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: Preondactylus

13 03 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

As any perusal of Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings and Mark Witton’s photostream will reveal, few groups of fossilized organisms are as controversial as their beloved pterosaurs. It’s not difficult to understand why, given their notoriously-thin bones and the fact that they relied extensively on delicate and seldomly-preserved soft tissue. Few aspects of pterosaur paleontology, however, have amassed a degree of debate obtained by the subject of the animals’ ancestry. While proto-dinosaurs are well-known and extensively documented, no analagous beasts have been conclusively located for these famed fliers, a situation which is probably due to the factors cited above. Nonetheless, we can infer a reasonable amount of information concerning the early phylogeny of the pterosauria by examining the earliest members of the order, one of the best known of which is the earliest known pterosaur, Preondactylus buffarini of the Italian late Triassic.

In his book “Dinosaurs Of Italy”, Cristiano Dal Sasso writes:

“[The] first individual of Preondactylus (literally ‘finger of Preone’) was the size of a magpie; it had a wingspan of less than 50 centimeters. Subsequently a second, larger individual, with an estimated wingspan of 150 centimeters, represented by three wing phalanges, was discovered in Endenna, in Lombardy [(interestingly, this latter specimen is theorized to actually be a fossilized pellet of bones which had been spat out by a fish that had previously consumed the reptile)]. Preondactylus had triangular teeth with only one cusp each, arranged in a row of alternating long and short points, which do not give a clear idea of the animal’s diet [(though insectivorous and piscivorous diets have been proposed)].”

Additionally, according to Dave Unwin’s “Pterosaurs: From Deep Time”,

Preondactylus was about the size of a pigeon and had numerous well-developed teeth, including several large prey-grabbing fangs at the tip of its jaws. This pterosaur also had a fully developed flight apparatus and was almost certainly a competent flier, although its wings seem to have been relatively shorter than in any other pterosaurs found so far and the tail, unlike those of later rhamphorynchoids, was relatively simple, without the usual stiffening sheath of bony rods.”

Another primitive characteristic possessed by this animal was its relatively long hindlimbs, as evidenced by the following illustration.

It should be noted, however, that Éric Buffetaut and Jean-Michel Mazin have argued that “A re-examination of… this taxon showed that the wing metacarpal and tibia were considerably shorter and the first wing phalanx considerably longer than thought, casting doubt about its basal position within the Pterosauria.” The pair went on to assert that the species is “more derived than anurognathids and Sordes“. Unwin, however, has antithetically claimed that Preondactylus is the most basal pterosaur known to science.

Regardless of one’s personal convictions on the subject of the previous paragraph, it can’t be denied that Preondactylus shared a number of features with fellow Triassic pterosaur Peteinosaurus, which strongly suggests a relatively close kinship. To once again reference “Pterosaurs: From Deep Time”: 

Preondactylus reconstruction, courtesy of the legendary Mark Witton.

Peteinosaurus was in many respects similar, but had the classic stiffened whip-tail of typical rhamphorhynchoids, and, significantly, the dentistry was rather different. Behind the prey-grabbing fangs was a row of tiny, saw-like teeth that probably served to hang onto food items until they could be swallowed.”  

Even if this aspect of Preondactylus‘ phylogeny is relatively unambiguous, this genus and the order in which it taxonomically resides contains no shortage of mysteries to be pursued by the next generation of pterosaur researchers.

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!

“Godzilla Day 2009”

3 11 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Don’t worry hard-core science lovers, there will be more substantial material discussed shortly. However, I just couldn’t resist indulging in frivolous childhood nostalgia for a wee bit…

On this day in 1954, Toho Studios released what was arguably the most influential Japanese film ever made: “Gojira”, a name which later evolved elsewhere on the globe into “Godzilla”. The rest is well-known history: the movie spawned a whopping twenty-seven sequels (excluding the hideous American film starring Matthew Broderick) and the massive mutant has grown into a household name in place of countless contemporaries (and rip-offs). In light of this momentous occasion (and lest anyone doubt my nerdy-ness), I’ve decided to create this celebratory post in order to highlight one of the greatest things about Godzilla movies: the diverse and often bizarre cast of enormously proportioned creatures.

The series has seen the appearances of literally dozens of monsters, ranging from giant lobsters to three-headed extraterrestrial dragons to one-eyed cyborgs. As a result, the saga has expanded far beyond the realm of the monster king himself. Thus, I humbly present a countdown of the characters which are, in my humble opinion, Godzilla’s greatest co-stars:

#10: Megaguirus

Although a relative late-comer to the Godzilla series, Megaguirus has earned a place on this list due to the exceptional originality which accompanies her character, both in terms of design and behavior. Unlike the traditional adversarial kaiju (“Japanese Monster”), her combat style rests not upon physical strength or weaponry but on agility and strategy. Her evasive yet brutal tactics have doubtlessly commanded the respect of many a monster fan, in addition to the recognition she deserves from them for being the only satisfying original villain of the millenium series.

