Pelagornis Update

16 09 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(NOTE: I’m currently unable to upload photographs to this particular enrty, but rest assured: I’ll lavish the post with fascinating images as soon as I’m able!)

I sincerely apologize for the incessant delay of new posts onto this, my humble corner of the ‘net: my aforementioned academic schedule rennovations have alotted me little time to do anything else but catch up on enough reading material to rival the complete works of Leo Tolstoy in volume.

At any rate, I wanted to call everyone’s attention to an exciting piece of news. Last February, I dedicated a post to the well-known but poorly represented (in the fossiliferous sense) Pelagornis sp, a French member of the pelagornithidae family. For those too lazy to check out either of the links I’ve just provided, these were massive, albatross-like birds with notoriously long and slender wings and which had evolved tooth-like spikes on their beaks to ease the process of (theoretically) capturing slippery fish and cephalopods. While relatively complete remains of other pelagornithids such as Osteodontornis certainly aren’t unheard of, the family’s namesake genus was first described in 1857 on the basis of an isolated humerus, dubbed P. miocaenus by its discoverer Edoulard Lartet, which remained the solitary piece of evidence attesting to the existence of this magnificent fowl for over a century and a half.

However, a new paper just released by the Journal Of Vertebrate Paleontology (which seems to have long-since forgotten my existence as a paying member as I haven’t received anything from them for six months, despite the financial vigilance I’ve shown its legislative body) reports the unearthing of a “new” Pelagornis species from Chile*. The animal has (unsurprisingly) been named P. chilensis and sported a reconstructed wingspan of 5.2 meters (17 feet). While this fails to match the 7-meter estimate put forth by several paleo-ornithologists or the comparable measurements obtained by the teratornithid Argentavis, it still makes for one hell of an impressive bird (by comparison, the modern albatross achieves a maximum wingspan of 3.5 meters)!

For more images and information concerning this intriguing pelagornithid update, do go here.  

P.S.: Hat-tip to Mike Walley of for bringing this to my attention!

*See the ‘comments’ section for more relatively recent Pelagornis discoveries.

How Parasites Can Drive Ecological Relationships

18 06 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Carl Zimmer’s excellent “Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures” last February and have been meaning to post an article about one of the book’s most fascinating points ever since (I’ve just been procrastinating): namely, how the very life-and-death struggles between predator and prey as are often, little more than puppet shows.

More often than you might think, both parties involved are, in fact, driven by parasitic pilots.

Zimmer cites several examples of this most engaging phenomenon. However, by far the most interesting hails from the great American West.

Speaking of the wild west, this story comes with it’s own version of the good, the bad, and the ugly (though precisely who’s who is debatable as we shall see…): the curtain to the tale of the California horn snail (Cerithidea californica), the California killifish (Fundulus parvipinnis), and the various shorebirds of the Golden State’s ample coastlines.

What do these seemingly random animals have in common? A fluke by the name of Euhaplorchis californiensis.

The fluke in question.

Both the snails and the kilifish inhabit salty coastal marshes, and the latter of which naturally attract hordes of piscivorous birds as well. Avian feces inadvertently transport the eggs of E. californiensis, which serve as the primary dietary component of the California horn snail. When these eggs hatch, the flukes initially castrate the unfortunate mollusks before creating several generations of their own until, eventually, larvae (“cercariae”) burst from their initial host.

The Snail In Question

Following the 0nset of this exodus, the cercariae patrol their native salt marsh looking for killifish. Once they manage to happen upon these scaly critters, the parasites latch onto their gills and crawl ever deeper into the host’s body. Eventually, the cercariae follow a certain nerve which leads them directly into the unfortunate fish’s brain. Once there, rather than penetrating this most vital organ, these worm-like creatures merely congregate to form a thin, caviar-like layer atop it.

At this stage, the parasites must now await the consumption of their host by a predatory shorebird. Once this happens, the cercariae erupt from the fish’s stomach and flock to the fowl’s gut. In this new environment, E. californiensis steals nourishment from the new host’s digestive tract and deposits its eggs within the animal’s intestines, to be deposited whenever the bird defecates and, thus, recycling the process.

However, assuming that these parasitic organisms passively leave their lives and reproductive futures entirely up to chance would be a fatal mistake.

