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The LonCon3 Speculative Biology event

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A LonCon3 SpecBio montage: at far left, CG head of a Furahan rusp by Gert van Dijk (c); at centre, giant penguins from Dougal Dixon's After Man (c).

I’ve just returned from LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, held at the enormous ExCel Exhibition Centre in east London. Yeah, I know, sci-fi isn’t exactly a normal part of the Tet Zoo remit but, on this occasion, there really is overlap since I was there for a set of special Speculative Biology talks and discussions. Initiated and organised by Gert van Dijk of the excellent Furahan Biology and Allied Matters blog (and associated websites), the event also involved author and exobiologist Lewis Dartnell, Memo Kosemen of Snaiad, All Yesterdays and many other projects, the inimitable ‘Father of Speculative Zoology’ Dougal Dixon (Dixon 1981, 1988, 1990, 2010), and myself.

At back: Gert van Dijk (l) and Memo Kosemen (r). Seated: Darren Naish (l) and Dougal Dixon (r). Lewis Dartnell was elsewhere when this photo was taken.

To begin with, I’d like to share a few general comments on the event itself. LonCon3 is probably the biggest meeting I’ve ever attended: vast, sprawling, attended by thousands (over 10,000, in fact), and with an absurd number of parallel sessions (more than 15). I always end up feeling so overwhelmed by events of this size that I end up taking refuge at the bar, or sitting in sessions that aren’t of special interest to me (but generally prove pretty worthwhile anyway: I liked the panel discussion I attended on Spanish sci-fi!).

And the event was so packed that some things I did want to attend (‘Just Three Cornettos’ and ‘The State of British SF’ among them) were inaccessible when I tried to get in (that is, the rooms were at full capacity). I got wrapped up in meetings and drinking and missed lots of things I planned to attend, or couldn’t make them due to overlap: I missed Tori Herridge’s talk on the evolution of pygmy mammoths, panel discussions on scientific fakes and frauds, sexism, and the one titled ‘“Your ‘realistic’ fantasy is a washed out colourless emptiness compared to the Rabelaisian reality.” Discuss’. Cosplay and such was less in evidence than I was hoping, but, then, I didn’t go to the grand social events nor attend every single day of the meeting. I did see jawas, a Slenderman, pixie women, and had my photo taken with Elio and Linda of Thronecast fame. George R. R. Martin was busy (he was there, by the way).

Montage of Snaiad creatures by Memo Kosemen. Much more on Snaiad below!

Anyway, our Speculative Biology events kicked off on Thursday 15th August with an hour-long panel session. We were supposed to indulge in an interactive discussion of some sort, take questions from the audience and that sort of thing. Alas, confusion over the amount of time we had allocated and a cancellation and redacted cancellation from one member of our group led to an ‘innovative’ approach and we ended up doing more presenting of thoughts and less discussing of ideas. Never mind; nobody complained (except the guy in the audience shouting about segmented worms. Man, we had some, err, memorable audience members).

Lewis Dartnell discussed facts and fallacies concerning exobiology, focusing in particular on the colours and forms that plants (or plant-like organisms) might adopt according to gravitational regimes and the spectral characteristics of nearby stars. It was then over to me: I focused entirely on speculative zoology. I provided a brief, selective historical review of speculative zoology as portrayed through literature, TV and cinema before going on to discuss the overlap between speculative zoology and cryptozoology (Conway et al. 2013, Naish 2014), and the role and ‘value’ of speculative zoology. This is actually the same talk I gave at TetZooCon; seeing as there was 0% overlap in audience membership I figured this was ok.

Montage of images related to Speculative Zoology, from my talk: featured images by Steve White (bottom left), Brian Choo (top centre), John Sibbick (top right), Darren Naish and Tim Morris (bottom right).

Gert van Dijk was up next and discussed a few ideas relevant to the creatures of Furaha. Some ideas that might seem neat when ‘creature building’ prove difficult to maintain when physical and biological constraints are considered. Gert used balloon creatures as a case study, describing how he had initially planned to have the atmosphere of Furaha populated by floating gas-bag ‘ballonts’ of diverse sizes. But, no, physics disallows such organisms in view of problems regarding gravity, the mass of the tissues that have to be involved, and the mechanisms available for generating lift (if you’re interested in the full discussion see Gert’s article on the issue here). More on Gert in a moment.

Dougal Dixon discusses SpecBio at LonCon3 - what a treat! Photo by Darren Naish.

Memo Kosemen then provided a brief overview of the art of speculative biology – he suggests that we now have a unique and independent SpecBio ‘movement’ that warrants widespread recognition via exhibitions and books. Yes, bring it on. Dougal Dixon – surely the main draw of the event for most of the audience – was up next. I know Dougal reasonably well (you might recall the recent interview published here at Tet Zoo) but this is the first time I’ve seen a Dougal Dixon presentation in public. I have guilt here, since my own presentation on the history of speculative zoology meant that I’d robbed Dougal the chance to discuss the background to his own work… yikes. Anyway, in the end, he provided a quick autobiographical review of the story behind After Man, The New Dinosaurs and Greenworld – very much a prelude to the longer, Greenworld-focused talk he gave a few days later.

On Furaha and Snaiad

Gert van Dijk discusses the origins of Furaha and his early career in illustrating the cover of sci-fi books. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Gert van Dijk.

