“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Anthony Doerr, 2015.
She is beautiful: She is quite possibly the most beautiful thing in the room. I have travelled to America to see her, and she does not disappoint for the one day I get. I stand there looking at her from afar. She is subtle. She is slight. She does nothing to stand out. She is there but almost isn’t. She just is.
I watch as several people walk right past her: their eyes on something else. A quick glance to their left and they would see her. I will them to look left; with all my grey matter, I will them. I almost shout out ‘look at her!’ but then one person does turn: they look but they don’t see.
Often the most beautiful things are right in front of us, and we don’t see them. Maybe we don’t see because we are not looking for it. Or maybe we don’t see the beauty in front of us because our minds are often removed from it: the need to look for bigger things, the safety of seeing familiar things. Our heads are so often full of other, more mundane thoughts that we cannot focus. Ironically, to clear your head and notice the detail of what is really in front of you relaxes you more: other thoughts are gone, worries no longer there, your brain is taking in the colours, the patterns, the detail. And it feels wonderful.
I stood in that room, watching people walk by, and was quietly sad because less than a handful stopped to look at her. I would go and see her every day if that room wasn’t around 4000 miles away from where I sit now.
And her. Just standing there. Just looking so beautiful. I still remember all the detail: those big eyes, the curve of her body, the smoothness of her skin. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
I was so lucky to see her. Even so, she wasn’t really there. I missed her. By a mere 11,000 years.
La Brea Tar Pits Museum, in Los Angeles, is the last place you’d expect to see her. But then again, this is an incredibly rich site; home to over 650 different species of Late Pleistocene fauna. You are greeted by a cleverly lit, fully mounted skeleton of a Giant Ground Sloth, (Glossotherium harlani) that looks alive although it is just bones. The lights are low, giving a quiet, subdued ambience. As you walk into the first main room, to the left of there are displays flat against the wall, which at a glance look like some bones of some small creatures, lots of 1970s font, and a model of some deer. To the right, in the centre of the room, is where the big specimens are: the specimens people want to see, the sexy specimens, the specimens people gasp at: the Mastodon, the enormous camel (Camelops), the goliath Columbian Mammoth. Following this trail of breadcrumbs leads you straight out into the next room, of giant birds and Dire Wolves. Break away from the trail, however, and there are wonderful displays against the wall: teeth from the Imperial Mammoth, bones from the ancient Bison, and her, the beautiful dwarf pronghorn, Capromeryx minor.
I see how easy it is to walk past her. She just looks like a small deer. Nothing special. Nothing compared to the enormity of the Columbian Mammoth, or the terror of the sabre-tooth cat. That is of course, if you don’t look. Open your eyes and you will see not a little deer, but something much rarer. Something much more beautiful.
The dwarf pronghorn belongs to an almost vanished group, the Antilocapridae, where the only surviving species is the Pronghorn Antelope in North America. Superficially looking like antelopes, they were not. They are actually more closely related to the ancient group of Giraffes (another beautiful group which once held a huge array of magnificent species, but is now down to just a couple today). Just as in Giraffes, the horns on pronghorns are bone growths out of their head – unlike deer where the antlers are not true bone.
There were once over a dozen different pronghorn species leaping across the North American wilderness, with their long, elegant legs. One species would have been at home more in the forests than the open plains: our Dwarf Pronghorn. And she was a small species, the smallest species of pronghorn: perhaps reaching up to my hips at just 60cm tall at the shoulders.
Capromeryx minor was a relative late comer to the Pleistocene scene. Although the Genus Capromeryx evolved around 5 million years ago, our little friend arrives just 300,000 years ago. Fossil finds show the distribution was fairly restricted to southern North America, perhaps an indication of their preferred habitat: more wooded than open, like the tiny pudú. In almost 300,000 years, they got smaller and smaller.
When you look at the skeleton of this animal, you can see how stunning it is. Long, slender legs hint at quick bursts of speed in an attempt to escape from predators. (I like to imagine them leaping away instead of running.) They had very tough teeth, indicating eating tougher plants than just grasses alone. Like all pronghorns Capromeryx minor had horns on their head, four in total: two slightly larger ones at the back, and two smaller ones at the front. Because they are extinct, we know so little about their lives: It may be that the horns used by males for fighting each other, because the males were larger.
These gorgeous little animals almost made it through to today, with the last known fossils dating to around 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last major glaciation. We don’t know why they vanished. At the same time many other of the familiar beasts of the very Late Pleistocene were disappearing. Climate was warming, glaciers were melting, and humans were hunting. It is unlikely that humans hunted the dwarf pronghorn to extinction. But there could have been an indirect impact. Ecosystems are complex, subtle, but reliant interactions of food, temperature, water, animals and plants. At the end of the Pleistocene many of the large fauna were removed from the ecosystem, plants retreated and new ones took root, and temperatures changed fast. Our little beast couldn’t leap fast enough to keep up.
Life is incredible. It is so fragile, and yet can appear so robust. All of these animals that are not here today show us what the world was once like. It was, and still is, astonishing. It is not just the big, or the familiar which make our planet beautiful. Stop and look at it all: the fly on the windowsill, the bird in your back garden, the person sitting next to you. Life is beautiful. When you open your eyes, you can really see that beauty.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
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