Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Smithsonian Vision

The Smithsonian has published its strategic plan for Fiscal Years 2010-2015, an executive summary of which can be downloaded here. OK, these summaries have a fair amount of puff in them, but there's also some good stuff as well. It's good to see that the plan places enhanced digital access at the heart of so many of their activities, but that there's also recognition that "even in the digital age, physical access to the 'real thing' has enduring value." Likewise there is a positive statement that SI will "support our dedicated workforce of employees and volunteers through ongoing learning, enhanced responsiveness, encouraging excellence, valuing diversity, and rewarding innovation." Too many museums spend too little time thinking about the staff that work in them and in a time of layoffs it's important to recognize the value of people. But I wonder what "public/private partnerships that strategically enhance collections care" might be (see page 4)? The Smithsonian has not had the greatest of track records in this area. Watch this one with interest, say I.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Resurrection!

In the biggest news story of the year, the ITV has resurrected Primeval for another 13 episodes of Primeval. That's two whole series! No longer will Danny be left wandering the Pliocene, sweet-talking hominids. No longer will we be left wondering if Connor and Abbie ever make it down from that Cretaceous tree. The first episodes will go out in early 2011. OK it's a long wait, but I think I'll survive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Great Big Rat

I was flicking through the pages of Time magazine a few weeks ago when I came face-to-face with something extraordinary. No, not Glen Beck – that was the following week’s edition. What I saw, was a giant rat – no, seriously, I’m still not talking about Glen Beck. This was a member of the genus Mallomys, a group of large murids that live in montane and mid-montane forests in New Guinea. As a former student of New Guinean mammals, I have a search image of Mallomys seared onto my visual cortex, along with cuscuses, tube-nosed fruit bats, and the earless water rat (Crossomys moncktoni – a truly bizarre creature which I encourage you to go away and investigate if you are a fan of odd animals). So I actually absorbed the fact that this was a specimen of Mallomys before I even noticed that the title of the article was “The Moment: 9/7/09 Papua New Guinea.” Yes, I’m that good.

Anyway, the gist of the article was that the BBC had sent an expedition to Mount Bosavi, a large extinct volcano in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had discovered a “Lost World.” The BBC is always discovering Lost Worlds – a couple of years ago, it was reporting that another Lost World (containing another giant rat - obviously a winning formula) had been found in the Foja Mountains, which are in the Western, Indonesian half of New Guinea. Every time I read one of these pieces, I wonder who lost the World, and whether it was the same when they found it as when they last saw it. But then I’m just jealous. Anyway, I was delighted to read that the BBC team included my old Oxford chum, Dr. George McGavin. 20 years ago (yikes!) when I was a graduate student and George was the assistant curator of the Hope Entomological Collections, we would sit with our museum colleagues in the Eagle & Child on a Friday evening and George would tell us, with great earnestness, that he was destined for bigger things than this. And it seems he was! George is now a media scientist. (I’m jealous about that too)

Anyway, the Time piece went on to report, rather breathlessly, that the team had discovered 30 new species of animal on Bosavi, including the rat. “Oh yeah?” was my reaction, “Who’s your Mallomys expert then?” knowing full well that for all his entomological talents, George couldn’t tell a Mallomys from a Melomys (that’s a little murid joke for you). However, I managed to track down a video clip of the new Mallomys on the BBC website and there were the dulcet tones of another chum of mine, Kris Helgen, saying that this was a new species. Now Kris is one of the few people in the world who I would trust to be able to ID a new species of giant rat from New Guinea. So that was that. I just had to sit and sulk while watching the rest of the clip.

The BBC guys were all cooing over the rat, which one of them described as being “like a puppy.” Admittedly it was not much like the only live Mallomys that I encountered in my trips to New Guinea – that one was a snarling ball of shaggy black fur, whose only visible feature was a massive pair of incisors, which was hurling itself at the bars of its cage in an attempt to get at my throat. The Bosavi specimen was so docile that I wondered if they’d shot it full of ketamine. That got me thinking about something else; if this really was a new species, someone was going to have to take this little bundle of fun and turn it into a type specimen. Which means (gulp) killing it.

