Monday, 30 April 2007

Why does a platypus lay eggs anyway?

Children are taught many ‘rules of thumb’ to help them identify animals, for example: mammals, are furry (or hairy), give birth to live young, make milk and take care of their children. So why does the furry platypus lay eggs? The discovery of this bizarre, egg-laying, duck-billed, web-footed mammal initially baffled naturalists, but now we understand them much better because we know much more about their special place in the tree of evolution.

All animals on Earth are related, even though these relationships aren’t always obvious. The reason these relationships are hard to figure out is that despite the diversity of animals we see, they represent a mere fraction of the life that has ever existed on this planet. In fact, one famous palaeontologist estimated that we know of less then 1% of the Earth’s diversity through time.

To understand the relationships between animals better, we have to look back in time, at the extinct ancestors of the animals alive today (animals living today are called ‘extant’).

This diagram (called a cladogram) shows how the five major groups of vertebrate animals are related:
-Fish gave rise to the first amphibians, which crawled on to land about 400 million years ago.
-Amphibians and reptiles share a common ancestor about 350 million years ago.
-Mammals and birds evolved from reptiles much later at different times during the Mesozoic Era.

Each of these major transitions was slow. It must be understood that a fish doesn’t become an amphibian overnight. There were many different species of animals that formed that transitory stages between these groups and possessed a unique set of characteristics, a sort of ‘mosaic’ between the two groups.

Now let’s look more closely at the evolution of mammals. Mammals evolved from mammal-like-reptiles, a very diverse groups of animals which are all (unfortunately) extinct. Through time three major groups of mammals evolved:
Prototherians - which lay eggs (eg. platypuses and echidnas)
Metatherians - which let young develop in pouches (marsupials such as kangaroos and koalas)
Eutherians – ‘modern mammals’ which give birth to well-developed offspring (this includes many familiar species such as rabbits, elephants, horses, and humans)

The platypus is a prototherian. This ancient group branched off of the mammal tree of life early on before the other two groups. There are many different prototherians in the fossil record but only platypuses and echidnas are still around. So the past there was a great diversity of egg-laying mammals, but sadly, all of those animals except for platypuses and echidnas) are now extinct.

If you are interested in this topic I recommend visiting Date A Clade, which has an excellent (and more comprehensive) cladogram with detailed information on when major groups of animals split away from each other.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Announcement: Blogroll Enrollment

Well I haven't been very diligent in keeping up my blogroll. If you would like a link to your site from Fish Feet, please leave a comment on this post with your blog’s name and URL and I will add your link to my blogroll (probably – no spam please). I appreciate links back also:)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Winner of Great Turtle Race Announced!

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted about the Great Turtle Race, which tracks Leatherback Sea Turtles as they head back to their Galapagos feeding grounds. Spectators have been traveling their progress online and today the winner was announced: Billie. I hope the others do well, especially the slow starters, Sunda and Drexelina. Check out their journeys at

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Earth-like planet discovered

Astronomers have found the most Earth-like planet to date and it may have running water

Diameter: 1.5x Earth
Mass: 5x Earth
Orbit: 13 days
Temperature: 0 - 40°C
Distance from its sun: 14x closer than Earth
Distance from Earth:
20 light years

Astronomers have found the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, a world which could have water running on its surface.

The planet orbits Gliese 581, a faint star 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra. It is unclear if it is rocky, like our planet, or is covered in an ocean. But its temperature implies that water there could exist in liquid form and so it has raised the idea that it could also harbour life.

Already there is talk of aiming future space missions towards this planet. The first observational missions would put telescopes in place to seek any tell-tale light "signatures" that might be associated with biological processes such as changes in atmospheric gases and markers for chlorophyll, which is used by plants here on Earth to to photosynthesize.

