October 21, 2016 • 10:07 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry will be posting more CoyneFest pix, but in the meantime here’s a group picture of some of the CoyneFest-ers taken at the Log Castle which was the locus of dinner and festivities on the second day of the symposium.

CoyneFest group photo

The CoyneFesters are: standing on the hearth (tallest): Jerry Coyne, P.C.C. (University of Chicago); standing, left to right: Andrew Berry (Harvard University), Amanda Mehring (Western University, Ontario), Briana Mittleman (University of Chicago), Mohammed Noor (Duke University), Katharine Korunes (Duke University), Bruce Grant (College of William and Mary), Cathy Grant (College of William and Mary), Brian Charlesworth (University of Edinburgh), Nick Barton (IST Austria), Soojin Yi (Georgia Tech), Mike Turelli (University of California, Davis), Manyuan Long (University of Chicago, in back), Connie Homan (University of Chicago, in front), Dick Hudson (University of Chicago), Matthew Cobb (University of Manchester), Leonie Moyle (Indiana University), Trevor Price (University of Chicago), Colin Meikeljohn (University of Nebraska), Corbin Jones (University of North Carolina); kneeling (left to right): Tina Harr (Max Planck Institute and University of Chicago, with Melody the d*g), Daniel Matute (University of North Carolina), Kelly Dyer (University of Georgia), Jeff Wisniewski (University of Chicago), John Novembre (University of Chicago), Nitin Phadnis  (University of Utah).

Not everyone could make it out to the Log Castle, and some who did had left by the time the photo was taken, so not all the CoyneFesters are in the picture; almost 3/4 of the speakers, though, are in the picture. John Novembre, seeing I had the best (or at least best-looking!) camera, urged me to take a group photo and helped get everyone in the picture; he then kindly took one with me in the picture.

Darwin Day in Kenosha, 2016

February 12, 2016 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry should be getting ready to sign books in London about now as part of the lead up to his talk for the British Humanists, but for those not in the UK but in my vicinity, I will be giving a Darwin Day talk tomorrow, February 13, at 2 PM, at the Kenosha Public Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My talk will be “What Darwin Did for Biology”, on what the key puzzles in natural history were, how Darwin solved them with a unified explanation, and how this led to the rise of such modern disciplines as ecology, genetics, and geology, and, somewhat paradoxically, to the divisions among these disciplines. The Darwin Day events at the Museum run 10 AM to 4 PM, although I don’t know what the full schedule is. It’s also an excellent chance to see the “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx” exhibit. For those who’ve been to past Darwin Days in Kenosha, this year it’s at the main Public Museum, not the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. If you arrive early, I’ll be across the street at Ashling’s having a bloody Mary at noon– stop by and say hello.

Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs

January 27, 2016 • 8:00 am

by Greg Mayer

This coming Monday, February 1, at 7 PM in the Student Union Cinema, the University of Wisconsin-Parkisde will present Luis Chiappe, Director of the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will speak on “Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs”.

Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM
Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM

Many of the features commonly associated with birds (feather, wings, hollow bones, wishbones) were inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, and these features arose at various times during the birds’ long Mesozoic history. New fossils have laid out this evolutionary saga in great detail, allowing us to trace the changes from the earliest birds, such as Archaeopteryx, to the dawn of modern birds. The talk, part of UW-Parkside’s Science Night series, is intended for the general public.

At noon on Monday, in Molinaro Hall D 139, Dr. Chiappe will present a more technical talk at the Biological Sciences Colloquium entitled “Birding in the Mesozoic: Recent Insights on the Early Evolution of Birds”. There’s also a small exhibit in the UWP Library, “Dinosaurs and Birds: The Art of Science”, that you can stop in and see.

Both talks are free and open to the public. For the evening talk, parking in the Student Union lot is free after 6:30 PM. For the noon talk, there are metered spots, but if any WEIT readers are planning to come, email and I’ll see what we can do. The talks are presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx”, by Silver Plume Exhibitions in conjunction with the Yale Peabody Museum, at the Kenosha Public Museum, on display now through March 27th.


This is a very well done exhibit, combining fine reproductions of almost all of the eleven known Archaeopteryx specimens (the real ones almost never travel!), with an exploration of how several distinguished paleo-artists create their works, including Julius Cstonyi, whose work we’ve highlighted here at WEIT before.

Anyone from Chicago to Milwaukee is within range, and you can make a day of it– the exhibit at the KPM, two talks, and a stop in UWP’s Library. Even if you can’t make it Monday, the exhibit at KPM is well worth a trip on some other day. Here’s a tidbit– a realistic sculpture– from Dinosaurs Take Flight; I hope to post a fuller report later.

Archaeopteryx at its nest.
Archaeopteryx at its nest.


Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum: report

February 15, 2015 • 4:11 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has just returned from his Darwin Day activities in Mississippi, and I’m sure we’ll be receiving a report on how things went (including in the culinary department). In the meantime, here’s a report on how things went at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s Darwin Day event last weekend.

The museum has one main exhibit hall, having a very large number of dinosaurs (especially theropods); most are high quality reproductions. In the lobby, I set up a temporary exhibit table on the theme of “Highly Evolved Tetrapods”, meaning ones that have lost or rearranged major parts of their skeletons. My table, manned by my son Christian and myself, featured live animals.

The tetrapod table.
The highly evolved tetrapod table.

The hit of the exhibit was Vivian, an adult ball python (Python regius). Many people, as urged to by our signage, asked to see Vivian’s hind legs.

Vivian-- the star of the show.
Vivian– the star of the show.

Most people (even biologists) don’t know that some extant snakes have vestigial hind limbs, and my son and I have always liked to show them off. Once, when he was in grade school, he told a naturalist at a creationist nature camp (admittedly an odd combination) about the legs on a python they had on exhibit. She demurred, but my son, in good faith (he didn’t know they were creationists) persisted, and offered to show the legs to her. She allowed as she had seen the structures, but that they weren’t legs. He again persisted, stating (correctly) that the leg bones and pelvis were still there, and that they were legs. She could only sputter that they were not legs “in my world view”!

Curator of Education Nick Wiersum with a friend.
Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, ain’t afraid of no toad.

The giant toad (Bufo marinus; called cane toads in Australia, but native from Texas to Argentina) was also quite popular. You can see the large ellipsoid poison glands behind the eye, and the swelling of the body to make swallowing difficult, another defensive attribute. We also had an American toad (Bufo americanus; common throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada) for comparison. Both are good-sized adults.

American Toad vs. Giant Toad
American Toad vs. Giant Toad

We also had Slidey, a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); we’ve noted before here on WEIT how highly evolved turtles are.

Slidey the Red-eared Slider
Slidey the Red-eared Slider

My paleontological colleagues Summer Ostrowski and Chris Noto set up a temporary exhibit featuring small, touchable fossils and a very fine selection of plastic animals.

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The plastic animals (all high quality collector-grade pieces) were arranged in correct phylogenetic arrangement. Although you can barely see him under the mammoth’s chin, humanity is represented by a 3D print of Charles Darwin as depicted in the sitting statue of him at the Natural History Museum in London.

The pyhlogeny of plastic animals.
The phylogeny of plastic animals.

Chris and I also gave lectures in the museum’s downstairs class room, on “How Evolution Works” (me) and “What the Fossil Record Tells Us about Evolution”. Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, led special activities in the main exhibit hall.

“I once caught a fish, this big.”

I think the event was quite successful, with events suitable for kids, students, and adults. There was a good crowd, from kids through adults, with steady numbers the whole day, and lots of good questions. The attendees included WEIT readers, some who came from Milwaukee and Evanston– thanks so much for the support, and it was good to meet you!

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Thx for pix: Chris Noto, Jim Shea

Darwin Day 2015 at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin (and at the University of Southern Mississippi)

February 4, 2015 • 11:32 am

by Greg Mayer (and Professor Ceiling Cat):

Darwin Day, Feb. 12, is fast approaching, so start making your plans now. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin will be holding its event this coming Saturday, February 7, from noon to 5 PM.


There will be educational displays (including live herps), activities for children, videos about evolution from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Chris Noto and I will each be giving public lectures during the afternoon. Chris’s talk will be on  “What the Fossil Record Tells Us About Evolution”, while I’ll be speaking on “How Evolution Works”.  My talk is at 1 PM, Chris’s at 3 PM; each should be about 30 min.

If you’re in southeastern Wisconsin or northeastern Illinois, come by to join the festivities!


Professor Ceiling Cat will be lecturing on Darwin Day in the Deep South, my favorite place to spread the gospel. I’ll be talking about the evidence for evolution and the religious pushback against it, at the University of Southern Mississippi on February 13 (announcement here). There will be books on sale, and the good Professor will sign them; if you say “Felis silvestris lybica” (the wild ancestor of the house cat), you’ll get a cat drawn in your book.

I was going to combine this with an eating trip to nearby New Orleans, but discovered to my horror that that’s during Mardi Gras, an awful time to be nomming in The Big Easy. However, I’m told that Hattiesburg, Mississippi has two world-class barbecue joints. Stay tuned.


October 21, 2014 • 10:44 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has been enjoying Bulgarian cuisine, and I’m he sure will continue his reporting, but I thought I’d report on a stateside culinary event. Southeastern Wisconsin is noted for its German heritage due to its large number of German immigrants. One of the traditions they brought with them is Oktoberfest, a fall celebration associated in the US with German beer and food. I’ve never been to an  Oktoberfest in Germany, so I can,’t say how authentic the American versions are. In the particular place in southeastern Wisconsin where I am, the immigrant heritage is actually more strongly Danish and Italian than German, but there are plenty of Oktoberfest events, so I went with some companions to Ashling on the Lough, an Irish bar, to experience their Oktoberfest.

Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.
Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.

Most important of course is the beer. As I had tried some of the beers they were featuring for Oktoberfest on previous visits, I decided to have a blind tasting of the two I had liked most, Paulaner Marzen and Spaten Munchen. The bartender poured two small glasses of each while my back was turned, and I then tasted them. The winner, by a nose: Spaten!

We actually began with Bloody Marys, which are a house specialty. The vodka comes from a large bottle of hot peppers, where it becomes infused with the pepper flavors. They also add a quick pull of Guinness to the drink. The garnishes are string cheese, pickle, beef stick (a Wisconsin specialty), pimento-stuffed olives, lemon slice, and lime wedge. In addition, one of my companions brings marinated asparagus and bacon (pre-cooked, of course), which we add to the mix. On the side there is a chaser of Harp, a Canadian beer (which was once made in Ireland, hence its use in an Irish bar).

Bloody Mary, Ashling
Bloody Mary, at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha.

With the first drink having so much to eat in it, I did not require much more, but my companions ordered the “Munich burger”, a passable hamburger, made more German by having sweet German mustard and sauerkraut as the condiments. The sides, German potato salad (a common Wisconsin recipe– not sure how German it is) and potato pancakes (crispy, not the more traditional pancake-y kind) were good.

Munich burger.
Munich burger.


German potato salad.
German potato salad.

I went for something lighter than the full meal: German beer and cheese soup. The bartender gave us a taster, and it was quite good, so I went for the full bowl.

German beer cheese soup.
German beer cheese soup.

The beer was Hofbrau (not sure if it was the German original or made in US under license; there’s a mix of the two in the US, and most brewers with overseas operations try to make it hard to figure out exactly where the beer is coming from), and the cheese a mix of cheddar and Irish (naturally) white cheddar.

We had gotten there early, so the first of two bands, the Brewhaus Polka Kings, was setting up as we finished. The band members were wearing lederhosen. I had thought polka was more Polish than German, but one of my companions reminded me of the popular Liechtensteiner Polka with German lyrics, and Liechtenstein is a German-speaking principality. Perhaps a reader with more knowledge of the popular music of Mitteleuropa could enlighten us.

Evolution 2014: Food

July 29, 2014 • 1:03 pm

by Greg Mayer

As I noted in a previous post, the Evolution meetings this year (a joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists) were in Raleigh, North Carolina. From a culinary point of view, North Carolina is known for its barbecue. There are many different kinds of barbecue, and North Carolina boasts of two different styles: eastern, which uses a vinegar-based sauce, and western, which uses a sweeter tomato-based sauce (the latter being more similar to the sorts of barbecue found widely across the US). I didn’t actually know about the western kind, but was looking forward to the more distinctive eastern vinegar-style.

I asked the bartender at Brewmasters Bar late one night where he would suggest to go for barbecue, and he recommended Clyde Cooper’s, so a day or so later I set off there for lunch with a couple of colleagues. The place was packed, and not just with convention goers, but a significant local clientele. I started with a lemonade

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

and ordered the chopped barbecue sandwich, with fries and Brunswick stew as my sides. I had the cole slaw put on the sandwich (which is the style in Washington, D.C.; I didn’t catch if this is the Raleigh preference, but they did ask if that’s how I wanted it served).

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

The side selection was not quite what I hoped for: my favorite Southern sides are okra and fried pickles, which were not on the menu. One of the colleagues I was lunching with is from from Asheville, NC, so I asked if they made fried pickles in NC and he said yes, they do, and he didn’t know why they were scarce in Raleigh. We did get pork skins and hush puppies.

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

The other barbecue place that I was able to try out (also recommended) was The Pit, a slightly higher class joint a block or two west of downtown, which I visited with two other colleagues for lunch. I ordered the chopped barbecue plate. They did have okra here (top right), but still no fried pickles, so I again got the Brunswick stew (plus hushpuppies).

Barbecue at The Pit, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Barbecue at The Pit, Raleigh, North Carolina.

I enjoyed both places, but I found the barbecue superior at The Pit. Both were quite tasty, eastern NC, vinegar-style barbecue, but The Pit’s had a much better texture– at Clyde Cooper’s it was kind of mushy, while at The Pit the meet had a more shredded texture– like it was pulled off the bone, rather than macerated. The hushpuppies were also superior there. The Brunswick stew was much better at Clyde Cooper’s, though. The Pit is a bit pricier, but only by a couple of dollars.

Some, such as the NC Barbecue Society, claim bbq was invented in NC, but the truth is more interesting. “Barbecue” is from an Arawak (or Taino) Indian word from the West Indies, “barbacoa”, referring to a way of smoking seasoned meat. The meat was placed on wooden racks, called “boucan”, and the Europeans who took up this method were called “boucaniers”. Down on their luck sailors of various nationalities used to hang out on the Ile de la Tortue off the north coast of Hispaniola, and visit the main island to catch or steal Spanish cattle to take back to Tortue for smoking. When the Spanish authorities tried to crack down on them, they took to extending their raiding and defending themselves with bigger ships– hence the origin of the West Indian buccaneers. Their piratical– and culinary– habits spread throughout the New World, for the latter of which we can be thankful.

Pterosaurs take Manhattan

April 11, 2014 • 9:42 am

by Greg Mayer

Last weekend, a new exhibit opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York: “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs“. The New York Times had a piece on the making of the exhibit last week, and today their museum critic, Edward Rothstein, weighs in with his take on the pterosaurs. We’ve had occasion to favorably note Rothstien’s reviews previously here at WEIT, and his conclusion is that the exhibit is well worth seeing.


He writes:

The exhibition is unusually compelling, given its directness and simplicity. In one sense, pterosaurs are quite familiar: Any image of the dinosaur age shows them ruling the skies. But as you work your way through this exhibition, they become confoundingly strange. Walking on wings! A fourth finger for flying! Crests larger than heads!

His review also considers how it is we come to know about the pterosaurs (‘pterosaur epistemology’), the serendipity of fossilization and discovery, and how small clues can be used to build up a more complete picture of the creature, noting, for example  how a small mass of ejected bones (a gastric pellet), which might be overlooked, reveals what pterosaurs ate.

It reminds us of what exists before hypotheses accumulate, and what the paleontologist must accomplish, combining meticulous examination with speculative reconstruction. The pellet presents just a slightly more extreme version of how many pterosaur fossils are found. Some are seen here: jumbles of flattened bones and random filaments, gastric pellets spat out of some geological maw. …

Out of accidents, order takes shape; we see this to be as true of the paleontologist’s enterprise as it is of evolutionary change. The effect is to make us wonder which is more marvelous: the creatures themselves, or the ways they have been recreated?

The accompanying website is chock full of images, videos and information– go have a look. Here’s a nice summary video.

Some aspects of the reconstructions are speculative– we don’t really know what colors their crests were (although we do have evidence for the color of some Mesozoic reptiles). And, surprisingly to me, there is almost nothing about the “hairs”– called “pycnofibers”–  that have been described in a number of pterosaurs. I’ve always thought the suggestion of pterosaurs being haired was very exciting, and, if true, a nice example of convergence, and evidence that pterosaurs were warm-blooded. The only mention I can find on the AMNH site concerns Jeholopterus, a small pterosaur with pycnofibers,  seen in the following gif:

Jeholopterus, a "haired" pterosaur (AMNH).
Jeholopterus, a “haired” pterosaur (AMNH).

Pterosaurs are, of course, reptiles (and not dinosaurs!), and one of the three groups of tetrapods to have evolved true flight (as opposed to gliding, which has evolved many more times). Pterosaurs’ air foil is membranous skin, stretched along an enormously elongated 4th finger; bats, too, have a membranous wing, but it is supported by fingers 2 through 5; birds have a wing of feathers, which project not from elongated finger bones, but from a shortened and fused set of hand/finger bones. These structures are nicely illustrated in the following figure from Steve Gatesy and Kevin Middleton:

Pterosaur (A), bird (B), and bat (C) wings. Gatesy & Middleton, 2007.
Pterosaur (A), bird (B), and bat (C) wings. Gatesy & Middleton, 2007.

Powered flight is thus an excellent example of convergent evolution— the origin of similar structures as adaptations to similar conditions of existence. The wings, because they evolved independently, are said to be analogous (i.e. not derived from a common ancestor possessing wings), as is evident from the different nature of the air foil, and the different modifications of the bones involved in the wings of the three groups– the similarities are superficila nad functional. It also nicely shows the hierarchical nature of homology. The front limbs of bats, birds, and pterosaurs are homologous as limbs (i.e. derived from a common ancestor possessing front limbs), but not as wings. The common structures (humerus, radius, ulna, etc.) are homologous at the level of tetrapods, but the modifications of these structures as wings are separate evolutionary events.

The exhibit is temporary, and will be up through January 4, 2015. Be sure to put it on your list of things to see while in New York; it’s on mine!


Gatesy, S.M. and K.M. Middleton. 2007 Skeletal adaptations for flight. pp. 269-283 in Hall, B.K., ed., Fins into Limbs: Evolution, Development, and Transformation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.