Readers’ wildlife photos

I believe this is the first time we’ve had fossils as readers’ wildlife. But remember that fossils once were wildlife, too, and these are particularly good specimens collected and prepared by reader Bruce Thiel.

30-40 million years ago,  parts of Oregon and Washington were underwater.  Marine animals that fell into the sediment were sometimes fossiized and can be found in the uplifted areas that erode out in streambeds or roadcuts.  Six years ago I became interested in collecting and preparing these animals and it has morphed into a retirement project. I do not sell them but hope they will someday go into a museum collection for public display.  Here are some of the more interesting ones I’ve uncovered.  In the first three photos they are all Pulalius vulgaris including the small one next to the big claw—both found within 50’ of each other.




[JAC: If you were to buy these, you'd pay a pretty penny due to the labor involved in finding them and making such nice preparations. For an idea of what they go for, go here or here. ]

An isopod:

Isopod copyright

After the isopod, two Maeandricampus triangulum meet two new Raninid crabs.


The final picture shows a breakdown of the preparation process, done under a microscope with air scribes, which are miniature jack hammers.


Sunday: Hili dialogue

Malgorzata provides an explanation for this one:
Explanation: The statement about hearing the churchbell without knowing in which church the bells are ringing is a Polish proverb describing somebody who knows something (very little) but disseminates this knowledge, mixing everything up and making an unholy mess of the facts. I don’t know if there is an English equivalent.
Cyrus: I can’t tell which church the bell-ringing is coming from.
Hili: It’s not coming from anywhere, you are hallucinating.
P1010636 (2)
In Polish:
Cyrus: Nie wiem, w którym kościele dzwonią.
Hili: W żadnym, masz omamy.

Adam Lee has lost it

One of the most despicable attacks on Richard Dawkins in recent years (and that’s saying a lot!) has been posted at the Guardian; it’s by Adam Lee, atheist blogger who writes at “Daylight Atheism”. I won’t bother to dissect it in detail because reading it makes me ill. Dissing Richard is a regular thing at the Guardian these days, and there’s no shortage of unbelievers willing to answer the call. Lee’s piece is called “Richard Dawkins has lost it: ignorant sexism gives atheists a bad name.” Read it and weep. If you cheer, you shouldn’t be reading this website.

It’s one-sided, quoting only the anti-Dawkins Usual Suspects, and accuses not only Dawkins but Sam Harris of “ignorant sexism.” To do so, Lee relies on quotes that have been cherry-picked by people determined to bring down Richard and Sam.  Rather than distress my lower mesentery by going through the piece, I’ll post the remarks of one commenter:

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It’s time to end this relentless and obsessive hounding of Dawkins and Harris. People actually comb through Richard and Sam’s Twi**er feeds, looking for blog fodder: things they can use to smear these guys. Don’t they have anything better to do?

And let me say this: I am friends with both Richard and Sam, have interacted with them a great deal, and have never heard a sexist word pass their lips. (You may discount that if you wish since I have a Y chromosome, but I speak the truth.) Both have seemed to me seriously concerned with women’s rights, particularly as they’re abrogated by religion, and both have written about that. But does that count? No, it’s all effaced by a few remarks that can be twisted into accusations of sexism and, yes, misogyny, which is “hatred of women.”

These men do not hate women, and their opponents are ideologues.  Michael Nugent, head of Atheist Ireland and one of the most conciliatory atheists I know, has tried reaching out to those who denigrate Richard and Sam, asking for dialogue and requesting that the hounders behave like civilized human beings—as Nugent himself always has. No dice. For trying to be conciliatory, Nugent has been, and is being, vilified. It’s disgusting. I feel sorry for the man, who is learning the hard way that good intentions are not enough to stay a pack of baying hounds.

I’m not particularly concerned about the Death of the Atheist Movement, because I think religion is dying on its own, with or without these petty squabbles. But if there is anyone who is damaging whatever unity exists among nonbelievers, it is not Richard or Sam, but those who try to rip to pieces anyone with whom they disagree.

