Chickenosaurus lives! But should we really play God with genes?

In what has to be one of the biggest ‘ewwww-factor’ experiments in a while, paleontologists at Yale recently tweaked chicken DNA to give the birds toothed jaws, a bit like Velociraptor. Although there was a lot of work involved in finding out which two DNA strands to tamper with, the process apparently didn’t add anything to the chicken genome – it merely switched off protein-inhibitors that stopped existing genes from working.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

“I used to be a chicken. Now I’m a fake GMO Velociraptor. And I’m MAD!”

The result was dino-jaws instead of a beak. The fact that this could be done has been known since 2011. It’s just – well, the actual doing of it is a bit mad. We don’t know what gene-tampering will produce, and the team who did it were surprised by the extent of the changes they produced – the birds also developed dino-palates.

Still, this is just a lab test. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Uh…yah…

It’s like this folks. Sure, science is cool. We wouldn’t have all the things we enjoy today without it. But sometimes, it goes overboard. And to me, this is one of those moments. OK, we can do it – but should we play God? We don’t actually know the consequences, and it worries me that we might find out the hard way.

I’m not talking horror movies – I doubt we’ll end up with Chickenosaurs lurking in dark corners, waiting to leap out on hapless humans, Jurassic Franchise style. But genetics can so often throw curve balls. What else does that genetic alteration do? We don’t know – and when we push the edges, when we industrialise science we don’t fully understand, bad shit happens, usually out of left field. The words ‘thalidomide’ (‘stops morning sickness’), radium (‘go on, lick the brush before you hand-paint the watch dial’) and one or two other tragic miscalculations spring to mind.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Plus side (a very, very small plus side) is that it looks like some science has come out of the experiment – specifically, how birds developed beaks rather than the toothed jaws of other dinosaurs. But that particular discovery, surely, didn’t need us to make a mutant Dinochicken to nail it home. We already know that birds didn’t ‘evolve from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs; a specialist flying variety, but dinosaurs through and through. Just this year, paleontologists pushed back the likely origin of birds, meaning they lived alongside their cousins for much of the Jurassic and Cretaceous epochs – underscoring the fact that they were simply another variety, rather than descendants, of the dinosaur family.

The compelling picture has long since emerged showing how this all worked. Dinosaurs first emerged during the Triassic epoch. They differed from mammals and lizards, and though initially they were lizard-like (as were mammals – think ‘Synapsids’), dinosaurs developed their own unique form over time. They had pneumatised bones; many appear to have had feathers for insulation and display; they seem to have been warm-blooded; they laid eggs in nests and they slept with their head tucked under one arm. Many were bipedal, their mostly horizontal bodies balanced by long tails; and we know their arms were feathered – becoming wings in the flying variety.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Many dinosaur families, we now think, became progressively more like modern birds in appearance as time went on. By the Cretaceous period, many dinosaur types – certainly to judge by their fossils – couldn’t fly, but they were bipedal, glossy feathered and brightly coloured. Troodonts, for instance. We also think some had wattles, like turkeys. The feathered varieties confirmed so far include many members of the Tyrannosaur family, not all of which were the size of the one we know and love. Fact is that few dinosaurs were huge, and many species underwent a dramatic shrinking during the Cretaceous period.

Were we suddenly cast into a late Cretaceous forest, we’d find ourselves surrounded by dinosaurs – which to our eyes would look like funny (and quite small) ground-living ‘pseudo-birds’ with toothed ‘beak-like’ snouts. Other dinosaurs – recognisable to us as true birds – might also be in evidence. Birds, themselves, are thought to have lost their teeth and developed beaks around 116 million years ago, though some, such as Hesperornis, still had teeth more recently. Early birds, we think, were a bit rubbish at flying.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right taking an SLR selfie while being mobbed by dinosaurs, thanks to the wonders of green screen.

When the K-T extinction event hit the planet 65 million years ago, it seems, flying dinosaurs (as in, birds) managed to survive it. They were then able to radiate out into new environmental niches, left empty by the extinction. On some of the continents, mammals also filled the niches left empty by dinosaurs. But not all.

