Two Extinct Birds Seen Again

29 06 2007

Just in case you didn’t get your extinct bird fix from my giant-penguin post, there’s plenty more news to go around. Greg Laden tipped me off to a gorgeous photo of the Recurve-billed Bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii), a bird that was once thought to have gone extinct. According to the National Geographic article, this bird was thought to have died out in 1965, but reappeared in 2004, although it has been seen seldom since. I’ll have to consult my copy of Errol Fuller’s Extinct Birds for more when I get home.

Perhaps even more momentous is the recovery of Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) remains from a cave on Mauritius, perhaps good enough to yield some DNA for study. The skeleton was in relatively good condition, although it doesn’t appear that it will be mounted or put on display (the only known soft tissue remains were saved from destruction in one of the most famous tales of academic heroism, and now reside in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History). Unfortunately Yahoo!News is not well-known for its excellent reporters, so details are scant at best. It’s definitely be something to keep an eye on, though.

Just what is a Nimravid, anyway?

28 06 2007

Holophoneus Skull
Hoplophoneus sp. via Wikipedia

The saber-toothed cat is one of the most famous of prehistoric icons, but perhaps one of the most neglected when it comes to public understanding. While we know dinosaurs by their genus names (names like Tyrannosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Ankylosaurus are easily come to mind), few people are familiar with saber-toothed cat genera like Smilodon, Metailurus, Dinofelis, or Xenosmilus (and there are many more). What’s even more confusing is that what we often call a saber-toothed cat is not really a cat at all, but a related carnivore called a nimravid that was molded by a striking trend in parallel evolution.

Up until a few months ago, I have never even heard of the term “nimravid”, and I was quite surprised to find out that Barbourofelis and Hoplophoneus, two creatures I had always assumed were just another kind of saber-toothed cat, could not be called true cats at all. Skulls of these two genera (or manufactured facsimiles) usually sit in the same displays as those of Smilodon and other more-familiar saber-tooths, and I never thought twice to look for differences. How careless I was not to pay attention, and how careless of museums to keep lumping the remains of these separate lineages together with minimal comment.

Part of the problem with tracing the evolutionary history of mammalian carnivores is that they have generated an amazing amount of different forms; there is much diversity and plenty of branches, so every new fossil certainly can shake the tree. To keep things simple, however, all living carnivores evolved from a line of primitive carnivorous mammals called Miacids, with the Order Carnivora first becoming recognizable sometime during the Eocene (approx. 56-34 million years ago), the groups giving rise to modern dogs (Family Canidae) and cats (Family Felidae) diverging about 43 million years ago. Not all the groups that arose from the first true carnivores left living descendants, however, and such is the case with the nimravids.

Hoplophoneus mentalis via Wikipedia

So, what makes a nimravid a nimravid? They look awfully like cats, so why aren’t they lumped into the Family Felidae? What makes such distinctions so difficult is that those looking upon the skull of Smilodon and Eusmilus would have to be relatively well-versed in scientific jargon and anatomy in order to point out the most important differences. While some nimravids (like Eusmilus) had large canines, their teeth alone are not diagnostic, and the original factors used by E.D. Cope that differentiated these animals from “true” cats were the “alisphenoid canal, postglenoid foramen, carotid, posterior lacerate, and condyloid foramina, postparietal foramina” in the skull (Hunt, 1987). The various canals and foramina listed dictate the paths of various nerves and blood vessels in the skull, and the arrangement in nimravid skulls seem to be more primitive compared with true felids. Likewise, nimravids lack a two-chambered auditory bulla, which is a rounded bit of bone associated with the ear which true cats have (here’s a diagram of a dog skull pointing out the location of the bulla).

There are a few more obvious giveaways when dealing with some nimravids, however. Nimravids equipped with long canines often have more cone-shaped canines than saber-toothed cat canines (which are flatter in cross-section), and many have bony “sheaths” extending from the lower jaw into which the massive teeth fit. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of arrangement is the genus Barbourofelis, an animal that has actually been assigned to its own family as it is likely more closely related to true cats than nimravids (Barbourofelis was previously classified as a nimravid). Because of this (and the fact that another cat-like offshoot, the marsupial Thylacosmilus) the tooth-sheath shouldn’t be considered diagnostic of nimravids only, but it does give you a substantial clue that you’re probably not dealing with an actual saber-toothed felid.

Skulls (mandibles not pictured) of 4 “saber-toothed” mammals from “The Function of Saber-Like Canines in Carnivorous Mammals” by G.G. Simpson, American Museum Novitiates, August 4, 1941. Pictured are A) Machairodus (felid), B) Hoplophoneus (nimravid), C) Smilodon (felid), and D) Thylacosmilus (marsupial).

You can see how complicated things can get; three different groups of animals arriving on the same body form from the same group of ancestors within a short amount of time. Indeed, saber-teeth seem to be a very common consequence for carnivores in this particular group, and oddly enough some living herbivores like the Musk Deer have impressive fangs as well. I’m not well-versed in evo-devo, but perhaps studying why musk deer develop such impressive teeth might give us some clues as to how it happened in these extinct cats, despite different ancestry. I should also perhaps mention that I’m curious about any sexual dimorphism between male and female saber-bearers; could sexual selection had a role in the extension of these massive canines? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think so, especially if (as we’ll discuss) they were so long that they seemed to make these carnivores even more specialized in hunting, feeding, and social behavior than living carnivores.

Given the prevalence of massive canines amongst extinct felids and other groups, it’s a wonder why there are none living today (it should be noted, however, the Clouded Leopards have very long and impressive canines, even though they don’t peek out of their mouths when closed). It should also be noted that I have essentially left out a number of other, more distantly related saber-toothed carnivorous mammals called creodonts, which held saber-toothed hyenas like Hyaenodon in its ranks. For a time, it must have seemed like everyone and their mother had impressive fangs, and I can only wonder as to how these impressive structures became so-widespread.

It is not enough to merely say that nimravids are different, however; if they are not true saber-toothed felids, how closely are the groups related? Initially, some scientists thought that nimravids were ancestral to true cats based upon their more-primitive skull structure. As more fossils came out of the ground, the hypothesis that nimravids are closely related to true cats without being ancestral to them became favored, but this was overturned by the idea that nimravids and true cats are not very closely related, the nimravids diverging from the line that led to cats much earlier. This third view seems to make the most sense given the current fossil evidence, but I have to wonder how the reassignment of Barbourofelis will affect things, especially if it’s considered to be closer to felids than nimravids.

Here is a visual representation of the three hypotheses (which could be entitled “I can has MS Paint?”), after Hunt’s diagram in his 1987 paper;

Nimravid/Felid evolution

I included the “ancestral line” label in order to enforce the changing ideas about how evolution works, as well. In the first example the animals just kept evolving in the same line (they were the same genetic line, just with different species names as we came across them in the fossil record), but the third diagram shows that just because a new branch emerges does not mean that the ancestral line stops immediately. I have omitted Thylacosmilus and Barbourofelis as to keep things as simple as possible, and the fact that whatever I came up with would merely be a guess. I would also be remiss if I did not point this fact; while true saber-toothed cats do belong to the Family Felidae, they are all grouped together in the Subfamily Machairodontinae and do not have any living descendants. They diverged fairly early during felid evolution, ultimately becoming extinct, and I have hence tried to avoid the term “saber-toothed tiger” as much as possible. Because I’m trying to focus on nimravids for this entry I will keep the designation of “felids” for true saber-toothed cats, and hopefully I’ll eventually write a piece with more detail about the more well-known carnivores.

The big question involving these animals, however, is “How in the hell did they actually use those teeth?” Given that saber-toothed mammalian predators evolved three times in a geologically short time in three separate groups of predators suggests that they were useful for something, but how do you bite with teeth that extend past your lower jaw? In considering this question, it’s important to remember that when biting only the lower jaw is actually moving, so if a saber-toothed mammal wanted to impale a prey item with its long canines, it would have to throw its neck around with considerable force to achieve that end. In fact, this kind of action has already been proposed by some, the dynamics of felid saber-tooth skulls making it difficult to conceive how such huge canines could be used to effectively bite prey.

Part of the problem with having saber-teeth is that you need to open your jaw exceedingly wide in order to get food in your mouth. The oft-cited measurement for the gape of the felid Smilodon is 120 degrees (no source I’ve seen references where this measurement came from), and even if this is wrong we know that in order to get food into their mouths, many of the hyper-saber-toothed mammals would need to open their jaws to a 90 degree angle or more, otherwise they would not be able to get food in their mouths. What this means, as far as muscle strength is concerned, is that the muscles would not be as strong as in other cats, getting the mouth open being more important to a strong bite, so saber-toothed mammals would not have the crushing power of modern tigers or lions. Likewise, owning saber-teeth can make hunting difficult; if you stick your teeth into a live animal and it struggles, you could very well lose a tooth. Likewise the teeth would be more fragile, so putting extreme stresses on them (like crushing bone) would largely be out of the question too; it would be more effective and safe to attack soft parts of an animal than to try for the take-down neck-bites that modern cats employ.

We should be careful in our assumptions, however; we’re dealing with extinct animals, and their method of capturing/subduing prey may have differed significantly from any living carnivore. While I just mentioned that saber-toothed mammals likely had weak jaws, a 2005 study suggests that they had jaws as strong or stronger than living big cats, with different killing strategies depending on the overall durability/robustness of the saber-teeth. Likewise, an earlier study (1996) based upon tooth wear in Smilodon was unable to match wear indicative of bone crushing/chewing/abrasion with living hyenas, canids, and cats, suggesting that Smilodon may have avoided contact with bone as much as possible. Indeed, even though all these animals had impressive canines, not all their canines were equal, and some would be better suited to dealing with stresses involved with prey capture than others. Still, I would regard many of these teeth as delicate, and I can only imagine the pain these mammals must have endured when one of them broke.

Other hypotheses about how these animals employed their teeth involves the white shark-like tactic of disemboweling the softer underbelly of prey, then waiting for the eviscerated creature to die. This would be a rather risky move, the predator essentially sticking its head right between both sets of sharp hooves (assuming the prey was an ungulate). What seems more reasonable would be a strategy based upon cooperation, much like modern lions taking down huge water buffalo. If the group could bring down the prey with their claws, one animal could deliver the killing bite to the neck, minimizing the amount of potential harm to itself. This hypothesis, however, requires the study of behavior that we are no longer privy to, and it would be unreasonable to infer such a pattern on all saber-toothed mammals as the rule.

In his own paper studying the various methods of attack saber-toothed mammals could have used, G.G. Simpson concluded that they were best adapted for stabbing, not as much for slicing (although he conceded that they likely did this as well), the dentition of these animals showing their predatory habits (it had been hypothesized earlier that these animals may have been scavengers). Simpson’s study is interesting, but prey is generally not taken into account; only the effectiveness of different strategies for ripping up the assumed prey. While it certainly serves as a good reference point from a mechanical point of view, the skulls of the animals are considered out of context, and so the major mysteries of these animals remain unsolved.

Ultimately, all the known saber-toothed predators died out, regardless of their affinities. One of the most popular views (which I am surprised to still hear) is that the teeth of these animals simply became so huge that they could not properly open and close their mouths, driving the species to extinction. If there are urban legends in paleontology, surely this is one of the most annoying and persistent. G.G. Simpson refutes this idea in his popular work The Meaning of Evolution, published more than 30 years before I had heard it from various documentaries claiming scientific accuracy;

The sabertooth is one of the most famous of animals just because it is often innocently supposed to be an indisputable example of an inadaptive trend. In fields far remote from paleontology the poor sabertooth has some to figure as a horrible example, a pathetic case history of evolution gone wrong. Its supposed evidence is thus characteristically summarized in a book on (human) personality: “The long canine tooth of the saber-toothed tiger grew more and more into an impossible occlusion. Finally, it was so long that the tiger could not bite effectively, and the animal became extinct.” Now, like so many things that everyone seems to know, this is not true… Throughout their history the size of sabertooth canines varied considerably from one group to another but varied about a fairly constant average size, which is exactly what would be expected if the size were adaptive at all times and there were no secular trend in adaptive advantage but only local and temporary differences in its details. The biting mechanism in the last sabertooths was still perfectly effective, no less and probably no more so than in the Oligocene. To characterize a finally ineffective a mechanism that persisted without essential change in a group abundant and obviously highly successful for some 40,000,000 years seems quaintly illogical! In short, the “inadaptive trend” of the sabertooth is a mere fairy tale, or more fairly, it was an error based on too facile conclusion from imperfect information and it has since been perpetuated as a scientific legend.

Why saber-teeth seemed to be so trendy among predatory mammals, only to disappear entirely, I have no idea. Obviously they must have been good for something, some common developmental, ecological, or other trend driving canines to be longer, only to (perhaps) cause the animals to be so specialized that they could no longer compete with other carnivores who did not have to be so concerned about their teeth. At the very least, however, I hope this post have served to bring to attention a group generally overlooked, often mistaken for their cousins, when they have a rich evolutionary history of their own.


Hunt, R.M. 1987. “Evolution of the Aeluroid Camivora:Significance of Auditory Structure in the Nimravid Cat Dinictis“, American Museum Novitiates, Number 2886, pp. 1-74

Simpson, G.G. 1941. “The Function of Saber-Like Canines in Carnivorous Mammals“, American Museum Novitiates, Number 1130

Further Reading;

The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Turner and Anton

The Velvet Claw by MacDonald

Evolving Eden by Turner and Anton

Fatalis by Rovin (fiction)

Wild Cats of the World by Sunquist

A Real-Life “Big, Bad Wolf”

22 06 2007

Mexican Wolf
A Mexican Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), the most genetically-distinct subspecies of Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

One of the most famous stories in the history of paleontology is of how William Buckland, the noted 19th century geologist, determined that a pack of hyenas once inhabited Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire, England by observing the markings living hyenas made on bones at the zoo. While the science of taphonomy would not fully emerge until the next century, it became clear that fossil bones could tell us about scavengers and predators as well as the preserved prey. It’s no surprise that hyenas especially would “make their mark” on so many bones, the extant Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta being well known for its jaw strength and ability to crack bone (which provides mothers with extra calcium for milk, and these hyenas nurse their young for a relatively long period of time as pups are not weaned until they are a year older or more). Now, a new study of various wolf remains reveals a Pleistocene predator distinct from the Grey Wolves in Yellowstone or anywhere else in North America. The abstract of the new Current Biology paper “Megafaunal Extinctions and the Disappearance of a Specialized Wolf Ecomorph” by Leonard, et al. states;

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is one of the few large predators to survive the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. Nevertheless, wolves disappeared from northern North America in the Late Pleistocene, suggesting they were affected by factors that eliminated other species. Using skeletal material collected from Pleistocene permafrost deposits of eastern Beringia, we present a comprehensive analysis of an extinct vertebrate by exploring genetic (mtDNA), morphologic, and isotopic (d 13C, d 15N) data to reveal the evolutionary relationships, as well as diet and feeding behavior, of ancient wolves. Remarkably, the Late Pleistocene wolves are genetically unique and morphologically distinct. None of the 16 mtDNA haplotypes recovered from a sample of 20 Pleistocene eastern-Beringian wolves was shared with any modern wolf, and instead they appear most closely related to Late Pleistocene wolves of Eurasia. Moreover, skull
shape, tooth wear, and isotopic data suggest that eastern-Beringian wolves were specialized hunters and scavengers of extinct megafauna. Thus, a previously unrecognized, uniquely adapted, and genetically distinct wolf ecomorph suffered extinction in the Late Pleistocene, along with other megafauna. Consequently, the survival of the species in North America depended on the presence of more generalized forms elsewhere.

Unfortunately there are no photographs or illustrations of the skulls studied to reach these conclusions, but as with other mammals the condition and placement of the teeth is absolutely key. This extinct group of wolves had a much higher amount of tooth wear and fracture than modern wolves (or even other groups of extinct carnivores like Dire Wolves and Saber-Toothed Cats), as well as having a skull shape that would have granted them greater bite forces. These wolves also seem to have had a relatively deep (I assume we’re talking from top to bottom) jaws, characteristic of bone-crackers like hyenas and living wolves that take down large prey. This wolf was not particularly larger than wolves currently living in Alaska or fossil wolves from the La Brea Tar Pits, but the construction of its skull and tooth wear make it apparent that it certainly was an effective predator and scavenger.

