Saturday, February 22, 2014

Died This Day: Sir Charles Lyell

Nov. 14, 1797 - Feb. 22, 1875
From Minnesota State University at Mankato comes this excellent bio on Lyell:

Sir Charles Lyell attended Oxford University at age 19. Lyell's father was an active naturalist. Lyell had access to an elaborate library including subjects such as Geology.

When Lyell was at Oxford, his interests were mathematics, classics, law and geology. He attended a lecture by William Buckland that triggered his enthusiasm for geology. Lyell originally started his career as a lawyer, but later turned to geology. He became an author of The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man in 1863 and Principles of Geology. Lyell argued in this book that, at the time, presently observable geological processes were adequate to explain geological history. He thought the action of the rain, sea, volcanoes and earthquakes explained the geological history of more ancient times.

Lyell rebelled against the prevailing theories of geology of the time. He thought the theories were biased, based on the interpretation of Genesis. He thought it would be more practical to exclude sudden geological catastrophes to vouch for fossil remains of extinct species and believed it was necessary to create a vast time scale for Earth's history. This concept was called Uniformitarianism. The second edition of Principles of Geology introduced new ideas regarding metamorphic rocks. It described rock changes due to high temperature in sedimentary rocks adjacent to igneous rocks. His third volume dealt with paleontology and stratigraphy. Lyell stressed that the antiquity of human species was far beyond the accepted theories of that time.

Charles Darwin became his dear friend and correspondent. Darwin is quoted saying, "The greatest merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one's mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it through his eyes."

Image from King’s College London.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This Day in History: Darwin Observes Rapid Geological Change

In 1835, Charles Darwin, on his H.M.S. Beagle voyage reached Chile, and experienced a very strong earthquake and shortly afterward saw evidence of several feet of uplift in the region. He repeated measurement a few days later, and found the land had risen several feet. He had proved that geological changes occur even in our own time.

ConcepciĆ³n, Chile, after the 1835 quake

Lyell's principles were based on the concept of a steady-state, nondirectional earth whereby uplift, subsidence, erosion, and deposition were all balanced. Thereby, Darwin coupled in his mind this dramatic evidence of elevation with accompanying subsidence and deposition. Thus he hypothesized that coral reefs of the Pacific developed on the margins of subsiding land masses, in the three stages of fringing reef, barrier reef, and atoll. From Today In Science History

Read John van Wyhe on Darwin and the Earthquake

Born This Day: Raymond Cecil Moore

Moore (Feb. 20, 1892 - April 16, 1974) was an American paleontologist known for his work on Paleozoic crinoids, bryozoans, and corals. Moore was the founder and editor of the landmark multi-volume Treatise of Invertebrate Paleontology.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Born This Day: William Diller Matthew

Matthew (Feb. 19, 1871 – Sept. 24, 1930) was a superb mammalian paleontologist and important biogeographic theorist, and also G. G. Simpson's primary mentor. He published voluminiously on the fossil record of mammals and advocated a fully modern approach to taxonomy that emphasized tying scientific names to natural biological populations. His 1930 paper gives a clear statement of this position.

Matthew's key biogeographic theory was that waves of faunal migration repeatedly went from the northern continents southwards. This theory, which had obvious racial and political overtones, was justified by a "stabilist" view of paleogeography (i.e., that the continents had never moved from their modern positions), and by evidence from the relatively young fossil record of mammals, at the expense of other data that would have shown the more ancient interconnections among South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Remarkably, Matthew remained a Darwinian despite working for the autocratic orthogeneticist H. F. Osborn for three decades.

Info from HERE. Image from HERE.

Born This Day: Sven Anders Hedin

Hedin (Feb. 19,1865 - Nov. 26, 1952) was a Swedish explorer and geographer, born in Stockholm, who led four multi-year expeditions into Central Asia between 1897 and 1935. Although not as well known as Roy Chapman Andrews his work in the regions revealed a wealth of cultural, archaeological and palaeontological wonders.

