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A quarter of a billion years ago a shallow sea covered what is now Hubei, China (the parts of the world that are today Manchuria, South China, and Southeast Asia were large archipelagos in this shallow sea).  The warm water was perhaps a meter or so deep–a child could stand in it, and it was filled with proliferating shrimp, worms, and mollusks. The early Triassic was a strange time for life on Earth:  the world’s greatest mass-extinction (thus far) had just swept traditional Paleozoic players off the world stage, but the famous stars of the Mesozoic–the dinosaurs–had not yet taken over the land.  Peculiar creatures were fast evolving to fill empty ecological niches once filled by now extinct animals.

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You are probably wondering what sort of creatures lived in this vanished ocean–and you are in luck, because the answer is amazing!  Paleontologists in China discovered the remains of…a marine reptile (?) with a cartilaginous beak.  The creature had a rigid body and tail and 4 stubby little flippers for steering and swimming.  It also had bony plates on its back like a stegosaurus and tiny little pinpick eyes.  Scientists named the creature Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. The most analagous creature in today’s world is the platypus, and, indeed, Eretmorhipis looked like a crazy platypus (combined with a blind penguin and a stegosaurus).  The analogy however is rather misleading since, 250 million years ago the first monotremes were probably evolving in the same addled post-apocalyptic world (monotremes are amazing and bizarre, but, sadly, we don’t have a complete fossil record of them, so we have to base some of what we think about them on genetic paleontology which provides a rough timeline).

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Eretmorhipis carrolldongi was a hupehsuchian reptile.  It was a relative (or maybe a precursor) to the ichthyosaurs which soon took over the world’s oceans and evolved unique graceful mastery of the planet’s oceans before something went terribly wrong.  I want to write more about the icythyosaurs (their story illustrates something exceedingly important about life), but before I do that I wanted to share this stubby ridiculous platypus analog creature with you so you can think about the comic reptile rooting around its ancient ocean at night with its beak hunting shrimp and invertebrates with its sensitive beak in the turbid darkness.  The world is a mad grab bag and you never know what is going to be successful.   We probably out to talk about the end-Permian mass extinction too, but it is the stuff of ultimate nightmares, so I am going to slow walk that post for now… maybe when (if?) we are feeling stronger.

There is some bittersweet news from China.  Well “news” is maybe a somewhat misleading word.  This is a small sad story within a sprawling epic story…within our story, in fact.

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In the geological age previous to this one, China was covered by a stupendous forest of bamboo and deciduous trees (it seems like a lot of our familiar tree families of North America might have originated there).  It was a tree world of pandas, elephants, tapirs, panthers, tigers, orangutans… and gibbons, the exquisite gracile “lesser” apes who are the true masters of swinging through forest canopies.

The vast rich forest was a perfect world for primates…and Africa’s angriest, sharpest lineage, the hominids, showed up 1.5 million to 2 million years ago.  These first hominids were Homo erectus, a comparatively benign lot, but not far behind them came other hominids with darker tastes, and then, approximately 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens showed up,”wise man,” a tragic fire-wielding invasive species with an insatiable appetite for…well for food, actually.  Homo Sapiens brought agriculture to East Asia or perhaps developed it there.  Indeed there are suggestions that Homo sapiens might have evolved in East Asia out of the maelstrom of clever upright apes that were ambling around the place, and, though I don’t find the argument nearly as persuasive as an African genesis, a wealth of peculiar fossil finds and ancient archaeological discoveries mean it cannot be dismissed outright, either.

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Eight thousand years ago farms began spilling across what is now China.  These early Chinese farmers discovered the perfect food for humans–a delicious superlative grain which is still the staple food for most of humanity. But this is not the story of rice (I need to write about that later, because I love rice, and it might be the most important plant in the world); it is the story of what rice-farming did. Cities and kingdoms sprang up, and in 259 BC, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, truly unified China from the capital of Xi’an in the ancient land of Shaanxi.  Stories of Qin Shi Huang’s cunning and cruelty are as diverse as the stories of his unimaginable wealth and power, yet in the end all of his strength came from rice which sustained the teeming population of the Qin dynasty, and this rice came from the forest, which was cut down to provide agricultural lands and living space for what is still the world’s most populous region.

