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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 02-2013

After the asteroid impact

How North America got its plants and animals back

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happened to the cology of North America after the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago:

Last week, just as a meteorite exploded over Russia, I used this space for an email to Charles Darwin, wherever he is. I told him about the now overwhelming evidence for an asteroid impact having caused the extinction of dinosaurs. I thought he would be interested because it is a striking exception to his "uniformitarian" assumption that, in the past, evolution was shaped by the same forces still operating on Earth today.

Evolution, extinction and asteroids

The Chicxulub impact and the dinosaur extinction coincided

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, published the day after a big asteroid missed the earth by 17,000 miles and a smaller one blew out windows in Russia, is about the huge one that extinguished the dinosaurs just over 66 million years ago:

The future has a richer past than the past did. By this I mean that one of the great benefits of modern science is that it enriches our knowledge of the past. Imagine how thrilled Charles Darwin would have been to learn this week that it's now all but certain that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid (much bigger than the one that missed us this week) slamming into Mexico about 66,038,000 years ago. In fact, I might send him an email to explain.

When species extinction is a good thing

Will Jimmy Carter exterminate Guinea worm soon?

It's not a race, exactly, but there's an intriguing uncertainty about whether a former U.S. president or a software magnate will cause the next deliberate extinction of a species in the wild. Will Jimmy Carter eradicate Guinea worm before Bill Gates eradicates polio?

It is more than a third of a century since a human disease was extinguished. The last case of smallpox was in 1977, and in those days health experts expected other diseases to follow smallpox quickly into oblivion. Polio has repeatedly disappointed campaigners by hanging on, though it now affects less than 1% as many people as at its peak in the 1950s.

The generosity of Bill Gates has done much to speed the decline of polio, and he and most experts now see its end within six years at most. India, 10 years ago the worst-affected country, has been polio-free since 2011, and only three countries still host the virus: Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Nigeria. Though the murder of nine polio vaccinators in Pakistan by Islamists in December was a tragic setback, last year there were just 222 new polio cases world-wide.

Insects that put Google maps to shame

Dung beetles, monarch butterflies and the role of cryptochrome

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the esoteric topic of insect navigation:

A friend who once studied courtship in dung beetles alerted me last week to a discovery. On moonless nights, African scarab beetles, which roll balls of dung, can use the Milky Way to navigate in fairly straight lines away from dung piles, thus avoiding other dung beetles keen to steal their dung balls. "Now this is real science, simple, fascinating and completely wonderful," enthused my friend.

Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues put dung beetles inside a planetarium at Wits University in South Africa with a pile of dung, and with or without little caps over their eyes. The results of the beetles' peregrinations clearly showed that being able to see the stars keeps the beetles relatively straight, even if just the Milky Way is projected overhead without other stars. This is the first demonstration of star navigation by insects and of Milky Way navigation by any animal.