Tetrapod Zoology

Homage to The Velvet Claw (part I)

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Those of us interested in the same subject often tend to have experienced the same sort of things. If you share my interests (as you probably do, given that you’re here), you’ve probably watched a lot of Attenborough on TV. You’ve probably been to at least one of the bigger natural history museums of your country, probably more than once. You’ve probably spent more time than is considered usual looking at weird reptiles, or bat-eared foxes, or tapirs, or giraffes, or bats, or rhinos, at the zoo. You probably caught and kept weird insects and pond animals as a child. You’ve probably picked up objects that other people consider bizarre or worthless, like bones, or bits of crustaceans. And, if you were in the habit of watching television in the early 1990s, you probably thought The Velvet Claw was the best thing on TV…

Ok, I appreciate that the BBC TV series I’m talking about was not aired world-wide, so I won’t really be surprised if you haven’t seen it. But most of the people I know that are interested in tetrapods watched it religiously, and know and remember it well. Aired for the first time in 1992 (when I was at college, ostensibly studying geology and English language), the six-part series, subtitled ‘A natural history of the carnivores’, was so much more than a review of the living carnivoran species. It was about evolutionary history: about how the major carnivoran clades were related to one another, about the trials and tribulations they encountered during their evolutionary history, and about the sorts of changes that led to the specialisations of the modern lineages. We’re talking historical zoology, exactly the sort of thing you come to Tet Zoo to read about.

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Here is how awesome The Velvet Claw is. Episode 1 (‘The carnassial connection’) starts with dinosaurs (I’ll forgive the series for implying that Deinonychus and Ornithomimus were contemporaneous and alive at the end of the Maastrichtian). It doesn’t say that they were stupid big crappy reptiles, way inferior to the little furry mammals that skulked in the shadows, but instead notes that they were highly successful, sophisticated animals. Non-avian dinosaurs then buy the farm, and we are told something of the big birds and pristichampsine crocodylians that evolved their own big terrestrial predators. The episode then quickly runs through mesonychians (more on those in a minute), creodonts and miacoids, a fleeting nod is made to predatory marsupials (in particular to propleopine rat-kangaroos: the accompanying book and magazine article also talk about borhyaenoids a bit), and it then proceeds to review the evolutionary history and biology of viverrids (the thinking being that, while they’re not the most basal carnivorans, they’re ecologically and morphologically most similar to the stem-group early Cenozoic forms). The stage is set for the Cenozoic radiation of all the major modern groups.

Over the next four episodes, the evolutionary history, diversity and biology of cats, dogs, hyaenas, procyonids and bears, and mustelids, are discussed (pinnipeds luck out entirely, much to my chagrin and causing me to write to BBC Wildlife in disapproval). The final episode (‘It’s tough at the top’) begins by looking at mongooses (covering in particular the complex societies of meerkats and other social mongooses), but then goes on to review the successes, and failures, of the different carnivoran lineages. In the modern world, specialists and big-bodied species are all but doomed (we see the sad decline of the Black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes and of the tigers); only adaptable generalists that can live alongside people seem secured a future. Maybe it’s just me, but – even today – I find the very end of the last episode of the series really poignant and quite moving. I won’t give it away, but it weaves together the threads of extinction, urbanisation, and the loss of nearly everything that makes biodiversity interesting.

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So, I loved The Velvet Claw. I have the book (Macdonald 1992a); I have the boxed BBC video set of the series; I have the articles written to accompany the series (Macdonald 1992b, c, d). Part of what made it so special is that – as you’ll have gathered by now – they covered extinct taxa, many of them not shown on TV before, and they depicted these with some reasonably good bits of art and animation. Megistotherium, the propleopine Ekaltadeta, the giant, bear-mimicking procyonid Chapalmania, the giant hyaena Pachycrocuta, oligobunine mustelids, amphicyonids, hesperocyonine and borophagine canids, and nimravids all get a look-in. Two Andrewsarchus are shown contesting dominance over an embolothere carcass*; the giant short-faced bear Arctodus thinks about menacing a mace-tailed glyptodont (wrongly identified in the book as Glyptodon) but gives up and gallops away; dire wolves confront a Megalonyx; and so much more.

