On to more of my thoughts about the TV series The Velvet Claw (part I is here). In the previous article, I discussed the art and animation used in the series, all of which was really quite good and very interesting in often featuring fairly obscure creatures…
There’s one really important thing I haven’t yet mentioned about The Velvet Claw: the fact that both the book and the TV series was written by David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research University at Oxford University and very well known for his many, many publications on biology, ecology and conservation [homepage here]. A leading mammalogist, Macdonald is best known for his long-term work on foxes, but he’s also published on jackals, badgers, mink and other mustelids, cheetahs, beavers, squirrels, mice, voles, vicunas, babirusas, elephants and others. Macdonald is also well known for the several TV documentaries he’s been involved in, some of which (e.g., ‘Night of the Fox’ and ‘Meerkats United’) have been award-winners. I don’t know if he approached the BBC with the idea of The Velvet Claw, or if they approached him; whatever happened, the results were outstanding [the adjacent image, featuring an assortment of fossil predatory mammals and not taken from The Velvet Claw, is by the excellent Roz B. Gibson: I hope it's alright to use it. Gibson's website is here].
Anyway, it wasn’t just the animation scenes from The Velvet Claw that have really stuck with me: some of the real-life sequences they included in the series have to be seen to be believed (Jerzy is right that at least some of the sequences were filmed in sets, but not enough for me to have a problem with the way the animals were portrayed). Books often say that bears can be comparatively fast runners when the need arises, but you rarely get to see this on TV (god help you if you see this in real life; it might be the last thing you ever see). Episode 5 of The Velvet Claw (ironically titled ‘Life in the Slow Lane’) shows a grizzly bear in pursuit of wapiti. The bear is a lean individual, and it really moves: fast enough to catch a calf. Granted, neither the deer nor the bear get to run flat-out at great speed, but it’s still impressive. Even better is a tree-top chase sequence where a pine marten pursues a red squirrel. The marten sees the squirrel and follows it up the tree. They run up trunks, they run down trunks. They jump from branch to branch. The squirrel leaps to the ground and makes a mad dash. The marten follows. They run up again, they run down again. The marten is close to the squirrel. It ends in a stand-off, with the squirrel working as hard as it can to stay on the opposite side of the trunk from the marten. Eventually, the squirrel makes a wrong move…
A few things from the series have dated, of course. Episode 1, in its coverage of mesonychians, quite naturally says that mesonychians gave rise to whales, and an animation sequence shows an amphibious otter-like Hapalodectes evolving into a seal-like pakicetid and then on to humpbacks. Hapalodectids may well have been amphibious, and – at the time – it wasn’t misleading to imply that they might have given rise to whales, given that at least some phylogenetic studies did, in some data runs, find hapalodectids to be closer to whales than were other mesonychians (O’Leary & Geisler 1999). Today, the morphological support for an affinity between mesonychians and basal whales like pakicetids has fallen away as basal whales have proven to be closer to, or part of, Artiodactyla. Furthermore, we now know that pakicetids weren’t seal-like proto-whales, but long-limbed slinkers, superficially recalling long-tailed pointy-toothed antelopes [there's a ver 1 article about pakicetids here].
The Velvet Claw also sinned in using little Cimolestes from the Upper Cretaceous and Palaeocene as a possible ancestor of carnivorans and creodonts [adjacent image shows the speculative 3-D skull reconstruction of Cimolestes used in The Velvet Claw]. However, this has a precedent: Savage and Long, in their highly influential semi-technical volume Mammal Evolution: an Illustrated Guide, included Cimolestes within the ‘insectivore’ section of the book, but depicted it and its relatives as the ancestors of carnivorans in a phylogram (Savage & Long 1986, p. 65); this was all based on Savage’s earlier paper on carnivorous mammals in which Cimolestes was, again, promoted as a possible ancestor of carnivorans and credonts (Savage 1977, p. 241). Cimolestes and its supposed relatives don’t really have any derived characters that might link them with carnivorans, and in fact views on what they are have varied quite widely among experts. Several recent phylogenetic studies incorporating Cimolestes and similar archaic little predators have concluded that they are stem-eutherians and not part of the crown-group, and hence not really anything to do with the ancestry of any extant eutherian clades (Ji et al. 2002, Luo et al. 2007, Wible et al. 2007).
