Megafauna: Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America

Megafauna: Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America

Megafauna: Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America

Megafauna: Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America

Synopsis

More than 10,000 years ago spectacularly large mammals roamed the pampas and jungles of South America. This book tells the story of these great beasts during and just after the Pleistocene, the geological epoch marked by the great ice ages. Megafauna describes the history and way of life of these animals, their comings and goings, and what befell them at the beginning of the modern era and the arrival of humans. It places these giants within the context of the other mammals then alive, describing their paleobiology--how they walked; how much they weighed; their diets, behavior, biomechanics; and the interactions among them and with their environment. It also tells the stories of the scientists who contributed to our discovery and knowledge of these transcendent creatures and the environment they inhabited. The episode known as the Great American Biotic Interchange, perhaps the most important of all natural history "experiments," is also an important theme of the book, tracing the biotic events of both North and South America that led to the fauna and the ecosystems discussed in this book.

Excerpt

The first reports, during the late 1700s and early 1800s, of the fossil remains of South America’s magnificent Pleistocene beasts, so fantastically bizarre, immediately caused a stir among the general public and, in particular, the European scientific community. the first notices of their discovery described them as monsters, firing the imagination and interest of several eminent scientists and politicians, and leading some of them to believe that these great beasts still wandered among the unknown (for Europeans, at any rate) reaches of the New World. the fossils helped usher in a new episode among the fledgling nations of both South and North America, striving then for recognition and validation in the eyes of the established European powers: finally they had something of their own that rivaled the great treasures of the Old World. Eventually, the fossils contributed significantly to the establishment of new scientific institutions and traditions as the New World countries took hold of their destinies and exploration of their territories.

The fossil mammals of both North and South America began to reveal an unimagined chapter in the history of mammals, based as it then was mainly on knowledge unearthed from European deposits, but it was those from South America that were most strikingly different and garnered much of the early attention. Perhaps because of this distinctness, largely as a result of the long, past isolation of South America from other continental landmasses, they played crucial roles in the development of modern biological thought. We may note as examples of their scientific achievements that a South American fossil mammal (Megatherium Americanum, a giant fossil sloth) was the first fossil to be formally described and named scientifically, and its skeleton was the first to be mounted in a lifelike pose. the sharp mind of Georges Cuvier, the great French comparative anatomist, forged the concept of extinction (in the modern sense of this word) based on this fossil sloth (as well as on North and South American remains of fossil elephant relatives). Perhaps most significantly, it was the giant sloths, the giant armadillo-like glyptodonts, and the majestic and ponderous toxodonts (among other South American fossil remains) that struck most fervently upon the fertile mind of the young Charles Darwin, both during and after his famous voyage aboard the hms Beagle, as he worked out his ideas on evolutionary theory.

Despite the relative isolation of the new South American countries, these ideas greatly affected scientists and intellectuals on both sides of the Río de la Plata, several of whom (such as the Ameghinos) took on the void created by Darwin’s return to England and restarted the study of the South American fossil mammals with renewed enthusiasm. Such was . . .

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