Tuesday Night Notes

31 07 2007

I’m compelled to blog, even though I don’t really have much of a major post in me at the moment. Being that I’m drawing a blank, here’s what I’ve been up to;

1) I read another 100 pages of White’s A History of the Warfare of Science…. I’m now nearing the end of the first volume, and hopefully I’ll be finished with it by the weekend. He does use the term “sundry” quite a bit, but overall it is an excellent work and a good primer for those concerned with how religious authorities have essentially tried to beat down anything that seemed to contradict a narrow interpretation of the Bible for hundreds of years. It just takes some time to get through.

2) I watched Pan’s Labyrinth with my wife. Overall it was a very imaginative and well-shot film, although some of the gore was a bit over-the-top. Do I really need to see someone get their face based in or someone’s cheek torn open by a razor blade? You could make the argument that it advances the story in its brutality, but I just found the close up views of gore to be a bit much.

3) I leafed through the newest issue of Prehistoric Times. If I was an artist I’d submit something, but I’m nowhere near as talented as many of the contributors.

4) I wrote the general outline for part of my book, the part specifically dealing with modern creationist ideas about the Noachian Deluge and even when I play by the creationists own rules it doesn’t make sense and requires even more special pleading. I’ve got about 3-4 pages in word, but they are essentially the core ideas which will be expanded as I incorporate more information. In fact I’ve found that the best way for me to work on this book is to write down my ideas as they come to me/as I learn new things, arranging them and expanding them as I go to fill in the picture rather than trying to do it all in one go. I’m going to try and write at least something every night (even if I end up throwing it out later), and to help facilitate that every night I’m going to read at least one scientific paper and summarize it in greater or lesser detail for inclusion in the book. Not everything will make the cut in the end, but I want to build up a body of data to work with that I can tie together with various themes (i.e. Nisbett’s Arizonasaurus paper made me think of doing at least a section of a chapter on sails in extinct organisms, arising at least 3 different times. Any organs that spread a membrane out from a bony structure could be included in a more general discussion, but for now I’m just going to focus on fin-backed critters). As I’ve said before, I hope to at least have a working final draft done by the time I turn 25, so that gives me 7 months to really get things together. Even if it’s immediately picked up it probably won’t see the light of day for a year after that, but at that point at least I can say I’ve finished it and start compiling information for another project. If I could, I would just do as Buffon did and write volume after volume in a series on natural history, but I don’t know if I have the attention span and I surely lack the expertise. Either way, it’s about time that I really got serious about something I’ve been promising.

Mana from heaven…

31 07 2007

Sorry the lack of updates today folks; I’ve been trying to get some ideas onto the word processor for the book, and I also found out that I had more access than I thought to the past 7 years of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (as well as some other journals). I’ve been downloading lots and lots and LOTS of papers that will probably take months to get through, but here’s a few selections of what I’ll be reading over the next few days (at least until I can get some other papers printed out);

The Braincase of Giganotosaurus carolinii (Dinosauria: Theropoda) From the Upper Cretaceous of Argentina. Coria & Currie. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2002

First occurrence of Brachiosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma. Bonnan & Wedel. PaleoBios, 2004

Phylogenetic reconstruction of parental-care systems in the ancestors of birds. Tullberg, Ah-King, & Temrin, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 2002

A Basal Abelisauria Novas, 1992 (Theropoda-Ceratosauria) From the Cretaceous of Patagonia, Argentina. Coria & Salgado, Gaia, 1998

Fins, limbs, and tails: outgrowths and axial patterning in vertebrate evolution. Coates & Cohn, BioEssays, 1998

Arizonasaurus and its implications for archosaur divergence. Nesbitt. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 2003

Taxon distributions and the tetrapod track record. Carrano & Wilson. Paleobiology, 2001

A new carcharodontosaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Argentina. Coria & Currie. Geodiversitas, 2006

