Archive for October, 2013

Fangs!

October 28, 2013

This year, I’m devoting my annual Halloween essay to fangs, those scary anatomical structures that have evolved independently among many unrelated groups of ambush predators.  Some of the earliest placental mammals to evolve fangs were the nimravids and barbourofelids.  These 2 families of carnivores were formerly thought to be closely related, and some scientists still classify them as such.  There are 9 known species of nimravids and 7 known species of barbourofelids.  Both families had representative species that lived from the late Eocene (~40 million BP) to the late Miocene (~9 million BP).

Illustration of Barbourofelis fricki, also known as the false saber-tooth.  It was a very large carnivore that may have preyed upon rhinos, the most abundant large prey species of the Miocene.  The background environment of this illustration is likely not accurate.  Forested environments predominated during the Miocene.

Illustration of Hoplophoneus, a nimravid that grew to about 320 pounds.

The nimravids and the barbourofelids were formerly thought to have been ancestral to the cat family–they have similar builds and likely occupied similar ecological niches.  However, fundamental differerences in the auditory bulla (an inner ear bone) distinguish cats from nimravids and strongly sugggest nimravids could not be of ancestral lineage to cats.  NImravids and barbourofelids also walked flat on their feet, like bears, whereas cats walk on their toes.

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Click to enlarge the image.  Cats have multi-chambered auditory bulla.  Nimravids had a single chamber in some species, and in others the structure was made out of cartilage.  This is evidence that nimravids were not ancestral to cats, despite the similarity in appearance.  Click to enlarge.  This illustration is from a page in the book The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner and illustrated by Mauricio Anton.

Cats ecologically replaced nimravids.  Whether they outcompeted them or took advantage of their extinction due to other causes is unknown.  There were 2 species of fanged cats during the late Pleistocene of North America–the famous saber-tooth (Smilodon fatalis) and the lesser known scimitar-tooth (Dinobastis serus).

Illustration of Smilodon fatalis.

An extinct species of vampire bat (Desmodus stocki) fed upon the blood of megafauna during the Pleistocene.  It ranged all across the continent of North America.  See (https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/the-pleistocene-vampire-bat-desmodus-stocki/)

Photo of 1 of the 3 species of extant vampire bats which live in South America.

A person doesn’t have to go far to find a creature with fangs.  Most suburban yards host a plethora of wolf spider species.  Venomous fangs help subdue dangerous prey, such as bees and wasps, quickly.  Wolf spider venom is not hazardous to people.  Venom also helps protect rattlesnakes.  Venomous snakes withdraw after injecting their venom with a quick strike, so they avoid injury while the victim struggles in its death throes.  They don’t begin swallowing prey until it has been immobilized by venom.

Illustration showing how snake fangs work.

Wolf spider (Lycosidae) fangs.

There was even a family of saber-toothed salmon swimming in the Western Interior Seaway that separated Eastern and Western North America during the Cretacous age of the dinosaurs.

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Illustration of the extinct saber-toothed salmon (Enchodus sp.) that swam in the seas when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

There is a clear evolutionary advantage in the repeated occurrence of fangs in the animal world.  Individuals that carry the mutation for fangs are more likely to be able to subdue their prey without sustaining injury, and therefore are more likely to pass that gene mutation to their offspring.  Although there are no large mammalian predators with fangs today, it’s possible and likely a big cat with fangs could evolve again…if man allows enough of the natural world to exist.

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The Overlapping Pleistocene Ranges of the Beaver (Castor canadensis) and the Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

October 23, 2013

The beaver enjoys an extensive range as the below map shows.  However, it is presently absent in most of penninsular Florida.  The scientific literature offers no reason for this absence.  I propose the beaver can not currently live in south Florida because the alligator population is too dense there.

Top: Current range map of the beaver.  Bottom: Current range map of the alligator.  The ranges of the 2 species overlapped in Florida during the Pleistocene.

