The fanged beast

The light from the full moon shines down, glimmering off the soft, brown, velvety fur. It’s rare for this creature to venture above ground. It moves clumsily in search of new food, but pauses. It sensed something. And from the shadows something came at terrifying speed. The creature slashed its giant claws at the predator as it attacked, missing feebly. Despite being more than three times its size, it was no match for the ferocious beast. The creature stepped back clumsily, scraping up dry dirt which hung in the air, glistening in the light of the moon like star dust. Sharp fanged teeth snapped violently at the creature. It’s claws slashed again, but it was no match for the speed for the predator. Retreating awkwardly, the creature felt a sharp pain: the fangs had driven deep inside the muscular arm, so deep they hit bone. The creature limped slowly backwards. The night became darker. The creature flopped down on its stomach. For an animal so used to spending its days living in darkness, it had never seen such pure blackness. The predator inched forward and began its feast.

This was a titanic battle. On a miniature scale. The poor creature whom sunk into darkness was in fact a mole. Our predator, a shrew.

This imaginary clash of the tiny titans sounds fanciful. Yet something like this actually happened. Amongst fossils of humans, hippos, and giant lions, one small bone of a mole humerus was found. The site of Sima del Elfeante, in Spain, has revealed a rich ecosystem long lost, in the very early Pleistocene site in Spain, some 2 million years ago.

For such a rich site in large species, it is amazing that this one bone was looked at. The humerus had bite marks on it, which matched the teeth of the extinct shrew Beremendia fissidens.

The thick mole humerus showing bite marks on the bone. (Image from Bennasar et al 2014)

A shrew biting into the arm of a mole? A bite so hard it went all the way down to the bone? This shrew maybe small, but it was a bad-ass.

Shrews are pretty small animals. All species would comfortably fit in the palm of my hand. There are shrews that are semi-aquatic. Shrews that live underground. Shrews that live in trees. In fact, shrews are one of the most diverse mammal species. Some species even use echolocation to hunt for prey! Their fossils are very abundant in Pleistocene cave sites, thanks to owls. These stealthy hunters feast on shrews and many other small vertebrates. They cannot digest the bones or fur, so they cough them up in balls and spit them out. In caves these can accumulate in their thousands, resulting in hundreds of thousands of tiny bones. These fossils give palaeontologists a rich understanding of past ecosystems.

I spent many months at the Natural History Museum, London, sieving and sorting the tiny bones from ancient owl sick. It might sound tedious, but to see the tiny teeth or vertebrae of little animals hundreds of thousands of years old was addictive. I always got more excited than I should have at seeing a shrew jaw: they are so beautiful and impossibly perfect. One would fit on my fingernail easily. They always made me smile and I would stare at them longer than perhaps I should have. My voyeurism was warranted. The cusps of the back teeth are a vibrant dark red colour. This is amazing: shrews add iron particles to their back teeth to make them stronger and more resistant to wear. So the little critters can enjoy crunching on the tough exoskeletons of beetles and grasshoppers without worrying about cavities.

But flesh eating shrews? With venomous fangs? This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Some shrews do eat dead carcasses if they stumble on them. Some even eat small rodents. The living relative of Beremendia fissidens, the northern-short tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), eats fish, amphibians and small mammals.

The gorgeous Northern Short-tailed Shrew, from Canada. (Image Giles Gonthier. Public Domain)

The upper canines of our ancient shrew had a c-shaped groove along the length of the tooth. This is seen in venomous animals, such as snakes, and is used to transport the venom from the venom sac to the animal it bites.  Some researchers don’t think that this ‘channel’ in the tooth signifies venom, but looking at other animals, it seems quite likely. Even more so as it’s living relative the northern short-tailed shrew is venomous. If it was venomous, then it would have been an active predator, not a scavenging animal.

