Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Giant Leopard Moths and Red Wasps are Invading my Property

August 19, 2014

In some ways insects are more adaptable than large mammals.  Insects are capable of evolving in response to environmental change much more rapidly than large mammals because several generations can reproduce within the timespan of just 1 growing season, while some large mammals take decades to produce a single generation.  The presence of humans has obliterated 70% of North America’s large mammal species, but it hasn’t put a dent in insect populations.  I will never see a mammoth or saber-tooth in my backyard.  However, thousands of interesting species of insects invade my property, and they are active almost year round, though the coldest days of winter relegate most of them to dormancy.  Most of the insects I find on my property are likely the same species that inhabited this space during the Pleistocene.  Insects suffered few known extinctions at the end of the Ice Age but instead experienced shifts in range distributions. (See:  Climate in my neighborhood (Augusta, Georgia) remained relatively stable during this transition, and the change in insect species composition has probably been minimal since then. Recently, I’ve encountered 2 species of insects that have occupied my homestead space for hundreds of thousands of years.  Maybe, I should change the title of this essay, and call it “humans invading moth and wasp territory.” 

Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scribonia










Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia)

This woolly bear caterpillar is the larval stage of the giant leopard moth.

The giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) is a large species with a wingspan of nearly 3 inches.  It has beautiful teardrop-shaped spots on its wings.  That is the description I googled to help me identify this species.  I found a dead specimen near my wildflower bed but didn’t take a photo. (I ripped off the above photos from google images.) It probably died after depositing fertilized eggs on 1 of the species of flowers growing in my garden.  Their larva are known as woolly bears (as are the larva of many other species of moths), and they feed on a wide variety of plants including but not restricted to violets, mustards, basil, trumpet vines, sunflowers, mulberry, magnolia, and locust.

 photo Daphnesdorm001_zps3665f00a.jpg

Red paper wasps (Polistes sp.) nesting between my screen door and side door.  It’s a door we never use, so I let them stay there.  Though manmade, it mimics a hollow tree stump or log in scarce supply in modern young forests.

A nest of red paper wasps (Polistes sp.) lives in the space between my side door and screened-in door.  There’s a hole in the screen, allowing access to this sheltered area.  Before humans built structures, paper wasps built their nests in hollow tree trunks, but there are few den trees in the young 2nd growth forests surrounding modern day suburbia.  I’m letting the wasps live in the doorway because: a) we never use the side door, b) they are not aggressive, unless defending their nest, and c) they are beneficial predators, destroying the kinds of caterpillars that like to eat their way through my garden.  Each cell of the wasp’s nest contains a wasp larva with a paralyzed caterpillar upon which it feeds.

There are 28 species of wasps in the Polistes genus that live in the southeast, and I’m not enough of an expert to identify the exact species to which my housemates belong.  I admire these little monsters–they invented paper millions of years before the 1st humans evolved.




Bulls Scarp

August 14, 2014

Bulls Scarp is an uneven rocky cliff located approximately 66 miles to the east of the South Carolina coast.  This sloping underwater feature is on the edge of the continental shelf, and it covers about 20 square miles.  Today, Bulls Scarp varies in depth from 42 yards to 220 yards beneath the surface of the sea, depending upon the height of its rocky outcroppings.  But during the last Ice Age between ~24,000 BP-~16,000 BP, it was above sea level because the Laurentide Glacier had advanced over all of eastern Canada, locking up a great quantity of earth’s atmospheric moisture.

Sonar image of Bulls Scarp, about 66 miles east of the South Carolina coast.  This image was taken by researchers from the College of Charleston.  20,000 years ago, this was a rocky location right at sea level and it probably hosted breeding colonies of walruses, seals, and sea birds.  Note how it stuck out into the ocean like a kind of natural pier.

Bulls Scarp fascinates me because it represented an environment that no longer exists anywhere in southeastern North America.  The closest above sea level cliffs today are in Maine.  Scientists from the College of Charleston believe Bulls Scarp would have provided favorable habitat for marine mammals such as seals and walruses.  Fossils of both have been found near Charleston.  (See:  Puffins and other sea birds nested here as well, and oyster reefs attached to rocks would have been abundant.  Researchers think these resources may have attracted paleo-indians.  Bulls Scarp also offered rock shelters, stone for tool-making, and freshwater springs.  Herds of mammoths, bison, horses, and llamas likely wandered all the way to the coast, and Indians following this game may have discovered these seaside cliffs.  Most of the continental shelf that was above sea level during the last Ice Age has been eroded by currents and wave action, destroying potential archaeological sites, but Bulls Scarp may have lag deposits containing fossils and human artifacts because the rocky outcroppings served as an impediment that trapped sediment. Scientists have identified it as a likely site where Clovis artifacts may be found.

Walruses on rocky shore with mist, Arctic  Jupiterimages

Walruses on a rocky shore off the coast of Alaska.  Strange as it may seem, an area off the coast of what today is South Carolina likely had a scene just like this 20,000 years ago.

