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’ Spoylight: Zygorhiza

11 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s been quite some time since I’ve covered a cetacean, the last one being the ‘sword-nosed’ dolphin Eurhinodelphis. This week, I intend to halt this “whale famine” by focusing my attention upon a very different (but equally interesting) member of the order: Zygorhiza kochii of the American southeast.

Zygorhiza skeletal cast.

Zygorhiza hails from the well-known, albeit paraphyletic, archaeoceti suborder. More specifically, it’s a member of the (also paraphyletic) Basilosauridae family which, according to Spencer Wilkie Tinker’s “Whales Of The World”,

“The family Basiolsauridae was probably the most specialized of the Archaeoceti. Some were of rather large size, measured from about 12 to 15 meters (39 to 49 ft) in length, and had a large skull which measured about 1.5 meters (5 ft) in length. The teeth of the cheek were of an unusual serrated type which was specialized within the Archaeoceti.”

Additionally, the members of this family are united by their homogeneous lumbarization of the sacral vertebrae.

One of the best-known subfamilies of the Basilosauridae is the famed Dorudontinae a description of which provided by the aforementioned volume is as follows:

“Fossils are known from Europe, Africa, No[rth] America, and New Zealand. Size was medium (5-6 m.); hindlimbs were [generally] absent; skull was not ‘telescoped’; snout was extended; nostrils had moved half way up the skull; front teeth were rounded and conical, while side teeth were serrated; neck vertebrae were not compressed; body was not abnormally long.”

Zygorhiza reconstruction.

So what makes Zygorhiza anatomically distinctive? When this question arises, the most frequently-mentioned feature is the fact that the cingula (‘ridges surrounding teeth’) of the animal’s premolars are finely-notched (or ‘crenulated’). Additionally, unlike most Dorudontids, Zygorhiza did in fact possess rudimentary hind limbs, as shown in the following skeletal mount.

In life, Zygorhiza would have attained a total average length of approximately 6 meters, making it somewhat larger than the 5-meter Dorudon.

Zygorhiza molar

Right, then: having discussed the role of Zygorhiza in the phylogeny of whales, it’s high time for a few ‘fun facts’ about the creature.

Zygorhiza reconstruction

Firstly, Zygorhiza has been designated as a state fossil of Mississippi, an honor it shares with the much better-known (but less well-represented in the fossiliferous sense) Basilosaurus. Additionally, should be noted that, in contrast to an unfortunately-large amount of fossilized cetaceans, Zygorhiza has actually been unearthed in association with stomach contents. According to “Giant Creatures Of The Prehistoric Seas” by Judy Cutchins and Ginny Johnston,

“In the early 1980s, an amateur fossil collector in Macon, Georgia, happened to uncover the skeleton of… a Zygorhiza. Although it was smaller than Basilosaurus, the eighteen-foot-long Zygorhiza was a fearsome predator. The remains of its last meal were found in the stomach area. Not long before it died, [the] Zygorhiza ate a two-foot-long shark.”

A Zygorhiza swims alongside a much larger Basilosaurus

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

A trio of cetacean skulls. From left to right: Zygorhiza, Squalodon, and Phocaena (a modern porpoise).

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!

Why I’m (Mostly) A Cenozoic Guy

10 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fairly safe to assume that anyone who’s given so much as a passing glance to this humble corner of the ‘net is well-aware of my overall preference of prehistoric mammals to their reptilian counterparts, as evidenced by my heading, my ‘comments section’ avatar, and the appreciable majority of my posts.

However, you may be suprised to learn that I haven’t always been like this. In the fairly recent past, I, like the most paleontology enthusiasts, was completely smitten by dinosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, crocodylians, and their scaly brethren (in point of fact, for a time, I rather resented mammals due to the general public’s unfair tendency to invariably treat them with more respect and admiration than it would ever consider granting to any organism which doesn’t utilize milk). While I still adore these fascinating creatures, I’ve since shifted my focus primarily towards the hairy side of vertebrate paleontology.

To assist me in partially explaining this academic epiphany, I’ll utilize an excerpt from a recent interview with pterosaur expert Mark Witton who, in addition to being a spellbindingly-talented illustrator and writer, also seems to express quite a bit of enthusiasm about my beloved fossil mammals for, when asked to state his favorite era in Earth’s history outside the Mesozoic, he replied:

“The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic – ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself (although I’ll concede that while the abundance of fossilized mammal teeth certainly makes things more scientifically convenient, it also forces the lion’s share of virtually any paleo-mammology volume to degenerate into a ‘dentistry 101’ textbook).

Furthermore, while one would likely come to the conclusion that the ‘greater insight’ into Cenozoic life to which Witton refers would indicate that the amazing organisms the era contains are recieved with an enormous amount of esteem by the paleontological community, this isn’t the case, at least not to the degree anyone unfamiliar with our science is bound to assume. Indeed, a quick perusal of my blogroll alone will provide sufficient data to uphold the assertion that the majority of amature and professional paleontologists alike adhere to the study of extinct reptiles. Dinosaurs, I hardly need mention, boast an especially large following, but this fact is destined to recieve its own rant post.

