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Pebas 17 Ma

The Amazon River is the world’s largest river and it has the world’s largest drainage basin—the vast Amazon rainforest, which stretches from the Andes in the west, to the Guiana Highlands to the north and the Brazilian Highlands in the south.   The great river drains east into the Atlantic Ocean….but it was not always so.  Before the Andes Mountains rose, the river drained west into the Pacific.  Throughout the Cenozoic, the mouth of the river moved up around the continent.  Thirteen million years ago, during the Miocene, the river drained north into the Caribbean through a huge tropical swamp–the Pebas mega-wetlands–which covered over one million square kilometers of what is now the Amazon Basin.

image_2536_1e-Miocene-Crocodiles

An illustration of Pebas Corocodilians–Gnatusuchus is underwater, gobbling clams (art by Javier Herbozo)

Like today’s Amazon Basin, the Pebas mega-wetland was a great riverine rainforest.  And yet the ecosystem was very different from what is there today.  The marshes and swamps were filled with bivalve mollusks that thrived in the oxygen-poor waters.  Predators evolved to feed on these clams and mussels…and what predators!  This is Gnatusuchus, a caiman with spherical teeth for crushing open shellfish. Can you imagine biting through the shell of a clam?  Just thinking about it makes my jaw hurt and my teeth feel broken.  Yet Gnatusuchus bit through heavy shells for every meal!

i-b18fea59cf6c7e35c7ccea0b3719fc12-Purussaurus

A life-sized reconstruction of the gigantic Purussaurus

The crocodilian grew to lengths of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) and had a short round shovel-shaped mouth to focus maximum force on biting through clams.  Life in the Pebas was not all basking and clam feasts for Gnatusuchus.  The reptile was hardly the only reptile in the swamp, but was instead one genus among a hyper-diverse group of crocodilians including giant toothy predators capable of eating Gnatusuchus.  One of these predators, Purussaurus neivensis grew to be 12.5 metres (41 ft) in lengt—making it a rival of the great Mesozoic crocodilians like Phobosuchus (maybe I should have mentioned this horrifying monster first, instead of alluding to him after the clam-eater, but Ferrebeekeeper is interested in mollusks and their predators not in giant crocodiles: this is not Peter Pan, my friend).  There were also piscivorous crocodilians with long scissor snouts foll of hooked teeth (like modern gharials), and even little crocodilians on stilt-like legs that ran around plucking up small prey in the manner of pipers or herons.

anatosuchus-size

Seven million years ago, the Pebas began to change from swamps to channels as Amazonian drainage became spread through an even more enormous basin. Still, the diversity of the creature that lived there became a heritage for the contemporary Amazon, arguably the most diverse ecosystem in the world today.

Have you noticed that in life that whenever, after heroic effort, you finally surmount some terrible problem, another problem promptly comes along?  Chinese mythology certainly reflects this truth (indeed, after millennia of continuous culture, the Chinese people are quite familiar with the way that one problem slides seamlessly into the next).   One of the most harrowing myths from ancient China is the story of Gonggong’s rebellion.  You can revisit the whole story here, but the quick version is that the evil water god Gonggong attempted to drown the world and was only prevented from doing so by the heroic last resort actions of the beneficent creator goddess Nüwa, who cut the legs off the cosmic turtle in order to set things to rights.

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible (not to be confused with Xiang Liu, the Olympic track star)

In the chaos of the climactic battle, however Gongong’s chief minister and partner in crime Xiangliu the nine-headed snake monster completely escaped.  Filled with bitterness about Gonggong’s failure, Xiangliu crawled away across the soggy lands of Szechuan (which were water-logged after the nearly world-ending floods).  Wherever he went, the snake monster left permanent fens and swamps which were toxic to life.  His very being had become steeped in poison, and his progress through the damp and moldy world had to be stopped.

Kaiki-choju_Xiang-liu

Yu the hero, the third of the three sage kings, finally caught up with the nine-headed monster and killed him in a pitched battle .  Yet still there was a problem: Xiangliu’s pestiferous blood has poisoned the whole region, which now stank of rot.  Crops would not grow and civilization began to falter.  Yu dug up the blood soaked soil again and again, but the corrupted blood of the monster just sank deeper into the ground.  Finally, Yu excavated a deep valley by Kunlun mountain and rid the world of Xiangliu’s toxins.  With all of the land he had excavated he built a great terraced mountain for the gods.  Yu then went forth to found the kingdom of Xiam the first civilized state in Chinese history.

