Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Homage to The Velvet Claw, again


The Velvet Claw, front cover of the boxed video set. Yeah, VIDEO. I don't think it's ever been released on DVD.

At long last, somebody has uploaded (at least some of) The Velvet Claw to youtube. What’s The Velvet Claw, I hear you ask? Well, actually, I probably don’t hear you ask, seeing as you probably know already. Indeed, if you’re a long-term Tet Zoo reader, you’ll have heard me talk about it before. And here I go again: below find a revamped version of the article I originally published on The Velvet Claw back in 2007.

Those of us interested in the same subject often tend to have experienced the same sorts of things. If you share my interests (as you probably do, given that you’re here), you’ve probably watched a lot of Attenborough on TV. You’ve probably been to at least one of the bigger natural history museums of your country, probably more than once. You’ve probably spent more time than is considered usual looking at weird reptiles, or bat-eared foxes, or tapirs, or giraffes, or bats, or rhinos, at the zoo. You probably caught and kept weird insects and pond animals as a child. You’ve probably picked up objects that other people consider bizarre or worthless, like bones, or bits of crustaceans. And, if you were in the habit of watching television in the early 1990s, you probably thought The Velvet Claw was the best thing on TV… Ok, I appreciate that the BBC TV series I’m talking about was not aired world-wide, so I won’t really be surprised if you haven’t seen it. But most of the people I know that are interested in tetrapods watched it religiously, and know and remember it well.

Aired for the first time in 1992 (when I was at college, ostensibly studying geology and English language), the six-part series, subtitled ‘A natural history of the carnivores’, was so much more than a review of the living carnivoran species. It was about evolutionary history: about how the major carnivoran clades were related to one another, about the trials and tribulations they encountered during their evolutionary history, and about the sorts of changes that led to the specialisations of the modern lineages. We’re talking historical zoology, exactly the sort of thing you come to Tet Zoo to read about.

The Velvet Claw, from beginning to end

Deinonychus vs Ornithomimus: there should be lots of feathers, and these animals were hardly contemporaneous but, hey, it was 1992. From episode 1 of The Velvet Claw.

Here is how awesome The Velvet Claw is. Episode 1 (‘The carnassial connection’) starts with dinosaurs (I’ll forgive the series for implying that Deinonychus and Ornithomimus were contemporaneous and alive at the end of the Maastrichtian). It doesn’t say that they were stupid big crappy reptiles, way inferior to the little furry mammals that skulked in the shadows, but instead notes that they were highly successful, sophisticated animals. Non-avialan dinosaurs then buy the farm, and we are told something of the big birds and pristichampsine crocodylians that evolved their own big terrestrial predators.

The episode then quickly runs through mesonychians (more on those in a minute), creodonts and miacoids, a fleeting nod is made to predatory marsupials (in particular to propleopine rat-kangaroos: the accompanying book and magazine article also talk about borhyaenoids a bit), and it then proceeds to review the evolutionary history and biology of viverrids (the thinking being that, while they’re not the most basal carnivorans, they’re ecologically and morphologically most similar to the stem-group early Cenozoic forms). The stage is set for the Cenozoic radiation of all the major modern groups.

Velvet Claw montage of ancient creatures. Clockwise from top left: theropods, pristichampsine croc, Andrewsarchus (in old 'mega-wolf' guise), Hapalodectes (in old 'otter-like proto-whale' guise). Images from The Velvet Claw.

Over the next four episodes, the evolutionary history, diversity and biology of cats, dogs, hyaenas, procyonids and bears, and mustelids, are discussed. Pinnipeds don’t feature at all, much to my chagrin and causing me to write to BBC Wildlife in disapproval (for further thoughts on the frustrating absence of pinnipeds from other reviews of the rest of Carnivora, see my review of Hunter and Barrett’s A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World).

Rotating, 3D digital models of skulls feature throughout the series: this is a Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox).

The final episode (‘It’s tough at the top’) begins by looking at mongooses (covering in particular the complex societies of meerkats and other social mongooses), but then goes on to review the successes, and failures, of the different carnivoran lineages. In the modern world, specialists and big-bodied species are all but doomed (we see the sad decline of the Black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes and of the tigers); only adaptable generalists that can live alongside people might be secured a future. I find the very end of the last episode of the series poignant and quite moving. I won’t give it away, but it weaves together the threads of extinction, urbanisation, and the loss of nearly everything that makes biodiversity interesting.

