Archive for December, 2011

If I could live During the Pleistocene part VIII–A Day in the Life

December 26, 2011

We drove from Augusta, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back to visit relatives for the Christmas holidays.  The hotel in Chattanooga was next to some monstrous mall.  Before the drive home I wanted to exercise outdoors, but there was nowhere for a nature-loving man to go.  Chattanooga is a suburban sprawl nightmare.  So I planned to stop somewhere on the way home and take a 30 minute nature stroll.

Hamilton Place Mall in Chattanooga.  Our hotel was right around the corner from this abomination.  This is hell on earth for nature lovers like me.

The Etowah Indian Mounds were closed on Sunday, and the area around the nearby Red Top Mountain State Park looked like an ugly reclamation project, plus I couldn’t even find the darn place.  Then we hit Atlanta and my spirits sank.  I became bitter and contemplated canceling my Nature Conservancy membership because they’ve preserved no places close to where I regularly travel that I can use.  All I wanted was a pleasant brief walk where I could enjoy some birds and trees.  We stopped for lunch in Covington, a suburb on the east side of Atlanta, and there were almost no trees or birds in sight–the whole enclave is one giant parking lot.  There is still some rural land between Atlanta and Augusta, but by then my mood had soured further, and my daughter was driving and I didn’t feel like making her stop.  It depresses me when I think of how far I have to travel to see nature.  That’s why I’m now going to slip into my fantasy of living on the Broad River in eastern Georgia during the Pleistocene.  Here’s a typical day in the life I imagine.

December 23, 36,000 BP

I awake next to 1 of my 3 concubines at 7:00 am (my wife doesn’t like wilderness and refuses to join my Pleistocene fantasy.)  It’s nice and warm under my buffalo blanket.  I get up eager to go on an excursion.  My concubine stays in the bed–I kept her up late because I had venison liver for supper and that always increases my libido.  I go outside and milk the cow, shovel out the stall, and let her in the pasture.  I feed the chickens and geese and break the ice on the latter’s water tank.  There’s frost everywhere except near the poultry houses where the heat from the manure keeps the ground warm.  It’s sunny and breezy.  The wind has died down compared to yesterday when a cold front pushed through.  I bring in a couple of baskets of wood for the woodstoves.  Concubine #2 has my breakfast ready–grilled cheese on whole wheat sourdough.  Every single ingredient was grown and made from scratch as is all of my food.

After breakfast I go to my garage and start up my 4-wheel drive, a vehicle that runs on wood alcohol which I also manufacture.  I open the automatic door and make sure it’s closed behind me when I leave, so no dangerous animals can get inside.  The walls around my garden and orchard are adjacent to thickets of prickly pear cactus which I planted to discourage animals from climbing the wall.  More of the purple fruit than I can consume remains–available for peccaries and Jefferson’s ground sloths, the only animals that eat the fruit this time of year.  Black bears, though they don’t hibernate in the south, are mostly inactive now.

I leave the security of my fort behind and drive on the dirt road that leads to the Broad River.  I use a steam roller, every so often, to grade the road and keep it in good condition.  The first 50 yards around the fort are a mowed hayfield that I keep clear of trees so it serves as a firebreak.  Uncontrolled forest fires are a hazard of living in pure wilderness.  The small herd of wild horses grazing on it now ignores me.  There’s a black stallion, 2 brown mares, a spotted mare, and 2 black yearling colts.  I slowly drive past them and into an open woods of uneven aged trees.  Tawny grass and patches of saplings and brush grows between giants.  I pass by a small grove of black walnuts, some ancient, some of moderate age.  Several specimens are 12 feet in circumference.  The road slopes toward the river, still more than a mile away, and it leads me through a forest dominated by beech, hickory, and Critchfield’s spruce.  I stop the vehicle and examine a few of the trees.  Many are over 70 feet tall and more than 6 feet in diameter.  I hear several gray squirrels barking in alarm, and I search the bare winter tree tops for a hawk.  Instead I see a big black weasel climbing a hickory.  It’s a fisher, an animal that’s been absent in modern day Georgia since at least colonial times.

The article that went along with this photo claims fishers can take down big dogs like German Shepherds.  No way.

