Wait – This is not an elephant!

Q.  When is an elephant not an elephant?

A.  When it’s a mastodon.

The American Mastodon.  Its remains have been found from Alaska to Florida, New York to California.  Fishermen find their teeth when their nets dredge the ocean bottoms one hundred miles offshore, suggesting that their range was even greater when ocean levels were lower than at present.

Mastodons might have seemed, at first glance, like elephants.  Like modern elephants, they had trunks, and tusks.  But although they were in the same order as elephants, they were in a different genus – Mammut.  Their build differed from modern elephants – they had shorter legs, longer bodies, and were more heavily muscled.  They stood between 7 ½ and 10 feet tall at the shoulders, and weighed up to 10,000 pounds. There is fossil evidence of sexual dimorphism – males were larger, on average, than females.

Mastodon

Image from Oliver, The American Mastodon, New England’s Extinct Giant, June 9, 2011, www. onenewengland.com

Mastodons had big tusks, up to fifteen feet long.  They were curved, but not as sharply as those of mammoths.  And they were used in combat. They were aggressive. Fossil evidence shows that the males engaged in fierce battles, presumably fighting over access to the females.

And like the woolly mammoth, the American Mastodon had a thick woolly fur coat.

American Mastodon compared to Woolly Mammoth

Masatodon v. Mammoth

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MammothVsMastodon.jpg

File this in the “betcha didn’t know” category:  “Mastodon” means “breast-tooth,” or “nipple-tooth,” because of the cone shaped protrusions on its teeth.  These suggest that the mastodon diet was largely browse – leaves, twigs and branches from trees, shrubs and bushes.

There is some controversy about their behavior.  Many experts think they lived in herds, probably females and young, much like modern elephants.  Others’ however, think they may have been more solitary animals.

They disappeared roughly twelve thousand years ago, possibly because of climate change, aided by hunting pressure from humans entering the continent at that time.  Archeologists find skeletal remains with Clovis points embedded in them.  Mastodons were hunted.  They are extinct now.

Would have been cool to see one, though.

This are two short excerpts from my novel, The Clovis Mission:

Another valley.  We were in basin and range country, now.  Another stream, and a small lake behind a beaver damn.  Aspen growing.

And then, in the night, in my vision goggles, I saw them. Three of them, browsing on the aspen. Mastodons. Yeah, I know, I should call them Mammut. So sue me.  Much less tall than the mammoths, but built like boxcars, with a long sloping spine from the head to the tail.  No hump.  But long, and wide.  Very solid.  Long, long tusks, but straighter than those of the mammoths. Just browsing in the margin of the woods.  They, unlike the other animals we had seen recently, seemed entirely unconcerned with us. Their small piggish eyes tracked me as I rode past, and one snorted a little, but they didn’t move, either toward us or away. 

I surmise that they were m. cosoensis, not m. americanum, because there were only three of them, not a herd, and because they were browsing aspen leaves, not spruce needles.  But so little is known.  Maybe they break up into family groups during the summer.  Maybe their diet changes seasonally, and they take advantage of whatever forage is available at any given time of year.  Maybe they were an as-yet unknown subspecies. 

But, oh, what a sight.  So large, solid, rocking a little as they browsed, their trunks curling up and stripping the small branches off the aspens.  Their fur was long and shaggy, but they too, like the mammoths, were shedding their winter coats.

***

The screaming shocked me.  A huge, high, squalling, screaming blast. It came from up ahead, but our vision was obscured by a grove of trees.  As the three of us rode past the trees though, I saw what had caused the noise.  Two mastodon bulls were facing off, both equally large, heavy, strong, and ready, apparently, for a fight.  Not with us – with each other.  Mating season.  The rut. They were only about ten feet apart.  The one with his back to us was lashing his tail.  The trunk of the other was waving in the air.  Both were shaking their heads from side to side.  Beyond them, in the near distance, several cows stood placidly.

