Thursday, September 15, 2011

Holocene extinction pt.3

simply looking straight ahead
I present to you: a tragedy of pre-deluvian proportions, a tale of majesty, of ill-advised grandeur, and ultimately - a tale of disappearance from the fossil record. Take heed, for I give you the case of the Irish Elk. 

Upon reaching sexual maturity a Megaloceros giganteus stag - already standing 2.2 meters tall at the shoulders - would enter an extended period of antler growth. In two years a male Irish Elk would produce the largest antlers of any known cervid. Combined length: 3.6 meters. This magnificent crown of bones could easily dwarf the horns of an adult male Triceratops. You and I combined would not exceed the length of the Irish Elks antlers. Neither would the Irish Elk itself, in spite of being the largest deer that ever lived. 

High amounts of calcium and phosphate compounds are required to form antlers, and therefore large quantities of these minerals are required for the massive structures of Megaloceros giganteus. The males met this requirement partly from their bones, becoming brittle, vulnerable things for the 24 month duration of this phase. Some even cracked bones in their legs as body-weight slowly increased and calcium dropped. In the end, an adult male Irish Elk would carry 40 kilograms of extra weight attached to its skull. In a position that was very much maintained by sexual selection: its antlers were morphologically ill-suited for combat between males, but their position was ideal to present them to impress females. Unlike other deer, M. giganteus did not even have to turn its head to present the antlers to best effect, but could accomplish this by simply looking straight ahead.

Around 7,700 years ago, during the end of the Quaternary extinction, this proved to be a maladaptation. Driven to extremes by an uniquely majestic ritual of sexual selection, antler size increased to a point where they eventually became so unwieldy that the Irish Elk could not carry on the normal business of life. Rigged with the most ridiculous headgear this side of the Jurassic, passing through forests becomes problematic; while in the open, camouflage was not an option. Prominence is what one grows giant antlers for in the first place.

Now, if you will, imagine yourself in this situation: a Shakespearean tragicomedy, trapped in the killing fields of Eurasia with human hunters of the Neolithic - the most cunning apex predators in the paleohistory of the Earth.

Last time our funeral march passed through the Americas, with this cautionary tale we begin our processions for the rest of the world. The Irish Elk was neither Irish nor an elk. It was of the genus Megaloceros of the deer family and it once populated not only the Irish bogs where they, for obvious reasons (and for the luck of paleontologists everywhere), sank by the thousands. This giant used to roam Eurasian flatlands from Gibraltar to Kamchatka.


Mm... a paleontological mystery from the seventeen hundreds.
Join me there - in the Russian Far East - for a paleontological mystery from the seventeen hundreds! A long way from those dark Neolithic days, our apex predators coalesce to form the Russian Empire. Yet even now, as a Civilization, they like to eat and wear other members of the mammalian class. For the last two hundred years the Russian Empire has slowly expanded eastwards, into the vast Siberian expanse, in search of an animal roughly 1,500 times smaller than the Irish Elk - the sable. All empires have an affinity for the soft and luxurious, yet the Russians' relationship to furs is in a league of its own. As Spain explores the Americas for gold and Britain maps the Arctic for commercial passage, Russia triples its territory almost only for the sake of furs. There is little else out there, they assume. Much to the czar's surprise, then - and to the bafflement of gentleman geographers the world over - fur hunters return from Siberia with large quantities of ivory. How is this possible? My first guess, Grigori: these must surely be the remains of biblical behemoths, leviathans from before the Great Deluge. So reads the Book of Job: "His limbs are as strong as copper, his bones as a load of iron. Behold now the behemoth I have made with you, he eats grass like cattle."

Tales of these strange beasts begin to circulate Europe. Mang ont, "earth horn" - this is what the Vogul people of the Russian Far East called them. It is from the Vogul that fur hunters first traded the enigmatic ivory, along with tales of giant moles that live in the ground and die in the ground, until they are exhumed and their remains are carved into jewellery and pocket knives. A single tusk finds its way to Hans Sloan, a British scientist, who identifies it as belonging not to a giant or behemoth, but rather to an elephant. Permutations of the the flood theory persist - before the deluge there were elephants in Siberia! the deluge carried over their bones from India! - until in 1796, Georges Cuvier, a Frenchman, first identifies the remains as an entirely new species. Most significantly, he argues this species had gone extinct, and no longer exists, a concept that is not widely accepted at the time. Three decades later, in 1828, this primeval elephant species is recognised as distinct enough to warrant a new genus, and is thus reclassified as: Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth.

Mang ont (Vogul) - mamont (Russian) - mammoth (English)
I present you now with the following three points of dinner-table discussion on mammoths. Make the ladies swoon with any or all as you see fit:

1) Modern day genetic sequencing has produced evidence on colouring of mammoth fur, ranging from brown to orange as well as - get ready! - blond and even ginger mammoths.

2) From 1700 BC - when Hammurabi dies and Crete is the prominent civilization of the West - to as early as the birth of Christ (gentlemen, it is imperative to stretch that latter date as close as possible for maximum swoon), on the secluded Arctic island of Wrangel, off the coast of Siberia, tiny miniature mammoths are still living! Science-people call it insular dwarfism: a genetic effect where a population's gene pool, when limited to a very small environment, begins producing drastically smaller breeds. In this case, tiny dog-sized mammoths with tiny husks and (possible ginger!) fur.

