Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly causing me to add the book to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future, some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#38]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!


*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?