If you think of the weirdest mammal you can, chances are a tapir would pop into your mind. They are pretty odd. Kind of like a mad-scientist’s experiment between a pig and an elephant gone wrong.

Perhaps naively, I had always assumed there was just one species, the tapirs living in the Amazon (Tapirus terrestris, the Brazilian tapir). I learnt that there are actually four different species in all, and they are not just found in Brazil. Baird’s tapir (T. bairdii) can be found across Mexico and a few countries in the north of South America. There’s the mountain tapir (T. pinchaque) of South America, with it’s woolly shaggy hair covering it to keep it warmer in the cooler mountain ranges. And the Malayan tapir (T. indicus), the last surviving tapir from Asia. All these beautifully-strange species are vulnerable to extinction.

The Brazilian tapir, Tapirus terrestis, the tapir I’ve seen in zoos and on TV. Just one of four tapir species! (Image Bernard Dupont. Public Domain)

Tapirs are full of really neat features. My favourite, and the most diagnostic, is that large nose: it’s proboscis. Much more flexible than an elephant’s, it can move in any direction to grab onto branches to eat leaves. Large, splayed toes spread the body weight allowing these fairly large mammals to live in wet, boggy, muddy environments. Being mostly nocturnal, their eyes are cloudy-looking and they have rather poor vision. That large muscle protruding from their face makes up for it: tapirs have an excellent sense of smell. They use it to search for food or for a mate. Tapirs will mate in water or on land, and they can mate several times whilst the female is on heat, for a rather modest length of time – between 10 and 20 minutes. (In humans, the average is somewhat disappointing: around 6 minutes. I hasten to add that this is an average.)

Closely related to rhinos and horses, the first fossils of the tapir family (the Tapiridae) are found in 50 million year old rocks in North America. They were a hugely successful group. Several species evolved, and they spread far across the northern hemispher. During times of low sea levels, species made their way over into Asia, and even Europe. Around 2.9 million years ago, when North and South America joined together, tapirs made their way into South America for the first time.

Fossil tapir skull found in South Carolina. On display at Charleston Museum. That large hole in the head is the nasal cavity, and supports the flexible but short trunk. (Image Jan Freedman)

With so many species in the last 50 million years, it is no surprise that there was an enormous one, Tapirus augustus (sometimes referred to as Megatapirus augustus). This was a ruddy big tapir, around 1.5 metres tall, and 3 meters long.

The giant tapir, Tapirus augusus, was almost as tall as a human. (Image Twilight Beasts)

A plethora of fossils across Asia give us an evolutionary story for this giant. Huge grasslands across Asia during the early Pleistocene, around 2 million years ago, would have helped the spread of tapirs across the continent. A population of one species, T. sanyauensis, appears to have increased in size in the Early to Mid-Pleistocene, the ancestor of T. sinensis. A few hundred thousands years later, a population of T. sinensis was isolated from other populations and continued to get bigger, and during the Mid to Late-Pleistocene we see the giant T. augustus. This is a very simplified story, and in reality many isolated populations just carried on without changing much, whilst others died out. Evolutions isn’t a neat ladder leading from one species to another: it’s a very busy, very complicated tree.

We know a bit more about the giant tapir thanks to a myriad of sites across China hold fossils being found alongside hominins, so they are well recorded and published. Fossils of Homo erectus have been excavated at Gongwangling in Eastern China, dating between 1.15 and 1.63 million years old. Their landscape was share with some species found in the region today, along with extinct deer, huge hyenas, long-vanished rhinos, and the giant tapirs. Human teeth were excavated at Huanglong Cave in Eastern China, dating between 100,000 and 40,000 years old. Along with several human teeth, likely belonging to our species H. sapiens and not H. errectus, stone tools have been recovered along with over 25 different species of large mammals. Species of extinct rhinos, deer, proboscids, hyenas, and the giant tapir have all been found. Many of the bones are fragmentary, indicating that this cave may have been a home for groups of H. sapiens at some points in the past. And these groups may have been bring food back to this cave, giving a glimpse into the range of animals they ate.

From the species found at these sites, we can work out the likely environment that the giant tapir lived in. The assemblages indicate that the environments were not much different from the region today. These giant tapirs lived in warm, sub-tropical forests.

The funky skull of the giant tapir. (Image Ryan Somma. Public Domain)

Our giant tapir was around until relatively recently, shuffling in the forests of Asia until just around 4000 years ago. It’s difficult to identify exactly why they went extinct. Humans have been suggested as the cause of the extinctions of many large mammals, but here, humans (H. erectus and H. sapiens) and giant tapirs overlapped for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet there is evidence that they were food in the past, just as the four species are hunted by humans today. Habitat loss from changing climate or destruction by humans for farming may have played a role. Or it may have been a combination of both. For large mammals, with slower breeding than smaller ones, these pressures happening unnaturally fast will have had an impact on populations.

Tapirs and humans have had a long history of living alongside one another. And they are very symbolic in some cultures. In some Asian countries, there are stories of tapirs eating nightmare’s. It’s an interesting and quite scary bit of folklore, but quite unusual for a herbivorous animal. It’s not difficult to imagine it’s origins, as stories were told round a fire, with the rustle of leaves close by. The flickering flames briefly lighting the well camouflaged, weird shaped body of a tapir. With their solitary lifestyle, tapirs are a little bit mysterious. I like to imagine what it must have been like to hear that rustle in the forest of a giant tapir passing by a group of people quietly telling stories.

Written by: Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Bien, M. N., & Chia, L. P. 1938. ‘Cave and rock-shelter deposits in Yunnan.’ Bulletin of the Geological Society of China. 18. pp.325-347. [Full article]

Corlett, R. T. 2007. ‘The impact of hunting on the mammalian fauna of tropical Asian forests.’ Biotropica. 39(3). pp.292-303. [Full article]

Hooijer, D., A. 1951. ‘Two new deer from the Pleistocene of Wanhsien, Szechwan, China.’ American Museum Novitates. 1495. pp.1-18. [Full article]

Hulbert, R. C., Jr. 1995. ‘The giant tapir, Tapirus haysii, from Leisey Shell Pit 1A and other Florida Irvingtonian localities.’ Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History. 37(2). pp.515-551. [Full article]

Jin, C. Z., Pan, W. S., Zhang, Y. Q., et al. 2009. ‘The Homo sapiens Cave hominin site of Mulan Mountain, Jiangzhou District, Chongzuo, Guangxi with emphasis on age.’ Chinese Sciences Bulletin. 54. pp.3848-3856. [Full article]

