Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Finishing a Year With Odds and Ends

There is much about 2018 that will make me relieved to see it receding in the distance behind me.  Partly as a consequence I’ve taken the easy way out with this end-of-year post, devoting it to a couple of random bits of natural history miscellany.  Still, this exercise has prompted me to think that it might be helpful in the new year to try a different perspective on things in general.

Sneaky Sex

Psychologist David P. Barash penned a wonderful line in a recent piece (Survival of the Sneakiest, The New York Times, December 15, 2018):
At equilibrium, the evolutionary race is not only to the big and aggressive, but also to a certain number of the small and sneaky.
Barash observes that the common understanding that the largest and fiercest animals are the ones who always win the race, whether it be to capture prey or mate, ignores the support that natural selection can give to creatures who come up with alternative strategies that sometimes dupe the alphas of the group.  Further, investing too much in those robust or attractive features that lead to competitive success can have deleterious effects.  Examples of this are many.  For instance, Barash writes about “aggressive neglect” among bird species that are so intent on warding off trespassers that they fail to fulfill their duties to their young.  Or, on a very, very small scale, a recent study of the microscopic fossil shells of ostracodes, my favorite crustaceans, showed a correlation between investment in a very large copulatory apparatus and a greatly increased chance of an ostracode species going extinct.  (Ed Yong, When a Bigger Penis Means Swifter Extinction, The Atlantic, April 11, 2018.)

But it’s those individuals who manage to do an end-around the clearly dominant ones in order to get their genes reproduced that Barash focuses on.  Again, the examples of these alternative strategies are numerous.  For instance, male pumpkinseed sunfish, he notes, are typically aggressive, large, and colorful, vigorously defending their territories and their mates.  Some males, though, benefit from a devious strategy that has managed to evolve.  They mimic female sunfish in color and size and, once welcomed into a male’s territory, wait for the opportune moment to impregnate the real females’ eggs.  The University of California Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Evolution website has a superb post on these alternative, devious strategies.  Titled Evolution’s Dating and Mating Game (May, 2008), it opens with a description of the involved drama over mating for an Indonesian octopus species.  This is marked by fighting to guard a chosen female, but also punctuated by the strategy of female impersonation by smaller, male octopuses.  Lest one think that mimicking females is the go-to alternative, the Museum’s post lists, and I quote, the following examples of other strategies:
Sly male crickets produce no chirp themselves, but poach females attracted to another cricket's call.
Sneaker squid get love on the run by zipping up to a couple that has recently mated, rapidly depositing sperm in the female (in a quick, six-second affair!), and taking off again.
Sneaky sand gobies hide in the sediment near a couple's nest, waiting for an opportunity to slip into the nest to fertilize a few eggs on the sly before getting chased out by the resident male.
Small dung beetles play the milkman calling at the back door. They excavate a side entrance into the tunnel system guarded by a larger dominant beetle, mate with the female chambered there, and try to slip away undetected.
The smallest males of one marine isopod species make up for their small size with heavy investment in sperm. These little crustaceans sneak into the sponge commandeered as a love nest by a larger male and then dive bomb the mating couple, releasing a cloud of sperm at the critical moment.
These two broad strategies – consider them boldness versus sneakiness – are in competition, ebbing and flowing in a population as an evolutionary equilibrium is sought.

My takeaway is nothing profound and perhaps a stretch, but offers some solace:  when it looks like the deck is stacked against me, there may well be a way.

Geology and Fossils Everywhere

We build with stone and such quarried stone tells stories of its geological origins.  With my limited knowledge of geology, they aren’t stories I can read on my own.  But, on occasion, I stumble on a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.  I’m a bit better with the fossils that might be found in building stone.  I’ve posted before on the exciting adventure that is urban fossiling and remain on the lookout for good material related to it (some links are listed in the column at the right of this post).  I was quite taken by two recent pieces about the tales to be gleaned from stone.

How could I resist the post titled Bathroom Geology that appeared earlier this year (October 25 2018) on the blog Time Scavengers?  Written by Jen Bauer, a postdoc at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the post focuses on the geology behind the stone found in five different bathrooms.  She opens with a granite counter top in a Richmond, Virginia, restaurant’s restroom, exploring how the large size of some of the crystals in the material helps explain the fluctuating temperatures at which the magma cooled.  She then segues to the granite found in the bathroom of a private home, said granite missing the large crystals of the previous example but being replete with tiny almandine garnets (seems there was a great deal of aluminum in this magma).  She’s then on to the geology behind the impressive example of migmatite found in a ladies' room at the San Francisco airport.  Skipping her next stop for the moment, she wraps up with the bathroom at her mother’s house.  Its counter features labradorite which forms, not in granite such as that of the initial stalls covered in her post, but in something with an explosive history like basalt.

Her fourth pit stop was at a public bathroom in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The walls of this facility are rich with fossils.  Bauer posits that fossil shells in this stone are from Florida and are roughly 10-20 million years.  I would quibble a bit with her on this because, since she doesn’t explore the geology behind the stone used in these walls, it’s not clear how she can be sure that this limestone (what it certainly is) was, in fact, quarried locally.  Regardless, fossils in a bathroom are always a treat.

All in all, a nice tour of five lavatories.

I suspect geologist Sidney Horenstein, who died in early December, would have enjoyed the restroom tour.  Subject of a nice obituary (Sam Roberts, Sidney Horenstein, 82, Geologist Who Wrung Stories From Stone, Dies, The New York Times, December 10, 2018),  Horenstein was one of those favored few who can commune with deep time.  His bailiwick was New York City, and his muse the bedrock upon which the city is built and which shows through in some places, as well as the stone with which the city is built.

His obituary features a quick tour of a few of the geologic and fossil treasures that abound in New York City.  Stops mentioned include Saks Fifth Avenue (coral fossils in the doorway), Brooklyn Municipal Building (brachiopods), Comcast Building in Rockefeller Center (fossil snail in the limestone lobby), and the Western Union Building (fossil clams).  Though he clearly enjoyed finding fossils in building stone, he gave the geology of New York City its due, seeing evidence in the rock around him of events ranging from mountain building to glaciers sliding over the land that came to support the city.  The gusto with which he embraced the city’s geology is abundantly evident when he was described by writer William J. Broad (How the Ice Age Shaped New York City, The New York Times, June 5, 2018):
Talkative and outgoing, his shirt often untucked, the model of a rumpled geologist, Mr. Horenstein is a native New Yorker with boyish enthusiasm for the city’s hidden faults and early beginnings, for ancient blows and catastrophes. A compendium of geologic jokes, he refers to himself not as a raconteur but a rockconteur.
As for the attraction of reading the geologic world around him, Broad quotes Horenstein as saying, “It keeps me young. . . . There’s always something to see, something you missed, something new.”

It’s an affirming perspective on aspects of life, not just things geologic, and one I intend to take into the new year.

Friday, November 30, 2018

High Stakes Put Internecine Jibes in Science in Their Place

Geologist and professor emeritus at St. John’s University Larry E. Davis has taken to heart the slings and arrows aimed at geology by scientists in other fields, academia, and the popular culture, so much so that he feels compelled to ask, “Is Geology a Real Science?” (His essay with the same title appears in The Compass:  Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon, volume 84, number 3, 2012).  The piece begins sounding like a Rodney Dangerfield routine (“I don’t get no respect.”)  It’s true that the slurs directed to particular sciences are often very clever, begging to be quoted endlessly.