The evolution of these wolves is also covered in the paper, and it seems that the bone-crushing wolves and extant wolves share a common ancestor that came from Europe or elsewhere in the Old World, the genetic tests showing that the “new” wolves were not the ancestors of modern Grey Wolves. Instead, it seems that the more robust wolves to the north were middle-weights as far as carnivore ecology (Dire Wolves being larger, Coyotes being smaller), and when Dire Wolves became extinct the Grey Wolves began to become adapted to taking larger prey and cracking bones. The authors of the paper suggest that being an overspecialized “hypercarnivore” may have ultimately done the wolf in, its more generalized southern cousins better able to adapt to changing conditions at the end of the Pleistocene. I’m not particularly sure about this argument, but I’m not expert enough to prove it incorrect either.

In any event, I hope more researchers dive into the mountains of fossil remains languishing in museums all over the world; I almost have to wonder if there are just as many species waiting in dusty cabinets as there are still waiting in the rock.

The Lazarus Dinosaurs of James Fassett

21 06 2007

Here and there I had heard rumors of dinosaur fossils found above the K/T boundary, and I even remember one children’s book hypothesizing about dinosaurs that could survive in the cold, “nuclear winter” conditions that would have followed the asteroid impact which devastated life on earth. The thought that most dinosaurs made it into the Paleocene is a romantic notion, especially because dinosaurs were the “ruling reptiles” for so long, but there doesn’t seem to be much of anything to back up the idea. Still, some paleontologists, especially James Fassett, would beg to differ, and he has a new paper out entitled (*deep breath*) “The documentation of in-place dinosaur fossils in the Paleocene Ojo Alamo Sandstone and Animas Formation in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and Colorado mandates a paradigm shift: dinosaurs can no longer be thought of as absolute index fossils for end-Cretaceous strata in the Western Interior of North America” in the journal New Mexico Geology (the link is only for the sake of completeness; the paper isn’t there). John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts was kind enough to reproduce the abstract for us;

Extensive geochronologic studies of the rocks adjacent to the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) interface in the San Juan Basin have now provided compelling data attesting to the Paleocene age of the dinosaur-bearing Ojo Alamo Sandstone in New Mexico and the Animas Formation in Colorado. These data consist of radiometric age determinations for Cretaceous strata underlying the K-T interface and palynologic, paleomagnetic, and geochemical evidence attesting to the Paleocene age of the strata above the K-T interface. The identification of the paleomagnetic normal interval – C29n – in the dinosaur-bearing lower part of the Ojo Alamo Sandstone in the southern San Juan Basin at multiple localities allows for the precise dating of the last occurrence of Paleocene dinosaurs at the top of chron C29n at 64.432 Ma.

The conventional wisdom (entrenched dogma) among most geologists, and especially among vertebrate paleontologists has been, for more than 100 years, that all dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. Thus, dinosaur bone found in place in a formation provided indisputable evidence that the formation was Cretaceous in age. Now, with the discovery of Paleocene dinosaurs, the paradigm of Cretaceous-only dinosaurs must shift. Let us hope that this paradigm-shift will be a smooth and placid lateral-slip along planar fault blocks rather than a grumbling, rumbling, herky-jerky sliding of jagged-edged, opposing sides past each other. Science must always be conservative and accept such paradigm shifts only on the basis of the most solid evidence, however, when the data do finally speak, the shift must be accepted by all of us who follow the data in the noble pursuit of finding out how the world was made.

The first part wasn’t so bad, but the 2nd half is awfully cranky; maybe because Fassett has been trying to prove the existence of Paleocene dinosaurs for some time. He claims that scientists must be conservative and work from evidence, but apparently is very upset that other scientists have not yet accepted his evidence, playing the “they’re all dogmatic fundamentalists” card that is reminiscent of arguments by ID advocates and those who deny birds evolved from dinosaurs. Indeed, creationists have latched on to Fassett’s papers as proof that paleontologists don’t know what they’re doing, and while I am in no way suggesting that Fassett is a creationist or sympathetic to them, creationists clearly enjoy any findings that would seem to discredit the evolutionary biologists. Likewise, it is unlikely that all dinosaurs made it into the Paleocene, so forcing this issue is unproductive; we can only work from what we’ve got, not what we wish to be true.

In any case, Fassett’s hypothesis deserves at least a look; it certainly would be dogmatic of me to say that no dinosaurs survived 1 million years into the Paleocene “because I said so”. First, though, we need to take a look at some of the other supposed “Paleocene dinosaurs,” as this is not the first time the issue has come up. In 1987, Rigby Jr., et al. published the paper “”Dinosaurs from the Paleocene Part of the Hell Creek Formation, McCone County, Montana,” and the abstract (I don’t have access to the paper itself) states;

Dinosaur remains have been recovered from six localities in the uppermost part of the Hell Creek Formation, McCone County, Montana, which on the basis of stratigraphic placement and contained fossil pollen can be shown to be of Paleocene age. This modifies the argument that an extraterrestrial impact event at the Cretaceous / Tertiary (K/T) boundary caused dinosaur extinction (L. W. Alvarez et al., 1984; Alvarez et al., 1980). The occurrence of dinosaurs in sediments younger than the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary (Rigby, 1985; Rigby and Sloan, 1985; Sloan et al., 1986; and others) supports the argument that dinosaurs survived the impact event.

While I am no expert on the subject and could very well have missed some finds, most of the alleged fossils are bone fragments and teeth (teeth being especially durable), fossils that easily could be exhumed and reburied (=”reworked.” “Transport” means travelling some distance away from the original site and only sometimes is such material reworked) in Paleocene deposits (thus being buried with Paleocene-age pollen). To the best of my understanding, there are no Paleocene dinosaur tracks, no articulated Paleocene dinosaur skeletons (which means there was little disturbance/no reworking), no Paleocene dinosaur skulls, no Paleocene dinosaur nests, or anything that would absolutely rule out reworking in some form or another. One of the prominent locales at which this reworking occurs is the Hell Creek Formation of Montana, and the subject has already been dealt with at length in the literature. From the 1990 Lofgren, et al. paper “Reworking of Cretaceous dinosaurs into Paleocene channel, deposits, upper Hell Creek Formation, Montana“;

Dinosaur teeth from Paleocene channel fills have been interpreted as indicating dinosaur survival into the Paleocene. However, enormous potential for reworking exists because these records are restricted to large channel fills that are deeply incised into Cretaceous strata. Identification of reworked fossils is usually equivocal. This problem is illustrated by the Black Spring Coulee channel fill, a dinosaur-bearing Paleocene deposit in the upper Hell Creek Formation of eastern Montana. In this example, the reworked nature of well-preserved dinosaur bones is apparent only after detailed sedimentological and palynological analysis.

Because of the potential for reworking, dinosaur remains derived from Paleocene fluvial deposits should not be assigned a Paleocene age unless they (1) are found in floodplain deposits, (2) are articulated, (3) are in channels that do not incise Cretaceous strata, or (4) are demonstrably reworked from Paleocene deposits. To date, reports of “Paleocene” dinosaurs do not fulfill any of these criteria. Thus, the proposal that dinosaurs persisted into the Paleocene remains unsubstantiated.

[Although it is truncated, more details on Lofgren’s analysis can be found here]

Likewise, Buck et al. reports similar findings regarding dinosaur bone and egg shell fragments in the paper “‘Tertiary Dinosaurs’ in the Nanxiong Basin, Southern China, Are Reworked from the Cretaceous.” The report concludes;

Reworking of Cretaceous fossils carried in debris and mudflows deposited during the Tertiary can account for the mixed Cretaceous and Tertiary fossils. On the basis of previous paleontological data and our sedimentological data, we conclude that controversy regarding the presence of dinosaur fossils in Tertiary rocks is the result of sedimentological processes not previously recognized.

