Greetings, readers. Over the past couple weeks, Wes and I have been doing some brainstorming about things we could bring to the Blood Sprayer, that would help us stand out some from other sites, things that would be of interest to our readers but which weren’t already being done to death elsewhere. I had two ideas, both playing on my own personal strengths: One, a column of historical horrors, which I debuted as Museum Macabre; the second, playing on a strength I don’t talk about quite as much (since I didn’t spend a fortune getting a degree in it) — Natural History. I’ve been passionate about paleontology, evolutionary theory, comparative anatomy, taxonomy and the like for years; and more than just dinosaurs. The natural world is one that is very full of wonders for me, and the infinite varieties of life on this planet absolutely take my breath away. It may sound cheesy and trite, but it’s true. When not reading about film history or world history, I’m reading about life in all the myriad forms its taken over the past half-billion years.
I thought it would be fitting, on a horror site, to talk about some of the real-life horrors that have evolved on this planet over time. From modern “monsters” such as crocodiles and man-eating tigers to creatures lost in Time’s abyss (and I don’t just mean dinosaurs and sabre-tooth cats), there have been plenty of animals on Earth that look ready to menace a beautiful woman on the silver screen. As such, I present to you, dear readers, TOOTH AND CLAW — a look at real-world monsters.
The Cambrian was the first geologic time period of the Paleozoic Age, beginning around 542 million years ago, and running until about 488 million years ago. By comparison, the first dinosaurs appeared 225 million years ago, and our earliest ancestors distinguishable from the “lower” great apes arrived on the scene a paltry 1.8 million years ago. Temperatures during the Cambrian averaged about 7 degrees Celsius above current levels, oxygen content in the atmosphere was only 63% what it currently is, while carbon dioxide levels were more than 16 times current. The continents were only partially separated from the super-continent of Pannotia (not to be confused with the later super-continent Pangeaea), and as such were largely deserts, with the edges covered in a microbial “scum” of algae, lichens and bacterial slime. Life was, however, flourishing in the seas.
Life existed in Earth’s oceans prior to the Cambrian, though in fairly unspecialized soft-bodied forms — worms, jellyfish-like creatures, and a sea-floor coated in a living slime known as microbial mats. During the Cambrian, however, life began to diversify extremely rapidly — as I like to put it, Mother Nature dropped a hell of a lot of LSD and got busy. Within the span of a few million years (a geologic eyeblink) examples of every major (and most minor) phyla had developed. Phyla (singular Phylum) are the taxonomic rank just below Kingdom and just above Class, if you remember your old biology class mnemonic — King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti is the one I was taught. Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species. Phyla are grouped based on body-plans and evolutionary relatedness — there are 40 phyla in the Animal Kingdom, though 96% of the world’s species belong to just nine of them: Mollusca (squid and octopi, clams, snails, etc.), Arthropoda (spiders, crabs, insects, etc.), Porifera (sea sponges), Annelida (worms), Platyhelminthes (flatworms and tapeworms), Nematoda (Nematode worms), Cnidaria (jellyfish, sea anemones and coral), Echinodermata (starfish and sea urchins) and Chordata (all vertebrate species including humans).
In 1909, in Canada’s end of the Rocky Mountains in British Colombia, American paleontologist Charles Walcott discovered a 505-million year old fossil bed; notable due to the fineness of the shale in which the fossils were preserved, which (combined with the de-oxygenated conditions in which the animals were buried) allowed the soft parts of organisms to be preserved. This is huge. Normally, fossilization only preserves the hard parts of an animal — bones and teeth. The organisms buried at Walcott’s find, a location known as the Burgess Shale, were largely soft-bodied — creatures, at their hardest, with the consistency of a caterpillar or slug — with the exception of trilobites and certain creatures bearing shells. Many of the fossil animals Walcott excavated defied conventional explanation — these were creatures that did not shoehorn nicely into the fossil record as identifiable precursors to modern day organisms. Certainly, some creatures could be identified as priapulid worms, or polychaete worms, or early arthropods, but other creatures represented a mystery. Hell, it’s only been in the last handful of years that Hallucigenia sparsa, a creature so named because it resembled something seen in a dream (I should note that many Burgess Shale specimens were not formally described and named until the 1970s and 1980s) has been properly figured in terms of what “end” was the creature’s front, and which “side” was its back!
I’m sorry that took so long, readers, but I felt like context was necessary to truly appreciate today’s once-living nightmare, one of the “uncategorizables,” Anomalocaris canadiensis. The name “Anomalocaris” means “Strange Shrimp,” and the first fossils, discovered in 1892 in the nearby Ogygopsis (no, I can’t pronounce it either) Shale, were initially mistaken for the tails of primitive crustaceans. Indeed, this is the history of Anomalocaris for almost a century; pieces of it mistaken for pieces of other creatures. A distinctive ring-like fossil of linked plates, resembling a pineapple slice, was thought to be an unusual jellyfish, and named Peytoia; a soft, bloblike fossil, thought to be a sea-cucumber, was named Laggania. It was not until 1985, with the work of Harry Whittington and Derek Briggs, that they were pieced together into a single organism; Laggania was a lobe-finned, torpedo-shaped body; Peytoia, a mouth, surrounded by crushing, spur-lined plates; Anomalocaris, a pair of grasping, spiny appendages used to grip its prey and carry them to the bladed mouthparts. It had a pair of large (compound?) eyes on flexible stalks, and it swam like a stingray, rippling its gill-lined fins in a rhythmic wave-motion from neck to tail. In a word where few creatures were longer than five or six inches, Anomalocaris was an incredible super-predator, reaching lengths of close to three feet (1 meter).
