Thursday, October 30, 2014

Unfortunate accident, worse reporting

The Antares rocket that failed the other night has been subject to a lot of misreporting.  One repeated claim on CNN was that there was "classified equipment" on board.  All launch vehicle companies encrypt their telemetry so no one unauthorized can read or affect the data stream.  We're talking about commercially available stuff here. 
I saw an article on one website claiming "5 Astronauts Dead" even though it was seemingly universal knowledge that the flight was un-crewed, taking a robotic supply vehicle up for the ISS. And there was constant chatter about a "NASA rocket." No, it was a private rocket under contract.  Then there were people commenting online that we ought to go back to "NASA rockets" vs. private ones. News flash: every U.S. orbital booster ever was built by contractors. 
The rocket's owner, Orbital Sciences (a company I know and admire, though I've never worked for them) IS very fortunate no one was hurt. That was one heck of an explosion.  Kerosene, liquid oxygen, hydrazine from the upper stage, detonation charges set off by Range Safety Officer - enough to run everyone's day. Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is in bad shape.  Repairs will take months and cost millions.
Space flight will never be entirely routine. This failure comes after a long run of American successes (including over 60 from United Launch Alliance), but it does bring to mind Wernher von Braun's comment after the Apollo 1 fire: "This should remind us that we are not in the business of making shoes."

Good luck, Orbital, and I hope you solve this soon.


Monday, October 20, 2014

The fun (and science) of giant arthropods

How big can jointed-legged animals (arthropods) get? Well, the answer (at least the answer for land animals) is all over the internet, and it's pretty darn scary.

A Goliath spider commonly described as "puppy-sized" freaked out even the scientist who found it: "I couldn't understand what I was seeing."
Everyone likes a really big insect, spider, or crab when the film script calls for a monster.  From the insectoid MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) in the last Godzilla movie to the claims of a "Crabzilla" photographed off England, giant arthropods things have sparked our fears and imaginations.  As a kid, I loved the giant ants in Them! (a good movie, really) and The Deadly Mantis (not that bad a movie, despite being savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Peter Jackson's King Kong remake was crowded with outsized arachnids, which fortunately were vulnerable to being shot away from a person's body by a writer who had never handled a submachine gun before.  (All us writers want submachine guns on occasion.)
Such creatures appear in written fiction, of course, as well; Greg Beck recently wrote a pretty good thriller called The First Bird which included spiders big enough to trap and poison humans and centipedes big enough to... umm, you really don't want to know.


The Goliath spider, Theraphosa blondi (Wikimedia Commons)


So, how big can such creatures actually be? The answer is as much in the realm of engineering as in biology.  An animal is essentially a machine taking in oxygen and some form of fuel convertible to fats, sugars, etc. It needs enough of these inputs to fuel the digestive system and spin off energy to run all the other processes (growth, mating, thinking, etc. - all the things that make the being autonomous (the word "autotroph" having come into widespread use thanks to The Big Bang Theory.) )
There are limits to practical sizes of all animal types, just like there are of man-made machines.
To look at an artificial example, we can build big tanks, but we couldn't scale a Tiger tank up to the size of a blue whale: the power-to-weight ratios of internal combustion engines and the strength-to-weight ratios of metals are inadequate. (To get picky, you might conceptualize a movable object that size with using a fission reactor and nanomaterials, but it would be a totally different type of machine design: the tank "order" long ago reached its limits. )
In the natural world, said blue whale, of which giant specimens may push 200 metric tons, is probably the practical limit for all animals, Godzilla notwithstanding. There's only a certain percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, and mammalian lungs are the most efficient way devised to extract it.  The spiracles and book lungs used by arachnids just are not as good. (The movie Mimic, with its human-sized cockroaches, had the beasts evolve lungs: that film was especially scary to us former Floridians who have seen them almost that big.)
Another killer is the weight of an exoskeleton and the effects of gravity. The square cube law says that, if you double an animal's size in all three dimension, the resulting beast has eight times the weight. The blue whale uses an internal skeleton and the support of water, from which it can't emerge without internal collapse and death. Crabzilla, a photoshop job claimed to be over 15m across, simply couldn't have dragged that massive armored skeleton anywhere even if the respiratory system could support it. A truly awful novel called Spider Legs, by Clifford Pickover, with co-authorship by Piers Anthony, who I'm told was brought in late as a "book doctor," went through all kinds of contortions describing the artificial enhancements (not one of which would have actually worked) by an unscrupulous scientist/breeder to create a monster crustacean.
Anyway, the biggest crustacean ever to live was a Devonian-age sea scorpion or eurypterid  called Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It may have been 2.5m long and would scare the daylights out of anyone. 

 
Jaekelopterus rhenaniae (Wikimedia Commons)

Today we have to make do with the American lobster (up to 20 kg in exceptional specimens) and, for land-dwellers, the bizarre coconut crab (about 4kg).  And we have the Goliath spider, of course.
There are some oddities in the cryptozoological literature.  A bizarre animal reported off Florida and nicknamed Specs for its protruding eyes was suggested by zoologist Karl Shuker in a book to be a possible surviving sea scorpion, but there was only one witness and no one has reported it since. Then you have the spiders. There are at least two reports of a "small dog"-sized or larger spider (complete with web) from Papua New Guinea, one of similar-size spiders from Vietnam, a "washtub sized" spider in the United States and an even bigger species from the Congo. (Shuker has thoughtfully collected these here.)
No matter how you slice the engineering, spiders the size of coffee tables, much less crabs the size of small yachts, just don't work. But giant arthropods will always be with us in fiction. And they'll always be scary.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tomorrow... The Dolmen will be opened

My first novel, The Dolmen, will be out on October 15 from Wolfsinger Publications as an ebook, available in paperback by October 24.  This blend of horror and police procedural, sprinkled with a little bit of science, will take you into an English megalithic tomb and ask, "Is it wise to illegally import a dolmen for a private museum?"  The answer is "No" - and it's not just because lawyers get involved.  Something else was imported, too.. something that threatens to turn the City of Angels into the gates of hell. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: Deep, by James Nestor

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
by James Nestor
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
272pp.
       