Fassett’s dinosaurs, however, are from a different place. In a two page paper from the “Catastrophic Events Conference” called “COMPELLING NEW EVIDENCE FOR PALEOCENE DINOSAURS IN THE OJO ALAMO SANDSTONE, SAN JUAN BASIN, NEW MEXICO AND COLORADO, USA,” Fassett et al. arrive at the following conclusion about a hardosaur femur found in the Ojo Alamo Sandstone;

We suggest that this animal lived in Tertiary time and died near the place where this silicified femur was found. As the corpse decayed, river currents disarticulated the skeleton, dispersing the lighter elements, and leaving this large massive bone behind to be quickly buried and silicified.

According to the researchers, the bone was far too heavy to be transported any distance and hence it’s unlikely it was reworked, so by the very virtue of its location it must have belonged to the Paleocene age. On top of that, pollen associated with the fossil only existed in the Paleocene and rare earth element (REE) analysis is cited as upholding the Paleocene distinction of the fossil. These claims have not gone without criticism, however. In a 2003 GSA presentation titled “NO PALEOCENE DINOSAURS IN THE SAN JUAN BASIN, NEW MEXICO,” Robert Sullivan determined that the pollen associated with some lignite found near the same level as the dinosaur fossils contained pollen that came from the latest Cretaceous (and a few from the K/T boundary), with no Paleocene pollen in sight. With this finding, the status of the hadrosaur fossil being genuine became even more dubious. Furthermore, David Fatovsky and Peter Sheehan responded directly to Fassett two years ago in an issue of GSA Today;

Fassett is wrong: Fassett cites two instances of pollen-dated dinosaur material, as well as magnetostratigraphic evidence. The first instance, an isolated femur, is likely reworked. In the second, re-analysis of pollen from the same locality indicates a Maastrichtian age (Sullivan et al., 2003). This is concordant with the recovery, in the same deposits, of Maastrichtian mammalian index taxa (Weil and Williamson, 2000).

With the biostratigraphy unresolved, the assignment of normal and reversed magnetic polarity zones in the SJB to global magnetochrons remains tenuous. The issue is further complicated by the likelihood of post-Paleocene remagnetization (Butler, 1985). We thus cannot rule out the possibility that the stratigraphy proposed by Fassett is flawed.

Fassett is right: Consider an analogy by paleontologist Peter Dodson (1993, personal commun.): we might see a Model T on the road, but we would never conclude that the car was part of a modern automotive (metaphorical) ecosystem. Even if a few dinosaurs survived a million years past the K-T boundary, dinosaurs were casualties of an extinction that, the best evidence suggests, was geologically instantaneous.

As Sheehan and Fatovsky rightly point out, even if Fassett’s bone was not reworked and belonged to a genuine Paleocene dinosaur, it does not prove that all dinosaurs jumped the boundary or that the K/T impact didn’t kill the dinosaurs. If Fassett’s analysis is accurate, then the last dinosaurs seem to have been remnants that died in the instant after their relatives; in the perspective of deep time, such dinosaurs would have died a split second after those killed because of the K/T impact. How likely is it that any dinosaurs survived the impact, though? If dinosaurs were to persist into the Paleocene, then there has to be a reason they survived and others did not. Fassett has some rather odd thoughts on this subject. Quote a 2001 GSA paper by Fassett;

It is suggested that these “Lazarus” dinosaurs may have survived the short period of maximum devastation, immediately following the impact, as eggs laid shortly before the impact occurred. Even though all mature dinosaurs were probably killed by the impact and the ensuing period of global darkness, their recently laid eggs would have provided a survival sanctuary for some of the developing dinosaur embryos for from one to two years. The San Juan Basin’s Paleocene dinosaur fauna is named the Alamoan fauna for the Ojo Alamo Sandstone, the formation in which these dinosaur fossils have been found.

Fasset even extends his hypothesis to state that frequent volcanic activity in North America prior to the end-Creataceous impact even selected dinosaurs who could survive ash-falls and other events associated withe eruptions. In a GSA presentation, Fassett argued;

Assuming even a modest compaction ratio of 10:1 for fresh-volcanic-ash/devitrified clay it is clear that these ash falls were meters thick – as much as 5.5 m for the thickest ash observed in these rocks! If we assume that the 7 dated ashes represent one-tenth of the eruptions that occurred during the 2.72 m.y., seventy such eruptions could have occurred during that time interval resulting in a frequency of one of these devastating events every forty-thousand years or so! These events, and their inevitable evolutionary consequences, must clearly have prepared the dinosaurs for the much more devastating end-Cretaceous event allowing some of them to live on into the Paleocene.

Granted, I have not read the actual papers, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. Dinosaur eggs that somehow were preserved hatched out into a world devastated (essentially deep-fried, if you will) by a meteor impact and persisted for another million years before vanishing for some undisclosed reason. Given what we have been learning about dinosaurs and the way they cared for their young, it is highly unlikely this scenario would have panned out; the eggs would need care and the young would likely need some amount of assistance as well, and there would be no adults (as per Fassett’s hypothesis) to do it. I find it equally unlikely that volcanic eruptions every 40,000 years ago created “eruption-resistant dinosaurs” through natural selection, so the mechanism by which Paleocene dinosaurs would have persisted is still unknown.

As I stated before, however, I have not yet seen the new paper and I am indeed very interested in it. I am skeptical (and there’s no reason why I should not be), but if Fassett’s find is as significant as he suggests then it is certainly something of note and requires more attention. Still, I am a little put-off by the title and abstract of the new paper; the author comes off as self-righteous and as looking for a smooth acceptance of his own ideas rather than argument. Right or wrong, the paper will not pull the rug out from underneath paleontology, but rather add to our understanding of how whole groups of animals go extinct, be it with a bang or a whimper.

(Hat-tip to Evolving Thoughts & Pondering Pikaia)

Mammoths & Meteors

12 06 2007

If you haven’t done so already, check out John McKay’s excellent piece on hypotheses surrounding mammoth extinction (from “They didn’t go extinct, stupid!” to the current news of a possible comet/meteor impact 13,000 years ago), including an overview of how pre-existing thoughts and biases shaped the way we view the coming and going of different groups of animals through time. And if that isn’t enough to sate your need to learn about mammoths, John also has a post on some recent genetic studies relating to the disappearance of the big mammals, too.

The Dragons of Eden

25 05 2007

Now the serpent was more subtle and crafty than any living creature of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Can it really be that God has said, You shall not eat from every tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees of the garden, except the fruit from the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil and blessing and calamity. – Genesis 3:1-5 [Amplified Bible]


One of the great “untold stories” of the American Museum of Natural History is that of the Tyrannosaurus rex battle that never was. In 1913, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Barnum Brown published a bulletin with a potential pose for two of the towering theropods, fighting over a carcass, expressed as a scale model.

T rex fight
From Tyrannosaurus : restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the AMNH ; v. 32, article 4.

This reconstruction never came to pass, however, and the museum’s singular Tyrannosaurus mount stood upright, holding out its feeble arms while dragging its tail for many years. Today, the AMNH’s Tyrannosaurus takes on a more contemporary and accurate pose, but when two of the dinosaurs came to compete over a meal it must have been just as awesome and frightening as Osborn and Brown envisioned in 1913. Unfortunately, we will never know how such a drama would have played out as the great “Tyrant King” did not survive the end of the Cretaceous, at least outside of the imaginations of paleontologists and dino-philes worldwide.

There are some, however, who claim that humans would have been present to witness such a confrontation. Such beasts did not always bite and claw at each other over carrion, but rather became cursed to do so because of the folly of Man. Indeed, when the Serpent in the Garden tricked Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, he really did his reptilian brethren a disservice, condemning them to experience competition, hunger, disease, and death, rather than peacefully sharing Eden with the fragile humans and cracking coconuts with their enormous jaws as they were intended. After the Fall, Adam and Eve had to live in a world with such monstrous forms they would certainly need to know the difference between “blessing and calamity,” and the survival of the human species becomes even more spectacular given the carnage gigantic theropods could have wreaked on the first people.

