Sea life in this region survived a past warming event. Here’s how we can get the fuckers this time around.

I looked into this research because the headline was about how life in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to survive a warming-driven marine mass extinction 56 million years ago.

“Oh neat,” I thought. “Another bit of research showing is how we can help the biosphere weather the shitstorm we’ve created!”

And then I read the second sentence.

An ancient bout of global warming 56 million years ago that acidified oceans and wiped-out marine life had a milder effect in the Gulf of Mexico, where life was sheltered by the basin’s unique geology – according to research by the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).

Published in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology, the findings not only shed light on an ancient mass extinction, but could also help scientists determine how current climate change will affect marine life and aid in efforts to find deposits of oil and gas.

Oh. Oh yeah. We live in the Bad Timeline, where Irony came to die.

The research itself is interesting. Petroleum geology, as I understand it, is concerned with the most effective ways to find oil and gas deposits. This often means studying the stuff found when drilling, and then looking for those same things in other places to find new places to drill. This is one of those areas where the pyramid scheme of capitalism is creating what I would consider to be an ethical quandary for those scientists who’ve found profitable employment in service to corporate interests. We’re now at the point where an article is simultaneously studying how global warming caused a mass extinction in the past, while also working to accelerate the rate at which the planet is currently warming.

“Be sure to get the newest issue of Mass Murderers Monthly, where we study past and present mass murder, and use that knowledge to ensure the continuation of this noble tradition!”

“This event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM is very important to understand because it’s pointing towards a very powerful, albeit brief, injection of carbon into the atmosphere that’s akin to what’s happening now,” he said.

Cunningham and his collaborators investigated the ancient period of global warming and its impact on marine life and chemistry by studying a group of mud, sand, and limestone deposits found across the Gulf.

They sifted through rock chips brought up during oil and gas drilling and found an abundance of microfossils from radiolarians – a type of plankton— that had surprisingly thrived in the Gulf during the ancient global warming. They concluded that a steady supply of river sediments and circulating ocean waters had helped radiolarians and other microorganisms survive even while Earth’s warming climate became more hostile to life.

“In a lot of places, the ocean was absolutely uninhabitable for anything,” said UTIG biostratigrapher Marcie Purkey Phillips. “But we just don’t seem to see as severe an effect in the Gulf of Mexico as has been seen elsewhere.”

How nice for the ancient Gulf of Mexico. This time the region is littered with abandoned oil wells that will do their part to make the Gulf more hostile to life in exciting new ways! Still, it’s useful to consider what made the Gulf something of a refuge from an ongoing mass extinction.

The reasons for that go back to geologic forces reshaping North America at the time. About 20 million years before the ancient global warming, the rise of the Rocky Mountains had redirected rivers into the northwest Gulf of Mexico – a tectonic shift known as the Laramide uplift – sending much of the continent’s rivers through what is now Texas and Louisiana into the Gulf’s deeper waters.

When global warming hit and North America became hotter and wetter, the rain-filled rivers fire-hosed nutrients and sediments into the basin, providing plenty of nutrients for phytoplankton and other food sources for the radiolarians.

The findings also confirm that the Gulf of Mexico remained connected to the Atlantic Ocean and the salinity of its waters never reached extremes – a question that until now had remained open. According to Phillips, the presence of radiolarians alone – which only thrive in nutrient-rich water that’s no saltier than seawater today – confirmed that the Gulf’s waters did not become too salty. Cunningham added that the organic content of sediments decreased farther from the coast, a sign that deep currents driven by the Atlantic Ocean were sweeping the basin floor.

Basically, the factors that saved life in the region 56 million years ago, will almost certainly not save them now. Not only have some of the rivers changed their flow (the Colorado used to empty into the Gulf of Mexico), but we also don’t have a particularly sustainable relationship with fresh water, and the Mississippi Delta dead zone created by agricultural runoff is pretty much the inverse of the life-giving effect the researchers attribute to ancient rivers.

As always, I’m glad to know more. This is knowledge we can use, if we ever get around to doing something about our looming extinction. I also think this is evidence that if we do really start changing things, it will likely start improving ecological resilience downstream (literally, in this case).

When we talk about climate action, there’s a lot of stuff considered low-hanging fruit. Improving energy efficiency and putting solar panels along highways and railways are a couple examples. I think that we should also be expecting to take an active role in ecosystem management, even if it’s only out of self-preservation. As much as possible, we should be dong things that will make future action easier, and that will buy more time for that action. If we can figure out a way to stop polluting and draining our rivers (like maybe by changing how we grow food?), the rivers will start doing some of our work for us.

Unfortunately, none of that will matter until we stop actively making the problem worse. It’s maddening that people are still forging ahead, looking for new places to drill, even as they’re learning about how the conditions that industry is currently creating caused a mass extinction. It honestly feels like I’m watching people who’ve been completely brainwashed, to the point where they’re not even capable of considering that they need to stop.

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Whence chickens?

When I talk about changing our relationship with the rest of the biosphere, I often think of mutualistic relationships we’ve formed with other species over the years. The domestication of dogs is the most famous example, but we’ve formed relationships with all sorts of plants and animals over the millennia, and all of them about at different times, in different ways. I think it would be a bit much even for me to claim that understanding the origin of our relationship with chickens is somehow an important part of our fight for a better world. That said, I do think it’s fascinating to hear about how we got to where we are today.

Which brings us to this most important of questions: Whence chickens?

Earth is currently inhabited by tens of millions of chickens, almost all of whom spend their short lives in horrific conditions, because that’s the cheapest way to mass produce dead chickens, which are generally acknowledged to be delicious, if handled correctly. I think it’s also worth noting that the industrialization of animal agriculture is not how things have to be done. I think my favorite example was at the home of a Quaker in Cuba, who’d turned his yard into a tiny food forest, filled with edible plants (and maybe some medicinal ones? I don’t remember.), and a handful of very relaxed chickens. They had comfortable lives in a pleasant garden, and the humans got eggs out of the bargain. This seems to be pretty close to how we’ve interacted with chickens for most of our history with them.

New research transforms our understanding of the circumstances and timing of the domestication of chickens, their spread across Asia into the west, and reveals the changing way in which they were perceived in societies over the past 3,500 years.

Experts have found that an association with rice farming likely started a process that has led to chickens becoming one of the world’s most numerous animals. They have also found evidence that chickens were initially regarded as exotica, and only several centuries later used as a source of ‘food’.

Previous efforts have claimed that chickens were domesticated up to 10,000 years ago in China, Southeast Asia, or India, and that chickens were present in Europe over 7,000 years ago.

The new studies show this is wrong, and that the driving force behind chicken domestication was the arrival of dry rice farming into southeast Asia where their wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, lived. Dry rice farming acted as a magnet drawing wild jungle fowl down from the trees, and kickstarting a closer relationship between people and the jungle fowl that resulted in chickens.

This domestication process was underway by around 1,500 BC in the Southeast Asia peninsula. The research suggests that chickens were then transported first across Asia and then throughout the Mediterranean along routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician maritime traders.

During the Iron Age in Europe, chickens were venerated and generally not regarded as food. The studies have shown that several of the earliest chickens are buried alone and un-butchered, and many are also found buried with people. Males were often buried with cockerels and females with hens. The Roman Empire then helped to popularise chickens and eggs as food. For example, in Britain, chickens were not regularly consumed until the third century AD, mostly in urban and military sites.

I had no idea about any of this. I think if you asked me yesterday where chickens came from, I probably would have guessed that there were a number of related species of galliform fowl that were domesticated in different places around the world. I also would have guessed that chickens had always been raised for a mixture of egg production and meat.

I would not have predicted that people would be buried with them.

But I feel like I should have. Look at our history with other domesticated species. Cats, dogs, food plants – for as long as we’ve had burial ceremonies, we’ve buried our dead with things that were important in their lives, and a sociable animal that converts insects and seeds into an easily accessible source of protein? That’s pretty high up there in terms of importance.

I think the absurd abundance of food available in rich countries (though not so much for poor people in those countries) has led us to devalue the organisms from which we get our food. I’m nowhere close to the first person to have this thought. It’s been around for at least as long as capitalism, and possibly as long as big cities have been a thing. So, I hear me ask, how did the researchers go about figuring this out? Good question, me.

