Thursday, 22 September 2016

Insectivores endemic to the Caribbean

Puerto Rican Nesophontes (N. edithae)
Reconstruction by Jennifer Garcia CC BY SA 3.0
The Caribbean is home to two endemic families of insectivores. The Nesophontidae are recently extinct. Their demise is attributed to the introduction of rats by Spanish Explorers though some believe the genus survived into the 20th Century.

To establish their phylogenetic position, scientists recently extracted DNA from a specimen preserved in an ancient owl pellet (here). This was no mean feat as the specimen was 750-years-old and DNA degrades rapidly in the tropics.

Hispaniolan Solenodon (S. paradoxus)
Biodiversity Heritage Library CC BY 2.0
The main finding was that Nesophontes shares a common ancestor with Solenodon. There are two species of this insectivore both listed as threatened by IUCN. A common origin had not been predicted on anatomical grounds not least because Nesophontes and Solenodon have different patterns of tooth occlusion (here). Together these families represent the oldest branch of the insectivores (Order Lipotyphla).
Placenta of Solenodon paradoxus
Wislocki (1940)
Despite its rarity, the placentation of S. paradoxus has been described (here) and we later compared it with that of other insectivores (here). Interesting features are remnants of capsular decidua, elaborately branched yolk sac villi and a sheath that superficially resembles that of crociduran shrews.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Congratulations Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf author of prize winning The Invention of Nature
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt: The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf was just awarded the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016. Previously it won the 2015 Costa Biography Award.

ISBN-13: 978-1848548985

This is a fantastic book. While rooted in the late 18th Century, Andrea Wulf convinces us that Alexander van Humboldt's life and legacy are pertinent today. He started life as a mine inspector and was in his early thirties before realising his dream and travelling in South America where he showed extraordinary stamina and a capacity for accumulating huge amounts of data in all areas of science.

Charles Darwin had a set of Humboldt's books in his cramped cabin on the Beagle and they were heavily annotated. Humboldt met and corresponded with American presidents in post Revolutionary America and influenced the thinking of conservationists such as John Muir. It was his way of thinking about the interrelatedness of the environment that led Ernst Haeckel to coin the very word ecology (from the Greek for household).

Statue of Alexander von Humboldt in front of
Humboldt-Universit├Ąt in Berlin
Alexander's older brother Wilhelm was a Prussian diplomat and minister of education. He it was who founded the university in Berlin that now bears the family name.

The subtitle The Lost Hero of Science suggests Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. Andrea Wulf's biography puts this to rights.