This book, like its subject, is breathtaking. Nestor takes us into the world of freedivers, people who go down 100 meters and more with no equipment - and no air.  
Along with following the most dangerous of sports (side note: I would have appreciated a chart or list defining the different disciplines he alludes to), he shows us how this practice came into being as a way to gather food and sponges and to salvage cargo from sunken ships. Nestor visited the handful of living amas, Japanese women who still practice freediving in its ancient form.





Nestor does a good job explaining the physiology involved. Freedivers make use of the mammalian dive reflex, also called the Master Switch of Life (which sounds much cooler) and hone it to incredible levels.  This takes years of training: trying to push one's capabilities too deep, too soon can and does result in death.  As Nestor makes clear, even experienced and careful freedivers take enormous risks.   There is no other sport where blackouts and bleeding from various facial apertures are considered normal. The scariest group of freedivers are the no-limits divers who use weighted sleds to go deep and inflate balloons to rise.  The no-limits record is pushing 215 meters, which was
the maximum rated depth for the Type VII U-boat of World War II.   Nestor takes interesting detours into deep-sea research, including some types enhanced by freediving. Freedivers report that sharks don't bother them and whales accept them to an impressive degree (Nestor doesn't mention that scuba divers, whom freedivers rather look down on, have reported amazing cetacean encounters, too: it's not clear from this book whether there's really a degree of contact unique to freedivers.) He also touches on such interesting subjects as hydrothermal vents, bottom ooze, and privately owned deep-diving submarines: I never knew it was possible to buy a ticket to go down 900 meters in a hand-built sub.  Nestor brings the book to a close on a dive where he finally finds the Master Switch for himself.
As a reader and researcher into marine subjects, I was genuinely sorry to have this book end.




Sunday, October 05, 2014

Cryptozoology fiction: Eve, by J.M. Bailey

Eve
J.M. Bailey
self-published (CreateSpace)
2012

I used to be able to keep up with all the cryptozoology novels: in the indie age, I couldn't hope to do so, so I have to pick the ones that look intriguing. Bailey's looked intriguing, and it was. I enjoyed J.M. Bailey's novel about finding Sasquatch - or, rather, being found by Sasquatch. Eve is a well-written bit of speculation (only a couple of misspellings and clunky sentences pop up) by an author who knows the wilderness and clearly knows her Sasquatch lore (the old Albert Ostman tall tale of being kidnapped by a sasquatch family is an obvious influence.) Bailey makes a brave and successful decision as a writer by making her first-person narrator a profane and not entirely likable woman. The narrator's descriptions of her feelings about the hominid Sasquatches she meets are sometimes a little hyperbolic, but, to be fair, she is describing an event that would pretty much blow the fuses in the human brain. I personally, as a reader, never like it when psychic elements show up in cryptid stories: however, it's her novel and her Sasquatches, and those elements never take over the story. Sasquatch aficionados will like this one. There's a sequel out - I've not yet read that, but I'll get to it.
 .


Saturday, October 04, 2014

A new whale in the Gulf of Mexico?

Whale taxonomy - and taxonomy in general - is still not as precise as scientists would like. Some scientists suggest species in general are more variable than we once thought: some have given up on subspecies and other distinctions. DNA analysis provides a powerful new tool, but there's no universally-accepted rule about what degree of difference, and what kind of differences, clearly delineate separate species or subspecies. 
The latest discovery in cetacean taxonomy is a surprising one. A small population of Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera edeni) in the Gulf of Mexico appears so distinct that it represents, at the least, a new subspecies.
Bryde's whales are among the smaller rorquals - the all-time record is 15.5m long, and most are significantly smaller - and the least known.  This population has unique calls and distinct DNA. Indeed, they seem more closely allied genetically to Pacific Bryde's whales than to Atlantic populations. The nonprofit National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) intends to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the population endangered. 
DNA testing helped determine, in 2003, that what had been thought to be a strain of Bryde's whale was in fact a different species, now known as Omura's whale (Balaenoptera omurai). There are other outstanding questions about classification of apparently differing Bryde's whale populations, including an inshore and an offshore form (see the IUCN writeup here), and it's a good reminder that even the largest creatures on Earth keep some secrets from science.  We have much to learn.



Bryde's whale, showing the distinct ridges around the blowhole (rostral ridges). (Photo NOAA)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A fascinating book: Dreams of Other Worlds

Dreams of Other Worlds (Amazon link)



Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration

 

By Chris Impey and Holly Henry

Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2012    

 

This book is a thoroughly researched chronicle of ten robotic missions, with an overview of the entire field of non-piloted exploration.  If it meanders a bit, it succeeds at the most important task: showing readers just how remarkable our robotic missions are. Impey is a professor of astronomy, Henry a professor of English, and the combination of their expertise works very well.) 

The Introduction sets the stage with the theorists, from the Greek Anaxagoras to Copernicus to the modern day.  For a long time, people have had the notion there were other worlds to explore, but that was science fiction until 1957, when it suddenly appeared practical to send machines (and eventually people) sailing away from Earth.

