Posts Tagged ‘redonkulusness’

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.

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.

Hypselorhachis sues National Geographic for Defamation of Character

5 March 2010

In a surprising move, the extinct archosaur Hypselorhachis filed an unprecedented post-mortem lawsuit against the National Geographic Society on Friday.  The enigmatic Triassic reptile was offended by being mistakenly labeled a “dinosaur” in an article that appeared on the National Geographic Website earlier this week (“Dinosaurs Ten Million Years Older Than Thought” March, 3, 2010 National Geographic News).

The focus of the article was the recent description of another non-dinosaur, Asilisaurus, a close dinosaur relative in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature (Nesbitt et al. 2010 “Ecologically distinct dinosaurian sister group shows early diversification of Ornithodira” Nature 464, 95-98doi:10.1038/nature08718).

In a statement released today Hypselorhachis asserts that the passing reference to “an early sail-backed dinosaur” in the caption of an illustration that accompanied the article was, “an underhanded attempt to smear my character and associate me with unsavory elements.”

“I just don’t understand.  They could have called me a ‘ctenosauriscid‘ a ‘poposaur‘ a ‘rauisuchian‘ a ‘pseudosuchian‘ a ‘crurotarsan‘  even an ‘archosaur’ without dragging my name through the gutter like this.  Hell, I would even have been fine with ‘hellasaur.’  But ‘dinosaur‘?  That’s just not right.  Someone has to put a stop to this sort of thing.”

Strange Bedfellows

The crusade has attracted some surprising allies.  Dimetrodon, a sail-backed synapsid from the Permian, has previously accused Hypselorhachis of being an “imposter,” a “total ripoff” and “less-original than Spinosaurus, really.”

Tensions between the two extinct animals flared last summer when Kanye  West interrupted Dimetrodon’s acceptance speech at the “Virgin Teen’s Choice Awards” for the category “Best Backbone.”  West grabbed the microphone saying, “Congratulations D’meet and I’mma let you finish, but Hypselorhachis had the best elongated neural arches of ALL TIME.”

In spite of the rivalry, Dimetrodon defends the merits of the lawsuit.  “As a frequent victim of false-dinosaur defamation, I wholeheartedly support Hypselorhachis on this one.  We non-dinosaurs have to stick together.”  Dimetrodon says that it will donate the proceeds from sales of its popular T-shirt to the Hypselorhachis legal defense fund.

Several pterosaurs and marine reptiles have also voiced their support for Hypselorhachis. National Geographic was not available for comment.

[um. yeah.  sorry.]

1 Word Wednesday

20 January 2010

The word of the day is, “bogus” :

“If there is one color that is most decidedly not a classic Earth tone, one that is least associated with living things, it might just be neon blue.”  – Carol Kaesuk Yoon “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s DreamNew York Times January 18, 2010

See also: Glaucus and Porpita, Blue Morpho, Sailfish, Blue-tailed Skink, William’s Electric Blue Gecko, a whole mess of Cichlids, Hyacinth Macaw, oh yeah and whatever the hell this is supposed to be.

Likewise, (watch to the end if you haven’t seen this before):

Dude. Seriously?

1 September 2009

Phoebis sennae metamorphosis video produced by timelapse videographer extraordinaire JCMegabyte.

In a dream last night, I sprinkled water on a dried out, old mantis ootheca which I had given up as spent or dead.  Miraculously, nymphs began rapelling miniature but almost fully-formed from the papery husk.

Nabokov's annotated first page of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

The butterfly expert V. Nabokov surmised that the monstrous unclean animal of Kafka’s imagination was most probably a very large beetle, and certainly not a cockroach as commonly assumed.  I am inclined to agree with him not only on the morphological grounds from which he argues but also for the fact that that cockroaches like mantids (which are essentially toned, insecticidal roaches) and bugs and grasshoppers and sucking lice are hemimetabolous.  They do not metamorphose.  Or as the convential parlance has it their metamorphosis is “incomplete.”

Though form does change from instar to instar to imago in the hemimetabolous orders, these changes are more or less subtle – an increase in body size a subtle change in shape or color the growth of wings.  Dragonflies are hemimetabolous desipite their dramatic transformation from killer submarine to muderous biplane – the shadow of the naiad can be seen in imago with some imagination.

True (“complete”) metamorphosis is a trick reserved for the endopterygotes – butterflies and bees and beetles, flies and fleas and ants and ant lions &c.  Each of these groups begins life as a wormy larva hardens into a mummylike pupa in which the body tissues literally digest themselves and build an entirely new, wonderful thing not at all like the melted maggot or caterpillar from which it precipitated.

It is much, much easier to imagine the maggoty Gregor metamorphosing into a beetle than a cockroach.

All of which is a wholly unnecessary preamble to THE MOST, most bizarre scientific papers I have read all year: weirder than hermit eurypterid hand puppets, stranger than penguin poop from space, more fantastic than plastic barnacle penes, and more incredible, even, than psychic protists.

I’m speaking of course of Donald Williamson’s mind-bending new paper in PNAS: ” Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis. ” (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908357106).

Without, it seems, a single piece of empirical data to support his claim, Williamson posits that the larval stages of holometabolous insects (and other animals which undergo dramatic post-larval transformations) evolved via “Larval Transfer” when insects mated with velvet worms! Butterflies (and beetles, and flies &c.) are, in this view sort of sequential transphyletic chimera. This is something like, well a human mating with a cockroach which then gives birth to a human that then eventually metamorphoses into a cockroach.  Or something.

While this is an, ahem, iconoclastic proposition to say the least, and it is fairly astonishing that it appears in one of the most prestigious general science journals, Williamson at least proposes a “research program” to test his hypothesis.  Here is one experiment he proposes:

As an initial trial, it should be possible to attach an onychophoran spermatophore to the genital pore of a female cockroach and see if fertilized eggs are laid (page 4 from Williamson 2009)

This is like some awesome Dr. Moreau style shite.  The entire paper is sort of like a Lynch film: wonderful and horrifying and you’re not sure if it’s some kind of put on or there is some kind of insane genius at work.

The back story; and some choice quotes expressing the astonishment with which this paper has been received by the uh, “mainstream” scientific community is covered in this Scientific American article.

But. Dude.  Seriously?

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

Because every archeological discovery deserves a breakfast cereal

3 February 2009

choco-canyonUm…what are you working on?” my lab mate asked.  A few hours earlier she had shown me a truly rank skull that she had just dissected from a frozen chimaerid.

“…well…” I paused to consider my explanation.  “There’s a new paper out in PNAS about the discovery of thousand-year-old chocolate at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.  So, um I decided to design a cereal box based on that concept…”

“Oh, okay.  I’ll let you get back to that…”

For the record, the cereal’s mascot is named “Cocoapelli.”  Hat-tip to Will Baird for the name “Choco Canyon.”