29 April 2009

"Stripping the harmonic notes out of a symphony"

Climate is a major determinant of where a species lives and how species interact. Biologists also know that climate change will outpace evolution for a great number of organisms, although perhaps not for bacteria, viruses and some insects. Barnosky describes the result as "like taking a color portrait and rendering it in black and white, or stripping all the harmonic notes out of a symphony". But not all organisms will be affected negatively; some will flourish. We need to figure out if climate change is eroding the species that humans value and replacing them with those that cause harm. And we must identify which species will be most affected, which ones will muddle through and which will rise to prominence. This information will help us to determine what sort of biotic world climate change is creating and what steps we might take to affect that change.
-- from a review by Jessica Hellmann of Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming by Anthony D. Barnosky, included in Nature's Climate Crunch package.

Image: lakes forming on glaciers in the Bhutan-Himalaya region.

As we to Floresiensis

On the wilder shores, perhaps, Michael Anissimov wonders whether the only way to escape a scenario in which billions of people are killed by toxins deliberately engineered and delivered by micro-robotic scorpions, parasitic wasps, fairyflies and the like [1] is to create a "benevolent singleton", an "Intelligence Amplified fundamentally considerate and kind human whose intelligence is actually improved above Homo sapiens to the tune that H. sapiens is above H. heidelbergensis."

Para eso habeis nacido
To be contrary, and with only a bit of tongue in cheek, couldn't there be more room for beings a little less intelligent, perhaps a little like H. floresiensis, which in a slower world might persist for millions of years?


[1] On insects as weapons, insect cyborgs and roboflies see Jeffrey Lockwood.

The Angel

...Scientists say ocean acidity has increased 30% since the Industrial Revolution, the fastest change in ocean chemistry for at least 65 million years...

...The rate of increase [in atmospheric concentrations of CO2] is much faster than only 10-20 years ago...

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
-- Walter Benjamin


[1] (added 21.00) See also: Hit the breaks hard at RealClimate

28 April 2009

Truth will trout

...no matter how much pain creatures we view as "food" are scientifically proven to experience, 94% of us will go on fuelling demand for them, sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, "la la la, they taste nice, so shut up and let me eat them!"
-- Ariane Sherine.

Bioquantum effects

Quantum effects...may explain how the first steps of photosynthesis convert light to chemical energy with such high efficiency. Other studies suggest that quantum tricks may enable migratory birds to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field lines.
-- from Living Physics by Susan Gaidos.

(Hat tip, BT)

Meat your maker

A genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever
writes Mike Davis. This "lays bear the meat industry's monstrous power".

See also Tom Philpott (added 29 April: but don't jump to conclusions, says Merritt Clifton).

Last year in his letter to the president Michael Pollan highlighted feedlot meat as a major flaw in the U.S. agricultural system:
As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution -- animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete -- and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

Report to the Academy

How to keep species alive that seem overwhelmingly threatened with extinction? I've yet to see the remarks made last night by Richard Leakey [1]. On Thursday a debate at the Linnean Society will focus on great apes. [2]

In some parts of the 'real' world, such as Russia, the fate of some large species is less debated. 35 of the 130 gray whales estimated to remain in the Western Pacific are thought to be breeding females. The Sakhalin Energy consortium has promised not to undertake underwater seismic work, but other oil and gas firms working in the region, including BP, Exxon and Rosneft, plan to continue even though this will interfere with their well-being. Perhaps these corporations tell themselves, "why worry? There are 20,000 or more gray whales on the West coast of North America. And these 'ghosts' are toast anyway."


[1] His talk on climate change and extinction will be archived at RoyalSociety.tv. On 19 May the Society hosts a discussion titled Making choices to conserve the world’s species: what, where and when?.

[2] 'The Great Ape Debate', trailed by The Guardian as Experts feud over how to save apes.

25 April 2009

Gray whales

The gray whale is known to be one of the world's most endangered creatures. Only 35 of the 130 remaining gray whales are thought to be breeding females.

