You thought you knew all the prehistoric creatures, even the really strange ones. And then, up from the pages of Ratha and Thistle-chaser pops an real oddball.
Not Thistle herself, though she definitely has her quirks. What on (or off) Earth is Splayfoot, the seamare? This critter has got to be a made-up beastie, a major authorial indulgence. A horse-like head, including ears, a short horse-y neck and pony body, but legs and feet that don't work at all like a horse's, feet with webbed toes, and to top it off, the critter has tusks, swims, and eats clams?
As Ratha says to Thakur, when he returns from a scouting expedition to the seacoast, "Fat, tusked dapplebacks with short legs and duck feet? And they swim in this great wave-filled lake you found?" (On page 70 of Ratha and Thistle-chaser.)
Naw..Thakur must be having delusions. Maybe he ate some fermented fruit. Or did he?
In the 1960s while excavating for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), the particle beam research facility that runs as straight as a laser through the hills west of Palo Alto, California, a construction crew found some very weird fossil bones. They even baffled Stanford University paleontologists; so much so that they bestowed upon the 20 million year-old remains the name "Paleoparadoxia", or "ancient puzzle". The discovery held up work on SLAC while the experts removed and preserved the fossils, which now reside in SLAC's Visitor's Center. Oddly enough, this find happened only about 10 miles from where I was living as a kid and I wasn't even aware of it until later. I think I did know vaguely that something prehistoric had been discovered at the new SLAC project, but not the details.
(Even stranger was that I had already made a toy "sea-horse" creature. As a child, I used to make animal figures from pipe-cleaners and later, telephone wire. I wanted critters I could pose and this was long before "action figures".( Actually, I think mine were better, since these animals would bend all over, not just at certain joints. Yes, there was Gumby, and later Pokey, but I found them boring.) The animals were mostly horses, but I had other creatures, such as cheetahs. Some were horse-derived, such as the sea-pony I made. He had a horse head, short neck, chunky body and webby feet with toes. I also stuffed a cork in him so that he would (semi-) float in the bathtub. I did him in two versions. The first was with pipe-cleaners, but when he got wet, the steel-wire stems rusted and he fell apart. The next version, done with scrap telephone wire from a Stanford office installation, was truely aquatic, due to the plastic insulation on the wire. He worked much better, but didn't float as well, being heavier.)
The text described Paleoparadoxia as "pony-sized" and "horse-like" with short, stout limbs and large,wide four-toed feet with "hoof-like nails". It also had some endearing oddities. On the forelimbs, the ulna and radius ( the two forearm bones) were fused so that "the foot could not be turned without rotating the whole leg". A drawing of the skeleton had a caption that described a "peculiar stance with inturned feet". According to this book and others, this peculiarity may have been an adapation for walking on unstable river or ocean bottoms, or in rough, shallow water. It also said that Paleoparadoxia moved on land "in the manner of sea lions" and that the tusks might have been used to "prize off food, be it seaweed, seagrass or even mollusc.".
(The word "desmostylian" comes from the creature's unique tooth structure. Each tooth is formed by a chain of upright tubes, linked together, forming a chain. "Desmos" is chain, "stylos" is pillar.)
Splayfoot leaped out at me from that picture and description. Perhaps my imagination added the webbing between the toes, although the feet do look somewhat webby in the painting.
Illustration by M. R. Long from Mammal Evolution: An illustrated Guide
Why did I choose the name 'seamare'? Well, first off, 'seahorse' already referred to a fish. Also the creature was female. Maybe I could have called her a 'sea-pony', but 'seamare' had a nice smooth sound to it. The name 'Splayfoot' came right out of the picture, especially the right fore-foot.
So here she is, confronting Newt/Thistle-chaser at the beginning of the story. (The "blubber-tusker" is a short-tusked Miocene walrus. The POV is Thistle's)
"Peering up the beach, she saw a natural jetty of gray sandstone thrusting out to sea beneath a cliff. on the promontory, gray and black shaped sprawled in the sun. At first she thought these animals resembled the blubber-tusker, but their broad bodies were less blubbery and more compact, slate-colored on top and cream below. Chunky fore- and hindlimbs folded back against sleek sides as the creatures lay on their bellies. Their heads were long and tapered, reminding Newt of the muzzle of a forest dappleback rather than the snout of a blubber-tusker. They also had leaf-shaped ears that swivelled and twitched."
"It grunted to itself as the waves washed its sides."
"...Newt saw the elongated muzzle, resembling that of a dappleback, but instead of a rounded nose and chin, the creature had a tapered snout with a pronounced overbite. It yawned, revealing downward-pointing incisors in the upper jaw and a cluster of tusks thrusting from the lower."
"With splay-toed webbed fore-feet, the creature hauled itself onto the beach, jaws wedged wide open by a huge, muck-covered shell."
"The beast seemed to ignore its hind legs, letting them drag behind while it humped and heaved along on belly and stout forelegs."
"For an instant the two confronted each other. With surprising speed, Splayfoot humped herself toward Newt, swinging her tusks. The seamare's anger propelled her up onto her rear legs, and Newt discovered that they weren't as useless as they had first appeared."
"Newt hadn't expected the seamare's sudden transformation from belly-dragger to walker. Splayfoot had a clumsy gait, with out-thrust elbows and turned-in feet, but it served well enough."
"The seamare's black forepaws, with their wide tapering toes and the webbing between, were nothing like the flippers of the blubber-tusker..."
"The seamare gave a bubbling roar and knocked all the remaining shell fragments away with a powerful sweep of her foreleg. She opened her jaws and waggled her head, giving the lurking meat-eater a good look at her tusks and teeth."
(quotes from pp. 32-36)
For more, get Ratha and Thistle-chaser! Or read the first chapter at http://www.rathascourage.com/.
This (as far as I know) was the first time Paleoparadoxia came to life in published fiction. The "huge shell" is the California "horse-neck" clam, also known in Washington as the geoduck. Yum! (Not really. Humans don't eat them much today. Too rubbery even with cooking. )
Interestingly enough, later depictions of Paleoparadoxia were much dumpier and far less charming (though probably more accurate). Since poetic license allows me a little leeway, I've chosen the image I like best.