Readers’ wildlife photos

We have four photos today provided by three readers.

The first is a black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) from reader Stephen Barnard in Idaho, which came with this note:

These birds are common, but intelligent and of a suspicious nature on the farm. I find them hard to photograph. In town they’re bold, even harassing my B*rder C*llie.


Reader Jay Lonner sends two photos he took while diving:

Attached please find photos of a Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and a Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi) that I took on a recent trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. These images were taken off the small island of French Key. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, and as an avid diver this is only the second one that I have seen in the wild.

Hawkisbill TCI 102014

The Caribbean reef shark is locally common, but I like the lighting on this shot. Also note the structure distal to the pelvic fin, which I suspect is a remora but could be a clasper.

Shark TCI 102014

From reader jsp, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) taken on October 23 near Winfield, Missouri. Why did the fox cross the road?


Friday: Hili dialogue

I’ve returned to Sofia from Plovdiv, a lovely city. I have another day and a half here before I fly out on Sunday (at 6:40 a.m. with an 8-hour layover in Munich). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is looking in vain for the Door to Sunshine:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: Whether to take an umbrella.

In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym się zastanawiasz?
Hili: Czy brać parasol.





Anthony Hutcherson, a lovely guy who breeds Bengal cats and “toygers” in Maryland, and who was on Team Cat for the Great New Yorker Cats v. Dogs Debate, has renewed his offer of a gratis Bengal cat for me, and enclosed the above photo as a temptation.  He added:

Whenever you are ready for Bengal Cat or kitten let me know. The offer is indefinite with no expiration date – just like the beauty of a cat.

And, this:

. . . This little guy is going to be stunning.  He’ll be ready to go in a few weeks hint, hint

OMG.  It’s adorable. And it has a determined, self-confident look on its little face. Now I’ve got Bengals on the brain.

Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Anthony and some other breeders (Ariel was also on Team Cat) is called “Living-Room Leopards” and can be read free at the link.


Felid photo takes top prize at Natural History Museum’s wildlife photography contest

This is the 50th anniversary of the London Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” contest. Many venues have shown some of the winning images (drawn from 42,000 submissions coming from 96 countries), but the captions and explanations of the photos are best seen at the Torygraph.  The winner for Wildlife Photographer of the Year was Michael Nichols, and, surprisingly, his winning photo was in black and white (I’d like to see it in color as well). It’s below, along with all the Torygraph’s captions (indented). Unsurprisingly, Nichols’s photo features felids.

First, though, the BBC News site describes the photo:

Michael “Nick” Nichols tracked the pride of big cats for six months before capturing this stunning shot, which stretches all the way to the horizon and includes a dramatic African sky.

. . . Judge Magdalena Herrera is director of photography at GEO France, as well as being a veteran of National Geographic France.

She said American Nichols’ composition had all the elements of a perfect picture.

“It tells you about behaviour, about the photographic techniques today, and it shows you the relationship of the animal to its environment,” she told BBC News.

“What is striking about Nick’s picture is its narrative – it’s not just a portrait; there’s a whole story going on inside it. And the black and white gives it a feeling of reportage.”

This story is of the females of the Vumbi pride in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

They are sleeping with their cubs in the late-afternoon sunshine, having just fought and driven off a couple of over inquisitive males. [JAC: remember that new males who invade a pride often kill the resident cubs so they can replace them with their own kin.]

Nichols caught the scene, which he calls The Last Great Picture, from on top of his vehicle.

He said the infrared transformed the light, turning “the moment into something primal, biblical almost”.

Three of the females were killed a few months later when the pride ventured on to land beyond the park.

And, without further ado, a selection of my favorites and the complete captions from the Torygraph (there are more at photos at its site; I’ve chosen just a few):

The winners in the 50th Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have been announced, with this photograph of lazing lions beating more than 42,000 entries from 96 countries to the top award.

American photographer Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 by a panel of international judges for his serene black-and-white image of lions resting with their cubs in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

Nichols followed the pride for nearly six months and they became used to his presence. This shot was taken in infra-red, which he explains, ‘transforms the light and turns the moment into something primal, biblical almost’.

