Tuesday, 30 November 2021

PALEONTOLOGY LITHOGRAPH

Paleontology — A lovely faded lithograph from A History Of The Earth And Animated Nature By Oliver Gold Smith.

I love the old lithographs. They transport me back in time to the beginnings of the study of the various realms of nature. 

Lithography was invented around 1796 in Germany by an otherwise unknown Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder, who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink.

A History of the Earth and Animated Nature was printed in the traditional method used by Senefelder. It is a fascinating work of natural history. It was first published in 1774 in eight volumes, these volumes brought together a history of the earth with a description of its many weird and wonderful species and geographical features. 

Oliver Gold Smith was an Irish novelist, poet and journalist as well as the author of many works on natural history. He is now best known for his 1766 novel, The Vicar of Wakefield., a widely read 18th-century novel sharing the life and woes of Dr. Charles Primrose. Oliver Gold Smith spelt the title of his work, Paleontology, though the British spelling is Palaeontology — hence our Canadian use of the same.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

OSTRACODERMS TO ANGLERFISH

The festive lassie you see here is an Anglerfish. They always look to be celebrating a birthday of some kind, albeit solo. This party is happening deep in our oceans and for those that join in, I hope they like it rough.

The wee candle you see on her forehead is a photophore, a tiny bit of luminous dorsal spine. Many of our sea dwellers have photophores. We see them glowing around the eyes of many of our cephalopod friends. 

These light organs can be a simple grouping of photogenic cells or more complex with light reflectors, lenses, colour filters able to adjust the intensity or angular distribution of the light they produce. Some species have adapted their photophores to avoid being eaten, in others, it's an invitation to lunch.

In anglerfish' world, this swaying light is dead sexy. It's an adaptation used to attract prey and mates alike.

Deep in the murky depths of the Atlantic and Antarctic oceans, hopeful female anglerfish light up their sexy lures. When a male latches onto this tasty bit of flesh, he fuses himself totally. He might be one of several potential mates. She's not picky, just hungry. Lure. Feed. Mate. Repeat.

A friend asked if anglerfish mate for life. Well, yes.... yes, indeed they do.

Mating is a tough business down in the depths. Her body absorbs all the yummy nutrients of his body over time until all that's left are his testes. While unusual, it is only one of many weird and whacky ways our fishy friends communicate, entice, hunt and creatively survive and thrive.

The evolution of fish began about 530 million years ago with the first fish lineages belonging to the Agnatha, a superclass of jawless fish. We still see them in our waters as cyclostomes but have lost the conodonts and ostracoderms to the annals of time. Like all vertebrates, fish have bilateral symmetry; when divided down the middle or central axis, each half is the same. Organisms with bilateral symmetry are generally more agile, making finding a mate, hunting or avoiding being hunted a whole lot easier.

When we envision fish, we generally picture large eyes, gills, a well-developed mouth. The earliest animals that we classify as fish appeared as soft-bodied chordates who lacked a true spine. While they were spineless, they did have notochords, a cartilaginous skeletal rod that gave them more dexterity than the cold-blooded invertebrates who shared those ancient seas and evolved without a backbone. 

Fish would continue to evolve throughout the Paleozoic, diversifying into a wide range of forms. Several forms of Paleozoic fish developed external armour that protected them from predators. The first fish with jaws appeared in the Silurian period, after which many species, including sharks, became formidable marine predators rather than just the prey of arthropods.

Fish in general respire using gills, are most often covered with bony scales and propel themselves using fins. There are two main types of fins, median fins and paired fins. The median fins include the caudal fin or tail fin, the dorsal fin, and the anal fin. Now there may be more than one dorsal, and one anal fin in some fishes.

The paired fins include the pectoral fins and the pelvic fins. And these paired fins are connected to, and supported by, pectoral and pelvic girdles, at the shoulder and hip; in the same way, our arms and legs are connected to and supported by, pectoral and pelvic girdles. This arrangement is something we inherited from the ancestors we share with fish. They are homologous structures.

When we speak of early vertebrates, we are often talking about fish. Fish is a term we use a lot in our everyday lives but taxonomically it is not all that useful. When we say, fish we generally mean an ectothermic, aquatic vertebrate with gills and fins.

Fortunately, many of our fishy friends have ended up in the fossil record. We may see some of the soft bits from time to time, as in the lovely fossil fish found in concretion in Brazil, but we often see fish skeletons. Vertebrates with hard skeletons had a much better chance of being preserved. 

Eohiodon Fish, McAbee Fossil Beds
In British Columbia, we have lovely two-dimensional Eocene fossil fish well-represented from the Allenby of Princeton and the McAbee Fossil Beds. 

We have the Tiktaalik roseae, a large freshwater fish, from 375 million-year-old Devonian deposits on Ellesmere Island in Canada's Arctic. Tiktaalik is a wonderfully bizarre creature with a flat, almost reptilian head but also fins, scales and gills. We have other wonders from this time. 

Canada also boasts spectacular antiarch placoderms, Bothriolepsis, found in the Upper Devonian shales of Miguasha in Quebec.

There are fragments of bone-like tissues from as early as the Late Cambrian with the oldest fossils that are truly recognizable as fishes come from the Middle Ordovician from North America, South America and Australia. At the time, South America and Australia were part of a supercontinent called Gondwana. North America was part of another supercontinent called Laurentia and the two were separated by deep oceans.

These two supercontinents and others that were also present were partially covered by shallow equatorial seas and the continents themselves were barren and rocky. Land plants didn't evolve until later in the Silurian Period. In these shallow equatorial seas, a large diverse and widespread group of armoured, jawless fishes evolved: the Pteraspidomorphi. The first of our three groups of ostracoderms. The Pteraspidomorphi are divided into three major groups: the Astraspida, Arandaspida and the Heterostraci.

The oldest and most primitive pteraspidomorphs were the Astraspida and the Arandaspida. You'll notice that all three of these taxon names contain 'aspid', which means shield. This is because these early fishes — and many of the Pteraspidomorphi — possessed large plates of dermal bone at the anterior end of their bodies. This dermal armour was very common in early vertebrates, but it was lost in their descendants. 

Arandaspida is represented by two well-known genera: Sacabampaspis, from South America and Arandaspis from Australia. Arandaspis have large, simple, dorsal and ventral head shields. Their bodies were fusiform, which means they were shaped sort of like a spindle, fat in the middle and tapering at both ends. Picture a sausage that is a bit wider near the centre with a crisp outer shell.

If you're a keen bean to see an anglerfish that recently washed up on the shores of Newport Beach this past May, hit this link: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/11/deep-sea-anglerfish-california-beach-finding-nemo. Kudos for my colleague, Giovanni, bringing this gloriously horrific lovely to my attention. 

Saturday, 27 November 2021

BIOLUMINESCENCE: CHEMICAL POETRY

Light in the oceans? It is chemistry, my friends. 

In the inky blackness of the deep sea, more than 90% of the animals are luminescent. It is quite a startling number but makes good sense when you think of the edge bioluminescence provides. 

The ability to generate light helps umpteen animals find mates, attracts prey and avoid predation. Handy stuff, light. 

What you know about light above the surface does not hold true for the light you see as bioluminescence. Its energy and luminosity come from a chemical reaction. 

In a luminescent reaction, two types of chemicals — luciferin and luciferase — combine together. Together, they produce cold light — light that generates less than 20% thermal radiation or heat. 

The light you see is produced by a compound called Luciferin. It is the shiny, showy bit in this chemical show. Luciferase acts as an enzyme, the substance that acts as a catalyst controlling the rate of chemical reactions, allowing the luciferin to release energy as it is oxidized. The colour of the light depends on the chemical structures of the chemicals. There are more than a dozen known chemical luminescent systems, meaning that bioluminescence evolved independently in different groups of organisms.

Coelenterazine is the type of luciferin we find in shrimp, fish and jellyfish. Dinoflagellates and krill share another class of unique luciferins, while ostracods or firefleas and some fish have a completely different luciferin. 

The luciferase found in dinoflagellates is related to the green chemical chlorophyll found in plants. Bioluminescent dinoflagellates are a type of plankton — teensy marine organisms that make the seaways shimmer like the Milky Way as you swim through them. 