A great variety of environments existed on the exposed continental shelf between Bulls Scarp and what today is the modern shoreline.  The climate was on average cooler and drier, though not especially cold during winter, thanks to the nearby Gulf Stream.  Lightning-induced wildfires were infrequent while draughts were common.  These climatic conditions favored prairies and scrub oak thickets.  Pine savannahs and river bottomland forests were less common than they are today.  “Sand dune fields” and Carolina bays formed on the northeast side of the braided rivers flowing on the shelf.  Rivers didn’t meander during this time period, but instead were shallow and clogged with sandbars.  Grassy marshes occurred near springs, and cypress swamps were relict habitats on low poorly drained sites.

When the Ice Age ended,  the Laurentide Glacier melted rapidly, and sea levels rose at an astonishing rate—40 yards per year.  Ocean front condos would have been a really bad investment then.  Cypress tree stumps found 19 yards below modern sea level date to 11,500 BP.  The Atlantic Ocean inundated cypress swamps and all the other types of environments mentioned above within a few thousand years.  Modern sea level was reached about 6,000 years ago. 

We can study the ocean floor off the South Atlantic Bight and imagine what it used to be like, but for me it’s not nearly as satisfying as it would be to have actually seen it.  The paleo-indians didn’t enjoy our modern technological wonders, but they did get to see interesting pristine landscapes.


Lepper, Brad

“Paleolandscapes of the South Atlantic Bight”

Mammoth Trumpet 29 (3) July 2014



Using Genetic Engineering to Bring Back Extinct Species

August 10, 2014

Activist objections to the use of genetically modified organisms are illogical.  Their campaign to have products labeled as containing GMOs is unnecessary and misleading.  There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that GMOs are harmful for human consumption.  The difference in the chemical composition  between a natural organism and a genetically modified one is not significant.  Forcing companies to label products as containing GMOs, unfairly hurts sales because of all the ignoramuses who wrongly perceive these products to be harmful.  A label or name for a product is a critical marketing attribute.  Call a dish cornmeal mush and it’s worth 25 cents; but call it polenta (the exact same thing) and in a fancy restaurant, it’s sold for $25.

Some organic farmers complain about pollen from GMOs drifting onto their fields and contaminating their produce.  Organic produce is another word for “more expensive” produce.  Organic produce is not healthier nor is it superior in quality to any other produce.  In fact it’s often worse.    If we depended on organic produce for all of our food supply, the human race would rapidly starve to death.  The organic produce market is a scam, and I see no reason to shed tears if these crooks can’t have their produce certified as organic.  They’ll just have to sell their fruits and vegetables at regular prices.

It’s a shame anti-science zealots have tarnished GMOs with such a negative perception.  Many developments in this biotechnology are ingenious.  For example scientists learned how to take a gene found in wheat and splice it into American chestnut DNA.   This gene makes an enzyme that destroys the toxin produced by the blight that wiped out chestnut forests in North America (See: These genetically modified American chestnut trees have greater resistance to the blight than the Chinese chestnuts being used to create resistant hybrids.  There are thousands of genetically modified American chestnut trees growing in New York test plots.  Researchers are seeking regulatory approval to expand the areas where they can plant these new trees.  Permission is expected to be granted soon because they are not asking that the nuts be approved for human consumption.  It’s likely that in a few centuries, the American chestnut will once again become a dominant tree in eastern North America, thanks to genetic modification.

Genetically modified chestnut tree that is resistant to chestnut blight.

Technically, American chestnuts were not extinct.  But genetic engineers are attempting to bring back completely extinct organisms.  A non-profit organization, known as the Revive and Restore Project, has a whole list of candidates for restoration, including passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, red Cuban macaws, ivory-billed woodpeckers, imperial woodpeckers, moas, thylacines, Caribbean monk seals, woolly rhinos, and woolly mammoths. (See:  Currently, they are working on the restoration of the passenger pigeon (See:  Scientists are studying the genome of the band-tailed pigeon–the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative.  And they are studying the genome of the passenger pigeon obtained from the DNA of numerous museum specimens.  They are comparing the genomes of both species and are hoping to convert band-tailed pigeon DNA to passenger pigeon DNA.  Some day, within our lifetimes, passenger pigeons may once again fly in the America woods.  However, I’m doubtful they will be able to successfully re-establish themselves.  In order to survive this species required the existence of very large colonies, and a few dozen birds released back into the wild would probably get eaten by predators within a few weeks.

Band-tailed Pigeon Photo

Band-tailed pigeon.  It’s the closest living relative to the extinct passenger pigeon.  Scientists believe they can re-create the passenger pigeon from the band-tailed pigeon genome.

Scientists speculate the technology needed to bring woolly mammoths back to life is at least 50 years away.  With today’s technology, DNA from a woolly mammoth would have to be implanted in 1000 elephant eggs to have a chance of 1 viable mammoth offspring.  Elephants are too rare to obtain this many eggs.  However, some day scientists should be able to reprogram good quality cells found from mammoth specimens recovered from Siberian permafrost into stem cells that can then be used to clone a mammoth.











