Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Species Found in Australian Waters

As reported in www.newscientist.com on September 19, 2008, hundreds of new animal species have apparently been found by Lizard and Heron Islands, part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and at Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of northwest Australia. It is thought that up to ½ of the 300 soft corals and that dozens of small crustacean species may be new to science.

Pictures of the “new” species include: sea slugs (which lost their shells many years ago); sea urchins (which are related to starfish and brittle stars); soft branched corals, which have eight tentacles and contrasting colors; snapping shrimp with asymmetrical claws which produce a loud noise which can kill small fish; a type of green algae, single celled with many nuclei, which are one of the largest single cell organisms known to science; and fan worms with big extended heads, serving as gills, which increase the surface area and therefore increases the absorption of oxygen.

Here is the link to photos: http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/av/dn14755V1/dn14755V1.html

Cynthia Neuwalder

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Darwin at the California Academy of Sciences

After nearly 10 years and $500 million dollars, the California Academy of Sciences reopened on Saturday. Living about two blocks away and with two young dino fans, we trekked over for opening weekend festivities. Like most people, I was expecting to be impressed by the indoor rainforest and the so-called living roof. The latter, as most of you have probably read, houses sixty-thousand photovoltaic cells to provide up to 10 percent of the building’s electricity from solar energy. Additionally, the rooftop should absorb 3.6 million gallons of rainwater per year for use in the building and on its grounds. Of course, that’s all largely irrelevant to our Charles Darwin course. Yet, once inside the Academy, it’s clear that Darwin owns the place. His footprint runs throughout, and he essentially has an entire wing dedicated to his work on the Galápagos Islands. In the Academy’s previous building, Darwin's presence felt more like an historical footnote, running as agate type at the bottom of an exhibit card. Now, his name and thinking is dominant across even the floor:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change." -- Charles Darwin

Though the exhibit tracks Darwin’s trail after he disembarked the Beagle and waded ashore the Galápagos Islands in 1835, it focuses most on the continued work stemming from his particular areas of interest and impact: bathtub-sized tortoises and well-beaked finches. As we know from Darwin’s autobiography, the thirteen species of Darwin's finches all had unique beaks that developed depending on what they ate, a phenomenon that would shape Darwin's theory of evolution.

Now, these famous finches are under attack by blood-sucking flies, according to the Academy of Sciences. Apparently, fly larvae live in the finches' nests, emerging at night to sample the blood of chicks by burrowing into their flesh. The flies arrived on the islands via shipments of produce from the Ecuadorian mainland. Currently, the pest larvae are being targeted with insecticides; however, Academy researchers hope the finches will somehow adapt. Meanwhile, kids visiting the Academy of Sciences can literally stamp out flies or lure larvae-toting ants to insecticide-tainted finch nests, and anyone can try out models of differently designed finch beaks or compare life-size models of Darwin’s tortoises.

The Academy of Sciences also houses a naturalist center with various Galápagos resources that are open to the public. The Academy's Science Council is also pushing what it calls the reaffirmed importance of evolution as "the critical organizing principle in modern science." In other words, as the council highlights throughout the museum, "evolution belongs in school curricula and textbooks."

Not surprisingly, the Academy is planning lots of festivities come Darwin’s big two-hundredth birthday. The Academy kicked off its run-up to the February event with a public nod to the reading of the joint communication by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to the Linnean Society of London.

Laura Moorhead

Please, resist all jokes regarding the shocking family resemblance!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Internet Resources

Well, I'll kick off the new and hot. There have been a couple of references to Darwin websites. There are two in particular that are phenomenal resources. The first is Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk/), which is probably the best internet resource devoted to a single historical figure in existence. It has every one of his books in full text electronic format, as well as difficult to find and unpublished private papers and the like. Almost everything is available both in text format and as an image of the relevant editions. Every edition of the Origin is available, so if, for example, you want to look at the part of the third edition that added the summary of the evolution of historical thinking, it's there. One hint. The search functionality within a document kind of sucks. Once you are in a document, if you want to find a particular word or phrase, use the find function in your browser rather than the search function in the site.

The second is the Darwin Correspondence Project (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/), which has electronic full text access to much (though not all) of his correspondence. There are about 11 hard copy volumes or something at this point, so it's great to have it all online and searchable. He often discusses important issues about his theory in his correspondence, so it's really worth a look.

Greg Priest