Fast forward a day, ignore the adventures in between (ha ha: TetZoopodcats in the Pub!), and we come to a selection of proper, dedicated SpecBio talks. Gert and Memo both now had time to talk about their own respective world-building exercises. Gert is an amazing artist who began his adventures in sci-fi by painting the covers of novels. He became bored with requests to illustrate explosions and laser guns and took to concentrating instead on alien animals and plants, eventually creating his own fictional planet – Furaha – populated by a diversity of organisms.

Just a few of the many organisms created for Furaha and viewable at Gert's blog. Images (c) Gert van Dijk.

As readers of Gert’s blog will know, he frequently aims to test and answer questions surrounding biomechanical solutions to problems of locomotion. The lifestyles and styles of movement available to large hexapods of the sort present on Furaha were discussed (yes, Avatar got it very wrong), as were options available to spider-like walkers, multi-legged animals like Furaha’s sauropod-sized rusps, and Gert’s swimming cloakfish. A book on Furaha has essentially been done (or even wholly done) and needs publishing – I think Gert is trying to find a publisher [UPDATE: see comment # 8 below].

Memo reveals some of his very earliest illustrations of Snaiad's alien creatures. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) C. M. Kosemen.

Gert’s talk on Furaha was followed by Memo Kosemen’s on Snaiad, an alien planet dominated by a group of superficially tetrapod-like creatures that frequently possess dorsally located, jaw-like organs (actually genital sheaths) and more ventrally located, typically elongate feeding structures. In fact, Snaiad might well break the record as goes the number of fictional entities invented so far – Memo has invented a huge number of lineages, with many more yet to come and only illustrated in preliminary fashion. Incidentally, the Snaiad website has only recently been re-launched and long-time readers might recall it being mentioned here at Tet Zoo once or twice in the past. During the talk, we were treated to a world-first as Memo showed us never-before-seen, early images depicting Snaiad creatures (invented before the project even had the name it has now). The mass appeal of Snaiad was demonstrated by the invention of Spore versions of Snaiad creatures, by the number of website mentions, by fan-art of assorted genres, and by the enthusiasm of the attending audience.

Incidentally, Memo came up with the brilliant idea of producing art prints of various illustrations produced for our assorted projects. We all had a bunch of these and people could take them (or get them signed) for free.

SpecBio postcards printed by Memo: these few feature (top left) a selection of Squamozoic animals by Darren Naish, (lower left) a Snaiad creature by Memo Kosemen, and (right) a Greenworld Bounty poster by Dougal Dixon.

Dougal Dixon’s Greenworld

Dougal Dixon and guests read excerpts from Greenworld. Note the models on the table. Photo by Darren Naish.

Our selection of talks ended on Saturday evening with Dougal Dixon’s excellent and enthralling presentation on Greenworld, his two-volume, multi-generational epic (Dixon 2010). Greenworld – so far only published in Japanese – describes how human colonists establish an off-world colony on an Earth-like planet and proceed to document, exploit, compete with and exterminate the indigenous species. Throughout the story, we see the world and its indigenous inhabitants through the eyes and experiences of the human colonists – native creatures are killed off as vermin or competitors, domesticated and exploited, or made extinct as their habitat is modified or destroyed. At the risk of giving away the project’s main storyline, the primary arc involves the re-playing of the events that occurred on the Earth fled by the colonists at the start of the story (Dixon 2010). Things do not end well.

Some of Dougal Dixon's artwork for Greenworld, on show at the meeting. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Dougal Dixon.

Dougal Dixon with model Strida (and symbiont). People learn to remove the symbionts and ride the stridas... but things don't exactly work out as hoped. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Dougal Dixon.

Dougal brought along model Stridas (and riders) and other Greenworld creatures and characters, as well as images from the books, images of the technical papers published by Greenworld scientists on Greenworld geology and the phylogenetic history and classification of the planet’s organisms, and copies of the books themselves. An English-language version is needed – I think that Dougal is looking for a publisher.

Judging by the success of our collection of talks overall and by the audiences we attracted, speculative biology in general – and the speculative biology set of talks at LonCon3 – are/were extremely popular; this popularity possibly being at an all-time high. Published works on Snaiad and Furaha are somewhere in the pipeline, Greenworld (Dixon 2010) needs an English translation, and other projects that overlap with the speculative biology remit – like All Yesterdays and my own Squamozoic project – are set to be expanded in the future.

So, it went well. Huge thanks to Gert for organising it all, and thanks to Memo, Dougal and Lewis for making the event what it was. We are talking about arranging special SpecBio events in the future… watch this space.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on speculative biology, speculative evolution and speculative zoology, see…

Refs – -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2013. Cryptozoologicon Volume I. Irregular Books.

Dixon, D. 1981. After Man: A Zoology of the Future. Granada, London.

- . 1988. The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution. Salem House, Topsfield (MA).

- . 1990. Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future. Blandford, London.

- . 2010. Greenworld (two volumes). Diamond, Tokyo.

Naish, D. 2014. Speculative zoology. Fortean Times 316, 52-53.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Halbred 4:51 pm 08/18/2014

    Snaiad in book form would be wonderful–I have a hard time reading things like that on the Internet unless it’s on my tablet. I’d not heard of Furaha…I’ll have to check it out. It’s so puzzling that Greenworld has only been published in Japan. Have any of these illustrators/authors commented on the difficulty of finding a publisher in the West? Is spec evolution just something publishers aren’t interested in?

