Alfred Hitchcock in 1232 Words and my Favorite 15 Hitchcock Movies

February 25, 2021

Alfred Hitchcock is my all-time favorite movie director, and I have seen at least 30 of his movies–some multiple times.  I recently read an 800 page biography of Alfred Hitchcock.  For those interested in him but not interested enough to spend 6 weeks reading his biography, I put forth a synopsis of his life, then list my 15 favorite Hitchcock movies.

NPG x194278; Alma Reville; Patricia Hitchcock; Alfred Hitchcock - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery

Alfred Hitchcock with his wife, Alma, and his daughter, Pat.  Today, Pat is 92 years old.

Alfred Hitchcock was born during 1899 in London, England, a child of Catholic parents in a mostly Protestant country.  He was the youngest of 3 children, and his brother and sister were nearly a decade older than him.  His father owned a produce stand, but later took over a fish and chips shop, and the family lived on the 2nd story over the store.  Hitchcock didn’t have friends when he was a child, but instead would watch and observe other children playing.  He frequently attended plays and early silent movies, and by the time he was a teenager he was already reading movie trade publications.  He expressed the desire to become a nautical engineer and attended a technical school for a year.  Hitchcock was 15 years old when his father died of alcoholism.  Hitchcock’s brother took over the fish and chips shop, and Hitchcock got a job working for Henley’s Telegraph and Cable company as a sales clerk.  He was later promoted to the advertising department where he honed his design skills.  He also wrote for the company literary magazine, producing flash fiction notably Hitchcockian–suspenseful with humorous twist endings.  At the age of 21 Hitchcock took a job with Gainsborough Movie Productions writing the title cards for silent movies.  He was then promoted to art director.  Unfortunately, most of these early movies he worked on have been lost.

Hitchcock met his wife, Alma, while working for Gainsborough.  She was already working there when he was first hired.  He hired her when he became director of his first movie, a German film entitled Pleasure Garden. Alma was the love of his life and an important contributor for all of his movies.  She worked on screenplays, edited, and critiqued.  Hitchcock never had any long lasting affairs outside his marriage, but may or may not have gotten occasional blow jobs from actresses (perhaps even Ingrid Bergman).  It’s unclear whether these incidents ever happened.  Hitchcock often told dirty jokes just before filming an actress to put her at ease or to make her feel uncomfortable (whichever response he was trying to elicit for the role).  Most actresses thought this habit was funny, but a few didn’t like it.  Hitchcock likely would have gotten in trouble with the modern #metoo movement today, despite admittedly being incapable of sexual intercourse since the early 1940s due to his weight.  (Oral sex may have been the only sex act he could enjoy.)  Alma also had an unfulfilled love affair with a gay screenwriter.  But Hitchcock and his wife stayed together until the end and deeply cared about each other.

Hitchcock directed 5 movies for Gainsborough Pictures, then 11 for British International Pictures.  His first talking movie was Blackmail made in 1929.  Some British movie producers thought talking movies were just a fad, and one can see the influence making silent movies had on Hitchcock.  His most memorable scenes are visual and need no sound.  Examples include the shower scene from Psycho, the crop duster attack in North by Northwest, and the villain falling off the Statue of Liberty in The Saboteur. 

British International Pictures fired Hitchcock during 1932, and he freelanced Waltzes from Vienna in 1934 before being hired by Gaumont Pictures where he made 8 movies including some pretty good ones such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.  His final British movie was Jamaica Inn for Mayflower Pictures with Charles Loughton.

Hitchcock wanted to make movies in America.  In England the weather was bad, often delaying shooting, and British film companies were always in financial difficulty, verging on bankruptcy.  So he signed an insultingly low paying contract with David Selznick Productions, making $50,000 to make 2 movies per year–less than half of what mediocre American directors averaged at the time.  The Hitchcock family moved to California and became American citizens, and soon Hitchcock started making really good movies with fat American budgets and big name stars.

Five Things to Watch for in Vertigo – Facets Blog

Scene from Vertigo, my favorite Hitchcock movie.  He began his career during the era of silent movies, and his work always reflected that.  His most famous scenes are all visual.

SABOTEUR Deconstruction of a scene: The Statue of Liberty finale – Alfred Hitch-blog

Scene from The Saboteur of a man falling off the statue of liberty.

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the art of the chase

Famous scene from North by Northwest of Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster.  Hitchcock’s movies didn’t always make logical sense.  Why didn’t the bad guys just have a man with a high powered rifle assassinate him?  I suppose that wouldn’t have been as interesting to watch.

The first American movie Hitchcock directed, Rebecca, won a best producer Oscar for David Selznick.  Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to RKO, Universal Productions, Skirball Productions, and 20th Century Fox; and Hitchcock made a string of critical and commercially successful movies.  He also returned to England for a while and made propaganda films for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. After the war he completed his contract with Selznick Productions by directing Spellbound and The Paradine Case.  The latter and his next 2 movies–Rope and Under Capricorn–were box office flops.  Hitchcock signed his next contract with Warner Brothers and made critical and commercially successful movies including Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, and Dial M for Murder.  Hitchcock reached his creative zenith during the mid-1950’s through the early 1960’s, making his most famous films.  Rear Window was the 3rd best selling movie of 1954.  He followed this with some of the best movies he ever made–Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.  