Of the more than 200 planets outside of our solar system discovered so far, most are blazing hot Jupiter-like gas giants. The new Gliese 581 planet is in what scientists call the "Goldilocks Zone" where temperatures "are just right" for life to have a chance to exist.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Shark vs. Dinosaur

A recent find in Utah reveals a large prehistoric lake around 200 million years with an amazing fossil cache including an enormous, carnivorous dinosaur and several species of sharks. Anatomical features of the dinosaur suggest it specialized in eating fish, including sharks and huge bony fish, meals which palaeontologist James Kirkland describes as “like biting through chain mail [since] fish in the past were more armored than they are today."

The dinosaur, a relative of the crested dino Dilophosaurus, was about 20 feet long and so would have been a formidable adversary for its ferocious prey. The dinosaur’s slender, serrated teeth are quite unusual and only found in dinosaurs like Spinosaurus and Suchimimus.

Dilophosaurus was well adapted to being a fisherman. Its nasal openings retracted back from the end of its snout so that it could, like today's crocodiles and alligators, still breath when its mouth was underwater.

There are clear tracks and claw scrapes showing the dinosaur wading into the lake to catch its prey. "We have counted over 3,000 individual claw marks and toe scrapes that show incredibly detailed preservation," reveals palaeontologist Andrew Milner. "We can see details of cuticle on the tips of claws, skin impressions, scale scratch lines and where claw cuticle was overlapped by the fleshy toe pads at the end of the toes."

Monday, 23 April 2007

Happy Earth Day!

I’m sorry I’m a day behind! I hope that this weekend you were all able to enjoy some good weather and celebrate Earth Day 2007.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions but every year on Earth Day I try and make a change in my life that (however small) that will lower my impact on the environment. I have along ways to go towards a green lifestyle. Though I recycle and reuse my grocery bags I still do many, many other things that could be improved upon.

So for this year’s effort I will try to buy more local produce. I love exotic fruits and other foods and while I don’t plan on cutting these out of my diet entirely, I plan to have more seasonal meals and to try to appreciate the variety in which local foods can be prepared. Another advantage to buying locally is that it is often a cheaper option and you can buy directly from farmers and green grocers.

Here are 20 EASY ideas on how to contribute. All it takes is a little imagination and dedication. If you decide to make a change today, please leave a comment! Thank you, Sarda

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
-Use plastic containers instead of cling wrap and aluminum foil
-Take your own bags to the grocery store
-Recycle where facilities exist
-Hold a garage sale
-Shop in used bookstores

Home, Office & Garden
-Turn the light off when you leave a room
-Use energy saving lightbulbs
-Use half as much washing powder
-But eco-friendly washing products (eg. Ecover)
-Purchase bleach free, recycled kitchen roll or use washable tea towels
-Use cloth napkins
-Put a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker on your post box
-Buy organic
-Buy less meat, more fruits and vegetables
-Buy local
-Start a compost heap
-Use both sides of paper
-Bike, walk, carpool or use public transport to get to work.
-Pass read magazines to friends or give them to the doctor’s office

-Personalize Christmas by being crafty and making new cards from old ones

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Feathered Dinosaurs

A reader sent me this cartoon. Pollen has been found in high concentration with some Neanderthal bodies suggesting they buried their dead with flowers. But what about before flowering plants evolved?

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Book Review: Lamb by Christopher Moore

A hilarious read, but only if you are not easily offended by religious blasphemy:) Lamb is a hilarious look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of his best friend Biff. It’s an easy read and one of Moore’s best books.

Synopsis: The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years ? except Biff, the Messiah's best bud, who has been resurrected to tell the story in this divinely hilarious, yet heartfelt work reminiscent of Vonnegut and Douglas Adams' (Philadelphia Inquirer). Verily, the story Biff has to tell is a miraculous one, filled with remarkable journeys, magic, healings, kung fu, corpse reanimations, demons, and hot babes, Even the considerable wiles and devotion of the Saviour's pal may not be enough to divert Joshua from his tragic destiny.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Happy 100!

