Of Whales and Terror Birds, Ammonites and Penguins
Patagonia, two to three million years ago. Imagine a vast, wide open landscape, grass as far as the eye can see. The sky wraps around you and envelops you in its bright blue folds. Wisps of clouds race towards the horizon. Everything is quiet, peaceful, serene. The grasses whisper and the wind sighs. Then you notice the ground trembling and you hear the rhythmic slap of feet against the earth. You turn your head, and before you can think “What the bloody h......!?!” a beak the size of a suitcase straddles your head and a foetid, carrion smell wafts up your nostrils. Before a surge of adrenaline can make your heart race and your blood pound in your ears, the beak slams shut and your head is squashed like a melon. Your blood drips from the tip of the ferocious beak and you are now lunch. You have just had your first, and last, encounter with a terror bird.
Wouldn’t you just love to be able to travel back in time and observe some of the past’s most magnificent animals? OK, so I can understand that some kind of protection might be required, since I am sure that most of us do not want our heads ruptured by some huge bird or any other ferocious predator that was roaming the planet three million years ago. Perhaps some kind of large, transparent ball, a bit like the kind I used to have so that my hamster could roam the wild and dangerous terrain of my family room when I was a child. Can you imagine coming face-to face with a sabre-toothed cat, its massive, muscular body stalking your bubble, pawing at its fragile surface, all 20cms of his canines captivating all of your attention. I wonder if that was how my hamster felt when my cat, Alice, used to stalk him when he was in his plastic ball? Then there were the terror birds, all ten feet of them, with their huge heads and their colossal beaks. These birds were the terrifying apex predators of the Argentine grasslands, the most fearsome carnivores of their time. They could run faster than a greyhound and if they caught the greyhound, they could have swallowed it whole (not that there were greyhounds around back then, but you get my drift).
But not all of the giants were so ferocious or so dangerous. Take the giant sloth for example. This lovable giant was the size of an elephant and could stand 20ft tall. Unlike the sloths of today, it was a ground dweller – no surprise there, since there were few trees to live up and any tree that this sloth might have tried to climb would have just collapsed under its enormous weight. It spent its time munching grasses and other vegetation and lazing around digesting and watching the world go by. Unlike other herbivores of the time, it didn’t need to worry about the prowling predators, since none of them were stupid enough to take on such a massive opponent. Since the predators needed their meat, the poor old toxodons tended to get it in the neck (quite literally, where the sabre-tooth cat was concerned). These herbivorous herders, looking like a cross between a squat rhinoceros and a hippo, were not exactly small, but they were abundant and a handy supply of protein to the carnivores of the grasslands.
My trip to the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Argentina, was completed when I laid eyes on the biggest ammonite that I have ever seen. These extinct molluscan relatives of the octopus, squid and cuttlefish lived in the sea as far back as 400 million years ago and were once one of the most abundant predators of the ocean. Ever since my undergraduate days and my one and only palaeontology course, I have always wanted an ammonite. So, when I saw this one, all I could think of was whether I would be able to smuggle it out of the museum without anyone noticing. Perhaps I could get my husband to create some kind of diversion. Perhaps if he tried to make off with the foreleg of the Titanosaurus, the rest of the skeleton would collapse and everyone would be either chasing my husband or recovering reptile bones. Meanwhile, I could slip quietly out the back with my prize ammonite. Of course, there was one (OK, so perhaps more than one) problem with this plan. The ammonite in question is huge. It is one of the largest specimens in the world and it weighs as much as the moon (oh dear, I am starting to sound like Jeremy Clarkson. I think that I might have been watching too much Top Gear). Still, it would make a great ornament for the mantelpiece, wouldn’t it?
Time to get back to the present, I think. After the splendours of Iguaçu Falls, we headed south, into Argentina and down to Buenos Aires. We only had a couple of days in this vibrant and exciting capital city, but that gave us enough time to enjoy the view from our balcony, which was quite good, so long as you only looked east. If you looked west, you were confronted with a huge Burger King sign. Well, you get what you pay for and since we paid a half decent amount, we got a half decent view. We certainly ate well in this meat lover’s utopia and no, we did not go to the Burger King. Instead, we headed for an Argentine asado and feasted on the flesh of many a sacrificial lamb, pig, cow and chicken. Vegetarianism does not go down well here, I fear.
