Photo of the Day: Amur Leopard

30 03 2007

Here’s another one of my favorite shots of the Philadelphia Zoo’s Amur Leopard;

Amur Leopard

The leopard, as usual, was resting right in front of the glass, perfect to get some good profile shots. Unfortunately for me, however, there was a much more serious photographer (or at least his equipment looked much more serious) trying to get some photos as well, so I had to defer. The leopard wasn’t sure what to do with all this attention, however, and every so often would look from the other cameraman to me almost as if to say “Are you done bothering me yet?”

Giraffes: The next Icon of IDiocy

29 03 2007

There are few animals as utterly charming as the giraffe, but the question of just how it got its neck (and internal systems to support such an adaptation) has been a vexing one. I’ve been planning to write something on giraffe evolution for some time now, but I didn’t have the impetus to do so until I popped over to UD today and saw Dembski had posted a screed proclaiming that the question of how the giraffe got its next must lead us to “alternatives” to evolution. The article is wrong from the onset, and (as seems to nearly always be the case) Stephen Jay Gould already addressed this issue years ago.

Unfortunately, I returned Gould’s collection of essays Leonardo’s Moutain of Clams and the Diet of Worms to the library so I can’t quote directly from the article, but in the latter part of the book there is an essay dealing specifically with giraffes. As Gould correctly notes, many have used giraffes as a symbol of false Lamarckian evolutionary principles, the classic textbook treatment stating that Lamarck thought over generations the giraffe stretched its neck further and further to reach delicious leaves, thus passing on this trait to its offspring, but this treatment is far from accurate. The book Tall Blondes chronicles how the giraffe was (and even still is) an enigma while other creatures become more well-known, and thus few scientists gave it detailed treatments in their writings or used it as an example; too little was known about giraffes to make such a tactic prudent. From what I remember of the Gould essay, Lamarck only mentioned the giraffe in passing and Darwin initially referred to it not about its neck, but about the use of its tail as a flyswatter. Indeed, giraffes tails are so wonderful as flyswatters that at times they were hunted for their tails, which made traditional wedding gifts, and Darwin considered how such an anti-pest adaptation may allow animals like giraffes to inhabit more infested landscapes. Again, if I remember correctly, Darwin did discuss the giraffe in more detail in later writings, but primarily in response to criticisms from another scientists and not as a triumphant proof of evolution.

The short preview suggests that evolutionists either have to figure out exactly how the giraffe got its neck and other essential internal organs (sounds like the flagellum argument all over again) or embrace saltation, which would certainly not work given the necessity for integrated systems to be in place to allow the giraffes head to be up so high. Thus, the writer procliams, the intelligent design “alternative” wins out, and I would not be surprised if the giraffes neck was the next attempted “Icon of IDiocy”. For my own part, I’ve still got plenty of reading to do on extinct and extant giraffes, but hopefully soon I’ll have something more substantial here for you all.

Oodles of confusion

29 03 2007

There’s been quite a few news reports over the past 24 hours involving a new paper in the upcoming issue of nature entitled “The delayed rise of present day mammals.” The conventional wisdom is this; modern mammal groups were generally prevented from evolving and diversifying into the forms we would see post K/P extinction by the presence of dinosaurs. Once the dinosaurs were out of the picture, the mammals had lots of space and resources to evolve into a variety of forms. The new paper, however, suggests that modern mammal groups were already relatively diverse during the time of the dinosaurs (the paper states that this diversification occurred about 93 million years ago), but then placental mammal group diversity fell off, not to rise again until well after the K/P extinction.

While there is some amount of controversy surrounding the paper (being based on phylogenetic supertrees and some palentologists pulling the emergence dates for the mammal groups into question), the popular articles covering this story have certainly made things confusing. While many of the articles do mention that some mammal groups did diversify (only to lead to dead ends), the articles sport titles like “Dinosaur demise didn’t lead to new species” and don’t give readers the requisite background information as to what mammal groups existed during the time to get a good picture of what this study says occurred. This study also brings to mind something my paleontology professor discussed last semester (I wish I knew what paper/study he was referring to), in which the diversity of North American fauna dropped dramatically across the K/P boundary, warm-blooded and large animals (even mammals) faring worst of all. If I remember correctly, the professor stated there was only one surviving mammal group in North America, although until I find the study he was citing for myself I won’t put this forward as absolute fact. Even so, it does make sense; if North America was flash-fried by the impact of a meteor in the Yucatan, very little would survive. As I said, I am not an expert in these matters (so please correct me if I’m wrong), but in order to fully understand what happened to evolution through the K/P extinction we need not only to know what existed, but where and when (i.e. biogeography) and always be comparing the fossil evidence with the phylogenetic evidence.

I was also a bit puzzled by this inclusion into the ScienceDaily article on the topic;

The tree of life shows that after the MEE, certain mammals did experience a rapid period of diversification and evolution. However, most of these groups have since either died out completely, such as Andrewsarchus (an aggressive wolf-like cow), or declined in diversity, such as the group containing sloths and armadillos.

Andrewsarchus has long been a media-darling, despite the fact that the actual fossil material we have is exceedingly limited (the primary part being a skull, on display at the American Museum of Natural History). This beast (almost always striped like a tiger in life reconstructions) belonged to the Order Mesonychia (or Mesonychids, once thought to be the ancestors of whales), and was an angulate (hoofed-mammal), although there has been much debate over how closely related ungulate groups really are. While the Order Andrewsarchus belonged to became entirely extinct, the “agressive wolf-like cow” description does nothing but confuse. Andrewsarchus was not a cow, nor a wolf, but a variety of large carnivore that cannot be shoehorned into modern placental mammal groups, and referring to it as some sort of meat-eating cow certainly doesn’t do Andrewsarchus justice.

Like I said, while the study is interesting, I believe the treatment that it has gotten from many media outlets has been a little confusing (such is what you have [I'm assuming] non-scientists trying to cover such a story). Rather than a big paradigm shift, this study poses some new questions; why did placental mammal groups diversify, decline, and then diversify once more long after the dinosaurs became extinct? What sort of competition was there? Were modern mammal groups “held down” by other groups in the same way they weren’t allowed to diversify under the dinosaurs? If so, what caused this change that allowed the rise of modern mammal groups? Hopefully as more fossil material is collected and fine-tuning of phylogenetic study occurs, more on the oscillation of modern-mammal diversity will be illuminated, but until then it still is clear that the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs did leave the door open for mammal diversity to rise, even if it wasn’t among the lineages that would lead to extant taxa.

If I could talk to the animals….

29 03 2007

Zoos can be wonderful institutions of education and conservation, but more often than not it’s merely about entertainment, and this sentiment is nothing new. Check out this old short from Nick Park (of Wallace & Gromit fame) entitled “Creature Comforts”

The short has also been turned into a new(ish) series, featuring the same theme of real audio + claymation, and the trailer for it is below;

Photo of the Day: Cheetah

29 03 2007

A few days after Christmas I headed down to the Philadelphia Zoo, and after waiting almost all day for the cheetahs to become active (they were content to rest and give tongue-baths to the dominant male most of the day), I was able to get some good shots. This one is my most favorite;


The problem with the enclosure is that it is rather small and its perimeter is made up of a wooden fence, so it was difficult to shoot the animals without having it look like they were strolling around someone’s backyard.

Two handfuls of “cute”: Red Panda twins!

28 03 2007

Red Pandas are among my most favorite animals, and no trip to the Bronx or Philadelphia Zoos is ever complete without visiting them. A world away, however, people are getting their first look at two 12-week-old Red Pandas (twins) born at Taronga Zoo (click the link if you feel like going “Awwwww”). Their names are Jishnu and Tenzin (their parents being Mayhem and Wanmei), and their birth is important as Red Pandas (much like actual, ursine Pandas) are endangered and require help from captive breeding programs in addition to habitat restoration if they are going to continue to survive. Most of my favorite red panda shots are on my other computer, but here’s one from my last trip to the Philadelphia Zoo (when the critter was actually awake for five minutes);

Red Panda

And here’s some YouTube video of the new cubs;

O.C. Marsh goes online

28 03 2007

I must say I am overjoyed that the various works of Darwin, Wallace, are appearing online (although the copious amounts of text hurt my eyes and make me long to have all that information in book form), and the famous American paleontologist O.C. Marsh is the latest to have his works scanned in an posted. The format is photocopied pages, so it can be a little much on the eyeballs, but it is certainly interesting to read the work of one of the two men (Edward Drinker Cope being the other) at the forefront of North American paleontology at the time. I have yet to read through all the papers as yet, but there is one of particular interest that shows scientists having to deal with misplaced trackways; On the supposed human foot-prints recently found in Nevada. It’s short, so pop on over and check it out (note: it is a pdf and takes a minute to load up, at least on my hunk-of-junk computer).

Also of note is this article I was able to find from Marsh’s eternal rival, Cope. When I was a young wanna-be paleontologist it seemed that the revolution linking dinosaurs to birds was brand new, finally moving them out of the swamps and into active lifestyles. I’m not about to say that Cope’s ideas exactly mirrored those of Bakker, Ostrom, and more recent paleontologists, but he certainly did notice the dinosaur-bird connection. In an 1868 lecture to the Royal Institution entitled “On the animals most nearly intermediate between Birds and Reptiles“, Cope said;

…there can be no doubt that the hind quarters of the Dinosauria wonderfully approached those of birds in their general structure, and, therefore, that these extinct reptiles were more closely allied to birds than any which now live.

Indeed, Marsh and Owen nearly always get mentioned in some capacity in dinosaur books and documentaries, but up until now their work was essentially transmitted in soundbite form; they were famous and prolific and sought to out-compete one another. Finally, everyone has the chance to re-discover their work and hear their actual voices on the topic, rather than be content with simple vignettes pitting the two against each other over the course of a page or two.

Did Darwin delay publishing because of religion?

