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Living (Not) Fossils: Part IV

Good day, dear readers! I hope you have enjoyed the last three posts in this series on creatures that are commonly (if not necessarily accurately) referred to as “living fossils”. If not, while not required to appreciate this post, I suggest reading Parts I, II, and III first, which examined such things as stromatolites, plants, monotremes, birds and mammals. Today’s offerings will include reptiles and amphibians.

Let’s start with perhaps one of the more famous animals in this list, the tuatara.

A tuatara. Photo credit: San Diego Zoo

A frequent inclusion on listicles about “living fossils”, the tuatara is famed because of how unique a creature it is. Despite its appearance, it is not a lizard; it is a reptile, but not a lizard. Specifically, it’s a rhynchocephalian, the only member of order Rhynchocephalia. Its order is a sister to Squamata (lizards & kin), but it is a genetically distinct creature from a different lineage than lizards. It also differs from lizards in its preference for cooler temperatures, nocturnalness, its lack of external ears and its unusual dentition: instead of having just one row of teeth in each jaw, the tuatara has two rows of teeth in its upper jaw, which overlaps a single row in the lower jaw.

The parietal eye of an adult Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / TheAlphaWolf.

One of its most interesting features is not something unique to tuataras: its parietal eye, sometimes referred to as its “third eye”. Parietal eyes sit on the top of the head or on the forehead of a number of different reptiles, amphibians, and fish, and have different levels of functionality; however, this “eye” is most well-developed in tuataras. In other creatures, it’s sometimes visible as a gray scale or patch on the head; in tuataras, it’s only externally visible in the young, as it is covered with scales and pigment as they mature. Despite this, the parietal eye does receive and perceive light, which helps govern their circadian rhythm, hormones and temperature regulation.

Next we’re going to be speaking of salamanders, but I wanted to interrupt with a brief purple frog interlude.

It is my pleasure to introduce you to the very good purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), also known as the pignose frog or the Indian purple frog. In addition to being pleasing to look upon, they’re one of only two species in their family Nasikabatrachidae. They are burrowing frogs that spend the majority of their lives underground, which does not make them especially easy to study. Unfortunately, they’re also listed as endangered on the IUCN Redlist due their habitats being turned into areas of agricultural cultivation.

But you know now that they exist (if you didn’t previously – their goofy appearance has caused them to pop up in memes and the like) and knowing is half the battle.

An eastern hellbender. Photo credit: Scientific American.

Our next featured creature are the giant salamanders, all of which live in east Asia (the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders), except for eastern North America’s very own hellbender (as depicted above). The world’s largest amphibians, the Chinese giant salamander has been recorded reaching a maximum length of 5.9 ft (1.8 m), while the Japanese giant salamander comes in second at lengths of up to 4.7 ft (1.44 m). Comparatively, hellbenders are the fourth-largest amphibians in the world, growing up to 2.4 ft (73.6 cm), after the goliath frog (12.6 inches/32 cm, 7.17 lbs/3.25 kg).

An eastern hellbender held by a human, showing its own adorable amphibian hand. Photo credit: Peter Petokas/AP & NBC Philadelphia.

One of their unique features is their form of respiration: the frilly skin on their sides behave like gills. Unfortunately, their conservation statuses are precarious: while hellbenders and the Japanese giant salamander are near-threatened, the Chinese giant salamander is critically endangered due to habitat destruction, habitat degradation and human exploitation.

While it’s still too early to see conclusive results, attempts are being made by the World Conservation Society in conjunction with the Buffalo and Bronx Zoos to carefully raise young hellbenders from eggs to an age where they can be released with greater chance of survival into adulthood in their native habitats.

If you’re interested in hellbender conservation efforts, Dr. Peter Petokas of the Clean Water Institute (CWI) at the Department of Biology at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania has information both on his own personal site and on the CWI’s conservation project page.

Speaking of hellbenders and Pennsylvania, in 2017 the legislative process to designate the eastern hellbender the official state amphibian of Pennsylvania began. Its journey to this lofty status is thus far incomplete, but be assured that we here at the Free-for-All will keep you abreast of the latest developments.

The charming grin of an axolotl. Photo credit: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft / IMP.

Next, I am proud to present one of the more charismatic living (not) fossils, the axolotl, also probably the most charismatic amphibian and salamander. QUICK AXOLOTL FACTS:

An axolotl. Photo credit: pbs.org

Even among salamanders, axolotls’ regenerative abilities are outstanding. For this reason, they’re an important research subject. Here’s a quote from Professor Stephane Roy at the University of Montreal:

You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level—the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm—and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.

Cuvier’s dwarf caiman at rest. Despite the availability of people selling it as a pet, you should not keep it as a pet. Photo credit: McDonald Wildlife Photog. / Animals Animals / Arkive.org

While perhaps not as exotic, charismatic, or strange-looking as some of the animals I’ve profiled, but one cannot neglect the crocodilians, for they most certainly qualify as living fossils. The term “crocodilians” refers to members of order Crocodilia; in more lay-friendly terms, it broadly includes the crocodiles, the alligators and the gharials. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget caimans – they fall under family Alligatoridae, making them alligatorids.

The big question: what’s the difference between alligators and crocodiles? Are they the same? The answer is no, they’re different, and here is why. There’s even (relatively) breaking news about further differences observed between these two families of crocodilians.

A comparison of Saurosuchus’ estimated dimensions and a 5’9″ (1.8 m) human. Photo credit: Prehistoric-Wildlife.com

So how old are the crocodilians as a group? Their ancestors show up in the fossil record some 200 million years ago, at the end of the Triassic period. In March of 2017, the BBC reported on the discovery of 152 million-year-old crocodilian eggs in Portugal that were laid during the late Jurassic period. Curiously, the eggs were discovered in a dinosaur nest. Perhaps the most famous extinct crocodilian ancestor was the massive Saurosuchus of the Cretaceous, a 23 ft. (7 m) carnivore and the largest paracrocodylomorph on record.

Together, the crocodilians (living and extinct) and birds (living and extinct) form the clade group Archosauria, which includes the most recent common ancestor of both birds and crocodilians. This also means that the crocodilians are the closest living relatives of birds.

Gharials, crocodilians of the family Gavialidae. Photo credit: PSAnand/IUCN Redlist.

Which raises the question: since we’re talking about dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds – what is a dinosaur? The public has the habit of talking about any extinct reptile (or less charitably, people of a certain age) as a “dinosaur”. To clarify this complicated topic, the Smithsonian has an article about what exactly scientifically qualifies a dinosaur as a dinosaur (fun fact: all birds are dinosaurs, but not all dinosaurs are birds) .

The teeth and serrated tongue of a goose, which are absolutely dinosaurs. Note that geese cannot produce enamel-coated teeth, so their teeth are more accurately called “tomia”. Photo credit: Reddit.

All this raises yet another question: if dinosaurs are reptiles, and birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that birds are reptiles? The science question hotlines at Arizona State University and at the University of California at Santa Barbara explain things simply, but if you want to get into a somewhat Nietzschean discussion of taxonomic arcana (and who doesn’t?), here’s an article about why reptiles aren’t a thing anymore.

The dance of an archosaur! Two bipedal blue-footed boobies boogie beautifully on a blissful brown beach. Photo credit: Tui De Roy/ Minden Pictures / New Scientist

Circling back around from our shark week entries (parts I and II), I wanted to mention the star of Shark Week 2018 (at least in the land of Fish Twitter, where I happily lurk), marine biologist Melissa Cristina Márquez, who was attacked and dragged by a crocodile while searching for a legendary local shark in Cuba. She’s big in the science communication field (#scicomm! Check out that hashtag on the social media platforms of your choice!), founded the Fins United Initiative and hosts the podcast ConCienca Azul, which focuses on “….interviewing Spanish-speaking marine scientists, conservationists, grad students, photographers, and more from around the world” in Spanish.



We interrupt this post with this message from our local hosting library: Do you not speak, read, write or understand Spanish? Or least not as well as you’d like to? Need to brush up on old skills? The PIL can help – in addition to physical language learning materials in our collection, the library subscribes to the Pronunciator collection of language learning resources. Simply log in with your PIL card and start studying one (or more!) of over 80 different languages today, including English as a Second Language in many languages of instruction, on your desktop, laptop or device!

Let’s conclude today’s entry today as we traditionally do: with book recommendations! I think one or two may be a repeat, but perhaps that simply means the books are twice as sweet.

Crocodile: Evolution’s Greatest Survivor, by Lynne Kelly

Following the fascinating history of the crocodile, this story tells the tale of an ancient animal whose ancestors have roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Addressing the true nature of this intriguing animal, this resource explores its evolutionary survival, the 23 living species in the world today, and the extinction they face due to habitat intrusion. Also explored are the myths and legends surrounding crocodiles and the vicious reputation they have amongst humans.

Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adders Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles, by Marty Crump

Frogs are worshipped for bringing nourishing rains, but blamed for devastating floods. Turtles are admired for their wisdom and longevity, but ridiculed for their sluggish and cowardly behavior. Snakes are respected for their ability to heal and restore life, but despised as symbols of evil. Lizards are revered as beneficent guardian spirits, but feared as the Devil himself.