#9. Anguirus

(No, he’s not related to the previous beast)

Okay, the very fact that ‘Ang’ isn’t listed within the top five will automatically draw the ire of most Japanese monster nerds, to which I say ‘tough toenails’! I’ll readily concede that Anguirus is certainly an interesting character due to his tenacity and combativeness. I simply don’t find him to be nearly as interesting as the monsters I’ve listed below. Nonetheless, he does hold the distinction for being the first Godzilla villain and, later, one of “the big G’s” most valuable allies. Plus, his revamped appearance in the fiftieth-anniversary film “Godzilla: Final Wars” marked the premiere of some truly stunning (if somewhat unorthodox) attack techniques.

#8: Biollante

One of the most innovative and effective Godzilla villains, Biollante continues a long-held tradition within the series: turning the audience’s attention towards one of the leading threats of the era. While Godzilla himself originated as a commentary on nuclear testing and Hedorah ‘the smog monster’ was used to capitalize on the ever-growing threat of pollution, Biollante drew its strength from examining the unknown aspects of the then-new field of genetic engineering. Additionally, while most Godzilla villains are either vaguely humanoid in appearance or based clearly upon the anatomy of an extant animal, this genetically-altered plant sports no such ties and presents the viewer with a truly grotesque beast.

#7: Gigan

Gigan has undergone a rather polarized demeanor through his various incarnations, having been depicted as an inglorious but intelligent coward during the seventies and as a relatively brainless hulk in “Godzilla: Final Wars”. Nonetheless, he’s always been dear to G-fans and his battles have never failed to impress.

#6. Hedorah (aka: “The Smog Monster”)

There are precious few words with which to describe Hedorah and, by extension, the entirety of the film “Godzilla vs The Smog Monster” in which his debut was made. One thing is pristinely clear, however: Hedorah cannot be classified as a ‘weak’ villain. This metamorphosing juggernaut instantly strikes the audience as a nearly-unstoppable foe, for how could anyone defeat such a powerful beast whose makeup is largely restricted to toxic sludge? This creative and bizarre film defines the term ‘relic from the seventies’, an age when the hippie movement was surging and disco was at its height, both of which make huge contributions to the plot and visuals of this strange, strange movie. Nevertheless, the movie’s success is largely attributable to its intimidating and unpredictable desperado.

#5: Rodan

With the obvious exception of Mothra, Rodan is, to date, the only kaiju to have become an indispensible part of the Godzilla series after starring in his own (highly entertaining) film. One of the many reasons why I regard Rodan more highly than Anguirus lies in the fact that he didn’t need to ride the coat-tails of the monster king to achieve cinematic glory, he performed magnificently in his own 1956 movie before joining the Godzilla series eight years later. His usually easy-going yet strongly assertive character provides a unique mixture of admiration and comic relief to every film in which he appears (who could forget his schadenfreude-inspired cackle when watching Mothra cover Godzilla in webbing during ‘Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster’?).

4. Destoroyah

destoroyahEasily the series’ greatest villain of the ’90s, Destoroyah maintains a reputation for being one of the strongest, most sinister, and most impressive adversaries Godzilla has ever faced. It’s been observed that what makes this beast so engaging to longtime fans is its exquisite blend of characteristics from earlier foes: it’s many forms stem from Hedorah’s frequent transformation, it’s tusks are a throwback to those of Biollante, and its arthropod-esque skin forces us to recall Ebirah ‘the sea monster’. “Godzilla vs Destoroyah” is unquestionably one of the greatest films in the series and, strange as it may sound, nearly everyone I’ve shown it to finds its conclusion to be genuinely moving. The villain is just one entry on a long list of things that the movie gets right, and not just in terms of its design. Destoroyah is particularly notorious for being a ruthless, sadistic menace who has earned international scorn for brutally killing the comparatively-tiny Godzilla Junior. The one factor which prevents it from achieving a higher place on this list, however, is its relative inexperience. Having debued in 1995 and having failed to make an appearance since, it simply can’t compete with the likes of King Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla when the topic of great Godzilla villains emerges.