Well I have just posted my 100th post. Thanks to my regular readers and welcome to the new ones. I hope I am doing something right, I was recently awarded the Thinking Blogger Award by Oreneta, a Canadian sailor aground in Catalonia, Spain, thank you Oreneta! Now I will nominate five bloggers who make me think. I decided not to include science-related blogs which I have to admit are the majority of what I read, but rather consider five blogs which I make me think outside of my box.

The Domestic Minx has a deliciously dysfunctional diary about domestic living.

Ok, I said I wasn’t going to post a science blog, but this one is really good and completely out my realm of expertise. The (recently launched) All About Forensic Science blog explores anything and everything to do with forensic science.

Cucina Povera, which has a million great recipes for sustainable, organic living.

Wild in London
is an excellent blog about the wildlife that can be found in one of the world’s largest cities.

and Clubbing Baby Seals... an interesting blog about the weird world around us and someone of the weirder products we can buy.

Tyrannosaurus Forelimbs Revisited

Earlier in the week, I posted some theories regarding the function of T. rex’s diminutive arms. I just thought I would add some recent research before I closed the topic:

Matt Smith (Museum of the Rockies) and Ken Carpenter (Denver Museum of Natural History) began examining the wrist, hand and finger bones of the T. rex forelimb and used wax to hold the bone joints together. This led them to figure out that the forelimb's two claws have an unusual feature: unlike the opposable human thumb and forefinger combo, which can grasp objects, the two dinosaur claws face away from each other like the barbs of a fishing hook.

What does this mean? Perhaps these claws embedded themselves into the prey’s flesh and immobilized it while T. rex used his jaws to finish the job. .

Matt Smith says, "People had been looking at [forelimb] function based on proportionate size. I don't think that's appropriate."

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Sneezing in the Sun

After eight years and I am still learning new things my husband: we were walking down the street when the clouds parted, revealing a bright sun and he consequently sneezed! And now I realize that this phenomenon affects a significant number of other people I know. So in case you were ever wondering why looking at the sun on a bright day makes you sneeze here is the answer:

When a nerve cell is stimulated it passes on a chemical / electrical message to the next nerve cell in the chain. However, if it is a very strong message, this might also leak out and stimulate nearby nerve cells. So, when you look at the sun or a bright light, your eyes (and their nerves) suddenly have a lot of very strong information to pass to the brain. In addition to passing on their message, they also 'leak' a bit. Part of the path for the optic nerves (from your eyes) happens to be close to your sneeze reflex and so it can be triggered by accident.
-This text was originally contributed by David Hone on Ask a Biologist

Anecdotal evidence also seems to indicate that this unusual reflex has a genetic link, so may be common among members of the same family. This is confirmed by R. Eccles of the Common Cold and Nasal Research Group who says that this phenomenon (which he terms the ‘photic sneeze’) affects between 18-35% of the population. And that the photic sneeze is a well known hazard to fighter pilots when they turn towards the sun or are exposed to flares from anti-aircraft fire.

Shark Cartoons

Check out One Whale, home to 137 hilarious shark, whale and marine cartoons by Australian cartoonist Phil Watson.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Why do Great White Sharks always have a big bloody gape?

Something has been bothering me the last while. I can’t figure out why Great White Sharks are always depicted as having a big bloody gape? I have researched it a bit but have not come up with any good information. As it I see it though, there are three distinct possibilities:

1. The big bloody gape is a fallacy propagated by Hollywood
2. Blood is leftover from a kill
3. The blood is their own

There are few points to be noted about each possibility:

1. Purusing some stock photography (seen below) it seems that there a a mix of shark pictures, with and without bloody mouths. And of course, this may be subject to a photographer’s bias.

2. If the blood is indeed from a kill, why would it stain so long and not simply wash away? Also, it should be noted that Great Whites don't eat that often.

3. If the blood is their own, why doesn’t it attract other sharks?

If you have comments on this topic, please let me know, I would like to solve this mystery!

Scooped (or rather Bitten) again!

Once again, Brian Switek of Laelaps and Mike Ryan of Palaeoblog have beaten me to the punch on reporting on a recent publication that suggests the first tetrapods were able to bite their prey (rather then suck their food up).

