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    15. Big Animals

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    Chapter 16
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    'The Atlantosaurus,' said I, pointing affectionately with a wave of my
    left hand to all that was immortal of that extinct reptile, 'is
    estimated to have had a total length of one hundred feet, and was
    probably the very biggest lizard that ever lived, even in Western
    America, where his earthly remains were first disinhumed by an
    enthusiastic explorer.'

    'Yes, yes,' my friend answered abstractedly. 'Of course, of course;
    things were all so very big in those days, you know, my dear fellow.'

    'Excuse me,' I replied with polite incredulity; 'I really don't know to
    what particular period of time the phrase "in those days" may be
    supposed precisely to refer.'

    My friend shuffled inside his coat a little uneasily. (I will admit that
    I was taking a mean advantage of him. The professorial lecture in
    private life, especially when followed by a strict examination, is quite
    undeniably a most intolerable nuisance.) 'Well,' he said, in a crusty
    voice, after a moment's hesitation, 'I mean, you know, in geological
    times ... well, there, my dear fellow, things used all to be so _very_
    big in those days, usedn't they?'

    I took compassion upon him and let him off easily. 'You've had enough of
    the museum,' I said with magnanimous self-denial. 'The Atlantosaurus has
    broken the camel's back. Let's go and have a quiet cigarette in the park
    outside.'

    But if you suppose, reader, that I am going to carry my forbearance so
    far as to let you, too, off the remainder of that geological
    disquisition, you are certainly very much mistaken. A discourse which
    would be quite unpardonable in social intercourse may be freely admitted
    in the privacy of print; because, you see, while you can't easily tell a
    man that his conversation bores you (though some people just avoid doing
    so by an infinitesimal fraction), you can shut up a book whenever you
    like, without the very faintest or remotest risk of hurting the author's
    delicate susceptibilities.

    The subject of my discourse naturally divides itself, like the
    conventional sermon, into two heads--the precise date of 'geological
    times,' and the exact bigness of the animals that lived in them. And I
    may as well begin by announcing my general conclusion at the very
    outset; first, that 'those days' never existed at all; and, secondly,
    that the animals which now inhabit this particular planet are, on the
    whole, about as big, taken in the lump, as any previous contemporary
    fauna that ever lived at any one time together upon its changeful
    surface. I know that to announce this sad conclusion is to break down
    one more universal and cherished belief; everybody considers that
    'geological animals' were ever so much bigger than their modern
    representatives; but the interests of truth should always be paramount,
    and, if the trade of an iconoclast is a somewhat cruel one, it is at
    least a necessary function in a world so ludicrously overstocked with
    popular delusions as this erring planet.

    What, then, is the ordinary idea of 'geological time' in the minds of
    people like my good friend who refused to discuss with me the exact
    antiquity of the Atlantosaurian? They think of it all as immediate and
    contemporaneous, a vast panorama of innumerable ages being all crammed
    for them on to a single mental sheet, in which the dodo and the moa
    hob-an'-nob amicably with the pterodactyl and the ammonite; in which the
    tertiary megatherium goes cheek by jowl with the secondary deinosaurs
    and the primary trilobites; in which the huge herbivores of the Paris
    Basin are supposed to have browsed beneath the gigantic club-mosses of
    the Carboniferous period, and to have been successfully hunted by the
    great marine lizards and flying dragons of the Jurassic Epoch. Such a
    picture is really just as absurd, or, to speak more correctly, a
    thousand times absurder, than if one were to speak of those grand old
    times when Homer and Virgil smoked their pipes together in the Mermaid
    Tavern, while Shakespeare and Molière, crowned with summer roses, sipped
    their Falernian at their ease beneath the whispering palmwoods of the
    Nevsky Prospect, and discussed the details of the play they were to
    produce to-morrow in the crowded Colosseum, on the occasion of
    Napoleon's reception at Memphis by his victorious brother emperors,
    Ramses and Sardanapalus. This is not, as the inexperienced reader may at
    first sight imagine, a literal transcript from one of the glowing
    descriptions that crowd the beautiful pages of Ouida; it is a faint
    attempt to parallel in the brief moment of historical time the glaring
    anachronisms perpetually committed as regards the vast lapse of
    geological chronology even by well-informed and intelligent people.

    We must remember, then, that in dealing with geological time we are
    dealing with a positively awe-inspiring and unimaginable series of æons,
    each of which occupied its own enormous and incalculable epoch, and each
    of which saw the dawn, the rise, the culmination, and the downfall of
    innumerable types of plant and animal. On the cosmic clock, by whose
    pendulum alone we can faintly measure the dim ages behind us, the brief
    lapse of historical time, from the earliest of Egyptian dynasties to
    the events narrated in this evening's _Pall Mall_, is less than a
    second, less than a unit, less than the smallest item by which we can
    possibly guide our blind calculations. To a geologist the temples of
    Karnak and the New Law Courts would be absolutely contemporaneous; he
    has no means by which he could discriminate in date between a scarabæus
    of Thothmes, a denarius of Antonine, and a bronze farthing of her Most
    Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria. Competent authorities have shown good
    grounds for believing that the Glacial Epoch ended about 80,000 years
    ago; and everything that has happened since the Glacial Epoch is, from
    the geological point of view, described as 'recent.' A shell embedded in
    a clay cliff sixty or seventy thousand years ago, while short and
    swarthy Mongoloids still dwelt undisturbed in Britain, ages before the
    irruption of the 'Ancient Britons' of our inadequate school-books, is,
    in the eyes of geologists generally, still regarded as purely modern.

    But behind that indivisible moment of recent time, that eighty thousand
    years which coincides in part with the fraction of a single swing of the
    cosmical pendulum, there lie hours, and days, and weeks, and months, and
    years, and centuries, and ages of an infinite, an illimitable, an
    inconceivable past, whose vast divisions unfold themselves slowly, one
    beyond the other, to our aching vision in the half-deciphered pages of
    the geological record. Before the Glacial Epoch there comes the
    Pliocene, immeasurably longer than the whole expanse of recent time; and
    before that again the still longer Miocene, and then the Eocene,
    immeasurably longer than all the others put together. These three make
    up in their sum the Tertiary period, which entire period can hardly have
    occupied more time in its passage than a single division of the
    Secondary, such as the Cretaceous, or the Oolite, or the Triassic; and
    the Secondary period, once more, though itself of positively appalling
    duration, seems but a patch (to use the expressive modernism) upon the
    unthinkable and unrealisable vastness of the endless successive Primary
    æons. So that in the end we can only say, like Michael Scott's mystic
    head, 'Time was, Time is, Time will be.' The time we know affords us no
    measure at all for even the nearest and briefest epochs of the time we
    know not; and the time we know not seems to demand still vaster and more
    inexpressible figures as we pry back curiously, with wondering eyes,
    into its dimmest and earliest recesses.

    These efforts to realise the unrealisable make one's head swim; let us
    hark back once more from cosmical time to the puny bigness of our
    earthly animals, living or extinct.

    If we look at the whole of our existing fauna, marine and terrestrial,
    we shall soon see that we could bring together at the present moment a
    very goodly collection of extant monsters, most parlous monsters, too,
    each about as fairly big in its own kind as almost anything that has
    ever preceded it. Every age has its own _specialité_ in the way of
    bigness; in one epoch it is the lizards that take suddenly to developing
    overgrown creatures, the monarchs of creation in their little day; in
    another, it is the fishes that blossom out unexpectedly into Titanic
    proportions; in a third, it is the sloths or the proboscideans that wax
    fat and kick with gigantic members; in a fourth, it may be the birds or
    the men that are destined to evolve with future ages into veritable rocs
    or purely realistic Gargantuas or Brobdingnagians. The present period is
    most undoubtedly the period of the cetaceans; and the future geologist
    who goes hunting for dry bones among the ooze of the Atlantic, now known
    to us only by the scanty dredgings of our 'Alerts' and 'Challengers,'
    but then upheaved into snow-clad Alps or vine-covered Apennines, will
    doubtless stand aghast at the huge skeletons of our whales and our
    razorbacks, and will mutter to himself in awe-struck astonishment, in
    the exact words of my friend at South Kensington, 'Things used all to be
    so very big in those days, usedn't they?'

    Now, the fact as to the comparative size of our own cetaceans and of
    'geological' animals is just this. The Atlantosaurus of the Western
    American Jurassic beds, a great erect lizard, is the very largest
    creature ever known to have inhabited this sublunary sphere. His entire
    length is supposed to have reached about a hundred feet (for no complete
    skeleton has ever been discovered), while in stature he appears to have
    stood some thirty feet high, or over. In any case, he was undoubtedly a
    very big animal indeed, for his thigh-bone alone measures eight feet, or
    two feet taller than that glory of contemporary civilisation, a British
    Grenadier. This, of course, implies a very decent total of height and
    size; but our own sperm whale frequently attains a good length of
    seventy feet, while the rorquals often run up to eighty, ninety, and
    even a hundred feet. We are thus fairly entitled to say that we have at
    least one species of animal now living which, occasionally at any rate,
    equals in size the very biggest and most colossal form known
    inferentially to geological science. Indeed when we consider the
    extraordinary compactness and rotundity of the modern cetaceans, as
    compared with the tall limbs and straggling skeleton of the huge
    Jurassic deinosaurs, I am inclined to believe that the tonnage of a
    decent modern rorqual must positively exceed that of the gigantic
    Atlantosaurus, the great lizard of the west, _in propria persona_. I
    doubt, in short, whether even the solid thigh-bone of the deinosaur
    could ever have supported the prodigious weight of a full-grown family
    razor-back whale. The mental picture of these unwieldy monsters hopping
    casually about, like Alice's Gryphon in Tenniel's famous sketch, or
    like that still more parlous brute, the chortling Jabberwock, must be
    left to the vivid imagination of the courteous reader, who may fill in
    the details for himself as well as he is able.

    If we turn from the particular comparison of selected specimens (always
    an unfair method of judging) to the general aspect of our contemporary
    fauna, I venture confidently to claim for our own existing human period
    as fine a collection of big animals as any other ever exhibited on this
    planet by any one single rival epoch. Of course, if you are going to
    lump all the extinct monsters and horrors into one imaginary unified
    fauna, regardless of anachronisms, I have nothing more to say to you; I
    will candidly admit that there were more great men in all previous
    generations put together, from Homer to Dickens, from Agamemnon to
    Wellington, than there are now existing in this last quarter of our
    really very respectable nineteenth century. But if you compare honestly
    age with age, one at a time, I fearlessly maintain that, so far from
    there being any falling off in the average bigness of things generally
    in these latter days, there are more big things now living than there
    ever were in any one single epoch, even of much longer duration than the
    'recent' period.

    I suppose we may fairly say, from the evidence before us, that there
    have been two Augustan Ages of big animals in the history of our
    earth--the Jurassic period, which was the zenith of the reptilian type,
    and the Pliocene, which was the zenith of the colossal terrestrial
    tertiary mammals. I say on purpose, 'from the evidence before us,'
    because, as I shall go on to explain hereafter, I do not myself believe
    that any one age has much surpassed another in the general size of its
    fauna, since the Permian Epoch at least; and where we do not get
    geological evidence of the existence of big animals in any particular
    deposit, we may take it for granted, I think, that that deposit was laid
    down under conditions unfavourable to the preservation of the remains of
    large species. For example, the sediment now being accumulated at the
    bottom of the Caspian cannot possibly contain the bones of any creature
    much larger than the Caspian seal, because there are no big species
    there swimming; and yet that fact does not negative the existence in
    other places of whales, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, and hippopotami.
    Nevertheless, we can only go upon the facts before us; and if we compare
    our existing fauna with the fauna of Jurassic and Pliocene times, we
    shall at any rate be putting it to the test of the severest competition
    that lies within our power under the actual circumstances.

