Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Featured Creatures of the Month

“The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”
~ Albert Einstein

A couple of days ago Scientific American reported a discovery that adds a strange new meaning to the term "water wings": scientists have found the first known amphibious insect species. The critters in question are a type of Hawaiian moth caterpillars. And the big surprise is, their larvae do equally well in water and on land.

But that's not the strangest critter news of the month. Science writer and paleontology fancier Brian Switek reports on his blog Laelaps the discovery of two truly weird additions to the already weird menagerie of the Cambrian era, which lasted from 0.3 million to 1.7 million years ago (or, if you're a creationist, 10,000 years ago). It was a time when a vast profusion of new creatures burst into existence and the ancestors of most modern creatures first emerged.

The first critter, whose name is Herpetogaster collinsi, seems to be a shrimp on a stick with parsley growing from its head — a sort of self-generating shrimp salad. Switek writes, "Herpetogaster collinsi [is] the latest fossil to be named from the famous 505 million year old Burgess Shale of Canada." The Burgess Shale is one of our planet's richest sources of fossils — the Smithsonian Museum alone has over 65,000 specimens collected there.

The second new discovery, Kiisortoqia soperi (above), looks a bit more familiar, like a trilobite with feathers. Switek notes: "Found in the Early Cambrian (~540-510 million years ago) rocks of North Greenland, Kiisortoqia soperi was an arthropod with a simple head shield, a segmented body, and two long appendages sticking out in front of it." Pretty, isn't it. It's fascinating stuff; I recommend spending some time on Switek's blog to learn more.

As the chart below illustrates, an awful lot has happened since the Cambrian era, and we humans missed most of it. Perhaps that's why so many of us love learning what the fossil record reveals.

"The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit / not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviate from their graves."
~ Henry David Thoreau

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