The fangs of our beast, Beremendia fissidens. These fangs injected venom into its prey. (Image from Bennasar et al 2014)

This one small mole bone has given a glimpse into a fraction of time almost two million years ago. What’s more, our shrew must have had a pretty mighty chomp: it left tooth marks on the bone. Tooth marks not from gnawing on a dead carcass, but evidence of an extremely powerful bite.

Knowing there was once a fanged venomous shrew, (and now knowing that there is a venomous shrew alive today!), I for one have a new found respect for shrews. These may be little mammals, but they sure as hell are feisty.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Bennasar, M., et al. (2015). ‘Exceptional biting capacities of the Early Pleistocene fossil shrew Beremendia fissidens (Soricidae, Eulipotyphla, Mammalia): new taphonomic evidence.’ Historical Biology. 27(8). pp.978-986. [Full article]

Martin, I. G. (1981) ‘Venom of the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) as an insect immobilising agent.’ Journal of Mammology. 62. pp.189-192. [Abstract only]

Masaki, M., et al. (2004) ‘Blarina toxin, a mammalian lethal venom from the short-tailed shrew Blarina brevicauda: isolation and charachterization.’PNAS. 101 (20). pp. 7542-7547. [Full article]

Tomasi, T. E. (1979) ‘Ecolocation by the short-tailed shrew Blarina brevicauda.’ Journal of Mammology. 60(4). Pp.751-759. [Abstract only]

Posted in Shrew | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s Miller-time

“Life itself is a school, and Nature always a fresh study.”

Hugh Miller, “My Schools & Schoolmasters”, 1854

Hugh Miller. Almost before I was aware of who I was, I was aware of who he was. From just after birth until the age of five I lived in the small Black Isle fishing town of Cromarty. It’s here that I first went to school, first made friends, formed my first memories. Hugh Miller is Cromarty’s most famous son. He was a stonemason. And a geologist. And a palaeontologist, theologian, journalist, poet, and folklorist. In fact, there was very little he couldn’t do. His presence is still palpable in Cromarty. The thatched cottage he grew up in is preserved, fossil-like, as a museum. The village retains carvings and sculptings that were done by his hand and can still be seen on houses that are now the homes of artists and bohemians.

Above: Me and my younger sister outside our house in Cromarty. Below: The same house today. Photos ©the author

Miller was one of those 19th century geniuses that grew, like lichen on a cracked stone, out of the tumultuous struggle between revealed religion and the testimony of the rocks. At this time the North of Scotland was (some would say still is) a conservative and god-fearing place. Presbyterianism was in full swing and the schisms that heralded the birth of the Free Church were on the horizon.

Into this fertile landscape Hugh was born the son of a sailor. Many said his father was the best sailor in the village. He disappeared at sea when Hugh was five years old. In his best-selling memoir he describes a curious incident that happened at home on the day of the storm that sank his father’s boat. In the gloaming, while young Hugh was playing beside the open front door, he saw the apparition of a severed arm pointing towards him. Terrified, he ran to his mother for comfort. It was only later in the week that news of what had happened to his father made its way to the town. This early brush with decidedly pagan and unchristian supernatural forces encouraged a lifelong love of folklore and storytelling. Miller collected and anthologised these in his first book “Scenes and legends of the north of Scotland”. Even in my childhood I remember being entranced by my grandparents stories of second-sight and other classically Highland tales, typically told as things that had personally happened to friends they knew. Then as now in the Highlands there seemed to be no conflict between belief in the gospels and belief in the two sights.

Hugh Miller’s cottage. Photo ©the author

Miller’s most famous and long-lasting contributions were in geology and palaeontology. The area around the Black Isle has many good outcrops of Carboniferous, Silurian, and Devonian age rocks. Much too old for Twilight Beasts. This was a time of fish and amphibians, ammonites and eurypterids. Self-taught in the sciences, Milller’s careful observations and life-long collecting of fossils were a boon to students of the distant past. He wrote these up in massively popular works such as “The Old Red Sandstone”, “The Testimony of the Rocks”, and “Sketch-book of Popular Geology”. As a person who has spent more time than most reading 19th century works of science I can tell you that Miller’s prose is in a class of its own. It is hugely readable in a way that few scientists of that time managed. There is no pretension. There is no jargon. I would even go as far as to say his works are still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Currently I am re-reading “My Schools & Schoolmasters”, Hugh Miller’s memoir cum autobiography. In his scrupulously modest way he gives thanks to all who encouraged him in his pursuit of knowledge from when he was a young laddie. There are more than a few curious tales recounted within. One of them caught my attention. Here it is:

“One of my discoveries of this early period would have been deemed a not unimportant one by the geologist. Among the woods of the hill, a short half-mile from the town, there is a morass of comparatively small extent, but considerable depth, which had been laid open by the bursting of a waterspout on the uplands, and in which the dark peaty chasm remained unclosed, though the event had happened ere my birth, until I had become old and curious enough thoroughly to explore it. It was a black miry ravine, some ten or twelve feet in depth. The bogs around waved thick with silvery willows of small size; but sticking out from the black sides of the ravine itself, and in some instances stretched across it from side to side, lay the decayed remains of huge giants of the vegetable world, that had flourished and died long ages ere, in at least our northern part of the island, the course of history had begun. There were oaks of enormous girth, into whose coal-black substance one could dig as easily with a pickaxe as one digs into a bank of clay; and at least one noble elm, which ran across the little stream that trickled, rather than flowed, along the bottom of the hollow, and which was in such a state of keeping, that I have scooped out of its trunk, with the unassisted hand, a way for the water.

I have found in the ravine–which I learned very much to like as a scene of exploration, though I never failed to quit it sadly bemired–handfuls of hazel-nuts, of the ordinary size, but black as jet, with the cups of acorns, and with twigs of birch that still retained almost unchanged their silvery outer crust of bark, but whose ligneous interior existed as a mere pulp. I have even laid open, in layers of a sort of unctuous clay, resembling fuller’s earth, leaves of oak, birch, and hazel, that had fluttered in the wind thousands of years before; and there was one happy day in which I succeeded in digging from out the very bottom of the excavation a huge fragment of an extraordinary-looking deer’s horn. It was a broad, massive, strange-looking piece of bone, evidently old-fashioned in its type; and so I brought it home in triumph to Uncle James, as the antiquary of the family, assured that he could tell me all about it. Uncle James paused in the middle of his work; and, taking the horn in his hand, surveyed it leisurely on every side. “That is the horn, boy,” he at length said, “of no deer that now lives in this country. We have the red deer, and the fallow deer, and the roe; and none of them have horns at all like that. I never saw an elk; but I am pretty sure this broad, plank-like horn can be none other than the horn of an elk.” My uncle set aside his work; and, taking the horn in his hand, went out to the shop of a cabinet-maker in the neighbourhood, where there used to work from five to six journeymen. They all gathered round him to examine it, and agreed in the decision that it was an entirely different sort of horn from any borne by the existing deer of Scotland, and that this surmise regarding it was probably just. And, apparently to enhance the marvel, a neighbour, who was lounging in the shop at the time, remarked, in a tone of sober gravity, that it had lain in the Moss of the Willows “for perhaps half a century.” There was positive anger in the tone of my uncle’s reply. “Half a century, Sir!!” he exclaimed; “was the elk a native of Scotland half a century ago? There is no notice of the elk, Sir, in British history. That horn must have lain in the Moss of the Willows for thousands of years!” “Ah, ha, James, ah, ha,” ejaculated the neighbour, with a sceptical shake of the head; but as neither he nor any one else dared meet my uncle on historical ground, the controversy took end with the ejaculation.

I soon added to the horn of the elk that of a roe, and part of that of a red deer, found in the same ravine; and the neighbours, impressed by Uncle James’s view, used to bring strangers to look at them. At length, unhappily, a relation settled in the south, who had shown me kindness, took a fancy to them; and, smit by the charms of a gorgeous paint-box which he had just sent me, I made them over to him entire. They found their way to London, and were ultimately lodged in the collection of some obscure virtuoso, whose locality or name I have been unable to trace.”