New work has also changed our views on the affinities and phylogeny of several of the carnivoran groups featured in The Velvet Claw. Nimravids (represented in the series by the ‘false sabre-tooth’ Hoplophoneus) were described in The Velvet Claw as dog-group carnivorans: the latest work in fact indicates either that nimravids are outside of the feliform-caniform clade (Peigné 2001, 2003), or are feliforms (Wesley-Hunt & Flynn 2005). Incidentally, there have always been very good reasons for doubting an affinity of barbourofelines with nimravids: most recently, Morlo et al. (2004) argued that the two aren’t close relatives, and that barbourofelines (which they re-named barbourofelids) are feliforms, and in fact the sister-taxon to Felidae. However, if nimravids are really feliforms too, as found by Wesley-Hunt & Flynn (2005), then maybe nimravids and barbourofelids are close relatives after all [adjacent image shows the skull of the cursorial nimravid Dinictis felina].
In the hyaena episode, The Velvet Claw promoted the view that aardwolves (Proteles) are old, ‘primitive’ hyaenids more closely related to basal, dog-like forms like Tongxinictis and the ictitheriines than to the bone-crushing hyaenine hyaenas. However, some workers have argued that aardwolves instead descend from hyaenines close to Lycyaena and Chasmaporthetes: Koepfli et al. (2006) found that aardwolves had diverged relatively recently, and hence perhaps from a bone- and meat-eating hyaenine rather than from more basal ictitheriine-like taxa [aardwolf P. cristata shown in adjacent pic].
Red pandas were regarded as part of the procyonid lineage in The Velvet Claw: this is now doubtful, but I have more to say about that in a future post. Similarly, skunks were regarded as mustelids, whereas recent work indicates that they may instead be outside of Mustelidae (for more on this see the Erongo carcass article). The Madagascan carnivorans (Cryptoprocta, Eupleres and Fossa.. the last in that list is the fanaloka, not the fossa) were regarded as viverrids and only coincidentally sharing Madagascar with the galidiine mongooses. Morphological and molecular analyses now show that all the Madagascan endemic carnivorans form a clade for which the name Eupleridae Chenu, 1852 has been co-opted (Yoder et al. 2003, Gaubert et al. 2005).
The Velvet Claw also included linsangs among the viverrids, which is (again) fair enough, because that’s what most workers thought at the time. The two linsang genera (Asiatic Prionodon and African Poiana), despite their strong morphological similarity, have proved controversial. Based on genetic data, Gaubert & Veron (2003) concluded that the two were quite disparate: while Poiana does indeed seem to be a viverrid (specifically, the sister-taxon to genets), they argued that Prionodon is far more archaic and the sister-taxon to Felidae. This is one of those old ideas that was mooted early on – it was put forward by Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859) in 1821 – but later mostly ignored. In an extensive analysis of morphological characters, Gaubert et al. (2005) seemed slightly sceptical of rampantly homoplastic linsangs (but continued to depict this in their cladograms), but it was strongly supported in another, more recent molecular study (Gaubert & Cordeiro-Estrela 2006). Another taxon conventionally included among viverrids – Nandinia binotata, the African palm civet – is also no longer thought to belong here; instead it seems to be the most basal extant member of Feliformia (Gaubert & Veron 2003, Flynn et al. 2005, Gaubert et al. 2005, Wesley-Hunt & Flynn 2005). Monogeneric ‘family’ names (Nandiniidae and Prionodontidae) are used by some workers for these ‘former viverrids’ [the adjacent image, taken from here, is supposed to depict the Central African linsang Poiana richardsoni. Maybe it does, but the animal doesn't much resemble the picture of the same species in Kingdon's field guide].
Given that many of these areas concern relatively obscure creatures, and concern information that is generally avoided by TV-people (they only want to cover lifestyles and behaviour, not phylogenetics, homoplasy or taxonomy!), I doubt that the affinities of nimravids, the non-monophyly of viverrids, or the controversial affinities of aardwolves would get covered if The Velvet Claw were re-made today.
