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Obama vs Attenborough – showdown in the Ediacaran

The Ediacaran period (635-541 Ma) is perplexing for palaeontologists. From the Cambrian onwards (541 Ma – present), fossils are often quite easily recognisable as the remains of ancient life and can mostly be recognised and classified. The Ediacaran, on the other hand, requires a lot of head-scratching; even simply demonstrating that what is being observed is a body fossil can be fraught with difficulty. For the most part, Ediacaran organisms were soft-bodied and, when found as fossils, they are often preserved as casts. When simple body plans abound, it is easy to muddle up trace fossils, body fossils, and the products of abiogenic processes. Additionally, preservation bias can occur within a single organism composed of multiple parts – sometimes only a small part of the organism is preserved. It is sometimes necessary to demonstrate that the fossils in question are not simply a small part of a larger, more complex organism, but are much simpler.

Mary Droser’s research team from the University of California – Riverside have done that for two new organisms, one which has been described and the other which is due to be published. Droser described them as a new, unique body plan and it took them a while to verify that they were individual organisms (in the press release quotation, Droser mistakenly refers to them as animals, despite that not being verified). These new organisms are from a newly described fossil bed in the famous Flinders Ranges of Australia, which they have named the “Alice’s Restaurant Bed” after the Arlo Guthrie song. It’s quite a long song:

The paper describing the bed is titled You can get anything you want from Alice’s Restaurant Bed: exceptional preservation and an unusual fossil assemblage from a newly excavated bed (Ediacara Member, Nilpena, South Australia). Droser and her colleagues have a knack for memorable paper titles, a personal favourite of mine is When the worm turned: Concordance of Early Cambrian ichnofabric and trace-fossil record in siliciclastic rocks of South Australia. 

As already mentioned, they have named two new species, one is awaiting publication, the other has been named already in another memorably titled paperStuck in the mat: Obamus coronatus, a new benthic organism from the Ediacara Member, Rawnsley Quartzite, South Australia. (“Stuck in the mat” is a reference to the organism’s way of life, partially embedded in microbial mats.) This organism has been named after former US President Barack Obama to honour his passion for science, whilst the forthcoming organism has been named Attenborites janeae after naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough for his advocacy of science and support of palaeontology (Droser and Gehling both worked on Attenborough’s First Life documentary as well).

Obamus coronatus (left) and Attenborites janeae (right). Credit: University of California – Riverside

It seemed to me that Attenborough has a lot of organisms named after him and although I am a big fan of his, and I do think he deserves to have some organisms named after him, it seems to be overkill. So I had a bit of a look into how many organisms have been named after Attenborough, which also led me to find that Obama has a lot named after him too. So who has the most?

I haven’t excluded names which are no longer valid as the naming still happened in the first place.

Starting with Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS:

Source: EPA

The first organism named after the UK’s adopted grandfather was Sirdavidia, a plant, for which there is only one species (as far as I can tell). He has two other plants named after him, Blakea attenboroughi and Nepenthes attenboroughi, as well. The rest are all animals and include two spiders, Prethopalpus attenboroughi and Spintharus davidattenboroughi, the beetle Trigonopterus attenboroughi, the dragonfly Acisoma attenboroughi which was named to commemorate his 90th birthday, the crustacean Ctenocheloides attenboroughi, the fish Materpiscis attenboroughi, the echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi, and finally the plesiosaur Attenborosaurus. Add on Attenborites and it is quite the haul.

How does everyone’s most loved/hated former US President, Barack Hussein Obama II, compare?

Obama has no plants but he does have the lichen Caloplaca obamae. He instead boasts more animals, one of which belongs to the same genus as one of Attenborough’s: the spider Spintharus barackobamai. He also has the spider Aptostichus barackobamai to his name. There is also the blood fluke Baracktrema obamai, the beetle Desmopachria barackobamai, the bee Lasioglossum obamai, the horsehair worm Paragordius obamai, the fishes Tosanoides obama and Etheostoma obama, the bird Nystalus obamai, and finally the extinct reptile Obamadon. Again, once Obamus coronatus is added, that is quite the haul.

If you decided to tally up these organisms, you will have noticed that they are neck and neck on twelve apiece. Is there a way to declare a winner? Both have two genera each named after them but as far as I can tell they are monospecific, so we can’t toss a load of extra species onto one pile. Is there another way to decide?

There actually is as I held one back. The fish Teleogramma obamaorum is named for both Barack and Michelle Obama so it does add to his list. Astonishingly, Barack Obama has more organisms named after him than the arguably more appropriate David Attenborough. Michelle Obama isn’t limited to sharing with her husband; the spider Spintharus doesn’t just include the species S. davidattenboroughi and S. barackobamai, as there’s also S. michelleobamaae. 

Whilst I’m mentioning family members, Sir David’s late brother Richard Attenborough got in on the act as well. The Jurassic ankylosaur Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima gets its specific name from a combination of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Ariana Richards, and Joseph Mazzello.

One person who might envy Obama’s impressive list of namesakes is, of course, Donald Trump, who so far has the moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi and the fossil sea urchin Tetragramma donaldtrumpi. The latter was named simply because its discoverer is a fan of Trump, whereas the moth bears a striking resemblance due to its “hair” and apparently diminutive genitals:

By Close up photograph of the Head of a Male Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.jpg: Dr. Vazrick Nazariderivative work: Kmhkmh – This file was derived from: Close up photograph of the Head of a Male Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.jpg:, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55126737

 

I’m hoping he stops at two.

 

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My dog’s scientific papers

My dog is not the smartest of dogs. She knows barely any tricks and often does stupid things but sometimes she surprises me. Like the time we wrote a couple of scientific papers together. She’s called Peanut and she looks like this:

This is Peanut at her most majestic.

This isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of my dog, though here is another:

We actually wrote a couple of scientific papers together. Instead of focusing on palaeontology or science communication, the two things I should supposedly be able to write about, or rolling in fox poo and eating plants, which are Peanut’s areas of expertise, we decided to write a couple of papers on computer science. This is the first:

Looks good, right?

Have a good read of that and see how far you get. It is tempting to go off on a tangent and discuss how people have the propensity to perceive text to have deeper meaning if they have to invest a lot of time to understand it, leading to intelligent sounding statements which are really lacking in profundity, but that is a story for another time (that’s not a planned blog post, I don’t even write the planned ones). There is no meaning to this paper, it is all nonsense. I produced it using the automatic paper generator SCIgen, which creates fully formed papers including typical formatting, graphs, diagrams and citations, all of which is complete nonsense yet appears to be grammatically sound. It can even be downloaded as a pdf, our second paper looks like this:

Available on request from either myself or Peanut.

It is all a bit of fun but it does have a legitimate function. Journals suspected of having low publishing standards can be exposed by submitting a paper from SCIgen, as can predatory conferences which prey on inexperienced researchers in an attempt to exploit them for money. In case you are worried that computer science is flooded with SCIgen papers, there is even a free program designed to spot them. They do look good though:

Look, sciencey stuff.

Jump to the references in the paper and you should find that the authors – in this case, Peanut and me – have been involved with other papers. I was shocked to find that Peanut had been publishing papers as far back as 1999. Not only did I feel deceived but I am baffled too; she was born in 2007.

She’s been busy.

In case you wanted to see us hard at work, this is us (she is the hairier one):

This post has partly been an excuse to share pictures of my dog, follow her on Instagram at adogcalledpeanut if you want to see more pictures like this:

Just be aware that the Sun actually shines out of my dog’s arse:

And she is going to ditch her career in computer science to fly off on the Millennium Falcon:

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Doncaster Dinosaur Fouling

Most, if not all, councils have a page for reporting dog fouling in public places. My local council has one for reporting dinosaur poo, which you can see here.