    In the Jurassic age there were undoubtedly a great many very big
    reptiles. 'A monstrous eft was of old the lord and master of earth: For
    him did his high sun flame and his river billowing ran: And he felt
    himself in his pride to be nature's crowning race.' There was the
    ichthyosaurus, a fish-like marine lizard, familiar to us all from a
    thousand reconstructions, with his long thin body, his strong flippers,
    his stumpy neck, and his huge pair of staring goggle eyes. The
    ichthyosaurus was certainly a most unpleasant creature to meet alone in
    a narrow strait on a dark night; but if it comes to actual measurement,
    the very biggest ichthyosaurian skeleton ever unearthed does not exceed
    twenty-five feet from snout to tail. Now, this is an extremely decent
    size for a reptile, as reptiles go; for the crocodile and alligator, the
    two biggest existing lizards, seldom attain an extreme length of sixteen
    feet. But there are other reptiles now living that easily beat the
    ichthyosaurus, such, for example, as the larger pythons or rock-snakes,
    which not infrequently reach to thirty feet, and measure round the
    waist as much as a London alderman of the noblest proportions. Of
    course, other Jurassic saurians easily beat this simple record. Our
    British Megalosaurus only extended twenty-five feet in length, and
    carried weight not exceeding three tons; but, his rival Ceteosaurus
    stood ten feet high, and measured fifty feet from the tip of his snout
    to the end of his tail; while the dimensions of Titanosaurus may be
    briefly described as sixty feet by thirty, and those of Atlantosaurus as
    one hundred by thirty-two. Viewed as reptiles, we have certainly nothing
    at all to come up to these; but our cetaceans, as a group, show an
    assemblage of species which could very favourably compete with the whole
    lot of Jurassic saurians at any cattle show. Indeed, if it came to
    tonnage, I believe a good blubbery right-whale could easily give points
    to any deinosaur that ever moved upon oolitic continents.

    The great mammals of the Pliocene age, again, such as the deinotherium
    and the mastodon, were also, in their way, very big things in livestock;
    but they scarcely exceeded the modern elephant, and by no means came
    near the modern whales. A few colossal ruminants of the same period
    could have held their own well against our existing giraffes, elks, and
    buffaloes; but, taking the group as a group, I don't think there is any
    reason to believe that it beat in general aspect the living fauna of
    this present age.

    For few people ever really remember how very many big animals we still
    possess. We have the Indian and the African elephant, the hippopotamus,
    the various rhinoceroses, the walrus, the giraffe, the elk, the bison,
    the musk ox, the dromedary, and the camel. Big marine animals are
    generally in all ages bigger than their biggest terrestrial rivals, and
    most people lump all our big existing cetaceans under the common and
    ridiculous title of whales, which makes this vast and varied assortment
    of gigantic species seem all reducible to a common form. As a matter of
    fact, however, there are several dozen colossal marine animals now
    sporting and spouting in all oceans, as distinct from one another as the
    camel is from the ox, or the elephant from the hippopotamus. Our New
    Zealand Berardius easily beats the ichthyosaurus; our sperm whale is
    more than a match for any Jurassic European deinosaur; our rorqual, one
    hundred feet long, just equals the dimensions of the gigantic American
    Atlantosaurus himself. Besides these exceptional monsters, our
    bottleheads reach to forty feet, our California whales to forty-four,
    our hump-backs to fifty, and our razor-backs to sixty or seventy. True
    fish generally fall far short of these enormous dimensions, but some of
    the larger sharks attain almost equal size with the biggest cetaceans.
    The common blue shark, with his twenty-five feet of solid rapacity,
    would have proved a tough antagonist, I venture to believe, for the best
    bred enaliosaurian that ever munched a lias ammonite. I would back our
    modern carcharodon, who grows to forty feet, against any plesiosaurus
    that ever swam the Jurassic sea. As for rhinodon, a gigantic shark of
    the Indian Ocean, he has been actually measured to a length of fifty
    feet, and is stated often to attain seventy. I will stake my reputation
    upon it that he would have cleared the secondary seas of their great
    saurians in less than a century. When we come to add to these enormous
    marine and terrestrial creatures such other examples as the great
    snakes, the gigantic cuttle-fish, the grampuses, and manatees, and
    sea-lions, and sunfish, I am quite prepared fearlessly to challenge any
    other age that ever existed to enter the lists against our own for
    colossal forms of animal life.