To give an idea of scale, one of the other largest creatures found at the Burgess Shale, a simple arthropod called Sidneyia (after Walcott’s son Sidney), clocks in at about eight inches in length. Anomalocaris was a Tyrannosaurus in a world of cows.
Since 1985, the standard assumption of Anomalocaris’ diet has been that it fed on trilobites; a now-extinct group of arthropods which were numerous in the seas of Earth from the Cambrian through to the dawn of the dinosaurs. The evidence for this includes Anomalocaris’ size, “crushing” mouthparts and fossilized, cracked trilobite exoskeletons and shards of the same in fossilized feces large enough that Anomalocaris is seemingly the only creature in the Cambrian seas large enough to produce. However, a new hypothesis has come to light recently, suggesting that Anomalocaris may have, instead of cracking shells like Satan’s own nutcracker, rather slurped down soft-bodied prey like so much terrified, flailing spaghetti. Dr. James Hagadorn points out that the mouthparts of Anomalocaris and related species show little signs of wear, as would be expected if they were used to crush hard exoskeleton; similarly, the mouthparts cannot mesh together in the way necessary to produce the injuries found on trilobite fossils. Rather, Hagadorn proposes that Anomalocaris suctioned soft prey (including, perhaps, our own earliest ancestors — the primitive chordate Pikaia gracilens) into it’s gullet — which was lined with similar prongs to those ringing the mouth, possibly to prevent prey from swimming out.
So we have a giant creature, almost impossibly-large for its environment, with bulging stalk-eyes, a circular, fang-lined mouth of toughened plates that may have been able to crack the Kevlar of its time, and a pair of grasping, flexible armored tentacles lined with more spikes. Why hasn’t this beautiful monster been optioned for movies? JURASSIC PARK IV should feature a swim through Anomalocaris-infested waters.
Alas, Anomalocaris has been almost entirely absent from pop culture. A giant mutant version almost appeared in an episode of TREMORS: THE SERIES, before being replaced with an oversized brine shrimp. In Japan, however, Anomalocaris has proved more popular, appearing in capsule toys and as a Kaijin, the Anomalocaris Dopant, in the tokosatsu series KAMEN RIDER DOUBLE. Additionally, in its most widely-known pop culture incarnation, Anomalocaris appeared as the Pokemon “Anorith.” That’s right, our first prehistoric horror here on Tooth and Claw is best known as a pokemon. I feel no shame at that. And while I watched the episode in question of TREMORS: THE SERIES in preparation for writing this, I have not yet watched KAMEN RIDER DOUBLE, though the Anomalocaris Dopant sorely tempts me, let me just say. I’m not going to comment on if I’ve watched Pokemon for the sake of this article.
Look at that. Those are the eyes of horror.
Now, since Anomalocaris has not been featured in any horror films (future installments of Tooth and Claw, dealing with creatures who have been used in films, will discuss those appearances), what I’m going to do here is present an idea for a film in which an Anomalocaris would present the primary threat.
A Russian scientific expedition is drilling in Antarctica to study subglacial lakes such as Lake Vostok; oxygen-rich environments that have been sealed away in complete darkness, under hundreds or thousands of feet of ice. The purpose of their expedition is to uncover any evidence of life in these subglacial lakes, which would lend strength to hypotheses that Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus could support aquatic life. While the initial drilling brings up archaeobacteria, further investigation yields an astonishing find — nutrient material, accompanying the probe as a contaminant, has awoken an entire complex ecosystem from a state of suspended animation. And while it has adapted for the near-lightless, high-oxygen environment, the ecosystem is otherwise almost unchanged from 500 million years ago.
Before long, it’s clear that these organisms are mutating rapidly due to chemical contaminants used in the drilling process, growing larger and more aggressive, severing a fiber-optic camera cable and attempting to climb the shaft bored out to the surface. The hole is dynamited to prevent the creatures from reaching the surface. However, the rapidly-mutating Anomalocarids burrow through the ice, clawing their way to the surface to seek new prey among these new-fangled mammals…
SyFy Channel, call me.
I think that about covers Anomalocaris canadiensis. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest in this fascinating super-predator; for more information, Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life is an excellent and accessible primer on the Burgess Shale fossils, if a little out-of-date these days; Simon Conway Morris, one of the trio of scientists (the others being Harry Whittington and Derek Briggs) who massively re-evaluated the Burgess Shale fossils in the 1970s and 1980s, and who is responsible for the immortal words, “Oh fuck, another new phylum,” wrote a book more recently entitled Crucible of Creation on the subject; Morris is, however, extremely contentious and confrontational towards other scientists, especially Gould, and his work is much less layperson-friendly.
Until next time, Readers, this has been a reminder that Nature isn’t necessarily friendly, she’s often blood-red in…Tooth and Claw.