* Incidentally, I’m still somewhat confused about the exact age of these Mongolian taxa. Andrewsarchus was originally described as Upper Eocene while the ‘brontothere with the battering ram’ Embolotherium was originally described as Oligocene in age. Most sources now state that both are Upper Eocene, but Prothero (2006) specifically describes Andrewsarchus as Middle Eocene.

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Some of the taxa they depicted were entirely new to me. I’d never heard of the cursorial hyaenid Chasmaporthetes* – the only hyaenid that made the crossing into North America – prior to its depiction in The Velvet Claw (today, thanks to Kurtén & Werdelin (1988) and Werdelin et al. (1988), I know quite a bit about it). Nor was I aware that some canids, like the hesperocyonine Enhydrocyon, might be described as dogs that superficially resembled big cats [adjacent image is one of Mauricio Antón's reconstructions of Chasmaporthetes].

* That’s the correct spelling: it’s not Chasmaportetes [sic], as it says in Agustí & Antón (2002), nor Chasmoporthetes [sic], as it says in Prothero (2006). Chasmaporthetes means something like ‘he who saw the canyon’ – correct me if that’s wrong.

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And my imagination was really captured by a giant African carnivoran, depicted as a shaggy-furred, short-faced hyaena-like super-scavenger: Percrocuta. Again, this was the first time I’d heard of percrocutids and I didn’t have a clue what they were. Today I can forgive myself for this because Percrocutidae was only named in 1991 (Werdelin & Solounias 1991). Well, actually, Percrocuta (from Miocene and Pliocene Africa and Eurasia) had been named in 1938, one member of the group – namely Dinocrocuta gigantea (originally Hyaena gigantea) – had been known since 1903, and people had been referring to ‘percrocutoid hyaenids’ since the 1980s. Percrocutids have conventionally been imagined as a group of unusual, specialised hyaenids, but it now seems that their resemblance to derived hyaenids is convergent (Chen & Schmidt-Kittler 1983, Agustí & Antón 2002, Morales & Pickford 2006), and that their ancestry might be found among the stenoplesictids, a mostly Oligocene group of Old World cat-group carnivorans that would have resembled genets or palm civets when alive [adjacent image shows the skull of Dinocrocuta gigantea next to that of a spotted hyaena].

But perhaps best of all, the series includes some awesome speculative zoology. We see a future bear that, running through a polar landscape covering present-day New York City (the Statue of Liberty can be seen in the distance), has evolved to be a sabre-toothed predator of newly evolved megaherbivores. Best of all, the dingy industrial underworld of a future super-city is said to be inhabited, and in part dominated, by a smart, sleek, gracile predator. Foraging amongst what look like futuristic coal trucks in pursuit of rat-like rodents, it leaps on to a truck, scattering the rodents. They leap and flee, emitting loud metallic alarm calls. For those of you that know Dr Who, this creature always reminded me of the stigorax from Terra Alpha, though it’s much cooler… all of this is from the Sylvester McCoy years, so I won’t be surprised if you missed it :) Incidentally, there’s another link between The Velvet Claw and Dr Who: it was narrated by Derek Jacobi, who recently played one of the incarnations of The Master.

Anyway… so, the animation sequences really stuck with me: they looked pretty good, and they featured interesting beasts, some of which I’d never even heard of before. I was particularly taken with the future carnivoran*, and watched that scene in particular again and again and again. All the scenes in the series were produced by Stuart Brooks Animation – now, that might not mean much to you, but I’m pleased to tell you that Stuart Brooks Animation was set up by Michael Stuart in 1983; the same Michael Stuart who did much of the animation in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, worked with both Pink Floyd (and did much of the animation in ‘The Wall’) and Terry Gilliam (for ‘The Meaning of Life’), and I think also did the work for a TV version of some of the Beatrix Potter stories.

* I won’t call it ‘future predator’ for fear of getting it confused with the same-named creature from Primeval.