Again the screaming blast. And they closed with one another fast and hard.  They slammed into one another, piston legs driving, slashing and stabbing with their tusks, pushing with their heads.    A cloud of dust arose around them from the impact.  The fight was swift and savage.  Neither backed down for several seconds.  Then they separated, and again smashed into each other. They twisted sideways, each seeking some purchase, some advantage.  And again they separated, and again smashed together.  This time, though one slipped the guard of the other, and his tusk drove into the shoulder of the other.  The injured bull screamed and backed off.  But again they charged.  And again.  And again.  Only the injured shoulder started to tell on the one bull.  He slipped sideways a little.  The other bull was relentless.  He kept pushing forward, slamming his trunk against the other’s, twisting his tusks furiously, trying to find another opening.  And again, he slipped the guard of the other.  This time, though, his tusk drove deep into the chest of the injured bull.  With that, the injured bull had had enough. He backed away, and started to turn, to flee.  But the victor would not stop.  He slammed forward again, into the side of the other bull.  Both tusks drove into the bull’s side, and he staggered, but did not fall.  When the victor backed out, the injured bull moved off at the fastest walk he could.  The victor lumbered after him for twenty yards or so, and then finally relented.  He stood for a moment, breathing heavily, then raised his trunk and bugled another loud cry.  The injured bull walked past the females and disappeared in the woods beyond them.

Fossil evidence shows that mastodons fought, but seeing this battle  – so shockingly raw, and sudden, and real- was a far cry from fossil ribs showing healed fractures.

That’s me, on the horse there.  This is what I saw, twelve thousand years ago, in my ride across country, from where St. Louis now stands, to Arizona.

The Killer

The problem is – there’s just so much we don’t know.  How were its ears set on its head?  What color was its fur?  Was it a solitary hunter, or did it hunt in packs?  For that matter, how did it use those huge sharp fangs to kill?

But – there is a lot we do know.  It was big.  And strong.  And lethal.

Smilodon.   Smilodon Fatalis.  Fatalis is Latin for “deadly.”  

It was a cat, of course, but not quite like modern lions, and tigers.  Different subfamilies.  Lions and tigers are in the subfamily pantherinae; Smilodon in the subfamily machairodontinae.  Cats in that subfamily had long canines.  Fangs.

As did Smilodon.  Hence the popular name: saber-toothed tiger, or, less commonly, saber-toothed cat.

And those teeth were lethal.  Long, serrated, and sharp.  The word “Smilodon” itself reflects this – it is derived from the Greek word for “carving knife.”

So Smilodon Fatalis = deadly carving knife.

The cat itself was big.  A big mature Smilodon could weighed up to, or even more than 500 lbs. But Smilodon was built differently than the large modern cats.  Its legs were shorter, but very powerful, anatomically shaped to brace it against struggling prey.  It had a shorter tail than modern lions or tigers.  And its neck muscles were hugely strong, presumably used to help it with the killing bite it delivered.

It needed those strong neck muscles, because, oddly, its skull was not very strong; its bite only one third as strong as that of lions  – when considering its jaw muscles alone.  But of course, they didn’t operate alone – that’s where the neck musculature came into play.

Big, thick, stocky, strong as hell, but not terribly fast.  So how did it hunt? 

Good question:  We don’t really know.  It may have been a scavenger.  But if it hunted, it was probably an ambush hunter.  It certainly wasn’t designed to outrun its prey. Analysis of its skeletal remains suggests that it preyed primarily on horses and bison, big, strong and fast animals.  So, built as it was, if it hunted them, it probably hunted from ambush, since both horses and (perhaps surprisingly) bison are very fast, and Smilodon couldn’t have outrun them. 

In all likelihood it was opportunistic – scavenging when it could, hunted when the opportunity arose.

But whether it was a solitary hunter, or hunted in packs is not known.  Some data suggest that it was a social animal, and hunted in packs, but as yet, there is no conclusive evidence either way.

And how did it use those incredible dagger teeth to kill?  Again, the answer is not wholly clear.  It seems most likely that it used its powerful legs and claws to hold prey while its immensely strong neck drove those daggers into the throat of the animal, severing windpipe and arteries alike.  But . . . maybe not.

I like to think so, though, as set forth in another excerpt of my novel, below.

Like so many other large species of animals, Smilodon became extinct about 11,00 years ago, just as the continent was being populated by another, smaller predator – homo sapiens.

 Image

THis illustration is taken from Spectrumart.net, the website of talented illustrator Sorin Bulucianu.  It’s the last thing that Ross saw.

