A Glittering Ichthyosaur

24 09 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fair to say that TTT has been a bit of a “ghost blog” for a few weeks now: a result of my crazed academic schedule to which I’ve yet to fully grow accustomed. As if this weren’t enough, two of my brand new courses are conducting their mid-term examinations early next week, a fact which has forced the hostile takeover of virtually every ounce of free time I’ve managed to scrounge up lately by excessive studying.

Ah, but misery loves company. The fact that mid-terms are a thorn homogeneously spread throughout the sides of undergraduates across the nation affords me the opportunity to occasionally relieve myself from my own scholarly preparations in order to assist my friends in executing theirs. One of my room-mates is an English major whose particular topical line-up for this examination period involves developing an acute knowledge of Joseph Conrad’s melancholy and profoundly disturbing “Heart Of Darkness”, which I, myself had read a few years ago (the horror!). Whilst quizzing him on the book’s finer points via “cliffsnotes”, I noticed that one of the words defined in the volume’s glossary was “Ichthyosaurus“. My curiosity piqued, I scourged the novel for the reference to this most famous of fossilized marine reptiles, leading me to stumble upon the following passage:

“A deadened burst of mighty splashes had reached us from afar, as though an ichthyosaurus [sic] had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river.”

A large ichthyosaur meanders about the famed Crystal Palace Park in London. According to palaeos.com, the first-known ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs "had a strong effect on the 19th century Victorian imagination".


Prehistoric reptiles are hardly unknown for their ability to tus make literary cameos, as evidenced by Mark Twain’s occasional dinosaur references to say nothing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s groundbreaking masterpiece, “The Lost World”. 

Right, then: back to my bloody mathematical formulas!!!

Creature’s Pet: “Lake Placid” (1999)

2 06 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

In light of the fact that a recent illness (don’t worry: I’m fine!) has enabled me to enjoy a bit of free time lately, I’ve decided to create a new semi-regular column here at “The Theatrical Tanystropheus”: one which honors my love of outlandish, often cheesy but usually enjoyable monster movies. Is this remotely scientific? No, but:

A) It’s fun!

B) Although I shall refrain from naming names at present, suffice it to say that yours truly is far from the sole Creature Feature fanatic roaming about the paleo-blogosphere. 🙂

Please note that, as a frequently overworked college student, I cannot afford to provide this series with the regularity of the “Weekly Spotlight” saga. Nevertheless, I’ll try to review at least one monster movie per month in this space.

Right then: without further dawdling, I humbly present the first installment:

“Lake Placid” (1999)

Every so often, even the most fanatical monster movie buffs have to admit that it’s nice to see a cheesy, over-the-top, sci-fi extravaganza allude to its own absurdity without degrading into a painfully ineffective cartoonish facade. “Lake Placid” is built around an unambiguously stupid plot, but at least the film acknowledges this fact while simultaneously managing to become a genuinely fun movie.

For those who have yet to see this cinematic masterpiece, the storyline is essentially as follows:

After a diver is violently bisected while studying the local American Beaver population in the backwoods of Maine, a mysterious tooth is found in his legless corpse. So naturally, a paleontologist by the name of Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda)  is sent from the AMNH to investigate this mysterious killer. She’s begrudgingly accompanied by Sheriff Keough (Brandon Gleeson), who serves as the obligatory xenophobic, neanderthalic resident law-enforcement official,  and level-headed Fish and Game representative Jack Wells (Bill Pullman). However, the fun truly begins when Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), a wealthy and very eccentric mythology enthusiast arrives under the conviction that the unidentified predator is, in fact, a gargantuan saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus): a crazed hypothesis which just so happens to be true.

I feel obligated to point out that this is no standard-issue C. porosus, as evidenced by the following shot:

The beast is routinely estimated to be some 30 feet (9.1 meters) in length by various cast members: however, the possibility of it being some modern relative of Deinosuchus rugosus or any other gigantic prehistoric crocodylian is ruled out almost instantly when Oliver Platt’s character cites it as merely a typical saltwater crocodile, despite the fact that the thing is roughly the size of a dump truck.

