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If you have ever taken an introductory ecology course, you will no doubt remember C.S. Elton’s classic study of the periodic fluctations of lynx and hares. In a textbook* case of Lotka-Volterra predator/prey interaction, Elton found that lynx and hare populations in northern Canada followed an astonishingly regular 9-10 year cycle. Several years of steady increases in both lynx and hare numbers culminate in a dramatic crash and a brief lull, before the pattern repeats.
You may have forgotten however, where the original data came from. Elton did not sit out in the Canadian Arctic with a notebook and a bottle of brandy counting animals. Instead, he reviewed several decades worth of trapping records from the Hudson’s Bay Company (which happened to be his employer at the time) and noticed the pronounced periodicity in the number of lynx furs reported in the company’s annual inventory.
I noticed a striking periodicity in a very different sort of proxy record a few weeks ago when Alex Wild of Myrmecos fame posted a comparison of Google Trends data for the search terms “ants” and “flies”. It appears that web search activity for “ants” hits a consistent annual peak around May and a consistent annual trough around Christmas, at least for the past four years.
When I commented on this on his blog, Alex pointed out that search records for many insects show a similar pattern, with search popularity seeming to peak sometime during the northern hemisphere summer. Naturally I spent the rest of the night searching for biologically significant patterns in Google Trends. Sure enough, interest in certain insect groups appears to show some interesting seasonal trends:
Phenology, the observation of regular seasonal patterns in nature, especially among animals and plants, lies squarely at the roots of natural history. Humans have undoubtedly been tracking these patterns as long as we have relied on the seasonal availabilty of forage and game (and later crops and livestock) to survive. That is to say, forever as far as our species is concerned.
Google Trends allows users to explore a sort of “social phenolgy”–tracking rhythmic fluctations in public interest which, in the case of web searches for natural phenomenon presumably have at least some connection to the natural rhythms themselves.
Needless to say, I am now obsessed with exploring these patterns, searching for interesting patterns in the interest in birds, flowers and vegetables:
There are some other funny correlations out there:
I could do this all day!
* Of course as with any “textbook” example the truth is likely a bit more complex, and a debate about the nature of and mechanisms behind this pattern continues almost a century later. Sunspots, disease, weather, fire, petroleum futures and the popularity of the name “Madison”, have all been proposed as important factors (see Stenseth et al. 1997 and Zhang et al. 2007[open access .pdf] for recent analyses).
The blogohedron (i’m already beginning to overuse this) sports an unquantifiable galaxy of glinting facets, let’s take three for examples:
When in doubt: you should use your camera equipped mobile phone. Maybe.
–>enjoying blogging, if people will only just stop reading so I can relax.
When I heard that Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick in the Wall [Pt. 2]“, I hated it. It angered me because when they said, “Leave those kids alone,” i was like, “Fuck you, I want to learn! Hey, teachers, don’t listen to them.” I was like a nerd, y’know. -- David Berman, Pitchfork interview 8-18-08
Originally I pictured “San Francisco B.C.” taking place in a fictionalized West Coast, a reimagining of the boundaries between cities and provinces and nations. But the song does begin with “old” and is written in the past indicative so I’m now more partial to imagining the story set in the actual San Francisco of our own world thousands of years ago. Tonight I’ll ask D.C.B. which reading he intended.
You do not blog about Blogger Bioblitz! Actually, like most of the “facts” on this blog, that’s precisely untrue.
Over the next week the data, and the meta-data, and the meta meta-data will be accruing at the official 2008 BBB portal.
We conducted a decidedly half-assed, but highly enjoyable, blitz (well more like “semi-observant stroll”) on Saturday near Sly Park, Pollock Pines, El Dorado County, CA. Pictures and summary tomorrow.
Until then, here’s Clyde who was certainly the most “blitzy” member of the crew and still reeks of mountain misery:
PS: You have a week to conduct your own wildlife survey operation in your backyard, neighborhood, garage, local park, compost pile, vacation getaway, Forest Service land that adjoins your pot plantation etc!
I‘m not sure if I’ve ever explained this before, but the original idea behind the “bell jar” over there on the sidebar was to highlight an interesting/historic scientific illustration every week or so and provide some links to more information about the artist. Predictably, the periodicity has slipped to something more like semi-annual.
So it’s not surprising perhaps that Richard P. Nodder’s 94 year-old hippocampus finally spoiled. So did the links, but I’ve recovered them so for the sake of posterity (whatever exactly that means in the brave new blog world of tattered hyperlinks and broken images):
Also, be sure to check out the de la Beche painting currently sitting the Bell Jar, it’s made with 200 million year-old ink so it should be pretty durable!
As you’ll note from the logo over there, this marks the first issue of “blogger half-assedly opining about peer-reviewed publications when, really no one asked in the first place anyway.” I’ll use this logo whenever I…well you get the picture. Feel free to borrow the logo for your own half, or even whole-assed efforts.
Invert-workers are always carping1 about vertocentrism, and of course they have a point: tardigrades are like a gajillion times radder than tyrannosaurs and it’s a shame that Discovery Channel programming doesn’t reflect this fact. I guess they’re busy vetting questions for Cash Cab or whatever. But it occurs to me: it’s actually unfair to resent vertebrates as a whole for this injustice because, let’s face it, aside from lamnids no one gives a swimming crap about fish.
