Getting inside the bones

The European bison,or Wisent, (Bison bonasus) is Europe’s largest land mammal and the last surviving large grazer from a time of real giants. However, during most of the history of the species, it coexisted with other large bovines. One more familiar species was the Aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern domestic cattle, that went extinct in the 17th century. In Southern Scandinavia the two species coexisted for a brief period of time.

Both the Aurochs and the European bison colonized the area via a land bridge connecting southern Sweden, the Danish Isles and mainland Europe about 11,000 years ago. Remarkably, the European bison seem to have disappeared 9,600 years ago, possibly because the forests grew denser and they became isolated from the continental bison population when the land bridge was cut off due to rising sea levels. The aurochsen seem to have prevailed longer, disappearing from southern Sweden and Denmark about 7000 years ago and 3000 years ago, respectively.

The extent of the ice sheet at the Last Glacial Maximum

The extent of the ice sheet at the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years ago. Huge ice sheets covered much of northern Europe. With water trapped in the ice, sea levels were lower, and more land was connected. (Image Public Domain)

Remains of aurochsen are relatively abundant in bogs and at prehistoric human settlement sites, but only about 20 confirmed finds of European bison have been made in southern Scandinavia. This skewed ratio of finds between the two species has been proposed to reflect differences in choice of habitat due to competition or human disturbance as well as an actual difference in population sizes.

Photo taken in Réserve biologique des Monts d'Azur, Haut-Thorenc, France (Valène Aure)

The beautiful European Bison (Bison bonasus) in Réserve biologique des Monts d’Azur, Haut-Thorenc, France (Photo Valène Aure)

Although the animals looked quite different, the complete skulls are the only individual bone elements that can be positively identified as either aurochs or European bison. This means that the bones in archaeozoological assemblages, which usually are highly fragmented due to their exploitation by man as resources for food and raw materials, pose a particular challenge for species identification. As a consequence of this, one can suspect that some remains of European bison might have been misinterpreted as aurochs in previous analyses. This is common in museum collections across Europe: many specimens lay in drawers labelled as Bovine, because the post-cranial bones of the two species are so similar.

An almost complete skeleton of a European bison found at the end of the 18th century in southern Sweden. Photo by Lucas Gölén

An almost complete skeleton of a European bison found at the end of the 18th century in southern Sweden. (Photo by Lucas Gölén)

In a pilot study, researchers from Lund University, Sweden, and the Universities of York and Manchester (UK), plan to analyse bone powder from the skulls of one prehistoric European bison and one aurochs. The samples will be analysed for collagen-peptide sequencing using Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), a method previously used to successfully discern bone fragments from sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus) in archaeological assemblages. The bones of these two species are fairly similar in size and shape, and it has often proven very difficult to identify the individual species.

The purpose of the study is to investigate whether ZooMS is a feasible method for species identification of European bison and aurochs in various prehistoric bone assemblages. It is hoped that the species-specific peptide identified through the reference samples can then be used to distinguish fragments of uncertain taxonomic status. So many bone assemblages from sites contemporary with the known presence of bison in Scandinavia have previously identified as bovine and we’re aware it will need to be totally re-examined. It is hoped that the results will help to increase the number of European bison finds, increase our understanding of the species’ local history and its importance as a food source to prehistoric humans.

Written by Erika Rosengren (@RosengrenErika)

Edited by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

For a description of the ZooMS method see: https://youtu.be/xBAXaLvGe5I

Contact: Erika Rosengren, Osteological Collections Curator. Lund University Historical Museum. Erika.Rosengren@luhm.lu.se

Further reading:
Benecke, N., (2005). ‘The Holocene distribution of European bison – the archaeozoological record’. Munibe (Anthropologia-Arkeologia) 57. pp. 421-428.

Buckley, M., Whitcher Kansa, A., Howard, S., Campbell, S., Thomas-Oates, J. & Collins, M. (2010). ‘Distinguishing between archaeological sheep and goat bones using a single collagen peptide’. Journal of Archaeological Science. 37. pp. 13–20.(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440309002854)

Ekström, J. (1993). ‘The late Quaternary history of the urus (Bos primigenius Bojanus 1827) in Sweden’. Lundqua Thesis 29.

Rosengren, E. (2014). ‘Sven Nilsson and the postglacial fauna of Scania’. Lund University Historical Museum. Lund.

Posted in Aurochs, Bison | 1 Comment

When life gives you lemmings…..

If I had a games console I wouldn’t get anything done. (Are they called ‘games consoles’ today?) Just like when I watch a film, I am completely captivated by the make-believe world: I am in that world. There is nothing around me. No one around me. Fortunately today, family, work, and late night blogging, prevent my loss of time. I am tempted by some of the incredibly realistic looking games on these futuristic looking consoles, but if I did, I would do nothing else. Nothing. Except finish the game.

When I was younger, we had a few PC games. Ghosts and Goblins on the Commodore 64 was good fun, and anyone remember Rider on the old BBC Micro PC? These were fun games. Addictive to finish the level. But nothing like the complexity and storytelling of games around today. In these games you really are the characters.

There was one game that got me. Totally got me. Completely hooked. Level after level. Lemming after lemming. I had to save them all. Or as many as I could. Sacrifice a couple, that’s fine: it would benefit the group. The classic early 90s game, Lemmings, was the game that told me I should never own a games console when I grow up. The game starts with around 100 lemmings falling from a trap door into a screen, and they all start to follow the leader. The leader walks, bumps into rocks and gets turned around: the aim of the game is to guide as many lemmings as you can to the ‘exit’. You can build bridges, dig under rocks or ‘freeze’ one, so it acts like a block to stop others from walking off the edge of a cliff, or into water, or lava.

A screen shot from the Amega version of Lemmins. (image Public Domain)

A screen shot from the Amega version of Lemmings. (image Public Domain)

As addictive as it was, this video game is based on lies. I know this now. We were lied to. All of us. All the tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of children sat there trying frantically to stop these little green haired creatures follow each other to their deaths. We were made to believe that lemmings blindly followed a leader anywhere. Even over a cliff. We were made to believe that these gorgeous little critters were suicidal.

Lemmus lemmus

Fluffy, adorable, Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) is just one species of lemming. (Image by Oma Kuva. Public Domain)

Lemmings are anything but suicidal. If an animal is suicidal, then it is intentionally wanting to die. In fact, suicidal animals in nature are very rare. Male spiders and mantids knowingly offering themselves to a female to be eaten are famous examples of suicide in animals (it makes sense that the male will be providing the nutrients for the eggs which he will have fertilised). If a male can leave his sperm and get out alive, it prefers this option (I completely understand why). But in lemmings? Do they really all follow each other knowingly to their deaths?

