August 31, 2006

Carnival News

The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank # 61 is up on Epigenetics News. I will be hosting the 71st edition here, at The Voltage Gate on January 17th.

Carnival of the Green #42
has been up for a few days now at The Disillusioned Kid (for some reason it's not linked to me on Technorati, so I didn't see it until today).

Circus of the Spineless #12
is great as usual, especially with this neat post about ancient giant invertebrates. I signed on to host the Circus for January as well since it won't be right smack in the middle of the semester.

Last but definitely not least, Mendel's Garden #5 will be up at evolgen in a few days. The deadline for entries is tomorrow. I will be hosting the Garden as well in the middle of September.

Interviewing ID

This morning after ecology lecture, I have an interview with one of our evolutionary biology professors. While I do occasionally pop in on my profs just to chat, this interview will be slightly more focused (^^).

The evo prof in question is co-hosting the forum "Science, Religion and Intelligent Design" along with a local minister two Tuesdays from now, which gives me an opportunity to record a podcast on ID and, in my second column, discuss why exactly it is not just a benign idea and definitely not science.

It's a good segue into much of the philosophy of science stuff I want to relate this semester including the Faustian/Promethean divide, reductionism and complexity theory.

August 30, 2006

Beyond the Stink: How a Binturong Communicates

When we think of communication, foremost on our mind is our own sophisticated means of language - writing and speaking mainly - communicating ideas or concepts through our manipulation of sound and symbology.

Evolutionarily speaking, this is a recent development; there are certainly no written documents from the time of the Australpithocenes or Homo erectus, and scientists can only guess at their ability to use a complex language.

Scent marking, then, is a much more ancient, much more prevalent form of communication between animals. Even humans use scents for communicative purposes - we use perfumes to send a message to others telling of our state of cleanliness (or lack of) - however, our vocal language has largely replaced the necessity of scent communication.

The binturong, like other civets (cat-like, mostly arboreal carnivores), leaves scent markings all over tree branches, limbs and leaves during their nighttime travels through the dense rainforests of south Asia. The markings are chemical messages to other binturongs and can communicate anything from territory ownership to reproductive maturity; some may be just a simple hello.

They secrete a oily substance from a special gland located in their hind section (called simply a perineal gland - perineal refers to the region of the body more than any specific function - the groin area). The binturong has been observed dragging the gland across tree limbs and other surfaces, as well as marking singled-out "posts." When the binturong applies its olfactory message to these special surfaces, there is an equally special (quasi-ritualistic) position into which it moves (such as an inverted, "sloth-like" position for a certain diagonal limb).

The male binturong also uses its tail to sop up its own urine, another important scent messenger. Its tail assists the animal in climbing (prehensility) and is naturally involved in embracing limbs and branches for balance, so surfaces upon which the binturong climbs are automatically marked.

I think it's obvious that binturongs might not be the best choice of pet for western households.* It's frustrating enough when the housecat sprays; bints can probably do some lasting damage to your favorite rug.

But, rather than be repulsed by these creatures, it is important to recognize that they manipulate the laws of physical world to create interpretable messages for each other just as we do. I am not equating our language with theirs, but the purpose is largely the same; it is quite obvious that throughout the millenia, natural selection has valued communication - chemical and otherwise - in response to the rigors of the environment.

*In southern Asia, many people do keep binturongs as pets. They are not very aggressive animals, and are easily domesticated (mostly).


Kleiman, D.G. 1974. Scent marking in the binturong, Arctictis binturong. J. Mamml, 55:224-227.

Photo by belgianchocolate.

August 29, 2006

Studying the Gray Bat; Erudition #16

Jen has a great neat post about gray bats over at SBES:

To those of you who think bats are icky and are not necessary in the world, just consider this: one gray bat can eat 3,000 insects in one night. If there is a colony of 100,000 bats, the colony could eat 300 million insects every night! That's fantastic news for anyone who hates mosquitos and garden pests. But on a larger scale, think of how bats can help control pests that can seriously damage commercial crops. Bats help keep extremely destructive insect populations in check, helping farmers earn a living. In some areas of the country, farmers have actually attracted bats to their fields on purpose by building "bat condos" to cut down on the use of pesticides. Some organic farms actually rely on bats as part of their plan to use no pesticides at all.

August 28, 2006

First Day of the [Binturong] Semester...

and I have tons to do. Classes every other hour (9:00, 11:00, 1:00) today, a meeting with the pres at of the university at three and an editorial staff meeting tonight at seven.

I'm hoping I can find time today to start the next series of posts on the binturong, another oddity in the animal kingdom. Like the red panda, the binturong is offically classified as a carnivore, but feeds mainly on fruit.

The animals' common names also line up nicely.

Red Panda = Catbear

Binturong = Bearcat

Should be fun.

August 27, 2006

The Emerging Ancestry of the Red Panda

Until very recently, no direct ancestors of the red panda (Ailurus) were known. Most paleontologists link Ailurus with previous, raccoon-like (procyonoid) fossil animals - Cynarctis, Phlaocyon, Aletocyon - mainly by the similarities in their molars.