The authors do, however, do a good job of featuring all types of missions: planetary observer, rover, deep space, and astronomical.  They present two Martian missions (Viking and Mars Exploration Rovers) first, followed by the probes Voyager and Cassini, the comet-sampling Stardust, and SOHO, a mission to study our home star.  They break away from voyages to specific destinations to cover Hipparcos, the Spitzer telescope, Chandra, the Hubble, and the Big Bang explorer WMAP.    It’s odd there are no Soviet/Russian missions included, and Venus is left off the destination list. There are two European Space Agency missions: Hipparcos, a 1989 mission dedicated to astrometry (distances, locations, and movements of the stars) and Planck, along with the joint Cassini-Huygens mission.

All the chapters on individual missions are good, and the authors seem to know all about them.  Who knew 1,500 papers were published so far on the Cassini results?  One aside here contains an error: the authors say NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” initiative “launched 150 payloads at an average cost of $100 million per mission, with a failure rate of less than 10 percent.” There were were 16, of which 10 accomplished their missions: even if they are counting individual experiments vs. whole spacecraft, the numbers are much too high.  

The explanations of spacecraft design, function, and results are succinct and well-done: clearly the authors understand the technical side and have the ability to condense it in terms understandable to the interested public. 

There’s a tendency in this book to stray from the main narratives in each chapter to explore topics as varied as extremophiles and the history of X-rays.  I enjoy this kind of digression as long as there’s a connection: not all readers may agree. 

Finally, the authors look ahead. They describe the hoped-for advances from the James Webb Space Telescope and future Mars probes, although only NASA missions are addressed for some reason.  

There’s a good color plate selection of 24 images and some well-selected images in the text.  The references will make even the most detail-minded reader happy, and the index is good as well.

This is, in short, a very valuable book, well written and well documented. The selection of missions can be debated, but not the quality of the coverage of those that did make it in.  This is a must-have for anyone interested in the robotic exploration of space, both closeup and from astronomical distances.  It will be valuable for a long time to come.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A new mammal (of course, it's also cute)

No one has seen a Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativa) alive.  It was known only from Incan-era skulls and was considered extinct.  This was true, at least, until just a few years ago... and only in 2014 have scientists confirmed the critter is among us
 
Yes, we still find mammals.  And it is really cute. I'm not showing it here, because the photo is copyrighted as far as I can tell, but check out the link, and you'll agree.
 

Close encounter with a comet

This time, I'll just let the picture tell the story.  This is  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen from 29 kilometers by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft.   Awesome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book review: Fathoming the Ocean



Helen M. Rozwadowski. Belknap (Harvard University Press), 2005.

276pp. hardcover, 304 in paperback
Foreword by Sylvia Earle
 
We all know modern tools are allowing us to get a better view of the deep seas than we’ve ever had, but how did that kind of exploration get started? How did humans first get interested in the word below the first few sunlit meters of the sea, and how did we start probing that world?  Rozwadowski, in the first book I’ve read devoted to the early ocean surveyors, shows us how the Age of Sail fostered the age of deep-sea exploration. As commerce, whaling, fishing, and travel grew in economic importance and matured from coastal to trans-oceanic pursuits, naturalists, professional and amateur, grew more interested in the depths. These men (and women) tried a number of modifications of fishing nets and trawls for this work, then added purpose-built, often very ingenious tools like water samplers and recording thermometers.  In England and the United States, especially, wealthy and then middle-class amateurs took up the new interest in sampling and describing ocean fauna, followed increasingly by government-sponsored professionals, which led to episodes like the fortunate inclusion of Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, not to mention the epic 1872-76 voyage of the HMS Challenger, which is often called the beginning of the modern age of ocean exploration. In this superbly documented and referenced book, the author includes the views of governments, ordinary sailors, and the Western public along with those of scientists.  This is an essential book for the understanding of deep-sea exploration, both historical and modern.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There's Adventure in Rockets

That's the title of a children's book that got me interested in rocketry a long time back (as Ishmael says, "never mind how long ago exactly" ), but there sure was adventure this past week.  SpaceX and Boeing got contracts to launch Americans to the ISS, Atlas V had another success, SpaceX is gearing up for the next launch, Nanoracks' innovative Cubesat deployment system started spitting out satellites from the International Space Station when it felt like it (probably drawing a collective "Yikes!" from NASA safety engineers) and a new player, Blue Origin, jumped in via an alliance with Boeing.  Also, United Launch Alliance announced it would have Blue Origin building it a new engine to replace the Russian RD-180: interesting, a "RD-180-degree turn" from years of insisting the supply was OK and they'd only build a new engine if taxpayers funded it.






I was sorry Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane didn't get NASA Commercial Crew funding. The Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 (seriously, Boeing, you can come up with a better name than that!) look like worth spaceships, but we are facing another 30 years of using capsules... workable, but less exciting and flexible.  And Congress is going to ask some hard questions about how Boeing and SpaceX are doing identical tasks, but Boeing is being paid $4.2B and SpaceX $2.6B, a question Administrator Bolden has not addressed in his blog and other NASA people have flatly refused to discuss. The Administrator also said, "From day one, the Obama Administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space." That doesn't make it clear why substantive action took six years into the Administration, but, hey, at least they got here.

This week will take a while to digest. But it's been an exciting one!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

One Arctic mystery solved?

Over the long and perilous history of Arctic exploration, there have been many tragedies and many disappearances. For example, the great Roald Amundsen vanished on a rescue mission in 1928, and only a float and a fuel tank from his flying boat ever drifted back. He was just the latest: many more sailors and explorers, going back two centuries, died or vanished, mostly while looking for the Northwest Passage. 
One of the great mysteries is that of the Franklin Expedition. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, under command of Sir John Franklin, set sail in 1845. Information from the Inuit people confirmed they were locked in Arctic ice, and the crew perished, but where were the ships? Did they sink? Were they locked forever in ice?
Now one of the two ships - Parks Canada does not know which - has been clearly imaged by sidescan sonar on the bottom of the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The location is being kept secret, but the images are mesmerizing. So strong is the hold of Arctic explorers on the Canadian imagination that the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, made the announcement in person.
It will be fascinating to watch this archeological story unfold.