Pleistocene-aged fossils of beavers are among those found from the Monkey Jungle Hammock site just outside of Miami, Florida, proving that beavers formerly did live in south Florida.  Presently, beavers do co-exist with alligators in the southern parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and all of Louisiana.  I suspect 2 factors allow for this co-existence:  the population of alligators in these states is not as dense as it is in penninsular Florida, and the existence of major rivers flowing from north to south allows beavers from the north to replace those killed by alligators.  There is a population of beavers in north Florida near the mouth of the Suwannee River.  The river provides a conduit for beaver colonization.  There are no major rivers in south Florida that could facilitate the colonization of beavers from farther north.

Alligator fossils from Florida’s Pleistocene are common,  so alligators were not rare in Ice Age Florida.  Nevertheless, the presence of beavers then in south Florida suggests the alligator population was  not as dense as it is today, especially during stadials.  Though there were some wetlands, the region was much drier then.  The environment was likely dominated by dry longleaf pine savannahs on sandy soils with some oak scrub and open semi-tropical woodlands.  It was harder for alligators to come into contact and breed in large numbers like they do today.  Instead, large male alligators defended their small springs from smaller males, driving them into unsuitable habitat where they were likely to perish.  Moreover, alligators weren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain–jaguars and saber-tooths likely fed upon adults, and a large population of bears gorged on the eggs.  Somewhat cooler summers may have slowed down their reproduction as well.  With the alligator population held in check, beavers could live in a less stressful environment.

My hypothesis is worth studying.  A simple way would be to determine how many alligators (large enough to prey on beavers) live per square mile in south Florida and compare that with alligator per square mile in areas where the 2 species overlap.

Two Pleistocene Carnivore Dens Near Miami, Florida (Part 2)

October 18, 2013

Scientists unearthed thousands of bones from the Cutler Hammock site during the mid-1980’s.  The fossils were identified, catalogued, and sent to the University of Florida Museum.  Many of the specimens remain unstudied in detail, and this rich assortment offers an opportunity for paleontologists looking for research material.  The site itself was not completely excavated and is potentially available for future study.  Originally, it was a cone-shaped sinkhole cave filled with sediment, rocks, and fossils. The lower half was below the water table.  The suface was 5 meters by 6 meters wide and from 3 meters to 5 meters deep in various places.  Workers bulldozed sand over the unexcavated section, making it easy for future scientists to re-dig but protecting it from unauthorized fossil hunters.    It’s located on land that is part of Deering Estate Park–a protected environmental, historical, and archaeological preserve of 444 acres in extent.  The preserve is a rare natural area within the suburban sprawl of Miami, Florida and includes endangered pine rocklands, tropical hardwood hammock, mangrove woods, and salt marsh.

The Deering Estate.  Deering was an industrialist who decided to protect his estate from development in perpetuity.  The Cutler Hammock fossil site is located on this property.

Gary Morgan and Steve Emslie studied many of the large vertebrate bones found at Cutler Hammock, and they wrote the paper from which I mined most of the information I used for this blog entry.  They noticed a high number of bones here had gnaw marks on them and concluded this former cave served as a carnivore den during the Pleistocene.  The most common large carnivore fossils found at this site were from dire wolves (Canis dirus), totaling 42 individuals.  This is the third largest dire wolf assemblage in the world behind the La Brea Tar Pits and San Josecito Cave in Mexico.  They also found bones from 9 spectacled bears (the extinct Tremarctos floridanus), 5 coyotes (Canis latrans), 4 jaguars (Panthera onca), 3 bobcats (Lynx rufus), 1 sabertooth (Smilodon fatalis), 1 American lion (Panthera atrox), 1 cougar (Puma concolor), and 1 black bear (Ursus americanus).   The authors of the study suggest the cave was a rendezvous site for packs of dire wolves and not a place where pups were birthed.  They speculate the cave was near a source of water that attracted various prey species.  In another paper Gary Morgan mentioned that the coyote fossils found at Cutler Hammock were unusually small.  Some think they may actually belong to dogs (Canis familiaris) brought by man.  If so, it’s possible the bones may be from yellow dogs, the American dingos, which readily revert to the wild state and are capable of surviving without humans.

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Photos of deer and peccary bones gnawed by dire wolves at the Cutler Hammock site.  Click to enlarge. From the below referenced paper.