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  2. 2. vdinets 5:28 pm 08/18/2014

    Are floating-balloon organisms impossible on ANY planet? Even an intermediate between the rocky type and a gas giant, with very thick atmosphere? I remember reading some sci-fi story a long time ago where Venus had floating balloon plants.

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  3. 3. DelCotter 6:27 pm 08/18/2014

    Good to see you there; I bit the bullet and went through the sign-up procedure, which heavens, is even more picky than most.

    vdinets, Gert’s position was that large floaters were possible, but not small ones (presumably because the membranes could not be made arbitrarily thin due to biological cell constraints). Hence, since large organisms must come from something that was not yet that organism–usually a miniature version of the same organism, that then grows to size–then how could big floaters ever come about?

    I once designed a speculative floating-on-the-sea-surface organism that had a similar problem, which was that the small version was vulnerable to being eaten before it had a chance to grow to defend itself. But this is a problem faced and solved by many real species, often by simply sacrificing zillions of young in the hope of one surviving.

    Gert’s problem is more fundamental, but the audience suggested a few ways around it: floating on the water before growing big enough to float up into the air; or a non-balloon stage of life that coccoons itself and emerges as a beautiful spherical butterfly. To that I might add, the little ones might get and stay aloft like little spiders do, using sails made of long skeins of spider silk thread.

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  4. 4. naishd 6:31 pm 08/18/2014

    Halbred: publishing companies are often a bit like movie studios – they want to go with ‘safe’ things, not things that they consider risky. But this means that they often miss or ignore things that actually have the potential to do well.

    vdinets: Gert did discuss how things might be different in a Uranian atmosphere; things break down when you want to deign creatures for an Earth-like atmosphere.

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  5. 5. vdinets 8:03 pm 08/18/2014

    DelCotter: I would imagine large balloons to reproduce by division or budding.

    Darren: we don’t know the upper limit for the mass of rocky planets. With stronger gravity, even a relatively thin Earth-like atmosphere could be dense enough to make floating possible, I guess.

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  6. 6. CS Shelton 11:39 pm 08/18/2014

    I feel like there’s probably more profit in SpecBio than conservative publishers will get, but that it might be less than some guys are hoping for. I might be projecting my own feelings onto the larger public, but it seems like it’s more fun to create your own SpecBio stuff than to consume the work of others. It’s similar to other creative domains where supply has the potential to exceed demand by a lot. I could be wrong.

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  7. 7. Dartian 3:00 am 08/19/2014

    I always end up feeling so overwhelmed by events of this size that I end up taking refuge at the bar

    I’m going to use that line. ;)

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  8. 8. GertVanDijk 5:09 am 08/19/2014

    Darren, my book is about half ready. Books such as these probably have high production costs and a small audience, so publishers will be wary. Haven’t given up on finding one, though…

    As for ‘ballonts’, read here why small ones (a meter or so) are not well feasible on an Earth-like planet:

    The high pressure on/in gas giants helps, but is counteracted by the fact that the atmosphere itself is only just heavier than the gas in the balloon:

    That only leaves planets with atmospheres of high pressure and heavy gases as a home for small ‘ballonts’, i.e. Venusian style planets.

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  9. 9. naishd 6:00 am 08/19/2014

    Dartian (comment # 7): in this case it really was an excuse. Over 10,000 people attended this meeting. >>OVER 10,000<<.

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  10. 10. DavidMarjanovic 6:56 am 08/19/2014

    But this is a problem faced and solved by many real species, often by simply sacrificing zillions of young in the hope of one surviving.

    The opposite should also work: the little ones stay on top of an adult till they’re big enough to float on their own.

    OVER 10,000

    There are neuroscience meetings with 30,000 people. The poster sessions are held in huge halls (…so there’s much more space between the posters than at an SVP meeting).

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  11. 11. naishd 7:05 am 08/19/2014

    There are also meetings associated with certain big-business industries that are attended by vast numbers of people. When we were in La Vegas for SVP (attended by c.1400 palaeontologists), I spoke to someone from a car-based meeting in town at the same time. Their attendance was something like 40,000. The National Association of Broadcasters annual meeting, in Vegas earlier in the year, had an attendance of over 98,000.

    However… neither you nor I go to neuroscience, automobile industry or broadcaster meetings…

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  12. 12. Felix2 7:52 am 08/19/2014

    Well, sounds like great fun. I always loved speculative zoology (before I even knew that what it was called). I must agree that although 10,000 is impressive, it is not out of this world for a convention.

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  13. 13. Caiman 10:06 am 08/19/2014

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  14. 14. SeanMcCabe 2:55 pm 08/19/2014

    One can never have to much spec.

    Unfortunately I haven’t read any of the mentioned works, thought have heard of all of them, so I can’t comment much.

    I’m much more at home in the world of alternative timelines.

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  15. 15. Jenny Islander 1:55 am 08/20/2014

    @Sean McCabe: This ATL is not original to me; I read it in a fanfic years ago. In the 19th century, somebody from the class that keeps menageries orders a pair of live thylacines. The employee who actually looks after the menagerie discovers that while the adults are wild, the young are surprisingly easy to socialize if handled with an understanding of their physical cues and so forth. In fact, they are at least as good at working people as, say, housecats, although they are not people-pleasers like dogs. Thylacines become so popular in England that a viable breeding population is established. In the 20th century, celebrities and eccentrics lead them around on leashes. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 prompts large-scale dumping of thylacines. Unlike alien big cats, thylacines promptly move into urban areas and beg for food. There are thousands of semi-feral thylacines in London alone. Besides being cute at tourists in an effort to cadge a McMuffin, they help keep the pigeon population down.

