Main Character: Plate Tectonics

That tiger — and the little avian dinosaur in the foreground, keeping a respectful distance away from the cat — are walking along one of many river beds that cross the Terai, a flat grassy wetland that runs along the feet of the Himalayas in Bhutan, India, and Nepal.

This particular river is in Nepal, according to the photographer.

As you can see, Terai soil is deep and fertile, but mountain floods can slash through it easily. They also bring down the nearby towering range piece by piece as rounded boulders and cobblestones.

Thanks to plate tectonics, though, the Himalayas continue to rise despite this constant assault by rain and ice.

Down in the flatlands, a young Ganges River flows through the Terai, gathering in lesser streams like the one shown above and growing in size and volume as it travels more than a thousand miles eastward and then south to the distant Bay of Bengal.

India and Nepal established important nature preserves here in the early 1970s. Bengal tigers are also protected elsewhere in the region, including the Sunderbans: a vast mangrove forest that covers the Ganges Delta of India and Bangladesh.

What does all that have to do with plate tectonics?

Well, this:

A few caveats to this excellent video: Per sources that I have read, other factors were also at work during the great greenhouse-icehouse transition, but let’s save that for Chapter 18. As I understand it, there is consensus on the evolution of whales, but otherwise the India-Asia collision and its effects on plant and animal life were very complex, as this abstract shows. Not all experts agree with Dr. Hughes. In a later chapter, though, we’ll look into another, even more controversial hypothesis: that big cats might have evolved in Tibet!

Cats and Plate Tectonics

Take the part in this video where they mention cooling, for instance.

Based on how cats behave now and the ways that behavior has shaped their anatomy and that of their fossil relatives down through time, it’s likely that Family Felidae evolved to fill a predator niche in an ecosystem that existed in between the forest’s edge and an open plain. (Martin).

That was ideal! There was sufficient cover to sneak up on prey (and trees to scoot up into when danger threatened), as well as just enough open space for a short sprint and deadly pounce. (Werdelin)

Now try to imagine a place like that in Late Cretaceous times.

Despite what you’ve seen in the “Jurassic Park” movies (Akhmetiev and Beniamovski; Prothero; Vajda and Bercovici), it might not have existed:

  • The non-avian dinosaurs’ world was warmer and muggier
  • Much of what is now land was covered in water back then, with the central plains of North America and Eurasia hidden at times underneath warm, shallow seas
  • Vast swamps were turning into thick coal beds
  • Per the best-known fossil record of those times (North America’s Hell Creek Formation), a rainforest grew in what’s now North Dakota

A surprising and, in some ways, delightful world, but it was no place for a cat.

The difference between that world and our own is distinctive. (Image: Bureau of Land Management, CC BY 2.0)

Any clearings that opened up from fire, storms, or “veggie-saurus” overgrazing probably filled in quickly with a jungle-like tangle of plants competing for light.

Of course, the K/T (K/Pg) extinction 66 million years ago changed everything for animals and plants, but it didn’t turn Earth into an icehouse.

Plate tectonics, as described in the video about India, as well as other factors (Lyle et al.) did that.

Plate motion, however, is slow, so global climate took millions of years to cool off and dry out.

A decent habitat for stalk-and-pounce predators only developed at around the 35-Ma line in our cat/sports field analogy.

And the first cat-like mammal predators — nimravids — then showed up.

We are jumping way ahead of the story here, but it’s also interesting to see how plate tectonics helps us answer other questions about cats.

Read the whole thing!

Featured image: Paco Como/Shutterstock


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