In this ode to toads and snakes, newts and tuatara, crocodiles and tortoises, herpetologist and science writer Marty Crump explores folklore across the world and throughout time. From creation myths to trickster tales; from associations with fertility and rebirth to fire and rain; and from the use of herps in folk medicines and magic, as food, pets, and gods, to their roles in literature, visual art, music, and dance, Crump reveals both our love and hatred of amphibians and reptiles—and their perceived power. In a world where we keep home terrariums at the same time that we battle invasive cane toads, and where public attitudes often dictate that the cute and cuddly receive conservation priority over the slimy and venomous, she shows how our complex and conflicting perceptions threaten the conservation of these ecologically vital animals.

Sumptuously illustrated, Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg is a beautiful and enthralling brew of natural history and folklore, sobering science and humor, that leaves us with one irrefutable lesson: love herps. Warts, scales, and all.

The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton, by Matthew F. Bonnan

Since I’m spending quite a bit of time talking about evolution, I figured this could be an interesting text to our readers. What can we learn about the evolution of jaws from a pair of scissors? How does the flight of a tennis ball help explain how fish overcome drag? What do a spacesuit and a chicken egg have in common? Highlighting the fascinating twists and turns of evolution across more than 540 million years, paleobiologist Matthew Bonnan uses everyday objects to explain the emergence and adaptation of the vertebrate skeleton. What can camera lenses tell us about the eyes of marine reptiles? How does understanding what prevents a coffee mug from spilling help us understand the posture of dinosaurs? The answers to these and other intriguing questions illustrate how scientists have pieced together the history of vertebrates from their bare bones. With its engaging and informative text, plus more than 200 illustrative diagrams created by the author, The Bare Bones is an unconventional and reader-friendly introduction to the skeleton as an evolving machine.

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek 

Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones.

Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex‘s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book’s titular hero, “Brontosaurus“—who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all—as a symbol of scientific progress.)

With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we’ve long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come.

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

Why feature this book? Turtles All the Way Down features the rare character of a tuatara (named “Tua”) in a work of fiction. 16-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, by Caspar Henderson

(If you look down in the bottom left corner of the cover, you can see the smiling face of an axolotl.) From medieval bestiaries to Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, we’ve long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer’s song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology—they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don’t.

With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson’s book—from the axolotl to the zebrafish—are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up—that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature’s “extreme survivors,” able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value—or fail to value—and what we might change.

Until next time dear readers!


The Phi Beta Kappa Award Short List!

On Monday, August 13, the Phi Beta Kappa Society announced the short list for the annual book award, which recognizes outstanding scholarly books published in the United States in the fields of the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and mathematics.

Via https://www.pbk.org/Press/2018ShortList

Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students at the College of William & Mary in 1776.  Their belief was that the new nation they hoped to build would need new intellectual institutions to that would reflect the principles of that nation–intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, and creativity.  Though the society was initially a secret one, which the founders believed would keep them safe from political persecution, Phi Beta Kappa is now a nationally- and internationally-recognized institution with Today there are 286 chapters at American colleges and universities and 50 active alumni associations located in all regions of the country.

As per their website, Phi Beta Kappa’s name originated from the motto “Love of learning is the guide of life,” a phrase the founders derived from the Greek Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης. The three Greek letters ΦΒΚ are inscribed on the signature gold key that is today a nationally recognized credential signifying academic achievement.

The Phi Beta Kappa book awards are intended to recognize not only books that help us learn, but that do so in a way that is interesting, accessible, and effective.  As a result, non-fiction lovers will find plenty of books among these nominees to whet their literary palate!  There are three awards, each of which has their own short list.  The winning authors will be honored at a gala dinner on December 7th, 2018 in Washington, DC, at The Carnegie Institution for Science.  A description of the awards and their nominees are below.  Tune in for updates, as the award winners will be announced on October 1, 2018.

Via https://www.pbk.org/Awards/BookAwards


The Christian Gauss Award: Recognizes books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The nominees are:

The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science: Honors outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science, encouraging literate and scholarly interpretations of the physical and biological sciences and mathematics. The nominees are:

The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award: Recognizes works from scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity, including works in the fields of history, philosophy and religion as well as such fields as anthropology and the social sciences. The nominees are:

A huge Free-For-All congratulations to all the short listed works and their creators!

Living (Not) Fossils: Part III

Greetings again, good readers! It’s time for the next entry in my ever-lengthening series on creatures that have been described as “living fossils”, despite that this term isn’t terribly accurate literally, figuratively and in implication. Initially I was going to post about reptiles, amphibians and some fish today, but I instead decided to veer off towards mammals. Do not worry, these beasties’ time will come.

It’s not a mouse, it’s not a deer, it’s a chevrotain (or popularly, a mouse-deer), a primitive ruminant! Photo credit: mentalfloss.com/iStock

Despite mammals’ overwhelming popularity in terms of the Charismatic Fauna Olympics, they’re not as well-represented in the various lists of living fossils that are floating around, perhaps because they are by and large an evolutionarily “younger” group than say, fish or reptiles, or perhaps because the average person isn’t trained to necessarily identify what features in mammals are basal re: mammal evolution. Need an accessible primer on mammal evolution? National Geographic will help us today.

Alternatively, some of these animals are so obscure in the popular imagination (or are simply rare) as to make finding reliable information on them difficult. For example, consider the shrew-like venomous solenodon:

A Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) Photo Credit: Arkive.org/Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino.

I very much want to bring you accurate, hard-hitting information on this odd little fellow, but it’s hard to find much beyond people waxing on its living fossilness,repeated declarations of extinction and rediscovery of living examples on both Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba, the fact that it’s a venomous mammal that injects its venom through grooved teeth (like a snake), how rarely it is sighted, it’s awkward gait, and how endangered it is.

The case is the similar for many of these creatures, but I’ll do my best to inform in an entertaining fashion. In addition to the solenodon and the hastily-mentioned chevrotain, did you know that the star of the beginning of the alphabet, the insectivorous aardvark, is the last living species of its order (Tubulidentata)?

An aardvark at night. Eats ants but isn’t an anteater. Photo credit: arkive.org/Nigel J. Dennis.

Despite some similarity in their appearance and even their popular names at times, aardvarks (meaning “earth pig” in Afrikaans), while they do eat ants, they are not anteaters, nor are they closely related to anteaters, which are native to South America (aardvarks are native to Africa).

A majestic giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark. Is not an aardvark nor really related to them. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Malene Thyssen.

In terms of relatives, aardvarks are more closely related to elephant shrews (which are not true shrews, naturally) and their kin. They belong to a fascinating clade called Afrotheria, which includes (among others) elephants, manatees and dugongs (the sirenians), tenrecs and another creature that I’ll address shortly, the rock hyrax.

Like echidnas, aardvarks suffer (?) from having a  character be much more popular (and much more available in terms of works produced about them) than the actual creature. In this case, it’s Arthur the Aardvark from the Arthur series of books and PBS animation series, brainchild of Marc Tolon Brown. Still, it’s decent publicity, and by virtue of Arthur, aardvarks could be considered to have had some hand in the developing literacy of millions of children.

Arthur Timothy Read, the 8-year-old star of numerous children’s books by Marc Brown and a PBS television series. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next, we come to the hyraxes, the only living member of the order Hyracoidea. Despite their small size and their superficial resemblance to rodents, they are not rodents – hyraxes are just hyraxes, with their closest living kin being elephants, manatees and dugongs. Like the aardvark, the hyraxes also belong to clade Afrotheria and are the remaining members of a much more populous group.

A family of rock hyraxes, creatures of little power. Photo credit: The San Diego Zoo.

Despite not being so famous in popular culture, hyraxes (also known as “dassies”) do have a bit of cachet in certain circles from being mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Perhaps most famously, they are referred to in Proverbs 30:26:

…hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags…

There are several other mentions of hyraxes in the Bible as well, mostly in reference to dietary laws. If you look up the above verse from Proverbs using a web tool that displays multiple translations, you soon find that hyraxes are also referred to as “rock badgers”, “conies”, “rabbits”, or as non-rock “badgers” in the Bible. Additionally, some of the verses regarding the dietary cleanliness of hyraxes as a food source indicate that they chew the cud (and do not have split hooves), which they do not in fact do, as they are not ruminants.

The toothy grin of a rock hyrax.

This is a translation error – early translators of the Bible into English were not knowledgeable about Middle Eastern fauna and thus shoehorned the Hebrew terms for this animal or animals like it into animals that they were familiar with. If you have any interest in Biblical translation history and challenges, you will know this is not the first time this has happened.

As for cud chewing, it has been suggested that perhaps the writers were describing the hyrax in the act of chewing (which it does do, it is not a snake) and mistook its mastication for the act of cud-chewing.

Cave painting of an aurochs at Lascaux, which certainly chewed the cud. Photo credit: Discovermagazine.com/Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In the modern time, hyraxes still live in the lands where the action of the Bible takes, and in fact are contributing to climate research by virtue of their habits of urinating in the same place every day (a site called a “midden”). In some locations, local hyrax colonies have been doing this for tens of thousands of years, creating a record of climatological data that can be derived from the contents of their urine.

According to this news piece from 2011, these adorable rock-dwellers have also been nuisances to their urban human neighbors in some locations. Can humans and hyraxes live together in harmony? STAY TUNED.