What could young Hugh have found? Was it an elk [moose]? Miller does not leave much by way of description but we can compare our more complete modern knowledge of the extinct deer of Britain to what he found.

Male roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) with teeny horns. Image by Przykuta via Wikimedia Commons

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) skull. Public domain image

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) skull. Public domain image

Moose (Alces alces), are known as Elk in Europe. In America, elk (also called wapiti) are red deer relatives. Public domain image

Fallow deer (Dama dama). Image by Michael Palmer via Wikimedia Commons

Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus). Public domain image.

As well as the red (Cervus elaphus), roe (Capreolus capreolus), and fallow (Dama dama), we now know that Britain also used to have the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), moose or elk (Alces alces) and giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus). Now, if this was a broad, palmate kind of antler then we can immediately exclude everything except the fallow, moose and giant deer. Hugh’s Uncle James- a man of considerable learning- discounted the fallow deer as a possibility, so that leaves only the moose and giant deer as contenders. I think we can discount the giant deer as well since it is last known in Britain from the late Pleistocene, a time period when northern Scotland was under a mile of ice. The reality is there are very few Pleistocene fossils known from northern Scotland. The only exception I can think of are from deep within caves on the northwest coast. The bone caves of Inchnadamph held their silent quarry safe from the ice thanks to the protective rock walls. Scotland is, however, rich in Holocene fossils from after the great ice retreated. Bears, wolves, lynx, beavers and other lost species are recorded from Neolithic to Iron age times. Some, even later than that. Let us assume that what young Hugh found really was a moose antler. How late did they survive in Scotland and how old would it possibly have been?

Like the aurochs, moose lived until pretty late in mainland Europe. Caesar mentions something that is probably moose in the Hercynian forest of Germany. Some data suggests that they lived in northern Germany up until medieval times. In Britain they probably died out before the Roman invasion. In argument for a later, even medieval survival, are claims that there are specific gaelic names for the moose. Since gaelic speaking scots only came over from Ireland in the 4th or 5th century AD this seems unlikely. However it’s possible they knew about moose from contact with Scandinavians, who still have moose today. There really is not much information on British moose out there. Someone needs to implement a comprehensive radiocarbon dating project to get to the bottom of this.

All of this points to the idea that Hugh’s antler was probably a moose from the first or second millennium BC at the latest, making it three or four thousand years old when it was dug up by young Hugh, and that his Uncle James was correct in every detail.

There is a delightful postscript to this story. A few years ago, within a brisk days walk from  Cromarty, a moose calf was born. At the Alladale estate in Sutherland a pair of Scandinavian moose were brought over as part of the owner’s ambitious rewilding project. Hulda and Hercules (as the pair were called) gave birth to the first Scottish moose to be seen for at least three thousand years in 2011. I think Hugh Miller would have been thrilled.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Miller, H. “My Schools & Schoolmasters”, 1854. [Full Text]

Miller, H. “Scenes & Legends of the North of Scotland”, 1834 [Full Text]

Schmolcke, U., and F. E. Zachos. “Holocene Distribution and Extinction of the Moose (Alces alces, Cervidae) in Central Europe.” Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde 70, no. 6 (2005): 329-44. [Abstract]



Posted in Irish Elk, red deer, Reindeer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment



Image © Mauricio Anton

[This review was written in 2014, when the book first came out]

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.

Written by Ross Barnett @DeepFriedDNA

Further Reading:

Sabertooth, Mauricio Anton [Buy the book]

Posted in Sabre tooth Cat, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lost Animals

Public domain image of Mr Weaver and his bagged thylacine, 1869

[This book review was written when the book was first published]

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.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Lost Animals: Extinction and the photographic record, Errol Fuller [Buy the book]

Posted in Extinction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Island hopping hippos

My mum passed away suddenly at the beginning of January. It was a huge shock. It still is a huge shock. It still doesn’t seem real that I will never see her again. Life is so fragile. I wish there could have been more time. She was an exceptionally kind woman, and had a wicked sense of humour (traits which I hope have been passed on to me). Whenever I visited my folks, her and I would escape my chaotic loud siblings and play Scrabble for over an hour (she always won). We would catch up, and she would always chuckle endearingly at my nerdy fossil talk.

