Posts Tagged ‘umm…’

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):

Never trust a forged fossil

24 December 2009

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


15 January 2009

img_0830 I know, I know, huge methane plumes on Mars (!!!) it’s hard to keep one’s head on straight.  I feel a bit woozy myself.  But I really expect more from the New York Times than this:

Bacteria May Be Source of Methane on Mars — Kenneth Chang 1/15/2009

Normally when I see a headline like that, I assume the headline writer has been hitting the black label a little to hard again.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case this time here’s the second sentence in that article:

Subsurface Martian cows appear unlikely, but scientists are seriously considering the possibility that bacteria are generating the methane.

Well, first off, of course cow emissions are bacterially* generated, but whatever.  Even *if* the Martian methane is of biological origin (and don’t forget there is loads of abiotic methane elsewhere in the solar system) it’s a tremendous leap to attribute the methane production to bacteria.  “Bacteria” is not a generic term for microbes, it refers to a specific group of unicellular organisms that have been on Earth for billions of years.

The discovery of bacteria on Mars would have tremendous implications for the interplanetary dispersal of organisms and possibly even for the origin of life itself.  But the presence of methane alone does not yet confirm the presence of life on Mars and it certainly doesn’t indicate that any hypothetical Martian microbes had a common origin with life on Earth as the presence of bacteria would.  Lets wait for some more facts before we start making a interplanetary leaps to conclusions, please!

POSTSCRIPTO: *It occurred to me that actually methanogens (microbes that generate methane) aren’t even technically bacteria–they’re archaea! Any speculation that bacteria are responsible for the methane plumes on Mars is basically totally without merit. I’m sure we’ll see a retraction in the Times tomorrow.



8 January 2009

This post by an anthropogenic warming skeptic over at HuffPost contains a number of yowlers but this perhaps is my favorite:

Major solar minima (and maxima, such as the one during the second half of the 20th century) have also been shown to correlate with significant volcanic eruptions. These are likely the result of solar magnetic flux affecting geomagnetic flux, which affects the distribution of magma in Earth’s molten iron core and under its thin mantle.


My new favorite band

4 December 2008

untitled-1I read once somewhere that “Lias” is a corruption of “layers.”  Seriously?  I haven’t heard any of their songs yet, but with album cover art production values like this, you can bet it’s going to be wholly rad.

anyway though: