Posts Tagged ‘pleistocene savannah’

Xenocyon – that great mystery canid of the Pleistocene. There’s continued debate about what genus Xenocyon actually fits into: many consider it to be a canid, while others classify both X. falconeri and the earlier X. lycanoides to be the true ancestor of today’s ferocious yet beautiful African Hunting DogLycaon pictus.

It may be that our understanding of the genus Canis is a little too simplistic, and needs a little revision to include creatures such as Cynotherium, Lycaon and of course Xenocyon, which in appearance was likely somewhere between a hyena and a wolf. Weighing between 30 and 40 kg, with a wide and broad head, Xenocyon was not to be messed with. The fangs alone indicated a robust, hypercarnivorous creature roughly the size of a wolf, perhaps a bit bigger in some cases, and a superb predator. If they were indeed the ancestors of the African Hunting Dog, then their hunting pack techniques would have been savage, relentless – and successful. Sadly, we don’t know if these muscular dogs were beautifully speckled and painted like L. pictus, or if they had coats of one colour, more akin to a wolf or dhole.

It is not surprising these canids reached pretty much the top of the food-chain and were found across Eurasia, Europe and even North America during the Mid-Pleistocene. Fossils have been found as far east as Japan, at the Tama River just outside Tokyo, with specimens also found at Westbury in Britain. However, more plentiful fossils have been found in Untermassefeld in Germany and across Italy and Spain. There are even a few specimens in North America, although some believe they never quite got a grip on the landscape due to competition from the larger and heavier Canis dirus.

So, how did Xenocyon spp manage to be so widespread that they ruled Europe and Eurasia with a paw of iron? Well, most of it is probably due to climate fluctuations on the boundary of the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epochs.  We know now that there have been regular periods of glaciation, thaws and reglaciation, long before humans came and made it ten times worse with carbon emissions. The beginnings of the Palaeolithic period are often placed around 1.7 million years ago, when hominids such as Homo erectus were striding out across Africa seeking new vistas. They were not the only ones. Another species of predator was also on the move, in a bio-event known rather catchily as the ‘Wolf Event’. Dogs went walkies from Africa to Eurasia and further.

These periods of intercontinental migration usually occur due to climate changes and the Wolf Event is probably no different (another example of course is the Great American Biotic Interchange, when northern megafauna crossed the land bridge at Panama to access south America). Sometimes Xenocyon is referred to as the African Wolf, as there certainly was movement of the earliest species, X. lycaonoides, from Africa around the same time as other great predators following the movements of herd animals. Nothing remains static in environmental histories. Temperatures in Europe were cooling, starting the story of glaciation and extinction we now call the Ice Age. Herds of herbivorous creatures would follow availability of good grazing, and right behind them would be the hunters, looking for juicy antelopes and equids. In the case of the packs of Xenocyon, they most likely would have welcomed a juicy H. erectus into their a la carte menu, as hominids would have been relatively defenceless against packs of creatures who hunted like African Dogs.

Considering that at least on one occasion, Xenocyon contributed to the creation of a different canid, we can revisit the delicious research carried out by numerous geneticists such as Wayne, Larson and Hulme-Beaman, whose collective findings were recently published in Science journal. The conclusion most geneticists are reaching is that all varieties of modern dogs can trace their ancestry to extinct wolf-like creatures. Random interbreeding, environmental changes and then human involvement in selective breeding for specific qualities means that nature just doesn’t stop dead. What we perhaps have thought of as outright extinction sometimes is really just evolution doin’ its thing- changing and adapting until new responses are needed to new environmental challenges.

