A New “Lady” in Town, Part II: Priscilla the loner mastodon was meatier than a mammoth, but he was no meathead

And now, back to our Priscilla.

Priscilla the Mastodon

The American mastodon starred in the opening chapters of American science. Thomas Jefferson got some mastodon bones from Kentucky and put them on display in the White House in the 1790s.

In the 1790s Wistar, one of the nation's great medical anatomists, had become fascinated with the ancient bones of exotic species. At the White House, to which he had been invited by President Thomas Jefferson, Wistar examined the bones of a mastodon that George Rogers Clark unearthed in 1807 at Bone Lick, Kentucky. Wistar then wrote the detailed description pictured next to the bone.

Jefferson was sure that wild mastodons still roamed the unexplored land west of the Mississippi, so he instructed explorers Lewis and Clark to find them. By 1860, dozens of skeletons adorned the halls of museums in North America.

Despite their early fame, American mastodons were overshadowed by mammoths. The average bull Columbian mammoth is noticeably taller. The big fossil halls in New York City, Denver and Los Angeles exhibit both, and there’s no doubt who is the heavyweight.

However, during the Ice Age in Florida, Nature produced some extremes. Priscilla was an old, old bull. He had arthritis in his lower back, and some stiffness in the shoulders. But he wasn’t crippled by any means — despite his great age, he shows healthy leg joints. Elephant bulls today continue growing throughout their lives, if their diet is healthy. Priscilla must have chosen his food well over 50 or 60 years. He grew an extraordinarily wide pelvis and set of ribs — he’s well over six feet, side to side, across the hips. His leg bone shafts match the length in most mammoths, but Priscilla’s legs are far thicker and stronger.

Priscilla was buff. We know that because fossil leg bones show the size and strength of muscles during life. Where powerful muscles attached to the bone, the surface is roughened and ridged. Priscilla’s limbs are outstanding in the development of muscle-attachment marks. So he was not only unbelievably wide, he was Schwartzeneggerian in muscularity.

Priscilla the Mastodon

Priscilla is especially massive in the forequarters and the low shoulders make him look like a proboscidean fullback, ready to make a first down in a short yardage situation. The gigantic power in the elbow joint means he could thrust forward with the acceleration of a out-sized rhino. Once he decided to charge, few objects — plants or animals — could stand in his way. If he wanted a path through the woods, he just smashed the trees down.

Priscilla was buried in a Florida stream about 13,000 years ago, a time when human hunters were skulking through the continent. Did Priscilla meet a human? No spear point was found with him and his bones show no evidence of being cut by stone knives after death. Spear points and butcher-cuts document human hunting of mammoth at many sites across the continent. But only a few mastodon skeletons carry the CSI evidence of human attack.

What do we know about Priscilla’s social life? Was he solitary? There are hints that mammoths traveled in herds led by wise old matriarchs, just as modern day elephants do. Cave paintings in Europe show many mammoths together. In North America, several mammoth digs came up with multiple specimens, including moms and calves — maybe the result of a herd dying together. The Waco Mammoth museum displays such a site.

More evidence for matriarchal mammoths comes from where male mammoths are buried. At Hot Springs Mammoth trap in South Dakota, nearly 50 Columbian mammoths sank into loose sand and died over a long span of time. All were male, mostly young adults.

In the modern elephant herd structure, matriarchs drive the males away after the boys go through puberty. Then the young fellows live alone or in bachelor groups. And like bachelors of many species, the male elephants are inquisitive, aggressive and do really stupid things. Like plunge into soft sand without thinking.

Mastodons seem to be way different. Multiple skeletons are rarely piled up in single sites. Bachelor groups are unknown. Most mastodon sites contain just a single skeleton. And so, perhaps we should envision Priscilla as being unsociable, like the giant forest-living rhinos today in Asia and Africa. With a hair-trigger temper and distrust of everyone, the mastodon bull might well have been just too frightening for human hunters to pursue.

I imagine being an Ice Age hunter standing at the edge of a Florida forest. I can hear deep tummy rumbles and coarse trumpeting 200 yards in. I can see birch trees flattened. Tree trunks a yard wide splintered.

