Archive for December, 2015

An Alligator Bellowing at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, Augusta, Georgia

December 28, 2015

I live a short distance from the Phinizy Swamp Natural Area. I can hop in the car and get there in 15 minutes by driving on a back road behind a few factories.  The entrance is next to the Augusta Municipal Airport.  If I didn’t have to take care of my disabled wife, I would visit Phinizy Swamp at least once a week.  But I don’t want to leave my wife in the car by herself that often, especially during summer when temperatures are uncomfortable.  Last week, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, I decided it was the right time to look for winter migrant ducks at the swamp.  I left Anita in the car with her crochet, and my daughter and I hiked the trail that leads to an elevated boardwalk encircling a retention pond.  A surprise awaited us.

We heard a loud splash about 3 feet from where my daughter was walking.  I knew immediately that she had almost stepped on an alligator.  Augusta, Georgia is close to the northern limit of the American alligator’s range, but I didn’t realize there were any in this nature park.  We walked to the other side of the pond and heard the alligator bellow.  I’ve seen alligators on many occasions, but this was the first time I’d ever heard one bellow.  Alligators bellow during the mating season, and they also bellow to establish their territory.  Perhaps this alligator was telling us this was his pond.

On this blog I often lament the passing of the Pleistocene megafauna, so I must report that hearing the bellow of an extant species of megafauna makes me feel better…even thrills me.

Here’s audio/video from youtube of an alligator bellowing in the Okefenokee Swamp. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGyId1LMTnY

The bellowing of an alligator didn’t thrill John Lawson, the first European naturalist to settle in southeastern North America (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/ ) He inadvertently built his house (it was probably little more than a wilderness cabin) on top of an alligator den.  I just love his account of his experience.

I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me.  I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature.  One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times.  The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before.  Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third.  Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living.  At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”

I also saw the migrant ducks I hoped to encounter, though they made it difficult for me to visually identify them.  Every time I stopped to take a photo with my new camera, they ran on top of the water and swam in the opposite direction, tantalizingly just far away that I couldn’t positively identify which species they were.  My new camera has a telephoto lens, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing the first time I used it.  I’m fairly certain I saw black ducks, pintails, female common mergansers, and goldeneyes.  Cinnamon teal may have been present…most of the ducks were brown.  Wading birds included great egrets and an immature white ibis.

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Cormorant.

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An immature white ibis.

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I think these are pintail ducks.  There were many species of migratory ducks here, but they wouldn’t cooperate and swam away when I tried to take a photo.  This was the first time I used this camera and didn’t realize I could have zoomed in even more.

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The Pleistocene Christmas Tree

December 21, 2015

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 fall and winter.  It seemed as if the sun God was dying.  The shortest, and therefore the deadest, day of the year was December 21st.  But by December 25th the days began to get longer, hence the rebirth of the sun God.   The Romans celebrated this time of the year with a pagan festival known as Saturnalia.  People enjoyed wife-swapping and drunken orgies while the little kids were distracted with toys.  When Christians wrested political control of society from the pagans, they could not eliminate this pagan tradition.  Instead, they incorporated it and substituted Jesus for the sun God.  This is why Christmas is mistakenly thought of as a celebration of Jesus’s birthday.  It is not…it’s a celebration of the sun God’s birthday.

The exact origin of the pagan celebration of winter solstice is unknown because it predates literacy.  Some very ancient evidence of pagan rituals is suggested in art and relics found in caves.  In 1825 an archaeologist found an interred skeleton rubbed with red ochre in Paviland Cave located on the coast of Wales.  He mistakenly named this specimen the “red lady of Paviland” because he thought the remains represented a Roman whore.  Later scientists determined the skeleton was of a 6 foot tall man in his 20’s who lived about 34,000 years ago during an interstadial when sea levels were lower and the cave was located farther inland.  Much of the English Channel then was prime hunting ground for mammoth, rhino, horse, bison, aurochs, and deer.  This skeleton was buried with ivory rods that have been interpreted to be Druid magic wands.  The Druids were pagans who celebrated the winter solstice.  However, this specimen is not convincing evidence that the early people who lived here were directly ancestral to the Druid culture, and it’s not known whether or not they celebrated the winter solstice.  They may have been too busy just surviving in the harsh natural world to think much about the universe and their place in it.

Ogof Paviland Cave

Paviland Cave, Wales.  A skeleton with evidence of pagan rites was found here.  It dates to 34,000 BP.

Skeleton of the “red lady of Paviland.”  Later scientists recognized that the red lady was actually a man in his twenties.

