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My sincere apologies for being such a truant blogger last week! Not only did I fail to post any new articles since Tuesday, I unpardonably left you stuck with nothing but the flimsy Ms. Perry during that time. In order to apologize, allow me to take you on a trip to the island continent of Australia…15 million years ago during the Middle Miocene. During this time one of the largest birds ever lived across Australia: a giant fowl named Bullockornis.
Bullockornis was a 2.5 meter tall (8 foot 2 inch) gooselike bird. The creature weighed in at approximately 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) and scientists believe it was actually related to the modern geese and ducks. If you have ever met a modern goose, you will realize that a goose the size of a bear would be a formidable creature indeed. Additionally Bullockornis possessed a razor sharp beak with immensely powerful jaw muscles. It is hard not to imagine the giant bird nipping off a he-man’s arms like corn kernels or biting through bridge cables with this monstrous beak, but the truth is scientists don’t know what the bird used it for. The monstrous goose could have been a hunting carnivore (like certain ducks are today) or an herbivore which grazed on heavy dense plants. Perhaps, like contemporary geese, it was an omnivore which hunted, grazed, and opportunistically scavenged whatever it could get.
Bullockornis was discovered in 1979 but it only became well known when some PR savvy writer christened it the “Demon Duck of Doom” (which strike me as a silly 1930s Disney-style name, but I guess whatever gets people involved in paleontology is good). The scientific name “Bullockornis” means “bullock-bird” but, even though the bird was the size of an ox, it is actually named for Bullock Creek (a rich fossil location in the Northern Territory). Bullockornis was not the only giant of the Miocene in Australia. The Bullock Creek fossil beds also contained fossils of Giant horned tortoises, marsupial “lions” (i.e. thylacoleonids) and grazing Diprotodontids—giant wombats (although nothing so large as the mighty Diprotodon which evolved in the Pleistocene).
Camelids are believed to have originated in North America. From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia. Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out. This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!
At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a 40 million year history). The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:
Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae. Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.
That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats). Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb). Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground. Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses. This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels. The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today. The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs! Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.
The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America. When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be. All sorts of camels should be running around. Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.
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?
Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street. The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo. This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses. The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.
For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.” I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores. Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives. The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.
The trees really are beautiful. Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes. The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.
Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city. Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.
The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace. The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds. The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree. I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).
The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches). Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.
The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee. The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is. Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.
Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets. The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring. A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure. Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion. When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter). Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide. Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process. However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.
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!
Megaloceros giganteus was the largest deer to ever exist. The huge animal would have stood 2.1 meters (over seven feet) tall at the shoulders and had antlers more than 3.65 meters (12 feet across). During the Late Pleistocene (the glacial epoch immediately prior to the Holocene) the giant deer ranged from Lake Baikal in northern Asia across all parts of Europe down into northern Africa.
In English, Megaloceros giganteus, is more commonly known as the Irish Elk, a name which is something of a misnomer since the creature lived across broad swaths of three continents and was not actually very closely related to elk and moose. The name was originally adopted because many nearly perfect fossils of the Megaloceros were found in the great peat bogs in Ireland. So perfect were the skeletons that a misguided biological theorist, Thomas Molyneux, used the remains as evidence that no species ever went extinct (a question which was at the forefront of science at the end of the eighteenth centery). Molyneux believed that the Irish Elk skeletons were actually those of large moose or elk and that divine providence would never allow an animal to disappear forever from earth. Unfortunately Molyneux was completely mistaken. The great zoologist, Georges Cuvier comprehensively proved that the Megaloceros was very distinct from living Moose and Elk and was therefore gone from the world. It is strange to think that there was a time as recent as the nineteenth century when natural philosophers argued about whether extinction was possible or not.
Although the Irish Elk coexisted with humankind for a long time, sadly something went awry and the great beast went extinct at least 7,700 years ago. Strangely, overhunting by humans was probably not the reason the Megaloceros died out. However the actual reason for the extinction of the magnificent mammal has been a long standing cause of dissent among paleontologists. An obsolete school of thought held that the creatures’ antlers became so immense that the beasts could no longer hold their heads up. A likeminded school of thought believed the antlers (which grew larger and larger in response to female’s preference for a mate with big antlers) left the animal unable to compete with smaller and more nimble competitors. A new theory concentrates on the amount of calcium and phosphate necessary to grow such stately and humungous antlers. As vegetation changed in response to the end of the ice age, the poor Irish Elks could not get enough of the proper nutrients and began to suffer like old ladies from osteoporosis. A final answer to the mystery is still outstanding.
One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science. There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen. Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi. She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol
Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.