Hitchcock’s television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents made him a huge celebrity, and by now he was finally making big money.  He produced and hosted the show for a decade from 1955-1965.  During the early seasons he also directed 3-4 episodes a season, though by later years he was directing just 1-2 episodes per season.  But he chose the scripting, screenwriters, and actors for each episode.  The show, an anthology series focusing on unusual murders, was both humorous and suspenseful, and it was an instant hit with critics.  It remained popular and highly rated during its entire run, and the only reason the show ended was because Hitchcock’s health declined, and he no longer had the energy to make movies and produce a television show.

Later Hitchcock movies seem bloated, old-fashioned, and mediocre.  Marnie, Topaz, and Torn Curtain are nothing to get excited about.  But Hitchcock did make 1 really good movie in his later years–Frenzy (filmed in England for Universal Pictures).  Hitchcock’s last movie, The Family Plot, was released in 1976.  By this time Hitchcock was a wealthy man, the third largest stockholder of Universal Pictures.  However, he suffered from obesity and heavy drinking, and 1 day, despite no apparent illness, he went to bed and refused to get up or eat (unusual for a man who enjoyed 4 hour feasts).  He stayed in bed for weeks and died at the age of 80 during 1980–almost as if he willed himself to die.

The American Film Institute periodically ranks the top 100 movies of all time.  One year 4 Hitchcock movies made the top 10 with Psycho as number 1.  Here are my 15 favorite Hitchcock movies.

One: Vertigo–The plot is improbable.  A man afraid of heights fails to save the woman he loves when she falls from a great height.  But she’s not dead.  The man (played by Jimmy Stewart) finds a lookalike (or is it really her?  What?) and tries to dress her to look like his lost love.  I can’t really explain why I love this movie so much.  Perhaps, I admire the weirdness of it all.

Two: North by Northwest–Cary Grant escapes the bad guys by running into an auction where he starts making stupid bids, attracting a police escort to kick him out.  I crack up laughing every time I see this scene.  The movie has suspense, romance, and humor…like most Hitchcock movies.

Three: Rear Window–Jimmy Stewart, laid up with a broken leg, gets to play voyeur when he looks at the apartment building on the other side of the street.  He suspects a man has murdered his wife.  He has.

Four: Spellbound–Hitchcock didn’t think much of this movie, but I enjoy the psuedo-Psychiatry.

Five: Dial M for Murder–A tight screenplay with the twist of a murder plot gone wrong.

Six: Psycho–Hitchcock’s most famous movie.  A cultural icon.

Seven: The Saboteur–Unforgettable scene of the bad guy falling off the Statue of Liberty.

Eight: Foreign Correspondent–Trouble in a wind mill.

Nine: The Birds–Another cultural icon.  A many layered story, though Hitchcock denied there was any deeper meaning than birds going amok.

Ten: Frenzy–The usual blend of Hitchcock humor and suspense.

Eleven: Rebecca–A masterpiece.

Twelve: Shadow of a Doubt–This is Hitchcock’s personal favorite.  What do you do when you discover your favorite uncle is a serial killer?

Thirteen: Rope–2 gay dudes murder their friend for kicks.  Just to see if they can get away with it.  The movie was ahead of its time.

Fourteen: Lifeboat–Survivors of a sunk ship are trapped on a lifeboat with the Nazi submarine commander who just sunk the ship.  What could go wrong?

Fifteen: Notorious–The movie studio executives thought the concept of an atomic bomb was ridiculous and wanted to change the screenplay. A few months after the movie was released, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

Reference:

McGilligan, Patrick

Alfred Hitchcock: A life in darkness and light

Regan Books 2003

 

The Daytona Beach Bone Beds Fossil site

February 18, 2021

Most people vacationing in Daytona Beach want to see car racing, but if I went there, I’d rather go to the Museum of Arts and Sciences.  Specimens of a giant ground sloth (Eremotherium laurillardi) and a mastodon, both excavated from a nearby fossil site, are mounted there.  The fossiliferous layer where they originated exists 12 feet below ground near Reed Canal Park, and most of the fossils there are discovered by accident when construction crews bulldoze into the earth.  The almost complete skeleton of the giant ground sloth was discovered during 1975, and the mastodon was discovered more recently by James Zacharias, the former curator of the Museum of Arts and Sciences.

View from inside the Museum of Arts and Sciences at Daytona Beach, Florida.

This is the only mention I can find of the Daytona Beach Bone Beds in the scientific literature.  It’s about gompothere specimens found in Florida.  Gompotheres were a tropical elephant relative that expanded its range into Florida during the warmest of interglacial climate phases.  Page from the below referenced article.

Curiously, no scientific papers describe the site (as far as I can find), and there isn’t much about it in the scientific literature.  There are hundreds of fossil sites in Florida, and I suppose scientists think this is just another routine site in the state.  Perhaps, there just aren’t enough professional paleontologists to study all the sites in that state.  I found just 1 scientific paper that even mentions the Daytona Beach Bone Beds.  It’s an article in the middle of a really obscure journal.  The article describes the gompothere fossils found in Florida, and some of the specimens are from the Daytona Beach Bone Beds.  Gompotheres were a relative of elephants and had a similar appearance.  Unlike mastodons and mammoths, gompotheres did not have fur and were adapted to live in tropical climates.  They looked more like African and Asian elephants than mammoths and mastodons did, though mammoths were more closely related to present day elephants than either gompotheres or mastodons were.  Gompotheres expanded their range north during warm interglacials.  The presence of Eremotherium and gompothere, both tropical species, suggests the fossils were deposited at this site about 130,000 years ago during the Sangamonian Interglacial.  3 different kinds of elephant-like animals plus giant ground sloths inhabited the region during the same time.  How remarkable.  The site is thought to have formerly been a large river mouth similar to the present day St. John’s River.  One newspaper reports over 50 species of mammals have been excavated from the site.  From piecing together newspaper reports and information from the University of Florida Museum of Natural History database, I count 2 species of fish and 34 species of mammals.  Here is the list.  * denotes extinct species

Atlantic croaker

spotted seatrout

least shrew

Carolina shrew

eastern mole

red bat

*giant ground sloth (Eremotherium)

*Harlan’s ground sloth

*beautiful armadillo

*pampathere (a giant armadillo)

*glyptodont

*woodland vole (Microtus hibbardi)

Florida muskrat

cotton mouse

cotton rat

rice rat

woodrat

gopher

gray squirrel

southern flying squirrel

bog lemming

*capybara

cottontail rabbit

raccoon

bobcat

black bear

*Florida spectacled bear

bottlenose dolphin

*tapir

horse

*long-horned bison

*llama

white tailed deer

*gompothere

*mastodon

*mammoth

Reference:

Luoges, S; G. Morgan, J. Spielman, and D. Prothero

Neogene Mammals

New Mexico Museum of Natural History 44 2006

“Cuveronious (Mammalia: Proboscidea) from the Neogene of Florida”

 

Some Pleistocene caribou (Rangifer tarandus) Gorged on Seaweed

February 11, 2021

Seaweed is an healthy dietary supplement for ruminants (animals that chew their cud).  Sheep in Scotland, reindeer in Norway, and caribou living along the coast of Alaska eat seaweed that washes up on the shore.  However, seaweed is seldom more than 5% of their diet.  If a caribou or sheep eats too much seaweed, they ingest too much salt and suffer diarrhea. A diet of mostly seaweed is not optimal.

Scientists recently analyzed a 45,000 year old caribou antler found on Haida Gwaii Island located off the coast of British Columbia.  They determined through an analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the amino acids that seaweed made up between 23%-41% of this individual’s diet.  The authors of this study think weather conditions forced this caribou into a suboptimal diet.  Normally, caribou feed upon birch and willow twigs and leaves, sedges, and mushrooms during summer; and lichen and dried sedges during winter.  They are capable of removing snow cover with their hooves, but they have difficulty breaking through icy snow when it covers their feeding grounds.  Apparently, icy snow covered this caribou’s prime feeding grounds, and it had to subsist on kelp washed on shore.  This caribou did live during a cold stage of the Wisconsinian Ice Age.

Image result for Haida Gwaii map

Map of Haida Gwaii Island, location of the 45,000 year old caribou specimen analyzed by scientists.  During the Ice Age the island was larger.  The coast of British Columbia and Alaska served as a glacial refuge for western caribou because most of their present day range was under glacial ice.  Caribou also roamed as far south as South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama during the Ice Age.

Image result for caribou eating seaweed

Svalbard reindeer feeding upon washed up kelp.  Reindeer are the same species as caribou.

Image result for caribou

North American caribou

Image result for kelp washed ashore

Kelp washing up on shore was an important item in the diet of at least 1 caribou 45,000 years ago.

Image result for Cladonia rangerfina

Cladonia rangerfina–a lichen.  This is a common winter food for caribou over much of their range.  Lichen are a symbiotic organism–a fungus with algae and/or cyannobacteria living in it.

Caribou roamed far down the eastern seaboard during the Ice Age.  Caribou fossils have been found as far south as Charleston, South Carolina, and their bones are often dredged up in fishing nets off the coast of North Carolina.  Caribou bones have also been excavated from caves in north Alabama and north Georgia.  Caribou probably migrated seasonally in eastern North America, and the route of some herds likely included an area along the Atlantic Coast that is now ocean but was dry land during the Ice Age.  I wonder if eastern caribou some times ate seaweed as well.  There are specimens that scientists could study to answer this question.

I also wonder what else caribou ate when they lived farther south during the Ice Age.  Lichen is a present day favorite food, and there are 17,000 different species of lichen worldwide.  Lichens are symbiotic organisms consisting of a fungus with algae and/or cyannobacteria.  The fungus gets nutrients from the woody or rocky substrate but also gets nutrients from the photosynthesis of the algae or cyannobacteria.  Nevertheless, I don’t think lichen was an important food source for eastern Ice Age caribou.  There were probably better quality foods available in the richer woodlands and grasslands of the east.

Reference:

Kubiak, C; R. Mathewes, J. Grimes, G. Biesen, and M. Rochester

“Evidence of a Significant Marine Plant Diet in a Pleistocene Caribou from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia”

Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology 564 Feb 2021

We Live in a World of Whining Woke and Unwoke wimps

February 4, 2021

Stacey Abrams among 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominees

Stacy Abrams.  She is my hero.  Her voter registration drive delivered Georgia’s electoral votes to Joe Biden.  Sensible African-American women saved democracy in the U.S. for now.

African-American women saved democracy in the United States this past election, and at least delayed the Republican attempts to end the democratic vote for President by 4 years.  If it was up to white voters, an Adolf Hitler wannabe would still be President.  The majority of white voters still supported a corrupt racist rapist who after losing the election attempted the violent takeover of the U.S. government.  It was the overwhelming vote of sensible African-American women who put Joe Biden over the top, not the whining woke wimps who declined to support him because he voted for tough-on-crime legislation 30 years ago.  Woke wimps whine about how mass incarceration is racist, but this is ridiculous revisionist history.  I lived during the time period when this legislation was passed, and I worked in low income neighborhoods where the violent crime rate was high.  I was a route manager for a newspaper circulation department, and I had to deliver newspapers in neighborhoods the carriers were afraid to go into.  Gangbangers carrying Uzi machine guns hung around the corners, and they wanted to sell me crack when I delivered the papers.  Pregnant drug addicted prostitutes offered sex.  I often heard gunshots.  People who lived in these neighborhoods were scared.  So when gangbangers started serving long prison sentences, the violent crime rate went way down, and the people who lived in these neighborhoods were glad.  Now, on Twitter, the drug laws are considered racist.  No, they were not.  Suburban white cokeheads weren’t the ones firing machine guns into people’s homes during stupid turf wars.  Most people in those neighborhoods remember what it was really like, and they voted for Biden almost unanimously.

Woke wimps whining about “white privilege” didn’t win the 2020 election either.  There is nothing lamer than a white liberal (and I am a white liberal) whining about the evils of “white privilege.”  I acknowledge discrimination against black people and their unequal treatment under the law is still a serious problem, and of course alleged discrimination against white people is not even remotely comparable.  But use of the term “white privilege” is in itself offensively racist.  The term stokes resentment against a group of people because of their race.  This is the very definition of racism.  At best the term is unhelpful.  Try telling a poor white person in West Virginia they are privileged, and they will laugh you out of their house.

Woke wimps often whine about “toxic masculinity.”  Men are now considered poison.  Associating the word toxic with masculinity suggests there is something inherently wrong with being a man.  I took issue with the use of this term on Twitter, and a scientist insulted my intelligence by referring me to an online definition that stated “toxic masculinity” applied to men who abuse woman, not all men (like I didn’t know what woke wimps mean when they spout the stupid phrase).  She is wrong and the definition is nonsense.  There is nothing masculine about a man who abuses women.  Linking the word toxic to masculinity is an insult to all men because it implies there is something abusive in our nature.

She must have suffered a “microaggression” when I disagreed with the use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” because she blocked me on Twitter and stopped following my blog.  “Microaggression” is a word woke wimps use, if they experience a perceived slight and get their feelings hurt.  Woke wimps don’t like “boomers” (people born between 1946-1973) because we don’t buy their politically correct Twitter vernacular (in other words horse shit).  A “boomer” telling the truth to a “woke wimp” is guilty of a “microaggression.”  Hey, if the word micro is attached to a word, it means it is minor and not important.  Quit acting butthurt and get over it.

There are plenty of unwoke wimps who can’t endure “microaggressions” either.  Trumpanzees unfriend my wife and I on Facebook, if we dare criticize their demi-God.  Trumpanzees are so brainwashed they worship Trump and act like he is some kind of deity.  This cult of the brainwashed reminds me of the German people before and during World War II when “Heil Hitler” replaced the words “Hello” and “Goodbye.”  Now instead of free thought, all they can do is shout out “Fake News” and “Make America Great Again” and “Build that Wall.”  Trying to engage them in a rational conversation is like talking to a mud puddle.

Another group of whining unwoke wimps call themselves “incel,” meaning involuntary celibate.  Good grief!  These sexist assholes whine about how they can’t get laid, and they blame women.  I want to tell them they should try and improve their social skills.  When I was in my 20s I had a hard time getting laid–maybe because I was a short nerdy dude with low self-esteem–but I never joined a woman-hating club of losers.  I blamed myself and worked on my social skills and eventually did get laid.  Today, there is no reason to be a bitter woman-hating loser.  A man can have virtual sex with the most beautiful women in the world to their liking for $1 a minute.  (See http://www.manyvids.com ) It may not be as good as the real thing, but it is a nice substitute.  If virtual internet sex had existed when I was their age, I would have never gotten off the computer.  Some of these nice enterprising ladies even offer the girlfriend experience.  I’ve been married for 27 years, and I don’t need this–if I want the girlfriend experience I can get off the computer, go in the other room, and get in an argument with my wife–but some of these “incel” losers could use it.  Their social skills might improve, and they might really get laid.

Last week, I wrote about our evolutionary ancestor–Heidelberg man.  It’s hard not to see the contrast between Heidelberg man and modern day woke and unwoke wimps.  Heidelberg man was probably satisfied with a full belly of whatever roots or dead meat they could find, a little stone or wood shelter, and raggedy furs to wrap around themselves and keep warm.  Modern day wimps can have just about anything they want at the tips of their fingers when they go on the internet.  Instead of being happy, they go ape shit when a 20 year old video of a celebrity making a politically incorrect comment is discovered.  Brainwashed idiots, incapable of critical thinking, storm the capitol because the sore loser they voted for conned them into an insurrection.  Don’t let anybody tell you economics had anything to do with the insurrection.  These unpatriotic fascists were able to afford to take time off work and travel across the country and participate in an hysterical temper tantrum that will end up forcing many to serve long prison sentences.  They could have stayed at home, got drunk on wine ordered from the finest vineyards, consumed edible THC, ordered home-delivered pizza on a phone app, and had virtual sex with a woman who measured 40-30-40.  What would Heidelberg man do?

Middle Pleistocene Man (Homo heidelbergensis)

January 29, 2021

Many late Pleistocene animals evolved from middle Pleistocene ancestors that were different enough to be considered separate species.  Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus colombi) evolved from the southern mammoth (M. meridionalis), a shorter elephant with straighter tusks. Jefferson’s ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni) evolved from Wheatley’s ground sloth (M. wheatleyi), and Smilodon fatalis evolved from the more lightly built S. gracilis, among many other examples.  The same is true for humans.  Both Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalis evolved from H. heidelbergensis, also known as Heidelberg man after discovery of the first specimen in Heidelberg, Germany during 1907.  Genetic evidence suggests modern humans diverged from Neanderthals between 750,000 years BP-550,000 years BP.  The population of Heidelberg man that lived in Europe evolved into H. neanderthalis, while the population of Heidelberg man that lived in Africa evolved into H. sapiens.  (The poorly known Denisovans diverged from Neanderthals.) Fossil evidence of Heidelberg man dates to between 600,000 years BP-300,000 years BP, though undoubtedly it occurred earlier than the fossil evidence indicates.  The oldest evidence of humans in Europe dates to 800,000 years ago and was found in Spain, but these specimens are considered an extinct sister species of Heidelberg man known as H. ancessor.

Homo Heidelbergensis: Forbears of Homo Sapiens - The Human Journey

Artist’s depiction of Homo heidelbergensis.  They were about the same height as modern men and had the same average brain capacity, but their jaws were distinctly different.

New insights on the wooden weapons from the Paleolithic site of Schöningen - ScienceDirect

The Schoningen spears, 330,000 year old projectile weapons used by Homo heidelbergensis.  They were found in a strip mine in Germany.  Archaeologists found 9 spears, 1 lance, a stick pointed on both ends, and a burned stick along with the remains of butchered horses next to a lakeshore.

Heidelberg man evolved from H. erectus.  Heidelberg man had a more human-like face and a larger brain capacity (averaging 1200 cc compared to 973 cc).  They had the same average brain size as modern day humans, and the main difference between the 2 is the shape of the jaw which was distinct.  Heidelberg man was the first species of human to colonize regions with cold climates.  To survive in harsher climates, they evolved to eat more meat.  In Europe this diet included elephant, rhino, bear, deer, boar, and horse; and in Africa they ate antelope and zebra.  They surely ate many different kinds of plants, but nothing is known of the vegetal part of their diet.  Heidelberg man had control of fire and used tools such as stone hand axes and wooden spears. In 1994 nine spears made of spruce wood were found in a German strip mine, and they dated to 330,000 years BP.  They are known as the Schoningen spears, and they were found associated with butchered horse bones.  Rapid rise of a lake level covered all this evidence in sediment and helped preserve it.

I have no doubt Heidelberg man could speak, though a minority of scientific opinion believes they could not.  The hyoid bone, important for speech, is well developed as are the middle ear bones used for understanding speech.  There is also evidence for right brain/left brain lateralization–one side of the brain is more dominant.  Brain lateralization suggests a brain used to speak and understand speech.  Heidelberg man hunted large mammals, an activity requiring cooperative hunting and therefore speech.

Specimens of Heidelberg man have been found in sites located in Germany, England, France, Greece, India, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa.  I tried to find out exactly how many specimens have been discovered worldwide, but as far as I can determine no study has catalogued them all.

Heidelberg man likely occurred in low population numbers, fluctuating with boom and bust climatic conditions, and whole tribes often perished  when important members died.  One site in Germany where Heidelberg remains were found also yielded bones of saber-tooths (Homotherium), lions, leopards, hyenas, bear, elephant, red deer, and horse.  Unlike modern humans, Heidelberg man didn’t always win in competition with the predators they shared the landscape with.

Reference:

Schoch, W.; G. Bigga, W. bohner, P. Richter, and T. Terberger

“New Insights on the Wooden Weapons from the Paleolithic Site of Schoningen”

Journal of Human Evolution 89 December 2015

Did Some Species of Giant Ground Sloths Live in Herds?

January 22, 2021

At least 22 giant ground sloths (Eremotherium laurillardi) perished in a pond polluted with their own feces over 18,000 years ago.  Scientists excavating this site found 667 vertebrate bones of which 575 were identified as belonging to Eremotherium.  These included the remains of at least 16 adults, 6 subadults, and 1 juvenile.  Fossil feces and gut contents were found alongside the bones.  The site, known as Tanque Loma, is located in Southwestern Ecuador.  Eremotherium was the largest of the extinct ground sloths, roughly the size of an African elephant, and they ranged from South America into southern North America, though they disappeared from the northern part of their range during the Last Glacial Maximum when the climate got too cold for them there.  Eremotherium bones show up in most coastal fossil sites in Georgia.  Fossil sites mostly composed of Eremotherium bones occur in Florida, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay; and the circumstances of these mass death sites may be the same.  Large groups of Eremotheriums, attracted to shrinking water holes during droughts, congregated there until they poisoned the water with great quantities of their feces.  The entire group then died within a few days, explaining the mass accumulation of mostly 1 species.  Modern hippos in Africa often suffer the same fate today.

Eremotherium Foot and Hand

Illustration of Eremotherium along with other Pleistocene animals.  Painting by the late Charles Knight.  Eremotherium may have been less hairy, like humans and elephants.  They were also larger than this illustration indicates.

Anthrax May Have Killed 100 Hippos in Namibia

Mass hippo deaths can occur when they contaminate the water they live in with their own feces.

Some scientists think the occurrence of different age groups at these mass death sites indicates Eremotherium lived in herds.  I doubt this can be determined.  It seems more likely they were simply attracted to the same resource.  Caves accumulate ground sloth remains as well because they were a resource that provided shelter for an animal that had difficulty controlling its body temperature.  Water holes and food items were resources that attracted ground sloths to the same spot, and many of the mothers just happened to be accompanied by young, but they were not necessarily living in organized herds.

Remains of other species found at Tanque Loma include Glossotherium (a smaller probably hairier species of ground sloth), pampathere (a giant armadillo), an extinct species of horse, and a deer related to the modern day whitetail.

Note to paleoecologists:  Nobody has yet studied the plant species composition of the sloth feces and gut contents found here.

Reference:

Lindsey, E.; et. al.

“A Monodominant Late-Pleistocene Megafauna Locality from Santa Elena, Ecuador: Insight on the Biology and Behavior of Giant Ground Sloths”

Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, and Paleoecology 544 April 15, 2020

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338565424_A_monodominant_late-Pleistocene_megafauna_locality_from_Santa_Elena_Ecuador_Insight_on_the_biology_and_behavior_of_giant_ground_sloths

A Shocking New Study of Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) DNA

January 15, 2021

Dire wolves were one of the most common large predators of Late Pleistocene North America, and sub-fossils of this species are common, but scientists have had difficulty finding specimens with enough intact DNA to analyze.  There are thousands of dire wolf fossils excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in California, but this DNA is contaminated with tar and can’t be used.  There are also many specimens of dire wolf fossils from Florida, but the humidity there causes DNA to deteriorate and become unusable.  However, Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist from Durham University, made a concerted effort to find dire wolf specimens with enough viable DNA to study, and she found 5 specimens.  Labs from Australia and England analyzed the DNA from these specimens and came to a stunning conclusion–dire wolves were not closely related to gray wolves (Canis lupus) as most paleontologists had assumed, and they were not really even wolves.  Instead, they were the last in a lineage of now extinct ancient canids.

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, New Genetic Clues Reveal

Illustration by Mauricio Anton of dire wolves interacting with timber wolves. Dire wolves were larger and may have had shorter reddish coats.


