Weird Dinosaurs

Deinocheirus mirificus at the “Dinosaures. Tresors del desert de Gobi” exhibition in CosmoCaixa, Barcelona, February 2011. Photo by Eduard Solà. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I tore through every dinosaur book I could find in every public library I encountered. Some of those books were extremely dated. In the 1970s and 1980s books from the 1940s were still in the children’s section, even science books, so nomina dubia like Antrodemus and Trachodon showed up repeatedly, and the art was, in hindsight, anatomically risible. Kids these days have no idea how bad it used to be.

But there was one book — one I actually owned — that stands out in my memory even now: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs by L. B. Halstead. (The paleontology blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs covers it here and here.) Published in 1975, the book was on the cusp of the dinosaur renaissance and is, in Marc Vincent’s words, “an odd, uneasy melding of new and old ideas here, both in the text and in the art.” Some of those ideas were just plain weird, and since disproven: a species of Compsognathus with paddles instead of hands, stegosaurs whose plates lay flat against the body, that sort of thing.

But the weirdest thing in that book, assuming I’m remembering it correctly (I’m pretty sure this was the book I saw it in), was not a dubious interpretation, but a fossil: two gargantuan, eight-foot-long arms, discovered in Mongolia in 1965, named Deinocheirus. The arms were all that was known of the dinosaur.

What did the rest of Deinocheirus look like, I wondered. The arms had claws, so they clearly had to come from some gigantic theropod. But that would make it bigger than Tyrannosaurus and that’s just crazy talk. The mystery preoccupied me for years. In the eighth grade I actually made Deinocheirus the subject of a two-minute speech I was required to give in English class: I gave a junior-high cargo-cult scientific talk in which I speculated that Deinocheirus was a quadruped, a cat-shaped dinosaur predator. It was the only way I could reconcile the size of those arms.

Deinocheirus mirificus restoration
Deinocheirus mirificus restoration. Art by FunkMonk. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

But in 2014 the rest of Deinocheirus was announced to the world, and the truth proved more bizarre than my childhood imagination. It was an ornithomimosaur, but at 11 metres long and more than six tons in weight, one that traded speed for size and mass. It was horse-faced and hunch-backed, toothless and omnivorous, and apparently food for the local tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus.

The story of Deinocheirus, its initial discovery, and how the rest of it was found nearly forty years later, is just one of the stories that make up John Pickrell’s latest book, Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, out next month from Columbia University Press.

Book cover: Weird DinosaursPickrell’s thesis that after decades of relative stability, the field of dinosaur paleontology is changing more rapidly than ever before. Thanks in part to a generation of Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologist, he writes, “”More dinosaurs are being discovered right now than ever before — and not just a few more: the rate of discovery has been increasing nearly exponentially.” If libraries could get away with having decades-old dinosaur books on the shelves when I was growing up, that’s not the case any more. Even a dinosaur book a decade old is out of date.

The title is a little click-baity, especially coming from a university press; Pickrell is at pains to explain what he means by weird in the introduction: “Really, I mean dinosaurs that fall outside existing stereotypes, but dinosaurs are also weird in the sense that they display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” A weird dinosaur, then, is one that upsets that consensus and our expectations.

Pickrell has plenty of examples: Deinocheirus, to be sure, but also the batlike Yi qi from China, the double-sickle-clawed Balaur bondoc from Romania, feathered ornithischians from Siberia and Alaskan dinosaurs from north of the Arctic Circle. Opalized dinosaur fossils from Australia that had been broken up for their gem value before their paleontological worth was realized.

If you’ve been following paleontological bloggers like Brian Switek you’ll recognize many of the species and stories Pickrell recounts.

But Weird Dinosaurs isn’t just about the weird dinosaurs: each chapter is as much about the discovery of the dinosaur, the process and the people involved in the discovery (replete with colourful characters, intrigue and controversy in some cases — there are some great stories here) and the location it was discovered. One of the reasons why these dinosaurs seem so weird to us is that they’re coming from new sites in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Madagascar, Mongolia, Romania — even Antarctica. The fossil record is the tiniest sample of what existed: you can’t extrapolate the Mesozoic from the Cretaceous bone beds of North America.

So to a certain extent, what’s weird is simply what’s new — like an explorer finding something utterly ordinary for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs were always feathered: we didn’t know they were feathered until recently, and it wasn’t until even more recently that we began to understand that many dinosaurs were feathered — that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs may well have been utterly normal.

Weird Dinosaurs is science journalism: it’s not a technical book, but it’s not written at an introductory level either. A certain level of dinosaur knowledge is required. If you know the difference between a saurischian and an ornithischian, and know the general dinosaur groups (sauropods, ceratopsians) and the more commonly known species, you should be fine. But since these are the sorts of facts that dinosaur-mad children have down cold before the age of eight, this should not limit Pickrell’s readership too much.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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It’s Simply the Wrong Time of Year for Unfertilized Corn Snake Eggs

So our 10-year-old female Okeetee corn snake, variously known as Little Miss Adorable, LMA and Ella Mae, started laying infertile eggs yesterday.

This is not unheard of — our female bullsnake, Lucy, and our leucistic Texas rat snake, Snowflake, have done this once or twice — so while we were surprised (February is really out of season for this sort of thing), we were not completely unprepared. Egg binding can be a thing, so we threw together a nesting box full of sphagnum and vermiculite, and then a larger box of sphagnum and vermiculite because her cagemate, Pretzel, wanted to curl up in there as well.

This does explain her recent behaviour: missing the last two or three meals (unheard of for a corn snake, except when gravid), restlessly pacing her cage and upending the furniture (much to the annoyance of Pretzel, who is twice her age and much more seclusive).

Five eggs so far, all infertile —  she’s never so much as shared a cage with a male snake, and for good reason: corn snakes are the second-friskiest snake species known to captive husbandry. This is much to the annoyance of the (aptly named) Trouser, the male corn snake who lives in the next cage, who I suspect has been slowly going nuts about living next to two female snakes for years. But when I kept Pretzel and Trouser in the same cage, she would hollow herself out laying eggs that turned out to be infertile. The only surefire way to keep corn snakes from breeding is to segregate them by sex.

All things considered, infertile eggs — or, in the case of live-bearing snakes like garter snakes, egg masses — are a pretty rare occurrence. Caught us off guard this time, it did.

Update, Feb. 17: As of yesterday, LMA has laid an additional six eggs, for a total of eleven. Her backside looks appropriately hollow and she’s entered her post-egg-laying shed cycle, so we can stand down with respect to the risk of egg binding. There’d been some worry about that for a while: at one point it looked like had an egg just above the vent that was not going to pass.

A Perfect Machine

In Canadian sf circles, Brett Savory is best known as half of the husband-wife duo (with Sandra Kasturi) responsible for ChiZine PublicationsBrett — with whom, full disclosure, I am somewhat socially acquainted — recently stepped back from his publishing duties to focus on his writing. Not coincidentally, he has a new novel out: A Perfect Machine, while published by Angry Robot, is very much in the ChiZine ethos of dark and seriously messed-up speculative fiction, inhabiting the crossroads between science fiction, horror and bizarro fiction.

A Perfect Machine’s premise is bizarre enough: a secret society of Hunters and Runners operating on the margins of society, protected by a kind of amnesia that prevents outsiders from remembering what’s going on. Runners, when shot, do not die — they accumulate lead. Henry Kyllo is the first Runner (to his knowledge) whose body reaches 100 percent metal content — at which point, Runners believe, they achieve ascension. What follows is the story of his weird transformation, peppered by violence, intrigue and survival in the gutters.

