Monday, February 16, 2015

Why do I try?

In all my years of blogging, the post that got the most comments was the simple question "Am I the only one who still thinks of unlined paper as 'typing paper?'"

Today on Twitter, I repeated someone else's mild joke about President's Day and, so far, I've had fifty favorites and retweets, by far the most I've had for anything I've ever said.

Instead of spending all this time researching a book, I should have just gone on social media years ago, written "So, what's the deal with mammoths?" and appended a hashtag for Jerry Seinfeld. It would have instantly made me Mr. Mammoth throughout the internet and gotten me an appearance on the Tonight Show and a fifteen minute NPR feature.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Mammoth Herd: the Adventure Begins

It's ‪#‎MammothMonday‬ and--Oh no!--my herd is in danger!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mammoth in a thong

In an effort to make science even sexier than it already is, Hope Jaren has introduced ‪#‎ThingIStudyInAThong‬ on Twitter. This is my contribution.

Mammoth in a thong. The real reason they went extinct?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Britannica breaks my heart

While hunting for some old images of moeritherium, I came across this:

Everything on it is wrong. Admittedly, the order Proboscidea has a big bushy family tree and many of the lineages and connections are the subjects of active controversies. But this goes beyond valid controversy; it's just wrong.

Starting at the bottom.

The genus Moeritherium is not the ancestor of any later proboscidean species. Though it had a nice long run of its own (almost twenty million years) and produced about a half dozen species, it was a side branch that ultimately left no descendants. When Charles W. Andrews unearthed the first Moeritherium at Fayum, Egypt in 1901, the oldest known proboscidean fossils were gomphotheres from the early Miocene. His discovery pushed the history of the order back to the earliest Oligocene--ten million years, but they didn't know that yet. It was an easy jump to make from earliest elephant to ancestor of elephants and Andrews announced his discovery that way. However, additional discoveries by him and by others soon raised questions about that conclusion and most Twentieth Century paleontologists were content to call it a cousin.

Trilophodon isn't a recognised genus or species at all. The word was coined in 1857 by Hugh Falconer to describe a sub-genus of mastodons that included the American mastodon and about half of the family that later came to be called gomphotheres. The other half, he called Tetralophodons (the terms describe an element of tooth architecture). The words are used today as adjectives, not as formal names, for different types of gomphotheres. The illustration is probably supposed to be Gomphotherium angustidens, the most common and best known Old World gomphothere.

Depending which species the Britannica artist had in mind, they might have managed to get the relationship somewhat right with Platybelodon. It is a trilopodont gomphothere. It produced the final species of the sub-family Amebelodontinae.

As far as mammoths being descended from platybelodons, no, just no. Mammoths are not descended from trilopodont gomphotheres or from tetralopodont gomphotheres or any kind of gomphothere. Their last common ancestor existed about 23 million years ago before the various prodoscidean genera left Africa.

Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth, is not the ancestor of modern elephants. In fact, it didn't evolve until long after the three surviving elephant species had reached their current forms. The idea that it is an ancestor originated in the earliest days of paleontology, before evolution or the ice ages were understood or accepted. Johann Blumenbach, who first recognized that mammoths were different enough from modern elephants to need a unique scientific, name thought of them as a less refined local breed of elephant and named them Elephas primigenius - the primal or original elephant. It didn't take long for naturalists figure out that the mammoth was different enough to need its own genus - Mammuthus. Outside of creationist literature, I'm not sure where you would find a source that claims mammoths are ancestral to elephants written since the 1880s at the latest. Plus woolly mammoths weren't that large. While they weighed as much African savanna elephants, they were much more compact, shorter and thicker.

African and Mammoth/Asian elephants diverged from each other about seven million years ago. Each of those lines produced several species before the modern ones appeared, coincidentally around the same time, 2.5 million years ago. Mammoths separated from Asian elephants while their common ancestor still lived in Africa.

To sum up: four relationships that are wrong, one species that never existed, one in the wrong chronological order, one visually incorrect (in size), and Asian elephants aren't blue. A correct illustration should look something like this:

When did Britannica become so sloppy?