The whale is listed as "critically endangered" by Russia and is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's red list of endangered species.

The suspension of seismic work by Sakhalin Energy, which is backed by Shell and Gasprom, might mean the whales can move in-shore, feed and breed.

However, campaigners pointed out that other oil and gas firms working in the region, including BP. Exxon and Rosneft, were still planning to carry out seismic work in 2009.

BBC report

Two Pacific Ocean populations of the Gray Whale exist: one of not more than 300 individuals whose migratory route is unknown but presumed to be between the Sea of Okhotsk and southern Korea, and a larger one with a population between 20,000 and 22,000 individuals in the Eastern Pacific traveling between the waters off Alaska and the Baja California.

Musica universalis

It may or may not be altogether true. It does make for a good story:
Konstantin Saradzhev [had] almost superhuman aural acuity: between two adjacent whole tones, he perceived not just one half tone but a half tone flanked on either side by a hundred and twenty-one flats and a hundred and twenty-one sharps.

When Saradzhev was seven years old, the sound a particularly powerful church bell caused him to lose consciousness, and he was captivated for life. Although a skilled pianist, he always referred to the piano as “that well-tempered nitwit”: a piano can produce only twelve tones per octave, whereas Saradzhev perceived one thousand seven hundred and one. This sensitivity perhaps explains Saradzhev’s intense delight in Russian bells, which are unparalleled in their microtonal complexity. Each bell sounds a unique cloud of untempered frequencies, producing intervals unplayable on any twelve-tone keyboard. By such acoustic fingerprints Saradzhev could distinguish all four thousand of Moscow’s church bells. He described his hearing as “true pitch” (by contrast with perfect pitch). The capacity for true pitch, he said, lay dormant in all humans, and would someday be awakened. But in the meantime he was, like a superhero, cruelly isolated by his own powers.
-- from The Bells by Elif Batuman.

See also: World premiere of brain orchestra:
We can wonder what the mind and brain would be capable of if it would be directly interfaced to the world, bypassing the body.

P.S. 29 April: Tonal languages are the key to perfect pitch

Island thought

Later the same day, [Tim] Dee watches a family of killer whales swim past. The orcas, he writes in a perfectly weighted Miltonism, "roll forwards like dark planets bowled under the sea". A few minutes later, a fledgling wren flies out of a cliff-top crevice and clings for a few seconds to the strap of his rucksack, before whirring off. "An indifferent wren at four inches, and indifferent killer whales at a mile. The world was good and it didn't need me." Now there's an island thought.
-- from a review by Robert Macfarlane of three books on islands.

R J Berry, who spent ten years studying mice on Skokholm, quotes Julian Huxley as remembering this was an island where he felt, "perhaps even more than in Africa, the power and independence of nature."

photo: Mike Macfarlane

P.S. Compare Dee's observation to The Sea & the Skylark by Hopkins.

24 April 2009

Water beings

The Uru Chipaya, who according to mythological origin are "water beings" rather than human beings, could soon be forced to abandon their settlements and go to the cities of Bolivia and Chile, [says Felix Quispe, the tribal chief]. "There is no pasture for animals, no rainfall. Nothing. Drought."
-- from Water people of the Andes face extinction.

23 April 2009

Red dog

Ruppy the transgenic puppy at 10 days old under ultraviolet light, showing the red fluorescent protein produced by sea anemones.

Bionic penguins in space

"A micro controller gives the penguins free will to explore this space".

22 April 2009


New Scientist reports that 'dancing' Volvox algae can 'waltz' and 'minuet'. [1]

It's another reminder that while green, red and brown algae are often called 'plants', some of them have properties that are almost 'animal'-like. [2] Some dinoflagellates, for example, have simple eyes to hunt for food. [3]

And at a macro scale, kelp (which are brown algae) do remarkable things, as Charles Darwin saw:
The number of living creatures of all Orders, whose existence intimately depends on the kelp is wonderful.

A great volume might be written, describing the inhabitants of one of these beds of seaweed….I can only compare these great aquatic forests of the southern hemisphere, with the terrestrial ones in the inter-tropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would from here, from the destruction of the kelp. [4]

[1] Dancing Volvox: Hydrodynamic Bound States of Swimming Algae by Knut Drescher, Kyriacos C. Leptos, Idan Tuval, Takuji Ishikawa, Timothy J. Pedley and Raymond E. Goldstein (pdf).

[2] Other 'simple' protists such as forams display remarkable properties too. Lynn Margulis is a microbiological William Blake in her vision of these creatures:
Large single-celled forams choose from brightly colored sand grains the correct ones with which to make shells. Aware of shape and color, they make choices and reproduce their kind. Awareness in some form has been naturally selected for at least 550 million years. For me, our spirituality and moral nature help perpetuate our living communities, just as similar attributes aided previous living communities whose evolution is chronicled in the fossil record.
[3] "By most definitions...the planktonic dinoflagellate, Erythropsidium, must have among the smallest of eyes, since the creature is only 50–70 μm in diameter." -- from You are what you eat by I R Shwab. Others with eyes include: Peridinium foliaceum and P. balticum. See Ultrastructure of Microalgae: nonphotosynthetic plastids.

[4] The Voyage of Beagle, Chapter 11:
Almost all the leaves, excepting those that float on the surface, are so thickly incrusted with corallines as to be of a white colour. We find exquisitely delicate structures, some inhabited by simple hydra-like polypi, others by more organised kinds, and beautiful compound Ascidiæ. On the leaves, also, various patelliform shells, Trochi, uncovered molluscs, and some bivalves are attached. Innumerable crustacea frequent every part of the plant. On shaking the great entangled roots, a pile of small fish, shells, cuttlefish, crabs of all orders, sea-eggs, starfish, beautiful Holothuriæ, Planariæ, and crawling nereidous animals of a multitude of forms, all fall out together. Often as I recurred to a branch of the kelp, I never failed to discover animals of new and curious structures.
Darwin was writing about kelp in cool southern waters. But kelp 'forests' have recently been discovered in deep tropical waters too. It's thought that these may act as refugia under some conditions of climate change.

21 April 2009

Our common future

For North Sea cod - the touchstone stock for UK consumers - 93% of fish are caught before they can reproduce. Yes, you read that correctly - 93%.
-- Richard Black

The raw and the cooked

I haven’t eaten a mammal in about 30 years, except a couple of times during the 1990s, when I ate some raw monkey the chimps had killed and left behind.
-- Richard Wrangham, who says early humans were able to evolve because cooked foods were richer, healthier and required less eating time:
Homo erectus, our...immediate ancestor, ha[d] long legs and a lean, striding body. In fact, he could walk into a Fifth Avenue shop today and buy a suit right off a peg.

Image: H. ergaster by Viktor Deak

P.S. 27 May: Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid

20 April 2009


Reading a list of the recently departed, with their exotic, otherworldly names, is like examining a huge box of multicoloured fossils. And it swiftly becomes exhausting. Just as early natural historians of the Amazon were overwhelmed by the vastness of the biodiversity that confronted them, when we try to reckon what is now going or gone we are soon confused. Extinction is hard to deal with. A memorial is a way of ordering these thoughts, of making them solid.
-- from David Hawkins on What is Missing? by Maya Lin.

(Hat tip OT)


Florida now has more exotic lizard species than there are natives in the entire Southeast [United States]. On a single tree you could conceivably find plant and animals from six continents, including parrots from South America, mynah birds and Old World climbing ferns from Asia, vervet monkeys from Africa, ladybird beetles from Australia, and feral cats from Europe, via Africa and Asia. In some cases, the recent immigrants would be more genetically diverse than their cousins back home. The state's ecology is a kind of urban legend come true -- the old alligator flushed down the toilet story repeated a thousand times with a thousand species.