Their twinkling lights are brief, each containing about 100 million photons that shine for a tenth of a second. While each individual flicker is here and gone in the wink of an eye, en masse they are awe-inspiring. I have spent many wondrous evenings scuba diving amongst these glittering denizens off our shores. 

Cotylorhiza Tuberculata Jellyfish
In this close up of a Cotylorhiza Tuberculata Jellyfish, you can see the luminosity of her blue and white tentacles. The occurrence of identical luciferins for different types of organisms may suggest a dietary source for some groups strengthening the adage, you are what you eat, or perhaps you glow how you eat

Bacteria and fireflies have unique luminescent chemistries. Fireflies light up when oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and luciferin in the presence of luciferase. 

For bacteria, the world stage of luminosity is quite small — and a bit gormless. Just how much light they emit and when is a free-for-all. Not so for the rest of our bioluminescent friends who have very precise control over when they shine and just how bright. 

Bioluminescence comes in a variety of colours, from blue through red. The colour is based on the chemistry, which involves a substrate molecule called luciferin, the source of energy that goes into light, and an enzyme called luciferase or photoprotein. 

Most of this lighting up of our world happens on land or in saltwater. There are almost no bioluminescent organisms native to freshwater.

In terrestrial plants and animals — fireflies, beetles and fungi like this Ghost Fungus, Omphalotus nidiformis, a gilled basidiomycete mushroom — we commonly find green, yellow, and sometimes red. 

In the ocean, bioluminescence is mostly blue-green or green. You would think that blues and green would not show up all that well in our seas but, surprisingly, they do. While sound travels better through saltwater than air, it is the reverse for light. 

Various colours of light do not transmit equally through saltwater. Once we move deeper than the top layer of the ocean warmed by the sun and brimming with nutrients, the epipelagic zone, and move deeper through the mesopelagic, deeper and deeper still to the bathypelagic, frigid abyssalpelagic and finally the deep trenches of the icy pressure and all but inhospitable hadalpelagic, less and less light — until no light — gets through.

It is the twilight of the mesopelagic, 200 - 1000 metres below the surface, that is the sweet spot for most of our bioluminescent friends. Here, only very faint sunlight gets through. The water pressure is higher than at the surface but still lacks the crushing intensity of the lower zones. It is here that bioluminescence becomes a real advantage — good real estate and the showmanship of light pays gold.

We know that the deeper you go in our oceans, less and less sunlight gets through, so if the purpose of bioluminescence is to provide a signal that is noticed by prey, potential mates and predators alike, it is important that the light moves through the seawater, and not be absorbed or scattered — and this plays out in the colours evolved to be seen here. 

If you have spent any time underwater, you will know that blue-green light transmits best through seawater. The deeper you go, the colours fade. Gone are the reds and yellows until everything looks brown or blue-green. Because of this, it is no surprise that blue-green is the most common colouring of bioluminescence in our oceans. 

There are some exceptions to the blue-green/green colour rule — minuscule planktonic polychaete worms, Tomopteris helgolandica, emit yellow light, and deep-sea fish Malacosteus niger in the family Stomiidae, the barbeled dragonfishes, produce both red and blue. 

Malacosteus niger's unique adaptation of producing red bioluminescence is only found in two other deep-sea dwelling creatures, Aristostomias and Pachystomias

This rare form of bioluminescence can reach up to 700 nm in the deep-sea and cannot be perceived by green and blue bioluminescent organisms — granting M. niger a considerable advantage while hunting at depth.

The red light may function as an invisible searchlight of sorts because most animals in the ocean cannot see red light, while the eyes of M. niger are red-sensitive. It is much easier to find and eat something that cannot see you, particularly if it is lit up like a tasty red holiday snack.

Reference: https://latzlab.ucsd.edu/bioluminescence/

Friday, 26 November 2021

OH, MEDUSA: JELLYFISH. A HALF BILLION YEARS IN THE MAKING

Mesmerizing, delicate and seemingly impossible — this lovely luminescent denizen of the sea has been living in our oceans for more than half a billion years. Jellyfish are found all over the world, from surface waters to our deepest seas — and they are old. They are some of the oldest animals in the fossil record.

Jellyfish and sea jellies are the informal common names given to the medusa-phase or adult phase of certain gelatinous members of the subphylum Medusozoa, a major part of the phylum Cnidaria — more closely related to anemones and corals.

Jellyfish are not fish at all. These gossamer wonders evolved millions of years before true fish. 

The oldest conulariid scyphozoans appeared between 635 and 577 mya in the Neoproterozoic of the Lantian Formation in China. 

Others are found in the youngest Ediacaran rocks of the Tamengo Formation of Brazil, c. 505 mya, through to the Triassic. Cubozoans and hydrozoans appeared in the Cambrian of the Marjum Formation in Utah, USA, c. 540 mya.

I have seen all sorts of their brethren growing up on the west coast of Canada. I have seen them in tide pools, washed up on the beach and swam amongst thousands of Moon Jellyfish while scuba diving in the Salish Sea. Their pulsating movements are marvellous.  

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, jellyfish are known as ǥaǥisama.

The dreamy blue and purple ǥaǥisama you see here is but one of a large variety of colours and designs. Jellyfish come in bright yellow, orange, clear with pink spots and are often luminescent.


Thursday, 25 November 2021

BARNACLES: K'WIT'A' A

One of the most interesting and enigmatic little critters we find at the seashore are barnacles. They cling to rocks at the waters' edge, closed to our curiosity, their domed mounds like little closed beaks shut to the water and the world.

They choose their permanent homes as larvae, sticking to hard substrates that will become their permanent homes for the rest of their lives. It has taken us a long time to find how they actually stick or what kind of "glue" they were using.

Remarkably, the barnacle glue sticks to rocks in a similar way to how red cells bind together. Red blood cells bind and clot with a little help from some enzymes. 

These work to create long protein fibres that first blind, clot then form a scab. The mechanism barnacles use, right down to the enzyme, is very similar. That's especially interesting as about a billion years separate our evolutionary path from theirs.

So, with the help of their clever enzymes, they can affix to most anything – ship hulls, rocks, and even the skin of whales. If you find them in tidepools, you begin to see their true nature as they open up, their delicate feathery finger-like projections flowing back and forth in the surf.

One of my earliest memories is of playing with them in the tidepools on the north end of Vancouver Island. It was here that I learned their many names. In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the word for barnacles is k̕wit̕a̱'a — and if it is a very small barnacle it is called t̕sot̕soma — and the Kwak'wala word for glue is ḵ̕wa̱dayu.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

BACK IN THE USSR: KEPPLERITES

This glorious chocolate block contains the creamy grey ammonite Kepplerites gowerianus (Sowerby 1827) with a few invertebrate friends, including two brachiopods: Ivanoviella sp., Zeilleria sp. and the deep brown gastropod Bathrotomaria sp. There is also a wee bit of petrified wood on the backside.

These beauties hail from Jurassic, Lower Callovian outcrops in the Quarry of Kursk Magnetic Anomaly (51.25361,37.66944), Kursk region, Russia. Diameter ammonite 70мм. 

In the mid-1980s, during the expansion and development of one of the quarries, an unusual geological formation was found. This area had been part of the seafloor around an ancient island surrounded by Jurassic Seas. 

The outcrops of this geological formation turned out to be very rich in marine fossil fauna. This ammonite block was found there years ago by the deeply awesome Emil Black. 

In more recent years, the site has been closed to fossil collecting and is in use solely for the processing and extraction of iron ore deposits. Kursk Oblast is one of Russia's major producers of iron ore. The area of the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly has one of the richest iron-ore deposits in the world. Rare Earth minerals and base metals also occur in commercial quantities in several locations. Refractory loam, mineral sands, and chalk are quarried and processed in the region. 

The Kursk Magnetic Anomaly Quarry is not far from the Sekmenevsk Formation or Sekmenevska Svita in Russian, a Cretaceous (Albian to Cenomanian) terrestrial geologic formation where Pterosaur fossils have been found in the sandstones. 

If you head there for a visit, be sure to check out the Sekmenevska Svita and Oblast's artesian-well water — most refreshing!

Monday, 22 November 2021

EUSTHENOPTERON OF MIGUASHA

Eusthenopteron is a genus of prehistoric sarcopterygian (lobe-finned fish) with a close relationship to our dear tetrapods.