UPDATE: An editor at Britannica just tweeted me to thank me for bringing the problem to their attention and to say they'll get right on fixing it. My faith is restored.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Not a good way to go

Here's a little story on CT scans of the two baby mammoths Khroma and Lyuba. The two are recent discoveries--found within the last decade--and among the most complete and best preserved ever seen. With such exceptional specimens, it's only natural that researchers would constantly be searching for ways to squeeze a few more facts out of them. Getting an opportunity to run one through an industrial-sized CT scanner is something both teams jumped at. The article mentions some interesting lines of research suggested by the results about how they grew and possible subspecies, but one thing stood out for me: these babies died horrible deaths.

CT scans of Lyuba and Khroma showing the sediment they in haled in their final moments. Source.

Most things that die go straight into the food chain. There are billions of bugs, germs, fungi, roots, wolves, sharks, and birds waiting for their share of anything that dies. If the biosphere has its way, no part will go unused. But, the biosphere does not always get its way and that's the only thing that makes paleontology possible. Some bodies or parts thereof escape the food chain and linger long enough for us look at them long after their parent species have been taken off the menu. There will always be gaps in the fossil record because the processes that lead to fossilization are the exception rather than the rule. Every fossil has a unique story to tell.

Over the last 320 years, fewer than eighty mammoths have been discovered with soft parts preserved (seventy-five by my count). Many of those were no more than a patch of skin with some hair and ligaments attached. Until recently, only about half of those reported were recovered. Only seventeen of the seventy-five were more than half complete when discovered. We know details of the last moments of the lives of only a small number of preserved mammoths. To my knowledge, all but one died a horrible, terrifying death.

The CT scans of Khroma and Lyuba show they drowned, buried in mud, and still gasping hard enough as they went under that they sucked sediment into their lungs. Little Dima, though the story of his death is still disputed, apparently stayed afloat for days in a bog before losing his strength and sinking into the mud. The Berezovka mammoth, an old male, tumbled down a riverbank, breaking his hip and thigh as he fell, and suffocated while struggling to stand up as wet soil slid down the bank and buried him alive.

The taxidermied skin of the Berezovka mammoth in the posture died in, attempting to rise as it was buried. Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2007.

All of these horrible deaths were preserved because they happened in the Fall. Once the mammoths died, they were quickly frozen, probably that same night, and, for some reason, never thawed. In Lyuba's case, her preservation was aided by settling into an anoxic layer of sediment in the pond where she drowned. Other mammoth carcasses discovered at Yuribei and Fishhook also show a pattern of having died in the late Summer or Fall.

Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol with the head of the Yukagir mammoth. Source.

I'm only aware of one frozen mammoth that died in the Spring and, coincidentally, he's also the only one I'm aware of who died a peaceful death. The Yukagir mammoth was discovered in 2002 on the banks of an oxbow lake east of the Lena River delta. The front part of the body and most of the gut with its contents were recovered and sent to Yakutsk to be studied. The Yukagir mammoth was an old male who died in the early Spring after a tough Winter. He had several deformed vertebrae in his upper back from an infection indirectly caused by inflammatory bowel disease. It was the hungry season just before the plants would begin to bud and bloom. He had been eating a lot of willow twigs, which do not have a very high nutritional value, but they would have filled his stomach and the natural aspirin in them would have soothed his back. It was probably a warm day when he lay down on the shady side of a hill and died. Later, the sun melted some mud higher on the hill which covered the body and froze. Being on the shady side of the hill, it stayed frozen for the next twenty-two thousand years.

That most of the frozen mammoths died in the late Summer or Fall, is not an observation that can be extended as a rule to other fossils. This season was the time of year when large animals on the mammoth steppe had the best odds of being preserved, that is covered in mud and frozen. Other environments had their own best seasons for preservation. I suspect the best time to get preserved in the anoxic depths of a peat bog would be the wettest season. The best time to get deeply buried in sediments of a lake or shallow sea would be the flood season. The least likely time of year for preservation, in any environment, would be any time that left a body exposed on the surface where scavengers and the elements could have their way with your remains. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Periodic Table of the Elephants

Last January, Brian Switek, a rising star in the dinosaur firmament (his latest book), made an offhand comment about the need for a periodic table of the elephants. I don't know if he meant it seriously or if he was just going for the pun. However, I had just been reading about proboscidean evolution and the name set off a whole marquee of light bulbs over my head. Let's make a periodic table of proboscidean evolution.