    Again, it is a point worth noting that a great many of the very big
    animals which people have in their minds when they talk vaguely about
    everything having been so very much bigger 'in those days' have become
    extinct within a very late period, and are often, from the geological
    point of view, quite recent.

    For example, there is our friend the mammoth. I suppose no animal is
    more frequently present to the mind of the non-geological speaker, when
    he talks indefinitely about the great extinct monsters, than the
    familiar figure of that huge-tusked, hairy northern elephant. Yet the
    mammoth, chronologically speaking, is but a thing of yesterday. He was
    hunted here in England by men whose descendants are probably still
    living--at least so Professor Boyd Dawkins solemnly assures us; while in
    Siberia his frozen body, flesh and all, is found so very fresh that the
    wolves devour it, without raising any unnecessary question as to its
    fitness for lupine food. The Glacial Epoch is the yesterday of
    geological time, and it was the Glacial Epoch that finally killed off
    the last mammoth. Then, again, there is his neighbour, the mastodon.
    That big tertiary proboscidean did not live quite long enough, it is
    true, to be hunted by the cavemen of the Pleistocene age, but he
    survived at any rate as long as the Pliocene--our day before
    yesterday--and he often fell very likely before the fire-split flint
    weapons of the Abbé Bourgeois' Miocene men. The period that separates
    him from our own day is as nothing compared with the vast and
    immeasurable interval that separates him from the huge marine saurians
    of the Jurassic world. To compare the relative lapses of time with human
    chronology, the mastodon stands to our own fauna as Beau Brummel stands
    to the modern masher, while the saurians stand to it as the Egyptian and
    Assyrian warriors stand to Lord Wolseley and the followers of the Mahdi.

    Once more, take the gigantic moa of New Zealand, that enormous bird who
    was to the ostrich as the giraffe is to the antelope; a monstrous emu,
    as far surpassing the ostriches of to-day as the ostriches surpass all
    the other fowls of the air. Yet the moa, though now extinct, is in the
    strictest sense quite modern, a contemporary very likely of Queen
    Elizabeth or Queen Anne, exterminated by the Maoris only a very little
    time before the first white settlements in the great southern
    archipelago. It is even doubtful whether the moa did not live down to
    the days of the earliest colonists, for remains of Maori encampments are
    still discovered, with the ashes of the fireplace even now unscattered,
    and the close-gnawed bones of the gigantic bird lying in the very spot
    where the natives left them after their destructive feasts. So, too,
    with the big sharks. Our modern carcharodon, who runs (as I have before
    noted) to forty feet in length, is a very respectable monster indeed, as
    times go; and his huge snapping teeth, which measure nearly two inches
    long by one and a half broad, would disdain to make two bites of the
    able-bodied British seaman. But the naturalists of the 'Challenger'
    expedition dredged up in numbers from the ooze of the Pacific similar
    teeth, five inches long by four wide, so that the sharks to which they
    originally belonged must, by parity of reasoning, have measured nearly a
    hundred feet in length. This, no doubt, beats our biggest existing
    shark, the rhinodon, by some thirty feet. Still, the ooze of the Pacific
    is a quite recent or almost modern deposit, which is even now being
    accumulated on the sea bottom, and there would be really nothing
    astonishing in the discovery that some representatives of these colossal
    carcharodons are to this day swimming about at their lordly leisure
    among the coral reefs of the South Sea Islands. That very cautious
    naturalist, Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, contents himself indeed
    by merely saying: 'As we have no record of living individuals of that
    bulk having been observed, the gigantic species to which these teeth
    belonged must probably have become extinct within a comparatively recent
    period.'

