Posts Tagged ‘homiculture’

The Last Tapu

23 June 2010

All images from the fantastic collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library

Got to wondering why my four-year-old post about the Huia, a fascinating and sadly extinct bird from New Zealand, was suddenly seeing a deluge of web traffic (well, by microecos standards), broken links and all.

Turns out, a single Huia feather just went to auction in Auckland and fetched NZ $8400 (about $6800 US), setting a new world record for the auction value of a single feather.

Huia feathers were important status symbols among the Maori.  The variation in the number of feathers worn in the hair of the individuals pictured above probably correlates broadly with their social standing, though it is interesting that the number of feathers in the images appears to dwindle with time.  An echo of the Huia’s decline, or a society in peril?  Perhaps a bit of both, certainly the two seem to have something of a common cause in the influx of European invaders, of the two-legged and four-legged variety.

Also noteworthy is that some of the photographs postdate the last confirmed sighting of a wild Huia in 1907.

One suspects the anonymous winner in the recent auction had status on their mind as they cast their bid.  As, I suppose, did their unnamed adversaries that  helped them drive the price up well above the expected NZ $500.  I mean the Huia’s tail feathers have a striking beauty to them, though I can’t help but find them more beautiful when the rest of the bird is attached:

When seemingly deeply vacuous contemporary status symbols like this fetch $10K, $7K for a Huia feather almost feels like an injustice.

But then, I guess that attitude misses the real injustices at work here.

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.

NALMA Virtual Roadtrip

25 February 2010

I let slip on the vanity ticker a project that I’ve mulling over for some time: to visit the namesake localities for each of the 19 (or so) North American Land Mammal Ages.

The NALMA system carves up the last 65 million years (or so) of geologic history based on characteristic mammals that roamed the continent during discrete intervals.  Just as a classic car buff can pick out a ’57 model from a’58 based on the shape of the headlights, or an art historian can determine when a landscape was painted from the collars on the figures in the background, a paleontologist can stumble across a fossil Bison tooth and know that she’s walking in Rancholabrean sediments.  Bison, those icons of the American West didn’t wander into North America from their ancestral Asian homeland until about 300,000 years ago (or so).  Likewise, various extinct rhinos, horses and weirder beasts yet serve as indices for particular intervals, intervals that usually take their name from a nearby town or river.

The map at top shows a rough itinerary scattered across 12 states.  If I tried to do the trip in chronological order, which would be stupid, and nonstop (even more stupid) the trip would take about 6 days and 6 hours and cover 7,755 miles (12,480 km).  The path would retrace substantial portions of the Oregon Trail, the Transcontinental Railroad and Route 66.  I would visit Native American reservations, derelict garrisons, an enormous metropolis and several places so small they aren’t even recognized as Census Designated Places.  I would pass through towns featured in Steven King novels and the site of a major uranium spill.

As shown in the photos above, the magic of Creative Commons search and Google Maps makes actually making the trip almost a superfluous gesture.

Would be fun though.

Taxidermy tuesday: Lepus cornutus

26 January 2010

Lepus cornutus Zoologisches Museum‎, Zürich Switzerland

Body clothed in a no-cloth robe,

Feet clad in turtle’s fur boots,

I seize my bow of rabbit horn

And prepare to shoot the devil of Ignorance

Hanshan, Cold Mountain Poem 91

Jackalope are a dime a dozen out here in the American West, but I had to go to Switzerland to see a Rasselbock.  Or is it a flightless Wolpertinger?  Or maybe a Raurackl?  Hard to say, really.

Joris Hoefnagel Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra): Plate XLVII, c. 1575/1580

Permanent Ink

24 January 2010

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Which reminds me…

I meant to write about this when it was news.  Now it’s olds, which suits me fine.

Copy of Pearce's restoration of Belemnotheutis, re-drawn by Colin Stuart from Donovan and Crane (1992).

I.  The drawing above is of the extinct Jurassic cephalopod Belemnotheutis antiquus. In fact, it’s a fairly exact replica of a drawing made by Joseph Chaning Pearce who first named the genus in 1842 (shown at left).  Pearce may have intended to name the fossil Belemnoteuthis (teuthis=Gr. squid as in teuthology study of cephalopods), or he may have intentionally used a variant spelling.  Either way, Donovan and Crane 1992[pdf] argue that the original published spelling should stand according to the rules of taxonomic nomenclature.  Historically, Belemnoteuthis(sic) has been widely used and Richard Cowen has described Pearce’s original spelling as “barbarism.” Nevertheless there it stands: a possible typo enshrined into taxonomic priority.

