The Ice Age (II)

I really liked the book, recommended if you’re at all interested in this kind of stuff. Below some observations from the book’s second half, and some related links:

“Charles MacLaren, writing in 1842, […] argued that the formation of large ice sheets would result in a fall in sea level as water was taken from the oceans and stored frozen on the land. This insight triggered a new branch of ice age research – sea level change. This topic can get rather complicated because as ice sheets grow, global sea level falls. This is known as eustatic sea level change. As ice sheets increase in size, their weight depresses the crust and relative sea level will rise. This is known as isostatic sea level change. […] It is often quite tricky to differentiate between regional-scale isostatic factors and the global-scale eustatic sea level control.”

“By the late 1870s […] glacial geology had become a serious scholarly pursuit with a rapidly growing literature. […] [In the late 1880s] Carvill Lewis […] put forward the radical suggestion that the [sea] shells at Moel Tryfan and other elevated localities (which provided the most important evidence for the great marine submergence of Britain) were not in situ. Building on the earlier suggestions of Thomas Belt (1832–78) and James Croll, he argued that these materials had been dredged from the sea bed by glacial ice and pushed upslope so that ‘they afford no testimony to the former subsidence of the land’. Together, his recognition of terminal moraines and the reworking of marine shells undermined the key pillars of Lyell’s great marine submergence. This was a crucial step in establishing the primacy of glacial ice over icebergs in the deposition of the drift in Britain. […] By the end of the 1880s, it was the glacial dissenters who formed the eccentric minority. […] In the period leading up to World War One, there was [instead] much debate about whether the ice age involved a single phase of ice sheet growth and freezing climate (the monoglacial theory) or several phases of ice sheet build up and decay separated by warm interglacials (the polyglacial theory).”

“As the Earth rotates about its axis travelling through space in its orbit around the Sun, there are three components that change over time in elegant cycles that are entirely predictable. These are known as eccentricity, precession, and obliquity or ‘stretch, wobble, and roll’ […]. These orbital perturbations are caused by the gravitational pull of the other planets in our Solar System, especially Jupiter. Milankovitch calculated how each of these orbital cycles influenced the amount of solar radiation received at different latitudes over time. These are known as Milankovitch Cycles or Croll–Milankovitch Cycles to reflect the important contribution made by both men. […] The shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not constant. It changes from an almost circular orbit to one that is mildly elliptical (a slightly stretched circle) […]. This orbital eccentricity operates over a 400,000- and 100,000-year cycle. […] Changes in eccentricity have a relatively minor influence on the total amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth, but they are important for the climate system because they modulate the influence of the precession cycle […]. When eccentricity is high, for example, axial precession has a greater impact on seasonality. […] The Earth is currently tilted at an angle of 23.4° to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Astronomers refer to this axial tilt as obliquity. This angle is not fixed. It rolls back and forth over a 41,000-year cycle from a tilt of 22.1° to 24.5° and back again […]. Even small changes in tilt can modify the strength of the seasons. With a greater angle of tilt, for example, we can have hotter summers and colder winters. […] Cooler, reduced insolation summers are thought to be a key factor in the initiation of ice sheet growth in the middle and high latitudes because they allow more snow to survive the summer melt season. Slightly warmer winters may also favour ice sheet build-up as greater evaporation from a warmer ocean will increase snowfall over the centres of ice sheet growth. […] The Earth’s axis of rotation is not fixed. It wobbles like a spinning top slowing down. This wobble traces a circle on the celestial sphere […]. At present the Earth’s rotational axis points toward Polaris (the current northern pole star) but in 11,000 years it will point towards another star, Vega. This slow circling motion is known as axial precession and it has important impacts on the Earth’s climate by causing the solstices and equinoxes to move around the Earth’s orbit. In other words, the seasons shift over time. Precession operates over a 19,000- and 23,000-year cycle. This cycle is often referred to as the Precession of the Equinoxes.”

The albedo of a surface is a measure of its ability to reflect solar energy. Darker surfaces tend to absorb most of the incoming solar energy and have low albedos. The albedo of the ocean surface in high latitudes is commonly about 10 per cent — in other words, it absorbs 90 per cent of the incoming solar radiation. In contrast, snow, glacial ice, and sea ice have much higher albedos and can reflect between 50 and 90 per cent of incoming solar energy back into the atmosphere. The elevated albedos of bright frozen surfaces are a key feature of the polar radiation budget. Albedo feedback loops are important over a range of spatial and temporal scales. A cooling climate will increase snow cover on land and the extent of sea ice in the oceans. These high albedo surfaces will then reflect more solar radiation to intensify and sustain the cooling trend, resulting in even more snow and sea ice. This positive feedback can play a major role in the expansion of snow and ice cover and in the initiation of a glacial phase. Such positive feedbacks can also work in reverse when a warming phase melts ice and snow to reveal dark and low albedo surfaces such as peaty soil or bedrock.”

“At the end of the Cretaceous, around 65 million years ago (Ma), lush forests thrived in the Polar Regions and ocean temperatures were much warmer than today. This warm phase continued for the next 10 million years, peaking during the Eocene thermal maximum […]. From that time onwards, however, Earth’s climate began a steady cooling that saw the initiation of widespread glacial conditions, first in Antarctica between 40 and 30 Ma, in Greenland between 20 and 15 Ma, and then in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere around 2.5 Ma. […] Over the past 55 million years, a succession of processes driven by tectonics combined to cool our planet. It is difficult to isolate their individual contributions or to be sure about the details of cause and effect over this long period, especially when there are uncertainties in dating and when one considers the complexity of the climate system with its web of internal feedbacks.” [Potential causes which have been highlighted include: The uplift of the Himalayas (leading to increased weathering, leading over geological time to an increased amount of CO2 being sequestered in calcium carbonate deposited on the ocean floor, lowering atmospheric CO2 levels), the isolation of Antarctica which created the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (leading to a cooling of Antarctica), the dry-out of the Mediterranean Sea ~5mya (which significantly lowered salt concentrations in the World Ocean, meaning that sea water froze at a higher temperature), and the formation of the Isthmus of Panama. – US].

“[F]or most of the last 1 million years, large ice sheets were present in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere and sea levels were lower than today. Indeed, ‘average conditions’ for the Quaternary Period involve much more ice than present. The interglacial peaks — such as the present Holocene interglacial, with its ice volume minima and high sea level — are the exception rather than the norm. The sea level maximum of the Last Interglacial (MIS 5) is higher than today. It also shows that cold glacial stages (c.80,000 years duration) are much longer than interglacials (c.15,000 years). […] Arctic willow […], the northernmost woody plant on Earth, is found in central European pollen records from the last glacial stage. […] For most of the Quaternary deciduous forests have been absent from most of Europe. […] the interglacial forests of temperate Europe that are so familiar to us today are, in fact, rather atypical when we consider the long view of Quaternary time. Furthermore, if the last glacial period is representative of earlier ones, for much of the Quaternary terrestrial ecosystems were continuously adjusting to a shifting climate.”

“Greenland ice cores typically have very clear banding […] that corresponds to individual years of snow accumulation. This is because the snow that falls in summer under the permanent Arctic sun differs in texture to the snow that falls in winter. The distinctive paired layers can be counted like tree rings to produce a finely resolved chronology with annual and even seasonal resolution. […] Ice accumulation is generally much slower in Antarctica, so the ice core record takes us much further back in time. […] As layers of snow become compacted into ice, air bubbles recording the composition of the atmosphere are sealed in discrete layers. This fossil air can be recovered to establish the changing concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). The ice core record therefore allows climate scientists to explore the processes involved in climate variability over very long timescales. […] By sampling each layer of ice and measuring its oxygen isotope composition, Dansgaard produced an annual record of air temperature for the last 100,000 years. […] Perhaps the most startling outcome of this work was the demonstration that global climate could change extremely rapidly. Dansgaard showed that dramatic shifts in mean air temperature (>10°C) had taken place in less than a decade. These findings were greeted with scepticism and there was much debate about the integrity of the Greenland record, but subsequent work from other drilling sites vindicated all of Dansgaard’s findings. […] The ice core records from Greenland reveal a remarkable sequence of abrupt warming and cooling cycles within the last glacial stage. These are known as Dansgaard–Oeschger (D–O) cycles. […] [A] series of D–O cycles between 65,000 and 10,000 years ago [caused] mean annual air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet [to be] shifted by as much as 10°C. Twenty-five of these rapid warming events have been identified during the last glacial period. This discovery dispelled the long held notion that glacials were lengthy periods of stable and unremitting cold climate. The ice core record shows very clearly that even the glacial climate flipped back and forth. […] D–O cycles commence with a very rapid warming (between 5 and 10°C) over Greenland followed by a steady cooling […] Deglaciations are rapid because positive feedbacks speed up both the warming trend and ice sheet decay. […] The ice core records heralded a new era in climate science: the study of abrupt climate change. Most sedimentary records of ice age climate change yield relatively low resolution information — a thousand years may be packed into a few centimetres of marine or lake sediment. In contrast, ice cores cover every year. They also retain a greater variety of information about the ice age past than any other archive. We can even detect layers of volcanic ash in the ice and pinpoint the date of ancient eruptions.”

“There are strong thermal gradients in both hemispheres because the low latitudes receive the most solar energy and the poles the least. To redress these imbalances the atmosphere and oceans move heat polewards — this is the basis of the climate system. In the North Atlantic a powerful surface current takes warmth from the tropics to higher latitudes: this is the famous Gulf Stream and its northeastern extension the North Atlantic Drift. Two main forces drive this current: the strong southwesterly winds and the return flow of colder, saltier water known as North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW). The surface current loses much of its heat to air masses that give maritime Europe a moist, temperate climate. Evaporative cooling also increases its salinity so that it begins to sink. As the dense and cold water sinks to the deep ocean to form NADW, it exerts a strong pull on the surface currents to maintain the cycle. It returns south at depths >2,000 m. […] The thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic was periodically interrupted during Heinrich Events when vast discharges of melting icebergs cooled the ocean surface and reduced its salinity. This shut down the formation of NADW and suppressed the Gulf Stream.”


Archibald Geikie.
Andrew Ramsay (geologist).
Albrecht Penck. Eduard BrücknerGunz glaciation. Mindel glaciation. Riss glaciation. Würm.
Perihelion and aphelion.
Deep Sea Drilling Project.
δ18O. Isotope fractionation.
Marine isotope stage.
Cesare Emiliani.
Nicholas Shackleton.
Brunhes–Matuyama reversal. Geomagnetic reversal. Magnetostratigraphy.
Climate: Long range Investigation, Mapping, and Prediction (CLIMAP).
Uranium–thorium dating. Luminescence dating. Optically stimulated luminescence. Cosmogenic isotope dating.
The role of orbital forcing in the Early-Middle Pleistocene Transition (paper).
European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA).
Younger Dryas.
Lake Agassiz.
Greenland ice core project (GRIP).
J Harlen Bretz. Missoula Floods.
Pleistocene megafauna.


February 25, 2018 Posted by | Astronomy, Engineering, Geology, History, Paleontology, Physics | Leave a comment

The Ice Age (I)

I’m currently reading this book. Some observations and links related to the first half of the book below:

“It is important to appreciate from the outset that the Quaternary ice age was not one long episode of unremitting cold climate. […] By exploring the landforms, sediments, and fossils of the Quaternary Period we can identify glacials: periods of severe cold climate when great ice sheets formed in the high middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere and glaciers and ice caps advanced in mountain regions around the world. We can also recognize periods of warm climate known as interglacials when mean air temperatures in the middle latitudes were comparable to, and sometimes higher than, those of the present. As the climate shifted from glacial to interglacial mode, the large ice sheets of Eurasia and North America retreated allowing forest biomes to re-colonize the ice free landscapes. It is also important to recognize that the ice age isn’t just about advancing and retreating ice sheets. Major environmental changes also took place in the Mediterranean region and in the tropics. The Sahara, for example, became drier, cooler, and dustier during glacial periods yet early in the present interglacial it was a mosaic of lakes and oases with tracts of lush vegetation. A defining feature of the Quaternary Period is the repeated fluctuation in climate as conditions shifted from glacial to interglacial, and back again, during the course of the last 2.5 million years or so. A key question in ice age research is why does the Earth’s climate system shift so dramatically and so frequently?”

“Today we have large ice masses in the Polar Regions, but a defining feature of the Quaternary is the build-up and decay of continental-scale ice sheets in the high middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere. […] the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets […] covered most of Canada and large tracts of the northern USA during glacial stages. Around 22,000 years ago, when the Laurentide ice sheet reached its maximum extent during the most recent glacial stage, it was considerably larger in both surface area and volume (34.8 million km3) than the present-day East and West Antarctic ice sheets combined (27 million km3). With a major ice dome centred on Hudson Bay greater than 4 km thick, it formed the largest body of ice on Earth. This great mass of ice depressed the crust beneath its bed by many hundreds of metres. Now shed of this burden, the crust is still slowly recovering today at rates of up to 1 cm per year. Glacial ice extended out beyond the 38th parallel across the lowland regions of North America. Chicago, Boston, and New York all lie on thick glacial deposits left by the Laurentide ice sheet. […] With huge volumes of water locked up in the ice sheets, global sea level was about 120 m lower than present at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), exposing large expanses of continental shelf and creating land bridges that allowed humans, animals, and plants to move between continents. Migration from eastern Russia to Alaska, for example, was possible via the Bering land bridge.”

“Large ice sheets also developed in Europe. […] The British Isles lie in an especially sensitive location on the Atlantic fringe of Europe between latitudes 50 and 60° north. Because of this geography, the Quaternary deposits of Britain record especially dramatic shifts in environmental conditions. The most extensive glaciation saw ice sheets extend as far south as the Thames Valley with wide braided rivers charged with meltwater and sediment from the ice margin. Beyond the glacial ice much of southern Britain would have been a treeless, tundra steppe environment with tracts of permanently frozen ground […]. At the LGM […] [t]he Baltic and North Seas were dry land and Britain was connected to mainland Europe. Beyond the British and Scandinavian ice sheets, much of central and northern Europe was a treeless tundra steppe habitat. […] During warm interglacial stages […] [b]road-leaved deciduous woodland with grassland was the dominant vegetation […]. In the warmest parts of interglacials thermophilous […] insects from the Mediterranean were common in Britain whilst the large mammal fauna of the Last Interglacial (c.130,000 to 115,000 years ago) included even more exotic species such as the short tusked elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. In some interglacials, the rivers of southern Britain contained molluscs that now live in the Nile Valley. For much of the Quaternary, however, climate would have been in an intermediate state (either warming or cooling) between these glacial and interglacial extremes.”

“Glaciologists make a distinction between three main types of glacier (valley glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets) on the basis of scale and topographic setting. A glacier is normally constrained by the surrounding topography such as a valley and has a clearly defined source area. An ice cap builds up as a dome-like form on a high plateau or mountain peak and may feed several outlet glaciers to valleys below. Ice sheets notionally exceed 50,000 km2 and are not constrained by topography.”

“We live in unusual times. For more than 90 per cent of its 4.6-billion-year history, Earth has been too warm — even at the poles — for ice sheets to form. Ice ages are not the norm for our planet. Periods of sustained (over several million years) large-scale glaciation can be called glacial epochs. Tillites in the geological record tells us that the Quaternary ice age is just one of at least six great glacial epochs that have taken place over the last three billion years or so […]. The Quaternary itself is the culmination of a much longer glacial epoch that began around 35 million years ago (Ma) when glaciers and ice sheets first formed in Antarctica. This is known as the Cenozoic glacial epoch. There is still much to learn about these ancient glacial epochs, especially the so-called Snowball Earth states of the Precambrian (before 542 Ma) when the boundary conditions for the global climate system were so different to those of today. […] This book is concerned with the Quaternary ice age – it has the richest and most varied records of environmental change. Because its sediments are so recent they have not been subjected to millions of years of erosion or deep burial and metamorphism. […] in aquatic settings, such as lakes and peat bogs, organic materials such as insects, leaves, and seeds, as well as microfossils such as pollen and fungal spores can be exceptionally well preserved in the fossil record. This allows us to create very detailed pictures of past ecosystems under glacial and interglacial conditions. This field of research is known as Quaternary paeloecology.”

“An erratic […] is a piece of rock that has been transported from its place of origin. […] Many erratics stand out because they lie on bedrock that is very different to their source. […] Erratics are normally associated with transport by glaciers or ice sheets, but in the early 19th century mechanisms such as the great deluge or rafting on icebergs were commonly invoked. […] Enormous erratic boulders […] were well known to 18th- and 19th-centery geologists. […] Their origin was a source of lively and protracted debate […] Early observers of Alpine glaciers had noted the presence of large boulders on the surface of active glaciers or forming part of the debris pile at the glacier snout. These were readily explainable, but erratic boulders had long been noted in locations that defied rational explanations. The erratics found at elevations far above their known sources, and in places such as Britain where glaciers were absent, were especially problematic for early students of landscape history. […] A huge deluge […] was commonly invoked to explain the disposition of such boulders and many saw them as more hard evidence in support of the Biblical flood. […] At this time, the Church of England held a strong influence over much of higher education and especially so in Cambridge and Oxford.”

Venetz [in the early 19th century] produced remarkably detailed topographic maps of lateral and terminal moraines that lay far down valley of the modern glaciers. He was able to show that many glaciers had advanced and retreated in the historical period. His was the first systematic analysis of climate-glacier-landscape interactions. […] In 1821, Venetz presented his findings to the Société Helvétiques des Sciences Naturelles, setting out Perraudin’s ideas alongside his own. The paper had little impact, however, and would not see publication until 1833. […] Jean de Charpentier [in his work] paid particular attention to the disposition of large erratic blocks and the occurrence of polished and striated bedrock surfaces in the deep valleys of western Switzerland. A major step forward was Charpentier’s recognition of a clear relationship between the elevation of the erratic blocks in the Rhône Valley and the vertical extent of glacially smoothed rock walls. He noted that the bedrock valley sides above the erratic blocks were not worn smooth because they must have been above the level of the ancient glacier surface. The rock walls below the erratics always bore the hallmarks of contact with glacial ice. We call this boundary the trimline. It is often clearly marked in hard bedrock because the texture of the valley sides above the glacier surface is fractured due to attack by frost weathering. The detachment of rock particles above the trimline adds debris to lateral moraines and the glacier surface. These insights allowed Charpentier to reconstruct the vertical extent of former glaciers for the first time. Venetz and Perraudin had already shown how to demarcate the length and width of glaciers using the terminal and lateral moraines in these valleys. Charpentier described some of the most striking erratic boulders in the Alps […]. As Charpentier mapped the giant erratics, polished bedrock surfaces, and moraines in the Rhône Valley, it became clear to him that the valley must once have been occupied by a truly enormous glacier or ‘glacier-monstre’ as he called it. […] In 1836, Charpentier published a key paper setting out the main findings of their [his and Venetz’] glacial work”.

“Even before Charpentier was thinking about large ice masses in Switzerland, Jens Esmark (1763-1839) […] had suggested that northern European glaciers had been much more extensive in the past and were responsible for the transport of large erratic boulders and the formation of moraines. Esmark also recognized the key role of deep bedrock erosion by glacial ice in the formation of the spectacular Norwegian fjords. He worked out that glaciers in Norway had once extended down to sea level. Esmark’s ideas were […] translated into English and published […] in 1826, a decade in advance of Charpentier’s paper. Esmark discussed a large body of evidence pointing to an extensive glaciation of northern Europe. […] his thinking was far in advance of his contemporaries […] Unfortunately, even Esmark’s carefully argued paper held little sway in Britain and elsewhere […] it would be many decades before there was general acceptance within the geological community that glaciers could spread out across low gradient landscapes. […] in the lecture theatres and academic societies of Paris, Berlin, and London, the geological establishment was slow to take up these ideas, even though they were published in both English and French and were widely available. Much of the debate in the 1820s and early 1830s centred on the controversy over the evolution of valleys between the fluvialists (Hutton, Playfair, and others), who advocated slow river erosion, and the diluvialists (Buckland, De la Beche, and others) who argued that big valleys and large boulders needed huge deluges. The role of glaciers in valley and fjord formation was not considered. […] The key elements of a glacial theory were in place but nobody was listening. […] It would be decades before a majority accepted that vast tracts of Eurasia and North America had once been covered by mighty ice sheets.”

“Most geologists in 1840 saw Agassiz’s great ice sheet as a retrograde step. It was just too catastrophist — a blatant violation of hard-won uniformitarian principles. It was the antithesis of the new rational geology and was not underpinned by carefully assembled field data. So, for many, as an explanation for the superficial deposits of the Quaternary, it was no more convincing than the deluge. […] Ancient climates were [also] supposed to be warmer not colder. The suggestion of a freezing glacial epoch in the recent geological past, followed by the temperate climate of the present, still jarred with the conventional wisdom that Earth history, from its juvenile molten state to the present, was an uninterrupted record of long-term cooling without abrupt change. Lyell’s drift ice theory [according to which erratics (and till) had been transported by icebergs drifting in water, instead of glaciers transporting the material over land – US] also provided an attractive alternative to Agassiz’s ice age because it did not demand a period of cold glacial climate in areas that now enjoy temperate conditions. […] If anything, the 1840 sessions at the Geological Society had galvanized support for floating ice as a mechanism for drift deposition in the lowlands. Lyell’s model proved to be remarkably resilient—its popularity proved to be the major obstacle to the wider adoption of the land ice theory. […] many refused to believe that glacier ice could advance across gently sloping lowland terrain. This was a reasonable objection at this time since the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica had not yet been investigated from a glaciological point of view. It is not difficult to understand why many British geologists rejected the glacial theory when the proximity and potency of the sea was so obvious and nobody knew how large ice sheets behaved.”

