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Volume 1744
Sesame Monsters I (1 of 3 parts)

By Den Valdron

What sort of animals are Muppets?   Well, obviously, they're just jumped up sock puppets, constructions of coloured felt with google eyes and hands up their insides.  They're the creations of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their cohorts.

Okay, fine.

But let's pretend.

Let's pretend that the monsters of Sesame Street are real animals.

Real animals are not simple inventions, but rather, they have pasts and futures, they have consistent discernible traits, which allow us to identify where they come from and where they fit on the tree of life, their traits are adaptations to their environment, and these adaptations allow us to understand both that environment and their relationship to that environment.

Of course, Sesame Street has, over the years, had several hundred Muppet characters. Some of whom are explicitly supposed to be humans, or human analogues, and some of which don't really allow for classification.

But there are a quite a few that might stand up to some critical analysis.   Most obviously, there's Big Bird, a large flightless avian, and Snuffleuphagus, a pygmy mammoth.

SnuffleupagusElmoBig Bird

But there's also a very interesting series of creatures include Grover, Elmo, Oscar, the Cookie Monster and others.  It's pretty obvious that Grover and Elmo are the same sort of animal, based on broad resemblance and physical characteristics.  But a closer look suggests that Oscar the Grouch, for all his personal idiosyncrasies, shares most or all of the traits.   Even the Cookie Monster, a massive creature who is a far cry from the delicate Elmo, seems to be related and fundamentally the same sort of creature.

Indeed, a great many of the Sesame Street creatures who are explicitly not ‘something else’, birds, humans, bugs, aliens, etc., seem to fall into a common mold, they show enough consistency of traits that we could describe them as a species.  Let's call them collectively, the Sesame Street Monsters.

We will note that in addition to the narrow set of monsters that we're focusing on, there are outlier creatures.  Animal, the wild drummer, for instance, has prominent teeth, unlike most Monsters.  Others have floppy ears, or apparent horns, or furless hides.

These are obviously a second order of creatures, related to the Sesame Monsters, but different.  I think that we can explain these as well.  But for now, its more useful to focus on what I would consider the ‘core group’ of Monsters.   The outlier creatures might be better understood and explained in terms of appreciating and understanding the main species.

So, in those terms, let us begin our journey by examining the Sesame Monsters themselves.

The Monsters of Sesame Street

What are the consistent traits of the Monsters?   Well, they're small, adults ranging from thirty to sixty pounds in weight.

Some individuals, notably Elmo and Grover seem quite thin, others like Oscar the Grouch are  heavier and more physically robust, while still others like the Cookie Monster show signs of obesity.  I would argue however, that these differences in build represent individual variation, similar to that found in humans, rather than evidence of different types of species.

They're covered with woolly fur which extends over the faces, leaving only eyes, nose, and mouth bare.  The fur colour varies from individual to individual, but is usually uniform on individuals.

On some, there can be uniquely coloured or thick eyebrows, or scalp tufts, but these are a minority.  There's some variation in facial features and contours, for instance, Oscar lacks a prominent furless nose.

They are tail-less, or at best, have only small vestigial tails.  They have round heads with gaping froglike mouths, flat featureless inner mouths and concealed esophagus, and prominent, even protuberant eyes.

The nose seems to be a vestigial muzzle, lozenge shaped, prominent, but featureless.   Their teeth do not appear to be strongly in evidence in most individuals, and are either absent or concealed between the lips and the inner mouth pad.

Their shoulders and upper torsos are narrow, but their arms are long and flexible.  The legs seem comparatively short.   They have only four digits instead of five, one of which is a poorly differentiated thumb.

Behaviorally, they appear to be intelligent, but their intelligence is on the order of small children, or clever primates.  They're predominantly left handed, suggesting consistent right-brain hemisphere domination.   They are highly linguistic.

So, what does this tell us?

Numerous factors suggest an arboreal life style.   If their brains are wired anything like hominids or primates, right-brain dominance suggests an emphasis on spatial relationships which are critical for tree dwellers.   The comparatively long arms, and the sweeping movement ranges of the arms, up, out and around, suggest tree climbers and branch huggers.

The reduction from five delicate fingers, to four heavier and stronger digits suggest an evolutionary history where having a powerful grip was more important than fine dexterity.   In short, their lifestyle would seem to be more along the lines of holding on, hugging tree trunks and branches, and moving carefully and deliberately.   This in contrast to the swinging lifestyle of gibbons, and the free climbing of monkeys.   What this may resemble most are the ‘tree-lifestyles’ of sloths, koalas and raccoons.   Instead of swift climbers and swingers, they are clamberers.

