\ Visualizing Evolution: 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Linkfest: Spider, Orangutan, and a dozen others

Last entry for the year! Hope everyone enjoys their extra second of 2008! Now some links:

From Science Daily: How the Spider Spun Its Web: Missing Link in Spider Evolution Discovered
Even in this form, spiders creep me out.

From National Geographic News: Whistling Orangutan May Hint at Language Evolution

From Wired Science: 12 Elegant Examples of Evolution

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Darwin - Big Idea Big Exhibition

London's Natural History Museum just opened an exhibition in celebration of Darwin's 200'th birthday in February. Darwin Big Idea Big Exhibition is on display until April 19th, after which I really, really hope it becomes a traveling exhibition. Mainly so I ogle this with my face pressed helplessly against the glass:

These photos are from the slide show on the Natural History Museum website, by the way. That first one is of course Darwin's notebook, and the very first cladogram he drew when working out his idea.
And here is a model of the HMS Beagle. I have always wanted a model of the HMS Beagle. Always, always.
These are the mockingbirds Darwin collected on the Galapagos. The birds there inspired Darwin to think about species changing over time.
Is this a first edition of On the Origin of Species? Why yes! Yes it is!

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra is having a Darwin exhibition of their own until March 29th. And theirs features this Augustus Earle painting!
If you're lucky enough to be close to either of these museums, don't miss out!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Weekend Poetry

I got an email from Craig Gosling today, and he sent me some more poems! So, Weekend Poetry is back!
Archaeopteryx Nightmare

The Archaeopteryx is fictitious, shall I tell you why?
It doesn’t fit into God's plan; it's just a secular lie.
Fossils found all over the world are not the missing links.
As is said of fishy facts, something in Denmark stinks.

I can't let facts get in the way when I read my bible.
I can't let science confuse me, it's simply secular libel.
How can scales turn into feathers, a beak turn into teeth?
How can legs turn into wings, the concept causes me grief.

As I lay me down to sleep, I hope I don't have dreams
Of flying reptiles with feathers and teeth, animals so extreme.
The Archaeopteryx cannot exist, the bible tells me so.
Fossils are lies and science is wrong, this I truly know.

I'll stick to claims of Iron Age profits with faithful resolution
and ignore all those scientists who do swear by evolution.
Archaeopteryx, you never lived, you're not a missing link;
you don’t fit into God's plan, for those of us who don't think.

- Craig Gosling

Also, I see this has been bumped from the front page yet again... *sigh*
I'll have an actual blog entry sometime this week, once I sort through all the Google Alerts in my inbox I've ignored for the past two weeks. Ciao

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

AMI Website

The Association of Medical Illustrators has finally launched their new website, and I am extremely impressed with it (especially considering what we used to have.)

Check it out: www.ami.org

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tiktaalik (Your Inner Fish)

The star of the 2008 Penn Reading Project and everyone's favorite tetrapod, Tiktaalik now has his own music video!

Music by the Indoorfins

Penn Reading Project
And here's a video interview with Tyler Keillor, the artist and fossil preparator who made the Tiktaalik model, which won the 2008 Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for three-dimensional art.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cladograms: History, Diversity, and/or Geography

Cladograms at their most basic level give information on which species or groups of species are most closely related--in other words, which have the most recent common ancestor. Cladograms can also give information on evolutionary history (how long ago the branching events occurred) and diversity (which branches became most 'successful').

Here is one from Nature that does both of these things:
What's more unusual is to have a phylogeny that also includes geographical information. I came across this one yesterday on the blog Living the Scientific Life:
Read the above linked blog for a summary of the article. I'm just here to show you the cladogram! This one combines the traditional phylogeny with history (in this case by color-coding the nodes and including a key) and geography, by ending each branch at the location of the modern species. In this case it seems to have worked out cleanly, with only one case of crossed lines. But, I'd imagine other attempts, perhaps with non island-dwelling species, would be much messier.

What I want to find now is a cladogram that manages to combine all three: evolutionary history, diversity, and geography, in one image. Perhaps in some cases it would even be possible to place the nodes on the geographical location where the common ancestor is thought to have lived!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Evolution of a Tasty Meal

Someone on SomethingAwful.com, in a thread on wallpapers, shared this awhile back and I forgot to post it! Unfortunately, I don't know where it's from originally. Watermark your digital art, people!