A closer relative was described in the 1970's, an animal 50% larger than Ailurus found in Europe and North America, appropriately named Parailurus anglicus. Researchers concluded from these fossils that the red panda's ancestry was based solely in North America:

Intermediate forms between Parailurus and Ailurus are not known. The smaller size diminished range of Ailurus suggests that it may represent a specialized offshoot of the early ailurine lineage (and possibly even of an Asian form of Parailurus) that survived the Pleistocene glaciations in the mountain refugia of southern China (Pen, 1962).

But in 2003, paleontologists in Japan found the first molar evidence of another species of Parailurus in Asia around the same time period as the European and North American fossils, complicating the ancestry of Ailurus a bit further. If the red panda's ancestors came from North America, why were fossils of another species found in Japan?

It largely depends on how you take the evidence. If the Pleistocene glaciations were indeed responsible for the spread of Parailurus throughout the northern hemisphere, then perhaps the populations were isolated during the interglacial periods and speciated.

In 2004, paleontologists working in the Gray Fossil Site in eastern Tennessee published an article about a sturdy ancestor of Ailurus dating from the late Miocene period (4.5 - 7 Ma), further evidence supporting the western world's standing as cradle for the red panda.

Pristinailurus bristoli, as the animal has come to be known, could not have fed on bamboo, as the plant is not native to North America. However, there was a species of river cane extant at the time that Pristinailurus may have eaten, and the modern red panda is known to be a bit more versatile in diet than its cousin, the giant panda.

Browse all posts about the red panda


Roberts, M.S. and J.L. Gittleman. 1984. Ailurus fulgens . Mammal Species, No. 222:1-8

Tedford, R.H., and Gustafson, R.P., 1977, First North American record of the extinct panda Parailurus: Nature , v. 265, p. 621-623.

Wallace, S.C., and Wang, X., 2004, Two new carnivores from an unusual late Tertiary forest biota in eastern North America: Nature, v. 431, no. 7008, p. 556-559.

August 26, 2006

Red Panda, Crow, Candy and Cupcakes

Heather just finished her latest painting, this one depicting a red panda's strange little birthday party.

So here it is, just as I promised. Suspicious Birthday Guest by Heather Ravenscroft:

(Click to enlarge)

I might not get to ancestry this evening, hectic day all in all.

New Post Up on FFS!

I just posted a new article at FFS! (Fighting for Science) discussing stem cells and a new technique that attempts to circumvent the moral objections by sampling single cells for culture from the blastocyst:

While I appreciate the effort - some funding is better than none - it seems like an unnecessary step. Bush’s rejection of federal funding might as well be a complete ban, and now that he has turned his first veto into a fence around this “moral boundary.” We hear statements from conservatives about how they don’t oppose ESC research, but it shouldn’t be funded federally.


This stance is the same one taken regarding climate change and conservation. They oppose the federal creation of MPG regulations and emission reduction measures. Leave it to the private sector, they say.

While the private sector surely has the power to change the perceptions of American society, I wonder if we need a little push every now and then.

FFS! is a team blog all about defending science from both the pseudosciences and politcal agendas, while providing accurate information on new research and explaining the basic tenets of science.

FFS! is still looking for science minded writers. Eric Ingram, site founder:

The goal of this website is to provide a “hip” resource to fighting bad science, pseudoscience, etc. I hope this website will encourage people to ask questions instead of indulging in free handouts.

I’d like this site to cover ALL sciences, from astronomy to zoology. I’d also like to cover current events regarding science education and what can be done to prevent the suppressing of it. This site isn’t meant to be too formal, as I want it to appeal to students. If you’re interested in helping, please leave a comment stating so. If you have a blog of your own, I still encourage you to participate. Repost your blog entries here. It would be awesome to have all disciplines in one location.

Jen from Studying Biology and Environmental Science has signed on recently, and we have gained an astrophysicist from the University of Alabama, but there are still openings for bloggers and, of course, readers.

Take a few minutes and look around; we have a great group of bloggers with varying specialties in the scientific disciplines.

August 25, 2006

Deluded Apparel: Red Panda Hats?

The traditionalist Chinese, for all their deep philosophies of unity and transcendence, sure love to slaughter rare and beautiful animals for their own vanity.

Apparently, it is still acceptable in China to give hats made from the fur of poached red pandas as traditional gifts for special occasions.

From the BBC:

Red pandas are poached for their fur or sold as pets. Red panda fur is used to make hats and clothing in China. In the past red panda hats were given as wedding presents because they were seen as good luck charms. This tradition continues in some regions.

Red panda populations can only be roughly estimated. ItÂ’s thought that there has been a 40% decrease in ChinaÂ’s red panda population during the last 50 years.

It's not only the red pandas, either. Tiger parts of all sorts - bones, internal organs and genitals - and rhino horn are used prolifically in traditional Chinese holistic medicine. Some estimate that nearly 60% of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants use these holistic medicines with some frequency.