Lord Cranbrook & Piper, P. J. 2013. ‘Paleontology to Policy: the Quaternary history of Southeast Asian tapirs (Tapiridae) in relation to large mammal species turnover, with a proposal for conservation of Malayan tapir by reintroduction to Borneo.’ Intergrative Zoology. 8. pp.95-120. [Full article]

Lui, W., et al. 2015. ‘The earliest unequivocally modern humans in Southern China.’ Nature. 526(7575). pp. 696-699. [Full article]

Shen, G., et al. 2002. ‘U-Series dating of Liujiang hominid site in Guangxi, Southern China.’ Journal of Human Evolution. 43. pp.817-829. [Full article]

Xianzchu, W. U., et al. 2006. ‘Huanglong Cave, a new late Pleistocene hominid site in Hubei Province, China.’ Chinese Sciences Bulletin. 51(20). pp.2493-2499. [Full article]

Zhao-Yu, Z., et al. 2015. ‘New dating of the Homo erectus cranium from Lantian (Gongwangling), China.’ Journal of Human Evolution. 78. pp. 144-157. [Full article]

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On the dhole

It’s funny when you think about it. Canids famously have a swimming style named after them but they hardly ever made it to any islands. Compared to elephants, hippos, and tortoises and the ease with which they seem to have colonised remote archipelagos, dogs don’t seem to have strayed far from land. Except when moved by people. Natural colonisations are few and far between and more likely to be the result of getting stranded after sea level rise (think of the grey foxes of the California channel islands or the extinct Falkland islands wolf). One exception that breaks this rule lived in Pleistocene Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that has never been connected to the mainland. In amongst the dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants that populated many med islands, the Sardinian canid is an anomaly. It’s not even a wolf, the one wild European canid that people are familiar with. It’s something different. Something from a separate branch that until the Holocene was a vital part of the European fauna. Sardinia had its own dhole.

Sardinian dhole (Cynotherium sardous) Reconstruction by Mariomassone CC-BY-SA 4.0

Dholes are the “Red Dogs” of Kipling’s Jungle Book: fierce and efficient killers that today live in Indonesia and Mainland Asia. Looking like a red fox on steroids, dholes are pack animals that can easily take down buffalo and deer. In the Pleistocene they were also common in Europe, and roamed even into North America*.

The Dhole (Cuon alpinus). Image ©Ross Barnett

Dholes (Cuon alpinus). Image ©Ross Barnett

Sardinia’s dhole, Cynotherium sardous, is not a direct relative of the modern dhole, Cuon alpinus. Instead it probably shares a common ancestor with the dholes and painted dogs (Lycaon pictus). This ancestral form, Xenocyon lycaonoides, was widespread in Europe during the early Pleistocene and presumably doggy paddled its way to Sardinia. At the point in time during the Pleistocene, Corsica and Sardinia were joined into a larger island due to lowered sea levels. On arrival, Xenocyon found itself in an insular environment bereft of large prey animals. Instantly, natural selection worked its magic and strong selection pressure started favouring smaller individuals who could more efficiently hunt small prey, and required fewer calories to reach maturity. It’s a classic example of the island rule. The big get small and the small get big. Remarkably consistent across elephants, mammoths, hippos, deer, rodents, birds, and yes, humans too. The famous hobbit (Homo floresiensis) of Flores shows what happens to large human like species under the selection regime of an isolated island.

Size was just one aspect modified by natural selection in the Sardinian dhole. Luckily we have a very good series of fossils from the skull and post-cranial remains of many individuals to look at. They clearly show other adaptations that are unique among canids. Firstly, the neck bones show signs of being extremely flexible and hyper-strong. Additionally, muscle attachment scars show that the shoulder had a wide degree of freedom of movement and that the triceps were enormous. The triceps is the muscle that does the opposite job to the biceps- it’s the muscle you would use when pushing yourself up off the ground during a push up. It’s the one that extends the arm. All this points towards an animal where explosive leaps from a stalking stance allowed it to quickly grab and shake small prey to death.

Some of the skeletal adaptations of Cynotherium sardous. Image by George Lyras & Alexandra van der Geer CC-BY-SA 2.0

The end result of island dwarfing for the Sardinian dhole was a reduction in size to an estimated 10kg in the latest adult specimens known. Despite ruling their tiny kingdom for most of the Pleistocene, they seem to disappear around 11,000 years ago. Just when humans arrive on the island.

The results of island dwarfing on Sardinia from the large ancestral Xenocyon lycaonoides to Cynotherium sardous. Image by George Lyras & Alexandra van der Geer CC-BY-SA 3.0

*Bizarrely, dholes are known from Beringia, and one site in Mexico (San Josecito cave). The fossils are super diagnostic so there can be no doubt that they are what they are but that’s one hell of a geographic gap for what must have been a widespread species. Really makes you think about the gaps in the fossil record.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptations and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands. edited by A. A. E. van der Geer, G. A. Lyras, J. de Vos and M. D. Dermitzakis: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. [Book]

Lyras, G. A., and A. A. E. van der Geer. “Adaptations of the Pleistocene Island Canid Cynotherium Sardous (Sardinia, Italy) for Hunting Small Prey.” Cranium 23, no. 1 (2006): 51-60. [Abstract]

Lyras, G. A., A. A. E. van der Geer, M. D. Dermitzakis, and J. de Vos. “Cynotherium Sardous, an Insular Canid (Mammalia: Carnivora) from the Pleistocene of Sardinia (Italy), and Its Origin.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26, no. 3 (2006): 735-45. [Abstract]



Posted in dhole, Extinction, Giant Maltese Dormice, Hippopotamus, Mouse Goat | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Interview with the mammoth

Archaeology brings you some strange and marvellous places. They never told me that in the prospectus. I’m currently writing this, away up north in Kikinda, in the Banat province of Serbia, a region of vibrance and colour and richness of history, matched by the warmth and hospitality of its people. Whether it’s the fields of swaying sunflowers, making the landscape look like a golden sea, or the scarlet sunsets illuminating the deep bark of the plum trees, now heavily laden with darkest rich purple fruit, Serbia has utterly enchanted me. Any nation which can boast burek, rakija, Urnfield culture and mammoths is alright by me.

Voyvodina, Lush and green in summer!

Getting a mammoth interview!

