Smilodon: The Iconic Sabertooth

Smilodon: The Iconic Sabertooth

I recently bought this book (with my own money, this is an impartial review: I can’t be bought, man!). “Smilodon” is somewhat of a companion volume to another recent-ish release, namely “The Other Saber-tooths: Scimitar-tooth Cats of the Western Hemisphere”. Both volumes come from Johns Hopkins University Press. Whereas “The Other Saber-tooths” deals with the less well known Homotherini tribe of the machairodont subfamily, “Smilodon” jumps into the gap containing the extinct superstar Smilodon, and the tribe Smilodontini.

First things first; this is a technical book. It is not really intended for the interested lay-reader but organised as essentially a collection of totally independent papers bound together for use by specialists in the field. It follows from the International Sabertooth Workshop that took place in 2008. It assumes a reasonable amount of familiarity with extinct cats, their anatomy, and their fossils.

The volume is pretty wide-ranging and contains a host of sabretooth experts. The editors are Lars Werdelin, Chris Shaw, and Greg McDonald who all have decades of experience in Pleistocene matters.

There is an introductory chapter on the convoluted history of how a carnassial tooth from Texas came to be the Holotype for Smilodon fatalis, and the role material collected by the great Danish naturalist Peter Lund had in erecting the species Smilodon populator. Anyone who has investigated the taxonomy of a wide ranging fossil species will know that they are usually complicated by numerous binomials having been given to what are essentially the same taxon. Smilodon is definitely one of these with at various times and places the genera Trucifelis, Machaerodus, Munifelis, Hyaena, and Felis used for different bones and teeth. One interesting tidbit, unknown to me is that Lund’s original use of Smilo-(sabre) and odon-(tooth) actually referred to the crooked shape of the incisors and not the enormous canines, which were incompletely known at the time. This chapter is beautifully illustrated with exquisite lithographs culled from various nineteenth century sources, finer than any photograph.

Holotype teeth of Smilodon fatalis, from Hardin County, Texas. Figured by Joseph Leidy. Public Domain

Canine of Smilodon populator, part of the type series described by Peter Lund and in the Copenhagen museum. Image © the author

Skull of Smilodon populator from the Lund collection in the Copenhagen museum. Image © the author

Chapter 3 focuses on the little known tar pit of Talara, Peru. Many, if not most folk interested in ice age animals will have heard of the famous Rancho la Brea tarpit in downtown Los Angeles, with its millions of bones and thousands of sabretooths and dire wolves. Less well known is that there are other tarpits in Venezuela and Peru that have similar collections of extinct monsters. Talara, in Peru has given nearly two thousand Smilodon bones, from at least twenty-four individuals, for study. It’s a very important site, not just for the raw number of bones but because the western Andes seem to be the southernmost extension of the range of North American S. fatalis, specifically distinct from the larger S. populator that is found east of the Andes. Detailed study of the Talara material in this chapter gives insight into sexual dimorphism, ontogeny, and sociality. It is, after all, the second greatest concentration of sabretooth bones known.

Chapter 4 deals with an amazing site, and one very close to my heart. Cueva del Milodón is Chile’s southern Patagonia is just incredible. The very first bone samples I ever analysed as a brand new PhD student were from this site, a site that has given us giant sloth skin, hair, bone, nails and dung, along with bones of sabretooths, giant shortfaced bears, giant jaguars, pumas, llamas, macrauchenia, deep-nosed horses, warrah-wolves, and other species. Right at the tip of South America, the climate is such that the preservation levels in the cave have perfectly captured a snapshot of a lost world of Pleistocene megafauna. The bones of Smilodon populator get a proper write-up and description. Most interestingly, tabulation of the data seems to show that Smilodon obeyed Bergmann’s rule i.e. individuals at higher latitudes were in general larger than those at lower latitudes.

My friend Alex at Cueva del Milodón in Chile. Image © the author

The inside of the cave. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dan Lundberg)

Selection of Smilodon populator bones from Mylodon Cave. Image © the author

Some of the nails, skin, and dung from the cave. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ghedoghedo)

Chapter 7 uses the infamous “Robocat”, an invention of my friend and colleague Todd Wheeler. For those who don’t know, “Robocat” is a hydraulic trackhoe, modified with a scale steel model of Smilodon skull and mandible attached to a rig that approximates the movement of the lower neck and other muscles. Using a spare bison carcass, “Robocat” continues the fine tradition of experimental palaeontology in trying to figure out how the heck sabretooth cats used their enormous teeth. The bison gets spectacularly mangled in the process. Interestingly the classic canine shear-bite first proposed by Bill Akersten in the 80s may not be feasible but based on the “Robocat” experiments a different bite model may be needed. There is also an interesting discussion on fossil Smilodon canines from older animals that seem to have suffered gum disease and allowed the tongue to rasp away a groove in the dentine. A subtle but evocative sign of soft tissue in this extinct cat.

Chapter 10 uses stable isotopes to look at what the species of Smilodon were eating and where they were hunting. It basically confirms earlier work showing that browsers were the main prey, things like ground sloths and macrauchenia. Hunting grounds were also open forest areas, which makes sense for a large ambush predator.

Chapter 12 is a fascinating overview of palaeopathology in Smilodon from that immense collection of Rancho la Brea. Bones showing massive infection, pathological fusion of vertebra and other examples of disease are discussed and put in the context of behaviour in Smilodon.

Other chapters deal with morphological phylogenetics in sabretooths, Smilodon fossils from South Carolina, computational biomechanics of the Smilodon skull, tooth development of Smilodon, postcranial morphology, and skull evolution.

Overall, this is a handsome and well put together book. The illustrations that accompany each chapter are good. There is a wealth of information about Smilodon, and much that is new and interesting. There are colour plates showing a range of reconstructions of Smilodon through the ages, from pioneers like Charles R Knight, to modern masters of palaeoart like Mark Hallett and Mauricio Anton. Curiously, these are not referred to in the text at all and simply serve as a series of canvases illustrating the eponymous subject of the book.

Given that the work is a collection of papers by different groups there is the inevitable repetition of some key Smilodon facts in almost every chapters’ introductory paragraphs. Nonetheless, it is no mean feat to pull together such a breadth of scholarship on a single subject into a coherent whole. In that sense “Smilodon: the iconic sabretooth” succeeds.

My only negative comments are that it does not succeed as well as its companion volume “The Other Saber-Tooths: Scimitar-tooth cats of the Western Hemisphere”. For my money, “Other Saber-Tooths” is a more pleasing volume, with richer illustrations and better integration of chapters overall. Still, I will leave with this final endorsement:

Both books are absolutely deserving of a place on the bookshelf of any fossil felid aficionado.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

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Globe trotter

Horses are one of Europe’s last big mammals. They shouldn’t really be here: they should have vanished a long time ago with most of the other large mammals from the Pleistocene.

Europe once had herds of gigantic, hairy mammoths; solitary, shaggy woolly rhinoceros; deer with antlers wider than I am tall; and so many more. Unfortunately they are gone. Missing from our landscape. A combination of climatic changes and human hunting resulted in these unique creatures disappearing from our beautiful world forever. With the shifts to a warmer climate from around 30,000 years ago, the environment that supported these beasts changed. Many populations diminished, as habitats shrunk. With dwindled numbers, the additional stress of humans was too much for most animals to bounce back from. The killer blow was not just for an individual but for the entire species.

Horses had the same challenges as other large mammals. The grasslands shrunk, limiting their food. And humans really enjoyed horse meat: a myriad of archaeological sites across Europe are full of horse bones with cut marks on them. And there are many sites in North America showing butchery (yes, horses were at home in North America until just 10,000 years ago!). Yet they are still in Europe today. It seems that the very thing that finished off most of the other mega-fauna was key to the survival of horses: humans. Our species saw that they could be used: not for meat, but to help carry things, and even ride. Archaeological evidence is most convincing at Botai, in Kazakhstan, where around 5500 years ago, horses were being used as milk animals (as opposed used for just meat) as well as  being used as transport by humans. Jars which contained mares milk still hold traces of the milk lipids,  and there is evidence of  cheek-pieces in use, showing the animals were bridled to go the directions the humans wanted. The  speed and quicker breeding cycle of the horse, compared to some of the larger mammals, certainly helped them survive, but by being ‘useful’ to humans ensured they are still here today. They are the last line of an amazing group.

The gorgeous Przewalski horse, a rare and endangered wild horse. (Image Claudia Feh. Public Domain)

The first animal that can be called a horse was on Earth around 52 million years ago in North America. Poetically named the ‘dawn horse’, Eohippus was about the size of a sheep dog, living in luscious tropical rainforests. With four hooved toes, it was pretty nippy in the forests, browsing on leaves and fruits. Despite its size, Eohippus travelled across the northern hemisphere: from North America into Europe, and was around for around 9 million years.

Climatic changes during the Eocene saw the tropical rainforests of North America being replaced by grasslands. Grass is such a familiar part of our lives, we take it for granted. It is one of the most widespread of all plants, and has evolved into an unfathomable range of over 12,000 different species across the globe, colonising every continent. With this tough, fast spreading plant, some herbivores adapted to taking advantage of it as a very easy source of food. Early horses moved out of their tropical rainforest homes to take advantage of the rich grasslands. But grasses are tough. Many contain silica phytoliths, which is tough and wear down teeth pretty quickly. These hooved little animals adapted to the more abrasive food by evolving higher crowned teeth: they were stronger and longer wearing down slower. With more open environments, species began to lose toes making them faster to escape predators. Dozens of species were around from about 36 million years ago all surviving, adapting, changing along with the constant pressures around them.

Through time horse species saw a reduction in toes, a flatter skull and thicker teeth. (Image H. Zell. Public Domain)

One genus was extremely successful. Evolving around 22 million years ago in the Miocene, Hipparion have been galloping across the planet until just around 780,000 years ago. This is an extremely long time. Especially when you consider our Genus, Homo, has only been around for a little over 2 million years, whereas Hipparion had been on Earth for 22 million years.

If you saw Hipparion today, you might think it was a modern horse, albeit a slightly smaller one. It would have looked like a modern horse in almost every respect, apart from a tiny difference. Hipparion had two small toes, not touching the ground, just above each hoof. These are vestiges of this animals past. Hints that the ancestors of Hipparion once walked on more than one hoof. With a need for speed, one hoof is much faster for such a large animal then three toes, so through time the toes shrunk.

Hipparion, almost the same as a horse you love and know. But it wasn’t. (Image Twilight Beasts)

There were several species of Hipparion across the northern hemisphere. From North America, they galloped into Europe, Asia, and even down into Africa. Sadly they were a lonely twig on the tree of life, leaving no descendants. Some species of Hipparion shared the land with our own ancestors. Incredible footprints preserved in 3.6 million year old volcanic ash at Laetoli in Africa show Australopithicus afarensis walked close by to a number of Hipparion. Homo erectus in Europe and Asia may well have come across this speedy herbivore. No bones have been found yet to show that hominins hunted or ate these horses. There were probably much easier, slower, prey to be had.

Unlike the other Late Pleistocene extinctions, humans were not to blame for their disappearance. The climate may well have been a big impact. With cooling temperatures grasses spread, and with expanding rich land new species of grazers, like mammoths and modern horses. This would have been new competition, pressure on resources, and lots of new predators. All these different factors would have had a huge impact on populations of Hipparion, slowly pushing them to the edge of extinction.

