Archive for April, 2009

Faces of Death

28 April 2009

Chris Norris recently deployed the term “asteroid porn” for a certain gratuitous style employed by those writing about meteoric catastrophe:

Here is a brief summary of a typical piece of asteroid porn. Dinosaurs are peacefully grazing (or browsing, or doing whatever) on a warm sunny day (or at sunset, or some other time of peacefullness) when they see a big fireball fall out of the sky. It hits the Earth so hard that larva comes out, like a big bursting geological zit. The larva shoots up hundreds of miles into the air and comes down, setting fire to, like, the whole planet. All the forests are on fire, and all the dinosaurs are on fire as well. Then there’s this big blast wave, and it’s so big it goes round the world, like, 5 times at the speed of Concorde, and when it hits the burning dinosaurs they all get blown into burning pieces…

You’ll want to read the entire post.

Not all porn is so literate though.  Books, television, film and, most especially the internet abound with visual artworks that operate in the same vein.  One well-worn style adopts a “dinosaur-eye view,” typically peppering the foreground with a tyrannosaur, hadrosaur or ceratopsian or some combination thereof.  A few enterprising artists even manage a nod to Charles Knight.

picture-4The players in these epic finales span a comical range of emotive reaction to the impact, from “wha?” to “HOLY EFF!” to “screw extinction–I’M GOING TO EAT YOU!!!” A few contemplative dinosaurs, cast in silhouette, even appear rather philosophical about their impending demise.

And of course, it’s a nearly irresistible vehicle for a one-liner:

picture-5Large pterosaurs offer a convenient excuse to adopt an aerial perspective that permits a more graphic celebration of “the junk” (the bolide that is).  Plus there must be a sense of clever satisfaction tat comes when you work Quetzalcoatlus into a painting of Mesoamerican Armageddon.

picture-6Another popular technique takes yet another step back to show what the hypothetical Troodon cosmonauts would have seen.

This view shifts the victim role from the dinosaurs to the planet itself. It also lends a certain historical anonymity to the event–this could be a catastrophe in the distant past, or the not-so-remote future.  In fact, some even depict an anachronistic geography that necessarily implies the latter to the careful observer.

picture-8It’s tempting to speculate that this orbital perspective might not have occurred to an artist working prior to the advent of satellite photography.  A similar argument has been made regarding the link between the Victorian “aquarium craze” and the subsequent proliferation of artworks adopting an underwater perspective (Clary and Wandersee 2005).

With their melodramatic flair, stereotyped compositions and limited pool of motifs, these images might easily be regarded as derivative at best and sure, pornographic at worst.  Much like metal album art.  However, these depictions will also afford ample fodder for a future, likely poor, overeducated and underemployed, generation of science/art historians interested in the cultural impact of late 20th Century neo-catastrophism.  Unless we are all wiped out by an asteroid first.

Coming up: Stravinsky, climate change and the Bataan march

postscripto: Huh, look at that.  300 microecos posts in just over 3 years.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A note on the images:  All are thumbnails gleaned from Google Image searches of “asteroid impact”, “dinosaur extinction” etc.  They are reproduced here for the purposes of discussion only.  This is a cultural studies blog.  Deal.

Successes and Failures of the Bushtit Hunting Expedition

27 April 2009

We saw plenty of bushtits, heard many more.  But failed our primary objective: locating a nest.  Blame multi-tasking.  The dog had his own agenda, primarily involving ground-squirrels.  And, I kept getting distracted by insects:

We did make some consolation discoveries at least.  Apparently the university is developing a special breed of semi-log horse.  Some limb-allometry project or something.  At least that’s what I heard.

We also managed to see some Killdeer sex so, you know, net plus overall.

Short in the tooth

24 April 2009

Ol' Gummy's teeth

Nice Baculum! (and other thoughts on Puijila)

22 April 2009

baculumToo 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.

Research Publication Figure of the Week (1 week late)

21 April 2009
Figure 3. from Hagadorn and Seilacher 2009 - original caption: <i>Figure 3. Cartoon model of hermit arthropod with a crustacean versus chelicerate mode of abdominal bending. Model is not intended to represent details of track maker's anatomy.</i>

Figure 3. from Hagadorn and Seilacher 2009

What an interrogative week, huh?  National Geographic mused, koanically, “First Tool Users Were Sea Scorpions?” Discover’s online news mashup engine 80 Beats pondered, prosaically, “Did ‘Hermit’ Sea Creature Hide Under Borrowed Shells in First Forays Onto Land?”  Neither of which really even approach the telegraphic glory of Hagadorn and Seilacher’s rhetorical paper title “Hermit Arthropods 500 million years ago?” which appears in this month’s issue of Geology.