Hitchcock […] was one of the first Americans to publicly embrace Agassiz’s ideas […] but he later stepped back from a full endorsement, leaving a role for floating ice. This hesitant beginning set the tone for the next few decades in North America as its geologists began to debate whether they could see the work of ice sheets or icebergs. There was a particularly strong tradition of scriptural geology in 19th-century North America. Its practitioners attempted to reconcile their field observations with the Bible and there were often close links with like-minded souls in Britain. […] If the standing of Lyell extended the useful lifespan of the iceberg theory, it was gradually worn down by a growing body of field evidence from Europe and North America that pointed to the action of glacier ice. […] The continental glacial theory prevailed in North America because it provided a much better explanation for the vast majority of the features recorded in the landscape. The striking regularity and fixed alignment of many features could not be the work of icebergs whose wanderings were governed by winds and ocean currents. The southern limit of the glacial deposits is often marked by pronounced ridges in an otherwise low-relief landscape. These end moraines mark the edge of the former ice sheet and they cannot be formed by floating ice. It took a long time to put all the pieces of evidence together in North America because of the vast scale of the territory to be mapped. Once the patterns of erratic dispersal, large-scale scratching of bedrock, terminal moraines, drumlin fields, and other features were mapped, their systematic arrangement argued strongly against the agency of drifting ice. Unlike their counterparts in Britain, who were never very far from the sea, geologists working deep in the continental interior of North America found it much easier to dismiss the idea of a great marine submergence. Furthermore, icebergs just did not transport enough sediment to account for the enormous extent and great thickness of the Quaternary deposits. It was also realized that icebergs were just not capable of planing off hard bedrock to create plateau surfaces. Neither were they able to polish, scratch, or cut deep grooves into ancient bedrock. All these features pointed to the action of land-based glacial ice. Slowly, but surely, the reality of vast expanses of glacier ice covering much of Canada and the northern states of the USA became apparent.”


The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy.
William Boyd Dawkins.
Adams mammoth.
Georges Cuvier.
Cirque (geology). Arête. Tarn. Moraine. Drumlin. Till/Tillite. Glacier morphology.
James Hutton.
William Buckland.
Charles Lyell.
Giétro Glacier.
Cwm Idwal.
Timothy Abbott Conrad. Charles Whittlesey. James Dwight Dana.

February 23, 2018 Posted by | Books, Ecology, Geography, Geology, History, Paleontology | Leave a comment

Lakes (I)

“The aim of this book is to provide a condensed overview of scientific knowledge about lakes, their functioning as ecosystems that we are part of and depend upon, and their responses to environmental change. […] Each chapter briefly introduces concepts about the physical, chemical, and biological nature of lakes, with emphasis on how these aspects are connected, the relationships with human needs and impacts, and the implications of our changing global environment.”

I’m currently reading this book and I really like it so far. I have added some observations from the first half of the book and some coverage-related links below.

“High resolution satellites can readily detect lakes above 0.002 kilometres square (km2) in area; that’s equivalent to a circular waterbody some 50m across. Using this criterion, researchers estimate from satellite images that the world contains 117 million lakes, with a total surface area amounting to 5 million km2. […] continuous accumulation of materials on the lake floor, both from inflows and from the production of organic matter within the lake, means that lakes are ephemeral features of the landscape, and from the moment of their creation onwards, they begin to fill in and gradually disappear. The world’s deepest and most ancient freshwater ecosystem, Lake Baikal in Russia (Siberia), is a compelling example: it has a maximum depth of 1,642m, but its waters overlie a much deeper basin that over the twenty-five million years of its geological history has become filled with some 7,000m of sediments. Lakes are created in a great variety of ways: tectonic basins formed by movements in the Earth’s crust, the scouring and residual ice effects of glaciers, as well as fluvial, volcanic, riverine, meteorite impacts, and many other processes, including human construction of ponds and reservoirs. Tectonic basins may result from a single fault […] or from a series of intersecting fault lines. […] The oldest and deepest lakes in the world are generally of tectonic origin, and their persistence through time has allowed the evolution of endemic plants and animals; that is, species that are found only at those sites.”

“In terms of total numbers, most of the world’s lakes […] owe their origins to glaciers that during the last ice age gouged out basins in the rock and deepened river valleys. […] As the glaciers retreated, their terminal moraines (accumulations of gravel and sediments) created dams in the landscape, raising water levels or producing new lakes. […] During glacial retreat in many areas of the world, large blocks of glacial ice broke off and were left behind in the moraines. These subsequently melted out to produce basins that filled with water, called ‘kettle’ or ‘pothole’ lakes. Such waterbodies are well known across the plains of North America and Eurasia. […] The most violent of lake births are the result of volcanoes. The craters left behind after a volcanic eruption can fill with water to form small, often circular-shaped and acidic lakes. […] Much larger lakes are formed by the collapse of a magma chamber after eruption to produce caldera lakes. […] Craters formed by meteorite impacts also provide basins for lakes, and have proved to be of great scientific as well as human interest. […] There was a time when limnologists paid little attention to small lakes and ponds, but, this has changed with the realization that although such waterbodies are modest in size, they are extremely abundant throughout the world and make up a large total surface area. Furthermore, these smaller waterbodies often have high rates of chemical activity such as greenhouse gas production and nutrient cycling, and they are major habitats for diverse plants and animals”.

“For Forel, the science of lakes could be subdivided into different disciplines and subjects, all of which continue to occupy the attention of freshwater scientists today […]. First, the physical environment of a lake includes its geological origins and setting, the water balance and exchange of heat with the atmosphere, as well as the penetration of light, the changes in temperature with depth, and the waves, currents, and mixing processes that collectively determine the movement of water. Second, the chemical environment is important because lake waters contain a great variety of dissolved materials (‘solutes’) and particles that play essential roles in the functioning of the ecosystem. Third, the biological features of a lake include not only the individual species of plants, microbes, and animals, but also their organization into food webs, and the distribution and functioning of these communities across the bottom of the lake and in the overlying water.”

“In the simplest hydrological terms, lakes can be thought of as tanks of water in the landscape that are continuously topped up by their inflowing rivers, while spilling excess water via their outflow […]. Based on this model, we can pose the interesting question: how long does the average water molecule stay in the lake before leaving at the outflow? This value is referred to as the water residence time, and it can be simply calculated as the total volume of the lake divided by the water discharge at the outlet. This lake parameter is also referred to as the ‘flushing time’ (or ‘flushing rate’, if expressed as a proportion of the lake volume discharged per unit of time) because it provides an estimate of how fast mineral salts and pollutants can be flushed out of the lake basin. In general, lakes with a short flushing time are more resilient to the impacts of human activities in their catchments […] Each lake has its own particular combination of catchment size, volume, and climate, and this translates into a water residence time that varies enormously among lakes [from perhaps a month to more than a thousand years, US] […] A more accurate approach towards calculating the water residence time is to consider the question: if the lake were to be pumped dry, how long would it take to fill it up again? For most lakes, this will give a similar value to the outflow calculation, but for lakes where evaporation is a major part of the water balance, the residence time will be much shorter.”

“Each year, mineral and organic particles are deposited by wind on the lake surface and are washed in from the catchment, while organic matter is produced within the lake by aquatic plants and plankton. There is a continuous rain of this material downwards, ultimately accumulating as an annual layer of sediment on the lake floor. These lake sediments are storehouses of information about past changes in the surrounding catchment, and they provide a long-term memory of how the limnology of a lake has responded to those changes. The analysis of these natural archives is called ‘palaeolimnology’ (or ‘palaeoceanography’ for marine studies), and this branch of the aquatic sciences has yielded enormous insights into how lakes change through time, including the onset, effects, and abatement of pollution; changes in vegetation both within and outside the lake; and alterations in regional and global climate.”

“Sampling for palaeolimnological analysis is typically undertaken in the deepest waters to provide a more integrated and complete picture of the lake basin history. This is also usually the part of the lake where sediment accumulation has been greatest, and where the disrupting activities of bottom-dwelling animals (‘bioturbation’ of the sediments) may be reduced or absent. […] Some of the most informative microfossils to be found in lake sediments are diatoms, an algal group that has cell walls (‘frustules’) made of silica glass that resist decomposition. Each lake typically contains dozens to hundreds of different diatom species, each with its own characteristic set of environmental preferences […]. A widely adopted approach is to sample many lakes and establish a statistical relationship or ‘transfer function’ between diatom species composition (often by analysis of surface sediments) and a lake water variable such as temperature, pH, phosphorus, or dissolved organic carbon. This quantitative species–environment relationship can then be applied to the fossilized diatom species assemblage in each stratum of a sediment core from a lake in the same region, and in this way the physical and chemical fluctuations that the lake has experienced in the past can be reconstructed or ‘hindcast’ year-by-year. Other fossil indicators of past environmental change include algal pigments, DNA of algae and bacteria including toxic bloom species, and the remains of aquatic animals such as ostracods, cladocerans, and larval insects.”

“In lake and ocean studies, the penetration of sunlight into the water can be […] precisely measured with an underwater light meter (submersible radiometer), and such measurements always show that the decline with depth follows a sharp curve rather than a straight line […]. This is because the fate of sunlight streaming downwards in water is dictated by the probability of the photons being absorbed or deflected out of the light path; for example, a 50 per cent probability of photons being lost from the light beam by these processes per metre depth in a lake would result in sunlight values dropping from 100 per cent at the surface to 50 per cent at 1m, 25 per cent at 2m, 12.5 per cent at 3m, and so on. The resulting exponential curve means that for all but the clearest of lakes, there is only enough solar energy for plants, including photosynthetic cells in the plankton (phytoplankton), in the upper part of the water column. […] The depth limit for underwater photosynthesis or primary production is known as the ‘compensation depth‘. This is the depth at which carbon fixed by photosynthesis exactly balances the carbon lost by cellular respiration, so the overall production of new biomass (net primary production) is zero. This depth often corresponds to an underwater light level of 1 per cent of the sunlight just beneath the water surface […] The production of biomass by photosynthesis takes place at all depths above this level, and this zone is referred to as the ‘photic’ zone. […] biological processes in [the] ‘aphotic zone’ are mostly limited to feeding and decomposition. A Secchi disk measurement can be used as a rough guide to the extent of the photic zone: in general, the 1 per cent light level is about twice the Secchi depth.”

“[W]ater colour is now used in […] many powerful ways to track changes in water quality and other properties of lakes, rivers, estuaries, and the ocean. […] Lakes have different colours, hues, and brightness levels as a result of the materials that are dissolved and suspended within them. The purest of lakes are deep blue because the water molecules themselves absorb light in the green and, to a greater extent, red end of the spectrum; they scatter the remaining blue photons in all directions, mostly downwards but also back towards our eyes. […] Algae in the water typically cause it to be green and turbid because their suspended cells and colonies contain chlorophyll and other light-capturing molecules that absorb strongly in the blue and red wavebands, but not green. However there are some notable exceptions. Noxious algal blooms dominated by cyanobacteria are blue-green (cyan) in colour caused by their blue-coloured protein phycocyanin, in addition to chlorophyll.”

“[A]t the largest dimension, at the scale of the entire lake, there has to be a net flow from the inflowing rivers to the outflow, and […] from this landscape perspective, lakes might be thought of as enlarged rivers. Of course, this riverine flow is constantly disrupted by wind-induced movements of the water. When the wind blows across the surface, it drags the surface water with it to generate a downwind flow, and this has to be balanced by a return movement of water at depth. […] In large lakes, the rotation of the Earth has plenty of time to exert its weak effect as the water moves from one side of the lake to the other. As a result, the surface water no longer flows in a straight line, but rather is directed into two or more circular patterns or gyres that can move nearshore water masses rapidly into the centre of the lake and vice-versa. Gyres can therefore be of great consequence […] Unrelated to the Coriolis Effect, the interaction between wind-induced currents and the shoreline can also cause water to flow in circular, individual gyres, even in smaller lakes. […] At a much smaller scale, the blowing of wind across a lake can give rise to downward spiral motions in the water, called ‘Langmuir cells‘. […] These circulation features are commonly observed in lakes, where the spirals progressing in the general direction of the wind concentrate foam (on days of white-cap waves) or glossy, oily materials (on less windy days) into regularly spaced lines that are parallel to the direction of the wind. […] Density currents must also be included in this brief discussion of water movement […] Cold river water entering a warm lake will be denser than its surroundings and therefore sinks to the buttom, where it may continue to flow for considerable distances. […] Density currents contribute greatly to inshore-offshore exchanges of water, with potential effects on primary productivity, depp-water oxygenation, and the dispersion of pollutants.”


Drainage basin.
Lake Geneva. Lake Malawi. Lake Tanganyika. Lake Victoria. Lake Biwa. Lake Titicaca.
English Lake District.
Proglacial lakeLake Agassiz. Lake Ojibway.
Lake Taupo.
Manicouagan Reservoir.
Subglacial lake.
Thermokarst (-lake).
Bathymetry. Bathymetric chart. Hypsographic curve.
Várzea forest.
Lake Chad.
Colored dissolved organic matter.
H2O Temperature-density relationship. Thermocline. Epilimnion. Hypolimnion. Monomictic lake. Dimictic lake. Lake stratification.
Capillary wave. Gravity wave. Seiche. Kelvin wave. Poincaré wave.
Benthic boundary layer.
Kelvin–Helmholtz instability.

January 22, 2018 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Paleontology, Physics | Leave a comment

Earth System Science

I decided not to rate this book. Some parts are great, some parts I didn’t think were very good.

I’ve added some quotes and links below. First a few links (I’ve tried not to add links here which I’ve also included in the quotes below):

Carbon cycle.
Origin of water on Earth.
Gaia hypothesis.
Albedo (climate and weather).
Snowball Earth.
Carbonate–silicate cycle.
Carbonate compensation depth.
Isotope fractionation.
CLAW hypothesis.
Mass-independent fractionation.
Great Oxygenation Event.
Sturtian glaciation.
Marinoan glaciation.
Ediacaran biota.
Cambrian explosion.
Medieval Warm Period.
Little Ice Age.
Methane emissions.
Keeling curve.
CO2 fertilization effect.
Acid rain.
Ocean acidification.
Earth systems models.
Clausius–Clapeyron relation.
Thermohaline circulation.
The limits to growth.
Exoplanet Biosignature Gases.
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
James Webb Space Telescope.
Habitable zone.

A few quotes from the book:

“The scope of Earth system science is broad. It spans 4.5 billion years of Earth history, how the system functions now, projections of its future state, and ultimate fate. […] Earth system science is […] a deeply interdisciplinary field, which synthesizes elements of geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. It is a young, integrative science that is part of a wider 21st-century intellectual trend towards trying to understand complex systems, and predict their behaviour. […] A key part of Earth system science is identifying the feedback loops in the Earth system and understanding the behaviour they can create. […] In systems thinking, the first step is usually to identify your system and its boundaries. […] what is part of the Earth system depends on the timescale being considered. […] The longer the timescale we look over, the more we need to include in the Earth system. […] for many Earth system scientists, the planet Earth is really comprised of two systems — the surface Earth system that supports life, and the great bulk of the inner Earth underneath. It is the thin layer of a system at the surface of the Earth […] that is the subject of this book.”

“Energy is in plentiful supply from the Sun, which drives the water cycle and also fuels the biosphere, via photosynthesis. However, the surface Earth system is nearly closed to materials, with only small inputs to the surface from the inner Earth. Thus, to support a flourishing biosphere, all the elements needed by life must be efficiently recycled within the Earth system. This in turn requires energy, to transform materials chemically and to move them physically around the planet. The resulting cycles of matter between the biosphere, atmosphere, ocean, land, and crust are called global biogeochemical cycles — because they involve biological, geological, and chemical processes. […] The global biogeochemical cycling of materials, fuelled by solar energy, has transformed the Earth system. […] It has made the Earth fundamentally different from its state before life and from its planetary neighbours, Mars and Venus. Through cycling the materials it needs, the Earth’s biosphere has bootstrapped itself into a much more productive state.”

“Each major element important for life has its own global biogeochemical cycle. However, every biogeochemical cycle can be conceptualized as a series of reservoirs (or ‘boxes’) of material connected by fluxes (or flows) of material between them. […] When a biogeochemical cycle is in steady state, the fluxes in and out of each reservoir must be in balance. This allows us to define additional useful quantities. Notably, the amount of material in a reservoir divided by the exchange flux with another reservoir gives the average ‘residence time’ of material in that reservoir with respect to the chosen process of exchange. For example, there are around 7 × 1016 moles of carbon dioxide (CO2) in today’s atmosphere, and photosynthesis removes around 9 × 1015 moles of CO2 per year, giving each molecule of CO2 a residence time of roughly eight years in the atmosphere before it is taken up, somewhere in the world, by photosynthesis. […] There are 3.8 × 1019 moles of molecular oxygen (O2) in today’s atmosphere, and oxidative weathering removes around 1 × 1013 moles of O2 per year, giving oxygen a residence time of around four million years with respect to removal by oxidative weathering. This makes the oxygen cycle […] a geological timescale cycle.”

“The water cycle is the physical circulation of water around the planet, between the ocean (where 97 per cent is stored), atmosphere, ice sheets, glaciers, sea-ice, freshwaters, and groundwater. […] To change the phase of water from solid to liquid or liquid to gas requires energy, which in the climate system comes from the Sun. Equally, when water condenses from gas to liquid or freezes from liquid to solid, energy is released. Solar heating drives evaporation from the ocean. This is responsible for supplying about 90 per cent of the water vapour to the atmosphere, with the other 10 per cent coming from evaporation on the land and freshwater surfaces (and sublimation of ice and snow directly to vapour). […] The water cycle is intimately connected to other biogeochemical cycles […]. Many compounds are soluble in water, and some react with water. This makes the ocean a key reservoir for several essential elements. It also means that rainwater can scavenge soluble gases and aerosols out of the atmosphere. When rainwater hits the land, the resulting solution can chemically weather rocks. Silicate weathering in turn helps keep the climate in a state where water is liquid.”

“In modern terms, plants acquire their carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, add electrons derived from water molecules to the carbon, and emit oxygen to the atmosphere as a waste product. […] In energy terms, global photosynthesis today captures about 130 terrawatts (1 TW = 1012 W) of solar energy in chemical form — about half of it in the ocean and about half on land. […] All the breakdown pathways for organic carbon together produce a flux of carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere that nearly balances photosynthetic uptake […] The surface recycling system is almost perfect, but a tiny fraction (about 0.1 per cent) of the organic carbon manufactured in photosynthesis escapes recycling and is buried in new sedimentary rocks. This organic carbon burial flux leaves an equivalent amount of oxygen gas behind in the atmosphere. Hence the burial of organic carbon represents the long-term source of oxygen to the atmosphere. […] the Earth’s crust has much more oxygen trapped in rocks in the form of oxidized iron and sulphur, than it has organic carbon. This tells us that there has been a net source of oxygen to the crust over Earth history, which must have come from the loss of hydrogen to space.”

“The oxygen cycle is relatively simple, because the reservoir of oxygen in the atmosphere is so massive that it dwarfs the reservoirs of organic carbon in vegetation, soils, and the ocean. Hence oxygen cannot get used up by the respiration or combustion of organic matter. Even the combustion of all known fossil fuel reserves can only put a small dent in the much larger reservoir of atmospheric oxygen (there are roughly 4 × 1017 moles of fossil fuel carbon, which is only about 1 per cent of the O2 reservoir). […] Unlike oxygen, the atmosphere is not the major surface reservoir of carbon. The amount of carbon in global vegetation is comparable to that in the atmosphere and the amount of carbon in soils (including permafrost) is roughly four times that in the atmosphere. Even these reservoirs are dwarfed by the ocean, which stores forty-five times as much carbon as the atmosphere, thanks to the fact that CO2 reacts with seawater. […] The exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the land is largely biological, involving photosynthetic uptake and release by aerobic respiration (and, to a lesser extent, fires). […] Remarkably, when we look over Earth history there are fluctuations in the isotopic composition of carbonates, but no net drift up or down. This suggests that there has always been roughly one-fifth of carbon being buried in organic form and the other four-fifths as carbonate rocks. Thus, even on the early Earth, the biosphere was productive enough to support a healthy organic carbon burial flux.”

“The two most important nutrients for life are phosphorus and nitrogen, and they have very different biogeochemical cycles […] The largest reservoir of nitrogen is in the atmosphere, whereas the heavier phosphorus has no significant gaseous form. Phosphorus thus presents a greater recycling challenge for the biosphere. All phosphorus enters the surface Earth system from the chemical weathering of rocks on land […]. Phosphorus is concentrated in rocks in grains or veins of the mineral apatite. Natural selection has made plants on land and their fungal partners […] very effective at acquiring phosphorus from rocks, by manufacturing and secreting a range of organic acids that dissolve apatite. […] The average terrestrial ecosystem recycles phosphorus roughly fifty times before it is lost into freshwaters. […] The loss of phosphorus from the land is the ocean’s gain, providing the key input of this essential nutrient. Phosphorus is stored in the ocean as phosphate dissolved in the water. […] removal of phosphorus into the rock cycle balances the weathering of phosphorus from rocks on land. […] Although there is a large reservoir of nitrogen in the atmosphere, the molecules of nitrogen gas (N2) are extremely strongly bonded together, making nitrogen unavailable to most organisms. To split N2 and make nitrogen biologically available requires a remarkable biochemical feat — nitrogen fixation — which uses a lot of energy. In the ocean the dominant nitrogen fixers are cyanobacteria with a direct source of energy from sunlight. On land, various plants form a symbiotic partnership with nitrogen fixing bacteria, making a home for them in root nodules and supplying them with food in return for nitrogen. […] Nitrogen fixation and denitrification form the major input and output fluxes of nitrogen to both the land and the ocean, but there is also recycling of nitrogen within ecosystems. […] There is an intimate link between nutrient regulation and atmospheric oxygen regulation, because nutrient levels and marine productivity determine the source of oxygen via organic carbon burial. However, ocean nutrients are regulated on a much shorter timescale than atmospheric oxygen because their residence times are much shorter—about 2,000 years for nitrogen and 20,000 years for phosphorus.”

“[F]orests […] are vulnerable to increases in oxygen that increase the frequency and ferocity of fires. […] Combustion experiments show that fires only become self-sustaining in natural fuels when oxygen reaches around 17 per cent of the atmosphere. Yet for the last 370 million years there is a nearly continuous record of fossil charcoal, indicating that oxygen has never dropped below this level. At the same time, oxygen has never risen too high for fires to have prevented the slow regeneration of forests. The ease of combustion increases non-linearly with oxygen concentration, such that above 25–30 per cent oxygen (depending on the wetness of fuel) it is hard to see how forests could have survived. Thus oxygen has remained within 17–30 per cent of the atmosphere for at least the last 370 million years.”

“[T]he rate of silicate weathering increases with increasing CO2 and temperature. Thus, if something tends to increase CO2 or temperature it is counteracted by increased CO2 removal by silicate weathering. […] Plants are sensitive to variations in CO2 and temperature, and together with their fungal partners they greatly amplify weathering rates […] the most pronounced change in atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic time was due to plants colonizing the land. This started around 470 million years ago and escalated with the first forests 370 million years ago. The resulting acceleration of silicate weathering is estimated to have lowered the concentration of atmospheric CO2 by an order of magnitude […], and cooled the planet into a series of ice ages in the Carboniferous and Permian Periods.”

“The first photosynthesis was not the kind we are familiar with, which splits water and spits out oxygen as a waste product. Instead, early photosynthesis was ‘anoxygenic’ — meaning it didn’t produce oxygen. […] It could have used a range of compounds, in place of water, as a source of electrons with which to fix carbon from carbon dioxide and reduce it to sugars. Potential electron donors include hydrogen (H2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) in the atmosphere, or ferrous iron (Fe2+) dissolved in the ancient oceans. All of these are easier to extract electrons from than water. Hence they require fewer photons of sunlight and simpler photosynthetic machinery. The phylogenetic tree of life confirms that several forms of anoxygenic photosynthesis evolved very early on, long before oxygenic photosynthesis. […] If the early biosphere was fuelled by anoxygenic photosynthesis, plausibly based on hydrogen gas, then a key recycling process would have been the biological regeneration of this gas. Calculations suggest that once such recycling had evolved, the early biosphere might have achieved a global productivity up to 1 per cent of the modern marine biosphere. If early anoxygenic photosynthesis used the supply of reduced iron upwelling in the ocean, then its productivity would have been controlled by ocean circulation and might have reached 10 per cent of the modern marine biosphere. […] The innovation that supercharged the early biosphere was the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis using abundant water as an electron donor. This was not an easy process to evolve. To split water requires more energy — i.e. more high-energy photons of sunlight — than any of the earlier anoxygenic forms of photosynthesis. Evolution’s solution was to wire together two existing ‘photosystems’ in one cell and bolt on the front of them a remarkable piece of biochemical machinery that can rip apart water molecules. The result was the first cyanobacterial cell — the ancestor of all organisms performing oxygenic photosynthesis on the planet today. […] Once oxygenic photosynthesis had evolved, the productivity of the biosphere would no longer have been restricted by the supply of substrates for photosynthesis, as water and carbon dioxide were abundant. Instead, the availability of nutrients, notably nitrogen and phosphorus, would have become the major limiting factors on the productivity of the biosphere — as they still are today.” [If you’re curious to know more about how that fascinating ‘biochemical machinery’ works, this is a great book on these and related topics – US].

“On Earth, anoxygenic photosynthesis requires one photon per electron, whereas oxygenic photosynthesis requires two photons per electron. On Earth it took up to a billion years to evolve oxygenic photosynthesis, based on two photosystems that had already evolved independently in different types of anoxygenic photosynthesis. Around a fainter K- or M-type star […] oxygenic photosynthesis is estimated to require three or more photons per electron — and a corresponding number of photosystems — making it harder to evolve. […] However, fainter stars spend longer on the main sequence, giving more time for evolution to occur.”

“There was a lot more energy to go around in the post-oxidation world, because respiration of organic matter with oxygen yields an order of magnitude more energy than breaking food down anaerobically. […] The revolution in biological complexity culminated in the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ of animal diversity 540 to 515 million years ago, in which modern food webs were established in the ocean. […] Since then the most fundamental change in the Earth system has been the rise of plants on land […], beginning around 470 million years ago and culminating in the first global forests by 370 million years ago. This doubled global photosynthesis, increasing flows of materials. Accelerated chemical weathering of the land surface lowered atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and increased atmospheric oxygen levels, fully oxygenating the deep ocean. […] Although grasslands now cover about a third of the Earth’s productive land surface they are a geologically recent arrival. Grasses evolved amidst a trend of declining atmospheric carbon dioxide, and climate cooling and drying, over the past forty million years, and they only became widespread in two phases during the Miocene Epoch around seventeen and six million years ago. […] Since the rise of complex life, there have been several mass extinction events. […] whilst these rolls of the extinction dice marked profound changes in evolutionary winners and losers, they did not fundamentally alter the operation of the Earth system.” [If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, the evolution of food webs and so on, Herrera et al.’s wonderful book is a great place to start – US]

“The Industrial Revolution marks the transition from societies fuelled largely by recent solar energy (via biomass, water, and wind) to ones fuelled by concentrated ‘ancient sunlight’. Although coal had been used in small amounts for millennia, for example for iron making in ancient China, fossil fuel use only took off with the invention and refinement of the steam engine. […] With the Industrial Revolution, food and biomass have ceased to be the main source of energy for human societies. Instead the energy contained in annual food production, which supports today’s population, is at fifty exajoules (1 EJ = 1018 joules), only about a tenth of the total energy input to human societies of 500 EJ/yr. This in turn is equivalent to about a tenth of the energy captured globally by photosynthesis. […] solar energy is not very efficiently converted by photosynthesis, which is 1–2 per cent efficient at best. […] The amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s land surface (2.5 × 1016 W) dwarfs current total human power consumption (1.5 × 1013 W) by more than a factor of a thousand.”

“The Earth system’s primary energy source is sunlight, which the biosphere converts and stores as chemical energy. The energy-capture devices — photosynthesizing organisms — construct themselves out of carbon dioxide, nutrients, and a host of trace elements taken up from their surroundings. Inputs of these elements and compounds from the solid Earth system to the surface Earth system are modest. Some photosynthesizers have evolved to increase the inputs of the materials they need — for example, by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and selectively weathering phosphorus out of rocks. Even more importantly, other heterotrophic organisms have evolved that recycle the materials that the photosynthesizers need (often as a by-product of consuming some of the chemical energy originally captured in photosynthesis). This extraordinary recycling system is the primary mechanism by which the biosphere maintains a high level of energy capture (productivity).”

“[L]ike all stars on the ‘main sequence’ (which generate energy through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium), the Sun is burning inexorably brighter with time — roughly 1 per cent brighter every 100 million years — and eventually this will overheat the planet. […] Over Earth history, the silicate weathering negative feedback mechanism has counteracted the steady brightening of the Sun by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this cooling mechanism is near the limits of its operation, because CO2 has fallen to limiting levels for the majority of plants, which are key amplifiers of silicate weathering. Although a subset of plants have evolved which can photosynthesize down to lower CO2 levels [the author does not go further into this topic, but here’s a relevant link – US], they cannot draw CO2 down lower than about 10 ppm. This means there is a second possible fate for life — running out of CO2. Early models projected either CO2 starvation or overheating […] occurring about a billion years in the future. […] Whilst this sounds comfortingly distant, it represents a much shorter future lifespan for the Earth’s biosphere than its past history. Earth’s biosphere is entering its old age.”

September 28, 2017 Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Books, Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Paleontology, Physics | Leave a comment


(The Pestallozzi quotes below are from The Education of Man, a short and poor aphorism collection I can not possibly recommend despite the inclusion of quotes from it in this post.)

i. “Only a good conscience always gives man the courage to handle his affairs straightforwardly, openly and without evasion.” (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi)

ii. “An intimate relationship in its full power is always a source of human wisdom and strength in relationships less intimate.” (-ll-)

iii. “Whoever is unwilling to help himself can be helped by no one.” (-ll-)

iv. “He who has filled his pockets in the service of injustice will have little good to say on behalf of justice.” (-ll-)

v. “It is Man’s fate that no one knows the truth alone; we all possess it, but it is divided up among us. He who learns from one man only, will never learn what the others know.” (-ll-)

vi. “No scoundrel is so wicked that he cannot at some point truthfully reprove some honest man” (-ll-)

vii. “The man too keenly aware of his good reputation is likely to have a bad one.” (-ll-)

viii. “Many words make an excuse anything but convincing.” (-ll-)

ix. “Fashions are usually seen in their true perspective only when they have gone out of fashion.” (-ll-)

x. “A thing that nobody looks for is seldom found.” (-ll-)

xi. “Many discoveries must have been stillborn or smothered at birth. We know only those which survived.” (William Ian Beardmore Beveridge)

xii. “Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” (Theophrastus)

xiii. “The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

xiv. “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” (-ll-)

xv. “From their appearance in the Triassic until the end of the Creta­ceous, a span of 140 million years, mam­mals remained small and inconspicuous while all the ecological roles of large ter­restrial herbivores and carnivores were monopolized by dinosaurs; mammals did not begin to radiate and produce large species until after the dinosaurs had al­ready become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. One is forced to conclude that dinosaurs were competitively su­perior to mammals as large land vertebrates.” (Robert T. Bakker)

xvi. “Plants and plant-eaters co-evolved. And plants aren’t the passive partners in the chain of terrestrial life. […] A birch tree doesn’t feel cosmic fulfillment when a moose munches its leaves; the tree species, in fact, evolves to fight the moose, to keep the animal’s munching lips away from vulnerable young leaves and twigs. In the final analysis, the merciless hand of natural selection will favor the birch genes that make the tree less and less palatable to the moose in generation after generation. No plant species could survive for long by offering itself as unprotected fodder.” (-ll-)

xvii. “… if you look at crocodiles today, they aren’t really representative of what the lineage of crocodiles look like. Crocodiles are represented by about 23 species, plus or minus a couple. Along that lineage the more primitive members weren’t aquatic. A lot of them were bipedal, a lot of them looked like little dinosaurs. Some were armored, others had no teeth. They were all fully terrestrial. So this is just the last vestige of that radiation that we’re seeing. And the ancestor of both dinosaurs and crocodiles would have, to the untrained eye, looked much more like a dinosaur.” (Mark Norell)

xviii. “If we are to understand the interactions of a large number of agents, we must first be able to describe the capabilities of individual agents.” (John Henry Holland)

xix. “Evolution continually innovates, but at each level it conserves the elements that are recombined to yield the innovations.” (-ll-)

xx. “Model building is the art of selecting those aspects of a process that are relevant to the question being asked. […] High science depends on this art.” (-ll-)

June 19, 2017 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Evolutionary biology, Paleontology, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. Fire works a little differently than people imagine. A great ask-science comment. See also AugustusFink-nottle’s comment in the same thread.


iii. I was very conflicted about whether to link to this because I haven’t actually spent any time looking at it myself so I don’t know if it’s any good, but according to somebody (?) who linked to it on SSC the people behind this stuff have academic backgrounds in evolutionary biology, which is something at least (whether you think this is a good thing or not will probably depend greatly on your opinion of evolutionary biologists, but I’ve definitely learned a lot more about human mating patterns, partner interaction patterns, etc. from evolutionary biologists than I have from personal experience, so I’m probably in the ‘they-sometimes-have-interesting-ideas-about-these-topics-and-those-ideas-may-not-be-terrible’-camp). I figure these guys are much more application-oriented than were some of the previous sources I’ve read on related topics, such as e.g. Kappeler et al. I add the link mostly so that if I in five years time have a stroke that obliterates most of my decision-making skills, causing me to decide that entering the dating market might be a good idea, I’ll have some idea where it might make sense to start.

iv. Stereotype (In)Accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals.

“Are stereotypes accurate or inaccurate? We summarize evidence that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable findings in social psychology. We address controversies in this literature, including the long-standing  and continuing but unjustified emphasis on stereotype inaccuracy, how to define and assess stereotype accuracy, and whether stereotypic (vs. individuating) information can be used rationally in person perception. We conclude with suggestions for building theory and for future directions of stereotype (in)accuracy research.”

A few quotes from the paper:

Demographic stereotypes are accurate. Research has consistently shown moderate to high levels of correspondence accuracy for demographic (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender) stereotypes […]. Nearly all accuracy correlations for consensual stereotypes about race/ethnicity and  gender exceed .50 (compared to only 5% of social psychological findings; Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[…] Rather than being based in cultural myths, the shared component of stereotypes is often highly accurate. This pattern cannot be easily explained by motivational or social-constructionist theories of stereotypes and probably reflects a “wisdom of crowds” effect […] personal stereotypes are also quite accurate, with correspondence accuracy for roughly half exceeding r =.50.”

“We found 34 published studies of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-stereotype accuracy. Although not every study examined discrepancy scores, when they did, a plurality or majority of all consensual stereotype judgments were accurate. […] In these 34 studies, when stereotypes were inaccurate, there was more evidence of underestimating than overestimating actual demographic group differences […] Research assessing the accuracy of  miscellaneous other stereotypes (e.g., about occupations, college majors, sororities, etc.) has generally found accuracy levels comparable to those for demographic stereotypes”

“A common claim […] is that even though many stereotypes accurately capture group means, they are still not accurate because group means cannot describe every individual group member. […] If people were rational, they would use stereotypes to judge individual targets when they lack information about targets’ unique personal characteristics (i.e., individuating information), when the stereotype itself is highly diagnostic (i.e., highly informative regarding the judgment), and when available individuating information is ambiguous or incompletely useful. People’s judgments robustly conform to rational predictions. In the rare situations in which a stereotype is highly diagnostic, people rely on it (e.g., Crawford, Jussim, Madon, Cain, & Stevens, 2011). When highly diagnostic individuating information is available, people overwhelmingly rely on it (Kunda & Thagard, 1996; effect size averaging r = .70). Stereotype biases average no higher than r = .10 ( Jussim, 2012) but reach r = .25 in the absence of individuating information (Kunda & Thagard, 1996). The more diagnostic individuating information  people have, the less they stereotype (Crawford et al., 2011; Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). Thus, people do not indiscriminately apply their stereotypes to all individual  members of stereotyped groups.” (Funder incidentally talked about this stuff as well in his book Personality Judgment).

One thing worth mentioning in the context of stereotypes is that if you look at stuff like crime data – which sadly not many people do – and you stratify based on stuff like country of origin, then the sub-group differences you observe tend to be very large. Some of the differences you observe between subgroups are not in the order of something like 10%, which is probably the sort of difference which could easily be ignored without major consequences; some subgroup differences can easily be in the order of one or two orders of magnitude. The differences are in some contexts so large as to basically make it downright idiotic to assume there are no differences – it doesn’t make sense, it’s frankly a stupid thing to do. To give an example, in Germany the probability that a random person, about whom you know nothing, has been a suspect in a thievery case is 22% if that random person happens to be of Algerian extraction, whereas it’s only 0,27% if you’re dealing with an immigrant from China. Roughly one in 13 of those Algerians have also been involved in a case of ‘body (bodily?) harm’, which is the case for less than one in 400 of the Chinese immigrants.

v. Assessing Immigrant Integration in Sweden after the May 2013 Riots. Some data from the article:

“Today, about one-fifth of Sweden’s population has an immigrant background, defined as those who were either born abroad or born in Sweden to two immigrant parents. The foreign born comprised 15.4 percent of the Swedish population in 2012, up from 11.3 percent in 2000 and 9.2 percent in 1990 […] Of the estimated 331,975 asylum applicants registered in EU countries in 2012, 43,865 (or 13 percent) were in Sweden. […] More than half of these applications were from Syrians, Somalis, Afghanis, Serbians, and Eritreans. […] One town of about 80,000 people, Södertälje, since the mid-2000s has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined.”

“Coupled with […] macroeconomic changes, the largely humanitarian nature of immigrant arrivals since the 1970s has posed challenges of labor market integration for Sweden, as refugees often arrive with low levels of education and transferable skills […] high unemployment rates have disproportionately affected immigrant communities in Sweden. In 2009-10, Sweden had the highest gap between native and immigrant employment rates among OECD countries. Approximately 63 percent of immigrants were employed compared to 76 percent of the native-born population. This 13 percentage-point gap is significantly greater than the OECD average […] Explanations for the gap include less work experience and domestic formal qualifications such as language skills among immigrants […] Among recent immigrants, defined as those who have been in the country for less than five years, the employment rate differed from that of the native born by more than 27 percentage points. In 2011, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that 35 percent of the unemployed registered at the Swedish Public Employment Service were foreign born, up from 22 percent in 2005.”

“As immigrant populations have grown, Sweden has experienced a persistent level of segregation — among the highest in Western Europe. In 2008, 60 percent of native Swedes lived in areas where the majority of the population was also Swedish, and 20 percent lived in areas that were virtually 100 percent Swedish. In contrast, 20 percent of Sweden’s foreign born lived in areas where more than 40 percent of the population was also foreign born.”

vi. Book recommendations. Or rather, author recommendations. A while back I asked ‘the people of SSC’ if they knew of any fiction authors I hadn’t read yet which were both funny and easy to read. I got a lot of good suggestions, and the roughly 20 Dick Francis novels I’ve read during the fall I’ve read as a consequence of that thread.

vii. On the genetic structure of Denmark.

viii. Religious Fundamentalism and Hostility against Out-groups: A Comparison of Muslims and Christians in Western Europe.

“On the basis of an original survey among native Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden, this paper investigates four research questions comparing native Christians to Muslim immigrants: (1) the extent of religious fundamentalism; (2) its socio-economic determinants; (3) whether it can be distinguished from other indicators of religiosity; and (4) its relationship to hostility towards out-groups (homosexuals, Jews, the West, and Muslims). The results indicate that religious fundamentalist attitudes are much more widespread among Sunnite Muslims than among native Christians, even after controlling for the different demographic and socio-economic compositions of these groups. […] Fundamentalist believers […] show very high levels of out-group hostility, especially among Muslims.”

ix. Portal: Dinosaurs. It would have been so incredibly awesome to have had access to this kind of stuff back when I was a child. The portal includes links to articles with names like ‘Bone Wars‘ – what’s not to like? Again, awesome!

x. “you can’t determine if something is truly random from observations alone. You can only determine if something is not truly random.” (link) An important insight well expressed.

xi. Chessprogramming. If you’re interested in having a look at how chess programs work, this is a neat resource. The wiki contains lots of links with information on specific sub-topics of interest. Also chess-related: The World Championship match between Carlsen and Karjakin has started. To the extent that I’ll be following the live coverage, I’ll be following Svidler et al.’s coverage on chess24. Robin van Kampen and Eric Hansen – both 2600+ elo GMs – did quite well yesterday, in my opinion.

xii. Justified by More Than Logos Alone (Razib Khan).

“Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.”

