Friday, 24 December 2010


It's been a cold and uncomfortable December, but today's the last day in my usual marathon Christmas run and I'm looking forward to three days off. This year I never quite got round to the whole decorations thing. Dramatic window display aside. One year Ryan brought in a set of fairy lights that have to be two miles long, with seventeen million bulbs. It took us a long time to snake it around the shop and when it was switched on it filled the place with a weird light. And a strange low hum. Festive. They're somewhere in the basement, along with a pile of tinsel and suchlike.

I ought to be better at things like that - seasonal window displays, themed cabinets and so on. I will use the feeble excuse that I'm far too busy with lots of very important things. Anyway. I'll be open on the 28th again and hoping that there's no more snow. I have the VAT return to look forward to. One of the very important things.

Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Take us to our leader

The theory of evolution provides a clear, demonstrable mechanism for development and diversification of life, for the origination of new species and an explanation of the multitudes of shapes and sizes of living things. New ideas and insights are formed and the theory is built on incrementally with new information, but the underlying principle has remained solid. It is a fact that evolution happens - how and why it happens we can, and will, still learn much more about.

What remains the big question for science - and where those of a religious nature may still look for the hand of a god - is the very origin of life on Earth in the first instance. At what stage can something be called 'living'? It's not an easy question, really. We're comfortable with thinking of single-celled forms as living - though it's not much of a life - but at what point does chemistry become biology? Genetic replication? It's a field of science that sees a great deal of research, naturally, and there are a number of lines of thinking - hypotheses with evidential support which should eventually produce a single dominant theory. This, in turn, will gradually gain acceptance outwith the scientific world and act as a platform for further research. It takes a while for an idea to be suggested, tested, embraced, reach the textbooks and become... general knowledge.

At the moment, areas of work that may provide a solution include oceanic hydrothermal vents (black smokers), ribonucleaic acid (RNA) storing information and developing to DNA, and iron and sulphur layers in areas of volcanism. Another possibility suggested is that material from elsewhere provided the initial source material for life on Earth. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of the origins of life, merely shifts it elsewhere, but it could deliver an answer to what happened on our planet. Meteorites found in Sudan in 2008 contain amino acids, and other examples with these proto-proteins have been found in the past. It does seem very possible we may all be aliens.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Hermes vs The Elements

It's been a very cold, very snowy December. You may have noticed. Aside from keeping people from walking around town to do their Christmas shopping by throwing them all over the icy pavements and freezing their eyeballs into glassy frostballs, the weather has meant it's been difficult for people to deliver parcels.

More and more people are relying heavily on online shopping, and that's understandable. It's easy and convenient. It's warm and you can sit down. I'm very glad I got my site up this year after too long spent thinking about it. The website's first December has helped balance a little of the drop in walk-in trade, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm careful to get things in first class post the next day, but then it's in the hands of the professionals. And this month, that's not been looking like much of a safe bet. Royal Mail hasn't been too bad, have to say. A little slower perhaps, but even without the weather that can happen in the Christmas run-up anyway.

I have felt badly let down by my courier, though. I have a contract with them by way of pre-paid consignment notes - far cheaper than just arranging a delivery as and when. I had a decent sale from a customer in London, who had called the shop on a Saturday. It was packed and ready for collection on the Monday morning, due for pickup later that day. Nothing happened. I phoned the next day and they were apologetic, but expected collection within a few hours. Again, nothing. On the Wednesday, on phoning, I was told no collections were possible across all of Scotland until the following Monday. The customer was okay with this - as long as they made it by Christmas. On Wednesday the following week I finally gave in and phoned around other firms. I gave up on two as I couldn't get through on the phone. Eventually I found an alternative, promised the customer they would have it tomorrow and waited. And waited. The guy showed up 20 minutes after I was supposed to close, but I was very grateful to see him. Cost me an arm and a leg, but I felt the customer's patience had been tried enough.

It's great when a parcel you've been waiting for arrives, but it's also a nice feeling to walk out of a shop with your purchase.

[EDIT] Turns out the parcel, which should have been delivered on Wednesday, is still in a London depot on Saturday morning. Looking like Monday now - two weeks after it was supposed to be collected for next day delivery. Two weeks, two companies and outright failure. Still waiting for the second firm to call me and explain.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Meanwhile, on Hobbit Island...

Flores, in Indonesia, was home to a group of little folk called Homo floresiensis until around 12,000 years ago. They may have been a separate hominin species, or may have been a tribe of cretinous humans - small bodies, pinheads. I wrote a bit about them last year. They were found in 2004, when the  Lord of the Rings films were fresh in the mind, so were unsurprisingly nicknamed Hobbits.

Anyway - some bones have been found in a cave on the island that seem to have belonged to a giant form of marabou stork, Leptoptilus robustus. Scaling up, it was probably about 180cm tall, which would have been nearly twice the height of the hobbits. Marabous are scary looking enough at their current size, so I expect they were given a wide berth. Not quite a terror bird, but I'd bet it made the hobbits uneasy. The article touches on the possibility of the storks eating babies, but that's purely speculative. Turns the usual stork/baby thing on its head.

The island must have been a strange place - dwarf elephants and humans, giant rats, storks and lizards. Islands are often a source of unusual forms of well-known animals. Cut off from the rest of their population, new species gradually develop, and often change in size. Dwarf forms and giant forms. Without the same predators, food sources and so on, the pressures are different and form eventually reflects that. Hence Darwin's finches and tortoises on the Galapagos, for example. Lilliput and Blefuscu as well, of course.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Paired up

I got in a load of one our best sellers in time for Christmas. The ammonites from Majunga (or Mahajanga) in Madagascar are beautiful. The one to the left has been cut in half and the flat surfaces polished, but you can also get them polished on the outside, which shows the intricate suture pattern (below) off to best effect. From some layers the ammonites can be left as they are, when an opalescent layer within the shell shows a rainbow of colour. We sell a lot of these. While - generally speaking - the geologists tend to go for the rough, unpolished stuff, the polished ammonites are just appealing as objects, as decorative... things. Pretty things have a broad appeal.

The chambers of the ammonites shell have mostly been filled in with honey and amber coloured calcite crystals, the green/grey sediment the shells were deposited in, and sometimes the reddish polishing powder used in preparation. The combination of colours in the spiral pattern varies, and people go for different effects - some prefer an even colour throughout, some go for a mixture.

Most commonly, the site produces Cleoniceras cleon, Phylloceras inflatum and Douvilleiceras mammillatum, but there are also nautilus - Cymatoceras sakalavus - found there, like the one on the front page of the shop site. I've seen some huge examples, over a metre across, but mostly those have been cobbled together from pieces of a number of specimens. Usually, the biggest I have in stock are around 22cm across, and those are impressive enough.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Hammer of the gods

Hi. Do you have any of those hammers that find meteorites?

Find meteorites? Do you mean geological hammers? We have those - just over there in the corner.

No, I mean ones that detect meteorites in the ground, so you can find them and dig them up.

Do you mean a metal detector? Not all meteorites are made of iron, but lots are and many others have high iron content. So that's how a lot are found. I don't have metal detectors, though. Sorry.

No, I mean a hammer that attracts meteorites and finds them for you. Then you dig them up.

Attracts them? Like a magnet? A magnetic hammer? You'd have to be very close to the meteorite for that to be much use. 

I just want to find a meteorite.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Cardboard, bubblewrap and rocks

Yesterday morning I had four big boxes of fossils and minerals delivered from a friend down in England. They sat in the corner staring at me while I had some customers. Then mid-morning I picked out some jewellery lines for the website from a supplier who was driving around Scotland in a van. Not quite as much, but small, shiny things that need weighed and priced with fiddly labels. Finally, just after lunch another friend arrived with a carload of stuff for me to look through. I bought a lot - mostly replenishing standard lines.

