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.


Weekly Spotlight: Pantylus

14 02 2010

(NOTE: I must once again present the fact that, regardless of what WordPress says on the matter, this article was in fact written and posted on Saturday!)

Good tidings and well-wishes!

People tend to be remarkably unimaginative when it comes to defining what makes something an animal. Although most individuals grudgingly accept the fact that cuttlefish, spiders, and tapeworms are indeed animals, nearly every lay person with whom I’ve conversed on the subject will readily concede that such beasts aren’t amongst the first organisms that come to mind when asked to envision an ‘animal’. The reasoning behind this curious tendency is relatively simple, if glaringly illogical: creatures such as birds, dogs, and toads share far more obvious anatomical similarities with our own species than do any invertebrates, however advanced. Their preconcieved dogma about what animals are contains a series of blatantly unscientific mandates: for instance, candidates for the distinction must boast such attributes as a certain number of legs, eyes of a specific proportion, and a very particular mastication mechanism. To them, anything which fails to explicitly conform to these and countless other arbitrary demands is mentally registered as having an unnatural appearance.

This phenomenon unambiguously explains the eccentric fascination one generally feels upon his or her first exposure to a reconstruction of Pantylus cordatus, a relatively small amphibian with a relatively ENORMOUS head.

Before granting further description to this bizarre little beastie, it’s neccessary to discuss the evolutionary relationships of the species, as per blog tradition. Pantylus is one of the best-known microsaurs, an extinct order of pint-sized lepospondyl amphibians which ranged from the late Carboniferous to the early Permian. For those intrigued by amphibian paleontology, I’d thoroughly reccomend Robert Carroll and Pamela Gaskill’s 214-page dispatch to the American Philosophical Society entitled “The Order Microsauria”, which can be read in full here. However, I shall quote a detailed excerpt concerning what exactly these critters were from another one of Carroll’s books: “The Rise Of Amphibians: 365 Million Years Of Evolution”.

“This group appears to be primarily terrestrial, but with secondarily aquatic adaptation in several families. Microsaurs are the most diverse of all the groups termed lepospondyls, in both numbers of species and adaptive and anatomical specializations…They are also the only clade that retains several skeletal attributes of early labyrinthodonts that suggest possible affinities…the earliest known microsaur is relatively long bodied, with approximately 34 presacral vertebrae. This, however, is not a general character of the group, as indicated by other skeletons from only slightly higher in the Carboniferous of Utah, and many later taxa that have much shorter vertebral columns and proportionately larger girdles and limbs. Other families of later microsaurs have reduced their limbs, but none have lost them entirely.

In contrast with most early labyrinthodonts, the jaw articulation in this and most other microsaurs does not extend beyond the occiput. The skull surface lacks the conspicuous sculpturing of most labyrinthodonts and there is no trace of lateral line canals. The eyes are about midway in the length of the skull and the surrounding bones are ridged along their circumference, suggesting a relatively thick layer of soft tissue above the bone…

The palate is not clearly visible in any of the skulls, but the surface shows an almost continuous covering of small denticle. One larger tooth extends from the palatine. The occiput is not well exposed, but the configuration of the surface for articulation with the atlas can be reconstructed on the basis of the latter bone… The lower jaw is not sculptured. The coronoid bones bear two rows of teeth…

Uniquely among Paleozoic amphibians, [the atlas] has a surface for articulation with the skull that is more than twice the width of the more posterior centra… The configuration of the occiptial condoyles and the anterior surface of the atlas in microsaurs would favor dorsoventral flexation of the head on the trunk and greatly limt lateral bending or rotation. In terms of its functional anatomy, this structure is highly divergent from that of labyrinthodonts and early amniotes, which have a multipartite atlas that would have allowed some degree of bending or rotation in all directions…

Ribs are visible throughout the trunk…the shafts are long and cylindrical…”

A sampler of microsaur diversity. From top to bottom: Tuditanus, Pantylus, Rhynchonkos, Cardiocephalus, and Pelodosotis.