* * *

Once we were caught in a huge thunderstorm.  The air turned green and the evening was pregnant with silence.  When the storm crashed over us, it was deafening.  We were deluged with cascades  of water, and lightning exploded all around us.  One of the horses became frantic, and somehow broke the halter and ran off.  We huddled the other horses together and sat crouched next to them.

In the dim light I thought I saw a large dark shape move silently past us.  Then – a scream, and a snarl, a deep rasping guttural cough.    When the storm let up, Lasher said, “You wait here.  I’ll go after that mare.”   So we waited.  There wasn’t much to do – we had put our slickers on, and everything else was packed, so we didn’t have to spread anything out to dry.  Lasher wasn’t gone very long.  He came back with his rifle in his hand.

“Too late.  Doesn’t matter.”  he said. “Saber-toothed cat took her.   Just over the next rise there.” 

“I’m going to go see,” I said.

“Me, too” Devereaux said.

We rode over, cautiously, down a slight slope, across the rivulet that was running at the base of it, and then up a gentle rise.  Below the crest of the hill we each got our rifles out. “Don’t shoot it unless you have,” I said to Devereaux. “I want to observe its behavior.”

The cat – Smilodon fatalis– was larger than I had imagined, more heavily built.  Its coat was tawny, but with faint brownish rosettes.  The horse was lying on its side, throat ripped out, but the cat was eating its entrails.  It had opened its stomach, although, having seen it, I’m still unclear about how it used its dagger teeth to do that. It was a substantial animal – easily the size of a large tiger.  Sleek, strong, heavily muscled. Even though it was lying down as it ate, I could see how massive its shoulder and forearms were.  It must have smelled us, or sensed us, because it stopped eating and looked over at us.  Except for the fangs, its head looked like the head of a bobcat or a lynx.  Tufted ears, and a ruff around its cheeks.  But those golden  eyes:  Cold, fierce, implacable.  Very, very aggressive.  Fearless. 

We watched for a minute.  Even Devereaux, usually so quick on the trigger, was stilled.  Finally, after a minute, we backed the horses down and around and returned to camp.

But here’s the thing that kept me up that night.  Where had it come from?  We’d been travelling through fairly open country – grassland, primarily; not a lot of cover.  And yet, this was the first we’d seen.  Where did it hide?  How did it hide?  Where had it appeared from when it tracked and killed our runaway mare?  Were there others? Where were they?  How common were they?  How, in that monster storm, had it tracked and killed our horse? 

For all of the other predators we’d seen – the lions, the wolves, even the bear – I had some frame of reference. Even though they were all different from the predators of today, I thought I could understand their habits, their habitats, their behaviors.  But this cat was something new, something unfamiliar.  This cat was fearsome.  That old archaic word finally came completely to life in this animal:  Fearsome.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.  There are other big solitary hunting cats:  The jaguar, the mountain lion, the lynx, even the bobcat.  And I know that the clouded leopard has teeth almost as long, in relation to its skull, as the sabers of Smilodon.  But still:  Here, on the open prairie, in competition with pack hunters, and killer bears, lives this big, fearsome cat.  This, to me, was an amazing sight.  I immediately wanted to spend the next several months studying it.  How did it hunt?  It was an ambush hunter, presumably.  But how did it stalk its prey?  What were its preferred prey animals?  Was it exclusively a solitary hunter?  What were its mating practices?  How many kittens did it have?  Is “kittens” even the right term for the offspring of that fearsome animal?  Okay, I hope I’ve made my point now.  I’ll stop using “fearsome.”  But it was fearsome, truly.

* * *

Shhh!  What was that?

Ross stood up, and looked around.  Had those sneaky fuckers somehow found him?  He froze, then slowly crouched and picked up one of the heavy spears he had.  Not a gun, goddammit, but better than nothing.

Slowly he stood, and looked all around.  Nothing.  No-one in sight.  But his instincts had been honed on battlefields all over the world, and he knew he’d heard something.

There – to his left, the grass moved.

He turned and crouched. 

And saw widely spaced fierce yellow eyes. Oh shit.  One of those saber-toothed tigers.  Maybe twenty five feet away.

It saw him, too.  And it didn’t turn away like it should have.  Instead, it crouched like it was getting ready to charge or spring at him. 

He turned until he was facing it directly, and then still slowly, smoothly, brought the spear up until it was facing the cat.  You want some of this, you fucker, come and get it.  It snarled.  He could see more of it now, crouched in the grass, huge shoulders flexed and ready, tail lashing the air.  And those eyes, those fierce yellow eyes.

