The Scratching Log

Blog for Ratha series home-page website. Posted by author Clare Bell.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ratha's Creatures - What Are the Face-tails?

You meet them in the first few pages of Ratha's Challenge, trumpeting, stamping and flapping their ears. Even a half-grown face-tail is too much for the Named and after the youngster launches the young herder Khushi into a thornbush, Ratha and the others give up, although only temporarily.
So what are these animals? In the book they are called mammoths, although the Named don't use that term. Actually, it is a bit of an author mistake. Creatures such as the woolly mammoth, the steppe mammoth, the imperial mammoth and others, didn't exist in the Early Miocene 20 million years ago. Although people tend to think that mammoths were ancestral to elephants, they were actually close cousins.
The family Elephantidae includes the African elephant, Loxodonta africana, the Asiatic elephant, Elephas maximus and the mammoths, Mammuthus. They all originated in Africa about 4 mya. The fact that mammoths died out relatively recently, a few thousand years ago, gives the impression that elephants are their descendants, but they evolved separately in parallel lines. The true ancestors of elephants and mammoths alike appear to be the four-tusked Stegotetrabeladon and the smaller Primelephas, who have the tooth structure that defines true elephants. Primelephas, like Stegotetrabelodon, had tusks in the lower jaw, but they receded, giving way to the two upper tusks of the elephants.
So, mammoths weren't around during Ratha's time. What then could the face-tails possibly be?

One possible proboscidean (trunk- or proboscis-bearing) candidate is Deinotherium, which looked a lot like an elephant, but its tusks originated from the lower incisor teeth. They grew from the lower jaw and turned downward. Deinotheres originated about 40 Mya and survived until 5 mya, so they span the required time period. However the series is set on the West Coast of North America, and all deinothere fossils found so far have been in Africa. This doesn't rule out deinotheres, however. There might have been some migrants and we haven't yet found their remains.
Another group of proboscideans called mastodonts originated later than the deinotheres and co-evolved with them. One mastodon family includes the American mastodon, confusingly called Mammut. Like the later mammoths, the American mastodon had a hairy coat and two upturned tusks rooted in the upper jaw. Mammut paralleled the mammoths but it was a distant cousin, with a separate 25 million year evolutionary history. Though the mastodonts gave rise to the elephants, Mammut and its kind were also a contemporary with the mammoths, disappearing with them in the Pleistocene extinction of mega-beasts. (Click the image to enlarge.)

It is too easy to confuse the American mastodon, Mammut, with its Mammuthus cousins, which is probably one reason for my mistake. I imagine that early paleontologists though Mammut was a mammoth, hence the similar name.
Mammut is probably the best candidate for the boisterous tusker who throws Khushi into a thornbush.
It existed at the right time and place. It was also smaller than its contemporaries, which would make it slightly easier for the puma- and cheetah-like Named to capture and manage.
Why did I describe the young face-tail's fur as orange? Because many of the frozen baby mammoths dug up in Siberia had remnants of orange-colored hair. At first paleontologists assumed that the hair had been that hue during life and that the baby mammoths had different coloration than adults.
However, later investigation suggested that the orange was a result of pigment loss during burial and that the original coat was a variation of dark brown. This was another case of paleontology outrunning the author.
By the way, it was Rudyard Kipling's “Two-Tails” the pack-elephant in his poem about British-Indian army animals, who inspired the term face-tails. A trunk looks very much like a tail, hence “Two-Tails”, which gave rise to the Named idea that these animals wear their tails on their faces, and the term “face-tails”.

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