At the end of yesterday afternoon I had three big bills and three big heaps of new stock to plough through. As much as I love getting new things in, I do sometimes procrastinate when it comes to pricing it. Well - when it comes to everything. I started today with the best of intentions, but have strayed from the task somewhat. Next week will be better. And I must tidy up the basement a bit, too.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Factual selection

I read an article this morning calling for a reappraisal of the work of Patrick Matthew, a Scottish farmer who is credited with the initial idea of evolution through natural selection, some 27 years earlier than Darwin's famous work was published. Matthew addressed the subject in an appendix to his 1831 book 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture'. Not surprisingly perhaps, his revelation flew under the radar somewhat while Darwin and Wallace went on to greater fame.

The essay, by a geologist at New York University, points out that Matthew placed greater importance on the effect of extinction events and the spates of rapid evolution that followed them, suggesting Darwin was inclined to stress a more linear evolutionary process. This seems a little like a tip to the old punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism argument. Well - okay - a lot like that. I find the insistence on divisions like these an oversimplification and helpful only in the very limited sense of understanding the processes that take place. As we know, evolution is far too complicated to state that one method is the one true way and that the others are wrong. Undoubtedly the blank canvas of a post-extinction event world offers the opportunities for speedy adaptation to new roles and habitats, but the continuous reaction to constant environmental change is always there in the background.

Essentially, Darwin produced a fully developed theory and while Matthew got there first (as Darwin later acknowledged, though he had been unaware of the work while he was working on his own theory) it was not the thorough examination the idea merited. That aside, Matthew was not the only one to have put forward the notion before Darwin. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Darwin was the one to fully explore and expand on the concept of natural selection, and that's why his place in the history of science is entirely justified.

Friday, 5 November 2010

We're doomed

A few years ago I read Bill Bryson's book 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', which I thoroughly recommend. It's a broad oversight of the planet's history, which obviously covers a lot of geological ground. Bryson comes to the subject as an enthusiastic layman and his explanations are entertaining and easy to follow. However - a large proportion of the book is about the numerous very bad things which are likely to happen to us at any given time. He points out that we face painful and terrifying deaths in the microscopic form of a supervirus, in the ginormous, rocky shape of an incoming asteroid, in the hot, nasty lava of a supervolcano and so on. Great stuff, though it might have you looking over your shoulder a little.

Anyway. I mention the book because a group of scientists at Imperial College London and Purdue University in Indiana have, since 2004, been producing a Impact Events Calculator, designed to force meteorophobes into their custom-built underground bunkers for the rest of their lives. Cans of tuna, beans and sweetcorn in dimly lit concrete vaults and a wobbly iron-spring military bed. For ever. I'm not speaking from experience. I'm resigned to my fate; if the meteorite comes, I'm ready to embrace it. I'm getting away from the point a little. What it does is work out what would happen when a meteorite of specific size hits Earth. You type in the dimensions, where you want it to land and at what angle, etc. Then click the button and check the results. I've just wiped out a large part of the Eastern Seaboard of North America. It was an accident.

They have recently updated it to tweak the user interface, but also to include additional effects such as wave height from ocean impact, and a couple of others. The next upgrade will allow you to pick your impact site. Virtual revenge at the click of a button. It's fun to play around with, but then you realise that... You know. It might happen. Look out!

Friday, 29 October 2010

The reaper

The IUCN - the International Union for the Conservation of Nature - recently published a report at the UN biodiversity summit in Japan warning of the scale of the problem facing the planet's animals. One fifth of the world's vertebrates are now facing some level of extinction threat, with a new species making the red list every week. It's not very positive news.

A friend is currently in Mongolia and had a trip through the Gobi desert for a few days. Whilst there he saw bactrian camels, and more than he was expecting to. He met a number of the local nomadic people, and each told him numbers had been increasing significantly for two decades and the spreading desert meant this was likely to continue. Bactrians have the IUCN status of Critically Endangered and they state that the population is declining. There are Non-Governmental Organisations being well paid to ensure their protection. This could be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly that the NGOs work has been successful and the recent growth in numbers pointed to by anecdotal evidence is the result. Secondly that population levels in different areas of their habitat are moving in different directions with an overall downward trend. Thirdly - and cynically - that there is a possibility some organisations are exaggerating the plight of the camel and still taking funding. This most likely happens on some scale, but I'd expect the IUCN's monitoring process is robust enough to have a decent grasp on the bigger picture.

Sadly, there's no doubt the number of species close to extinction is higher now that it's been since we started keeping track and it's definitely exacerbated by human activity. Global warming aside, the main problem has been habitat loss through logging and land cultivation for farming, but pollution, hunting and over-fishing  have also had heavy tolls. Palaeontologists know very well that there have been far more dramatic drops in biodiversity in the past - the fossil record shows this clearly. The difference is that this time we have a level of responsibility. We can do something about it. There are some positives here. Conservation efforts such as hunting restrictions and captive breeding have prevented the loss of a few species, and an increased global awareness should help slow down the growth of the red list at the very least. There's a story today on the work of The Frozen Ark, in Nottingham, where DNA samples of thousands of endangered animals are stored. In case. The point of being able to resurrect 'lost' species is not too far away, and while there is an ethical debate surrounding the field of cloning and the like, it would be completely irresponsible not to act now to preserve what we have; to give the animals we have affected so badly just a touch more hope.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Simply put

'What's this?'

'It's a marble that has the shells of early relatives of the ammonites all through it. These are the shells here... Most fossils are found in limestones, and marble is a limestone that's been metamorphosed under high temperatures and pressures. Usually the rock's deformed by this process and any structures it contained, like fossils or bedding planes are lost. In this case, though, it's probably only been heated and the fossil shapes are still intact. They're called orthocone nautiloids. The orthocone part means straight-shelled and the black and white stripy parts - here, here and here - through the stone are the chambered shells filled with white calcite crystals. When the animals were alive these chambers would have been filled with a mixture of liquid and gas and the nautiloids could regulate their buoyancy by adjusting the mix. They had tentacles that protruded from the front of their shell and their body, which would have been fairly soft and flexible, was protected by the extended first chamber. Its later relatives, ammonites, mostly had spiral shells instead of straight and looked very similar to today's nautilus. They now think octopuses are the most closely linked, though.'

'But - what are they? Are they fish?'

'A squid in a cone.'

'Oh, riiiight. Cool.'

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Carried away

 It's a quiet week, so the arrival of the new Mr Wood's Fossils bags is the highlight so far. Finally got round to getting some done with the new logo and colour scheme and I think it's a big improvement. Here are some before and after shots, so you can judge for yourselves.

The reverse has a simplified logo above the address, phone number and website. You probably aren't quite as excited about the new bags as I am; I realise that. That's okay. The whole re-branding exercise was an interesting process - getting the logo restyled, the new website, business cards and so on. I think all that's left really is the front of the shop. It's looking pretty tired, so it will need to be done fairly soon. People like the stencilled fossils on the front and it would be nice to keep them, so perhaps I'll go for the orange-copper colour with darker fossils over the top.

I tried some t-shirts once, but there was a mistake with the order and none came that were my size. I wasn't really sure why I had ordered them and without one for me to wear it all felt a bit pointless. I gave most away to staff and friends within the fossil trade, and they indulge me by wearing them in Tucson and Sainte Marie each year. Maybe I'll try again and make sure I get a couple my size this time.

I'm a bit scattergun with my marketing approach. I'm never sure which adverts are effective, and due to the unusual nature of the business, I'm called all the time by people wanting me to advertise with them. I'm trying a couple of new ways to push the website in the lead up to Christmas this year and hopefully one of them at least will prove useful. Not many people think immediately of fossils as gift ideas, but they are usually well received and I get a lot of repeat customers at Christmas. It'd be good if I can extend the range to the whole of the UK through the website. And maybe - this year - the bags will catch the eyes of a few more shoppers.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A change is gonna come

New Scientist has an interesting article on the complex workings of evolution. In summary - it's more complicated than people think. This shouldn't be big news, but the link with Monday's story on chaos theory was nice.

The author, Keith Bennett of Queens University in Belfast, likens the traditional symbol of the evolutionary process - the tree of life - to a fractal. The cumulative effect of iterative changes creating branching structures repeated at different scales throughout the whole. The relationship between microevolution and macroevolution is a controversial one, with a history of great scientific debate. Microevolution is the change of genetic traits within a species or population - perhaps a colour change in a group of birds' plumage for example - and macroevolution is the actual change from one species to another. For the most part I see one as a natural extension of the other, occurring over longer periods of time and having a more dramatic effect. Macroevolution can only come about through continual small changes.

Bennett is a palaeoecologist and suggests there are slightly different groups of driving factors behind the two scales of evolution, which may be the case to a point. If they are part and parcel of the same overall process, however, I'm not sure of the benefits of separating the two so distinctly, which he seems keen to do. The research behind the article points to a steady stream of speciation, reducing the influence of environmental change. He thinks macroevolution may be primarily driven by internally generated genetic alterations, rather than external influences such as climactic or habitat changes. To me, this slightly misses the point that the success or otherwise of any genetic changes are very often a result of how that modification affects an individual organism within its environment. If it brings it any advantage in terms of camouflage, feeding, breeding, survival in general, then that trait will be more likely be passed on to subsequent generations and gradually becoming widespread. If the environment is changing, then the efficacy of any mutation will be reflected in that to some extent. Environment may not be the main driving force, but it certainly plays a big role.

The main point of the article, I think, is that evolution is not predictable and any pattern we may see within developments are only discernible with the benefit of hindsight. It's a wonderful thing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Order from chaos

While I was studying geology we had a series of classes on the subject of chaos theory. Our professor was very enthusiastic about fractals and their practical application within geology and other fields. At the time, research was being done using fractals to look for potential economic mineral localities, attempting to predict the seemingly random. To us, it was mostly about the pretty patterns, but his energy and love for the topic was infectious. Can't say I spent a great deal of time afterwards looking further into the theory, but at the time I found it fascinating.

Benoit Mandelbrot, probably the man most associated with chaos theory, died in Massachusetts the other day, aged 85. In the late '70s and early '80s  he published breakthrough work which looked at breaking down apparently chaotic natural forms into sets of scaled repeating patterns which built to larger, self-similar forms. The maths of fractals is a little scary, but the patterns are nice... An early form used triangles with three Koch Curves to produce what's called the Koch Snowflake, there's the brilliantly-named Menger Sponge and almost certainly the best-known, the Mandelbrot Set. I recommend spending a few minutes looking through the gallery links from the Wikipedia entry for fractals. Beauty in mathematics. Fractals have since been used to develop techniques of measuring things previously considered unmeasurable - coastlines, mountain ranges, clouds and so on. The parent science of chaos theory will have a huge range of influence - there is a great deal of fruit still to be picked from these strange trees.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was established in 1940 as a means of gathering resources and aiding communication to advance the science. It's based in Illinois but has nearly 2500 members spread across the world. Their annual meeting is going on right now in Pittsburgh, and is always the source of a good number of interesting articles.

One of the presentations was by Michael Habib of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and concerned the impressively huge species of azhdarchid pterosaurs that have been found in recent years. Quetzalcoatlus, the best known of these giants, had a wingspan of between 10-11m, and Habib reckons they could probably fly 10,000 miles at a go. It's quite a claim, and his calculations necessarily involve a little speculation - on body mass, wing size and shape, etc. - but as Habib himself points out, 'what's important is that the numbers are all big'. My kind of science. These things didn't fly like a madly flapping pigeon, but would have soared like a stork, spiralling over thermals to gain height and winds to provide lift. Quite why they'd want to be travelling such distances is another matter. Sometimes I can't even be bothered to go to the shops. Recent studies looking at their probable feeding methods seemed to rule out continuous flight as a way of life, favouring a land-based heron-style approach; wading in shallow water and stalking in short vegetation. Big as they were, I doubt they could sneak in a quick 10,000 miles between snacks.

Interestingly, not very long ago it was being suggested these things may not have flown at all. A paper last year looked at flap rates and weights of modern birds and thought these giraffe-sized pterosaurs just wouldn't be able to get off the ground. Reaction to this suggestion was fairly dismissive, it has to be said. On a very basic level - why else would they have massive great wings?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Theoretically speaking

For the first time in a while, my one-time-regular Creationist visitor dropped in this morning. I enjoy our conversations, though they can go on a little. He is friendly, articulate and - unusually for someone with his views - he is prepared to listen to arguments running counter to his thinking. Amongst other things, the Theory of Evolution came up once more.

He sees Darwin as a pigeon fancier reading too much into the Galapagos finches, and while accepting of micro-evolution (it's nigh on impossible not to be now without looking a little silly) he maintains there is no evidence at all of macro-evolution. This head in the sand approach is surprisingly common. Refuse to accept it and it can't exist. This is one of the things that winds me up a bit. Flat denial of the glaringly obvious. When people say there is no transitional fossil evidence it's akin to pantomime flat-earthism. It's behind you. Oh no it's not. It's BEHIND you. This YouTube cartoon by NonStampCollector neatly summarises a few of the standard Creationist lines of attack on the Theory of Evolution with clear, concise rebuttals. It also shows an all too common defensive technique - that of evasion and denial. Evasion of direct answers and denial that answers have been provided.

As touched on in the cartoon, there are many demonstrations of macro-evolutionary lines in the fossil record. There are plenty of examples if you want to look, want to see them. Evolution newsgroup TalkOrigins have collected a list of examples with my favourite being the development of birds from dinosaurs. There are still many gaps in the fossil record, of course. There are gaps in our understanding across the whole scientific spectrum and always will be. Reducing a hole in our knowledge to where a theory for all intents and purposes becomes fact will still leave unknowns. Intelligent Design is essentially exploiting those gaps in an attempt to provide a role for a creator. While I get the desire on the part of the theist to do that, I see no problem in simply saying 'We just don't know how that works yet.'

Another familiar analogy brought up by my visitor was a version of the tornado-built jumbo jet thing. Equating the 'sudden appearance' of a complex object such as a human eye with the construction of a 747 by a tornado from the contents of a scrapyard. I think he used a car-from-barbecue model in his comparison. It is a complete misrepresentation of evolution to present it as a random process. It's not random. It's more a case of trial and error leading to progressive change - a mutation will only 'work', be passed on to future generations if it proves to be effective or beneficial. That the outcome can appear to show signs of an intelligent guiding hand is the result of an iterative process working over a great deal of time. Continual refinement; adaptation to surrounding environment and events. The sense of direction is entirely false, an imposition - Homo sapiens as a 'destination' where there is no need for one. The dead ends of the tree of life are not afforded the luxury of contemplating their origins. Humans are an enormously successful species with the highest level of self-awareness our planet has seen. It's in our nature to be introspective, to be ego-centric. We are here, so we wonder why.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Solitary confinement

This is a small business. There's me and one other staff member who does Saturdays and fills in when required. Currently that's Riley. there aren't many times of the year when having two people in the shop would be useful, and that's handy in keeping running costs to a minimum. However - there are days when it's very, very quiet. No customers, paperwork finished, no postal orders to wrap. On those days the view from the counter can seem a little too familiar and the chair a little too uncomfortable.