I have refrained from entering these squabbles, as I don’t want to run a drama site, but enough is enough. We will now return to our usual schedule.



Wonderful Life: The birds of paradise

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has completed its Birds-of-Paradise Project, a veritable paradise for bird aficionados, nature lovers, and especially professors like me who want to show students the most stunning examples of sexual selection on Earth. (Remember that sexual selection is just a form of natural selection: a subset of that phenomenon that rests on differential mate choice.)

You can read about the project’s aims here, but the site is huge and interactive: you can hear and see the birds, and read about their evolution and natural history (there are 39 species on New Guinea, the surrounding islands and [a few in] Australia). Best of all are the fantastic videos: a ton of them, and they’ve put them on YouTube. I’ll show just the introductory video, which displays many of the species, and then a few others. They’ve managed to film all of them, so that will whet your appetite for more.

Evolution educators: this is a site you shouldn’t miss.  Their words:

It took 8 years and 18 expeditions to New Guinea, Australia, and nearby islands, but Cornell Lab scientist Ed Scholes and National Geographic photographer Tim Laman succeeded in capturing images of all 39 species in the bird-of-paradise family for the first time ever. This video gives a sense of their monumental undertaking and the spectacular footage that resulted.

Here are all 39 species:

Carola’s Parotia (Parotia carolae), the “King of the Dance.” Don’t miss this one!

The dance of the Carola’s Parotia is the most complex of all birds-of-paradise. The male has to go through five introductory dance moves before starting the main event, called the “ballerina dance.” All the while, four or five females may be perched above him, examining every detail of his performance before deciding whether to mate.

Imagine sexual selection accumulating genes that make the male do this, with all components of that behavior contributing to the male’s chances of leaving those genes.

The Male Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae), with a directional iridescence:

Iridescence can be seen only when light hits feathers at just the right angle. By adjusting where they are relative to their audience, males can “turn on” their bright colors. Magnificent Riflebirds seem to use this feature with particular precision, even choosing display sites that put their audience in exactly the right place to see the show in the best light.

Finally, one of my favorite, the King-of-Saxony bird of paradise (Pteridophora alberti), with its amazing cull and impressive head feathers:

Throughout their evolution, male birds-of-paradise have been under immense selective pressure to win the attentions of females. Even the King-of-Saxony’s extraordinary head wires aren’t quite enough. They’ve had to develop a display that includes waving the head plumes, rhythmically bouncing on a perch, and delivering an extraordinary screeching, buzzing, hissing call that sounds like anything but a bird.

Note that only the males have the elaborate colors, plumage, and behaviors: females are generally inconspicuous and dull-colored. That’s one of the observations, consistent among many animals, that led Darwin to propose the theory of sexual selection (1871). Sadly, Darwin never saw these species, as the H.M.S. Beagle didn’t visit New Guinea. Here’s the relevant part of the voyage:


There are many more videos. Knock yourself out!

As for why this particular group of birds was so prone to forming new species—and with speciation probably based on differential sexual selection—who knows?

h/t: Gunnar

Stephen Prothero on “Are all religions the same?”

Well here’s something refreshing: a professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, professing that all religions are NOT the same!  (The video is from 2010.) Not only that, but he claims that many evil acts really are motivated by religion rather than culture, politics, and other things. Heresy!

It seems to be a trend that the faithful (especially Christians) want to insist that all religions are at bottom the same: they worship what is really the same God. Of course, when this claim is made by Christians, that God bears traits strikingly similar to the Christian God. As Prothero says, “There’s too much of the insinuation of Christian values into this sort of generic human religiosity that people want to talk about.” And of course there’s a strain of secular apologetics, exemplified by Robert Pape, who claims that at bottom “religous” acts of terrorism are really motivated by politicus and culture (especially a history of Western colonialism), with religion playing virtually no role. (Pape’s arguments, by the way, have been severely criticized.)

Here’s Prothero’s cred from Wikipedia:

Stephen Prothero. . . is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books on religion in America.

He has commented on religion on dozens of National Public Radio programs and on television on CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, MSNBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report. A regular contributor to USA Today, he has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate,, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal.

Prothero has argued for mandatory public school Bible literacy courses (along the lines of the Bible Literacy Project’s The Bible and Its Influence), along with mandatory courses on world religions. Prothero describes himself as “religiously confused.”

Of course not all religious scholars and theologians agree—William Lane Craig, for example, whose insistence that Allah is not the TRUE God, as we learned yesterday.

His comments on the spread of Islam are enlightening (and to me, frightening), and he has an interesting theory why Jews are so drawn to Buddhism (“Bu-Jews,” we call them).

What is most striking to me is his discussion of Nazi Christian theology beginning at 5:06. He takes up the issue of whether the Nazis were “true Christians,” and his answer is an unqualified “yes.” This, of course, resembles our discussion of whether adherents to ISIS are “true Muslims.”

Prothero does add that while jihadis are indeed “Muslims,” they weren’t “good” Muslims—that is, they didn’t transform the “evil” parts of their theology into something good. My response is that one person’s “good” is another person’s “evil.” We can tell Muslims that their misogyny and draconian laws are bad for their society, but if they don’t believe in a consequentialist ethics, and actually know what the consequences are, they’re not going to listen. (I think many Muslims adhere to a Craig-ian form of voluntarist Divine Command Theory: what the Qur’an says is simply the moral truth.) Prothero notes, though, that jihadis “use resources within the Muslim tradition.”

In other words, he advocates picking and choosing among “religious resources” to transform religions into vehicles for good. While I agree with him that if you want to be religious, that’s the way to go, why bother to be religious in the first place if you’re going to force your superstition into the Procrustean bed of an ethics that is at bottom secular?

In the end, he makes a good case for why all of should learn something about religion.

“The fact that you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean that people around the world and throughout world history haven’t been motivated by their understandings of God, or Jesus or Allah or Buddha or Confucius or whomever it is.  Religion is one of the most powerful forces in world history, and we need to know something about it in order to make sense of the world.”


h/t: Adam

Caturday felid trifecta: Cat artist, Jerry the Cat, and exercising with your cat (plus bonus)

We have three items for today, including an update on Jerry Coyne the Cat.

First, a wonderful video called “I Am a Cat,” profiling talented and highly adorable Kaori Mitsushima, an artist who specializes in cats. (her website is here and her Facebook page is here). As  you’ll see, she has two cats—Pon-Pon and Araise (appears to be a Turkish Van with different-colored eyes)—and now lives in Czechoslovakia. It’s so great to hear her say, “I always had many dreams in my life, but my biggest dream was having my own cat. But I was never allowed to have my own cat when I was growing up. Now I have two cats: Pon-Pon and Araise.” Note her constant emphasis on the word “cat.”

Plus I love the background music: Gymnopédie by Satie, the most melancholy music ever penned.

A photo with Pon-Pon:


She also designed a teeshirt for a fun Kickstarter project, “The Guardians of Recoleta”, a film and about about the many cats that live in a cemetery in Buenos Aires; the project will also help find homes for the strays. . Have a look, and if you’re inspired, throw a few bucks their way. They’re only halfway to their goal.


I’m sure you’ve been wondering, “Whatever happened to Jerry Coyne the cat?”  Well, there is news today from half of his staff in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the abandoned kitten found a forever home. He’s grown up into a lovely long-haired tabby, domineering, but sweet (much like his namesake).  Here’s a photo of the young Jerry lest you’ve forgotten:


And the email from the staff to Dr. Gayle Ferguson, who saved Jerry’s life (and that of his four sisters) when they were abandoned in a cardboard box by a petrol station:

I am not the greatest photographer and Jerry has not been very cooperative. He continues to be an absolute delight though. SO cute. Not a big cat but what a luxurious coat! He completely charmed my cat loving sister this week when she stayed with us. Smooching her all night and then getting under the covers with her at bedtime. Chases Loki [the other cat] around the house and when he is not organising the neighbourhood cats he is ruling the roost with the chickens. Very funny. The photos show him blissed out on catnip.






