Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire

Emerald ash borer traces, by Richard Meiss.

Photography contest, Finalist.


Larval feeding galleries of Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire – emerald ash borer. They are an invasive species in the American Upper Midwest (arriving here from Asia some fifteen years ago) that poses a serious threat to the native population of ash trees (genus Fraxinus). Some of their opportunistic enemies (e.g., woodpeckers and squirrels) inflict their own damage on the trees as they search for the larvae. Their spread is aided by human transport of infected wood, especially as firewood.

Partial eclipse of the sun

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Partial eclipse of the sun by Marilyn Susek.

Photography Contest, Finalist.

Susek.Parcial_Solar_Eclips_March_3rd_2015 (600x450).jpg

Partial eclipse of the Sun, Ravenfield, Rotherham, S. Yorks., UK.

New hominin species discovered

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And Science has just posted an interesting piece by Ann Gibbons, describing how the principal investigator, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, advertised first for “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills” and later for “early career scientists” to come to Johannesburg and study the fossils. Gibbons reports that there was a certain amount of grumbling over Berger’s approach. The approach, however, apparently paid off: Gibbons and his team have discovered a new hominin, Homo naledi.


The fossils have not yet been dated, but Science reports that they display a round skull but a small brain, a wrist that suggests toolmaking, fingers that suggest tree climbing, and a foot that suggests upright walking. The Times article here quotes Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History to the effect that it is certainly a new species, but possibly not of the genus Homo. You may find a technical article here in the open-access journal eLIFE.

Berger’s team, which seems to number about 50, will now set about dating the fossils and trying to extract DNA. To these ends, Gibbons reports that Berger will attempt to recruit yet more young scientists.

Not to be outdone, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis reports that his colleague Elizabeth Mitchell is working on an article on Berger’s discovery. Ham adds,

But we can say with confidence that this discovery changes nothing about our understanding of human history.

Truer words were never spoken.

The September issue of Natural History magazine is devoted almost entirely to essays concerning Alfred Russel Wallace. I usually turn the pages of NH, look at the pictures, and read many of the captions – but I read this issue almost in its entirety (and therefore cannot resist writing about it). Unfortunately, it looks as though none of the articles is available on the Web, but you can get your own copy for $3.95 (US), presumably on the newsstand.

The issue was edited by Richard Milner, head of the Wallace Centenary Celebration. According to the second comment below, he also edited a special issue of Skeptic magazine, and you may request a free copy of either or both magazines by writing Mr. Milner an e-mail.

The first article, by the distinguished naturalist David Attenborough, outlines Wallace’s career. I did not know that, as Wallace returned from South America, his ship caught fire, and he lost all his notes and his specimens; I think I learned that fact 2 more times in subsequent articles. Attenborough outlines how Wallace got the idea of natural selection while studying birds of paradise. As is widely known, he sent an essay to Darwin. Lyell and Hooker arranged to have Wallace’s paper presented alongside a paper by Darwin, who then rushed his own book, On the Origin of Species, into print. Attenborough remarks, “You might have thought there was an embarrassment or perhaps hostility or resentment” between Darwin and Wallace. “Not at all. The two men had great respect for each other, untinged by any sign of jealousy.”

An article by geneticist Andrew Berry goes over some of the same material, though in more detail and more biographically. Berry observes that Wallace’s 1865 definition of “species” is identical to the “biological species concept” that is usually attributed to Ernst Mayr 80 or so years later. There is a certain amount of redundancy in these articles, each of which was written as if the authors thought they would have to stand alone: Berry introduces us to Wallace’s Line, apparently unaware that Attenborough has already done so in the preceding article and Gary Noel Ross will do so later. Wallace originally went abroad, says naturalist Errol Fuller, to earn money by supplying stuffed animals to middle- and upper-class England; evidently such products were in considerable demand at the time, and Attenborough estimates that Wallace collected 110,000 insects, 7500 shells, 8050 bird skins, and over 400 mammals and reptiles. Fuller shows us some stuffed specimens that remain in remarkably good condition today.

