Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dinosaurs: Surprising Candor at Discovery

In which the blogger discovers that the Discovery Communications Corporation exhibits surprising candor about its dinosaurs, despite what one might expect given much of the TV programming on its myriad networks.
These days, a visitor in search of mounted dinosaur skeletons will come away disappointed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  As I’ve noted previously, the Fossil Hall is closed for renovation and the interim display, The Last American Dinosaurs display, which will feature a few dinosaur skeletons, wont be unveiled until this November 25th.  For dinosaur lovers, the couple of dinosaur skulls one can find in public nooks and crannies of the museum really don’t count or satisfy.  So, what’s a person in the D.C. area to do?

Well, if you define “nearby” relatively broadly, there are a number of great sites nearby to satisfy that dinosaur itch.  One might start with the places identified by Joe Bruns in an article in the Washington Post.  (Joe Bruns, You Don’t Have to Roam For More Dinosaurs, Washington Post, April 19, 2014.)  His list includes the following:

I have a quibble with Bruns’ list because he clearly assumes that, in the quest for these beasts, all roads lead north from D.C., which is wrong.  For example, one can head south to the Virginia Museum of Natural History (in Martinsville, Virginia) which offers dinosaurs in its Hall of Ancient Life.

Also, more recently, a Spinosaurus skeleton mount went on display in the National Geographic’s Museum in D.C.  According to the review Ben posted on his blog, this is a worthwhile exhibit describing the historical context for the dinosaur and explaining quite frankly the nature of the skeleton on display (a cast of bones from several individuals).

If an isolated, fossil skeleton mount of a dinosaur does the trick, then there’s the lobby of the Discovery Communications’ world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Perhaps it’s not surprising or illogical for Discovery Communications to have dinosaurs in the lobby.  After all, this global, pay-television-programming behemoth claims to be guided by “passionate curiosity.”  (2013 Annual Report.)  Of its extensive TV programming, Discovery avers:
Our content spans genres including science, exploration, survival, natural history, technology, docu-series, anthropology, heroes, paleontology, history, space, archeology, heath and wellness, engineering, adventure, lifestyles, crime and investigation, civilizations, current events and kids.
That does give me pause, though.  What a curiously constructed list of “genres.”  It’s a hopeless mélange of fields of science and elements of pop culture.  Frankly, that list isn’t surprising if one considers the programming that the Discovery Communication’s various networks spew forth.  A reasonable conclusion is that, for Discovery, “passionate curiosity” is joined (or perhaps displaced) by a passionate search for ratings and earnings.

Among the many, many programs broadcast by Discovery’s various networks are numerous so-called “reality TV” shows, including such gems as Naked and Afraid in which, for each episode, two stark naked strangers (a male and a female, of course) are dropped into some wild area with minimal equipment and followed as they try to survive for 21 days, or Amish Mafia which features the doings of a handful of Amish who purport to be the local enforcers in the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not opposed to reality TV per se.  I’ve been known to watch a few reality TV shows, such as Top Chef and Storage Wars (neither of which is part of the Discovery family).)

Discovery Communications’ programs have often taken their lumps from the critics.  Though the premises may be laughable or cringe-worthy, it’s Discovery’s lack of candor about the reality of reality TV that troubles me the most.  For instance, the New York Times reviewer of the Amish Mafia when it debuted, observed, “An early credit warns of ‘select re-enactments,’ and since we’re never later told whether we’re watching staged scenes, it’s fairly safe to assume that everything is staged. (A closing credit clarifies that ‘re-creations are based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.’)”  (Mike Hale, The Dirty Work for the Clean, New York Times, December 11, 2012.)

And, hey, when Discovery’s annual TV feast known as Shark Week can be taken to task for lying to its audience by Wil Wheaton (yes, that Wil Wheaton of Wesley Crusher fame), among others, one has to believe ratings may not have just displaced passionate curiosity, but honesty as well.  Here’s Wheaton on the opening episode of Shark Week in 2013:
Discovery Channel started Shark Week with a completely fake, completely made-up, completely bullshit “documentary” and they lied to their audience about it.  They presented it as real.  (Wil Wheaton dot Net, August 5, 2013.)
Joining in, science writer George Johnson dismissed the “science” content on the Discovery Channel as not even “good fiction.”  (Not Just Sharks – The Junk That Passes For Science on the Discovery Channel, Fire in the Mind blog on Discover Magazine’s website, August 6, 2013.)

