Blown off course by a fearsome tempest Captain Strong and his men were overjoyed to find the raggedy islands that they would come to christen the Falklands. A boat was put out and as they drove the schooner to the shore, they quickly had to put about for fear of the savage beasts that waded out to feast on their salty flesh.
Later the weary men braved the shore and made camp, setting fire to the grassy tussocks around them to keep the slathering beasts at bay. The country was ablaze for days, as far as the eye could see, and these monstrous foxes ‘the size of a mastiff’ were always close by, darting away from the flickering flames.
It wasn’t until later that they realised it had all been a terrible mistake, the fox from the Falklands was simply being friendly; wondering what the blazes was going on, what the devil these new big things were on the islands and how on earth they were managing to stand on two feet. Still the good Captain John Strong realised the error of his ways and took one of the convivial canines aboard for the return journey, where it would affably bimble around the boat. Sadly for the amiable chap it was in the mid-Atlantic that he discovered his indifference for loud noises. In a skirmish with the French a loud cannon cracked and the fox promptly hoiked himself overboard never to be seen again.
On many an island there has been found these cosiest of curiosities; creatures unflustered by a sudden influx of famished sailors driven half mad by swigging their own urine. The dodos were said to be delightfully welcoming when man first popped by, going rather well with potatoes and a passable claret didn’t damage their charisma either. In the Galapagos islands a young Charles Darwin was rather put out by a Galapagos hawk, who instead of having to blast the bugger out of a tree with his gun (as was the style of naturalism of the times) simply had to meander up to the arrogant sod and push it out of the tree with the nozzle of said rifle. Time and again man has met these affable island creatures that have evolved with no real need to be afraid of anything.
It took many years to work out how this big friendly dog had got to these rocky dots way off the coast of Argentina. Had it been brought there as a pet by the infrequent visits of sealers from the mainland? Or perhaps it was a relative of the fox-like culpeo of the mainland? Learned types have since figured out that in fact it’s a relative of the maned wolf, and had diverged from them 6.7million years ago, perhaps arriving on the islands on some sort of land bridge… across a frozen ocean in some icy past. Though it is this foxes more immediate neighbours that perhaps we owe a lot more than we realise. The difference between East and West Island wolves was the first creature Darwin noticed that there was a minute difference between the species, and perhaps that species weren’t stable after all… and one thinks we know where that line of thinking ended up.
Indeed it was Mr Darwin who later talked of the beginning of the end for the Falkland Island Fox who remarked that it would soon go the way of the dodo. This ‘foolish dog of the south’ as the locals called it, was gunned down and poisoned in its droves. The natives favoured method of disposing of the poor sods was to hold some meat out in a hand so that the warmhearted wolf would wander up for his meaty treat, only to be stuck with a knife… which is hardly friendly now is it?
Anomalocaris really does know how it feels to be a bit of an anomaly… and he’s not the only one.
Many moons ago railroad workers in the Canadian Rockies took time off from amusing themselves by freezing off various body parts and instead took to finding some rather amusing shaped rocks. When word of the stony-bugs from the back of beyond reached the palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott he went to take a looksy for himself. There the esteemed gent found some of the most remarkable curiosities in a marvellous state of preservation; there were even squishy creatures in the fossil beds.
Such wibbly bits are very rarely preserved and so when Charles first found a jellyfish that seemed to be tussling with a prawn he could do little else but marvel upon it and place it lovingly with the other sixty five thousand specimens he’d been working on.
Charles returned the next year, and the proceeding year after that… oh… and for the next twenty-three years, tirelessly describing these fossils of the Burgess shale. He toiled away meticulously describing the stone bugs, crow-barring the fossils into the families of existing animals, before finally passing away three years later at the ripe old age of seventy seven. Though he passed peacefully it was a tragic death, like an impoverished artist he died without realising the true worth of his toils.
Other palaeontologists found sponges, in the vicinity of other specimens of the prawns and jellyfish first described by Mr Walcott Esq. Soon it became clear that these weren’t ancient sea creatures having a salty shindig… they were in fact one creature… the jellyfish is in fact a mouth, those prawns were graspers, the sponge would have been abominable at bath-time and was actually a body… it was in fact a relatively huge predator from the Cambrian period.
