Thursday, May 21, 2015

Word of Mouth

One of the more satisfying moments you can experience as an author is when someone you don't know recommends your book to lots more people you don't know.

That's why I was tickled when a friend on FB alerted me to YouTube book blogger Jen Campbell who cited The Accidental Species in her round-up of 'most anticipated' releases.


It's particularly pleasing as The Shameless Plug is the only popular science title in her roundup - which also includes titles from Murakami, Margaret Atwood, J. K. Rowling, Jeanette Winterson, David Mitchell (he of Cloud Atlas) and Harper Lee.

One Is Not Worthy…

Way to go, Ms Campbell!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Mystery Object For You To Identify

My friend Mrs H. F. of Edgefield brought the pictured object to my attention, wondering if it was a fossil and whether I might identify it. Apart from saying that I didn't think it was a fossil, I could get nowhere, but I promised to write a post in the hope that either one or other of my readers might be able to illuminate its provenance.

It's a rock, about 12 cm in diameter as you see, and rather heavy. Not quite as heavy as, say, a ball of iron of the same size, but definitely a mighty heft nonetheless.

Mrs H. F. says that it was picked up by a friend of hers in the Western Sahara. It was a surface find, and was one of very many of different sizes, all the way up to beach-ball size. This example was chosen for its easy portability.

I suspect that it is a concretion of some kind, perhaps washed or blown out of a dune, in the same way that gravel deposits are left behind in a moraine once the glacier that once transported them has melted away. But that's pure speculation.

I did wonder whether smashing it open might reveal interesting contents - it could be a geode.

Can anyone offer any help?

UPDATE: I have been deluged with replies from geologist friends and colleagues for which I am most grateful, and I have passed the news on to my correspondent. Basically, it is a fossil after all, and a rather remarkable one.

"I am thinking it is a tabulate coral: such as Silurian-Devonian Favosites." writes Professor G. R., of Oregon:
"It has some pitting which seem to be wind faceting, but other small holes look like corallites which radiate from a center of the colony. The small pimple on top would be a regrowth after burial of the barrel below. These commonly are found in biostromes as cushions and balls of all sizes. By my theory application of vinegar of dilute acid should case a fizz, and the radiating corallites should extend through the whole structure."

Dr E. N. of London agrees. "I worked on Silurian reefs for the ol' PhD and I'd have called that Favosites. From a distance."

So what we have in the scorching desert of the Western Sahara is the remains of a coral reef that grew in an ocean, now lost, some 360-400 million years ago. Makes you think.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Crab Tales

Well, today Mrs Crox and I went to inspect the Sixth Annual Cromer and Sheringham Crab and Lobster Festival. This is now a fixture of Springtime along this coast, designed to drum up support for our best-known local industry.

The festival celebrates all things crustaceous, or, at least, decapodous, with an accent on how to catch the little nippers, and, having done so, cook them.

You can learn how to make a lobster pot…

… attend a cookery demonstration …

… sample this gigantic paella …

… or make your own crab sandwiches. Other crab-related stalls include the very worthy and necessary Fishermen's Mission

But my favourite was the stall set up by the Eastern branch of the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, featuring a circular marine tank stocked with our spiny ten-legged friends.

The man from IFCA reminded us that crabs and lobsters are more than just animals - they are habitats themselves, their bodies providing shelter for barnacles and numerous small hydrozoa. I recall that Symbion pandora, the first members found of an entire phylum, the Cycliophora, were found exclusively on the mouthparts of the Norway Lobster.

I don't know if it was the drugs, or the jetlag (I have returned recently from the Colonies) but I was followed around by a giant purple lobster called Larry.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The New Avengers

This weekend Crox Minima took me to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. A couple of days later she picked up a cheap DVD of Spider-Man 2 (the one with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.)

So you'll excuse me if my mind has been turning to the topic of superheroism. Spider-Man, Ant-Man and so on are all very well, but I feel that the creators of such characters have barely scratched the surface of zoological possibility. Why, just this morning between the tube station (Kings Cross Station Crustacean) and my office I thought of:

Tardigrade-Man: can resist immersion in boiling oil, nuclear reactors and even the vacuum of outer space;

Sponge-Man: even when blown to bits he can reassemble into any shape he chooses;

Mollusc-Man: can deform himself to squeeze through the tiniest crevices (but don't let him near your lettuces;)

Flea-Man: Capable of jumping two hundred times his body length at a single bound. Who needs Superman?

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, and later on -

Sea-Cucumber-Man: when faced with mortal peril he can squirt out his entire insides at his assailant;

Mantis-Shrimp-Man: (inspired by a suggestion from my correspondent C. D. of Leeds) he may be small, but he packs a punch energetic enough to boil water, and can see in colours invisible to the human eye;

Planarian-Man: cut his head off and he instantly grows a new one;

Chameleon-Man; he can make himself invisible against any background. His eyes swivel in their sockets and he can knock out villains with his long tongue, ejected with powerful force;

Walrus-Man; he is the egg-man. They are the egg-men [shurely shome mishtake? Ed]

Sea-Anemone-Man: can immobilize enemies with his lethal stinging cells;

Gecko-Man; he can scamper up and down walls and even hang from the ceiling;

Duck-Man: has a powerful spring-loaded penis twice his own length [that's enough zoologically inspired superheroes - Ed.]