During his first major Asian expedition, he crossed the Pamirs, charted Lop Nor (Lake) in China, and finally arrived at Beijing. He then journeyed to Tibet by way of Mongolia, Siberia, and the Gobi Desert. Hedin explored Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang), identified the sources of the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej rivers, and, in 1906, explored and named the Trans-Himalayas. In 1927 Hedin led an expedition of Chinese and Swedish scientists into Central Asia.

He wrote extensively about his adventures (e.g., Across the Gobi Desert, The Conquest of Tibet (1935), My Life as an Explorer (1926)) and they make for engaging and fascinating reading for anyone interested in the early days of exploring Central Asia. link

An excellent summary of Hedin’s life and expeditions into Central Asia can be found at the IDP News Archives image

Born This Day: Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

Murchison (Feb. 19, 1792 - Oct. 22, 1871) was a Scottish geologist who first differentiated the Silurian strata in the geologic sequence of Early Paleozoic strata (408-540 million years old). He believed in fossils as primary criteria. In 1831, he began researching the previously geologically unknown graywacke rocks of the Lower Paleozoic, found underlying the Old Red Sandstone in parts of Wales, which culminated in his major work the Silurian System (1839).

An eurypterid, a prehistoric sea scorpion from
Murchison named the Silurian after an ancient British tribe that inhabited South Wales. He established the Devonian working with Adam Sedgwick (1839). He named the Permian (1841) after the Perm province in Russia where he made a geological survey in 1840-45. link

Form, Function, & Evolution of Living Organisms

Form, function, and evolution of living organisms. 2014. J. R. Banavar, et al. PNAS

New research suggests that the shapes of both plants and animals evolved in response to the same mathematical and physical principles.
Kleiber’s Law (metabolism = mass3/4), one of the few widely held tenets in biology, shows that as living things get larger, their metabolisms and their life spans increase at predictable rates. Named after the Swiss biologist Max Kleiber who formulated it in the 1930s, the law fits observations on everything from animals' energy intake to the number of young they bear. It's used to calculate the correct human dosage of a medicine tested on mice, among many other things.

The researchers propose that the shapes of both plants and animals evolved in response to the same mathematical and physical principles. By working through the logic underlying Kleiber's mathematical formula, and applying it separately to the geometry of plants and animals, the team was able to explain decades worth of real-world observations.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Born This Day: Aleksandr Oparin, Originator of Primordial Soup

Oparin (Feb 18, 1894 - April 21, 1980) was a Russian biochemist who suggested (1938) that life on Earth developed through gradual chemical evolution of carbon-based molecules in a “primordial soup”, at just about the same time as the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane was independently proposing a similar theory.

As early as 1922, at a meeting of the Russian Botanical Society, he had first introduced his concept of a primordial organism arising in a brew of already-formed organic compounds.

More info at Physics of the Universe
Download his book "The Origin of Life on The Earth" from

Alley Oop Dino-Battle!

A 1937 Sunday page from the classic Alley Oop comic strip by V. T. Hamlin.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Oxygen Requirements of the Earliest Animals

The oxygen requirements of the earliest animals. D. B. Mills, et al. 2014.PNAS, Feb. 17, 2014.

New studies of a small sea sponge fished out of a Danish fjord shows that complex life does not need high levels of oxygen in order to live and grow.
Complex life evolved is believed to have evolved after the atmospheric levels of oxygen began to rise app. 630 – 635 million years ago. Halichondria panicea closely resembles the first animals on Earth & shows that animals can live and grow even when the atmosphere contains only 0.5 per cent of the oxygen levels in today's atmosphere.

The big question now is: If low oxygen levels did not prevent animals from evolving – then what did? Why did life consist of only primitive single-celled bacteria and amoebae for billions of years before everything suddenly exploded and complex life arose?

Born This Day: Horace de Suassure

de Saussure (Feb. 17, 1740 - Jan. 22, 1799) was a Swiss physicist and geologist who introduced the term geology into the scientific literature in the first volume of Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-96). Link

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Died This Day (1967): Antonio Moreno, The Man Who Discovered The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Antonio Moreno played Carl Maia, the scientist who discovered the fossil evidence for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Moreno had a long career in Hollywood with a notable run playing Latin lover in the silent film era.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Happy 100th Birthday to Gertie the Dinosaur!

