31 May 2009

Stars of future seas?

A species of starfish has confounded climate change doom-mongers by thriving as sea temperatures and acidity increase - a scenario that is likely as the world gets warmer...

...Pisaster ochraceus thrive in temperatures of up to 21 °C and atmospheric CO2 concentrations of up to 780 parts per million - beyond predicted rises for the next century.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811143106.

Sea life (2)

Think of the beginning of “Moby Dick,” where Melville describes the “insular city of the Manhattoes belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf.” Even here, in the entirely mercantile, commercial bustle of mid-19th-century New York, Melville observes, “Thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” These are what he calls the “water-gazers,” inlanders all, desperate to stand close to the water, “They must get as nigh the water as they possibly can.” Melville goes on — as only Melville can — to ponder the connection between human beings and the sea: “Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity?” He concludes that we witness something mysterious about ourselves and our origins in the contemplation of the sea, something vast, sublime and incomprehensible. He writes, “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.”
-- from Beyond the Sea by Simon Critchley.

Image: Liverpool Moonlight, Atkinson Grimshaw, 1887

Sea life (1)

We rowed quickly, to pull her out and save her: her body had remained magnetized, and we had to work hard to scrape off all the things encrusted on her. Tender corals were wound about her head, and every time we ran a comb through her hair there was a shower of crayfish and sardines; her eyes were sealed shut by limpets clinging to the lids with their suckers: squid's tentacles were coiled around her arms and her neck; and her little dress now seemed woven only of weeds and sponges. We got the worst of it off her, but for weeks afterwards she went on pulling out fins and shells, and her skin, dotted with little diatoms [1], remained affected for ever, looking -- to someone who didn't observe her carefully - as if it were faintly dusted with freckles.
-- from The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino.

...And rock the cradle of the deep.
Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes,
The hair on me head is hemp,
Every bone in me body's a spar...

[1] See The Pediculous Berry-nymph and the Shortfooted Foamflower.

[2] Anon, quoted by Planktos.

Image: The equivalence of self and universe, from Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824

29 May 2009

System engineers

The old guard was focused on sites and species, and managed reserves for one species, not the whole landscape...The new paradigm in conservation is about habitats, landscapes and whole ecosystems.
-- Steve Carver of the Wildlands Network quoted by Paul Evans.

The U.N. has named 22 new biosphere reserves (see here). It's striking that Bliesgau, a quite densely populated peri-urban region in Germany is included.

28 May 2009

Run slowly, night-horses

Half of vertebrate species may be gone by the end of this century. Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction? is good on, among other things, the frogs, the bats and some of the people who care for them. [1] At least one take-home point is familiar:
In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace of it.[2]
One of the consequences of frenetic human activity as currently organised is, of course, rapid climate change. [3] In Heatstroke: Nature in Age of Global Warming, Anthony Barnosky writes that, before Man, the typical species life span of a mammal was 1.7 to 2.5 million years [4]. For plants, reptiles or amphibians the likely span was somewhat longer. For birds and fish perhaps a little shorter. And, he says,
In order to have that long a life span a species must be able to withstand (or, in an evolutionary sense, adapt to) the broad, slow shifts in climate that are natural as tracked over many millions of years, and also the more rapid fluctuations in climate that are nested within individual million-year time slices.
On 'the lowest reasonable estimate', Barnosky continues, the global average temperature will rise will be 1.1 Centigrade by 2050, and the earth will be hotter than modern humans have ever seen it -- hotter than in at least 160,000 years. On a 'worst case scenario' the heating by 2100 will be 4 to 6 C; the Earth will be hotter than at any time in the last three million years, and:
Three million years ago, not one species of mammal or bird that lives on Earth was alive, as far as we know.
But Barnosky's worst case scenario may be actually be over-optimistic. A recent analysis at MIT calculates the odds as worse than previously thought: without effective policies a temperature rise of more than 7 C becomes a distinct possibility.

