Monthly Archives: February 2012

Earthling Bulletin #2

by Piter Kehoma Boll and Rafael Silva do Nascimento

Silene stenophylla, a 30,000 years old plant ressurected from tissue found in permafrost soil. Image by Yashina et al, 2012




  • Extinct Birds, by Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters, the first comprehensive review of the hundreds of bird species and subspecies that have become extinct over the last 1,000 years of habitat degradation, over-hunting and rat introduction. Covering both familiar icons of extinction as well as more obscure birds, some known from just one specimen or from traveller’s tales, the book also looks at hundreds of species from the subfossil record – birds that disappeared without ever being recorded.


Scientific Articles

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A 120-years-old Legend

by Rafael Silva do Nascimento

Long living pets that could go along with their owners for years have always been an attraction, as one can see by the popularity of turtles as pets, as well as psittacids, which are also vivid and interactive. Animals tend to live longer in captivity, not being exposed to the dangers of the “wild”. Some, however, exceed the expectations concerning longevity and become very curious characters. One of those was a cockatoo that lived more than a century in Australia, between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Called Cocky Bennet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), he stood out not by the age he would reach, but for its unusual physical features. Born in 1796 (according to Brisbane’s weekly summary, The Queenslander), near Sydney, he was removed from his nest on a eucalypt by a local farmer. As the years passed, he started to lose the feathers, looking like a plucked chicken with a wrinkled skin. Moreover, his upper mandible had an extraordinary long tip, so that he could only eat mashed food. Such abnormalities are typical of the psittacine beak and feather disease, caused by a circovirid virus, which also lowers the animal’s immunity against the effects of other viruses and bacteria.


Cocky Bennet with an age of 115 in his cage, 1911. Photo from the archive of State Library of Victoria, Australia.

The bird spent his first 78 years travelling the world with Captain Ellis, his owner. Following the death of the captain, he was bequeathed to a Mr. and Mrs. Bowden. With the death of Mr. Bownden in 1889, his wife soon married Charles Bennet, with the couple then moving to Tom Ugly’s Point, Blakehurst, in 1891, where Mr. Bennet became the licensee of the Sea Breeze Hotel.

Popular, Cocky lived in the hotel for most of his last 25 years. Talkative, his repertory included phrases like “one feather more and I’ll fly” and “one at a time, gentlemen, please”, when harassed by other birds. Cocky was more talkative and with more lurid language after being given a “sip of strong brew”.  He received the visitors while moving and jumbling at the top of his cage in the hotel’s front verandah.

Sutherland Shire Libraries

Cocky Bennet with an age of 118, 1914. Photo from the archive of Sutherland Shire Libraries, Australia, used with permission.

Despite being affected by the disease, he passed away only in May 1916, being the longest living psittacid registered in Australia. As there are no sources indicating in which month Cocky was removed from his nest, it’s not possible to determine if he was already 120 years old or still 119. Sulphur-crested cockatoos, in Sydney, breed from August to January and the eggs hatch after about 25 days. So, assuming that he wasn’t a newborn (for he possibly wouldn’t have survived if removed from the nest as soon as he left the egg), the farmer probably took him between about late September and late February. Back in the day, his age was estabilished by ornithologists counting the growth rings of his beak, concluding he was 120 years old, give or tak a year. The mean lifespan for his species is 70 years.

Sutherland Shire Libraries

Cocky Bennet, 1914. Photo from the archive of Sutherland Shire Libraries, Australia, used with permission.

After his death, The Sydney Morning Herald published (in 1916) the following note:

A Venerable Cockatoo

“Cocky Bennet,” a sulphur-crested Australian cockatoo, died on Friday in his 120th year at Canterbury. This age is a record in longevity for an Australian parrot so far as the officials records are concerned. For many years this bird was in the possession of Mrs. Sarah Bennet, the licensee of the Sea Breeze Hotel, at Tom Ugly’s Point. When she left there, about 12 months ago, she transferred the parrot to her nephew, Mr. Murdoch Alexander Wagschall, at Woolpack Hotel, Canterbury. The old bird was absolutely featherless for the last 20 years, but it maintained its “patter” till the day before its death. “Cocky Bennet” was a great traveller, and is said to have journeyed seven times round the world. Mr. Wagschall has arranged to have remains of this historic parrot preserved by a taxidermist.”