Extinction happens. Animals are in a constant struggle for survival. Faster predators. Changing climate. Better competitors. Sometimes when you play survival, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Buck, C. E. & Bard, E. (2007). ‘A calendar chronology for Pleistocene mammoth and horse extinction in North America based on Bayesian radiocarbon calibration.’ Quaternary Science Reviews. 26 (17–18). pp.2031–2035. [Full article]

Carroll. R., L. (1988). Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution. W. H. Freeman and Company, New York. pp. 1-698. [Book]

MacFadden, B. J. (1976). “Cladistic analysis of primitive equids with notes on other perissodactyls”. Syst. Zool. 25 (1). 1–14. [Full article]

MacFadden, B. J. (1984). ‘Systematics and phylogeny of Hipparion, Neohipparion, Nannipus, and Cormohipparion (Mammalia, Equidae) from the Miocene and Pliocene of the New World.’ Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 179. pp.1-195. [Abstract only]

MacFadden, B. J. (1998). Equidae. In Janis, C.M, Scott, K. M., & Jacobs, L., L. (eds.), Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America. pp. 537-559. [Book]

MacFadden, B. J. (2005). “Fossil Horses–Evidence for Evolution”. Science. 307 (5716). pp.1728–1730. [Abstract only]

Orlando, L. et al. (2013). ‘Recalibrating Equus evolution using the genome sequence of an early Middle Pleistocene horse’. Nature. 499 (7456): pp.74–8. [Full article]

Solow, A., Roberts, D., & Robbirt, K. (2006). Haynes, C. V. ed. ‘On the Pleistocene extinctions of Alaskan mammoths and horses.’Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (19 ed.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 103 (19): 7351–3. [Full article]

Weinstock, J., et al. (2005). ‘Evolution, systematics and phylogeography of Pleistocene horses in the New World: a molecular perspective. PLoS Biology. 3 (8): e241. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030241.

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The most (and least) read posts of 2018!

A year goes far too quickly. But a lot has happened. Rena is now Dr Rena after successfully completing her PhD. Ross has finished his book (The Missing Lynx) which is coming out in Summer 2019 (very exciting!). And Jan is beavering away at his museum. We also have some Twilight Beasts T-shirts, cups and other bits that you can buy!

With the end of a year comes the time when people pull together their ‘top ten’ greatest moments. We like to pull out the top 5 blog posts of the year. But we also like to highlight the bottom 5. In our eyes all of the posts are amazing, and why not share 10 great ones again? Browse through these 10 posts and immerse yourself in these incredible creatures of the recent past!

 Least read blog posts of 2018:

  1. How do you weigh a Dodo? This is a question I have always pondered. Now you can find out! Plus it has lots of lovely dodo pictures.

A fierce, slim looking dodo by Carolius Clusius. (Image Public Domain)

 

2. Baby’s got quack: We like the witty titles. This one is about an enormous Japanese duck.

3. The ancients of the forests: Some trees in New Zealand are a geed few thousand years old. They are incredibly important to the ecosystems.

4. Getting inside the bones: Take a look at what scientists re doing to help identify bones in museums.

5. Side by side with Homo: Discover one of our weirdest relatives. The chunky, robust Paranthropus.

The robust skull of Paranthropus boisei (Image Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Public Domain)

 

The most read blog posts of 2018:

  1. A striped wonder: One of the saddest tales of extinction. The beautiful Thylacine. Gone forever.

A male and female Thylacine in Washington D.C. National Zoo. (Image E.J. Keller. Public Domain)

2. Under the boot of man: Another horrific extinction. This time, the Great Auk. The last egg of a great auk was crushed by a hunters boot.

3. Going underground: There were once giant ground sloths on Earth. And they dug ENORMOUS tunnels!

4. From Russia with love: Not only does this blog post have an exceedingly clever title, it is all about the most beautiful woolly mammoth so far discovered.

5. The End of the Ice Age: This is the first time a book review has made it into the top 5. And it’s a fantastic book, so well deserved!

 

From the three of us at Twilight Beasts, we wish you a very healthy, happy, and fun 2019! We look forward to sharing lots more beasts with you!

Rena (@JustRena), Ross (@DeepFriedDNA) and Jan (@JanFreedman).

Follow us on Twitter  (@Twilightbeasts)  and Instagram (@TwilightBeasts)

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You only live twice

Australia is a continent full of weird wonders. From kangaroos to koalas, the animals here are unlike anywhere else on the planet. Australia is a landmass that has drifted slowly northwards, alone, across the empty Indian Ocean for over 30 million years. After it ripped apart from Antarctica, it carried with it a small cargo of mammals that evolved and adapted to life on this huge drifting land. Unlike most other parts of the world, marsupials here thrived. These hairy, milk producing mammals differ from you or I as their young are born very early and develop in a pouch. (We are placental mammals, like cows, whales and mice, where our babies develop fully inside the mother). In other parts of the world, placental mammals outcompeted marsupial mammals: they produced more young at a quicker rate. A hundred species of marsupials cling on in South America, Central America and in the very south of North America. But with over 330 species in Australia, it is here that is the home of the marsupial. Before the arrival of Europeans, there were very few endemic placental mammals (some bats, bush rats and hopping mice): all inconspicuous under the feet of the successful marsupials.

The iconic marsupial, the kangaroo. Notice the youngster in the pouch, which can develop and grow there for (Image Public Domain)

Isolated for so long, without the competition of placental mammals, marsupials evolved into some of the most wondrous, strange animals to have walked our planet. Enormous wombats the size of a car, giant kangaroos, and deadly hunters like the marsupial lion owned the land. What an incredible sight they must have been for those first people to explore the land 50,000 years ago!

There were even weirder creatures too. Like our beast, Palorchestes, which may well have been one of the strangest of the Australian megafauna.

For over 70 years this was thought to be something it wasn’t: a creature with a fake identity. This fairly large mistake was due to the problems palaeontologists face when there are new finds. It’s not an easy task. Sometimes we get pretty complete skeletons which makes it a lot easier to compare to other living and extinct animals. Most of the time the bones are small, broken, or crushed. There are thousands of unknown animals lying in drawers in museums: parts of them that have survived erosion, scavenging, or trampling, waiting patiently for their identity to be revealed. They have waited millennia, a few more years won’t hurt them.

The well-known, egocentric Victorian scientist Richard Owen described this beast based on one fragmentary jaw. The teeth looked similar to those of a kangaroo, so he named it Palorchestes – the ‘ancient leaper’. He gave this extinct animal a name, but it would be decades until this creature’s true identity would be revealed.

