Mother of all squid!


Well, more like great-great-many-times-great-aunt of all squid, but it’s still a spectacular fossil. Behold the Cambrian mollusc, Nectocaris pteryx.

(Click for larger image)

Reconstruction of Nectocaris pteryx.

This was one of those confusing, uninterpretable Cambrian animals, represented by only one poorly preserved specimen. Now, 91 new specimens have been dug up and interpreted, and it makes sense to call it a cephalopod. It has two camera eyes — not arthropod-like compound eyes — on stalks, an axial cavity containing paired gills like the mantles of modern cephalopods, and a flexible siphon opening into that cavity. There are also subtle similarities in the structure of the connective tissue in the lateral fins. Obviously, it has a pair of tentacles; no mouthparts have been preserved, but there are hints in the form of dark deposits between the tentacles, which may be all that’s left of the mouthparts — and are in the right place for a cephalopod ancestor.

There are still mysteries. There’s no hint of a shell; previous theories had postulated a shelled common ancestor to squid, nautiloids, and ammonoids, but either this was a specialized branch that lost the shell, or modern cephalopod groups independently re-evolved the structure. It also has only two tentacles! Again, we don’t know whether this was the ancestral condition, or whether Nectocaris is the product of a derived fusion. Known cephalopod Hox genes use a novel combinatorial scheme to encode arm identities, so I guess I wouldn’t be too shocked if the eight- to ten-arm condition is a relatively recent (in geological terms!) innovation.

About that great-aunt remark…here’s where their analysis places the Nectocarids, as a Cambrian side-branch of the group that led to the modern forms.

(Click for larger image)

Phylogenetic position of the nectocaridids. Arrows indicate the crown groups of 1, molluscs; 2, conchifera; 3, cephalopods. Stars represent the earliest record of mineralization in each lineage. Clade divergence times (dotted lines) are unconstrained. Early branches follow previous phylogeny.

Note the dotted lines everywhere — those are lineages that we haven’t found in the fossil record yet. Nectocaris is small (about 4cm long) and softbodied, and it required excellent preservation for any trace of them to survive. Specimens from the beginning of the Cambrian, representative of the groups indicated by the red arrows at 1 and 2, would be wonderful to have…but they’re also going to be forms that wouldn’t have been ideal for fossilization. Clearly, we need to fund more paleontology.

Ed Yong has more to say at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Smith MR, Caron J-B (2010) Primitive soft-bodied cephalopods from the Cambrian. Nature

Republicans discover sarcasm, don’t like it much

I’ve been receiving a lot of mail lately urging me to pharyngulate the America Speaking Out site, but when I saw what it was about, I held off…I could tell what kind of self-screwing it was going to be. Here’s the premise: the Republicans saw, in their remote and confused sort of way, that the internet (aka “series of tubes”) had some real potential, and looked really smart, and maybe if they took advantage of it, they could look a little less yokely and rubish. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.

Lest you think Republicans are just discovering the Internet, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) let it be known that “House Republicans have tweeted five times as many as the House Democrats. Leader Boehner has almost five times as many Facebook fans as Speaker Pelosi.” Boehner grinned and gave a double thumbs-up.

Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) contributed to the discussion by twice giving out the wrong address for the new site.

So what did they do that was making them so pathetically proud? They created an open web site to formulate an agenda for the future of the Republican party, where anyone could make any proposal, and everyone could vote on it. No filters, except against profanity. The doors are open, y’all are invited to come on in and tell the Republicans what to do.

The results are predictable: complete chaos. Teabaggers are raving, liberal saboteurs are inserting all kinds of crazy suggestions, and you can’t tell them apart. You tell me; which of the following suggestions are serious, and which are taking the piss?

A ‘teacher’ told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish! And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story.

Require all Muslims in the U.S. to wear ankle bracelet transponders so we know where the terrorists are at all times.

We should administer capital punishment to anyone who has an abortion. In order to cut costs that the death penalty normally entails, we will have lax gun laws that will allow people to obtain guns with greater ease. Then we would allow the “free-market” to dictate whose philosophy wins out – the liberals irrational philosophy or our logical and God following philosophy. Liberals who have abortions would be taken care of by a militia of the willing who will get rid of all liberals who take the life others irrationally and will allow us to remove all of our opponents to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

all leaders should proclaim faith in Jesus Christ. anyone who does not, like muslims and atheists should be removed from office.

It’s like Poe’s Law written out all across the country, on every subject. It’s insane.

They’ve also discovered another little problem: Americans are rushing to take part in the hilarity, and this error message is coming up all the time.

A very high volume of Americans are speaking out right now.

Please wait a moment and try again.

I bet they are. Every basement-dwelling troglodyte with an opinion, and every laughing liberal looking for a giggle, is hitting that site right now. And once again, the Republicans are looking like incompetent idiots.

