So – What Happened?

Between 10 and 12,000 years ago, the world changed.  In North America, 35 genera of large mammals became extinct.  Not species, but genera – whole groups of closely related species.  Thirty five genera:  Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, horses, saber-toothed cats, the short-faced bear (but not grizzlies), the American lion (but not the Mountain lion), camels (but not llamas and vicunas in South America), the giant beaver, but not the regular little guy.

Bison_herd_grazing_at_the_National_Bison_Range

So – what happened?  Where’d everybody go?  And why?

For years, paleontologists and archeologists have tried to figure this out.  There have been five main theories to explain this wholesale extinction:

  1. Overkill – to much hunting by the newcomers to North America, the so-called Clovis people;
  2. Environmental change;
  3. Disease;
  4. Some extraterrestrial impact, akin to the comet which is believed to have killed the dinosaurs;
  5. Some combination of any of the above.

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One issue that has come up, because of the paucity of fossil remains, and gaps in the fossil record, is the timing of these extinctions.  Did these genera go extinct at roughly the same time, or were these extinctions staggered, spread out over time? Was this a slow catastrophe, or a fast one?

In 2009, two scientists, J. Tyler Faith and Todd Surovell, took a look at this issue, and published an article titled Synchronous Extinction Of North America’s Pleistocene Mammals, in PNAS, vol. 106, no. 49.  No slouchy journal, either – PNAS means Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

By doing a careful statistic analysis of the fossil remains associated with the extinctions, they concluded that “the combination of these lines of evidence suggests that North American late Pleistocene extinctions are best characterized as a synchronous event.”  Specifically, “our analyses demonstrate that the structure of the chronology of North American late Pleistocene extinctions is consistent with the synchronous extinction of all taxa between 12,000 and 10,000 radiocarbon years. B.P.”

Okay, so what does that mean?

It means that most of these animals all became extinct in a two thousand-year span.  The authors note that:

         “Our simulations do not rule out the possibility that some extinctions may have occurred before 12,000 radiocarbon years B.P. The biogeographic simulation suggests that anywhere from 0 to 8 genera could have disappeared before the terminal Pleistocene . . . Even so, 23–31 genera abruptly disappeared at approximately the same time. Our results leave open the possibility for a small level of background extinctions (0–8 genera) followed by a surge in extinction rates that wiped out the remaining taxa (23–31 genera) between 12,000 and 10,000 radiocarbon years B.P.”

So it is possible, they acknowledge, that of the 35 genera that became extinct, maybe as many as 8 of them had gone extinct earlier that 12,000 years ago.  That still means, however, that 27 of them became extinct in that short – remarkably short – period of time.  As the authors put it,

           “Whether or not background extinctions took place, that a catastrophic event or process occurred at the end of the Pleistocene is abundantly clear.”

The implications for this are important.  Whatever happened, it happened very fast, and was continent-wide.  Europe experienced what the authors call a “long-term, piecemeal extinction process.”  Not so, here.  It happened all across the continent, in what they call “a geologic instant.”

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This conclusion doesn’t necessarily eliminate any of the five possible causes of the mass extinction, but it does put certain constraints on them.  An environmental change, for example, if it was the primary cause of these extinctions, must have been nation-wide and very rapid.  But intriguingly, even those limits – speed and breadth – still fit with three of the possible causes for the extinctions:  “This time period encompasses the earliest secure evidence of human foragers in North America . . . the Younger Dryas cold interval . . . and a possible extraterrestrial impact.”

Well, science marches on.  We still don’t know why these extinctions occurred.  And while two thousand years may be a geologic instant, in the lives of these animals, it encompassed tens or hundreds of generations.  A drought that lasted five hundred years, or seasons so cold that plants wouldn’t grow, could certainly have caused some of these extinctions.  And there may have been a cascade effect, too:  If a given herbivore becomes extinct or vanishingly rare, then the predator that preys on it is in trouble, too.  And family structures may have been disrupted by hunting, too, for that matter:  If the matriarch of the mammoth herd is killed, maybe the young ones don’t know how to survive a particularly harsh winter, or a dry summer.

But as to what happened?  We still don’t really know.  As Faith and Surovell put it, “further research on the biogeographic histories of individual species in relation to detailed paleoclimatic, paleoecological, and archaeological data could help to finally pin down the cause of North American end-Pleistocene extinctions.”

The Giant Sloths – An Unlikely Success Story

Ground sloths were large quadrupedal mammals that were predominantly herbivorous (more on that later).  They evolved in South America, before continental drift had joined North America to South America, and then, managed to cross the land bridge in Central America and make it all the way into North America.  In fact, remains of ground sloths have been found in Alaska.  Not bad for slow-moving, ponderous vegetarians.

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There were many, many species of ground sloths; something like 80 genera, and above that, at least six families.  As you may recall from the last entry; a species is a single type of animal, a genus a grouping of closely related species, and a family a grouping of several different, but related genera.  So ground sloths, although ungainly looking, as will be discussed below, were quite successful – not a fluke, or trick of evolution.  I should note, of course, that there is still some confusion about just which fossil remain of a given sloth falls into which family, and genus.  Nonetheless, the ground sloths, as a whole, were quite successful, and evolved into many different shapes, sizes, and habitats.

Perhaps the best known of the now extinct ground sloths was megalonyx jeffersonii, best known, if it’s known at all, because of its association with President Thomas Jefferson, for whom the species is named.  President Jefferson was an avid naturalist, and paleontologist, who received fossil specimens of the ground sloth that bears his name, in 1796-97.  These included some gigantic claws (of which, more later).  He suggested that they were a species of lion, and suggested that the as-yet undiscovered animal be named megalonyx, or giant claw.  In fact, when Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana purchase in 1804, Jefferson asked them to look out for megalonyx, which he thought might still be alive somewhere in the unknown west.  He was wrong.  The claws were not from a lion, but from the sloth, and the sloths were extinct.  Nonetheless, his boundless curiosity, and suggestion that discoveries of this sort were worthwhile, remain commendable.

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M. jeffersonii, was enormous – eight to ten feet long.  And it weighed up to 2000 pounds.  Like the other ground sloths, it was herbivorous, and ate leaves, branches and bark it stripped from trees.

Big as it was, however, megalonyx was dwarfed by another giant sloth – Megatherium.  This animal was formidable.  It grew at long at twenty feet, and weighed up to four metric tons.  A metric ton is roughly 2,204 pounds, so an adult megatherium might have weighed almost 9,000 pounds.  You know what else weighs that much?  Elephants.

sharp_hutchinson_megatherium

Megatherium was confined to South and Central America, but its close cousin, the slightly smaller Eremotherium ranged into southern North America.

I wrote that they were herbivorous, and that is undoubtedly true.  There is some thought, however, that they may also have been opportunistic carnivores, perhaps flipping glyptodonts (think Volkswagen-sized, turtle-shaped mammals) over, to get to their soft underbelly, or even chasing active predators away from kills, in order to scavenge the carcass.  These theories are still quite controversial, and await further testing or discovery for clarification.