Woolly mammoth.  I’m afraid we won’t see a live one in our lifetimes.  But maybe our children or grandchildren will.

Arguments against bringing back extinct organisms are nonsensical.  Some say humans shouldn’t play God.  Humans already play God by completely modifying every environment on earth.  Everything man does alters the earth in some way.  Others see a Jurassic Park scenario.  That movie was ridiculous.  A few men with high powered rifles could annihilate an army of dinosaurs in a few minutes.  None of the candidate species pose any threat to man and would only enrich our now impoverished ecosystems.

Southeastern North America was a Hot Spot of Anthropogenic-Caused Megafauna Extinctions

August 5, 2014

A brand new study published in June supports my longheld conviction that humans are the primary cause of late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions.  This paper, co-authored by Chris Sandom and others, is the first of its kind.  Other studies of late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions examined data on a regional scale but Sandom’s study reviewed global data.  They looked for correlations between extinctions and both climate change and human expansion.  Extinctions were closely correlated with human colonization but little correlation was found between extinctions and climate change, although there was a weak correlation between climate change and extinctions in Eurasia.  The authors of this study identified 177 species of mammals, weighing over 20 pounds, that had become extinct between 132,000 BP-1000 BP.  They disregarded data more recent than 1000 BP because extinctions caused by humans during this time period are an historical fact.  The climate data included rates of change in average annual temperatures and precipitation and temperature and precipitation anomalies between 20,000 BP-the present day.  Data from between 132,000 BP-20,000 BP lend even less support for a correlation between climate change and extinctions.

The researchers found the introduction of humans into new regions was always associated with high rates of extinctions.  In regions such as Africa, Europe, and southern Asia; where humans or archaic humans have long been present, extinctions were lower.  Africa suffered just 18 late Pleistocene extinctions, Europe had 19, and Asia had 38.  However, in regions where mammals evolved without the presence of hominids, extinction rates were high upon the entrance of man.  South America had 62 late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions, North America had 48, and Australia had 26.  Southeastern North America was a hotspot of anthropogenic-caused extinctions and so were southern South America, southern Australia, and western Europe.  Texas had 1 of the highest number of extinct species with 33, while Uruguay suffered the highest rate of extinctions at 78%.  Climate has changed little over the past 20,000 years in southern South America, yet this region suffered the highest rates of extinction of any.

Figure 1.

Map showing correlations between human expansion, climate change, and extinctions. In this study megafauna extinctions were correlated with human expansion rather than climate change, and southeastern North America was a hotspot of anthropogenic-caused extinctions.

Some scientists hypothesize that animals living in regions devoid of humans are naive to the threat posed by human hunters.  This supposedly explains why Africa and southern Asia had lower rates of extinctions than other regions.  Animals living there knew to avoid man and to take aggressive action or flee when confronted by people.  Other scientists suggest tropical diseases kept human populations lower in Africa and southern Asia, thus explaining the higher survival rates of large mammals in these regions.  Probably, both explanations are valid, but I think the second is the greater factor.  Animals are smart enough to quickly learn the danger of man.  I’m certain American megafauna didn’t stay naive for more than 1 generation.  Vast areas of Africa and Asia remained uninhabitable for millennia, thanks to such tropical diseases as malaria, and I think this is the better explanation for the greater survival rates of megafauna there.  The abundance of wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (See: shows just how detrimental the presence of humans is for large wild animals–it’s worse than radiation poisoning.

Southeastern North America had a pleasant temperate climate during the late Pleistocene, and it was blessed with plenty of natural resources.  It’s likely human populations increased more rapidly here than in any other region of the continent.  As the human population increased, large mammal populations decreased here.  I really wish I could have seen Georgia’s natural environment before people ruined it.


Sandom, Chris; et. al.

“Global Late Quaternary Megafauna Extinctions Linked to Humans, not Climate Change”

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences June 2014

Astonishing Cougar Attacks on Bison, Bears, and Humans

August 1, 2014

Outdoorsmen have often described the cougar (Puma concolor) as a cowardly animal  This accusation of cowardice is unfair and unfounded.  Teddy Roosevelt is one of the more famous outdoorsmen to have described the cougar as a coward, yet he saw cougars on only 2 occasions.  Therefore, Teddy was no cougar expert.  But he was a sadistic hunter who slaughtered thousands of animals, using high-powered rifles from a safe distance while accompanied by packs of dogs and other hunters on horseback.  I can’t understand why the cougar has earned such an inaccurate reputation.  Maybe it is because the cat seeks refuge in trees when pursued by a pack of dogs.  Most unarmed men, if pursued by a pack of dogs, would also climb a tree to escape injury.  It’s understandable that a cougar would choose to avoid getting bitten.

Actually, cougars are the opposite of cowardly–they are 1 of the few solitary predators in the world that regularly attacks prey larger than itself.  Wolves and lions attack larger prey but do so in groups.  Tigers usually outweigh the animals they kill.  But cougars often attack elk and deer that are more than 3 times their size.  In his book, Cougar!, Harold Danz compiled incidents of cougars attacking bears, bison, and the most monstrous animal that ever evolved…Homo sapiens.