I am often jealous of those with an office full of colleagues. You have people you can discuss problems with, share advice, and just generally chat about... stuff. I'm lazy, and when I'm not busy I can slip into a near-catatonic state. So if you see me slumped over the counter, come in and say hello.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Lost and found

There's a story today about two new ceratopsian dinosaurs, Kosmoceratops richardsoni and Utahceratops gettyi, bring found in the rich Cretaceous deposits of Southern Utah. Kosmoceratops in particular is an oddball, with fifteen horns including a strange 'fringe' draped from the top of its crest. The site - the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - is an important site in a state packed with dinosaur localities. During the Cretaceous, what's now Utah was part of Larimidia, separated from the bulk of the rest of North America (called Appalachia) by a shallow sea.

Most people are familiar with ceratopsians; Triceratops has always been among the dinosaur favourites. It's a large group, though, with a range of sizes and ornamentation. 'New' dinosaurs are found surprisingly frequently, adding to the pile. Sadly, though, earlier this year the ceratopsians lost one of their number. The mighty Torosaurus, which had an enormous skull and weighed in at around six tons, was identified in 1891, only a couple of years after Triceratops, and from the same Hell Creek deposits. The paper in July suggests Torosaurus is simply a large adult Triceratops, stripping it of genus status.

This happens from time to time, and it's easy to see why. When working from incomplete fossils - almost always the case with dinosaurs - an animal can be described and named from a part of the skeleton. Different parts can be accidentally given different names. In cases like these, the name used first gets seniority and the more recent gets consigned to history's dustbin. Since Linnaeus, natural sciences have had their lumpers and splitters. Splitters are those who would find some small anatomical difference - say, a seagull that had a larger head than its friends - and get all excited.

"A brand new type of seagull! Wow! I'm going to call it the Mekon Gull and publish a paper!"

The lumper tends to dismiss it as simply a gull with a big head.

"Ha ha, Look at that seagull. It's got a big head."

At times, the names allocated on evidence of slightly dubious strength have stuck. Later, these can collapse, the genus or species status retracted and old bighead gets to be a normal seagull again. In dinosaur terms, one of the biggest departures is that of Brontosaurus. Everybody loved Brontosaurus, the thunder lizard. Then one day it was discovered he had been an Apatosaurus all along. I think many of the other sauropods had had their suspicions for some time. Still - what happens in the Jurassic, stays in the Jurassic.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Papal bull

Today the Pope is visiting Edinburgh. He's having lunch with the Queen in Holyrood and then being driven along Princes Street and up Lothian Road. Police are expecting 100,000 people to come and wave. I'm not expecting there to be a big overlap of our target markets. If there was a Venn diagram of Mr Wood's customers and Pope wavers, it might look like Pluto and the sun. Quiet day for me, probably.

Aside from the visit affecting my business, it's not really a subject that is suitable for the blog, but I did read about Cardinal Walter Kasper's views of the United Kingdom and his subsequent withdrawal from the trip. He likened Britain to a third world country due to the variety of people he sees after landing in Heathrow. I can't think that living such a strange, insular life in the Vatican helps build much of an understanding of the world as a whole, so perhaps it's good the Pope is getting out and about. He might be able to update the church's archaic views on homosexuality and contraception that are so damaging to the third world countries Cardinal Kasper finds so unsettling.

Welcome to Edinburgh. Multicultural and proud.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Politicians are human too

We're used to the odd mistake by our MPs - some more odd than others, obviously - but Conor Lenihan, Ireland's Minister for Science has taken the the oatcake. Tomorrow night in Dublin, there is to be a book launch, at which Mr Lenihan will be the speaker. A great many people in Ireland are wondering what on Earth he's doing by appearing at the event - a Gorillas and Girls party - at all. Hopefully, by this morning, Mr Lenihan is too.

The book he's launching is by John J. May and called The Origin of Specious Nonsense. Now, you may have guessed from the title, but John J. May has a bit of an issue with Charles Darwin and the whole Origins of Species thing. He seems very angry about it. He bills his book as 'the most controversial book in decades' and it doesn't take much digging to find a few examples of the specious nonsense alluded to in the title. Kindly, John May has filled his site with hilarious rants and pages of senseless, dribbling bilge. It genuinely is worth a dredge through if you have the time, if only so you can comfortably discount almost everything the man has to say. He's not the most literate of men, but he points out that he was self-educated and can at least communicate his deranged points clearly enough.

The scandalous thing here is not that another woeful attempt to 'debunk' the theory of evolution has been published. If anything the content of the book only serves to strengthen the case of its target. The problem lies with the presence of the Minister for Science at the launch of an anti-scientific book. And it's not like he may have been taken in by the subtlety of May's attacks. From the front cover all the way through it's an all-out assault on one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in history. Darwin's idea is demonstrably supported by overwhelming amounts of observable evidence from countless fields of study. The fact that May's book is a pitiful attempt to undermine it for religious reasons is neither here nor there. The only way Lenihan can save face is to show up for the event and use his speech to highlight the piles of inaccuracies and misdirections in the book. That would be both rude to the author and undignified for a politician. He's really dug himself into a hole here. Interesting to see how he tries to get out.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Not a fan

A group of four women are outside the door peering in. Three are keen to have a look around. One is not. Her friend attempts to persuade her.

‘But don’t you like fossils?’

‘No I don’t.’

She points at the amethyst geode near the door.

‘What about that one? Don’t you think that’s beautiful?’

‘No I don’t. I think it’s disgusting. I hate it.’

‘But what about the smaller ones?’

‘The smaller ones are alright. I’m going to the hat shop. Come on.’

A man looking around couldn't help but laugh and I was a little lost for words. One of the four bravely stayed to have a look around, and I was very tempted to ask if her friend was always so... rude. I didn't, though. It was a strange over-reaction. The big geode is the one thing that people tend to love most, and this was the first time I'd heard anyone express their dislike at all, let alone so vehemently.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Polar opposites

Every so often throughout the history of the Earth, its geomagnetic field has switched. Magnetic North and magnetic South swap seats. There's no discernible occurrence pattern - gaps between flips range from a few thousand years to tens of millions of years. The process usually takes quite some time, say 4,000 - 10,000 years, as the field weakens slowly, then switches and regains strength at a faster rate. Rocks in a site in Nevada appear to show the process can happen far more quickly, though, and this is not the first such find. A 1995 paper on a site in Oregon showed similar findings, but the suggestion has proved controversial.

The field is generated by the movement of iron-rich molten rock beneath the Earth's surface. There is a system of convection currents moving the magma around and changes in the flow may result in disruption to the magnetic field. The flow can be influenced by the absorption of subducted slabs of crust material, but also possibly by meteorite impacts, major episodes of vulcanism, earthquakes and so on. There may be another, weaker field produced by the iron in the crust layers, too.

Currently, the field is weakening and has been for over 100 years. The rate of weakening has risen recently and this may suggest we are heading towards a flip. Or it may not, as it may just regain strength. Again, these fluctuations happen all the time, and it is still well within 'normal' limits. As it seems to be completely random, we cannot say we are due for another soon, but there is a theory that it will happen in 2012. Seems far too specific to me, and unlikely for that reason alone.

Whether in two years or not, it will happen at some point. How is it going to affect humanity? Some think the weakened field will expose the Earth and all its inhabitants to harmful cosmic radiation. Safe to say that - as we are all still here - humans have survived many flips in the past and there's no reason to expect dramatic changes in our life. Like death rays from space. There don't appear to be any extinction events linked to any previous flip. We may have to abandon our compasses for a bit, that's all.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

El caníbal

Since 1994, bones have been collected from a cave system in the Atapuerca Mountains of Northern Spain. Around 800,000 years ago, the caves were home to Western Europe's earliest known Homo species, though there is still debate over whether they belong to H. heidelbergensis, H. erectus or even a new species, H. antecessor. The bones from the spoil heaps bear the signs of butchery. There are score marks from stone tools and breaks where they have been broken apart to get to the marrow. In Gran Dolina these butchered bones are of bison, deer, sheep and at least eleven humans.

These proto-Spaniards were cannibals. The butchered human remains are found regularly - amongst those of other animals - in layers covering a span of at least 100,000 years, so the idea that cannibalism may have been a last resort in hard times has been discounted. The climate would have been mild and the landscape suitable for many rich food sources. It looks like the dead folk were just another source of nutrition. The way the bones are discarded and mixed suggests there was no ritual attached, as there is in many more recent cases of cultural cannibalism. Signs show that the skulls were cracked open and brains eaten, too. Nice.

One other - speculative - possibility is that it was routinely carried out as part of a turf war. If the surrounding area was prime real estate, there may well have been rival groups competing for territory. So far, all the cannibal victims look to have been children or teenagers. Weak, easy targets? Early natural deaths? It has so far proved impossible to determine whether the dinner was related to the diners - that might eventually provide a big clue as to what was going on. In any case, cannibalism is far from unusual in palaeocultures. There is a fairly strong track record of it, and probably the tendency not to be looking for the signs of it might mean it's even more prevalent through hominid and human history than currently thought. Ask Sawney Bean.

In other caves of the Atapuercas, bones of lions and bears were found. Sounds like a rubbish place to live. If the lions and bears don't get you, your neighbours might.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Nice to be nice

I have heard a number of times from religious people that their ethics are either informed by or totally derived from their faith. It happened again recently. At times, this is meant to imply my lack of faith leads automatically to a lack of moral code. Which, naturally, I find more than a little offensive. Personally, I feel if you need to learn what's right and wrong from a book written a very long time ago, then there's something amiss. I believe myself to be a moral person and have always thought that people have an innate sense of ethics, that it is a beneficial attribute for both society and the individual. Ultimately, if it is innate and broadly beneficial, then 'niceness' is likely to be a trait passed on.

I was pleased to find this article on Nature's website suggesting a broader effect of the benefits of altruism, outwith the family structure. The evolution of morality has been accepted for some time, but these findings from mathematical analysis show that the general process of natural selection can result in inherited altruism and that no specific set of circumstances is necessary. Maybe all those ants carrying bits of leaf everywhere are going to parties.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hot stuff

A woman was looking through the tumblestones and picked up a piece of man-made silicon. It's unused stuff from silicon chip manufacture and looks great polished - silvery and strange. She held it up and asked me:

'Is this stuff artificial? It says so on the label here.'
'Yes, it's man-made.'
'Does that mean it can't be baked in an oven?'
'Um. You could, I suppose. Why?'

I wasn't really expecting that question. Turned out she made brooches by baking stuff. We talked about melting points. She didn't buy any.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Goodnight Moon

The moon is shrinking. According to astronomers looking at data from a NASA orbiter, it has lost about 200 metres of its diameter. It's all wrinkly. This isn't unusual - like planets, the moon had a hot core when it was formed and as the core cools, the surface contracts. So if the moon is still contracting, it might still have a bit of heat left in its middle. Maybe there's a dragon or something in there. I hope so.

The moon is very popular. With werewolves, lunatics, astronomers and everyday people like Craig. It was 'born' around 4.527 billion years ago, when something very big and heavy smashed into the newly formed Earth. The big lump knocked off became our moon, so it's not made of cheese, but of the same stuff Earth is made of. Rock and dust and all that. Don't be sad that's it's getting smaller. It'll be a long time before it disappears. By the way - ASTRONOMERS = MOONSTARERS.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


There's a television programme called Cold Case, where unsolved crimes are re-examined in the light of new evidence. I think. I haven't seen it. What was I going to say? Oh, yes. The case of the dead elephants. There are a number of ideas as to the demise of the mammoths, mastodons and other exciting megafauna of North America about 13,000 years back. You know - when all this was fields. At the same time, a paleo-Indian people known as Clovis, famous for their stone spear points, seem to die out. The demise of the big, hairy animals and the spear-toting man would appear closely linked.

Well, three years ago a nuclear scientist, Richard Firestone, and geologist Allen West published a paper suggesting a supernova explosion some 41,000 years ago fired out a series of comet-like missiles, one of which piled into North America around 28,000 years later (that's about 13,000 years ago, to save you the maths). Aha - a suspect. The story went that initially there had been an early shockwave, 34,000 years ago, of tiny, hot, radioactive, magnetic iron-rich lumps from the supernova which had hit earth and caused considerable misery. Famously, three mammoth tusks found in Siberia and Alaska were pitted with flecks of what's thought to be this early supernova grit. Secondly, the impact of the comet at the 13,000 year-ago point had an immediate and severe effect on the wildlife, particularly anything right underneath. Then thirdly the landing created a series of wildfires that spread across the continent burning up all the vegetation and generally roasting stuff. Firestone and West proposed the extent of these fires was sufficient to eventually result in the extinction of the missing North American megafauna and the Clovis culture.

These claims were received with a degree of scepticism and recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lays out a number of concerns. There is evidence enough to support the meteorite impact, and there are certainly signs of large-scale fires at around the right time. What's dubious is the sweeping nature of the hypothesis. It seems very unlikely to me that such wildfires would be quite so all-pervasive and apocalyptic. I'm sure populations took a big hit but people, plants and animals usually find a way through things one way or another. So - was the death of the mammoths down to a big space explosion? Verdict - not guilty. Not completely. Aren't I decisive?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Spoils of war

This week Zimbabwe put some blood diamonds on sale, after a ban had been lifted by the regulatory body. The trade watchdog, under the eye of the UN, has a system called The Kimberley Process to ensure every diamond-producing nation can show its diamonds are from legitimate mining sources. Zimbabwe, as you'll probably know, is a bit of a mess of a country and their army took diamond mines by force some time ago.

Other countries under close scrutiny include Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Hard to miss the horribly inconvenienced Naomi Campbell in the news this week after she had been given some dodgy rocks by Liberian dictator and all-round-unpleasant man Charles Taylor at a party thirteen years ago. She was disappointed because they were all grubby, but did she know their history? Best to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she's as slow-witted as her public pronouncements and behaviour suggest.

So what are blood diamonds? Are they red? Does Leonardo DiCaprio have some? Basically, they are diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance insurgency or other conflict. Very often there is forced labour involved in their collection, and - as in the case of Zimbabwe - the mines are often taken violently from their commercial owners in the first place. So - all in all - they are not something that should be encouraged. The Kimberley Process has helped, though, and the World Diamond Council now estimates that around 1% of the stones on the world market are suspiciously obtained. Still too many, but at least the worst of it is under control.

Thursday, 12 August 2010


Feldspars are a group of minerals that constitute around 60% of the rocks on the Earth's crust. The pink and white bits in most granites are feldspars. They are found in igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks and have a complicated triangular composition diagram to confuse students of geology. They are alumino-silicate minerals with a balance of either sodium, calcium or potassium filling slots in the molecular structure. The presence of these last three determine the type of feldspar the mineral is. There are also some rare barium feldspars, the wicked uncle of the family. Nobody talks about barium feldspars. They were even booted out of the triangle diagram for insubordination. There are lots of different sub-groups, and further divisions within those. Maybe you can see why I specialised in palaeontology towards the end of my degree.

So far, so what, right? Well, some of these many minerals can be very pretty... See how I bring it down to my level? Bottom left here is moonstone, which is a variety of orthoclase. Up to the right is the colourful labradorite, from the plagioclase group. Sunstone is an oligoclase variety which has tiny plates of hematite that give it a golden shimmer. Amazonite is a pretty green microcline and there are gem varieties of 'normal' orthoclase and albite. I suppose the point is that - brain-eroding chemical shenanigans aside - feldspars are a big group of the most common minerals on the surface of the planet. You'd think they'd be pretty drab, dull things with an inferiority complex. Most of them are, I suppose, but they also have their gems. Even the most ordinary minerals can be beautiful. It's like the ugly duckling or something, isn't it? Don't cry now.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Pennies from heaven

I realise it was only last week I wrote about the awkward relationship between the commercial and academic geological worlds but another article - this time about meteorites, in New Scientist - caught my attention today. It centres around the Gebel Kamil crater in Egypt, found last year by some Italian scientists but also by others - to the dismay of the research team. Now, of course my inclination is going to be to defend attacks on open-market trading in geological material. I'm a fossil dealer. However, I did a post-grad course in Museum Studies, and worked in museums for a while, too. I understand where the academics are coming from to a degree and I do try to keep a balanced view. Honest.

The main thrust of my argument last week was the enormous provision of material from the commercial sector and how it would be detrimental to science to cut that off. This stands for meteorites as well. I have three or four friends who are meteorite hunters - that's what they do for a living. Anyone wishing to study the material they find can do so easily enough - buying a few small pieces will be far, far cheaper than going out to collect their own samples. The New Scientist article suggests at one point that material in the hands of commercial collectors is forever lost to science. I think that's both partially untrue and potentially damaging. Most collectors I know will happily make their stuff available for study on request. I know that someone has to know it's there in the first place, though, and I can see that as a problem. Lots of collections are offered to museums eventually, but that doesn't solve the issue. Again, pro-actively fostering relationships between collectors and the academic establishment can only be of benefit.

Coming back to the Gebel Kamil site - to me the piece misses a number of points. The Italian team's lost bottle? Who is to say they were the first people there? That seems a remarkable claim. Secondly, why should science have automatic rights to all the material? It's fair to say a better estimate of total fall weight can be attempted with more of the meteorite in situ, but who knows how much of it has been collected in the 5000 years since it fell? Ultimately, what has happened is that the scientific community has found the site of a meteorite fall and given it an official name. It will undertake a full analysis of the rocks and crater and we will learn a bit more about meteorites. This is still happening, commercial collecting or not. It is of no real use to the researchers to possess all of the meteorite, but I'd argue it's of some value to science as a whole to have the background interest in the subject raised by the commercial market.

The use of UNESCO as a safeguard for specimens and sites of vital importance to science could be more effective if properly applied and enforced, but there aren't many instances where this is the case. As an example, China have a blanket ban on the export of vertebrate fossil material. This seemed brought in essentially to protect their feathered dinosaur stuff - and rightly so. Very important palaeontological specimens that academics should be able to access. It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut, though. Also banned for export are two types of fossil fish, Jianghanichthys and Lycoptera, that had provided a steady income stream for very poor parts of China. They are of no scientific interest. Australia is pretty much the only place where customs will take an interest if you go through the border with a Chinese fossil fish. The approach mentioned towards the end of the New Scientist piece is a good one, I think, but essentially is simply exploiting the existing situation. Academic bodies sponsoring local collectors to provide material for them instead of buying from dealers. But - doesn't that just make these sponsored local collectors... meteorite dealers?

Ahhh. I'll write about something else next time, I promise.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A week to themselves

Mothers get a day. Fathers get a day. Sharks get a whole week. So greedy. But anyway - it's Shark Week this week. Right now. So go and hug a shark. Well - okay - go and... Go and... How do you celebrate Shark Week? It's been running since 1987, the brainchild of the Discovery Channel who pack their schedule with relevant programming.

Sharks get a rough time of it from us lot. Some of us are afraid of them, others fascinated, but we're all at least impressed. Some of the best-sellers in the shop are fossil shark teeth, so I owe them a great deal. Sharks are the lions of the sea. Or to avoid any letters of complaint from sealions, maybe sharks are the tigers of the sea. They have been around for a long time and proved themselves thoroughly effective predators but seem to have met their match in humans. Most species of shark face some level of extinction threat - and may be lost within the next few decades at current rates of decline. The process of collecting shark fins for a stupid soup is revolting. I'd suggest that anyone wanting shark fin soup should collect the ingredients themselves, by hand. So - all power to Shark Week if it at least raises awareness a little.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Zuppa di gamberetti

Some Triops cancriformis - horseshoe or tadpole shrimp - have been found in Dumfriesshire. They have remained unchanged for over 200 million years (not these specific individuals) and are thought to be the oldest living species on the planet. They are found across Europe, but are rare and until now had only been found in one locality in the UK - a pond in the New Forest.

In the back of American comics you used to get adverts for Sea Monkeys. As a kid I thought the adverts were really weird and was curious to know exactly what happened. Did one of them really have a crown? A trident? This was before the days of the internet. They are brine shrimp and you can buy a packet with a powder of dried embryos which will hatch out in a tank full of salt water and instantly transform your life into a world of wonder and joy. The 'eggs' can stay in cryptobiosis (ta da!) for as long as fifty years. Anyway - Triops are now sold like this, too. I don't think it's the same species, but probably Triops longicaudatus. In captivity they commonly grow as big as 6-8cm, but in the wild the ones found in Europe and Africa can be up to 11cm. Quite often a kid in the shop asks if the trilobites are fossil Triops. You can see the resemblance.

Triops have both male and female reproductive organs. I don't know where I was going with this, so I'll just stop.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

All aboard

Most people are well aware of the problem some parts of the United States have had with the teaching of Creationism in schools. It hasn't been a big issue here, really. But at the end of June, the Learning Outside the Classroom charity awarded its Quality Badge to a place near Bristol called Noah's Ark Zoo Farm. LOTC offers accreditation to visitor attractions and education centres that provide hands-on learning experiences outside of the school environment and doesn't appear to have any religious associations. The manifesto on their site is clear enough and it's a very positive idea - recommended resources for teachers, and so on.

A brief look through the Noah's Ark Zoo site shows that while they superficially purport to an open-minded approach to scientific education - on subjects like evolution, the origins of life and so on - there is a distinct and overt religious agenda. Were it not for this scientific subject matter and context, I wouldn't have a problem with the LOTC's endorsement. After some concerns were voiced by another accredited organisation, the LOTC remarked that they had also awarded the Quality Badge to a couple of religious groups. This evades the point that other groups were offering religious education rather than addressing matters scientific. Noah's Ark Zoo has a large model of the ark, showing giraffes next to Tyrannosaurus rex. And beside the monkey house is a board with the top ten reasons why monkeys are not like humans. Their website is packed with pages of material written specifically to refute the Theory of Evolution - laying bare the feeble claims of open-mindedness. There are a great many links to sister sites with even more bad science. Essentially, Noah's Ark Zoo is clearly providing a demonstrably inaccurate view of fundamentally (ha ha) important scientific topics. It's teaching WRONG STUFF to kiddywinkies. And that's a BAD THING which should not be encouraged, let alone endorsed by any level of educational establishment.

For the record, I believe there should be some level of religious education in (and in this case - out of) school, but that it should be objective and cover the basics of the history and tenets of the major faiths. It should not stray into areas it has no business.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Open ground

The article on the big Sotheby's fossil auction in Paris in Saturday's Independent had a comment from a conservator at the Natural History Museum in London that I found a little disappointing.

The quote:
"We try not to buy on the commercial market. For a start we have limited funds, but we also don't particularly want to encourage the sale of fossils that may be dug up without the details of the find being recorded, which would mean the loss of important scientific information."

It's not like it's a vitriolic attack on the fossil trade or anything, but I do see this as being a bit negative. There is a long history of commercial fossil collecting and it has always had a vital part to play in the development of science. Mary Anning is a fine example, as is Stan Wood for that matter. For a while there may have been a slight tendency for some in the academic world to regard fossil dealers as a necessary evil, or even an outright threat to scientific discovery, but this opinion has generally waned and the benefits of working with the trade is mostly acknowledged now.

The provision of material by professional collectors ensures a steady supply of new finds, and at a time when most museums are under considerable financial pressure it makes no sense to discourage this. Although Mrs Cornish points out that the NHM has limited funds, it still enjoys a more privileged position in this regard than the majority of museums with geological collections. Most bodies would find it difficult to raise money for fossil-collecting expeditions and even if they could, there's no guarantee of finding anything of great value. In most circumstances it makes financial and practical sense to get the pick of the material from the trade. Most collectors will make sure the important finds go to science for sensible sums and plenty donate material that is of interest.

My main point, I suppose, is that it is unfair to assume professional collectors will gather their material in a careless manner, ignorant of best practice. Clearly there will always be examples of geological vandalism and theft, but this will be almost impossible to eradicate. I would have thought it would be far more beneficial to actively encourage 'proper' collecting. It's great that museums foster relationships with local amateur collectors, but this might well be extended to professionals. The relatively recent publication of the Scottish Fossil Code by Scottish Natural Heritage was the result of a lengthy consultation with representatives of all aspects of palaeontology. Amateur collectors, commercial collectors, dealers and academics were all asked for their views. The outcome was refreshingly positive - encouraging people to go out and look for fossils using the guidelines set out clearly in the code. This can help ensure the preservation of the vital geological information. Ultimately, if nobody goes out and digs it up, nobody gets to see it, study it, learn from it. And it's lost.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The fossils belonging to Mr Wood

I am Mr Dale. I am often asked if I am Mr Wood. I am not, but there is one. Stan Wood started the business and is a famous fossil hunter. I am also often asked if I am Mr Woods. I am not. There is one - my friend Mark, a sports journalist. Once or twice, people have asked if I am Mr Woods-Fossils. I am not and there isn't one of those. Oh - and once somebody thought we were a shop that only sold fossil wood. Mr Wood Fossil, like Mr Carpet or something. I'm one of those people that get a little annoyed by the misuse of apostrophes and so on. Doesn't mean I don't make mistakes, but the simple things like a basket of carrot's grate*. So. While technically these are now Mr Dale's Fossils, I didn't really consider changing the name of the shop when I bought it from Stan. I like the name and it would be throwing away the established reputation needlessly. Plus the association with Stan is something I don't want the business to lose.

Now and then people come in and tell me that they, too, are a Wood or Woods. I think more as comment on what they presumably see as a very minor coincidence rather than an attempt to claim the shop's stock as their own. A few weeks ago, though, a couple came in and straight to the counter.

"Are you Mr Woods?"
"No - there is a Mr Wood, but I'm..."
"It's just that we are called Woods, aren't we Dave?"
Dave confirmed this.
"Isn't that hilarious? We're called Woods and this shop is Mr Wood's Fossils. Isn't that amazing?"
"Er. Well..."
"Lovely shop. Goodbye Mr Woods."

* I know this is rubbish.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Wet monkey

Yet another fossil monkey find; this time in an underwater cave in the Dominican Republic. The Hispaniola monkey, Antillothrix bernensis, was found last year by scuba divers and is thought to have been pushed to extinction in the 16th Century after the arrival of the Europeans to the Caribbean. It's not an 'old' fossil, possibly from about 3,000 years ago, but does offer a bit more of a clue to the morphology of the animal -very few examples have been found.

Everybody seems to be finding fossil monkeys everywhere and I have found none. NONE. How is this fair? I might have to close the shop this afternoon and have a good look around the Grassmarket.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Sandy monkey

A fossil hunting group from the University of Michigan was looking for whale material in Saudi Arabia when they found a partial skull of an early primate. The paper, published yesterday in Nature, reveals the dating at around 29 million years old and at a time when key evolutionary steps were being taken by our monkey ancestors. This date is only based on accurate datings of nearby finds, though, and the new material has yet to be properly dated. Saadanius hijazensis would have lived in mangrove swamps and been around the size of a baboon. From wounds found on the skull, it looks like it met an unfortunate, bitey-headed end.

The exact dating might yet prove a bit of an issue. Some reporting on the topic has suggested the find brings forward the times of divergences to Old World monkeys and apes from genetic evidence, but this seems difficult to support to me. Firstly, this is one find and more sampling is needed before enough is known about the animal to be clearer about its position on the 'tree'. Secondly, there is no defined time boundary where every living primate suddenly pings into a new species - its a gradual process and in many instances more primitive groups will co-exist with those more developed for considerable periods of time. At the very least, it's a great insight into the facial features of a primate from an important period of their development. Hopefully, a specific expedition for this site will be carried out soon, more examples will be found and a better reconstruction can be made. The finder, Iyad Zalmout, had to leave the skull where he found it for a few days as he had a tight schedule looking for other material. He was worried it might get stamped on by a goat. It wasn't.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Open, close, open

Back to work after the longest break I've had in years. It always takes me a couple of days to get back into the swing of it, and today's downpour has helpfully cut down customer numbers to a slow trickle. For a few years we've opened the shop on Sundays during the Festival and the Christmas run-up, but found that through the rest of the year it's not really worthwhile. This is the third year of Sundays in July and so far it's more or less worked out.

Yesterday the shop was shut as Riley had a trip for his doctorate and I was still driving North from the ferry. I've been very lucky so far, keeping the shop open at all times with only one other staff member, so I don't mind one day too much. Hopefully nobody travelled a long way to find the locked door, but it was unavoidable - I asked around friends but a Tuesday is not as easy to cover as a Saturday. Apologies if you came down.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Thar she bites

A whale with enormous teeth has been found in the Pisco-Ica desert of Southern Peru. Named Leviathan melvillei, after the Moby Dick author, its estimated length was 14-17.5m, roughly the same as today's sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, though fully grown male sperm whales can reach over 20m. The find was made in November 2008 by Klaas Post, from Rotterdam Natural History Museum, who was with a mixed group of museum and university palaeontologists led by The NHM of Paris.

The site would have been a shallow lagoon between 12-13 million years ago and remains were also found of baleen whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and seals. Although the researchers think the animal may have resembled Physeter in size and appearance, the Leviathan had teeth in both upper and lower jaws - the sperm whale has lower teeth only. This suggests melvillei may have behaved more along the lines of an orca, preying on seals, large fish and even baleen whales. It's the teeth that are the most interesting aspect of the find. When first found, it was thought the teeth might be elephant tusks. On the 2008 expedition a near-complete skull was found, 3m long, as well as a jaw and some loose teeth. These are 12cm in diameter and up to 36cm long, dwarfing those of modern toothed whales.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Into the valley

I leave for the Euromineral show in Sainte-Marie aux Mines, Alsace tomorrow morning. It's the smaller of the two shows I regularly go to, but cheaper and offers a few different dealers. It's not exactly tiny - there are around 900 dealers and over 20,000 visitors. The setting is refreshingly green after the desert of Tucson, too. It's close to the German and Swiss borders, in an area famous for its wines, and every little village has its own vineyards. If I wasn't working so hard, I might be able to go around a few and try some. And nearby is Montagne des Singes - Monkey Mountain. This is as great as it sounds - a fenced-off hilltop full of Barbary macaques. I've probably mentioned this before, but it's worth bringing it up again. There are also a lot of storks flapping around. Storks are good.

