The Pinnacle of Cake Evolution

Each year, our Earth Science Department in Oxford has a Christmas party which incorporates, amongst other things, a cake competition.  Each research group makes a cake that is in some way related to their work. The palaeontologists have always been something of a diminutive group, and have been considered the underdogs in the department, but with the arrival of three new members this year we are growing strong.  We decided to take on a mammoth task with our cake – to represent the evolution of all life, from the first cells to humans, on a gigantic spiral cake.  This was the inspiration:

And, after 30 hours, 32 eggs, and 3kg of marzipan, this was the outcome:

Evolution cake by the Oxford Palaleobiology Group

This photo isn’t really the best, and there are lots of things I would like to draw your attention to, so I have made a lovely video for your watching pleasure. You can find it *here*.

Anyway, we were all supremely happy with what we produced, which was just as well because we didn’t even win the competition.  Not that I’m bitter about that at all….  It would seem that when a cake is being judged on both style and taste, you can’t rely on a thoroughly manhandled multi-bake cake and marzipan to clinch the deal.  Never mind.

I plan to hand in a less edible version as a diorama alongside my thesis.  Pretty sure it will boost my approval?

In some corner of a foreign museum…

Wow.  So, I know, its been ages.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’m back now.  Woo!

Here is something I have had sitting on my desk for a while.  When I was in Washington DC for the NASA Exobiology 50th Anniversary symposium last year (blogged about here), I also spent some time poking around the Smithsonian Natural History museum’s collections.  I was actually poking for a reason – to look for referenced type material that I could image.

However, beyond discovering how fantastically cryptic the museum collections are, and how very few people have any clue to the whereabouts of these valuable scientific materials, my researches didn’t turn up much.  Except this:

Rifling through a drawer, looking through examples of likely algal carbonaceous fossils Chuaria and Beltina, I found an envelope marked ‘Unpublished Drawings, Beltina danai.  Walcott’.  The Walcott is Charles Doolittle Walcott, who is widely credited for discovering  and bringing into the scientific spotlight, one of the most famous Cambrian lagerstatte, the Burgess Shale.

Inside the envelope were twelve small pieces of paper, each with an intricate pencil drawing of a single unique fossil of Beltina.  They are beautiful.  As someone who appreciates the power of good illustration in science, and good illustration as good art itself, it was like opening an envelope to find a bottomless supply of gold.  These drawings, as well as being impeccably implememented, are a piece of history.  Here, tucked away in a corner of some forgotten drawer in a rarely visited corner of the museum, are the fruits of a great scientist’s labour.  The pencil strokes, the careful shading – I would love to know what Charles Doolittle Walcott was thinking when he drew them.  Did his mind wander to shreds of memory, reliving fieldwork, discussions, romantic liasons?  Or did every new stroke focus a theory on these fossils themselves.

No longer will they be hidden, unpublished and forgotten.  Beltina, still unresolved to this day, deserves this artistic outing at the least.

That’s probably enough dramatic and romantic prose.  I hope you enjoy these beautiful drawings as much as I did, and still do.

Early Days, Early Life

And so begins the blog.

I decided to write a blog after many late night thoughts of ‘mmm…that would be interesting to learn about.  If only I had an outlet for my mini-researches…’ So here we are.  Obviously, now that it is all set up and ready to go, all ideas for witterings have turned tail and flown.

Never mind – they will return again when I am not looking I’m sure.  For now, I think a little introduction to what I should be spending my time thinking about – Early Life Palaeontology.

When people ask me what I do, I say ‘Palaeontology’.  For most, this is dinosaurs, or what Ross from Friends does, or sometimes even Romans and Clay pipes (not really palaeontology at all).  Whilst I am interested in all these things, they are not in fact what I spend my days doing.  The peculiar and fascinating branch of palaeontology I deal with is almost entirely microsopic, very very old, and often deeply enigmatic.

Before the Roman clay pipes, before the dinosaurs, before trilobites, before, indeed, anything that you might recognise, there was life, and that life was fossilised.  Animals first appeared at the Cambrian Explosion, 543 million years ago.  The time before this is logically called the Precambrian, and it contains fossils of organisms that don’t resemble anything we know today, and of things so morphologically simple that they are hard to assign to anything.  And yet, this enigmatic period is (in my opinion) one of the most exciting times in the evolution of life.  Somehow,  sometime, in the period between the formation of the Earth (4.56 billion years ago), and the sudden appearance of most animal phyla at the Cambrian explosion, the following had to happen:

  • The origin of life – the transition from a purely chemical world to a biochemical one
  • The first cell – often tied to the origin of life, as the simplest form of life may be defined as a bacterial cell
  • The evolution of novel metabolic pathways, such as photosynthesis and oxygenic respiration
  • The transition from a prokaryotic bacterial cell, containing no coherent nucleus and almost no other organelles, to a eukaryotic one.  Eukaryotic cells contain a nucleus and organellles such as mitochondria, ribosomes and, in plants, chloroplasts.
  • The introduction of new reproductive methods, most notably sexual reproduction
  • The origin of muticellularity – where cells can perform different functions, and communication exists between them

In part, work on these important transitions must be dominated by theory.  Changes in cellular metabolism are very difficult to detect in the geological record, even by geochemical proxy.  But palaeontology can play a part.  Contrary to the generally held belief that the best preservation of fossils is only seen after the Cambrian, there is an emerging picture of increasing preservation potential in as we go further back into the Precambrian.  A combination of factors, including the absence of burrowing animals that disturb the sediment and lower oxygen levels, allowing slower oxic decay, means that before 543 million years ago, preservation of delicate structures, and especially cellular details, was exceptional.

If you look in the right places, and with the right tools, there are diverse cellular fossils in a wide range of different settings: from continental shelf and slope, to terrestrial lake systems.  The study of these fascinating and critically important microfossils is part of the new and emerging field of early life palaeontology, which is working to piece together the story of life in its earliest stages.

And so this is what I do.  Although my thesis technically binds me to a single fossil deposit (that of cells in a billion year old lake setting in northwest Scotland), the questions and exciting answers of the whole field are unavoidable.

Dickinsonia

Reconstruction of the Ediacaran enigmatic form, Dickinsonia. Copyright Leila Battison 2008