New Flying Wildlife – Part 1

JeholopterusNow, it isn’t too hard to predict what sorts of creatures might take to the sea and evolve into orders of great marine animals. Much harder is to imagine what sorts of creatures might take flight, spreading their wings for greater evolutionary horizons. You would think that the gliding animals would be first to take the steps towards true flight. But with there being established flying animals in ecosystems, it would take an extinction for the gliding animals to take over. Evolution has ignored this before, though. Even with the magnificent pterosaurs ruling the skies, some small maniraptoran dinosaurs developed the first feathers and started to use them for short flight. Those maniraptors were to achieve something great: the origin of birds, among the most diverse group of vertebrate animals around today. Again, evolution would produce flying creatures when some sort of small shrew-like insectivore began to glide to catch prey. Over time its gliding membrane would become a wing, and we now have bats, the sadly infamous creatures of the dark (bats have been so poorly stereotyped as bloodthirsty mangy nocturnal predators). Now, do I think with birds and bats that some of the current gliding creatures might fly? Not likely. These two groups fill so many niches, so perfectly that I cannot see how any new flying order might evolve with them still being extant. So, what if in some strange extinction all birds and bats went extinct?

Humboldt squid

I shall begin this series with the possibility of flying squids: The squids of Onmastrephidae, the so-called flying squids, are known to proprell themselves from the water using their funnels. This means, basically, that they use jet-propelled flight as a means of locomotion. Thus, if they were to ever master this technique, they would be “jet squids”. Plus, I think the fins have the chance to become muscular and achieve some capability of flapping in order to maintain this strange form of flight. Modern flying squids can glide distances of 50 meters, about the same maximum distance as flying fish. This is a pretty amazing feat if you think about it. Now, interestingly, this group also includes the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas). Not to get off topic, but this is a wonderful species of squid with great evolutionary potential. It is an aggressive predator known to attack divers and fisherman and can weigh up to 100 pounds. It is also the only known invertebrate to hunt cooperatively, something that could lead to specialization in larger prey later on in the evolutionary continuum of this monster of a cephalopod. I will likely touch back on the subject of the Humboldt later on. In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss flying fish, butterflyfish, hatchetfish, and flying frogs. In Part 3, I will discuss gliding reptiles and mammals.

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Whale Evolution (video)

Looking at the evolution of the past often helps to predict the evolution of the future. In this case, the evolution of whales may hint at the future evolution of other marine species.

Analysis of Boars and Dixon’s Turmi

Boar

Boars are opportunistic feeders found across Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. They have been reintroduced into the Britain and have developed feral populations in the Americas, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. They are easy to adapt to a variety of habitats and are known to be pests in many regions. But, they have also been domesticated to produce what we know as pigs. Part of their introduction to not-native regions is the ease at which domestic pigs will revert to a feral state.

The simple fact that pigs and boars are so adaptable is proof that with a megafaunal extinction they will succeed greatly. In some cases, they will remain with the simple swine model: an omnivorous artiodactyl with a long snout, tusks, and a relatively short mane of hair down the head and neck. This is the case with the Future is Wild‘s aptly named Scrofa, a long snouted suid adapted for foraging in the flat, bare Mediterranean region.

Scrofa

In many other cases, suids will become larger. A common hypothesis is that they will replace the elephants (the Nozdrokh from the Neocene and the Zarander from After Man), becoming large and bulky with prehensile proboscises and long sharp tusks for display and mating rituals. My own project places their origin in southeast Asia, spreading out to Mongolia, the Arctic, and Europe. Also is the common idea for “tapir” pigs. Instead of becoming huge, they become only slightly larger and develop a semi-prehensile proboscis like the tapirs of modern South America and southeast Asia. Just the same, they could become more like hippos and rhinos. Large semi-aquatic grazing pigs and rhino-like browsing pigs are certainly not strange and over-the-top ideas. Within a few million years of a major extinction, boar size will grow immensely, sometimes exponentially. Stranger ideas include giraffasuids (long-necked pigs that are less likely than other ideas mentioned above) and horned pigs (which actually are not far off from what has happened in history).