But for someone who just wants to look at the pictures, the high point of the issue might be a series of photographs of birds of paradise by Tim Laman with a narrative by Edwin Scholes. An article by Ross describes (sort of) following in Wallace’s footsteps and searching for the golden birdwing butterfly; this article likewise displays excellent photographs, some by the author and including what seems to be a selfie taken from a distance of several meters.

The final article is a reprint of a 1980 article by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould discusses the fact, noted in an earlier article as well, that Wallace and Darwin disagreed on sexual selection, and also on the origin of the human brain. Wallace, according to Gould, took the “hyperselectionist” position that everything that evolved is an adaptation. The brain, however, can do much that it is not adapted to do, like write symphonies. Such reasoning, says Gould, leads Wallace “right back to the basic belief of an earlier creationism that it [Wallace’s hyperselectionism] meant to replace—a faith in the rightness of things, a definite place for each object in an integrated whole.”

If you want to know more, I am afraid that you will have to buy the magazine. And cheer up! The pictures are better in print than on your monitor.

Felis catus

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Photograph by Andrey Pavlov.

Photography contest, Finalist.


Felis catus – domesticated cat. Mr. Pavlov tells us, “The photo of the cat is my cat Rosie, short for Rosen of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (her sister is named Electron, not pictured). She is a daughter of a feral cat, rescued from a swamp in central Louisiana.”

Giant panda gives birth today

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Mei Xiang, a giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington, and a distant cousin of Prof. Steve Steve, gave birth today, only 3 days after she realized she was pregnant. The identity of the father is unclear, but Prof. Steve Steve asked us not to go into that.

Update, 9 a.m. August 23: Prof. Steve Steve informs us that according to an updated Times article (same URL), Mei Xiang has had twins.

Simon Brown of Americans United reports that 2 Kentucky lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would prohibit local public schools from beginning the fall term before late August. The avowed purpose of the legislation is to support the Ark Park. One of the legislators, Damon Thayer, explained,

Grant County is set to become a major tourist destination due to the presence of the Ark. But there won’t be many families from Kentucky visiting in August if we continue with the current calendar

Mr. Brown points out in his article, however, that if the Ark Park will truly get 2 million visitors in its first year, the vast majority will not come from Grant County and thereabout. Local school officials are not so keen on the idea either.

In addition, and not entirely off topic, Dan Phelps notifies us of another editorial (available in hardcopy only) by Mark Looy of Answers in Genesis. Mr. Phelps writes that Mr. Looy

will not admit that AIG’s loss of the tax incentive is because of their discriminatory hiring practices. He ignores the advertisement for Computer Assisted Design technician from a year ago that got them in trouble. If you recall, the advertisement required adherence to AiG’s statement of faith, salvation history, and membership in very specific types of Christian churches. Furthermore, when Ark Encounter originally received the tax incentive in 2010/2011 they specifically said they would not discriminate in hiring.

Ark Encounter is a for-profit corporation, and Mr. Looy knows perfectly well how to get his tax incentives restored; as I noted recently,

… Ark Encounter’s tax incentives will be restored, if only they pledge in writing that they will not discriminate in employment. Ark Encounter has so far declined to give such assurance, which makes a body speculate that they just might be thinking of laundering all Ark Encounter employment through Answers in Genesis in order to circumvent the law.

Eumorpha achemon

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Photograph by Gabrielle Hovinen.


Eumorpha achemon – achemon sphinx moth.


Model of the HMS Beagle constructed by Luis Peña out of more than 2000 Lego pieces.

I received an e-mail from Luis Peña, a self-described Adult Fan of Lego (AFOL), regarding his goal to develop an official Lego set, Darwin & HMS Beagle. To further his goal, Dr. Peña built the model of the Beagle shown in the photograph, using standard Lego parts and custom decals.

Lego will consider “Darwin & HMS Beagle,” provided that the project obtains 10,000 votes within the next 537 days; it currently has 7754 votes, counting mine yesterday. Voting is a bit of a pain, in that you have to register and answer a handful of questions, but it seemed to me to be well worth the effort.