Naturally, it’s not real. Instead, it’s a nice little bit of advertising for the local museum which has a new website, which you can see here. I recommend a visit, I used to volunteer at Doncaster Museum and they have some great material in their collection, a passion for local history, and they were always good to me as a volunteer.

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Pointless Dinosaurs

The BBC quiz show Pointless is the only quiz show I watch. The idea behind it, if you’re not familiar with it, is that every question has been presented to 100 people and the number of points for each answer depends on the number of people who responded correctly; as a contestant or a viewer joining in at home, you want to score as low as you can and, if possible, guess a coveted pointless answer (which increases the prize money). So not only do you need to know the answers, you need to be able to guess what others might not know. It rewards obscure knowledge. The only downside to the show really is that the prize money is incredibly low compared to a lot of run-of-the-mill quiz shows on TV. I would also like to see a more interactive version for viewers at home, particularly on the last round where only pointless answers will suffice – it is not always clear whether one achieved a pointless answer at home, as they only read out a handful of pointless answers.

Yesterday, there was a round on dinosaurs. I was hoping for something difficult; despite being a qualified palaeontologist, there are a lot of dinosaurs I either don’t know or would struggle to guess based on the limited information given. It seemed like a round where pointless answers could abound. Instead, this is what we got:

 

As I was watching the show with my mum, I allowed her to answer them. She found them all easy and even quoted Jurassic Park for C. Believe it or not, C was a low scoring answer whilst D was pointless. Out of 100 people asked, nobody knew the answer to D (if you ever read a study based on polling 100 people, remember, 0% of the British public knew the answer to D – it’s a small, useless dataset). I feel embarrassed for my country.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving the answers, however, if you genuinely need to know what they are, drop me a comment and I will provide them.

To follow it up, they had a very easy Star Wars round (I’m a Star Wars nerd) and the final round included an International Rugby category, which the finalists chose, and again my mum got a pointless answer (she often watches rugby when I have it on TV). Had we been on the show, we would have won it.

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Remind me, how many claws did a Velociraptor have?

I’ve had this sign for a while now, I think I got it in a Loot Crate, yet have only just noticed that rather well-endowed forelimb.

Ugh, no feathers either

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I have a Twitter account!

Despite not making regular use of this blog, I’ve decided to create a Twitter account to go alongside it. Naturally, if I get round to writing more regularly (I have a couple of half-written posts on the go), I will be posting them on the Twitter account, and it will also function as a place to quickly share science news which piques my interest, as well as sharing the tweets/links of researchers.

I’ve never used Twitter before so I’m getting used to it at the moment. Give me a follow and I’ll try to keep it up to date with some fascinating palaeo-related babble. Seeing as I don’t find time to write, yet I waste a lot of potential writing time browsing social media, this may well be a bit of a remedy. Check it out here: https://twitter.com/palaeobabbler

It was a rushed job, to be honest

It looks something like this.

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Blue Planet II is smashing the viewing figures

In one of the most reassuring signs this year, the cutting edge nature documentary series Blue Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is dominating in the ratings here in the UK. On the night of the season premiere on the 29th of October, Blue Planet II was watched by an average of 10.3 million live viewers, compared to 9,6 million for the Strictly Come Dancing viewers (which was on before), and 4.3 million for X-Factor. I end up watching the show on a Monday, whilst many others watch it through the week, apparently bringing the figures up to 14.01 million.

For the second episode, set in the darkest depths of the oceans, 10.8 million watched live – a figure which will rise when the full viewing figures come in. Last year’s Planet Earth II never dipped below 11 million viewers per episode, peaking at 13.14 million, so Blue Planet II looks to be surpassing it already. I’d love to know how much of the audience is young people potentially being inspired both to study and protect their planet. I’d also like to review each episode, but that’s not going to happen.

If you’ve not managed to watch the show already, enjoy the trailer.

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