These were big, ungainly, slow-moving creatures.  And yet, they thrived.  They walked on all four legs, but could sit upright, to reach up into trees.  Some could stand on their hind legs like bears.  And they were armed with long, sharp claws on their front legs.

They apparently lived in family groups, and presumably the parents would have protected the young.  But it seems unlikely that they were herd animals.

So why are these animals interesting?  There are several reasons:

First, as will be discussed in a later post, when South and North America joined, more animals native to North American spread into South America, than did animals coming north from South America.  Sloths were among the relatively few species that migrated north, out of South America.  Why?

Second, why did they, like so many of the other animals of this time period, become so large?  Presumably, in North America, they were expanding into an otherwise vacant ecological niche, so they had no direct competition.  But they had evolved in South America, where there was competition, and still they grew to enormous size.  Why?

Third – how did they evolve?  They don’t seem like a likely candidate for evolutionary success, these big, slow-moving herbivores.  But they were very successful, for thousands and thousands of years.  Were those claws that deadly?  Did no animal selectively prey upon them?

Finally, as with so many other species of Pleistocene animals, we are left to wonder – what happened to them?  Remains of giant sloths have ben found in association with human hunting – so evidently humans were a species that preyed upon them.  And perhaps, human hunting pressure, combined with a low or slow reproductive rate were sufficient to drive them to extinction.  Climate change, too, may have played a role.  Whatever the reason, they are all gone now – extinct.

But imagine how happy President Jefferson would have been if Lewis and Clark had found a Megalonyx for him.

Taxonomy: This Will Be on the Final

Taxonomy –

Today we have to go deep into the weeds, to understand the first of several scientific concepts that are going to be necessary to understanding the Pleistocene ecosystem.

That scientific concept is taxonomy, a system for sorting and classifying things, such as animals.

The issue, I suppose, is how to we organize our views of nature.  We see that there is physical resemblance between cats and lions, or tigers.  What, if any, is the relationship between them?  Between a horse and a rhinoceros?  A dragonfly and a bee?

Once you starting thinking about evolution, about one species evolving out of another, then you naturally start considering the relationships between the various species, and groups of species.

Taxonomy is one way to approach that organizational impulse, one way to attempt to delineate the relationship between various animals and between various types of animals.

Taxonomy means “the grouping or categorizing of things into an outline or tree structure.”[1]  It’s used for all kinds of biological sciences.  There are several kinds or systems of taxonomy, but the two best known are “scientific classification,” which grew out of, and is derived from Linnaean taxonomy, and “cladistics.”

Today we’re going to take up scientific classification.  We’ll save cladistics for another time.

First an overview, then on to the details.

Overview:

Every animal (we’re not going to consider plants right now) can be identified, or labeled, as it were, within the system of scientific classification.  There are seven levels which range from the most narrow, specific category – species; to the most broad – (animal) kingdom. Every animal is assigned to some label at each of the seven levels.

Starting with the broadest category, and going to the most specific, the categories are: Kingdom

Phylum

Class

Order

Family

Genus

Species

 

It’s a hierarchy.  Species is the most specific category; Kingdom the most general.

This system of taxonomy is a way of evaluating diversity of animals through time.  That is, if you go all the way back to the very beginning, there was the first member of the animal kingdom – probably a blob of protoplasm.  From there, it divided, and evolved and over eons and millions of years, different types of animals arose.  Taxonomy is a system for sorting through those different types of animals, in order to see their relationship with one another.   And the hierarchical system is sort of a time machine.  Species is the last, most recent type of a given animal; genus is the name for a group of closely related animals that evolved from a common ancestor; family is older and earlier still.

Say you’ve got a cat, an ordinary house cat.   That cat would be identified, taxonomically as

Kingdom:       Animalia

Phylum:         Chordata

Class:              Mammalia

Order:             Carnivora

Family:           Felidae

Genus:            Felis

Species:          F. catus

Taxonomy, then, is a way of organizing our thinking about how animals relate to one another.   As we will see, however,  these categories – Family, Class, Phylum, etc. are imprecise, and imperfect.  For example, when we talk about what is a species, down below, you’ll see that while there is a general idea of what a species is, there are also exceptions to the rule, and cases where the label is useful, but not strictly accurate.  Still this taxonomic system has been a useful tool for decades, so it’s worth taking a look at.

So, lets’ start at the bottom, at a level even below species – “Breed.”

What is a breed?  A breed is a type within a species.  Dogs are the easiest to use as examples.  There are lots of breeds of dogs, right?  Pomeranians to Great Danes.  Each breed had been developed to have certain consistent characteristics – shape, type of fur, behavior.  And when mated with another of the same breed, the offspring will have those same characteristics, too.  Animals of the same breed demonstrate homogenous behavior, and have a homogenous appearance – but only within the breed.  That is why all standard poodles look and act so poodle-y, and not at all like bulldogs.

But breeds are (a) only applicable to domesticated animals; and (b) are still the same species of animals.  All dogs, whatever their breed, are still dogs.  That means that they are still the same species; and capable of mating with any other dog, and having viable, fertile offspring.  That is where mutts come from.

So “breed” is a concept of types of domesticated animals within a single species.

Species.

A species is a group of animals which can interbreed with another animal of the same type, and have fertile offspring.  For the most part, an animal of one species cannot, and probably will not, mate with an animals of a different species.  And animals of one species cannot produce fertile offspring with animals of another species. Thus, for example, porcupines mate only with other porcupines, and have baby porcupines, called, by the way, “porcupets.” Really.   And crows mate with crows.

Crows don’t mate with porcupines, or with seagulls, for that matter; and porcupines don’t mate with skunks.  So, in very broad general terms, these concepts underlying the term species, work fairly well.

But there are exceptions to this rule, or, more specifically, cases where the term species doesn’t have the neat classical boundaries associated with the concept of speciation.

First, occasionally animals of different species do breed with one another, even though they “shouldn’t.”  Recently a grizzly bear-polar bear hybrid was shot and killed in northern Canada.  And even though they’re different species, horses can and do mate with asses, and produce offspring.  So, since people knew that (sometimes, some) different species could nonetheless interbreed, the idea of species was modified to incorporate the idea that even if different species interbred – say a horse and an ass – the offspring would be sterile.  So another test of defining a species was whether its offspring were fertile.  As long as the offspring – the jackass – was sterile, the concept of species was okay.

But even that caveat is not watertight.  Although wolves and coyotes are considered to be different species, they do mate and reproduce, and have fertile offspring.  And lions don’t normally breed with tigers.  But they can, and can produce hybrid offspring:  Ligers or tigons.  Now, in fact, this doesn’t happen outside of zoos (partly because outside of one small area in India, the ranges of lions and tigers don’t overlap; and partly because lions and tigers preferentially seek out their own kind to mate with).  But sometimes, rarely, hybrid offspring –ligons, say –are fertile.