28 03 2007

The story of Charles Darwin is quite well known to many interested in evolution (I am surprised there is not a children’s book version of it somewhere), and often the standard story given as to why he delayed coming forth with his ideas is that he feared the socio-religious implications of it. Indeed, depending on what you read or what documentary you see, Darwin may never have published if it wasn’t for Wallace’s postulation of similar ideas or he is shown as constantly ill and worried by his ideas. The idea has become so entrenched that the story itself seems to evolve, the implications of evolution weighing down so heavily on Darwin that it’s surprising he didn’t spontaneously combust from the pressure. Some new research presented in the new issue of Nature, however, suggests that Darwin did not fear religion and made his ideas fairly well known among family and friends, thus he wasn’t not on the verge of a heart attack trying to keep his ideas under wraps.

While I do not think that religion necessarily prevented Darwin from coming forward with his ideas, I think he did worry about it and he would be concerned about coming forward with an idea many would consider heretical, especially with the likes of Richard Owen still about. I agree with others that while he was indeed concerned with religion, he also had to make something of a name for himself in biology and show that he was to be taken seriously (hence, 8 years spent on barnacles), else he might likely be dismissed as someone who did not receive “proper” scientific training. We must also remember that Darwin was well aware of the stumbling blocks that evolution faced and some questions that had yet to be fully answered, and if left to research and further ruminate on the idea without threat of being upstaged, perhaps he wouldn’t have published for even longer still (in science, if you keep picking at it, it may get better). I also have to say that I enjoyed David Quammen’s tongue-in-cheek observation that Darwin was much like the barnacles he studied (traveled abroad as a youth only to cement himself in Down House for the rest of his days), suggesting that perhaps Darwin spent so much time on barnacles because something resonated with him about them.

Darwin books are a dime-a-dozen these days, and it may be likely that at some point (if not already) there is more traditional dogma about his life than fact. I do not say this to underwrite historians who have studied his life, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the public idea of who Darwin was really matches up with true history. I honestly can’t say, but it was amazing to look upon his effects and notes not so long ago in the American Museum of Natural History. Before then I respected Darwin, but he was just another name in a history book; I appreciated his work but knew little about the man. Gazing upon his notes, however, I started to feel a resonance with a man I’ll never meet, sharing Darwin’s “fever for the tropics” he felt in his youth for one thing. Regardless of why Darwin published when he did, the facts are that he forever changed science, and the revolution that On the Origin of Species began still has yet to fully come to fruition, and neither Darwin’s fears nor courage can take away from such a momentous achievement.

Photo of the Day: Spoonbill

28 03 2007

When I visit the Bronx Zoo, I usually (unfortunately) forget to visit the Aquatic Birds aviary tucked away in the far corner of the park. I didn’t forget during my last visit, however, and was able to get some good shots of a spoonbill that was willing to pose for me


As little as 5 years left to save the Orangutan

27 03 2007

While biofuels may seem like the answer to the pollution/global warming/energy/consumption crises facing the world, they’re certainly not environmentally friendly. While technology already exists (and is ever-improving) to create cars that run solely on electricity with greatly reduced emissions, many keep pushing biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells, technologies that are still very far away from being practical and will not solve the problem (nor will electric cars, but they’re a step in the right direction). What’s this have to do with one of my favorite primates, the Librarian, I mean, Orangutan? Well, one of the most popular biofuels right now in Europe requires palm oil, which necessitates slashing and burning of peat and rainforest habitats in Indonesia (ramping up the carbon emissions for the area as well). Thus, orangs are beaten or killed by plantation owners and their home habitat is being destroyed (forcing them into more contact with people and higher likelihood of being killed), and some are speculating that we could lose this relative to extinction in as little as 5 years. What a tragedy it will be when we can only see the molded, mannequin-like faces of orangs in dusty museum displays and confined to zoos instead of in the habitat they belong in. I’ll put it simply, if we cannot save one of our closest living relatives in 2007, an animal with known intelligence and emotions, then I don’t see what hope we have for many others. If it is so easy to ignore the death of a primate that is so like us, how can we ever hope to save other less-charismatic or related animals?

I’m not sure where I first picked up the idea (perhaps David Quammen), but it is curious that man seems to have a tendency to destroy the creatures closest to him. Animals that are intelligent, social, and have emotions are often killed without remorse, primates often looked upon as detestable and inferior holdovers rather than relatives. Perhaps, through our evolutionary history, our hands became stained with the blood of other apes and hominids so like us they were perceived as a threat, but that is not a question I am fit to answer, much less gave an informed opinion about. Indonesia and other Pacific islands are home to a far greater diversity of life than we could ever have expected, not to mention many long-known creatures that deserve a reprieve from the relentless devastation we’ve wrought on the islands. People should be getting upset about this and clamoring for a stop to the slash and burn tactics, but instead it’s easier to ignore it and hope the WWF or some other organization will take care of it. Not only do we need to support organizations like the Sumatran Orangutan Society, but to hold “good-intentioned” biofuel manufacturers accountable and demand an end to the rape of Indonesia.


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