The fellow you see here was a fish but with aspirations to be so much more

Eusthenopteron gets his name from the Greek. I cannot think of this genus without picturing the Marvel Universe character Thanos, the genocidal warlord from Titan. While Eusthenopteron were ambitious they were not crazy kill half the Universe ambitious. Instead, they deserve the brouhaha surrounding them because they were the beginnings of an evolutionary push to move from water onto land. 

Their name derives from two Greek stems — eustheno or strength and pteron or wing — thus strongly developed fins. Early depictions of Eusthenopteron show them emerging onto land but this is a bit of fancy. They were strictly aquatic animals. 

Eusthenopteron is known from several species that lived during the Late Devonian, 385 million years ago, and was first described by J. F. Whiteaves in 1881, as part of a large collection of fishes from Miguasha, Quebec. 

While specimens like E. watsoni are very rare, Eusthenopteron fossils are a dime a dozen. More than 2,000 specimens have been collected from the outcrops at Miguasha, one of which was the object of intense study and several papers from the 1940s through to the 1990s by paleoichthyologist Erik Jarvik.

Photo: By Ghedoghedo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6683693

Sunday, 21 November 2021

MIGUASHA BOTHRIOLEPIS CANADENSIS

Bothriolepis canadensis
A stunning replica of Bothriolepis canadensis from Upper Devonian (Frasnian), Escuminac formation, Parc de Miguasha, Baie des Chaleurs, Gaspé, Québec, Canada.

Bothriolepis was found and originally described by geologist Abraham Gesner in 1842 as "a tortoise with fossil foot-marks." He was wrong, of course, but these placoderm fish in the order Antiarchi do bear a superficial resemblance to turtles.

For nearly two centuries, the Late Devonian Miguasha biota from eastern Canada has offered up a near-complete brackish water community — 20 species of lower vertebrates — anaspids, osteostra-cans, placoderms, acanthodians, actinopterygians and sarcopterygians — a limited invertebrate assemblage, and terrestrial plants and arthropods — scorpions and millipedes.

Originally interpreted as a freshwater lacustrine environment, recent paleontological, taphonomic, sedimentological and geochemical evidence corroborates a brackish estuarine setting. 

Over 18,000 fish specimens have been recovered from the rock lain down in these brackish waters. They show various modes of fossilization, including uncompressed material and soft-tissue preservation. 

Most vertebrates are known from numerous, complete, articulated specimens. Exceptionally well-preserved larval and juvenile specimens have been identified for fourteen out of the twenty species of fishes, allowing growth studies. 

Numerous horizons within the Escuminac Formation are now interpreted as either Konservat or Konzentrat–Lagerstätten. 

The fine replica above was purchased at the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, Miguasha (MHNM) and is in the collection of the deeply awesome — and well-travelled — John Fam, Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Paleontological Society.

Great Canadian Lagerstätten 4. The Devonian Miguasha Biota (Québec): UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Time Capsule in the Early History of Vertebrates, Richard Cloutier, Département de Biologie, Chimie et Géographie, Université du Québec à Rimouski, 300 allée des Ursulines, Rimouski, QC, Canada, G5L 3A1, richard_cloutier@uqar.ca, http://dx.doi.org/10.12789/geocanj.2013.40.008

Image: Restoration of the upper and underside of B. canadensis. By Unknown author - Popular Science Monthly Volume 82, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20672589

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

UPPER CRETACEOUS TOOTHED BIRDS IN SOUTH AMERICA

70-Million-Year-Old Toothed Enantiornithes Bird Beak
Teeth and jaws, beaks and claws — all species adapt and change over time based on survival. One of the key features of being alive is needing to eat. Depending on what is on the menu, we adapt accordingly. 

I had been thinking about this from a very mammal-centric perspective, but it is true for all animals — birds included.

When we think of our feathered friends, we think of beaks and feathers. True, birds descend from the mighty lineage of dinosaurs, but our experience of them is of their modern forms. 

This modern viewpoint of their characteristics makes beaks with teeth seemingly more fantasy than reality — except this has not always been the case. 70 million years ago, birds flying our Cretaceous skies in what would become South America, Europe and Asia had teeth embedded in their beaks.

The discovery of polyphyodonty and dental replacement in toothed stem birds dates back to the nineteenth century. Marsh reported replacement teeth inside resorption pits in the Late Cretaceous Hesperornis and Ichthyornis.

Enantiornithine Birds & Cladogram
The birds that inhabit the current biomes do not have teeth, but the primitive birds found as fossils in the Upper Cretaceous of Brazil certainly did. 

These ancient relatives to our modern fauna had teeth embedded in their jaw-beaks, clawed fingers and a long tail. 

Both these ancient birds and their modern cousins are descended from the dinosaurs, more specifically the Maniraptora, that clade of coelurosaurian dinosaurs characterized by long arms and three-fingered hands — reduced or fused in some lineages — and semi-lunate or half-moon shaped bone in their wrists you will know as the carpus. 

As with all the dinosaurs in this clad, they had teeth and lots of them.

William Nava, head of the Marília Museum of Paleontology, São Paulo, Brazil, uncovered an outcrop in the city of Presidente Prudente with abundant fossilized bird bones. 

Bird bones are a rare thing as they are delicate, often scavenged before burial and hollow, making them poor candidates for preservation. While bird bones preserved as fossils are generally rare, this was not the case at William's Quarry. The site was a smorgasbord of bones from a number of primitive bird species that lived at the end of the Cretaceous. 

The birds belong to the group of Enantiornithes who looked very much like our modern birds on the outside, but internally they had clawed fingers on each wing and teeth which they replaced in a similar fashion to most reptiles. 

Two other sites have exceptionally preserved Enantiornithes bones. Since most Enantiornithes bones are fragmentary, some species are only known from a piece of a single bone. We are luckier at some sites than others. Almost all complete, fully articulated fossil specimens with soft tissue preserved were known from Las Hoyas in Cuenca, Spain and the Jehol group in Liaoning, China. But the fossil outcrops in the Adamantina Formation, Bauru Group of Brazil can now be added to that very short list.  

If you fancy a read, check out their publication, Dental replacement in Mesozoic birds: evidence from newly discovered Brazilian enantiornithines.” The team included Yun-Hsin Wu and Luis M. Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, David J. Bottjer of the University of Southern California, William Nava from the Marília Museum of Paleontology, and Agustín G. Martinelli from the Vertebrate Paleontology Section of the Bernardino Rivadavia Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences.

Publication link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-98335-8

Images: Photographs of the enantiornithine specimens MPM-90, MPM-373, and MPM-351, and a simplified cladogram highlighting the stem avian taxa discussed in this study. MPM-373: (a) dorsal view; (b) right lateral view; (c) left lateral view. MPM-90: (d) dorsal view; (e) right lateral view. MPM-351: (f) left lateral view. En external nares, Fp frontal process. With an embedded illustration of a reconstruction of Sinornis santensis by McBlackneck. There is some mice type used so feel free to click the image to see if full size.

The studied specimens consist of two sets of premaxillae (MPM-90 and MPM-373) and an incomplete left dentary (MPM-351) exquisitely preserved in three dimensions. These specimens are housed at the Museu de Paleontologia de Marília (MPM), São Paulo State, Brazil.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT... OR CAN DIGEST


The old adage, you are what you eat, might be best amended to you are what you can digest. 

For all the mammals, you and I included, we need the amylase gene (AMY). It codes for a starch-digesting enzyme needed to break down the vegetation we eat. 

Humans, dogs and mice have record numbers of the amylase gene. The AMY gene copy number increases in mammal populations where starch-based foods are more abundant. Think toast and jam versus raw chicken.

A good example of this is seen when we compare wolves living in the wild to dogs from agricultural societies. Dogs split off the lineage from wolves around 30,000–40,000 years ago. 

Domesticated dogs have extra copies of amylase and other genes involved in starch digestion that contribute to an increased ability to thrive on a starch-rich diet, allowing Fido to make the most of those table scraps. Similar to humans, some dog breeds produce amylase in their saliva, a clear marker of a high starch diet. So do mice, rats, and pigs, as expected as they live in concert with humans. Curiously, so do some New World monkeys, boars, deer mice, woodrats, and giant African pouched rats. 

