Archive for January, 2008

Hitting the Proverbial Snooze Button…

31 January 2008

Today I was introduced as an ‘up and coming science blogger’ (paraphrasing there). It was like one of those moments where you pass in front of a mirror, catch a peripheral glimpse and think “wait, is that what I really look like?”


Armadillodile warsSophophora?…hopeless monstersanthroposenescence

Um, I think I’ll sit this year/epoch out, thanks.

(with apologies to Tom Philippi)

Expect more decontextualized photo-collages…ganked media…wild, instantly retracted neologistics…19th century historiographies…maybe some bug sex. In short, we’re gonna party like it’s 2006.

When I wake up that is. If I wake up before the larvae pupate that is.

Until then: check out the best thing ever (thanks to zooillogix and retrospectacle from that one science blog portal…i forget the name).


12 January 2008


12 January 2008

microecos Manifesto.

12 January 2008

Fela remains official microecos soundtrack: viva volvo.

Smells like Shrew Spirit

10 January 2008
Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata) “sniffing” underwater
from Catania 2006

The kind of thing to drive any formerly self-respecting paleontologist nuts: underwater olfaction in mammals. Smell is an important sense for mammals, no surprise to anyone who has stepped into a Sephora outlet recently. Though we are generally far more conscious of sight and sound, we’re still led around by the nose far more than we would guess…especially when it comes to eating and mating.

And other mammals, especially those who have stuck to more respectable mammalian lifestyles (i.e. grubbing around for worms and bugs at night), put humans to shame in the olfaction department. Still, the announcement that some specialized “insectivorans” (or soricomorphs if you’re T.C. like that) are able to smell underwater came as a surprise – to me at least.

As seen in the photo above, this amazing feat is accomplished by expiring a small bubble of air then re-inspiring it. This allows these air-breathing mammals to safely search for odors underwater as they search for prey. Notably, many other aquatic mammals rely exclusively on other senses especially hearing and touch; whales have apparently little or no sense of smell judging from their brains.

A detailed analysis of the tactile and olfactory abilities of the American Water Shrew (Sorex palustris) in PNAS, expands upon the initial report of underwater smelling by shrews and moles. Like the previous Nature paper there are awesome photos and slow-mo videos documenting this amazing behavior, highly recommended.

The elaborate experiments by Catania and co. showed that S. palustris uses a combination of tactile (via whiskers) and olfactory clues to evaluate potential prey items. One video shows a shrew puzzled by an artificial cricket which apparently “feels” right but “smells” wrong. They also used experiments to rule out echolocation or electroreception – strategies employed by other mammals that forage underwater.

As for the paleontological lament: it took a serendipitous flash of insight plus the availability of high speed cameras and infrared lighting to bring this interesting behavior to light. One has to wonder how many strange behaviors among fossil taxa, peculiar and mundane, have yet to and may never be guessed at.

Interestingly, aquatic olfaction has been suggested in plesiosaurs based upon skeletal evidence, but I suspect we’ll be waiting awhile for the slow-mo vid.

Putting my photos where my mouth is… (I had to move my foot first)

8 January 2008


i’ve finally gotten around to putting a Creative Commons license on my Flickr photos.

Appropriate away!

Al-Aqsa Lovers Brigade

6 January 2008

Wax Brigade
Seen at the Maker’s Mark distillery, included for no particular reason…

Way back in the mid 1990s, I cut my teeth as a “science writer” in the pages of the Atascadero Junior High School newspaper with the editorial “What’s wrong with Jurassic Park?” It hit all the usual talking points: over-sized Velociraptors, the under-sized Dilophosaur with its unlikely frill and venomous saliva, the unrealistic presentation of field paleontology.

In short, the editorial had the same tone of self-righteous futility that regular readers of microecos will be all too familiar with; though, to be fair I prefaced the piece with a note that I wasn’t challenging the artistic license of the film-makers, but merely trying to correct any scientific misconceptions fostered by the film.

I’d like to think, all evidence to the contrary, that I’ve loosened-up considerably since my adolescent years–I mean, hey, at least I’m not publishing rants in nationally syndicated teen advice columns railing against “elitist” high school girls1.

All this navel gazing is sparked by two interestingly divergent recent posts by Messers. Wedel and Naish. First, Matt single-handedly attempts to dislodge a deeply implanted stick in “Get your giant robotic dinosaur on“:

The granddaddy of all ex-paleo objections to pop culture dinosaurs, though, is that…

“That’s so unrealistic! Why, just look at the external nostril! It must be at least two-thirds of the way back in the bony naris–it’s nowhere near Witmer-compliant!”

Yes, it’s true, pop culture dinosaurs always fall short of full scientific respectability. Always. If you can show me a counter-example, I can give you at least half a dozen reasons why it actually sucks.

it’s an excellent read full of the usual seething hilarity we’ve all come to expect from Wedel’s rants. It also earned him free tickets to the Sacramento showing of Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience (which I’m missing as we speak for want of $70 US …bastard!) At any rate it’s an excellent essay, well worth the read, even if you’ve never mocked a three-fingered T. rex or howled at a pterosaur carrying off a buxom cave-girl.

Then–as if to reclaim the honor of sullen paleo-nerds everywhere–Darren Naish published a stinging critique of Robert Mash’s How to Keep Dinosaurs:

This could have been a really interesting experiment in the reconstruction of behaviour, and on whatever imaginary perils and pitfalls might befall any attempt to bring dinosaurs into the human world. But no, it’s just silly. The animals are not portrayed realistically, but as daft caricatures that perform to classical music, do silly dances, play cards and so on.

In this season of political double-speak and bet hedging, I’ll make my position on the importance of scientific accuracy in paleo-pop crystal clear. Art is art and we shouldn’t expect scientific perfection from every plastic cereal toy or stadium robotic dinosaur show, BUT inaccurate portrayal of paleontology in pop-culture offers a wonderful opportunity to correct popular misconceptions through critique and review. Scientists just shouldn’t take themselves too seriously – because then their experiments are probably going to run amok and eat people.

1 – Oh god, don’t ask. Needless to say, I did not get a lot of play in high school.