Losing it in the tabloids

Brick Wahl losing it in the comments section of a British tabloid:

There is almost nothing correct in this article. Aegirocassis benmoulae was not a lobster. It was not even kind of like a lobster. Not even sorta kinda vaguely like a lobster. Indeed, there is virtually no connection whatsoever between Aegirocassis benmoulae and lobsters. Had you printed the actual artist’s rendering of Aegirocassis benmoulae your readers would have noticed, after tearing themselves away from Kim Kardashian’s ass, that the lobster comparison was a bit of a stretch. Indeed we human beings are more closely related to frogs, flamingos and lungfish than Aegirocassis benmoulae was to a lobster. Which makes me a six and half foot lungfish and you a hopefully soon to be extinct failure of a science editor.

Somebody had to say it, if David Attenborough won’t.

Alas, this comment was deleted by The Express. I knew I shouldn’t have said Kim Kardashian’s ass. Arse maybe.

express_logo 

Lobsters the size of HUMANS swam the seas 480 million years ago, new fossil reveals
A Caribbean lobster

A GIGANTIC lobster bigger than a human once populated the oceans, a new fossil find has revealed.

http://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/563304/Lobsters-size-HUMANS-swam-seas-480million-years-ago

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Quirks of fate

It seems that 70,000 years ago the global population of homo sapiens was reduced to less than 26,000. Apparently they teased out that bit of info through some genetic analysis. As humans were by then in Africa and across much of Eurasia, that means we were very sparse on the ground. All seven billion of us spring from remarkably small numbers of people. Indeed, it’s been suggested that as few as seventy individuals came across the Bering Strait land bridge to eventually people the entire western hemisphere. We’ve had more than seventy people in our pad at parties. I never thought of them as a genome before. Well, I did once and got my face slapped. But I digress.

A million or so years ago our antecessor species Homo erectus seems in the genetic analyses (if I knew how they do this I’d tell you) to have been reduced to less than a thousand individuals….and remained like that on the razor’s edge of extinction for maybe a hundred thousand years. Everything we are was dependent on a population the size of a very small town or a medium sized high school or the fans of failing rock band in a big, mostly empty concert hall. Somewhere in that tiny population was some of us, genetically. Whatever genetic factors helped members of that population survive a particularly brutal hundred thousand years of Darwinian natural selection (as other related human species went extinct) lies deep in our own genome. And when 70,000 years ago something happened globally that reduced Homo sapiens to less than 25,000 individuals, we survived while the last of Homo erectus died out, unable to survive what it had once survived for a hundred thousand years. No one ever said natural selection was fair. It’s anything but. The fossil record is full of species of humans and proto-humans no longer here. Fleshed out by talented artists, they gaze at us with all the pathos of a Rembrandt. You can sense their intelligence and emotions. Then you look at the skulls again, bare and ancient and hopelessly extinct. There but for quirks of fate, is us.

Hominin hominin hominin

Many years ago I was reading Donald Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and watching The Honeymooners at the same time. Bad idea. This one note bit popped into my head and I have not been able to shake it since. Three decades later I asked myself what would Richard Dawkins do? So I meme the thing.

Why so excited Ralphie boy, what did you find there, the jaw of a baboon?
N-N-N-Norton, I found a homina homina homina.
Calm down, Ralph, it looks like the jaw of a Pliocene baboon to me.
Homina homina homina.
But let me take a closer look.
Homina homina homina.
You’re right, Ralph, it’s not a baboon, not with these incisors.
Homina homina homina.
Good lord, Ralph, you’ve found a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ed, Hi Ralph, Alice home? Just what are you two so excited about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see that jaw. Why it’s, it’s a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ralph, Hi Ed, Hi Trixie, what are you three babbling about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see then. Why it’s a hominin!
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
I’ll call it Lucy.
Ralph!
I’ll call it Alice then.

