Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I'll say it again: the paucity of good mainstream science journalism is more than regrettable. Science blogs represent the best source for intelligent assessment of science news, but sorting the good ones from the bad can be a trick. So I was pleased to serve as a judge for the latest Open Laboratory, a compendium of the best science blogging of 2009. It's now available in print for $14.50 or as a pdf download for $7.50.


Few species have been featured on this blog more than California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus). There is no better school for conservation than the struggle over the past few decades to find a way to support these birds on a continent that no longer harbors much of a home for them. The recent trend has been a hopeful one; from a mere 22 individuals in the early '80s, a concerted management program has lifted the tally to nearly 350, over half of which live free in a sort of 3/4-wild state.

Some bad news arrived yesterday, of the recent deaths of three members of the Arizona population. All three had succumbed to lead poisoning, a persistent plague in the region. The entire population was trapped and subjected to chelation therapy a few years ago, but obviously, more needs to be done. The Arizona and Utah Departments of Fish & Wildlife are stepping up efforts to change the habits of local hunters, including handing out coupons for free non-toxic ammunition.
illustration: CALIFORNIA CONDOR (2008) acrylic 30" x 20"

Thursday, February 18, 2010


One of my perennially favorite themes is the taking of outsize quarry by predatory birds. I was recently alerted to a couple of nice documentations, the first describing an apparent case of a Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perpicillata) preying on a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus) that had come to the ground to defecate. Spectacled Owls are common through most of tropical America, although I've never found a nest nor handled one in captivity and have little knowledge of their behavior. They're medium-sized forest owls that I've always assumed subsisted mostly on lizards, arthropods and mouse-sized mammals. A grounded three-toed sloth is hardly an imposing foe (unlike its rather distant cousins the two-toed sloths), but the taking of anything that big by a Spectacled is quite surprising to me.

Our second link documents an attemped predation on a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) by a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), featuring some great shots accompanied by somewhat less great commentary, said to have been taken in Illiniois, of all places. While this behavior isn't typical, it's far from unheard of. It can't be denied that Golden Eagles are very powerful and effective predators. I have spent many hours watching wild Golden Eagles and have watched them hunt many different types of quarry. Some day I hope to witness something like this in person.While on the subject of large prey, I received an email yesterday with a series of photographs showing a Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) swallowing what appears to be a dull-colored Gould's Monitor (Varanus gouldii). The email identified the location as Cloudbreak, Arizona, although it's clearly Australia. These photos may not be new, but they were of special interest to me, since they illustrate a situation similar to the one I painted in 1994 for the cover of Brian Kend's Pythons of Australia. My painting was criticized for showing the snake applying its belly to the prey instead the sides of its body. Some of the photographs, like the one in the upper left, clearly show the python using its sides, while in others the belly is against the prey. The entire photo series appears to show the process at a later stage than my painting (the prey seems to have already been killed in the former), but hope remains that Kend's book cover may actually be somewhat accurate.
upper: SPECTACLED OWL (2009) acrylic 10" x 8"

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I was asked the other day about the veracity of the cover of my book, Rigor Vitae. The painting (above) shows a trio of African Softshell Turtles (Trionyx triunguis) startled from their perch atop the back of a Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) that appears to be lurching in a threatening way towards an unknown target. So how representative of reality is this painting?

I can best answer this question be retracing my thinking in its conception. The adjectives that spring to mind when I think of softshell turtles are: active, fast, graceful, and above all, intelligent (as turtles go). The species T. triunguis is one of the smartest of the bunch; observations in both wild and captive specimens have shown they can spend over half their waking time engaged in play behavior. Even though this consists of underwater, hunting-related exercises, the knowledge inspired me to approach the piece with an air of whimsy.

In my work, I nearly always try to deal with truths of natural history, but different truths call for different approaches. More often than not, the approach is a direct sort of story-telling that's not difficult to understand. When I invent a situation I've never seen nor heard of, biological credibility is an important consideration. The initial idea of this painting, African Softshells basking on a Hippo, is just such a situation, and the placing of my protagonists on that platform was done with a clear conscience. Although they spend a great deal of time basking, I don't feel that this static activity defines softshells' essence well at all. The painting called for fury and for speed, so I set the whole thing in motion, in that instant of my initial basking concept's irrevocable replacement with an absent hippo and the turtles returned to their brisk native depths. Caught in midair, the main subject's placement strains the limits of credibility, especially considering the fact he'd be more likely to favor a quick downward slide. In placing him, I tried to find the highest conceivable point such a reptile could reach if all factors of friction and inertia could be favorably aligned. The entire composition is built around enforcing the painting's movement: the surface ripples, the Papyrus stems, the flock of St. Helena Waxbills, and a mysterious arc of water all cooperate in a scene theoretically possible, yet so unlikely as to disqualify it as an illustration of animal behavior. But is it a betrayal of my “natural history truth” objective? I answer with a firm “No.” Exaggerated, contrived and skewed, I could never create a painting containing more truth about African Softshells.