The genetic study determined the ancestor of dire wolves diverged from the ancestor of gray wolves at least 5.7 million years ago.  The closest living relative of the dire wolf is the African jackal (C. mesomelas), but the ancestor of that species diverged from dire wolf ancestors about 5.1 million years ago.  Interestingly, jackals can interbreed with wolves, but the study of dire wolf DNA found no evidence of interbreeding between gray wolves and dire wolves.  Apparently, the 2 species had been geographically isolated from each other for too long, and when they came into contact did not recognize the other as possible sex partners.  This study casts doubt on my hypothesis that an extinct ecomorph of Beringian gray wolves were a gray wolf/dire wolf hybrid.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/beringian-wolves-an-extinct-ecomorph-of-canis-lupus-lived-as-far-south-as-wyoming/ )
Paleontologists assumed dire wolves were close relatives of gray wolves because their anatomy was so similar.  Dire wolves had broader skulls, bigger teeth, shorter limbs, and were more robust; but otherwise they were much alike.  The similarity can now be attributed to convergent evolution when unrelated species evolve similar traits in response to similar environmental conditions.

Canids originated in North America, but the ancestors of gray wolves, coyotes, and jackals colonized Eurasia and Africa and evolved separately from dire wolves whose ancestors remained in North and South America.  (Dire wolves ranged from Alberta south to Peru and from California east to the Atlantic Coast.)  Dire wolves appear suddenly in the fossil record 200,000 years ago.  Most paleontologists think they evolved from Armbruster’s wolf (C. arbrustrei). No scientist has considered the possibility, but maybe this line evolved from the bone-eating dogs (Borophagus), a group of canids that seemingly disappeared early during the Pleistocene.  Scientists can’t investigate this because no viable DNA from Borophagus dogs remains viable. Dire wolves were adapted to live in climates ranging from temperate to sub-tropical.  Scientists weren’t able to sequence the entire genome of the dire wolf to determine its appearance, but they may have had shorter more reddish coats than gray wolves and probably preferred warmer climates.  The ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes crossed the Bering Land Bridge and colonized North America at least 20,000 years ago and overlapped with dire wolves for about 10,000 years.  Gray wolves co-evolved with humans and learned to fear man.  Dire wolves never learned to fear man, and likely could not compete with humans.  I think this explains their extinction, while wolves and particularly coyotes continue to hang-on.  

The authors of the new study think dire wolves are so different from gray wolves they should be given a separate genus name–Aenocyon.  One of the first paleontologists who looked at dire wolf bones assigned this genus name to dire wolves, but it fell from fashion because of the misconception that dire wolves were close kin to gray wolves.  Turns out he was right; later paleontologists were wrong.

Reference:

Perri, A.; K. Mitchell, L, Frantz; et. al.
“Dire Wolves were the Last of an Ancient New World Canid Lineage”
Nature 2021




Pack-Hunting Cuban Boas (Chilabothrus angulifer)

January 8, 2021

Cuban boas work together when they hunt Jamaican fruit bats.  They each take a strategic position near cave entrances to increase the chances they will successfully ambush a bat.  Scientists believe the gauntlet they create requires active coordination.  Otherwise, they would all be laying on top of each other in the best strategic location, and bats could just avoid that area.

Found: Snakes That Hunt in Packs - Atlas Obscura

Cuban boas hunt in packs.  They coordinate their positions near cave entrances and ambush Jamaican fruit bats.  They kill their prey using constriction.

There are 12 species of large boas in the Chilabothrus genus, but each Caribbean Island usually hosts just 1 or at most 2 species.  Each island was colonized by 1 species of boa that drifted there on floating vegetation millions of years ago.  Once that species became established on the island, they precluded other species arriving on floating vegetation from colonizing the island.  Genetic evidence suggests Cuban boas diverged from their closest relative 17-20 million years ago, and since then they have prevented other boa species from establishing a population there.

Cuban boas were part of an unique ecosystem found on Caribbean Islands until it was disrupted by man thousands of years ago.  Cuban boas formerly grew up to 27 feet long, but now individuals larger than 9 feet long are rare.  During the Pleistocene they hunted hutias (large 15 pound rodents), birds, and lizards. They still hunt these species, but larger species of hutias became extinct after man colonized the islands.  Cuban boas may have also hunted the now extinct dwarf ground sloths that roamed the island then.  Cuban boas shared the environment with other predators including Cuban crocodiles, an extinct species of 3 foot tall flightless owl, and large extinct subspecies of barn owls and black hawks.  Since man arrived on Cuba, both boas and crocodiles have evolved to smaller sizes.

The 2 largest predators on Cuba have evolved to a smaller size, since man colonized the island.  Image from the below reference by Rodrigues-Cabrera.

