As much as I’m looking forward to Jurassic Park, I will never quite forgive dinosaurs for the sin of being birdlike. How can I fear something that I eat in nugget form? Now prehistoric mammals — that’s where the action is. Here are the top 10 mammals that ruled more than any dinosaur ever.
The first entry is predictable but — let’s face it — can’t be ignored. Remember how, in his famous poem The Tyger, William Blake wondered about how such a creature of pure savagery could possibly exist in a universe with gentler animals? Well, imagine taking a tiger, crossing it with a defensive lineman, and adding knives to its face. Machairodontinae, the best-known of which is the smilodon, is all of those things — and more. Saber-toothed cats were probably social.
How do we know that? Studies have shown that machairodontinae turn up a lot in tar pits. That doesn’t sound so scary, you say. Well you’re a fool, and I’ve always said so. You see, social animals show up more often when they hear their prey making distress calls. Loners, though they might not fear the prey, will fear competing for the prey with other predators. Groups of predators feel more secure. So the reason that smilodons ended up in tar pits is they came, salivating, whenever they heard cries of pain and fear from other animals.
Top Image: Robert Bruce Horsfall
This is an artist’s depiction of what would happen in a fight between a diprotodon and a human being — the artist just doesn’t realize it. Actually, it’s a picture of a “bunyip,” a mythical Australian creature that was said to lurk near pools of water, preying on humans. It’s possible that diprotodon jaws, found near pools, spawned the legend.
The teeth aren’t accurate. Neither, really, is a the nose. The diprotodon was the world’s largest marsupial, and probably looked a little like a koala, if a koala was the size of a hippopotamus and fully capable of crunching a human skull between its two back molars. It probably ate vegetation, but then, so do hippos — and that hasn’t stopped them from killing people.
Image: J. Macfarlane
And while we’re in the water, let’s talk about how we never want to get back in the water. Those things in the picture to the left, the things that look like dried yams, do they impress you? How about if I told you they were tooth fragments? How about they were tooth fragments from the largest functioning teeth on any animal, ever? Is that better?
The clue to Leviathan mellvillei’s appearance is right there in the name. The name combines the biblical demon with the author of Moby Dick in a frantic attempt to make us understand how big this whale was. While there have been animals that had larger structures that qualify as teeth, a look at the jaws of this whale shows that these are the largest teeth ever used as teeth. And it did use those teeth. Specifically, it used the teeth to rip chunks off of its prey, while the prey was still alive and desperately trying to swim away.
Rytiodus was a member of the genus sirenia, making it a relation of the dugong and the manatee. It resembled both of them, except for two factors. It was much larger than existing species, reaching about twenty feet in length. It also had small tusks. These were not used offensively against predators or other mega-dugongs. Scientists believe that rytiodus used the tusks to plow the sand on the ocean floor for little creatures to eat.
What was so great about rytiodus? Scientists have found fossils in France.
Come on. Like you wouldn’t want to go swimming with giant manatees and then get out of the water and go eat French food. Sometimes location makes all the difference, people!
Image: Julien Willem
Okay, do I have to tell you why this is cooler than a dinosaur? Because if you’re the kind of person who needs to be told that kind of thing, you’re someone who can never understand it. Officially, the picture above is of Arsinoitherium zitteli, but let’s call it what it is: a dinoceros. Actually, it might be more related to elephants than rhinos, but with this mammal we’re focusing on the pure design.
Why put two horns on a rhino, you ask? To this question I can only reply, why put chrome on a bumper? Why put peanut butter on a brownie, and why put another brownie on top of that? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. You know what makes it cooler? Scientists studying it think that it couldn’t entirely straighten its legs. And the reason it couldn’t, or didn’t, entirely straighten its legs is it probably lived mostly in the water. Yep. Imagine this thing paddling around ancient swamps, ponderously keeping its giant horns out of the water like an old lady in a swimming pool doing the breast stroke with her head held high in order to keep her bathing cap dry. Forget dinosaurs — this was a Doctor Seuss cartoon come to life.
I don’t like rabbits, but I make an exception for royalty. The T. Rex of the rabbit kingdom, Nuralagus Rex grew to be fifty pounds and clearly didn’t feel the need to get a lot of exercise. Look at that big, fat, flat-footed bunny. That is what used to go hopping around the island of Minorca.
Described by actual paleontologists as “roly-poly,” this was a big, lumbering mammal that was the rabbit equivalent to the Galapagos tortoise. It wandered around the island, eating roots and enjoying a predator-free existence. When predators came to the island, this guy went extinct, which is a shame. Not only do I think it would make an adorable pet, giant tortoises are notoriously tasty. This was formed by the same evolutionary forces. So if he didn’t work out as a pet, he’d probably make a delicious feast.
Image: Nobu Tamura
This is the set of teeth sported by an eleven-foot-long, 3700 pound wolf-like creature. It was found in the Valley of Jewels in Mongolia, because even the discovery of this thing’s remains has to sound epic. The skull is three feet long. The cheek teeth are, probably, designed to crush bones. This is the largest meat-eating land mammal that ever lived.
How big is it? In 2013, it was analyzed and scientists now think it’s a relative of whales. So, basically, imagine how the world would be if the smaller relative of a killer whale grew legs, walked up onto the shore, and decided that you were what’s for dinner. That’s the world of Andrewsarchus mongoliensis.
Image: Ryan Somma
If you really find yourself missing dinosaurs, look no farther than the glyptodon. It has the body of an ankylosaurus, the heart of an armadillo — and the size of a smart car. You might even get an elephant in there somehow. The nasal cavities showed spaces meant for heavy muscle attachments. In order to make up for its unwieldy body, the glyptodon might have had a sensitive and mobile trunk or proboscis with which it could sort through its food. Everything about these animals is weird, and cool, including the fact that, in a pinch, you could use its “shell” for a tent.
I like everything about these prehistoric giant sloths. I like the fact that they’re the size of elephants. I like their sweet faces in all their illustrations. I like the fact that they used a cave in Nevada as a toilet for 40,000 years. I like that their combined dung piled up so high that it changed the architecture of the cave. I like that scientists describe them as having a “robust pelvis.” I like the fact that some of them could walk along on two legs. Imagine that — an elephant-sized hairy animal with giant claws ambling through the landscape, looking for trees it could sit in front of and slowly strip bare.
But what I like best is, like the dinoceros, these animals could probably swim, and swim very well. Some even think that they were habitual swimmers. If there were one prehistoric animal I could bring back, it would be the giant ground sloth, just to see it do the backstroke. And possibly poop.
Image: Robert Bruce Horsfall
Remember how velociraptors in Jurassic Park were scary? They worked together. They were vicious. And they were smart. Remember how we were all frightened of how smart the raptors were? Well I’ll see you those little bird brains, and I will raise you an ape brain in a ten-goddamn-foot-tall body. I would say that this thing coming out of the jungle is an image from your nightmares, but not even your nightmares are that big.
We only have the teeth and jawbones of gigantopithecus blacki, and they indicate that it mostly ate plants. The fossil remains turn up in China and Vietnam, which means this thing could have made a diet of bamboo like the Giant Panda. This would be comforting if we didn’t know for a fact that a panda can work a human being over and if we didn’t know that a lot of supposed vegetarians will make a meal of any meat that they can easily catch. And if you think you’d be a challenging meal for an ape that’s roughly half the weight of a 2015 Toyota Prius, let’s hope you’re never put to the test.