Now at this point, I was all set to use this as a jumping-off point to a much longer post. I was going to talk about the way in which museums have to respond to changes in public attitudes; how repatriation of human remains and artifacts, once almost unthinkable, has become commonplace; whether one day these moral/ethical concerns would grow into an organized campaign against collecting vertebrate specimens; if so, whether we, as museum professionals devoted to ensuring the long-term viability and utility of our collections, should be limiting the the extent to which we respond to emotive issues like this. About whether we need to balance responsiveness to this generation's concerns with responsibility to meeting the needs of future generations.

I spent two weeks writing the piece. Then I stopped and thought "Are you crazy? No-one's going to read this." So instead, here's some film of the new giant rat. They probably just took a couple of blood samples and some photographs and let it go again. Probably.....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Expertise: a Non-Renewable Resource

Reading an excellent article by Joelle Seligson in the September-October issue of Museum, I found myself brought up short by a couple of quotes. No, it wasn’t another round in the “it’s all about Community” debate that we had a few weeks back. Seligson was describing the after-effects of the belt-tightening exercises that most museums have gone through in the last year. She made the point that it’s not a case of trimming fat; we were already pretty lean to start off with. Now we’re hacking away at the meat of our operations.

So what was it about this piece that raised my hackles (not difficult, as my regular reading knows)? Well, it was a couple of quotes from people who ought to know better. They were so jaw-dropped that I feel they deserve to be reproduced more or less in full.

First, Graham Beale, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts: “What we did in this reduction was keep the profile of DIA as a major, universal, full-service museum. As far as the public is concerned, we look the same.” DIA implemented its reductions in ways “that came as a surprise to some people…. Areas that in the past have been held as absolutely sacrosanct and regarded as the core of the museum – that still are, really; the curators and conservators – they were affected in ways that the public, the visitors were not.”

I was just getting my brain around that statement when Seligson hit me with another killer quote. This one was from, Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. The Met had the choice of implementing its cuts by either firing staff, or temporarily closing galleries. Can you guess which one they went for? Yup, that’s right. “The raison d’├ętre of the Museum” says Harold (there, you can tell it’s the Met – I bet you wouldn’t catch the DIA using “raison d’├ętre” in a quote) “is to provide enlightenment to the public at the highest levels of quality and access, and we take the mission particularly seriously in tough times, when inspiration is just what people need.” People like the 357 staff that the Met is eliminating from its workforce, or the ones that are still there, but are now doing the work of more than one person for the same salary.

Extraordinarily, you get the impression that these guys think that they should be applauded for this course of action. This at a time when we have reports from Heritage Preservation, the Inter Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, and the National Science Foundation, all of which document the precipitous decline in the care of our national collections; a decline driven principally by cuts in resources and the loss (without replacement) of specialist staff.

Of course, I suspect that they don’t really think this (or at least Graham doesn’t; Harold is probably speaking from someone else's script). What they are doing is performing the age-old administrative art of taking something brown and stinking and describing it as “fertilizer.” There are two main reasons why they’re cutting Behind-the-Scenes, and neither has anything to do with lifting the public's spirits in time of trouble.

First, Front-of-House is relatively cheap compared with Behind-the-Scenes. Collections and conservation staff require a lot of expensive training and command relatively high salaries (although nowhere near as high as senior administrators). By contrast, front-of-house staff require minimal training, get paid less, and are often heavily unionized. This makes it a simple balance book issue; you can eliminate “backstage” positions more easily and get a much bigger financial bang for a smaller number of layoffs. And if you can strong-arm some of your more ancient curators into taking an early retirement package (they’re usually tenured, so layoffs aren’t an option), you can make some really big savings.

The second is a question of appearance. Gallery closures say “we’re not in control of the situation.” With all galleries open as usual you’re saying “times are hard, but through shrewd financial management we’ve maintained control.” Things can be going to rack and ruin in the collections, but this is largely invisible, not just to the public but to the far more important audience of trustees and donors, who rarely get to delve into collection operations and who might otherwise be tempted to ask hard questions of the museum’s administrators.

Whatever short-term hardships may ensue, a program of gallery closures is only temporary. You can always open them again when conditions improve. Your guards and custodial staff can be replaced. But what is happening in our collections now is the steady erosion of expertise (something we've covered before). Staff are not being replaced, and even when they are you’ve lost the opportunity for the new generation to learn from the last one. The staff that are left are battling to keep core, short-term activities alive. Longer term scholarship and collection improvement is dying out in many institutions. And if the various reports that I’ve quoted above are to be believed, we are rapidly approaching a point from which these collections will not return. If I were a member of the public visiting the Met or the DIA, I’d be less concerned about whether I get to see every gallery I want this year, and more worried about whether any of this stuff will be around for my grandchildren to be “enlightened” by.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

PNAS publishes "Worst Paper of the Year"

To those of you that follow science blogs, or even - heaven forbid - read academic journals, this will be (relatively) old news, the paper in question having been published at the end of last month. For for the benefit of my other reader, however, I thought it was worth re-hashing here. Donald Williamson is a retired prof from the University of Liverpool who has some decidedly... um... eccentric views about evolution. Specifically, he believes that caterpillars and butterflies were once two separate organisms: a worm-like ancestral caterpillar and a flying insect ancestor. These then hybridized to produce a single lineage with two life stages. He also proposes that velvet worms (Phylum Onychophora) are the most likely candidate for the wormy ancestor.

OK, let's stop for a moment and review. Onychophora and Insects. Two separate PHYLA. This is not like making a mule or a liger. Short of my mating with a rhododendron and producing a weird man-shrub creature, that's about as extreme as it can get. Now as you all know, there are many people in the world who hold, to put it mildly, odd views on life. The internet is a mine of weird and wonderful stuff that would previously have struggled to find an outlet. But this paper did not appear on a obscure website devoted to extreme hybridisation. No. It appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is (or perhaps - in the light of recent events - was) one of the world's finest academic journals.

How did this happen? Well, for those of you of a non-scientific bent, we scientists have a system called peer review, which means that before your paper can get published in a reputable journal a bunch of other scientists in your field get to scrutinize the manuscript for flaws, or to make sure that you are not stark raving mad. But PNAS is also the house journal of the American National Academy of Sciences. Election to membership of the Academy is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a scientist and is a recognition of the member's prodigious intellect. So as far as PNAS is concerned, if one of their members thinks the paper is OK, then why bother putting it through review by lesser mortals.

In this case, the paper was communicated to PNAS by Lynn Margulis, a professor at UMASS Amherst. Margulis is enormously respected, having come up with her own extremely wacky evolutionary hypothesis that cellular organelles (the small, membrane bound structures inside eukaryotic cells that perform many of the cell's physiological functions) actually originated as small, free-living bacteria that were ingested by proto-Eukaryotes in the extremely distant past. Amazingly, Margulis proved to be right and rewrote our understanding of the early evolution of life on Earth.

So is Williamson also right? The answer (sadly for Onychophoran fans) seems to be "no," or at least not on the basis of this paper. Basically, rather than providing proof that he's right, he's challenged his detractors to prove that he's wrong. This wasn't good enough for the seven academic journals that he approached with this paper prior to having Margulis take it to PNAS. But as far as PNAS was concerned, as long as an Academy member thought it was OK, then OK it was.

Apparently the National Academy of Sciences will be dropping this method of manuscript submission next year. For now, you can enjoy Williamson's paper here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Small Victory

For anyone who's ever been horrified by the sheer volume of Chinese fossils available for sale through outlets like Ebay, news of this seizure by US Customs is welcome, but long overdue. It begs the question of just how much of this stuff is entering the country every day; this is certainly just the tip of the iceberg.