For a while this animal lived as a kangaroo in the scientific world. More fossils were found of this Australian giant, and in the 1950s it was identified as a new family of marsupials, named Palorchestidae. The giant kangaroo was no more: it was born again as a new type of creature, closely related to the enormous wombats Diprotodon and Zygomaturus (belonging in the Order Diprotrotodontia). This new family includes four different genera, with only 8 species. (Taxonomy can be a bit of a headache at times. We humans are classed in the Order of Primates – along with all apes and monkeys – and we are in the Family Hominidae. There are dozens of different genera of Hominidae, most of which are now extinct. Today the family just has 8 living species including chimps, gorillas, orangutans and humans: we are in the genus Homo.)

The big, weird giant Palorchestes azeal.

This strange, small family of marsupials were extremely longed lived. Evolving in the Miocene around 11 million years ago, they possibly survived until around 40,000 years ago. It appears that there was not much overlap with different species of Palorchestes living at the same time, with the fossils suggesting that species progressively for larger through time: the largest was P. azeal.

(This view of species evolving straight into another species is often misleading. It implies that one evolved straight into another, with just that one species living on the planet. In reality, a population of one species evolved locally adapting to changes, while other populations continued to live for millennia in other parts of Australia before becoming extinct. Reading the rocks from a fossil site may show one species replacing another, whereas in other parts of the continent that extinct species was likely around for longer. The fossil record is incredibly amazing because it allows us to know more about life in the past. But it is also incredibly frustrating because we need more fossils to paint a clearer picture of what was happening.)

This beast was widely distributed across Australia and Tasmania. Fossils are not very common suggesting it was a solitary animal, similar in lifestyle to rhinos and sloths. It was utterly bizarre. Its odd skull with short bones in the nose, hints that it had a short trunk, not too dissimilar to a tapir, giving it a more common name of marsupial tapir. Structures in the lower jaw indicate a long, thick, muscular tongue. With robust front limbs with pretty big claws, and a kangaroo-like tail, our leaping marsupial was no leaper.

This strange anatomy provides clues to the lifestyle of the marsupial tapir. The consensus is that Palorchestes was a solitary, browsing animal, living in open woodlands, using the claws to pull down branches and that thick, long tongue to pluck off leaves. The claws would have been used for defence and may even have been used to dig for roots. I wonder if there was more to it than that. The giant sloths and giant armadillos in North America had huge claws, and lived in similar habitats. There is evidence in South America that some dug massive burrows. The powerful forelimbs and strong claws could have been used in a similar way for Palorchestes, providing shelter from predators and a safe way to bring up their young. As yet no huge palaeo-burrows have been found in Australia, but I like to think that one day they might be.

With so few fossils of Palorchestes, it is unclear exactly when this species became extinct.  To date there have been no fossils found indicating that humans hunted or ate them. The youngest concrete dated specimens are around 100, 000 years ago, which is a good 60,000 years off the main mega-faunal extinctions in Australia. Some fossils have been radiocarbon dated giving much younger dates, but the samples have included lots of contamination or degraded too much for the dates to be reliable.

However, there is tantalising evidence that early inhabitants of Australia may have even seen these animals.

40,000 years ago someone painted some animals on a cave wall. Is this a painting of the marsupial tapir? (Image from Oakes 2003)

There are several cave paintings in Arnhem Land, with one that has been thought to be of the marsupial tapir. This painting dates to around 40,000 years old, long after the last radiocarbon dated specimen. Perhaps this is not Palorchestes. Perhaps it is. Fossils of this creature are quite rare, and we must remember that the last radiocarbon dated individual does not represent the last individual of that species. It would be strange that it disappeared long before the other Australian giants. But then the climate in Australia was becoming dried in the Late Pleistocene, reducing the wet rainforests and woodlands. More sites with more fossils will give us more answers.

This remarkable animal has perplexed us since it was first discovered. It has lived two lives since the late 1800s, and it still have many secrets to reveal.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Thanks to Gilbert Price (@The FatWombat) his comments on the post.

Further reading:

Anderson, C. (1933) ‘The fossil mammals of Australia.’ Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. 59. pp.ix-xxv.

Archer, M., Hand, S. J., & Godthelp, H. 1994. ‘Riversleigh: The story of Animals in Ancient Rainforests of Inland Australia.’ Reed Books, Chatswood. [Book]

Banks, M. R. Colhoun, E. A., & van den Geer, G. (1976) ‘Late Quaternary Palorchestes azeal (Mammalia, Diprotodontidae) from northwest Tasmania.’ Alcheringa. 1(2). pp.159-166. [Full article]

Black, K., & Mackness, B. (1999) ‘Diversity and relationships of diprotodontoid marsupials.’ Australian Mammalogy. 21. pp.34-45. [Full article]

Long, J., Archer, M., Flannery, T., & Hand, S. J. (2002). ‘Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One hundred million years of evolution.’ Kensington. University of South Wales. [Book]

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

Oakes, T. (2003) Monsters we met. BBC Books. [Book]

Owen, R. (1873) ‘On the fossil mammals of Australia. Part IX. Family Macropodidae: Genus Macropus, Pachysaigon, Leptosaigon, Procoptodon, and Palorchestes.’ Phil Trans Roy Soc. 164. pp.783-803.

Price, G. J., Feng, Y., Zhao, J., & Webb, G. E. (2013) ‘Direct U-Th dating of vertebrate fossils with minimum sampling destruction and application to museum specimens.’ Quaternary Geochronology. 18. pp.1-8. [Abstract only]

 

Posted in Diprotodon, Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Marsupial Tapir, Zygomaturus | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A whorl of difference

C’mon. Hop on into the Beastmobile. Have you been to the loo? Have you charged your phone ok? I’ve got snacks, we can have lunch in this utterly gorgeous wee pub I know. Right then, off we go.  I’m taking you over to my side of the pond, my heartland. West coast Ireland – Mayo, Clare, wherever we fancy. Breathe that air – have you ever felt anything as clean? You’re at the last outpost of Europe. The grey swell of the Atlantic there would lead you to Nova Scotia, or, less likely, Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and beauty beyond the Ninth Wave, if you want to roll with the old myths and legends.