November 12, 2016 Posted by | Books, Chemistry, Chess, Data, dating, Demographics, Genetics, Geography, immigration, Paleontology, Papers, Physics, Psychology, Random stuff, Religion | Leave a comment


i. “The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.” (John Tukey)

ii. “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.” (-ll-)

iii. “They who can no longer unlearn have lost the power to learn.” (John Lancaster Spalding)

iv. “If there are but few who interest thee, why shouldst thou be disappointed if but few find thee interesting?” (-ll-)

v. “Since the mass of mankind are too ignorant or too indolent to think seriously, if majorities are right it is by accident.” (-ll-)

vi. “As they are the bravest who require no witnesses to their deeds of daring, so they are the best who do right without thinking whether or not it shall be known.” (-ll-)

vii. “Perfection is beyond our reach, but they who earnestly strive to become perfect, acquire excellences and virtues of which the multitude have no conception.” (-ll-)

viii. “We are made ridiculous less by our defects than by the affectation of qualities which are not ours.” (-ll-)

ix. “If thy words are wise, they will not seem so to the foolish: if they are deep the shallow will not appreciate them. Think not highly of thyself, then, when thou art praised by many.” (-ll-)

x. “Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity. ” (George E. P. Box)

xi. “Intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the young Sun acted on the atmosphere to form small amounts of very many gases. Most of these dissolved easily in water, and fell out in rain, making Earth’s surface water rich in carbon compounds. […] the most important chemical of all may have been cyanide (HCN). It would have formed easily in the upper atmosphere from solar radiation and meteorite impact, then dissolved in raindrops. Today it is broken down almost at once by oxygen, but early in Earth’s history it built up at low concentrations in lakes and oceans. Cyanide is a basic building block for more complex organic molecules such as amino acids and nucleic acid bases. Life probably evolved in chemical conditions that would kill us instantly!” (Richard Cowen, History of Life, p.8)

xii. “Dinosaurs dominated land communities for 100 million years, and it was only after dinosaurs disappeared that mammals became dominant. It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that dinosaurs were in some way competitively superior to mammals and confined them to small body size and ecological insignificance. […] Dinosaurs dominated many guilds in the Cretaceous, including that of large browsers. […] in terms of their reconstructed behavior […] dinosaurs should be compared not with living reptiles, but with living mammals and birds. […] By the end of the Cretaceous there were mammals with varied sets of genes but muted variation in morphology. […] All Mesozoic mammals were small. Mammals with small bodies can play only a limited number of ecological roles, mainly insectivores and omnivores. But when dinosaurs disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, some of the Paleocene mammals quickly evolved to take over many of their ecological roles” (ibid., pp. 145, 154, 222, 227-228)

xiii. “To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.” (Ronald Fisher)

xiv. “Ideas are incestuous.” (Howard Raiffa)

xv. “Game theory […] deals only with the way in which ultrasmart, all knowing people should behave in competitive situations, and has little to say to Mr. X as he confronts the morass of his problem. ” (-ll-)

xvi. “One of the principal objects of theoretical research is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in the greatest simplicity.” (Josiah Williard Gibbs)

xvii. “Nothing is as dangerous as an ignorant friend; a wise enemy is to be preferred.” (Jean de La Fontaine)

xviii. “Humility is a virtue all preach, none practice; and yet everybody is content to hear.” (John Selden)

xix. “Few men make themselves masters of the things they write or speak.” (-ll-)

xx. “Wise men say nothing in dangerous times.” (-ll-)



January 15, 2016 Posted by | Biology, Books, Paleontology, Quotes/aphorisms, Statistics | Leave a comment

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe (3)

Here’s a previous post in the series. In this post I’ll pick up roughly where I left off in my last post, around the time of the ‘Grande Coupure‘ roughly 34 million years ago.

“The extinction of the arboreal primates and the reduction or extinction of several browsing groups […] are strong evidence for the retreat of the forests during the early Oligocene and their replacement by open woodlands or even drier biotopes. […] Among the most distinctive species to enter Europe after the “Grande Coupure” were the first true rhinoceroses [which] achieved a high diversity and were going to characterize the mammalian faunas of Europe for millions of years, until the extinction of the last woolly rhinos during the late Pleistocene. […] the evolution of this group produced the largest terrestrial mammals of any time. The giant Paraceratherium […] was 6 m tall at the shoulders and had a 1.5-m-long skull […]. The males of this animal weighed around 15 tons, while the females were somewhat smaller, about 10 tons.” [Wikipedia has a featured article about these things here].

“One of the most significant features of the early Oligocene small-mammal communities was the first entry of lagomorphs into Europe. The lagomorphs — that is, the order of mammals that includes today’s hares and rabbits — originated very early on the Asian continent and from there colonized North America. The presence of the Turgai Strait prevented this group from entering Europe during the Eocene. […] the most characteristic immigrants during the early Oligocene were the cricetids of the genus Atavocricetodon. The cricetids are today represented in Europe by hamsters, reduced to three or four species […] These cricetids are typical inhabitants of the cold steppes of eastern Europe and Central Asia, and their limited representation in today’s European ecosystems does not reflect their importance in the history of the Cenozoic mammalian faunas of Eurasia. After its first entry following the “Grande Coupure,” this group experienced extraordinary success, diversifying into several genera and species. Even more significantly, the cricetids gave rise to the rodent groups that were going to be dominant during the Pliocene and Pleistocene — that is, the murids (the family of mice and rats) and arvicolids (the family of voles). […] In addition, new carnivore families, like the nimravids, appeared […]. The nimravids were once regarded as true felids (the family that includes today’s big and small cats) because of their similar dental and cranial adaptations. […] one of the more distinctive attributes of the nimravids was their long, laterally flattened upper canines, which were similar to those of the Miocene and Pliocene saber-toothed cats […]. However, most of these features have proved to be the result of a similar adaptation to hypercarnivorism, and the nimravids are now placed in a separate family of early carnivores whose evolution paralleled that of the large saber-toothed felids.” [Actually some of the nimravids were in some sense ‘even more sabertoothed’ than the (‘true’) saber-toothed cats which came later: “Although [the nimravid] Eusmilus bidentatus was no larger than a modern lynx, the adaptations for gape seen on its skull and mandible are more advanced than in any of the felid sabertooths of the European Pliocene and Pleistocene.”]

“About 30 million years ago, a new glacial phase began, and for 4 million years Antarctica was subjected to multiple glaciation episodes. The global sea level experienced the largest lowering in the whole Cenozoic, dropping by about 150 m […]. A possible explanation for this new glacial event lies in the final opening of the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America, which led to the completion of a fully circumpolar circulation and impeded any heat exchange between Antarctic waters and the warmer equatorial waters. A second, perhaps complementary cause for this glacial pulse is probably related to the final opening of the seaway between Greenland and Norway. The cold Arctic waters, largely isolated since the Mesozoic, spread at this time into the North Atlantic. The main effect of this cooling was a new extension of the dry landscapes on the European and western Asian lands. For instance, we know from pollen evidence that a desert vegetation was dominant in the Levant during the late Oligocene and earliest Miocene […] This glacial event led to the extinction of several forms that had persisted from the Eocene”.

“Among the carnivores, the late Oligocene saw the decline and local extinction of the large nimravids [Key word: local. They came back to Europe later during the early Miocene, and “the nimravids maintained a remarkable stability throughout the Miocene, probably in relation to a low speciation rate”]. In contrast, the group of archaic feloids that had arisen during the early Oligocene […] continued its evolution into the late Oligocene and diversified into a number of genera […] The other group of large carnivores that spread during the late Oligocene were the “bear-dog” amphicyonids, which from that time on became quite diverse, with many different ecological adaptations. […] The late Oligocene saw, in addition to the bearlike amphicyonids, the spread of the first true ursids […]. The members of this genus did not have the massive body dimensions of today’s bears but were medium-size omnivores […] Another group of carnivores that spread successfully during the late Oligocene were the mustelids, the family that includes today’s martens, badgers, skunks, and otters. […] In contrast to these successes, the creodonts of the genus Hyaenodon, which had survived all periods of crisis since the Eocene, declined during the late Oligocene. The last Hyaenodon in Europe was recorded at the end of the Oligocene […], and did not survive into the Miocene. This was the end in Europe of a long-lived group of successful carnivorans that had filled the large-predator guild for millions of years. However, as with other Oligocene groups, […] the hyaenodonts persisted in Africa and, from there, made a short incursion into Europe during the early Miocene”.

“After a gradual warming during the late Oligocene, global temperatures reached a climatic optimum during the early Miocene […] Shallow seas covered several nearshore areas in Europe […] as a consequence of a general sea-level rise. A broad connection was established between the Indian Ocean and both the Mediterranean and Paratethys Seas […] Widespread warm-water faunas including tropical fishes and nautiloids have been found, indicating conditions similar to those of the present-day Guinea Gulf, with mean surface-water temperatures around 25 to 27°C. Important reef formations bounded most of the shallow-water Mediterranean basins. […] Reef-building corals that today inhabit the Great Barrier Reef within a temperature range of 19 to 28°C became well established on North Island, New Zealand […] The early Miocene climate was warm and humid, indicating tropical conditions […]. Rich, extensive woodlands with varied kinds of plants developed in different parts of southern Europe […] The climatic optimum of the early Miocene also led to a maximum development of mangroves. These subtropical floras extended as far north as eastern Siberia and Kamchatka”.

“Despite the climatic stability of the early Miocene, an important tectonic event disrupted the evolution of the Eurasian faunas during this epoch. About 19 million years ago, the graben system along the Red Sea Fault, active in the south since the late Oligocene, opened further […] Consequently, the Arabian plate rotated counterclockwise and collided with the Anatolian plate. The marine gateway from the Mediterranean toward the Indo-Pacific closed, and a continental migration bridge (known as the Gomphothere Bridge) between Eurasia and Africa came into existence. This event had enormous consequences for the further evolution of the terrestrial faunas of Eurasia and Africa. Since the late Eocene, Africa had evolved in isolation, developing its own autochthonous fauna. Part of this fauna consisted of a number of endemic Oligocene survivors, such as anthracotheres, hyaenodonts, and primates, for which Africa had acted as a refuge […] The first evidence of an African–Eurasian exchange was the presence of the anthracothere Brachyodus in a number of early Miocene sites in Europe […] a second dispersal event from Africa, that of the gomphothere and deinothere proboscideans, had much more lasting effects. […] Today we can easily identify any proboscidean by its long proboscis and tusks. However, the primitive proboscideans from the African Eocene had a completely different appearance and are hardly recognizable as the ancestors of today’s elephants. Instead, they were hippolike semiamphibious ungulates with massive, elongated bodies supported by rather short legs. […] The first proboscideans entering Europe were the so-called gomphotheres […] which dispersed worldwide during the early Miocene from Africa to Europe, Asia, and North America […]. Gomphotherium was the size of an Indian elephant, about 2.5 m high at the withers. Its skull and dentition, however, were different from those of modern elephants. Gomphotherium’s skull was long […] and displayed not two but four tusks, one pair in the upper jaw and the other pair at the end of the lower jaw. […] Shortly after the entry of Gomphotherium and Zygolophodon [a second group of mastodons], a third proboscidean group, the deinotheres, successfully settled in Eurasia. Unlike the previous genera, the deinotheres were not elephantoids but represented a different, now totally extinct kind of proboscidean.”

“The dispersal of not only the African proboscideans but also many eastern immigrants contributed to a significant increase in the diversity of the impoverished early Miocene terrestrial biotas. The entry of this set of immigrants probably led to the extinction of a number of late Oligocene and early Miocene survivors, such as tapirids, anthracotherids, and primitive suids [pigs] and moschoids. In addition to the events that affected the Middle East area, sea-level fluctuations enabled short-lived mammal exchanges across the Bering Strait between Eurasia and North America, permitting the arrival of the browsing horse Anchitherium in Eurasia […] Widely used for biostragraphic purposes, the dispersal of Anchitherium was the first of a number of similar isolated events undergone by North American equids that entered Eurasia and rapidly spread on this continental area.”

“A new marine transgression, known as the Langhian Transgression, characterized the beginning of the middle Miocene, affecting the circum-Mediterranean area. Consequently, the seaway to the Indo-Pacific reopened for a short time, restoring the circum-equatorial warm-water circulation. […] tropical conditions became established as far north as Poland in marine coastal and open-sea waters. After the optimal conditions of the early Miocene, the middle Miocene was a period of global oceanic reorganization, representing a major change in the climatic evolution of the Cenozoic. Before this process began, high-latitude paleoclimatic conditions were generally warm although oscillating, but they rapidly cooled thereafter, leading to an abrupt high-latitude cooling event at about 14.5 million years ago […] Increased production of cold, deep Antarctic waters caused the extinction of several oceanic benthic foraminifers that had persisted from the late Oligocene–early Miocene and promoted a significant evolutionary turnover of the oceanic assemblages from about 16 to 14 million years ago […] This middle Miocene cooling was associated with a major growth of the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheets (EAIS) […] Middle Miocene polar cooling and east Antarctic ice growth had severe effects on middle- to low-latitude terrestrial environments. There was a climatic trend to cooler winters and decreased summer rainfall. Seasonal, summer-drought-adapted schlerophyllous vegetation progressively evolved and spread geographically during the Miocene, replacing the laurophyllous evergreen forests that were adapted to moist, subtropical and tropical conditions with temperate winters and abundant summer rainfalls […] These effects were clearly seen in a wide area to the south of the Paratethys Sea, extending from eastern Europe to western Asia. According to the ideas of the American paleontologist Ray Bernor, this region, known as the Greek-Iranian (or sub-Paratethyan) Province, acted as a woodland environmental “hub” for a corridor of open habitats that extended from northwestern Africa eastward across Arabia into Afghanistan, north into the eastern Mediterranean area, and northeast into northern China. The Greek-Iranian Province records the first evidence of open woodlands in which a number of large, progressive open-country mammals—such as hyaenids, thick-enameled hominoids, bovids, and giraffids — diversified and dispersed into eastern Africa and southwestern Asia […] the peculiar biotope developed in the Greek-Iranian Province acted as the background from which the African savannas evolved during the Pliocene and Pleistocene.”

“The most outstanding effect of the Middle Miocene Event is seen among the herbivorous community, which showed a trend toward developing larger body sizes, more-hypsodont teeth, and more-elongated distal limb segments […]. Increasing body size in herbivores is related to a higher ingestion of fibrous and low-quality vegetation. Browsers and grazers have to be large because they need long stomachs and intestines to process a large quantity of low-energy food (this is why they have to eat almost continuously). Because of the mechanism of rumination, ruminants are the only herbivores that can escape this rule and subsist at small sizes. Increasing hypsodonty and high-crowned teeth are directly related to the ingestion of more-abrasive vegetation […] Finally, the elongation of the distal limb segments is related to increasing cursoriality. The origin of cursoriality can be linked to the expansion of the home range in open, low-productive habitats. […] At the taxonomic level, this habitat change in the low latitudes involved the rapid adaptive radiation of woodland ruminants (bovids and giraffids). […] Gazelles dispersed into Europe at this time from their possible Afro-Arabian origins […] Not only gazelles but also the giraffids experienced a wide adaptive radiation into Africa after their dispersal from Asia. […] Among the suids [pigs], the listriodontines evolved in a peculiar way in northern Africa, leading to giant forms such as Kubanochoerus, with a weight of about 500 kg, which in some species may have reached 800 kg.”

March 8, 2015 Posted by | Biology, Books, climate, Evolutionary biology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Invasion of Poland. I recently realized I had no idea e.g. how long it took for the Germans and Soviets to defeat Poland during WW2 (the answer is 1 month and five days). The Germans attacked more than two weeks before the Soviets did. The article has lots of links, like most articles about such topics on wikipedia. Incidentally the question of why France and Britain applied a double standard and only declared war on Germany, and not the Soviet Union, is discussed in much detail in the links provided by u/OldWorldGlory here.

ii. Huaynaputina. From the article:

“A few days before the eruption, someone reported booming noise from the volcano and fog-like gas being emitted from its crater. The locals scrambled to appease the volcano, preparing girls, pets, and flowers for sacrifice.”

This makes sense – what else would one do in a situation like that? Finding a few virgins, dogs and flowers seems like the sensible approach – yes, you have to love humans and how they always react in sensible ways to such crises.

I’m not really sure the rest of the article is really all that interesting, but I found the above sentence both amusing and depressing enough to link to it here.

iii. Albert Pierrepoint. This guy killed hundreds of people.

On the other hand people were fine with it – it was his job. Well, sort of, this is actually slightly complicated. (“Pierrepoint was often dubbed the Official Executioner, despite there being no such job or title”).

Anyway this article is clearly the story of a guy who achieved his childhood dream – though unlike other children, he did not dream of becoming a fireman or a pilot, but rather of becoming the Official Executioner of the country. I’m currently thinking of using Pierrepoint as the main character in the motivational story I plan to tell my nephew when he’s a bit older.

iv. Second Crusade (featured). Considering how many different ‘states’ and ‘kingdoms’ were involved, a surprisingly small amount of people were actually fighting; the article notes that “[t]here were perhaps 50,000 troops in total” on the Christian side when the attack on Damascus was initiated. It wasn’t enough, as the outcome of the crusade was a decisive Muslim victory in the ‘Holy Land’ (Middle East).

v. 0.999… (featured). This thing is equal to one, but it can sometimes be really hard to get even very smart people to accept this fact. Lots of details and some proofs presented in the article.

vi. Shapley–Folkman lemma (‘good article’ – but also a somewhat technical article).

vii. Multituberculata. This article is not that special, but I add it here also because I think it ought to be and I’m actually sort of angry that it’s not; sometimes the coverage provided on wikipedia simply strikes me as grossly unfair, even if this is perhaps a slightly odd way to think about stuff. As pointed out in the article (Agustí points this out in his book as well), “The multituberculates existed for about 120 million years, and are often considered the most successful, diversified, and long-lasting mammals in natural history.” Yet notice how much (/little) coverage the article provides. Now compare the article with this article, or this.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | Biology, Economics, Evolutionary biology, History, Mathematics, Paleontology, Wikipedia, Zoology | 2 Comments

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe (2)

Here’s my first post about the book.

I wasn’t quite sure how to rate the book, but I ended up at four stars on goodreads. The main thing holding me back from giving it a higher rating is that the book is actually quite hard to read and there’s a lot of talk about teeth; one general point I learned from this book is that the teeth animals who lived in the past have left behind for us to find are sometimes really useful, because they can help us to make/support various inferences about other things, from animal behaviours to climatic developments. As for the ‘hard to read’-part, I (mostly) don’t blame the author for this because a book like this would have to be a bit hard to read to provide the level of coverage that is provided; that’s part of why I give it four stars in spite of this. If you have a look at the links in the first post, you’ll notice the many Latin names. You’ll find a lot of those in the text as well. This is perfectly natural as there were a lot of e.g. horse-like and rhino-like species living in the past and you need to be clear about which one of them you’re talking about now because they were all different, lived in different time periods, etc. For obvious reasons the book has a lot of talk about species/genera with no corresponding ‘familiar/popular’ names (like ‘cat’ or ‘dog’), and you need to keep track of the Latin names to make sense of the stuff; as well as keeping track of the various other Latin terms used e.g. in osteometry. So you’ll encounter some passages where there’s some talk about the differences between two groups whose names look pretty similar, and you’re told about how one group had two teeth which were a bit longer than they were in the other group and the teeth also looked slightly different (and you’ll be told exactly which teeth we’re talking about, described in a language you’d probably have to be a dentist to understand without looking up a lot of stuff along the way). Problems keeping track of the animals/groups encountered also stem from the fact that whereas some species encountered in the book do have modern counterparts, others don’t. The coverage helps you to figure out which ecological niche which group may have inhabited, but if you’re completely unfamiliar with the field of ecology I’m not sure how easy it is to get into this mindset. The text does provide some help navigating this weird landscape of the past, and the many fascinating illustrations in the book make it easier to visualize what the animals encountered along the way might have looked like, but reading the book takes some work.

That said, it’s totally worth it because this stuff’s just plain fascinating! The book isn’t quite ‘up there’ with Herrera et al. (it reminded me a bit more of van der Geer et al., not only because of the slight coverage overlap), but some of the stuff in there’s pretty damn awesome – and it’s stuff you ought to know, because it’ll probably change how you think about the world. The really neat thing about reading a book like this is that it exposes a lot of unwarranted assumptions you’ve been making without knowing it, about what the past used to be like. I’m almost certain anyone reading a book like this will encounter ideas which are very surprising to them. We look at the world through the eyes of the present, and it can be difficult to imagine just how many things used to be different. Vague and tentative ideas you might have had about how the world used to look like and how it used to work can through reading books like this one be replaced with a much more clear, and much better supported, picture of the past. Even though there’s still a lot of stuff we don’t know, and will never know. I could mention almost countless examples of things I was very surprised to learn while reading this book, and I’m sure many people reading the book would encounter even more of these, as I actually was somewhat familiar with parts of the related literature already before reading the book.

I’ve added a few sample quotes and observations from the book below.

“Europe, although just an appendage of the Eurasian supercontinent, acted during most of its history as a crossroad where Asian, African, and American faunas passed one another, throughout successive dispersal and extinction events. But these events did not happen in an isolated context, since they were the response to climatic and environmental events of a higher order. Thus this book pays special attention to the abundant literature that for the past few decades has dedicated itself to the climatic evolution of our planet.”

