Thursday, December 25, 2014

Darwin's Voyage Captured In Sketches And Watercolors

A nice article in the Guardian tells the story of Conrad Martens, an artist who accompanied Darwin for the first few years of his voyage to South America and beyond. Martens sketches and watercolors helped capture not just the lives of local people, landscapes and seascapes but shipboard and other research activity of crew and of Charles Darwin.

Now all this material has been put together in a digital archive accessible via the Cambridge University Library.

 Darwin's Christmas of 1833 with Martens drawing the activities seemed like fun times aboard the Beagle:

“After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. – The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. – These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. – certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can.”

Its a a treat to go online and peruse through one of history's most epic voyages!

...Meanwhile  FINALLY! .. I  am in possession and eager to start Darwin- Life Of  A Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I have heard and read so much about the book that I  am now afraid that I might be disappointed. Unlikely, since Darwin's life, work and times are a fascinating topic with many many treasures to mine.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Post Permian Mass Extinction Size Reduction In Glossopteris Plant Lineages

Mass extinctions prune away branches of the tree of life. The late Permian-Triassic mass extinction event affected marine and terrestrial animal life severely, perhaps more than it affected terrestrial plant life. One common observation is that survivor species tend to be smaller bodied representatives of groups. This is known as the Lilliput effect.

A lot of attention has been paid to evolutionary trends in size during and post mass extinction in various animal groups. An interesting paper in Current Science (open access)  documents the Lilliput effect in one of the iconic terrestrial plant groups  of Late Permian -Early Triassic times; the seed fern Glossopteris.

From the paper:

Modern day high-resolution regional palaeoecological studies have proved the myth wrong, which stated that the mass extinction event had little macroecological or evolutionary consequence for terrestrial plants The early Triassic (Panchet Formation) in India witnessed more arid or semi-arid climate in comparison to the Permian. The early Triassic experienced greenhouse conditions with a warmer phase (Figure 6) due to global rise of temperature coupled with episodes of intense volcanism. The reduced size of the lamina is one of the strategies adapted by the plants during the adverse condition in early Triassic when there was indeed a shortage of essential nutrients in the soil, in addition to seasonal dry climate, irregular rainfall and widespread aridity. The leaves possessed cuticles with sunken stomata since the atmosphere during the early Triassic had higher levels of CO2 and lower O2levels (Figure 7). The Glossopteris flora of late Permian was adapted to temperate, cool and moist environments. The phenomenon of dwarfism as evidenced in Glossopteris has been observed only up to th e early Triassic, which is represented by the Panchet Formation. During the middle to late Triassic, typical Dicroidium flora associated with Lepidopteris takes over the preceding Glossopteris flora.

Records of plant fossils substantiate the evidence that numerous physiological, reproductive and behavioural traits enabled the smaller sized plant species to persist in extreme climatic conditions.

I didn't know there was a myth that mass extinctions have little macro-ecological or evolutionary consequences for terrestrial plants. Although, I do get the impression that studies of plant evolution get less attention in the media than animal evolution.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Report: Global Shale Gas Development And Water Availability

This is something that I have written about before in the context of shale gas development from Indian sedimentary basins. The availability of fresh water might set up conflicts with agriculture demands and limit exploitation of shale gas.

A report by the World Resources Institute on the global situation points out the same problem elsewhere in many areas of the world.

38 percent of shale resources are in areas that are either arid or under high to extremely high levels of water stress

19 percent are in areas of high or extremely high seasonal variability; and

15 percent are in locations exposed to high or extremely high drought severity.

Furthermore, 386 million people live on the land over these shale plays, and in 40 percent of the shale plays, irrigated agriculture is the largest water user. Thus drilling and hydraulic fracturing often compete with other demands for freshwater, which can result in conflicts with other water users. This is particularly true in areas of high baseline water stress, where over 40 percent of the available water supplies are already being withdrawn for agricultural, municipal, or industrial purposes.

China, Mexico, South Africa and India all have sedimentary basins with shale gas potential located in areas of high water stress i.e. extraction of either surface water and/or groundwater exceeds natural replenishment.

WRI Full Report On Shale Gas and Water Availability
WRI Executive Summary On Shale Gas and Water Availability

The report relies on EIA estimates of technically recoverable shale gas and tight oil. These numbers may be subject to revision as more detailed studies are taken up in sedimentary basins in India and other countries as well.

India is still some way away from exploitation of shale gas. It faces many other problems besides availability of water. This earlier post summarizes these issues.