The barking stops and the chase begins round and round the tree.  I get my binoculars and follow the deadly race for life.  The fisher follows closely behind the squirrel, seemingly certain to catch his next meal, but the frantic rodent ventures on a slim branch and leaps to a nearby beech, escaping the fisher which doesn’t dare test his weight on that flimsy branch.

The forest sounds alive.  I hear crows and blue jays and a pileated woodpecker.  I check an old standing snag, its top rotted away.  A hairy woodpecker taps on the white oak next to it.  The oak is growing in a slight gulley and leans precariously.  Bits of bark flutter to the ground.  I get back in my vehicle, drive about 1/4 mile, and see something dead on the road.  Of course, it’s not roadkill–there’s no traffic here.  I stop and emerge from my vehicle and recognize what it is–the partially eaten remains of a porcupine.  I see fisher tracks all around.  I carefully shove the carcass off the side of the road with my foot because a quill could puncture my tire.  I’m thorough about this.  A sudden whir of wings startles me.  I catch a glimpse of several blue passenger pigeons.  These are stragglers from the main colony that passed overhead 4 months ago.  I’m not sure where the main colony is located, but I know it’s vast and surely takes over miles of forest.

The road slopes sharply and it isn’t long before I spot my 14 foot motor boat tied to an enormous 200 year old red maple.  I untie the boat, start the engine, and take the boat down the river.  Anchored poles with flags mark the locations of fish traps and passes through shoals and sunken snags.  During the dry season these are easy to find without the flags but we recently suffered a rain/sleet event that lasted 3 straight days and the river’s a little high.  I easily navigate through two red-flagged poles that mark a submerged snag and a shallow boulder.  The water is clear and I can see submerged rocks in some places and sandy bottoms in others.  Fish and mussels of many kinds are visible.

A bluff on the Broad River.  During the Pleistocene the water was likely clear, not brown with sediment from erosion.  Agricultural run off beginning early in the 19th century turned all of Georgia’s rivers muddy looking. In the 18th century William Bartram referred to this clear water as “pellucid.”

On the right is a forest of water oak and sycamore.  On the left is an impenetrable thicket of river cane.  A tapir stares at me from inside the stand of cane.  I’ve noticed that many present day nocturnal animals are active during all hours of the day in the Pleistocene.  Another creek flows into the river from here.  This creek is a long chain of beaver dams and ponds.  In fact I call it Beaver Dam Creek.  I’ve explored this area before.  It’s a mix of open marsh, ponds, canebrakes, and wet meadows grazed by long-horned bison and giant beavers (Castor ohioensis).  Beavers (Castor canadensis) inhabiting this area have felled so many trees that they’ve been forced to dig canals to safely access the more distant trees.  In the process they’ve created favorable habitat for their much larger cousins which grow to the size of a bear.  One of the beaver lodges is even located at the mouth of the creek.  An otter sits on top of the lodge and gnaws on a sucker fish.

Up above a bald eagle chases an osprey, forcing it to drop a fish.  The eagle turns and drives off a turkey vulture.  A great blue heron, oblivious to this action, takes flight.  A group of wood ducks fly overhead.  An old bull mastodon, standing on the shore, stares at me, making me feel as if I’m an intruder in his world.  The animals here have no fear of man, and I have to be careful.  I steer the boat away from him.  The mouth of the Broad River widens as I approach its confluence with the Savannah.  I near a bluff forest on the right.  I face the bluff–a 130 foot high rocky cliff.  Butternut and paw paw trees are common in the forest above.  The offspring of some of these trees now grow in my orchard back at the fort.

I spot the blue flag on top of the pole next to my fish trap at the confluence of the 2 rivers.  I cut the boat engine and tie the boat to the pole.  The current causes the boat to drift downstream but the rope holds taut.  I eat lunch–a smoked turkey sandwich, an apple, and some hazlenuts.  A belted kingfisher calls and flies along the shore, searching for minnows.  When I’m done eating I check the contents of the hoop net I placed at the funnel point of the trap I constructed of rocks.  I dump a chain pickerel, 3 channel catfish, 3 white catfish, 4 small bullheads, 2 redeye bass, 1 largemouth bass, 1 crappie, 6 spotted sucker fish, 7 bluegills, 11 redear sunfish, and 3 spotted sunfish into the livewell.  During summer I often catch shad and mullet and the occasion eel.  I have to go farther down river to catch stripers and sturgeon.  I’ve yet to find a species of fish that is extinct in the present.  I untie the rope, restart the engine, and head back to the fort.

I re-enter the Broad River, boating upstream.  A flock of noisy, green and yellow parrakeets fly by the shore.  Swans and black ducks float on the surface of the water.  The mastodon that had been standing near shore earlier is gone, but I see a v-shaped wake heading toward the front of my boat.  The head surfaces.  I quickly steer the boat away, not wanting to collide with the giant beaver.  Nevertheless, the impact seems inevitable.  The beaver sees the bow of the boat at the last moment and ducks deeper.  The water is so clear I can see the beast swimming  just over a sandy bottom.  Happily, it avoided the propeller.  I didnt want to have to mercy kill the animal.  Beaver meat is delicious but I get all I need by trapping beavers and muskrats out of my rice pond back at the fort.

I disembark from my boat back near the road and cover it with a tarp.  On the way back to the fort 3 long-nosed peccaries run across the road in front of me.  Back in the garage, I dump the contents of the live well into my aquarium where I can retrieve the fish when I’m ready to process them.  I check in with my concubines and make sure they don’t need anything before I go survey the upland part of my road.  The road to a chestnut ridge is gently rolling and goes through an oak and pine savannah.  The tree composition consists of black oak, post oak, shortleaf pines, and white pines–fire resistant species.  Tawny waste high grass and bushy thickets grow between the trees.  The road also bisects windthrows and areas blackened by recent fires. 

A flock of 70 hen turkeys forages alongside the road.  They’re headed northwest in the same direction I’m traveling. 

White tail deer in a small grove of Osage Orange.  (I don’t really know what kind of trees those are, but in my fantasy, that’s what they are. This is actually hunting club land somewhere in Texas.)

In the distance I see a herd of elk cows.  Closer, in a grove of Osage orange, are some whitetail deer.  I see whitetail deer, elk, and fugitive deer (an extinct species) almost everyday.  Even herds of caribou travel through on occasion, and less often I’ll se a stag-moose by the river.  Llamas and flat-headed peccaries are also common but I see none today.

An oak savannah.  This one is somewhere in Wisconsin, I think.

Behind a fallen oak, a bobcat is waiting to ambush the flock of turkeys which are headed right toward him.  The bobcat stares at my vehicle, wide-eyed, and retreats.  I’ve accidentally foiled his hunt.  Animals have no inordinate fear of people, but strange noises, such as my auto engine, may unsettle them.

Up ahead, a flock of vultures and magpies surround the remains of a horse.  These vultures are related to old world vultures and don’t live in present day North America.  This part of the road goes through an expansive meadow and I see 2 bull elk together–possibly part of a bachelor herd.

Past the meadow is a grove of large, virgin, white pines.  Detached from the grove are 2 amazingly enormous white pines.  Both are 180 feet tall.  In between these 2 and the rest of the grove is a colony of blueberry bushes growing between some fallen and well-decayed tree trunks.  This time of year only a few red leaves cling on the upright branches.  A storm and fire divided these 2 trees from the rest of the grove and blueberries grow in that space instead.

White pines.

I finally reach the ridge.  A creek bottom adjacent to the ridge supports another extensive patch of river cane, but the ridge is quite different.  Here, on the high rocky hill is a beautiful stand of chestnut and chestnut oak with an undergrowth of chinquapin. The wildlife has already decimated this year’s chestnut crop but acorns still litter the ground.  Here, and on the open woodlands fox squirrels abound.  A black male with a gray mask chases a reddish-colored female: first along the ground, then up and around a tree trunk.  I love these large multi-colored squirrels. 

On the return back a dire wolf lopes along the road, a big limp rabbit in its mouth.  He stays ahead of my slowly moving vehicles for 200 yards before jogging into the tall grass of the big meadow.

Back at the fort, I spend a couple hours cleaning the fish.  The pickerel and sucker fish make good pickled fish–the vinegar dissolves the numerous bones.  I stick the bass and larger catfish in the freezer.  The bass are better after they’ve been frozen anyway because the musky flavor breaks down.  I fry the smaller catfish and some of the bream for supper.