“A common scenario tends to posit the early evolutionary radiation of placental mammals as occurring only after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. The same scenario assumes a sudden explosion of forms immediately after the End Cretaceous Mass Extinction, filling the vacancies left by the vanished reptilian faunas. But a close inspection of the first epoch of the Cenozoic provides quite a different picture: the “explosion” began well before the end of the Cretaceous period and was not sudden, but lasted millions of years throughout the first division of the Cenozoic era, the Paleocene epoch. […] our knowledge of this remote time of mammalian evolution is much more obscure and incomplete than our understanding of the other periods of the Cenozoic. […] compared with our present world, and in contrast to the succeeding epochs, the Paleocene appears to us as a strange time, in which the present orders of mammals were absent or can hardly be distinguished: no rodents, no perissodactyls, no artiodactyls, bizarre noncarnivorous carnivorans. […] although the Paleocene was mammalian in character, we do not recognize it as a clear part of our own world; it looks more like an impoverished extension of the late Cretaceous world than the seed of the present Age of Mammals.”

“The diatrymas were human-size — up to 2 m tall — ground-running birds that inhabited the terrestrial ecosystems of Europe and North America in the Paleocene and the early to middle Eocene […] Besides the large diatrymas, a large variety of crocodiles — mainly terrestrial and amphibious eusuchian crocodiles — populated the marshes of the Paleocene rainforests. […] The high diversification of the crocodile fauna throughout the Paleocene and Eocene represents a significant ecological datum, since crocodiles do not tolerate temperatures below 10 to 15°C (exceptionally, they could survive in temperatures of about 5 or 6°C). Their existence in Europe indicates that during the first part of the Cenozoic the average temperature of the coldest month never fell below these values and that these mild conditions persisted at least until the middle Miocene.”

“At the end of the Paleocene, approximately 55.5 million years ago, there was a sudden, short-term warming known as the Latest Paleocene Thermal Maximum. Over a period of tens of thousands of years or less, the temperature of all the oceans increased by around 4°C. This was the highest warming during the entire Cenozoic, reaching global mean temperatures of around 20°C. There is some evidence that the Latest Paleocene Thermal Maximum resulted from a sudden increase in atmospheric CO2. Intense volcanic activity developed at the Paleocene–Eocene boundary, associated with the rifting process in the North Atlantic and the opening of the Norwegian-Greenland Sea. […] According to some analyses, atmospheric CO2 during the early Eocene may have been eight times its present concentration. […] The high temperatures and increasing humidity favored the extension of tropical rainforests over the middle and higher latitudes, as far north as Ellesmere Island, now in the Canadian arctic north. There, an abundant fauna — including crocodiles, monitor lizards, primates, rodents, multituberculates, early perissodactyls, and the pantodont Coryphodon — and a flora composed of tropical elements indicates the extension of the forests as far north as 78 degrees north latitude. […] The global oceanic level at the beginning of the Eocene was high, and extensive areas of Eurasia were still under the sea. In this context, Europe consisted of a number of emerged islands forming a kind of archipelago. A central European island consisted of parts of present-day England, France, and Germany, although it was placed in a much more southerly position, approximately at the present latitude of Naples. […] To the east, the growing Mediterranean opened into a wide sea, since the landmasses of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran were still below sea level. To the east of the Urals, the Turgai Strait still connected the warm waters of the Tethys Sea with the Polar Sea. […] Despite the opening of the Greenland-Norwegian Sea, Europe and North America were still connected during most of the early and middle Eocene across two main land bridges […] the De Geer Corridor [and] the Thule Bridge […] these corridors must have been effective, since the European fossil record shows a massive entry of American elements […] The ischyromyid and ailuravid rodents, as well as the miacid carnivores, were among the oldest representatives of the modern orders of mammals to appear in Europe during the early Eocene. However, they were not the only ones, since the “modernization” of the mammalian communities at this time went even further, and groups such as the first true primates, bats (Chiroptera), flying lemurs (Dermoptera), and oddtoed (Perissodactyla) and even-toed (Artiodactyla) ungulates entered onto the scene, in both Europe and North America.”

“Although it was the first member of the horse lineage, Pliolophus certainly did not look like a horse. As classically stated, it had the dimensions of a medium dog (“a fox-terrier”), bearing four hooves on the front legs and three on the hind legs. […] the first rhino-related forms included Hyrachius, a small rhino about the size of a wolf that during the Eocene inhabited a wide geographic range, from North America to Europe and Asia.” (Yep, in case you didn’t know Europe had rhinos for millions and millions of years…) “The artiodactyls are among the most successful orders of mammals, having diversified in the past 10 million years into a wide array of families, subfamilies, tribes, and genera all around the world, including pigs, peccaries, hippos, chevrotains, camels, giraffes, deer, antelopes, gazelles, goats, and cattle. They are easily distinguished from the perissodactyls because each extremity is supported on the two central toes, instead of on the middle strengthened toe. […] The oldest member of the order is Diacodexis, […] a rabbit-size ungulate”

“Although the number of middle Eocene localities in Europe is quite restricted, we have excellent knowledge of the terrestrial communities of this time thanks to the extraordinary fossiliferous site of Messel, Germany. […] several specimens from Messel retain in their gut their last meal, providing a rare opportunity for testing the teeth-inferred dietary requirements of a number of extinct mammalian groups. […] A dense canopy forest surrounded Messel lake, formed of several tropical and paratropical taxa that today live in Southeast Asia”.

“At the end of the middle Eocene, things began to change in the European archipelago. Several late Paleocene and early Eocene survivors had become extinct […] The last part of the middle Eocene saw a clear change in the structure of the herbivore community as specialized browsing herbivores […] replaced the small to medium-size omnivorous/ frugivorous archaic ungulates of the early Eocene and became the dominant species. […] These changes among the mammalian faunas were most probably a response to the major tectonic transformations occurring at that time and the associated environmental changes. During the middle Eocene, the Indian plate collided with Asia, closing the Tethys Sea north of India. The collision of India and the compression between Africa and Europe formed an active alpine mountain belt along the southern border of Eurasia. In the western Mediterranean, strong compression occurred during the late Eocene, […] leading to the final emergence of the Pyrenees. To the south of the Pyrenees, the sea branch between the Iberian plate and Europe retreated”

“The European terrestrial ecosystems at the end of the Eocene were quite different from those inherited from the Paleocene, which were dominated by archaic, unspecialized groups. In contrast, a diversified fauna of specialized small and large browsing herbivores […] characterized the late Eocene. From our perspective, they looked much more “modern” than those of the early and early-middle Eocene and perfectly adapted to the new late Eocene environmental conditions characterized by the spread of more open habitats.”

“during the Eocene […] Australia and South America were still attached to Antarctica, as the last remnants of the ancient Gondwanan supercontinent. Today’s circumpolar current did not yet exist, and the equatorial South Atlantic and South Pacific waters went closer to the Antarctic coasts, thus transporting heat from the low latitudes to the high southern latitudes. However, this changed during the late Eocene, when a rifting process began to separate Australia from Antarctica. At the beginning of the Oligocene, between 34 and 33 million years ago, the spread between the two continents was large enough to allow a first phase of circumpolar circulation, which restricted the thermal exchange between the low-latitude equatorial waters and the Antarctic waters. A sudden and massive cooling took place, and mean global temperatures fell by about 5°C. […] During a few hundred thousand years (the estimated duration of this early Oligocene glacial episode), the ice sheets expanded and covered extensive areas of Antarctica, particularly in its western regions. […] The onset of Antarctic glaciation and the growing of the ice sheets in western Antarctica provoked an important global sea-level lowering of about 30 m. Several shallow epicontinental seas became continental areas, including those that surrounded the European Archipelago. The Turgai Strait, which during millions of years had isolated the European lands from Asia, vanished and opened a migration pathway for Asian and American mammals to the west. […] The tectonic movements led to the final split of the Tethys Sea into two main seas, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Paratethys Sea, the latter covering the formerly open ocean areas of central and eastern Europe. […] After the retreat of the Turgai Strait and the emergence of the Paratethys province, the European Archipelago ceased to exist, and Europe approached its present configuration. The ancient barriers that had prevented Asian faunas from settling in this continental area no longer existed, and a wave of new immigrants entered from the east. This coincided with the trend toward more temperate conditions and the spread of open environments initiated during the late Eocene. Consequently, most of the species that had characterized the middle and late Eocene declined or became completely extinct, replaced by herds of Asian newcomers.”

February 23, 2015 Posted by | Biology, Books, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe

I’m currently reading this book. It’s quite nice so far, though the title is slightly misleading (I’ve read 82 pages so far and I’ve yet to come across any mammoths, sabertooths or hominids…). I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to cover the systems analysis text in more detail today, but that turned out to be really difficult to do without actually rewriting the book (or at the very least quoting very extensively), something I really don’t want to do. I decided to cover this book instead, though it’s admittedly slightly ‘lazy coverage’. Below I have added some links to stuff he talks about in the book. It’s the sort of book which is reasonably easy to blog, so I’m quite sure I’ll add more detail and context later, especially considering how most people presumably know far more (…okay, well, more) about the lives of the dinosaurs than they do about the lives of their much more recent ancestors, which lived during the Cenozoic.

The book frequently has more information about a given species/genus than does wikipedia’s corresponding article (and there’s stuff in here which wikipedia does not have articles about at all…), and/but I’ve tried to avoid linking to stubs below. Some articles below have decent coverage, but these are in general topics not well covered on wikipedia – I don’t think there’s a single featured article among the articles included. Even so, it’s probably worth having a look at some of the articles below if you’re curious to know which kind of stuff’s covered in this book. Aside from the links, I decided to also include a few pictures from the articles.

Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum.
Turgai Strait.
Messel site.


Alpine orogeny.


February 13, 2015 Posted by | Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

(A minor note: These days when I’m randomly browsing wikipedia and not just looking up concepts or terms found in the books I read, I’m mostly browsing the featured content on wikipedia. There’s a lot of featured stuff, and on average such articles more interesting than random articles. As a result of this approach, all articles covered in the post below are featured articles. A related consequence of this shift may be that I may cover fewer articles in future wikipedia posts than I have in the past; this post only contains five articles, which I believe is slightly less than usual for these posts – a big reason for this being that it sometimes takes a lot of time to read a featured article.)

i. Woolly mammoth.


“The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was a species of mammoth, the common name for the extinct elephant genus Mammuthus. The woolly mammoth was one of the last in a line of mammoth species, beginning with Mammuthus subplanifrons in the early Pliocene. M. primigenius diverged from the steppe mammoth, M. trogontherii, about 200,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant. […] The earliest known proboscideans, the clade which contains elephants, existed about 55 million years ago around the Tethys Sea. […] The family Elephantidae existed six million years ago in Africa and includes the modern elephants and the mammoths. Among many now extinct clades, the mastodon is only a distant relative of the mammoths, and part of the separate Mammutidae family, which diverged 25 million years before the mammoths evolved.[12] […] The woolly mammoth coexisted with early humans, who used its bones and tusks for making art, tools, and dwellings, and the species was also hunted for food.[1] It disappeared from its mainland range at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago, most likely through a combination of climate change, consequent disappearance of its habitat, and hunting by humans, though the significance of these factors is disputed. Isolated populations survived on Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago, and on St. Paul Island until 6,400 years ago.”

“The appearance and behaviour of this species are among the best studied of any prehistoric animal due to the discovery of frozen carcasses in Siberia and Alaska, as well as skeletons, teeth, stomach contents, dung, and depiction from life in prehistoric cave paintings. […] Fully grown males reached shoulder heights between 2.7 and 3.4 m (9 and 11 ft) and weighed up to 6 tonnes (6.6 short tons). This is almost as large as extant male African elephants, which commonly reach 3–3.4 m (9.8–11.2 ft), and is less than the size of the earlier mammoth species M. meridionalis and M. trogontherii, and the contemporary M. columbi. […] Woolly mammoths had several adaptations to the cold, most noticeably the layer of fur covering all parts of the body. Other adaptations to cold weather include ears that are far smaller than those of modern elephants […] The small ears reduced heat loss and frostbite, and the tail was short for the same reason […] They had a layer of fat up to 10 cm (3.9 in) thick under the skin, which helped to keep them warm. […] The coat consisted of an outer layer of long, coarse “guard hair”, which was 30 cm (12 in) on the upper part of the body, up to 90 cm (35 in) in length on the flanks and underside, and 0.5 mm (0.020 in) in diameter, and a denser inner layer of shorter, slightly curly under-wool, up to 8 cm (3.1 in) long and 0.05 mm (0.0020 in) in diameter. The hairs on the upper leg were up to 38 cm (15 in) long, and those of the feet were 15 cm (5.9 in) long, reaching the toes. The hairs on the head were relatively short, but longer on the underside and the sides of the trunk. The tail was extended by coarse hairs up to 60 cm (24 in) long, which were thicker than the guard hairs. It is likely that the woolly mammoth moulted seasonally, and that the heaviest fur was shed during spring.”

“Woolly mammoths had very long tusks, which were more curved than those of modern elephants. The largest known male tusk is 4.2 m (14 ft) long and weighs 91 kg (201 lb), but 2.4–2.7 m (7.9–8.9 ft) and 45 kg (99 lb) was a more typical size. Female tusks averaged at 1.5–1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft) and weighed 9 kg (20 lb). About a quarter of the length was inside the sockets. The tusks grew spirally in opposite directions from the base and continued in a curve until the tips pointed towards each other. In this way, most of the weight would have been close to the skull, and there would be less torque than with straight tusks. The tusks were usually asymmetrical and showed considerable variation, with some tusks curving down instead of outwards and some being shorter due to breakage.”

“Woolly mammoths needed a varied diet to support their growth, like modern elephants. An adult of six tonnes would need to eat 180 kg (397 lb) daily, and may have foraged as long as twenty hours every day. […] Woolly mammoths continued growing past adulthood, like other elephants. Unfused limb bones show that males grew until they reached the age of 40, and females grew until they were 25. The frozen calf “Dima” was 90 cm (35 in) tall when it died at the age of 6–12 months. At this age, the second set of molars would be in the process of erupting, and the first set would be worn out at 18 months of age. The third set of molars lasted for ten years, and this process was repeated until the final, sixth set emerged when the animal was 30 years old. A woolly mammoth could probably reach the age of 60, like modern elephants of the same size. By then the last set of molars would be worn out, the animal would be unable to chew and feed, and it would die of starvation.[53]

“The habitat of the woolly mammoth is known as “mammoth steppe” or “tundra steppe”. This environment stretched across northern Asia, many parts of Europe, and the northern part of North America during the last ice age. It was similar to the grassy steppes of modern Russia, but the flora was more diverse, abundant, and grew faster. Grasses, sedges, shrubs, and herbaceous plants were present, and scattered trees were mainly found in southern regions. This habitat was not dominated by ice and snow, as is popularly believed, since these regions are thought to have been high-pressure areas at the time. The habitat of the woolly mammoth also supported other grazing herbivores such as the woolly rhinoceros, wild horses and bison. […] A 2008 study estimated that changes in climate shrank suitable mammoth habitat from 7,700,000 km2 (3,000,000 sq mi) 42,000 years ago to 800,000 km2 (310,000 sq mi) 6,000 years ago.[81][82] Woolly mammoths survived an even greater loss of habitat at the end of the Saale glaciation 125,000 years ago, and it is likely that humans hunted the remaining populations to extinction at the end of the last glacial period.[83][84] […] Several woolly mammoth specimens show evidence of being butchered by humans, which is indicated by breaks, cut-marks, and associated stone tools. It is not known how much prehistoric humans relied on woolly mammoth meat, since there were many other large herbivores available. Many mammoth carcasses may have been scavenged by humans rather than hunted. Some cave paintings show woolly mammoths in structures interpreted as pitfall traps. Few specimens show direct, unambiguous evidence of having been hunted by humans.”

“While frozen woolly mammoth carcasses had been excavated by Europeans as early as 1728, the first fully documented specimen was discovered near the delta of the Lena River in 1799 by Ossip Schumachov, a Siberian hunter.[90] Schumachov let it thaw until he could retrieve the tusks for sale to the ivory trade. [Aargh!] […] The 1901 excavation of the “Berezovka mammoth” is the best documented of the early finds. It was discovered by the Berezovka River, and the Russian authorities financed its excavation. Its head was exposed, and the flesh had been scavenged. The animal still had grass between its teeth and on the tongue, showing that it had died suddenly. […] By 1929, the remains of 34 mammoths with frozen soft tissues (skin, flesh, or organs) had been documented. Only four of them were relatively complete. Since then, about that many more have been found.”

ii. Daniel Lambert.

Daniel Lambert (13 March 1770 – 21 June 1809) was a gaol keeper[n 1] and animal breeder from Leicester, England, famous for his unusually large size. After serving four years as an apprentice at an engraving and die casting works in Birmingham, he returned to Leicester around 1788 and succeeded his father as keeper of Leicester’s gaol. […] At the time of Lambert’s return to Leicester, his weight began to increase steadily, even though he was athletically active and, by his own account, abstained from drinking alcohol and did not eat unusual amounts of food. In 1805, Lambert’s gaol closed. By this time, he weighed 50 stone (700 lb; 318 kg), and had become the heaviest authenticated person up to that point in recorded history. Unemployable and sensitive about his bulk, Lambert became a recluse.

In 1806, poverty forced Lambert to put himself on exhibition to raise money. In April 1806, he took up residence in London, charging spectators to enter his apartments to meet him. Visitors were impressed by his intelligence and personality, and visiting him became highly fashionable. After some months on public display, Lambert grew tired of exhibiting himself, and in September 1806, he returned, wealthy, to Leicester, where he bred sporting dogs and regularly attended sporting events. Between 1806 and 1809, he made a further series of short fundraising tours.

In June 1809, he died suddenly in Stamford. At the time of his death, he weighed 52 stone 11 lb (739 lb; 335 kg), and his coffin required 112 square feet (10.4 m2) of wood. Despite the coffin being built with wheels to allow easy transport, and a sloping approach being dug to the grave, it took 20 men almost half an hour to drag his casket into the trench, in a newly opened burial ground to the rear of St Martin’s Church.”

“Sensitive about his weight, Daniel Lambert refused to allow himself to be weighed, but sometime around 1805, some friends persuaded him to come with them to a cock fight in Loughborough. Once he had squeezed his way into their carriage, the rest of the party drove the carriage onto a large scale and jumped out. After deducting the weight of the (previously weighed) empty carriage, they calculated that Lambert’s weight was now 50 stone (700 lb; 318 kg), and that he had thus overtaken Edward Bright, the 616-pound (279 kg) “Fat Man of Maldon”,[23] as the heaviest authenticated person in recorded history.[20][24]

Despite his shyness, Lambert badly needed to earn money, and saw no alternative to putting himself on display, and charging his spectators.[20] On 4 April 1806, he boarded a specially built carriage and travelled from Leicester[26] to his new home at 53 Piccadilly, then near the western edge of London.[20] For five hours each day, he welcomed visitors into his home, charging each a shilling (about £3.5 as of 2014).[18][25] […] Lambert shared his interests and knowledge of sports, dogs and animal husbandry with London’s middle and upper classes,[27] and it soon became highly fashionable to visit him, or become his friend.[27] Many called repeatedly; one banker made 20 visits, paying the admission fee on each occasion.[17] […] His business venture was immediately successful, drawing around 400 paying visitors per day. […] People would travel long distances to see him (on one occasion, a party of 14 travelled to London from Guernsey),[n 5] and many would spend hours speaking with him on animal breeding.”

“After some months in London, Lambert was visited by Józef Boruwłaski, a 3-foot 3-inch (99 cm) dwarf then in his seventies.[44] Born in 1739 to a poor family in rural Pokuttya,[45] Boruwłaski was generally considered to be the last of Europe’s court dwarfs.[46] He was introduced to the Empress Maria Theresa in 1754,[47] and after a short time residing with deposed Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński,[44] he exhibited himself around Europe, thus becoming a wealthy man.[48] At age 60, he retired to Durham,[49] where he became such a popular figure that the City of Durham paid him to live there[50] and he became one of its most prominent citizens […] The meeting of Lambert and Boruwłaski, the largest and smallest men in the country,[51] was the subject of enormous public interest”

“There was no autopsy, and the cause of Lambert’s death is unknown.[65] While many sources say that he died of a fatty degeneration of the heart or of stress on his heart caused by his bulk, his behaviour in the period leading to his death does not match that of someone suffering from cardiac insufficiency; witnesses agree that on the morning of his death he appeared well, before he became short of breath and collapsed.[65] Bondeson (2006) speculates that the most consistent explanation of his death, given his symptoms and medical history, is that he had a sudden pulmonary embolism.[65]

iii. Geology of the Capitol Reef area.


“The exposed geology of the Capitol Reef area presents a record of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation in an area of North America in and around Capitol Reef National Park, on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah.

Nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 m) of sedimentary strata are found in the Capitol Reef area, representing nearly 200 million years of geologic history of the south-central part of the U.S. state of Utah. These rocks range in age from Permian (as old as 270 million years old) to Cretaceous (as young as 80 million years old.)[1] Rock layers in the area reveal ancient climates as varied as rivers and swamps (Chinle Formation), Sahara-like deserts (Navajo Sandstone), and shallow ocean (Mancos Shale).