(Fun Fact: In the technical sense, this colossal reptile was brought to life via a fairly convincing combination of animatronics and CGI created by none other than “Jurassic Park”s  own late, great special effects artist Stan Winston)

The question of just how on earth this thing ever ended up in an icy freshwater New England lake miles from the ocean remains unanswered, and, frankly, I’m happy with that: it’s a refreshing change to observe that scientific characters are just as initially dumbfounded as everyone else when confronted with an impossible situation for once rather than instantly and unceasingly attempting to provide some astronomically ridiculous explanation.

Perhaps  “Lake Placid”s resident scientists are incapable of solving this quandary merely because they, like the remainder of the movie’s ensemble, are positively certifiable. There isn’t a single major character in this movie whose actions and exhortations could be so much as remotely considered “normal”. Nor can any of them be accurately cited as vaguely “polite”: even BETTY WHITE (who plays the mammoth reptile’s deranged elderly caretaker) emits a series of obscenities so vulgar that common decency forbids me from listing them here (I’ll just give you all a link… 🙂 ). That fact alone should inspire a crippling urge to see the picture deep in the heart of anyone whose ever watched “The Golden Girls”.

As a paleontology student, I particularly enjoyed Bridget Fonda’s portrayal of Kelly: a shrewd, germophobic, city girl who routinely proclaims “I don’t do field work!” during the film’s opening minutes. The woman’s idea of camping appears to be largely akin to the practice of leaving the window open in one’s three-star hotel room: a sentiment which, I can say with full confidence, is homogeneously shared by the paleontological community at large. “Lake Placid” is one of those movies which makes paleontologists (amateur and professional alike) seriously wonder just what the hell film-makers think they do all day! Oh, and be sure to avoid throwing severed heads at her.

However, the most entertaining performance of the movie is unquestionably Oliver Platt’s Hector Cyr: a man who manages to stand out as a world-class lunatic even in an ensemble which would make Pee-wee’s playhouse look like an accountancy firm. Hector is a wealthy mythology professor who believes that crocodiles are sacred, god-like beasts: a conviction which drives him to travel the world and swim with  eusuchians. His attempt at comforting Sheriff Keough (off of whom he bounces hilariously and frequently) after the loss of a deputy contains one of the most laughably screwy recollections of one’s childhood dreams that I’ve ever heard in my life. While I don’t want to give anything away, it’s sufficient to say that this reminiscence involves a course of action designed to prevent a decapitated person from stumbling about through a room of fine china.

Is “Lake Placid” a great movie? Absolutely not, but this certainly is not to say that the picture is by any definition a bad one primarily because it never takes itself too seriously. Between the appreciable special effects and a continuous stream of eccentric humor, “Lake Placid” proves itself to be an enjoyable experience for anyone in search of some light summer entertainment.

Yet Another Awesome British Science Show…

26 05 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

A YouTube acquaintance of mine recently sent me the following clip from the British Channel 4 program “Inside Nature’s Giants” which, as far as I can ascertain, is an intriguing exploration into the ecology, evolution, and comparative anatomy of some of the planet’s largest creatures. The video I’ve posted appears to be a collection of clips from a trio of episodes involving the modern giraffe, what I believe to be a Nile crocodile, and the asian elephant. Sadly, it looks like there’s no news of a DVD coming along anytime soon. Fortunately, however, there’s no shortage of available online clips.

WARNING: This footage involves a great deal of dissection and is therefore NOT for the squeamish and/or faint of heart!

NOTE: Dawkins’ assertion that “[Crocodiles] haven’t changed much in a very long time” is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification of crocodylian evolution… for more information, I’d reccomend tracking down a copy of this book.

My 2010 Booklist Part 1 of 3: January-April

27 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I apologize for my relative inactivity of late: the waning days of my final semester here at MCC are taking an enormous toll upon my free time which, consequently, has severely handicapped my ability to make routine posts.

To prevent TTT from going completely barren during this time, I’ve elected to showcase the following update on one of the resolutions I made just prior to the advent of the present year: namely, to increase my personal voluntary reading rate. As the title of the article suggests, this entry chronicles all of the books I’ve consumed thus far… each of which is accompanied by a short review composed by yours truly.

So, without further ado, I hereby present the first third of my 2010 booklist in chronological order.

“Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas” By David Rains Wallace

My Thoughts: The cover, excerpts of critical acclaim, and internal blurb all insinuate that ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is a highly accessible and evocative narration which equally blends scientific data, historical discourses, and personal observations concerning the history and conservation of marine life in North America’s west coast. However, in reality, the latter two features unambiguously dominate the text, leaving the former grossly under-represented. Though I find the history of science and the musings of eloquent naturalists to be fascinating and enjoyable topics, I don’t particularly care for being ambushed by either of them in search of ‘hard science’. With the exception of Wallace’s coverage of pinnipeds (which, in my opinion absorbs a disproportionately large amount of the book’s content), none of the strictly scientific information is technical enough to appeal to committed paleontology and zoology enthusiasts nor is it sufficiently readable and well-illustrated enough for laymen to find it comprehensible. The greatest strength of ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is unquestionably the author’s obvious passion for his subject, yet this ardor alone simply isn’t enough to save a book which attempts to please everyone and in so doing fails to please anyone.

”Beauty And The Beasts: Woman, Ape, And Evolution” By Carole Jahme

My Thoughts: As I’ve doubtlessly said elsewhere, my favorite popular science books are those which pay their philosophical dues and in so doing, provide the audience with more than a simple run-down of the featured discipline’s facts, theories, and controversies by forcing them to ponder the subject’s deeper implications for day-to-day life. To this end, I have yet to come across a scientific volume which exceeds the brilliant ‘Beauty & The Beasts’; a masterpiece of modern science writing. Jahme effortlessly brings us to sympathize with the plights and triumphs of female primatologists  while never failing to address such evocative and controversial questions as ‘Why do primates tend to be almost infinitely more trusting of women than men?’, ‘Should apes be given the same rights as human citizens?’, ‘How much does the human psyche have in common with those of our nearest relatives?’, and, on a broader scale, ‘Does scientific objectivity truly exist?’. Furthermore, although most feminists will relish the book, Jahme nonetheless refuses to promote “utero-centric propaganda” by thoroughly and equally scrutinizing the observational and scientific biases of both genders in primatology. In short, ‘Beauty & The Beasts’ doesn’t contain a single sentence which would lead me to remotely considering giving it anything less than my highest recommendation. Bravo!

”The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson And The Olympians Book One)” By Rick Riordan

My Thoughts: (WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Upon hearing a friend’s appraisal, I was encouraged to lend my eyes to a copy of this bestseller. Having completed the novel, I must admit that my feelings concerning it are mixed but mostly positive. Riordan’s overall concept of depicting the Greek Gods in the setting of the modern U.S. is absolutely superb and, as a lifelong mythology enthusiast, I relished the re-discovery of such legendary characters as Medusa, Procrustes, Charon, and Ares in their twenty-first century attire and occupations.  Similarly, the story as a whole is deliciously action-packed and relatively unpredictable. Unfortunately, “‘The Lightning Thief” has obviously stolen several key plot elements from the ever-popular ‘Harry Potter’ series. Furthermore, although Riordan has certainly provided his readers with a huge amount of suspense, he also falls prey to a few long-standing clichés as well as having the occasional supposedly ‘shocking’ plot twist anticipated by the reader far in advance. Still, ‘The Lightning Thief’ offers quite a bit of entertainment for those looking for a bit of light reading.

”Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures” By Carl Zimmer

My Thoughts: As Zimmer would have likely predicted, I’ve never really given parasites very much consideration, despite my unrestrained adoration for a ‘host’ of  biological sciences. “Parasite Rex” conclusively reveals why this ignorance is scientifically unacceptable. Not only do these amazing organisms wield some of evolution’s most brilliant inventions, but an increasingly large amount of evidence suggests that they play an indispensably vital role in ecology and in environmental stability (in fact, it’s entirely possible that the majority of predator-prey relations are directly driven by them). Furthermore, Zimmer discusses how parasites may have directly led to such monumental evolutionary developments as sexual reproduction. For those intrigued by these ideas, I’d also suggest Susan Perkins’ excellent blog, ‘Parasite of the Day‘.