These situations – fertile wolf-coyote hybrids; fertile ligers seem to cause the clean definition of species to break down.

Moreover, it is not always easy to know whether a given animal fits within an already defined species, or should be assigned to a new species.  This can be particularly difficult given the normal variation of animals within a given species – regional differences in coloration, for example.  Likewise, the line between two closely related species can sometimes be blurry.

So the notion of a species is neither perfectly clear, nor perfectly simple. Species is a concept that kind of works, but has lots of holes.

And yet – the idea does work, pretty well.  We can tell a robin from a blue jay, a skunk from a badger, an Indian elephant from an African elephant.

So while the idea of species isn’t perfect, it’s what we’ve got.  It means the same kind of animals, breeding only with the same kind of animal, and producing viable, fertile offspring.  Crows mate with crows, and have baby crows.  Same thing with porcupines, or killer whales.

Moving up the hierarchy, we come  to “genus.[2]

Genus comes into play when you see animals that are kind of like one another, but different, too.  Different kinds of giraffes, say, or seagulls.  They all look kind of similar, but there are enough differences so that it’s clear that they’re not the same.

That’s where genus comes in.

A genus is a group of closely related, quite similar species of animals.  So, for example, a house cat, is in the genus felis, together with other, small, closely related species of cats, such as the jungle cat, the black-footed cat, and the sand cat.[3]  There are lots of animals which have a common name, even though they may fall within different species.  So we might say, “oh look, there’s a sparrow,” even though there are a number of different species of sparrow.[4]  We’d say, “watch out – There’s a skunk,” even though there are different species of skunks.  So we use the name “sparrow” or “skunk” generically.  And that, kind of, is the concept of genus.

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Oh hey – a skunk!

 

They all look pretty similar, and its not too hard to imagine that they all shared a common ancestor not too long ago.  So they’re different species; live in different habitats; have different habits, maybe; and don’t interbreed with one another.  But they’re close.

An inherent notion here, although it’s oversimplified, is that members of the same genus evolved from a common ancestor, not so long ago.  That is, as we will see below, members of the same family may have evolved from a common ancestor, too, but the various family members diverged from that common ancestor earlier, before the members of a genus diverged from each other to make new species.

But then, what about similar animals, which are nonetheless still a little more different?  A leopard, say, compared to your house cat.  They’re both clearly cats, right?  And yet, different size, different habitats, different behaviors.  Leopards are in a different genus:  panthera, along with the lion, tiger, and jaguar.  And what about the puma, also called the cougar or mountain lion, you might well ask? Nope, neither felis, nor panthera, but its own genus (along with the jaguarundi) – puma.

The Lynx and the Bobcat are in the genus lynx.

This is where the next level of taxonomical sorting comes in – the “Family.”

This is the level for clustering animals that are somewhat similar, but also quite different from one another.  The idea is that they have all descended from some earlier ancestor, and there are still some anatomic similarities in their skeletal structures, but over long periods of time have adapted to very different conditions, have developed different features, and in short, are not as closely related to each other as members of the same genus are.  A family is a cluster of genera.

So even though house cats are in a different genus than leopards, they’re all still in the same family – felidae.

yeah, this shouldn't happen.

 

 

yeah, so this shouldn’t happen.

 

 

And if you think of clumping related groups (genera) together, it makes sense. Of course all cats – from house cats to lions – belong in the cat family.  Dogs, wolves and foxes – sure, lump ‘em all into the dog family.  Bears are bears.  All tapirs are in the tapir family.

The level, moving up, is “Order.”

This is where animals that are still more distantly related to one another are clustered, based on some similarities.

An order is a group or cluster of families.  For example, the order Carnivora, includes the cats (from lions and tigers on down); dogs (and wolves and foxes); bears (all of them); hyenas; minks; raccoons; civets; and pandas; walruses and seals.  The word Carnivore – meat-eater – is the basis for this order.

The idea, apparently, is that these types of animals, while certainly different, nonetheless have some things in common, derived from a common ancestor long, long ago; so that scientists can lump them together.  In the order carnivora, for example, these are all predators, meat-eaters.

But right away, you can see the problem:  Some of the animals on here – pandas, for example – are in this order, but they almost exclusively vegetarian, subsisting mostly on bamboo.  And some mammals which are carnivorous – orcas, for example – are not in this order.  So, what gives?

There are a couple answers to this question:

  1. It’s not a very good system.  And, in fact, there are lots of differing approaches to how best sort and organize animals in relation to one another.
  1. It is based on organizational underpinnings from the past, when it was the only system of organizing.
  1. It depends on what any given taxonomist says, although some conventions are so well –established that they aren’t going to change. (But that’s not always true for newly discovered animals).
  1. There are underlying anatomic similarities between the families of animals which comprise an order, so that it seems reasonable to lump them together.  For example, the horse family, the rhinoceros family and the tapir family are lumped together in the order Perissodactyla, because they have an odd number of toes on each foot (one or three; and remember, horses evolved from earlier species that had more than one toe, per foot).  So, even thought they are otherwise dissimilar, horses, rhinos and tapirs have this foot anatomy in common, and so are lumped together.

And the teeth and skeletal structure of pandas are so like that of bears that they seem to fit in here, even if they have evolved to have a different diet.

And killer whales’ anatomy is so different that even though they have evolved to eat meat, too, they don’t fit here.

There are lots of orders, just within the class of mammals:

•          Order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates: antelope, deer, camels, pigs, cows, sheep, hippos, etc.)

•          Order Carnivora (carnivores: cats, bears [like the panda, polar bear, grizzly, etc.], weasels, pinnipeds, etc.)

•          Order Cetacea (whales, dolphins)

•          Order Chiroptera (bats)

•          Order Insectivora (insect-eaters: hedgehogs, moles, shrews)

•          Order Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas)

•          Order Macroscelidea (elephant shrews)

•          Order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates: horses, rhinos, tapirs)

•          Order Pholidota (the pangolin)

•          Order Primates (apes, monkeys, lemurs, people)

•          Order Proboscidea (elephants, mammoths, mastodonts, etc.)

•          Order Rodentia (rodents: rats, mice, squirrels, gerbils, hamsters, etc.)

•          Order Sirenia (sea cows, manatees)

•          Order Tubulidentata (aardvarks)

•          Order Edentata [also called Xenarthra] (sloths, armadillos)

•          Order Hyracoidea (hyraxes)

And these are just the orders for placental mammals.[5]  There are orders for birds, reptiles, insects, fish and amphibians, too.  Many, many orders.