From the WWF:

Because of their use in medicines -- along with other factors like habitat loss -- tigers have almost disappeared, with as few as 5,000 to 7,000 left in the wild. If the use of their bones for TCM continues, the powerful and majestic wild tiger may not be around for future generations. Rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicines for centuries to treat fevers, convulsions and delirium. But now only 3,100 black rhinos survive in Africa. In Asia, the situation is even more dire, with only about 2,800 of all three Asian species combined.

I am all for the preservation of cultural integrity, but this is where the line needs to be drawn. These animals are in grave danger of disappearing forever for the sake of primitive, worthless medicines and adornments, infinitely replaceable by modern synthetics.

This is a nice hat:

This is not:

*Ancestry tomorrow, promise. :-)

August 24, 2006

The Sympatric Panda Pals

Back to the pandas...

Photo: mindrec

We established that the giant and red panda co-inhabit the same habitat, but exploit very specific parts of that main habitat, different microhabitats. Giants stick to the low lands, feeding in sparse forest, while the reds alight the long branches of rhododenrons, stripping leaves from branches.

They are said to have a sympatric relationship, meaning that both pandas became separate species (speciation) while existing in the same area. Allopatry is the opposite process; it describes speciation by environmental isolation.

When ecologists and evolutionary biologists make references to sympatry or allopatry, they are talking not only about the present relationship between two organisms, but also about the coevolution of each in that habitat.

The need for divergence is especially strong in sympatry, since there are significantly fewer obvious pressures on the organism to change. In the case of the pandas, it may have just come down to avoiding direct competition for their main food, bamboo, which makes up over 98% of both animals' diets.

Tomorrow I'll hopefully be able to get to a few of the red panda's ancestors, which, surprisingly enough, stretches across the Pacific - to North America.

August 23, 2006

Some Great Blogging from Today

I came across some neat posts today in my daily surfing:

Coturnix has a post on the possibility of viruses pushing the evolution of placental mammals. Sci fi meets reality, great post.

Fighting for Science (FFS!) is looking for contributors of the biological sort to post (or repost) blog entries in defense of science. Leave a comment here if you are interested (I did; I'll be posting there as well - more about that later).

They always have good stuff at RealClimate. Today's post covered a recently poll on the public's attitude toward global warming.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot is looking forward to an upcoming medical history book on the days before anesthesia [cringe].

Last but not least, if there are any Every Time I Die fans out there, my music editor, Steph, just transcribed an interview with the lead singer here and here.

FSU's Best Student Journalism, IMHO: Opinion

Several great pieces came out of last semester, here are just a few:

Derek Hidey, our online director/columnist/all around good guy, wrote a great article on "Leetspeak," a modified version of English that gamers use online. Learn all about The Etymology of 'n00b.'

Every sport has a specific set of rules, but do the fans? Chris Schoenbauer outlines the guidelines for audience etiquette in The Rules of Fans.

Amanda Baldwin of SexPress fame, explores a "special" shopping trip, taking A Lesson from Mom.

Donovan Martin will be starting an all new column this semester, but last semester he was our Left Side guy. Here's a sample, dealing with Brazil, ethanol and U.S. imperialism: U.S. Imperialism Brings More Resources than Expected

Finally, we come to a very special discussion. Michael Weaver had the chance to interview God Himself, and two - count 'em, two - incarnations of Jesus Christ, Conservative Jesus and Liberal Jesus. Click the caps, witness the FACE/OFF.

August 22, 2006

Wells vs. Mooney Wrap Up & Guess Who Called In...

Me. That's right, I called Fox News Radio to participate in the insanity.

We'll get to that later.

First of all, my predictions earlier were a bit off; it wasn't really a massacre, it was more like a shrugfest than a slugfest. Here's a liberally paraphrased version of the debate:

Wells: All intelligent design is saying is that things are complex and there is a designer. There is no evidence for Darwinism.

Mooney: There is plenty of evidence for evolution by natural selection.

Wells: All we're saying is that things are too complex and there is a designer. There is no evidence for Darwinism.

Mooney: That's not scientific. You're circumventing the peer review process.

Wells: Yes it is. There is no evidence for Darwinism. No evidence. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.


That was the gist. In one half-hour, there is no way either debater could tackle the specifics (the only way to have a proper debate), and therefore it came down to an even volley.

Mooney, however, obviously had a plan going into the debate: By illustrating Wells' intolerance for the compatibility of evolution by natural selection and traditional Christianity, he was able to take a moderate stance in saying that yes, they can coexist in one's mind. Wells, predictably, came out against the acceptance of evolution by natural selection by Christians, repeating his mantra: no evidence for Darwinism.

Then came the callers. Atheists, young earth creationists, IDers, nerds lost in specifics, all pulling this way and that on science and evidence, trying to justify one philosophy or another. One man said that scientists are trying to disprove the existence of God(s), that we bring brain tumors on ourselves, and that science was incapable of divining any truths about the universe because the universe was ever-changing.

I got a bit fired up.