In all events, efforts at ecosystem protection are likely to continue, along with the kind of hedging Kolbert describes at EVACC, an amphibian conservation centre in Panama:
It might be thought of as a preserve, except that, instead of protecting the amphibians from their natural habitat, the center's aim is to isolate them from it.
...their former habitat being 'natural' no more. [5]

Another option -- one that may be more widely discussed before too long -- is whether and how some animals and other living entities can be engineered not for medical research but to withstand rapid change. [6]


[1] It also contains, among other things, a fairly good working sketch of the Anthropocene:
Most of the world's waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated -- in the United States, only two per cent of rivers run unimpeded -- and people now use half the world's readily accessible freshwater runoff. Chemical plants fix more atmospheric nitrogen than all natural processes combined, and fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the temperate coastl waters of the oceans. Through global trade and international travel, humans have transported countless species into ecosystems that are not prepared for them. We have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the air to alter the climate and to change the chemistry of the oceans.
[2] Kolbert asks Andrew Knoll to compare the current situation with past extinction events. He says he doesn't want to exaggerate recent losses, or to suggest that an extinction on the order of the end-Cretaceous or end-Permian is imminent. At the same time he notes, when an asteroid hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago,
it was one bad afternoon, but it was a short-term event, and then things started to get better. Today, it's not like you have a stress and the stress is relieved and recovery starts. [Instead,] it gets bad and then it keeps being bad, because the stress doesn't go away. Because the stress is us.
[3] One, but by no means the only one. Over-consumption is another. See, for example, 'turbo-evolution' of cod.

[4] Incidentally, the species life span of Erectus may lie within this range, or at least approach it. Perhaps Floresiensis lived longer.

[5] The world ocean itself ceases to be natural as its chemistry changes faster than at any time in more than fifty million years.

[6] A major extinction is a field day for fungi, pathogens, micro-organisms etc. In the long run (the next few millions to tens of millions of years), the current extinction event may, other things being equal, open up space for a new flowering of beings. Some of them could be as strange and marvelous as those of the cetacean radiation. Peter Ward argues that, looking to the even longer run (hundreds of millions of years), there is "only one chance for survival": planetary, not (just) genetic engineering. Humans [post-humans?] must, he says, "seize the controls of the various elemental cycles that determine the future of life on earth."


The title of this post is based on a line in Act 5, Scene 2 of The Tragical History Faustus, where Marlowe quotes Ovid
O lente, lente currite noctis equi!
but continues
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.

27 May 2009

Epitoky, and other epics

My Genitals Just Grew Eyes and Swam Away must be one of the more attention-grabbing titles in recent days, and the post to which it's attached is probably worth it.

Featuring polychaetes worms of the family Syllidae, it appeared on Catalogue of Organisms, linking to Sex Week on Deep Sea News.

Today Catalogue looks back over its most popular posts of the last two years, and here you can find marine sloths, deep sea eels, candidates for Most Unbelievable Organisms Evah! and much else.

17 May 2009

Away from my desk

The author has spent too much time online...
...and is away for a little while to regenerate*

* actually, to work offline.

15 May 2009

Warm little pond

[John D. Sutherland] has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.

14 May 2009


Pharyngula brings something serious to our attention:

Their heads are blue

Lear's Macaw, a "rare good news story", as 191 other bird species are added to the list of the world's most threatened species.

13 May 2009

Bad times just around the corner

By the end of the century, 100 million people across South East Asia could be on the march, looking for something to eat. Communities might be breaking down and economies destroyed.

It's billed as a worst-case scenario, but...it is not as bad as the future we're currently headed towards.
-- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: BBC, Climate shifts, WWF.
It's as clear as crystal
From Bridlington to Bristol
That we can't save democracy and we don't much care.
-- Noel Coward

12 May 2009


"These mirror-neuron experiments are showing that, through and through, the brain is a dynamic system not only interacting with your skin receptors, up here" -- he pointed at his own head -- "but with [the guy sitting opposite you..."Your brain his hooked up to [his]! The only thing separating you from [him] and me is your bloody skin, right? So much for Eastern philosophy." He laughed, but he wasn't joking. Ramachandran has dubbed mirror neurons "Gandhi neurons" -- "because," he said, "they're dissolving the barrier between you and me".
-- from Brain Games by John Colapinto. [1]
The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist their own bodies as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation.
-- from The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Minotaurasaurus ramachandrani


[1] (added 26 May) but see Role of mirror neurons may need a rethink.