In Praise of Notoungulates

I've spent the last couple of weeks having my first experience of teaching at Yale. Naively, having tutored a small army of Oxford undergraduates in during my time there, I thought that Yale students would present few surprises. However, from my limited experience to date, I'd have to say that they are scary-smart and very motivated. Either Yale knows how to pick 'em, or else things have got a lot tougher since my day.

The course in question is E&EB 171a, "The Collections of the Peabody Museum" taught by YPM's Curator of Invertebrates, Leo Buss. I think it's a great course (and no, I'm not just trying to kiss up to Leo, who is a very nice man, but also a very smart one, and would see through my ruse in an instant). What it does is take freshman or sophmore biology students and teaches them, through a short research project, how we use museum collections to underpin research.

Personally I think this is a great idea; there are significant numbers of people (including a few curators) who actually work in museums who have no idea what collections are for, let alone the wider community of researchers. So when I was asked to come up with a couple of projects for undergraduates, I didn't hesitate for an instant when it came to saying yes. All the hesitation came later on, when I actually had to devise the projects. Which is where notoungulates come in.

One of the biggest challenges for paleontologists is that they have to learn about the biology of their organisms indirectly - it may seem obvious to say, but most of the things that they are studying are extinct. Sometimes they have living relatives that you can examine for clues as to how your fossil beasties lived. But often you're totally out of luck. And problems don't come more acute than the South American ungulates.

For most of the last 80 million years, South America was an island continent. After the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea and its southern portion, Gondwana, tectonic plate movements kept the South America’s mammals isolated from those of other continents. So while mammals in the northern hemisphere were busy evolving into the familiar forms that we see today, South America developed a unique mammal fauna, most of which went extinct after the formation of the Isthmus of Panama led to an influx of mammals from North America.

With a few exceptions (opossums, sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), almost all of the modern mammals that we think of as typically South American are either relatively recent arrivals from North America (lamas, jaguars, tapirs) or more ancient immigrants from Africa (primates and rodents). So what was living in South America pre-Panama?

The answer is some very weird things. First, there were a whole gang of marsupials. A lot of these were much like that familiar opossum that you see pancaked on the highway in the morning, but there were also the Sparassondonta, a huge radiation of carnivorous marsupials that included just about every body plan you would expect for a carnivore, up to and including a jaguar-sized, saber-toothed animal called Thylacosmilus (the name means "pouch-knife," which says it all really).

As a former student of marsupials, I used to think that these big metatherian carnivores were the coolest thing about pre-Isthmian South America. And indeed, they are very, very cool. But that was before I gained a true appreciation of the ungulates. And to my mind, they are even cooler.

Consider these basic facts. South America split off and went its own separate way back when dinosaurs (of the non-flying, non-feathery variety) still roamed the earth. So the ancestors of those ungulates were extremely primitive. They parted company with the rest of the mammalian family tree so long ago that no-one really knows where exactly they fit - to try and place them in the tree requires poking around some very deep nodes, of the sort that can prove quite intractable to phylogenetic analyses. This (plus the total absence of any preserved DNA) may explain why most "super-trees" of placentals ignore them altogether. They then survived in splendid isolation for 80 million years, diversified spectacularly into 13 families and around 150 genera, then went extinct leaving nothing that is even remotely related to them. How cool is that?

Anyway, all of the above makes notoungulates a great teaching tool for the budding vertebrate paleontologist. To my way of thinking, there are two skills that are critical if you want to study fossils. First, you need to be able to observe - to look at something and truly see it. This may sound a little bit Zen, but it's a genuine ability and not everyone has it. The second is that you have to be able to compare - in the absence of relatives, you may need to cast your net very widely to find analogues. And these are two activities that our collection is well-placed to support; we have an exceptional collection of fossil mammals from South America and a large teaching collection of comparative osteology to refer to.

