So that’s what chemistry is good for…

Stinky stuff! This fits perfectly with my biased preconceptions. So here are two examples of chemistry used to analyze things you’d normally run away from.

The oldest traces of human poop have been dug out of a cave in Spain — and it’s Neandertal poop. It’s about 50,000 years old, and it’s been reduced to a compressed, thin smear of organic compounds, so I guess it isn’t actually so stinky anymore, but there was enough of it to analyze chromatographically. In case you’ve wondered your whole life about what Neandertal poop would look like, here you go.

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt Stratigraphic Unit X (sample SALT-08-13). The images under plane polarized light show the pale brown color and massive structure of the coprolite, as well as the common presence of inclusions, which are possibly parasitic nematode eggs or spores.

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt Stratigraphic Unit X (sample SALT-08-13). The images under plane polarized light show the pale brown color and massive structure of the coprolite, as well as the common presence of inclusions, which are possibly parasitic nematode eggs or spores.

Dead for 50 millennia, and what we know about this dead person is that they took a massive dump that was full of parasites. TMI.

I thought the paper was preliminary and rather general — they don’t or can’t make very specific conclusions, but then, I imagine they were excited to be the first to get any discussion of Neandertal feces into the scientific literature. We do know a couple of things: Neandertals ate both their meat and their vegetables, and they had gut bacteria with similar physiological properties to our own.

Taken together, these data suggest that the Neanderthals from El Salt consumed both meat and vegetables, in agreement with recent hypotheses based on indirect evidence. Future studies in Middle Palaeolithic sites using the faecal biomarker approach will help clarify the nature, role and proportion of the plant component in the Neanderthal diet, and allow us to assess whether our results reflect occasional consumption or can be representative of their staple diet. Also, this data represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter, in a molecular level, using organic geochemical methods.

Besides having corroborated our method and obtained the first evidence of an omnivorous Neanderthal diet from faeces, our results also have implications regarding digestive systems and gut microbiota evolution. Approaching the evolution of the human digestive system is difficult because there is no fossil record indicating soft tissue preservation. Our results show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol due to the presence of bacteria capable of doing so in their guts. Further research will allow us explore this issue in the context of human evolution.

I said I had two unpleasant examples of useful chemistry, and here’s the second: using the characteristic odors of different stages of decay to quantify the time of death.

An international research team used two-dimensional gas chromatography time-of-flight mass spectrometry to characterise the odours that create this smell of death:  volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  By measuring the VOCs released from pig carcasses the team identified a cocktail of several different families of molecules, including carboxylic acids, aromatics, sulfurs, alcohols, nitro compounds, as well as aldehydes and ketones. The combination and quantities of these VOCs change as a function of time as a cadaver goes through different stages of decomposition.

I think I’m getting a sense of the difference between chemistry and biology. I prefer the bodily fluids in my subjects to be fresh, preferably spurting; chemists seem to favor observing the degradation and volatilization of fluids from dead things. Chemists may offer their repudiations of my sentiments in the comments.

They’re closing the Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall for five years!

Every time I go to Washington DC I try to find time to visit the fossil hall, which is damn good (not quite as good as the AMNH’s, though, which gets my highest marks for an informative dino experience). But now the bad news: it’s being closed for five long years. The good news, though, is it will reopen with a complete renovation and a new and very complete T. rex skeleton.

Now I guess I have to stay alive for five more years to see if DC can have a better exhibit than New York. One more reason to not die…

Update on Olivia McConnell

The eight year old girl who was trying to get the South Carolina legislature to make the woolly mammoth the state fossil has reason to be happy today: the ass of a state senator who was trying to insert Bible quotes into the bill, effectively killing it, has withdrawn his obstructionist amendment.

He said he removed his objection after another senator told him the story of how an 8-year-old Lake City girl had written to lawmakers suggesting the mammoth as the state fossil because fossilized mammoth teeth had been discovered in a swamp in the state in 1725.

Yeah, right. More like he saw that he was being perceived as the sanctimonious ogre who beats up on little girls, and withdrew in the face of withering scorn.

Do you have to shove your awful little holy book in everything?

I had thought that Minnesota had a state fossil: it was the giant beaver, Castoroides ohioensis. But then I discovered that it wasn’t on the official list of Minnesota State Symbols, but was on the list of proposed symbols. So it never made it into law, although we do have a state photo (it’s awful) and a state muffin (blueberry).

I wonder if the same thing happened to the giant beaver that happened to South Carolina’s state fossil proposal. Olivia McConnell, an eight year old girl, had the bright idea to propose that the Woolly Mammoth ought to be the South Carolina state fossil, and she wrote a letter to the legislature suggesting it, and even giving good reasons for it.

1. One of the first discoveries of a vertebrae fossil in North America was on an S.C. plantation when slaves dug up wooly mammoth teeth from a swamp in 1725.

2. All but seven states have an official state fossil.

3. “Fossils tell us about our past.”

“Please work on this for me,” McConnell wrote to Ridgeway, signing her letter, “Your friend, Olivia.”

Nice idea. Good rationale. But then, along come the sanctimonious bible-floggers.

Sen. Kevin Bryant, a pharmacist and self-described born-again Christian who has compared President Obama with Osama bin Laden, voted to sustain a veto by Governor Nikki Haley of funding for a rape crisis center, and called climate change a “hoax,” proposed amending the bill to include three verses from the Book of Genesis detailing God’s creation of the Earth and its living inhabitants—including mammoths.

Bryant told The Daily Beast that the intent was never to hijack the bill. I think it’s a good idea to designate the mammoth as the state fossil, I don’t have a problem with that. I just felt like it’d be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils.

Bryant’s proposed amendment was originally ruled out of order by Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell (no relation to Olivia) because it introduced a new subject. Bryant has since submitted a more on-topic amendment, describing the Columbian Mammoth as created on the Sixth Day with the beasts of the field.

The bill is now on hold. Olivia has apparently been following the legislative process as it moves along, and now has first-hand experience with stupidity, and has learned a valuable lesson in cynicism. Jeez, I’m a cynical old guy, and I’m pissed off.

I hope Olivia can retain some enthusiasm for science, even if she has lost faith in politics.

A shame

Ken Ham is very proud to have spent a half-million dollars to buy a genuine, rare allosaur skeleton, which will now be locked up in a non-research institution and used to gull the rubes. It’s all part of their grand plan to pretend to be a scientific institution, while doing everything in their power to corrupt the public understanding of science.

What a shame.

And of course they’re going to use it to lie to visitors. Here’s what Andrew Snelling, their pet pseudoscientist, says about it.

As a geologist, Dr. Snelling added that unlike the way most of the Morrison Formation bones had been found scattered and mixed, the intact skeleton of this allosaur is testimony to extremely rapid burial, which is a confirmation of the global catastrophe of a Flood a few thousand years ago.

Lovely logic. Because the bones this one example were unscattered, it somehow supports their claim that it was killed 4000 years ago in a global flood. What? There’s nothing in the distribution of the bones that can be said to support a particular age for the specimen, and even if it were killed in a flood, floods do happen — it says nothing about a global catastrophe.

And if unmixed bones equal Recent Global Flood, what does it say that they admit that “most of the Morrison Formation bones had been found scattered and mixed”?

The rest of the press release is revealing in that it mentions that money for this grand exhibit, and another half-million dollars, came from one family — one very, very rich family — with far more money than sense. Just another demonstration that being an idiot does not interfere with the process of getting rich.

The most precious jewelry in the world

It’s not the Koh-I-Noor or the Empress Eugenie Brooch or whatever my wife is wearing right now, it’s this:

neandertal_shell

It’s a small, broken fossil shell, collected from a fossil outcrop and transported 110 kilometers to a hole in the ground in Italy. Close inspection reveals that before it was broken, there was a pattern of abrasion in one spot that suggests a hole had been drilled in it and a loop of sinew threaded through it. Although most of it has been worn away by time, bits of material in microscopic pits on its surface reveal that once, this shell had been painted with red ochre.

It doesn’t sound like much. But then, what makes it precious is the burden of antiquity it carries: it’s about 47,000 years old, and it was made by Neandertals.

A few Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites preserve exotic objects with no obvious functional role and striking visual appearance such as quartz crystals, fossils, shells, and natural objects mimicking human or animal shapes. These are interpreted as the first evidence for the ability to distinguish ordinary from exotic items, to create conscious cultural taxonomies, and/or to detect iconicity in the natural world. Some argue these sporadic finds would have prompted the mental bridge between referent and referrer thus igniting the creation of symbolic material cultures. Although this possibility cannot be discarded, three reasons may favor the interpretation of the Aspa marginata from Fumane as a pendant, i.e. an object conceived to be suspended for visual display body through threading or stringing. The attention put to uniformly cover the outer shell surface with good quality red pigment suggests that this action may have been performed to make the object suitable for visual display. The wear detected on the inner lip, made of overlapping groups of striations oriented perpendicular to the shell main axis, is consistent with a sustained friction produced by a cord rich in abrasive particles, such as sinew. The absence of pigment on the shell fracture is most consistent with this item being used as a pendant.

It’s art. Very, very old art, made by a people who are completely extinct today, from a culture of which we have almost no knowledge, just these lost scraps with all context lost. That also adds great value to the object, that it is such a tiny fragment of knowledge, that it reminds us of how little we actually know about these long-gone people. Tens of thousands of years from now, if anyone is going through our decayed rubbish heaps, they aren’t going to find the Mona Lisa, a well-preserved space shuttle, or sheet music from a Beethoven symphony — they’re going to find a broken plastic toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or a nicely symmetrical fragment of a concrete traffic bollard, and I suspect it will be regarded as a great and rare treasure then, too.

I also just find it wonderful to contemplate — that over 40,000 years ago, our relatives found enough stability and security in their communities that they had time to express themselves, and that they naturally exercised their minds and hands to create art, and that they worked to adorn themselves.


Peresani M, Vanhaeren M, Quaggiotto E, Queffelec A, d’Errico F (2013) An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68572. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068572

Coelacanths are unexceptional products of evolution

The coelacanth genome has been sequenced, which is good news all around…except that I found a few of the comments in the article announcing it disconcerting. They keep calling it a “living fossil” — and you know what I think of that term — and they keep referring to it as evolving slowly

The slowly evolving coelacanth

The morphological resemblance of the modern coelacanth to its fossil ancestors has resulted in it being nicknamed ‘the living fossil’. This invites the question of whether the genome of the coelacanth is as slowly evolving as its outward appearance suggests. Earlier work showed that a few gene families, such as Hox and protocadherins, have comparatively slower protein-coding evolution in coelacanth than in other vertebrate lineages.

Honestly, that’s just weird. How can you say its outward appearance suggests it is slowly evolving? The two modern species are remnants of a diverse group — it looks different than forms found in the fossil record.

And then for a real WTF? moment, there’s this from Nature’s News section.

It is impossible to say for sure, but the slow rate of coelacanth evolution could be due to a lack of natural-selection pressure, Lindblad-Toh says. Modern coelacanths, like their ancestors, “live far down in the ocean, where life is pretty stable”, she says. “We can hypothesize that there has been very little reason to change.” And it is possible that the slow genetic change explains why the fish show such a striking resemblance to their fossilized ancestors.

Snorble-garble-ptang-ptang-CLUNK. Reset. Does not compute. Must recalibrate brain.

None of that makes sense. The modern fish do not show a “striking resemblance” to their fossilize ancestors — they retain skeletal elements that link them to a clade thought to be extinct. This assumption that Actinistian infraclass has been unchanging undermines their conclusions — the modern species are different enough that they’ve been placed in a unique genus not shared with any fossil form.

Then the argument that they must live in a stable environment with a lack of natural-selection pressure is absurd. Selection is generally a conservative process: removing selection pressures from a population should lead to an increase in the accumulation of variability. Do they mean there has been increased selection in a very narrowly delimited but stable environment?

But even that makes no sense. We should still be seeing the accumulation of neutral alleles. Increased selection is only going to remove variability in functional elements, and most of the genome isn’t. I suppose one alternative to explain slow molecular evolution would be extremely high fidelity replication, but even that would require specific selection constraints to evolve.

This article broke my poor brain. I couldn’t see how any of this could work — it ignored the fossil evidence and also seemed to be in defiance of evolutionary theory. It left me so confused.

Fortunately, though, the journal BioEssays came to my rescue with an excellent review of this and past efforts to shoehorn coelacanths into the “living fossil” fantasy, and that also explained the molecular data. And it does it plainly and clearly! It’s titled, “Why coelacanths are not ‘living fossils’”, and you can’t get much plainer and clearer than that.

First, let’s dismiss that myth of the unchanging Actinistian. Here’s a phylogeny of the coelacanth-like fossils and their one surviving species.

coelacanth_fossils
Comparison of extant and selected extinct actinistians, commonly known as coelacanths. A phylogeny of Actinistia; schematic sketches of body outlines and approximate body length (given in metre) illustrate the morphological diversity of extinct coelacanths: some had a short, round body (Hadronector), some had a long, slender body (Rebellatrix), some were eel-like (Holopterygius) whereas others resembled trout (Rhabdoderma), or even piranha (Allenypterus). Note that the body shape of Latimeria chalumnae differs significantly from that of its closest relative, Macropoma lewesiensis.

Love it. I’ve been looking for a diagram like this for a long time; creationists often trot out this claim that coelacanths haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years, and there you can see — divergence and variation and evolution, for hundreds of millions of years.

In addition, we can look in more detail at the skull and limbs of these animals. This drawing is comparing modern Latimeria with its closest fossil relative, and even here there are dramatic differences in structure.

actinistian_bones

Comparison of the skeleton of extant and selected extinct coelacanths. A–D: Latimeria and its sister group Macropoma show numerous skeletal differences. A, B: Overall view of the skeletal organisation of the extant coelacanth and of its closest relative. A: Latimeria chalumnae. B: Macropoma lewesiensis. Relative to the body length, in L. chalumnae the vertebrae are smaller, the truncal region of the vertebral column is longer and the post anal region is shorter than in M. lewesiensis. In the latter region, the hemal arches (ventral spines) extend more ventrally in M. lewesiensis than in L. chalumnae. In addition, the swim bladder is ossified in Macropoma but not in Latimeria, and the basal bone of the first dorsal fin is characteristic of each genus. C, D: Comparison of the skulls of L. chalumnae and M. lewesiensis. C: In L. chalumnae, the mouth opens upward, the articular bone (yellow) is long and narrow, the parietonasal shield (red) is short, the premaxillary bone (orange) is devoid of denticle ornamentation, the dorsal part of the cleithum (light brown) is spiny, and the scapulocoracoid (green) is located on the ventral side. D: In contrast, in M. Lewesiensis, the mouth opens forward, the angular bone (yellow) is triangular, the parieto-nasal shield (red) is long, the premaxillary (orange) protrudes and forms a hemispherical snout which is ornamented with prominent denticles, the dorsal part of the cleithrum (light brown) is thick, and the scapulocoracoid, (green) is located more medially. Modified from [3]. E: Pectoral fin skeleton of L. chalumnae (above) and Shoshonia arctopteryx (below). The three first preaxial radials are numbered from proximal to distal. In L. chalumnae the fin appears nearly symmetrical because radial bones (orange) are arranged nearly symmetrically about the fin axis. The proximal preaxial radials 1-2 are extremely short and bear no fin ray, and the preaxial radial 3 is short and fractionated. In contrast, in S. arctopteryx the fin is strongly asymmetrical chiefly because proximal preaxial radials are long and all bear fin rays.

The authors make it clear that this idea of morphological conservation of the Actinistians is simply bogus.

In addition, an examination of the skeleton of the fossil genus Macropoma (approximately 70 Ma), the sister group of Latimeria and the only known fossil actinistian record from the Cretaceous to the present, shows some interesting differences. Not only are the extant coelacanths three times larger than their closest extinct relatives (about one and a half metres vs. half a metre), but there are also numerous structural differences. The swim bladder is ossified in Macropoma but filled with oil in Latimeria, indicating they were probably found in different types of environments. There are also noticeable differences in the vertebral column (the post anal region is shorter and ventral spines extend less ventrally in M. Lewesiensis compared with L. chalumnae), and in the attachment bones of the fins. In addition, Macropoma and Latimeria have distinctly dissimilar skull anatomies, resulting in noticeable differences in head morphology.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that external morphological resemblances can be based on a very different internal anatomical organisation. The most often emphasised resemblance between coelacanths is that they all have four fleshy-lobed-fins. Until recently, the anatomy of the lobed fins of coelacanths was only known in Latimeria, in which the pectoral fin endoskeleton is short and symmetrical. In 2007, Friedman et al. described the endoskeleton of the pectoral fin of Shoshonia arctopteryx, a coelacanth species from the mid Devonian, and therefore contemporary with Miguashaia. They showed that this earliest known coelacanth fin endoskeleton is highly asymmetrical, a characteristic that is probably ancestral since it resembles the condition found in early sarcopterygians such as Eusthenopteron, Rhizodopsis or Gogonasus. This result is additional support, if needed, that extant coelacanths have not remained morphologically static since the Devonian.

Well, so, you may be wondering, what about the molecular/genomic data? Doesn’t that clearly show that they’ve had a reduced substitution rate? No, it turns out that that isn’t the case. Some genes seem to be more conserved, but others show an expected amount of variation.

However, a closer look at the data challenges this interpretation [of slow evolution]: depending on the analysed sequence, the coelacanth branch is not systematically shorter than the branches leading to other species. In addition, most phylogenetic analyses – including analysis of Hox sequences – do not support the hypothesis that the Latimeria genome is slow evolving, i.e. they do not place coelacanth sequences on short branches nor do they detect low substitution rates. The clearest example, which involves the largest number of genes, is a phylogeny based study of forty-four nuclear genes that does not show a dramatic decrease, if any, in the rate of molecular evolution in the coelacanth lineage. What we know about the biology of coelacanths does not suggest any obvious reason why the coelacanth genome should be evolving particularly slowly.

So why is this claim persisting in the literature? The authors of the BioEssays article made an interesting, and troubling analysis: it depends on the authors’ theoretical priors. They examined 12 relevant papers on coelacanth genes published since 2010, and discovered a correlation: if the paper uncritically assumed the “living fossil” hypothesis (which I’ve told you is bunk), the results in 4 out of 5 cases concluded that the genome was “slowly evolving”; in 7 out of 7 cases in which the work was critical of the “living fossil” hypothesis or did not even acknowledge it, they found that coelacanth genes were evolving at a perfectly ordinary rate.

Research does not occur in a theoretical vacuum. Still, it’s disturbing that somehow authors with an ill-formed hypothetical framework were able to do their research without noting data that contradicted their ideas.

Maybe a start to correcting this particular instance of a problem is to throw out the bad ideas that are leading people astray. The authors strongly urge us to purge this garbage from our thinking.

Latimeria was first labelled as a ‘living fossil’ because the fossil genera were known before the extant species was discovered, and erroneous biological interpretations have grown and reports still show little morphological and molecular evolution. A closer look at the available molecular and morphological data has allowed us to show that most of the available studies do not show low substitution rates in the Latimeria genome, and furthermore, as pointed out by Forey [3] long before us, the supposed morphological stability of coelacanths from the Devonian until the present is not based on real data. As a consequence, the idea that the coelacanth is a biological ‘living fossil’ is a long held but false belief which should not bias the interpretation of molecular data in extant Latimeria populations. The same reasoning could be generalised to other extant species (such as hagfish, lamprey, shark, lungfish and tatuara, to cite few examples of vertebrates) that for various reasons are often presented as ‘ancient’, ‘primitive’, or ‘ancestral’ even if a lot of recent data has shown that they have many derived traits [58–64]. We hope that this review will contribute to dispelling the myth of the coelacanth as a ‘living fossil’ and help biologists keep in mind that actual fossils are dead.