Blobs of goo

Organisms rather like sponges may have been the first multicellular animals some 850 million years ago.

(see also: Sponge larvae: 'Your unlikely ancestors')

Blue thoughts

Will there come a point when the recovery of [Blue whales] butts up against the needs (for krill, for instance) of the world’s cresting human population?
-- asks Andy Revkin

11 May 2009


Most of the animals on display in the UK’s largest zoological gardens are at the very lowest risk of extinction in the wild...Fewer than a quarter are classified as “threatened” on the [IUCN] Red List. Yet it is species conservation that dominates zoos’ ­branding – and the spur behind their revival seems to be that they have convinced punters that the price of a ticket buys them, not entry to a show, but a stake in the preservation of the natural world.
-- writes Peter Barber in What are Zoos for? Regarding their history:
The zoo was a powerful embodiment of the notion that not only had British culture been able to extend itself over the furthest reaches of the globe, but that it had “actually been able to bring the furthest reaches of the globe back to the centre of the imperial city”...Zoos as we know them today are relics of this earlier era of globalisation, in which not just people and spices were dispersed across the planet, but the natural world.
Barber more or less concludes that, whatever misrepresentations or manipulations zoos may or may not may make today, they are likely to play a significant role in future as 'arks'.

It sounds as if Radoslaw Ratajszczak faces a situation at Wroclaw Zoo a little like the one David Hancocks faced at the Seattle Zoo and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the '80s and '90s. See this from '97.

10 May 2009

Siege mentality

Last week the wildlife service said it planned to double the number of armed guards in Kenyan parks over the next five years and was studying whether to put electric fences around Mount Kenya, the Mau forest, Mount Elgon and the Cherangani hills. The model would be a 250-mile fence which has almost been completed around the Aberdare mountain range by the Kenya-based conservation group Rhino Ark.

"Kenya is destroying itself. The population has reached an unsustainable level. We are killing ourselves slowly by destroying the forests and settling there. Destruction of the Mau is like dancing with death. We should see environmental destruction as a greater threat than anything else."
John Vidal quotes Julius Kipng'etich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service.


This interview with Ray Kurzweil (whose Age of Spirital Machines I reviewed in '99) is fascinating. So much seems credible. [1] Then I get to the last paragraph and wonder, is he insane or joking in some way? Or am I missing something?

Another story imagines eternal life beginning not in 2045 or so, but at 'the Omega point' far in the future of the universe. As Marcus Chown introduces the idea:
You've had a long life but, finally, your time has come. If you were a wit like Oscar Wilde, you would say something amusing like: 'Either these curtains go or I do'. But you are suffused by such an awful tiredness that you can barely think, let alone speak...You draw one last breath...

...and it is summer and you are young again. Your favourite dog -- the one that loved you so much as a child and thought you would never see again -- has knocked you to the ground and is licking your face furiously. Through tears of joy, you see your father and mother -- long dead -- standing over you. They are young -- just as they were when you were ten years old -- and they are laughing and stretching out their hands to you.

[1] (Added 13 May): See, e.g., Will designer brains divide humanity?

8 May 2009

Between ourselves

Yes, the differences between Man and other animals are less than philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Nagel supposed, says Mark Vernon [1]; but that does not mean we should suppose there are no differences.

Rather, Vernon argues, it is a question of how we should recalibrate our understanding of the gap between ourselves and them; and moral and rational intelligence -- properties unique to humans -- are inextricable from linguistic ability:
a deeper understanding of what it is to be human can emerge from "somewhere between" the wolf and the philosopher.

Nick Lane sees it like this:
Language without feeling is bereft of meaning, but feelings exist, meaning exists, without any verbal language, as a core consciousness of mute emotions and wordless perceptions.
Some evidence indicates that forms of morality do too. As Deborah Blum writes in her review of Wild Justice:
[Mark Berkoff and Jessica Pierce] see moral actions as dictated by the behavioural code of social species, the communal operating instructions that bond a group safely together, the "social glue" of survival. They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans.

