Ravens are a big deal in the Game of Thrones universe. They’re used to transmit information from one place to another, and often seem to be portents of death. This week’s episode begins with a whole dead basket of ‘em, as Prince Theon, in his latest act of swaggering idiocy, has killed all of Winterfell’s birds so that no one can send word to Robb Stark.
Of course, sending notes tied to birds is generally a slow and imperfect form of info transit, especially in the world of this story, which is well-established as massive and hostile to easy passage. I’ve previously written that one of the reasons the series appeals in our current clime is its bold, dialog-provoking approach to patriarchy and sexuality – I wonder if its lavishing upon the preciousness of information and the incredible conveniences we now enjoy in the internet age is another?
"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.
For children of a certain nerdy persuasion, "archaeopteryx" is liable to be the first five-syllable word they ever pronounce. That's because archaeopteryx was a dinosaur with feathers, and wings. The first specimen was uncovered in 1861, and most of us probably grew up being told that archaeopteryx was the first bird. That isn't exactly true. Today, most paleontologists say it wasn't the ancestor of the birds we know, but rather a relative of that ancestor—a lower branch of the bird family tree that died away. That said, archaeopertyx is still incredibly important to our understanding of what the earliest birds might have been like, and archaeopteryx specimens are still incredibly rare, coveted things.
There are only 11 archaeopteryx specimens in the entire world, all hailing from one region of Germany. Most of them are in museums in Europe. But one archaeopteryx—in fact, one of the best-preserved of the bunch—resides in a tiny museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming. For the artistically inclined: Imagine running across a second, legit version of the Mona Lisa in a small museum in Wyoming with no crowds and no lines. In 2007, reader Mark Ryan and his brother got to see the Thermopolis archaeopteryx and took the photo of it posted here.
My brother and I had scheduled one of our regular "geo trips" out west and learned that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a cool museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming, had somehow acquired an Archaeopteryx specimen (one of only 10 in the world) and would be placing it on display starting the week we were going to be in Wyoming.
Thermopolis is located about 2 hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park, but that didn't stop us from driving the 5 hours from Laramie just to see it. It was fantastic! They had the actual fossil on display (I've heard that most of the big museums only display casts of the Archaeopteryx specimens they own). There were no crowds, no lines, no special exhibit fees, just the "Thermopolis specimen" in a small window display in a hallway leading to the main exhibit hall.
I spent most of my childhood with books about dinosaurs that played up the ancient beasties as overgrown lizards. The connection between dinosaurs and birds, while kind of flipping obvious once somebody points it out, was not much discussed among laypeople until I was in my teens. (That would be the 1990s, FYI.)
But, among scientists, the idea of a dinosaur-bird relationship is nothing new. In fact, Thomas Henry Huxley was making that connection back in the 1860s. On the Dinosaur Tracking blog, Brian Switek tells the fascinating story of how Huxley started to realize that dinosaurs and birds were related—a discovery that's all the more impressive because he figured it out without the help of some of the key transitional fossils we have access to today.
Huxley did not suggest that birds were the direct descendants of dinosaurs. So much geologic time was unaccounted for, and so few dinosaurs were known, that Huxley could not point to any known fossil creature as the forerunner of birds. Instead he made his argument on anatomical grounds and removed the issue of time. Dinosaurs were proxies for what the actual bird ancestor would have been like, and flightless birds (such as the ostrich and emu) stood in for what Huxley thought was the most archaic bird type. (We now know that Huxley got this backwards—the earliest birds could fly, and flightless birds represent a secondary loss of that ability.) As Huxley went about collecting evidence for his case, though, he also gave dinosaurs an overhaul. They were not the bloated, plodding, rhinoceros-like creatures that Richard Owen had envisioned. Dinosaurs were more bird-like than anyone had imagined.
In October of 1867, Huxley met with John Philips, an English geologist and a curator of Oxford’s museum. As Huxley related in his 1870 paper “Further Evidence of the Affinity Between the Dinosaurian Reptiles and Birds,” Philips wanted to discuss details of marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs in his museum’s collection, but as he and Huxley made their way over toward the displays they stopped to look at the bones of the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus. Then Huxley spotted something peculiar:
As Prof. Phillips directed my attention to one after the other of the precious relics, my eye was suddenly caught by what I had never before seen, namely, the complete pectoral arch of the great reptile, consisting of a scapula and a coracoid ankylosed together. Here was a tangle at once unravelled. The coracoid was totally different from the bone described by Cuvier, and by all subsequent anatomists, under that name. What then was the latter bone? Clearly, if it did not belong to the shoulder-girdle it must form a part of the pelvis; and, in the pelvis, the ilium at once suggested itself as the only possible homologue. Comparison with skeletons of reptiles and of birds, close at hand, showed it to be not only an ilium, but an ilium which, though peculiar in its form and proportions, was eminently ornithic in its chief peculiarities.
Earlier naturalists had made a mistake. They had misidentified the shoulder girdle, and one part of what was thought to be part of the shoulder was actually part of the hip. Another strange piece, previously thought to be a clavicle, also turned out to belong to the pelvis. This rearrangement immediately gave the dinosaur a more bird-like character.