“Are we going in?” My companion asks.

“Are we nuts?” I reply.

Don’t answer that.

The Man Who Made Fossil Fish Famous

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn about the Louis Agassiz and his theories.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paris and the Lure of Fish, 1836
Agassiz grew up in Switzerland where he excelled as a student in  chemistry and natural history. He went to Paris to study fish fossils under the Father of Paleontology, Baron Georges Cuvier. The geological history of fish seemed muddled at the time. Agassiz brought order to the fins and scales.

“There’s order in the way fish changed through the ages…” Agassiz concluded. He was the first to map out the long history of fish armor, fish jaws and fish tails.

1) The earliest time periods, the Paleozoic Era, most bony fish carried heavy armor in the form of thick scales covered with dense, shiny bone.

2) In the middle Periods, the Mesozoic, the armored fish became rarer and were replaced by fish with thin, flexible scales.

3) In the later Periods, the Cenozoic, thin-scaled fish took over in nearly all habitats.

4) Today, the old-fashioned thick scales persist only in a few fresh-water fish like the gar.

5) Tails changed too. The oldest bony fish had shark-like tails, with the vertebral column bending upwards to support the top of the fin. Later fish had more complicated tail bones, braced by special flanges, and the base of the tail was more symmetrical.

6) Jaws in the earliest bony fish were stiff, like the jaws of crocodiles. Later fish developed jaw bones that could swing outwards and forwards.

Discovery of the Ice Age
As he traveled across Europe, Agassiz saw evidence of giant ice sheets that had covered the mountains and plains. According to Agassiz’s theory, New England too had been invaded by mile-high ice layers. Giant hairy elephants – woolly mammoths – had frolicked in the frigid habitats. At first,  scholars harrumphed at Agassiz’s idea of a Glacial Period.  But by the mid 1840’s the theory was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boston 1846: Toast of the Town & the New Museum
Fish and glaciers made Agassiz the most famous scientist of his time. When he came to Boston in the 1846, his lectures were so successful that the New England intellectuals wouldn’t let him leave. Poets and politicians, rich merchants and artists all helped raise funds to get Agassiz a professorship at Harvard. He repaid the support by working tirelessly to build a grand laboratory of science and education at Harvard – the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Opened in the 1859,  the MCZ has been a leader in fossil studies ever since.

Design in Nature
Agassiz’s interests spread beyond fish and glaciers. He sought the Plan of Creation, the key to understanding all of Nature. Was it  Evolution? No. Agassiz rejected any notion that natural processes somehow had transformed one species into another. He was a fierce exponent of the theory of Serial Creation: every species of fossil creature was created to fill its ecological role in its special geological time zone.

Darwin and Agassiz
Though he fought Darwin’s theories for his whole life, Agassiz’s work in fact provided support for the new views of evolution. The long trends in fish fins and scales were best explained by Natural Selection. Agassiz’s best students at Harvard went on to become strong supporters of Darwinism.  Endowed faculty positions were established in Agassiz’s name.  Agassiz Professorships were given to Alfred Sherwood Romer, the greatest Darwinian  paleontologist of the 20 century, and to Stephen Jay Gould, the most eloquent defender of Darwin in the last thirty years.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. To read more about Agassiz and Darwin, check out my earlier blog.

If All the Dinos Died on One Terrible Weekend – Where are All the Bodies?

asteroid
Creative Commons License photo credit: goldenrectangle

According to the Impact Theory, a rock from space smashed into the earth, threw up a huge dust cloud, chilled the atmosphere and sent down acid rain.  All the dinosaurs died immediately all over the globe or in a week or so.

So….where are the bodies of the victims?

Probability of Becoming a Fossil: 0%     or    100%

0%
If you die on a high plateau or a grassy meadow or on the average forest floor, far from the influence of river floods, your bones will get chewed, cracked, smashed and digested by scavengers. The remnants will get dried up and will flake away to nothing under the sun. Or, if the ground is wet, worms and grubs and fungi will destroy your osseous remnants.

