Monday, December 26, 2011


An illustration by paleo-artist Mark Witton, showing some very odd pterosaurs: 
Seagulls from Mars 
Found via this old post on Tetrapod Zoology, from which I also learned that baby pterosaurs are called "flaplings."

Friday, December 23, 2011

A sample from the abyss

All the tiny creatures in this image came from a sample of ocean-floor sediment.

Image from Deep Sea News.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This is an electron microscope image of a tiny fossil from the Precambrian era, the shell of a microbe (somewhat resembling modern radiolaria). It may be the oldest example of armor on a living creature. 

Image from Live Science

Monday, December 19, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Creatures of Europa

Diagram of hypothetical life-forms on Jupiter's moon Europa, from an old issue of New Scientist.
Europa's icy shell may also contain large embedded "lakes" which, like the ice fissures, might provide an abode for life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Predators of the Cambrian

A cool CGI reconstruction of Cambrian-era creatures found fossilized at the Burgess Shale:

The two large swimming predators are Hurdia and its cousin Anomalocaris-- the latter of which had very sharp eyes:
The fossils represent compound eyes -- the multi-faceted variety seen in arthropods such as flies, crabs and kin -- and are amongst the largest to have ever existed, with each eye up to 3 cm in length and containing over 16,000 lenses.
The number of lenses and other aspects of their optical design suggest that Anomalocaris would have seen its world with exceptional clarity whilst hunting in well-lit waters. Only a few arthropods, such as modern predatory dragonflies, have similar resolution.
The existence of highly sophisticated, visual hunters within Cambrian communities would have accelerated the predator-prey 'arms race' that began during this important phase in early animal evolution over half a billion years ago

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Diatom mandala

This beautiful design fits on a microscope slide, and the jewel-like objects that compose it are the shells of tiny marine microbes.

Image from Klaus Kemp's diatom art site. Diatom arrangements like these, along with similar arrangements of butterfly scales, were popular in the Victorian era.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Vowels and vestigial air sacs

Over millions of years, changes to our vocal organs have allowed us to produce a rich mix of sounds. One such change was the loss of the air sac - a balloon-like organ that helps primates to produce booming noises.
All primates have an air sac except humans, in whom it has shrunk to a vestigial organ. ...
To find out how this changed the sounds produced, Bart de Boer of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands created artificial vocal tracts from shaped plastic tubes. Air forced down them produced different vowel sounds, and half of the models had an extra chamber to mimic an air sac.
De Boer played the sounds to 22 people and asked them to identify the vowel. If they got it right, they were asked to try again, only this time noise was added to make it harder to identify the sound. If they got it wrong, noise was reduced.
He found that those listening to tubes without air sacs could tolerate much more noise before the vowels became unintelligible.
The air sacs acted like bass drums, resonating at low frequencies, and causing vowel sounds to merge...
Observations of soldiers from the first world war corroborate de Boer's findings. Poison gas enlarged the vestigial air sacs of some soldiers, who are said to have had speech problems that made them hard to comprehend.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fairy wasp

[above] The fairy wasp, Megaphragma mymaripenne... pictured next to a Paramecium and an amoeba at the same scale.
As they get smaller, insects can do away with many of their organs. The feather-winged beetles – twice as big as the fairy wasps, but still impressively tiny – have drastically reduced the size of their genitals, guts and breathing tubes. They have totally lost their hearts: at their size, diffusion is enough to carry liquids around their body without the need for a pump. Their wings, like those of thrips and fairy wasps, are little more than wispy strands, rather than the flat oars of most other insects. That’s all they need to paddle through thick air currents.
From Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Raven deixis

Ravens are amazingly smart birds, possessing reasoning abilities previously thought to be uniquely human. Now, they have been observed performing a very human-like form of nonverbal communication:
From early childhood on, children frequently use distinct gestures to draw the attention of adults to external objects. So-called deictic gestures such as "pointing" ("look here") and "holding up of objects" ("take this") are used by children for the first time at the age of nine to twelve months, before they produce their first spoken words. Scientists believe that such gestures are based on relatively complex intelligence abilities and represent the starting point for the use of symbols and therefore also human language. Deictic gestures are thus milestones in the development of human speech.
Surprisingly, observations of comparable gestures in our closest living relatives, the great apes, are relatively rare. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in the Kibale National Park in Uganda, for example, use so-called directed scratches, to indicate distinct spots on their bodies to be groomed. Deictic gestures thus represent an extremely rare form of communication evolutionarily and have been suggested as confined to primates only.
 Full story at Science Daily.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tiny bird, giant ant

The above figure, from Archibald et al. (2011), shows a rufous hummingbird Selasphorus rufus alongside the newly described early Eocene giant ant Titanomyrma lubei. This fossil comes from the American Green River Formation, in present-day Wyoming. At 51 mm in length, this is one of the largest known ants.
Information and picture from Catalogue of Organisms.

This odd juxtaposition of creatures demonstrates a principle of adjectival semantics: size is relative. There's no contradiction in saying that a "tiny bird" is the same size as a "giant ant." A tiny dinosaur could be far bigger than either, and a giant virus far smaller.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Starfish soup

This article from the New York Times Diner's Journal discusses one of many eccentric epicurean clubs that sprang up in the 19th century:
From 1880 to 1887, when mussels were considered vulgar and skate too ugly to cook, a group of socially prominent men met once a year to glut on unpopular seafood. Calling themselves the Ichthyophagous Club, they would “endeavor to overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish, which are rarely eaten, because their excellence is unknown.”
The club boasted of feasting on such things as "aspic of jellyfish, octopus stew" and "garfish older than trilobite"-- but one dish they actually did serve was surprising to me: starfish bisque. This dish was recommended not only for its taste ("the king of all shell fish, so far as flavor is concerned"), but as a way to deal with the plague of starfish attacking oyster beds:
Man is, of course, the oyster's greatest destroyer, but the star-fish comes next and while the poor bivalve is attacked and done away with by both, there is nothing but accident to reduce the numbers of star-fish. We take up hundreds of the five-horned devils-- thousands, I should say-- when dredging for oysters, and kill them as well as we can by smashing them and trampling on them...
If people can only be made to know how good the star-fish is and taught how to cook him, the demand for him will soon become so great that modes of catching him in quantity will be devised, and the problem of abating his depredations on the oyster beds will speedily be settled.
I had previously thought that starfish were inedible, but further Googling revealed that starfish are occasionally used in Asian cuisine, sometimes fried whole or, again, as part of a soup.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mythical taxonomy

From Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, some interesting taxonomic names with their roots in classical mythology: 
  • Achelousaurus horneri Sampson, 1995 (ceratopsian dinosaur). This hornless ceratopsian evolved from horned ancestors. It was named for Achelous, a Greek river god whose horn was broken in a battle with Heracles. The species name (for paleontologist Jack Horner) replaces the lost horn. [J. Vert. Paleo. 15(4)]
  • Thermarces cerberus Rosenblatt and Cohen, 1986 (Eelpout fish) from the Galapagos rift vents. Cerberus was the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades.
  • Daedalosaurus Carroll, 1978 (Late Permian gliding reptile from Madagascar) and Icarosaurus Colbert, 1970 (Upper Triassic gliding reptile from New Jersey), after Daedalus and Icarus.
  • Damocles Lund, 1986 (Carboniferous shark) The males had an elaborate projection from the back that ended poised over its head.
  • Gorgonocephalus medusae (basket star) The basket star looks like a mass of serpents. Medusa was the most famous of the Gorgons, which had serpents for hair.
  • Pegasus Linnaeus, 1758 (seamoth fish)
  • Amoeba proteus (amoeba), so named because Proteus had the ability to change form.
  • Sisyphus Latreille, 1807 (dung beetle) Named after a king condemned in Hades to roll an immense boulder uphill, only to have it inevitably break free and roll down again, this beetle makes and rolls large balls of dung with greater success.
  • Talos Zanno et al., 2011 (birdlike theropod dinosaur) Named for a winged bronze giant of Greek mythology, which could run extremely fast and which succumbed to an ankle wound. The name is also a pun on "talon".
Another particularly lovely name in this vein belongs to Prodryas persephone, a fossil butterfly whose species name refers to the queen of the underworld. (The naturalist who named Prodryas gave similarly allusive names to two other fossil butterflies: Lithopsyche styx and Jupiteria charon.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Frozen starfish

A clip from the BBC showing a bizarre phenomenon called a "brinicle" (brine-icicle) and the destruction it wreaks on local life-forms:


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Parroting a dead language

There’s a story that in 1799 the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was exploring the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and documenting the languages and cultures of the tribes he encountered there. While spending time with one tribe of Carib people, he asked them about their neighbours and rivals, the Maypure, who he was keen to visit. He was told that the Maypure had all been killed recently by the Carib tribe he was visiting, however they did have a couple of the Maypure’s pet parrots who spoke some of their language. Von Humboldt took the parrots back to Europe and transcribed their words – the only record we have of the Maypure language, which is also written Maypure, Maipure, Maypore or Maypore’. There seems to be some doubt whether this story is true: there is no mention of the parrots in von Humboldt’s meticulous journals, but there are phonetic transcriptions of the Maypure words he heard on his travels.
An interesting anecdote from the Omniglot blog

Friday, November 18, 2011

Red-fan Parrot

I captured this picture at the same pet store where I photographed this conure. These parrots have the ability to raise their hackles.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Prehistoric iridescence

Although the original colors of the fossil moths were not preserved, the researchers were able to reconstruct them because the tiny color-producing patterns in the moth scales were intact. "The level of detail preserved in the scales of the fossil moths is just spectacular", said McNamara. The fossil moths owe their color to a stack of layers inside the scales. These layers form a fossil multilayer , which usually produces iridescent colour that changes depending on viewing angle. But other details of the fossil scales suppressed this effect, producing instead muted colors. "The moths basically wanted to appear the same colour from different angles – they didn't want flashy iridescence" said McNamara.
Full story at Physorg.

Also, iridescence in animals may go back as far as the Cambrian era:
At different times of day and different viewing angles, the marine creatures [Wiwaxia, Canadia, and Marella] would have glowed blue, red, yellow, or green. Since the evolution of these worms coincides with the first appearance in the fossil record of animals with eyes, such as trilobites, the twinkling colors may have warned predators to avoid these armored, and perhaps unpalatable, animals.
When I was a child, the color of prehistoric animals was presented as an unknowable mystery. But now, discoveries like these are commonplace-- but no less wonderful for it.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I am currently taking a course on syntax which the professor introduced by defining the subject thus: "...which is, of course, the tax that sinners pay to the church."

Apparently this joke is quite an old one-- while looking up Latin-related references for that same class on Google Books, I came across The Comic Latin Grammar of 1840, which contains the following line:
Q. What part of the grammar resembles the indulgences sold in the middle ages?
A. Sin-tax.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Great grand stellated 120-cell

A 3d projection of a four-dimensional figure (one of several "star polytopes"), which looks every bit as impressive as its name sounds.

Image attribution: Robert Webb, created with Stella software.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Glass squid, illuminated

Scientists have discovered how two marine creatures are able to rapidly "switch" their colours - from transparent to reddish brown.
The species, an octopus and a squid, use their adaptable camouflage to cope with changing light conditions in the deep ocean...
The animals' skins contain light-sensitive cells called chromatophores, which contain pigments. When these cells detected the blue light of a bioluminescent predator, they immediately expanded, "dyeing" the animal a deep brown colour.
Dr Zylinski said the this dramatic colour change showed just how important camouflage was "in a habitat where there is nowhere to hide".
Neither transparency nor pigmentation is a complete solution to the hunting strategies used by predators in the deep ocean, she explained.
"By switching between these two forms, these cephalopods are able to optimise their camouflage in response to the optical conditions at that moment in time."
From BBC News.

The beautiful squid pictured above is named Leachia. It's one of many transparent sea creatures, along with jellies, crustaceans, and other cephalopods-- but as far as I know, none of those have the ability to change their opacity.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Raven-feathered Archaeopteryx

For years, palaeontologists have speculated about Archaeopteryx's colour scheme, without knowing for sure. Artists have painted it in every shade from tan and rusty brown, to bright greens and blues.
All this speculation could soon end, with new ways to detect prehistoric colours
...The feather [shown above] was most probably black. While the full colour pattern of Archaeopteryx has yet to be uncovered, Carney noted that melanosomes on the black feather have structural properties which may have strengthened the feathers for the demands of flight. The miniscule structures which hide the secrets of prehistoric colour were not just for show.
From New Scientist. Other prehistoric birds and feathered non-avian dinosaurs were more colorful, and some later fossil feathers display iridescence.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hwæt! WTF?!

Speculative Grammarian ("the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics") offers a novel interpretation of an old text (in "a very, very conservative dialect of English"):
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
WTF?! We was gardening in our backyard,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
when Theo came a-cryin’, “Them’s goofin’ on her,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
them who are the linguists1 Ellen’s so ‘fraid of!”

... then there was a fair bit more that I haven’t deciphered yet ...

Þæt wæs god cyning.
God! That was a lot of crying!
I suppose this is to writing what mondegreen "translations" are to speech or singing, and BadLipReading is to articulation. It also reminds me of what I called "Latinglish," although in that case an English message is rendered into text that looks like another language, instead of being derived by "translating" an existing text based on superficial phonetic or orthographic resemblances.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Starfish larva

Image from The Echinoblog. This transparent creature grows into a many-armed sun star.

Even stranger is the starfish Luidia-- its larva splits into a juvenile starfish and a gelatinous planktonic creature, which go on to live independent lives.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Copiale Cipher

I had never heard of this cipher, but (unlike the more famous Voynich Manuscript) it's now been cracked:
Now a team of Swedish and American linguists has applied statistics-based translation techniques to crack one of the most stubborn of codes: the Copiale Cipher, a hand-lettered 105-page manuscript that appears to date from the late 18th century. They described their work at a meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland, Ore.
Discovered in an academic archive in the former East Germany, the elaborately bound volume of gold and green brocade paper holds 75,000 characters, a perplexing mix of mysterious symbols and Roman letters. The name comes from one of only two non-coded inscriptions in the document.
Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, collaborated with Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden to decipher the first 16 pages. They turn out to be a detailed description of a ritual from a secret society that apparently had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology.
Full story at the New York Times. Cosmic Log elaborates on the content:
The manuscript, available in several formats from Uppsala University's website, describes the procedure for initiating new members of the society. At one point, candidates are asked to read the writing on a blank piece of paper. When they can't, they're told to put on eyeglasses, and then they undergo an "operation" that involves plucking a hair from the eyebrow. After the operation, the blank paper is replaced by a document laying out "the entire teaching for the apprentices."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Butterfly egg

 David Millard,Vanessa atalanta (Red admiral butterfly) egg in Urtica dioica (Stinging nettle) trichomes (10X)
From Nikon Small World. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Victorian Singularity appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race...
Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.
Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.
From "Darwin Among the Machines," an 1863 essay by critic and novelist Samuel Butler. Butler was not the first of his era to express anxieties about machine uprisings; a few decades earlier, a ballad about a rogue steam-powered prosthetic arm and a similar one about a mechanical leg had already been written.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


These are examples of four-dimensional geometric figures-- in three-dimensional sections-- rendered by Jonathan Bowers. (Their odd names are abbreviations of complex mathematical designations.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fossil silky lacewing

This insect, Undulopsychopsis alexi, would have fluttered among the dinosaurs.
Image from Science Daily.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Atlantic Cable"

This print from 1866 commemorates the completion of the world's first submarine trans-oceanic telegraph cable. It shows the cable connecting the American eagle to the English lion, crossing through the domain of Poseidon.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Let us first regard the general article Music. In that division of the article entitled, Recent Music — that is, music during the last sixty or seventy-five years — we find the following astonishing division of space: recent German music receives just eleven lines; recent French music, thirty-eight lines, or less than half a column; recent Italian music, nineteen lines; recent Russian music, thirteen lines; and recent British music, nearly four columns, or two full pages!
...It is unnecessary to criticise such bias: the figures themselves are more eloquently condemning than any comment could possibly be.
From Willard Huntington Wright's 1917 book Misinforming a Nation, a criticism of Anglocentric bias in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nearly a century later, this methodology of criticizing encyclopedias still seems to be in fashion:
Beowulf vs He-Man - One is the protaganist of one of the oldest works in English literature, an epic poem that offers unmatched insights into the culture of our Anglo-Saxon forbears. The other hero is Skeletor's enemy in a 1980s cartoon series, and worthy of more coverage, according to WIkipedians.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Read my lips: "Save a pretzel for the gas jets."

And from the same channel, a musical Dadaist Obama speech:

It's odd how well this "bad" lip reading maps onto the original footage-- perhaps, as this poster speculates, there's a sort of reverse McGurk effect involved, making the lip movements appear to sync better to the audio than they really do. (Incidentally, I do not seem to experience the McGurk effect, but I find BadLipReading's dubs almost entirely convincing.)

[Update, 10/4: "I whisked like two or three eggs, and then I changed my Facebook pic to boring seagulls."]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Silbo Gomero

On the Spanish island of Gomera, people sometimes encode their speech in whistling to communicate over long distances:

They aren't the only language community to use whistling as an alternate communication channel. Whistled languages have been documented in widely separated parts of the world-- including among the isolated Pirahã tribe of South America (whose language is better known for what it allegedly lacks, namely recursive grammar).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sea apple

This is a type of sea cucumber popular in the aquarium trade; I spotted it in a tropical fish/aquarium supply store.

Monday, September 19, 2011


These are microscopic sections of a sedimentary rock containing spherical grains called ooids-- which are formed of concentric layers like pearls.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dinofeathers in amber

An amazing find from Alberta, Canada:
Feathers believed to be from dinosaurs have been found beautifully preserved in Alberta amber.
The primitive, hair-like feathers known as protofeathers likely belonged to theropods — dinosaurs similar to tiny Tyrannosaurus rexes — that roamed the swampy forests of Alberta 80 million years ago, said Alexander P. Wolfe, a University of Alberta earth sciences professor who co-authored the research published Thursday in Science.
...The feathers are preserved down to the pigments that show what colour they are and microscopic details of their structure.
Based on the fact that the protofeathers were just single filaments or clumps of filaments, just two centimetres long, the researchers concluded "these had nothing to do with flight," Wolfe said.
Instead, he believes they were used to keep the dinosaurs warm.
Another of the Canadian specimens. Image source.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lake sharks of Triassic Kyrgyzstan

Several 230-million-year-old teeth and egg capsules uncovered at a fossil site in southwestern Kyrgyzstan suggest hundreds of young sharks once congregated in a shallow lake, a new study says.
Called hybodontids, the animals were likely bottom feeders, like modern-day nurse sharks.
Mothers would've attached their eggs to horsetails and other marshy plants along the lakeshore. Once born, the Triassic-era babies would've had their pick from a rich food supply of tiny invertebrates, while dense vegetation offered protection from predators.
Image (showing a beautiful fossil egg case) and information from National Geographic.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Eoandromeda octobrachiata

Near the roots of the tree of life, we find a living spiral:
A 580-million-year-old fossil is casting doubt on the established tree of animal life. The invertebrate, named Eoandromeda octobrachiata because its body plan resembles the spiral galaxy Andromeda, suggests that the earliest branches in the tree need to be reordered, say the authors of study in Evolution and Development.
The researchers, led by paleontologist Feng Tang of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing, believe that Eoandromeda is the ancient ancestor of modern ocean dwellers known as comb jellies — gelatinous creatures similar to jellyfish, but rounder and with eight rows of iridescent paddles along their sides. If they are right, it would be the oldest known fossil of a comb jelly. And that would support a rewrite of the animal tree. 
From Nature, via The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


This colorful, rare gemstone comes from the fossil shells of prehistoric ammonites. Sometimes there are found whole shells composed of ammolite.