    If these things are so, the question naturally suggests itself: Why
    should certain types of animals have attained their greatest size at
    certain different epochs, and been replaced at others by equally big
    animals of wholly unlike sorts? The answer, I believe, is simply this:
    Because there is not room and food in the world at any one time for more
    than a certain relatively small number of gigantic species. Each great
    group of animals has had successively its rise, its zenith, its
    decadence, and its dotage; each at the period of its highest development
    has produced a considerable number of colossal forms; each has been
    supplanted in due time by higher groups of totally different structure,
    which have killed off their predecessors, not indeed by actual stress of
    battle, but by irresistible competition for food and prey. The great
    saurians were thus succeeded by the great mammals, just as the great
    mammals are themselves in turn being ousted, from the land at least, by
    the human species.

    Let us look briefly at the succession of big animals in the world, so
    far as we can follow it from the mutilated and fragmentary record of the
    geological remains.

    The very earliest existing fossils would lead us to believe what is
    otherwise quite probable, that life on our planet began with very small
    forms--that it passed at first through a baby stage. The animals of the
    Cambrian period are almost all small mollusks, star-fishes, sponges, and
    other simple, primitive types of life. There were as yet no vertebrates
    of any sort, not even fishes, far less amphibians, reptiles, birds, or
    mammals. The veritable giants of the Cambrian world were the
    crustaceans, and especially the trilobites, which, nevertheless, hardly
    exceeded in size a good big modern lobster. The biggest trilobite is
    some two feet long; and though we cannot by any means say that this was
    really the largest form of animal life then existing, owing to the
    extremely broken nature of the geological record, we have at least no
    evidence that anything bigger as yet moved upon the face of the waters.
    The trilobites, which were a sort of triple-tailed crabs (to speak very
    popularly), began in the Cambrian Epoch, attained their culminating
    point in the Silurian, waned in the Devonian, and died out utterly in
    the Carboniferous seas.

    It is in the second great epoch, the Silurian, that the cuttle-fish
    tribe, still fairly represented by the nautilus, the argonaut, the
    squid, and the octopus, first began to make their appearance upon this
    or any other stage. The cuttle-fishes are among the most developed of
    invertebrate animals; they are rapid swimmers; they have large and
    powerful eyes; and they can easily enfold their prey (_teste_ Victor
    Hugo) in their long and slimy sucker-clad arms. With these natural
    advantages to back them up, it is not surprising that the cuttle family
    rapidly made their mark in the world. They were by far the most advanced
    thinkers and actors of their own age, and they rose almost at once to be
    the dominant creatures of the primæval ocean in which they swam. There
    were as yet no saurians or whales to dispute the dominion with these
    rapacious cephalopods, and so the cuttle family had things for the time
    all their own way. Before the end of the Silurian Epoch, according to
    that accurate census-taker, M. Barrande, they had blossomed forth into
    no less than 1,622 distinct species. For a single family to develop so
    enormous a variety of separate forms, all presumably derived from a
    single common ancestor, argues, of course, an immense success in life;
    and it also argues a vast lapse of time during which the different
    species were gradually demarcated from one another.

    Some of the ammonites, which belonged to this cuttle-fish group, soon
    attained a very considerable size; but a shell known as the orthoceras
    (I wish my subject didn't compel me to use such _very_ long words, but I
    am not personally answerable, thank heaven, for the vagaries of modern
    scientific nomenclature) grew to a bigger size than that of any other
    fossil mollusk, sometimes measuring as much as six feet in total length.
    At what date the gigantic cuttles of the present day first began to make
    their appearance it would be hard to say, for their shell-less bodies
    are so soft that they could leave hardly anything behind in a fossil
    state; but the largest known cuttle, measured by Mr. Gabriel, of
    Newfoundland, was eighty feet in length, including the long arms.

    These cuttles are the only invertebrates at all in the running so far as
    colossal size is concerned, and it will be observed that here the
    largest modern specimen immeasurably beats the largest fossil form of
    the same type. I do not say that there were not fossil forms quite as
    big as the gigantic calamaries of our own time--on the contrary, I
    believe there were; but if we go by the record alone we must confess
    that, in the matter of invertebrates at least, the balance of size is
    all in favour of our own period.