In an experiment conducted by ecologist Kevin Lafferty and his then-student Kimo Morris during the early nineties, the behavioral tendencies of 42 captive killifish were individually observed for days on end prior to the animals’ dissection in which the presence of E. californiensis would be confirmed or denied. According to Zimmer:

“What was hidden to the naked eye came leaping out of the data. As killifish search for prey, they alternate between hovering and darting around. But every now and then, Morris would spot a fish shimmying, jerking, flashing its belly as it swam on one side, or darting close to the surface. These might be risky things for a fish to do if a bird was scanning the water. And Morris’s vigil had revealed that fish with parasites inside them were four times more likely to shimmy, jerk, flash, and surface than their healthy counterparts. Since then, Lafferty has been working with a molecular biologist to figure out how the parasites make their hosts dance. They’ve found that the flukes can pump out powerful molecular signals, known as fibroblast growth factors, which can interfere with the growth of nerves. They could turn out to be the parasite’s Prozac[: an antidepressant drug which contains a molecule that acts as a neurotransmitter].”

(For those interested in reading an entire paper on the subject of parasitic brain manipulation in this instance, do go here!)

A Great Egret: one of the many bird species in question.

Some three weeks following Lafferty and Morris’ initial experiment, the pair decided to investigate the effects of this most curious relationship upon the local environment as a whole. Through a series of field tests, they discovered a fascinating unexpected result.

These shorebirds weren’t four times more likely to devour  infected killifish, but thirty times!

Although these flukes do take a slight physiological toll upon their avian hosts, the birds would have to exert a costly amount of energy to steer clear of infected fish (assuming they’d have any way of recognizing them); wasted energy that might prove fatal. Ergo, to these feathered beasts, the benefits of ingesting fluke-filled killifish vastly outweigh the costs.

The aforementioned fantastically large percentage thus begs a very intriguing question: “If this parasite didn’t exist, could populations of these birds survive if their food was thirty times more difficult to obtain?”

For those still unconvinced by the idea that parasites are more than mere hitchhikers and instead wield an enormous amount of influence upon their residential environments as a whole, let’s return to the horn snails for a moment. Prior to his investigations concerning the effects of E. californiensis upon killifish and birds. To once again reference “Parasite rex”:

“[These flukes] don’t quite kill their snails. In a genetic sense, the snails are indeed dead, because they can no longer reproduce. But they live on, grazing on algae to feed the flukes inside them. If the snails were truly dead, the algae they ate would be left for surviving snails to graze on. Instead, the flukes-as-snails are in direct competition with the uninfected snails…

Lafferty measured how the uninfected snails performed without parasitized snails competing with them. They grew faster, released far more eggs, and could thrive in far more crowded conditions. The results showed Lafferty that in nature, the parasites were competing so intensely that the healthy snails couldn’t reproduce fast enough to take full advantage of the salt marsh. In fact, if you were to get rid of the fluke, the snail’s overall numbers would nearly double. And this being the real world rather than a lab, that explosion would ripple out through much of the salt marsh ecosystem, thinning out the carpet of algae and making it easier for predators of snails, such as crabs, to thrive.”

If I’ve managed to pique your interest with these excerpts, I’d most heartily recommend checking out “Parasite Of The Day“: an exquisite blog run by some of the world’s leading parasitologists. If you’re anything like me, your mornings won’t be complete without it!


-Mark Mancini

Weekly Spotlight: Plotopterum

12 06 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

NOTE: Due to the scarcity of images depicting Plotopterum and its family, this post will be somewhat more “text-heavy” than usual.

Many creationists deride the paleontologist’s seemingly dubious ability to reconstruct entire organisms from solitary bones or even from fragments thereof. Granted, this practice is far from fool-proof and, consequently, the experienced student of this prehistoric study knows better than to inject an irresponsibly large amount of purely hypothetical ideas into reconstructions based on these mysterious fossils. However, what young-Earthers and other non-scientists fail to realize is that a single bone, even an incomplete one, can reveal an immense amount of information about its owner’s anatomy, lifestyle, and taxonomic relationships. A perfect example of this fact lies within the story of the plotopteridae: a family of penguin-like diving birds of the Oligocene and Miocene of Japan and North America.