Above is a youtube video of a cougar attacking a much larger elk.

Major John Cremony of the U.S. Boundary Commission was hunting cougars near Fort Sumner, New Mexico circa 1850.  Along with his Apache guides, they witnessed a large cougar attack and kill a medium-sized black bear by clawing through to the bruin’s vital organs.  The cougar dragged the bear carcass away and buried it.  An Apache then shot and killed the cougar.

Mynhee Barhydt built a cabin in the Bear Swamp near Saratoga, New York circa 1800.  He saw a black bear discover a cougar’s den.  The bear killed the kittens.  The mother cougar returned and attacked the bear.  During the struggle which lasted an hour, both bear and cougar fell into a ravine and were killed.  Two miners in Idaho witnessed a similar incident when a mother cougar defended her kittens from a grizzly bear.  Both were killed in a fall off a cliff.  Upon close examination, it appeared as if the bear had suffered the more serious injuries during the fight…its belly was “ripped to ribbons.”

Bison weigh almost 10 times more than a cougar, yet there are 2 accounts of cougar attacks on bison.  In western Arkansas John Hunter was weathering a bison stampede by standing behind a tree.  A cougar had caused the stampede when it jumped on the back of a bison.  Hunter saw the “huge panther” chewing on the bison’s neck muscles.  He shot the cougar and eventually killed it with another shot.  Daniel Boone also saw a cougar riding the back of a bison in Kentucky.  He too shot the cougar, possibly saving that particular bison.

Mr. Danz found documented evidence of 33 fatal cougar attacks on humans and 122 nonfatal attacks.  Since this book was published in 1999, there have been an additional 4 fatal attacks.  During the early 1800s before cougars were extirpated from the region, there were several fatal cougar attacks in southeastern North America.  Near Vicksburg, Mississippi, a cougar entered a cabin and killed a man who was sick in bed.  His brother returned from chopping wood and rushed to his defense.  The cougar killed him too.  In northeastern Lousiana, a cougar jumped from a tree and killed an Indian hunting guide.  Near the Georgia/Florida border a slave, a man of “colossal strength,” took a shortcut through the woods to visit a girlfriend on a neighboring plantation.  When he failed to return, the owner thought he had run away, but upon searching, he found him dead along with a cougar that the slave had stabbed several times with a long knife.  Another slave working on a railroad in Mississippi was also killed by a cougar.  A cougar snatched and ate a baby in the big thicket region of east Texas prior to 1906.  A cougar attacked Nathan Bedford Forrest’s mom in 1834.  The horse reared and broke off this nonfatal attack.  The future Civil War General later treed the cat with his dogs and shot it.


Nell Hamm sits with her husband Jim Hamm in the intensive care unit at Mad River Hospital in Arcata, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007, the day after he was attacked by a mountain lion at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. State wildlife officials credited his wife with saving her 70-year-old husband's life by clubbing a mountain lion that had his head gripped in its jaws until the animal let go. (AP Photo/Times Standard, Mark McKenna) ** MAGS OUT MANDATORY CREDIT** Photo: Mark McKenna

A cougar attacked this man in Oregon.  His wife fended off the attack with a log.  The cougar walked away calmly.

When a cougar attacks a human, it is viewing that person as food.  In 1991 Scott Lancaster, a high school senior, went for a jog on a track not far from the Arapahoe National Forest in Idaho.  A cougar killed him and ate his heart, liver, kidneys, and face–the same parts the big cat favors from its usual prey, deer.  It may be disconcerting to some, but as far as mother nature is concerned, humans are just part of the food chain.

Indians have lived in North America for at least 15,000 years.  Most of their history is entirely unrecorded.  There is no telling how many of them were killed and eaten by cougars and other large American carnivores.  Nevertheless, humans waged war on all of them and emerged victorious.

See also: and


Danz, Harold


Ohio University Press 1999

The Pennsylvania Mammal Holocaust of 1760–A Rare Record of an Old-Fashioned “Varmint” Drive

July 27, 2014

The old timey pioneers did not appreciate wildlife or wilderness at all.  They saw their environment as a dismal wasteland filled with vermin, a word later Americanized to varmint.  Today, what most consider a beautiful animal was then viewed as a wealth-destroying scourge.  During the 18th century most people didn’t hold large amounts of money in banks but instead measured their wealth in the quantity and quality of the agricultural produce the land they owned produced. There was an economic basis behind their desire to exterminate all competing large mammals because if herds of deer ate their corn or a pack of wolves ripped apart their sheep, they would be financially ruined.  Nevertheless, the methods they used to accomplish this goal of ridding the countryside of varmints seems appalling to modern sensibilities.  One of the methods was known as a ring hunt.  Ring hunts were especially popular in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and settlers used them annually from about 1750-1850.  By the middle of the 19th century, all large wild animals had been completely extirpated from these 2 states.  Ring hunts were popular social events where men got together to enjoy the wonton slaughter of animals.  Few of the participants had any scientific interest in the composition of the animals they killed, and accordingly, the results of most of these murder parties have been forgotten.  However, 1 detailed account has been handed down to us.

