Thylacoleo carnifex, more
commonly known as the Marsupial Lion, is an extinct carnivorous tree dwelling
marsupial that called the Australian outback home during the late Pleistocene era.
The giant mammal was the largest carnivore to ever exist in Australia and is
thought to be one of the largest marsupials to exist anywhere in the world.
Scientists believe the creature went extinct along with the other Megafauna of
the continent as little as 46,000 years ago. But if this is true, why do some
people still claim to have seen them in the vast openness of Australia?
In the mid-2000’s, multiple residents in the town of Tumbulgum
(located in New South Wales) claimed that they had not only seen the Marsupial
Lion, but that it was actually “stalking” the surrounding area and
feeding on the unfortunate wildlife. Witnesses describe seeing a large
creature the size of a lion but with “cramped” legs like that of a
marsupial which would lead to a slight waddle while walking. The fur was often
seen to be brindled (subtle stripes of irregular dark color) with
tannish-yellow spotting and it had a long thick tail. The creatures face had a wide, thick nose like that of
a wombat and large incisors (both upper and lower) protruding
from the mouth.
According to scientists who have studied the skeletons of long
dead Marsupial Lions, a full grown specimen would stand nearly 3ft at the
shoulder and measured nearly 5ft long from head to tail. It is believed that
these large carnivores could weigh anywhere between 250-360lbs. The Lion also
possessed a large tail like that of a kangaroo which many scientists believe
would have allowed it to support its full body weight thus allowing it the
ability to slash and grab at prey with its long retractable claws. Once in
hand, the creature would pull its victim toward its blade like molars which
easily allowed it to tear flesh and break bone. Testing the bite force on the
collected jaws of these creatures showed that the Marsupial Lion had the
strongest bite of any animal in the world either living or dead.
So could this creature that many claim died out thousands of years
ago still be around? While one may be quick to say no, it should be noted that
there have been countless reported sightings of many different types of extinct
Australian Megafauna for hundreds of years. People to this day claim to see
supposedly long dead giant birds, reptiles, and mammals while out in the bush
miles away from any other living soul. This could truly mean that there are a
few species thought to be extinct thriving away in the uninhabited parts of the
Still not into this theory and need a little more convincing? Take into consideration that Australia only has a population of 24+ million people and over 85% of that total
population lives along the coast as 40% of the country is listed as
uninhabitable for human living due to high temperatures, barren landscapes, and lack of water or shelter. That’s 40% of an entire continent void of humans and free to
whatever long extinct animal wants to claim it and remain undetected while
The Irish Deer or Giant Deer was a species of Megaloceros and one of the largest deer that ever lived. Its range extended across Eurasia, from Ireland to east of Lake Baikal, during the Late Pleistocene. The latest known remains of the species have been carbon dated to about 7,700 years ago. (Source)
The Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is the largest member of the family Hyaenidae, and is also known as the laughing hyena due to its unique vocalizations. They are the most common large carnivore in Africa, although its origins indicate that it might have evolved in Asia and was found throughout three continents until the late Pleistocene (Asia, Africa and Europe). In traditional African folklore it is usually seen very negatively, being a symbol of gluttony, stupidity and greed - this influenced Western perception of the Spotted Hyena as well, and conservationists believe that this lingering negative perception has an impact on how much people care about its continued survival as a species, both in the wild and in captivity.
The Spotted Hyena has a powerful build, with thick muscles in its neck and forelegs. Their rump is rounded, which is a defensive adaptation - it prevents attackers who come from behind from getting a good grip. They can measure up to 65 inches (165 cm) in body length, with a short 14-inch (35 cm) tail. Females are slightly larger than males, with the hyenas in Zambia weighing the most. Some of the largest Spotted Hyenas ever measured weighed 200 pounds (90 kg), though more average-sized adults are closer to 153 pound (70 kg). Their coats vary in color from grayish-brown to yellowish-brown, sometimes being so dark as to seem almost black. The pattern of spots on the coats is unique to each individual.