Turmi

Although I believe Dougal Dixon did a relatively good job on the Zarander (Procerosus elephanasus) from his book After Man, I think it may a severe mistake with the “Turmi”. This odd-looking swine has a diet based solely on ants and termites and a snout that totally breaks the conventional pig mold. A) Ants and termites would not provide a good enough food source for a pig-sized animal. These hoofed mammals would have to be continuously eating to maintain a healthy weight. B) Logically, at least I would think, the tusks would face downward or forward to scrape dirt and leaf litter in search of food. Plus, the nostrils would be located at the end of the snout in order to better locate prey (aardvarks, anteaters, and echidnas all follow this model). C) These Turmi have huge “claws” above their hooves, which in my opinion are practically impossible to make. Otherwise, the Turmi are accurate as far as Suidae standards.

Sad Yet So True

Goanna Dreamtime

Komodo dragonMonitor lizards, otherwise known as varanids (genus Varanus) or goannas (in Australia), are carnivorous lizards found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and many archipelagos and island chains. Until recently some species were thought to possess toxic bacteria, but now we know they have amounts of weak venom, used to help down large prey. Monitor lizards have existed for millions of years, closely related to the extinct mosasaurs and the venomous goanna-like Estesia mongoliensis (Norell, McKenna & Novacek, 1992). Their modern-day relatives include the beaded lizard, Gila monster, and earless monitor. The largest species is the “infamous” Komodo dragon (Komodo Island Monitor, Ora), a 6.5 to 10-foot lizard first discovered in 1910 (by Western scientists).

Nile monitorBeginning with African monitors: I could see large wandering land monitors like Megalania or similar to terrestrial crocodiles. They would likely be scavengers or opportunistic feeders, snatching what they can for themselves or from other predators. Specialized forms may develop, like burrowing monitors feeding on insects such as crickets, ants, and termites. Or maybe, instead of a burrower, a semi-aquatic swimmer that hunts fish and insect larva. The burrower would be a descendant of the savannah monitor (Varanus exanthematicus) and the swimmer would be a descendant of the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus). In my opinion, Australasian monitors will be much more diverse.

The “goannas” or Australasian monitors have a much more interesting future ahead of them. I don’t see an ant-monitor, simply because there will be mammalian ant-eater equivalents such as echidnas or numbats, although their numbers have declined quite a bit. I’d like to see large 14-foot terrestrial monitors charging around after flightless birds and kangaroos except they have re-refined their venom glands to be able to kill effectively. In the Australasian forests, arboreal monitors will find haven, perhaps even semi-gliding monitors chasing after birds (bats and other birds will probably prevent this). In mountainous regions, the more derived circulatory system of monitors might allow them to become fishers if mammals do not take advantage of the niche.

My final idea is the development of semi-aquatic marine monitors along the coasts of Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands. They will resemble long-necked monitors will adaptations of crocodiles and the prehistoric nothosaurs. They will not be fully marine, having to return to land to lay eggs. The best prey item will be fish and seabirds and maybe invertebrates.

Future Proboscideans

African bush elephantProboscideans are an ancient order of mammals that have existed since the Tertiary Period, 50 million years ago. Over the span of this group’s history, they have included moeritheres, deinotheres, gomphotheres, mastodons, mammoths, and elephants. Today, only 3 species of elephants remain: 2 African and 1 Asian species. Elephants are massive beasts; the largest nowadays can be as tall as 11 feet and can weigh 11 tons. Many have tusks, the ivory of which has resulted in the deaths of numerous elephants. In recent times, these amazing animals have been threatened by poaching with conservation be rather limited in some countries. One must wonder if these wonderful giants will survive after our demise?

Being such large animals, I fear that their survival will depend on isolated environments such as forested valleys and islands. Areas that fit into this description include East Africa (after separating from the mainland of course), Indonesia, the Himalayas, north Africa and the Mediterranean (after colliding). If populations from elephant sanctuaries and zoos are able to breed and populate foreign regions than there could even be American elephants (or elephants just about anywhere else where they are kept captive).

