Tag Archives: mammoth

What to call the giant cat from the Ice Age?

The Ice Age of the recent past was a fascinating time, full of superlative animals, especially the mammalian megafauna of North America. The Ice Age, also referred to as the Pleistocene epoch, lasted from 1.9 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, and was characterized by a series of glacial advances and retreats across much of the Northern Hemisphere. It was also a time of animal migrations between continents and of many species being exceptionally large.

Giant ground sloths, the giant short faced bear, saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and mastodons all tromped through what was to later become our backyards. Many people are surprised to learn that North America was also home to a very large cat, larger than the modern lion, given the scientific name Panthera atrox.

This big cat lived mostly across the western half of North America, and ranged into South America as far as Peru. Its remains are plentiful in the tar pits of Rancho La Brea. It is clear that this is a big animal. Estimates of body size suggest a weight of about 1,000 pounds, and that it stood 4 feet at the shoulder. For comparison, the modern African lion weighs in at about 375 pounds. This American cat would have been the second largest mammalian predator, right behind the giant short faced bear. (See How big was the Giant Short-faced bear?)

Panthera atrox

The giant American cat, Panthera atrox

However, understanding how this animal relates to other large cats has been difficult. Scientists have noticed similarities between P. atrox and the modern lion, tiger, and jaguar. For many years, P. atrox was thought to be a subspecies of the lion, and so it has popularly been called the American Lion, and even the American Cave Lion. If it is closely related to the African lion, it suggests that lions migrated out of Asia and into the New World during the Ice Age, expanding as far south as South America, and becoming extinct at the end of the age. Several other species are known to have done this, so that is not so unusual. But is it an accurate story?

In a recent paper on the subject (Christiansen and Harris 2009), researchers have come up with a different idea. They examined the skull and jaws of the big American cat and compared it with lions, tigers, and jaguars. They used a wide range of measurements to create a mathematical model of each species, and compared them to each other. The result? Panthera atrox does not seem to be a lion at all, but rather is closest to the modern jaguar.

Jaguars came into the New World from Asia during the early Pleistocene. It seems then that P. atrox and the modern jaguar species, P. onca, are derived from the early jaguar that came into North America, and that lions never made that long trek across. If these researchers are correct, we should not call this magnificent cat the American Lion.

Jaguar at Edinburgh Zoo

A jaguar, Panthera onca. By Pascal Blachier from Savoie, France.

So, what should we call it? Jaguars are native to the New World, so the word “American” seems a bit redundant in the name. And the simple scale and grandeur of the cat requires some adjective. “Mega Jaguar” seems a bit plain to me. What do you suggest?

Christiansen, P. and Harris, J. M. 2009. Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):934-945.

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Mammoth protein designed to be cool

Researchers were recently able to isolate and study woolly mammoth hemoglobin and compare it to the modern African and Asian elephants. They isolated the genes from DNA that code for the creation of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in our blood. This was done for both the modern elephant species, as well as from DNA from mammoth bone from Siberia. They observed some minor differences between all the species, so the researchers wondered if the difference in the mammoth’s blood might have helped it survive in cold climates.

Hemoglobin supplies our body with oxygen by carrying it around in our blood stream and then releasing it to our tissues. When our tissues need more oxygen, like for muscles that are working hard, hemoglobin more easily releases oxygen because of the higher temperatures created by the heat generated by the muscle. However, in colder temperatures, hemoglobin does not give up oxygen as easily. This is potentially a real problem in colder climates. To keep the hemoglobin to working effectively an animal might need to expend valuable energy to maintain a higher body temperature.

The researchers (Campbell et al. 2010) wondered if the slight differences in woolly mammoth hemoglobin might have been an adaptation for living in colder temperatures. They inserted the Asian elephant genes that make hemoglobin into the common bacteria, Escherichia coli, and allowed the bacteria to act on the genes, thereby making Asian elephant hemoglobin. This process is not new as it is commonly used to have bacteria produce proteins that are identical to human-made proteins, like insulin.

To get the bacteria to make mammoth hemoglobin, they needed to modify the Asian elephant genes the same way they observed, then let the bacteria make the hemoglobin of a mammoth—thousands of years after the mammoths last did it themselves. Researchers could then compare the protein of the two species directly. The result was that mammoth hemoglobin released oxygen much more effectively at lower temperatures.

Woolly mammoths from Alan Turner (2004), National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals.

Woolly mammoths from Alan Turner (2004), National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals.

Woolly mammoths were adapted to colder climates in a number of ways, such as compact bodies, small ears, short tails, and long woolly hair. This result strongly suggests that their bodies were also changed at the molecular level for life in cold, high latitude climates during the Ice Age. It would be very interesting to see if other mammoth species, such as the Columbian mammoth, for example, shared this adaptation. But I suppose that will have to wait until we can get good DNA from that species. All in good time.

Campbell, K. L. et al. 2010. Substitutions in woolly mammoth hemoglobin confer biochemical properties adaptive for cold tolerance. Nature Genetics 42:536-540.

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Mapping the Pratt Mammoth excavation using GPS and basic surveying technology

The discovery of a partial mammoth skeleton in 1999, and its subsequent excavation in 2000, provided an opportunity to implement several innovations in the on-site mapping of the excavation and relating the excavation to real-world coordinate systems. What follows is a basic primer on what we did.

The mammoth specimen was found during the excavation of a waste-water lagoon on property owned by the City of Pratt, Kansas being leased to Pratt Feeders. While digging the lagoon the heavy equipment operator encountered a hard lens of sediment. Upon digging into it, several large bones were found. News of the discovery found its way to a reporter at the Pratt newspaper, who subsequently contacted me, then at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. A small group from the museum traveled to Pratt for an initial investigation of the site. After an afternoon of excavating around the exposed bones it became clear that the site was more extensive and a longer excavation was needed. We planned to return to the site several weeks later.

