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Living With Animals: A Very Different World

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that North America was once home to lions, zebra, and other megafauna (mega as in big, fauna as in animals) which led to questions from apparently doubting readers. Come on folks: there were a lot of years after dinosaurs but before the Prius ruled the Earth, and life is very good at evolving. You may be surprised to learn what walked this ground in the past.

A one-ton version of armadillo known as Glyptodon made the way up from South America into today’s coastal Florida and Texas. Although extinct for 10,000 years, since the most conservative of estimates has people arriving here some 15,000 years ago our species and the van-sized armadillo were cohabitants. As of course was the Mastodon, who took the same land bridge over the Bering Straits from Asia as did the first Native Americans. Mastodons and the later Mammoths were North America’s elephants, plant eaters like their modern counterparts (as well as the Glyptodon) and the American Camel (which evolved here during the Eocene, about 45 million years ago).

With all those large plant eaters, what about predators? Glad you asked. Hyenas are among the fiercest of African predators, and our own hyena (Chasmaporthetes, or the running hyena) ranged across the American southwest around 800,000 years ago. Several species of saber toothed tiger (the perhaps ironically named Smilodon had foot-long fangs) was likely only wiped out as tool-using humans proved to be the more successful hunters. North America had its own lion, zebra, giant sloth (at roughly the size of an elephant, I do mean giant), even ginormous flightless birds (standing 7 foot tall) as well as the largest flying bird ever with a wingspan of up to 24 feet (with such a wingspan, scientists theorize that this native might have had to jump off cliffs in order to get enough lift). I can only add that I’m glad PHS/SPCA was not responsible for animal control back in those days!

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