Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Lost World of Appalachia

For those who don't know me (or happened to miss the time when I posted regularly) I'm a professional writer and journalist, who occasionally is lucky enough to write about paleontology. I'm also an artist. So last year, I approached The Bitter Southerner with a weird idea: an article that would act as a nature documentary to the vanished world of the Cretaceous deep south, with my illustrations and prose acting as a camera. The editor gave me a pretty quizzical expression, but since I'd done a lot of work for them before, he threw caution to the wind and told me to go for it.

I spent the next several months researching, talking to people, and sketching, sketching, sketching. Then erasing. Then sketching some more. Then painting and cursing at the screen. All during SVP, I was hunting down paleontologists and painting in the corner of the lecture halls. Then it was time to write, and figure out how, exactly to create a nature documentary in prose. More cursing. More cursing at the screen. But after lots of blood, sweat, and tears, it's finished and published and now, finally, I can share it.

So what is it? Well, picture a David Attenborough documentary, captured wholly in text and image, with its subject landscapes no human has ever seen. Imagine an article building on the ideas of Robert Bakker's Raptor Red. Imagine a narrative that leaps from animal to animal across a world poorly understood even by paleontological standards.

Or hell, maybe I'd better just show you. The following is an excerpt from The Lost Continent of Appalachia. Please do enjoy it!

Morning on the Alabama sea. Waves lap in under blue skies. Miles out from shore, sunlight drifts in gentle curtains through clear waters, caressing the sides of a high, jagged reef. The waters are too hot for corals; instead, walls of bivalve mollusks sit in scaffolds dozens of feet high, their shell surfaces encrusted with barnacles and long strands of algae. Marches of immense clams gape into the currents. Shoals of fish dart and swirl, chasing tiny shrimp. An octopus-like ammonite creeps from outcrop to outcrop, tentacles probing, stalk eyes bulging, its coiled shell shining in brilliant colors. A muffled chorus of clicks, squeaks, and croaks echoes along the reef.

Diving into these waters as a human would be like slipping into a warm bath. Even this far from the equator, seawater temperatures hover at a year-round average of 90 degrees or higher. Hot oceans lead to low currents and frequently stagnant waters — the lower reaches of the inland sea suffer frequent drops in oxygen, fueling vast dead zones. Fueled by the heat, massive hurricanes sweep along the coasts, churning up the bottom and carrying tracts of organic material out to sea. But the turbulent ocean supports riches, too: The combination of shallow waters, abundant sunlight, and upwelling nutrients feed a variety of monsters. An immense shadow slides over the mollusk reef. The fish panic, contracting into mirrored walls or exploding into dizzying clouds. With a squirt of sea water, the ammonite pulls inside its shell. Sculling overhead is a 40-foot Tylosaurus, her flippers tucked against her sides, keeled tail moving in slow, sinuous strokes. She’s a mosasaur, a descendant of small monitor lizards that colonized the sea in the earliest Cretaceous. As competing families vanished or turned to specialized fish-eating, the mosasaurs exploded in size and colonized every ocean in the world. The waters of Alabama alone play host to the portly, clam-crushing Globidens, the swift Platecarpus, shy Clidastes, and Tylosaurus, ruler of them all.

This mosasaur is formidable, with long, heavy jaws and a crushing bite. She moves through the water with the lazy assurance of an apex predator. Years ago, she claimed a stretch of the surrounding sea with access to both deep water and high reefs, and now she knows it by heart: the best spots to settle in for a nap, where the cleaner fish gather to nibble at parasites and flakes of dead scales, and most importantly the spots where she can lurk undetected, waiting to seize anything — fish, diving bird, or smaller sea-lizard — outlined against the surface. Her black eyes scan the riot of colors. Most of the time she guards her territory jealously. But once a year, she makes an exception — for her mate.

He’s coming now: a 46-foot titan, his scarred, barnacle-encrusted head swiveling. A broad tongue laps out, checking her scent trail, trying to assess whether she’s receptive. She circles around, investigating him in turn. She knows him well: Like her distant kin, the modern Komodo dragon, Tylosaurus sometimes form loose but long-lasting relationships, splitting for much of the year before coming together in the breeding season. Despite their familiarity, both are cautious. Mosasaur courtship can swing from tender to violent in a heartbeat, and both bear literal scars from past failed romances. A reintroduction is called for.

As the fish shift and scatter around them, the two leviathans begin to dance, sliding and spiraling slowly through the water, tongues flicking gently against each other’s sides. Their pebbled flanks brush together, rasping in the water. Once or twice she breaks off when he presses too close, throat inflated in warning, bubbles curling from her open jaws. The male swerves off each time. Then, he returns, and the dance continues. They’ll keep up like this for an hour, breaking occasionally to gulp air, before the male twines around her in a quick embrace. After a few weeks of mating, he’ll be gone; after seven months, she’ll deliver a litter of four tiny pups in open water, a hundred miles from land...

Want more? Check out The Lost Continent of Appalachia over at the Bitter Southerner. I'll be posting bonus content--including some deleted scenes and art that didn't make the final cut--here in a few days. Keep an eye out!

1 comment:

  1. Hi there. I just wanted to comment here to tell you that I thought the article was fantastic! What an excellent way to discuss the flora and fauna of the Cretaceous Gulf Coastal Plain Province. As someone who works on Appalachia, I can't tell you how happy I was when I read your article and saw the wonderful illustrations you produced. I especially enjoyed the Hypsibema (or Parrosaurus, depending on whether you were referring to the possibly distinct Missouri material) illustration, as I was happy to see someone using the nasal "bump" that was recently conversed on by professor Mike Fix in his "Monster in the Hollow" lecture. I really can't express how great I found your work.




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