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Beasts in the Walls

April 23, 2014

Relief Sculptures at the Natural History Museum, London

1 main doors

When I was a boy in the 1960s, I was very fortunate that my family spent a year living in London. We visited the museums in South Kensington many times; I particularly loved the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. In hindsight, it seems strange that I never noticed the spectacular details on the exterior of the latter institution, but I attribute this oversight to two factors. First of all, like most London buildings at that time it was still cloaked with a layer of coal grime, received courtesy of the age of steam (a huge amount of coal was burned in London until the practice was banned after the killing “pea souper” fogs of the 1950s). Second, and perhaps most importantly, my seven-year-old self was desperate to get inside to see the dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs, and would not take the time to look at anything else.

During a visit in the summer of 2010, my fiftysomething-year-old self was able to consider the building’s architecture at leisure, between attending sessions of the International Palaeontological Congress. The museum, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, was opened in 1881; its exterior and interior are clad in terracotta tiles produced in Staffordshire, and among the tiles are a tremendous number and variety of relief sculptures of creatures and plants. These decorations would make the building worth visiting even if it contained no dinosaurs. Which, fortunately, is not the case.

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It seems that every window features a different creature and a different variation on the columns.

3 pterosaur

A pterosaur on its perch, surrounded by tree trunks and foliage

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These columns appear to represent a stylized Carboniferous Lepidodendron (or maybe a related genus?).

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A diverse biota of invertebrates inhabits the space between windows.

6 eurypterid

This eurypterid swims across a tile on an interior wall.

7 placoderm

A placoderm, an early armoured fish from the Paleozoic Era

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Two fishes of mid Paleozoic aspect

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10 dinosaur

The central hall, with Diplodicus in the foreground and the statue of Charles Darwin on the stairs

 

 

 

Water Low

March 22, 2014

Some Half-Formed Thoughts for World Water Day, 2014

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Spring flooding at Fredericton, New Brunswick

Our relationship with water is a strange one. We frequently say that water is something we share with all life, it is a basic necessity in almost every human activity, it is a right. But we also see it as a commodity to be bought and sold, and we (North Americans, anyway) assume that it is always available, to be used up as we wish and when we wish.

I think I first really appreciated the strangeness of this relationship about 25 years ago, when we were living in England at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market rule. Her government had by that time finished selling most public utilities to the private sector, and, looking around for further assets to strip, decided that water supplies should be privatized. As a Canadian who had been always taught that water was a public good and should be held in trust, this seemed to me one of the weirdest government decisions ever. How could something that belonged to everyone be sold arbitrarily and perhaps end up in the control of a company managed from another country, owned by unknown shareholders who knows where? How could that be good for the population or for the environment?

Some aspects of our strange relationship with water are probably related to qualities that are basic to humanity. Beyond our need to drink the stuff, Homo sapiens is not really a water-oriented species. Most of us do not swim well or naturally. Modern people may bathe frequently, but this is cultural, and for many generations our ancestors probably entered water rarely, if at all.

We are sometimes told that we each carry the chemistry of the sea within us, but even this is not really true. The salinity of our blood is about nine parts per thousand, whereas the open sea is far saltier, in the range of 35 parts per thousand. Our blood is about as salty as certain landlocked seas into which a considerable amount of freshwater flows. The salinity of the mid part of the Baltic Sea, for example, is about 6-8 parts per thousand. Somehow it does not seem quite so pleasing to say that, “we each carry the chemistry of the Baltic within us” (particularly if you have spent time on the Baltic shore in the heat of summer. Bleah).

Near the Field Museum, Chicago

Near the Field Museum, Chicago

Our distant fishapod ancestors left the sea a tremendously long time ago – probably around the mid to Late Devonian Period (some 400-360 million years ago) – and as far as I can tell we have spent a lot of the intervening time in the middles of continents. After primates had lived in the trees for tens of millions of years, our ground-dwelling hominin ancestors most likely evolved in the savanna of east and south Africa, a landscape of mixed forest and grassland. If our blood carries a hint of ancient oceans, I suspect that our brains and senses bear a far larger signature of life in the trees.

We also bear the cultural imprint of life in dry lands, because the dominant world religions were founded in what is now the Middle East. In Biblical stories freshwater is often scarce, it is sought and treasured, and it can have holy properties. Larger bodies of water are important as sources of fish, but they are also forces to be feared; hence the tale of Jonah and the whale, the miracle of Jesus calming the storm, and the Noachian flood.

The Biblical stories are often powerful, but they were written in a pre-scientific age; they betray little understanding of basic ideas we now take for granted, such as the water cycle. Certainly there was no recognition that more than 2/3 of our planet is covered with water. There is apparently still no such recognition on the part of most North Americans; the oceans are hugely important to all of our lives, and our ignorance of them is both egregious and remarkable.