After supper I fill the generator with wood alcohol and rekindle the fires in the woodstoves.  We listen to wolves howl close outside while we watch a movie.  Concubine #2 reminds me it’s her turn tonight so we turn in.

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The Extinct Vero Tapir (Tapirus veroensis)

December 20, 2011

When I first began studying the scientific literature on Pleistocene mammals in 1988 I excitedly told my little sister and my now ex-brother-in-law that tapirs and capybaras used to live in Georgia.  Neither knew what a tapir or capybara was, and they looked at me like I was nuts.  This happened before the days of the popular internet, and I couldn’t readily show them photos of the animals on a computer screen.  Another great benefit of the internet is that I can communicate with people who actually care and also share my interest.

Mountain or woolly tapir (Tapirus pinchaque).  Of the 4 species of tapir in the world, this is the only one that inhabits a temperate forest.  The others are tropical.  The extinct Vero tapir also inhabited temperate forests as far north as what today is Kansas.  Like the Vero tapir, the mountain tapir is likely headed toward extinction.  There are only 9 in zoos and less than 2500 in the wild.

Jaw bone of a Vero tapir.  The partial jaw of a tapir is the only Pleistocene fossil reported from Anderson Spring Cave in Walker County, Georgia.  The ridged teeth are evidence they browse rather than graze.

View from inside Anderson Spring Cave, Walker County, Georgia.  The jaw bone of a tapir was found here.  Photo by Kelly Smallwood.

The type specimen of the Vero tapir was found in Vero Beach, Florida in 1915, and it was associated with human bones dating to about 14,000 BP–a find that caused considerable controversy at the time because mainstream archaeologists refused to believe humans lived in North America prior to 6,000 BP.  Apparently, the Vero tapir was a fairly common species in the Pleistocene southeast.  In Georgia fossils of the Vero tapir have been found at Ladds Mountain, Bartow County; Anderson Spring Cave, Walker County; the Isle of Hope site and Savannah River dredgings in Chatham County; and at Watkins Quarry in Glynn County.  Northern Alabama fossil sites produced tapir bones too.  Both Cave ACb-3 and Bell Cave were the final resting places for a few tapirs.  In the latter site tapir fossils were associated with caribou and long-nosed peccary bones–what an odd mix of ungulates.  This suggests the Vero tapir was a temperate species, capable of surviving subfreezing temperatures.  The still extant (though probably not for long) mountain tapir lives in cloud forests above 6500 feet in elevation in Peru, so it’s not all that unusual for a tapir species to live in a temperate climate, though the 3 other living species inhabit the tropics.

Extant tapirs are big strong animals weighing up to 600 pounds.  The Vero tapir was slightly larger than this, and it must have been a tough creature able to fend off big cats, wolves, and bears.  When cornered they bite and put up a ferocious battle, but more often they shake off their attackers by running through dense vegetation or diving into deep water.  Their tough hides keep them from getting scrapes and abrasions while stampeding through brush.  A recent television documentary on National Geographic Wild showed film of vampire bats feeding upon tapirs which ignored the pesky bloodsuckers.  Deer were much more sensitive and vigilant about keeping the bats from biting them, perhaps explaining why vampire bats are extinct in North America.  The bats need beasts with thick skins that can’t detect them.

The tapir’s unusual looking and prominent proboscis is utilitarian.  It’s prehensile and used to grip and strip branches of leaves.  They eat forest vegetation such as ferns, leaves, and succulent plants.  Their preferred habitat is moist woodlands and river bottomlands.  During the Pleistocene whenever climatic conditions favored the spread of woodlands tapir populations in southeastern North America probably expanded.  Unfavorable climatic conditions probably limited them to riverine corridors.  Modern tapirs are considered keystone species because they’re important seed dispersers.  Wax palms and highland lupines decline in abundance whenever mountain tapirs are hunted out of a region.  Certain plant species were likely more abundant during the Pleistocene,  thanks to the Vero tapir’s inefficient digestive system.  Some unknown species of plants may have even become extinct after tapirs were gone.

