Continuation of the "Remember the Cretaceous Nights?" story. Our two scientists survive through a previously unknown Ice Age, only to find themselves in a period of runaway global warming. They face a catastrophic release of methane gas that ignites fires along the entire Eastern U.S. seaboard, and they have numerous encounters with the fascinating creatures of the Eocene epoch, including a memorable one with a herd of arctyldactyls, the ancestors of seals, whales and hippopotamae.
Chapter Three…All Was Not As We Thought
“The clues were in the leaves,” said Sarah. “See the smooth edges?”
She pulled down a branch of a tree of one of the Ficus variety. They were green and glossy, and somewhat thick.
“The higher the proportions of trees with smooth edged leaves, the higher the number of species such as Ficus, or the Citrus varieties, or the Pommus and Prunus families, the warmer the temperatures. That is what I based my studies on. If sixty percent of species show this kind of morphology, and the remaining have more jagged or cerrated edges, like the toothy edges of birch or poplars or most oaks, then the average annual temperatures in that region were about seventy degrees. For every increase of ten percent, there is a five degree increase of temperature. Nobody really knows why it works that way, but it does. That’s a basis for the model.”
“That was during the Holocene,” said Walt. “That model obviously is seriously flawed! Damn it’s even cold down here!”
“I’ve figured that our average temperature here is in the upper fifties. Hardly tropical!”
“That’s more like what we find at home in Northern Canada,” he said. “Now this little cold spell happened fast, within a single generation of trees. There would have been no chance for any evolutionary or dispertionary adaptation.”
“Trees are phenomenally resilient,” she said. “They can handle extremes a lot better than we give them credit for! I’ve seen palm trees growing in places like Denver. True, we planted them there, but nonetheless they manage to hang in through the dry summer heat and the heavy snow in the winter.”
“I hate to remind you every time, but your climate models really do suck!”
“Thanks for reminding me!”
“April 4, 58,043,229 B.C.E…Ypresian stage of the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period. We’re holed up here in what will later become southern China, where it’s relatively warm. This period at one time was considered to be one of the periods of the greatest episode of global warming, but as we’ve found out, it was actually a brief ice age! The last few years have shown quite a bit of warming and the snow and glaciers on the mountaintops are starting to recede a little, but it’s going to take some time before we’ll be sure.
“While wandering around in the woods I came upon a horse sized creature that looked almost like a rhinoceros! These forests, in spite of the cold, are supporting quite a selection of herbivores. I also noticed this evening the emergence of another interesting creature! Yes, the birds are no longer the only vertebrates of the skies! Over the years I had noticed that small mammals that were similar to flying squirrels and sugar gliders were rather common in some forests, but some of these actually developed the ability to propel themselves in actual flight! Yes, we now have bats! Actually, I call them ‘proto-bats’ because they still don’t quite look like the creepy little flying fur balls that compelled me to take a tennis racket with me when I went to the barn at night! They eat a mixed diet of fruit and insects, but they forage mostly during the day, which makes me believe that they haven’t quite developed their legendary echolocation abilities yet!
“Rows of islands are pushing out of the ocean to the south, probably as what will later become India is pushing northward toward China, and folding the hundreds of miles of mud and sediments on the bottom of the sea. I expect these islands will accrete to these southern shores, and then be pushed ever higher once these two land masses actually collide with one another. This lower range of mountains, about eight or nine thousand feet at the highest, is nature’s first draft of what we will call the Himalayas and the Karakorums. Mount Everest and K-2 are likely still out there in the sea, waiting to be folded upward from the depths.
“We are accumulating so much data. We have an unbelievable amount of notes, samples, pictures and the sort, that I have no idea how we’re going to carry this all around. We’ve found some interesting ways to preserve them from the ravages of time, but now the transportation is becoming an issue. Our best plan would likely be to find a place that’s geologically stable, and secure them in a cave or similar location and dig them up when we finally make it back to the 21’st century. I know we have fifty eight million years to wait, but I cannot wait to share our story with the world.
“Unfortunately, the time machine cost the taxpayers somewhere close to three hundred million dollars, and we’re returning without it. I’m not too eager to face that music…
As fast as the Ice Age came, it went, and Global Warming hit with a vengeance. The cause of the warming was a bigger mystery than that of the end of the twentieth century, as there was no industrial output of carbon dioxide to pin the blame on. In less than one hundred thousand years, the glaciers had completely receded from the mountaintops, and tropical forests reached far north. They settled for a while near what would eventually be settled as the city of Madison Wisconsin, amid natural groves of orange trees and coconut palms.
