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My favorite mammals are the mighty proboscideans—elephants, mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, moeritheriums, and so on. I have not written about them more because the only proboscideans we know a lot about are the elephants–and elephants are complicated—they are smart and they have human length lives of great social complexity, all of which makes them hard to write about. Additionally elephants are tragic—their populations keep shrinking away as humankind grasps for ever more land and poachers kill the great sentient giants for their ivory. Yet elephants still have a perilous chance to keep on living. What is even sadder than the senseless slaughter of the magnificent elephants are the other proboscideans, which have vanished one by one from earth. Everyone knows about the woolly mammoth and Cuvieronius, the new world gomphothere, but the last non-elephant proboscideans to have died out were even more contemporary.
The stegodons (from the extinct subfamily Stegodontinae) evolved in Southeast Asia approximately eleven and half million years ago. They lived in large swaths of Asia throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs and they survived in Indonesia deep into the Holocene epoch. Radio-carbon dating has dated the last living stegodons to 2,150 BC. The giants died after the pyramids were built at Giza and great cities had begun to sprout up in Mesopotamia and along the Indus valley.
Stegodons looked much like elephants—a resemblance which has caused much taxonomical confusion. Paleontologists once believed elephants descended from stegondons but It seems now that both stegodons and modern elephants descended from Gomphotheriidae (a sister group to the mammoths). Stegodons had different molars and their tusks were so close together that their long trunks draped over the sides. There were many species of stegodons, the largest of which were among the largest of proboscideans, far more immense than today’s two elephant species. The biggest stegodont were 4 m (13 ft) high at the shoulders and had a body length of 8 m (26 ft) which does not even count their 3 meter (10 foot) tusks!
Modern humans reached Southeast Asia 50,000 years ago so we lived in proximity with the stegodons for some time before they vanished. Certain species of stegodons reached isolated Indonesian islands where, over generations, they shrank into dwarf forms. These tiny stegodons were hunted by Homo floresiensis, which seems to have been a dwarf species of human (although the scientific community has not reached consensus concerning the nature of Homo floresiensis). Imagining tiny versions of humans hunting tiny versions of huge elephant-like creatures boggles the mind! I am profoundly sorry the stegodons dwarf, giant, or otherwise could not have held on for a few more millennia. I would love to have seen them—or by 4000 years ago were they already as the Saola is now—ever retreating from a world that did not seem to fit them?
In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders. The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.
However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone. Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon. Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales. The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.
Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century. Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”). The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name. Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around). Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically). Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.
Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.
A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about belemnites, extinct cephalopods from the Mesozoic which teemed in immense schools through the reptile-haunted oceans of that bygone era. Yet belemnites were certainly not the only cephalopods which swam in the Mesozoic seas. Numerous shelled cephalopods—the ammonites—were widespread in every sort of marine habitat. Ammonites are personal favorites of mine so I am not going to write a comprehensive explanation/description of the subclass. Instead I wish to provide you with an idea of how big ammonites could get by providing a few pictures of large ammonite fossils which have been discovered. Imagine these monsters jetting through the water with huge tentacles and big intelligent eyes scanning for giant predatory reptiles and you will have a better idea of the Mesozoic Oceans!