Gooseneck barnacles and Barnacle Geese

One of the joys of biology lies in appreciating how strange and varied the world is. When humanity starts to feel claustrophobic, you can imagine the life of an albatross, aloft over the ocean for most of her life, searching out schools of delicious fish by their scent; or a cuttlefish, flashing colored signals at his companions as he shoots through the currents, flexible tentacles waving. When the world feels narrow and limiting, you can remember that clownfish change sexes depending on their place in the dominance hierarchy, with males becoming female when they advance to the position of top dog.

Yet—amazingly—biology used to be even wilder. Before satellite tracking and genetic analysis, before “biology” was a recognized science at all, natural philosophers looked at a perplexing natural world and invented some truly outside-the-box explanations for what they saw.

Some of these are fairly well known: for example, the idea that there is a “homunculus”—a tiny human—inside the head of each human sperm cell.

preformation

As drawn by N. Hartsoeker in 1695. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=635170

To be fair, we now know that sperm (and eggs, etc.) contain the genetic blueprint for building a human, which isn’t all that far off from containing a tiny human.

But my favorite old science myth involves—of course!—birds.

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If you meet a time-traveling ancient Egyptian, talk about birds

The next time you come across an ancient Egyptian mummy in a museum, rather than thinking of looming pyramids and cursed tomb robbers, consider this: that mummy was probably a better birder than you are.

Okay, I don’t know if the ancient Egyptians would have considered it “birding” – I doubt they maintained life lists. But they certainly knew their birds to a degree that I doubt many in the modern era could equal. The Oriental Institute’s exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt” showcases just how thoroughly birds permeated every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. They painted birds and sculpted them, drew them in their writing as hieroglyphs, raised and shepherded and ate them, and saw their gods embodied in their forms.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile.Photo Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile, as most animals (including humans) were.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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