Remember, back in 2003, the discovery of tiny "hobbit" remains on the Indonesian island of Flores? The bones were dubbed Homo floresiensis, and anthropologists speculated that they might be from an offshoot group of humans whose tiny size was the result of adapting to island conditions. They lived about 18,000 years ago, which could mean they coexisted with modern humans for a time.
Well, maybe not. Now that the clamor of free Lord of the Rings related publicity has died down, some researchers have taken a cold, hard look at the "hobbit" remains and now suspect they're not a separate species, or even a subspecies.
Robert Martin of the Field Museum and his team have just published a paper in Science suggesting that the "hobbit" skeleton of Flores is in fact the remains of a single deformed individual. Martin's conclusion centers on the head: the floresiensis skeleton has a really tiny head, with a brain case smaller than a chimp's. That doesn't match the way animal proportions alter as they change size. (The name of this particular branch of biology is allometry.) Among humans, for instance, even very small groups like the African Pygmies tend to have heads roughly the same size as everyone else. As you get smaller, your head gets bigger in proportion. The "hobbit" looks more like someone with microcephaly.
Florida State University paleoanthropologist Dean Falk maintains that floresiensisisn't a microcephalic, because of the imprint of convolutions on the inside of the skull. So the question isn't settled yet.
However, there is other evidence against the hobbit theory: with a chimp-sized brain, floresiensis shouldn't have been able to make the kind of tools found at the same site as the skeleton. And though the paper doesn't mention it, there's the little issue of some very big people: Pacific islanders, who live in just the kind of small island environment which supposedly made floresiensis tiny, are some of the largest humans in average height and weight.
If floresiensis turns out to be a dwarf human with microcephaly, it would be a little disappointing. But it is interesting to see how different areas of science can be used to check each other's validity. That's one of the great strengths of modern science, and outweighs the loss of a hobbit or two.
The Indonesian volcano Mount Merapi is erupting. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, pyroclastic flows of hot ash and flaming gas are pouring down the mountain along with streams of lava.
The scientists at the Merapi Volcano Observatory are keeping tabs on it -- from a safe distance, one hopes. Of the sciences, vulcanology is one of the more dangerous fields of study, and pyroclastic flowsjust like the ones coming off Merapi right now are one of the leading killers of vulcanologists. And non-vulcanologists, for that matter. They move very fast.
Naturally, the Indonesian government is trying to encourage people to get the heck away from the erupting volcano. But there are problems. Many of the locals are afraid that if they leave their property and livestock behind it will be stolen (and sadly they may be right). Of course, livestock and property buried under superheated ash along with the owners isn't worth much either.
An aged holy man named Maridjan, the "spiritual watchman" of the mountain (whatever the hell that means), is refusing to leave, and that unfortunately is convincing others to stay put. Mr. Maridjan is being a butt-head. Let's all hope nobody dies because of his idiotic complacency.
Now one might be tempted to say "why do those crazy people want to live on an active volcano?" On the face of it, it seems pretty dangerous. However it's just as dangerous to live on a major fault line, on the seashore, by a river, or on an open prairie. The sad truth is that we live on a dangerous planet. Maybe we should sue the manufacturer.
Spring in the rural Northeast can be beautiful, but it has its drawbacks. Sure, the crocuses are blooming, I can see the ground for the first time in months, and the asparagus is starting to come up in the garden. But we’re also
inundated with ticks. Whenever I come inside from raking mulch or leaves, I spend some time pulling deer ticks off my pants, my face, and out from under my t-shirt. I paw through my kids’ hair like some sort of demented chimpanzee. Occasionally we find great swollen specimens on the kitchen floor after they fall off the dog (he’s a really hairy dog – sometimes we miss one. We’ve started shaving him in the summers.).
Although the ticks are nasty blood-sucking parasites on their own merits, I worry about them because they’re also the vector for an even nastier parasite: the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes a little condition called Lyme disease.
Lyme disease first started to be a problem when I was a kid in New York. All while I was growing up, its spread was blamed on the growing white-tailed deer population. The growth of suburbs had produced a huge amount of deer-friendly forage and fewer people were hunting them, triggering a deer population explosion. More deer, more deer ticks, more chance of infection, QED. But a new study published Tuesday in PLoS Biology shows that we really should have been keeping an eye on the chipmunks instead.
In Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous With Rama, the prologue describes a horrifying catastrophe in the year 2077: a large meteor impact in northern Italy which kills hundreds of thousands of people and destroys countless masterpieces of art and architecture. In response to the disaster, the people of Earth establish a project called SPACEGUARD to make sure it never happens again.
SPACEGUARD is here (71 years early!), although it has the slightly less butch title Pan-STARRS. The system will ultimately consist of four optical telescopes scanning the heavens for asteroids, comets, and (one assumes) interloping alien spacecraft.
Of course, right now if Pan-STARRS discovers something on a collision course with Earth there isn't much we can actually do about it. But at least we'd have the opportunity to live out all those end-of-the-world tell-off-the-boss fantasies.
The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is one of
those books that shifts direction dramatically as you’re reading it. After starting with a concise (and appalling) history of the ivory-bill woodpecker’s decline and disappearance, author Tim Gallagher introduces us to a colorful group of people who claim to have seen the big bird, despite the fact that it was supposed to be extinct. In true New Journalism fashion, Gallagher doesn’t just talk to his subjects – he goes out birding with them, and the entertaining story that results is as much about his misadventures driving around the Deep South and sloshing through bayous as about the people he’s interviewing. But on one of these trips through the middle of some trackless swamp, something unexpected happened – he saw one.
After the sighting, the book shifts gears. Where the first two-thirds are devoted to portraits of the people who made unconfirmed sightings, the last third focuses on events, specifically, what happens after Gallagher convinces his colleagues at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology that he’s really seen the “grail bird.” The two parts are barely stitched together, but Gallagher’s enthusiasm and clear prose carries through as a large set of new characters descend on the swamp to get proof that the ivory-bill still lives. And at long last, I’ve found a book about current events that I actually enjoyed reading.
The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Tim Gallagher Houghton Mifflin $25.00