While making an expedition over a rugged range to the broad sandy shores of what would eventually be called the eastern coast of the state of Georgia, the mystery of the warming was solved. One clear night, while watching the moonlight on the waves of the ever widening Atlantic Ocean, an ominous series of events went into motion.
“What’s that orange glow?” she asked as they looked eastward. “The sun just went down a couple hours ago.
“That ain’t no sunrise!” he said as the glow grew brighter and closer.
“Grab Travis and get in the truck!” she screamed. “I’ll drive! I think I know what it is!”
“I’m not arguing with you!” he said as he grabbed his beloved pet, Travis Tritt, a full grown Eohippus (ancestral horse) that had adopted them. Within moments they were driving through the open savannah, foot to the floor. They sped along through the open woodlands for about four hours, as the bright orange glow gained on them. Once they were about two hundred miles inland, near the future site of the city of Atlanta, they sought refuge behind a row of granite formations. Quickly, they threw some large palm logs and slabs of bark over the vehicle and against the rocky face along the leeward side of the narrow ridge.
A violent shock wave overtook them, followed by foul, hot blast blew over them, igniting trees and brush all around. After a few hours, they emerged from their lucky shelter, surrounded by burning forest. He scrambled to the top of the ridge and surveyed the damage.
“What do you see up there?” she hollered over the crackle of flame.
“Everything’s burning up!” he said. “Nothing but smoke! What the hell was that?”
“Methane clathrates,” she said. “Methane gas held in suspension in the mud on the ocean floor. A sudden release left a dangerous concentration of the gas in the air, and a lightning strike ignited it. Imagine a Bunsen burner the size of Texas!”
“Good move coming inland!” he said. “Something like that probably set off a tsunami the size of Texas, too!”
“Likely so!” she said. “That’s why I gave the order to roll! Thank you for not questioning me!”
“You’re climate forecasts might suck,” he said as he climbed down. “But not your judgment!”
“Well, I do sleep with you,” she said. “So I’m not all that sure about my judgment. Now for the next question on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ Where do we go now?”
“These fires have us pinned down at the moment,” I said. “We should be okay right here, as granite doesn’t burn! They probably won’t last for more than a few days.”
“That’s a big fire!” she said. “I bet everything from Boston to Miami is burning!”
“Just down to Jacksonville,” he corrected. “The Florida Peninsula doesn’t exist yet. As it is, such a large fire is going to draw a lot of air currents into it. It’s going to pull in most of that air from over the ocean, where the water vapor will condense on the smoke particles.”
“And this will help in what way?”
“Large fires often set up their own weather fronts. Once it starts drawing in any winds containing moisture, the smoke will seed clouds, and then we’ll see some rain. That’ll get these fires under control.”
“I hope you’re right!” she said. “Because we only have about a week’s worth of food, and about three days worth of water! If we’re lucky!”
Fortunately, he was right. Two days later, they were awakened by a torrential downpour that doused enough of the flames to allow them to find their way westward. Soon, they were following a trail they had blazed some months earlier through the future states of Alabama and Tennessee and northward to their Wisconsin home.
Not all hoofed creatures were herbivores. Some were carnivorous, and lived close to the ocean. These creatures had thin coats, wide tails, and made a high pitched barking sound similar to that of a seal. In spite of their less than ideal limbs for swimming, they were adept at maneuvering in the water. They could hold their breath for long periods of time, and when not in the water, they enjoyed laying on the rocks in the sun. They were an interesting creature. They looked like a cross between a horse, a seal, and some of the water loving mammals of sub-Saharan Africa.
Although these creatures were carnivorous, they spent little time feeding on land. They were more into eating fish and kelp in the ocean. The two scientists spent a summer walking among their numbers.
“They look like Hippopotamus!” she said as she swatted away the clouds of flies.
“They sure SMELL like them!” he said. “Worse! I think something died around here!”
“They eat fish, they pass most of it through, then they take a big dump while they’re on land!” he said.
“I wonder if these things have anything to do with whales and dolphins,” she said. “I remember reading stories about how ancient whalers could find a feeding pod of whales by following the stench!”
Walt took a makeshift measuring tape and walked up to a nursing female that was laying on a rock. The large grey creature had a pink, hairless underside. She swatted at him with one of her short hoofed legs.
