Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pictures at an Exhibition Part 4: The Paleo-art of Zdeněk Burian

Dear Constant Readers,

While my own "art" is slowly getting worked on, I figured that I might as well share the work of people who far eclipse me in talent and imagination. Judging from my previous posts you can probably see that I enjoy both old paintings and strange (oft-prehistoric) creatures, so you can see what the appeal of Paleo-art is. While Paleo-art is very common today, it's just...different. Back in the early to mid 20th century it just seemed more "artistic". The people working on it were really artists and really talented ones at that. I can't precisely pin down what made these paintings species, it really is something too subtle for my clunky language skills. This seems to be a recurring theme in these blogs.

My artist of the day is Mr. Zdeněk Michael František Burian, a Czech painter. All of his images just have a ring of familiarity from my childhood, so perhaps it is my own nostalgia that makes them special too me. The reconstructions are fairly decent fothe most part, although his dinosaurs are notably dated. But that doesn't matter too much, the paintings are dynamic and a lot of fun, far removed from my own diagram-like work. Plus, they just have this iconic feel to them.

Oh yes, I'm also going to attempt to label these animals myself, and of course if I get some wrong I expect you all to correct me! God knows I need all the help I can get. Obviously there is going to be some selection bias here; you people curious about Connor's Island may get some hints about future ideas. Enough rambling, picture time.

The fossil freshwater shark Xenacanthus. It had a pretty impressive run from the Devonian to the Triassic.

Mesosaurus, one of the first secondarily aquatic reptiles from the Early Permian.

A Gorgonopsid Therapsid ("mammal-like reptile"), possibly Lycaenops.

A gigantic marine lizard (i.e. a mosasaur), Tylosaurus? Many prehistoric reptiles are incorrectly called "lizards" (or more commonly, dinosaurs) but this actually was a close relative of monitors and snakes.

A dark and brooding Pliosaur of some kind.

Basilosaurus, a primitive whale with an unusually elongated body. The maximum size is 50-60 feet in most sources, but occasionally stated as being 25 meters (80+ feet). I have no idea what this discrepancy is about.

Uintatherium, a bizarre primitive herbivorous mammal unrelated to anything alive today.

Deinotherium, a huge elephant-like proboscidean which survived until a couple million years ago.

A Phorusrhacid "Terror Bird", chiefly from South America. Taken from here.

An Australopithecine, maybe Paranthropus.

The Elephant Bird, Aepyornis.

And for more illustrations, please go to the archived page on the Internet Archives. Who knows why the thing isn't working anymore...the Internet Archive comes to the rescue again! Thanks to my annonymous commentator for pointing that out to me. You can identify yourself on this thing you know, like this:


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Memories of Myspace past or the Cetacean Centipede Rides Again!

Dear Constant Readers,

During my short career of writing blogs on...ugh...Myspace, I'd say that there were only two remotely worth looking at. My last post got transformed into the first two actually posts (2nd one) on this blog. The other one I was thinking about putting in, but now I finally have an excuse. The tail end of my temnospondyl post began to touch on the subject of Cryptozoology, so I am using that as an excuse to talk about this mess.

And what a glorious mess of a subject Cryptozoology is! Just by mentioning the subject probably sends my credibility down the crapper, despite the fact I'm quite skeptical of it. For those of you who didn't know, Cryptozoology is the attempted scientific study of undescribed and possibly non-existent animals. Yes, this included bigfoot and the Loch Ness monsters, but also hundreds of more or (often) far far less credible "cryptids". Despite the social stigma, some brave people of scientific training will look into some "cryptids", but this seems quite uncommon. Cryptozoology is not a recognized branch of science, and anybody with a book on bigfoot can claim to be a "Cryptozoologist" studying Cryptozoology. The amount of quackery, both in books and on the Internet, relating to this subject is quite phenomenal. I have a lot of irks with Cryptozoology which can easily fill a future blog. I can probably also write one on skepticism vs. debunking/cynicism and varying degrees of doubt. But it is time to move towards the subject at hand.

In the field of Cryptozoology, one of the more impressive bodies of (anecdotal) evidence come from hundreds of "Sea Serpent" reports. Yes, I am aware of the popular image of a dragon-like creature, but the sightings are typically of much more mundane looking objects. And I have to say objects because it is quite probable that a good chunk of the sightings are due to wave phenomenon, atmospheric effects and mirages, hoaxes, low-flying birds, known large sea creatures, et cetera. At least for most cases, it all boils down to very rare and unusual but known phenomenon and/or conditions vs large and almost completely unknown sea creatures. While there are always a good deal of sightings than can be dismissed or excluded due to a reasonable doubt of them being a "cryptid", there are some which are quite difficult to explain. Probably the most often cited case of this was the sighting of a "Sea Serpent" by two naturalists aboard the ship Valhalla in 1905. Though few and far between, sightings like this are the reason I want to look into matters further. I don't want to prove genuine unknowns, I'm just curious as to how one could explain the otherwise unexplainable.

Despite a degrading environment and increased human presence in the oceans, they still aren't too terribly well known. It is actually not that unusual for decent sized air breathing creatures to still be discovered with some frequency. Mesoplodont beaked whales seem to be incredibly cryptid for some reason, and publications on them tend to mention the fact that more species will likely be discovered in the future. Perrin's Beaked Whale was discovered from a specimen in 1975, a few sightings in between, and four more specimens in 1997; it was finally described in 2002. The Spade Toothed Whale, first described in 1874, is so rare that even the external appearance is a mystery. These are extremes, but the group as a whole is quite poorly known. Could it be possible that if there are animals with remains but no sightings there could be animals with numerous sightings and no remains? Just because there is that slight chance for Sea Serpents, why not at least give them a look?