The Amami rabbit, also known as the Ryukyuan rabbit. Photo credit: https://triplelights.com/japan/tour/kagoshima-low-key-amami-night-exploring-1765

While there are other creatures to discuss (in particular, the Amami rabbit and the Laotian rock rat, both of which are visually distinct among their relatives), I’ll devote this last section to a mammal that is charismatic even among other charismatic mammals: the red panda (Ailurus fulgens).

A red panda, also called the “lesser panda”. Photo credit: DLILLC/Corbis, http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/photos/red-panda/

Despite sharing a name with much-larger giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), red pandas are not bears, foxes, cats, raccoons, otters, dogs, or anything else that they may share visual traits with (pointed ears, ringed tail, etc).

Like a number of other creatures I’ve discussed, they existed in an ever-changing state of taxonomic limbo for quite a while; at one point, this limbo involved theorizing that they were related to the giant panda and other bears. Currently the red panda (and its extinct brethren) is the sole living member of family Ailuridae, which is itself part of the superfamily Musteloidea; members of this superfamily are called “musteloids”. Other members of Musteloidea include skunks, raccoons and weasels.

A fisher (Pekania pennanti), also known as a fisher cat, is not a cat, but an example of a musteloid (distantly related to the red panda) native to New England. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Troy and Rusty Lilly.

So how is a red panda like a giant panda? Well, they both live in China, though red pandas’ range stretches across the Himalayas; giant pandas are restricted to Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces (more information on giant pandas’ current and historical ranges can be found here); both have bamboo-dependent diets (though red pandas enjoy a more varied diet than giant pandas); and they both have modified wrist bones that function as a sixth finger. Unfortunately, both have spots on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, with red pandas listed as “endangered” and giant pandas listed as “vulnerable”.

The artist formerly known as the “parti-colored bear”. Photo credit: The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

So which panda was called a panda (in English) first? According to linguist Susan Harvey, it was the red panda. Giant pandas came to be called pandas (in English) because of the mistaken belief that they were related to red pandas that seems to have surfaced in the early 1900s. Prior to their association with the red panda, giant pandas were called “parti-colored bears” or “mottled bears”. The word “panda” itself in English is thought to be of Nepali extraction, via French.

Because I seem to be linking these creatures with popular culture relatively often, red pandas recently acquired their own popular character in the form of Sanrio’s (the makers of Hello Kitty) Aggretsuko the Red Panda, who had an animation series of her own released on Netflix in April 2018.

And that concludes this portion of today’s presentation! Unfortunately, my attempts to compile a reasonably-fleshed out reading list for this entry turned out a bit meager. Regardless, please take a look at the below offerings and consider them for your future reading choices:

Arthur’s Nose (An Arthur Adventure), by Marc Brown.

Since I mentioned the Arthur books, I figured I should provide a little bit of attention to the book series. Those of you who are more familiar with Arthur’s more recent incarnations will notice that our friend has gone through some character design changes since the first book was released in 1976. As of August 2018, there are 45 books in the Arthur Adventure series, along with a number of spin-off series for different reading levels (easy readers, chapter books and audio books).

Aard-vark to Axolotl: Pictures from my Grandfather’s Dictionary, by Karen Donovan

Aard-vark to Axolotl, an eclectic series of tiny essays, is a collection of prose poems disguised as imaginary definitions, and a collaboration of text + image based on a set of illustrations from an old dictionary. Sometimes sneaky mysterious, sometimes downright weird, these small stories work on the reader like alternative definitions for items drawn from a cabinet of curiosities.

If you’re interested in checking out this item, please speak to a librarian.

Red Panda: Biology and Conservation of the First Panda, edited by Angela R. Glatston

Red Panda: Biology and Conservation of the First Panda provides a broad-based overview of the biology of the red panda, Ailurus fulgens. A carnivore that feeds almost entirely on vegetable material and is colored chestnut red, chocolate brown and cream rather than the expected black and white. This book gathers all the information that is available on the red panda both from the field and captivity as well as from cultural aspects, and attempts to answer that most fundamental of questions, “What is a red panda?” Scientists have long focused on the red panda’s controversial taxonomy. Is it in fact an Old World procyonid, a very strange bear or simply a panda? All of these hypotheses are addressed in an attempt to classify a unique species and provide an in-depth look at the scientific and conservation-based issues urgently facing the red panda today.

Red Panda not only presents an overview of the current state of our knowledge about this intriguing species but it is also intended to bring the red panda out of obscurity and into the spotlight of public attention.

  • Wide-ranging account of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) covers all the information that is available on this species both in and ex situ
  • Discusses the status of the species in the wild, examines how human activities impact on their habitat, and develops projections to translate this in terms of overall panda numbers
  • Reports on status in the wild, looks at conservation issues and considers the future of this unique species
  • Includes contributions from long-standing red panda experts as well as those specializing in fields involving cutting-edge red panda research.

If you’re interested in checking out this item, please speak to a librarian.

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

While not technically about platypuses, it mentions platypuses in the title so I’m going to count it. Everyone likes accessible philosophy texts, right?

Outrageously funny, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… has been a breakout bestseller ever since authors—and born vaudevillians—Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein did their schtick on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Lively, original, and powerfully informative, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… is a not-so-reverent crash course through the great philosophical thinkers and traditions, from Existentialism (What do Hegel and Bette Midler have in common?) to Logic (Sherlock Holmes never deduced anything). Philosophy 101 for those who like to take the heavy stuff lightly, this is a joy to read—and finally, it all makes sense!

Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

Cathcart and Klein are clearly fond of putting creatures described as “living fossils” in the titles of their books. If you enjoyed their philosophy text, why not branch out to political rhetoric via philosophy and humor?

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, authors of the national bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, aren’t falling for any election year claptrap—and they don’t want their readers to either! In Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, our two favorite philosopher-comedians return just in time to save us from the double-speak, flim-flam, and alternate reality of politics in America.

Deploying jokes and cartoon as well as the occasional insight from Aristotle and his peers, Cathcart and Klein explain what politicos are up to when they state: “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” (Donald Rumsfeld), “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (Bill Clinton), or even, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” (Thomas Jefferson, et al).

Drawing from the pronouncements of everyone from Caesar to Condoleeza Rice, Genghis Kahn to Hillary Clinton, and Adolf Hitler to Al Sharpton. Cathcart and Klein help us learn to identify tricks such as “The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy” (non causa pro causa) and the “The Fallacy Fallacy” (argumentum and logicam). Aristotle and an Aardvark is for anyone who ever felt like the politicos and pundits were speaking Greek. At least Cathcart and Klein provide the Latin name for it (raudatio publica)!

Until next time, dear readers! As always, feel free to comment if you find any of the entries here at the Free-for-All particularly edifying, wish to share your thoughts and suggestions, or find that any information I’ve presented is incorrect. Constructive feedback is welcomed!


Living (Not) Fossils: Part II

Welcome again to the land of Living (Not) Fossils, dear readers! Last week we stopped in our brief survey of things labeled “living fossils” with trees; this week I’m happy to introduce you to more mobile organisms. Let’s start with:

Tachyglossus aculeatus, the short-beaked echidna. Photo Credit: Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, https://www.lazoo.org/animals/mammals/echidna-short-beaked/

MONOTREMES (Platypuses & Echidnas)

Everyone’s favorite mashed-together looking creatures! There is currently a single extant species of platypus and four species of echidnas (also known as “spiny anteaters”). They come by their “living fossil” status because they’re the survivors of a larger group(s) that used to include many other living members that have since become extinct.

Famously, when presented with a preserved platypus, 19th century European naturalists believed they were victims of a hoax, given the creature has the bill of duck, the tail of a beaver, the legs of an otter, lays eggs like a bird or reptile, but also nurse their young with milk (though not from teats, but specialized skin patches). They then proceeded to argue about its taxonomic placement for over 80 years.

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).
A platypus swims or maybe lounges. Photo credit: Hans and Judy Besage—Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd/age fotostock.

Speaking of platypus milk, it has certain antibacterial properties that may figure in the future development of developing antibiotic drugs that are useful against superbugs.

Platypus are one of the few venomous mammals – the males have venom-inflicting spurs on the back of their hind legs that are used for defense. Echidnas also have these non-venomous spurs on their legs, but they lose them as they mature.

DEFINITION CHECK: “Venomous” vs. “poisonous”

Hydrophis belcheri, also known as Belcher’s sea snake or the faint-banded sea snake, is extremely venomous. Photo Credit: Ocean Treasures Memorial Library, http://otlibrary.com/

While often used interchangeably, these words do not mean the same thing. If something is venomous, it can inflict venom on other things, generally as a defense mechanism. In contrast, poisonous things are only poisonous if you ingest them. A good example that I’ve seen given are rattlesnakes: they are venomous (if they bite you), but they are not poisonous, e.g. you will not be poisoned if you eat the non-venomous parts of a rattlesnake.

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The hooded pitohui’s flesh and feathers are poisonous, a trait it acquires due to its diet of particular frogs. Photo credit: Jack Dumbacher, http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/creatura-blog/2014/06/hooded-pitohui-bird

While platypuses get the most attention of the monotremes (and I’ll admit, they’re adorable), I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about echidnas a bit. Thanks to Sega and the mid-1990s, probably the most famous echidna in popular culture is Knuckles the Echidna, who originated in 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles.

Sega’s Knuckles the Echidna, who aside from having hair spines, does not look/behave much like an echidna at all. Photo credit: http://sonic.wikia.com/wiki/Knuckles_the_Echidna/Gallery

Before echidnas (the creature) became known to European naturalists and/or the founding of Sega, there was their namesake – the Greek half-maiden/half-snake Echidna, consort of Typhon and Mother of Monsters: offspring attributed to her include the two-headed dog Orthrus, multi-headed dog Cerberus, many-headed serpent Hydra, lion-bodied/woman-headed Sphinx, the Chimera and other creatures who figure in Greek mythology (answers depend on sources consulted).

Statue of Echidna in the Park of the Monsters at the Gardens of Bomarzo in Lazio, Italy. Monstrous though she may be, she doesn’t look much like the monotremes named after her. Photo Credit: Pinterest

Echidna is many things, but she doesn’t really look like our fine spiny friends. The Online Etymyology Dictionary posits that Europeans may have chosen the name “echidna” for it because it’s a creature of mixed attributes, similar to the mythological figure.

Let’s see echidnas (or echidnae for the Grecophilic pedants in the back) in action, slouching spikefully towards Bethlehem:


While perhaps not as visually spectacular or as weird as some of the other creatures on this list, there are a number of birds that have been categorized as “living fossils” due to assorted reasons, which I detailed in the first entry in this series. The bird that I’m profiling today may surprise you: pelicans.

Brown pelican eating a fish. Photo credit: https://www.aboutanimals.com/bird/brown-pelican/

The official bird of my home state, (as well as being symbols of Romania, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados and Sint Maarten) pelicans are large waterfowl that are visually distinct due to their size and their large expandable throat (gular) pouches. This trait has occasionally been used as a device in film or children’s books. Their “living fossil” status is due to them closely resembling (especially in terms of their specialized bills) their early relatives who lived 30 million years ago in the Oligocene epoch.

Here’s what their fabulous gular pouch looks like in action:

Pelicans have historically figured into Christian and heraldry iconography as models of self-sacrifice and resurrection, due to beliefs about mother pelicans piercing their own breasts to feed their blood to the children (“the pelican in her piety”) for nourishment or alternatively, using blood from their self-inflicted wounds to resurrect their dead offspring. This can be seen in the posture of the pelican and her young on the seal of the state of Louisiana, which is also depicted on the state flag.

Being seabirds, pelicans’ diet is typically fish-heavy, but they have  been known to eat birds and other creatures at times. Also due to being seabirds, pelicans are highly vulnerable to water-specific environmental disturbances, such as oil spills.

Pelicans who became covered in oil due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Photo credit: Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune

Curious about how seabirds that have been covered in oil are rescued and rehabilitated? The Audubon Society has you covered. NOAA also provides instructions for a hands-on experiment for kids to see how cooking oil affects feathers and how the cleaning process works.

I’d also like to take this time to mention that the pelican’s closest relatives are the hamerkop and the glorious photogenic shoebill.

A shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) moving a duck at an animal park in San Diego. Photo credit: Mark Kay Solent.

BONUS LINKS: Have you ever wondered what pretty much any bird sounds like? The Internet Bird Collection is here to provide those sounds for you (may I recommend the Great Potoo?). Have you ever wanted your ringtone to sound like the vocalizations of an endangered creature? The Center for Biological Diversity’s RareEarthTones ring tone collection can make your phone sound like a loon like mine.

With that, let’s conclude today’s entry. Future entries will introduce reptiles, fish and invertebrates that have been categorized as living fossils. As always, remember that my entries are not exhaustive – there are other animals that I have not mentioned (the hoatzin! Magpie geese!). But before then I’ll leave you with some topical reading recommendations:

Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, by Ann Moyal

This is the enigmatic story of a biological riddle that confounded scientists for nearly ninety years, challenging theories of creationism, evolution, and classification of species along the way. Secretive, elusive, and beguiling, the platypus has continued to captivate public and scientific attention to the present day.

When the first platypus specimen reached England from Australia in 1799, the scientific community claimed that it was a hoax. On closer investigation, dubious European naturalists eventually declared it to be real, though in an age obsessed with classification, the category-defying platypus sparked heated debates across Europe for a century. In Platypus, Ann Moyal provides a unique biography of one of the world’s most famously strange creatures and tells the incredible story of how it became the focus of the great scientific debates of the nineteenth century. Eloquent and concise, Platypus uncovers the earliest theories and latest discoveries about this delightfully odd member of the animal kingdom.

The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma, by Peggy Rismiller

The oldest surviving mammal on the planet is also one of the most intriguing. Peggy Rismiller, the world’s foremost echidna expert, traces the history of this fascinating animal that is native to Australia and New Guinea. A combination of mammal, reptile, and marsupial, echidnas produce milk, but unlike mammals, they are egg-laying creatures and, like marsupials, they have a modified pouch for nurturing their young. This odd animal has two backward-facing appendages and two forward-facing ones. These and other bizarre biological traits are discussed in detail in this thorough guide.

Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, by Ted Floyd

Do you need a book about all the birds of North America, including our pelicans? Enjoy birding like never before. A complete guide to birds with superb color photography, up-to-date and detailed range maps, clear and concise text, and a DVD of birdsongs. 528 pages and 2.2 lbs of birdbook!

The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century, made and edited by T.H. White

NOTE: I own a copy of this and it’s one of the most entertaining re-readable things in my collection. If you’ve never experienced the wording and illustrations of medieval bestiaries and have an interest in antiquarian texts, you must check this out.
If a serpent swallows the spittle of a fasting man, it dies. Trees felled in the wrong season breed termites. If eels are drowned in wine, those who drink it get a loathing for liquor.
These and similar flights of fancy were articles of faith in the twelfth century — the era of the fascinating Latin prose bestiary translated in this volume. The translator is T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King and outstanding medievalist. Of The Book of Beasts, White writes: “No Latin prose bestiary has ever before been printed, even in Latin. This is the first and only English translation in print.”
The bestiary was a bestseller in the Middle Ages, a kind of natural history cum-zoological survey that presumed to describe the animals of the world and to point out the human traits they exemplified. Combining the surprisingly accurate with the endearingly phantasmagorical, the bestiarists came up with a bewildering array of real and exotic creatures. The behavior or attributes of the animals often functioned as a metaphor for teaching religious, moral, and political precepts.
In addition to a multitude of real mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, described here with varying degrees of zoological accuracy, the bestiarist introduces a swarm of fanciful denizens thought to haunt the Dark Ages: manticore, a creature with a man’s face, a lion’s body, and a ravenous appetite for human flesh; dragon or draco, the biggest serpent and the embodiment of the Devil; amphivia, a fish that could walk on land and swim in the sea; jaculus, a flying serpent; the familiar phoenix; the griffin; and other exotic fauna.
Much of the charm of this edition lies in the copious footnotes compiled by T. H. White. With immense erudition, wit, grace, and a singular lack of condescension, the author illuminates literary, scientific, historical, linguistic, and other aspects of the bestiarist’s catalog. He further enhances the volume with informative discussions of the history of the bestiary from its origins in remote oral traditions; through Herodotus, Pliny and Aristotle; during the medieval period and the Renaissance; and up to Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors (1646). Both amusing and amazing, The Book of Beasts is not only a rich survey of the proto-zoology on which much of our later science is based, but also a revealing, illustrated examination of how pre-scientific man perceived the earth’s creatures.
Until then, dear readers!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy August to all of you, beloved patrons!

I think it’s very safe to say that we are in the midst of the “Dog Days of Summer”, that period of hot, sultry weather that are frankly, perfect for little else but finding a good book to read and trying to move as little as possible.  But what does the phrase actually mean?

According to National Geographic, Greeks and Romans of ancient times coined the phrase, “dog days”to refer to the period of time when Sirius, the dog star, appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever, or even catastrophe.  In ancient Egyptian culture, the star we know as Sirius was associated with the Egyptian god Osiris, the god of life, death, fertility, and rebirth, and Sopdet, the embodiment of the star, who is pictured as a goddess who is pictured with a five-pointed star above her head (see left).  Star-gazers noted that Sirius rose just before the sun each year immediately prior to the annual flooding of the Nile River.  Although the floods had the potential to bring destruction, they also encouraged new soil and new life.  The Egyptian new year was celebrated with a festival known as The Coming of Sopdet.

So if you have a view of the night sky where you are, beloved patrons, have a look up and see if you can spot Sirius.  The image at the top of this post provides a map to help you.  Either way, you can celebrate a time of rejuvenation with a new book!  Here are just a few of the titles that have spread out on our shelves to savor the air conditioning–and to meet you!

The Seas: Samantha Hunt is a writer with one powerful imagination, and in this slim volume, she weaves one heck of a tale that blends myth, romance, and grim reality in a way that will leave you spellbound.  Moored in a coastal fishing town so far north that the highways only run south, the unnamed narrator of this tale is a misfit, and the subject of cruel local gossip. Her father, a sailor, walked into the ocean eleven years earlier and never returned, leaving his wife and daughter to keep a forlorn vigil. Surrounded by water and beckoned by the sea, she clings to what her father once told her: that she is a mermaid.  True to myth, she finds herself in hard love with a land-bound man, an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior.The mesmerizing, fevered coming-of-age tale that follows will land her in jail. Her otherworldly escape will become the stuff of legend.  This is an inventive, creative, and startling insightful work that has critics and fellow writers dazzled.  The Chicago Review of Books put it well in its review when it noted, “It’s hard to imagine that a book so brief could tackle the Iraq war, grief over the loss of a parent, the longing for freedom, an enthrallment with the ocean, loneliness, sexual awakening, faith, and etymology, all in less than 200 pages, but Samantha Hunt has done it, and done it well.”

