Tetrapod Zoology

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Readers in the UK might be aware of Primeval, an ITV drama series featuring a time portal that connects the present day with the past. The main premise of the series seems to be that various animals from the past – including a pareiasaur, a gorgonopsian, dodos, a mosasaur, pterosaurs and some giant arthropods – wander through the portal and get into various japes and scrapes in the present. I’ve cleverly managed to miss the entire series, so I’m not exactly the best person in the world to be talking about it. But due in part to the fact that I’m currently horribly ill, Will and I were in watching TV this afternoon (we’d been out earlier, looking at dead baby squirrels), and I caught part of a ‘behind the scenes’ TV programme that featured the latest creature to star in the series: a mysterious entity known only as ‘future predator’. In its overall look and style of quadrupedal movement, ‘future predator’ looked something like a giant flightless bat, and this is where I really got quite interested…

You might say that none of this is relevant to the sort of stuff I should be writing about on Tetrapod Zoology. Or, given that I cannot hide the fact that speculative zoology certainly holds my interest, you could say that… speculative zoology goes mainstream. ‘Future predator’ is a human-sized, short-tailed quadruped with particularly long, slim forelimbs and a short head that sports long sharp teeth. According to ITV’s page about the species (here), future predator ‘… is equipped with an incredibly sensitive sonar navigation system – an improvement on that used by the bats of today. It is also incredibly fast, and capable of springing from surface to surface with apparently little effort. However, perhaps the most scary feature of this animal is that it possesses human-like intelligence’. Hmm. Most of its head is covered with two inflated lobes that recall either the two hemispheres of a brain or the immense eyes of a fly, and the animal’s eyes are strongly reduced and it appears blind.

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Incredibly swift and agile, it was shown running, leaping and climbing, and many of its actions appeared to be based on those of vampire bats. As you might recall from previous posts on vampires, these are among the most terrestrial of all bats, and way exceed other bats in how fast and agile they can be on the ground. When it turned out – predictably perhaps – that future predator hunted using sound, the bat identification was pretty much clinched for me. Sure enough, we learn from a DNA sample left behind by the animal that it’s apparently some sort of evolved future bat, and such is confirmed by the programme makers on the Primeval website (go here) [adjacent image from the Primeval blog].

It also seems that the programme makers liked the idea of either rodents or bats evolving into something big and important in the future, presumably because they are the pre-eminent mammalian groups today in terms of distribution and numbers. Of course this isn’t the first time giant flightless predatory future bats have made an appearance as you’ll doubtless already know: Dougal Dixon’s Night stalker Manambulus perhorridus is one of the most popular beasts in the entire pantheon of After Man (Dixon 1981). A bipedal predator 1.5 m tall, night stalkers run in packs through the forests of Batavia in the Pacific Ocean, over-powering mammal and reptile prey. Intriguingly, they walk on their hands, their prehensile feet hanging over their shoulders. This is echoed by Sebulba [image below] and the rest of his species (the dug), the pod-racer from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. This similarity might be a coincidence, but might not.

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Besides night stalkers, Batavia is also populated by pinniped-mimicking surfbats, the predatory arboreal shalloth, and the Flooer Florifacies mirabila. The latter is a largely sedentary, insectivorous, flightless bat that grows large fragrant ear and nose flaps that mimic flower petals. Flooers sit among flowers, attracting insects and eating them. That’s pretty similar to one of the rhinogradentians, the Miraculous flower-faced snouter Cephalanthus thaumasios (Stumpke 1957), and when I first learnt of the Flooer I assumed that Dougal had been inspired by Cephalanthus. I asked him about this a few years ago, and he explained that, when writing After Man, he had been completely unaware of Stumpke’s work on the rhinogradentians. The two creatures really had ‘evolved’ in parallel. Of course, I have a lot more to say about rhinogradentians, but all that will follow soon.

So far as we know, flightlessness has yet to evolve in bats; the usual thinking on this being that it might not be possible for bats to lose flight given that they have tight fore- and hindlimb linkage due to their wing membranes. I don’t buy that for several reasons. Anyway, the bats usually noted as being ‘closest to evolving flightlessness’ (whatever that means) are the mystacinids, a group currently endemic to New Zealand but previously of wider distribution. They’re fascinating animals for a host of reasons and I have an article on them (actually, an old one that I’m in the process of updating) in preparation.

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Two more things before I go and cook dinner. Firstly, the movie 300 premieres on March 22nd (the coming Thursday). This is the film that explains my several recent references to war rhinos, and I have an article ready to go on this subject that I’ll publish on that day. Secondly, on March 23rd I’m leaving for the Big cats in Britain conference, and I will definitely be blogging about whatever happens at the meeting. I’m now going to do the unthinkable. My financial situation is – still – a joke. If (a) you think you might particularly value whatever thoughts I’m going to communicate via the blog on the subject of British big cats and (b) you have such a thing as spare money, then please assist if you can by making a donation, however small. Thanks in advance. I realised today how cool it would be if I could advertise the first ever blog-sponsored conference attendance. Well, I thought I may as well ask and see what happens…

Refs – –

Dixon, D. 1981. After Man: A Zoology of the Future. Granada, London.

