Posts Tagged ‘Richard Hulbert’

The Mystery Cat of Pleistocene Georgia

May 9, 2013

Most small species of cats are adept tree climbers, but the margay (Leopardus wiedii) excells. It hunts, copulates, and raises its young in trees, making it as arboreal as a monkey or squirrel.

The margay is about the size of a large house cat.  It is an arboreal species.

The margay is able to climb head first down trees, and its wrists are built much like those of a squirrel’s.  Click on the below link to the youtube video of a margay.  Note how it can hang upside down using just its rear paws.  Note also its athletic ability to leap from tree limb to tree limb.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef129AsFfMA

The margay is a nocturnal hunter, preying upon birds, birds’ eggs, frogs, lizards, rodents, monkeys, and probably bats.  They also eat fruit.  Like tigers, they use audible mimicry to lure prey.  They’ve been observed imitating the cries of a baby monkey to attract parent monkeys to their doom. (Tigers imitate the mating bugle of elk.)  Not all prey is defenseless, however.  Brazilian squirrels gang together and drive margays away.

Today, the margay ranges throughout Central and South America, but fossil evidence of a margay-like cat has been found from 12 sites in Florida and 2 in Georgia.  Jaw bones of this mystery cat come from Ladds in Bartow County, Georgia and the Isle of Hope site in Chatham County near Savannah–evidence this species occurred throughout the state during the Pleistocene.  The fossils from all the sites where this species has been found likely date from a warm interglacial period.  Some scientists think these fossils represent an extinct species (Leopardus amnicola), while others consider it an extinct, large subspecies of margay (Leopardus wiedii amnicola).  The modern margay requires dense forest habitat, and it’s likely this species or subspecies did too, probably explaining why its fossils are found in deposits dating to interglacial periods.  During interglacials forested habitats expanded.

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Sketch of the jaw bone of a cat found at the Ladds fossil site.  Click to enlarge.  Dr. Clayton Ray thought this specimen was most like the jaw bone of a jaguarundi, but other scientists have concluded it’s from a cat that was more like a margay.  This page is from the below referenced paper authored by Dr. Ray.

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Photo of a jaw bone of a cat found at the Isle of Hope site near Savannah, Georgia. Click to enlarge.  Every measurement of this specimen falls within the size range of both margay and jaguarundi.  This means it can’t be conclusively identified.  It’s slightly smaller than most specimens identified as Leopardus amnicola.  Page from the below referenced study authored by Dr. Hulbert.

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is about the size of a bobcat or maybe a little larger is some cases.  Unlike the margay, it’s primarily a ground dweller, though it can climb trees.  It mostly feeds upon rodents.  Today, ocelots range throughout Central and South America and rarely into south Texas and Arizona.  In the 19th century, they were found in Louisiana and Arkansas, and fossil evidence of this cat has been found from 2 sites in Florida, also probably dating to a warm interglacial.

The ocelot and margay shared a common ancestor.  It’s likely that some individuals of this ancestral species preferred hunting on the ground and their decendents evolved into ocelots, while other individuals preferred hunting in the trees and their decendents evolved into margays.  Males that were good tree climbers were more likely to meet females that were good tree climbers, and they passed on the beneficial genes that gave them their natural ability.

The ocelot can grow to a size as heavy as 40 pounds.  Also used to range into southeastern North America.

The jaguarundi (Puma yagaouroundi) is a 3rd species of small neotropical cat.  It was formerly classified in its own genus by some scientists and lumped in the Leopardus genus by others, but genetic studies suggest it is closely related to the cougar (Puma concolor).  I hypothesize that an isolated population of cougars began specializing in small prey to avoid competition with larger carnivores such as jaguars, saber-tooths, and lions.  This population then evolved into jaguarundis.  Studies show cougars regularly take smaller prey than jaguars, and there isn’t much overlap in their prey selection.  In some locality with scarce prey, competition may have forced the ancestral population to take even smaller prey.  Today, the jaguarundi preys upon birds, rodents, opposums, small species of deer (brocket), reptiles, and insects.  It eats fruit as well.  It ranges throughout Central and South America and rarely south Texas.  100 years ago, some were introduced to Florida, and a small population may still exist there.  Reported sightings continue.

The jaguarundi may have ranged into southeastern North America as well.  It’s also known as the otter cat due to its cylindrical shape.  It’s closely related to the cougar but is about 10% its size.

It’s evident at least 2 species of neotropical cats colonized southeastern North America during warm climatic phases of the Pleistocene.  I hypothesize that they continued to live in the region until approximately 28,000 BP.  Dense forests remained widespread in the region until then.  Between ~28,000 BP-~15,000 BP prairies, desert scrub, and spruce woodlands replaced the kinds of forests margays and ocelots prefer, though it’s possible they persisted near the coast where ocean currents kept the climate from deteriorating.  If it wasn’t for man, I think ocelots and margays would have recolonized the south.  Fossils of margays have been found in Texas, and they date to 4400 BP, showing they were more widespread recently.  However, native Americans coveted their beautiful coats, and I suspect human hunters prevented the re-expansion of their range.

References:

Hulbert, Richard; and Ann Pratt

“New Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) Vertebrate Faunas from Coastal Georgia”

Journal of Vertebrate Zoology 18 (2) June 1998

Ray, Clayton

“Pleistocene Mammals from Ladds, Bartow County, Georgia”

Georgia Academy of Science Bulletin 25 (3) 1967

How far South did Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) Range in Georgia during Ice Ages?