In contrast the arms, their legs are shorter and bandy, suggesting adaptation towards tree climbing.  When on the ground, they are clumsy bipeds, with short bouncing strides.   Clearly, their upper bodies are so oriented towards tree hugging and clambering that they find quadrupedalism awkward.

The large google eyes suggest binocular vision.  Another indicator of tree dwelling lifestyle... the ability to judge distances finely is crucial.  However, the large eyes themselves seem to suggest that these are, or were originally, nocturnal creatures.   One interesting feature is the diminutive or absent ears on most.

The shape of the mouths, and the apparent small or invisible teeth is suggestive.    First, we can rule out carnivores, who require prominent cutting and shearing teeth.   But even herbivores require heavy duty teeth.  Chomping and crushing heavy cellulose fibre takes a lot of effort.    Elephants, Horses, Moose and Oxen are all chewing on tough grasses and leaves, reducing them to digestible paste.   An elephants teeth weigh twenty pounds apiece, and they take a lot of punishment.

The fact that the Monsters for the most part do not have prominent teeth (arguably, some varieties do) suggest that they've got a fairly specialized diet, perhaps soft rain forest leaves, fruits, berries, tender shoots, etc.

The wide froglike mouths suggest that they sometimes, or often, consume in bulk.   If they're eating one leaf or berry at a time, well, you don't need a big mouth for that.   If you're stuffing food in, then that suggests you're taking mouthfuls at a time.   This implies a primary diet of soft leaves or large fruit.  The apparent large flat inner mouth suggests a tough but flexible mouth lining and a feeding reflex which swallows big gulps when the mouth closes.

However, in contrast to the small teeth, they appear to have large heavy jaws, implying steady, even rapid chewing.  Humans are traditionally the most delicate eaters, practically all our diet is highly pre-processed, so we have comparatively small jaws.  Most other primates, even frugivores, tend towards heavier jaws.

We note that even the juveniles tend to be pear shaped.  Basically, large bottoms, narrow shoulders.    Again, this implies a digestive process that emphasizes or allows for volume, and perhaps a long bowel system for food processing.   Again, this points to soft leaves as a large component of diet.

Gorillas are generally leafy green eaters, but there's not much food value in that stuff, so they have to eat a lot of it.   Which means that they've both got to spend a lot of time eating, and they've got to have pretty full stomachs for comparatively paltry returns.  Gorillas are prone to being pot bellied for this reason, much like the Monsters.   On the other hand, Chimps are much more strongly frugivores (fruit eaters).  It's a highly specialized, but much more high energy diet, so the chimps don't need to eat as much.  They get a bigger bang for their buck... so no pot-bellied chimps.   Again, the Monsters physical morphology suggests that their lifestyles are tending to resemble sloths or koalas, or even pandas.

On the other hand, the behaviour of the Monsters seems more energetic than sloths or koalas or pandas.  They're outgoing, curious and even inclined to seek out high value foods like cookies.  This suggests that while their adaptations allow a ‘soft-leaf’ diet, their tastes are considerably more diverse.   Unlike Koalas and Pandas, they probably are not restricted to a single brand of plant, but might take advantage of a variety of food sources, different fruits, berries, different sorts of bamboo shoots or leaf sprouts.

The woolly fur suggests both high humidity and wide temperature ranges.   They're rain forest creatures, but sometimes it gets cold.

What are they?

First things first, they're obviously primates.

But what kind?

Taxonomically, we can broadly look to four categories of primates.   Hominids, Apes, Monkeys and Prosimians.

To start, we can pretty much rule out hominids.   Homo Florensis aside, there's nothing in the hominid line that would lead to anything like them.   There are a number of divergences, the wide mouth and heavy jaw, the absence of forehead, the prominent eyes, the fur covered face, all of which suggest that they're not hominids, or if they are, they're a pretty radical branch off the family tree.

Apes?   Well, like Apes and Hominids, the Sesame Monsters are tail-less.   But its pretty clear that the gap between the Monsters and Great Apes is as big as that between the Monsters and Hominids.  Still, there is arguably a resemblance between the lesser apes, the Gibbons, and the Monsters.   On the other hand, the Monsters don't seem as highly adapted as the Gibbons to a tree swinging lifestyle...

Or more accurately, they're differently adapted.   The two species have taken different paths.   This is an important consideration.   A particular lifestyle or evolutionary pathway demands specialized adaptations.  Try to change the lifestyle, and those adaptations become handicaps.  Evolutionarily, an animal would literally have to evolve backwards, retracing its steps to a more generalized form, and then proceeding forward down a different lifestyle fork.   That's hard to do, particularly when the more generalized forms are still around and competing.   Thus, highly specialized animals tend to either remain as they are, or become even more highly specialized in the directions that they're already going.

