Among fossils: How very old things remind us of our youth

The earth is 4.54 billion years old. That’s a big number to wrap your head around. Spending time among very old things helps, but even then it’s easy to forget that not only the fossils themselves are ancient; so is the rock they came out of, the planet circling a sun that has been around a long time.

Since my childhood, dinosaurs have arrested my imagination like nothing else in science, and what better place to witness the majesty of these ancient animals than the Houston Museum of Natural Science, displaying some of the oldest things on Earth? When I walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology, I see the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago, preserved naturally by the processes of geology, like mummies, but embalmed by mud, pressure, and minerals. These aren’t bones, really. They’re rocks, no different from petrified wood or the crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were once creatures of flesh and bone, but the organic molecules and chemicals that made up their bodies, if they didn’t decay, were replaced atom by atom while the rest of life on Earth developed.


Lane, the most complete fossil specimen of Triceratops in the world. 65 million years old.

Mine is a problem of scope, I think. It’s a strange feeling to understand that Lane the Triceratops, the most complete specimen of this dinosaur, was under our feet during the fall of the Roman Empire, was still buried in the time of King Tutanhkamen, and remained undiscovered while Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This animal died, and life went on as it always does. Its life among presumably millions of others like it was common. Undistinguished. But that specimen is no longer a Triceratops; it’s a skeleton made of rock. Not even a skeleton, but an impression of it. A three-dimensional photograph dug out of the album that is the many-layered dirt of our planet. This animal has become a symbol of history. Now that is rare.


Icthyosaurus mother. At least 146 million years old.

It’s remarkable, this action of preservation that the Earth is capable of. And it’s remarkable that we have developed the science to identify and understand these stones. We had to consider both the life cycle of rock and the taxonomy of life before we could begin to speculate what these samples could mean. But really, so what? They’re just rocks.

It’s the feeling of humility they deliver that makes them fascinating. It’s like walking through modern Rome after living in developing Houston, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old that stood before the United States was even imagined. We’ve been walking around these seven continents for millenia, in the dark about what was under our feet until the birth of paleontology in 1666, when Nicholas Steno identified “tongue stones,” known then only as triangular rocks, as fossilized shark teeth. Dinosaurs were around whether we knew they existed or not. They are as old as the rock we walk on.

Icthyosaur Baby

Impressions of Icthyosaurus pups in the rib cage of this rare specimen suggest this animal died in childbirth.

Now consider this. In 2011, biologists identified 20,000 new species, a large number of them beetles, and most of them invertabrates. That was in a single year. Now take that diversity and multiply it by the age of the Earth. I’m not going to do the math, but that’s the number of species paleontologists have yet to discover. That’s the amount of life we potentially have yet to search for in the rock.

After early hominids, fossils of the first humans date back 1.8 million years, along with mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats that appear in the rock alongside them. Triceratops lived in the late Cretaceous, discovered in rock at least 65 million years old. Icthyosaurus swam the oceans and gave birth to her young between 245 and 146 million years ago, in the Jurassic and the Triassic. (Their era lasted 100 million years. Again, we’ve been around for 1.8.) Trilobites in our collection have been preserved for between 540 and 360 million years, and the stromatolites, layered rocks formed by ancient bacteria, date back to 3.4 billion years. Not million. Billion. They appeared in the Archaeozoic Eon, about a billion years after Earth solidified out of molten space-rock.


One of the best preserved and most intricate trilobites in the world. At least 360 million years old.

What will the occupants of this planet find after the next million years? We’ve been around for a while, but not nearly as long as these fossils. What will paleontologists of the future, if they still exist, find in another 65 million years? 146? 540? 3.4 billion? The Earth will still be here by then; humanity is another story. Will we still cling to the crags in a different form, the maps unrecognizeable to the once-dominant species of 2015 CE, if they could see them? Will we have preserved our history as well as the rocks have preserved the dinosaurs?


Stromatolite formed by layers of ancient bacteria preserved in rock. At least 3.4 billion years old.

In another 3.4 billion years, the sun will be nearing the end of its life, having expanded into a red giant and swallowed Mercury and Venus. According to many estimations, by the time the sun is 7.59 billion years old, it will engulf the Earth. We are living in our planet’s middle age. It took half the Earth’s life for humanity to arise and build its cities. For the United States to claim its sovereignty.


Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, the most complete skeleton of this hominid in the world. 3.18 million years old.

The Earth is old, dude! We never pay this age any mind until we identify something to date it against. Here we have Triceratops, say, a creature that lived in the time when this rock was young, just a pile of sediment on the floor of the ocean or a river. Paleontologists owe a lot to the power of speculation and theory. We may never know for sure what life was like in the era of these ancient creatures. But if we have anything in common with the dinosaurs, ancient mollusks and archaebacteria, it’s that we all grew on this same rock.

In a way, we’re just as old as they are. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that have always been here in some form or another, buried under the crust in a molten mantle, or exposed to the light of the sun that has fueled life on Earth for as far back as the imagination will stretch. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”

Lucy’s Great Mystery: Part 2

Big Cats Everywhere:
Fast Cats,  Semi-Saber Cats, Super-Fast Cats. Not to Mention the Super-Hyenas!

In Part One we learned the frightening facts: Lucy was surrounded by formidable felines. She was too slow to run away and she didn’t have weapons to repel 150 pound leopards or 500 pound  homothere saber-tooths.

Actually – we left some facts out. The predator situation was even worse then what we discussed in the last article.  Lucy’s world had even more kinds of meat-eaters to fear:

These speedsters have greyhound-like limbs, very long and tipped with nails, not claws. Cheetahs sacrifice climbing ability for acceleration and velocity on the ground. Living cheetahs are leopard size – 120 lbs average. But in Lucy’s time cheetahs were as big as modern lions.

Semi-Saber Tooths – Dinofelis
These felids had the slinky bodies of leopards with an enlarged upper fang. Their saber teeth weren’t as long or as sharp as a Sword Tooth cat but were far larger than in any modern cat.

Sword-Tooth Saber Cats – Smilodonts
These are the chunkiest, most heavily muscled saber-tooths.  In Lucy’s time, smilodonts grew to jaguar size, were heavier than a leopard, but had even more massive forearms and paws. Climbing would be excellent but speed on the ground was slower than a lion’s.  The upper fangs were much longer than those in a Dagger-Tooth homothere.

Lucy would have had to deal with Hyenas too……

The feline situation looked bad enough. The hyenas made it much, much worse.

s-cats-hyenColorRSmallLucy’s time saw the maximum diversity among the African  Hyena clan. Today, the most advanced pack hunter is none other than the Spotted Hyena, Crocuta crocuta. This is a matriarchal hunter. The biggest males don’t rule. Mom does. The alpha female is bigger, smarter and scarier than the males and she makes most of the decisions. Her sisters are next in charge. The Spotted Hyena has a close-knit social structure, and the dominant females are needed to keep order. It works to the kids’ advantage. If  Mom-Hyenas dies, her sisters will help raise the orphans. Hyena clans fan out and go after zebra and antelope, even water-buffalo and young rhinos. The Hyenas run and run and run. They’ve got great stamina.

Super-Crusher Hyena
Lucy had to watch out for Pachycrocuta, what I like to call the Super-Crusher-Hyena. This monster was a close kin of today’s Spotted Hyena but weighed almost as much as a lion – 300 pounds. And the Super-Crusher had jaws with even greater bone-smashing power than in the Spotted Hyena.

A clan of Super-Crusher-Hyenas would have instilled fear even in the biggest Saber-Tooth Cat.

In Lucy’s time there was a Hyena menace we don’t have today. It was Chasmaporthetes, the Wolf-Hyena. A Wolf-Hyena, seen from a hundred yards away, would look like big-headed Timber Wolf – long-legged, fast, and graceful. Up close, you’d see the Hyena family design. The paws were more compact than a wolf’s and the jaws had meat-cutting teeth were longer and sharper. And there weren’t any big molars in the rear of the mouth. Wolves and coyotes use those rear molars to crunch berries and fruit and other vegetable food. The Wolf-Hyena was more of a pure carnivore.

The Wolf-Hyenas must have been the nightmare of mid-sized hoofed stock, and primates of all sizes, including our Lucy.

Can’t Bite Back.   What defenses Did Lucy Have?

Creative Commons License photo credit: rdicker

Chimps and baboons can bite back. They have big canine teeth, especially large in the males. A 90 pound baboon or ape is a nasty close-in fighter. Leopards and hyenas can get terrible wounds from ape and monkey teeth.