Lemmings are rodents, closely related to voles. First appearing in the fossil record around 4 million years ago, they live in the cold, icy Arctic tundra. And when food is abundant they breed fast. Their population doesn’t just boom, it explodes. With so many lemmings, all the available food is eaten super fast, so naturally the lemmings spread out looking for new places to live. Many die on this new pilgrimage across the desolate tundra. But some do find new food and set up new colonies. Those few survivors set up home for the next season, and so it goes on. So this ‘mass suicide’ is actually the lemmings trying to survive. Many die on this search for food, and perhaps early observations of their mass migration across the barren landscape, spawned the myth of suicidal lemmings.

They are a very successful group of rodents, with around 30 different species. Eating a variety of plants including moss, grasses, herbs, and lichen, these cold living creatures have a thick fur to help keep them warm in their cold homes. Because of their limited range due to their preferred temperature, they are excellent climatic indicators in the fossil record. They are found in deposits all over Europe, providing another insight into the erratic changes of climate in the past.

The temperatue

The temperature of the last 500,000 years (in blue) reconstructed from data from the Vostok Core, Antarctica. Note the see-saw pattern in the blue graph. Temperature rises rapidly, then there are periods of cooling which appear to be slower. (Image Public Domain)

We know the past has been a see-saw of warm and cold periods (we wrote about how we can measure the past climates through ocean sediments). Those warm interglacials allowing hippos to bask in English rivers, and those chilly, glacials which lacked snow but had huge ice sheets covering much of the northern hemisphere. Even these extremes were punctuated by cold and warm periods within them. And our little lemming fossils help us identify these cold periods.

Two species of Lemmings were present in Britain during the Pleistocene: the Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) and the Collard Lemming (Disrostonyx sp.). As the great glaciers covered much of Britain, any exposed land was cold, dry, and hard. Here lemmings were in abundance. As the ice melted, and retreated north, so did the lemmings territory. So they are missing from fossil assemblages during warmer phases. But, they do pop back into some assemblages, showing us that the warm periods (the interglacials) were punctuated by cold periods (stadials).

Lemmings are small little critters, and as such, so are their teeth. Teeth survive pretty well in the fossil record. Especially in cave sites. Owls use the sites, and regurgitate the fur, teeth and bones that they cannot digest. These pellets accumulate and show us what animals were living within a few miles around the cave. Collections in museums hold lots of fossils from sites across Britain, opening a window into the past. Unfortunately many of the smaller teeth are not identified, mainly because there are so many of them. More evidence of lemmings may lie hidden within small jars filled with teeth of voles, mice, and rats.

Lemmings did, somehow, make it over to Ireland around 33,000 years ago: other species of vole living in Britain are absent in Ireland. It may have been the chance result of a mass dispersal of lemmings as they searched for new food. Some were lucky enough to have survived rafting across the Irish Sea.

Lemmings were extremely abundant in Britain towards the end of the Pleistocene. But as the  glaciers went through their final retreat, the last of the lemmings in Britain followed. For Now…..

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further Reading:

Current, A., & Jacobi, R. (2001). ‘A formal mammalian biostratigraphy for the Late Pleistocene of Britain’. Quaternary Science Reviews. 20. pp.1707-1716. [Abstract only]

Kurten, B. (1968), ‘Pleistocene mammals of Europe’, The World Naturalist. [Book]

Stuart, A. J. (1982), ‘Pleistocene Vertebrates in the British Isles’, Longman. [Book]

Sutcliffe, A. J. (1985), ‘On the track of Ice Age Mammals’, British Museum (Natural History). [Book]

Vendela K. et al. (2014). ‘On the origin of the Norwegian lemming.’ Molecular Ecology. [Abstract only]

 

 

Posted in Lemming | Tagged | 2 Comments

On the origins of our species

As families go ours is pretty amazing. You have ancient cousins who effortlessly chomped through the toughest of roots and hardest of seeds. Another relative was the first of our family to make it all the way to China around 1.7 million years ago. Each individual human alive today belongs to the same family as all of our extinct relatives, the Hominidae. Our kinship runs deeper than geographical boundaries.

What is truly spectacular is that we are still discovering incredible fossils today that are adding detail to our complex family history. Just last year, a new twig on the family tree was added with the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi. Recently, a strange structure was discovered at a Neanderthal site in France: our sister species was building things 170,000 years ago. Let’s not forget our quirky second cousin, the hobbit Homo florensiensis, with recent finds suggesting they evolved around 700,000 years ago from Homo erectus.

The several species of hominins through time (Image from Wiki Commons)

Our family is large! Hominins have a long hsitory, dating back to at least 7 million years ago. (Image from Wiki Commons)

We are learning more each year about our incredible family. But what about us: what can we say about the origins of our species?

Until relatively recently, our species, Homo sapiens was the only known species of human. In 1859 when Charles Darwin wrote his masterpiece On the Origin of Species, there was no solid evidence for any other human species. (Although Neanderthal fossils were known, they were thought to be remains of humans with disease. It wasn’t until 1864 until they were named as a separate species.) For such an important, ground shaking book, Darwin gave just one sentence to human evolution: “Light will be thrown on the origin of [hu]man[s] and [their] history.”

Some years later in The Descent of Man, Darwin writes a little more about how humans are related to other animals. With just the Neanderthal finds, there was little to include about evidence from the fossil record. Nevertheless, Darwin still made a prediction about where one should look for human ancestors:

“In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is, therefore, probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now [hu]man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probably that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”

So by 1871 Darwin was advocating looking for our ancestors in Africa but this wasn’t the consensus view. The great German naturalist, Ernst Haekel, for example, argued strongly that human ancestors would be found in Indonesia (presumably because of the other great ape living there, the orang-utan). Remarkably hominin fossils were found there in 1891 by Eugène Dubois, which he saw as a species intermediate between apes and humans (though this ‘Java Man’ was later identified as Homo erectus). It wasn’t until 1924 that the first hominin fossil was found in Africa, with Raymond Dart’s discovery of the first Australopithecus africanus specimen. Since then, numerous hominin fossils have been found across Africa, Europe and Asia.

