The Shed

The Shed
The Shed

Monday, March 26, 2012

SOMETHING DEAD FROM THE SHED - Some interesting extinct animals

Hi folks it's your old pal Jack, from foggiest London! You know, what with Delacroix and Leatherface, Yours Truly and even our favorite Uncle, corpses turn up with some regularity here at the shed. Given the nature and frequency of the wormholes in spacetime close to and in fact inside the shed, some of the cadavers may have an unsettling effect upon the uninitiated. Rather than try to sweep them under the rug - strictly speaking, we don't have one - we've decided to let everybody in on the secret. And so, with no further prattling, the introductory chapter of, "Something dead from the shed."

Wonders from the distant past:

Mankind is fortunate to share the planet with a number of truly remarkable animals. The polar bear, the coelacanth, the Siberian tiger, the platypus and the giant squid  come readily to mind; there are many more. Fascinating as these creatures are their luster invariably dims when compared to some of Mother Nature’s odder specimens from time long gone
Human nature is partly responsible for this perception. Today’s wildlife is familiar to us. After all, in a very real way we live in the midst of the wildest and strangest of creatures. Tigers and kangaroos may dwell halfway around the planet from us; other creatures populate the hidden ocean depths. Even so, cable television and the internet bring them to our living rooms whenever we issue an invitation.

Given the enormous span of time that elapsed from the beginning of life on earth 3.9 billion years back until the first recognizable hominid appeared some 4 million years ago, it stands to reason that almost all the life forms that ever lived, interesting or not, have gone extinct. A figure frequently quoted is that for every species alive today 999 others are no longer with us. It only makes sense that a large number of these long dead species would have been real attention grabbers.

These ancient animals, in all their – to us at least – alien weirdness frequently overshadow their modern counterparts. A rhinoceros for instance may get our attention; a triceratops would hold it. We greet the arrival of a cardinal at our bird feeder with delight; what emotion would the appearance of Phorusrhacos the notorious terror bird of the mid Miocene induce? And when it comes to pigs is Archy the affable pet pot bellied pig or Archaeotherium Mortoni the huge carnivorous Oligocene hog from hell more likely to liven up the party?

Let’s take a look at a few spectacular but very extinct denizens of the past.

From the “You Couldn’t Make This Up” department:

The setting is a warm shallow sea bottom during the middle portion of the Cambrian period. (Cue the theme from “Jaws”) Sculling along just above the bottom is a fearsome creature, body divided into 15 segments, each segment bearing a pair of opposed finlike lobes that are part leg, part gill, and part oar. A triangular tail acts as rudder as it drives along like a Roman war galley seeking prey. Five glittering compound eyes glare from stalks mounted on the rounded head. Protruding from the front of the head is a flexible snout like an elephant’s trunk, with a lobster like claw at the very tip.
Something moves in the silt. The hunter dips low, the proboscis stabs, the claw snatches and a helpless bottom dweller is dragged from the muck. The trunk folds under and stuffs the struggling prey into the gaping maw. The hunter glides on.
Meet Opabinia regalis, the terror of the sea. Before too much sleep is lost keep in mind that Opabinia went extinct around 530 million years ago and was, even including the deadly snout, only 4 inches long overall.
It would be interesting to note what sort of creature Opabinia regalis represented on the evolutionary scale, but the fact is, no one knows for sure and the subject is certain to start if not an argument, at least a lively discussion where paleontologists gather at happy hour. What most do agree upon is what Opabinia is not, and that is every other known creature.

While the origins of this evolutionary dead end are as yet unknown, Opabinia regalis was a fascinating predator from the famed Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago.

There but for a well timed asteroid, go us:

Troodon was not the biggest or the toughest of the theropod dinosaurs, a group that includes Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor and Giganotosaurus in their numbers. Troodons may have been among the fastest theropods; but what is really interesting about this late Cretaceous biped is the size and structure of its brain. Troodon may well have been the most intelligent dinosaur that ever lived.