Some find this all thrilling. Florida has become an open-air zoo, richer i species than ever before. To others, its the harbinger of a new and depressingly undifferentiated age, when the old biological borders begin to fade and every place starts to look like every other. Ecologists have even given it a name: the Homogecene.
-- from Swamp Things by Burkhard Bilger

19 April 2009

If I had a hammer

Technology has come to be more diverse than the biosphere. [sic] In 1867, Karl Marx observed that there were 500 types of hammer made in Birmingham, England. In 1988, Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, suggested that the average American encounters 20,000 different kinds of artifacts in everyday life, which would be more than the number of animals and plants that we can distinguish. And right now, there are about 1.5 million identified species on Earth — impressive, but nothing compared to the more than 7 million United States patents.
-- from Natural Happiness by Paul Bloom.

This a challenging start to an interesting article.  It's not clear, though, that diversity in the sense used here is a helpful way to compare things.  More useful, perhaps, to compare complexity.  What man made tool compares with a living cell?

18 April 2009

Blood falls

Scientists have found life in an ecosystem trapped underneath a glacier in Antarctica for nearly 2 million years. The microbes, they suggest, are surviving the dark, oxygen-free waters by drawing energy from sulfur and iron. The findings provide insight into how life may have survived "Snowball Earth"--periods when some scientists speculate that the planet was entombed in ice--and hint at the possibility of life in other inhospitable environments, such as Mars and Jupiter's icy moon Europa.
-- from Ancient Ecosystem Discovered Beneath Antarctic Glacier.

In Life Ascending, Nick Lane quotes Albert Szent-Györgyi: "Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest".

17 April 2009


As Louis XVI once blogged, 'nothing today'... except to note that this year's Great Turtle Race begins, and to post a picture of something strange:

Oneirophanta mutabilis mutabilis (HT Echinoblog)

16 April 2009

Back in time

Easter Sunday evening this year was like a walk back in time. Birds and animals now rare or extinct in much of the rest of the fens thrive. Redshanks probe in the soft margins of flooded grasslands. Gorgeous delicate sandpipers breed at Wicken, alongside snipe and lapwings – all species that have suffered massive declines due to decades of land drainage. Barn owls quarter the rough grass in daylight. Eggs are being laid and chicks will soon hatch, daylight hunting will become more regular as the nights get shorter.
-- Tony Juniper

Skylark, Alauda arvensis

No Lark

I agree with Fred Pearce that Consumption dwarfs population
as the main environmental threat
. But on the face of it the probable extinction of the African lark [1], for one, looks as if it's linked of the sheer pressure of human numbers.

The BBC reports that the Sidamo lark lives in an area of highland savannah that used to be maintained by fire and by the grazing of large herbivores, such as elephants, antelopes and gazelles:
Borana pastoralists traditionally walked their cattle across the plain as they migrated between different wet and dry season grasslands.

For millennia, both the wild animals and pastoralists kept the grasslands in good condition. This habitat is now being destroyed.

Wild animals are too few to stop shrubs regrowing, while intensively reared livestock and agriculture are increasingly damaging the grasslands.

...[Scientists] found that the Sidamo lark lives within a single patch of grassland of just 35 square kilometres.

That compares to a range of 760 square kilometres...just last year.
There may be a number of factors behind the bush encroachment and the planting of crops that are reported to have led to this change. It seems likely that a major one is 'simply' more human mouths to feed. Ethiopia's population grew by just over 3.2% in 2008 to more than 82.5 million. It is projected to rise to 149.5 million by 2050. In 1950 it was 18.4 million.


[1] Before reading the story on the BBC I'd never heard of the Sidamo Lark (Heteromirafra sidamoensis). Discovering new beings and learning at the same time of their imminent extinction seems to be quite a common experience. Is there a word for the combination of wonder and almost instantaneous grief this arouses?

