Thursday, October 17, 2013

Here's something I made before I started blogging: Top Ten Megafauna That Made Prehistoric Australia Even Scarier

Ah, Australia. It's a running gag for biologists that it's one of the scariest countries. Sure, the climate doesn't sound that bad, the native peoples didn't have the complex military societies that us Yanks had to deal with during our own hostile takeover, there's never been a civil war, and while there's a lot of ethnic groups (and accompanying oppression), there's not enough guns to make it as dangerous as the average US city. I do plan on going there, and it looks a lot nicer than, say, Israel or India (other places on my list, but I'll get to them later)

Then you get to the wildlife. Funnel web and red back spiders, blanket and blue ringed octopus, Tiger cats (basically possums with Napoleon complexes), fearless wild dogs,  poisonous jellies (the most poisonous animals on the planet according to some sources), salties (For our Floridan friends, picture a 20-foot all-terrain gator),  perenties (big lizards with nasty teeth), brown, tiger, and taipan snakes, and, of course, our aquatic friends the stonefish, lionfish, and Great White. Even the cuddly ones like Koalas, Wombats, and Kangaroos have bad attitudes and sharp teeth and claws.

Douglas Adams once said "(Australian wildlife) can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep."

The good thing is that most people (being sane) live in the South and East. You'd have to go to a Brisbane suburb or intentionally go into the bush to run into something scarier than a drunken senior citizen.

When people first settled Australia, however, they had to live in the bush. And deal with animals that make great white sharks look cuddly.

So I give you the ten megafauna that made Australia even scarier

10. The Short-faced Kangaroo (Procoptodon goliah
I can hear you now. "It's an ugly kangaroo! How scary could that be?!"
Let's look at the stats-200+ kg (500 lbs). 2 meters (almost 7 feet). I think a bear would respect that kind of size. Procoptodon is basically the gorilla to a red kangaroo's human in terms of weight and muscle.
Next, kangaroos eat anything. They make goats look fussy. While a short-faced kangaroo would be pickier since it ate more leaf matter (based on the physiology), I can't imagine it turning up your bag lunch (and possibly the bag, too).
Still think it's harmless? It has two very long middle fingers, each with a curved claw. While this was meant to give it additional reach when grabbing limbs and extra visibility when making obscene gestures on crowded days, it's also the marsupial equivalent of a bolo knife. Extant kangaroos have pretty vicious claws themselves (, and can easily rip open whatever they want. It's their main weapon when males fight over mating rights, and people have been scarred by hormonal kangaroos.
The worst part is the foot claws. Again, here is an illustration of a kangaroo's pedicure- In 1936, a hunter was killed by those things in an attempt to save his hunting dogs from a trapped roo. Now, picture that, only a bit stouter. Basically, it's a heavyweight kangaroo, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

9. Rhinoceros Wombat (Diprotodon optatum )
It was the biggest marsupial ever, weighing in at three tons and ten feet long. It was so freaky that it became the body double for the mythical Aussie monster the Bunyip. And yet, most people would consider it kind of stupid-looking and looking as if size was the only protection it had. Those people don't really think things through.
Its closest living cousin is the wombat, a goofy little chubbster that sounds even more innocuous.
I let the text and images speak for themselves.
They're cute and gentle and cuddly most of the time, but they destroy houses with their burrows, kill dogs WITH THEIR BUTTS (dog follows Wombat down burrow, wombat squishes skull between burrow wall and an armored backside made of cartilage), and they have been reported to ram into people and scratch them up.
Now, picture that supersized. Ramming gets worse when you put a rhino's bulk behind it. Scratching gets worse with feet with giant claws (, and biting, well.... Combine that with the environmental equivalents (rhinos and hippos), and, well.... Pleistocene Australia, WOMBATS run over YOU!

8. Marsupial Tapir (Palorchestes azeal)
Yes, that really existed.
8 feet, 1,000 lbs. Yes, not only was it weird, but it could also tip over a cow.
Good thing that, like the previous critters, it was a herbivore. Bad thing is that it needed giant claws to do so. Despite the name and the trunk, the skeleton suggests it was the Aussie equivalent of one a giant sloth. In a later note, I'll explain exactly how freakish those things were. Basically, picture what I said about a diprotodon, only with bigger nails to rip you open, and a trunk.
I guess according to an Intelligent Design proponent, God just gets drunk from time to time.
The trunk also makes it resemble a baku or its Pokemon form

7. Thylacine aka Tasmanian Tiger (Thylancinus cynocephalus).
Yes, it's Tasmanian. Yes, it was in a zoo. It's still Megafauna. It lived on the mainland until humans and dogs finally wiped it out a few thousand years back.
Not so much mega, though. It was only about the size of a Boxer (the dog), and relied on pack hunting like dogs
Unlike dogs, however, they were hypercarnivores, with a 120 degree jaw gape (yes, seriously. Check out the footage),  a stronger bite, nocturnal (probably the #1 reason to huddle as close to a campfire as possible), and loved sheep so much it was exterminated from Tasmania for it.  Sadly, there was no mutton fast-food franchise to make it their mascot.
The Tasmanian Devil is famous for being ferocious, terrifying, and voracious. The Thylacine was like that, only bigger. It's the least dangerous in terms of damage it can do of all the animals in the list, but hypercarnivory makes it nasty enough to top the herbivores.