Unfortunately, the whole Sea Serpent story is far too large to even properly overview. For those of you with any interest in the subject, I would recommend Bernard Heuvelmans's In the Wake of the Sea Serpents, which should be in most decent-sized libraries. The book may be old, but it is entertaining and quite informative. Of course, it is also quite biased at times. Unbeknownst to the public, current "Cryptozoological thinking" on the subject of Sea Serpents proposes multiple unrelated species. Just what these are is still debated of course, but there is one "type" which is easily recognized. It is quite rare and could be viewed as a mystery within a mystery, and unknown among unknowns.

Enter the Cetacean Centipede

Quite surprisingly, the bizarre Cetacean Centipede appears to have some very early mentions. The first known mention was by the Roman writer Aelian in the second century, who referred to a creature called the "Great Sea Centipede". Several centuries later, French teacher Rondelet linked Aelian's descriptions with reports and apparent strandings, in a book on Ichthyology none the less! He is the one who coined Cetacean (i.e. whale) Centipede, which is my preferred label. Quite helpfully, the book provided an illustration of what the creature supposedly looked like. Of course this was still the era of drawing really stylized monsters, so this thing should be treated like a curiosity instead of evidence of any kind.

This is one incredibly strange looking drawing. It could very well be an "exquisite corpse" hybridizing a carp's head and body, the dorsal fins of a shark, the tail of a whale, and the lateral projections of a polychaete worm. Nothing resembling these drawings has ever been seen, but large sea creature with very peculiar lateral projections has been sighted.

The concept of the Cetacean Centipede went into dormancy again until the young Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans connected 19th and 20th century sightings with the old legends. Of his nine types of Sea Serpent, the one called the "Many Finned" corresponded to the Cetacean Centipede. Heuvelmans was quite bold in linking the creatures to dragon-like myths and giant centipede myths from Vietnam, and even with the Leviathan of the Bible! Actually as we'll see later, Heuvelmans was quite liberal with the "Many Finned" label, and the number of sightings showings his diagnostic traits is quite limited. How do you call something a "Many Finned" when the sighting specifies it has no limbs? Despite the problematic opinions of Heuvelmans, the Cetacean Centipede was re-named the "Great Sea Centipede" in the Coleman/Huyghe analysis and left virtually unchanged. The unpublished Champagne analysis accepts far fewer sightings (but included carcasses and a photograph?!?!) of the "Type 7/Multiple Limbed" Sea Serpent, but the design of the creature is still almost identical. I actually did illustrate some of Champagne's Sea Serpents, so here is the "modern" Cetacean Centipede:

The appearance of this animal isn't as fanciful as Rondelet's drawing, but it's not too far off. Coleman/Huyghe and Champagne admit that the appearance of the animal is problematic. Heuvelmans cited speculation by one "Howell" that an elongated primitive whale (Archeocete) called Basilosaurus may have had lateral fins to provide surface area for locomotion. While this does have a certain logic to it (compare the finlets and elongated fins of some fish, but rotated 90 degrees), no fossil evidence indicates this and every reconstruction does not have these structures. Heuvelmans also thought Archeocetes (and maybe the Many Finned) were armored, but this is also a dated subject. Most researchers, except for the eccentricity-prone Shuker, agree that it seems to be mammalian. Heuvelmans and Coleman/Huyghe plump for the Archeocete, but Champagne (perhaps wisely) doesn't specify. In the unlikely probablility that this animal is real, it seems to be too extremely derived to tell exactly what it could be. Since nothing in the fossil record looks too much like it, it would also create a monstrous ghost lineage. I can't recall any considerable ghost lineages for an animal in the 30-60 foot long range, and fossil records of aquatic creatures normally seems to be pretty good. At least the mesoplodont whales still have creatures looking quite similar to them in the fossil record.

The next question to ask is, how exactly did the researchers create a "type" of Sea Serpent? Is this all due to pre-conceived notions, or are there genuine underlying patterns? There are 26+ sightings, and I'll try to give them the best overview I can. The classification is from Heuvelmans, MF=Many finned, MF?=possibly Many Finned, and MH=Many Humped.

August 28, 1852. South of South Africa. Barham. MF
This sighting is recorded by Heuvelmans only, I see no mention by Coleman/Huyghe or Champagne, and probably for good reason. The creature had a head and neck sticking 16-20 feet out of the water, a curiosity since Heuvelmans specified the Many Finned had a short neck. It was about 50-60 feet long, spouted, and had a dorsal crest, all minor Many Finned characteristics. However, they could easily come from his "Long Necked" or "Merhorse" varieties too. And where are the...many fins? The sighting itself was 100 yards away at the closest and was surrounded by hundreds of birds, and Heuvelmans himself says if the alleged sketch of the creature turned up it would "prevent much dubious argument". It is an unlikely hoax since there are a large number of independent eyewitness accounts, I'd suggest it is more likely to be a mistake. What could have been seen, I'm not certain, but this can hardly be considered evidence for a Sea Serpent, let alone a "Many Finned".