Original fossils of 'Java Man'. The thick broken skull at the back, with the (Image

Original fossils of ‘Java Man’. The thick broken skull at the back, with the big femur at teh front. (Image by Peter Mass, Public Domain)

We know hominins evolved in Africa, but with so many fossils being discovered across the continents, there have been huge debates about where our species, Homo sapiens, originated. Two main theories have dominated: the Out of Africa (or Recent African Origin) and the Multiregional origin. Out of Africa proposes that there was a single origin for anatomically modern humans. This theory says that the first modern humans arose on Africa soil around 100,000 years ago before spreading out to populate the rest of the world replacing existing human groups. The Multiregional theory instead suggests that rather than arising in Africa the modern form arose in multiple parts of the globe with constant gene flow between existing human species: so all modern humans alive today are a mixture of Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, and H. erectus. (There is another theory, which often gets confused with the multiregional model. The Candelabra theory suggests that after leaving Africa and migrating to other regions of the world our very early ancestor H. erectus evolved modern features independently (without any gene flow between other species of Homo) and at multiple times.)

Are we a species that arose in Africa or in multiple regions round the globe? Did we leave Africa once and replace all other species of Homo, or did we bump into and have a little fun with other species we met on the way? Where did our species leave Africa from and what route did they take? A recent paper took a very detailed look at the publications on this subject to try to get a clearer picture. As well as fossils, climate and radiocarbon dates they advocate genetics as another tool in helping us to discover the true origins of Homo sapiens.

It turns out that by using genetic evidence we can disregard the Multireigonal and Candelabra theories rather quickly. Genetic studies using mitochondrial DNA, which traces genetic information down the female Homo sapiens line, point to all regions tracing their line back to Africa. Later Y chromosome studies, which looked at the male line, also suggested an African common ancestor. What is more, using information from our other 22 non-sex chromosomes genetic diversity was found to decrease predictably the further away you go from Africa. Given our ancestors must have been genetically more diverse than us this is pretty convincing evidence for an African origin.

These studies agree strikingly well with the fossil record. In 1967, Richard Leakey discovered the oldest anatomically modern human fossils in Ethiopia. Known as the Omo remains, these fossils date to between 200,000 and 190,000 years ago. Some more very old Homo sapiens fossils, known as the Herto skulls, were also found in Ethiopia in 2003, dating to between 160,000 and 154,000 years ago. The oldest fossils of our species have been found in Africa.

One of the earlierst Homo sapiens fossils, the

One of the Herto Skulls. One of the earlierst Homo sapiens fossils, around 160,000 years old. (Image Public Domain)

When and where our species left Africa is another hot topic for researchers. Outside of Africa, the oldest fossils of our species found so far are the Skhul/Qafzeh fossils in the Levant (where Israel is today), dating to around 100,000 years old. Originally thought of as a failed exodus, some believe the Skhul/Qafzeh fossils may represent a more successful distribution with stone tools on the Arabian Peninsula dating to between 100,000 and 80,000 years old. The location of these fossils falls in line with a Northern route out of Africa, through Egypt and Sinai. The other possible direction is a Southern route out of Africa through Ethiopia and the Bab el Mandeb strait across the Red Sea, following the coastline towards the Arabian Peninsular, heading to India.

Skhul/Quafzeh Skull number 5

The earliest anatomically modern humans out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, Skhul/Quafzeh Skull number 5. (Image Public Domain)

Given little in the way of archaeological evidence geneticists have attempted to track our ancestors African exit using DNA from people alive today. A number of studies have attempted to do this using different datasets and techniques but on the whole they run in to difficulties. It turns out people alive today are pretty bad representatives of those first humans leaving the African continent due to people having mixed extensively through history. Trying to figure out who mixed with whom, accounting for the mixed DNA in some way and then making any assumption that the DNA left looks anything like the DNA of those first ancestors is fraught with difficulties. This is particularly problematic in Africa where migrations of people ‘back to Africa’ have resulted in the DNA of modern day Africans being composed of high levels of non-African ancestry, muddying the signal further. One way around these problems is instead to analyse DNA extracted from people who lived many thousands of years ago (ancient DNA), allowing direct assessment of the genetic make up of past populations. With increasing improvements in the techniques used to recover DNA from human remains and account for damage as it has degraded through time, ancient DNA research is becoming a viable next option in answering these questions. However obtaining DNA from sufficient samples and in the right places (very tricky in Africa where the hot climate speeds up DNA damage) may be a limiting factor.

The fossils

The movement out (and back into) Africa based on the fossil and genetic evidence to date. (image from Lopez, van Dorp & Hellenthal, 2016)

The timing of when bands of Homo sapiens left Africa is also not easy to pinpoint. There are two main dates that are proposed based on DNA evidence, between 130, 000 and 100,000 years ago, or between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. Many researchers support the later date but recent finds are shaking this idea up a bit. Last year fossil finds in China dated between 120,000 and 80,000 years old, showing that H. sapiens had made it to China much earlier than previously thought. Did these individuals just die out like has been suggested for Skhul and Qafzeh? Or did they make a contribution to the gene pool of humans alive today? Dating our African exit using DNA is not precise because it relies on having a good estimate of when mutations have occurred in the genome through time and often assumes clear splits between groups when the reality is likely somewhat noisier. One approach to mitigate these difficulties is using ancient DNA from different points in history as a genetic ruler to calibrate the speed at which mutations have occurred. Using timescales revised in this way genetic reconstructions date our African departure to fit the range of this more recent date: 95,000 – 62,000 years ago.

Exactly when and where we left Africa is proving to be a little difficult to determine. Maybe we will never pinpoint the exact date, or the exact place we left. Maybe there were a number of small groups leaving at different times and places. What we do know is that some of these groups met other species of humans. And we mated with them. Successfully. Some of the pioneering work on ancient DNA showed that modern humans share a detectable amount of DNA (1.5-4%) with Neanderthals, revising our idea of the Out of Africa model existing without any intermixing. And it’s not just the Neanderthals. Another species we had intimate relations with were the Denisovans, a mysterious species characterised solely from genetic material extracted from a sliver of finger bone. Even 40,000 year old secrets can be revealed.

The tiny fragment

A cast of a the tiny finger bone. The orginal was destroyed for DNA anaylsis. (Image Thilo Parg, Public Domain)

No field of science is more personal than the study of our own origins. With more finds every year, the details challenge what we know and often create more questions than answers. When we left Africa, where did we travel first and whom we met are all key questions, which we are beginning to answer by integrating archaeology, climatic and genetic evidence. Our species origins lie in Africa, illustrated by both the fossil record and genetic studies. We left Africa at least on two separate occasions, and travelled the world. We met, and slept with, other species of humans: the evidence of our promiscuity forever written in our DNA. The origins of us is a beautiful, but complicated story.