This coastline is mythical in its own savage beauty, with sunken beaches, dunes rising from sea mist, amethyst lodes embedded in stern grey crags, and sweeping rich green turf, studded with obstinate white sheep. The sheer cliff faces suddenly give way to turquoise lagoons, sheltered silver beaches and seas replete with dolphins. If you were a very wealthy and not very nice person, it would be a place you’d see massive chances for commercial exploitation in, because who wouldn’t want to be here? You can stand on the jagged rocky beaches, arms spread wide, and let the wind and tide tell you about the depths of the ocean out there, and the whirling jet stream coming up from the panhandle of Florida.

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Away out in the wild wild west, where the Mesolithic was always the best 😉 A little further north, this, on Achill Island.

If you want to understand the concept of liminality, this is the place to do it, preferably with a rich smoky whiskey beside an open turf fire, in one of the myriad splendid roadside pubs across the region. This was the last stop of the Mesolithic voyagers over 10kya. Done roaming. The same for the Neolithic explosion of some 6000 years ago. They stood on these beaches too, scanning for good places to settle, to fish and hunt.

However, this landscape was once dense, thick sheets of ice.

We think.

But we aren’t fully sure….

That’s kind of the start of this story, which will involve a very, very eensy tiny wee Twilight Beast, the landscape it needs to exist, what horrors that landscape attracted because of its beauty, and how something so terribly small turned out to be, in fact, very powerful. Maybe in that respect, it’s a story for our times, one we all need at the moment.

Ireland after the Ice

We will never know what was here before the ice sheets marched inexorably across Ireland around 32,000 years ago (32kya). That landscape of forests and rivers was lost, as the relentless glaciers advanced, covering even the mountain peaks, well, apart from the McGillicuddy Reeks in Kerry. However, underwater moraines off the westward Atlantic shelf break, as well as other features in the Irish Sea basin, and the southerly Celtic Sea off Cork, all indicate an island in the grip of an almost eternal winter, white and frozen, by 23kya. By 20kya the ice had retreated to roughly what is now the modern shoreline of Ireland, followed by a series of advances and retreats, until a general retreat and thaw around 15kya as a standard for the whole island.

The landscape left after the glaciers had melted and retreated was boggy, misty, still cold, and filled with lakes where the ice had gouged out hollows, now filling with melted waters, a  newly emerged world holding its breath, waiting for life to return. Which of course it did. It’s just how the issue is!

The return of vegetation is understandable – seeds arrived, windblown, or washed up by the seas and newly running rivers; birds arrived too, spreading life in the form of birdsong, seeds and poop through the silent mists. Somewhere in the middle of all this re-greening, mammals arrived, although not as many as Britain has. Also, little tiny crawling, hopping and slithering things like insects, frogs and slugs… oh, and snails, made their way somehow to Ireland.

The post-glacial re (?)/colonisation of Ireland is riddled with contradictions as to how critters came here. We’ve been left with three possible answers, although all are slightly fraught with problems. Either some critters, especially amphibians and invertebrates, managed somehow to survive the ice, which in turn leads to the question of refugia on Icy Ireland, or else there was a land-bridge between Britain and Ireland, which in turn connected to Europe via the Doggerland land mass. However, there’s a problem with the good old land-bridge theory. The latest evidence suggests that Ireland likely did not have a land-bridge with Britain or Scotland, or if it did, it was of a brief duration, resembling more of a causeway, due to rapidly rising sea levels. So, it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what species can be called ‘indigenous’ to Ireland, and how you choose to define that. All we can say is that something allowed the wild creatures to arrive onto this island after the ice, whether they walked, crawled, hopped, splashed, scampered or slithered of their own accord, or if they were brought by humans.

The commencing dates of the Mesolithic in Ireland are still pretty much up for grabs. We always though the Mesolithic here started with Mount Sandel on the Lower Bann near Coleraine, some 10,000-ish years ago, and likewise with Hermitage, in Co Limerick on the west coast, where the earliest polished axe head in Europe was found in a rare Mesolithic grave, dating between 7530-7320 BC (I know you want to see it so there is a photo of it!). However, the ‘Bear from Clare’ story has suggested there’s an even earlier phase, which may yet have to be classified as a late Irish Palaeolithic period. Whoever these people were, they had journeyed across seas to Ireland, bringing fragments of their old lives with them in the form of tools, stories, seeds and creatures. We are lucky that they chose to stick around. Their middens remain, at places like Rockmarshall in Louth, testament to the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers after the ice.

From the ubiquitous http://www.irisharchaeology.ie, an image of the Hermitage Mesolithic stone axe head, found in a cremation context: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/03/a-mesolithic-cemetery-irelands-oldest-burials/

Snails and trails

It’s into this uncertainty we introduce our Twilight Beast: Vertigo angustior. Better known (by malacologists if no-one else) as the Narrow-Mouthed Whorl Snail. The tiny bane of anti-environmentalists in White Houses (ahem, you know who I mean) and Preventer of Walls. V. angustior is a very small land snail, even by snail standards. It has a golden honey-coloured shell height of around 1.8 mm, and a width of under 1mm. It’s an endangered species in Ireland and Britain, just as it is across Europe, and has mostly clung to the western coastline, with some in County Clare, and a scattering close to the Giants Causeway, between Counties Derry and North Antrim. Because it arrived in Ireland long ago, when niche species had a better chance of surviving (until the next climate change phase anyway), it has fallen foul in our modern, polluted world because of its need for a ‘goldilocks’ environment.

When I say tiny, I mean… teensy tiny! Thank you to malacologist and all round good bloke Dr Matt Law ( Twitter @m_law) for this photo!

Technically, the little relict critter can live in dune grassland, fen, marsh, salt marsh or flood plain. However, the micro‐habitat within which it is restricted means that the exact perfect conditions are exceedingly rare. The largest areas of occupancy in Ireland are in damp sand dune systems in the west of Ireland, perhaps because there’s a better chance that the desolate and wild, and relatively untouched landscape still maintains a permanently moist litter with humid conditions, incorporating the shade of moderately tall herbaceous or grassy vegetation. Just like the Mesolithic then….

