Monday, 21 June 2010

Into the valley

I leave for the Euromineral show in Sainte-Marie aux Mines, Alsace tomorrow morning. It's the smaller of the two shows I regularly go to, but cheaper and offers a few different dealers. It's not exactly tiny - there are around 900 dealers and over 20,000 visitors. The setting is refreshingly green after the desert of Tucson, too. It's close to the German and Swiss borders, in an area famous for its wines, and every little village has its own vineyards. If I wasn't working so hard, I might be able to go around a few and try some. And nearby is Montagne des Singes - Monkey Mountain. This is as great as it sounds - a fenced-off hilltop full of Barbary macaques. I've probably mentioned this before, but it's worth bringing it up again. There are also a lot of storks flapping around. Storks are good.

Sainte-Marie aux Mines was a silver mining town and Euromineral has its origins in a local mining exhibition in 1962, which developed into a regular event and then a small scale trade show after only four years. It has grown steadily ever since, and now takes over the town for around a week as the streets are closed and tents put up. The locals put up with a lot of noise and mess for a while, but the town does well from it and everyone is generally made very welcome.

I used to camp in one of the town's two campsites but prices rose, amenities declined and I gave up a few years ago. Now I stay with a group of friends in an organic cider farm a few miles away. Lovely place, but can get busy with mosquitoes. Riley will be running the shop while I'm away.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bigmouth strikes again

I love animals, but for the most part I'm not that bothered by birds. Birds of prey are generally a bit more interesting, with their air of arrogant menace. I appreciate the beauty of feather patterns and colours. The mechanics of flight are fascinating. Chicken sandwiches are nice. And so on. For me, though, the most interesting thing about birds are their origins. These things are what we have left of dinosaurs, and it's easy to overlook that. Take a closer look at an ostrich, for example, and you can start to picture its reptilian ancestry.

All that said, some birds stick out as being worthy of a bit more attention. Pelicans for example. Who doesn't have a soft spot for pelicans? They have been in the news a lot recently for unfortunate, oily reasons, but I saw an article on the BBC site about a fossil pelican that caught my attention. The main point of the article is that the 30 million year-old fossil is pretty much the same as modern species. News! Pelicans stay the same for a long time! It is reasonably newsworthy, though, as changes in most bird morphologies have been considerable in that time. This shows that either the pelican has found the perfect form for its niche or it has reached an equilibrium point where the compromise of flight and flappy-jowled beak has proved difficult to get beyond. Whatever the reason, it looks like the pelican has found a good ecological spot and is sticking with it. Now we just have to stop drenching them in oil.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Biting back

A dig in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya six years ago has thrown some light on the diet of hominids living in that area 1.95 million years ago. A recently published report shows that the site contained butchered remains of at least ten different animals, with a few surprise inclusions. Alongside the bones of small birds, fish and antelope were those of hippos and even crocodile. Seems like these Homo habilis weren't content to play it safe. Must have been quite the feeling for the hero of the hunt to return to camp dragging a crocodile. I would probably have been the guy at the back of the party, shamefully hiding my haul of one sparrow and two trod-on lizards under my matted beard.

The site produced a huge number of bones and the stone tools that were used to prepare the meat and the findings provide a good insight into not only the diet but the habitat of the time. What's now a very hot, dry area would have been considerably wetter back then. It's thought the additional calorific intake provided by increasing the amount of meat in the hominid diet sped development of the brain. That will be my excuse from now on. Researchers think the meat was eaten raw, and it is unknown if there was garnish of any sort. Cooking was an important breakthrough in the story of human evolution.There was a great Horizon programme about it last year, I think. Well worth a look if you can find it.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Shark art

A couple of months ago I commissioned a painting of the shop logo shark, Akmonistion zangerli, from the palaeontological artist Bob Nicholls. He sent me this preliminary sketch (left) before starting work in the middle of May. He finished last week and sent me a picture of the completed work, which should arrive in a couple of days. You can see the picture below. The little fish are Acanthodes, a foot-long spiny shark abundant in the Early Carboniferous.

Akmonistion was found in the early 80s by Stan Wood in the Manse Burn Formation, a 330 million year old series of rocks in Bearsden, Glasgow. The most complete specimen found is in the collection of Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum, who employed Stan as a fossil hunter for a time. There were some truly weird sharks (see Helicoprion) patrolling the
seas of the Carboniferous and Akmonistion was certainly one of them. It was a stethacanthid shark, about the size of a big dogfish, and males had an anvil-shaped brush-like fin crested with little denticles covering the flat surface on top. These spiky, scaly bits were also in a patch on top of its head. A number of suggestions have been put forward for their purpose; display, as a weapon of sorts or even a way of hitching a lift by clamping on to a larger swimmer. Perhaps the most plausible is that they were used much like a stag's antlers, in a battle to prove dominance. Some pieces I have read on them say that only male stethacanthids have been found with the spiky anvil, and in fact only males have been found at all, suggesting that the females have been given another name entirely. It may be that Symmorium, a contemporary and similar shark of which apparently only females have been found, is the girl to the stethacanthid's boy - and consequently the reason behind the strange fin. I'm not sure about this, as I have also read articles about the Bearsden material that suggests both male and female sharks were found - some sexual dimorphism in the number of denticles (and presence of claspers) - but female stethacanthids. I'll need to ask...

Anyway - Bob's work is always great, so it's no surprise that the commission has turned out so well. I'm looking forward to getting it framed and up on the wall.

Friday, 4 June 2010


The brand new all-singing, all-dancing Mr Wood's Fossils site is now live. It's been a long time coming, but it looks great and I'm really pleased with it. Still a couple of little tweaks to be made, but it's up and running.

It's an online shop, with a cart and so on, making it a big step up from the old site. There are links to the blog, the Facebook page and even an RSS feed - and I'm still not entirely sure what that is. Next step is to add a bit more stock to it, and while I have the images for a few more, I'll need another photography session to cover a few more lines. Anyway - take a look by clicking on here.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

What's the time?

Neanderthals in the news again, this time with a story about some tools found in roadworks in Kent. On the face of it, the story itself is an interesting one, with the sediments containing the finds being dated at between 100 and 110 thousand years ago. Significant because Britain is generally thought to have been empty of people - Neanderthal and Homo sapiens - at the time. This was at the start of the last Ice Age and around 40,000 years before the island was supposedly inhabited by hominids again. It's known Neanderthals were nearby in Northern France at this time, and to me it seems unlikely there weren't a few making it over the relatively short stretch of water and ice. Sea levels were fluctuating considerably and there were at least patches of land in what's now the Channel at time between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. They weren't known as seafarers, but the lure of all those tasty mammoth would have been a powerful draw.

The point I'd like to take up, though, is the reservations of others in the scientific community about the accuracy of the dating technique used by the research team. Given that the point of the story here is that the dating of the finds puts Neanderthals in Britain well before it had been thought they'd arrived - it all falls down if the technique used is not scientifically robust. In this case, the team from the University of Southampton and Oxford Archaeology used Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) which measures the length of time since some minerals were exposed to daylight. It can be a useful and reliable dating tool within certain parameters. Some have pointed out that these dates are at - or exceed - the limits of time range of OSL's effective application, which may throw a little doubt over the results obtained.

I have a bit of a personal issue with this topic. Proponents of Young Earth Creationism are keen to attack geological and archaeological dating techniques, and I get to meet a few of them - only now and again - in the shop. It's usually an interesting experience, and usually frustrating. Without wishing to tar them all with the same brush, typically they have the idea that there is a large body of scientists that doubt the efficacy of dating techniques. This is not the case. There are, of course, scientists out there with these beliefs, but they are a tiny minority. Young Earthers seem to think that if they can discredit carbon dating - almost always the only method they have heard about - all of natural science will collapse and people will turn to religion. Presumably theirs.

There are a number of tried and tested approaches used to determine the age of rocks or sediments which produce repeatable results and can very often be cross-checked with more than one technique. Their reliability is not in any doubt when used correctly. So - where a dating method is used with surprising results or in potentially ineffective circumstances it is vital that the evidence and outcomes are examined more critically than ever. The scientific process relies on impartial observation and careful peer review. It's worth being as sure as you can be, and worth admitting when you aren't.