The terminal radiocarbon date for the Vero tapir in southeastern North America is 11,450.  This translates to a calender year date of 13,300 BP.  They probably lasted in isolated pockets for 2 or 3 thousand years longer, but they’ve been gone a long time now.  The mountain tapir has been discussed as a candidate for Pleistocene rewilding in North America.  This won’t happen.  The mountain tapir is expected to become extinct in the wild by the end of the decade.  It needs continuous stretches of cloud forest–patchy forests are inadequate.  All captive individuals are descendents of 2 individuals, so it will inbreed itself to death in zoos as well.  Last month, black rhinos were declared extinct in the wild. Our modern forests are already impoverished and devoid of diversity.  The loss of yet 2 more species of megafauna is unspeakably sad.

Arctic Birds in Ice Age Georgia

December 16, 2011

J.J. Audubon reported 2 species of birds with arctic affinities as rare stragglers in Georgia during the 19th century.  He wrote that snowy owls (Bubo scandacius) occurred as far south as Georgia, and he even witnessed Atlantic puffins (Mormon arcticus) in Savannah Harbor during the harsh winter of 1831/1832.  The northern hemisphere experienced a minor cooling period known as the Little Ice Age between 1300 AD-1850 AD, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some species of arctic birds spread south when particularly hard winters occurred.  Though the Little Ice Age had a major impact on human agriculture, it was a minor blip compared to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene when glaciers encompassed all of what today is Canada.  Arctic birds that were rare stragglers during harsh winters of the Little Ice Age were probably common during full blown Ice Age winters.

A map of the extent of the glaciers that covered North America during the Ice Age.  This depicts the Last Glacial Maximum.  During much of the Ice Age, the glaciers weren’t this large, but were still much more expanded than they are  today.  The range of many species of birds, especially ducks and geese which today summer in places that were miles under glaciers then, must have been pushed farther south.  This is a neat map that also shows loess formation.

Snowy owl about to catch a small rodent.

Snowy owls prefer open tundra habitats and nest on the ground.  During the Ice Age, tundra habitat was displaced much farther south than it is today.  Winter appearances of snowy owls in the southeast were probably common.  During the cold spell of the early 19th century they expanded their winter range south along the coastline because the open landscape of coastal dunes resembled their preferred habitat of tundra.  Grasslands expanded during Ice Age stadials, so snowy owls would’ve headed south to inland areas as well as the coast then. 

I’m not aware of any snowy owl sightings in Georgia since 1900.  There was a sighting in Springhill, Tennessee in 2009, but that was the first in that state since 1989.  They still invade Wisconsin and Ohio on a consistent basis.  The following youtube video shows a snowy owl in Toledo, Ohio.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=S4fWoUxH3h8

It may not be harsh winters that cause snowy owls to extend their range south.  Some scientists think their population increases following lemming population explosions, and this explains why they may be more commonly seen during some winters.  Lemmings and mice are their primary food, though these large owls will prey on rabbits, squirrels, ptarmigans, grouse, and other owls.  J.J. Audubon observed them fishing.  He writes that the owls lay flat next to streams and snatch fish with their talons.  Others report them taking fish by diving from the wing like ospreys.  They are also a danger to cats and small house dogs.  A snowy owl killed a small house dog on a Wisconsin suburbanites back porch recently.

Atlantic puffins.

I’m unaware of any puffin sightings in Georgia since 1900.  But during the Ice Age, enormous colonies of these birds nested on rocky coastlines much farther south than they do today.  The ocean receded then, exposing many isolated islands where they could nest unmolested by predators.  Puffins probably often occurred off Georgia’s coast during Pleistocene winters.  This species nests in burrows and feeds upon small fish which it captures by swimming underwater.  The burrows of a colony are linked together underground like a maze. 

No fossil evidence of these 2 species has been found in the south, but I’m certain they would have made a birdwatcher’s checklist during Ice Age winters.

Crappie and mastodon

December 12, 2011

Crappies and mastodons shared the same habitat.  Crappies are primarily a lake fish, preferring clear still water where they prey on small minnows and insects.  Mastodons often waded into lakes to feed upon submerged aquatic plants.  Perhaps they even aided crappies by forcing minnows away from the cover of underwater vegetation into the open to be picked off by schools of crappie.  Of course, mastodons weren’t as tied to the water as crappies and could travel overland whenever they desired.

Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus).  A beautiful fish and tasty too.  I once had a fish dinner of bass and crappie.  The bass were meatier, but the crappie were sweeter and better tasting.

Kurt Hamlin, a curator at the Milwaukee Museum, was lucky enough to find fur on a mastodon specimen.  The fur resembled that found on river otters and beavers, so we know mastodons spent a lot of time in the water.

River otter (Lutra canadensis) pelt.  River otter fur is water proof and dries quickly.  Mastodon fur was similar.

Although these two different species shared the same habitat, the fossil remains of mastodon and crappie have been found together at only 1 locality–The Charles Adams Mastodon Site in Livingston County, Michigan.  It was a lake deposit also containing fossils of meadow vole, 1300 snail shells, 500 freshwater clam shells, and bones of white sucker fish.  In Georgia mastodon fossils have also been found associated with fish remains, but not crappie.  An alluvial deposit in Little Kettle Creek contained bones of channel catfish along with mastodon.  The  deposit in Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County contained over 500 fish bones in addition to a mastodon fossil. Here, predatory birds brought  fish from the nearby Ashpole Creek, a tributary of the Etowah River.  They included gar, pickerel, channel catfish, bullheads, sucker fish, chubsuckers, largemouth bass, and unidentified sunfish.  Coastal fossil sites often have marine species of fish as well as mastodon.

Overall, fish populations during the Pleistocene were much higher than those of today’s waters.  Then the rivers were undammed, unpolluted, and unfished by men.  But in what’s now Georgia crappie populations were probably an exception.  They thrive in modern artificial reservoirs formed behind the numerous hydroelectric dams.  Suitable habitat during the Pleistocene was temporary and sporadic.  Oxbow lakes were plentiful during interstaidals and interglacials.  Cut off channels were common during stadials.  But large lakes akin to modern day reservoirs were nonexistent.  Instead, crappies relied on favorable habitats that constantly changed with the evershifting river patterns.  They can live in rivers where water flow is obstructed and forms pools.  Lower water levels with still channels, and higher water levels with wide bends that form slow moving water both provide favorable habitat.  Crappies could also inhabit large beaver ponds.  But the constantly changing conditions probably made crappie numbers fluctuate much more than they do in today’s reservoirs.

Centrarchid Evolution

An evolutionary tree of the centrarchid family of fishes as proposed by some scientists.

 The centrarchid family of fish includes sunfish, crappie, and bass (though not white bass, striped bass, and sea bass which are in completely different families).  The opportunity for speciation occurs often among this family because populations of fish get isolated when connecting streams run dry or become obstructed.  This makes the centrarchid family an excellent one for evolutionary scientists to study.  Scientists can look at rates of genetic divergence between closely related species and estimate the length of time it has taken since speciation occurred from a mutually ancestral species.  They call this a speciation clock. Many species of centrarchids hybridize but genetic compatibility decreases with time since speciation occurred.  One study found that hybrid embryo viablity declines 3% per million years of separation.

Here’s a list of centrarchid species which are strictly an American family of fish.  Note:  Some scientists recognize 33 species and 7 genera; others recognize 31 species and 9 genera.

Mud sunfish–Acantharchus pomotis

Shadow bass–Amploplites aribmarus

Roanoke bass–A. cavifrons

Ozark Bass–A. constellatus

Rock Bass–A.  rupestris

Sacramento perch–A. choplites

Blackbanded sunfish–Ennearanthus gloriousus

Flier–Centrarchus macropterus

Redbreast Sunfish–Lepomis auridus

Green sunfish–L. cyanellos

Pumpkinseed sunfish–L. gibbosus

Orange spotted sunfish–L. humili

Warmouth–L. gulobus

Bluegill–L. marochirus

Dollar sunfish–L. marginatus

Longear sunfish–L. megalatis

Redear sunfish–L. microlophus

Red spotted sunfish–L. miniatus

Spotted sunfish–L. punctatus

Bantam sunfish–L. symmetricus

Redeye or Coosa Bass–Micropterus coosae

Spotted Bass–Micropterus punctatus

Largemouth Bass–Micropterus salmonoides

Shoal Bass–M. cataractus

Guadalupe bass–M. treculi

White crappie–Pomoxis annularis

Black crappie–P. nigromaculutus

Redeye bass

A redeye bass.