But not Lucy.  When australopithecines evolved from apes, the canine teeth got small. Lucy had much poorer dental weapons than what her ape ancestors had.

Final Conclusion:

Let’s roll-play again…..,you’re Lucy or her mate. You weigh 60 to 90 pounds. What do you do when a pack of Wolf Hyenas come over the hill? You can’t out-run them. You might be able to fight off just one Wolf-Hyena, but not a pack of a dozen.

Let’s say by some miracle you get away from the Wolf Hyena clan – then a Giant Cheetah comes at you at 55 mph.

Or you’re resting and a Semi-Saber Tooth Cat attacks. Or a smilodont?

You haven’t a chance….

Old Theories Are Missing Something.

BUT….Lucy and her family did get away, again and again and again. They lived long enough to mate and raise kids and evolve.

How did they do it?

What do you think?

Lucy’s Great Mystery: How Could Australopithecus Survive and Evolve Into Us?

Part One:

She Should Have Been Caught and E A T E N !

Lucy evolved into us. Really, really (to quote “Shrek.”)

Her species, Australopithecus afarensis, or something extremely close, changed over three million years to become Homo sapiens – the species that includes you and me.

So we should treat Lucy with respect…….

….but wait.  There’s a problem. It shouldn’t have happened. Lucy and her whole species should have been gobbled up by a legion of voracious, bloodthirsty carnivores! She shouldn’t have had any time to evolve at all.

Darwin Makes Sense (usually)

Evolution should be logical – when we have enough data. Textbooks used to say that Lucy evolved from an ancestor who was built like a chimp. But Lucy’s knee and ankle and hip bones were NOT chimp-shaped. The design of Lucy’s joints is very close to what we have – so we know that Lucy walked upright, on just her hind legs, with left and right knees close together.

s-Parade-Blog-ColorFine.  Did leg evolution make Lucy better?  Faster? That’s what we’d expect. But it looks like evolution made Lucy  s l o w e r !  Chimps run very fast and can change direction in an instant. These apes zip around on all fours, running on their knuckles. A modern human has great difficulty catching a running chimp – I know, I used to be a zoo-keeper in charge of three boisterous chimps.

Lucy couldn’t match chimps in speed and maneuverability. Since she walked just on her hind legs, her arms were useless dead weight in running. Plus – she was very short in the legs. Her shins and thighs were far shorter than in modern humans. She was not nearly as fast as we are today.

Why would evolution make Lucy slower?

Lucy – Evolved for Holding Babies on the Open Plains?

The standard theory said that Lucy’s upright posture was fit for moving across savannah, open grassland with scattered trees. She could walk for hours and use her hands to hold her babies or an armful of fruit or a big Pliocene salad or whatever.  Meanwhile, her chimp ancestors stayed in the forest. Sounds good……except we have a huge problem. The savannahs were occupied by a whole host of predators  who would love to eat Lucy and her kind.

In fact, Lucy was evolving during the worst possible time. The australopithecine clan evolved between 5.8 to 1.8 million years ago. This interval produced the scariest variety of big feline meat-eaters the world has ever seen.  Here’s what was out there, ready to catch Lucy and her kin.

s-Kitties-Blog-ColorLLeopards are stealth felines who lived with Lucy. They had short, wide paws, flexible legs and body. That’s a build excellent for climbing rocks, hiding in burrows, ascending trees – and sudden ambush! Body weights went from 50 lbs to 200 lbs.

Lions & Tigers
Lucy’s neighbors included lion-like cats, huge predators up to 500 lbs, with massive paws that could swat down a water buffalo. Legs were longer, straighter than a leopard’s and speed over level ground was higher. Because of the great weight, climbing was less agile than a leopard’s.

Dagger-Tooth Saber Cats – Homotheres
Lucy’s world was jam packed with saber-toothed cats. The biggest were the Dagger-Tooths, who were built like a cross between a cheetah and a leopard, with long legs, excellent for fast running with some climbing. Sizes ranged from up to 500 lbs. The jaws were like a rattlesnake’s. They opened so wide that the upper fangs were exposed and ready for action. The upper fangs were long, wide blades with very sharp, saw-toothed edges. Homotheres slashed and stabbed so deeply they could kill an elephant.