In 1968, ornithologist Hildegarde Howard of the Los Angeles County Museum classified the isolated proximial end of a coracoid hailing from a mid-Tertiary deposit in the outskirts of Bakersfield. In her official scientific paper on the subject, she gave voice to her suspicion that the bone came from a pelicaniform bird such as a cormorant, gannet, booby or pelican yet was distinct enough to justify not only the creation of a new species, Plotopterum joaquinensis, but a new family as well: the Plotopteridae, the name of which literally means “the swimming winged”.

The coracoid in question.

Just what made this coracoid fragment so special as to warrant this significance in Howard’s view? In her original short communication, she writes:

“The swelling of the lower part of the triosseal canal in the fossil coracoid, the narrowness and thickness of the bone in this area and through the neck, and the anterior overhang of the head are characters found in marine birds such as the penguins and alcids. Although taxonomically unrelated, these two groups of birds are alike in the modification of the wing bones toward a flipper-like condition adapted to under water “flight.” Even in those alcids still capable of aerial flight, the coracoid has similar characters. The swelling of the lower triosseal region tends to narrow and deepen the passageway for the pectoral tendon, and presumably afforded support to the tendon so as to strengthen the upstroke of the wing in swimming. The channel is even more constricted and deeper in the alcids and penguins than in Plotopterum, suggesting that the fossil bird may not have been the equal of these other birds as a swimmer…

The modifications of the bone are entirely different from those found in the coracoid of the flightless cormorant, Nannopterum. In Nannopterum the modifying process has been one of degeneration, whereas the evidence indicates that in Plotopterum the wing had assumed a secondary function as a strong swimming organ. The fact that the modifications of the coracoid parallel those of the coracoid of penguins and auks suggests that the wing elements were shorter and more flattened in the fossil than in the cormorants and anhingas. Obviously Plotopterum represents a trend in aquatic adaptation sufficiently distinct from either of these two existing groups to warrant the designation of a separate family, to be known as the Plotopteridae.”

This conclusion was significantly less obvious to several of Howard’s colleagues. Storrs Olson, a distinguished Smithsonian ornithologist (who still resides at the institution and is considered to be one of the foremost paleo-ornithologists of our time), heavily criticized the perceived boldness of her argument and was vehemently skeptical of her decision to create an entire family on the basis of a single fossilized scrap.

However, Olson was eventually forced to concede the validity of Howard’s contentions when a near-complete bird skeleton which nearly rivaled the largest modern penguins in size was unearthed from the Oligocene of Washington in 1977 by the late, great amateur fossil collector Douglas Emlong. According to David Rains Wallace’s “Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs To Orcas”:

“Its rigid, paddlelike wings were powerful enough to ‘fly’ through the water penguin-fashion, and its sturdy leg bones suggested that it too had waddled about on land. But it wasn’t a penguin. In fact, its wing bone turned out to be like Plotopterum‘s proving that Howard’s new family had existed, and Olson accordingly named it Tonsala hildegardae. Other skeletal aspects upheld Howard’s idea that Tonsala was a pelican and cormorant relative, although its affinities were more with freshwater anhinga, which [use] feet instead of wings for underwater propulsion. Tonsala must have been an even more efficient underwater predator than its closest living relative and, given its size, doubtless consumed vast quantities of fish, squid, and other prey.”

A reconstruction of Copepteryx, a Plotopterid from the Japanese Oligocene.

Olson has subsequently observed that the presence of these giant, penguin-like birds off the North American West Coast indicates that not only was food abundant, but that the shoreline must have contained islands upon which Plotopterum and its kin could seek refuge from any contemporaneous predatory marine mammals.

It should be noted that in addition to the  aforementioned relationship of Plotopterum and its kin to modern anhingas, Gerald Mayr has suggested that the plotopteridae may have also fact been a sister taxon to penguins as well. Regardless of the precise affiliations of this most intriguing avians, their amazing scientific history stands as a monument to what incredible academic feats the deductive reasoning of knowledgable paleontologists and anatomists can achieve.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

My 2010 Booklist Part 1 of 3: January-April

27 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I apologize for my relative inactivity of late: the waning days of my final semester here at MCC are taking an enormous toll upon my free time which, consequently, has severely handicapped my ability to make routine posts.