Oh, I didn’t tell you about the mammoths, did I? Serbia wasn’t always the land of luscious fruit and vegetation it is now. Climate changed through the Holocene of course, and when humans arrived they altered the landscape by way of farming and animal husbandry. Once this dazzlingly verdant country was cold steppes, which was when Kika and her kind held sway. It’s an interesting area for the Ice Age as it was a boundary which allowed steppe animals to graze. Kika is a near-as-dammit complete ( 90% of bone present) Mammothus trogontherii found almost on the doorstep of Kikinda museum.Standing at about 4.7m in height, weighing over 7 tons when alive and tusks of over 3.5 m in length, Kika was quite a powerful animal, and lived to ripe old age of 64 before she was snagged down in a marsh, where it’s likely predators did what predators do, hence the missing shoulder bones. She’s frankly an icon here, her image is used everywhere, and I’m pretty lucky to get an up close and personal interview with this Very Important Proboscidea. So with a little imagination (because we all know fossils, artefacts and old things talk, if we listen!) here’s the transcript!

TB: Kika, first of all thank you for this interview, it’s not every day I get to meet such a European star of the Pleistocene!

K. Thank you for having me on your blog. I am very proud to represent my kind, the steppes mammoth, Mammothus trogontherii as the symbol of the human settlement Kikinda. They even have a Mammoth Fest each year to mark my (re) birthday!  In fairness I don’t remember my own birthday – and they say elephants never forget. I have forgotten, perhaps, because it always was cold! Now I celebrate in sunny September each year!

[laughs quietly]

I find the celebrity very strange, I am just a humble mammoth, but I am wise, having lived a long life breathing (I was likely about 64 of your human years when I fell asleep in the Cold Time). They tell me this as my tusks have many, many rings, which show my age, just like a tree. But I very much enjoy now these times when people from all over the world come to visit me and I share my memory and wisdom. It also pleases me to see my land look so green and beautiful, so much fruit and richness of trees and plants, we could only dream of such places. So much talk now among my human friends of climate change,  I worry that careless humankind will harm this, and it will again be like the Cold Time , when all hungered.

A humble mammoth – Kika’s replica in the courtyard of Kikinda Museum

TB: So, can I ask you about the deep prehistoric past of Serbia? What do you remember about it?

K: I lived almost a half a million years before this present time. We existed even before what you call the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus Primigenius . The humans say the great woolly mammoths are descended from us. I think we were better looking, but that is only my opinion! Although the long hair might have suited me? What do you think?

TB: * nods agreement*

K: The Balkans and Carpathians were very different indeed. No dark purple plums falling from trees, no ripe quinces like today – oh how I wish I was not bones, and could taste those! During the Cold Time ice spread from the Alps and Dinara mountains, across the Balkans. All the mountains of eastern Serbia and Bulgaria were covered in ice. Here we had steppes grasses, and while summers were cool they were welcomed greatly by all creatures. 10C was balmy for us, providing vegetation other than the grasses. Winters were cold , but not as bad as the frozen lands northwards. How did any living thing survive those times? I am still surprised at the temperatures here in modern Serbia now! In the summer, I see the people eating frozen milks, and wearing such light coverings, I cannot help but wonder if the sunshine would have taken the ache from my poor old joints! I was a little slow with rheumatism. It was my undoing, of course as Serbia also had marshes, which were not easy to get out of. Who knows? I may have breathed well past 70 years had it not been for those marshes! But I cannot complain, we ruled those grass lands, along the basins and river valleys of Pannonia . I have friends who know of Celts and Romans and all the peoples who came here through the millennia when I slept – they called my homeland the Pannonian Basin. The humankind and their animals, they made their homes here too, and occasionally found the remains of our kind, and wondered that we ever walked the earth – I suppose we do seem a little improbable!

I hear my friends in the Museum of Kikinda call those ice free plains of the Balkans ‘refugia’. And they were indeed sanctuary for many creatures, although it makes me sad our kind no longer walk the earth. I led the herd, as a grande dame should. Some of the creatures I am glad no longer exist here, for they had blood in their minds and always hungered. I think the little street cats, when they lie dreaming amidst the flowers in the museum gardens in sunshine, imagine themselves as the great fanged cats of the Cold Time. But they are little, and very sweet, and only the scuttling insects fear them.

This is not a sabre toothed cat, although Kika thinks it might want to be!

TB: How did you come to be found again after all that time?

K: Oh that is a strange story! Years and dates mean nothing to me now, but I have been told that your year of 1996, humankind were making holes in the ground to create a home for a humans called Toza Markovic” – you call this kind of home a factory? They make bricks which now make human homes. In my day, humankind made homes in caves and dug out shelters. I admit, I never saw them myself, but I knew some of the great deer who saw them for themselves. They were not very keen on humans; they said they were smelly little bad tempered things. I cannot judge, I never met one when I was breathing – this is just what the great deer said, but they were  terrible ones for cuss words! Anyway! To make this factory, the humans dug holes like the great sloths, only 21m deep! They really were digging into the past, for soil is like a time machine, it holds many secrets of plants and bones. I was found there, in a layer of the blue clay which is what was left of our old marshland, and they found me there almost as I was when I entered the long sleep in the mud. I had become old and tired and not very fast, and I sunk into the sticky muddy water, and that is where I left the Breathing Way, until I awoke as Wise Bones – you call us fossils, but we carry great wisdom within us.

Wise bones

When they saw me, they were very excited, as I was very much complete apart from a few bones, which the wretched local hyenas may have made off with. Not that it ruins my looks – I rule this museum, and my image represents Kikinda – and where are they now, eh?

Anyway, the humans formed a herd of their own to protect me, with help from an even larger herd, the humans call the European Union. They helped the Kikinda municipality, the National Museum of Kikinda where I now live, the regional chamber of economy, Natural History Museum in Belgrade ( I have not been there, they say it is beautiful but very large and noisy) the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade University, and of course the company “Toza Markovic” who now owned the land I slept in. We all share a love for our past, and well … it’s my past. I am very grateful they have worked so hard to show what my time was like.
All of these people who want to tell the story of the Cold Time! Humans call themselves palaeontologists, archaeologists, cultural tourism and marketing experts – even people who made moving pictures of me! I do enjoy being in Kikinda. I am sure Belgrade would be beautiful, if you were a mammoth from what would become Belgrade! But this is my home. I ruled my herd here, and I can still give a good stern stare down my tusks to the unruly or inattentive, be they small human children or learned doctors!

TB: What would you like to tell the readers of Twilight Beasts?

K: I would love them to come visit me here in Kikinda! My human friends here would like that too, as there are many layers of history they can tell of. Just as during the Cold Time this land was a bridge between the frozen lands and the steppes, where life was possible, so too it became a bridge for humans, travellling east to west on the little Tarpan horses (and I found that they are gone  too – this also makes me sad, they were always so friendly, carried so much gossip about new grazing grounds, although they were, mostly , how do you say now, airheads?). The humans brought metals and stories and often bloodshed, even more bloodshed than the big cats of my time, but they changed history. This land became the corridor which created Europe as it is understood today – I learned that from watching the stories about the People of the Urns, who left their Unbreathing to rest in great clay pots, with their favourite objects. And after them, so many other people it makes my tusks shake with wonder!