What this means is that Gibbons are already highly specialized for a particular kind of lifestyle.  They're committed to their path.  It would not be easy for them to evolve radically in a different but similar lifestyle.   A Gibbon that went down the sort of pathway that produced the Sesame Monsters, would only produce a slightly different kind of Gibbon.

The best we can say is that Gibbons and Sesame Monsters had a common ancestor whose offspring went off in two different directions and made different commitments and trade offs in their lifestyles.   The same goes for the Great Apes and Hominids.

I'll also leave out monkeys for the same reason.   The Monsters are tree huggers rather than nimble tree climbers like monkeys.  On the ground, monkeys are fully quadrupedal, not poorly bipedal.   It's possible that some line of Monkey went down the Sloth/Koala road, but there's no clear precedents.  Besides which, monkeys, as well as apes and hominids are di-urnal (day) creatures, and their faces are furless.  Again, the Sesame Monsters seem to be a parallel line to monkeys, not an offshoot of them.   So we have to look further back for a common ancestor.

So what's left?   Prosimians.   This is the original primate line that gave rise to Old and New World Monkeys, Apes, Hominids.    Modern prosimians include the Lemurs of Madagascar, and the Tarsiers of Asia, Lorises, Pottos and Galagos of Asia's and Africa's rain forests.

A number of the pro-simian characteristics seem to match up with the monsters.  Their faces, like the Monsters, are fur covered, rather than naked like other primates.  As a group, they tend to be nocturnal with large eyes.   Several of them, notably the Lorises, Pottos and Tarsiers have round heads and flat faces, with small ears.  The Lorises and Pottos are notably tail-less or stump-tailed, and are slow moving clamberers.   Some of the extinct lines of lemurs evolved specialized lifestyles similar to sloths and koalas.

So, did the Sesame Monsters evolve from those Lemurs?   Nope.  The Lemurs of Madagascar went off in their own direction.  But they're close enough to a starting point, to a common ancestor, that some of their representatives embraced similar lifestyles.

In fact, the best and closest analogue to the Sesame Monsters are the Lorises and Pottos.   Compare this Wikipedia description to the characteristics of the Sesame Monsters:

“Lorides have a close, woolly fur which is usually grey or brown colored, darker on the top side. The eyes are large and face forward. The ears are small and often partly hidden in the fur. The thumbs are opposable and the index finger is short.  Their tails are short or are missing completely. They grow to a length of 17 to 40 cm and a weight of between 0.3 and 2 kg, depending on the species.   Lorids are diurnal and arboreal. Unlike the closely related galagos, they have slow, deliberate movements and never jump. With their strong hands they clasp at the branches and cannot be removed without significant force.”

Note the woolly fur, the round heads, large forward facing eyes, the short or missing tails, the reducing finger, slow deliberate movements and strong grip.   There's more than a passing resemblance.  This is probably the starting point of the Sesame Monsters.

Did the Sesame Monsters evolve from Lorises?   Nope, not quite.   For one thing, Lorises are a specialized species on their own, they're clearly smaller, they are day-walkers, and they're opportunistic insectivores and predators.   But clearly, modern Lorises are closely related to the Sesame Monsters.

So, we can safely assume that they belong to the same family, Lorisidae, and spring from a common, ancestor which was probably quite Loris-like, which may have also been an ancestor for Lemurs, New World Monkeys, Old World Monkeys, Apes and Hominids.   In short, they represent a sixth major line of primates.

Now, Loris’ themselves, along with other Pro-simians like the Pottos, Tarsiers, Galagos etc. are pretty much losers in the evolutionary sweepstakes.   Sure, they've managed to hang on in isolated and specialized niches.   But for the most part, they've been pretty thoroughly crowded out by their more advanced and aggressive cousins, the monkeys and apes.

Indeed, the only place where the Pro-simians really came into their own was in Madagascar, where the Lemurs, without competition, had an evolutionary flowering, producing dozens of species and occupying niches of monkeys, woodpeckers, sloths and apes.

Interestingly, if we look to the closest evolutionary analogues to the Sesame Monsters, the sloths and koalas, we find that both of these evolved on Island Continents which were outside the big mainstream of evolution.

This suggests that the Sesame Monsters in order to have evolved as far and become as sophisticated and specialized as they have, were probably an Island species.   Out on the mainland, their slow deliberate lifestyles could never have competed with their agile cousins.   In short, they needed their own Madagascar, a fair sized Island of rain forests, which would be hospitable to a large specialized population of relatively big primates.