[Source: Twilight Beasts]

The origin of domestic dogs is poorly understood [ 1–15 ], with suggested evidence of dog-like features in fossils that predate the Last Glacial Maximum [ 6, 9, 10, 14, 16 ] conflicting with genetic estimates of a more recent divergence between dogs and worldwide wolf populations [ 13, 15, 17–19 ].

fx1 - wolf family tree1

Here, we present a draft genome sequence from a 35,000-year-old wolf from the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia. We find that this individual belonged to a population that diverged from the common ancestor of present-day wolves and dogs very close in time to the appearance of the domestic dog lineage. We use the directly dated ancient wolf genome to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs and find that the mutation rate is substantially slower than assumed by most previous studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves before the Last Glacial Maximum. We also find evidence of introgression from the archaic Taimyr wolf lineage into present-day dog breeds from northeast Siberia and Greenland, contributing between 1.4% and 27.3% of their ancestry. This demonstrates that the ancestry of present-day dogs is derived from multiple regional wolf populations.

gr2 wolf dog family tree 2

[Source: Current Biology]


Increasingly, the restoration of large carnivores is proposed as a means through which to restore community structure and ecosystem function via trophic cascades. After a decades-long absence, African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) recolonized the Laikipia Plateau in central Kenya, which we hypothesized would trigger a trophic cascade via suppression of their primary prey (dik-dik; Madoqua guentheri) and the subsequent relaxation of browsing pressure on trees. We tested the trophic-cascade hypothesis using: (1) a 14-year time series of wild dog abundance; (2) surveys of dik-dik population densities conducted before and after wild dog recovery; and (3) two separate, replicated herbivore-exclusion experiments initiated before and after wild dog recovery. The dik-dik population declined by 33% following wild dog recovery, which is best explained by wild dog predation. Dik-dik browsing suppressed tree abundance, but the strength of suppression did not differ between pre- and post-wild dog recovery. Despite strong, top-down limitation between adjacent trophic levels (carnivore-herbivore and herbivore-plant), a trophic cascade did not occur, possibly because of a time lag in indirect effects, variation in rainfall, and foraging by herbivores other than dik-dik. Our ability to reject the trophic-cascade hypothesis required two important approaches: (1) temporally-replicated herbivore exclusions, separately established before and after wild dog recovery; (2) evaluating multiple drivers of variation in the abundance of dik-dik and trees. While the restoration of large carnivores is undoubtedly a conservation priority, our results suggest that indirect effects are mediated by ecological context, and that trophic cascades are not a foregone conclusion of such recoveries.

[Source: ESA]

hwrjsjw6-1389287818 wolves

Based on field research, my Oregon State University co-author Robert Beschta and I documented the impact of cougars and wolves on the regeneration of forest tree stands and riverside vegetation in Yellowstone and other national parks in western North America. Fewer predators, we found, lead to an increase in browsing animals such as deer and elk. More browsing disrupts vegetation, reduces birds and some mammals and changes other parts of the ecosystem. From the actions of the top predator, widespread impacts cascade down the food chain.

Similar effects were found in studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters. For example in Europe, absence of lynx has been closely tied to the abundance of roe deer, red fox and hare. In Australia, the construction of a 3,400-mile dingo-proof fence has enabled scientists to study ecosystems with and without dingoes which are closely related to gray wolves. They found that dingoes control populations of herbivores and exotic red foxes. The suppression of these species by dingoes reduces predation pressure, benefiting plants and smaller native prey.

In some parts of Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in olive baboons, which threaten crops and livestock. In the waters off southeast Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale predation has led to a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

[Source: The Conversation]


In Australia, the culling of dingoes is a relatively common practice to protect livestock. However, these culls are often strongly opposed on the grounds of the ecological effect they may have on the trophic cascade. According to the mesopredator theory, culling a top predator such as the dingo will result in an increased abundance of mesopredators – feral cats, red foxes and goannas – which in turn increases predation in lower trophic levels.

Allen and colleagues conducted a series of manipulative experiments at nine sites spanning five ecosystem types across the Australian continental rangelands to investigate the responses of mesopredators to contemporary poison-baiting programs. They show that culling dingoes within conventional limits does not result in an increased presence of mesopredators, and therefore contradicts the idea that this effect can result in conservation issues for smaller threatened Australian species.

The researchers suggest that careful planning of dingo culls, such as around the peak cattle calving season, provides livestock producers with a window of opportunity to reduce livestock predation during high-risk times while still maintaining ecological diversity of the trophic cascade.