July 8, 1856. South Africa. Latitude 34 56' S. Longitude 18 14' E. Princess. MF
Miraculously, the next sighting is much harder to explain. It is one of the definitive sightings for the Cetacean Centipede.
It has all of the characteristics, spouting, a short neck, multiple fins, and a dorsal crest. The fin angles are quite peculiar and non-functional looking, but they could arise from the difficulty of drawing lateral fins on an animal..in theory. The fins are also allegedly continuous in the Cetacean Centipede, but there's hardly any "evidence" for that. Like many other reports, this one was also reportedly shot at, but the effect was not mentioned. So what could this thing be? The distance was not mentioned (presumed short range due to them being able to shoot it), but could it have been a very creatively viewed school of fish, or even birds (the "fins" look wing-like to me)? But what about the spouting? Even though it looks rather different, could it possibly be a hoax inspired by the Cetacean Centipede drawing of Rondelet? Like every sighting, this one is irresolvable but still fascinating...

May 13, 1872. Gulf of Mexico. St. Olaf. MF
Note as how this animal is clearly drawn with dorsal fins. The researchers claim the animal can show a row of fins by having to roll on its side to turn. It would have to be horribly twisted to account for the given sketch. Or, as some might plead, it could be a drawing combining two different periods of observation. The description describes four dorsal fins and continuous thickness, but maybe there wasn't enough room. The increased thickness around the dorsal fins makes me seriously consider if this was nothing more than dolphins following one another. Sure the head and alleged diameter (6 feet) are problematic, but it seems much more likely than a Cetacean Centipede.

June 2, 1877. Cape Vito, Sicily. Osbourne. MF?
I'm not sure why Heuvelmans considers this only a possible "Many Finned", this is the only sighting demonstrating what could be his "banking turns". Perhaps it may be due to the geographical distance from all the other sightings, in which case Heuvelmans is much less open minded than what he claimed to be. The sighting is quite interesting, the top view could possibly be explained by a poorly seen pinniped, and the second view could be a school of animals (fish? dolphins?). Could it possibly be sightings of two different phenomenon in quick succession and creating confusion? Front flappers are not typically seen either in Cetacean Centipede sightings. This sighting isn't as inexplicable as the Princess, but it still is one of the better cases for the researchers' arguments.

December 1878. Suez or Aden, Red Sea. Poonah. MFThe witness in this case was aware of the Osbourne sighting, so that automatically makes me suspicious. In all likelihood, this was probably a school of animals made into something it wasn't by an active imagination. The backwards pointing fins are a peculiarity shared with the Princess report and are admittedly a problem. Of course, lateral fins of that orientation are completely unknown as well. I have no reason why this sighting is considered definitive.

March 30, 1879. Geographe Bay, Western Australia. Reverend H. W. Brown, et cetera. MF
A blunt head was not illustrated but mentioned in this sighting. Heuvelmans explained away this sighting as being his "Many Finned" with folded over fins. Uh-huh. Blunt heads sticking out of the water followed by series of projections definitely are a theme in these sightings. I wonder if there is some motorboating behavior occasionally undertaken by schooling animals. I think a very rare behavior is more likely than an abnormally square tipped "Many Finned".

1883. Coast of Amman, Vietnam. Tran Van Con. ?
While Heuvelmans oddly categorizes this stranding (not sighting) as being too vague, this is the publicly best known occurrence of the Cetacean Centipede, called "Con Rit" or "millipede" here. The headless 60 foot animals was segmented; each one measured 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, had 2'4" appendages, was brown on top and yellow below, and rang like sheet metal when struck. Now what isn't reported on the internet is that this was a 38 year old memory of a then 18 year old man. Memories can change quite a bit over time, and perhaps it was heavily influenced, if not outright fabricated by the local legend of the "Con Rit". Dr. A. Krempf, who collected the tale, also collected "confirmation" of the tale by a 30 year old man (!) from tales he heard from his father. Krempf noted that fishermen gave a similar image of a brown and yellow segmented animal when questioned as to what a "Con Rit" was. I think this whole tale should be taken with a pinch of salt though, it still is mostly based on an old man's memory and vague tales.

It is also noteworthy that this tale is the main reason Karl Shuker and a few others classify all "Cetacean Centipede" reports as being arthropods. That classification is impossibly vague, and no arthropod even remotely approached it in size. It was a fairly casual identification, and an extremely outrageous one, far more improbable than the mammalian Cetacean Centipede.

After June 1, 1893. Along Bay, Vietnam. La Mutine. MF
A long black animal seen swimming with vertical undulations. Completely unconvincing as evidence.

Mid-July, 1897. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche. MF
February 15, 1898. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche. MF
February 24, 1898. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche and Bayard. MF
A genuine curiosity, the ship the Avalanche claims to have seen a mysterious animal on three separate occasions! And even more curiously, multiple animals were encountered in the 1st and 2nd sightings, and one of the animals was allegedly chased in the 2nd and 3rd sightings. They breathed loudly, moved in vertical undulations, around 65 feet long and 6-10 feet wide, and had spiny dorsal crests. Only once were "several fins" mentioned, but this hardly proves the Many Finned. I would suggest that a short necked, spiny-backed, "sea serpent" category without lateral fins should have been proposed by Heuvelmans...but what can you do. The whole "people too excited to take cameras" cliche is repeated here, and the whole tale is so fantastic, I can't help but wonder if it has been hoaxed or embellished. Given the sighting frequency, I can't help but wonder if mass hysteria played a role.