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Photo of dire wolf lower jaw and dire wolf teeth found at the Cutler Hammock site.  Click to enlarge.  Also from the below referenced paper.

Most of the bones from prey species have puncture marks–a telltale characteristic of canid gnawing.  The extinct long-nosed peccary (Mylohyus nasatus) was the most common victim of dire wolves, numbering 75 individuals of which one-third were juveniles.  Horses were the next most common dire wolf victim, though 17 of the 19 individuals were juveniles.  Next in descending order of abundance were white-tailed deer, bison, llamas, and 1 mammoth that was probably scavenged.

Tremarctos floridanus was a close relative of the extant spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) of South America.  Spectacled bears are primarily vegetarian but occasionally eat meat.  Bones scavenged by bears show recognizable differences from bones scavenged by canids.  None of the Cutler Hammock bones show evidence of bear gnawing.  (Hint to professional paleontologists: the authors of this study didn’t examine the bones for evidence of big cat gnawing.  It’s a potential topic for future research.)  Scientists also found bones from mastodon, Harlan’s ground sloth, and the pampathere (a 300 pound grass-eating armadillo) at Cutler Hammock but these showed no evidence of being gnawed upon.

A hearth and bones from 3 adult and 2 juvenile humans (Homo sapiens) were found just above the level where Pleistocene fossils were found.  This material dates to ~11,100 calender years BP.  A human bone found associated with dire wolf bones (in situ) was found as well.  The radiocarbon dating on this bone is considered unreliable.  It’s possible this human bone is as old as the dire wolf bones.  However, there has been much bioturbation at this site.  Land crabs dig holes in this locality, and their actions can mix bones of different ages together.  Or humans may have buried the corpse into the fossil deposit.  Nevertheless, this human bone has dire wolf gnawmarks on it–evidence this person was scavenged (or even killed) by dire wolves.

The below referenced article lists all the vertebrate species identified from Cutler Hammock, and as I read through the list, I noticed a few interesting bird species I neglected to mention in my discussion from part 1 of this blog entry.  The extinct hawk-eagle (Spizaetus grinnelli) flew the skies of Pleistocene south Florida.  It was larger than its closest living relative, Spizaetus ornata.

Spizaetus ornatus

South American hawk-eagle.  It some times takes prey 5 times its size.  A bird like this lived in Ice Age Florida.

An extinct species of caracara (Milvago reidei), closely related to the living yellow crested caracara, also of South America, lived on the open plains of Florida then.  Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) must have occasionally darkened the skies.

The Monkey Jungle Hammock site is thought to have been a carnivore den site as well but as far as I know no study has been conducted on the morphology of bones found there (Another hint to paleontologists.)

Reference:

Emslie, Steve; and Gary Morgan

“Taphonomy of a Late Pleistocene Carnivore Den in Dade County, Florida”

Late Quaternary Environments and Deep History: Tributes to the Career of Paul Martin

Edited by David Steadman and Jim Mead

Hot Springs South Dakota Inc. Reasearch Papers Volume 3 1995

Two Pleistocene Carnivore Den Sites near Miami, Florida (Part 1)

October 15, 2013

Many tropical hardwood hammocks dot the low lying Everglades, southwest of Miami, Florida.  Two of them have sinkholes where scientists unearthed Pleistocene-aged fossils. Monkey Jungle Hammock and Cutler Hammock along with a West Palm Beach site are the southeasternmost Pleistocene fossil localities in North America.

The Monkey Jungle fossil site is named after an adjacent tourist attraction which is kind of a monkey zoo.

The bedrock in south Florida is known as Miami limestone, built from eons of buried sea shells and coral that transformed into rock.  Rain water dissolved caverns within the limestone, and these caves attracted bats, owls, and large carnivores, and they also contain everything the meat-eaters dragged inside.  Scientists can’t use radiocarbon dating on the fossils found at these localities because the conditions have leached too much organic material from the bones.  Nevertheless, they can safely assume the fossils accumulated during the Last Glacial Maximum between ~28,000 BP- ~15,000 BP. These caves are flooded today due to the rise in sea level following the end of the last Ice Age, but they were well above the water table then.