The last great picture

Winner ‘Black and White’ and overall ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’


Hearing that masses of common frogs were gathering in a flooded gravel pit near his home in Västerbotten, Sweden, Anton Lilja set out to photograph the mating spectacle. Lying down on the bank at eye level with the water, he became fascinated by the light bouncing off the spawn and the water, which by now was vibrating with the activity of the frogs.

Experimenting with his flash, he achieved the effect he wanted just as a pair of frogs in amplexus popped up right in front of the camera, the male revealing his throat to be flushed with blue. They stayed posed amid the glossy wobbliness, allowing Anton time to compose his shot.

The long embrace

Winner ’15 to 17 Years’


Cheese and sausage are what Siberian jays like – so Edwin Sahlin discovered on a skiing holiday with his family in northern Sweden. Whenever they stopped for lunch, he would photograph the birds that gathered in hope of scraps.

On this occasion, while his family ate their sandwiches, Edwin dug a pit in the snow deep enough to climb into. He scattered titbits of food around the edge and then waited. To his delight, the jays flew right over him, allowing him to photograph them from below and capture the full rusty colours of their undersides more clearly than he had dared hope.


Finalist ’15 to 17 Years’


Planktonic animals are usually photographed under controlled situations, after they’ve been caught, but Fabien Michenet is fascinated by the beauty of their living forms.

Night-diving in deep water off the coast of Tahiti, he became fascinated by this juvenile sharpear enope squid. Just 3cm long, it was floating motionless about 20 metres below the surface.

Its transparent body was covered with polka dots of pigment-filled cells, and below its eyes were bioluminescent organs. Knowing it would be sensitive to light and movement, Fabien gradually manoeuvred in front of it, trying to hang as motionless as his subject. Using as little light as possible to get the autofocus working, he finally triggered the strobes and took the squid’s portrait before it disappeared into the deep.

Little squid

Finalist ‘Underwater Species’


A focus of Jan van der Greef‘s trip to Ecuador was the astonishing sword-billed hummingbird – the only bird with a bill longer than its body (excluding its tail). Its 11cm bill is designed to reach nectar at the base of equally long tube-shaped flowers, but Jan discovered that it can have another use.

One particular bird had a regular circuit through the forest, mapped out by its favourite red angel trumpet flowers and bird-feeders near Jan’s lodge. To get to the bird-feeders, it had to cross the territory of a fiercely territorial collared inca. Rather than being scared off, once or twice a day ‘it used its bill to make a statement’. To capture one of these stand-offs, Jan set up multiple flashes to freeze the hummingbirds’ wing-beats – more than 60 a second – and finally captured the precise colourful moment.


Finalist ‘Birds’

Picture: Jan van der Greef


I saw a stuffed specimen of the sword-bill when I visited the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia a few years ago. It was amazing—the bill really is longer than the whole bird!

Here are two more from the BBC’s site:

Chile’s Francisco Negroni won the Earth’s Environments prize for capturing the lightning show around an eruption of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano complex.


Alex Badyaev from the US [an evolutionary ecologist] took the Mammals category for this shot of a deer mouse standing on a mushroom in western Montana :


h/t: pyers~

Yes, Neanderthals are us!

by Greg Mayer

In a paper published today in Nature, Qiaomei Fu and colleagues report a high quality genome sequence derived from a 45,000 year old, anatomically modern human femur found in western Siberia. “Ust’-Ishim Man” has provided the oldest known genome of an anatomically modern human (there are earlier genomes of archaic humans).

Usht'-Ishim Man's femur (from Nature).

Ust’-Ishim Man’s femur (from Nature).

