The Crocodile That Wasnt - An eye-witness account of extinct megafauna
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Both of these testudines lived on the island of Rodrigues, located about miles east of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and both were hunted to extinction by human settlers, who must have been amused by these turtles' social behavior slow-moving herds of Saddle-Backs numbered in the thousands! The Giant Ameiva--known by the rather redundant genus and species name Ameiva ameiva --is a slender, inch-long lizard characterized by its pointy head and forked snakelike tongue. Ameivas can be found all over South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, but not on the island of Martinique, where the resident Ameiva subspecies went extinct a few hundred years ago.
Unusually, there's some speculation that the Martinique Giant Ameiva may have been doomed not by human settlers, but by a giant hurricane that literally tore apart its natural habitat. The Horned Turtle, genus name Meiolania , was a half-ton testudine that roamed the swamps of Australia until about 2, years ago when it was presumably hunted to extinction by aboriginal settlers.
This seems rather odd, considering that Meiolania came equipped with two horns over its eyes and a spiked tail reminiscent of Ankylosaurus!
Meiolania, by the way, came by its Greek name "little wanderer" by reference to another extinct reptile of Pleistocene Australia, the Giant Monitor Lizard. One of the few prehistoric snakes to be discovered in Australia, the Wonambi was an foot-long, pound predator capable of taking down though perhaps not swallowing a full-grown Giant Wombat.
Even at the height of its powers, though, the Wonambi was an evolutionary last gasp: the family of snakes from which it descended, the "madtsoiids," had a global distribution for tens of millions of years, but were restricted to Australia on the cusp of the modern era. The Wonambi went extinct about 40, years ago, slightly before or coincident with the arrival of the first Aboriginal Australians. Megalania , the "giant wanderer"--not to be confused with Meiolania, the "little wanderer," described above--was a foot-long, two-ton monitor lizard that would have given theropod dinosaurs a run for their money.
Megalania was probably the apex predator of late Pleistocene Australia, preying on resident megafauna like the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo and capable of giving Thylacoleo the Marsupial Lion a run for its money.
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Why did the Giant Monitor Lizard go extinct 40, years ago? No one knows for sure, but suspects include climate change or the disappearance of this reptile's usual prey. The Quinkana was far from the biggest crocodile that ever lived, but it made up for its relative lack of heft with its unusually long legs and sharp, curved, tyrannosaur-like teeth, which must have made it a true menace to the mammalian megafauna of late Pleistocene Australia. Like its fellow reptiles from Down Under, the Wonambi slide 9 and the Giant Monitor Lizard slide 10 , the Quinkana went extinct about 40, years ago, either because of hunting by aboriginal settlers who would much rather eat than get eaten themselves or by the disappearance of its accustomed prey.
Share Flipboard Email. Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and editor with over 25 years of experience in print and online media. Keller planned to spend a week gathering rocks in two different regions of India, beginning with the area around Basar, a dusty village of 5, in the center of the country. Our days in the field settled into a predictable routine. From about every morning until as late as midnight, we fanned out from the hotel.
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Our six- or seven-hour drives to distant quarries revealed the rhythms of rural neighborhoods, where women still fetched water from communal pumps and shepherds scrolled on smartphones while grazing their flocks. The geologists were searching for outcrops—areas where erosion, construction, or tectonic activity had exposed the inner layers of rock formations, from which the scientists could decode the history of the landscape. Most mornings, Thierry Adatte set our course by studying satellite images for signs of quarries big beige rectangles or switchback roads pale zigzags.
For someone accustomed to thinking about time in multimillion-year increments, Keller grew surprisingly impatient over wasted minutes. The forams, for example, gradually shrank, declined in number, and showed less diversity, until only a handful of species remained—results consistent with what many paleontologists have observed for animals on land during the same time. More problematic still, Chicxulub did not appear to Keller to have been particularly deadly. And then there was the issue of the four previous mass extinctions.
None appeared to have been triggered by an impact, although numerous other asteroids have pummeled our planet over the millennia. Pro-impact scientists counter that not only was the Chicxulub asteroid gigantic, it also landed in the deadliest possible site : in shallow waters, where it kicked up climate-altering vaporized rock. They reasoned that the two must be synchronous, because the destruction caused by the asteroid would have been near-instantaneous. This looked like circular logic to Keller, who in set out to investigate whether the two really were concurrent.