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  16. 16. BrianL 4:04 am 08/20/2014

    That alternative timeline regarding thylacines reminds me that Errol Fuller hypotheticized that dodos might have made good and hardy ornamental birds that ‘could have been as commonplace as peacocks’ in his ‘Extinct Birds’ tome. I’m not too sure about the feral survival chances of a naive flightless pigeon in the western world, but I could see dodos doing well in zoos and menageries in the style of their relatives the *Goura* and Nicobar pigeons. Alas, the things that could have been.

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  17. 17. DavidMarjanovic 6:28 am 08/20/2014

    I’m so angry now, angry at the past.

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  18. 18. naishd 6:32 am 08/20/2014

    I recall a drunken evening at a conference where we were discussing the priorities that should occur if time travel were real. A colleague insisted on the importance of going back and watching Shakespeare’s plays. Screw that, quoth I; there were live dodos and thylacines back then!

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  19. 19. BrianL 7:37 am 08/20/2014

    I have sworn to myself that, should I ever get a genie to grant me three wishes, I’d at least wish ‘that all species except diseases that have ever gone extinct due to direct or indirect human impact shall be alive again in healthy populations in their respective, healthy ecosystems and in such a way that humanity can and will coexist with them in a way that is detrimental to none of the species involved’.

    Positive side effects of such a wish would be that it would probably significantly alter human nature for the better and find out if all those Pleistocene species did go extinct due to human impact or not. Quite likely the ‘their respective, healthy ecosystems’ would also remove all ferals and domestics from various ecosystems they don’t naturally belong to.
    Oh well, one can dream.

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  20. 20. Yodelling Cyclist 9:14 am 08/20/2014

    there were live dodos and thylacines back then!

    Also the last of the elephant birds! Another century and you could witness the start of the Tudors or the last of the giant lemurs on Madagascar. Another century and the Byzantines were still struggling along, the hundred years war was in progress and the last of the Moa and Haast’s eagles were about.

    Two millenia and we could watch a carpenter get nailed to some wood (note that I am actually Christian and I still have a sufficiently dark sense of humour to find that a tad funny) or we could go looking for sylviornis or a bibymalagasy.

    The last of their kind…

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  21. 21. Yodelling Cyclist 9:36 am 08/20/2014

    ….then again I could also go to 1944 Hollywood and try to buy Ava Gardner a drink.

    “Hey babe, come and talk to me, I’ve got a time machine. No? Ok, hold my dodo while I pour myself an unnecessarily complex drink.”

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  22. 22. Yodelling Cyclist 9:37 am 08/20/2014

    …which I guess should be abbreviated to the pithier:

    “Hey babe, hold my dodo.”

    It might not be seductive, but it is memorable.

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  23. 23. Yodelling Cyclist 10:07 am 08/20/2014

    Tetzoo Podcast 30 is up! Woohoo! Where’s that unnecessarily complex drink I made Ava Gardner…

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  24. 24. naishd 10:10 am 08/20/2014

    Is it? Yikes. And – woo-hoo! – 23 comments :)

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  25. 25. vdinets 11:16 am 08/20/2014

    BrianL: recreating healthy native ecosystems for all anthropogenically extinct species would require a removal of lots of people.

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  26. 26. BrianL 2:07 pm 08/20/2014

    Hence the last part of the wish. It might be a bit difficult to accomplish, but hey, any genie worth his salt should expected to be able to make it happen somehow.

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  27. 27. Heteromeles 2:40 pm 08/20/2014

    I do believe that Jasper Fforde had a lot of fun with pet dodos awhile back.

    Anyway, I actually wrote a time travel story, and the general point was that there’s enough empty spaces in the past between the fossils that you could hide quite a few advanced civilizations back there. Furthermore, you’d need to, because someone had to feed and equip the rangers who are making sure that all the fossils get emplaced properly so that they didn’t screw up Continuity. The possibilities were (literally) endless, but I decided to put the Ranger’s academy in the safest place I could find: mid-Paleocene Scottish highlands. Cool, no large mammals or poisonous snakes, and totally lost to fossil history. Lovely spot for a small city, really.

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  28. 28. Yodelling Cyclist 2:57 pm 08/20/2014

    You’ve never been to Scotland, have you?

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  29. 29. Heteromeles 3:16 pm 08/20/2014

    Middle Paleocene Scotland? I suspect it would be rather like Kamuela, on the big island of Hawaii. Very temperate, probably covered in oak-chestnuts and conifers. Fun place, and about a kilometer higher than the Scotland of today.

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  30. 30. Jenny Islander 3:59 pm 08/20/2014

    Another one I think I posted here a while ago: The Kodiak Archipelago is currently home to enormous bears, which are protected in a national wildlife refuge. I postulated a series of highly improbable, but not impossible, events that would lead to a population of Mammuthus primigenius colonizing the island several thousand years before the bears did and furthermore surviving human presence long enough to become federally protected as a viable population. The Kodiak mammoth (a dwarf at “only” 7 feet at the shoulder and “just” a couple of tons) would have significant effects on the local ecosystem and culture.