WAY Under the Sea

A great bit from collegehumor.com in which Sebastian the Crab leaves his shallow-water reef and sings (nervously) about the denizens of the very deep sea. Their megamouth has kind of a whale shark look to it, but it's all pretty good.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

One-off specimens: where's that salamander?


The most frustrating cases in zoology / cryptozoology are those where a single specimen exists, but its provenance cannot be proved, and no one can find another.  One such case is a cloak of kiwi feathers from New Zealand in which the feathers are too big for ordinary kiwis: was there, in Maori times, a giant variant?  Another such case, where the specimen is not preserved but unquestionably existed, is the Case of the Wayward Salamander. 

The largest living amphibian is the Asiatic giant salamander Andrias davidianus. Found in China, with a slightly smaller relative in Japan, it may be over 1.5 meters long.  The largest known in North America is the hellbender of the Ozarks and Appalachians, which grows to over 60cm. 


America's largest known salamander, the hellbender (Wikimedia Commons)


In 1951, an article by Stanford University herpetologist George Myers appeared in the scientific journal Copeia.  Myers reported he had examined a giant salamander caught in a catfish net in California's Sacramento River.  The amphibian looked like an Asian giant salamander to him (he called it a member of the genus Megalobatracus: Andrias has superseded the older name).  However, it was dark brown with yellow spots, "quite at variance" with the standard gray or brown of Asian types, and "suggested the possibility of a unique California variation."  The specimen (if fully grown) was of modest size for this genus, only 76 cm long.  Unfortunately, the fisherman only allowed the specimen to be examined, not kept for further study.  What became of the salamander, then living in a bathtub in its owner's apartment, is unknown.

A point here is that the coloration isn’t, in fact, outside the range of Andrias. A Google Images search turns up a brown one with yellow spots, or at least splotches.

Getting back to California, giant salamanders have long been rumored from the Trinity Alps. A deer-hunting attorney claimed he’d seen five such animals in the New River, ranging up to almost three meters long. Biologist Thomas Rodgers, who investigated this story, allowed it was possible that a relict population of giant salamanders still lived in California. 

Rodgers also looked at the Sacramento River specimen.  The local press related a rather too cute story that this salamander was an escapee named "Benny," from a shipment of exotic pets from "somewhere in China."  With the question thus properly muddled, Rodgers led an expedition into the Trinity Alps in 1961 to search for the alleged amphibians.  Rodgers' group found only well-known native salamanders under 30cm, and he came away doubting any giant salamanders existed.

Other reports have trickled in since then, but no one has produced another giant salamander.  We are left with the usual problems of one-specimen cases.  Was the animal an exotic escapee? A last relic of a lost race?  A chance specimen of a surviving population?  I hate writing "we may never know," but, well... 
 
See: Myers, George S.  1951.  "Asiatic Giant Salamander Caught in the Sacramento River and an Exotic Skink Near San Francisco," Copeia, No. 2: Rodgers, Thomas L.  1962.  "Report of Giant Salamanders in California," Copeia, No. 3.
 
 
 

Monday, September 01, 2014

Requiem for the Passenger pigeon - a sad centennial

Some years back ("never mind exactly how long ago," as Ishmael says), I had a chance to look in on Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in her eternal home at the Smithsonian. All I can say is that she looked lonely, as well she should have.  I still have a Kodak Instamatic snapshot, but it's hard to tell it's even a bird, so I won't inflict it on you here.
Her species went through the biggest massacre of wildlife in all history, ending exactly 100 years ago today with Martha's demise in the Cincinnati Zoo. The pigeon once lived in unaccountable numbers: John James Audubon reported a flock took three days to pass overhead. A hundred nests were once counted in a single tree.  Centuries of Native American and early European hunting made no dent in this multitude, but shotguns, nets, and other tricks of the 19th century did.  Mass hunting for sport, meat, and feathers, combined with the destruction of forested habitat, somehow reduced billions of birds to one.
There is not much doubt the pigeon was extinct, although; for the record, a Professor Philip Hadley reported glimpsing a passenger pigeon in 1929 in northern Michigan. There was a trickle of sightings all the way up at least until 1965.  There is not, however, any real hope, and ornithologists consider Martha's demise definitive. (A poignant footnote: the last confirmed Carolina parakeet, Incas, died in the same zoo three and a half years later.)
So we know to the day, almost to the minute, what happened to the most abundant bird ever to live.
Farewell, Martha. We're sorry. May we all learn your lesson.



Martha, as displayed in 1956

Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: Deep Blue Home



Julia Whitty
Houghton Mifflin, NY 2010 (link above is to a 2011 edition)
246pp.

Whitty, a writer and environmentalist, gives us a book worthy of its title. She is a wonderful writer – while we have many good nature/science writers (Angier, Safina, et. al.), Whitty and Diane Ackerman are in a class by themselves when it comes to vivid descriptions and marvelous you-are-there evocations of time and place.

Writing in the first person, Whitty begins by taking us back to 1984 and to Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez, a global center of seabird nesting and an example of difficult but successful conservation efforts. Later trips venture into the Pacific, the north Atlantic, and even the high desert of Mexico (the one sequence that failed to hold my interest).

