Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Big things are happening in Neuroscience!

If you haven't heard of TED.com, you've been missing out.

The biggest and the littlest.

A while back I posted a little information about Amorphophallus titanum, the world's largest flower. Just a few days ago while peeking around on Ebay, I discovered (and bought!) Amorphophallus ongsakulii, which I have heard is the smallest member of the genus. It was discovered in 2004 in the Khammouane Province of Laos by Alan Galloway and Annop Ongsakul, and described to science in 2006. A. titanum requires a corm (bulb) at least 30 lbs to produce its incredible flower. And, it can only produce this flower when it isn't busy growing its enormous single leaf. A. ongsakulii, in an incredible act of rebellion, flowers with a corm less than 1 cm long and weighing less than a gram. Further bucking evolutionary tradition, this miniature Aroid creates its itty bitty non-smelly flower right alongside its single leaf. Right now mine are in dormancy until spring, but hopefully some day I'll be able to take a photo similar to:

Photo from: Plant Delights Nursery, where you can buy your own!

Monday, October 25, 2010

God must have a sense of humor...

...since Chiggers defecate through their skin.

This was a funny side note in my Acarology class, so I found a paper with an enlightening Abstract:

"It is impossible for trombidiform mites to defecate because they lack both an anus and a hind gut. Digestive residues remain in the mid-gut lumen and there are great differences in the capacity of species to transfer and store digestive residues in specific mid-gut lobes. The chigger mite species with the most precise pattern of faeces storage spontaneously ruptures the body wall in a narrowly defined region and extrudes a faeces-filled gut lobe through the rupture. This seems to be a normal function in the field and in healthy reproducing laboratory cultures and the process, named schizeckenosy, may be a secondarily evolved substitute for defecation."-Schizeckenosy: The substitute for defecation in chigger mites (Mitchell and Nadchatram 1969)

Chiggers are a parasitic life-stage of mites from the family Trombiculidae. Occasionally they infect people, causing quite the itch. The image below is an excellent representation of an animal .007 inches, less than half a millimeter, long.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Board the Gos Hawk

An excellent video my friend posted to Facebook. It's unbelievable how these birds maneuver. I wonder if they process visual data via some novel brain circuits?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Immortal Jellyfish

Recently I watched a great TED talk by Rachel Sussman, in which she details her journey to photograph the world's oldest living organisms. As an aside, she mentioned the Immortal Jellyfish, the only species known to revert from a sexually mature individual back to the polyp stage. From Wikipedia--

"This ability to reverse the life cycle (in response to adverse conditions) is probably unique in the animal kingdom, and allows the jellyfish to bypass death, renderingTurritopsis nutricula potentially biologically immortal."

Image from:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Strangler Fig Does not Fall

It's been about a year since I originally watched The Private Life of Plants, and now I'm watching it all over again. One of my absolute favorite scenes decribes the natural history of the Strangler Fig.  Take it away Sir Attenborough:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Half blind, half death, with 1/4 human reaction time.

Not to mention its muscles have been reduced practically to ribbons! Modern Sloths are great, but they are but a shadow of the clade's former gigantic and/or marine members.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Time to find Gelastocoris oculatus!

Recently  on my walks around riparian areas in central Texas I've noticed tons of tiny toads, but as of yet, no Gelastocoris oculatus. The Big-Eyed Toe Bug has been on my list for several years, but for some reason I've never been in the right place at the right time. Superficially these funny little bugs resemble toad-lets, but it is hard to imagine they are gaining much benefit from this appearance. Some might suspect that Gelastocoris  mimic toads because of the toxic secretions amphibians posses, but I can't wrap my head around the idea that this entire genus would be forced to adopt a certain gestalt for the sake of avoiding a few visually guided predators. In any case, I'll be watching for a toad that isn't really a toad.

Image thanks to bugguide: http://bugguide.net/node/view/269515/bgpage

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

One Year Later, Coccinella novemnotata

About a year ago, my friend Ellen Woods took a picture of the increasingly rare Nine-Spotted Ladybug, Coccinella novemnotata. Once the most common native coccinellid, I believe this species is now extinct from large swaths of North America. At the time the photo was taken, only 13 captive specimens were known in the world. Dr. John Losey and I had just collected all of them in rural Oregon thanks to The Lost Ladybug Project. Ellen's photos made big news, and not long after Nine-Spotted Ladybugs began hatching in New York (where they are the state insect!) for the first time since the 1980s. Since I was watching the first clutch of eggs endlessly, I was lucky enough to capture that Kodak moment, below.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Largest Living Earthworm...that we KNOW of!

