So Nice They Named it Twice: Fire Salamander and Llama

I have a fascination with scientific names that have an identical (or nearly identical) genus and species epithet. So nice they named it twice! Here are some brief introductions to some of these plants and animals. If you know of any more, feel free to include them in the comments and I will add them to my list.

Salamandra salamandra

Salamandra salamandra by Marek Szczepanek (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Salamandra salamandra is also known as the fire salamander. Salamanders hide in moss and dead wood. If you set fire to wood that has a salamander in it, it’s going to come crawling out. People came to the incorrect conclusion that the salamanders came from the flames rather than the wood, hence the name fire salamander.

Fire salamanders live in the deciduous forests of central and southern Europe eating insects, worms, and slugs. Adults weigh about 40 grams and can be 15-25 cm long.

Lama glama

A llama (Lama glama) in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site, Peru by Alexandre Buisse. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lama glama, or llama, falls into the nearly identical category. Llamas are South American camelids and domesticated llamas are raised for meat and wool around the world. Like all camelids llamas’ ancestors originated in North America and spread into South America and the Old World, before going extinct in North America.

Llamas are native to the Andes mountains and are well adapted to high elevations and cold temperatures. They grow to about 1.8 m tall and weight 130-200 kg. Llamas live in herds and are very territorial; llama guards can be used to protect other livestock from predators.


This Week in Science: December 28 – January 3 2014

How much energy would it have taken for the dwarves to melt all that gold in The Desolation of Smaug?

Are dwarves and hobbits more closely related to humans or elves?

Smaug Breathes Fire Like A Bloated Bombardier Beetle With Flinted Teeth‘.

I love terrible science jokes.

What will it take to get more women in science?

No, dolphins aren’t getting high on pufferfish toxin.

This comes as no surprise to any rural Michigander: snow melts faster in the forest than in fields.

12 year old Jake has a great natural history blog.

The Most Fascinating Human Evolution Discoveries of 2013‘.

Here are 10 species that were declared extinct in 2013.

What can Doctor Who teach us about the fear of spiders?

Of vole plagues and hip glands‘.

Sometimes saving a species dooms it for the long term.

Is nail polish harmful?

I agree with Brian Switek: talking dinosaurs make me cringe.

What happened to the Neanderthals and why? The answer is: it’s complicated.

What did the people of Pompeii eat? Some things that you would expect and some things that you wouldn’t (giraffe).

Trailside Museum of Natural History

Museums don’t have to be large to interesting and the Trailside Museum of Natural History at Fort Robinson State Park is a prime example. Located in Crawford, Nebraska in the northwestern corner of the state, the Trailside Museum is only one room, but it makes the most of it. As you walk through the doors, the first thing you see is a life-size skeleton of a Columbian Mammoth (the state fossil of Nebraska). The walls of the room are lined with fossils from the area arranged in chronological order, and include many fossils including ammonites, fossil trees, and big horn sheep.

The most impressive exhibit is without a doubt the ‘Clash of the Mammoths’. You can’t miss it; it dominates most of the back of the museum. Tens of thousands of years ago, two male mammoths fought and died in what is now western Nebraska. Both of these mammoths were around 40 years old and, because male mammoths continue growing throughout most of their adult lives, were very large. More importantly, each of these mammoths had one whole and one broken tusk. In modern elephants, males with a broken tusk tend to be vicious fighters and use the broken tusk to stab their opponent. For this reason, these fighting males were at very close quarters. Somehow they managed to entangle themselves and died that way, each dragging the other down. (Side note: if you look closely at the tusks while standing at the back of the exhibit, you’ll see a small rectangular hole in one of them. Unfortunately, it is not visible in this picture. This hole was made by Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontologist who studies the life histories of mammoths and mastodons. You’ll see these little marks on tusks in museums across the country.)

Clash of the Mammoths
Clash of the Mammoths

Don’t let the size of this museum mislead you, it is definitely worth a visit. If you’re ever driving through southwestern South Dakota or northwestern Nebraska, I highly recommend visiting the Trailside Museum, the Mammoth Site, and other museums along the Fossil Freeway.

Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits

Last December I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. I spent a week in southern California and the La Brea Tar Pits were without a doubt my favorite part!