A new close relative of Carnotaurus sastrei Bonaparte 1985 (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia. Coria, Chiappe, & Dingus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2002

Recreating a Functional Ancestral Archosaur Visual Pigment. Chang, Jonsson, Kazmi, Donoghue, & Sakmar. Mol. Biol. Evol., 2002

Nonavian Feathers in a Late Traissic Archosaur. Jones, Ruben, Martin, Kurochkin, Feduccia, Maderon, Hillenius, Geist, & Alifanov. Science, 2000

A new specimen of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis (Theropoda, Dinosauria) from the Lower Cretaceous Antlers Formation (Lower Cretaceous, Aptin) of Oklahoma, USA. Currie & Carpenter. Geodiversitas, 2000

Giant theropod dinosaurs from Asia and North America: Skulls of Tarbosaurus bataar and Tyrannosaurus rex compared. Hurum & Sabath. Acta Palaeeontol., 2003

Europe’s largest dinosaur? A giant brachiosaurid cervical vertebra from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Naish, Martill, Cooper, and Stevens. Cretaceous Research, 2004

Lessons From a Tyrannosaur: The Ambassadorial Role of Paleontology. Brochu. Palaios, 2003

etc. etc. etc. There’s a whole other stack of new material for me to digest, and hopefully it will be illuminating (the genetics papers are going to kick my butt, but hopefully I’ll come out of it with some more understanding).

Drat, missed another milestone…

31 07 2007

Not long ago I noted that Laelaps had hit the 500 post mark, and I had meant to cook up another something special to celebrate the 50,000th page view. As usual I wasn’t paying attention and the stats now sit at 52,355, and my technorati rank is now at 112. Why so many people keep coming back here, I have no idea, but I am certainly grateful for it. Outside of merely feeding my ego, readers here (and especially new friends that I’ve made through blogging) have forced me to be more creative with content, research what I’m talking about, and really reach to bring in some new information into a blogosphere brimming with more ideas than any one person has time for. So I guess what I’m saying is, you have only yourselves to blame, thank you.

Armored Little Sauropods

31 07 2007

Update: Julia, at my request, has written up her own take on the poster. We’re both looking forward to when the research comes out in full.

When I think of sauropod dinosaurs, the first images to come to mind are of the “classic” sort; relatively smooth-skinned, elephantine beasts whose tails are so long that they almost appear to be out of sight, moving in a small group through near a woodland (Mark Hallett’s “The Long March” being one of my favorites). Indeed, sometimes it’s easy to forget that all those behemoths started out as surprisingly small babies, and some of those babies may have had an armor coating. It’s been known for some time now that some sauropod dinosaurs had bony osteoderms covering their bodies, although the bony fixtures seem to be far too small and too far apart to have acted as an effective defense against predators. Saltasaurus is one of the better known titanosaurs to posses scutes, and although it is sometimes depicted as having a turtle-like shell, there doesn’t seem to be anything to corroborate this. Nevertheless, the osteoderms may have provided some protection for the dinosaur, not when fully grown, but as a baby.

Although it appears in a journal that does not require peer review (Nature Precedings), a new paper (although it’s really more of an abstract) entitled “Functional aspects of titanosaur osteoderms” by Thiago da Silva Marinho suggests that the growth patterns of titanosaurs might have something to do with the function of the osteoderms. Given that some titanosaur embryos seem to show “tuberosities” on the skin in a row along the back and “rossettes” of a larger tuberosity with smaller ones surrounding it. While these are not the actual osteoderms, they seem to be the place where the osteoderms would be developing (the stage of development in which the embryo was fossilized probably makes a difference here), and if this trend continued it would seem that some newborn titanosaurs would have a set of bony scutes along their back. As they grew up, the scutes would move further and further apart, having little function. If given enough evolutionary time, I wonder if such patterns could have led to more armored sauropods, although there is obviously no way to prove such a pattern now.