Written by Lucy van Dorp (@LucyvanDorp) and Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

This post is based on the following research:

Lopez, S, van Dorp, L, & Hellenthal, G. (2016). ‘Human Dispersal Out of Africa: A Lasting Debate.’ Evolutionary Bioinformatics. 11 (S2). pp.56-68. [Full article]

Further reading:

Blome MW, et al. (2012). ‘The environmental context for the origins of modern human diversity: a synthesis of regional variability in African climate 150,000–30,000 years ago.’ J Hum Evol. 62. pp.563–92. [Abstract only]

Cann, R. L, Stoneking, M, & Wilson, A. (1987), ‘Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution’, Nature. 325(6099). pp.31-36. [Abstract only]

Cooper, A & Stringer, C. B, (2013), ‘Did the Denisovans cross the Wallace line?’ Science. 342(6156). pp.321-323. [Abstract only]

Darwin, C. (1859). ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection’. Murray. [Book]

Darwin C. (1871). ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’. London: John Murray; 1871. [Book]

Gibbons, A. (2012), ‘Ancient DNA. A crystal-clear view of an extinct girl’s genome’, Science. 337(6098). pp.1028-1029. [Full article]

Goldstein D B, & Chikhi L. (2002) ‘Human migrations and population structure: what we know and why it matters.’ Annu Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 3. pp.129–152. [Abstract only]

Gunz P, et al. (2009). ‘Early modern human diversity suggests subdivided population structure and a complex out-of-Africa scenario.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106. pp.6094–6098. [Full article]

Krause, J, et al. (2010), ‘The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia’, Nature. 464(7290). pp.894-897. [Abstract only]

Lowery R. K, et al. (2013) ‘Neanderthal and Denisova genetic affinities with contemporary humans: introgression versus common ancestral polymorphisms.’ Gene. 530. pp.83–94. [Abstract only]

Pennisi, E, (2013), ‘More genomes from Denisova Cave show mixing of early human groups’, Science. 340(6134). pp.799. [Abstract only]

Prüfer, K, et al. (2013), ‘The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains’, Nature, 505(7481). pp.43-49. [Abstract only]

Reich, D, et al. (2011), ‘Denisova Admixture and the first modern human dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania’, The American Journal of Human Genetics. 89. pp.516-528. [Abstract only]

Roberts, A. (2009) ‘The Incredible Human Journey.’ Bloomsbury. [Book]

Sankararaman S, et al. (2014) ‘The genomic landscape of neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans.’ Nature. 507. pp.354–357. [Full article]

Stringer C. B, & Andrews, P. (1988) ‘Genetic and fossil evidence for the origin of modern humans.’ Science. 239. pp.1263–1268. [Abstract only]

Tattersall I. (2009) ‘Human origins: out of Africa.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106. pp.16018–16021. [Full article]

Templeton A. R. (2007) ‘Genetics and recent human evolution.’ Evolution. 61: pp.1507–1519. [Abstract only]

Thomson R, et al. (2000). ‘Recent common ancestry of human Y chromosomes: evidence from DNA sequence data.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 97. pp.7360–7365. [Full article]

Wu X. (1981) ‘The well preserved cranium of an early Homo sapiens from Dali, Shanxi.’ Sciencia Sinica2 pp.200–206. [Full article]

Posted in Denisovan, Homo sapiens, Neanderthal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Amidst the footsteps of giants: What beetles can tell us about the past

Picture this scene: thousands of years ago in Britain during the Pleistocene Epoch, when giants roamed the landscape. Herds of woolly mammoth, bison and reindeer grazed the steppes during cold periods, watched closely by skulking hyenas and prides of enormous cave lions. During warmer, interglacial periods, giant deer and straight-tusked elephants strode amid lush vegetation, and hippopotamuses wallowed in languid rivers. You may have even glimpsed a few long-distant relatives of our own, making their way in the wild.

But what about the small creatures? These incredible environments were not just populated by giant beasts. Like today, the land was crawling with insects and other invertebrates. I am interested in one group in particular: beetles. They were everywhere. Amidst the footsteps of the Pleistocene giants, scurrying amongst the grass and the leaf litter, flying through the air, and swimming in the ponds and streams. They are as fascinating as any of the great woolly behemoths, which is why I spend a great deal of time carefully sieving ancient mud to find tiny fragments of old, dead beetles.

This slightly peculiar field of science, called palaeoentomology (the study of fossil insects) has its roots in the late 19th century. A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic, were beginning to investigate Pleistocene faunas, including a few who began to study the fossil insects. However, these early workers set about cataloguing their miniature finds with a mistaken notion: they assumed that the insect fossils they encountered must belong to extinct species. Thus, they began to describe and assign new names to their specimens. The work of American palaeontologist and entomologist, Samuel H. Scudder (1837-1911), pays heed to the frustration that evidently accompanied these early ventures, using such suggestive names as Pterostichus destitutus, Platynus dissipatus and, Bembidion damnosum (the species name meaning deprived, broken and damaged!).

However, this was challenged in the mid-20th century by Carl H. Lindroth (1905-1979) and Russell Coope (1930-2011), who realised that the vast majority of Pleistocene beetle fossils could, with great patience, be matched to modern species. For Coope, this began a career which was instrumental in the development of the modern discipline, and his significance to the field cannot be overstated. In particular, he pioneered the use of fossil beetles as a tool for understanding past climates and, on this basis, was the first to suggest the occurrence of abrupt climate changes at the end of the last glaciation. Today, most Quaternary beetle specialists can trace a direct academic lineage to him (he was the supervisor of my supervisor’s supervisor: my great-grand supervisor). There are some fascinating, often amusing, snippets of conversations with Coope, which you can listen to here.

Professor Russell Coope, working in his home study during retirement (Image courtesy of AHOB and Sarah Lazarus)

Professor Russell Coope, working in his home study during retirement (Image courtesy of AHOB and Sarah Lazarus)

You may well ask, why are these bits of old beetles so useful for understanding past climates and ecology? How do they tell us about ancient environments? The answer is that beetles possess a very particular set of attributes, which make them perfect for this purpose.

First and foremost, given the right set of conditions, pieces of beetles can preserve exceptionally well. Heads, wings cases and other body parts are extremely resilient, and have characteristics which can be identified by comparing to modern beetle collections today.  (Some, like in the example below, even retain a metallic lustre!) We can work out what species these fragments belonged to, just as a vertebrate specialist can identify species from individual bones.