So, why is this interesting? First, it is a marvelous technical achievement to be able to get a high quality sequence out of a bone of such great age recovered from a riverbank. Kudos to Fu and her colleagues for this achievement. Second, Ust’-Ishim Man proves to be very interesting phylogenetically. While definitely non-African in his genetic affinities, he appears to be equidistant from both modern Europeans and modern East Asians. Fu et al. interpret him as being at or near the point in time when the split occurred between these two branches of humanity, making him part of the lineage of modern humans that had left Africa, but had not yet split into European and East Asian sub-lineages.  Third, by being able to identify the genetic differences between Ust’-Ishim and modern man, they were able to estimate the mutation rate in both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. The autosomal mutation rate was about .5X10E-9 per site per year, the Y chromosome mutation rate was higher, about .75X10E-9 per site per year, and the mitochondrial rate much higher, about 2.5X10E-8 per site per year. These rates and their mutual relations are about exactly what we would expect, but it’s nice to have fairly direct estimates, over a long time base, to confirm estimates based on short term de novo mutation studies and comparison of contemporaneous sequences.

And, finally, there’s what we learn about the interbreeding between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. As Jerry, John Hawks, and I have all argued before (and as I recently summarized at The Dish–  see the update at end of Andrew’s post), Neanderthals and early non-African anatomically modern humans (along with Denisovans), were all parts of a group of interbreeding populations in nature, and thus were all members of the species Homo sapiens. Ust’-Ishim Man’s genome is about 2% Neanderthal, just like modern Europeans and East Asians. This means that the level of admixture characterizing modern populations was already in place by 45,000 years ago. This is not too surprising. Neanderthals were going or gone by about then, so whatever interbreeding occurred should have (mostly) occurred by then. So Neanderthals are us.

Figure 5: Regions of Neanderthal ancestry on chromosome 12 in the Ust’-Ishim individual and fifteen present-day non-Africans. The analysis is based on SNPs where African genomes carry the ancestral allele and the Neanderthal genome carries the derived allele. Homozygous ancestral alleles are black, heterozygous derived alleles yellow, and homozygous derived alleles blue. (From Fu et al. 2014).

Figure 5: Regions of Neanderthal ancestry on chromosome 12 in the Ust’-Ishim individual and fifteen present-day non-Africans. The analysis is based on SNPs where African genomes carry the ancestral allele and the Neanderthal genome carries the derived allele. Homozygous ancestral alleles are black, heterozygous derived alleles yellow, and homozygous derived alleles blue. (From Fu et al. 2014).

But that’s not all. Modern humans are separated by some tens of thousands of years, and thousands of generations, from the time our forebears interbred with one another. During this time, recombination between the chromosomes of our anatomically modern and Neanderthal ancestors will have broken up the originally contiguous chromosome segments, dispersing the two sets among one another. Since the great majority of our genome is from anatomically modern ancestors, this will most easily be seen in our Neanderthal genetic component, which will become scattered throughout the anatomically modern part. This is exactly what is seen in the 15 modern non-African genomes in the figure above– the yellow and blue Neanderthal segments are scattered throughout the black anatomically modern background.

But when interbreeding first occurs, the two genomes will be separate. The first “hybrid” child will have one set of Neanderthal chromosomes, and one set of anatomically modern chromosomes. When that child produces gametes, its chromosomes will undergo crossing over– an exchange of chromosome segments– during meiosis, so that its children will receive a chromosomal gemisch: each chromosome will consist of alternating stretches of Neanderthal and anatomically modern parts. In subsequent generations, crossing over occurs again, so the contiguous segments from the founding generation keep getting broken up into smaller and smaller bits. So, if we catch the genome fairly soon after the genetic admixture has occurred, we should see that the chromosome segments occur in larger, contiguous blocks– and that’s exactly what Fu and colleagues found!

Look at the top row in the figure above. That’s Ust’-Ishim Man– note that his Neanderthal DNA occurs in larger blocks, indicating that it has not yet been fully broken up by crossing over. His genome represents an earlier stage in the genetic admixture of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. The actual interbreeding has already occurred– he’s 2% Neanderthal– but his Neanderthal DNA still largely occurs in unrecombined blocks. Based on this, Fu and colleagues have been able to calculate about how long before Ust’-Ishim Man the interbreeding occurred, and come up with a figure of about 300 generations, or about 10,000 years before Ust’-Ishim Man. So, the interbreeding occurred on the order of 50-60,000 years ago.

