On Prehistoric Life

It’s Not Just Dinosaurs, You Know

Everybody knows all about the dinosaurs.  Tyrannosaurus Rex, Diplodocus, and Triceratops are all iconic animals as familiar to us as lions, pandas, and Gary Busey.  It’s certainly reasonable that they have captured the popular imagination, great lizardine things that they are, but there’s lots of other badass shit back there in the deeps of time which is just as (well, I’d argue a lot more) fascinating and awesome as the dinosaurs.

Now, one of the recurring themes of this blog is the attempted resurrection of undeservedly underrated things, so it seems fitting here then to give some props to some of prehistory’s most awesome creatures who, due to dinosaurian hegemony, don’t get enough recognition.

Vas y!

I – Other Big Things

It should be noted that modern whales vie with the largest dinosaurs for the title of largest animal (Rush Limbaugh is technically a protist).  However, there was lots more stuff back in the day that was larger and/or more generally awesome than its modern equivalents.  With horrific results.

1. Giant Fish!

Behold Dunkleosteus:

Fig.1: Dunkleosteus: Much more frightening in real-life, non-painted form.

The Placodermi were a class of prehistoric armoured fish, some of which reached gigantic proportions.  Our friend Dunkleosteus here is estimated to have measured 33 feet, although Placoderms are largely only known from their armoured front section.  Viz:

 

 

The Placodermi were one of the first groups of vertebrates to evolve jaws, and, judging from the above illustration, they decided that there was no sense in doing anything halfway.  Because of this massive ferocity for a head, Dunkleosteus is right up there with the tyrannosaurs and crocodiles for the most powerful bite of all time.  The Scientists Back At The Lab have calculated that it could concentrate 8000 pounds per inch of pressure at the sharpened tip of its monstrous mouth.  On the plus side, however, not standing a chance in hell against the business end of this super-charged biting machine, at least you’d die quickly.  You won’t need legs where you’re going.

2.  Arthropod Madness

In the Carboniferous period (roughly 360 to 300 million years ago), oxygen levels were a lot higher than they are now.  While this might have proved a problem for any ironware you may have had, this was fantastic if you were an arthropod since your air intake is limited by the narrow tracheae which take oxygen to each individual cell. Now, with an enriched atmosphere and warm, swampy climate rich in thick vegetation (that we know today as “fuel”), creepy crawlies could expand to disturbingly large proportions.

For example, Meganeura was a giant dragonfly, or rather, griffinfly to the trainspotters. With a wingspan of 75 cm it was the size of a largish bird and the largest flying insect ever.

 

For some reason, spiders and scorpions don’t seem to have gotten to out-of-hand sizes (unless their fossils have been repressed so as not to cause outbreaks of crazed horror), but that didn’t stop perhaps the most loathsome of all arthropod groups, the Myriapods, from getting in on that sweet, sweet high oxygen action.  And so, we have the 3 metre long Arthropleura:

 

 

 

No-one’s quite sure what it ate, since a fossil of the front, jaw-end of the head has never been discovered.  Even if it were a relatively benign plant eater, however, this wouldn’t improve matters as being eaten would at least bring a merciful end to the torment of having to contemplate that creature’s existence.

II – The Cambrian Explosion: Nature’s Psychedelic Phase

Okay, you have to give credit to the Dinosaurs’ Late Mesozoic as the most badass paleontological era, but that’s only because badassness is usually determined by size and power.  According to a metric of strangeness rather than strength, however, the early Palaeozoic Era is seriously due some propers when you get home.

Unfortunately, invertebrates don’t fossilize really well, so we don’t really have a good picture of this time, but in some few places, notably the Canadian Rockies, shale deposits are found chuck full of lots of little impressions of weirdness.

 

 

Although multi-cellular life seems to have first emerged in the Ediacaran Period of the Precambrian, the Cambrian period (542 to 488 million years ago) really saw a huge, well, explosion in all kinds of crazy creatures.  Invertebrates controlled the world like Swiss bankers, and aside from the ancestors of today’s arthropods, molluscs, and other creeping things, there was a whole bunch of whacked out nonsense roaming around that was too weird to survive to the present day.

In his book, Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould makes the case that the variety of life was at its widest early on.  While there are many thousands of species today, they almost all variations on certain specific forms.  The various differences between all modern day tetrapods (ie. amphibians to mammals) are less fundamental than the differences between the three groups of “fish” (lampreys and hagfish, sharks and rays, and boney fish).  So while there may be more species around today due to the cumulative processes of natural selection, the fauna of the Cambrian oceans was more diverse.

Let us take a look:

Fig. 6: An assortment of oddities.

Most people are familiar with the ubiquitous trilobites, but the Cambrian Explosion also saw the running amok of all sorts of strange creatures like…

 

The five-eyed probiscan Opabinia, who, while being rather small (under three inches), makes up for what it lacks in stature with brazen and premeditated peculiarity.  The tube-like, claw-ended appendage is striated like a vacuum cleaner hose and shovelled food back to the animal’s mouth, located on the underside of it five-eyed (five, really?) head.

 

Here we see the giant carnivorous louse Anomalocaris (also prominently featured in Fig. 6).  At around a metre in length, it was by far the largest animal on Earth at the time.  In fact, due to its sheer size and oddness, palaeontologists originally took Anomalocaris to be three separate creatures.  While, unlike Opabinia, it has a reasonable number of eyes, Anomalocaris, the “Strange Shrimp”, stands out for its unusual mouth, which, contrary to the views of early researchers, is not in actual fact a rather unusual jellyfish.  The creature’s mouth was shaped somewhat like a slice of pineapple with a cigar cutter in the middle, but the “blades”, so to speak, were physically unable to close all the way.  Undoubtedly it was used to crush trilobites caught by the menacing grasping arms.

According to current taxonomists, Opabinia and Anomalocaris are representatives of a group of animals called the Dinocaridids, (a name meaning “Terrible Shrimp”, despite the fact that they are not related to shrimp at all).  And although Gould had previously considered them to be unrelated to anything around today, taxonomists now think that Anomalocaris and friends are related to the velvet worm, a strange creature, somewhat resembling a soft-bodied millipede; sorta splits the difference between arthropods and annelid worms.

But stranger creatures lurked in the Cambrian waters…

 

 

Perhaps the most awesomely weird of all our Palaeozoic Pals is the utterly bizarre Hallucigenia, an animal that, as its name suggests, looks like something H.P. Lovecraft would’ve thought up while tripping on psilocybin mushrooms.  A completely baffling animal: its form betrays a flagrant disregard for good sense and, possibly, Euclidean geometry.  When they found its impressions in the rocks, they had no idea which side was the top and bottom.  They’re really not sure what’s going on with the lumpy bit on the left hand side of the illustration.  The impressions are indistinct and it could well turn out that, as with Anomalocaris’ constituents, Hallucigenia could actually be part of some bigger, stranger life form:

 

While Velociraptors and Allosaurs may tear you apart with brute force, the denizens of the Cambrian attack your reason with their mere contemplation.  Much is not understood about these strange Old Ones, partly because of their poor fossil record, but also partly because even their few remains are sufficient to drive the stoutest of scholars stark raving mad.

III – Magnificent Mammals: Suck It, Lizards

The traditional narrative is that meek mammals took over from dinosaurs after the KT Extinction event (as predicted in Mayan texts, and faked by Stanley Kubrick), and life on Earth has been dull ever since, the dinosaurs reaching an apex of badassery not rivalled until Steven Seagal decided to get to the bottom of just why Richie killed Bobby Lupo.

But the Age of Mammals does not consist of just a bunch of smaller, less developed versions of today’s familiar forms.  There were some sidesteps into the fantastic along the way.  What follows is a quick safari through the Cenozoic menagerie:

 

Andrewsarchus was one of the earliest large carnivores, and it still stands as a candidate for largest predatory mammal of all time.  Another unrelated but contemporary predator, the vaguely hyaena-like Sarkastodon, was in the same weight class as Andrewsarchus.  We can presume from its name that it was the Doug of the operation (as opposed to Andrewsarchus’ Dinsdale) and relied on dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes, and satire.

Anyway, basically Andrewsarchus is like an immense hoofed wolf with a vicious case of hydrocephaly.  It’s interesting to note that because true carnivores didn’t really come up until later, many of the earlier top predators were related to the ancestors of today’s hoofed mammals.  With the advent of clawed carnivores, we seem to associate hooves with exclusively herbivorous activity, Brick Top’s pigs notwithstanding.

Speaking of flesh-eating swine, another group of these hooves-with-teeth were the Entelodonts: a group of giant prehistoric pigs.  Fucking terrifying giant prehistoric pigs.

 

To get the full impact of that hideous illustration, you must understand that isn’t just a mean lookin’ pig, it’s a mean lookin’ pig the size of a goddamn bear, standing over two metres tall at the shoulder. Not being able to have claws what with their hooves and all, these Hell Pigs, as they are actually called, had to rely, Placodermi-like, on the sheer power of their hideous jaws to pierce their victims’ skulls with the various, somewhat mediaeval-looking tusks.

Meanwhile, the herbivores were representing also.  All manner of vaguely pachydermic bulks roamed the landscape sporting an assortment of head ornaments.

 

 

 

Now, while these may just look like the basic rhino-hippo body plan with a Star Trek-like array of interchangeable headgear, they are actually each from completely separate groups, none of the three leaving any present day descendents.

Now, Megacerops and the other brontotheres were in fact cousins of rhinoceroses, but the rhinos themselves were getting up to all sorts of nonsense themselves back in the day, and it didn’t involve phalluses sticking out of their faces.

 

The indricotheres were a group of hornless rhinoceroses who took their elephantine bulk, stretched it out to giraffe-like proportions, and ended up the largest land mammals of all time.  Another picture may serve to demonstrate the extent of their massiveness with the aid of scaling:

 

 

At a shoulder height of over five metres and a length of eight metres (without the tail), these behemoths could have weighed up to twenty tonnes which puts them in the same area as a medium-sized sauropod dinosaur.

Alas, when the forests of Central Asia vanished as a result of India colliding and producing the Himalayas, the tree grazing indricotheres vanished into the same oblivion as the brachiosaurs and diplodocids, yet somehow don’t get the same recognition.  Perhaps, like the Velvet Underground, they will get their props when later archaeologists, after the molluscs have taken over, go back to examine the long-past Age of Mammals.

Here endeth the lesson.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on February 6, 2010.

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