Feeling like you don't know enough about the Giant Gippsland Earthworm? Let David Attenborough teach you everything you need to know!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Larger Pygmy Mole Grasshopper?

Neotridactylus apicialis is one weird looking grasshopper from the family Tridactylidae. Not much information is available on these guys, but their morphology suggests they spend a significant amount of time under ground. And they must be larger than Neotridactylis archboldi, the plain old pygmy mole grasshoppers. N. apicialis appear to have converged on a similar morphology as the Mole Crickets. The genus Ellipes is a close relative which I recently found on the sandy banks of a medium sized stream- their standard habitat. Amazingly tiny, they were still accomplished jumpers.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Blob Fish Demands Human Sacrifice

30 relatively unknown fish species make up the family Psychrolutidae. The most famous of the group, Psychrolutes marcidus, happens to be the aptly named Blob Fish. At the depths these fish inhabit off the Australian and Tasmanian coasts, water pressure is immense. The Blob Fish has solved this problem by ditching the gas bladder most fish utilize for buoyancy control...instead the whole body has become a gelatinous mass just slightly less dense than water. The Blob Fish is one lazy species; it almost completely lacks muscle definition, and lives by floating just above the sea floor, gobbling up morsel passers by. The Blob Fish could be more exciting than we know...its close yet not as ugly relative Psychrolutes phrictus apparently breeds in aggregations on the sea floor, where individuals guard their nests of up to 100,000 (or more!) eggs.

Image from:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flat-headed Cat

Cats hate water....it's like a rule. But one cat swims in stark contrast to its relatives, Prionailurus planiceps, the Flat-headed Cat. This secretive cat lives in forested areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. How secretive are they--only two captive individuals were known in 2008 (400 captive Cheetah are known in North America alone). The Flat-headed is one of only two cat species with webbed feet, the other being the Fishing Cat. But Prionailurus planiceps has more complete webs, indicating more adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle. This beast will eat whatever small animals it can catch and kill, perhaps as large as rats or chickens. That's pretty good for an animal with a maximum weight of 5 pounds. Weirdly enough, it's one of only cats unable to retract the claws....and, of course, individuals have particularly flat heads. The picture below appears to come from a motion sensor camera, which makes it particularly cool.

Image from:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another new 'human' species?

I turned around again and another species popped up! Meet Australopithecus sediba. Article here.

Image from:

Friday, March 26, 2010

A new human species?!

Yesterday, 'high impact factor' journal Nature published an article concerning the discovery of Hominid remains. The most exciting finding is that the mitochondrial DNA of the fossils is distinct from modern humans and Neanderthals, even though this animal would have lived contemporaneously with both. That means this is either a new species, or at least a distinct genetic lineage from Africa which probably left no offspring (males of the group may have contributed some genetic information to modern humans- and this would be undetectable using mitochondrial DNA). It seems every time I turn around a new major discovery in our lineage is made! The Russian cave where the famous finger bone was found:

Article/Image Source:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Don't miss, LIFE

The newest epic nature documentary is finally here! And although I doubt it will be perfect...due to severe lack of David Attenborough, the footage promises to be mind blowing. Who knows, Oprah Winfrey may just have what it takes to give voice to nature. Don't miss it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Large plants, revisited.

How big are these waterlilies?

Some are 6 feet across, so large that their leaves need air filled sacs to keep them afloat.
The Lily Trotter lives the majority of its life walking along them.
The flowers are a solid foot across.

