Archive for March, 2010

Catamount

30 March 2010

As seen at Sturgeon’s Casino in bustling Lovelock, Nevada. This guy looked a lot more lively than many of the patrons….

Predator x^2

25 March 2010

A friend and Friends scholar once asked me if the field of paleontology is really dominated by conservative old white men, apparently a plot point of that show in episodes featuring an African-American female paleontologist played by Aisha Tyler. I struggled to respond: it would be dishonest to deny the over-representation of white males in my field especially among the “full-professor” generation, though I suspect the situation is no worse in this regard than many other scientific disciplines. On the other hand, looking to the younger faces in the crowd it is clear (I think) that the gender bias among students, though perhaps tilting heterozygous, is not so skewed. But, then, is this generational disparity a sign of real improvement, or is it in part the product of a still very real glass ceiling?

I don’t have the stats at hand to address these issues, but I think something is lost in this discussion the fact that, though often under-appreciated both then and now, women scientists have been making important contributions to paleontology really from the first days that it emerged as a science in the early 19th Century. This especially seems to be the case in my own microdiscipline, the study of Mesozoic marine reptiles. So in honor of Ada Lovelace Day and Women’s History Month here are three (too brief!) profiles of women paleontologists and their scientific achievements.

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) Though often deemed “forgotten” and “overlooked” Anning is easily the most storied figure of the paleontological naissance of the early 19th Century. Born to a working class family in Lyme, England, Anning collected fossils and sold them to wealthy vacationers along the Jurassic Coast. Annings discoveries soon attracted the attention of the scientific community, and even in her own day was well known as a preeminent ‘fossilist’ though her gender, and perhaps social standing, precluded her direct entrance into the scientific circles.

Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur along with the pterosaur Dimorphodon and countless other and invertebrate fossils. Surprisingly, Anning has not recieved much in the way of taxonomic homage, though Aggasiz did name two fossil fish species after her, Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae, though I’m not certain whether either is regarded as valid today. It seems a peculiar oversight that the woman who gave marine reptiles to the world doesn’t have a marine reptile taxon of her own. With the ongoing revision of Jurassic marine reptiles it would be nice to see this historical oversight, um, sighted.

Though Mary Anning never published a scientific paper, her accomplishments have far eclipsed those of her male contemporaries, some of whom built their scientific careers upon her discoveries. Anning has been the subject of numerous biographical accounts, most recently The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Emling 2009) and is a central character in Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures (2010). I haven’t yet read either but there is a nice review of both books here.

Annie Alexander (1867 – 1950)  Annie M. Alexander was born in Hawaii into a wealthy family of sugarcane growers and refiners, was educated in California and Europe, and spent much of her life adventuring across the globe. After sitting in on some lectures given by Berkeley paleontologist John Merriam, Alexander became acutely interested in the subject and funded several fossil hunting expeditions across the United States, on the condition that she could join the parties.

Alexander’s importance as a patron of the sciences could hardly be over-exaggerated.  She endowed what would ultimately become the University of California Museum of Paleontology, as well as the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology both located on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and both which remain important research institutions. In addition to her philanthropic work, Alexander was a talented naturalist and collected numerous fossil, zoological and botanical specimens for the museums that she founded. Some 17 species or subspecies, extinct and extant, bear her name including three marine reptiles Thalattosaurus alexandrae (speaking of which, oh never mind), Hydrotherosaurus alexadrae and Shastasaurus alexandrae (though the later is now considered to be a junior synonym of S. pacificus).

Having just returned from Alexander’s field localities, like, yesterday expect quite a bit more on this amazing paleontological persona some time soon. Alexander’s life story, including her career as an asparagus farmer in the Sacramento Delta (!) is presented in detail in Barbara Stein’s biography, On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West (2001).

Tilly Edinger (1897 – 1967) Unlike Anning and Alexander, Edinger was, in a sense, a scientific insider who made her name as an academic rather than as fossil hunter or philanthropist.  Yet Edinger is far more overlooked than either at least in the Anglophone world: she doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page! Edinger was born into family of liberal Jewish academics in Frankfurt, Germany and became the first German woman to earn a doctorate in paleontology in 1921. Although Edinger is most remember in scientific circles for her work studying the brain structure of a diverse array of fossil species, her dissertation work focused on the skull structure of the Triassic marine reptile Nothosaurus, a species of which was ultimately named in her honor N. edingerae.

Edinger worked as a curator for the Seckenberg Museum beginning in 1927, but around 1933 the situation for liberal female Jewish academics, um, deteriorated, and following a series of professional slights and insults, Edinger was dismissed in 1938 and soon thereafter (wisely) left the country. She joined the staff of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1940 and continued her research career in the United States. Edinger was a founding member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and was elected president of SVP in 1963, a fact that I wish I had at hand when my friend asked me if paleontology was an old boys’ club. Edinger, who was hearing impaired for much of her life, met a tragic end when she was hit by a vehicle on her way to the museum in 1967. Edinger’s life is documented in the volume Tilly Edinger: Leben und Werk einer jüdischen Wissenschaftlerin (2003) edited by Kohring and Kreft, which so far as I know has yet to be translated into English, though there is an English review of the book here.

Saurian Expedition!

19 March 2010

Now where did I put my field skirts?

Luck o’ the Lepospondyls

17 March 2010

By Nobu Tamura / Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution Generic

There once was a beast from Kilkenny

Whose legs were so few there waren’t any

You could call him a snake

But tha’d be a mistake:

‘Though scaly, the beast was amphibiany

Yeah, I know, that last line could use some work.  But, you try rhyming something with “aïstopod.”

The critter in question is Ophiderpeton the closest thing that Ireland has (or rather, has had) to a snake, so far as we know.  It’s quite possible that there were snakes in Ireland before the Pleistocene but so far no one has produced the fossil evidence to prove it.  At any rate, there’s no real reason to blame Roman-Briton missionaries for the depauperate herpetofauna of the Emerald Isle.

The genus was described by T.H. Huxley in 1866 based on Carboniferous fossils found in an Irish Coal Mine.  Huxley wrote a letter to geologist Charles Lyell about the discovery:

My dear Sir Charles–I returned last night from a hasty journey to Ireland, whither I betook myself on Thursday night, being attracted vulture-wise by the scent of a quantity of carboniferous corpses. The journey was as well worth the trouble as any I ever undertook, seeing that in a morning’s work I turned out ten genera of vertebrate animals of which five are certainly new; and of these four are Labyrinthodonts, amphibia of new types. These four are baptised Ophiderpeton, Lepterpeton, Ichthyerpeton, Keraterpeton. They have ossified spinal columns and limbs. The special interest atttaching to the two first is that they represent a type of Labyrinthodonts hitherto unknown, and corresponding with Siren and Amphiuma among living Amphbia. Ophiderpeton, for example, is like an eel, about three feet long with small fore legs and rudimentary hind ones.

In the year of grace 1861, there were three genera of European carboniferous Labyrinthodonts known, Archegosaurus, Scleroceplus, Parabatrachus.

The vertebral column of Archegosaurus was alone known, and it was in a remarkably imperfect state of ossification. Since that date, by a succession of odd chances, seven new genera have come into my hands, and of these six certainly have well-ossified and developed vertebral columns.

I reckon there are now about thirty genera of Labyrinthodonts known from all parts of the world and all deposits. Of these eleven have been established by myself in the course of the last half-dozen years, upon remains which have come into my hands by the merest chance.

Five and twenty years ago, all the world but yourself believed that a vertebrate animal of higher organisation than a fish in the carboniferous rocks never existed. I think the whole story is not a bad comment upon negative evidence. (T.H. Huxley to C. Lyell 1865)

I would love to tell you more about Aïstopods, a bizarre group of limbless amphibians that invented “snakiness” about 200 million years before actual snakes came along, but, I’ve got a St. Patrick’s Day party to go to.  So why don’t I just take the easy way out and divert you over to TetZoo.  Have fun, but please come back safe.

Peek II

16 March 2010

Getting excited for this.  In the meantime there’s always this.

WWTD (what would Tufte do?)

16 March 2010

In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history. some dude.

We are a dreadfully narcissistic lot.  Perhaps nothing in the Origin has inspired more reflection or revulsion than Darwin’s passing reference to the promise that his ideas had to illuminate the origins of our own species.  Creationists might bloviate about bacterial flagella or blood-clotting proteins, but most are surprisingly willing to concede the fairly obvious genetic relations between, say, camels and llamas separated by two oceans and millions (or in the case of YECers maybe six thousand) years.  They even have a wonky pseudoscience, baraminology, that more or less admits that yes sister taxa have a common origin…up to a point.

But when it comes to one particular species, they invariably draw the line.  Of course as Darwin rightly anticipated, much has been learned in the last century and a half about the origins of our own species–it’s not my intention to review the history of these discoveries here, but I highly recommend Brian Switek’s comprehensive historical analysis as a great place to start.  But while much light has been thrown, perhaps an equal measure of ink has been shed in an attempt to visualize the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens.

Darwin’s own back of the envelope attempt seems, perhaps surprisingly, among the most straightforward of the lot, despite the bet-hedging and scratchouts:

It’s mostly been uphill from there, but often up the wrong the hill.  Like a teenager flexing in the mirror, then agonizing for an hour over a newly discovered blackhead.

I was reminded of all of this by this recent post by John Wilkins that reproduced this figure:

As they go, this diagram is not particularly bad, though as Wilkins notes the form does seem a bit dated.  However, I think that the discussion in the comments to that post reveal why this diagram is perhaps at least as confusing as it is revealing: are those truncated side-branches based on fossil data or just hypothetical?  Is the light brownish region supposed to be denoting some area of uncertainty and if so how?  Is there a 3rd dispersal out of Africa implied?  What exatly do those “?”s mean? (To be fair, I haven’t seen the figure caption which may address some or all of these questions.)

So, here then, gleaned from google are various other diagrams each ostensibly depicting more or less the same events: 5 million years of ape evolution in Africa plus some things that came after.  Feel free to leave your Tuftian critiques in the comments, bonus points for dropping fashionable jargon like “chart junk” “data-ink-ratio” &c.

Conodont Troubles

12 March 2010

Again.  Sorry.  If you don’t get this joke it probably means that you didn’t spend hours today trying to figure out if Neohindeodella germanicus is just a wonky synonym of Nicoraella germanica. In which case you may well have made some better life choices than I, so, well done.

If you were hoping to learn something about conodonts I suggest you start here, which is also where you will probably want to stop.

One of those drawn-out history of science snoozers coming soon, promise.