Spotted Hyenas live in clans with complex social structures. Clan size can be as large as 80 individuals, but group size is dependent on habitat and main sources of prey - clans of the Serengeti are smaller, because their prey is migratory and they need to keep up. Clans of Ngorongoro Crater are larger, because their main sources of prey tend to stay in one place. Clans have a matriarchal structure, where even the lowest-ranking female will outrank the highest-ranking male. Females tend to stay with the clan of their birth, while males will break off to join new clans at about 2.5 years of age. Remarkably, the social structure is closer to that of baboons or macaques than it is to that of other large social predators. This is evidenced by their awareness of clan members of individuals, and how they use information about their own social status and the status of others to make decisions. Also, status is not determined by size or aggression, but by complex networks of allies.
Female Spotted Hyenas are the only known mammalian species to lack an external vaginal opening. Instead, the labia have fused together to form a pseudo-scrotum, and the clitoris is large, and positioned and shaped like a penis. It is capable of becoming erect. The pseudo-penis contains a urogenital canal, through which urination, copulation and giving birth are all accomplished. This genital configuration also means that rape is physically impossible. Females mate promiscuously, forming no permanent pair bonds (similar to the behavior of big cats). They tend to favor younger males, regardless of how old they themselves are, and passive males are more successful in enticing females to mate than aggressive males are. After a 110-day gestation period, the females will give birth to a litter of two cubs - only occasionally will there be three. Spotted Hyena cubs are among the largest offspring relative to the size of their mother, and cubs are aggressive toward each other. Siblicide is thought to account for 25% of all cub deaths within their first month of life.
Males take no part in the raising of offspring. Spotted Hyena clans exhibit social denning behavior, and depending on the size of the clan, will have a large central den structure or several smaller dens, which were typically dens that had been dug by warthogs and other animals. Dens are used as an anti-predator device to protect cubs while they’re young. Cubs will dug much of the deeper tunnel structures, at a size which prevents even the adult hyenas of their clan from being able to reach them.
Spotted Hyenas are extremely intelligent. Studies comparing them to chimpanzees have found that Spotted Hyenas perform better at cooperative problem-solving tests, and evidence strongly suggests that primate and hyena intelligence evolved convergently. It is believed that Spotted Hyenas, while being opportunistic hunters and scavengers, will plan to hunt particular species in advance. They also engage in deceptive behaviors, such as a female sounding the general alarm call to disrupt an in-clan attack on her cubs, or a hyena sounding the alarm call to distract the others from a morsel of food they’ve just acquired.
A simple pen drawing I did earlier this week. It’s based on the mummified baby mammoth discovered in Siberia, named Dima. Here, in her last moments of life, Dima desperately reaches out for her distraught mother, but to no avail.
I based the facial expressions here on those of African elephants that were recorded in moments of grief. It was a realistic way of adding more emotion to this image.
“The Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) is an extinct species of deer in the genus Megaloceros and is one of the largest deer that ever lived. Its range extended across Eurasia, from Ireland to northern Asia and Africa. A related form is recorded from China during the Late Pleistocene. The most recent remains of the species have been carbon dated to about 7,700 years ago in Siberia. […] The Irish Elk stood about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders carrying the largest antlers of any known cervid (a maximum of 3.65 m (12.0 ft) from tip to tip and weighing up to 40 kg (88 lb)). In body size, the Irish Elk matched the extant moose subspecies of Alaska (Alces alces gigas) as the largest known deer. The Irish Elk is estimated to have attained a total mass of 540–600 kg (1,190–1,320 lb), with large specimens having weighed 700 kg (1,500 lb) or more, roughly similar to the Alaskan Moose. A significant collection of M. giganteus skeletons can be found at the Natural History Museum in Dublin.”
Photo taken by me, in the Natural History Museum of Dublin, summer of 2013.
While hunting in the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1987, Russian hunter Rodion Sivolobov was given something quite unusual and rarely seen, the giant white skin of an unknown bear. It was after receiving this unknown skin that Sivolobov spent the next decade researching what the locals called, the Irkuiem.
