1747: Spider Paleontology

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Spider Paleontology
Whenever you see a video of birds doing something weird, remember: Birds are a small subset of dinosaurs, so the weirdness of birds is a small subset of the weirdness of dinosaurs.
Title text: Whenever you see a video of birds doing something weird, remember: Birds are a small subset of dinosaurs, so the weirdness of birds is a small subset of the weirdness of dinosaurs.


This Monday comic was the first in a series that continued in the next Wednesday release 1748: Future Archaeology.

A time-traveler (the black floating energy Sphere) visits present day from the far future. Spiders are the Spheres civilization's current craze, just as dinosaurs are currently our craze. The Jurassic Park media franchise began with the first film in 1993 and the year before the release of this comic (in 2015) the fourth movie Jurassic World were released with at least one more film in development. And we also have theme parks and kids dressing up as dinosaurs.

It arrives in the presence of Megan and Cueball and tells them who it is and why it is here, to see spiders which they learned about through fossils. Megan points it towards a spider sitting in it's web and the Sphere is awestruck to see the object of its obsession in the living flesh. Spider webs do in fact fossilize in amber (and most fossils of spiders are found in amber due to the soft body of spiders which do not easily petrify), but the reason we know that these fossils are of spider web is because we can compare to the spiders of today. If not for the fact that we knew about spiders webs in advance it would be hard to say if we would have made the connection from the amber fossils. The Sphere is thus surprised to see the spider in a web since they had not understood any possible hint of spiderwebs in the fossil records, from which the Sphere's civilization gathered all their knowledge of spiders. Spiders have been on Earth at least for 380 million years and are still thriving and more than 40,000 species are known.

We, with our current knowledge, know that webs are an essential part of a spiders life. Making sense of a spiders life is practically impossible without including their webs. However, the future-people have done so until now; discovering how wrong they are is bound to become an intense experience for them.

It is unclear what the Sphere is. Since it states that the spiders they know of is from fossils from your planet, it seems likely that the Sphere is neither human nor from our planet. So most likely they are a space traveling species. Hence it seems unlikely that they are humans. The appearance as a sphere may either be an indication that they did not travel in person but rather only looks out at the past through the energy sphere, or it may be that these aliens are actually spheres, floating as energized objects in space. In that case this is an actual alien floating in front of Megan and Cueball. The Spheres civilization did already have the spider craze before they invented time travel. It seems like the first the Sphere decided to use time travel for was to go back to see real spiders on Earth. This also tells us that they are from so far into the future that there are no spiders left. Of course with climate changes etc. going on, that may not necessarily be too far into the future. As long as the human race (or knowledge of spiders) has also disappeared from Earth. But since the Sphere it self tells us that it comes from a distant future, the setting is not related to how fast humans and spiders becomes extinct.

Megan immediately connects the fact that the Sphere did not even know about spiderweb to our current understanding of dinosaurs: If a future civilization think they understand spiders based on fossil, while missing something as essential (but non-fossilizing) as their web, what are the human civilization missing about dinosaurs? Cueball quickly catches on, and both ask if they can borrow the time-machine to experience their own revelations about dinosaurs just like the revelation the Sphere has just had about spiders.

The title text calls back to one of Randall's favorite facts (see 1211: Birds and Dinosaurs) - that birds are technically part of the clade Dinosauria. Birds do lots of weird stuff - like starlings flocking, the dances of birds of paradise, lyrebird mimicry or petrels puking stomach oil. Randall says that for every time a birds does something weird then it is likely that dinosaurs would have had equally strange behaviors, and birds are only a small subset of all dinosaurs. So there would have been even more strange behaviors among the dinosaurs than among the present days birds. It is, however, basically impossible to tell from the fossil record. All we know is that dinosaurs had features such as display feathers (like on a Peafowl, neck frills, and crests (like on the Dimetrodon) which likely played a role in mating and territorial shows.

Similar talking floating energy spheres have been seen before in 1173: Steroids and 1450: AI-Box Experiment. These two other dots are clearly not the same as the time traveler Sphere in this comic.

This is the second comic with special mentioning of a science related directly to spiders, the first being 1135: Arachnoneurology.


