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number-4It’s weird down there at ground level. We humans go around building Dairy Queens, discarding old credit cards, and prospecting for fossil fuels when beneath us, at grass level, strange alien life forms share our world all but unbeknownst to us. The fourth top post of all time illustrates this fact by featuring a tiny animal which is simultaneously endearing and frightening. The velvet ant is not an ant at all—it is a wasp from the family Mutillidae (which has more than 3000 species worldwide). Mutillidae wasps are furry and colorful—like cute little Jim Henson puppets with extra eyes—but they pack a ferocious wallop in their stingers. Female velvet ants are rated a ferocious 3.0 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a subjective scale which quantifies the agony caused by the stings from Hymenopterans). Male ants have no sting although they do have wings and thus look more wasplike.

 

Panda Ant - (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

Panda Ant – (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

The velvet ant post is notable for being the most-commented on Ferrebeekeeper post of all time. Nearly 70 readers have chimed in with anecdotes about running across the furry little bugs. They seem to be quite prolific in the American South and Southwest (goodness help us). Some of the comments were quite amazing. Adam Riley told us about a terrible childhood experience writing, “I was 6 or 7 years old, playing in the sand of our driveway in S.E. Alabama, when I encountered a velvet ant. I tried to smash it with my hand to painful consequences. Aside from breaking my arm, that is still the most memorable pain I’ve experienced to date. The ‘cow ant,’ as my mom referred to it, was fairly indestructible; trying to crush one was like trying to crush a pebble.”

 

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Reader Erica captured one and then became trapped in a riding-the-tiger type predicament. She wrote, “I was stung by one on a hiking trip and caught it in a bottle just in case it was poisonous. I have made a little habit for her and put a little drip of sugar water. I don’t want to release her in the city nor do I have the heart to kill such a beautiful exotic creature.”

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Kathy became involved in a protracted battle with a velvet ant. Industrial poisons and specialized weapons were barely sufficient to grant her (eventual) victory. Her story reads like Sci-Fi horror: “They are in my yard in Ohio…actually took video of it after I had hit it four times with fly swatter and sprayed it two times with wasp spray it still lived for the next day just kept curling its body and jabbing its stinger out which reached over its head, freaked me out…….! Hope my kids don’t get stung playing outside.”

Yeesh! Be careful out there people! And keep commenting and writing your stories. I have made a resolution to respond more to comments and to post quotations from the best ones!

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Sadly, today the rhinoceroses are few on the ground.  There are only five extant species of the family Rhinocerotidae and none of them are doing well–because of habitat loss and humankind’s obdurate (and extraordinarily foolish) belief that rhino horns have magical supernatural powers. Yet once the rhinos were a mighty force—in fact, the largest land mammal ever, the Paraceratherium, was a sort of rhino.  There used to be multiple tribes of Rhinocerotidae, each containing numerous genera (which could in turn contain dozens of species) of these great horned perissodactyls. None of the extinct rhinos was more splendid that the magnificent wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which roamed Eurasia during the icy Pleistocene epoch and even survived (probably) up until the beginnings of human civilization.

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

A wooly rhinoceros was a substantial creature.  From fossils and mummified remains, we know they measured around 3 to 3.8 metres (10 to 12.5 feet) in length, and had an estimated weight of around 2,700–3,200 kg (5,999–7,000 lb)—so they were not much smaller than the still-living white rhinoceros (although wooly rhinoceroses are more closely related to the contemporary Sumatran rhinos—which do not become so big and heavy).  As you might guess from the name, wooly rhinoceroses had magnificent hairy coats to help them survive the cold and they had two large horns for defense and for mating displays.  For a long time, paleontologists have argued about whether the Coelodontas grazed grasses or browsed on tender shoots, berries, and mosses, but paleobotanical evidence (taken in tandem with fossilized skeletal features) now seems to indicate they were browsers, like bison or cows.

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly rhinos roamed the frozen steppes of Eurasia–a habitat which was much larger in those days due to the ice age and the lower sea levels of the Pleistocene.  For example, wooly rhinos could be found on the dry & icy wastelands of Southern England and they thundered across the cold plains which would later become the fertile hunting lands of Doggerland (which are now submerged beneath the North Sea).  They were also prevalent across northern Europe and down through Central Asia all the way to the Tibetan Plateau.

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Based on cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, humankind seems to have had an early fascination with these great furry beasts.  Unfortunately the last wooly rhinos apparently went extinct around eight to ten thousand years ago (according to somewhat disputed carbon 14 readings from a specimen found frozen in the Siberian permafrost).  Many large species of Paleocene megafauna died off at approximately the same time: whether the great behemoths went extinct from humanity’s increasingly effective hunting, climate change, or from some great pandemic which affected large animals is unclear (although contemporary scientists have been inclining towards climate change as a primary cause).

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

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