A fossil clypeus (head plate), 1mm long and over 600,000 years old, of Helophorus strigifrons (above), and a complete modern specimen of H. strigifrons from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (Images by the author)

A fossil clypeus (head plate), 1mm long and over 600,000 years old, of Helophorus strigifrons (above), and a complete modern specimen of H. strigifrons from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (Images by the author)

Secondly, beetles are extraordinarily diverse. There are more species of beetles than any other type of insect, with over 400,000 species formally described, accounting for over 20% of all known species of organism. (To put that in context, there are just over 4,500 different species of mammals!) They are correspondingly diverse in their ecological habits, occupying almost every conceivable terrestrial and freshwater environment on Earth, often with very particular habitat requirements and preferences. The presence of different species in an ancient deposit can be used to reconstruct past habitats in surprising detail.

Beetle diversityis astonising and beautiful (Image Clarke Thompson)

Beetle diversityis astonising and beautiful (Image Clarke Thompson)

Finally, like most insects, beetles are ectotherms (‘cold-blooded’). This means that their physiological, developmental and behavioural functions are all dependent on external temperature. Where they are able to live, and how successfully they are able to feed and reproduce is tightly controlled by local climatic conditions. Many species have a specific range of climatic conditions in which they will live, which we call their ‘climatic range’ or ‘envelope’. And for those of us interested in past climates, this is very useful.

By combining the ‘climatic ranges’ of different species found together as fossils, the overlap between these ranges (think of it like a climatic Venn diagram) provides a very accurate estimate of climatic conditions in the past. This is called the ‘mutual climatic range’ method, or MCR for short.

How the mutual climatic range (MCR) method of reconstructing past climates works. (Image by the author, after Elias 2010)

How the mutual climatic range (MCR) method of reconstructing past climates works. (Image by the author, after Elias 2010)

When we study the full array of beetles from an ancient deposit, we can build a remarkably complete picture of the local environment, accounting for both ecology and climate. Beetles have been, and continue to be, used to great effect in this way! They tell us how cold it was during glacial periods (when species now found only in Siberia and Tibet lived in Britain!), and how warm it was during interglacials. They help us to understand ancient forests, how they developed and the extent of human influence. When extracted from archaeological sites, these insects can even tell us about the day-to-day lives of our ancestors.

As part of my PhD research, I am investigating the ecology of the West Runton Freshwater Bed, in Norfolk. This was deposited around 600,000 to 700,000 years ago in an ancient wetland, and is known for its impressive and diverse megafauna, including the famous West Runton Mammoth. By studying the beetles from this deposit, along with fossil pollen and fungal spores, I am developing a detailed picture of the local environment. This includes reconstructing the ancient climate and landscape, how these changed through time and the processes driving those changes.

It’s amazing what bits of old, dead beetles can tell us about the past!

Written by Francis Rowney

Edited by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Francis Rowney is a PhD researcher at Plymouth University, studying the climates and ecology of Middle Pleistocene interglacials using a combination of beetles, pollen and fungal spores. He is supervised by Dr Nicki Whitehouse (Plymouth), Dr Ralph Fyfe (Plymouth) and Professor Danielle Schreve (Royal Holloway, University of London).

Further Reading

Coope GR (2000). ‘Coleoptera from Beeston and West Runton, Norfolk’. In Lewis SG, Whiteman CA

Preece RC (eds.) The Quaternary of Norfolk & Suffolk. Quaternary Research Association, London. pp

73-76. [Book]

Coope GR (2010). ‘Coleopteran faunas as indicators of interglacial climates in central and southern England’. Quaternary Science Reviews 29: 1507-1514. [Abstract only]

Coope GR, Shotton FW, Strachan I, Dance SP (1961). ‘A Late Pleistocene Fauna and Flora from Upton Warren, Worcestershire’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 244(714): 379-421. [Abstract only]

Elias SA (2010). Advances in Quaternary Entomology (Developments in Quaternary Science 12). Elsevier, Amsterdam. [Book]

Olsson F, Lemdahl G (2010). ‘A forest history for the last 10 900 years at the site Storasjö, southern Sweden: implications from beetle assemblages’. Journal of Quaternary Science 25(8): 1211-1221. [Abstract only]

Scudder SH (1895). ‘The Coleoptera hitherto found fossil in Canada’. Geologic Survey of Canada Contribution to Canadian Palaeontology 2: 27-56

Scudder SH (1900). ‘Canadian fossil insects’. Geologic Survey of Canada Contribution to Canadian Palaeontology 2: 67-92

Whitehouse NJ (2006). ‘The Holocene British and Irish ancient forest fossil beetle fauna: implications for forest history, biodiversity and faunal colonisation’. Quaternary Science Reviews 25: 1755-1789. [Abstract only]

Whitehouse NJ, Smith D (2010). ‘How fragmented was the British Holocene wildwood? Perspectives on the “Vera” grazing debate from the fossil beetle record’. Quaternary Science Reviews 29: 539-553. [Abstract only]

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In Patagonia

Patagonia. The name conjures up exotic windswept plains, adventure, and danger. A by-word for a region as foreign as Timbuktu. This remote section of Argentina and Chile holds many mysteries. In the south, Tierra Del Fuego, the legendary land of fire, where Darwin and Fitzroy spent time mapping and theorising on the Beagle’s long voyage. To the north, the extensive pampas and fertile grassland. Patagonia is a hard land, now home only to a few species: the rhea, the puma, some rodents, occasional guanacos. How different things were in the Pleistocene! Then, Patagonia had giant sloths, hippidiform horses, macrauchenia, giant jaguars, sabretooth cats, short-faced bears, native foxes, giant rodents, and other extinct species. It was essentially a uniquely South American Serengeti: a fully functioning ecosystem with megafauna, mesofauna, and microfauna.

Mylodon_cave

Cueva del Milodon (Mylodon Cave), site of spectacular discoveries of extinct megafauna in the region of Ultima Esperanza, Patagonia, Chile. Here have been found the complete skin of the ground sloth Mylodon darwinii, along with bones of Smilodon, Arctotherium, Hippidion, and other mammals. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dan Lundberg)

In new research, an incredible cross-disciplinary scientific analysis using genetics, radiocarbon dating, and modelling has investigated Patagonian megafauna. Here in the cold southern reaches, fantastic preservation, equal to that of the Siberian permafrost has allowed new insights to be made into the extinction of the Pleistocene giants. Researchers (myself included) looked at the phylogeny of the megafauna, and when they went extinct. Two big surprises resulted from this work.