Okay, then: now that I’ve displayed one of the longest quotes this blog has ever seen in order to adequately cover Pantylus’ family tree, let’s discuss the genus itself.

Pantylus skull

Pantylus is the namesake genus of the Pantylidae family, the members of which are primarily united by the following features:

-Deeply sculptured skull roofs.

-Triangular skull in aerial view.

-Short tail.

-24 presacral vertebrae and 1 sacral.

-Massive girdles and limbs.

-Four digits on each forelimb.

-A small number of blunt, conical, marginal teeth.

There’s relatively little else to say about Pantylus itself, other than giving mention to the fact that it’s easily the most well-known microsaur and among the most abundant, though its range appears to have been restricted to the Lower Permian red beds of Texas and would have reached approximately 25 centimeters in length: proving once and for all that you don’t have to supersize everything to achieve succuess in the Lone Star state…

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

‘Weekly’ Wonders: Platyhystrix

3 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

One can easily recognize when a prehistoric creature has made its way into the public consciousness by observing how frequently vaguely similar extinct organisms are mistaken for it. Anyone who’s ever attempted to give a tour of a natural history museum or present a paleontology lecture to a high school audience is acutely aware of such a group’s propensity for identifying any large theropod as a “T. rex“, any small one as a “Velociraptor“, any hairy proboscidean as a “Woolly Mammoth”, and any extinct mammal with enlarged canines as a “Saber Toothed Cat”.  To this end, it would appear that despite (or perhaps because of) its incessant misidentification as a dinosaur, the non-mammalian synapsid Dimetrodon has become one of these relatively well-known beasts in light of the fact that nearly every layman I’ve encountered proclaims that any extinct quadrupedal tetrapod with a sail is a member of the genus. However, it’s no secret that Dimetrodon certainly didn’t have a monopoly on this description, as many of its contemporaries such as Edaphosaurus and the eccentric Secodontosaurus fit the bill quite nicely as well (to say nothing of the Triassic Arizonasaurus). But perhaps the most interesting of these look-alikes wasn’t even a synapsid or amniote at all: instead, one could easily make the case that this critter was in fact the temnospondyl Platyhystrix rugosus.

Platyhystrix as drawn by Matt Celeskey of

The temnospondyli order was arguably the most successful group of non-amniotic terrestrial vertebrates to have ever existed and as such, was far too large and diverse to allow the constraints of this particular blog entry to boast adequate coverage of the congregation as a whole (for a nice introduction, do go here). For our purposes, we need only to concentrate upon the dissorophidae superfamily: a clade which has acquired a decent amount of attention due to its inclusion of Doleserpeton which may have been related to the ancestor modern frogs and other lissamphibians. The most obvious feature which unites this superfamily is the presence of bony plates which were either fused to the neural spines or lying just above them. Additional characteristics include long, slender limb elements and relatively large orbits (‘eye sockets’). For the full list, check out the Palaeos entry. Dissorophids made their grand debut in the late Carboniferous (aka: ‘the Pennsylvanian’ for my fellow American paleo-nerds) and persisted onwards throughout much of North America and Europe until at least the late Permian, although some authors contend that  Micropholis of the early Triassic may have belonged to the group.

Right then, now that we’re taxonomically up to speed, let’s have a look at Platyhystrix itself. In his exquisite new book “The Rise Of Amphibians: 365 Million Years Of Evolution”, Robert Carroll writes:

“Isolated pieces of laterally compressed and ornamented neural spines have long been recognized from Lower Permian and even Upper Carboniferous sites in North America, but rarely with even fragments of the skull or appendicular skeleton…the most complete sequence of neural spines, showing a pattern broadly resembling the ‘sail’ of edaphosaur pelycosaurs, from the area of the atlas arch to the 15th dorsal vertebra…Subsequently, [a skull was prepared in 1981], originally collected by David Baldwin in 1881 from the lower Permian Cutler Formation in New Mexico, which showed an extremely rugose texture, closely associated with spines initially attributed to Aspidosaurus. The lateral edges of the skull table are ridged as in Broiliellus and Dissorophus. Comparable neural spines designated Astreptorhachis ohioensis, from the Upper Pennsylvanian Conemaugh Group of Ohio, support the earlier divergence of this group, near the time of emergence of the amphibamids.”