“When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives Of Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy

My Thoughts: This is one of those concepts which would have made for an excellent article, but ultimately collapses under the weight of a moderately-sized book. Masson and McCarthy do make some powerful arguments regarding anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism, and certain biases of the scientific and pop-culture communities at large, many of which I myself have been supporting for years. However, their most interesting points are almost entirely restricted to the introductory and concluding chapters, a fact that essentially reduces the remaining pages to a diverse but woefully repetitive collection of anecdotes, many of which can be more accurately described as mere ‘rumors’. Furthermore, although the authors clearly intended to utilize ‘When Elephants Weep’ for the purposes of convincing the scientific community to take the idea that animals have human-like emotions seriously, they’ve provided little more than a sliver of ‘hard’ scientific evidence, opting to focus almost exclusively on philosophy in its place (I fully realize that I’ve often shed a great deal of acclaim upon popular science books which ‘pay their philosophical dues’. However, this particular book does so to the exclusion of virtually any actual science). In summary, ‘When Elephants Weep’ seems incapable of winning over its intended audience, even though it will likely appeal to those who already support its central thesis.

“Survival Of The Sickest: The Surprising Link Between Disease And Longevity” By Sharon Moalem (With Johnathan Prince)

My Thoughts: Moalem’s brilliantly clear introduction to the subject of evolutionary medicine is well worth the attention of anyone seeking to broaden their knowledge of biology in general. Additionally, “Survival Of The Sickest” provides some of the finest preliminary outlines of epigenetics, ‘jumping genes’, and hypermutation I’ve ever read (all of which will ensure that you’ll never view Lamarckian evolution with the traditional dosage of contempt again). My only serious complaint hails from Moalem’s discussion of the infamous aquatic ape hypothesis in which he fully supports the notion without giving mention to any of its strongest criticisms. Still, this is but a minor point: on the whole, “Survival Of The Sickest” is an absolute must-read!

“Utilitarianism” By John Stuart Mill

My Thoughts: A quick perusal of TTT’s “About Me” page will reveal that I consider myself to be a bit of a John Stuart Mill fan. Yet most of my knowledge concerning the man’s philosophical and political ideology hails from various quotations and essays I’ve accumulated over the years. At least, such was the case prior to this past spring when I finally managed to obtain a used copy of Mill’s most famous volume. As with most classic philosophy texts, it’s wise to research the content of ‘Utilitarianism’ prior to actually reading it to better ensure comprehension whilst devouring its 1861 prose. Nonetheless, Mill brilliantly articulates the underlying principles and logic of Utilitarian philosophy through a satisfying parade of evocative and powerful arguments which force the reader to strongly reconsider his or her viewpoint on the very nature of morality itself.

“Death By Black Hole And Other Cosmic Quandaries” By Neil deGrasse Tyson

My Thoughts: I’ve frequently made much ado about the fact that I regard Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be one of the finest science communicators of our era as evidenced by his passionate prose, general avoidance of excessive jargon, excellent stage presence, and unique sense of humor. So, upon making the decision to widen my meager knowledge of astronomy by exploring popular science books on the subject, “Death By Black Hole” became my natural first choice. This collection of several dozen essays certainly doesn’t disappoint, serving instead as an entertaining and ceaselessly intriguing model of clarity. Tyson lends his exquisite explanatory capabilities to a host of various topics, my favorites being the emergence of light from the sun, how elements are formed and distributed by the collapse of stars, and the role of consistency in the universe. Additionally, his discussion regarding why intelligent design simply cannot be cited as ‘science’ and is demonstrably antithetical to all forms of scientific inquiry should be required reading for all students of science, philosophy, and theology. My only criticism is in light of the fact that the volume contains no illustrations or diagrams of any kind. While Tyson’s bang-up descriptive powers prevent this situation from becoming remotely problematic, the inclusion of visual references would have been greatly appreciated. However, this slight imperfection should not be misinterprited as a notable criticism, as I staunchly reccomend “Death By Black Hole” to essentially everyone.

“Supercapitalism: The Transformation Of Business, Democracy, And Everyday Life” By Robert Reich

My Thoughts: In my opinion, the most pressing issues facing our society and very democracy today homogeneously owe their existence to the deplorable effects of excessive “fundamentalist capitalism” or, as former secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls it in this important and very readable diagnosis of our current socio-economic situation, “Supercapitalism”. Reich does an almost impeccable job of explaining how the celebrated free-market American economy has spun wildly out of control during the course of the past 40 years and taken hold of the industrialized world as a whole (and particularly the U.S.) by highlighting a disturbing series of facts concerning the gross inequality of wealth distribution and the ease with which major corporations may now purchase political favors. Particular appraisal is deserved when one observes the fact that “Supercapitalism” manages to break the political taboo against criticizing the middle class when such debasements are due by highlighting the role of the typical consumer in this most regrettable and dire situation.