The area’s first known sediments were laid down as a shallow sea invaded the land in the Permian. At first sandstone was deposited but limestone followed as the sea deepened. After the sea retreated in the Triassic, streams deposited silt before the area was uplifted and underwent erosion. Conglomerate followed by logs, sand, mud and wind-transported volcanic ash were later added. Mid to Late Triassic time saw increasing aridity, during which vast amounts of sandstone were laid down along with some deposits from slow-moving streams. As another sea started to return it periodically flooded the area and left evaporite deposits. Barrier islands, sand bars and later, tidal flats, contributed sand for sandstone, followed by cobbles for conglomerate and mud for shale. The sea retreated, leaving streams, lakes and swampy plains to become the resting place for sediments. Another sea, the Western Interior Seaway, returned in the Cretaceous and left more sandstone and shale only to disappear in the early Cenozoic.”

“The Laramide orogeny compacted the region from about 70 million to 50 million years ago and in the process created the Rocky Mountains. Many monoclines (a type of gentle upward fold in rock strata) were also formed by the deep compressive forces of the Laramide. One of those monoclines, called the Waterpocket Fold, is the major geographic feature of the park. The 100 mile (160 km) long fold has a north-south alignment with a steeply east-dipping side. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold have been lifted more than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) higher than the layers on the east.[23] Thus older rocks are exposed on the western part of the fold and younger rocks on the eastern part. This particular fold may have been created due to movement along a fault in the Precambrian basement rocks hidden well below any exposed formations. Small earthquakes centered below the fold in 1979 may be from such a fault.[24] […] Ten to fifteen million years ago the entire region was uplifted several thousand feet (well over a kilometer) by the creation of the Colorado Plateaus. This time the uplift was more even, leaving the overall orientation of the formations mostly intact. Most of the erosion that carved today’s landscape occurred after the uplift of the Colorado Plateau with much of the major canyon cutting probably occurring between 1 and 6 million years ago.”

iv. Problem of Apollonius.

“In Euclidean plane geometry, Apollonius’s problem is to construct circles that are tangent to three given circles in a plane (Figure 1).


Apollonius of Perga (ca. 262 BC – ca. 190 BC) posed and solved this famous problem in his work Ἐπαφαί (Epaphaí, “Tangencies”); this work has been lost, but a 4th-century report of his results by Pappus of Alexandria has survived. Three given circles generically have eight different circles that are tangent to them […] and each solution circle encloses or excludes the three given circles in a different way […] The general statement of Apollonius’ problem is to construct one or more circles that are tangent to three given objects in a plane, where an object may be a line, a point or a circle of any size.[1][2][3][4] These objects may be arranged in any way and may cross one another; however, they are usually taken to be distinct, meaning that they do not coincide. Solutions to Apollonius’ problem are sometimes called Apollonius circles, although the term is also used for other types of circles associated with Apollonius. […] A rich repertoire of geometrical and algebraic methods have been developed to solve Apollonius’ problem,[9][10] which has been called “the most famous of all” geometry problems.[3]

v. Globular cluster.

“A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. The name of this category of star cluster is derived from the Latin globulus—a small sphere. A globular cluster is sometimes known more simply as a globular.

Globular clusters, which are found in the halo of a galaxy, contain considerably more stars and are much older than the less dense galactic, or open clusters, which are found in the disk. Globular clusters are fairly common; there are about 150[2] to 158[3] currently known globular clusters in the Milky Way, with perhaps 10 to 20 more still undiscovered.[4] Large galaxies can have more: Andromeda, for instance, may have as many as 500. […]

Every galaxy of sufficient mass in the Local Group has an associated group of globular clusters, and almost every large galaxy surveyed has been found to possess a system of globular clusters.[8] The Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy and the disputed Canis Major Dwarf galaxy appear to be in the process of donating their associated globular clusters (such as Palomar 12) to the Milky Way.[9] This demonstrates how many of this galaxy’s globular clusters might have been acquired in the past.

Although it appears that globular clusters contain some of the first stars to be produced in the galaxy, their origins and their role in galactic evolution are still unclear.”

October 23, 2014 Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Ecology, Geography, Geology, History, Mathematics, Paleontology, Wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

An Introduction to Tropical Rain Forests (I)

This will just be a brief introductory post to the book, which I gave two stars on goodreads – I have internet and the computer seems to not give me too much trouble right now, so I thought I should post something while I have the chance. The book was hard to rate, in a way. Some parts were highly informative and really quite nice. In other parts the author was ‘out of line’, and he goes completely overboard towards the end – the last couple of chapters contain a lot of political stuff. I have included below a couple of examples of some passages the inclusion of which I had issues with:

“It is also fair comment that human-induced extinction today is as great as any of the five previous extinction spasms life on earth has experienced.”

I have read about the human impact on species diversity before, e.g. in Wilson or van der Geer et al.. I have also read about those other extinction events he talks about. I mention this because if you have not read about both, it may be natural to not feel perfectly confident judging on the matter – but I have, and I do. My conclusion is that saying that the human-induced extinction occuring today is “as great as” the Permian extinction event in my mind makes you look really stupid. Either the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he had stopped thinking when he wrote that, which is something that often happens when people get emotional and start going into tribal defence mode and making political points. Which is why I try to avoid political books. Here’s a funny combination of quotes:

i. “The failure of silviculture follows from working beyond the limits of the inherent dynamic capabilities of the forest ecosystem. This is commonly because rules drawn up by silviculturalists are not enforced, often because of political intervention. It may also be because economists, eager to enrich a nation, enforce their dismal pseudoscience to override basic logical principles and dictate the removal of a larger harvest than the forest can sustain without degradation.”

ii. “There have been attempts by campaigning groups in recent years to turn the clock back, sometimes claiming forests have a greater cash value for minor forest products than for timber.[324] A review of 24 studies found that the median annual value per hectare of sustainably produced, marketable non-timber forest products was $50 year−1.[325] As a natural rain forest grows commercial timber at 1-2 m3 year−1 ha−1 or more, and this is worth over $100 m−3, sustainable production of timber is of greater value by a factor of at least two to four.”

The word ‘hypocrite’ sprang to mind when I read the second quote. Who does he think conducts such review studies – soil scientists? If economics is pseudo-science, as he himself indicated that he thought earlier in the book, then why should we trust those estimates? On a related note, should evolutionary biologists stop using game theory as well – where does he think core concepts in evolutionary biology like ESS come from? Good luck analyzing equilibrium dynamics of any kind without using tools also used in economics and/or developed by economists.

It actually seems to me to be a general problem in some fields of biology that lots of researchers have a problem separating politics and science – the social sciences really aren’t the only parts of academia where this kind of stuff is a problem. I have a strong preference for not encountering emotional/political arguments in academic publications, and so I tend to notice them when they’re there, whether or not I agree with them. There’s a lot of good stuff in this book and I’ll talk about this later here on the blog, but there’s a lot of problematic stuff as well, and I punish that kind of stuff hard regardless of where I find it. The quotes above are not unique but to me seem to illustrate the mindset reasonably well.

The book covers stuff also covered in Herrera et al., Wilson, and van der Geer et al., and concepts I knew about from McMenamin & McMenamin also popped up along the way. Herrera et al. of course contains entire chapters about stuff only covered in a paragraph or two in this book. The book deals with aspects of ecological dynamics as well through the coverage of the forest growth cycle and gap-phase dynamics as well as related stuff like nutrient cycles, but the coverage in here is much less technical than is Gurney and Nisbet’s coverage – this book is easy to read compared to their text. I mention these things because although I think the book was quite readable I have seen a lot of coverage of related stuff already at this point, so I may not be the best person to ask. My overall impression is however that people reading along here should not have great difficulties reading and understanding this book.

September 18, 2014 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Ecology, Paleontology | Leave a comment

The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough (II)

I decided to write one more post (this one) about the book and leave it at that. Go here for my first post about the book, which has some general remarks about the book, as well as a lot of relevant links to articles from wikipedia which cover topics also covered in the book. Below I have added some observations from the second half of the book.

“Use of bedrock geology to reconstruct ancient continental positions relies on the idea that if two separated continents were once joined to form a single, larger continent, then there ought to be distinctive geological terranes (such as mineral belts, mountain chains, bodies of igneous rock of similar age, and other roughly linear to irregularly-shaped large-scale geologic features) that were once contiguous but are now separated. Matching of these features can provide clues to the positions of continents that were once together. […] The main problem with using bedrock geology features to match continental puzzle pieces together is that many of the potentially most useful linear geologic features on the continents (such as volcanic arcs or chains of volcanoes, and continental margin fold belts or parallel mountain chains formed by compression of strata) are parallel to the edge of the continent. Therefore, these features generally run parallel to rift fractures, and are less likely to continue and be recognizable on any continent that was once connected to the continent in question.

Paleomagnetic evidence is an important tool for the determination of ancient continent positions and for the reconstruction of supercontinents. Nearly all rock types, be they sedimentary or igneous, contain minerals that contain the elements iron or titanium. Many of these iron- and titanium-bearing minerals are magnetic. […] The magnetization of a crystal of a magnetic mineral (such as magnetite) is established immediately after the mineral crystallizes from a volcanic melt (lava) but before it cools below the Curie point temperature. Each magnetic mineral has its own specific Curie point. […] As the mineral grain passes through the Curie point, the ambient magnetic field is “frozen” into the crystal and will remain unchanged until the crystal is destroyed by weathering or once again heated above the Curie point. This “locking in” of the magnetic signal in igneous rock crystals is the crucial event for paleomagnetism, for it indicates the direction of magnetic north at the time the crystal cooled (sometime in the distant geologic past for most igneous rocks). The ancient latitudinal position of the rock (and the continent of which it is a part) can be determined by measuring the direction of the crystal’s magnetization. For ancient rocks, this direction can be quite different from the direction of present day magnetic north. […] Paleomagnetic reconstruction is a form of geological analysis that is, unfortunately, fraught with uncertainties. The original magnetization is easily altered by weathering and metamorphism, and can confuse or obliterate the original magnetic signal. An inherent limitation of paleomagnetic reconstruction of ancient continental positions is that the magnetic remanence only gives information concerning the rocks’ latitudinal position, and gives no clue as to the original longitudinal position of the rocks in question. For example, southern Mexico and central India, although nearly half a world apart, are both at about 20 degrees North latitude, and, therefore, lavas cooling in either country would have essentially the same primary magnetic remanence. One of the few ways to get information about the ancient longitudinal positions of continents is to use comparison of life forms on different continents. The study of ancient distributions of organisms is called paleobiogeography.”

“Photosynthesis is generally considered to be a characteristic of plants in the traditional usage of the term “plant.” Nonbiologists are sometimes surprised to learn that [some] animals are photosynthetic […] One might argue that marine animals with zooxanthellae (symbiotic protists) are not truly photosynthetic because it is the protists that do the photosynthesis, not the animal. The protists just happen to be inside the animal. We would argue that this is not an important consideration, since photosynthesis in all eukaryotic (nucleated) cells is accomplished by chloroplasts, tiny organelles that are the cell’s photosynthesis factories. Chloroplasts are now thought by many biologists to have arisen by a symbiosis event in which a small, photosynthetic moneran took up symbiotic residence within a larger microbe […]. The symbiotic relationship eventually became so well established that it became an obligatory relationship for both the host microbe and the smaller symbiont moneran. Reproductive provisions were made to pass the genetic material of the symbiont, as well as the host, on to succeeding generations. It would sound strange to describe an oak as a “multicellular alga invaded by photosynthetic moneran symbionts,” but that is — in essence — what a tree is. Animals with photosynthetic protists in their bodies are able to create food internally, in the same way that an oak tree can, so we feel that these animals can be correctly called photosynthetic. […] Many of the most primitive types of living metazoa contain photosymbiotic
microbes or chloroplasts derived from microbes.”

“The most obvious reason for any organism, regardless of what kingdom it belongs to, to evolve a leaf-shaped body is to maximize its surface area. Leaf shape evolves in response to factors in addition to surface area requirement, but the surface area requirement, in all cases we are aware of, is the most important factor. […] Leaves of modern plants and Ediacaran animals probably evolved similar shapes for the same reason, namely, maximization of surface area. […] Photosymbiosis is not the only possible departure from heterotrophic feeding, the usual method of food acquisition for modern animals. Seilacher (1984) notes that flat bodies are good for absorption of simple compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, needed for one type of chemosymbiosis. In chemosymbiosis as in photosymbiosis, microbes (in this case bacteria) are held within an animal’s tissues as paying guests. The bacteria are able to use the energy stored in hydrogen sulphide molecules that diffuse into the host animal’s tissues. The bacteria use the hydrogen sulfide to create food, using biochemical reactions that would be impossible for animals to do by themselves. The bacteria use some of the food for themselves, but great excesses are produced and passed on to the host animal’s tissues. […] There may be important similarities between the ecologies of
[…] flattened Ediacaran creatures and the modern deep sea vent faunas. […] A form of chemotrophy (feeding on chemicals) that does not involve symbiosis is simple absorption of nutrients dissolved in sea water. Although this might not seem a particularly efficient way of obtaining food, there are tremendous amounts of “unclaimed” organic material dissolved in sea water. Monerans allow these nutrients to diffuse into their cells, a fact well known to microbiologists. Less well known is the fact that larger organisms can feed in this way also. Benthic foraminifera up to 38 millimeters long from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, take up dissolved organic matter largely as a function of the surface area of their branched bodies”

“Although there is as of yet no unequivocal proof, it seems reasonable to infer from their shapes that members of the Ediacaran fauna used photosymbiosis, chemosymbiosis, and direct nutrient absorption to satisfy their food needs. Since these methods do not involve killing, eating, and digesting other living things, we will refer to them as “soft path” feeding strategies. Heterotrophic organisms use “hard path” feeding strategies because they need to use up the bodies of other organisms for energy. The higher in the food pyramid, the “harder” the feeding strategy, on up to the keystone predator (top carnivore) at the top of any particular ecosystem’s trophic pyramid. It is important to note that the term “hard,” as used here, does not necessarily imply that autotrophic organisms have any easier a time obtaining their food than do heterotrophic organisms. Green plants are not very efficient at converting sunlight to food; sunlight can be thought of as an elusive prey because it is not a concentrated energy source […]. Low food concentrations are a major difficulty encountered by organisms employing soft path feeding strategies. Deposit feeding is intermediate between hard and soft paths. […] Filter feeding, or capturing food suspended in the water, also has components of both hard and soft paths because suspension feeders can take both living and nonliving food from the water.”

“Probing deposit feeders […] began to excavate sediments to depths of several centimeters at the beginning of the Cambrian. Dwelling burrows several centimeters in length, such as Skolithos, first appeared in the Cambrian, and provided protection for filter-feeding animals. If a skeleton is broadly defined as a rigid body support, a burrow is in essence a skeleton formed of sediment […] Movement of metazoans into the substrate had profound implications for sea floor marine ecology. One aspect of the environment that controls the number and types of organisms living in the environment is called its dimensionality […]. Two-dimensional (or Dimension 2) environments tend to be flat, whereas three-dimensional environments (Dimension 3) have, to a greater or lesser degree, a third dimension. This third dimension can be either in an upward or a downward direction, or a combination of both directions. The Vendian sea floor was essentially a two-dimensional environment. […] With the probable exception of some of the stalked frond fossils, most Vendian soft-bodied forms hugged the sea floor. Deep burrowers added a third dimension to the benthos (sea floor communities), creating a three-dimensional environment where a two-dimensional situation had prevailed. The greater the dimensionality in any given environment, the longer the food chain and the taller the trophic pyramid can be […]. If the appearance of abundant predators is any indication, lengthening of the food chain seems to be an important aspect of the Cambrian explosion. Changes in animal anatomy and intelligence can be linked to this lengthening of the food chain. Most Cambrian animals are three-dimensional creatures, not flattened like many of their Vendian predecessors. Animals like mollusks and worms, even if they lack mineralized skeletons, are able to rigidify their bodies with the use of a water-filled internal skeleton called a coelom […] This fluid-filled cavity gives an animal’s body stiffness, and acts much like a turgid, internal, water balloon. A coelom allows animals to burrow in sediment in ways that a flattened animal (such as, for instance, a flatworm) cannot. It is most likely that a coelom first evolved in those Vendian shallow scribble-trail makers that were contemporaries of the large soft-bodied fossils. Some of these Ediacaran burrows show evidence of peristaltic burrowing. Inefficient peristaltic burrowing can be done without a coelom, but with a coelom it becomes dramatically more effective.”

Bilateral symmetry is important when considering the behavior of […] early coelomate animals. The most likely animal to evolve a brain is one with bilateral symmetry. Concomitant with the emergence of animals during the Vendian was the origin of brains. The Cambrian explosion was the first cerebralization or encephalization event. As part of the increase in the length of the food chain discussed above, higher-level consumers such as top or keystone predators established a mode of life that requires the seeking out and attacking of prey. These activities are greatly aided by having a brain able to organize and control complex behavior. […] Specialized light receptors seem to be a characteristic of all animals and many other types of organisms; […] photoreceptors have originated independently in at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty groups. Most animal phyla have at a minimum several pigmented eye spots. But advanced vision (i. e., compound or image-forming eyes) tied directly into a centralized brain is not common or well developed until the Cambrian. The tendency to have eyes is more pronounced for bilateral than for radial animals. […] some of the earliest trilobites had large compound eyes. Trilobites were probably not particularly smart by modern standards, but chances are that their behavioral capabilities far outstripped any that had existed during the early Vendian. […] Actively moving or vagile predators are, as a rule, smarter than their prey, because of the more rigorous requirements of information processing in a predatory life mode. Anomalocaris as a seek-and-destroy top predator may have been the brainiest Early Cambrian animal.”

“why didn’t brains and advanced predation develop much earlier that they did? A simple, thought experiment may help address this problem. Consider a jellyfish 1 mm in length and a cylindrical worm 1 mm in length. Increase the size (linear dimension) of each (by growth of the individual or by evolutionary change over thousands of generations) one hundred times. […] The worm will need internal plumbing because of its cylindrical body. The jellyfish won’t be as dependent on plumbing because its body has a higher surface area. […] Our enlarged, 10 cm long worm will possess a brain which has a volume one million times greater than the brain of its 1 mm predecessor (assuming that the shape of the brain remains constant). The jellyfish will also get more nerve tissue as it enlarges. But its nervous system is spread out in a netlike fashion; at most, its nerve tissue will be concentrated at a few radially symmetric points. The potential for complex and easily reprogrammed behavior, as well as sophisticated processing of sensory input data, is much greater in the animal with the million times larger brain (containing at least a million times as many brain cells as its tiny predecessor). Complex neural pathways are more likely to form in the larger brain. This implies no mysterious tendency for animals to grow larger brains; perfectly successful, advanced animals (echinoderms) and even slow-moving predators (sea spiders) get along fine without much brain. But centralized nerve tissue can process information better than a nerve net and control more complex responses to stimuli. Once brains were used to locate food, the world would never again be the same. This can be thought of as a “brain revolution” that permanently changed the world a half billion years ago.”

“There is little doubt that organisms produced oxygen before 2 billion years ago, but this oxygen was unable to accumulate as a gas because iron dissolved in seawater combined with the oxygen to form rust (iron oxide), a precipitate that sank, chemically inactive, to accumulate on the sea floor. Just as salt has accumulated in the oceans over billions of years, unoxidized (or reduced) iron was abundant in the seas before 2 billion years ago, and was available to “neutralize” the waste oxygen. Thus, dissolved iron performed an important oxygen disposal service; oxygen is a deadly toxin to organisms that do not have special enzymes to limit its reactivity. Once the reduced iron was removed from sea water (and precipitated on the sea floor as Precambrian iron formations; much of the iron mined for our automobiles is derived from these formations), oxygen began to accumulate in water and air. Life in the seas was either restricted to environments where oxygen remained rare, or was forced to develop enzymes […] capable of detoxifying oxygen. Oxygen could also be used by heterotrophic organisms to “burn” the biologic fuel captured in the form of the bodies of their prey. […] Much research has focused on lowered levels of atmospheric oxygen during the Precambrian. The other alternative, that oxygen levels were higher at times during the Precambrian than at present has not been much discussed. Once the “sinks” for free oxygen, such as dissolved iron, were saturated, there is little that would have prevented oxygen levels in the Precambrian from getting much higher than they are today. This is particularly so since there is no evidence for the presence of Precambrian land plants which could have acted as a negative feedback for continued increases in oxygen levels” [Here’s a recent-ish paper on the topicdo note that there’s an important distinction to be made between atmospheric oxygen levels and the oxygen levels of the oceans].

August 4, 2014 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Geology, Microbiology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough (I)

Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:

This book is almost 25 years old, and this is one of the main reasons why I did not give it five stars. Parts of this book is just amazing, but the fact that I felt that it was necessary to continually look up terms and ideas covered in the book made it slightly less fun to read than it could have been. Some parts of the scientific vocabulary applied throughout the book are frankly outdated, and this aspect reflects not only a change in which words are used but also, more importantly, a change in how people think about these things. That progress has been made since the book was written is a good thing, but it did subtract a little from the overall reading experience that I very often felt that I had to be quite careful about which specific conclusions to accept and which to question. It does not help that some of the main conclusions towards the end of the book seem to have been proven, for lack of a better word, wrong.

