31 October 2012

The creature from the black puddle

The Creature from the Black Lagoon
The eggs, nestled in a protective jelly stained golden by tannins that glistened in the light, might have looked like any other clutch of salamander eggs from a woodland pond. But they weren’t, and this was no pristine sylvan pool. It was a roadside puddle, and those eggs promised to contain something unsettling. If Brady was right, the toxic brew associated with road run-off had forced the spotted salamanders to evolve in the space of decades. In the time since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969, these animals had been reinvented by nature to cope with life on the road.
--from Unnatural Selection by Emily Monosson, published by Aeon magazine.

Persistent sub-lethal exposure to toxic chemicals is enough to drive evolution in salamanders and other creatures. From this, other thoughts follow:
Is it possible that the genomes of vertebrate populations are not as recalcitrant to change as we once thought? What if they harbour subtle genetic variants, like ghosts from environmental challenges past, offering a degree of flexibility in the face of change? Perhaps...[the] salamanders are harbingers of discoveries to come. It might even be that rapid evolution in response to toxic chemicals is quite common. A further...question suggests itself. If life can adapt, why bother with expensive environmental cleanup? Why not let nature take its course?
The answer is "both intriguing and deeply troubling":
Industrial chemicals might have effects that are widespread and heritable, yet also maladaptive, not only in humans but in all life on earth...
We certainly have not escaped the chemical gauntlet. We might yet experience a far more insidious kind of rapid evolution through chemically induced epigenetic alterations. How these will influence the evolution of human populations is anybody’s guess. Perhaps they will be of little consequence...[or] perhaps humans in the not-so-distant future will become unwitting actors in a real-life science fiction, fending off hoards of fecund, rapidly evolving chemical-resistant pathogens and insects even as we are weakened through the accumulation of myriad changes of our own making.

30 October 2012

A salmagundi of worms

Twelfth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 6: Flatworm

page 83: Penis worms. A study on the development of priapulids (penis worms)"throws doubt on a feature that has been thought for more than 100 years to define the largest branch of the animal tree of life." For more on deuterostomes see marginal note on page 47.

page 83: Other posts on this blog relating to Ediacaria here.

page 85: other creatures evolved more formidable features for attack and defence. See, for example, Diania cactiformis.

page 87: H mephisto. Here is an image of a "devil worm," the deepest-living animal yet found.

page 87: C. elegans. Here is an image from The Open Worm Project (used to illustrate this article):

page 88: Annelids, the segmented worms, are a large and diverse group. They include scale worms, polychaete worms with an eversible pharynx. Most of the time their jaws are tucked away, but when the worm wants to feed, the entire front of their throat rolls out of their mouth.

Polynoid scale worm

page 88: Christmas tree worms. Shown here:

page 91: tapeworms and other lovelies. Graphic and horrible but fascinating: Brain Parasites, California’s Hidden Health Problem.

29 October 2012

28 degrees of freedom

GFE Platform, Boston Dynamics
The DARPA Robotics Challenge, one of the most rigorous tests of robotic ability ever conceived, kicked off on [24 October]. The contest sets teams of engineers from around the US and the world a set of Herculean robot trials that promise to take automatons' abilities far beyond anything that's come before.

The emphasis is on testing robots' abilities to work in difficult situations in environments designed for humans. "It's the grandest, the most exciting, and possibly the most important robotics project ever," says Dennis Hong [who] leads a team that plan to field the humanoid THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) [which] will be in training over the next year, learning tough skills like scrambling over debris, driving cars and climbing ladders. 
-- report

28 October 2012


Eleventh in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 5: Eel...and other monsters

page 70 (marginal note): European eel...now critically endangered: see Will European Eel Survive Its Management?

page 74 Richard Jefferies: The ecstatic mood of this neglected writer is well represented in his late essay, The Pageant of Summer. Here is an extract:
As the wind, wandering over the sea, takes from each wave an invisible portion, and brings to those on shore the ethereal essence of ocean, so the air lingering among the wood and hedges—green waves and billows—became full of fine atoms of summer.  Swept from notched hawthorn leaves, broad-topped oak-leaves, narrow ash sprays and oval willows; from vast elm cliffs and sharp-taloned brambles under; brushed from the waving grasses and stiffening corn, the dust of the sunshine was borne along and breathed.  Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind.  Fed thus on the food of the Immortals, the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer—to the broad horizon afar, down to the minutest creature in the grass, up to the highest swallow.
page 75: civilization rushing from all havens astern: see Tidings by Czeslaw Milosz.

page 77 locate the monstrous:  Posts on this site concerned with monsters listed here. In a chapter on the Kami in The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges reports:
the Jinshin-Uwo, or Earthquake Fish is an eel seven hundred miles long that holds Japan on its back. It runs from north to south, its head lying beneath Kyoto, and its tail beneath Awomori. Some logical thinkers have argued for the reverse of this order, for it is in the south of Japan that earthquakes are more frequent, and it is easier to equate this with the lashing of the eel's tail. the animal is not unlike the Bahamut of Moslem tradition or the Midgarðsormr of the Eddas.

Hatchet fish

26 October 2012

Amazing fish

It had a high square forehead, a delicate beaked mouth, damasked chestnut flanks shot with gold, and crimson fins like Spanish fans, flecked with turquoise. Under the throat were long bony fingers, which it used to probe the sediments for food. Seen from the front the tub gurnard looked like a goose, its eyes set high on the sides of its beaked head.
-- from a book on rewilding by George Monbiot to be published in 2013.
Silver-skinned fish have alternating layers of cytoplasm, as well as two types of guanine crystals with different refractive indexes that create a unique reflective property. The polarization happens over a range of angles instead of one, and the end product of having all the layers together is that it creates a polarization-neutral reflector Over time, the fish have evolved to have the perfect ratio of the two types of guanine, and as a result have a near-constant reflectivity, providing them an invisibility cloak from all angles
-- The fish that beats physics 
Type 1 males midshipman fish head to shallow waters, excavate nests beneath rocks along the shoreline, hunker down and start to sing, using sonic muscles surrounding their inflatable swim bladders to hum for up to an hour at a time. This humming, which people have described a droning motorboat or an orchestra of mournful oboes, is so loud that it has been known to wake houseboat owners in San Francisco and Sausalito (Listen to a clip of the humming here).
-- What Singing Fish Reveal about Speech and Hearing

25 October 2012

The ocean of the air

femur of an elephant bird, skeleton of a hummingbird

The November/December edition of New Humanist includes an article by me about some of the largest and smallest animals ever to have flown, and how life has shaped the atmosphere.

Here is something to think about:
  • In every cubic meter of [normal] air there are between 1.6 million and 40 million viruses.
  • In every cubic meter of [normal] air there are between 860,000 and 11 million bacteria.
Half of the viruses trapped by the scientists who made these observations didn’t match any known virus species. But most belong to groups that infect plants or mammals. Given that we breathe roughly 0.01 cubic meters of air each minute, a simple calculation based on these results suggests we breathe in a few hundred thousand viruses every minute.

Hummingbirds, by the way, fly forwards and backwards with equal ease.

P.S. 13 Nov: The piece is now online here.

Bloody slaughter and a drunkard on a kazoo

Tenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 4: Dolphin

page 55: annual cull in Taiji: Latest news from Save Japan Dolphins

page 60: teaching new things: dolphins pass on acquired knowledge. One example is the use of a sponge to protect the rostrum when foraging on the sea floor to protect themselves from sharp rocks or shells.

page 62: how much their utterances resemble human language: a beluga named NOC got pretty close, though the sounds he made have been described as like a drunkard playing a kazoo.

page 63: no human has been reported to have learned dolphinese: Henry Thoreau anticipated Carl Sagan's sentiment
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright can understand, were the best English. 
page 63: poor in world:
episodic memory is thought to allow us to imagine and plan for the future. This skill, known as mental time travel, was long thought to be unique to humans, but there are now some signs that a handful of other species might also be able to escape the present.

24 October 2012

Dog days

During the year or so that [the lives of my old dogs Nina and Tess] overlapped with that of my [new young] son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house, and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism. The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, you negligent father — your son needs you.
-- from The Kindness of Beasts by Mark Rowlands

23 October 2012

Three more reviews

Review by Anthony Davies in Ham and High (18 October):
The overall impact is stunning. It is a fine and accessible work of scholarship ... To peruse this bestiary is to begin to learn of the extraordinary variety of life forms and to touch on beings far more beautiful, intricate and fascinating than many of the man-made artefacts deriving from the world of visual arts. Henderson hopes that the Bestiary he has devised has deep lessons for the future of mankind. It is to be hoped he is right.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is BBC Wildlife's book of the month for November. Tom Jackson writes:
This beautifully produced resurrection of the bestiary, or compendium of animals, is a triumph ... Caspar Henderson’s update is just as imaginative and elegantly conceived [as its Medieval counterparts]: the delightful difference is that the [27] beasts within are real ... Rewarding in all measures, from an idle browse to an immersive page turn, this is zoological writing at its very best.
In BBC Focus Professor Jenny Clack writes:
From macaques to morality, salamanders to smallpox, sea urchins to symmetry and worms to warfare, the author guides you along so smoothly that you won't notice how he got where he was going. More than just a ‘bestiary’, Henderson’s reflections about animals are always thoughtful and entertaining and often challenging.

22 October 2012

Sunlight into sound

“Was it last year or the year before we had the 13-year cicadas?” [David Haskell asks]. “I took my sound pressure meter down to a place where they were really loud, and it came to over 90 decibels. At 85 OSHA says you need hearing protection in your workplace. “Everybody else hates them.” But to him, the noise is biological alchemy, sunlight into sound. “These guys have been feeding on roots for 13 years. And so it’s 13 years of combined Tennessee forest productivity being blasted out.”

Death and life of stars

Ninth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 3: The Crown of Thorns Starfish

page 41: The press cried apocalypse: the crown of thorns starfish hit the headlines again earlier this month. [1] An analysis of data shows to inexorable decline in coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef since 1985. [2] According to the researchers, tropical storms and bleaching account for about 60% of this decline and the crown-of-thorns the other 40%. In the absence of the starfish, the researchers think, coral cover would grow by 0.89% a year, despite pressures imposed by bleaching and cyclones, rather than shrink by about 0.5% a year as it has been. The best way to reduce the infestation would be to reduce agricultural runoff, which provides nutrients for their larvae.

page 49: most reefs at risk of destruction by 2050: In July of this year, Roger Bradbury of the Australian National University published an article in The New York Times arguing the coral reefs have become "zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation." The following day Andy Revkin hosted responses on his Dot Earth blog, all of them worth reading, from John Bruno, Randy Olson and others. Carl Safina concluded:
The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere, completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual—with our best efforts—find a way.
And, indeed, remarkable coral species such as Leptoseris troglodyta do find a way.

20 October 2012

Lunatic eclecticism

From illustrated catalogues such as the Museum Celeberrimum by de Sephibus (1678) and the Museum Kircherianum by Bonanni (1709) we learn that in the collection put together by Kirchner in the Collegio Romano there were ancient statues, pagan cult objects, amulets, Chinese idols, votive tables, two tables showing the fifty incarnations of Brahma, Roman tomb inscriptions, lanterns, rings, seals, buckles, armillaries, weights, bells, stones and fossils with strange images produced by nature engraved on their surface, exocity objects ex variis orbis plagis collectum, containing the belts of Brazilian natives adorned with the teeth of devoured victims, exotic birds and other stuffed animals, a book from Malabar made of plam leaves, Turkish artefacts, Chinese scales, barbarian weapons, Indian fruits, the foot of an Egyptian mummy, foetuses from forty days to seven months, skeletons of eagles, hoopoes, magpies, thrushes, Brazilian monkeys, cats and mice, moles, porcupines, frogs, chameleons, sharks, as well as marine plants, a seal's tooth, a crocodile, an armadillo, a tarantula, a hippo's head, a rhinoceros horn, a monstrous dog in a vase preserved in balsamic solution, projects on perpetual motion, automatons and other devices along the lines of machines made by Archimedes and Heron of Alexandria, cochleas, an octagonal catoptric device that multiplied a little model elephant so that “it restores the image of a herd of elephants that seemed to have been collected from all of Asia and Africa”, hydraulic machines, telescopes and microscopes with microscopic observations of insects, globes, armillary spheres, astrolabes, planispheres, solar, hydraulic, mechanical and magnetic clocks, lenses, hourglasses, instruments for measuring temperature and humidity, various paintings and images of mountainous precipices, winding channels in valleys, wooded labyrinths, foaming waves, whirlpools, hills, architectural perspectives, ruins, ancient monuments, battles, massacres, duels, triumphs, palaces, biblical mysteries, and effigies of gods.
-- from The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco

19 October 2012

The Long Garden

I am seven, and I am in the yard at Brosscroft. I am playing near the house, near the back door. Something makes me look up, some shift of the light. My eyes are drawn to a spot beyond the yard, beyond its gate, in the long garden. It is, let us say, some fifty yards away among coarse grass, weeds and bracken. I can't see anything, not exactly see, except the faintest movement – a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl of flies. But it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift makes my stomach heave. I can sense, at the periphery, the limit of all my senses, the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it invisibly. I am cold and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking as if pinned to the moment. I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless. It moves. I beg it: stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body. I pluck my eyes away. It is like plucking them out of my head. Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse. I move from the spot. My body weighs heavy. My feet have to be hauled up from the ground as if they were sticking in gore. I walk out of the sunlight, through the glass place, into the enclosed dimness of the cold kitchen. I say, 'Mum, I want to come in now. Can I do some drawing?'
-- from Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

18 October 2012

Slime and symphony

Eighth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
Chapter 2: Barrel Sponge

page 30: a sponge reef over an area from what is now Spain to Romania. See: glass reef.

page 31: Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold without a neuron, is able to memorize patterns of events. Ed Yong expands:
When we think about navigating the world, we might initially think of our own maps, or of the impressive migrations undertaken by familiar animals. But navigation can happen without much brainpower. Social insects like ants can create efficient trails linking their nests and sources of food, by laying down trails of pheromones in their wake. As more of them reach the food, they add their own pheromones, making the routes even more attractive to other ants. If the trails aren’t reinforced, the pheromones evaporate. That’s exactly like human hikers, whose collective feet trample effective trails into the landscape, while allowing boring or inefficient trails to overgrow.
page 32: Darwin's dilemma. In Chapter 10 of The Origin of Species Darwin concludes:
I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished or even disappear.
A hundred and fifty years of further research and discovery have added more words and phrases, and abundantly confirmed Darwin's theory. See, inter alia, Martin Brasier (here and here). In a fine essay on Bristlecone pines, Ross Andersen writes:
To study geology is to be astonished at how hastily time reorders our planet’s surface, filling its craters, smoothing its mountains and covering its continents in seawater. Life is often the fastest to disintegrate in this constant churn of water and rock. The speed of biological decomposition ensures that only the most geologically fortunate of organisms freeze into stone and become fossils. The rest dissolve into sediment, leaving the thinnest of molecular traces behind.
page 33: Thea, a Mars-sized body. Recent research suggests different sizes for Theia: one smaller than Mars, and one four to five times bigger.

page 34: thinking about and feeling deep time. I was lucky to spend a couple of days earlier this week walking and exploring rocks and life in the relatively unspoiled Llyfnant river gorge (photo below).  As Robert Macfarlane and others who write so well about these issues rightly say, there are ways of knowing and experiencing/thoughts that only occur as a result of being on (in) the land.  Gnosis, adopted (rightly or wrongly) to mean knowledge experienced with all the bodily senses, is as important as episteme (taken to mean logically-derived knowledge).

page 35: tree of life. A schematic image with different emphases here.

17 October 2012

Review by Philip Hoare

In the Literary Review, Philip Hoare says The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is:
[a] magnificent new compendium... [Caspar Henderson writes] with clear vision and lucid citation, but also with a marked compassion... [His] eye is unerring, while his writing is often witty and always revealing. Marshalling an extraordinary body of knowledge, from scientific papers to archaic manuscripts, through 'deep time' to the origins of life itself, he presents a synoptic, nuanced view of nature. ...[an] engrossing, fact-filled yet poetic book is an excellent attempt to understand the nature of the gulf between [humans and other animals].

15 October 2012

Most endangered primates

Conservation organisations have published an updated list of the 25 most endangered primates
Once again, this report shows that the world’s primates are under increasing threat from human activities. Whilst we haven’t lost any primate species yet during this century, some of them are in very dire straits, In particular the lemurs are now one of the world’s most endangered groups of mammals, after more than three years of political crisis and a lack of effective enforcement in their home country, Madagascar. A similar crisis is happening in South-East Asia, where trade in wildlife is bringing many primates very close to extinction.
-- Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Head of Research at the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (BCSF).

Wiki page here


Seventh in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 2: Barrel sponge

At one point in City of God, Augustine envisages Creation as a sponge:
I visualized you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge, and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are. [1]
page 26: Spongebob Squarepants is made-up but Spongiforma squarepantsii is real.

page 27: Proteus syndrome is a progressive condition. Children are usually born without any obvious deformities. Tumors of skin and bone growths appear as they age. The severity and locations of these various asymmetrical growths vary greatly but typically the skull, one or more limbs, and soles of the feet are affected.
     For those who curious as to some of the worst disorders that can occur to a human but who are not squeamish, there is Harlequin-type ichthyosis.  
     Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body by Armand Leroi is a good place to start learning about mutation and deformity.


[1] The City of God VII iii (5) – (7)

13 October 2012

Not bad for no desman

From a review by Roy Wilkinson for Caught by the River:
The Book Of Barely Imagined Beings is a kind of rationalist, scientific spin on the the crazed bestiaries that captivated the Middle Ages...at least decades’ worth of accumulated wonder, insight and intrigue...[the book is a] brilliant web of thought-provoking detail...the chapter specimens have been compiled carefully – fascinating in their own right but also leading into wider topics...persuasively non-didactic...very likeable...at the very least, one of 2012’s most remarkable books on the natural world.

A state of ghosthood

Rilke's Orpheus:
is a book about death and the lyric, how we are a product of two realms: the here and the not-here, the temporal and the a-temporal (or the eternal) because we have foreknowledge of our own deaths. [1] So essentially we're in a state of ghosthood, which is unusual for a mammal so how do you deal with that? Well, the way we deal with it is by singing across the gap and listening to the echoes that come back from the realm.
-- Don Paterson in interview


[1]  Scot Atran's phrase for this state is "the tragedy of cognition"

11 October 2012

Nervous awe, apprehension...and enthusiasm

It is wrong to think of hunting cultures like the Eskimo's as living in perfect harmony or balance with nature. Their regard for animals and their attentiveness to nuance in the landscape were not as rigorous or complete enough to approach an idealized harmony. No one knew that much. No one would say that they knew that much. They faced nature with fear, with ilira (nervous awe) and kappia (apprehension). And with enthusiasm.
-- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)

Conquest, hidden things, regeneration

Sixth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Tlatilco mask
Chapter 1: Axolotl

page 18: there is an error in the printed text of the UK edition.  The correct name of the environmentalist and philosopher mentioned in the marginal note is Paul Shepard.

page 18: the high point of European global expansion and conquest. See a recent comment piece by George Monbiot: Colonised and coloniser, empire's poison infects us all.

page 20: contemporary accounts are harrowing. A short passage edited out of the book refers to a story that has fascinated me since I first came across it more than 25 years ago: La Relación by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, first published 1542 and available in a 1986 English edition as Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. (There is still, inadvertently, a reference to it in the bibliography.) Shipwrecked on the coast of Florida in 1528, de Vaca was one of three men, from an expedition of more than three hundred, to survive. He walked all the way to Mexico in search of other Spaniards. It took him eight years, and on the way he was, first, enslaved and, later, made his way as a trader and shaman famed for his powers of healing. De Vaca developed something like sympathy for indigenous people that was rare among Europeans. His account of the first traces of other Spaniards after nearly a decade in the 'wilderness':
We traveled over a great part of the country, and found it all deserted, as the people had fled to the mountains, leaving houses and fields out of fear of the Christians. This filled our hearts with sorrow, seeing the land so fertile and beautiful, so full of water and streams, but abandoned and the places burned down, and the people, so thin and wan, fleeing and hiding; and as they did not raise any crops their destitution had become so great that they ate tree-bark and roots. Of this distress we had our share all the way along, because they could provide little for us in their indigence, and it looked as if they were going to die. They brought us blankets, which they had been concealing from the Christians, and gave them to us, and told us how the Christians had penetrated into the country before, and had destroyed and burnt the villages, taking with them half of the men and all the women and children, and how those who could escaped.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit notes Eduardo Galeano's observation: "America was conquered but not discovered."

page 21: continued survival. See Mythic Salamander Faces Crucial Test: Survival in the Wild . "In their only home, the canals of Xochimilco in the far south of [Mexico city], the axolotls’ decline has been precipitous. For every 60 of them counted in 1998, researchers could find only one a decade later." (Added on 31 Oct)

page 22: regenerative biology. A huge topic which I will not go into now. Among recent general articles on the topic are these:

10 October 2012

A Labrador howling along to a piano

I have chosen a "top ten of nature writing" for The Guardian.  Lists like this are fun to do but their necessary shortcomings are clear. They leave out far too much, and, at a thousand words, must be too brief in their accounts of what they do describe.

On Montaigne I would like to have said at least this:
Michel de Montaigne refused to become callous despite the continual atrocities in the civil war that was tearing his country apart. “I live in a season when unbelievable examples of [the vice of cruelty] flourish,” he wrote, “ But [this] has by no means broken me in.” Here was a man who, in very bad times, kept his head and his heart.

Dude, where’s my viviparous archosaur?

Now, with new metriorhynchids, the latest version of Darren Naish's crocodylomorph montage:

9 October 2012

'Dream uninhibitedly but act responsibly and with humility'

My post for New Scientist's CultureLab Nature beyond our wildest imaginings is published today

Panther from the Aberdeen bestiary

A slightly longer version can be found here.

Poetical fauna of California

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the sea-wind
Lets no tree grow,
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
-- from Rock and Hawk by Robinson Jeffers.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
-- from All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan.

Both quoted in After the Goldrush - the Poetry of California presented by Dana Gioia.

8 October 2012

Fire within

Fifth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
Chapter 1: Axolotl

page 2: The 1952 story by Julio Cortázar is here (and interpretative notes are here). The Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan repeats the human/creature switch in his 2001 novel Gould's Book of Fish, transforming the narrator into a Leafy seadragon.

page 3: 'The Axolotl is kind of salamander and a member of the family Ambystomatidae, which is endemic to North America. Another family of salamanders, the Plethodontidae, are also mostly found in the Americas but some species in the family are indigenous to Sardinia and Korea (!). Plethodontidae have no lungs and are also known as Lungless salamanders. The respire through their skin and the tissues lining their mouths. Like chameleons and frogs, some Lungless salamanders have tongues that act like a tethered projectiles.

page 7: In The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald writes:
...because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, [Thomas] Browne's writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.
page 15: caecilians. This one, the Atretochoana, looks like a penis snake:

page 15: The greatest amphibian extinction since the Permian. Actually, it looks as if it's bigger:
Species are estimated to be going extinct 40,000 times faster than at any time since the first amphibians crawled out of the water 360 million years ago. No one knows what the long-term consequences will be... The killer, in many cases, is a single-celled fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd)..."We're seeing a breakdown in global biosecurity that's having a profound impact on natural environments. We're seeing it in plant systems, we're seeing it in animal systems, and we're seeing it in human systems as well. It's pretty terrifying."
-- Genetic detectives hunt the global amphibian killer. Update 24 Jan 13: New research suggests the chemicals are playing a significant and previously unknown role in the global decline of amphibians

Review by Bella Bathurst

In The Daily Telegraph Bella Bathurst writes that The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is:
captivating...a collection as fabulous as anything Borges ever conceived...
...What stops this from becoming a conventional zoological doom-fest is the bounce of [the] writing and the breadth of [the] knowledge.
...[the] omnivorous enthusiasm for this world is infectious. One of the many charms of this lovely book is [the] skill in picking quotes from everything and everyone who might better illustrate [a] point, from Billy Connolly to Werner Herzog.
Earlier reviews here and here.

The pot-bellied gravyboat, fathead congregant and lawless dawn-nymph are diatoms, and among the '100 All Time Diatom Greats.' There was not enough space to list them all in the book, but I have done so here.

P.S. Also today, a review by James Cartwright at It's Nice That.

7 October 2012

In praise of error...and elephants

Fourth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 1: Axolotl

page 2: The first epigraph is from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, written between 1759 and 1763 during his confinement for insanity in St. Luke's Hospital in London.

page 2: The second epigraph is from a report by Benjamin Franklin and others into an investigation of animal magnetism undertaken for the King of France in 1784.  David Deutsch recently argued that error remains a vital to knowledge:
genuine knowledge, though by definition it does contain truth, almost always contains error as well. Thinking consists of criticising and correcting partially true guesses with the intention of locating and eliminating the errors and misconceptions in them, not generating or justifying extrapolations from sense data. 
A pleasing example of a correct conclusion derived from incomplete evidence is the proof by elephants attributed to Aristotle:
When one travels west from Greece, one finds [African] elephants . When one travels east one finds [Asian] elephants.  Therefore the Earth is round.
More posts relating to elephants here.

6 October 2012

"The land about you is changing every hour, as surely as your own body and as irresistably"

Lie awake at night even in our composed Britain and think about how the land about you is changing every hour, as surely as your own body and as irresistably. Here small avalanches are spilling down cliffs, there miniature land spits are drawing clear of the sea, everywhere hills are being attacked and worn away. If our ears were keen enough, we should be able to hear the rustle of perpetual movement, a stirring of the silence not much greater than that made by the petal of a flower as it opens or closes.
-- from A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes (1951)

5 October 2012

More reviews

John Lloyd of We Love This book says The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is:
[a] superb book...[It] is no polemic. Yes, it carries in its gorgeous pages eco-lessons galore, but it’s so much more – philosophical, spiritual, cultural. It combines science and literature and shows quite how brilliant mankind’s general knowledge can be – and also how little we know about our world and what we continue to do to it. In that regard it’s an essential volume, of a kind so seldom accomplished as successfully as this.
Not really a review, but Nature has this in its paywalled Books in Brief section:
Award-winning writer Caspar Henderson read Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) and realized that nature's creations often trump the fantastical for sheer surreality. Henderson's mainly marine beasts are a dazzling catch. The “genital fingered”, gherkin-sized stomatopod Gonodactylus smithii, for instance, uses specialized limbs for defence — delivering enough force to break a bone. Eels, whales, arachnids and more are examined, with Henderson's central concern the survival of all this glory in the midst of the biodiversity drain. Wittily illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas.
First reviews here.

4 October 2012

'Life loves living'

Dolphins streaming through the water, a trail of bright yellow glitter sparkling in their wake. Single spots of algae became shooting stars as dolphins torpedoed through the sea and launched through the air. One, two, three – five in the water, submarine fireworks lighting up the ocean. And then, gone...
There are many rational reasons why we should protect our oceans – jobs, development, fisheries, food – but there’s also the wonderful, and for me those reasons are equally important. They’re what keeps the fight in me alive, the cues from nature that seem to shout, ‘hey, we’re still here’. The Indian Ocean is still very much alive, and we can’t just let it go. We can’t allow the greed of a few to rob the ocean of its wonder, and plunder the bellies of future generations.
Mike Baillie for Greenpeace

First reviews

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is published today.  Stuart Kelly, literary editor of The Scotsman, says it is:
...one of the most beautifully produced and intriguing works of non-fiction that I’ve read this year....[written] beautifully, with apt analogies and brilliantly explanatory metaphors...The Book Of Barely Imagined Beings is a delight, full of the unusual and the astonishing...
At the time of writing there are two reader reviews on Amazon. Both give it Five Stars:
Richly Imagined: This book is beautifully produced and beautifully written. It offers an original and haunting glimpse of creatures it's sometime hard to believe really exist. It'll make you look at the world with fresh (and sometimes startled) eyes.
A thing of beauty: delightful - witty and profound by turns... this book really is a thing of beauty, with the text and illustrations wonderfully integrated. It's an intellectual and aesthetic joy
Benjamin Morris writes:
I can honestly say it is one of the most beautiful and necessary books on natural history to be published in recent years. Warm, lucid, scholarly, yet overflowing with mystery and wonder: it cannot be savored long or often enough.
Real Monstrosities says the book is:
More early reviews here.


Third in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

page xvii: Walrus. "As the beast in shape is very strange, so it is of a strange docilitie, and apt to be taught". Here's a walrus doing aerobics to the tune of La Bamba.
page xviii: identity and individual being. In Arctic Dreams (1986), Barry Lopez writes:
The animal's environment, the background against which we can see it, can be rendered as something like the animal itself – partly unchartable. And to try to understand the animal apart from its background, except as an imaginative exercise, is to risk the collapse of both. To be what they are they require each other.
page xviii: consciousness. The neuroscientist Christof Koch suggests that consciousness is a fundamental, elementary property of living matter analogous to electrical charge. See footnote [1]
page xix: allegory. Thomas of Chobham, before 1236:
For the whole world is full of different creatures, like a book written with various words and full of sentences in which we can read what we should imitate and avoid.
Walt Whitman, 1855:
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means

Footnote [1]

Reviewing Koch's recent book Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Stanislas Dehaene writes:
Every organism, even bacteria, would [on Koch's view] possess some degree of consciousness. The logical coherence escaped me: Only two chapters earlier, Koch was showing, there with strong empirical data, how complex networks of the human cerebellum and even the cortex operate entirely unconsciously.
Moreover, argues Dehaene, Koch accepts uncritically Giulio Tononi's mathematical theory of consciousness as integrated information (Φ) but this theory "makes no contact with such observations yet." 
       Some claims for consciousness are even more astonishing than those made by Koch. The physicist Henry Stapp, says that before human consciousness appeared, there existed a multiverse of potential universes.The emergence of a conscious mind in one of these potential universes, ours, gives it a special status: reality. 
       In this essay, David Deutsch reminds us that 'consciousness' has a huge range of meanings.  

3 October 2012

Anthropocene, bestiary, evolution...

Second in a series of notes and comments on chapters in The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  

Page x:  posts on this blog relating to the Anthropocene can be found here.

Page xi: Posts about bestiaries here.

Page xv: 'Nothing makes sense except in light of evolution'.

Page xvi: An interview with Callum Roberts, author of Ocean of Life, is here


I am speaking tonight with Andrea Wulf and Simon Garfield at Salon London. One of the themes is extinction.  Here are just three of the many large animal species driven to extinction in the last few centuries that are now barely imaginable:
Stellar's sea cow

2 October 2012

Such stuff as dreams are made on

First in a series commenting on chapters in The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. 

page ix: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. I have written an article about this book for The Guardian's Rereading series, and will post notification on this site when it goes live.

page x: Dreams. For Aboriginal Australians, the Dreaming allows them to “assent to life, as it is, without morbidity.” [1]  For us, perhaps, the contemplation of natural history can afford a similar sense of acceptance and marvel at our place in the universe.  As Charles Darwin wrote early in his career, “if, as the poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which serve best to pass away the long night.” [2]

page x: Zhuangzi. Compare “Biological systems are almost always more complex than you think – even when you allow for the fact that they are more complex than you think.” [3] 


[1] The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion by Terrence Deacon and Tyrone Cashman quoted in Religion in Human Evolution by Robert Bellah.

[2] The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

 [3] Evolution and the Complexity Principle by Nicholas Beale and Brian Josephson