Reference: Markey, M.J. and Marshall, C. R. 2007. Terrestrial-style feeding in a very early aquatic tetrapod is supported by evidence from experimental analysis of suture morphology Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Early Edition on April 16 2007.

United States’ security measures extend to the moon

Since 9/11 a lot of people have been grumbling about the United States’ increased security measures, which have resulted in closer scrutiny of visitors to the US, more paperwork and long queues at the airport. Well this document, dated July 24, 1969, from the Apollo 11 mission goes to show that the United State’s strict customs policy is not new:

(Click on the image to enlarge)

The three signatures on the document belong to Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins. And their cargo (not surprisingly) was “moon rock & moon dust samples”. And their point of departure? “MOON”.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

What were T. rex’s tiny little arms for anyway?

American palaeontologist Henry Osborn first described T. rex but initially expressed doubts that the diminutive arms he found belonged to this enormous animal. After investigating further and finding it to be true, he considered their purpose and advanced the first theory in 1906: that they were used as ‘graspers’ or stabilizers during copulation.

But this was only the start of a debate that still rages. In 1970 British palaeontologist Barney Newman suggested that the small arms braced the beast's body as it stood up.
Another, contrasting theory suggested that the small limbs are vestigials (degenerated organs that have lost their use).

To add to the confusion it seems that the muscular of the T. rex was very well defined and though the arms were disproportional to the animal's body, they were still very strong. So some people consider that the most useful function of the limbs was to be used as meat hooks while the animal fed. This theory is supported by the beautifully sharp claws on T. rex’s two fingers.

In contrast, Greg Erickson has recently commented on a biomechanical analyses of a new specimen. The aim of this study was to try and understand the physical capacities of T. rex's diminutive structures. Erickson has concluded that the elbow could not be extended beyond 90° and though the arms were very strong (they could lift about 180 kg or 400lbs) they had a very limited side-to-side and up-and-down motion.

It is also known that T. rex's arms were often broken (and mended) during its life, suggesting that the arms were poorly suited for their function that these animals could go without using their arms for extended periods of time.

I read an interesting theory a while back that suggested the arms were most useful in juveniles, as a counterbalance to the young dinsaurs fast quickly. The suggestion was made that the arms were proportionally longer in childhood compared to adulthood. However, as far as I know this theory did not gain popularity.

The truth is that no one knows the answer. Scientific inquiry into this issue has been going on for a century and it doesn’t seem likely that the mystery will be solved soon. If you have any other ideas, please let me know!

Oekologie #4

I have recently discovered blog carnivals (truth be told, my initiation to the blogosphere is recent as well). Blog carnivals and circuses are a great way to get to know your neighbours in the blogosphere and so I have requested to host Oekologie, one of the best travelling blog carnivals around. Oekologie reviews the best ecology and environmental science posts of the month from all across the blogosphere. My turn comes in September so is a way off, but I am looking forward to it! In the mean time check out the happening at the fourth edition of Oekologie, which inlcudes my article on Bears Who Hunt Belugas.

Evolution is only a theory...

As you may have heard, in 2006, the Kansas school board was campaigned to add required labels to textbooks that mention evolution. There have been many parodies on the “Warning, Evolution is only a theory” labels, these are my favourite:) campaigned to add required labels to textbooks that mention evolution. There have been many parodies on the “Warning, Evolution is only a theory” labels, these are my favourite:)

Monday, 16 April 2007

Launch of Dinobase

Well it is has FINALLY happened. After a lot of hard work on the part of many people in Bristol, DinoBase was officially launched today. DinoBase is a new interactive resource for dinosaur fans of all ages.

As Mike Benton notes, ‘We all know that people have a natural curiosity for dinosaurs, so we hope that the information on DinoBase will satisfy people's enthusiasm.'

You can search the database for your favourite dinosaur, find out its species, when and where it lived, what it ate, how big it was and how to pronounce its tongue-twisting Latin name. Also try browsing the colourful picture galleries to see what dinosaurs looked like in their prehistoric world.