References:

Dinets, Vladimir

“Coordinated Hunting in Cuban Boas”

Animal Behavior and Cognition 4 (1) Feb 2017

Rodrigues-Cabrera, T.; and T. Javier Torres

“An Overview of the Past, Present, and Future of the Cuban Boa, Chilabothrus angulifer, (Squamata: Boidae): A Top Terrestrial Predator on an Oceanic Island”

Reptiles and Amphibians Journal December 2016

A Study of My Seafood Consumption during 2020

January 1, 2021

90% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and most of that is farm-raised.  This is a shocking statistic, considering how abundant fish were in American waters when Europeans first colonized the continent.  I was curious about my own seafood consumption, so I kept a tally of the fish and shellfish I ate in the year 2020.  I tried to avoid the Heisenberg Effect defined as the act of measurement altering the phenomenon under investigation, but I can’t rule out my subconscious influencing the results.  Nevertheless, I usually eat seafood once a week, and I believe this is a fair account of my average year’s seafood consumption.  The following paragraph is the result of my study.

I consumed seafood 76 times during 2020 or about 6.9% of my meals.  The tally is shrimp-13, tilapia-10, salmon-9, catfish-8, tuna-7, crab-4, croaker-3, sardines-3, oysters-3, trout-3, herring-2, crawfish-2, flounder-2, lobster-1, eel-1, Pacific cod-1, and unknown-1.

Figure 2 from Presence of Pacific white shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei (Boone,  1931) in the Southern Gulf of Mexico | Semantic Scholar

Pacific white-legged shrimp–small, medium, and large.  I like the largest ones because it takes less work to peel and clean them.  Along with tiger prawn shrimp these are the most common species found in the supermarket.  90% of shrimp consumed in the U.S. come from shrimp raised on farms in the Far East.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood consumed in the U.S. and 90% of it is imported.  It was my single most consumed seafood item as well.  Most of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is raised on farms in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China.  30% of the world’s production is in Asia, and 54% is in Latin America.  Texas is where most shrimp are farmed in the U.S. The 2 most common species raised are the Pacific white-legged shrimp (Litopannaeus vannamei), and giant tiger prawns (Penneus monodon).  Some claim wild caught shrimp from the Gulf Coast are sweeter, but I think they taste like gasoline because of all the oil spills there.  It takes 3-6 months to raise a shrimp from egg to saleable adult, and shrimp farmers cut off the eye-stalks of the females to increase egg production.

Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) - Species Profile

Nile tilapia (O. niloticus).  This was the 2nd most common seafood item I consumed during 2020.

The species of tilapia (Oreochronis sp.) raised by farmers originated in Africa.  5 species of tilapia now live in southeastern North America where they have become an invasive species, but they can’t survive in waters below 50 degrees F and will probably not expand out of the region.  An adult can be raised from a fingerling in 6-7 months on a cereal diet, making them a clean fish to produce.  Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, and the Phillippines lead world production.  I notice the ones I eat come from Ecuador.

Salmo Salar - Salmon Wiki

Atlantic salmon came in 3rd.  All salmon sold in grocery stores (even those labeled as wild salmon) are farm-raised.

Norway, Chile, Scotland, and Canada are the leading world producers of salmon, and the vast majority are Atlantic salmon (Salmo samar). There is no such thing as wild caught salmon in grocery stores.  Fish labeled as “wild caught” are actually wild fish driven into pens and fed just like farm-raised salmon.  Trout sold in grocery stores are also farm-raised.

Channel Catfish

Channel catfish was my 4th most consumed seafood.  This is the only species I ate that mostly originated in the U.S.

In North America channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are raised in the Mississippi Delta (including Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas) and California.  Still, the world produces 3 times more catfish than the U.S.  The American catfish lobby legally forced grocery stores into labeling Chinese-raised catfish as basa in order to reduce competition.  How silly?  A consumer purchasing basa is actually buying a species of the shark-finned catfish (Pangasiidae sp.).  1 acre of water can produce 300 pounds of catfish–a more efficient production of protein than any chicken farm or cattle ranch can match.

My consumption of wild caught fish is low, and so is the quantity and quality offered in the average supermarket, probably because the oceans are so overfished. The croaker I ate tasted like fish that had sat on a fish market counter for 3 days before they stuck it in a box and froze it. Tuna was the only significant component of wild caught fish in my tally, but scientists are experimenting with tuna farms.  In the future farm-raised tuna might be found in grocery store fish cases alongside farm-raised shrimp, tilapia, salmon, and catfish.

The Pleistocene Christmas Tree

December 24, 2020

I’m hosting family this week for Christmas, and I don’t have time to work on a new blog article. Here is a rerun.

GeorgiaBeforePeople

Christmas is a pagan holiday that probably originated during the Pleistocene.  Many of the pagan traditions associated with Christmas are rooted in northern European mythology, and they predate written records, so historians have no way of knowing for sure when they began. However, the celebration of the winter solstice was widespread throughout the ancient world, and people enjoyed this holiday thousands of years before the Judeo-Christian bible was ever written.  The wise men of the primitive world believed that the sun was a God.  This actually makes more sense than what the Abrahamic religions claim because life on earth does depend upon the sun.  The Abrahamic religions propose that a Supreme Being created the sun, but this belief leaves one to wonder who created the Supreme Being.  In a culture without scientific knowledge paganism seems just as logical if not more so than Judeo-Christianity.

The ancient thinkers noticed the days became shorter during…

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