Allen, who led the study, explained, “Dingo populations recovered to pre-control levels within months, which means that baiting does not create the conditions required for mesopredators to increase. This helps us to understand why, despite years of control measures the numbers of dingoes in Australia is at an all time high.”

[Source: Biome]


On television and in scientific journals, the story of how carnivores influence ecosystems has seized imaginations. From wolves in North America to lions in Africa and dingoes in Australia, top predators are thought to exert tight control over the populations and behaviours of other animals, shaping the entire food web down to the vegetation through a ‘trophic cascade’. This story is popular in part because it supports calls to conserve large carnivores as ‘keystone species’ for whole ecosystems. It also offers the promise of a robust rule within ecology, a field in which researchers have yearned for more predictive power.

But several studies in recent years have raised questions about the top-predator rule in the high-profile cases of the wolf and the dingo. That has led some scientists to suggest that the field’s fascination with top predators stems not from their relative importance, but rather from society’s interest in the big, the dangerous and the vulnerable. “Predators can be important,” says Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, “but they aren’t a panacea.”


“The predator was gone for at least 70 years,” says Marshall. “Removing it has changed the ecosystem in fundamental ways.” This work suggests that wolves did meaningfully structure the Yellowstone ecosystem a century ago, but that reintroducing them cannot restore the old arrangement.

Arthur Middleton, a Yale ecologist who works on Yellowstone elk, says that such studies have disproved the simple version of the trophic cascade story. The wolves, elk and vegetation exist in an ecosystem with hundreds of other factors, many of which seem to be important, he says.

Another classic example of a trophic cascade has come under attack in Australia. The standard story there is that the top predator, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo), controls smaller introduced predators such as cats and foxes, allowing native marsupials to thrive. But Ben Allen, an ecologist at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Toowoomba, has compared9 areas where dingoes are poisoned with areas where they are left alone, and found no difference in marsupial abundance. He is quite cynical, he says, about “this idea that top predators are wonderful for the environment and will put everything back to the Garden of Eden”

Ripple is not worried about these debates, which he views as quibbling over details that do not undermine the overall strength of the tropic-cascade hypothesis. In fact, when he published a major review10 this year of the effects that predators exert over ecosystems, he left out studies critical of the wolf and dingo trophic-cascade theories; he says that there was no room for them in the space he had to work with. Ripple is particularly concerned with documenting the impacts of Earth’s top carnivores because so many are endangered. “We are losing these carnivores at the same time that we are learning about their ecological effects,” he says. “It is alarming, and this information needs to be brought forth.”

The debate has been harsh at times, but in quieter moments the different factions all tend to talk in similar terms about the great complexity of ecosystems and the likelihood that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. James Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the fathers of the trophic-cascade idea, says that the evidence for cascades mediated by changes in animal behaviour rather than by changes in animal number is “thin”, at the moment — and that many of the effects that have been documented are spotty and badly need to be rigorously mapped out. Still, he adds, “When all is said and done, and everyone is dead 100 years from now, Bill [Ripple] will be closer to right”.

Although Ripple stresses the role of the top carnivores, he agrees they are not the end of the story. “I believe in the combination of top-down and bottom-up, working in unison,” he says. “They are both playing out on any given piece of ground and the challenge will be to discover what determines their interactions and relative effects.”

[Source: Nature]

sabre tooth tiger eating human head

Early humans may have evolved as prey animals rather than as predators, suggest the remains of our prehistoric primate ancestors that were devoured by hungry birds and carnivorous mammals.

The discovery of multiple de-fleshed, chomped and gnawed bones from the extinct primates, which lived 16 to 20 million years ago on Rusinga Island, Kenya, was announced today at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 70th Anniversary Meeting in Pittsburgh.

At least one of the devoured primates, an early ape called Proconsul, is thought to have been an ancestor to both modern humans and chimpanzees. It, and other primates on the island, were also apparently good eats for numerous predators.

