Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Content notes for "Rolling Darwin's Dice"

These are the content notes for "Rolling Darwin's Dice."

See Stylet's snack tray and read about how to make a good meat-and-cheese board. You can also make your own Fruity Green Tea Energy Drink. He's staying in a vacation cottage, so it's easy to order food deliveries.

In the spring semester of 2014, Stylet takes the course Science Fiction for Scientists, both the lecture (about the science fiction canon) and the lab (about how to write science fiction using scientific discoveries as inspiration) sections. He stands out from most of the other students because he's older and therefore already a master of his field, rather than learning it for the first time. It's the bioethics that is new to him, not the biology. So the teacher taps him to lead a special project for the more advanced students who are knocking off the regular assignments at warp speed, then getting bored and making trouble.

Inspired by a class reading of "The Greatest Dying," Stylet designs a series of assignments around the "Big Five" extinction events, with a surprise sixth to be added representing the Paleogene-Anthropocene extinction currently underway. These were the Ordovician–Silurian extinction events, Late Devonian extinction event, Permian–Triassic extinction event, Triassic–Jurassic extinction event, and Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
For each event, students first list the major extinctions and survivors. The dominant survivors in Terramagne's timeline cannot be dominant in the fictional timeline, although remnant populations are allowed. Instead, students choose new dominant survivors from species that went extinct in Terramagne. Those that survived by luck are free to include, but those whose demise is believed to come from failure to adapt to changes must be justified in some way. At least one survivor from Terramagne's timeline must have gone extinct.
Next, students make descriptions including a detailed keystone creature type, three thumbnails of other important creatures, and an overview of what survived or didn't in their timeline and why. This includes at least one relationship between the featured creatures, and in later assignments, a reference to what happens to a previously featured creature. Students write a creative work of 500-1000 words featuring this timeline and/or its inhabitants. Additional species, works, and other content may be included for extra-extra credit. Once Stylet grades the papers for assignment relevance, he hands them to Professor Couvier for grading the scientific accuracy and literary merit, and a copy goes to the art student group for illustration.
The project begins mid-January and the O-S assignment on interspecies cooperation is due at the end of January. The LD assignment on an unexpected dominant species is due in mid-February and the P-T assignment on a nonviolent takeover at the end of February. The T-J assignment on a remnant Terramagne-type creature popping up in a different role is due in mid-March and the C-P assignment on symbiotes is due at the end of March. The surprise P-A assignment is due in mid-April, consisting of a sapient species, two keystone species (one plant and one animal), and four thumbnail species. After that, students have until the final exam to turn in a creative work of 1000-5000 words featuring their sapient species.

Dinosaur Fantastic
by Mike Resnick (Editor / Contributor) and Martin H. Greenberg (editor)
"The Greatest Dying" by Frank M. Robinson

The "Big Five" are the largest and best-documented extinctions, some individual and some comprising a cluster of related events.
1. Ordovician–Silurian extinction events (End Ordovician or O–S): 450–440 Ma (million years ago) at the Ordovician–Silurian transition. Two events occurred that killed off 27% of all families, 57% of all genera and 60% to 70% of all species. Together they are ranked by many scientists as the second largest of the five major extinctions in Earth's history in terms of percentage of genera that became extinct.
2. Late Devonian extinction: 375–360 Ma near the Devonian–Carboniferous transition. At the end of the Frasnian Age in the later part(s) of the Devonian Period, a prolonged series of extinctions eliminated about 19% of all families, 50% of all genera and at least 70% of all species.
3. Permian–Triassic extinction event (End Permian): 252 Ma at the Permian–Triassic transition. Earth's largest extinction killed 57% of all families, 83% of all genera and 90% to 96% of all species[8] (53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species, including insects). The highly successful marine arthropod, the trilobite, became extinct. The "Great Dying" had enormous evolutionary significance: on land, it ended the primacy of mammal-like reptiles.
4. Triassic–Jurassic extinction event (End Triassic): 201.3 Ma at the Triassic–Jurassic transition. About 23% of all families, 48% of all genera (20% of marine families and 55% of marine genera) and 70% to 75% of all species became extinct.
5. Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (End Cretaceous, K–Pg extinction, or formerly K–T extinction): 66 Ma at the Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) – Paleogene (Danian) transition interval. About 17% of all families, 50% of all genera and 75% of all species became extinct. In the seas all the ammonites, plesiosaurs and mosasaurs disappeared and the percentage of sessile animals (those unable to move about) was reduced to about 33%. All non-avian dinosaurs became extinct during that time. Mammals and birds, the latter descended from theropod dinosaurs, emerged as dominant large land animals.