Faint praise, perhaps, when one considers dinosaurian Einsteins like Stegosaurus. The Stegosaur piloted 7500 lbs of meat, muscle, armor plate, bones and spikes using a brain no larger than a walnut. But the Stegosaurus is a veritable genius compared to Massospondylus, a sauropodomorphus from the early Jurassic that scores 3 times lower than the Stegosaurus on the Encephalization Quotient or EQ scale. Massospondylus could presumably outwit a cabbage, but it was apt to be a close run thing.

A quick word about the EQ as a determinant of intelligence.  The Encephalization Quotient is a number that reflects the actual measure of an animals brain to body weight compared to what is expected of an animal of that size. The expected score for an animal is always 1.0. Using this method with existing animals - and depending on which formula is used - we find that a house cat is right where it belongs, at 1.0, a dog is slightly smarter at 1.17, wolves slightly smarter yet at 1.25, chimps at 1.9 and humans around 5.5 as might be anticipated.

Applying this same formula to the dinosaurs and using a crocodile at 1.0 as a baseline we get figures for the carnosaurs ranging from about 1.0 to 1.8, - T.  rex is a bit brighter than a crocodile by this reckoning - and a slightly lower number for the armored herbivore Triceratops at .8. The perpetually befuddled Stegosaur scores a dismal .6. Our Troodon however checks in at a brilliant 5.8 or as far above the anticipated baseline as man scores against his fellow mammals.

Before we get too excited though, this still leaves Troodon, smartest of dinosaurs with the approximate intelligence of an opossum. Troodon went extinct along with the rest of the dinosaurs during the KT extinction at the close of the Cretaceous. But what if the Troodon had somehow survived? They would have had 65 million years to evolve that already special brain.

Troodon was a smallish, swift bipedal predator with remarkable hearing and vision including at least partial depth perception. They were almost certainly warm blooded as troodon fossils giving clear evidence of feathers have been found. Their forelegs were not shortened as in many theropod dinosaurs but long and strong with flexible wrists and three long fingers equipped with claws. The hind legs sported large retractable claws much like those of their cousins the Dromaeosaurs. The nature of their dentition leads some paleontologists to speculate that Troodon might have been omnivorous.

All of these seeming advantages lead to speculation that with so many millions of years to develop, Troodon might have become the earths dominant, intelligent species and occupy the same niche that Homo sapiens does today.

Paleontologist Dale Russell in the early 1980’s walked this idea a little further down the road when he created, along with model maker Ron Seguin a speculative sculpture of an evolved Troodon called the Dinosauroid. The result is remarkably humanoid and this has provided fodder for the critics, but after all, given millions of years, who really knows what might have happened? The fascination of the Troodons lies really not so much in what they were, but in what they might have become.

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s – what the heck is it?

It’s called Hatzegopteryx thambema and it may well be the largest Pterosaur ever to take to wing, surpassing even the awesome Quetzalcoatlus norththropi in bulk and wing span. The jaw breaking name derives from the location where the type fossil was discovered, the Hatzeg basin in Transylvania, Romania. The full name, translated loosely means “monstrous winged creature from Hatzeg”.

An enormous skull, and by enormous is meant nearly 10 feet in length - most of which is jaw - was recovered from the Maastrichtian Densuy-Ciula Formation of the late Cretaceous.  It was excavated, reported and named by paleontologists Eric Buffetaut, Dan Grigorescu and Zoltan Csiki in 2002.  The initial mystery was, how could a creature with a skull this size ever fly at all?

This mystery seems solved by the revelation that the toothless skull, under a very thin but rigid exterior, is composed of extremely thin plates enclosing minute air spaces which gives great rigidity with very little weight, a structure which has been compared to expanded Styrofoam. This saved weight seemingly would have allowed Hatzegopteryx to get airborne and stay there, although whether the creature flapped its wings constantly, flapped a bit or simply soared on its 45 foot wingspan cannot be determined.

