Total Drek

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Monday, April 28, 2008

A Total Drek News Break...

The nation was entertained this past week as creationists of several different stripes were slapped around by a series of scientific revelations. In each instance, the case for evolution has been strengthened and typical creationist canards reduced in strength.

In the first case, researchers have observed lizards evolving in a matter of decades. To provide a brief summary:

Here's the story: in 1971, scientists started an experiment. They took 5 male lizards and 5 female lizards of the species Podarcis sicula from a tiny Adriatic island called Pod Kopiste, 0.09km2, and they placed them on an even tinier island, Pod Mrcaru, 0.03km2, which was also inhabited by another lizard species, Podarcis melisellensis. Then a war broke out, the Croatian War of Independence, which went on and on and meant the little islands were completely neglected for 36 years, and nature took its course. When scientists finally returned to the island and looked around, they discovered that something very interesting had happened.

The original population of P. sicula was still present on Pod Kopiste, so we have a nice control population. These lizards are small, fast, insect-eaters in which the males defend territories.

Sadly, P. melisellensis on Pod Mrcaru had been extirpated. So we had a few innocent casualties of the experiment.

The transplanted P. sicula thrived and swarmed over the island of Pod Mrcaru, but they were different, and they had evolved in multiple ways.

The original P. sicula were insectivores who occasionally munched on a leaf; approximately 4-7% of their diet was vegetation. The P. sicula of Pod Mrcaru, though, had adopted a more vegetarian diet: examining their gut contents revealed that 34% of their diet was plants in the spring, climbing to 61% in the summer…and much of this diet was hard-to-digest stuff, high in cellulose. This is a fairly radical shift.

There were concomitant changes. The lizards' skulls were wider, deeper, and longer, and they had stronger bites — a necessity for chomping off bits of tough plants, instead of soft mosquitos. Instead of chasing bugs, they're browsing stationary plants, and their legs are shorter and they are slower. Population densities are higher. The Pod Mrcaru lizards no longer seem to defend territories, so there have been behavioral changes.

Are these critters still lizards? Absolutely. Are they substantially altered lizards shifting into a new niche? Hell yes. Score one for evolution.

Having secured evidence of recent evolution, scientists secured still more dramatic evidence of the transition of lizards into snakes. Specifically:

A fossil animal locked in Lebanese limestone has been shown to be an extremely precious discovery - a snake with two legs.

Scientists have only a handful of specimens that illustrate the evolutionary narrative that goes from ancient lizard to limbless modern serpent.

Researchers at the European Light Source (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, used intense X-rays to confirm that a creature imprinted on a rock, and with one visible leg, had another appendage buried just under the surface of the slab.

"We were sure he had two legs but it was great to see it, and we hope to find other characteristics that we couldn't see on the other limb," said Alexandra Houssaye from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.

The 85cm-long (33in) creature, known as Eupodophis descouensi, comes from the Late Cretaceous, about 92 million years ago.

Finally, providing evidence of even more distant evolution, researchers announced that the results of tests on proteins discovered in the bones of Tyrannasaurus Rex fossils support the argument that modern birds are derived from dinosaurs:

In contrast, Asara's team had only those seven T. rex protein sequences to work with, and it turned out all of them matched up with modern-day sequences.

"Out of seven total sequences, we had three that matched chicken uniquely," Asara told reporters. "We had another that matched frog uniquely, one that matched newt uniquely, and a couple that matched multiple sequences."

The bottom line was that the T. rex's biological signature was most like a bird's, at least based on the first fragmentary data. "It looks like chicken may be the closest among all species that are present in today's databases for proteins and genomes," Asara said.

One reporter even wondered whether roasted T. rex might have tasted like chicken. "That could be true," said Asara, going along with the joke.

The researchers said they were heartened to see that different sequences matched the unique signatures of more than one species. That "pretty much convinced us this was very unlikely to be due to contamination," Asara said.

Creationist sources could not be reached for comment, although sources suggest that they are already laboring to develop a means of ignoring this evidence. Science groupie Drek the Uninteresting had only this to say: "Suck it, Ham!"

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