Too much? Sorry it’s really hot and my brain is addled–and uh, I mean, I was just following orders. Also, I’ve already beaten the “sexy little otter” joke to death right?
Anyway, far be it from me to try and tell you something about Puijila darwini the putative transitional seal taking his star turn in this weeks Nature (Rybczynski, Dawson and Tedford 2009). Brohan’s already got his own pimped out, interactive, 3D, trilingual website. I imagine the Twitter feed is in the works.
Um so rather than plagiarize the press-release here are some random, certainly minor, musings as I sit in 100 F Davis, CA and ponder freshwater proto-seals frolicking in a balmy Arctic lake one million score years ago today…
Melting Poles and the coming Paleontological Bonanza?
H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At The Mountains of Madness begins as a paleontological expedition to Antarctica and gradually (predictably) in an orgy of hallucinatory amoral undead tentacular horror and carnage. Two decades before, R. F. Scott’s infamously ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition succumbed to exposure and starvation rather than murderous ambulatory crinoids. However, as in the Lovecraft story, Scott’s mission was, in part to collect fossils from Antarctica in order to better understand the geological and biological history of the now-frozen continent. Some of these were recovered along with the remains of the crew: Scott had refused to abandon the collections, and the crew was dragging 35 lbs of Permo-Triassic plant fossils around with them until the bitter end. Around the same time, Carl Wiman and Eric Stensiö, among others were making important fossil discoveries at the opposite end of the globe on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen.
The pace of important fossil discoveries at high latitudes (including Antarctica and Spitsbergen as well as Greenland, Nunavut, and Siberia) has seemed to quicken–Tiktaalik and Kryostega providing just two recent, high-profile examples.
So far this has probably been driven by technological advances that make it easier to get to these remote locations and work under polar conditions. However, given recent climatic projections it’s interesting to wonder how a reduction in ice at the poles might affect polar paleontology. Not only might the recession of glaciers expose fossil bearing strata, but reduction of ice on land and sea might permit easier access to known localities.
I certainly don’t mean this as some kind of apologia for anthropogenic warming of the planet–obviously any paleontological rewards will likely come at deep expense to the living ecosystems in these regions. And rising global sea-levels might destroy important existing coastal fossil localities. Even under the most optimistic scenarios however, we will almost certainly sea a waning of ice at least in the Arctic. Indeed, despite of truth-bending denials by folks like George Will it’s already happening. It will be interesting, in a sick, doom-filled, quasi-Lovecraftian way to watch how a changing climate might reveal new secrets of our past…even if we don’t turn up evidence of a lost race of sentient malicious Paleozoic invertebrates.
Damn! I knew I should have taken Inuktikut instead of Latin
For a while now, I have been interested in the introgression of nonIndo-European languages into taxonomic nomenclature, especially those that derive from “indigenous” cultures (whatever that means…) Like Tiktaalik, “Puijila” is of Inuktikut origin, in this case referring to a small seal. Tiktaalik means “burbot”, a type of fish. I am, for the record, wholly in favor of this practice but if I was writing a paper about this in college I would probably raise the question of whether this amounted to some form of “cultural appropriation.” Incidentally, I like the fact that Puijila has some vague phonic resonance with the names of extant northern hemisphere seals (or phocine phocid phocoids for those of you keeping score at home) Phoca, Pusa, Pagophilus, Histriophoca. Whatever.