This common reckoning leaves out two big events. The first, we know so little about that people forget it even happened, but we have fragmentary evidence proving it: life first emerged in a reducing atmosphere and farted so much oxygen that almost everything died. Only a few anaerobes remain in obscure niches. Everything else descends from whatever ancestor figured out how to create a whole new biochemistry -- aerobic life. The latest is the Anthropocene extinction underway now, with humans having wiped out 83% of wild mammals and 50% of plants. Just in case you thought calling this a mass extinction was exaggerated, the rate is 100 times to 1000 times that of previous examples (presumably excluding the Great Oxygenation Event).  Note that it follows the trend of megafauna dying off first.  However, there are two other very alarming factors: we're losing species that were formerly abundant, and losing generalists.  Those are normally the least  likely to go extinct.  When you see those species -- rather than scarce or highly specialized ones, who are vulnerable -- failing, you know the situation is really dire.

Florent's assignment featured the following extrapolations.

Dominant survivor:
* Bryozoans. Instead of being hard-hit, members of this phylum used their colonial nature to adapt to challenges via zooids with specialized attacks or defenses in response to new hazards -- similar to social insects with a caste system. Several genera moved onto land and built armored colonies. One genus even developed several species that could move their colony to a new location at need.

Other important survivors:
* Because the bryozoans were adapting so well, conodonts latched onto this rich food source, sawing into the colonies with their formidable teeth. One genus followed the terrestrial bryozoans out of the water, represented by the featured species Cryptotaxis bunyanii (named for Paul Bunyan).
* Some genra of graptolites turned into parasites, each genus targeting a different type of host. By attaching to a mobile animal, the graptolites could travel without effort -- scattering larvae all the way -- until the thriving colony killed its host and usually perished soon after. However, one genus developed the ability to form a secondary, sessile colony if it landed in a favorable location. Another learned to switch from one host to another, rather like a hermit crab changing shells. A third genus used neotony, its larvae preying on bivalves and then maturing into a brief adult phase to reproduce. They were so successful that they killed off the bivalves and then died out themselves for lack of hosts.
* One species of trilobite developed a secondary respiratory system, allowing them to breathe either water or air, a crucial advantage in the often anoxic environment of the time.

* Bivalves died out.
* They were quickly followed by their graptolite parasites.

Bivalves, bryozoans, conodonts, trilobites, and graptolites were among the most affected by the Ordovician–Silurian extinction.

Neoteny describes a variety of situations where an organism delays maturity and/or retains juvenile traits into adulthood. In this case, the larval form of graptolites was better equipped to parasitize bivales, so that become the majority of the lifespan, with a brief maturity used only for breeding.

See a cute reconstruction of Anomalocaris canadensis. It may have used its spiked mouthparts to stun and slash prey, much like a sawfish. Stylet has a T-shirt of various Anomalocaris.

Indoor composting may be done in various ways, one of which is vermicomposting. Standard advice says not to compost dairy products, but they break down just fine. You simply need to bury them so they don't attract pests. In a vermicomposting bin, the worms won't eat dairy products, but the many other detritivores in there -- such as mites and beetles -- definitely will.

Calling a non-dinosaur a dinosaur will get you laughed out of Terramagne. If you ride into down on a dimetrodon and shout, "Fear my dinosaur horde!" a large percentage of the crowd will shout back, "That's NOT a dinosaur!"

Read my original reference to Oculudentavis khaungraae, which inspired the discussions leading to this poem. See an artist rendition. The name means "eye-tooth bird."

Oculudentavis microdirus
This dinosaur was about thumb size, with huge eyes and a long thin snout full of sharp teeth. The huge eye sockets contain tear glands modified to produce venom full of toxic salts. They can shoot it from their eyes much like horned toads do. It also drains into their mouths, where it joins saliva so strong that it liquefies flesh. This allows them to feed on prey much larger than themselves, because they don't have to tear off solid flesh -- they just need to land enough bites for their venom and acid to cripple it, then pull off dissolving chunks of flesh as it softens. They hunt in swarms. Hundreds of them mob giant prey and eat them a nibble at a time, like tiny flying piranha. They have warning coloration similar to several species of poison arrow frogs, as amphibian DNA was used to patch holes in the salvaged dinosaur DNA. These include the hot pink scribbles on black of a Costa Rican variable harlequin toad, the pink and blue of a strawberry frog, the candy cane stripes of a phantasmal poison dart frog, and the stripes-and-spots of a Ranitomeya amazonica.

The University of Utah did a famous series of posters about the value of humanities for scientists. This is the one about the T-rex. You can see that T-University of Utah is enthusiastic about preventing supervillains.

Tyrannosaurus rex is among the most famous of dinosaurs, dating from the Cretaceous Period, 68 to 66 million years ago. The T-rex is enormously popular with supervillains, because everything is better with dinosaurs. (You know what would be even scarier? If he was neck-reining that thing with a hackamore. Bet nobody's done that. Because who looks at the actual tack on a T-rex.)
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poetry, reading, safety, science, science fiction, weblit, writing
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