II.  Engineering icon Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was the vision behind the construction of the Great Western Railway which linked London by rail to south west England (including the Jurassic Coast) and Wales during the 1830s and 40s.  Around 1840, rail workers constructing a line near the village of Christian Malford stumbled across incredibly well preserved fossils some of which were collected and studied by Pearce.  The site was eventually flooded and forgotten for more than a century and a half before it was rediscovered by British scientists just a few years ago.

III.  Which, the focus on all those new reports about that featured this drawing wasn’t mainly on the historical quirks surrounding the image or name at all but concerned instead the historical quirks surrounding the origin of the ink which is: FREAKING BELEMNITE INK!

Ink from a well-preserved Belemnotheutis, dead for 165 million years or so, was reconstituted and used to draw a copy of one of Pearce’s original drawings.

IV.  Which is really cool, but not nearly as unique as you might expect.

Joel Segal Books Blog does a nice job of putting fossil cephalopod ink into proper historical context, borrowing an image from my sidebar, a painting of Ichthyosaurus made by Henry De la Beche in 1834 using FREAKING BELEMNITE INK!

From Clary (2003)

Credit where it’s due: I nicked the picture from the doctoral dissertation of Renee M. Clary (2003) which explores the pioneering role De la Beche played in using imaginative visual aids to convey geological and paleobiological information.  Mandatory reading for anyone interested in the history of geology, the use of illustration in the earth sciences or the development “paleoart.”

Preserved ink sacs of fossil cephalopods - from William Buckland's Geology and Mineralogy with respect to Natural Theology (1836).

In fact, De la Beche was just one of a number of 19th century scholars and artists that messed around with reconstituted fossil ink.  In his “Bridgewater Treatise” Geology and Mineralogy with respect to Natural Theology (1836) William Buckland illustrated (so far as I know, with conventional ink),  the well-preserved ink sacs from several fossil cephalopods.  In that same work, Buckland gives an account of one of the earliest artistic experiments using fossil cephalopod ink:

Elizabeth Philpot, the often forgotten friend and associate of Mary Anning who is a central character in Tracy Cevalier’s recently published novel Remarkable Creatures, is also said to have painted with “fossil sepia” and sometimes credited with being the first to do so.  Other enterprising residents of Lyme are said to have followed suit painting  in an effort to cater to the burgeoning tourist industry fueled by Victorian fossil fever and the construction of the Great Western Railway.

I’m not sure whether any of the illustrations made by Chantrey, Philpot or their followers have survived, I haven’t been able to turn any up aside from De la Beche’s ichthyosaur.  Unlike the De la Beche drawing, other vintage fossil ink works might not be clearly labeled as such and could easily be sitting in a private collection or a museum forgotten and unrecognized.  Philpot’s or Chantrey’s original works, most likely long gone, would be priceless historical gems of the finest order.

V. Fossil ink makes literary cameos in the work of Jules Verne and the poet Martin Farquhar Tupper.  It also turns up in one of my favorite essays of all time, Thomas Henry Huxley’s “On the Method of Zadig”:

“No amount of physiological reasoning could enable any one to say whether the animal which fabricated the Belemnite was more like Nautilus, or more like Spirula. But the accidental discovery of Belemnites in due connection with black elongated masses which were: certainly fossilised ink-bags, inasmuch as the ink could be ground up and used for painting as well as if it were recent sepia, settled the question; and it became perfectly safe to prophesy that the creature which fabricated the Belemnite was a two-gilled cephalopod with suckers on its arms, and with all the other essential features of our living squids, cuttle-fishes, and Spirulæ. The palæontologist was, by this time, able to speak as confidently about the animal of the Belemnite, as Zadig was respecting the queen’s spaniel. He could give a very fair description of its external appearance, and even enter pretty fully into the details of its internal organisation, and yet could declare that neither he, nor any one else, had ever seen one.”  Thomas Henry Huxley “On the Method of Zadig” (1880)

VI.  Pigments, paints, dyes and inks come either from dead organisms or minerals, and so all have some biological or geological story to tell.  The case at hand straddles both categories, which seems unique until you remember the ubiquity of “synthetic” inks distilled from petroleum that is the remnants of marine organisms, dead and buried for millions of years.  That might include some of the ink used to run the Belemnotheutis newspaper stories, unless British newspaper printers have all switched to soy-based inks like their U.S. counterparts.  Your keyboard and mouse are probably made from sea animals.  If you print this post out (which I can’t imagine why but just go with me here) the ink you use, and perhaps the energy to do it, are quite possibly the byproducts of long dead phytoplankton.

VII.  And as long as we’re talking autochthonous/authigenic art, I have to mention Matt Celeskey’s work with 200+ million year old Triassic charcoal.  Matt, in turn, turned me on to Alexis Rockman whose “field drawings” use site-specific pigments themed around of both living and fossil ecosystems ranging from the Burgess Shale and La Brea Tar Pits to Fresh Kills landfill.