[A seven-panel comic featuring Cueball, Megan, and a time-traveler from the distant future, possibly from somewhere other than Earth. The time-traveler is depicted as a solid, floating black dot surrounded by six outwardly-curved segments, surrounded by small dots. In the second panel, the depiction is slightly different.]
[The time-traveler floats on the left facing Megan who is in the center facing left. Cueball is to Megan's right and also facing left.]
Time-traveler: I'm here from the distant future!
Megan: Cool! What for?
Time-traveler: Spiders!
[A close-up of the time-traveler, depicted as a diffuse black smudge surrounded by seven narrow rays with irregular dots between the rays.]
Time-traveler: We've learned about your planet's spiders from fossils.
Time-traveler: There's a whole spider craze. We have spider theme parks, spider movies, spider costumes...
Time-traveler: Such beautiful animals!
Megan (off-panel): I guess...
[Back to the time-traveler, Megan and Cueball as shown before. Megan is gesturing left, past the time-traveler.]
Time-traveler: Now we've got time travel, so I'm here to see one for myself!
Megan: Sure! There's one over there!
[The time-traveler floats over a leafless plant. A spider web is strung between the border of the left panel and the leafless plant. A spider is in the center of the web.]
Time-traveler: Woowwww!
Time-traveler: What's that giant net it's caught in?
Megan (off-panel): You mean its web?
Time-traveler: Its what?
[Back to a scene similar to the first, depicting the time traveler, Megan and Cueball]
Megan: Oh, right, fossils. So you wouldn't know about...
[In a frame-less panel only Megan is shown facing left.]
Megan: ...
[Again a scene similar to the first.]
Megan: Oh my God. Dinosaurs must have been so weird.
Cueball: Holy crap, yeah.
Megan: Listen, can we borrow your time machine?

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I think it the first XKCD I don't get :P 13:02, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

  • I don't believe you, no-one except Randall Himself is that smart ;-) Anyways, hope the explanation I added helps some 13:40, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

I like how the 6th panel has no borders. To me it signifies the broadening of her horizons, the going beyond her previous limits, as the realisation sinks in. 14:14, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

I remember reading about a fossil of a spider with its web, but I don't remember where I read about it. I don't suppose anyone else has heard the same? (Ideally someone who remembers the source?) 15:27, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/6467024/Fossil-hunter-finds-140-million-year-old-spiders-web.html mwburden (talk) 16:44, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Although, with no prior knowledge of webs, that fossil would not have been much help! Miamiclay (talk) 03:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Other fossil spiderwebs:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0807_030807_spiderweb.html http://www.amnh.org/our-research/science-news/2006/110-million-year-old-spider-web-with-insect-prey-found-preserved-in-amber/

Randall is simply mistaken here. 13:43, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Actually not all spiders spin webs, Wolf spiders chase their prey. So 'Future Guy' could get equally confused but limited observations of just one type. RIIW - Ponder it (talk) 17:45, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Anyone think this is the character from the Steroids comic? Looks fairly similar. 16:08, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

It does seem to be the same basic design, but not identical. Of course, the whatever-it-is seen here is not even depicted consistently from panel to panel, so the differences from #1173 don't mean it's a different character, either. 19:22, 17 October 2016 (UTC)
No I do not. I have moved ref to other energy spheres into the new series category for these comics: Category:Time traveling Sphere. I also went through all series and then made a detailed list of all types of series on the Category:Comic series page. All "real" series are listed chronologically there and the type (five in one week/two over long time) are mentioned and specified. There is also know a detailed discussion on how strange this comic series release schedule is. --Kynde (talk) 23:46, 25 October 2016 (UTC)

Possibly related: Where do Dinosaurs go when it rains? - https://xkcd.com/1434/ 17:48, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Good as a joke, but note that the visitor from future is speaking English. The idea that English will remain but knowledge about webs vanishes ... seriously? Did no one though about spiders used to download parts of world wide web in future? -- Hkmaly (talk) 13:47, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

We already have floating energy spheres and time travel. A universal translator is universally likely. — -- 19:33, 27 June 2018 (UTC)
Considering this comic is about time travel, I somehow doubt Randall was setting out to be scientifically accurate 16:17, 18 October 2016 (UTC)
He's Randall, isn't he? -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

did anyone notice that the time traveller says "your planet's spiders". It's possible that a far distant future human is living on a different planet, but it's odd phrasing. 20:03, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

What makes you think the time traveller is human? -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Within a few weeks before this comic, Nature published a study claiming that rather than roaring, many dinosaurs may have cooed and/or quacked. I wonder if this sort of new information inspired Randall to wonder what other facts about dinosaurs we don't yet know. 21:56, 18 October 2016 (UTC)