I fully realize that this love of all things reptilian is perfectly understandable: after-all, the fact that we cannot consider ourselves to be members of the reptilia class by any definition alone is sufficient enough to secure the appeal of these creatures to the well-known region of our imagination which lends itself to be captured by anything it deems ‘alien’. However, in this regard, our psyche tends to pursue ‘foreign discovery’ to the expense of that which lies within our own metaphorical back yard. Although we may have more in common with cetaceans than sauropods, the former behemoths are just as fascinating, yet we overlook them for their comparative familiarity.

The paleontological community has thus reached the bizarre state of expressing our collective interest in a group of unfamiliar animals for being strange and intriguing, yet many of its members withold their enthusiasm for a relatively closely acquainted group in spite of their own strangeness and intrigue. This relative neglect is one of the most powerful forces which ultimately draws me towards the study of paleo-mammology, as I’m sure it does for a great many of us interested in the field.

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!

TTT’s Saturnalia Special

23 12 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes and happy holidays!

Since the holiday season is fast upon us (if it hasn’t already arrived for some of us), I felt that my humble corner of the internet display a wee bit of a festive tribute to this ‘most wonderful time of the year’, with a slight twist of course. Below, you’ll find a collection of holiday decorations and excerpts designed to appeal to the nerdiest of web surfers. As a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, I’ve also attached links to the posts and web pages from whence they’ve come and would encourage everyone to view them in their original context to support the primary uploaders. So grab a cup of ‘cheer’ (whatever that is), open your textbooks and enjoy!

To kick things off, Jen McCreight, author of the ever-popular ‘Blag Hag‘ and president/co-founder of the Purdue Non-Theists Society has presented the following  illustrative evidence in favor of the idea that Santa is in for some competition this year:

And, through the miracle of modern capitalism, one can readily obtain mugs, t-shirts, and other products depicting this most festive of displays from Jen’s online store.

Despite the fact that its content doesn’t exactly conform to that which has generally become associated with this blog, I simply cannot deny my love of CBS’ ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Below, I’ve re-posted an unofficial highlight reel of the show’s Christmas special which was released last December.

What’s Christmas without the decorations? Recently, I’ve stumbled upon this post which highlights a series of nerdy Christmas ornaments, my favorite of which 9despite my hatred of mathematics) can be seen below.

Right then, back to paleontology! Paleo nerds aren’t generally difficult to buy for, but should you find yourself in want of a paleontological gift idea, ReBecca “Dinochick” Hunt-Foster has brought to the blogosphere’s attention what is quite possibly the coolest series of stuffed animals ever manufactured: the Evolvems!

"From Fish To Tetrapod!"

According to the official web-page,

Unzip and flip the creature inside out and you’ll get its evolved form. Watch fins turn to feet and gills grow into lungs right before your eyes. The best part is that all you kids who want to see ’em don’t have to line up at our museum. You can have your own piece of evolution in your own home and bring it in for show n’ tell at school. Show those other monkeys their roots, we say.”

The line contains CoelocanthIchthyostega (pictured), DimetrodonCynognathus, YinlongStyracosaurus, and my personal favorite, PakicetusSqualodon.

Having successfully regurgitated pieces of saturnalia flare from round the world wide web, I feel that this post would be incomplete without providing one of my own. So, in Darren Naish style, I now offer my readers a bit of a geeky puzzle. In honor of everyone’s favorite levitating holiday cervid, I now present ‘TTT’s first annual ‘Winter Solstice Mystery Artiodactyl‘ contest.  The first reader to correctly identify the following even-toed ungulate via sending me their entry through the ‘comments’ section, my personal e-mail account, or any other means available to them will receive an automatic thumbs-up from yours truly along with a shout-out at the onset of my next post. With that, I present your beastie:

Io Saturnalia everyone and, as always, may the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Weekly Wonders: Eurhinodelphis

26 10 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Due to the fact that over the past few weeks, this blog has essentially transformed into ‘Mark’s Ode To Phytosaurs’ (something which I seriously doubt that Dr. Hungerbuehler would have any sort of problem with), I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s ‘wonder’ to one of my beloved paleo-mammals.