Never mind the fact it shows a dinosaur evolving from a pelycosaur. It's cute!
click for big

Monday, December 8, 2008

Illustrating Turtle Evolution

New fossils of the earliest-known turtle, Odontochelys semitestacea ("toothed, half-shelled turtle"), have given new, and long searched-for, evidence of how turtle shells evolved. Press release here.
dorsal view

Here you can see the full plastron and the partial shell extensions which grew out to form the partial upper-shell. The take-home messages of this find are:
  1. Odontochelys was likely aquatic
  2. Odontochelys had a plastron (lower shell) but not a full carapace (upper shell)
  3. Odontochelys had teeth! (all modern turtles have toothless beaks)
The challenge to the illustrator is to communicate all of these ideas in one image. Illustrator Marlene Hill Donnelly of the Field Museum in Chicago solved this problem in an efficient way: by drawing two turtles! One from above and one from below.
illustration by Marlene Hill Donnelly - click for big!

What a beautiful and bizarre looking creature! For more on turtle evolution, check out the UCMP Berkeley's page on anapsids here.
extra photo because turtles are awesome

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lego-man March of Progress T-shirt

Here's yet another take on the March of Progress illustration, this time from a really cool design and T-shirt place called Glennz.com. Clever stuff! I might have to own that rocking horse shirt...

edit: and while I'm posting evolution T-shirts, here's another awesome one from BustedTees:

Friday, December 5, 2008

My Royal Ontario Museum visit

I'm back! Just as I predicted, there weren't many VE posts in November. Over the week of Thanksgiving, I visited Toronto, Ontario, where I went to graduate school and lived for two years. I spent an entire day at the ROM (the Royal Ontario Museum) taking photos. Tons of photos. Maybe some will even be useful as references for scientific illustrations in the future. Here are a few of them now:

It was my first time seeing the inside of the Crystal, and the reopened Dinosaur Hall. I think I noticed the Oviraptor first:
The coolest dinosaur. The new exhibit had a couple of features I really liked. For one, the displays included these nice illustrated cards which showed in color which parts of the fossil were real and which were casts.
... so that when you look at the actual fossil, you know what's actually original! Which is something fossil nuts appreciate.
In addition to lots of impressive dinosaur mounts, which I won't show all of here, the dinosaur hall also had some more humble displays prominently featured, such as this one comparing living and fossil pine cones:
Sometimes the surprising thing about evolution is how organisms don't change over time! Similar to this was a display of fossil insects, with live--er--recently killed... extant? insect specimens for comparison:
Nice cricket!
Tucked away in a side room, I almost missed Plateosaurus, a critter I'm all-too familiar with due to its similarity to Massospondylus.
He's right by the bathroom. Seems pretty disrepsectful for the most famous of prosauropods... And this Pachycephalosaurus was just too : D for words:
: D

There was a mom there with a couple of young kids, a boy and a girl. We were the only ones in the dino hall, and I was just terribly impressed with them. They were going through very slowly, not just looking and saying "oh cool!" but reading the descriptions, watching the videos, and she would ask them questions, like "so is a chicken a dinosaur?" to which they'd give an enthusiastic "yeah!"

I bumped into the kids at the Bambiraptor, where I informed them that Bambiraptor was like a tiny, feathered Velociraptor and probably the cutest thing that has ever lived on the planet.
The Bambiraptor display also included a few other feathered dinosaurs such as Caudipteryx and several panels about the bird-dinosaur relation, including this illustration showing skeletal morphology comparison. Or, for the kids, look at how the dinosaur and the bird have lots of bones the same!
Tucked away in the corner of the 2nd floor of what used to be the building's main entrance, they have a neglected collection of Burgess Shale fossils. It's such a dissapointment that these don't have a better location. They're not even properly lit back there in the dark. And they should be on display someplace obvious... too many people will miss them! And they have an Anomalocaris!
This is one of my favorite critters of all time. And I had to use the flash on my camera to even get a photo.
Move the Burgess Shale display, ROM! Please put it somewhere better or at least put some lights over it!

I arrived at the Rom at about noon on Tuesday, photographed everything in the dino and mammal halls, then had some lunch, wandered the bird room and bat cave, went upstairs to the archaeology/history sections, and finally saw the special exhibit on diamonds, where no photos were allowed and arm guards were everywhere. I got about 6 inches from the Incomparable Diamond which was... well... you know what? It's a rock. I just couldn't get excited about it.

I guess it is kind of pretty, though.
It was pretty dark by the time I left...
After buying this most excellent book at the gift shop, I left the ROM and met a couple of Asian women for Korean food and then ice cream. Or Yogurt...? I think it was some sort of ice-yogurt hybrid. It was delicious.
It was a good day.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Well, as of Saturday, I am an American tourist in Canada for the entire week! I'm not sure how my internet connection will be while I'm there, so this blog may sit neglected until December, but I do plan to visit the Royal Ontario Museum at least once, to see what kinds of new displays they have that visualize evolution (surprise, surprise).