Did you know, for example, that the Albertaceratops nesmoi, which means ‘Alberta horn-faced’, was only discovered this year in Canada? It is a centrosaurine ceratopsian dinosaur with a pair of long horns on the brow and a blade-like nasal horn. It lived about 75 million years ago, was 6 metres long and weighed 2 tons.

DinoBase also has an online forum, where you can ask questions about dinosaurs, which experts at Bristol University will answer. The database will continue to grow in the future as new discoveries are made and more features are added. There will be a news section that will report the most recent happenings in dinosaur research, and a ‘New Dinosaur’ alert system that will let visitors know about new discoveries.

I would like to thank a lot of people for their hard work, but most especially for the people on our team who have made the final push in last week, including Paul Ferry, Manabu Sakamoto and Tom Fletcher.

Check out DinoBase at

Monkeys in your pants and other hilarious antics of wildlife smugglers

Last week I wrote about smugglers who were caught trying to sneak butterflies and chameleons into Croatia. Following that article, a reader sent me an article on some hilarious antics of other criminals who got caught in the act of smuggling strange cargo:

In the United States, wildlife smuggling is the nation’s second-largest black market, (behind narcotics), worth $9 billion a year.
Some of the more interesting highlights seen at Los Angeles International Airport include:

In 2006 A Japanese man was arrested for smuggling Queen Alexandra’s birdwings, one of the largest butterflies in the world, worth $8,500 USD. And in the same year four people were accused of trafficking in the endangered dragon fish.

In 2002 A Palm Springs man attempted to hide two Asian leopard cats in a backpack. He was busted when his travelling companion was also caught. Authorities noticed a large birds of paradise flying out of his luggage. Further inspection revealed 50 rare orchid bulbs, birds stuffed into women’s stockings and two lesser slow lorises (pygmy monkeys) stuffed in his underwear! The poor animals were saved form an 18 hour journey from Asia in this man’s pants!

And most recently, a man has been charged with smuggling reptiles from South Asia in his prosthetic leg.

Some people bring in rare and exotic species as pets but others realize it is big business. Unfortunately, once an animal is taken from the wild, it cannot usually be returned to its place of origin, for fear of disease, and so is often placed in a local zoo, where its chances of long-term survival are reduced.

Ancient proteins link T. rex to chickens

Well I’m sure everybody has seen this sensationalist headline in the last week, instead of tackling the controversy myself, I’ve decided to list a few posts by bloggers who have already posted on the topic:

PZ Meyers of Pharyngula posts Stone soup; or, extracting protein fragments from T. rex bones

Brian Switek of Laelaps in his post, And the T. rex goes… cock-a-doodle-do?

Mike Ryan of Palaeoblog posts T. rex Protein Sequenced

And the original article:
Analyses of soft tissue from Tyrannosaurus rex suggest the presence of protein. 2007. Science 316: 277 - 280

Winner: Fossil Caption Contest

Thanks to everyone who sent in their entry. The submitted captions include:

Sometimes, fishing is about patience. Sometimes, fishing is about lots of patience.
Given sufficient time, an improperly hooked baitfish will eventually win its freedom, though it may tear its flesh from its bones in the process.

Sepia-tone ink on micrite matrix of a Diplomystus dentatus fossil. Snap.

Almost got it, just a little bit longer...

"It was (stretches arms sideways) this old!"
Or ...
"New proof that Neolithic humans possessed sandwiches, vacuum flasks and funny little collapsible chairs."
-John Hopkin

Guess we found Nemo after all....

Great captions! I had a hard time deciding so enlisted the help of one of my colleagues. And the winner is:

TheBrummell for “Sometimes, fishing is about patience. Sometimes, fishing is about lots of patience.”

