100 years – 100 Objects: Smilodon

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Lower jaw of saber-toothed cat, Smilodon
(Pleistocene, Rancho La Brea, Los Angeles, California)

CHI_7734

The saber-tooted cat, Smilodon represents a kind of power and ferocity unmatched by modern big cats. There has been some scientific debate as to how saber-toothed cats hunted, some arguing that the victim’s throat was neatly sliced by the saber-like canine teeth as the cat’s jaws closed. Others believe that the soft underbelly was the target for mortal injury.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Lucy, Out of Africa. Not!

Lucy is the most famous of the Australopithecine Clan – that’s about a half dozen species all together, maybe more. The Clan was long-lived and successful…at least in Africa. They spread from the edge of the Sahara Desert in the north all the way to Cape Province near the southern tip of the continent.

Dig anywhere in this huge area and find bones between 5.8 and 2.5 million years old – and you’ll find australopithecines.

But….Lucy’s entire clan never, EVER got out of Africa.  That’s weird. Lucy was surrounded by mammals that went globe-trotting. Big predators and even bigger herbivores traveled in and out of Africa, and then over Europe, Asia, North America – even South America.

World MapLucyCheck out our World Map for Lucy.  It shows the land and sea when ocean levels went down some 500 feet lower than today. That happened several times during the epoch of australopithecine evolution. With sea-levels down, there were dry land bridges many places – especially where Siberia connected to Alaska at the Bering Strait.

The map helps us analyze animal travelers….

Example of Globe-Trotter I: Rhinos Shaped like Hippos.

Here’s an unlikely world-traveler – the short-legged hippo-rhinos. If you saw them alive, you might be fooled into thinking they were bona fide hippos. The body form was hippo-esque: rotund belly, wide hips, low-slung chest and rump. But they were genuine members of the rhino family, close kin of the Indian Rhino of today.

s-rhino-hippo copy

Hippo-rhinos ate grass just as Indian Rhinos do in the modern Indian ecosystem. But hippo-rhinos (also known as Teleocerines) weren’t content to graze the meadows of the Brahmaputra. They went north and east and north and west. They invaded Europe and turned down into Africa. Hippo-rhinos must have chased Lucy when they were in bad moods.

Hippo-rhinos dared to cross the Bering land Bridge connecting Siberia to North America, and so they are the commonest rhino fossils in Nebraska, Wyoming and Texas.

Example of Globe-Trotter II: Hippos Shaped like Hippos.

Hippopotamuses today frolic in the rivers of Africa. Back in Lucy’s day, hippos went much farther. They waddled north and west over Europe and made it to the Thames River in England. Going the other way, hippos trotted through Eurasia and invaded India.

World MapHipRhinoHippos failed to cross the Bering Land Bridge though – they never could follow hippo-rhinos to Texas. (Think about that – why?)

Meanwhile, as hippo-shaped rhinos and real hippos went thousands of miles across four or five continents, Lucy’s relations stayed put in Africa.

Example of Globe-Trotter III: Saber-tooth Cats.

sHomothereBig plant-eaters should have been followed by big meat-eaters. And they were.

Chasing Lucy in Africa were many kinds of saber-tooth cats. Semi-saber-tooths (Dinofelines,)  Sword-tooths (Smilodonts,) And dagger-tooths (homotheres).  All three kinds of saber-cats had evolutionary wanderlust. They spread over Europe and Asia, from Siberia to Indonesia.

Bering Land Bridge? No problem. All three saber-cats invaded North America. And one group – the sword-tooth smilodonts – just kept on going, down through Brazil and all the way to Argentina.

Wow.

What was wrong with our Lucy?

What sort of anti-australopithecine barrier was put up to keep all the Lucy-oids in Africa??