I'm tired of debating about whether or not God exists. It's silly, sophomoric, and entirely futile in the end - there is no evidence, but no evidence is never evidence of anything. I have better, more productive things to do, and I'm tired of people shifting gears, turning a debate about evolution into a theological discussion.

So I called and got through. I was "Jeremy from Frostburg, Maryland" if anyone was listening.

I explained three main points (hopefully, anyway; I admit, I was a bit nervous - I'm a writer, not a speaker): I'm tired of science suffering from the debates of the faithful/faithless, ID is a political wedge into our school systems to disrupt how we obtain objective truth, and - in response to the brain tumor guy - how science does not search purely for detail, but seeks to interlock phenomena into unified theories like gravity, relativity, the nuclear forces and evolution. It's all about the Holy Grail: accurate, replicable prediction.

Two criticisms from the girlfriend: When I said "IDers" on air, it sounded like "idears," and I should have left the bit about unified theories and nuclear forces out of it.

She's usually [always] right, so I'll take note.

Overall, good effort by Chris. It's certainly not going to change things, but at least the idea that evolution by natural selection is incompatible with faith was challenged successfully.

Evolution Debate on Fox News Radio Tonight!

Chris Mooney is debating evolution with Discovery Institute fellow Jonathan Wells tonight from 11 - 11:30 p.m. (EST) on Fox News Radio.

It's sure to be a massacre.

Tune in here. Wells has it coming...

August 21, 2006

Science Gots My Back, Yo; Erudition #15

Here's an article I read for the first time a couple years ago in Popular Science, and remains one of my favorites of all time. It is all about the multitude of science claims we are bombarded with on a daily basis, and how many are, well, without basis. Weed annotates each claim with a full reference. Great article, good read - this is good pop science writing.

From "106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney", by William Speed Weed:

I’m not up five minutes, and it looks like I’ll get my RDA of science claims at breakfast. Cheerios “can reduce your cholesterol.”1 My milk derives from a dairy whose cows “graze freely on lush natural pastures as nature intended.”2 My Concord Foods soy shake is “fat-free” and a “good source of fresh fruit.”3

Then it’s off to the e-mail inbox for some fresh scientific-sounding morning spam: A miracle pill guarantees I will “gain 3+ full inches in length.”4 A second promises me “huge breasts overnight.”5 A third will make me “look 20 years younger.”6 I wonder what I’d look like if I took all three.

Read on...

August 20, 2006

The Rise of Annapolis & Decline of the Chesapeake

I just got back from visiting my family in Annapolis, a little vacation before the semester starts. I've never much liked the place or the people, for that matter, but since my immediate family has never lived anywhere else, it still feels like home; for now.

There are two main attractions to Annapolis: the Naval Academy and the city's proximity to the water. In the past decade or so, the number of people in that area has increased dramatically - bigger homes are being built, more roads, less ground, more runoff, more boating, more pollution. The average car is an Excursion or the like, soccer ball and honor roll stickers pasted on the rear window.

There are no bodies of water in the entire area that are safe for swimming. The saddest part is I can't even say that I remember a time when there was.

I recently watched a presentation from Harvard about the pollution of estuaries like the Chesapeake, and was wondering, why aren't our waters better regulated in that area? The very resources that make Maryland, well, Maryland is the oyster and the blue crab. But both populations are decimated from pollution, habitat destruction and over-harvesting.

So when will the idea of Maryland end? When its symbols are gone.

One-hundred years ago, there were literally mountains of oysters to harvest in the Chesapeake, millions and millions of bushels were gathered each year. Now we're lucky to harvest a hundred thousand, and most of those are parasitized. The best oysters (and perhaps the only safe ones) come from farms now.

There are labs across Maryland (UMCES) dedicated to studying the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and since we're on the western edge out here, we have the Appalachian Lab in Frostburg - in fact, it's right down the street from me (who am I kidding - everything here is right down the street from me).

So the western tip of the watershed is incorporated into Maryland itself, which gives legislators a little more power. The problem is, the watershed extends north all the way to New York, way out of our state's jurisdiction. New York has its own problems.

There are plenty of NGOs out there trying to make a difference. The Chespeake Bay Foundation is the forerunner, encouraging people to become an oyster gardener to bolster our natural populations and offering educational programs to students and teachers.

Despite all of this, I don't think the bay is salvageable, at least in regards to restoring its natural state. Until there is a shift in perception from Annapolitans and other suburbanites in the area, no positive change can happen.

August 19, 2006

One More Update: Mendel's Garden #4

Mendel's Garden #4 is finally up at Inoculated Mind. Karl takes us on a genetic journey through the EC Garden at UC Davis.

Deadline for #5 at Evolgen is September 1st.

Art on the Panda Tip...

While we're talking about pandas...

Heather (the gf) is working on a series of paintings, one of which involves a red panda, based on this photo we took at the National Zoo on a hazy summer day:

He came out and had a lazy little nibble, then wandered back to his comfy hole. Poor thing must have been feeling quite out of sorts.

Heather will also be starting back up The EC: Everwood Commons, the comic she draws every week for The Bottom Line. The new strips will start September 6th.