I'm also looking forward to finally seeing what's inside of that weird crystal they built over the course of the two years I actually lived there:
I guess I have a love-hate relationship with it from the outside. I reserve judgment until I see the interior. The dinosaur exhibition should be awesome, though.

In addition to touristy stuff like museums and the CN tower and all that, I also plan to use this time away from my regular life and responsibilities to type my NaNoWriMo book. As of today, I'm exactly on schedule. I mean, to-the-word (33,333 as of Friday). I want to clear 50,000 by Thursday night so I can board my plane the next morning feeling good about having a relaxing weekend. My stats graph may not reflect that depending on internet availability though:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Therapsid Evolution

I spotted this fantastic illustration of therapsid evolution by Carl Buell ("Olduvai George") over at Paleoblog. It's from the Donald R. Prothero book Evolution: What the Fossils say and Why it Matters, which has been in my Amazon 'wish list' for months. With illustrations like this, I pretty much have to click that "check out" button, now.

click for big!

It's similar to other line-of-descent drawings we've already looked at, but he's obviously done a few things here to make his version very dynamic. It reads from bottom-to-top instead of the standard left-to-right, and the pose changes from left to right-facing. Looking at this piece you can't help but see it as an animation, with the animal morphing as it roars and turns its head. Perhaps you even hear the sound of its vocalization change as it becomes more mammalian. How does it sound?

I don't even think he needed that motion blur to get the effect. In fact, if I wasn't as busy as I am, I'd take this thing into Photoshop and erase out the motion blur to prove it!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Simpsons visualize evolution

I'm a bit busy with NaNoWriMo: and I'm leaving for Kansas City to see COLDPLAY on Thursday, so there won't be an update here for awhile. So here's that great and surprisingly accurate Simpsons evolution intro. I don't think I've posted this yet... Enjoy!

Monday, November 3, 2008

"M&Ms prove Darwin was right"

This is from Roger Ebert's blog--something someone sent to him. It's amazing:
"I received this message on the blog, but it obviously fits no known topic. The author is something of a mystery: "R. Crutch," no city, no e-mail. But I felt it necessary to share with you. RE

From R. Crutch:

Whenever I get a package of plain M&Ms, I make it my duty to continue the strength and robustness of the candy as a species. To this end, I hold M&M duels.

Taking two candies between my thumb and forefinger, I apply pressure, squeezing them together until one of them breaks and splinters. That is the "loser," and I eat the inferior one immediately. The winner gets to go another round.

I have found that, in general, the brown and red M&Ms are tougher, and the newer blue ones are genetically inferior. I have hypothesized that the blue M&Ms as a race cannot survive long in the intense theater of competition that is the modern candy and snack-food world.

Occasionally I will get a mutation, a candy that is misshapen, or pointier, or flatter than the rest. Almost invariably this proves to be a weakness, but on very rare occasions it gives the candy extra strength. In this way, the species continues to adapt to its environment.

When I reach the end of the pack, I am left with one M&M, the strongest of the herd. Since it would make no sense to eat this one as well, I pack it neatly in an envelope and send it to M&M Mars, A Division of Mars, Inc., Hackettstown, NJ 17840-1503 U.S.A., along with a 3x5 card reading, "Please use this M&M for breeding purposes."

This week they wrote back to thank me, and sent me a coupon for a free 1/2 pound bag of plain M&Ms. I consider this "grant money." I have set aside the weekend for a grand tournament. From a field of hundreds, we will discover the True Champion.

There can be only one."

One fun and engaging way to teach the foundations of natural selection to kids is to lay out large pieces of colored construction paper, representing different 'environments'-- red, green, blue, yellow, and brown--then spread out some M&M's, dim the lights, and let the kids simulate predation and go wild eating for a few minutes.

Then flip on the lights and have them count how many of each color are left in each environment. Bam! Natural selection!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Spore as a visualization of evolution... almost.

I was going to do an entry on the dumbification of Spore, but PZ Myers has already covered it better than I ever could,
"What I was looking for in Spore was for someone to take a look with a gamer's eyes at the process of science and extract from it the puzzle-solving essence and make it approachable and entertaining; instead, they seem to have given up on the science and instead created animated plush dolls for amusement's sake."
so head over to Pharyngula and become as depressed as I am about what Spore could have been.

Also, the blog entries this month are going to be few and far between, as I've become caught up in the excitement of NaNoWriMo, which is bound to take up what little writing energy I have left at the end of the work day. Not sure if I'll make the 50,000 words by November 30th, but... so far, so good:
I actually have 3460, but for some reason the widget won't update.
(edit: Hey, look at that! The widget updated! Neat!)

