Prehistoric Penguins

Now that I work at an institution that features penguins rather prominently, I find myself paying more attention to our tuxedoed friends. So it was hard to miss the Reuters story while I was browsing this morning.

According to the caption: “The late Eocene giant penguin Icadyptes salasi (right) and the middle Eocene Perudyptes devriesi (left) are shown to scale with the only extant penguin inhabiting Peru, Spheniscus humbolti (center).”

Even at this meager resolution, the illustration charms me with its depiction of the two smaller penguins gazing somewhat curiously at their larger relative—and the late Eocene fellow apparently opening his beak in amusement or mock surprise at his diminutive kin. I’m reading into it, obviously, but the illustration allows for a very friendly experience of information about the size and appearance of the animals.

Now, as Stephen Asma points out in his brilliant book, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, the arrangement of specimens in a museum diorama can suggest misleading family groupings and social relationships and so forth. With the three species illustrated above, however, we’re seeing creatures from very different epochs placed side-by-side purely for purposes of comparison. To that end, the character and anthropomorphization of the subjects seems to me an added benefit.

I mean, it’s not exactly Cubee the Aggregate™, but hey…

So, kudos to artist Kristin Lamm. Nice work!

Missing Link, Missed Opportunity

The above image of a 40,000-year-old skull named “Oase 2” accompanies a press release from the University of Bristol describing how the skull represents a potential intermediate between modern humans and Neanderthals. Allow me to quote at length…

“By comparing it with other skulls, Professor Zilhao and colleagues found that Oase 2 had the same proportions as modern human crania and shared a number of modern human and/or non-Neanderthal features.

“However, there were some important differences: apparently independent features that are, at best, unusual for a modern human. These included frontal flattening, a fairly large juxtamastoid eminence and exceptionally large upper molars with unusual size progression which are found principally among the Neanderthals.”

All well and good, but hey, couldn’t we get some kind of visual representation of that? I mean, I don’t expect to become a paleontologist just by glancing at an image with a press release, but wouldn’t it be keen to point out, I dunno, the aforementioned frontal flattening? Or maybe show me what exactly is meant by “juxtamastoid eminence”? Just to give the reader a sense of what the scientists are looking for. Instead, we get the above: 180 by 185 pixels of black-and-white imagery.

Speaking of black-and-white, what’s the strip at the bottom? I’m guessing it shows scale, but we should either be told what the scale is or we should use Photoshop to get rid of it!

The version of the press release from EurekAlert does a little better: a view of the front of Oase 2 offers more resolution, if nothing else (and the little black-and-white strip appears once again, albeit at the right of the image).

Another missed opportunity.