More like cats and less like other omnivores, dogs can only produce bile acid with taurine and they cannot produce vitamin D, which they obtain from animal flesh. Also, more like cats, dogs require arginine to maintain their nitrogen balance. These nutritional requirements place dogs halfway between carnivores and omnivores.

The amount of AMY and starch in the diet varies among subspecies, and sometimes even amongst geographically distinct populations of the same species. I was at a talk recently given by Alaskan wolf researchers who shared that two individual packs of wolves separated by less than a kilometre ate vastly different diets. This had me thinking about what we eat and it is mostly driven by what is on offer. 

Diet impacts our genetics and this, in turn, allows the fittest to eat, digest and survive. While wolves win the carnivore contest, they will still eat opportunistically and that includes vegetation when other food is scarce. Would they evolve similar levels of AMY as humans, dogs and mice? Maybe if their diets evolved to be similar. Likely. The choice would be that or starvation.

The evolution of amylase in other domesticated or human commensal mammals remains an alluring area of inquiry.

Reference: 

Amylase in Dietary Food Preferences in Mammals: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6516957/

Monday, 15 November 2021

BLADDER-BEARERS: HOODED SEALS

If you frequent the eastern coast of North America north of Maine to the western tip of Europe, along the coast of Norway near Svalbard you may have glimpsed one of their chubby, dark silver-grey and white residents. 

Hooded seals, Cystophora cristata, are large phocid seals in the family Phocidae, who live in some of the chilliest places on Earth, from 47° to 80° N in latitude. 

These skilled divers are mainly concentrated around Bear Island, Norway, Iceland, and northeast Greenland. 

In rare cases, we find them in the icy waters in Siberia. They usually dive depths of 600 m (1,968 ft) in search of fishy treats but can go as deep as 1000 m (3,280 ft) when needed. That is deep into the cold, dark depths of our oceans. Sunlight entering the sea may travel as deep as 1,000 m (3,280 ft) under the right conditions, but there is rarely any significant light beyond 200 meters (656 ft). This is the dark zone and the place we find our bioluminescent friends. 

Hooded seals have a sparse fossil record. One of the first fossils found was a Pliocene specimen from Anvers, Belgium discovered in 1876. In 1983 a paper was published claiming there were some fossils found in North America thought to be from Cystophora cristata. Of the three accounts, the most creditable discovery was from a sewer excavation in Maine, the northeasternmost U.S. state, known for its rocky coastline, maritime history and nature areas like the granite and spruce islands of Acadia National Park. A scapula and humeri were found among other bones and thought to date to the post-Pleistocene. 

Of two other accounts, one was later reassigned to another species and the other left unsolved. (Folkow, et al., 2008; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986; Ray, 1983)

The seals are typically silver-grey or white in colour, with black spots that vary in size covering most of the body. 

Hooded seal pups are known as, Blue-backs as their coats are blue-grey on the back with whitish bellies, though this coat is shed after 14 months of age when the pups moult.

FIRST NATION, INUIT, METIS, MI'KMAQ L'NU

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, seal are known as migwat — and fur seals are known as x̱a'wa.

Hooded seals live primarily on drifting pack ice and in deep water in the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic. Although some drift away to warmer regions during the year their best survival rate is in colder climates. They can be found on four distinct areas with pack ice: near Jan Mayen Island, northeast of Iceland; off Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland; the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and the Davis Strait, off midwestern Greenland. 

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is home to the Inuit, the Innu, the Mi'kmaq L'nu and the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut, formerly the Labrador Inuit-Metis. The Hooded Seals that visit their traditional territory were a welcome source of food and clothing. In Mi'kmaw, the language spoken in Mi'kma'ki, the territory of the Mi'kmaq L'nu, the word for seal is waspu.

HOODED SEAL HABITAT

Males are localized around areas of complex seabeds, such as Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Flemish Cap. Females concentrate their habitat efforts primarily on shelf areas, such as the Labrador Shelf. 

Females reach the age of sexual maturity between two and nine years old and it is estimated that most females give birth to their first young at around five years of age. Males reach sexual maturity a little later around four to six years old but often do not mate until much later. Females give birth to one young at a time through March and April. The gestation period is 240 to 250 days. 

Blue-back, Hooded Seal Pup
During this time the fetus, unlike those of other seals, sheds its lanugo — a covering of fine soft hair that is replaced by thicker pelage — in the uterus. 

These young are precocious and at birth are able to move about and swim with ease. They are independent and left to fend for themselves immediately after they have been weaned.

Hooded seals are known to be a highly migratory species that often wander long distances, as far west as Alaska and as far south as the Canary Islands and Guadeloupe. 

Prior to the mid-1990s, hooded seal sightings in Maine and the east Atlantic were rare but began increasing in the mid-1990s. From January 1997 to December 1999, a total of 84 recorded sightings of hooded seals occurred in the Gulf of Maine, one in France and one in Portugal. 

From 1996 to 2006, five strandings and sightings were noted near the Spanish coasts in the Mediterranean Sea. There is no scientific explanation for the increase in sightings and range of the hooded seal.

Cystophora means "bladder-bearer" in Greek and pays homage to this species' inflatable bladder septum on the heads of adult males. The bladder hangs between the eyes and down over the upper lip in a deflated state. 

The hooded seal can inflate a large balloon-like sac from one of its nostrils. This is done by shutting one nostril valve and inflating a membrane, which then protrudes from the other nostril. 

I was thinking of Hooded seals when contemplating the nasal bladders of Prosaurolophus maximum, large-headed duckbill dinosaurs, or hadrosaurid, in the ornithischian family Hadrosauridae. Perhaps both species used these bladders in a similar manner — to warn predators and attract mates.

Hooded seals are known for their uniquely elastic nasal cavity located at the top of their head, also known as the hood. Only males possess this display-worthy nasal sac, which they begin to develop around the age of four. The hood begins to inflate as the seal makes its initial breath prior to going underwater. It then begins to repetitively deflate and inflate as the seal is swimming. 

The purpose of this is acoustic signalling. It occurs when the seal feels threatened and attempt to ward off hostile species when competing for resources such as food and shelter. It also serves to communicate their health and superior status to both other males and females they are attempting to attract. 

In sexually mature males, a pinkish balloon-like nasal membrane comes out of the left nostril to further aid it in attracting a mate. This membrane, when shaken, is able to produce various sounds and calls depending on whether the seal is underwater or on land. Most of these acoustic signals are used in an acoustic situation (about 79%), while about 12% of the signals are used for sexual purposes.

References: Ray, C. 1983. Hooded Seal, Cystophora cristata: Supposed Fossil Records in North America. American Society of Mammalogists, Vol. 64 No. 3: 509-512; Cystophora cristata, Hooded Seal", 2007; "Seal Conservation Society", 2001; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986.

Mi'kmaq Online Dictionary: https://www.mikmaqonline.org/servlet/dictionaryFrameSet.html?method=showCategory&arg0=animal

Saturday, 13 November 2021

ECHIDNA: MONOTREMES

This little chocolate nugget with his impressive claws is an Echidna. They are curious egg-laying mammals from Australia and Papua New Guinea. 

They have spines like hedgehogs and they are sometimes called spiny anteaters because they feed on ants, termites, earthworms and other burrowing prey with their long, tube-like tiny mouths, toothless jaws and sticky tongue. 

Their spines are golden brown to black for the most part, although a few albino echidnas have been found with pink eyes and white spines. These solitary mammals have mammary glands — and lay eggs.

To help them search for their prey in the soil, Echidnas are equipped with electroreceptors in their beaks which is similar to platypuses and this is not a coincidence. 

Even though echidnas are land animals, they evolved from amphibious ancestors similar to platypuses. They now have strong limbs and claws for digging and just by looking at them, it would be hard to figure out that their ancestors were not fully land animals. 

There is even more to it because mammals evolved from fish that have swim bladders homologous with lungs. They evolved these swim bladders because the ancestors of all fish, except cartilaginous fish, lived either in a shallow aquatic environment, periodically drying lake or swampy water, poor in oxygen. 