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  31. 31. Heteromeles 4:15 pm 08/20/2014

    While we’re at it, I’ve pondered what might have happened if Homo erectus had made it across Beringia and into the Americas, there to evolve into, perhaps Homo occidentalis or some such. My idea here is that the megafauna would have coevolved with American hominins, and fewer of them would have died out at the end of the Pleistocene. It might make a decent fantasy setting at the very least, if there were Imperial mammoths, ground sloths, and American Lions around, and people rode camels because the local equines were too small and nasty to tame.

    Maybe someday.

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  32. 32. Yodelling Cyclist 4:40 pm 08/20/2014

    Make sure ground sloths get into Eurasia and rhinos into the Americas in your fantasy world.

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  33. 33. Jenny Islander 5:39 pm 08/20/2014

    @Heteromeles no. 31: The coasts and the Far North might still be dominated by H. sapiens.

    The coasts: If the S-humans who traveled along the coast had better boats than the local E-humans, they might fight to gain a foothold in good fishing or hunting territory or establish trade outposts (note that the Tlingit of Alaska, with some of the most capacious and durable shipping on the West Coast, traded as far south as California).

    The Far North: Colonizing the postglacial Far North required some awesome technological innovations (maintaining viable populations of draft dogs using technology that was almost entirely chewable, building efficient sleds, constructing durable housing from snow, etc.) that were prompted in part by the desire of immigrants to find new territory; the people who were already there in OTL apparently did not experience sufficient pressure to strike North from the relatively rich territories along the major rivers and in the forests.

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  34. 34. Jenny Islander 5:44 pm 08/20/2014

    About extinctions in this timeline: IIRC, giant tortoises and saber-toothed/scimitar-toothed cats went out when H. erectus was present in Africa. The one was basically a giant pile of meat and the other was probably competition. Not sure about other megafauna.

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  35. 35. naishd 5:45 pm 08/20/2014

    I’ve mentioned the alleged Mexican Homo erectus before, right? It’s mentioned in Meldrum’s bigfoot book.

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  36. 36. Yodelling Cyclist 6:35 pm 08/20/2014

    Noooooo you haven’t. That sounds like an entertaining ball of crazy to kick around.

    Also: the giant tortoises of Africa, India and elsewhere continental. I’ve really got to work out a good “cash for questions” that will get Dr. Naish talking about that.

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  37. 37. SeanMcCabe 6:51 pm 08/20/2014

    You’ve mentioned the Mexican Erectus in TetraPodCats before.

    Now that you mention it H. sapiens probably would be more successful in fishing areas. Is this documented anywhere in our fossil record?

    When are we talking for this H. erectus arrival in NA? If significantly earlier then H. sapiens HE arrival there are extinction implications here, and another hit to the remaining South American fauna.

    Anyway, have any of you other then Darren done any spec work? Personally I have a scenario where the Grande Coupure never happens, causing grass to go extinct outside of the Himalayas, the world staying are more less Eocene Levels for the rest of the Cenozoic, and Paleogene fauna surviving. I’ve done some Tylopod and Leptictid work for it, if you guys are interested.

    (p.s. How do you do italics?)

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  38. 38. SeanMcCabe 6:57 pm 08/20/2014

    Also, any sort of H. sapiens colonization of the Americas anything vaguely like Columbus would be interesting if the native Americans were H. erectus…

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  39. 39. Heteromeles 7:18 pm 08/20/2014

    @Sean: back to front: At the risk of unleashing another monster, italics are “less than” “i” “greater than” and “less than” “i” “greater than” if you get rid of the spaces and substitute the mathematical arrow symbols for less than and greater than. Or you can google “Basic html” and find the command for italics text. Note that if you do it wrong, you’ll screw up everyone’s subsequent posts until Darren fixes it, and that makes Darren very grumpy. And we don’t want Darren to be grumpy, do we? :D

    As for the Homo erectus in the Americas gig, my dumb idea is that H.erectus crossed Beringia over a million years ago, at some deep glacial maximum that was nonetheless warm enough for a naked ape to jog through, possibly in a wave of forest fires. There are two points to this mental exercise, really. The first and most important point was for American animals to coevolve with hominins, so that when the local hominins evolved into something more resembling H. sapiens, there wasn’t a wave of mass extinctions (this assumes that the Pleistocene Mega-kill hypothesis is basically correct). The second part is simply playing around with the idea of what it means to be human and/or developing an alternative Earth with multiple species of humans in it. I was thinking also that it would be kind of fun to set a sword-and-sandals type of fantasy in such a world, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.

    The big trap with an alternative world of this kind is that if you’re not careful, it turns into an allegory of the treatment of Indians by white settlers, and/or an attack on the legitimacy of Indian claims to their ancestral lands. I’m not interested in either, so at present it’s just another fantasy world I’m toying with.

    If you’re looking for European settlers encountering Homo erectus, that was done decades ago by Harry Turtledove in a series of short stories collected in A Different Flesh.

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  40. 40. Jenny Islander 8:08 pm 08/20/2014

    Being closer to technological parity would help prevent a scenario like that, but that’s veering pretty far from tetrapod zoology. Still, the basis would be reducing the amount of human muscle power needed in order to get stuff done, which would partially involve enlisting animal power and tangentially involve domesticating food animals. So, a list of animals that are at least related to animals that have been domesticated, depending on circumstances:

    *Llamas, vicunas, turkeys, cavies, stingless bees, as in our timeline
    *Pets: small Central American cats, coatis, red foxes, ditto
    *Fully domesticated Santa Rosa dwarf mammoths
    *Partially domesticated woolly or Columbian mammoths or mastodons (maintain a reserve where they breed in the wild and capture immature animals as needed)
    *Western camels or llamas or whatever they were (Camelops hesternus)
    *American horses
    *Bison? They’re pretty darn big, but so was the aurochs.