How to exercise with your cat!:

Doesn’t do much for the cat, though.


Finally, a bonus! Here’s a new Maru video called, “Maru gets into the same box with various styles”:

This is a prime example of chronic Maru’s Syndrome, diagnosed by the DSM-IV as “obsessive box-inhabiting: when the patient sees a box, he or she cannot help but enter.”

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have fish (the first time, as I recall)—plus some of Stephen Barnard’s birds.

First the fish, from reader Paul Schoekel. His notes:

I enjoy your website and the readers’ wildlife photos, so I wanted to share with you a few favorites of mine.  The french angelfish (Pomacanthus paru) and green moray (Gymnothorax funebris) are from a trip to Ambergris Caye, Belize.  The juvenile jewel damsel  (Microspathodon chrysurus) from Caracas Baai, Curaçao.

A French angel (Pomacanthus paru):


 A green moray (Gymnothorax funebris):


A juvenile jewel damsel (Microspathodon chrysurus):


And some Idaho birds from Stephen Barnard:

A Great Horned Owl  (Bubo virginianus),


Bald Eagle  (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in flight


 A northern harrier (Circus cyaneus):


Stephen’s words:

“And as a lagniappe, a photo captioned ‘Size matters'”.

Blackbird and eagle


I’m wondering why that small bird (whose species I don’t know) wasn’t nommed.

Saturday: Hili dialogue

Cyrus: The fact that humans are domesticated has some positive sides.
Hili: Yes, but they’ve gone wild with all these doors.

In Polish:
Cyrus: To, że ludzie są udomowieni ma swoje dobre strony.
Hili: Tak, ale oni zdziczeli z tymi wszystkimi drzwiami.

Friday squee: Petting a wombat and teaching a polar bear to walk

Okay friends, it’s been a hard day slogging over my bibliography, and I’m tired and need some cute animals. Fortunately, we have two today.

Reader Lauren sent me this video with a comment:

I always thought a wombat was a vicious creature with which one should engage in mortal combat.  This video proves they just want to be skritched.
It makes you feel sorry for the wild animals that never get a nice belly rub or full body stroking.

Do all mammals like tummy rubs? Name one that doesn’t!

Reader Grania sent this one, which is labeled “Meet Flocke the baby polar bear, who is being taught to crawl by the zookeepers at Nuremberg Zoo. Apparently she was rejected by her mother so they separated them for fear that mother would harm the baby.”

Countershading doesn’t always work

[JAC: There was some discussion this morning about why so many mammals have light bellies. Greg answered in the comments, but I'd also direct you to this article on countershading (yes, it's from Wikipedia, but it's the best I could find). Greg happens to be our resident expert on animal coloration, and decided to add a short post based on a picture he saw in the local paper.]

by Greg Mayer

As the picture below shows, countershading doesn’t always work– sometimes the hawk does spot the chipmunk.

Immature Cooper's Hawk with chipmunk in Racine, Wisconsin (photo by Diana Hawes, from Journal Times).

Immature Cooper’s Hawk with chipmunk in Racine, Wisconsin (photo by Diana Hawes, from Journal Times).

I saw this just today in my local paper. As was discussed in the comments on the latest set of readers’ wildlife photos, chipmunks being dark above and light below gives them a “flattened” aspect and makes them harder to see, but no protective coloration is perfect. There have been years when hawks nested in trees on my block quite close to my house, and mangled chipmunk remains would appear frequently below the nest. This year, I haven’t seen any hawks near the house, and chipmunks seem more common than usual.


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