The great size of the bones of the Megatheroid animals, including the Megatherium, Megalonyx, Scelidotherium, and Mylodon, is truly wonderful. The habits of life of these animals were a complete puzzle to naturalists, until Professor Owen [4] solved the problem with remarkable ingenuity. The teeth indicate, by their simple structure, that these Megatheroid animals lived on vegetable food, and probably on the leaves and small twigs of trees; their ponderous forms and great strong curved claws seem so little adapted for locomotion, that some eminent naturalists have actually believed, that, like the sloths, to which they are intimately related, they subsisted by climbing back downwards on trees, and feeding on the leaves. It was a bold, not to say preposterous, idea to conceive even antediluvian trees, with branches strong enough to bear animals as large as elephants. Professor Owen, with far more probability, believes that, instead of climbing on the trees, they pulled the branches down to them, and tore up the smaller ones by the roots, and so fed on the leaves. The colossal breadth and weight of their hinder quarters, which can hardly be imagined without having been seen, become on this view, of obvious service, instead of being an incumbrance: their apparent clumsiness disappears. With their great tails and their huge heels firmly fixed like a tripod on the ground, they could freely exert the full force of their most powerful arms and great claws. Strongly rooted, indeed, must that tree have been, which could have resisted such force! The Mylodon, moreover, was furnished with a long extensile tongue like that of the giraffe, which, by one of those beautiful provisions of nature, thus reaches with the aid of its long neck its leafy food. I may remark, that in Abyssinia the elephant, according to Bruce, when it cannot reach with its proboscis the branches, deeply scores with its tusks the trunk of the tree, up and down and all round, till it is sufficiently weakened to be broken down.

The beds including the above fossil remains, stand only from fifteen to twenty feet above the level of high-water; and hence the elevation of the land has been small (without there has been an intercalated period of subsidence, of which we have no evidence) since the great quadrupeds wandered over the surrounding plains; and the external features of the country must then have been very nearly the same as now. What, it may naturally be asked, was the character of the vegetation at that period; was the country as wretchedly sterile as it now is? As so many of the co-embedded shells are the same with those now living in the bay, I was at first inclined to think that the former vegetation was probably similar to the existing one; but this would have been an erroneous inference for some of these same shells live on the luxuriant coast of Brazil; and generally, the character of the inhabitants of the sea are useless as guides to judge of those on the land. Nevertheless, from the following considerations, I do not believe that the simple fact of many gigantic quadrupeds having lived on the plains round Bahia Blanca, is any sure guide that they formerly were clothed with a luxuriant vegetation: I have no doubt that the sterile country a little southward, near the Rio Negro, with its scattered thorny trees, would support many and large quadrupeds.

That large animals require a luxuriant vegetation, has been a general assumption which has passed from one work to another; but I do not hesitate to say that it is completely false, and that it has vitiated the reasoning of geologists on some points of great interest in the ancient history of the world. The prejudice has probably been derived from India, and the Indian islands, where troops of elephants, noble forests, and impenetrable jungles, are associated together in every one's mind. If, however, we refer to any work of travels through the southern parts of Africa, we shall find allusions in almost every page either to the desert character of the country, or to the numbers of large animals inhabiting it. The same thing is rendered evident by the many engravings which have been published of various parts of the interior. When the Beagle was at Cape Town, I made an excursion of some days' length into the country, which at least was sufficient to render that which I had read more fully intelligible.

The Voyage of the Beagle Page 43

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book