Accordng to W. A. Easterling (The Sydney Morning Herald from July 9 1984), a distant nephew of Mrs. Bennet, the bird was stuffed and mounted by the firm Tost and Rohu and set in a glass case. It remained at the hotel until the late 1920s or early 1930s, when his grandmother, Mrs. P.Wagschall (whose husband operated the old Woolpack Hotel at Canterbury), left the hotel business. Then handed to his mother, Cocky hung in their dining room for more than 40 years, where it he became used for the family members but the visitor were unnerved by the baleful glare of the relic. His late wife once commented that she was in two minds about marrying him lest he inherit the old horror. After his family home was sold, his sister handed Cocky’s remains to the Kogarah Historical Society in their museum at Carss Cottage in Carss Bush Park, together with such documents that they had.

Easterling also notes that The Sutherland Council library held in May 1973 a feature display about the bird, and its researches brought forth much more historical information than was known to his part of the family. The matter was also thrased out in Column 8 (Herald, May 12, 1973), when the impostor specimen was displayed at the Sea Breeze Hotel, where he understand that it was acquired from a private museum at Kurnell and had been shown as Cocky’s alleged remains.

– – –


Centre for Fortean Zoology Australia. 2011. From the archives: A Venerable Cockatoo (1916). Available on-line at: <>. Acess on February 13, 2012.

Grellis, A. 2008. Blakehurst: Cocky Bennet. Dictionary of Sydney. Available on-line at: <>. Acess on February 14, 2012.

Kable, F. J. & Easterling, W. A. 1984. Fate of the real Cocky Bennet. The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, July 9, 1984, p. 8.
Kwek, G. 2011. Sydney’s old crock of a cockie was a legend at 120. The Sidney Morning Herald. Available on-line at: <>. Acess on Februrary 13, 2012.
Meinhardt, J. 2011. The Birds. Oh Snap! Available on-line at: <>. Acess on February 13, 2012.


Filed under Ornithology

The Beauty Hidden in a Grassfield

by Piter Kehoma Boll

About a week ago I went with my parents to my aunt’s house in the neighbor city, Estância Velha, and my parents decided to go to my uncle’s house, across the street, to fish at his property. I went along, but since it was too hot to stay still in the sun with a fishing rod, I decided to go for a walk through the grassfield to find interesting things to photograph.

At first, when one looks at a grassfield, it looks like an endless amount of grass and nothing else, but if you look closer you can find an amazing diversity of flowering plants living there.

Here I will present the beautiful flowers I found there after only about one hour exploring the field.

Sida rhombifolia L.

Ludwigia tomentosa (Cambess.) H.Hara

Ludwigia peploides (Kunth) P.H.Raven

Elephantopus mollis Kunth

Tibouchina cf. gracilis (Bonpl.) Cogn.

Tibouchina herbacea (DC.) Cogn.

Leandra regnellii (Triana) Cogn.

Solanum cf. atropurpureum L.

Commelina erecta L.

Tripogandra diuretica (Mart.) Handlos

Begonia cucullata Will.

Desmodium incanum DC.

Asclepias curassavica L.

Sisyrinchium micranthum Cav.

Richardia brasiliensis Gomes

And there are also some that I wasn’t able to identify. If someone knows their names and could help me with the identification, I would be very thankful. And please, let me know If I misidentified any species. Here are the ones awaiting identification:



Asteraceae (?)

Liliaceae (?)


Lamiaceae (?)

All photos by Piter Kehoma Boll.

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Why everybody laughs at Williamson, Lynn Margulis’ “best friend”

by Piter Kehoma Boll

What would you think if someone came to you and said that your pet snail accidentally got pregnant and you’re the father? Or if you went to the doctor and he said to you “congratulations, you’re pregnant and the father is a sea urchin”. Of course you’d be proud, dontcha?

Well, if you think that’s a ridiculous nonsense, you’re quite right. But guess what? There’s a senior (i.e., very old) scientist claiming that such a thing happens in nature all the time! And what’s his name? Donald I. Williamson.