“Never mind me, girl,” he said as he patted her on the head between her two stubby round ears. “Just getting some measurements.”
He took the string, held it by her nose just before her narrow, close nostrils and then stretched it to a point over the base of her neck. He then continued from there, to the hindquarter, and then to the end of the tail.
“Twelve foot six and a half inches counting the tail,” he said. “Body’s about that of a small domesticated horse, though. I estimate the weight about eight hundred to nine hundred pounds.”
One of the creatures barked and bellowed, and then unceremoniously slid off it’s rock and into the water. Two other beasts looked over toward them and gave them a look that only a mother would love.
“Nine hundred pounds of Ugly!” she said. “I take it you want to be writing this down.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Except for the ‘ugly’ part. Let’s try to keep this objective!”
As they looked down along the future Gulf Coast beach (actually about as far inland as present day Texarkana Arkansas) they noticed the beaches and rocky outcroppings were amass with these creatures. They would come onto the shore and sleep, then would go back into the waves to feed and play. They were very social, and very vocal. The two scientists traveled for miles along the beach, dodging these monstrous and lazy beasts.
“You said we’d have a nice day at the beach!” she said. “Where the hell is there a place to park? This is worse than Daytona during Spring Break!”
“It smells about as bad!” he said as he tried to take claim of a small patch of sand. Unfortunately, a large male creature logged its way from the waves and plopped his large body in the coveted location.
“The beach ain’t working!” he said. “How about a nice mountain lake in Colorado?”
“Got enough gas?”
“Enough for about a hundred miles, but I saw some Cobaifera trees a few miles inland. I brought some spikes and some buckets.”
An hour later, they stood by the large tree and waited for the clear sap to drip into several buckets they hung on some hollow spikes. This tree, who’s descendants would later be found in Brazil and Central America, had sap that was so rich in hydrocarbons that it was similar in composition to lower grade diesel fuel. Trees similar to this grew everywhere during the warmer periods, such as the Eocene, but were harder to find after periods of cooler climates.
As he harvested the fuel, he found himself harassed by groups of small mammals living in the canopy. A whole well organized colony had made its home in the leafy branches above, and they were not thrilled about his presence. They began throwing things at him and chattering loudly.
“What the hell is all the commotion?” asked Sarah as she got out of the patchwork-covered vehicle and up to one of the filling buckets.
“Somebody doesn’t want us here!” he said as he pointed to the cat-sized brown creatures with long tails and well developed, five fingered fore limbs.
“It sounds like…monkeys at the zoo!”
“Lemurs,” he said. “They came from those squirrel like creatures we started seeing at the end of the Cretaceous.”
“I thought those were the ancestors of the bats we’ve been seeing for the last few thousand years.”
“And the Lemurs, which are the earliest of the primates.”
“And we’re primates!” she said. “You mean to tell us that our cousins are dirty BATS?”
“And rabbits, squirrels, and beavers.” he said. “They seemed to have split off back during the early Paleocene, right after the Big Bang in Mexico. These are the little guys who found places to stay in the trees, probably in the little sheltered grottoes kind of like the ones we saw back in Virginia a couple years afterward. Those little critters who stayed in the ground became Bucky Beaver, and those who found any treetops that didn’t get burned beyond recognition became Us…and the bats.”
“It does make sense,” she said. “Bats are rather intelligent, and they have rather well developed and intricate fore limbs, like primates…and us. And beavers, their engineering abilities are legendary. It takes a little more than just instinct to know how to build the intricate dams and lodges they do.”
“Even the squirrels, ever watch how they pick up objects and manipulate them?”
“No wonder why everyone balked at Charles Darwin when he wrote ‘The Origin of Species.’ I came from a Catholic family who had a real problem with the evolution idea. It’s bad enough thinking our ancestors as little shit throwing masturbating monkeys, but SQUIRRELS?”
“Take some notes!” he said. “I think we’ve got to re-evaluate our own family tree!”
