By DAVID NG
Jesus then entered the farm, and saw creatures of every shape and size, and so said to his followers, “Hey, my Dad made that creature, and that creature, and also that creature… Actually, now that I think about it, he made them all.”
And at the early dawn of the seventh day, just before He rested, God did a lot of pretty complicated things at super duper God speed. This was so that people would think the whole Creation thing probably took a lot longer than seven days.
The heavens opened and the angels proclaimed, “Fear any literate man, capable of impressive facial hair, who is uncomfortable on boats, has a thing for finches, and is named Darwin, for he is basically an unrighteous phony. So it is said in the very literal Kingdom of God.”
And the Lord said, “Yes, my child, the unicorn was a first edit. They were poorly designed so I had to do away with them – kept goring themselves when nuzzling and stuff. Indeed, not my best work.”
With Cain facing Abel, God then commanded, “Look deeply into his eye, and marvel at my handiwork, because my child, making that eye work properly, took, like, for freakin’ ever!”
And God appeared to Moses as a Burning Bush – not a monkey, but a bush. Because clearly, God is no monkey.
Hope so… (send in some submissions if you hope so too)
Full paper available here (pdf)
Journal of Fantastic Phylogenetics 2012 8(9): 42-49
Abstract: In this study we present the preliminary finding of what could be the first record in history of hybridization between mammalian Orders (Perissodactyla and Cetacea). Phylogenetic analyses from the unicorn (Equus unicornus) mitochondrial genes (protein-coding Cytochrome b, Cytb) show a matriline belonging to the Narwhal (Monodon monceros) while nuclear (V-kit Hardy-Zuckerman 4 feline sarcoma viral oncogene homolog, Kit) clearly show a sister relationship of the unicorn-pegasus (Equus alatus) clade with the rest of the Perissodactyl family Equidae. Our preliminary study strongly suggests the need for further investigation because this finding could completely revolutionise our understanding of the processes of hybridization in mammals.
From the Introduction:
Hybridization is widely known from the plant kingdom (Rieseberg & Carney 1998) and horizontal gene transfer has been repeatedly reported in prokaryotes (Jain et al. 1999). However, these forms of genetic exchange have never been prevalent (or even recorded in the case of horizontal gene transfer) in the Mammalia and never been recorded at such an evolutionary distance between organisms (Equidae and Cetacea).
Here are presented the incongruent results from two phylogenies built with mitochondrial and nuclear genes of E. unicornus showing relatedness to two different orders of the Mammalia.
This awesome fake paper by Anna Bazzicalupo, via the Science Creative Quarterly
DARWIN AS SANTA (A.K.A. ONE WAY DARWIN COULD JUMP THE SHARK)
See other Ways Darwin Could Jump the Shark
“Sporting his full white beard, Darwin is hired to impersonate Santa Claus at the local mall. He initially does well in this job, looking the part, being punctual, amicable, and knowledgeable about reindeer. However, he soon begins to insist on teaching children words like “invertebrate.” He also starts giving out stylish feces beads instead of candy canes. Later, he gets in an argument with another Santa Claus in another mall over biologically sound explanations for Rudolph’s glowing nose. The “Darwin vs. Santa Claus” fistfight goes viral on YouTube.”
By David Ng via McSweeney’s. Image: Source Unknown.
