Problem’s with Cracked’s “6 Formerly Kickass Creatures Ruined by Evolution”

I tend to  Often their articles are well done and thought provoking, though I find that claims made on the sight should often be taken with a grain of salt or independently verified, by the reader before being accepted as truth.  I also find their writing does often read to much, like it was written for 13 year old kids.  That said, earlier today I stumbled onto this piece, which I found to be full of glaring errors, and which I will respond to here.

The piece, written by Walter Lawrence, describes a handful of fearsome extinct predators and gives examples of their less ferocious close cousins which are alive today.  The problem is that many of the creatures in question are not that closely related to there alledged descendents or the author simply gets the descriptions of them wrong.  The most glaring example is number four: Smilodon, which is an extinct sabre toothed cat.  The author describes Smilodon as follows:  “You’re probably thinking tigers here, but actually marsupials are all that is left of the classic Sabre-Tooth Cat (the felines were another branch on the evolutionary tree) so, sadly, the closest genetic connection remains adorable Koala Bears, Kangaroos and Opossums”.  This is wrong by a mile.  Smilodons were Felids (true cats), and not marsupials.  They were part of the extinct cat family Machairodontinae.  They are far more closely related to other cats and other placental mammals than they are to any marsupial.  The Cracked author seems to have confused Smilodon with Thylacosmilus, which was a sabre toothed Marsupial, but there is no evidence that Thylacosmilus or anything like it evolved into the Opossums or Kangaroos or Koala’s we have today, as the article implies.  Instead all these creatures shared a common marsupial ancestor that was probably more like an opossum than anything else mentioned here (since opossums are the most basil and most generalized extant marsupials).

Next we have Hyaenodon gigas, which was actually not an ancestor of racoons and other members of the order Carnivora as the article implies.  Instead it is a member of the order Creodonta which were super predators that share an ancestor with Carnivores such as Dogs, Cats, Bears and Racoons, but are in no way ancestral to them.  Indeed, they were likely eventually out-competed by the dogs, cats and bears that their sister group spawned, as these are highly versatile and intelligent predators.

Next we have Gastornis, which was monstrous flightless predatory bird.  Scientists today recognize that there are no close living relatives of Gastornis alive today, but they tend to classify it as being close to Galloanserae, which includes land-fowl like the chickens and turkeys, as well as waterfowl like ducks, geese and swans.  Unfortunately the Cracked article claims Glastornis is ancestral to all Struthioniformes (the group that includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwis and rheas and the extinct moahs and elephant birds).  These birds are in a completely different superorder, Palaeognathae, than Gastornis, which as part of Neognathae is more closely related ducks and chickens.  Interestingly, if the author had been correct about this point, it would have served his overall theme more convincingly, since ostriches and cassowaries are fare more frightening than chickens or ducks.

This brings us to Entelodon, which was a large prehistoric, savaging mammal with nasty mouthful of teeth.  While the article states “The modern pig is all that is left of the proud Entelodont line”, this creature is not ancestral to pigs but is merely a cousin of them, as are all Artiodactyls including hippopotamuses, camels, llamas, chevrotains (mouse deer), deer, giraffes, pronghorn, antelopes, sheep, goats, and cattle (Whales also emerged from this group).  In such a context, singling out pigs is hardly accurate.  It gets worse since we now these animals to be more closely related to hippos and whales than to pigs.  The same is also true of about the monstrous Eocene carnivore Andrewsarchus mongolianis, which the Cracked article attributes to being closer to goats than any other living creature.  Andrewsarchus is not only more closely related to whales and hippos than goats, but also closely related to Entelodon.

The last, of the animals mention in this Cracked piece is Megatherium, which is a giant ground sloth.  This is the one that the author get’s mostly correct.  Tree sloths, armadillos and ant eaters, are the closest living relatives of this creature, though it is probably not ancestral to any of them.  Overall, Lawrence get’s five out of his six completely wrong.  While I like the basic premise, this article fails taxonomy forever.

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