Fish evolved into amphibians and conquered land. These amphibious animals evolved the ability to lay eggs in a dry environment and eventually evolved into monotreme mammals which at first were land animals but they adapted to an amphibious lifestyle again, like platypuses. 

Echidnas made another full circle by evolving adaptations to land habitat and abandoned the aquatic habitat again.

Echidnas and platypus are the only egg-laying mammals, known as monotremes. These spiky cuties live about 15-16 years in the wild but have been reported to live as long as 50 years under the right conditions. If you see one in the wild, you can determine the sex by size (of the adults) with males being 25% larger than the females on average. Fully grown a female can weigh up to 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lbs) and a male can weigh up to 6 kilograms (13.2 lbs). 

Friday, 12 November 2021

APATOSAURUS: PLANT-EATING GIANTS

Apatosaurus, one of the largest animals to ever live
Apatosaurus was one of the largest animals to ever live on our planet. Picture this fellow at over 22 metres (75 feet) long and over 22,679 kg (50,000 lbs). 

That's about two-and-a-half times as long as a London bus and two-and-a-half times as heavy as a Tyrannosaurus rex

Given their large size, these big boys did not have to worry about most predators. It would take a posse of large apex predators like the large carnosaurian theropod dinosaur Allosaurus to take down a full-grown Apatosaurus

Their young would be vulnerable and their eggs even more so, but my money would be on the large Apatosaurus defending the smaller members of their family groups against these risks.

This sauropod had a really long neck and whip-like tail and a teeny, tiny head. These massive beasts liked to dine on vegetation and foliage at the tops of the tree canopies.

Othniel Charles Marsh (of Cope & Marsh fame) first described the Apatosaurus in 1877, giving it the name Apatosaurus ajax. There are two recognized species of Apatosaurus, the Apatosaurus ajax (the type species) and Apatosaurus louisae who lived in North America during the Late Jurassic — 152 million years ago.


Thursday, 11 November 2021

CADOCHAMOUSSETIA SUBPATRUUS

Cadochamoussetia subpatruus (Nikitin 1885)
I have a thing for chunky ammonites and find their inflated shapes very pleasing. 

This lovely chunky macroconch is the female of the species Cadochamoussetia subpatruus (Nikitin 1885). 

She hails from the Middle Jurassic, Lower Callovian, Elatmae zone, Subpatruus subzone in a clay mining quarry near Uzhovka 2, in the Pochinoksky district of Nizhny of the Novgorod region of western Russia. 

This specimen has signs of intravital damage (i.e., damage that did not immediately lead to death) on the edge of her shell. 

We see this type of non-lethal damage recorded on the shells of ammonites and other marine goodies in the fossil record. These telltale bits of evidence for challenges to the species while living are recorded and preserved long before the burial event. We see similar signs of damage on the shells of modern Nautilus. 

These lesions resemble frequently bitten edges. Perhaps damage from predation or the result of bashing up against something solid on the seafloor. There is a wee bit more damage on the mouth of the shell. Where the shell should have stopped growing upon the ammonite reaching puberty, the growth continues for another 5 cm of thinly laminated shell — perhaps signalling physicochemical impact or shortage of resources for the ongoing construction of the usual thickness. This photo is courtesy of the deeply awesome Emil Black.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

CADOCHAMOUSSETIA: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

From Russia with love. This lovely inflated ammonite is the female macroconch, Cadochamoussetia tschernyschewi (Sokolov, 1912) from the Jurassic, Lower Callovian, Elatmae Zone, Subpatruus Subzone, Stupachenkoi Horizon, Unzha River, Makarev-Manturovo, Kostroma Region, Russia.

This beautiful — fully Бомба — specimen is courtesy of Emil Black and one of the finest in his collection. 

It has a chunkiness that reminds me of the Cadoceras we find in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the macroconch Cadoceras comma from the Callovian Mysterious Creek Formation near Harrison Lake in British Columbia.

In the last decade, the Siberian zonal scale of the Callovian has been considerably revised because of new ammonite collections from the Callovian reference sections in Siberia. Species of Cadoceratinae thought of as exclusively European were recorded for the first time in Siberia. 

Both these newly recovered specimens and recent studies have considerably expanded our knowledge on the taxonomic composition of genera and species of Callovian ammonites and revision of the generic classification and stratigraphic position of genera and species of the family Cardioceratidae. The proposed Lower Callovian ammonite scale largely coincides with the East European scale and correlates with the scales of East Greenland, Arctic Canada, and Alaska (Kniazev et al., 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015; Nikitenko et al., 2013).

Jurassic deposits crop out on the right bank of the
Anabar River between the mouths of the Srednyaya
and Sodiemykha rivers, over a length of about 24 km.

During recent fieldwork at the Middle-Upper Jurassic of the Anabar River basin, a lovely representative ammonite collection was assembled, amongst which was the Early Callovian genus Cadochamoussetia (Mitta, 1996). 

Cadochamoussetia is widespread in East European sections but these beauties were the first recorded specimen of this chunky species from the Anabar.

The genus Cadochamoussetia (Mitta, 1996) was established in European Russian (Gerasimov et al., 1996) and later in England (Navarro et al., 2005).

In the lower Callovian of European Russia, beds with Cadochamoussetia were originally considered part of the Cadochamoussetia subpatruus upper subzone of the Cadoceras elatmae Zone (Mitta, 2000). 

In 2005 and 2009, proposals were made to move these beds from subzone to zone (Gulyaev, 2005, 2009). However, the Unified Regional Stratigraphic Scheme of Jurassic Deposits of the East European Platform (2012), suggested it remained a subzone. The Anabar section contains two species of Сadochamoussetia, which were used as the basis of the Сadochamoussetia tschernyschewi Zone.

In previous papers (Kniazev et al., 2010), considered the composition of the genus Cadoceras as it was interpreted in (Treatise, 1957). 

Several groups of species are now recognized within the genus: Cadoceras elatmae group, including C. frearsi, C. harveyi, C. sublaeve, including species widespread in the Arctic C. tolype, C. emelianzevi, C. septentrionale, C. durum, etc. 

Kniazev et al. proposed assigning a group of Bathonian species Catacadoceras laptievi, C. barnstoni, C. perrarum, C. subcatastoma, and C. nageli.

Photos: Cadochamoussetia tschernyschewi (12 cm) graciously shared by the deeply awesome of Emil Black. He has shared many wonderful specimen photos and stories with me over the years and I am honoured by his generosity in doing so. It is because of him that I am able to share these with all of you! So a collective, Спасибо, мой друг. Spasibo, moy drug. 

I have placed views of this lovely Cadochamoussetia tschernyschewi into a teaching tool that includes the specimen name, length and provenance.

References:
  • The Early Callovian genus Сadochamoussetia (Ammonoidea, Cardioceratidae) in the lower reaches of the Anabar River, Northern Central Siberia; Original Russian Text © V.G. Kniazev, S.V. Meledina, A.S. Alifirov, B.L. Nikitenko, 2017, published in Stratigrafiya, Geologicheskaya Korrelyatsiya, 2017, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 26–41.
  • Kniazev, V.G., Meledina, S.V., Alifirirov, A.S., and Kutygin, R.V., The Middle Callovian stage of evlution of Siberian cardioceratids, in Sovremennye problemy izucheniya golovonogikh mollyuskov. Morfologiya, sistematika, evolyutsiya, ekologiya i biostratigrafiya. Vyp. 4 (Current Problems in Study of Cephalopods: Morphology, Systematics, Evolution, Ecology, and Biostratigraphy. Iss. 4), Moscow: Paleontol. Inst. Ross. Akad. Nauk, 2015, pp. 40–45.
  • Meledina, S.V, Correlation of the Bajocian and Bathonian zones in light of new paleontological data, Stratigr. Geol. Correl., 2014, vol. 22, no. 6, pp. 594–605.
  • Kniazev, V.G., Meledina, S.V., Alifirirov, A.S., and Kutygin, R.V., The Middle Callovian stage of evlution of Siberian cardioceratids, in Sovremennye problemy izucheniya golovonogikh mollyuskov. Morfologiya, sistematika, evolyutsiya, ekologiya i biostratigrafiya. Vyp. 
  • If you do not speak Russian that roughly translates to: Current Problems in Study of Cephalopods: Morphology, Systematics, Evolution, Ecology, and Biostratigraphy. Iss. 4, Moscow: Paleontol. Inst. Ross. Akad. Nauk, 2015, pp. 40–45.
  • Meledina, S.V, Correlation of the Bajocian and Bathonian zones in light of new paleontological data, Stratigr. Geol. Correl., 2014, vol. 22, no. 6, pp. 594–605.
  • Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Pt. L. Mollusca 4, Cephalopoda, Ammonoidea, N.Y. Lawrence: Geol. Soc. Amer., Univ. Kansas Press, 1957, vol. 4. TSCreatorProvisualization of Enhanced Geologic Time Scale 2004 database (Vers. 6.2, 2014). http://www.tscreator. org, 2014.
  • Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Pt. L. Mollusca 4, Cephalopoda, Ammonoidea, N.Y. Lawrence: Geol. Soc. Amer., Univ. Kansas Press, 1957, vol. 4. TSCreatorProvisualization of Enhanced Geologic Time Scale 2004 database (Vers. 6.2, 2014). http://www.tscreator. org, 2014.