Still, a "moral" decision can seem remarkably similar across many species.
Alasdair Macintyre argues that:
the virtues we need, if we are to develop from our initial animal condition into that of independent rational agents, and the virtues that we need, if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both in ourselves and in others, belong to one and the same set of virtues, the distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals, whose dependence, rationality and animality have to be understood in relationship to each other.


[1] An article in a series titled Should we care about animals?

Being unknown

Deep-Sea News links to an astonishing video.

7 May 2009

Trickster (2)

A neat summary of recent findings about corvids here.

P.S. Joshua Klein on the intelligence of crows.

The silent country

It takes a while for it to sink in, but the closer you get to the desert, the more life here is in the land; once you're beyond the reach of modern cultivation there are trees again, and from the their shadows come enough birds, reptiles and mammals to let you feel you are finally back in Australia. Each time I traverse the dead zone of the wheat belt and reach this territory, my mood lifts. What kind of man cheers up at the sight of roadkill?
-- from Where the wild things were, Tim Winton on the land that was once the home of the boodie, the woylie, the wambenger, the chuditch, the short-beaked echidna, the dunnart and the bandicoot.
Creatures with names like these would be at home in a satire by Jonathan Swift. So it should be no surprise to discover that the Dean's co-ordinates put Gulliver here abouts. At the time Swift was writing, there was indeed an austral land teeming with creatures more strange and marvellous than even he could imagine.
There are human sites in this country that thrum with power, places whose ancient presences intimidate and confront, but this is not one of them. This feels like a monument to lost songs, languages, connections and clans, for a place like this, without its people, is bereft.
Still, Winton finds ground for hope in projects such as this.

(photos by Sharyn Munro and Jerome B.)

6 May 2009

Beyond the probable

I would say the strategy in looking for life in the universe [should be] to look for what's detectable, not what's probable. We have a tendency among the theorists in this field to guess what's probable. In fact our guesses are likely to be wrong. We never had as much imagination as nature.
-- Freeman Dyson, who imagines parabolic flowers spreading across the solar system.

For this is no Height in which there are not flowers.
-- Christopher Smart.
Evolution is cleverer than you are.
-- Orgel's second rule.

5 May 2009

'Equal standing'

When I tried to explain what I meant by 'wild' to Bertha Petiquan, an Ojibway woman in northern Canada whose daughter was interpreting, she burst out laughing and said the only place she had ever seen what she thought I was describing as wild was a street corner outside the bus station in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In Alaska, Patricia Cochran, a Yupik native scientist, told me “we have no word for ‘wilderness.’ What you call ‘wilderness’ we call our back yard. To us none of Alaska is wilderness as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act—a place without people. We are deeply insulted by that concept, as we are by the whole idea of ‘wilderness designation’ that too often excludes native Alaskans from ancestral lands.” Yupiks also have no word for biodiversity. Its closest approximation means food. And the O’odham (Pima) word for wilderness is etymologically related to their terms for health, wholeness, and liveliness.

Jakob Malas, a Khomani hunter from a section of the Kalahari that is now Gemsbok National Park, shares Cochran’s perspective on wilderness. “The Kalahari is like a big farmyard,” he says, “It is not wilderness to us. We know every plant, animal, and insect, and know how to use them. No other people could ever know and love this farm like us.”

“I never thought of the Stein Valley as a wilderness,” remarks Ruby Dunstan, a Nl’aka’pamux from Alberta. “My Dad used to say ‘That’s our pantry.’ Then some environmentalists declared it a wilderness and said no one was allowed inside because it was so fragile. So they put a fence around it, or maybe around themselves.”

The Tarahumara of Mexico also have no word or concept meaning wilderness. Land is granted the same love and affection as family. Ethnoecologist Enrique Salmon, himself a Tarahumara, calls it “kincentric ecology.” “We are immersed in an environment where we are at equal standing with the rest of the world,” he says. “They are all kindred relations — the trees and rocks and bugs and everything is in equal standing with the rest.”
-- from Human Nature by Mark Dowie

4 May 2009

'What exactly do we mean by intelligent life?'

