Author Archives: Richard Jones

Why fossils shouldn’t really exist

I’m writing a book about ants. It’s still many months from completion. A chapter on ant evolution must mention fossils, so I thought I’d throw this suggestion into the internet maelstrom to see how it should be honed. Or binned.

MIRACLES IN STONE — WHY ARE FOSSILS SO RARE?

Recognizable ants have been around for at least 100 million years. We have exquisitely preserved fossils in amber to prove it. A quick internet search shows that ants preserved in amber are widely available from dealers. I was tempted by several in the £15–£30 price bracket. The ants were all tiny, 2–4 mm, but with low monetary value they were unlikely to be fakes. However I was not temped by the mating ‘queen and drone’ for sale from a US website at $49,500. If memory serves, this is the same item that I came across over 10 years earlier when I was researching ‘the most expensive insect’ (Jones, 2010, Extreme insects, HarperCollins), and which was then on offer for $100,000. No matter how rare such an event might be to get fossilized, this seems to be a fairly arbitrary sum, even if now knocked down by 50%.

But it at least got me thinking.

Dinosaurs have captured the popular imagination, but this las led to some completely silly and imaginary ideas about fossils. Fossils are real, but they are so rare that they do, actually, verge on the mythical. I casually wondered out loud what might be the chances of something getting fossilized. This seemed like quite a straightforward question to me, but I soon found out that nobody was willing to offer up any calculations. Taphonomists (fossil palaeontologists) openly mocked my question, claiming that ‘putting odds on it is impossible’. Having thought about it a bit more I’m tempted to agree with them. Nevertheless, having set the metaphorical ball of fiery curiosity rolling through my brain, I here offer some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Firstly — how many ants have ever been available for fossilization? We have to start with a calculation from over half a century ago, by C.B. Williams (1960, The range and pattern of insect abundance, The American Naturalist, 94: 137-151). Extrapolating from bird counts, insect trapping surveys, log–normal biodiversity indices and world-wide species lists, he estimated 1018 insects on the planet at any given time, of which say 1% were ants; this would give us 1016. Assuming some sort of conformity with modern faunas, and allowing each ant to live 1 year, the last 100 million (108) years would therefore have produced 1016 x 108 = 1024 ant individuals having crawled on planet Earth.

Secondly — how many fossils are known? It turns out that about 750 fossil ant species are described from, say, 10,000 ant fossils. At the final count this does not seem like very much at all. 

Finally — what proportion of fossils have we humans found? Of course humans have only discovered a tiny fraction of the fossils buried in the soil. This is where the calculations and guesswork start to get a bit fanciful. For the sake of argument, I’d suggest that humans have only discovered 0.001% of ant fossils;  this is a figure I admit to having arbitrarily plucked out of the air. I dare somebody to disagree with me.

So, if 10,000 known fossils represents 0.001% of the total, that total number might be 109. This would still give the ratio of all ants to fossil ants at something like 1024 : 109  or in more conventional usage 1015 : 1. These are incomprehensibly small odds.

Given that the chance of winning the UK’s National Lottery is reportedly 4.5 x 107 : 1 (45 million to one), the chances of an ant becoming fossilized are about on a par with the same person winning the lottery two weeks running. Given that 32 million people are reputed to do the lottery each week, my increasingly tenuous grip on mathematics suggests that it might take 613, 278 years for them all to have just a single win. For someone to win twice in a row seems mathematically (and morally) untenable. For an ant to become fossilized must be equally dubious. 

It’s that unknown how-many-more-fossils-are-left-in-the-ground part of the equation that gives me most anxiety. But even if my guesstimate is out by a million-fold (even a billion-fold) the odds are still vanishingly small. Really, in any sensible world, fossils shouldn’t exist — each and every one of them is a tiny miracle of geological chance. Perhaps I was being a bit dismissive of that mating ant pair in amber.

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Matchbox production line

Clearing out the parental home and I come across these almost antique collecting boxes. My dad used to make these out of matchboxes, and I did too. Quality father/son bonding time, it was.

First cut a rectangular hole in the top using a naked ‘safety’ razor blade (a Stanley knife might have been available later). Wooden matchboxes, back in the day, were easier to cut than the cardboard ones. Next glue a cover of clear cellophane over the window using that gaggingly smelly animal glue boiled up in a home-made bain-marie on the gas ring. Finally give it a neat paint job, and a number.