July 11, 1898. Along, Vietnam. Vauban. MF
A snake-like animal 35-40 feet long undulating laterally, bearing scales and high-set eyes. 5-6 feet below the surface and thus highly susceptible to refraction and poor visibility. It's clear to me that Heuvelmans accepted this on location alone.

May 21, 1898. Cape Falcon, Algeria. H.M.S. Narcissus. Whales? MF?
Another interesting sighting that Heuvelmans for some reason doesn't place much belief in, but Coleman and Huyghe do. This animal was reportedly 150 feet long (!), and had an "immense number" of fins at the sides (lateral?) going down all the way to the tail. The witnesses seemed to imply that the fins were used in propulsion (no other sighting does) and small "spouts" came from various parts of the body. That last detailed made Heuvelmans wonder if it could have been a pod of cetaceans, despite the witnesses noting they saw porpoises after. This seems to be one of the few sightings with lateral fins noted from above, but the pod of cetaceans hypothesis seems more reasonable. Why didn't Heuvelmans accept this, but accept even more dubious reports?

July 13, 1902. Ram Head, Victoria, Australia. Chillagoe. MF
The eyewitnesses were aware of the Princess sighting, making me dubious already. It was a "typical" sighting of a 30-35 foot animal with four fins 4-5 feet tall and 6 feet apart and with a seal-like head. When the ship got 100 yards away, the "creature" allegedly raised its head and dove. I think an active imagination is the most likely explanation for this.

December, 1903. Tourane, Vietnam. Charles-Hardouin. MF
End December, 1903. Along, Vietnam. Gueydon. MF
February 12, 1904. Along, Vietnam. Chateau-Renault. MF
February 25, 1904. Along, Vietnam. La Decidee. MF
March 1904. Along, Vietnam. Gueydon. MF
More sightings by the French in Vietnam. They all had elongated dark animals undulating vertically. The "La Decidee" report is notable for specifically mentioning no fins were seen! The second Gueydon sighting was allegedly seen by over a hundred people. Heuvelmans undoubtedly summarized these reports, but they only very vaguely match up with his category.

June, 1908. Along, Vietnam. Hanoi. MFA very peculiar turtle-like creature with the visible portions measuring about 30 feet. Unlike other sightings, very defined ridges were present, as long as an implied long neck. A long tail was not drawn, but mentioned in the sighting. It was only 30 yards away, but the witnesses admitted the conditions were bad and hindered viewing the creature. Heuvelmans blames the conditions for the differences between this and his other vague sightings, but why didn't he put this in his "Father-of-all-turtles" category instead? Note the location. Who knows what this sighting could have been of, but it does look rather boat-like.

July, 1920. Miami, Florida. Craigsmere. MF
Another sighting of an animal with multiple (apparent) dorsal fins.

February 11, 1923. Somalia. Mapia. MF?
An animal 6 feet thick, cylindrical, 8 feet out of the water, half-gray and half-brown. Blowing was reported. Very vague and probably a cetacean.

January 21, 1926. Tulear, Madagascar. Dr. Georges Petit. MF?
Heuvelmans connected his "Many Finned" with the "Tompondrano" of Madagascar legend. Petit saw something at a distance disturbing the water (and creating a phosphorescent glow by disturbing small organisms) which the natives described as a "Tompondrano". It could have been any moderate to large sized sea creature.

March 1934. Nassau, Bahamas. Mauretania. MF
One of three "monsters" seen by the ship (the first was a "long necked, the second was a ray) automatically creating suspicion. Their creature was 60 feet long and had 4 humps, each with a dorsal fin. This seems to be due to the active imagination of the crew, and the hump/dorsal fin combination sounds awfully like dolphins to me.

August 25?, 1934. Bowen, Queensland, Australia. Hurst, et cetera. MF?
A 30 foot creature that lifted a turtle-like head 8 feet out of the water. It was described like a "huge armoured hose".

After August 25, 1934. Townsville, Queensland, Australia. 3 Fishing Parties. MF?
A creature that swam around, making an odd noise with a turtle like head and three humps. This and the other sighting resembled another one by Oscar Swanson (he collected the other two sightings), which Heuvelmans did not consider as a Many Finned. His sighting was quite fantastic, and I can't help but think that these may be fabrications to support another tale. They are also quite vague and inconclusive.

1935. Norfolk, Virginia. Electra. MF
A 40-50 foot animal with 6 fins on the back 2' high and 2'6" wide. Fired at and made no attempt to escape.

1960s. Hong Kong. Students.
Mentioned by Coleman and Huyghe, there are no other details.

Yes I did heavily rely on Heuvelmans for my information, but Coleman/Huyghe followed it closely as well. There simply isn't that much more information out there. Champagne appears to have a few more sightings (including carcasses and a photograph?!?!) but I haven't heard much about them and thus can't comment on them.

I know that this is yet another extremely long blog post, but the reason is, this information doesn't appear to be anywhere else on the internet! The only place where it does exist without being heavily summarized is in Heuvelmans's book and lots of old newspapers. It became quite clear to me that this information needed to be scrutinized more, as Heuvelmans's classification system absolutely explodes when it is looked at more closely. That is probably why Cryptozoologists don't show their "work" very often, the patterns that they insist are there often aren't when things are looked at closely.