Dinosaurs

But dinosaurs didn’t die out. The finch peeping incessantly outside the window right now is a real live annoying little fuck of a dinosaur and is not extinct. Nor was the chicken you ate last night. Well, that particular chicken is extinct, but not the entirety of chickenness. However, non-avian dinosaurs died out–duck billed whatevers and spiky triceratops and clunky ankylosaurs and vast and bulbous titanosaurs. They all went poof instantly or not long after the meteor hit and volcanos belched. As did soaring pterosaurs and swimming mosasaurs and paddling plesiosaurs. Even polyglyphanodonts went extinct at the end of the cretaceous. True, they were only lizards, maybe three feet long and not the least bit scary, but I only posted this so I could say polyglyphanodont. Polyglyphanodont. Polyglyphanodont. Polyglyphanodont. Too much fun.

dinosaurs

Stromatolites

The World’s Oldest Fossils Are 3.7 Billion Years Old says the headline. They were discovered in Greenland. Apparently some Aussie paleontologists went all the way to a just as uninhabitable part of the earth as the Australian Outback–just colder–to find fossils of lifeforms older than anything in their own country.  And it’s not like they were looking for them–I have no idea what they were looking for, actually, it doesn’t say–they just happened to look closely at some rocks poking out of the melting snow (you rarely hear paleontologists complaining about global warming) and immediately recognized the distinctive shapes held therein. Stromatolites!  And if there is one place on earth with rocks older than Australia, it’s Greenland. Both are mostly craton–that is big pieces of ancient land that have sort of wandered about the globe with the tectonic currents, not being ground up by continental plates and belched back up as new igneous rock formations in the mid open trenches that stitch the ocean floor. Iceland, the whole island, is part of that grinding and belching process that somehow is above sea level. As such, Iceland is about as opposite from Australia or Greenland as any place on the surface of the globe can be. There are no fossils on Iceland, it is far too new and the rock was all basically molten not long ago. Australia and Greenland, though, were in large part land that was formed maybe four billion years ago, when land was first invented, and in Australia at least there is still some of it in virgin condition (we can’t see most of Greenland yet, it’s still ice and snow covered). Both the Australian and Greenlandic cratons contain incredibly ancient rocks, and where sedimentary rock was laid down a couple billion years ago in ancient shallow seas, you will find incredibly ancient fossils. The land today is so untouched in places that in the depths of Australia there is a famous fossilized beach, you can even see the ripples left in the sand by the waves. Groovy, in an incredibly ancient kind of way.

Of course, we are not talking dinosaurs here. We are billions of years before dinosaurs fossils, before almost anything even. Fossils from that far back are few and far between. Mainly, if not exclusively, they are stromatolites. There were untold jillions of stromatolites then, vast immobile herds of stromatolites luxuriating in the young planet’s overheated waters. Indeed, Earth was a young planet full of stromatolites with no one to eat them. It was sort of a vegan paradise. Since then, though, predators were invented and stromatolites have sheltered in the less hospitable places on earth, overheated and hypersaline. There they thrive, ignored, virtually unevolving. Were we to zap one of the fossil stromatolites with a time machine gun, it wouldn’t look much different than they do today. Hence they call today’s stromatolites living fossils, like coelacanths and horseshoe crabs and cycads and the Rolling Stones.

Australia had the oldest fossilized stromatolites in the world, nearly three and a half billion years old. Or they did until the Australians I mentioned above went wandering about the ancient rocks of Greenland and found the newest oldest fossils. Two hundred and twenty million years older, in fact. To give you an idea of how big a span that is, two hundred and twenty million years ago we mammals had just been invented. We were just squirmy little shrew like things, not very appealing. And birds hadn’t been invented at all. That’s how big a span of time two hundred and twenty million years is. And these Australian paleontologists found stromatolites in Greenland that were two hundred and twenty million years older (3.7 billion years old) than the celebrated 3.48 billion year old stromatolites from the Marble Bar Formation in the Pilbara region of way the hell out there Western Australia. Imagine having your oldest fossils rendered penultimate, just like that. By your own countrymen, no less. What a blow to the Australia paleontological ego, if not the body politic itself. The Government of Western Australia’s website even has a whole page boasting of “the world’s oldest known examples of fossil stromatolites (3.45 billion years old), found near Marble Bar in the Pilbara.” Ahem. Our trio of Australian paleontologists–we’ll leave them unnamed–will be a very popular bunch in the roadhouse in Marble Bar, the metropolis in the Pilbara closest to the now second oldest fossils, that’s for sure. No more free beers. Though they did push back the evolution of life on Earth even further than had been imagined. If relatively complex (by bacterial standards) stromatolites were flourishing 3.7 billion years ago, then bacteria itself must have been around much earlier than that. And the planet itself is only 4.5 billion years old. Life started here much earlier than we thought possible. I doubt, though, that would impress the locals at the roadhouse in Marble Bar. Their metropolis (population 208) was famous for one thing, and one thing only, the world’s oldest fossils. And now you’ve told everybody that they are the second oldest?