That happens to most dead bodies, most spots, most of the time. Or…

100%
What if you’re lucky enough to die in a depositional basin, where yearly floods bring in layers of sand, silt and mud, and where lake bottoms accumulate blankets of sediment all the time. A place where huge sand bars develop in streams and rivers….

….then the possibility that some of your bones will get buried and fossilized rises to close to 100%.

Dino Extinction Supposedly Hit While Montana Was Getting Sediment
At the time of the Great Dino Die-Off, no sediment was being laid down in most places in the world. But in Montana’s Cretaceous coal fields, there were many swampy lakes and sluggish rivers, locales where mud and sand was being carried in. This depositional activity seems to have continued right through the end of the Cretaceous and beginning of the next Period, the Tertiary (“Age of Mammals”).

In fact, field geologists have a hard time telling where the Cretaceous mud ends and rhe Tertiary mud begins.

20090222_9115
Creative Commons License photo credit: etee

If the Impact Theory is right, millions of Triceratops carcasses littered the landscape. Tens of millions of duck-bill dino bones also covered the ground. And….there were no big scavengers to crack the bones. The average dino body would last far longer than usual. Some of the impact victims should have had a high probability of being buried in the mud at the Impact Layer, the sand and silt and mud deposited right after the rock from the sky struck.

Total number of dino bones found right at the Impact Layer – 00.00.

That’s  one reason why I am an Impact Skeptic. You have to do some special pleading to explain the lack of dino bones at the impact layer. You could argue that soil acid dissolved the bones. Or that for a hundred years there was no new mud, no new sand, no new silt.

Could be.

Still, I like to begin with a geological peshat (first impression): When I scan the actual facts on the ground, there is no evidence whatever of a sudden massive death of dinosaurian multitudes at the Impact Layer.

I dinosauri a Cremona
Creative Commons License photo credit: Simone Ramella

Evidence for a Long, Slow Disaster
There are clues that indicate the dino ecosystem was deteriorating long before the impact. The diversity among big, multi-ton dinos went way down about 5 to 10 million years before the end. In the Latest Cretaceous (Lancian Age) in most places in Montana, there are only two common big dinos – either Triceratops or the duckbill Edmontosaurus. It was a dino-monoculture.  At 76 million years ago diversity was much higher.

Serial Killer in Deep Time
The biggest reason I’m a skeptic is the victim profile. When the dinos finally went extinct, salamanders, frogs, pond turtles, river gators all survived and thrived. So did most small terrestrial species. That pattern holds for six other mass extinctions – beginning at 285 million ears ago, long before the first dino. And the pattern is obvious in the last extinction at the end of the Ice Age, 11,000 years ago.

Impact Theory Fails to Predict the Correct Victim Profile
Sudden chill and acid rain will wipe out salamander-oids and frog-oids and turtle-oids. And hit big, active animals far less severely.

The wrong animals died.

Read about my dinosaur extinction theory in an early blog post.

Darwin’s Pony…and the Bulldog Who Loved Horses

Count The Toes on Our Petrified Pony

chi_7740Folks stop and stare at our fossil horse.  It is cute in a coltish way, all gangly and long-legged. And it is dynamic – rearing up as if it just saw you and whinnying a “Hello!” 

But sharp-eyed visitors take a second look. Our Merychippus demands a digital double-take. Count the toes. There’s one big hoof on each foot, as there should be. It’s a horse, of course. The French word is “solipede”, meaning “Single Toe Foot.”  Today, among all animals domestic and wild, horses and only horses have just the single, solitary toe to run on. 

Wait – look closely. There’s more. Our Merychippus has too many toes. There are extra digits, little ones, on the inside and outside of the main hoof.  The mini-toes have hoofs too but they’re narrow and pointed.

I imagine I’m petting our Merychippus along its muzzle, like I do to my neighborhood ponies. And I’d feel another odd thing – Merychippus has a more delicate, lightly-built face and nose. If you stare at the fossil, you see a row of molar teeth far smaller than any horse-owner would expect.