I wanted to write a little post that would have made her smile. There are thousands of animals that are good mothers: birds, mammals, even reptiles. But I think she would have liked something a little unusual. A little different. A post about weird hippos would have done the trick.

Despite the African hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) being a massive herbivore, there is something about them that is pretty special. They are undoubtedly adorable creatures: their huge curved mouths that look like a big smile; those short stumpy legs waddling; those big soft eyes. And they are extremely good mothers. The Ancient Egyptians knew this, and worshiped the half-hippo, half-human goddess Taweret who protected pregnant women during childbirth. The mighty hippopotamus even makes a slightly comical appearance in music, with Edward Keffer’s ‘Hippopotamus Polka’, and a delightfully flamboyant accompanying illustration.

My mum would have seen the humour in this. A somewhat flamboyant, yet gallant, hippopotamus taking the lead. The image is from the ‘Hippopotamus polka’. (Image public domain)

Then there’s also the lovable, but highly threatened, pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis). These little beasts are only around 0.8 meters: an adult would reach up to my hips! Coming out at night in forests to feed on ferns, grasses and fruit, they live in just three areas in Africa. Pygmy hippos are a different genus to the larger species, which means they didn’t evolve from the larger Hippopotamus amphibius, but shared a common ancestor some 8 million years ago.

A very cute pygmy hippo (Image public domain)

Today hippos are restricted to the continent of Africa. In the past they were widespread across Europe, with a number of different species. Our familiar large African beast was even shuffling around in Britain. Not all hippos outside of Africa were big. Some were pretty small. And I’m not talking about pygmy hippos.

Islands are fantastic harbingers for evolution to run wild. Originally desolate places, any species that makes their home there has unique opportunities to explore new niches. Seeds and insects are blown to islands by the winds. Some animals accidentally end up there by sitting on logs. Some even swim there. Once there they have little competition compared to their home lands, and evolve some incredible adaptations for their new environments.

Not all island inhabitants are the new comers. Some arrive long after flora and fauna have been established on this isolated paradise. And some strange things can happen. Small animals can evolve relatively quickly to be pretty darn big, like the Maltese dormouse, or the komodo dragon. With little competition and less predators than the continent, these small animals exploit the new environment and enjoy the new bounties.

Small animals become big. The very opposite happens to big animals: over time they shrink! There are three species of mammoths that shrunk to pure cuteness in the past, and it has happened to our own genus too, with the enigmatic Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores. Large animals need a lot of food to survive. Those individuals who are a little smaller and can survive with less food have more offspring. A lack of predators also means they don’t need large size for safety. And so, through time, the species becomes smaller.

The Mediterranean Sea, with it’s half a dozen large islands. (Image from Google Maps)

The warm Mediterranean Sea is scattered with dozens of islands. Today they are popular tourist getaways to enjoy the sun and the sea. Not too long ago they would have been very different with some truly incredible animals. Two of these islands were home to dwarf mammoths: the Sardinian dwarf mammoth and the Cretan dwarf mammoth. Perhaps more incredibly, four islands had hippos living on them!

As well as a dwarf mammoth, Crete had a dwarf hippo (Hippopotamus creutzurgi). Sicily, Malta and Cyprus also had dwarf hippos (H. pentlandi; H. melitensis; and H. minor respectively). Around the same size as the pygmy hippo, these little hippos were not their close relatves. Skeletal features suggest that they evolved from the hippo that was at home in Europe, H. antiquus, most likely four separate times.