I have written a post about non-human builders, unknown builders, and ambitious (but not-entirely-successful) builders. What about the great builders of the present? Sadly the west is moribund right now, suffering not just from the housing-bust hangover but from crooked financiers, incompetent politicians, social stalemate, and a dearth of ideas. This situation is probably not permanent but it makes me disinclined to write about the shabby projects going up right now. I suppose I could write about the monstrous white elephant skyscrapers of Dubai, that autocratic dystopia in a desert, or describe the towers of Singapore, the hard-headed, hard-hearted city state. But not only do I not admire those societies, they are a side show on the world stage (and a tiny sideshow at that). Right now all eyes are on China. The Middle Kingdom is sucking up the world’s energy resources and every sort of raw material at exponential rates. In return, cities are going up where no cities existed before. China is rolling out roads, airports, and railroads at a rate never before seen. An agricultural nation is turning into an urban one. And China’s greatest cities are becoming the great cities of earth, morphing overnight into forests of mega skyscrapers.
But that is not the subject of this post either. The real question about China’s rise is whether the nation will be able to harness its wealth to become a titan in scientific and technological fields the same way it is dominating manufacturing. Part of the answer to that question can be found in Guizhou province in southern China where a massive bowl shape is rising from the hills. This is the initial superstructure for the five-hundred-meter (546-yard) Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) which is due to open in 2016. FAST will then supplant the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico (which was built in 1963) as the largest single-aperture telescope ever constructed. To quote ElectronicsWeekly.com:
When completed, its 500-metre diameter single dish will make it the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. What’s more, although FAST’s dish will be fixed in its crater-like setting, a series of large motors will be able to change the shape of its reflective surface, allowing it to scan large swathes of the sky. FAST will be able to peer three times further into the universe than Arecibo. Astronomers expect it to uncover thousands of new galaxies and deep-sky objects up to 7 billion light years away.
FAST will be the planet’s eye into deep space (and just, in time: Arecibo’s budget is on the chopping block as congress pares away scientific funding). The remote location is unusually free of radio interference and the natural bowl-shaped valley it is located in should help amplify its utility. According to National Astronomical Observatories at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the telescope will be available to international astronomy researchers.
The Ordovician Period, the second period of the Paleozoic Era, took place from 488 to 444 million years ago. During those 44 million years, the landmasses of earth were devoid of life except for hardy lichens, tiny algae, and a few lowly non-vascular plants. The oceans, however, teemed with diverse marine invertebrates and primitive vertebrates. The ecosystems of these great shallow seas seem familiar–with colorful intermeshed filter feeders, grazing herbivores, and swift deadly predators. And yet the creatures are so alien as to make Ordovician reconstructions almost resemble another planet. All of the creatures of a modern coral reef are replaced by strange analogs: the dominant filter feeder were not corals but weird sponge-like animals—the archaeocyathids. The grazers were conodonts and trilobites. The predators were primitive sharks, huge scorpion-like eurypterids, and above all, the nautiloids–for the Ordovician was a time when cephalopods ruled the earth.
Clever mollusks with multiple tentacles, eyes, and a method of jet propulsion, cephalopods had evolved in the Late Cambrian from a snail-like ancestor. Their taxonomy exploded in complexity during the Ordovician period. They also left the shallow continental shelves to range across the pelagic ocean and to descend into the benthic depths. The cephalopods of the Ordovician period were the nautiloids, animals which manipulated a bubble of air within a chambered shell to move up and down the water column. They could grab prey with their many tentacles or retreat into their calcium-based shell. The family quickly exploded in complexity. To quote palaeos.com:
At least ten different orders flourished at this time, all but one appearing for the first time during the early or middle part of the Ordovician. This astonishing diversity included straight, curved, loosely coiled, and tightly coiled shelled types, and even one group (the Ascocerids) that in order to become lighter and more streamlined lost the a large part of their shell altogether. These intelligent carnivorous molluscs replaced the Cambrian Anomalocarids as the dominant life form and top predator of the world’s ocean. The biggest, such as the endocerids, attained huge size; with shells of up to 10 meters in length they were the largest animal that, up until that time, had ever lived.
Some paleontologists have expressed doubts about this magnificent ten meter endocerid shell. But, even so, it is worth remembering that this measurement did not include the tentacles and the head of the creature. These giant orthocones must have been formidable predators, living on nautiloids, eurypterids, and jawless fish. The great monsters are believed to have had weak eyes (and could probably be avoided by staying shell-side of the behemoths). However an even bigger problem faced the tentacled masters of that world.
During Ordovician times, the land masses that are now South America, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, India, South Asia, and Australia were all joined together as a supercontinent, Gondwanaland. Over tens of millions of years Gondwanaland gradually drifted into the Southern Polar regions of the globe. This resulted in heavy glaciation, which in turn caused rapid deep freezes and sudden interglacial warm periods—in other words, an ice age. This great ice age caused the depth of the ocean to fluctuate wildly which brought a crashing end to the Ordovician and its dominant cephalopods. The mass extinction which ended the Ordovician period was the second worst in the history of the planet (eclipsed only by the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period). More than 60% of marine invertebrates went extinct (including whole families of mollusks). This was but one set back for cephalopods. The family has burgeoned and then crashed many times, but it marked the end of their time as apex predator.