To begin with, it’s not just the sciences where this kind of invidious comparison occurs.  Unfortunately there is, I think, a natural tendency for many of us to put people and their fields of endeavor into some sort of rank order on such perceived, but often unfounded, attributes as the utility of the work, the profundity of the questions explored, and the complexity of the mental challenges encountered.  An easy metric for many are the educational barriers to entry into the field.

Case in point.  Back when I was doing legislatively related research for the U.S. Congress, I remember taking umbrage when someone referred to me as a librarian.  Though my employing organization was part of the Library of Congress, I wasn’t a librarian.  Why did that label initially offend me?  Yes, a host of unfair stereotypes kicked in, but, more to the point, I knew the labeler sought to establish a pecking order with me on a decidedly lower rung.  It was a power thing and he was right, I did have much less power in that relationship.  But, more to the point, I came to realize that there was no inviolable line separating the work I did from that of my librarian colleagues.  I came to appreciate the frisson that could come from crossing lines between fields.  It sparked growth; we all benefitted, including the jerk on a power trip.

To my mind, one of the funniest expositions on the merits of various fields turns up in Act I, Scene 1 of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).  (Whether the humor here is intended or not, I don’t know.)   I recently came upon this after reading several of James Shapiro’s scholarly, stimulating, and highly accessible books on Shakespeare (e.g., 1599:  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) and Contested Will:  Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010)).  Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, briefly cut a singularly dashing and tragic path in that world.  I’d had no exposure to any of Marlowe’s plays and Faustus happened to be on my bookshelf.

At the outset of the play, Faustus, a doctor of divinity or theology, ponders the relative merits and value of the fields of philosophy, medicine, law, divinity, and necromancy or black magic.  In doing so, he offers up a single aphorism for each field (save the last) that, in his mind, sums up its essence; each is then quite easily and humorously dismissed.  For instance, medicine goes by the board because its objective is good health which Faustus claims he already has.  Now, if medicine served to grant humans eternal life or bring them back from the dead, says Faustus, then “this profession were to be esteemed.”  Theology suffers a similar fate when Faustus sums up its central message to be – if you say you’re not a sinner, you’re a liar because everyone is a sinner, and, if you’re a sinner, your fate is “everlasting death.”  He opines,
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera:
What will be, shall be?  Divinity, adieu!
(I admit that I hear a Doris Day-like lilt when I read the phrase Che sera, sera.)

As to necromancy, Faustus posits,
O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
And, so, he sells his soul to the devil with tragic results.

It would seem that in the sciences this kind of offensive comparison among fields arises with some frequency (admittedly, it may be that just a few particularly biting old saws get repeated often).  Regardless, it’s been fun dredging up some of the pointed and vicious comments that scientists have made about various scientific fields in which that they do not practice.  Seems to be largely in the service of marking territory, of establishing a hierarchy of worth.  Ah, power trips.

And, for some reason (a concentration of hubris, perhaps), physicists appear to have been the source of most of the pointed put-downs that I find cited.  I’ve relied on secondary sources for these comments from physicists, so I cannot be certain that this what they really wrote or said.  Still, it may be telling that such sentiments are so generally attributed to physicists.

Physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) is often quoted as having said something to the effect that all science is either physics or stamp collecting.  (Rutherford’s comment and that of Louis Alvarez cited below appeared in a previous post on this blog.)  A classic slight, for sure, though the evidence that he actually said this is not convincing.

Physicist Louis Alvarez (1911-1988) helped develop the hypothesis that the end-Cretaceous event was the product of the impact of an asteroid.  Bill Bryson quoted him in *A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003, p. 198) as saying of the paleontologists critical of that hypothesis, “They’re really not very good scientists.  They’re more like stamp collectors.”

(As someone whose interests have expanded recently to embrace stamp collecting, I find such comments amusing and somewhat painful.  Is the activity really that pointless and worthless?  In the long run perhaps so, but in the near term it offers a needed break, stimulates intellectual exploration, and certainly satisfies that quintessentially human impulse to categorize and impose order.  Still, this is an argument to be had at some other time.)

Early in his career, physicist Leon Lederman (1922-2018) reportedly approached the gray-beard physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) to ask about a particular elementary particle.  Fermi answered, “Young man, if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.”  (Dave Goldberg, The Universe in the Rearview Mirror:  How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality, 2013, p. 230.)

It’s not just physicists who mark territory.  At the risk of raising a question I don’t intend to address (to wit, what is a science), I must quote German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) who clearly knew the hierarchy among the sciences:
Mathematics is the queen of sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.  (Quoted by Clifford Pickover in Archimedes to Hawking:  Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them, 2008, p. 292.)
By “arithmetic” Gauss meant number theory.

In his essay (cited at the outset of this post), Davis laments the low esteem that geology has in academia, citing department closures among other slights.  As for popular culture, he finds The Big Bang Theory TV show feeding into a mindset that can dismiss certain scientific fields wholesale.  Where else but in a post in this blog would one wander from Faustus to The Big Bang Theory?  The disparaging remarks made by the character Sheldon Cooper, a physicist, about the other sciences draw laughs.  Sheldon’s sardonic observations may be the contemporary equivalent of Faustus’, and the latter, we know, led to calamity.

In 20th episode of The Big Bang Theory’s 7th season, there’s the following exchange between Sheldon and Penny:
Sheldon, pulling a book out of a bookshelf in his apartment:  Why do we have a geology book?  Leonard, did you throw a children’s party while I was in Texas?
Penny:  Wait, what’s wrong with geology?
Sheldon:  Let me put this in a way you’ll understand Penny.  You remember how you explained to me that the Kardashians aren’t real celebrities?  Well, geology is the Kardashians of science.
In the series, engineering, much more than geology, suffers Sheldon’s derision, in part because engineer Howard Wolowitz, a main character, lacks a doctorate.  In episode #12 of the first season of the show, Sheldon enters the university’s engineering lab, looks around at Howard and other engineers, and says,
Engineering, where the noble semi-skilled laborers execute the vision of those who think and dream.  Hello, Oompa-Loompas of science.
Does this kind of slight in a very popular TV show really have an impact, somehow feeding into attitudes toward particular sciences or perhaps fostering more anti-science feeling in this country?  Davis certainly seems to think so.  As a result, he devotes much of his essay arguing for the centrality of geology to myriad important endeavors.  He forcefully asserts that geology and its practitioners “play a key role in the continuing efforts to understand the relationships between our planet and humankind.”  Further, he maintains that the various sciences, per se, should not be considered or treated as “separate disciplinary silos,” rather the sciences “are all related.”  These contentions are, for me, clearly true and accepting them more widely is, I think, critical for us as we face certain critical challenges.

Take climate change.  The drawing together of myriad fields, ignoring any hierarchies, in fashioning our understanding of climate change and responding to it is fundamental.  This point was put into sharp relief by the recent Congressionally mandated report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program which spells out in stark detail the threat facing us from climate change.  I would argue that this is the challenge threatening, not just Americans, but all of humankind.  Scientists recognize this, if so many others in society do not.  I found it sad and telling that the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II:  Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States was released the Friday after Thanksgiving in an attempt by the White House to bury its findings.  Nevertheless, it has received attention, and I hope (but don’t expect) this attention will persist.

Apropos of the topic of this post, this report represents the work of a host of committed scientists in this country whose expertise sweeps across many scientific fields, from meteorology to physics to astronomy to biology to geobiology to zoology to ecology to veterinary medicine and so on.  This places the petty jibes quoted earlier into context; they are just that, petty.  They are ignored in this effort because the stakes are so high.  This is science speaking with one voice, across all scientific fields.  With that strong voice, science is telling us:
the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising. (Report-in-Brief, p. 26.)
If we don’t listen, we, like Faustus, have only ourselves to blame.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Darwin Comes to Town ~ A Review

It’s certainly commonplace for some plants and animals to make a living in the city.  Pigeons searching for food or mates as they bob and weave on urban sidewalks among the passing humans; peregrine falcons nesting in the cornices and ledges of tall buildings and dining on the pigeons they capture after lightning fast dives; spiders stretching webs to enjoy happy hunting near street lights while some of their insect prey appear to be changing to avoid the nighttime lights.  These are just a few of the organisms that are part of urban ecosystems that we often fail to see or understand.

In his new book Darwin Comes to Town:  How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (2018), Dutch evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen unveils the evolutionary drama that is occurring in the urban environment.

The core message of the book is that, in this urban landscape, rapid evolutionary and adaptive change is taking place among the flora and fauna that inhabit it.  Scientists, he notes, too often look for evidence of evolution in "unspoiled" environments, wild places far from the city.  Rather, he counsels, they might profitably look right at home, in their own backyards, or down the street in small parks isolated amid buildings.  He leaves the reader with no doubt that right here and now evolution is modifying and changing organisms, from distinct mosquito species evolving in different tunnels in the London Underground, to White-Footed Mice in New York City parks (more on them below), to parakeets in France, to grasshoppers, to Hawksbeard plants, to snails, . . . the list of organisms being changed by city living that Schilthuizen describes for us is long.  For this tour of evolution in the city, one could not ask for a more genial and knowledgeable guide; he couples his descriptions of evolving flora and fauna with an introduction to the work of many scientists studying these organisms.  In this post, I can only touch on a few examples of the riches Schilthuizen marshals for the book.

One issue needs to be addressed at outset.  Schilthuizen is not arguing that, in the face of spreading urbanization, evolution will take care of things.  Yes, he offers many convincing examples of plants and animals that have taken to urban living with relish, finding what they need in these human-made environments and often evolving in response.  But this is not good for nature writ large; all is not well.  He succinctly lays out why:
Natural selection here [in the city] is so strong that urban life forms evolve rapidly.  But we must also remember that all the examples of urban evolution in this book form a biased sample of those life forms that were pre-adapted, variable, or simply lucky enough to evolve and survive.  For each successful urban species there are dozens of other species that could not adapt to city life and disappeared. Besides being evolutionary powerhouses cities are also places where great loss of biodiversity takes place  No matter how interesting they are biologically, we cannot rely on them for the preservation of the bulk of the world’s species  For that, we must preserve, appreciate, and explore what remains of pristine, unspoiled wilderness.  (p. 244-245)
Cities are particularly challenging places to live.  As the landscape is built up and paved over, cities turn into heat islands where temperatures are dramatically higher than in surrounding, non-urbanized areas.  This rise in temperature is joined by myriad other, potentially negative attributes, including ubiquitous lighting that can wreak havoc with life cycles and elevated noise levels.

Previously, I hadn’t given a thought about the impact of urban noise on wildlife.  Such noise acts as a screen, keeping some animals from living in the city.  For the animals that sing or chirp or call in order to socialize, warn, and, perhaps most importantly, find mates (think birds, frogs, grasshoppers, etc.), background noise levels can be critical.  Through many clever experiments that Schilthuizen describes, scientists have determined that, in response to urban noise, which is mostly at low frequencies, those animals able to make a go of it in the city have raised their voices in order to be heard.  In some species this ability to call at a higher pitch is innate, present whether they live in the city or country (where there can also be lots of noise).  But there is evidence that urban life is affecting singing (songs are thought to be more hardwired than just calls) in ways that suggest some citified species are evolving away from their non-urban counterparts.

The lure of the city has proven irresistible to some plants and animals, so much so that they no longer inhabit wild places, now spending all of their time in urban or semi-urban places.  Many already had traits predisposing them to life in an urban environment.  A prime example is the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) which, worldwide, truly lives up to its species name.  The Animal Diversity Web (University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology) describes its habitat as follows:
House Sparrows like areas that have been modified by humans, including farms, residential, and urban areas. They are absent from uninhabited woodlands, deserts, forests, and grasslands.
Schilthuizen describes how in his hometown of Leiden, these sparrows have taken to living in areas by train stations set aside the parking of bicycles, a favored mode of transportation in the Netherlands.  The sparrows seem particularly attuned to living among bicycle wheel spokes, seats, and handle bars.  Yet, as he notes, this “is not a habitat the species ever evolved to occupy.”  (p. 63)  They were, he posits, “preadapted” to this environment because it mimics the environment they did evolve to live in.  For instance, bicycle spokes are certainly similar to, and possibly as effective as, spiny thickets in affording protection from predators.

For me, the animal stars of the book, hands down, are Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and Great Tits (Parus major).  These oh-so-smart birds demonstrate quite convincingly the traits that, according to Schilthuizen, the city selects for in animals:  the ability to problem solve, neophilia or interest in new things, and a lessened fear of humans.  Consider the epic battle between tits and milkmen that apparently had its start in England in the late 19th century, soon spreading elsewhere.  Then as now, tits are lactose intolerant, but they adored the cream that rose to the top of bottles of unhomogenized milk being delivered to households.  The cream was a rich source of fat and had little lactose in it.  So they went for the bottles of milk with gusto because, at the outset, milkmen delivered the bottles with no tops.  Tits would swoop in, perch on the lip of the bottle opening, and drink upwards of an inch of cream.  To thwart this behavior, the milk industry logically turned to bottle tops.  But the introduction of cardboard lids did little to deter the tits who quickly learned how to remove the lid entirely or how peel off the cardboard layer by layer until a hole could be poke through it.  When the war escalated with the appearance of aluminum caps, the tits figured out how to strip off the cap piece by piece, drinking the now exposed cream in the bottle.  They also learned how to remove the cap whole, then they would fly off with it to savor the cream that stuck to it.  A collection of caps could often be found under the trees to which the tits flew.

To get a flavor of the battle, Schilthuizen draws from a fascinating study in the 1940s of this “bottle-opening skill” that was based on data provided by questionnaires filled out throughout Great Britain and later Europe.  He writes,
People were exasperated at how quickly the tits were at their milk bottles, often within minutes of the milkman placing them there.  As if the birds were waiting for it!  (They probably were, since one milkman complained that some tits did not even wait for him to deliver the bottles to a house, but rather raided his cart while he was out placing bottles on somebody’s doorstep.  And then as he ran back to his cart, other tits would befall on the bottles just delivered.)  (p. 169)
The importance of this study lies in what it showed about the spread of this bottle-opening skill – it popped up suddenly and independently in towns well beyond the normal flying range of tits.  Schilthuizen posits,  “So, it is more likely that the behavior was invented independently by multiple, particularly clever birds that then were imitated by others.”  (p. 170)  Development of this skill isn’t an example of evolution at play, but, rather, evidence of how the tits bring to bear those traits prized by the city of problem-solving, curiosity, and diminished fear of humans to develop learned and taught abilities.  It's also a neat example of the sharing of learned behavior.

One critical feature of urban life for flora and fauna is that hospitable areas are fragmented, that is, they often constitute islands, typically small ones, within a sea of concrete.  In general, islands of whatever kind, and particularly small islands militate against diversity.  As Schilthuizen notes, to many conservationists, this kind of isolation in cities is anathema to the health of living organisms because the gene pool they draw from is small, causing a loss of variability and, with that, a decreased ability to respond to environmental challenges.  Indeed, this is bad news for some species, but not for others.  He offers multiple examples of the evolution of genetic differences in taxa living and apparently thriving in different, discrete urban habitats.

Take, for example, White-Footed Mice that inhabit New York City parks.  They are doing well and the genetic composition of each population of mice differs from park to park.  Arguably, they have balanced the disadvantages of a small, increasingly uniform gene pool in each park, with evolution that is equipping each isolated population to deal with park-specific challenges.  One analysis that compared the genes of mice from different New York City parks with those from rural areas found that the mice in Central Park had “a distinctly aberrant AKR7 gene . . . [that] takes care of neutralizing aflatoxin, a toxic and cancer-promoting substance produced by a fungus that often grows on moldy nuts and seeds.”  Not hard to imagine why the Central Park mice would have evolved to handle this.

There is so much more to be found in this singularly accessible volume, much more to be savored and enjoyed.  That said, I will close with a philosophical quibble I have with Schilthuizen’s response to biologists, conservationists, and others considering potential changes to the urban landscape.  Clearly he embraces the ecosystems that have been created in these fragmented habitats; the book is about the flora and fauna making up those ecosystems.  They represent adaptive and evolutionary responses to these niches.  So, it isn’t surprising that at the end of the book, he takes some to task for seeking to join isolated urban habitats in order to broaden isolated gene pools.  I find his objection to this adjustment of the urban environment, which, of course, would have significant consequences for urban ecosystems, somewhat problematic.  Is he calling for the urban landscape to be locked in place as it is at this precise moment to protect the present ecosystems?  That seems, to me, to ignore the reality of the urban environment – it is always changing and raising new environmental challenges in the process.  Arguably, the plants and animals that make it here are those equipped to respond to that kind of incessant change.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Unpacking A Few Layers of an Ichthyosaurus Rostrum ~ The Consequences of Uninformed Bidding at an Auction

This is a post that could have dealt with a renowned fossil hoax or a multi-million dollar illicit fossil deal, but doesn’t.  Instead I here demonstrate that, at least for a specific fossil, I don't know up from down (literally).

Paleontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894 – 1973) asserted many years ago that ichthyosaurs, which first appeared in the Triassic and died out completely late in the Cretaceous, had the honor of being the reptiles “most highly adapted to an aquatic existence.”  (Vertebrate Paleontology, 3rd edition, 1966, p. 117.)  He posited that the ichthyosaur’s niche in the world’s marine ecosystems was now occupied by dolphins and porpoises.  He used a reconstruction of Ichthyosaurus quadriscissus by paleontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach (1871 – 1952) to illustrate, in a simplified fashion, the structure and alignment of the bones in an Ichthyosaurus’ skeleton.  (I took the image below from von Stromer’s Textbook of Paleozoology, Volume II:  Vertebrates, Figure 103, 1912, p. 106.)

How ichthyosaurs came to be, he asserted, was a mystery because they appeared in the fossil record nearly fully formed in the Triassic, trailing no transitional forms behind them (p. 120).  Even today, more than half a century after Romer wrote, their origins remain in question, a matter of debate.

I am quite taken with the wonderfully long snouts or rostra many ichthyosaur species sported millions of years ago.  Pictured below is a skull, with its very prominent rostrum, from an Ichthyosaurus sp.  Geologist W. J. Sollas (1849 – 1936) sliced (very carefully) through this skull creating many different cross sections for an analysis in the early 20th century.  (These photographs appear in The Skull of Ichthyosaurus, Studied in Serial Sections, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Volume 208, text figure 1, January 1, 1918.)

My interest in ichthyosaurs was rekindled a couple of weeks ago when, during an auction held by a local fossil club, I was sucked into a bidding “war” on two small cross sections of the rostrum from an Ichthyosaurus communis.  According to the label (and I have no reason to doubt it), this rostrum came from the Lower Lias at Lyme Regis, England.  This is a Lower Jurassic geologic unit, roughly 200 to 174 million years old.  I hadn't noticed this specimen prior to the auction and so knew only what the auctioneer chose to share.  Nevertheless, I succumbed to the addictive action of the auction and started putting up my money foolishly and rather blindly.  Ultimately, with some misgivings, I came away with the prize at a price probably well out of line with its value.

As an aside, I have to note that I struggle with the notion of value for such objects; it poses a persistent and unresolvable conundrum for me.  Although ascribing value to such a thing in some clinical, objective way is certainly done all of the time, when it comes to gauging value for me, a critically different factor enters into the equation – the emotional pull of the object in question.  To explain my eagerness to acquire this fossil, one probably need look no farther than its place of discovery – Lyme Regis.  That gives it a nearly irresistible allure.  Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of England, part of a World Heritage site, is the source of so many breathtaking marine fossils that it occupies a special place on my list of the places where I must hunt fossils at least once in my lifetime.  Integral to its attraction is that this is where the inspired and inspiring Mary Anning worked the cliffs in the early 19th century, establishing herself as a singularly skilled and deeply knowledgeable fossil hunter.  (My post dedicated to Anning appears here.)

And so I carried home the two small pieces of an ichthyosaur rostrum, each piece standing no more than 5 cm tall.

What follows is largely a description of this novice’s attempt to understand, at a very basic level, what he now has in hand.

At the outset, I really had little idea of what I owned; I could not explain what was seen in these cross sections.  It didn’t help that I, for some bizarre and unknown reason (a senior moment, perhaps), became confused about whether, as cross sections, these were transverse or longitudinal sections of the rostrum.  Initially, I labored under the mistaken idea that they were longitudinal in orientation and, as a result, nothing I saw in these sections made any sense.  While digging through the literature I corrected that mistake.

Even resolving that fundamental misunderstanding left my overall understanding of these sections frustratingly limited.  Here are views of two faces of these pieces.  As shown in the picture above, I have labeled the section on the left as “A” (I assume the anterior end of the rostrum overall was somewhere to the left of section A) and the one on the right as “B”.  The two faces (right face of section A and left face of section B) shown below are those created by the cut that separated this portion of rostrum into two pieces.

Unpacking these cross sections required carefully study of their faces and some close comparison to some images of rostral cross sections I found in the literature – yes, they differ in detail, but overall they are clearly like those in the literature.  For instance, rostral cross sections typically exhibit a fairly significant degree of horizontal and vertical symmetry, paired upper and lower elements that flow into bulbous structures in the middle of each cross section, and isolated circular and fusiform (spindle-like) structures.  Consider the drawing (below) of the somewhat distorted elements a fragment of a rostrum found encased in a chert cobble.  This cross sectional view appears in an article by paleontologist Charles Lewis Camp (1893 – 1975) (Ichthyosaur Rostra from Central California, Journal of Paleontology, Volume 16, Number 3, Figure 1, p. 363, May, 1942.)

(I cropped this image from Camp's article and reproduce it here, assuming this is covered by the fair use doctrine.)

Or consider the cross section (below) of an anterior portion of a rostrum of an ichthyosaur from Lyme Regis that appears in Sollas' article cited earlier (text figure 16 A, p. 119).

Though the pictures above of my sections suggest that I know up from down, that is, the top from the bottom of these sections with some certainty, I really do not.  Identifying the dorsal and ventral sides of rostral ichthyosaur cross sections may not be all that easy in general and has proven problematic for me and this specimen.  It provides me with some solace that Camp noted that one of the features distinguishing  ichthyosaurs from other marine reptiles is “the unusual similarity of the upper and lower jaws” (p. 363).  Nevertheless, in these pictures, I have chosen the thicker and somewhat broader portion of these sections as the dorsal side (see the photograph above of the two sections standing together).  This attribute seems to apply to many of the ichthyosaur rostra images in the literature.  If the orientation I've chosen is correct, then the dentary bone is at the bottom of these sections and the premaxilla is at the top.

Delving a bit deeper, when I magnified portions of these faces I detected distinctive patterns in the large structures in each quadrant (what I take to be bones of the premaxilla and dentary), a feature missing from the various isolated circular and fusiform elements in each face.  This strongly suggested to me that the latter are other than bone and most likely teeth.  The first image below shows the right face of section A with a portion highlighted.  The second image is a close up of that highlighted area.

Bone (or what I take to be bone) with its distinctive patterning is clearly evident in this photograph as is the smoother texture of the purported teeth.  The larger structure that lies in the middle of this closeup is, I believe, a tooth that was cut longitudinally when the cross section was made.  The lighter coloring at its upper point may be enamel.

To clarify my thinking, I outlined the gross structures of the lower right quadrant of the right face of section A (this is an area larger than that shown in the closeup above).  That work is shown below - bone is outlined in black, tooth in red.

To be clear, I think the different configurations of the purported teeth are a function of how they were oriented in the jaw as fossilized.  Those in a vertical position are fusiform.  In other words, they were cut longitudinally by the cross sectioning.  Those teeth at or approaching a right angle to the cross section appear more or less circular, the result of being cut transversely.  I assume that the hollow center of some of these fossilized teeth is the pulp cavity.

At this juncture, I have managed to acquire some slight sense of what is displayed in these cross sections.  Understanding them still further (beginning with distinguishing dorsal from ventral sides) will require some real work, so, I have decided to draw my work and this post to a close, at least for the moment.

That said, I ventured, albeit briefly, into an area I’m often drawn to – the backstories of the people related in some fashion with a fossil – without intending to write about them now.  How much more remarkable could those stories be than my confusion over knowing up from down with these rostral sections?

Well, probably a great deal more exciting, given that they may involve fossil fraud and illicit fossil dealing.  Some have posited that W.J. Sollas (author of the article cited earlier) was a party to the Piltdown man hoax, that grand fossil fraud perpetrated in England in the early 20th century.  (Richard Harter, Piltdown Man:  The Bogus Bones Caper, The TalkOrigins Archive.)  Then there’s what turned up when I explored the provenance of these ichthyosaur rostrum sections.  One of the labels associated with them indicates that, at some point, these sections were purchased from a dealer named Christopher Moore with an address in Charmouth, a village near Lyme Regis.  This is, I believe, the same Christopher Moore who was implicated in a multi-million dollar case involving dinosaur fossils stolen from Mongolia.  (Alex Hannaford, The Trade in Stolen Dinosaur Fossils, The Telegraph, October 30, 2013.)  It was quite a splashy crime.  Perhaps for another day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Right now I am primed to question appearances.  Partly to blame is the gripping political thriller Secret City in which no one, well, almost no one, is what he or she initially appears to be.  This Australian TV series (I recently binge-watched it on Netflix) raises the specter of a Chinese mole in the highest echelons of the Australian Government.  There’s a whiff of the Manchurian Candidate here.

The more I’ve thought about it, that questioning attitude about appearance is a fairly useful attitude to take toward nature in general where deceptive appearances, deliberate or otherwise, aren’t at all unusual.  This post is about three examples from this summer.

The first example, shown below, appears each summer in July near my summer cottage in a relatively unproductive and mostly untended flowerbed which lies in the shade cast by several oaks and hickories.

This is the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), always a startling discovery in dim woodland light – pale white, waxy, and, in a strange way, softly ill-defined.  These particular specimens stand about 12 cm high.  In keeping with the theme of this post, it is, of course, not a fungus as it appears, and was long thought, to be.  This is a plant, a clever parasite, duping actual fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots into giving up their tree-derived nutrients.  As a result, the Indian pipe survives without chlorophyll altogether.  A very neat trick.  (A delightful essay by naturalist Dave Taft about the Indian pipe appeared in the New York Times this summer.)

Then there’s this recent visitor to one of my butterfly bushes.

Though this creature hovers and darts like a hummingbird, sips nectar like a hummingbird, sports colors reminiscent of a hummingbird, and even whirs like a hummingbird – it’s not.  Rather, it’s a widespread, diurnal moth – the hummingbird moth (genus Hemaris, this is probably H. thysbe)  (A good overview of this insect is available from the U.S. Forest Service.)

I speculate that this elaborate evolutionary mimicry is intended, in part, to deceive the usual moth predators.  Among others falling for this charade are many gardeners, myself included.

My third instance of appearances in nature belying reality is somewhat of a complex cheat.  Pictured below is a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) I spotted a couple of days ago just down the street.

This monarch (a female it would appear) is just one of the countless I’ve seen in the Washington, D.C. area and on Long Island, New York, this summer.  It’s almost been so many that a sighting has become commonplace, no longer meriting comment . . . well, almost.  I still sound like an annoying public service announcement on an endless loop – “Attention everyone:  There goes a MONARCH.”

Now, the monarch is the subject of one of the classic examples of mimicry in nature.  The viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), seen below, looks at first like a monarch.  (This image is from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license), and posted by Lokai.  I have no picture of my own to post because I've never seen a live viceroy.)

But this act of mimicry is, itself, deception on several levels, raising the question of which species is mimicking which species.  Many years ago I was told that the viceroy evolved to appear similar to the monarch to capitalize on the fact that birds avoid the monarch because they find it noxious, stemming from the monarch's exclusive diet of milkweed as a caterpillar.  Turns out that’s probably wrong.  The viceroy is also distasteful to birds perhaps due to its diet of willow leaves or some capacity to generate its own toxins.  So this example of mimicry, once considered Batesian (the harmless copying the harmful), is now considered by many to be Müllerian – that is, both species evolving to resemble each other, thereby reinforcing their negative reputation among predators.  There’s another neat wrinkle to this story for the viceroy because the queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), which appears a bit like the other two species and is also somewhat toxic, lives in regions where the viceroy and queen butterflies overlap, but the monarch is missing.  (There’s a nice overview of the viceroy, including its mimicry, posted by the “BugLady” at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Field Station website.  See, also, Butterflies and Bad Taste by Tim Walker which appeared in Science News, June 1, 1991.)

Finally, back to the other monarch-related question of looks potentially being deceiving, that is, the apparent abundance of monarchs this summer in the northeast.  Should this give hope that the overwintering count in Mexico will rebound from the depressed level of last winter, or is this illusory?  To see, I checked in with the monarch status reports issued by biologist Chip Taylor who directs Monarch Watch.  Certainly, it’s too early to know whether the surfeit of monarchs here means good things in Mexico this coming winter, but the signs are good.

In the report issued July 24, 2018, Taylor begins with some cautionary words about the difficulty of estimating the scope of the monarch migration and the number of hectares (this is a metric measure of area; 1 hectare is approximately 2.47 acres) the butterflies will occupy in Mexico this winter.  The extent of overwintering coverage is a benchmark for the continued viability of the transcontinental migration in which these particular monarchs engage.

Taylor’s prediction for the northeast is that it will be “another good season, although not as good as last year.”  That’s a bit puzzling, since, at least in the areas where I’ve been in recent weeks in the northeast, there’s been a flood of monarchs, vastly more than I spotted last year.  Perhaps these aren’t the important areas in the northeast for the migration.  He also estimates that the monarch per hour counts at Cape May this fall will not match last year “but will still be well above the long-term average.”  With regard to the upper midwest, a critical part of the monarch flyway, Taylor’s estimation is quite rosy (though, he does caution that he greatly overestimated the production in this area last year).  Anyway, at least as of late July, Taylor feels there is a “real possibility that the overwintering population could hit 5 hectares once again” (that would be the largest area covered since 2008).

Taylor's assessment appears to be borne out in the news coming from the Journey North website whose founder, biologist Elizabeth Howard, reported on August 23, 2018, that the migration season is "off to an impressive start" with "overnight roosts" (where many monarchs gather to roost on their journey south) appearing earlier than usual and in large numbers.

In this case, I hope appearances are not deceiving.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

In Pursuit of Search Images

Among the first pieces of advice given a novice fossil hunter is that he or she has to acquire a “search image” of the prey, that is, fossils.  The hunter needs to have a mental picture of what is being pursued, not in isolation, but in context, in its natural environment.  It’s sound though simplistic guidance.  Search images are complex phenomena, involving myriad factors that are only mastered with time and experience.  There’s a rich literature about the creation of search images by many different kinds of animals, from humans to birds to insects.  It’s a literature that begins with the premise that “everyone searches all the time” (well, often enough for it to be deemed “all the time”).  (Miguel P. Eckstein, Visual Search:  A Retrospective, Journal of Vision, Volume 11, Number 5, 2011, p.1.)

I’ve been thinking about search images a great deal lately as I bide my time waiting for contactors (who usually don’t show – just one of the pleasures the owner of a ramshackle summer cottage enjoys during a “vacation”).  I have two ways to fritter time.  The first is one of those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles.  Among my rules that render this a particular challenge is that the picture on the box lid must remain covered during assembly of the puzzle.

The table on which the puzzle is being assembled is only large enough to accommodate the completed puzzle, as a result we’ve filled the box lid and box bottom with pieces that must be sifted through repeatedly (yes, we could have brought another table top into play but, perversely, we didn’t).  It’s that aspect of this current effort that most brought to mind fossil hunting and search images.  I concentrate my labor on several different areas of the puzzle that are distinguishable primarily by their colors and patterns.  So, as I sort through the boxes of pieces, my search images apparently involve relevant colors (and shadings) and patterns, the orientations of those patterns, the shapes of missing pieces, but, I came to learn early in the game that I’m not looking for specific pieces.  Rather, it seems that I’m alert to pieces that might stand out, that are anomalous, matching one of several different search images, primarily those related to each area of concentration.  There’s a flexibility inherent in this process; the success of the effort doesn’t depend on finding a particular piece or kind of piece (beyond the initial quest for all of the straight edges).

I have described all of this as conditional because I don’t know what’s really going on.  Over time and as more of the puzzle gets filled in, I feel as though I’m performing a parlor trick – dipping into a box, rummaging around, and emerging with a piece that, lo and behold, fits somewhere.  It feels instinctive, automatic, not something that I think through, though clearly there are mental processes intimately involved.

The second way I’ve occupied myself while waiting is reading J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), a strikingly poetic paean to the peregrine, a predator which, when Baker wrote, seemed doomed in his England and, indeed, globally.  Baker’s high reputation is built on just two works, this one and The Hill of Summer (1969), which are intimate portraits of nature in his small piece of Essex, and which have led some to consider him “one of the most important British writers on nature in the twentieth century.”  (Mark Cocker, Introduction to The Complete Work of J.A. Baker (2010), p. 4, page numbers are for the eBook version.)  My search for the gestalt of the search image has been fueled by this book.

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is probably best known for its high-speed stoop (the ornithologically correct term for its hunting swoop or dive) during which it can reach a couple of hundred miles per hour.  As one learns from Baker’s account, the stoop is frequently unsuccessful and is apparently sometimes engaged in playfully to stir up the local bird and small mammal population.

For a decade, Baker stalked the peregrine with a sense of urgency because he believed it was going extinct.  The book, which reads as the diary of single year, draws on his entire decade of observation and does not shirk from the killing business that engages the falcon, describing frequently the hunt, the kill, and the feeding.  (To be fully correct ornithologically, I should reserve the word “falcon” for the females of the species and “tiercel” for the males, but that just gets confusing.  Also, Baker often refers to the peregrines as hawks.)

What kept me enthralled by the book is Baker’s use of language, very reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman, and, on occasion, William Shakespeare.  Words are objects to manipulated, albeit carefully, studied and used to their best effect even if that application breaks new ground.  But unlike the writers just cited, the scope of Baker’s interest is decidedly parochial, his intentions are grounded in the beauty and reality of his small portion of Essex
The territory in which my observations were made measures roughly twenty miles from east to west and ten miles from north to south. (p. 35)
Paradoxically, he generally shies away from identifying specific locations which means this parcel of land can be many such parcels – there’s a universality at work here.

He uses language to describe what he sees in as an evocative way as possible.  Here’s one opening to a diary entry.
High tide was at three o’clock, lifting along the southern shore of the estuary.  Snipe shuddering from the dykes.  White glinting water welling in, mouthing the stones of the sea-wall.  Moored boats pecking at the water.  Dark red glasswort shining like drowned blood.  (p. 56)
One of my favorite passages has hard-to-resist dinosaur imagery.
Fog hid the day in steamy heat.  It smelt acrid and metallic, fumbling my face with cold decaying fingers.  It lay by the road like a Jurassic saurian, fetid and inert in a swamp.  (p. 53)
His descriptions of the peregrines are sometimes dramatic and sometimes very simple and matter-of-fact.  He often treats the peregrine’s sky world as though it’s a water world, populated by marine life.  It matters not that metaphors are mixed, the result is moving and beautiful.
I expected the hawk [peregrine] to drop from the sky, but he came low from inland.  He was a skimming black crescent, cutting across the saltings [British term for coastal land covered by the tides], sending up a cloud of dunlin dense as a swarm of bees.  He drove up between them, black shark in shoals of silver fish, threshing and plunging.  With a sudden stab down he was clear of the swirl and was chasing a solitary dunlin up into the sky.  The dunlin seemed to come slowly back to the hawk.  It passed into his dark outline, and did not reappear.  There was no brutality, no violence.  The hawk’s foot reach out, and gripped, and squeezed, and quenched the dunlin’s heart as effortlessly as a man’s finger extinguishing an insect.  Languidly, easily, the hawk glided down to an elm on the island to plume and eat his prey.  (p. 56)
And what of search images?  There is a recurrent theme in the book of how one finds the peregrine in its natural habitat, what one looks for, the signals and signs that mean the peregrine is near and, indeed, where it is.  It’s clearly a mental and physical process built up over a decade of close observation.

The person in pursuit of the peregrine must master a variety of skills.  Attention to detail is paramount for Baker, but so is an understanding of context and what the context does to one’s image of his or her objective.  Coming to the quest with a search image built on the pictures and drawings in guidebooks, or the specimens one sees in a museum, is to come ill-prepared.  Seeing the object in its environment, over and over again, is key.
The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.  Books about birds show pictures of the peregrine, and the text is full of information.  Large and isolated in the gleaming whiteness of the page, the hawk stares back at you, statuesque, brightly coloured.  But when you have shut the book, you will never see that bird again.  Compared with the close and static image, the reality will seem dull and disappointing.  The living bird will never be so large, so shiny-bright.  It will be deep in landscape, and always sinking farther back, always at the point of being lost.  Pictures are waxworks beside the passionate mobility of the living bird.  (p. 33)
Yes, it is universally true that the effective search image captures not what the entity looks like in isolation, but how it appears in the environment in which it is to be found – true for peregrines as for fossils.

Baker is attentive to the distractors in every scene, those things which might deflect him from his pursuit because they are similar to the specimen sought or because they draw attention to themselves for other reasons.  The distractors for the peregrine hunter, unlike those for the fossil hunter, are dynamic, reacting to the quarry.  Baker’s distractors can act as signals of the presence of the peregrine.  Obviously, when the myriad birds that populate the landscape suddenly react in panic or normally talkative birds go silent, one looks for the predator:
Bird to the north-east stayed longer in cover, as though they were closer to danger.  Following the direction of their gaze, I found the hawk skirmishing with two crows.  (p. 68)
An intimate knowledge of the expected is important, knowing what should be there or, perhaps, what should only be there makes all the difference.  It’s a quest for the anomaly.  Again, true for the fossil collector as well.
To find them [peregrines], one must learn the shapes of all the valley trees, till anything added becomes, at once, a bird.  Hawks hide in dead trees.  They grow out of them like branches.  (p. 54)
These then are among the critical attributes of the search images behind a successful quest for a peregrine, and, I believe, mostly relevant for fossils – construct a mental image of the quarry in context; know that context intimately; be alert to, but not misled by, distractors; and, above all, be attentive to anomalies.

Beyond the imaging behind the search, Baker also understood how compelling the search can be, even when the outcome does not spell the difference between life and death as it does for the peregrine.  Indeed, the fossil hunter, the peregrine hunter, and perhaps the peregrine itself, feels an exhilaration when a search comes to a successful conclusion.  Baker knew that feeling, I know it:
When the hawk is found, the hunter can looking lovingly back at all the tedium and misery of searching and waiting that went before.  All is transfigured, as though the broken columns of a ruined temple had suddenly resumed their ancient splendor.  (p. 31)
And he wrote of the compulsion that comes with, and lies behind, the search:
For ten years I have been looking upward for that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air.  The eye becomes insatiable for hawks.  (p. 29)
I’ll close with an instance of how my insatiable hunt for fossils brought search images to bear in a somewhat unlikely place.  I’ve written before of the annual gem and mineral show that is held out here on the island.  This year, the number of vendors with fossils seemed diminished; a couple of old timers didn’t show.  I wandered around myriad tables covered with gems and minerals.  Overhearing conversations that start with, “Here hold this rock.  You can feel its power.”, I felt my enthusiasm for this search rapidly fading.  Then, as I glanced at a table displaying tray upon tray of gems, my eye was drawn to one tray partly covered by another.  Perhaps it was that disturbance in the otherwise orderly scene that initially caught my attention, but that was followed by a bolt of recognition – I immediately knew what that tray held:  fossil foraminifera shells.  Indeed, several dozen specimens of Nummulites sp., all at least an inch in diameter, were being offered for sale.  These came from Pakistan and likely from early in the Eocene Epoch, perhaps 56 to 48 million years ago.  Of note, Nummulites are commonly found in the limestone of the Egyptian pyramids and the ancient Egyptians used them as coins.  I’ve even posted on the shells of a similar kind of foram.  So, here below are several of the anomalies that drew my search that day to a successful close.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Love-Sickness With Trees ~ A Review of Richard Powers' The Overstory: A Novel (2018)

On an August evening in 1877, Walt Whitman wrote that the sunlight and shadows playing upon trees revealed “new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm . . . .”
In the revealings of such light, such exceptional hour, such mood, one does not wonder at the old story fables (indeed, why fables?) of people falling into love-sickness with trees, seiz’d extatic with the mystic realism of the resistless silent strength in them – strength, which after all is perhaps the last, completest, highest beauty.  (Specimen Days)
Clearly, some of us fall into love-sickness with trees, rendering us vulnerable and often inconsolable as old growth timber is cut down.  It’s an emotion born of deep time and of the polarized present when our national parks have become, not a safe haven for nature, but a commercial enterprise whose elements above and below ground are ruthlessly exploited in the name of jobs, progress, and an ever unsustainable standard of living for the developed world.

As I once again retreat to my small corner of the woods on the North Fork of Long Island for the summer, trees enter my consciousness even more profoundly than they do at other times and in other places.  I have this love-sickness for the leaning hickories, monstrously tall oaks, and straight maples that grow around me here.  Seen below is one of the huge, crookedly branched white oaks and an American beech, the tallest I’ve ever seen (no, that's not a wood sprite at the foot of the beech, it's the result of trying to protect the privacy of this location).

Novelist Richard Powers, author of such intellectually challenging and often emotionally moving novels as Orfeo (2014), has produced what I can only call THE novel of trees, a tragic story shot through with the consequences (realized and potential) of our myopic, gravely wrong assault upon them.  It’s a beautiful, complex novel, populated by a cast of finely wrought characters and grounded in the science of trees and the planet.  If one is open to it, this novel will spread the love-sickness for trees.  It will also enthrall, anger, and, yes, depress.

At the outset, the reader is introduced through free-standing, engrossing sketches, to individual, disparate characters who have no obvious connection one to another – much the way humans have considered trees for millennia:  as separate specimens, alone and disconnected.  But these fictional characters, it turns out, are intimately joined as are trees in reality.  Several of them will eventually find each other in the Northwest in a tragic fight against corporate powers that treat trees as just another short-term asset.

Perhaps the lynchpin for all of the novel’s characters is Dr. Patricia Westerford, whose original work showing that trees communicate broadly and deeply with one another is, at first, applauded, but then vilified by the scientific powers that be, relegating her to a scientific Siberia.  As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her review of the novel – perhaps the most glowing review of a book I’ve ever read – these characters are, indeed, fictional, no matter how real they and their life histories seem (she Googled them).  (The Heroes of This Novel are Centuries Old and 300 Feet Tall, New York Times, April 9, 2018.)    Patricia will reemerge vindicated decades later, her science proven, and the author of a best selling volume titled The Secret Forest, which will be one means of connecting the novel’s characters.  Early in her professional and personal exile, she wanders through an aspen forest in Utah which, as she notes in passing, is not a collection of myriad individual trees but a single organism, a vast root system that produces trees.
She wouldn’t be surprised if this great, joined, single clonal creature that looks like a forest has been around for the better part of a million years.  (p. 131)
The novel instructs us that the aspens here have become a single, self-perpetuating creature because their seeds do not do well in this climate.  We also learn that though other species of trees are not clonal creatures, they are intimately linked to others, with root systems that stretch out to different trees (of their own species or others) in the forests, often mediated by vast symbiotic networks of fungi serving to connect the trees for nutrients and, indeed, for communication.  The aspens and the interconnectedness of other species offer Powers metaphors for how his characters will join, communicate, support, and, often, protect, each other.

As Patricia (“Plant-Patty”) wanders the aspen forest, Powers notes that she is ignorant of the other characters of the novel but their connection is real and will play out in the future.
These people are nothing to Plant-Patty.  And yet their lives have been connected, deep underground  Their kinship will work like an unfolding book.  The past always come clearer, in the future.  (p. 132)
In many ways, the novel is a vehicle for teaching us about the miraculous lives of trees, sentient beings upon whose health (so we come to know in the course of our reading) our future on this planet depends.  The opening lines of Patricia’s The Secret Forest, or their same sentiment, are repeated several times in the novel.  Though we and trees have gone our separate ways for a billion and a half years (when last our common ancestor lived), “that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes . . . .”  (p. 132)

And, still, despite our closeness and the benefits that trees bestow upon all living creatures, we have not behaved well toward them.  When we humans first appeared on this plant, there were some 6 trillion trees.  Now there are half as many and in another century only half of those will survive.  Too much wanton, thoughtless destruction.

Psychologist Adam Appich, whom we first meet as a doctoral student studying idealism among the “tree huggers” who are fighting to save old growth forests in the Northwest, is asked early on what will persuade the world that they’re right.  He says,
The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.  (p. 336)
This novel is that story.  I sincerely wish it well.

In closing, I must voice my regret that I found I could not follow through on my original plan of reviewing not only The Overstory but also Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World (2016).  Why I reacted negatively to The Hidden Life of Trees, to the point I could not finish it, is not clear.  His hypothesis that trees share, communicate, react, remember (through their genes, I'll accept) is one that I support.  I'll admit that I may be unfair to him.

Nevertheless, The Hidden Life of Trees seems lightweight, neither a detailed scientific study marshalling all of the evidence to prove the hypothesis nor an example of the best of popular science writing which would explore not just Wohlleben’s forest but delve into the work and lives of some of the scientists making the discoveries that support the thesis of his book.  It’s rather ironic, I think, that I found the Patricia Westerford’s The Secret Forest, though a fictional construct, to be more real, more persuasive, than Wohlleben’s volume.  Perhaps it’s because I knew her intimately through the novel.

Maybe it was a tell-tale sign that I started noting in what I read all of the many times that Wohlleben anthropomorphized trees (e.g., “Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies?  It seems they do, though the idea of ‘class’ doesn’t quite fit.  It is rather the degree of connection – or maybe even affection – that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.” ("affection"?, p. 4)).  Is that a possible criticism to be leveled against The Overstory as well?  Perhaps.  Could I accept that in the novel but not in the nonfiction tome?  If so, I'm not sure why.  Powers describes a mystical bond between trees (source of voices in the background) and some of the human characters in the novel which I accepted, but, then again, it is a novel and it’s telling that necessary good story.

[My apologies to anyone who read this post in the first couple of days it was up.  It abounded in typos and other nuisance errors.  I hope they all have been corrected now.]

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Antarctica and Fossils

In which the blogger finds his world insisting, through a campaign involving press reports, a new museum exhibit, and postage stamps, that he pay attention to Antarctic fossils.

Perhaps I’m just experiencing that phenomenon where something comes to my attention and suddenly my world appears overpopulated with that something.  It seems that there is increasing attention among scientists and in the popular media to fossils from Antarctica.  Frankly, it’s not hard to see why collecting and studying such fossils might be an attractive venture for those pursing the fossils and somewhat newsworthy for the rest of us.  The very challenges of working in that unforgiving environment might draw the adventurous (maybe such explorers see themselves in the mold of John Bell Hatcher, one of my paleontological heroes and subject of a post on this blog).  Coping with the harsh climate certainly gives an exciting patina to news coverage of such efforts.  Clearly more important (I assume) to the scientists is what these fossils have to tell us about the extremely different environmental conditions (often warm and wet) that prevailed there while that geographic area was part of the supercontinent Gondwana and what that might teach us about climate change.  This scientific content might perhaps be of some interest to the layperson, but popular coverage could be coming simply from the spark of amazement that is felt when one realizes the contrast between what the environment was there then and what is now.  And that bit of understanding, in and of itself, is worth something.

A good example of this playing out is the extensive coverage in the popular press of the recent Antarctic expedition which recovered the fossilized remains of trees that date from about 260 million years ago, shortly before the massive extinction event marking the end of the Permian Period.  These fossils have the potential to reveal something about how these trees handled the alternating extremes of prolonged light and prolonged darkness that prevailed then and prevail now at the poles.

But what impresses me most about this story is how it spiraled out from local coverage of the involvement of two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geologists in that effort (Matthew Wamser, UWM Geologists Uncover Antarctica’s Fossil Forests, UWM Report, November 13, 2017), to be the subject of some 75 news reports worldwide from such outlets as Science Daily, The National Geographic, CNN, the Independent newspaper (Britain), and the Indian Express newspaper (India).

And it’s surprising to me that all of this comes from a story about finds upon which the research is only just beginning and whose true scientific import isn’t really that obvious or proven.  Further, one assumes that peer-reviewed publications are some long time away.  Yes, the interest, at its core, may well stem from the surprise for many that Antarctica was, at one time, covered in green forests and inhabited by a wide range of animals.

So it is that that the timing of the Field Museum’s soon-to-open exhibit Antarctic Dinosaurs couldn’t be better, an event I only learned about in the past few days (perhaps it's a bit of that cosmic conspiracy to confront me with Antarctic fossils).  The museum introduces this exhibit in not unexpectedly breathless terms:
Though Antarctica today can be a forbidding land of snow and ice, 200 million years ago it was a wooded, lush habitat where dinosaurs thrived. Opening in 2018, this new traveling exhibition embarks on the thrilling hunt for never-before-seen fossils and sheds new light on our planet’s ever-changing climate and geology.
Following the footsteps of early explorers and scientists today, witness the persistent challenges and extreme conditions of harrowing expeditions to the “Lost Continent.”
The exhibit, which opens at the Field in Chicago on June 15, 2018 and runs through January 6, 2019, takes the visitor on a tour.  (The description which follows relies on documents posted on the Field’s website.)  At the outset, the exhibit will offer the visitor a look at the conditions in the Antarctic now and the equipment needed to survive, comparing that gear to what was used by early explorers like Robert Falcon Scott.  Some of the first fossils found in the Antarctic will be on display (I’ve posted on Scott and his collecting of fossils in the face of death).  The visitor will then explore the geological forces that created the continent and visit a reconstructed Antarctic forest.  Next, the way fossils are hunted and collected in the current climate will be on display.  At that point, the visitor will encounter what is, I assume, the highlight of the exhibit, the world of Antarctic dinosaurs which will come to life through fossils and reconstructions.  The last two stops within the exhibit for the visitor will reveal how and why the continent’s climate changed to what it is now, and suggest lessons we might learn from those changes.

(After it closes at the Field on January 6, 2019, the exhibit takes to the road; its first stop will be at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for a stay from June 1, 2019 through January 5, 2020.)

As I suggested in a recent post, I’ve revived a past interest in philately with some emphasis on the appearance of fossils on stamp issues.  That effort has continued apace (with invaluable help from Paleophilatelie.eu where things philatelic and paleontological meet), and here in this endeavor the connection between Antarctica and the fossil evidence of past richness of flora and fauna on this continent has been inescapable, too.  Indeed, I think that among the most attractive stamps featuring scientifically accurate images of fossils that have ever been issued are those from the British Antarctic Territory (BAT), an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.  The BAT consists of a wedged shaped slice of the continent with its apex at the pole and extending out toward South America.  (A small curiosity, the area encompassed by the BAT does not include Scott’s route to the pole in 1911-1912.)  Here is a map of the BAT (it is available from Wikimedia Commons and licensed under the Open Government License v1.0).

BAT stamps are primarily printed for the stamp collecting trade, an important source of revenue for the territory.  The BAT stamps featuring fossils from the Antarctic that were printed in 1990, 1991, and 2008 are shown below.  In addition, I offer two close-ups, one of a 1991 issue showing an Antarctic forest (featuring Southern Beeches - a cross-section of a fossil Nothofagus trunk is shown on the stamp) during the Cretaceous Period, and the other of a 1990 stamp showing a fossil leaf from a Glossopteris tree, which dominated the Antarctic forest before the End-Permian Extinction wiped it out.

These stamps are quite stunning.

I’m not sure at this point what in the way of Antarctic fossils the future has in store for me (I’m sure the powers that be won’t quit their campaign at this point).  Perhaps I should preempt them and take a trip to the Field Museum this summer.

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