Tag Archives: natural history

Prehistoric Badass

Looks like BillyBob got a little too close to the mammoth.

Looks like Ugg got a little too close to the mammoth.

I was visiting my favorite place in the world not too long ago, and toured through the new Hall of Paleontology, (which is awesome!) and took a snap of this poor guy getting batted around like a soccer ball by a couple of mammoths. Ah, life — and catastrophic boo boos — in the Stone Age.

Really big teeth

Really big teeth

As usual, I wasn’t reading all the labels, so I don’t remember for sure, but think this is some kind of giant crocodilian, cruising around, waiting for Ugg to fall in the water. I think the effect of the shadows looks cool.

A Pterydactyl, about the size of a robin.

A Pterydactyl, about the size of a robin.

I always thought the little fliers were cool — about the size of a “pocket dragon.”

Hey, how'd you get in here?

Hey, how’d you get in here?


Written in Stone: the review

As I stated in my previous post, I recently had a chance to read a review copy of an upcoming science book. It is due for release this Friday, and you can order a copy now from several book sellers. I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it, if you have an interest in paleontology, evolution, or the history of science. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek, has all those things and more.

The book begins with a recent news story – recent paleontology news, that is. A fossil was described that “could be” the elusive, and conclusive, missing link in the human family ancestral chain. In fact, the find, and the fossil, were rather shamelessly promoted, hyped, and hinted about, all the while being kept from the eyes of the scientific community – all but the team of scientists who had prepared and described the fossil, at any rate. “Ida,” as the fossil was informally named, was a beautifully preserved specimen of a small, female, primate some 47 million years old. As this story unfolds, it illustrates several themes that weave through the rest of the book. One is that scientists are all looking for answers to big questions. It’s why they are scientists. They are driven to search for the truth, even if and when it goes against their previous assumptions about how the world works. But scientists are also human. The tendency to interpret findings to fit those previous assumptions is sometimes too much of a temptation to overcome, whether they are conscious of doing it or not. And there have always been scientists who make no pretense about using the data to support any view of life other than one about which they have already made up their minds.

In the case of this book, the answers are truly some of the biggest in the natural sciences: Where did we come from? Who are our ancestors and what did they look like? What can fossils tell us about the ancestors of other creatures with whom we share the present-day earth? And the real nail-biter in my mind – are birds really dinosaurs? There is also the question of whether or not the progression of life-forms through the fossil record shows a progression in another sense, that of evolution from “lower” forms, like simple invertebrates, to “higher” forms, like us. And although evidence reveals that even “simple” invertebrates are quite highly evolved and adapted for their role in nature, there will always be those who want a way to justify placing the human race at the top of some pinnacle of evolutionary achievement.

Switek tells the human stories along with the scientific throughout the book. He digs into the history of the science and finds the personalities that go along with the names. Most students of evolutionary biology are familiar with Charles Darwin, and know something about his life. But Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Othaniel C. Marsh, Georges Cuvier, and others are just names, or, at best, shadowy figures at the edge of the stage. Switek has given them substance. He details the conflicts some had with each other, as well as some of the outstanding collaborations.

Each chapter is a separate case study in the history of evolutionary paleontology, using the keystone examples that most of us are familiar with from some course or other in biology. The story of the Archaeopteryx fossils and the debates over the evolution of birds from dinosaurs and whether birds started to fly from the ground up or the trees down is a good example. The feathered fossils, one of which was on exhibit recently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, are billed as “icons of evolution.” That presence of feathers has now been confirmed on a number of dinosaur fossils has added weight to the placement of birds in a much closer relationship to dinosaurs than would have been considered when the Archaeopteryx fossils were first discovered.

Another “icon of evolution” for many of us has always been the story of evolution of the horse, from the tiny Eohippus – or “Dawn Horse” (now classified under an older name – Hyracotherium), to our present-day horses, zebras, and their relatives. Presentation of the evolution of horses as a steady march from one form to another – from the small, many-toed forms, to the large, modern ones with their single toes – has consistently misrepresented the true story of the ancestry of modern horses. Some of the forms that are shown in a line leading from smaller to larger, actually co-existed at some point in the past and are not closely related. A more accurate portrait of the horse family is of a bush, with many of the branches containing the smaller forms dying out along the way.

Also included in the book is the chapter describing the search for the true evolutionary path of whales, which have been shown through recent molecular studies to be more closely related to hippos than to groups previously proposed as their ancestors. This points out another theme important to Switek, that the field of paleontology has something to contribute to other disciplines in evolutionary science, as well as being able to be enriched by knowledge from those other disciplines.