For at least my first decade these were our collecting boxes of choice. They were ideal for the sorts of creatures we were finding — hoverflies, greenbottles, weevils, leaf beetles, longhorns, moths, water boatmen, shieldbugs, grasshoppers and caddis flies. Anything too small could often squeeze out of a gap. Sometimes a large solitary wasp would chew a hole in the corner and escape.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I made the change to glass tubes, and although Dad did too, he often also carried a few of these old boxes in case he found a particularly large water beetle or a big fluffy moth. He’d then make an entry in his field notebook, of the painted number on the back, what he’d found, and where.

During the last 10 years of his life he hardly collected any insects, he spent all his fieldwork hours recording plants. But when I’d visit he’d pull out some of the latest things he had found and was struggling with. They were all small fry — the sort of thing you could only put into a small glass tube, not a loosely fitting matchbox. But he still kept these, along with a few similarly painted tobacco tins of uncertain provenance. Just in case.

Perspective

It’s really important to keep things in perspective. This was brought home to me, forcefully, when I was very young.

It’s not just insects, or wildlife, or even nature that fascinates me. It’s everything about the world — and the universe beyond it. I’m embarrassed to say that it’s dimmed a bit of late, but when I was a boy I was deeply interested in astronomy. I had an Airfix model of a Saturn V rocket, planetary and star charts on the wall, and a map of the moon marked with Apollo and other landings.

I had a few books too — probably something or other by Patrick Moore, a pictorial spotter’s guide to constellations, a pictorial atlas of planets, moons and galaxies, and I remember some sort of history of astronomy.

But it was an astronomy picture book I sent off for, from the back of a Weetabix packet (or it might have been Shreddies) when I was about 10, that caused all the trouble. It haunts me to this day. In it was a diagram showing the life of a typical star, from vague gas cloud to condensed solar orb of the main sequence (like our sun today) to red giant to white dwarf. It was a simple diagram, clear and to the point. It was this that got me all agitated.

Five billion years from now, having used up nearly all of its hydrogen in fusion to create helium, the sun’s mass (currently 2 x 1030 kg) will have reduced to the point where its gravity grows less, the internal pull on its gaseous structure diminishes and it starts to expand in size. As the outer layers glow hotter and redder, it will engulf the orbits of, first Mercury, then Venus, then Earth.

The Earth will be vaporized in five billion years time.

I was beside myself with despair and sat on the bed weeping and wailing my 10-year-old equivalent of “What’s the point of it? We’re all going to die.” It wasn’t so much my own death I was worried about, more the end of civilization as we know it.

My father sat down on the bed to try and console me. He probably tried to explain why it didn’t matter what would happen 5,000,000,000 years from now — further into the future than the Earth is now from its origin. Maybe he made science-fiction predictions about translocating the Earth’s population to extraterrestrial colonies, or perhaps even towing the planet off into deeper space.

I did calm down, and eventually got to sleep that night. But afterwards, each time I surreptitiously glanced at that stellar evolution chart, I had another frisson of anxiety.

So maybe that’s why I spend so much time looking at the tiny things of the world. They take my mind away from some of the larger things.

Wasps — watch this space

First proofs for Wasp are in. These are just a few samples to give a taster.

Watch this space.

 

Make way, the arachno-ambassadors are coming

NOTE: If you’re a journalist and you’ve come across this article researching false widow spiders, there’s a useful fact box at the bottom of the page that will give you all the necessary information you need.

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Five years ago I made mockery of the tabloid media for descending into the realms of garbled fantasy and blinkered ignorance. Schools were being closed because of infestations of false widow spiders and journalists the length of the country were sharpening their ill-honed wits to sell more ill-informed guff to an unwitting public hungry for sensationalist claptrap.

It’s happening again. Despite 5 years of ever-improving scientific knowledge and a resurgent interest in the natural world amongst their teachers and pupils, schools are still being closed because of fears over spiders. Urgh.

This is the cause of all the angst — Steatoda nobilis, a noble creature sadly maligned by being called a ‘false widow’ to give it the sinister connotations of the distantly related black widows. And no, it did not bite me.

It started in London.

This from the Evening Standard.

This from the BBC.

But whose fears are being pandered to? I doubt it’s the pupils. It seems the disconnect between humans and nature is not just a case of children no longer playing in the countryside, it is that adults (in this case some teachers, school governors, education department executives, parents too maybe) are falling victim to ancient prejudices and silly stereotypes, and these are being reinforced by the failings of the usual clamorous tabloid inanity. The sooner Mary Colwell manages to get a GCSE in Natural History established, the better.

Buglife were quick to make their astonishment known by publishing a response that tried to counter the “radical and unnecessary overreaction“.

This is my response, and to help get the message across I recruited the willing helpers of Ivydale Primary School in south-east London.

What’s in the jars? Why spiders of course. Everyone loves spiders.

Not all spiders are dark and sinister bundles of threat and danger. What if they were are prettily coloured as butterflies?

Colouring in the spider also gets across the subliminal message that they have eight legs, mostly eight eyes, and only teeny-tiny jaws.

At the beginning of the lesson some pupils claimed to be frightened of spiders. Well that all changed.

Next up — produce powerpoint presentations on why spiders are our friends. It wasn’t long before they were googling ‘cute spider pictures’ or ‘how many flies does a spider eat in a year?’ or ‘how many species of spider are there?’

Each spider was lovingly handled, like it was a favourite pet. Top tip: supermarket spice jars make the best containers — solid, clear, roomy, familiar.

The head teacher Helen Ingham came in to see how we were getting on. I think she was pleased that none of her pupils had been traumatized, or bitten.

And no complaints from parents, either.

So now the serious part. What did the pupils of Ivydale learn? Here are some important facts:

  1. No spiders are poisonous — they are venomous, that is how they catch their insect prey. Expansion note: Stinging nettles are not poisonous, cook them and they are delicious (taste like spinach), but they are venomous and sting by injecting venom through tiny hollow hairs on the leaves and stems.
  2. Humans are covered in an amazing substance called skin, even in children it is too thick and tough and leathery for most spiders to get their fangs into; spiders have small mouths and just cannot get their jaws open wide enough to give a nip. Expansion note: Imagine you are a spider trying to bite a human finger — it’s like you trying to take a bite out of a big leather football. Skin is also waterproof — try cleaning it with soap in the bath.
  3. Of roughly 670 different species of spider in the British Isles, only about 6 species have fangs long and strong enough to get the venom through. It feels a bit like a bee sting. Expansion note: Imagine you are a school teacher and see bees visiting flowers in the playground; do you close the school because of a dangerous threat? No, obviously not, that would be silly.
  4. Spiders are small, solitary and non-aggressive, they have soft delicate bodies and do not want to get into stand-offs or fights with humans. Expansion note: If you pick up a spider between finger and thumb it might try and fight back by biting. If you pick up a bee or wasp between finger and thumb it will sting you. If you pick me up between finger and thumb I will bite and kick. Children are more likely to be bitten by each other than by spiders.
  5. No school, office, home or indeed any building should be closed because of an ‘infestation’ of spiders. Expansion note: If you are worried about spiders ask to speak to one of Ivydale School’s pupil arachno-ambassadors, they’ll put you straight.

 

Seeing through the caricature

What is this thing doing in Ham House?

Ostensibly it’s a simple stylized tile around one of the fireplaces below stairs at the splendidly handsome 17th century National Trust property Ham House, near Richmond. And despite its wiggly tail and unfeasibly long legs of uncertain number, it is obviously a dragonfly. But what species?

Ordinarily it would not matter, and anyway identification would be impossible, because the artists of most insect-themed antiquarian objets more or less made up the designs based on rather vague patterns that appear to have been copies of copies of copies of imaginary beings.

But this one actually looks like a genuine and obvious insect. The 12-spotted skimmer, Libella pulchella, is a beautiful and distinctive North American dragonfly, with pale blue body and strongly spotted wings.

12-spotted skimmer, image filched from Wikipedia.

Could this really be a North American species that has somehow been morphed through Chinese-influenced Low Countries ceramic tiles to end up in a Home Counties manor house?

Or perhaps I’m imagining things.

Anatomically correct — a challenge is issued

Perhaps there is nothing more smart-arse than the spiteful sci-fi critic piping up from the back of the room “Well, that’s scientifically impossible”. We’ve all done it. But some of us keep doing it, and it’s usually a derisory sneer at an insect drawing along the lines of “Well, that’s not anatomically correct”.

An uncertain number of legs, a hazy knowledge of wing or body morphology and a cavalier disregard for antennal structure are the usual fails. It’s just not good enough.

So here is my challenge. If I can do a passably identifiable image using pancake mix, then I expect anyone else to do at least as good.

Anything less is unacceptable.