From time to time while reading this relatively short book I would pause and mutter under my breath, “This is some seriously fucked-up shit, Brett.” Which I’m sure is what he was aiming for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book succeeds, because for me, at least, it didn’t. Its characters are Tourette’s-afflicted cardboard clichés. Its prose aspires to a toughness, a street-level grit, that it does not achieve, with repeated use of sentence fragments as paragraphs that gets old fast. And its transfigurative ending comes out of nowhere, failing to achieve anything other than absurd bathos. It’s quick-paced, but feels rushed — it’s a potboiler with some deliciously messed-up imagery, but it came off the stove a bit too soon. A Perfect Machine is basically a B movie in book form, with all that implies, both good and bad.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Herpetological Roundup

Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, New Zealand, Dec. 29, 2013. Photo by Flickr user _somaholiday. Creative Commons licence.
  1. Atlas Obscura on the comeback of the only remaining rhyncocephalian, the tuatara (Sphenodon). Breeding programs having more tuataras than they know what to do with is a nice problem to have. (I know people who, through zoo connections, have handled tuataras. I’ve never so much as seen one in the flesh.)
  2. Kenya has banned the export of various snakes, including the African Rock Python (Python sebae), due to the impact of collecting and poaching on wild populations. I would have thought that there wouldn’t be much demand, relatively speaking, for the large and nasty African Rock Python, but they’ve been collected so much that, like overfished species, their full-grown size in the wild has diminished. [via]
  3. A plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts is running into opposition from local residents, though the island is a more isolated and remote reintroduction site than just about any other alternative. [via]
  4. The discovery of a rattlesnake in a Texas home led to 23 more turning up in the cellar, where they’d been overwintering.
  5. Ceal Klingler writes about the time that a Panamint Rattlesnake (Crotalus stephensi) came by for a visit. [via]
  6. That Arizona bill allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — which I mentioned in my last roundup — has apparently passed.
  7. The Mexican Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques) is endangered in Arizona, so residents presumably still can’t shoot it. It was believed to have disappeared from the Colorado River system, but it was recently spotted near Lake Havasu City, which has wildlife officials scratching their heads a bit. [via]
  8. I knew about caudal luring — when a predator wiggles uses its tail (usually wiggling it) to attract prey — but this report of Puff Adders (Bitis arietans) using their tongues to do it is something else.
  9. Painted turtles (Chrysemys) don’t leave the water to hibernate, even when it freezes: they spend the winter under ice. How does that work? How do they breathe? The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog explains.

Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.

The Stars Are Legion

Book cover: The Stars Are LegionI’ve read Kameron Hurley’s stuff before — namely her first novel, the Nebula-nominated God’s War (Night Shade, 2010) — so I knew what I was getting myself into with her violent and visceral new space opera, The Stars Are Legion, which comes out next month from Angry Robot in the U.K. and Saga Press in the U.S. and Canada.

A tale of intrigue, war, and betrayal set among a fleet of artificial worlds travelling through space, The Stars Are Legion could easily have been a less distinctive work, but for the fact that the worlds are organic — and, incidentally, dying — and exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans that inhabit them, who give birth to parts that maintain them. That Hurley’s archipelago of worlds is populated entirely by women is, in other words, essential to the survival of the whole apparatus, as well as to the story. But as regular Hurley readers might expect, survival is neither gentle nor pretty: those with body horror or other squicks be warned.

The main protagonist is Zan, a woman who has lost her memory. Sent repeatedly to attack a mystery world, Zan has no idea who she is or what she is supposed to do, though she has conspirators and collaborators who do, including the second protagonist, Jayd, who is given in marriage to the ruler of another world. The intrigue surrounding Jayd’s marriage is one plot thread; Zan remembering who she is, and her original mission, is another. The latter also enables Hurley to pull a Tiptree, viz., “start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” We’re just as much in the dark as Zan is; the shape of the universe reveals itself in starts and fits, as much to us as it does to her. (Though certain McGuffins do appear on obvious mantlepieces, and the reveal can be guessed at.) In the process of finding herself and her purpose, Zan goes on an unexpected journey through unexpected terrain, with scenes that to me are redolent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, that despite the blood, bone and viscera, manage a kind of awe that verges on the Clarkean.