For anyone with a keen amateur interest in paleontology, this book has everything one could hope for in a single basic reference. There is history, drama, and all the major players – the fossils themselves – telling the stories that are much larger, and much more interesting, than merely a tale of “missing links.”

More wonders at HMNS

What with all the blogging and tweeting about last Saturday’s WordCamp at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), I suddenly realized that I had never written an account of my trip to Houston last September to see the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at HMNS. I was spending a hell of a lot of my time back then firing off job applications, and the rest of my time I spent wringing my hands and wondering how long before I’d be living on the street if I didn’t find a job. Not exactly conducive to generating the kind of energy to write a bunch of upbeat blog content. Nevertheless, I knew I would hate myself later if I passed up the chance to see that exhibit, in spite of how much it might set me back in groceries.

While it didn’t register in my mind at the time that there was any particular significance to the date, I went to Houston on a Wednesday, September 9 (yeah, 09-09-09). (Oh my, oh my, oh my. If stuff like that is supposed to mark significant changes… well, we got some rain here a few days later, after several months of drought. But my job drought continued.)

I took my brother’s camera, and then found out I couldn’t take pictures in the exhibit. I don’t know if taking pictures would be harmful to the terra cotta figures, or whether there are just different policies set up by the owners of each exhibit (I would have been allowed to take pictures of the fossils in the Archaeopteryx exhibit if I’d had the camera with me then). There was a whole little shop full of T.C. Warrior merchandise at the end of the exhibit, so that might have been the deal — don’t let people take their own photos and they’ll buy books and miniature figures, etc. However, there were two figures at the entrance to the exhibit that it was okay to photograph, so I did. Then I proceeded to go around to other parts of the museum and take some more pictures, which I have been meaning to share.

I failed to write down the scientific names for the stuff I was taking pictures of, so we’ll all have to be content with names like “really big geode,” etc. Sometimes I get caught up in being an enthusiast/tourist and forget to be anything else (like scientist, journalist/photojournalist, whatever).

Kneeling terracotta archer

Terra Cotta archer

Terracotta Official

Terra Cotta Official

Marlin "trophies" and mural

Marlin "trophies" and mural

Armadillo ancestor

Really big 'dillo

Ankylosaur and his groupies

Ankylosaur and his groupies


Part of the seashell display

I love seashells. The more the merrier

Giant snail shell

Imagine if you will, a snail the size of a six-year-old

Giant amathyst crystal geode

Really big geode

A cube of quartz

Really big quartz crystal

…And I take that back

Turns out the martins haven’t actually left the area, they just moved out of the house. On reflection, it seemed like a bad time to migrate south — it’s still winter on the other side of the equator. Plainly, I don’t know as much about purple martin migratory habits as some people. I seem to remember my mom saying that they arrive in this area around Valentine’s Day, and leave again on June 15th. That’s pretty specific. But she must have meant that they leave the nest on June 15th. Or thereabouts. We didn’t get the house up until late February, and I didn’t see any martins around it until mid-March. Both families of martins were still using the nest a lot on June 15th. But now I see one group of four (mom, dad, two kids) fly over the house once in a while and never land on it. They hang out on the telephone wires out by the road. I’m sure there’s still plenty of good grasshopper hunting in the area. It just goes to show, you should never stop observing, and you’ll probably never be through learning.

Notes on a local collection

My favorite place locally is the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection (TCWC). It is not a well-known attraction, but every former student of the local university who majored in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (WFS) or Renewable Natural Resources (RENR) knows what and where it is.

The “collection” is a natural history collection, in short, dead animals. Dead animals in drawers, dead animals in jars, dead animals in tanks. Technically, they are called study skins, alcoholic preps, or just specimens. They represent wildlife, large and small, from all over Texas and the world, and from every imaginable habitat on land, sea and air. They are arranged, within the collection, according to a taxonomic or systematic scheme. They are in order phylogenetically, which means that the presumed oldest groups are “first.” For instance, the sharks and their closest relatives are in the front ranks of the fish study (ichthyology) collection. As creatures with cartilagenous skeletons, they are presumed to predate the “bony fishes.”

There is a lot of “stirring the pot” going on in the field of systematics because of molecular genetics and the new field of “evo-devo.” Groups of organisms are being rearranged with new and different relationships to other groups of organisms. It won’t mean one group of mammals ending up in a closer relationship to fish than to other mammals — nothing that radical — but for instance whales and cattle have moved closer together. And some of these moves are being supported by new fossil evidence, too, not just molecular data. Hard specimens are still important, although many institutions have packed up their collections and dispersed them to other holding facilities because there are no more funds or caring individuals to properly maintain them.

About eight months after I moved back home to help take care of Pop, I looked up TCWC on the web and sent them an e-mail, asking if I could come and work a few hours a week as a volunteer. Why? Because I’m one of those former WFS students and I always felt a connection to those stuffy rooms in the basement of Nagle Hall, and later the basement of Evans Library. Now the collection is housed in one section of the former Texas Instruments plant east of the Highway 6 by-pass (now known as Earl Rudder Freeway) between University Drive and Harvey Road. They have a lot more room there and have absorbed some of those orphaned collections from other places. But they aren’t really any better funded for collection maintenance, and the neglect is starting to take a toll.

You might think, well, aren’t they preserved? and doesn’t that mean indefinitely? Or you might think, what’s the loss if they crumble to dust? And, yes, they are preserved, but like a lot of things, some were prepared better than others and hold up better. And if they crumble to dust and are lost forever — what’s one more vanished piece of history? Yes, we value our history, or we wouldn’t have museums at all. I think a few people would kick if the Italians decided to stop wasting funds trying to keep the Colluseum from falling down, or if the Egyptians knocked apart the Sphinx to make room for an apartment complex, but what are a few drawers full of field mice, or jars of minnows, or toads? I mean, really.

It’s only a matter of scale — scale of size, scale of focus, scale of appeal. Nearly everyone can appreciate some aspect of the Roman Colluseum or the Great Sphinx, but it takes a special individual to get excited about those drawers full of field mice.

Drawer full of field mice.

Drawer full of field mice.

Case in point. Who finds this picture exciting? Intriguing? Mildly interesting? Not even mildly? How sad. Because there are about 12 cases of these guys in the collection. Each case holds up to fifteen of these drawers, and as you can deduce, that means there is room for just buckets of mice.

What’s the point of having so many? They represent a range of sizes and conditions through space and time, grouped by country, state, counties within states in many instances. Often the size and color of a population reflects where within the range of the species it is found. If only one member of a population is collected, it could be a fluke. Only by having a representative sample size can you begin to draw conclusions about the life history of a species. And when the specimens fall apart or get eaten up by bugs, your representative sample is no longer so representative.

It took me several hours, working one drawer at a time, to get this whole case looking this organized. This one case had apparently been skipped during a previous cleaning bout, because it was the only one that needed so much attention. There were other cases — some with pocket gophers, some with squirrels — that needed to be rearranged to alleviate crowding in some drawers, but I’ve barely started. And I only have a few hours a week to spend there. No one is paying me, or anyone else, to do it. And that’s a shame. It’s honorable work. It’s a labor of love.

Why do we collect things?

I’m no psychologist.  But I wonder, what if collecting things is a holdover from much earlier, less settled times in human history, when it might have made sense to gather and hang on to portable, edible items?  Hmm.

This is completely unscientific, of course, but if you do a web search, you’ll find that websites with the word “collection” or “collections” in them generally have something to do with debts.   Type in “collectibles,” on the other hand, and that’s a whole new world.  But it still boils down to having a collection of something.

Some collections are whimsical, of value only to their owners.  Others vary in value; some are beyond price.

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.  I have a few collections of my own.  And there is a class of collections that is of special concern to me — natural science and natural history collections.  Of most concern are taxonomic collections that are being neglected because they are just not “sexy” any more.  Taxonomy and systematics these days are being done at the molecular level — DNA, ribosomal RNA, mitochondrial DNA.  You get the picture.

And really, who would want to sit at a microscope and study all the different cusp patterns of rodent molars when you can just slap a blood sample into a gene sequencer and print out a histogram with easily readable and colorful squiggles?  Plus you get to bat around terms like “polymerase chain reaction,” or the more mysterious sounding “PCR.”  You can talk about Southern blots, DNA clones in plasmid vectors, shotgun sequences, and other obscure and perhaps ominous-sounding things.  And I’ve done those things.

I would rather pull out a drawer of natural history specimens — say study skins of pocket gophers — and by just looking at them, be able to guess “these probably live in dark soil; these live in light-colored sand; these look like stronger diggers, so maybe they live in heavy soil.”   Things like that.

Study skins from 1941

Field mice collected in 1941

It’s true you can get more specific information about how organisms are related, how long ago they may have diverged on the tree of life, what types of disease mechanisms they have that may be similar to ours — and perhaps why — and how all this can answer hugely important, life-saving questions.  And, yes, that’s all very sexy indeed.

But I’m not.  And I think that you can still get more information about an animal and the world it lives in when you have the whole animal.  In the case of some specimens in natural history collections, a study skin is a relic of something that no longer exists — field mice collected from a site that is now a shopping mall. And why might that be important?  Because we are a species of record keepers, and natural history collections are, more than anything else, a record of where we’ve been.