People living along the shores of oceans, lakes, and rivers would have been much more water-oriented, yet they seem to have had only a modest voice in the historical development of “civilized society.” General definitions of civilization often seem to be associated with agriculture, not with our relationship to water. Recognition of civilization in historic cultures tends to be measured by progress with the domestication of plants or beasts, not with progress in the invention of boats or fishing nets, though of course these are also factors that permit a steady provision of high-quality food to a number of people, with a modest input of energy and materials.

In the modern world we like to locate along water, but we also typically turn our backs to it as cities grow – cities like Toronto and New York have largely sold off water access to the highest bidders, who have built a wall of towers that encourage the city to look away from the water and into itself. Water becomes something to escape to, not to orient our day-to-day lives along.

Malignant Cove, Nova Scotia

Malignant Cove, Nova Scotia

Weathermen think in days and seasons; politicians think in four- or five-year cycles; economists think in one-, five-, or ten-year intervals. These are all relevant to resources, but resources also operate in geological time.  What is the actual rate at which the resource is renewed or cleaned, and at what rate can we use it without serious deleterious effects? If we use water too quickly, then it is no longer renewable; most people don’t realize that groundwater is being “mined” in many parts of the world. How will those aquifers ever recover as long as there are immense human populations using them, constantly drawing the water table lower and lower?  Parts of the Ogalalla Aquifer in the southwestern US might only last another 25 years, as the water is being depleted, largely for irrigation.We will use it up, just like the Great Auk, the bluefin tuna, or a copper mine.

In the past week, the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has turned our attention to the almost unimaginable bigness of the Earth’s oceans. That search is taking place far from any land in the Roaring Forties, where ships rarely visit and where huge waves are created by the endless wind fetch of the Great Southern Ocean.

Looking at such a world of water, how can we think that there could ever be a shortage? The trouble is, of course, that less than 1% of the world’s water is liquid and fresh, and much of that is in regions with few people, such as northern Canada and Russia. Elsewhere, our rapidly growing populations are rapidly outstripping water supplies. Improving standards of living just make this worse; subsistence farmers in the Third World do not use water to wash their cars or to irrigate golf courses!

Which brings us back to Margaret Thatcher. Much of western society has continued to pursue the “market is always right” approach that she espoused. In our economic system, growth is not just good; it is utterly essential, as demonstrated by the events that accompanied the shrinkage of the recent “Great Recession”. The growth of economies and populations may be necessary to society, but it is not sustainable, and fresh water is one of the resources most likely to become really problematic in the near future.

We can each try to be more “environmentally friendly” in our personal lives, but we are headed toward some very unpleasant events unless someone finds a fix for the global growth conundrum. Considering world water resources, in the immortal words of Walt Kelly, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba

Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba

© Graham Young, 2014

A Matter of Millimetres

March 20, 2014

sea level

As a species, we humans are terribly self-centred. Sure, we are interested in the rest of the world, but many of us seem to be interested in it only as far as it affects us. We are stuck in an endless loop of pursuing money so that we can pursue consumer goods, and there is little time left to look at the parts of the world that don’t “matter” (to our wallets).*

World sea level rise is a case in point. There is good evidence that sea level has been rising for the past century or so, and the data on climate change indicate that it will continue to rise in the coming years, perhaps as much as  0.8 to 2.0 metres by the year 2100 (or about 2½ to 6½ feet). The rise is related to global warming, which affects seawater volume by causing glacial ice to melt, and by causing the thermal expansion of the seawater itself.

Morning low tide at Pocologan, New Brunswick

Morning low tide at Pocologan, New Brunswick

Although we are becoming aware of sea level rise, articles I see in the media are mostly about the potential effects on First World coastal cities (notably Venice, New York, New Orleans, and London), or about how it will affect the many people who have moved to low, picturesque coastlines in places like Florida and South Carolina. Occasionally there are pieces that discuss the dramatic and frightening impacts for poor people in the Third World: the heavily populated Ganges Delta in Bangladesh could lose much of its land, with 10% of the country disappearing as a result of a one-metre rise in sea level, and low-lying island countries such as Tuvalu could also be in terrible trouble.

The human effects of sea level change will be seen in different ways in different places; it won’t just appear as a gentle, gradual inexorable rise of the water along the beach, year-in and year-out, slowly working its way up the lawns of pleasant seaside bungalows. Some of the most dire predictions are related to flooding associated with storm surges, but there could also be major issues with increased coastal erosion, with farmland becoming too salty for crops to grow, and with loss of groundwater resources. These impacts on people are serious, potentially fatal in some areas, but what about the non-human world?