The smallest of the Mediterranean dwarf hippos, Hippopotamus creutzburgi. (Image by Twilight Beasts)

Lower sea levels in the Mediterranean between 150,000 and 100,000 years ago meant that animals did not have as far to swim to these islands (relative to today!). And hippos can swim quite well. Once big lumbering hippos first stepped ashore, there were no natural predators. These hot islands may seem like an unusual habitat for hippos, but the environment was different then. Examining oxygen isotopes in nearby Macedonia, shows it was cooler and wetter from around 100,000 years ago compared to today’s climate. These plump little beasts would have waddled around in pretty lush forests feeding on grasses, shrubs and fruits.

What a sight they must have been.

We don’t know for sure exactly when or why these buxom (a word my mum would have liked) beasts disappeared. Today the Mediterranean islands are hot and very dry. British people travel there in their thousands every year only to return with ghastly red and sunburned skin. The Mediterranean began to warm up quite quickly around 25,000 years ago. With a warmer climate comes a drier, harder environments for animals, especially those which love the wetness. More research needs to be done on these well-rounded little animals until we can say much more.

There’s more cute hippos to add to our list, the Madagascan dwarf hippos (Hippopotamus (sometimes called Choeropsis) madagascariensis; H. lemerlei; H. laloumerna), which lived in, well, yes, Madagascar! There may well have been three species living on the large island of Madagascar.  They were very small, smaller perhaps than the pygmy hippo. Living in freshwater highland environments, their very well worn teeth indicate slightly tougher vegetation than their bigger ancestors, Hippopotamus amphibious.

Just look at the size of this hippo! The dwarf Madagacan hippo Hippopotamus (Choeropsismadagascariensis. (Image by Osborn, public domain)

What’s truly fascinating is that these hippos lived until very recently, just around 1000 years ago. There’s even evidence of cut marks on bones, showing that humans were not too shy to eat them. For these species, the arrivals of humans to Madagascar around 2000 years ago was their end. Small, chubby legs were no way set up for outrunning fast predators. Sadly they vanished around the same time William the Conquer became King of England.      

When species have gone, they are not gone really. Our blog posts keeps these wonderful creatures alive. I like to think the same is true when someone has passed away. I know that they will never really be gone.  It is our memories of our loved ones that keep them alive inside us. Just like we share our blog posts, our memories too can be shared, so they are still alive in our children, and their children too. I don’t know if my mum ever read any of my blog posts, but I’m pretty sure if she read this and discovered tiny, cute, plodding dwarf hippos were once alive, she would have smiled to herself.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Adams, A. L. (1863),  ‘Observations on the Fossiliferous caves of Malta’. Journal of the Royal Society, 4 .2. pp.11–19.

Burney, D. A. ,et al. (2004). ‘A chronology for late prehistoric Madagascar.’ Journal of Human Evolution: 25-63. [Full article]

Carroll, F. A., Hunt, C. O., Schembri, P. J., & Bonanno, A. (2012). ‘Holocene climate change, vegetation history and human impact in the Central Mediterranean: evidence from the Maltese Islands’. Quaternary Science Reviews. 52. pp.24-40. [Abstract only]

Dewar, R. E. (1984). ‘Extinctions in Madagascar. The loss of the subfossil fauna.’ In: P. S. Martin and R. G. Klein (eds), Quaternary extinctions. A prehistoric revolution, pp. 574-593. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, USA. [Book]

Dobson, M. (1998). ‘Mammal distributions in the western Mediterranean: the role of human intervention’. Mammal Review.28.2. pp.77-88. [Abstract only]

Hunt, C. O. (1995). ‘The natural landscape and its evolution’. In: Barker, G. (Ed.), A Mediterranean Valley.  Leicester:Leicester University Press. pp.62-83.[Book]

Lacey, J. H., et al. (2016). ‘Northern Mediterranean climate since the Middle Pleistocene a 637ka stable isotope record from Lake Ohrid.’ Biogeosciences. 13. pp.1801-1820. [Full article]