First, some quick background information on the location where the skin was found. The Kamchatka Peninsula is a 780mi long, three sided island in the Russian far east with a surface area of around 100,000sq mi. The peninsula is home to around 322,000+ residents, contains 160 volcanoes, and generally has a subarctic climate. In 1945 after WWII, the Soviet army declared the entire area a war zone and closed it off completely to all citizens until 1989. The peninsula provides home to tundra wolves, arctic foxes, the Siberian lynx, wolverines, reindeer, moose, and snow sheep. It is also where the gigantic and elusive Irkuiem makes it home, right alongside the native Kamchatka Brown Bear.
The skin that Sivolobov received in 1987 (and later sent to a museum in St. Petersburg) was described as resembling that of an extremely oversized polar bear (even though polar bears are not native to the region), but the reindeer farmers who provided the pelt were very adamant the skin was not from a normal bear in the region but rather from a bear that was much larger and much more aggressive than the regularly seen Kamchatka Brown Bear. The Irkueim is believed to weigh around 1.5 tons (3,000lbs), is nearly 6ft tall at the shoulders while on all fours, and almost 12ft tall while on just its hind legs. It is covered in very short white fur and has a small head in proportion to the rest of its body. Its back legs are said to be smaller than its front legs and because of this, the Irkueim walks and runs in a very distinct way. Witnesses state that it looks somewhat similar to how a caterpillar moves.
Reindeer herders report that the Irkueim can decimate an entire heard of reindeer in a short amount of time and that it is in ones best interest to flee the area immediately if the mysterious bear shows up. It is extremely territorial, a strict carnivore, and shows no fear of humans. There have been reports though of humans taking a stand against the Irkueim and fighting back. Reports of mysteriously large white bears killed by locals in the region have shown up in 1976, 1980, 1982, and 1987.
So what is the Irkueim? Is it a new species of bear that has not yet been scientifically recognized, or could it perhaps be a known species of bear that has not been seen for a while? And by a while, we mean since the Pleistocene epoch nearly 11,000 years ago. You see, there are some researchers who believe that the Irkueim is actually a surviving species of Short-Face Bear, more specifically Arctodus Simus, the largest carnivorous land mammal that has ever lived on earth.
Arctodus Simus made its home in North America 800,000yrs ago and could be found from Alaska all the way down to Mississippi. This bear (also known as the Bulldog Bear because of its stubby face) could stand to heights of almost 12ft tall, had a 14ft vertical arm reach, and weighed around 1 ton. Researchers believe that it was a strict carnivore as no evidence of vegetation of any kind has been found in the analysis of its bones. This means that this apex predator would have had to consume nearly 40lbs of flesh a day to continue living (something that entire herds of reindeer could easily provide). Its front legs were alos longer than its hind legs and researchers believe it could reach speeds of up to 40mph.
So if this bear lived in North America during its existence, how is it showing up in Russia? Simple, it walked over via the Bering land bridge. During the late Pleistocene epoch, Alaska was connected to Siberia by the Bering land bridge. As the earths water became frozen during the last glacial period, global sea levels rose and fell. As the seas fell, once submerged land masses between continents became exposed and provided passage between once inaccessible lands. Once the glaciers began to melt, the sea levels started to rise again and the land bridge once again became submerged. Everything that had journeyed over the bridge was now calling a new continent home, such as Arctodus Simus.
Some researchers believe that over time, Arctodus Simus evolved to become a more suitable competitor of the native Kamchatka Brown Bear as well as adapting to the more harsh environment of the Kamchatka Peninsula. As the bears started to die out in North America, they started to thrive in Russia (and develop a new white coat). As time progressed, they began to encounter native humans and eventually became known as the Irkueim.
So, could the Irkueim be a surviving member of the largest bear species that has ever lived, a new species of bear that has never been documented before, or just an overly aggressive Kamchatka Brown Bear with a color mutation? Nobody will ever know for sure until a body is available for scientific research and testing, but until that day comes, the reindeer herders in the Kamchatka Peninsula will continue to be on guard while out in the elements so as not to meet a grisly fate brought on by the gigantic claws of the Irkueim.