I know, I know, cladistically speaking, tetrapods like Sue and me are just aberrant terrestrial fish. Aside from our freakish lineage however, the silent majority of “values” vertebrates (i.e fish) might as well be ostracods for all the press attention they get. I mean, ostracodes. Whatever. (Actually ostracods/es have a pretty good PR person these days).
A few cases in point2: Funisia, an ediacaran with all the charisma of a sodden mop head, got major press attention thanks to some good old fashion sexing up by the media. Likewise, Martialis heureka, the recently discovered basal ant, is already generating major buzz3 well before the peer-reviewed paper announcing the discovery has even hit the presses. And don’t get me started about Aptostichus stephencolberti.
Meanwhile, the discovery of a new and extraordinarily bizarre fossil fish, Hsianwenia wui, announced in last week’s issue of PNAS (Chang et al. 2008), sank with less of a splash than a 49 kg Chinese diver making a perfect entry4. And that’s unfortunate, because if the public has an inordinate fondness for things with hydroxylapatite endoskeletons, well Hsianwenia is about as bony as they come.
Hsianwenia (which I’m pronouncing “shee-An-Wen-ya” until someone corrects me) was discovered in Pliocene lake sediments from the Qaidam basin on the north side of the Tibetan plateau. Hsianwenia belongs to the largest family of freshwater fishes the Cyprinidae which also includes minnows, carp and goldfish among many others. The uplift of the Tibetan plateau over the past several million years has created multiple small, isolated lakes and waterways. This in turn has driven the evolutionary radiation of an endemic suite of Cyprinids. These 100 or so species in 15 genera are grouped together the subfamily Schizothoracinae, known to the more poetically-minded as “snow trout” or “snow carp” (Qi et al. 2006).
While FishBase reports that the flesh of living schizothoracines is “much relished”, eating Hsianwenia would have been a chore. That’s because unlike its relished relatives, Hsianwenia is characterized by a peculiar thickening of the skeleton. This “pachyostosis” is so extreme that the authors state that the bones appear to leave little room for muscle.
While no known living fish possess a similar super-skeleton, another extinct fish, Aphanius crassicaudus—from Miocene sediments on the northern margins of the Mediterranean—apparently independently evolved extremely thick bones. Multiple specimens from both species demonstrate that the pachyostosis is not evidence of disease or disorder, but was a natural feature in each fish. More over, this condition was amplified through the course of ontogeny with fish becoming progressively stouter as they aged.
What factors could have selected for this unusual evolutionary quirk not once but twice? The sediments containing the two fish species—though separated by space and time—share some provocative mineralogical clues: gypsum and calcium carbonate. Both of these minerals are calcium salts and their presence as inorganic precipitates suggests that the bodies of water these fish lived in had extraordinarily high concentrations of dissolved calcium and other minerals.
The authors of the recent paper suggest that the hypertrophied skeleton of Hsianwenia (and Aphanius) was a novel solution for ridding the body of excess calcium5. By thickening their bones, these fish were able to sequester calcium before it built up to toxic levels within its tissues. Chang et al. also speculate that the saline waters were toxic to other vertebrate species given the absence of other vertebrate fossils. So, these strange fishes may have had no need to escape from predators and could afford to reduce muscle space and add bulky bone. Pollen and, yes, ostracods/es provide circumstantial support for generally arid and saline conditions in and around the lake while the fish were thriving.
Hsianwenia’s solution to it’s hard-water environment worked pretty well for 200,000 years or so, allowing it to thrive in waters where no other fish could. Of course, Mother Nature’s a vindictive bitch, and all evolutionary solutions are by definition, temporary. A thick evaporite deposit capping the fish-bearing layers speaks to our tale’s tragic end: the aridification of the Qaidam basin continued, the lake dried up, the freaky thick-boned fish died, the end.
So there you have it: tectonics, climate, aqueous geochemistry, evolution, morphological novelty and million-year-old fossil fish bones scattered across the high desert. A fish story worth telling.
And you thought fish were boring.
Qi, D. et al. 2006. “Mitochondrial cytochrome-b sequence variation and phylogenetics of the highly specialized schizothoracine fishes (Teleosti: Cyprinidae) in the Qianghai-Tibet Plateau.” Biochemical Genetics 440: 270-285.
1 As we’ll soon see, this is a hilarious pun.
2 There is one, sort of. Be patient.
3 I suppose I’m mixing hymenopteran metaphors here.
4 Credit where it’s due: a German science blogger has already written about Hsianwenia here (in German).
5 One hypothesis to explain the “explosive” evolution of organisms with hard parts in the Cambrian holds that changes in seawater chemistry (perhaps linked to tectonic activity) drove organisms to begin precipitating minerals to prevent toxic buildup inside their cells. Subsequently these structures were exapted into shells and carapaces and bones and teeth ultimately triggering an adaptive arms race. While this hypothesis is speculative and controversial recent research does support the importance of seawater chemistry in setting the patterns of biomineralization among various lineages (Porter 2007).
The Broom of the System terminates abruptly, mid-sentence in fact, on page 467. Through a trick of language, that final sentence fragment prompts the reader to supply the missing word herself, to fit the final piece to the puzzle. That implied word, the word that is written without being written at all, would seem to be the word, “word.”
On Friday, September 12th the author of that novel terminated his own life abruptly. This time there is no wink or riddle or arch word game and the reader feels only distraught, confused, powerless. The unwritten words that might have been can’t be decoded or divined. They are just gone, forever.
Gifted writers are doomed to elegize themselves. Here’s the final line from page 981 of Infinite Jest:
And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.