How did it manage to get here, at the junction of the Holocene and Pleistocene? It is perhaps worth noting that the famous Mesolithic site of Ferriters Cove, County Cork, is some 100km southwards from the V. angustior habitation site of Doughmore Bay, in County Clare, which we are going to discuss shortly. Ferriters Cove site produced late Mesolithic dates for cattle bones – the earliest in Ireland or Britain. There’s a current theory that haunches and sides of beef were brought in, like some sort of Mesolithic Iceland or Tesco delivery system by sea, rather than ‘on the hoof’.  Regardless of whether the cows were alive or dead, the presence of the bones indicate importation and trade with other places, in this case most likely the Iberian Peninsula or France. There have long been noted similarities between Iberia and the alleged refugia peaks of south western Ireland; some frog species share ancestral haplogroups with Iberian frogs, and the peregrinations of Cepaea nemoralis from Mesolithic Iberia to Ireland has been blamed on deliberate import for a tasty dish of escargot at an ancient al fresco beach party. Poor litte V. angustior really wouldn’t be a good choice for dinner as it doesn’t have much pickings in its shell! So it may be the tiny little land snail was a hitch hiker on other goods being shipped in by the intrepid sea travellers.

This past month has been an exciting time for Northern Ireland as an even rarer relative of the little snail, Vertigo moulinsiana, has only recently been found in the east coast region of Lecale, on the Ards Peninsula, the first time it’s ever been found in Ireland, and this story is basically unfolding as I write. It’s really not known how the slithery little pals even got there, and if they have actually been there all along.  To our defence, 2mm is really rather small, and can be overlooked rather easily, when dazzled especially by the plethora of natural and archaeological features of Lecale.

Map of Ireland showing how very few decent-sized colonies of V angustior exist, and how they are mostly clustered to the west coast.  Image from : National Biodiversity Data Centre, Ireland, Narrow-mouthed Whorl Snail (Vertigo (Vertilla) angustior), image, accessed 25 October 2018, <https://maps.biodiversityireland.ie/Species/TerrestrialDistributionMapPrintSize/123620&gt;

We’re gonna build a wall…

It’s a small miracle, therefore, that V. angustior has survived at all, and in one of its refugia on the west coast of Ireland, it was touch and go for a while. Doonbeg beach, and nearby Doughmore Bay is in County Clare and a habitat for the wee snail. It is an incredible landscape of submerged dunes and golden beaches. Sadly, in 2014, this beauty attracted the covetous eyes of unscrupulous big business.

When a substantial part of sea front land was bought by Trump’s real estate interests for conversion to a golf resort, the general feeling was one of horror. While some people with lesser concerns for environmentalism thought it may stimulate employment in the area, most of the younger residents, from middle age to millennial, felt that the destruction of the dune system was a step further than what they wanted. Especially when it became clear that the plan was to build a very large wall, running about 3.5 km, to cut the beach off from the sea itself. Now, environmental walls are not a good idea, and belong firmly in the realms of very strange people who deny climate change, so the screaming for a Doonbeg Wall was pretty par for the course, considering who wanted it. It was particularly strange, as the reason for it was supposed to be to prevent the golf course from being hit by coastal erosion due to – climate change, something Trump has repeatedly stated is a ‘hoax’, which he certainly doesn’t believe in. Unless, presumably, you want to create a golf course which continues to lose money at a fairly energetic rate.

If anyone knows anyone from Mayo or Clare, it’s really best not to lock horns with them. They are like their landscape, resilient and enduring.  While Trump is well known for his aggression and antagonism to residents near his Scottish golf-courses, in this case, he had met his match, as he locked not horns with a long term Clare resident, but whorls. The tiny snail, as a protected species, would have become further endangered with the destruction of its micro-habitat. The sand dune system which it lives in is protected by the European Union, just like V. angustior. So, Trump has had little choice but to submit alternative plans for his golf course at Doonbeg, negating the original planned wall and replacing it with piling and rock armour in two shorter stretches, and moving some of the holes of the course further inland.  It is still not ideal,  and even the revised plans are currently being contested by  An Taisce (the equivalent of the National Trust for Ireland), Friends of the Earth, numerous environmental organisations and  more concerned residents of the area. This is due to go to court sometime at the end of 2018. The vast majority of environmentally aware people would be most relieved that Doonbeg would remain a sanctuary for a little snail, taxa whose habitational needs tell us a great deal of what the environment was like after the ice melted.

Perhaps, it’s a moral story of our time, for us to take some heart from, that something so small, and theoretically insignificant as a land snail only 2mm tall, could slow down the anti-science brigade, just by being itself – a tiny, ancient thing made of pearly honey-coloured shell, itself most likely a little Mesolithic immigrant creature who hitched a ride on something which was much more desirable as a trade object. The Mesolithic, of course, knew no borders. The ice was gone and there was a world to explore with your boat, and a frisky wind to blow you to green shores and rivers leaping with silver trout. Who knows what little hitch hiker creatures tagged along, wrapped in leaves and grasses from faraway places?  Like V. angustior, we all start someplace else, until we find the place we call home, based on our own needs and terms, where the only walls ( or shells!) are the ones we call home.

Vertigo angustior, image by Claire David via Wikimedia Commons

Vertigo moulinsiana, by Giles San Martin via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

Further Reading:

https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/trump-golf-course-wall-battle-continues-465390.html

http://www.thejournal.ie/trump-doonbeg-planning-activist-3783984-Jan2018/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-irish-golf-course-lost-23-million-in-2016/2018/01/02/b410a14c-ef5b-11e7-b390-a36dc3fa2842_story.html?utm_term=.d440111b5a33

https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/trump-sea-wall-will-ruin-beach-and-habitat-36420288.html

https://www.downnews.co.uk/rare-snail-discovered-at-county-down-bog/

Ballantyne C.K. and Ó Cofaigh C. 2017.  ‘The Last Irish Ice Sheet: Extent and Chronology’. in Coxon P., McCarron S. and Mitchell F. (eds) Advances in Irish Quaternary Studies. Atlantis Advances in Quaternary Science Vol. 1. Paris: Atlantis Press. [Full Text]

Barth, A.M., Clark, P.U., Clark, J., Marshall McCabe, A. and Caffee, M. 2016. ‘Last Glacial Maximum cirque glaciation in Ireland and implications for reconstructions of the Irish Ice Sheet’. Quaternary Science Reviews. 141. pp 85-93. [Full Text]