A rather excellent simulation of an Urnfield burial, Bronze Age Serbia, in Kikinda Museum.

My history is your history – we all are pages in this story, which get turned for the next generation, carrying that story ever forward. Please, come meet me here and chat with me and my human friends!

Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

Some refs for further reading!

Kmeťová, P., 2013. „Masters of Horses “in the West,„Horse Breeders “in the East? On the Significance and Position of the Horse in the Early Iron Age Communities of the Pannonian Basin. Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der5, pp.247-258. [Full article]

Sümegi, P., Gulyás, S., Molnár, D., Náfrádi, K., Törőcsik, T., Sümegi, B.P., Müller, T., Szilágyi, G. and Varga, Z., 2017. Ice Age Terrestrial and Freshwater Gastropod Refugia in the Carpathian Basin, Central Europe. In Biological Resources of Water. IntechOpen. [Full article]

Posted in Steppe Mammoth | 1 Comment

The power of wonder

There is no denying our fascination with wildlife. Shows such as Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and the more recent Our Planet, have had millions of viewers across the world. People, young and old, flock around cases full of taxidermy in museums, trying to get a glimpse of animals that can be found thousands of miles away. We all know that feeling of pure excitement seeing an animal in the wild. And people do travel the world to just see an animal: such is the power of wonder within us.

Memories may not be enough when we want to try to capture the moment. Today, of course, technology means we can take a photo instantly to record what we have seen. More often than not, a ‘selfie’ is involved: not so much as to show a sense of a scale of the animal, or even proof that you and the creature were there together, but for social reasons. A few years ago, good old fashioned film cameras would have captured the wildlife (without the craze of selfies). Going back further, sketches and paintings of wildlife would record what people saw.

We have been drawing animals around us for thousands of years. With no paper, people used raw materials to capture the life they had seen. Engravings of animals on rocks in Siberia date to around 5,000 years ago. In Africa there are engravings of local wildlife on rocks going back thousands of years to more recently. Engravings and paintings of Australian wildlife carefully etched on rock date back to 28,000 years at least. Around 10,000 years ago, people painted animals and strange symbols on the walls of a cave in Bulgaria. A huge number of caves in Spain contain ancient pictures on the walls, with the stunning pictures from Altamira standing out with their vibrant colours. There are over 300 sites in Europe with cave art preserved. Each unique. Each a rare photograph of the past.

The spectacular, vibrant red Bison from the Cave of Altamira, Spain. (Image Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez, Public Domain)

My favourite cave art comes from Lauscaux, a small area just outside the small town of Montignac, in the South of France.

Here, limestone rises out of the earth, forming a small hill, where pine trees created dry, dense woodland. The ground is covered in pine needles and slightly sandy soil, giving a soft and gently crunchy feeling under your feet. Apart from the occasional forester or exploring kids, 80 years ago few people visited here. Today it is very different. The site is cleared of pine trees, with grass and concrete paths giving people easy access to the cave. A cave that hold wonders from the past.

The woodlands were a regular exploration ground for four boys and their dog. On 12 September 1940, one of their little forays turned into a real adventure. Their dog, a little fox terrier with the quirky name of Robot, got trapped inside a hole and couldn’t get out. One by one, the boys climbed down to look for their faithful friend. After crawling several metres, the hole widened out into a passageway, leading to a large cavern. Inside the boys found Robot safe. They lit up the enormous walls with their light. And the children saw paintings. Paintings not seen for thousands of years. Horses. Bison. Great stags. The walls were alive with images of animals long gone from Lascaux.

They went to see one of their teachers, Mr Léon Laval, who saw the significance of the cave immediately. Extremely excited (apparently he danced with one of the boys!), he contacted an expert on Palaeolithic art in Paris, Abbé Breuil. He visited with Abbé Bouyssonnie and Dr Cheynier soon after. The three men, along with Mr Laval and the boys, visited the cave and soon declared it to be one of the most important sites of Palaeolithic art in Europe.

The awe-inspiring scene in the Great Hall of Bulls. (Image from Laming 1959, Plate 1)

The boys had discovered several caverns filled with images of animals no longer living in France. There were detailed drawings, elegant engravings, and perfect paintings. And not just static portraits of the animals. These illustrations were vibrant. They were alive. Herds of horses running. An angry looking bull with a spear in its leg. A herd of stag swimming through a river. The artists knew the animals well. They knew how they moved. How they behaved. And they captured it skilfully in their paintings.

The art was all drawn directly on to the cave walls, with the only source of light being from the warm flicker of flames. Several pieces of curved limestone with blackened centres have been found in the chambers, and lots of charcoal has been found near these stone objects: they were portable lamps. People were using cup shaped rocks to burn tinder so they could see inside the cave. This is quite extraordinary to imagine: deep inside a cave, some people brought in handheld lamps, and painted incredibly detailed animals on the cave walls. The charcoal from them has been radiocarbon dated to between 18,600 and 18,900 years ago.

Annette Laming, ex-French resistance fighter, and TrowelBlazer extraordinaire, studied the chambers of Lascaux in detail. She led the way for interpretation of Palaeolithic cave art: she didn’t just create theories on what they meant, she looked at the animals and their distribution in the chambers to help provide answers. She drew the complex cave layout, and examined each of the paintings in critical detail. This was a pretty new method back in the 1950s.

The layout of the Lauscaux cave, showing where teh different chambers are. (From Laming 1959, page 61)

The first large chamber you enter after walking through the entrance is the Great Hall of Bulls. The name is a nod to the enormous bulls 8 foot long bulls which jump out of the wall immediately, in a kind of wild west standoff. Other animals are drawn here, including horses, bovids, deer, a bear, and an unusual animal that appears to be drawn from imagination, called ‘the unicorn’. This chamber is big, about 10 yards wide and 17 yards long: enough space to step back and appreciate this early art. What is fascinating about the Great Hall of Bulls is the number of different painting styles here. There are detailed groups of horses galloping together. Others are incomplete animals, like the heads of horses and bovids. There are paintings drawn on top of other animals, showing that the paintings were not all drawn at the same time, and very likely not all drawn by the same person. With so many animals painted here, some with red ochre colouring, there is no obvious pattern to the layout. Some have groupings, like the galloping horses, but others look like they were simply painted where there was space.

The weird ‘unicorn’ creature in the Great Hall of Bulls. (From Laming 1959, Plate 2)

Deer running on the walls in the Great Hall of Bulls. Each individual deer is about 2 feet long. (From Laming 1959, Plate 4)

Walking through the Great Hall of Bulls, you will come to the Painted Gallery, which is a much thinner chamber. Here, the paintings have more distinct groups compared to the Great Hall of Bulls. Standing out from the other animals, a couple of large bovids and horses are painted high up on the wall, close to the ceiling. These are massive paintings, reaching around 9 feet across. Arrows are drawn around many of the animals, and one of the bovids has a line coming out of its chest: a possible spear or arrow. There are a smaller number of detailed heads of animals compared to the first gallery. It ends in a narrow tunnel, empty of paintings. The details of the animals in this gallery are wonderful: reds, blacks and greyish browns bring the walls with colour. Fascinatingly, the gallery is full of unusual dots, squares, and lines: undeciphered symbols the artists were using to communicate to their groups, or to their gods?

A beauitful horse, surrounded by arrows, in the Painted Gallery. (From Laming 1959, Plate 10)

The Lateral Passage is to the right of the Great Hall of Bulls. It is not a large chamber, and was filled with clay when it was discovered in 1940, but this has been excavated to reveal evidence of more paintings. With such a thin passageway, it looks like the humans who lived here rubbed a lot of the pigments off the walls. But here the outlines of the animals have been carved into the rock, so despite not much paint having survived, the presence of the artists is still found. Around 600 figures are carved here, carefully etched into the limestone walls. Interestingly, there are much fewer symbols in this part of the cave compared to the Painted Gallery.

At the end of the Lateral Passage, to the right, you come to the Chamber of Engravings. Here there are engraved, as well as engraved and painted, animals. Engravings of ibexes, horses, deer and bovids are drawn in groups, often moving together on the cave wall. Flint tools would have been used to carefully dig into the rock, scratching it to create the outline of an animal. Many of the engravings are drawn over earlier paintings, with some of the paint still visible. With engravings on top of older paintings, it is clear that artists had been using the cave for a long time.

Look closely and you can see a stags head carefully engraved on the rock. (From Laming 1959, Plate 22)

To the left of the Lateral Passage, is the Main Gallery: a thin and long passage, with paintings and engravings on both sides. Horses, ibex, bison, and other bovids, are all present. There are lots of colours in this passageway; chestnut-red, reds, grey-browns, and tones of black. They bring the accurately drawn animals to life. The art here shows groups of animals together, along with lines and more symbols. Lots of the lines are penetrating some animals: spears or arrows that have hit an animal, perhaps.

Almost hidden, in a small, almost inaccessible, shaft, is the Chamber of Felines. Abstract symbols are seen around drawings of horses, bison and cave lions. For such an inaccessible part of the cave, it must have had some meaning for the artists. Another strange shaft had a different style of drawing: one more sinister. A bison stands with its insides spilling out, and a man with a birds head laying on the ground, with what looks like an erection. Known as the Shaft of the Dead Man, towards the very back of Lascaux, is so much different to the other chambers. It was darker. More surreal. The human figure was not painted in the same detail as the animals, it was almost a stick man. Incredibly, it is the only human figure painted in the caves.

The odd stick man with a bird head and an erection, in Dead Man’s Shaft. Note the woolly rhinoceros to the left. (From Laming 1959, Plate 35)

Cave sites from the Pleistocene offer lots of clues to the past environments by the fossils that we find in them. Many cave sites are full of bones left over from meals by humans. Curiously there are few fossils that have been excavated at Lascaux. Deer horn spears, along with lots of charcoal was excavated from the Shaft of the Dead Man. In the Chamber of the Felines, a reindeer foot bone, along with a few horse bones were found. Annette Laming notes that the lack of fossils, or ‘waste’ in these caves indicate that they were perhaps more special than just a communal living space.

Despite not finding many fossils, a lot of archaeological material was excavated. Around 110 tools have been found in the sediments, most of which were used to make the engravings on the walls. Other unique objects were found too, all made of bone, including a sewing needle, an awl (used to pierce leather), a spall (flakes from knapping), and a reindeer antler that had been carved.

There are a lot of theories about cave art. Perhaps they were drawn as some kind of spiritual ceremony (the strange bird-man painting hints to something otherworldly). There are lots of paintings of animals with spears in them or arrows around them: perhaps they were drawn to speak to the gods for a successful hunt. Or maybe they were painted after a successful hunt to record the scene of the great hunters. Maybe it was just an artist or group of artists who enjoyed painting the animals. All of this is speculation: we will never be able to get into the minds of artists 19,000 years ago.

A beautiful drawing of half a horse, with a smile. (From Laming 1959, Plate 40)

Horse, bison, ibex, deer, giant deer, bear, and woolly rhinoceros are all depicted on the walls. This was a different ecosystem to the one there today. An ecosystem where large beasts roamed and ferocious predators stalked. Weirdly, there were no woolly mammoths drawn on the cave walls, whereas they are seen in other caves. There are also no smaller mammals, birds, or insects. These animals documented in the caves must have had some impact on the artists for them to be transferred from their minds to the cave walls.

This is an incredible place. Around 19,000 years ago people were in these chambers. They talked. They laughed. They painted beautiful images of the wildlife around them: a record of what was once there. The paintings capture the essence of the local animals. The artist or artists knew how to transfer what they were seeing on to the dark cave walls, lit only by flames. Their wonder has been preserved for thousands of years.

Written by Jan Freedman (@janfreedman)

Further reading:

Baumann, H. The Caves of the Great Hunters: How four boys discover an ice age cave – the cradle of man’s art. Hutchinson. [Book]

d’Huy, J., Le Quellec, J. (2010). ‘Les animaux fléchés à Lascaux: nouvelle proposition d’interprétation.’ Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest. 18(2). pp. 161-170. [Full article]

Dickson, B. D. (1992). The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern Europe. UA Press. [Book]

Heyd, T, & Clegg, J, eds. (2005). Aesthetics and Rock Art. Ashgate Publishing. [Book]

Laming, A. 1959. Lascaux. Paintings and Engravings. Pelican.

Lewis-Williams, D, (2004). The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames and Hudson. [Book]

Pettitt, P, (2008), ‘Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art’, Journal of Human Evolution 55 (5): 908–917. [Abstract only]

Posted in Cave art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem

I love fossils. How can you not? The preserved remains of organisms no longer here. A glimpse into life so far back in time we can’t even begin to contemplate its vastness. Evidence that this was a real creature. Alive. Moving. Breathing. They really are incredible. What is even more incredible is that it’s extremely rare to become a fossil. An animal needs just the right conditions: to be quickly buried so no scavengers to pull apart their bodies, and fine sediment lacking oxygen so there are no worms or other critters in the mud to munch away at them.