Congratulations! And now your prize: You can post on Fish Feet for a day.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Book Review: How To Keep Dinosaurs by Robert Mash

This book is not new, but I only discovered recently. If you haven’t read it and enjoy palaeo-humor I suggest you pick it up! It is picturesque, surreal and an equally amusing read for geeks and children:)

Synopsis: Hollywood and the popular press would have us believe that all dinosaurs are gigantic, hostile and untameable. In fact, there are many species that make charming and even useful companions. From Compsognathus (mild-mannered and affectionate - once it has learnt to recognise its owner) to Deinonychus (will not eat dog food - dogs are another matter) this book advises you which dinosaur is right for you and your home, from the city apartment dweller looking for a lap pet, to the country estate owner looking to tighten up on security. How To Keep Dinosaurs is packed with the sort of information keen dinosaur keepers crave - from feeding and housing to curing common ailments, breeding and showing your animal. It will even tell you where you can purchase your new pet. The author, a zoologist with extensive experience of dinosaurs, has provided a timely and much-needed source book for all those who keep dinosaurs and for the huge numbers who are contemplating getting one. It is as essential to every dinosaur keeper as a stout shovel and a tranquilizer rifle.

Fossil Hunting in Britain

Last week was quite busy at uni, we hosted a conference for palaeontology students on Friday and on Saturday we went fossil hunting at Aust Cliff and Manor Farm in Southwest England. There were great finds (I will post pictures soon), ranging from microscopic teeth and scales to dorsal fish spines and bones of Pachystropheus, a crocodile like animal that wandered the cliffs about 200 million years ago.

We also made an episode of Fossil Field Guides, created by Paul Williams. Fossil Field Guides are podcast guides to the best field locations in Britain. I will post a link to the Aust Cliff podcast when production is complete, in the meantime, check out Paul’s other Fossil Field Guides.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Weekend Break

Sorry I'm not posting today or tomorrow as I'm at a conference and field trip. I will be back on Sunday and tell you all about it! Sarda

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Worldmapper: Seeing the world in new light

Everybody is familiar with the world map, but this great website, gives us a new and different perspective.
At this website the world map has been distorted to reflect different metrics. For example, if we consider population, the world map changes like this:

Military spending in 2002

HIV Prevalence

Toys Imports
Find out more about everything from nuclear capabilities to water quality, alcohol consumption, and the number of cable subscribers.

Reminder: Fossil Caption Contest

A reminder that Monday I started a humerous Fossil Caption Contest. There will be a prize for whoever comes up with the best caption!

Contest closes Sunday.

Shark Myths and Facts

Da-dum ... Da-dum ... Da-dum.. Da-dum.. Da-dum, Da-dum!

It has been 30 years now since the release of the blockbuster Jaws and these two notes still instill fear. Some would argue that great whites are not vengeful, man-eating killing machines but are in fact, intelligent, misunderstood ancient sea creatures. I would agree with this statement in that they do not target people and are intelligent animals, but their fundamental morphology has remained unchained for millions of years because they are perfectly adapted killing machines: keen senses, speed, agility and a mouth full of huge, serrated teeth backed by the most powerful jaws of the animal kingdom. Make no mistake, they are efficient and ferocious animals perfectly suited to their niche.

*The great white is about 6m (20ft) long and the largest predatory fish.

*It is actually grey on top with a white underbelly, camouflage for hunting. The colouration makes them difficult to see from above as they blend in with the rocks and the white belly makes them hard to see from below because they blend in with the sky.

*Sharks never run out of teeth. If they lose one another spins forward from rows and rows of backup teeth. A great white has hundreds of teeth in its jaws at any one time.

*Sharks prefer a high fat food source since fat stores more energy then muscle. Their favourite snack is a baby seal.

*Once a seal is caught, other sharks smell the blood in the water and show up for the meal. Great whites can smell one drop of blood in 100L of water. Since their prey has a lot of blood, nearby sharks are easily attracted to the kill and show up for a feeding frenzy.

*The meal is divided up based on interactions. The animal that splashes the most water gets the next bite. Despite eating together sharks do not hunt together.

*The great white can move through the water at 40 km/hour

*But though they are fierce predators, great whites don’t like the taste of humans; less then 6 people are killed by sharks every year.