Continuing on our southward journey, now would be good time to tell you of our harrowing twenty hour bus trip from Buenos Aires to the Valdes Peninsula, half way down the coast of Argentina. Unfortunately, I will not be able to delight you with the death defying antics of our bus driver or the near fatal misses as he played chicken with on-coming traffic. There are no tales of mechanical mayhem or anatomical anarchy due to rough, tortuous roads or a complete lack of suspension. Nope, the roads were straight and smooth, the bus had seats that reclined completely, and we were even served food and drinks. The only real danger on the trip was possibly death by boredom. After freeing ourselves from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, all we ever got to see was grass or sometimes grass and cows. The last thing I saw before nightfall was grass. The first thing I saw at daybreak was grass. Flat, featureless grass. No terror birds racing across the horizontal expanse, gulping down dog-sized prey, no abnormally large sloths, no toothy cats, just grass. The only real mishap was a late night trip to the toilet and the slow motion loss of my headlight down the loo. I can still recall the light bouncing round the rim of the toilet, my anguished cry of “Nooooooooooooooo” as I reached down into that vile, stinking black hole to try to save my treasured lamp. I was too slow, and the light was extinguished from my life forever. I was tempted to go and get Joe to see if he was brave enough to fish it out, but no, I knew that I had to let it go. The memory is still painful, but I have learnt to live with it. I wonder if the next person to use the toilet was in anyway disturbed by the eerie glow emanating from the pan?
An astute reader will have, by now, realised that I was not particularly taken with the Patagonian grasslands. So, what is the draw of the Valdes Peninsula? This UNESCO World Heritage site extends out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is wild and windswept and appears to be a barren, lifeless land. But get to the coast and out onto the waters and you will be amazed at the abundant life that can be found. The waters may have been a bit choppy, and I may have nearly lost my trusty Nikon to a very large wave, but it was worth it to watch the leaping and breaching, tail flapping and fin slapping antics of the southern right whales. Does anyone know why they are called right whales? Let’s imagine a conversation on board a whaling boat back in the late 18th century:
“Thar she blows!”
“What whale is she?”
“The right kind”
Whooosh ........ thwap ............ the harpoon buries its ugly head into the flank of the poor, defenceless whale, who is silently screaming “no, no, I am the wrong whale!”
So, there you have it. Right whales are so called because they were the right ones to catch. They are slow swimmers, they tend to be found close to the coastline and once shot by the harpoon tend to float, making it easier to tow them back to shore. These poor whales were almost hunted to extinction until the whaling industry failed in the early 20th century – well, there were no more whales to be caught, were there?
The desolate, untamed beaches of the peninsula are the breeding grounds of several animals that rely on the oceans for their fishy diets. First, we came across the elephant seals. I was quite excited about seeing these big, blubbery creatures. After all, I have seen all the nature programs where the immense males fight like giant sumo wrestlers, flecks of saliva flying from their bulbous noses, blood dripping from their huge canines. The reality was somewhat different, since it was not mating season and all the males were out at sea, busy diving to depths of up to 1400m, looking for meals of fish and squid. What I got to see was about as exciting as a can of pork and beans. All they did was lie there, like lumps of lard melting in the sun. Every-so-often, one would snort or sneeze, roll over or flap a bit of sand around with a flipper. Yawning occurred at frequent intervals and there was much excitement when one female had to kind of sit up to have a good scratch. Sounds a bit like me on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps we would get a little more excitement from our second planned stop – one of the largest penguin colonies in the world. We were heading to see the Magellanic penguins, close relatives of the jackass penguins of South Africa. Unfortunately, all the excitement happened on the way to the colony, since it started to rain. Hard to believe, since I was told on numerous occasions that it never rains here. Well, it did. The road turned into a mud pit and half the cars on it sank into the quagmire, never to be seen again. This resulted in the road being closed and me not getting to see the penguins. I was so disappointed. But fear not, a backup plan was hatched and we headed to a different location where we could peruse the perky penguins. It appeared to be one of the world’s smallest penguin colonies, but beggars can’t be choosers and I don’t care whether you see ten penguins or ten thousand, they are always cute and always adorable. Just look at those faces. Don’t you just want to love them and squeeze them and take them home - or is that just me?
Let’s finish with a little teaser to occupy your minds and waste a little of your time. What organism do you think this is a photo of? I will tell you that it is not the new tiling pattern for my bathroom floor and that it comes from an organism that went extinct about 10,000 years ago. To give you an idea of its overall size – think Volkswagen Beetle.