But all in all it’s really a very nice book – there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in there.”

A few sample quotes from the book:

“a distinction needs to be made between the two major types of animal fossils — body fossils and trace fossils. Body fossils are either actual parts of the organism’s body (such as a shell or a bone), or impressions of body parts (even if the parts themselves have been dissolved away or otherwise destroyed). The imprint of a feather or leaf or the external surface of a shell are examples of body fossils. […] Trace fossils are markings in the sediment (usually made while the sediment was still soft) left by the feeding, traveling, or burrowing activities of animals. Familiar examples of trace fossils include tracks and trails made by worms as they plow through sediment looking for food and ingesting sediment. […] Completely unrelated organisms can make trace fossils which are indistinguishable to paleontologists. Trace fossils are part of the fabric of the sediment, and therefore can be very resistant to destruction by metamorphism of the surrounding rock. Body fossils, on the other hand, are often destroyed by chemical reactions with the surrounding sediment. But body fossils are the only fossil type that can consistently give reliable information about the identity of the organism which left the remains. […] The worst problem in the search for the oldest animal fossils is mistaken identity. Sedimentary rocks are replete with irregular structures and small scale disturbances or interruptions of the horizontal bedding or layering. Some of these disturbances are caused by organisms, but many are not. […] Usually a well-preserved and well-formed trace fossil is unquestionably biologic in origin, and all paleontologists would agree that the trace was formed by an animal. Yet it can be difficult to define precisely what it is about a trace fossil that makes it convincingly biogenic (formed by life). […] A sedimentary structure that resembles, but is in fact not, a trace fossil (or a body fossil, for that matter) is called a pseudofossil. Pseudofossils have plagued the study of Precambrian paleontology because many inorganic sediment disturbances look deceptively like fossils.”

“Convincing trace fossils are known from the late Precambrian, sometimes in association with the soft bodied Ediacaran fossils (Glaessner 1969). These trace fossils are generally simpler, less common, and less diverse than Cambrian trace fossils. There is a significant difference in the complexity and depth of burrowing between Cambrian and Precambrian trace fossils, and it has been argued that the changeover from simple trace fossils to more complex types of traces occurred at more or less the same time as the Cambrian explosion, the first appearance of abundant Cambrian shelly fossils. […] Even shallow, sediment surface burrows in the Cambrian show a marked change in character over their Precambrian predecessors. […] something outstanding happened to the abilities of trace-fossil makers across the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary. Animals discovered a large number of ways to effectively use the sediment as a food resource, and also began to move deeper into the substrate for deposit feeding and homebuilding.”

“Seilacher (1984, 1985) recognizes that flattened body shapes maximize surface area for the takeup of oxygen and food dissolved in seawater, and perhaps also for the absorption of light. “Normal” metazoan animals generally have plump, more or less cylindrical, bodies. For very small, thin skinned animals, cells near the body surface can get oxygen and expel waste by simple diffusion across the cell surface membranes. Waste products such as carbon dioxide will be supersaturated inside of the animal’s body, and will tend to migrate out of its cells and into the open environment. The reverse is true for oxygen; it will tend to migrate into the cells because its concentration is greater on the outside than on the inside of an oxygen-respiring animal. Animals such as frogs and salamanders are able to respire (at least in part) in this way. But for most large, cylindrical animals, diffusion respiration will not work because diffusion is ineffective for cells buried deep within the animal’s body. This is a consequence of the fact that as an animal increases its size, its total volume outstrips its surface area by a large margin. […] metazoans have developed intricate systems of pipework and tubing to deliver nutrient and waste removal services to interior cells. Circulatory systems, digestive tracts, gills, and lungs are all solutions to the problems associated with volume increase.”

Monoplacophorans […] are cap-shaped shells distinguished by two rows of muscle scars on the interior of the shell. They were thought extinct until living specimens were dredged from the deep sea and described in the late 1950s. Monoplacophorans have had an unusual history of discovery. They are the only group of animals that has been: (a) described hypothetically before being discovered; (b) found as fossils before being found alive,- and (c) dredged from the depths of the oceans before being collected from shallower marine waters (Pojeta et al. 1987). […] Rostroconchs are a major, extinct, order of mollusks that first appeared in the earliest Cambrian. Rostroconchs have a shell that is shaped like a clam shell, except that instead of having an organic ligament connecting the two valves, the two halves of a rostroconch shell are fused together to form a single valve. Despite this fusion, larger rostroconchs look very much like clam fossils with valves still articulated, which partly explains why rostroconchs were not recognized as a major, distinct, group until the 1970s. […] Slightly after the first appearance of rostroconchs, the first true clams or bivalves appear. Clams probably had the same ancestor as the rostroconchs […]. Instead of keeping the two valves fused as in rostroconchs, clams hinged the valves with articulating teeth and a tough, organic ligament. This evidently proved to be the more successful approach, since bivalve shells now litter the beaches all over the earth, whereas rostroconchs dwindled to extinction in the Permian.”

“Of the earliest Cambrian shelly fossils, many groups are truly problematic in the sense that not only do we have no idea what kind of animal made them, but also we have no clear conception of the function or functions of the skeletal remains. […] there is an anomalously high proportion of small shelly fossils that do not belong to later phyla. “Living fossils” are creatures alive today that have undergone very little morphologic change for long stretches (sometimes 100 million years or more) of geologic time. Few living fossils remain from the earliest Paleozoic fauna. […] Many of the groups that were most important in the Cambrian are unimportant or extinct today, for example, the trilobites, the inarticulate brachiopods, hyoliths, monoplacophorans, eocrinoids, the sclerite-bearers, and phosphatic tube-formers. True metazoans were undoubtedly present before the Cambrian, but they were all, with [few] exception[s] […], soft-bodied. New types of soft-bodied animals appear in the Cambrian as well, but our understanding of these forms is restricted to rare finds of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils, which are even rarer than finds of the Ediacaran fauna.”

I’ll just quote that last part again: “our understanding of these forms is restricted to rare finds of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils”.

They’re talking about the findings of soft-bodied organisms who did not make shells or anything like that which lived more than 500 million years ago. To get a sense of perspective in terms of how long ago this is, have a look at this picture – that’s one guess at what we think the Earth might have looked like back then. In my mind, the fact that we know anything at all about soft-bodied animals living back then is pretty amazing to think about.

I could easily write perhaps four posts about this book, but I’m not going to do that. Instead I have decided for now to limit my coverage here to the stuff above and some links to relevant stuff I looked up while reading the book, which I have posted below – I was surprised how much relevant stuff wikipedia has on related matters, and if you’re curious you should really go have a look at some of those links. I should note that I will probably add another post about the book later on with some more observations from the book – it seems wrong to me to limit coverage of this great book to one post, but there’s no way I can cover all the good stuff in there anyway.

Here are as mentioned some relevant wiki links to the kinds of stuff they talk about in this book – most of the links are in my opinion links to articles of what I’d consider to be a ‘reasonable’ length/quality, and although I have not read all of them I’d note that some of them are quite good:

Cambrian explosion.
Ediacara biota (featured).
Trace fossil.
Cloudinid (‘good article’).
Brachiopod (‘good article’).
Bivalvia (featured).
Bryozoa (‘good article’).
Adam Sedgwick.
Roderick Murchison.
Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (noteworthy in this context is that the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary GSSP at Fortune Head had not been decided upon when this book was written – they have a whole chapter about these and related things).
Manorian glaciation (this is not what it’s called in the book, but that is what they’re talking about anyway).
Snowball Earth.
Timeline of glaciation.
Curie temperature.
Microbial mat.
Great Oxygenation Event.
Methane clathrate.

July 29, 2014 Posted by | Biology, Books, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Plant-Animal Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach (1)

This book, aimed at upper-division undergraduate students and those starting graduate studies, attempts to provide a manageable synthesis of recent developments in the field of terrestrial plant-animal interactions”, they write in the introduction. One of the amazon reviewers claimed that “This is a VERY easy read” – which was actually, in combination with the high ratings it’s got, a large factor leading me to give this book a try; I figured that I shouldn’t be too worried about the fact that this book is written for advanced undergraduates/graduate students in a field I’m not super familiar with.

The book is actually not terribly difficult to read – in the sense that most concepts/terms applied throughout the book are defined along the way, meaning that you’re unlikely to have major issues understanding what’s going on even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist (I’m not, so I should know). It also helps that many of the terms which are not defined along the way will be sort of obvious to you from the context (they never really tell you what coprolite is, but I should think a picture of a dinosaur turd would help… I incidentally read about those things last year, so that particular word did not cause me problems). Although not all ‘potentially problematic terms’ are defined in the book most of them are, and there are a lot of definitions in this book. It’s quite dense; it’s a book where my average reading speed will be around 10 pages per hour, when measured over multiple hours and including necessary reading breaks and so on – perhaps 13-15 when things are going really well. I recently started reading Christie’s Peril at End House, and I’m reasonably sure it’ll take me less time to read that entire book than it took me reading chapter 2 of this book (chapter 2 was, I should perhaps add, significantly longer than the average chapter). I’m well aware that some textbooks are worse than 10-15 pages/hour and I have my eyes on another text dealing with related stuff which I’m reasonably sure will be a bit more work than this one was, and I’m also aware that some books catering to a more advanced audience will presumably take familiarity with many of the terms defined in this book for granted; but even so, calling this ‘a very easy read’ is perhaps a bit much. I should note that although I don’t want to delude anyone into thinking this book is easier to read than it is, I also really don’t want to give people reading along here more excuses not to read this book than is strictly necessary, because I think it’s just a great book.

I have decided to give the book a couple of posts here on the blog, perhaps 3, but I don’t know when I’ll post the others – I have finished the book, and I’ve started reading Kuhn. I’m somewhat behind on the book blogging at the moment, which tends to happen when I’m reading stuff offline; in part because blogging books I’ve read offline is in general a lot more work, among other things because I can’t copy/paste relevant segments when quoting from the books.

I’ve given the book five stars on goodreads simply because as mentioned it’s a really great book – it’s the sort of book which does all those things I’ve been consistently annoyed about popular science books dealing with topics related to the ones covered in this book not doing, and it’s on the other hand also the sort of book which does none of those annoying things the other type of books tend to do. The book doesn’t spend a page talking about how butterflies look nice, ‘you could see the sun setting in the distance…’, or some anecdote about the uncle of the author or crap like that; you have definitions, functional relationships and dynamics explored in detail – a thoroughly analytical approach, without all the infuriating crud. Occasional appreciation, yes, but mainly just the data, the dynamics, the science.

In biology you have two major fields called zoology (dealing with animals) and botany (dealing with plants), but “the knowledge of these two groups of organisms has traditionally progressed along separate lanes, under the leadership of different researchers and independently of each other” (a quote from the introduction). What this means is that there haven’t been a lot of people who’ve done work on ‘the stuff in the middle’ – which is a shame, as “we will never fully understand the evolution of the morphology, behaviour and life history of plants and animals unless we understand in sufficient detail their reciprocal influences in ecological and evolutionary time” (another quote from the introduction). So they’ve written down some of the things they know about these things. The book has nine chapters written by 13 different contributors. The first two chapters are sort of ‘general’ chapters; the first one is about: ‘Species interactions and the evolution of biodiversity’, and the second (much longer) one is about: ‘The history of associations between plants and animals’. In part 2 of the book, dealing with ‘mostly antagonisms’, they talk about plant-insect interactions (chapter 3), mammalian herbivory (chapter 4) and granivory (chapter 5 – “Granivory describes the interaction between plants and the animals (termed granivores or seed-predators) that feed mainly or exclusively on seeds.”). In part 3, dealing with ‘mostly mutualisms’, they talk about pollination by animals (chapter 6) and seed dispersal by vertebrates (chapter 7). In the last part, ‘synthesis’, they talk about ant-plant interactions (chapter 8) and a little bit about ‘future directions’ in research on these matters (chapter 9). In my opinion there were no bad chapters in this book – this is a ‘pure’ five star rating, without any kind of ‘compensatory stuff’ going on. Other people may disagree, but my opinion is that the book is well written, deals with super interesting stuff, and that this stuff is just plain fascinating!

It would be easy to write one post dealing with each of the chapters but I’m not going to do that, and so my posts about this book are going to be another set of those posts where you’ll spend perhaps 10-15 minutes on perhaps 10 hours of material. The book has a lot of stuff I simply cannot cover here, and I highly recommend that you read it if you find the stuff I cover here interesting. It’s been hard to blog this book because it’s in general really difficult to know what to exclude, and very easy to find new things to add. The stuff below covers some of the material from the first two chapters, corresponding to roughly 75 pages.

“The majority of terrestrial organisms fly. […] The evolution of propelled and passive flight, and their consequences, may well be regarded as the most creative force in the development of biodiversity. Most plants fly at one stage of their life cycle or another, as pollen or as seeds or both. Spores of ferns and fungi fly. Pollen, spores and seeds are carried on the wind by a multitude of winged animals: insects, birds, bats and perhaps pterosaurs in their day. […] the vast majority of terrestrial organisms exist in trophic systems based on plants, be they the plant themselves, herbivores, carnivores, pollinators, frugivores or granivores […] as we climb the trophic ladder, species richness increases by orders of magnitude. A plant species, such as an oak, birch or willow, may be host to 200-300 insect herbivore species. Each herbivorous insect may be utilized by 10-20 carnivores, either predators or parasites. The plant provides both food and habitat for the associated fauna and many microhabitats are available for colonization […] Including undescribed species, there may be 10-100 million species of all kinds living today, over half of them insects, of which 99,5% can fly in the adult stage. […] Add to the insects about 9000 species of birds and 1000 bat species, together making up 80% of the warm-blooded vertebrates, and we see that conquest of the air has been an evolutionary ‘success’ of extreme proportions.”

“The basis for the spectacular radiations of animals on earth today is clearly the resources provided by the plants. They are the major primary producers, autotrophically energizing planet Earth. […] Well over 90% of energy in terrestrial systems is fixed by autotrophic plants (the remainder by algae and bacteria), and almost all terrestrial animals depend on autotrophic production, either directly as herbivores or saprophages, or for shelter and microhabitats, or indirectly as predators and parasites utilizing the second trophic level of herbivores. […] plant-animal interactions are both direct and indirect and ramify throughout the trophic system. […] multitrophic-level interactions are ubiquitous and important both for the understanding of natural interactions and for effective management of landscapes dominated by humans […] while plant hosts and their varied insect herbivores evolve and are constantly replaced in time and space, their associations nonetheless remain constant. A Paleozoic palaeodictyopterid insect imbibing vascular tissue sap from a marattialean tree fern is functionally playing the same role as an aphic today feeding on the same tissues in an angiosperm […] Given the taxonomic turnover of vascular plants and herbivorous insects and yet the survival of persistent ecological associations, the phenomenon of ecological convergence is an important long-term pattern […] multidisciplinary evidence from various geological disciplines, particularly those applied to the earlier part of the fossil record, indicate that the more ancient the ecosystem, the less it resembles the present.”

“Three hypotheses have been proposed for assessing how ecological units, such as functional feeding groups, dietary guilds and mouthpart classes, expand in macroevolutionary time […] The first hypothesis, the ecological saturation hypothesis (ESH), advocated by palaeobiologists, maintains that the total number of ecological positions, or roles, has remained approximately constant through time after an initial exponential rise […] Thus taxa enter and exit the ecological arena of the biological community […], but their associations or roles remain virtually level. By contrast, the expanding resource hypothesis (ERH) is favoured by biologists and states that there is a gradual increase in food resources and availability of niches through time […] the intrinsic trend of diversification hypothesis (ITDH) […] holds that the long-term patterns of ESH and ERH vary among groups of organisms […] This view would imply that the proportion of occupied ecological roles has a globally disjunct pattern according to group, time and space. Of these, the current data favors ESH, if one assumes that the ecological clock was set during the Pennsylvanian and the previous fossil record is too poor for analysis.”

“Taphonomy is the study of the physical, chemical and biotic events that affect organisms after death, including pre-burial processes that transform the original living community into an entombed death assemblage that may be encountered by paleobiologists many aeons later. The fidelity to which the preserved assemblage actually resembles the source community is an issue in dicussions of the quality of the fossil record […] A full appreciation of the fossil associational record [between insects and plants] requires an evaluation of the five major types of qualitative evidence: plant reproductive biology, plant damage, dispersed coprolites, gut contents, and insect mouthparts. […] Collectively, these five types of evidence range from the direct, ‘smoking gun’ of gut contents, where the consumer and consumed are typically identifiable, to the more remote and circumstantial evidence of floral reproductive biology and mouthparts, where inferences are based on functional understanding, usually from modern analogues. […] Of all types of evidence for plant-arthropod associations, plant damage has the most extensive fossil record […] gut contents are the rarest type of evidence for plant-animal associations”

“Functional feeding groups can be sorted into 14 basic ways that insects access food” [I had no idea! And yes, they talk about all of these in the book. Note that you can easily split up those ‘basic ways’ into more subcategories if you like:] “In well-preserved Cretaceous and Caenozoic angiosperm-dominated floras, there are approximately 30 distinct types of external foliage-feeding, ranging from generalized bite-marks on margins to highly stereotyped and often intricate patterns of slot-hole feeding: earlier floras have fewer recognizable types of damage. […] The history of arthropod feeding on plants began during the Late Silurian to early Devonian […] by the close of the Pennsylvanian, the expansion of arthropod herbivory had invaded all plant organisms and virtually all plant tissues […] This expansion of dietary breadth provided a modern cast to the spectrum of insect diets. […] while the overwhelming bulk of the 14 plant-associated diet types was in place during the late Pennsylvanian, it was followed by the addition of 4 novel diet types during the Mesozoic in conjunction with the establishment of freshwater ecosystems and the diversification of advanced seed plants. […] When expressed as a diversity curve spanning the past 400 million years, there is a linear but stepped rise in mouthpart class diversity from the Early Devonian to the Early Jurassic, where it reached a plateau, followed by only a few subsequent additions […] Thus virtually all basic mouthpart innovation, including plant-associated mouthpart classes, was established prior to the angiosperm ecological expansion during the Middle Cretaceous [this was when flowering plants really took off, US], suggesting that mouthpart classes are attributable to basic associations with seed plants, or vascular plants of the more remote past, rather than the relatively late-appearing angiosperms […] Arthropods have used plants extensively for shelter probably since the Early Devonian”

“The amount of live plant tissue assimilated by arthropods is significantly greater than that of vertebrates in virtually all biomes except grasslands […] The fossil evidence indicates that this arthropod dominance has probably been the case since the establishment of the earliest terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, it was not until the latest Devonian that vertebrates emerged on land […], for which evidence indicates obligate carnivory. […] Direct evidence for vertebrate herbivory does not occur until the latest Pennsylvanian to earliest Permian […], about 100 million years after it appeared among mid-Paleozoic arthropods. […] A consequence of large vertebrate size is that consumption of plant organs is frequently complete and not partial as it is among arthropods, leaving minimal evidence from leaves, seeds and other wholly-consumed items. Also, the rarity of vertebrates when compared to arthropods may result in an underestimate of vertebrate importance in their interactions with plants. […] An interesting aspect of Paleozoic tetrapod herbivores is that they were uniformly short-necked and short-limbed browsers that cropped plant material within a metre to perhaps two metres of the ground surface. This trend continued […] into the Late Triassic, at which time basal dinosaur lineages began their diversification into virtually all major terrestrial feeding niches […] While Paleocene to middle Eocene mammalian herbivores were dominated by small to medium-sized forms consuming fruit, seeds and leaves, later herbivores were much larger, and invaded the browsing and eventually grazing adaptive zones […] This shift is related to the mid-Caenozoic origin of savanna and grassland biomes concomitant with the ecological spread of grasses. The oldest grasses reliably documented in the fossil record occur at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary [~56 mya, US] […], although the earliest evidence for a grassland-adapted mammalian fauna is from the middle Oligocene [~28 mya, US] of Mongolia […] During the Pleistocene (2.65 Ma to 10 000 yr BP), much of the Planet underwent severe climactic pertubations from five major episodes of continental and associated alpine glaciation. Continental faunas were considerably reorganized during and after this interval in terms of dominance and composition of species […] Much evidence now supports a view that continental species did not respond as cohesive assemblages to these major environmental shifts, but rather individualistically […] An important exception to this trend are insects with high host specificity, which responded differently, retaining ancestral plant associations to the present […] or becoming extinct. Herbivorous mammals have less obligate dependence on plant species […] and thus exhibit greater dietary flexibility during times of major environmental stress.”