The international team of experts re-evaluated chicken remains found in more than 600 sites in 89 countries. They examined the skeletons, burial location and historical records regarding the societies and cultures where the bones were found. The oldest bones of a definite domestic chicken were found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, and date to between 1,650 and 1,250 BC.

The team also used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of 23 of the proposed earliest chickens found in western Eurasia and north-west Africa. Most of the bones were far more recent than previously thought. The results dispel claims of chickens in Europe before the first millennium BC and indicate that they did not arrive until around 800 BC. Then, after arriving in the Mediterranean region, it took almost 1,000 years longer for chickens to become established in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.

Again, this may be my modern perspective, but there’s something very funny to me about an international team of experts carefully evaluating ancient chicken remains. I really hope Gary Larson is aware of this work, because I think he’d get a kick out of it.

Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, said: “Eating chickens is so common that people think we have never not eaten them. Our evidence shows that our past relationship with chickens was far more complex, and that for centuries chickens were celebrated and venerated.”

Professor Greger Larson, from the University of Oxford, said: “This comprehensive re-evaluation of chickens firstly demonstrates how wrong our understanding of the time and place of chicken domestication was. And even more excitingly, we show how the arrival of dry rice agriculture acted as a catalyst for both the chicken domestication process and its global dispersal.”

Dr Julia Best, from Cardiff University said: “This is the first time that radiocarbon dating has been used on this scale to determine the significance of chickens in early societies. Our results demonstrate the need to directly date proposed early specimens, as this allows us the clearest picture yet of our early interactions with chickens.”

Professor Joris Peters, from LMU Munich and the Bavarian State Collection of Palaeoanatomy, said: “With their overall highly adaptable but essentially cereal-based diet, sea routes played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe.”

Dr Ophélie Lebrasseur, from the CNRS/Université Toulouse Paul Sabatier and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano, said: “The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, and yet were domesticated relatively recently is startling. Our research highlights the importance of robust osteological comparisons, secure stratigraphic dating and placing early finds within their broader cultural and environmental context.”

We’re at a point in history where we’re about to be forced to change a lot of things about how we interact with food. The current model of industrialized animal agriculture is not only cruel, it’s unsustainable. I know I said I wouldn’t claim that this research is essential to our fight for a better world, but I think that it is useful for us remember the ways in which our relationship with “livestock” has been different over the centuries.

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Oh yeah? You’re a cuttlefish fan? How many visual processing systems do they use to camouflage themselves?

The answer is two. Probably? Possibly?

Ok, so maybe it’s not a fair question. Apparently the most accepted answer is that they relied on a small handful of variations, without much room for judgement or finesse. The problem is, as the press release notes, cuttlefish seemed to have a lot more going on than would be needed for an “easy” answer like that.

A new study by City, University of London and others suggests that the European cuttlefish (sepia officinalis) may combine two distinct neural systems that process specific visual features from its local environment, and visual cues relating to its overall background environment, in order to create the body patterns it uses to camouflage itself on the sea floor.

This is in contrast to previous research suggesting that the cognitive (brain) processes involved are much simpler, in that the cuttlefish adopts one of only three major types of body patterns to visually merge with its background. However, that does not explain why the animal possesses about 30 different body pattern components it could use to achieve this.

I am by no means an expert on evolution, but in general, if I see some part of an organism that’s taking up energy without any apparent purpose, I assume that there is a purpose that I just don’t know about. That’s part of why I’m predisposed to believe the more complex system – it seems like a simpler answer overall.

The  study explored whether the cuttlefish uses a cognitive process that is triggered by specific, visual features in its environment and which warrants the number of body pattern components it possesses.

Like their cephalopod relatives the octopus and the squid, cuttlefish are masters at blending in with their environments, which is largely attributable to the way their brains are able to control how pigments in special cells called chromatophores on their skin are displayed across their bodies.

In the study, 15 European cuttlefish were independently acclimated to a small water tank in which they were randomly exposed to either a uniform, grey background, or one of seven backgrounds with detailed, patterned features (e.g., small black squares, small white squares, white stripes).  The animals’ camouflage responses to these visual cues were photographed with a camera, and then analysed to see which of the 30 body pattern components appeared activated across the sample of test subjects.

