Tiny Ancestor of All Modern Carnivores Found
March 14, 2012 -
Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas prefers to take close, wide-angle shots of animals from the ground. Usually he'd quietly crawl up to them, but that would be too dangerous when shooting lions in the wild. So he started building a prototype for a mobile camera called "BeetleCam" because it resembles a large beetle as it moves and offers a beetle-like perspective. Photo: A lion biting a 'beetlecam'
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With help from his brother Matt (right), Burrard-Lucas mounted a Canon EOS 400D on top of an off-the-shelf robot chassis. The "buggy" was stuffed with large batteries and rigged so that the camera connected to the steering controls. The first BeetleCam was sealed, camouflaged, and its center of gravity moved lower for better stability. Burrard-Lucas was ready to test it in Tanzania's Ruaha and Katavi National Parks.
On the morning of their first day out, the brothers took advantage of the warm light to capture elephants with the BeetleCam prototype. "We used it first on elephants and it worked really well," Burrard-Lucas said. The next day they decided to try it with lions.
What happened next was obvious in retrospect, Burrard-Lucas said. Curious about the mobile camera, a lioness picked it up and dragged it away. Fortunately the brothers were able to see where she dropped the mangled device. "Because there was no protection on it in those days, her teeth went straight through the camera and broke it," Burrard-Lucas said. They patched up the device, popped in another camera, and for the rest of the trip concentrated on elephants and buffalo instead.
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Back in London, Will Burrard-Lucas set to work developing a new BeetleCam, this time custom-building much of it from scratch. "It took two years but eventually I found time to build what I hoped would be a lion-proof version," he said. This latest version (right), equipped with a Canon 550D camera, had better armor than the original. He also constructed a second, larger mobile camera (left) with a live video feed, HD movie recording, and a Canon 1Ds MK III digital camera that he dubbed "BeetleCam Mark II."
When the brothers returned to Africa in 2011, they traveled to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This time the new BeetleCam had a carapace built out of fiberglass that was reinforced with aluminum struts. "I hoped it would be lion-proof and it did prove to be able to withstand the odd bite here and there," Burrard-Lucas said.
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The brothers drove around the Masai Mara looking for lions. When they found some they deployed the BeetleCams. Lowering them out the vehicle's far window, away from where the lions were, usually worked quite well, Burrard-Lucas said. They frequently used the smaller armored camera to test the conditions. When the lion was distracted or not interested in the camera, then they risked rolling in the more expensive BeetleCam for higher quality photographs.
To control the BeetleCam remotely, Burrard-Lucas used a model airplane controller that has forward, back and steering capabilities. The airplane throttle was repurposed to tilt the camera lens up and down. A switch usually intended to raise and lower landing gear became the camera trigger. "I used the different channels to control different parts of the BeetleCam," he said.
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The adult lions were predictably unpredictable, choosing to ignore the BeetleCam completely and then all of a sudden they would get up and bite it. Lion cubs, on the other hand, were usually playful and curious with the camera, Burrard-Lucas said. "They could tell which side the front was, and would try to get round behind to flip it over."
Although he uses the video camera, Burrard-Lucas said he considers himself more of a photographer than a videographer. "It's the art form and it's just what I enjoy doing," he said. "This approach allows me to get my images in front of a lot of people." In this photo, he used BeetleCam to capture a close-up of a male lion eating a wildebeest.
Burrard-Lucas continues to look for unique perspectives. The way wildlife photography is going, professionals need to come up with innovative ideas in order to take photos that haven't been seen before, he said. "In wildlife photography, once a few thousand photos of lions have been taken, you have to really try quite hard to get something fresh."
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Using the dual BeetleCam approach has improved Burrard-Lucas' ability to compose shots instead of just crossing his fingers. Especially now that he's figured out how to transmit live, HD video from the BeetleCam's GoPro camera. "I can improve my success rate and make sure I can get the composition better rather than using a hit and miss approach," he said.
The wildlife photographer said he tends to think of a project or an animal he'd like to photograph and then goes about trying to build the tools that will enable him to get those shots. Next, we could be seeing a flying BeetleCam. "I might be doing something along the lines of a mini-helicopter version for aerial shots," he said.
Currently Burrard-Lucas is busy building BeetleCams for other wildlife photographers. He says a couple of them are planning to use the mobile camera to approach bears. "I'm giving them the same armor that lions had," he said. "We'll see if lions or bears turn out to be more destructive." To see video footage and additional photos from the BeetleCam project, visit Burrard-lucas.com/beetlecam.
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Lions, tigers, bears and even loyal pups and playful kitties all come from the same line of carnivorous mammals, a lineage whose origins are lost in time. Now, scientists have discovered one of the earliest ancestors of all modern carnivores in Belgium.
The new species, Dormaalocyon latouri, was a 2-pound (1 kilogram) tree-dweller that likely fed on even smaller mammals and insects.
"It wasn't frightening. It wasn't dreadful," said study researcher Floréal Solé, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. What it was, Solé said, is a clue to the beginnings of today's toothy beasts. [In Photos: Mammals Through Time]
"It is one of the oldest carnivorous mammals which is related to present-day carnivores," Solé told LiveScience.
All modern carnivores descend from a single group, one of four groups of carnivorous mammals found in the Paleocene and Eocene periods, Solé said. The Paleocene ran from 66 million to 56 million years ago, and the Eocene followed from 56 to 33.9 million years ago.
The carnivoraforms, as they're known, appear widespread during the Eocene, but without earlier fossils, paleontologists are unsure about their origins. Solé and his colleagues examined fossils from the very earliest Eocene, about 56 million years ago, from Dormaal, Belgium, east of Brussels.
The site was first discovered in the 1880s and has yielded 40 species of mammals over the years. Richard Smith, also of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and a colleague of Solé's, has sifted nearly 14,000 teeth from the soil in Dormaal.
Among them are 280 new specimens of teeth from a species hinted at previously from only two molars. With the new information from the teeth (including baby teeth from juveniles) and some ankle bones, Solé, Smith and their colleagues described this species today (Jan. 6) in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The carnivore ancestor Charlène Letenneur (MNHN) and Pascale Golinvaux (RBINS)
The ankle bone fossils reveal that Dormaalocyon lived an arboreal life, scampering through the trees in what was then a humid, subtropical forest, the researchers report. It likely looked like something of a cross between a tiny panther and a squirrel, with a long tail and a catlike snout.
The study confirms previous work suggesting that carnivores emerged during the Paleocene, before Dormaalocyon's time, said Gregg Gunnell, the director of the division of fossil primates at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, who was not involved in the research.
"It really shows that there is a lot of diversity very early in the Eocene, and we have absolutely no idea where it came from," Gunnell told LiveScience.
Part of the challenge of uncovering carnivore history is that, on the whole, meat-eating mammals aren't that common, Gunnell said — there are many more herbivores and omnivores on the planet and in the fossil record. In addition, Solé said, fossils from Europe, which appears to be an important stop for, and potentially the origin of, carnivore evolution and spread, are rarer than fossils from North America.
The geographical origin of the carnivoraforms remains mysterious, however. One theory holds they originated in North America and spread to Europe; the relationships of the fossils in Dormaal seem to suggest something more complex, Solé said. It's possible that carnivoraforms began in Asia and made it to North America through Europe.
With the current fossil record, however, it's just not possible to say for sure. Solé and his colleagues will soon publish a paper on a new fossil site in France from the late Paleocene — and a new carnivorous mammal found there — that may hold answers.
"We need to find some Paleocene deposits that produce some kind of ancestors of these carnivoraforms," Gunnell said. "We're lacking a big chunk of information."
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