“Class” is the taxonomic level where big differences, and these vast numbers of species, genera, families and orders are simplified.  What I mean is that there are (or were, under traditional systems of scientific classification) only seven classes, in which to sort any given animal.  They are:

Class Agnatha (jawless fishes)

Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fishes)

Class Osteichthyes (bony fishes)

Class Amphibia (amphibians)

Class Reptilia(reptiles)

Class Aves (birds)

Class Mammalia(mammals)

Now, obviously, before assigning an animal to one of these classes, you’d need to know the definition of each class.  What exactly is an amphibian, or a mammal?  But – once you have those definitions, you can match your animal up to the list, and see which one of these seven classes it belongs to.  Here, we don’t care which species, or genus, or order the animal is – we’re just sorting it into one of these big classes.

We can spend endless amounts of time worrying out the precise, persnickety definitions of each class, but screw it – we’ve got better things to do.  So let’s not waste time.  Here’s the quick and dirty:

If it’s a fish and it has bones – Osteichthyes

If it’s a shark – Chondrichthyes

Frogs, toads, salamanders –  Amphibia

Feathers –  Aves (Birds)

Snakes, lizards, crocs, gators – Reptilia

Fur, milk – mammalia  – Mammals.

If it’s a fish and it has no jaw, it’s gross and disgusting – Throw it back and get out of there.

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Omigod! Omigod! That’s a freakin’ jawless fish!  Run!

But again, the beauty of this system is that we are still sorting based on common characteristics.  There are lots of different types of fish, but here, we put them all into the same class, so long as they have bones.  Same thing with mammals or birds.

Okay, onto “Phylum.”

Phylum, the level of classification below Kingdom, is simultaneously easy, and devilishly difficult to pin down.  There is a lot of disagreement about just what, exactly, phylum means, and how many phyla there are.  We, however, are going to take the simple, straightforward route to understanding phylum.  For our purposes, it is a system of classifying animals based on common bodily attributes, and to make it even easier, there are only two phyla we need to be concerned with, here at Pleistoscenery: Insects, and everything else.

Insects are in the phylum arthropoda –they have segmented legs, and exoskeletons.

Everything else, for our purposes, means all the fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

And what makes all those different kinds of animals –  fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals – fit into the same phylum?  Answer:  They all have spinal cords.  And, indeed, the phylum is called chordata – animals with central nervous systems, and spinal cords.

Overall there are something like 35 phyla.  But the reason we’re going to skip them is because they mostly consist of various types of mollusks and worms.  And, really, who cares?

The final level in this hierarchy is “Kingdom.”

“Kingdom,” although it seems easy, isn’t quite as simple as you might think.  Sure, it’s easy enough to place a cat in the animal kingdom, instead of the plant kingdom, but what about bacteria?  Fungi?  Where do they fit?

Answer:  They fit into their own kingdoms, but guess what?  We’re going to ignore them.

All you need to know is that every fish, reptile, amphibian, bird, insect and mammal fits into the animal kingdom: Animalia.

This system is far from perfect.  It’s based, to a large extent on what a given taxonomist thinks is the best place to assign an animal.  Some of these scientists are splitters – they think each animals should be in its own genus, and its own species. [6] Others are lumpers – they tend to lump lots of animals into the same genus, the same family, even the same species.

And this process of deciding where taxonomically, an animals fits is even more difficult when it comes to paleontology, when all you’re working with is a partial animal skeleton, in a poor state of preservation.  Or when you only have one or two skeletons – total – to base the decision on.

But the fundamental idea makes sense – new species arise out of older ones, evolving and adapting to changes in the environment.  New anatomic adaptations, new appearances, new behaviors emerge, but they do not simply spring into being – they grow out their earlier ancestors.  So by studying the anatomy and behavior of animals, scientists are able to make informed judgments about the (a) evolution of different species; and (b) the relationships between various species.

Is this system perfect?  Absolutely not.  But it is a useful tool to understand (or to try to understand) the network of life around us.

Okay – we’ve studied taxonomy.  You tell me what this is:

JackalopeHistory2


[2] The plural of genus is genera.

[3] By the way, do yourself a favor and look up the black-footed cat.  Adorable.

[4] In fact, it gets even more confusing, because there are many different genera of sparrows.  So any given sparrow is a member of a species, is in a genus, and in a family.  Thus, the name “sparrow,” doesn’t identify the bird too strictly – all it says it that this bird in the family of sparrows.  Two little brownish birds, both called sparrows, could be different species, and even different genera.  But they’d still be in the same family.

[5] Don’t even get me started on marsupials, or the duck-billed platypus.

[6] I’m not saying that whoever is in charge of sparrows is a splitter, but go take a look at “American Sparrow” over in Wikipedia, and tell me what you think.

When Muskoxen ruled the Earth

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus), picture taken on 30...

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus), picture taken on 30 October 2004 in Dovrefjell National Park, Norway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that’s not true.  That’s a lie.  Muskoxen never ruled the earth.  I just said that to catch your eye.

But – Muskoxen did live here.  Not just up in the high arctic, but here, where we are – in the continental United States, in California, New Jersey, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma.  They were everywhere.

So, let’s spend a moment talking about muskoxen, scientific name: Ovibos moschatus.   Sometimes called the tundra muskoxen.  And, yes, the plural of muskox is muskoxen.   And apparently, one can spell the name of the great beast as either muskox (one word), or musk ox (two words).  Ditto muskoxen (or musk oxen, if you will).

There are still muskoxen today, mostly living up in the Canadian arctic and Greenland, although a few introduced populations exist elsewhere in the polar north, including Sweden and Alaska.

And, despite their appearance, they are not oxen.  They are more closely related to sheep and goats.

They’re big, standing 4 to 5 feet at the shoulders, weighing 500 to 900 pounds.  Both the males and females are armed with those sharp, curved and deadly horns.  Both sexes are covered with thick shaggy pelts, with guard hairs that almost reach the ground.  They’re the ones who form a protective ring around their young when threatened by predation from wolves.

The name comes from the strong musky scent of the males.

Big, shaggy, razor-sharp horns, and they smell:  What’s not to love?

To my eye, they look primitive, atavistic, survivors from a by-gone era.  And that’s just what they.  They’re believed to have come into North America one hundred to two hundred thousand years ago, across Beringia, the land bridge that connected Siberia to North America, when the ocean levels were hundreds of meters lower, due to the Ice Age.  And then, during the extinction event of eleven thousand or so years ago, their range shrank dramatically:  While they had previously been widespread in the circumpolar north, they disappeared, save for those living in northern North America.  From there, they gradually spread north and east, arriving in Greenland around 350 A.D.

The map shows the distribution of muskox. The ...

The map shows the distribution of muskox. The red colour shows the “original“ distribution of muskoxen (in the beginning of the 19th century). The blue colour shows the areas where muskoxen have been introduced with success in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They were contemporaries of the mammoth, the mastodon, all of the other (now-extinct) megafauana.  But unlike so many other species, the muskox survived, and did not go extinct.

Yet.

Today there are fewer of them, and less genetic diversity than before.   They may be on the long slow road to extinction.  Maybe not.  Check back with me in fifteen or twenty thousand years.

-But –

They’re not the muskoxen I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about a closely related species of muskox, a species now extinct:  The helmeted muskox, Bootherium bombifrons. 

