Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures) wrote,
Marcus L. Rowland
ffutures

Monsters of Other Days



Here's another of the articles that'll be on the next Forgotten Futures CD-ROM. As usual I'd greatly appreciate comments on spelling and punctuation errors etc. Images have been reduced in size to minimise download time; on the CD the pictures will link to scans that are double the size.



From The London Magazine, March 1904




Monsters of Other Days.


By W. J. WINTLE, F.Z.S.




THE genius of a well-known artist delighted the public a few years back with a series of clever drawings entitled "Prehistoric Peeps," in which the life and doings of the men of the Stone Age were treated with a humour as rare as it was welcome.

Those "peeps," it need hardly be said, were purely imaginary in character; in the present article we introduce our readers to some real ones. Strange as it may appear, our knowledge of life in the days when the world was young, though necessarily incomplete, is by no means inadequate.

Old ocean and river beds, now in many, cases elevated far above the sea level, are the museums where Dame Nature stores her relics. Weird creatures, swept away by floods, sank beneath the waters and were speedily buried in the mud, which hardened around their forms and in process of ages became converted into solid stone, in which we now find their casts. In the majority of cases, decomposition reduced the body to a skeleton before the process began, and only the bones remain to tell us about their owner. But in other instances even the delicate outlines of such frail creatures as insects and jelly-fish are still found impressed in the solid rock. Thus, though they lived their little span and perished ages before man appeared on the earth, they have literally left "footprints on the sands of time," which anyone may see for himself who visits the geological galleries of our great museums.

Of some of the earth's early inhabitants we have even more exact knowledge. For instance, the mammoth has been extinct for many hundreds of years, but complete specimens have been found preserved in the vast glaciers of Northern Siberia ; and when at last thawed out by the sun, have been seen and minutely examined. Only quite recently portions of the skin of a huge extinct monster which once roamed the plains of South America, have been discovered in a remarkable state of preservation. Even in the vast bed of blue clay which lies beneath the metropolis, we find the remains of the crocodiles that once swarmed in the Thames, when our climate was very different from that which now prevails.

The early traditions of the human race are full of curious stories of fearsome creatures which are now looked upon by most people as purely fabulous in character. Among these the dragon stands pre-eminent. Its defeat by our patron saint, St. George, is still pictured on our gold coins and silver crowns; while the ancient mythologies supply us with thrilling details of the poisonous fangs, and scaly armour, the pointed tail, the bat-like wings, and the fire-breathing propensities of this primeval foe of the human race.

Of course much of this is fabulous and absurd; but still it rests upon a solid basis of fact. There was more truth in dragons than is generally supposed. The earth was once inhabited by reptiles so enormous in size and uncouth in their proportions as to present many points of resemblance to the mythical creatures of ancient legend. Some people have even supposed that a few of these reptiles lingered on into the human period, and thus gave rise to the tales about dragons. This position, however, is quite untenable, for these huge creatures existed in the dim geological ages thousands upon thousands of years before man had taken his place in the long chain of evolution.

What would our feelings be at the present day if, when taking a quiet stroll on the margin of a large lake or river, we were suddenly confronted by a lizard sixty feet in length and bulky in proportion, probably weighing more than twenty tons? Such, however, were the dimensions of the Brontosaurus, one of the giants formerly living in what we now know as North America. Its hind limbs were elephantine in proportion, but the fore legs were much smaller; and the long, slender neck, which occupied about a quarter of the total length of the creature, terminated in a snake-like head, which was absurdly small when compared with the body. Its footprint was a square yard in extent! It apparently lived in marshes and swampy places, where it fed upon the aquatic plants. The extremely small size of the brain and the slenderness of the spinal cord suggest that it was a somewhat stupid creature, and that its movements were slow. As no traces of spines or bony plates have been found with its remains, it would appear to have been entirely without defensive armour, and was probably a timid and retiring creature.

Its vast proportions, however, were exceeded by those of the Atlantosaurus, which attained a length of over eighty feet; and as it probably walked upon its hind legs, its head would have been at least thirty feet above the ground. The thigh bone of this creature, a cast of which may be seen in the British Museum of Natural History, is six feet two inches long, and is thus taller than the average man. Its remains were found in Colorado, where numerous other examples of the same family have been unearthed, many of them attaining a length of forty to fifty feet.

