The fight for control over virtual fossils

screenshot_12cac8388ef895b9d15ca44e8413b190From Nature, March 6, 2019. (Image: Diprotodon skull by AC Sharp, Museum Victoria, downloaded from phenome10k)

Palaeontologists have been urged to share 3D scans of fossils online, but a Nature analysis finds that few researchers do so.

A decade ago, palaeontologist Jack Tseng set out on a treasure hunt. Not the typical boots and pick-axe affair you might imagine, but one that is relatively common in his field. From his base at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, Tseng visited museums around the world to examine the skulls of carnivores in their collections. And whenever he encountered one, he asked whether he could take away 3D scans of the specimen. Tseng’s own institution housed skeletons from striped hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, aardwolves and mongooses, as well as skulls from extinct hyenas and dogs. But Tseng, then a doctoral student, needed even more exotic fossils for his research on how carnivores evolved the ability to crush bone. “I was looking for exceptionally complete skulls,” he says.

And so, he travelled. To New York, Washington DC, Beijing, London, Uppsala, ticking off items on his palaeontological shopping list as he went. One place Tseng did not need to visit was the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, even though it holds an unusually near-complete skull of a large extinct hyena. A carnivore specialist at the museum, Manuel Salesa, had already scanned the fossil and sent the data to Tseng directly. Read more…

Turtle deaths highlight precarious environmental situation

social media - 27 march 2018_3(Image: Jarrad Prangell from Symbio Wildlife Park holds a Bellinger River Snapping Turtle)

Four summers ago, death swept through the small population of Bellinger River Snapping Turtles. Thankfully, the species wasn’t wiped out completely. But the virus that wrought devastation was aided and abetted by drought and diminishing food supply — the hallmarks of climate change. It’s a common story. Efforts are now underway to safeguard the turtle population against extinction. Here’s the story, from the Summer 2019 issue of Cosmos:

It was a warm February evening in 2015 and Sydney’s Taronga Zoo had emptied of visitors for the day. But behind closed gates, Karrie Rose and her team were gearing up for a long night. Their task: to find out what was killing the rare Bellinger River snapping turtle (Myuchelys georgesi).

Two days earlier, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) had launched an investigation following reports from kayakers of sick and dead turtles. Whatever had turned their home, five hours’ drive north of Sydney, into a killing field looked like it could push the species to extinction in a matter of weeks.

Read more…

Bring back that loving feeling

From Cosmos Magazine, Issue 77, Summer 2018 (Image by Max Sparber via Flickr)

Psychedelic drugs have long been outlawed. Now psychiatrists want them back.

ON A SWELTERING NEW YORK EVENING in August 2016, Jesse Noakes finally found relief from years of mind-numbing depression. As he sat on the sofa facing the therapist his gloom melted away, replaced by feelings of clarity, warmth and enthusiasm. “It was magical,” he says, “something that I was so, so desperate for.”

The Australian writer had spent his 20s cycling from one antidepressant to the next without relief. The therapy session that finally sliced through his mental miasma came at the end of a months-long global quest that took him to the Netherlands, Switzerland, and finally the US. It also took him to the wrong side of the law. That’s because his therapy session was boosted by a dose of MDMA, the active ingredient in the illegal party drug ecstasy.

Clandestine therapy sessions like these may soon be a thing of the past. Read more… Bring back that loving feeling, or purchase Issue 77 here

Book Review: The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell

A version of this article appeared in Issue 76 of Cosmos Magazine, October 2017

An acoustic trek into the connected lives of treessongs-of-trees

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors
Black Inc. (2017)

There is virtue, we are told, in stopping to smell the roses. David George Haskell, in his new book The Songs of Trees instead asks us to sit back and listen – to the rain falling on the “leafy drumskins” of the Amazonian Ceibo tree, to the wailing of the wind through Ponderosa pine needles, or even to the crisp snap of a Japanese banknote made from the bark of Mitsumata, the oriental paperbush.

The purpose is not to bask in the restorative properties of nature, but rather to reflect on the role of trees in the earth’s ecosystems, and to explore their place in our own lives, histories and politics.

The book opens in the lush rainforests of the Ecuadorian Amazon, at a canopy-piercing Ceibo tree. With its giant buttress roots that can be pounded to herald a successful hunt or to call for help when lost, the Ceibo is a central figure – known as the Tree of Life – in creation myths of the local Waorani people. The grandness of the Ceibo tree, and the richness of the ecosystems it belongs to make it an almost obvious choice in a book that is, ostensibly, about trees.

But other trees, of the dozen that Haskell visits, are less exemplary arboreal specimens: a cottonwood, gnawed away to its base each year by beavers in a central Denver park; a centuries-old bonsai tree that was gifted to the United States in 1976 after surviving the Hiroshima bombing; and the charred remnants of a Mesolithic hazel tree in Scotland.

Haskell is an eloquent and extraordinarily knowledgeable guide through these varying landscapes and contexts in which trees appear. In many cases, he visits a tree repeatedly, observing its place in daylight and night, across seasons and years, through life and death.

As he describes the acoustics of his surrounds, Haskell depicts life at every scale imaginable. Black-capped chickadees harvest balsam fir seeds; monkeys call and mosquitos buzz in the Amazonian rainforest; microscopic beasts lurk in a droplet of water pooled inside a fallen green ash tree.

Stethoscopes, ultrasonic detectors, and sensors strapped to a tree’s skin allow even deeper exploration of a tree’s world. We are introduced to the subterranean microbial networks that are an extension of a tree’s root system, as well as the “ultrasonic clicks and fizzes” of a stop-start water column within a tree’s twig that tell of a tree’s constant quest to harvest water.

Throughout the book, the stories of indispensible connections and networks build layer upon layer, revealing trees to be the great connectors of the book’s subtitle. Yet Haskell – a professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of the South in Tennessee – doesn’t just stop at the biological or ecological connections. Haskell’s writing seamlessly springboards from the trees he is eavesdropping on, to the history of human populations in recent centuries, as well as the ebbs and flows of ice ages over geological time.

The Songs of Trees is a delightful reverie on the intricate relationships that exist in nature. But it also implores us to see ourselves as a part of that nature, our lives and histories inseparable from the natural world we live in.  

(You can listen to a sampling of Haskell’s recordings at



Review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony by Kevin N. Layland

darwin symphonyA version of this review appeared in Issue 75 of Cosmos Magazine, July 2017 

The runaway evolution that drove human brilliance

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind
Princeton University Press (2017)

Evolutionary biologists are often loath to admit the vast gap that exists between our own brilliance and the relatively modest smarts of our animal brethren. Tracing an evolutionary sequence of incremental changes in body shape from apes to humans is reasonably simple. Charting changes in intellect presents more of a challenge. Humans alone have built particle accelerators, propelled astronauts into space, and manipulated the genetic code of other organisms. No other animal even comes close.

In Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, Kevin Laland not only admits that a seemingly insurmountable gap exists, he takes up the challenge of explaining how a step-wise process of natural selection – as it was first explored by Darwin in his Descent of Man (1871) – can be used to explain what sets the human mind so dramatically apart.

Laland draws on more than two decades of work in his own lab, as well as work by other animal behaviourists and evolutionary biologists, to argue that culture has colluded with genetics to catapult humans far ahead of other animals on the intelligence league board. His elegant theory also positions the human mind as an architect in its own evolution.

Laland traces human intelligence back to its elemental components. Conveniently, many of these components, such as the abilities to imitate, innovate, teach and communicate, have been rigorously interrogated in a staggering array of species, from honeybees to crows, stickleback fish to chimpanzees, dolphins to meerkats.

In recent decades, it has become clear that none of these skills is entirely unique to humans. Chimpanzees use tools to solve puzzles, meerkats teach their young how to kill scorpions, whales bellow out songs in regional dialects. But only in humans do these components come as a package deal. And all promote the evolution of large brains and greater intelligence.

Once our ancestors became reliant on two of these foundational elements – the ability to innovate, and the ability to accurately copy the behaviours of more learned members of our social group – a path towards culture was set. Innovation brought things like stone tools, which became entrenched in our culture thanks to our ability to copy, teach and communicate with each other.

As each of these cognitive skills was honed, more cultural practices were added to our repertoire and retained from one generation to the next. The cultural practices in turn cemented the mental abilities we needed in order for culture to thrive and become more complex. Rather than being a simple outgrowth of human mental abilities, says Laland, culture is part of the explanation for those mental abilities.

Culture also influenced traits not related to our brain. For example, when Northern Europeans began dairy farming, a rare gene variant that allowed adults to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, rapidly spread through the population, and remains common in dairy-consuming cultures today.

This intimate feedback between our genes and our culture created a runaway process, and the speed of human evolution, particularly of the mind, ratcheted up in response. Laland’s account provides a satisfying – if at times laborious – explanation for the origins of intelligence and culture that extends beyond our own existence to that of other animals, our prehistoric forebears, and our hunter-gatherer contemporaries.

The next generation of weapons against antibiotic-resistant superbugs

From Cosmos Magazine, June 30, 2017 (Image: naturalismus via Flickr) 

At his North Adelaide practice, Peter-John Wormald has the unenviable job of unblocking the noses of people with chronic sinusitis. Many of his patients have spent years on antibiotics that have failed to budge their infection, providing the perfect breeding ground for resistant superbugs.

For four out of five of them, surgery is the answer. Wormald carves away inflamed tissue, widens sinus openings and flushes out accumulated pus. For the stubborn one in five, however, Wormald is conducting one of the world’s first clinical trials into phage therapy, a century-old idea that predates modern antibiotics.

Such trials are desperately needed. We are on the threshold of returning to the dark ages that preceded antibiotics. Read more… 

Biased for Benefit: Stimulating the world’s most popular drug targets with more nuance

From Nature Medicine, June 2017 (Image: Nick Page via Flickr)

In September 2012, a small biotech startup named Trevena unveiled preclinical trial results for its front-running compound, TRV027. The fledgling Philadelphia-based company had been going strong since its founding five years earlier, raising $24 million from investors in 2008 and securing a position in BusinessWeek’s top 15 US startups for that year. In 2010, it raised a further $35 million. Trevena was pinning its fortunes on a dramatic rewriting of cell-receptor theory that has taken place over the past three decades. Read more…