Donald I. Williamson. I found this photo (the only one) on a Polish blog (biokompost at Unfortunately I don't speak Polish... yet.

Born in 1922 (he’s 90!), he’s a British planktologist and carcinologist, already retired, of course. But at least from 1987 on he has been publishing a series of weird papers claiming that hybrids between different animal phyla happened many times during the history of animal kingdom.

All started, as already mentioned, in 1987, on his paper “Incongruous Larvae and the Origin of some Invertebrate Life-Histories” where he considers the huge differences between adults and larvae in many animals, at first mainly concerning echinoderms. His “revolutionary” idea is that larvae and adults evolved separately as different lineages of animals and later became a single species by hybridization. He claims it by initially citing works that suggest the possibility of horizontal gene transference between distantly related organisms, mainly caused by viruses carrying a small amount of their hosts’ DNA from one to another. So he apparently thought “If one can carry one gene from an animal to another, why couldn’t it happen with the whole genome?”.

Echinoderms, his first victims, are thought to have hybridized with hemichordates, so explaining why the larvae of both groups are so similar. By the end, he admits that he hasn’t made any research concerning all or most of the recent works on development and phylogeny of the targeted groups.

A starfish (Echinoderma) and an acorn worm (Hemichordata). Surely a lovely couple. Photos by Mike Murphy and Philcha, from Wikipedia.

Here is important to cite a work by Švácha (1992) studying the imaginal disks in larvae of holometabolous insects (those with larva, pupa and adult stages). Imaginal discs are some regions of apparently undifferentiated cells in insects larvae and previously thought to be the source of most of the adult features not found in larvae, as well as being responsible for the replacement of some organs in larvae by new ones in adults, like the larvae’s antennae being replaced by new ones during the transition from one stage to another. Švácha noticed, however, that this actually doesn’t happen and that imaginal discs only help to develop larvae’s structures, but not replace them by new ones. That is to say, the adult form of insects does not come from a second “embryo” hidden inside the larva.

Of course Williamson ignored this paper and many others and in 2001 he brought another argument to sustain himself: a fallacy.

As you might or not know, the endosymbiosis theory suggests that some intracellular organelles, like mitochondria and chloroplasts, originated from bacteria associated to eukaryote cells. One then can state that the functions of intracellular organelles existed before the organelles themselves, so it was completely logical for Williamson to assume that the features of larvae existed before animals having larvae.”

Like if he was in a frenetic state, Williamson started to discharge loads of “perfectly possible” hybridizations between animal groups. To cite some:

  • Turbellarian larvae came from Rotiferans

A polyclad (Turbellaria) and a 'wheel animal' (Rotifera). Another lovely couple. Photos by Dr. James P. McVey from the NOAA Sea Grant Program; and Absolutecaliber, from Wikipedia.

  • Echinoderm larvae came from Hemichordates
  • Tunicate larva came from Appendiculata (an old group comprising Arthropods, Annelids, Rotifers and others)

And to be even more bizarre, he suggests that the blastula in animals’ embryos came from hybridization with Volvocales, a group of green algae!

Acoording to Williamson (2001), the blastula of animals embryo came from hybridization with an algae of group Volvocales (left). Photos by the Environmental Protection Agency, US Federal Government; and Pearson Scott Foresman, from Pearson Company.

And as you can also see by reading his work, most of his references are his own previous works, obviously indicating a lack of interest in any REAL study trying to understand the origin of differences between larvae and adults. It is also worth noting that Williamson had some unusual phobia for the names of echinoderm classes, since the ending –oidea was to annoying for him to be seen in something other than a superfamily.

By 2006, Minelli et al. presented an interesting review of researches concerning the development of arthropods from larval forms to adults, where one of the possible explanations to the drastic change occurring in holometabolous insects larvae is nothing more complex that a kind of “neoteny”, i.e., when earlier stages of development last longer in an organism’s life cycle. In this case, the probable thing that happens is that the larva of holometabolous insects are kind of very developed and mobile embryos, nothing that weird, right? And guess what? In the whole review there is not even a single mention to Williamson, and we all can imagine why…

In this same year, Williamson attacks again with another paper, this time claiming that the Cambrian explosion happened due to a high number of hybridizations with larval transfer and, as in all of his previous works, uses the argument that “natural selection cannot explain such divergences between adults and larvae”. We can clearly notice that he completely ignores all recent publications concerning phylogenetics and genomics and, as it at least seems to me, ignores anything related to evolutionary theories other than Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Lynn Margulis works (to whom he appears to have some desperate passionate feelings).