At least one member of this family, the Cetiosaurus, inhabited our own country, and remains of it have been discovered in some six different counties. Its head has not yet been found, but the trunk and tail measure about thirty-five feet. Probably, therefore, the complete reptile was at least forty feet long. One of its thigh bones measured four feet three inches, and a huge arm bone was found at Weymouth nearly five feet long.

A much more formidable inhabitant of Great Britain in those far-gone days was the Megalosaurus, which was nearly thirty feet long and apparently very active in its movements. Its teeth show plainly that it was a flesh-eating creature, and its feet were armed with formidable claws. It evidently walked usually on its hind legs, when it somewhat resembled a kangaroo in general appearance.

"It is not very difficult," says the Rev. H. N. Hutchinson, a well-known writer on the subject, "to imagine a Megalosaurus lying in wait for his prey (perhaps a slender, harmless little mammal of the anteater type), with his hind limbs bent under his body so as to bring the heels to the ground, and then with one terrific bound from those long legs, springing on to the prey and holding the mammal tight in its clawed fore limbs as a cat might hold a mouse. Then the sabre-like teeth would be brought into action by the powerful jaws, and soon the flesh and bones of the victim would be gone!"

A still more awful-looking creature, though apparently a harmless one, was the Stegosaurus, which was about twenty-five feet long, fragments of the remains of which were found some years ago in a brickfield at Swindon. It was a lizard-like creature, bearing a series of huge bony plates from two to three feet in diameter, with sharp spines, some of which were over two feet long. Its hind limbs were longer than an average man, though the fore legs were much shorter, and the body appears to have been so much arched that when the reptile walked its head and tail were close to the ground, while the central plates upon the back stood more than fifteen feet high. Its teeth were small and weak, and it evidently fed upon soft plants.

One of the most curious features in the Stegosaurus was an enlargement of the spinal cord towards the commencement of the tail, so as to form a kind of second brain, which apparently governed the movements of the huge hind limbs and tail.

We can only mention one more example of this strange family of creatures—the Triceratops, which was perhaps the most fearsome in appearance of them all. As its name suggests, it bore three horns on its huge skull, which was some seven or eight feet long, the whole reptile being from twenty-five to thirty feet in length. Two of the horns branched out from the forehead somewhat like those of an ox, while the third, which was much shorter, was borne upon the snout, like that of a rhinoceros, which animal this reptile somewhat resembled in general appearance. It was probably not a very intelligent creature, for its brain was smaller in proportion to its skull than that of any known vertebrate, or backboned, animal. The back part of the skull rose up to form a kind of crest, strengthened by a fringe of solid plates; while the skin bore numerous spines and small bony plates. It was therefore well protected, and was probably capable of fighting fiercely, though it was clearly a strict vegetarian in its diet.

There were flying dragons also in those days, some of them having a spread ; of wing twenty-five feet wide, while others were no bigger than a sparrow. It must, however, be pointed out that these wings in no way, resembled those of a bird, but were membranous structures more or less akin to those with which we are now familiar in the bat family. These creatures had four fingers on their fore feet, three of them of normal length and armed with claws; but the fourth was enormously prolonged in order to support the outer margin of the wing. In general appearance these flying dragons had numerous points of resemblance both to birds and to bats; but the structure of their bones proves clearly that they were reptilian in character.

The Pterodactyls, as they are now called, were evidently very plentiful; and while the smaller kinds seem to have fed on insects, the larger ones, armed with powerful teeth, probably preyed upon small animals; but certain species seem to have swum on the surface of the sea and levied toll upon the fishes.

Coming now to the age of mammals, we find that many of the early quadrupeds were gigantic in size and extraordinary in form. One of the most remarkable of these was the Tinoceras, which was about twelve feet long, without reckoning the tail. Its weight is calculated to have been about three tons. In general appearance it must Wave resembled an elephant with the head of a rhinoceros; but its skull was adorned with six great bony prominences resembling the so-called horns of the giraffe. The canine teeth in the upper jaw were developed into two long sabre-like tusks, somewhat resembling those of the walrus, but flattened in section instead of being round. In what way these could have been of any use to their possessor is not at all clear, as the animal apparently fed upon grass and other succulent vegetation. It seems to have lived in herds, pretty much like cattle at the present day.

