Sunday 17 December 2023

Prehistoric Mammal Discoveries 2023

It's the last post of the year for 2023, and that means it's time once again to take a brief look at discoveries from the last year in the world of fossil mammals that didn't make it into this blog. Because, while dinosaurs are undoubtedly popular, the study of prehistoric mammals is also a major field, aided by that, being (mostly) relatively recent they tend to be more numerous and better preserved. Of course, everyone's heard of woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats but there's plenty more out there and, if I'm going to zip through them at speed today, I'm also going to try and cover as wide a range as possible. So, let's get going...

Sunday 10 December 2023

Oligocene (Pt 6): Devil's Corkscrews and the Grasseater That Wasn't

The Grande Coupure was, strictly defined, an event unique to Europe, caused by the drying up of the water channels separating it from Asia. However, it was compounded by a dramatic worldwide cooling event, and, if the Coupure itself didn't affect more distant lands, the climate changes certainly did. Due to some particularly well-preserved geological deposits of the right age, as well as the obvious convenience for Western researchers, this is particularly well-studied in North America.

Deposits across the continent show a sudden change in the climate at around the dawn of the Oligocene. By 'sudden' in this context, we mean over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, so it's hardly something you would have noticed had you been there at the time, but it's still rapid as such things go. The exact nature of the changes, and the speed at which they appear to have happened, depend on which part of the continent we're talking about, but nowhere was unaffected.

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Other One: Red Pandas

Over the course of this year, I have looked at all the species of the raccoon and skunk families, two groups of smallish carnivorous mammals that are mostly confined to the Americas. These two families are themselves related, forming part of a larger group called the "musteloids", traditionally ranked as a "superfamily". The group is named for a third family within it, the mustelids or "weasel family", which contains a much wider - and more widespread - group of species, including otters, badgers, and wolverines. 

The musteloid superfamily, however, also contains one other living species that does not fit into any of the three main families: the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Six years ago, I took a look at the history of Western knowledge of this animal, and of how it relates to other mammal families. The upshot of that, you may recall, is that there is broad agreement that the red panda is the only living species in its family, distinct from raccoons, skunks, and weasels although quite how was unclear. Since I wrote that, a further study has come out supporting the evolutionary tree I described as "the current best bet", but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that at least one contradictory study has also been published. It's perhaps fair to say that the four families of musteloids all appeared fairly suddenly at around the same time (likely around the Grande Coupure) and the exact sequence of events is difficult to disentangle.