S0 I turned my student loose in the collection and she came back with a specimen of the Miocene notoungulate Hegetotherium which she is now in the process of describing. Without access to any publications on notoungulates. Yes, I am that much of a sadist. My rationale is that she needs to learn to observe without preconceptions. I am like a paleontological Mr. Miyagi. Anyway, we'll see what she makes of it. Meanwhile I have just a few weeks to flesh out project #2. On paper this looks like an exciting chance to delve into the evolution of whales. Sadly, I fear the reality is several weeks of poking around in mesonychid ankle bones for the unlucky candidate. Whoever said working with fossils was glamorous?

[By the way, I'm just a tourist where South American ungulates are concerned. If you want to really experience how cool these things are, go take a look at Darrin Croft's webpage]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bald Sloth

Among my various rants about "cryptozoology" I haven't really got into "rotting-things-that-get-washed-up-on-the beach-and-misidentified" (RTTGWUOTBAM?), which is a uniquely moronic subdiscipline of cryptozoology. But why bother, when Darren Naish does such an excellent job of shooting down these random pieces of idiocy. Montauk Island Monster? Racoon. Montauk Island Monster 2? Also racoon. Croyde Beach Beast? Grey seal. Moore's Beach Monster? Baird's beaked whale (at least that last one is forgiveable - beaked whales are a lot rarer than seals and racoons). But this post, on the Panamanian Blue Hill Monster, is absolutely the best of the bunch. It is, of course, a sloth. But how many of you have seen a sloth without its hair? Who knew they looked just like ET, only with huge claws?

Naming Samson

OK, enough of computer-animated dinosaurs running amok in Croydon and on to the real thing. Yesterday, a glossy auction catalog from Bonhams dropped onto my desk, for a sale to be held in Vegas on October 3rd. Pride of place was given to a specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex called Samson. As T-rexes go, "Samson" is pretty special - a 56% complete skeleton, which doesn't sound like much until you realize that there have only been three specimens of this dinosaur discovered that were more than 50% complete. All of this is laid out in loving detail in the catalog, along with a mini research paper from Black Hills Institute paleontologist Peter Larson describing Samson's pathologies, and a breakdown of the potential profits that might accrue from casting and exhibiting the specimen.

The big tyrannosaurs are catnip for museums, private collectors, and the general public. For a lot of professional paleontologists the picture is less clear. It's not clear that the discovery and subsequent media feeding frenzy over "Sue" (at 76% the world's most complete tyrannosaur specimen) did our field many favors. We like to think that people's eyes light up with wonder when they see spectacular dinosaur fossils, but where tyrannosaurs are concerned those eyes are more likely to have dollar signs in them - that, unfortunately, may be Sue's legacy. Reading Larson's account of the discovery of Samson (also in the sale catalog) you don't have to be an academic to feel a little queasy at his description of two collectors walking into a bar in South Dakota and promising "a large reward to any one [sic] who could lead them to a T. rex skeleton." Paleontology is a painstaking science; this sounds more like a California gold rush.

Over the years, I've wrestled with my conscience over commercial collecting. On the one hand, there is a long tradition of private collecting within vertebrate paleontology and museum collections worldwide have been immeasurably enriched by fossil specimens that were purchased from collectors. I'm also fully in favor of the principle that people have a right to profit from discoveries made on their land. At the same time, I can't seem to shake my gut response that seeing specimens on the auction block is deeply distasteful. Defenders of such sales argue that the ability to buy fossils on the open market is somehow egalitarian - now anyone can own a dinosaur. This seems a rather fatuous argument, since the only the people that can buy a dinosaur at open auction are those with several hundred thousand dollars at their disposal, or in the case of Samson a few million. The best way to make fossils egalitarian is to put them in a museum where everyone can see them.

To help myself cope with all this naked commercialism, I like to play a little game when I read auction catalogs. It's called "would I buy it?" - in others words, if I had the funds to meet the reserve price for a specimen, would I buy it for our collection. One of the nice things about having worked for some of the best fossil collections in the world is that I almost invariably answer "no." I can also enjoy some of the paradoxes of the commercial market - why would someone put a reserve of $45,000 on a skull of the American lion Panthera leo atrox (bigger than, but otherwise almost identical that of a modern lion), but only $15,000 on a really nice full skeleton mount of the Eocene titanothere Paleosyops? (the answer, of course, is that only one of them has big fangs - auction buyers are so one-dimensional) I guess if I had $6 to $10 million to burn I might buy Sampson. But if I had that much cash, then I'd probably spend it on remounting our Brontosaurus skeleton. That's right, the Brontosaurus, as in the type specimen described by O.C. Marsh.