Borneo elephantThe niche that any future elephants would fit into is most likely to be varied browser (grass and foliage). If a North American population develops, I could see Asian elephants becoming hairy American neo-mammoths, sharing the plains with wild donkeys, giant mule deer, wolf-like coyotes or foxes, lion-like cougars, and huge peccaries. Young Asian elephants are already quite hairy, so I don’t see why hairy adults wouldn’t occur. In their native Asia, I could see Stegodon-like elephants in southeast Asia but logging and semi-domestication have done a good deal to their populations. (In an ironic twist, the elephants themselves are used to take down the forest they call home.) Just as well, they could become dwarves but dwarf elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) already exist.

Loxodonta rangeIn East Africa, where I predict the line will make its last stand, similar adaptations will be made (as in longer tusks like Stegodon or smaller body size as in many dwarf mammoths and elephants). To be honest though, it is being quite optimistic to say that elephants will come out of the human age clean and free but if they do there will be a period in which their populations will boom as a result of no pressure from humans. After a while though, they would level out in numbers and reach a temporary equilibrium until even more changes effect the world they live in, such as an ice age or some sort of major floral extinction (not quite as likely as an ice age). Later on I will discuss what groups of animals might replace elephants in a series on “new megafauna”.

Part 2: The Rise of Man?

Woolly mammoth-cro-magnon encounterFirst, let us study Neanderthal technology. Neanderthals had soft Mousterian hammers which they used to make stone-flakes, hand axes, and spears (for thrusting, likely not projectile spears). Materials they used included wood, bones, antlers, and eventually some stone by the end of their timeline. It has been suggested that they only inherited much of their more advanced technology and thus in comparison to their human neighbors, they were less sophisticated. Technology was a part of why humans were able to drive their cousins to extinction, so without pressure they could have developed similar technology but at a slightly slower pace. I doubt they would reach our modern technology by this time and perhaps they might have never reached it (as the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines never developed as advanced technology as groups of the same species in other places of the earth).

Agriculture

Next up: Would the Neanderthals have domesticated wildlife and developed means to cultivate species of plants? I think in certain areas there is a possibility that they might go through the same steps as we did to reach civilization. Perhaps in some Middle Eastern river valley, a population of Neanderthals might use the seasonal floods of the region to develop agriculture and eventually an advanced civilization as did the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Chinese. What they domesticate is purely speculative. Some of our domesticated and semi-domesticated animals are former prey or predators of our ancestors. Possibly, these Neanderthals might domesticate the mammoths and deer they once drove to death. They may even develop religious beliefs or deities based on the behemoths.

With civilization comes culture, so if Neanderthals create civilization then they will likely have an advanced culture. I can’t say if they will have art, music, and literature just as we do because there is no evidence of them ever exhibiting anything related to the three. Cave art is purely limited to the Cro-Magnons, so the possibilities for them having art and, at some point, a written language, is quite hard to predict. First they would have to have an oral language and drawn pictures. Then they would start associating the spoken word with the drawn picture and the picture would evolve into a symbol and so on. I think that with a civilization and culture, they would eventually have a system of hieroglyphics. (see Neanderthal language for more info)
Neanderthal religions? As far as a Neanderthal religion(s), I think there is evidence for the start of such a step to higher society. Neanderthal burial sites show some signs of care for the dead as well as grave goods suggesting more advanced and even religious burial could have come in the future (maybe not to the extent of entire Pyramids). A Neanderthal religion, I believe, would either develop into a spiritual one (the earth and animals both play important roles as in the Native American and Shinto religions) or one more similar to the Egyptians or Hindus (in which animals play key roles and are even worshiped to some extent). They would also have some form of afterlife if they give burial goods to the dead. Deities would likely relate to natural themes such as specific animals who represents certain things to the Neanderthal people (such as fertility, agriculture, death, life, war, etc.).

Now, all these developments are not expected to be made by the Neanderthals themselves (Homo neanderthalensis) but perhaps by some descendant of the species that is slimmer, more agile, and more intelligent and human-like but not exactly us.