As more recent learned types have poured over Walcott’s specimens from the Burgess shale they’ve begun to realize just how remarkable they are. These aren’t ancient shrimp, odd old jellyfish and wormy ancestors. They are a cornucopia of creatures that have no relatives left, odd little thingamujigs that we have nothing left on the planet to even vaguely compare them to. Not only that but these creatures have re-evaluated how we look at these extinct creatures… the tree of life isn’t a small sapling with a few families branching out here and there… it is a magnificent oak with huge branches reaching out. Somewhere near the top is an unremarkable branch, just a tiny fraction of the size of the whole tree, and every single one of the millions upon millions of animals that live on our planet is represented by this simple bough… and all the sprigs below it have fallen… and each tiny twig on every single branch a little anomaly… just like the odd little shrimp from a set of fossils that redefined the tree of life.
Mightier than T rex, bigger than Gigantosaurus, originally called Absolutelyfreakinmassivosaurus, but then everyone realised that that was silly and couldn’t think of what to call it if they ever found a bigger one. Meet Spinosaurus…
It was huge… the size and weight of a London bus, just not as red, without wheels, not full of people though it probably would be given half the chance… erm altogether more bitey… perhaps one should have ended this metaphor a while back… the biggest predatory dinosaur that ever lived.
That said there is some controversy about whether Spinosaurus was the biggest dinosaur predator. For a start there were only a few bits and bobs of its skeleton ever found, and most of those that were found were destroyed when the museum was bombed in World War II. The bits that were dug up in the desert sands of Egypt were mainly fragments of skull, and it has been quite rightly pointed out that you can’t extrapolate the size of the body because it has a large skull, it might just have a big noggin, and what’s more it might feel a mite sensitive if you keep on going on about it.
Still we at The Proceedings of the Ever so Strange like to think that this terrible spiny sod was the biggest chomper that ever lived. One thing that made this monster even more monstrous is it had a massive sail on its back. The reason for which could be a number of explanations; it could be to attract the female Spinosaurus… like a peacock’s tail. Or it could be to regulate heat… big animals get rather hot, and have to evolve ways to get rid of heat… sounds a bit odd I know… but think of the elephant’s ear…
Now where were we… yes… how did this tremendous ruffian get so gigantic? One theory is that he was water bound, making it easier to support his hulking frame, whiling away his days sloshing around in the wet stuff chomping on fish. It is a fairly compelling theory, one of the few fossils that have been found was found with fish scales in its belly. What’s more if you look at the modern day gharial, a crocodile that is rather well adapted to eating fish, you can see that while not being graced with a face that will grace the cover of Harper’s Bazar it would be good at chomping down on Cretaceous sashimi. Another thought that has been banded around The Proceedings is that Spinosaurus was more of an opportunistic feeder… much like today’s fearsome grizzly bear… though the Spinosaurus was about thirty times bigger and could have gobbled him up like a furry sausage.
There is perhaps one animal we can doff our caps to as quite simply the most depraved, sociopathic, genocidal, xenophobic, maniacal bastard on the planet… in this case its name was Tibbles.
Yes quite, one is sure you have guessed that we are talking about the common housecat, Felis catus as learned types call them… git as it’s referred to by pretty much every animal small enough to fit into the sod’s mouth… mice and birds in particular are not surprisingly really rather vociferous in this matter…. even more so the Stephens Island wren, a bird that had evolved into a mouse.
We’ve heard in previous evenings at The Proceedings about how New Zealand’s birds have evolved flightlessness, taken the ecological niche of pigs and indeed been right royally buggered every time something new moved into the neighbourhood. Similar to that tubby lump the kakapo the Stephens Island wren has taken up the ecological niche of a mouse. As there were no mammals in New Zealand the wee bird had a marvellous idea, it would take advantage of the huge gap in the market and scamper around the forest floors eating nuts and berries and generally being all mouse like.
Until the late 1800’s that is. The problem was that the lump of rock that is Stephens Island kept on getting in the way of boats, and rather than ask it politely to move, it was thought some sort of lighthouse prudent. Within fifteen years they had finished the big shiner, about the same time as someone thought having a cat around the place would brighten things up a bit too. A rather fat looking cat.