A man known as Black Jack Shwartz led a ring hunt in Snyder County, Pennsylvania about 1760.  (Shwartz must have been a charismatic leader because he was previously known to have headed a group of volunteer sharpshooters for General Braddock during the French and Indian War.)  Shwartz organized a group of 200 settlers into a ring surrounding about 30 square miles of wilderness near the Mahantengo Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Mahantengo, translated from the local Indian language, means “where we had plenty of meat to eat.”  The name suggests this region was particularly rich in game, although at this early date wilderness still bordered the young city of Philadelphia, and wild animals ranged throughout the state.  The hunters, standing at intervals about 200 yards apart, made bonfires, rang bells, and fired their muskets into the air, while gradually advancing toward a cleared area in the middle of the circle.  They drove all the wild mammals into the clearing, then shot and killed 1200 of them.  Hundreds of animals did escape.  Faced with a choice between a concentration of wolves, cougars, and bears or puny but noisy humans, hundreds of bison, along with some deer and elk, stampeded through the perimeter and broke free.  This probably explains why the ratio of carnivores in the final talley is so unusually high.  The death toll included 198 white-tail deer, 111 bison, 2 elk, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 41 cougars, 114 bobcats and/or Canadian lynx, 17 black bears, 1 white bear, 12 wolverines, 3 fishers, 3 beavers, 1 otter, and 500 smaller mammals probably consisting of assorted rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks.  It seems amazing that such a concentration of wildlife lived in just a 30 square mile area, but other written accounts from Kentucky and Oklahoma also claim high numbers of animals in places prior to the advancement of civilization into formerly pristine environments.

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Snyder County 

Location of Snyder County, Pennsylvania where pioneers wiped out most of the large mammals within a 30 square mile area in a day.  “Varmint” drives such as this were common in the 18th century, explaining how wildlife rapidly disappeared in the east. 

An albino black bear mother.  The white bear killed in Pennsylvania during a “varmint” drive was probably an albino black bear but may have been a polar bear straggler. (See:

Photo: Wolverine, Gulo gulo.

Wolverines lived in Pennsylvania til about 1865.  A total of 3 were killed in the 1760 circle hunt.

A few choice cuts of meat and a few hides were taken, but most of the dead animals were placed in a pile as “high as the trees.”  This was set on fire, creating a stench that forced some settlers to leave their cabins, even though they lived 3 miles away.  According to the author of the below reference, a mound, within which bones from this mammal holocaust were interred, still marked the site in 1917.  I wonder whether this mound is still there today.

The local Indians were so furious over this destruction of their food supply that they later ambushed and killed Black Jack Shwartz.  They also murdered 12 settlers.  But these murders did not discourage the settlers.  Instead, the settlers continued to hold annual ring hunts, purposefully aggravating the Indians.  The settlers took joy in poking the Indians in the eye.  They held ring hunts as much to insult the Indians as to eliminate varmints.  Ring hunts helped the settlers starve the Indians, while protecting their crops and livestock. 

The concept of a ring hunt is especially revolting to the modern day naturalist.  There are no National Parks east of the Mississippi that host the variety and numbers of wildlife killed in just the 1 ring hunt for which we have a detailed record.  I wish I could live in a wilderness where wildlife was that abundant, yet other people who did have that opportunity chose to destroy it rather than enjoy it.  How ironic.


Shoemaker, H.

Extinct Pennsylvania Animals

Altoona Tribune Press 1917


Humans killed Gompotheres (Cuvieronius sp.) in Mexico 13,390 Years Ago

July 23, 2014

The fossil record suggests Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus colombi) and mastodons (Mammut americanum) were relatively common across North America during the late Pleistocene. Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) ranged as far south as Virginia but were more common to the north in Beringia and Eurasia.  Few people are aware that a 4th species of elephant-like beast, the gompothere (Cuvieronius tropicalis), expanded its range to include southeastern North America during warmer climate stages.  The gompothere likely had sparse hair like other large tropical mammals such as elephants, rhinos, and humans.  So when climatic conditions deteriorated, the gompothere’s range contracted toward Central and South America, while the more heavily furred mastodons and mammoths still thrived in regions with subfreezing temperatures.  Prior to 2007, the only evidence that humans hunted gompotheres had been found in South America.  But that year, scientists excavating the El Fin del Mundo site in the Sonoran Province of Mexico discovered 2 piles of gompothere bones eroding from the side of a gulley (or arroyo as known in Spanish).  These bones showed evidence of human modification.

Map of Sonora

Location of Sonora, Mexico.  Gompotheres, a cold intolerant species, still occurred here as late as 13,390 years ago.  They may have ranged into southeastern North America until about 120,000 BP, living alongside the more cold tolerant Columbian mammoths and mastodons.