3) The third conversation piece was supposed to be about Thomas Jefferson (who famously had a keen interest in paleontology) calling a giant wheel of cheese he was given "a mammoth" wheel of cheese and thus transforming the word mammoth from a noun describing the prehistoric elephant to an adjective describing anything amazingly large... but I'd refrain from that if I were you. Best not to overplay your hand with the whole mammoth affair. Leave them wanting for more.


I'm so sorry you had to go in that stupid extinction...
Rather, for maximum adorable, I would turn to Australia - that most puzzling of continents for biologists. The mammalian subclass of theria, or marsupials - although commonplace before the advent of the Holocene extinction - survived almost exclusively in Australia where... to hell with it! Just look at that thing! It's a god damn marsupial lion! (Thylacoleo carnifex) A marsupial. And a lion. The mother has a pouch where it carries tiny marsupial lions. Then they come out to play with their little marsupial lion claws and roll around, all mischievous and marsupial! Ooh! Look at me, I'm so scary, largest meat eater in Australia ever. Actually not that large, then? Well, okay, still quite large, even comparable to a tiger, but gosh darn, look at those cute stripes and that tail and did you know they could stand up on that thing like a kangaroo? Imagine a tiny little marsupial lion cub doing the tripod, waving its claws, attempting to appear all serious and formidable, actually looking like a stupid little fir-ball of stupidlittle... stupid furballnessness... nghshs... marsupial lion cub, mheah...


Enough! Let's talk giant mega land animal world. Largest ever land mammal Indrichotherium time! Giant giraffe-like rhinoceros beast of the underworld! Ominous daguerreotype break-down time: tiny man, giant animal contrast shot... wait, what? Vanished 100,000 years before the Holocene? Are you sure? Perhaps we can still cram it in there like we did that giant bird? No? Too far off and would trivialise the whole concept? Alright then, how about: proposed legendary era unicorn-beast real life counterpart Elasmotherium time? Beast of the Russian steppes - yes? no? Giant horn, black fur, illustration by Heinrich HARDER, possibly the biblical unicorn or real life Xie Zhi as described in the travels of Ibn Fadlan in 1203. No? Really? Too much cryptozoology? Your killing me here. I guess a woolly rihineceros is off the table, then? Too pedestrian?

Thought so. Then you leave me no choice. We will have to depart the Pleistocene as it was originally intended.
With an extinct human.

Homo floresiensis


I sing and I dance and I clap my hands just like you. But I am not you. And I am not the Neanderthal you mixed blood with. Nor am I a microcephalic version of you. I am not a cretin, I cut and I spear and I hide inside my cave. There is a fire burning there and my larynx is formed and ready for speech. I am the Man of Flores and you almost never found me.

Ebu Gogo, they said, "the small man in the jungle". The Mbenga, the Twa, the Semang - your tribes said that.

I came to this island 74,000 years ago, before you, with my friends. A little island, like all of the others in your Insulinde. We hunted Stegodon, lived alongside giant rats and Komodo dragons. They all went when you came, yet there are tools of the same kind on my archaeological horizons. For cooperative hunting, for cooking, there might even have been a little flute in my cave. I might have played it for you, had we met.

We didn't, now we do: Brodmann's area 10, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, self-awereness. Language, not differentiated from music. All that. All that. Have a good time on your Earth.



  1. I like that the Latin name of the Irish Elk says, holy shit, that is a huge fucking deer.

  2. Trustworthy *****
    Objective *****
    Complete *****
    Well-written *****
    Well-written *****

  3. Animism - makes sense. Loomulik, et nad arvasid, et selle hirve näol on tegemist jumalaga.

    Muuseas: nende sarvedega ja neist kirjutades olen ma saanud endale mööduva harjumuse projitseerida erinevatele pindadele toas ja väljas 3.6 meetriste sarvedega hiidhirve. It is actually quite remarkable how fucking gigantic that thing is.

    Veranda akende taga on hiidhirv, mõlema äärmise akna nurgast on näha ühe sarve otsa. Ma ka ilmselt vajuksin põlvili ja hakkaksin palvetama sellise olendi ees. Misjärel mind tabaks seletamatu soov ta ära tappa.

    On ju uskumatult loogiline mõttekäik, et sa võid neid tappa ka! Geniaalne ikka, usundina, ma ütleks. Animism. Participatory to the utmost degree. Meet your gods, kill your gods, see your gods come back to life, then kill them again.

    Inimesele on ju iga hiidhirv põhimõtteliselt ühe ja sama hiidhirve uuestisünd.

    Sellised mõtted siis, keep having a good time on your Earth.

  4. Hehe, delirious! Vabalt voolava - aga EKSTAATILISE - loodussaate peaks sulle korraldama. There would be no boundaries, only their rapturous, gigantic-antlers inspired implosion.

  5. I know that marsupials has a nice chance to survive in Australia due to the protection by geometric boundary but I never though that there was marsupial lion there. That's amazing.

    Maybe this is only my imagination but I feel that the skull Homo floresiensis look curiously at us...

  6. Delightful read! Author might be cooler than teleporting Attenborough who is pretty cool.