You might also wonder why our genomes are mostly from anatomically modern humans. If they and Neanderthals interbred, shouldn’t it be 50-50? Well, no– it would be 50-50 only if there were an equal number of ancestors from the two groups, but that’s not necessarily the case (in fact, we know it’s not the case in this instance). Most of the “hybrids” must have backcrossed (i.e. had children) with anatomically modern humans. There are many instance in history of two modern human groups meeting and interbreeding, but with a rather unqequal genetic contribution to the descendant populations. In the case of Neanderthals, the ratio was about 1 to 49. It’s easy to imagine how this might happen– a lone Neanderthal being adopted into a modern group, with its descendants therefore breeding mostly with the numerically predominant moderns. Many other scenarios could be posited, but they would be mostly speculative.

Whenever I see interesting results in human evolution, I always check to see what John Hawks has to say, but he’s not posted on this yet; fortunately Carl Zimmer at the NY Times has been able to get a hold of John personally, and ask him what he thinks:

“It’s irreplaceable evidence of what once existed that we can’t reconstruct from what people are now,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. “It speaks to us with information about a time that’s lost to us.”

That’s absolutely right of course, but I’d like to hear more of what he has to say, and I hope he will post something on the new discoveries.


Fu, Q., et al. 2014.Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature 514:445-449. abstract

Beyond belief: The Werleman mess is worse than you can imagine

The Werleman Mess, involving an atheist journalist’s repeated plagiarism in pieces in both Salon and Alternet, seems to have reached its conclusion. I’ll  briefly give the upshot, as I’m soon off to walk around Plovdiv.

The Werleman story is not pretty. I think the following is an accurate summary; if there are errors or corrections, please put them in the comments and I’ll deal with them later.

1. On the website Godless Spellchecker, its author detailed about half a dozen instances in which Werleman copied phrases directly from other sources without attribution. This is plagiarism, pure and simple. Many people seem to have thought that plagiarism involves the theft of ideas, not words. It can be both. Facts and ideas, if not your own (or in common currency) should always be referenced. But you don’t need to reference a widely known fact like “Paris is the capital of France.” When you use someone’s words without attribution, however, it is always plagiarism.

2. The number of instances of Werleman’s plagiarism expanded when Michael Luciano, at the Daily Banter, listed fourteen cases in total. These are not merely coincidental usages of words, but must reflect deliberate copying.

3. Werleman first tried to minimize the theft, imputing it to failures in putting quotation marks around one quote and to a few editing mistakes, but the magnitude of the theft belied that. I predicted that eventually Werleman would have to apologize, and eventually he did, on his Facebook page.

4. Werleman’s apology was here, but seems to have mysteriously disappeared overnight, and I can’t find it anywhere. You can find a summary of it, however, in another post by Godless Spellchecker called “C. J. Werleman releases plagiarism nonpology.” It is a “nonpology” in the sense that while Werleman admits that he did commit plagiarism, he minimizes its importance by showing how many pieces he published, which, he thinks, dwarfs the fourteen known instances of plagiarism. That is a ridiculous defense, I think, for even a couple of instances of word theft are serious, impugning a journalist’s ethics. Certainly the evidence to date would have resulted in a journalist at a reputable venue, like the New York Times, being fired.

UPDATE: Werleman has written a newer apology that, as a reader notes below, is here. I won’t comment on the latest version; you can make of it what you will

5. Werleman also blamed his being hounded for plagiarism on Sam Harris and his followers, who dislike Werleman because he’s repeatedly gone after Harris. Harris, though, had nothing to do with Werleman being “outed.”

6. Bizarrely, Werleman then accused Harris of having also engaged in plagiarism.  As Harris explained in a post, that accusation was untrue: the “words” Harris lifted from somebody else had actually been written by Harris himself in a piece that appeared two years before the piece from which he supposedly plagiarized.