Monday, 8 November 2021

TRACKING THEROPODS HIGH IN THE PERUVIAN ANDES

Left, right, one, two... Theropod Tracks
Left, right, one, two... the wonderfully preserved theropod trackway you see here was found by eagle-eyed construction workers blasting out a tunnel for a road near Yanashallash in the Chavin de Huantar region of Peru. 

You would be surprised how many fossils have been found this way!

The footprints are trace fossils from a big fellow who marched through here back in the Cretaceous. The inflated rust coloured prints were found alongside the fossil crocodile, pterosaurs, primitive tortoise and fish.

Antamina Mining and the Asociacion Ancash have provided funding to turn this remarkable find into an educational exhibit with a research team led by palaeontologist Carlos Vildoso. 

Vildoso along with palaeontologist Patricia Sciammaro (the two are married) founded the Instituto Peruano de Estudios en Paleovertebrados (IPEP) is a non-profit, non-government institution. Their centre focuses on vertebrate palaeontology. Over the years they have built an enviable database of significant Peruvian fossil sites and publish Contribuciones Paleontológicas, a quarterly journal devoted to vertebrate palaeontology. Chévere!

Sunday, 7 November 2021

BOWRON LAKE CIRCUIT: ART OF THE PORTAGE

A cool morning breeze keeps the mosquitoes down as we pack our kayaks and gear for today’s paddling journey. 

It is day four of our holiday, with two days driving up from Vancouver to Cache Creek, past the Eocene insect and plant site at McAbee, the well-bedded Permian limestone near Marble Canyon and onto Bowron Provincial Park, a geologic gem near the gold rush town of Barkerville. 

The initial draw for me, given that collecting in a provincial park is forbidden and all collecting close at hand outside the park appears to amount to a handful of crushed crinoid bits and a few conodonts, was the gorgeous natural scenery and a broad range of species extant. 

It was also the proposition of padding the Bowron Canoe Circuit, a 149,207-hectare geologic wonderland, where a fortuitous combination of plate tectonics and glacial erosion have carved an unusual 116-kilometre near-continuous rectangular circuit of lakes, streams and rivers bound on all sides by snowcapped mountains. 

From all descriptions, something like heaven. 

The east and south sides of the route are bound by the imposing white peaks of the Cariboo Mountains, the northern boundary of the Interior wet belt, rising up across the Rocky Mountain Trench, and the Isaac Formation, the oldest of seven formations that make up the Cariboo Group (Struik, 1988). 

Some 270 million-plus years ago, had one wanted to buy waterfront property in what is now British Columbia, you’d be looking somewhere between Prince George and the Alberta border. The rest of the province had yet to arrive but would be made up of over twenty major terranes from around the Pacific. 

The rock that would eventually become the Cariboo Mountains and form the lakes and valleys of Bowron was far out in the Pacific Ocean, down near the equator. 

With tectonic shifting, these rocks drifted north-eastward, riding their continental plate, until they collided with and joined the Cordillera in what is now British Columbia. Continued pressure and volcanic activity helped create the tremendous slopes of the Cariboo Range we see today with repeated bouts of glaciation during the Pleistocene carving their final shape. 

We brace our way into a headwind along the east side of the fjord-like Isaac Lake. Paddling in time to the wind, I soak up the view of this vast, deep green, ocean-like expanse that runs L-shape for nearly 38 kilometres, forming nearly half of the total circuit. 

The rock we paddle past is primarily calcareous phyllite, limestone and quartzite, typical of the type locality for this group and considered upper Proterozoic (Young, 1969), the time in our geologic history between the first algae and the first multicellular animals.

It is striking how much this lake fits exactly how you might picture pristine wilderness paddling in your mind’s eye. No powerboats, no city hum, just pure silence, broken only by the sound of my paddle pulling through the water and the occasional burst of glee from one of the park’s many songbirds. 

We have chosen kayaks over the more-popular canoes for this journey, as I got to experience my first taste of the handling capabilities of a canoe last year in Valhalla Provincial Park. The raised sides acted like sails and kept us off course in all but the lightest conditions. 

This year, Philip Torrens, Leanne Sylvest, and I were making our trek in low profile, Kevlar style. 

One single & one double kayak would be our faithful companions and mode of transport. They would also be briefly conscripted into service as a bear shield later in the trip. Versatile those kayaks. 

The area is home to a variety of plant life. Large sections of the forest floor are carpeted in the green and white of dogwood, a prolific ground cover we are lucky enough to see in full bloom. Moss, mushrooms and small wild grown on every available surface. 

Yellow Lilies line pathways and float in the cold, clear lake water. Somewhere I read a suggestion to bring a bathing suit to the park, but at the moment, I cannot imagine lowering anything more than my paddle into these icy waters. To reach the west side of the paddling route, we must first face several kilometres portaging muddy trails to meet up with the Isaac River and then paddle rapids to grade two. 

At the launch site, we meet up with two fellow kayakers, Adele and Mary of Victoria, and take advantage of their preceding us to watch the path they choose through the rapids. It has been raining in the area for forty plus days, so the water they run is high and fast. Hot on their heels, our short, thrilling ride along the Isaac River, is a flurry of paddle spray and playing around amid all the stumps, silt and conglomerate. 

The accommodation gods smile kindly on us as we are pushed out from Isaac River and settle into McLeary Lake. An old trapper cabin built by local Freddie Becker back in the 1930s, sits vacant and inviting, providing a welcome place to hang our hats and dry out. 

From here we can see several moose, large, lumbering, peaceful animals, the largest members of the deer family, feeding on the grass-like sedge on the far shore. 

The next morning, we paddle leisurely down the slower, silt-laden Cariboo River, avoiding the occasional deadhead, and make our way into the milky, glacier-fed Lanezi Lake. Like most mountainous areas, Bowron makes its own weather system and it appears you get everything in a 24-hour period. 

In fact, whatever weather you are enjoying seems to change 40 minutes later; good for rain, bad for sun. Wisps of cloud that seemed light and airy only hours early have become dark. Careful to hug the shore, we are ready for a quick escape from lightning as thundershowers break. 

Paddling in the rain, I notice bits of mica in the water, playing in the light and the rock change here to greywacke, argillite, phyllite and schist. Past Lanezi, we continue onto Sandy Lake, where old-growth cedars line the south-facing slopes to our left and grey limestone, shale and dolostone line the shore. Mottled in with the rock, we sneak up on very convincing stumps posing as large mammals. 

Picking up the Cariboo River again, we follow it as it flows into Babcock Lake, an area edged with Lower Cambrian limestone, shale and argillite. At the time these rocks were laid down, the Earth was seeing our earliest relatives, the first chordates entering the geologic scene. 

Mamma Moose, Baby Moose... Grizzly!
As we reach the end of Babcock Lake and prepare for our next portage I get out my camera to take advantage of the angle of the sun and the eroded rounded hilltops of the Quesnel Highlands that stand as a backdrop.

Leanne remarks that she can see a moose a little ways off and that it appeared to be heading our way. 

Yes, heading our way quickly with her calf in tow. I lift my lens to immortalize the moment and we three realized they were headed our way in double time because they were being chased by a grizzly bear — at top speed. 