But even though the Pilbara stromatolites are a mere 3.48 billions years old, Australians can still brag (“some of the best examples of living microbialites“) that they have living stromatolites, if you call that living. Because several hundred miles to the southwest of Marble Bar, as the emu flies, is Shark Bay, and in the hottest, saltiest part of Shark Bay is a thriving stromatic metropolis. Probably the world’s most famous living stromatolites, actually, even David Attenborough paid a visit. Life forms just like this, he said with breathless and beautifully enunciated excitement, came to be in the Pre-Cambrian. He didn’t touch one. They’d feel like a slimy lichen. Which is sort of what they are, big stacks of slimy lichens, mostly made of cyanobacteria, and nowhere near as cuddly as the wallaby Attenborough had doubtless been cavorting with a day or two before.

However, despite their sliminess, these living stromatolites mean that Australia has had conceivably the longest continuous stretch of communal living on the planet. Even as the Australian craton wandered about the earth, bumping into other cratons and slowly bouncing off again, it had stromatolites. Even when the planet was wrapped in ice–the Snowball Earth hypothesis, a scary one if correct–some Australian stromatolites clung to some little saline hotspot. And they are still there, building up into stromatolites a couple feet high mat by microbial mat, like those layers of lichen you see on rocks but with little grains of sand worked in and held fast by slimy bacterial excretions to provide the structure the way we use girders to build our skyscrapers (though to a cyanobacterium a two foot high stromatolite would be millions of times taller than the Empire State Building.) They link their little flagella together somehow too, like holding tiny bacterial hands, and then they sit there and metabolize. That’s about it. That is what stromatolites so. No scurrying about like in an ant colony or a beaver dam or Los Angeles. Just four billion years of stromatolites doing essentially nothing, but doing it together. There are so many possible jokes here I can’t decide on just one so never mind.

Meanwhile, Greenland gave up on stromatolites permanently (or at least until the next super continent congeals in a half billion years or so) when Pangaea broke up and Greenland scooted pole-ward. Way too cold for stromatolites up there–they like their water hot–and not enough hypersalinity (though there are also examples of freshwater stromatolites in a few places around the world, including a pond that is only forty years old.) So while Greenland has the oldest stromatolites, if Greenlanders want to see their living salt water equivalents they have to go nearer the equator–Mexico, Brazil, the Bahamas. Or about as far away as a Greenlander can go, Western Australia, which is where those Aussie paleontologists are now, being yelled at by drunken Pilbarrans angry about being the second oldest. There goes all that tourist money.

Anyway, many years ago, back in my own personal Pre-Cambrian era, I decided that one day I’d write something about stromatolites. Now I did. I thought then that there would be more of a sense of achievement, of completion. Instead I feel empty and stromatoloid. Some bucket list this is.

stromatolites

Shark Bay stromatolites. Feel the drama.

Monotremes and you and me

Found this buried in among the drafts and I have no idea when it was…

It began as a post about a donkey in a hole. Farmer shovels in dirt, donkey takes a step up, farmer shovels in more dirt, donkey takes another step up. Finally the donkey is out of the hole and the hole isn’t even a hole, it’s full of dirt. The lady had thought maybe it was a real story–the picture of the donkey in the hole–and hated the farmer. Not sure why, but on Facebook you have to hate something. Me, I hate cat pictures. This lady hates farmers with donkeys in holes. I stopped paying attention. A day or two later I check in again, unintentionally. The thread had gone off topic, from donkeys to platypuses. Placental mammals to monotremes. The lady hated platypuses. Why do you hate platypuses, someone asked. They lay eggs, she said. Another guy said it’s because they’re monotremes, sort of a link between mammals and reptiles. The lady said eww….

Eww? Have you ever seen a platypus or an echidna, I asked. I mean, they’re adorable. Personally I love echidnas. I’ve never seen a real platypus…there aren’t any outside Australia, not even in zoos.  They have laws keeping them there. Echidnas, though, are in zoos all over the place. Some come from Australia, some from New Guinea, they look kinda like hedgehogs and trundle about looking for ants mostly and are cute as hell. The L.A. Zoo had a whole indoor display full of eucalyptus and koalas and echidnas. The koalas mostly slept, the echidnas trundled. I was being kind of Facebook obnoxious, I have to admit. But I was only beginning.