So 15 isn’t exactly a huge sample size, but as the researchers note, this is a preliminary study. Based on these results, the next step would be to get funding for a more rigorous investigation. This isn’t enough to give us a clear answer, but it does seem to create a compelling outline.

The analysis included a statistical technique called ‘principal component analysis’ (PCA) which searches for clusters of responses in the observed data and attempts to largely explain it with a reduced set of key characteristics of the data.

The results of the PCA found that a few key characteristics did not explain most of the variability in the experimental data, but which would have been expected if the cuttlefish were employing a cognitive system which was expressing only three body patterns. Instead, the findings were more in line with a system whereby the whole range of the animals’ body pattern components could be activated, but selectively and in limited numbers, in response to the patterned feature they had been visually exposed to in the water tank.

Whilst the study findings are preliminary, they are in line with a model in which European cuttlefish do employ a cognitive system that processes specific visual features of the environment,  and which is used in combination with a system which responds to the visual background overall. Furthermore, a model in which the visual feature system is implemented in a hierarchical fashion (i.e., when needed, to fine tune a basic response to the overall background), in order for the animal to create the myriad camouflage responses used on the sea floor.

Honestly, I hope I hear more about this soon. One of the novels I’ve got on the back burner would benefit a lot from a better understanding of how cuttlefish do what they do. Another reason I want to believe the more complex answer is that it would fit that story much better. I also think it helps explain why some cuttlefish are able to write poetry. On that note, I’ll leave you with an explanation of the current understanding from a few years ago:

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And as we tampered with the elements in our hubris, an ancient city emerged from the depths…

There are a number of ways in which climate change, and the effect it’s having on our planet, is absolutely fascinating. We get to see species and ecosystems evolve in response to things that have never happened in human history, let alone the history of the scientific method. If it wasn’t for all the death and misery, this would be a golden opportunity for research.

It still is an opportunity for research, despite the tragic circumstances, and we are learning things about our world, and also about ourselves. A drought in Iraq has dried up a reservoir to the point where a Bronze Age city has been uncovered.

Iraq is one of the countries in the world most affected by climate change. The south of the country in particular has been suffering from extreme drought for months. To prevent crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been drawn down from the Mosul reservoir – Iraq’s most important water storage – since December. This led to the reappearance of a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without any prior archaeological investigations. It is located at Kemune in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

This unforeseen event put archaeologists under sudden pressure to excavate and document at least parts of this large, important city as quickly as possible before it was resubmerged. The Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, and the German archaeologists Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz, University of Freiburg, and Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen, spontaneously decided to undertake joint rescue excavations at Kemune. These took place in January and February 2022 in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan Region of Iraq).


Within a short time, the researchers succeeded in largely mapping the city. In addition to a palace, which had already been documented during a short campaign in 2018, several other large buildings were uncovered – a massive fortification with wall and towers, a monumental, multi-storey storage building and an industrial complex. The extensive urban complex dates to the time of the Empire of Mittani (approx. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

“The huge magazine building is of particular importance because enormous quantities of goods must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region,” says Puljiz. Qasim concludes, “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire.”

The research team was stunned by the well-preserved state of the walls – sometimes to a height of several meters – despite the fact that the walls are made of sun-dried mud bricks and were under water for more than 40 years. This good preservation is due to the fact that the city was destroyed in an earthquake around 1350 BC, during which the collapsing upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.

Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake (Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO).

Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake (Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO).

I want to pause here to say that the United States in particular owes the people of Iraq for decades of meddling and war. No politician of that country can claim to care about peace or justice until reparations have been made, and that’s just one of many countries on that list.

I don’t know the exact damage this drought is doing, but given the condition the country was already in, this just feels like the universe is piling on. That said, I’m glad they’re able to take the chance to study this piece of history. Some of what they’re finding is pretty neat!

Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels that contained an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets. They date to the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake disaster struck the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are even still in their clay envelopes. The researchers hope this discovery will provide important information about the end of the Mittani-period city and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. “It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” Pfälzner says.