Whitty has a lot to tell us about the creatures of the great waters. Did you know hermit crabs are the basis for a moving community of other invertebrates totaling over 500 species? Or that some Pacific rockfish of the genus Sebastes live over 200 years, a span more than doubled by the quahog Artica islandia?

But it is the language that stays with this reader the most. Hordes of spawning capelin at the Newfoundland shore are “turning the waves into polished silver purses that roll ashore and spill their wriggling treasure onto the beach.”    (Two males clamp onto every female.)  At a cold seep off Oregon called Hydrate Ridge, “the mud on the bottom of the sea is more alive than dead” with an amazing density of invertebrates. Working on a marine research ship, she learns that calling a specimen “interesting” is a cautious yet excited way of saying “possible new species.”

Whitty deals with rough waters, drunken sailors, and a sperm whale that comes right at her while she’s swimming until she has to look up and down to see the whole head, and she thinks for a moment he’s going to crush her before he slips gracefully beneath. Along the way, she shows us not just marine creatures but the people who depend on them and the threats that we have to fight against.

Deep Blue Home is a voyage home, and you’ll enjoy the journey.

 

Matt Bille,

Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006)

www.mattwriter.com


Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: The Road to Loch Ness



Lee Murphy

Defining Moments, 2014

The last two years have been good for cryptozoology-themed fiction.  We’ve had high-octane thrillers like Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, atmospheric novels like Willis’ The Daedalus and the Deep, chillers like Below, a crypto subplot in a Dan Simmons epic, and the scariest crypto-thriller ever, Joseph Wallace’s superbly researched Invasive Species, just to name a few.  The genre has never been healthier, in quantity or quality.

Now we can add to list the best of Lee Murphy’s George Kodiak novels (available only in e-book format for now, by the way). Murphy is on his game here: the plot, setting, and characters are all terrific.  The author sends his tough-guy cryptozoologist to Loch Ness (and we all knew he’d wind up there eventually, right?) for two futile years of research in a semi-submerged lab which (for reasons that could be made clearer) many local citizens oppose.  The boredom, though, explodes in one short week that sees one of George’s friends get killed, new and old adversaries try to sabotage his scientific venture, and the creature of the loch arise once and for all.  (To avoid being too much of a spoiler, I won’t say what it is Kodiak finds. The solution seems a little less plausible to me than the giant eels of Steve Alten’s The Loch, but it’s more fun, and Lee has done a lot of work to make his creature believable.)
Indeed, Lee has done his homework in every topic touched on in this novel. He might even have done a little too much: as I said of Max Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, the story drags in spots as a character gives an information dump.  Murphy also knows the history of the loch and of cryptozoology, and readers will learn a lot of background to the “real” Loch Ness case.
For the first time in these novels, Kodiak gets a supporting cast as interesting as he is. His friend Rocky, Rocky’s daughter Erika, and a cast of local and international helpers and meddlers are along for the ride. Lee gets better in every book at drawing his people. Kodiak more than ever is a three-dimensional human with foibles and limitations, and the unexpected romance he finds in this novel is genuinely touching.  Murphy also works an environmental message in almost from the beginning of the book, and it’s a powerful one.
Like so many of us readers, Murphy loves the latest in technology (I helped him a bit on some research) and there are plenty of cool gadgets on display. I’ll nitpick only one here: the X-Ray mode on his high-tech diving helmet couldn’t really work with X-rays, which require a target to be between transmitter and receiver, although there is some promising research into a more limited “see through walls” capability using radio waves.   
Lee and I are different writers with slightly different views on the need to stick to the rules of traditional English grammar: I have to take a half-star off my enjoyment level for that, though many readers won’t mind. The sentence structure is clunky in the chapter “Extinction Event,” which feels tacked on. The rest of the book is better, and I enjoyed it even as I groused about the occasional change of tense.
The plotting and pacing here are good, and the reader will find plenty of surprises. This is also the funniest of Lee’s books, with laugh-out-loud moments woven into the life-and-death events. The loch is well described, as are the vessels involved. 
To recap, this is a very enjoyable read. It’s George Kodiak’s most thrilling and satisfying venture into cryptozoology, and it leaves our hero a little bloodied, a little wiser, and, for the first time in his life, willing to admit he might even have a romantic future.  Good job, Lee!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dunkleosteus - Old Bone-Face in Popular Culture

Western popular culture loves prehistoric beasts, especially dinosaurs. Indeed, dinosaurs crowd out almost everything else.  Exceptions are the mighty shark Megalodon, which has its own subculture of books, movies, and other stuff, and marine reptiles, which share space with the dinosaurs (and are often incorrectly called dinosaurs) as well as having some properties of their own and cross-fertilizing with the interest in sea monsters and lake monsters. I caught a traveling exhibit on marine reptiles way back in 1991 at the Fort Worth (TX) Museum of Natural History, where one display asked “Is Nessie a Plesiosaur?” (The answer, in case you were wondering, was a politely hedged “no.”)  

Now, on to Dunkleosteus: there are many species, but D. terrelli was by far the largest, and is the only one I’m concerned with.  Dunkleosteus is a genus name now widely accepted, after being untangled from the older and once-conflated Dinichthys (still a good genus of its own) and the latter’s proposed synonym or replacement, Ponerichthys. I think I have all that right.
Despite its enormous size (9-10 meters!) and fearsome appearance, though, the Dunk doesn’t appear much at all in pop culture compared to the plesiosaurs and tyrannosaurs of the Cretaceous. 


 

Dunkleosteus terrelli (image public domain)


Here’s my first attempt at a list:

Films:
The cheap and stunningly awful 2002 film Megalodon includes a baby Dunk: a character says the species grew to 12 feet long, a rare understatement. (I saw the baby prop on an online sale years later for $50 but for some reason didn’t pursue it.)

