Global Spotlight: Socotra, Yemen

Socotra (also spelled Soqotra) is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean that is part of Yemen. Evidence of human settlement go back to antiquity, where the island served as a stopover for various trade routes that passed by. However, there are signs of a pre-human presence going back over a million years. Ancient inscriptions have been found written in everything from Aramaic and Greek, to pro-Arabic and ancient Indian scripts.

Today, only around 50,000 people live on Socotra, most of them eking out a living as subsistence farmers and fishers. A product of the area’s isolation, they continue to speak a nearly extinct language alongside their own distinct Arabic dialect.

Socotra’s long geographic isolation, combined with its unforgiving heat and dryness, have created a distinct and spectacular ecosystem comprised of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world; nearly 700 species are unique to the area (only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands surpass it in terms of sheer biodiversity). For this it has been recognized as a world heritage site and nicknamed the Jewel of the Arabian Sea. 

Among the most famous occupant is the dragon blood tree, so named for its crimson red sap, which was highly valued for centuries as a dye, medicine, glue, lipstick, and even breath-freshener. Because it was believed to be dragon’s blood — a fact that could not be unverified in ancient times given the island’s seclusion — the sap was also valued in alchemy, and even today many inhabitants of the island and nearby areas allegedly regard it as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

Socotra, Yemen IV

Socotra continues to retain its centuries-long mystique and character, offering an often alien landscape that is found nowhere else in the world.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles and manages the most extensive list of organisms, has determined that nearly 20,000 plant and animal species are at risk. Unsurprisingly, human activity — from direct ecosystem destruction to pollution — is the main culprit.

Even more distressing, the organization’s Red List of threatened and endangered species represents just a small fraction of the world’s total life: less than four percent of the roughly 1.7 million species known to exist have been evaluated, meaning many more could be on their way out — if not already extinct — without our knowledge.

The following infographics from the New York Times paint a very grim picture:

Read more about this dire situation here. Not only is the loss of biodiversity problematic in itself, but it bodes ill for the future of our species, given the vital role that ecosystems play in everything from climate regulation to food supply.

Keep orcas in the wild, not in aquaria


I wholeheartedly agree.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

Blackfish is a 2013 documentary movie about captive orcas (killer whales) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. It centers on Tilikum, the infamous orca who killed three people (including two trainers) and is still at SeaWorld.  The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered at Sundance in Utah, and has received a lot of critical acclaim. It gets a 97% from the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site, and Wikipedia says this:

Critical reception for the documentary has been mostly positive, with the Deseret News calling it “a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest”. Twitch Film and The Hollywood Reporter both praised Blackfish, with both review sites arguing that the film gave “a persuasive case against keeping the species – and by extension any wild animal – in captivity for the purposes of human entertainment”. Film School Rejects gave the documentary a rating of B-, writing that…

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A snake mimics a spider

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

If you like evolution and natural history, you should already be reading Ed Yong’s terrific site Not Exactly Rocket Science at National Geographic. In his short post “This snake has a tail that looks like a spider,” he describes a remarkable and newly found type of mimicry.

The snake is, appropriately, the spider-tailed viper (Pseudocerastes urarachnoides), first described formally only 7 years ago from Iran.  It was known since the sixties, but the one specimen’s tail was dismissed as a tumor or deformity. We now know from other specimens that this is indeed a species-specific trait. As Yong notes:

The tail is bizarre. If you saw a close-up photo of it, you’d struggle to believe that there was a snake at the other end. There’s a large orange or grey bulb at the tip, and the scales just before that are bizarrely long and thin…

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As I’ve said before, nature is as beautiful as any work of art. These pictures are amazing. It’s hard to believe the insects I encounter without a passing thought (other than perhaps annoyance or revulsion) harbor this much beauty deep down.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

Linden Gledhill’s Flickr page contains 32 sets of photographs, half of them devoted to biology or physical phenomena in nature. You could spend hours looking at them, for they include insects, plants, insect eggs, insect parts, fungi, as well as paint splashes, astronomy shots, and travel photographs.  Linden has given me permission to put up a few of his insect pictures, but be aware that they’re “copyright Linden Gledhill” and can’t be further reproduced without his permission.

I believe it was the stalwart Matthew Cobb who called my attention to Gledhill’s close-up photos of butterfly wings. The entire album is here (it’s two pages), and on that album you can click on each of the images to enlarge it. This array of thumbnails from the first page (screenshot below) looks like a wonderful patchwork quilt:

Picture 1

Photographers will be interested in Linden’s extensive technical notes about how he made the photos.

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Cueva de las Manos

This is the Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina (south of the town of Perito Moreno). Its name and claim to fame are obvious, although a variety of other art subjects are present. The art in the cave dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, the oldest being 9,300 BCE. The site was last inhabited around 700 CE (or AD), possibly by ancestors of today’s Tehuelche people.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of a very interesting tool: bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint. The inhabitants, who varied over time as different groups moved in and out, had actually developed stenciling, not an art style we usually associate with ancient people (note that most of the hands are left, suggesting that they used their right hands to hold the pipe).

The binder used to combine the paint is unknown, but these people were pretty sophisticated: they knew which mineral pigments to utilize and how to do so. Iron oxides, for example, were used to produce reds and purples, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black. Art was serious business to them.

Other depictions include human beings, guanacosrheas, felines and other animals. Most amazing to me is the presence of geometric shapes and zigzag patterns, which shows that these people had conceptions of abstract art forms, rather than merely painting what they saw (although humans probably developed that far earlier anyway, it’s still fascinating to see it on display given the popular perception of prehistoric people as lacking such cognitive abilities).

There are also naturalistic portrayals of a variety of informative hunting techniques, including the use of bolas, a throwing weapon that was used like a sling. Perhaps they were just depicting everyday life, but maybe this was meant to be educational. I’d like to think they sat their kids down and went over these images like a teacher at a chalkboard.

Curiously, there are also red dots on the ceilings, probably made by submerging their hunting bolas in ink, and then throwing them up in the air. This suggests that these folks might have been experimenting with different art forms, although perhaps it was just some sort of ritual or form of practice.

Either way, it must be breathtaking to see this in person, to be able to put my hands close and realize that these were the physical marks of human beings just like me. And wonder what else they did in their spare time? What was their idea of fun? Maybe this art was recreational rather than utilitarian? Either way, it’s beautiful and a wonderful reminder of where we came from.

Mutant Seafood

The effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill will probably be felt for generations, if historical precedent is anything to go by (oil spills from decades ago are still wreaking havoc on ecosystems). Though most people seem to have forgotten all about it, we’re already seeing some chilling mutations emerge, as Gizmodo reports:

The effect that the oil spill and its reckless cleanup has on sea life is frightening, damning and sad. Here’s a list of deformities that Al Jazeera found in its report:

  • Shrimp with tumors on their heads
  • Shrimp with defects on their gills and “shells missing around their gills and head”
  • Shrimp without eyes
  • Shrimp with babies still attached to them
  • Eyeless fish
  • Fish without eye-sockets
  • Fish without covers on their gills
  • Fish with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills
  • Crates of blue crabs, all of which were lacking at least one claw
  • Crabs with holes in their shells
  • Crabs with shells that have no spikes or claws or misshapen claws
  • Crabs that are dying from within

The fishermen, scientists, and seafood processors who talked to Al Jazeera are all in unison: They’ve never seen this before. Some have worked in and around the Gulf for over 20 years, and most have seen thousands and thousands of fish. This is the first time they’re seeing the mass mutation and destruction of seafood.

And it’s not just the obvious deformities. Tests of the oysters that wind up on our plates have shown elevated levels of nickel and vanadium according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the jury’s still out on arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury levels.

It may be even longer before we detect the effects on human health – if we ever get to that point.

Anti-Scientific Attitudes Threaten the World

Many of the most pressing problems our species faces – such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy shortages – require scientific solutions. Only through research, experimentation, and innovation can we are way around these looming catastrophes.

Yet science itself faces an even greater challenge than these global crises – a lack of public and political support. That was the prevailing assessment by scientists from across the world who gathered at an annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Participants noted that the global public as a whole “does not understand science,” and that science itself was “under siege” by religious and ideological forces. As one attendee starkly observed, “We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognise that.”

The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.”

“It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.

Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.

“We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people,” said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.

Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family’s children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.

“I get angry when I hear people say: ‘In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.’ They don’t. They die in ecological balance,” he said.

Indeed, global warming is an indicative example of this issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the majority of Americans remain unconvinced about climate change, and skepticism has only grown more over the past few years. Even those who accept the phenomenon nonetheless erroneously believe that we’ll be able to adapt, which is yet another manifestation of scientific ignorance.

The United States is particularly susceptible to anti-intellectualism, and it runs rather deep in our history (ironic, given that our much deified founders were pretty cerebral themselves). Academics and scholars remain just as distrusted as their scientific peers, and many Americans – egged on by pundits and polemists – often see intelligent people as elitist, aloof, and even insidious (especially if they have Ivy League degrees).

Granted, bias, narrow-mindedness, and immorality bedevil even the most intelligent members of our society, as these are universal human flaws. Furthermore, even smart people can be wrong, and the scientific consensus has sometimes needed tweaking, if not outright abandonment. So some degree of measured analysis and critical thinking must be applied to any and all claims – that’s why self-correcting measures such as peer review and re-experimentation have been institutionalized.

But the general public has reached a point of extreme fallibism, in which nearly all the claims made by “experts” are reflexively doubted because of the very fact that they were made by experts. Personal experience, or even mere intuition, are seen as more legitimate, even though they’re each limited by our own cognitive constraints (e.g. our sense can fool us, our life experiences are limited, etc).