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.