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We have excavated Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (universally known as the “Tomb of the Terracotta Soldiers”). The tomb compound was a whole necropolis city of wonders and archaeologists and scientists are still unraveling its wonders and unlocking its mysteries.  The compound included the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor of China, and, in addition to her corpse, her tomb included her pet, a gibbon. Gibbons were pets of the aristocracy in dynastic China (here is a particularly poignant and sad poem, which you should read after you read this post).  Recently a British primatologist was touring a museum of the finds from the first emperor’s tomb and the skeletal hand of Lady Xia’s pet caught his eye.  Subsequent research has revealed that the animal belonged to a gibbon species which no longer exists.  The first specimen known to science was found in the the tomb of the first Emperor’s grandmother.   The “new” gibbon is named  gibbon was named Junzi imperialis based on where and how it was found.

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There are no gibbons in the wild anywhere near Shaanxi today.  As civilization rose, the great forests fell and Junzi imperialis was surely a victim of habitat loss. The grain we must have to run our vast complicated societies cost it everything…and we didn’t even remember its loss.  In Chinese art, gibbons represent a pure and ideal existence…they are sort of emblematic of a Chinese version of Eden (that ancient allusion is one of the things that makes that poem so plaintive) yet I don’t think we realized just how appropriate is such symbolism.  Humankind has already driven a lot more primate species to extinction than we know about. It is worth remembering the cost of our previous success as we look at the future.   Our strength and knowledge grow greater, but our appetite grows too, and the world is not getting any bigger.  Think about Lady Xia’s gibbon the next time you have a bowl of nourishing rice.  People are reflected in their pets and the empty eye sockets of the little long-dead pet tells about our own greatness and our terrible failures.  What do you see in those dark windows? Is the future just more and more tyrannical emperors crushing peasants and cutting down forests to build luxurious tombs or can we learn something new about our own place in the world and maybe beyond it?

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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Of all of the world’s abalone species, the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) has the sweetest, whitest, most delectable meat…or so I am told: I have never eaten one.  Indeed, it is increasingly unlikely that anyone will eat one again.  A horrible thing happened to the white abalone in the seventies (and to lots of other people and things too, but we need to stay focused).   A commercial fishery came into existence and, although it lasted for less than a decade 30 years ago, it seems to have dealt a nearly fatal blow to the white abalone.

White abalone are herbivorous gastropods which are not exactly white—they have an orange foot with tan sensory tentacles (!).  They are herbivores which live on rocks surrounded by sand channels at about 25-30 meters of depth (80-100 feet).  They can be found in Southern California and the northern parts of the Baja peninsula.  White abalone are broadcast spawners.  They release…uh, their gametes into open water in large numbers.  The abalone fishery of the seventies and early eighties thinned their numbers so drastically that they do not exist in proximity to each other.  White abalone live a maximum of about forty years, so the last natural specimens are dying off without reproducing.  They are broadcasting their genetic information into the open ocean with no complimentary abalones nearby to produce offspring.

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The NOAA is working with various partners to save the abalone.  The administration and various mollusk lovers and malacologists have created a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab.  Although they have successfully spawned enormous numbers of white abalones, the larval shellfish do not do well in captivity and the species’ ultimate survival remains an open question.  Fortunately, in pursuing the goal of saving the white abalone, the scientists have learned a great deal about abalone disease treatment and prevention and how to maintain water suitable for the young sea snails.   The whole sad episode seems to indicate several troubling things about our (in) bility to manage marine resources—and yet, through extraordinary countermeasures we have forestalled complete disaster.  I wonder if the white abalone will manage to come back based on all we have learned.