Sainte-Marie aux Mines was a silver mining town and Euromineral has its origins in a local mining exhibition in 1962, which developed into a regular event and then a small scale trade show after only four years. It has grown steadily ever since, and now takes over the town for around a week as the streets are closed and tents put up. The locals put up with a lot of noise and mess for a while, but the town does well from it and everyone is generally made very welcome.

I used to camp in one of the town's two campsites but prices rose, amenities declined and I gave up a few years ago. Now I stay with a group of friends in an organic cider farm a few miles away. Lovely place, but can get busy with mosquitoes. Riley will be running the shop while I'm away.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bigmouth strikes again

I love animals, but for the most part I'm not that bothered by birds. Birds of prey are generally a bit more interesting, with their air of arrogant menace. I appreciate the beauty of feather patterns and colours. The mechanics of flight are fascinating. Chicken sandwiches are nice. And so on. For me, though, the most interesting thing about birds are their origins. These things are what we have left of dinosaurs, and it's easy to overlook that. Take a closer look at an ostrich, for example, and you can start to picture its reptilian ancestry.

All that said, some birds stick out as being worthy of a bit more attention. Pelicans for example. Who doesn't have a soft spot for pelicans? They have been in the news a lot recently for unfortunate, oily reasons, but I saw an article on the BBC site about a fossil pelican that caught my attention. The main point of the article is that the 30 million year-old fossil is pretty much the same as modern species. News! Pelicans stay the same for a long time! It is reasonably newsworthy, though, as changes in most bird morphologies have been considerable in that time. This shows that either the pelican has found the perfect form for its niche or it has reached an equilibrium point where the compromise of flight and flappy-jowled beak has proved difficult to get beyond. Whatever the reason, it looks like the pelican has found a good ecological spot and is sticking with it. Now we just have to stop drenching them in oil.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Biting back

A dig in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya six years ago has thrown some light on the diet of hominids living in that area 1.95 million years ago. A recently published report shows that the site contained butchered remains of at least ten different animals, with a few surprise inclusions. Alongside the bones of small birds, fish and antelope were those of hippos and even crocodile. Seems like these Homo habilis weren't content to play it safe. Must have been quite the feeling for the hero of the hunt to return to camp dragging a crocodile. I would probably have been the guy at the back of the party, shamefully hiding my haul of one sparrow and two trod-on lizards under my matted beard.

The site produced a huge number of bones and the stone tools that were used to prepare the meat and the findings provide a good insight into not only the diet but the habitat of the time. What's now a very hot, dry area would have been considerably wetter back then. It's thought the additional calorific intake provided by increasing the amount of meat in the hominid diet sped development of the brain. That will be my excuse from now on. Researchers think the meat was eaten raw, and it is unknown if there was garnish of any sort. Cooking was an important breakthrough in the story of human evolution.There was a great Horizon programme about it last year, I think. Well worth a look if you can find it.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Shark art

A couple of months ago I commissioned a painting of the shop logo shark, Akmonistion zangerli, from the palaeontological artist Bob Nicholls. He sent me this preliminary sketch (left) before starting work in the middle of May. He finished last week and sent me a picture of the completed work, which should arrive in a couple of days. You can see the picture below. The little fish are Acanthodes, a foot-long spiny shark abundant in the Early Carboniferous.

Akmonistion was found in the early 80s by Stan Wood in the Manse Burn Formation, a 330 million year old series of rocks in Bearsden, Glasgow. The most complete specimen found is in the collection of Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum, who employed Stan as a fossil hunter for a time. There were some truly weird sharks (see Helicoprion) patrolling the
seas of the Carboniferous and Akmonistion was certainly one of them. It was a stethacanthid shark, about the size of a big dogfish, and males had an anvil-shaped brush-like fin crested with little denticles covering the flat surface on top. These spiky, scaly bits were also in a patch on top of its head. A number of suggestions have been put forward for their purpose; display, as a weapon of sorts or even a way of hitching a lift by clamping on to a larger swimmer. Perhaps the most plausible is that they were used much like a stag's antlers, in a battle to prove dominance. Some pieces I have read on them say that only male stethacanthids have been found with the spiky anvil, and in fact only males have been found at all, suggesting that the females have been given another name entirely. It may be that Symmorium, a contemporary and similar shark of which apparently only females have been found, is the girl to the stethacanthid's boy - and consequently the reason behind the strange fin. I'm not sure about this, as I have also read articles about the Bearsden material that suggests both male and female sharks were found - some sexual dimorphism in the number of denticles (and presence of claspers) - but female stethacanthids. I'll need to ask...

Anyway - Bob's work is always great, so it's no surprise that the commission has turned out so well. I'm looking forward to getting it framed and up on the wall.

Friday, 4 June 2010


The brand new all-singing, all-dancing Mr Wood's Fossils site is now live. It's been a long time coming, but it looks great and I'm really pleased with it. Still a couple of little tweaks to be made, but it's up and running.

It's an online shop, with a cart and so on, making it a big step up from the old site. There are links to the blog, the Facebook page and even an RSS feed - and I'm still not entirely sure what that is. Next step is to add a bit more stock to it, and while I have the images for a few more, I'll need another photography session to cover a few more lines. Anyway - take a look by clicking on here.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

What's the time?

Neanderthals in the news again, this time with a story about some tools found in roadworks in Kent. On the face of it, the story itself is an interesting one, with the sediments containing the finds being dated at between 100 and 110 thousand years ago. Significant because Britain is generally thought to have been empty of people - Neanderthal and Homo sapiens - at the time. This was at the start of the last Ice Age and around 40,000 years before the island was supposedly inhabited by hominids again. It's known Neanderthals were nearby in Northern France at this time, and to me it seems unlikely there weren't a few making it over the relatively short stretch of water and ice. Sea levels were fluctuating considerably and there were at least patches of land in what's now the Channel at time between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. They weren't known as seafarers, but the lure of all those tasty mammoth would have been a powerful draw.

The point I'd like to take up, though, is the reservations of others in the scientific community about the accuracy of the dating technique used by the research team. Given that the point of the story here is that the dating of the finds puts Neanderthals in Britain well before it had been thought they'd arrived - it all falls down if the technique used is not scientifically robust. In this case, the team from the University of Southampton and Oxford Archaeology used Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) which measures the length of time since some minerals were exposed to daylight. It can be a useful and reliable dating tool within certain parameters. Some have pointed out that these dates are at - or exceed - the limits of time range of OSL's effective application, which may throw a little doubt over the results obtained.

I have a bit of a personal issue with this topic. Proponents of Young Earth Creationism are keen to attack geological and archaeological dating techniques, and I get to meet a few of them - only now and again - in the shop. It's usually an interesting experience, and usually frustrating. Without wishing to tar them all with the same brush, typically they have the idea that there is a large body of scientists that doubt the efficacy of dating techniques. This is not the case. There are, of course, scientists out there with these beliefs, but they are a tiny minority. Young Earthers seem to think that if they can discredit carbon dating - almost always the only method they have heard about - all of natural science will collapse and people will turn to religion. Presumably theirs.

There are a number of tried and tested approaches used to determine the age of rocks or sediments which produce repeatable results and can very often be cross-checked with more than one technique. Their reliability is not in any doubt when used correctly. So - where a dating method is used with surprising results or in potentially ineffective circumstances it is vital that the evidence and outcomes are examined more critically than ever. The scientific process relies on impartial observation and careful peer review. It's worth being as sure as you can be, and worth admitting when you aren't.