First of all, let’s talk about the tar pits themselves. Before you even see the museum or the grounds, you can smell them; the smell of tar permeates Wiltshire Boulevard for blocks, especially on hot days. These tar pits have been around for tens of thousands of years and formed when crude oil oozed to the surface through cracks in the crust. After the oil reached the surface the lightest part of the ooze–the oil–evaporated, leaving behind the thick, sticky asphalt. Luckily for scientists (but unluckily for the animals), during the Pleistocene many plants and animals got stuck in the tar, and can now be studied. When you walk around the grounds today you can see tar pits large and small still bubbling away. In front of the museum is a massive pond with mammoth sculptures reenacting how these animals may have become stuck. Also on the grounds you can see Project 23 and some of the pits that scientists have been excavating for 100 years, as well as the Pleistocene Garden, a recreation of what the Ice Age flora was like.

Dire Wolf skulls, Page Museum, Los Angeles, CA (Wikimedia Commons)

Once you go inside the Page Museum itself, things are no less impressive. The museum is filled with some of the millions of specimens found at the site. Smilodon (saber-tooth cats) are some of the most well known fossils (it is the state fossil of California) and some of the bones even have evidence of injuries and disease. Unlike in museums in other states, large specimens such as mammoths and horses are suspended from the ceiling instead of mounted from the floor in case of earthquakes! One of my favorite exhibits was the wall of over 400 dire wolf skulls that was made to solve the problem of too many fossils and not enough storage.

In the middle of the museum is the Fishbowl Lab. For me, fossil preparation is one of the most exciting parts of the scientific journey. Visitors can watch volunteer preparators clean and repair fossils. You might even get a chance to see Zed, the largest and most complete mammoth found so far at the site!

If you find yourself in southern California, I highly recommend visiting the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. I could easily spend days in that museum and I would love to go back! To learn more about the tar pits, check out the links below!


UC-Berkeley: La Brea Tar Pits

The Page Museum

The Tar Pits blog

Geno 2.0

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick used Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images of DNA to prove that it had a double-helix structure. In 2003, the Human Genome Project successfully mapped the human genome. Today, genetic testing has become more and more commonplace, from Angelina Jolie’s breast cancer screening to at-home tests that let the average person see how much Neanderthal DNA they carry.

There are a few different personal genetic testing kits available: 23andme, ancestryDNA, and The Genographic Project are a few. While ancestryDNA focuses on genealogy, 23andme and The Genographic Project also test Neanderthal DNA and The Genographic Project even tests for Denisovan DNA (Kate Wong compared 23andme and The Genographic Project on her Scientific American blog).

Last week, my dad got his Geno 2.0 (from The Genographic Project) results back and immediately called me to talk about it. By and large, most of the results were what we expected but there were a few surprises. Geno 2.0 follows both the maternal and paternal lineage through time. My dad’s maternal lineage originated in East Africa about 70,000 years ago and continued north through the Arabian peninsula to the Caucasus Mountains and finally ended up in eastern Europe around 28,000 years ago.

The paternal lineage held a few surprises. It originated in East Africa about 75,000 years ago and continued north through the Arabian peninsula. That’s when things started to get interesting. The path turned east toward Southwest Asia before turning back west and ending up in eastern Europe.

The “Who Am I” tab took all of the information from my dad’s lineages’ trip around the globe to determine his likely ethnic background, as well as his percentage of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. His results showed that his DNA most closely match a German reference population and that 2.6 % of his DNA came from Neanderthals (higher than average) while 2.4% of his DNA came from Denisovans. The Denisova data is still being interpreted, so it’s not clear what is average.

All in all, I’m very jealous that my dad was able to use Geno 2.0 to learn about his ancestry and I hope that soon I can, too. I’m also interested in what the map would look like for an individual without a primarily European background. How did Native Americans or Native Australians end up that far from Africa? I look forward to learning more as this technology advances.