Bayliss, A. and Woodman, P. 2009. ‘A new Bayesian chronology for Mesolithic occupation at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 75. pp. 101-123. [Full Text]

Byrne, A.W., Moorkens, E.A., Anderson, R., Killeen, I.J. and Regan, E. 2009. Ireland Red List no. 2: Non-marine molluscs. Dublin: National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. [Full Text]

Clark, C.D., Hughes, A.L.C., Greenwood, S.L., Jordan. C., and Sejrup, H.P. 2012. Pattern and timing of retreat of the last British-Irish Ice Sheet. Quaternary Science Reviews44. pp 112–146. [Full Text]

Crees, J.J. and Turvey, S.T. 2015. ‘What constitutes a ‘native’species? Insights from the Quaternary faunal record’. Biological Conservation186. pp.143-148. [Full Text]

Dowd, M. and Carden, R.F. 2016. ‘First evidence of a Late Upper Palaeolithic human presence in Ireland’. Quaternary Science Reviews. 139. pp.158-163. [Abstract]

Grindon, A.J. and Davison. A. 2013. ‘Irish Cepaea nemoralis land snails have a cryptic Franco-Iberian origin that is most easily explained by the movements of Mesolithic humans’. PLoS ONE  8. [Full Text]

Little, A., Van Gijn, A., Collins, T., Cooney, G., Elliott, B., Gilhooly, B. and Warren, G. 2017. Stone Dead: Uncovering Early Mesolithic Mortuary Rites, Hermitage, Ireland. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 27. 2. pp 223-243. [Abstract]

Moorkens, E.A. and Killeen, I.J. 2011. Monitoring and Condition Assessment of Populations of Vertigo geyeri, Vertigo angustior and Vertigo moulinsiana in Ireland.Dublin:  National Parks and Wildlife Service. [Full Text]

Moorkens, E.A. and Gaynor, K. 2003. ‘Studies on Vertigo angustior at a coastal site in western Ireland (Gastropoda, Pulmonata: Vertiginidae). Heldia. 5. 7.  pp.125-134.

Rowley-Conwy, P. 2011. ‘Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculturalism from Central Europe to the Atlantic’. Current Anthropology, 52, S4.  pp 431-S451. [Full Text]

Teacher, A.G.F., Garner, T.W. and Nichols, R.A. 2009.  ‘European phylogeography of the common frog (Rana temporaria): routes of postglacial colonization into the British Isles, and evidence for an Irish glacial refugium’ Heredity. 102. pp 490–496. [Full Text]

Warren, G. 2015. ‘Mere food gatherers they, parasites upon nature…’ food and drink in the Mesolithic of Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 115. pp.1-26.[Abstract]

Woodman, P. and McCarthy, M. 2003. ‘Contemplating some awful (ly interesting) vistas: importing cattle and red deer into prehistoric Ireland’ in Armit, I., Murphy, E., Nelis, E and Simpson, D (eds) Neolithic settlement in Ireland and western Britain. Oxford: Oxbow Publications.  pp. 31-39. Book.

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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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Beauty beyond our grasp

Some prehistoric beasts have been in disguise for centuries. For hundreds of years people across China have been finding giant dinosaur bones and using them to create the myths and stories of dragons. In France ginormous bones form the weird elephant relative, Deinotherium, were thought to belong to giant species of humans. There was one of these wondrous mythical creatures that was dispelled much earlier than any other, only to lay hidden for centuries.

Established in 59BC by Julius Caesar, the Republic of Florence became one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe by the 1600s. It is today as it was back then: money influenced power. Perhaps the richest family in Europe for over 300 years, the House of Medici had an enormous impact on the politics of Florence in the 1400s before becoming monarchs in the 1500s. This powerful family had a huge influence on the city in a surprising way: they had an unusual appreciation of art, funding many commissions across the city, sparking the Renaissance. Many of the great Masters (including those which were later re-christened as mutant turtles Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello) were supported by grand commissions by the Medici family.

It was this openness to art, and more liberal views away from the strict religious doctrine of the time, that was extremely lucky for one young man. And for science.

Danish born naturalist Niels Stensen, studied across Europe in his early 20s. In Holland, he discovered the parotid gland (the largest of the salivary glands). In Paris he was the first to correctly illustrate the complex anatomy of the human brain – no easy feat! He even declared that the heart was just a muscle: a very bold statement at a time when God was seen by almost everyone as the giver of life. Stensen was invited to Florence in 1665, by Ferdinando II de Medici, when he was just 28 years old. To be personally invited by the richest family in Europe was a huge honour.  With the influences around him he soon converted to Catholicism, renaming himself Nicolaus Steno.

Painting of Steno when he was a Bishop in later life, almost two centuries after he passed away. (Art by J. P. Trap 1868) Public Domain.

Steno became Ferdinando’s personal physician and also tutored his sons. Steno was a bright, intelligent naturalist, and insanely curious. He created a moral rule for himself: “What we see is beautiful; what we know more beautiful; what we cannot grasp, most beautiful.” This is a maxim I would happily live by. How can we not behold nature that is so strange, so wonderous, as to be anything other than beautiful?

In Florence Steno had time to explore the landscape around him. He looked at rocks, and found many ‘tongue stones’ known as glossopetrae, which were believed to have been the tongues of giant snakes and dragons. These massive triangular shiny ‘stones’ superficially looked a little like tongues, but there were a couple of people who suggested that they were actually the teeth of sharks. Steno used this as a test: he compared the tongue stones to dozens of different species of teeth from living sharks, and discovered that they were indeed teeth of a shark. Albeit, a bloody massive one. He published his work on his giant shark in a book with the catchy title that roles off the tongue “Introduction to a dissertation on the solid substance naturally contained within solids” in 1669.

The reconstruction of the giant shark drawn by Steno, published in his great work of 1669. (Image Public Domain)

Steno’s published work was way ahead of its time. It spoke about animals that no longer lived – the concept of extinction was unheard of back then. It even suggested that the land had once been the sea – no one had imagined a dramatically changing planet. Maybe because his ideas were so heretical, or just so unbelievable, Steno’s work made little impact on his world. It lay hidden for over a century, and was discovered by Darwin’s idol, Alexander von Humboldt.