Because to be one of those really obnoxious Facebook people, I explained that a monotreme is actually a living example of one of the earliest stages of mammalian evolution, an early stage on the track which went from which from monotremes like echidnas and platypuses to marsupials like kangaroos and wallabies to placental mammals like you and me. And to be even more incredibly obnoxious, I explained that mammals didn’t evolve out of reptiles, synapsids did. The early synapsids are called  pelycosaurs, the most famous of which is the sail-backed dimetrodon.

Dimetrodon, about 275 million years ago.

Every child’s  favorite pelycosaur, the Dimetrodon, about 275 million years ago.

Most synapsids were much less exotic looking, however. And one, sans sail, evolved into therapsids, aka the mammal-like reptiles, from whence we eventually came.

The weirdly cat-like Pristerognathus, about 260 million years ago.

The weirdly cat-like therapsid Pristerognathus, about 260 million years ago.

Alas, nearly all the pelycosaurs and therapsids died out in the Permian extinction event (which took out 90% of all know species on earth, actually). Just before that, though, in the late Permian, a line of therapsids had evolved into the way more mammal like cynodonts, some of which somehow survived the Permian extinction to continue in the Triassic, a world virtually bare of species and ripe for dramatic evolutionary change, especially among reptiles. Hence all those wacky dinosaurs. Cynodonts, in comparison, seem much more mundane and functional. No cynodonts became tyrannosaurs or apatosauruses. None ever rose out of our imaginations to level Tokyo.

But one line of cynodonts that had survived the extinction eventually evolved into early mammals sometime in the latter half of the Jurassic, little shrew looking things that hid in the shadows from dinosaurs and were predecessors of the echidna and platypus and in the long run, you and me. But it would take another extinction event, this time a massive meteorite or comet, to end reptile dominance and enable our skulking little shrew-like predecessors to evolve into a zillion species and fill niches world wide. Actually not all were shrewlike, some may even have been downright cute, for egg layers:

At eighteen inches long, castorocauda was more like a platypus than a shrew, 160 million years ago.

160 million years ago the castorocauda, at eighteen inches long, looking more like a platypus than a shrew

However, you and me, being primates, probably did evolve out of the sneaky little shrew like creatures skulking about in the dark. But we didn’t evolve directly out of reptiles. And we are not related to dinosaurs at all. What did evolve directly out of reptiles, of course, were birds, which actually are dinosaurs, the only surviving dinosaurs who then radiated globally into a zillion species in the global emptiness follow mass extinction. And just as chickens are dinosaurs, we humans all still synapsids, like the dimetrodon. In fact, synapsids are much older than dinosaurs, which means that birds are actually a later creation than are mammals. Way later. Hence we keep them in cages and dice them into McNuggets. And when you look at a raven and think that’s a dinosaur? It could be looking at you and thinking and that’s a synapsid? Except all it’s really thinking is that it wants your sandwich.

What does this have to do with a donkey in a hole, someone said.

Permian extinction

Here I am watching UCTV again. I love UCTV. It’s basically lectures by people smarter than me. Sometimes I understand them. The linguists, the historians, this paleontologist showing funny slides of the Burgess Shale. He’s talking about the Permian extinction, at the dawn of the Triassic. He says that 96% of all species disappeared. That I knew. This is what they can deduce from the fossil record, all the extraordinary variety of life in the Permian was reduced to virtually nothing as the Triassic began. But then he said that it appears that the mega-extinction occurred in a span of two hundred thousand years. That I did not know. I had heard millions of years, even low millions, but two hundred thousand years? He reeled off the theory, the evidence, the processes of annihilation involved, and how they came out to around 200,000 years. That is fast. It may not seem fast to us–language itself may only be two hundred thousand years old–and four generations of people living to the limits of human life expectancy, from the birth of the great grandmother to the death of the great granddaughter, barely stretches two hundred years. But in the expansive span of evolution and even greater expanse of geologic time, two hundred thousand years is less than a minute in a day. It’s almost instantaneous. Annihilation, when it happens en masse, happens suddenly. Apparently one of the few therapsids–a mammal like reptile, closer to us than to dinosaurs–survived, which was good for us, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this and you reading it or doing any homo sapien things. And we’ll end this thus, otherwise it will be a book.