All of which would seem to beg the same answer, because the only thing more badass than a sea scorpion is a sea scorpion with a van!

Hagadorn, JW and A Seilacher 2009. “Hermit arthropods 500 millon years ago?” Geology 37(4):295-298

Research Publication Title Of the Week

11 April 2009
Barnacle colony on crab

Barnacle (Chthamalus?) colony on Purple Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus nudus)


DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00668.x

Abstract: Acorn barnacles are important model organisms for the study of sex allocation. They are sessile, nonselfing hermaphrodites that copulate with penises that have been suggested to be phenotypically plastic. On wave-exposed shores, Semibalanus balanoides develop penises with relatively greater diameter whereas in wave-protected sites they are thinner. A reciprocal transplant experiment between wave-exposed and protected sites tested whether these exposure-specific morphologies have adaptive value. Mating success was compared over a range of distances to compare the ability of barnacles to reach mates. Barnacles that grew in the wave-protected site and mated in the wave-protected site fertilized more broods at increasing distances than those transplanted to the wave-exposed site. For barnacles that developed in the wave-exposed site, there was no difference in the ability to fertilize neighbors between sites of differing exposure. This study demonstrates the adaptive value of plasticity in penis morphology. The results suggest a trade-off between development of a penis adapted to wave exposure and the ability to fertilize distant mates. Barnacles in different physical environments are limited by different factors, which may limit numbers of potential mates, constrain optimal sex allocation strategies and alter reproductive behavior.

Darwin would be doubly proud I think!


Sadly, I  just noticed that Hoch buried the lead: a simultaneous hermaphrodite with a plastic penis that’s non-selfing!?  What, do barnacles not have the internet or something?

On cats

9 April 2009

felisSure dogs.  Clyde rooted around the compost heap to the curious digust of other barbecuers and I obnoxiously riffed, “but, you know the dog story right?”

So what’s the cat story?  Well, long story short:

Chinese Mountain Cat Felis silvestris bieti looking mean from Wikimedia

Chinese Mountain Cat Felis silvestris bieti "looking mean" from Wikimedia licensed, perhaps dubiously, Creative Commons-ShareAlike 3.0

Close wild relatives of the domestic cat include appropriately enough the “wildcat” Felis silvestris complex of numerous nominative subspecies scattered across Eurasia and Africa, including the Chinese desert or mountain cat Felis silvestris bieti sometimes considered a distinct species, Felis bieti. More distant relatives include the sand cat (Felis magarita), jungle cat (Felis chaus), black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), and the riculously adorable Pallas’ cat (Felis manul).

Pumas, ocelots, margays and caracals, previously placed in Felis are these days being placed outside the genus, despite some interfertility among various combinations of these species in capitivity.  Bom chika wow wow.

A recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA (Driscoll et al. 2007) suggested that modern domestic cats are derived from the North African/Middle Eastern subspecies Felis silvestris lybica consistent with a “fertile crescent” domestication scenario.  The going narrative speculates that grain surplusses associated with grass (co)domestication and the construction of granaries (you know, that whole “birth of civilization” thing) led to standing crops of commensal rodents and hence: cats.  All of this seems pretty plausable, especially in light of Towser.

Nebamun, wife, daughters and cat, slaughter fowl...give it a while

"Grain-counter" Nebamun, wife, daughters and cat, slaughter fowl...give it a while

The cat in the photo at top is a resident of Eatwell Farm in Dixon, CA, and has undoubtedly “moused” a few rodents in her day

The Driscoll et al. (2007) study also revealed (unsurprisingly) substantial introgression among domestic cats and the various wildcats.  Bom chika wow wow, indeed.  As with dogs, and probably many other human hypercommensals, this genetic “gray-zone” suggests that a) no living population of putative wild ancestor necessarily  provides a precise portrait of what the “wild type” was really like and b) “artificial selection” shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as the only engine of diversity of “domestic animals.”


I grew up with cats, many cats, Banner, Ritter, Barney, Shady(Momma), Max, Sadie, Sonic, Vega, Beamer, Metro, Anastasia, Squirrel; I but haven’t actually lived with them in years.  At “cat corner” tonight Jessica counted 13, these perfect predators in our midst.


Driscoll, C. A. et al. 2007.  The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication.  Science 317: 519-523.

Detail of tomb painting shown above

Detail of tomb painting shown above