Also they are beetle pollinated, which is somewhat rare and pretty cool. How does the flower change color though?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"This is the biggest flower in the world"

Amorphophallus titanum is one extreme flower. I have to laugh at the etymology of this name, 'amphorous' or without form, + 'phallos' or penis, and finally 'titan' meaning large or giant. This flower is named giant formless penis, and it smells "very strongly of dead fish". Also it's 9 feet tall and 3 feet across...and David Attenborough's crew were the first to figure out what insects pollinate this species:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Your friends the Demodex

Recently I came to the conclusion that mites are one of the most under-appreciated groups. Still, I was shocked to find out about Demodex folliculorum, a weirdly elongate mite that lives only in the hair follicles of humans. Demodex brevis, possibly a sister species, lives only in our sebaceous glands. Adults max out at a whopping .4mm, small enough to allow many to lay eggs on your eyelids (apparently a preferred location) without you even knowing they existed. What are the chances you are infected by Demodex? It depends on your age. Young children are estimated to be infected 1/3 of the time while approximately half of adults are infected. Other than some minor skin irritation the mites cause almost no harm to their host.

First image: a colored SEM of Demodex.

Second image: Demodex life cycle described from human eyelid.

Third image: Demodex elongated abdomen visible at the base of a hair.

Second and third images from:
English, F. et al. (2006) The natural history of demodectic mites on the skin of the eyelid margin. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. 2(2) 132-136

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nature Photographers

Becoming a famous nature photographer is impossible, unless you submerge yourself in a watering hole and wait for lions to come take a drink. For three months. This man deserves a medal.

Image from:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

National Geographic is still keeping it real.

I might have to find a copy of this issue. Redwood forests were thought to be devoid of animal life, but recently all sorts of new species have been discovered living in composted soil trapped high in the trees. Including a crustacean (amphipod)...and you have to wonder how that got up there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

When you make strange noises here, seabirds...

Check out the nose on that Petrel. I'll have to re-watch this episode because for the life of me I can't remember the secret behind the tube.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pass the earthworm, please.

Pollenia rudis is known as the attic or cluster fly because of its tendency to overwinter en masse in human structures. P. rudis belongs to the family Calliphoridae, and most calliphorids feed on carrion (or occasionally living flesh) as larvae. {that's not completely true, some Australian Calliphoridae:Rhiniiae are myrmecophiles}  Taking the road less traveled, P. rudis larvae seek out earthworms. For the first two instars, they feed internally, although apparently larvae may leave an unsuitable host and find a new worm to consume. Third instar maggots are larger and have been known to feed externally on worms. How this life strategy was adopted from feeding on carrion seems to be a big mystery. Gradualist (classic) views of evolution are often hard-pressed to answer these questions, which is why I'm a big fan of hopeful monsters (think bulldog or chihuahua) and punctuated equilibrium. These ideas theoretically allow for a small number of individuals to experience a rapid change in form and function....which makes it easier to understand increasingly common situations such as this lizard population which evolved new digestive tract valves in less than 40 years.

P. rudis image from: http://bugguide.net/node/view/362910/bgimage

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Troglobite

I'm waiting on permission to post some really cool beetles which only live in caves in Texas, but until that works out I'll stick with bats. This one is eating a frog.

Image from:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What's going on here?

Photo by Alex Wild.

The business end of a female Northern Walkingstick (Diapheromera fermorata) is well equipped to disperse eggs- some tropical species have modified their segments into a biological catapult...looking at the picture I wouldn't be surprised if these did something similar.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Need dung? Go to the source.

Canthon aff. quadriguttatus (still not sure what the aff. is...) is a fairly plain looking dung beetle. It has a little color to it, but otherwise it is unremarkable.

Until you learn about its behavior. It turns out that this is one of the dung beetles which has cut the search for dung out of its life history and gone directly to the source. For this species, that means hanging out around these guys.

Specifically, right around here:

If this seems peculiar, consider that in India a related species of dung beetle does the same thing to humans. And... it doesn't always wait for the resource to make its exit. Even stranger may be Zonocopris gibbicollis, a dung beetle which plays the same trick on giant land snails.

Original papers and pictures from:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus

I haven't posted another troglobite in too long. To make up for this, here is the official state bat of Virginia. For a long time scientists thought that bats were the closest living relatives to primates...but now we're pretty sure that position belongs to tree shrews.