When the garbage reports are thrown away, there still are some interesting similarities between sightings. Could they be based on each other as well as the Cetacean Centipede of Aelian and Rondelet? My personal opinion is that the Cetacean Centipede almost certainly doesn't exist, all of the sightings being products of the imagination and known phenomenon. If Champagne's statements about other carcasses and even a photo have basis in reality or are of good quality, I may have to sit down and reconsider things. But now, the answer is a rather certain "no".

Heuvelmans and Coleman/Huyghe included reports that don't seem to be from the Cetacean Centipede, but could be from some other elongated vertical undulating creature with a spiny dorsal crest. Now, and here's where my credibility goes down the toilet for sure, I'm not so willing to dismiss the idea of there being something unknown in the oceans. Remember the Valhalla and mesoplodont whales from waaay back at the beginning of this post? So while the Cetacean Centipede is an almost-certain myth that stretched from the 2nd century all the way into the 60's or later, perhaps all hope is not lost. Of course, it could very well be extinct by now. But perhaps one day I can write about Sea Serpents that aren't nearly this far-fetched.

This post took a while to write and re-write, but I have quite a few planned to get out before my break ends. Coming up next, the return of the temnospondyls!


Monday, January 1, 2007

The Speculative Dinosaur Project

Dear Constant Readers,

Out of everything written about what would have happened had Dinosaurs not gone extinct, it is interesting to note that the best work on the subject is available for free on the Internet. Spec World is created by people who actually have paleontological training...and a nerdy sense of humor. From what I've heard (from its creators) there has been an utterly tremendous amount of thought and consideration that went into this, and it is readily apparent from reading it. Other projects tend to either have animals survive through intact or warp them to be unrecognizable (normally resembling a modern niche, hmm). Spec World tries to find a happy medium of what the plausible evolution will be. The inspiration I've gotten from this project is the amount of effort they put in, I'm far lower on the academic food chain than these fellows, but this project wanted me to set high standards for myself. Of course I don't agree completely with every speculation, but that's just my (very) humble opinion.

The website doesn't seem to be working quite right, so I'll have to have yet another hyperlink choked post. Even though it is arranged geographically, I think I'll try and shoot for a phylogenetic approach. The section of dinosaur evolution is very very extensive and somewhat irrelevant to me (except for the evolutionary concepts) so I'll breeze through that. This is vast project compared to The World of Kong, but I'll try to keep things reasonable. Put on your pith helmets and let's go spexploring!

The first inspiration worth noting is that one the main page (now not working) it was mentioned that Choristoderes were still clinging on to life. I had never heard of this group before, but I guess it is worth noting that a two headed specimen recently became news-worthy. They generally looked like small gharials or lizards, although others looked curiously plesiosaur-like. They are noteworthy for having the spottiest fossil records of any group I've ever heard about. Their history possibly begins in the Upper Triassic, starts for sure in the Mid-Jurassic, and pops up again in the Late Cretaceous and Eocene. It is also worth pointing out that they go unrecognized as another major group of reptiles (other than lizards/snakes, tuataras, turtles, and crocodilians) that survived the dinosaur-killing KT extinction. Millions of years after the last Eocene Choristoderan another specimen names Lazarussuchus from the Oligocene popped up. It is extremely problematic since it seems much more primitive from the Cretaceous-Eocene Choristoderans and even the Mid-Jurassic ones. At the very least is is a "ghost lineage" in the tens of millions of years, possibly well over 100 million years. Last I heard they have been found even more recently from the Miocene. So kudos to Spec World for pointing out these nearly-unkillable animals to me. I don't know what they'll be like in Spec World, but I do know that they will play a minor role in the fauna of my island along with other oddballs out of time. This goes to show just how well researched and thought provoking this material can be.

[Edit: Fourth of July, 2007. Choristoderes (not -derans) finally get their own post]

On to the dinosaurs! Therizinosaurs have been among my favorites since I first heard about them, which was surprisingly recently. They were related to the carnivorous Theropods (yadda yadda yadda "raptors" from Jurassic Park), but became large, very strange and herbivorous. Strangeness is obviously very appealing to me, so a "sumo-dinosaur" that resembled a cross between a goose and a giant ground sloth will obviously catch my attention. Spec World continues their evolutionary history, documenting their early diversification, split into two major branches, adaptation to cold climate, and their "current" decline. Competition has made them mostly shaggy arctic browsers above the 55th parallel, although small mountain dwelling forms also exist. There is apparently a story of human exploration of this alternate universe (it is spread out and vague) and whoever these explorers were, they were apparently all nerds because Spec World is filled with all sorts of geeky references. The Therizinosaur to the left is called a "Shantak", named after, of course, a monstrous bird-like creature from H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I love it when worlds collide like that. See the Therizinosaur page for several other species and the full history. The rest of the work done on the theropods is astoundingly well done and complete and just as worth checking out.

Due to extinctions on our own planet birds are a highly distinct group, with Crocodilians as their closest living relatives. On Spec World, however, things have gotten very complicated. Not only is the line between Maniraptorian Dinosaurs and "birds" quite blurry, if it even exists, there are many more basic groups of birds. Our Neornithes are but one radiation, in Spec toothed seabirds (see here too) still exist as well as primitive flying creatures (see here too) more closely related to predatory dinosaurs. A great deal of the small bird (i.e. modern day songbird) diversity is now taken over by the "opposite birds". Enantiornithids are quite interesting concept-wise, they look like modern birds but have weird palates, slow growth and metabolism, and are poisonous. The picture gets pretty complicated (I'm not going to pretend like I understand enough about it to blog on it) so I won't even attempt to explain it all here. I'm thinking a few odd survivors might make it through to my island, but I'll mostly be Neornithes that will populate it. I think all of this information on the primitive birds and the bird/dinosaur relationship is going to get me to read up a lot more on this subject in the future.