I'll post some pics of the painting if I get a chance (and permission) later today.

Neil deGrasse Tyson @ Point of Inquiry; Erudition #14

Great podcast up at Point of Inquiry, an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:

[...] Dr. Tyson discusses new developments this week in astronomy which may increase the count of planets in our solar system, reveals why he believes it is likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe, examines Intelligent Design and what he calls “stupid design,” eloquently explains how parents may foster an appreciation for science in children, and also discusses science education’s real-world economic impact for America.

August 18, 2006

The Cohabitation of the Pandas

Many would like to paint evolution by natural selection as a vicious idea, drawing upon our fears of purposelessness and elitism by highlighting the misleading phrase, "survival of the fittest."

It can be a scary idea when applied to our society; we don't want to think of the disabled and handicapped as unfit in their environment. It seems to be a cold view of the world, devoid of compassion.

I can understand the apprehension. Fortunately, evolution is a biological process, not a cultural/societal process, so when it is superimposed on societal structure, it does not exactly fit the bill. Though society and therefore culture certainly result from our genetic predispositions, they are not naturally compatible with organic evolutionary theory.

With that said, there are myriad partnerships in nature, where organisms can live together without competition even when consuming the same resources. So, "survival of the fittest" does not automatically dictate competition.

The red and giant panda are perfect examples of such cohabitation. Both animals spend 85% of their existence within the same areas, eating almost exclusively from the same plant: bamboo. A conclusion seems simple; they should be in direct competition for food and space.

But they're not. It turns out that the animals browse in different microhabitats, smaller elements of the main habitat.

The giant panda sticks to the gentle slopes of the Himalayas where there is less brush and other obstacles, giving them more room through which to move their bulk. The red panda, on the other hand, slimmer and slighter, browses on bamboo leaves from the branches of tall rhododendrons adorning the steeper slopes of the young mountains.

So even within the same area, animals can find little niches to exploit, giving them an opportunity to grow and expand.

Unfortunately, both pandas are losing the expansion battle to the Chinese.

Both are listed as Appendix I by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), placing them among the most endangered animals in the world.

But the Chinese are not standing idly by. Twelve reserves have been set aside for the pandas, and special corridors assist them in safe migration between habitats. This is not entirely a moral decision; giant pandas are one of China's most profitable exports.

Next time: Red panda hats & the cohabitation of the pandas through evolution - sympatry vs. parapatry.


F Wei, Z Feng, Z Wang, J Hu (2000) Habitat Use and Separation Between the Giant Panda and the Red Panda. Journal of Mammalogy: 448–455

Johnson KG, Schaller GB, Hu J (1988) Comparative behavior of Red and Giant Pandas in the Wolong Reserve, China. Journal of Mammalogy 69: 552-564

Photos by: Jeff Kubina, Sh0dan

Carnivals Galore!

Tangled Bank #60 has been up for a couple days at FrinkTank. Frink barrages me with mom jokes for submitting a dead link, but due to my "sheer nerdtastic commitment to a bit," I was forgiven and fixed up.

Friday Ark
entries are due by 6:00 p.m. this evening for those picture blogging about animals today. Check it.

Circus of the Spineless is coming up at the end of the month, so get your entries in now! It's about anything invertebrate: pics, words, diagrams, poems (?).

Eurypterids rule!

Carnival of the Green: August 21st at Frugal for Life

Festival of the Trees (self-explanatory) is calling for submissions also by the end of the month. It will be hosted by BurningSilo on September 1st. Just as I was planning a series on the evolution of trees... hmm...

August 15, 2006

The Red Panda's Thumb as a Preadaptation

Morphologically, the red panda is a strange little furball. They are categorized with carnivores because of their powerful set of reinforced jaws, but the only meat the red panda will ever eat is the occasional bug. Like the giant panda, bamboo makes up most of its diet, one of the least nutritious foods on the planet.

But the red panda and its ancestors have been eating bamboo (and other similar monocots) for so long, that a small wristbone called a radial sesamoid (highlighted in red below) has become modified into an extra "thumb," assisting the panda in grasping and stripping bamboo stalks.

Illustration from Freeman & Herron's Evolutionary Analysis, 2nd Edition

View a video showing the red panda using its extra thumb to feed

This is a quintessential example of a preadaptation in evolution. Preadaptations result from an organism's novel use of an existing structure. In other words, the red panda's wristbone was already there extant in its ancestors, and happened to become useful in grasping bamboo. After thousands of years of selection, the bone has become larger and more helpful in the population. The panda did not grow a whole new finger because the set up for a new finger was not ancetrally available for modification.

Preadaptations show that evolution is not purpose-driven; there is no intelligent driving force behind the process, and therefore no end goal. Natural selection is a tinkerer, not a designer.

This is also the force that has allowed the red panda and giant panda to live side-by-side in China subsisting on the same food source without competition.

Next time we'll look at how this is possible, and the challenges that the red panda faces in the modern expansion of China.