Another monster was the Brontops, which flourished in vast numbers round a great lake which existed in North America in the Miocene period. It was some twelve feet long without the tail, and eight feet high at the shoulders, while in general appearance it closely resembled a two-horned rhinoceros with the exception that the horns were placed side by side instead of one in front of the other. Its head was a yard in length, and the tips of the two horns were about twenty inches apart. It seems to have been provided with an elongated flexible nose resembling that of the tapir.

The recent discovery of the okapi in the Semliki forest of Central Africa, has aroused interest in a group of extinct monsters to which it is evidently allied, and from which it has probably descended. Of these, one of the most notable is the Sivatherium, the remains of which have been found in Northern India. In general appearance it somewhat resembled an antelope; but was larger than any rhinoceros, and possessed a head of truly gigantic proportions. It had four horns, two short ones immediately above the eyes and a pair .of large flattened ones behind them. Its jaw was larger than that of any known ruminant, being twice the size of that of a buffalo, and the upper lip was prolonged into a short proboscis or trunk. In many respects it seems to have been a link between the families of the giraffe and the antelope.

South America, in the days of old, possessed a gigantic creature in the shape of the ground sloth, or Megatherium, a cast of the skeleton of which may be seen in the British Museum of Natural History, in the act of grasping the trunk of a tree. Our illustration, in which a man may be seen standing, for comparison, beside the figure, will give a good idea of its enormous proportions. The creature was about eighteen feet in length, and many of its bones were much more massive than those of the elephant, the thigh bone being nearly three times as thick. The limbs were of tremendous strength, and the feet were armed with powerful claws. As in the case of the ant-eater it apparently walked with its toes doubled in.

One of the most remarkable facts about these gigantic creatures was the way in which they obtained their food. In the words of Darwin: "Their teeth indicate by their simple structure that these animals lived on vegetable food, and probably on the leaves and small twigs of trees; their ponderous forms and great strong curved claws seem so little adapted for locomotion that some eminent naturalists believe that, like sloths, to which they are intimately related, they subsisted by climbing, back downwards, on trees, and feeding on the leaves. It was a bold, not to say preposterous, idea to conceive even antediluvian trees with branches strong enough to bear animals as large as elephants. Professor Owen, with far more probability, believes that, instead of climbing on trees, they pulled the branches down to them, and tore up the smaller ones by the roots, and so fed on the leaves. The colossal breadth and weight of their hinder quarters, which can hardly be imagined without being seen, become, on this view, of obvious service instead of being an encumbrance; their apparent clumsiness disappears. With their great tails and huge heels firmly fixed like a tripod in the ground, they could freely exert the full force of their most powerful arms and great claws."

In the same region with the ground sloth lived a gigantic armadillo, which was between eight and nine feet long. It had an enormous plate of armour which covered the whole of its body, so that it looked almost like a huge tortoise. It therefore could not, like the present day armadillo, roll itself up into a ball. The living descendants of these creatures are only a few inches in length.

It only remains to say something about the giant birds of bygone days, which seem to have flourished mainly in what we now know as New Zealand and Madagascar. Of these the most remarkable seems to have been the Dinornis, or Moa, of which about fifteen species are known. Some of these birds attained a height of nearly fourteen feet, and more or less closely resembled the ostrich in general appearance. From the traditions of the Maoris, the native races of New Zealand, the Moa birds appear to have lingered on till the beginning of the eighteenth century, and their bones and broken fragments of the shells of their eggs are constantly found.

In Madagascar lived another huge bird now known as the Æpyornis, the egg of which was nearly fourteen inches in diameter, and had a cubic capacity of over two gallons. It was equal to about 148 hens' eggs or three ostrichs' eggs. Unfortunately only fragmentary remains of the bones of this bird have been found, so that it is impossible to say exactly how large it was. The size of the egg, however, would suggest that it was probably quite as large as the Moa.

Great Britain once possessed, at least, two huge wingless birds—the Dasornis, remains of which have been found in the London clay, and the Gastornis, the bones of which were discovered in the neighbourhood of Croydon.

On the whole we have reason to congratulate ourselves that the gigantic creatures described in this article have long been things of the past. They would, unquestionably, have proved very inconvenient—if not positively dangerous—neighbours for the human race. A considerable proportion of them, it is true, were vegetarians, and their movements were probably slow and clumsy, but none the less their huge bulk and enormous strength would have made them extremely formidable foes for primeval man.

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