Interestingly, even with a far greater diversity of birds (not necessarily species-wise though) on Spec, some modern day groups are still present. Ducks have their origins in the Cretaceous, so they occupy some niches in New Zealand. A particularly species called the "Disco Duck" engages in silly walks and of course has the name Ludicrus cleesei. Even though crows are not present on Spec, nearcrows are in an interesting occurrence of parallel evolution. Convergent and parallel evolution (convergent involves unrelated groups, parallel involves related ones) is a fascinating concept, the placental and marsupial "wolves" come to mind immediately. I can't help but wonder if the environment makes the evolution of some niches more probable, if not nearly unavoidable. Not that evolution has any direction. The show is stolen by the penguins present on Spec, monstrous creations of Brian Choo. Penguins apparently came from the Late Cretaceous on small islands near New Zealand, so with or without an extinction event, they are still likely to have evolved. They still retain the tube-nostrils of their ancestors, but have basically the same layout. One Spec, however, they occupy brackish and even freshwater environments, and are more diverse. Penguins of death are large predators unlike anything birds have occupied on our world. Due to their size (over 15 feet long) they have evolved a marsupial-like pouch to incubate their eggs. The best part are just the names, the Leering Baby-eating Penguin of DEATH!!!, the Screaming Ninja Penguin of DEATH!!!, and of course the Giant Psycho-Killer Penguin of Death. I wish our penguins were better named...

Most people are unaware that crocodiles used to occupy a wide variety of niches. The creators of Spec World did not forget, of course. Although there are still Eusuchians occupying the "traditional" semi-aquatic ambush predator niche, they are far more varied. Long limbed terrestrial carnivorous crocodiles evolved in the late Cretaceous apparently even with dinosaur competition, but on Spec the non-traditional niches occur on that other strange island, Madagascar. On Madagascar they begin to resemble the Archosaurs before the dinosaur radiation, with some resembling herbivorous Aetosaurs (and Ankylosaurs), and others somewhat resembling Rauisuchians. Others, however occupy almost feline-like niches, and are in fact called Felisuchians. They have erect postures, saber teeth (occasionally), and talon-like claws. Others even climb trees to hunt lemurs. This may sound very improbable compared with the modern conception of sessile crocodiles, but those interestingly came from much more active ancestors. And yes, herbivorous crocodiles are known too. This is creating a debate about my island whether or not I should have crocodiles "echo" their ancient ancestors, or if I actually should have their (evolved) ancestors present. Or heck, I might as well do both. I wish that more work on crocodiles was done, but this project appears to be a work in progress, so there is likely more to come.

The diversity of the Mosasaurs, those horrendously overgrown aquatic monitors, is interesting enough (to me) to warrant mention. Most lizards were pretty small in the dinosaur-infested Mesozoic, but it is odd to think that at the end of the period the oceans were ruled by giant lizards of comparable ferocity to the largest predatory dinosaurs. Their reign was awfully short, but on Spec World they have continued to evolve. It's interesting that as aquatic reptiles evolve, they tend to have an elongated form at first, and then eventually get more compressed and fish-like, best exemplified by the icthyosaurs. Even though I probably won't have (many?) aquatic reptiles on my island, I'll still probably document their fascinating conquests soon. Spec World speculates what would happen to Mosasaurs if their reign was not cut so short. Two parallel branches of them evolved into eel-like river dwelling forms, a reference to the separate evolutions of river dwelling dolphins. Others have taken a more icthyosaur-like (but not exactly) route and have become fish or shark-like top-predators. The largest specimen is the 60 ton Nodens, named after a Lovecraft deity from Dream-Quest as well. They are covered in scars from a Spec cryptid (?!) called the great ktulu (Cthulhu!!) in an absolutely bizarre convergence of three separate interests of mine. My favorite Mosasaur is the absolutely bizarre Hobb's leviathan, which needs a picture since it can't really be compared to anything. Actually the basic body plan looks exactly like the Piranhadon from The World of Kong, which I wish I had a picture of. You'll have to take my word for it.

The absolutely most bizarre creations of Spec world are the Baleen-squids which roam the oceans with the neo-Mosasaurs. The numerous similar arms of cephalopods could theoretically be prone to specialization, but in the real world only sperm transferring arms, long grasping tentacles, and some large photophores have evolved. We ourselves come from animals with long redundant body segments, but ours have regionalized and specialized and folded into our unique body plan. Even given our remarkable transformation from our ancestors, the Baleen-squids are pretty extreme. More primitive baleen-squid are known, such as the Ktulu, which have tentacles that have split into "fingers" on the end. I don't know why real life cephalopods never did this, the closest they have come are the tactile cirri of cirrate octopodes and "vampire squid". Of course, the Great Ktulu also gets a mention...unavoidable with anybody who is a fan of cephs. Then things got very weird with more derived species. Two arms have evolved into "gnathobranchiums", not actually functional jaws but arms designed to act as jaw-shaped protectors of interior tentacles. Two "digitibranchiums" have evolved into a baleen-like structure designed to filter prey. The remaining tentacles remain behind to manipulate food. Simply put, these are enormous squid that have evolved as a bizarre homologue to baleen whales and manta rays. This is easily the most far-fetched thing on Spec, and I'm still uncertain what to make of them exactly. The extreme similarity to known species of whales is going too far in my opinion though. It still is an interesting concept though, and my island could use a few animals created on a whim. Because even though sometimes evolution can be predictable to some degree, very strange things have been known to happen.