But of course we also shouldn’t let that color our data. If analyses showed a significantly reduced substitution rate in the evolution of a species, it ought to get published. If nothing else, it would be an interesting problem for evolutionary theory. Coelacanths, though, don’t represent that problem.


Amemiya CT, Alföldi J, Lee AP, Fan S, Philippe H, Maccallum I, Braasch I, Manousaki T, Schneider I, Rohner N, Organ C, Chalopin D, Smith JJ, Robinson M, Dorrington RA, Gerdol M, Aken B, Biscotti MA, Barucca M, Baurain D, Berlin AM, Blatch GL, Buonocore F, Burmester T, Campbell MS, Canapa A, Cannon JP, Christoffels A, De Moro G, Edkins AL, Fan L, Fausto AM, Feiner N, Forconi M, Gamieldien J, Gnerre S, Gnirke A, Goldstone JV, Haerty W, Hahn ME, Hesse U, Hoffmann S, Johnson J, Karchner SI, Kuraku S, Lara M, Levin JZ, Litman GW, Mauceli E, Miyake T, Mueller MG, Nelson DR, Nitsche A, Olmo E, Ota T, Pallavicini A, Panji S, Picone B, Ponting CP, Prohaska SJ, Przybylski D, Saha NR, Ravi V, Ribeiro FJ, Sauka-Spengler T, Scapigliati G, Searle SM, Sharpe T, Simakov O, Stadler PF, Stegeman JJ, Sumiyama K, Tabbaa D, Tafer H, Turner-Maier J, van Heusden P, White S, Williams L, Yandell M, Brinkmann H, Volff JN, Tabin CJ, Shubin N, Schartl M, Jaffe DB, Postlethwait JH, Venkatesh B, Di Palma F, Lander ES, Meyer A, Lindblad-Toh K. (2013) The African coelacanth genome provides insights into tetrapod evolution. Nature 496(7445):311-316.

Casane D, Laurenti P (2013) Why coelacanths are not ‘living fossils’: A review of molecular and morphological data. Bioessays 35: 332–338.


Larry Moran beat me to it!

Only a bird

Another feathered dinosaur has been found in China, prompting Ken Ham to dig in his heels and issue denials.

Yet another supposed “feathered dinosaur” fossil has come to light, again in China. (Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, AiG–U.S., reported on another Chinese fossil of a supposed feathered dinosaur in April 2012) Now, one headline described the fossil as “almost birdlike,” and the authors of the report in Nature Communications note many features the fossil shares with living birds, particularly those that live on the ground. In fact, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell and Dr. David Menton (AiG–U.S.) both examined the photos of the fossil and the criteria the authors used in classifying the fossil as a dinosaur. They agreed that it is a bird, not a feathered dinosaur.

Oh, really? It’s just a bird? Take a look at this image of Eosinopteryx, and you tell me.

eosinopteryx2

Notice a few things about this animal: it’s got teeth. The forelimbs have clawed digits. It has a long bony tail. It lacks the bony keel that anchors breast muscles in modern birds.

The only thing that might cause you to question its dinosaur nature (and it’s a criterion that’s proving more and more inappropriate) is that lovely gray fringe of feather impressions that surround the whole fossil. And look at those forelimbs! It looks like it has stubby wings. It does not, however, have the skeletal and muscular structure to allow for extended flapping flight, and the wings are way too short for it to have been an adequate flyer.

But Mitchell and Menton and Ham looked at that and said ‘ALL BIRD’. They’re idiots.

Ham goes on: there are no transitional forms, he squeaks, there can be no transitional forms, transitional forms don’t exist…all while looking at a winged, feathered reptile with teeth and claws and a bony tail.

