Yet Another Awesome British Science Show…

26 05 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

A YouTube acquaintance of mine recently sent me the following clip from the British Channel 4 program “Inside Nature’s Giants” which, as far as I can ascertain, is an intriguing exploration into the ecology, evolution, and comparative anatomy of some of the planet’s largest creatures. The video I’ve posted appears to be a collection of clips from a trio of episodes involving the modern giraffe, what I believe to be a Nile crocodile, and the asian elephant. Sadly, it looks like there’s no news of a DVD coming along anytime soon. Fortunately, however, there’s no shortage of available online clips.

WARNING: This footage involves a great deal of dissection and is therefore NOT for the squeamish and/or faint of heart!

NOTE: Dawkins’ assertion that “[Crocodiles] haven’t changed much in a very long time” is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification of crocodylian evolution… for more information, I’d reccomend tracking down a copy of this book.


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.

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!

A Proboscidean Family Portrait

25 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

At the onset of last Saturday’s ‘Weekly Wonders’ post which featured Prodeinotherium, I lamented my inability to locate any reconstructions of the intriguing animal. Fortunately, however, I’ve recently stumbled upon a wonderful digitalized version of the following image which originally appeared in Jeheskel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy’s incomparable compendium “The Proboscidea: Evolution And Paleoecology Of Elephants And Their Relatives”, which features Prodeinotherium bavaricum (number 4) along with a number of its relatives. Rather than merely inject it into the aforementioned post, I’ve decided that it deserves its own article and consequently obliged.

The animals depicted in the above image are as follows:

1=Moeritherium trigodon

2=Numidotherium koholense

3=Barytherium grave

4=Prodeinotherium bavaricum

5=Palaeomastodon beadnelli

6= Mammut americanum

7= Gomphotherium angustidens

8= Platybelodon grangeri

9= Rhynchotherium tlascalae (which I’ve covered previously here)

10= Cuvieronius hyodon

11= Tetralophodon longirostris

12= Anancus arvernensis

13= Stegolophodon cautleyi

14= Stegodon ganesa (for an interesting article related to which, do go here)

15= Primelephas gomphotheroides

16= Loxodonta africana

17= Elephas maxiums

18= Mammuthus primigenius

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Weekly Wonders: Prodeinotherium

24 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(NOTE #1: Despite WordPress’ argument to the contrary, this post was in fact written on Saturday, January 23rd, so it counts!)

(NOTE #2: Due to the unfortunate fact that I’ve been unable to locate any reconstructions of Prodeinotherium, all of the images displayed in this post depict it’s more famous relative Deinotherium unless otherwise indicated)

As amusement park caricaturists are well-aware, celebrities often become synonymous with a given trait. For instance, if you’re anything like me, when you consider “big chins”, Jay Leno comes to mind, and when someone gives mention to “greasepaint moustaches”, your mind turns to Groucho Marx. In fact, the latter example became so fundamental to the man’s identity that, according to legend, he’d routinely go without his trademark nasal attire to avoid public detection.

This trend isn’t at all unlike that which accompanies how our brain learns to recognize various animals. Attempting to imagine a horse without its hooves or a bird without its feathers often proves to be an extraordinarily difficult feat. Yet, the fossil record clearly indicates that such creatures once existed. In addition, it would appear that, even during their presence, both characteristics have displayed a significant amount of diversity within their respective group’s evolutionary tree. Which brings us to elephants…

Proboscidean trunks, so characteristic of the order’s modern representatives, have likely undergone a similar amount of variety during their 35-million-year-old history, yet it’s notoriously difficult to be more specific to this end due to the fact that they simply don’t fossilize. Thus, with the obvious exception of frozen Mammuthus primigenius specimens, any attempt to reconstruct their appearance on extinct genera must be made on the basis of the skull in question. Yet this is hardly a foolproof method. For instance, most illustrations of Platybelodon, Amebelodon, and their kin display a short, flap-like proboscis which came to be unchallenged within the paleontological community’s collective psyche until Dave Lambert made the assertion that, on the basis of morphological evidence, the trunks of these animals were much more like those of modern elephants. However, when it comes to controversial trunks, no group can challenge the family of this week’s featured beast, the Deinotheriidae.

Prodeinotherium teeth being measured.

According to Jeheskel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy’s definitive text “The Proboscidea: Evolution And Paleoecology Of Elephants And Their Relatives”, no one was quite sure what to make of the Deinotheriidae in the years following its discovery in the form of isolated teeth which were assigned to extinct rhinos, tapirs, and ground sloths before “a partial skeleton was unearthed during the collapse of an embarkment on the Prague-Brunn railroad in 1853”. Even now, their taxonomic allegiances remain a point of dispute: though most authorities place them within the proboscidea, others maintain that they represent a sister group.

Traditional Deinotherium reconstruction.