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To my mild surprise, not one of the animation sequences from The Velvet Claw has been stolen and illegally unloaded to youtube; a few stills are available on one website, and those are the images you see here. In fact there’s bugger all about The Velvet Claw on the internet in general. Googling for images mostly results in crap, with the fourth and fifth hits being images from Tet Zoo! [adjacent image is from the dinosaur animation sequence at the start of episode 1]

On that note, I’ll stop – but there’s more. I ended up writing more on The Velvet Claw than I knew what to do with. A second article will appear soon; it discusses the real-life footage in the series, as well as those areas where new discoveries or studies have outdated the views presented in the series. We’re talking cimolestids, nimravids, mesonychians and whales, skunks, aardwolves and ailurids.

Refs – -

Agustí, J. & Antón, M. 2002. Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe. Columbia University Press, New York.

Chen, G. & Schmidt-Kittler, N. 1983. The deciduous dentition of Percrocuta Kretzoi and the diphyletic origin of the hyaenas (Carnivora, Mammalia). Paläontologische Zeirschrift 57, 159-169.

Kurtén, B. & Werdelin, L. 1988. A review of the genus Chasmaporthetes Hay, 1921 (Carnivora, Hyaenidae). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 8, 46-66.

Macdonald, D. W. 1992a. The Velvet Claw: a Natural History of the Carnivores. BBC Books, London.

- . 1992b. Coming to the crunch. BBC Wildlife 10 (9), 32-45.

- . 1992c. Joining forces. BBC Wildlife 10 (10), 32-43.

- . 1992d. Meerkats reunited. BBC Wildlife 10 (10), 45-48.

Prothero, D. R. 2006. After the Dinosaurs: the Age of Mammals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Werdelin, L. & Solounias, N. 1991. The Hyaenidae: taxonomy, systematics and evolution. Fossils and Strata 30, 1-104.

- ., Turner, A. & Solounias, N. 1994. Studies of fossil hyaenids: the genera Hyaenictis Gaudry and Chasmaporthetes Hay, with a reconsideration of the Hyaenidae of Langebaanweg, South Africa. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 111, 197-217.

Comments

  1. #1 Anja
    November 22, 2007

    Thanks for reminding me of that series. It was great – I really have to re-read the book. I saw it on German TV and I think the German title was “Mit Zähnen und Klauen”

  2. #2 Jerzy
    November 22, 2007

    I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. And Spanish series “Broken silence” with golden eagle precipitating ibex. And BBC’s “Wildlife of Australia” with cool overview of Gondwana creatures.

    BTW, Darren, organisms fill all empty niches avialable. Did you think about going to TV and replacing the now retired David Attenborough? Some of your blog could make really good TV show – with surviving giant vampire bats and overview of giant predatory mammals thru the ages?

  3. #3 Sordes
    November 22, 2007

    I fact I have never heard before about this documentation, perhaps because it was not shown in german TV. I only knew some of the pictures you posted in this thread. At least I offered at the moment a copy of the book.
    If your interested in unusual and normally never illustrated carnivores you should buy (if you don´t already have done it) the books by Alan Turner and Mauricio Anton. Especially in “Evolving Eden” and “Mammoths, Sabertooths and Hominids” there is a lot of highly interesting stuff, including many great reconstructions of hyenas.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    November 22, 2007

    I have seen at least something similar on German TV, and the existence of anything similar would be quite surprising! The German title given above also rings a bell. But I remember very little. In 1992, I was 10 years old and had no idea of carnivoran paleodiversity, so I didn’t have anything to make associations to.

    Diphyletic hyaenas… wow.

    Did you think about going to TV and replacing the now retired David Attenborough?

    Let me second that.

    And if you think Sir David is beyond your shoe size, just learn how to say “croikey” and replace Steve Irwin… in somewhat less dangerous situations perhaps. :^)

  5. #5 johannes
    November 22, 2007

    Sordes,

    at least part of it was shown in German TV. I remember having seen it in Germany the early nineties. I sadly missed *Percrocuta*, *Chasmaporthetes* and the future carnivoran, but I remember the cimolestids, *Pachycrocuta*, the nimravid chasing the hesperocyonid, the dinosaur sequence and the jaguar-like canid – although I had forgotten its name and thought it was a borophagine rather than a hesperocyonid (thank you for bringing my failed memory up to date, Darren! :-)).