This one – the helmeted muskox – was the one that was here; the one that lived in New Jersey, and Texas, and California until about 10 or 11 thousand years ago.

This one is ours.  This muskox appears to have evolved and lived only here, in North America.

Its closest relative is the tundra muskox living far to the north today,  but the helmeted muskox was significantly different.

For one thing, it was bigger; taller, anyway.  It stood five to six feet at the shoulders.  But it was leaner than Ovibos.  Its skull was thicker, and its snout was much longer.  And its horns –those curved, pointed, killing weapons -were fused on the top of its head, forming a great bony plate.  Ideal for head-butting your rivals when it’s mating season.  This anatomy differs from that of the tundra muskox, whose horns are separated from each other by a groove, although the tundra muskox engages in serious head-butting during the rut, too.

Like the tundra muskox, the helmeted muskox had a coat of dark brown hair, but its was shorter and finer than that of Ovibos.

As mentioned above, its remains have been found all over – but not a lot of them, not many fossils.  So, although they were widely distributed, there apparently weren’t vast numbers of them.

And, as is so often the case with extinct animals, much about them is not known.  There is, for instance, some question about its preferred habitat.  It seems likely, however, that it preferred open wooded areas, or savannah-like habitats, where it could eat a varied diet of grasses, woody plants, and shrubs.  So, a generalist, not dependent on a single food source.

It was here, throughout the United States, moving through open woods, probably in small herds, rutting, mating, raising its young, forming a defensive ring to stand off wolves or other predators; grazing or browsing on shrubs.

And yet, it is extinct, while its close cousin, the tundra muskox, survives.  Why?  There aren’t a lot of fossil remains, but it doesn’t seem likely that hunting was the primary reason for its extinction (although it certainly may have been a contributing factor).

Climate change?  Probably.  But the details are unclear.  Lots of large animals went extinct roughly ten, eleven thousand years ago, but not all of them:  Not the moose, not the bison, not the pronghorn, and not the tundra muskox.  So why did the helmeted muskox disappear?  It was  widespread, had a varied diet – what happened to wipe it out?  One theory, and it is only a theory, is that it got squeezed between the tundra muskox – better adapted for life in the far north; and the bison – better for life in open woods.  But I don’t know.

Let me know if you find out.

And one last thing:  The helmeted muskox was NOT the only muskox species to live here.  There was another, a giant:  The Shrub-ox, Euceratherium collinum.  It was huge, much bigger than the muskox or helmeted muskox.  But that is a report for another day.

Wild Horses

Everyone knows that horses evolved in North America, then spread out to Asia, and thence (thence?) to Europe and Africa.

And everybody knows that horses then became extinct in the New World, and that there were no horses here until the Spaniards brought them back, with Columbus, and succeeding expeditions.

Right?

Well, yeah, kinda.

See, the part where I was wrong, and you may be too, is that I thought horses had gone extinct here millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oops.  Wrong.  Not true.

Because there were horses here, in North America, up until about twelve thousand years ago.  They weren’t extinct millennia ago – they were here even as the first people were coming into the Continent.

Cool, right?

But now they are extinct.  Gone.  The mustangs out west, and the ponies of Chincoteague are not truly wild, but instead are feral – horse who live in the wild, are not domesticated, but are, nonetheless, descended from domestic horses.

No, we are talking about truly wild horses.

The wild horse is Equus ferus.  All domesticated horses descend from them.  Domesticated horses are known, taxonomically, as Equus ferus caballus.   Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, and all kinds of different breeds have been developed.  But as far as is known, no-one on North America twelve, fifteen thousand years ago had domesticated any of the horses living here at the time.  There were no different breeds.

So what were the horses here, then, like?

There are two species of wild horse – wild, not feral – which may bear on this point.

The first is Przewalski’s Horse.

wild-horse_758_600x450

Przewalski’s Horse was, until recently, extinct in the wild; it’s line preserved only in captive populations, in zoos.  In 1992, however, a small population was reintroduced to its former habitat in Mongolia, and it is successfully reproducing there.  But Prezwaleski’s Horse, though an intriguing candidate for a modern analogue to the extinct North American horse, is probably not what we want.  Although it can mate, and produce viable offspring with modern horses, it has extra chromosomes.  So, for that reason we rule it out as the basis for our model.

The second truly wild horse was the Tarpan, regrettably, now extinct.  But it died out in historic times, and quite recently at that – the last known specimen died in 1090.

And it is the tarpan, we believe, which is the progenitor of the modern domesticated horses.

The tarpan lived in Europe, and on the plains of Russia, and Mongolia.  But it is reasonable to surmise that the horse found in North America looked like the tarpan.

The tarpan stood about 56 inches high at the shoulders, and probably had a falling mane, rather than a mane that stood upright.  It was commonly dun colored, but other colors were seen.  It legs may have been darker than its body.

resizedimage550370-Steppe-Tarpan

This illustration is by Alkiviadis Geskos, and may bee seen at  the Large Herbivore Network, http://www.lhnet.org/steppe-tarpan/

There have been several attempts to breed domestic horses “back,” so that they look and behave like the wild tarpan.  Superficially, they may appear similar, but they are domesticated horses, not truly tarpans.

The tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse were painted in the caves at Lascaux, Pech Merle, and other places.  What those artists saw, is, I think, what you would have seen had you been able to gaze out on the plains of North America twelve thousand years ago.

And there’s an interesting article about the accuracy of the cave paintings in depicting the horses of that time, at

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/cave-painting-colors/

titled:  “Cave Paintings Showed True Colors of Stone Age Horses,”  from which this illustration is taken

horse-cave-paintings-pnas

But really, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see bands of wild horses running across the prairies of North America twelve thousand years ago?

I’ve decided to serialize my novel – The Clovis Mission.  So here is the first installment.  I”d appreciate your thoughts, comments and criticisms.

Prologue

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.

Summers

 It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember I was wearing my new teal shirt.  Teal.

I was working in my office late one afternoon, preparing notes for next week’s classes when I got the call.  It was Dean Mendelsohn, who asked if I could meet with him and two gentlemen from the Government.  “Sure,” I said, “when?”

“They’re here, now,” he said.  I’ve known Nate since I came to the University, and he sounded the same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  “I’m on my way.”  I said.

His office was two floors below mine.  I wasn’t particularly hurried.  I had worked with officials from the National Forest Service in the past, examining archeological sites, so, although I thought it was unusual that they’d just shown up, instead of calling, I didn’t think it was likely to be anything out of the ordinary.  So I walked down the stairs, and into Nate’s office, and got surprised.

Nate introduced me to Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White.  They took it from there.  Kramer was short, stocky.  Short blond crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white shirt, black tie.  Looked like a stereotypical scientist from the nineteen fifties.  White was tall, thin, beaky nose, longish brown and gray hair, swept back over his ears.  Tweed sport coat.  The politician of the bunch, if I had to guess.