(see more of Popperfont’s Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravanganza here)
“This image from Ernst Haeckel’s 1874 The Evolution of Man shows comparisons between cross-sections of different animals and their embryos at different stages of development. For Haeckel the development of an embryo retraced the evolutionary history of the animal. The different colors represent the four types of tissues out of which all the organs formed. Ernst Haeckel. Anthropogenie, oder, Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen. Leipzig: W. Engelmann. 1874.” – link
“Title: Outlines of Comparative Physiology
Maker: Louis Agassiz, 1851
Significance: In opposition to Darwin” – link
“Nott, Types of Mankind
Here American physician J. C. Nott attempted to illustrate geologist Louis Agassiz’s theory, which was that each region of the world was populated by separately created sets of species, both animal and human. Such ideas about human species at the time were often influenced by western racial prejudices, as the idea of multiple, separately created races could be used to justify slavery and other forms of subjugation. Darwin disagreed, firmly maintaining that all humans were descended from the same human ancestor. Josiah Clark Nott (1804–1873). Types of Mankind…. Philadelphia: Lippincott and Grambo, 1854.” – link
By DAVID NG
He makes exploitative
Darwin appears as the “man in need of a haircut” in an episode of Gossip Girl, and is the first contestant voted off Survivor: Galápagos. Eventually makes Barbara Walters’s list of most fascinating people of the year. Cries during interview.
He sells Darwinian fashion accessories
Darwin takes advantage of the current interest in natural fashion products. Begins marketing items like organic-cotton neckties and honey-flavored lip gloss. Darwin-sanctioned “stylish feces beads” appear soon after.
Darwin becomes a staff writer at Rolling Stone. Is asked to critique animal-related movies. Loses credibility when caught gushing over Catwoman.
Hosts free holiday cruises
Moonlighting as an authority on nature and boats, Darwin takes advantage of free holiday cruises. His cruise talks are very successful and Darwin becomes the No. 1 hit when Googling the words “lido deck.”
Guest-stars on The Dog Whisperer
Memos to the effect of “He sailed on a boat called the Beagle. Isn’t a beagle a dog?” begin to circulate. Capitalizing on this attention, Darwin joins The Dog Whisperer as a dog-anatomy expert. Wins Emmy for segment on comparative dog-tail structure. In acceptance speech, cites the fact that “dog” spelled backward is “god” as evidence of a Christian conspiracy.
Joins the Ice Capades
Darwin is hired for small part in a Lion King–themed ice show. Takes skating lessons and practices hard. Soon nails both the triple axel and the triple lutz. Is fired from the show when he tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Loses his mind
Darwin endorses Scientology.
Dresses up as Santa Claus during holidays
Sporting his full white beard, Darwin is hired to impersonate Santa Claus at the local mall. He initially does well in this job, looking the part, being punctual, amicable, and knowledgeable about reindeer. However, he soon begins to insist on teaching children words like “invertebrate.” He also starts giving out stylish feces beads instead of candy canes. Later, he gets in an argument with another Santa Claus in another mall over biologically sound explanations for Rudolph’s glowing nose. The “Darwin vs. Santa Claus” fistfight goes viral on YouTube.
(Originally published at McSweeney’s for Darwin’s bicentennary)
By DAVID NG
Unicorns are great. Seriously.
And here I’m going to think out loud and think of them in a conventional biology sort of way. You know – have a little fun evolution wise.
In many respects (except for the magical powers bit) I don’t think this is necessarily too hard to do. i.e. you have something that looks like a horse, but hey what’s this – there’s also a horn there.
I guess the question I’m pondering is whether a unicorn could occur from a realistic evolutionary biology point of view – you know, given the right circumstances and the right timescale. And if so, exactly what sort of things, biologically and genetically, would need to happen?
Anyway, here’s a couple options to sift through.
One possible way to get the whole horn thing started on a poor horse is through a condition known as “cutaneous horn” formation. In this situation, you essentially have an abnormal, sometimes cancerous growth, that results in a keratin structure protruding from the skin.