Asked for more detail, Dr. Peña writes,

Noncircular pupils explained

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Several years ago, I reviewed the book Evolution’s Witness: How Eyes Evolved, by Ivan Schwab. The book is downright encyclopedic, and I could not praise it highly enough. But in my review I wondered about elongated pupils, such as those of a cat, which are barely discussed the book. I remember reading somewhere that the elongated pupil could be stopped down farther than a circular pupil, but that explanation does not account for the problem that horizontal structures will be more clearly resolved than vertical structures (presuming that the pupil is elongated vertically and the eye is nearly diffraction limited).

A team from Berkeley and Durham University now proposes a better explanation. Without going into detail, they find that predators that ambush their prey, like cats, typically have vertically elongated pupils. From the abstract:

Vertically elongated pupils create astigmatic depth of field such that images of vertical contours nearer or farther than the distance to which the eye is focused are sharp, whereas images of horizontal contours at different distances are blurred. This is advantageous for ambush predators to use stereopsis to estimate distances of vertical contours and defocus blur to estimate distances of horizontal contours.

One way to put it: All the blur due to defocus is in the vertical direction, so horizontal contours are blurred when defocused, whereas vertical contours are not, because the blur is parallel to the contour; see their Figure 2(A). I do not want to go into detail, but they demonstrate that ambush predators, like the cat, that prowl close to the ground benefit from having good stereo vision for vertical contours. Prey animals, like the goat, often have horizontal pupils, which supposedly facilitate wide-angle views. Curiously, their pupils remain horizontal regardless of the orientation of their heads.

This paper goes a long way toward explaining why different animals have differently oriented pupils. You may see a video and a short article here and an NPR report here.

The paper does not explain how, when I was an elongating pupil in fourth grade, my teacher, an ambush predator if ever there was one, managed to see through 360°.

Who? The Chevalier de Lamarck, that’s who. Born 1 August 1744, he was the first evolutionary biologist who gave a mechanism that could, in principle, explain adaptation. Even though his mechanism was wrong, he was a true pioneer and a great biologist. (I’ll leave this post short, so as not to push Matt’s photo contest off the page).

Actias luna

Photograph by Tom Gillespie.

Photography Contest, Second Place.


Actias luna – Luna moth, Duluth, Georgia. Shot from underneath, as it was resting upside-down in my azalea bush.

Domesticated: Book review

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A number of years ago, I found a family of raccoons living in my chimney.1 I got them out by dropping a trouble light down the flue and turning it on for a few days. According to Richard C. Francis, in his splendid book, Domesticated, animals such as raccoons living in urbanized areas represent the first step toward domesticating those animals.

The full title of the book is Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, and Francis shows in considerable detail how various animals became domesticated: dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and goats, reindeer, camels, horses, rodents, and perhaps humans, as well as other predators such as raccoons and ferrets. Each scenario is slightly different, each seems well documented, and each has just a little bit of just-so story in it.

(edited to add a point on Aegirocassis and Parapeytoia)

This week, the Discovery Institute Press put out another book called Debating Darwin’s Doubt. I took one for the team and bought it, in part because a a decent chunk of the book is responding to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been mentioned so much in a book!

Sadly, though, looking through it, almost all of it is material re-hashed from the DI “Evolution News and Views” blog and is no better than it was the first time. There is, however, a new chapter (I think it is new) by Casey Luskin, chapter 9, “Cladistics to the Rescue?” responding to me. If you don’t want to buy the book, there is a free podcast at ID the Future (heh), “Debating Darwin’s Doubt: Casey Luskin on Classification of Organisms” that interviews Luskin (although I think he wrote the questions). It has mostly the same material.

Unfortunately, I do not have time at the moment to write the introductory-level-tutorial-from-square-one that would be required to really explain the basics of cladistics and phylogenetics to Luskin et al. I have literally just moved to Australia to start as a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow in the Division of Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics, Research School of Biology, at The Australian National University in Canberra. Once I have a bed and a computer in my office I may be in better shape to do things more thoroughly – I have a bit of a fantasy about writing an R vignette or R package called something like BasicPhylogeneticsForCreationistsEspeciallyLuskin (I’ll take suggestions on a better name/acronym).

However, below, I can briefly hit the high points on the small bit of Luskin’s chapter that was new.

Melting of polar ice

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Photograph by Dan Moore.

Photography Contest VII: Winner.


Melting of polar ice. Mr. Moore writes, “Our ship got caught in the ice and had to be freed by a Canadian ice breaker. Global warming – what?? Actually, yes – we could not get through because so much ice broke free further north near the polar ice cap and was blown south into the shipping channels.” Mr. Moore will receive a signed copy of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), which has been donated by one of the authors.

Pluto and Spiderman

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Spiderman Shpiderman – a penpal of mine, who can identify himself if he likes (I will of course understand if he demurs), asks,

There’s a lot of excitement and amazement about the lack of cratering and the height and sharpness of the geological features on Pluto. It appears that, contrary to earlier speculation, Pluto is geologically active and thus geologically young…though “young” in the sense that these features are probably less than 100 million years old.

Now that the results are in, how long do you think it’ll be until AIG posts something about how a “Young Pluto Supports Recent Creation” and “Secular scientists with atheistic uniformitarian assumptions predicted that Pluto would be a dead planet pockmarked by craters, but the evidence of recent geologic activity should come as no surprise to Christians, who know that Pluto was created along with all the other celestial bodies on the Fourth Day just over 6,000 years ago!”

The closest approach of the New Horizons spacecraft was last Tuesday, around noon UTC, and my penpal wrote, “I will give them until Friday morning.” Friday has come and gone, and Saturday is nearly gone in Kentucky, but the latest post from AIG concerns the burning question of whether Spiderman really exists.

Perhaps the AIG-ites can use a little help. We invite our readers to suggest explanations (post hoc, of course, and within a creationist framework) for why Pluto and Charon are geologically active even though they are so small and so distant from the Sun.

We also suggest a Pluto Pool, wherein our readers try to guess the date and time of AIG’s first comment on the fascinating geology of Pluto and Charon. The winner of the pool is the person who most closely predicts the correct date and time, but whose prediction predates that date and time. Entry into the pool costs nothing, and the winner receives a commensurate amount, because AIG’s comment on the subject is bound to be worth that amount.

Little Ice Age coming?

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I do not know what to make of this, but UPI reports that a team from the University of Northumbria, “saying they understand solar cycles better than ever, predict that the sun’s normal activity will decrease by 60 percent around 2030 – triggering the ‘mini ice age’ that could last for a decade.” That sentence is unclear, but I presume they mean “normal sunspot activity.” As they do not quite say, the northern hemisphere (at least) experienced the Little Ice Age about 300 years ago. The Little Ice Age corresponded with a period of minimal sunspot activity known as the Maunder minimum, and Wikipedia states that a causal connection has recently been established.

Nothing in this report contradicts conclusions about climate change and anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, expect climate-change deniers to have a field day!

Professor Steve Steve informs us of an article Why are pandas so lazy? in Science Now. Professor Steve Steve takes exception to the claim that he is lazy. Yes, it is true that the giant panda’s daily energy expenditure is about 5 MJ: roughly one-third that of a dog and about the same as a three-toed sloth. It is also true that Professor Steve Steve moves slowly and basks a lot in the sun. Why? Because the giant panda is a carnivore that survives on a low-energy plant diet, which his body is ill-equipped to digest. To conserve energy, he maintains a low body temperature, and his organs, including his brain, are small.

Professor Steve Steve demurs. He claims that he is not lazy; he is simply ruminating.

Here are the finalists of the 2015 photography contest. We received 16 photographs from 7 photographers, somewhat fewer than in previous years. This year we decided to choose 1 picture from each entrant and enlisted our wife to help with the choices. The text was written by the photographers and lightly edited for consistency.

The finalists are given below the proverbial fold, in alphabetical order of last name. Please look through their photographs before voting for your favorite. You will have to be logged in to vote on the poll. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please be responsible and vote only once. If we think that the results are invalid, we will cancel the contest.

Polling will close Friday, July 17, at approximately 12:00 CST.

Reed Cartwright contributed to this post.

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