The sinkhole in Monkey Jungle Hammock was discovered in 1969; the one in Cutler Hammock was found in 1985.  The West Palm Beach site, also discovered in 1969, is probably not a sinkhole.  Cutler Hammock is the richest of the 3 sites, yielding the abundant remains of 47 species of mammals, 51 of birds, 9 of reptiles, 7 of amphibians, and 5 of fish.  Remains of dire wolves, spectacled bears, and jaguars were the most common large carnivore bones found here.   Horses, upland bison (Bison antiquus), and long nosed peccary (Mylohyus nasatus) were apparently the most common prey animals dragged into the cave, and most of the bones were from juveniles.  Many of the bones have been gnawed upon–evidence the cave served as a carnivore den site.  Cottontail rabbits, cotton rats, and wood rats, were the most common small mammals.  Monkey Jungle Hammock is also thought to have been a carnivore den site as well as an owl and bat roost.  41 species of mammals were found here.  Only 17 species of mammals were found at the West Palm Beach site, and most of the fossils–capybaras, tapirs, alligators, turtles, and fish–indicate it was an aquatic environment rather than a cave.

The abundance of several species at these fossil sites suggests Ice Age south Florida consisted of dry longleaf pine savannah instead of the sawgrass wetlands of today.  Fossils of indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, denizens of pine savannah, are especially common.  Fossils of Hesperotestudo incisa, a dwarf version of the extinct giant tortoise (Hesperotestudo crassicutata) have been found as well.  It likely was a dry upland dweller.  Pine voles and pocket gophers inhabited south Florida then but are absent today due to the expansion of wetland environments.  Pine savannahs were maintained by occasional hurricanes and lightning-induced wildfires that kept the environment open and grassy, but the climate was more arid than it is today, and there were far fewer wetlands.

There are no above ground caves in south Florida and the West Indies today, but during the Ice Age, all of the caverns presently inundated with fresh and saltwater served as roosts for enormous bat colonies.  The extinct mustached bat (Pteronotus pristinus), the ghost-faced bat (Mormoops megalphylla), the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), and the southeastern myotis (Myotis austrarpririus) all formerly hunted flying insects in the skies of Ice Age south Florida and the Caribbean Islands.  Sea level rise caused the extinction of the mustached bat, and the extirpation of the other 3 species because the cave roosts became flooded. 

An upside down flying Ghost-faced Bat (Mormoops megalphylla).  The feed on large nocturnal moths.

Distribution of Mormoops megalophylla

Present day range of the ghost-faced bat.  During the Ice Age they also lived in south Florida and the West Indies and nested in caves.  Following the end of the Ice Age and the corresponding rise in sea level, those caves were flooded, thus eliminating their roosting sites.

Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), evening bats (Nycticius humeralis), Seminole bats, (Lasiurius sp.?) and Wagner’s mastiff bats (Eumops glaucinus) still live in south Florida.  The former is the most abundant in the region today.  They survived sea level rise because they roosted in trees, but today they almost exclusively make use of man-made structures.

Barn owl.  What a ghostly colored creature.  Here’s a link to an excellent documentary about them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NLFLO8LN78

Barn owls (Tyto alba) were common in south Florida and the West Indies during the Ice Age, thanks to the caves that provided them with roosing sites.  Other notable birds that lived in south Florida then include the terratorn, California condors, an extinct stork (Ciconia malthus), the extinct hawk-eagle (Spizatus sp.), and the whooping crane (now absent from the region.)

The reason I’m splitting this essay into 2 parts is because I’m waiting for the mailman to deliver an obscure scientific article about these 2 sites that is not available on the internet.  That article should have more information on the morphology of the gnawed and broken bones found at these sites.  4 of the 5 species of big Pleistocene cats as well as dire wolves, bears, and a small canid utilized these caves as den sites over the millenia.  I should get the article anyday now.