Almost 200 years after this giant shark was described in Steno’s work, it was named by the Swiss zoologist, Louis Agassiz. He named it Carcharodon megalodon: you will know it as Megalodon. (It has since been reclassified several times. Today most researchers agree that Megalodon was not a close relative to great white sharks, and belong in their own genus, Carcharocles megalodon.)

Sharks are an incredible group of animals that sadly have a lot of negative views mainly from films, such as Jaws as well as media creating ‘deadly’ encounters. In fact, only around 5 people a year die from shark attacks around the world: a tiny number when you think that in America alone over 250 people die from falling out of bed every year.

Their reputation for deadly killers is quite true. They have been on Earth for over 420 million years, and are perfectly adapted as some of the top predators in the oceans. And some were weird too, like the strange saw toothed shark, Helicoprion. With around 400 different species of sharks living today, they are an extremely successful group. Some are small. And some are big. But there was, and is, no bigger shark than Megalodon.

The weird saw from the mouth of the bizarre shark Helicprion. (Photo by author. Specimen at the National Museum of Natural History.)

Shark bones are made of cartilage (if you put your finger on your nose, that hard bit on the ridge is cartilage). This is softer than the bones in you and I,  and it really doesn’t fossilise well. The majority of Megalodon fossils are teeth – these are tough and hard and are preserved pretty well. A few vertebrae have been discovered, and one almost complete vertebra column was discovered. With the teeth and these few vertebra fossils, we have a pretty good estimate of the size of Megalodon, anywhere between 15 and 20 meters long (the largest great white shark is around 6 meters long).

The ginormous size of Megalodon (in blue). At around 20 meters long, it dwarfs a 6 meter long great white shark! (Image Twilight Beasts)

Sharks continually grow new teeth throughout their lives because they are often broken off when attacking prey or eating. And this means that many teeth sink to the ocean floor. And there have been an awful lot of Megalodon teeth found. They show that this shark was distributed worldwide, but mainly in temperate and subtropical environments. Megalodon ruled the oceans from around 20 million years ago until just the dawn of the twilight, around 2.6 million years ago.

For such a giant creature, it needed some pretty big prey. Fossils show that youngsters were spending a lot of time in and near coastal lagoons feeding on fish, turtles and young whales. For the adults, there were a huge number of different whale species. Many fossil whale bones have teeth marks on them made by Megalodon. It would have been a formidable predator.

With just teeth and a small number of bones, we don’t really know what Megalodon looked like. That almost complete fossilised vertebra column that was found provides a bit of a clue. Found in Belgium, it is the most complete Megalodon fossil so far found. It includes 150 vertebra bones, and it is likely that this specimen had over 200 when it was complete. Most sharks don’t have any where near this number in their vertebal columns. Except for the great white: it has a higher number than all other sharks. Megalodon and great white sharks have crazy amount of bones in their spines. Megalodon teeth also provide a clue to what it looked like: they are almost identical to great white teeth (apart from the gigantic size) suggesting a similar lifestyle, and similar shaped body.

The author inside the jaws of Megalodon. On display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. (Photo by random (and very patient) museum visitor)

For such an enormous beast, and a very successful one, it is a bit of a mystery why it became extinct. It had successfully lived at the top of the food chain for around 20 million years (our species have only been on Earth for around 300,000 years). It’s extinction likely had something to do with the dawn of the twilight. The Pleistocene Epoch (starting around 2.6 million years ago) marks the beginning of massive changes in temperatures with enormous glaciers at the poles, and falling sea levels. Ocean temperatures dropped. North and South America joined together which changed ocean currents around the world. All of this had a huge impact on other marine life: whale diversity shrank around this time, and with the giant sharks main food supply disappearing, it too vanished.

Megalodon is extinct. There are no Megalodon hiding in the deep oceans, or the Mariana Trench as suggested in the recent film The Meg (2018). If a 20 meter long shark was still around, we would know about it (particularly as there would have to be a population of them to breed and survive). We like the idea that there are some real giant monsters still out there. There are plenty of species that we haven’t discovered yet, from mini-beasts to mammals. The more we learn about nature, the more beautiful we can see it is. And then there are the unknowns, the what ifs. A shark the length of two double decker buses, that really lived in the oceans. Stenos maxim is so true for us all, even if we do not realise it:

“What we see is beautiful; what we know more beautiful; what we cannot grasp, most beautiful.”

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:
Ehret, D., Humbbell, G., & Macfadden, B. J. (2009). ‘Exceptional preservation of the white shark, Carcharodon, from the early Pliocene of Peru.’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29(1). pp.1-13.

Kimley, P., & Ainley, D. (1996). ‘Great white sharks: The biology of Carcharodon carcharias.’ San Deigo, California: Academic Press.

Kuang-Tai, H. (2009). ‘The path to Steno’s Synthesis on the Animal Origin of Glossopetrae’. In Rosenburg, G. D. ‘The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.’ Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America.

Nyberg, K. G., Ciampagilo, C. N., & Wray, G. A. (2006). ‘Tracing the ancestry of the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, using morphometric analysis of fossil teeth.’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 26(4). pp.806-814.

Pimiento, C., & Clements, C. F. (2014). ‘When did Carcharocles megalodon become extinct? A new analysis of the fossil record.’ PLoS ONE. 9(10): E111086.

Pimiento, C., et al. (2010). ‘Ancient nursery area for the extinct giant shark Megalodon from the Miocene of Panama.’ PLoS ONE. 5(5): E10552.

Prothero, D. R. (2015). ‘The story of life in 25 fossils: Tales of intrepid fossil hunters and the wonders of evolution.’ Columbia University Press.

Shimada, K. (2002). ‘The relationship between the tooth size and total body length in the white shark Carcharodon carcharias (Lamniformes: Lamnidae).’ Journal of fossil Research. 35(2). pp.28-33.

Wendt, H. (1970), ‘Before the Deluge’. Paladin.

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