I Googled the idea and found several "Periodic Tables of the Elephants" but all of them were normal periodic tables using cartoon elephants as illustrations. None of them were really about elephants. I let the idea bubble for a while, bounced it off my Facebook friends, and, last week, decided to go for it.

So, what is the plan? Simply put, it's an educational poster of proboscidean evolution using the familiar theme of the periodic table to illustrate the diversity of the proboscidean family tree. It's a very bushy tree. The definitive work in the late 1930s listed 350 species. It took sixty years for someone to become brave enough to prune that tree, getting rid of unnecessary duplications, and adding recent discoveries. By my count, there are currently 177 species recognized in the order Proboscidea. This can't all be explained in a poster. No one wants a poster of mostly words. The poster needs an accompanying booklet. This book and poster set is not unusual for educational posters.

Alrighty. What's the plan? For the periodic table itself, I intend to organize a representative subgroup of the recognized species (about a third of them) in the order that their genera first appeared in the fossil record and use these for the table. For each square in the table, I'll make a drawing of the species with a size bar, give it a two letter symbol, provide its Linnean binomial (scientific name), and the namer and year it was named (these are also part of the full scientific name). In the center of the poster I'll provide a key to the squares and on one side I'll provide a general family tree of to show how they fit together.

But wait, that's not all. The booklet expands on this. In the booklet I'll provide a specific description of each species, with an enlarged illustration, explaining it's evolutionary significance and stories about it's discovery, lifestyle, and appearance. The whole thing will be prefaced with an illustrated article on proboscidean evolution that gives perspective to each of the individual genera and species. Aside from its educational value, the booklet will allow the owner to assume an air of superiority while explaining the poster to their students/nerdy friends. Who doesn't like that?

I've decided to pitch this on Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, I'm open to recommendations). I'm broke and I need some income to keep going. I have tons of research that doesn't fit into the book, and I would like to monetize it. This also gives me something to put on my resume to convince potential publishers that I know my stuff. There are some great stories that I had to greatly abridge or cut from the book. These will make great e-books, but these are things that will be useful for marketing the mammoth book after it's done. I need something that I can do right away that will pay up front. The evolutionary data fits the ticket perfectly.

To do this, I'll need to produce around eighty professional quality illustrations. I can do that, but, since the last time I did any serious illustration, I've developed a serious hand tremor. Retraining myself will take some work, but not a lot. I would show you my current artistic ability, but my scanner died not long before I moved. Getting a new one will bee my first expense. I need to pay myself for my research time, my art, layout, color, and the production of the first batch of the posters, booklets, associated mailing costs, and anything I might have missed. Based on what I've already done, I think three months for the project is a realistic goal.

This leads me to some questions: 1) Is this a good idea? 2) Would you buy the poster or do you know anyone who would? 3) If I go ahead with this, what should be my financial goal? I think at least $4000 for the art and at least $2000 for the rest. Could I get more? 4) I need to offer threshold gifts. Any ideas? Signed prints? The poster? 5) What am I forgetting?

I'll keep working on the book during this time, just not as fast. If anyone has experience with Kickstarter projects, I'd love to hear about it. What do you think?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The turquoise teeth of Languedoc

Although paleontology, as a defined science, has only been around for two hundred years, digging up fossils and trying to make sense of them far predates recorded history. In the 1880s, French archaeologists discovered a much-handled, trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The occupation level in the cave where it was found has been dated to be fifteen thousand years old. For the bones of large extinct mammals, a small number explanations and uses have existed during the era of written history. The bones have been seen as the remains of human giants, monsters, unknown animals, and as mineral productions that merely resemble real bones. They have been used to inspire the faithful, as medicine, and, in Europe, as a source of turquoise.

On November 25, 1715, thermometer pioneer and all around smart guy, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur presented a paper at a public meeting of the French Academy regarding turquoise mines in Languedoc, the southwestern part of the kingdom. The mines, he said in passing, had been idle for twenty years due to wars and other disruptions. Before the paper was published, it was brought to the attention of Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, and newly installed regent for the five year old king, Louis XV. As regent, Philippe had the responsibility of finding resources to pay for those recent wars. Réaumur noted in the published version of his paper that, in the year since he had presented the paper, the Regent sent one of the members of his cabinet, Gilbert Charles le Gendre, to investigate. The governor of Languedoc was ordered to give his full cooperation and see if the mines could be brought back into production.

