Old Bones Age Well

Old Bones Age Well

Mostly praise for PBS’ brilliant production “Bones of Turkana” with only a few important criticisms.

It was specially good to see Richard Leakey so relaxed and forthcoming. He is a man who has lived much of his life under attack or siege and a significant part of his non-paleontological public life remains clouded and unexplained. And until now, anyway, he has been withdrawn and reticent to assume such a grand public mantel.

In the darker days of Kenya under the dictator Daniel Moi, Leakey held two important government posts. The first was head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the second was head of an anti-corruption unit created in conjunction with the World Bank to rid Kenya of enough back room dealing that aid organizations would feel comfortable working with the country, again.

Both public positions ended in disaster, although there’s little doubt Leakey’s tenure at KWS was enormously good.

I do take issue with the documentary’s claim from Leakey that his pyre of ivory fire almost single-handedly ended the ivory market, thereby saving elephants.

It was much more complicated than that, and certainly Leakey’s strong-man tactics in the KWS, using every power given him by an exceedingly powerful and corrupt dictator, did enormous good to stop the extinction of elephants in Africa.

Before Leakey came to power in the KWS, Kenya had lost 90-95% of its elephants. There was wide speculation that the wife of the first president, Mama Ngina, was involved in the most massive poaching operation.

Leakey definitely stopped this, and the pyre episode was more than emblematic. But Kenya was not the only place in Africa where the problem existed; it was continent-wide. And the largest share of the credit goes to the CITES convention and treaty, initiated by the U.S. and Kenya well before Leakey’s involvement.

And Leakey’s abrupt dismissal (actually, his resignation just prior to dismissal) from the KWS was primarily caused by his stepping on the toes of one very powerful man, Ntimama, who was an ally of the president. And it just shows you, you don’t act like your boss to your boss.

Later Leakey would become the much celebrated head of the “Dream Team” set up to stifle corruption in Kenya. A version of that agency still exists in Kenya and isn’t doing too badly. But his brief tenure there and abrupt departure left many wondering:

(A) Was he just too frustrated without the authority denied him to clean house, or worse (B) was he corrupt, too. Did the head of the snake come round to bite the tail?

That damning accusation remains unanswered and many close to Leakey insist he won’t address it for fear of legitimizing an absurdity. I think that was wrong. Leakey never explained why he left the Dream Team and the accusations remain unanswered.

Leakey was never the affable and sometimes flamboyant star that his father, Lewis, was. From the beginning he was much shyer, assuming I believe the shadow that most white Kenyans lived under during his generation. After all, remember that he lived not just through a global era of emancipation, but in a newly independent country previously ruled by a twelth of the population of which his ancestry played a significant part.

It was actually his mother, Mary, who was the discoverer of Zinj. Yet it was not until after her death in 1980 that scientific publications credited her, rather than her husband, Lewis, with the find.

And to be white, in a newly independent black country, must have been difficult.

And the family was one of the most dysfunctional on earth. There were three feuding sons. One fled to Europe. One became an idiot politician in Kenya on the side of the dictator. And that left Richard as the only publicly sane figure. When Richard needed a kidney to stay alive, the idiot politician balked for months before agreeing to the operation.

I first met him at Jane Goodall’s second wedding in Dar-es-Salaam in 1981. Later I got to know him better when I was working with a Chicago filmmaker, Dugan Rosalini, who tried unsuccessfully to make an early documentary about him. I then lost touch with him until meeting him again at a reception in Chicago honoring the 100th birthday of his father.

Throughout these many years he remained withdrawn, terribly scarred I felt from the two public disasters in Kenya. Yet also during these years his successful scientific battles became legend, and his several books and other publications baseline studies for all paleontologists, today.

So another slight criticism I have with the film is that Leakey’s own explanations of our human origins suggest to the less informed that humans evolved in some linear fashion, from say Australopithecus to habilis to erectus to ourselves.

That had never been Leakey’s position. It was the position of his arch-rival, Donald Johanson, the discoverer of Lucy. Lucy was the closest rival to Turkana Boy in terms of completely found anatomy.