Firstly, many of the populations that went extinct were actually completely distinct from their modern day congeners. The Patagonian guanacos, jaguars, and pumas were genetically separate from the animals found in South America today. For the guanaco and jaguar, the extinct Patagonian populations were probably at least on the level of subspecifically distinct. Cryptic extinctions of unique evolutionary lineages have been missed by just looking at the bones. Only when examining the DNA can we see how distinct populations have suffered the same fate as the other megafauna.

981258_10151417282026198_1151323798_o

Life-sized model of Mylodon darwinii at the mouth of Mylodon cave. Image, author’s own

The second surprise came when modelling the radiocarbon data against the known appearance of humans in southern South America. Thanks to iconic sites like Monte Verde, and a vigorous archaeological record spanning the late Pleistocene to Holocene, we have a pretty good idea of when people made it to the lowest latitudes. Sophisticated Bayesian models were used to compare extinction dates (last appearance dates) for the megafauna and first appearance dates for humans. The result was a surprise. Humans and megafauna overlapped for at least a thousand years (perhaps even more than two thousand) before there was any sign of extinction. However, the extinction of multiple megafaunal species did appear to cluster together around 12,300 calibrated years BP. Looking at climate data from the same time period, we saw that this coincided with a distinct warming period. As this warming reached its peak, the megafauna all disappeared.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of the soft tissue preserved from Mylodon cave, including claws, dung, and skin. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ghedoghedo)

Our conclusions from this wide study were that its not as simple as the “Blitzkrieg” model, where humans move into a region and the large animals go extinct within a few decades. In Patagonia, there appears to have been a synergistic interplay between human hunting and climatic conditions. If humans had not been around, the megafauna may have survived the stresses and upheavals of oscillations between warming and cooling as they had done for aeons previously. However, the combination of human hunting and then climate together proved too much for them to cope with.

Selection of Smilodon populator bones from Mylodon Cave. Image, author's own.

Selection of Smilodon populator bones from Mylodon Cave. (Image, author’s own)

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Other members of the team on Twitter are Dr Jessica Metcalf (@DirtySci), Dr Sarah Bray (@DrSarahBray), Dr Julia Vilstrup (@JuliaVilstrup), Prof. Ludovic Orlando (@LudovicLorlando), Dr Jeremy Austin (@DNATimeLord)

Further Reading:

Metcalf, J. L., R. Barnett, C. S. M. Turney, F. Martin, S. C. E. Bray, Julia T. Vilstrup, L. Orlando, et al. “Synergistic Roles of Climate Warming and Human Occupation in Patagonian Megafaunal Extinctions During the Last Deglaciation.” Science Advances in press (2016).[Full Text]

Does the Ground Sloth Still Survive in South America?

Borrero, L. A., and F. M. Martin. “Taphonomic Observations on Ground Sloth Bone and Dung from Cueva Del Milodon, Ultima Esperanza, Chile: 100 Years of Research History.” Quaternary International (2012).[Full Text]

Dillehay, T. D. “The Late Pleistocene Cultures of South America.” Evolutionary Anthropology (1999): 206-16.[Full Text]

Heusser, C. J., L. A. Borrero, and J. L. Lanata. “Late Glacial Vegetation at Cueva Del Mylodon.” Anales del Instituto de la Patagonia 21 (1994): 97-102.

Lönnberg, E. “On a Remarkable Piece of Skin from Cueva Eberhardt, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1900): 379-84.

———. “On Some Remains of “Neomylodon Listai” Ameghino Brought Home by the Swedish Expedition to Tierra Del Fuego 1896.” In Svenska Expeditionen Magellansländerna, 149-70, 1896.

Moreno, F. P., and A. S. Woodward. “On a Portion of Mammalian Skin Named Neomylodon Listai, from a Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.”. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 5 (1899): 144-56.[Abstract]

Salmi, M. “Additional Information on the Findings in the Mylodon Cave at Ultima Esperanza.” Acta Geographica 14, no. 19 (1955): 313-33.

Woodward, A. S. “On Some Remains of Grypotherium (Neomylodon) Listai and Associated Mammals from a Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 5 (1900): 64-79.[Abstract]

 

Posted in Extinction, Ground Sloth, Horse, Macrauchenia, Sabre tooth Cat, Short Faced Bear | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? A true story of the real Palaeolithic diet!

Food Warning: This blog contains (research by people who are) nuts (about ancient animals and peoples).

How do you eat an elephant?  The old motivational question is answered by ‘one bite at a time’. The same thing could perhaps be said about mammoths, and any other sort of well-preserved Pleistocene flesh. Here in Twilight Beasts Halls, we search news sources for strange tales of creatures long gone, for your reading pleasure, and often our own amusement too, if the truth be known!  Earlier this year, there was a newspaper article, stating that wealthy adventurers of the 1950s Explorers Club of New York were pretty well ripped off by the Roosevelt Hotel, who served sea turtle and claimed it was 250,000 year old woolly mammoth and/or Megatherium prime rump steak. In that instance, no megafauna made it to the dinner table, but there have been other cases where modern humans have consumed frozen Pleistocene creatures, retrieved from icy landscapes.

Inside the Explorers Club, where members paid far too much money to eat sea turtle, believing it to be mammoth and megatherium! Image from businessinsider.co.id

Inside the Explorers Club, where members paid far too much money to eat sea turtle, believing it to be mammoth and megatherium! Image from businessinsider.co.id

When I was researching our blog post on bison, I remembered reading how the palaeontologist who had found Blue Babe, the famous, wonderfully preserved 36,000 year old Yukon bison, had made a stew of some parts. When we aren’t manning social media, we do have chats with friends, and this had led to some entertaining chats off-line with Ruth Carden, ChristyAnn Darwent and Kelly Eldridge, all well-established Friends of the Beasts on Twitter! It was whispered by the two latter scientists that they knew colleagues who had actually eaten Ice Age meat. What on earth would it be like to eat meat that old, we wondered? Would it be horrifically ‘off’? Or just plain leathery and inedible? And did the Glacial Maximum gourmets survive their experiences, or did they … well…. have to sit on the loo for a very, very long time the next day? Here at Twilight Beasts we ask the questions other blogs are too afraid to! The wonderful Kelly and Chris made a point of contacting one of the few people who can say they most certainly have been on a (brief) Palaeolithic diet – and survived!

The following story is thanks to both Kelly and Chris. Names have been omitted where requested to protect the innocent… and the guilty!

The incredible body of Blue Babe. (Image by

The incredible body of 36,000 year old Blue Babe on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. (Image by Brent Rostad. Public Domain)

Dr David Yesner is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and had met Mr X (as we shall call him) at the 3rd International Mammoth Conference, held in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, in 2003. Yesner was delighted to meet and converse with a fellow enthusiast of circumpolar megafauna, especially one who was as passionate and knowledgeable on the topic as Mr X. They kept in touch after the conference, until in 2011 they met up again, after Yesner was called to sit on two PhD defence committees in Europe.