So, Marvel, you read it here first.

Once upon a time I started a story about a young woman who as a result of a laboratory accident acquired the attributes of Sea-Anemone-Man. She was called 'Stella', after the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis.

But I digress.

I do have a superhero alter-ego. actually. I am Captain Extraordinary, and my superpower is turning up in the kitchen just when someone else has finished the washing up. As superpowers go it's modest, I know, but effective.

The only problem being a superhero in the modern age is the growth of mobile telephony. This has meant a drastic reduction in the number of telephone kiosks in which one can change into one's stylish Lycra superhero outfit. O Tempora! O Mores!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Careful With That Axolotl, Eugene

'If I had an axolotl,' piped up Crox Minor one day, in the car, à propos of nothing, when she was about ten years old, 'I'd call it Squirty Benson Wilberforce the Third.'

Now, a name like that can't be left to go to waste, so we hied fifthwith forthwith to an aquarist we knew who stocked these engaging little water demons. Squirty was duly acquired, with tank and other necessary axolotlish accoutrements. Seven years later she's still here, a pet, a companion and a conversation piece.
Squirty Benson Wilberforce III, in reflective mood.
Here she is, reflecting on a paper just out in the Journal of Experimental Zoology1, in which Reiß and colleagues celebrate the fact that the axolotl has just passed its 150th anniversary as a laboratory animal.

In many ways the axolotl is the laboratory animal - the ur-laboratory animal. It came to Europe at a time when modern zoology was emerging. The axolotl didn't come to labs as we know them today. In fact, you could say that modern experimental biology labs were built around the axolotl. By the time the first fruit fly came to Columbia, axolotls had been lab habitués for half a century. Modern scientists owe much of the character of their workplaces to this modest, unassuming little creature.

The first axolotls arrived in Europe as pickled specimens, sent by explorer Alexander von Humboldt to Georges Cuvier, the founder of comparative anatomy, in Paris, who concluded (quite understandably) that they were larvae of some unknown creature.

It took the import of live animals for people to appreciate the remarkable life cycle and regenerative powers of the axolotl. So it was in 1864 that thirty-four axolotls arrived in Paris as part of a large collection of natural history and ethnographic material gathered by a French expedition to Mexico. Six axolotls were given to Auguste Duméril, professor of ichthyology and herpetology at the Natural History Museum in Paris, who was as surprised as anyone when these supposed larvae started to breed prolifically. Most if not all the axolotls in the laboratories of Europe, and then North America, came from this original stock.

A few months later Duméril could report that some of the axolotls transformed into what looked like adult animals. The axolotl became the centerpiece in debates about evolution and transformation, and  the prime example of paedomorphosis - the tendency of some animals to breed while still in the immature state, rendering the adult state superfluous. And that was aside from the discovery that it could regenerate its limbs and tail. Modern zoology had begun. At the same time, it became the fashion for people - not just zoologists - to keep aquatic animals in aquaria. The axolotl, being easy to keep and breed in captivity, was the aquarium animal par excellence.

As zoology moved from cataloguing and observation to experiment, the axolotl went with it. A leisurely generation time, and what turned out to be a large and complex genome, has meant that it never became a tool for geneticists, as the fruit fly has done. But it is still the first choice for many experiments on regeneration.

Quiet, easy to keep, trouble-free - it would be easy to take axolotls for granted. But as the first laboratory animal, all biological scientists owe it a great debt.

(1) Reiß C, Olsson L, Hoßfeld U. 2015. The history of the oldest self- sustaining laboratory animal: 150 years of axolotl research. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 9999B:1–12

Sunday, April 26, 2015

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #14

'Wandering at random in Manhattan,' reports my correspondent, Professor Trellis of North Wales, 'I came across this sign - which' (he continued) 'gives me the name for my next fictional prog rock band.'

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Passport Power

I've just come back from the main post office in Cromer where I obtained a form which, with the befurnishment of £££, will be used to renew Crox Minima's passport so she can go on a school trip abroad.

I love the rubric on the inside page of my passport, which says, in flowery script, and I quote:
Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.  
It's the 'requests and requires' that elicits a wry chortle. As if we can send the gunboats any more.

As luck fortune morphic resonance would have it I came across, only yesterday, a website which rates passports by their power, ranking them by the number of countries to which the bearer will be admitted without a visa.

The most powerful passport is that of the U. S. and A., which gets a visa-free pass to 147 countries. And despite much talk about the waning power of the U. of K., a British passport is equal in rank. 'Requests', if not necessarily 'requires'.

But WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE WEBSITE, can you guess the country or countries with the lowest ranking? There are actually five of them, and their passports will get you visa-free admission to only 28 other countries.

My guess was Sudan, but I was wrong. A Sudanese passport gets you visa-free admission to 47 countries, along with passports from Iran, Libya, Turkmenistan, Narnia, Mordor and Sri Lanka.

I guessed Sudan purely on the basis of a meeting I had a few years ago with a Sudanese citizen. He was a barista at one of those AMT coffee stands I once patronised, on platform 1 of King's Cross Station Crustacean. (Don't go looking for the stand, it's not there any more.) As I remember it, my barista told me he was due to spend some hours queueing up at the French embassy for a visa. Being Sudanese was the worst thing, he said - you had to get a visa to go anywhere.