It was only in the last fleeting fraction of second that he glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye, before another sabertooth smashed into his side and dragged him down.  It weighed well over four hundred pounds, and was immensely strong.  Its huge paws pinioned his shoulders.  He had landed so that the spear was lying beneath him.  Desperately he tried to turn his hips to kick it, but it brought one of its hind legs up and pinned him down. 

It was in no hurry.  It paused for a moment, breathing, before looking at him and then lowering its head.  He had time to scream, once, before it drove its fangs into his throat, and sliced through his windpipe and carotid arteries.   The last thing he saw was the cat purring as it licked the blood pouring from his neck.

 

A Great Big Bear

It’s got a really poor name.  Terrible, really.  The short-faced bear.  Better to call it the Plains Tyrant, or Rampaging Death, something to convey its size, power, and majesty.  Lord of the Land.  Almost anything would be a better name than the short-faced bear.

And what a bear it was. Arctodus simus is the latin name, for all you fans of nomenclature out there. Short-faced because, well, because it had a somewhat shortened muzzle.  But I’ll tell you what – you see one, you’ll know right away – instantly – that you’re looking at a bear.

A helluva big bear, too.  Listen to what Wickipedia says: “Arctodus simus may have once been Earth’s largest mammalian, terrestrial carnivore.”

Big.  Really big.  Stood six feet high at the shoulders.  For comparison, a grizzly stands about four feet high at the shoulders. Weighed up to a ton.  On its hind legs, standing, it may have been eleven feet tall.  And they’ve found its claw marks fifteen feet sbove the ground.

Arctodus simus reconstruction

Arctodus simus reconstruction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it was no lumbering beast.  It had long legs, longer proportionally than modern bears.  So it was fast, too – maybe 30, 35, maybe 40 miles per hour.

And, oh yeah, it appears that it was carnivorous.  Most modern bears (not the Polar bear, though) are omnivorous – eating plants, vegetation and some meat.  But not our bear.  The short-faced bear ate meat.  Lots of it.  Based on its size, its weight, it would have needed on the order of thirty five pounds of meat per day.

Its anatomy is interesting.  Its long legs gave it speed, but its build was such that it couldn’t twist and turn rapidly, running down prey.  Some scientists think that it was a kleptoparasite, and used its speed to come up to other predator’s kills, and its size to intimidate them – the dire wolves, the saber-toothed cats, the American lion – and drive them off the kill.

I suspect that it was opportunistic, scavenging, stealing the kills of other animals, but also hunting when the opportunity arose.

Gone now.  Extinct.  Died off about eleven thousand years ago.  Why?  No one yet knows.

Humans in Europe hunted cave bears.  It seems reasonable to  suppose that early humans here hunted them, too.  But the reason why they’ve become extinct is not known. In fact, even that sentence is somewhat misleading – there may have been not one, but multiple reasons for its extinction.

Here’s are two short excerpts from my novel, which deals with the short-faced bears:

The plains were endless, treeless, windswept.  The weather continued warm and dry. The grass was short, grazed by the herds we saw. The country was not flat, but rolling, like the swell on the ocean.  And so we’d see bison grazing on a far slope, or pronghorns, or small family bands of horses. 

Saw another bear-wolf interaction, too.  We came over a rise and saw that a pack of dire wolves had brought an old bull down.  They were snarling and eating, when over the far shoulder of the rise came a bear.  On the plains, all we saw were short-faced bears.  That is what I am referring to here.  We only saw grizzlies once we were up in the mountains.  Like the one we had seen before, it was enormous, pacing at a high rate of speed.  When it saw the carcass, though, it burst into a sprint, and man, it was fast.  It charged directly at the wolves surrounding the carcass, and they fled before it, snapping and yipping. 