Which brings us neatly to the only part of the Bonhams catalog that really annoyed me. Samson has a suite of anatomical characters that set it apart from the original type specimen of T. rex, suggesting that it may actually be a new species of Tyrannosaur. There are three other individuals with this character set - one each at the Museum of the Rockies, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and AMNH. The catalog makes the following statement regarding these specimens - "Only one (AMNH 5027) besides Samson ranks in the top 10 most complete specimens. Samson is by far the most complete and would likely serve as the holotype for the new species. Naming rights for such a species, once published with definitive evidence, would likely revert to the new owner or institution."

Let's unpack this statement, shall we? First, there is no hard and fast rule why Samson should act as the holotype just because it's the most complete specimen. In fact, if Samson passes into private hands, it would be negligent for the author of the species to designate it as the type when future access by researchers cannot be guaranteed. The type should be in a museum - end of story. Second "naming rights" - such as they are - reside with the person that describes the type, not the owner. No museum worthy of the name would ever attempt to claim that right, which is another excellent reason why type specimens should live in museums rather than private collections. The author of a species might choose to name that species after a donor whose funds have supported their research or the acquisition of the specimen, or to offer the donor the right to name it, and both those approaches are entirely appropriate. But the idea that an owner, whether institutional or private, gets to name a new species takes us into very murky waters ethically speaking. No-one would seriously suggest this were Samson not a tyrannosaur, which is yet another example of how common sense goes out of the window where this particular dinosaur is concerned. Finally the last sentence is nonsense anyway, because once the species name is published that name is fixed - it can't "revert" to anybody.

Of course, if there's someone out there who'd like to buy Sampson for our collection, you can ignore all of the foregoing and just give me a call......

Tragedy!

As the regular reader of this blog knows, I have an obsession with with the British TV series Primeval. To my dismay, however, I recently discovered that ITV has cancelled the show. On June 15 the BBC reported (successfully resisting the desire to gloat) that the massive production costs associated with all those computer-animated beasties had proved too much for their cash-strapped rivals. The production team was apparently devastated, but nowhere near as devastated as me. With half of our heroes stuck up a tree in the Cretaceous (literally) and cheeky cockney wideboy Jason Flemyng wandering the Pliocene (having saved the genus Australopithecus from extinction at the hands of the evil Helen Cutter - no, please don't ask) there's now no chance of my getting answers to some of my most pressing questions. Why did they recruit an Egyptologist? Is Nick Cutter really a paleontologist? Why do they never encounter an animal that's not in Connor's database? At least I now know why they killed most of the major characters in Series 3, as the talent was obviously frantically bailing in advance of cancellation.

Some people have asked why I have devoted so much time nitpicking the credibility of minor details in a program which, after all, deals with holes in time that allow creatures from the past and future to run amok in present-day Britain. As this will be absolutely-and-positively my last post on subject of Primeval, I will explain. IMHO, the best type of science fiction is the one where you take something entirely fantastic and plonk it down in a context that is entirely normal and believable. There are some writers who are masterly at doing this - John Wyndham being possibly the best example. Primeval tries to do this, and sometimes it almost succeeds because of the quality of its special effects, but ultimately the series fails because the context isn't believable.