  6. #6 Mike Keesey
    November 22, 2007

    That sounds wonderful — I wish it had aired here in the States.

    viverrids (the thinking being that, while they’re not the most basal carnivorans, they’re ecologically and morphologically most similar to the stem-group early Cenozoic forms

    Well, Viverridae sensu lato is doubly paraphyletic with respect to Felidae and Hyaenidae, so….

  7. #7 Dan Varner
    November 22, 2007

    The Velvet Claw was shown in the States, but without any publicity whatsoever. I found it by accident. Jacobi was great as narrator. Mauricio Anton is making an animation film about sabertooths that should be excellent.

  8. #8 Cunzy1 1
    November 22, 2007

    Re: No theived Youtube clips.

    The Beeb [BBC] are pretty militant when it comes to their stuff on Youtube which is fair dos if you are a copy-right-on kinda person.

    However, if isn’t available elsewhere it’s a bit off. Especially if you paid for it through the totally-illegal-in-almost-every-country-TV-license way back in the last century. I did.

    I might write them and demand a copy.

  9. #9 Cameron
    November 22, 2007

    You’ve probably picked up objects that other people consider bizarre or worthless, like bones, or bits of crustaceans.

    And I’ve always found it bizarre how monstrously apathetic most people are to nature. On my campus I’ve observed people totally oblivious to a bald eagle soaring majestically in between buildings – surprising given the country.

    I’m too young to have appreciated or remembered this show had I been able to see it, but in recent years I have discovered the book. It is amazing, head and shoulder above the other natural history books in my local library. I don’t recall it mentioning speculative evolution like that TV show though, dang.

    And that Youtube is awfully disappointing – for one thing there’s only one silent movie featuring “Darren Naish” and a slow worm.

  10. #10 Steve Bodio
    November 22, 2007

    So how would one go about finding a copy of the series? Or would anyone think of making a copy for me? (;-)

  11. #11 Hai~Ren
    November 22, 2007

    I agree. At that time, The Velvet Claw was bloody awesome. I remember watching it when I was 10 or 11. Then when my family finally subscribed to cable and I had Animal Planet, I looked through the programme schedule and watched it all over again when I was 20. Sweet!

    It was thanks to this show that my interest in prehistoric carnivores was piqued, and I was introduced to the wide variety of fascinating carnivorans that are extinct today; Pachycrocuta, Chasmaporthetes and Arctodus among others. And of course, who can ever forget that wonderful intro sequence featuring that roaring Smilodon?

    It would be a dream if The Velvet Claw was updated to reflect the latest research, with each episode an hour long. (COOL!) The animation sequences can stay; in fact I think they’re way better than much of the crappy CGI out there.

    Well, Viverridae sensu lato is doubly paraphyletic with respect to Felidae and Hyaenidae, so….

    IIRC, the African palm civet Nandinia sits at the base of the Feliformia. The Asian linsangs Prionodon are the closest living relatives to the felids. And the Malagasy carnivorans once split between the viverrids (Cryptoprocta, Eupleres, Fossa) and herpestids (Galidia, Galidictis, Mungotictis, Salanoia) now form a monophyletic Eupleridae, sister taxon to the mongooses.

    So many extinct families and we can only barely guess their relationships to the extant carnivorans… nimravids, barborofelids, percrocutids, hemicyonids, amphicyonids… plus extinct subfamilies of the extant families, such as hesperocyonines and borophagines, and machairodontines. The extinct carnivorans are yet another reason why I wish time travel was actually possible.

  12. #12 Brad McFeeters
    November 22, 2007

    I must have seen this show in the early ’90s, because I recognize the animated prehistoric sequences and speculative future carnivores. I never owned the video, so I most likely saw it on TVO, which I remember having a lot of good nature shows then.

