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MARTHA SEZ: As the crow flies, and more

April 12, 2012
MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

I was watching a crow yesterday, marveling at the beauty and grace of its movement as it rode the wind.

Then, for some reason, I thought of an archeopterix, that prehistoric link between theropod dinosaurs and birds, and imagined it trying to sail around in the same way.

Oh, sure, archeopterix could probably jump off something - a cliff, or some giant fern, say - and accidentally catch an air current for a while, but I just couldn't feature it exulting in the updrafts and downdrafts and gliding the way this crow was doing.

It occurred to me that I am prejudiced against prehistoric animals. I admit that I consider many of them to be monsters.

When I think of the earliest mammals, I imagine dimwitted and - let's be frank - ugly creatures blundering around over the face of the planet.

Woolly mammoths are all right. They used to roam North America 900 years ago, which makes them pretty trendy in evolutionary terms. If you go back farther in the fossil record you find deinoterium, a pachydermlike beast with hideous chin tusks.

To me, prehistoric animals look like the clumsy artwork of children who are just learning to paint or model with clay. You can see what they meant to do, and these early attempts are all very well, but just because you might clamp a crayon drawing to your refrigerator with a magnet doesn't mean you put it on the same plane as a drawing by Leondardo da Vinci in his prime.

Megatherium, the giant ground sloth, weighed 8 tons and reached 20 feet in height, standing on the sides of his hind paws. His long, curved claws prevented him from standing on the soles of his feet.

There were plenty of prehistoric megafauna, or giant animals, none of which could win the equivalent of a dog show by today's standards.

Speaking of canines, I just found a picture of an extremely unattractive 2-ton doglike carnivore named Andrewsarchus (after which scientist? Three guesses. You guessed Dr. Andrews? Very good!).

To be fair, though, the artist's rendition of Andrewsachus is based on what scientists have surmised from a fossil head, which is all they have been able to go on so far. With its huge, powerful jaws, Andrewsarchus was probably about 13-feet long, or so they are extrapolating. The artist sketched in a disreputable-looking mane along its back and made it resemble a sort of out-sized hyena.

I am not alone in my prejudice against ancient life forms. Along with other baby boomers, as well as previous generations, in my youth I was influenced by natural science texts. In these books, the brontosaurus was depicted as a lumbering swamp-dweller dragging its tail through the primeval mud, which medium it required to support its enormous weight. Now, competing scientists have upgraded brontosaurus, calling it apatosaurus and depicting it with a muscular tail lifted parallel to the earth. In recent movies and books this huge sauropod has attained a majesty it was never accorded previously.

Even our own ancestors were denegrated. Look at how cave men have historically been pictured, bashing cave women over the head with clubs, supposedly the earliest example of tool use in the human repetoir.

Only recently, DNA studies have shown interbreeding between Neanderthals and the human beings who left Africa early, around 80,000 years ago. Presentday Africans who were tested in human genome studies do not show any Neanderthal DNA. Asians and Europeans do.

Neanderthals used to be represented as dopey hunchbacks dragging their knuckles along the ground. Recent depictions show them standing tall and buff, red-haired and green-eyed, strewing the graves of their dead with flowers. Behind their receding foreheads, scientists now say, throbbed brains appreciably larger than ours.

All right, I'll grant you the Neanderthals. For some reason that I do not understand, I have always regarded Neanderthals as kindred spirits.

I will also amend my view of dinosaurs to allow them to hold their tails up off the ground. I prefer to see them in this modern, energized way.

After careful consideration, however, I still think that our presentday animals are more beautiful and graceful on the whole than their forebears. Look at tigers and polar bears, zebras and cheetahs. Now, these creatures look like the handiwork of a mature genius.

Scientists say that earth's monsters and megafauna have all died off - except in the seas. In the deeps, strange and hideous ancient relicts live on.

Have a good week.



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