In the incursive preamble we spiroambulated about the corpses of mummified dinosaurs, pickled pelicans, time and a piss-covered pseudo-esker of rock, rock salt and dust. So, what does all of this have to do with experimental taphonomy?
minor musings on the macrocosm
Way back in the mid 1990s, I cut my teeth as a “science writer” in the pages of the Atascadero Junior High School newspaper with the editorial “What’s wrong with Jurassic Park?” It hit all the usual talking points: over-sized Velociraptors, the under-sized Dilophosaur with its unlikely frill and venomous saliva, the unrealistic presentation of field paleontology.
In short, the editorial had the same tone of self-righteous futility that regular readers of microecos will be all too familiar with; though, to be fair I prefaced the piece with a note that I wasn’t challenging the artistic license of the film-makers, but merely trying to correct any scientific misconceptions fostered by the film.
I’d like to think, all evidence to the contrary, that I’ve loosened-up considerably since my adolescent years–I mean, hey, at least I’m not publishing rants in nationally syndicated teen advice columns railing against “elitist” high school girls1.
All this navel gazing is sparked by two interestingly divergent recent posts by Messers. Wedel and Naish. First, Matt single-handedly attempts to dislodge a deeply implanted stick in “Get your giant robotic dinosaur on“:
The granddaddy of all ex-paleo objections to pop culture dinosaurs, though, is that…
“That’s so unrealistic! Why, just look at the external nostril! It must be at least two-thirds of the way back in the bony naris–it’s nowhere near Witmer-compliant!”
Yes, it’s true, pop culture dinosaurs always fall short of full scientific respectability. Always. If you can show me a counter-example, I can give you at least half a dozen reasons why it actually sucks.
it’s an excellent read full of the usual seething hilarity we’ve all come to expect from Wedel’s rants. It also earned him free tickets to the Sacramento showing of Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience (which I’m missing as we speak for want of $70 US …bastard!) At any rate it’s an excellent essay, well worth the read, even if you’ve never mocked a three-fingered T. rex or howled at a pterosaur carrying off a buxom cave-girl.
This could have been a really interesting experiment in the reconstruction of behaviour, and on whatever imaginary perils and pitfalls might befall any attempt to bring dinosaurs into the human world. But no, it’s just silly. The animals are not portrayed realistically, but as daft caricatures that perform to classical music, do silly dances, play cards and so on.
In this season of political double-speak and bet hedging, I’ll make my position on the importance of scientific accuracy in paleo-pop crystal clear. Art is art and we shouldn’t expect scientific perfection from every plastic cereal toy or stadium robotic dinosaur show, BUT inaccurate portrayal of paleontology in pop-culture offers a wonderful opportunity to correct popular misconceptions through critique and review. Scientists just shouldn’t take themselves too seriously – because then their experiments are probably going to run amok and eat people.
last summer’s footprints are walkin’
walkin’ dove walkin’ dove walkin’ dove
through last summer’s sand
a dove walkin’ dove walkin’ dove
and where the footprints end
where the footprints end
what happened then?
– “Footprints“, Bill Callahan
I stepped into wet paint at the Hartman gardens, Lorin said “Dude you just stepped in the man’s paint.” You only get one shot (give or take) to get your body into the fossil record. There’s ample opportunity to leave your mark in other ways however.
As we traipse and course across the planet we frict against various materials. Most are outside the goldilocks zone, either too resilient or too ephemeral to mark our passing. In the urban environment wet paint and wet cement serve as tremendous media for tracking a few short hours in the life of a city.
Naturally occuring regolith can perform much the same function although the Earth’s surface is a dynamic place and these traces generally have a short lifespan. As with body fossils however, with untold billions of organisms dragging their selves hither and yon across the greater part of the planet it’s hardly a surprise that some of these tracks find their way into the rock record.
Ichnology is the study of second-hand structures that record the passing of a living organism. This encompasses borings, burrows, trails and crap. For all the appeal of coprolites, the most familiar vertebrate ichnofossils are surely trackways, footprints left in a soft substrate preserved by some accident of sedimentary history.
