Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When Reptiles Had Whiskers

More on the theme of “great discoveries while researching…”

If you read the I.N.K. blog, you’re undoubtedly better-informed than most, but did you know…

No dinosaurs swam in the sea or flew in the air because true dinosaurs lived only on land.

I’ve always enjoyed learning about prehistoric creatures, but research for a current book project has improved my often out-of-date knowledge base. Those soaring pterosaurs and frightening marine monsters such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were reptiles, but not dinosaurs. Of course, it’s widely accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs, so at least their descendants flew. And recent findings suggest that many or perhaps most dinosaurs had feathers. Many readers aren’t aware of even basic facts about prehistoric life, but prehistory has much to teach us.

Petroleum was derived from marine plants and animals, not dinosaurs.
Coal was formed primarily from land plants. However, according to data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft,
Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes. Hmmm, either Titan has life or there are other geological factors at work. But anyway…

A barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.
The unit is a holdover from the early days of oil drilling when oil was actually transported in wooden barrels. These days, other chemicals and food are often transported in 55 gallon barrels, which leads to some confusion. More importantly…

One barrel of oil = 25,000 hours of human labor(?)
I’ve asked many friends and random passersby to guessimate how many hours of manual human labor is replaced by one barrel of oil. Most people don’t begin to guess as high as 25,000 hours. While estimates vary and it’s hard to pin the number down exactly, the point is that fossil fuels are a remarkably concentrated source of energy, very difficult to find substitutes for. Since fossil fuels are not renewable, replace them we must or we’ll return to the Stone Age. It must be added that living in the middle of a very risky experiment to add vast quantities of extra carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the air from burning substances that had been underground for millions of years is at the very least, unsettling.

As of 2005, one third of American homes had no personal computer, while 22 percent had two or more refrigerators and 43 percent had three or more televisions.
At a neighborhood party the other night, one gal told me she had three refrigerators. That seems excessive for a couple with no children in residence, doesn’t it? Another neighbor has two stand-alone freezers, again for two people. While working on a picture book about energy, I’ve become alert to such anecdotes that help reveal why our use of energy has become such an enormous and intractable
problem. Another statistic that you may have suspected when seeing new housing developments with their gargantuan single-family houses…

The median size of new homes has increased from about 1,500 square feet in 1970 to over 2,200 s.f. in 2005.
The 1.6 million homes built in 2005 have one trillion extra square feet that must be heated and cooled compared to 1970-sized houses. (700 s.f. X 1.6 million new homes.) One fifth of those new homes had garage space for 3 or more cars. Such increases require much more energy to build and maintain for years and years to come. Though the current recession has slowed things down somewhat, the prevailing “wisdom” and policy objectives seem to be to try and rev it all up again to recreate the model of year upon year growth in GDP. Hasn’t anyone heard about the limitations of exponential growth? Remember that fable about doubling rice on a chess board? No problem, we’ll just move to another planet. Which brings me to…

The Permian Extinction resulted in the loss of 95 percent of marine life and the death of the 70 to 80 percent of land animals.
The cause(s) of that devastating mass extinction 250 million years ago are still being debated, but it’s just one of many extinction events that have taken place in Earth’s history. Asteroids, changes in ocean currents, toxic gases, volcanoes, climate change, loss of habitat… all have been factors at various times in the past and may be again. The famous quotation by George Santanyana comes to mind:

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The story of life on Earth can be told in terms of how each individual strives to capture energy, whether directly from the sun or indirectly from plants or other animals. It was a fundamental issue for prehistoric life and it remains one today.
On the brighter side, every one of us is descended from the first primitive life forms that wriggled around, found food, and whose progeny somehow managed to survive it all until today, so there’s still room for optimism!

About that whisker-faced prehistoric critter…Thrinaxodon is its name and it was an intermediate form between reptiles and mammals. The cat-sized animal was an egg-layer but had pits in its skull that indicate the presence of whiskers and thus fur, since whiskers are specialized hairs. Who knew that whiskers went so far back?


Mark Herr said...

The houses have to be bigger now to fit in all those extra fridges and freezers.

And dinosaurs with feathers boggles my mind. For some reason, I suddenly think of them as more vain than before. But that is just my imagination running away with me.

Unknown said...

These are the kind of wonderful factoids that decorate the writing of INK authors. Great post, Loreen.