After The Dinosaurs: Life In The Eocene

The Recovery

A depiction of the Eocene flora and fauna found in North America.
A depiction of the Eocene flora and fauna found in North America. | Source

Our World- 49 Million Years Ago

Its 15 million years since the mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. All evidence of the environmental havoc left by this event has been erased from the Earth’s surface. This is the Eocene or ‘dawn of new times.’ The Earth is now a forest planet, a lush green paradise covered in tropical and sub-tropical jungle. Sea levels and global temperatures are high, you could swim in the Arctic Sea and magnolias thrive in Alaska. The spread of flowering plants that started in the dinosaurs’ era has continued and the forests are now full of fruit, flowers and scents. Among the larger vertebrates the influence of the dinosaurs lives on. The mammals have not been quick to occupy the new niches and no large predators have evolved to replace the giant reptiles. Instead, crocodiles hunt along the waterways and huge predatory birds comb the forests for prey. But mammals are better prepared for the future; while they have remained small, they have begun to diversify. In the forests, there are the first primates, rodents, hoofed plant eaters, carnivores and bats.

The Feathered Terror

Gastornis, or Diatryma was the largest predator on the Earth in the aftermath of the dinosaur extinction.
Gastornis, or Diatryma was the largest predator on the Earth in the aftermath of the dinosaur extinction. | Source


A huge, heavily built, flightless bird, one of the largest animals around at the time and a fierce ambush predator.

Evidence: Only the imprint of a single thigh bone of Gastornis has been found in the Messel shales, near Frankfurt, but they are also common at the nearby site of Geiseltal and in the USA.

Size: 6 feet tall.

Diet: Meat, either hunted or scavenged.

Time: 56-41 million years ago.

Gastornis On Film

The Quiet Time

The Eocene jungle is very still just before sunrise. Around a dark lake the forest stacks up in dense green layers washed with an opaque pre-dawn light. A few bats flap silently between the upper branches, making their way back to their roosts. The hum from insects seems muted and the occasional haunting screech from a primate in the canopy only emphasises the silence. Suddenly ripples spread across the surface of the lake and waves appear from nowhere. There is a low rumble, which sends birds squawking from the trees and mammals scuttling from the undergrowth. A series of huge bubbles erupts from the lake, producing a small, sickly white cloud of gas. Beneath it the water stains red. Then it’s over, a short earthquake that leaves the denizens of the forest jumpy but unharmed.

Tremors are common here because the lake sits on a large island in the middle of the western Tethys Sea. To the north lies the giant Eurasian continent and to the south, Africa is slowly drifting northwards, squeezing the Tethys in between and causing volcanic activity across the area. The lake itself is the reason for the bubbles and gas. This is the dark secret. It’s about 1.2 miles across and more than 650 feet deep in places. At the very bottom is a dense layer of cold water trapped under a thick layer of warmer water. The cold water is stagnant and full of dissolved carbon dioxide. Every so often gas levels build up to such an extent that, when a tremor mixes the two layers, it can trigger the release of clouds of suffocating carbon dioxide which drifts towards the shore. This all makes the lake a very dangerous neighbour.

On this morning the cloud released is small, but its effects are deadly. A bat swoops low over the water, plucking a caddis fly out of the air, but as it turns it heads into the cloud of gas. After a few metres its delicate wings crumple and it drops with a small plop into the water. As the cloud reaches the reed and lily beds on the eastern shore it is already beginning to disperse. A palaeotis bird sitting on her nest opens her beak in a silent scream as she is suddenly robbed of oxygen. She shakes her head vigorously and staggers to her feet. Before the cloud can finish the job, it’s carried on into the fern and palm stands beyond on the morning breeze. The palaeotis puffs her dark brown plumage and settles back on her nest a little confused.

The cloud finally disperses as the ground rises. Here, where the under storey thins beneath huge laurel trees, the leaf litter has been scraped into a huge mound and topped with sticks and branches. Sitting on top of this, making a strange throaty whistle as she sleeps, is a gastornis. She is the largest bird on Earth, a carnivorous giant about 6 foot 6 tall, with a stout, muscular body. She cannot fly, but instead ambushes her prey amongst the dense undergrowth. In the dim light the shape of her huge body is hard to make out under her speckled black feathers, but there is no mistaking her livid red feathers and pale beak. The beak, in particular, is an awesome sight, a thick hatchet shaped weapon that can snap the backbone of a small horse in one bite. She is the queen of the jungle.