A full-grown moose can run up to fifty-five kilometres per hour, more or less neck and neck with the speed of a Grizzly. They are also strong swimmers. Had she been alone, Mamma moose would likely have tried to outswim the bear. 

From where we stand we can see the water turned to white foam at their feet as they fly towards us. 

We freeze bear spray in hand. 

In seconds the three were upon us. Mamma moose, using home-field advantage, runs straight for us and just reaching our boats, turned 90 degrees, bolting for the woods, baby moose fast on her heels. 

The Grizzly, caught up in the froth of running and thrill of the kill, doesn’t notice the deke, hits the brakes at the boats and stands up, confused. Her eyes give her away. 

This was not what she had planned and the whole moose-suddenly-transformed-into-human thing is giving her pause. Her head tilts back as she gets a good smell of us. 

Suddenly, a crack in the woods catches her attention. Her head snaps around and she drops back on all fours, beginning her chase anew. Somewhere there is a terrified mother moose and calf hoping the distance gained is enough to keep them from being lunch. Both moose got away with the unwitting distraction we provided. 

The Lakes are at an elevation of over 900 m (3000 ft) and both grizzly and black bear sightings are common. Both bear families descend from a common ancestor, Ursavus, a bear-dog the size of a raccoon who lived more than 20 million years ago. Seems an implausible lineage having just met one of the larger descendants.

While we had grumbled only hours earlier about how tired we were feeling, we now feel quite motivated and do the next two portages and lakes in good time. Aside from the gripping fear that another bear encounter is imminent, we enjoy the park-like setting, careful to scan the stands of birch trees for dark shapes now posing as stumps. Fortunately, the only wildlife we see are a few wily chipmunks, various reticent warblers and some equally shy spruce grouse. 

The wind favours us now as we paddle Skoi and Spectacle Lake, even giving us a chance to use the sails we’ve rigged to add an extra knot of oomph to our efforts. Reaching the golden land of safety-in-numbers, we leap from our kayaks, happy to see the smiling faces of Mary and Adele. Making it here is doubly thrilling because it means I’m sleeping indoors tonight and I can tell the bear story with adrenaline still pumping through my veins. Tonight is all about camaraderie and the warmth of a campfire. 

Gobbling down Philip’s famous pizza, Leanne impresses everyone further by telling of his adventures in the arctic and surviving a polar bear attack. This is our first starlit night without rain, a luxury everyone comments on, but quietly, not wanting to jinx it. We share a good laugh at the expense of the local common loons — both Homeo sapien sapien and Gavia immer

Common Loon / Gavia immer
The marshy areas of the circuit provide a wonderful habitat for the regions many birds including a host of sleek, almost regal black and white common loons. 

Their cool demeanour by day is reduced to surprisingly loud, maniacal hoots and yelps with undignified flapping and flailing by night. 

It seems hardly possible that these awful noises could be coming from the same birds and that this has been going for nearly 65 million years, since the end of the age of dinosaurs, as loons are one of the oldest bird families in the fossil record. 

A guitar is pulled out to liven the quiet night while small offerings, sacred and scare this late in our journey, are passed around. Tonight is a celebration that we have all, both separately and together, made our way around this immense mountain-edged circuit.

Know before you go

BC Parks Bowron Lake Circuit Link: https://bcparks.ca/reserve/bowron-lake/

  • Reservations may be booked up to 2 days prior to the departure date.
  • All canoe circuit users must attend a mandatory orientation session (9:00 am or 12:00 noon) and visitors must report to the registration centre by the specified time.
  • Visitors who have not attended their mandatory orientation session are considered no-shows. No-shows’ reservations will be given to first-come, first-served visitors. No refunds are granted for no-shows.
  • Bowron Lake canoe circuit paddlers are responsible for bringing or renting their own equipment (personal flotation devices, paddles, vessels etc). Reservation transactions only include your reservation charges and user (camping) fees and do not include equipment rental. Visitors must familiarize themselves with the mandatory equipment required to paddle the circuit.
  • Reservations are not transferable. Any reservation owners or holders found to be transferring or selling their reservations to another party, risk the chance that their reservation may be cancelled without a refund. If a customer can no longer use their reservation, they are encouraged to cancel their reservation so that any unused User Fees that are not forfeited as a penalty, can be automatically refunded to the credit card that was used to make the original reservation. Only the person whose name is on the reservation has access to change or cancel a reservation.
  • At least one of the reservation holders ("Occupant" or "Optional Authorized Person") must be present upon arrival and during the stay. Identification may be required to keep the reservation valid.
  • Reservations for the Bowron Lake canoe circuit are based on a non-refundable per vessel charge of $18.00 (plus tax) in addition to user fees ($60.00 per person for the full canoe circuit and $30.00 per person for the West Side). There is a limit of three (3) people per vessel.
  • Accepted payment types include Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Visa Debit, and Mastercard Debit.
  • Changes to a reservation can be made for a charge of $6.00 (plus tax), provided that space is available. No changes are permitted 28 days or less before the departure date.
  • Cancellations are subject to a $6.00 (plus tax) per cancellation charge.
  • Refunds – If a trip is cancelled more than 28 days before the departure date, customers receive a full refund less cancellation and non-refundable reservation charges. If cancellations are made with 28 or less days notice, no refunds apply. Transaction (reservation, change, cancellation) charges are non-refundable.
  • Visitors who have not attended the mandatory orientation session they registered for are considered no-shows. No-shows' reservations will be given to first-come, first-served visitors. No refunds are granted for no-shows.

Saturday, 6 November 2021

LOVE THE WILD / MOOSE: TLAWAL'S

This lovely big fella is a Moose. He is taller than most everyone you know and weighs more than your car.

You may encounter them lumbering solo along the edge of rivers and lakes, taking a refreshing swim or happily snacking on short grasses, water plants, woody shrubs and pinecones. 

You can often see them in Canada and some of the northern regions of the USA going about their business of eating and swimming. The males are called bulls and make quite a racket during mating season, also known as the Rut, using their bugle-like calls to attract a mate.

These impressive mammals are the largest living member of the deer family (Cervidae) and boast the largest set of antlers.  

The Moose you see here is a bull, a male of the species with his telltale antlers. Their impressive headgear can grow up to six feet and are used in displays of posturing, fighting or self-defence with other bulls — generally regarding a lady-moose or cow. 

Females do not have antlers but certainly, notice them. Once a mate is chosen, the new parents will produce one or two babies or calves. Fully grown, their new young will one day be able to run 55 km per hour and have excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their vision is not that good but their other senses make up for it.  

The scientific or binomial name for Moose is Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758). The word moose is borrowed from Algonquian. 

In Narragansett, moose are called moos and in Eastern Abenaki, this large mammal is called mos. Both are likely derived from moosu, meaning he strips off. The Proto-Algonquian form was mo·swa.

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, moose are known as t̕ła̱wa̱l's — and their large crown of antler are known as wa̱t'łax̱

I had a close encounter on the Bowron Lake Circuit with a mamma moose, her new calf and a fully grown Grizzly chasing them. I can share that both mother and calf outran the bear. I will share that story in tomorrow's post along with the single photo I captured during their flight.

Moose are ungulates, mammals with hooves. The first ungulates appear in the fossil record about 50 million years ago. The lineage split, evolving into two groups: those with an even number of toes (Artiodactyls) and those with an uneven number of toes (Perissodactyls). 

We see the first proto-deer about 35 million years ago. These are the proto-deer like Syndyoceras who shared features with deer, horses, giraffes and antelopes. 

They had bony skull outgrowths similar to antlers and were found in North America during the Miocene, some 35 million years ago. Ten million years later, we see the first animals you and I would recognize as deer. 

Moose first appear in the fossil record during the Upper Pleistocene, a time of global glaciation.

Today, as then, their greatest threats are carnivores. Wolves, bears, cougars and humans enjoy their protein-rich meat. Humans have a curious fascination with cutting off their heads and mounting them on the wall. I get the feeding the family thing but the head mounting fetish is peculiar. We kill another 10,000 plus of their number each year with our vehicles globally. All in all, we are not all that good to this plant-loving species. 

For all that, Moose are gentle creatures if unprovoked. They sometimes ramble into town or buildings if they lose their way. 