In any case, it seems that Marinho has recognized a real pattern, but what use the scutes were is still open to hypothesis. The paper states that such armor would have been of use against small predators, but the neck and underside of the young would still seem to be relatively vulnerable to attack. Perhaps the osteoderm pattern was a response to insects or parasites, discouraging pests from attacking/attaching themselves to the young dinosaurs (when pest, parasites, and biting insects could have possibly been more of a danger). Regardless of the cause, something seems to have selected to protect the dorsal surface of these young dinosaurs, and hopefully more careful study on the subject will be undertaken.

Science Communication Resources

31 07 2007

Elizabeth Harp of Colorado State University was kind enough to include Laelaps on a list on internet resources and blogs that non-scientists might make use of. She’s brought together a number of links and other resources from all over the web (mostly ecology-related), and the resources can be found at her page “Communicating Science to the Public.”

The Discovery Channel ditches science for Shark Week

30 07 2007

One of my first encounters with the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” was in the summer of 1990, watching a documentary featuring shark scholar John McCosker with a dead baby great white shark, pointing out its bits of anatomy and why they were important. The narrator’s description of the sharks miraculous blood-circulation system, allowing it to maintain a body temperature several degrees centigrade about the surrounding seawater, is as clear in my mind today as it was shortly after viewing it. Even when turning to the subject of shark attacks, the approach was minimalist, letting famous photograph Al Giddings recall an attack on his friend Leroy French among the Farallon Islands off California; it was a beautiful, fair documentary that was reflected more of the nature of the Great White than its more famous monstrous media persona. Other shows documented shark tracking techniques, their sensitivity to different kinds of light, and there was at least some inclusion of science into many of the programs I watched year after year.

Then, a few years ago, things started to change. There weren’t as many shows about the sharks themselves as melodramatic retelling of shark attacks, lots of fake blood, spliced stock footage, and terrible synthesizer music being more common than anything else. Conservation was almost never mentioned, the larger focus being on attacks (even if there were the obligatory mentions that attacks don’t happen all that often). Indeed, the Discovery Channel hit rock bottom with the schlock-fest “Anatomy of a Shark Bite,” a self-serving piece of junk that tried to sensationalize an attack of shark biologist Eric Ritter, the metallic reconstructions of shark jaws giving rise to terrible “documentaries” like “Hippo vs. Bull Shark.” Given the downturn of the programming, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that in 2000 I assisted the “Creative Works Team” to find information about sharks for the Discovery Channel, my keys hanging from a lanyard that I was given as a “thank you” for my work for the channel.

This year, the 20th Anniversary of Shark Week, things are worse than ever. While some decent older documentaries like “Jurassic Shark” are thrown in, the new programs are mostly more of the same blood-and-guts survivor stories, one of which is called “Top Five Eaten Alive.” The synopsis of the show is as follows;

Each year dozens of people are eaten alive by sharks. These are the world’s five most amazing survivor stories.

For a short time I worked on organizing and researching cases in the Global Shark Attack File, and I can tell you that dozens of people every year are not “eaten alive” by sharks. There are a number of attacks every year (so low as to be almost insignificant risk-wise), but there have been very few cases where victims have actually be consumed by sharks. Attacks by Great White sharks, for instance, are primarily of the “bite and spit” variety, sharks being unsure whether surfers or swimmings are seals, and so they take people into their mouths and then let them go almost immediately; if they really wanted to eat us, the inch-long serrated teeth would make short work of prey with a few side-to-side thrashings of the head. Again, some people have been eaten by sharks, but I am hard pressed to think of even one substantiated case where someone was swallowed hole or “eaten alive.” This kind of sensationalist B.S. certainly doesn’t belong on a channel claiming to be educational, but then again we know the Discovery Channel is no longer educational, and columnist David Hinckley has pointed out that it’s just another version of pushing the envelope in one area (disgusting and bloody content instead of sex, drugs, or profanity), only there may be more leeway since it’s perceived to have some educational value.