The aqua colored stone called turquoise was known and used in Europe in the same way as other precious stones. Most great collections included jewelry and religious items decorated with polished pieces of turquoise. Though the stone was well known, there was a great deal of confusion about its nature. The word "turquoise" was a fairly recent coinage meaning, essentially, "the Turkish stone." Turquoise originated somewhere in the East and was imported into the West by Turkish merchants. The problem with the name was that the Turks had not been between Europe and the Far East for that long. The Turks came from Central Asia. For centuries, Turkish tribes had been relocated by the Persian kings to their western frontier to serve various geopolitical purposes that are interesting, but not relevant here. By the early Second Millennium, they had become numerous enough and had Turkicised enough of the neighboring population that they began to form states independent of the Persian Empire. The identification of turquoise with the Turks probably dates to the Fourteenth Century when the Persians began to exploit new mines near Nishapur creating a dependable supply for export.

None of the writers of Réaumur’s time thought that turquoise was a new substance. The natural historians of Antiquity, such a Pliny and Theophrastus, described several blue and blue-green stones whose modern identity was uncertain. For the later naturalists, the relevant question was which, if any, of those stones referred to turquoise? Réaumur identified two possible contenders in Pliny’s Natural History: one called borea and the other calais. The belief of his peers was that, during the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the arrival of Nishapur turquoise, whatever word the ancients had used for the stone had fallen into disuse and been forgotten. When Turkish merchants began offering it as a new commodity, European merchants, lacking another name, called it the Turkish stone. The etymology suffered some problems, such as: why didn't anyone ask the Turks what it was called. Additionally confusing was the fact that the earliest known use of the word "turquoise" slightly preceded the arrival of the Nishapur stones in Europe and had been used to describe a different stone—a yellow-white one—being imported from the East by Turkish merchants.

The uncertain historical identity was followed by a second problem, which was particularly important to Réaumur. He wanted to know whether Persian turquoise and Languedoc turquoise were the same substance. This turned out to be a very complicated problem. The ancient writers being of no help, he combed through more recent writers to find an answer, but found them just as confused as he was. The writers he cites in his paper describe two types of turquoise: Oriental, meaning Persian, which was regarded as being the best quality, and Occidental, found in parts of Europe, and which was regarded as being of lower quality. The French traveler and gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who is best known today for having brought the great blue gem we call the Hope Diamond to Europe, spent considerable time in Persia and knew something of the mines around Nishapur, though he did not personally visit them. He wrote that there were two different mining districts and that each produced a different type of stone. The harder, bluer stone was called "old rock" and the softer, paler stone was called "new rock." Finally, there were reports of blue stones occasionally turning up in the New World. Oriental hard rock, Oriental soft rock, European, and American stones were at one time or another all called turquoise, but were they all the same stone?

The lecture Réaumur presented to the Academy was significantly different from the paper published in their journal almost two years later. The published paper contained additional information Though a copy of the lecture has not survived, Réaumur was fairly clear about which details were c he learned after the lecture thanks to Gendre's investigations as an agent of Philippe II. Réaumur says that he never was able to visit the mines in person; his original presentation must have been entirely based on written sources. None of these sources had a lot to say about Languedoc turquoise, but they all mentioned one curious detail that did not appear in other descriptions of the stone. Languedoc turquoise did not come out of the ground showing the bright blue color that made the stone so desirable. To achieve that color, it had to be treated with fire. Gendre provided Réaumur with samples from the mines to experiment on. The samples surprised him. Several of them looked like very large teeth.

Two of the teeth Réaumur examined. He handled at least six complete teeth and several fragments. Source.

Along with his purely scientific interest, Réaumur had a very practical reason for looking into the mines. For five years he had headed a committee charged with cataloging the useful arts and manufactures of the kingdom. Even after his work on the committee was completed, for the rest of his life he maintained an acute interest in the practical application of the sciences for the good of the realm publishing papers on beekeeping, silk production, and iron smelting. It’s likely that the first draft of his paper was an official report and that this was how the mines came to the attention of Philippe and Gendre.