June 18, 2011

Illustration of a Brook Trout from Cornell University.

No scientist has ever studied this topic, so my blog post is the first of a kind.  Scientists are limited due to a lack of data–no trout fossils have ever been found in the region.  There’s also a lack of interest, probably because I’m the only person in the world who daydreams about what it would be like to live in Georgia 37,000 years BP.  I want to know, if I traveled in a time machine to live then and there, whether or not brook trout would get caught in fish traps I would place in the Broad River.  I’ve concluded that it’s possible, maybe probable, that they did occur in the Broad River during stadials and even interstadials because summers were cooler then than they are today, an age within a full blown interglacial with hot summers.

Present day Georgia brook trout range map.  Map from the University of Georgia Museum of Natural History.

Today, brook trout are the only native species of trout in Georgia, and as the above map shows, their natural range is restricted to the extreme northeastern region of the state with a few outlying disjunct populations, suggesting formerly a  wider, more continous distribution.  Temperature is one obvious limiting factor in their present day range.  Brook trout suvive best in waters with temperatures between 55-65 degrees F.  They can withstand water temperatures between 32-72  F, however, they can only live in warm waters of up to 78 degrees F for a few hours.  Stocking trout in waters with temperatures greater than 70 degrees F generally fails in the long term.  The temperature of the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia on June 13, 2011 was 73 degrees F.  (Modern reservoir temperatures are much warmer.)  Water temperatures this warm and warmer are common during summer months in southeastern rivers, making them unsuitable for trout.

Summer air temperatures in the southeast were much cooler during the last glacial maximum, and even during interstadials within the Ice Age, therefore water temperatures were as well.  Data from isotopic oxygen ratios of fossil foraminifera in the Atlantic Ocean suggest average annual summer temperatures were 9 degrees F cooler.  (See my May 15, 2011 blog entry for more detailed explanation of this.)  Taking the present day summer water temperature reading from the Savannah River near Augusta (73 degrees F) and subtracting it by 9 = 64 degrees F…within the brook trout’s comfort zone.  Potentially, trout could’ve lived as far south as what’s now Augusta.

Trout also prefer shallow fast moving water–fingerlings like water that’s just 16 inches deep, and adults prefer the water slightly deeper than that.  Trout stay in shallow water and avoid deeper water even if temperatures are cooler in the latter.  Much of the present day Savannah River, besides being too warm, is too deep, but during the LGM arid climate lowered the water table, creating more shallow fast moving streams for trout.  Suitable trout habitat likely existed in 2 notable streams that flow into the Savannah River: the confluence of the Broad River with the Savannah is only ~60 miles south of present day trout habitat, and the Little River’s confluence is only ~70 miles south.  The headwaters of the Broad River is just a scant few miles from present day trout habitat.  Both the Broad and the Little Rivers have the gravel and rocky bottoms brook trout prefer.  During cooler climate phases, there was no ecological reason brook trout couldn’t have expanded their range at least that far south.  The fossil record shows that many other species from northern climates extended their range farther south during the LGM including caribou, elk, woodchucks, bog lemmings, red backed voles, red squirrels, gray jays, pine siskins, wood turtles, and others.  So it’s not only possible but probable brook trout did too.  Unfortunately, finding Pleistocene fish bones in a region almost devoid of Pleistocene fossils is not likely, rendering my hypothesis difficult to prove.

A Review of Giants in the Storm by Mark Renz

There are so many fossil sites in Florida that academic experts don’t have the time and money to excavate the all.  Mark Renz, a professional fossil-hunting guide but not an academic expert, sought and gained permission to excavate 2 productive retention ponds in LaBelle, Florida.  Giants in the Storm is about his experiences spear-heading that effort.  His team found a truckload of fantastic fossils including lots of mammoth, mastodon, and horse material as well as specimens of llamas, flat-headed peccary, long-nosed peccary, white tail deer, Harlan’s ground sloth, saber-tooth, jaguar, bobcat, Armbruster’s wolf, alligator, and giant tortoise.  The site is unique because it dates to the middle Irvingtonian Land Mammal Age (~500,000 BP).  Though Florida has many fossil sites dating to the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age (~300,000-~10,000 BP), and plenty from the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene (~2 million BP), the LaBelle fossil site is a rarity that helps fill in a gap in the fossil record, and it provides more specimens for comparison of the evolution of individual species.  The site is located in southwest Florida.  The types of mammals excavated here suggest the region was mostly grassland interspersed with riverine and lacustrine forests.

Like the other Mark Renz book I reviewed, Fossiling in Florida, the best thing about this book are the copious photographs of fossils that are useful for amateur  and serious fossil collectors.  Some of my favorites include parts of the anatomy that don’t automatically come to mind such as a mammoth’s calcaneum (heel bone) and an hyoid (tongue bone) from either mammoth or mastodon.  Of course, there were the usual proboscidean teeth, and spectacular fossils–a relatively complete mammoth skull and a 9 foot long, 300 pound tusk found in place but broken into 4 pieces.

Mr. Renz imagined a single dramatic event, a storm of great magnitude causing a flood, as an explanation for why these fossils concentrated here.  It gave him an excuse for a dramatic title for this book, but he concedes his title is a misnomer.  After consulting with Richard Hulbert, curator of the University of Florida Natural History Museum, he agrees with the conclusion that all the fossil specimens were accumulated here gradually over a long period of time.