Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Petrified Forest

Read it here

Born This Day: Ernst Mayr

Any student of biology, or anyone with an interest in the natural world, will be familiar with Ernst Mayr who passed away on February 3rd in Bedford, Mass. Born in Kempton, Germany he joined the American Museum of Natural History as a curator in 1931. In 1953 he left the museum to work at Harvard University where he stayed until his retirement in 1975.

While working on the problem of speciation in the birds of New Guinea, Mayr realized that the multitude of species and and subspecies that he saw could best be explained as being a snapshot of evolution in action. He suggested that new species could arise when the range of one species was fractured long enough for members in different parts of the range to evolve characters that would not allow individuals to reproduce when they were brought back together again. This lead to him developing the “biological species concept” in which species are defined as populations of interbreeding organisms rather than just a collection of characters. This idea, along with his theory of “allopatric speciation” was published in his book “Systematics and the Origin of the Species” (1942) and later contributed to the “Punctuated Equilibrium” theory of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Ernst Mayr was himself inspired by the work of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and his book “Genetics and the Origin of the Species” (1937). These two men, together with the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, combined the sciences of genetics, zoology and paleontology into what is now known as “the new synthesis” that provides the modern experimental underpinning to the concepts that Charles Darwin presented in his book, “On the Origin of the Species” .

For anyone interested in learning more about modern evolutionary theory I’d recommend Mayr’s recent book “What Evolution Is” (2002). It’s written in an engaging and readable format from the perspective of someone who’s thought about evolution all his life.
[ a palaeoblog autopost]

Friday, July 03, 2015

Single-Celled Predator Evolves Human-Like 'Eye'

Eye-like ocelloids are built from different endosymbiotically acquired components. 2015. Nature

A single-celled marine plankton evolved a miniature version of a multi-cellular eye so complex that it was originally mistaken for the eye of an animal that the plankton had eaten.
The eye-like structure contains a collection of sub-cellular organelles that look very much like the lens, cornea, iris and retina of multicellular eyes -- known as camera eyes -- that are found in humans and other larger animals.

Light micrograph (left), illustration (center) and transmission electron micrograph (right) show the eye-like structure in warnowiid dinoflagellates. PR

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Saber-Toothed Cat Canines Took Years To Grow

Using a Novel Absolute Ontogenetic Age Determination Technique to Calculate the Timing of Tooth Eruption in the Saber-Toothed Cat, Smilodon fatalis. 2015. PLoS One

The eruption rate of S. fatalis's permanent upper canines was 6 millimeters per month--double the growth rate of an African lion's teeth. But the extinct cat's dagger-like canines weren't fully developed until about three years of age. PR

Monday, June 29, 2015

Born This Day: Ray Harryhausen

Ray would have been 95 today.
Visit Ray's official site.

Died This Day: Thomas Huxley

From the UC Berkeley Page:

Huxley (May, 4, 1825 - June 29, 1895) was born in Ealing, near London, the seventh of eight children in a family that was none too affluent. At 21, Huxley signed on as assistant surgeon on the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a Royal Navy frigate assigned to chart the seas around Australia and New Guinea. Huxley collected and studied marine invertebrates, in particular cnidarians, tunicates, and cephalopod mollusks. After leaving the Navy in 1854, Huxley managed to secure a lectureship at the School of Mines in London.

Huxley was a passionate defender of Darwin's theory -- so passionate that he has been called "Darwin's Bulldog" – and also a great biologist in his own right, who did original research in zoology and paleontology.

He is best known for his famous debate in June 1860, at the British Association meeting at Oxford. His opponent, Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce, was not-so-affectionately known as "Soapy Sam" for his renowned slipperiness in debate. During the debate, Archbishop Wilberforce ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's. Accounts vary as to exactly what happened next, but according to one telling of the story, Huxley muttered "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," and then rose to give a brilliant defense of Darwin's theory, concluding with the rejoinder, "I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth."

All accounts agree that Huxley trounced Wilberforce in the debate, defending evolution as the best explanation yet advanced for species diversity.

However, Huxley did not blindly follow Darwin's theory, and critiqued it even as he was defending it. In particular, where Darwin had seen evolution and a slow, gradual, continuous process, Huxley thought that an evolving lineage might make rapid jumps, or saltations. As he wrote to Darwin just before publication of the Origin of Species, "You have loaded yourself with an unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum [Nature does not make leaps] so unreservedly."

Huxley's most famous writing, published in 1863, is Evidence on Man's Place in Nature. This book, published only five years after Darwin's Origin of Species, was a comprehensive review of what was known at the time about primate and human paleontology and ethology. More than that, it was the first attempt to apply evolution explicitly to the human race. Huxley explicitly presented evidence for human evolution.

Huxley founded a remarkable dynasty of English scientists and thinkers. His son Leonard was a noted biographer and "man of letters." Leonard's oldest son Julian was one of the authors of the evolutionary synthesis of the early 20th century; Julian's son Francis became a noted anthropologist. Julian's brother Aldous Huxley was a novelist, screenwriter and essayist; his best-known book is the anti-utopia Brave New World.