Offshore islands – such as the New Zealand archipelago – retained their surviving dinosaur biota. And it’s intriguing that the larger New Zealand varieties – such as the moa (Dinornis)– have skeletal features and feather structure usually associated with ‘archaic’ bird fossils. They survived right up into the last millennium – succumbing, finally, when New Zealand became the last large habitable land mass on the planet to be settled by humans. And why did they die out? Alas, to judge by the industrial-scale oven complexes the Polynesian settlers built at river mouths, moa were delicious.

All of this was known well before we tried playing God with chicken genes. OK – the experiment can’t be undone. But do we need to do it again? I think not.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Does what we write define us as writers?

My book Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand was published late last year by David Bateman Ltd. It was my second science-oriented book in a month.

It’s not often that authors are able to publish books in quick succession with major publishers. In point of fact, my schedule included four releases between July 2014 and January 2015, and this is not due to luck. Such results have to be worked for. I sacrificed time that many perhaps take for granted to achieve it. Coal 200 pxCoal remains a particularly important title for me, because it sets out my views on climate change. To me, the deeper ramifications of the themes I explore are vital questions that must be answered if we are to ensure the long-term survival of humanity.

Both my recent science books have provoked some curious comments from the media in New Zealand – ‘how can a historian understand physics’, ‘I thought you were a military historian’ and so forth. As if I were a one-trick pony. A review of my science book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014) in the New Zealand Listener referred to me as a ‘historian’.

I’ve published a lot of history – but if I have to wear a label of any kind, the word is ‘writer’. I write on things that interest me – and, for a long time, that was history. But it’s not an exclusive interest. I always regard my home field as the sciences, particularly physics, with which I was brought up and where, aged 15, I won a regional science prize for my interpretation of Einstein’s physics as it applied to black holes. I was taught, at post-graduate level, by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who defined the philosophy of modern scientific method – and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don’t validate myself as ‘an historian’, still less by imagined ‘status’ in a particular topic. I just do stuff that involves thinking, and which carries my enthusiasm and allows me to express my thoughts on the human condition. To me there is no challenge or reward in repeatedly going over a single topic. And that’s true for all things we might write about. That doesn’t mean falling into the Kruger-Dunning trap – the supposition that a subject is ‘easy’. You know – ‘History – it’s just collecting data. How hard can it be?’ Quite.

The challenge is achieving an understanding of topic before venturing forth. It also means also accepting, given my experience with military history, that public-funded bullies probably exist in every field, and we have to accept their tactics as part of the human condition. Where next? Well, my next writing project has involved me sitting down and doing a lot of math, purely to make sure I got the background details accurate.

The term you want isn’t ‘geek’. It’s ‘intellectual badass’. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Summer writing inspirations – Monarch caterpillars

A swan plant in the back garden is filled with Monarch caterpillars. Eventually they’ll eat their fill, chrysalise, and turn into butterflies – all irrespective of the human society around them and all its drama and stupidities. It’s an inspiring thought.

A photo I took of a Monarch caterpillar on a swan plant.

A photo I took of a Monarch caterpillar on a swan plant.

Taking a photo wasn’t easy. The plant was moving in the wind and the target miniscule, fooling the 11-point auto-focus system on my SLR. In the end I switched it off and focused manually.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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What happens when somebody does something stupid to the environment

I thought I’d share a photo I took a little while ago as an object lesson in what happens when somebody does something stupid with the environment.

Coastal erosion near Clifton, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.

Coastal erosion near Clifton, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

This is a was-a-road on the coast south of Napier, in New Zealand. It’s at the edge of an alluvial plain. Last time I saw this road – just a few years ago – it existed. Now it doesn’t. I am told that reasons for this erosion flow in part from the way a harbour breakwater construction, some distance to the north, interacted with longshore drift. That has been an issue for decades. But stormier weather patterns brought on by global climate change aren’t helping. New Zealand’s off the beaten track, usually. But to me, irrespective, this highlights climate change as a world problem, right in our back yard. It’s not a single-cause problem, it exacerbates old issues, and it’s going to create new ones. It might be in your back yard tomorrow.

