Friday, November 21, 2014

Beauty, Order, and Pterosaurs

Scientists may have found an upper limit to pterosaur wingspans. A fossil ichthyosaur is our first look at how these marine animals returned to the ocean, and scientists found a spike-headed ankylosaur species.

I'm fascinated by this sort of thing. Your experience may vary.
  1. Birds aren't Pterosaurs
  2. Ichthyosaur Living Between Land and Sea: Cartorhynchus Lenticarpus
  3. Zaraapelta Nomadis — or — "Spike" the Ankylosaur

Order, Beauty, and a "State of Journeying"

I saw the universe as a place of order and beauty before I became a Catholic. Now, I must see it as a place of order and beauty. It's 'in the rules.' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32)

The universe is not perfect, yet: but that's the direction it's going. It is being created by God: constantly upheld and sustained, in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302)

Studying this world is okay. We're human, created in the image of God. We can, using reason, see God's work in the universe. (Catechism, 35-36, 301, 303-306, 311, 1704)

What is and is not considered "beautiful" is partly subjective, partly cultural. I think Pythagoras was on the right track, though, seeing a connection between beauty and mathematics.

I agree with this definition:
"Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction. ... The experience of 'beauty' often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature...."
(Beauty, Wikipedia)
That's why I see beauty in flowers, stars — and drying mud. More accurately, I've learned to see beauty in this universe. (October 5, 2014)

Each of us can decide to act, or not act: guided by reason or by emotions. Feelings are fine: but we've got brains, and are expected to use them. (Catechism, 274, 1706, 1731, 1762-1767)

I'll grant that giraffe-like pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus seem grotesque: but so, in their own way, do giraffes.

Scientists who tried analyzing these giant winged creatures as birds decided that they couldn't fly. Others decided that this featherless critter with a 36-foot wingspan wouldn't fly like a bird: and I'll get back to that.

I see Quetzalcoatlus, giraffes, and venus flytraps, as "being in balance and harmony with nature:" and so in that sense they are beautiful.

"Greater Admiration," or Not

Around the time Emperor Xianfeng died, some folks claimed that since the universe is orderly; and operates by rational, knowable, laws: a rational, orderly Creator can't exist. That oversimplifies the situation, of course.

Quite a few tightly-wound Christians agreed: loudly. We've been dealing with fallout from that craziness ever since.

The upshot, so far, is that a remarkable number of folks are convinced that Christianity is against science, or that religion is 'unscientific.'

We've learned quite a bit since the 1860s. Some folks see humanity's expanding knowledge as opportunities for greater admiration of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

Others, not so much.

Studying God's Creation

Me? I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin.

I've said it before — things of faith come from God. Things of the world come from God. Honest, ethical, study of this astounding universe cannot hurt our faith in God. (Catechism, 159)

Results of scientific research may, however, occasionally require reconsideration of old assumptions. I'm okay with that.

"Grim Monsters" and H. P. Lovecraft

(From Thomas Hawkins; via The Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania; used w/o permission.)
(Front piece of "The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri...," Thomas Hawkins (1840))

English geologist Thomas Hawkins' ichthyosaur specimens were on display in the Natural History Museum of London in 2008. His ideas about "the Great Sea-Dragons" boosted public interest in paleontology: and were recognized as wrong by the 1850s.

Hawkins' prose was colorful, grandiose, flamboyant, and rhapsodically replete with sesquipedalian loquaciousness: by today's standards. Here's part of his assertion that "grim Monsters" and "Dragon Pterodactyles ... with Vampire Wing" were Satan's work:
"...'Adam,' the Lucifer and Protagonist of Antiquity, doing mis-prision against Sovereignty, turns the weapons of Loyalty upon his Liege, and plunges them into the Bowels of his Mother Earth. Forsaken of Angels, groaning, she bringeth forth grim Monsters, which ravage her Garden, the Locusts that consume it away....

"...Then a Vision of Abysmal Waters, swarming with all wondrous creatures of Life, and gelid Swamps with amphibious things , and Dragon Pterodactyles flitting in the hot air with Vampire Wing....

"...Then a Vision of brute Savages haunting Eldritch Caves: of gaunt Lords of wassail, war, blood , and perdition: Blasted Continents, and withering pines, and briars and thorns: Rebellion, Violence, horrors manifold: Prometheus chained, the Vulture, the Liver: The World at the brink of Death.... "
("The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri," Thomas Hawkins, Thomas; pp. 4, 5 (1840))
Nearly seven decades later, echoes of Hawkins' "brute Savages haunting Eldritch Caves" still influenced attitudes toward "cavemen." My opinion.