Fossil footprints have been in the news lately with not one but three important fossil footprint discoveries announced in recent weeks. To treat each with appropriate nuance would guarantee fatal miring, so with only cursorial commentary here they are:
Tyrannosaurus rex footprint? Snap! Here’s the National Geographic story. Actually, eff the footprint, one wants to get down on hands and knees and look for mammal teeth right? (I’m so over dinosaurs btw).
Okay, now this is really interesting: pictured at top are 315 million year old tracks probably made by some of the earliest amniotes. And, apparently they’re greedy to get their paws on some sweet Canadian dollars.
The last time I got tagged with a meme…well Decimating Birds: Episode V is coming any day now. I swear.
Now Brian has tagged me with the “Cool Animal Meme” that’s been racing around the interwebs like a Chinchilla on crystal meth. So…here it goes (I’ve broken things down by vert and invert so I could squeeze a bit more in):
An Interesting Animal I Had
Interesting is certainly one way to describe Clyde. He has acres of personality and makes some of the strangest noises I’ve ever heard come from a dog. Here are three videos of Clyde interacting with a log in Tomales Bay (which he liked), a hawk feather, and a snake skin shed (both of which he did not like).
A couple of springs ago I brought in a mantis egg case from the garden and put in on our window sill. I watched it carefully for a couple of weeks then promptly forgot about it. A couple of months later, while enjoying a cup of coffee, I glanced over at the sill and saw this:
I set most of the hatchlings free, but kept one which survived until about Christmas. My manticulture experiments this year didn’t fare so well, I accidentally left the container open and the mantis fled. Oh, well there’s always next year…
An Interesting Animal I Ate
Okay, this is going to sound weird. Bobcat. Let me explain (not that it will help)…
When I was a kid my dad hit a bobcat on the way home. Always one to seize an opportunity, my father threw the cat in in the back of the pickup with the idea of salvaging the pelt (which is still around some place). We also got a fair amount of venison this way. My dad also cooked up some of the bobcat meat because, you know, why not?
I don’t remember what it tasted like, but my dad sent me to my mom’s house with a little tupperware of cooked bobcat meat. This of course, totally freaked out my mother (which was surely my father’s intention) but my mom’s pot dealing/gourmet chef landlord raved “It tastes like filet mignon!”
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never intentionally eaten a terrestrial arthropod. We did have an “invertabrate dinner” at the end of my invertebrate biology course but all of the goodies were of the marine and/or molluscan persuasion. I can’t say I’m terribly fond of land snail, but fried conch is delicious.
Probably the tastiest invertebrate eats I’ve had was in El Rocío, Andalucía. After rolling into the dusty Spanish town we parked next to a hitching post and walked down the dirt roads till we found a little tapas bar, complete with horses hitched outside. We ordered up a round chipirones: whole baby squid with garlic and lemon. You had to pick the tiny beaks out of your teeth. Washed down with a cold bottle of Alhambra..yum!
With the prospect of doing field work in Southern China, I imagine my interesting animals I have eaten list is set to grow considerably.
An Interesting Animal In The Museum
Photo by Sam and/or Sophie from here.
This one’s easy. This juvenile blue whale from the Göteburg Naturhistoriska Museum is surely the most pimped out whale mount on the planet. I tweaked the photo a bit to try to expose the interior a little better, here is how the museum website describes it:
The great blue whale which was preparated in 1865, is exhibited beside its own skeleton and other whales and seals in “Valsalen”. This 15 meter long baby whale is the only stuffed blue whale in the world! Its jaws can be opened, and once a year you can inspect its inside with its wooden floor, flowered tapestry and mahogany benches.
I guess we had good timing because when we visited the whale was open and we climbed on inside, Jonah-style. Being inside a large animal is rather surreal, but I have to say, with the handsome wooden benches and the upholstered walls, the inside of a whale is far cozier than either the Bible or Pinocchio would have you believe.
Explorit’s giant cave cockroaches (Blaberus giganteus) are pretty fun to share with kids and especially parents. They are much more lively than the hissing cockroaches (though I like them too). They secret a mild vinegary chemical predator deterrent and are freaking huge.
An Interesting Thing I Did With Or To An Animal
My first ever field biology project at eight or nine, was to tie colored thread to the wrists of toads to try and track their movement and figure out how many individuals were living in our yard. I have no recollection of the results although I do remember recapturing several.