Long, muscular necks let saber-cats swing their head down like a battle-ax.

How could Lucy avoid these deadly cats?

Imagine that you are Lucy. You’re waking along the savannah, carrying a load of  melons. Then, without warning…..WHAM!  A leopard leaps on you, bites your neck, and you are leopard-kibbles. Or….you’re resting on a rock when…..WHAM!  A pride of lions jump you and tears you apart. Or….you’re plucking figs from a fig tree when…a Dagger-Tooth jumps up from the tall grass. You try to run as fast as you can….but in ten seconds…WHAM! Zip-Zap!  The cat slices you into bite-sized pieces.

Lucy Defended Herself With Spears?

An old theory says that Lucy’s kind used spears and rocks for defense. But that notion doesn’t work. We find no stone tools at all with Lucy’s bones, not a spear point or a stone knife.  How about a wooden spear? Chimps today make mini-spears from twigs and impale bugs and little furballs. Sure, Lucy might have picked up a branch and chewed the end to make a point.

But if Lucy poked a  Dagger-Tooth in the butt with her spear, she’d only make him mad.

No, wooden spears aren’t enough to drive away lions and leopard and saber-toothed cats.

Conclusion: Lucy and All Her Kind Should Have Been Massacred by The Big Cats.

We’re left with a big problem. How did Lucy get away?

Please! Help our Lucy!!!!!

Send in your suggestions about how to avoid predators!

Interested in learning more about Lucy? Check out my previous blog posts on Australopithecus afarensis migration.

Lucy’s Monstrous Misfits II: Upside-Down Mastodon

Dr. Bakker’s series on Lucy continues below. Check out  Part 1: Lucy – Out of Africa. Not! and Part 2: Lucy’s Monstrous Misfits: The Moose-Giraffe.

Why did some of Lucy’s neighbors score big bio-geographical successes, spreading over many continents?

Three More Cases: Hairy Monsters With Tusks & Trunks

Elephant bull 2
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Tambako the Jaguar (on the sea)

The Order Proboscidea includes all elephant and elephant kin – large to giant to super-giant herbivores with long upper lips transformed into trunks, plus long tusks. Tusks can sprout from the upper jaw or the lower jaw or both jaws.

Regular Short-Tusked Mastodons – “The Ohio Incognitum”

Regular Mastodons were the first fossil Proboscidea to be discovered – way back in the early 1700’s.  The legs looked like elephants’. The teeth looked like giant pig teeth.  Explorers in the Ohio Valley called the monster the “Unknown  Creature (Incognitum) from Ohio.” Formal name: Mammut.

By the late 1700’s full skeletons showed the whole beast – it was very like an elephant but shorter with a low forehead and short, stout upper tusks.  Lucy lived with Regular Mastodons who were very close to the Ohio Beast.

Regular Mastodons – The Long-Tuskers (Anancines)

DeinoAnancine copyLiving side by side with the Ohio Regulars in Lucy’s Africa was a close relative: The Long-Tusked Regulars. Technical name: the Anancine mastodons. In the Anancines, the super-long tusks stuck out so far we’d expect the beast to trip itself if it ran fast.

Upside Down Mastodon.

Now for the maximum weirdness among proboscideans: the Deinotheres.  Large to super large, Deinotheres had a long, long history in Africa, beginning way before Lucy or any other australopithecine. Body was elephantine – but the feet were small, with tiny side toes and three big ones in the middle.

The astonishing feature was the curved tusks. They were upside down. Instead of being in the upper jaw and curving up, the way they did in all normal mastodons, Deinothere tusks curved down and were in the lower jaw.

What good were upside-down tusks?

Old-timer scientists speculated:

“Maybe they hauled themselves out onto ice flows, like walruses do.”

Wrong. Deinotheres never lived in cold regions.

“Maybe they killed their prey with a downward jab.”

Wrong.  Deinothere molars were vegetable choppers, designed to munch big leaves and branches. All deinotheres were vegetarian.

“Maybe they used the tusks to cash down onto branches to break them off.”  “Maybe they fought each other in the mating season.”


World MapDeino

As global travelers, Deinotheres are intriguing. They were like hippos. Deinotheres spread over Europe and India and China. But they never conquered Siberia and never entered the New World, via the Bering Land Bridge.

Makes you think……