To prevent TTT from going completely barren during this time, I’ve elected to showcase the following update on one of the resolutions I made just prior to the advent of the present year: namely, to increase my personal voluntary reading rate. As the title of the article suggests, this entry chronicles all of the books I’ve consumed thus far… each of which is accompanied by a short review composed by yours truly.

So, without further ado, I hereby present the first third of my 2010 booklist in chronological order.

“Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas” By David Rains Wallace

My Thoughts: The cover, excerpts of critical acclaim, and internal blurb all insinuate that ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is a highly accessible and evocative narration which equally blends scientific data, historical discourses, and personal observations concerning the history and conservation of marine life in North America’s west coast. However, in reality, the latter two features unambiguously dominate the text, leaving the former grossly under-represented. Though I find the history of science and the musings of eloquent naturalists to be fascinating and enjoyable topics, I don’t particularly care for being ambushed by either of them in search of ‘hard science’. With the exception of Wallace’s coverage of pinnipeds (which, in my opinion absorbs a disproportionately large amount of the book’s content), none of the strictly scientific information is technical enough to appeal to committed paleontology and zoology enthusiasts nor is it sufficiently readable and well-illustrated enough for laymen to find it comprehensible. The greatest strength of ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is unquestionably the author’s obvious passion for his subject, yet this ardor alone simply isn’t enough to save a book which attempts to please everyone and in so doing fails to please anyone.

”Beauty And The Beasts: Woman, Ape, And Evolution” By Carole Jahme

My Thoughts: As I’ve doubtlessly said elsewhere, my favorite popular science books are those which pay their philosophical dues and in so doing, provide the audience with more than a simple run-down of the featured discipline’s facts, theories, and controversies by forcing them to ponder the subject’s deeper implications for day-to-day life. To this end, I have yet to come across a scientific volume which exceeds the brilliant ‘Beauty & The Beasts’; a masterpiece of modern science writing. Jahme effortlessly brings us to sympathize with the plights and triumphs of female primatologists  while never failing to address such evocative and controversial questions as ‘Why do primates tend to be almost infinitely more trusting of women than men?’, ‘Should apes be given the same rights as human citizens?’, ‘How much does the human psyche have in common with those of our nearest relatives?’, and, on a broader scale, ‘Does scientific objectivity truly exist?’. Furthermore, although most feminists will relish the book, Jahme nonetheless refuses to promote “utero-centric propaganda” by thoroughly and equally scrutinizing the observational and scientific biases of both genders in primatology. In short, ‘Beauty & The Beasts’ doesn’t contain a single sentence which would lead me to remotely considering giving it anything less than my highest recommendation. Bravo!

”The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson And The Olympians Book One)” By Rick Riordan

My Thoughts: (WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Upon hearing a friend’s appraisal, I was encouraged to lend my eyes to a copy of this bestseller. Having completed the novel, I must admit that my feelings concerning it are mixed but mostly positive. Riordan’s overall concept of depicting the Greek Gods in the setting of the modern U.S. is absolutely superb and, as a lifelong mythology enthusiast, I relished the re-discovery of such legendary characters as Medusa, Procrustes, Charon, and Ares in their twenty-first century attire and occupations.  Similarly, the story as a whole is deliciously action-packed and relatively unpredictable. Unfortunately, “‘The Lightning Thief” has obviously stolen several key plot elements from the ever-popular ‘Harry Potter’ series. Furthermore, although Riordan has certainly provided his readers with a huge amount of suspense, he also falls prey to a few long-standing clichés as well as having the occasional supposedly ‘shocking’ plot twist anticipated by the reader far in advance. Still, ‘The Lightning Thief’ offers quite a bit of entertainment for those looking for a bit of light reading.

”Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures” By Carl Zimmer

My Thoughts: As Zimmer would have likely predicted, I’ve never really given parasites very much consideration, despite my unrestrained adoration for a ‘host’ of  biological sciences. “Parasite Rex” conclusively reveals why this ignorance is scientifically unacceptable. Not only do these amazing organisms wield some of evolution’s most brilliant inventions, but an increasingly large amount of evidence suggests that they play an indispensably vital role in ecology and in environmental stability (in fact, it’s entirely possible that the majority of predator-prey relations are directly driven by them). Furthermore, Zimmer discusses how parasites may have directly led to such monumental evolutionary developments as sexual reproduction. For those intrigued by these ideas, I’d also suggest Susan Perkins’ excellent blog, ‘Parasite of the Day‘.