Nick Cutter and his team are supposed to be scientists working for the British government. If this were truly the case, they would not be in a gleaming laboratory. They would be in a ramshackle building with aging computers and equipment, surrounded by piles of paper and overflowing files. They would continuously gripe about budgets and paperwork, and spend their time in pointless turf wars with other agencies. Most of the time they would have no clue what they were doing or what they were looking at and they'd have to muddle through. Conner's database would never do what it's supposed to do - it would give them the wrong answers, or incomplete answers, or it would keep crashing an inopportune moments. And (on the basis that people are responsible for most problems in the workplace and that most scientific researchers are borderline Asperger's cases) they would probably have significant personnel issues with their team members that would necessitate brain-numbing trips to their Human Resources department and which would conspire to ensure that they never worked at more than about 60% capacity.

Think that you can't write a sci-fi novel that's like this? Well think again and, if you can, try The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, or Tim Powers' Declare, both of which take fantastic events and make them (almost) believable by embedding them in a world of realistically suffocating government bureaucracy. Or, alternatively, you could read the Primeval spin-off novels. Oh yes, there are novels.... for example, in Extinction Event (Dan Abnett, 2009) "When an Entelodon goes on the rampage down Oxford Street causing untold damage and loss of life, Cutter decides a new approach to tackling the anomalies is needed." Entelodonts in Oxford Street? Be still, my beating heart!

The Distracted Blogger

My friend Andrew took me aside the other day to ask me, with great seriousness, whether I was OK. It transpired that he was intepreting my relative inactivity on the blogging front as possible evidence of severe depression. I was surprised at this, because you'd think a Yale professor would be fully aware that the onset of a new term - let alone a new academic year - brings with it a tidal wave of new work. Anyway, for those of you who feared that I was dangling from a rafter somewhere, no, I am still here and about to unleash a pent-up mass of mini-posts. Soon you will be wishing that I would just shut up. If, indeed, you're not already wishing this.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Fishes

Today, my wife and I were discussing, as you do, why a bunch of people that I was working with, all of whom have a solid background in biology, seemed to be incapable of describing natural selection and adaptation in language that a layperson could understand. This post is nothing at all to do with that conversation, but in reminiscing about our respective college educations the subject of Acanthostega came up. Don't ask me why, but it did.

Now, you kids may not have heard of Acanthostega, but when she-who-is-not-to-be-mentioned-by-name and I were at university this crazy little bundle of Devonian fun and games had a pretty good claim to being the hottest paleontological discovery of the century. When we started out as students, the whole world was absolutely convinced that the earliest tetrapod had five digits. Scholarly tracts soberly numbered the various fin bones of osteolepiform fish from I to V in an attempt to demonstrate homology. Then along came 8-fingered Acanthostega (not to mention 7-toed Icthyostega) and blew all this out of the water (hohoho, I made a pun!).

I guess we may have had a rather biased view of all this, as SWINTBMBN was taught by the one of the discoverers of Acantostega's polydactylous paddles, Jenny Clack, while at Cambridge, and we both went on to work with another of the discoverers, Per Ahlberg, at Oxford. Nonetheless, it was fair to say that across a range of disciplines, from genetics to developmental biology, to anatomy and evolutionary biology, little Acanthostega gunnari blew open paradigms left, right, and center. But talk to the kids nowadays and what do you hear? Tiktaalik, Tiktaalik, Tiktaalik, that's what.

So what is with this Tiktaalik guy? OK, as intermediates go it's pretty cool: terapod ankle bones but fishy fin rays instead of toes; gills and lungs; fishy scales, but a mobile tetrapod neck. It's about as intermediate you can get. It most certainly helps fill in a pretty significant gap in the fossil record. But rewriting your basic biology textbook? I think not.

Of course, it's also true that like all good fossils these days (cf that other "Find of the Century," Ida the Monkey) Tiktaalik comes complete with press coverage, a book deal, and a music video. "Grace" the Acanthostega was found over 20 years ago, when the best you could hope for was that one of your mates would write a "News and Views" piece in Nature and you'd get a couple of minutes with John Craven on Newsround. But maybe there's something more sinister at work. As SWINTBMBN pointed out, there were no Americans involved in the discovery of Acanthostega's eight toes....

Of course, I immediately remonstrated with her, reminding her that the USA is famed for the interest that it takes in the achievements of other countries and their people.