August 13, 2006

The Mystery of the Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens

Photo by: Chief Trent

The Red Panda is definitely in the running for the most Pokémon-like animal in the history of the world. My internal Cute-O-Meter runs high every time I come across one in the zoo.

But the taxonomic category these little cuties occupy is perhaps one of the most disputed in classification. Most scientists place them with procyonids, the raccoon family. But some scientists are not satisfied. Red pandas exhibit many of the characteristics of bears (ursids) as well; reflected in one of their common names, the catbear (not to be confused with the binturong, known as the bearcat).

Kenneth Johnson has spent years studying these creatures, and has come to one conclusion, described in his paper, "Mystery of the Other Panda":

Classifying red pandas causes a furor among biologists: Are the animals bears or raccoons? Our research suggested that giant and red pandas should not be shoe-horned into either family but classified together in one of their own.

But a recent molecular analysis places the red panda into a broad grouping along with skunks, believe it or not, and other mustelids. Researchers compared homologous nucleotide sequences - just the type of molecular character we discussed earlier - and constructed several different cladograms.

The issue is far from settled; indeed, Johnson may be right in suggesting a separate grouping for the pandas because of their unusual characteristics.

The next post will discuss one of the most distinct - and famous - of these: The panda's thumb. How did it evolve, and why are pandas classified as carnivores if their diet consists almost entirely of bamboo?


Mystery of the Other Panda. In: International Wildlife. Vol.20, No.6. Nov/Dec 1990: 30-33.

Whence the Red Panda? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. Vol. 17, No. 2, November 2000, pp. 190-199

New Design

I hope it's not too distracting. My flag has been bothering me for months now, and this one just didn't look so good in white Minima...

So here I am. What do you think?

August 11, 2006

Podcasts, Columns and Evolution, Oh My America

Two weeks!

The fall semester is only two weeks away (I feel like an online ticker) and I'm watching probably one of the best summers of the past few years just slip away. It's been full of long walks and spirited conversation; good books and just time to sit and think.

And sleep, let's not forget sleep. I won't be getting much of that in the coming months.

A couple of days ago, I had some doubts about starting the print version of TVG. I started worrying about who would read it, if all those people who asked "why" might be right and whether or not it was relevant. I was thinking maybe all the IDers, creationists and the general anti-science sentiment across the country is inflated, exaggerated.

Then I read this, and realized that none of it is exaggerated. There are campaigns against reason in this country. We are retreating into delusions of end times and spiritual warfare.

There are lists of harmful books published, games, movies and art banned, the indoctrination of college students by Campus Crusaders, and perhaps worst of all, the rejection of accepted scientific fact with a wave of the subjective hand.

Why? To defend our primitive intuition.

The conclusions drawn from science and mathmatics, and subsequently art and literature, are counter-intuitive, and therefore in direct conflict with ideas about our origin and development that stretch back several millennia.

How could our ancestors have known that the sun was a ball of gases? It went against everything with which they had experience. It seemed much more likely that a giant humanoid dragged it across the sky with a chariot.

Indeed, the same can be said of our existence. Our mere existence is said to provide evidence of design by an eternal creator (an argument over 200 years old), but this is an anthropomorphic argument, a conclusion drawn without the math and science necessary to transport our minds outside of their inherent subjectivity and assist us in divining the true nature of the universe.

Needless to say, I have redoubled my efforts. I've been working on a podcast addressing the basics of evolution by natural selection to be published on our website and it is truly a test of patience. I'm finding out that it's best to take it one section at a time, with small pauses, so I can go back and edit things without having to start over.

If anyone has any ideas about what I should cover this semester, give me a shout, leave me a message.

August 10, 2006

FSU's BSJ, IMHO: Graphics

Kaiti Robinson brightened up our sometimes dreary pages with her Photoshop skills:

When you lack a dominant front page image,
sometimes it takes a little ingenuity.

One columnist sang the praises of the Vespa,
like shiny candies in a bag.

This accompanied a particularly goofy (but funny)
Final Fantasy edition of Interviews with God.


August 8, 2006

FSU's Best Student Journalism, IMHO: Music

We just finished archiving the website, which is a load off my mind (for some reason we're having problems with the embedded RSS feeds, but I'm sure that will pass).

I reviewed just about every article, photo and graphic that was published in The Bottom Line last semester in my cut and paste frenzy, and I thought I would publish links to my favorites in a series of topics, starting with:


Brandon Burton is one of our music editors. He wrote an excellent piece on the public's perception of hip-hop, and how "bad apples" like BET and MTV only perpetuate harmful stereotypes:

The "bad apples" occur on the radio, BET, and MTV. It is these songs, or as I like to call them, crap, that unfortunately represent the culture, it is what the masses hear on the regular and little Timmy for suburbia recites that scares his mother half to death. The twenty-inch rims, glamorous life of groupies, big houses, and over expensive jewelry is all a misconception. This is not Hip-Hop, nor does is remotely come close to the culture itself.