Life's Ultimate Architect

This is the finale to "Home Making" from David Attenborough's The Trials of Life. As with all of Attenborough's final examples, it's nearly unbelievable. I'm speechless.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"This is science, not Avatar"

There's something about dinosaurs lately. For a long time we had no idea what dinosaurs would have looked like alive. For most species, we still don't. Finally, scientists have published what they believe is the most accurate representation of the color and appearance of Sinosauropteryx, the first dinosaur (not yet a bird) to be discovered with feathers. This work was possible because pigment containing structures in the feathers, known as melanosomes, survived fossilized. So this is probably what the beast looked like:

Too cool. Full article here:

Sunday, February 7, 2010

One more falsehood from high school biology.

The video below is the opening to the last episode of the Planet Earth series. The first time I saw who was paddling that canoe around I was stunned. Just a few years ago I was being taught that humans are the only tool using animals. It turns out that there are at least a dozen bird species which exhibit complex tool use. Even some invertebrates use tools (maybe).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tree Foraminifera

Notodendrodes antarctikos, is a single celled amoeba-like creature that lives in sediment on the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Some scientists believe that Foraminifera may represent a 'missing link' between naked cells and shelled protists (tiny tiny animal-like creatures). This particular Foraminifera is named because its shape is strongly convergent with a tree, it has root-like projections into the sediment which absorb dissolved nutrients, and intricate branches rising a few millimeters above the sea floor which capture suspended food such as algae. Its closest living relative is found in the tree form and the more 'traditional' sphere form.

I stumbled across these while watching "Encounters at the End of the World" which is available for instant view on Netflix. By far one of my favorite documentaries. In it I learned that N. antarctikos has been central to the debate on intelligence. These single cells apparently pick out only particular size grains in the building of their shells, which makes them eligible for all definitions of 'biological intelligence' proposed.

Darwin apparently had this to say:
"The case of the three species of protozoan (I forget the names) which apparently select differently sized grains of sand, etc., is almost the most wonderful fact I ever heard of. One cannot believe that they have mental power enough to do so, and how any structure or kind of viscidity can lead to this result passes all understanding."

 The picture below (this is one cell...) comes from Dr. Sam Bowser (who was in the film) courtesy of Shawn Haper.

Image from:

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Troglobite

Troglobites are animals that live in caves, and generally, they rule. I'm going to attempt to post a picture of a new cool troglobite every Friday. Today's is a Psuedoscorpion discovered in an Australian cave. Psuedoscorpions are arachnids, and evolutionary cousins to the scorpions. Unlike scorpions, they deliver venom via their claws. To really see the the arachnid family (~class~) resemblance, you have to look at the jaws of Wind Spiders (Solifugae). I've posted a picture of one below.

New Psuedoscorpion, pretty scary for a 3.5 millimeter creature.

Solifugae. The jaws of both arachnids are large and scissor-shaped.

Images from:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


As soon as I saw the Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) I checked to see if they were available as pets. These primitive dogs live in rural Japan, Korea, and China. They are one of only two Canids to be able to climb trees, the other one being the Gray Fox. And, it's the only dog capable of hibernating during the winter.

The raccoon dog is monogamous and prefers to run away or scream if danger approaches. Raccoon Dogs have become the focus of groups against fur trade. The (this link is not for the squeamish) reality of the situation seems to be grim. In a weird twist, the Raccoon Dog is considered an invasive pest in several European countries. The video below is pretty entertaining.

Images from:

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Goblin Shark is Ugly

I'm not too familiar with Goblin lore, but they must be formidably ugly  for Mitsukurina owstoni to be named after them.

The Goblin Shark is only this ugly when it has its jaws protruded. Usually it looks more like the specimen in the video, which likely died soon after being placed in an aquarium. These are deep water creatures (may never encounter light during its lifetime) which grow up to 11 feet long. That nose is filled with electrosensors that it uses to find prey...although probably a generalist, we aren't quite sure what they are feeding on.

The long heterocercal tail is incredible, I have no idea what the siphon-like openings on the side of the head are used for, and I'm really surprised it has such big eyes.

