I know most of us have visions of turkey dancing in our heads right now, but picture instead a lobster. Just your average run-of-the-mill fresh-from-the-pot dinner lobster. Now picture a lobster twice that size — say a foot and a half long. Now picture a lobster claw that’s a foot and a half long. Can you visualize the lobster it would belong to?

University of Bristol researchers recently stumbled upon a 1.5-foot-long fossilized claw from an ancient sea scorpion — a giant aquatic arthropod that roamed the floors of lakes and rivers 400 million years ago. The lobster analogy actually doesn’t properly convey this thing’s hugeness, because sea scorpion claws are proportionately smaller than lobster claws. Based on the size of the claw, and the relatively constant claw to body length ratio among sea scorpions, they were able to infer that the scorpion was about 8 feet 2 inches long.

An 8’2″ scorpion. Eesh. That’s just 9 inches short of the world’s tallest man.

“They would probably lie in wait,” Simon Braddy, one of the researchers, told Nature News. “When another animal went in front of it, it would lurch forward and capture it. … These things would tear their prey to shreds and then eat the little pieces.”

They’re calling it Jaekelopterus rhenaniae, and it’s the largest arthropod ever. For now.

Here’s a photo of the claw, from Nature News:

Giant sea scorpion claw



(Image pilfered from Vikusik on Flickr.)

Imagine what it would be like if this cute little dragonfly, cruising around your backyard, had a two-foot wingspan. It’s not sci-fi — it’s ancient history. Such giant dragonflies were a common sight in the swamps and coal forests of the Paleozoic era. Five-foot long millipedes, too.

Recent research gives clues as to why, and the answer may surprise you:

It’s a series of tubes.

Beetle air tubes

(A series of beetle tubes. Called tracheal tubes, these are the insect’s way of breathing. Bugs don’t bother with lungs. They just absorb air directly through their tracheal tubes, which penetrate throughout their bodies. Image stolen from an Argonne press release.)

To find out what the series of tubes has to do with the size of an insect, <shameless plug> check out my article about it in Discover </shameless plug>. Hint: it has to do with atmospheric oxygen concentration.

And if this makes you wish with all your heart that you could time travel back to the Paleozoic to see those 2-foot-wingspan dragonflies, you might try to get your hands on the WowWee DragonFly. It has a paltry 1-foot wingspan — but you get to control its flight.

One of the joys of being a scientist — particularly in a field that’s exploding — is that you get to name the things you discover. Maybe if I’d lingered longer in the lab before fleeing to a writerly career there would be a Jocelynetensium ricensis bacterium flagella-whipping its way across some bio student’s glass slide. But alas. Now my only option is to hound some generous scientist and make him like me so much that he wants to name something after me. Something really important.

In the meantime, here’s a roundup of scientific whatnots with names — some eponymous, some not — that make you stop and ask, really? They got away with that?

The list of asteroid names reads, for the most part, like a mashup between a phone book, a history of science textbook, and an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. But nestled in among the Aphrodites and Persephones, the Fouriers and Feynmans, the 52 names starting with “David,” “Dave,” or “Davy” and the 20 starting with “Bob,” are a few odd nuggets:

  • Adamcarolla and Drewpinsky. These two dispensed raunchy advice that I found both riotously funny and Very Important… when I was 13. But I’m not sure any of it — or even all of it combined — is worth an asteroid.
  • Bacon. Okay wait. Are we talking Sir Francis Bacon? Kevin Bacon? Or greasy sizzling strips of porky goodness? If it’s the latter, I’m completely on board.
  • Forbes. Can an asteroid be sponsored? What if that asteroid then collides with earth? Is the sponsor held resposible?
  • GNU. All hail recursive acronyms. What about ASTEROID, for Asteroids Still Terrify Everyone Regardless Of Improbable Destruction?
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I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family,
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.

-Ogden Nash, “The Duck-billed Platypus,” in Beastly Poetry

Duck-billed platypus

(Duck-billed platypus; Image filched from WikiMedia Commons)

The duck-billed platypus is special. No, really. It’s special. And not just because it lays eggs, has venomous feet, and hunts using electric fields. Kate Jones of the Zoological Society of London and her colleagues developed a quantitative method to rank how “special” a mammalian species is, and the duck-billed platypus is number one on the list. Of all mammals. That’s right, the platypus is the most special mammal of all.

How is specialness calculated? Well, the technical term for special, in this context, is “evolutionarily distinct.”

[DISCLAIMER: if you don’t read on, you’ll miss the four-headed spiny anteater penis. Just so you know.] Read the rest of this entry »

I’m too lazy to write a useful new post because I just spent 3 hours going through a messy divorce with iWeb and moving all my furniture and possessions to the house of my rebound boyfriend, WordPress. So here, instead, is a half-wet elephant. Or maybe it’s two-thirds wet. Wait, are we talking volume or surface area? What’s the surface area of an elephant, anyway?

Half-wet elephant

(Photo by Jeremy Tucker, who has a whole website full of gorgeous photographs: check it out.)

EDIT: Er, it looks like someone (okay, two someones: K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan) has actually published scholarly research on how to estimate the surface area of an elephant. The paper is called “Estimation of the total surface area in Indian elephants” and it ran in a 1990 issue of Veterinary Research Communications. Their formula is:

S = -8.245 + 6.807H + 7.073FFC

Where S is surface area in square meters, H is shoulder height in meters, and FFC is forefoot circumference in meters. The BBC tells us that Indian elephants have a shoulder height of 2.5 to 3 meters — let’s go with 2.75. And a PBS classroom resource tells us that forefoot circumference is equal to about half of an elephant’s height, so we’ll call it 1.375. That works out to about 20 square meters, or 215 square feet.

So I guess that’s my answer. An average Indian elephant has a surface area (albeit crudely estimated) of 215 square feet.

ANOTHER EDIT: My tape measure says that’s twice the size of my bedroom.

Spider head

I took this scanning electron micrograph of a spider head back at Smith. It’s a little bleached-out-looking (I hadn’t really mastered the instrument) but nonetheless gorgeous and creepy.

Before you image a biological specimen, you have to dry it using a gizmo called a critical point drier. Simply evaporating off the water doesn’t do the trick, because the surface tension at the interface between water and air damages the spider as it dries out and you end up with a wrinkly specimen — not so pretty. If you bring water to its so-called critical point, where the density of water and air are the same, you can avoid the surface tension issue. But then you have a really-dangerous-conditions issue: the critical point for water occurs at 374 degrees C (705 degrees F) and 3,212 psi (about 219 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level). The poor little arachnid corpse isn’t likely to make it through that experience intact. Read the rest of this entry »

Just wanted to toss out a quick enthusiastic plug for Barbara Kingsolver‘s fantastic newest, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I’m almost constitutionally incapable of recommending a book with “Miracle” in the title but as they say, don’t judge a book by its etc.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

(Image poached from www.animalvegetablemiracle.com.)

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It was the spring of 1977, and New Englanders had monsters on their minds. In Dover, Massachusetts, three high-school boys spotted a creature with orange eyes and a melon-shaped head. Meanwhile, in Hollis, New Hampshire, a father driving with his two sons encountered a nine-foot-tall hairy behemoth.

Arnold Vellucci, mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, took notice when the Boston Herald-American reported these mysterious sightings in side-by-side articles. But he wasn’t worried about aliens or Bigfoot, the usual suspects in paranormal sightings. Vellucci worried instead that the peculiar beings had escaped from a molecular biology lab at either Harvard or MIT.

On the same day that the Herald-American articles were published, Vellucci penned a letter to Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences. Vellucci politely requested that the NAS investigate the matter. “I would hope as well,” he added, “that you might check to see whether or not these ‘strange creatures,’ (should they in fact exist) are in any way connected to recombinant DNA experiments taking place in the New England area.” Read the rest of this entry »

“Physics envy. The lure of reducing complex problems to basic physical principles has dominated the philosophy of science since Descartes’s failed attempt some four centuries ago to explain cognition by the actions of swirling vortices of atoms dancing their way to consciousness. Such Cartesian dreams provide a sense of certainty, but they quickly fade in the face of the complexities of biology. We should be exploring consciousness at the neural level and higher, where the arrow of causal analysis points up toward such principles as emergence and self-organization. Biology envy.” 

Michael Shermer, “Quantum Quackery” (Scientific American, January 2005)

I am eight years old. All around me, bookshelves stretch beyond sight in every direction: an infinite library. A librarian — my taskmaster — looms over me as I toil towards a fast-approaching deadline. I must catalog every book.

I remember this nightmare with startling immediacy. At eight years old, I feared infinity as tangibly as I feared wolves and crocodiles. I felt an intense emotional response to a mathematical abstraction, a response that hasn’t since dulled. In jest, I call myself an infinityophobe. But in all earnestness, I wonder — am I afraid of the concept itself, or of my inability to understand it?

Humans wield the unique ability to practice conscious science; we tame the world around us by explaining it. And yet, as mental gymnasts, we crumple in the face of the very large and the very small. The infinite and the infinitesimal remain obstinately alien.

I palindrome I

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