Steph Thornton, music editor number two (though certainly not in skill), did an awesome interview with Thomas Erak from The Fall of Troy, a modern prog band from Seattle. We caught the show in Baltimore at the Ottobar:

Are there any challenges in just being a three-piece?

F*** yes. F*** yes. We have to work twice as hard. You know, with three guys… Andrew is stationary on the drums and he's a f***ing madman and if I am at the mic, I am limited to how much I can move around, and if I am on guitar, Tim's got to be on it, and when Tim is singing, I've got to be on it. It also is an advantage because being a three piece we can do things normal bands can't do. We really didn't get to do it at all tonight, but we usually improv a lot.

No song is ever the same tempo any night. No song is exactly the same. That's what keeps it interesting for us as a band. There aren't very many power trios anymore. I think it's kind of a dead art form. I think that the rise of the three piece band is starting to come back.

She did the interview, I did the article. FoT is one of the best bands around, period.

Next time: Graphics

August 7, 2006

The "Americans for American Energy" Hoax & the Mystery of Toutsmith

Keep an eye out for propaganda from the Americans for American Energy (nice freakin' banner; it's worse than mine), a new spin campaign set up by Alaskan senator Ted Stevens:

"We must support ANWR legislation before there is another energy crisis" is their tag line. They then urge Americans to call their senators so that "America can solve its own energy problems."

I caught this little tidbit from Artic Promise, one of NWF's blogs.

I thought I would point everyone to another interesting article at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles tying a rather numbskulled attempt to bash Gore and An Inconvenient Truth with the Exxon and the oil men of the Bush administration.

Toutsmith's the word.

Carnival of the Green #39 at City Hippy

It's alive at City Hippy.

Good stuff this time around, including the return of DDT, 10 suggestions to reduce your impact on the Earth, Exxon's anti-Gore sentiments and the general proliferation/popularization of the green market.

Take a moment, stop by and have a glance.

August 6, 2006

Is Anyone Else Tired of Hearing About "The Rapture?"

Sometimes I wish God would just get on with it so we sinners won't have to hear about it anymore.

Watching TV up here on Sundays is the worst. We have at least 10 stations out of 60 that air televangelism for the majority of the day.

I am always amazed that these "preachers" are able to fill stadiums with people willing to take them seriously. It makes me question just how firm our country's grasp on reality actually is.

The archiving of The Bottom Line's website is nearing completion, and we figured out a way to publish staff blog feeds within the site's frame.

I'm currently assembling a list of ideas for my column this semester. Does anyone have any suggestions for me?

August 5, 2006

Why Spiders Aren't Insects V: Hox Genes and the Evolutionary Ties that Bind

This is the fifth post in a series dealing with the evolution of spiders and insects,
while exploring modern genetics and evolutionary theory.
Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV have led up to this point:

Last time we delved into some of the smallest components of spiders and insects, exploring their differences based on deviations in their genetic code through molecular homology.

But there is one particular unifying element to these creatures and their overall make up. They share a series of genes - sequences of DNA that code for an organism's traits - that determine the exact body plan of an arthropod. These genes, called Hox genes,* have become helpful in describing just how evolution by natural selection constructs each different organism from detailed blueprints within our DNA.

Researchers figured out the function of Hox genes when studying - what else - mutations in Drosophila, the fruit fly (Drosophila is considered the perfect organism for genetic studies due to the species' rapid reproduction rate and ease of care). When these mutations were rearranged in the genome (library of genes), the developing flies would grow legs where antennae were supposed to be or four pairs of wings instead of the normal two.

From these types of experiments, geneticists were able to deduce that these Hox genes are not responsible for the assemblage of the structure itself, but for the direction of the genes that assemble said structure.

In essence, Hox genes would direct chelicerae to be grown on the first segment of the spider, but would not actually code the production of the spider's mouth parts.

This has opened doors for evolutionary biologists. Here is a set of genes that has everything to do with the differentiation of species by changes in body plan. Hox genes are widely conserved, meaning that every animal possesses a set, and many of these ancestral genes have not changed much in the past 500 million years or so, even between vertebrate and invertebrate.

It has been suggested that the Cambrian explosion was merely a revolution in Hox gene expression. Since these genes set the rules for where every piece of the spider will end up, the modifications of those individual pieces - chelicerae, legs, eyes, etc. - are relatively simple mutations in the expression of specific genes.

This, however, has not exactly cleared up the origins and lineage of these creatures.

As we have discussed, much of the phylogeny of arthropods is a murky study in paleontology and molecular homology. But according to several new studies, Hox gene expression may help scientists tease out the finer points of their natural history.

New data are emerging that suggest that the first segment of the spider, which includes its mouth parts, pedipalps and all four pairs of walking legs, may in fact be the head of subsequent millipedes, centipedes and insects. This may seem like an obvious conclusion, first segment equated to first segment, but what did Hox gene expression through natural selection do with the ancestral spider's walking legs?

Insects might be eating with them.

Remember when we talked about one of the main morphological difference between spiders and insects? Spiders and insects have different mouth parts, and are ordered into separate groups because of it - chelicerate and mandibulate. The insects' mandibles do not seem to have arisen from the spiders' own mouth parts, but from a common ancestor's modification of the spiders' mode of transportation, its legs.

