The beast of the woods

I love a good walk in the woods. Breathing the clean fresh air into my lungs. Spotting a bird hop on a branch nearby. Listening to the almost silence as the wind gently rustles the leaves above. Feeling the crunch of the fallen, dried leaves beneath my feet. There is nothing quite like it.

The best part of it: being alone. Away from the emails. The people. The cars. The deadlines. We often run around so much in our daily lives we forget about ourselves. If we take ourselves away from the busy day to day pressures we all have, it can do us so much good. Being outside helps clear our minds. And that helps us more than you might realise.

Without the pressures around us, without the noisy nattering of people, our minds are clear to take in so much more. We can feel the softness of a fern brushing against our legs, or the roughness of the bark on a tree. We can hear the snapping of a twig nearby or the call of a buzzard overhead. We can see the changes in colour as the dappled sunlight flickers through gaps in the canopy above. We can smell the freshness of plants surrounding us. We can even taste the cleanness of the air.

It is almost like an escape. An escape from reality. Just you and the trees. If only for a short time.

A walk in the woods. Nothing but wilderness. Nothing but beauty.

Woods are not just full of trees. They are full of life. There are birds in their nests staying completely still as you walk past. Deer may be hiding, perfectly camouflaged against the shadows of the trees. There are smaller mammals too, so fast and so well hidden they are practically impossible to spot: and the mini-beasts, even harder. But they are there. Scurrying under the dead leaves, zipping around the plants.

Each species living there relies on another species for its survival. Everything in the woods is perfectly intertwined as a whole living system. A beautiful, complex system. James Cameron’s Avatar showed this beautifully with all the plants and animals connected together. Earth is not at all different from the fictional Pandora. Everything is linked together. Remove one species and other species suffer.

There is one animal that I think embellishes the overwhelming connectedness of nature: the stunning deer Eucladoceros. With its extraordinary antlers, this creature looks as though it is part-animal, part-woodland.

The rather spectacular skull of Eucladoceros on display at at Museo di Paleontologia di Firenze. (Image Public Domain)

The name, Eucladoceros, means ‘well-branched antler’, and they are very well branched: the antlers look like a small trees growing out of its head. These antlers, which spread to over 1.7 meters wide, are an extreme evolutionary novelty: at the top of the skull where the antler grows (known as the pedicle),  amazing branching results in twelve tines growing out on each side. Before Eucladoceros came along deer mostly had much fewer points on their antlers. This was the first deer with such complex antlers.

It was a fairly longed lived genus, spanning from the Pliocene (around 4 million years ago) to the Early Pleistocene (around 1.5 million years ago). Fossils have been found all over Europe, from England to Holland, and across Asia as far East as China. With many fossils remains being fragmentary, the number of species in this enigmatic genus are probably overestimated. Around twelve different species have been described, but it is more likely that that there were probably just three species. Palaeontologists have a difficult time identifying species: most of the time an animal from a site is represented by just one fragmentary bone. These are compared to other fossils to identify it, and if it differs enough in shape and size, they can declare a new species. The trouble is that there is natural variation within species (just look at humans: some are small, some are tall, some have brown hair, some have blond hair). Cataloguing the past is difficult work.

The beautiful Eucladoceros from Quaternary Extinctions, pg. 72.

Eucladoceros would have thrived in the rich Pliocene forests that spread across Europe and Asia. With large antlers this beautiful deer would have lived in forests that had well spaced trees. The Pliocene was a fairly warm period, with temperatures around 3oC warmer than today. Towards the end of this period, temperatures started cooling, before the onset of the erratic glaciations in the Pleistocene. Enormous glaciers grew in the north making the local climates drier and colder, which had a big knock on effect with vegetation. Luscious forests shrank and grasslands grew creating more open environments where prey were more vulnerable to predators. With the loss of woodlands and forests, Eucladoceros was more exposed in the open.

We don’t know exactly when it vanished: the last fossils so far found are around 1.5 million years old. But this does not mean the last of the species. It likely survived at least for a good few millennia after in smaller populations. Competition from well adapted animals would have put additional pressures on this beautiful deer. Unlike other species which adapted to the changes in extreme climate, sadly Eucladoceros vanished.

Humans were not to blame for the disappearance of this Twilight Beast. Our species, Homo sapiens first left Africa some 100,000 years ago. One relative with the travel bug, Homo erectus, moved out of Africa by around 1.8 million years ago. These hominins may have seen this mystical animal in Eurasia, but as yet there are no associated fossils to show they were at the same sites at the same time.

I often wonder what our human relatives must have thought when they came face to face with creatures for the first time. In America, our species saw Giant Sloths and Mastodons on the landscape. In Australia we saw enormous wombats and giant lizards. In Asia we saw Gigantopithecus and straight tusked elephants. To see Eucladoceros must have been like meeting a dryad or a nymph; a creature part-animal and part-forest. Did they look at it in awe? Did they respect it? We will never know. We still do have incredible animals that share the planet with us. Many are seriously endangered due to actions from our own species. By seeing these animals with the wonder and respect they deserve may just help save them from disappearing forever.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further Reading:

Azzaroli, A/. & Mazza, P. (1992). ‘The Cervid genus Eucladoceros in the early Pleistocene of Tuscany.’ Palaeontographia Italica. 79. pp.43-100.

Bartoli, G. et al. (2005). ‘Final closure of Panama and the onset of northern hemisphere glaciation.’ Earth Planet Sci. Lett. 237. pp3344.

Dong, W. & Ye. J. (1996). ‘Two new cervid species from the late Neogene of Yshe Basin, Shanxi Province, China.’ Vertebrata PalAsiatica. 34(2). pp.135-144.

Dwyer, G. S. & Chandler, M. A. (2009). Mid-Pliocene sea level and continental ice volume based on coupled benthic Mg/Ca palaeotemperatures and oxygen isotopes. Phil. Trans. Royal. Soc. 367. pp.157-168.

Martin, P. & Klein, R. G. (Eds) (1989). Quaternary extinctions. University of Arizona Press. [Book]

Robinson, M., Dowsett, H. J., & Chandler, M. A. (2008). ‘Pliocene role in assessing future climate impacts.’ Eos Transactions, American Geophysical Union. 89. 501-502.

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