Be sure to check back in late August for part 2!

NOTE: The next “Spotlight” post will, by special request, feature the Eocene “bear-dog” Daphoenus sp.

Weekly Spotlight: Preondactylus

13 03 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

As any perusal of Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings and Mark Witton’s photostream will reveal, few groups of fossilized organisms are as controversial as their beloved pterosaurs. It’s not difficult to understand why, given their notoriously-thin bones and the fact that they relied extensively on delicate and seldomly-preserved soft tissue. Few aspects of pterosaur paleontology, however, have amassed a degree of debate obtained by the subject of the animals’ ancestry. While proto-dinosaurs are well-known and extensively documented, no analagous beasts have been conclusively located for these famed fliers, a situation which is probably due to the factors cited above. Nonetheless, we can infer a reasonable amount of information concerning the early phylogeny of the pterosauria by examining the earliest members of the order, one of the best known of which is the earliest known pterosaur, Preondactylus buffarini of the Italian late Triassic.

In his book “Dinosaurs Of Italy”, Cristiano Dal Sasso writes:

“[The] first individual of Preondactylus (literally ‘finger of Preone’) was the size of a magpie; it had a wingspan of less than 50 centimeters. Subsequently a second, larger individual, with an estimated wingspan of 150 centimeters, represented by three wing phalanges, was discovered in Endenna, in Lombardy [(interestingly, this latter specimen is theorized to actually be a fossilized pellet of bones which had been spat out by a fish that had previously consumed the reptile)]. Preondactylus had triangular teeth with only one cusp each, arranged in a row of alternating long and short points, which do not give a clear idea of the animal’s diet [(though insectivorous and piscivorous diets have been proposed)].”

Additionally, according to Dave Unwin’s “Pterosaurs: From Deep Time”,

Preondactylus was about the size of a pigeon and had numerous well-developed teeth, including several large prey-grabbing fangs at the tip of its jaws. This pterosaur also had a fully developed flight apparatus and was almost certainly a competent flier, although its wings seem to have been relatively shorter than in any other pterosaurs found so far and the tail, unlike those of later rhamphorynchoids, was relatively simple, without the usual stiffening sheath of bony rods.”

Another primitive characteristic possessed by this animal was its relatively long hindlimbs, as evidenced by the following illustration.

It should be noted, however, that Éric Buffetaut and Jean-Michel Mazin have argued that “A re-examination of… this taxon showed that the wing metacarpal and tibia were considerably shorter and the first wing phalanx considerably longer than thought, casting doubt about its basal position within the Pterosauria.” The pair went on to assert that the species is “more derived than anurognathids and Sordes“. Unwin, however, has antithetically claimed that Preondactylus is the most basal pterosaur known to science.

Regardless of one’s personal convictions on the subject of the previous paragraph, it can’t be denied that Preondactylus shared a number of features with fellow Triassic pterosaur Peteinosaurus, which strongly suggests a relatively close kinship. To once again reference “Pterosaurs: From Deep Time”: 

Preondactylus reconstruction, courtesy of the legendary Mark Witton.

Peteinosaurus was in many respects similar, but had the classic stiffened whip-tail of typical rhamphorhynchoids, and, significantly, the dentistry was rather different. Behind the prey-grabbing fangs was a row of tiny, saw-like teeth that probably served to hang onto food items until they could be swallowed.”  

Even if this aspect of Preondactylus‘ phylogeny is relatively unambiguous, this genus and the order in which it taxonomically resides contains no shortage of mysteries to be pursued by the next generation of pterosaur researchers.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Why I’m (Mostly) A Cenozoic Guy

10 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fairly safe to assume that anyone who’s given so much as a passing glance to this humble corner of the ‘net is well-aware of my overall preference of prehistoric mammals to their reptilian counterparts, as evidenced by my heading, my ‘comments section’ avatar, and the appreciable majority of my posts.