Only through the knowledge of the form and function of Hox genes was this possible.

Next time we'll get into more about Hox genes and evo-devo, talking about Ernst Haeckel's awkward theory of evolutionary recapitulation though embryonic development, and what that has to do with Hox genes, Darwin being wrong in science.

*Scientists sometimes specifically call invertebrate Hox genes HOM genes.

It's About Time; Erudition #13

The Kansas Board of Education's decision to remove "natural explanations for phenomena" in their science curriculum might be overturned within the next few months, accord to this article from the NY Times:

TOPEKA, Kan., Aug. 2 — Less than a year after the Kansas Board of Education adopted science standards that were the most wide-reaching in the nation in challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution, voters on Tuesday ousted the conservative majority on the board that favored those guidelines.

Several of the winners in the primary election, whose victories are virtually certain to shift the board to at least a 6-to-4 moderate majority in November, promised Wednesday to work swiftly to restore a science curriculum that does not subject evolution to critical attack.

August 4, 2006

Absenteeism and The Bottom Line Online

The online director for TBL and I have been working like crazy to get our new website up and running. College Publisher has a good thing going. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

It's relatively simple; publishing articles isn't much different than sitting down and typing a blog post, but Blogger could take a few lessons from these guys. CP has a built-in meta-keyword tagger, so it's much easier to incorporate keywords into an article than to deliberately insert keywords into a Blogger post. Sometimes it just doesn't turn out right.

We also have a slideshow feature, which is pretty decent. Honestly, I'm thinking of opening up a Flickr account for the newspaper and using their slideshows. CP shrinks your pics to just about nothingness before you can publish them.

I also need to get TBL's website hooked into Technorati today at some point (which means remembering the password for the site...) and set up our e-mail with Gmail. Last year we used our staff account for the school for everything, including large picture files and other media. Within the first two weeks the mailbox was "over its size limit" and we were pulling our hair out. Gmail should be able to accommodate us a little better.

I'll be working on some columns later today, so I should be around to post a little intro to on the spider's head and how it got there.

August 2, 2006

Walcott and the Cambrian Explosion

Tangled Bank # 59 is just itchin' to be read at Science and Reason.

My highly subjective pick of the bunch: A look at the Cambrian explosion from Rigor Vitae:

Everyone's talking about the Cambrian Explosion, it seems. While evolutionary biologists discuss the actual rate of adaptive radiation, a handful of creationists have hailed it as proof of...something...I forget exactly what. The Cambrian Explosion was, of course, that event from half a billion years ago, when suddenly—well, relatively suddenly—over the course of about 8 million years, a great diversity of metazoan life appeared on Earth, with representatives of most of the phyla that have ever turned up on the planet. For most of the preceding 3 ½ billion years, life on Earth had been unicellular. The cause of this explosion is poorly understood. Is it an illusion suggested by gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record? Was it caused by climatic or geological changes, or the evolution of Hox genes or sexual reproduction? Or was it simply a response to opportunities that could only be exploited by multicellular life?

I really just can't get enough of this stuff. By far, deep history is one of the most interesting topics in science precisely because of all the mystery. It's like putting a giant world-sized puzzle together that not only gives you the satisfaction of completion, but also a notion of where you and I came from.

Back in 1909, while riding along a mountain trail in British Columbia, then Secretary of Smithsonian Charles Doolittle Walcott (an ironic middle name to be sure) found a gold mine of paleontological evidence: an outcropping of rock filled to the brim with fossil organisms, some 60,000 organisms all told.

Some 140 different species of all shapes and sizes - some familiar, some completely alien - where excavated from the site, now known as the Burgess Shale, and ended up in the American Museum of Natural History. Walcott had lifetimes of research in his hands, one of the most significant discoveries in history; unfortunately, when the time came, he - and after his death, subsequent researchers in the 1970's - described many of the fossils inaccurately.

Stephen Jay Gould criticized Walcott for placing the Burgess fossils into modern groups, giving extant invertebrates ancestors that are over 500 million year old. He argued that the Burgess fossils showed how evolution was very different in the Cambrian, full of striking new body plans and "false starts."

For this assertion, Gould invoked the wrath of Richard Dawkins:

It is as though a gardener looked at an oak tree and remarked, wonderingly: 'Isn't it strange that no major new boughs have appeared on this tree for many years? These days all the new growth appears to be at the twig level.'

But, as science would have it, perceptions change with new evidence, and Walcott would not end up being so terribly wrong in the end.

Wishing to end the controversy, Richard Fortey went back through all of the Burgess fossils that were deemed unique phyla and compared them using modern cladistical analysis. It turns out that enormity of strange body plans was carelessly emphasized during research in the 1970's, to the point that some fossils were described upside-down.

As Fortey says in his book Life, "there are relatively few Cambrian designs that are wholly novel. Most often they turn out to be just interesting elaborations of well-established designs."