Jar of Hearts: Those of you looking for a twisty, turny thriller to pass the summer days should look no further than Jennifer Hillier’s latest page-turner.  When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way.  Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.  Now, fourteen years later, Kaiser, a detective with Seattle PD, unearths a fresh–and shocking–lead: Angela was a victim of serial killer Calvin James.  But Calvin James was also Georgina’s first love .  And as a result, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death, until the day Geo was arrested and sent to prison.  While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong, it seems the past and present are about to collide in terrible ways.  Hillier is known for her surprising, emotional plots, and this book promises to show her talents off to their very best advantage.  Publisher’s Weekly praised it as “Engrossing…there’s no denying her page-turner’s grab-you-by-the-throat power.”

BelleweatherSusanna Kearsley has earned a devoted following for her stirring historical fiction, and this book offers readers the chance to explore a house with a legend of romance and tragedy, all stemming back to the summer of 1759, when the American colonies were embroiled in the Seven Years War (also known, not very accurately, as the French and Indian War).  In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story.  Kearsley apparently based this novel on her own family history, and Library Journal rewarded her efforts with a starred review,  saying in part,  “Rich characterizations and vivid historical flavor will keep readers enthralled in both past and present story lines. Highly recommended for Kearsley’s many admirers and fans of romantic dual-time historical fiction.”

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border: The United States’ northern border is the world’s longest international boundary, yet it’s a rarely discussed, and seldom explored area, but to the tens of millions who live and work near the line, the region even has its own name: the northland.  Travel writer Porter Fox spent three years exploring 4,000 miles of the border between Maine and Washington, traveling by canoe, freighter, car, and foot.  This book is the record of his journey, the history he learned on his trek, and the people he encountered on the way.  Setting out from the easternmost point in the mainland United States, Fox follows explorer Samuel de Champlain’s adventures across the Northeast; recounts the rise and fall of the timber, iron, and rail industries; crosses the Great Lakes on a freighter; tracks America’s fur traders through the Boundary Waters; and traces the forty-ninth parallel from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean.   A marvelous, thoughtful work that explores the economy, ecology, people, politics, and history of the United States, Canada, and all those who have had dealing therein.  Kirkus Reviews gave this book a starred review, hailing, “Richly populated with fascinating northlanders, Native Americans, and many border patrol agents, this is highly entertaining and informative travel literature.”

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies: From such illustrious titles do fascinating books emerge!  Dawn Raffel’s book tells the story of a sideshow presenter, the titular Dr. Couney, who discovered that he could use incubators (and very careful medical care) to save the lives of babies who were born prematurely.   How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as “weaklings”–while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics–is a wonderfully intriguing and woefully under-explored story.  Raffel emphasized that Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, and the skeletons in his personal closet, genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients, and whose work and insight continues to offer hope to families around the world.  As Publisher’s Weekly notes, “With colorful descriptions of the carnival world and the medical marvels of early neonatalogy, Raffel makes a fascinating case for this unusual pioneer’s rightful place in medical history.” 

Until next week, beloved patrons, Happy Reading!

Living (Not) Fossils: Part I

Good day dear readers! I hope you enjoyed our last foray into the world of sharks, rays, skates, guitarfish and kin! Today we’re aiming a bit more broadly – an introduction to some examples of what are popularly called “living fossils”.

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A non-living fossil of a trilobite. Photo Credit: Fossilera.com, https://www.fossilera.com/fossils/95-gerastos-trilobite-fossil-morocco

As with any category, the first questions to be answered include: “What is it? What belongs? What doesn’t belong? Why?” Unfortunately, these answers vary depending on who is answering the question. In their 1984 book Living Fossils, Niles Eldredge and S.M. Stanley defined living fossils as:

  1. Members of taxa (the plural of taxon, meaning a taxonomic group of any rank, such as a species, family, or class) that exhibit notable longevity in the sense that they have remained recognisable in the fossil record over unusually long periods;
  2. Show little morphological divergence, whether from early members of the lineage, or among extant species, and
  3. tend to have little taxonomic diversity
Dawn Redwood Tree Picture (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as the dawn redwood, is often referred to as a living fossil. Photo credit: Rainer Lippert, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urweltmammutbaum_Burgsinn,_2.jpg

However, the term “living fossil” is now being questioned: is it time for the term  coined by Darwin in his On the Origin of Species to be retired?

One of my favorite popular science writers, Ed Yong (author of 2016’s acclaimed I Contain Multitudes), argues that it should be abandoned on the basis that it implies that these organisms are in fact unchanged, when in actuality they show diversity and change over time apace with species not considered “living fossils”. That is, much of their living fossilness is based more on them having conservative body plans (looking “ancient”) rather than them actually lacking diversity or not exhibiting change over time.

Triops longicaudatus
Triops longicaudatus, also known as notostracans or tadpole shrimp, are small crustaceans that are not shrimp. Photo: ©2008 John White, https://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0308+0159. Want Triops in your house? Arizona Fairy Shrimp can help.

In that case, what to call them? For purposes of this series of entries, I’m going to use the term “ancient organisms/creatures”. Whereas my previous entries dealt more with narrower classes of things, this one is a non-comprehensive tour of some organisms that have been described as members of this group.

Ancient organisms span the full gamut of organisms: bacteria, plants, animals, insects, fish, even creatures that perhaps aren’t always thought of as animals, like sponges.

Crinoids, also known as feather stars or sea lilies, are actually mobile (albeit slow) animals. Photo credit: erikschlogl

While my space here is limited, I’ll do my best to give you a whirlwind introduction to these fascinating critters by type. First up:

BACTERIA: Stromatolites

Normally one thinks of bacteria more in terms of things you attempt to remove from your hands with soap at a sink, but our representative of bacteria, stromatolites, are incredibly cool. Here is why:

The stromatolites at Shark Bay are some of the best living examples of microbialites. A tourist boardwalk at Hamelin Bay allows visitors to walk among these fascinating structures.
A macroview of the stromatolites at the Hamelin Pool at Shark Bay (Gascoyne region, Western Australia).

Stromatolites themselves are structures created by cyanobacteria (called blue-green bacteria or blue-green algae) accreting layers and layers of oxygen-producing microbial laminae (they’re photosynthetic) that then trap sediments, resulting in lithification over time; that is, they turn into stone. This may not sound especially scintillating until you realize how old these structures are – stromatolite fossils date back to the Archean eon. Here’s a geologic time chart for reference:

Geological time scale
Earth’s geologic time scale. Image credit: Jonathan R. Hendricks, http://www.digitalatlasofancientlife.org/learn/geological-time/geological-time-scale/

If you’re interested in a more complex chart, the Geological Society of America supplies this one as a PDF, also available as a poster.

Excluding the Ediacaran fauna (who really deserve your attention because ancient stuff is wonderful), stromatolite fossils are the oldest evidence of life on Earth that we have. The fact that some of these organisms are still alive and metaphorically kicking is astounding. Their range (like that of so many things) was much wider in the past, to the point that many of their fossils are no longer accessible to humans due to plate subduction, a process that moves at a geologic pace.

This site has diagrams about where in the United States you can observe stromatolite fossils, which implies very old areas of exposed rock (which means FOSSILS! Bring your tools!). Even if they’re just sitting there eating light + air and defecating rock, stromatolites are venerable communities indeed. Here’s what they look like in fossil form, vertically sliced:

Lower Proterozoic Stromatolite fossil from Bolivia, showing its complex laminae (layers). Photo credit: Fossilmall, http://www.fossilmall.com/Science/About_Stromatolite.htm

PLANTS: Cycads (Cycadales)

Moving on to plants, I am pleased to present to you these representatives: the cycads (depicted above), dawn redwoods/sequoias, the ginkgos, and welwitschia, which is a fun word to say.

This looks like a palm tree and might even be referred to as a “sago palm”, but this is not a palm tree – it’s a cycad. Photo: https://www.cycads.org.za/

Cycads are stout, squat, cone-bearing (but they’re not conifers) woody tree-like plants – however, unlike trees, they contain very little wood in their bark. Actually, they differ from most “modern” plants in most regards. Cycads look like many things, but their fossil evidence demonstrates their existence back to the Permian period (check the chart!), predating the dinosaurs.

Because of their striking appearance and appeal to collectors, many species of cycad are endangered or threatened. However, if you want to see cycads in person, may I suggest the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida? Currently, there are ~300 extant species of cycad; if you want to know the nitty-gritty about their taxonomy, The Cycad Pages and The Cycad Society are happy to oblige.

HOT GEOLOGICALLY-RECENT CYCAD NEWS: This study published in Science in 2011 (here’s a link to a more reader-friendly interpretation) provides another example of why the term “living fossil” may lead to incorrect assumptions – today’s cycads are not the exact same as cycads that lived during the age of the dinosaurs. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re not an ancient lineage.

The Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

The dawn redwood (native to Hubei Province in China) is the shortest of the trees that we refer to as redwoods (also known as sequoias), the most spectacular being the giant redwoods of California. Dawn redwoods are well-represented at various locations in the fossil record; however, their status as living fossils echoes that of the coelacanth: it is an organism that was thought to be extinct until it was discovered to still be living in the mid-20th century.

It now enjoys (?) its status as a popular tree to use in bonsai. Three  dawn redwoods  grow in Strawberry Fields, an area of New York City’s Central Park that serves as a tribute to John Lennon.

Redwood Bonsai
(Meta?)sequoia bonsai. Photo credit: Ray Coulombe, https://www.bonsaiempire.com/tree-species/redwood

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Next, we have the distinctive ginkgo (also known as the maidenhair tree), known for its exquisite colors (they turn brilliant golden in the autumn), unique (sometimes) bifurcated-fan-shaped leaves, perceived value as a nutritional supplement, use in traditional medicine, and as a food source (the seeds). They are also apparently famous for the foul smell of their fallen leaves and berries.

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A Ginkgo biloba tree in its autumnal glory. Photo credit: https://www.gardeningexpress.co.uk/s10705-ginkgo-biloba-maiden-hair-tree

Fossils related to the modern Ginkgo appeared during the Permian period; fossils that clearly belong to the genus Ginkgo appeared during the Jurassic period.

Autumnal ginkgo leaves, showing both their color and shape. Photo credit: Joe Schneid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba#/media/File:GinkgoLeaves.jpg

Unlike the other plants I’ve described here, Ginkgo are pleasantly unendangered – they’re popular ornamental plants, particularly due to their extreme hardiness in urban environments. Some ginkgo trees even managed to survive the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 . Here is a New York Times op-ed from 2017 about conservation and the Hiroshima ginkgos.  For further ginkgo edification, have a listen to this episode of the Generation Anthropocene podcast, talking about the tree and how humans have had a hand in its evolution and propagation.

Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis)

The final ancient organism that I’ll talk about today is the weird-looking and appropriately-named Welwitschia mirabilis. In the image below, you’re looking at a healthy welwitschia – yes, this is how they’re supposed to look.

Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild! Photo credit: http://2il.org/five-amazing-plants-might-never-known-existed/welwitschia-mirabilis/

Welwitschia are odd plants native to Angola and Namibia in Africa, alone in their taxonomy. I’d write and describe them, but many other people have done so more completely and accurately than I am able to at length. In addition to having the longest-lived leaves in the plant kingdom, welwitschia appear in the fossil record in the Jurassic. Individual specimens are extremely long-lived, with reports of variable veracity aging them at 1,000-2,000 years.

While I haven’t mentioned it yet, welwitschia are a type of plant called a gymnosperm, distinguished by their unencased seeds. The only other currently-living gymnosperms include the conifers (pines, cypresses & others – this includes the dawn redwoods), cycads and ginkgos – doesn’t that wrap up neatly now?

While it is native to areas that are now arid, welwitschia is also grown and sought-after by botanical gardens. It’s a protected species, but most trade involves its seeds, rather than wholesale moving of the plant itself.

File:Welwitschia mirabilis(1).jpg
As you can see, welwitschia are not small plants. Photo credit: Thomas Schoch. http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/namibia2003/index.html

While I don’t have a close-up image of it offhand, a bit of trivia is that along with 52 other plants, welwitschia was embroidered into Meghan Markle’s 5-meter long wedding veil. Her veil featured the distinctive flora from each of the 53 Commonwealth countries, with welwitschia representing Namibia.

If you’re interested in making the acquaintance of welwitschia and don’t feel like going to Namibia or Angola, they can be seen at various botanical gardens, including the Chicago Botanic Gardens and The Domes in Milwaukee.

As seems to be my custom, I’ve spoken for too long and this is going to end up as multiple entries. I hope you look forward them, dear readers! In the meantime, have some reading recommendations so you can dive deeper into these august organisms and their stories:

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Living at the limits of our ordinary perception, mosses are a common but largely unnoticed element of the natural world. Gathering Moss is a beautifully written mix of science and personal reflection that invites readers to explore and learn from the elegantly simple lives of mosses.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book is not an identification guide, nor is it a scientific treatise. Rather, it is a series of linked personal essays that will lead general readers and scientists alike to an understanding of how mosses live and how their lives are intertwined with the lives of countless other beings, from salmon and hummingbirds to redwoods and rednecks. Kimmerer clearly and artfully explains the biology of mosses, while at the same time reflecting on what these fascinating organisms have to teach us.

Drawing on her diverse experiences as a scientist, mother, teacher, and writer of Native American heritage, Kimmerer explains the stories of mosses in scientific terms as well as in the framework of indigenous ways of knowing. In her book, the natural history and cultural relationships of mosses become a powerful metaphor for ways of living in the world.

The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman

The Oldest Living Things in the World is an epic journey through time and space. Over the past decade, artist Rachel Sussman has researched, worked with biologists, and traveled the world to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Spanning from Antarctica to Greenland, the Mojave Desert to the Australian Outback, the result is a stunning and unique visual collection of ancient organisms unlike anything that has been created in the arts or sciences before, insightfully and accessibly narrated by Sussman along the way.

Her work is both timeless and timely, and spans disciplines, continents, and millennia. It is underscored by an innate environmentalism and driven by Sussman’s relentless curiosity. She begins at “year zero,” and looks back from there, photographing the past in the present.  These ancient individuals live on every continent and range from Greenlandic lichens that grow only one centimeter a century, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, Caribbean brain coral, to an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. Sussman journeyed to Antarctica to photograph 5,500-year-old moss; Australia for stromatolites, primeval organisms tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the beginnings of life on Earth; and to Tasmania to capture a 43,600-year-old self-propagating shrub that’s the last individual of its kind. Her portraits reveal the living history of our planet—and what we stand to lose in the future. These ancient survivors have weathered millennia in some of the world’s most extreme environments, yet climate change and human encroachment have put many of them in danger. Two of her subjects have already met with untimely deaths by human hands.

Alongside the photographs, Sussman relays fascinating – and sometimes harrowing – tales of her global adventures tracking down her subjects and shares insights from the scientists who research them. The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Ginkgo : The Tree That Time Forgot

Ginkgo, by Peter Crane

Perhaps the world’s most distinctive tree, ginkgo has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. A living link to the age of dinosaurs, it survived the great ice ages as a relic in China, but it earned its reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago. Today ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts, and revered for its longevity. This engaging book tells the rich and engaging story of a tree that people saved from extinction–a story that offers hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written.   Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane explores the history of the ginkgo from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. Readers of this book will be drawn to the nearest ginkgo, where they can experience firsthand the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.

The Wollemi Pine: The Incredible Discovery of a Living Fossil from the Age of the Dinosaurs, by James Woodford

An enthralling detective story about evolution and natural history, and the botanical find of the century: the freak survival of a species that offers a window on to an ecosystem one hundred million years old. The discovery has been described as “the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth.”

Cycads of the world : ancient plants in today's landscape

Cycads of the World:  Ancient Plants in Today’s Landscape, Second Edition, by David L. Jones

Cycads superficially resemble palms and are often misidentified as such. However, cycads are actually a unique assemblage of primitive plants that have been around for at least 250 million years. They have become highly sought after for gardens, both private and public, and their present status as endangered plants has engendered an upsurge of interest in their conservation. With Cycads of the World, David Jones has achieved that difficult task of writing a scientifically accurate text, which is both easy to read and to understand.

For this second edition David Jones has added information covering over 100 new species and subspecies of cycads, and updated his material on the 200 species from the first edition. Each entry includes a full description, distribution and habitat information, and a detailed cultivation and propagation guide. Over 360 color photographs plus many other illustrations and maps facilitate easy identification for all living species. This second edition of Cycads of the World makes a fine addition to the library of anyone interested in exotic plants, including gardeners, landscape architects, horticulturalists, botanists, and the curious reader alike.

The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them, by Donald R. Prothero

Every rock is a tangible trace of the earth’s past. The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks tells the fascinating stories behind the discoveries that shook the foundations of geology. In twenty-five chapters―each about a particular rock, outcrop, or geologic phenomenon―Donald R. Prothero recounts the scientific detective work that shaped our understanding of geology, from the unearthing of exemplary specimens to tectonic shifts in how we view the inner workings of our planet.

Prothero follows in the footsteps of the scientists who asked―and answered―geology’s biggest questions: How do we know how old the earth is? What happened to the supercontinent Pangea? How did ocean rocks end up at the top of Mount Everest? What can we learn about our planet from meteorites and moon rocks? He answers these questions through expertly chosen case studies, such as Pliny the Younger’s firsthand account of the eruption of Vesuvius; the granite outcrops that led a Scottish scientist to theorize that the landscapes he witnessed were far older than Noah’s Flood; the salt and gypsum deposits under the Mediterranean Sea that indicate that it was once a desert; and how trying to date the age of meteorites revealed the dangers of lead poisoning. Each of these breakthroughs filled in a piece of the greater puzzle that is the earth, with scientific discoveries dovetailing with each other to offer an increasingly coherent image of the geologic past. Summarizing a wealth of information in an entertaining, approachable style, The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks is essential reading for the armchair geologist, the rock hound, and all who are curious about the earth beneath their feet.

Stromatolites, by Ken McNamara.

Lastly, if you have access to online materials via Endicott College, Gordon College, Salem State University or Phillips Academy, then you have electronic access to Ken McNamara’s Stromatolites! 

David Attenborough began his extraordinary TV series, The Living Planet at Shark Bay in Australia’s northwest, because crossing the low dunes and descending to the beach is like slipping billions of years back in time. Where the waves gently break on the shore are stromatolites, rising like rows of concrete cauliflowers from the ocean. While they may look like inanimate rocks, examining a piece from the surface under a powerful microscope shows that it is teeming with life. Stromatolites are complex domes or columns of sediment formed by microbiological communities.

Unbeknownst to many Australians,  Shark Bay is home to one of the most excellent records of ancient life on earth, a stromatolite, which is literally a living fossil. Stromatolites exist in only a few places on earth, and are formed by the trapping, binding, and cementing of sedimentary grains by microscopic bacteria (or microbes). These “living rocks”, as they are sometimes called, teem with the very oldest life forms on earth, having remained virtually unchanged during the comings and goings of animals and plants. In his new book Stromatolites, Ken McNamara shows readers how these ancient formations are a window to the past.

Shark (And Relatives) Week(s) @ the Library: Part II

Welcome back to the Stage of Fish, dear readers! Today I will conclude what I started last week: talking about batoids, aka shark relatives! In particular, I’ll be talking about stingrays, manta rays and electric rays.


Stingrays have long had a reputation for being dangerous.  This is probably because they have venom-coated barbs on their tails that they will stab you in the leg with if you stomp on them.

However, due to the tragic and unusual death of nature television show star Steve Irwin at the tail of a stingray, reactions to them seem to have to turned to outright fear: while one should never give too much credence to YouTube comments or anything they read on Yahoo! Answers, I have seen far too many comments on batoid-centric videos that called every batoid a “stingray” and treated every “stingray” like it’s a vicious predator out to get them.  This is actually the same way many people tend to talk about sharks, which is also grossly inaccurate, misinformed and has led to negative repercussions for that much-put-upon fish.

Image Credits: Stephen Frink/Getty Images  Justin Lewis/Getty Images  http://animal.discovery.com/fish/stingray/


When a stingray wounds a human, it is out of self-defense, not malice.  I personally think that stabbing whatever creature that is exponentially larger and heavier than me and happens to be standing on my cartilaginous body is a perfectly valid reason for exercising a typically non-lethal defense mechanism.  When you are playing at the beach, please remember that you are in their habitat, not vice versa.  Also:     

Humans are not a food source for stingrays, therefore they are not hunting you; stingrays physically can not eat you. I promise. 

The Elasmodiver, a site that’s been a great resource to me both while writing this entry and just in general for my daily elasmobranch needs, actually has a page set up with information specifically related to this disturbing issue about stingray barbs, how to treat stingray injuries and information about stingrays relevant to beachgoers.  I strongly recommend that everyone visit this if no other link provided here just to combat some of the rampant fear-based misinformation on stingrays that’s floating around.

Like all wild animals (which it is, make no mistake), it is good to treat stingrays with respect: don’t live in terror of them, do take precautions to not step on them (do the Stingray Shuffle!), don’t molest them, etc.

ANOTHER BEEF: YouTube commenters and members of the media are guilty of calling pretty much every batoid a “stingray” all the time.  This is inaccurate and wrong: taxonomically speaking, stingrays must be members of the Dasyatidae family.  There are LOTS of batoids that are not “stingrays”.  Here are some examples of  inaccurate reports about batoids in the media for an object lesson!Many of you may have seen news reports of a “giant stingray” leaping onto a woman in her boat some years ago.  This “giant stingray” is clearly an eagle ray one of the most photogenic (and thus well-known) and large batoids.  Please compare:

An eagle ray. Diamond-shaped body, notice the head shape. Max weight is 230 kg/507 lb (so the average weight is well up there); common            length is 180 cm/5’9″.  Thus the eagle ray that leapt on the woman in the report (reports of the ray’s weight seems to oscillate between 200-300 lbs.) is perfectly   average for its species.  Eagle rays, unlike stingrays, swim a lot and school.  They don’t engage in the same burying behavior, though they will swim near/at the seafloor. And yes, as observed, they leap, sometimes into boats.
A Southern stingray.  Traditional disc-shaped body.  Typically smaller than an eagle ray. Found on sandy bottoms, near reefs, in seagrass beds; not known for leaping like eagle rays, mobulas or mantas.

As you and anyone who has experience with rays can see, the two cannot be confused.  It would be very odd if a stingray, a creature that dwells on the seafloor, randomly jumped into someone’s boat, as opposed to a ray of a species that frequently swims along the surface and is known for jumping.

An eagle ray. Photo credit: http://www.similandiveguide.com/eagle-ray.html

To be fair, I do not expect every person to be able to identify every batoid, but instead of calling an unknown batoid a “stingray” (which is not a generic label.  Sorry, the word “stingray” narrows it down a very specific set of rays!) perhaps they could just call it a ray?  That’s not wrong, unless it’s not a ray.  Which is possible, people call all sorts of things all sorts of wrong names all the time.

I will also take this opportunity to talk about Stingray City, a snorkeling/scuba diving site at Grand Cayman Island known for its stingray population that’s habituated to humans.  If you’re bent on physically interacting with stingrays (which I guess is better than being terrified of them), this might be an option for you.  Many well-known photographs of Southern stingrays are from this site.

Kfulgham84, the author of this image, demonstrates the dangers and temptations of fraternizing with stingrays at Grand Cayman Island.

They are tolerating you, not trying to become your friend: please be respectful towards them.  They are not pets, do not treat them like your cat (unless your cat is a stingray).  I assume that our readership knows better and would behave appropriately around rays, but  some folks who have not been educated about how to behave around tame-ish wild animals do not.

Additionally, many public aquariums (including our own here in the Boston area) have supervised ray & shark interaction areas if you feel the need to physically connect with batoids. In my experience, the most popular species in these tanks tend to be stingrays and cownose rays, as well some species of smaller sharks (epaulette sharks, bamboo sharks, etc).

In conclusion: If you swim with the rays, or happen to encounter them in an unscheduled manner, don’t be That Guy.However, I will talk more about stingrays than just complain about those who do ill by them.  Stingrays can get very large, as attested to in one of the photos up above.

The largest stingrays in the world are the freshwater stingrays that live in the rivers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.  They are the guys that show up in e-mail forwards from your relatives and websites that feature many exciting animated pop-up ads.


Zeb Hogan (the fellow behind the Megafish Project) with H. chaophraya.  Most photos of giant stingrays aren’t too exciting because they live in muddy rivers so it’s just people holding them and them being huge.

They are more formally known as freshwater whiprays and the binomial name is Himantura chaophraya.  Yes, they are stingrays, meaning they have very large barbs on their tails.  National Geographic has covered them as part of their Megafishes Project, which I naturally encourage you to check out because large weird freshwater fish are great.  Jeremy Wade of Animal Planet’s River Monsters also did an episode on them if you enjoy that media modality.

Round 2: MANTAS

The largest ray, mantas are the charismatic megafauna of the batoid world.  Behold their majestic form:

A manta ray smile. Awkward.
The first thing you might notice about manta rays (aside from their size) is how weird they look compared to the standard batoid (omitting the guitarfish, sawfish, etc.) body shape:

       Here are mobulas doing their flying thing off Cabo Pulma:

Also, they school.  A lot.  They are somewhat photogenic.

  • Their eyes are on the sides of their heads.  While this isn’t as weird as the cephalic lobes or the the front-of-the-head mouth (this eye position is also present in eagle rays), stingrays’ eyes are on top of their heads.
  • Like the largest of their non-flattened elasmobranch comrades, the whale shark, manta rays are also filter feeders.  Unfortunately, the manta does not get to sport the natty grid + spots pattern that looks so cool on whale sharks.  Now that I think about it, I’m surprised people don’t kill them to wear their skin, they do it to every other species unfortunate enough to have skin that is aesthetically pleasing to humans.
  • While they are filter feeders, manta rays DO have teeth!  However, they’re for reproductiontime, not for dinnertime.  I actually reviewed this earlier when talking about batoid dentition, so scroll up if you want to see their little poky teeth.
Manta at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, ©Tim Snell http://www.testmeat.co.uk/photos/index.php?id=745
So how big are these guys?  The maximum recorded size from FishBase claims a 910 cm/29.86 ft for length and 3,000 kg/6,613.9 lb. for weight. That’s 3.3 tons of batoid, by the way. However, FishBase also tells us that mantas are commonly 450 cm/14.8 ft and the sources I could find says average weight is more around 1,360 kg/3,000 lb., a mere 1.5 ton of flattened cartilaginous fish.
1933, y’all.  Also, mini-manta is precious, aside from being dead.
I hate having to say this, but evidence on the Internet compels me: just because you can ride a manta ray doesn’t mean you should. In fact, you shouldn’t.  Why?  Let’s talk about MUCUS.
Any of you who’ve ever touched a fish before know that they’re slimy (scroll down for slime, as interpreted by hagfish).  Fish are slimy due to the protective coating of mucus on their bodies that protects them from infection, harmful organisms and other external badniks.  Touching/handling/stressing fish removes some of this valuable mucus coating, which can injure them and/or make them more susceptible to infection.  Thus, riding a manta would most likely be detrimental to their mucus coating and could possibly outright injure it.


Don’t be this person.


What?  A fish with many names?  You don’t say! First, let’s get our etymology on via the Online Etymology Dictionary: the “torpedo” comes from the Latin torpere, meaning to “be numb”. Coincidentally, these guys are also known as “numbfish” or “crampfish” in some quarters.  This is as deep as I’ll go.  The Etymology Dictionary actually provides Proto Indo-European stems so you should be grateful that that isn’t within the purview of this entry, although I actually have an idea for an entry that involves PIE and fish so none of you are truly ever safe.


Bullseye electric ray photographed by Andy Murch http://www.elasmodiver.com/bulls-eye_electric_ray.htm
Electric rays (that’s what I’m going to call them IN GENERAL) look a little weird compared to the rest of the rays we’ve covered.  I tend to overgeneralize their body shape as “unfortunate pancakes taped together”.  This diagram provides a better idea of the diversity in electric ray body shapes:


Still look like weird pancakes. (Madl & Yip, 2000)

In addition to being pancakeoid, you’ll notice their tails (or more properly, “caudal fins”) more closely resemble those of fish than of stingrays or certainly mantas with their spindly tails. What are they used for?  LOCOMOTION!  Somehow this makes them look even sillier, the guy below vaguely looks like a living metal detector who just happens to be an awesome electric batoid. I doubt he is sympathetic to your gouty toe.

Torpedo Ray at Casino Point (Catalina Island, California), Photo by Nick Ambrose http://californiadiver.com/torpedo-ray/

Electroreception (the biological ability to perceive electrical impulses) is not something unusual to elasmobranchs or to many fish in general; the platypus can do it, why can’t you? Electric rays are unique among rays in that they can both detect and emit electric impulses, an ability that is shared to a lesser extent by skates, though their electroreceptive organs differ in origin, function, strength, and location. Note that skates’ electrical discharges are too weak to be used for defensive or predatory functions.

Let’s break it down taxonomically.  Technically, there’s no such “thing” as an electric ray, given that would imply that there is a single species called “the electric ray”.  That is a blatant falsehood because there are actually about 60 species of rays that emit electricity.

Let me show you, because if you’re going to learn one thing from me it’s ridiculous fish taxonomy.  Let’s do this thing:

ClassChondrichthyes (Contains Elasmobranchii and Holocephali [chimaerae]) 
     Subclass: Elasmobranchii (It’s a shark or a batoid!)

          Superoder: Batoidea (It’s a batoid!)

               Order: Torpediniformes (Rays that do the electric thing)

Under the order Torpediniformes we get four families of electric ray with four evocative names: Narcinidae, Narkidae, Torpedinidae and Hypnidae.  There may be a suggestion of a naming motif hidden here.  Indeed, electricity-producing rays have been known to humans for a very long time and apparently used to be subject to medical employment.

This 2,300 year old garum (fish sauce) plate from Christies boasts two cephalopods and two batoids.  The batoids are two types of electric ray and the cephalopods are an octopus and a squid.
Scribonius Largus, Emperor Claudius of Rome’s court physician, used electric rays as treatment for headaches and gout.  We know this because he recorded it in his text Compositiones medicae, where he specifically mentions treating people by having them stand in buckets with “live black torpedo fish” circa 50 C.E.  Apparently the physician Galen also thought electric rays were pretty good for this kind of thing, even though it strikes me as rather rude.
The skin is peeled back to reveal the electricity-producing organs.  Engravings from John Hunter’s paper to the Royal Society ©Royal College of Surgeons of England 1. The under surface of a female torpedo 2. The upper surface of a female 3. The under surface of a male

I’ve found allusions to the ancient Greeks using electric rays as a form of anesthesia during childbirth (?!) but no reliable references because the Internet is full of lies.  I have, however, found a letter from a guy doing experiments on electric rays writing to Benjamin Franklin about them in 1772 to tell him that he figured out that BY GOD THEY’RE FULL OF ELECTRICITY, JUST LIKE THAT LEYDEN JAR

Anyway, people have known about them for a while and used them for their busted toes and all kinds of weird stuff, with nary a thought for the ray’s welfare in mind.

BONUS: What do electric eels (which are actually really big knifefish, not eels at all) get for Christmas? Forced labor, depending on how liberal your definition of “labor” is.

So how strong is the shock of the electric ray, anyway? It kind of depends on which electric ray you’re talking about.  As is so often the case with fish records, they vary and FishBase ain’t talking.  The max seems to be about 200-220 volts and that seems to be pretty outstanding; the species cited as producing this was Torpedo nobiliana, the Atlantic torpedo.  I look askance at records of things like 700 volts, which I have seen cited as an upper range figure.

Please, manta riders, approach, harass and attempt to ride this ray.

There is a reason for the pancakeosity of the of the electric ray: if you observed the engraving by John Hunter above, electric rays’ kidney-shaped electricity-producing organs are located in the sides of their discs.  If you’d like to see these organs in the flesh, the Brine Queen dissected an electric ray and documented the process.

An electric ray will specifically use its Thor-like powers to ambush its prey, wrap its flexible body around it to deliver powerful shocks, and then devour it using its distensible jaws.  I’m not sure if the diver in this video got shocked, but the put out ray’s posture seems to suggest it at the very least entertained the notion:

I think this covers your introduction to batoids.  There’s always more to say because there are a LOT of batoids: The ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research says that 55% of total extent elasmobranch species (sharks + batoids) are batoids, with around different 555-573 species of batoids.  I’ve mentioned fewer than 10 species in this entry, to put it in perspective.

To conclude my entry, I’ll give a small bit of attention to the neglected skate.  Skates are always neglected and I’ll fully admit I neglected them here.  I blame the world for not having more information on skates and I blame skates for not being manta rays or having much of a reputation beyond, “How is it not a ray?”.

While no, they don’t get as big as river stingrays or mantas, they certainly can get big.  I applaud the angler pictured below, Damian Greenwood, for releasing his quarry.  There are definitely more sustainable fish to eat.  Read the full write-up here.

192 lb/87 kg skate caught off the west coast of Scotland.
For those of you interested in skate fishing in the region, here is a handy skate identification chart courtesy NOAA, though it does contain information on protected species that is from 2014 and is thus not the most current re: fishing governance.
As your reward for reading through all of this, why not check out a book about skates, rays and more-than-likely sharks? Here are today’s offerings:
For the diehard elasmobranch enthusiast! Successor to the classic work in shark studies, The Elasmobranch Fishes by John Franklin Daniel (first published 1922, revised 1928 and 1934), Sharks, Skates, and Rays provides a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of elasmobranch morphology. Coverage has been expanded from anatomy to include modern information on physiology and biochemistry. The new volume also provides equal treatment for skates and rays. The authors present general introductory material for the relative novice but also review the latest technical citations, making the book a valuable primary reference resource. More than 200 illustrations supplement the text.
Hundreds of thousands of people have an intentional encounter with sharks every year, and shark-watching has become a multi-million dollar business. The ultimate shark-watcher’s guide, this comprehensive and ground-breaking book is essential reading for any marine enthusiast who wants to navigate the waters of those who consort with sharks.
Sometimes you just need a general lay-level text on elasmobranchs: this book is your destination. Sharks have a reputation of being the most feared creatures of the sea, and in this fantastic book, we learn the myths and facts of these fascinating animals–and that they aren’t as deadly as they seem. Of the more than 850 shark species, 80 percent either would not hurt people, or would rarely encounter them.
Sharks and their kin–skates and rays–have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, and their very existence is now threatened by man and his fears. Thomas Allen takes us through the evolution of the shark, its folklore, its commercial uses, and gives us a detailed look at shark attacks–where they happen, why, and how to protect yourself from them. He describes over one hundred shark species–their behavior, appearance, size, and distribution–and provides helpful scientific illustrations. He offers current information on scientific research (including the recent studies on shark cartilage in cancer research), current population findings, and continuing conservation efforts.
With over twenty-five color photographs of familiar and unusual sharks, interesting and fact-filled sidebars, and useful appendices, THE SHARK ALMANAC is a comprehensive overview and the perfect book for anyone interested in these amazing creatures.
Shark : Stories of Life and Death from the World's Most Dangerous Waters
Shark picks up where previous Adrenaline titles such as Rough Water and Deep Blue left off, with a collection focusing on man’s terrifying interactions with one of the planet’s most frightening beasts–an animal that arouses our most primal fears–fears that were recently brought to the surface by an outbreak of fatal attacks on this country’s beaches. From novelists to sailors to oceanographers to divers, man’s encounters with sharks have produced a diverse body of gripping, ofteninspired writing by great names in adventure literature. Along with 16 black-and-white photos, selections feature a wide range of work with an emphasis on thrills and chills, including Peter Matthiessen on the great white shark, Edward Marriott on hunting man-eaters off Nicaragua, Richard Fernicola’s account of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and Jacques Cousteau’s studies of the creatures. If you’re interested in checking out this title, please speak with a librarian.

*=yes, I’m oversimplifying and excluding subspecies.  DEALMadl, P & Yip, M. (2000). Essay about the electric organ discharge (eod) . Proceedings of the Cartilagenous fish Colloquial Meeting of Chondrichthyes , http://www.sbg.ac.at/ipk/avstudio/pierofun/ray/eod.htm