And it suddenly strikes me as perverse that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars launching modern-day rosetta stones into space and monitoring the faint trickle of cosmic electronic noise at the far reaches in a grandiose search for “intelligent life” in the distant universe, somehow – astonishingly – missing that the most incredible manifestations of intelligent life are immediately under our noses, and all we can think to do with them is render their carcasses into meat and oil, or wrench off their long tusks to make baubles and leave the rest rotting on the savannah in view of their own children, or confine them behind plate glass with a beach ball.
-- Natural Patriot by way of Carnival of the Blue 24.

But dolphins can be less than cuddly, says Southern Fried Science.

The thing itself

Some London-folk continue to go about their business, thinking they are healthy and will be passed over. But secretly they have the plague in their blood: when the infection reaches their heart they fall dead upon the spot, so reports his man, as if struck by lightning. And this is a figure for life itself, the whole of life. Due preparation. We should make due preparation for death, or else be struck down where we stand. As he, Robinson, was made to see when of a sudden, on his island, he came one day upon the footprint of a man in the sand. It was a print, and therefore a sign: of a foot, of a man. But it was a sign of much else too. You are not alone, said the sign; and also, No matter how far you sail, no matter where you hide, you will be searched out.
-- J.M. Coetzee (2003)
Decadence is the total loss of unconsciousness, which is the very basis of life. Could it think, the heart would stop beating.
-- Fernando Pessoa.

3 May 2009


Fires are obviously one of the major responses to climate change, but fires are not only a response -- they feed back to warming, which feeds more fires...The scary bit is that, because of the feedbacks and other uncertainties, we could be way underestimating the role of fire in driving future climate change.
Thomas Swetnam, University of Arizona, in a press release for the review Fire in the Earth System.

In The Republic, Plato likened the human condition to life in a cave, illuminated only by flames. But the allegory is deeper than Platonic idealism. In Swartkrans, a South African cave, the oldest deposits hold caches of bones, the prey of local carnivores. Those gnawed bones contain the abundant remains of ancient hominids. Above that record rests, like a crack of doom, a stratum of charcoal; and atop that burned break, the proportion of bones abruptly reverses. Above the charcoal, the prey have become predators. Hominids have claimed the cave, remade it with fire, and now rule. That, in a nutshell, is what occurred throughout the Earth. What has happened with early prey relationships happened also with fire. As humans successfully challenged lightning for control over ignition, the whole world has become a hominid cave, illuminated, nurtured, warmed and controlled by the flame over which humanity exercises its unique power and through which it has sought an ethic to reconcile that power with responsibility.
-- from Fire: A Brief History by Stephen Pyne.

2 May 2009

100 million year dream

Unlike the massive, overhanging shell of other sea turtles, the leatherback's flexible, formfitting carapace merges almost seamlessly with its thick neck and muscular shoulders. Seven ridges run the length of the shell—adaptations, perhaps, for smoothing and directing the flow of water. The turtle's head is a prow; the carapace tapers toward the back like a teardrop.

The leatherback also propels itself with an efficiency no other sea turtle can match. All sea turtles can fly through the water by flapping their flippers vertically, generating thrust on both the upstroke and the down. But while other species sometimes shift to a less efficient paddling motion, the leatherback uses its longer flippers exclusively as wings. "It's almost pure underwater flight," says Jeanette Wyneken, who has analyzed leatherback swimming with high-speed video.

-- from Ancient Mariner, a feature by Tim Appenzeller which reports that Atlantic populations seems to be making something of a recovery. Great if that continues. What I saw in the East Papua nearly three years ago suggested a bleaker picture for many nesting populations in the Western Pacific.

Here's a bright note from the Great Turtle Race.

P.S. 18 May: and there appears to be good news from Gabon, with the discovery of large colony there.

1 May 2009

Science, by Youtube

The scientists believe that the parrots' apparent capacity for dance may be linked to another talent that they share with humans - the ability for vocal learning and vocal imitation.

They believe the part of the brain that evolved to allow us and a handful of other species, including dolphins, songbirds, elephants and some cetaceans, to learn and mimic different sounds may also be responsible for the ability to move in time to music.
"This is a capacity that everyone thought was uniquely human, but we've found evidence that some animals can keep a beat."

"You see here a fundamental response to music seen in species that normally don't have a relationship to music in the world. 

"They are clearly using a brain system that has a different day job, so to speak."
-- Aniruddh Patel quoted in Birds show off their dance moves