If you look at the bottom of the image at the top of this post, you can see how much the re-arrangement of megalosaurus' parts changed our conception of what the whole creature looked like. Where other scientists saw a lumpy, obese crocodile, Thomas Henry Huxley saw a saber-toothed chicken.
One of the most common arguments you'll hear against evolution (or, at least, one of the most common arguments I heard growing up amongst creationists) had to do with transitional forms. An eye is a valuable thing, this argument goes. But half an eye? That's just a disability.
Like many of the really common arguments against evolution, this one crumbles the minute you start to apply the slightest bit of fridge logic. Sure, half an eye is less useful than a full eye. (Or, more accurately, a clustering of light-sensitive cells don't have all the functionality of a modern eyeball and optic nerve system.) But, if most of the other creatures have no eyes, and you have a few light-sensitive cells, you've got an advantage. And an advantage is all it takes.
You might ask: What's the point of that? How are feathers an advantage if they can't help you fly? Is this just about looking pretty? Maybe. But on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer presents another hypothesis. Feathers and wings, even without flight, might have given their owners a physical advantage over bare-skinned cousins. The birds in this video aren't flying. You can see that their feet don't leave the ground. But the act of flapping those feathers around helps them to walk up inclines that would otherwise be impassable walls. That's enough to escape a predator and live to breed another day. And it's also pretty damn astounding to watch. You'll find more footage at The Loom.
I have tried many different methods to stop birds from striking my windows including sticking white label dots all over the window. I found these UV decals that go on the exterior of your window to be the easiest and most successful of any solution.
Birds read the reflection of nature in your windows as real and think they are traveling towards trees or sky or another bird--whatever is reflected. The WindowbAlert decals are nearly invisible (so you can barely see them when looking through the window) but the birds see UV light reflected back from the decal, thereby deterring them from flying into the window. Before applying the decals I made sure to wash the window and used rubbing alcohol to remove any residue.
It also helps if you place feeders and bird baths either very close to the window or away at an angle.
Window Alert U.V. Decals
Don't forget to comment over at Cool Tools. And remember to submit a tool!
I recently learned that some birds have been found to be able to isolate and control different parts of their vocal tract independently, allowing them to sing simultaneous double tones or alternate between frequencies very rapidly. I'm not sure about the particular species below, but I think it's safe to say that numerous birds on this album are at least using similar 'mad avian skills' to sound like synthesizers.
This album, recorded by celebrated ornithologist Johan Dalgas Frisch, (and first released on the Sabia label in 1961), was once in the Top 50 of Brasil's popular record sales. President João Goulart actually gave JFK a copy when he came to visit (click on thumbnail below for photographic evidence). Talk about a country with its musical priorities in the right place!
This collection of recordings isn't readily available in the states, but if you can't track down a used LP or torrent, it looks like you can buy it from this site in Brasil.
This post is a special 'avian edition' of a series about music that disorients the senses. I've found that some of the most amazing and jarring auditory illusions are not the usual scientifically distilled or synthesized ones, they're often found in folk music and made by people's voices. Of course, in a way, it makes perfect sense - the vocal chords are some of the most complex and advanced musical instruments in existence. They are ubiquitously available, and we've been experimenting with them for longer than any other sound-making implement.
The liner notes say it was recorded in: "Mongolia and Buriatia in 1967, 1968, and 1970 in the course of field work organized in the frame work of the Protocole d'Echanges Culturels between France and Mongolia, and as part of an exchange program with the Academy of Sciences in the USSR."
"In Mongolian tradition, neither music nor singing can strictly-speaking be described as specialist activities. In the past, everyone was expected to be capable of singing and playing the fiddle at festivals..."
From the liner notes again: "The player flutes with his nose. Some air really does pass through the nose. The player's lips are slightly parted but do not move: only the corners of the mouth tremble sightly and the cheeks are tensed. This tension brings him out in a sweat. The melody comes from the movements of the tongue. Anyone who possesses this technique is able to reproduce any melody"
Both of these tracks just blow me away with how much the singers sound like birds:
For you die-hard record sifters, the info is Vogue Records LDM 30138 (recorded in 1973). Here's a full track-listing. You might be able to download it somewhere if you peek around the internet. ;-) I call for a re-issue!
This post is part of a series about music that disorients the senses. I've found that some of the most amazing and jarring auditory illusions are not the usual scientifically distilled or synthesized ones, they're often found in folk music and made by people's voices. Of course, in a way, it makes perfect sense - the vocal chords are some of the most complex and advanced musical instruments in existence. They are ubiquitously available, and we've been experimenting with them for longer than any other sound-making implement.
Releasing the data was an about-face for the FAA, which refused to release the records because it felt doing so would jeopardize safety. If the information were made public, the argument went, it would discourage airlines and airports from reporting bird strikes. The agency changed its position under pressure from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who says the move is part of a larger shift toward full disclosure.
"The Department of Transportation is, among other things, a safety agency," he wrote on his blog. "Public disclosure is our job. The sea change in government transparency is beginning, and we are happy to be a part of it."