Such beliefs cause enough cognitive dissonance to cause permanent brain damage and run counter to reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that this coming Memorial Day, the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum will be opening. Attempting to turn America away from evolution, the root of all our social ills according to the group, Ken Ham and many others have spent $27,000,000 and countless hours in order to take humanity back to the Garden of Eden physically and mentally, a time of communion with God in which ignorance was cherished and knowledge of anything but the one Book considered dangerous. To Ham and other creationists, the time Eden was a time when “Dragon’s Hearts Were Good” (to borrow the title of a children’s book by another AiG leader, Buddy Davis), and the rampaging dinosaurs that helped exemplify the ramifications of man’s Fall gave rise to the still persisting tales of dragons, sea monsters, and monsters hidden in far-away jungles.

If hundreds (if not thousands) of people donated over $27,000,000 dollars, money that could have been better spent on more admirable causes than a creation museum, can there be something to this view? Is there anything at all that would suggest that AiG and its supporters might be correct? The answer is an unequivocal “No!”; the only way that Ken Ham and others seemingly escape both evidence and logic is by jamming their fingers firmly in their ears and singing “Onward, Christian Soliders” at the top of their lungs. And so, without further introduction, I present to you my case that the truth behind the dinosaur-dragon connection lies not on a 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian plain but in the ground, where the bones of long-dead beasts will gladly share their wisdom with those who seek it.

“…speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee” (Job 12:8)

The dinosaur known as Scrotum

In 1676, the word “dinosaur” had yet to be added to the lexicon. This doesn’t mean, however, that all the remains of prehistoric creatures were tucked away in the strata, patiently awaiting the day in 1840 when Sir Richard Owen would formally describe the “Dinosauria.” In fact, quite the opposite was true; throughout history strange bones, tracks, and other fossils appeared all over the world, few knowing how to make heads or tails of the strange remnants. One such fossil was sent to Robert Plot in 1676, which he described the following year in his book Natural History of Oxfordshire, coming to the conclusion that it was a part of a huge creature’s femur, probably from some sort of giant, pictured below.

Scrotum humanum
The infamous “Scrotum humanum” (ref: Wikipedia: Megalosaurus)

Plot’s analysis is often forgotten, however, as it was the reanalysis of this bone fragment that become one of the most celebrated accounts of a paleontological error in history. In 1763, Richard Brookes redescribed Plot’s fossil as being similar to a gigantic pair of human testicles, dubbing it (informally) Scrotum humanum. Today we know it as part of a femur from Megalosaurus(1), Plot’s description being surprisingly on the mark (how could he have known about dinosaurs in 1676?), but it is Brookes’ description that is more telling of the the mindset about fossils at the time, when paleontology was certainly having “growing pains.”

Mystery of the Tongue Stones

While Nicolas Steno made an important contribution to science in describing principles of stratigraphy (Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid, 1669), it was his dissection of a shark in 1666 that helped to shatter the intellectual quagmire about fossils at the time. In Steno’s day, no one was quite sure were fossils came from; some said they fell from the sky or heavenly bodies, others that they naturally grew inside the rocks, and yet others (in the famous “seashell on the mountaintop” problem) that fossils of marine organisms were deposited by the Biblical Flood. Robert Plot, the man who correctly identified the Megalosaurus fragment as being part of a femur, described plenty of “star-stones,” “horses’ heads,” “screw-stones,” and “bulls’ hearts,” later turning out to be various bivalves, corals, or other invertebrate animals. Rather than going along with such conventional “wisdom,” (acquiescing to Biblical authority either explicitly or implicitly) Steno suggested that glossopetrae look like shark teeth because they are shark teeth, the ones in the ground matching the teeth he inspected in the mouth of the Great White Shark. The teeth may have changed in chemical composition, but there could be no mistaking their form, running counter to the various ideas about the teeth falling from the moon or being the fossilized tongues of snakes driven out of Ireland.

Adding to the Confusion

Steno’s assertion about the shark teeth should have been heard far and wide, changing the infant discipline of paleontology, but old habits died hard. In 1726 Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer published his infamous work Wurzburg lithography, featuring lizards, crustaceans, comets, and the petrified name of God, all of which being etched in stone as a joke on the “insufferably pompous” (Gould, 1998) professor, even though the hoaxers tried to dissaude Beringer from publishing when they learned how seriously he was taking the “lying stones.” Even prior to Beringer’s and Brookes’ mistakes, fossils were being shoved into categories that would cause the least amount of conflict with Scripture. Indeed, giants seemed to be a perfect wastebasket category in which to place any large bones that might challenge the idea of a young earth;

Cotton Math, the New England pastor, naturalist, and “authority” on witchcraft, proclaimed in 1706 that the fossil bones and teeth of a mastodon found along the Hudson River in New York State around 1705 belonged to a race of vanished humans, “godless giants drowned in Noah’s Flood.”

(Ref: Dinosaurs of the East Coast by David Weishampel and Luther Young)

Indigenous people had their own take on the massive bones found in various locales too, one of the most famous being Big Bone Lick, located in (ironically, at least in terms of this essay) Boone County, Kentucky. The following are two similar accounts relating where the massive bones came from [Ref: Dinosaurs of the East Coast by David Weishampel and Luther Young (pg. 51-52)];

A Shawnee legend surrounding five mastodon skeletons from Big Bone Lick was described in 1762 by naturalist James Wright of Pennsylvania:

They had indeed a tradition, such might Creatures, once frequented those Savannahs, that there were then men of a size proportionationable to them, who used to kill them, and tye them in Their Noppusses And throw them upon their Backs As an Indian now dos a Deer, that they had seen Marks in rocks, which tradition said, were made by these Great & Strong Men, when they sate down with their Burthens, such as a Man makes by sitting down on the Snow, that when there were no more of these strong Men left alive, God Kiled these Mighty Creatures, that they should not hurt the Present race of Indians, And added, God had Kill’d these last 5 they had been questioned about, which the Interpreter said was to be understood, they supposed them to have been Killed by lightning. (James Wright to John Bartram, August 22, 1762, British Museum, Add. MSS 21648, fols. 333-334)

[I]n 1785, [Thomas] Jefferson wrote about a legend told to him by a delegation of warriors from the Delaware tribe:

In ancient times, a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-bone licks, and began an universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals, which had been created for the use of the Indians; that the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock, of which his seat and the print of this feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered, except the big bull, who presenting his length, it wounded him in the side; whereon, springing round, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day.

As mentioned at the beginning of the first excerpt, today we know that the bones belonged mastodons, possibly attracted to the area (along with other animals) because it served as a salt lick. How could the Native Americans have known about the fate of the giant elephantine beasts? While the bones became surrounded by mythology, the Native Americans did not mistake them for giants or human monsters, as occurred in other parts of the world. Indeed, the legendary Cyclops owes its origin to mammoths and mastodons as well, the island of Sicily (where, according to mythology, Cyclops were supposed to have dwelt) giving up the remains of many of the extinct mammals, and it is easy to see how a mammoth skull could be confused for that of a giant, one-eyed monster.

Of Oxen and Dragons

Legends surrounding fossils were not restricted to the Greeks or Native Americans, of course; all over the world there are tales describing dragons and other fantastic creatures. In this account, from the book Hunting Dinosaurs, enormous bones are related to a more familiar creature imbued with special powers;

“Fifty-five years ago, a French geologist called Josue-Heilmann Hoffet went to Indochina to conduct a geological survey and found dinosaur bones. Near the border between Vietnam and Laos there is a very small village in a dry teak forest. The people of the village are Qatang and they are animists. Hoffet arrived in this small village, and when he began observing the rocks, the people say, ‘Oh, you must be looking for the stone bones-of the sacred buffalo.’ They told Hoffet that when the sacred buffalo are young, they carry the sun in the sky each day, and when they get old, they die in this place, not far from the village. This is their legend. They took him to see the big vertebrae of the sacred buffalo. They were dinosaur bones. Hoffet was fascinated and wanted to collect the bones, but they told him, ‘You cannot touch these vertebrae because they are sacred. If perhaps you do a sacrifice, maybe you can collect some of them.’ So he paid them a buffalo, a young buffalo, and he was allowed to collect some of the fossil bones. He described these bones in 1936 in Hanoi in a small paper, ‘Description of New Titanosaurians in Bas-Laos.’

