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Emigrating to Australia? Scared of bugs? Be very thankful you’ve never been to the Carboniferous.

5 Mar

A good friend of mine is moving to Australia, and will probably be there in eighteen months. The imigration process is quite strict and drawn out, as you can imagine, but I expect it’ll be worth it in the end. Although my friend will be going there primarally for the abundance of work (he’s a painter and decorator), he’s no doubt looking forward to the warmer, sunnier weather. However, there is a downside to this scenario, and that isn’t just the geographical aspect.

Insects get pretty big in warm countries, and Australia is no exception. It may not be the depths of the Amazon, but there are some pretty scary looking creatures down there, and my friend is wary. It won’t stop him going of course, as long as when he’s there he checks his car before driving off. Many drivers have flipped their sun visor over whilst driving to reveal a many limbed Lovecraftian horror. Car crashes are not uncommon.
I did suggest, however, that us Earth inhabitants of the Quaternary period have it easy (Oh yeah, I’m getting serious now; quoting geological time periods). I’m talking in respect of which other animals we share the planet with. If you’re bothered about the creepy crawlies on planet Earth right now, I suggest you switch to another web-site, because as I’m about to tell you- things used to be a whole lot scarier.
It fascinates me how we can look back into the Earth’s dim, distant past and it’s like we’re looking at an alien world, which in a sense we are. Also astounding that for one eigth of the Earth’s history there was no life on it at all- the timescale is mind numbing, and I’m only trying to consider one planet’s existence. So, basically, we’re talking a long time ago.

Er...I don't recognise it either. Are you sure we've got the right planet? Planet Earth, Carboniferous era. If you think the land inhabitants are scary, you haven't seen what's in the sea!

So, let’s imagine…you’ve stepped foot in my time machine (or your time machine if you like; you can do the driving) and we’ve set a course for roughly 320 or so million years ago. A LONG time ago. No, we won’t see any dinosaurs; the first dinosaurs won’t come along for well over 50 million years. Actually, to illustrate the VAST measures of time we’re talking here, imagine two famous dinosaur species- plant eating giant Stegosaurus and carnivorous Tyrannosaurus. As much time seperates those two from each other as the time between us and the last Tyrannosaur. They never shared the planet together. Now, that’s made you go “whoah” hasn’t it? Anyway, what I’m going to discuss here is scarier than any dinosaur!
Now, use your imagination. After you read this, a trip to Australia (or anywhere else) will worry you not, because you’ll be thankful you’re not in the depths of what scientists call the Carboniferous period. This is so long ago that it’s when our coal deposits originated, with the death of ancient plants (the clue is in the title of the period actually).

Carboniferous landscape. You'll need your wellies.


We’ve stepped out of our imaginary time machine, which might be a antique telephone box, or a flying saucer or a HG Wells-esque pseudo-bike (you decide). I think our first impression might be, “Jesus, it’s hot down here”. Yep, very humid, and misty and I’m getting a serious sweat on. I’m also finding it very difficult to find somewhere to stand. Great pilot you are, you’ve landed us in the middle of a swamp. Most of the land looked swampy, you say….I’ll let you off then. God, the trees look weird, are they actually trees? I tell you something else too, it’s a bit noisy…what is that noise? Frogs? Let’s set up camp…what do you mean, something just slid past your leg? I can’t see shit in this steam. …oh, apparently if you’re feeling a bit weird it’s because the oxygen levels are 15% higher than our modern age. Actually, I don’t know about you but I’m absolutely saturated here, and it’s not even raining. It’s like being in a sauna….Hey, look at that, what a pretty bird. It’s so colourful! Can’t see it properly because of the mist…oh look, here it comes now. I’m not sure about the buzzing drone it’s making though. Have you got the guidebook- what is it?
“There are NO birds in the Carboniferous”, you would probably wisely tell me at this point, “they haven’t evolved yet”.
“Really?!”, I might reply, sounding slightly squeaky and nervous, and less sure than a companion in time travel should be.
So, as our ill equipped footwear is sinking deeper into the mud, what the hell is flying towards us with a two and a half feet wingspan?!

It’s a frickin’ dragonfly, that’s what.
We’re not in Australia, anymore, Toto….

Imagine- you're sinking into deep mud, your mosquito spray is useless and you're surrounded by the biggest concentration of giant bugs in natural history. And WHAT is that near the tree- a frog? A giant newt?! Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Yes, the beast of an insect in question has been named Meganeura and it’s the biggest flying insect that ever lived. In the Carboniferous, insects and amphibians ruled the world. This was creepy crawly central. You can imagine any passing extraterrestrials might think twice about landing for a visit, unless they are less squeamish than some humans.

Keep telling yourself that's just a model, because the real thing was three FEET long.

But giant dragonflies are the least of it. There were scorpions that were three feet long. THREE feet long!? It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. But of the hundreds of horrifying bugs the very most horrifying was Arthropleura, a huge centipede type creature that could grow up to eight and half feet long! Due to the aforementioned higher oxygen quotient in the air, the size limit for insects had been considerably raised.
So, as absolutely fascinating as the prehistoric past is, be grateful that none of these many legged shockers could live in our drier and less oxygen rich atmosphere. The biggest it gets on planet Earth these days, is actually as big as it’s going to get. I’m not overly freaked out by insects (and amphibians and reptiles don’t usually bother me at all), but as someone who grimaces at a large house spider, the Carboniferous would have been just too much! One thing is for sure though: insects are here to stay; they survive all kinds of changes and earthly calamaties. They’ll always be with us!

You'll need a bigger net.

All this won’t be much consolation for anyone emigrating to Australia (or anywhere else with huge bugs for that matter), but it might make you thankful for what we could be sharing the planet with if circumstances were different.

Arthropleura- if you found one of these in your bath, your bath would be a swimming pool, if you see what I'm sayin'...