"The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons..." may not have directly influenced H. P. Lovecraft, but I see shadows of "withering pines, and briars ... horrors manifold" in this Lovecfaft tale:
"...Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in vague outlines half human and half monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and fireplace beyond. It was all eyes—wolfish and mocking—and the rugose insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist which curled putridly about and finally vanished up the chimney...."
("The Shunned House," H. P. Lovecraft (1937))
I don't agree with Lovecraft's philosophy, as reflected in his Cthulhu stories, but I can see how he might have imagined that the universe was at best indifferent. (June 27, 2014)

That said, I enjoy reading well-wrought fantasy and speculative fiction, and prefer Lovecraft's prose to Hawkins' — partly because Lovecraft almost certainly knew he was writing fiction.

Besides, although Lovecraft's style is hardly terse, he's laconic when compared to Hawkins: and that's another topic.

1. Birds aren't Pterosaurs

(From Mark Witton, Darren Naish; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
("Fossil trackways show that pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus northropi were quadrupeds."
"Launch limit for pterosaur flight"
Gretchen Vogel, Science Magazine (American Association for the Advancement of Science) (November 10, 2014)

"The ancient flying reptiles called pterosaurs include the largest flying animals ever discovered, with estimated wingspans as wide as 11 meters, the width of a doubles tennis court. Exactly how such gargantuan creatures could have taken off, stayed aloft, and landed safely has long puzzled biomechanics experts. New calculations presented here last week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting suggest that flying and landing weren't problems even for the biggest specimens, but takeoff probably limited how large the animals could grow....

"...Some researchers have argued that those giants were simply too large to fly. But given their large wings—a skin-and-muscle membrane that extended between an extended fourth finger and the animals' hind legs—most researchers think they did spend time in the air...."
I checked: and sure enough, a few years ago some scientists applied math describing how today's birds fly to large pterosaurs. Their calculations showed that those Late Cretaceous critters couldn't fly.

One of them said that Cretaceous air was thicker, or had lots more oxygen than today's mix: and that's how the big pterosaurs could fly.

Earth's atmosphere has changed quite a bit over the last few billion years: and there was more O2 in the our air when pterosaurs flew. But apparently pterosaurs could fly today.

Critters with four limbs that fly come in three basic models: pterosaurs, birds, and bats. Draco lizards and flying squirrels don't fly, they glide. The same goes for chrysopelea like the kala jin, airborne snakes. (June 6, 2014)

The point is that birds aren't pterosaurs, and math that applies to birds doesn't work with Cretaceous flyers.

The University of Bristol's Colin Palmer and University of Southern California in Los Angeles's Michael Habib took a different approach.

Using tomography scans of pterosaur fossils and wind tunnel tests of model pterosaur wings, they developed a computer model of a pterosaur with a 6-meter wingspan.

Then they scaled their model up to have 9-meter and 12-meter wingspans and calculated the forces on the animals' bones, wings, and muscles as they took off, flew, and landed.

Pterosaurs: "Very Different from Anything Living Today"

(From Matt Martyniuk, from Mark Witton and Darren Naish; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Size comparison: human, Quetzalcoatlus northropi (green), and another large pterosaur.)
"Staying airborne was no problem for their model pterosaurs, [Colin] Palmer told the meeting. Even animals with wingspans of 15 meters would have had enough muscle power to counteract the drag that exists when the animal is in the air. Landing is a more complicated process, he says, and those modeling experiments were less definitive. The calculations didn't place a clear limit on the ability of bone to absorb the stress of landing, but even up to 12 meters, Palmer says, their model animals could land safely...."
(Gretchen Vogel, Science Magazine)
The model pterosaurs took off with no problems with wingspans of nine or 10 meters. They could jump high enough to start flapping their wings: using all four limbs.

Pterosaurs with wingspans over 11 meters could, theoretically, under ideal conditions, get into the air. That's not good enough for real animals, though: which may explain why we haven't found pterosaurs the size of jumbo jets.

Palmer and Habib's research helps us understand pterosaurs. As the the Brazilian National Museum's Alexander Kellner said, "they were very different from anything living today," so working models of the extinct critters should be based on data from fossils.

2. Ichthyosaur Living Between Land and Sea: Cartorhynchus Lenticarpus

(From Ryosuke Motani / University of California, Davis, via, used w/o permission.)
(Cartorhynchus lenticarpus)
"First Amphibious Ichthyosaur Found – Cartorhynchus lenticarpus" (November 6, 2014)

"Paleontologists led by Prof Ryosuke Motani of the University of California, Davis, have discovered an amphibious ichthyosaur that lived in the seas of what is now China during the upper Lower Triassic, about 248 million years ago. The discovery is the first to link the dolphin-like ichthyosaur to its terrestrial ancestors, filling a gap in the fossil record.

"The fossil, named Cartorhynchus lenticarpus, represents a missing stage in the evolution of ichthyosaurs. Until now, there were no fossils marking their transition from land to sea.

" 'But now we have this fossil showing the transition. There's nothing that prevents it from coming onto land,' said Prof Motani, who is the first author of a paper published in the journal Nature.

"Prof Motani and his colleagues from the United States, China and Italy, discovered the fossil in the Majiashan Quarry near Hefei City, Anhui Province.