In my blog entry of a few weeks ago about the food I would eat, if I could live in Georgia 36,000 BP, I mentioned smallmouth bass as a fish I might find in my fish traps on the Broad River.  At the time of European colonization of North America smallmouth (aka spotted) bass only occurred in extreme northern Georgia.  It did not naturally occur in the Broad River, though it has since been introduced.  During the Pleistocene, smallmouth bass may have ranged further south, but maybe not.  Instead, redeye bass, a closely related species, did occur on the Broad River.  Redeye bass and smallmouth bass probably evolved from a common ancestor that diverged due to the geographical separation of the watersheds where this common ancestor lived.  So, I believe I would find redeye bass in my Pleistocene fish traps in the Broad River, and probably not smallmouth.

Reference:

Bolnick, Daniel; and Thomas Neal

“Tempo of Hybrid Inviability in Centrachid Fish (Telestei: Centrarchae)”

Evolution 59 (8) Augusts 2005

Deep Sea Fishing 42,000 BP

December 7, 2011

The Jerimalai shelter during excavation <i>(Image: Susan O'Conner)</i>

Jerimalai Shelter in East Timor, Indonesia.  This is where archaeologists found the remains of deep sea fish caught by humans 42,000 years ago.

The people capable of deep sea fishing in what’s now Indonesia 42,000 years ago may have been related to the ancestors of Australian aborigines.

Many archaeologists underestimate the technological capabilities of primitive men.  Most are convinced that early men could not traverse great nautical distances, despite the known presence of aborigines on the island continent of Australia as early as 50,000 BP.  The lack of marine technology among Australian aborigines, who could barely master building a raft that could stay afloat on a river, has long puzzled them.  Likewise, many reject the hypothesis that some or all American Indians are descendents of people originally arriving via coastal routes. I don’t understand why they reject this possibility.  People able to construct fabulous boats may have made the decision to move inland.  Without a written language, the knowledge of how to navigate across great oceanic distances could have been lost in 1 generation.  All it would take to lose the technology would be the death of a few men with the know how.  Oral tradition may have included memorized story telling, but reciting the steps of how to build a marine worthy vessel would have been too dry to sing around the fire at night.

Evidence that men were capable of deep sea fishing as long as 42,000 years ago was recently unearthed at the Jerimalai Shelter in East Timor, Indonesia.  Scientists discovered 38,000 fish bones from 23 different species including those that primarily inhabit deep ocean–tuna, shark, and parrottfish.  (As far as I know, the complete list hasn’t been published yet, or I surely would have that information on my blog.)  The fish bones date to 42,000 years BP.  A fish hook made out of a clam was found here, but this artifact only dates to about 16,000 BP.  How the more ancient fishermen caught tuna is a complete mystery.  No fish hooks of that age have been excavated here, and of course hand lines and nets are organic and have probably decayed into dust.  It’s surprising that they were able to successfully catch tuna.

Tuna grow even bigger than this.

The Pacific tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is a fast warm blooded fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 40 mph.  They grow to 500 lbs., though the ones the ancient fishermen caught were juveniles much smaller than their maximum size.  Still, the ability to navigate a boat into deep water, catch large strong fish, and return to shore is amazing, considering the primitive technology they utilized.

Archaeologists are also aware of another amazing oceanic journey that took place during the Pleistocene.  Stephen Loring, a museum anthropologist, examined the Manley projectile point, an artifact originally found in Vermont, and he had a eureka moment.  He knew this type of arrowhead was made about 12,000 years ago.  But he realized this particular one was made from Ramah chert–a kind of rock found only in Labrador.  (All rock is 99.9% silica.  Geologists can determine the origin of a rock by analyzing the remaining .1%)  Labrador is 1000 miles from Vermont.

Ancient mariners stumbled upon quality chert for tool making 12,000 years ago while cruising the coast of Labrador.

