Draining from the early Miocene Appalachian mountains are the streams and creeks which flow through the woodlands of New Jersey until they reach the blue Atlantic. Fed by mountain lakes and aquifers, these meandering waterways provide a much-needed source of liquid to the parched lowlands of the summer. Flowers and grasses shoot up through the cracked ground as the fluid product of the rainy season in the mountains turns the earth the deep brown and the tree leaves a healthier color. Though the temperature still peaks at over 32° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit), many large herbivores can be found in these coastal forests. Gigantic two-horned semiaquatic rhinoceros settle down into the waterholes of clearings. Three-toed horses race through the woods and munch on tree leaves as peccaries squabble over roots and burrow sites. Extinct distant relatives of modern mouse deer with two horns at the back of their skulls and a branching one at the front of their snouts compete for mates and territory, wearily checking the surrounding trees every few minutes for signs of danger. In the seas, multiple species of gargantuan sharks vie for chow with ancient relatives of sperm whales with gargantuan teeth an jaws as other species of whales bask and play near the surface, their calls heard for miles. Mollusks scavenge on the sea floor as fish schools swim along.
Back on land, a group of peccaries jog through their favorite mud hole through an open patch of grass and flowers. The size of modern javelinas, these herbivorous mammals are often left to their devices by predators and other herbivores weary of sustaining an injury from the peccaries’ large front tusks. Even the rhinoceros, the largest animals to roam these forests, are weary of the smaller mammals.
As the peccaries cross the opening in the forest unaware, a huge predator stalks them. The gleaming eyes of this colossus give off the faintest light on the predator’s distorted muzzle. Covered with scars, cuts and the occasional protuberance, it would appear that this creature is of another nature from the other mammals of early Miocene New Jersey. However, it is nonetheless the largest mammalian predator to stalk this forest. This is an entelodont, a relative of the group of mammals which includes hippopotami and whales. However, the grizzly, misleadingly hog-like appearance and terrifying predatory behavior of this odd mammal has given it the more ominous name of “terminator pig”. The massive front teeth of this humongous beast are rooted into its robust, meter-long skull. Its large body, built with powerful shoulder muscles and powerful, hoofed limbs to overpower its quarries, slopes down into a small tail tipped with fur.
From the bushes, the terminator pig charges at the peccary group, which scatter in fear. However, the large carnivore has outplayed the smaller tusked mammals, and has snagged the belly of one peccary on its canines. As blood loss takes its toll, the panicked ensnared peccary tries at its large attacker with its front teeth, scraping the terminator pig’s chin. The counterattacks are of no help to the peccary, who soon dies in the jaws of the larger mammal. With a single bite, the entelodont devours a large portion of the peccary’s gut, though it will stash away the rest of its kill in a hole created by the roots of a fallen tree which the carnivore inhabits.
Though the Miocene exposures of the east coast of the United States are more famous for their marine fossils, like those of the gigantic shark C. megalodon and the toothed whale Squalodon, a variety of equally incredible animals roamed the land. Unfortunately, these incredible animals, some of which among the largest predators North America would ever see, have not gotten the attention which they deserve.
One such carnivore, a mammal known as an entelodont, left its fossil mark in Farmingdale, New Jersey in the form of a left premolar and molar named Ammodon leidyanum by the famous paleontologist Othneil Charles Marsh (Marsh, 1893). Though another famous paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, speculated that the teeth came from a pig-like creature, more finds in the northwest United States would be needed to reveal the animal’s true identity (Gallagher, 1997).
In the end, the mystery of Marsh’s Ammodon leidyanum was solved. The mammal, now known to be an entelodont, was a large, gruesome predator with large teeth and the occasional bony protuberance off of its lower jaw to create a distinctive-looking skull. These big slashing teeth would have been able to rip into the flesh of the large mammals of early Miocene New Jersey, feeding the meat to the entelodont’s premolars and molars, which would start to grind and crush whatever the predator decided to swallow. Their long muzzles would have connected to a large, robust body supported by relatively thin, hoofed limbs. Among the classic features of the entelodonts were two bony lumps which extended from the skull.
More recent additions to the scientific literature had discussed whether Ammodon was truly a valid genus name for the Farmingdale entelodont teeth. In 1998, a remarkable conclusion as to the identity of the teeth was reached. It would seem that the teeth actually belong to a species of the western North American entelodont genus Daeodon, the largest known genus of entelodont (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998). Large individuals of this genus could have the shoulder height the height of a man. The holotype tooth of the Farmingdale creature is slightly larger and longer than the same element in western Daeodon (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998), which may suggest that the New Jersey animal was either larger than its relative from the American West or had larger teeth.
The entelodonts as a group had evolved to pursue and attack the large mammals which benefited off of the plants of the plains and forests of North America, though they would occasionally chow on tubers and roots to supplement their primarily carnivorous diet. Like modern large mammalian predators, entelodonts were opportunistic, scavenging carcasses on occasion. In New Jersey, Daeodon leidyanum would have been a part of the Farmingdale local fauna of the basal Kirkwood Formation of coastal New Jersey (Tedford & Hunter, 1984; Gallagher et. al., 1995). This assemblage of mammals has yielded the remains of the three-toed horse Anchitherium, the rhinoceroses Diceratherium matutinum and Menoceras, the protoceratid Prosynthetoceras, and the peccary Hesperohyus antiquus (Tedford & Hunter, 1984; Gallagher, 1997), and is likely Arikareean in age (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998).
The relations of the entelodonts have been reflected on by many researchers, and in among the most recent additions to the literature, and the researchers involved found that the pig-like appearance of the entelodonts from which they get their popular nicknames (i.e., “terminator pig”) is rather misleading. Rather, the entelodonts seem to be more closely related to whales and hippopotami in a group termed the cetancodontamorpha (Spaulding, O’Leary & Gatesy, 2009).
In life, Daeodon leidyanum would have been a truly horrific sight as it hunted down fleeing mammals in the coastal forests of New Jersey. This ancient king of the forest was part of a great dynasty of carnivorous beasts which would only fall to extinction after many millions of years of success. Daeodon shows how wrong the belief is that extinction must mean some sort of evolutionary failure. Rather, the entelodonts were a success story, though like all species were unfit for some changing condition or conditions in their ecosystem, leaving only their devilish skulls and ancient skeletons behind for future creatures to observe.
For more on large mammalian predators of the eastern United States, see:
Marsh OC. 1893. Description of Miocene Mammalia. American Journal of Science 46(275): 407-412.
Gallagher WB. 1997. When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. pp. 142.
Lucas SG, Emry RJ & Foss SE. 1998.Taxonomy and distribution of Daeodon, an Oligocene-Miocene entelodont (Mammalia: Artiodactyla) from North America. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 111(2): 425-435.
Tedford RH & Hunter ME. 1984. Miocene marine-nonmarine correlations, Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains, North America. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 47: 129-151.
Gallagher WB, Gilmore EJ, Parris DC, Grandstaff BS. 1995. Miocene mammals from the Kirkwood Formation of Monmouth County, N. J. In Baker JEB, ed: Contributions to the paleontology of New Jersey. Geological Association of New Jersey 12: 254-268.
Spaulding M, O’Leary MA & Gatesy J. 2009. Farke, AA ed. Relationships of Cetacea (Artiodactyla) Among Mammals: Increased Taxon Sampling Alters Interpretations of Key Fossils and Character Evolution. PLoS ONE 4(9): e7062.