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Posts Tagged ‘extinction

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”*…

 

fossil record

In one fell swoop, Robert DePalma may have filled in the gap in the fossil record

 

On August 5, 2013, I received an e-mail from a graduate student named Robert DePalma. I had never met DePalma, but we had corresponded on paleontological matters for years, ever since he had read a novel I’d written that centered on the discovery of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex killed by the KT impact. “I have made an incredible and unprecedented discovery,” he wrote me, from a truck stop in Bowman, North Dakota. “It is extremely confidential and only three others know of it at the moment, all of them close colleagues.” He went on, “It is far more unique and far rarer than any simple dinosaur discovery. I would prefer not outlining the details via e-mail, if possible.” He gave me his cell-phone number and a time to call.

I called, and he told me that he had discovered a site like the one I’d imagined in my novel, which contained, among other things, direct victims of the catastrophe. At first, I was skeptical. DePalma was a scientific nobody, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, and he said that he had found the site with no institutional backing and no collaborators. I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people.) But I was intrigued enough to get on a plane to North Dakota to see for myself…

Douglas Preston recounts what he found: the young paleontologist looks increasingly likely (as other scientists assess his work) to have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth, the missing fossil evidence that recounts the almost-instant extinction of most life on the planet: “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.”

See a second-by-second visualization of the event here.

And for more on the threat that asteroids still present, and how we can protect the Earth from a repeat of that mass extinction, visit the B-612 Foundation.

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

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As we extricate heads from the sand, we might spare a thought for a scientific forebearer of DePalma’s, Edward Drinker Cope; he died on this date in 1897. A paleontologist and comparative anatomist (as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist), Cope led many natural history surveys in the American West for the precursors of the U.S. Geological Survey, making important finds on his trips, including dinosaur discoveries.

220px-Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases”*…

 

frog

The Toad Mountain harlequin frog is endangered and at risk from the Bd fungus

 

A century ago, a strain of pandemic flu killed up to 100 million people—5 percent of the world’s population. In 2013, a new mystery illness swept the western coast of North America, causing starfish to disintegrate. In 2015, a big-nosed Asian antelope known as the saiga lost two-thirds of its population—some 200,000 individuals—to what now looks to be a bacterial infection. But none of these devastating infections comes close to the destructive power of Bd—a singularly apocalyptic fungus that’s unrivaled in its ability not only to kill animals, but to delete entire species from existence.

Bd—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in full—kills frogs and other amphibians by eating away at their skin and triggering fatal heart attacks. It’s often said that the fungus has caused the decline or extinction of 200 amphibian species, but that figure is almost two decades out-of-date. New figures, compiled by a team led by Ben Scheele from the Australian National University, are much worse.

Scheele’s team estimates that the fungus has caused the decline of 501 amphibian species—about 6.5 percent of the known total. Of these, 90 have been wiped out entirely. Another 124 have fallen by more than 90 percent, and their odds of recovery are slim. Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life. “It rewrote our understanding of what disease could do to wildlife,” Scheele says…

The story of an unprecedented pathogen: “The Worst Disease Ever Recorded.” (Lest one rest too easily because this threat seems to target not humans but animals at some distance on the tree of life, see here.)

* Hippocrates

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As we do our best to stave off extinctions, we might recall that on this date in 1981, Nature set the world’s record for “Longest Scientific Name” when it published the systematic name for the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the human mitochondria; it contains 16,569 nucleotide residues and is thus about 207,000 letters long.