We find them enjoying the water from garden sprinklers, randomly making their way into homes, barns and classrooms in Canada — and likely elsewhere. It is worth doing a Google search of their antics to see all that these massive mammals get up to. 

They are smart enough to know that living in the woods in hunting season can go poorly, so Moose will gather in downtown Banff and Lake Louise, hiding in plain sight to avoid becoming someone's trophy.

Across Canada today, we live alongside 500,000 to 1,000,000 of their number. Another 200,000 or so live south of us in the northern United States. Across Europe and Asia are another million-plus of their relatives.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

ANCIENT WONDER OF THE ARBOREAL WORLD

Autumn is a wonderful time to explore Vancouver. It is a riot of yellow, orange and green. The fallen debris you crunch through send up wafts of earthy smells that whisper of decomposition, the journey from leaf to soil.

It is a wonderful time to be out and about. I do love the mountain trails but must confess to loving our cultivated gardens for their colour and variety. 

We have some lovely native plants and trees and more than a few exotics at Vancouver's arboreal trifecta — Van Dusen, Queen E Park and UBC Botanical Gardens. One of those exotics, at least exotic to me, is the lovely conifer you see here is Metasequoia glyptostroboides — the dawn redwood. 

Of this long lineage, this is the sole surviving species in the genus Metasequoia and one of three species of conifers known as redwoods. Metasequoia are the smaller cousins of the mighty Giant Sequoia, the most massive trees on Earth. 

As a group, the redwoods are impressive trees and very long-lived. The President, an ancient Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, and granddaddy to them all has lived for more than 3,200 years. While this tree is named The President, a worthy name, it doesn't really cover the magnitude of this giant by half.   

This tree was a wee seedling making its way in the soils of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California before we invented writing. It had reached full height before any of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, those remarkable constructions of classical antiquity, were even an inkling of our budding human achievements. And it has outlasted them all save the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and last of those seven still standing, though the tree has faired better. Giza still stands but the majority of the limestone façade is long gone.

Aside from their good looks (which can really only get you so far), they are resistant to fire and insects through a combined effort of bark over a foot thick, a high tannin content and minimal resin, a genius of evolutionary design. 

While individual Metasequoia live a long time, as a genus they have lived far longer. 

Like Phoenix from the Ashes, the Cretaceous (K-Pg) extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, ammonites and more than seventy-five percent of all species on the planet was their curtain call. The void left by that devastation saw the birth of this genus — and they have not changed all that much in the 65 million years since. Modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides looks pretty much identical to their late Cretaceous brethren.

Dawn Redwood Cones with scales paired in opposite rows
They are remarkably similar to and sometimes mistaken for Sequoia at first glance but are easily distinguishable if you look at their size (an obvious visual in a mature tree) or to their needles and cones in younger specimens. 

Metasequoia has paired needles that attach opposite to each other on the compound stem. Sequoia needles are offset and attached alternately. Think of the pattern as jumping versus walking with your two feet moving forward parallel to one another. 

Metasequoia needles are paired as if you were jumping forward, one print beside the other, while Sequoia needles have the one-in-front-of-the-other pattern of walking.

The seed-bearing cones of Metasequoia have a stalk at their base and the scales are arranged in paired opposite rows which you can see quite well in the visual above. Coast redwood cone scales are arranged in a spiral and lack a stalk at their base.

Although the least tall of the redwoods, it grows to an impressive sixty meters (200 feet) in height. It is sometimes called Shui-sa, or water fir by those who live in the secluded mountainous region of China where it was rediscovered.

Fossil Metasequoia, McAbee Fossil Beds
Metasequoia fossils are known from many areas in the Northern Hemisphere and were one of my first fossil finds as a teenager. 

And folk love naming them. More than twenty fossil species have been named over time —  some even identified as the genus Sequoia in error — but for all their collective efforts to beef up this genus there are just three species: Metasequoia foxii, Metasequoia milleri, and Metasequoia occidentalis.

During the Paleocene and Eocene, extensive forests of Metasequoia thrived as far north as Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island and sites on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's far north around 80° N latitude.

We find lovely examples of Metasequoia occidentalis in the Eocene outcrops at McAbee near Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada. I shared a photo here of one of those specimens. Once this piece dries out a bit, I will take a dental pick to it to reveal some of the teaser fossils peeking out.

The McAbee Fossil Beds are known for their incredible abundance, diversity and quality of fossils including lovely plant, insect and fish species that lived in an old lake bed setting. While the Metasequoia and other fossils found here are 52-53 million years old, the genus is much older. It is quite remarkable that both their fossil and extant lineage were discovered in just a few years of one another. 

Metasequoia was first described as a new genus from a fossil specimen found in 1939 and published by Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki in 1941. Remarkably, the living version of this new genus was discovered later that same year. 

Professor Zhan Wang, an official from the Bureau of Forest Research was recovering from malaria at an old school chum's home in central China. His friend told him of a stand of trees discovered in the winter of 1941 by Chinese botanist Toh Gan (干铎). The trees were not far away from where they were staying and Gan's winter visit meant he did not collect any specimen as the trees had lost their leaves. 

The locals called the trees Shui-sa, or water fir. As trees go, they were reportedly quite impressive with some growing as much as sixty feet tall. Wang was excited by the possibility of finding a new species and asked his friend to describe the trees and their needles in detail. Emboldened by the tale, Wang set off through the remote mountains to search for his mysterious trees and found them deep in the heart of  Modaoxi (磨刀溪; now renamed Moudao (谋道), in Lichuan County, in the central China province of Hubei. He found the trees and was able to collect living specimens but initially thought they were from Glyptostrobus pensilis (水松). 

A few years later, Wang showed the trees to botanist Wan-Chun Cheng and learned that these were not the leaves of s Glyptostrobus pensilis (水松 ) but belonged to a new species. 

While the find was exciting, it was overshadowed by China's ongoing conflict with the Japanese that was continuing to escalate. With war at hand, Wang's research funding and science focus needed to be set aside for another two years as he fled the bombing of Beijing. 

When you live in a world without war on home soil it is easy to forget the realities for those who grew up in it. 

Zhan Wang and his family lived to witness the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, then the 1937 clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Beijing. 

That clash sparked an all-out war that would grow in ferocity to become World War II. 

Within a year, the Chinese military situation was dire. Most of eastern China lay in Japanese hands: Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, Wuhan. As the Japanese advanced, they left a devastated population in their path where atrocity after atrocity was the norm. Many outside observers assumed that China could not hold out, and the most likely scenario was a Japanese victory over China.

Yet the Chinese hung on, and after the horrors of Pearl Harbor, the war became genuinely global. The western Allies and China were now united in their war against Japan, a conflict that would finally end on September 2, 1945, after Allied naval forces blockaded Japan and subjected the island nation to intensive bombing, including the utter devastation that was the Enola Gay's atomic payload over Hiroshima. 

With World War II behind them, the Chinese researchers were able to re-focus their energies on the sciences. Sadly, Wang was not able to join them. Instead, two of his colleagues, Wan Chun Cheng and Hu Hsen Hsu, the director of Fan Memorial Institute of Biology would continue the work. Wan-Chun Cheng sent specimens to Hu Hsen Hsu and upon examination realised they were the living version of the trees Miki had published upon in 1941. 

Hu and Cheng published a paper describing a new living species of Metasequoia in May 1948 in the Bulletin of Fan Memorial Institute of Biology.

That same year, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sent an expedition to collect seeds and, soon after, seedling trees were distributed to various universities and arboreta worldwide. 

Today, Metasequoia grow around the globe. When I see them, I think of Wang and all he went through. He survived the conflict and went on to teach other bright, young minds about the bountiful flora in China. I think of Wan Chun Cheng collaborating with Hu Hsen Hsu in a time of war and of Hu keeping up to date on scientific research, even published works from colleagues from countries with whom his country was at war. Deep in my belly, I ache for the huge cost to science, research and all the species impacted on the planet from our human conflicts. Each year in April, I plant more Metasequoia to celebrate Earth Day and all that means for every living thing on this big blue orb.  

References: 

  • https://web.stanford.edu/group/humbioresearch/cgi-bin/wordpress/?p=297
  • https://humboldtredwoods.org/redwoods