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.