Extinct Megafauna at the Mall

There is a passion that I have which predates native Hawaiian plants. It’s one that I haven’t gotten a chance to talk about on this blog yet. Luckily this is Studia Mirabilium, the Study of Marvelous Things. With Pearlridge Mall having their Planet Ice event, I get a chance to talk about this other marvelous thing. The passion is for Cenozoic fauna, more specifically, extinct megafauna in this case.

The Cenozoic Era is the time from the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago to present. Some of my interest lies in the fact that the K-T extinction event was a sort of reset in a sense; previously filled niches were opened up again for life to fill. Another part of my interest is that for much of that time, many of the continents were island continents, evolving their own unique faunal assembleges. All of it fascinates me, anything from Terror Birds to Terror Skinks. There was no way I would miss this opportunity to see the recreations of some of these animals at the Pearlridge Mall.

For much of the past 65 million years, mammals have been the most dominant members of the fauna. That wasn’t always the case. During the Eocene of Europe and North America, this bird, Gastornis (Diatryma) sp, was very conspicuous. A 6 ft tall possibly carnivorous bird? Pure awesome. You really have to use your imagination on this one because there really isn’t a modern day analogue. Some of the biggest extant predatory birds are eagles. While they are most certainly powerful, eagles aren’t viewed with the same palpable fear as say lions. “Lions and Tigers and Eagles, oh my!” just doesn’t have the same ring.

This is as good a time as any to talk about paleobiogeography again. While most of the continents evolved distinct fauna for long periods of time in the Cenozoic, dispersal via land bridges or other stochastic factors did occur, diluting the respective continent’s fauna. After the Eocene, the apex predators were strictly mammals in North America, Eurasia and Africa. No need to talk about what Antarctica was doing, it was off in its own corner becoming addicted to glaciers. Australia and South America, however, were true island continents for most of the Cenozoic. Free from placental carnivore competition, giant, predaceous birds were definitely known from South America and possibly Australia too. These survived well into the period, with even the lastest South American forms making the journey into North America after ye ole Panamanian Land Bridge arose about 3 million years ago.

This strange creature is a Platybelodon, a type of elephant relative. Not only did it have more tusks than modern elephants (4), but the lower pair were extremely broad and flatten. This gave them the charming colloquial name of Shovel-Tuskers. They had been imagined as using these highly specialized tusks to scoop up aquatic plants. This idea has been debated here though. Perhaps they were more typically found in woodland habits. I can look past the fact that they went extinct millions years before the ice ages even started if it means that some 6 year old now knows that the elephant family (Proboscidea) was once way more diverse that it is currently. Depauperate is a word I get to use way to much here at Studia Mirabilium unfortunately.

Which is sad. It wasn’t too long ago that the Proboscids were considerable more diverse. A mere blink in the eye geologically, the latest Pleistocene of North America was a center for Proboscidea diversity possibly surpassing even Africa today. Africa is currently home to 2 species of closely related Loxodonta elephants: the African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). North America was home to at least 2 species of grazing Mammoths (Mammuthus columbi & Mammuthus primigenius ) and also the more distantly related American Mastodon (Mammut americanum). If things had turned out a little differently just 10,000 years ago, the best place in the world to go for an Elephant safari might not be the Serengeti but rather some place like Topeka. Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore indeed.

While we’re at it, here is one of those grazing mammoths. The Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is still today an icon of the ice age. It is now known that that there are several populations that survived the end Pleistocene extinctions and lasted until at least the mid-Holocene roughly 3,000-4,000 years ago (pdf). The most famous relict population being at Wrangel Island off the northeast Siberian coast. This places the last Mammoths being alive at the time as the Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. For an interesting discussion on this idea check here.

In the background is the representation of the mighty Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). Rhinos were also denizens of North America but ancient ones; the last American Rhinos died out in the Miocene. (Not without leaving a spectacular lagerstatte in Nebraska.) Woolly Rhinos never made it to the Americas. Perhaps their niche was filled by these guys…

…well not this guy itself. No fossils of these mace-tailed type of Glyptodont species (Doedicurus spp.) have been found in North America. But there were other species that did make it north from their South American homeland. Notice that in this reconstruction has restored the animal with a short trunk. For more on this check this post at the old Tetrapod Zoology.

Or perhaps it was a type of these guys that was occupying the same ecospace as Rhinos. Giant ground sloths are unique to the Americas (Well. and Antarctica in its happy youth) but again we really don’t have a good modern day analogue. Sure, we still have close cousins, the tree sloths, that are still extant. They’re lifestyles are so different though that it is difficult to glean any sort of behavioral or ecological analogies. For more information check here and here. Giant swimming sea sloths?!! Oh yes.

Now, I haven’t been to the George C. Page Museum in years but I believe that they have the same situation mocked up with a Sabertooth Cat (Smilodon fatalis) attacking a ground sloth. There I think it’s a Harlan’s Ground Sloth (Paramylodon harlani). Here it’s supposed to be a Megatherium americanum but the feet don’t look right. It looks more like Megalonyx sloth feet. I can’t complain too much though, how often do extinct megafauna show up in Hawaiian malls? Hopefully yearly!

Well this was suppose to be a short post about being a kid again and looking with wonderment at cool recreated animals. Of course, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Another facet of this blog has been revealed, you are now lvl 2. Till next time….

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