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.

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Cats

Felis catus. Better yet Felis silvestrus catus. What scientists, in their more formal moments, call house cats. And lately, scientists have been studying cats and coming up with some interesting conclusions. In fact, I just read a piece on Vox.com: What research says about cats: they’re selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures. And like any article that implies anything non-cute about cats, it caused a furor. It certainly did in the comments on Facebook after I posted it. But I think that article is pretty dead on. Cats do kill zillions of birds a year and do vastly more damage than the human hunters do on wild bird populations. And parasitologists are concerned about the effects of the parasite toxoplasma gondii, even if The Atlantic article cited pushes it a bit. (And not to creep anyone out, but parasites may have behavioral effects on us that we’ve only begun to glimmer.)

But I was most fascinated with the studies cited on a pet cat’s attachment to its owner. Or lack of attachment, actually. There is affection, but not attachment. Say everyday you come home and your cat jumps up on the couch and sits on your lap and purrs away. Then tomorrow you leave the country for a year, subletting your pad with cat to somebody. It takes a week or two, but eventually your tenant will come home from work every night and your cat will jump up on the couch and sit in her lap and purr away. Same level of affection. Same attachment. Same everything. After a year you come home. Your tenant is there on the couch, your cat in her lap. Does your cat leap out of her lap and run up to you, a long lost friend, like a dog? No, your cat ignores you at best. Or else it hides. Sit down on the couch and your cat might get up and sit in your lap and purr away. It might sit on your tenant’s lap. It might go back and forth. If it’s what we call a friendly cat it will sit in anyone’s lap on the couch, purring away. It’ll finally settle on your lap alone when your tenant is gone and there is no other handy lap on the couch. The cat is affectionate, yes, but there is no emotional attachment. Not like in dogs, not like in people. Your cat will not miss you if you die. It would miss your nice, comfortable lap. Your dog, on the other hand, would miss you. If you fell into a coma, your cat would seek out another lap. A dog might wait by your bed forever.

The human-cat emotional bond is strictly one-sided. We become deeply attached to them. They find us convenient. I’ve spent most of my life with pet cats, all but a couple years. I like cats. It never seemed to me that they have all that much use for us. Humans keep cats because cats have learned to exploit our instincts and weaknesses. They’re of very little use to most of us now since we don’t use them to catch rodents. In fact anyone who’s ever discovered that they and a neighbor each have the same adoring cat as a pet–with two names even–has realized just how loyal a cat is. We’re conveniences. Whoever feeds them, gives them a warm, safe place to sleep, some property and pant legs it can scent mark as it own, and doesn’t annoy them too much, well they’ll hang around. If a cat can have two families doing it, all the better. The cat doesn’t give a damn what you call it as long as you feed it.

Incidentally, the tiny dogs you see around, especially the ones sitting quietly in purses, also exploit our weaknesses. They look cute and tiny, they get table scraps. Pieces of steak while Rex outdoors guarding the house gets kibble. Unlike cats, though, we have genetically engineered them that way (in the old fashioned way, like Mendel’s peas). Kept their size and appearance developmentally stalled so even full grown they look like puppies and we just melt. Paedomorphosis they call that. The retention of juvenile traits even with adulthood. We have deliberately created dogs that look like puppies their whole lives because we love the feelings that puppies bring out in us. We turned wolves into yappy, squirmy little puppies. People love puppies.

But we didn’t do that with cats. Because cats, although breeding has mellowed them somewhat and perhaps made them a bit more “affectionate”, are highly resistant to genetic change like that. It can be done, to a degree. But not even the most selectively bred cat will look like a kitten in adulthood. Feline growth rates are simply not very flexible, indeed they change very little. A typical house cat looks pretty much identical to an African wildcat even after seven or eight thousand years of domestication. A tiger and a house cat look fundamentally alike, to the point where mothers at zoos tell their little children to look at the big kitty. Tigers look like giant cats.  Even the most extreme examples of feline evolution–the cheetah for instance–are immediately identifiable as cats. Indeed, the “first cat” proailurus from about 25 million years ago looks remarkably like an ocelot or jaguarundi today. So the feline template was set at the beginning and has proven adaptable with very little dramatic change. There are three basic sizes (large, small and smaller), though unlike dogs you cannot breed a large cat into small cat or vice versa. If you have ever been to a pet show with dogs in one hall and cats the other, the dogs vary to almost unimaginable degrees–the Saint Bernard and the chihuahua are both descended from wolves (and can interbreed with each other and with wolves) while cats are remarkably similar–flat faces and hairlessness being the extremes. Cats simply don’t change much, in shape or behavior. Only in size to a very minimal degree. The Maine coon cat is enormous by house cat standards, but it pales in comparison to the size range seen among dogs. And while interbreeding is possible between many cats species, like between wolves and dogs or wolves and coyotes, it does not happen in the wild. Cat behavior does not allow for it. Behaviorally and genetically, they are set in their ways, and have been for 25 million years.