But they didn’t go far.  They began circling the bear, now busily eating.  They rushed its rear, snapping and feinting.  The bear was forced to turn and turn again, to keep the wolves at bay.  One wolf – dark gray – bolder than the rest ran in and snapped onto the bear’s haunch and gave that savage head-twisting yank that dogs and wolves do.  The bear snarled, whirled, and slashed with its huge paw.  And connected. Its paw only seemed to brush the wolf’s flank, but the wolf tumbled fifteen or so feet away, and lay thrashing on the ground. But the remaining wolves continued pressing in, so that the bear was whirling continuously now, unable to eat, unable to rest.  Finally, the bear broke for it, and sprinted away, with several wolves at its heels.  They chased it farther than I would have thought, disappearing up and over the rise.  But shortly, all of them returned, and rejoined the pack, now gorging on the kill.

Here’s a riddle for you science buffs out there:  Wolves don’t hibernate.  Grizzlies do. Did the short-faced bear, a plains dwelling predator, hibernate? 

*****

             “Hey!”  We both heard it at the same time.  One of our guys, calling, loudly, urgently.  We galloped the rest of the way back to camp.

            Three of them, up in the trees.  Two horses down, the rest gone, scattered.  And a bear, a short-faced bear, was eating one of the horses it had killed.

            Lasher fired just before I did, and the bear went down.  It was old.  Its muzzle was graying, and one of its canines had broken off, and its jaw was infected. Still it was impressive.  The size of these animals – all of them – the lions, the bears, the sloths, still surprised me.  They were, quite simply, unlike anything I’d ever seen in my time, in the present.

            This bear had stood six feet high at the shoulder.  Its paws were far larger than my hand.  Unlike the claws of grizzly bears, its claws were not particularly long, and were blunted, presumably because of the running and trotting it did.  It was a much faster animal, built for more speed than the grizzly.  The name “short-faced bear” is, to my way of thinking, a misnomer.  Yes, it is true, that relative to other bears, its muzzle was not as long.  But it was certainly long enough.  Its head looked exactly like what it was – the head of a large, predatory bear.  An anatomist might see one and think, “my word, that bear has a notably short face,” but I’ll tell you, what I saw was a bear, a real big bear, length of face be damned.

            It took them a little while to climb down out of the trees. 

            “What happened?” Lasher asked.

            “Man, it was quick,” Devereaux said.  “The three of us were sitting around.  Me and Whister were talking, Collins was sitting over there, when all of a sudden we heard the horses start freaking out.  Then some of them ran through camp, then that bear exploded out of the woods, and knocked two of them down, Boom! Boom! Like that, with just two swipes of his paw!

            “I’d left my rifle and pistol in the tent, like an idiot, so I yelled at everyone to climb up in the trees.”

            “Didn’t really matter much, though.  The bear wasn’t interested in us.  He went over to that one horse you saw, and started eating. Man, I didn’t think I could climb high enough!”

            Try to visualize this.  You’re looking at a bear, a big, shaggy, brown-coated bear, which even standing on all fours is as tall as you, taller when he lifts up his head, and much, much taller when he stands on his hind legs.  And standing there, on all fours, as tall as you, he’s also long, as long as your kitchen table. Long, strong legs, with paws and claws, and a muzzle with big sharp teeth.  You see, this bear is as big as a horse, maybe bigger.  This is our bear.

And he’s fast, really fast. Probably not as fast as a horse on flat level ground, but bursting out from an ambush. . . .  And then, he is massively strong.  Those paws, swung with his immense weight behind them would have no trouble knocking a horse down, and, in this case, no trouble breaking its neck.  Or two necks as it turned out.  Both horses, dead.  One eviscerated, where he’d had started eating.

            All in all, this was bad.  The bear was too big to move, as were the horses.  The carcasses would draw predators from miles around.  So even though it was now late afternoon, we would have to move.  But we had no horses – they’d run off, and were scattered.  Not good.  And, of course, we had lost two of them permanently.

 

Very near, yet very far

They’re all gone now, the megafauna.  The American lion; Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat; the giant sloth.  Gone the Mammoth; the mastodon; the short-faced bear; the American camel; the giant beaver, the gigantic teratornis. All lived here, once, in North America, and not that long ago.  As recently as twelve thousand years ago, they were here, grazing, or hunting, eating, mating, migrating.

And then, they disappeared.

And no-one knows why.  There are theories, of course.  There always are.  But no-one really knows.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the megafaunal extinction occurred just as humans were entering this continent for the first time.

And no-one knows who they were, or when or just they got here.

I think these mysteries are fascinating.

I intend to post, from time to time, about the megafauna found here, and the peopling of the Americas.

Please join me.