I don’t know about you, but I love the spirit of farmers during lambing season. Coming from a farming background, I know the farmers’ mingled emotions of dread and hope and joy as the wee lambs are born often in the dead of winter. The late nights, camaraderie, the dance of life and death, sometimes played out against mountain snow; this time connects us with the farmers of prehistory. It is, above all, a time of hope when lambs are like tiny fuzzy reminders of springtime ahead and the renewal of life. I’m pretty sure even our pre-Neolithic ancestors gazed in admiration at the tiny, resilient animals frisking amidst the herds which passed through European refugia.
For this Twilight Beast, Megalovis latifrons, the giant sheep, we shall go back a little earlier than usual for this blog. Right to the very beginning, on the boundary of the Pliocene and Pleistocene. It was all happening during the Epivillefranchian period, that junction between the Pliocene and the earliest Pleistocene, about a 2. 6 million years ago. It’s believed there were numerous and regular large tectonic events, setting off a chain reaction of natural changes to the planet. Around this time, some species of hominins had made their way to Eurasia, and were also settling across Europe, though would get driven back by the gradual onset of glaciation through the Pleistocene. In Europe and Asia, there were numerous ‘dispersal’ events, occurring over a relatively short period of time, when whole faunal assemblages were replaced, and new critters arrived from other continents – elephants, horses and the rather charmingly named ‘Wolf event’ of around 1.7 million years ago. Climate shifts were noticeable from the stable isotope analysis we have gained from ice cores. It was getting cold. Snow would fall, deep, and crisp and even….a dangerous time for sheep, a time when they can get lost.
There were only desperate hunter gatherers inhabiting Europe and Eurasia at this time, clinging to existence daily, battling everything the climate or lack of game could throw at them, so no shepherds watched flocks by night, or day– the Neolithic was quite a way yet! This lack of attendance was probably quite welcome, or at least did not bother the giant sheep, Megalovis latifrons. There are very few fossil assemblages of this creature, although it is believed to have been around the size of a modern musk ox, with large, straight horns facing outwards like a sheep, and with similar dentition as well. There are some very early faunal assemblages from Verchets in Romania, indicating that Megalovis pre-dated the shift into the cold of the Epivillefranchian, and a substantial bone assemblage in Trlica, Montenegro dating right up to the early Pleistocene around 950,000years ago.
This was the sort of sheep which could have delivered a bit of a lamb chop if it was provoked. It was a powerful and steady grazer of grassy open lands, but nimble enough to navigate the mountain ridges of Europe and Eurasia. We are not even terribly sure what they looked like, but we know from especially the Trlica assemblages they had pointy premaxillar bones on their jaws, which have been considered indications that they were fussy feeders, grazing on one single type of food, probably leaf-based. As folivorous creatures, chewing down cellulose-heavy leaves, they may have had slower metabolisms than modern sheep or goats. There’s been such a lack of understanding of this rare breed that palaeo folks weren’t exactly sure how to categorise them for quite some time – Sheep? Goat? Antelope? There is still sporadic new work on variations of giddy goats and sheep which may, or may not, be related to Megalovis. There have been other branches of Megalovis identified, such as Makapania sp, which lived in Africa, although they may have been much more antelope-like than their European cousins.
We now have a pretty good idea that Megalovis was one of 19 species of Ovibovini, much closer to modern musk oxen and gorals than sheep as we understand them. The giant sheep was, to all appearances, a successful Pliocene species, yet by the middle of the Pleistocene, they were all extinct, which probably accounts for why there are no images of them (to date anyway) incorporated into cave art displays. And they must have been quite a sight, herds of extremely large sheep wandering the chilly grasslands of Europe. Until a complete assemblage is discovered, we still need to use guesswork about how they looked – though they probably resembled the extant goral – only larger.
So, if humans didn’t get the chance to over hunt Megalovis, what took the great sheep from the gene pool? As we mentioned earlier, the creatures were picky eaters (and feel free to use this cautionary tale on kids not eating their Brussels sprouts this Christmas!!). As vegetation changed with the creeping cold of the Pleistocene, the woolly jumpers just didn’t have enough to eat. Sadly, one of the perils of being a niche feeder is potential extinction should anything endanger the food supply. Gradually, they faded from the landscape, replaced by the less fussy Soergelia elisabethae and Praeovibos priscus. It would be the middle of the Pleistocene before species which we would well recognise today such as the ibex, would become the inheritors of the gap left by Megalovis.