That’s only the beginning. Once buried the body has to survive the intense pressure as tonnes and tonnes of sediment falls on top. After the body is replaced by minerals it’s not over. There’s the rocks being moved: pushed deep down, or thrust above land. The remains could easily be destroyed. With all this movement rocks will often heat up and melt, removing any evidence that life was preserved. If, eventually, the rock is finally exposed for a lucky fossil hunter to find it, there’s the risk that the rain or sun could destroy it first. There is an awful lot of luck involved whether or not an organism is fossilised. An awful lot.

Some scientists suggest that 99.9% of all organisms that have lived on Earth in the last 3 billion years have not fossilised. That’s an enormous number of animals and plants that have lived at some time in the past. What we see in museums is just a tiny fraction of life that was once here.

The beautiful fossil of Sinosauropteryx from China. A small dinosaur from the Cretaceous, the preservation is exceptional! The fine feathers covering the body have been preserved. (Image Public Domain)

There are some fossil sites that give extraordinary views into the past. The Burgess Shale in Canada and Quingjiang site in China, preserve dozens of animals that swam in the seas when large life really began 540 million years ago. Rancho La Brea, in California provides a snapshot of the Late Pleistocene life in and around Hollywood. China is discovering beautifully preserved dinosaurs, lots with their feathers still showing. There is one fossil site that I remember seeing brought alive by David Attenborough’s Lost World series: the Messel Pits in Germany.

I was delighted to receive a new book all about Messel to review. When I tore open the padded brown envelope, I carefully pulled out the book, and flicked through the pages. I actually gasped. It was beautiful.

Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem.

Edited by Krister Smith, Stephan Schaal and Jörg Harbersetzer, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem is dedicated to the Messel Pits. These editors are all specialists who have worked for decades at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. The chapters are all written by experts from across the world, who are all leaders in their field in their certain topics. It was a little disappointing to see that only 5 collaborators out of 28 were women. A better balance would have been nice to see.

It’s split into easy chapters, about the site, the ecosystem, and the animals they have found. The title of the book, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem, gives it away that it’s not really a book written for the general public. The text needs a lot of background knowledge, sentences are pretty long, and it’s not that welcoming to the non-expert. It’s not a popular science book. It’s not a quick-reference guide. And actually, that’s okay. Because it is a beautiful book. The non-expert can still learn a lot from it.

The Messel Pits are a pretty spectacular site. Near the little village of Messel in Germany, oil shale deposits have been mined since the 18th century. The first fossils were found in the late 1800s, and since then thousands have been excavated. Messel Fossil Pit became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. And with very good reason. The fossils here are exceptional. They are so well preserved, the soft parts can be seen. Hair can be seen. Even the wings of flies can be seen.

The stunning fossil of Masillamys, an extinct, early rodent. (Image Public Domain)

Around 48 million years ago, collapsed volcanic craters formed deep lakes in the Messel area. Over around a million years the lakes filled up with sediments. These sediments are packed with incredibly preserved fossils. So well preserved because the sediment was very fine, and the bottom of the lake was deep enough that there was no oxygen, so there were not many animals living there to eat up any dead animals that fell down there. There are not just fossils of freshwater animals like fish and turtles, but lots of land animals too, from insects to monkeys. With so many land and water animals being found in the sediments, it looks like the collapsed volcanoes were still a little active, and their rumbling insides released gas (like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide), which suffocated the animals.

I love how the book chapters take you through the different groups of animals and plants that have been found. Not only are the photos of the fossils some of the sexiest photos you will ever see, but they show you how incredibly rich life was here 48 million years ago. The insects are spectacular. With images and detail, we discover giant ants, weird flies, and stunning jewel beetles. The reptiles are unreal, with exquisite detail of their skeletons. And the mammals are just spectacular, clearly showing the outline of the fur. Even if you just got the book for the photos of these remarkable creatures, it would be more than worth it.

A beautiful jewel beetle from the Messel Pits. (Image Torsten Wappler, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt Public Domain)

The book isn’t a coffee table book full of beautiful photos. It brings together all the research from the study of the incredible finds. The history, the delicate, painstaking preparation of the fossils, the most up to date discoveries are all included in this book. X-rays, 3D scans, reconstructions all help to place these extinct creatures on the tree of life.

All the amazing fossils that have been found here show us what life was like here 48 million years ago. It was an incredibly rich ecosystem. In the forests alongside the lakes, there were early horses, giant ants, crocodiles, snakes, bats, monkeys and so many more species. It was an environment as rich as a tropical rainforest is today. This unique site lets us look in unbelievable detail at what life was like here 48 million years ago. This book gives so much detail about life here, you can’t help but be transported back in time.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Smith, K. T., Schaal, S. F. K., & Hebersetzer, J. Eds. 2018. Messel: An ancient Greenhouse ecosystem. Senkenberg. [Book]

Posted in Book review | 6 Comments

Branching out!! A review of The First Foresters: explore the Neolithic in Scotland’s Native Woodlands by Kim Biddulph and Matt Ritchie.

Do you remember your first time? The first time you realised the millennia which had existed before you, I should say!  Maybe it was standing on a hill and looking onto a landscape below scattered with raths and mounds, or perhaps a family trip to some rugged moorland, where silent grey stones maintained their tolerant silence no matter how many times you climbed on them. Or perhaps it was a random flint arrowhead or fossil found, in river or at seashore, holding time in the palm of your hand. Do you remember that fleeting moment when you felt the weight of the ages which came before you, as soft as a feather on impact, but leaving your imagination racing,  when you realised that  people far beyond your grandparent’s time had lived, loved, worked, died, believed things we knew nothing of and lived a very different life. And yet… were they so different?

That is a moment many of us have no coming back from, and it’s important. The wonder of the child spills into a lifetime of curiosity in palaeontology, palaeoecology and archaeology. This is why it is important, in this post-truth time of rewritten false pasts, to establish clear and critical thinking in a way children can deal with, while also appreciating and marvelling at the past. So, I call exhibit A , which demonstrates a clever and lively way forward, providing a strong emphasis on the skill of storytelling, of being out of doors, respect for nature and the forest, plus connecting with our ancient past. I present to this blogging jury The First Foresters: Explore the Neolithic in Scotland’s native woodlands by Kim Biddulph and Matt Ritchie.


