Big ancient animals

August 18, 2015 • 2:30 pm

This is a palliative to the Christian nonsense of the last video. This one’s an NPR video—on a channel run by “Skunkbear”—that tells us about ancient huge animals—and in rhyme.

You can see all the creatures together here. I’m fascinated by the “megapenguin,” which was taller than most humans, and you can read about it at the Guardian. A graphic from their piece:

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.38.10 AM



59 thoughts on “Big ancient animals

  1. Is there a story to this ancient gigantism?
    Why would many creatures with counterparts today have been larger in the past?

      1. When I was around five years of age, my parents & grandparents attempted to indoctrinate me with their various DIFFERENT religions. The only thing they seemed to agree on was that if I got it WRONG, then I’d spend Eternity in HELL. Since human children canNOT analyze critically until they’re teenagers, I became quite scared. I developed what doctors originally thought were “stomach ulcers” [it turned out to “only” be stomach cramps that were so SEVERE I couldn’t walk upright. I say that: “Religion is the brainwashing of little children before they’re old enough to know any better. Simply put, Religion is CHILD ABUSE.” I know what I’m talking about from personal PAINFUL experience. If you’re interested in some amusing quotes from some famous people here they are:/Users/tomlang/Desktop/Excerpted Quotes–Print Data File.pdf

        1. Sorry about your awful experience. I hope you’ve fully overcome that.

          “canNOT analyze critically until they’re teenagers”
          I think you’re being a bit generous. Try 25 yrs.

          P.S. I don’t think that link will work.

    1. Natural selection can lead to gigantism since larger individuals are better at holding territories and attracting mates and thwarting predators. The result can be an evolutionary arms race to be bigger and bigger. But giants are vulnerable due to long generation time, slow reproductive rate, and the attendant requirement for vast and stable resources. So they get extincted when the environment changes.

      1. I believe the loss of the giant penguins has been associated with the rise of the baleen whales. Competitive exclusion?

        1. OK, that makes good sense. So would this apply to all upscale species? They come under competitive pressure from smaller, more energy efficient species? Based on these clues, it would seem that large species can appear over a period of stability, but then when things change suddenly and dramatically, you get smaller more flexible species taking over the same ecosystems.
          So, if humans can be considered a largish predatory mammal, would a species of mini-me be in the offing as AGW imposes it’s demands?
          I am being facetious, yes, but the idea of big vs small is fascinating.

    2. It’s called “ascertainment bias”. If species size fluctuates fairly randomly, then over the lifetime of a group the largest member has to live at some time or other, and if the group has been around for a while that time is more likely to have been the past than the present.

      Now, as far as we know, the blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived. But nobody thinks about that when the subject of huge, extinct animals comes up.

      1. Ascertainment bias? It sounds good, but how about the dinosaurs? Their fossil record must be pretty complete by now (speaking broadly). Was there not a time when dinosaurs grew larger until wiped out by a meteor? They were replaced by much smaller animals. Is that also a biased assessment?
        I was thinking about the blue whale, yes it is indeed very large. But it is unfortunately classified as endangered, and if whaling had not been reduced would probably be extinct by now.
        The picture I see is that of size increasing and decreasing over time. Is there no objective reality to this observation? Is it just bias?

        1. I’m no expert, but it looks like most of the really large dinosaurs lived 80-100 million years before the impact event. So no, it does not seem to be the case that dinos grew steadily larger until wiped out. Some dinos were large, some were small, and large and small lineages came and went throughout their 250-million-year history in response to the selection pressures of the moment. I’m not clear on what you think needs explanation beyond that.

          1. True. Most of the largest sauropods were Jurassic. And of course many dinosaur lineages grew smaller over time; hummingbirds, for example.

      2. I would say that the Liopleurodon would eat a blue whale for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Certainly the largest carnivore that ever swam the warm oceans.
        At least 25m (82 ft)
        But then a sulfur bottom whale is at the largest scientific measurement officially recorded is around 109 ft. long.

        At an average weight of 100 -150 tons (200,000 – 300,000 pounds on average) or more these whales are also considered one of the heaviest creature to have ever lived on earth.

    3. If you look at the other end of the telescope, you’ll possibly see an answer.
      In the past various groups of animals existed in a range of sizes. Then their habitats were invaded by hyperactive tool-using apes from East Africa, who have sequestered a lot (I think it’s 10%, but it only needs to be “a lot”) of the energy in the environment for their own purposes, including grazing their own food animals on steppes, shooting tasty animal full of arrows and shooting dangerous (particularly big and dangerous, but also small and dangerous, like mosquitoes) animals full of arrows and spears.
      Looking down that end of the telescope, is it so surprising that the giants of the land and the sea are less common or extinct these days.
      There is also the possibility that the rapid changes of climate in the earlier parts of the ice ages made life difficult for megafauna before they met the nasty, pointy, dangerous apes. So you may have several things going on at once. But human predation and environmental sequestration are major forces too.