Many of the symbols of the winter solstice are based on ancient traditions.  Evergreen plants such as holly, ivy,  coniferous trees, and mistletoe symbolize life and fertility during the deadest time of the year.  The tradition of bringing these plants into a dwelling predates the bible by thousands of years.  Martin Luther, the anti-semitic founder of Protestantism, gave approval to this Pagan tradition by claiming the triangular shape of the typical evergreen tree represented the trinity.  The real reason he gave his approval was because he could not get rid of this Pagan tradition, so he assimilated it instead.

White Spruce Tree

White spruce.  The extinct Critchfield’s spruce closely resembled this species.  Critchfield’s spruce, formerly widespread across southeastern North America during the Ice Age, would have made a great Christmas tree.

The character of Santa Claus is based on Odin, a God from Norse Mythology.  Not only does Odin slay the bad guys, but he leaves gifts for children under evergreen trees on the day following the winter solstice.  What a wonderful superhero.  There never was a real life Christian saint known as Saint Nicholas.  The Roman Catholic version of Saint Nicholas was simply an assimilated amalgamation of 2 pagan water gods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The legend of Santa Claus is based on Odin, a pagan God from Norse mythology and 2 water Gods from Greco-Roman mythology.

 

The Enigmatic Dwarf Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustrellus) of the Pleistocene

December 17, 2015

The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) ranges throughout Florida and the coastal plain of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Wetlands are their preferred habitat.  During the Pleistocene they co-occurred with a little known related species, the dwarf marsh rabbit (S. palustrellus).  Fossil evidence of the dwarf marsh rabbit has been found at just 3 sites-the Ichetucknee River, Melbourne, and Vero.  All of these fossil sites are located in Florida.

Distribution of Sylvilagus palustris

Range map of the marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris).  A dwarf relative of this species (S. palustrellus) lived in Florida and perhaps the coastal plain as well during the Pleistocene.

Some doubt S. palustrellus is a valid species because there is so little evidence of its former existence.  However, Dennis Ruez, a scientist who teaches at the University of Southern Illinois, is convinced there was  a dwarf marsh rabbit inhabiting late Pleistocene wetlands in Florida.  Dennis Ruez is the only living scientist to really study this species.  He believes the dwarf marsh rabbit was a distinct species from any other species of rabbit because its teeth were “SO much smaller.”  The specimen he examined was an adult lower 3rd pre-molar.  He compared it with the lower 3rd pre-molar of a marsh rabbit and also noticed some distinct differences besides size.  The only illustration of this species is of this tooth in a short paper he authored.  This paper can be accessed via the following link. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263425470_A_new_record_of_Sylvilagus_palustrellus_from_the_Rancholabrean_late_Pleistocene_of_Florida

The dwarf marsh rabbit may never have been a common species.  Fossil hunters have discovered 22 marsh rabbit teeth in the Ichetucknee River, but only 1 tooth of the dwarf marsh rabbit.  The drastic environmental changes experienced in Florida likely explain the evolutionary history of the dwarf marsh rabbit.  During interglacials sea level rise inundated most of Florida, leaving some marsh rabbits stranded on islands where some populations evolved to a larger or smaller size.  Conversely, during glacials marshes became separated by large dry prairies unsuitable for marsh rabbits and some populations evolved differing sizes following these isolating events.  The uncommon smaller species was more vulnerable to extinction through disease or predation.  It’s 1 of the few small mammal species to become extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

There are 3 extant subspecies of marsh rabbit.  The lower keys marsh rabbit (S. palustris hefneri) lives on Key West and is in danger of extinction there because of suburban development and house cats.  This subspecies was named after Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy Magazine empire.

AMI's David Pecker Hosts Playboy's 50th Anniversary Celebration

Playboy bunnies.

Working to conserve endangered 'Playboy' bunnies

A real playboy bunny, the lower keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), a subspecies named after Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy magazine empire.

References:

Ruez, Dennis

“Dental Variation in Pleistocene Marsh Rabbits from the Ichetucknee River, Florida”

Current Research in the Pleistocene 2011

Ruez, Dennis

“A New Record of Sylvilagus palustrellus from the Rancholabrean (Late Pleistocene) of Florida”

Current Research in the Pleistocene 2003

 

Gran Chaco Megafauna pre-1970 Resembled Pleistocene Fauna of North America

December 14, 2015

The Gran Chaco is a 250,000 square mile eco region encompassing parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and southwestern Brazil.  The landscape consists of open palm tree savannah interspersed with thorn scrub on more xeric sites while riverine forests or marshes occur wherever there is water.  The name Chaco derives from the Indian word Chacu, meaning hunting land.  The name suggests various regional Indian tribes regarded the region as a neutral hunting ground, probably because the climate was too arid for productive agriculture.  The region was rich in wildlife, nearly pristine, until 1970 when a major highway was constructed here.  Since then, cattle ranches and irrigated lands have replaced much of the former hunting grounds.