Black Hills Institute

During my summers in South Dakota, I would frequently visit the Black Hills Institute Museum. The building may be small, but don’t hold that against the BHI; it’s absolutely packed with specimens! The museum is located on Main Street in Hill City, SD and is about an hour from The Mammoth Site and 30 minutes from Rapid City, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

When you first walk into the museum, it can be overwhelming to see the sheer number of fossils. Stan the T. rex dominates the room, along with cases and cases of ammonites and other vertebrate and invertebrate fossils. Though many of these fossils come from around the world, part of the museum is dedicated to local finds. South Dakota has a rich paleontological history and the BHI takes you through that history. Every time I came back to the museum, I saw something new. For those of you who prefer rocks and minerals to fossils, there is a back room full of them!

Black Hills Institute

I highly recommend the Black Hills Institute Museum. It is difficult for me to describe without sounding redundant because it packs a lot of science into a small space beautifully (it reminded me of an oversized cabinet of curiosities). The average person can get through the collection in about 30 minutes, but I could spend the whole day in there. I wouldn’t normally mention the gift shop, but the BHI gift shop is one of my favorites in the Black Hills. It is nearly as large as the museum itself and is full of geology and paleontology gifts. I am particularly partial to their collection of postcards.

Word Wednesday: Mammoth v. Mastodon

Pleistocene mammalian megafauna is one of my favorite paleontological topics. Of the wide-range of Ice Age mammals, mammoths are probably the most popular example. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that mammoths and mastodons are different animals, or even that there are species of mammoth other than the woolly.


Mammoth comes from the Russian word ‘мамонт’, which comes from a local word for earth. Mammoths were found buried in the ground, so it was once thought that they burrowed like moles. It wasn’t until 1802 that the word took on its current colloquial meaning of huge or gigantic.


Mastodon breaks down into masto and -odonMasto comes from the Greek word mastos‘ which means breast and odon comes from the Greek word ‘odonys‘ which means tooth. The mastodon was named for the large cusps on its teeth.

Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth
Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Mammoths were grazers, meaning that they ate primarily grass, and their large, flat teeth were used to wear down the delicate grasses. They lived in the Great Plains and other ‘mammoth steppes’. Mastodons, on the other hand, were browsers, meaning that they ate leaves, shoots and fruits. The large cusps on their teeth were used to wear down the tough vegetation. They tended to live in forests.

Elephant Phylogenetic Tree
American mastodon

Many people think that woolly mammoths are the only type of mammoths. On the contrary, there are as many as 10 different recognized species. In North America, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) lived primarily in the northern regions, while the Columbian mammoth (M. columbi) spread south and eventually split off on to the Channel Islands of California (M. exilis). Sometimes woolly and Columbian mammoths coexisted and might have interbreed and hybridized.

The Columbian mammoth was not named for the country of Columbia, but for Christopher Columbus because it was found in the New World. The woolly mammoth was about the same size as a modern Asian elephant and was covered in thick hair to protect it from the freezing temperatures of the last Ice Age. Columbian mammoths were even larger than African elephants and had relatively little body hair. There are between 2 and 4 species of mastodon and the most common was the American mastodon.

Columbian mammoth

The woolly mammoth is the state fossil of Alaska, the Columbian mammoth is the state fossil of Washington, Nebraska doesn’t distinguish between different species of mammoth for its state fossil, and the mastodon is the state fossil of Michigan. If you want to learn more about mammoths and mastodons, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and the Trailside Museum in Crawford, Nebraska have impressive collections of mammoths, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History has a mastodon display that explains the differences between mammoths and mastodons. One last fun fact: the myth of the cyclops was developed by the Greeks to explain the origin of mammoth skulls!

Word Wednesday: Geologic Time Part 3

In the past two weeks I’ve discussed eons, eras and periods of the geologic time scale. Now it’s time for the smallest commonly used division: the epoch. I’m only going to focus on the epochs of the Cenozoic era.


We have already come across both parts of Paleocenepaleo and -cene. Paleo comes from the Greek word ‘palaio‘ which means ancient and cene comes from the Greek word ‘kainos‘ which means recent. In other words, Paleocene is a bit of an oxymoron and literally means the ancient recent. It was the oldest epoch of the Paleogene period and lasted from 66 million years ago until 56 million years ago.


Eocene breaks down into eo and –ceneEo comes from the Greek word ‘eos‘ which means dawn and we already know that cene means recent. It was the second epoch in the Paleogene period and lasted from 56 million years ago until 33.9 million years ago.