See also: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/banana-hole-fossil-sites/

Reference:

Morgan, Gary

“Late Rancholabrean Mammals from Southeastern Florida and the Neotropical influence in Florida’s Pleistocene Fauna”

Cenozoic Mammals of Land and Sea: Tributes to the Career of Clayton Ray

Smithsonian Press 2002

Up and Down Lavender Mountain

October 10, 2013

I visited Berry College Wildlife Management Area for the 3rd time a few days ago.  I saw deer sunning themselves in the open places behind the campus, and I encountered them bounding in the woods.   I’d already photographed Berry College deer on a previous visit and was going to forgo taking any more pictures of them.  But on the way out, we drove adjacent to a complacent herd of a dozen laying so close to the road that I couldn’t resist.  However, by then the camera batteries had lost their juice.  Nevertheless, I did satisfy my urge to climb to the top of Lavender Mountain and take photographs from there

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View from the top of Lavender Mountain

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Another view from the top of Lavender Mountain.

I didn’t know the Longleaf Pine Trail leads to the top of Lavender Mountain.  The Longleaf Pine Trail is an uphill climb, but in my ignorance I chose an even more rigorous route straight up a steep slope.  The rocky soils support an open forest of shortleaf pine and black oak with longleaf pine saplings on the lower part of the slope.  It looked so open that I didn’t think I would have any problem finding my way back.

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I found this potential rattlesnake den on the way up the mountain.  A tree had fallen, and its roots left a convenient cavern for serpents.  Many of the tree trunks on the mountain have burn marks from prescribed fire.

I reached the top of the mountain and a large hawk flew over my head.  The sight of the raptor seemed like a reward for my effort.  But the open nature of the terrain had deceived me–I looked down the steep mountain and couldn’t see my vehicle where my wife and daughter awaited.  In my haste to return I fell on my tukous 3 times and shredded my legs negotiating through a blackberry thorn patch.  A deer bounced about 10 yards in front of me, clearing the infernal thorns with ease, and in my paranoid imagination I thought of the deer attacking me in vengeance for all its brethren slain by hunters.  I pictured myself using boxing skills to ward off slashing hooves.  I avoided the potential rattlesnake den and discovered the trail that an educated hiker would’ve taken.  It was easier to descend than my chosen route.  After a brief period of directional confusion I was reunited with my family.

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Sign marking the Longleaf Trail–the route I should have taken instead of straight up a briar-choked steep slope.

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This is me at the base of a forked chestnut oak (Quercus montana) before my adventure up the mountain.  I was still excited about Georgia beating Tennessee thus stepping on their face with a hobnailed boot and breaking their nose…again!

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They have a longleaf pine restoration project at Berry College WMA.  A pine bark beetle infestation took out a number of shortleaf and loblolly pines, and managers burned and logged the area and planted longleaf pine saplings.  Longleaf pine is more resistant to pine bark beetles than other types of southern pines.  Lavender Mountain originally hosted an unusual disjunct population of longleaf pine which is normally a species found on the coastal plain rather than the mountains.

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Another view of Lavender Mountain through a firebreak.  The firebreak serves the purpose of isolating experimental populations of longleaf pine.

Mark Gelbart’s Scratched up Legs

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Look.  I’ve got a birthmark on my left leg that’s shaped like the state of Georgia.  My legs got scratched up while descending through a Lavender Mountain brier patch.

A long time ago, when I was about 20, an older woman, whose husband was serving overseas in the U.S. Army, told me I had ugly legs.  A few days after she uttered this unkind remark, she made a pass at me.  I didn’t respond.  At that age my social ability with the opposite sex was about as sophisticated as that of a mud turtle.  Being a dullard with thick skin had its advantages–I didn’t mull over her contradictory strategy of hurting someone’s feelings, then making them feel better through sex.  (The above photograph reminded me of that long forgotten incident.)  Now, after half a century of life experience, I’m sophisticated enough to know she was a bitch.  Shame on those people who use her strategy.  I’m sure there are plenty of relationships that consist of jerks who play with their partner’s low self-esteem to manipulate them emotionally.  They take advantage of vulnerability.  I’ve got no use for them.  Luckily for me, I didn’t take the bait.  Who knows what kind of trouble that would have brought me?  I had 1 friend who had an affair with a married woman.  He was murdered, allegedly by a drug fiend bribed with a line of coke.

