Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Supposing You Were an Ox in the Mesozoic Era

Have you ever been reading two books simultaneously and had them dovetail in strange ways? This past week I've been reading the kids Scott O'Dell's ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, another one of those children's books that you re-read as an adult and realize--hang on! this book is actually super depressing! Well-written, yes. Exciting, yes. But also wistful. Sad.

Anyhow, to review, the Indians on the island live peacefully until a ship full of Aleut Indians, captained by a dishonest Russian, arrives, beats to death half the island's otter population, tries to sneak off without paying, and then slaughters most of the island's warriors when they protest.

Wouldn't you know it, I also happen to be reading William Stolzenburg's thrilling WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE (not to be confused with the creepy new live-action movie featuring creatures in big puffy suits running around an island, trying to figure out how to work 1.5 hours of activity out of a 30-page book). What do I find in Chapter Three, but a detailed account of how Russians shipwrecked on a tiny island at the end of the Aleutian chain in 1741 and found--hallelujah!--gazillions of animals to shoot down (cormorants), harpoon (Stellar's sea cow), roast (you name it), and strip for fur (otters). So wonderful was otter fur that, by the end of the 19th century, Russians and North Americans had hunted otters to the point of endangerment from Alaska down to Baja California. Which would explain why they showed up on the Island of the Blue Dolphins off Santa Barbara along about 1835. Voila! Exciting dovetail connection! (There was a bonus dovetail in O'Dell's author's note: he claims to be "indebted" to Maud and Delos Lovelace. Heaven knows why he felt this way, but Maud Lovelace wrote my deeply beloved BETSY-TACY series.)

But back to the strange title of this post. Stolzenburg's book runs down the long, long history of predation on earth and comes up with some Creatures You Would Not Want to Meet on Their Home Turf. Take, for instance, Dinichthys, a predacious fish the size of bus(!) that lived 350 million years ago. Or the fifty-foot crocodile Deinosuchus, which they think ate dinosaurs. You heard me--not pet dogs, but dinosaurs. And finally, my favorite horror, Carcharadon megalodon, great-great-great-great-great grandpa of the great white shark. Carcharadon megalodon reached forty feet in length and had enormous toothy jaws that stretched nine feet when hungry or astonished. As Stolzenburg puts it mildly, "If an ox could swim, megalodon could have swallowed it." That is some fish.

Because of our oversized brains, we humans have managed severely to reduce the number of top predators on earth, with manifold unintended consequences to the earth's ecology. But given the continued popularity of stories pitting pitifully weak humans against monster predators, our species' haunted memories live on. Have any favorite monster predator movies? I vote JAWS. Long live megalodon!

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