Though it seems Tibbles wasn’t in need of a bit of exercise and was in fact full of wee sweet depraved, sociopathic, genocidal, xenophobic, maniacal bastards. Within years the islands were swarming with feral cats, not the best news for a defenseless mousey bird… and indeed within years the Stephens Island wren had been eaten off the planet.
While it seems that it is just an enduring myth; the decimation of an entire species by a single lighthouse keeper’s cat called Tibbles. Rather it was a whole bally army of the most depraved, sociopathic, genocidal, xenophobic, maniacal bastards the planet has ever known… What’s that? Yes quite, a slur indeed, though it’s nowhere near as bad as what the Stephens Island wren would call them.
Meet the bite-sized winged beastie sharovipteryx or ‘sharov’s wing’ as it roughly translates, hailing from the time of the first dinosaurs and crocodilians or the ‘big snappy jawed lizardy thingamujigs that will eat anything whatever they are called’. A time, it should be duly noted, when it was a remarkably bad period for being a bite-sized winged beastie… thankfully sharovipteryx had an idea.
Honking great legs are a marvellous plan if you are going to live through the chomping years, running like the blazes being a rather good idea. Not short on bloody good idea’s old sharovipteryx had some extras bobbed in, wings on its legs to be precise, swooping off like your life depended on it was a tip top plan… not least because it did.
What is of course remarkable is that sharovipteryx’s wings were on his back legs. He was most definitely a glider rather than a flyer. It may also have been that he used his big clawed back feet to run up trees and glide off away from anything that would think him a satisfactory brunch. Our little swooping chum may well have been the ancestor of the pterosaurs; the first flying vertebrates and the largest flying creatures ever, the biggest attaining the size of a biplane… sadly for our flying snack it was a few years until these honking great brutes appeared.
In these modern days of remarkable design… when one can take an airship across the Atlantic in just five days… when the continued march of miniaturisation means that one can make rudimentary mathematical calculations with a machine just a bit smaller than your average three bed semi-detached… we’re simply not used to seeing such a silly set up. Though upon ruminating on the concept it’s not so silly, or indeed archaic, the design is exactly like a canard; a plane with a small wing at the front to help with lift, control or to reduce turbulence. Indeed the Wright brother’s rather lauded first flyer was a lift canard aeroplane… even modern fighter jets are configured in this manner. Thankfully, unlike our chum sharivopteryx, there is nothing around big enough to eat the buggers.
When Professor Harry B Whittington first showed his beloved and painstaking reconstruction of opabinia to his esteemed peers they gave a rather surprising response… they laughed.
Sadly it wasn’t because opabinia was a famed wit and raconteur, nor were these learned types prone to giddy bouts, poor opabinia was just a bit funny looking. Of course guffawing at his looks wasn’t a very nice thing to do, and could go part way to explain why this odd chap hasn’t been that social in the last 500 million years.
Though it’s not just the five eyes that make this chap Ever so Strange. Where to begin ‘pon his many festoonations? One thinks we may have to go through this logically. So starting at the rather odd-front; opabinia has what can only be described as a spiny claw. The claw is attached to a hollow trunk, yes quite like that of the elephant, except corrugated as if it were a hoover attachment. He would have used the claw on the end of his odd trunk much like an elephant too, to pick up morsels he quite liked the look of on the seabed and shove them in his odd little mouth that faced backwards.
His head was quite normal… if you can call a head with five eyes normal… no… oh. Very well then. His odd head, with its odd backwards-facing mouth, was stuck on a body that in all fairness was a bit odd. It was basically fifteen segments on each of which was an odd floppy lobe either side, odd floppy lobes that would Mexican wave him through the Cambrian seas… which, for the record, were rather odd places.
So why was opabinia so odd? Well it seems we judge him with modern eyes, we try and compare him with what we know we say ‘he’s a bit like a scorpion or a horseshoe crab.’ Though this odd one out is just not like that, for a start off he’s not even a crustacean or an insect or anything we are lucky enough to have on our planet today, he doesn’t even have a hard shell. The wobbly chap was in fact more closely related to the tardigrades and velvet worms. Perhaps this is what opabinia best represents, the many experimental forms that evolved, only to fall at various hurdles. Hopefully no-one laughed when he tripped up.