It brewed a terrible and bitter fight between the two men, finally resolved when Johanson conceded in Time magazine’s millennium edition that he had been wrong, and Leakey right.

About what? That human evolution is not linear.

I don’t really think that Leakey intended to imply linear evolution, but the film failed in this regards to highlight how important his opposite view is and was.

There is no doubt in my mind that Leakey is a great man. And not just as a paleontologist. His love of Kenya and attempts to become a valuable civil servant and later politician there were perhaps ahead of his time. And the actual service he provided was probably necessary and beyond realism to suppose anyone else could have performed, then and there.

But the sum total of his life made him an inward man. And this film may have changed that.

Some good wines improve with age. Particularly when left in the dark for a while.

Biggest! Strongest! Smallest!

Biggest! Strongest! Smallest!

A ridiculously small, and a ridiculously large chamaeleon and a ridiculously strong little bird. Africa at its best!

I have personally seen the northern wheatear breeding in Alaska and foraging in Africa, and we’ve not known until now where the Alaskan birds migrated. That’s because there are wheatears in eastern northern Canada and even Greenland and Scotland.

Most bird migrations are determined in a pretty easy way. The bird is banded and then it’s found where it’s migrated to. And dozens and dozens of wheatears have been banded, but they’ve never been found.

That wasn’t actually unimaginable with regards to the wheatear. Unlike most species of bird, the wheatear breeds over a massive portion of the northern hemisphere and there are lots of them. So the odds of a banded bird being found were greatly reduced.

But technology to the rescue! The bird is so small, .8 ounce, that anything other than a light-weight leg band could not be used for tracking, until scientists recently concocted a really itty bitty geolocator hardly heavier than a band. And that’s where this data comes from.

There’s a real surprise, too. The birds in Alaska travel west to Africa. The birds in eastern Canada travel east. The route from Alaska to Africa is impressive: nearly 20,000 miles roundtrip! The eastern migration is half that, but it has to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the world’s most turbulent sea.

So either way around this you’ve got a remarkable little African bird! (Well, it’s also an Alaskan, Canadian, Greenlander, and British Isles bird, too.)

Note: the birds with the longest migration (approaching 50,000 miles) are the arctic tern and winged albatross.

The other fabulous African nature news this week was of still more treasures from Madagascar. We’d already found the world’s largest chamaeleon there. Parson’s chameleon is the size of most cats! Now this week scientists announced the discovery of the world’s smallest chameleon. It can fit on a matchhead!

What is really amazing about this, actually, is that these two creatures from Madagascar although definitely both chamaeleons in many common ways, are probably very different and likely have extremely different evolutionary paths.

Their point of last convergence could conceivably be at the dawn of reptiles, meaning more than 250 million years ago! The fact that they then physically changed so little except in terms of their size, likely has something to do with the special island-continent ecology of Madagascar. Island systems provide narrow paths for evolution, encouraging speciation but then subsequently constricting radical divergence.

On safari we usually find a chameleon or two and always some type of wheatear (there are several). Along with the new snakes and new primates and primate behaviors discovered recently in Tanzania, we’re learning that Africa has much more to reveal than we ever thought before!

First Steps Baby!

First Steps Baby!

Another breakthrough discovery credited to my forlorn African creature, the lungfish! Apparently it was you, not that obdurate Tiktaalik, that moved life out of the sea onto land! Go buddy!

Yesterday, scientists at the University of Chicago announced a study soon be formally published, proving that the itty bitty fins of the African lungfish even in today’s living species locomote in ways suggesting that the earliest animal footprint fossils could actually be from their ancestors.

And not – as until now widely presumed – from tetrapods like good ole “Tik”. Tetrapods, lungfish and another class of prehistoric sea-living creatures called coelacanths, were all candidates for the Mom that finally pushed babe out of the water, but until now the consensus was that the early lungfish were sort of dead-enders in that evolutionary contest, getting no further advanced really than those we see today in Africa. And that fully land-based walking creatures evolved from their cousins, the tetrapods.

So who cares?

Well, I do, because lungfish are still really neat living creatures many people see on safari, and because I think it helps illustrate evolution if you’re cautious. Like primates such as gorillas and baboons, it crushes in real time the theory underpinning creationists that evolution is unilinear.

“You think you’re related to that chimp?”

Well of course we didn’t come from that chimp, any more than walking creatures today were progeny of the lungfish. The chimp and humans, and the lungfish and all land walking creatures, had a common ancestor, but they diverged long ago and evolved quite differently into a host of varied creatures.

Nevertheless, it is the real time experience of common traits in our “ancient cousins” that demonstrates common ancestors existed in the first place! Long before DNA and other complex tools, all scientists had to work with was this kind of observed anatomy, and it wasn’t so bad. It produced a pretty good foundation for understanding natural selection.

But since Darwin’s and Wallace’s first explanations of natural selection, it has been massively misunderstood.

To me pointing out a chimp — or a lungfish — harnesses anyone’s intuition that there is something in common with us (man) – or anything that walks. It’s impossible to deny. And once that common understanding is reached, we can then contrast the massive differences that are equally intuitive. And the explanation for those massive differences is species divergence over long periods of time.

Unfortunately, there are no tetrapods still around, so until now I was stretching it suggesting that my dear icky slimy lungfish, squirming about in a drying up pool of mud, was demonstrating the emergence of terrestrialness.

No more! Thanks you brilliant guys in Chicago!

The Evolution of Republicans

The Evolution of Republicans

By the Philadelphia Inquirer's Tony Auth.
Sometimes I wish American politics would just hang clear of my Africa, but how naive I guess. Evolution is founded in, based in, spectacular in Africa, and it’s increasingly a hot-button issue in current Republican politics. I’m embarrassed to write about this, but the amount of ignorance among potentially very powerful people is flabbergasting and increasingly terrifying.

Herbert Cain hasn’t said, and that’s the point. He’s going to have to, soon. He can’t maintain his lead without addressing these issues which are part and parcel to the beliefs of those who will choose the candidate.

And by the way, Cain has a few other problems at the moment.

Jon Huntsman is the only major Republican candidate to embrace evolution. “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.” Jon Huntsman is also the only major Republic candidate without a chance of winning.

Mitt Romney accepts evolution as science. But his mission to stay afloat in the hurricane season in the Bermuda triangle forces him into multitudes of qualification. “God created the universe” and evolution “created the human body.”

Detailing exactly what he believes would probably wreck his campaign.

Only Newt Gingrich can out hedge Romney. When asked specifically about evolution, he angled his response, “I believe that creation as an act of faith is true, and I believe that science as a mechanical process is true,” Gingrich told reporters in May. “Both can be true.”

And have absolutely nothing to do with one another or evolution.

Rick Perry concedes that “evolution is a theory” but “with gaps in it.” No, there aren’t his kind of gaps in it, but more important, he pulls no punches in terms of what he’ll do if he can: “I am a firm believer [that] intelligent design … should be presented in schools. “

He’s been successful in Texas, where intelligent design has been incorporated into middle school text books and evolution qualified. It’s a huge and horrible story in itself.

Michele Bachmann “supports intelligent design,” and supports it by lying, “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.”

Well, of course that’s not true, as is the case with much that Bachmann says day after day as though it’s gospel. (Maybe that’s the problem with her followers: they make up gospel.)

Unequivocally as his best credential Ron Paul states, “There is a theory… of evolution, and I don’t accept it,” Paul said.

Then there’s the bottom of the evolutionary chain, the last link so to speak. Rick Santorum makes the ridiculously untrue, not-even-a-metaphor pandering parallel that belief in evolution means you “are a descendant of a monkey,” and goes on to insist this nonsense is just one of “the many other liberal beliefs [of] Democrats.”

As a Senator from Pennsylvania he proposed the “Santorum Amendment” to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that would have forced public schools to offer the creationist perspective in science classes, and to call into question the scientific evidence supporting evolution. That amendment was rejected.

That’s what we got to work with. One reasonable man without a hope who isn’t really a Republican, one man hiding on the run, two ducking and three wackos.

The candidates are driven by the right-wing Christian media, particularly talk radio. And the last few weeks have taken the ridiculous into the abstract sublime. You just won’t believe what right-wing talk radio is discussing these last few weeks with regards to evolution.

The current evolution topic is whether Darwin’s theories of natural selection contributed to Hitler’s Nazi holocaust.

Say what?

And so, therefore, Hitler was not a Christian.

Of course.

I know it’s unbelievable. I actually felt it was better to just not to wade into this, because the threads of logic were so knotted up.

“Nazism was not science-based,” Univ. of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers wrote last week, “Hitler was a true Christian.”

Somehow, whether Hitler was a Christian depends upon whether Christians believe in evolution, but evolution is science and if they don’t, then they aren’t Nazis, either? This is the new litmus test for Republican candidates. Can you phrase it better than me?

This ridiculous dispute became so prominent lately that University of Chicago professor Robert Richards issued a White Paper, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?“ with 45 pages of careful history, heavily annotated, in order to conclude “The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!”

And Monday, the respected Philadelphia science journalist, Faye Flam, wrote that serious historians today “agree that any whiff of Darwinism in Hitler’s speech or writing was merely window-dressing.”

But we all know in today’s world that facts and logic don’t mean very much, so why try? We try, because it keeps us sane.

I just hope the election will fall however marginally with the sane.

Back to Life Time!

Back to Life Time!

Photo by John Sullivan in the Maasai Mara
Rains in Africa bring rebirth unlike anywhere else on earth. I don’t mean things just start to grow again. I mean dead things come back to life!

Admittedly, most of these creatures are just fooling us to believe they’ve returned from the dark side. They aren’t really the same thing, but the children of things that died when the rains last ended. But there are a few true miracle creatures that defy all sorts of normal zoological physiologies.

They’re called “mudfish” and … well, for obvious reasons. See the main picture above, although that was taken at the end rather than beginning of the rains. It’s easier to find them like this, captured in wiggling pods as they tried to avoid the marabou stork’s gullet, but before they’ve hibernated for the dry season.

The narrow picture to the right is one of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s several priceless ancient African sculptures praising mudfish. This one is titled, “Rattle Staff: Hand Holding Mudfish (Ukhurhe)” and can be found in gallery 352. And it’s now — at this time of the year — that they reemerge.

They’re an important but small family of earth’s creatures widely referred to as lungfish. Up to 6′ long, they’re mean predators: They can bite off your finger. They breathe with lungs, not gills. They can walk on land. They’ve been on earth for 100 million years and are the direct descendents of the 450 million year old fossil creatures that first walked fish out of the sea.

AND they can live 100 years BUT they regularly die just as many years as they live.

Say what?

At the end of every dry season, they wallow as in the picture above, frantically trying to discourage predators as their home evaporates. Then one night, they wrap themselves in a self-made mucous cocoon and become desiccated with the mud. Almost all their bodily functions cease.

Unlike bears or caterpillars changing or a 17-year grubbly little cicada in a shell under my oak tree, these creatures actually come to a near complete halt.

Until the rains return.

Those of us who know where to look after the first big rains … we’ll find them! They don’t emerge necessarily altogether like they are above. Usually the water has to be a bit deeper to break their hard cocoon and release them, and at that point they’re wholly under water.

A whole bunch of things in Africa actually behaves like mudfish: Toads, true frogs, salamanders, and dozens of insects and smaller carp-like fish are born, live their cycle, mate and die in a single pool of water.

That’s the difference: those creatures die leaving eggs to carry on their species. But mudfish don’t die, exactly. They, well, come back!

This rebirthing quality gave mudfish a divine character with early Africans. Particularly in the more developed early west African societies mudfish was often considered sacred and often the guardian or guide for a royal personage from this world to the next.

In Benin it was associated with Oba, the king, who had achieved the power of life and death of his subjects because of his divine association with the mudfish. In later more modern times, mudfish were prayed to, and petitioned especially for acts of healing.

In the northern west we often chastise equatorial and sunbird people for not appreciating the “change of seasons.” Well, there’s no snow on the equator, but in the wildernesses still preserved where dams, irrigation and boreholes have not disrupted the normal seasons of rain, change here can be much more dramatic than a leaf turning red.

The meaning of water falling from the sky is much more profound. Things come back to life!

The Absolutely Phenomenal Rat!

The Absolutely Phenomenal Rat!

Porcupines are common in East Africa, but more often we thought we saw only smaller ones that we presumed were juveniles, even though they always seemed to be alone. On closer inspection, they turned out not to be porkies, but giant crested rats! This week we learned how fascinating this creature is!

A famous East African scientist published a few days ago the remarkable story of this little creature, putting it on a pedestal of evolution well above many other animals.

I often explain on safari that if you reduce all goals in life to one, it’s defense – how to survive all the external efforts to destroy you. Africa has an amazing array of animal defenses from the sheer savageness of the honey badger to the heavy coat of the waterbuck that tastes so bad no one wants to get near it.

But this little creature, Lophiomys imhausi, has a defense that tops most others. Even at the first level, that its predators appear to get sick just looking at, scientists had trouble figuring out what was going on. But then, like the waterbuck, it was discovered that the creature’s hair was toxic to most of its predators.

The waterbuck secretes a musky oil. At first that’s what everyone thought the crested rat was doing, too, but it wasn’t. Its story is a remarkable lesson in extraordinary convergent evolution!

Little Porky chews a poisonous bark (that somehow doesn’t effect him), his saliva somehow reduces the soup in his mouth into a powerful poison, then he licks it onto his back.

And his back – those otherwise nondescript “crested hairs” – are made in such a unique way that they are specifically designed to absorb this specific concentrated poison.

And – critical to it being a successful radiated defense in natural selection – the poison doesn’t usually kill, just makes the predator very, very sick. So the predator not only won’t go near it, again, but can transmit this learned caution to siblings and offspring.

Imagine this. There were separate, ultimately converging evolutionary tracks: first, the ridiculously otherwise useless evolution of the hair structure; second, chewing of a plant but not for food so a craving by the creature to imaginatively but only partly consume something; third, (and I think most remarkably), the evolution of a poison in a plant where the creature lived that was just the right molecular structure that it wouldn’t kill but make very sick this creature’s predator; and fourth, the creature’s digestive system evolved to be immune to the poison in sync with its not wholly consuming it.

Wow. And there are probably many more lesser obvious biological evolutionary processes at work, too.

Consider that all these developments happened independent of one another, and essentially by chance. The only way any of this is comprehensible is to grasp the sense of time given this creature and its antecedents to create themselves.

That’s to me the greatest marvel of evolution: the backwards understanding of the length of time needed to let all these chances happen.

Of course there are evolutionary processes more complicated than this: what we call “malaria” is actually a sequential interaction of metamorphosing creatures (sort of caterpillar to butterfly types of life forms) that perfectly disrupt and destroy metabolic processes in humans.

But the crested rat is right out there to see! And in the panoply of seeable animals, this is pretty swift stuff!

I always knew not to mess with porky, so I never messed with Little Porky either (Jonathan’s petting not known), but I always presumed it was for the same reason: spines like the porkies. At a distance when light is shined on it (it’s a nocturnal creature), its crested back hairs erect just like porkies do.

But up close, which I’ve been able to do only once, the similarities are lost. They’re really hairs, not spines, and the overall creature is smaller. A porcupine can be 3 or 4 times larger when puffed up in defense.

Yet they both act the same way! Confronted, they turn towards you and raise those weapons on their back!

This amazing puzzle has been brought to us thanks to a famous scientists whose life has been dedicated to East Africa, Jonathan Kingdon. His library of books on Africa biology is large and includes field guides that guides like me have been using for years.

Kingdon told journalists that he kept crested rats as pets when he was a child growing up in East Africa. Finally, he decided, he had to figure out this incessant licking it always did, and simultaneously, why dogs that might see his pet would back away in horror, sometimes foaming up with saliva.

Now we know. One more little but absolutely amazing puzzle of life solved!

And thanks, too, for friend and client Mike Samars, for pointing me to this story.