The Asian Megafauna
A Whole New World
The Original Pioneer
A Giant Hyena
Out of Africa
Around 2 million years ago, a truly monumental event occurred, a species of hominid called Homo erectus took their first tentative steps out of Africa and into Asia. The previous 500,000 years had borne witness to an incredible increase in both body and brain size. Homo erectus, the first hominid that actually looked human now possessed a brain more than 50 per cent larger than any of their ancestors including the original toolmaker, Homo habilis. Such a huge increase in brain size probably explains why Homo erectus was the first of our line to leave the continent that birthed and us and colonise Eurasia. A large brain, capable of more complex thought was no doubt vital in coping with the more challenging climates of both Europe and Asia.
However, it wasn’t just humans that were exiting Africa at this time, many of the animals that had evolved alongside us were also pouring into the Near East along the same route as our ancestors. Some animals especially those who were particularly adept at swimming like the hippopotamus and the elephants may have crossed into Asia by island hopping across the Mediterranean from North Africa. The end result was that many of the animals that Homo erectus encountered in Asia were already familiar to them. In fact, it’s likely that they were totally unaware that they had even left Africa. In Asia they met terrifying monsters such as the giant hyena (Pachycrocuta), the sabre-toothed cats (Megantereon, Homotherium and Dinofelis) and a species of dog closely related to modern wolves (Canis falconeri). All of these animals had once terrorised our ancestors; not so long before our australopithecine ancestors were routinely falling prey to large predators such as these, but now with long human like bodies, large human like brains they were far less attractive as prey.
Our hominid ancestors probably paid particular attention to the roaming packs of hyenas, observing their pack behaviour closely. Hyenas’ cooperative way of living ensures that they can both hunt and successfully steal carcasses even from the largest predators. They would have been formidable opponents and impressive role models for Homo erectus. However, at this time our ancestors still lacked effective long range weapons, therefore it’s likely that they came off second best in any direct encounters with hyenas.
By 1.5 million years ago, several modern carnivore species had colonised Asia from Africa. The giant hyenas were replaced by the modern spotted hyena, while the sabre-toothed cats became rarer, with lions and leopards increased greatly in number. These small but significant faunal changes probably made scavenging very difficult for hominids as these new predators were able to consume more of their victims’ bodies, leaving precious little behind for any scavengers. Even today, the behaviour and facial expressions of lions suggest that they view us primarily as competitors rather than prey. However, the sheer abundance of deer, ox, rhino and horse in their new Asian home may have presented Homo erectus with wonderful new opportunities.
Below, I shall profile a few of the spectacular creatures that our hominid ancestors encountered in the vast continent of Asia.
A Truly Colossal Tortoise
A Giant Tortoise
The first Homo erectus to successfully colonise Asia encountered the largest land tortoise to ever walk the Earth. It’s known as Colossochelys, which basically means ‘colossal shell’. This mighty creature weighed a monstrous 4 tons and possessed elephantine legs that sprawled out at the sides of its body, typical of all reptiles. Colossochelys’ huge legs supported a well armoured carapace, which made it almost invulnerable to any predator. It had cushioned pads on the soles of its feet which helped spread the animal’s considerable weight evenly. Interestingly, Colossochelys was equipped with five, heavy nailed toes, similar to modern elephants.
Colossochelys probably fed exclusively on plants, like its modern relatives and probably spent its time browsing and cropping low growing leaves with its sharp and toothless beak. It was able to do so without any sort of fear of being attacked. If a predator did show the audacity to take on Colossochelys, then it would have simply withdrawn its head back into its shell. The predator would then be left with a solid bony box which would have been virtually impossible to move, let alone turn over.
Sadly this creature became extinct soon after Homo erectus entered Asia, and no living tortoise comes close to the size of this giant. The closest living counterpart in terms of size and weight is the Galapagos giant tortoise, but even this large animal by our standards is only 4 feet long (half the length of Colossochelys) and weighs a mere 500Ib’s.