Those small molars and accessory digits tell a story that’s literally earth-shaking. Back in the 1870’s, Merychippus and the other three-toed horses shattered the scientific status quo. The side-toes made Archbishops fume and fuss and get red in the face. German philosophers smiled and puffed their pipes with satisfaction.

You see, Merychippus proved that Darwin was right.

Europe and Its Multi-Toed Equine Puzzles.

Down through the ages, since the time of the Babylonians, folks who could afford to own horses loved them.  Ditto for asses, mules and donkeys – all the solipedes were extraordinarily useful. Once they were domesticated, the equines offered farmers a powerful engine to pull a plow. Donkeys could carry produce to the market. Mules could turn the grinding stones. And war horses made the chariot the instrument of ancient Blitzkriege.

Since wealthy men had time to think about science, it was the horse-owning sector of society that pioneered the new discipline of Paleontology in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Naturally, these men wondered how fossils could explain modern horse anatomy. Fossils were proving three great truths about the Earth: 1) It was very old. 2) It had gone through many ages, each with it own fauna and flora. 3) With each successive age, the animals got more and more modern.  Horses belonged to the most recent, most modern age. Horses with single hoofs were dug up only in rocks from the last slice of geological time, the Ice Age, when equines galloped around herds of giant mastodons and were chased by saber-tooth cats.

The mammoths and saber-tooths went extinct at the end of the Ice Age. Horses survived.

Anchitherium and Hipparion – Steps Up in Time?

hipparioncolor-copyIn the 1830s, some puzzling equine fossils were dug in older strata, European layers with more primitive cats and mastodons. The skeletons looked mostly equine…..but there was something wrong with the feet. Inside and outside were tiny extra toes.  This very first discovery of thee-toed horses received a name that would be famous: Hipparion.  The Hipparion-like horses were world-conquerors. They invaded Africa and Mongolia, China and India.

(We now know that our ancient human ancestors, Lucy and her Australopithecus relatives, thrived in African woodlands that had teeming herds of Hipparion.)

Further digging in France revealed a second horse-surprise. Long before Hipparion, there was a three-toed horse with extra digits that were far larger: Anchitherium. Radical scientists who defended the new idea of evolution seized upon the two fossil horses as evidence:

“SEE!  Fossils show that horses evolved!  First there was Anchitherium with big side toes….then after thousands of generations the toes got smaller, making a Hipparion, and finally the extra digits were GONE!  Voila! Modern horses had evolved!”

Evolution: A Theory Full of Horse-Holes!

horsesscott-copy

Many learned people thought it was bunk. “Too many holes in your story. There’s too much difference between Anchitherium and Hipparion!”  Skeptics were right. Anchitherium was way different from later horses. The face was short and the molar teeth were much too shallow top to bottom. And the molar crowns were simple.  Modern horses – and Hipparion – are renowned for their molars. The crowns are incredibly tall top to bottom and have crowns with complicated zig-zag patterns of enamel, an excellent design for chopping up tough grass.

Anchitherium had very low, very small molars that wouldn’t do at all for chewing grass. Anchitherium must have been forced to eat only soft fruit and succulent leaves. Dentally, it was NOT a horse.

Centennial USA – Darwin’s Bulldog.

Paleontological speculation about species evolution had begun in the 1820’s and ‘30’s, mostly in Paris. When Darwin published his “Origin of Species” in 1859, the topic boiled over – because Darwin offered a simple explanation for how evolution worked. Animals produced far too many offspring in every generation, so only those with superior genetic traits survived. That was “Natural Selection.”  The Establishment pooh-poohed and harrumphed and tried to stamp out Darwinian ideas. A brash young scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley, fought back. He knew anatomy and he knew fossils.

So eloquent was Huxley that he acquired the nickname: “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Of course Huxley used the European horse fossils as arguments…but still, those big gaps around Anchitherium were annoying.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a new university was being built in Baltimore to revolutionary ideas: professors would do research in labs, graduate students would be given preference over undergrads and – Horrors! – WOMEN would be enrolled. 