Oligocene breaks down into oligo and –ceneOligo comes from the Greek word ‘oligos which means scanty or few and cene means recent. It was named for the few fossils found in Oligocene sediments. Badlands National Park is known for its Oligocene fossils. It lasted from 33.9 million years ago until 23 million years ago and was the most recent epoch in the Paleogene period.


Miocene breaks down into mio and –ceneMio comes from the Greek word ‘meion‘  which means less and cene means recent. It was the first epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 23 million years ago until 5.3 million years ago.


Pliocene breaks down into plio and -cenePlio comes from the Greek word ‘pleio‘ which means more and cene means recent. It was the most recent epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 5.3 million years ago until 2.5 million years ago. The Pliocene is often used by climate scientists to predict future climate change because it was a few degrees warmer than today.


Pleistocene breaks down into pleisto and –cenePleisto comes from the Greek word ‘pleistos‘ which means most and cene means recent.  It was the oldest epoch in the Quaternary period and lasted from 2.5 million years ago until 11,700 years ago. The Pleistocene was the last global Ice Age and was known for its large mammals. A Pleistocene Park was built in Russia to mimic the mammoth steppe habitat.

Rancho la Brea Tar Pool. (Restoration by Charles. R. Knight )


Holocene breaks down into holo and -ceneHolo is a Greek word meaning whole and cene means recent. It lasted from 11,700 years ago until the present day and is the shortest epoch. Bon Iver has a song by the same name.

Personally, I find it amusing that epochs of the Neogene and Quaternary periods translate to less recent, more recent, most recent and wholly recent. It might seem childish at first, but straightforward descriptions like that can make scientific understanding more universal.

This Week in Science: June 1-7

This week, I kept tabs on some of the science that grabbed my attention. It ranges from the Big Bang to dead ducks to the periodic table. Enjoy!

I found this song about the Cambrian Explosion from the band Brighter Lights, Thicker Glasses.

This video shows the evolution of the turtle shell.

It’s Okay To Be Smart’s video about the sound of the Big Bang is super fascinating!

ASAP Science’s song about the Periodic Table is very catchy.

Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and Christie Wilcox all published blog posts about the loss of penises in birds.

Yesterday was Dead Duck Day, which will make more sense after you watch this video.

Follow paleontologist Brian Switek on Twitter for updates on his dinosaur dig in Utah!

Marine biologists went nuts for this rare video of an oarfish.

If you’re looking for science on Vine, check out Kyle Hill (Sci_Phile) for 6 second bits of science.

Kate Wong talked to Dr. Dan Fisher (one of my former professors) about the possibility of liquid mammoth blood.

Word Wednesday: Geologic Time Part 2

Last week I explained the larger divisions of the geologic time scale: the eon and the era. Now, it’s time for a smaller division: the period.

My sophomore year of college, I took a intro geology class and my professor was a bit eccentric. He taught us a mnemonic to remember the periods of the geologic time scale: Can Orville See Down MPants Pocket? Tom Jones Can (see a) Pair (of) New Quarters. It might seem ridiculous, but it’s the one that I still use. The first letter of each word in the mnemonic refers to the first letter of each of the periods: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississipian, Pennsylvanian, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleogene, Neogene, Quaternary. You’ll probably notice that most of the periods are named for where they were first studied.


The Cambrian was named after Cambria, the Latin word for Wales. It lasted from 541 million years ago until 485.4 million years ago. During the Cambrian, there was a rapid diversification of multicellular life known as the Cambrian Explosion. The Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park in Canada is an excellent example of the diverse marine fauna from that time.


The Ordovician was named for the Ordovices tribe of Northern Wales. It lasted from 485.4 million years ago until 443.4 million years ago. Jawed fish first appeared toward the end of the Ordovician and the Ordovician-Silurian boundary is marked by a mass extinction that killed off 60% of marine genera.


Like the Ordovician, the Silurian was named for the Silures tribe of southeastern Wales. It lasted from 443.4 million years ago until 419.2 million years ago. The first terrestrial vascular plants and first bony fish both originated in the Silurian. This period also inspired the named of the Silurians, a humanoid race in the television show Doctor Who.