P.S. 22 April: Giraffe numbers in Masai Mara down 95%

Hybrids and nightmares

It is speculated that dragons and other monsters are hybrids produced in the human brain as a result of an embedded fear of snakes that pre-dates humanity but continues.

That may be. But on TV things get very weird. See: The Wasp, the Bat, the Gila Monster and the Tiger

But this one, Styrocosaurus, was produced by evolution, not human imagination

15 April 2009

The totality of dogs

The flawed genius of language, the premier instrument of our collectivized consciousness, is to give us the ability to encompass in a virtual way huge territory that we could not otherwise experience or interact with. The central feature of language – that we seem to get hold of things via their general classes – is the key to this. When I say “dog” I do not take hold of any particular dog, but I have brought into play the totality of dogs available for my characterization. Thinking about this gives us a new angle on the venerable philosophical problem of universals – on the mysterious relations between singular objects and the general terms through which we take hold of them – and further, on what Slavoj Zizek has called ‘the violence of language’ (which, incidentally, licenses other modes of violence).

In short, properly reflected upon, knowingness and other shallows shine a light into the depths of our uniquely human consciousness, and upon the processes by which individually we make this world, that vastly outsizes us, our own place.
-- Raymond Tallis

Cheerful asymmetry

Look at yourself in the mirror. You're probably mostly symmetrical: one eye and one ear on each side of your head, features that are at least roughly even, and any lopsidedness is most likely due to postnatal wear and tear.

Deep inside you, though, you are profoundly asymmetrical, and that asymmetry is essential for your well-being.
And you share this with snails! P Z Myers explains.

Let's build a creature

The competition began in 2004 with five entrants. This year, more than 100 teams from all over the world have signed up.
--from Scientists compete to build best living machine.

14 April 2009

Ocean in a box

An audioslideshow from Okinawa.

Blood belly

If hope and fear don’t guarantee compliance, there’s always embarrassment. Vampire bats are famous for their willingness to regurgitate a blood meal to feed fellow bats that are down on their luck. In fact, hiding one’s wealth is a problem. A fully fed vampire bat is as bloated as a fraternity water balloon, and the bats appear to rub bellies to see who is in a position to share. “It’s hard to cheat when your stomach is obviously distended.”
-- from Taxing, a Ritual to Save the Species. Warren Buffet's secretary would surely approve.

Fig 1. Social democracy, with teeth

13 April 2009

The ends of the earth

At the heart of a 2-million-acre forest area situated in the rugged Sangkulirang limestone mountains in East Kalimantan Province, a survey reveals 219 orangutan nests. It is quite likely, says Erik Meiyaard, that this area has a population of several hundred orangutans, and possibly more than a thousand.

About 50,000 orangutans may remain in the wild, says the BBC report.

11 April 2009


Some of the earliest creatures to crawl out of the ocean onto land half a billion years ago borrowed shells to carry a bit of the sea with them. This allowed them to survive in an otherwise hostile world, much like tanks of compressed air allow people to explore the deep ocean.
-- report

10 April 2009

Loss and freedom

James Lovelock has an unsentimental view of nature. [1] "Gaia", as Lynn Margulis put it, "is one tough bitch". Yet he too mourns what is being lost (see previous post). Another view comes from N J Collar [2]:
The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man. Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate, erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately the greatest feature of our human identity. This is not to say that we should never seek to provide justifications for conservation based on precise, measurable benefits to mankind at whatever scale. It is, however, to say that we should also and primarily have the courage and honesty to assert that the reason biodiversity matters is because it confers on us an imprecise, unmeasurable and immeasurable well-being that is located in the spirit rather than in the wallet.
One of the ways to think about the significance of human impacts on the biosphere, then, may be in terms of the blowback on human capabilities.


[1] In his most recent book Lovelock repeats that, in his view, 'nature' will be fine in the long run. We should, rather, worry about saving ourselves.

