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……


The Earth’s First Apocalypse: Texas Red Beds, 285 Million Years Ago

At a dig site in North Texas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is investigating the animals that would have died off when this first mass extinction event occurred. Recently, a production crew from the History Channel came along on-site – and their footage of Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s team airs tonight at 8 p.m. as part of a two hour special called (aptly) First Apocalypse. UPDATE: In case you missed it, the special re-airs locally Saturday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. and a few hours later, Sunday morning at 1 a.m. (Check your local listings.)

In this post, Dr. Bakker explores several extinction events, including the first, Permian extinction you’ll see featured on the History Channel tonight.

Big Hairy Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Yogi


In the early 1800’s, paleontology astounded the world when fossils documented the phenomenon of mass extinctions, times when the whole menagerie of big terrestrial critters went extinct.

The first mass die-off that was discovered killed the gigantic mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, saber-tooth tigers and dozens of other large mammals. This extinction event occurred during the Ice Age. The Ice Age Event didn’t hit small species – if you were a vole, mole, rat, bat or chipmunk, your species had a good chance of surviving.

Today, we know that the extinction took place between 2 million and ten thousand years ago.


By the 1830s, a second giant extinction event was revealed. All the huge Dinosauria disappeared at the end of the Age of Reptiles. Small creatures – birds and salamanders, lizards and frogs, snakes and furry mammals – survived in great numbers.


Mass extinctions weren’t all negative. Dino-die-offs kick-started evolution in the survivors. From the little furry mammals who survived came a wonderful new evolutionary wave of big predators and herbivores – horses, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, elephants, bears, tigers, cheetahs and wolves. This Darwinian bounce happened every time there was a catastrophic extinction.


Digging in oceanic strata during the mid-1800s showed yet another catastrophe, when the Permian Period ended. Most common species of marine life disappeared, including trilobites, corals, and many species of shellfish.

Die-offs struck the land too – most of the big land reptiles, who filled the role of Top Predator and Top Herbivore, died out. Many small species persisted and from these humble survivors came the next wave of big land animals, including the dinosaurs.


Many theories sprung up to explain the great die-offs: the agent of extinction was identified as:

sudden increases in earth temperatures, or

sudden decreases in temperature, or

changes in atmospheric gases, or

changes in humidity, or

abrupt rise of mountains, or

abrupt disappearance of mountains, or

draining away of shallow seas, or

increase in volcanic eruptions, or

sudden impacts of meteorites, or

invasion of foreign species from one continent to another.


Diadectes, side and top view. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

To sort through all the possible solutions, it would help to find the very first case when large land animals evolved and then died-off. North Central Texas preserves this earliest apocalypse in the red-stained rocks laid down in the Early Permian. This extinction was long before the event that struck at the Late Permian.

Beginning in 1877, Texas excavations showed how the earliest large land herbivores evolved. These plant-eating pioneers were wide-bodied, low-slung reptiles known as “Cross-Biters,” Diadectes. Diadectes and its kin were the first large land animals to acquire the wide molars and big guts needed to digest leaves and branches from terrestrial bushes and trees.

The members of the Diadectes Family were the commonest land herbivore for fifteen million years…..and then, suddenly, they went extinct. The pattern at this first die-off matches what we’ve seen in the other land extinctions – small species were far more successful in living through the event.


This first die-off opened niches for the survivors. New and spectacular large herbivores evolved from small ancestors. In the Texas Red Beds, we find super-wide-bodied caseid reptiles who reached weights of more than a half ton.

The wide-bodied caseid reptile. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker


The wide-bodied caseids flourished for millions of years in the Middle Permian – then, the second extinction struck. Caseids disappeared. Evolving into the gap were advanced mammal-like reptiles with thick bone foreheads. There were both giant carnivores (anteosaurs) and giant herbivores (keratocephs).

Keratocephus, having a bit of trouble with anteosaurus. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The Houston Museum continues digging in north Texas, where the Red Beds record the earliest waves of large land animal evolution and the first extinction events. Many mysteries remain. But one pattern seems confirmed:

Mass die-offs on land are targeted like smart bombs. If you’re a big herbivore or big carnivore, you have the highest probability of going extinct.

Learn more about the First Apocalypse, and see Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s paleontology team in action, tonight at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.

