Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fossil dung reveals dinosaurs did graze grass

Fossil dung reveals dinosaurs did graze grass: "One of the most common 'mistakes' in the prehistoric book is not wrong after all; dinosaurs did eat grass, and a surprisingly wide range of it"

Again, scat teaches us history. Whether it be dung found on the driveway, forest floor, or among fossilized remains, it reveals what the excretor (aka the 'pooper') ate. The cliche "What goes in, must come out" may sound archaic to most, but it reflects the truth, although the form may change between the mouth and the 'back door'.

Three points in the report above interested me:

The 'key evidence' verifying grasses on the dinosaur menu was the silica cyrstals present in plant cells found in their fossilzed feces. These microscopic crystals, called opal phytoliths, are specific to plant taxon and even parts of the plant. Phytoliths, Greek for 'plant stones', are produced by plants presumably in response to injury (mechanical, insect or microbial) but also under normal conditions.

Soluble silica in the soil is taken up with water by plant roots and distributed throughout the plant. Dissolved silica is then deposited within or between cell walls. Identification and association with a plant is based on distinctive phytolith sizes and shapes. They may aid in the structural integrity of the cell wall or in defending the plant against damage by rendering them less palatable for herbivores and insects.

Phytoliths are a paleobotonists treasure trove because the intact particles are left after the plant decomposes. They are not degraded from exposure to high temperatures or methods that breakdown carbonized food. Consequently they pass through the digestive process of animals and are excreted along with other undigested substances. Stable isotopes can be extracted from them and used to reconstruct past environmental conditions as well as typing the plant family and possibly even species eaten.

Why did this interest me? I was reminded of a comment my father, a biochemist, made when I was young. The most likely alternate element on this planet that life could have been based on is silicon. Next to carbon, it is the second most abundant element in the Earth, occuring mostly as silica (silica and dioxide) and silicates (silicon, oxygen and metals). Perhaps the primary reason life revolved around carbon, silicon's chemical analog, is because it is more reactive than silicon.

Marine diatoms (an algae) are an example of that alternate life since they extract silica from water to form their unique protective cell walls (made primarily of polymerized silicic acid, a compound comprised of silicon, hydrogen and oxygen). Diatom populations are related directly to the availability of silicon in the water. They may be more energy efficient as well; the silica cell walls require ~8% less energy to synthesis than their organic counterpart.

Considering the heat stability of silicon, life based on the element might be found in environments with high temperatures. Based on these facts, it's not surprising to find silicon-based life in many science fictions stories (e.g. A Martian Odyssey, by Stanley Weisbaum, even the Star Wars series). However, the chirality (right- and left-handed forms of a molecule) of carbon compounds enriches the biology that we know so well and facilitates adaptation within our biochemistry. As far as we know silicon lacks this feature, or at least to the extent of carbon's potential. The handedness of carbon biology serves as a basis for the many interconnections of reactions that constitutes life on this planet. Silicon chemistry offers less complexity.

Who knows what silicon forms lurk in the heart of Earth? (or the Universe, for that matter)

Dinosaur grass
I was astonished reading that grasses were 'believed' to be relatively new. Until ancient poop recently revealed that dinosaurs ate grass (and several types of grasses), their main meal course was believed to be of flowering plants and tree foliage. 'Experts' believed that grasses arrived long after the disappearance of dinosaurs (the end of the Cretaceous period; 65 mill. years ago). Divergent thinking suggests to me that if larger and complex botanical forms existed, the simple grasses probably did as well.

Couple that with fossilized teeth of mammals and dinosaurs strongly suggests that grasses were in their community and food chain. Some mammalian fossils of that period had teeth typically associated with modern grass-grazers, suggesting grass may have been a food source for them as well as others during that era. Until now, the belief otherwise was 'lack of evidence.' On the other hand (chiral thinking), mammals and dinosaurs with teeth similar to today's grass grazers would strongly suggest that perhaps grass was a contemporary biological component of the food chain.

The author of the study commented that the new 'unambiguous evidence' of grass during that period also demonstrated that grasses had diversified. "That suggests that grasses had been around for a long time even back then." My reaction to that statement was WNSS (Well, no shit Sherlock!).

How ironic that feces should tumble their beliefs. Now new textbooks will have to be written.

Coprolites: ancient scat
By any other name, a rose is still a rose. Shit is still shit. Scatology (or coprology) is the study of feces. Such studies reveal a wide range of information about a creature: diet, health, movements, etc. Living in the woods and as a livestock producer, I learned to 'read' scat. It told me what animal was near, what it was eating, and even when it had deposited its load. It told me much about the health of the animals I raised. Now we can learn not only what dinosaurs ate, but also about their environment. All from their excrement.