Recently, my good friend and colleague Donny Price (another MCC paleo-student and research assistant with whom my long-time readers have already been acquainted on several occasions) were asked by Dr. Hungerbuehler’s wife, Simone, to create and present an hour-long lecture concerning the evidence for evolution for her high school students who have opted to take a special Mesalands biology class (yes, I know: this isn’t nearly enough time). When the time came to plan our specific examples, I couldn’t resist commenting on a growing trend I’ve observed in the science of paleontological evolution: cetaceans are the new avian theropods. Simply put, fossils which widen our knowledge of whale evolution are ‘hot’ right now, both in terms of press coverage and academic prestige, with entire websites dedicated to their study. Furthermore, many of the most prominent paleontology programs have taken at least one cetacean expert under their wing of late, including SUNY Stony Brook and the University of Michigan: a trend which is quite comparable to the hype surrounding individuals working on the early evolution of birds and bird-like theropods during the ‘dinosaur renaissance’ of the sixties and seventies. With this in mind, I insisted that we cover the information presented by the fossil record concerning this new study, a discussion for which I shall largely turn to the following video:

To best prepare myself for this scenario, I’ve been ‘boning’ up on fossil whales recently (okay, that pun even makes ME vomit…) and have stumbled across a rather bizarre critter: Eurhinodelphis sp., aka: the ‘sword-nosed dolphin’.

Eurhinodelphis skull reconstruction (hat-tip to

Eurhinodelphis bossi skull reconstruction (hat-tip to

In 1900, Frank Evers Beddard pointed out in his book creatively entitled “A Book Of Whales” that “the snout [of odontocetes, the ‘toothed whales’]… is very elongated, the degree of elongation varying from genus to genus. It is most developed, perhaps, in the extinct genus Eurhinodelphis, [(which he compares to a platanistid… more on this later)]. The toothed whales, in fact, embody the extremes of shortening and elongation of the facial regions of the skull.”

Before going into further ‘depth’ about the anatomy and lifestyle of this aquatic beast (I guess that pun wasn’t much better), a discussion of its phylogeny is in order. Eurhinodelphis is (unsurprisingly) utilized as an ambassador to the Eurhinodelphidae family which, according to the compendium “Prehistoric Mammals Of Australia And New Gunea: One Hundred Million Years Of Evolution” , is “an extinct group of medium- to long-snouted dolphins [k]nown around the world from the late Oligocene to the middle Miocene in marine deposits”. Remington Kellogg identified these animals by the following characteristics:

“Rostrum [(‘snout’)] excessively elongated, occupying in one case (Eurhinodelphis longirostrus) nine-elevenths of the length of the skull…premaxilla strongly attenuated, forming by itself, in E. longirostrus, much more than half of the rostrum; in E. cochetexui, it is, on the other hand, shorter than the rostral portion of the maxilla. Skull… either slightly convex (E. cochetexui, E. longirostrus) or with a transverse crest (E. cristatus). Maxilla and mandible alone bear teeth; maxilla with 37 to 60 conical teeth, single rooted in each maxilla; premaxilla edentulous [(‘toothless’)], with a rudimentary alveolar gutter with sharp borders, which extends to the anterior extremity of the rostrum [(‘forward-most part of the snout’)]… the symphysis of the lower jaw [(”the connection point between the two halves, or ‘mandibles’)] is very long, and the mandible is furnished with conical teeth, very close together, and single-rooted. Lachrymal free, separated from the jugal by a suture, but with age, sometimes anklyosed around it. Olfactory foramina are large. Supraorbital arch [(‘the arch above the upper half of the eye socket’)] convex. Maxillae, above the orbits, especially in E. cristatus, very thick… The form of the various bones in the skull, especially the squamosal, varies greatly in different individuals.”

Eurhinodelphis reconstruction.

Eurhinodelphis reconstruction.

Kellogg also notes that the cervical vertebrae of these animals are free, the scapula resembles that of modern oceanic dolphins, and the humerus is very similar to those found in modern sperm whales. Furthermore, unlike modern dolphins, Eurhinodelphis was a heterodont: meaning that its jaws contained differently-shaped teeth, with the anterior teeth generally being thinner than their posterior counterparts in addition to the former frequently pointing forward (most noticeably in E. cocheteuxi). On his personal page, Jayson Kowinsky writes that “Although Eurhinodelphis teeth are [more] complex [than those of modern dolphins], they are still tiny and peg-shaped… This means that Eurhinodelphis‘ diet was similar to that of today’s dolphins, [which consists] mainly [of] crustaceans and fish.”

Kowinsky holds an assemblage of Eurhinodelphis teeth.

Kowinsky holds an assemblage of Eurhinodelphis teeth.

He also compares the snouts of Eurhinodelphis and modern river dolphins (platanistoids) and points out that these creatures are unrelated (though somewhat comparable in size, as Eurhinodelphis reached lengths of six to seven feet or two to three meters, which is quite similar to those obtained by the extant Amazon river dolphins ), a fact solidified by the absence of premaxillary teeth in Eurhinodelphis (among other things). It’s been speculated that the long snouts of this creature was used for such things as digging for small, sand-dwelling organisms or as a bat with which to stun fish.

Just as the evolutionary transition between theropods and birds produced a number of oddballs, it would appear that cetaceans have had a few eccentric relatives of their own, many of which are doubtlessly awaiting discovery and research.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!