[Ref: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber (page 132)]

While the people of the village Hoffet visited may have revered the bones and were loathe to let them go (at least, not for free), other asian cultures did not have the same desire to preserve fossils. Such is the case with Traditional Chinese Medicine, consisting of some traditional remedies like massage/acupuncture and other controversial folk-medicine practices including the use of shark fin, tiger penis, sea horses, rhino horn, and even fossils in an attempt to either enhance or heal an individual. From the AMNH Mythical Creatures website;

For using dragon’s bones, first cook odorous plants; bathe the bones twice in hot water, pound them to powder and put this in bags of gauze. Take a couple of young swallows and, after taking out their intestines and stomach, put the bags in the swallows and hang them over a well. After one night take the bags out of the swallows, rub the powder and mix it into medicines for strengthening the kidneys. The efficacy of such a medicine is as it were divine! – Chinese medical scholar Lei Xiao (AD 420-477)

There is no doubt that what the bones being discussed are not the bones of actual dragons or even (as creationists may assert) living dinosaurs, but fossil bones found in various regions all over China. It is almost painful to think how many specimens have been lost so that some people could have stronger kidneys. It should be noted, however, that many “dragon bones” are actually fossil mammals, not dinosaurs or any other Mesozoic reptile, which goes to show that mammals are often just as much the basis for dragon lore as dinosaurs are, and this trend is not only apparent in Asia.

Dragons of the Carpathian Caves

A number of European caves, especially in central Europe, traditionally maintain the name of the dragon’s (or dragons’) cave or lair. During the 17th century, the German doctor Petersonius Hayn found some large skulls, isolated teeth, and bones in several caves in the Carpathian Mountains around Moravia. In 1673, Hayn had a article published by the Halle Academy of Sciences entitled “Skulls of Dragons in the Carpathians.” Around the same time, another German, named Vette, found similar remains in Transylvania. According to their discoverer, these bones belonged to flying dragons. Illustrations of the material described by Hayn and Vette still exist. In both cases, they are of Quaternary cave bears, a powerful animal that was one of the largest carnivorous mammals. The famous Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel analyzed the legend of the dragon of Klagenfurt (Austria) early in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 14th century in the spot known as the “Dragon’s Grave,” the skull of a woolly rhinoceros from the ice age was found and was subsequently exhibited in the city’s town hall. This specimen served as a model for the sculptor Ulrich Vogesland for this creation of a statue of a dragon, which today is an emblem of the city of Klagenfurt.

[Ref: Starring T. rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture by Jose Luiz Sanz (pg. 122-123)]

Just in case all these prior descriptions have not made things clear, wherever there have been fossils, legends have cropped up to explain them. While the dinosaurs and mammoth mammals of times long-gone are now extinct, they did leave us their bones, startling remnants that inherently fire the imagination. Could such creatures still be living? When Georges Cuvier, in 1796, showed that species did indeed go extinct, not everyone believed him. Rejecting the idea that nature could produce a creature and later eliminate it, Thomas Jefferson instructed Louis and Clark to keep their eyes open for mammoths and other large beasts on their trek west (Native American lore apparently fueling his idea that the beasts could still be alive somewhere in the unexplored recesses of the continent). Today, of course, we know Cuvier to be right, but the prospect that some vestige of a “lost world” survives in an ocean trench or fetid jungle still captures the imaginations of many. While there are plenty of strange creatures of ancient heritage still alive today (perhaps the most famous being the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae) (3), they seemingly do not hold a candle to the huge and varied creatures that lived during the Mesozoic, and such monstrous forms inspired Ray Bradbury to write a short story called “The Fog Horn“;

Up From the Depths

We waited a moment. And then I began to hear it. First a great vacuumed sucking of air, and then the lament, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the great monster, folded over upon us, above us, so that the sickening reek of its body filled the air, a stone’s thickness away from our cellar. The monster gasped and cried. The tower was gone. The light was gone. The thing that had called it across a million years was gone. And the monster was opening its mouth and sending out great sounds. The sounds of a Fog Horn, again and again. And ships far at sea, not finding the light, not seeing anything, but passing and hearing late that night must’ve thought: There it is, the lonely sound, the Lonesome Bay horn. All’s well. We’ve rounded the cape.

The story ended up being an inspiration in its own right, as well, becoming the basis for the cult classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms trailer

“Are we delving into mysteries we weren’t meant to know? Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers? Will science unleash the fearsome forces of lost worlds?” Such questions seem to belie a mistrust and misunderstanding of science. While Japan had a more blatant allegory in Gojira, “Beast” (which actually predates the famous man-in-suit monster by a year) attempts to achieve a similar end for American audiences; how can we trust scientists when they unleashed the terrible power of the atomic bomb? If such destructive power is the aim of science, maybe there are things (as the closed-minded gentleman in the trailer suggests) that are better left unsolved. While there are certainly lines of inquiry that we would do well to keep closed (eugenics being the most famous example), I can’t help but think that the spirit of this particular trailer somewhat reflects the attitudes of many present-day creationists towards evolution. To them, science has become a corrupt process driven to subjugate and undermine mankind under the inherently evil hand of atheism, doing away with everything good in the world. Any good scientist, however, knows that the study of the world as it is (or was, given our discussion of paleontology) does not dictate morality or the way things should be, yet this distinction is seldom made by those threatened by the idea of an old earth or any non-Deluge model for the extinction of ancient life.

England’s attempt to capitalize on the radioactive reptile craze lurched out of the sea in 1959 in the form of Behemoth the Sea Monster (or, rather redundantly, The Giant Behemoth). (2)

Behemoth the Sea Monster trailer

According to the trailer, the titular monster (aka “a geometrical progression of deadly menace,” which I suppose could also apply to killer fractals) is the very same Behemoth (“The Biggest Thing Since Creation”) described in the Bible’s book of Job, except that the film creature seems to have been confused with the enigmatic Leviathan (also featured in Job). The Bible says nothing about Behemoth having radioactive powers or electric charges, but oddly enough the fictional monster has more in common with current creationist dogma than the creature God points out in an attempt to humble and awe Job.

“Why is there a giant elephant penis in my Bible?”

Here are the oft-cited passages concerning Behemoth from Job 40:15-24 (King James Version):

15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
18 His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
19 He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.
20 Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.
21 He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens.
22 The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.
23 Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.
24 He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.

Surely, Behemoth would be a beast to be feared, if it even existed. While we certainly could debate whether the animal described above is merely myth or based upon a living creature, for our purposes I am going to assume that some living animal provided the basis for such poetic prose. Needless to say we are dealing with an immense and powerful animal, living in or around a lake or river. What gigantic animals would have been alive in Job’s time that could have caused such an impression? Hippos and elephants are our main contenders, but creationists often attempt to apply the brakes at this point; “It was no mammal, it was a dinosaur!” In nearly every instance I have encountered, they make damn sure to quote the first half of verse 17, “He moveth his tail like a cedar.” In fact, Allan K. Steel spends a fair bit of time agonizing over the verse fragment in one of AiG’s treatments on Behemoth, overlooking the most obvious conclusion about the identity of Behemoth’s “tail.”

(Before fully revealing what the seemingly crucial verse 17 tells us, it should be noted that Archy dealt with this very subject many months ago, just as I did in one of my more popular ProgressiveU posts.)

Looking at the context in which verse 17 is found, it seems strikingly apparent that the “tail” of Behemoth is really a gigantic phallus, one that would certainly speak to the sexual potency of its owner. While “swings” is the most often used verb in creationist literature, other translations use words/phrases like “extends,” “stiffens,” “makes his tail stiff,” “erects,” “stretches,” and “extendeth down stiffly” (among others) seem to be just as common if not moreso, making it seem like the organ in question can be lengthened/stiffened by Behemoth rather than just swung about (although I’m sure that happened as well).