Seaweeds on the shore near Black's Harbour, New Brunswick

Seaweeds on the shore near Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick

In many ways, the effects on other organisms will mirror the effects on people. Land-dwelling animals and plants will have to move inland as shorelines advance, and trees will die as the soil becomes too salty to support their growth. Animals will drown in floods caused by storm surges.

In other ways, however, the effects on nature will have few ready analogues in our human world. For instance, increased sea level could modify the salinity of bays and estuaries, affecting the organisms that are able to live there. Considering shorelines, the aspect of sea level rise I think about most often is how it might affect the life of tidal flats and rocky shores.

Water fills shallow depressions in the Pocologan tidal flat.

Water fills shallow depressions in the Pocologan tidal flat.

The Anchorage, Grand Manan Island

A pond on the tidal flat, near The Anchorage, Grand Manan Island

As the name indicates, tidal flats are surfaces with very little relief. Any vertical change of sea level will be amplified by a much greater lateral migration of the sea across a nearly horizontal surface (imagine the movement of spilled water across a tabletop). In addition, many of the life forms on tidal flats are small; a vertical change of a few millimetres would affect them the same way you would be affected by a flood that is metres in depth.

Periwinkle at Pocologan

Periwinkle at Pocologan

Rock crab on Grand Manan

Rock crab on Grand Manan

The life of rocky shores might be less affected by slight vertical changes, but its obvious vertical zonation is a clear demonstration how the organisms are attuned to sea level. Most life forms on tidal shores have their locations finely calibrated with respect to tide cycles: they live where they can best locate food, and where they can also manage to survive the alternations of wetting and drying, the changes in temperature and salinity, and the push and pull of waves. This is why, even from a distance, one can readily see the bands of colour that show the locations of particular algal species.

Algae in a tidal flat channel, St. Andrews, New Brunswick

Algae in a shallow tidal flat channel, St. Andrews, New Brunswick

seaweed bed

Periwinkles on bladderwrack and other seaweeds, Grand Manan Island

The geological record tells us that sea level is always changing; if it wasn’t rising right now, it would be falling. The current rate of change, however, is like nothing in living memory. The shapes of tidal shores have come from the interplay of many factors: organisms, waves and currents, the underlying geology, erosion, and sediment transport, modified through the dimension of time. Non-catastrophic change can occur only so quickly, and it is possible that rapid sea level rise will, for instance, drown some tidal flats without allowing sufficient time for new ones to form. Many tidal flat creatures can move, but only if there is still some tidal flat available to them!

Near North Head, Grand Manan Island

Near North Head, Grand Manan Island

* This self-obsession is entirely obvious when we consider the criteria for scientific research: we are told that research must be relevant, which really means that it must either allow us to make more money or it must directly relate to human society. It really doesn’t matter how relevant the research is to the non-human world, though!

© Graham Young, 2014

Medusa Hall

March 4, 2014
C Medusa Hall 2

The painting of a medusa (labelled as “Toreuma bellagemma”) on the ceiling of Medusa Hall

The Phyletisches Museum, Jena, Germany

Several years ago, someone sent me a link to some photos of a museum in the former East Germany. The images showed parts of a fabulous ceiling decorated with paintings that seemed to have been drawn from Ernst Haeckel’s famous illustrations of jellyfish; sort of a Sistine Chapel of cnidarians. It was apparently in Jena, which I realized was the same place that made an appearance in the “Carl Zeiss Jena” labels on optical equipment. I thought the ceiling looked gorgeous, and filed it away into that category of . . . “yeah, that would be nice, if I could live to about 1000 and have the opportunity to go everywhere.”

Then, last October, it happened. I was visiting Germany to examine collections of fossil jellyfish, driving from place to place with my colleague James Hagadorn. After time in Munich, we were studying collections in Freiberg, a bit north of the Czech border. Freiberg was to be followed up with a visit to Gotha, before we headed for Frankfurt and our return flights to North America. On our second day in Freiberg we finished by lunchtime, which meant that there was time to stop somewhere on our way to Gotha. So . . . Jena!

It turned out to be a pretty little city. The museum was easy to find, and there was parking on the street right beside it.

A museum exterior 1

The front face of the museum

A. Evolution doors

B galleries

The Phyletisches Museum was actually planned by the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, as a physical representation of some of his ideas on phylogeny (the evolution of groups of organisms) and ontogeny (the development of an individual organism). It was opened at the University of Jena just over 100 years ago. The collections of this museum have a tremendously deep history extending back hundreds of years, but as a university museum of modest size, I suspect that it had some lean times in the mid 20th Century.