(Here’s a picture of a cutaneous horn – it’s kind of ugly)
“Cutaneous horns usually arise on sun-exposed skin but can occur even in sun-protected areas. The hyperkeratosis that results in horn formation develops over the surface of a hyperproliferative lesion. Most often, this is a benign verruca or seborrheic keratosis; or it could be a premalignant actinic keratosis. A malignancy has been reported at the base of a cutaneous horn in up to 20% of lesions. More than half of all cutaneous horns are benign.Benign lesions associated with cutaneous horns include angiokeratoma, angioma, benign lichenoid keratosis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, dermatofibroma, discoid lupus, infundibular cyst, epidermal nevus, epidermolytic acanthoma, fibroma, granular cell tumor, inverted follicular keratosis, keratotic and micaceous pseudoepitheliomatous balanitis, organoid nevus, prurigo nodularis, pyogenic granuloma, sebaceous adenoma, seborrheic keratosis, trichilemmoma, and verruca vulgaris. Lesions with premalignant or malignant potential that may give rise to cutaneous horns include adenoacanthoma, actinic keratosis, arsenical keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, Bowen’s disease, Kaposi sarcoma, keratoacanthoma, Paget’s disease, renal cell carcinoma, sebaceous carcinoma, solar keratosis, and squamous cell carcinoma.” (From eMedicine)
So you have something producing horn-like features, and whilst not exactly common, is still within the realm of possibility.
However, this possibility of unicorn evolution is kind of weak, because often the base of the “horn” structure is not at all stable, and in fact it looks like these horn structures can often be quite easily removed surgically. As well, this is not really a heritable trait in the usual sense – i.e. normally these structures are formed due to abnormal growth coming from a one cell, possibly mutated from exposure to a some mutagen (the sun is often sited for example). In other words, whilst susceptibility to the abnormal growth is likely genetic, the act of it always occuring on the horses head is less so (or something like that).
In other words, let’s move on.
One thing I can say is that it’s interesting to note that both the horse ((Equus ferus caballus) and the rhino (Rhinocerotidae) both belong to the Perissodactyla order, also often termed the odd-toed ungulates. This suggests that in the grand scheme of things, these two types of creatures are not so far apart. Whilst obviously interbreeding isn’t an option (since the species barrier would presumably be more than sufficient to disallow the formation, as well as the propagation, of hybrids unicorn like rhino-horses), it does present the idea that however the horn formed on the rhino, this could still be in the realm of reality with something like a horse.
Which actually makes all the more sense when you look through a paper published in the Journal of Morphology in 2006, which did CT scanning of rhinoceros’ horns to get a better sense of their anatomy. Here, the suggestion is that the horn of rhinos are markedly different from a horn of, say, a sheep. Specifically:
“The horns of most animals have a bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails. Rhino horns are unique, however, because they are composed entirely of keratin.”
This might fit a little with the “cutaneous horn” angle, but then another observation came about from the CT scans. The lead authors goes on to say that:
“The horns most closely resemble the structure of horses’ hoofs, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. This might be related to the strength of these materials, although more research is needed in this area.”
And this nugget of information brings up a delicious possibility.
That is – maybe a unicorn could develop initially from a mutation within a hox gene, resulting in a hoof like structure coming out of the animal’s head. And in case, you’re wondering what a hox gene is all about, it’s essentially:
(From wiki) “A group of related genes that specify the anterior-posterior axis and segment identity of metazoan organisms during early embryonic development. These genes are critical for the proper number and placement of embryonic segment structures (such as legs, antennae, and eyes).”
In plain speak, this simply means that the hox family of genes are the grand controllers of body architecture – as in your arms go here, your head here, and this is about right for your big toes. In other words, for our unicorn, we really just need a mutational event where something meant to be coming out at the limbs is inadvertently coming out of the wrong part of the general body plan.
Classic examples of hox mutants occur in fly embryogenesis, and here are two of many examples of mutations that result in something along the lines of a foot/leg like structure coming out of the head area.
This is an image of a fly with a mutated proboscipedia gene: basically the labium develops into a pair of legs (image link)
All to say that I’m wondering if the hox idea might actually have some (pardon the pun) legs to it.
Of course, even so, the hox idea would only be part of the story. Natural selection and the whole epic time scale stuff would still need to do its thing. Here, I must admit that I am curious to see what readers would think are the best environmental conditions (serious and funny ones) to produce the right selecting pressures for unicorn morphology. Maybe a few suggestions in the comments section would be cool?
And what about those magical powers? Well, how about we let the Intelligent Design folks debate over that one…