Coprolites are fossilized feces (or dung, turds, poop, scat; take your pick of terms). They are a prized treasure of paleontologists. And rightfully so. Fossilized dung may serve as index fossils used to define and identify geologic periods of the planet's history, both on land and in water. Even human coprolites have revealed diets of our predecessors. Not all excrement is naughty toilet humor.

So next time you come upon a deposit of dung, overcome your ingrained aversion to body excrement and learn something about the world around you. Or in the past. Just keep your fingers out of your mouth.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

My other horse is a Honda; Shadow, that is. Posted by Picasa

COJM Part Two: The Motorcycle Safety Course

Like a good responsible person I took the motorcycle safety course. And I’m glad I did. Although being a passenger can reveal the thrills of riding a bike, it won’t teach one how to synchronize hand and foot controls, to blend your body with the balance on two moving wheels, and the dynamics and counterintuitiveness of pushing away to turn, etc. Then again, the thrill of sitting on those two wheels with that motor humming below your seat and between your legs plus the power of a bike’s get up and go can’t be beat.

I quickly adopted the feel of the 250cc I rode after throwing out of my head the reflexive responses of holding the bars and control handles like a pair of reins on a horse and pushing my heels down on the foot pegs sans stirrups. While much of what is reflexive in riding horses carries over to riding a motorcycle, I had to consciously ‘unlearn-relearn’ some motor control reflexes. Holding onto the handlebars and controls with only a few fingers, with wrists up and hand turned down as one would horse reins can spell disaster on a motorcycle.

That night after a series of frustrations the first day of the course, my brain had a talk with my motor control center while I slept. After much yelling back and forth during my fatigued-induced coma, Brain must have won the argument. Back in the saddle the next morning, it all fell into place and I was weaving in and out of the S-shaped course like a breeze. I was really enjoying myself. The “Woohoo!!!” escaping from me was met with a smirk and head shaking by the instructor.

The most carryover from riding horses is riding over obstacles. Finally I could post over bumps and a 2x6-inch timber without having the engine cut off as it does on my tractor when my butt leaves the seat. No dealing with evasion techniques, as with my horse; he detests jumping and trotting over poles, sometimes requiring a well-placed smack on his rear with a crop. I immediately sensed the appeal of dirt bikes and obstacle courses; this was now becoming dangerously too much fun.

I was the only neophyte in the class, and the only female. Neither deterred or bothered me, but I did have to laugh when the instructor apologized for referring to all of us as ‘Guys.’ I thanked him politely but assured him I am “one of the guys.” Despite that all but me were seasoned riders taking the course for insurance discounts (or to finally ride the streets legally), we all came away learning a thing or two.

One observation from the instructor was that nearly all riders, beginner and even many seasoned, have more difficulty with tight turns to the right. I questioned why but he had no explanation. I wondered aloud if it may have to do with handedness, but that seemed counterintuitive. Most humans are right-handed, thus one would expect left hand turns to be problematic. I posed this question to my VSSO, a seasoned rider and he confirmed that tight right corners are ‘uncomfortable.’ After riding alone myself, I thought about this again and wondered if this phenomenon was because the throttle was controlled by the right hand. It was for an answer which I had to pursue.

After passing the course and chatting bikes with the others about their bikes and bikes they lust after, I started the search for my own pair of wheels. Let the fun begin!!!

Confessions of an Old Juvenile Motorcyclist: Part 1

This is a series of posts relating new discoveries. Remember everything in life is relative to the individual. Yes, all our individual realities overlap, influencing others’ realities and now we are only several degrees of separation from dolphins* (why are we all linked to Kevin Bacon?). Regardless, our lives are a journey of discoveries, of our selves, other selves, other living beings, and inanimate objects. As a creature of curiosity more than habit sometimes even the smallest discovery is personal and exciting for me. Perhaps the child inside that refused to wither away influences my reality too strongly. And like any child, I like toys and adventures!

My recent endeavor is riding a motorcycle. Exploring the back roads of Maine as a passenger decades ago, the attraction and thrill never left me. Then Life got in the way while obtaining college degrees, building houses and raising an offspring. Raising and training horses, raising sheep and child and working full-time tends to exhaust the mind and body, leaving those older aspirations behind like arthritis in a finger on a cold day.

Little by little and much later, the advent of riding a motorcycle crept up on me. One morning a few years ago, a client of mine (when I worked part-time personal training) announced at the beginning of her appointment that it was her 45th birthday and she just bought a new shiny Harley Davidson. Partly shocked and mostly jealous, I applauded her adventure. A friend and well-seasoned rider served as her mentor after she took the motorcycle safety training course.

When a self-important male (notice I did not type ‘man’) whom I was seeing at the time arrogantly ridiculed several older couples riding by on their touring bikes, I defended them strongly, commending them for their adventures. They were actively enjoying their lives which can be said more than he would ever chance. I also added that if I was younger and had a better paying job, I would be out there on a bike, too. Silence occupied the space in the car the rest of the way home.

Later I was seduced to the Bright Side by my VSSO (Very Special Significant Other), first as a passenger riding behind him, then as a rider myself. I also met a growing group of people whom all share not just a passion for the road on a bike, but also a parallel appreciation of life.

Of course, along this path of exploration I should also mention the parallel roads of my family:
My daughter is currently enrolled as a motorcycle technician at the country’s most respected institute for motorcycle repair and service.
My sister is involved with a motorcycle veteran who has been active in local and regional motorcycle activities, including teaching the MSF courses, coordinating charitable rides as well as recreational group rides.

Posts in this thread are my own observations, confessions, rants and reflections of riding motorcycles as a neophyte. And once again demonstrating that not all scientists are boring as Hell.

* David Lusseau, from the University of Aberdeen, UK, researches the social world of dolphins, to find out who knows whom and how often they meet. For the 130-member community living off the east coast of Scotland, he found it takes an average of just 3.9 steps to link any two dolphins by the shortest possible route through mutual friends.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Dear Dairy (No.1)

(The prattlings of foolishness or silliness are sometimes a route for the mind to vent and relax, especially when enduring a broken ankle encased in a fiberglass cast. Also with the aid of a glass of fine Australian red wine. Hence, the first post in a series dubbed "Dear Dairy".)

Dear Dairy,

If I could milk a cow right now, I would enjoy drinking the warm unadulterated milk. How did we discover your wonderful white liquid anyway? Did Ug the Caveman happen to have an urge to suck on an udder after a year of abstaining from the breast of a warm woman? (He was so ugly and deformed, no woman would have him). Was Ooog’s family the discoverers when during a famine they watched the pups of the clan’s dogs nurse at the teats of their bitch and noticed how they grew?

Did The Antler Hunter discover the greatness of milk when he killed a female deer that was still suckling her young? Since his family utilizes every part of the animal he kills, his children tasted the dead mother’s milk meant for her own offspring and they prospered. Or was it Lizzie Bordan’s father and mother whose secret for the white ‘gold’ was passed down for generations. When their cow went dry, Lizzie was pissed and killed her folks with an axe.

Oh, and that rancid milk that curdles and, when rinsed, tastes as good as the fresh liquid. Cover it in cloth, pile it into a box made of boards, and press it down to squeeze out the liquid and let it age. Some call this ‘cheese’, but we call it ‘moon milk’. We know that cow’s milk turns solid after it jumps over the moon.

Which leads to the question: is our Moon made of cheese? If so, it is Wenslydale, Havarti, or Limburger? Thus a trip to our Moon will be necessary to extract a piece to eat, taste and type it. Perhaps we will discover a new taste and brand of cheese. We could persuade the sexy SpaceShip One to schedule excursions to our Moon. We can watch and wait for a full Earth to howl at and admire.

Anatomy of the Female Orgasm

Scientists recently proclaimed to discover the gene for the female orgasm. Ah, a perfect example of Darwinism. Thus the eminent battle of nature vs. nurture, and the many faces of sociobiology and culture.

To Darwinians all sexual behaviour ultimately serves a procreational end, reminding me of Victorians with their utilitarian view of sex. Whereas, in contrast to Victorians, the Hindu perspective is very different, exemplified in the Kama Sutra, which includes even homoerotic couplings. Is sexual behaviour that appears to be gratuitous problematic, as the Darwinians suggest?

The function of the male orgasm may be obvious; it is part of the ejaculation process, and ejaculation is an integral part of reproduction. But the female orgasm is not required to reproduce. So why do they exist? What is their evolutionary function? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

There are many diverse hypotheses proposed, from both the androcentric and gynocentric view. Desmond Morris' 'bonding' hypothesis, John Alcock's 'the good father' hypothesis, Sarah Hardy's 'paternity' hypothesis, etc. In common, they are all adaptationist explanations.

Perhaps the adaptionists, Darwinians and mostly Western biologists (even some psychologists) are also victims of "life by design", another element in the ancient Great Chain of Being. Harking back to basic evolutionary evidence and depicted in a famous plate by Haeckel (1870) that appears more recently in Ernst Mayer's book What Evolution Is, let's consider that the female orgasm has no adaptation, it has no designed function, it just 'is.' Fortuitously, I might add.

In this instance, I agree with Kinsey, the famous celebrator of human sexual behaviour, who came to that same conclusion: the female orgasm, for all of its significance, does not reflect design.