View into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope (Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO).

View into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope (Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO).

I’m generally frustrated by the way society is just carrying on as if we’re not facing an existential threat, but one big exception to that is the various fields of academia. Despite popular mythology, most of this stuff is woefully underfunded (understanding the past doesn’t seem to be profitable), and I’m honestly glad that these researchers are continuing to push ahead with their work as circumstances allow.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Nature says Happy Pride Month!

I’ll have something else up today, but I wanted to share this incredible rainbow waterfall with y’all. I know the tweet says “potentially sensitive content”, but that’s bullshit, and we can talk about why that might be some other time, perhaps

Edit: Turns out I was wrong. I got sidetracked by other projects, so this is all you get from me until tomorrow.

For now, enjoy the pretty video:


I’m gonna make a pollinator garden!

I’m often slow to do new things, but when I’m already feeling overwhelmed – as I was with the international move last year – I become downright glacial. I’ve been meaning to do some gardening since we moved here, but I’ve had trouble getting around to actually DOING it. Now, I’ve decided that I’m going to get a set of window boxes, and plant a pollinator garden on the roof of our storage shed. I’ll share pictures of the process as it goes forward, but for now I wanted to talk about why I’m doing this.

On the surface, it’s obvious, right? Insect populations around the world seem to be in a state of collapse, and that includes the ones that pollinate not just our food crops, but also the many wild plants that inhabit the ecosystems around us. There’s very little I can do about global use of pesticides, but I can at least try to make the landscape a bit more hospitable. There are a lot of flowering plants in my neighborhood, which is very nice, but I honestly don’t know if they meet the needs of everything that might be living around here. At the very least, adding another patch of flowers should help.

That’s not the only reason I’m doing this, though. I’m mainly doing it for my personal mental wellbeing. With everything going on in the world, it’s hard not to be consumed by apathy and despair. From what I can tell, the best counter to that is to find some way to take action. It’s not because the actions of any individual are going to change things, or even the idea that “if we all do it the world will be saved”. It’s more that our brains have a much easier time contemplating problems if we feel like something is being done about them. The more certain of that we are, the easier it is to think about something terrifying, like climate change. If the “something” that’s being done is being done by us, then there’s zero question about whether something’s being done, right? Because we’re the ones doing it.

So I’m gonna make a pollinator garden.

I’m also looking into things like neighborhood or river cleanup groups, because while I’d be perfectly happy with the life of a hermit, I feel I ought to practice what I preach. This may not be the most important work I could do, but I think it could help me make good connections, and get a better idea of what sort of thing I might prefer doing if this approach doesn’t work out

For the garden, I’m going to start by researching local pollinator species, and looking for gaps I might be able to fill. I’m also going to get some window boxes to put on top of my portion of the storage shed, as that seems like it might be a nice, out-of-the-way spot. I’m not sure if it gets enough sun, but I suppose that’ll depend on what seeds I can get. I can also see it out of the window of my workroom, so it should be pretty easy to keep an eye on the plants and see how they’re dong. I’ve seen a few bumblebees around this spring and summer, but nothing like what I’d expect for the weather, or the number of flowers around. I don’t know if that means my contribution won’t make a difference, and it feels a bit too little/too late, but I might as well try. I’ll also take pictures of the project as it develops.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Video: Disinvestment is class war

It’s not just the private sector that works to funnel money to the top. The government also plays its role in ensuring that poverty is miserable and dangerous enough to make people desperate for any wage they can get, no matter how bad the working conditions. It’s not a coincidence that the bipartisan response to people refusing to go back to work was to cut unemployment assistance, and try to use poverty to force people to go back. The United States, as a rule, treats poverty as a moral failing. Even as it’s made impossible to escape, poverty itself is seen as justification for mistreatment of poor people. It also justifies poor working conditions and poverty wages, because if they “deserved more” they’d have better jobs. It’s a vicious circle designed to deflect attention away from the simple fact that poverty is a policy choice.


Golden flying salamanders? In your redwoods? It’s more likely than you might think!