This is a space opera like none other I’ve read, but it nonetheless combines adventure, passion, sound worldbuilding and compelling storytelling with that elusive sense of wonder so highly sought after in science fiction — and, it must be said, seldom found. Those who demand it may not expect to find it here, but find it here they will — that is, if they have the stomach for it.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Herpetological Roundup

Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor), Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Quebec, July 11, 2010.

Five things make a post:

  1. New tree frog genus. North American (and a few Asian) tree frogs previously included in the genus Hyla — including Gray and Green Tree Frogs — have been moved to a new, sister genus, Dryophytes, thanks to a major revision of tree frog taxonomy (PDF). This follows other moves to split genera that spanned continents: Bufo (toads), Rana (true frogs) and Elaphe (rat snakes) have all been split up; North American toads are now Anaxyrus, North American true frogs are now Lithobates (except on the Pacific coast), and North American rat snakes are now Pantherophis. So this is not really a surprise move.
  2. Water snake outreach. The Lake Erie Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) remains on Canada’s endangered species list, but it was removed from the U.S. list in 2011, after a rebound in its U.S. population, which now numbers 10,000 adults. An invasive fish, the round goby, has something to do with it: the water snakes happily feed on them. But public outreach played a role as well. On Cool Green Science, the Nature Conservancy’s blog, Ted Williams looks at the outreach efforts of Dr. Kristin Sanford, whose research showed that habitat loss was less of a factor than human persecution. Her (now quite dated) website: Respect the Snake.
  3. Don’t shoot snakes. An Arizona bill that would lift a ban on firing a gun within city limits if it’s to shoot a rat or a snake is facing opposition — from people opposed to shooting snakes.
  4. Do snakes fart? Scientists are building an animal fart database, and yes, snakes are included. While passing gas might not be a good sign for an obligate carnivore, if by fart we mean making noise while defecating, I can attest that snakes certainly do. (With some of my larger and stinkier charges, I usually hear it before I smell it — at least if I’m in the same room.)
  5. Stressed snakes strike first. A snake’s background level of stress — rather than the stress of encounter, handling or confinement — may determine how likely it is to strike, according to a new study. [LiveScience]

The Lightsaber Black Market

By the time of The Force Awakens, the Skywalker lightsaber is at least 50 years old. This suggests that lightsabers are extremely long-lived and durable and, considering that it spent most of those years locked away in storage, require nothing in the way of maintenance.

But if lightsabers are built to last, it does raise an interesting question: where are all the other lightsabers?

I mean, there used to be quite a few of them around. Prior to the Clone Wars there were apparently some 10,000 Jedi Knights, each of whom had their own lightsaber. After they were massacred — and at the time of The Force Awakens Order 66 is still within living memory — what happened to their weapons?

Presumably the Empire confiscated most of them — as we learned in Rogue One, the kyber crystals that power lightsabers were needed for the Death Star’s superlaser — but they would almost certainly have become a valuable black-market commodity. Even leaving aside their highly sought-after power source, lightsabers are extremely useful tools in their own right, good for slicing open tauntauns and a million other household uses — though it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to use one openly, unless one wanted to attract some ominously heavy-breathing attention. And for historical and nostalgic reasons any lightsaber would have an enormous collectible value, though few could command the price of the lightsaber wielded by both Skywalkers.

Small, easy to conceal, and nearly priceless, lightsabers would be a favourite cargo of smugglers and pirates. I wouldn’t be surprised if Han Solo ferried a few of them in his career. Several of them might well have passed through Maz Kanata’s hands before the Skywalker blade turned up. But you’d think she’d have tighter security on such a valuable item. It’s like any scavenger could just waltz in and touch it …

Pontiac and Ottawa Valley Writers Circle

The Pontiac and Ottawa Valley Writers Circle, a new group for fiction writers in my neck of the woods, is having its inaugural meeting next month in Portage-du-Fort. It seems a bit excessively structured for a group that’s just getting started, but is probably something I ought to check out — assuming they’re open to speculative fiction writers, that is. Coverage in The Daily Observer.