“When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives Of Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy

My Thoughts: This is one of those concepts which would have made for an excellent article, but ultimately collapses under the weight of a moderately-sized book. Masson and McCarthy do make some powerful arguments regarding anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism, and certain biases of the scientific and pop-culture communities at large, many of which I myself have been supporting for years. However, their most interesting points are almost entirely restricted to the introductory and concluding chapters, a fact that essentially reduces the remaining pages to a diverse but woefully repetitive collection of anecdotes, many of which can be more accurately described as mere ‘rumors’. Furthermore, although the authors clearly intended to utilize ‘When Elephants Weep’ for the purposes of convincing the scientific community to take the idea that animals have human-like emotions seriously, they’ve provided little more than a sliver of ‘hard’ scientific evidence, opting to focus almost exclusively on philosophy in its place (I fully realize that I’ve often shed a great deal of acclaim upon popular science books which ‘pay their philosophical dues’. However, this particular book does so to the exclusion of virtually any actual science). In summary, ‘When Elephants Weep’ seems incapable of winning over its intended audience, even though it will likely appeal to those who already support its central thesis.

“Survival Of The Sickest: The Surprising Link Between Disease And Longevity” By Sharon Moalem (With Johnathan Prince)

My Thoughts: Moalem’s brilliantly clear introduction to the subject of evolutionary medicine is well worth the attention of anyone seeking to broaden their knowledge of biology in general. Additionally, “Survival Of The Sickest” provides some of the finest preliminary outlines of epigenetics, ‘jumping genes’, and hypermutation I’ve ever read (all of which will ensure that you’ll never view Lamarckian evolution with the traditional dosage of contempt again). My only serious complaint hails from Moalem’s discussion of the infamous aquatic ape hypothesis in which he fully supports the notion without giving mention to any of its strongest criticisms. Still, this is but a minor point: on the whole, “Survival Of The Sickest” is an absolute must-read!

“Utilitarianism” By John Stuart Mill

My Thoughts: A quick perusal of TTT’s “About Me” page will reveal that I consider myself to be a bit of a John Stuart Mill fan. Yet most of my knowledge concerning the man’s philosophical and political ideology hails from various quotations and essays I’ve accumulated over the years. At least, such was the case prior to this past spring when I finally managed to obtain a used copy of Mill’s most famous volume. As with most classic philosophy texts, it’s wise to research the content of ‘Utilitarianism’ prior to actually reading it to better ensure comprehension whilst devouring its 1861 prose. Nonetheless, Mill brilliantly articulates the underlying principles and logic of Utilitarian philosophy through a satisfying parade of evocative and powerful arguments which force the reader to strongly reconsider his or her viewpoint on the very nature of morality itself.

“Death By Black Hole And Other Cosmic Quandaries” By Neil deGrasse Tyson

My Thoughts: I’ve frequently made much ado about the fact that I regard Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be one of the finest science communicators of our era as evidenced by his passionate prose, general avoidance of excessive jargon, excellent stage presence, and unique sense of humor. So, upon making the decision to widen my meager knowledge of astronomy by exploring popular science books on the subject, “Death By Black Hole” became my natural first choice. This collection of several dozen essays certainly doesn’t disappoint, serving instead as an entertaining and ceaselessly intriguing model of clarity. Tyson lends his exquisite explanatory capabilities to a host of various topics, my favorites being the emergence of light from the sun, how elements are formed and distributed by the collapse of stars, and the role of consistency in the universe. Additionally, his discussion regarding why intelligent design simply cannot be cited as ‘science’ and is demonstrably antithetical to all forms of scientific inquiry should be required reading for all students of science, philosophy, and theology. My only criticism is in light of the fact that the volume contains no illustrations or diagrams of any kind. While Tyson’s bang-up descriptive powers prevent this situation from becoming remotely problematic, the inclusion of visual references would have been greatly appreciated. However, this slight imperfection should not be misinterprited as a notable criticism, as I staunchly reccomend “Death By Black Hole” to essentially everyone.

