28 October 2012

Some millennia ago receding tides of ice left boulders scattered about Toronto and the city has made do from there.

Some punks accost us on the steps of the hostel. A raccoon scales the building effortlessly. I fight, physically, my female Chinese colleague over a check for Delirium Tremens in a hipster bar while Ray Davies whines in a weird, cool, way.

The interpreter walks into the memory hole and may never walk out again?


These are latter days, we know.


Only later did I stumble across this footage of the aforementioned procyonid. Would love to recut the above to include this, along with various additional salamander sequences that turned up in post production. Alas, who has the time?

But I don’t even *like* tyrannosaurs…

22 May 2012

Drama in real life by the inimitable Valin Mattheis.

I mean, I don’t not like them, but they always seemed bit … gauche you know? Like truck nuts or something. No, no … truck nuts are obviously odious, but for me those bone-crunching Cretaceous behemoths are just, a little much. I mean like speed metal, metal. I mean if that’s your thing, great. More power to you. I’ll stick with my thalattosaurs and Indonesian garage rock thank you very much.

Anyway, so it was an odd weekend.

Late Friday afternoon, moments before leaving to pick up my father and step-mother from the airport I posted a petition at Change.org. In short, the petition was a response to a letter by the President of Mongolia calling attention to a lot of fossils, including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus/Tarbosaurus bataar, which went up for auction on Sunday. Soon the petition had picked up a hundred, then five hundred, then, shortly before the sale went forward crossed one thousand signatures. I am not going to reiterate the details of the situation which you can dig into in great detail by checking out the petition page (and you can sign it if you’d like while your there) and by reading Brian Switek’s coverage of the auction and attendant backlash.

I’m not yet convinced that online petitions are worth anything but it seemed like literally the least I could do, aside from doing nothing. Not because I felt a particularly strong personal attachment to the issue of probable looted Mongolian fossils going up for auction. I do think that it is an affront to science and more broadly to the dignity of both land and people to skirt local laws and regulations, rapidly and often recklessly digging up potentially invaluable fossils shipping them overseas and raking in millions by selling them to some overly-wealthy douche who wants a dinosaur for his den or whatever.

But it happens everyday, and I’ve never before been moved to try to get out and effect change on this issue. And I’ll readily admit that things get complex. In the United States fossils found on private land are treated as property of the landowner just like mineral rights and it seems to me that this is not out of keeping with broader U.S. social and legal culture and that’s fine. It’s regrettable when it means that scientifically important fossils are lost to the scientific community, but it’s the law and I accept that. If you have fossils on your land in the U.S. you can build a cabin out of them, sell them to a creationist museum or grind them up and smoke them. Knock yourself out, I guess.

But there is something decidedly different about going to a country that has clear laws in place to protect its fossils and exploiting the inability of that nation to effectively enforce its laws and get rich by ripping off its resources. Sure, maybe Western scientists operated in a similar fashion decades ago, though often minus the “clear laws in place” and “get rich” parts. And sure, maybe you invested thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to find, collect (steal), transport, prepare and mount your plunder. And maybe if you are sneaky enough to get it out without detection and manage to destroy or obscure any evidence of criminal activity and get your ill gotten gains to another country the actual sale itself might be perfectly legal.  None of these excuses, which appeared in various forms in statements by the auction house and in the fascinating and at times brain-crushingly frustrating comment thread on Switek’s post, make it an ethical thing to do.

As to my prior ambivalent feelings about tyrannosaurs, let’s just say they’re “evolving.”



Further adventures in beaked whales

12 April 2012


Speaking of Mesoplodon carlhubbsiNote the hoodie. Guess I’m lucky I wasn’t shot, described and eaten, eh Geraldo?

Elsewise but in a related alveolar groove, any idea what’s going on here?


First person to guess correctly wins the internet. Or maybe I’ll finally just spill the beans on the last mystery photo that is still lingering five posts, five months and two major life-changes back. “Slow-blogging” it’s the next big thing. Oh, and happy belated 6th birthday microecos. Needs more rodents.

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.

You eat what you are

20 March 2012


In 1945, two beaked whales became stranded on the beach near San Diego during two separate incidents. Carl Hubbs, a biologist working at Scripps Oceanographic Institute examined the two whales and wrote descriptions of the whales published the following year in the Journal of Mammology. Along with the customary remarks about skull shape and penis size Hubbs provided a rather curious detail in his description of the second whale, pictured above:

The meat was very red and turned blackish on holding, but was of good flavor and tender when roasted or fried. About 100 pounds were eaten by local residents. This addition to the war-rationed meat supply was much enjoyed.

Hubbs initially suspected the delectable marine mammal was Mesoplodon stejnegeribut revised his identification to Mesoplodon bowdoini following a tip from cetology demi-god Remington Kellogg. Some years later Joseph Curtis Moore reexamined the leftovers saved by Hubbs and realized the remains represented a species hitherto unknown to science. Thus Moore designated the remains the type specimen of a brand new species he named, Mesoplodon carlhubbsi commonly now known as “Hubbs’ beaked whale.”

Hubbs, CL (1946) First records of two beaked whales, Mesoplodon bowdoini and Ziphius cavirostirs, from the Pacific coast of the United States. Journal of Mammology Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 242-255

Moore JC (1963) Recognizing certain species of beaked whales of the Pacific Ocean. American Midland Naturalist Vol. 70, No. 2 pp. 396-428.

I’ll take my million in twenties, thanks.

10 November 2011

Ithis photo is worth $4.3 million, I have to imagine this animated GIF I made is worth at least a cool million.

Or maybe an itunes gift card.

Or at least a like on Facebook or Tumblr or something.

Maybe a plus two?

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….