#3: Mechagodzilla

Mechagodzilla is a character who appears to undergo constant improvement, yet this is not to say that it’s been evolving in a predictable direction. In its first appearance back in 1974’s “Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla” and its direct sequel “Terror of Mechagodzilla”, the gargantuan robot relies almost exclusively upon its arsenal of projectile weaponry. In 1993’s “Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla 2”, the metal contraption features a massively-upgraded arsenal and connects itself to a smaller vessel to even further increase its power. But it is its latest incarnation as shown above which arguably commands the most attention, due to its comparatively lean physique and extreme adeptness at vigorous physical combat. Regardless of whether or not the robotic menace is portrayed as a hero or a villain, the very fact that it’s always been intended as ‘the anti-Godzilla’ ensures that its every appearance is a memorable one.

#2: Mothra

Alright, so she’s not the most intimidating monster. However, consider the following: Mothra entered the Godzilla series after being featured in her own movie (just as Rodan would later do), became THE best-known co-star of the big G, AND starred in a series of films outside of the Godzilla series during the late nineties. She obviously could not have done so had she lacked any sort of redeeming quality. First of all, she’s exceedingly intelligent, often utilizing her superior brainpower to overcome whatever villain threatens her. This also translates into a very politically-savvy bug, as exemplified in “Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster” when she was able to convince Godzilla and Rodan to work together against an otherwise unbeatable nemesis which could have easily destroyed the planet. Also, her petite appearance wonderfully contrasts the gruff and frequently hideous collection of characters which surrounds her in every film. Despite this, she proves time and time again that she’s more than capable of fighting with ‘the big dogs’. Finally, she’s defined what the Godzilla series is more than any other single kaiju with the obvious exception of the namesake character. The fact that she’s the saga’s only monster other than Godzilla himself to be pitted against an antithetical beast (the insect known as ‘Battra‘) shows just how vital she is to the franchise.

#1: King Ghidorah

The Yankees have the Red Sox, Thomas Jefferson had Alexander Hamilton, O.C. Marsh had Edward Drinker Cope, and Godzilla has King Ghidorah. While Godzilla has found an occasional ally in Mothra and even, briefly, enlisted the aid of Mechagodzilla at the conclusion of “Godzilla: Tokyo SOS”, King Ghidorah has always stood firmly against the king of the monsters. Godzilla’s sheer size has always been one of his greatest assets, yet he’s almost invariably been dwarfed by this three-headed behemoth. Even in 2001’s “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack” (which desperately requires a shorter title) in which Ghidorah was depicted as being a smaller, more serpentine creature, he gave the then massively-powerful Godzilla his only true challenge. Whether he’s seen as being under extraterrestrial control, a product of reckless time travel, or as an ancient Japanese guardian, King Ghidorah has never come close to finding common ground upon which to tread with Godzilla and has often made the big guy look like an unadulterated hero when compared to his extreme brutality and blood lust. And one would almost certainly arrive at the conclusion that when faced with such a fantastic array of villains as that presented by the Godzilla series, only an antagonist of King Ghidorah’s caliber could hope to incontestably maintain the title of ‘Public Enemy Number One’ for nearly half a century.

May the fossil record (and the B-movies it so often inspires) continue to enchant us all!

Art Evolved: The Pterosaur Gallery

3 07 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

If you haven’t been checking out Craig Dyke’s “Art Evolved” paleoart blog, which sports (among many other things) a bi-monthly gallery containing reconstructions of a featured prehistoric group from all around the paleo-blogosphere, you’ve been doing yourself a great dis-service. Previously, the ceratopsians and synapsids have entered their spotlight and this month, the ever-popular pterosaurs have been called to the stage. For its next installment, the blog will take a break from vertebrate galleries to feature the weird and wonderful anomalocarids.

One of these days, I have got to submit something!

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Wednesday Wonders: Cearadactylus

13 05 2009

“Grant was thinking these weren’t ordinary pterodactyls. They were too large. They must be cearadactyls, big flying reptiles from the early Cretaceous. When they were high, these looked like small airplanes. When they came lower, he could see the animals had fifteen-foot wingspans, furry bodies, and heads like crocodiles’. They ate fish, he remembered. South America and Mexico.”

So the late Michael Chrichton describes the bizarre Cearadactylus atrox, in what is undoubtedly the animal’s most famous appearance in any fictional medium during the final third of his now-classic novel,” Jurassic Park” (and considering its status as such, I’ll ignore his replacement of the word ‘pterosaurs’ with ‘pterodactyls’) . Though the scene in question was never adapted for the original film, it did inspire the notorious aviary scene in the series’ mediocre third installment wherein the lead (reptilian) role was given not to Cearadactylus but to its far more recognizable distant relative, Pteranodon longiceps, which was erroneously depicted with re-curved teeth (a particularly unforgivable mistake given the fact that “Pteranodon” means “toothless wing”).