In the 1984 French-Italian horror film Monster Shark, the Dunk is (I swear I’m not making this up) one of the “parent” species used to breed a monster by crossing it with an octopus.  If the film is notable at all, it’s for presaging the “Sharktopus” and other idiotic hybrid creatures on the SyFy Channel.

TV (nonfiction):
Start with the BBC series Sea Monsters (a.k.a. Chased by Sea Monsters, where the seven most dangerous seas in history included, in fifth place, the Devonian world of the Dunk.  There’s terrific CGI of the Dunk scaring hell out of a time-traveling explorer in a shark cage.

Dunkleosteus appeared in the second episode of Animal Armageddon on Animal Planet.

There’s an effort described on FaceBook to raise money for a new documentary and for a film called Dunkleosteus the Devilfish.  Not much seems to be happening, though.

TV (fiction):
Some online sources mention the Dunk appearing in the ITV science fiction series Primeval, but I can’t find a definitive reference. 

Books (fiction):
The Dinotopia series (also made into a TV miniseries) included “The Fish,” a Dunk that guarded the underwater entrance to a cavern.

In the Bas-Lag fantasy  novels of China MiĆ©ville,  Dunks are called "bonefish."

There’s a novel on Kindle called The Twelve Seas: Deep Lagoon, by Lenore Langland, that features the Dunk, and the animal makes an appearance in Steve Alten’s popular Megalodon series in the 2009 novel Meg:Hell’s Aquarium.

Finally, there’s a 1969 novel for young readers, Corey’s SeaMonster, by Rutherford George Montgomery, that centers on a  Dunkleosteus (here called  Dinichthys).


Books (nonfiction):
Countless books on fossils, fishes, etc. have at least brief mentions of the Dunk. A 2005 example - this one for young readers -  is  Dragons of the Deep: Ocean Monsters Past and Present by Carl Wieland and Darrell Wiskur. Deep Alberta: Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs by John Acorn (2007) is of special interest because Alberta has produced some of the best Dunk fossils.  The Dunk also appears in companion books to the above-mentioned TV documentaries, like the 2004 volume Chased by Sea Monsters by Nigel Marven and Jasper James. It appears only momentarily in Richard Ellis’ book Sea Dragons, but that's long enough for Ellis to create the definitive description by likening the animal’s jaws (in a memorable line I’ve been borrowing ever since) to a giant staple remover.  A unique angle on the Dunk and its relations appears in the 2012 book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long. The placoderms were the first animals we know of to have actual sex (internal fertilization), and palentologists are still discussing just how sex was possible with all that armor: the male may have had to shove the female face-first into the seabed, which kind of takes the romance out of it.

Games:
The Dunk appears briefly in ParaWorld and plays a bigger role in E.V.O. Search For Eden and Ecco the Dolphin. On Android phones, you can choose the Dunk as your prey in the game Dinosaur Assassin Pro.  There’s also an old PlayStation game called Aquanaut's Holiday that includes the Dunk.

So that’s Dunkleosteus in popular media. It’s not much of a record compared to the dinosaurs, but it’s enough to introduce the world to one of the most remarkable creatures of all time.
We can do better, though. I’m working on it


UPDATES:

Thanks to some fans on FaceBook and the Comment below, I can now make some additions.  The Jurassic Park Builder games do indeed allow you to raise your own Dunkleosteus.  The 2008 Studio Ghibli animated film Ponyo includes a Dunk among its varied cast of fishy creatures. And, going way back into the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons included a Dunkleosteus, known in the game as Dinichthys.
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Sources: In addition to the sources linked above, I am indebted to a Wikipedia user named Resident Mario for a list posted here on Wikipedia in 2009.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Vaquita's Last Breath?

Science was unaware the world’s smallest cetacean existed until 1950, when a single skull was found on the beach in the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez.  In 1958, Kenneth Norris and William McFarland formally described the Gulf of California porpoise, known to local fishermen as the vaquita or "little cow." The local name has become the most commonly used, but it may soon be spoken only in the past tense.
About a meter and a half long at most, and never much over 50kg, the light grey vaquita is indeed tiny by cetacean standards.   The animal tended to avoid boats, an unusual trait for a porpoise and one that made it harder to study.  This shyness, however, hasn't kept the species from becoming endangered - in fact, nearly extinct. 



Many animals have been killed accidentally in gill nets.   The Gulf's ecology has suffered due to overfishing and agricultural runoff, and the surviving porpoises' food supply is dwindling.   The authoritative global source on species status, the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), lists the animal as “Critically Endangered.”  This, alas, is an understatement. The vaquita, at this writing, is in terrible straits. The Mexican government sponsored the  International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (or the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacion de la Vaquita (CIRVA)), estimated the animal’s numbers had dropped from 245 individuals in 2008 to a mere 97 in 2014.   The species’ future rests with no more than 25 females of reproductive age. Restrictions on gillnet fishing haven’t been enough to stem the decline, and the species doesn’t exist in captivity.  It may not exist at all by 2020.
In 2006, China's freshwater baiji Lipotes vexillifer was declared extinct (a lone individual was videotaped sometime later, but there is, sadly, no doubt the species is beyond hope). Scientists led by Samuel Turley wrote, "This represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity."
Unless the call for immediate and drastic action is heeded, the vaquita will be the second cetacean species to be driven extinct by human activity.
I wish I could be optimistic that humanity won't let another cetacean vanish. Sadly, I'm not.

