Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Hunt for Dawn Monkey: Deep thoughts about...

I read The Hunt for Dawn Monkey by Chris Beard. I read this to learn more about the family tree, as well as for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Science Challenge.
This book is an interesting mix of paleontological history, travelogue, and serious science. Throughout the book the author describes his discoveries and how they shed light on the history of primates and especially, the history of anthropoids, which are monkeys and apes. Interwoven throughout he describes the various competing hypotheses concerning the anthropoid family tree and how his discoveries have helped shed light on this topic. He has taken a somewhat historical approach by frequently discussing the historical aspects of the different hypotheses and by setting up the book as a history of his research and discoveries from his first research in the U.S. to his more current research in China. At the end of the book, he provides us with his hypothesis for the primate "family tree", or more specifically, a phylogeny of the order primates.
Like most paleoanthropologists, he is opinionated, but not annoyingly so. He feels strongly that anthropoids originated in Asia rather than Africa. He provides his reasoning for this, but since he readily admits that the oldest anthropoid by far was found in Africa, I for one was not totally convinced by his argument.
I learned a great deal and mostly enjoyed this book. As anyone who know me will attest, I am a nerd to the nth degree, but the author's in depth discussions of the minutiae of tooth morphology that separate the different primate groups and that set anthropoids apart from prosimians were more than I could bear at times. For serious paleontologists, I think this material probably would be essential. But for people with a casual desire to know a little bit more about the history of primates and little bit about how paleontology is done might be turned off by this.
I'd love to say more, but the dog needs to be let out.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Taking Wing

The third nerd book I read this year, for the Science Challenge as well as to gain wisdom, was Taking Wing by Pat Shipman. It was basically a book about the fossil bird Archaeopteryx and how this fossil explains the origin of birds and the origin of flight. It was a wonderful and very well written account of all of the research on Archaeopteryx. I read this book to gain some insight on research on various hypotheses concerning flight and I got a deeper understanding of the two major competing hypotheses a) the trees down and b) the ground up. Archaeopteryx can be used as evidence for both. Was it a climber that glided down from trees or a "flapper" that could take off from the ground? The evidence is certainly ambiguous. Archaeopteryx had well developed wings and feathers, but most fossils show it lacked a well developed sternum for attachment of flight muscles. It also lacked the ability to do a "wing flip" that allows a bird to not stall as it raises its wings for another "stroke". But it's small hallux suggests that it couldn't perch in a tree like a regular bird either. There didn't seem to be trees in the immediate area where the fossils were found either. And it lacked muscles to perch effectively. But, to make a long story short, we still don't know what it could and couldn't do. It perhaps could've taken off from the ground, which is what I tend to think it did.
I can highly recommend this book. It was a very quick read and gave much insight. My only complaint is that it is a bit out of date, as it was published in 1998 and mentions quite a bit of Larry Martin and others who dispute that birds are related to dinosaurs (even though 2 of the 7 Archaeopteryx fossils were mistakenly identified as the dinosaur Compsognathus). But now that 17 species of unequivocally feathered dinosaurs have been discovered, the vast majority of paleontologists and the general public for that matter, agree that dinos are the ancestors of birds...and as my son Max says, birds are dinosaurs. The fact that Larry Martin STILL disputes the dino-bird relationship is astounding. But, I do have my own faults, and so I won't throw stones. Alan Feduccia is quoted in the book as saying " There is no evidence that dinosaurs possessed feathers. Feathers are a uniquely bird characteristic". Well, not so any more.
I enjoyed this book even more than Heilmann's Origin of Birds. Now I can't wait to read "Glorified Dinosaurs" by Louis Chappe. So many books, so little time!

Happy Birthday Darwin

I've been meaning to blog for weeks now about Darwin's 200th birthday, which was February 12. There have been various cool things going on all over the world to celebrate. I watched David Attenborough's new video "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life" on youtube yesterday. It was fantastic. I had a celebration in my Evolution class and gave a guest "lecture" on Darwin for another class.
I tried to attend several important lectures. Philadelphia is sponsoring the Year of Evolution and Donald Johansen, the paleonanthropologist who discovered Lucy, was due to speak in April. I, however, assumed that it was April 2009, but it was April 2008, so I missed that. I was hoping to take Annie to see Donald Prothero speak at Cornell one Sunday afternoon only to discover that he was speaking on Saturday when I couldn't attend. So it goes...
The major way that I did celebrate was to read Darwin: The life of a tormented evolutionist by Desmond and Moore. I did this for myself, to make myself a better citizen, and also for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge. I began this book on Janurary 1,but left it behind when I left for the Bahamas on 1/5/09, as it weighs upwards of 15 pounds and would have made the aircraft unable to gain sufficient altitude to get us to the Bahamas. Whilst in the Bahamas I read another book and began Quammen's short biography "The reluctant Mr. Darwin". I got halfway through Quammen's book on the flight home and then jumped right back into Desmond and Moore. It was a wonderful book. It made Darwin come to life with just the exact amount of nauseating detail about him and his life without being the slightest bit boring. It was approximately 700 pages in hardback, so it was not a short read (or a light read, as I alluded to earlier). But this book did exactly what I hoped it would. It gave me a much better understanding of who Darwin was and how the events of his life shaped his most wonderful theory. Quammen's book was simply too short and too lacking in specifics and details. But this book was perfect. Exciting tidbits I learned:
- Darwin was known as "Gas" to his childhood friends because of his love of chemistry
- Darwin was much closer to his Dad than many texts and stories mention
- Darwin had excessive flatulence, perhaps related to Chagas disease that he picked up in South America
- Darwin loved for his wife, Emma, to take care of him and "mother" him through his various and many illnesses, which were also probably related to Chagas disease.
If you want to know more about Charles Darwin, read this book. And get your own copy, because I'm keeping mine.