Shortly after discharging his duties on the defense committees, Yesner found himself visiting Mr X at his house, which was crammed full of what is probably the largest private collection of mammoth remains in the world. Mr X has been collecting for more than forty years, and boasts an impressive assortment of materials (as well as an incredibly understanding spouse). A tour of the collection was followed by a home-cooked meal; during after-dinner drinks, the gentleman asked Yesner if he wanted to try some mammoth. As you do. “I just happen to have a piece of the Jarkov Mammoth sitting in my freezer,” he said.

The Jarkov Mammoth, in its ice cavern, preserved for the future. Image from sentinelles.liberation.fr

The Jarkov Mammoth, in its ice cavern, preserved for the future.
Image from sentinelles.liberation.fr

Now, you may have heard of the Jarkov Mammoth. This completely intact 18,000 year-old Mammuthus primigenus specimen, found by a young boy while out hunting on the Taymyr Peninsula in 1997, was blocked-out and airlifted to an ice cave in 1999, where it was slowly thawed out by researchers. Sitting at a kitchen table 5000 km and 12 years removed from its original resting place, Yesner consumed a small piece of its raw, frozen flesh.

“It melted in my mouth, but was very chewy,” he reminisced. “Imagine the worst freezer-burned meat you’ve ever eaten in your life.” Later that evening, Yesner also tried frozen marrow, scooped out of a mammoth bone that had been dredged up from somewhere in the North Sea. He said it tasted much better than the Jarkov meat; apparently gelatinous marrow doesn’t freezer-burn easily, no matter how many thousands of years old it is.

             Image taken from https://www.spreadshirt.com/mammoths+t-shirts – yes, you                can actually buy tee shirts for mammoth meals!

 

Yesner – and Mr X – join an exclusive club of palaeontologists who have put their money where their mouth is (literally) and consumed ancient meat. Charles Darwin may have sampled every species he wrote of, but in April 1984 Dr Dale Guthrie cooked up and ate part of the iconic frozen bison Blue Babe, stating that  “A small part of the mummy’s neck was diced and simmered in a pot of stock and vegetables. We had Blue Babe for dinner. The meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma, but nobody there would have dared miss it”.

One of the participants, Björn Kurten added that none of the dozen or so scientists who shared the stew suffered any ill-effects from it, which if anything really made me realise how intensely cold the Ice Age actually was. The temperatures of the Pleistocene were cold enough to deep-freeze this bison so well that there were still traces of coagulated blood within the fatal wounds, which were inflicted by the claws of a cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). Place yourself in the mind-set of  surviving every day in those conditions, where if you paused too long you’d freeze; imagine the courage of the ancients to go out hunting in that kind of coldness. Understanding that tenacity and talent for survival, I found myself filled with a new admiration for H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis alike.

Now, I’m not a meat eater, and haven’t been for many years, but some odd part of me envied those paleontologists who shared a big hearty stew of ancient bison or mammoth in the culinary footsteps of the peoples of the Ice Age, and how it must have felt, sitting down to the table with the shadow of our ancestors cast over the pot. Nigella and Gordon – eat your hearts out!

Ingredients

Written by: Rena Maguire @justrena and @ossiferous_ak

With added spice from @RuthFCarden and @cmdarwent

Further reading:

Turtle stew instead of mammoths! Read about it here.

Blue Babe: A messenger from the Ice Age. Here.

Guthrie, R.D., (1988). Blue Babe: the story of a steppe bison mummy from Ice Age Alaska. Alaska UA Museum. [Book]

Mol, D., Coppens, Y., Tikhonov, A.N., Agenbroad, L.D., MacPhee, R.D.E., Flemming, C., Greenwood, A., Buigues, B., De Marliave, C., Van Geel, B. and Van Reenen, G.B.A., 2001, ‘The Jarkov mammoth: 20,000-year-old carcass of a Siberian woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)’. In Proceedings of the 1st International Congress’ The World of Elephants ‘(Roma) pp. 305-309 .  [Full article]

Posted in Bison, Woolly Mammoth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Medusa’s legacy

Monster movies were a huge inspiration for me when I was little. They fed my fascination with natural history: in particular the incredible work from the extraordinary mind of Ray Harryhausen. My favourite of his films was, of course, the amazing Clash of the Titans. (I’m talking about the original 1981 film with the wonderfully, unfaultable Harry Hamlin as our hero. The only Clash of the Titans film there is). And I think this is where my earliest true memory of a snake comes from: seeing the terrifying Medusa when I was around 6 or 7 years old. From this one Titan, began one youngsters fascination with legless serpents.

A somewhat chilling portrait of Medusa Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

A somewhat chilling portrait of Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, around1878. (This is not from the Clash of the Titans film). (Image Public Domain)

Here we have an extremely successful group of animals. They have no legs, yet can effortlessly (and sometimes surprisingly quickly) move across the land. They use their forked tongue to ‘taste’ the chemicals in the air to help them hunt. Some have deadly venom to kill their lunch, while others will crush their prey to death before swallowing it whole. There are ‘flying snakes’ (which are actually pretty poor gliding snakes). There are even snakes that live in the sea. This is an incredibly diverse group of reptiles; with over 3,400 different species (mammals have around 5,400 different species).

The group have been around for a very long time, with the first fossils being found in rocks dating to around 100 million years old. Recent genetic studies push the origins of snakes back to somewhere around 128 million years ago. After the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, the number of snake species grew fast, and today there is a huge variety of venomous, non-venomous and colourful species found on every continent except Antarctica.

Some of the extinct snakes that have been discovered must have been amazing to see in life. Unfortunately the colours don’t preserve in the fossil record, but looking at modern species, there is no doubt that they were as vibrant. Some were pretty big too. Seriously big. The largest snake so far discovered, the 60 million year old Titanoboa, was longer than a double-decker bus (over 12m long). There were other giants too, including the enormous Gigantophis, which was over 10m long. And it is this giant that links us to our pretty large Twilight Beast.

A Gigantophis swallowing what looks to be a crocodile.

A Titanoboa swallowing what looks to be a crocodile. (Image from a display at the Smithsonian Museum. Image taken by Ryan Quick. Public Domain.)