The ubiquitous Laurasian and African Late Eocene to Early Miocene apex predator Hyaenodon (Hyaenodontidae).

The ubiquitous Laurasian and African Late Eocene to Early Miocene apex predator Hyaenodon (Hyaenodontidae).

“I have observed multiple tooth pits and probable beak marks on these fossil primates, which are direct evidence for creodonts and raptors consuming these primates,” researcher Kirsten Jenkins told Discovery News.

Creodonts were ancient carnivorous mammals that filled a niche similar to that of modern carnivores, but are unrelated to today’s meat eaters, she explained. The Rusinga Island creodonts that fed on our primate ancestors were likely wolf-sized.

“There is one site on Rusinga Island with multiple Proconsul individuals all together and these are covered in tooth pits,” added Jenkins, a University of Minnesota anthropologist. “This kind of site was likely a creodont den or location where prey could be easily acquired.”

Analysis of tooth pits, de-fleshing marks, bone breakage patterns, gnawing and other damage to the primate bones indicate that raptors were also hunting down these distant relatives of humans.

“Primatologists have observed large raptors taking monkeys from trees,” Jenkins said. “When a raptor approaches a group of monkeys, those monkeys will make alarm calls to warn their group and attempt to retreat to lower branches. The primates on Rusinga had monkey-like postcrania and likely had very similar locomotor behavior.”

The study presents the first evidence of raptor predation on fossil primates from Rusinga, which was part of the side of a large volcano 20 million years ago.

Multiple ash layers suggest that eruptions killed countless animals from time to time. But when the volcano was inactive, the site supported a wooded area.

Jenkins is not certain what selective pressures predators placed on these very early primate ancestors to humans, but she said they “can affect behavior, group structure, body size and ontogeny (the life cycle of a single organism).”

Robert Sussman, professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has long argued that primates, including early humans, evolved not as hunters but as prey of many predators, including wild dogs and cats, hyenas, eagles and crocodiles.

“Despite popular theories posed in research papers and popular literature, early man was not an aggressive killer,” said Sussman, author of the book “Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution.” “Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator.”

He added that the idea of man as hunter “developed from a basic Judeo-Christian ideology of man being inherently evil, aggressive and a natural killer.”

“In fact, when you really examine the fossil and living non-human primate evidence, that is just not the case,” he explained.

Jenkins and her colleagues continue to excavate at Rusinga and nearby Mfangano islands, hoping to find more fossils — especially those from birds — so that the scientists can identify the species that were hunting the prehistoric primates.

A newfound horned crocodile may have been the largest predator encountered by our ancestors in Africa, researchers now suggest.

Scientists have even found bones from members of the human lineage bearing tooth marks from this reptile, whose scientific name, Crocodylus anthropophagus, means “man-eating crocodile.”

Scientists found a partial skull and skeleton of the crocodile at Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania in 2007. Past research there famously unearthed numerous fossils of extinct human species and their stone tools, strengthening the argument that our lineage originated in Africa.

Fossil leg and foot bones of at least two hominids from Olduvai bear crocodilian tooth marks, and came from roughly the same time as the newfound horned carnivore and within roughly 300 feet (100 meters) from where the reptile’s skeleton was discovered.

“I can’t guarantee these crocodiles were killing people, but they were certainly biting them,” Brochu said. “Our ancestors would have had to be cautious close to the water, because the water’s edge at Olduvai Gorge would have been a very dangerous place.”

Crocodiles may have been common predators of hominids, the scientists noted. Larger crocodiles would be capable of consuming our ancestors completely, leaving no trace.

“It was probably as large as a modern Nile crocodile, one of the largest living crocodilians at between 18 to 20 feet,” Brochu said. “One thing to bear in mind was that while these crocodiles are not necessarily bigger than the ones today, hominids back then were smaller than we are today, so the crocodiles would have been relatively quite a bit larger.”