Fish Finds Land-Legs

Evolution doesn’t happen all it once, it takes a few tries :)

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Arrogant scientist to represent all of humanity

American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, died on 12 Apr 1897.

Cope is best remembered for his rivalry with O.C. Marsh, called the Great Bone Wars; he also led many great expeditions into the American West and was prolific in the naming of dinosaur species.

When a new species of dinosaur (or any other organism for that matter) is discovered, scientists choose a holotype specimen, this is an example of the new species that will forever define it. Usually it is the first example found, for example, the holotype for T. rex was collected by Barnum Brown in 1902 and is housed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is important to remember that a holotype is usually the first example of a new species and it is not necessarily the best or typical example (although ideally it should be). Sometimes when a new species is found and the holotype named, there are only very poor or fragmentary examples available. But it is the practice that even if a better specimen is subsequently found, the holotype is not superseded.

But back to our story now, which began back in 1735 with Swedish botanist named Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus was fascinated by the diversity of life around him and became obsessed with categorizing it. This is very difficult to do since there are millions of species in the world but Linnaeus went about it in a very systematic way. He devised a hierarchical system for categorizing plants, animals and minerals. Interestingly, he named, described and classified human beings as a part of this system. He named humans Homo sapiens, Latin for man and wise. The concept of a holotype had not been invented yet but the humble Linneaus did consider himself to be the best example of Homo sapiens.

Then in 1897, an equally humble scientist, Edward Drinker Cope died. In his will, Cope had a final request: that his remains be used as the holotype specimen for Homo sapiens. However, Cope’s dream did not materialize. His brain was saved and preserved in a jar for future study at the Anthropometric Society. But unfortunately, when his skeleton was stripped and cleaned, taxonomists found evidence of incipient syphilis in Cope's bones, a discovery that led his suceedors to deem his remains “unsuitable” to be the type specimen for humanity. His bones were discreetly filed away and perhaps even conveniently ‘lost’ for almost 100 years.

Then in 1991, while working on a story, National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos discovered Cope's bones stored at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Psihoyos borrowed the bones to use in his story and while out in the Western United States, he showed the bones to palaeontologist Robert Bakker who was a great admirer of Cope. Bakker began a mission to fulfill Cope’s last request: that his remains be used designated the type specimen of Homo sapiens. Bakker published his description in the Journal of the Wyoming Geological Society.

Unfortunately, Bakker and Psihoyo's efforts were not successful and Cope's remains are unlikely to receive official status for a variety of reasons: the standards for type specimens are very strict and complex and not only do Cope’s bones bear marks of syphilis, they have also suffered damage from their travels: his skull has been dropped, broken and even repaired.

To make the situation more complicated, in 1959, another palaeontologist wrote a paper declaring Carolus Linneaus the holotype of Homo sapiens, especially as his body is well-preserved in the Cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden. Well since nobody can agree, the job still remains open and there is no official holotype for humanity, but is it likely that when (if) a holotype is chosen it will be an arrogant scientist that represents humanity?

The Science of Superheros

Thanks to Eva of Easternblot for posting about some great websites on the science of superheros. If you’re a comic book nut but haven’t checked them out:
BBC’s has a great website on superhero science, profiling Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Daredevil, Superman, The Incredible Hulk, and the X-men.

Ubergeeks will like Jim Kakalios’ book, The Physics of Superheroes and the Comic Book Periodic Table of the Elements (start with Oxygen on this one:)

The Great Turtle Race

Leatherback Sea Turtles are 100 million years old but their rapid decline indicates that their population may be extinct in as little as 10 yearts. In an effort to learn more about these rare animals and bring attention to the cause, scientists have outfitted 14 animals with satellite tags. The tags have provided researchers with valuable information and are now being used for a novel fundraising initiative.

On April 16th, the Great Turtle Race will begin as the leatherbacks head back to their Galapagos feeding grounds. Sponsor your favorite turtle and track its progress online. This great idea draws attention to the turtle’s plight, raises money and is lots of fun!