7. In what is surely the weirdest part of this incident, it appears that Werleman engaged in three instances of sockpuppeting to support himself, using a Twi**er handle “@Women4Atheism,” a later version of an earlier feed called “@ShitMyJesusSays”. Neither of these had anything to do with woman and atheism. Further, Werleman appears to be the creator of a website called “Critical Cranson” (subtitled “One New York girl’s musings”), which was where he/she/it accused Harris of plagiarism. “Critical Cranson” was created on October 20, and has only one post: the incorrect accusation that Sam Harris was guilty of plagiarism. There have been no posts since.

All of this sockpuppeting is described and supported with evidence by a site called “SomewhatMoreCriticalCranson.” It’s fascinating to see the evidence of sockpuppeting accumulating, and the website’s author appears to have done a fair amount of research. It’s the visible record of Werleman’s unravelling.

8. Werleman begins melting down on Twi**er.  My theory is that, caught dead to rights, he simply can’t accept his public humiliation, and so lashes out at others in a vain attempt to exculpate himself. Here’s one example:


“Hyper anti-theistic”? Werleman is an atheist, too, and has published stuff that would be seen as “strident” atheism. And what “death cult” is he talking about? If there’s any death cult, it’s jihadist Islam, not Sam Harris’s ideas.

9. But the most important issue is how Werleman’s two venues, Alternet and Salon, handled his plagiarism. Alternet did the right thing and simply removed all of Werleman’s pieces with an explanation:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.26.45 AM

Salon, however, was completely lame, and simply said this:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.28.57 AM

I find this absoutely unbelievable. First, what Werleman did (by his own admission!) was plagiarism, not “improper sourcing.” Second, Salon did not remove the plagiarized articles but simply added hyperlinks to the sources of the plagiarized material. They apparently don’t even indicate on the four stories that parts of them were plagiarized. Finally, besides leaving the stories in, they leave all of Werleman’s stories in. In other words, he receives no sanction, and Salon buries the fact that it published plagiarized material—possibly because they don’t want to look bad for having done that.

Salon’s behavior is execrable, but that’s to be expected from an online source that has gone increasingly downhill to the point where it’s basically click-bait: an online tabloid. They clearly adhere to no journalistic standards, and have no sense of propriety.

As for Werleman, it’s sad that somebody with promise could stoop so low, and even sadder that he doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he’s done, which is to discredit himself as a journalist. Although he issued an apology, which to me is unconvincing, he continues to rage on Twi**er.  And, except for the possible Alternet ban, his career at Salon (if you call that a career) appears set to continue.

Finally, Sam Harris said on his terse post about the issue (“Just the facts: A response to a charge of plagiarism“), “This will be the last thing I ever write about C.J. Werleman.”

That goes for me, too.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Due to a dearth of submissions (my own fault), we have only two photographs today, but later I’ll put up the winners of London’s Natural History Museum Photographer of the Year contest.

First, from regular Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

While walking my d*g this morning I heard the familiar red-tailed hawk  (Buteo jamaicensis) call, turned around and got a shot before he spooked.



Reader Doug Finn also sends us some urban wildlife—a leaf-mimic (either a leafhopper or a planthopper; readers can identify it), which he photographed at the Reservoir bus stop in Boston. Notice the exoskeleton crenulations that mimic a midrib and the veins of a leaf. It’s not very well camouflaged on cement, however!



From the Cambrian Explosion to swimming pigs – Professor Brian Cox

by Matthew Cobb

My University of Manchester colleague Brian Cox has a new TV series out at the moment, called Human Universe, which looks at the big questions – why are we here, are we alone etc. Last Tuesday’s episode was about the possibility of alien life (high for microbes, reckons Brian, probably zero for a star-spanning civilisation that coincides with ours). It included one of the best clips I have seen in a long time. For reasons that remain obscure to the viewer, Brian explains the Cambrian Explosion in the presence of some swimming pigs the film crew found on the shore of a beautiful desert island (and that’s ‘desert’ as in an old-fashioned way of saying ‘deserted’ not as in ‘lots of sand and aridity’). Here’s a clip that someone with an interest in pigs has uploaded:

Thursday: Hili dialogue

From the cat who drinks cream, an admonition to the d*g, as well as a depiction of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Prophecy:

Cyrus: I hope I do not disturb you?
Hili: No, but you should be careful about your food intake.

