30 March 2012

'A global tragedy'

Fires raging in an Indonesian swamp forest may have killed a third of the rare Sumatran orangutans living there and all of them may be lost this year, conservationists warned Wednesday.

The Tripa swamp forest in Aceh province is home to the world's densest population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. About 200 still live there, out of a world population estimated at 6,600, the conservationists said.

More from AP here.

28 March 2012

Dolphin soap opera

Although bonobos, orangutans, and Western gorillas have less hostile relationships with neighboring groups than do chimpanzees, none of these species has the tolerance of the dolphins, or their ability to form alliances outside of their immediate community. Among mammals, only elephants come close; though they live in matrilineal groups, elephants maintain relationships outside of these, forming large, stratified societies. But even these large societies are still primarily with close kin, and are not changeable as are the dolphins' alliances. 
Because female dolphins give birth to only single calves that are separated by several years, the males cannot count on forming alliances with close kin. Instead, male dolphins must learn how to make and maintain friendships -- demanding social skills that are likely to have contributed to the dolphins' large brains... But it's not just the number of social relationships the dolphins must maintain, he adds. "It's the uncertainty of those third-level alliances. It's those guys you rarely see. What have they been up to since the last time you met them? Are they still on your side?"
-- from Meet the Dolphin Mafia. Original paper here. P.S. 'Will we ever...talk to dolphins?'

26 March 2012

'Unwet, ...breather of unbreathable...'

Man’s life is warm, glad, sad, ’twixt loves and graves
Boundless in hope, honored with pangs austere,
Heaven-gazing; and his angel-wings he craves:
The fish is swift, small-needing, vague yet clear,
A cold, sweet, silver life, wrapped in round waves,
Quickened with touches of transporting fear.
-- lines from Leigh Hunt's The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit quoted by Billy Collins

24 March 2012

Dr Astroumoff's fabulous flying copepods

Ed Yong explains:
One group of copepods, the pontellids, are found throughout the topmost waters. They tend to be more brightly coloured than other transparent members of the group. It’s thought that the colours help to reflect harmful ultraviolet radiation, but they could make the copepods more conspicuous to fish. Copepods escape from fish with powerful bursts of speed that propel them through the water. But those same movements can send them flying too... 
... Their powerful escape reflex provides a lot of energy, but they lose anywhere from 58 to 88 per cent of that as they break the water surface. By contrast, a flying fish loses less than 0.1 per cent with the same manoeuvre. This is because the surface tension of water is much more important to a small animal than a big one... Still, their ‘flights’ are substantial. Each copepod is around 3 millimetres long, but their leaps carried them over an average distance of 80 millimetres. That’s well beyond their own body length. It’s also at least 3 times greater than the length of the pursuing mullet, and further than the fish can actually see. And the longest jumpers even managed to cover 170mm. 
...[and] despite the energy needed to leave the water, the copepods travel so far in the air that they recoup their initial losses. To travel the same distance underwater, they would need to spend 20 times more energy.

23 March 2012


So the birdman has admitted his powered flight was a fake.

Not exactly surprising given basic mechanics and biology.

The whole thing was an art project, and the artist played skillfully with a profound and enduring dream.

The dream of flight is most strikingly expressed in the activity which brings people closest to actual unassisted flight: wingsuited base-jumping. Their achievements are become more astonishing by the year. See, for example, here and here.

The dream is a focus of the Quetzalcoatlus chapter in my book, which will be out in October.

20 March 2012

'Puffins would fly to the moon'

The life of birds in two books under review:
No one who has seen [David Attenborough's Frozen Planet] will forget the images of the male and female penguins transferring the egg so that the starving parent can go off to feed. But Walker lives with the penguins over time and draws a much fuller picture. She confesses that she was determined to resist their charm. She was concerned that we anthropomorphise them just because they walk on two legs but, witnessing mates greeting each other after months of separation, she writes: "And the two birds hug. They really do … I saw that this was not anthropomorphising the birds … the Emperors hug for more or less the same reason that we humans do."
-- from Peter Forbes on Antarctica by Gabrielle Walker
King Sweeney's diagnosis of a life "without womenfolk" was hopelessly inaccurate, by the way: birds' sex lives are frankly filthy, from the cloaca-pecking dunnock, to the mallard's 17in, corkscrew-shaped penis, and the greater vasa parrot, whose copulation lasts an hour and a half. In sparrows, the testes are the size of a pinhead in winter only to swell to the size of a baked bean during the breeding season.
-- from David Wheatley on Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead

18 March 2012

Between two worlds

Jürgen Schmidhuber may be right that creative machines will overtake humans within a few decades. Certainly, to engage with this even as possibility demands a lot of the imagination. [1]

I'd only like to add right that, whatever the future may hold, in trying to right-size our imaginations to the dimensions of the present moment and the possible future, it's also important to develop our comprehension of the deep past.  A book by Callum Roberts to be published in May 2012 will help with this.

Roberts's chief concern in The Ocean of Life is with the (almost entirely destructive) human impacts on the world ocean over the last fifty years -- less than a thousandth of the 150 to 200,000 years for which modern humans have existed.  His introductory chapter, however, covers the first 4.5 billion years.

One of the things Roberts does exceptionally well in it is to pull together an account of major events in the Earth system during the first 4 billion of those years: the Hadean, Archaean and Proterozoic eons.  There is nothing original in the material itself -- the author is summarizing published research that has also been marshaled in other books and art works for non-specialists [2]  -- it's just that he does a very good job of helping the reader to 'inhabit' this time/space in his or her own mind. Consider, for example:
...About 4.53 billion years ago a planet the size of Mars barreled into this new world and smashed off pieces that became the moon. The impact was so enormous it vapourised rock and the primeval world was shrouded by a thick atmosphere of rock and other gases. As the planet cooled, a time came when minerals condensed and for two thousand years the skies rained molten rock onto an ocean of magma below. Even after this thousand degree deluge ended, the atmosphere remained thick with other vapour and gases and atmospheric pressure at the surface of the flaming sea would have been hundreds of times higher than today. 
We owe a lot to this collision. It knocked Earth’s axis of rotation askew, which gives us seasons . Over the vast plain of geological time, the moon has slowed and stabilized the Earth’s rotation, giving us longer days. A billion years ago, a day was just 18 hours and the year lasted 480 days. Early on, the moon was much closer to Earth and would have loomed large in the sky. The moon’s gravitational pull gives us much greater tides than the more distant sun alone and the flood and ebb of tides would have been violent as they rose higher and fell faster in the short days...
...When the Earth cooled down a bit, a new rain began to fall, this time of scalding water. The downpour lasted for thousands of years and would be repeated several times over the next half billion years as giant impacts from extraterrestrial debris boiled off the upper layers of the seas. For a half billion years more, the Earth continued to be struck by asteroids far bigger than the one that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago... 
...To begin with, oceans covered most of the world. Their volume could have been twice that of the present seas. Islands cropped up where blocks of the Earth’s crust collided and volcanoes built ash and lava mountains, but there were no continents. Those came later and formed slowly...
Even if one is familiar to some extent with these facts it is, I think, really valuable to have them brought to mind. On each iteration of learning and re-imagining we gain and appreciate a bit more.  Perhaps they can help us to become better ancestors. [3]

Florian Imgrund

[1] The fact that the prospect is unprecedented and so may seem intuitively unlikely to ignoramuses like me is not in itself evidence that it is in fact unlikely. See Intelligence Explosion: Evidence and Import. I'll be impressed when a computer creates music greater than anything by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. Then again, I probably won't be able to appreciate it. [Added 1 April. Marcus du Sautoy writes:
Exciting new research is currently exploring how creative machines can be in music and art. Stravinsky once wrote that he could only be creative by working within strict constraints: "My freedom consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings." By understanding the constraints that produce exciting music, computer engineers at Sony's Computer Science Laboratory in Paris are beginning to produce machines that create new and unique forms of musical composition.]
[2]  Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life touches on some of these events in the cosmic-creation sequences of the film.  These are remarkable but they have no commentary: we need verbal accounts to build a full picture.

[3] Schmidhuber's advice is that we should be content to regard ourselves as a small stepping stone on the path to a more complex [and beautiful?] universe.

17 March 2012

A virtual world

This may be the first case of an animal living entirely within a virtual reality system:
Florian Engert at Harvard University...has built one of the most sophisticated VR systems to date and his zebrafish larvae have spent all of their lives inside it.
-- report

16 March 2012

Distancing and concealment

“The sheer volume, scale and rate of killing,” [says] Timothy Pachirat, “the way the animals form a continuous stream rather than individual creatures, makes it clear the animals are seen as raw material. The cattle are called ‘beef’ even while they’re alive — and that not only protects people from acknowledging what they’re doing and that they’re doing it to sentient beings, it’s also accurate, a reflection of the process itself.” 
...The most publicized stories about industrial agriculture represent the exceptions that prove the rule: the uncommon torture of animals by perverse individuals in rogue operations. But torture is inherent in the routine treatment of animals as widgets, and the system itself is perverse. What makes Every Twelve Seconds different from (for example) a Mercy for Animals exposé is, says Pachirat, “that the day-in and day-out experience produces invisibility. Industrialized agriculture perpetuates concealment at every level of the process, and rather than focusing on the shocking examples we should be focusing on the system itself.”
-- from The Human Cost of Animal Suffering Mark Bittman

15 March 2012

Long in the tooth

An extinct marine vertebrate had the sharpest dental structures ever known — with tips just one-twentieth of the width of a human hair, but able to apply pressures that could compete easily with those from human jaws. 
The razor-sharp teeth belonged to conodonts, jawless vertebrates that evolved some 500 million years ago in the Precambrian eon and went extinct during the Triassic period, around 200 million years ago. The creatures roamed the planet for longer than any other vertebrate so far–– and despite their lack of jaws, they were the first creatures to evolve teeth.
-- report

Mind-forged manacles

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.
-- from The Total Library by Jorge Luis Borges (1939)

14 March 2012

A beast of golden fire

A two-sided gold horned deer with folded legs from Zhalauli (Kegen district, Almaty region). Seventh to sixth century B.C. -- report

13 March 2012

Possibility, interdependence

If you think of all the different modes of being, different kinds of feeling and experiencing, different ways of thinking and relating, it might be that human nature constrains us to a very narrow little corner of the space of possible modes of being. If we think of the space of possible modes of being as a large cathedral, then humanity in its current stage might be like a little cowering infant sitting in the corner of that cathedral having only the most limited sense of what is possible.
-- Nick Bostrom in We're underestimating the risk of human extinction
The take-home message of biology and ecology: life is -- more than anything else -- a process; it creates, and depends on, relationships among energy, land, water, air, time and various living things. It's not just about human-to-human interaction; it's not just about spiritual interaction. It's about all interaction. We're bound with the rest of life in a network, a network including not just all living things but the energy and nonliving matter that flows through the living...
-- from The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina

12 March 2012


Stephen Cave's playful approach to flatworms suggests his forthcoming book will be a good read. Let's hear it for monkey testicle grafts.

There's a chapter on the flatworms (and other worms) in The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. I  signed off final corrections in January but the book doesn't appear until October.

P.S. A striking image of mating terrestrial flatworms

P.P.S. A Cave tweet

10 March 2012

'On Extinction'

Mel Challenger is detained by flu in the family so is unable to take part in an event at the Bath Literary Festival today. I will be there to read some extracts from her book on her behalf, and to talk about the issues it raises. Please join us if you can.

Here is an extract from her marvelous, disturbing account of an abandoned whaling station in South Georgia:
Beyond this large building, freakish instruments and workings cluttered the landscape. There was an overgrown toothed object like a saw, curved and beautiful as a Norse carving. I could see chains under fragile bonnets of snow with links bigger than my hands. In the distance, the disintegrating platforms of mortuary metal were apparent, proportioned to the massive bodies of whales. A short walk away from the strandline, I stumbled across a large tarnished tank on which the words BLUBBER COOKERY were painted in faded white lettering. At the front was a bolted, square-shaped opening. I immediately thought of the pictures in my childhood copy of Hansel and Gretel, the entrance into the oven where the siblings shoved the witch who held them captive to satisfy her monstrous appetite. But perhaps most startling of all was one of several oil vats, a round structure of astounding proportions, bulging through time and disuse. Sunlight nudged into its snowy circular border, and I too nudged forward, amazed, appalled, snow falling soundlessly around me.

8 March 2012

Imagination and evil

In an interview the theologian Richard Kearney makes these points, among others:
Even in the most humanistic anthropological affirmation of creative power...we mustn’t forget that our creation is the repetition, reactivation, or refiguration of some creative power that both precedes and exceeds us.
He says this in reference to Coleridge's claim vis-à-vis the primary imagination of the romantic poet (the 'repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am') but it could as well apply to manipulation of life within the context of our growing but in some respects still rudimentary understanding of how living systems organize.
The imagination that thinks it is sufficient unto itself and has no other beyond, no vis-à-vis outside of itself, is on an unethical path.
'Deep ecologists' and other environmentalists would stress that on an ethical path our imaginations must be open towards the non-human living world as well as the human.

Finally, Kearney observes:
Evil is rooted in the human, even radical evil, but it’s rooted in the inscrutable depth of the soul such as we have not yet and maybe never will be able to completely comprehend.
He stresses that he is not talking about some cosmological or metaphysical force of evil but something that is specific to human behaviour.

7 March 2012

'Fishing with your face'

Beak-like protuberances on various animals are thought to be used to smack prey into submission or to detect the electric fields emitted by potential meals. Now scientists have discovered that sawfish (Pristis microdon) use their saws for both purposes, a first in the fish world, or indeed anywhere.

This is rather like using your nose to sniff out a freshly baked cake, and then using it to cut yourself a slice.
-- report

6 March 2012


Lots of rats and pigeons

...aka 'disaster taxa' in the wake of our current mass exintinction:
Ultimately...life will recover: it always has. The mass extinctions of the past offer hints as to how the ecosystem will eventually bounce back, says Mike Benton at the University of Bristol, UK. The two that we know most about are the end-Permian extinction 252 million years ago, which wiped out 80 per cent of species, and the less severe end-Cretaceous extinction 65 million years ago, which famously took out the dinosaurs. The Permian extinction is more relevant because it was caused by massive global warming, but Benton cautions that the world was very different then, so today's mass extinction will not play out in quite the same way.
Recoveries usually have two stages. If ours pans out in the same way, the first 2 to 3 million years will be dominated by fast-reproducing, short-lived "disaster taxa". These will rapidly give rise to new species and bring the world's species count back up
-- from Will there be any Nature Left?, part of a package on the Deep Future. I'd say the future is likely to be less predictable, especially given the human tendency to meddle and manipulate.

Simplot's fish

Simplot acknowledges...that the nearby waterway of Hoopes Springs still measures 70 parts per billion of selenium, 14 times the federal limit.
So Simplot decided to also make a case for a different standard. Mr. Prouty, the company vice president, said the trout population in the nearby creeks has remained stable over 30 years. Perhaps, he suggested, local cold water trout are more resistant to selenium than other fish. “The five-parts-per-billion standards are based on warm water fishes that are typically more sensitive than our trout, “ he said.
So Simplot officials hired scientific consultants, and in August 2010 they submitted a draft report to the government, which suggested that the brown trout could support selenium tissue levels of 13 to 14 parts per million in their tissue...
-- report

3 March 2012

Moomin apocalypse

All about them stretched the strange sea landscape, which had been covered by millions of tons of water since the beginning of the world.

'You know it's rather solemn to be down here,' said the Snork. 'We must be pretty near the deepest part of the ocean by now.'

But when they reached the biggest chasm of all they didn't dare go down. The sides sloped steeply and the bottom was obscured in green gloom. Perhaps there was no bottom!  Perhaps the biggest octopuses in the world lived down there, brooding in the slime; creatures that nobody had ever seen, far less imagined...

...They decided to pitch camp on a high pointed rock, which they could just reach by their stilts...and while the others curled up tightly together and slept, [Moomintroll] sat staring out over the desolate sea bottom. It was lit by the red glow of the comet, and shadows like black velvet lay across the sand.

Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very, very sad.
-- Tove Jannson 1946

The Geological Record on Ocean Acidification -- human impacts greater than anything in 300 million years.

2 March 2012

A bug's life

We need a Global Strategy for Microbial Conservation, writes Gareth Griffith.

Some endangered bugs are, shall we say, an acquired taste. For example, a recently discovered anaerobic fungus at risk of extinction before it is even formally described is, apparently, specific to the hindgut of the critically endangered Somali wild ass.

More important, however, are microbially dominated habitats such as certain desert soil crusts, glaciers or unusual geological formations.

1 March 2012

'The power of plankton'

The more we learn, the more questions we have. Some of the questions are in the realm of basic biology. What evolutionary processes maintained such an extraordinary diversity of microbial species? Have microorganisms that play key biogeochemical roles gone undiscovered?...

...Then there are the practical questions. As humanity pumps nitrogen into the oceans and carbon into the atmosphere, causing dead zones and disrupting the climate, how long can phytoplankton keep cleaning up our mess? Can we enlist phytoplankton genes to make hydrocarbons so we no longer have to drill for oil?...

...Ultimately, the microorganisms in the ocean will survive, as they have for billions of years, and they will help restore Earth to a biogeochemical steady state. If we can understand them better, perhaps we can help them help humanity survive as well.
 --  from an overview by Paul Falkowski of discoveries as to the nature and role of phytoplankton in Earth system.

Falkowski thinks that event in the best case it will take a long time — probably about 1,000 years — for the current damage being caused by humans to be reversed:
The phytoplankton will survive, but humans are going to pay the price. I find it very discouraging that a large segment of US society is not accepting conclusions that are based on objective science. It's distressing because everybody seems to be their own climate expert. I don't think humans realize that we're a vulnerable species.