Poaching and the extinction of the African Elephant

Todays guest blogger is John Frederick Walker, a conservationist and author. In his new book, Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold History and the Fate of Elephants, which is set to hit shelves this month, Walker tells the story of the ivory trade and its dramatic effect on the population of African Elephants. He’ll be at HMNS on Tuesday, Jan. 20 to give a lecture of the same title.

The Writing of Ivory’s Ghosts:  The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

As I prepare for a national lecture tour based on my forthcoming book, Ivory’s Ghosts, I know there’ll be one question I’ll get everywhere I go, including the HMNS on January 20:  “why did you decide to write this book?” 

Big 5 - Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheLizardQueen

In my case, the germ of the idea began with the realization that despite the nearly twenty-year-old ban on international trade in ivory, elephants are still being poached for their tusks.  As a journalist and a conservationist, that bothered me.  I began to wonder about the connection between the demand for ivory in history and its impact on the animal that has always been its greatest source.   Was there something about this troubling, long-standing link that would throw light on the problems of elephant conservation in the 21st century?

Five years ago, I started researching Ivory’s Ghosts in museums and archives in the US and Europe, and then traveled to Africa to investigate elephant issues first hand, interviewing experts from South Africa to Kenya.  I learned that ivory has been valued since the Ice Age, when humans carved figurines from the tusks of the woolly mammoth, the ancestor of the modern elephant—35,000 years ago!  Even then humans were attracted to ivory’s beauty and scarcity, and its ability to be finely carved.

Allegory of Vanity
Creative Commons License photo credit: unforth

Throughout history, nearly every culture, from ancient Egypt to the US, used it to make small sculptures, furniture, combs, chessmen, and hundreds of other objects, a list that later included pistol grips, piano keys and billiard balls.  By the late 1800s, ivory was the plastic of its age. Demand helped drive the slaughter of elephants, whose tusks were brought to the African coasts on the shoulders of slaves.  By the 1980s, organized poaching, often carried out with AK-47s, halved the African elephant population, causing world-wide outrage that led to an international agreement (under CITES, the convention on trade in endangered species) banning cross-border trade in ivory.

But the ivory ban has failed to stop poaching.  In Ivory’s Ghosts, I look into the reasons behind that.  One is that the long-standing demand for ivory is not likely to disappear, at least anytime soon.  The attraction to ivory is simply too ingrained in too many cultures.  And poaching, not surprisingly, flourishes in countries that lack adequate enforcement, or are torn apart by war, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In the absence of a legal market to meet age-old demand, the black market for ivory is flourishing.

Now some conservationists are starting to think what was previously unthinkable:  returning to a highly controlled ivory trade, one that’s structured to help, not hurt elephants.  After all, as long as there are elephants, there will be ivory. 

Today, tusks are routinely recovered from elephants that die of natural causes, and stockpiled in the warehouses of wildlife departments and park services in dozens of African countries. What should be done with all this valuable “white gold?”  Cash-strapped African nations are not about to destroy it.  Instead, they have twice successfully petitioned CITES to be allowed to sell their legitimate ivory caches to raise funds strictly for elephant conservation.  The last time was this past October, when Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa sold over 100 tons of tusks, raising $15 million from CITES-approved buyers (Japan and China), who agreed not to re-export any ivory products. 

Aren't Ele's just wonderful creatures?
Creative Commons License photo credit: BrianScott

The reason these countries gained approval for this sale was that they have well-managed elephant populations, and control poaching.  In fact, Botswana and South Africa actually have too many elephants for the habitat available to them.  Officials in South Africa’s Kruger National Park may even have to resort to culling some of their elephants if they can’t find other ways to keep their fast-growing herds within bounds. 

It’s a situation that strikes many elephant lovers as contradictory—it gave me pause at first—but regular, highly controlled, CITES-administered sales might provide a means to support successful elephant conservation, strange as that sounds.

I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned about the fascinating, complex, and often troubling subject of ivory and elephants with the HMNS audience, and hearing their thoughts on the future of elephants.

For more background on my books, please visit

Learn more about Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold History and the Fate of Elephants as John Frederick Walker comes to the HMNS to discuss his new book on the evening of January 20 at 6:30 PM. Or learn more about our other lectures here.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   


Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do – we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced – making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 


Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa