Category Archives: Science

Fossil Butte Article for National Fossil Day

Hello everyone, it’s been awhile since my last update but I figure I’ll show you what I’ve been up to.  My assignment here at Fossil Butte National Monument was to write an article about this place for National Fossil Day.  This year, every month, a Cenozoic park is featured on the National Park Service website.  September is Fossil Butte’s month and I wrote the article for it!  Check it out!

https://nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday/cenozoic_fobu.cfm

Consider this my usual Monday update.  I’ve been busy in the meanwhile working at FOBU doing the standard stuff I mentioned before such as manning the front desk and preparing fossils.  It’s still been fun here and I’ve been enjoying working with my colleagues.  I’ve also been writing some articles for the blog in the future so stay tuned for that.  Until next time!

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The Lake’s Shore

The Sun rises upon the Lake’s shore
The Sun settles upon the Butte’s face

Animals stir from their slumber
Now they can seek cool relief

Fish chew on the spongy algae
Rabbits munch on the lush sage brush

The boa sleeps on the tree tops
The garter slithers by the roots

Trees wave gently from the Lake’s shore
The grass waves back

Bats stalk silently overhead
Badgers dig diligently below

A horse browses the dense underbrush
A deer grazes the sparse grasslands

Lunge, lunge, the crocodile snaps at its prey
Pounce, pounce, the lion tackles its prey

Stocky birds walk the muddy lake’s shore
The sage grouse hide beneath their namesake

Schooling fish scatter from a slight disturbance
The lone prairie dog stands alert from foes

Over the landscape loom palm fronds, they see all
In the hillside huddle aspen groves, they see few

Blue, smothered with green and unknown colors
Brown, blended with green and freckled with flowers

Larger, wetter, call her Begetter
Smaller, drier, call her Harbor

I see it now

A gar swims through the tall grass
And a turtle wades through the dry ground

A chipmunk rests on a lotus leaf
And a pronghorn laps at the lifegiver

Are they one and the same?
This butte that towers over its dry land
And this lake that rests at its bottom

The animals and plants
From two different times
From two different habitats
Yet share the same landscape

They may be dead but they’re still alive
The Begetter may be gone
But the Harbor remembers
She holds tight to what is once was
And reveals to those who only look

I only have to peer outside
And experience their lives implied

The Sun may be setting on the Lake’s shore
But the Sun is rising on the Butte’s face

My First Week as an Intern at Fossil Butte National Monument

First off, I have to apologize for my infrequent posting on my site but I wanted to let you all know that I have completed my first week as an intern at Fossil Butte National Monument! Long story short, it was amazing and I’m so far having a great time at FOBU. Already, I’m doing many of the things that I always wanted to do as a park ranger (although to be clear I’m not officially one yet). Tours, fossil preparation, hiking, greeting visitors, and finding fossils neatly summarize my first week at FOBU. Now, to be honest, the experience is not all flowers and sage bushes, sometimes, it can get a little slow in the visitor center or at the Research Quarry but that’s not really surprising given FOBU’s status as a lesser known National Monument. In fact, I have already talked to several visitors who only know of the Monument because they were in the area and they wanted to check it out.

Now, what makes FOBU so special is its status as a Fossil Lagerstätte. A Lagerstätte is a fossil quarry that has either an exceedingly high amount of preserved fossils (like Dinosaur National Monument or La Brea Tar Pits) or fossils that are preserved in exceptional quality (think Burgess Shale). FOBU satisfies both of these categories by having an exceptionally high and diverse amount of fossils (ranging from fish to bats) that are preserved in excellent quality (skin impressions, flowers, feathers, coprolites and even cartilaginous bone). As such, FOBU paints a picture of a world quite different from its modern, semi-arid desert climate. A lake stretched across Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, known as Fossil Lake, deposited the vast array of fossils. This lake was a semi-tropical paradise and was the home for stingrays, crocodilians, large soft-shelled turtles, early horses, palm trees, ferns, and much more. This diversity helped established FOBU as a national monument and is the reason why I’m here today and writing to you this article. I applied for an internship at a national monument via the GeoCorps program and FOBU was one of the monuments I had chosen. I had actually visited FOBU years ago and became reacquainted with it when I took a Fossil Ecosystems course last year and learned about its vast diversity. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when I got offered the position. SO Here’s a list of the things that I have done and noticed in no particular order

-I started working on a fish at the fossil preparation lab. The setup is arranged so that visitors can see your work on a tv screen and personally ask you questions about what you’re doing. I’ve never worked on fish before so it was a bit awkward at first but now I’m getting the hang of it. It will be awhile before I get actually good at it though.

-I sworn in my first Junior Ranger! Her name was Sarah and I believe she was six.

-Most common question at the visitor center is “Where’s the bathroom” haha

-I never used a cash register before so that is surprisingly one of the more stressful things to learn although I’m somewhat used to it now.

Mioplosus Fossil

-Got to give some mini tours at the Historic Quarry and show some excited visitors some freshly excavated fossil fish. That was awesome. I even got a photo holding up one of the fish with some children. I even found a fish eating another fish! That was rad (although I didn’t notice that at first due to the fossil’s state).

Research Qua

-On Fridays and Saturdays, I work with another colleague at the Research Quarry although we only work when there are guests present. We have to protect and preserve the monument but at the same time we have to interpret and demonstrate paleontology so it becomes a bit of a paradox. When guests aren’t at the Research Quarry, we have to sit and wait for them to come up before we can continue.

-Saturday morning I gave my first two tours to a rock group from Logan, Wyoming. I eagerly volunteered for the tour and gave my whole schpeal to them. I got a round of applause from them at the end that, whether done sympathetically or not, was nonetheless appreciated! Some of the visitors told me that I did a good job afterwards. I still have things to improve on (I kind of faltered at the bird and plant fossils) but I thought I did a pretty good job overall. It was fuuuuun.

-It’s been surprisingly cool and rainy here. I have to sometime wear jackets in the middle of the day and it can get to the low fifties at night. I was told it was quite hot before I arrived.

-I’ve been cramming as much knowledge as I can about this place. Geologic history, park history, species’ names, or where to eat in Kemmerer, it’s kind of intense but at the same time, it’s easy to do considering I’m constantly exposed to the information. This video succinctly summarizes my view of the whole thing. Fossil Butte View -We can hike off trail so I’ve been doing that more and more. I’m not exaggerating too much when I say that no matter where you hike in FOBU, you’re going to get a good view.

-Kemmerer, the nearby small town, has expensive grocery food but the liquor is at a reasonable price, take that for what you will.

-I live in fear of running over the cute, fat prairie dogs. They stand by the side of the road, on the verge or running across the street despite the approaching vehicles.

-Internet is very scattered out here but I can get wireless access at the local public library and, of all places, a Mexican restaurant called Taco Time. God bless you Taco Time and your so-so burritos. That’s all for now! I’ll write updates every now about my experiences here and I will try my best to continue on my usual articles. Until next time!

Screaming Nostalgia: Waiting for the Cicadas to Return

Nothing screams nostalgia like cicadas for me.

Yes, that’s right, the 17 year cicadas (Brood IV) have returned to my hometown in Kansas.  Although their love screeching has died down only last week, I already miss them dearly.  I was eight years old when they last showed up and I was terrified of them.  I remember their cries and I remember their shells, but most importantly, I remember being pelted by them the moment I stepped outside.  I was terrified of them as you couldn’t go a meter before a cicada would fly haphazardly into your face like a drunken moth.  I refused to go outside after the first few attempts.

It’s funny that pure, childhood terror has transformed into complete fascination with life’s derpy animals.  I love the hell out of these guys whether they are the seventeen year or the annual brood (the “dog days” cicadas) that we get.  Summer doesn’t seem right without these animals filling the humid evenings with their songs.

My love for them have even transcended over to video games to which I’m of course referring to the Pokémon; Nincada and its evolutions Ninjask and Shedinja.  When I first played Pokémon Sapphire I would train a Nincada briefly (unique typing at the time) and would eventually move onto other Pokémon for my team.  In the Generation 6 games, I trained him again only this time training both Ninjask and Shedinja.

The fact that Ninjasks’ ability is “Speed Boost” makes it so funny in my head just imagining this huge cicada flying around all over the place and bumping into things. MEEEEEP.  Image from bulbapedia.

The Nincada evolutionary line is the Pokémonified perfection it has achieved in bringing cicadas into the Pokémon world.  Nincada looks like the nymph stage, Ninjask looks like the flying adult while Shedinja is the discarded skin of the molted adult.  Nincada is the only Pokémon to evolve into two Pokémon at once, a trait that even Eevee can’t touch.  What’s more, Nincada’s Ground/Bug typing is perfectly suited for the nymphs burial ground while Ninjasks Flying/Bug typing suits its flying stage.  But it’s the discarded Shedinja that seals the deal having achieved a Ghost/Bug type.  It’s perfect!  The shell still has its original form but now takes life as a new being!  How bizarre.  I love these guys so very much!

Pokémon aside, I have had a fascination with these insects for years now and I waited very patiently for them to finally come back.  When they did, I was ready.  For those who don’t know, I’ve been working at a plant nursery job for several summers doing general landscaping.  I was keeping an eye out for any cicadas that had crawled out of the ground when we were working on lawns.  I managed to get a few photos of their infestation.

Bunch of holes in the ground that tell where the nymphs lived

Bunch of holes in the ground that tell where the nymphs lived

cicada nymph

Caught a nymph that hadn’t molted yet

Managed to get one while it was molting

Managed to get one while it was molting

cicada shells

many of the nymphs molted on the underside of leaves

Cicada shells at tree base

A LOT of them were at the base of trees, this dog just loves eating them!

cicadas

Seriously, cicadas are basically all-or-nothing. They were either not there or they were everrrywheeeereee.

giggity

giggity

Cicada food

Yummy

During the height of their infestation, Mary and I went to a public event hosted by the natural history museum on cicadas.  There, we got to learn more about the cicadas and WE GOT TO EAT THEM TOO!  Students either fried them up, caramelized them, buffalo sauced them, or chocolate dipped them!  Oh man, I don’t normally eat bugs so I had to build myself up for that one.  I started off easy with the chocolate dipped one but then went into the buffalo sauced ones.  Then for dinner, I had some fried ones in a taco.  The best way I can describe them is that they’re a cross between a shrimp’s shell and a popcorn kernel.  Don’t know how else to describe it, it wasn’t bad though.

Man, these insects are very pretty.  Mary and I saw a girl who had a huge cicada tattoo on her back and it looked beautiful.  Cicadas have a very nice looking wing structure and they have these cute little black pupils in their huge red eyes.  They also have a nice color palate too with gold, black, and red complimenting each other nicely.  Now even am tempted to get a tattoo of one!

During my free time, I actively hunted for spots that had the highest concentration of them.  I found a few good ones where you could easily see them zooming around the trees and screaming their little heads off.  I made it a habit to find their favorite trees and pick up a few just so they could crawl around on my arms and head (I even was pissed by them a few times, haha).

 

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Now their music has died down and the females will soon lay their eggs.  I will miss them dearly.  Though we will always have the annual cicadas, I will miss the 17 year ones.  They are the best definition of nostalgia for me.  Something that happened, albeit briefly, in my childhood that had a lasting impact for the rest of my life.  A fear that transformed into fascination.  I love these animals so very much.  I look forward to seeing their offspring another 17 years from now.  And with that said

MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

He Died as He Lived: David A. Johnston

To summarize the importance of Dr. David A. Johnston and his work on Mount St. Helens in an 1000-word blog article is a nigh impossible task given the impact he had on volcanology and the infamous volcano he studied. I always wanted to write about him ever since I wrote my first HDaHL article featuring Karl Patterson Shmidt but I struggled to do so considering this was a man whose legacy saved lives.

Let me back up, Johnston was a USGS volcanologist who had a personal history with volcanoes both active (Augustine Volcano in Alaska) and extinct (volcanoes in Michigan). His insightful knowledge in volcanology got him hired to study Mount St. Helens in March 1980.

Mount St. Helens is a composite volcano with a history of periodic eruptions. After its last few eruptions in the mid-1800s, Mount St. Helens became active again in March 27th, 1980 when steam erupted from it after a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck it in March 20th. The volcano’s continuous activity prompted a response from the state government to close off many areas that were proximally located to the volcano.

Dr. Johnston continuously monitored the volcano for the next two months. Sometimes, he became so involved with his work that he would climb into the volcano’s active crater to perform experiments on it. Understandably, Johnston was terrified but he knew he had to risk the tests in order to learn more about volcanoes and how much of a threat Mount St. Helens was.

On May 17th, Johnston replaced his student, Harry Glicken, at the Coldwater II outpost, located five miles north of Mount St. Helens. He thought this outpost would be safe from an eruption but unfortunately, that was not true. On the morning of May 18th, Mount St. Helens erupted and its signature lateral blast destroyed everything north of the volcano, taking Dr. Johnston’s life in the process. Before his death, he was able to contact his USGS colleagues in Vancouver and was able to utter his famous last words

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

before his radio was cut out. His words were that of excitement and not dread and were the response to two months of anticipation to the now awaken giant. Fifty-seven people, including Johnston’s life, ended that day. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands of deaths were prevented on May 18th, due to Johnston and other scientists’ insistence in keeping the area around the volcano closed from the public.

Johnston’s work on volcanism, especially on Mount St. Helens, should not go unnoticed and there are plenty of webpages around the internet that highlight his accomplishments. Instead of talking about his accomplishments, I want to focus instead on how people remember him and the differences between him and Karl Patterson Shmidt.

Johnston is thankfully recognized on his volcanic work ranging from scholarships, to documentaries, to having the Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount St. Helens National Monument named after him. One documentary, the Fire Below Us, however, barely spoke about him having instead inserted a random interview he gave to the press along with his famous last words. “St. Helens,” a movie that premiered in 1981, had him as a primary character (although he is called David Jackson) though his portrayal in that film, from what I gathered, is very poor, painting him as a rebel and not as a cautious scientist.

Now, why is David Johnston more revered than Karl Patterson Shmidt? Both are scientists who died doing the things they love and both provided life-saving information to their respective fields. Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that Johnston’s continual persistence in keeping the vicinity closed around Mount St. Helens is the stuff history loves to tell. We love those stories of the one man who was right, trying desperately to save the people around him even when others think him wrong (similar to Jaws now that I think about it…). Johnston’s actions against the grain is a triumphant victory.

Less romantically speaking, Johnston was going toe to toe with force of nature that he knew could kill him at any moment. I can imagine only a few people who would be willing to go out to an active volcano to actively perform observations and experiments on it. Johnston once quoted that Mount St. Helens was a “dynamite keg with the fuse lit.” With that kind of analogy, you have to hand it to the guy for continuing his studies even when death was literally right below him.

Even though Johnston thought his outpost was safe, he was still killed in the blast. This is almost similar to Schmidt’s reaction to the baby boomslang snake biting him at the tip of his thumb. Schmidt thought the snake was harmless and the bite won’t kill him. Yet Johnston’s outpost was based on careful predictions on the volcano’s eruption path. If Johnston was willing to not only have himself and his student stake out this area for observation, you can be sure he was confident in his predictions. Schmidt, on the other hand, did not fully grasp the dangers of the snakebite even when his health was failing him. As such, Johnston, unlike Schmidt, knew he was in danger and was willing to face it every day.

Finally, Johnston saved lives. Hundreds or thousands of lives were saved on May 18th thanks to his persistence along with other scientists. Though Schmidt gave us crucial information on the boomslang bite, determining how many lives he saved is quite hard to gauge. What’s more, boomslang bites symptoms would have been revealed to us sooner or later if Schmidt wasn’t as unlucky as he was that day. Johnston saved lives in one geologic instant. And that instant was all that mattered.

I highly encourage you to look more into Johnston’s life as he was a fascinating man with much to contribute in volcanology. Any webpage talking about him will do but you should also visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory. I’ve been to it before and man, it’s fantastic, definitely one of the best visitor centers I have been to (and the monument is quite beautiful as well).

Pokemon in the Biology Lab

I’ve been teaching introductory biology labs for several semesters now and if there’s one thing that I learned it’s that you have a limited time to teach your students the current week’s material before they get bored. Most of the time, this is not an issue as students have already become familiar with the topic thanks to the lecture. As such, lab lecture is more or less reminding students of the material and less of teaching them something new. After a short introduction we get right into the lab and have some fun.

But for the times when the lab is covering something new, things can get a little tricky. I heard somewhere before that you have five minutes to teach your students the pre-lab material before they begin to zone out. Five minutes, unfortunately, is painfully short and as such, I try to mix things up as best as I can so my pupils can continue to remain engaged (one time I even dressed up as a Eukaryotic cell and asked my students what each of my organelles do to keep me alive).

Such as the case two weeks ago when we tackled the vertebrate diversity lab. One of my favorite labs ever, the students were divided into three groups and each group dissected three different vertebrates; a lamprey, a dogfish, a perch, a mudpuppy, a frog, an anoles lizard, a turtle, a pigeon, and a rat. These animals represented the numerous broad groups of vertebrates; agnathans, chondrichthyes, osteichthyes, amphibians, squamates, turtles, archosaurs, and mammals. The overall message for that week’s lab, through the dissection of the nine animals, was that vertebrates have all evolved from a simple body plan to accommodate their environment and lifestyles.

Now, on the whiteboard, I had drawn a simplified version of a vertebrate phylogenetic tree as provided to the students by their lab book. However, as I was talking about each group of animals, I would slap on a printed-out picture of a Pokémon as an example of that animal such as Eelektross for agnathans.

pokemon phylogenetics, vertebrates, pokemon

Yes, I know this vertebrate tree is highly simplified but this was the level of education the lab was focusing on for the students. The class textbook goes into greater detail about the intricate relationships. All images are from bulbapedia.

Eelektross is always the first animal/Pokémon I would use as it represents the first branch off of the tree. Immediately, once I place this Electric-type Pokémon on the tree, everyone sits up and takes notice. I like to think that I have jarred them out of their sleepy, spaced-out zone and thrust them into something that they don’t know about (if they’re not Pokémon fans) or have much interest in (if they are Pokémon fans). Even if they’re not familiar with Pokémon, I would give my students a real life example of that animal it represents (lampreys) and then explain what sets this animal apart from all the other animals in the small phylum. After doing so, I would continue to the other animal branches and elaborate what makes them so special all the while continuing to slap on example Pokémon on the whiteboard.

Besides doing this for comedic sake, I like to use Pokémon for two reasons. One, using Pokémon is a way to get students interested in the subject manner at hand. Many of my students are pre-Med or pharmaceutical majors and that’s totally fine. But here, at the doorstep of all that is biology, where students are exposed to so many different topics that they will never tackle again in their future, I try my damnedest to show them how awesome those weird and unique topics are even if they may be as seemingly uninteresting as plants or population genetics. I know I will not convince many of my students to change their chosen path in life but if I have just one student that just stopped and ponder briefly whether they should pursue another topic in biology because of my lab, then I have succeeded. Using Pokémon is just one of many ways I try to generate excitement of all that is biology (paleontology is another one as well, of course).

The second reason why I like to use Pokémon is that I try to encourage a friendly, welcoming environment in my lab. I like to have a lab where people can be themselves. My icebreaker question even sets the tone for my labs as I ask each of my students what they’re nerdy about. Let me tell you, this question is great as I get to learn so much from my students and I get to relate to them for that particular hobby at hand or a hobby that’s close to it. I even like to chat to them as the semester progresses about certain news that may pertain to their nerdy hobby such as a recent episode in Game of Thrones or a movie update for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Be yourself and be open to new ideas. As gimmicky as these may sound, I adhere to them like a barnacle on a hard substrate. I don’t know how well these two ideas have been picked up by my students, but I will say that they…I don’t want to necessary say “enjoy”…but certainly like my labs judging by my evaluations. I hope though in the long run, maybe 10 or even 20 years from now, they’ll remember my lab lectures and one day recall, while playing Trivia Pursuit, that Mantine is a manta ray and all manta rays are chondrichthyes and then they’ll win the game! But I’m just fantasizing at this point.

Paleontology Misconceptions: Introduction, Megaloceros (the “Irish Elk”) and Orthogenesis

For the past few months, I have been stewing over what kind of paleontological articles I could write for my blog.  It’s easy to write and talk about comics, cartoons, and video games as you rely on experience and personal opinion.  Scientific articles, however, are more difficult for me as not only do they have to be interesting to the reader but they also have to be more objective and lean more heavy on up-to-date resources.  However, while I was sitting in the back row of the Introduction to Biology course (part of my requirement for being a lab TA), I was struck with an idea that was brought about my cool and collect professor.

In paleontology (and other sciences as well but I’m more attuned to the paleo ones) there is a large amount of misconceptions that many people believe to be true.  Some misconceptions are more innocently ignorant (pterodactyls and mosasaurs are dinosaurs) while others deceit even fossil enthusiasts today.  These misconceptions still hang around because they were long believed to be true, were over simplified, or were romanticized to the point that they have to be correct because it sounds so perfect.

Today, I adduce to you a fine example of a romanticized misconception.

Meet Megaloceros giganteus, a large mammalian deer that lived during the Pleistocene.  It’s also known as the “Irish Elk.”

And already, right from the get-go, we see two misconceptions that lead you astray from what this beast represents.

Irish Elk

The funny thing about Megaloceros’ common name is how plain wrong it is; Megaloceros is not exclusively found in Ireland and it is a deer not an elk.  First off, it can be found throughout Europe, North Africa, and well into western Asia (Lister 1994) so it has quite a diverse range.  Its association towards Ireland stems from its initial discovery there as well as the plentiful amount of specimens preserved in the Irish Bogs (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/artio/irishelk.html and Gould 1977).  Irish poet Seamus Heaney even mentioned Megaloceros in his poem “Bogland” which is a short poem about the bogs of Ireland.

Megaloceros, map, distribution, biogeography, eurasia

Map from Lister (1994).

But being geographically confused seems trifling when many people assume that Megaloceros is an elk.  This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that people in Eurasia use the term “elk” to refer to the animal that North American people refer as “moose.”  And THAT…is where the confusion lies.  Megaloceros is not a moose it’s a deer.  It was originally confused to be a moose because only moose were known at the time to have antlers that came even close to the size of Megaloceros (Gould 1977).

This moose-association was eventually taken down once enough viable specimens could be used for anatomical comparison.  Even the advent of genetic technology, which has the habit of shaking phylogenetic trees hard, did nothing to subvert this new-found truth and only enhanced Megaloceros’ position by placing it as a sister taxon to the fallow deer (Lister et al. 2005 and Hughes et al. 2006).

As such, many scientists nowadays call Megaloceros the “Giant Deer.” And though I think this name does not sound as majestic as “Irish Elk,” it is nonetheless 100% more correct and should be used more often.

But now let us get to the heart of the matter of the Giant Misconception for our Giant Deer.

You may be familiar with the Giant Deer in high school biological textbooks or as an example for Hardy-Weinberg sexual selection.  Similar to peacocks, males had large antlers to showcase their sexy fitness.  A display of dominance will win over any lucky gal and together, they can make adorable, small Giant Deer.

But.

For a long time, the prevailing hypothesis behind the demise of the Giant Deer was that their antlers were so huge that eventually their size drove them to extinction.  Their constant selection for bigger antlers meant they became too unwieldy, too energy costly, or just plain too heavy for the males to support.  Basically, the Giant Deer became too sexy.

This “Too Sexy for My Antlers” hypothesis was accepted as truth until the mid-20th century when paleontologists discredited it as being farfetched and countered that the antlers were the right size relative to the Giant Deer’s body (Gould 1977).   However, no one bothered to test this new hypothesis out!  This was until famous paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould stepped in and experimented with the hypothesis himself in 1973.  In his simple experiment, he analyzed modern deer specimens and compared the size of their antlers relative to their shoulder height.  He then compared his data to that of the Giant Deer.  What he found was that the antlers were not as dangerously large as everyone once thought they were.  In fact, they were at the expected level if you were to have a modern day deer of that size.

Photograph of Stephen Jay Gould from The Simpsons.

The importance of Gould’s discovery goes farther than determining the antler size of an extinct deer.  It discredited a long dead notion that continued to propagate the “Too Sexy for My Antlers” hypothesis.  There was this “theory” that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s called orthogenesis that some scientists used to counter Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (and btw, before I forget, happy early birthday Charles).

Instead of Natural Selection, species evolve in a direct, linear path.  Species are evolving to a final end product that they are destined for.  As such, some orthogenesis scientists used the Giant Deer as an example of evolution that went too extreme and killed the species.  Taken from Gould (1977), orthogenesis supporter and paleontologist R. S. Lull said “Natural selection will not account for overspecialization, for it is manifest that, while an organ can be brought to the point of perfection by selection, it would never be carried to a condition where it is an actual menace to survival…[as in] the great branching antlers of the extinct Irish deer.”

Gould’s experiment was the final nail in a long-forgotten, already decaying coffin.  It was evidence that took down a dying idea that stubbornly eked out a living for many decades.  And yet while the scientific community had learned the new ideas and rejected the old ones, I would beg to differ that the public had been so quick to adapt as well.

Even I, who was a paleo-nut in high school, assumed that the Irish Elk died out due to its impressive antlers.  No one had bothered to correct me that it had a diverse geographical range, or that it was technically a deer, or that its antlers were the right size until I was a graduate student.  I would even go far as to argue that I was unknowingly accepting orthogenetic ideas while learning about biology and evolution.

I should try to get off my soap box before I become too preachy so I’ll end with this.  While writing this article, I was not aware of the orthogenesis hypothesis as I was never taught it before, even with all the biological courses I had taken.  I was taught Lamarckism and other discredited theories but never orthogenesis.  However, I think orthogenesis should be taught in basic biological courses as blooming scientists can learn what evolution is and is not.  They can learn why scientists thought orthogenesis is true and why it was ultimately rejected.  Learning about it can give a better understanding on how life works and why they should not accept this dead hypothesis.

And hey, if teachers were to educate their students about orthogenesis, students might even learn more about the Giant Deer and how, despite its outlandish appearance, it did not go extinct from being too sexy.

If you are interested in the crazy history of the Giant Deer, I recommend you to check out Gould’s “The Misnamed Mistreated and Misunderstood Irish Elk.”  It’s an enthralling read and greatly expands many of the concepts information I touched upon in this article.

 

Bibliography

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Positive allometry of antlers in the “Irish elk”, Megaloceros giganteus.” (1973): 375-376.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “MISNAMED, MISTREATED, AND MISUNDERSTOOD IRISH-ELK.” Natural History 82.3 (1977): 10.

Hughes, Sandrine, et al. “Molecular phylogeny of the extinct giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus.” Molecular phylogenetics and evolution 40.1 (2006): 285-291.

Lister, Adrian M. “The evolution of the giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach).” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112.1‐2 (1994): 65-100.

Lister, A. M., et al. “The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’Megaloceros giganteus.” Nature 438.7069 (2005): 850-853.