Mesonychians, oligobunines, percrocutids (and more) on TV?? Yes, really

Front cover of September 1992's BBC Wildlife: it features David Macdonald's tie-in article for the launch of The Velvet Claw (Macdonald 1992b).

So, I loved The Velvet Claw. I have the book (Macdonald 1992a); I have the boxed BBC video set of the series; I have the articles written to accompany the series (Macdonald 1992b, c, d).

Part of what made it so special is that – as you’ll have gathered by now – they covered extinct taxa, many of them not shown on TV before, and they depicted these with some reasonably good bits of art and animation. Megistotherium, the propleopine kangaroo Ekaltadeta, the giant, bear-mimicking procyonid Chapalmalania, the giant hyaena Pachycrocuta, oligobunine mustelids, amphicyonids, hesperocyonine and borophagine canids, and nimravids all get a look-in. Two Andrewsarchus are shown contesting dominance over an embolothere carcass*; the giant short-faced bear Arctodus thinks about menacing a mace-tailed glyptodont (wrongly identified in the book as Glyptodon) but gives up and gallops away; dire wolves confront a Megalonyx; and so much more.

* Incidentally, I’m still somewhat confused about the exact age of these Mongolian taxa. Andrewsarchus was originally described as Upper Eocene while the ‘brontothere with the battering ram’ Embolotherium was originally described as Oligocene in age. Most sources now state that both are Upper Eocene, but Prothero (2006) specifically describes Andrewsarchus as Middle Eocene.

Skull of Enhydrocyon crassidens, a fossil dog once imagined to be a cat-mimicking dog. It was probably nothing of the sort.

Some of the taxa they depicted were entirely new to me. I’d never heard of the cursorial hyaenid Chasmaporthetes* – the only hyaenid that made the crossing into North America – prior to its depiction in The Velvet Claw (today, thanks to Kurtén & Werdelin (1988) and Werdelin et al. (1988), I know a fair bit about it). Nor had I previously heard that some canids, like the hesperocyonine Enhydrocyon, might be described as dogs that superficially resembled big cats. UPDATE: since I wrote the preceding sentence, the once mooted idea that Enhydrocyon and kin were at all cat-like has been substantially challenged by Mauricio Antón’s reconstructions, featured in Wang et al. (2008). Reconstructed with canid anatomy in mind, Enhydrocyon would still have looked dog-like.

* That’s the correct spelling: it’s not Chasmaportetes [sic], as it says in Agustí & Antón (2002), nor Chasmoporthetes [sic], as it says in Prothero (2006).

Life reconstructions of the percrocutids Percrocuta (at front) and Dinocrocuta by Mehmet Kosemen, used with permission.

And my imagination was really captured by a giant African carnivoran, depicted as a shaggy-furred, short-faced hyaena-like uber-scavenger: Percrocuta. Again, this was the first time I’d heard of percrocutids and I didn’t have a clue what they were. Today I can forgive myself for this because Percrocutidae was only named in 1991 (Werdelin & Solounias 1991). Well, actually, Percrocuta (from Miocene and Pliocene Africa and Eurasia) had been named in 1938, one member of the group – namely Dinocrocuta gigantea (originally Hyaena gigantea) – had been known since 1903, and people had been referring to ‘percrocutoid hyaenids’ since the 1980s. Percrocutids have conventionally been imagined as a group of unusual, specialised hyaenids, but it now seems that their resemblance to advanced, big-toothed hyaenids is convergent (Chen & Schmidt-Kittler 1983, Agustí & Antón 2002, Morales & Pickford 2006), and that their ancestry might be found among the stenoplesictids, a mostly Oligocene group of Old World cat-group carnivorans that would have resembled genets or palm civets when alive.

There’s speculative zoology

The Velvet Claw, the book. You should own it.