The Real Unicorn
The Elasmotherium on Film
The Real Unicorn
Have you ever wondered whether there truly was a creature with just one horn that stalked the Earth? Well, there was; it wasn’t a horse though, instead it was an enormous rhino with an equally enormous single horn that seemed to cover a considerable portion of its head. The Elasmotherium, to give it its scientific name had no incisors whatsoever, and so would have used its long lips to pluck grasses on the vast Ice age steppes of Eurasia. Its cheek teeth were reminiscent of an overgrown horse- tall, covered in cement and with wrinkled enamel. It needed such teeth to cope with consuming tough and abrasive grasses. As its teeth wore down, the wrinkled enamel produced pronounced ridges which provided additional grinding surfaces. The teeth grew continuously so as to counteract any wearing down.
Elasmotherium lived exclusively in open, grassland habitats and was one of the largest rhinos ever to live, approaching the modern African elephant in size and weight; it needed to be large in order to render it immune from predation from large cats such as the sabre-tooth.
The famous horn was a quite remarkable structure, growing to more than 6 feet long, and while most rhino horns grow from the snout. Elasmotherium’s horn actually grew from the forehead; it was able to do so thanks to a large dome of bone which provided a more secure anchor for the massive structure than anything at the tip of its nose.
The Three Toed Horse
The Real King Kong and the Three Toed Horse
Out there in the jungles of South-East Asia lived a creature that only can be described as the real King Kong. Gigantopithecus must have weighed nearly 700Ib’s and stood nearly 10 feet tall, even when on all fours. It was undoubtedly an exclusively terrestrial ape due to its size and may have resembled a gorilla in appearance, but with a shorter jaw and relatively small incisors and canines. It most likely consumed roots, tubers and seeds, although it may have occasionally eaten small vertebrates too.
Gigantopithecus certainly survived long enough to be glimpsed by Homo erectus. Indeed our ancestors may have occasionally hunted juveniles of the species, and may have tried to tackle the adults when feeling brave enough. It’s thought that Gigantopithecus died out around 1 million years ago, but there is speculation that it may have survived into more recent times. Some experts even go as far as stating that the real King Kong is still abroad today, living in the foothills and mountain passes of the Himalayas. It could well be that this creature is the inspiration behind the legend of the Yeti.
Back in prehistory, there were many different types of mammal that closely resembled what we would recognise as horses. One such a creature which lived in Asia at the time of Homo erectus’ arrival was a unique kind of horse known as Hipparion, which unlike modern horses had three toes, but with just the one, what we normally call a hoof touching the ground. It could well be that the other two toes were evolutionary relics left over from far distant ancestors, similar to the largely redundant fifth digit still present in modern dogs.
Man Meets King Kong
A Long Tusked Elephant
An Asian Hippo
Elephants and Hippos
Asia was home to many species of elephant including the woolly mammoth which inhabited the frozen north, others such as the straight tusked elephant roamed widely across the temperate regions, the biggest of them all, Deinotherium, had colonised the warmer parts of Asia long before any hominid and was still present at the time of Homo erectus and then of course there was the modern Asiatic elephant which was also present over a wide range and presumably in great numbers. One species of elephant that has escaped mention so far is the one that possessed the longest tusks in relation to its body size. Scientifically it’s known as Anancus, and looked for all intents and purposes like a modern elephant, with a short lower jaw and a long prehensile trunk, but it was its tusks that truly marked it out as a creature apart, they measured an incredible 13 feet in length alone and were almost as long as the animal itself. Anancus seems to have been primarily a woodland animal. It probably browsed from high branches and rooted among the leaf litter looking for any fallen fruit or invertebrates.
Our final featured member of the Asian megafauna menagerie is an animal known as Hippopotamus gorgops that essentially resembled the modern African hippo, but there were some important differences, notably in size as it was much larger than the modern hippo. The most obvious difference was its particularly prominent periscope like eyes that sat above the skull on small stalks, which gave gorgops fantastic panoramic vision. It could lie totally submerged in the water, with just its eyes, ears and nostrils visible.
Differences aside, H. Gorgops had the same hippo like body shape as its modern counterpart. Its sheer bulk meant that it was more at home in the water than on land where the water offered a buoyancy and weightlessness effect. Its short, thick legs and broad feet were ideally suited for walking on mud. Its mouth too was very wide, with huge canine teeth that were ideally suited for digging up water plants.
That concludes my look at the megafauna of Asia and the rest of the planet. The next hub in the series will tackle that most perplexing question head on...’What Killed the Megafauna’.
More to follow...