MacPhee, R. D. E. & Burney, D. A. (1991). ‘Dating of modified femora of extinct dwarf hippopotamus from southern Madagascar: implications for constraining human colonization and vertebrate extinction events’. Journal of Archaeological Science 18: pp.695-706. [Full article]

MacPhee, R.D.E. & Flemming, C. (1999).’ Requiem Aeternam. The last five hundred years of mammalian extinctions.’ In: R.D.E. MacPhee (ed.), Extinctions in Near Time, pp. 333-371. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, USA. [Book]

Stuenes, S. (1989). ‘Taxonomy, Habits and relationships of the subfossil Madagascan Hippopotami Hippopotamus lemerlei and H. madagascariensis.’ Journal of vertebrate Paleontology. 9(3). op.241-268. [Abstract only]

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The most (and least) read posts of 2017!

It’s that time of year again when websites shout about their most read blog posts. Of course it’s a little bit of self promotion, but it is also quite interesting to see what has been popular over the last year.

In our little annual tradition we will share with you the top five posts along with the least read five posts of the year. We think it’s quite nice to share the ‘bottom’ five posts to spread a little love to these undiscovered gems. (We should obviously say that these are not the least read because they are not interesting – all our posts are interesting! It might be that they are not as sexy as the big beasts, or that they have not been shared enough. Whatever the reason, these five least read posts are a fantastic little read.)

We really are so very grateful for your continued support by reading this blog and we have loved engaging with so many of you on the blog and on Twitter this last year. We hit 250,000 views on our blog just a few months ago – which is incredible! Thank you readers for your encouragement and support for this blog site.

Least read blog posts of 2017:

  1. When life gives you lemmings… Discover how a classic 1980s video game links to small arctic mammals in Britain. Give these little fury critters a boost!

The Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) is just one species of lemming. (Image by Oma Kuva. Public Domain)

2. Big find in little China. An amazing fossil discover in 2017 could put humans in China around 120,000 years ago.

3. Mini-beasts, giants and mega-floods. From beetles to mammoths, fossil evidence can help us to understand when the English Channel formed.

4. Time capsules from the Ice Age: Find out how nature’s collectors have helped to preserve evidence from past environments.

5. Forever young: Like Peter Pan, the Key Deer in Florida almost never grow up. Find out how this beautiful little deer stays youthful throughout their lives.

Most read blog posts of 2017:

  1. A very brief introduction to mammoths: This is a mammoth post. Literally. There were ten species of mammoths from giants to dwarves.

The smallest mammoth that has ever lived, the mighty-mini Cretan Dwarf Mammoth

2. The stuff of night-mares: A clever title. A great post. About a freakin’ enormous horse!

3. Mammoths! Mammoths make it twice in the top five. This post is about our familiar giant, the Woolly Mammoth.

4. The lonely walk to extinction: We are pleased this post has been read quite a lot. It brings home just how vulnerable species are, and how those last few individuals have a very hard, lonely life.

5. Lost as the Moa is lost! This is the second year running this fantastic post has made it into the tope 5. Read it and you will see why!

We wish all our readers are very happy and healthy 2018. And we are looking forward to some exciting things in 2018, and of course, lots of new Beasts to share with you! Ross (@DeepFriedDNA), Rena (@JustRena) and Jan (@JanFreedman)

Follow us on Twitter – @Twilightbeasts 

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“Nice Beaver!” (redux)

Beavers! Majestic dam makers of Canada. Living on a diet of maple syrup and poutine. Probably. I don’t know.

Much bigger in the past, North America had Castoroides ohioensis, the giant beaver. As big as a bear. With its razor sharp incisors it could have felled trees and predators alike.

Here in Blighty we have a few beavers (Castor fiber) here and there. These prodigal sons have popped up in the Highlands, Argyll, Devon, Tayside. Some are legal beavers, and some are illegal beavers. The beaver population in Argyll, at Knapdale forest, are the product of the first licensed reintroduction of a mammal to Britain. Closely monitored by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Knapdale beavers are recolonisers who have been helped by the Scottish government to return to lands they were only recently removed from. Some of the other beaver populations are of unknown origins, occupying a legal grey area and not offered the same protection. Some of these new beavers have been shot by landowners, who if not actively disgruntled are pretty far from gruntled.

