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Archive for the ‘Extinct’ Category

Why did you rob me?

Keulemans great auk

I have had discussions with people who don’t think that extinction of species is as big a deal as conservationists want to make out.

Mass extinctions are not uncommon in the history of the earth. We just happen to be living at the time a mass extinction. No harm. No foul.

But really it’s no fowl.

I think the most profound question about extinction is one I often hear politicians make about national debt or the strength of social insurance programs:  Surely you don’t want to leave behind that much debt for our children?  Surely you want social security to be around for future generations?

The concept of “generational theft” can also be brought to bear on the question of extinction.

There are many animals that I’ve never seen alive.

I came to late to see a sea mink slinking along a rocky Maine shore, and I came too late to see the skies blacken with passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. I will never be able to visit the Falklands and see that unique island wolf that once roamed its beaches, and I will never know what it’s like to hear the Carolina parakeets, the great North American conure, flit through the forests of West Virginia.

These animals have all been robbed from me by the previous generations.

But I cannot go back in time and tell them to stop the madness. They were merely operating within the cultural frameworks of their time. Nature’s bounty appeared to be limitless, and then came the fall.

Even the scientists of the day weren’t aware of what they were doing.

A case in point is the great auk, a giant flightless sea bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It swam and dived much like the penguins of the southern oceans, but it was more agile than a penguin in the water.

The great auk was in the family of sea birds that includes the puffins, the murres, and guillemots. All living birds in the family can fly, but the great auk could not.  As a result, the great auk was forced to nest on remote islands with sloping approaches to the sea. All the other birds in the family could fly into jagged rocks that protruded from the sea, but the great auk was greatly handicapped in this regard.

To make matters worse, there were only a finite number of such islands in the whole North Atlantic, and each summer, they would become jammed with throngs of giant black-and-white birds.

Sailors on fishing and whaling ships were quick to notice  the boon that came from fat birds laying nice, plump eggs on easily accessed islands. Not only could they kill the birds and eat them, they could also collect their eggs. And if a whaling ship needed a bit more oil to top off its stores, it could render down some auks into oil. Fishermen used the meat for bait, and down collectors found its down a good substitute for eider.

In the early nineteenth century, its population crashed, and every naturalist worth his salt demanded eggs and skins of adults for taxidermy.  There was a rush to kill as many auks as possible and to collect as many eggs. Every gentleman naturalist wanted specimens and eggs for study, and the fishermen and whalers were happy to provide them.

It was in this madness that the last of the great auks were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland. The extinction of the great auk happened when three Icelandic fishermen came across a pair of the auks tending to their single egg.   Two men killed the adults, and the third man, perhaps angry that there were only two birds to be had, smashed their egg with his boot.

This attack happened on July 3, 1844, and that date is rather unique. It is one of the few times we know the very second of an extinction. Those auks were the last two birds of their kind, and they were killed in the name of scientific curiosity.

This story has been dramatized in so many books that it’s almost reached legendary status.

It’s because this is one of the few times we know exactly when the generational theft was complete.

Reading account after account of how numerous great auks were in the North Atlantic, my imagination is piqued.

What would have been like to see the great assemblages of auks on their islands?

It’s something I will never see. It’s something that I can only read about in books and conjure up in the back of my mind.

A piece of me is angry that the great auk was allowed to go extinct in this fashion, but it is that anger that I realize a simply moral truism.

What if someday, future generations look back on us and wonder why we didn’t do enough to stop the tiger or the cheetah from becoming extinct?

Extinction for both of these cats is a very real possibility, and if they do go, we will be as much robbers as the men who took the lives of the last auks.

Knowing what we know now, don’t we at least owe it to future generations to try to preserve a bit.

Is that too much to ask?

Or are we so consumed with ourselves that we can’t try  to save a bit?

The answer to that question is the one that will show us who we were to the historians of the future.

Were we able to hold forth on our engines of progress just a bit to allow a few truly remarkable wild things survive?

Or were we took caught up in the desire to subdue it all?

We are never going to return to the mythic age before man. Many anti-conservationists scoff at the strawman that claims that all conservationist want to do is destroy civilization and return it back to the days when all things were wild and untouched.

So long as humans exist on the planet, that goal can never be achieved, and all conservationists know this.

But just because we cannot return to the true ecological Garden of Eden doesn’t mean we can’t try to preserve what we can.