The event is being organized by Conservation International, the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, the Leatherback Trust and the Tagging of Pacific Predators program. Proceeds will go to protect Cost Rica's Playa Grande who bring awareness to the challenges facing the survival of leatherback turtles.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

No, seriously man, I’m ok to fly

Check out the very funny article on Laelap’s website on intoxicated animals: lemurs who seek out noxious millipedes, bees drunk off of sap and how fruit bats sober up from over-ripe fruit.

Smugglers arrested for illegal trade of butterflies, chameleons and tortoises

My last post was about an unusual discovery, worth more then gold. We often get caught up in classic representations of monetary value and forget what people will pay for rarities of the natural world. Recently, two recent smugglers were busted for their unique consignments:

At the Zagreb airport, recently, Croatian customs officials stopped a man who was trying to smuggle 175 chameleons and 10 tortoises from Thailand. The man arrived in the Croatian capital by plane from Budapest, Hungary, carrying the reptiles in his suitcases. Animal protection officials said the reptiles are protected species.

The suspect claims to have purchased the animals at a Bangkok market for about $150 USD, but officials estimated the animals were worth about $200,000 USD. Customs officers have charged the man with violating import laws, the Croatian news agency HINA said.

In another incident, Serbian authorities intercepted a package containing 98 rare butterflies originating from the Solomon Islands and being shipped to Belgrade.

The butterflies are an endangered species protected under international convention and are estimated to be worth more than $10,000 USD on the black market. The person who was to receive the package will be charged with smuggling.

Australian couple find floating gold

Continuing on the whale theme today, an Australian couple has had an extraordinary windfall: walking along a remote beach they found 32-pounds of sperm whale puke, for which the proper scientific word is ambergris. At first this may seem like a disgusting curiosity worth no more than a moment of notice for its scientific value, but in fact the monetary value of the discovery is estimated to be over $1 million USD!

Ambergris, often referred to as ‘floating gold’ is prized by perfume makers and sold for up to $90 USD/gram (gold is worth about $25 USD/gram). But trading ambergris is controversial and technically illegal. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) forbids trade of certain animals’ products for commercial purposes. However, it has difficulty committing to a ban on waste products by animals. Ambergris is formed when gastrointestinal materials harden around indigestible squid beaks that a sperm whale swallowed. When the mass gets large, the whale coughs it up (not unlike cats’ hairballs:)

It is not clear what will happen to the find. Though it is illegal to trade, precedent has thus far allowed its exchange.

Monday, 9 April 2007

See a Life-Sized Blue Whale

The WDCS (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society) has given you the opportunity to see a full-sized blue whale. Visit the site and let the 30m long whale swim past your screen…it'll take a while!

BC creator dies while drawing last cartoon

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, who won awards for his comic strips, BC and The Wizard of Id, has died of a stroke at the age of 76.

BC, which depicted a world populated by cavemen and dinosaurs, first appeared in newspapers in 1958. The Wizard of Id was a political satire based in a run-down kingdom ruled by a diminutive and tyrannical monarch.

Johnny Hart’s comics reached over 100 million people. He died at his storyboard, doing what he loved best.

Palaeobarbius malibui

I have no idea if this letter, that was supposedly sent to the Smithsonian Institute, is real but regardless it is hilarious.

Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission, labeled "93211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post...Hominid skull." We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago. Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety that one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be "Malibu Barbie." It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to its modern origin:

1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.

2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-homonids.

3. The dentition pattern evident on the skull is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the ravenous man-eating Pliocene Clams you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time.

This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that: A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on. B. Clams don't have teeth. It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon-dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal operation, and partly due to carbon-dating's notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon-dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name Australopithecus spiff-arino. Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might be Latin. However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a Hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your Newport back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9 mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,

Harvey Rowe
Curator, Antiquities

Fossil Caption Contest

This is a great picture, I have no idea how it was done, but it is very funny.

A prize for whoever comes up with the best caption!

Contest closes on Friday.