A Pleistocene Ecosystem
by Wesley Gordon
page 36


The Fourth Scene

In the distance small herds of camels, horses, and antilocaprids grazed along both sides of the stream. Scattered clusters of trees stood amidst the sea of undulating green grass. Near the closest group of trees, about 200 yards from the stream, a bulky, shaggyhaired ground sloth grazed with apparent concentration. Some 100 yards closer to the stream, in a 10-foot-high bank of sloping earth, a badger vigorously excavated a tunnel to a new den.

Still closer, among the reeds that lined both sides of the stream and among half-submerged cobbles deposited by winter rains the round, soft mouths of countless black toads tadpoles sucked water containing minute  plants and animals. Here the stream was so low that its waters merely trickled into the big backwash. No breeze ruffled the surface. The deep quiet was only occasionally broken by the half-heated croaking of a frog. A meadow mouse, noiselessly scampering through a well-traveled subway of tall grass, seemed only to deepen the quiet. Suddenly there was a loud whistling sound the danger signal of the four-pronged antelope standing guard at the crest of a low ridge.

Individual animals were too far away to be distinguished, but those disappearing at greatest speed over the slight rise from which the signal had come were obviously the antelopes. Whatever the enemy might be, it was not in that direction. By their whipping tails and their V formations, the three other groups must have been horses, one band running northeast, one east, and the other southwest. Two more groups, probably camels, followed the easterly running horses. A band of nine slender-leggedm thin-necked camels were running, with a peculiar loose-leeged motion, directly toward the big backwash. Hearing or feeling vibrations in the earth, the badger disappeared into the partly completed tunnel.

When only a few dozen yards away, the slender camels, as if parts of one mechanism suddenly made a 180 degrees turn and continued to run, but now upstream to the east of the big backwash. They had detected the enemy which the keen-eyed antelope had seen from far off. From downstream, running swiftly and silently along the bank came a pack of dire wolves, beasts almost as large as the modern giant wolves of Siberia but having even stronger jaws. If the camels had continued toward the backwash, herbivores and carnivores would have met.

Without breaking stride or slowing down, the wolves veered slightly in the direction again. Directly ahead of them the ground sloth continued to graze. Its back was to the approaching pack that now had formed a wide semicircle as it sped on. The camels were no longer the prey; it was the great and evidently not too bright ground sloth. Perhaps the sloth had not heard the whistled alarm. Maybe it couldn’t hear, or perhaps the creature was so dull-witted it would not have reacted defensively anyway. In any event, the sloth was unaware of its peril until completely surrounded by the wolves. Then, ponderously, as if in slow motion, the sloth sat erect. It was too late now for it to get to the trees a short distance away. There it might have been able to protect itself, for a time at least.

As if on signal, one wolf made a dash for the sloth’s hindquarters and drew blood. A second wolf, aiming for the belly, attempted to duck under the sloth’s long arm, but its timing was wrong. In pain, perhaps in surprise, and certainly in panic, the sloth’s great right arm swung down across the wolf’s body. A 5-inch claw penetrated the neck of the wolf; a second later the wolf’s lifeless body was flung into the air.

Perhaps it was the agonized yelp uttered by the stricken wolf, or it might have been the smell of blood; in any event, the entire pack seemed to go berserk, with no particular plan for getting at the sloth. In fact, three of the wolves began tearing at the carcass of their late companion.


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