The gastornis was undisturbed by the tremor and oblivious to the gas cloud. She is a day time hunter and slumbers through the night, stirring only at dawn. All around her in the forest other diurnal creatures sleep on, unaware of the close brush some have had with death.

Modern, Yet Primitive

Leptictidium probably bore a striking resemblance to modern elephant shrews
Leptictidium probably bore a striking resemblance to modern elephant shrews | Source


These strange, hopping animals were part of a group that survived the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, but became extinct as the great tropical forests opened up at the beginning of the Oligocene. Three species are well preserved in the Messel shales, with outlines of fur and stomach contents.

Evidence: The leptictids were a widespread group and were around for a long time. Leptictidium itself was a specialised hopper with the best preserved specimens found in the Messel shales.

Size: Up to 3 feet long.

Diet: Small lizards, small mammals and invertebrates.

Time: 50-40 million years ago.

Leptictidium On Film

A Dawn Start

Sunrise and, because of rain in the night, the forest begins to steam. High in the canopy a thick mist hangs between the trees, tinged orange by the dawn light. Lower down, the branches and leaves splinter the light into rays that pierce through the dark forest floor. A little distance from the lake a huge strangler fig stands lashed to the ground by its web of branches. Deep inside, the laurel tree it originally grew on has long since been killed. This makes a perfect shelter for a mother leptictidium and her two babies. Her nest, raised well off the ground, is dry and the entrance protected by an impossible maze of fig roots. Inside, the family are preparing for their morning hunt. Leptictidium are creatures of habit and the day always starts with a frantic washing session. The mother’s long pink nose twitches as she works methodically over her soft brown fur. As she shifts to an inspection of her long hopping feet her youngsters play with her naked tail. After one of them nips it, she stops grooming and scrambles out into the moist morning air. The youngsters follow obediently. Leptictidium are common in this forest and several different species can be seen bounding through the undergrowth after insects and lizards. This mother belongs to the largest species, measuring almost a metre from nose to tail. She pauses for a moment to sniff for danger and then bounces off through the fig roots. On a branch an owl puffs up its long ribbon like plumage and watches them go.

All leptictidium have a hunting trail that they follow through the undergrowth. Every morning and evening they work their way round the trail, catching food and clearing any obstacle that falls across their path. Should a predator ambush them, these trails become their escape routes. Today they will be used well. The three little mammals move swiftly through the steamy forest floor bouncing on their long back legs. The trail takes them down towards the lake and on to a small silt beach. The mother stops for a moment, then snaps at a large stag beetle on a log. She holds the wriggling insect firmly in her hands, while her sharp teeth make shirt work of it. The youngsters gather round to taste the food from her lips. It’s just two weeks since they were born and they are already being weaned. They must learn quickly how to hunt for themselves.

Their progress slows as they near the lake, with the mother finding more insects on which to feed. The trail also takes them along the top of the beach and, in this more exposed environment, the mother stops frequently to check for danger. There is a quiet in the air and her nose and whiskers quiver nervously.

It turns out that her caution is justified. A brief flash of red in a nearby tea bush is followed by the snap of a branch and the female gastornis bursts from her hiding place. In three strides she is on her prey, snatching at them with resounding cracks of her huge beak. But the leptictidium started moving the moment the mother saw the flash of red and, bounding at full pelt, they just about escape the lethal beak. With astonishing speed they head back up their trail through the fig roots and into the safety of their nest. The gastornis is left standing and, after a couple more strides, she loses interest in the hunt. She is too big to be a pursuit predator here; she relies more on ambush amid the dense forest.

The gastornis turns and struts down to the lake shore. With a low mist swirling round her clawed feet, her black speckled plumage and her menacing red stained face, her distinguished relationship to a very famous group of extinct animals is clear. She is the last representative of the carnivorous theropod dinosaurs, giant bipedal killers that once stalked the land. But in this new age she is a creature out of time. There are many other predators around, such as walking crocodiles and small but powerful creodont mammals. The gastornis is the biggest of all of them, but in contrast to the time of the dinosaurs there are no giant herbivores for her to feast on. She has to work hard for her living.

The First Horse

A fossil cast of propalaeotherium from the Messel site in Germany.
A fossil cast of propalaeotherium from the Messel site in Germany. | Source


These little forest animals are among the earliest horses known. They belong to the perissodactyls, a group which also includes tapirs and rhinoceros. Living in thick forest, they had four little hooves on their front feet and three on the back, and walked on pads, rather like dogs or cats.