Stumpke, H. 1967. The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades. The Natural History Press, Garden City, New York.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    March 17, 2007

    A pareiasaur! A gorgonopsian! :-) :-) :-)

  2. #2 Carlos
    March 17, 2007

    What about flish?

  3. #3 Raymond
    March 18, 2007

    “So far as we know, flightlessness has yet to evolve in bats; the usual thinking on this being that it might not be possible for bats to lose flight given that they have tight fore- and hindlimb linkage due to their wing membranes. I don’t buy that for several reasons.”

    Well…..there are plenty of cases of insects and birds evolving flightlessness, both present, and within the fossil record IIRC.So far as we know, pterosaurs and bats never have, past or present(bats).Birds and insects have at least two pairs of free legs well adapted to terrestrial locomotion.Pterosaurs and bats required both sets to get around and for flight AFAIK.I’d have to say the azhdarchid
    pterosaurs and the mystacinid bats have come the closest of the two groups.

  4. #4 Sarda Sahney
    March 18, 2007

    I haven’t seen Primeval either. Though I haven’t heard good reviews. Great post and hope you feel better!

  5. #5 Sordes
    March 18, 2007

    Hypothetical flightless bats are really fascinating. As I already mentioned before, I once “invented” an island, which was populated by a wide variation of bats, including flightless forms up to the size of a smaller cow. The largerst predator was the Flederwolf (means more or less bat-wolf), a mastiff-sized quadrupedal monster-bat, with enlarged thumbclaws like Thylacoleo. It has a short head and very powerfull jaws and teeth, and very large ears, which it uses to find its prey.
    Some time ago I also thought about the possibility that even flighless pterosaurs might have existed. Bats show strangely only a very small affinities to develope a terrestrial way of life, even Mystacina tuberculata on New Zealand is still able to fly, allthough New Zealand would be probably among the very best places on earth to evolve really flightless bats.
    But there is still the question: Were there flightless pterosaurs? Pterosaurs probably colonized isolated islands more often than bats today, and if some of them really lifed more like storks, they would have had only little disadvantages to be flightless on an island without predators. Larger islands already existed during the era of the dinosaurs, and we know several pygmy-forms of dinosaurs. Perhaps on some more isolated islands pterosaurs lost their ability to fly, and evolved into something really strange. Some time ago I made a sketch of a supposed flighless pterosaur. It had a bigger and plumper body, reduced wing-membranes and a reduced lateral finger, and also its whole body was a bit stockier than those of flying pterosaurs, a bit like a dodo. Sadly there is nothing known from the fossil record what would come close to this creature, and completely flightless pterosaurs never existed as flighltess bats never existed.

  6. #6 Cathy
    March 18, 2007

    I’m a biologist who used to study bats, vampire bats in particular, so I’ve enjoyed your posts on the topic. I’m rooting for those extra-special species to become this important in the future.

    And your mention of the dead baby squirrels reinforces one of my observations about biologists, and the two things that never fail to entertain them while out on a walk in the woods: dead things and poo.

  7. #7 Osmo Suvisaari
    March 18, 2007

    Flightless bat? This reminds me of one interesting bat species that I read about earlier:

    http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33097

    “Unlike most bats, which catch their prey in the air, the short-tailed bat has adapted to ground hunting and is one of the few bats in the world which spends large amounts of time on the forest floor, using its folded wings as `front limbs’ for scrambling around.”

  8. #8 Darren Naish
    March 18, 2007

    Osmo: the short-tailed bat is a mystacinid, a group mentioned in the article. Thanks for your comment.

  9. #9 Anthony Docimo
    March 18, 2007

    I am looking forward to seeing _Primeval_…it just came out on DVD, I heard. Not sure if the DVD format’s adjusted for EST viewing.

    Sordes, if I may ask, do you have a pic of any of these flightless bats of yours? I’d be very interested in seeing it.

  10. #10 Laelaps
    March 19, 2007

    Just to follow up Osmo’s comment about bats that hunt on the ground, there’s some great footage of the New Zealand bats going after a weta in the Life of Mammals documentary episode “Insect Hunters.”

  11. #11 Sordes
    March 19, 2007

    Anthony, the pictures of the flightless bats are only comparably poor sketchtes, but if you give me your e-mail, I can send them to you.