It may be that human behavior was easier to modify than a cat’s. Instead of turning a wolf into a puppy, a hominid was turned into a subservient cat loving homo sapien. When that first cat–proailurus–appeared 25 million years ago anything vaguely human had yet to evolve. Felines were fairly set in their ways by the time hominids appeared maybe eight million years ago. The genetic malleability of hominids resulted in more variation than  among cats and in a third of the timespan. We change faster.  We may not be as changeable as a dog is in body shape and appearance (though we can be radically dimorphic, with very large males and much smaller females, among other differences), but then we show incredible variation in behavior. Our cognitive skills make us  infinitely more adaptable behaviorally than probably any species ever. If cats and humans first came together maybe ten thousand years ago because we attracted mice and rats, had warm fires on cold nights and found kittens adorable, then odds are the one who was going to adapt more to the other was the humans. Because we can. Unlike cats, our minds are incredibly adaptable and our behavior easily modified.

If you want to see just how this human behavior has been modified go to one of your higher end pet stores and look at all these things that people buy for their cats. And then look at all the things people buy to get rid of cat urine odor. Human beings are incredibly flexible mentally, live a long time, are highly social and since the beginnings of agriculture have preferred permanent places to live with plenty of warmth on cold nights. Plus we attract rodents. Pretty ideal set up for a cat. Given the chance, our cats will come and go as they please, and we’re hardwired to think of their behavior when they are with us as affection. A dog, on the other hand, will dramatically alter its behavior to live with people. Feral dogs behave much more differently from domestic dogs than feral cats do from domestic cats (though feral cats will not sleep eighteen hours a day). Feral dogs are scary, even deadly. Domesticated dogs are obedient and even protective. We shape dogs to us far more than they do us. There is always some give on both sides (people with dogs do adjust a bit to a canine lifestyle), but people with cats wind up doing far more for their cats than vice versa. Every husband has heard that he is bothering the cat. Cat food commercials–even cat litter commercials–are aimed our concerns about are finicky cat. People often will not even try to train or discipline a cat. People are convinced, for some reason, that cats can’t be disciplined at all. Dogs, yes, children, yes, but the cat gets away with just about anything. Why is that? The sight of adults in a grocery store carefully selecting the cans of food their cat will eat (“he doesn’t like salmon”) has always struck me as a little ridiculous.  And somehow, most amazingly of all, they have us doing it with little complaint. There is some hard wiring in people that cats take advantage of. Think of that next time you find yourself calling your cat’s name and being utterly ignored. And when she begins crying and you jump up to feed her. People do that with babies too. In fact I sometimes wonder if the declining birth rate and increase in pet cats are related. Have cats taken advantage of our nurturing instincts to such a degree that they have us in permanent state of being parents to an infant, a time in which the urge to make another baby is repressed?

Even weirder, there’s a video racing about social media of a tyke–a boy maybe three years old–who’s crying next to a very angry cat. Obviously the cat just slashed the boy. The tyke then takes a swing at the cat. The cat leaps up and goes right for the child’s face, claws out, ready to shred. The kid, terrified, topples backward off the bed trying to protect his eyes. The response of viewers is nearly 100% in favor of the cat. The cat aroused greater parental feelings than the three year old boy. Imagine the exact same situation with a small dog. The kid, just nipped by the dog, takes a swing at it. The dog leaps at his face, teeth bared, knocks him off the bed and continues the attack. Viewers would have been horrified. They would too by the sight of, say, a six year old brother attacking the child, slapping him in the face, knocking him off the bed. And an adult doing so would have brought universal outrage and demands for the adult’s immediate arrest and confinement.

Only the cat is seen as the victim there. Only the cat is seen as being absolutely correct in its actions. Only versus the cat would the child–a three year old child at that–be accused of abuse. Of deserving what he got. And only a cat, a large adult, most likely a male, would be discussed in the diminutive–the kitty–in the comments. An attacking adult dog would not be called a puppy. An attacking brother would not be called a li’l kid. An attacking adult male would not be called daddy. Only the cat, big and mean as it was, is still be a kitty.

That is weird, people. There is something wrong with you. You should not applaud that cat for trying to claw out a three year old’s eyes. You should not. You should be horrified. But all you see is an angry kitty and a big mean three year old child. Something has altered one of humanity’s deepest instincts. Cats have somehow turned you against your very own children to protect them, cats. Talk about Darwin Awards.

Many of you are angry right now reading this. Angry that I even suggested that this is a problem. But preferring to raise and care for another species over your own is a classic parasite technique. Even protecting members of that species against your own offspring (the vessels of your DNA) is a classic sign of parasitical behavior modification. You can find it among some ants. Among some species of birds. And among humans, apparently. Cat lovers have been altered.

The first time I ever read a book on parasitism (think it was Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer) I immediately began looking at our cats askance. I’d still feed them and pet them and clean the damn litter box, but I’d ask myself why I was doing it.  And you know, I think it’s going to come out one of these days that we’re being had. Had by a damn cat. They’ve worked themselves into our cerebral cortex so deeply that we think cleaning cat boxes is normal. I overheard a friend at a bar recently talking about cats. Cat people, he said, don’t know that their houses smell and everything is covered with cat hair. We don’t. We notice human hair, and certainly notice when someone stunk up the bathroom. We leave books of matches atop the toilet. No one leaves books of matches near the litter box. That we tolerate. But then the human gastrointestinal tract isn’t full of pheromones. Indeed, there’s no surer way to kill a date. But cat urine is a pheromone cocktail. Is that why we don’t mind it so much? Are we vulnerable? I also suspect we notice that strong male cat smell more when it’s not our cat. When a neighbor cat has sprayed the porch, it is pungent and offensive. Is your own cat’s smell as pungent? If not, why not? It would contain the exact same chemical mix that makes that makes stray male urine so goddamn rank. But I wonder if perhaps we just don’t smell it as much. That we don’t smell it because we’ve been programmed, essentially, not to. My friend who pointed out that all cat lover’s houses smell…well, he hasn’t been programmed. He doesn’t like cats.

When I posted the kernel of this post on Facebook a couple weeks ago I got the angriest responses to any post I’d ever written. There was some really intense anger. Any criticism of cats whatsoever was not tolerated. My cat loves me, many people said. I love my cat, others said. It was all love, love, love. The problem with you, somebody else said, was that you don’t know how to love. The responses were sometimes ludicrously visceral, and nearly all involved the word love. You can criticize children and you will not get anywhere near the level of outrage that you will get by denying that cats love us in return. You can make ugly baby jokes and you will not get the instant anger you can get by criticizing cats. It’s not a lasting anger. It dissipates quickly. But it is instant and uncompromising. I can’t figure out why that is. What is it that makes people so instantaneously defensive about cats?  Why are cat people so passionate about cats? Why is it that people will do almost anything for cats? They are just animals. They aren’t especially bright–squirrels are smarter–and they don’t guard our children or scare off prowlers. They don’t rescue the drowning or guide the blind. A cat will not die defending you. Cats do virtually nothing of use to human beings, certainly not since we used them to kill the rats and mice raiding our grain stores. And yet many of you just grew angry reading that. I don’t know why that is, but I suspect it’s something we don’t understand quite yet. Something parasitical perhaps, or something chemical, or maybe that hard wired behavior I suspect cats have exploited. That whatever it is that makes people so bizarrely nuts about felis silvestrus catus.

Anyway, it’s time to feed the cat.

Detail of cat from the hunting scene (fowling scene) from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, 18th dynasty, ca. 1400-1350 BCE.

A cat killing a bird in a magnificent wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, 18th dynasty, ca. 1400-1350 BCE.

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Glyptodont

When I was a kid, back in the Plastic Age, every kid had gotten a plastic bag full of little plastic dinosaurs. The wife and I still have plastic dinosaurs. Nice ones from the Natural History museum, and a collection of the old fashioned mono-color (an angry pink T Rex, a passive blue stegosaurus) that came in a wooden box we picked up at a yard sale. We wanted the box, we said, but we probably wanted the plastic dinosaurs. We keep them now, along with a collection of little Matchbox car knockoffs that we found in another box we bought (for the box, this time), for children and grandchildren, though our friends have remained mostly sterile, barren or child loathing, I’m never quite sure. So both the swarm of monocolored dinosaurs and the fleet of tiny cars sit unplayed with. But when I was a kid, the packages of plastic dinosaurs included the occasional post-asteroid apocalypse critters (we didn’t know about the asteroid back then, though, the reptilian mega beasts still died slowly and sadly like in Fantasia). I specifically remember a big bird and weird glyptodont.

Mythical Gastornis, eating critter whole.

The bird was a Gastornis, that we had envisioned ripping smaller beasts to pieces with its enormous beak, and I was a little disappointed to see last week that is was (according to news reports) a giant Vegan bird that once roamed the Arctic, assaulting trees and Eocene shrubbery.

Gastornis meekly nibbling on a cycad.

Real Gastornis, nibbling on a cycad.

I think ours was yellow, though, and looked meaner than a Vegan, and besides there were no Vegans in the 1960’s, just fruitarians. But it was still cool to see Gastornis going briefly viral, sent aloft by mildly confused Vegans, one of whom explained that we shouldn’t eat chicken because it was the closest living relative to a T Rex.

Then today I’m delighted to see the glyptodont in the news. A glypto what, you ask.

A glyptodont, lumbering.

A glyptodont, lumbering.

It looked like a huge armadillo, the size of a Volkswagen, and ours was mono-colored, though what color I can’t remember, and about the same size in plastic as the gastornis and looked kind of weird silly cute gnarly. It also looked exactly like an armadillo. I knew quite a bit about it, because I had read and re-read the How and Why Book of Prehistoric Mammals which I had read on yet another of the family’s cross country sojourns, just as I had read and re-read the How and Why Book of Dinosaurs on an early trip coast to coast. (We moved a lot.) As kids went, I was an expert on things prehistoric. Anyway, it turns out that scientists have recently retrieved DNA from a 12,000 year old glyptodont dug up somewhere. Perhaps it was slaughtered and devoured by ancestors of my Sioux wife, who had spread across the Americas with their fancy Clovis pointed spears driving mega fauna into extinction, leaving us with nothing but the bison, elk, moose and the avocados that giant sloths used to eat. All the elephants, camels, giant armadillos, giant sloths all went into the campfire barbeque. But paleontologists had no idea of what, exactly, a glyptodont was. Then after investigating the fossil’s DNA, it turns out that the glyptodont was a giant armadillo, more giant than today’s so-called giant armadillo. No mere Texas roadkill our glyptodont, it’d be like running your pickup into a bison. But oddly enough, the glyptodont is not especially close, genetically, to todays roadkill armadillos, but rather to the dinky little fairy armadillo

Pink Fairy armadillo.

Pink Fairy armadillo.

found throughout the Argentine pampas, and is about as unglyptodont an armadillo as you can imagine. Still, you can’t argue with DNA, which must drive paleontologists crazy, out there in the cold and wind and dirt prying out rocks with hammers looking for ancient bones. Every bone they dig up and tease out of its rock matrix with dental drills means hundreds of hours of work in the field and lab. Then in half an hour some pasty geneticist with a man bun tells you exactly what the thing was, a gigantic cousin of the pink fairy armadillo, and you can’t argue back. Pink fairy? Really? It’s bad enough your terrifying carnivorous avis was a herbivore, no more dangerous than a huge chicken, but now your mega armadillo was, deep down genetically, just a squeaky tiny armadillo. Fool with a couple hox genes, the heterochrony (sort of the rate of developmental change, like how we grow from fetus to adult, and how fast, and how much) switches from peramorphosis (keeps growing until huge, like a Great Dane, or me) to paedomorphosis (aka neoteny, becoming adult while still retaining juvenile characteristics, like those yappy little dogs in ladies’ purses). In an evolutionary instant your truck killing glyptodont is something you can slip into your pocket (in fact I once saw a pink fairy armadillo slipped into a pocket, where it felt instantly asleep).

All these dinosaurs, glyptodonts and even giant Vegan birds were once the work of hard drinking, hard living, hard travelling men who battled the elements and hostile natives to stock museums with visions of immense and terrifying beasts. Heroes like Edward Drinker Cope and Roy Chapman Andrews, who were feted at parties full of adoring ladies and Teddy Roosevelt would call them friends. Now it’s some geneticist schmuck with a pocket protector and a show on PBS. I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid, they were heroes, they were all over public television in big macho documentaries, manly men in cowboy hats, beards, long hair blowing in the wind, holding up a huge thigh bone like a barbel and saying long Latin names like it was the most natural thing in the world. Beautiful grad students puttered abound in the dirt at their feet. At night there’d be beer drinking and loud laughter around a fire. Now that was science. Today it is long sequences of A’s and C’s and G’s and T’s. Not that genetics isn’t incredibly fascinating, it is. But where is the romance? A glyptodont lumbers along a lakeshore where Barstow is now. Some day it will be small and plastic and bright blue. And then it will be a sequence of A, C, G and T. Somewhere between the two my imagination watches it, wondering.