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  41. 41. CS Shelton 9:08 pm 08/20/2014

    Gert@8: “That only leaves planets with atmospheres of high pressure and heavy gases as a home for small ‘ballonts’, i.e. Venusian style planets.”

    I feel like the scifi cartoon “Cowboy Bebop” had floating plant organisms on Venus. But then, that postulated a Venus with a terraformed atmosphere, so it negated its own feasibility.

    @the speccin’ in the comments – I can’t imagine anything comparable to us evolving out of H. erectus without being similarly destructive, but how do African extinctions compare to elsewhere? Did that continent do better because of co-evolution, or is it just as bad?

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  42. 42. Heteromeles 9:16 pm 08/20/2014

    @Jenny: no love for the Channel Island foxes? The Chumash transported them from the northern to the southern Channel Islands, at least one was found buried with a human, and they were kept as illicit pets on Catalina until the 1970s, at least according to rumor. I think they’d make better pets than most of the Central American cats.

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  43. 43. SeanMcCabe 10:02 pm 08/20/2014

    What about deer? Fallow deer have been domesticated, have they not? I could see white tails being similar in NA.

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  44. 44. Heteromeles 11:14 pm 08/20/2014

    Western mule deer have been known to batter themselves to death against the walls of confinements when restrained, and they aren’t good herd animals. While some few have been tamed as fawns and subsequently released, in general they don’t make good domestic animals. I suspect that the Indians got it right, in hunting them rather than in trying to domesticate them.

    Bison might make domestic animals, but I suspect that Jared Diamond got it right when he said that most or all of the large domestic species were domesticated thousands of years ago.

    The fun argument is whether any extinct species could have been domesticated or at least tamed. That’s one part of the story that I don’t really understand. If an animal is so “tame” that it can be hunted to extinction, would it make a great pet, or not? Has anyone ever tried that with an island species, or is it simply that the lack of fear of humans doesn’t translate into domesticity at all?

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  45. 45. Jenny Islander 11:20 pm 08/20/2014

    @Heteromeles no. 42: I did not know that!

    @Sean McCabe: Semi-domesticated, actually, like bison: you can ranch them, you can train a special one to do unusual things, but you can’t small-farm them. Attempts at domesticating whitetails and blacktails have resulted in ranching as well. Now, if you have a horse-riding culture, you might end up with a ranching culture as well, depending on the available livestock. I could see E-humans guiding herds of semi-domesticated whitetails from river valley to river valley across the plains, for example.

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  46. 46. DavidMarjanovic 9:30 am 08/21/2014

    causing grass to go extinct outside of the Himalayas

    Grass is present in titanosaur coprolites from the Maastrichtian of India.

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  47. 47. Yodelling Cyclist 11:04 am 08/21/2014

    Huh. Is that the earliest grass record?

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  48. 48. Zoovolunteer 2:26 pm 08/21/2014

    Heteromeles: Has anyone ever tried that with an island species, or is it simply that the lack of fear of humans doesn’t translate into domesticity at all?

    Actually, I wonder if the successful domestication of the Atlantic Canary might be due to lack of fear, not just of humans. Prior to the human arrival on the Canary Islands there were hardly any nest predators except woodpeckers, so I suspect the tendency of birds to desert nests when they were interfered with might be much less than with their mainland relatives. Given that the original birds must have bred successfully despite being wild caught, crammed into wickerwork cages, and fed an alien diet they must have been unusually tolerant of strange conditions.

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  49. 49. SeanMcCabe 3:37 pm 08/21/2014

    @DavidMarjanovic: And what happens to be the place that made the Himalayas?

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  50. 50. vdinets 6:22 pm 08/21/2014

    George Steller said that Steller’s sea cow would be perfect for domestication. Alas, it was exterminated within 26 years of its discovery.

    Of course, it’s not a true island endemic. My understanding is that it used to inhabit all of North Pacific, but was killed off everywhere except the uninhabited Commander Islands in prehistoric times.

    The only domesticated island endemics that I can think of other than the canary are the blue subspecies of Arctic Fox from Pribilof and Bering Islands. Their descendants are commonly bred at fur farms, but I think it’s due to their fur color, not their tameness.

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  51. 51. Yodelling Cyclist 6:33 pm 08/21/2014

    But there have been so few true domestications…is it really surprising that there have been few from islands?

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  52. 52. vdinets 7:18 pm 08/21/2014

    I think it is. Not only because island animals tend to be very tame and have fewer anti-predatory defences, but also because the connection between overhunting and extinction should be more obvious on small islands. Just think about those Polynesians dragging their chicken all over Oceania while killing off hundreds of flightless species along the way.

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  53. 53. SeanMcCabe 8:25 pm 08/21/2014

    Wikipedia claims that Myotragus, which I’m sure anyone with knowledge of prehistoric insular faunas knows about, was attempted to be domesticated. It failed, evidently.

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  54. 54. SeanMcCabe 8:26 pm 08/21/2014

    Well, I’ve achieved italics. Now I just have to close them…

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  55. 55. vdinets 9:34 pm 08/21/2014

    Sean, the closing tag should be “less than”, “/”, “i”, “greater than”.

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  56. 56. Heteromeles 11:28 pm 08/21/2014

    @vdinets: so is domestication due to, say, sufficient overlap between human and animal social signals that they can learn the code as youngsters and get along thereafter? The thing I’m thinking about here is how our domestic species get along with each other, sometimes with no or minimal interference with humans. Cats and chickens can get along quite well, as can cats and dogs, dogs and horses, cats and horses, goats and horses, llamas and sheep, and so forth. I’d guess that, as much by chance as anything else, we’re seeing species that have cracked each others’ codes getting along with each other. This isn’t limited to humans and domestic species, of course. It’s similar to the mixed species flocks of birds seen all over the world.

    Perhaps insular species’ lack of defensive reactions (observed tameness) really isn’t the same as domesticity. Island species don’t see humans as predators, but they mostly don’t see humans as potential flockmates, either.

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  57. 57. vdinets 2:43 am 08/22/2014

    Hmm… domesticated species include goldfish and silkworm; I’m not sure they are talking to people that much. Wild animals of many species get along in zoos, particularly if kept together when young.

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  58. 58. Dartian 3:58 am 08/22/2014

    Prior to the human arrival on the Canary Islands there were hardly any nest predators except woodpeckers

    There are ravens on the Canary Islands. There are also several species of raptors (including sparrowhawks and kestrels), owls, and shrikes. Thus, I’m not so sure that the Canary bird in its natural environment can afford to be significantly less vigilant against predators than its mainland relatives. (Of course, this need not necessarily apply to island species in general – just the Canary bird in particular.)

    the blue subspecies of Arctic Fox from Pribilof and Bering Islands

    ‘Blue’ arctic foxes are not a separate subspecies; they’re just a colour morph that occurs throughout the range of the arctic fox (at varying frequencies).

    Incidentally, the current population of farmed arctic foxes in northern Europe (mainly Norway, Finland and Estonia) consists of a mix of founding individuals originally from not only Alaska, but also Greenland and Svalbard. Farmed arctic foxes occasionally escape from captivity, and pose a potential hazard to the highly endangered remaining native arctic fox population in Fennoscandia (Norén et al., 2009).

    Norén, K., Kvaløy, K., Nyström, V., Landa, A., Dalén, L., Eide, N.E., Østbye, E., Henttonen, H. & Angerbjörn, A. 2009. Farmed arctic foxes on the Fennoscandian mountain tundra: implications for conservation. Animal Conservation 12, 434-444.

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  59. 59. vdinets 5:35 am 08/22/2014

    Dartian: blue foxes are a color morph, but the foxes on Bering Sea islands are valid subspecies (two on Commander Islands and one on Pribilofs); having no white morph is only one of their differences. Foxes bred in Russian farms are a mix of Pribilof and Bering Island subspecies; they have escaped on Bering, so the local subspecies no longer exists in pure form. (The other Commander Is. subspecies, on Medny Island, is pure but endangered due to low numbers.) The ones in North American farms are most likely from the Pribilofs, but I am not sure.

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  60. 60. Dartian 5:58 am 08/22/2014

    the foxes on Bering Sea islands are valid subspecies (two on Commander Islands and one on Pribilofs); having no white morph is only one of their differences

    Valid (or at least generally recognised) subspecies, yes, but at least according to this source, at least on some of these islands a significant minority (ca. 25%) of the foxes are white.

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  61. 61. DavidMarjanovic 11:08 am 08/22/2014

    @DavidMarjanovic: And what happens to be the place that made the Himalayas?

    Even assuming that grass was limited to India in the Maastrichtian, it must have been unloaded to all of Eurasia as soon as India docked around the Paleocene/Eocene boundary. It took a lot longer than that till the Himalayas (and the Transhimalayas before them) became a mountain range of serious size.

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  62. 62. DavidMarjanovic 11:09 am 08/22/2014

    Oops, forgot:

    Huh. Is that the earliest grass record?

    Yes, AFAIK. It was quite a surprise when it was discovered.

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  63. 63. Yodelling Cyclist 11:58 am 08/22/2014

    I’m also a bit surprised that a titanosaur was a grazer.

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  64. 64. Yodelling Cyclist 12:08 pm 08/22/2014

    Thanks for the reply, BTW.

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  65. 65. Heteromeles 12:14 pm 08/22/2014

    The nuisance-y thing about the grasses is that the most primitive extant grasses (Pharus and Anomochloa) are South American genera, as noted in the Titanocoprolite paper. While I can understand if there’s no Pharus or Anomochloa pollen in the fossil record, since they’re both forest understory grasses and may be insect pollinated, as a number of forest understory grasses are (hard to get a wind beneath the trees). Still, most grasses are wind pollinated, and if grasses had spread and diversified so much by the late Cretaceous, where are the pollen fossils?


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  66. 66. Yodelling Cyclist 12:21 pm 08/22/2014

    I was hoping Heteromeles would comment on this. I’m wondering, apparently the Titanosaur coprolites contained phytoliths. I’m wondering two things (and I know even less about plants than animals): a.) could it be that a different group of plants evolved phytoliths? b.) could this be from (and I know this will upset the dino experts) a seagrass or similar aquatic plant (after all, moose and other extant herbivores dive after nutritious fresh water plants)?