VIII.  Here then for almost no reason except that I like the picture is Brunel, posed beside the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, whom Brunel affectionately called the “Great Babe.”  The ship will experience a steam explosion, killing 5, before being repaired, sent across the Atlantic as a passenger vessel half-a-dozen times nearly sinking once before being converted to cable laying ship and laying the first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, later converted into a floating music hall and promotional gimmick and eventually broken up and sold for scrap.  Which has nothing to do with anything.  Like I said, I just like the picture.

And if you made it this far without being tempted by at least one of those hyperlinks, I can’t help you.

Out of sight…

18 January 2010

Chinese stamp celebrating the recently (or very soon-to-be) extinct Chinese Paddlefish.

Many African societites divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani.  The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead.  They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote.  When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead.  As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered.  Many, like George Washington or Clara Barton, can be recalled by name.  But they are not living-dead.  There is a difference.” – Loewen 1995, Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Historiographer James Loewen’s account of the Swahili concepts of zamani and sasa(=sasha) might be an oversimplification of a complex ontological semi-dichotomy.  It is nevertheless an interesting distinction and one that can be applied not just to dead ancestors and historical figures, but extinct species.  Martha, the last known living Passenger Pigeon, died in 1914 – it is possible that at least a handful of children that saw her in the Cincinnati Zoo before her death might still alive, but probably not for so much longer.  She’s well on her way to Zamani.  The Great Auk, which went extinct in the mid 19th Century is definitely Zamani–there is no human alive today that has ever seen a living Great Auk.  The last captive Thylacine, which may or may not have been known as “Benjamin,” died in 1936 and I would imagine there are a few alive today that remember him (or her).

Conservation biologists have their own euphemism that captures the hazy purgatorial zone between the life and death of a species: “functional extinction.”  When an animal only exists in captivity, or exists in the wild in such low numbers that it cannot sustain a viable breeding population, it is said to be “functionally extinct.”  Perhaps the most widely publicized recent “functional extinction” was that of the Baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, the unique archaic Yangtze River dolphin that was last seen in the wild 2004.  Intensive searches for the last surviving individuals in 2006 came up empty-handed and the species was declared functionally extinct in a 2007 paper in Biology Letters.  Purported subsequent sightings, even if they turn out to be correct, offer very scant hope that the species will escape extinction, functional or otherwise.

Less publicized, but equally depressing, is the critical decline of other endemic Yangtze river species including Psephurus gladius, the Chinese Paddlefish, depicted on the stamp at top.  This fish is (or was) among the largest freshwater fish species in the world.  The Chinese Paddlefish is (or was) one of two living representatives of an unusual fish family with a fossil record stretching back more than 100 million years to the Early Cretaceous.  Like the Baiji, Psephurus has been done in by a lethal combination of overfishing, heavy river traffic and habitat degradation in the form of dam construction and pollution.  Like the Baiji, recent efforts to locate the few remaining paddlefish in the hopes of relocating them and preserving them in captivity at least, have failed.

Having now disappeared from the wild, the Baiji and the Chinese Paddlefish are going through a second type of extinction, they are already beginning to fade from memory.  A thought-provoking, if saddening, paper documenting this was recently published in Conservation Biology. Through extensive surveys with fisherpeople, the researchers, which include some of team which announced the extinction of the Baiji, document a strong correlation between age and likelihood that the respondent had personal memory of the functionally extinct species.  The youngest individuals surveyed were much less likely to have encountered paddlefish or Baiji.  Amazingly, more than two-thirds of those under 40 had never even heard of the Chinese Paddlefish and did not recognize photographs of the fish.  Within the same age class less than one-quarter had never heard of the Baiji, but many of those that had knew of the animal only from second-hand accounts from community elders or media reports.  Something to think about the next time you hear someone try to link accounts of mythical creatures to cultural memories of extinct megafauna.

No doubt the Baiji, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Chinese Paddlefish will be remembered and revered by generations of biologists to come.  But the people that lived alongside them for centuries are already beginning to forget.

Weird Fish

14 January 2010

Here’s a terrible photo taken with my cellular telephone at the San Francisco dining establishment Weird Fish.  The waiter introduced the specials thus, “um, I don’t know if you know this, but our specials tonight are…” I thought this was hip pretense, but Jessica pointed out that there was a specials board so I guess it was just politesse?  Anyway the food was good, supposedly sustainable and relatively well-priced.

All of which is really just an excuse to plug Weird Bug Lady’s ongoing sarcopterygian plush sculpture series the first of which is a Devonian lungfish like those in the vintage poster above:

Rad.  We can only hope she tackles Pederpes or even better Gooloogongia.