Hello Illey,
The technical term among invertebrate workers would be setae, from the Latin for bristles. Most people who work on invertebrates tend to talk about their organisms being hairy or having hairs, rather than using fur or furry, when they need to describe their organisms to people not versed in invertebrate anatomy.


Hi Ben,
                 I'm afraid I agree with Peter and all the other folks who have told you it is a pebble in matrix. Such misinterpretations are common enough and it is better to check and be wrong than miss something. I can see why your pattern recognition kicked in, though.

Palaeontologists call geological material that looks like a fossil a 'geofact'.

(posted in Birds)

        I used to live and bird in Cambridge and there are lots of cormorants in and around the Cam and the gravel pits to the north and south.

Scaling organisms from individual body parts can be tricky and often only one or two body parts are used e.g. femur in mammals. The subject of trying to estimate the size of parts of the body, rather than total length or body mass is even trickier.

I found an edited volume on Google Books that has some valuable insight into the reconstruction of extinct Carcharadon species from C. carcharias but no obvious mention of jaw lengths

Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias
edited by A. Peter Klimley, David G. Ainley

Hi Poppy,
If you enjoy working outdoors, then you might consider bolstering your skills by getting involved in some of the many surveys that are run. The Open Air Public Laboratories project (OP) is doing some amazing work.


You might also try contacting the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Wetlands Trust. The RSPB doesn't just do birds these days.

Some other bodies, such as the National Rivers Authority, Defra and the Environment Agency also have a requirement for ecologists and biologists.

It would also help us to help you if we had some idea where you would want to be based.

Hi Michael,
                    Sorry, I've been off board for months with work.  Do you still have the fossil and was it loose on the beach, not in bedrock? I suspect it has been carried by the sea from Palaeozoic rocks to the SW and is thus reworked from Devonian or Carboniferous rocks. Although trilobites finally became extinct in the Permain, they were pretty rare by that point . It is a really interesting story and I'd like to hear more.


Hi Pam,
                I am an ammonoid researcher. I've been off-board at AAB for months due to grant writing and teaching. I'd be happy to try and help you but one of the best people to try and contact would be Hugh Owens at the Natural History Museum. He is retired but very knowledgable about ammonites from your area,

I'm interested in the potential of online identification courses, similar to bird ones I've taken, for fossils, and would like to know how much interest there might be out there.


Part of the attraction is for journal editors. Superlatives are an easy sell and can attract publicity for the journal and be easy to explain in a press release. A couple of colleagues fantasise about publishing a Nature or Science paper on 'the most-average dinosaur'.

As a cephalopod worker, I see this effect when they find beasts that look like the Kraken but personally I enjoy the research on how such gigantism comes about and the biomechanical challenges of Nature's giants.

A range of techniques can be applied to determine age of death in invertebrates. In ammonoids, it is generally accepted that when the spacing of the divisions between chambers (septal spacing) decreases then this indicates the animal is mature. In some groups of ammonoids the adults modify the body chamber.

With corals and bivalves it is possible to use a range of techniques based on growth lines, just like tree rings, to estimate age but this does not always distinguish between reproductive adults and large juveniles.

The final general method is to make an inference about adult body-size or modifications based on close living relatives.

(posted in Birds)

When I am in the high mountains in Scotland and Ireland, ravens are often moving early in the morning. Other corvids like rooks and jackdaws often head back to their roosts in groups after sundown but before full darkness but I'm not aware of ever having seen one flying at night.

I wouldn't feel the need to be overly constrained by the science in your poem, given the rich mythological and literary associations of the raven.

'Star Wars' is better for laser noises in a vacuum:)

Hi Paul,
                I'll wait for one of the vertebrate palaeontologists to pile in with an positive ID but a spaces in a fossil bone can be filled up with sediment or mineral deposits, so the fact that the bone is hollow does not preclude it being from a theropod.

If you could post a photo of the suspect bone shot looking down on the cross-section that would help us understand more about the bone.


It looks like it has enormous eye orbits and short body. Is it an angler fish/lantern fish or some other deep-sea dweller? Not my taxa!

From the context I take it you mean scallops.