    The vertebrates first make their appearance, in the shape of fishes,
    towards the close of the Silurian period, the second of the great
    geological epochs. The earliest fish appear to have been small,
    elongated, eel-like creatures, closely resembling the lampreys in
    structure; but they rapidly developed in size and variety, and soon
    became the ruling race in the waters of the ocean, where they maintained
    their supremacy till the rise of the great secondary saurians. Even
    then, in spite of the severe competition thus introduced, and still
    later, in spite of the struggle for life against the huge modern
    cetaceans (the true monarchs of the recent seas), the sharks continued
    to hold their own as producers of gigantic forms; and at the present day
    their largest types probably rank second only to the whales in the whole
    range of animated nature. There seems no reason to doubt that modern
    fish, as a whole, quite equal in size the piscine fauna of any previous
    geological age.

    It is somewhat different with the next great vertebrate group, the
    amphibians, represented in our own world only by the frogs, the toads,
    the newts, and the axolotls. Here we must certainly with shame confess
    that the amphibians of old greatly surpassed their degenerate
    descendants in our modern waters. The Japanese salamander, by far the
    biggest among our existing newts, never exceeds a yard in length from
    snout to tail; whereas some of the labyrinthodonts (forgive me once
    more) of the Carboniferous Epoch must have reached at least seven or
    eight feet from stem to stern. But the reason of this falling off is not
    far to seek. When the adventurous newts and frogs of that remote period
    first dropped their gills and hopped about inquiringly on the dry land,
    under the shadow of the ancient tree-ferns and club-mosses, they were
    the only terrestrial vertebrates then existing, and they had the field
    (or, rather, the forest) all to themselves. For a while, therefore, like
    all dominant races for the time being, they blossomed forth at their
    ease into relatively gigantic forms. Frogs as big as donkeys, and efts
    as long as crocodiles, luxuriated to their hearts' content in the marshy
    lowlands, and lorded it freely over the small creatures which they found
    in undisturbed possession of the Carboniferous isles. But as ages passed
    away, and new improvements were slowly invented and patented by survival
    of the fittest in the offices of nature, their own more advanced and
    developed descendants, the reptiles and mammals, got the upper hand
    with them, and soon lived them down in the struggle for life, so that
    this essentially intermediate form is now almost entirely restricted to
    its one adapted seat, the pools and ditches that dry up in summer.

    The reptiles, again, are a class in which the biggest modern forms are
    simply nowhere beside the gigantic extinct species. First appearing on
    the earth at the very close of the vast primary periods--in the Permian
    age--they attained in secondary times the most colossal proportions, and
    have certainly never since been exceeded in size by any later forms of
    life in whatever direction. But one must remember that during the heyday
    of the great saurians, there were as yet no birds and no mammals. The
    place now filled in the ocean by the whales and grampuses, as well as
    the place now filled in the great continents by the elephants, the
    rhinoceroses, the hippopotami, and the other big quadrupeds, was then
    filled exclusively by huge reptiles, of the sort rendered familiar to us
    all by the restored effigies on the little island in the Crystal Palace
    grounds. Every dog has his day, and the reptiles had _their_ day in the
    secondary period. The forms into which they developed were certainly
    every whit as large as any ever seen on the surface of this planet, but
    not, as I have already shown, appreciably larger than those of the
    biggest cetaceans known to science in our own time.

    During the very period, however, when enaliosaurians and pterodactyls
    were playing such pranks before high heaven as might have made
    contemporary angels weep, if they took any notice of saurian morality, a
    small race of unobserved little prowlers was growing up in the dense
    shades of the neighbouring forests which was destined at last to oust
    the huge reptiles from their empire over earth, and to become in the
    fulness of time the exclusively dominant type of the whole planet. In
    the trias we get the first remains of mammalian life in the shape of
    tiny rat-like animals, marsupial in type, and closely related to the
    banded ant-eaters of New South Wales at the present day. Throughout the
    long lapse of the secondary ages, across the lias, the oolite, the
    wealden, and the chalk, we find the mammalian race slowly developing
    into opossums and kangaroos, such as still inhabit the isolated and
    antiquated continent of Australia. Gathering strength all the time for
    the coming contest, increasing constantly in size of brain and keenness
    of intelligence, the true mammals were able at last, towards the close
    of the secondary ages, to enter the lists boldly against the gigantic
    saurians. With the dawn of the tertiary period, the reign of the
    reptiles begins to wane, and the reign of the mammals to set in at last
    in real earnest. In place of the ichthyosaurs we get the huge cetaceans;
    in place of the deinosaurs we get the mammoth and the mastodon; in place
    of the dominant reptile groups we get the first precursors of man
    himself.