While their direct ancestry is fairly ambiguous, the earliest Deinothere known to science is the hippo-sized Chilgatherium harrisi from the late Oligocene of Ethiopia, which is consistent with the theory that the proboscidea initially emerged in Africa. The group appears to have persisted for 20 million years until the latest-known genus, Deinotherium bozasi of Kenya, finally went extinct in the late Pleistocene (their extinction may have been directly related to the spread of grasslands and competition from the Elephantids during the Pliocene). During the course of the family’s evolution, relatively few significant anatomical alterations were obtained (especially when one considers the uncanny diversity of the Gomphotheriidae) other than a progressive increase in size. Geographically, the Deinotheriidae was more ‘adventurous’, having spread to Eurasia during the early Miocene with Prodeinotherium sp. leading the charge.

A lone Deinotherium patrols a Spanish plain during the late Miocene.

The earliest Prodeinotherium species, P. hobleyi, is known from early Miocene deposits in Eastern Africa. As the genus spread, new species began to appear in Pakistan (P. pentapotamiae) and France (P. bavaricum). During the mid-Miocene, these animals started to become replaced by Deinotherium species: D. bozasi, D. giganteum, and D. indicus, respectively. This raises an intriguing question: did Deinotherium emerge from one ancestral species, or did each aforementioned Deinotherium species evolve from its local Prodeinotherium counterpart? Hopefully, further research will clear up the genus’ mysterious origins.

An enormous Deinotherium giganteum pursues a pair of Australopithecus in a promotional image for BBC's 'Walking With Beasts" mini-series.

In “Evolving Eden: An Illustrated Guide To The Evolution Of The African Large-Mammal Fauna”, Alan Turner lists the following characteristics of the Deinotheriidae family:

“Members… have high crested teeth… They are well known in the African fossil record, especially in the Pliocene of eastern areas with the species Deinotherium bozasi… Deinotheres are distinguished from other proboscideans by the absence of upper tusks and the presence of distinctive, downwardly curved tusks in the lower jaw and by the elongated shape of the skull.”

Prodeinotherium is distinguished from its more famous namesake by it’s proportionally smaller size, forelimbs, and molars.

Right, then. Now that we’ve discussed the evolution and distinguishing characteristics of this week’s animal and the family to which it belonged, it’s time for the fun part: analyzing it’s dietary behavior and soft-tissue anatomy (that sentence alone seems sufficient enough to qualify yours truly as a grade-A nerd, but who’s complaining?).

Yet another traditional Deinotherium reconstruction.

One of the first things any budding paleo-mammology enthusiast grows to learn and appreciate is the importance of mammalian teeth: a fact which is just as prominent in the Deinotheriidae as in any family of mammals. Shoshani writes:

“The… shearing teeth of deinotheres were ideally suited for processing soft foliage. Loss of the upper tusks and the downturned nature of the lower tusks would have permitted more direct access of food to the mouth, and could justify an interpretation of a short, tapir-like proboscis in these animals [(more on that later)]. Many deinothere tusks show evidence of wear, although no consistent wear pattern or location has been identified. The fact that deinotheres had long legs but short necks enables one to argue against frequent use of their tusks for, and [it’s been suggested] that these tusks could have been used as sources of purchase for manipulation of a short proboscis or even for recognition of individuals by members of the same species.”

In “Mammoths, Sabertooths, And Hominids: 65 Million Years Of Mammalian Evolution In Europe” Jordi Agusti makes the following observation:

“The shape of muscle insertion areas in the neck vertebrae and posterior skull of deinotheres reflects a marked specialization for enhanced movement in the vertical plane. Compared with those of a modern elephant, the muscles that pull the head up and those that bring it down [could] act through a wider arc. This was very likely related to the action of the downward-pointing tusks, although the precise function of the tusks remains a matter of debate. Since the deinotheres were clearly obligate browsers- as indicated by the morphology of their cheek teeth- it seems likely that the tusks were used in concert with the trunk to gather foliage from the branches of trees.”

As I hinted at the onset of this post, the trunks of the Deinotheriidae are by a wide margin the family’s most controversial feature. To explain why, allow me to reference an excellent 2008 post on the subject fromThe World We Don’t Live In“:

“When [the legendary paleontologist Henry Fairfeld] Osborn first reconstructed Deinotherium back in 1910, he drew it with a short, flap-like trunk much like a tapir’s, but later dropped that reconstruction for no known reason…This reconstruction was revived by [Georgi] Markov [along with his colleagues N. Spassov & V. Simeonovski in 2001] . From a study of the skull’s shape, they deduced that Deinotherium must have had a short, tapir-like snout hanging over its descending lower jaw. A long trunk was not necessary, as a browser standing 5 m high at the shoulder had little need to reach the ground. The tusks remained free for whatever purpose they served, and the nostrils, at the end of the proboscis, could smell and inspect food.”

Deinotherium reconstruction with a short, tapir-like trunk.