The First Foresters, released April 2019, by Kim Biddulph and Matt Richie

Quite simply, nobody does archaeology and environmental awareness and promotion better than Scotland, and this project is a joint venture between Archaeology Scotland, Outdoor and Woodland Learning and Forestry and Land Scotland. Kim Biddulph is no stranger of course to the Beast Team, having had us on her podcast talk about all sorts of things, but mostly Jean Auel books!  You can listen to that one right here but she’s also active in many educational facets of British archaeology.

Matt Ritchie was responsible for the highly imaginative and creative commissioning of this book. He is an archaeologist and National Environment Advisor for Forestry and Land Scotland. His ‘ordinary’ (does that word apply to archaeology? I’d argue no!) work involves the protection, conservation and presentation of the historic environment in Scotland’s national forests. There was also extra input from Dr Gavin McGregor and Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage. The lavish illustrations  are by Alan Braby and Alice Watterson, photography by John MacPherson, and a set of very human characters created Alex Leonard and Kim Biddulph. The linocut artwork is by Liz Myhill, while the maps and plans were drawn by Headland Archaeology. The ubiquitous National Museums Scotland contributed images of stone axes.


Meet the Neolithic family! The clan created by Alex and Kim to tell the story of the first farmers of Scotland.

The text is primarily for use with Level 2 children (that’s ages 7 to 11 for other parts of the world) under the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence education manifesto. That being said, a tweak here and there could be applied to the material and probably engage awkward Freshers to have some getting-to-know-you fun in a seminar.

The 1500 years of the Neolithic, from around 4000 BC to 2500 BC, is one of the most important historical phases in European human history, as it is the period when the Twilight Beasts of these islands truly did fade into legend. New ways of living came lapping onto the land, as steadily as a rising tide.  Humans became settled in one place, adopted agriculture, destroyed forests to claim farming land, and animals became domesticated. This period redefined the Mesolithic relationship with creatures and the environment.


One of my own photos of the Neolithic stones of Kilmartin Glen, a timeless place where sheep still graze, just not the same breeds! For a bit more on Neolithic sheep types, try here

This little book contains a potent emphasis on environmental awareness, incorporated with attention to structures and material culture, such as timber circles and cursus monuments of the Neolithic, as well as polished stone axe heads, before challenging the participant to enter into a Neolithic mind-set – and asks is that even possible in the modern world? That’s surprisingly deep question that most adult experimental archaeologists will sigh, shrug and smile wryly at. Not a bad idea to make kids realise that we cannot ever step in the same river twice! My personal favourite activity is the construction of a wooden circle in class. I remain slightly relieved that my own daughter is not an age where this would have caught the imagination too far, and I’d have woken up surrounded by a ritual mound of books and shoes… though you never do know! It’s an activity I could see being incredibly useful , with a  few more analytical tweaks, to the average First Year undergraduate archaeology student.

The section dealing with the Neolithic mind allows an exploration of what is believed, and why, and how cultures and ideas change. It explores in an easy to understand manner how Neolithic land use brought rules connected to the cycles of growth, tethering humans as much as animals to domestication, and how forests represented primeval, uncontrollable forces. This may well be very different from the earlier hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, who followed more fluid rhythms of nature set by the movement of creatures. The text also acknowledges, humans being the contrary being they are, that there were also groups who didn’t quite conform to either 100% Neolithic or Mesolithic trends!


One of the wonderful illustrations by Alan Braby, coloured by Ian Kirkwood, of a defleshing platform. During the Neolithic, bones were likely picked at open air sites ( The Giants Ring at Ballynahatty, outside Belfast, is one such site), then the clean bones were interred in cairns, elsewhere. Look at the little ‘Westray Wife’ figure in the midst of all this!

The book also presents a very welcome realistic expectation and explanation of what archaeologists actually do, which of course can make young’ns consider it as a genuine career choice. There’s a strong emphasis on the skill of storytelling, of being out of doors, respecting nature and the forests, and directly experiencing the heartbeat of nature, faint though it may be in the modern world, drowned out by bleep and purr of smartphone and Chromebook.

Lavish illustrations are museum adventures waiting to happen, encouraging observation of objects on display – the little carved wooden idols, the pots and the stone axes. They are on the right side of imaginative and full of verve in their use of bright primary colours, reminiscent of a colouring book.

All in all, this book is a delight to introduce young folks to the environment, archaeology and how we interact with the past – and it with us. If you have young ones, use the book on walks and trips. They, and possibly you, may never look at the landscapes and forests of wherever you are without asking lots of questions and thoughts.

And do you want to know the best bit of it all? You can download it free of charge, gratis, for nowt, right here!


What are ye waiting for? Go get out of doors, and look for the Neolithic!


Other places to check apart from the links provided? 







Posted in Book review | 3 Comments

Remarkable creatures

Armadillos are pretty cool animals. They’re pretty weird too. They kind of look like odd small pigs, with crazy sharp claws. What’s more, they are covered in a pretty tough armour topped in even tougher scutes. The scutes alone are pretty spectacular. Think of a carrot cake topped with cream, only the carrot cake is solid bone, and the cream is horn: a unique adaptation in the animal world. This protection covers their back, on the top of their heads like a helmet, and even overlapping rings covering their tail. What is quite amazing, is that unlike their ancient relative, those giant glyptodonts, who are covered in a huge solid shell of scutes, the protection covering the backs of armadillos is in bands. And this means that their bodies are much more flexible. If threatened, these bizarre looking creatures will suddenly curl up into a ball: a perfect, solid, impenetrable ball. They are almost invincible (apart from cars, humans, and climate change). The armour is so strong that recently a man tried to shoot an armadillo, and the bullet ricocheted off it and hit him! (Karma).

The nine-banded armadillo in Florida. These remarkable animals are covered head to tail in super-strong armour. (Image Public Domain)

Regular readers wouldn’t be surprised to hear that until fairly recently there were some darn big armadillos. And this is their story.

The unseen, never slowing, forces below our feet, those tectonic plates that all oceans and land float upon, are powerful enough to rip continents in half. And this is what happened around 140 million years ago. South America and Africa were once joined together until the tectonic plate it sat on split into two. (Have a look at a map and you will see that South America and Africa fit together perfectly like a jigsaw. In fact it was this jigsaw that helped lead to the theory of plate tectonics, or continental drift, by Alfred Wegener in 1912, and was proved true by seismic and magnetic observations in the 50s.)

Back to our story. Here was one massive island, cut off from the rest of the world for a very, very long time. The animals that were trapped adapted and changed in isolation: in a constantly changing environment, they competed against each other in a brutal daily race for survival.

Of all the myriad of forms that evolved in South America, the armadillos are one of my favourites. With 21 species around today it is a relatively large family, including the more familiar nine-banded armadillo, the adorable pink fairy armadillo, and the slightly terrifyingly named screaming hairy armadillo. Perhaps surprisingly, the closest living relative of our adorable, shelled friends are the ever-lovable sloths, both belonging to the group Xenarthra. Diverging around 65 million years ago, the armadillos went on their own evolutionary path, and the sloths slowly went their own way.

The slightly odd, but utterly adorable screaming hairy armadillo. (Image Arnaud Boucher)

Early armadillos faced many pressures from predators and environmental changes. To adapt and survive, some populations branched off, evolving into new beasts. Around 47 million years ago, some early armadillos took advantage of eating tougher vegetation, and getting bigger, evolving into a new family of large creatures, the Pampatheriidae. Evolution isn’t simple. Nor is it neat. There is no ladder of progression only a crazily bushy tree of new species branching off while old species either carry on living for millions of years or succumb to the pressures around them. There is nothing preordained. Just luck. The right trait at the right time. The environment is in control. And if animals cannot adapt, they die.

With several genera (containing over a dozen species), the Pampatheriidae were a pretty big family. One genera in particular had some of the largest armadillos: Holmesina. There were six species, H. floridanus, H. occidentalis, H. major, H. paulacoutoi, H. rondoniensis, and the largest of them all H. septentrionalis. Their teeth show that unlike today’s armadillos, who gorge on insects, Holmesina ate tough plants. Eating hard plants would have worn down teeth very quickly and would be a problem for us if we were to change our diet. But these extraordinary giants had a pretty neat adaptation: ever-growing teeth, like a rodent. There was no fear of them wearing down.

One of the largest of the pampatheriidae, Holmesina septentrionalis, compared to a 6 foot tall human.

Modern armadillos have big strong claws which they use for digging up grubs and making burrows. The burrows are their homes, providing a little cosiness from the external weather, and safety from predators for the youngsters. Holmesina too had large claws. They may have used these to dig burrows. There have been some exceptionally large burrows discovered on rocks in South America. Burrows dug into rock! These have been attributed to giant sloths and glyptodonts by matching the tunnel size and the claw marks left in the walls. Holmesina may have preferred softer soil. Or it could be that we haven’t found their burrows in rock. Yet.

The beautiful foot of Holmesina septentrionalis in the collections at Florida Museum. (Photo kindly reproduced with permission by Rachel Narducci)

After million years of isolation, something happened that would have a huge impact on all life on that huge isolated land. Massive underwater volcanic eruptions created a land that connected North America to South America. The Isthmus of Panama is a true land bridge. For the first time in over 137 million years, species were able to move between the two continents. Sabre tooth cats, Gomphotheres, horses, and many more moved into South America from North America. And species moved from South America northwards too, including terror birds, toxodon, giant sloths, glyptodonts, and our giant armadillo, Holmesina. With this new movement of species, there was extra pressures on the endemic animals, with new predators hunting prey that had no defences. Holmesina, it appears, did fairly well. Numerous fossils have been found in Texas and Florida, as well as it still thriving in South America. They were the most widely distributed pampatheres.

The huge, massive, and somewhat remarkable creature, Holmesina septentrionalis. (Image Public Domain)

Their extinction is an enigma. Fossils hint that the last Holmesina were around until just 11,000 years ago. This coincides with other large scale extinctions of megafauna across North America. Humans have been implicated as the cause for many of these glorious giants vanishing. And there are some signs that humans definitely interacted with them, including spear points found in embedded in bones, and cut marks on bones. But Holmesina? There are currently no fossils found showing that humans interacted with them. No roasted giant armadillo on the menu. No manipulated Holmesina shells for homes or body armour (which would have been fascinating to see). If modern armadillos are anything to go by, they would have been pretty difficult to kill, although the youngsters may have been easier prey.

So what happened to them? It is difficult to say for sure. They were pretty specialist creatures, and the more specialised an animal is the more vulnerable it is to rapid changes in the environment. We know that the climate was undergoing global scale changes, with the glaciers covering most of the northern hemisphere shrinking back and new types of vegetation replacing the old. It is more than likely that these changes had a big effect on our giant armadillo.

The Pleistocene was full of amazing creatures. Some so weird that they would have been baffling to see today, like the massively bizarre Toxodon, or the weird trunked horse-like Macrauchenia. But others strangely familiar, like the enormous Columbian Mammoth, or the giant armadillo. To have seen a giant armadillo would have been a magnificent sight. And to witness one roll into a ball? Well that would put a smile on anyone’s face.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Thank you to Rachel Narducci, at the Florida Museum of Natural History for her feedback on an early draft of this post. (Follow Rachel on Twitter for some cool research with pampatheres: @renarducci)

Further reading:

Billet, G., et al. (2011). ‘Oldest cingulated skulls provide congruence between morphological and molecular scenarios of armadillo evolution.’ Proceedings of the Royal Society. 278 (1719). p. 2791. [Full article]

Delsuc, F., et al. (2016). The phylogenetic affinities of the extinct glyptodonts.’ Current Biology. 26(4). pp.155-156. [Full article]

Flavio G., et al. (2015). ‘A peculiar New Pampatheridae (Mammalia: Xenartha: Cingulata) from the Pleistocene of Argentina and Comments on Papatheriidae Diversity.’ PLoS ONE. 10 (6). Eo128296. [Full article]

Gaudioso, G., M., et al. (2016). ‘Paleofauna del Pleistoceno de Termas de Rio Hondo, Santiago del Estero, Argentina.’ Ameghiniana. 53(6). p.54.

Mead, J. I., et al. (2007). ‘Late Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) glyptodont and pampathere (Xenarthra, Cingulate) from Sonora, Mexico.’ Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Geologicas. 24(3). pp.439-449. [Full article]

Slater, G., et al. (2016). ‘Evolutionary relationships among extinct and extant sloths: the evidence of mitogenomes and retroviruses.’ Genome Biology and Evolution. 8(3). pp. 607-621. [Full article]

Woodburne, M. O. (2010). ‘The great American biotic interchange: dispersals, tectonics, climate, sea level and holding pens.’ Journal of Mammalian Evolution. 17(4). pp.245-264. [Full article]

Vizcaino, S. F., et al. (1998) ‘Skull shape, masticatory apparatus and diet of Vassallia and Holmesina (Mammalia: Xenartha: Pampatheriidae): When anatomy constrains Density.’ Journal of Mammalian Evolution. 5 (4). pp.291-322. [Full article]

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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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