I’ve done some interesting things to the cave roaches. They have wings but they can’t really fly. However, they can flutter their wings to glide to the ground when tossed in the air. They can also use them to flip back over when they are put on their back. I know, it seems mean, but think about what most people do to cockroaches.
An Interesting Animal In Its Natural Habitat
Well, I don’t really remember this, but when my parents were first bringing me home from the hospital it was a rainy, bleak day. On the way home they spotted a sodden Golden Eagle walking alongside the road. In true hippie fashion they promptly gave me an ‘indian name’: ‘Walking Eagle.’ Here’s the tattoo I have that commemorates that moment:
A few years ago, when I was working as an intern at Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming I had my most memorable Eagle encounter. I was prospecting for Eocene mammal fossils in the Wasatch Formation. As I came over the crest of Cundick Ridge I came face to beak with an Eagle roosting on a rock. I was probably several meters away but it felt like I could have reached out and touched it.
My heart skipped a beat as I stood there awestruck and paralyzed in the presence of this gigantic bird. After what felt like minutes, but must have been a split second, the eagle casually leapt off the rock into empty space, unfurled its wings, beat them twice and sailed off. It was out of sight in a few moments, replaced by a few stray fluffs of down slowly tumbling down the cliff.
Again, it’s tough to pick just one. Finding adult ant lions with kids this spring was pretty awesome. And lately I’ve become obsessed with scorpion hunting. Most recently I got a big kick out of seeing an octopus while exploring tidepools in Cambria. None of the photos turned out really well but this was the best of the lot (its the brownish thing center left).
In that eerie way that often happens with exciting animal encounters, I somehow anticipated the whole thing. As I watched hermit crabs and bat stars I had this ‘octopodial’ feeling. But I certainly didn’t expect to see one of these cryptic masters of disguise, even though I knew that they were probably around.
I was leaning over to examine a chunk of blueschist or something, when I heard a sudden squirt and turned to see a fist-sized cephalopod inching away. It morphed from a deep red, to brown, to almost black then back to brown. I got a short video, you can hear the excitement in my annoying nasal drone:
I still wish I had picked it up, damn it.
Okay, I spent waay too much time on this. It seems like everyone and their mom has already picked up this meme. But I’d be nice to see what Carel has to say after he gets back from his blogging vacation.
Oh yeah and Jessica of the brand new blog Inorganics should give it a shot, although I’m predicting some overlap!
17th century Tibetan thangka
“Mahakala has never been known to harm one being, even in the slightest manner, because he is constantly benefiting beings through the continuous play of the enlightened mind. — Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche“
Snap. Or, if you’ll pardon the expression (which is unlikely) ‘sniz-ap’. When Pigs Fly Returns has a nice work up of the newly published eentsy dromeosaurid Mahakala omnogovae, complete with an original, appropriately plumy reconstruction.
The new dinosaur, creatively named after the eponymous dharmapala figured above, takes her debutante turn in last weeks Science. Woah! birds! dinosaurs! Cope’s ‘rule!’ Rahonavis! Microraptor! Size diversity in mammalian carnivora! Size diversity in felids! Size diversity in Varanus!
My mind, and readership, reels then attenuates. I still have unpacking to do!
The Boneyard numero dos is up at Laelaps. Highlights: Chuck D. muses on some ‘diluvial’ mastodons in South America; Dr. Vector’s new game of one-up-manship; baby titanosaurs, crunchy on the outside chewy in the middle; Basilosaurus, quite dignified even without the extra bones or a top-hat; and Zach ponders Deinonychus timber wolf or komodo dragon?
And even though I forgot to submit, Brian managed to squeeze in my brief post on skimming pterosaurs. Good chap! I’m gonna write something great for #3, just gotta figure out what….
Enough babbling, go read it!
here, the first ever post from the archives, substantially retooled–
People sound stupid when they’re talking to animals, myself included:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlauBj13beo] Read the rest of this entry »
Landing teratorn Argentiavis from Chatterjee et al. (2007).
I‘m not sure exactly what the appropriate response is when you have a 70 kilo bird descending on you at 6 meters per second, but I’m pretty sure throwing up your hands and adopting a shocked expression isn’t going to cut it.