Even if we were to momentarily forget about the verb in question, putting the first half of verse 17 in context paints a fairly provocative picture;

16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

It’s quite obvious that this part of the passage is describing the virility, the sexual prowess and potency, of Behemoth, and it would be odd that in the middle of such a frank description the beginning of verse 17 would divert to talk about the tail. Verse 16 is quite clear that Behemoth has “his strength… in his loins”, the last half of 17 describing the massive testicles of the animal (and it should further be considered that a bull elephants testicles are “wrapped together” internally, making them impossible to castrate in captivity). In case all of this discussion has been too subtle, it is plain to see that what creationists are hanging their case on is not the whiplash tail of a long-extinct sauropod, but rather a massive mammalian penis, and perhaps they are so embarrassed about the sexual frankness of the surrounding passages that they have chosen to ignore them altogether.

England’s Dragon That Wasn’t

Stretching their case even further, many creationists often cite the legend of England’s patron saint, St. George, as evidence of dinosaurs making it to recent times. In various books, from Duane Gish’s terrible Dinosaurs by Design to the aforementioned When Dragon’s Hearts Were Good, a relatively recently-discovered theropod named Baryonyx has been adapted into the role of dragon. While Gish’s version makes some attempt at accurate reconstruction, many of the AiG renditions have the dinosaur bearing extra horns, waddles, and other strange appendages in order to make it look like a dragon. Here is part of their bried description of the dinosaur;

Baryonyx is on display at the Natural History Museum in London. If you ever get the chance to view this wonderful specimen, remember that you just might be looking at the skeleton of one of the dragons from English history and legend (e.g. Sir George the Dragon Slayer) or one of the dragons spoken of in the Bible. One can easily understand how people could embellish the features of a dinosaur like Baryonyx over the years, adding fanciful appendages, etc., to result in some of the dragon pictures and sculptures that have come down to us today.

[Ref:The Great Dinosaur Mystery SOLVED! by Ken Ham (p.37)]

Why this dinosaur and not some other? Baryonyx had the disctinction of being discovered in England, making it a perfect candidate for AiG’s dragon mythology, but although choosing a British theropod may seem obvious it entirely undermines AiG’s case.

Strike 1: We have no historical proof that Saint George even existed outside of the fanciful religious text the Golden Legend, so we cannot even be sure that there really was a Saint George to do the dragon slaying!

Strike 2: The mythology surrounding Saint George and the dragon came from the middle east, as told by crusaders as they returned home. Given the location in which the events (if they even happened) occurred, Baryonyx would be a poor choice given the confrontation in question didn’t even occur in England.

Stirke 3: The “slaying of a dragon” could easily refer to the destruction of pagan cults in a particular region, or (being this was set in the middle east) the slaying of a crocodile. It is even in question whether George did the slaying, given that Saint Theodore of Amasea is purported to have slain a crocodile (“dragon”) in the region, and is even depicted standing on the reptiles corpse in a famous statue in Venice, Italy.

Given all these facts, there is absolutely no compelling reason to believe that St. George confronted a dinosaur, much less even existed himself. Why a fundamentalist protestant group like AiG would attempt to use part of Catholic mythology to prove their point (notice how he is “Sir” George in the excerpt) I don’t know, and I can only assume that they simply didn’t research their assertion. Given this poor scholarship, why should anyone trust them? Why should the average person pay $20 to be lied to? AiG’s various mistakes and intellectual dishonesty are well-known, yet they keep spewing out discredited creationist dogma as if it were something new. It is not; if anything else, the new “state of the art” museum represents a huge step backward, intellectually speaking, attempting to breathe life into a long-dead idea. The most frightening thing, however, is how many people they manage to take in this way.

Digging for the Truth

Whether the Creation Museum will be a success or failure is anyone’s guess; I’m sure there are plenty of church groups that have already booked their trips over the last year or so. They’ll get their fair share of skeptical visitors as well, people who have intact and working BS detectors who want to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. While this museum is certainly the largest and most advanced, its message is not new, and I can’t help but wonder if it will end up like another controversial theme park. A mere 4 years ago, on May 23, 2003, Erich Anton Paul von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, opened Mystery Park in Interlaken, Switzerland. Based upon notions about “ancient astronauts” and alien intervention on earth so fanciful they bordered on the psychotic, the park was scoffed at by many and closed on November 19, 2006 due to financial problems (likely filed under “Money: Lack thereof”). (4) Will AiG’s museum succomb to the same fate? Nobody knows, but given the current cultural climate of the United States at present, it is perhaps more likely that it will be a success.

Writing to his friend Asa Gray, Charles Darwin once related;

I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Indeed, rather than the world being filled with joys and pleasures as described by William Paley in Natural Theology (a book that was very influential on Darwin as a young man), there seemed to be so much pain, misery, and loss. With the literal Genesis account intellecutally untenable, what are we to conclude? Are we to continue to hold on to the concept of the universe as we wish it to be, a place where mankind is the crown of creation, subduing all of nature for our own benefit? This is not merely a debate about when dinosaurs lived and died or whether there was a global Flood; it’s about how we see and experience the world around us. It may be easy, even emotionally fulfilling, to believe that nature exists for our benefit by the grace of God, but I simply don’t see it (nor can I without a frontal lobotomy, or similar procedure). What good can come from a traditional delusion that doesn’t seek to illuminate, but rather do away with notions that are deemed “unsafe”?

Our attainment of intellegence and understanding began ages ago, regardless of whether you accept that it is one of our advantages us imbued to us by evolution or is a consequence of Eve’s teeth sinking into the flesh of the cursed fruit; we do not have the luxury of creating a fantasy world where we are isolated from the rest of life on earth. Rather than being ashamed of our ancestry, instead of ever-cramming more and more skeletons into the overflowing closet, why not embrace our evolutionary heritage? If we can’t do this, then we can no longer regard “truth” as a virtue, and we will have finally succeeded in subjugating the most unruly of all life; ourselves.

(1) It is unlikely that Brookes actually intended to officially name whatever creature the bone came from Scrotum humanum, given that such a binomial would be strangely inappropriate to describe an entire organism. Thankfully, the name was not used and is considered a “forgotten name” by the ICZN, otherwise many children might be learning about the first described dinosaur, Scrotum, when the unit on dinosaurs came up in class (although it would be interesting to sit in on a school-board meeting where irate parents arrived to protest their children learning about the extinct, carnivorous Scrotum).

(2) Just as an aside, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a “Rhedosaurus”) and The Giant Behemoth appeared together at least once in popular culture, taking down the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the super-gory Dinosaurs Attack! card series.

(3) It should be noted that while many have called this fish a “living fossil” or asserted that it has lived unchanged since the demise of the dinosaurs, this is utterly untrue. Such is the confusion when one extant representative of a group of organisms bears the name for all its extinct relatives, as there were once many different kinds of coelacanths swimming the seas. In fact, Latimeria chalumnae is not known from the fossil record, although there are some known fossils from close relatives like Macropoma.

(4) There are rumors that the part will soon open again, but this remains to be seen and I will not consider it to be anything more than wishful thinking on the part of “believers” at the moment.

Ressurecting the Mammoth

16 05 2007

Every now and then, news crops up of attempts to clone a mammoth or other now-extinct species. While there certainly are things we can learn from such processes, they almost seem to have more to do with penance or (in the case of mammoths, at least) the desire to see and study a magnificent animal now lost. Especially since Jurassic Park hit it big over a decade ago, people have been wondering if it is at all possible to bring back long-extinct animals for study (and just as likely, profit). Jeremy of The Voltage Gate, however, alerts us to a more ecologically-based attempt to restore a “lost world”; the introduction of modern-day analogues to extinct creatures like lions and mammoths to North America.

In an open-access commentary published to PLoS Biology last year, Henry Nicholls describes the hypothesis of some conservation ecologists that “re-wilding” (a word that, to me, has the some pseudo-linguistic flavor of “signage” and “we-ness”) North American with extant species analogous to those that went extinct during the Pleistocene would be a boon for the environment. From the article;

Rather than trying to simply ring-fence what wildlife remains, conservationists need to be restoring whole ecologies to something of their former glory, says Josh Donlan, an ecologist at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York, United States). Last year, he and a long list of high-profile conservation biologists penned a controversial commentary in Nature in which they laid out the case for rewilding North America—seeding the continent with suitable stand-ins for species that went extinct thousands of years ago.