 

NOAA and NASA: It's not either-or

This story on io9.com is getting a lot of sharing. It's misleading because the one fact being cited has nothing to do with exploration of Earth's oceans. The Europa project, which is $2B spread over many years, is part of the smallest budget (with inflation taken into account) NASA has had since 2004. NASA has less than half the budget it had 50 years ago (FY1964). NASA's $18B budget is 1/2 of one percent of the Federal budget, the lowest share since 1960. NASA's budget isn't even as much as it seems, because Congressional patronage forces the agency to keep more centers than it needs (it has the same centers it had at the height of Apollo) and to run projects based on maximum jobs impact (the poster child being the Space Launch System: SpaceX and United Launch Alliance can build launchers almost as capable for a much lower investment by the federal government.)

NOAA, at $5.5B, is underfunded and always has been, but NASA isn't the cause. We have two realms to explore, and BOTH matter to our future.

Water plume on Europa's surface and hydrothermal plume in an Earth ocean. Let's explore them both... 

(images NASA, NOAA)

 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

It's National Sea Serpent Day (seriously, it is)

OK, NSSD is a creation of persons unknown, promoted by bloggers such as Jay Cooney (see his   blog Bizarre Zoology), and taking off in cryptozoology circles.  Sea and lake creature aficionado Cooney (Jay Bizarrezoo Cooney on Facebook and elsewhere) is one of the enthusiasts who thinks our most enduring legend of the seas deserves a day, and it does.  Whether one thinks the whole topic is, to quote Fred Flintstone, a "silly old myth," or whether you think there might still be something real behind the stories, the sea serpent has been with us from many centuries B.C. into the present day, with a major presence in toys, cartoons, terrible movies, and other areas of society. Some serpents, like Chessie and Caddy, have followings of their own. (Other nicknames for sea serpents off the U.S. coasts have included Slimy Slim and Colossal Claude.)
August 7 commemorates (if not precisely) two of the three most famous sightings in history, the third being the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo incident of December 7, 1907. In August of 1817, the first sightings of the Gloucester serpent were reported. He, she, they, or it appeared many times over that summer, with over a hundred witnesses. Even the usually conservative marine chronicler Richard Ellis wrote in his classic Monsters of the Sea that something unusual was apparently going on. The various conventional explanations (like the one in the article just linked to) don't really nail it for me, either.  Read June O'Neill's terrific book The Great New England Sea Serpent for the best account of the whole business. There's a song, too!
On August 6 in 1848, the crew and captain of HMS Daedalus saw a huge serpentine animal and made a formal report. The Daedalus serpent may have been a giant squid behaving strangely, but the date is immortal in cryptozoology in any event.

Personally, I think it likely that, buried in a mound of data of varying reliability, there is still a very large eel or eel-shaped fish (like the frilled shark) at the bottom of this enduring legend.  I have no hope for even cooler things, like surviving Mesozoic reptiles, but I'll take a 10m eel any day as a "sea serpent." Maybe I'm wrong, and there's nothing left except mistaken observations and the occasional hoax, but the sea serpent, animal or myth, will endure forever.

So celebrate!

Want to know more? (and do you get that movie reference?) There are a number of good books. Ellis' is one: Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpent is THE classic. I spent several chapters on marine creatures in Shadows of Existence, and will treat them in more depth in my upcoming book Seas, Sharks, and Serpents.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Space propulsion: no miracles yet

Has NASA validated a radical new type of propulsion?

There’s certainly a lot of media attention being paid to the claim that NASA researchers have validated a new type of superefficient thruster (in theory, it needs no propellant at all, just a source of electrical power).  I'm very, very cautious.
NASA hasn't officially put a stamp on this: One NASA team says they see a very small but consistent effect. As for me, I want to see it replicated independently. Even if that works, then I want evidence it can be scaled up to a useful thrust level. So it’s very interesting, but this minuscule effect (if it’s proven to be real at all) isn’t ready for flight time.

Here's another thought. Assume the effect is real and can be scaled up enough to put a small thruster on a nanosatellites, like one of the popular CubeSat-based models. If you can deploy enough solar cells, you can use that on inner Solar System missions without violating the laws of thermodynamics, since you are putting in more power than you take out (Given the size of the effect as measured by NASA, there's clearly a major loss of energy in the system). For larger thrusters, though, or for missions beyond Earth, you'd have to carry a power source for the electrical energy needed. Does the mass of the power source (RTG, fission, whatever) cancel out the gain of using this effect for propulsion? It might still work, especially on science or cargo missions where it's ok to take a long time to accelerate. We're still around Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2 here on NASAs scale of 1-9 (see the diagram below).  Arguably, this idea still has one foot in Technology Readiness Level 1, since the basic research needed to understand the nature of the propulsive phenomena is far from mature.
With very tiny effects, even highly qualified researchers can see what they want to see. (This is precisely what happened with the Podkletnov antigravity disk, which NASA put at least $650K into before figuring out the effect was imaginary. Some smart people at NASA believe there's something to Andrea Rossi's e-cat cold fusion device, but it slips year after year without producing the kind of demo that skeptics can't refute as error and/or fraud. )
I'd put a modest amount of money into this to see what an unrelated group of engineers could do about replicating it. Replication is always Step One.




Sunday, August 03, 2014

Jurassic Shark

OK, everyone uses that weak pun, so why shouldn't I get into it? I use worse puns than that every day. And now that we are headed into Shark Week (cue Jaws music), I put together a few interesting tidbits.

You often hear sharks called "living fossils." Well, that depends how you define the term.  There are no shark species today that saw the dinosaurs come and go, but there are many of long lineage (up to tens of millions of years). The bizarre goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni), for example, can trace back its family about 125MY.  The frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus)  is almost as weird and may be as old. There's no questioning that sharks, as a group, are survivors. They are older than dinosaurs, older than flowers, older than mammals, older than trees. 