June 12, 2014 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Paleontology, Zoology | 4 Comments


i. Troubadour, gainsay, sordid, repast, calumniate, skinflint, gentile, enjoin, prestidigitation, compunction, madrigal, bacchanalian, reify, effete, seamy, betoken, codicil, peripatetic, reactionary, mendicant, osculate, expiation, propitiation, viand, panegyric, fulsome, paean, rarefied, vitiate, bibulous, delineate, wistful, hirsute, staid, bandy, mettle, saturnine, prorogue, legerdemain, caesura, dilatory, prolix, din, hoary, obsequious, spoonerism, gratuitous, diverting, contrite, grouse, preen, poignant, roil, aver, importune, lampoon, flagitious, expedient, parlous, obdurate, piebald, dolorous, parsimony, mawkish, natty, blithely, fractious, pique, bathos, cant, recreant, plumb, diaphanous, argot, ursine, frisson, insouciant, meretricious, upbraid, pugnacious, curate, plaintively, spate, cabal, slake, odium, encomium, mulct, turgid, disport, ply, cavort, cloying, sable, svelte, idempotent, teleological, inchoate, comity, bucolic.

The above is a list of the first 100 words I’ve ‘mastered’ on the site. Of course I knew some of them already, but I’ve also learned quite a few new words here along the way and it’d be incorrect to say that I haven’t also gotten a better grasp of some of the words with which I was already familiar. Here’s how it works. A few of the assessment questions so far have been in my opinion really poor (allowing for multiple correct answers, only one of which is accepted as correct), but in general this seems like an extremely useful site and the site does allow you to provide feedback if you think a question is poorly worded.

Do note that average vocabulary sizes are really rather small, all things considered: “Most adult native test-takers range from 20,000-35,000 words”. I think that you can probably progress rather rapidly with a tool like this, if you use it consistently. Note that the site doesn’t completely stop asking you questions about the words you’ve ‘mastered’; brush-up questions are added occasionally to aid retention. The starting point is as far as I can remember based on educational background, so if you’re a graduate student you shouldn’t worry that the site will start out by asking you if you know the word ‘house’ or ‘cat’. I’m pretty sure even walking dictionaries will find plenty of words along the way that they are unfamiliar with.

I’ll probably stop going on about the site now, but I really like it at this point and so I figured I should post at least a few posts about it before letting it go. It’s a very neat tool.

ii. For the last two years I have been involved in a medical trial aimed at figuring out if a specific drug might be used to delay the development of retinopathy in diabetics. My participation in the trial ended this week. The trial was more or less a direct result of a smaller trial in which I also participated, which showed some promising initial results – here’s the relevant paper. The researcher conducting the trial I just participated in will publish a paper about it later on, and I’ll naturally blog that when it’s published. There has been talk about continuing the project (/…that is, starting a new project) for the participants who got the active drug – half of the people in this trial got placebo – in order to increase the follow-up period. If I got the active drug (whether or not I did is not clear at this point, but I’ll be told relatively soon) I’ll probably participate in the new trial as well. No, the person who’s going to analyze the data will not be told whether or not I got the active drug – I asked about this part, but the study design is such that the double blind aspect is not compromised; the researcher who’ll figure out whether or not I got the active drug is not involved in the data analysis at all.

Medical trials often have trouble finding participants and selection into such trials is far from random. If you live in Denmark, you should check out this site. I assume similar resources exist in other countries…

A couple more 60 symbols videos below. I’ve now watched most of the videos they’ve posted, and I really like this stuff:

“He was a very strange man. And yet he’s absolutely wonderful!” – I could easily have said something similar about him. I’d much, much rather spend time with someone like that than with a ‘normal’ (boring) person. (Here’s a related link. Also, this.)

iv. The Relationship between Anxiety and the Social Judgements of Approachability And Trustworthiness:

“The aim of the current study was to examine the relationship between individual differences in anxiety and the social judgements of trustworthiness and approachability. We assessed levels of state and trait anxiety in eighty-two participants who rated the trustworthiness and approachability of a series of unexpressive faces. Higher levels of trait anxiety (controlling for age, sex and state anxiety) were associated with the judgement of faces as less trustworthy. In contrast, there was no significant association between trait anxiety and judgements of approachability. These findings indicate that trait anxiety is a significant predictor of trustworthiness evaluations and illustrate the importance of considering the role of individual differences in the evaluation of trustworthiness. We propose that trait anxiety may be an important variable to control for in future studies assessing the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying trustworthiness. This is likely to be particularly important for studies involving clinical populations who often experience atypical levels of anxiety.”

v. Mass extinction of lizards and snakes at the Cretaceous – Paleogene boundary:

“The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary is marked by a major mass extinction, yet this event is thought to have had little effect on the diversity of lizards and snakes (Squamata). A revision of fossil squamates from the Maastrichtian and Paleocene of North America shows that lizards and snakes suffered a devastating mass extinction coinciding with the Chicxulub asteroid impact. Species-level extinction was 83%, and the K-Pg event resulted in the elimination of many lizard groups and a dramatic decrease in morphological disparity. Survival was associated with small body size and perhaps large geographic range. The recovery was prolonged; diversity did not approach Cretaceous levels until 10 My after the extinction, and resulted in a dramatic change in faunal composition. The squamate fossil record shows that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction was far more severe than previously believed, and underscores the role played by mass extinctions in driving diversification.”

A little more:

“Survival at the K-Pg boundary is highly nonrandom. Small size has been identified as a determinant of survival (36), yet size selectivity is evident even among the squamates. The most striking pattern is the extinction of all large lizards and snakes. […] The largest known early Paleocene lizard is Provaranosaurus acutus. Comparisons with varanids suggest an SVL [snout-vent length, US] of 305 mm and a mass of 415 g (Dataset S1), compared with an estimated SVL of 850 mm and mass of 6 kg for the largest Maastrichtian lizard, Palaeosaniwa. The largest early Paleocene snake is Helagras prisciformis, with an estimated SVL >950 mm and a mass >520 g, compared with >1,700 mm and 2.9 kg for the largest Maastrichtian snake, Cerberophis. […]

Size selectivity may help explain why nonavian dinosaurs became extinct, suggesting that it was nonavian dinosaurs’ failure to evolve a diverse fauna of small-bodied species, rather than a decrease in the diversity of large-bodied forms, that ultimately sealed their fate. A number of small, nonavian dinosaurs are now known from the Late Cretaceous, including alvarezsaurids (37) and microraptorine dromaeosaurids (38), and taphonomic biases almost certainly obscure the true diversity of small dinosaurs (38, 39). However, the fact remains that during the late Maastrichtian, small dinosaurs were vastly outnumbered by other small vertebrates, including a minimum of 30 squamates, 18 birds (15), and 50 mammal species (40). Strikingly, birds—the only dinosaurs to survive— were the only dinosaurs with a high diversity of smallbodied (<5 kg) forms (15). In this context, a discussion of a decline in large dinosaur diversity in the Maastrichtian (9) is perhaps beside the point. A high diversity of large herbivores and carnivores in the latest Maastrichtian would have been unlikely to change the fate of the nonavian dinosaurs, because no animals occupying these niches survived. Instead, the rarity of small dinosaurs—resulting perhaps from being outcompeted by squamates and mammals for these niches —led to their downfall. […]

Extinction at the K-Pg boundary was followed by recovery in the Paleocene and Eocene. A number of new lizard lineages occur in the basal Paleocene, notably the stem varanoid Provaranosaurus, xantusiids, and amphisbaenians (27). These may represent opportunistic invaders that colonized the area in the aftermath to exploit niches left vacant by the extinction, as seen among mammals (10, 44). Despite this, early Paleocene diversity is considerably lower than late Maastrichtian diversity (Fig. 3). Subsequently, ecological release provided by the extinction allowed the survivors to stage an adaptive radiation, paralleling the adaptive radiations staged by mammals (6, 45, 46), birds (46, 47), and fish (48). The community that emerges in the early Eocene is dominated by groups that are either minor components of the Cretaceous fauna or unknown from the Cretaceous […] diversity does not approach Cretaceous levels until the early Eocene, 10 My later […] Unlike mammals, […] squamates appear to have simply reoccupied the niches they occupied before the extinction. This reoccupation of niches was […] delayed; by the middle Paleocene, lizards had yet to recover the range of body sizes and morphotypes found in the Maastrichtian (Fig. 5).”

October 4, 2013 Posted by | Biology, Ecology, Language, Lectures, Medicine, Paleontology, Personal, Physics, Psychology, Studies, Zoology | Leave a comment

Dinosaurs past and present (2)

You can read my first post about the book here. I ended up giving it three stars on goodreads. I’m closer to two stars than four. It’s an old book, and although this ads to the reading experience at some points (see also some of the quotes below) it subtracts elsewhere. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was okay and at times somewhat interesting. Some quotes from the last half of the book:

“Failure to recognize the full potential of trackways and track sites has frequently been a contributing factor in the proliferation of incorrect reconstructions of dinosaur activity. Even where good trackway evidence existed and was well known the interpretation rarely was adequate. For example, the Texan track sites reviewed here tell us that sauropods did not drag their tails, yet probably ninety-nine percent of all sauropod reconstructions made in the last fifty years have suggested that they did.”

“The widely debated issue of dinosaur endothermy and ectothermy has a direct bearing on the question of whether smaller dinosaurs like dromacosaurids or hypsilophodontids should be shown with an outer insulating fur or featherlike pelt. To date no direct evidence exists that any known dinosaur had such a covering…” (As many of you would probably know, we do have such evidence today. See e.g. this and this.)

“Until recently most restored dinosaurs were either drab gray, drab brown, or drab green. The assumption was that since the actual colors were unknown, these were “safe” colors. […] At present there is no proof for pattern or colors in dinosaurs. Considering the likelihood that their lives were governed by the same behavioral principles as modern vertebrates, it seems probable that most of these animals may have had patterns and colors of almost any kind rather than being drab and patternless. […] most baby dinosaurs would almost certainly have needed cryptic markings to help them hide from predators.”

“[A] fascinating possibility would be to re-create as a computer-animated simulation an event like the Glen Rose Sauropod Migration or Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede from Australia described by Thulborn and Wade (1979). To do so a map of the trackway assemblage would be recorded on a data tablet and programmed as a perspective view on a computer screen. Since the size, depth, and angle of the tracks can often furnish information about the size, weight, and approximate speed of an animal, the data from a single indivdual’s footprints, if these could be isolated, could be used to construct and program dinosaur images that would fit the size of each set of tracks. Combined with texture mapping and shading techniques, these images could be animated to show the sauropod herd migrating from a moving “camera-eye” vantage point in a simulated Jurassic landscape.” (…just 6 years later people could watch Jurassic Park in movie theatres around the world – I know this was not what the author had in mind, but…)

“During the Mesozoic era herbaceous plants were less abundant than they are now. Larger plants produce less new growth in proportion to their weight than do herbs. Plant biomass must therefore have been more highly visible in dinosaurian landscapes and imparted much “character” to ancient terrestrial ecosystems. Complete plants are seldom found in the fossil record, and whole-plant restorations are rarely made. It is thus very difficult to estimate the appearance of ancient plantscapes.”

“Relative to six other international groups (Hoffman and Nitecki 1985), vertebrate paleontologists are the least supportive of the asteroid-impact hypothesis and the most confident that there was not a Cretaceous mass extinction. In a survey taken during the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in the fall of 1985 (Browne 1985), twenty-seven percent of the respondents saw no evidence for a mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and forty-three percent believed that the approximately coincidental impact of an asteroid did not cause the extinctions. […] The point of view I hold cannot have been popular, for only four percent of the respondents at the 1985 meeting (I was unable to attend) felt that an asteroid impact resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

In case some of you have a desire to read a little more about ‘this kind of stuff’, I’ve posted a few links below:

Petrified Forest National Park (featured wikipedia article).

September 29, 2013 Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Dinosaurs past and present (1)

It’s a neat little book.

Some quotes from the first half:

“most trackways of extant mammal species seen in the wild record leisurely paces made during the slow, unhurried daily and seasonal routine […] Top-speed runs are very important in the evolution of limb structure, but maximum speed accounts for only a tiny fraction of the total footsteps taken by an individual animal during its lifetime. Fossil footprints should be viewed as the documentation of an average daily cruising speed, not of top speed.  […] dinosaurs had cruising speeds as high or higher than that of mammals with comparable body size and feeding habits. Mammoths cruised at speeds no higher than that of nodosaurid and sauropod dinosaurs. Moa cruising speed was no higher than that of duck-billed dinosaurs. Theropod dinosaurs cruised at higher speeds than that of modern mammals. Therefore we can conclude that the average everyday pace of dinosaurian locomotor activity was as quick as or quicker than that of the present-day Mammalia.

In addition, the footprint survey showed that the primitive reptiles and amphibians of the Paleozoic cruised at speeds far slower than that of dinosaurs and mammals. Life in the Carboniferous and early Permian must have been played out at a toad’s pace. A sudden and dramatic increase in average cruising speed coincided with the rise of the advanced mammallike reptiles (therapsids) and thecodonts at the beginning of the Triassic. And the Triassic acceleration of cruising speed coincides precisely with change in bone histology, documented by Ricqlès (1974)”

“MacArthur and Wilson (1967) argue that on a continuous scale of reproductive strategies there are two extreme kinds. One is “r selection” (r stands for rate of increase by reproduction) in which an individual has many offspring either by having a few offspring at frequent intervals or by having large numbers of offspring at one time. One characteristic of organisms that exhibit r selection is that they are small. A good example among mammals is mice versus elephants; mice show r selection, elephants do not. A pair of mice will produce many generations in a short time, while a pair of elephants have few young and each generation takes more than ten years. Elephants show “K selection” (K stands for the carrying capacity of the environment, which becomes the limiting factor for these animals). Two features of animals that exhibit K selection are large size and long generation time.
K and r selections are the two extremes of a range of reproductive strategies. K selection is especially suited to stable climates in which the full resources of the environment can be exploited safely. The tropics are a good example. […] In contrast, r selection is best suited to unpredictable environments, such as temperate and subpolar regions where the production of large numbers of offspring insures against environmental catastrophe, freeze, flood, or drought. Clutch sizes correlate inversely with body size (Calder 1983).” [To me this was just review of stuff I already knew, but I figured some of you didn’t know about r/K selection theory, and the tradeoff between quality and quantity of offspring is an important concept one should know about so I decided to include the quote in the post. Some of the stuff below is review as well, but again – it’s important stuff you should know and it doesn’t hurt to go over it again.]

“The larger the animal, the lower the metabolic rate per unit body weight. Although metabolic rate seems to be related to surface area, it is not. (Not all mammals are constantly warm; those that are not will lose heat to the air when the air is cooler than they are and gain heat when the air temperature exceeds their own. Yet, in heterotherms the larger the animal, the lower the metabolic rate and their metabolic rates also correlate with their surface areas.) Coulson (1984) theorizes that metabolic rate is determined principally by the distance blood has to travel from the heart to the capillary, and the greater the distance, the greater the resistance and the slower the flow through the capillaries and veins and return to the heart.”

“Stepping frequency is inversely related to body size or limb length (Calder 1984). Stridelength increases with size (Maloiy et al. 1979). The total energy cost of travel increases with size but is cheaper per kilogram (Bennett 1982, for reptiles; Taylor, Heglund, and Maloiy, 1982, for mammals).”

“For mammals, at least, size is a significant factor in determining a sense of hearing. Mice can hear more than two octaves higher than elephants at an intensity level of sixty decibels. A strong inverse relationship can be recorded between the high-frequency cutoff (at sixty decibels) and the time difference between the arrival of sounds at the two ears in mammals (Heffner and Masterton 1980; Heffner and Heffner 1980). Birds do not seem to exhibit such a relationship with the high-frequency cutoff, but extremely large birds have not been examined (Knudsen 1980; Dooling 1980).”

Volume is proportional to length cubed; surface area is proportional to length squared. If a simple geometric shape such as a cube doubles in length, it will acquire four times the original surface area and eight times the original volume. When we think of tiny dinosaurs, it is helpful to think of the converse of the consequences such scaling where volume is dramatically reduced relative to surface area […] The result is a tiny individual with a high surface to volume ratio. […] this most profoundly affects heat exchange and other exchange phenomena […] Tiny animals are more likely to seek shelter when stressed by temperature change.”

September 26, 2013 Posted by | Biology, Books, Paleontology, Zoology | 3 Comments


i. I’ve played some good chess over the last few weeks. I’m currently participating in an unrated chess tournament –  the format is two games per evening (one with the white pieces and one with the black), with 45 minutes per person per game. The time control means that although the games aren’t rated, they’re at least long enough to be what I’d consider ‘semi-serious’.

Here’s a recent game I played, from that tournament – I was white. It wasn’t without flaws on my part but it was ‘good enough’ as he was basically lost out of the opening. I wasn’t actually sure if 7.Qd4 could be played (this should tell you all you need to know about how much I know about the Pirc…) but I was told after the game that it was playable – my opponent had seen it in a book before, but he’d forgotten how the theory went and so he made a blunder. It was the second game that evening, played shortly after I’d held my opponent, a ca. 2000 FIDE rated player, to a draw in the first game. I mention the first game also because I think it’s quite likely that the outcome of that game played a role in the mistake he made in the second game. The average rating of my opponents so far has been 1908 (I’ve also drawn a 2173 FIDE guy along the way, though the chess in that case was not that great), and I’m at +1 after six games. I’ve beaten FMs before in bullet and blitz, but as mentioned these games are a tad more serious than, say, random 3 minute games online, and this is one of the first times I’ve encountered opponents as strong as this in a ‘semi-serious’ setting. And I’m doing quite well. It probably can’t go on, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

ii. An interesting medical lecture about vaccines:

iii. Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases.

“This paper assesses gender disparities in federal criminal cases. It finds large gender gaps favoring women throughout the sentence length distribution (averaging over 60%), conditional on arrest offense, criminal history, and other pre-charge observables. Female arrestees are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. Prior studies have reported much smaller sentence gaps because they have ignored the role of charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing fact-finding in producing sentences. Most studies control for endogenous severity measures that result from these earlier discretionary processes and use samples that have been winnowed by them. I avoid these problems by using a linked dataset tracing cases from arrest through sentencing. Using decomposition methods, I show that most sentence disparity arises from decisions at the earlier stages, and use the rich data to investigate causal theories for these gender gaps.”

Here’s what she’s trying to figure out: “In short, I ask: do otherwise-similar men and women who are arrested for the same crimes end up with the same punishments, and if not, at what points do their fates diverge?”

Some stuff from the paper:

“The estimated gender disparities are strikingly large, conditional on observables. Most notably, treatment as male is associated with a 63% average increase in sentence length, with substantial unexplained gaps throughout the sentence distribution. These gaps are much larger than those estimated by previous research. This is because, as the sequential decomposition demonstrates, the gender gap in sentences is mostly driven by decisions earlier in the justice process—most importantly sentencing fact-finding, a prosecutor-driven process that other literature has ignored.

But why do these disparities exist? Despite the rich set of covariates, unobservable gender differences are still possible, so I cannot definitively answer the causal question. However, several plausible theories have testable implications, and I take advantage of the unusually rich dataset to explore them. I find substantial support for some theories (particularly accommodation of childcare responsibilities and perceived role differences in group crimes), but that these appear only to partially explain the observed disparities.” […]

“Columns 11-12 of Table 5 show that the gender gap is substantially larger among black than non-black defendants (74% versus 51%). The race-gender interaction adds to our understanding of racial disparity: racial disparities among men significantly favor whites,29 but among women, the race gap in this sample is insignificant (and reversed in sign). The interaction also offers another theory for the gender gap: it might partly reflect a “black male effect”—a special harshness toward black men, who are by far the most incarcerated group in the U.S. […] This theory only goes so far, however — the gender gap even among non-blacks is over 50%, far larger than the race gap among men.”

iv. Low glycaemic index, or low glycaemic load, diets for diabetes mellitus?

“Nutritional factors affect blood glucose levels, however there is currently no universal approach to the optimal dietary strategy for diabetes. Different carbohydrate foods have different effects on blood glucose and can be ranked by the overall effect on the blood glucose levels using the so-called glycaemic index. By contributing a gradual supply of glucose to the bloodstream and hence stimulating lower insulin release, low glycaemic index foods, such as lentils, beans and oats, may contribute to improved glycaemic control, compared to high glycaemic index foods, such as white bread. The so-called glycaemic load represents the overall glycaemic effect of the diet and is calculated by multiplying the glycaemic index by the grammes of carbohydrates.

We identified eleven relevant randomised controlled trials, lasting 1 to 12 months, involving 402 participants. Metabolic control (measured by glycated haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a long-term measure of blood glucose levels) decreased by 0.5% HbA1c with low glycaemic index diet, which is both statistically and clinically significant. Hypoglycaemic episodes significantly decreased with low glycaemic index diet compared to high glycaemic index diet. No study reported on mortality, morbidity or costs.”

v. I started reading Dinosaurs Past and Present a few days ago. It’s actually a quite short and neat book, but I haven’t gotten very far as other things have gotten in the way. I just noticed that a recently published PlosOne study deals with some of the same topics covered in the book – I haven’t read it yet but if you’re curious you can read the article on Forearm Posture and Mobility in Quadrupedal Dinosaurs here.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | Chess, Data, Diabetes, Immunology, Lectures, Medicine, Paleontology, Personal, Studies | Leave a comment