Big Bird

In contrast to the Sesame Monsters, who were tricky to analyze, Big Bird at first seems pretty straightforward.    He's just a big flightless bird.  No problem.

There are a lot of examples of big flightless birds   There are the Moas of New Zealand, the Elephant Birds of Madagascar, both recently extinct.   Australia produces Rheas and Emus.   South America has a Cassowary.  Africa has the Ostrich.   Antarctica has Penguins.   Ancient South America produced the giant Diatrama flightless predator birds, while Ancient North America produced the giant Phororacos flightless predator birds.   Mauritius produced the Dodos.   And Hawaii produced (also recently extinguished) lines of flightless geese.

So there's ample precedent for big-ass flightless birds, including several that make Big Bird look tiny, and a few that are downright scary.

From this rich sample, we can draw a few conclusions that will apply to Big Bird.   First, with the possible exception of the Ostrich, all the giant flightless birds occur on Islands or Island continents.  Australia, of course, is an Island continent.   South America was, for much of its post-dinosaur history, an isolated Island continent.   Even North America, during the age of its giant predator bird, was an Island continent (though it quickly joined up with land bridges to Asia).  Madagascar and New Zealand have always been islands.   Hawaii and Mauritius are Islands never connected to any mainland.

For the record, Mauritius was an Island of about 2000 square kilometers, and produced the Dodo, about 3 feet tall, and fifty lbs weight.   The big island of Hawaii is about 10,000 square kilometers and produced its flightless geese.    For the real monsters, you needed islands the size of Madagascar (590,000), New Zealand (270,000), or Island continents of millions of square miles.

The reality is that flight is birds major advantage to escaping from predators.   So in order for them to grow large enough that they lose flight, their environment has to be free from predation.  Also, to get really big, the ecological niches have to be free, or at least, not fully occupied by competing big mammals.

So Big Bird, like his brothers in feather, evolved on an island.    And it must have been a fair sized Island.   We have a range: Obviously, places like Hawaii and Mauritius are too small, they never produced much larger than turkey sized specimens.   Places like New Zealand and Madagascar produced giants that dwarfed even Big Bird.   So, Big Bird's Island had to have been reasonably hefty, smaller than New Zealand, bigger than Hawaii.   Perhaps something in the neighborhood of Sri Lanka, Sicily or Hispanolia.

And of course, it would have to have been an Island which hadn't been connected to the mainlands for most of the last fifty or sixty million years.   Specifically, it had to be separate long enough for something like Big Bird to have the room and time to evolve.

Has it always been that isolated?   That's an interesting question, and we'll return to it later.

Now, let's look a little more closely at Big Bird.   What do we notice?

Thick legs.  Thick legs and big, flat, wide feet.   That's interesting.   If we look at the other modern giant birds, the Ostrich, Rhea, Cassowary, Emu...  They've all got long skinny legs, and narrow feet.
There are reasons for that.  Basically, long or spread out feet give better traction, but there's a drawback, too many moving parts, too much drag.   Think about it, you're racing along at a clip of forty kilometers an hour, that's a lot of footfalls, and that's a lot of force being applied to the ground.  The last thing you want to do is to break some toes, and the more toes you are putting down, the more foot surface, the more risk.

So critters that are built for speed tend to reduce their ‘footprint.’   Dog and big cats literally are walking on their fingertips, with dainty tiny paws.   Hooved herbivores reduce their footprint to only a couple of toes, dispensing with the rest.  The horse is down to one toe.   Ostriches do most of their running on two toes, while the other giant birds are three toes, but go with slender narrow toes.   Most of the running power is in the upper thighs, so you get dainty slender legs, over and over again.

So a creature with broad, thick feet probably is not a fast runner by inclination.   It may be trading off speed for traction.   Sand or snow runners, marsh dwellers, etc., tend to have broader feet.

As for thick legs, there's two things that get you thick legs.  One is carrying a lot of weight.   Elephants, Rhinos, Hippos, Brontos, etc.   Big Bird stands eight feet tall, and probably weighs in somewhere between 200 and 400 pounds.   The Elephant Birds of Madagascar who may have gone three or four times big birds weight had heavy legs, though not as heavy as Big Birds seemed to be.  The biggest Moas stood twice Big Birds height, but had thinner legs.