Castor fiber, survived very late in Britain. It only really disappeared in the 16th century, when incessant demand for furs and anal secretions* led to its extirpation.

Anyway, if we go back to the Middle Pleistocene (and why not), there was a big British beaver to be found. Sympatric with Castor fiber, Trogontherium cuvieri had a pretty large distribution from England to China in a fairly narrowly confined band. Its fossils are known from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, although it probably only evolved in the Late Pliocene. It must have had fairly specific climatic tolerances because there are no known fossils from south of the Alps or the Pyrenees. We know it was also a river-dweller as that is where the vast majority of the fossils of this species have been found. While not quite as big as ol’ Castoroides, this was still a sizeable animal. Analysis of skulls show that metrically Trogontherium was nearly 50% bigger than Castor. To put that into some context, the incisors in Trog could be up to seven inches long: that’s as big as the canines of Smilodon fatalis!

Skull of Trogontherium cuvieri by E. T. Newton. Public Domain Image

There has been a lot of discussion about what Trogontherium was doing with its enormous incisors. General consensus today is that it didn’t use them for cutting down trees, like its modern day cousin. The incisors have a different profile; they are more convex and would have acted more like a gauge than a chisel. We actually have fossil trees from East Anglia, from the Middle Pleistocene when both beaver species were around, and they show tooth marks that match Castor rather than Trogontherium. Fossil trees can in fact be a marvellous repository of information about animals of the past: I remember seeing an early Holocene log on display in the National Museum of Scotland, that clearly shows the gnaw marks of a beaver from long ago. It seems likely that Trog used their oversized teeth for digging at roots or in burrowing into the ground.

from Fostowicz-Frelik (2008)

One other weird point of discussion has been what the lips of Trogontherium looked like. Based on bony tubercles preserved on the maxilla above the upper incisors, some scientists reconstructed it with hyper-mobile Jagger lips that could act like tiny fingers to slurp up food. It has often been compared to the coypu (Myocastor coypus) which also has prehensile lips. Coypu are also known colloquially as nutria, and they are native to South America. Thanks to humans they have been spread worldwide, to North America, Africa, and Europe. Bred for their fur, escapes and releases have let them into places where they had no right to be. They used to be a common sight in East Anglia, where many Trogontherium fossils have been found. They terrorised Norfolk from about 1929 until an eradication campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. This along with a series of severe winters helped to wipe them out by the late 1980s. I like to think that this bit of accidental rewilding may have given East Anglia something it hadn’t had since the Middle Pleistocene- a Trogontherium analogue!


*yeah. Beaver anal secretions, called castoreum, have long been used as a medicine and perfume. Even back in Roman times. It is still used in the modern era to give perfumes a “leather” note, so you’ve probably smelt it and not realised. But that’s nothing. You’ve also probably eaten it. Castoreum is still used sometimes today as an additive to give food a vanilla flavour. Enjoy your next ice cream!

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

A link to one of the best sight gags ever, from the Naked Gun (source of this article’s title)

Further Reading:

Fostowicz-Frelik, L. “First Record of Trogontherium Cuvieri (Mammalia, Rodentia) from the Middle Pleistocene of Poland and Review of the Species.” [In English]. Geodiversitas 30, no. 4 (2008): 765-78. [Full Text]

Kurtén, B. Pleistocene Mammals of Europe. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968. [Book]

Mayhew, D. F. “Reinterpretation of Extinct Beaver Trogontherium (Mammalia, Rodentia).” [In English]. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 281, no. 983 (1978): 407-38. [Full Text]

Newton, E. T. “Trogontherium from the Pleistocene of Copford, Essex.” [In English]. Geological Magazine London Dec 6 3 (1916): (322-23). [Full Text]

Owen, R. A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds. London: John Van Voorst, 1846. [Book]



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