Author Archives: Jonathan Codd



if you went onto a MSc degree after your BSc in Zoology here – the attached job at Chester Zoo might be of interest

Scientific Assistant advert


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You should all know that velociraptors weren’t really like they were portrayed in ‘Jurassic Park’. They were an awful lot smaller, they had feathers, and they probably weren’t quite so smart. But they *were* nasty predators. Or were they? This BBC article describes a recent fossil suggesting that Velociraptor was also a scavenger, because of bite marks on a Protoceratops skeleton.

Original article in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (University needed to get past abstract):

2007 Science article showing the presence of quill knobs in velociraptors (open access); 2011 Science article showing dino feathers in amber  (Uni needed to get past abstract); great blog post on the feathers in amber article at WhyEvolutionIsTrue. More on velociraptors, including gratuitous but potentially correct picture:

© Michael Skrepnick;

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Great amateur video of phantom crane flies, which have very cool black and white legs. Phantom crane flies – Bittacomorphids of the Family Ptychopteridae – are found in North America; their maggot has an amazing extensible respiratory siphon, which means it can breathe under water (they generally live in mud or on the edges of streams). And the adults don’t have ocelli.

Here you can find out all you wanted to know about Ptychopteridae.

This article shows that 700 species of crane fly link S America and Australasia, revealing origins going back to the Permian.

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Eyes from the deep past

The most dramatic early eyes known up to now have been, not surprisingly, the calcite eyes of trilobites. These mineral lenses, formed into a compound eye, lend themselves to fossilisation, plus there are millions of fossilised trilobites lying around in rocks. In the latest issue of Nature, there is a dramatic description of an incredibly tiny fossil from Australia that reveals that at least one organism from the early Cambrian – 515 MY ago – had eyes that were incredibly complex and modern.

The work was carried out by a group from Australia (with help from the Natural History Museum in London), led by Michael Lee and John Paterson. They studied rocks from the Emu Shale in Kangaroo Island in South Australia. This is a famous layer of shale which contains some exceptionally preserved organisms, and is a useful comparison with the Burgess Shale in Canada and Chenjiang in China.

The researchers found a number of isolated fossilised eyes that had apparently come from some kind of arthropod. They are about 7 mm long, are curved, and are composed of up to 3,000 individual lenses or ‘ommatidia’. They are not made of calcite, and they are not from a trilobite. They are incredibly beautiful. The eye of the robber fly is included for comparison. These were NOT from a fly! They are from a marine organism!

a–d, Three fossils of compound eyes from a large arthropod from the Emu Bay Shale, South Australia (a–c), shown in similar hypothesized orientation to the compound eye of a living predatory arthropod, the robberfly Laphria rufifemorata (d; anterior view of head). All fossil eyes have large central ommatidial lenses forming a light-sensitive bright zone, b, and a sclerotized pedestal, p. Because the fossil eyes are largely symmetrical about the horizontal axis, it is not possible to determine dorsal and ventral surfaces, and thus whether the eyes are left or right. All fossils are oriented as if they are left eyes (medial is to the left of the figure). In b there is a radial tear (white line) with the top portion of the eye displaced downwards to overlie the main part; extensive wrinkling causes some central lenses (arrow) to be preserved almost perpendicular to the bedding plane.

The fossilised eyes were all about the same size, suggesting they had all come from adults. Sadly, there are no clear animal remains associated with them. They presumably became separated from the body either because the animals were predated in some odd way (predators spitting out the eyes?) or because they are in fact the cast of the organism as it grew in size. They say:

“One possibility is that the fossils reported here are of previously shed corneas. The corneal surfaces of living arthropods detach during ecdysis and remain loosely connected to the rest of the exuvia; moulted corneas might be more prone to decay and thus more susceptible to early diagenetic mineralization (in this case phosphatization) than complete eyes attached to intact organisms.”

The fine detail of the fossils made it possible to calculate the precise distance between the ommatidia. Note that the lenses are hexagonal, just as in modern arthropods:

Cambrian arthropod eye. a, Entire specimen showing the positions of close-ups in c and f. b, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of a. c, Close-up of large ommatidial lenses in the bright zone, with white line and numbers referring to the cross-section shown in e. d, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of c. e, Cross-section through four large lenses indicated by the white line in c; numbers refer to individual lenses represented by concavities. f, Close-up of small marginal lenses, with white line and numbers referring to the cross-section shown in h. g, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of f. h, Cross-section through four small lenses indicated by the white line in f; numbers refer to individual lenses represented by concavities.

The authors then go on to look at the optics of these eyes, in terms of the density of the ommaditidia. And report that this kind of complexity and density has previously been found only in the the Ordovician, around 40 MY later.

So – what animal do they belong to? They are too small to be from everyone’s favourite Cambrian predator, Anomalocaris. The authors reckon that they could be from a bivalve arthropod found in the Emu Bay shale called Tuzoia:

The large, unnamed Tuzoia species from the Emu Bay Shale has stalked compound eyes that are ovoid to round and 6–9 mm in diameter: very similar to the fossil eyes described here. However, no detailed structure of the visual surface is preserved in the articulated eyes of Emu Bay Shale or Burgess Shale Tuzoia specimens.

Here’s a picture of Tuzoia:

Reconstruction of Tuzoia.

The authors conclude:

The specimens described here represent the first microanatomical evidence confirming the view that highly developed vision in the Early Cambrian was not restricted to trilobites. Furthermore, in possessing more and larger lenses, plus a distinct bright zone, they are substantially more complex than contemporaneous trilobite eyes, which are often assumed to be among the most powerful visual organs of their time. The new fossils reveal that some of the earliest arthropods had already acquired visual systems similar to those of living forms, underscoring the speed and magnitude of the evolutionary innovation that occurred during the Cambrian explosion.

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Gull steals video camera – but is it real?

How do we know what to accept as fact? This perpetual epistemological issue is only heightened by the internet and CGI. Here’s another enigma. A seagull picks up a video camera and zooms round night-time Nice. But is it real? How could we know?

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The effects of scaling

Context is everything. We know how being very small alters the ways physical factors are felt – eg through small insects being stuck in water tension, the power of Brownian motion, or the scaling effects of falling from a height. But what about temporal context? What are the effects of temporal factors on the way that physical effects are perceived? Here’s a great mechanical example – a cymbal being struck. But what happens if you perceive that movement at 1000 frames per second? You realise that something rather amazing has happened. How might this affect our understanding of biological processes?

h/t: @qipedia

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Look away if you are an earthworm

Spotted on Lucas Brouwers’ Twitter feed (@lucasbrouwers), this great video of a Powelliphanta snail from New Zealand snarfing an earthworm. Keep your eye on the video – it all happens incredibly quickly! Odd thing to say about a snail, but true.

According to this PDF from the NZ Department of Conservation, Powelliphanta snails can grow up to 9 cm across and are nocturnal. They are also endangered, primarily because of human activity, although a recent survey suggested they were making a slight recovery. According to Wikipedia, “There are 21 species and 51 subspecies within the genus. The relationship between the species is complex, and it has been suggested that the group Powelliphanta gilliesi-traversi-hochstetteri-rossiana-lignaria-superba forms a ring species.”

There are other carnivorous snails on NZ, including the Rhytididae, which seem to be particularly vicious, according the NZ Dept of Conservation:

“They can eat other snails by biting their heads off and then they carry them to a quiet spot on the back of their foot where they insert their tails up into the prey’s shell. The tail secretes a liquid that slowly dissolves the prey’s flesh and the calcium from its shell. The Rhytida snail then absorbs the dissolved nutrients. It can take the snail several days to actually complete such a meal.”

One rhytidid snail, Wainuia urnula urnula, seems to use a similar rapid action to that seen in Powelliphanta and probably has the same basis. According to Murray Efford in The Journal of Molluscan Studies, “In the laboratory, W. urnula urnula captured landhoppers by rapidly everting the TVU-section odontophore beneath the prey and immediately drawing it into the mouth in a single action.”

So that’s how they (probably) do it. No sucking, just incredibly rapid movement, using that odontophore…

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