This new institution was The Johns Hopkins University. Its official opening was set for the nation’s centennial, 1876. Bad news from Montana – the Sioux had wiped out General Custer – didn’t dampen the festivities. Johns Hopkins officials invited the best known biological scientist from Europe to give speeches – Thomas Henry Huxley.

Huxley advocated Darwinism in Baltimore. Then he took a fateful train ride north to New Haven, Connecticut. He visited the Yale museum where Professor Marsh supposedly had fossils from the American West that were close to European Anchithere-type horses.

Astonishing Riches in a Yalie’s Drawers.

Marsh opened up a museum drawer. There were hundreds of Anchither-style bones. Amazing. Another set of drawers had hundreds of Hipparion-like horses.  Doubly amazing.  Huxley was flabbergasted. “But…do you have missing links between Anchitheres and Hipparion? With a smile, Marsh had a whole room full of drawers opened up. Thousands of teeth, hundreds of skulls, dozens of full skeletons.

merychippuskin-copyYale drawers contained not one but a dozen missing links. There were tiny horses that must have been ancestors of Anchitherium. And tinier still ancestors of those ancestors.   The smallest, most primitive Yale ponies were no bigger than a poodle and had – count ‘em – four toes in the front paw.

Huxley made a suggestion. “When you dig the very first horses, the ones even earlier than these, why not call them the ‘Dawn Horse,’ Eohippus.”  Marsh did dig even earlier horses, and he did christen them Eohippus.

Marsh had already excavated links connecting Anchithere-style species with more primitive four-toed critters and with Hipparion-like species. His smallest three-toed link he called the “Middle Horse,” Mesohippus. Check out the Houston Mesohippus, mounted as if it were escaping the attack of a saber-tooth cat.

Most beautiful of all Marsh’s specimens were delicate skeletons the size of Shetland Ponies. The side toes were splendidly intermediate between Anchitheres and Hipparion. Bigger than in Hipparion, smaller than in the earliest Anchitheres.

But the teeth were better still. These horses had molars halfway between early species and the grass-eaters. The molar crowns were taller than in Anchitheres but lower than in Hipparion. Marsh had named this equine link “Merchippus.”

And to top it all off, the sediment layers in Nebraska and Wyoming just screamed: “Darwin is RIGHT!

The series of horses were buried in a series of layers, with the simplest molars and biggest side toes in the earliest levels.  Each American rock layer was like a frame in an old-fashioned movie, a slice of the Darwinian picture of change through millions of years.

Finally, Huxley knew why the European fossil horse story was full of gaps. “Horses evolved mostly in America… and only every once in a while species spread from here to the Old World!”

Dead right.

Merchippus and Modern Science.

Merychippus continues to tell its story in the 21st Century. A hundred times as many fossils have been dug.  Missing links are filled all the time – and gaps in the sequence of evidence are filled.  The horse family tree turned out to be a family blueberry bush, with many short branches going off sideways. 

The main theme of the equine saga is straight forward: Natural Selection was caused by climate change, as the old, warm, wet forests gave way to drier, cooler woodlands and plains. Horses had to evolve better teeth for tougher vegetation. And the feet had to change too.

Big side-toes were ideal for moving over soft, moist soil. But the shift to sun-baked plains demanded better shock-absorbing, and that meant a bigger central toes and smaller side toes. There were side branches too – some horse species specialized in the remaining patches of well-watered forests. Anchitherium was one of those forest-loving equines.

On the other hand, Merychippus was well on its way towards the new lifestyle. It was the direct ancestor of later, more advanced species, that led to Hipparion and then to all modern single-hoofed horses.

Salute to the Three-Toed Horse!

Take a moment to wave at our Merychipus. It was a fine, lively critter in its own time – one of the fastest hoofed animals and one of the best in eating the tougher leaves that were taking over the environment.

And give it a special tip of the cowboy hat for testifying to the central secret of Nature: Animals are NOT boring and static. Feet and molars are remolded by Nature to keep forests and plains full of creatures most wonderfully fit for their environment.