6. Queensland Tiger (Thylacoleo carnifex)
The top mammal predator. Made Tasmanian devils look like French Bulldogs. It's not a cat, but a marsupial that adopted the same adaptations (the second family to do so, actually). Not that big, about 300 lbs and 5 feet long, but certainly a powerful predator. Its canines were rather small, but what made it so terrifying were the incisors-long, pointed, and sharpened to a razor's edge. They were combined with muscled jaws that could exert 2000 N pressure. Probably predated on kangaroos and were by far the most common land predator on the continent.

5. Megatooth shark (Carcharocles megalodon)
We all know this one. Great whites scare people in Australia today, and they're only dangerous if they wonder what you taste like. This guy? Hunted whales. Humans would be bite-sized appetizers. Technically, it might not be the same species as Carcharodon, or even the same family. The Jury is still out, as specimens are rare. Yes, the most depicted prehistoric shark of all time is mostly known from teeth. That's it.
I know I'm cheating since they lived in all the world's oceans, but considering that it has a scary modern Aussie counterpart, I think it still counts.

4. Mihirung (Genyornis newtoni)
Giant terrestrial bird. Unrelated to the emu, but is referred to a miihirung (Tjapwuring word) for giant emu. It's actually an anseriform, which contains ducks and other waterfowl. While not the largest of the family (the honor goes to Dromornis stirtoni, the demon-duck of doom), it was still about two meters tall and 200 kg.  The main controversy is on the diet. They certainly ate some plants based on the chemical composition of their eggs and gastroliths, but they could have easily been carnivorous or omnivorous.  The surviving counterpart is the omnivorous emu, which may give clues to the diet and behavior of the mihirung. However, that's just more reasons to be afraid of it, since emus are voracious and can be very dangerous when aggravated.Make it twice the size and we're dealing with a real hell-raiser

3. Wonambi (Wonambi naracoortensis)
Today, the big snakes in Australia are the Morelia genus of python. While not particularly dangerous to people, they make short work out of most small mammals. Scrub pythons can grow up to five meters long, and are the top snakes in the bush. Wonambi was somewhat bigger, about six or seven meters. Like scrub pythons today, it was an ambush predator specializing in consuming mammals like kangaroos and killed then by anchoring itself with wickedly curved teeth and wrapping strangling coils around the prey's body to asphyxiate them.  While the least different of the animals on the list to its modern counterpart, those extra meters gave it a bit more menace to anything smaller. Besides, who isn't intimidated by snakes? Honorable mention: Liasis dubudingala, a giant pliocene water python that was even bigger.

2. Rock crocodile (Quinkana fortirostrum)

Compared to the likes of Thylacoleo, Megalania, let alone Megalodon, this one is more of the more obscure megafauna. I wasn't even able to find a picture of a fossil of it. Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves.First, there's the size- about the size of a Nile Croc or a Saltwater crocodile or about 5 to 7 meters. Salties are kings of Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, capable of dragging off cattle and horses. They've taken people, killing about as many people in Australia as shark attacks are in Florida.  Being a croc, they were endowed with armor plating, long muscular tails, powerful jaws, and acute senses. However, what puts the Rock Crocodile on the list is that it was specialized for eating large land animals. The legs are longer to enable more efficient terrestrial movement-Salties have been recorded as galloping at about 10 miles per hour, so  Quinkana would be faster. The other adaptation are the teeth: the teeth are called xipidont in morphology-sword shaped. This is shared with other terrestrial crocs in prehistory and the broad serrated edges are ideal for slicing through flesh rather than the smooth generalist piercing teeth of modern crocodiles. It would have shared Queensland with the salties, but it would have forsaken the fish and aquatic reptiles for big mammals
Put it all together and we have a critter that even Steve Irwin would have ran away from.

1. Megalania (Varanus priscus)

The most notorious lizard in the world is still the rare giant Komodo Dragon. It's an intimidating animal-huge, stealthy, and possessing a flesh-rending AND venomous set of jaws. They're the top predator of the island and have shown no fear towards adding humans to the diet. Environmental destruction has kept the Komodo, like the Saltwater croc, rare, but still kings.  In Australia, lace goannas and perenties are big and capable of eating any sort of prey, but are also shy and surprisingly swift on foot. Megalania was more like the komodo, albeit many times as big. At 7 meters long, they would have been the biggest venomous vertebrate ever. Their fossils are rare compared to the marsupial predators, but they would have eaten the marsupial lions for lunch.  It provides the alternate explanation for the aboriginal bunyip. We've seen equivalents of present day Tasmanian devils, dwarf crocodiles, great white sharks, pythons, wombats kangaroos and...Drowzee, but making a  giant version of a Komodo dragon is right out of a cheap Syfy movie....or a herpetologists nightmare


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