Megatherium: The Great Beast
Imagine a sloth as tall an elephant and as heavy as one too, and you’re imagining the Megatherium—a genus of enormous ground sloths. They roamed Central and South America from the late Pliocene period (1.9 million years ago, after the decline of the dinosaurs) to as recently as the Holocene period (8,000 years ago, at the dawn of human civilisation). Fossils have been found from as far north as Texas to as far south as Argentina, and reconstructions show that the Megatherium were built extremely robustly: they had enormous claws, weighed almost 4 tonnes, and stood up to 6 metres tall (three times as high as a tall human!). In size, they were exceeded by only a few other land mammals such as mammoths, so they were undoubtedly one of the most impressive animals to walk the Earth. Their huge claws prevented them from putting their feet flat on the ground, so they must have walked like an anteater—on the sides of their feet. It’s believed that they were primarily herbivores, using their huge claws to reach up into the trees and drag down branches to crush in their powerful jaws, but evidence also suggests they supplemented their diet with meat too, feeding out of opportunity rather than hunting themselves—scavenging carcasses, perhaps by using their brawn to drive predators away from their kills. Their closest living relatives are tree sloths.
The Scavenger of the South
Keas (nestor notabilis) are an endangered parrot species native to the southern alpine regions of New Zealand. Named by the Maori people for its distinctive kea cry, the parrots are predominantly green and black, with striking orange and yellow underwings. They’re a highly adaptive species and are considered to be one of the most intelligent bird species in the world, with the equivalent intelligence of a three-year-old child. Their lineage is thought to have diverged from other parrots approximately 80 million years ago when Zealandia split from Gondwanaland, and to scout out food to survive in their harsh alpine environment, keas developed a highly inquisitive nature—which today often makes them nuisances to nearby humans, because the parrots are also mischievous and opportunistic, and never turn down the chance to supplement their mostly-vegetarian diet with human food. They eat nearly anything, so no item of food is safe in their territory—keas are smart and daring enough to pluck it clean out of your hands. Their nature caused conflict with humans throughout the twentieth century: a bounty was introduced, and it’s thought that over 150,000 keas were culled, leaving only 1000–5000 in the wild today. They’re listed as an endangered species, also threatened by introduced pests, logging, scavenging harmful foods, and farmers who still illegally kill them to protect livestock.
David Attenborough Lounging around with Some Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla).
They have evolved to occupy almost every environment on the planet. They survive in regions of constant change. They thrive in soils that almost never see rain. And as we will discover, they do much of their living in ways that go almost entirely undetected by us.
Kingdom of Plants – David Attenborough
Comparison between the original, 2001 oil painting (top) and the 2013 digitally reworked (bottom) versions of my Kakuru/Avimimus painting. The original was an attempt at minimalism in palaeontological art, hence the monochrome colour and the bare ground. I feel like this cost the painting naturalism, and failed to make it up in other ways, hence my reworking. The new version is obviously more naturalistic, but I think I managed to preserve and improve on the atmosphere of the old one.