Evidence: More than 35 beautifully preserved specimens of the two species are known from the Messel shales, and they have also been found at the nearby site of Geiseltal.

Size: Two species, one 12-14 inches at the shoulder, the other 22-24 inches.

Diet: Browsed on leaves and also ate fallen fruits.

Time: 49-43 million years ago.

The Walking Whale

This is the ancestor all living whales and dolphins. Its name, Ambulocetus literally means 'walking whale' and its easy to see why it was given the name.
This is the ancestor all living whales and dolphins. Its name, Ambulocetus literally means 'walking whale' and its easy to see why it was given the name. | Source


Although Ambulocetus looked rather like a huge otter. It was in fact one of the earliest whales. It was less agile in the water than an otter, it seems to have been adapted for ambushing large prey, which it then drowned.

Evidence: One fairly complete specimen and several partial skeletons have been found in Pakistan.

Size: 10 feet long.

Diet: Carnivorous

Time: 59-50 million years ago.

Whale Evolution In Action

End Of The First Shift

By mid morning the mist is long gone and the combination of high sun and dense greenery makes the air stiflingly humid. The forest here is typical of the tropical jungle that swathes most of this warm planet. The flowering plants that only started their evolution towards the end of the time of the dinosaurs are now dominant. Although a few ferns and cypresses hold on, the canopy is full of laurel, walnut, beech palm and dogwood. Climbers such as grapevines, honeysuckles and moonseeds wrap round these trees, while below magnolias, mulberries, tea and citrus bushes fight for light.

The variety on display is bewildering, but the things that would really confuse a time travelling dinosaur are the colours and the smells. The jungle is full of flowers and fruits, and in the morning heat their scent is overpowering. The green and brown dinosaur world of ferns and conifer needles has gone for ever. This seismic change in the flora is reflected in the type of animals that thrive here. The canopy is abuzz with wasps and bees. Among the branches and on the ground small mammals and birds grow fat on a diet of large fruit and soft flowers; gone is most of the rough, resin filled fare on which dinosaur plant eaters had to survive. This is a new Eden, a colourful scented world full of small animals, completely different from the age of the dinosaurs.

Under the canopy the darkness is broken by patches of magnesium white light, where the sun breaks through to the forest floor. A timid propalaeotherium horse tugs at a moonseed illuminated by one such ray of light. He is keen to draw it into the shadows where his dark dappled back will provide the security of camouflage.

A scuffle at the edge of the clearing sends the propalaeotherium scampering off. The leptictidium mother arrives and stops to wrestle with a lizard she has caught. The two youngsters catch up and join in. Suddenly the lizard’s brightly coloured tail pops off and starts to thrash about among the leaves. The youngsters leap back, pause and then pursue the tail with a series of hunting moves they have seen their mother perform. She meanwhile, holds tightly on to the lizard’s body and, after a firm bite to the back of the neck, it goes limp. She then heads off again for the nest. The youngsters follow, abandoning the tail to flick around by itself.

It is the end of the leptictidiums’ morning hunt and the family disappear under the strangler fig for their midday sleep. Inside the nest the mother finishes eating the lizard, although the youngsters will learn to hunt from her, she will never kill prey for them. They continue to try to suckle, but she is rapidly losing patience. Their time within her nest is running out, they will soon have to learn to be independent. For now, however, they all curl up and go to sleep.

Down by the lake, swifts dart across the surface, striking at the columns of mating insects. A python slips through the water lilies, heading for shore to digest a baby crocodile it has just caught. Nearby a much larger wake also heads for the shore. Just before it reaches the bank there is a splash and the top of a long brown head pops out of the water. At a glance it could be mistaken for a large crocodile, since there are plenty of those in the lake. But a closer look reveals that it is covered in a layer of fur and that there are whiskers bristling round its dark nose. Its eyes scan the bank and then, as it draws itself out on to the silt, it becomes clear that this extraordinary beast is nothing like a crocodile. Thick short hairs covers its entire body and large webbed feet make it move awkwardly on land. This is a male ambulocetus, part of a bizarre group of mammals that have evolved to take advantage of a similar niche to crocodiles, hunting animals along the water’s edge. Ambulocetus evolved on the Eurasian coast to the east of this forest and it is very rare to see one on the European islands. However, the jungle round the lake is full of bite sized prey, so it should not be short of food.

This male is about 10 feet long, not quite fully grown. He slides into position half in and half out of the water, in a patch of sedge that disguises his body. Then he settles down and waits. The ambulocetus’ hunting method requires a lot of patience. They have developed a special jaw and ear apparatus that is very sensitive to vibration. By resting their head on the ground they can sense the approach of prey and time their attack perfectly. Unfortunately, this does mean they have to wait for their victims to come to them.

In the oppressive heat of mid morning the ambulocetus starts his unique vigil. A huge flying ant lands on his forehead and explores the drying fur round his neck, but he does not move. After about half and hour a propalaeotherium appears from the undergrowth. She stands motionless in the shadows, her ears twitching. Then she nervously picks her way down to the lake to drink. Every few sips she looks around, alert to the slightest moves that would betray a predator. She is drinking just a few feet away from the stationary ambulocetus, but that is still too far for his purposes. Only when a large splash among the lilies sends the little horse jumping back does the predator make his move. With a flurry of dust and leaves, a huge fang filled mouth slashes sideways. But the horse was never near enough and, leaping high into the air, she disappears off into the jungle.

The ambulocetus decides to abandon his hunting, as the daytime temperatures are getting too high. He turns and slips into the water. After pushing off from the shore, a few sweeps of his webbed feet bring him to the deep, dark water that occupies most of the lake. Then his body and short tail into a series of slow, up and down undulations that propel him through the water without the use of his limbs. This movement is very distinctive of these new semi aquatic mammals and will one day be the trademark of their descendants, the whales. Below the ambulocetus, a crocodile moves pasts, its tail beating from side to side. The two do not bother each other.

The Modern Swarm

Army ants may not be as big as their Eocene ancestors but they're every bit as tenacious.
Army ants may not be as big as their Eocene ancestors but they're every bit as tenacious. | Source

Giant Ants

Insects are a very ancient group, going back well before the dinosaurs, and during the Cretaceous Period, the first social ants evolved and started to make colonies. The Eocene giants, Formicium giganteum, are the largest ants ever found, and their colonies must have had a dramatic impact on the life of the forest. Their carnivorous habits may have made them the equivalent of modern driver or army ants, which are importabr predators in today's tropical forests.

Evidence: Fossils of Formicium giganteum have been found in the Messel shales and a very similar species in the nearby Eckfelf Maar.

Size: Workers 1 inch long, while the queens were only an inch longer, they possessed wingspans of over 5 inches.

Diet: Carnivorous, eating any animal that could not get out of their way.

Time: 49-44 million years ago.

Modern Killer Ants

The Swarming

In the direct sunlight the temperature continues to climb into the blistering 40s, but under the shade of the canopy it peaks in the lower 30s. In their strangler fig nest the leptictidium no longer lie bundled together; instead they are stretched out, breathing fast to keep cool. Beneath the laurel with its massive buttressed roots, the gastornis has returned to her nest. In the centre lies a single large blue green egg which she has been incubating for weeks. Today for the first time it’s making a noise. With her fearsome beak she gently turns it, revealing a small hole worked by the chick as it commences the monumental task of breaking out of its shell prison. The pointed end of a small yellow beak appears in the hole and then a round purple tongue accompanied by a sharp rasping call. The mother gastornis will not assist in this hatching, which could take the chick several hours; instead she checks round her nest for intruders and heads back into the forest to find fresh meat for her new arrival.

About 160 feet away from the nest and deeper into the forest, a propalaeotherium is enjoying a harvest of overripe graves. Although only 2 feet long, he stands on his hind legs and reaches up over 3 feet to gorge himself on the mouldy clusters hanging off the vine. His little hoofed paws are incapable of grasping anything, but he can easily pluck the fruit with his muzzle. Suddenly he drops and freezes, his ears rigid. Despite the blistering temperatures and the clear blue sky above, he can hear a sound like gentle rain. Slowly it gets louder and the horse bolts. Soon the forest floor has spiders and large insects, such as cockroaches and grasshoppers, scrambling after the larger animals.

Eventually the reason for the panic and the sound of rain becomes apparent. From around the laurel bough that supports the vine comes a column of giant ants. Soon the area where the propalaeotherium was standing is swarming with thousands of these ruthless hunters, tumbling over one another in a dark red tide as they search for fresh meat. They vary in size, with the largest being over an inch long, but en masse they can bring down surprisingly large prey. The sound of rain comes from the thousands of ants that have scaled the trees and bushes in the search for victims and, if not successful, simply dropped back down to rejoin their merciless colleagues. The swarm is the end of a long column that stretches 160 feet back to the buttress roots of an old walnut tree. Here a mass of ants form a temporary nest that protects their queen. Along the column countless hunters are bringing trophies back to the nest, including grubs, beetles, grasshopper legs, and even a bat’s wing.