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Let’s look back through the mists of time to peak at one of the most mysterious and perplexing of mammals, the desmostylians, the only extinct order of marine mammals (although in dark moments I worry that more are soon to follow). Desmostylians were large quadrupeds adapted to life in the water. They had short tails and mighty limbs. Because of this morphology, taxonomists initially thought that they were cousins of proboscideans and sirenians (elephants and manatees), but the fact that their remains have only been found far from Africa (the origin point of elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and manatees & sea cows) along with perplexingly alien traits has caused a rethink of that hypothesis.
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(Art by Ray Troll fror SMU)

Extant between the late Oligocene and late Miocene, the desmostylians had powerful tusklike cylindrical teeth and dense heavy bones. The smallest (and oldest) were peccary sized creatures whereas the largest grew to the size of medium whales. It seems like desmostylians lived in littoral parts of the ocean—near coasts and shores where they used their pillar like teeth to graze great kelp forests. They scraped or rasped up the kelp and sucked it down their voracious vacuum maws like spaghetti! It must have been an astonishing sight! My favorite marine paleoartist, Ray Troll has made exquisite pictures of these majestic creatures which help us to visualize them. I really hope they looked this funny and friendly (if they were anything like herbivorous manatees, they probably did!).
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(Art by Ray Troll, courtesy SMU)

Speaking of manatees, the gentle sirenians had a hand (or flipper?) in the demise of the poor desmostylians. The dugongs and manatees would never fight anyone or even protect themselves with force—they simply outcompeted the less nimble desmostylians for resources, although one wonders if climate-change and the continuing evolution of different coastal sea plants might also have helped do in the great desmostylians.

Here is a little gallery of drawings and paintings of the Mauritius blue pigeon ((Alectroenas nitidissimus) a charming blue fructivore of the beautiful island of Mauritius (which is in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar).  You may notice that there are only artworks of the blue pigeon with the yeti ruff and naked smiling vulture head.  That is because the poor pigeon went extinct in the 1830s, a victim if drastic deforestation on the island.  The pigeon went extinct when the fruit trees it relied on for food were cut down.  It looks funny and personable and sad.

 

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Hollow (Katie Paterson, 206, wood)

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 2016, wood)

A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy.  The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft.  But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth.  The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.

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“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol.  It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together.  Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.

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Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct.  There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens.  There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando.  There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike.   There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.

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The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it).  We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals.  The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity.  The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.

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The artiodactyls are arguably the most successful order of large land mammals (as long as we don’t mention a dominant lone species of large aggressive primates). Just perusing a list of artiodactyl names reveals how universal and important they are: goats, pigs, cows, giraffes, hippos, sheep, Protoceratidae… wait. What? Among the familiar families of artiodactyls there is an unfamiliar name—an entire vast lineage of hoofed animals completely gone forever. These were the Protoceratidae, hooved animals analogous to their cousins the deer, giraffes, and the camels. The Protoceratidae ranged across North America from the Eocene through the late Pliocene (46 million to 5 million years ago). For 41 million years great herds of these animals grazed the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, Appalachia, and Mexico (although the Laramide orogeny was still ongoing as they evolved, and the Great Plains were at first a great forest).

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Protoceratidae had complex stomachs for breaking down grasses and other tough vegetation which they grazed upon. Initially the protoceratids were tiny like the smallest deer, but as time progressed some grew to the size of elk. Although the bones in their legs were somewhat different from deer and camels they would have looked similar at a distance…except for a stand-out feature. Male Protoceratidae had a rostral bone—a powerful y-shaped spar of bone jutting from their nose.   It is believed that this was a sexual display, meant to impress female Protoceratidae and for sparring with other males for territory and mates (although anybody who has ever been jabbed in the face with a sharpened bone by an elk-size animal would probably testify that the rostral bone could be used defensively).  The protoceratids also had a pair of more conventional horns on either side of their head like deer and cattle.

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Synthetoceras tricornatus

I wish I could show you more of this extinct family. They lived for a long time and took many shapes and appearances as they spread across the continent into many different niches. A species of particular note was Synthetoceras tricornatus, which was the largest of the protoceratids and which was endemic to most of the continent during the Miocene. Look at how lovely they are. I am ready to move to Texas and start a ranch for them—if they weren’t all dead.

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So, what killed off the Protoceratids after 40 million years of success? It seems like they were outcompeted by other, more familiar forms of artiodactyls which developed as the Cenezoic wore on (and which were better suited to vast tracts of grassland—which came to dominate the landscape as the forests died back). The last protoceratid, the Kyptoceras, lived in semi-tropical forests of Florida during the Miocene. Perhaps it was like the Saola, an ever-dwindling wraith that lived deep in the rainforest and was seldom seen until one day it was gone completely. It is an appropriately melancholy picture of the last descendant of a once-great house.