Platyhystrix neural spine.

This essentially wraps up all known information about Platyhystrix as of this writing, excluding the rather amusing fact that the genus literally means ‘flat porcupine’ (also, the critter would have been approximately 1 meter long in life). However, the animal does warrant further consideration due to its role in one of the most interesting riddles paleobiology has yet to definitively solve: the enigma of ‘sail-backed’ prehistoric faunas.

In another excellent Matt Celeskey illustration, a Platyhystrix attempts to evade an attacking Ruthiromia.

(Click here to see the original post containing the above illustration)

For those significantly less nerdy than yours truly, this mystery stems from the fact that those long-extinct vertebrates which sport massive sails running down their backs are almost invariably found in either the same or nearby deposits as contemporary species with roughly the same feature. The most famous example of this is manifested by the case of Ouranosaurus and the ever-popular Spinosaurus. Although the two dinosaurs have to the best of my knowledge never been found within the same deposits, they nonetheless lived at roughly the same period of time and at similar locales (approximately 110 million years ago in Northern Africa). The situation is made more interesting, however, by the fact that the lower Permian of Texas and New Mexico has yielded not only Platyhystrix, but Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, and Secodontosaurus as well, all of which are easily recognized by their prominent dorsal ‘fins’. These latter beasts exhibit far more diversity, for while Spinosaurus and Ouranosaurus each have relatively broad and laterally-compressed neural spines, only those of Platyhystrix are even roughly comparable. Dimetrodon and Secodontosaurus each had fairly rod-like structures while the sail of certain Edaphosaurus species was riddled with horizontal bars. Although both groups of vertebrates are united in the fact that their respective habitats were most likely warm, wet swamps, it’s difficult to see just how this sort of environment would have produced such extravagant animals. Hopefully, additional information on these curious organisms and the ancient terrains which housed them will shed light on this most intriguing of questions.

A pair of Edaphosaurus take a leisurely stroll while a relatively small Platyhystrix scuttles about in the foreground.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

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!

Week Of Wonders: Anthracosaurus

15 12 2009

Good tidings and well wishes!

I realize that it’s been well over a month since my last ‘Weekly’ Wonders installment. So, to compensate for this regrettable trend of inactivity, I’ve decided to initiate a ‘week of wonders’: every day of this work-week will feature a brand new article of ‘Weekly Wonders’ design. Suggestions for specific critters to be highlighted will be considered.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll readily say it again: amphibians have had a fascinating, though somewhat under-studied, evolutionary history which has produced a series of genuine odd-balls that have, for innumerable generations, inspired the emergence of nearly every emotion imaginable, including awe, confusion, and even fear. The sight of the latter feeling in this context may seem incredibly odd, for when one grows up in the company of Kermit the frog and “The Wind in the Willows”, imagining a terrifying amphibian suddenly becomes a tall order.

But in spite of our synthetic biases, a number of prehistoric amphibians (including everyone’s favorite (‘flat frogs’) were in fact equipped with truly ferocious-looking dental arrangements. But arguably no amphibian of any era displays a more intimidating set of chompers than Anthracosaurus russeli: a massive, eel-like predator of the Carboniferous.

Anthracosaurus cranial reconstruction.

Anthracosaurus, incredibly enough, hails from the anthracosauria order the members of which, according to Jennifer A. Clack in her book “Gaining Ground: The Origin And Evolution Of Tetrapods”,:

“are characterized by contact between the tabular and parietal bones in the skull table in combination with the presence of an intertemporal (a primitive character), a closed palate with small or no vacuities [(‘holes’)]in the midline, and often a skull table that is separated from the cheek plates by a noninterdigitating suture. [(connection points between bones that don’t interlock like clasped hands)].