Illustration of the extinct gompothere.  This species lived in Central and South America and Mexico until the end of the Pleistocene.  During warm climate phases it also colonized southeastern North America as far north as the North Carolina coastal plain.

Gomphothere mandible in place, upside down, at El Fin del Mundo excavation site. The fossil was fully prepared at the INAH zooarchaeology lab in Mexico City.

Lower jaw bones of a subadult gompothere found in the Sonoran Desert, Mexico.

Archaeologists found 27 artifacts associated with the gompothere bones, including flakes in direct contact with the bones.  Some of the bones had been burned, and some of the projectile points were snapped as if they’d broken upon contact.  One of the gompotheres was a juvenile aged 0-12 years old, while the other was a subadult aged 12-23 years old.  The way the bones were arranged into piles also suggests human modification.  Bones found included ankles, feet, limbs, shoulders, jaws, and teeth.  Radiocarbon dating indicates a calender year date of 13,390 years BP, and the artifacts are of the Clovis Culture.  This is the only known Clovis site south of the Rio Grande River.

Scientists believe this site was a freshwater marsh fed by a spring during the late Pleistocene.  Carnivores gnawed on the bones, hooved animals trampled upon them, and then the bones were exposed to the sun long enough to become dessicated, but eventually the marsh mud covered them.    The environment today is much more arid, though sudden showers have contibuted to the erosion of the gulley that has exposed the bones.

 A clear quartz Clovis point found near the bone bed at El Fin del Mundo. Although very difficult to shape into a tool, quartz was used by Clovis tool makers at several sites.

Most of the spear points found at the El Fin Del Mundo fossil site were made from gray chert stone but this one was made from clear quartz.  What a beautiful artifact.

A Clovis camp yielding over 100 artifacts stretches out from 500-1000 meters from the butchered gompothere remains.  Most of the artifacts were made from local chert, but the 1 in the image above was made from clear quartz.


Sanchez, G; et. al.

“Human (Clovis)-Gompothere (Cuvieronius sp.) association 13,390 Calibrated BP in Sonora, Mexico”

PNAS 140956111 2014

Melanistic canids, jaguars, and squirrels

July 18, 2014

Melanism in North American wolves is an ancient trait, that according to 1 genetic study, originated from an hybridization event between Eurasian wolves (Canis lupus) and primitive dogs (Canis familiaris).  This occurred at least 46,000 years ago, predating the actual domestication of dogs.  At this early date primitive dogs probably varied from wolves in their preference for living in close proximity to human habitation.  The differences between dogs and wolves then were even less than they are today, and hybridization was much more likely to occur.  Eurasian wolves crossed the Bering landbridge and brought this trait for melanism with them, but curiously, wolves in Eurasia with the trait for melanism died out.  The only population of wolves in Europe today that carry the trait for melanism live in Italy, and this is thought to derive from a much more recent hybridization with dogs.  In North America hybridization between western wolves and dogs no longer occurs in the wild, or at least that’s what the evidence suggests.

Black-coated predators are harder for prey to see in deep shady forests.  Therefore, forested environments provide a natural selection mechanism that favors melanistic individuals.  The incidence of melanistic canids is greater in deep forests than in open environments.  In Alaska dark wolves are rare in open tundra but common in adjacent boreal forests–a great example of natural selection.  Melanism in coyotes (Canis latrans) is extremely rare in western North America but common in the east, especially in the south.  Having darker colored fur is a beneficial mutation for a predator living in the more heavily forested southeast.  

Taxidermic mount of a melanistic coyote killed near Cedartown, Georgia.  This looks identical to the so-called red wolves that were formerly found in Florida.  Is this evidence the wild canids formerly living in the south were not completely extirpated and have bred this melanistic gene into the western coyotes that have colonized the region within the last 50 years?  I believe the wolves that used to live in the south were merely eastern coyote x primitive dog hybrids.

Melanism in eastern coyotes also is derived from hybridization with dogs.  In the past  male dogs mated with  female coyotes and the hybrids backcrossed into the coyote population.  This occurred prior to when coyotes recolonized the south about 50 years ago.  I suspect the southeastern wolves in North America during the time of European colonization were merely hybrids between eastern coyotes and the primitive dogs brought over by Indians about 13,000 years ago.  These primitive dogs, known as the American dingo, readily revert to a wild state, and some likely bred with eastern coyotes during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene.  These hybrids took over the ecological niche left vacant when dire wolves became extinct.  Evidence from 500 year old wolf remains found in Ontario, Canada show the eastern wolf had DNA sequences from both dogs and coyotes but not from western gray wolves.  Yet, morphologically they resembled wolves.  Eastern Canadian wolves probably had a similar origin as southeastern wolves.