To refuse to do otherwise is to be comfortable with a terrible kind of generational theft.

I certainly am not.

 

 

 

 

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Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago be a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago have been a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Much of China was home to elephants, but the records of elephants in northern China bothered scientists.

The Asian elephant (Elaphas maximus) is a tropical species that does roam up into southwestern provinces of China. It is poorly adapted to  the cooler temperate climate that characterize much of central and northern China.

So was there an unusually cool climate-adapted subspecies of Asian elephant in China?

It turns out that the answer is no.

And the truth is more spectacular than we might have imagined.

A team of researchers in China examined the fossilized teeth of elephants from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties from 4,000 to 3,000 years ago and also examined elephant-shaped bronzes.

Their findings suggest that the elephants of North China were not Asian elephants but a relict species of a genus of elephant that was believe to have gone extinct 10,000 years ago.

The researchers believe that the elephants of North China were a late surviving species of Palaeoloxodon or “straight-tusked elephant.”

Now, one should be a bit skeptical of this research. Tooth morphology can have a tendency towards convergence. If these elephants actually were a subspecies of Asian elephant, it is possible that they might have evolved similar dentition to straight-tusked elephants, and one should be careful about making claims of animal morphology based upon artistic expression. Even photographic evidence can be somewhat dubious, so one needs to be careful about using artwork in this fashion.

That said, if these findings are corroborated with more evidence– say, an examination of a full elephant skeleton from that time period– then it will be one of the most amazing findings in recent years.

It’s only recently become clear that there are actually two species of elephant in Africa, and if these findings are further corroborated with more evidence, then Asia also had two species in historic times.

 

 

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Platecarpus

When I was a boy, I used to catch eastern fence lizards and five-line skinks. I never knew the proper name of the former species.

In West Virginia, they are always called “hell hogs,” which, in my estimation, is far cooler name than “eastern fence lizard.”

The fence lizards are in the suborder Iguania, and they superficially resemble their distant iguana cousins. They even do that head bobbing behavior that iguanas do.

I was always fascinated by iguanas. They were like giant hell hogs, and when I learned that there were iguanas on the Galapagos Islands that actually went into the sea to eat algae, I was utterly amazed.

These were real sea lizards!

What I didn’t know at the time is that the marine iguanas weren’t the first lizards to go into the sea.

The truth is that millions of years ago, there were lizards that were adapted to an entirely marine existence.

As a kid, I didn’t know this.

I thought that dinosaurs actually were large lizards, and all my toy dinosaurs had legs that bowed out like those of a monitor lizard.

One of the sad things about the popular conception of dinosaurs is that we think that name, which means “terrible lizard,” actually means that these animals were lizards.

The truth is that all dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than they are to the little fence lizards of my youth. Some dinosaurs are even closer to birds than that, and now, if we are to classify them systematically, we have to consider birds a subset of dinosaurs. Their technical name is “avian theropod dinosaurs.”

I was somewhat crestfallen when I found this out.

That meant that the only amazing lizards were marine iguanas and my other favorite species, the komodo dragon.

What I didn’t know is that there were actually lizards that were every bit as amazing as any dinosaurs.

And you have to forgive my ignorance here.

I actually didn’t know about the marine lizards known as mosasaurs until about three or four years ago.

When I found out that these truly marine lizards existed, I was elated.

The animal depicted above is Platecarpus. It was a highly derive mosasaur that was once common in the Western Interior Seaway that divided North America into two land masses during the Late Cretaceous.

There is a strong suggestion that its tail bent down and a caudal fin was attached to the bend to make a shark-like tail.

And it was basically a 14-foot shark lizard that lived around 80-85 million years ago. A recent study revealed that it even swam much like a shark, which means it would have been one of the fiercest predators in the seas of its time.

Mosasaurs evolved from an archaic varanoid lizards called aigialosaurids, but this is, of course, hotly contested. Aigialosaurids looked an awful lot like modern monitor lizards, and it has been the recent fashion to count mosasaurs as varanoids. Currently, there is a lot of debate over what’s a varanoid. Some authorities count snakes as a type of highly derived varanoid, and if we count snakes as lizards, then sea snakes are also marine lizards.

But there isn’t a sea snake that is anything like a shark.

Evolution is one of the most amazing facts I’ve come to understand.

