Daily Archives: November 28, 2012

Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs

You all know Don Prothero. He is an active member of the Skeptics and Science Blogging community. He is the author of several books, one of which you are totally supposed to own and if you don’t it’s kinda lame: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. It occurred to me today that I never produced a formal review of one of Don’s other books that I really enjoyed: Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet. The reason for my skipping that review is that I had a radio interview with Don during which we discussed the topic as some length.

Despite the fact that the word “Dinosaurs” occurs in the title, this book is only partly about dinosaurs. In fact, I would say it is mostly about mammals, insofar as the critters go. And that’s good because Donald Prothero is probably the world’s leading expert on Fossil Mammals. The dinosaur part is major and interesting, though. One of the mysteries Don addresses is the presence of Dinosaurs in the region of the earth that is dark for 6 months out of the year and generally frozen. Indeed, the “greenhouse effect” was very much stronger (in that there were more greenhouse gasses) in those days than today. All that atmospheric Carbon (in the form of CO2) was eventually to be trapped in the lithosphere, which helped cause the planet to cool to the levels that were around when we, as a species (genus, really) evolved. The world in which everything alive today evolved in is a world with a few hundred parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, the world of the “Dino Greenhouse” had much more CO2, and we are quickly heading back to the Dinosaur era level, which is going to really mess us up.

Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet addresses questions of “Yeah, so, it was hot then and everything was fine, so Global Warming is not important.” Don also regales the reader with stories about doing palaeontology, about controversies in the field, and that sort of thing. And, he brings us past the K-T boundary, to the “Cainozoic” (age of “Cain) during which the earth cooled, and mammals took over to be the dominant large visible above ground life form. (Yes, yes, I know, bacteria are the dominant life form, yadda yadda… just don’t look for any murals of bacteria interacting on the wall of the Yale Peabody Musuem any time soon.)

Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planetis a great book. Highly recommended by me.

New CDCOTW Video on Sandy and Superstorms

Climate Denial Crock of the Week gives us this new video. Details here.

We are not yet where we need to be with this “when did you stop beating your wife” question sometimes in the form of:

“Can you REALLY attribute ANY storm to Global Warming, really? No? Then is global warming really real? Really?”)

Next time someone says something like that to you, consider answering the question with a question:

“Which major storm of the last two decades or so did not include any of the extra climatic energy provided to this planet by the release of fossil Carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by human activities? WHICH ONES, DAMMIT!?!??

That last bit is very important.

National Geo's Birding Essentials

Are you interested in birding but don’t really know much about it? Did you just put a feeder outside and noticed that birds are interesting, or did you finally get around to stopping at that wildlife refuge you drive by every week on the way to the casino and realize that walking down to the swamp to look at birds and stuff is both better exercise and cheaper than playing slot machines for nine hours straight? Or have you been birding in a casual way for a while, using your Uncle Ned’s old binoculars and a tattered and torn Peterson you found on the sale table at the library, and want to find out which aspects of birding you are missing out on? Filling in the blank spots in your knowledge of birding is easy given how willing birders and writers about birding are to tell everybody else about birding, and it is probably even easier to do with a book like “National Geographic Birding Essentials.”

(Full disclosure, I write for National Geographic’s Science Blogs, sure, but really, I have nothing to do with this book. I didn’t even get it as review copy, someone gave it to me for Christmas last year.)

As you know, in the beginning of almost every bird guide is a chapter (or two) on how to do the whole birding thing, some more extensive and some less extensive. The most extensive and useful for the novice that I know of is the front matter in The Young Birder’s Guide, which I highly recommend for middle school or so aged potential birders. Well, Birding Essentials is like that first chapter but in the form of a whole book. Here’s what you need to do to see if you should get a copy of this book and spend a few hours with it. Look at the following list of topics and see if you feel like you know enough about most of them, or not:

<li>Binoculars, how to chose one and how to use them.</li>

<li>Field guide basics, how to use them, etc.</li>

<li>Understanding status and distribution of a bird species</li>

<li>Details and terminology of migration, nesting, and other patterns of movement and migration

Parts of the bird. Here’s a short list of parts. If you don’t know them, you don’t really know the parts:

  • lores
  • eye line
  • supercilium
  • lesser and greater coverts
  • tertials
<li>Colors and patterns.  Bird color terms are atypical.</li>

<li>Methods of identification using field marks</li>

<li>Variation in bird features (sexual dimorphism included)</li>

There’s more, including strategies for approaching the field adventure that is birding, and dealing with rare variants, and so on.

Excellent birdy bedside reading, but mainly for the novice birder. If you work with bird watching in a science classroom, this is probably a good volume to have handy; tell your librarian to get it.


In an old colonial-looking restaurant that served ten kinds of steaks, I met up with an experienced explorer and a local farmer, to have dinner and discuss plans for an upcoming research project that would be managed by The Explorer and that would partly be on The Farmer’s land, which adjoined a rather extensive and remote wilderness area. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, but one memory of the evening stands out: That was when The Farmer, rooting around in a bag for some cash to tip the waitress, pulled out this big-ass gun … a small cannon, really … that was in the way. For just a moment, the gun came out of the bag and went on the table, then back in the sack. I wondered if this was a random event or if it was a not too subtle way to let everyone around see that This Particular Farmer was packing Major Heat. I’d seen that move before in this part of South Africa, which is where, by the way, this dinner was being enjoyed.

Earlier that day, The Explorer, whom I had commissioned to be my field logistics manager, drove me out to a possible research site — an island centered in one of Southern Africa’s more significant rivers. The island had once been part of a farming project, now defunct, and at some point a levy was built there to divert water into an irrigation system. The now defunct and overgrown levy was about four kilometers long, flat topped, and exactly the width of a vehicle’s wheel-base plus 30 centimeters. There were numerous erosional cuts on both sides of it, so as The Explorer drove our truck along the top of the vegetation-covered berm, the wheels would take turns dropping into these open-ended Potholes-Of-Death. I wondered what would happen if we hit an erosional gully that was a bit bigger than the others, or two at once, and just as I was wondering about that, The Explorer uttered some words that made all that seem less important. Continue reading Manspace