In Polish:
Cyrus: Mam nadzieję, że ci nie przeszkadzam?
Hili: Nie, ale musisz trochę uważać z jedzeniem.

Bulgaria: food, cats, and other delights

Yesterday, on our way back to Sofia from Tarnovo, we stopped at an ethnic “museum” (I don’t recall its name) where they have several original 200-year-old houses on display as well as prehistoric skeletons and relics and a couple of good restaurants. Oh, and lots of feral cats.

The museum consists of several dwellings interspersed with regular houses, though all are about 200 years old. Here’s a non-museum house. What a lovely place to live! (It’s in the mountains.)


Making honey and wax was a major industry in the town. This old honey-extraction and wax press is still used occasionally for demonstrations. After the honey was spooned from the combs, the wax was boiled in water and then the concoction poured through several meshes of rice straw (to extract dirt) and then pressed, with the hot wax solidifying in the cold water below. The refined wax was sold for candles and other purposes; in its final form it took the form of gray-brown sheets, about half a centimeter thick.

Wax pressing

Here’s the interior of a “rich man’s house”: a merchant who traveled through Europe trading leather and wool for other goods (olive oil and so on). There were three floors, with the animals below. This is the original room and loom on which rugs were woven. The loom was connected to a cradle on the left so that the baby could be gently rocked during weaving:


The museum building had a bunch of skulls. This guy got badly whacked on the head, but, as you see, the bone healed after the whack. He survived the injury! I’m not sure how old this skull is, but it demonstrates the violence of our ancestors that Steve Pinker mentions in The Better Angels of our Nature. 


This dude didn’t make it–there’s no healing of the horrific wounds in the skull. That must represent a few blows with a blunt axe.


Stray cats abound in the region: most are wary, though they’re in pretty good shape as people do feed them. This kitten was tame and let me hold it. I have a bazillion pictures of The Street Cats of Bulgaria which I’ll inflict on you later.

Tabby CS

After observing our head-bashed ancestors, we were all hungry, and repaired to a restaurant in the village which happened to house a mother cat and her two gorgeous kittens (below). I wonder if the tabby kitten has the Munchkin short-leg gene.

Kittens 1

They were hungry (I fed them, of course), and I wanted to take the tabby home with me.

Kittens 2

Before lunch we had a Bulgarian drink: a spearmint liqueur that we mixed with Sprite and ice. Very refreshing. Mother Cat was friendly, too, and I had her purring in my lap. Noms, cats, and drinks: what could be better?


One of the lunch dishes we shared was a luscious pork stew with vegetables:


We also had three other dishes: a casserole with eggs, peppers, and sausage (top right), a yogurt-and-zucchini dish (below it), and a stewed rabbit with mushrooms in a delicious sauce (bottom). It was all served with freshly made flatbread. And, of course, I couldn’t resist feeding the three cats (who were ravenous) copious amounts of rabbit.

The quality (and quantity!) of Bulgarian food is superb. I have not had a single bad meal or dish in the five days I’ve been here.

Dishes 1

Here is Vassy taking photos of the village; I wanted to show you her famous “Zombie Rabbit” purse, emblazoned with an evil rabbit and the words “So dark. . . so cute.” (She has a matching wallet.) When I read those words, Lubo, remembering our lunch, added, “And so delicious.”


Lubo, the main organizer of the Ratio conference, enjoying a rakia (the local hard liquor) before dinner two nights ago. (I haven’t shown that one yet.) This is plum rakia, the equivalent of slivovitz. I had one too, as it’s the national drink—and, when well made, it’s very good. It comes in various flavors, with grape most common, but also apple, apriciot, plum, and other fruit distillations.



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