Blade made out of Ramah chert.  The Ramah chert blade comes from rock only found in Labrador.  This blade was made about 2800 years ago, but the Manley projectile point was found in Vermont and dates to about 12,000 years ago.  The land route at this time was blocked by glacial ice.  That means ancient people traveled 1000 miles along the coastal waters to reach the stone quarry.

The only way an Indian could travel back and forth from what’s now Vermont to Labrador 12,000 years ago was by sea because the land route was blocked by a mile high glacier and meltwater streams and ice impeded a sea shore journey.  Moreover, they had to navigate in and around numerous icebergs, so their route was at least 1000-1600 miles.  Archaeologists argue amongst themselves over whether the ancient mariners paddled or sailed, but they have no doubt the journey was accomplished at least once. 

Archaeologists are searching for evidence that Paleo-indians colonized America via a coastal route, but the proof will be difficult to find.  Sea levels rose following the end of the Ice Age, and any evidence that exists is deep underwater.  Boats made out of skin and wood have likely long since decayed into nothingness.

Reference:

Guest, Amy

“A Story of Ancient Mariners”

Mammoth Trumpet (26) 4 October 2011

Pleistocene Spotted Horses

December 2, 2011

25,000 years ago, an artist painted this picture of a spotted horse on a wall of Peche Merle Cave in France.  Later, another artist painted a fish over it, but most of that painting has faded away.

In my opinion the horse was the most beautiful animal to live during the Pleistocene, excluding a select number of female Homo sapiens who may have been kept in good condition.  I admire the round smoothness of their muscles, and the majestic qualities of their manes and tails.  I can understand why artists enjoy painting them.  But it’s not just modern artists who try to capture the beauty of  horses.  An ancient 5 foot long painting of a spotted horse was discovered in Peche Merle Cave, France in 1922.

The painting is believed to be 25,000 years old.  Most of the paintings on cave walls in Europe are thought to date to 25,000 BP, but some may date to about 16,000 BP.  The entrance to Peche Merle Cave became covered in sediment shortly after the paintings were drawn and because they were sealed from the atmosphere, they remained in pristine condition.  Early in the 20th century, erosion once again created an opening to the cave.  In addition to the spotted horse, the cavemen drew single-coated horses, bison, aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), elk, mountain goat, caribou, lion, woolly mammoth, and fish.  Children’s footprints, dating to this time period, still exist in part of the cave.  Archaeologists found harpoons and other artifacts here as well.  The bones of bear, hyena, horse, bison, and deer have rested here for millennia.  Archaeologists believe people inhabited caves because they provided a natural refuge from the harsh Ice Age climate.

Paleontologists think the horse was the most abundant large mammal in Ice Age Europe and an important source of food for humans.  The French still eat horsemeat–restaurants serving horsemeat adorn the top of their doors with horseshoes.  In what’s now Georgia horses were probably the third most abundant mammal during the Pleistocene behind white tail deer and long-nosed peccary, though during stadials, when grasslands expanded, they may have been the most abundant.  It’s difficult to tell from the limited fossil record in state.

Anthropologists used to think the spots on the Peche Merle horse were symbolic, but a recent study upends this belief.  Scientists analyzed the DNA from 30 Pleistocene-age fossil horse specimens, and they found that 18 had reddish-brown coats, 6 had jet black coats, and 6 had spotted coats.  This means about 18% of Pleistocene horses in Europe had spotted coats.  The species of horse that lived in southeastern North America was the same as the one that lived in Europe, though undoubtedly it differed at the subspecific level.  It’s likely about 1 in 5 horses that lived in what’s now Georgia during the Pleistocene also had spotted coats.

Spotted horses were the same species as the brown and black coated horses.  Like today’s feral mustangs, Pleistocene horses came in many different colors.  There’s been a lot of confusion among paleontologists over exactly how many different species of horses lived in North America and Europe during the Pleistocene.  The whole classification mess can probably be simplified into 2 main species: horses and donkeys. The geographical range was so vast those 2 species consisted of hundreds of subspecies, now nearly all extinct.  But at least today, domesticated horses are alive and well and exist as many different breeds.

This spotted horse is a breed known as an Appaloosa.  Obviously, horses still carry the gene for spotted coats.

Map of Peche Merle Cave in France.  Too bad it’s so far away.  I’d really like to visit this attraction.