We can only imagine how adorable the little lambs of the species must have been, and it is regretful that there are no known images of the creatures, compared to depictions of ibex, bison, mammoths and lions, which grace the walls of caverns across Europe, with their observations on nature and hunting, daubed skilfully by torchlight with charcoals and faith to express beliefs long since forgotten. If anything, our blogs echo the love of these animals from the deep past, our paintings made with pixels and words, communicating the same wonder as ancient peoples at this beautiful, amazing planet we live on.
One recurring theme of our blogs is how all species –ourselves included – are woven together in the warp and weft of climate and environmental change. Sometimes natural changes occur without human intervention, causing extinctions like Megalovis, replacing these creatures with more versatile species which can survive adverse conditions better. But life does go on… the miracle of adaption, rebirth and survival continues, just like modern little lambs at the worst time of the year may as well say ‘come at me bruh’ to wind and rain and snow. This Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzai, or Yule (or simply winter break) we at Twilight Beasts wish you tenacity, hope, courage and joy in these changing and often scary times.
And please – don’t be picky eaters – we want to share more amazing creatures with you during 2017!
From the Beast team of Jan, Ross and Rena – we wish ewe a wonderful season!
Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)
Bechev, D. and Georgiev, D., Paleobiodiversity of the Vrachanska Planina Mountains in the Villafranchian: a case study of the Varshets (Dolno Ozirovo) Early Pleistocene locality of fossil fauna and flora. [Full article]
Brugal, J.P. and Croitor, R., 2007. Evolution, ecology and biochronology of herbivore associations in Europe during the last 3 million years. Quaternaire. Revue de l’Association française pour l’étude du Quaternaire, 18. 2. pp.129-152.
Cregut-Bonnoure, E, 2004. European Caprinae ( Ovibovini, Caprini) from the Plio-Pleistocene Boundary: a new interpretation. 18th International Senckenberg Conference Proceedings. [Full article]
Cregut-Bonnoure, E. and Dimitrijevic, V., 2006. Megalovis balcanicus sp. nov. and Soergelia intermedia sp. nov.(Mammalia, Bovidae, Caprinae), new Ovibovini from the Early Pleistocene of Europe. Revue de Paléobiologie. 25.2. p.723.
Gentry, A.W., 2000. An Ovibovine (Mammalia, Bovidae) from the Neogene of Stratzing, Austria. Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie A für Mineralogie und Petrographie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Anthropologie und Prähistorie, pp.189-199. [Full article]
Gentry, A.W., 1970. Revised classification for Makapania broomi Wells and Cooke (Bovidae, Mammalia). Palaeontologia Africana. 13. [Full article]
Kahlke, R.D., García, N., Kostopoulos, D.S., Lacombat, F., Lister, A.M., Mazza, P.P., Spassov, N. and Titov, V.V., 2011. Western Palaearctic palaeoenvironmental conditions during the Early and early Middle Pleistocene inferred from large mammal communities, and implications for hominin dispersal in Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews. 30.11 pp.1368-1395.
Lehmann, U. 1953. Eine Villafranchiano-Fauna von der Erpfinger Hohle (Schwabische Alb). Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Monatshefte 10. pp 437-464
Lordkipanidze, D., Jashashvili, T., Vekua, A., Ponce de León, M.S., Zollikofer, C.P.E., Rightmire, G.P., Pontzer, H., Ferring, R., Oms, O., Tappen, M., Bukhsianidze, M., Agusti, J., Kahlke, R., Kiladze, G., Martinez-Navarro, B., Mouskhelishvili, A., Nioradze, and M., Rook, L., 2007. Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature 449, pp 305-310.
Masini, F., Palombo, M.R. and Rozzi, R., 2013. A reappraisal of the early to middle pleistocene Italian bovidae. Quaternary International, 288, pp.45-62.
McClymont, E.L., Sosdian, S.M., Rosell-Melé, A. and Rosenthal, Y., 2013. Pleistocene sea-surface temperature evolution: Early cooling, delayed glacial intensification, and implications for the mid-Pleistocene climate transition. Earth-Science Reviews, 123, pp.173-193. Available at: http://dro.dur.ac.uk/10818/1/10818.pdf
Spassov, N. and Crégut-Bonnoure, É., 1999. First data on the Villafranchian Bovidae of Bulgaria. Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences Series IIA Earth and Planetary Science, 7. 328. pp.493-498.
Turner, A., 1992. Large carnivores and earliest European hominids: changing determinants of resource availability during the Lower and Middle Pleistocene. Journal of Human Evolution, 22. 2. pp.109-126.