One hundred years ago today, Winsor McCay's animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur, premiered. Gertie is considered by many as the first true animated character to be featured in a film.

For this cartoon, McCay (Sept. 26, 1987 – July 26, 1934) hand drew each frame of film. He took it on the vaudeville circuit and delighted audiences by being able to ‘interact’ with Gertie. In addition to Gertie, he is best known for his ground-breaking newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland that ran from 1905 to 1914.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Born This Day: Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus, Early Evolutionary Theorist

Treviranus (Feb. 4, 1776 - Feb. 16, 1837) was a German naturalist who
made histological and anatomical studies on invertebrates. Preceding Darwin, he believed in the “descent by modification,” of species.

He produced six volumes of his Biologie; oder die Philosophie der lebenden Natur between 1802 and 1822. Therein, he held that simple forms (Protists), which he termed zoophytes, were “the primitive types from which all the organisms of the higher classes had arisen by gradual development.” He was among the first to regard the cell as the structural unit of life forms. link image

Born This Day: Raymond Dart

Dart (Feb. 4 1893 - Nov. 22, 1988) was an Australian-born, South African physical anthropologist. In 1924, working with students in the Taung limestone South Africa, they discovered the first Australopithecus africanus. Dubbed "missing link" at the time, skull is also known as the 'Taung child', and was only three years old at the time of death. More on Dart here

Monday, February 03, 2014

Born This Day: Gideon Mantell

Mantell (Feb. 3, 1790 – Nov. 10, 1852), a physician of Lewes in Sussex in southern England, had for years been collecting fossils in the sandstone of Tilgate forest, and he had discovered bones belonging to three extinct species: a giant crocodile, a plesiosaur, and Buckland's Megalosaurus. But in 1822 he found several teeth that "possessed characters so remarkable" that they had to have come from a fourth and distinct species of Saurian. After consulting numerous experts, Mantell finally recognized that the teeth bore an uncanny resemblance to the teeth of the living iguana, except that they were twenty times larger.
In this paper, the second published description of a dinosaur, he concluded that he had found the teeth of a giant lizard, which he named Iguanodon, or "Iguana-tooth."

Mantell illustrated his announcement with a single lithographed plate. Mantell included at the bottom of the plate a drawing of a recent iguana jaw, which is shown four times natural size, and for further comparison, he added views of the inner and outer surface of a single iguana tooth, "greatly magnified."

The traditional story that Mantell's wife found the first teeth in 1822, while the doctor was visiting a patient, appears, alas, to be unfounded.

Info and plate from HERE.

Died 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, 2005 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.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Tarzan vs. T. rex

The above image was painted by Morris "Mo" Gollub who also did the best of the Turok, Son of Stone covers.

Read more about Morris at Pete Von Sholly's website, VonShollyWood

Australornis lovei, new Paleocene bird from New Zealand

First diagnosable non-sphenisciform bird from the early Paleocene of New Zealand. Mayr, RP Scofield, J. Royal Society of New Zealand

Abstract: A new avian taxon from the early Paleocene Waipara Greensand in Canterbury, New Zealand, is described. The holotype of Australornis lovei, gen. et sp. nov. includes wing and pectoral girdle bones, which exhibit distinctive morphologies. Notable features are a very long crista deltopectoralis, a craniocaudally flattened shaft, and a large tuberculum dorsale of the humerus, as well as a ridge-like caudal surface of the proximal ulna.

Although a well-founded assignment of the new species to any of the extant higher-level taxa is not possible, key morphological features of stem group Sphenisciformes (penguins) are absent in A. lovei. Other than penguins, the holotype of A. lovei represents one of the most significant records of a marine Paleocene bird from the Southern Hemisphere, and contributes to the emerging view that Neoaves were already diversified in the earliest Paleogene. link

Saturday, February 01, 2014