All through the midday heat this devastating group predator works its way across the forest floor, methodically dismembering anything that cannot move out of the way. Soon the ants reach the gigantic strangler fig. The main column moves by, but individual outriders stay to explore the roots. Inside the strangler the leptictidium mother sleeps with her young, unaware of the danger outside. More and more ants forage amongst the roots. Despite the leptictidium’s size, if hundreds of giant ants fill the entrance to her nest she and her young will be lucky to survive.

After about ten minutes the number of ants around the fig decreases. In the column small bits of bloodied black feathers are being carried back to the nest. The swarm has discovered the gastornis nest 100 feet away. Ever since the ants arrived in the area this has been a danger. If they had come across the nest while the egg was still intact, the chick would probably have been left unharmed, but now the small window opened by the hatching chick has allowed the killers to pour in. Even if the mother had been present there would have been little she could do. By now the swarm has covered the huge nest and there is frantic activity around the egg itself. For the chick, it’s a slow and nightmarish death.

The leptictidium sleeps on, but as long as the giant ant nest remains they are at risk. Tomorrow there will be no chick to distract the swarm.

When Birds Ate Horses

After The Heat

By late afternoon the worst of the heat is over and the general level of activity among the forest animals increases. The leptictidium wake and, after a short grooming and licking session, set out again to hunt. The ant column is still moving bits of gastornis chick past the fig and one of the youngsters receives the unwanted attention of a couple of ants. He bounces up and down, twisting in the air in his efforts to shake them off. With some difficulty he follows his mother down a track away from the swarm. But the more persistent ants cling on and later will be eaten by the mother.

On the way they pass a pair of propalaeotherium. Unusually, the horses seem unconcerned by the sudden appearance of the leptictidium. In fact, their responses seem altogether slower and their balance is poor. For the last hour or so they have been feeding on rotting grapes they have found on the forest floor. Now that they have stomachs full of fermenting fruit, alcohol has entered their bloodstream.

This is not a good time to get drunk. Other creatures, as well as the leptictidium, are out hunting in the late afternoon. The gastornis has been moving slowly towards the horses through the dark forest shadows. Now only 30 feet away, she is ready to strike.

The propalaeotherium sense something and try to run, but their reactions are slow and confused. Like a black nightmare, the gastornis is swiftly upon them. Scrambling and falling, one horse manages to escape into the undergrowth, but the nearer one has no chance. The huge beak closes right across his back and lifts him clean off the ground. His paws thrash in the air and for the first time he issues a long bray of panic that echoes over the lake. The gastornis tightens her grip and crushes the life out of him. Just to make sure, she bends down, pins the horse to the ground with one massive claw and delivers a series of bone breaking bites. The whole episode is over in less than a minute. The bird pauses and looks about before tearing off a few beakfuls of meat. When she has had enough she lifts the half carcass up and carries it, swinging back and forth, back to the nest for her hatchling.

Having been hunting for a couple of hours, she is unaware of the activity of the swarm. For a moment she stands over the nest watching the ants’ frantic movements. Then she drops the remains of her kill and climbs up on to the mound, furiously kicking dust and sand at the insects. Her attempts to protect her hatchling are not only too late, they are also futile. The swarm clamber on to her legs and start to bite. The thick scaly skin round her talons is impervious to the attack, but as the ants work their way up to the softer skin under her feathers the giant screeches with irritation. Her beak is not designed for grooming, but she is forced to abandon her assault on the ants and attempt to pick them out from her feathers. Eventually she has to leave the nest mound altogether. All the work that went into laying and incubating her huge egg has been wasted. She will have to start again elsewhere. The ants, meanwhile, have half a propalaeotherium to add to their trophies.

As the gastornis flees through the forest issuing her agonised rasping calls she scares the leptictidium family. The youngsters have been attempting to catch an armoured lizard, but the tough little reptile has easily repelled their advances. The extraordinary appearance of the tormented gastornis sends them all bouncing off towards the lake. The mother steers them quickly past the open silt bank and back down one of their tracks into the undergrowth.

At the water’s edge a flamingo, a rare visitor to the lake, watches the little mammals bounce by and then goes back to grooming its feathers. The next disturbance, however, sends it flapping up towards the towering green curtain of the canopy. The ambulocetus has decided to return to the bank and resume his hunting position among the sedges. Out in the middle of the lake the second gas eruption of the day suggests that carbon dioxide levels at the bottom are getting dangerously high. Although the cloud quickly disperses, so many eruptions are a sign that something much worse is on its way.