A four-day excavation was planned with numerous volunteers and we returned to the site in November, 1999. After this exploration it again was clear that a longer period of time was needed to fully investigate the site, as we kept finding more and more fossil bone. We re-covered the site once again, and planned to return in the summer of 2000.

A volunteer excavates around a mammoth vertebra at the Pratt Mammoth site.

A volunteer excavates around a mammoth vertebra at the Pratt Mammoth site.

Because we had time to plan a larger excavation for the summer, and it was clear that there were many bone elements preserved, I wanted to be sure to map the site in detail, both for its paleontological resources, but also for other physical characteristics. So, I arranged to have a surveying total station on hand for the dig. We also lined up numerous volunteers, arranged a university class to be taught using the site as a learning tool, and obtained numerous donations from the generous community of Pratt. The entire community got behind the excitement of the dig, and because the site was easily accessible being at the airport, we hosted numerous visitors.

Establishment of points within the site

During the November, 1999 dig, I had established three control monuments at the site. The monuments were a hub (2 inch x 2 inch stake) and tack (a special surveying nail) driven into the ground away from the areas we were going to be disturbing in our excavations. This insured that we could re-find the control monuments and they would be used to relate all the points of the excavation to each other within the dig area.

Using the control monuments, we established an arbitrarily-oriented meter grid system. I was not concerned with the cardinal orientation of the grid so much as wanting the grid to be useful for in-site control of the dig. One of the principle uses of the grid was to demarcate 2 x 2 meter spaces to assign to volunteers to control their digging efforts. Having the grid on the ground helped to keep their efforts orderly, as they could be assigned to “dig here” and not be on top of each other. The use of the surveying total station allowed for accurate layout of the grid system across the entire site, and allowed for unlimited expansion of the system as needed.
The reason that the grid was redundant for the within-site location of bones is that all bones were located with the total station using standard radial surveying techniques. Every element removed from the site was given a field number, and the location of the element was documented in three-dimensions. Initially, the grid system was assigned assumed x and y coordinates in meters, and an assumed elevation was assigned to the control monuments so that the z dimension could be calculated relative to other points in the site.

The total station is set up over a point and aliened with another control point to get a starting line. The instrument can accurately measure distances by shooting a laser to a reflecting prism and measuring the time it takes to return to the instrument. It also accurately measures horizontal and vertical angles. With the vertical angle and the distance, it can calculate the difference in height (z) between the reflector and the instrument. So, with relatively simple calculations the x, y, and z coordinates of any point within the site can be determined. The instrument is highly accurate (within 1/1000’s of a meter in distance) so within-site accuracy is estimated to be high, likely within a centimeter or two given the reliability of using inexperienced volunteers to help with the surveying.

Teaching a young volunteer to use the total station surveying instrument.

Teaching a young volunteer to use the total station surveying instrument.

Most of the elements removed from the site were located with a minimum of two points. The smallest bone fragments were located with point locations of a single measurement. If they bone had any linearity to it, it was located as two points (end and end) giving both the approximate length of the bone and its linear orientation. Several of the larger bones were located with three or more points.

All of the points located at the site are described as their three dimensional coordinates, and therefore can be plotted for visualization.

Point cloud from the Pratt Mammoth site shown in map view with the meter grid.

Point cloud from the Pratt Mammoth site shown in map view with the meter grid.

View the point cloud in a short animation.

Translation and rotation to real-world coordinate systems

During the excavation we used assumed coordinates and elevations. However, it is desirable to be able to locate the site, and all the points located within the site, in a real-world coordinate system so that it can be related to other localities anywhere in the world. We did not have high-precision global positioning system (GPS) equipment available, although such equipment does exist. However, using the following method we were able to get very effective results using a basic Garmin handheld GPS unit.

The accuracy of the handheld unit varies with availability of satellites, access to the open sky, variations in atmospheric conditions, basic limitations of the unit itself, and other variables. However, it is possible to locate a point on the globe to within approximately 15 feet or so. I used the GPS to record the location of two of my control monuments. I used the coordinates of the GPS reading to calculate the azimuth between the control monuments, and assumed that was the true azimuth. I knew the distance between the monuments based upon my field survey of measuring between them. I assumed the GPS reading on one of the control monuments to be true and “held” its coordinates to that reading. Using the azimuth to the other monument from the GPS reading, and the distance measured in the field, I then calculated the new coordinates for the second control monument.

With the assumption of the coordinates of the first monument, the accurate real-world azimuth, and the measured distance to the second control monument providing its coordinates, it was possible to recalculate the coordinates of every point within the dig site. It is a basic mathematic routine to translate (move points horizontally in space) and rotate (turn the points on an axis in space) all the points located at the dig site to a very close approximation of their real-world coordinates. Since we measured all the points in meters I used the Universe Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinate system. I estimate that the accuracy of these coordinates should be within about 15 feet (the error of the reading on the handheld GPS). This is not as accurate as you could get with high-precision equipment, but it is accurate enough for almost all purposes, and can be achieved with inexpensive equipment that is readily available.

I have modified the system somewhat, but I have since used this basic system at other excavation sites with very good results. The real-world coordinates of every point from the site allows very accurate plotting of fossil sites, and even individual bone elements, in relation to other sites. It also allows for the application of geographic information systems (GIS) technology on the sites.

Bones drawn using the points located at the Pratt Mammoth site.

Bones drawn using the points located at the Pratt Mammoth site.

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