Archive for May, 2009

Wordless Wednesday – Are You Mocking Me?

27 May 2009

Research Publication Title of the Week – The Virtue of Modesty

26 May 2009
Comparison of the five extant species of rhinoceros - Wikimedia Commons

Comparison of the five extant species of rhinoceros - Wikimedia Commons

ANALYSIS OF COMPLETE MITOCHONDRIAL GENOMES FROM EXTINCT AND EXTANT RHINOCEROSES REVEALS LACK OF PHYLOGENETIC RESOLUTION – Eske Willerslev, Marcus Gilbert, Jonas Binladen, Simon Ho, Paula Campos, Aakrosh Ratan, Lynn Tomsho, Rute da Fonseca, Andrei Sher, Tatanya Kuznetsova, Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Terri Roth, Webb Miller  and Stephan Schuster

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:95


From our irregular series - Bloggers half-assedly opining about peer-reviewed papers when, really no one asked them in the first place anyway

From our irregular series, oh, nevermind.

Amidst the recent outcry over phylogenetic hype, it is nice to see some truth in advertising.  Sure one might quibble over whether the lack of a pattern is something that can be “revealed” but microecos never quibbles over semantics…

Semantics aside, what is tremendously cool about this paper is the recovery of mitochondrial genes from preserved soft tissues of the extinct woolly rhino, Coelodonta antiquitatis. Despite the overall lack of resolution among the clade, Willerslev and company recover strongly supported sister relationships between the two African rhinos (the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum and the black rhino, Diceros bicornis) and between the congeneric Javan and Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus, R. unicornis).

Charles Knights famous, heroic woolly rhino

Charles Knight's iconic, heroic woolly rhino

While neither of these relationships are surprising, the authors also found support for a sister relationship between the woolly rhino and the ridiculously adorable, critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis).  This relationship has been postulated before, at least partly based on the fact that Dicerorhinus is unique among living rhinos in sporting luscious, auburn locks that put agent Scully to shame.  However, this hypothesis has been controversial and this new paper certainly leaves the door open for considerable improvement in our understanding of the evolutionary history of living rhinos.

One of the problems here is that today we are left with only a tattered remnant of the great perissodactyl radiation that produced some of the most impressive, perplexing and yes (ahem) EXTREME mammals that have ever existed.  Aside from the four rhino genera, a handful of tapirs (all in genus Tapirus) and a rather more respectable smattering of zebras, asses and kiangs (in the familiar, but rather lumpy genus Equus) are all that remains of this once diverse order.  In the recent analysis, relationships amongst the rhino couplets changed dramatically depending on whether tapirs or horses were used as the out-group, perhaps indicating a geologically explosive radiation of rhinos from their perissodactyl ancestors at some point in the Cenzoic.

Living rhinos on the brink - from

Living rhinos on the brink - from Intl Rhino Foundation

Sadly, we stand to lose even more of this evolutionary majesty if the poaching and deforestation that imperil all living rhinos isn’t checked.  While the recovery of genetic material from the extinct woolly rhino is a remarkable achievement, it would be terribly tragic if scraps of keratin are all that future studies of rhino evolution have to go on.

But I hate to leave you on such a bitter note, so behold, the otherworldly wonder that is a baby Sumatran rhino:

Baby Rhino!

Baby Rhino!

Fluvial Mudstones are the new Candy Girls

25 May 2009

I once wrote a paper entitled “Applying the Principles of Stratigraphy in an Analysis of Melodrama.” Sadly, this was long before There Will Be Blood came out.

This video by Grizzly Bear reminds me of that paper, for several reasons, but, I’ll spare you the golemy details.  I dig the layers of metaphor though, puns possibly not intended.

Anyone recognize the location?  Anza Borrego or something?  And presumably those flags in the first scene are a paleo site right?

Props to Radov for leading me, indirectly, to this video.

Photo from

Photo from

Monophyly FAIL

20 May 2009

Slide1Unless you have been living under a slab of oil shale, you will have already heard, read and seen quite a lot about the Eocene primate Darwinius masillae recently described in the online open-access journal PLOSone.  The blogosphere has been, ahem, a-twitter over the “hype” surrounding this important fossil–to the extent that some have even begun to decry the anti-hype hype–and it has provided fodder for some excellent satire.  Even the Old Gray Lady has weighed in.

In my forthcoming (‘cough) book on the late 20th/early 21st C. social history of fossils (tentatively entitled Paleontology After Modernism) I discuss the role of flash-powered websites in the promotion of important fossil discoveries (see: Tiktaalik‘s or Puijila‘s).  Given that Darwinius already has its own book and not one, but two television specials, one of which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, it comes as no surprise that it has its own flashy website too.

Unfortunately, it appears that the website creators did not bother to read the freely available publication they are trying to summarize, and instead chose to present a woefully outdated picture of primate evolution.  I’m sure Brian Switek will take them to tasks for trotting out the old “march of progress” canard,  and perhaps we can forgive the pervasive “Homo sapians” typo.

Picture 5

However, suggesting that primates “diversified into two key groups: the anthropoids and the prosimians” (see image at top of post) is misleading at best and, at worst, directly contradicts the argument laid out in the new paper.  “Prosimian” is term used to refer to various primates perceived to be um, primitive in their anatomy including lemurs, lorises and tarsiers.  However it has been well known for quite some time that this is not a natural group that can be split from the “anthropoid” monkeys and apes, but rather a paraphyletic group of animals including the direct ancestors of anthropoids, as well as animals only distantly related to anthropoids.

Exactly which “prosimians” are more closely related to anthropoids is a matter of debate, and one that this fossil may shed new light on, though, see Brian’s detailed critique of  the new paper.  It is certainly understandable that the LINK website designers would not want to go into the finer details of this debate, however there is no excuse for falling back on a “simplified” but outdated and erroneous picture of primate evolution.

I’m wholeheartedly in favor of trying to get the public excited about important scientific discoveries, even when it involves some minor exaggeration, disseminating misinformation on the other hand is simply inexcusable.

And don’t get me started on this….

Picture 2

Press Twice

20 May 2009

Slide1By special request: an excerpt from the mythical Mineralogy and Semiotics course that I am team-teaching/auditing this quarter.  Nuff said.

Faces of Death 2

2 May 2009

Last time, we looked at various portraits of a weak-ass minor planet getting effed up by our atmosphere before getting royally bitch slapped by our lithosphere.  Anyone with a passing interest in dinosaurs will know that strike of the space-junk, while widely accepted (though see recent meso-profile critiques), is but one of countless etiologies proposed for terminal Cretaceous bummer days.

You might think that protracted catastrophes like pestilence, climate change and famine offer less in the way of dramatic potential than a body of a certain mass rapidly attempting to occupy the same space as a much more massive body.  If so, you should probably read more.

At all points the dinosaurs that had trampled the earth till the grasses grew, the most superb of all vertebrates, the creatures that fix the imagination above all others, are seen to fail. The growth forces and the responses to environment were no longer in adjustment. Eggs were few, their loss from attack devastating, life slow. The young were the prey of their own kind, and the race had lived long enough for reptiles lower in life’s scale to threaten. If new enemies were needed they were at the jungle-edge. Geologic change that once would have meant mere fluctuation in habitat affected the declining numbers disastrously, and what such change and the reptiles soon to rule in the forests of the Eocence may have failed to accomplish, senility did. That long dinosaurian day was done. Its sun was sinking beneath the horizon forever. (Wieland 1925).

15 years later Disney took a stab, note that it anticipated Bataan by at least a year.  Talk about zeitgeist.  While drought and desertification deal the fatal blow (with some help from miring), major geologic upheaval kicks in as an epilogue. We can talk about this and Lyell, and Agassiz some time.

Now, assuming you are are as sick of asteroid porn and dinosaurs as I am you will want to hear about the mass dysphoria induced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring courtesy of radio lab.