Paleo figures are loaded with hidden gems like this, both intentional and unintentional. This one comes from a new PNAS paper by Chatterjee, Templin and Campbell entitled, The aerodynamics of Argentavis, the world’s largest flying bird from the Miocene of Argentina.
The authors use biomechanical modeling to conclude, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Argentavis wouldn’t have been able to loft it’s 150lb bulk into the air with wing power alone, and would have probably needed a good running start, as seen in living albatrosses in this video clip. Once airborne, these absurdly large birds would have been master soarers, using thermals and slope winds to careen through the air at an speeds of 30 mph as they searched for prey.
Getting aloft is surely an awkward proposition when you are a 150 lb bird, but that’s the easy part. Coming down safely is a matter of life and death. The figure at top shows an Argentavis coming down at the literal break-neck speed of 6 m/s, so in this picture both the hapless human scale and the monster bird are, technically speaking, royally effed.
To get down safely, the authors suggest that the giant birds would have exploited head-winds to slow their hulking frames down below the 5 m/s fatal impact speed. Snap!
Death Throes pt. II is on it’s way, really, with help from Werner Herzog, Edward Gorey, and Arc’Teryx.
Let’s set aside strange phallic flowers and take up small gray birds with snicker-inducing names.
So, here’s most beautiful bird #6, the celebrated Lava Beds Titmouse, Baeolophus something-or-other. To many, it may be be a dicky bird. To William Gambel it would have been a plain-old Plain Titmouse, which was good enough until 1996. For the contemporary birder, it’s something of a headache.
Male Argentine Duck, Oxyura vittata, with extruded 32.5 cm long phallus.
I wasn’t even aware that I actually knew any dirty limericks, but when I saw this PLoS One paper one popped from the depths of my subconscious like a roach emerging from beneath a rock:
I’ll tell you the tale of Dead Eye Mick
The only man with a corkscrew ‘intromittent organ’
He spent his life in a desperate hunt
For a woman who had a corkscrew ‘introreceptive organ’
When he found her he dropped down dead
The corkscrew ‘introreceptive organ’ had a left hand thread.
(unredacted version here – ADULT CONTENT WARNING!)
Actually the version I remembered was about Jolly Jacques…who was born with… well, you get the idea. Imagine my surprise/relief when I found the same limerick on Bora’s post about spiraling swine phalli (although his version is ‘Clarence Cool/Who was born with a spiral tool).
Anyway…if you’re the type to follow such things, you’ll no doubt recall Dr. Kevin McCracken, the man who was born with (sorry), who lead a team that published their discovery of a duck with a ‘almost half a metre long’ phallus (pictured above) as a brief communication in Nature [pdf].
Ducks are unusual among birds in having long phalli (footnote), in fact most birds don’t have phalli at all but copulate by means of a ‘cloacal kiss’. This endowment is possibly linked to their rather raucous (and from a human-perspective sometimes down-right nasty) mating habits which include forced copulation (rape) and group forced copulation (gang rape).
In their new paper, Patricia Brennan and coauthors (including McCracken) take a fresh perspective on the situation by examining the reproductive anatomy of female water-fowl…which, while less ‘in-your-face’ is no less remarkable.
In marked contrast to the traditional ho-hum ‘short, narrow muscular duct’ view of bird vaginae, they found a remarkable array of anatomical innovation in female ducks. These include dead-ends and a clockwise spiral that runs against the counter-clockwise spiraling phallus of the male!!!
These morphological novelties apparently provide females some leverage against well-equipped, but undesirable males. The acknowledgement of so-called ‘female choice’ has revolutionized our view sexual selection. The game is not simply an ‘inseminating contest’ between randy males, but a complex interplay among and between males and females with various coordinated and competing interests.
In fact the authors propose that the impressive phallus-length of male ducks may not be primarily a response to competition between males as has been largely assumed. Instead, they suggest the evolution of absurdly long duck-phalli may driven by the anatomical elaborations of the females…i.e. it’s the females driving morphological evolution not the males.
The new report has gotten a well deserved flurry of press, both in the blogosphere and a great Times article by Carl Zimmer, the man who was born with… Sorry, just trying to make up for missing National Poetry Month.
If you just can’t get enough of non-mammal intromittent organs may I suggest Darren’s recent post on turtle members?