Yes, scallops and limpets use reflector eyes. The composition of scallop eyes is given in the abstract of this paper:

This Austrian site has lots of information about different eye types in the Mollusca.
http://molluscs.at/mollusca/index.html? … /eyes.html

(posted in Birds)

It seems very likely the Blue Tits are going to nest in the box. If you can see them coming in and out you should look to see if they are bringing nesting materials to the box.

(posted in Fossils)

Hi Peter,
                Could you post a photo looking directly down on to the surface of the tooth that would be involved in biting and chewing, rather than the side view.


From sheer ability to sequester resources, that would be Homo saipiens. Estimates exist that we sequester 40-50% of net primary productivity. With our technology we can also occupy a very wide range of environments. We also move huge amounts of soil and replace complex environments with our simple agricultural monocultures.

The deep ecologist in me is not happy about all of this but that is my answer.

The yolk is the food source for the growing haploid cell.

Nice site with clear illustration of the yolk and the cell the embryo grows from (blastoderm) but to be clear the embryo (9) is slightly separate from the yolk (8).
http://web.mac.com/lubap/Eggs/Anatomy_f … -m.svg.png

Nice site here

See this detailed article for more information


(posted in Fossils)

Hi Jill,
              You may find some interesting information on the Geological Curators' Group website

The Natural History Museum has a specialist palaeo-conservation unit but many of the people working there had more general backgrounds in chemistry and conservation or had been self-employed preparators before.

Most models are developed by artists in collaboration with palaeontologists.


(posted in Birds)

Hi Nick,
                Penguins have a special adaptation to their digestive tract called a crop, a large sack where they can hold food without it entering the stomach fully. I don't understand how they control this though.

Image of system here
http://sharonapbio-taxonomy.wikispaces. … data--Aves


Hi Jimi,
              One route to help with university entry would be to do an access course. This adds a year to your degree time but should override the effects of your GCSE results.

As for working on a project, you might try finding out if there is a STEM Ambassador scheme operating near you. People in the universities and industry may have slots for you in their labs or in a larger project.

Another option would be a Nuffield School Bursary to do work in the summer. You get a small amount of money but will get to work with a researcher on a project. If you have an idea that is likely to impress .

Hope this gives you some ideas.


(posted in Mammals)

You know what I look like. I shall leave it to you to decide:)

(posted in Mammals)

Hi Darrick,
You don't make it clear what the measure of strength is here. But I am going to guess that this comparison is either a power/weight one or a comparison of upper body strength. The orangutan moves by climbing and swinging in branches, so has a much more developed upper body. Watch some videos of human rock climbers (make sure it is rock, ice climbers and winter mountaineers tend to be built differently). These people have massive upper body development but often quite normal legs, as their whole effort is in overcoming vertical and overhanging rock. Yet when it comes to carrying the technical gear into a climb site, they often appreciate help from a hillwalker like myself, who has powerful legs and can carry a heavy load but fails on the vertical slabs.


Having read through the extremely poorly typed and garbled argument above I will summarize that your understanding of DNA is that it came into existence without any intervening steps inside cells.

That is not the case and not a view that anyone doing research on the origin of DNA and cells would hold. Read some papers about single-strand RNA and the thinking about how RNA might have coded for proteins prior to the emergence of DNA and cells.

Esme, this was quite a difficult story for the media to report, hence the liberal use of analogy. The most telling factor here is that the original paper does not call the structure a toe (you can see the abstract here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6063/1699)

Having had a look at the original paper, what John Hutchinson's team are reporting is a structure that is mostly cartilage (like your nose) but with some growth of bone associated with it. Thus it is not the same as the other toes. It does not form in the same way during the growth of the animal. However, it is performing the role of a toe. The problem in understanding is that biologists care about both the function of structures and their patterns of gain and loss so the paper refers to small, tendon-anchoring bones, while in general conversation a toe is a toe.

As the structure is not a toe, this doesn't change high-level taxonomy, as elephants are not in the group of mammals (Ungulates) that rely on numbers of digits for classification.

The study also looked at fossils and found that ancient members of this group lacked the structures found in the modern elephants. So there may be some impact on taxonomy at some level.

Dear Evan,
I think you have the idea that one organism evolves directly into another. Our understanding of the process of evolution has moved on from the idea of direct ancestor-descendant relationships to one in which we understand the relationships between organisms in terms of shared, new characteristics.

In the case of mammals and reptiles, they both shared a common ancestor (imagine a fork in a tree) that had some features we can still discern in both groups. The reptile fork went along and evolved some new features that defined them as a dsitinctive new group. Mammals did the same. So rather than imagining a vertical line running from reptiles to mammals, you need to picture a v-shape with one side of the v leading to mammals and another leading to the reptiles and at the base of the v an organism that shared some of the features of both groups.

If you then added a group like sharks, you would be able to grasp that mammals and reptiles had a more recent common ancestor, as they share more shared novel features, than either does with sharks. So our view of evolution is much more about 'who is more closely related to who' than 'who evolved from who'.

Richard Dawkin's explains this view of evolution in detail in his book 'The Ancestor's Tale'

Hi Luke,
                If you mean swooping down from the sky to hit prey, the answer is no. Pterosaurs don't have hind limbs adapted for this task in the way eagles and ospreys do. They could have walked on the ground and hunted for animals like some other birds.

This article by Witton is a good review of the more general arguments, although it discusses only one group of pterosaurs.
http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi … ne.0002271


I'm afraid nothing we know of lives below the level of the earth's crust, although we have vey little direct access to anything other than the crust. The deepest hole we have drilled in the Earth is the Kola Borehole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kola_Superdeep_Borehole. This did not get out of the continental crust. Given the heat in the mantle it is unlikely anything can survive there. However, geophysical tools are our only means of imaging much of the earth below the surface. A number of specialist microbial communities, called the hot, deep biosphere do exist but these all live in the crust.

Dear Josh,
The issue that Dave and Phil are debating is whether it is meaningful at all to talk about what something 'evolved from'.
The view of phylogenetic systematics is that is it very difficult to point to a definite ancestor of an extant species, so we phrase things in terms of a 'last common ancestor'. This is the point at which one species and another became distinct. The last common ancestor is a hypothetical organism that shared some characteristics of both species.

As humans are apes, the original question is a misunderstanding of how broad the definition of apes is: the correct question is what the last common ancestor of Hylobatidae and Hominidae was.

I would also refer you to the excellent Talk Origins website


Dear Robbie,
I think you are asking if small animals see things that are microscopic to us and very large animals see the world as though through telescopes. If that is the question, the basic answer is no.

The function of eyes depends on the optical and physical properties of the eye and the brain processing the image. For instance, I am very short-sighted, so I can focus on small objects held close to my eye that someone with 20:20 vision could not focus on without a hand lens. A bird of prey, which has an eye that is very large compared to its body size can focus on objects at tremendous distances.

Hope this helps.

(posted in Mammals)

Hi Allen,
Relative to Brown Bears of the same size, a polar bear is indeed more elongated. Good observation.

A decent, well-referenced Wikipedia article here. Scroll down to the section on physical characteristics for more onthe morphological differences

A nice paper you can access on PLoS One discusses the changes to the skull
http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi … ne.0013870

Hi Vivi,
I think you're a bit confused by the two common uses of radiation. The article you put the link to deals with radioactive materials and particles.

Infra-red (IR) is part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, as are some of the rays mentioned in the HPS article such as x-rays. Humans put out as we make excess heat most of the time and this comes out at wavelengths longer than the red end of the spectrum. We can't see IR but we can feel it. Our eyes are just the wrong sort of detector to see it without the help of instruments.

(posted in General Biology)

If you mean a split into living versus non-living, no we don't. You can come up with whatever scheme you like to classify things. However, we tend to like classifications that reflect evolutionary history not human perceptions. We would hope that biologists from another planet would come up with the same classifications we do.

Thus the definitions are not limited to Earth.

(posted in Birds)

Hi Jane,
               In some species the parents will recognise the call of their chick. The parents also give individual calls that the chicks can recognise them by in some species.

Dear Ichthyologists,
This was sent to me by Bex Seely of the Marine Biological Association. I think it is a ray scute but it was found on the shore of Llyn Cellwyn, a reservoir in Snowdonia.

The fact that it is a built reservoir makes mw wonder if this could have come up in some sort of building material. I've also known people to drop things like this for a laugh.

Hi Mammal Colleagues,
My friend Marcus, who runs the British Geological Shop in Edinburgh would like to know the taxonomic affinity of this bone. Came up from the North Sea in a trawler's nets.


Hi Anna,
We need to take a couple of steps back from the jargon here to the idea of classifications. We can classify things in a lot of ways, some of which will be generally meaningful to everyone (e.g. the novels of Iain Banks) versus subjective classifications (my favourite three Iain Banks novels). The first can be generally agreed upon and communicates information to others.

With organisms you can have a similar situation, but there are two aspects to classification. One part of this is being able to identify an organism and name it. This could use a variety of information and, critically, identification focuses only on being able to name the organism. Not tell us anything about the evolutionary of the organism. The other side of classification is systematics, how organisms are related to each other. This starts to come back to your question.

To cut a long story short, most evolutionary biologists and palaeontologists agree that our classifications should reflect the natural world as accurately as possible and take evolution in to account. The most powerful method we have devised for doing this is cladistics. One of the rules of cladistics is that the evolutionary groups we deal with (clades) must include a common ancestor and ALL of its descendants. Such groups are MONOphyletic. They reflect the branching off of particular evolutionary lineages and are terminated by the extinction of the last members of the clade. PARAphyletic groups include SOME but not ALL of the descendants of a common ancestor. In the case of invertebrates, we know that vertebrates share a common ancestor with invertebrates. So the concept of invertebrates as a group excludes some descendants and thus is not a valid grouping in these rules.

Another famous example is that if we try to separate out birds (Aves) then Dinosauria would be paraphyletic, as birds are a descendant of the same common ancestor.

The Wikipedia article has a useful diagram

Hi Jim,              Can you give a source for the data on the reduction in brain sizes and whether this relates to absolute brain size (e.g. 1500 cubic centimetres, average modern human) or the ratio of body mass to brain mass.For humans, if it is the former measure then the simple fact that early H. sapiens (Cromagnons) had larger average body-sizes than modern humans would do it with no implication other than proportional growth.Moreover, overall brain size seems to have little to do with mental abilities.  Yes, certain areas of the brain do control certain functions but larger does not equal smarter.

Hi Jim,             I'd be interested to know if this is something that has occurred to you or is it something that you have read about. Abduction followed by rape of both sexes is depressingly common in extant humans, especially in conflicts. While I don't reflexively debunk evolutionary explanations for rape, I am much more persuaded that sexual assaults on people  (rape usually has a quite narrow definition in the legal codes of most countries) are acts in which one person or group of persons emphasizes their dominance over another. We see this in other primates and this has a more convincing evolutionary support than what I will call 'rape for procreation' does. The fact that such sexual assaults are directed at non-fertile females and males further supports the notion this is about power, not procreation. As does the fact that victims are often subjected to further physical violence and murder.Some human cultures have developed what appear to be practices of abduction of partners but that is information on these cultures, not evolution.Stockholm Syndrome involves identification with the aims of your captors and affects males and females. As such it is probably a form of survival mechanism that will deflect further violence from people who are being threatened with violence.

Cuttlefish, like all molluscs, have gills. Cuttlefish have a single pair of gills that extra oxygen from seawater and take it in to the bloodstream. Cuttlefish use the less efficient haemocyanin molecule to transport oxygen in the blood, which has copper rather than iron in its structure, giving the blood a blue colour. Waste gases are also removed via the gills.

(posted in Fossils)

Fossilization can be very rapid if conditions are right. The skeletons from Pompeii and Herculaneum would have been fossilized in a matter of hours to days.

Dear Nata,
I think you are asking about DNA barcoding, rather than molecular phylogeny here. The process involves comparing short target sequences based on analyses of specimens known to be from that species (voucher specimens). Ultimately the results of an analysis will be interpreted by a human, so it is the taxonomist who makes the call.

Good starter article on Wikipedia


Dear Lucy,
The issues here are legal ones. If the latter issue concerns you or someone you are concerned about you need to seek legal advice. No-one on the site is a medical lawyer nor do we claim any competence in such matters.

The reason that cell lineages are excluded is, as you note, because they had been regulated under a previous Act. Most Acts will be written in such a way as not to duplicate or complicate the law. Hair and nails are probably excluded as these cells can be obtained WITHOUT any procedure on the patient (i.e. clippings or from a comb).

Dave W, being a medical doctor, may have informed things to say about the ethical issue you raise from his particular position.

The only time I operate in the medical sphere is as an HSE First-Aider and to do ANYTHING to a concious patient who is competent to give consent, I would ask that person for their consent, even to examine their injury.


(posted in Fossils)

Better photos needed and information on where the darker rock came from.

(posted in Fossils)

Hi Alex,
               Looks like a piece of recent or Pleistocene coral but hard to tell. Photos are rather blurred.


Hi Obie,
The wishbone (fucula) results from the two collarbones (clavicles) growing in such a way that they form a single, springy unit. To the best of my knowledge the furcula is present only in birds and a few of their theropod, but non-flying, relatives.
http://www.amnh.org/learn/pd/dinos/inte … hbone.html

Pterosaurs have clavicles (as do we, feel the bone running down from your shoulder towards the centre of your chest) but they are not fused to produce the furcula. You can see the differences among the anatomy of birds, bats and pterosaurs on the UCMP Berkley website (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/vertebrate … verge.html).


No-one is exactly sure why we dream. Most importantly, we have convincing evidence that other animals dream.

So it is not a trait that is unique to humans. This does rather undermine some of the complex anthropocentric ideas about the function of dreams.

So I would favour the hypotheses that dreams serve some function in memory or represent some sort of attempt by our brains to interpret external stimuli (the radio news) while we are asleep. 

This short summary article discusses both psychoanalytical models and physiological models.
http://psychology.about.com/od/statesof … eories.htm

It seems unlikely we can control dreams and I would ask anyone who is about to reply 'but I can' to this thread to ponder whether they can ALWAYS do it or are they only recalling their successes. Such reports are usually selective.

Depends how big your giants are. Prof. Mike LaBarbera of the University of Chicago gave many graduate students an important understanding of scaling in biology, both through formal teaching and his famed debunking of monster movies.

An apt example for this question comes from his eloquent discussion of the biomechanics of being King Kong. 'If a gorilla were that size, without changing shape, it would fracture its femur as it walked'.

So if you want to have giant humans (at 6'5" (1.96m) I don't count) then you would probably have to change their shape.

R. Alexander McNeill, Chris McGowan (no relation, although we do sometime get mistaken by editors) and Steve Vogel have both written very engaging books about the physical and physiological limits of life and they should give you some useful rules of thumb.

On the artist side of things, making your speculative fiction 'hard SF' is , at the end of the day a choice by you and your readers. If it is a good story, don't be held back by the science. People won't really care. No matter how many peeved emails you get...

(posted in Fossils)

Hi Ramsay,
                     My instincts are that the specimen on the left of your picture might have some crinoid columnals in it, although I can't swear to it. Could you tell me where the beach was that you found them on and post a close-up of the left-hand specimen?


(posted in Plants & Fungi)

A mushroom was found in amber from the Cretaceous Period and reported in 2007
http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=3374. The fossils are about 90 million years old. 

Fungi have a very long fossil record going back beyond the Phanerozoic into the Vendian around 600 million years ago. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fungi/fungifr.html

Dear Chris,
                     I think this will be behind the Nature paywall, but you should be able to access it through Rutger's library. Others will be able to see the abstract
Parental care in an ornithischian dinosaur
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v4 … 1145a.html
[size= 14px]
This was a find of 34 juveniles and a single adult that were buried together at the same time, probably while still alive. This was interpreted, through several lines of evidence, to represent post-hatching care in ornithischians. I've no reason to doubt this report in a peer-reviewed journal.