Despite it being well known that sharks are in serious trouble all over the globe, the Discovery Channel continues to ignore there is a problem (see the film Sharkwater if you have any doubts). Instead, they continue to revisit the 1916 shark attacks off of New Jersey (some years saying it was a Bull Shark, others that it was a Great White), “Black December” off South Africa, the USS Indianapolis tragedy, and other tried-and-true horror stories. While the Discovery Channel endorsed the well-made horror film Open Water a few years ago (featuring one absolutely awful documentary about a woman stranded at sea, her camera capturing “Death Tape footage” even though she survived the ordeal relatively unharmed), they seem to do absolutely nothing when it comes to conservation. It’s too late to change this years programming, but concerned shark fans (people who have looked forward to watching Shark Week every year since it’s inception) are starting to speak up about the irresponsible programming. Science should not be a ratings game, and there is no reason that the Discovery (and even National Geographic) Channel should continue to ignore the real horror story; what we’re doing to our oceans.

Update: In attempting to recall at least one case of someone being “eaten alive” I remembered two files from the mid-1800’s in South Carolina. A sailor was taking a swim off the side of his ship when a supposedly 25-foot long shark came along and, as the story goes, swallowed him. Another file from that same year tells of a man in a sailor’s uniform found in the stomach of a 25-foot long shark caught off South Carolina, and I have reason to believe that this is the same shark, sailor, and case. The date of the attack was listed as “circa 1840” and the capture of the shark is listed as 1837, so although the capture would seem to precede the attack the actual date of attack is only rough at best. Unfortunately many of the original records were lost due to fire or other causes, and so we’ll probably never know for sure.

Combating creationism with history

30 07 2007

Reading though Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom I finally found the references I was looking for; the Genesis mythology at the beginning of the Bible is little more than Chaldean/Babylonian creation myths, just brought into a new religion. I had long known that the conflicting Genesis stories had their roots in the mythology of other groups, eventually incorporated into the Jewish faith, but I had not heard much beyond this (and now I’m going to have to read George Adam Smith’s The Chaldean Account of Genesis, among other things). The relationship between the earlier myths and Genesis has been long known (at least since White published his book in 1897), and coming across it again reminds me that (at least in my view) we should make greater use of theology and archeology in refuting creationism. Many opponents of creationism (myself included) focus on the scientific side of things; how the account in Genesis could not possibly have occurred in the way it is interpreted by groups like Answers in Genesis. Rarely, if ever, is the subject brought up that we know that Genesis is not a unique or telling story at all, linking it to earlier belief systems. Likewise, if the creationists claim that the earth was created in the year 4,004 B.C., then we should point to archaeological evidence of the people who existed and had civilizations during that time. Indeed, ancient history proves absolutely key refutations to young-earth-creationist dogma, and I think anyone who wishes to combat creationism should become well-versed in the theological and historical realities that show Genesis to be nothing more than another string of ancient thought whose sole virtue is reflecting the beliefs and thoughts of people during the time Genesis was conjured up.

Even beyond this, the Bible is a vastly outdated book, reflecting a square, flat world of relatively small size, the stars, sun and moon hung from the vault of heaven, and the Gospel having been told to every creature & every man of every land (even if there was another side to the world or the world was a sphere, theologians argued, there could be no people there as the Gospel was never preached there). Modern apologists over gloss over passages referring to this archaic world as being poetic, or try to change their meaning through wordplay, but the fact of the matter is that the natural world as described in the various books of the Bible does not accurately reflect what we now know to be true. If young-earth-creationists are going to reject Darwin, why not Newton or Copernicus as well? Truth be told, both men (and nearly any other who dared hypothesize about something that was not in line with religious orthodoxy) were vehemently opposed in their time, even though groups like AiG try to co-opt the faith that these men had to prove that the best scientists are Christian ones. Again and again, creationists prove that they do not know their own history, nor the history of science, and I think that those concerned with evolution/creationism should start using this ignorance to our advantage.