Anthracosaurus skull reconstruction (the largest image is in aerial view)

Additionally, the anthracosauria is  an incredibly diverse group, containing the problematic seymouriamorpha, the intriguing diadectamorpha (which produced some of the planet’s earliest known terrestrial herbivorous vertebrates), the bizarre  gephyrostegida, and the generally ferocious-looking members of the embolomeri. Anthracosaurus itself is allied with the latter group, which largely consisted of crocodile-like piscivores whose remains have been unearthed in both the U.K. and eastern U.S. and sports such genera as Pholiderpeton, and Archeria.

In the “Catalogue Of The Fossil Reptilia And Amphibia In The British Museum (Natural History)“, describes Anthracosaurus itself as follows (never let it be said that these animals had a shortage of teeth!):

“Skull broadly triangular with large postero-lateral expansions [(‘widened ridgstemming from the skull’s rear and sides’)]… orbits very small, subtriangular, approximated, and situated in the hinder third of the skull…. Premaxillary and maxillary teeth few, unequal, and forming an irregular series; one large palatine tusk near the posterior nares [(‘the rear of the nasal openings’)], and the others further back; mandibular teeth irregular [(‘the teeth on the lower jaw are relatively uneven in size and shape’)]; pterygoids apparently carrying a number of denticles. Crowns of teeth ridged, conical, with a transversely oval section at the base, and laterally compressed [(‘flattened from side to side’)] and curved near the summit… Cranial sculpture pitted and very sparsely distributed. Intercentra apparently absent in vertebral column.”

The legendary evolutionary biologist and anatomist Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley first described Anthracosaurus in 1863, giving it the Greek name of ‘coal lizard’ after its geological affiliations.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

UPDATE: For a brief discussion of the relationship that exists between paleo-amphibians and modern amniotes, please check the comments section.

Wednesday Wonders: Chroniosuchus

25 06 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’ve recently realized that my blog has just hosted three straight ‘Wednesday Wonders’ entries featuring synapsids. While everyone loves a good obscure dinocephalian, xenarthran, or artiodactyl, I think that I’ll give the class a rest for a while. As I’ve said elsewhere, when compared to fossilized reptiles (and in particular everyone’s favorite group of ancient chicken relatives), prehistoric amphibians receive very little attention from both the media and academia in comparison. This is truly unfortunate, given the fact that these animals have undergone a fascinating evolutionary history through their 365 million year reign and especially because of the growing amount of disturbing evidence which reveals beyond any shadow of doubt that modern amphibians are suffering enormous amounts of fatigue and decline on a global scale. For these (and other) reasons, I’m ecstatic to hear of Robert Carroll’s new book “The Rise Of Amphibians: 365 Million Years Of Evolution“. Like many of you (I’m sure), I’ll be purchasing my copy in the near future (hopefully after the price goes down a wee bit on Amazon). Until then, however, I’ll satisfy my amphibious needs by discussing an interesting genus known as Chroniosuchus.

Chroniosuchus sp.

Chroniosuchus sp.

As always, it’s necessary to begin with a bit of phylogenetic information regarding this week’s animal before moving on to the ‘fun stuff’. The Chroniosuchus species were anthracosaurs which inhabited modern Russia from the latest Permian to the middle Triassic. Anthracosaurs were once considered to have belonged to the obselete “Labyrinthodontia” order. However, recent revisions concerning the cladistic relationships of early amphibians has placed the family Anthracosauridae within the superorder Reptiliomorpha and specifically inside of the order Embolomeri. It’s been suggested that anthracosaurs were closely akin to the order Seymouriamorpha  due to several shared anatomcal characteristics, though many authors have questioned this and attributed their similarities to congruent evolution. In “The Age Of Dinosaurs In Russia And Mongolia”, Igor Novikov, Mikhail Shishkin and Valerii Golubev write:

“Anthracosaurs were crocodile-like piscivorous amphibians with a rather deep elongated skull from 50 to 500 mm long. During their history, they retained a resemblance to the most primitive temnospondyls in such characters as the extent of the lacrimal bone up to the naris(or septomaxilla), presence of an intertemporal [(a bar of bone separating the upper and lower temporal fenestrae in reptiles)] in most forms, movable basipterygoid articulation (between braincase and upper jaw), narrow interpterygoid vacuities,pterygoids with median [(as in towards the animal’s midline)] contact anteriorly, a single concave occipital condoyle, occipital exposure of the opisthotic bone, and, usually, absence of retroarticular process on the lower jaw. Peculiar for anthracosaurs also is the clear demarcation [(boundary)] and loose joint between the skull roof and cheek, a condition inherited from rhipididtian fishes.”

Other features sported by anthracosaurs as noted by these authors were a lack of contact between the exoccipital and the skull roof, notably long tabular horns, comparatively narrow vomers, the presence of five digits on the forelimbs (as opposed to four in temnospondyls), and a gastrocentrous (reptile-like) spinal condition in many genera.

Chroniosuchus was, shockingly, a member of the Chroniosuchia suborder, which is divided into two families: the Chroniosuchidae and the Bystrowianidae. According to Novikov et al., “They are readily distinguished from older groups by a row of dermal plates over the vertebral column, conspicuously ball-shaped [intercentrum] in most forms, fenestration (presence of holes) of the skull roof (at least in the Chroniosuchidae) and some advanced characters in the skull roof pattern.”

Chroniosuchus sp. reconstruction courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chroniosuchus sp. reconstruction courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unlike many earlier and contemporary amphibians, Chroniosuchids lacked a well-developed lateral line system, which indicates that these creatures likely inhabited a largely terrestrial or semiaquatic niche. The teeth of these animals were rather conical and pointed and typically displayed a slight infold at their bases. Chroniosuchids traditionally displayed additional “tusk-like teeth on their vomers, pairs or groups of small tusks on palatines and ectopterygoids.” (Novikov et al.)

However, one of the group’s most striking features was a row of sculptured osteoderm plates which ran down their backs each of which was connected (by a ligament-like structure) to its underlying vertebra via the neural arch. Adding to the intricacies accompanying the spinal cords of these beasts was the fact that their pleurocentra were amphiocoelous (concave on the anterior and posterior ends) and were, in many forms, stutured to the neural arches, and often indistinguishably so.

As for Chroniosuchus itself, there isn’t much else worth commenting on other than that two species are known: C. paradoxus and C. levis, each of which dwelled in the upper Permian (their more derived ancestors and cousins went on to inhabit the Triassic). Hopefully further research will reveal a great deal more about these and other fascinating amphibians!

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

UPDATE: Michael of “The Life Of Madygen” has informed me that he has been working on chroniosuchians of late and that the group is currently the subject of several research efforts. To view his remarks, check out the comment section below.

Flat Frogs 102

6 04 2009

Good-tidings and well-wishes!

I realize that I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks…this is largely because of my freakishly-busy schedule of late. Rest assured that I’m planning to release a several new posts within this month dealing with such topics as the end-Permian extinction (a personal favorite subject of my fellow MCC paleo student, Donny Price), my latest updates in the great phytosaur skull project, and a few others.

Recently, I’ve been contacted by Bill Mueller, a friend and colleague of Dr. Axel (& myself) and the owner of an exquisite website which I’d strongly encourage you to visit. Mr. Mueller is also well-known amongst Triassic circles for his exposure of the fact that the name Buettneria, a Southwestern metoposaur from the late Triassic, had previously been used and thus should be replaced with the genus name Koskinonodon. Naturally, when it comes to Triassic metoposaurs, he’s quite the expert and I was exceedingly fortunate to receive an e-mail from him after this year’s WAVP meeting in which he gave a critique of my “Flat Frogs 101” post. The updated version is now available.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!