiting to be sorted in my download folder). I generally download anything that interests me on a theme of ancient DNA, felids, Pleistocene mammals, extinction, archaeology etc. and everything is renamed by first author surname to be easily searchable.

I was flicking through some of the papers the other day when I came across an article by George C. Frison from American Antiquity titled “Experimental Use of Clovis Weaponry and Tools on African Elephants” vol.54 p.766

It is like no paper I’ve ever seen before and a riveting read.

In it the author recounts his use of replica Clovis points during collaboration with Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe to cull African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana). The elephants are deemed a suitable substitute for the woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) and mastodon (Mammut americium) of the Nearctic late Pleistocene, known to the Clovis culture. Frison seems to have been slightly obsessed with the notion of “true hunters”, hunters who would only select mature, healthy individuals to kill. To me this seems a slightly romantic notion and I am sure that palaeoindians, cro-magnons, and other modern human groups that encountered and hunted mammoth in difficult conditions would not have taken so noble a path.

Frison created replica socketed thrusting spears and throwing spears (using an atlatl). He started with 7 Clovis points. One was accidentally broken before any use. One shattered on impact with an elephant rib on its first use. Five others survived the experiments (and one of those five broke on the last day of use). Quite an incredible attrition rate for serious chunks of stone. Almost all the tips broke off and the points had to be reshaped.

In the paper Frison recounts using his Clovis points on elephants that had been “mortally wounded or killed” during culling operations. He used his atlatl to hit elephants from a distance of 15m, 17m, 20m. He achieved penetration of the stomach, the lung, and various muscled parts, easily penetrating the thick skin and producing woulds that would have been lethal in living animals. He also brought large biface-reduction flakes for experiments in skinning the animals. Apparently one of these Clovis tools was lost while the group was chasing a herd of elephants. Frison mischievously comments “This may someday come as more than a small surprise to someone, because there are no known artefacts of this nature in this part of Africa”.

Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record

Bagged_thylacine

I’ve been a big fan of Errol Fuller’s thoughtful prose for about 13 years. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree I had my imagination fired by reading some papers on ancient DNA, which sent me into a flurry of research, trying to find out everything I could about the rare and the recently extinct. In the early 2000s this meant reading about Higuchi’s work on the Quagga (Equus quagga), Pääbo’s work on the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), and Cooper’s work on New Zealand moa (Dinornithiformes). This was a pivotal point in my life. So much so that I eventually directly emailed Alan Cooper during my final year, to ask about postgraduate opportunities in his Oxford lab. I was lucky enough to be taken on for a BBSRC D.Phil position there and that was the beginning of my professional introduction to the world of ancient biomolecules. Anyway, what blew my mind back then was the sheer scale of recent extinction events. Despite having been interested in science and biology for my whole life, I had never heard of the great auk (Alca impennis), the solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius), Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas),  Delalande’s coua, (Coua delalandei) the Huia (Heterolochas acutirostris), and all those other amazing animals that we just missed out on seeing. I researched these species for a course essay but found instead that I  was so consumed by the need to find out about them that I spent most of the year researching every obscure and little-known extinct species I could find, on the internet and in the University’s library holdings. I also spent a lot of time at the Royal Museum of Scotland at their excellent exhibit on extinction. One day while in the museum shop I spotted a copy of Fuller’s “The Great Auk” and despite my meagre student budget, and its hefty price, I had to buy it. If there has ever been a more thorough account of the life, habits, and relics of a single extinct species then I don’t know of it. Pure scholarship and a delight to read. Every facet of this extinct bird was explored and new information was there on each page. After that I knew I had to read more and Fuller’s “Extinct Birds” was the one thing I asked for for Christmas that year. The two books have been read and re-read many, many times and are just a joy to leaf through. When I heard (on Twitter) that there was a new book coming soon on extinction and the photographic record I knew I had to get that as well. And I wasn’t disappointed. “Lost Animals” is a bittersweet delight. I’ve read some of the criticisms of the book online, saying that it is dumbed down, but I think that misses the point. The text is entirely secondary to the power of the images contained within.  The Thylacine was persecuted to extinction by bounty and hunter, yet now with the passage of time the few feet of film and handful of photographs speak powerfully of the human weakness of only caring enough when it is too late. The focus of the writing is properly on the people who came to capture these fleeting glimpses of living animals. Often they knew they were glimpsing something that would never happen again. Sometimes the importance of the pictures they had stuffed in a shoebox in the attic only became clear decades later. I loved this book and read it in a single sitting. I don’t think I will revisit the text as often as I do with “The Great Auk” or “Extinct Birds” but the pictures- from the delicate, silvered plates to the exuberant kodachrome prints will be a part of my mind palace for evermore.

Sabertooth

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I recently read “Sabertooth” by Mauricio Anton. Obviously given my interests, this was one book I had to treat myself to. Anton and Turner’s “Big cats and their fossil relatives” was the first “technical” text I bought at the start of my D.Phil and has a special place in my heart (and bookshelf). That well thumbed volume was an invaluable help to getting a handle on the often confusing and complicated history of felid taxonomy and fossil description. I always get the feeling that the Felidae must be the most abstruse taxonomic family, outside the Hominidae, beset by lumpers and splitters all over the place. A favourite example comes from the history of two cat-like genera. Nimravides and Eofelis. It used to be thought that the family of carnivores now known as the Nimravidae were part of the Felidae. This lasted well into the twentieth century until a detailed examination of skulls (in particular the auditory bulla) showed that there was a great degree of separation between the two families. Unfortunately, this splitting led to species being moved from one family to another despite being named under the assumption that nimravids were cats and cats were nimravids. The genus Eofelis (literally “dawn cat”) moved to the nimravid side. The genus Nimravides moved to the felid side. Ugh!

Anyway, the new book is a beauty. Mauricio has, I think wisely, broadened the scope from just the more familiar machairodont sabertooths (e.g. Smilodon, Homotherium) to include also the marsupial sabertooths and creodont sabertooths, on top of the sabre-toothed nimravids and barbourofelids. This meant that personally, I found a lot more new information on mammal groups I was generally unfamiliar with. The writing is lucid and clear throughout, without being overly technical where it is not needed. In a book like this it can be very difficult to pitch the right tone- appealing to specialists and laypeople alike. I think Mauricio managed to get it almost right in this book. 

The main draw for many will be the unparalleled beauty of Mauricio’s art. Almost nobody can match him for the lithe grace and exoticism of his paleontological reconstructions of extinct felids. That Mauricio has spent countless hours observing wild felids in their natural environment and hours more dissecting every muscle and tendon shows in his work, produced with the eye of a field naturalist and a palaeontologist combined in one. A minor niggle is that some of the artwork has been recycled from “Big cats and their fossil relatives” but given the overlap between the two books and the obvious effort that must have gone into the paintings and drawings this can be more than forgiven.

I have been lucky enough to have had a small amount of professional interaction with Mauricio. He was extremely generous in allowing us to use his wonderful images of Smilodon fatalis and Miracinonyx trumani in our paper on their evolution. For that I am hugely appreciative.

(In the name of love)

Walking to work this morning, there appears to be a large excavation going on underneath the Bill Bryson library. The gossip is that someone during the initial construction phase of the extension, accidentally inserted a section of sewage pipe the wrong way around which has led to backups and flooding problems. Sounds urban legend-ish to me but you never know.

Anyway, there is a large sign around the enclosed area reading “T.A.K.E.P.R.I.D.E.”

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This acrostic is meant to encourage site safety.

However, my eye was drawn to this section. 

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Everyone, it seems, except grammarians.

 

Miracinonyx trumani. Reblog from abandoned project

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Picture of a puma skull from Wikimedia Commons
First off, is one of the less well known felines of the Pleistocene.

The American cheetah (genus Miracinonyx) is one of the most interesting cats that people have never heard of.  Only really identified in the 1970s, before then, remains of this genus had been classified as Puma concolor (puma, cougar, mountain lion) and it was only with the recovery of nearly complete specimens from Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming that palaeontologists realised this cat was something  really different. The late Pleistocene species (Miracinonyx trumani) had the proportions of a running cat- like the African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), very long legs, flexible back, enlarged nasal openings for efficient airflow.  Since the discovery, many have argued as to whether M.trumani was actually more closely related to the cheetah or the puma (which, despite not looking very similar are quite closely related). Should the American cheetah be Acinonyx trumani or Puma trumani? Or could it retain its unique generic status?

Not just a question of taxonomic squabbling, the answer informs our understanding of species movement between the old world and the new world, and about the way in which evolution, when presented with similar situations, produces similar outcomes.
As part of my PhD I was involved with a project looking at the genetics of extinct American felines. We managed to extract some from the Natural Trap Cave material.
Ancient DNA from Miracinonyx clearly showed that it was a sister species to the puma.  An authentic American species that had developed a bodyplan paralleling the cheetah in response to the pressures of living in an open grassland.  The American cheetah lived on the wide open prairie plains of the new world, a pleistocene biome that would have looked very similar to the African  Serengeti of today, where cheetah thrive.
The pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) may actually be an evolutionary ghost, shaped by an arms race with Miracinonyx. Pronghorn are incredibly fast- >50mph over reasonable distances- much faster than the wolves, coyotes, puma, or bear that hunt alongside them.  Its possible that this speed evolved in response to Miracinonyx and now that the American cheetah is gone, the pronghorn lives on, hopelessly outclassing the predators that survive today.
The African cheetah, Acinonyx, means “without”(a-), “moving”(kino), and “claw”(onyx) in reference to the apparent non-retractile claws in the cheetah (which are alleged to help provide traction when running).Miracinonyx therefore means “unexpected cheetah” from “unexpected”(mira-) and Acinonyx.
Refs:
Barnett, R., Yamaguchi, N., Barnes, I. & Cooper, A. 2006. The origin, current diversity and future conservation of the modern lion Panthera leoProceedings of the Royal Society B 273, 2119-2125.
Adams, D. B. 1979. The cheetah: native American. Science 205, 1155-1158
Martin, L. D., Gilbert, B. M., Adams, D. B. 1977. A cheetah like cat in the North American Pleistocene. Science 195, 981-982
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