“September 10, 46,669,884 B.C.E… After a brief period of cooling, Primates have almost completely disappeared from North America and Europe, but they flourish in South America, Africa and Asia. Their intelligence is amazing, and they are already figuring out how to take common objects like sticks and rocks to use for everyday tasks and weapons. What is really interesting is that there is a series of colonies we’ve found in the southernmost part of Africa that has grown larger than other primates, and they spend about as much time on the ground as they do in the treetops. They build complex nest like structures in the tree tops, and they don’t really forage. They gather edible items and then drag it back to their dwellings to process and store it. They remove chaff, shells and outer coverings and they tear strips of meat from fallen carcasses to allow it to dry so they can eat it later. Often, they do this with the aid of splinters of wood, bone or stone. This is the first indication of the use of tools. We thought this happened later in the Pliocene, but we’re actually observing this in the Eocene. We’ve fashioned some crude methods to examine DNA, and we’ve found something rather interesting. This special group of primates has the same number of chromosomes as us, twenty three pairs for a total of forty six. Other primate like creatures have different numbers and several different markers. It appears that our lines split about thirty million years earlier than we thought!”
“The beasts we saw a while ago on the shores of Arkansas seem to be developing a greater affinity for the water. Most like the saltwater, but there are a few groups who have moved back inland in Africa and enjoy muddy rivers and inland lakes. They seem to have returned to a predominately vegetarian diet, although they do take part in some limited cannibalism during lean, dry times. These creatures seem to resemble the modern Hippopotamus, whereas the salt water varieties behave more like seals and whales. All of them, the Artiodactyls have nostrils that are very close together, and near the top of the skull. They also have a tremendous talent for holding their breath.
“We adopted another pet, this little beast I named Kenny Chesney, and he’s about the size of a Saint Bernard. He is what I call a Mesorohippus, an ancestral horse creature that seems to be a gap between the Orohippus and the Mesohippus. He walks on two toes, and the other two are still visible but further up the leg and not reaching the ground (kind of like the ‘dew claw’ found on modern dogs.) Actually, Kenny adopted us, kind of like most of our pets have done over the years. He followed me home one night after I was out hunting and when I came back to camp, I asked Sara ‘Can I keep him?’ She didn’t mind. At times we end up wandering our separate ways for a few days at a time, and I think she likes the company.
“The weather still is a bit warm. There are some rather large mountains developing around central China and northern Pakistan, and they maintain some snow packs and glaciers on their summits, but the polar regions are still relatively temperate. A slow cooling is occurring, but far from anything that can be defined as an ice age. We went through a period of tremendous warming during the earlier part of this epoch, with an average temperature climb of almost fifteen degrees. It’s now down about half of that, with a drop of about a half degree every one hundred thousand years. We’ve noticed a lot of Category Five hurricanes and some phenomenal thunderstorms in the continental interior, and these trigger some rather large forest fires in the spring and summer months. The carbon dioxide pumped into the air by these firestorms is probably what’s kept the temperatures from dropping any faster.
“Since it is warmer, it is a bit drier in the interior of most continents, so a lot of the forests are losing ground in some of those regions. We had noticed grasses growing close to the streams and lakes since the Cretaceous, but they are starting to take hold in more open areas, and the low ground coverings like Chameabateia are losing ground to them. Grasses are well suited to these open areas, as the narrow blade like leaves are more durable and less likely to suffer injury from the exposure to the sunlight. They have the advantage of not having as much exposed surface area. They have developed simple, tough flowers that provide starchy fruit in the form of sturdy seeds. We’ve taken to harvesting these seeds and manipulating them into various storable food items such as flour. Yes, we’ve found ways to make bread and tortillas, and as a result, we’re eating even better than we ever have in our millions of years. We also found numerous ways to make grain alcohol.
“The herbivores have taken well to this habitat, too, especially in the rainier seasons. The grasses are a little tougher than the soft leaves they are used to browsing on, so the ones who do the best are the creatures like old Kenny, who has a longer jaw to hold rows of wide washboard like molars for grinding this stuff. Since these blades owe their hardiness to minute crystals of Silicon Dioxide, which is literally the same stuff as most sand, most grassland herbivores have had to adapt to this abrasive diet. They have done so by passing most of it through their system, but they have also developed multiple stomach chambers for storage of larger amounts of it.
“The predator profile is starting to look more familiar. We have noticed many creatures that resemble dogs, cats, bears and ferret-like creatures. None are any larger than a Rottweiler, but they all are quite powerful, and aside from the ferrets, they are group hunters.
“Among the birds there is a remarkable group. Every continent has at least one variety of gigantic flightless bird. Already, there are some that have a remarkable resemblance to Ostriches, complete with the nasty temper. On the North American continent, there is a red and orange beaked monster that is twice the size of an Ostrich, and it is a very aggressive predator.