“Supercapitalism: The Transformation Of Business, Democracy, And Everyday Life” By Robert Reich

My Thoughts: In my opinion, the most pressing issues facing our society and very democracy today homogeneously owe their existence to the deplorable effects of excessive “fundamentalist capitalism” or, as former secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls it in this important and very readable diagnosis of our current socio-economic situation, “Supercapitalism”. Reich does an almost impeccable job of explaining how the celebrated free-market American economy has spun wildly out of control during the course of the past 40 years and taken hold of the industrialized world as a whole (and particularly the U.S.) by highlighting a disturbing series of facts concerning the gross inequality of wealth distribution and the ease with which major corporations may now purchase political favors. Particular appraisal is deserved when one observes the fact that “Supercapitalism” manages to break the political taboo against criticizing the middle class when such debasements are due by highlighting the role of the typical consumer in this most regrettable and dire situation.

Be sure to check back in late August for part 2!

NOTE: The next “Spotlight” post will, by special request, feature the Eocene “bear-dog” Daphoenus sp.

Posting Announcement

18 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Due to the recent advent of certain scholarly pressures, I’ll regrettably be unable to post a ‘Weekly Spotlight’ entry this week or, I daresay, anything else. To at least partially fill this unexpected void, I leave you with the following rather humorous videos:

And just to show that I do not, in fact, dislike modern theropods…

UPCOMING POSTS: Capricamelus and some of my favorite B-movies!

Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”

15 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by the content of Connie Barlow’s YouTube channel “ghostsofevolution” to which I have subscribed for a few months now (having learned of its existence from Mrs. Barlow after briefly reviewing her book of the same name last December).

Earlier today, she posted the following video in which she visits the official monument to the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park and utilizes the occasion to orate the legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ceremonial (and incredibly evocative) essay entitled “On A Monument To A Pigeon”, which originally appeared amongst several others in his 1949 compendium, “A Sand County Almanac” (which, having seen Mrs. Barlow’s video, I simply must read!).

For those interested, I’ve included a transcript of the entire essay below:

 “We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

 Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.  

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.  

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise. 

Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark. 

These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.  

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. 

This monument, perched like a duckhawk on this cliff, will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing wood ducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake golden pollen from the river willows, Egrets will pose on these sloughs in August; plovers will whistle from September skies. Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts will not take wing.  

We are told by economic moralists that to mourn the pigeon is mere nostalgia; that if the pigeoners had not done away with him, the farmers would ultimately have been obliged, in self-defense, to do so.  

This is one of those peculiar truths that are valid, but not for the reasons alleged. The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.   

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.” 

My 2009 Booklist

31 12 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

In light of the fact that 2010 (and, by extension, the decade’s conclusion) is fast upon us, I’ve recently been forced to make my resolutions for the approaching year. These decisions are to improve my physical health & appearance and to increase my personal rate of literary consumption. While the confines of this blog inhibit my capacity to translate the former declaration into any sort of meaningful post, I’ve decided to erect an annual chronicle of each book I’ve read in the preceeding year so that I may better regulate the latter. Additionally, I hope that the following miniature reviews of the aforementioned books will prove to be useful to any of my readers who might consider reading them. Thus, without further ado, I humbly present this year’s entry (in chronological order):

NOTE: This list only contains those volumes which I’ve read cover to cover to the exclusion of those I’ve merely referenced (most of which can be found within the citations of earlier, more technical posts).

‘The Top 10 Myths About Evolution’ by Cameron M. Smith & Charles Sullivan

My Thoughts: If you’re already familiar with the most abundant ill-informed critiques of evolutionary theory, this book most likely isn’t for you. However, both authors receive an enormous amount of credit for re-articulating a number of concepts into terms anyone can understand.

‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich

My Thoughts: I’ve already highlighted a few excerpts from this deliciously intriguing volume here. This has got to be one of the most philosophically stimulating ‘hard science’ books that I’ve read in quite some time, one which should force every reader to at least consider the idea that Homo sapiens is most certainly not the only form of intelligent life on this planet. My only substantial criticism is based upon Heinrich’s writing style which, while clear and coherent, contains an appreciable amount of undue rambling. Nonetheless, if you’re even remotely interested in psychobiology, ornithology, or naturalism in general, I wholeheartedly recommend this evocative book.