When I was a kid, my grandmother would keep little chicks from her laying hens in boxes next to her wood-burning stove. In the early spring, the hens would sometimes get too far ahead of themselves and lay eggs before the spring frosts topped, and very often, the chicks would be exposed to the elements and would die. My grandmother always brought those early spring chicks in, and they would be kept warm by the fire.

I didn’t know that these fragile little fuzzballs were actually more closely related to the Tyrannosaurus than they were to anything else living on the planet at the time.

And I didn’t know that the little lizards I used to hold in my hands and put in mason jars and homemade enclosures once were related to beasts that once rivaled sharks in the ancient seas.

Evolution is one of the most amazing facts you’ll ever understand,.

It will humble you, and it will make you look at the natural world in ways that you never thought possible.

That’s why I want people to understand it.

When I found out exactly what it was about, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

And it really stimulated my imagination.

I know that I won’t look at a common fence lizard without the idea of a mosasaur coming up in the back of my mind.

I will marvel at that little lizard.

Not a mosasaur.

But a cousin of sorts.

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You know those game ranches that produce trophy animals for people to hunt?

You know– the ones that both the animal rights activists and the self-styled defenders of the “true hunt” defame?

Well, they are actually saving endangered species! And the US Fish and Wildlife Service used to agree!

Check out this 60 Minutes piece on the role that these ranches are playing in saving certain endangered species.

I have a very different view of these ranches than I once did. I’m opposed to canned hunting in which people shoot animals in cages, but I have nothing against these well-run game ranches.

Altruism alone won’t save many endangered species. Economic value is a very is very important conservation tool, whether people want to admit it or not.

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(Source for image)

Amphicyon ingens was the largest of the bear dogs.

Bear dogs (Amphicyonids) were caniform carnivorans that were either closely related to modern bears or derived from basal caniforms. They first evolved in Eurasia, where they started out as smaller animals that actually resembled hybrids between dogs and bears.

The largest members of the bear dog family were in the genus Amphicyon, and  Amphicyon ingens was the largest of that genus and of the entire family. It lived in North America from 13 to 20 million years ago, and like most of its genus, it was a sort of combination between a very large bear and a big cat.

It weighed as much as 1,300 pounds, and it likely preyed on the various ancient North American megafauna in much the same way lions or tigers prey on things like gaur and giraffe. Keep in mind that this animal was more than twice the size of a typical adult male tiger, so it would have been preying on really large megafauna. With the exception of the modern era, North America has usually had mammalian megafauna, and these “big cat bears” would have been well-positioned to prey on these large beasts.

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(Source)

It’s a shame he’s not trying to clone a T. rex.  He’d probably figure out that they aren’t scavengers. (I always have to put that one in there whenever I do something with Jack Horner.)

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Dylan Ratigan has a very hard time with phylogenetics, but most people do.

Alligators are archosaurs, as a all crocodilians. “Reactivating” dormant ancestral genes in alligator might develop a cursorial crocodilian, like the scaly coyote. (“Reactivating” in many of these cases is actually turning off or knocking out modern genes.)

Dinosaurs are also archosaurs. Birds are the only surviving dinosaurs.

That’s because “reactivating” ancestral genes actually means knocking out genes

That’s often hard for people to grasp, for it is often assumed that dinosaurs were actually something like lizards.  To quote creationist and tax fraud Kent Hovind: ” Dinosaurs were just big lizards that lived before the flood.”    Never mind the flood. Dinosaurs were and aren’t “big lizards.”  They are not closely related to lizards at all.

This video will explain it all:

Source.

Thinking of birds as dinosaurs is a difficult concept.  That means that it’s Kentucky Fried Dinosaur, and we have dogs that hunt dinosaurs. People go dinosaur watching all the time.  We have dinosaur for Thanksgiving dinner.

But once you realize it, it really changes your perspective. Then, you’re more open to the concept that dogs are wolves, and that people are great apes. And great apes are actually a type of Old World monkey, which means you are a monkey.

Source.

I hope that Jack Horner is successful with this project.  Not only is it hard for people to understand that birds are dinosaurs, the concepts in evolution are very hard to grasp without a concrete example.

A dinosaur-like chicken created in this fashion would be very good evidence for evolution, and it would be the closest thing to a concrete example that people could actually see and touch.

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More info:

Source.