Aside from it’s comparatively iconic image, one would wonder why Spielberg and company selected Pteranodon over Cearadactylus when the latter clearly suffers from no shortage of teeth, as this photograph (which represents the creature’s only known skull) exquisitely demonstrates. According to The Pterosaur Database,

“This pterosaur is known from a single skull of about 57cm in length from the Santana Formation, north eastern Brazil. The jaw is articulated and uncrushed, showing the position in life.”

Cearadactylus skull reconstruction.

Cearadactylus skull reconstruction.

However, much of the skull’s posterior is missing, given that an erosional line cuts through the holotype’s nasopreorbital opening (the large hole in the skull which sits in front of the eyes in pterosaurs), orbit (eye socket), and lower temporal fenestra, everything above which has been destroyed and erased. Since this region is missing, it’s possible that Cearadactylusmay have sported a crest, but given the fact that most of its closest relatives (which will be outlined later) were crestless, it doesn’t seem very likely.

Cearadactylus was almost certainly a pterodactyloid pterosaur, as evidenced by the considerable size and overall shape of its skull. Specifically, it appears to have hailed from a group known as the ctenochasmatoids which, as David Unwin explains in his recent book “The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time”, are defined by:

“A highly modified skull design in which the quadrate bone, upon which the lower jaw hinged, lay in an almost horizontal position, and a neck that was extremely long, achieved not by adding more vertebrae, as birds do, but by stretching several of the existing ones into long tube-like structures.”

Some of the most famous ctenochasmatoid genera include the name-bearing Ctenochasma, the famed Pterodactylus, and a creature to which Cearadactylus is likely a close relative, Gnathosaurus. Most ctenochasmatoids are depicted as shore-dwelling, heron-like predators wading in bodies of water to either sieve for prey or snatch it depending on their dentition. Given the appearance of Cearadactylus‘ teeth and jaws, it’s not very difficult to guess to which school of action the beast subscribed. 

Cearadactylus reconstruction

Cearadactylus reconstruction

When one steals another glance at that magnificent maw, one can’t help but note a striking similarity to the long, crocodile-like, snouts which characterise the spinosauridae and are widely believed to have served as tools with which to capture and hold slippery fish. Indeed, the proportions of Cearadactylus‘ jaws and teeth scream in testimony to this resemblance and thus it comes as no surprise to learn that most pterosaur experts have attributed them to an identical (or at least very similar) function. While it’s obvious that not all pterosaurs were strictpiscivores (fish eaters), it’s fairly safe to assume that this title may be handed to this particular genera. Peter Wellnhoffer, one of the world’s most foremost pterosaur workers, expands on these observations in his book “The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Pterosaurs”:

“A particular feature of Cearadactylus is its powerful dentition. The front teeth are much longer and much stronger than the back ones. When the snout is closed, there was a gap in the front area. The long front teeth, set in jaws which broaden to a spoon shape at the front, suggest an excellent grip when catching slippery fish.”

This infamous dental arsenal was the result of tens of millions of years of evolution within the gnathosaurine branch of the ctenochasmatoids. According to David Unwin:

“Their teeth [became] larger and largerand steadily fewer in number. These changes point to a shift in diet toward bigger prey items, with a switch at some point from invertebrates back to fish. In this case, the trend culminated in Cearadactylus, a large 3-to-4 meter (10-to-13-foot) wingspan gnathosaurine.”

Cearadactylus shared its range with a plethora of weird and wonderful pterodactyloids, including Tropeognathus, Anhanguera, and Tapejara, all of whom lived from approximately 120 to 112 MYA. One can only hope that more material of this creature is eventually located, given the pterosaurian propensity for shattering our interpritations of previously-known species via the discovery of relatively complete new specimens.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

P.S: I realize that reptiles have monopolized the new ‘Wednesday Wonders’ segment thus far. Rest assured, fellow paleo-mammal fans, non-reptilian creatures will get their chance in the spotlight soon enough.

Paleo-news roundup

18 02 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

The most basal sauropodomorph to date found in Argentina.

Panphagia protos, at approximately 228,300,000 years of age and around 1.3 meters in length (bear in mind that this was a juvenile), has recently been unearthed at Ischigualasto Provincial Park in Argentina recently. The animal is particularly interesting for two reasons (in addition to its age):

-Based on its dentition, it was likely an omnivore.

-It lived at approximately the same time as Saturnalia  tupiniquim, another basal sauropodomorph which was somewhat more advanced. This suggests to some researchers that the initial radiation of the group occured shortly prior to this time.

For more information, check out Dracovenator, Chinleana, and of course, the HMNH.

A new paper on pterosaur respiration.

The incomparable Darren Naish of ‘Tetrapod Zoology’ fame has recently posted a fascinating new post which discusses the specifics of pterosaur respiration (and its implications for flight) based on an exciting new study. Check it out!

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!