So, what does this suggest?   Well, dwarf elephants and hippos inherit thick legs, not because their current weight needs them, but they have the leftover body plans of much bigger animals.  So its possible that Big Bird's particular species is a dwarf form, and that the full sized editions were much, much bigger.  Like maybe twenty feet tall?  Jurassic Park here we come.  But then, in order to support a species that big, you might need an island Madagascar sized or better, perhaps even an Island continent.   Doesn't seem likely.
So what's the other possibility?   Muscular legs are required for heavy or complicated traction issues.   Humans have thick legs because we started off as tree dwellers, our evolutionary history emphasized lots of ranges of movement, and complicated ranges of movement in awkward ways, over simple fast nimble running.   In fact, we're not built for running at all, take a look at our feet, at best, we've made some compromises by shortening the toes, but its still a slow walking foot.

There was one species of Moa, mid sized, perhaps about five feet tall, that was known for having legs as thick and heavy as Big Birds.   This appears to have been a marsh dwelling wading bird, and it needed heavy muscular legs and big flat feet because it had to trudge around in muck.   This would seem to be Big Bird's evolutionary choice, our giant yellow friend is a Marsh and Swamp wader.   He's not a runner, he's a mud slogger.

Nor is that the end for Big Bird.  Let's take a look at the other end.   Unlike many birds, Big Bird's eyes are set together and facing forward.   This means strong binocular vision, weak peripheral vision.   Most birds eyes are set off to the sides of their head to maximize peripheral vision...

After all, when you're a bird, you're usually pretty small, your defense mechanism is a fast escape, and so you want to see anything sneaking up on you.   Meanwhile, most of the stuff you are eating, be it seeds, grain, berries, etc., doesn't require a lot of complicated visual acuity, in that you need to pinpoint it precisely.  It's usually not moving around, its going to be there when you get there, and there's usually more of same laying around in the vicinity of the first one.  So birds generally emphasize peripheral vision, the widest possible range gives not only warnings of predators, but a pretty good idea of what food is in the local neighborhood.

Fairly few birds set their eyes forward.   Eagles, Hawks and most dramatically, Owls.   These birds are not worried about predators because they are predators.   And the economics of their lifestyle are different.   Basically, their environment is a lot more empty of food than a seed eating bird.  Think about it.   Seeds don't fall one at a time.  So a place that contains a tasty seed is likely to contain a whole bunch of them.  You fly in, poke around, eat your fill.   On the other hand, prey behaves differently.  If you're hunting mice, you aren't going to get a whole bunch of mice hanging around out in the open, you're looking for a single one.   And it doesn't want to be caught, so its taking evasive action, or hiding, or moving.  And when the warning comes, all the other mice hide even harder.   So vision adapts to spot, zero in on, and accurately zoom down on that one mouse.  You don't need peripheral vision, because all the rest of the mice are going to be making themselves scarce.

Big Bird's eyes are very strongly binocular, as we've said.   And more than that, they're extremely large, even for his size.  Which suggests that Big Bird is strongly processing a lot of complex and subtle visual information.   Indeed, the size of the eyes suggest that Big Bird's ancestors may well have been nocturnal.

Does Big Bird's sophisticated binocular vision, similar to Owls mean that our big yellow friend is a predator?   Nope.  The beak is all wrong.   Predator birds have relatively short, powerful, sheering beaks.   Look at Eagles or Owls.  Even look at Crows.   Beaks tell a lot about lifestyle.   Woodpeckers have heavy, reinforced beaks for pounding or digging through bark.  Flamingos have these ‘roman nose’ beaks that they use for filter feeding, turning their heads upside down and dragging through water.   Parrots have powerful hooked bills for cracking nuts and peeling fruit.  Ducks have flat beaks for rooting through much.

In Big Bird's case, the thick legs and wide feet suggest a slower walking rather than running lifestyle, that is not consistent with a predator.  But on top of that, he doesn't have a Predators beak.  It's safe to leave the kids around him.

So what does that beak tell us about Big Bird's lifestyle?   Take a look at it.  It's long.   Long beaks are significant.   An animal doesn't have a beak longer or stronger or sharper than it needs.   Big Bird's bill is long in absolute terms, but comparable to the size of his head.   It is rounded, not blunt or sharp.  It doesn't look particularly heavy, which means that in terms of the potential muscle supporting it, its not particularly strong.   A really strong sheering beak would be a lot heavier and more massive.

So, what is it not?   Well, its not a nutcracker.  It's not a woodpecker.  It's not a scavenger beak.  Or a predator bill.   If he was a grass eater, or grazer, like a horse, you'd expect a short wide bill for taking up mouthfuls of grass, something heavy with powerful muscles for shearing and tearing grass over and over.