White told me that they were from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the Park Service. 

“Professor Summers, you know of Dr. Leonard Carver, of course.”  White spoke. “His interests and research are quite similar to yours, I think.”

I agreed.  As a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Carver’s work, and so I knew of his investigation into the megafauna extinctions possibly associated with the Clovis culture.  We were not friends, although I had met him a couple of times at various symposia.  I thought his work was meticulous, and that he certainly deserved his reputation as one of the foremost archeologists working in the peopling of the Americas.  I knew he was one of the very few scientists awarded the grant and opportunity to travel back in time to conduct research, and had gone back in time from the station at Arizona State University.  I was eagerly awaiting his report.

Then Dr. Kramer took it up. “You’re aware that he’s been selected to go back in time, to study the extinctions associated with the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago? We’d like to talk to you about that, if you can give us some time.”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s going on?”

We all sat down.  Nate started chewing on that goddamned pipe of his.  Unlit, of course – no smoking on campus. 

“Basically,” White explained, “Carver has disappeared.  He hasn’t sent any of the time beacons back to us, for the last three days, our time.  And then, yesterday afternoon, the ASU station stopped.”

“Wait a minute.  I didn’t think he’d gone back yet – isn’t that set for later this summer?”

“Yes, that’s correct.  Only he inserted a couple days ago, just for a brief scouting expedition.”

“So what do you mean he’s disappeared?”

“He’s been out of touch – no time beacons for three days now.  That shouldn’t happen.  He’s supposed to light off a beacon every day, so we can track his place in time and space, but he hasn’t.  He’s gone.  Missing.”

Kramer chimed in.  “And now the station itself, the one in Arizona has gone down.  It isn’t working.  We can’t send anyone back to see where he is, or what’s going on.”

Well, shit.  This didn’t sound good, at all.

“So, wait.  How big was Carver’s group?”

“There was no group.  It was just him.”

“Are you kidding me?  That’s crazy.  I mean, I have the highest respect for him, but that’s nuts.”

“Look, it was just supposed to be a quick look around.  Only four days, in preparation for his work this summer.  He wanted to walk the ground, do some preliminary reconnaissance of where to begin his studies.”

“You’re serious?  He went back alone?  Who let that happen?”

I was pissed.  I mean, I was no mountain man, not even a park ranger, but I knew how stupid that was.  Carver was probably sixty, sixty-one, twenty-five years older than me.  No way should he have been wandering around out there by himself.

“Well,” White began, and then trailed off.

“Look, Professor,” Kramer said, “We have never had a problem with any of the technology, with any prior trips sending or retrieving.  And we had no reason to think that there’d be any problem this time.”

“Who runs this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” White said.

“I mean, who makes the decisions to go and who gets to go, and when and for how long.  Who’s in charge of this?”

“Why, we are,” White said.  “I mean, DARPA has been given authority over administration of the time travel program.  We have a budget, and there is a grants program that we administer, and from the list of applicants, we select who gets to go, and work out the details of the trips.  We answer to the Secretary of the Interior.  Is that what you meant?”

Well, no, not really.  What I guess I meant was how was anyone stupid enough to let someone go back twelve thousand years alone.  But whatever had happened was already done.  No point in stirring it up.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.  “I thought it might have been under the supervision of the Army or the CIA or something.”

“Oh, no,” Kramer said.  “That’s all been worked out.  If they, or anyone else wants to use one of our facilities, they have to come through us, just like everyone else.”

“So what you’re telling me is that Carver is gone, or lost – out of touch anyway, twelve thousand years in the past, and you don’t have any way to get back there and rescue him.”

“Well, not exactly,” White said.

“No,” Kramer said.  “Not exactly.  That’s why we’re here.  We want to talk to you about going back there to find him.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But you just said that the station was down or dead or something.”

“Yeah, it is.  But only the station at ASU.  The one in St. Louis is still running.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.  So the team would insert at St. Louis, and then go the Arizona and find him.”

“Oh, okay.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper, fly out, pick him up and bring him back?”

“Too big,” Kramer said, just as White said, “too far.”

“No infrastructure,” Kramer added.

“What?”

“We can’t,” White said.  “A chopper big enough to fly out there and return – that’s about three thousand miles all told – is to big and heavy to fit inside the tesseract.  We can’t send it back.”

“And even it we could, it doesn’t have the range.  Can’t fly that far without refueling, even with extra tanks.  And there’s no infrastructure back then – no place for it to land, to refuel, no GPS to let it navigate.”

“Same problem with a truck,” Kramer added.

Well.  Not good.

“So, how would I – ?” I began.  “I mean, how can I help?”

“That’s where you come in,” Kramer said. “We are planning to send a team – a small team – back to find Dr. Carver, and see if we can figure out what happened.  We’d like you to join that team.”

I kept thinking about what they were offering me.  A chance to go back for myself and see the world I’d spent my whole life studying?  Fantastic.  Amazing.  Look, I’m in.  If its safe, if I can go back in time, and then come back home safely, I’m in.

Only – how in heck do we get there?

“Horseback,” White said.

“You and the team travel on horseback to Arizona, to find Dr. Carver,” he continued, like it was the most obvious, sanest thing in the world.

What?”

“Yes,” he said. “You and the team insert at St. Louis – Washington University – and ride cross country to find him and bring him home.”

I think I just stared at him.  My mind was racing.  On the one hand it would be fantastic to go back in time to see the mammoths, and cave lions, and horses, and everything that went extinct.  A paleo-ecologist’s dream.  But on the other hand, I didn’t really know anything about the science (or witchcraft, or voodoo) of time travel, and I wondered what had gone wrong with Dr. Carver.  That was a little scary.

Sitting there, I wondered what Mom would have thought?  Dead now, for over three years.  I missed her, when I thought of her, but as time had passed, I thought of her less and less.  I guess it’s good that memories fade, because no one could maintain such intensity of grief forever.  Could they? Still, I think –  I know – she would have been proud.  And worried.  Wear a raincoat.  Look both ways before you cross the river.  Sheesh.

And what would my father have thought, whoever the hell he was?  They’d been divorced when I was two, and he had pretty much disappeared.  I think I got a birthday card once, when I turned eight, but that was it.  That’s weird, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t a father want to know his own son?  If I ever got married and had a kid, I’d make damn sure he (or she) knew he had a dad.

Yeah, well, if.  Wasn’t going to be with Jeanine, that’s for sure.  After six months, I was better, hardly missed her at all – not more than twice an hour.  Well, I hope she’s happy with the dentist or endodontist or whatever the hell he is.  Sure I do.

 “So, who would go?”  I asked.

“We think it’s best if it’s just a small party – three of you.”

“Three?  That’s all?  Why?”

“Distance, and weight, mostly,” White replied.  “You have a lot of ground to cover, and everything you take has to fit on the horses.  We have weight limits, as we’ve discussed.” 

I thought about that for a moment.  At first, it seemed crazy, foolhardy.  That was a big, wide dangerous world back there.  But by the same token, this may have been a case where size didn’t matter.  First, this was before (or, strictly speaking, just around the time that) humans were first coming into the Americas, so essentially there wouldn’t be any people– no dangerous criminals, or marauding armies  – to worry about.  Then too, without resources, what good would a larger party be?  How could a surgeon, say, operate, without an operatory, without anesthesia?   Didn’t lessen the risk any – you got sick, you died, is what it boiled down to, but that fact alone didn’t mean you’d be any better off with a larger group.

But still, only three of us?

“We think you’d be a good fit,” White said.  You know more about the ecology and terrain of the North American Pleistocene than almost anybody, and you’re young, fit, like to camp – We think you’d be a real asset to this trip.”

Kramer jumped in, playing the bad cop.  “Don’t get us wrong, Professor,” he said.” We’re not saying that this trip will be easy.  Far from it.  Because ASU is down, we’re going to have to insert in St. Louis.  You’ll have to travel from there to New Mexico, by horseback, just like the pioneers.  The trip will take four months at a minimum – maybe much longer.  You’ll be out in all kinds of weather, and most of all, you’ll be involved in a mystery , because we can’t tell you what the hell went wrong.”  He sat back, belligerently, if that makes any sense.

“Well?” White said.  “Will you help us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have classes. . ..”

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a problem,” Nate said. “I’m sure we could get coverage for your classes.”  Thanks a lot, Chief, I thought.

“When do you need to know?”  I asked. “I’d like to think it over for –“

“Now,” Kramer interrupted .  “We’re sorry to be so abrupt, but we’re treating this as an emergency, and we need to know now.”

“Your help is important to us,” Dr. White said.  “To DARPA, and the program, and to Dr. Carver.”

“I think it would be a feather in the University’s cap, if you’d go,” Nate said, “but of course, I don’t want you to worry about that at all.”  Thanks again, Chief.

Great.  A trip lasting four months, at least, twelve thousand years ago, and they need an answer right this minute. 

Well, let’s see.  I’m single.  The past has always been my passion.  Nate and the University will apparently cover for me.  Why not?  Oh, yeah –that’s why not.

“I have a dog,” I said.  

That’s how Jack came to be with us on the expedition.

The American Lion

 

Once there were lions.  Once lions roamed this country.  Here, where we are, lions hunted, and ate, mated, drowsed through the long afternoons, roared as the moon rose.  Lions.

Specifically, the now-extinct American Lion (panthera leo atrox).

800px-Panthera_leo_atrox_Sergiodlarosa

There has some controversy about the taxonomy of the American Lion;  about just where it fits in; about its relationship to modern lions, tigers, and other big cats.  For a while, it was thought that it might have been more closely related to the jaguar, but now, the prevalent view is that it is most closely related to the lion of today, and to the now extinct European cave lion (panthera leo spelaea).

So we are talking about real lions.  Only bigger.  Like so many of the animals back then, twelve, fifteen thousand years ago, the American lion was bigger than its modern counterpart.  20 -25% bigger.   It might have weighed as much as seven hundred pounds, and been seven feet long – excluding its tail.  Its legs were proportionally longer, and its bite was considerably stronger than modern lions.

That is one hell of a predator.

But it wasn’t the only apex predator roaming around back then.  In North America, there were four top predators, all at the same time:  The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.  In modern Africa, lions and hyenas are competitors and adversaries.  But here, there were not only two teams of rivals, but four.

So how, exactly did that work?  Were they competitors, chasing the same game?  They certainly could have been – each was fully capable of taking down a horse, or bison, a camel, an elk.  Or did they preferentially take different animals?  The Lion taking horses, for example, while Smilodon took bison.  And what if they met?

If the American Lion was close kin to the modern lion (as seems likely), then we can suppose that its behavior was similar too.  So it probably hunted in prides; males probably fought each other for access to females.

The La Brea tar pits have produced incredible amounts of animal fossils – lots and lots of dire wolves; many Smilodon.  But not too many lions.   And most of them were males.

Why?  Perhaps lions were too intelligent to be drawn into danger (the sticky asphalt morass) by the cries of entrapped prey animals.  Perhaps only solitary males were hungry enough, desperate enough to venture in.  Maybe lions were simply rare.

And yet, their remains have been found nationwide.  There really were lions roaming here.

In historic times, there were enormous herds of buffalo (which, yes, I know should be called bison). There were (and are) elk, and deer.  Those would be suitable prey for any of them – The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.

So what the hell happened?  Why did the American Lion, like the others, go extinct?

Climate change?  Hunting pressure by humans moving into the Continent?  Some disease?

A couple studies have shown that the animals appeared to be well-fed – i.e. not starving, just before they became extinct.  So, the mystery remains:

Once lions walked and stalked here, and now they are gone.

Here’s a link to an informative site:  http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/lion_american/lion_american.htm*** 

Here are two short excerpts from my novel, dealing with American Lions:

 

I don’t know what the hell happened.  Maybe Devereaux was unbelievably passive-aggressive.  Maybe he didn’t give a fuck.  Maybe he fell asleep.  It was his second watch of the night, anyway.

 I was in my tent, tossing, trying to get to sleep.  Kinda half-awake.  And I heard the horses snorting, stamping, whinnying.  Devereaux yelling ‘Hey!  Hey!’ Then, two quick shots.

Snarling.

“Hey! Dammit!  Lasher, help!”

Gunshots. 

I ran out of my tent in my boxers, carrying my rifle, struggling to put my night vision goggles on. Lasher was already out.  He had his goggles on and his boots, too.  And his rifle.  We ran toward the horses. 

In the eerie greenish glow of the goggles, I could see the horses milling frantically, Devereaux at the edge, yelling, and firing. And dimly, beyond him, I could see lions, large, thickly muscled gray shapes, surrounding the downed mare.  It was obviously too late.  One leg was still kicking a little, but she was surrounded, engulfed by the lions.  There were five or six all around her, eating.  Snapping and snarling at each other, jostling for position. Noisy, harsh, brutal.

“Christ, Devereaux,” Lasher said, “stop shooting.  It’s too late.  Don’t waste the ammo.”

From time to time several pairs of green eyes would lift and regard us for a moment.  Not curious, not threatened, not particularly threatening. Simply noting that we were there.

Off to one side, I could see a lioness standing, head down, panting.  Part of her belly was black.  It took me a minute to figure out that she was wounded – gutshot.  The blood appeared black in the goggles.  I raised my rifle, aimed carefully, and put her down.   Lasher turned to me and nodded, once.

“Well, let’s get ‘em!” Devereaux whispered urgently.  “Fuckers! Let’s take them down!”

“What for?” I whispered back.  “They already got her.”

Yeah, but they’ll come for the other horses, next.”

“No they won’t – that’s enough meat right there for all of them.” 