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Extinction

From PBS’s Evolution series:

Source.

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If the tooth fits, he had to have bit!

 

 

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Source.

Now Kent Hovind wouldn’t misrepresent things, would he?

Okay. Here’s the real story on the first horse being a hyrax.

The animal was originally called the Hyracotherium, which does mean “Hyrax-like beast.” Richard Owen did think it was a relative of the hyrax, and that’s where  Ol’ Kent Hovind got that idea. At one time, we called these animals Eohippus, the dawn horse, but because the original name was Hyracotherium, we’ve gone back to that name.

However, Othniel Marsh realized that it was actually primitive ancestor of the horse when he found a full skeleton in 1876.

We now call this species Eohippus or “Dawn horse,” because we recognized that it was actually the first known horse to have ever existed. It is not a hyrax. Hyraxes are more closely related to elephants and sirens than to horses.

Dawn horse was actually quite a bit larger than it is commonly portrayed. It stood 14 inches at the shoulder and weighed about 50 pounds, so it was primitive, four-toed horse built along a basset hound’s frame. Modern hyraxes are nowhere near that size.

Kent Hovind claims the confusion was the other way around:  The dawn horse was mistakenly claimed to be a horse and now we know it to be a hyrax.

He reverses the story to give his own half-baked theories credence. My guess is the Tulsa Zoo took down that display to shut these people up. And when they did shut up, they put it back up.

The level of Kent’s analysis comes down to one line: “If I get buried on top of a hamster, does that prove he’s my grandpa?”

And then the evolution of silverware.

Sigh.

This animal is now thought to be the basal odd-toed ungulate (a Palaeothere), and may be the ancestor of the horses, the tapirs, and the rhinos, too. Its exact relationship to these modern animals is not clear, but it is not a hyrax at all.

And if the horse didn’t evolve from the Hyracothere, it evolved from something very similar to it.

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Jess got the closest to getting this creature’s identity correct.

It is supposed to Amphicyon ingens, a species of “bear dog” (family Amphicyonidae) that lived in North America 13.6 million years ago.

Contrary to what this depiction suggests, this animal did not look like a lion with a dog’s head slapped on it.

The larger species of bear dog had features we would associate with modern bears, dogs, and, yes, big cats.

I note that one important bear-like feature is missing from this depiction– the plantigrade foot anatomy.

This depiction does a much better job of showing this feature:

This particular depiction of a member of the genus Amphicyon looks like a hybrid between a lion and a black bear. However, the muzzle of Amphicyon ingens was much longer than either a bear’s or a big cat’s, a trait we associate with modern dogs.

This depiction of a bear dog comes closest to Amphicyon ingens– because it is an actual attempt reconstruct this species:

With an estimated weight in excess of 1300 pounds, Amphicyon ingens was the largest of bear dog family. They evolved from wolf-like ancestors into bear-like creatures. The wolf body-type is actually a primitive carnivore body-type. Even the early hyenas, which are feliform Carnivores, looked more like wolves than hyenas. It has traditionally been suggested that bear dogs were close relatives of bears, but because the early ones looked so much like wolves, it has been suggested that they are actually derived from early caniforms,  the suborder that includes both modern dogs and bears.

These animals had to have been ambush hunters, much like the big cats.  The prey in those days was big and slow. When pack-hunting Borophaginae came into North America (such as Epicyon), it is thought that they outcompeted Amphicyon.

It is an interesting theory. We do know that modern wolves tend to dominate cougars. A cougar can kill a wolf on its own, but it cannot withstand competition from a pack of wolves. Wolves are better able to use a wider array of prey sources and take up all the best hunting grounds, leaving the cougar, a deer and elk hunting specialist, to eke out an existence on the margins.

Perhaps the same thing happened in North America when Epicyon showed up. Amphicyon ingens may have been able to kill a pack of Epicyon, but because they were pack hunters, they were better able to compete in the same area. (It is possible that the same thing happened when the dingo showed up on the Australian mainland and outcompeted the solitary mainland thylacine.)

Whatever the reasons for its extinction, Amphicyon ingens was a spectacular predator. It was not a lion with a dog’s head photo-shopped onto it.  That particular depiction reminds me of creationist Kirk Cameron’s bogus examples of transitional forms, the most famous of which is the crocoduck.

It’s a bad depiction. End of story.

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