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.