A significant part of Réaumur’s paper was dedicated to the mines themselves and the method of converting the stones into turquoise. The earliest mention he could find for the mines was from 1628 and the locals said that they had been idle for about twenty years, though they were starting to come back into production. Most of the mines were near the town of Simore in the Gers district of Lower Languedoc. The turquoise was found in a layer of bluish sand several layers below the surface. The mines had to be heavily timbered because of the sandy soil. Some mines were as deep and fifty feet deep and he believed that there was plenty of turquoise still to be found. When discovered in the ground, the turquoise pieces were light yellow, tan, or light blue. To become turquoise, the pieces needed to be baked in special ovens that were a little larger than a coffin. Once the fire created a good bed of coals, the pieces were placed in a small cup, which he called a shoe (sabot), and placed on a ledge in the oven. The stones and the oven required constant attention. Wood had to be added to keep the temperature high and the unripe turquoise needed to be regularly monitored for color. The time needed to reach the best color ranged from less than four hours to over twenty four. If left in the oven for too long, the pieces would first turn green and then black, neither of which had any commercial value.

The ovens and tools for preparing the turquoise. Source.

In going over literature that specifically mentioned Languedoc turquoise, Réaumur saw that, of the five sources he discovered (I haven’t found any more), three mentioned the necessity of fire in bringing out the color and two mentioned fact that the turquoise ore looked like bones. His contemporary informants told him that the locals even referred to pieces as arms, legs, and teeth. He examined the pieces that had been sent to him with very carefully with a microscope and saw minute structures that convinced him that the ore really was the petrified remains of bones and teeth and not just rocks that looked like them. There was enough variation among the teeth that he suspected they were the remains of more than one species of animal. For a man of science, he showed very little curiosity about what those species might have been. In two sentences he says they are probably the remains of kind of sea animal since nothing similar lives on the land and leaves it at that.

There was a good hint to the identity of one of the animals in the earliest description of the Languedoc turquoise. In 1728, Guy de la Brosse wrote in his On the Nature, Virtue, and Utility of Plants: “There is a stone that has figure of a horn, the consistency of stone, and, exposed to graduated heat, gives true Turquoise: it is called unicorn mineral (Licorne minerale), because it looks like the horn of an animal. It is effective against all kinds of poisons.” The unicorn mineral, also known as unicornu fossile and ebur fossile, was the name given to fossil ivory, which almost always meant tusks of mammoths or of a few other species of prehistoric elephant. Since antiquity, unicorn horns had been believed to be an antidote for all poisons and even to have the power to detect poisons nearby. During the poison panic of the Renaissance, narwhal teeth were worth considerably more than their weight in gold. There was some question about whether fossil ivory came from unicorns or some other animal, but there was little doubt that it had the same anti-poison properties. In de la Brosse’s time the belief that the only security against the poisoners that lurked behind every tapestry was a large piece of unicorn horn had begun to fade. The price had been dropping since the last years of the previous century though the belief that powdered unicorn horn was good medicine hung on in some circles right up to Réaumur’s time. His lack of interest in the animal that produced the Simore teeth is curious because, when he made his investigations, it was generally accepted that most fossil ivory came from elephants and not sea creatures. Testing modern ivory to see if it too could be converted into turquoise would have been an obvious line of research for him to pursue.

Having blown off the question of whose teeth the Languedoc turquoise came from, Réaumur was left with one final question: was this the same substance as Persian ivory; were the Persians also baking bones and teeth to get turquoise? Réaumur took a selection of stones to a Paris jeweler who was familiar with Persian turquoise. The jeweler told him that some of the stones were old rock and some of them were new rock. If Tavernier was to be believed, this shouldn't have been possible. The two should not be found together in the same place. The jeweler held firm in his identification. Réaumur's microscopic examinations revealed that Persian turquoise did not show any of the organic structures that he saw in his samples from Simore. He was confident that his turquoise was a different substance than Persian turquoise. He expressed no opinion on the question of whether or not old rock and new rock Persian turquoise were the same substance.

Réaumur's paper was influential, but not the last word on the topic. In Bordeaux, local officials experimented with baking newer bones in the hope of producing their own turquoise. The experiment was a failure. For the next century, various writers argued about whether or not the Languedoc stones were “real” turquoise. Interest in the stones finally waned in the early Nineteenth Century when Gotthelf Fischer from Moscow University made a study of various turquioses and named the French turquoise odontolite. Now that it had a name, the stone went out of fashion. The main academic interest in it was nailing down exactly which chemicals, assumed to be metals, gave odontolite its color. It was a frustratingly elusive problem only solved in the Twenty-first Century.

Réaumur donated four of the teeth to the royal collections. They are the same ones he used as illustrations for his paper. He must have kept those. When Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton organized and cataloged the collections in the 1750s and ‘60s, he placed the teeth with hippopotamus bones. It was an inspired error. He also cataloged mastodon teeth from North America as belonging to hippos. He believed that both sets of teeth came from a giant, unknown species of hippo. The two were related to each other, but not to hippos. In 1796, Georges Cuvier, a rising young star in the French scientific scene, confidently announced to the world that mammoths and mastodons were not elephants, they were two extinct species only related to elephants. Extinction was a controversial idea at the time. Cuvier became an unofficial keeper of the list for extinct animals. In 1806, after examining Réaumur’s turquoise teeth in what was now the national museum, he added a new species to the list. He called it Mastodon angustidens. Over the years, the species has been bounced from genus to genus; today it’s called Gomphotherium angustidens. Three of the teeth in the museum came from this species and it is by far the most common proboscidean fossil in Languedoc.

Reconstruction of G. angustidens by Charles R. Knight. Notice the long jaw and four tusks. Source.

Though the Simore mines no longer produce turquoise, the digging hasn't stopped there. With the science of paleontology taking off, French scientists traveled to the region to hunt for ancient bones. During the Nineteenth Century, Edouard Lartet worked in the region and found bones from ninety-eight different genera of mammals, some extinct and some still living. Others followed. Lower Languedoc, it turns out, is a treasure chest of Miocene fossils. The Miocene ran from 23 to 5.3 million years ago. G. angustidens lived during the latter half of that. Many other species have been discovered in the region including other proboscideans. Fossil bones are plentiful enough there that, sooner or later, paleontologists would have begun to dig there even without Réaumur's guidance. As it was, it was sooner, and all because he became curious about reports of turquoise around the town of Simore and asked questions.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book update

Today I received another rejection, or semi rejection, letter. The editor wrote that it sounds like an interesting project and invited me to submit the completed manuscript when it's ready. I read that to mean she thinks the concept has potential, but is not willing to risk an advance on a writer with no publication history or academic credentials. Crap.

The problem, at this point, is that there just aren't that many well distributed publishers of non-fiction that will consider unsolicited proposals. My next move will be to:

A. start submitting to smaller university and regional presses or
B. look for an agent.

Both of these probably represent a reduction in profit and money is an object for me. I've spent seven years on this and, being broke and unemployed, I would like to make enough to live on while I finish it and maybe even be able to get an apartment.

Tessa had an old Peanuts cartoon that we kept on the fridge door. Snoopy was sitting on his doghouse typing. The captions read: "Dear sirs, With regards to your rejection letter. What I wanted was for you to send me fifty thousand dollars and publish my book. Didn't you know that?" Apparently they don't.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

South Carolina has a State Fossil

South Carolina finally has an official state fossil: the Columbian mammoth (that's also the state fossil of Washington). The decision was not without some melodrama.

As I mentioned below, eight year old Olivia McConnell was perusing lists of state symbols and noticed that her state was one of the last states without a state fossil. She did some research and discovered that South Carolina has a special tie to American paleontology through a discovery of some mammoth teeth that were the first in the New World to be authoritatively identified as elephantine in nature. The identification was made by an African slave whose name was unfortunately not recorded. Armed with this background research, Olivia wrote to her state representatives who promptly wrote a bill and submitted it to each house. The bill was short and clear. After the usual whereas's it read:

Article 9, Chapter 1, Title 1 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding: "Section 1-1-712A. The Columbian Mammoth is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina."
It sailed through the House with a 94-3 vote, went on the Senate, and came screeching to a halt. Sen. Kevin Bryant, a creationist, decided the bill needed some religion and amended it with three verses from Genesis describing the creation of the animals. This was judged to be an insertion of a new topic into the bill which, for procedural reasons stopped its progress. At this point, the national press took notice, and not in a way that made South Carolina look good. 
If the story had simply been about religion, Bryant and his supporters would have gotten their Southern stubborn on and said "screw you" to Yankees, the liberal media, and all of the others that they imagine to be persecuting them. The South Carolina legislature has had no problem unconstitutionally inserting religion into their education standards. What made this time different was that the story was almost universally framed as "humorless old men frustrate well-meaning little girl's dream." Defying public opinion in the name of God and the South wasn't going to work this time. Bryant whined to The Daily Beast that he didn't mean to block Olivia's bill, he "just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils."

The simple thing to do would have been for Bryant to remove his amendment and pass the bill before the PR disaster could go on any longer. It didn't work out that way. Bryant removed his amendment, but Sen. Mike Fair, another creationist, put a hold on the bill so Bryant could reword his injection of religion in a way that wouldn't be deemed a new topic. Bryant did this and the Senate leadership accepted his new language. The bill was set to come up for a vote on Wednesday, when Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler blocked it. Peeler thinks the state has more than enough state symbols and considers naming any more to be a waste of time. To demonstrate how strongly he felt about this, he chose the most embarrassing time possible to waste three hours of the Senate's time arguing over it. Finally, the leadership allowed his to insert a second clause into the bill declaring a moratorium on any new symbols. The leadership chose not to view this as a new topic even though it is. The final vote was unanimous.

The final Senate bill is hardly perfect. Peeler got his moratorium. Bryant got his religion. The final wording is awkward and redundant:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the 'Columbian Mammoth', which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.
The one improvement, from my perspective, is that they finally got the species right. The original bill said "Wooly (sic) Mammoth" in the title and "Columbian Mammoth" in the actual bill. The final version has this corrected to Columbian in both places. The press is still having trouble with that. The New York Times coverage refers to it as the "Columbia woolly mammoth." USA Today correctly refers to it as the Columbian mammoth, but then messes up by calling it a sub-species of the woolly mammoth.

South Carolina has a state fossil and Olivia McConnell has had an education in civics. I hope this encourages her to stay out of politics and to go into science. Or, if she is inspired to go into politics, that it be so the people of South Carolina have someone representing them who knows how to do their homework and who will cut through the crap.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mammoths in the News

In South Carolina, eight year old Olivia McConnell noticed that her state has a state grass doesn't have a state fossil. She set out to fix that. She wrote a letter to her state legislators, Rep. Robert Ridgeway and Sen. Kevin Johnson, laying out her reasons why the state need an official fossil and proposed the mammoth for the job. They were impressed and sponsored a bill for her.

The articles I've checked on all flip back and forth between Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth and so does the bill. They are two different species. Columbian would be the correct one for South Carolina. Olivia probably knows the difference. She did her homework on this, but I can't find the text of her letter. One of the reasons she gave for choosing the mammoth was that it has an important tie to South Carolina. The first known mention mammoth remains in the Americas appeared in 1743 in Mark Catesby's in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands he wrote "At a place in Carolina called Stono, was dug out of the Earth three or four Teeth of a large Animal, which, by the concurring Opinion of all the Negroes, native Africans, that saw them, were the Grinders of an Elephant...." Catesby probably heard about the teeth when he traveled in the southern states in 1725.

Olivia's bill should have sailed through both houses and been signed into law in no time. Rep. Ridgeway's version sailed through committee, was put to a vote and passed 94-3. Those three should be ashamed of themselves. Then the bill ran aground in the senate. Far right Sen. Kevin Bryant decided it needed to to be amended with an unconstitutional injection of religion. He wanted to add some verses from Genesis so every one would know just who created mammoths and fossils. Bryant's amendment was ruled out of order because it introduced a new subject. Bryant tried to shorten his amendment, but still wants to keep religion in the bill. Thus, it remains in limbo. In his defense, Bryant whines, "I think it's a good idea to designate the mammoth as the state fossil, I don't have a problem with that. I just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils." Bryant has one ally in the state senate, Sen. Mike Fair, who has placed an objection on the bill. Fair, like Bryant is a creationist and climate change denier.

And so, it remains unclear if South Carolina will get a state fossil. Three other states have mammoths as their state fossils (and one has the mastodon), but duplication has never been a problem for state symbols (state flowers, for example). Changing the species won't help. Bryant and Fair will want to attach religion to any fossil. Most stories on this predictably end with the gag that perhaps Bryant and Fair should be the state fossils. The story shouldn't be about their obstructionism. It should be about Olivia McConnell, a smart, observant girl. I hope those two old poops don't discourage her. We need more girls like Olivia.