Image from:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mymaridae (Fairy Wasps)

Fairy Wasps are quite possibly the smallest insects to have ever existed. Male fairy wasps live out their entire life cycles where their mother oviposited them, trapped inside a water beetle egg with their sisters. Inbreeding is the norm. For this species it's almost becoming ridiculous to have males at all (this one doesn't). How the fairy wasp gets away with all this inbreeding is currently unknown. One popular idea is that a beneficial complex of genes exists that would be scrambled by the process of random mating...which may or may not be right.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Giant Jellyfish

Check this out:

Wow. Only two jellyfish in the world get this big, Nomura's Jellyfish of Japan (Nemopilema nomurai) and the Lion's Mane Jellyfish found in Arctic and Australian waters (Cyanea spp?). 'Spp' stands for species plural; because of size and color variation across its range the Lion's Mane is not known to be a single species. I'm pretty sure the above image is of Nemopilemna nomurai. The Lion's Mane (which is the larger of the two) has a bell divided into eight lobes as seen below. 

If you define 'plankton' as pelagic sea creatures whose movement is largely guided by the currents, these are the largest plankton is the world! The record holding Lion's Mane specimen had 120 ft tentacles, longer than a Blue Whale. Still, they have to worry about jellyfish predators like the equally massive and comically proportioned Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola).

Images from:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brownsnout Spookfish

For as much variation exists, it's rare to find a new major morphology. Thankfully, the Brownsnout Spookfish (more fun to say than Dolichopteryx longipes) has appeared to entertain us with new evolutionary innovation.

Lateral view isn't his best angle. It doesn't show his incredible eyes (which are divided into up and down facing pupils, effectively giving it four eyes, and that's not even the cool part! Take that Anableps). The cool part is that the Brownsnout Spookfish is the only vertebrate to use a mirror to make an image in its eye. The top corneal opening of each eye is focused by the a mirror made of layers of reflective plates of guanine crystals. The bottom facing pupil is still focused by a lens as in 'primitive-eyed' vertebrates like us. It's cool to see a new biological technology developing in and independently contributing to an existing visual system.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"The most mysterious, the least known of all dogs"

Speothos venaticus is the least understood dog on the planet. I had no idea it existed before seeing it in The Life of Mammals. Known as the Bush Dog, or locally (Amazonia) as the Vinegar Dog, this is the only Canid with webbed feet. Why would a dog have webbed feet?

These dog are semi-aquatic(!) and hunt rodents and other small animals, occasionally diving to catch them. Bush dogs tend to be found in packs of 10-12, but occasionally appear solitary. They have a unique dentition (not surprising for such a derived species) that seems to emphasize ripping and tearing ability. You can view an excellent scan of a Bush Dog skull at one of my new favorite websites.  Bush dogs were discovered as fossils in caves before live specimens were known to science. Speothos are still considered extremely rare across their range, which is not well defined.

David Attenborough once again provides the world with an excellent view of a rare animal.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New biology term.

     Every once in a while (all the time...) I do a random google search to look for cool new stories. Just now I searched "Subterranean Coleoptera". The first result was a recent paper:  Evolution of Subterranean Diving Beetles (Dytiscidae: Bidessini) in the Arid Zone of Australia. 
     I won't go into the details of the paper, but I did learn a new word......Stygobiontic. If you google search define:stygobiontic you'll be utterly disappointed. I finally found the definition in a powerpoint presentation by a researcher who studies stygobiontic species in Texas.
     Stygobiontic species live only in groundwater, they are almost never found at the surface. Cool.
     Below is a drawing from the paper mentioned above, by Remko Leys et al. For comparison I put a 'standard' member of the family below.

Standard Dytiscidae from bugguide.

Artificial selection, natural selection, both?...or neither

You might notice something peculiar about Heikea japonica.

In his 1980 documentary series Cosmos, Carl Sagan (who was absolutely brilliant) used this species as an example of evolution by artificial selection. Thomas Henry Huxley, one of Charles Darwin's greatest advocates, apparently did the same. The two claimed that Japanese fisherman tossed back crabs that had human, or more specifically, samurai-like faces. Over time this selection pressure led the entire population to this phenotype. It's really a very cool example, but also contentious. Here's another picture:

As a side note: personally, I'm not a fan of 'artificial selection' in this case; is any selection pressure exhibited by humans on another species artificial? Where do we draw the line, perhaps domestication? But that's a different and perhaps more boring semantic conversation. Here's a giant Japanese spider crab (nearly 13 foot leg span!) to bring you back.

Joel Martin argues in 'The Samurai Crab'  that only natural selection played a part in shaping this animal's appearance. He points out that the contours on the crab carapace are indications of internal muscle attachment points(apodemes), which is useful information, but not nearly as useful as I think he thinks it is.