Gigantophis was a 40 million year old giant, known from a few fossils. What we can work out is not only its size, but that this colossal creature belonged to an extinct family of snakes. Today there are around 20 families of snakes. This is a trimmed down group of vertebrates: there were many other families of snakes which are now extinct. (An exact number of extinct families has proven difficult to find.) One of these long lost families is the Madtsoiidae, which Gigantophis belongs. Small features in the skeleton identify fossils as belonging in this family, particularly certain projections present or missing on specific vertebra: clues to different families of creatures may be tiny, but they show how rich life’s diversity is.

Down under, one of the last species of this family may well have slid into aboriginal legend.

Farming in Australia led to the sad extinction of the beautiful Thylacine. Farming also inadvertently led to the discovery of one of the most fossil rich series of caves in the world. During the mid-1840s, in South Eastern Australia, sheep were vanishing. No blood. No remains. Nothing. The town of Naracoorte, sitting on top of the limestone coast, appeared to swallow sheep. Quite literally; the farmer discovered they had wandered into a cave. This cave, called Blanche Cave, was explored fully over a decade later with a small number of fossils discovered: but people were more interested in the impressive structures.

One walkway thgouth

One walkway thgough Gallerie Blanch, with some incredible cave formations. (Image Christopher Delaere. Public Domain)

Other caves (26 in total) were discovered in the region soon after, and became visitor attractions. Some more fossils were found, but it was over a century later when the most spectacular discovery was made. And it was spectacular. In 1969, a caver and a researcher broke through to a sealed off chamber in Victoria Cave. Sealed for around 15,000 years, this cave was literally filled to the roof with sediment. And bones. This chamber was once a trap. A concealed hole in the roof, caught out unaware animals on the ground where they plummeted to their deaths inside the caves. Over around 280,000 years animals of all shapes and sizes fell inside the cave, along with pollen and plants. Slowly, the skeletons and sediment built up, like an enormous pyramid of death, eventually reaching the roof and sealing it forever. Well, until those two chaps opened it up again.

This is an extraordinary fossil rich site. Thousands of remains of creatures, from tiny frogs to giant marsupials. With such an abundance of fossils, this site is giving an unbelievably detailed view of the Late Pleistocene in Australia, and the incredibly weird creatures that once lived there. Enormous herbivores such as the massive wombat Diprotodon, and the funky looking kangaroo with a big ass fell to their deaths in this cave. Carnivores met their end here too: fossils of the largest lizard to have walked the Earth have been recovered, as well as the ferocious marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex. There was also something that slithered it’s way into the cave. Only it never slithered out again.

And this is where we finally meet our beast: Wonami naracoortensis.

A rough sketchof what

A rough sketch of the size of Wonami naracoortensis, Australia’s largest snake. (Image Jan Freedman)

Sometime around 5 million years ago, during the Early Pliocene, one species from a dwindling family of snakes grew big. Real big. At 6 meters long, this just a couple of metres off the longest python found today. But Wonami was no python. It was one of the last species belonging to the family Madtsoiidae (Pythons belong to the snake family Pythonidae). Although not closely related to pythons, they shared a similar way of feeding; slowly suffocating its prey before swallowing it whole. However, this family had slightly different jaw structures to modern constrictors, so species in this family wouldn’t have been able to swallow massive prey. It would have unlikely tackled a giant Zygomaturus or one of the large kangaroo species. Small wallabies, and other smaller marsupials would have made an easy meal.

A wonderful reconstruction of the marsupial lion and Wo

A wonderful reconstruction of the marsupial lion and Wonambi in a battle to the death. Display at the Naracoorte Fossil Centre, Australia. (Image Public Domain)

This giant reptile thrived until relatively recently. The climate in Australia throughout the Late Pleistocene didn’t fluctuate dramatically. There were some small changes correlating to events in the Northern Hemisphere, but generally it was warm with woodlands and rich grasslands. Around 60,000-50,000 years ago, the environment changed. It became drier, more arid. Woodlands and grasslands shrunk, along with populations of creatures. A stress that was too much for many. Remove an animal’s habitat and the animal cannot live: something so simple, yet many individuals of our own species seem unaware.

The extinction of Wonami is a bit of a mystery. It fed on smaller marsupials, which were not as affected by large scale Late Pleistocene extinctions. The heat may have been a contributing factor, with the environment hotting up making it too hot for this more temperate species. There is no direct evidence of the extinction being related to humans (no cut marks on bones have been found). But this giant may well have slid it’s way into local folklore. The genus of this extinct giant, Wonami pays homage to the local Aboriginal peoples serpent of the Dreamtime, where giant snakes formed the lands. It is very likely that the first peoples arriving in Australia sometime around 50,000 years ago encountered this giant.

In their own way, these stories have kept the beast alive. And perhaps, like Medusa did for me, the Womami has inspired some to look at the natural world around them.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further Reading:

Great PDF on the fossils found at the Naracoorte Caves: naracoorte-caves-animals-and-fossils-fact (2)

Berndt, R. M. (1941). ‘Tribal migrations and myths centring on Ooldea, South Australia.’ Oceania. 12:1. pp.1-20. [Abstract only]

Ehmann, H. (1993). ‘Family Boide’. In Galsby, C.G, Ross, G. J., & Beesley, P.L. ‘Amphibia and Reptilia.’ Fauna of Australia. 2A. Australian Government Publishing Service. [Book]

Flannery, T. (1994). ‘The Future EATERS: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People’. [Book]

Hsiang, A. Y., et al. (2015). ‘The origin of snakes: revealing the ecology, behaviour, and evolutionary history of early snakes using genomics, phenomics, and the fossil record.’ BMC Evolutionary Biology. 15:87. [Full article]

Rieppel, O, Kluge, A. G. & Zaher, H. (2003). ‘Testing the phylogenetic relationships of the Pleistocene snake Wonambi naracoortensis Smith.’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 22:4. pp.812-829. [Abstract only]

Roberts, R. G., et al. (2001). ‘New ages for the Last Australian Megafauna: continent-wide extinction about 46,000 years ago.’ Science. 292:5523. pp.1888-1892. [Full article]

Scanlon, J. D. (2003). ‘The basicranial morphology of Madtsoiid snakes (Squamata, Ophidia) and the Earliest Alethinophidia (Serpentes).’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 23:4. Pp.971-976.

Scanlon, J., D. & Lee, M. S. Y. (2000). ‘The Pleistocene serpent Wonambi and the early evolution of snakes.’ Nature. 403. pp.416-420. [Abstract only]

Smith, M. J. (1976) ‘Small fossil vertebrates from Victoria Cave, Naracoorte, South Australia.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. 100. pp.39-51. [Full article]

Posted in Wonami | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments