Archive for the 'mammals' Category

How much wood, and other monax mysteries

2 February 2013

[rescued, sort of, from the dust bin of the draft folder]


It’s that time of year that we turn our attention to those beefiest of squirrels, the marmots. Marmota is a genus of large-bodied ground squirrel comprising fourteen or so species scattered about the mid to high-latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere, a distribution properly termed “Holarctic.” Both fossil evidence and genetic relationships among the species suggest a New World origin for marmots followed by dispersal across the Bering land bridge in the Late Pliocene into Eurasia (Steppan et al. 1999), though one North American species, M. broweri, the Alaskan marmot, appears to be a Pleistocene re-immigrant from Asia.

What’s in a name?

Growing up in California, I tend to think of marmots as animals of the high country. Yet the most familiar North American species, or at least the most of nicknamed is M. monax aka “woodchuck”, “groundhog”, “whistlepig”,”siffleur”, “land beaver” &c. (though I’m dubious whether that last really has any kind of currency.) “Woodchuck” is apparently something of an eggcorn, corrupted from an array names “wuchak/wejack/ojeeg” given by Algonquin-speaking tribes to quite another animal, the large North American weasel, Martes pennanti, now generally called a “fisher” (or misleadingly a “fisher cat”) but once known in some parts as a “woodshock.” This is another example of the twisted game of what might be called “Ojibwe whispers“, that confused chain of mistakes, miscommunications and misappellations that named the “New World” flora and fauna (see: wapiti/moose/elk, chipmunk, kinkajou, potato, alligator, turkey).

Though nowadays obsolete, I’m rather partial to the name used by most early naturalists, “monax,” a riff on an Algonquin word monham meaning “to dig” and a word that was apparently actually use by native peoples for the proper species, unlike wuchak. Pity that “monax” and it’s variants, monack, moonack etc. have all fallen into disuse and we’re left with two rather dull and more or less inappropriate alternatives, tongue-twisters aside.

Better know a marmot

Mark Catesby provides one of the earliest quasi-scientific accounts of the monax in an appendix to his landmark work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, although the animal was no doubt was already quite familiar to European settlers:


The Monax

This animal is about the Bigness of a wild Rabbet: and of a brown Colour, the Head also resembles most that of a Rabbet, except that the ears are short, like the those of a Squirrel; the Feet are like those of a Rat, the Tail like that of a Squirrel, but much less hairy. It feeds on Bread, Fruit, and other Vegetable Diet. At certain Times they retire to their subterraneous Lodgings, and sleep continually a Month or longer together: They are Inhabitants of Maryland, Pensilvania &c. Their Flesh is esteemed good Meat. (Natural History … V. 2 xxvii)

What is this exactly? Not a monax.

Elsewhere in that same work Catesby illustrated an entirely different rodent (above), which he calls “Ciniculus Bahamaensis – The Bahama Coney” along with another brief description:

This creature is a little less than the common Wild Rabbit and of a brown Colour without a Mixture of gray Hairs. Its Ears, Feet and Tail resemble those of a Rat, in other Parts it is somewhat like a Rabbit. They feed wholly on wild Fruit and other Vegetables; When furpriz’d by Hunters they retreat to Holes in Rocks. Theif Flesh is efteemed very good, it has more the Taste of a Pig than that of a Rabbit. I take it to be nearly of the Kind of the Mus Alpinus or Marmot. (Ibid, 79)

Catesby’s “Bahama Coney” is almost certainly some species of hutia but the passing reference to a marmot confused a generation of European naturalists who took the two descriptions to mean that the monax or a similar species was distributed across the North American continent and the Caribbean islands.

By being fed with soft Meats, and Disuse to gnaw, its Teeth grew so long and crooked, that it could not take in its Food, so to preferve its Life, they were obliged to break them out. This Drawing was taken, as it lay by the Fire reposing itself

Around the same time, George Edwards illustrated an exotic rodent kept by his homeboy Sir Hans Sloane supposed to have been imported from Maryland, along with a brief account. While the behavioral notes recorded by Edwards are mostly consistent with M. monax, the short pelage, long, slender tail and elongate curved claws are at odds with the familiar characteristics of the true groundhog, and raise the question of which American rodent lounging around his fireplace Hans Sloane had knocked the teeth out of, exactly. In some respects, Edwards’ illustration seems even a better match for the West Indian hutias than Catesby’s “Bahama Coney”. But these guys, and their rodent associates are long dead and who really cares anyway?

Speaking of old dead dudes

From a letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson (May 12, 1786):

 You have, I believe, justly considered our Monax as the Marmotte of Europe. I have lately had an opportunity of examining a female one with some attention. Its weight, after it had lost a good deal of blood, was 51 lbs. Its dimensions, shape, teeth, and structure within, as far as I could judge, corresponded in substance with the description given by D’Aubenton. In sundry minute circumstances a precise correspondence was also observable. The principal variations were: 1″, in the face, which was shorter in the Monax than in the proportions of the Marmottc, and was less arched about the root of the nose. 2ui, in the feet, each of the forefeet having a fifth nail, about 3 of an inch long, growing out of the inward side of the heel, without any visible toe. From this particular it would seem to be the Marmotte of Poland, called the Bobac, rather than the Alpine Marmotte. 3rd, in the teats, which were 8 only. The marmotte in Buffon had 10. 4th, in several circumstances of its robe, particularly of that of the belly, which consisted of a short, coarse, thin hair, whereas this part of Buffon’s marmotte was covered with a thicker fur than the back, &c.

A very material circumstance in the comparison remains to be ascertained. The European Marmotte is in the class of those which arc dormant during the winter. No person here of whom I have enquired can decide whether this be a quality of the Monax. I infer that it is of the dormant class, not only from its similitude to the Marmotte in other respects, but from the sensible coldness of the Monax I examined, compared with the human body, although the vital heat of quadrupeds is said, in general, to be greater than that of man. This inferiority of heat being a characteristic of animals which become torpid from cold, I should consider it as deciding the quality of the Monax in this respect, were it not that the subject of my examination, though it remained alive several days, was so crippled and apparently dying the whole time, that its actual heat could not fairly be taken for the degree of its natural heat. If it had recovered, I intended to have made a trial with the Thermometer. I now propose to have, if I can, one of their habitations discovered during the summer, and to open it on some cold day next winter. This will fix the matter. There is another circumstance which belongs to a full comparison of the two animals. The Marmotte of Europe is said to be an inhabitant of the upper region of mountains only. Whether our Monax be confined to mountainous situations or not, I have not yet learnt. If it be not found as a permanent inhabitant of the level conntry, it certainly descends occasionally into the plains which are in the neighborhood of mountains.

 I don’t know if contemporary U.S. “statesmen” (lol) exchange letters about the natural history of small native mammals, but if not, it no doubt goes a long way toward explaining the contemporary atmosphere of partisan gridlock. I mean if a Federalist and an Anti-Federalist could come together to discuss the finer details of rodent metabolism, surely the deficit crisis is tractable?


Candlemas is a reasonable enough time to check in on the weather, as if falls roughly midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. Animal activities have long been used to prognosticate future weather conditions, an impulse that clearly has its roots in sound observational awareness of the daily and annual rhythms that punctuate the natural world. Over-endowed with computational power and under-endowed with editing abilities, humans have woven these practices into an self-fulfilling hodge podge of absurd aphorisms and empty ritual. It was probably German immigrants that brought to the Americas folklore about the implications of seeing a mammal ambling about on Candlemas day, probably a badger or bear in the original telling. Somehow this folkloric forecasting exercise got transplanted to our beefy terrestrial squirrel, no doubt due to the obviously regimented seasonal activity cycle that sparked the curiosity of James Madison.

Go figure.

For what it’s worth – here in Nashville it snowed in the morning, rained mid-day and was sunny and clear by eventide. Oddly, I saw no rodents of any kind. But I did by a Twin Shadow CD. I think that means four more years of partisan gridlock.

Interview with an owl is an owl is an

4 December 2012

microecos: Hey dude.

Dr. Neil Patrick Kelley: ¿sup?

m.e.: been awhile!

me: no doubt. did that video though.

m.e.: whatcha been up to?

me: finished my dissertation! also, freelance herp ids on the blogs.

m.e.: big ups. and you had a kid right?

me: Yes! She’s a year old already.

m.e.: explains the slow down around here, I guess.

me: Oh. yeah. sorry. Have you seen my Tumblr?

m.e.: um. yeah. how much of that is “you”.

me: depends. sometimes I append lengthy comments to things there, so I “engage” with the “material” at least.

m.e.: I don’t think that’s how Tumblr works. Anyway with the theme you are using you can’t even see that stuff.

me: you’re probably right.

m.e.: so.

me: so….


me: I was thinking though, now that I’ve got that out of the way I can start reblogging in earnest. I mean, resume blogging. Original stuff.

m.e.: well you’ve got the domain so you need to do something with that.

me: Ugh. that sounds like so much work.

m.e.: love “Dust. Wind. Dude.” though. Classic shit.

me: Yeah.

m.e.: can I level with you?

me: of course!

m.e.: I don’t know. I’m not sure that I can get back to that, *level*. What do people even blog about NOW?

me: Shut up, you read 172 blogs religiously.

m.e.: Srsly.

me: You know that blog, Ichthyosaurs: a day in the life?

m.e.: Love it.

me: I did this:

m.e.: Yikes.

me: …

m.e.: Ease up on the distortion. Everyone knows you can’t sing. But you are stomping on your jokes there.

me: Jokes?

m.e.: “Nobody was really sure/If she was a stem-archosauromorph?”

me: zing!

m.e.: I like how you break the rhyme there. Very Sir A. L. Webster. But  breviceps is still in Ichthyosaurus right?

me: I think I meant <i>jancieps</i>. Ugh. how did I pass?

m.e.: Generosity. I don’t think we’re in an html interface.

me: This seems indulgent.

m.e.: which?

mi: right

yo: You’ve still got the 15 valid thalattosaur species to blog about right? Everyone’s waiting.

i: depends how you count, <i>Anshunsaurus</i> is a little volatile … ?<i>Blezingeria</i>

m.e.: Dude. Markup.

me: Dude. Marker’s Mark. RIP:

m.e.: Nobody will watch that. WordPress enforces a strict 1 video embed only policy. To preserve people’s sanity.

me: Good for them. ALL of them.

m.e.: I was going to title the one about the North American species: “North American Scum”

mi: I get it, they’re all so fragmentary. Agkistrognathus is pretty sick though, not nearly enough play in the liberal media.

m.e.: Whooping Cranes nearby. Maybe 10 klicks.

me: Private property. Can’t see them.

m.e.: Good for them. ALL of them.

me: Is the Marker video working now?

You damn dirty ape

30 March 2012

Only one of these is a real monkey (hint: it's the ape)

In the summer of 1861, a debate concerning a seahorse-shaped brain structure, and its existence in the simian brain, gripped Victorian England. Well that might be an exaggeration, but the “Great Hippocampus Question,” an anatomical feud waged primarily by Sir Richard Owen on one side and Thomas Henry Huxley on the other, did stir up enough public attention to inspire satirical poems, editorial cartoons, and an extended passage in Charles Kingsley’s exceedingly strange book, The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby,

He held very strange theories about a good many things. He had even got up once at the British Association, and declared that apes had hippopotamus majors in their brains just as men have. Which was a shocking thing to say; for, if it were so, what would become of the faith, hope, and charity of immortal millions?

Though really, after all, it don’t much matter; because—as Lord Dundreary and others would put it—nobody but men have hippopotamuses in their brains; so, if a hippopotamus was discovered in an ape’s brain, why it would not be one, you know, but something else.

Though Owen adhered to his own idiosyncratic evolutionary theories, he scoffed at Darwin’s suggestion that humans shared a common evolutionary history with primates. To prove the anatomical singularity of humans, the great anatomist conducted a detailed study of human and primate brains and asserted that the absence in apes of certain structures in apes, the posterior cornu and hippocampus minor, set humans clearly apart from primates.

Owen’s rival (and Darwin’s champion) Thomas Henry Huxley seized upon the fact that these structures are in fact demonstrably present in non-human primates, and proceeded to waggle monkey brains at academic peers and public audiences alike to illustrate Owen’s error. Writing to his wife Henrietta about one of his public lectures, Huxley raved “My working men stick by me wonderfully, the house being fuller than ever last night. By next Friday evening they will all be convinced that they are monkeys.”

All of this was called to mind by a debate that simmered across the interscape last week which sadly failed to capture the public imagination, but at least, you know, triggered a few tweets. I’m calling this the “Great Ape Clade/Grade Tirades of 2012.” It all began with a post by Jerry Coyne on his “notablog” Why Evolution is True,

I believe it was William Jennings Bryan who denied during the Scopes trial that man was a mammal. That one statement laid him low, exposing his Bible-ridden ignorance for what it is. Of course we are mammals, and of course Richard is an ape. The Wikipedia definition is as good as any:

Apes are Old World anthropoid mammals, more specifically a clade of tailless catarrhine primates, belonging to the biological superfamily Hominoidea.

Last time I looked, I was also a tailless catarrhine primate, so that makes me an ape as well.

This sparked a thought-provoking essay by anthropologist John Hawks “Humans aren’t monkeys. We aren’t apes, either.”

While I don’t entirely agree with Hawks–in fact I’m on record engaging in just the kind of misguided pedantry that Hawks deplores–he does make some good points. Hawks reminds us that there is no rule that vernacular names need to refer to monophyletic clades or formally recognized systematic groups. Evolutionary biologists that try to insist otherwise against popular usuage are swimming upstream at best, and at worst are probably reinforcing some negative stereotypes of scientists as out-of-touch type-A killjoys.

However Hawks’ advocacy for the paraphyletic “apes” and “monkeys” of everyday speech sparked a backlash. Brian Switek saw Hawks’ “humans aren’t apes” bet and raised him to “humans are fish.” Meanwhile Coyne doubled down on his original statement. Various tweets, retweets and countertweets ensued:

Setting aside for the moment the question of whose definition of “ape” is the correct one, it’s interesting to see the tension that arises when biological nomenclature and the popular vernacular converge and diverge. During this holy season of Lent we can all relate to the devout souls that happily fry up beaver tail and muskrat on Fridays, assured by the Vatican that beavers and muskrats are “fish” and not “meat.” And lest we think such distinctions are merely academic (or parochial), D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan describes how the question of whether or not whales are “fish” for tax purposes landed in a New York court in the 19th Century.

Of course, every fifth-grader learns that whales are not fish, but mammals. That is, until they get to my history of life class and they have to wrap their heads around the mind-boggling fact that whales are in fact “fish” in the most phylogenetically rigorous sense of the term, just as much as you or an elephant or a trout is.

Hawks finds such evolutionary rebranding of vernacular names distasteful,

We shouldn’t smuggle taxonomic principles into everyday language to make a political argument. That’s what “humans are apes” ultimately is — it’s an argument that we aren’t as great as we think we are.”

But elsewhere in his post Hawks belies that he in fact has his own taxonomically rigid view of what an “ape” and “monkey” properly are, it’s just that his taxonomy is not beholden to cladistic fashions.

My children can tell what an ape is. I work very hard to tell them why apes are different than monkeys. When they see a chimpanzee in a zoo, and other parents are telling their kids, “Look at the monkey!”, my children say, “That’s not a monkey, it’s an ape!”

If we must accept that humans are apes, then we must equally accept that chimpanzees are monkeys, and those awful parents at the zoo are right. I don’t.”

However, Hawks’ favored “correct” definitions for “ape” and “monkey” are actually rather modern constructions. Long before hominoids were known to the English-speaking world “Ape”  was a catchall word used for all primates, until “monkey” came into use around the 16th Century. The two were used rather interchangeably until “ape” began to be restricted to tail-less primates during the 18th Century. Even still, “ape” continued to encompass some tail-deficient primates such as the “Barbary ape,” a macaque that is “properly” now regarded as a monkey and not an ape. If the zoos themselves aren’t consistent I don’t know how we can expect the awful parents to get it right.

The fluid historical meanings of “monkey” and “ape” might be taken as evidence that vernacular taxonomies are inherently arbitrary. But in fact the etymological history reveals that as biological knowledge develops and increases, the vernacular language often changes to reflect. It was naturalists and biologists that emphasized the distinction between monkeys and apes and their taxonomy filtered into the public vocabulary, and eventually to Hawks and his children.

I don’t really think that nudging the English words “ape” and “monkey” into monophyletic compliance, with humans as apes and apes (including humans) as monkeys, is really a political tactic to demote humans. Rather I see it as a conversational tactic to promote evolutionary thinking. That seems to have been Huxley’s intent to convince the curious public that packed his lecture halls.
Alex Wild makes a great point in his post on the perennial “bug” vs. “bug” distinction, a taxonomic stumbling block that comes up within the first twenty minutes of any conversation with an entomologist (who understands “bug” to refer to a member of a specific order of insect possessing sucking mouthparts and hemelytrous wings rather than just, you know, any animal you might want to squash),

Bug” is a common name. What’s more, it is a common name for both the lay public and for insect specialists. That it refers to different organisms in the two cultural contexts does not change the fact that it is vernacular in both spheres.

Common names are particular to individual cultures and local contexts. That is their point. The beauty of common names is their fluidity. They are dynamic, ever-changing, adaptable. Vocabularies arise to suit people’s needs. Entomologists find a narrow meaning for Bug useful. Non-entomologists don’t. And that is fine.

The “traditional” senses of “ape” or “monkey” are not necessarily wrong, but neither should we try to restrict alternative uses. If Hawks still finds the old paraphyletic senses useful, far be it from me to try to exclude them.

Me, I’m on team Huxley.

Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a squirrel

6 November 2011


Tortured analogies, dissimiles and overwhelming exceptions are pretty much par for the course in the paleo-press. From the weirdly enduring characterization of plesiosaurs as “snakes drawn through the body of a turtle” (and that analogy is a story in itself but I’ll try to stay focussed here), to the hilariously grandineloquent attempts to explain what a raoellid looked like that flooded the media a few years ago its enough to make a baraminologist’s head explode.

And if you thought that was a clunky bit of exposition check out the first paragraph of this story from NPR about the recently described (and awesomely named) dryolestoid Cronopio from the Late Cretaceous of South America:

Imagine a critter about the size of a squirrel. Imagine it with big eyes and a long snout. Now imagine it with canine fangs about one-fifth the length of its head. That’s the kind of a mammal that scientists said today was walking among dinosaurs more than 100 million years ago.

Calls to mind that old riddle:

Q: How is a raven like a writing desk?

A: Neither have handle bars.

Or something like that.

And speaking of Poe, sorta, NPR doubly drops the balls by not seizing the opportunity to introduce us to Julio Cortázar, the Argentine author whose cronopios, those “greenish, fizzly, wet objects,” loan their name to the newly described Mesozoic mammal. Instead we get a hyperlink non-sequitur to some Livescience schlockalism about cryptids. Complete with broken image links … ooh “king cheetah” those are cryptic.

Not that I don’t sympathize. Dryolestoids really are like brave firemen, dysfunctional politicians, or shallow Kardashians … with sabre-teeth. These small, largely insectivorous mammals pretty much embody the traditional view that Mesozoic mammals were retiring, shrew-like animals that spent the majority of their time not getting stepped on by terrible, really horrible, lizards. The reality turns out to be rather more interesting, but with things like Repenomamus, Volaticotherium or Castorocauda to freak out about it is easy to forget that a substantial portion of Mesozoic mammals really were skittering little bug-eaters.

As are many today. Not that that makes them boring. I mean, dude, man, tenrecs! Solenodons! Shrew caravans! Mother fucking boogie-boogie hedgehogs!

I mean, I get it. Most people have seen Ice Age. Tragically few know what a solenodon is. Almost nobody has any fucking clue what a dryolestoid is. But here a chance to attack that latter deficiency is more or less squandered by a lazy pop-culture reference.

And, for that matter, why don’t we have more major motion pictures starring solenodons? I mean, Dreamworks, really? Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? That doesn’t even make any sense. Hey Jeff, let’s just scrap this Madagascar 4 nonsense and go full bore into this Hispañola project I was telling you about. Toussaint the solendon (I’m thinking Ed Norton), survives a scary run-in with a vodou practicing gigantic barn owl and feuds with a hutia named Duarte (I was thinking Patton Oswalt but maybe that’s too on the nose? Jonah Hill?) before the two set their differences aside and team up to spearhead a major reforestation initiative that improves air and water quality across the island. Think Fern Gully meets Princess Mononoke. I smell Oscar….

Top 10 Bacula of 2010

27 December 2010

Um. Dude, seriously? You want to see ten bacula? Well I can’t help you.  Which is to say, seek help.  Try I guess.  Or, perhaps you could ask Jeeves?

More here.

Whatever Happened to Taxidermy Tuesdays?

13 July 2010

Damned if I know.  But, of course, that’s museum magic, not proper taxidermy so here’s this:

The Historicity of Ursus

6 April 2010

This photo is not that old, really.