‘Mammoth’ by John Varley

My Thoughts: I don’t often read fiction, but when I do, my fodder of choice almost invariably falls within three categories: literature, philosophical thrillers, or sci-fi. I doubt that I’ll need bother mentioning by which title this novel is generally cited. I found it to be vastly entertaining, despite the fact that it inaccurately depicted a handful of its Pleistocene cast members.

‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin

My Thoughts: This book is almost immeasurably more satisfying than the mere discussion of Tiktaalik roseae and its discovery I’d anticipated. Instead, it’s an exquisite introduction to the study of the evolutionary path upon which our bodies have traveled for the past 3.5 billion years which has been blessed with the amazingly readable prose of an obviously passionate author. Additionally, it clearly demonstrates that the human body, complex and engaging as it is, is far from perfect and is riddled with fairly obvious design flaws.

‘Mammoths: Giants Of The Ice Age’ by Adrian Lister & Paul Bahn

My Thoughts: I simply cannot think of a better volume through which to introduce the scientific study of the various Mammuthus species than this well-organized and masterfully illustrated compendium. However, I do wish that Lister and Bahn had included a more comprehensive review of early proboscidean evolution: although I realize that, as the title suggests, this wasn’t the point of the book, it would have been very much appreciated.

‘The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology And Mythology Of The World’s Most Elusive Sea Creature’ by Richard Ellis

My Thoughts: This one was another recipient of its own review back in February, and my opinion of it has scarcely changed since then: had Ellis spent more time ‘covering the basics’ by further discussing the biology of cephalopods rather than dedicating a third of its textual content to essentially highlighting the giant squid’s celebrity status in pop-culture, it could have easily become an indispensible classic rather than the entertaining but ultimately hollow tome.

‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn

My Thoughts: It’s been said that all novels are, in essence, philosophies expressed through an artistic venue. I can think of no better way to describe Dan Quinn’s ‘Ishmael’.  This is a fiercely intelligent cavalcade of earth-shattering philosophical observations guaranteed to spawn an immense amount of self-consideration long after its completion.

‘The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms’ by Connie Barlow

My Thoughts: Barlow does an exquisite job of combining personal experience with scientific inquiry to create what can only be described as a highly thought-provoking review of one of the most interesting aspects of evolutionary biology which had me closely scrutinizing any produce I happened to come across for months thereafter.

‘New Rules: Polite Musings From A Timid Observer’ by Bill Maher

My Thoughts: Although I’ll readily concede that his well-documented disdain for Western medicine and crass overall attitude are simply inexcusable, I can’t deny the fact that Bill Maher often raises some excellent points via his televised program and stand-up routines. Nevertheless, this particular volume is naught but a greatly disappointing collection of recycled material, nearly all of which can be found on Youtube.

‘Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers’ by Brooke Allen

My Thoughts: This is required reading for anyone who has even considered becoming involved in the ongoing controversy about the desired strength of church/state separation in the U.S. Allen completely obliterates the mythology surrounding the concept and its annals by providing an arsenal of historical evidence against such unsubstantiated claims as ‘the founding fathers were deeply religious men’ (the most influential ones were primarily deists, agnostics, and universalists), and ‘the United States was founded as a Christian nation’.

‘Why Evolution is True’ by Jerry Coyne

My Thoughts: From now on, when anyone asks me for a fairly comprehensive overview of the evidence for evolution, Jerry Coyne’s new book is the first thing I’ll suggest. Coyne utilizes examples I’d never heard or thought of to make monstrously-effective points which expose the reader to the absolutely mountainous evidence which supports the theory of evolution and by extension, shows him or her precisely why the scientific community accepts it on a universal scale.

‘The Moral Animal (Why We Are The Way We Are): The New Science Of Evolutionary Psychology’ by Robert Wright

My Thoughts: I have to say that, even in the face of such worthy competitors as ‘Your Inner Fish’, ‘Mind Of The Raven’, ‘The Selfish Gene’, and ‘Ishmael’, this was by an appreciable margin the most evocative and eye-opening book I’ve read this year. Evolutionary psychology is easily one of the most controversial subjects in modern science, recruiting such prestigious supporters as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker and such eminent adversaries as Stephen Jay Gould. Wright does a superb job of introducing the reader to this unambiguously captivating, yet divisive, topic. He also earns extra credit in my opinion for highlighting the philosophical struggle which accompanies the discipline by providing a detailed discussion about why the way things are isn’t necessarily the way they ought to be while simultaneously defending a personal allegiance to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.

