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The Great Basin on Saturn's Tethys  (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

The Great Basin on Saturn’s Tethys (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

It’s been too long since we headed out to space.  This is true of humankind, but it is also true of this blog…so today we are going to cast our eyes across the solar system to Tethys a mid-sized moon of Saturn. In 1684 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered Tethys. He initially named the moon in honor of Louis XIV, but his choice was later changed so that the moon is named for a first generation Greek titan-goddess.  The moon has been approached by several human spacecraft, most notably…Cassini, which has dropped by several times (the robot space probe is named after the astronomer—the poor fellow has not been drifting in space since the 17th century).

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

Of all the major moons in the solar system, Tethys has the lowest density: 0.98 g/cm3 ! This means that almost the entire moon is made of frozen water—it is essentially a huge round ice cube floating around Saturn. Tethys has two extremely prominent features—a giant crater 450 kilometers (280 miles) across (named Odysseus) and a huge ice canyon 2000 kilometers (1200 miles) long, 100 km (62 miles) wide, and 3 km (1.8 miles) deep, which stretches most of the way across the moon.  Unsurprisingly astronomers speculate that the two features are related and the massive impact which created Odysseus melted a chasm along the entire side of the planetoid.


Although you might be inclined not to expect much activity from a ball of ice in the depths of space, Tethys seems like it may be geologically active, or, at least, it may have been once.  The area around the hemisphere is comparatively flat and free of craters—which suggests that tidal flux from Saturn causes some melting—and possibly cryovolcanoes.

Ithaca Chasma: The Great Rift on Saturn's Tethys  (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

Ithaca Chasma: The Great Rift on Saturn’s Tethys
(Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

Paleontologists and sharp-eyed readers already know the name Tethys.  During the age of Pangaea (when all of the world’s continents joined to form a single land mass), the great ocean in the midst was named the Tethys Ocean. In Greek mythology, Tethys was the daughter of Gaea (the mother earth) and Uranus (the heavens).  She was regarded as the mother of all waters and was married to her brother Oceanus, the first lord of the seas.  The astronomers of the age of enlightenment who renamed the moon, could not have known it was composed mostly of water, but they chose well.


The Snider-Pellegrini-Wegener fossil map which illustrates how scientists pieced Pangaea together

The Snider-Pellegrini-Wegener fossil map which illustrates how scientists pieced Pangaea together

During the Permian era (around 300 million years ago) the strange slow dance of Earth’s tectonic plates brought together all the world’s major landmasses into the supercontinent Pangaea.  Because of its very nature, Pangaea changed the world’s climate in bizarre ways.  Baking hot deserts were so far from the coast that they never received rain.  Landlocked seas boiled away and left great evaporitic deposits of strange minerals which we still mine and exploit.  Huge mountains rose and fell as the continents crashed together.

Pangaea lasted for approximately 100 million years, during a time of tremendous biological upheaval and diversification.  The worst mass extinction in the history of life took place during the continent’s heyday (The Permian-Triassic extinction event took place about 250 million years ago).  After the great dying, he first dinosaurs and mammals walked the super continent.  However this post is not a meditation concerning Pangaea (thankfully– since its history is extraordinarily complicated).

Triassic Pangaea by Richard Morden

Triassic Pangaea by Richard Morden

The idea which excites me is that Pangaea was only a third of the Earth.  The remainder of the globe was taken up by water.  Between Laurasia and Gondwana there was a great wedge shaped ocean called the Tethys Ocean (indeed Pangaea looked somewhat like Pacman—as you can see on the beautifully illustrated map by Australian freelance illustrator Richard Morden).  Named after a titaness who was the daughter of Uranus and Gaia, the Tethys radically changed shape as the continents separated.  Through big parts of its history, large parts of the Tethys consisted of warm shallow continental shelves (which are ideal environments for fossil deposits).  Paleontologists and Geologists thus know a great deal about the natural history of the Tethys Ocean.


The remainder of the globe was a single world ocean called Panthalassa (or the Panthalassic Ocean).  If you looked at Earth from outer space from a particular angle it would have been entirely blue (which is fitting for “Panthalassa” was not named after any god or goddess but from a Greek neologism meaning “universal sea”).  The Panthalassa is not so well known as the Tethys.  As Pangaea broke apart almost the entire ocean floor was subducted underneath the North American and Eurasian plates.  However Geologists sometimes find tiny distorted remnants which were one part of the gigantic world sea.


Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020