  13. #13 shiva
    November 22, 2007

    “If you share my interests (as you probably do, given that you’re here), you’ve probably watched a lot of Attenborough on TV. You’ve probably been to at least one of the bigger natural history museums of your country, probably more than once. You’ve probably spent more time than is considered usual looking at weird reptiles, or bat-eared foxes, or tapirs, or giraffes, or bats, or rhinos, at the zoo. You probably caught and kept weird insects and pond animals as a child. You’ve probably picked up objects that other people consider bizarre or worthless, like bones, or bits of crustaceans. And, if you were in the habit of watching television in the early 1990s, you probably thought The Velvet Claw was the best thing on TV…”

    You just provided a near-perfect description of my approximately-10-year-old self… :O

    I don’t remember loads from “The Velvet Claw” (tho i do remember Andrewsarchus), but i do remember being incredibly excited by it every time it was on, and sitting through some terrible sitcom about a Jewish ghost to make sure i didn’t miss the beginning of it… then being terribly disappointed the next year when the same sitcom was repeated and i (with an autistic child’s typically linear thinking) assuming that meant “The Velvet Claw” would be repeated too…

    I’m sure i’ve seen bits of old “Doctor Who” on YouTube, but i can’t recall ever seeing any other BBC material (apart from in mashup/collage type things).

    And yeah, Naish on TV would be awesome…

  14. #14 Darren Naish
    November 22, 2007

    I just want to say what a frikkin’ awesome readership I have. I love you all :)

    More on The Velvet Claw soon (probably tomorrow). As for Tet Zoo the TV series, I gave up on that after months of trying. Maybe I should start flooding youtube with more than just clips of me holding slow-worms. I’m serious.

  15. #15 Gustavo Sanchez Romero
    November 22, 2007

    Hi Darren, awesome series and great book (I have it in english, the series were shown on cable tv in sapnish, and I never recordered it, what a shame!!!)
    Anyway here is a strange story about an unknown wolf species, he ‘ringdocus’ or ‘shunka warak’in’, follow the link: here.

    it would be interesting to find more about that strange wolf, maybe an extinct dire wolf???
    What do u think?
    By the way Peter Hocking’s mail is:
    pjbirder06@yahoo.es

    all the best,
    gsr

  16. #16 Bourgeois Nerd
    November 22, 2007

    This WAS shown in the U.S., under the much more prosaic and exclamatory title Carnivore! It was a highlight of my childhood TV-watching, and I’m right chuffed that I’m not the only one who loved it so! I ended up a mere English major, not a paleontologist or zoologist or anything, but I’ve always had an interest in those subjects, in part because of this documentary and others like it.

  17. #17 David Marjanovi?
    November 22, 2007

    and we can only barely guess their relationships

    We can do much, much better than this. It’s just lots of hard work. Like, a Ph.D. thesis or two.

    Maybe I should start flooding youtube with more than just clips of me holding slow-worms. I’m serious.

    That isn’t paid, is it?

  18. #18 Jerzy
    November 23, 2007

    Yea,

    Darren, make more clips of yourself! Some 5 minute of yourself talking about greatest carnivores, pointing at molars etc. Chopped and mixed with footage of polar bears etc. And send it to some CEOs (remember how “South Park” started?)

    Education is too important to leave it to Discovery Channel!

    P.S. But don’t stop blogging!

    P.S.2. About viverrids – I find banded linsang and madagascan ring-tailed mongoose absolutely beautiful. Like a big-eyed supporting character from the Disney movie.

  19. #19 Nick
    November 25, 2007

    From Darren:

    Chasmaporthetes means something like ‘he who saw the canyon’ – correct me if that’s wrong.

    Well, porthetes means ‘ravager’ or ‘destroyer’, and chasma or chasme is ‘gulf’ or ‘chasm’ (literally, ‘a yawning’). I’m not really clear on how the two are intended to go together–perhaps ‘yawning/gaping destroyer’?

    “Chasmatoporthetes” or “Chasmoporthetes” would, I think, have been better Greek.

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    November 25, 2007

    No! It destroys all yawning because it’s so fascinating! :^)

  21. #21 Tim Morris
    November 26, 2007

    Ah, for the days of “The velvet claw”

    I remember watching the series, hired on video casette from the city lending library (in 1996 I think) renting the book from that same library, and later cursing myself for not buying the book when I had seen it on sale (and subsequently trying to buy the copy that the library had).

