Carboniferous Period, 359.2 ± 2.5 Ma (million years ago)




I loved South Carolina! It was putridly hot and moist every minute of the day, but the climate, florae and faunae reminded me of the Carboniferous Period, 359-299 million years ago. Most landscape scenes of the Carboniferous period look something like this:

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Just like the landscapes in South Carolina where I visited looked like this:

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If you want to be a real stickler, you could point out that palm trees didn’t exist on earth until the Paleocene epoch after the K-T extinction event, some 239 million years after the Carboniferous period. But I choose to overlook that and willingly suspend some disbelief. Did you know that today is Jon’s and my 2-year wedding anniversary? We couldn’t really do anything grand to observe it today since we have work and it’s been such a damn busy week already, but I like to pretend that we celebrated it last week- by taking a time machine to the Carboniferous Period and getting a chance to look around.

The Carboniferous period is noteworthy for its explosion of diversity in terrestrial life. Prior to the Carboniferous, life boomed primarily in the oceans and freshwater, while creatures were only beginning to creep onto the land. By the Carboniferous period, the first known amniote eggs developed, meaning that they were adapted for land, unlike say, frog eggs, which look more like jelly-blobs and can only survive in water. This meant that during the Carboniferous period, we had the world’s first tiny reptiles!

Here’s one watching us play Carboniferous mini-golf:

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And look closer- he caught something!

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Even though this was the year ~300 million years before the birth of Christ, we still had to pray before teeing off:

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It didn’t seem to do much good, though. What a tricky hole- the pin is right next to the water, which the ball seems unable to walk on:

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Stupid Jesus-golf.

So, back to the Carboniferous period- almost every depiction of this period features a giant dragonfly. This is because insects were enormous back then! Insects and other arthropods are limited in how large they can grow according to the oxygen concentration in the air. During the Carboniferious period, dragonflies were two feet wide because the oxygen content back then was very high. They weren’t the only huge arthropods of the day though. Isopods, which you may know as sowbugs, rolly-pollies, armadillo bugs or pillbugs- were four feet long back then.

Our trip to the Carboniferous was fraught with monstrously huge insects and arachnids as well. Check out this spider:

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I threw my hand into the picture for scale:

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I looked it up- she’s called a golden silk orb weaver. She’s the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in person, not counting pet store tarantulas. I like this picture because if you look close, you can see her husband near one of her right legs. He’s considerably smaller than she is, and I read that she cannibalizes him after mating, so I think he hasn’t begun to woo her yet. Right now he’s just hoping that he won’t be noticed until she’s in the mood.

Another giant arthropod we encountered during our Carboniferous trip was right in our bedroom:

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Again, it’s the largest cockroach I’ve ever seen, save for the ones for sale at pet stores. Back home in New England in the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period, they’re not even half that size. I know that these are uninteresting and unwelcome to people who come from or live in the south, but this was my very first palmetto bug and I was excited! I didn’t want to touch him so I grabbed him with some toilet paper and sent him outside on his merry way. I couldn’t imagine squooshing such a huge, crunchy bug. Gross. If I’d had my The Lizard with me, I would have fed it to her.

Holy crud! It was dead when I found it, so I took this one home with me. The most gigantic cicada I’ve ever seen! I took a picture of it with a periodical cicada I had in my collection for comparison:

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For more scale, here’s a picture I took of a live annual cicada found in Massachusetts, Quaternary period:

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And here’s the dead one in the same pose, found in South Carolina, Carboniferous period:

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Sweet annoying cupcake-boutique, is everything without a spine in SC twice as large as its New England counterpart?

Not all the arthropods were oversized, though. The remaining ones were either swarming or venomous or both.

At the cemetery we found an undulating ball of daddy longlegs:

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Under the palm leaves were collections of stinging wasps:

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And while Jon was taking this picture of an aggressive tree for me-

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He gently advised me that I should move from that spot and whatever I did, I must not kneel or sit because the ground was crawling with fire ants. Indeed it was. Everything can hurt you in the Carboniferous!

Do I dare ask what this is? Some land-dwelling nudibranch? Aiiie!

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Our jaunt into the ancient primordial forest was delightful, but everything seemed cool and tame once we returned to the chilly, temperate Holocene woodlands of Massachusetts. The cicadas seemed inadequate, though.

I am at an Emu Farm

What a nice weekend. A new tattoo, canoeing on the Charles, lunch with dad at Cambridge Common and the Emu Farm! Did you know there’s an emu farm ’round these parts? I highly recommend it!

Dad’s back from Greece for good and has a few weeks before he’s off to Washington DC for a year to learn how to speak Slovak. Then he’s going to live in Bratislava. I’m already excited about visiting Slovakia someday, I hear you can take a tour of Lady Bathory’s castle, which would make me the envy of any proper goth in this country. I’ll be sure to take some pictures of Jon and me sulking around various points in the castle. In black and white.

But for now, since Dad’s here, why not take him to the emu farm? He said he would love to go, so off we went to Songline Emu Farm in Gill, MA.

It exceeded my expectations. The only emu farmer on the premises was this mildly new-agey, somewhat countryish and sort of like everybody’s aunt-like woman. While we were there she answered the phone in a perfect singsong- “Songline Emu Farm!”, which was exactly the way she answered when I called a few days in advance to confirm that the farm gave tours. She was also slightly like one of my favorite actresses, the Ed Rooney’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Very friendly, but also very knowledgeable about the evolution of flightless birds.

Wasn’t a fan though, of her magical emu oil that she sold in every conceivable form, including dog tonic, to cure whatever ails ya.

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Apparently unlocking the power of emu will cure arthritis, dry skin, aging, cancer, headaches, pregnancy, infection, burns, lupus and yeast infections.

After we failed to buy magical emu oil, we proceeded on with the tour, wandering through this lady’s house to her emu egg incubator and finally out the emus!

They all came running, dinosaur-like when they saw or heard her approach. She surprised me by immediately opening the fence and inviting us all into the pen to play with the emus and take pictures of them.

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The juveniles were funny- they kept rolling around on the grass as if they were just that excited to see us. She let us pet them and feel around for their forearms. They really do have arms, but they’re hidden under those hairy feathers. She fished out a tiny, useless forearm from within the mass of feathers and let me feel it, which the emu tolerated without complaint. They were skinny little nubs. It reminded me of the useless, ridiculously small arms of the tyrannosaurus. Somehow in the world of bipedal theropod dinosaurs, including ratites, front arms became vestigial.

This woman clearly loved her emus, talking to them and petting them and happy to show them off to us. Her favorite was this one, whom she called Cary Grant.

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I liked him too. He let me pet him. Jon and Dad pet him, too:

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I couldn’t get enough of staring at their feet. I kind of wanted a foot chopped off from one of the birds that had already been butchered for food, but this lady was so gentle and nice that it seemed like my request didn’t fit the atmosphere here. I also gave up on my idea to ask for a head that I could extract a skull from, but that didn’t stop me from taking numerous pictures of their feet.

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Note the obvious similarity between their feet and my Triassic coelophysis fossil footprint:

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Some of the birds got impatient with me skulking around their feet and the lady warned me that they could kill with their feet. They said that they’ve been known to form kick circles around invading coyotes and dogs and disembowel them with their dinosaur feet.

They all seemed docile today, though.

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We got some souvenirs after we left. A coloring activity:

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A sticker:

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And a pound or so of ground emu meat. I made emu burgers for everybody tonight.

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