Nope, this is a beak built for poking your nose into things, but not hard or tough things.   Big Bird's diet consists of relatively small, relatively soft objects, which it has to ‘fish’ for.   So what's Big Bird actually eating?   Well, to start with, possibly frogs and salamanders, snails, slugs, big tasty insects, small marsh or river fish, berries, fruit, soft tender plant shoots or leaf buds.   Big Bird is moving relatively slowly through a complicated, visually dense environment.   So my guess is that he is an omnivorous opportunist, feeding widely upon a narrow range of material....  Not unlike humans.

There are different feeding strategies.  One is to just consume whatever is readily available, like grass.  That's usually low value, though plentiful, so the strategy is to consume a vast amount of it.  You can get pretty big that way, as Elephants, Horses and Oxen show us.   Or you can be a very specialized feeder upon high value but less common food.   Which is the strategy of creatures from hummingbirds to blue whales.   You can get pretty big that way, Orangs are exclusively fruit eaters and they're hefty tree dwellers.   The thing is that you have to be very very good at finding and eating your specialized food.   Usually that means highly adapted.

Big Bird has chosen the second route, he's a specialized eater, and probably he's got a series of specialties.   In evolutionary terms, Big Bird is probably the closest thing birds have ever produced to Hominids.

And he's smart too.  More on that later.

Before we leave Big Bird, we'll take note of one last anatomical peculiarity:  The adaptation of his wings.   Big Bird's wings have devolved, or re-evolved back into functional arms and hands.

Impossible?  No.   While its true that for most flightless birds, the wings become useless appendages, fast runners still use them for balance, and ostriches use them for sexual display.   The wings have lost their original function, but remain available for other functions.  In fact, with the Phororacid giant killer birds of North America, their wings re-evolved into clawed or taloned gripping limbs, increasing their resemblance to their cousins, the T-Rexes.   Another South American bird, the Quetzalcoatl, while a young flightless chick, has clawed wings which it uses to climb with.  When it matures, its wings develop more normally and it loses the claws.    So its entirely possible for Big Bird's species to adapt its wings into functional limbs.

What sort of adaptation do we see?   Big Birds wings/arms are relatively short.  They can't reach up to its head, or down to its toes.   At least, they can't without ducking his head or bending at the knee.   There do not appear to be claws or talons, or even heavy fingernails.   There's some indication of differentiation into fingers.   The wings are the same colour and have the same feather texture as the rest of the body, so they aren't used for sexual display (probably, we're generalizing from a single possibly not fully mature example to both sexes of an entire species).

So what are they for?  Why did they develop.   In terms of development, I can see two possible functions that might have conferred evolutionary advantages and been easily reachable.   The first is sex.


But let's be serious here.   These are gigantic, slow moving, two legged creatures trying to mate.  They're inhabiting a tricky, possibly messy landscape of swamps and marshes, so probably there's an advantage to being able to mate standing up.   Standing mating is tricky.   It helps if you are able to hold onto your partner.   Even a minimal grip is helpful.  Otherwise you're pretty much reduced to running at your partner and hoping one thing goes into another.   A rousing game of bumper cars might be fun, but its not the best way to produce eggs.

A ‘mating grip’ or ‘mating hug’ would be within the original movement ranges of the wings, and as I've noted even a minimal grip would be helpful.   Even some large modern birds who mate on the ground, such as geese or eagles are known to ‘cover’ their mates with their wings, as a sort of primitive mating grip.   So there's both an advantage and the basic elements already in place to develop it.

The other thing?   Grooming.   Consider the Big Bird's environment.   Swamps and Marshlands, Bush, early stage rain forests (where the trees and fruit aren't too high).   That's a landscape loaded with parasites, debris, dirt, and whatnot.   So grooming is going to be a major priority.   Big Bird's wings, if they evolved increasing movement ranges for mating hugs, would have an incentive to adapt further, to become more flexible in reaching its own body.   Grooming adaptations might develop digit differentiation, fingers or finger-like structures.   Indeed, grooming might be so important that it may be a key portion of Big Bird social activities among their own species.

Of course, as a structure becomes more sophisticated, it can take on new functions.   Long digits and a gripping thumb was critical to hanging onto tree limbs.  But once you've got a working hand, you can do all sorts of cool things with them.

In this case, if you are developing arms from wings....  You can start to carry things.   Things like nesting materials, particularly if the beak is comparatively weak for that purpose.   Things like eggs.

This might be pretty critical for the Big Birds.   After all, look at their environment, its hardly stable and sanitary.   Who wants to lay eggs in a swamp?
Worse, the Big Birds are very big animals with narrow diets.  So they can't stay in one place too long or they ‘mine out’ the local food sources.   There are ways around that.   Penguins stock up on food, get really fat, trek miles inland and spend months starving and balancing eggs on their feet so that they'll hatch in a safe place.   Another approach is for the mommy bird to stay with the eggs, and the daddy bird, or other birds of the social unit, to forage widely for food for her.