However, not everyone buys into this interpretation, as many paleo-artists still reconstruct Prodeinotherium and its kin with lengthy, sinuous trunks which resemble those of their modern relatives. Nevertheless, it goes to reveal that, as with a great many congregations of organisms, the scientific community still has much to learn about the evolution and diversity of the proboscidea.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

UPDATE: God, I love my readers! Doug has courteously scanned a few of Mauricio Anton’s amazing Prodeinotherium illustrations which I’ve displayed below (note that the latter sketch compares a P. hobleyi to a modern African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana). Many thanks!!

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!

Weekly Wonders: Rhynchotherium

12 09 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

My “real-life” correspondents and regular readers are doubtlessly unaware of my fascination with proboscideans, particularly those which, to date, have yet to appear in any “Ice Age” films. The latter half of this statement draws its origins from my general outlook on paleontology which I hope has also been reflected in my blog: that delightfully bizarre and relatively obscure animals deserve just as much attention from scientists and the media as their more familiar counterparts. Don’t get me wrong: mammoths are truly captivating beasts and I quite like examining dental specimens from M. columbi and (occasionally) M.  primigenius here at the MCC museum. But most people simply don’t realize that the order has seen far more players in its evolution, including some really peculiar creatures which must have been amazing to behold in their day.  Most of these oddballs hail from one of the more well-known families of proboscids, the Gomphotheriidae, which is by a wide margin the largest.

Bjorn Kurten and Elaine Anderson appear to concur with this conclusion in “Pleistocene Mammals of North America” wherein they write:

“Of the…proboscidean [families], the Gomphotheriidae- the pig-toothed beasts- show the greatest diversity and include[s] such specialized groups as the shovel-toothed amebelodonts, the beak-tusked rhynchotheres, and the short-jawed anacines (whose cranial specializations parallel those of the true elephants).  The main lineage, the bunodont gompotheres…can be traced to Phiomia (from the Oligocene of North Africa) to Gomphotherium (a widespread Miocene genus), Tetralophodon (from the Old World and North America), and Stegomastodon (from the late Tertiary and early Pleistocene of North and South America)…Although many diverse lines of Gomphotheres developed, the family has remarkably uniform dentition. Compared to the simple molars of the mastodonts, gomphothere molars are complex, with additional rounded cusps and accessory conules that wear to a complicated trefoil pattern. Tusks were usually present in both jaws. Gomphotheres had a longer body and head and shorter limbs than the true elephants.”

Though this post could easily evolve into a love letter to the family and, by extension, the order, I’m restraining myself to highlighting one specific genus in accordance with ‘Weekly Wonders’ tradition: Rhynchotherium sp.

A Rhynchotherium herd as drawn by Olduvai George.

A Rhynchotherium herd as drawn by "Olduvai George".

In “The Proboscidea: Evolution And Paleoecology Of Elephants And Their Relatives” (which is an amazing resource for anyone even remotely interested in these animals), W. David Lambert compares Rhynchotherium with the more well-known Gomphotherium on the following characteristics:

-The enamel bands of Rhynchotherium’s upper tusks spiral to various degrees whilst its mandibular tusks (those on the lower jaw) frequently have enamel bands, which is unique amongst gomphotheres.

Rhynchotherium‘s mandibular symphysis (the plane which serves as a connection point between both sides of the lower jaw in the ‘chin’ region) is slightly deflected downward, unlike that of Gomphotherium (it’s of similar length in both creatures).

He also notes that “Specimens referred to Rhynchotherium range from California east to Florida and from Kansas to Central America, with several specimens known from Mexico…Thus, it can be considered to be a relatively Southern genus, possibly due to a restriction of woodland savanna to this region.”

Rhynchotherium most likely evolved from North American Gomphotherium populations and seems to be most closely akin to fellow American gomphotheres Cuvieronius and Stegomastodon. Carl Buell (aka: Olduvai George) has written in this spectacularly artistic post that “evidence suggests that Rhynchotheres evolved [in Mexico and Central America], [and later] dispersing back to the north”.

Yet another beautiful reconstruction by Olduvai George.

Yet another beautiful reconstruction by Olduvai George.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

P.S.: Lately, I’ve been conversing with my good friend Brian Beatty about possible grad programs for someone interested in Proboscideans and Perissodactylslike myself. I fully realize that, as an undergrad sophomore, this level of my education is fairly far away. However, I feel that it would be wise to evaluate various schools relatively early on in my collegiate career to better prepare myself for when the time comes to choose between them. So far, I’ve begun evaluating the pros and cons of NEOUCOM, The University of Florida, The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Columbia University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and The Richard Gilder Graduate School. If anyone has additional suggestions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or e-mail me with your ideas.

A Rhynchotherium lower jaw (minus the mandibular tusks) from Mexico.

A Rhynchotherium lower jaw (minus the mandibular tusks) from Mexico.