Oh to have a reputation.

 

Specifically, a full half-dozen people have sent me links to the same news story, linked herewith: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7104421.stm

 

The obvious thought, when confronted with this, is, “slow news day.” Had the story broken a day later, then the football (1) would have squeezed it out entirely. Like the fossilisation process itself, a news story about fossils (3) must have very specific conditions if it is to endure.

 

So, Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It’s interesting to see how the story is marketed, because the popular news, having inherited news of an ancient sea monster, have no real idea what the significance is. In this case, the pudding is over-egged. We’ve known about eurypterids for a long time, and that they were very large. We’ve known, too, that in general invertebrates were much bigger around the 400-300 million year mark than they are today. The news seems to think that old Jaek is the first herald of a hitherto unknown era of the bug, despite cadging pictures from Walking With Monsters (5).

 

Of course, it’s the fascination with the huge, which is the usual stick that pushes any fossil story onto the world news stage. The largest whatever is newsworthy, despite the fact that the fossil may be vastly less significant than some smaller cousin. For example, a while back they found a cretaceous bee preserved in amber, which raises all manner of interesting questions about the K-T extinction (6), but it didn’t make the headlines.

 

The sea scorpions are a beautiful (8) example of a lost animal. They are some of the earliest arachnids known, and their body-form suggests that they were active, pelagic hunters. Some had claws, others did not. Some could walk on land, and land scorpions seem to have arisen from their lineage, and relatively quickly. Jaekelopterus is the largest, at around eight feet, but other species of man-size were already known. Of course, seagoing animals grow larger than landbound ones, because of the lesser need for physical support, and arthropod gills are more efficient than any terrestrial arthropod breathing apparatus (9).

 

As for the title, the eurypterids are not quite the earliest arachnids in the fossil record, or possibly so. The Burgess Shale is a notable source of Pre-cambrian fossils, some of the earliest large animal fossils discovered, and preserved with their soft parts infact. Amongst the curious, and sometimes hotly debated (10) fauna discovered there is a fearsome monster, very similar to a sea-scorpion in shape but for a ferocious beard of spiny claws. This critter would seem to be an ancestral arthropod, and the tiny great-grand-daddy of the mighty Jaekelopterus. Because archaeologists sometimes have a sense of humour, it was christened Sanctacaris – Santa Claws.

 

And yes, before you ask, sea scorpions in all their glory, and considerably bigger even than Jaek, will be making their appearance at some point in the Empire series. After all, if fact is stranger than fiction, then it is the resulting prerogative of an author to set the balance straight and make fiction even stranger.

 

(1)   Or the lack of football. The news today was full of an absence of football. I am not a follower of the “beautiful game” (2) and I’m afraid that, to me, the only thing duller than football news is a main headline that is basically about there not being football.

(2)   I have no idea how the sport gained this moniker. If pressed, I’d award the nickname to anything other than a sport, and if pressed to award it to a sport, then, well, perhaps skiing is beautiful, or curling, or fencing, but football, for all that it seems to require a fair amount of skill and teamwork and dedication, is surely too energetic and undignified to call “beautiful.”

(3)   That is, fossils that aren’t of enormous dinosaurs or tiny people that get stolen by unscrupulous archaeologists (4)

(4)   And are named, with fantastic inaccuracy but extreme journalistic skill, “hobbits”. One wonders if they found a ring with the poor little bastards.

(5)   Which I did rather enjoy, despite of the griping earlier. Its only failing was the preachiness masquerading as drama.

(6)   The K-T extinction is the one that got the dinosaurs, whether by meteorite, catastrophic vulcanism, excessive junk food or some combination of the three. The question raised by our little bee is this: the bees of the cretaceous are revealed to be extremely similar to modern-day honey bees, as insect designs seem to be peculiarly adaptable and hardwearing throughout the ages (7). It even had pollen sacs on its legs, showing that the bee-flower relationship was already going strong seventy million years ago. Now, modern bees are actually not robust animals, especially where changes of environment are concerned. They are exceptionally highly-strung and sensitive beasties. However, they managed to survive one of the planet’s larger extinction events unscathed, when most theorists are positing immense climatic changes, global winter, global warming, years of darkness and similar biblical events. How did the humble, fragile, flower-dependant bee make it through unscathed, to reach us in our modern age in a near-identical form? We don’t, insofar as I’ve read, know.

(7)   People joke about cockroaches being the great survivors, the only critters likely to walk away from a nuclear explosion and the like. They don’t know the half of it. The cockroaches of the Carboniferous, three hundred million years ago, are close enough to shake antennae and call them cousin. Sharks have changed more.

(8)   To my particular aesthetic. More beautiful than football, anyway.

(9)   Curiously, scorpions and spiders use book lungs, which are not bad as respirators go, whereas insects, the most land-restricted group of arthropods, use spiracles, which are inferior and a real limitation on their size and development. Aside from a more oxygenated atmosphere the only solution to increased activity has been developed by some fairly advanced insects such as wasps, which use their body muscles to force air in and out of their spiracles, turning their entire body into a primitive lung.

(10) Presented in more detail, albeit with fiercely disputed conclusions, in the late Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life.

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