We need to do something about climate change – all humanity, all around the world, working together with kindness, tolerance, reason, abstract understanding, good will to each other, and earnest endeavour as we should. Are we? Uh…no… Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Canterbury quakes a reminder of the coming Alpine Apocalypse

This morning’s severe earthquake in Canterbury – initially thought to be magnitude 6.4 but since revised to magnitude 6.0 – centred 30 km west of Arthur’s Pass – is a reminder that these things are constantly with us in New Zealand.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxYou can’t expect anything else, living on the edge of the Pacific Rim of Fire. Some 635 fault lines have been discovered in New Zealand, and few parts of the country are far from them. The expected ‘big one’ in the South Island will be magnitude 8+ from the Alpine fault, which last experienced a shift of that scale in 1717.

Scientific studies show that the likely results will be devastating to a large area of the South Island, wrecking major towns and centres, causing widespread destruction to landscapes with their road, power and rail links. There is a possibility the West Coast might be cut off for weeks or months, just when aid is needed, along with tne potential for power grid disruptions affecting the whole country. Devastation could stretch into the southern North Island, engulfing Wellington which sits at the northern end of the fault, on a fault complex of its own.

Yeah. Ouch.  Just when this apocalypse might hit – needless to say – has attracted a good deal of attention. I detailed the story in my book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014).

Earthquake forecasting is actually a precise science, though popularly it perhaps seems less so. The problem is that we’re brought up to expect specific information – exact numbers and times. These simply can’t be predicted, because the nature of the forces driving the quakes cannot be perfectly measured. That’s the nature of it, but seismology can go a very long way towards detailing the risks and probabilities. Mathematical techniques such as ‘Bayesian regression’, for example – a way of handling partial data and producing useful forecasts – are applied to the available data.

Demolition under way.

Demolition under way in Christchurch after the 2010-11 quakes.

The chance of something happening at either edge of the probability range isn’t impossible, just unlikely. But unlikely events still occur, and seismologists are not wrong when one does. On the contrary, their forecasts very clearly include such possibilities.

In 2012, studies of the Alpine Fault and its movement history over the previous 8000 years revealed that – on the basis of its past movements – there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on it, some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (a low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (a high probability), on to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

A further study, published in 2014, added dimension to that analysis, and I can’t help thinking that yesterday’s earthquake is another reminder. There have, of course, already been major civil defence exercises based on the possibility of a devastating Alpine fault quake. The onus, for all that, remains on everybody, personally and individually, to be prepared and to have plans – all of which is detailed by Civil Defence.

And also, of course, the onus is on to check out my book on quakes…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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How to stoke your Kindle with “Coal”

I’m delighted to announce that my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman 2014) – which was released in print a few months ago – has also been published internationally through Kindle.

Coal is an irreplaceable resource, formed over millions of years, yet humanity has been burning it as if there is no tomorrow. Today it’s responsible for 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We stand at a cross-roads; and the story of coal – of which the New Zealand side is a microcosm and case-study – plays a large part in the journey.

Reviews of the print edition so far have been excellent:

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark” – Robin Hughes, NZ Booksellers, 13 October 2014.

a fascinating read, and it is such a good way of understanding NZ history” – “The Library”, 15 October 2014.

…mines a rich seam of interesting content on many things relative to coal…” – Ted Fox, Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2014.

And so, without further ado – welcome to the Kindle edition:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Did T-Rex really have feathers and taste of chicken?

Think dinosaurs and the first thing most of us imagine is a large two-legged carnivore with 15-cm teeth, power-shovel jaws and dinky forelimbs. A beast of prey that spent most of the Upper Cretaceous going ‘raaargh’ and having absolutely anything it wanted for breakfast.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes the Great White look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f3.5. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

It was thanks to those jaws and 6-metre body that Tyrannosaurus Rex – named such in 1905, over a decade after the first fossils were discovered – was captured by popular imagination well before it became the surprise anti-hero in Jurassic Park.

Never mind the fact that – if we DID meet one, Lost World-style, a bullet or two would turn the hungriest T-Rex into T-Rug. Still, the point that humans are Earth’s all-time apex predator didn’t stop T-Rex speaking to nineteenth and early twentieth century concepts of animal machismo. It was still one of the most dangerous animals to walk this planet. And that made it scary to imagine a meeting. Especially for someone not equipped with a Remington Model 700 BDL. Or running shoes.