Just for comparison, most hang gliders have a wing span of 30 feet; the wings of the Lincoln Sport Bi-plane span barely 20 feet. For that matter the Italian Air force went to war in 1940 in the Fiat CR-42 Falco fighter, with a span of 32 feet.

 It also cannot be determined exactly how Hatzegopteryx fed, or on what. The jaws are toothless but huge, and are specially structured to allow an enormous gape. Was it a skim fisher, a land predator, did it pluck other flyers from the sky like an enormous dragon fly? More discoveries are needed to answer the very many open questions about this fascinating creature.

So close, but yet so far:

There are people living today, although their numbers are of necessity few and dwindling swiftly, that saw and interacted with live Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers. A marsupial analog of the placental wolf the last documented living Thylacine died of unforgivable neglect in a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania in 1936. A remnant no doubt survived in the wild for a few years more but by the 1950’s the last Thylacine was almost certainly gone.

What makes the Thylacine so interesting? As a predator they were definitely bush leaguers, not big – rarely over 80 pounds in weight, a 100 pound Thylacine would be a freakish giant -  nor particularly swift – Thylacines wore their prey out rather than running them down, not flexible or even according to the EQ ratios as smart as a placental wolf or a domestic dog. They did have strong jaws, efficient dentition and a tremendous gape, but none of these characteristics prevented them from being displaced by dingo’s on the Australian mainland hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. They had definitely drawn the evolutionary short straw long before the white man came to Tasmania.

But they were an appealing animal, superficially wolf like in profile but with hindquarters striped like a tigers, Thylacines appeared more feline face on although of course they were more closely related to kangeroos than to either of the formentioned families.  They showed no particular animosity towards humans, were in fact shy and reclusive around them. And so, it is entirely possible that mankind lost out on a rare opportunity to acquire another companion animal, and this is where the real tragedy lies.

It is difficult to find records of Thylacines being acquired as pups and then raised as pets, but there are records of young to mature Thylacines being snared and then spared. These animals, treated kindly, became acclimated to humans and apparently performed well as watch animals, could be walked on leashes, trusted around children and so forth. There is no reason to suspect that the Thylacine could not have followed the path the placental wolf took ten thousand years earlier and that today folks could have their hearts seized by the sight of a peculiar looking Thylacine puppy wagging a somewhat stiff tail in the pet shop window.
As with the Troodon, although for very different reasons, our interest with the Thylacine is not so much for what it was, as for what it may have become.

There is one, small and fading hope; as is definitely not the case with Opabinia, Troodon and Hatzegopteryx there remains a significant store of Thylacine DNA available for those who wish to try cloning. Whether human kind has advanced far enough up the EQ scale to pull off a successful revival of the unjustly slaughtered Tasmanian tiger is a question that can only be resolved in the future.

Well that seems to have set the table nicely! A good day to you and thanks for taking part in "Something dead from the shed!"


Raymond Alexander Kukkee said...

Mac, no wonder you have no room for the onions and cabbage in that shed. Did you know that you can grind up bones for garden fertilizer too? ":)

Mac Pike said...

So many essential trace nutrients in dragon bone meal!

amycita said...

dinosaur week is approaching at preschool. good thing i could "bone up" on my knowledge of them, from your blog post. it really is astonishing what some of my "littles" know already. occasionally, i will have them correcting me, on my pronunciation of some of the names! lol!

Mac Pike said...

Hi Amycita! Kids certainly love dinosaurs, I know I did. This must be a carry over from those days!

Red said...

I love the walk down memory lane. So many extinct species make such wonderful subjects. The Tassie Tiger is one of my favorites.

Great information, Mac, but I am with do you fit anything else in the shed??


Mac Pike said...

One of these days --- soon --- I'm going to have to reveal some of the more arcane qualities of the shed...