“I looked up at the sky the other day while wandering across these open plains that will someday be the Steppes of Western Russia, and saw a very familiar sight. Large birds, black bodies with bare red heads and white undersides on their wide wings. Vultures! The plains are a harsh environment, and a lot of creatures don’t make it out there. These birds have learned how to take advantage of that situation!
As the storm blew outside, they huddled up in the small mud brick house they built in modern day Siberia. It had been raining for several days, and it was hard enough that it kept them inside until the storm passed. As they huddled by the fire hearth, drinking their homemade whiskey, they began to reminisce not about the history they had seen, but their former lives in the later Holocene epoch.
“This still isn’t quite like Wild Turkey,” he said.
“I was always a red wine kind of girl myself,” she said. “Unfortunately I think we’re still about fifteen million years too early for grapes. We aren’t that sure where the Vitacades family came from.”
“I noticed that there are a few poplar and cottonwood trees that seem to have leaves similar to those of grapes.”
“Grapes are vine plants, and they require lots of water. It seems logical that they would have their roots in a Riparian environment.”
“Well, I’m not waiting for twenty million years for a glass of wine,” she said. “Hand me the damn bottle!”
He handed her the clay jar with the potent contents. She drank a large portion of it, and handed it back.
“There’s finally some decent grass areas around,” he said. “You know what that means? I can sure go for a good round of Golf!”
“Golf is good,” she said. “But I sure miss Saturday Night at the movies!”
“Dinner, a movie, and you know what we can do afterwards,” he said. “But how about we shoot a few holes?”
From a thick willow branch, he fashioned a couple of crude golf clubs, and then took a rounded rock from the edge of the fire. “The moon is full, so there’s enough light out there!”
“You sure the Phorusracids aren’t out?” she said. “The most undignified thing would be to be eaten alive by a giant chicken while shooting a round of golf!”
“They hunt during the day,” he said. “The only predators out right now are the dogs and cats, and we can keep them off. There’s nothing out there any bigger than a Black Lab.”
Drunk, and heavily armed with a rather unique collection of stone and bronze weapons, they headed into the darkness where they played a crude form of golf. Their first ‘hole’ was a par twenty seven, the whole length of a long meadow, over a stream, and up to the top of a ridge, where the ‘green’ was a bare patch of eroded gneiss.
“So far, I’ve got thirty two, to your thirty eight!”
“Did you count the mulligan you took by the weasel den?”
“Did you count the one you took by the spruce tree?” he said. “Oh, and the drop you took by the creek?”
“Well, you know how hard it is to find a ball that’s nothing more than a little round grey rock?”
“Fuck it!” he said. “It’s the Late Eocene! I don’t think there’s any PGA handicappers watching us!”
“After the next one let’s go to the clubhouse for some cucumber sandwiches and a cold Michelob!”
“We’re a little early for the Michelob,” he said. “Hell, we’re a bit too early for the Clubhouse!”
“I’d be happy with a run through the drive through at Carl’s Junior!” she said. “But this late at night, the counter at Denny’s!”
“Then out to the Black Angus for Mai Tai’s and dancing!”
“I’ve been more of an Alabama Slammer fan myself,” he said. “You know what? There’s enough fruit and shit around here, we can probably come up with our own concoctions!”
On the way back to the house, they took the time to gather fruits from the numerous trees and shrubs that grew in the area. Once home, they mashed them up and mixed the juices with the homemade liquor. Once again, they were reminiscing about their evenings out in the modern world.
“The only thing missing is the tacky little paper umbrella!” she said.
“Give us time, and we can even do that!” he remarked. “We’ve been making everything else as it is!”
“What shall we call this mess? It’s got mango, blackberry, citrus, and a touch of something else…”
“Absinthe,” he said. “I saw some growing down by the creek. That’s that pinch of licorice flavor you taste.”
“I say we call this a….Siberian Palaeogene Delight!”
“Say that ten times over real fast!” he said. “I was thinking more along the lines of The Oligocene Hammer!”
“Is this the Oligocene?” she asked.
“It’s not like it’s really marked on a calendar!” he said. “There’s nothing scrawled down somewhere saying ‘The Oligocene is starting on December 22 of…whatever year it is’!”
“So what would define the passing over of one age to the next?”
“Fossil record, what critters are running around, maybe some defining series of events…”
The following night, after another run of mixed drinks, they decided it would be interesting to look at the stars and planets through the telescope. Through the intoxicating haze they saw an answer to the question they had the night before. Emerging from a point just to the right of the rings of Saturn, the ‘defining event’ quietly notified them of its imminent arrival.