NGC 3621, Glorg’s Darkplanet, Bear Dogs, Proconsuls, to Felinae maculosus atrox
This is NGC 3621, a galaxy far far away. Click on it for a slightly larger version, or click here for an even cooler (but alas copyrighted) view. NGC 3621 is about 22 million light years away, and thus isn’t even a part of our Local Group of galaxies. And as far I was able to determine, it isn’t part of any group of galaxies, making NGC 3621 truly an island universe sailing alone through the cosmos. Our own Milk Way is one of a cluster of 30 odd galaxies, most of them mere scrap heaps compared to our fine galaxy. The only other contender for the finest galaxy in the Local Group is the Andromeda Galaxy. We’re going to settle their hash though, the Milky Way is speeding toward the Andromeda Galaxy at as much as 140 kps, or about 500,000 kph (that’s over 300,000 mph) and we will slam into them in about 2.5 billion years. The collision will be incredibly spectacular and well worth the wait, trust me.
Moving right along, pictures like this never cease to amaze me. There’s certainly a very real possibility that right now somewhere in NGC 3621 aliens are staring raptly at a picture of the Milky Way as they read a post on Glorg’s DarkPlanet. Of course even if they have telescopes that make the Hubble look like a Cracker Jack ® prize, they aren’t staring at us. No, they are staring at Earth as it was about 22 million years ago. This was the early Miocene era, a time when Earth was cooling down from a much warmer era and in a very real way beginning the transition to the world we know and love. Grasslands were just starting to spread around the globe, and while the forbears of most modern animals were around, for the most part there were only a few animals we would recognize today. This little puppy was the apex predator of the day:
Its called a Bear Dog, or Amphicyonidae. There were all sorts of different types, most of which would have no trouble having one of us for a meal. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one in a back alley, or anywhere for that matter. Fortunately they have been extinct for millions of years. Another predator hassling our ancestors at the time would have been Neocynodesmus, also known as false sabre tooth tigers. Think dogs with really big teeth, nasty business. There were little ancestors of the horse, forest dwelling animals less than 1 meter tall. The elephants of the day were small aquatic animals similar to a hippopotamus, we wouldn’t even call them elephants. No dogs of course, the ancestor of the dog was around though, but it was a small yappy coyote sized animal that looked kind of like a civet, but not as smart or handsome looking.
What were our ancestors doing among this strange menagerie? Well, they weren’t making cave paintings or arrowheads. Still the apes had separated from the monkeys at least and were on their way to greater things. An ape called Proconsul africanus was more than likely the ancestor of all the great apes, including our own species, homo sapiens. Handome fellow isn’t he?
I know that 60% of Americans have doubts about the theory of Evolution, but for the other 40%, that’s the ape that caused all the fuss. Proconsul was smarter than the average monkey, lived in the trees, and subsisted on a diet of small stupid ancestral dogs that proconsul was able to scoop up off the forest floor. OK, I made that last part up. Proconsul most likely existed primarily on fruit.
Some early Micone animals were more familiar. The frogs and toads and salamander would be pretty similar to today’s. There were plenty of birds, though of course not the same species as today. Still, little songbirds in the brush are pretty much that same even if the colours were different. There were recognizable ducks and geese. Turtles and crocodiles have remained basically unchanged for tens of millions of years, they’d be familiar. Bugs and spiders were still bugs and spiders, ants and bees would be unrecognizable from our familiar ones. There have been snakes since the there were dinosaurs, no strangeness there. When nature hits on a good idea, it sticks with it. There will likely be snakes slithering in the grass long after humans are history.
And of course hanging out in the trees would be another easily recognizable animal:
Meet Proailurus, the world’s first cat. Handsome fellow, isn’t he? Note the stripes and spots, yes, this is the ancestor of all living cats, from the lion to the tiger to the little moggy quietly hacking up a hairball in your slippers as you read this. Proailurus was a little larger than the modern house cat, and was at least partially arboreal, with at least partially retractable claws. Yes, for about 20 million years cats have been easily recognizable as cats. A lot of other animals also evolved cat-like features around the same time, but they are mostly now extinct or evolved further into something distinctly uncatlike. Nature knows a good idea when it sees it though, and like the snakes, there’s a real good chance there will be cats hiding in the brush long after humans are history. In fact in terms of the number of different habitats occupied, cats are the most successful mammal on Earth. Take that Fido.
(The NGC 3621 image is from NASA and is being used legally within their guidelines. The bear dog pic is from here, which appears to be some sort of academic site, and I am claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. Heck, I’m claiming all the rest as Fair Use under US copyright law, they are not being used for profit, yadda, yadda, yadda. Basically they are institutional pics that have already been copied all over the net and I’m not even sure who to attribute them too. The galaxy pic I didn’t use was the property of a professional artist/photographer and there simply would be no way to use the image and claim Fair Use. Coming someday, a post about the origins of the calico cat, including the almost unknown sabre tooth calico: Felinae maculosus atrox.)