    And yes, I too remember the speculative zoology set out by that series, the sabre toothed bears and city dwellers. And the interesting inference they made at the start of the series that made me think “what if crocodillians or birds (or marsuipials or primitive ungulates) had out-muscled the carnivorans and dominated as big predators to this day?”

    Ah memories

  22. #22 Andy M
    December 30, 2007

    WOW I remember this program very well. I was about 13 or 14 when this was shown on TV. It was repeated a couple times later on I think. Iv just sort of stumbled across this blog via google after doing a search on the velvet claw. I always remembered the program but I could never remember what it was called. I was watching a recent documentary walking with monsters and I asked my old man is he could remember that great program that was on years ago about the evolution of mammal predators and he said what you mean the Velvet Claw and I was Like yeeehh thats what it was called!!

    Anyway just searched for it on google and found this cant believe its so recent as well! Iv search all the major torrent sites for this but its not their. If I had this on video Id be converting it to DVD and uploading it, But of course thats illegal even tho its no longer available.

  23. #23 chwi
    January 21, 2008

    Nice to see that this series is not forgotten. When BBC released the “Walking with beasts” dvd I hoped that they might reconsider this marvellous series. What a wasted chance. I remember, I contacted them years ago about a dvd release but they were not interested. It is still one of my most beloved BBC dokus that were aired on Austrian TV. This one because it clearly separates real living creatures (real life footage) and extinct ones (airbrush animation). I like that more than the best computer geneterated and animated modern stuff, even if the latter is state of the art. And the Velvet Claw series was a perfect mixture of picture, narration and fantastic music by Terry Oldfield.

    I like David Attenborough’s stuff which is now widely released. Hopefully BBC will pick up other treasures like the Velvet Claw and release them instead of some useless trash.

  24. #24 Dave
    April 24, 2008

    I remember watching this in hospital when I was seriously ill at the age of 7! I have the fondest memories of it.

  25. #25 Fernando Pires
    October 11, 2009

    The music was also memorable. When I t5hink about ancient animals, I think about that music (and it can’t be found on youtube either). This show was the first to teach me that there were flesh eating mammals with hooves.

  26. #26 Peter Szarycz
    June 24, 2010

    “That sounds wonderful — I wish it had aired here in the States.”

    The series was aired twice on A&E back in 1992 on its “Wildlife Mysteries” weekly show. I missed taping it the first time, but luckily I got it the second time and cherished it ever since. Special tribute should be paid to Terry Oldfield for the wonderful music and sound effects. It’s a true cult classic for all the documentary lovers. Too bad that BBC and the Discovery Channel nowadays rip this show apart stealing all the lines and format in their new downgraded releases from the “Horseshoe Crab” to “Life” etc. This series also got ripped apart for its content on various other networks including CNN where special emphasis was placed on the series’ definition of schizophrenia. This kind of treatment was suffered by some other documentaries and films that were shelved only to be ripped apart for their content. This includes “In desert and wilderness” that was remade into “Escape from Angola”, “Paradise” (with Phoebie Cates) etc. The velvet claw had this mystical, surreal, psychedelic feel to it that drew you in, but it was nevertheless an academic film with well structured format ie intro, body, conclusion. It emphasized on the adaptive and ecological differences between the specialists and generalists against the backdrop of evolution of the mammalian Order Carnivora Vera. Yet, some networks that utilized and adapted this flick to their own needs and ends had this fixation on the schizophrenia thing. How sad, how degenerative, how unethical.

  27. #27 Emily
    July 19, 2010

    I vaguely remember the programme, but as I was 10 years old at the time, most of it I can’t remember. The book is worth picking up, but is hard to get hold of because it’s out of print. I’m also disappointed that it’s not yet on DVD, as I’d like to refresh my memory of it and it’s a shame to waste material like this.

  28. #28 Albertonykus
    August 3, 2010

    There appears to be a few clips here, but they’re evidently only viewable in the UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0063csn

  29. #29 Monado
    November 1, 2010

    That’s one of my favourite books!

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