But then, of course, it wouldn’t be re-made today; there just isn’t the backing for anything like this any more. As I mentioned in part I, the last episode of The Velvet Claw discusses the decline of specialised and big-bodied carnivoran species. Today we might lament the decline and near-extinction of good natural history on TV. I do watch some stuff on TV, but for a long time now my general feeling has been that TV is shit. And remember that we Brits have a right to feel more angry about this than the rest of you: we have to pay to watch television. I kid you not: we actually have to buy and constantly renew a ***king license to own a television set. I have a pie-in-the-sky fantasy that one day things will turn around, and that people who make the decisions in media-land will appreciate that good TV gets watched just as much, if not more, as all the crap that we’re currently subjected to.
But I’m not holding my breath.
PS – you can still obtain The Velvet Claw on video (here). No sign of a DVD release though.
Refs – –
Flynn, J. J., Finarelli, J. A., Zehr, S., Hsu, J. & Nedbal, M. A. 2005. Molecular phylogeny of the Carnivora (Mammalia): assessing the impact of increased sampling on resolving enigmatic relationships. Systematic Biology 54, 317-337.
Gaubert, P. & Cordeiro-Estrela, P. 2006. Phylogenetic systematics and tempo of evolution of the Viverrinae (Mammalia, Carnivora, Viverridae) within feliformians: implications for faunal exchange between Asia and Africa. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 41, 266-278.
– . & Veron, G. 2003. Exhaustive sample set among Viverridae reveals the sister-group of felids: the linsangs as a case of extreme morphological convergence within Feliformia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 270, 2523-2530.
– ., Wozencraft, W. C., Cordeiro-Estrela, P. & Veron, G. 2005. Mosaics of convergences and noise in morphological phylogenies: what’s in a viverrid-like carnivoran? Systematic Biology 54, 865-894.
Ji, Q., Luo, Z.-X., Yuan, C.-X., Wible, J. R., Zhang, J.-P. & Georgi, J. A. 2002. The earliest known eutherian mammal. Nature 416, 816-822.
Koepfli, K.-P., Jenks, S. M., Eizirik, E., Zahirpour, T., Van Valkenburgh, B. & Wayne, R. K. 2006. Molecular systematics of the Hyaenidae: relationships of a relictual lineage resolved by a molecular supermatrix. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 38, 603-620.
Luo, Z.-X., Chen, P., Li, G. & Chen, M. 2007. A new eutriconodont mammal and evolutionary development in early mammals. Nature 446, 288-293.
Morlo, M., Peigné, S. & Nagel, D. 2004. A new species of Prosansanosmilus: implication for the systematic relationships of the family Barbourofelidae new rank (Carnivora, Mammalia). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 140, 43-61.
O’Leary, M. A. & Geisler, J. H. 1999. The position of Cetacea within Mammalia: phylogenetic analysis of morphological data from extinct and extant taxa. Systematic Biology 48, 455-490.
Peigné, S. 2001. A primitive nimravine skull from the Quercy fissures, France: implications for the origin and evolution of Nimravidae (Carnivora). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 132, 401-410.
– . 2003. Systematic review of European Nimravidae (Mammalia, Carnivora, Nimravidae) and the phylogenetic relationships of Palaeogene Nimravidae. Zoologica Scripta 32, 199-229.
Savage, R J. G. 1977. Evolution in carnivorous mammals. Palaeontology 20, 237-271.
– . & Long, M. R. 1986. Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide. Facts on File Publications, New York & Oxford.
Wesley-Hunt, G. D. & Flynn, J. J. 2005. Phylogeny of the Carnivora: basal relationships among the carnivoramorphans, and assessment of the position of ‘Miacoidea’ relative to Carnivora. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 3, 1-28.
Wible, J. R., Rougier, G. W., Novacek, M. J. & Asher, R. J. 2007. Cretaceous eutherians and Laurasian origin for placental mammals nears thr K/T boundary. Nature 447, 1003-1006.
Yoder, A. D., Burns, M. M., Zehr, S., Delefosse, T., Veron, G., Goodman, S. M. & Flynn, J. J. 2003. Single origin of Malagasy Carnivora from an African ancestor. Nature 421, 734-737.