    The history of the great birds has been somewhat more singular. Unlike
    the other main vertebrate classes, the birds (as if on purpose to
    contradict the proverb) seem never yet to have had their day.
    Unfortunately for them, or at least for their chance of producing
    colossal species, their evolution went on side by side, apparently, with
    that of the still more intelligent and more powerful mammals; so that,
    wherever the mammalian type had once firmly established itself, the
    birds were compelled to limit their aspirations to a very modest and
    humble standard. Terrestrial mammals, however, cannot cross the sea; so
    in isolated regions, such as New Zealand and Madagascar, the birds had
    things all their own way. In New Zealand, there are no indigenous
    quadrupeds at all; and there the huge moa attained to dimensions almost
    equalling those of the giraffe. In Madagascar, the mammalian life was
    small and of low grade, so the gigantic æpyornis became the very biggest
    of all known birds. At the same time, these big species acquired their
    immense size at the cost of the distinctive birdlike habit of flight. A
    flying moa is almost an impossible conception; even the ostriches
    compete practically with the zebras and antelopes rather than with the
    eagles, the condors, or the albatrosses. In like manner, when a pigeon
    found its way to Mauritius, it developed into the practically wingless
    dodo; while in the northern penguins, on their icy perches, the fore
    limbs have been gradually modified into swimming organs, exactly
    analogous to the flippers of the seal.

    Are the great animals now passing away and leaving no representatives of
    their greatness to future ages? On land at least that is very probable.
    Man, diminutive man, who, if he walked on all fours, would be no bigger
    than a silly sheep, and who only partially disguises his native
    smallness by his acquired habit of walking erect on what ought to be his
    hind legs--man has upset the whole balanced economy of nature, and is
    everywhere expelling and exterminating before him the great herbivores,
    his predecessors. He needs for his corn and his bananas the fruitful
    plains which were once laid down in prairie or scrubwood. Hence it seems
    not unlikely that the elephant, the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros, and
    the buffalo must go. But we are still a long way off from that final
    consummation, even on dry land; while as for the water, it appears
    highly probable that there are as good fish still in the sea as ever
    came out of it. Whether man himself, now become the sole dominant animal
    of our poor old planet, will ever develop into Titanic proportions,
    seems far more problematical. The race is now no longer to the swift,
    nor the battle to the strong. Brain counts for more than muscle, and
    mind has gained the final victory over mere matter. Goliath of Gath has
    shrunk into insignificance before the Gatling gun; as in the fairy tales
    of old, it is cunning little Jack with his clever devices who wins the
    day against the heavy, clumsy, muddle-headed giants. Nowadays it is our
    'Minotaurs' and 'Warriors' that are the real leviathans and behemoths of
    the great deep; our Krupps and Armstrongs are the fire-breathing krakens
    of the latter-day seas. Instead of developing individually into huge
    proportions, the human race tends rather to aggregate into vast empires,
    which compete with one another by means of huge armaments, and invent
    mitrailleuses and torpedos of incredible ferocity for their mutual
    destruction. The dragons of the prime that tare each other in their
    slime have yielded place to eighty-ton guns and armour-plated
    turret-ships. Those are the genuine lineal representatives on our modern
    seas of the secondary saurians. Let us hope that some coming geologist
    of the dim future, finding the fossil remains of the sunken 'Captain,'
    or the plated scales of the 'Comte de Grasse,' firmly embedded in the
    upheaved ooze of the existing Atlantic, may shake his head in solemn
    deprecation at the horrid sight, and thank heaven that such hideous
    carnivorous creatures no longer exist in his own day.
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