Map of Gran Chaco ecoregion.

Like North America, the Gran Chaco lost its largest but slowest breeding species of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene.  There were 3 species of elephant-like animals–gompotheres, haplomastodons, and stegomastodons–living here until about 10,000 years ago as well as giant ground sloths, glyptodonts, pampatheres (a plant-eating giant armadillo), liptoterns (a primitive ungulate), horses, and saber-tooths.  However, many of the smaller species of Pleistocene megafauna that became extinct in North America had close relatives still extant in the Gran Chaco region.  The ranges of many of these species no longer overlap with each other because their populations have become fragmented following agricultural development, but an explorer traveling through the region prior to 1970 would have found a fauna very reminiscent of southeastern North America’s during the Pleistocene.  Llamas shared the range with peccaries, 2 species of deer, and tapirs in the Gran Chaco, not unlike the faunal mix of southeastern North America which included 2 species of llama, 2 species of peccary, 3 species of deer, and tapirs.

A remnant population of guanacos, a type of llama, still occurs in the Gran Chaco region.  Guanacos are still common in the Andes Mountains but have been largely extirpated from lowland regions.

The Chacoan peccary (Catagonys wagneri) is a close relative of the extinct flat-headed peccary (Platygonnus compressus), a species formerly common throughout North America.  Scientists only knew the Chacoan peccary from fossil specimens identified in 1930, but then in 1971 western scientists  “discovered” them to be still extant, though the natives were aware of their existence.  This was like discovering an existing population of mammoths.

The Chacoan peccary is closely related to a species of peccary that lived in North America until about 11,000 years ago.  Between 1930-1971 scientists thought they were an extinct Pleistocene species.

There are still many species of edentates in the Gran Chaco.  The edentates were an important component of North America’s fauna during the Pleistocene.  Several species of ground sloths, giant armadillos, pampatheres, and glyptodonts lived in North America then.  The Gran Chaco still hosts 10 species of armadillos, tree sloths, and the giant eater whose raking claws resemble the formidable armament of the extinct giant ground sloths.  The Gran Chaco is likely the center of armadillo evolution.

Giant armadillo

Giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus)

Anteaters are practical. They use their babies to make themselves look bigger and protect themselves.

Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

Genetic evidence suggests the pampas deer was formerly an abundant species found over a wide area of South America.  Human hunting pressure has greatly fragmented and reduced the population of this species.  Swamp deer live in marshy areas of the Gran Chaco as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus).  All South American species of deer share a common ancestor with North American white tailed deer.

Two important predators in the Gran Chaco, jaguars and cougars, roamed southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  The extinction of smaller species of megafauna limited the prey selection of the former, perhaps explaining its recent absence from much of the region.  Studies show the prey items selected by jaguars tend to be larger than those chosen by cougars.

Jaguar and cubs in the Gran Chaco National Park.

The avifauna diversity of the Gran Chaco is astounding as well.  There are over 400 species of birds native to the region, making it one of the richest bird watching sites in the world.  The diversity of wildlife here suggests the region was sparsely populated by humans until very recently.

Megafauna Habitat Modification and Pleistocene Capybaras in Southeastern North America

December 7, 2015

Since 1970, dry tropical forests in the Grand Chaco region of Paraguay have rapidly been transformed into pasture for cattle.  Though this change has been detrimental for many species of wildlife, it has benefited capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrachaeris).  According to Juan Krauer who wrote his PHD dissertation about capybara range expansion in the Grand Chaco, ranchers provide capybaras with food by planting nutritious grasses, and the rodents utilize the artificial ponds that help water cattle.  Ranchers also suppress the population of predators that would otherwise reduce capybara numbers.  It occurred to me that this manmade landscape mirrors the situation extinct species of capybaras enjoyed in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  Mammoths and mastodons killed trees while foraging, allowing grass and herbs to grow free of shade; they dug down to the water table during droughts, creating standing bodies of water; and they chased away predators.  Some paleoecologists have suggested the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna had a negative cascading effect on many smaller organisms.  This may be true for the extinct species of North American capybaras.  Without the presence of mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths the habitat preferred by capybaras was replaced by closed canopy forests in many areas.  The remaining available habitat became more limited in extant, perhaps making capybaras more vulnerable to human hunting pressure.

Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), Corrientes, Argentina. Is the largest living rodent in the world. Capybara are semi-aquatic mammals found wild in much of South America. Capybaras are herbivores, grazing mainly on grasses and aquatic plants. Image by Andres Morya

 

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/capybara-is-the-largest-rodent-in-the-world-grazing-next-to-news-photo/460612790

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/capybara-is-the-largest-rodent-in-the-world-grazing-next-to-news-photo/460612790

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/capybara-is-the-largest-rodent-in-the-world-grazing-next-to-news-photo/460612790

Photo of capybaras grazing with cattle in the 3 links. (All 3 links are the same photo…I can’t delete the other 2 links and the photo won’t directly show up on  my blog.) The transformation of dry tropical forest to pastureland has allowed capybaras to expand their range in South America.  This suggests the likelihood that capybaras benefited from megafaunal habitat modification in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.

There were 2 species of capybaras living in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  Holmes’s capybara (Hydrochoerus holmesi) and Pinckney’s capybara (Neochoerus pinckneyi) were likely common in suitable habitat in Florida and the coastal plain of South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.  Fossil specimens of both species have been found at numerous sites in all 4 states, ranging temporally from the late Pliocene to the late Pleistocene.  Capybaras colonized the region after a land bridge formed connecting North America with South America.  Capybaras descend from rodents that rafted to the latter continent from Africa well over 10 million years ago.  Because both species survived for over 2 million years in southeastern North America, I think climate change was not a factor in their extinction.  Capybaras survived dozens of dramatic shifts in climate but became extinct when man appeared in the archaeological record.

Fossil Capybara Maxilla

Cheek teeth and jaw bone of Neochoerus pinckneyi

In his classic book Pleistocene Mammals of North America Bjorn Kurten wrongly states “the present distribution of Hydrochoerus suggests that the extinct species must have lived in North America when winters, even in Florida, were warmer than they are now…” The present day range of the extant species of South American capybara includes regions that have a climate similar to Florida and the coastal plain of Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas.  Freezing temperatures regularly occur in northern Argentina and Ecuador during winter.  Capybaras live in regions where winter lows have reached below 20 degrees F, so they could potentially live in Florida today.  However, northern Argentina is the southern limit of their range– prolonged cold spells seem to be a limiting factor on their distribution.  North American capybaras probably had the capability of enduring colder weather than their modern cousins.  Neochoerus pinckneyi was significantly larger than the present day South American species.  The former averaged 200-250 lbs compared to an average of 100 lbs for the present day species.  The larger size may have helped them retain body heat better than their South American relatives.  Moreover, both North American species lived for over 2 million years in the southeast where they surely evolved adaptations to the long term vicissitudes of the local climate.

Capybaras graze in meadows, bed down in the woods, and spend much of their time in water.  They require habitat that offers all 3 of these environments.  They use water to escape from predators and to cool down during the heat of the day.  They are not as helpless as they look for they are fast runners and swimmers, and they have thick hides.  Nevertheless, jaguars were likely their most dangerous enemy in North America during the Pleistocene.  The extinction of capybaras here probably contributed to the extirpation of jaguars in this region.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1iCxqXaVJE

This could have been a scene along the Altamaha River in Georgia 13,000 years ago.  Jaguars hunted capybaras for hundreds of thousands of years here.

Abundant rivers, oxbow lakes, creeks, and beaver ponds offered plenty of aquatic habitats for capybaras in Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas; and in Florida the many lakes and springs there were the perfect refugia for them.  North American capybaras were well adapted to the mosaic of habitats that existed during the Pleistocene.  During stadials braided river channels surrounded by wet meadows or dry prairies occurred all along river valleys from the lower piedmont to the ocean.  The many creeks in Georgia consisted of long chains of beaver ponds, some of which filled with sediment to become grassy marshes–another capybara-friendly habitat.  Capybaras grazed with long-horned bison and horses in wet pine savannahs, an ancient environment created by lightning-ignited wild fires.  And there were the aforementioned natural pastures resulting from megafauna foraging.  Capybaras themselves transformed their own environments into closely cropped lawns.  This attracted many species of birds such as robins, blackbirds, and cowbirds.  Capybaras are considered the ecological equivalents of hippos.

Did capybaras ever colonize the piedmont region of the south?  The fossil record of this region is too meager to know for sure (there is only 1 site). During the warmest of climate phases they may well have.  The exact northern limits of their range fluctuated with changing climate cycles.

References:

Krauer, Juan

“Landscape Ecology of the Capybara”

PHD Dissertation Kansas State 2009

Kurten, Bjorn; and Elaine Anderson

Pleistocene Mammals of North America

Columbia University Press 1980