Melanism is also common in 2 species of big cats that favor heavily forested environments.  In jaguars (Panthera onca)melanism is conferred through a dominant allele, while in leopards (Panthera pardus) it is conferred through a recessive allele.  When a spotted jaguar mates with another spotted jaguar, the cubs are always spotted.  Cubs from a pairing of a spotted jaguar and a black jaguar can be either spotted or black.  Melanism is also associated with beneficial mutations in the immune system.  This probably also explains the increased incidence of black jaguars in jungles where tropical diseases are prevalent.  Melanistic margays, ocelots, and jaguarundis are known to occur, but no proven specimen of a melanistic cougar has ever been confirmed.  However, cougars in south Florida are grayish, and this coloration affords them a similar advantage enjoyed by completely melanistic cats. 

I hypothesize that Smilodon fatalis, the saber-tooth cat, may have had some melanistic individuals in regions with deep forests.  It was an ambush predator, and a black coat would have made them difficult to spot, especially at night.  Artists rarely portray them with a black coat.  There is enough genetic material at the La Brea tarpits museum to determine whether or not Smilodon carried this trait, but so far, no scientist has thought to look for it.

Melanistic jaguar, showing that markings are visible

Melanistic jaguar–a real black panther.

Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are frequently found in melanistic color phases.  One study found that the higher incidence of black color phases in fox squirrels correlates positively with the higher frequency of lightning-induced wildfires in longleaf pine savannahs.  Apparently, the scorched black ground provides camouflage for fox squirrels from 1 of their most common predators, the red-tailed hawk.  Longleaf pine savannahs are often burned annually, and the ground stays black for long enough periods to select for melanistic individuals. 

Melanistic fox squirrel and deer fawn.

Melanistic gray squirrels(Sciurus carolinensis) were formerly abundant when much of North America was covered by shady deep forests.  Today, the black phase of the gray squirrel is still locally common in some midwestern states and CanadaThe black fur conveys an advantage in colder climates, helping the animals warm in the sun.  Individuals of this color phase have been widely relocated, and some populations exist as far south as Kentucky and Washington DC.


Adams, J.R.; and Leonard Waits

“Widespread Occurrence of Domestic Dog Mitochondrial DNA Haplotype in Southeastern, USA, Coyotes”

Molecular Ecology 12 2003

Anderson, J.R.; et. al.

“Molecular and Evolutionary History of Melanism in North American Gray Wolves”

Science 323 2009

Kiltie, R.A.

“Wildfire and the Evolution of Dorsal Melansim in Fox Squirrels, Sciurus niger

Journal of Mammalogy 70 1989

Mowry, Christopher; and Justin Edge

“Melanistic Coyotes in Northwest Georgia”

Southeastern Naturalist  13 (2) 2014

Rutledge, Linda; et. al.

“Genetic and Morphometric Analysis of 16th Century Canis Skull Fragments: Implications for Historic Eastern Gray Wolf Distribution in North America”

Conservation Genetics 2010

Did Eremotherium laurillardi Supplement its Diet with Sea Weed?

July 13, 2014

Eremotherium laurillardi, a species of giant ground sloth, apparently was abundant along the Georgia coast during the Sangamonian Interglacial (~132,000 BP-~118,000 BP).  Fossils of this species have been found at 7 of the 9 known coastal fossil sites of Pleistocene Age. It was really a spectacular beast growing as large as 18 feet long and weighing 6000 pounds.  When it sat on its haunches, it was even taller than a mammoth.  It disappeared from the state when the climate turned colder, probably some time between ~75,000 BP-~30,000 BP.  The fossil record is too incomplete to determine exactly when this species succombed to the cold in this region.  Eremotherium continued to exist in South America until the end of the Pleistocene.  Two other species of ground sloths  were better adapted to the cold and likely lived in Georgia as recently as 11,000 BP.  Jefferson’s ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii) and Harlan’s ground sloth (Paramylodon harlani) were able to survive subfreezing temperatures by denning in underground burrows. (See:

eremotherium and human

Size comparison between Eremotherium laurillardi and a man

Eremotherium primarily ate leaves and twigs.  However, I wonder if they supplemented their diet by foraging on seaweed that washed upon the beach.  Because this species frequented the coast, I’m sure they knew how to swim and may have colonized areas of the mainland or islands by crossing waterways with a depth above their head.  Seaweed is high in certain minerals such as iodine and sodium that are lacking in tree leaves.  Modern day tree sloths are known to obtain these nutrients by raiding human septic tanks to feed on feces.  If Eremotherium ate seaweed, scientists should be able to find abrasions on their teeth from munching seaweed with sand adhering to it.  The scientific literature is silent about this detail, but that may be because scientists have never looked for this evidence.


Two-toed tree sloth, Choloepus didactylus, climbing from a latrine where it just enjoyed snacking on human shit.  The minerals excreted by humans supplement the diet of this species which consists of tree leaves low in sodium.