Donlan’s world would see carefully chosen slivers of North America grazed by giant tortoises, horses, and camels; the stamping ground of elephants in place of five species of mammoth; and African lions in lieu of the extinct American lion that once stalked the continent.

The benefits, they argued, are obvious. It would restore ecological processes that have gone by the wayside, mend broken evolutionary relationships, create a back-up population of some of the planet’s most endangered species, and raise huge awareness for the conservation cause. “The obstacles are substantial and the risks are not trivial, but we can no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation,” they wrote of their optimistic vision.

I agree that merely trying to create pockets of wilderness will not work; as I discussed during a discussion of current endangered species, we would do well to remember that although the heath hen seemed to rally its numbers in Martha’s Vineyard so long ago, a lack of diversity, disease, and other unfortunate circumstances caused the species to become extinct. Simply creating a pocket of land for a species to reside in, and in some ways may imperil a species more than if the same number of members of a population were more spread out. David Quammen puts it more eloquently in this excerpt from his book Song of the Dodo;

Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, total them up–and find that, lo, there’s still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpet like stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we’re left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart.

If we are to take an active role in conservation, wildlife corridors need to be established and the idea that one large national park is enough to preserve a species must be dismissed. In fact, many “problem” species like black bears, coyotes, and white-tailed deer are doing so well because they do not require pristine habitat; they easily extended their ranges into urban and suburban areas, and as such will likely be with us for a long time to come.

So what of attempts to create “Pleistocene Parks” in different areas of the world? While restoring habitats destroyed or altered by recent human activity (i.e. the building of a dam) is reasonable and admirable, I feel that if Donlan and others expect to release elephants and lions in North America they are certainly misguided. Rather than attempting to create essential corridors to protect species already present and in need of assistance (the elusive jaguar, which is seen every now and again in the American southwest, being the one that most immediately springs to mind), those in support of Donlan’s plan would essentially be trying to exercise penance for the “sins” of early American inhabitants during the Late Pleistocene Extinctions.

Indeed, the PLoS article seems to throw in with the “Overkill Hypothesis”, a view that has been hotly debated for decades. Originally espoused by Paul S. Martin, this view currently holds that human predation on herbivores (i.e. mammoths) not only caused the extinction of the prey animals but also predators that relied on the herbivores for food. Sometimes evidence for mammoths being stampeded off cliffs is used to support this view, but it does have some substantial problems. In addition to “prey” species, giant sloths, glyptodonts, and others that were not likely often on the menu did go extinct, while species that were almost certainly hunted (like bison) did not go extinct. Indeed, humans would have to have been pretty hungry (or wasteful or homicidal) to kill off enough large herbivores to cause their extinction, but again this leaves the question of why large, dangerous species like mammoths went extinct and easier prey like bison did not.

Overkill is not the only hypothesis to take some prominence, however. Effects of climatic changes and the potential for a hypderdisease are often cited as playing a part (if not being the major factor) in extinctions. These ideas are not without problems of their own, however; the climate does not appear to have changed dramatically enough to cause the extinction of so many placental mammals, and it’s hard to conjure up a disease that is so non-specific that it would cause the extinction of a wide diversity of large mammals, yet leave humans and some others standing. There has been some evidence for disease among some large animals, however; signs of tuberculosis (a disease that does affect bone) were found in 59 of 113 mastodons (52%), a shorter relative of the more famous mammoths. This is not the “smoking gun” to the case but it does give us an important clue about what was happening during this critical time, and I would guess that in the end it will be a combination of factors that caused the Pleistocene extinctions, not climate, disease, or predation on their own. Even so, being that disease and hunting both seem to be important factors we can’t with good conscience say that humans had nothing to do with the extinctions, especially since it seems to be correlated with our arrival in North America. The answer remains elusive, but it would not be inappropriate to ask the question “Should we try to recreate what we had a hand in destroying?”

Personally I don’t think the introduction of large foreign species (which would be deemed invasive if they gained a foothold on their own) is a particularly good idea. All across America, wildlife is making a comeback, and I can only imagine the phone calls animal control would get if elephants were walking down Main St. or lions were nosing through the trash. How would these animals be kept from migrating or trying to cross freeways? If we fence them in we have done nothing more than make a huge zoo, the fences hampering the migration of endemic species. On top of that, you would merely have islands of introduced predators and prey, exactly the opposite of what we should try and establish. What Donlan seems not have considered is that we do in fact have predators and herbivores already living in North America, wolves, mountain lions, bears, deer, bison, moose, and others already calling our section of the globe home. Why should we try and introduce animals adapted to deserts, swamps, and savanna to the American plains when we already have creatures in need of our assistance?

The introduced animals would not merely “play nice” with existing organisms and have no impact on endemic species; is it possible that if we introduced lions, we would lose the already imperiled Grey Wolf? Would elephants find enough food and how would they affect buffalo populations? What about disease? Could American species be affected by diseases carried over from Africa, India, and elsewhere? It seems all too easy to forget that when you take a species from one area and move it elsewhere, disease usually follows with disastrous consequences.

I wish I could be kinder to proponents of the “Pleistocene Park” view, but ultimately I think the endeavor is foolish and will do far more harm than good. It is far too late to attempt to make reparations for an extinction triggered thousands of years ago, and the focus should be on preservation of habitat and habitat corridors rather then trying to recreate what existed at the end of the last Ice Age. If conservation ecologists wish to restore habitat destroyed by industrial development, by all means they are welcome to do so and I think it’s an honorable endeavor, but we can not turn back the clock to the Pleistocene.

Update: Well wouldn’t you know it; the new issue of the journal Nature features an article about a potential cause for the Pleistocene extinction not mentioned in my initial post; the impact of a comet or asteroid. I know some of you must be thinking “Oh no, here we go again with the impacts and ‘Nemesis’ business,” but according to the article there seems to be a fair amount of evidence (much like what clued scientists off to the K/T impact) for such a collision, and on May 24th scientists will be getting together to discuss the findings. The following evidence is presented in the article;

The new evidence comes in the form of geochemical analysis of sedimentary layers at 25 archaeological sites across North America… Certain features of the layers, say the team, suggest that they contain debris formed by an extraterrestrial impact. These include spherules of glass and carbon, and amounts of the element iridium said to be too high to have originated on Earth. In addition, the rocks contain black layers of carbonized material, which the team says are the remains of wildfires that swept across the continent after the impact.

Indeed, this seems fairly good evidence to suspect that an impact occurred, but the real question is how far-reaching were its effects? Much like what was done with the study of the K/T boundary, geologic sites from the same time period in various locations in North America would have to be sampled for the presence of iridium, glass/carbon spherules, or bands of carbon laid down in the wake of wide-ranging forest fires. If it could be established when and where this catastrophe occurred (which could prove difficult if it was a comet or an asteroid that exploded before actually hitting the earth’s crust) it could very well give us a crucial piece of evidence as to why the Late Pleistocene extinction occurred. If such evidence were found, we would then be able to recognize that changes in climate, disease, predation, and an extraterrestrial impact together put so much pressure on North American species that a wide diversity became extinct, reflecting what I call the “Really Bad Day hypothesis.” It may sound somewhat childish, but it appears that on both large (i.e. extinction of non-avian dinosaurs) and small (i.e. the heath hen) scales, a streak of “bad luck” can be absolutely devastating to organisms, and it is foolish to look for only one answer to the disappearance of so many species in so short a time. Instead we should look for similar patterns; changes in temperature married with changes in migration (and hence migration of disease) as well as possibly unaccounted for catastrophic factors like asteroid impact. As other paleontologists before me have noted, uniformitarianism was a great step forward in scientific thought when it first was espoused and became accepted, but it can also act as an intellectual straightjacket; it’s hard to consider the impact of a massive asteroid or dramatic climate change as drivers for extinction when we have not encountered either in recorded history. Hopefully new information will be forthcoming and scientists will be open to the possibility of a Late Pleistocene impact (even if it ends up being less dramatic than hoped); I would hate to see another chapter in paleontology where geologists and paleontologists (and now, archaeologists and anthropologists) end up being cranky at each other rather than collaborating.