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The 16,569 bp long human mitochondrial genome with the protein-coding, ribosomal RNA, and transfer RNA genes

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Written by LW

April 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…

 

tree-of-life_1000

This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin

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As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'”…

 

tiger

Surprised! Henri Rousseau, 1891

In An Autobiography, published in 1939, R.G. Collingwood offered an arresting statement about the kind of insight possessed by the trained historian. The philosopher of history likened the difference between those who knew and understood history and those who did not to that between ‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant traveller’ in a forest. While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say, ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’

What Collingwood meant was that, through their familiarity with people, places and ideas, historians are often equipped to see how a situation might turn out – or at least identify the key considerations that determine matters. Collingwood’s musings implied an expansive vision of the role historians might play in society. Their grasp of human behaviour, long-term economic or cultural processes and the complexities of the socio-political order of a given region of the world meant that they could be more than just a specialist in the past. By being able to spot the tiger in the grass, historians might profitably advise on contemporary and future challenges as well…

Can the study of the past really help us to understand the present?  Robert Crowcroft argues that it can: “The Case for Applied History.”

* Eduardo Galeano

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As we look to the past, we might spare a thought for Martha; she died on this date in 1914.  As she was the last known passenger pigeon, her death meant the extinction of the species.

(De-extinction efforts are underway.)

Martha

 source

 

Written by LW

September 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”*…

 

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in setting the Doomsday Clock 2.5 minutes before midnight earlier this year. On nuclear weapons and climate change, “humanity’s most pressing existential threats,” the Bulletin’s scientists found that “inaction and brinkmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”

Every day, it seems, brings with it fresh new horrors. Mass murderCatastrophic climate changeNuclear annihilation.

It’s all enough to make a reasonable person ask: How much longer can things go on this way?

A Princeton University astrophysicist named J. Richard Gott has a surprisingly precise answer to that question…

Gott applies straight-forward logic and the laws of probability to setting our exit date.  “Calculations” haven’t worked out so well for Mayan seers or the likes of Harold Camping; but as you’ll read, Gott has tested his method, and done remarkably well… so: “We have a pretty good idea of when humans will go extinct.”

* REM

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As we plan our parties, we might recall that it was on this date in (what we now call) 46 BCE, that the final year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar, began.  The Romans had added a leap month every few years to keep their lunar calendar in sync with the solar year, but had missed a few with the chaos of the civil wars of the late Republic. Julius Caesar added two extra leap months to recalibrate the calendar in preparation for his calendar reform, which went into effect in (what we now now as) 45 BC.  The year, which had 445 days, was thus known as annus confusionis (“year of confusion”).

Fragmentary fresco of a pre-Julian Roman calendar

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Written by LW

October 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception”*…

 

If you’re prone to flights of depressive thoughts in the shower (who isn’t?), you’ve perhaps briefly entertained the notion that, since humans are responsible for every environmental catastrophe, maybe the planet would be better off if we all just died. While you might rid yourself of such a bleak thought by making the water scalding and moving on to thinking about something cruel you did in middle school, there is a group of extremist hippies called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, pronounced “vehement”) that actively promotes the idea. Their philosophy is simple: Humans should stop breeding, and allow ourselves to go extinct. As their motto puts it, “Live long and die out.”…

Learn more about VHEMT at “Live Long and Die Out.”

Then, for a very different approach to extinction, consider The Long Now Foundation‘s Revive and Restore Project (of which, to tip your correspondent’s leanings, he is a supporter).

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

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As we sit with a Sense of an Ending, we might send lofty birthday greetings to the author of today’s title quote, Carl Edward Sagan; he was born on this date in 1934. An astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist (his contributions were central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of Venus), he is best remembered as a popularizer of science– via books like The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot, and the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (which he narrated and co-wrote), the most widely-watched series in the history of American public television (seen by at least 500 million people across 60 different countries).

He is also remembered for his contributions to the scientific research of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation.

(Readers can enjoy a loving riff on Cosmos here.)

 source

 

Written by LW

November 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing so American as our national parks”*…

 

Oh so many more– Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Death Valley, to name a few– at “I Can’t Stop Reading One-Star Yelp Reviews of National Parks.”

[image above: Greg Heartsfield/Flickr

* Franklin D. Roosevelt

As we as we rethink the first “R” in “R and R,” we might spare a thought for Martha; she died on this date in 1914.  As she was the last known passenger pigeon, her death meant the extinction of the species.

(De-extinction efforts are underway.)

Martha

 source

 

Written by LW

September 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

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