Blocks of Late Pleistocene (0.47 Ma) andesite lava and snow patches that can last until late July (now indicated by subcircular depression at center right, barren of vegetation) are the elements of this landscape close to the summit of Mt. Gassan (elev. 1,984 m). Gassan, “a mountain where the divine Moon is deified”, has been one of the most-respected spiritual sites of esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo) in Japan since as early as the 10th century. The combination of alpine and volcanic elements was regarded by them as the “land of perfect bliss” celebrated by buddhas.
Mary joined the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1962 as a research associate in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology. The director of the museum assured Mary: “No woman will ever be a curator here”. Less than a decade later, he was proved wrong.
In 1970 she became curator of the same museum, and kept that position till her retirement in 2004. She was responsible for the fourth largest vertebrate fossil collection in North America as well as the Chair of the Division of Earth Sciences at the museum (1973-1997) and acting director (1982-1983). She continues to work as curator-emerita and the Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is currently named in her honour.
Mary Dawson started her scientific career with the study of the evolution of rodents and lagomorphs. Her groundbreaking graduate thesis (University of Kansas, 1958), is a comprehensive study of North American rabbits between 45 and 1 million years ago. After she graduating, she headed to Switzerland for a year-long postdoc where she studied the comparable evolution of pikas. This included the giant Sardinian pika (Prolagus sardus) of the Late Pleistocene. Later, her fieldwork took her to Pleistocene caves in Sardinia and Sicily, where she was the first to make a life-size reconstruction of the Sardinian pika in gypsum based on a skeletal mount. One copy of this mount is kept at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland; another, originally belonging to Dutch palaeontologist Paul Sondaar, was given to the author of this post, Alexandra van der Geer, in 1990. You can see a great picture of Mary working on the mounts here.
In addition to this work, Mary conducted fieldwork at the Haughton Crater deposit in the Arctic (Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands) between 1973 and 1987, where her team was the first to discover fossils of terrestrial mammals that indicated a migration route between North America and Europe during the Paleogene, some 45-48 million years ago. These discoveries gave support to the plate tectonics theory of continental evolution providing evidence of a land bridge stretching from North America to Europe. The land mammals she and her team found indicated a warm, temperate climate with no or very little frost.
Mary has received numerous awards, including the Arnold Guyot Prize from the National Geographic Society in 1981 and honorary membership of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in 1999. She is the second woman and the first American woman who received the prestigious Romer-Simpson medal (2002), the highest honour bestowed by the SVP, in recognition of her research in the Arctic. According to Mary, she did not face particular problems as a woman palaeontologist; she always did her own thing. Stefanie Doebler, however, shared the following anecdote: “…she cheerfully described how she was given a Paleontologist Barbie for Christmas (c. 1997). To her dismay, the largest item in the doll’s toolbox was her hairbrush. ‘Obviously there’s still a long, long way between Barbie and reality,’ says Dawson.”
Between 2007-2010, she collaborated with Natalie Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in a search for Arctic fossils that led to the discovery of a transitional form in the evolution of seals and their relatives. Together with Richard Tedford of the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and Natalie Rybczynski, Mary described this early Miocene proto-seal as Puijila darwini in the journal Nature (2009). She continues to carry out high-quality research on fossil rodents and lagomorphs today.
Image credit: Mary Dawson (far right), Natalia Rybczynski (center) of Canadian Museum of Nature (July 2007). Together with Liz Ross they found a small, carnivorous mammal in 23-million-year-old lake deposits on Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada. Used with kind permission of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, all rights reserved
New findings published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by an international team of researchers, including Museum Curator Ross MacPhee, are revising estimates of the age of American mastodon fossils—and helping to resolve a quandary about how these extinct relatives of elephants once lived in the Arctic and Subarctic.
Over the course of the late Pleistocene, between about 10,000 and 125,000 years ago, the American mastodon became widespread and occupied many parts of continental North America as well as peripheral locations like the tropics of Honduras and the Arctic coast of Alaska.
Existing age estimates of American mastodon fossils had indicated that these animals lived in the Arctic and Subarctic when the area was covered by ice caps—a timeline that was at odds with what scientists know about the massive animals’ preferred habitat: forests and wetlands abundant with leafy food.