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Russian legend tells of the legend of the Indrik; the king of all the animals, a gigantic bull with the head of a horse, when he stirs the ground shakes…
The largest mammal to stomp around the planet wasn’t an elephant, and the tallest warm and furry that ever lived wasn’t a giraffe. Say ‘how do you do’ to Indricotherium the biggest bloody rhino you’ll ever set eyes on. He was the biggest standy mammal that ever lived, and the biggest leggy thing on the planet since the huge sauropod dinosaurs, yes that’s right the ones with the long necks, four legs, big chap… can’t miss them… diplodocus and brontosaurus and whatnot…
It’s no coincidence either that this elephantine-giraffey looking rhino had come to look like a honking great reachy thingy. They ate the leaves at the top of trees, in a word; browsers. They chomped on leaves and twigs, also known as browse. As opposed to grazers who not surprisingly eat grass.
Millions of years before Indricotherium there were the big sauropod dinosaurs who had honking great necks to pluck at vegetation. After them came the big reachy rhino we are dribbling on about now, and after him came the long necked giraffes and indeed the elephants who gave up on the whole neck thing and grew a honking great honker. All rather distinctive creatures that have evolved into the same shape to get at the same bit of grub. Indeed if you look at the outline of each, they all look much the same. Like different animals made of putty, with different bits squidged out into long bits for getting at those lovely browse. They did have something in common though… they were all beasts that could shake the very earth beneath your feet.
A rather wise chap once said ‘seek the wisdom of the ages, but look at the world through the eyes of a child.’ Here at the Proceedings we don’t advise such behaviour… for a start off they would be far too small. Though we would certainly encourage you to never grow up in the first place, and to look at this wonderful world with the shock and delight of a wee one. Of course one way that early man could be shocked, though rather less delighted, by the joys of this planet would be to have been torn limb from limb by a Haast’s eagle.
At about the same time as Columbus announced that he had found something interesting across the sea… completely ignorant of the great Viking Leif Ericsson wandering around the Americas five hundred years previously… and it already being full of people in the first blinking place. The Haast’s eagle was happily tucking into its own native people in New Zealand. Yes, quite… a man-eating eagle. The bugger would come screaming in at about fifty miles per hour, and though they were relatively light compared to a man it has been estimated the force with which they would hit you would be similar to being walloped by a large building brick dropped from the top of a tower block. Of course being hit by a large building brick dropped from the top of a tower block would in fact be a pleasant experience compared to being preyed upon by a Haast’s eagle. Building blocks dropping of tower blocks wouldn’t be hitting you with talons the size of a kitchen knife for starters, neither would they proceed to deliver a fatal blow with their other leg, or simply disembowel you with its bugger off beak.
Thankfully humans weren’t its favourite grub, it was rather partial to the moa; a huge flightless bird. Obviously to take down huge flightless birds, and indeed the odd Polynesian chappy, the Haast’s eagle needed to be huge, which was handy because it was. It was about 40% bigger than the biggest eagles around today; the steller sea eagle and indeed the golden eagle. Though they didn’t appear much bigger, their wingspan being quite similar, just under three metres helping it to dart among the dense forests of New Zealand. It was this rather limited menu that was to be his downfall, as the Maori were also quite partial to the Moa and ate it out of extinction, other prey had evolved to rather sensibly stay well clear of enormous birds that could hit you with the ferocity of masonry hoiked off buildings. What’s more, being rather rowdy types, that man chap didn’t like being eaten by Haast’s eagles and… well… killed a few back. The Haast’s eagle went extinct sometime in the 15th Century.
Finally we’d like to take time out to give a quick remembrance to a dear friend of The Proceedings; Johann Franz Julius Haast. He did many splendid things in New Zealand, not least of which was his studies of the remains of an amazing eagle. He discovered all sorts about the islands he loved and lived in, and New Zealanders have named all sorts of things after him; rivers, towns, glaciers, rocks, passes, glaciers not to mention a rather big bird. Though perhaps a greater epitaph would be from his friend the eminent anthropologist John Macmillan Brown who put it rather succinctly “he was a boy in heart until the day he died”.