Fun With Speciation

Kage Baker was fascinated with the phenomenon of speciation.

She loved the idea that there is a constant (by a fairly slow clock) birth of new species out of old ones. Evolution always struck her as a most elegant system, and one richly possessed of the singular beauty that so struck Charles Darwin.*

She was also intrigued with stories of species-hunters. We both loved those stories:  from the intrepid amateur hunters that combed their home countrysides for differing tribes of voles, to the Indiana Jones-type adventurers like Roy Chapman Andrews, who went through Mongolia hunting dinosaurs with Jeeps and camels and scary amounts of guns.

One of our favourites was Mary Anning, who discovered, recovered and described many species of icthyosaurs and other maritime lifeforms from the beach at Lyme Regis. Being that lowest of intellectual Victorian lifeforms, a woman, she was never published, and in fact her only contemporary legacy was the nursery rhyme “She sells sea shells by the sea-shore.” Which was true, if you mean fossil cephalapods and belemnoids …  this is why ichthyosaurs show up all through the Company series (They do. Check it out.) and why I mentioned her in Nell Gwynne II.

Kage was even more intrigued with the modern version of species hunting. It takes place indoors, in reach of real bathrooms and under modern lighting; all of which appealed to her enormously. Camping was not her forte, unless it was in a campground with running water, an air mattress and a good tall tent. Not a field worker, Kage. But there are so many goodies sent in to natural history museums by the real field workers – the majority of which are lying, barely cataloged or described, in back halls and attics – that a whole new discipline has grown up in researching among them.

Many of these treasures have never even been unpacked. Those that have been were often received before enough was known about their anatomical eccentricities to tell a Platycryptus  undatus from a Salticus scenicus. Whether you study bugs, reptiles or mammals, fossils or living animals, most new species these days are found inside museums. And many graduate students find it much easier, cheaper and more profitable to begin their searches there on home grounds.

That’s where we recently got the olinguito – a South American cutie pie, related to raccoons, whose existence was first deduced from bones and DNA samples  already in storage. Then the enterprising and brilliant discover, Kristopher Helgen, went forth to Ecuador and found the live specimens. Ta-da! Because it’s expensive to head out into the wilds of the world, and you can’t always get the money or the transportation to go check out Laotian meat markets for cryptic rat species.

It was examining existing fossils with new tools that first led to the Brontosaurus getting its name changed to Apatosaurus – to the grief of any dinosaur fan over the age of 10. It was further study with even newer tools that got it changed back to the original species, too. Huzzah! Ditto for successfully sexing a Tyrannosaurus rex, while simultaneously discovering that those dinosaurs formed the same egg-related tissues as modern birds, and that that particular T. rex was, in fact, pregnant when she died.

The same techniques revealed that what were thought to be an enormous variety of Triceratops species, each with collars more frilled and baroque than the next – were all differently aged members of the same species. The collars changed with age. Many species joined into one new species, about which we suddenly knew a hell of a lot more …

Kage loved that sort of treasure hunt. It was really making good use of the gems stored up by previous adventurers, laying them away carefully until someone with new vision, new eyes, new tools could look at them and say: Voila! That’s not a sea shell, it’s the print of an Ediacaran metazoan, and it’s 600 million years old and the oldest animal we’ve ever found!

This is also why she did believe in cryptozoology. And why she did not believe in space aliens. When she wanted to write about UFOs and little grey people, she made them a cryptic species of Homo sapiens and postulated they had always been here.  Also why I am working on a story about blue squirrels.

About which more later, Dear Readers.  For now, just meditate on what’s sharing our world that we know nothing about – Kage thought about it all the time.








*”There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”