The Estelle Mine Trail

A century ago, miners dug iron ore from an area on Pigeon Mountain.  Today, there’s a 2.9 mile trail leading to the abandoned mines.  I only hiked about a mile on the trail because I didn’t want to leave my wife alone in the car for more than 40 minutes.  My daughter and I saw some evidence of mining but didn’t reach the big tunnels in the rock that are probably located near the end of the trail.

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Side of a ravine where iron ore may have been extracted.

The trail is easy to follow.  Its eroded in places from horseback riders, and it tends to follow through ravines.  It’s hard to tell which ravines are natural and which are the result of mining.  A 2nd growth forest of white oak, chestnut oak, shorleaf pine, maple, sweetgum, sycamore, and black walnut has reclaimed the area around the mines.  I’m sure it was a barren clear cut a hundred years ago.  I kept hearing a pileated woodpecker and found the tree upon which it was roosting deep inside the forest.  I also saw a red-headed woodpecker.

We didn’t get this far on the Estelle Mines Trail, but I found this picture on google images.

Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–The River Otter (Lutra canadensis)

October 6, 2013

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from an obscure book published in 1925.  Below is Frances Harper’s collection of accounts about the river otter.  I’ve only seen a live wild otter once in my entire life when I accidentally drove my car  over an unfortunate otter’s paw on my honeymoon.  It was crossing a raised highway over a salt marsh in South Carolina. I tried to swerve to avoid it, but I should have kept going straight and I would have probably missed it.  Kind of ruined the whole evening for me.  I have seen otter scat on exposed river rocks, and there was an otter slide by a creek in the woods behind a house where I lived in Athens, Georgia 37 years ago.  My closest encounter came when a tame otter escaped its pen at the Okefenokee Swamp Zoo and sniffed my shoe.

Cruelty toward animals is evident in the below excerpt.  The locals acknowledged that otters made great pets, yet they  expressed no remorse about killing  them with  steel jaw traps.  Here’s the excerpt:

River Otter–Lutra canadensis vega

The Otter is generally distributed along the waterways of the swamp, such as Billy’s Lake, the Big Water, the canal, the numerous runs through the cypress bays, and the open water of the prairies.  It is also found on the Suwannee and St. Mary’s Rivers.  It is a rather shy animal, and I have not met with it in life in the swamp.  It is still fairly common, though its present numbers evidentally do not equal those of former years.

The distribution is said to vary somewhat with the season, and various theories are advanced on the subject.  David Lee says that during the winter the Otters follow the deeper waterways for the most part.  Their occurrences on the prairies (especially in the gator holes) seems more or less limited to the season of the year, when the Alligators are generally inactive.  In the summer they are hardly found in deep water, but out in the cypress bays.  For example, there are more of them along the shallow run through Billy’s Bay in the summer than at any other season.  He supposes this is on account of their fear of Alligators (which stay mostly in the deeper water of the swamp).

According to Sam Mizell, the Otters stay in the cypress bays especially in summer.  Some foiks think they are afraid of Gators out in the prairies.  They are commoner on the prairies in winter than summer.  For one thing, this is the rutting season, and they are disposed then to travel around more.

Allen Chesser expresses the opinion that they avoid the prairies in summer because it is too warm for them there at that season.  Yet he also considers it likely that Alligators prey upon them. 

In the Okefinokee parlance, an Otter slide is practically any place where the animals defecate.  This may be merely a log beside a watercourse, the sign being frequently noted in such a situation.  More commonly, according to Jackson Lee, it is some muddy spot, where the animals leave marks of scratching and wallowing, as well as faeces.  While such spots may not be exactly comparable to the regular Otter slides on sloping banks in other parts of the continent, yet they likely serve somewhat the same purpose.  Stream banks with any appreciable slope are quite lacking in the natural topography of the swamp, though they occur here and there along the canal.  David Lee has seen, in the winter time, tussocks in the cypress bays that were perforated with a number of holes or runways, and were littered with faeces; it also appeared as if the Otters had wallowed around there on top of the ground.