A Possible Human Ancestor

These are all radiographic reconstruction of Eocene primate jaws, including Godinotia which is in the bottom right (G).
These are all radiographic reconstruction of Eocene primate jaws, including Godinotia which is in the bottom right (G). | Source


Several lemur like primates were found in the Eocene forests, and some, such as Godinotia, had such large eye sockets that they were probably nocturnal. Their limbs show that they were adapted for leaping from one vertical tree trunk to another and then walking along the branches searching for insects.

Evidence: An incomplete specimen of Godinotia has been found in the Messel shales.

Size: Body 12 inches with a long tail.

Diet: Mostly insects, but also fruit when available.

Time: 49 million years ago.

The Night Shift Takes Over

At sunset the sky turns a deep red streaked with orange clouds. The taller trees in the canopy pick up the pink of the last rays, while, further down, the forest floor is bathed in a blue gloom. With the lower light levels, the daylight creatures start to disappear into burrows or under bushes. The leptictidium finish their second hunting shift and once again return to the strangler fig.

As activity on the forest floor decreases, so things pick up in the trees. This is the ancient home of the mammals. During the millions of years they spent under the claw of the dinosaurs, mammals could always look for safety among the branches. Under the cloak of darkness squirrel like ancestors evolved the type of limbs and senses needed to exploit this environment. This has stood them in good stead now the dinosaurs have gone. Many have returned to the trees and become more varied and specialist. The most remarkable are the bats, which are the first creatures in the mammals’ long history to evolve flight. The jungle around the lake is full of them, from the large species, with wingspans of almost 18 inches, that hunt amongst the canopy, to the smaller ground hunters with wings half that size. There are also several species of primate here, another new group of arboreal specialists. They have evolved long limbs and digits, but these are for climbing trees and grasping branches.

On a thick laurel branch one such primate, a godinotia, has started his nightly search for insects and fruit. Only about 12 inches long, his fluffy black and white hair make him look quite bulky. But as he leaps from bough to bough it’s clear that he is a very light, agile creature. He scans the canopy with two enormous dark eyes. Even on a moonless night he can see insects clearly and tonight he is in for a bonanza. The giant ant nest has been releasing flying males and females all day and the canopy is full of them. Each with a wingspan of 5 inches, they are a perfect meal for the godinotia and without the protection of the swarm they are easy meat.

Spotting the silvery glint of an ant’s wings at the very end of a branch, the godinotia stops and weaves his head from side to side to judge the distance. Then he pounces, grasping the ant with one hand and holding on to the branch with the other hand and both feet. Besides hunting, the other activity that takes up a lot of the godinotia’s time is mating. They are solitary animals, always on the lookout for members of the opposite sex. Any chance encounter and the godinotia will try to mate.

The light has not yet faded and from his vantage point the godinotia spots a predator working its way down to the lake. It’s a creodont, about 3 feet long and a member of the mammals’ first carnivorous dynasty. One day their descendants will be the giant predators of the Oligocene plains, but now they are small hunters that occasionally climb trees in search of sleepy primates. The godinotia stays very still.

Out of the gathering darkness a huge jaw rises up and snaps down across the front of the creodont. As the smaller predator struggles, the ambulocetus swiftly reverses into the water, dragging his prey with him. Several godinotia in nearby branches screech alarm while the creodont puts up a sustained fight. But the power of the ambulocetus’ bite and the length of its fangs mean that the creodont is finished once in the water. Soon the ripples and splashes die away and slowly the ambulocetus carries the limp body back to the shore to eat. After a few mouthfuls, the scent of blood in the water brings several crocodiles to the beach. They are smaller than the ambulocetus, but persistent. The rest of his meal becomes a tug of war between the reptilian rivals.

The Documentary That Inspired This Hub

Death Out Of The Darkness

Around midnight a second tremor sets off a chain of events that unleashes an indiscriminate killer into the jungle. The earthquake is followed by a huge release of gas. One end of the lake starts to boil, with water spouts erupting from the surface. Loud booms echo around the lake, accompanied by the occasional eerie flash of light. The animals in the area call and scream. Godinotia run up and down their branches in panic. Woken from her roost, even the giant gastornis squawks in alarm and then takes flight into the deeper parts of the forest. Within minutes a huge pale cloud of carbon dioxide has developed over the centre of the lake and the surface of the water has turned a sickly red as all the iron trapped in the stagnant lake suddenly oxidizes. The cloud very slowly starts to roll towards the eastern end. This is where a stream exits and, because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it starts to flow off the lake and roll downhill following the valley. Indeed, it is so heavy that smaller plants are crushed as it moves along. Any animal caught in its path is suffocated. On the ground, horses and pangolins perish where they sleep. Bats, birds and primates fall out of the trees. Only those in the highest branches survive. Even crocodiles and snakes on the lake shore die.

After half an hour the lake has calmed down. The red smear across its surface remains and in its eddies several bats float among the dead insects. There is a stale smell in the air, but the cloud itself has disappeared to the east. The jungle is ominously quiet, as at the eastern end of the lake every large animal for several square miles is dead. Quite simply, its nature at its most unpredictable and cruel.

© 2012 James Kenny

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Comments 46 comments

davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 3 years ago from Sacramento, California

James: A wonderful and detailed article with excellent video documentaries that help to back up the facts that you display here. This is a great topic and I believe you have done it justice. YOu have a very poetic way of writing and that style kept me intrigued from start to finish. I would add... that " All evidence of the environmental havoc left by this event has been erased from the Earth’s surface." is not entirely true... it has just become a book that few can read. Thankfully, Geologist love this lost writing! Well done, Voted up and beyond. DMT.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Hi Daven, yes you've got a point about evidence of the extinction lying under the surface. After all, how we would have known about it in the first place. Appreciate you dropping by. Thank you.

Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 3 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

Thank you for writing this hub. I am very interesting in archaeology and how it effected the rise and fall of animals in the world. We can see how this worked by the way that not only the archaeologist have done their work, but also by the levels of rock in the development of the earth.

Very interesting.

Voted up.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thanks Michele, very glad you liked it. Thanks as well for the vote.

NateB11 profile image

NateB11 3 years ago from California, United States of America

Very fascinating to see what life was like during this period, and the descriptions really draw the reader into the scene. Quite astonishing that big bird predator, and the videos of the creatures of that era really add quality to the experience of this piece.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thanks Nate, it took me a long time to put this hub together, but I enjoyed it all the same. I got my inspiration from watching Walking with Beasts, which is where most of the videos come from. What's even more astonishing about gastornis is that it may not have been a predator after all, according to recent evidence at least.

Jennifer Stone profile image

Jennifer Stone 3 years ago from the Riverbank, England

This was a fascinating read that kept me gripped from beginning to end! The video's are good too (I rarely watch all the videos in hubs I read but this was just so interesting!). Clearly nature at it's most rawest (I'm not sure that's a word... but you get my drift lol) and a dangerous time to have lived on Earth. I love your writing style, and the journey you just took me on, thank you! Congratulations on HOTD award, very well deserved, especially as it obvious just how hard you have worked to put this together. Voted up and all sorts and sharing everywhere, all the best, Jen.

davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 3 years ago from Sacramento, California

Congratulations James on a job well done! This hub should server as an example of how to bridge the gap between the average reader and the scientific community. Good Job with Hub of the Day too!

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Wow! this was amazing, and so detailed, when I was reading it I felt like I was there with you! lol! seriously, this would make a great ebook, maybe you should turn it into one? the school kids would love it! a great read, nell

Nettlemere profile image

Nettlemere 3 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

Excellent as always and well deserved HOTD.

Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

Dinosaurs rock as does this hub! Congrats on your HOTD. Well deserved James!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thanks very much Jen, I've always had a passion for prehistory, and storytelling. So I thought, 'Why not combine the two.' It certainly seems to have paid off. Thanks again, appreciate it.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thanks Daven, I've always been a big advocate of making science accessible to the average person (which includes me!) And there's no better way of doing that than turning a scientific article into a story. Really glad it's paid off. So, so proud!!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you Nell, maybe I will someday. I'd love to write some prehistoric fiction, personally I don't think there's enough of it around. So watch this space!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Nettlemere, appreciate it!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Sunshine. I'm so proud, yet so shocked at the same time!

ChristyWrites profile image

ChristyWrites 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

Lots of great information here James! How exciting for your great hub to be chosen as HOTD! Happy to vote up and share.

Ruchira profile image

Ruchira 3 years ago from United States

Wow such a well researched hub. My kid would love to read about this...he is all into dinosaurs, but am pretty sure he does not know many things yet.