Nor was it just cats. Humans were eaten by giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, eagles, snakes, other primates, wolves, saber-toothed cats, false saber-toothed cats, and maybe even—bless their hearts—giant, predatory kangaroos. Amazingly, these are just the predators that consumed our ancestors during relatively recent history, the past 100,000 years or so. Go further back in time, and the diversity of things that ate our kin goes up (particularly given that our earlier, pre-hominin ancestors were progressively smaller).  Some predators, such as leopards, ate many of our ancestors. Others, like crocodiles, komodo dragons, or sharks, took their bites, but more opportunistically, savoring the occasional human or proto-human the way one might enjoy some special holiday treat…

Even today, where humans live alongside predators, both children and adults get eaten. Harry Greene, a herpetologist at Cornell University and one of a handful of my colleagues more likely to be eaten by a wild animal than to die of old age, and Thomas Headland, an anthropologist, recently conducted a study of Agta hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. Harry was excited to find that the Agta lived among a high density of pythons. The Agta tend to be not quite so excited; Greene and Headland found that one in four Agta men had been attacked by a reticulated python. Of the 120 men whose stories were considered for the study, six had been killed by a python. That’s a death-by-python rate of 1 in 20…

Many primate species have alarm calls that are specific for different predators. The first primate nouns were almost certainly those embedded in calls that meant, “Oh shit, big cat!” “Oh shit, giant eagle!” or “For the love of god, did you see the size of that snake?”  In this way, predators may have had a positive impact on who we are now, having given us the precursors of language, or at the very least, cussing…

Many traits that influenced our ability to spot predators or flee from them have been under strong natural selection for much of the past 40 million years of primate evolution and even before then. (We have been prey essentially since the beginning.) Researchers are just beginning to explore these possibilities. Lynne Isbell at the University of California-Davis has argued that the range of our color vision evolved in part because those of our ancestors who could see more colors were more likely to spot snakes. A study this year found that children spot snakes more quickly than they do flowers . They also spot snakes when using color vision more quickly than in gray scale. Our interactions with other species (be they snakes, or as some have argued, fruits) shaped our eyesight. Our screams, those preverbal (and universal) utterances, are alarm calls signaling, simultaneously, both a threat and the need for help.

“How can the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color? ‘Cause of predators. Used to be, monkeys we were, right? And in the woods, in the jungle, everything’s green. So in order to not get eaten by panthers and bears and the like, we had to be able to see them, you know, in the grass, and trees and such. Predators”

~ Fargo 1×4: Eating the blame

In a way, of course, they were. All those gut feelings, right or wrong, that had kept the breed alive in the Pleistocene savannah—and they were wrong, so much of the time. False negatives, false  positives, the moral algebra of fat men pushed in front of onrushing trolleys. The strident emotional belief that children made you happy, even when all the data pointed to misery. The high-amplitude fear of sharks and dark-skinned snipers who would never kill you; indifference to all the toxins and pesticides that could. The mind was so rotten with misrepresentation that in some cases it literally had to be damaged before it could make a truly rational decision—and should some brain-lesioned mother abandon her baby in a burning house in order to save two strangers from the same fire, the rest of the world would be more likely to call her a monster than laud the rationality of her lifeboat ethics. Hell, rationality itself—the exalted Human ability to reason—hadn’t evolved in the pursuit of truth but simply to win arguments, to gain control: to bend others, by means logical or sophistic, to your will.

Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart.

Fossil feelings. Better off without them, once you’d outgrown the savannah and decided that Truth mattered after all. But Humanity wasn’t defined by arms and legs and upright posture. Humanity had evolved at the synapse as well as at the opposable thumb—and those misleading gut feelings were the very groundwork on which the whole damn clade had been built. Capuchins felt empathy. Chimps had an innate sense of fair play. You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions.

The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth, and replaced it with—something else. They might look human. Their cellular metabolism might lie dead on the Kleiber curve. But to merely call them a cognitive subspecies was denial to the point of delusion. The wiring in those skulls wasn’t even mammalian anymore. A look into those sparkling eyes would show you nothing but—

~ Echopraxia by Peter Watts