Yes, the book has strong themes about evolution! Yes, I might even finish it in a month, but it won't be easy. In fact, the first person who replies to this post with some short words of encouragement for me gets a character in the book named after them--and you can even decide if he or she gets killed off or not!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Illustrating sauropod hands

From his archives, there's yet another useful post for paleoartists from Tetrapod Zoology:

The hands of sauropods: horseshoes, spiky columns, stumps and banana shapes

It's a great reference and synopsis, and he explains the reasons for the anatomy of the sauropod wrist in context of its evolution from bipedal ancestors (the prosauropods, of which I am painfully familiar).
(from Milàn, J., Christiansen, P. & Mateus, O. 2005. A three-dimensionally preserved sauropod manus impression from the Upper Jurassic of Portugal: implications for sauropod manus shape and locomotor mechanics. Kaupia 14, 47-52.)

I wonder how the wrist structure of the ceratopsians and stegosaurs differ from that of sauropods, given that they also evolved their quadrupedalism separately.

And to the author Darren Naish...
"I also want to note that in no way is it the 'fault' of the artists concerned, given that (1) they've mostly based what they've done on the published work of those who have gone before them, and (2) while many of them have a history of working with palaeontologists, none of the experts they've been advised by before have bothered to tell them what they've been getting wrong."
...I must say thank you! This is so true about science art in any topic, but you could also add that (3) publishers often care more about having a quick deadline than accuracy which forces artists to trust the accuracy of whatever source material and information is given to us.

Now I'm hoping I'll get to do some sauropod work eventually so I can use this good information. The prosauropods I drew for my masters project (See Anatomy: Pages 4 & 5) were bipedal and didn't walk on their hands as adults.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Linkfest: Sexy Plumage

First, "ask and ye shall receive"! Thanks to everyone who offered and/or sent me a pdf of the nature article in my last post. The pictures look much clearer since I was able to grab them directly from the source! And I promise I'm actually going to read the entire article once I have the time!

Now a couple of links.

Science Crimes: How the Democrats Tried to Destroy Dinosaur Art - you can't make this stuff up. Politicians certainly weren't subtle back in the day.
"Work on the paleozoic museum caught the attention of William 'Boss' Tweed, the notorious figurehead of the city's corrupt Democratic political machine, who denounced the project (there was no apparent graft that could be had from an institution built around collecting fossils). Hawkins, a Londoner raised to believe in the virtue of making public declarations at Hyde Park Corner, held a demonstration in support of the museum during which he openly denounced Tweed. That evening, Tweed's henchmen entered Hawkins's studio and destroyed the dinosaur sculptures."

Early Dinosaur's Feathers Were for Show, Not Flight - A good example for demonstrating that evolution is not goal-oriented. The Jurassic Epidexipteryx couldn't fly, but sported fancy feathers which, like those of a modern peacock, could be used to entice the ladies.
"How YOU doin'?"

Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death
- Slightly off-topic maybe, but I found this Scientific American article too mind-blowing to not share.
"...the brain is like any other organ: a part of our physical body. And the mind is what the brain does—it’s more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?"
Er... and uh, finally, I just noticed that my lovely Coldplay evolution photo has been bumped from the front page, so here it is again, color-balanced to match my blog layout! (Oh god, someone help me!!)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ubiquity of Branching Structures

These are from an old Nature article The Phenogenetic Logic of Life, Figure 3: Ubiquity of branching structures in living organisms. (Nature Reviews Genetics 6, 36-45 (January 2005))

I can't talk about the actual article because I'm no longer a student with access to the online periodicals, and don't really want to pay the $35 to download the pdf. I'm also going to now resist the very strong temptation to digress into a rant about the cost of online journals and get on to the images. At least I have the captions!

"Multiple applications of branching logic show the logical symmetry of evolution among organisms and development within them."

In other words... visual trees can be used to demonstrate the evolution of organisms, the diversification of cells within an organism, and the resulting anatomical structures of development.

First, two on evolution and speciation:

a. "Charles Darwin's attempt to reconstruct Ernst von Baer's idea that embryos of contemporary similar species, such as vertebrates, have diverged from a common early-embryonic form."

b. "Darwin's sketch of his idea of divergence of species from a common ancestor."

See the original here. I definitely prefer to look at the aged inky version in Darwin's own pen strokes.

The next two are not about evolution, but rather the divergence of cells within a single organism. The patterns that emerge as cell types diversify are similar to those of species diversification:

c. "Divergence of the sequence of a single gene, or members of a gene family, from a common ancestor (the example of photoreceptors and olfactory receptors is shown)."
And similarly:

d. " The divergence of tissues from a single cell within an organism."

Now let's get organismal (is that a word?) and look at branching patterns found in anatomy:
e. "Schematic representation of the fractal-like mammalian bronchial (lung) tree."

And one from the world of botany:

f. "The source of the metaphor — real branches."

$35 ... seriously.