Part of the magic came about because Tyrannosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. And that remove in time has given them mythic status. We know them only through bones. Our imagination fills the gaps. And that’s why we keep re-inventing them, even as science and new discoveries, together, unravel an increasingly clear picture of what they were like.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Note the feathery coat. I took this hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. Yes, that’s a third of a second. I held my breath…

Let me explain. To nineteenth and early twentieth century science, dinosaurs were scaly, lumbering, tail-dragging reptiles of which the most ferocious – and certainly the hungriest – was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That name, ‘King of the tyrant lizards’, said it all.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus - complete with Iguanodon's thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Classic Victorian-age thinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus – complete with Iguanodon’s thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The image came out of nineteenth century ideas of ‘progression’ and the ‘tree of life’ (a pre-Darwinian notion) which helped shape popular concepts of evolution as directional ‘advance’ from reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals, each ‘superior’ to the last and thus dooming its dull-witted predecessor to extinction. It was a mind set that took decades to shake – hence the dispute in the 1980s over whether dinosaurs generated internal heat endothermically, like mammals and birds, as asserted by Robert Bakker.

The actual answer, of course, was staring us in the face all along – and Bakker was right, though it wasn’t until the early twenty-first century that enough fossil evidence had been collected to convince the whole scientific community.

Dilong Paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

Dilong paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

We’d known for a while that birds were related to dinosaurs – specifically, theropods, which is the same dinosaur group T-Rex hails from. But the truth didn’t emerge until the early 1990s when increasing numbers of fossils were found in China with clear feather impressions. All, initially, were theropods – the bird ancestors and cousins. But then, earlier this year, a dinosaur species not associated with the bird descent line was found to be also feathered.

Dilong Paradoxus - a reconstructed model. With feathers...

Dilong paradoxus – a reconstructed model. With feathers…

The old idea of dinosaurs as reptiles had already been under fire. And suddenly the truth became obvious. They weren’t reptiles at all. Dinosaurs, like birds, were feathered. Not for flight, mostly, but for insulation – and, doubtless, display. Not only that, but we already knew dinosaurs all had the same skull structure as birds, the same specific skeletal features including pneumatised bones – and half the dinosaurs were, in fact, bird-hipped. They laid eggs in nests. And if it looks like a bird and tastes like a bird… Well, the reality is that birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs. We’ve even discovered the genes inside the chicken genome that atavistically give chickens dino-jaws with teeth, instead of a beak.

The fact that birds are surviving dinosaurs resolves a lot of questions. Want to know how dinosaurs lived? Look out the window at sparrows. Want to know if they were endothermic? Stick a thermometer in a chicken’s – er, well, anyway, you get the idea.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

Think Velociraptors were like the ones portrayed in Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a human….and looked like this… And NO, it is NOT going to get its temperature taken, thank you.

As for our King of the Tyrant Lizards? Well, it turns out that T-Rex was among the last of a long family of Tyrannosaurs, not all of which were quite as big and ferocious as the Big Guy. They all had feathers – not for flight, but for insulation. They all laid eggs. They were all bipedal. And their tails didn’t drag – tendons kept them agile. If you met one, you might think it was a funny looking bird. One that wanted you for lunch.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Here’s the diorama – Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, Gallus gallus domesticus. You don’t think I’m the ONLY one to make chicken jokes when discussing dinosaurs, do you?

Of course the world of the dinosaurs is long gone – not because they were doomed to be out-evolved, but because their environment changed, literally with a bang. And that comet-driven extinction, 65 million years ago, didn’t just kill dinosaurs. It killed just about everything. Of the dinosaurs, only flying examples – the birds – survived.

All this was brought home for me, graphically and with a lot of special effects, when I went to check out an interactive exhibition in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s National Museum. It’s where the first Iguanadon bone ever found is held – it was brought to New Zealand in the 1840s by Walter Mantell, son of the discoverer – and it’s where I took these photos. And if you want to see me personally dodging Tyrannosaurs and see others prancing along the Wellington waterfront – well, I took some photos…

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014