Unbelievable – we’re having a debate in the middle of the night, twenty five or thirty feet away from a welter of feeding lions.

“All, right, let’s go,” Lasher said. “Devereaux, Summers, you guys pack up the tents, I’ll move the horses over to the other side of the camp, and we‘ll load up and move down the road a ways.”

For all of my avowed confidence that the lions were done hunting for the night, it was still creepy, moving around in the dark, (still with the goggles on) packing everything up.  I moved fast, real fast, just this side of panicky.  And then, of course, your mind goes into overdrive, and I started thinking not only of the lions, but of what else might – even now – come bounding or padding out of the darkness to take me.  A wolf; or a whole pack.  A bear.  Smilodon, stalking and creeping.  Teeth and claws and death in the night.

Even moving as fast as I could, packing up took several minutes. The stupid goddam goggles kept slipping around, but I didn’t want to take time to re-tighten the straps. 

Lasher came around with the horses, and we loaded up as quickly and quietly as we could. And got out of there.

We rode for a mile or so, by my estimate, and then Lasher said “Hold up, a minute. We got two choices – we can stop here for the rest of the night, or press on and try to make the mountains later today.”

That choice was easy.  “Let’s keep going,” I said.

“Damn straight.” Devereaux.

“All right.  We’ll get up into the hills, anyway, and find water.  Let’s go.”

In the dark as we rode, I asked Devereaux what had happened – back there – with the lions.

“Jesus, I don’t know.   I had the goggles on and saw one, walking toward the horses, in that crouched down, hurrying way they get.  So I yelled, but it didn’t stop.  So I shot – two times –  but I missed.  But the lion stopped.  But then three more came from the other side.  They charged out and grabbed her.  That’s when I really started shooting and calling for help.”

“The bastards are too dumb to be afraid of us.”

“No, they’re not too dumb,” I said.  “It’s just that they’ve never encountered humans before.  They haven’t learned to associate gunshots with death.  So they don’t fear us, you’re right, but not because they’re too dumb.  We’re just outside any of their experience.”

“Yeah, well, I still think we should’ve killed those bastards.  Jesus.”

End of conversation.  Devereaux had not been asleep, or passive aggressive.  Just overwhelmed by the coordinated attack of a pride of lions.

 

 

 

One day, riding across a basin, through grass that grew to our horses’ bellies, we saw a pride of lions take down a camel. The hunting seemed similar to that of modern African Lions.  The pride, all females, startled a herd of grazing camels, and then chased down a hugely pregnant female.  Shortly after she was down, a pair of male lions came trotting up quite briskly, and then, at the last second charged into the lionesses already gathered tightly around the carcass, and usurped the kill.  Seen in daylight, in action, these lions were awesome.  They seemed much bigger than modern African lions, huge, and strong, and so very quick.   I know from fossil reconstructions that they are estimated to have only been twenty percent larger than modern lions, but I’m telling you, these lions looked enormous. The males snarled and swiped at the females they had displaced, females who were trying to get back and eat.  The cacophony of growls, snarls and snaps was fearsome.  Not all of the lionesses were trying to fight their way back to the kill, however.  Some of the displaced females saw us, and began to stalk us.  The camel’s panicked flight had brought the pride nearer to us, and our path had brought us close enough to the kill, that the lions thought we presented them with another opportunity.  They weren’t charging us – yet; instead they displayed that nervous half-crouched low stalking creep that we’ve all seen on the nature shows.  Three of them, large, lean and hungry, approaching us from about four o’clock.  In this convention, 12:00 o’clock is directly ahead of us, and the other hours of the clock face represent the approximate direction from which the animals (or any other attack) were coming.

Lasher said, “Devereaux, take the [pack and spare] horses and move up – slowly.  Don’t run them; don’t trot; just keep ‘em bunched together.  Summers, you get up front, too, and stay right behind the horses. I’ll drop back and scare ‘em off.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.  You aren’t going to be able to scare them off – they don’t know us or fear us.  They see horses within the kill zone, and they are hungry.  They don’t know that the sound of a shot equals danger. They see food.

“Watch the front and flanks,” Lasher said.  He pulled up and let us pass him.  Both Devereaux and I had our rifles out, and were looking, looking, looking, every which way, for lions to come exploding up out of the grass, or from the trees.

Behind me, I heard Lasher’s horse snort, and Lasher talking to it in a low, soothing voice.  “Hold on, girl. That’s it. That’s a good girl.  Hold on here.”  That sort of talk.  I glanced back briefly, and saw he was sitting on his horse, not moving forward toward the lions, nor back to rejoin us.  Just sitting astride his horse, rifle held up, and ready.

We kept moving steadily. The wind, what there was of it, was into our faces, so I guess the horses didn’t smell the lions. In any event they remained calm, as we walked them forward.

I looked back again, and saw Lasher now, thirty or forty feet behind us, still sitting his horse. Now his rifle was down and aimed at one of the lionesses.  Still he had not fired. 

We kept moving.  Devereaux detoured around a little grove of tree, and kept us out in a more open meadow, where at least we could see (I hoped) anything sneaking up on us.  Another thirty feet, fifty feet, eye still scanning everywhere.  Hot bright sun, midges or some kind of insect, swarming and swooping over the grass heads.  Very quiet, but for the creaking of the saddles, and some bird song.

Still no shots fired.

“BAM!  BAM!”  Two shots, in quick succession. And another, “BAM!”

Shit.  I jumped.  I saw Devereaux jump a little, too.  I looked back.  Lasher was still sitting, still holding his rifle aimed at a target I could not see.  After a minute, he turned his horse, and trotted up to us.

“Okay,” he said. “They won’t bother us no more. Let’s move out.”

“What happened?” I asked’

“Well, I heard somewhere that if you don’t run before them, don’t give ‘em something to chase, that lions most probably won’t attack.  So I tried that.”

“Yeah, but what happened?”

“Well, they stopped and started looking me over.  They wanted that horse, that was for sure, but they couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t running.  And I expect my smell was unusual, and gave them something to think about.  So anyway, you could see they was thinking about what to do –whether to try to catch another dinner, or just go back to that camel, before it’s all gone.  And then one of ‘em took a couple quick steps forward, like she was thinking she’d rather eat horse.  So I put two quick shots down into the ground right under her feet.  Tried to spray some dirt and gravel up in her face.  And then she stopped and looked like she was going to change her mind and eat some camel.  So I fired again, to encourage her.  And the three of them left.  We still better keep our eyes peeled, though.”

“Yeah,” Devereaux said, “but why didn’t you just shoot them?  I mean, Jesus.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Lasher said. “I thought about it, but I don’t like shooting anything unless I have to.  And even more important, we still gotta think about them boys behind us.  I hope we’ve given ‘em the slip, but I’m not counting on that. And if they’re still trying to track us, finding three lions that been shot would let ‘em know for sure that they’re on the right track.  So I woulda shot ‘em if I had to, but I’d rather not.  And it worked out okay.”

 

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.