I know, whales, right? But there’s a method to this cat/volcano writer’s madness.
It’s not very easy to put into words, though let’s give it a try.
Whale . . .
It’s like this.
Long-term followers will remember that I decided to write a book about cat evolution soon after I retired from a long career in medical transcription — not a related field, but I do have a two-year degree in forestry and several semesters of undergraduate geology from waaaaay back in the 1980s. (Geology interested me more than forestry; then, I couldn’t get details of mineralogy and petrology into my thick noggin. To paraphrase Colin Powell, who did earn a geology degree, leaving it was my greatest contribution to the field.)
Also, I spent twenty-five years listening to physicians and other health-care providers put very complex things into plain English for the medical record, which needs to be clear to laypeople. And in the early days, there were no schools, not even computers when I started, and no Internet to look up hard terms. There was a lot of pressure, though: you had to get it right because it’s health care, and deadlines could be as short as one hour.
And some dictators fell asleep at the microphone (that analog technology required you to listen until they woke up or the system shut them off) and/or couldn’t speak English very well.
A lot of people gave up. Those of us who stayed were nerds and true believers (and compassionate for all those struggling interns and residents). I loved it — the research, the accuracy, the work with words. It helped to fill the big hole in my professional life after leaving college. And physicians are wonderful true-story tellers (and sometimes not so true but very entertaining: looking at you, Sir and Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle!)
So I eventually retired from that in 2014 and decided to write that book about cat evolution (I had done a few freelance articles down through the years, but those didn’t pay the bills and put a roof over my head).
How hard could it be? K/T extinction, some fossils, sabertooth cats, and then Leo and Fluffy.
Years later, while working through things like Agusti and Anton, Lyle et al., Prothero, Simpson, the Sunquists, Turner and Anton, and Werdelin et al. (see reference list), among others, I realized just how difficult this ambitious project is.
Gosh, it’s fascinating, though! I want to keep at it.
So, as a step towards the ultimate goal here, I decided to “simply” do something on house cats and the modern cat family and then carry it all back through time.
Now, years after that decision, the cat-family series and two books on the domestic cat are done.
But the story of where cats come from, even the simple overview I’ve picked up from reading lots of books and papers, is very complex, not to mention incomplete. And I want to bring in the earth science part of it, too, which is even more complicated: you would not believe how often and in how many ways our planet itself has changed around its style during the last 66 million years!
But how to get started?
And then I thought of whales, having encountered what dated sources referred to as their ancestor, those amazing Paleocene hoofed carnivorous mesonychids, whose niche was later filled by Carnivora and Creodontae (turns out the whale ancestor was probably another hoofed critter: see the post).
The transition from land to sea was straightforward, and unlike cat evolution, ancient whales evolved early enough in “The Age of Mammals” to avoid the need to bring in other major events, like great migrations or the Greenhouse-to-Icehouse transition (modern toothed and baleen whales came in with that).
Then I saw that video of the whale calf and could picture the whole story, just as expressed in the caption.
Here it is again.
Wow! Those two mammal groups — cetaceans and primates — took very different paths after the K/T extinction!
But telling even that simple tale was not easy, nor could it be done in just a few words. Hopefully, the general message came through, though.
This learning experience did show me that I need to approach the cat evolution history in a different way.
Which brings us to…
- Making freelance pitches, and learning from the rejections. Ongoing, and thanks to the editors who include suggestions in their rejection note!
- Journalism training through a Coursera module from Michigan State. Almost complete, but on hold at the moment: the capstone project requires interviews, but the need for dental work comes first.
This module is extremely helpful, though, and not only for learning and practicing professionalism (though that is crucial). I’m going to probably turn into a roving journalist for this cat evolution project, as well as in other ways.
For instance, on the other side of the Cascades and north of here is the John Day country, where (I think) the first cat-like carnivorans, called nimravids, showed up some 30-35 million years ago, probably after having originated in Asia. Cat-like, but they might be more closely related to canids! (Did I mention that this history is both complicated and fascinating?)
There are lots of interviews and multimedia work that can be done, both up at the park there and from home. As long as I know what I’m doing, that is; and now I just need that capstone project to get some practice in on that.
- This blog. Writing the Decade Volcano book taught me so much about writing, and how to write better. I had thought those old posts for some of the chapters were good, but every single one needed to be rewritten!
For many bloggers, regular output, preferably daily, is important. For Flight To Wonder, not so much. Wonder doesn’t come off a production line. Also, my energy is finite. I guess every writer must find their own balance between creativity and productivity. Still working on that.
I am going to set up an author page, though — not here, but probably at my old blog, bjdeming.wordpress.com, which is in limbo at the moment.
Fresh posts will continue here, just not as regularly (at least at the moment). There will continue to be cats (fossil ones, most likely) and volcanoes galore, and maybe other things, too, depending on where the freelancing takes me, as well as ongoing news like the current activity in Iceland.
By they way, I’m reading the Smilodon book, and will do a “species fact” post for this iconic sabercat, but the material in the book is more of a good background for further work on the evolution of cats. Everyone knows and loves/is awed by Smilodon, which makes that big kitty a good starting point for a look at the whole family’s history (DNA tests have shown that Smilodon and Homotherium belonged to a now-extinct Felidae subgroup called Macherodontinae. Modern cats are all in the Felinae subgroup, which survived the end-Pleistocene extinctions).
- Books. No new ones are imminent, though I have some very general ideas about a sabercat book, as well as something on South American supervolcanoes. Not an ongoing project just now.
Whew! That’s enough of an update. Thank you SO much for your interest, and a special thanks to WesL for mentioning the Decade Volcano book on Talkweather!
Let’s close with some fishing cat kittens, leopards, and a question: how and why did fishing cats evolve?
Like this? Will there someday be a big cat fishing specialist?
If so, I don’t think the whales need to worry about it.
— Webcams de México (@webcamsdemexico) March 9, 2021
Featured image: dragi52/Shutterstock
Agustí, J., and Antón, M. 2002. Mammoths, sabertooths, and hominids: 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press.
Lyle, M., J.; Barron, Bralower. T. J.; Huber, M.; Olivarez Lyle, A.; and others. 2008. Pacific Ocean and Cenozoic evolution of climate. Reviews of Geophysics, 46, RG2002.
Prothero, D. R. 2006. After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Qh82IW-HHWAC
Simpson, G. G. 1944. Tempo and Mode in Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ
Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.
Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.