"Cartorhynchus lenticarpus is the smallest ichthyosaur to date. The preserved length of the specimen is 21.4 cm; total body length is estimated to be only 40 cm.

"Its amphibious characteristics include large flippers and flexible wrists, essential for crawling on the ground.
Cartorhynchus lenticarpus was the size of a large lizard. Its large flippers and flexible wrists let it move on land or in water, like today's seals and sea lions. Comparatively thick bones suggest that it could swim through rough coastal waves on its way from land to deeper water.

Studying Cartorhynchus lenticarpus is important for paleontologists, since it fills a gap in the ichthyosaur story.

Scientists have known about ichthyosaurs since the early 19th century. Since then, we've learned that they appeared shortly after Earth's biggest mass extinction, 252,000,000 years back, flourished, and spread throughout Earth's ocean for another 160,500,000 years.

The Cenomanian-Turonian boundary event, 91,500,000 years back, killed off all but one variety of ichthyosaur: which didn't last long.

We've known about long, short, squat, and lanky ichthyosaurs: every one of them exclusively deep-water animals.

Until now we had no example of an ichthyosaur ancestor that lived at least partly on land.

This little critter lived about 4,000,000 years after the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Studying it may shed light on how Earth's oceans recovered after the great dying.

There's More to Learn

Earth goes through mass extinctions now and then. This one, the 'great dying,' was the worst we know of. When it was over, 83% of all genera were dead. Only 4% of marine species survived. (November 29, 2013)

Life on Earth was never the same after that. For one thing, many animals move around now. (July 18, 2014)

As I've said before, change happens: that's how this universe works.

We've known that this creation is vast and ancient for thousands of years, but only recently realized how big and old it is — and how much more we have to learn.

3. Zaraapelta Nomadis — or — "Spike" the Ankylosaur

(From Danielle Dufault, via University of Alberta, used w/o permission.)
("Life restoration of the newly named ankylosaur Zaraapelta nomadis"
(University of Alberta))
"UAlberta paleontologists name new armoured dinosaur"
News & Events, University of Alberta (October 27, 2014)

"Mongolian dinosaur with spiky helmet shows Gobi Desert was hotspot for ankylosaur diversity.

"The Gobi Desert of Late Cretaceous Mongolia was the place to be if you were one of the armoured dinosaurs called ankylosaurs. Besides the badlands of southern Alberta, the Gobi Desert has the highest number of ankylosaur species that lived together at the same time—and now a new family member has just been identified....

"...The new species, Zaraapelta nomadis, was discovered in 2000 by a team led by Phil Currie, and is named today in a paper by Victoria Arbour, Demchig Badamgarav and Philip Currie published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. The name Zaraapelta is a combination of the Mongolian and Greek works for 'hedgehog' and 'shield' in reference to its spiky appearance, and 'nomadis' in honour of the Mongolian company Nomadic Expeditions, which has facilitated paleontological fieldwork in the Gobi Desert for almost two decades...."
"Hedgehog" is "зараа" or "zaraa" in Mongolian, "shield" is "ασπίδα" or "aspída" in Greek; depending on whose alphabet you use. I wonder if someone's named this particular Zaraapelta nomadis "Spike" yet, and that's yet another topic.

Zaraapelta's fancy 'helmet' may have been for protection: or a display, like a male peacock's oversize tail feathers. Or maybe having different lumps on their heads helped Zraapeltas and Saichania, another ankylosaur, tell each other apart.

Bone is an expensive item for animals. Growing those headdresses took a lot of nutrients and energy, so they presumably did something important for the critters.

Ankylosaurs were low-slung, armored, not overly burdened with intelligence, and remarkably successful dinosaurs. We've found their remains on every continent except Africa: and I wouldn't be surprised if they were there, too. (September 19, 2014)

The rhinoceros is as close as we have to ankylosaurs today. Glyptodons were quite a bit like ankylosaurs: about the size of of a Volkswagon Beetle, but a bit flatter. They died out when we arrived in the America: probably because they were walking all-you-can-eat smorgasbords.

The odds are pretty good that glyptodon shells made good shelters, too: provided you don't mind low ceilings. Pangolins and armadillos grow their own armor, although pangolin plate is keratin, the stuff our hair and nails are made of, not bone: and that's still another topic.

That article is from News & Events on the University of Alberta's website, so there's a strong focus on U. of A.'s contribution to this discovery. It's a good place to start learning about Zaraapelta nomadis, though.

I particularly appreciated the last paragraph, after "Resurrecting a discarded dinosaur:"
"...The science of naming organisms, called taxonomy, is more fluid than many people might realize, Arbour notes. Sometimes, researchers might determine that two species names represent only one actual species...."
(News & Events, University of Alberta)

(From Jessica Tansey, via University of Alberta, used w/o permission.)
(Jessica Tansey's drawing of the Zaraapelta nomadis skull.)

More of my take on science and Psalms 98:4:

More than you need to know about pterosaurs:

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.