    All the best,


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  67. 67. Heteromeles 1:18 pm 08/22/2014

    @YC: A lot of plants have phytoliths. However, grasses are really known for having distinctive ones, and grass phytoliths are regularly used as microfossils to study the presence and diversity of grasses in a particular fossil horizon. IIRC, many other plants have phytoliths that are like small pebbles. Grasses, conversely, use phytoliths as a central part of their defensive strategy, which is why mammalian grass-eaters need super-strong or ever-growing teeth to survive on a diet of grass leaves. I don’t think seagrasses have phytoliths, although I could be wrong.

    In this case, if we postulated that an extinct group of plants somehow managed to recreate not one but five different distinctive grass-like phytoliths, we’re off in the land of extraordinary hypotheses requiring extraordinary evidence.

    One confirmatory bit of evidence is that grasses are fairly closely related to palms, and we know there was some palm diversity in the Cretaceous. It’s far from impossible that there was a similar radiation of grasses, and it’s simply missing from the fossil record, at least until the East Antarctic ice sheet melts in about 500 years (or, hopefully, in the next 10 million years or more).

    The other thing we should be paying attention to is the Paleocene, particularly the PETM. We normally model it without grasses, but if they were present, how did the forests seem to win out so well? Is it simply that we’re lacking plant fossils from the relevant horizons? Or did the forests really take over the world after the dinosaurs, presumably because of the loss of the biggest grazers? This has implications for how our current climate change might play out, especially since our species is the biggest grass supporter around at the moment.

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  68. 68. Yodelling Cyclist 4:33 pm 08/22/2014

    @Heteromeles: Thanks for the informative post. Grasses are closely related to palms?

    Plants are officially even weirder than I thought….

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  69. 69. Heteromeles 9:01 pm 08/22/2014

    Glad to help.

    Grasses, palms, and bromeliads are sister orders within the monocots. Therefore, if you want to celebrate monocot diversity, you should drink a pina colada. It contains rum (made from a C4 grass, sugar cane), coconut milk (from a C3 coconut palm), and pineapple juice (from a CAM bromeliad, the pineapple). Three different photosynthetic systems, three different orders, one drink. Cheers!

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  70. 70. vdinets 1:33 am 08/23/2014

    That’s really cool. Mind if I borrow it?

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  71. 71. DavidMarjanovic 7:06 am 08/23/2014

    how did the forests seem to win out so well?

    Even today, grasslands only form where it’s dry enough; elsewhere, a forest grows unless humans or large herbivores do something about it. The Paleocene was warm and therefore wet.

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  72. 72. SeanMcCabe 10:24 am 08/23/2014

    Hence grasses taking over the Himalayas, yet the lowlands being covered in Rainforests (In my project.). This never happened in the Andes or Rockies because the grasses never got a hold in the New World in the timeline.

    I guess it could survive in some Chinease and African highlands, but it’d be rare at best.

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  73. 73. Heteromeles 10:54 am 08/23/2014

    @71: Erm, not quite. Check out the llanos, for example. There are grasses for every environment, from marshes to forest understories. Grasses indeed do well in dryer areas, but their real secret weapon is their resistance to fire and to grazing. Certainly they are harmed by these forces, but their competitors (especially young trees) are killed by them. As they teach in plant ecology, it’s not that plants dominate in their optimal environments, it’s that they dominate where they can outcompete everything else. Grasses can grow where trees would flourish in the absence of fire, but take away the fire (as in the tallgrass prairie regions of the upper Midwestern US, or the longleaf pine savannas of the southeast), and the forests turn into forests within a century. Similar things happen on the Serengeti. Without the grazers, it would be acacia bush.

    It’s possible that the K-Pg strike took out the grazers that were spreading the grasses, and that trees took over thereafter (at least in the few places where we have fossil evidence) simply because it took a long time for mammals to come up with decent, forest-destroying grazers, and insects like locusts simply weren’t up to the job in the meantime. Or it’s possible that there were grasses somewhere, and we don’t have the fossils.

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  74. 74. Heteromeles 10:57 am 08/23/2014

    @70: if you mean the pina colada story, feel free. I didn’t invent it, though. That came up at the UW-Madison botany department awhile ago.

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  75. 75. SeanMcCabe 11:17 am 08/23/2014

    I probably should’ve mentioned that a thermal maximum happens in the late Miocene in my project (Not my idea.). Grasses were spread across the old world, thought marginal at best, but was severely hit by the maximum and being restricted, thought someone successful, in northern India, creating grass oriented wetlands. This being the only such place on the planet, it acts as a barrier for the Asian fauna, saving the Indian fauna, until the Himalayas form and the grasses dominate there, further blocking significant faunal interchange. The grasses are never able to phase the lowland forests, and are trapped but dominate in the Himalayas to and passed “the modern day”.

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  76. 76. vdinets 12:51 pm 08/23/2014

    Heteromeles: thanks. I’ve read somewhere that the reason Serengeti has such postcard-type savanna is not grazing, but its unusual soil. It’s been created over time by eruptions of natrocarbonatite volcanoes to the west (Oldonyo Lengai is the youngest of them), and doesn’t allow much tree growth.

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  77. 77. DavidMarjanovic 6:55 am 08/24/2014

    Oh yeah, I forgot about fire. (And I have no idea about soil.)

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  78. 78. SeanMcCabe 8:14 am 08/24/2014

    @Fire: True, but to say fires are good for grass and bad for trees is a big simplification of things.

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  79. 79. Heteromeles 4:58 pm 08/24/2014

    @Sean: Absolutely, but I’m writing a blog post, not a 50 page review article.

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