30 March 2013

It's the ecology, stupid

Jacquelyn Gill considers de-extinction:
Is one lonely calf, raised in captivity and without the context of its herd and environment, really a mammoth? Does it matter that there are no mammoth matriarchs to nurse that calf, to inoculate it with necessary gut bacteria, to teach it how to care for itself, how to speak with other mammoths, where the ancestral migration paths are, and how to avoid sinkholes and find water? Does it matter that the permafrost is melting, and that the mammoth steppe is gone? As much as I love mammoths, the ecologist in me can’t help but answer: no.

29 March 2013

Whale's eye

In Beautiful Whale, [Bryant] Austin describes an encounter with Ella, a curious minke whale off the coast of Australia. He was taking photographs as Ella swam around. The whale liked to look at him head on, a fact that Austin used to maneuver her into better lighting. Her desire to see his face was strong enough that she'd swim around him, if he turned his back to her.

"This requires some discipline and trust in the whales. At times Ella would initiate a close inspection of me from behind, where ambient lighting was poor. Peering over my shoulder, I could see her body pass by less than six feet away. I turned back to face forward, trusting her not to accidentally harm me," Austin writes. "In my experience working with whales this way, our eyes seem to gravitate toward each other." 
-- Alexis Madrigal

27 March 2013

More articles

Around the time Barely Imagined Beings was published in Britain I wrote some articles for various media. They're listed here.

Approaching publication in the United States by Chicago University Press in April, the following articles have appeared or may appear:
* A version of the Waterbear chapter at The Coffin Factory
* Imagining the World in The Chronicle of Higher Education
* An interview at Five Books under the title Growing up in the Anthropocene

A northern St Francis

Once, reading a psalter by the sea, [Cuthbert] dropped his book into the water - I imagine its glittering illuminated and unchained pages fluttering as they tumbled into the murky depths, an expensive loss in an age when books were more precious than almost anything. At that moment, a seal dived down and returned with the book in its mouth. It...received a blessing for its efforts, although I suspect a little fresh fish would have been as welcome.
-- Philip Hoare.

Image (via British Library): Cuthbert (lower left) praying in the sea, and, after he has finished (lower right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet with their breath and fur, while (above), another monk watches.

See also Otter tracks.

25 March 2013

A multispecies ecology

...when we generate evolutionary explanations for why we behave the way we do, for why our bodies function as they do, we need to be cognizant of the possibility that other animals’ presence is shaping our selves.  We must think about the bodies and behaviors of other animals as core parts of the ecologies in which we exist and, thus, include them as part of the suite of central influences in our own evolution.  We did not make it in the world alone; we made it as part of a multispecies ecology...
-- Agustin Fuentes

Image: Charles Fréger

Spark of thought

...albeit in the brain of a zebrafish:
At first glance it looks like an oddly shaped campfire: smoky grey shapes light up with red sparks and flashes. But the video actually represents a different sort of crackle — the activity of individual neurons across a larval fish brain. It is the first time that researchers have been able to image an entire vertebrate brain at the level of single cells.

More from Mo Costandi

23 March 2013


If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency [in the results of all recent scientific research] has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed.
-- from One of Us by John Jeremiah Sullivan. See also Frans de Waal on The Brains of the Animal Kingdom:
Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.


photo by Hara Woltz - Imaging Ecology

21 March 2013


The first genetic study of global giant squid populations shows that the mysterious animals are very similar to each other even though they live so far apart. The finding suggests that their young are dispersed thousands of kilometres by powerful global currents.
-- report, paper

20 March 2013

Switching heads

The entire process seems to have started in 1923, when a biologist named Walter Finkler reported that he had managed to successfully transplant the heads of insects. He’d been working with water boatmen, meal worms, and common butterflies – both in adult and grub form. The transplantation process was not complex. He’d grab two insects, cut off their heads with sharp scissors, and switch them. The fluid that the insects themselves leaked cemented the new heads in place. After a little time -- a 1923 article says a few weeks -- the insects were healed up and doing whatever their new heads told them to do. Finkler claimed that the heads of female insects on male bodies continued female behavior, and the head of one species of butterfly kept the habits of its own species, even when its body belonged to a different species.
-- from The Bizarre History of Insect Head Transplants

Review by Nicola Baird

In a review for Friends of the Earth, Nicola Baird says:
...Once you start reading The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, it becomes hard to stop......It's a book you will want to reread but may be hard to share.
..it is easy for those who care for the planet to be close to despair...Step forward The Book of Barely Imagined Beings - essential Earth-affirming reading, and a superb celebration of biodiversity.

Recommended by Scientific American

Scientific American recommends the forthcoming U.S. edition of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

19 March 2013

Vehicular selection

Birds in Nebraska have evolved shorter wings, which may help them avoid dying on roads by taking off quickly and darting away from cars.
-- report, paper.

18 March 2013

15 March 2013


Isabella Kirkland's picture is the subject of her talk at TedX's DeExtinction event today.

The revival of an extinct species - the Wooly mammoth - is now a real possibility, says Hendrik Poinar

Hannah Waters see narcissism in de-extinction. Stuart Pimm argues conservation of species still alive should take precedence.

Review in Cosmos

Rivqa Rafael writes:
Henderson’s writing is engaging, descriptive and often drily humorous...
[He] is a Wallace for our time, delighting in the strange and beautiful creatures that nature has to offer. In describing them, he draws from literature and scientists both old and new, as well as coining some wonderful phrases of his own.
[This] modern bestiary is a book to read and treasure in hardcover if ever there was one.

Halorubrum lacusprofundi

...[The] microbes were isolated from Deep Lake, a very salty lake in Antarctica. The changes found in proteins from these organisms allow them to work in both cold and salty conditions, when temperatures may be well below the freezing point of pure water...

"In such cold temperatures, the packing of atoms in proteins must be loosened slightly, allowing them to be more flexible and functional when ordinary proteins would be locked into inactive conformations...The surface of these proteins also have modifications that loosen the binding of the surrounding water molecules."

"These kinds of adaptations are likely to allow microorganisms like Halorubrum lacusprofundi to survive not only in Antarctica, but elsewhere in the universe..."
-- Strategies for Mars Survival

14 March 2013

Art and origin

The true cognitive depth to the palaeolithic sculptures – their challenge, ultimately, to our anthropological schema – seems to me the way they suggest how self-loss and self-consciousness were intertwined. The movement of the new world of representations was at least twofold. One aspect (and that I have concentrated on the little figurines does not mean I have forgotten, or mean the reader to, that the overall image-world of the Ice Age is oriented to the bison, the mammoth, the horse, the cave bear, the reindeer, the wolverine) involved the invention, by the look of it somewhat suddenly, of more and more ways to bring the realm of animals up close, imaginatively – into being, into movement. The painters and carvers seem to have been intent on staging and immortalising the human animal’s familiarity with – maybe its dreamed-of inclusion in – a world where the ‘human’ was only a small part of the show. 
T. J. Clark

12 March 2013

Review in Publisher's Weekly

A starred review from Publisher's Weekly is the first US review of the forthcoming Chicago University Press edition:
...[the author uses] an oddly anthropomorphic argument to abandon anthropomorphism, but as exotic salamanders and transparent octopi give way to miniscule water bears, whiskered owlets, and the honey badger, Henderson’s contagious awe of life effortlessly advances his argument. The captivating habits of these beings are given significant scientific backbone, before digressing into a free-flowing discourse.

Beyond the pantomime of brutes

For 2,500 years it has been known to the students of nature that the more one learns about animals, the more wonderful they become. The observation stands confirmed by the instruments of both science and art, but the animals are most instructively perceived when they are seen, as they were by [Henry] Beston from the beach on Cape Cod, as other nations complete in themselves, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
-- Lewis Lapham

"Resurrecting a Forest"

Critics have focused on the threats posed by novel life forms released into the environment, but little attention is paid to potential opportunities–to reconstruct extinct species or create customized ecological communities designed to produce ecosystem services. They may change the public perception of what is “natural” and certainly challenge the notion of evolution as a process beyond human construction.
-- from a framing statement for a meeting titled How Will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?, quoted by Carl Zimmer.

10 March 2013

In the long term

In his True History, the rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata imagined the sun itself might be inhabited. About 1700 years later William Herschel hypothesized that the part of the sun we see from Earth is something like our aurora borealis and that beneath it was a layer of dense clouds that shielded denizens of the surface from our sight. Herschel's son John suspected that the ephemeral formations we call solar flares might themselves be living creatures.  In 1999, building on Freeman Dyson's 1979 paper Time without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe, Greg Adams and Fred Laughlin envisaged life on white dwarfs:
White dwarfs are unimaginably dense -- 1014 [a hundred trillion] grams per cubic centimeter -- but their atmosphere [may] allow [for] mobility. Those atmospheres contain oxygen and carbon, and although they are quite cold, they are warm enough that they would allow those chemicals to interact in interesting ways. White dwarf atmospheres gain what heat they have by collisions with particles of dark matter, a process that will continue until the dark matter is exhausted, when the universe is 1025  years of age. Over such as span -- 100 billion times as long as it took for life to appear on Earth -- even slow-moving molecules have time to join in every conceivable pattern, including those necessary for life. The longevity of a stable environment...implies that life in white dwarf atmospheres is more than possible; it is likely...[It] would also be life quite unlike our own...metabolisms and rates of consciousness would be very slow. An intelligent creature living in a white dwarf atmosphere might take a thousand years to complete a single thought.
-- from Weird Life by David Toomey

Borges includes Thermal Beings in his Book of Imaginary Beings. These are imagined to have existed in an earlier era.

See also White Dwarfs Hold Key to Finding Secret to Extraterrestrial Life

8 March 2013

Cloud beings

Ideas of cloud-borne Venusians are not new. As far back as 1967, when there was evidence for substantial amounts of water vapor in the planet's clouds, Carl Saga and Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz hypothesized organisms the size of Ping-Pong balls, with skins a single molecule thick. Such organisms, so the thinking went, might have originated on the surface some time in the distant past when conditions were more temperate an, as the surface heated up, migrated to the skies. Like jellyfish in terrestrial oceans, they would maintain their buoyancy with float bladders -- filled,  in the Venusian case, with hydrogen. The idea was criticized because although Morowitz and Sagan had suggested ways the cloud-borne might be cloud (sexual land asexual reproduction), they had not shown how they might have evolve, and no one could imagine an evolutionary path by which a Venusian surface dwelling organism might develop a float bladder. Sagan, though, was undeterred. He didn't abandon the cloud-borne life; he just suggested another place to look for it...
-- from Weird Life by David Toomey

See also Libertine Bubbles

7 March 2013

Elephant and forest

As go the elephants, so go the trees. That’s the message of a new study published in the May 2013 issue of Forest Ecology and Management that found more than a dozen elephant-dependent tree species suffered catastrophic population declines in new plant growths after forest elephants were nearly extirpated from their ecosystems. The fruit-bearing trees all rely on forest elephants as their primary means of seed distribution, a process known as megafaunal dispersal syndrome.
-- John R. Platt

The number of African forest elephants has "declined by 62% in 10 years."

See also Gomphotheres of the Rambunctious Garden

6 March 2013

Wise monkey

When does a monkey turn down a free treat? When it is offered by a selfish person, apparently.
Given the choice between accepting goodies from helpful, neutral or unhelpful people, capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) tend to avoid individuals who refuse aid to others.
-- Capuchin monkeys show biases against humans who deny help to others

5 March 2013

Among the dendroglyphs

The 'hum' I traced back to a mass of flies orbiting a protuberance impaled on a broken-off branch. I poked the limb with a pine stick & nearly retched, for 'twas a piece of stinking offal. I turned to flee but duty obliged me to dispel a black suspicion that a human heart hung on that tree. I concealed my nose & mouth in my 'kerchief &, with my stick, touched the severed ventricle. The organ pulsed as if alive! & my scalding Ailment shot up my spine! As in a dream (but it was not!) a pellucid salamander emerged from its carrion dwelling & darted along the stick to my hand! I flung the stick away & saw not where that salamander disappeared.
-- from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

4 March 2013

Deep Carbon

Less than 10% of the Earth's carbon is in its atmosphere, seawater and top crusts. The rest is locked away or in motion deep underground - a "hidden dimension of the planet as poorly understood as it is profoundly important to life on the surface."  

Carbon in Earth, a new publication by scientists collaborating on the Deep Carbon Observatory, notes that:
Among the gaps in our knowledge of deep carbon relate to the deep biosphere. Remarkable discoveries of subsurface microbial life and associated viruses hint at a surprising hidden diversity, primarily within the microbial domains of archaea and bacteria. [But] surprising discoveries of a rich subsurface community of eukayotes promises an even richer deep taxonomy. These findings, coupled with advances in single-cell genomics, predict a coming decade of extraordinary discovery.

3 March 2013

Petseleh, Shlang etc.

Modern penises come with all kinds of frills and accoutrements, like bristles, barbs, foreskins and multiple heads (some marsupials have forked penises; the echidna's penis has four heads). Some penises engorge themselves with blood or lymph fluid; others rely on a mineral bone to get a boner (in fact, humans are one of the only primates without a penis bone). When erect, penises might be rather stiff and inflexible, or—as in the case of whales and dolphins—retain a rubbery agility. Some penises are unexpectedly small for an animal's overall size, such as the gorilla's typical nubbin (1.25 inches erect on average). Others are astoundingly large: the humble barnacle claims the longest penis relative to body size of any animal. A sedentary creature, the barnacle probes for a mate with its impressive penis, which can be eight times its own length.
-- Ferris Jabr

2 March 2013


Imagine that someone cut off your ear and tossed it on the ground, where it promptly grew into a complete copy of yourself–complete with a new brain.
The parasite's fountain of youth by Car Zimmer with image from paper by Daniel Lobo, Wendy S. Beane and Michael Levin.

1 March 2013

Eyes peeled

...in the course of [my] wanderings [in the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena, the Stikine and the Nass], I came upon...a remarkable man: Alex Jack, an Gitxsan elder and chief who had lived as a trapper and a hunter in that country for all of his life. And over the course of 30 years, I recorded traditional tales from Alex, mostly mythological accounts of Wy-ghet, the trickster transformer of Gitxsan lore who, in his folly, taught the people how to live on the land. And just before Alex died at the age of 96, he gave me a gift. It was a tool carved from caribou bone by his grandfather in 1910, and it turned out to be a specialized implement used by a trapper to skin out the eyelids of wolves. It was only when Alex passed away that I realized that the eyelids, in some sense, were my own, and having done so much to allow me to learn to see, Alex in his own way was saying goodbye...
-- from A wilderness worth saving by Wade Davis

Sasquatch redux

P Z Myers is not convinced.