Martin's strongest claim is that the crabs, not more than 1.5 inches across, were too small to be eaten.  He also cites other species which show human/samurai-esque faces (pictures below), some of which live in the same waters off of Japan as H. japonica. These other species are so similar that locals don't differentiate between them. Perhaps all of the crabs in the region experienced similar human induced selection?

The jury is still out on this one; proponents of the Sagan/Huxley version say that villagers would have eaten these crabs historically, especially before mass-fishing practices became popular. Also, just because other species exhibit similar characteristics does not mean selection didn't occur to put the finishing touches on the modern H. japonica appearance. I submit that eye/mouth mimicking shapes occur often in nature to scare off visually guided predators, perhaps another reason for the face shape on this intriguing crustacean.

Pictures 1 and 4 comes from The Samurai Crab, linked above.
The giant crab comes from wikipedia.
Picture two can be found here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two Times the Telson

I found this image in a research note published in the Journal of Arachnology (1995 23:199-201).

Something weird must have happened developmentally to cause these individuals to have two tails/stingers (metasoma/telson). Vachon believes the anomaly to be a case of incomplete twinning. Apparently this mutation was known in ancient times, because Pliny, citing Aelian (alien?), placed the two-tailed scorpions in their own class(Vachon 1953).  Modern literature does not describe these beasts until Pavesi in 1881. Since then two-tailed specimens have been described in at least 9 species of scorpion. I've heard at one point the two-tailed specimens were considered a completely different species, though this could be a misinterpretation of the point made earlier. Certainly a curiosity I'd rather not be stung/stung by.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tarsus Replacing Mite

I couldn't sit on this one any longer. I was trying to save it for a slow day...but it's too cool. This mite, Macrocheles rettenmeyeri, is named after recently deceased ant expert Carl Rettenmeyer. M. rettenmeyeri is only found plugged into the distal end of army ant legs, where it effectively replaces their 'claws', or more insect specific, the tarsus. We think it feeds off of army ant hemolymph (blood). The best part is that it functionally replaces the army ant claws! This means that the tongue replacing isopod is not the only species known to "functionally replace a host organ". I'd like to think that in army ant bivouacs (temporary shelters constructed out of their own bodies) ants may be connected to mites, connected to mites, connected to ants. Anyways, on to the picture (courtesy of a Carl Rettenmeyer poster):

The army ant bivouac link is actually a sculpture, by Jill Moger in the UK.

Speaking of Hummingbirds...

Another spectacular short clip from David Attenborough's, The Life of Birds. He really nails the finish on this one. Also, 9000 Hummingbirds a day, count me in!

Monday Morning Moonwalk.

I never met Dr. Kim Bostwick while at Cornell, but if I had I definitely would have asked her to do her impression of this crazy bird doing the moonwalk.

P.S. These birds create a sound by slamming specialized wing feathers together 80 times per second, apparently faster than a hummingbird wing beat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pterosaur Tooth

This morning I woke up to a very exciting email from ebay informing me that I had won this 33mm fossilized tooth from Siroccopteryx moroccoensis, a Pterosaur.

Pterosaurs, commonly known as Pterodactyls,  are one of my favorite extinct lineages. They were the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight. Funnily enough, when Cosimo Collini discovered the first fossils in 1784, he thought they were aquatic creatures who used their giant front limbs as paddles.

Unlike birds, who are thought to have gotten their start by climbing trees, Pterosaurs appear to have gone from the ground up. This is based on the lack of tree-climbing adaptations in early Pterosaurs...however their exact origins are still up for debate.

Recently Michael Habib of Johns Hopkins has revealed that Pterosaurs took flight by running on all fours, making them top contenders with the giraffe for the doofiest looking animal while running award. Dr. Habib also attempts to dispel the interpretation of Pterosaurs as, "very skinny, almost emaciated-looking things, basically a hang glider with teeth." Turns out they were actually pretty ripped.

Pterosaurs living 220 million years ago were generally small, with wingspans of approximately 10 inches. As their history progresses the smaller lineages seem to have disappeared. Some authors think this was due to competition with early birds, 100% arm waving (no pun intended). By the time they went extinct 65.5 million years ago, two genera (one of them toothless, weird right?) had nearly reached the 40 foot wingspan mark, making them the largest flying animals ever known. Siroccopteryx moroccoensis had a wingspan of about 20 feet...not too shabby.