So, with that as context, it wasn't unreasonable to be curious about how Discovery would present the dinosaurs housed in the lobby of its world headquarters.  First things first:  the hours that it's open to the public aren't obviously displayed anywhere.  I gained admission during the work week, after having failed on a Saturday afternoon.

Once inside the lobby, I found it hard to draw myself away from the fascinating piece of kinetic artwork by George Rhoads which greeted me (it was operating when I entered).  But, yes, there are dinosaurs in the lobby:  a mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, a very small mounted Bambiraptor (the creature was small in life; indeed, the holotype is probably a juvenile), and a Triceratops skull.

I was surprised and impressed that, for the most part, the signs for each are richly detailed and informative.  In general, they describe with refreshing candor what is being shown to visitors, including background information on how these display specimens came to be.

For example, though its wording is convoluted and unfortunately conflates casts and molds, the display sign for the T. rex makes it clear that the visitor is not seeing fossil bones:
Discovery Rex is not an actual skeleton. . . . What you see here is a mold of the bones, captured in painstaking detail by a process called casting. . . . Institutions are using a variety of silicon rubber products to produce scientifically accurate molds that can capture such minute detail as the serration in a T. rex tooth.
The sign also notes that the actual fossil skeleton is nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer and that it resides at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

Hmmm, that means that this Stan has a twin that will grace the Last American Dinosaur exhibit which will open shortly at the Natural History Museum.  Perhaps it was just the lighting, but I found the Discovery cast of Stan to be more impressive than the Smithsonian’s cast of Stan, at least as it was displayed for years in the Fossil Hall.  Somehow Smithsonian Stan is no longer so special.

[Later edit:  Casts of Stan are actually widespread.  In a post titled "The Stan Gallery" on Dinosours!, Ben explores the phenomenon, illustrating it with pictures of a subset now on display in 14 different venues, mostly museums, but including the Discovery headquarters and a Best Western.]

The Triceratops skull is very nice and open to close inspection.  It was found on a private ranch in North Dakota in 1994, and, if I interpret the sign correctly, what is on display is some 85 percent fossil bone.  The cast material appears pretty obvious on the skull.

The Triceratops sign notes that Geolinea Paleontological Laboratories handled the prep of the remainder of the skeleton.

Well, the mention of Geolinea undoes a bit of the good vibe I had from this dinosaur display.  Geolinea, now known as Geoworld, was the source for the fossils that were auctioned off in August, 1999, through a collaboration between Discovery Communications and Amazon.  (Judith Graham, Scientists Harden Position on Selling Fossils, Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1999; Keay Davidson, Online Fossil Sales Worry Scientists, San Francisco Examiner, October 4, 1999.)  The whole thing greatly stirred up the paleontological world, prompting the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to pass a resolution in October, 1999, expressing alarm about the auction:
We are deeply concerned by the on-line, auction sale of vertebrate fossils, as the nature of the process cannot assure that scientifically significant fossils are deposited into not-for-profit scientific and educational institutions.
 I don’t know how this specific story played out in the intervening 15 years with these players.  A brief search didn’t turn up anything.  But, getting into bed with Amazon to auction off fossils doesn’t seem out of character for Discovery Communications (however scary it seems to me).  And, even if the Geolinea reference hadn’t been enough to remind me of the nature of the corporation in question, what appears in a corner of the lobby, behind Stan, would have.  There they are:  real (I assume) motorcycles and cardboard cutouts of stars of the now defunct Discovery Channel’s reality TV show, American Chopper.

Apart from the dinosaurs, I was quite taken with the mammoth material that is also on display in the lobby – real teeth and hair, a model of a baby, and a quite beautiful, very real tusk with blue-green stains from the cobalt and copper in the soil which held it all these years.  Some 15,000 to 18,000 years old, it was found in Alaska in 1996.

There are, I think, at least two kinds of truth one might look for in fossil skeleton displays.  One, and perhaps the more important, is whether aspects of the complex reality of where, when, and how that ancient life existed are represented, based on current scientific understanding.  Mounted skeletons in isolation like those on display at Discovery Communications don’t demonstrate that truth, nor do they seek to.

Another truth comes from the disclosure of whether what’s on display is fossil bone, a cast, some combination of the two, and whether this display comes from a single specimen or is some amalgam of pieces from different individuals.  Discovery Communications' lobby display seems to me to handle that truth quite well.  It’s a matter of candor.

One final note (and a segue from the Discovery mammoth material), the Natural History Museum is apparently just learning the truth about the mammoth skeleton that had been on display in its now-closed Fossil Hall.  As the skeleton is being “deconstructed” by a team of experts, we are now coming to understand that this skeleton is a composite of skeletal pieces from perhaps as many as 70 individuals and not necessarily all from the same species of mammoth.  (A Mammoth, But Careful Restoration At Smithsonian, Associated Press, Washington Post, October 21, 2014.)  No, it’s apparently not what would be done today - one Smithsonian scientist is quoted as saying, “Mixing species is a strange thing to do in a modern exhibit.”  Well, if such a skeleton mount were to be on display today, one hopes for some candor.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Buggy Universe ~ A Review of Planet of the Bugs

After a quick break to take the dog for a walk (“Not a euphemism,” as British comedian Miranda Hart would add), we had resumed our journey south on the New Jersey Turnpike when something on the car’s stick shift caught my eye – a cricket.  A jumping bush cricket (Orocharis saltator), if I’m not mistaken (though I may well be – mixing uninformed amateurs and identification guides, such as Thomas Walker’s fun and useful Singing Insects of North America, often leads to foolishness).  I suggested that my wife take a look; she did, offering only a mild sound of disapproval.  With a tissue, she gingerly pried the little beast off the stick shift and tried to shake it out of an open window.  Of course, given the air flow around the car, the cricket headed straight for the back seat where it rode in some comfort (I assume) for another two hundred miles (though part of a leg had been lost in the encounter with the tissue).

Given this insect’s body plan and structure, even the alternative of being blown out of the car into the wilds of the Turnpike and the rest of New Jersey was not necessarily an immediate death sentence.  Small size, exoskeleton (keeping the necessary, good parts encased in a skeleton), and wings spelled odds of survival that were not too bad.  Insects are ancient survivors for some very good reasons.

My current thinking about insects – their shapes, structures, behaviors, evolution, complexity, and beauty – has been informed by entomologist Scott Richard Shaw’s engrossing new book, Planet of the Bugs:  Evolution and the Rise of Insects (2014).  The prose in this book is graceful and the scientific content accessible, though still substantive.  All in all, a pleasure.

For me, by far the most exciting and fulfilling aspect of the book has to do with a simple, though fundamental question about insects, a question I’d never been smart enough to formulate.  Think on the earthbound caterpillar munching on a milkweed plant and the highflying Monarch Butterfly that it will become, and ask, “Why does that happen?”  Indeed, why do more than three-quarters of all modern insects undergo such a complete and complex metamorphosis in their lives?

Because it meant and means survival.  Complete metamorphosis, which first arose among insects in the Permian Period (299 – 252 million years ago), allows the young larvae to be “stunningly different from adults.”  Shaw asserts it “may arguably be the single more important factor in the insects’ long-term success . . . .”  (p. 104)  It accomplishes many different things.  First, this “remarkable innovation . . . allowed adult insects to avoid competing with their own offspring for food.”  (p. 14)  The animals’ tasks at these stages are dramatically different – the larvae eat and grow, the adults mate and reproduce.  It may have been prompted by the different species’ need to protect their wings.  This kind of metamorphosis allows for the development and growth of these crucial and delicate appendages with some protection during the transitional stage from larva to adult.  It also provides “diverse resting stages [during the life cycle] for escaping difficult environmental conditions.”  (p. 105)  That last may have played a key role in enabling insects to shrug off most past mass extinctions.  Insects took their most significant hit in the mass extinction at the end of the Permian, some 252 million years ago, but “virtually all the orders with complete metamorphosis survived . . . .”  Many others with less complete metamorphosis did as well.  (p. 111)

Shaw tells the tale of the evolution of life on this planet from a markedly distinct point of view, that of the insect.  In doing so, he stresses that he is offering a necessary counterpoint to the human-centric way in which the evolutionary story is often told.  (Indeed, we humans are displaced, though not missing, in this account.)  It’s largely a chronological telling, a journey from the Cambrian to the present, in which he describes the evolutionary path that insects have followed.  This is a story he tells well, covering the ground with a sure hand, freshness, and a sense of humor.

His insect-centric view point is totally appropriate.  The class Insecta is, after all, one of the planet’s greatest success stories with nearly a million known and named species, and many millions more unknown. Insects clearly have done well over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.  The first true insect appeared on land during the Devonian, some 400 million years ago.  The basic insect body plan apparently leaves little to be desired – three-part body with a head (housing brain, eyes, antennae, and mouth), thorax from which six legs extend (a pair from each thoracic segment, and wings, if appropriate), and abdomen (everything else is found there, most of the bodily systems – no wonder a squashed insect abdomen is mostly goo).  Having the skeleton on the outside offers protection for precious organs.  In addition, small size is an insect virtue, the truly big insects have gone extinct.  Such smallness “allows bugs to divide the world into exceedingly small niches (p. 12),” and weather many storms that have taken out other animals.

Focus for a moment on that hallmark of the prototypical insect – six legs.  Reflective of his approach to this story, Shaw posits that six-legged locomotion is the best of all possible arrangements.  In a section he labels “Two Legs Bad, Six Legs Good,” he lays out his argument.  It proceeds partly from numbers:  the many millions of insect species with hundreds of millions of years to experiment with alternatives are, almost without exception, hexapods.  “Six-legged form is sublime.  Fifty million insect species can’t possibly have it wrong.”  (p. 62)  And, lest we think that humans might have gotten onto something good with bipedalism, he concludes, “Two-legged bipedal locomotion is so unstable and difficult to master that it seems highly improbable and almost pointless.”  (p. 61)

Among insects’ great accomplishments is flight.  They were the first organisms to take to the air, stretching their wings initially in the early Carboniferous, some 327 million years ago, and monopolizing flight for the ensuing 150 million years.  Reflective of Shaw’s informative consideration of the hows and whys of insect evolution is his treatment of the development of wings and flight.  He’s not fond of the hypothesis that the attraction of tastier parts higher up plants got insects out of the soil to a jumping off point for flight.  Rather, he offers an array of other possibilities:  insects may have first climbed plants to gain some warmth with wings themselves favored by selection because they acted like “little solar panels” to warm these cold-blooded organisms, and, also, wings offered a canvas for colors and patterns to fuel courtship and mating, to camouflage their bearers, or to warn off predators.  Speaking of predators, flight itself might have been selected for because it offered a means of escape from predators (a recurrent theme in any evolutionary story), or a way to spread the wealth and colonize large areas.

In Shaw’s capable hands, even the kind of parasitism practiced by many wasp and fly species, a particularly nasty behavior that first appeared in the Jurassic Period (201 - 145 million years ago) and earns its practitioners the label “parasitoid” (that is, an organism which ultimately kills its host), becomes a source of wonder at the inventiveness of the evolutionary process.  Shaw actually approaches the subject with a degree of humor, labelling the main discussion “Which Way to Eat an Oreo:  Two Kinds of Parasitism”.  Of these two approaches, external and internal parasitism, the latter is practiced with an astoundingly rich array of lethal variations across species.  I wont get into the details of any of these many fascinating ways to slowly kill a host, but I am reminded of how the parasitic behavior of the Ichneumonidæ family of wasps led Charles Darwin to write,
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.  (Letter to botanist Asa Gray written on May 22, 1860.)
Nevertheless, when Shaw puts the parasitoids into an evolutionary context, one can appreciate the behavior.
The Jurassic parasitoids didn’t just find a new protein-rich meal, they narrowed their ecological niches to smaller dimensions than those of any previous predatory animals and in doing so allowed their descendants to live in a multitude of previously unoccupied microscopic niches.  From that time onward, parasitoids dominated the diversity of terrestrial communities, and by their selective killing behaviors they shaped the richness and abundance of both the insect and plant communities.  (p. 136)
The preeminence of insects on this planet is clear.  As Shaw puts it, “Whether or not they rule the planet, insects certainly have largely overrun it.”  (p. 3)  He reaches somewhat further afield when he considers the possibility of complex forms of life elsewhere in the universe.  Very likely to be insect-based, of course.  As he puts it,
The buggy universe hypothesis is verifiable and has already passed one test:  this planet is observed to be astronomically full of bugs.  We can easily image other pathways by which life on earth might have evolved without any humans, or even without any mammals or dinosaurs, but given the unfolding of the earth’s history as we understand it, it’s difficult to imagine how terrestrial ecosystems could have evolved without insects or insectlike creatures.  (p. 191)
He takes seriously the comment ascribed to biologist J.B.S. Haldane that, considering nature, one has to conclude that the Creator has, “[a] n inordinate fondness for beetles.”  For “beetles,” think “insects” and, for Shaw, the species numbers come up trumps again.  For believers in a Creator, the logic holds that the creation of one “buggy planet” (Earth) probably means “he would have made other planets buggy as well.”  (p. 193)

Finally, I have to add that, thankfully, Shaw avoids the trap that ensnares many writer of popular natural history – the first person narrative in which the author becomes the story’s hero.  Only on occasion for me does such a book succeed, more often not.  Shaw interjects himself into the narrative only sporadically and mostly to good effect.

So, yes, I'd say I like the book.
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