‘Carl Sagan: A Life In The Cosmos’ by William Poundstone

My Thoughts: It’s no secret that I’m an enormous Carl Sagan fan. As an avid proponent of increasing and improving science communication aimed at the public, I can’t think of a better model upon which to base my own efforts than this eloquent messenger of the cosmos. Poundstone’s comprehensive biography delves beyond the mystery to reveal not only an entirely human story behind the scientific celebrity, but also some of the most destructive and divisive forces and biases which inhabit the scientific community itself.

‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins

My Thoughts: Though I don’t particularly care for his aggressiveness on the subject of religion, Dawkins is an excellent writer: a contention which, I feel, can be substantiated more effectively by no volume of his other than ‘The Selfish Gene’, which remains one of the most influential books in the history of modern evolutionary biology over three decades after its publication. However, due to the massive exposure the volume’s central concepts have been given by a plethora of subsequent narratives, they didn’t really offer me a challenge when read in their original context. Still, I found “The Selfish Gene” to be well worth my while.

‘Notre Dame de Paris’ (aka: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) by Victor Hugo

My Thoughts: I opted to read this one after hearing wonderful things about Hugo’s work from my well-read friends and later growing addicted to the song ‘Heaven’s Light/Hellfire’ from the Disney adaptation (the beautiful lyrics and animation of which force me to excuse the indefensibly-comical statues that occupy the first quarter of the piece). This oft-discussed novel has utterly dazzled me, and I now consider Hugo to be one of my favorite authors, for I can think of very few writers who can hope to compete with him in the art of mounting suspense and perfectly capturing the intricacies and subtleties of human emotions. Nowhere is this latter skill more apparent than in Hugo’s execution of Archdeacon Frollo, a complex and somewhat tragic character who fully deserves a place in any discussion regarding the greatest literary villains of the previous millenium.

‘Why Geese Don’t Get Obese (And We Do): How Evolution’s Strategies For Survival Affect Our Everyday Lives’ by Eric P. Widmaier.

My Thoughts: Though I fully realize that the two sciences are fundamentally intertwined, I’ll admit that I’ve always found anatomy to be far more interesting than physiology. Having made such a contention, I can’t help but feel far more enthusiasm for the latter discipline following the conclusion of this readable and passionate compendium. Widmaier clearly adores his area of expertise and has given it’s broader scientific implications a great deal of thought, as evidenced not only by the book’s introduction and epilogue, but nearly every paragraph of its being. However, this esteem appears to be somewhat reserved for physiology to the exclusion of certain other fields, as Widmaier occasionally exhibits factual errors when discussing paleontology (such as claiming that Dimetrodon was a dinosaur) . Still, this is a minor point which no way prevents me from highly recommending ‘Why Geese Don’t Get Obese’ to anyone with an interest in the biological sciences.

Happy new year and may the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

On Peacocks And Sexual Selection

16 11 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Last week, my good friend and colleague Donny Price and I presented a 45-minute lecture to a high school biology class hosted by MCC and taught by Dr. Hungerbuehler’s wife, a fact which I briefly mentioned here. The main purpose of the presentation was to flesh out the fundamental concepts and implications of biological evolution beyond what’s commonly displayed in textbooks. To our complete shock, our efforts were greeted with an unexpectedly high amount of acclaim by both  the good doctor’s wife and the pupils in question, all of whom requested a follow-up talk this Thursday: an offer neither Donny nor myself could refuse. Due to the fact that our audience seemed impressed with the slide show that accompanied the previous discussion, we’ve decided to create a new one for its sequel. Below is an excellent video which nicely expands upon the concept of sexual selection that I fully intend to incorporate into this aforementioned power-point. The information most certainly isn’t new to anyone familiar with evolutionary theory, but I’ve decided to post it anyway. Enjoy:

(I had no idea that the sight of a peacock in flight is so mystifying… and somewhat startling!)

May the fossil record and the evolutionary paths upon which it has traveled continue to enchant us all!


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