Monthly Archives: May 2014

Impressions of the Pleistocene

TwilightBeasts

In 1915, prominent American palaeontologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, published Men of the Old Stone Age: Their Environment, Life, and Art. Drawing from his three-week-tour of archaeological sites across Paleolithic Europe, Osborn’s book integrated archaeology, geology and prehistory. Painstaking in its scientific detail, Men of the Old Stone Age also offers a beautiful collection of early-twentieth century illustrations of landscapes, fauna, and hominins from renowned paleo-artists Charles R. Knight and Erwin S. Christman.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists, scientists, and museum curators worked closely to create the most real or true-to-the-fossil record reconstructions of long-extinct animals. As the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn was well-situated and sought Knight’s artistic expertise to provide illustrations for Men of the Old Stone Age. Knight, who had already contributed many dinosaur murals to the very same museum, was eager to participate in Men of the Old…

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The mouse-goat crocodile chimera

TwilightBeasts

A small family of Myotragus balearicus enjoying a brief moment of luscious grass. (Illuastration by Tabitha Paterson) A small family of Myotragus balearicus enjoying a brief moment of luscious grass. (Art by Tabitha Paterson)

Lets be honest, size really does matter. Especially when it comes to being noticed. An ‘average sized’ creature would really make an impressive headline; ‘Mammoth discovered, the most average one yet’. Crowd pleasing adjectives such as ‘the biggest’, ‘the largest’, ‘the longest’ and even opposites like ‘the smallest’ and ‘the shortest’ will win the day. Even if the creature is pretty mediocre, quirky traits, or witty scientific names, will bring an otherwise inconspicuous beast to the public eye (recently demonstrated by ‘Pinocchio Rex’ an averaged-sized relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that had an unusually long snout).

Rarely, very rarely, something truly remarkable is discovered that fits all the above.

When the great TrowelBlazerDorothea Bate received a letter in 1909 telling her of bones discovered in a cave in Majorca, she could never…

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An ancient time that animals forgot

Apologies for the lack of Bad Casts these last few weeks. I recently set up a new joint blog with some Twitter pals called Twilight Beasts which looks at the world of Ice Age animals. As the blog looks at creatures that lived only a short while ago, I thought this weeks Bad Cast should go back, right back to when the first big organisms ruled. Don’t worry, there are plenty of bad casts that link to Twilight Beasts. But they can wait.

Thank you for the prompts for me to get another lot of posts on Bad Casts up. (Well, the thank you is to the one person who desperately wanted to see some more, my brother in law. Steve, this one’s for you.)

This bad cast looks like a 16 century illustration of the Sun. There was no museum number with it (which is a really important number we need to find information). The only thing written on the label was ‘fossil jellyfish’. Nice and helpful. Our predecessors have an awful lot to answer for.

The shading is nice. Pity the creature looks like an early drawing of the sun.

The shading is nice. Pity the creature looks like an early drawing of the sun.

 

Some readers may recognise it. It looks like it is a cast of a very cool, very old fossil. Around 530 million years ago (during a time called the Cambrian Period) there appears to have been a sudden explosion of life on our planet. Some sedimentary rocks of this age hold some incredibly beautiful, and bizarre, fossils of creatures  (such as the incredible Burgess Shale). What makes these fossils so incredible is that the rocks before them (that’s 4 billion years worth), don’t contain complex, big animals. There are some microfossils, stromatolites and other oddities, but nothing like the terrifying giant Anomalocaris. The beginning of the Cambrian Period is called the Cambrian Explosion, where all the major groups of animals can be found. This appeared out of the blue, in a relatively short time of 20 million years (this is a blink in geological time!). Scientists think that evolution sped up during this time due to change in chemistry in the waters, predator-prey interaction, or perhaps the evolution of eyes.

Before this, around 650 million years ago, there was a strange time on the planet. The lands were rocky and barren. The waters held millions of microorganisms, but also something else. Something weird.

Strange impressions in very old rocks had been found in sites in Africa, Newfoundland and Australia. But these were thought to be Cambrian fossils, and even then the fossils were not very clear. Some were discovered in Charnwood Forest, in Leicestershire, which changed everything. The rocks of England were very well mapped, so the age of the rocks was known with a lot of confidence. It was clear that the rocks at Charnwood were older than the Cambrian, and went back into the vastness of time which is cleverly called the Precambrian (this covers the rest of Earth’s history from the beginning of the Cambrian 530 million years ago to around 4 billion years).

The Charnwood fossils, and those of Africa, Newfoundland and Australia were all from around 650 million years ago, and are the earliest large organisms so far discovered. A huge variety of different impressions have been found, and collectively are called the Ediacara Biota (after the Ediacara Hills in Australia which contained hundreds of specimens).

The fossils are of some of the strangest organisms that have lived. (I keep saying ‘organisms’ instead of ‘animal’ or ‘plant’ because they could be wither, scientists are still arguing over what they could possibly be.) There are disc shaped ones (like or bad cast), long leaf-like ones, flat trilobite ones and ones that don’t resemble anything. It is thought that the disc shaped ones were actually the base for the leaf shaped ones, so they held them in place in the waters.

Nice an colourful reconstruction of the seas around 650 million years ago.

Nice an colourful reconstruction of the seas around 650 million years ago. (Image from here)

In fairness to this bad cast, the fossil itself isn’t exactly spectacular. Which begs the obvious question, why have a cast of it? Our little circle sun plaster cast could be the ‘holdfast’ for a sea-pen on the sea floor, millions of years before the oceans were teeming with the ancestors of all life today. Some scientists think that the Ediacara organisms may have been a dead end; they were not the ancestors to anything and they just simply flourished for a time, and then died out. It was a very interesting time on the planet where a little snorkelling trip would have revealed a completely alien world with things that you wouldn’t recognise. But a beautiful alien world it most surely was.

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The one with the sabretooth

TwilightBeasts

Smilodon opening wide. The cat could open its jaws to 120º (Painting by Tabitha Paterson) Smilodon opening wide. The cat could open its jaws to an incredible 120º (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Smilodon is the genus of extinct sabretooth that everyone knows. Stocky, hugely muscled, with canines that protrude far below the jaw, it is the archetypal Pleistocene predator. It was a member of the machairodontinae, an extinct subfamily of the Felidae (all modern cats are members of the subfamily felinae), which split from the ancestors of our furry house-pets way back in the Miocene. Interestingly enough, it was almost as different from Homotherium as it was from lions, tigers, and kin. The scimitar-cat split very early on from Smilodon and its relatives. In fact, there are three species of Smilodon known to science. The earliest, Smilodon gracilis, lived in North America during the late Pliocene to middle Pleistocene, and was probably a direct ancestor of the two later species, Smilodon fatalis (found…

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Mr Darwin’s lost sloth

TwilightBeasts

Mylodon A delightfully grouchy looking ground sloth, Mylodon darwinii. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Ground sloths are weird. The two-toed and three-toed varieties of memetic fame that we are left with only hint at the absurdity of different genera such as Eremotherium, Megalonyx, and Nothrotheriops: bear-sized to elephant-sized behemoths, covered in shaggy fur, and sporting enormous curved claws.

The great diversity of Pleistocene sloths shuffled around (yes, they walked on the outside of their pedes, as if club-footed), a wide variety of habitats from frigid Alaska to tropical Florida to bleak Patagonia, and even the Caribbean islands. The species Mylodon darwinii was probably about the size of a giant panda and lived along the western coast of South America, even down into Patagonia. You may have spotted something familiar about the latin name of the species. This sloth was named after a certain Mr Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s Beagle voyage…

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Clan of the cave hyena

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A family of hyenas. A family of hyenas resting in the grass somewhere in Europe. (Painting by Tabitha Paterson)

Their deathly hypnotic stare sends shivers down the spine. The long, strong neck gives these amazing creatures additional cause to be feared. Hyenas are infamous for their ferocious ways of hunting in packs (known as cackles, or clans), scavenging carcases and loudly, excitedly, yelping as they rip their food to pieces.

There are four living species of hyenas; the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) and the lesser know little aardwolf (Proteles cristatus). The striped hyena is the only species, in present time, to live outside of Africa; as well as north and east Africa, it also lives in the Middle East and Asia. In the Earth’s recent past, another species of hyena was running around Europe; cackling across the plains.

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