B gorilla & Haeckel

A preserved gorilla with Ernst Haeckel . . .

B gorilla & man

. . . and in another part of the museum, a gorilla and human have their skeletons and muscles compared.

Fortunately, things seem to have improved more recently. It appears that all of the exhibits have been renovated, with the old cases being cleverly re-used in beautifully designed exhibits that include large numbers of specimens from the collections. With the gorgeous architectural features of the building, it all “works” as a coherent piece.

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B molluscs

Many of the exhibits feature clever touches, such as the burrows within the plinth of this mollusc case.

Read more…

The Past is a Big Country

February 18, 2014

Contemplating the Trans-Canada Timeline

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In the past few weeks there seems to have been a lot of discussion of evolution in the popular press. Or rather, there has not been an awful lot about evolution per se, but there has been quite a bit of conversation concerning the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on the relative merits of the Theory of Evolution vs. a literal biblical interpretation of the history of life.

I won’t go into the outcomes of the debate, but many of the things that were said got me thinking about the average person’s understanding of the history of our planet. In the discussion of Ham vs. Nye, it was often pointed out that about 40-50% of Americans believe that the Earth was divinely created, with a good few of them being young Earth creationists who insist that the planet is in the range of 5,700 to 10,000 years old (the percentage in Canada would be somewhat lower, but still substantial). While the thinking of young Earth creationists seems abundantly clear, it is far less certain what most other people think about when they contemplate Earth History. Do they have any clear ideas to replace the reassurance given to those who possess absolute faith?

Salt marsh near Cape Enrage, New Brunswick

Salt marsh near Cape Enrage, New Brunswick

Over the past couple of centuries, science has learned a tremendous amount about the history of Earth and life. Our scientific understanding of these issues is based on an immense amount of painstakingly-gathered data; the raw data, if printed, would fill many warehouses. When we say that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, and when we say that life on this planet has evolved, these are facts, readily observed from the basic data.

Although scientific information is easily available in our modern age, it seems that many people are quite unaware of it. In my dealings with the public I have been fascinated to discover that, among people who apparently accept evolution and an ancient Earth, there are many who lack any basic comprehension of the scale and complexity of geological time.

Along the Trans Canada Highway in western Manitoba

Along the Trans-Canada Highway in western Manitoba

Read more…

A Provenance Problem

January 23, 2014

Whale Cove, Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick

Whale Cove, viewed from the beach

Whale Cove, viewed from the bar (photostitched panorama)

The inner end of Whale Cove is defined by an immense barrier bar, separating the lagoonal barachois from open waters of the bay. Walking along the bar on an unseasonally hot summer day, you are struck by the fact that many of its constituent stones are geologically rather similar. Unlike some beaches elsewhere on Grand Manan, which contain a great diversity of rock types, the bar is largely composed of pebbles and cobbles of basalt.

The bar, with sea on the right and barachois on the left

The bar in 2013, with sea on the right and barachois on the left

The source of much of the basalt in the Whale Cove bar is easily determined. Northward, either side of the bay’s mouth is lined with cliffs. Ashburton Head on the western horizon is particularly impressive, and in front of it are the layered flows of the Seven Days Work. Basalt, almost as far as the eye can see! These rocks are all part of the uppermost Triassic Dark Harbour Basalt.

Ashburton Head and the Seven Days Work

Layered basalts form the Seven Days Work, with Ashburton Head on the horizon.

Much of the basalt in the bar is of a mid grey colour. Wet stones by the sea look black, but in the midday sun the round cobbles higher on the bar are bright and pale. The beachcomber’s eye is drawn to any that stand out from the background grey: each occasional piece of white quartz or pink granite is picked up and examined.

Pebbles and cobbles on the bar

Pebbles and cobbles on the bar

Read more…

What You See is What You Get. Sometimes.

January 12, 2014
Norm Aime examines a large dead example of Cyanea capillata (the Lion's Mane Jellyfish) on the shore of Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba.  ((photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Norm Aime examines a large dead example of Cyanea capillata (the lion’s mane jellyfish) on the shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. (photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

It is a common error of logic to think that the rest of the universe will conform to our modest experience of our own little piece of the world. We see this sort of faulty generalization all the time in discussions of topics like evolution and global warming; it is the perception that “if I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, then it cannot be true.”

As scientists, paleontologists should be less prone to this sort of error than some other people, and I think in general we are good at examining all the available evidence, digging through the published literature to determine the most accurate answer to a particular question.  This doesn’t necessarily hold true, however, when we consider issues that are barely touched on in the literature: when we are looking at fossils and situations that are poorly documented anywhere in the world. When we are considering these, we tend to be like anyone else and fall back on our personal experience. Read more…

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