However, you may be suprised to learn that I haven’t always been like this. In the fairly recent past, I, like the most paleontology enthusiasts, was completely smitten by dinosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, crocodylians, and their scaly brethren (in point of fact, for a time, I rather resented mammals due to the general public’s unfair tendency to invariably treat them with more respect and admiration than it would ever consider granting to any organism which doesn’t utilize milk). While I still adore these fascinating creatures, I’ve since shifted my focus primarily towards the hairy side of vertebrate paleontology.

To assist me in partially explaining this academic epiphany, I’ll utilize an excerpt from a recent interview with pterosaur expert Mark Witton who, in addition to being a spellbindingly-talented illustrator and writer, also seems to express quite a bit of enthusiasm about my beloved fossil mammals for, when asked to state his favorite era in Earth’s history outside the Mesozoic, he replied:

“The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic – ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself (although I’ll concede that while the abundance of fossilized mammal teeth certainly makes things more scientifically convenient, it also forces the lion’s share of virtually any paleo-mammology volume to degenerate into a ‘dentistry 101’ textbook).

Furthermore, while one would likely come to the conclusion that the ‘greater insight’ into Cenozoic life to which Witton refers would indicate that the amazing organisms the era contains are recieved with an enormous amount of esteem by the paleontological community, this isn’t the case, at least not to the degree anyone unfamiliar with our science is bound to assume. Indeed, a quick perusal of my blogroll alone will provide sufficient data to uphold the assertion that the majority of amature and professional paleontologists alike adhere to the study of extinct reptiles. Dinosaurs, I hardly need mention, boast an especially large following, but this fact is destined to recieve its own rant post.

I fully realize that this love of all things reptilian is perfectly understandable: after-all, the fact that we cannot consider ourselves to be members of the reptilia class by any definition alone is sufficient enough to secure the appeal of these creatures to the well-known region of our imagination which lends itself to be captured by anything it deems ‘alien’. However, in this regard, our psyche tends to pursue ‘foreign discovery’ to the expense of that which lies within our own metaphorical back yard. Although we may have more in common with cetaceans than sauropods, the former behemoths are just as fascinating, yet we overlook them for their comparative familiarity.

The paleontological community has thus reached the bizarre state of expressing our collective interest in a group of unfamiliar animals for being strange and intriguing, yet many of its members withold their enthusiasm for a relatively closely acquainted group in spite of their own strangeness and intrigue. This relative neglect is one of the most powerful forces which ultimately draws me towards the study of paleo-mammology, as I’m sure it does for a great many of us interested in the field.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Weekly Spotlight: Wonambi

28 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(NOTE: I’ve decided to replace the word ‘Wonders’ with ‘Spotlight’ for this series because it’s more…well…’theatrical’.)

To the comparative anatomist, few creatures possess the intrigue of snakes. The underlying rationale of this contention is simple: whether we’re observing a 300-pound python or a robust adder, snakes invariably put our perception of how animals move to the most rigorous of tests. Those who equate speed with ‘leg size’ are utterly perplexed by the nimble mamba while those who believe that raw power is bound to the strength of limbs and jaws are stunned by the sheer might of a common boa. For these reasons among a hoard of others, snakes have developed into an incomparably divisive cultural icon: one would be truly hard-pressed to locate any sort of mythological reference to these beasts which could even come close to being cited as ‘neutral’. Despite (or perhaps ‘due to’) this phenomenon, snakes have always reaped an enormous amount of attention from any race of people fortunate enough to live alongside them.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that these fascinating animals are of intense interest to evolutionary biologists and paleontologists as well, for their fossil record reverses another unscientific assumption which has become ingrained into our collective psyche: the idea that the presence of limbs are a sign that one has ‘climbed the evolutionary tree’ (so to speak) to a higher vantage point than one’s legless cousins. The fact that serpents have lost their limbs utterly astounds most laymen along with the contention that, as a whole, lizards are the more primitive group. The question of why they opted to reverse the several-hundred-million-year-old trend of developing legs is one which contains such an enormous degree of controversy as to prohibit its discussion in this humble venue. I shall therefore leave my audience with one final note on the matter: the scientific community is, as a whole, unsure whether snakes lost their limbs to better facilitate burrowing or marine life (which would have, ideally, resulted in their eventual return to the terrestrial haunts of their ancestors…for the record, I belong to the former school of thought).