Now here is a statement which will frighten some people...the main source of my inspiration from Spec World revolves around the work they did with mammal evolution. Should I have said that before? Early mammal and Mammaliaform diversity is still somewhat confusing but fascinating for me. I'm still not sure if Mammaliaformes should be called "mammal-like reptiles" or not, phylogenetic placement for some of these specimens just seems to float around like iceberg, constantly shifting and changing position. I wish they got the same attention that Dinosaurs get. Early mammals are very poorly represented in the modern world, with only a few species of monotremes. Apparently a mouse-like creature from New Zealand that lived a few million years go was somewhere in between monotremes and modern therians. If it is in fact a Multituberculate as I suspect (nothing I read has mentioned assignments), then that clade will also be an nearly unkillable ghost lineage prone one, though not to the same degree as Choristoderans.

The first group covered are the Docodonta Mammaliaformes, obscure Mesozoic rodent-like critters known mainly from teeth. In fact, most small primitive mammals (or Mammaliaformes) do seem to resemble rodents and the various groups' unique dentitions are the best way to differentiate them, hence all the "toothy" names. This group was actually in the news recently, with the discovery of a "large" (2 pounds, 17 inches) swimming possible piscivore. This is pretty remarkable given that most other mammals and Mammaliaformes at the time seemed to be occupying rather marginalized niches. The Spec World Docodonta species isn't related to the various known parallel developments of moles, but re-develops it in South America. It has the same strange spurs as Monotremes, is that a plesiomorphy for mammals then? Very curiously, the Spec website also mentions that their "molarity" can swim in rivers, prophetic of the news story to come years later. I don't understand why, but burrowing animals always have an extremely easy time adapting to or even just going into water. Caecilians, for instance, are bizarre amphibians which occupy only burrowing or aquatic (fully aquatic at that) niches. I'll probably have closely related burrower/aquatic species of some sort on my island. Since Connor's island tends to avoid the Mesozoic, where these creatures are exclusively from apparently, they don't have good odds of showing up. But hey, it's a big island.

Breaking the rule of naming schemes are the fully fleged Mammals Gondwanatheres, named for the continent where they inhabit. They actually survived the KT extinction living on Seymour island of Antarctica...along with sloths, possums, penguins, and ratites. I recall from the book Evolution by Stephen Baxter that he had Dinosaurs and other surivors (marine amphibians again?!?!) hanging out on an Antarctic island until waaaay into the Miocene. There's no proof for that of course, but it is an interesting idea since they inhabited an area where all fossil proof of them would have been destroyed theoretically. Hopefully my island will capture a similar weirdness to that of the anachronistic hemisphere, as well as the strange mixtures resulting from continental connections. Alright, back to Gondwanatheres. Their phylogenetic placement is floating around right now (as they seem to be, much to my confusion), but Spec places them around Monotremes, which sounds reasonable. Their unique dentition involves high crowned hysphodont (i.e. horse-style) teeth, and they seemed to occupy a burrowing or semi-aquatic niche. On Spec they generally occupy the same niche, but spread out from the Southern Hemisphere. Interestingly, Spec has one species present on New Zealand, so maybe my Multituberculate prediction for the discovery is wrong, we'll see. They have colonized that other perpetually weird island, Madagascar, and occupy the niches not occupied by other rodent-like creatures. Gondwanatheres may make it onto my island as well, possibly occupying their favorite niche or a more derived one thanks to other rodent-like creatures and actual rodents.

Unlike in our real world, Monotremes are quite impressive in Spec. The fossil record of Monotremes is apparently rather on the poor side, and I can't recall reading about fossils of anything but platypi and echidnas, or vague teeth that may have belonged to semi-aquatic creatures. Is this all the Monotremes ever did, diversify to two odd niches? Were other bizarre creatures around that never fossilized? Spec doesn't try to speculate on them, if they ever existed, but instead continues the platypus line which apparently took quite a pounding on our planet's KT extinction. Who knows where the echidnas went. Instead of continuing the same body plans through the Cenozoic, the Monotremes on Spec are some of the most specialized mammals, with some even having evolved live birth. Reptiles and fish evolved live birth separately lots of times, so this isn't improbable at all. Even though modern looking platypi have evolved (with a much larger range), for the most part they are larger or at least more predatory than they are on our planet. This, however, is only the start of their diversity as the Platypus line has given rise to the Specsclusive Cancridontians. These are marine mammals and the largest mammals of any sort on Spec. They still retain the electrosensitive beak and venemous spurs for fighting, but occupy very different bodies. The 30 different species show different levels of adaptation to the water with some called "creakers" that are still seal-like to the "smooches" and "walducks" which are quite whale-like. The largest mammal on Spec is the 8 tonne "Moby Duck", which looks identical to beaked whales in our own time, down to the tusks and coloration. I would suggest that they would have kept their venemous spurs for fighting as a homologue to the tusks of beaked whales, but oh well. This is one of the few times I feel Spec is just too dang similar to our own real world. Then of course there is the bizarre "winghead" that makes up for it by looking like no other animal I've seen before, in the true spirit of Monotreme weirdness. (Post script: Darren Naish pointed out to me that it is based off of a Sperm whale with the head of a tapejarid pterosaur). Very oddly, some early swimming Cancridontians have actually taken to burrowing (as usual) on...New Zealand of all places. I think if Monotremes are present on my island, they'll probabably either be or have been in some marginalized aquatic niche, possibly marine.