  12. #12 Anthony Docimo
    March 20, 2007

    I strongly suspect, Sordes, that your idea of a sketch is far better than mine. Please, send. If you like, I can see if I can expand on the idea (properly crediting you, without doubt, and with no hesitation)

  13. #13 Dr Vector
    March 20, 2007

    Sordes, your comments on flightless pterosaurs got me thinking. If there were flightless pterosaurs, we’d have little chance of finding them in the fossil record. Islands kinda suck as depositional environments over the long haul (yeah, I know, we have some island dinos–pile them all up and they wouldn’t count as a quarry in the Morrison Fm.). I wouldn’t bet on there being many moa fossils left 50 million years from now. And most pterosaur fossils come from watery graves, of the sort that land-bound flightless pterosaurs would not likely end up in.

    The fossil record sure is a pain in the butt sometimes.

  14. #14 Sordes
    March 21, 2007

    Anthony, I need your e-mail to send you the pictures. If you dont wanna make it public here, you can ask Darren for my e-mail and send it than to me. Yesterday I made some further speculations about the evolution on “bat-island”. There would be two main lineages of flightless bats, which evolved independently. The one evolved from small insect-eating bats similar to Mysatcina and hunted similar to shrews on the ground. They were the ancestors of the large hunting bats, the burrowing mole-bats, the fishing-bats, the anteater-bats and some other species. The other lineage was very arboreal and adapted to a suspensory locomotion in the trees, similar to sloths or palaeopropithecids. They are mainly folivorous and frugivorous, and lost their ability to fly to become larger and evolve larger stomaches, some others were more potto-or possum-like and omnivorous or even carnivorous. Some of them adapted on a terrestrial way of life, although their ancestry has strong effects on the anatomy of their limbs, similar to ground sloths. They look a bit like a cross between small ground sloths, Archaeoindris and…well…bats.

    Dr Vector, this is exactly the point. The chance to find a fossil of a flightless pterosaurs is very very small. We do know flightless birds like Hesperornis from more than 65Mio years ago, but I doubt that pterosaurs had the potential to evolve to such wide-spread forms.An Island were flightless pterosaurs could have lived was surely not a piece of the continents which drifted in the ocean, but a volcanic island, or like New Zealand a miniature continent, which had never contact to the continents, and, as a result of this, no native terrestrial carnivores. If you look at all the amazing and sadly in many cases recently extinct insular species, it can drive you crazy to think about the strange animals, which must have existed in prehistoric times on isolated islands, which we will never know.
    But I would not completely rule out the possibility to find flightless pterosaurs (if they really existed), as there are indeed several known places which were once e islands in the sea, and now in the middle of continents. Just an idea (as Im no expert about geology), whats about New Zealand? Wasnt it already isolated during the dino-era? It is a very large island, and perhaps once a fat-assed flightless dodo-pterosaur died in a swamp and became fossilized…By the way, New Caledonia could be perhaps another possibility for potentional flightless pterosaur-fossils.

  15. #15 Anthony Docimo
    March 21, 2007

    Might the pteroid bone become a sort of “panda’s thumb” for feeding? I used to think the wing finger would fill that function…but now I suspect the pteroid has a shorter journey to achieve that end.

    Sordes, I use hotmail.com for its services, and my name there is Keenir@ (I also enter my email here, every time I post a comment, if that helps any)

  16. #16 Sordes
    March 21, 2007

    Anthony, I`ll make some photos of the bat-sketches, but it will proabably take some time.

  17. #17 Anthony Docimo
    March 21, 2007

    Sordes – no rush.

    hm, I wonder…Dr. Naish, if I might ask, have you ever doodled or sketched a flightless bat or flightless pterosaur?

    to you both – have nice days.

  18. #18 Zach Miller
    March 23, 2007

    Well, as far as we know, pterosaurs never evolved flightlessness, and the later groups seemed more likely to achieve that than bats do. This is an interesting future predator, though. Certainly looks like some kind of bat, but I wish there were better pictures of it on its website.

  19. #19 Peter McGrath
    March 25, 2007

    Looks like a cheap refugee from Alien.

  20. #20 johannes
    April 12, 2007

    For all its hyper-effective sonar and semi-human intelligence, it was destroyed by the gorgonopsian in the end. Don’t mess with gorgonopsians!

  21. #21 johannes
    July 10, 2007

    I have never counted the pups, but I think there were at least five or six of them. Did nobody tell the folks at ITV that chiropterans tend to be K-selected (and most, if not all, have only two teats, so how could a chiropteran feed five or six pups?)?

    BTW, what sense makes r-selection in a 500 kg apex predator anyway?

    Echolocation of sea-lions or humans in spite of massive obstacles like walls, glass windows and cars standing in the way is rather unlikely, too.

  22. #22 justin
    October 29, 2007

    Why doesent this tell us about a flooer? It tells us about a night stalker but nothing else.

    [from Darren: the article is about the big predatory forms, that’s why. Sorry]

  23. #23 someone
    January 18, 2008

    I never saw Primeval (but thats because it didn’t aired in Portugal yet), but I do believe that flightless bats could evolve in the future. In any case, I think that the “things” in the creature’s head are melon organs, like those of dolphins.

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