Gilbert's potoroo (Potorous gilbertii)

Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertii)

Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii) was a ratlike marsupial fungivore which lived in great numbers throughout south-west Australia—particularly around King George Sound.  The animals were discovered to science by the great naturalist George Gilbert in 1840.  Unfortunately the potoroo proved to be extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as foxes and dingoes.  After an exhaustive search in the 1970s failed to find any living specimens of the creature (which had not been seen in decades) the unlucky mammals were deemed extinct, and thus Gilbert’s potoroo vanished forever from the—[needle comes off of sad record]—wait! actually this strange rodent-like/kangaroo-like creature was rediscovered in 1994.

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After nearly two decades during which time the potoroos were presumed dead, a small population was found living in a remote and inaccessible scrubland beside Two Peoples Bay in Western Australia.  The area was proclaimed a nature preserve and humankind leapt into action to save the beleaguered potoroo.

Gilbert's potoroo, Potorous gilbertii

Gilbert’s potoroo, Potorous gilbertii

Yet, it has not been easy to relaunch the peculiar animal.  The creatures live on truffle-like fungi, which they dig up with their three toed paws (each digit has a sharpened digging claw).  The male potoroos are susceptible to balanoposthitis, a bacterial disease which disfigures the genitals with inflammation and leaves the creatures unable to reproduce.  Also the animals seem to be extremely sensitive to cryptococcosis, a dangerous fungal disease which can lead to coughing and respiratory failure.

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Fortunately, patient zookeepers, rangers, and volunteers have been working to help Gilbert’s potoroo overcome these alarming hurdles.  The world population now numbers nearly 70—but the peculiar marsupial digger remains one of the planet’s most endangered mammals.

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Behold the terrifying ocean monster, Livyatan Melvillei! This predatory toothed whale lived 12-13 million years ago during the Miocene epoch and grew to 13.5 to 17.5 meters (45–57 feet) in length. A large adult whale could have weighed up to 50 tons. The extinct megapredator is named for Herman Melville and for the Biblical leviathan (“Livyatan” is from the Hebrew word for Leviathan). The great whale’s family is currently listed as “incertae sedis” which means “status uncertain,” a taxonomical place-holder used when biologists are trying to ascertain a creature’s relationship to other related organisms within a larger order.

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Livyatan Melvillei with smaller baleen whale

In terms of body size, the modern sperm whale is probably slightly longer and heavier, but the livyatan had stronger jaws and much larger teeth. Paleontologists describe the mighty creature as having “the biggest tetrapod bite ever found,” which is no trivial matter, since the tetrapods include all mammals, reptiles (like dinosaurs), amphibians, and birds. Of course plankton feeders (like blue whales and whale sharks) have larger mouths, but the sperm whale and the livyatan have more powerful maws filled with large sharp teeth. The 36 centimeter (1.2 foot) long teeth of livyatan are the largest known teeth from the animal world which were used for eating (which is to say the tusks of elephants, walruses, Odobenocetops, and narwhals tusks were larger, but were not used for biting into plants or animals).

Livyatan Melvillei biting a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei BITING a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei presumably swam the deep blue ocean hunting for seals, dolphins, baleen whales and whatever other sea creature was large enough to command its attention (giant sharks, huge squid, huge fish, and bizarre giant birds?). Like the sperm whale it seems to have had a spermaceti organ in its head although it is unclear if this was used for echolocation, auditory signaling, or aggressive male sexual display (i.e. head-butting).  It must have been quite a (horrifying) sight to see one of these giant monsters biting apart a 10 meter (33 foot) long baleen whale. Sadly, the ever-changing dynamic of ocean life caused the great toothed whale to go extinct at approximately the same time as megalodon, the largest known shark (which was a contemporary of the great whale).  Numerous websites speculate which great animal would have won an ocean duel–which is foolish, since whales are clever animals and thus the obvious victor.

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