Voted up as inteesting and useful and congrats for the HOTD :)

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Christy, really appreciate it!!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Hi Ruchira, to be honest I don't know any kid who isn't interested in dinosaurs to some degree. Sign of a healthy child in my opinion!! Thanks very much, appreciate it.

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 3 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Wow, a substantial look at the Eocene! I've always wanted to know, thanks for the education! Amazing period in the earth's history.


JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Ben, the Eocene is often a forgotten period in prehistory. But from our point of view, its actually one of the most important.

Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Haven't read it yet James. I'm so busy teaching 12U biology to a bunch of 17 year olds. Great kids but its been so long and I'm only a day or two ahead of them! We're on the molecular genetics unit which ties in to evolution. Couldn't wait to wish you congratulations on HOTD. From what I've skimmed through it looks amazing! I'll comment again when I get a chance to read through it in detail!!!!!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thanks Teresa, I appreciate you commenting, given the fact you're busy. I'm sure you'll love it when you get round to reading it.

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

Hi James; if this is your first Hub Of The Day, then it is long overdue. I have long felt that your writings on prehistoric life are among the best and most informative 'educational' articles on HubPages, and clearly a lot of work and research is put into compiling them, including not just text, but photos and videos. It is nice that this has been recognised.

The life which existed on Earth before and after the dinosaurs is too little known to the general public considering how extraordinary so much of it was, and your articles are contributing to making it better known. The period immediately after the dinosaurs is especially interesting for 'the struggle for supremacy' between the various groups of mammals and the giant birds. Anybody who reads this article and others cannot fail to be absorbed.

Hope this award attracts readers to your other hubs on lifelong past. Alun.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you Alun, this is my first, and to be honest I was quite shocked to get, maybe I'm a little too modest. I certainly agree with you that too much is made of the dinosaurs whenever prehistory is mentioned. People tend to forget that there's another 4 billion years of history to cover. Its also a rather strange curiosity that the biggest predator of all time wasn't even a dinosaur, instead it was a marine reptile- shame more people don't know the name liopleurodon. Thanks again Alun, appreciate it.

GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 3 years ago from USA

Hello James (JKenny) - You worked very hard on this fine article, and I thank you for presenting it here.

Gus :-)))

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Gus, appreciate you taking the time to drop by. :)

mary615 profile image

mary615 3 years ago from Florida

Congrats on your HOTD. I sit here in awe of your work on this Hub. I can't imagine how much research this required. You certainly deserve this honor. I'm bookmarking so I can come back for another read. I felt like I was RIGHT there with the creatures.

I voted everything except funny.....

jpcmc profile image

jpcmc 3 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

I love the way this is written. It's entertaining and informative.

Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 3 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

Yay, congratulations on HOTD, long overdue and richly deserved!

Turtlewoman profile image

Turtlewoman 3 years ago from California

James, congrats on your well deserved HOTD. I've always thought you were an amazing writer...but this just tops it! If my history books were beautifully written in this style I would have enjoyed history class more back then. :-) Gastornis is a pretty cool name too!

vdheerajkumar92 profile image

vdheerajkumar92 3 years ago

your article is very nice...

i guess u made a lot of study and references.. ;)

its very informative.

learner365 profile image

learner365 3 years ago

Very nice article filled with so many interesting, informative things . I must say this is a very well researched writing and clearly reflects the effort you have put behind writing this Hub. I enjoyed my reading and your this very Hub deserved to be the HOTD. Many congratulations for that too.

Keep writing well !!!

epus profile image

epus 3 years ago from Philippines

Amazing article for the world. Again, hubbers around the world may be very proud for this hub.

You have made some research about this. I congratulate you for writing a lot of information about Eocene.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 years ago from South Africa

Very interesting info very well presented. Voted up and absolutely awesome!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you so much Mary, really appreciate it.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much, appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you Sherry, kind of makes up for losing out on the Hubnugget earlier in the year doesn't it.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much, appreciate it.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you Kim, personally I wish all non fiction books contained an element of storytelling rather than just relaying basic facts and dates. People might actually show an interest in academic subjects, instead of focusing on sports.

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much learner, appreciate it!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much epus, glad you took the time to stop by!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much Martie, glad you liked it! Appreciate you taking the time to stop by.

jeffduff profile image

jeffduff 3 years ago from Southwest Wisconsin

Mr. Kenny, I have written several hubs about paleontology, biology and evolutionary change. I would be flattering myself if I said that my hubs were one-tenth as well done as this fascinating hub! Well done!!

JKenny profile image

JKenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England Author

Thank you very much jeffduff for your kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

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