An then again, in 2009, he comes with another article, this one at PNAS, entitled “Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis” where he persists in his absurd ideas, claiming that caterpillars arouse from a female moth being accidentally fertilized by a male onychophoran. and he still goes on ignoring anything related to molecular data, attacking Darwin’s and Haeckel’s ideas once more and citing only works that, by his limited point of view, could support in any way his incongruent ideas. All works published during these more than 20 years that he passed affirming the same nonsense, like a fanatic priest in a church, were left aside.

"Excuse me, Ma'am, but you just got fecundated by my semen". The two original parents of a caterpillar, according to Williamson, would have been a welvet worm (Onychophora) and a moth (Insecta). Photos by Thomas Stromberg and Jonathon Coombes.

Anyway, this last work gained a higher repercussion than the previous ones and many scientists manifested their indignation with it, so that for two months the paper was held up from print publication, until finally appearing in print in the issue of November that year.

Now, seriously, how could it be possible that such a ridiculous idea was allowed to be published in this century, after all the serious researchers concerning phylogeny and ontogeny of animals?

Well, it was possible only for one reason: Lynn Margulis. She was the one that communicated the paper, via a submission route that allowed  academy members of the United States National Academy of Sciences to manage the peer review of a colleague’s manuscript. But why would Lynn Margulis support such an idea from an old retired out of his mind “scientist”? I should say because she was pretty out of her mind too.

Lynn Margulis, photo by Javier Pedreira.

If you know Lynn Margulis, you also know that she was once a brilliant biologist with challenging ideas, helping to make the endosymbiosis theory to get known and eventually accepted to explain the origin of chloroplasts and mitochondria. But in her last years (she died on November 22, 2011) she started to attack well supported ideas in science in a kind of irrational way, like stating that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV.

When this last work was released for press, the same issue brought a challenge by zoologist Gonzalo Giribet and a paper by Hart & Grosberg rejecting Williamson’s ideas based on all molecular data already available that clearly indicate that holometabolous insects do not have onychophoran genes at all to explain such a BS.

Apparently Williamson prepared a briefly response, but it was not released to be published.

So after reading all this, I think anybody can understand why nobody can take him serious. Or would you ever believe that you can get pregnant by a jellyfish while swimming in the sea?

– – –


Abbott, A., Brumfiel, G., Dolgin, E., Hand, E., Sanderson, K., Van Noorden, R., & Wadman, M. 2009. Whatever happened to …? Nature DOI: 10.1038/news.2009.1162

Giribet, G. 2009. On velvet worms and caterpillars: Science, fiction, or science fiction? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (47), e131 DOI: 10.1073\pnas.0910279106

Hart, M., & Grosberg, R. 2009. Caterpillars did not evolve from onychophorans by hybridogenesis Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (47), 19906-19909 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910229106

Minelli, A., Brena, C., Deflorian, G., Maruzzo, D., & Fusco, G. 2006. From embryo to adult—beyond the conventional periodization of arthropod development Development Genes and Evolution, 216 (7-8), 373-383 DOI: 10.1007/s00427-006-0075-6

Švácha, P. 1992. What Are and What Are Not imaginal Discs: Reevaluation of Some Basic Concepts (Insecta, Holometabola) Developmental Biology, 154, 101-117

Williamson, D. 1987. Incongruous larvae and the origin of some invertebrate life-histories Progress In Oceanography, 19 (2), 87-116 DOI: 10.1016/0079-6611(87)90005-X

Williamson, D. 2001. Larval transfer and the origins of larvae Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 131 (1), 111-122 DOI: 10.1006/zjls.2000.0252

Williamson, D. 2006. Hybridization in the evolution of animal form and life-cycle Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 148 (4), 585-602 DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2006.00236.x

Williamson, D. 2009. Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908357106


Filed under Evolution