This mystery isn’t assisted by the fossil record to a degree even remotely approached by that with which it has aided our efforts to solve the riddles of avain and cetacean evolution because snakes generally possess comparatively delicate skeletons. Nonetheless, the efforts of fossil hunters have yielded a number of intriguing prehistoric serpents such as the appreciably large Australian genus Wonambi.

Wonambi skull reconstructions, the larger of which belong to W. naracoortensis while their smaller companions belong to W. barriei.

Wonambi is by a wide margin the best-known member of the extinct Madtsoiidae family whose chronological reign extended from the late Cretaceous to the late Pleistocene and whose members have been unearthed in South America, Africa, India, Southern Europe, and (most famously) Australia. For a full list of the group’s distinguishing characteristics, I’d recommend consulting the link provided earlier in this paragraph, though I’ll highlight a few below:

-Generally long and cylindrical bodies.

-Long and narrow skulls with tightly-fixed upper jaws.

-Rounded snouts.

-A braincase which is fairly narrow when viewed from between the orbits (‘eye sockets’) but which widens posteriorly.

-Elongate vertebrae which become lower more posteriorly.

-No sign of limb elements (unlike several other species).

An illustrated selection of Wonambi vertebrae.

In “Stalking The Plumed Serpent And Other Adventures In Herpetology”, D. Bruce Mans writes:

“No Madtsoiid snakes survive anywhere today, but fossils of Wonambi naracoortensis indicate that this species was present in Australia until the late Pleistocene, only about 40,000 years ago, and maybe even more recently. Aboriginal man is known to have arrived in Australia at least 60,000 years ago, so it’s highly probable that man was in Australia at the same time as Wonambi naracoortensis. Was Wonambi the source of the rainbow serpent myth?

Wonambi is a local Aboriginal word meaning giant snake or rainbow serpent, which is why paleontologist Meredith Smith used that name when she described the snake in 1976. A chill goes up my spine as I stare down in my hand at a vertebra of Wonambi. This giant snake, estimated to be about 18 feet long [(5.5 meters)] and as thick as a telegraph pole [(more on that later)] was the last of a long line of snakes in a primitive snake family whose evolutionary history was longer than the rise and domination of Earth by modern mammals and flowering plants.”

A display in which a heavily reconstructed Wonambi battles for its life against the marsupial lion, Thylacoelo carnifex.

The last sentence of Mans’ statement likely raised a few eyebrows from my herpetologically-inclined readers, for to them it’s no secret that reptile sizes are often exaggerated (some early dispatches from South American explorers claim that Anacondas reach lengths of 18 meters, while the longest recorded specimen only stretched to half that size). However, the size estimates described above are in fact real, though this certainly isn’t to say that Wonambi was a true ‘giant among serpents’ as Ralph E. Molnar points out in “Dragons In The Dust: The Paleobiology Of The Giant Monitor Lizard Megalania” (which I’ve previously cited at length here):

“The squamates (snakes and lizards)… evolved large predators in Australia, including Megalania among lizards, as well as large snakes such as WonambiWonambi was not that large for a snake, not in the same class as Megalania among lizards. John Scanlon (…Australia’s only specialist in fossil snakes) responded to the remark that Wonambi had a head the size of a shovel with a letter to the magazine Nature Australia showing that the shovel must have been of the kind used by small children to build sand castles on the beach. Even so, Wonambi was big enough, at about 6 meters long, to give a healthy fright to anyone encountering it- if there was actually anyone around to encounter it before it became extinct.”

A large Wonambi stalks its marsupial prey.

Though there’s not much else to say about Wonambi scientifically, the idea that the massive snake may have given rise to the mythical rainbow serpent demands further discussion. According to Aboriginal Art Online:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”

While this hypothesis, if true, certainly wouldn’t mark the only occasion in which extinct beasts have directly influenced mythology, the notion that Wonambi may have led to what is arguably the most God-like character of Aboriginal culture is truly captivating.

A massive Wonambi devours a moderately-large marsupial. (Hat tip to my regular reader Doug)

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!