Cleveland August 15, 2019
These 7 Species Found Around Cleveland Are Surprisingly Ancient
Ohio has a fascinating history. Due to erosion, we’ll likely never know if dinosaurs called our state home, but we do have a superabundance of fossils from Ohio’s life as an ancient ocean as well as from the Pleistocene, the most recent ice age. Amazingly, during the last Pleistocene, some 40 mammal species were preserved in the local fossil record. Of these species, 29 thrive elsewhere in the nation, and 21 still call the state home to this day – seriously! You’d be amazed to learn that Cleveland fossils are some of the best-preserved in the world, and many species of plants and animals from a few thousand to a few million years ago still call this area home.
1. Osage Orange Trees
Have you ever seen those giant, lime green fruits that sometimes line roads around Cleveland? They are almost comparable to a softball in size, and they’re actually a cousin of the mulberry... and they're the only distantly related to the orange. Its thorny branches were used to deter livestock from wandering before the invention of barbed wire. While the hard, dry texture of the Osage orange fruit is not preferred by humans, Wooly Mammoths and other megafauna adored this crunchy snack a few thousands years ago.
2. Lake Sturgeon
If you’re a fan of fishing, you’ve surely seen an impressive sturgeon or two in your day. Two species of sturgeon can be found in Lake Erie and other inland lakes in Ohio; the lake sturgeon and the smaller shovelnose sturgeon. Lake sturgeon and they can reach 6 to 8 feet in length, and the largest one ever recorded was over 200 pounds; an impressive weight considering that portions of its skeletal system are cartilaginous. This fish was once targeted and frequently killed, having been considered a nuisance to fishermen. After its value as a food source was realized, the fish was subject to overharvesting. Today, the population of this species is slowly growing again… which is fantastic considering that this fish first appeared around 208 million years ago!
These dam-building mammals are cute and cuddly in cartoons, but they’re actually remarkably territorial. Locals know to avoid these cranky critters when they spot them in the Cleveland Metroparks, but some are surprised to learn that beavers predate us in this region. Pleistocene sediments reveal that they were present in Ohio throughout the last ice age, and fossil records reveal that both the American and Eurasian beavers descended from a common ancestor more than 7 million years ago. Interestingly, a close, black bear-sized cousin of beavers,
Castoroides ohioensis (also known as the giant beaver), was discovered right here in Ohio in 1837.
4. Tree Squirrels
As is true with beavers, the tree squirrel’s long-reaching residency in Ohio is evidenced by ancient sediment records. Today, they’re largely viewed as pests, but they have an extensive history in our region. The earliest squirrel-like fossils were found in China, and they date back more than 200 million years. Modern squirrels seem to have come about during the Eocene period, around 55 million years ago, and the mammal’s name can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek language.
If you’ve ever watched any sort of interpretation of prehistoric life on TV, you’ve probably spotted a fern or two. Ferns first appeared in the fossil record around 360 million years ago, and they’ve absolutely flourished ever since. The modern fern appeared around the early Cretaceous period, coming into prominence alongside flowering plants. Here in Ohio, land plants first appeared around 385 million years ago, predating ferns by a few million years. During the Pennsylvanian period (around 300 million years ago), the ancient oceans largely retreated from Ohio’s landscape, creating something of a swamp. These conditions were ideal for early ferns, and they dominate much of the local plant fossil record.
While Benjamin Franklin never
publicly opposed the bald eagle as the national bird, a letter he wrote to his daughter revealed that he thought the turkey was a better fit as a national symbol. After all, it is native to the United States and this is reinforced by the fossil record. While turkey fossils have been found across the nation, many ancient species are now extinct.
Deer are everywhere in Ohio, and the fossil record suggests that they’ve been here for several years... tens of thousands of years, in fact. Late Pleistocene and early Holocene fossils show that deer flourished here, and some have compared the size of these ancient ancestors to modern elk. The deer that dwelled here seem to have existed alongside caribou and elk.
Ohio may not be home to dinosaur fossils, but these seven species are biological wonders of the ancient world. Do you know of any other living Cleveland fossils?
Want to learn more about Cleveland’s ancient history? Learn about the
incredible fish found in the Cleveland Metroparks, or go on your own fossil hunting adventure.