      1. That’s definitely the case for the latest round of extinctions — why we don’t have wooly mammoths nor sabertooth tigers nor thylacines.

        But I think it’s fair to say that none of the iconic towering toothy sculptures of fossilized bone that grace the lobbies of natural history museums met their demises at the ends of pointy ape spears….


          1. I’m trying to remember…wasn’t that the one where Jesus saddled a velociraptor to preach his message of vegetarianism to the Nazis living on the far side of the Moon?


              1. Not that weird. Neither WordPress nor Jerry guarantees that comments will show up immediately, or at all. Sometimes WordPress has to think a bit harder about whether to let a comment through without moderation.

        1. The OP was talking about genera with living, if reduced, representatives. Sauropods are slightly more closely related to bird than apes are – pointy sticks or no – but not much more closely related.

      2. Years ago, in school I wrote a paper on the idea of human forced extinction in N. America. I think it is still considered a big factor in the loss of the megafauna, but there are other ideas such as the retreat of the last ice phase, disease, etc.
        I remember accounts of how humans drove entire herds of beasts off cliffs, and used fire to drive critters into the open for slaughter. It doesn’t take long to reach population collapse with that kind of pressure.

        1. You don’t even have to go back that far. Buffalo, Passenger Pigeons…

          (Well, I guess the latter weren’t exactly mega, size-wise. Mega in numbers for a while, though.)

      1. Meanwhile it strikes me as funny that the human in the middle of the diagram is labeled “British Man,” though I think I know why.

  2. Curiously in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” there is a giant species of penguin thta had lived in dark caves for so long it had mere slits for eyes and totally white pigment. About the size of the Mega Penguin.
    Lucky guess on his part.

      1. And H.P. Lovecraft knew that there were giant penguins… in those days. Penguin edition of “The Holy Bible.”

  3. As a kid I had a picture book with many of these massive animals that I would pore over for hours. It also had a section of animals that went extinct because of humans. I especially remember the Atlas fauna (Atlas bear, Atlas lion). I think the bear was killed off by the Romans, and the lion went extinct in the 50’s from over-hunting. I believe a lot of these ancient animals would still be alive today if it weren’t for us.

    1. That hypothesis of human caused extinction of the N. American mega-fauna was discarded when the found that not only didn’t the human population at the time cause a dent the extinction event killed off the humans too! It is still a head scratcher of a mystery.

        1. Murder, or natural causes? A new study might exonerate humans of killing off large mammals like this mastodon.
          What Killed the Great Beasts of North America?
          Email Michael
          By Michael Balter
          28 January 2014 5:45 pm

          Until about 11,000 years ago, mammoths, giant beavers, and other massive mammals roamed North America. Many researchers have blamed their demise on incoming Paleoindians, the first Americans, who allegedly hunted them to extinction. But a new study fingers climate and environmental changes instead. The findings could have implications for conservation strategies, including controversial proposals for “rewilding” lions and elephants into North America.

          The idea that humans wiped out North America’s giant mammals, or megafauna, is known as the “overkill hypothesis.” First proposed by geoscientist Paul Martin more than 40 years ago, it was inspired in part by advances in radiocarbon dating, which seemed to indicate an overlap between the arrival of the first humans in North America and the demise of the great mammals. But over the years, a number of archaeologists have challenged the idea on several grounds. For example, some researchers have argued that out of 36 animals that went extinct, only two—the mammoth and the mastodon—show clear signs of having been hunted, such as cuts on their bones made by stone tools. Others have pointed to correlations between the timing of the extinctions and dramatic fluctuations in temperatures as the last ice age came to a halting close.
          I see it was still there, not popular or supported, but still not fully ejected. Still wasn’t the full answer. So I was barely wrong. It is nice to be almost right! Thanx for the web site!

          1. 🙂

            Yes, a lot of “mights” and “ifs” still, but a fascinating discussion! Perhaps like many controversies, part of each idea may apply. (Say, human hunting pressure pushed megafauna populations to the point where they were particularly vulnerable to environmental changes. Or vice versa.) Or perhaps one explanation applies to some areas, and the other to others. North America is a pretty big place after all.

            Hmmm, free associating…what’s the megafaunal status of Europe? Asia?…

  4. Where does “British Man” fit in the phylogeny of human ancestors? And why has his weight been redacted?

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