When I was in college, a fellow student bought several “flying” geckos to look into how much they actually steered while in the air. I honestly don’t recall what the verdict was, but I think they did fall differently when blindfolded. Helping with this research project also gave me a small insight into the exotic pet trade. These geckos were all wild-caught, and they all had worms when they arrived. In the end, seven of ten died before an effective treatment was found, and one not long after that. I’m sure that the stress of capture and transportation made everything worse. At the end, I took the two surviving geckos as pets, and they lived with me for about another year before dying.

It was always fun to see them catching the moths I gave them, and to watch them seemingly teleport from one side of the terrarium to the other, and it was fascinating to watch them steer towards the best landing spot (either the slanted sheet that was used as a net below the balcony, or the person holding that sheet). The way various lizards and frogs have evolved to be able to glide and navigate in the air has always fascinated me, but I have to admit that I never expected to hear of an arboreal, gliding salamander.

Salamanders that live their entire lives in the crowns of the world’s tallest trees, California’s coast redwoods, have evolved a behavior well-adapted to the dangers of falling from high places: the ability to parachute, glide and maneuver in mid-air.

Flying squirrels, not to mention numerous species of gliding frogs, geckos, and ants and other insects, are known to use similar aerial maneuvers when jumping from tree to tree or when falling, so as to remain in the trees and avoid landing on the ground.

Similarly, the researchers suspect that this salamander’s skydiving skills are a way to steer back to a tree it’s fallen or jumped from, the better to avoid terrestrial predators.

“While they’re parachuting, they have an exquisite amount of maneuverable control,” said Christian Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa and first author of a paper about these behaviors. “They are able to turn. They are able to flip themselves over if they go upside down. They’re able to maintain that skydiving posture and kind of pump their tail up and down to make horizontal maneuvers. The level of control is just impressive.”

The aerial dexterity of the so-called wandering salamander (Aneides vagrans) was revealed by high-speed video footage taken in a wind tunnel at the University of California, Berkeley, where the salamanders were nudged off a perch into an upward moving column of air simulating free fall.

“What struck me when I first saw the videos is that they (the salamanders) are so smooth — there’s no discontinuity or noise in their motions, they’re just totally surfing in the air,” said Robert Dudley, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight. “That, to me, implies that this behavior is something deeply embedded in their motor response, that it (falling) must happen at reasonably high frequencies so as to effect selection on this behavior. And it’s not just passive parachuting, they’re not just skydiving downwards. They’re also clearly doing the lateral motion, as well, which is what we would call gliding.”

I always love it when scientists discover something new about a species they thought they knew. I also love discovering animals with cool metallic coloring – just look at this little amphibious gold nugget!

A blue-gloved hand holding a salamander. The salamander looks to be a little bit longer than the width of the hand, and its skin is mottled black and metallic gold.

A wandering salamander found in Humboldt Co., California. (Photo credit: Christian Brown)

I think this story is really cool, and there’s more in the article I linked. I wanted to focus on one bit in particular. See, I’ve noticed that when it comes to discerning the evolutionary purpose for a given trait, I feel like one of the questions on any dichotomous key would have to be “does this conserve energy?”

Brown suspects that their aerial skills evolved to deal with falls, but have become part of their behavioral repertoire and perhaps their default method of descent. He and USF undergraduate Jessalyn Aretz found, for example, that walking downward was much harder for the salamander than walking on a horizontal branch or up a trunk.

“That suggests that when they’re wandering, they’re likely walking on flat surfaces, or they’re walking upward. And when they run out of habitat, as the upper canopy becomes drier and drier, and there’s nothing else for them up there, they could just drop back down to those better habitats,” he said. “Why walk back down? You’re already probably exhausted. You’ve burned all your energy, you’re a little 5 gram salamander, and you’ve just climbed the tallest tree on Earth. You’re not going to turn around and walk down — you’re going to take the gravity elevator.”

I’m of the opinion that life exists because it’s better at breaking things down than non-life. On a cosmic time scale, the entropy “lost” in the development of life is “regained” as we break down our environment to survive. That said, conserving energy is still a big concern for most organisms, so if there’s gonna be an arboreal salamander, it absolutely makes sense that controlled falling would be preferable to all that bothersome climbing.