Another group of "toothy" mammals are the Eutriconodonta, predatory mammals rare in the Mesozoic that continued to pull through to the modern day...in Spec. They are famous for being able to take on small dinosaurs, and were probably the first carnivorous mammals. On Spec they are still quite primitive, they lay eggs and have the same venemous spurs. They seem to be mustelid-style carnivores and continue on their "tradition" of being large for mammals, reaching 2.5 meters in the "otter trike". Curiously, it retains a reptilian style of locomotion and undulates laterally in the water. There are also rumors of one on Madagascar, of course. Not much is known about them, there doesn't seem to be too much to know though. They probably will make it onto my island, but only in a very small role.

Multituberculates are among some of the most successful mammals, having made it across the KT barrier, so it is no suprise that they made it into Spec. They are called the "rodents of the Mesozoic" and occupied the small scurrying niches, using bizarre shearing teeth as homologues to the dentition of true rodents. Eventually of course, they were out-competed...unless they made it until recently on New Zealand. Fortunately for Multituberculates and other rodent-y animals on Spec, true rodents never evolved. However, they still went through a Cenozoic decline with only three groups left. One of them is squirrel-like, and the others are burrowers. They reach huge sizes by terrestrial mammal standards, with the "Digga-dumdums" reaching a meter and a half in length. The diversity of such relatively conventional looking mammals isn't too interesting, but just the idea of a relict "alternate rodent" is. They'll be on my island for sure, and probably in a specialized niche due to rodent, gondwanathere, and competition from who knows what else.

The public generally doesn't know that Marsupials are far from a bunch of Australian weirdos. The group may have actually evolved on North America, and at least 60 species (latest I heard was 90...from Wikipedia) of opossum dwell in South America in addition to two odd little relict orders. The "Monit del Monte" is noteworthy for being classified as an Australian marsupial despite living in the Andes Mountains. On Spec the condition seems similar to what the marsupials are currently like in the Americas, a bunch of scurrying critters easy to overlook ableit with a worldwide distribution. Yes, marsupials lived worldwide at one point of time on our own planet too. However, with the cooling of the planet in an ice age, the Dinosaurs/Birds faltered and marsupials took the opporitunity to fill niches. In the Arctic they have taken to occupying the niche of being large aquatic predators, looking all for the world like crazy killer otters. Killer otters have always been a favorite of mind, and I can all buy guarantee their presence (probably placental though) on my island. The aquatic marsupials are apparently quite succesfull reaching 500kg and 6 meters, and outcompeting the resident predatory birds. The "selkie" is my favorite, looking like a strange cross between a marsupial otter an a leopard seal, a niche curiously left unoccupied in our world. It is also worth noting that because of their pouches, marsupials struggle to occupy aquatic niches, with only one semi-aquatic opossum (the Yapok) living in South America. Perhaps like the Monotremes they evolved a more precocial birthing process. The Artic is also haunted by relatives of the aquatic predators, the badger sized (and badger-like) "baskervilles". They are quite noteworthy for having symbiotic bioluminescent fungi, allowed to grow by the males for breeding season and used to communicate. It's weird, but actually fairly concievable. That perpetually bizarre Madagascar is also home to another region of marsupial diversification where they have taken to fossa and civet-like niches. Marsupials on my island will probably occupy niches similar to the opossums of the real world, although possibly continuing the trend towards becoming primate-like similar to the Caluromyid Opossums.

And finally, we have the familiar live, precocial birthing Eutherians, making up the majority of mammalian diversity in both our world and Spec world. Given the length of this blog already, I can't give a complete overview. Very curiously, fairly modern looking groups such as the Xenarthrans, Tenrecs, Bats, and even Primates. True rodents are not present, the related Xenotheridians are, and are nearly as succesfull...though not good enough to totally drive out the numerous archaic rodent-y niches. Curiously, their closest relatived are Paraselenodontians, mammals convergently evolving into ungulate niches, but in the Arctic of course. For terrestrial mammals they are gargantuan, reaching up to 300 kg. These different strange groups also give the same impression of floating around phylogenetically with only a few sparce fossils. Knowing that these animals had their basis before the dinosaurs went extinct shows that they were already much more differenciated than what would be expected. However, since I'll be working around the Mesozoic, I'll probably have to deal with later animals rather than these weirdo survivors.

Wow, this blog has gotten absurdly long. And yet, I really only did scratch the surface of the information, it really is quite remarkable. This stuff can get pretty dense at times, but that only makes me want to go out and try and get a fuller understanding. However, I realize the more I know, the more confusing this all gets. Phylogeny always looks simple in books, but in reality there are always weirdos popping up in the middle, or unexpected relationships and other things to turn a pattern into chaos. Despite this, the level of work put into this had inspired me to continue to deal with the increasingly complex nature of fictional evolution, not to mention all of the fascinating ideas presented.

So kudos to you free information! This will probably be among my last "inspiration" blogs, it is time to start working on my own world.