Sunday, March 28, 2010

Next Blog

At the top of Scaly Distractions, as on all Blogger blogs, is a link that says Next Blog. The name of the link implies that blogs are arranged in an orderly sequence, a grand chain of millions that eventually loops back to where it started. But in reality the link brings a random blog hosted by Blogger.

My repeated clicking of Next Blog has yielded almost nothing interesting. Virtually all blogs encountered are used only for the bloggers to express their "progressive" political views or post pictures of their infant children. Only two that I've seen stood out at all.

Here's a blog that's noteworthy only as an example of the strange style of writing that people adopt when they're trying to be "literary".

But it pales next to the political musings of the real-life Paul Blart Mall Cop.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

At the Rock Bar

Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalt is a big deal for hard rock geologists. (When I write hard rock geologists, I am not referring to geologists fond of loud, distorted electric guitar tones. Rather, I am using a somewhat archaic term that differentiates igneous and metamorphic petrologists from those who study softer, sedimentary rocks.)

Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalt is a rock that forms at the mid-ocean ridge when magma from the mantle leaks to surface and cools—the innards of the world spilling forth, the Earth's rocky blood bleeding out and scabbing over.

I like to think that somewhere in the world, maybe in Boston, there is a bar. But it's not just any bar. It's a bar where all the patrons are different types of rock. And when Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalt walks in, they all yell, "MORB!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ride the Supertrain

The internet is an amazing thing. It has everything that we need. Or, rather, it has everything that we want. Or, rather, it has everything that could possibly waste our time, including an extensive fan site for the 1979 NBC television show Supertrain. The series centered on a fictional oversized luxury train, featuring a disco and a swimming pool, that traveled from New York to Los Angeles in only thirty-six hours—which would have been a great idea if the airplane had never been invented. (Warning: Supertrain is not to be confused with Supertramp.)

I never watched Supertrain. In fact, until recently I had only the vaguest idea of its existence. Then, a few weeks ago, the title showed up unbidden in my mind, and I decided to see if the show had been real, or just a joke concocted in the tradition of Manimal and Cop Rock. That's where the magic of the internet came in. From available information, the show sounds awful, but it sounds awful in a fascinating, unique, Seventies way.

I am fascinated with the Seventies for a variety of reasons. For years I have wanted to write an essay about the Seventies, but I have never had the energy to do so, so for now I have to settle for writing about Supertrain.

I like to think that somewhere, somehow, it is still 1979, and Supertrain rolls on in the darkness of the heartland, the rhythms of the engine blending with the drumbeats from the onboard disco, down an improbable route to the continent's edge, through air soupy with polyester and malaise.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Am Reminded of a Clever Idea

Former Friends star David Schwimmer is engaged to be married. This news is in no way at all relevant to anything at all in any way. But it does remind me of my plan from years ago to make a television show starring David Schwimmer, Jonathan Silverman, Ben Stiller, and Jon Stewart. I can't guarantee that it would be funny, but I can guarantee that it would be confusing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Both Halves Taste Like Chicken

The BBC is reporting on new research on gynandromorphous chickens, whose bodies are half male and half female, divided along the plane of bilateral symmetry. The article is unclear on the exact process that causes the condition. It is apparently the result of entanglement between two separate embryos, the process which, at a later stage of embryonic development, leads to two-headed snakes, and conjoined human twins.

I am wondering—is this kind of gynandromorphy unique to chickens, or does it occur in other birds? It would be barely noticeable in many species, but obvious in sexually dimorphic birds like woodpeckers and certain songbirds. When a half-male, half-female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) shows up at the bird feeder, that would attract some attention.