In addition to its diet of fish, the species feeds upon snakes, according to Allen Chesser.  In David Lee’s opinion, it may take crawfish occasionally, but only when pressed for hunger.  Harrison Lee states that in former years the Otters used to get corn in the field at the north end of Billy’s Island, and carry it off in the swamp.  This is the less surprising when one consders the highly varied diet of a tame Otter.  Such a one, which was once kept on Billy’s Island would “eat anything,” according to David Lee.  “It had to be shut up at mealtimes, or it would come right on the table.”

Regarding the Otter’s voice, Jackson Lee said, “I heard a Auter hollerin’ one time, an’ it hollered somep’n like a Redbird (the q-note of a Cardinal. Down on Billy’s Lake he was mighty busy; he was swimmin’ about in the lake, an’ done like he was a-trailin’ another Auter.  He wuz a might big un.  I watched ‘im for a while.  The other one might ‘a’ been in heat.  Must ‘a” been some’ere abut December, about 10 yearas ago.  I was huntin’ Auter at the time.”

Harrison and Farley Lee once killed an Otter on Minne’s Lake, and its mate, after being frightened off, came back, whistling for it–‘a little sort er like a Redbird.’

In regard to the mating season and the birth of the young, Allen Chesser said, “They hunt one ernother erlong in November.  I once found two matin’ out on the perairie.  I think they have their young about the last of February or the first er March.”  According to Bryant Lee, a female taken about the middle of December, 1916, contained three or four embryos about half an inch long.  David Lee recalls four embryos in one case; perhaps three in others.

Jackson Lee thinks the young come about February or March.  He gave the following account of once finding some young ones.  “It was February, the best I can remember, about 22 years ago, right down yonder against Scrub Island.  We had a ol’ dog that would go off an’ tree, an’ stay with it till we’d come; an’ Gip was a young dog we had with us.  As we wuz goin’ to this ol’ dog that had somep’n treed, Gip treed the Auter in a hollow cypress, an’ he got it out.  Then we heard a growlin’ in there, an’ saw three young Auters, an’ took ’em out.  We kep’ ’em fer two weeks, an’ their eyes never did open.  Fed ’em on milk, but they finally died.  The growlin’ we had heard wuz probably another ol’ Auter left in the stump.  We thought at the time it was the young uns, but they never growled any aft they wuz taken out.  The Cypress wuz out in the swamp, a good piece from any run, an’ it was kind er dry aroun’ there.”

About the middle of April, 1922, a young Otter was caught by an old colored man on Hull’s Creek, near the St. Mary’s River above Camp Pinckney.  It was said to have become gentle within a few moments.  It was soon made a household pet at the home of I.B. Loyd, near Folkston, where we had the good fortune to see it on July 8.  It was the particular favorite of two children, and the intimate playmate of  a cat.  It slid about on its stomach over the dirt in the yard, in a playful manner perhaps like that of wild Otters disporting themselves on their slides.  Altogether it was a most engaging little creature.  It ate greedily of watermelon, and was also said to feed upon tomatoes, dead birds, rats, and any kind of fresh meat.  A flea was seen on it.

Specimens from the swamp exhibit two types of coloration, which are well recognized by the residents, but are not considered due to differences of sex, age or season.  One is light brown; the other, dark brown, or occasionally almost black.

As the most valuable fur-bearing animal of the swamp, the Otter is much sought by the trappers, and its diminishing numbers indicate the urgent need of conservation.  It has long been without any protection whatever under the laws of Georgia.  In 1916 local hides were bringing 9 or 10 dollars,, and in 1922, twice as much.  In the winter of 1920–21, however, prices had dropped temporarily, and comparatively little hunting seems to have been carried on.  In the season of 1916 three of the Lees had taken about 20 Otters by December 22.  It seems quite likely that the Otters in the Okefinokee still number several hundred individuals.

The Otter traps, armed with teeth, are placed on the so-called slides without bait.  Sometimes a slight hollow is chopped out of the top of a log, so that when the trap is placed there, it will not form a conspicuous projection.  The trap is lightly covreed with trash such as moss, earth, or leaves.