But another approach might be for the Big Birds to be able to pick up the eggs, tuck them under the arm, and carry them to safer neighborhoods from time to time.   This would be a major advantage over other birds, who are pretty much stuck with their eggs where they laid them.   Indeed, this is the principal vulnerability of birds, their eggs.   So an adapted ability to pick up and carry eggs, either as a safety measure or a lifestyle, is a major advantage.  It's probably also not a bad thing for the hatchlings, either.

As to whether or how systematically they may have carried other items, that's difficult to say.  Big Bird on Sesame Street has constructed a large complicated nest, and furnished that nest with large objects, described in Wikipedia, including a bubble gum dispenser, a clock with no hands, a feather duster, a football helmet, a golf bag with one club, a hurricane lamp, a megaphone, a picture of Mr. Hooper, a Roman bust, a tricycle wheel, a watering can, an old record player, an umbrella, a mailbox, and a pair of snowshoes.   Presumably, some or many of these objects could not have easily been carried in a beak, and would have been carried by arms.  Big Bird is occasionally seen carrying objects, including suitcases, and quite often a teddy bear.   The teddy bear, named Riley, suggests that we are watching biologically determined displacement behaviour...  i.e., because Big Bird likes to carry around his love object, his ‘bird-thromorphized’ teddy bear, its likely that Big Birds in the wild frequently carried their eggs and hatchlings.

Big Bird's arms and hands are a perfect example of the mechanism of adaptation.  Originally useful for flight, after that function was lost, they found a secondary use in mating.   Adaptations which enhanced that function allowed the Big Birds to develop ‘function creep’ as the increasingly strong and flexible gripping wings began to be used for grooming and then other purposes.

As for other, more intangible qualities, it is linguistic, yes.  Intelligent, definitely.   Social, almost certainly.  But without seeing more of the Big Birds, or seeing them in the wild, we can make few generalizations.   Were they tool users?   There's little evidence of that from the one specimen that we see, Big Bird seems an indifferent tool user, most of which he derives from the humans around him.   Is tool using part of their repertoire in the wild?  We can't say.

How social were they?  Did they travel in herds or flocks, troops, extended family groups, or were they solitary creatures?  Again, we don't know.   From the behaviour of the one specimen, we see that while fairly independent, he bonds socially with humans and these bonds are very important.  So we can assume that the Big Birds were not necessarily solitary.   On the other hand, it would probably be difficult for creatures that big with diets so particular to support large populations, so most times, Big Bird's probably moved in small families or troops.
And that's about as far as we can take Big Bird for the moment.   So let us take a moment to contemplate the Big Birds in their natural setting, proud and stately giants, meandering slowly but carefully through the swamps and borderland rain forests of their home, moving in small family groups, with eggs or hatchlings tucked under their wings, their gazes continually searching their landscape for food or items of interest.   And let's move on ....


Like Big Bird, Snuffleupagas is a deceptively simple creature.    What is he?   Well, obviously, he's from the elephant family.   The trunk and heavy tree-trunk limbs are dead giveaways.   Snufflupagas shaggy fur, small ears and sloping back suggest that he's derived from the Mammoth line, which emerged some six million years ago, and became extinct in the last ten thousand years.

The most likely ancestor is the Southern Mammoth, which evolved from the African Mammoth and spread into Europe and Asia approximately four million years ago.  Seven hundred thousand years ago, as the ice age hit, the Southern Mammoth gave way to the Steppe Mammoth and then to the Woolly Mammoth.   So we can identify Snuffleupagas ancestry as dating back one to four million years, when he diverged from the Southern Mammoths.

Dwarf Elephants and Mammoths are not uncommon in history.   Indeed, there was a species of dwarf Mammoth that survived on Wrangel Island off of Alaska until about 1,500 B.C., and which seems to have been not much larger than Snuffleupagas.   On the Island of Cypress, up until 11,000 years ago, in the Mediterranean, there was a dwarf elephant whose weight was only about 440 pounds, pretty hefty, but a far cry from ancestors who reached 25,000 lbs.  Dwarf elephants or Mammoths have also been described on the Islands of Sardinia and Sicily, in Malta, Crete, on the Dodecanese and Cyclades Island groups in Greece, on Channel Islands in California, and on the Flores and Sulawesi Islands in Indonesia, with some of the dwarfs being a mere four feet at the shoulder.   So Paleontology gives us a great many dwarf cousins about the same general size as Snuffleupagas.