The new research, which adjusts fossil age estimates based on new radiocarbon dates, suggests that the Arctic and Subarctic were only temporary homes to mastodons when the climate there was warm.
The mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos, is much overlooked by many bird enthusiasts due to its ubiquity, but the mallard is an interesting bird for a number of reasons. It’s one of the most widespread ducks on the planet, and has the unique ability to hybridize with a number of other members of the genus Anas, such as the American black duck and more distant relatives like the northern pintail. This unusual propensity for hybridizing and producing fully-fertile offspring is thought to be a consequence of the rapid and recent evolution of the mallard in the late Pleistocene. In fact, mallard bones appeared rather abruptly in the dietary remains of ice age humans, and mitochondrial DNA data suggest they evolved in the general area of Siberia.
Mallards are also notable for being the ancestor of most breeds of domestic duck, with which they are also completely interfertile.
A new studyby an international team of researchers, including Z. Jack Tseng, a Frick Postdoctoral Fellow in the Museum’s Division of Paleontology, identifies a newly discovered 3- to 5-million-year-old Tibetan fox from the Himalayan Mountains, Vulpes qiuzhudingi, as the oldest close relative of the living Arctic fox Vulpes lagopus.
The finding lends support to the idea that the evolution of present-day animals of the Arctic region is intimately connected to ancestors that first became adapted for life in cold regions in the high-altitude environments of the Tibetan plateau.
It’s game day and we’re preparing for Super Bowl 50 the best way we know how, by taking a look at the natural history behind the teams’ mascots, panthers and broncos:
What is a bronco?
A bronco is a wild or untamed horse. The famous mustangs of the American West, like many other “wild” populations, are actually considered feral, descended from escaped domesticated horses. In the popular rodeo sport known as bronc riding, horse and human battle each other. The “bucking bronco” tries to throw the rider off, even as the rider fights for control. Bronc riding is based on a method for breaking horses where a cowboy rides by force until the horse is tamed.
Tell me more about horses.
The horse evolved 55 million years ago. A close, early relative of the horse is Hyracotherium, also known as an eohippus. The size of a large fox, Hyracotherium stood 10 inches high at its shoulders and had four toes on its front feet and three on its back. The only surviving branch of the horse family is the genus Equus, which includes zebras, asses, and donkeys along with the horse. All horse breeds, from slim thoroughbred racehorses to stocky plow horses to tiny ponies, belong to a single species, Equus caballus.
Horses are good at sports, right?
Horses are magnificent athletes. Most horses, no matter what breed, can trot for many hours without resting. A fit quarter horse can sprint a quarter-mile (402 meters) in less than 21 seconds, and a talented thoroughbred can jump a fence more than seven feet (2.1 meters) tall.
Is that a horse fossil?
Yes! This is a specimen of Equus occidentalis, or Western horse, that lived during the Late Pleistocene, about 40-12 thousand years ago. This fossil horse skull was retrieved from the La Brea tar pits, in Los Angeles, California.
It’s game day and we’re preparing for Super Bowl 50 the best way we know how, by taking a look at the natural history behind the teams’ mascots, panthers and broncos. First up, panthers:
What is a panther?
A black panther is a melanistic form of a jaguar (Panthera onca) or leopard (Panthera pardus). Both of these cat species are spotted and have a tawny base color with black spots (or rosettes in the case of the jaguar). The melanism is caused by a mutation that increases the amount of melanin in the coat and makes the tawny color very dark and masks the spots or rosettes. If you look closely, you can still see the spots on a “black panther.” When someone sees an all black large cat in Central or South America, it’s a melanistic jaguar.
Okay, tell me more about jaguars.
The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas. Its muscular, compact frame is built for strength and stealth rather than extended pursuit. A jaguar’s jaws can crush the skulls of small mammals and can even pierce turtle shells. For larger prey, it pounces, bringing down the victim by wrenching the head with a swipe of its wide paw.
Is that a jaguar fossil?
Yes! The above fossil is a Museum specimen of Panthera onca augusta, an extinct jaguar that lived during the Late Pleistocene epoch, approximately 500-12 thousand years ago. This fossil was collected in Florida.