[2] Beyond value: biodiversity and the freedom of the mind (2003). Thanks to Tom Bailey for reminding me of this.


Consider the Mantis shrimp, or Stomatopod, which has the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom, with hyperspectral colour vision allowing up to 12 colour (or perhaps 16) channels extending into ultraviolet, advanced depth perception, and an extensive ability to see polarized light. Intriguingly, these animals have little in the way of brains as we think of them.

Consider, too, a kind of seeing known only by Man: the Earth from space. James Lovelock, the man who imagined Gaia, writes:
The icon is undergoing a subtle change as the white ice fades away, the green of forests and grasslands fades into the dun of desert, and oceans loose their blue-green hue and turn a purer, swimming-pool shade of blue as they too become desert. [1]


[1] The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009). But surely the book is mis-titled; the face of Gaia is changing, not vanishing.

9 April 2009

The expression of emotion in Man and...

In coming decades, [Minoru] Asada expects science will come up with a "robo species" that has learning abilities somewhere between those of a human and other primate species such as the chimpanzee.
-- from Japan child robot mimicks infant learning.

Human kindness

Humans have a special combination of co-operative instincts, prosocial motives, high level intention attribution and moral propensities.
-- says N J Enfield. [1] And how far back might that sophistication go?

Among my favourite humans are Homo erectus: ancestors closer to us than the jugular vein and yet in so many ways totally unknown.

Some ape mothers may carry the body of a deceased infant for days after its death. But early humans may have been able to do much more than other apes in some cases to actually keep ailing infants and children alive. [2], [3]  And there is intriguing but inconclusive evidence of well-developed caring strategies for severely handicapped individuals as long as 530,000 years ago. [4]


[1] This is from a review in Science, 3 April 09, of Origins of Human Communication by Michael Tomasello. Enfield is the co-editor of Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition, and Interaction.

[2] (Added 20 April) The empathy of our closest evolutionary relatives [i.e. chimpanzees] exceeds even their desire for bananas, says Frans de Waal. 

[3] (Added 23 April) It may be that allomaternal care is required once adult brain size reaches about 1000 cubic centimetres, or about Homo erectus size.

[4] The brain-damaged child, of the species Homo heidelbergensis, would probably have needed special treatment and care over a long period of time. See Did Early Humans Really Care?.

8 April 2009

Spring carnival

Deep Sea News features Carnival of the Blue 23, with delights such as a swim with pteropods, the secret life of a seahorse and a not quite infinite zoo in the palm of a hand. Also a post on whether we should let the whales die:
Is action alone enough or should we be accountable for producing results from action?

7 April 2009

Red underwater

Red light, whatever its source, doesn't travel far through water, which suggests these communications are intended to be private, seen only by nearby fish of the right species. There are several lines of evidence to support this, says [Nico Michiels of the University of Tübingen Michiels]. "Most of these fish are small and live at the bottom in pairs or groups. They are generally quite cryptic but often have conspicuous behaviours characteristic of the species. And there's obvious variation in markings between closely related species, which suggests they might be important in species recognition."

It all sounds very plausible. "The idea of red-light private communication channels is intriguing," says Julian Partridge, head of the Ecology of Vision group at the University of Bristol, UK. He says that if a fish can signal important things without being noticed, there can be big pay-offs. "Long-wave light doesn't travel far under water, so a male fish can wave its red sexy bits at a female and not be noticed by animals further away. Not only will that reduce his chances of being eaten while distracted with flirtation, but it will also make him less likely to be beaten up by a rival."

Michiels suspects that red fluorescence has another important role for some reef fish: helping them blend in with their background rather than making themselves seen. During his first dive with the red filter over his mask, he noticed that reef corals and algae glow a dark but faint red too, with brighter patches here and there. Against this irregular red background, a fish that glows red all over, like the small wrasse, would be hard to spot.
-- from Code red: How deep reef fish keep in touch

4 April 2009

Through the first gate, into our first world

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.