Friday, February 26, 2016

Glyptodonts and Climate Change

Climate change is in the news: again. Scientists tracked where tiny critters called phytoplankton have been living: which may help us understand what's happening in Earth's ocean.

Other scientists reconstructed glyptodont DNA: confirming that the Volkswagen-size mammals were armadillos: big armadillos.
  1. Tiny Critters and Climate Change
  2. Sic Transit Gloria Glyptodont

Wings, Paws, Fins, and Hands

(From Jerry Crimson Mann, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("The principle of homology illustrated by the adaptive radiation of the forelimb of mammals. All conform to the basic pentadactyl pattern but are modified for different usages. The third metacarpal is shaded throughout; the shoulder is crossed-hatched."

A dolphin's flipper, horse's leg, and bat's wing don't look alike; but they've got pretty much the same bones inside.

All tetrapod limbs, including our arms and legs, have three sections: the stylopod, zeugopod, and autopod — or autopodium, if you like extra syllables. (December 26, 2014)

Flight evolved at least four different times: insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. A great many more glide, parachute, or otherwise move through the air.

Flying fish glide on extra-long fins; some molluscs, like the Japanese and neon flying squids, can glide 30 meters; and I'm drifting off-topic.

The point I was making is that the bird/bat/pterosaur design isn't the only way critters can stay airborne.

Insect wings are part of their exoskeleton. They took off about 350,000,000 years ago. we're still not sure how their wings developed, and that's another topic.

Draco lizard and flying squirrel wings are membranes extending from their bodies. The lizard wings have ribs inside. Chrysopelea like the kala jin flatten their entire body into a wing; and none of them really fly: they glide.

It's been a while since I talked about convergent evolution, biological homology, and why birds, bats, and pterosaurs have pretty much the same wing design. It ties in with glyptodonts, critters about the size and shape as a Volkswagen beetle, and I'll get back to that.

Anyway, "convergent evolution is the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages." (Wikipedia)

We're pretty sure it happens when different sorts of critters live in similar environments, with similar ways of living.

It's not just animals. When we started sorting out how plant biochemistry and genetics work, we learned that C4 carbon fixation evolved independently several dozen times.

I'm forgetting something. Birds, Volkswagens, flying squirrels. Right.

Pterosaur, bird, and bat, wings are arguably examples of convergent evolution and homology. They evolved independently — from various tetrapods, descendants of lobe-finned fish back in the Devonian Period.

God, Clay, and "Even Greater Admiration"

Being offended by our increasing knowledge of how this universe works is an option: but not a sensible one, I think. Neither is getting upset over what sort of creatures we are.

We're made from the stuff of this world, filled with God's 'breath;' matter and spirit, body and soul: "not just something, but someone." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 357, 362-368)

We've known this for a long time. (Genesis 1:27, 2:7)

What's changed recently is how much we know about the 'clay' God used. (December 5, 2014)

As I keep saying, learning about God's universe is what we're supposed to do; faith and reason get along, or should; and scientific discoveries are opportunities for "even greater admiration" of God's handiwork. (Catechism, 35-38, 282-289, 2293)

(From NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team; used w/o permission.)

1. Tiny Critters and Climate Change

(From R.Kirby, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The role phytoplankton plays in life on Earth is often overlooked, says Dr Richard Kirby"
(BBC News))
"Climate stirring change beneath the waves"
Mark Kinver, BBC News (February 23, 2016)

"Human-induced climate change is triggering changes beneath the waves that could have a long-term effect on marine food webs, a study suggests.

"An assessment of phytoplankton in the North Atlantic found the microscopic organisms' pole-ward shift was faster than previously reported.

"It observed that the ocean's tiny plant community was 'poised for marked shift and shuffle'.

"The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...."
Here's where I could start ranting that climate change is a hoax, or declare that humans are a plague upon the fair face of Mother Nature, or lament the imminent death of all cute critters.

Instead, I'll try to make sense.

I don't doubt that we're affecting Earth's climate, and have been for millennia: longer, if you count what happened as we started leaving our homeland, some 1,700,000 or so years back. (January 16, 2015; July 11, 2014)

What's changed recently is how much we change our environment and Earth's climate. I've talked about Oldowan tools, agriculture, wireless telegraphy, and being human, before. Frequently. (June 19, 2015; May 29, 2015; December 5, 2014)

A recent watershed in our effect on climate happened about 12,000 years ago, when we started planting crops in Mesopotamia, the Nile and Indus Valleys, and Zhongyuan. Replacing natural habitats with cropland were a boon for some critters, like crows: not so much for others.

From the mid-1700s to mid-1800s, Industrial Revolution helped folks avoid starvation more often, live longer, and enjoy more creature comforts: eventually. It also made a mess we're still cleaning up. (August 21, 2015; July 3, 2015)

Phytoplankton, Anthropogenic Climate Change, and the Great Dying

(From R.Kirby, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Often mistaken for pollution, foam found on beaches is the decaying remains of vast colonies of phytoplankton commonly known as foam algae "
(BBC News))
"...'Marine phytoplankton are crucial in marine food webs and global biogeochemical cycles and they are incredibly diverse but we don't really have a sense of what all the different organisms do when you modify climate, or even through natural climate variability,' explained co-author Andrew Barton, a researcher at Princeton University, working at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

"He told BBC News: 'This study attempted to get a handle on how all these different kinds of organisms may respond to anthropogenic climate change over the coming century.'..."
(Mark Kinver, BBC News)
As a recovering English teacher, I won't let "phytoplankton" and "anthropogenic climate change" go without a mercifully-short vocabulary review.

Wikipedia starts out by saying that phytoplankton "are the autotrophic components of the plankton community," which may not be particularly helpful.

An autotrophic organism is one that can make its own food from inorganic stuff, using light or chemical energy. Green plants and algae are examples. (

Most phytoplankton are microscopic critters like diatoms, bacterioplankton and microphytes.

Diatoms have been around for at least 185,00,000 years: probably longer. That's the age of the oldest fossilized diatoms we've found so far.

Chemical evidence says they probably got started about 250,000,000 years back, after the Permian-Triassic extinction event. — the 'Great Dying' that wiped out about 96% of Earth's marine species, including the last trilobites.

Earth has changed quite a bit over the last few billion years. (April 24, 2015; November 21, 2014; July 4, 2014)

We started learning how phytoplankton and Earth's ocean interact in the early 20th century. It's complicated, and we're still learning:
Depending on how it's used, anthropogenic means either "pertaining to the origin of man" or "having its origin in the influence of human activity on nature." (Wictionary)

Either definition is likely to get some tightly-wound folks upset. I think we're learning more of humanity's long story: and learning why taking care of our home is a good idea.

Being Human

(From NASA, via, used w/o permission.)
"...The team studied 87 different species of microscopic marine plants found in the North Atlantic, looking at the organisms' mean historical range (1951-2000) and future (2051-2100) ocean conditions.

" 'The main results of the study were that we found that when the climate changes it was not just the temperature that was changing and impacting phytoplankton but it was also all the ocean circulation and the conditions in the ocean surface, such as nutrients and light, that have an ecological impact,' Dr Barton observed.

" 'Generally, the whole physical environment is altered; in some cases, quite substantially.'..."
(Mark Kinver, BBC News)
"Looking at ... the future?" This isn't divination, which is a bad idea: and strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 2116)

It's science, which as a form of knowledge is arguably a gift of the Holy Spirit. Studying this wonder-filled universe, developing and using new technology, is part of being human. So is deciding whether we'll use or misuse our gifts. (Catechism, 1831, 2293-2295)

I'm a Catholic, so I won't study the entrails of a sacrificed goat to tell what'll happen next week: but I routinely check to get the nine-day forecast.

Rejecting haruspex and palm-reading, while keeping track of weather forecasts, isn't hypocrisy: it's being a Catholic who lives in the Information Age. We're expected to trust God and use our brains — and not just for weather forecasting. (Catechism, 154, 159, 1778, 2115)

Next, what a scientist said about the next steps in this research.

Genesis and Geoengineering

(From ESA, via NASA, used w/o permission.)
"...'Some species do appear to not move at all. Some may move much further than others,' Dr Barton said. 'This study gives you a sense that there is quite a broad range of possible responses. If the species used to live here, where might it move?

" 'To my knowledge, most previous studies on marine phytoplankton have not answered those kinds of questions.'

"Finding out what will be the impacts of this shift in distribution of the phytoplankton will be the next steps, he said...."
(Mark Kinver, BBC News)
"Finding out what will be the impacts of this shift..." is a refreshing bit of common sense in discussions of Earth's climate and human activity.

I hope that national leaders have the good sense to wait until we know more about how Earth's oceans, atmosphere, and life, work — before trying to 'fix' this planet.

Whatever is happening at the moment is an "urgent" issue — on the geologic time scale. We'll probably be wise to put off major geoengineering projects for another few generations, or centuries: until after we've learned a bit more. (December 4, 2015)

Tinkering with the machinery at our present level of ignorance might be instructive: and disastrous.

America's courts decided that a weather control experiment probably didn't cause the lethal Black Hills Flood of 1972, but that was a disturbing coincidence. (February 20, 2015)

I think we will, within the next few millennia, learn how to safely manage this planet's climate. I am not, however, particularly upset at news that our climate is changing.

Earth's climate has been changing since the planet formed, some 4,540,000,000 years ago.

Nature got along fine without us.

But now that we're here: managing the place is our responsibility:
"4 Then God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.'

"God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

"God blessed them, saying: 'Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.' "
(Genesis 1:26-28)

"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:6)

Dominion: Authority and Responsibility

First, what this does not mean.

Our "dominion" isn't the 'we can do anything we like' industrial and mining irresponsibility of the 19th century.

We've learned a bit since then, happily. Quite a bit, actually; some more than others. (February 12, 2016; July 3, 2015; October 3, 2014; July 15, 2014)

"Little less than a god" isn't "God," which got us in trouble right out of the gate; and that's yet another topic. (February 7, 2016; September 27, 2015)

We are still made "in the divine image," but the harmony we had with ourselves and with the universe is broken: which makes loving ourselves, others, and God a struggle. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 355-361, 374-379, 398, 400, 1701-1707)

We still have dominion over this world: which is not ownership.

We're like the steward of an estate, or a shop foreman: with authority and responsibilities.

Making reasoned use of the world's resources is part of our job. So is making sure that future generations have what they'll need. (Catechism, 339, 952, 2402-2405, 2456)

I've been over this before — a lot. (November 27, 2015; September 20, 2015; July 3, 2015; June 18, 2015)

2. Sic Transit Gloria Glyptodont1

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Some glyptodonts would have dwarfed even the largest armadillo alive today."
(BBC News))
"Monstrous fossils 'were armadillos', says DNA evidence"
BBC News (February 22, 2016)

"An extinct group of giant, armoured animals with spiky, club-shaped tails belongs firmly within the family tree of modern armadillos, according to a study of 12,000-year-old DNA.

"The glyptodonts roamed South America for millions of years until the last Ice Age, and some grew as big as cars.

"Their physical attributes - notably an impenetrable shell - already placed them as likely cousins of armadillos.

"Now, researchers say they are not even a sister group, but a subfamily.

" Glyptodonts should probably be considered a subfamily of gigantic armadillos,' said Frederic Delsuc, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) and Montpellier University in France...."
Glyptodons/glyptodonts weren't the first critters with tank-like armor. (November 21, 2014)

Various species of ankylosaurs showed up around the same time as the crocodile-like Metriorhynchus and lasted a lot longer: right up to the extinction event that killed off all non-avian dinosaurs.

Turtles showed up later, about 157,000,000 years back, and are still with us. They're shaped more-or-less like ankylosaurs, armadillos, and glyptodonts — which is why I rambled on about convergent evolution earlier.

Glyptodonts had comparatively poor eyesight: which probably didn't matter all that much, at least until we moved into their territory.

Being a Volkswagen-size smorgasbord with a shell that could, with a bit of cleaning, serve as a small shelter wouldn't have helped their survival odds: and neither would climate shifts of the Quaternary glaciation. (February 20, 2015; July 11, 2014)

Whatever happened, they're extinct now.

Scientists figured glyptodonts were a variety of armadillo, or closely related critters, based on their anatomy. There haven't been all that many armored mammals. We couldn't be sure, though, until researchers reconstructed DNA from a Doedicurus: the biggest glyptodont.

Glyptodonts: BIG Armadillos

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Oddly, the dwarf pink fairy armadillo is among the glyptodont's closest living relatives"
(BBC News))
"...Dr Delsuc and his colleagues used computer predictions to reconstruct some likely DNA sequences of armadillo ancestors, based on the genes of living species.

"They then made RNA 'bait' based on these sequences and used it to fish for glyptodont DNA in a tiny, mashed-up sample of shell from a fossil in a Buenos Aires museum.

"This technique allows scientists to confidently identify real DNA sequences from the ancient target species, without worrying about contaminating genetic material.

"Sure enough, the team eventually managed to reconstruct the entire mitochondrial genome - because the computer simulations and bait sequences were mitochondrial DNA - of a glyptodont....

"...One of the main differences between this ancient group and their modern cousins is the glyptodont's huge, dome-shaped shell, which was not articulated like the iconic, layered bands of the armadillo...."
(BBC News)
Today's armadillos, even the giant armadillo, are a whole lot smaller than glyptodonts. The giant armadillo and Brazilian three-banded armadillo may be headed for extinction.

Then there's the nine-banded armadillo that crossed Rio Grande from Mexico, entering the United States in the late 19th century. By now it's doing well from Kansas and eastern New Mexico to South Carolina, and will probably reach Rhode Island.

They're not indestructible: a determined cougar or human can kill one. But they're tough little critters: two folks were injured recently by bullets that bounced off armadillo shells. (

More of my take on life, the universe, and using our brains:

1 "Sic transit gloria mundi" is Latin for "Thus passes the glory of the world." The phrase was used when installing new Popes from 1409 to 1963: and the idea is ancient.

Impermanence is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought.

As a Christian and a Catholic, I take these reminders quite seriously:
"2 A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday,

"3 But humans you return to dust, saying, 'Return, you mortals!'

"Before a watch passes in the night,

"4 you have brought them to their end; They disappear like sleep at dawn; they are like grass that dies."
(Psalms 90:4-5)

"3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed."
(Isaiah 51:6)
I've talked about long-term planning and the big picture before:


Brigid said...

Changed what the sentence was halfway through? "wait until we know more about Earth's oceans, atmosphere, and life, work before trying to 'fix' this planet."

Missing consonant: "bullets that bounced of armadillo shells."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...

I'm not sure what happened there, but I've fixed both - I think. Thanks, Brigid!

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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.