But these precedents tell us something very important about Snuffy.   You see, Dwarf Pachyderms are exclusively Island creatures.

Biologically, this makes sense.   An elephant is a lot of biomass.  On open ranges with an unlimited food supply, its to their advantage to be as big as they can get.   Put them on an island with a limited food supply, and the equation changes.  They start to evolve smaller and smaller, in order to sustain more individuals, on the same food supply.

That's the quirky thing about Island ecologies.   Large animals trapped on Islands will tend to get smaller in response to the more confined ecostructure.   Indeed, it happens locally.   A Natural Resources officer once revealed to me that the moose on Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg tended to be slightly smaller, statistically, than the moose on the mainland.   So, we get pygmy elephants and mammoths everywhere, pygmy hippos on Madagascar, pygmy deer on the Jersey Islands, etc.

Interestingly, small animals on Islands can get larger and grow into comparative giants without competition or predators.  Thus, the Moas and Elephant Birds of Madagascar and New Zealand.  The forty pound pigeons we called Dodo birds.  The giant tortoises and iguanas of Galapagos, and so forth.

Now, the interesting thing here, is that we can get an idea of the Island size ranges that you need to produce a Snuffleupagas.   Places like Sri Lanka (25,000 square kilometers), Sumatra (470,000), Java (126,000) and Borneo (280,000) have full sized Indian elephants.   They're well watered tropical islands large enough that there's no pressure to produce dwarves.

On the other hand, you get Dwarves on Crete (8,400), Cypress (9,200), Sicily (25,000) and Sardinia (24,000), Wrangel (7300), Flores (14,000), Sulawesi (174,000).

Sulawesi (Celebes) is the largest Island producing pygmy pachyderms, but if you look at a map, it's a very strange Island made up of all these long narrow lobes.  So perhaps geographically it divides up much smaller than its apparent surface area.  AS the outlier, I think we can justify throwing it out.

Now of these, Sri Lanka is the smallest island that has full sized elephants, and its comparable in size to Sicily and Sardinia.   We can assume that its rain forest climate is more hospitable to Elephants than the Mediterranean climates of the Italian islands.   It would have been warmer and rainier in ancient times of course, but perhaps less than Sri Lanka now.   Sri Lanka, Sicily and Sardinia probably sit at the absolute thresholds of full size and pygmies, where you can tip either way, depending on the climate, geography, food supply.   If we adjust for climate and rainfall, we might estimate estimate that Sri Lanka is 15% more fertile for elephants than ancient Sicily and Sardinia.  Which suggests that in the tropics, the threshold size where you'd start to get pygmies is probably around 20,000 to 25,000 square kilometers.   If Sri Lanka was at Mediterranean latitudes, it might need to be 36,000 square kilometers to have a viable full sized population.

Viable populations of pygmies show up on Islands between 10,000 and 7,000 square kilometers.  Wrangel, in the arctic ocean off of Siberia must be pretty sparse and empty, though again, we make allowances for a warm period.  So presumably, you might have a successful breeding population on smaller Islands which were much warmer and richer.   Let's guess that 3000 square kilometers is the lower limit.

Pygmy elephants also show up on California and Greek islands of only a few dozen or few hundred square kilometers.  But I don't know that these would be viable breeding populations, and these islands are probably the remains of much larger islands mostly submerged by sea levels.  So I'll ignore them.

On the whole, Snuffleupagas home Island, assuming that its in the tropics, is probably somewhere between 20,000 and 3000 square kilometers in area.   Do I have an Island in mind?  Nope, I'm just trying to work backwards from Snuffy to his environment.

Downsizing seems to take place quickly.  The Wrangel Island mammoths were separated from the mainland 12,000 years ago, and were at their pony size 3000 years ago.  So they downsized in only about 9,000 years or less.  The channel island Mammoths developed about 40,000 years ago.

One key feature of Snuffy's Island is that it must have either been connected to the mainland, or it must have been so close that the elephants or mammoths would have survived a swim.  By and large, elephants are not well noted swimmers.   Push come to shove, they can float for a bit.  But beyond a mile or so, forget it.

Now, here's an interesting thought.   With the Sesame Monsters, the Big Birds and the Snuffleupagas, we keep coming back over and over to the fact that each of these must have evolved as Island creatures.   They couldn't have evolved on the mainland.

So....   Same island?

Sesame Monsters by Den Valdron

ERBzine 1744
Mysterious Monsters of Sesame Street
ERBzine 1744a
Fabled Island of Talking Animals 
ERBzine 1745b
Open Sesame: Talking to Monsters

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