This was evidence that thousands of years had elapsed in between, she argued. Based on similar results from Haiti, Texas, and elsewhere in Mexico, Keller concluded that the asteroid had hit , years before the extinction—far too early to have caused it. So what did cause it? Keller began searching for other possible culprits.
She was looking for a menace that had become gradually more deadly over hundreds of thousands of years, such that it would have caused increasing stress followed by a final, dramatic obliteration. The fifth extinction, the one that doomed the dinosaurs, occurred just as one of the largest volcanoes in history seethed in the Deccan Traps. On this excursion, Keller hoped to gather samples that would allow her to create a detailed timeline of Deccan activity in the , years leading up to the extinction.
The goal: to see whether its biggest belches correlated with environmental stress and mass dying around the world. Basar was miles east of some of the highest points in the Deccan Traps, an area near the epicenter of the eruptions. Keller had chosen Basar because she suspected that the long, low stretches of basalt around us had been formed by some of the largest lava flows—ejected during major eruptions immediately preceding the extinction. To prove that, however, Keller needed to have the rock dated. We were snaking down a sinewy road one afternoon when Adatte hollered, the van screeched to a stop, and everyone scrambled out to inspect a steep hill in the elbow of a hairpin turn.
Rising up from the asphalt were several yards of pebbly, khaki-colored rock, then a thin band of seafoam-green rock, followed by a pinkish layer, and then round, brown rocks interspersed with white roots. Adatte sank to his knees and burrowed into the pebbles. Eddy licked a rock, to determine whether it was clay. Keller sprinted up the incline until she was eye level with the greenish layer.
She translated the outcrop for me as though it were text in a foreign language. Rocks record the passage of time vertically: The distance between where Adatte sat covered in gravel and where Keller perched at the top of the hill potentially represented the progression of several hundred thousand years.
She passed me a chunk of the seafoam-colored rock and pointed to a tiny white fossil protruding like a baby tooth: evidence of tempestites, broken shells carried in by a storm. The pinkish soil above that had been buried under lava—the brown rocks covered with tangled roots. Since the pinkish layer and the shells predated the flows, they could help pinpoint that particular eruption. Geology is a field of delayed gratification, and there was little else the scientists could say definitively before getting the samples into a lab.
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While Syed Khadri fielded questions from puzzled locals who wanted to know why the foreigners were playing in the dirt, Keller, Adatte, and Eddy filled clear-plastic bags with fistfuls of rock to ship home. Back in the van, Adatte told me about a recent conference where several researchers had debated the validity of Deccan volcanism versus the impact theory in front of an audience of their peers, who had then voted, by a show of hands, on which they thought had caused the extinction. Adatte said the result was 70—30 in favor of volcanism. Our long stretches in the car provided Keller ample time to continue inventorying her own numerous brushes with extinction.
Her childhood could pass for the opening of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
According to stories Keller heard as a kid, their fortune from hotels and real estate kept the children wearing Parisian couture and summering in Austria. The young couple took out loans to buy a farm, where they raised cows, sheep, ducks, rabbits, vegetables, and their 12 children, the sixth of whom was Keller. Keller grew up among rocks, in the alpine crevices of a Swiss village where the neighbors still believed in witches.
Then, much as now, she considered herself in a league apart from her peers. At age 12, Keller wanted to become a doctor. Her teacher, concerned by these delusions of grandeur, called in a Jungian psychologist to administer a Rorschach test and remind Keller that the daughter of such a poor family should aspire to less. Two years later, Keller—given the choice of becoming a maid, a salesgirl, or a seamstress—apprenticed with a dressmaker. Her mother hoped that she would help clothe her siblings. In her teens, Keller resolved to die before she turned She tried to kill herself by taking sleeping pills, failed, then figured she would live as dangerously as possible and die in the process.
In , at age 19, Keller quit her job in Zurich and hitchhiked through Spain and North Africa for six months. She continued her trek around the globe: Greece, Israel, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, where her plan to continue on to Russia was interrupted when her health failed. It was hepatitis, which she had contracted at the Algerian border. After a year of recovery, Keller set sail from Genoa to Australia, which she planned to use as a jumping-off point for travel throughout Asia.
Keller recalls that during the three-week journey, her ship collided with its sister vessel, hit a typhoon in the Indian Ocean, and was found to be infested with mafiosi smuggling weapons. But Keller spoke better English than the official realized. A priest came to administer last rites and, as Keller hovered in and out of consciousness, commanded her to confess her sins.
Twice, she refused. The experience also cured her of her death wish. Keller eventually made her way to Asia, then arrived in California with plans to continue to South America.