There was a genus of South America ground sloths that did gradually evolve into an increasingly aquatic existence.  Five consecutive species of ground sloths in the Thalossocerus genus lived on the coast of Chile and Peru between 9 million years BP-4 million years BP.  The earliest species was Thalossocerus antiquus and the last was T. yaucensis T. antiquus had a shorter nose and abrasions on its teeth from eating seaweed with sand adhering to it.  It likely foraged on the beach and in shallow water.  T. yaucensis had a longer nose and no abrasions on its teeth–evidence it swam deeper into the ocean to feed upon kelp that was washed free of sand by the currents.  Moreover, T. yaucensis had greater bone densisty, a characteristic found in marine mammals; and their anatomy suggests they had strong lips for plucking underwater plants.  Manatees have similarly strong lips.  The environment in this region then was mostly desert, so evolving the ability to subsist mostly on seaweed facilitated the survival of this species in an otherwise uninhabitable landscape.  This genus became extinct at the end of the Pliocene during a major marine extinction event.

Thalassocerus sp., a marine ground sloth that lived on the coast of what’s now Chile and Peru between 9 million BP-4 million BP.  Although Eremotherium also lived near the coast, it probably did not swim in the ocean as regularly as this species.

I propose to any vertebrate paleontologists who read this blog, to check your Eremotherium specimens for sand abrasions.  Maybe you can publish a paper about it and thank me for bird-dogging the idea.


Amsen, Eli; et. al.

“Gradual Adaptation of Bone Structure to Aquatic Lifestyle in Extinct Sloths from Peru”

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Science 281 (1782) 2014

William Bartram’s Visit to St. Simons Island in 1774

July 10, 2014

I didn’t go to St. Simons Island this summer as I’d initially planned, but I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m sure the island is not as interesting as it was when William Bartram visited it in the spring of 1774.  Bartram stayed for a few days with James Spalding, then the president of the settlement of Frederica and a merchant involved in the Indian trade.  Although a remnant of an old growth maritime forest has been preserved for the modern day naturalist to enjoy, Bartam had the opportunity to see the island when it was mostly undeveloped.  One day, he left Frederica on horseback to survey the island.  Thick groves of live oaks surrounded the town.

500 year old live oak on John’s Island South Carolina.  There may have been quite a few trees of this age on St. Simons Island when Bartram visited in 1774.

Bartram rode through the virgin live oak woods and found a “beautiful green savannah” about 2 square miles in extent.  Long-horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer fed in this natural pasture.  On the other side of this savannah, he followed an old road that had fallen into disrepair.  The road went through an open woodland of live oaks and longleaf pines spread far enough apart that grass and shrubs could grow in the understory.  The road ended after 5-6 miles when he reached an impenetrable thicket growing on a sandhill.  The thicket was composed of live oak, myrtle, holly, beautyberry, silverbell, alder buckthorn, hoptrees, bully trees, hornbeam, and bignonia.  Several of these species are evergreen and subtropical.  Greenbriar vines covered the thicket, and there was a salt marsh on the other side of the sandhill.  Bartram referred to it as a “salt plains.”

Bartram did find a freshwater creek between the forest and the salt marsh.  Here, he rested and enjoyed the fragrant beauty of diamond frost, morning glory, lycium (a thorny plant in the nightshade family), scarlet sage, and white lily; all of which were blooming in April.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia Diamond frost in the Euphorbia genus.  It is related to the more famous Christmas poinsetta.  This is one of the flowers Bartram saw growing on St. Simons Island.  Actually, it is the leaves that look like flowers. 

Bartram turned south and found the beach where he saw living and dead starfish, corals, jellyfish, snails, whelks, clams, and squid; all washed upon the sand.  He left the uninhabited beach and headed west, coming across 50-60 beehives lined up in a grove of oaks and palms.  He met a farmer and beekeeper who was resting upon a bearskin rug after a morning spent hunting and fishing.  The man gave Bartram venison and honey-sweetened water spiked with brandy.  They had a picnic amidst the mockingbirds, painted buntings, and hummingbrids.  Jasmine, honeysuckle, and azaleas scented the air. 

William Bartram met a farmer and beekeeper on St. Simons Island who was lounging outside on a beer skin rug while drinking brandy mixed with honey and water.  He must have caught the bear raiding his bee hives.


An apiary.  Beekeepers and bears do not get along.

On his way back to Frederica, Bartram saw many abandoned plantations.  Even Fort Frederica itself, still manned at the time by a small garrison, was falling apart.  Peach, fig, and pomegranate trees grew through the broken walls.  General Oglethorpe had ordered the construction of the fort 60 years earlier, but funds in 1774 were not available to maintain it.

Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  General Oglethorpe ordered it built circa 1712 to repel any possible invading colonial force such as the Spanish.  By 1774 it was already in ruins.

I envy the bucolic life of the farmer that Bartram met.  The man had half of St. Simons Island to himself.  For an 18th century existence, this was living in paradise.  Poor city folks in London then were lucky if they had bread.  But this man lived on a beautiful plantation with quite a variety of food available from both land and sea.  On the other hand, he didn’t have air conditioning and television.  And the bikini had yet to be invented.  Today, his plantation has been transmogrified into a landscape of condos built as closely together as possible.  If this farmer could visit the present day for a week, I wonder if he would envy our modern life as I envy his or would he wish to return to his old life.  I wonder…would he trade places with me?


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