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Of course some people say that Yu did none of this, that, it was the goddess Nüwa who once again came forth to battle the monster and undo the damage he had caused.  Then, with accustomed modesty she let Yu take the credit and begin his kingdom (for Nüwa cared not for empty praise and hollow glory but only for the well-being of her children).

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

Model of a Moeritherium

Our story takes us back 37 million years ago to the hot moist swamps of the Eocene (again).  In the swamps of Africa lived a long low wallowing mammal 3 meters (9.8 feet long) and 70 centimeters (2.25 feet) tall.  This swamp dweller occupied the same sort of niche now taken by pygmy hippos and capybaras—it was an amphibious grazer which lived on soft water plants and could slip into the water to avoid land predators (and vice versa).  The animal was named Moeritherium, a genus consisting of several similar species, all now long extinct.

Moeritheriums (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Moeritheriums mostly had peg like teeth for grinding up vegetation, but the creatures’ second incisor teeth were elongated like daggers for display, defence, and rooting. So Moeritherium was really another saber toothed creature (like walrus, Smilodon, and Odobenocetops), but we never think of their closest living relatives as saber-toothed so it is hard for me to think of them that way.  In fact Moeritherium’s closest relatives overshadow all the details about the low-slung swamp-dwelling creature entirely because they are one of the most magnificent and intelligent orders of creature on planet Earth.  The Moeritheriums wallowing in the African swamps long ago were among the very first Proboscideans–an order of mammals including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and gomphotheres.

An artist’s conception of a Moeritherium

Moeritheriums probably did not have a long trunk like today’s elephants, but they did have a long flexible upper lip like tapirs.  Their eyes and ears were high up on their head so they could submerge themselves but still watch the surrounding landscape. They were not direct ancestors of the elephants and mammoths but instead descended from a common ancestor, Eritherium, a rabbit sized progenitor, which was rather like a hyrax.  Moeritheriums were highly successful in their day, but they disappeared as the Eocene climate dyed up and cooled down.  Fortunately several other families of proboscideans like the paleomastodons and the Phiomias were there to carry on the magnificent order of Proboscideans.

Paleomastodon (painting by Heinrich Harder)

A magnificent Bald Cypress towering over Weston, West Virginia

When I was on vacation last week, I took some pictures of the tree in my grandparents’ garden, a magnificent bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Whereas the Norway maple in my back yard is like a rat or a pigeon (ubiquitous and worthless–yet amazing for its hardiness and success) the bald cypress is huge, ancient, and stately–a monarch among the trees.  Bald cypresses, which are native to the great southern wetlands of the United States, can grow to immense size and live for over a thousand years.

Today bald cypresses are found in parks and gardens, frequently as stand alone specimen trees, but such was not always the case:  ancient bald cypress forests, consisting of huge groves of thousand year old trees, once dominated the southern swamps of the United States. An old-growth stand of the trees can still be found near Naples, Florida–the grove is around 500 years of age and some of the trees exceed 40 m in height.  Unfortunately for the great trees, they were extensively overharvested for their water-resistant rot-proof lumber.  Nutria rats, which gnaw the seedlings to death, have prevented the forests from growing back. Furriers brought these large invasive rodents from the jungles of South America.  The voracious creatures escaped into the Louisiana marshlands and have defied all predators and control efforts and proliferated throughout the southern states.

Argh! Why, oh why are the nutria's teeth so red?

Bald cypresses are deciduous conifers–they shed their fine leafy needles during the winter (and are hence “bald”).  Coincidentally, “cypress” is a misnomer: the tree is not in the same genus as the funereal cypresses although it is in the same family (the Cupressaceae) along with some of the world’s most spectacular trees, the redwoods, the sequoia, the dawn redwoods, and the Japanese Sugi (Sequoia, Sequoiadendron, Metasequoia, and Cryptomeria respectively).

Another View of the Same Tree

The specimen in my grandparents’ yard lives in the mountains rather than the swamp, yet it is among the largest known.  I’ll let the placard speak for itself, but it was written in 2005 and the tree has had a good 5 years of warm wet summers (which it loves).

Taxodium is an ancient genus of tree and various taxodium species were widespread throughout much of the Mesozoic Era.  Fossil specimens date back to the Jurassic period so once these giant trees towered above the dinosaurs.

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