Like the Cambrian, the Devonian was named for Devon, England. It lasted from 419.2 million years ago until 358.9 million years ago. The Devonian is often called ‘The Age of Fish’ because of the rapid diversification that occurred at that time. Much of what is now North America was under a shallow sea, but that didn’t stop the first seed plants from appearing.


Carboniferous breaks down into carbon and –iferousCarbon comes from the Latin word ‘carbo‘ which means coal and iferous comes from the Latin word ferous‘ which means bearing. It lasted from 358.9 million years ago until 298.9 million years ago. Terrestrial life became abundant and consisted mainly of amphibians and massive insects. Vast forests formed the coal that this period is known for. In North America, this period is commonly broken down into the ‘Mississippian’ and ‘Pennsylvanian’ subperiods.


The Mississippian was named for the Mississippi River valley where rocks of this age are exposed. It lasted from 358.9 million years until 323.2 million years ago. Ocean levels were high, which led to the prevalence of limestone sediments.


The Pennsylvanian was named for the state of Pennsylvania where rocks of this age are widespread. It lasted from 323.2 million years ago until 298.9 million years ago.


The Permian was named for the Perm region of Russia. It lasted from 298.9 million years ago until 252.2 million years ago. Instead of forests, arid deserts became widespread which led to the dominance of reptiles. Along with reptiles, other amniotes (creatures with an amniotic egg that doesn’t have to be laid in the water) began to diversify. Land consisted of the supercontinent Pangaea and the Permian ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history that killed off 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species.


The Triassic was named for the Greek word ‘triad‘ meaning three by German

Snider-Pellegrini Wegener fossil map (from Osvaldocangaspadilla)

geologist Friedrich August von Alberti because in Germany it was easily divided into three parts. It lasted from 252.2 million years ago until 201.3 million years and began ‘The Age of Reptiles’. Pangaea began to split into Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south. Both dinosaurs and mammals originated in the late Triassic. It ended with another, smaller mass extinction which helped the dinosaurs rise to dominance.


The Jurassic comes from the French word ‘Jurassique‘ which means from the Jura Mountains between France and Switzerland. It lasted from 201.3 million years ago until 145 million years ago. As Pangaea continued to split into Laurasia and Gondwana, the climate became more humid with rain forests and dinosaurs dominated the terrestrial fauna.


Cretaceous comes from the Latin word ‘creta‘ which means chalk. It lasted from 145 million years ago until 66 million years ago. The climate was warm and humid and as Laurasia and Gondwana continued to split apart inland seas formed. Flowering plants appeared and mammals and birds diversified. The Cretaceous ended with a mass extinction, likely triggered by a meteorite impact in the Yucatan peninsula, that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and many marine creatures. Strangely, many of the dinosaurs from the movie Jurassic Park actually lived during the Cretaceous.


Paleogene breaks down into paleo and –gene. We already know that paleo means ancient and gene  is a Greek word which means generation. It lasted from 66 million years ago until 23 million years ago and was the beginning of ‘The Age of Mammals’. The climate began to cool and become drier with greater seasonal differences, with periodic warm periods, largely because of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Mammals ran rampant and some took to the sea to become cetaceans (whales and dolphins).


Neogene breaks down into neo and –geneNeo is a Greek word meaning new or recent and we already know that gene means generation. It lasted from 23 million years ago until 2.5 million years ago. The climate continued to cool, grassland spread across the interiors of continents and mammals began to take more modern forms. Hominids (human ancestors) spread throughout Africa. The continents assumed a more modern position. The Neogene is used by scientists as a proxy for climate prediction models because it was slightly warmer than today.


Quaternary comes from the Latin word for four and is from an archaic system that named geologic eras as ‘primary’, ‘secondary’, ‘tertiary’, ‘quaternary’, etc. It lasted from 2.5 millions years ago until the present day and began with an ice age in the Northern Hemisphere. The glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago and carved the landscape that we know today, such as the Great Lakes. With the retreat of the glaciers came the extinction of many large mammal species such as mammoths, sabertooth cats and ground sloths. Humans spread across the globe and brought us the world we know today.

Next week we’ll talk about the smallest common division of the geologic time scale: the epoch.