Tuesday, November 24, 2009

7 Extinct Wonders of the Animal Kingdom

Giant Sea Scorpion: Big Bad Bug

400 million years ago, the ancestors of today’s scorpions and spiders were the undisputed kings of their watery environment. Growing up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) long, the Eurypterids were mean, mad and VERY hungry – and they packed a pair of viciously serrated claws to back it up. We may have to extend our thanksto the Eurypterids… our very distant amphibian forbears may have finally made the leap to living on land partly in response to predation by these relentless killing machines.

What if the Eurypterids had survived to the modern day? The above photoshopped image by Takeshi Yamada purports to display just such a creature – at just 15-inches long it STILL looks exceptionally freaky. Shocked

Ammonites: A Face Only Lovecraft Could Love

Cross a squid, a snail, Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg and Great Cthulhu for good measure and you get something approximately like an Ammonite – and one heck of a mess to clean up. These extremely successful relatives of octopi, squids and the chambered nautilus had an exceptionally long tenure as lifeforms go, first appearing about 440 million years ago and vanishing along with the dinosaurs 370 million years later.

Active carnivores and a major food source for ocean-dwelling Mosasaurs and Icthyosaurs, Ammonites are quite numerous as fossils and some of their shells are surprisingly large. Sometimes the mother-of-pearl lining of Ammonite shells fossilizes into “ammolite”, which is used to make distinctly colored jewelry.

Dimetrodon: Sail On Sailor

Not only is there a sale at Penney’s, there’s a sail on Dimetrodon – get ‘em while they’re hot! Unfortunately Dimetrodon hasn’t been remotely warm for at least 275million years , give or take a few million. So tell me, is Dimetrodon the weirdest dinosaur, yes or no? The answer is… there IS no answer. It’s a trick question – Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur. Living in the Permian period 50-oddmillion years before the Mesozoic Era even began, Dimetrodon was a synapsid, or mammal-like reptile. He and his kin were the world’s best and brightest until a massive extinction event known colloquially as The Great Dying wiped out 70 percent of the planet’s land-based vertebrate species.

Oh, that sail? Dimetrodon employed it as an early and somewhat ungainly method of regulating its body temperature. Other mammal-like reptiles and even a few later dinosaurs used the sail method but Dimetrodon remains its fiercest proponent. Literally.

Raptorex: Prehistoric Pitbull

Say you’re the prehistoric version of an urban gangsta and you want an intimidating pet to put the fear of Thog into the ‘hood: you need a Raptorex kriegsteini, in other words, a mini T. Rex. Raptorex roamed what is now northern China 125million years ago, and you can bet there weren’t any leash laws to hold it back.

Nine feet long from tooth to tail, this Mini Me of Master T weighed about 150 lbs (70 kg) but a lightweight it wasn’t – according to discoverer Paul Sereno (above), “What we’re looking at is a blueprint for a fast-running set of jaws.” Nice doggie, good boy.

Terror Bird: The Ostrich From Hell

Anyone who thought the asteroid that ended the Age of Dinosaurs ushered in a lasting era of peace and quiet didn’t figure on the Terror Birds. Aptly named and fiendishly beaked, the members of the Phorusrhacid family resembled their dinosaur predecessors in body plan, feeding habits and bad attitude. The last Terror Birds died out a mere 2million years ago, just before modern humans stepped onto the stage – an excellent bit of good timing if there ever was!

They say everything’s bigger in Texas… that goes for prehistoric meat-eating birds like 7-foot tall Titanis Walleri (skull shown above), who made life miserable for smaller creatures from Texas through Florida roughly 5million years ago. “Polly want a cracker” indeed.

So hungry you could eat a horse? Huh

Megalodon: The Greatest White Shark

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”… like, maybe an aircraft carrier, if you’ve got Megalodon in your sights. This 60-foot (18 meter) long extinct shark makes today’s Great White look rather piddling. Megalodon cruised the oceans from 18 million to 1.5million years ago. What did such a monstrous shark eat? Anything it wanted!

Being the largest carnivorous fish ever to swim the seas, Megalodon economized by selecting very large prey, like whales. This begs the question: whales never died out, so why did Megalodon? It may be that warm-blooded whales avoided Megalodon predation by frequenting cold polar waters that were inhospitable to a shark’s cold-blooded metabolism. Better to be chilly than chili, I always say.

History’s freak show has played out for the better part of a billion years and we can be sure Mother Nature still has a few tricks up her sleeve. Even so, we can all be thankful some of the most bizarre and frightening creatures to have evolved on Earth survive only as bits of fossilized bone. Whew! Wink


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