The fossil record doesn’t reveal any kind of dinosaur-to-bird evolution—and it certainly does not show a molecules-to-man evolution. We have no proof of transitional forms, and we won’t. God’s Word says clearly that He created animals and plants according to their kinds (Genesis 1). Through genetic loss and other factors, new species have emerged over time—but birds are still birds and apes are still apes. Nothing in the history of biology has legitimately shown that dinosaurs could develop the genetic information to evolve into birds.

Pitiful. Pathetic. I’d like to see a creationist sit down in front of me with that illustration and try to defend the claim that it’s only a bird.


Godefroit P, Demuynck H, Dyke G, Hu D, Escuillie F, Claeys P (2013) Reduced plumage and flight ability of a new Jurassic paravian theropod from China. Nature Communications 4, 1394. doi: 10.1038/ncomms2389

Methinks it is like a sauropsid

Eugene McCarthy, the author of that crackpot stabilization theory, has discovered my review and is now making a noise on twitter. He’s gone from thanking me profusely for mentioning him, to whining that I stole his figures, to complaining that I don’t understand his theory at all, all in the last 24 hours.

But here’s the fun part. Recall that one of his bizarre claims is that whales did not evolve from terrestrial artiodactyls, but from mosasaurs, mesozoic marine reptiles, instead. But the anatomy shows that mosasaurs are derived squamates, reptiles, with a completely different skeletal organization than a mammal. This has attracted the attention of Darren Naish and Tom Holtz, fully qualified comparative anatomists and paleontologists, who actually know a great deal about the structure of these animals, and are giving him a spectacular ass-whooping. Browse it on Twitter.

The basis of his claim is that mosasaur teeth “look like” sperm whale teeth. That’s not a good criterion, and it’s not true; as has been pointed out to him, basal mosasaurs are pleurodont (that is, the teeth are fused to the inner side of the jaw bone), not socketed as are sperm whale teeth. He’s also now claiming that mosasaurs swam by vertical motions of their tails, like whales…but he’s citing articles with poor comprehension. The cited articles show evidence that mosasaurs propelled themselves with axial motions of the tail, which is a far more general statement; they moved by sweeping their tails like oars, but it says nothing about vertical vs. horizontal undulations.

So I went back to McCarthy’s book to see how he backed up this ridiculous claim. He doesn’t. He cites Pieter Camper, an 18th century anatomist, as proposing the idea that whales are related to mosasaurs. His critics are citing contemporary and detailed papers. This, however, is really the totality of McCarthy’s argument:

The varanid theory was based on Adriaan Gilles’ assertion that certain skeletal characters found in mosasaurs are not found in modern whales. However, a glance at figures 9.4 and 9.5, will convince most readers that mosasaurs have much in common with early whales. Certainly, they have far more in common with whales than does the late Cretaceous terrestrial insectivore traditional theory posits as the common ancestor of whales and all other placental mammals (it should be emphasized that all of the various forms classified as mosasaurs, too, are of late Cretaceous age). They are also far more similar to whales than is Pakicetus. One would not expect the ancient ancestors of whales to have every characteristic of modern whales. Their dissimilarity with respect to a few minor bony traits should not be allowed to obscure the well established fact that mosasaurs were huge, whalelike, air-breathing animals with whalelike teeth and that they had the same sort of prey as modern whales.

The referenced figures are grainy, low resolution images that do not do an adequate job of displaying the structures. The “dissimilarity with respect to a few minor bony traits” is trivialized; these are actually substantial differences in the arrangement and number of bones in the skull, where the mosasaur displays a fairly standard reptilian pattern and the whales show a mammalian pattern. They only look alike if you don’t look at all closely. How can you say that the jaw joint or the auditory complex of a whale look anything like that of a reptile? Only by not looking.

His other argument is that it would take fewer evolutionary changes to transform a mosasaur into a whale, than a shrew into a whale. This is nonsense. Turning a reptile into a mammal requires a major reorganization of the bones of the skull, and further, requires that those shifts exactly mimic the pattern found in other mammals. There is no reasonable way to accomplish that. Again, the basis of his entire argument is a complete ignorance about the anatomy!


This is the well-supported pattern of whale evolution. Notice: no mosasaurs.

whale_evo