I suppose that if I really wanted to know, I could do some research to find the answer, but I am too lazy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Words of Wisdom

Keeps your friends close, your enemies closer, and your frenemies somewhere in the middle.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Trilobites Rock the Eighties

In 2001, paleontologists unveiled a new dinosaur, a small theropod from the Cretaceous of Madagascar. The discovery made headlines because the dinosaur was named Masiakasaurus knopfleri, after rock star Mark Knopfler, former leader of Dire Straits. The discovery caught my attention both because of my interest in dinosaurs, and because, in my purely subjective opinion, Dire Straits was the absolute greatest band ever. But keep in mind that this is my purely subjective opinion, so please don't waste your precious time arguing over it.

Recently I came upon a paper (abstract here) in the December 2009 issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. In the paper, Neo E. B. McAdams and Jonathan M. Adrain from the University of Iowa investigate trilobite fossils from the Ordovician of Nevada and Utah, and establish the new genus Heckethornia. Within Heckethornia they establish the following new species:

Heckethornia smithi

Heckethornia hyndeae

Heckethornia numani

Heckethornia bowiei

Heckethornia morriseyi

Heckethornia ballionae

Perhaps these names look familiar to you. The full text of the paper reveals that the trilobites are named after Robert Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Gary Numan, David Bowie, Morrissey, and Susan Ballion (who, Wikipedia informs me, is better known as Siouxsie Sioux).

I support this trend of naming extinct taxa after Eighties musicians. But I also think that some guidelines need to be put in place, lest anyone name a conodont after Vanilla Ice, or a benthic foraminiferan after the New Kids on the Block.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Giant Pleistocene Beaver

Cryptozoology is the study of wacky, but allegedly real, creatures like bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster—a field generally not pursued by professional scientists. I must admit to having been fascinated by cryptozoology since I was a child, even though realistically speaking I estimate that 95% of it is bogus. (And, realistically speaking, there is also the problem of being considered insane for having such interests.) Part of the appeal is simply entertainment, willingly suspending my disbelief to imagine how cool it would be if sea serpents and the like were real. But there is also the intellectual opportunity to analyze cryptozoological claims as they relate to areas of science that I find interesting, such as paleontology, zoology, and ecology.

A few months ago, I came upon an article concerning John Warms, a man from Canada. He claims to have seen a giant Pleistocene beaver (Castoroides ohioensis), and the burrows of such a beaver, in his native Manitoba. Fossils of the eight-foot, two-hundred pound animal are well known in North America; the species is thought to have become extinct at the end of the last ice age, along with the other megafauna of the era, including mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and ground sloths.

The article profiled Warms as he traveled to Utah in search of other legendary animals. (That seems like a mistake—if you get a lead on a giant Pleistocene beaver, stick with him; don't go running off to Utah.)

His web site, illustrated with elementary school-level drawings of supposed Canadian monster animals, does not inspire confidence. However, a modern population of the giant Pleistocene beaver strikes me as being in that 5% of cryptozoological phenomena with some possibility of existence.

Are there giant Pleistocene beavers frolicking in the waters of Manitoba?

On the positive side, I have long thought that the Canadian boreal region, which is heavily forested and very sparsely populated, would be a good place for an unknown animal to live undetected. The giant beaver only disappeared from the fossil record about 10,000 years ago, which is the blink of an eye (or some other cliche) in geological terms. And a recent study of the isotopic composition of the giant beaver's teeth indicates that its diet was mostly aquatic plants, and not trees, which might diminish its impact on the landscape and allow it to more easily escape detection.

On the other hand, no one has ever acquired a modern specimen of the giant Pleistocene beaver; it's hard to accept that even in the wilds of Canada a giant beaver could escape not only science but also the fur trade. Millions of regular North American beavers (Castor canadensis) were trapped for their pelts, to the point that the species was eliminated over most of its range, but there is no record of giant beaver skins.

A potential complicating factor is Bergmann's rule, a trend in warm-blooded mammals that the size of individuals increases as one moves northward through the animal's range. What appear to the casual observer to be members of a distinct, giant species might be regular beavers at the high end of their natural size variation.

In any event, I much prefer a giant Pleistocene beaver to a giant Pleistocene Beiber.