Northern Ireland culture is apparently cuckoo

The Culture Minister for Northern Ireland is a born-again Christian kook who has decided that the Ulster Museum is insufficiently respectful of the notion that a magic man in the sky poofed the universe into existence in 4004 BC — the farmers on the plains of Mehrgarh and the potters of Mesopotamia were probably greatly surprised to be conjured out of chaos so abruptly, their shock only exceeded by the later confused state of Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty, which was simultaneously exterminated by a great flood from that psychopath, Jehovah, and also continued unbroken with no notice of their extinction for another 150 years. Resilient folk, those Egyptians.

Anyway, the nutcase in question, Nelson McCausland, has demanded more attention be paid to his clueless creation myth. No, not the interesting myth with Fomorians and Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan, not even the one with frost giants and cows licking people into being, but some weird Hebrew fairy tale.

Nelson McCausland, who believes that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel, has written to the museum’s board of trustees urging them to reflect creationist and intelligent design theories of the universe’s origins.

The Democratic Unionist minister said the inclusion of anti-Darwinian theories in the museum was “a human rights issue”.

McCausland defended a letter he wrote to the trustees calling for anti-evolution exhibitions at the museum. He claimed that around one third of Northern Ireland’s population believed either in intelligent design or the creationist view that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago.

Weird. I had no idea the Protestants of Northern Ireland and our Native Americans all belonged to the same peripatetic tribe. Or that preaching ignorance and lies was a human right that must be supported by the government.

At least the appeal to a majority ruling on science was familiar creationist nonsense. When will these loons learn that museums and schools should only teach the stories that are sensible, rational, and right and not simply every random every eruption of lunacy that some deluded clique finds compatible with their dogma?

You will not be surprised to learn that McCausland is a member of DUP, and is a Paisleyite, another crazy creationist Bible-walloper. He also uses the same justification of appeal to the mob to defend his views on homosexuality.

I would not be a supporter of Gay Pride, and I think that in spite of attempts to portray it as an event that’s going to boost the country and increase the number of major events in the city, I think the majority of people in Northern Ireland would have great reservations and in many cases strong opposition to it.

I believe it is the will of God that relationships should be heterosexual. I believe that’s what God intended and planned. But I would not treat anyone unfairly.

It’s fascinating how often bigotry and ignorance go together. One might almost speculate that there’s a causal relationship there.

(via Pagan Prattle)

Thank you, BP; thank you, Transocean Ltd.; thank you, Halliburton


While the parties responsible struggle to shift the blame, the Gulf oil spill has reached the shore, as this tragically long photo essay shows. There is a cost to these risky ventures in offshore drilling, and they are not adequately paid by the companies doing the dirty work.

Those who would profit need to pay the price. There are clearly at least three companies that shouldn’t be arguing…they should be coughing up the cash, and recognizing that their businesses will have to be slightly less profitable.

I should add these to my CV

Some of you may know that I have a Wikipedia page. Others may know that I also have a page on Conservapædia, which helpfully links to this site with a warning, “Non-family-friendly content warning” (it must be effective, I get almost no traffic from it). Now, though, I have discovered a page that tells the real-live genuine bonafide truth about me: I’m on Uncyclopedia. You shall be horrified at what I have done, as was I.

I am reminded that I should not forget Rational Wiki!

Rally for community health in Chicago, and a few other places, TODAY

The anti-vax loons are having a rally in Grant Park, in Chicago, today at 3-5pm. The wretched fraud Andrew Wakefield will be speaking there, encouraging more parents to make their children vulnerable to pathogens and to act as vectors for the spread of disease. Some people are taking action and moving in to spread factual information — if you’re in the area and have some time, help them out.

They are also having ‘satellite rallies’ in Edison, NJ, New York City, and Kent, WA. I’m dismayed at that last one, that’s my hometown…and it’s being held in the public library. I practically grew up in that library (at least, its prior architectural incarnation). If you’re in those towns, stop by share some truth with these dangerous kooks, too.

Episode LX: Revenge of the bunny

We have a wicked, psychotic cat who went insane during a time when we were fostering other cats for the humane society — some cats just don’t tolerate novelty and company — and ever since he’s been plotting to kill me. The only reason we’re keeping him around is that I’m pretty sure he’s the feline anti-christ, and confining him to our house in Morris means he won’t be conquering the world any time soon.

He attempted a prison break today, though, and ran loose in the yard for a while. And what happened? He found a baby bunny, killed it, and brought it back into the house. Then he gave me that “you’re next” stare.

So I’m showing him this video now. I’ve told him that it’s the mommy bunny, and she’s joined the house guard, so he’d better not leave now.

Talk about anything but satanic cats.

(Current totals: 10,294 entries with 1,005,077 comments.)