Trapping is by no means the only method of capture.  In 1916 David Lee had trained one of his hounds to hunt Otters, and with its help he secured far more specimens than by trapping.  The hound would sit in the bow of the little boat in which the hunter navigated the swamp, and on scenting the Otter, would jump overboard to pursue it in its natural element.  If the Otter had a clear run of deep water, it would outdistance and escape the dog.  If it had as much as 10 inches of water , it would elude the dog indefinitely, just sticking its nose above the surface, and not being seen by its pursuer.  If it took refuge in a tussock, the hunter would cut a stick and thrust down into the tussock with it.  If he succeeded thus in striking the Otter, it would clear out, giving him a chance to shoot it if not caught by the dog.  The latter would, if possible, seize it by the head, and in the ensuing struggle both animals might disappear for a time beneath the surface….

The American Hyena (Chasmaporthetes ossifragus)

October 1, 2013

In 1921 Oliver Hays was the curator of a museum that eventually became the Smithsonian.  One day, he was examining fossils that had been collected from the Val Verde Copper Mine in Anita, Arizona 20 years earlier.  Barnum Brown, a world renowned fossil collector at a time when fossil hunters were celebrities, had labeled 1 specimen as “cat.”  This curious specimen consisted of just a lower jaw. After much pain-staking comparisons with other specimens, Oliver Hay concluded the jaw belonged to an extinct species of hyena that he named Chasmaporthetes ossifragus.  The paleontological community doubted Hay had correctly identified the specimen.  It was nearly 50 years before enough evidence had accumulated to verify Hay’s conclusion that hyenas once roamed North America.

Artist’s depiction of Chasmaporthetes–the hunting hyena.  It was a fast runner and an important carnivore on 4 continents during the Pliocene.

Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, known as the hunting hyena, lived in North America from about 4.9 million years BP to ~780,000 BP, making it an important large carnivore of the Pliocene and early Pleistocene.    It had long strong legs and is thought to have been an active hunting animal that chased its prey down, possibly in packs.  Although it possessed a powerful bite and did eat some bone, it didn’t eat as much bone as the modern extant spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta).  It lived alongside other large predators such as the bone eating dog (Borophagus diversidens), the giant cheetah (Acinonyx), the scimitar-toothed cat (Dinobastis), and the dirk-toothed cat (Megantereon).  It likely preyed upon horses, llamas, camels, peccaries, deer, pronghorn, marmots, and other small mammals.

Fossil remains of Chamaporthetes have been found at 4 sites in Florida, 3 sites in Arizona, 2 sites in north Texas, 2 sites in Mexico, and 1 site in New Mexico.  It is the only species of hyena known to have crossed the Bering landbridge to North America where it was likely more widespread than its fossil record would indicate–there just aren’t many Pliocene-aged fossil sites in the midwest and northeast.  A similar species, Chasmaporthetes lunensis, lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa during the same time period, and it may actually be the same species.  This means the hunting hyena was 1 of the most wide ranging and successful large carnivores ever.  The reason for its extinction is unknown, but it disappeared at a time when forests were replacing grassland and desert habitats.  Archaic species of wolves ecologically replaced American hyenas, but it’s not known whether they outcompeted them or simply took advantage of an extinction that occurred due to other causes.

Despite their appearance, hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs.  The order Carnivora is split into 2 suborders–feliforms and caniforms.  Feliforms include cats, civets, mongoose, and hyenas while caniforms include dogs, bears, weasels, skunks, pandas, raccoons, and seals.  There are 4 extant species of hyena.  The odd little aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is a nocturnal solitary animal that primarily feeds upon termites.  The brown hyena (Hyeaena brunnei) is a solitary scavenger that lives in South Africa.  The striped hyena (Hyeaena hyeaena)  is also a solitary scavenger, but it lives in North Africa, the Middle East, and India.  The spotted hyena ranges all across Africa and is more of an active pack hunter than the striped and brown hyenas.  It’s the species most commonly filmed for nature documentaries.  During the Pleistocene, spotted hyenas lived across Europe and Asia, and they occasionally fed upon humans.  Once in a while, archaeologists find hyena dung in caves that contains human hair and bones.

Most Homo erectus bones found in Asian caves were dragged inside by hyenas.

Oldest human hair known.  It was found in hyena dung, dating to between 250,000 BP- 195,000 BP.