Anthropomorphism is a present danger whenever engaging in such exaggeration. My rule of thumb is to take care when when comparing a non-human's behavior to my own, but when the situation is reversed to throw caution to the wind. Emotions and instincts are identical in some cases, analogous in the rest, and indulging instincts accords a certain satisfaction. In Call of the Monsoon (above), a Couch's Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii) rises from subterranean summertime torpor to feed and breed in the monsoon moisture. Again, the subject's position here is anatomically possible, yet not typical, even a bit exaggerated: a bit like a purring cat. The intent is to stretch the immediate truth a bit to express a greater truth than a photographic representation could, without falling into the mire of anthropomorphism.
upper: HIPPOPOTAMUS & NILE SOFTSHELL TURTLES (1995) acrylic 20" x 30"
lower: CALL OF THE MONSOON--COUCH'S SPADEFOOT (1996) acrylic 18" x 12"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


WHO PUT THE "GATE" IN THE CLIMATEGATE?Memories of the Copenhagen climate summit have dissipated with the contrails of the jets carrying the delegates back home, but the public discourse continues. For now we put the important talk on hold in favor of a silly strawman: the debate over climatological data. Special thanks to my right-wing pals D, J and S for keeping me abreast of the latest articles, blog posts and email forwards making the case that the evidence showing a general anthropogenic warming of the earth over the past 50 years is a hoax, disingenuously cobbled together by various entities of bad intent. Over the past year, I've studied their arguments, and regret to report that it's pretty weak stuff, misunderstanding the research at best, but more often intentionally misrepresenting it to support the preconceived resolution that the earth's climate is not warming, and even if it was, it wasn't caused by humans, and even if it was, it would make things better, not worse. I have a few arguments with the major voices on the other side, too, and will voice those in future posts, but for now, let's ask how we can get past this argument and why we haven't yet.

Any discussion of climate change has policy implications, and it's only natural for one's political desires to color one's sight. Also, climatology is a difficult science to understand, involving lots of sophisticated statistics, and understanding it takes some work. Most science is sort of like looking at a yard through a picket fence; you can get a fairly good idea of what's back there, but you have to make some assumptions about what you can't see, some of which will likely be wrong. Looking through a single gap will yield a false impression. It can be tempting to consider each gap, seeking the one that best represents your assumptions about the yard, but that's a sure recipe for self-delusion. Only by taking them all into consideration will you approach a true understanding. Last, the sad paucity of good science journalism makes it extremely hard for us layfolks to keep up. I keep waiting for Science or Nature or even the Journal of Applied Meteorology to turn up on the racks at the local Barnes & Noble, to no avail. Peer-reviewed science journals, like Medieval bibles, are not meant for proletariat eyes.

As an example of mainstream science journalism at its worst, I offer a tidbit from last Sunday's Daily Mail, the UK's 2nd most widely-read daily paper. It describes a BBC interview with Phil Jones, the director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU), the group whose emails were hacked and made public on the eve of the international climate summit in Copenhagen. For those interested in wading through them, the emails can be accessed here. The evidence in these emails has been heralded as a “smoking gun,” proving the following wrongdoing by CRU researchers:

1. Attempting to bar research conflicting with their own from peer-reviewed journals.
2. Hiding incriminating evidence.
3. Manipulating data showing a cooling trend to make that trend disappear.

Without going into depth, I'll just say that #1 was clearly discussed, although there's no evidence any action was ever taken. The evidence for #2 looks fairly damning—exactly what was deleted and what, if any, rules were broken remains unclear, at least to me. Jones says it was done out of frustration with a deluge of FOI requests that were impeding the actual work of the laboratory. The evidence for #3 is extremely weak, and can be interpreted in many ways. Overall, “Climategate,” as it's been dubbed, falls far short of discrediting any of the CRU's work, much less climatology in general.

I hope you can take the time to read the Daily Mail article along with the original interview it claims to describe.

While the Daily Mail headline states that Dr. Jones “admits there has been no global warming since 1995,” what he clearly says is that the data for that period are insufficient to make statistical sense of. Imagine a white wall with three small chips in its paint. Two chips show blue paint underneath, one shows red paint. Your data suggest that more of the wall is blue than red, but you have no idea what the true ratio is. This is the climatologist's dilemma. The CRU data appear to suggest a small warming trend from 1995 to the present and a small cooling trend from 2002 to the present, but they have no idea what color that wall is. (Data from other groups, such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, show slightly higher temperatures, but are still statistically insignificant when isolated). The Daily Mail article also misrepresents Jones' statements about the “Medieval Warming Period” as well as incorrectly suggesting that the CRU's surface temperature data were used to assemble the paleoclimatic model represented in the famous IPCC “hockey-stick graph.”

It's hard to attribute the libelous errors in this article to a writer's inability to understand his subject. This isn't journalism, it isn't opinion. It's propaganda intended not to enlighten but to deceive. It's disheartening to see more and more of this from mainstream news organizations, and to realize that more eyes will read the bogus Daily Mail story than the interview it misrepresents. Climatologists simply try to understand the systems they study; it's plain to see from which side the real climatology hoax is perpetrated.
illustration: LESSER FLAMINGOS (2005) oil on canvas 72" x 96"

Friday, February 12, 2010


At a party a couple of weeks back, I got into a discussion with an “evolution skeptic,” who trotted out that aggravating old line that evolution was only a “theory.” He, it seemed, was holding out for the day that the theory would be passed into “law.” This inspired me to offer a humble birthday present to good old Charles Darwin on his 201st birthday: A very quick, very unsophisticated primer on the difference between theory and a law. A law is basically an observation of nature, and a theory explains an observation. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation described the force of gravity, and his Theory of Gravitation, which has largely been superseded by Einsteins Theory of General Relativity, attempted to explain it. In this manner, the Law of Evolution could be stated that organisms change morphologically over time. Darwin's Theory of Mutation and Natural Selection explains the mechanics of that change. Theories don't become laws, they modify them. Class dismissed.

Illustrating this post is a new painting of a Red-bellied Paradise Kingfisher (Tanysiptera nympha), one of six members of a New Guinean complex of streamer-tailed forest birds. It was in this region that Alfred Russell Wallace saw such simple island speciation and began to understand how it worked, just as speciation on the Galapagos awakened Darwin to the same ideas.
illustration: RED-BELLIED PARADISE KINGFISHER (2010) acrylic on clay board 10" x 8"