But perhaps best of all, the series includes some awesome speculative zoology. We see a future bear that, running through a polar landscape covering present-day New York City (the Statue of Liberty can be seen in the distance), has evolved to be a sabre-toothed predator of newly evolved megaherbivores. Best of all, the dingy industrial underworld of a future super-city is said to be inhabited, and in part dominated, by a smart, sleek, gracile predator. Foraging among what look like futuristic coal trucks in pursuit of rat-like rodents, it leaps on to a truck, scattering the rodents. They leap and flee, emitting loud metallic alarm calls.

For those of you who know Dr Who, this creature always reminded me of the stigorax from Terra Alpha, though it’s much cooler… all of this is from the Sylvester McCoy years, so I won’t be surprised if you missed it. Incidentally, there’s another link between The Velvet Claw and Dr Who: it was narrated by Derek Jacobi, who recently played one of the incarnations of The Master.

Sabre-toothed bear (!) and future urban carnivoran, from the last episode of The Velvet Claw. Thanks to Chris Manias for help in tracking these down.

Anyway… so, the animation sequences really stuck with me: they looked pretty good, and they featured interesting beasts, some of which I’d never even heard of before. I was particularly taken with the future carnivoran*, and watched that scene in particular again and again and again.

* I won’t call it ‘future predator’ for fear of getting it confused with the same-named creature from Primeval.

Hesperocyon, animated by Stuart Brooks Animation and featuring in The Velvet Claw. From Macdonald (1992c).

The people behind the scenes

All the animation scenes in the series were produced by Stuart Brooks Animation: the company, set up by Michael Stuart in 1983, that did much of the animation for the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, worked with Pink Floyd (and did much of the animation in The Wall) and Terry Gilliam (for The Meaning of Life), and also animated The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.

Your humble author (at right) with series producer Paul Stewart; a photo taken in September 2012.

In case it isn’t obvious, people seriously interested in historical zoology should probably go to some effort to track down The Velvet Claw – something’s that far easier than it was thanks to youtube (though, so far as I know, the whole series hasn’t yet been uploaded). We owe massive thanks to the team behind it for bringing the project to the screen: Melinda Barker, Mike Beynon, Andrew Jackson, Paul Reddish and Paul Stewart were the series’s producers, and Mike Beynon was executive producer.

Finally, the book and TV series were written by David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research University at Oxford University and well known for his many publications on biology, ecology and conservation [homepage]. A leading mammalogist, Macdonald is best known for his long-term work on foxes, but he’s also published on jackals, badgers, mink and other mustelids, cheetahs, beavers, squirrels, mice, voles, vicunas, babirusas, elephants and others. Macdonald is also well known for the several TV documentaries he’s been involved in, some of which (e.g., Night of the Fox and Meerkats United) have been award-winners. I don’t know if he approached the BBC with the idea of The Velvet Claw, or if they approached him; whatever happened, the results were outstanding.

Buy The Velvet Claw here.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on The Velvet Claw and various other topics mentioned here, see...

Refs - -

Agustí, J. & Antón, M. 2002. Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe. Columbia University Press, New York.

Chen, G. & Schmidt-Kittler, N. 1983. The deciduous dentition of Percrocuta Kretzoi and the diphyletic origin of the hyaenas (Carnivora, Mammalia). Paläontologische Zeirschrift 57, 159-169.

Kurtén, B. & Werdelin, L. 1988. A review of the genus Chasmaporthetes Hay, 1921 (Carnivora, Hyaenidae). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 8, 46-66.

Macdonald, D. W. 1992a. The Velvet Claw: a Natural History of the Carnivores. BBC Books, London.

- . 1992b. Coming to the crunch. BBC Wildlife 10 (9), 32-45.

- . 1992c. Joining forces. BBC Wildlife 10 (10), 32-43.

- . 1992d. Meerkats reunited. BBC Wildlife 10 (10), 45-48.

Prothero, D. R. 2006. After the Dinosaurs: the Age of Mammals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Wang, X. & Tedford, R. H. 2008. Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History. Columbia University Press, New York.

Werdelin, L. & Solounias, N. 1991. The Hyaenidae: taxonomy, systematics and evolution. Fossils and Strata 30, 1-104.

- ., Turner, A. & Solounias, N. 1994. Studies of fossil hyaenids: the genera Hyaenictis Gaudry and Chasmaporthetes Hay, with a reconsideration of the Hyaenidae of Langebaanweg, South Africa. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 111, 197-217.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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