Here's one reason why:
Consider first the homogeneity of anatomical features between the early embryonic stages of most vertebrates and invertebrates: fish, salamanders, turtles, pig, cow, rabbit, and human. At the very earliest stage, we all look alike. Through recapitulation, ancestral anatomical structures follow development throughout growth of one embryo and the same structures disappear throughout development of another embryo.

Many adult organisms have structures that are fully functional or not functional at all. The appendix in humans is one example, and I suspect this is the path of the tonsils. Consider also the eyes in many cave or dark-habitat-dwelling animals. These remaining anatomical structures are vestigial, remnants of structures fully functional in their ancestors but now reduced due to changed utilization in their habitational niche. Just as embryonic similarities, recapitualation, and vestigial structures raise questions for the creationists, so do they challenge certain aspects of Darwinian biological determinism.

Keep in mind that until some moment within a few weeks after DNA from both the egg and the sperm merge, the default 'sex' (and gender) of the developing embryo is female. For a length of time in our development from the merging of the two packets of DNA, we are sexless, or as we now define it: female. Then a molecular switch happens, through the wonders of RNA activation and silencing, whereby a gene on a Y chromosome activates a cascade of sex determination.

During the development of the now sex-determined embryo, certain RNAs are silenced, others are activated influencing the development of anatomical structures. One such well-known and coveted structure is the penis. That structure still remains in the female: the male penis and the female clitoris are homologous. The latter has the same circulation and neural circuits as the penis, unless there is some alteration in development or maturity. So we can expect the clitoris to respond to stimulation in the same manner as the penis, and it does. Some women are even known to ejaculate fluid during a powerful orgasm.

Similarly, males (human and all primates) have nipples because females require them. Considering the homology of male and female nipples, males will have nipples unless an overwhelming functional fitness consequence culls that particular structure from the male phenotype. Additionally, in the same manner of the penis and clitoris, male nipples can be stimulated and sensational for men, just as they are for women. In fact, if their mammary glands developed in the right hormonal environment, they too could have potential to produce and secrete milk.

Here is where the modern evolutionists, such as SJ Gould and Elisabeth Lloyd, argued against Dawinism adaptionists: the capacity for orgasms in females is a byproduct of selection for ejaculation in males.

So women possess a 'freebie'. Really, no teleological explanation exists for female orgasms; they are an evolutionary byproduct. Instead of asking the conventional "Why-biology?", we ask the "How-biology?" question. And, of course, given our deep ingrained philosophy of design and determinism, the Western Great Chain of Being dogma, there is much resistance to the 'how-biology'; explanation. But if you dig further and think outside your Western box, you will find other 'accidental side effects' of selective forces.

"Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy."
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

So, don't ask 'why' or even 'how', just enjoy the female orgasm. It just 'is'.

Now, considering what I have proposed here, think about the context of "The Gene(s) for the Female Orgasm". Think about 'brain', psychology, culture, and gender expectations.

I propose that required reading in senior year of high school should be the Kama Sutra. I wonder how it would influence divorce statistics, the sale of Viagra, and the women's lament of 'orgasmlessness.'

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Motorcycle Porn

Picked up Motorcycle Cruiser one night to read while enjoying a java at the cafe. Opened it up and lo.....
I was captured and thrown into a world of awe and lust. I wrote this after visiting the website and with the advert in front of me.

On the double-spread pages lies an ethereal vision of darkness and fog. I am drawn into that world with giant tree trunks with contorted naked limbs. A helmeted creature in chainmail, broadsword and shield sits astride a magnificent black Friesian horse. In the foreground is a dark angel; chrome gleaming with light bespeaking its innocence, but caressed by black liquid metal. It is the Rune.

The liquid-like surface of the black metal embraces and reflects the light from the chrome, the juxtaposition of innocence and lust, good and evil. As if it was a teardrop frozen on its side, the tank above the power source holds the food to feed this demoness. A mouth opens wide at the end of the long exhaust throat to expel the sounds and breath of its spent efforts.

Ride the beast on a saddle seat as if astride the black horse. Wrap your thighs around the engine and feel it purr, the power under your body. The forks reach up and forward, reaching towards the rider to hold and clutch him to her, like a lover as her man leaves her bed. “Don’t leave me; stay.”

Caressing the swollen rear tire, liquid blackness drapes over the back, cloaking its passing and protecting the rider from the elements. A large eye with brow sits watchful in between the forks, as if it was a head of some beast between its crouched arms: watching, waiting, lighting the way. Soft black wheels with inner circles of chrome turn on roads of time immortal through the Universe.

I am transfixed by its compelling dark beauty and play of light, its sleekness like a black jaguar, sleeping magnificent power, dead cold but hot with life.

I ask the Creature astride the horse “How can I possess this?”

Without sound I sense its answer “Give it your soul and it will possess you.”

This, this Rune, this Stealer of Souls.

It is mine, I am it.

The Rune.