You can learn a ton about the Pterosaurs from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pterosaur

Pterosaur/Giraffe image from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090107-pterosaur-picture.html

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pure awesome.

A Termitophilic Staphylinid. So cool it hurts.      Awesome is an overused word. That's why I reserve 'pure awesome' for beasts that really defy imagination. There's no question that Thyreoxenus brevitibialis fits the bill. This bug is totally out of control. For reference, here is a pretty standard Rove beetle.
      The image comes from Taro over at Myrmecoid. I owe Taro for my appreciation of evolution (and a lot of the examples I post here). Taro's an entomological genius (seen here collecting from 'non-personal feces'), so make sure you click on over to his blog. I'll let him give you the low down on this Staphylinid:

      This amazing staphylinid belongs to the aleocharine tribe Corotocini. The corotocines are mainly termite guests. Many exhibit extreme morphologies where most of the body is fleshy and blobby, like this Thyreoxenus species. Although this image is in lateral view, when viewed from above, some of these corotocines (including Thyreoxenus brevitibialis) closely resemble termites.

      Even Richard Dawkins has acknowledged the awesomeness of corotocines in his book Climbing Mount Improbable by stating that Coatonachthodes ovambolandicus is “one of the most astonishing spectacles in all natural history.”

Nanorchestes antarcticus

Macromite is one of my absolute favorite blogs. The colored SEMs, very labor intensive pieces of art, are beyond belief. And it turns out that mites are equally as diverse as insects (if not more so), with all kinds of crazy evolutionary stories. From Macromite-

"Herds of hundreds of thousands of these mites roam parts of the Antarctic continent, presumably grazing on algae"

If you ever make it to Antarctica, make sure to keep an eye out for a herd of these .1mm marvels.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

Every time I bring up the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis people laugh. They think it's ridiculous. To me, it makes total sense. Our loss of body hair is similar to other mammals with aquatic ancestors, i.e. the elephant and rhinoceros. Human baby fat, our ability to control breathing, and that bit of vestigial webbing between your fingers all make sense in light of the AAH. It's certainly an idea worth investigating. Unfortunately, leading anthropologists have been laughing since the AAH was proposed in 1942. Check out the videos below and see what you think. The first is incredible footage of chimps wading (90% of chimp movement in water is bipedal). The second is a 15 minute lecture (highly recommended!) by the leading proponent of the AAH. Below the videos is a link to a short thesis on the subject.

What really bothers me is that the discovers of Ardipithecus are blabbering on about how human-like the fossil is, which is unexpected only if you think about evolution strictly from a gradualist perspective and believe in the molecular clock that dates the human-chimp divergence to about 7 million years ago. Meanwhile they should be science-gasming over their own discovery that, "a mosaic of woodland and grasslands with lakes, swamps and springs nearby" was this beast's habitat.

Watch Chimps wading through water on two feet.wmv in Educational  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

If you haven't been on Ted.com, you need to go!

(what an unfortunate URL...)

Do you know about the Honeyguide?

David Attenborough gives you the low down in 3 minutes:

What's this? It's Paussinae.

This is Platyrhopalopsis, a Carabid (ground beetle) from Thailand. Those radar dishes on the top of its head are the antenna.

Although the exact host is unknown, this beetle almost certainly lives in an ant nest. This lifestyle is known as myrmecophily, and you wouldn't believe all the crazy species that make a living this way. Paussinae may be using those antenna to communicate with their ant hosts, but beetles in this group are generally collected only at light traps; so most of their natural history remains a mystery. Some researchers have reported ants using the antenna as handles to relocate the beetles. The plate below shows the astounding diversity of antenal morphology in the subfamily. It's a great example of 19th century naturalist drawing, by John Obadiah Westwood, 1837. 

Primitive Paussinae generally have standard mouthparts and thick exoskeletons, while more derived species are lighter and have spoon shaped mouthparts specially adapted to receive regurgitated food directly from ants. All members of the group can mix quinones and gases to produce an explosive self defense, evolutionarily independent of but extremely similar to the famous Bombardier beetles, a different lineage of the Carabidae.