One of the challenges in tracing the lineage of sharks is that they don't fossilize well.  Shark teeth fossilize wonderfully, but the shark's skeleton is all cartilage.  When enough calcium has built up in the skeleton, most often in an older shark, you can find the vertebrae partially preserved. For a full, articulated shark fossil, you need fine-grained sediments and a great deal of luck.

There are few remains of everyone's favorite fossil whale-chomper, Carcharocles megalodon (formerly put in the genus Carcharodon with the great white) except teeth. They are some teeth, up to 17cm or more in length, finely serrated, and often found well-preserved enough to cut your hand on.  The lack of other remains has contributed to the uncertainty about Megalodon's size.  Scientists have found two partial spinal columns, with vertebra up to 23cm across.



Epic Megalodon

Megalodon jaws (considerably oversized)

A famous reproduction of the jaws, using a modern great white as a model, led to speculation of sharks 30m (100 feet) long or even more.  However, this assumed the teeth were the same size all through the jaws and thus got the size of the jaws and the overall shark much too large.  Modern estimates tend to cluster around 15m - 18 on the outside - which is still, well, one giant shark. They may be larger than the current champion, the harmless whale shark.  The great white is still "great" by anyone's standards, but it's been whittled down from estimates of 10 or even 12m to around 6.5m for the biggest females (males are smaller). Seven meters has been claimed for one Australian catch (estimated in the water - it was too big to get in the boat) and for a never-caught South African shark nicknamed "The Submarine." Seven meters is not impossible, but likely represents the extreme upper bound.

Meg lived from about 28MYA to perhaps as late as 1.5MYA, though it's pretty firmly in the "Extinct" category, which is too bad.  It was presumably outcompeted by the nimbler (perhaps smarter) great whites and the pack-hunting orcas, which popped up in the last few million years of its reign (orca beginnings are rather fuzzy.) Meg lived at the same time as the sperm whale ancestor Livyatan melvillei, which was about the same size: their battles must have been awesome spectacles.

Steve Alten used the hundred-foot size in his popular Meg novels: Charles' Wilson's Extinct, which in my opinion is the inferior of the two, makes them much larger. (I was pretty hard on Alten for his science, but I agree he's gotten better, and Wilson's was so bad I gave it away after one reading.) I just downloaded a new novel with the truth-in-advertising name Big Ass Shark, but haven't read it yet.



Male Great White Shark, Farallone Islands, 2010 (NOAA)

There are sharks that beat the odds and fossilize very well.  The  Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Manitoba knew they had an 80-90 million year old fossil of a Squalicorax or crow shark but didn’t look closely at it until 2014, when they realized they had the largest specimen ever found (3m) as well as one of the most complete set of remains of this modern-looking shark. Peter Cantelon, Executive Director, said, “With shark fossils… what you'll typically find are just the teeth. In this instance, we have an entire shark from tip to tail. The spine is visible all the way through; we can see a large portion of its skull, jaw, possible fin material, gill material. It's incredible how well this was preserved."

So as you watch Shark Week (a mixed bag of very good shows, average shows, and terrible fake Megalodon "documentaries"), remember that these really are incredible creatures, worth of respect, fascination, and protection. (They have more to fear from us than vice versa. Sharks may kill ten people a year: people may kill 10,000 sharks an hour.)   There are some 400 species and counting - a single researcher who traveled with a commercial fishing fleet turned up as many as eight new species (not yet confirmed and described) in the "bycatch."

Now, time to watch Sharknado 2! I'm waiting for the obvious sequel - Sharknado 3: Megalodon.




Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LOIRP recovers space history

Think of the countless thousands of images NASA spacecraft have beamed to Earth.  Keith Cowing, owner of the NASAWatch web site, knew that many images from older missions were being lost forever, slowly degrading in unreadable formats or locked on drives no one knew how to access.  So he did something about it. Keith and other enthusiasts set up in an abandoned McDonald's near NASA's Ames Research Center and set about retrieving images taken by NASA's five Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s.   These had been recorded directly from electronic pulses to tape, and there was no simple way, even then, of examining them. They had to be printed out, in huge formats.  The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project managed to MacGyver setups that pulled that information off the tapes into readable digital images.  This is, to put it mildly, a noble and laudable effort, a where people have stepped in to save a precious piece of NASA's proud history.

Earthrise over the Moon as seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 on August 24, 1966.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fiction: Greig Beck's The First Bird

The latest in cryptozoologically-themed fiction is Grieg Beck's The First Bird. It's a lost world thriller which segues into a doomsday disease thriller, and both halves are memorable and scary as hell. It's Beck's best thriller. The lost world section is original and well researched. Even though the laws of physics concerning giant arthropods have not been repealed to my knowledge, Beck makes his creatures so original and so terrifying that even for a nit-picker like me the science recedes into the background. The disease thriller is not quite as original and has a couple of weak spots, I think (I won't go further so as not to spoil the outcome), but it's still freak-out frightening and has a twist you won't see coming. The disease plot, too, shows a great deal of research. Beck's characters are three-dimensional people you can believe in - and fear for. 
When I finally put this one down, I said, "wow." Good work, Mr. Beck.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New book a tribute to Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride (PhD from Stanford in astrophysics) died two years ago today.  I went to a program at the Space Foundation Discovery Center here in Colorado Springs.

The program featured Lynn Sherr (formerly ABC News) making a presentation and discussing her new biography of Ride. I haven't started reading the book yet, but it was a great evening.  When I asked Sherr what she thought of space coverage on TV today compared to the 1980s, she said, "The first thing to realize about space coverage today is that there isn't any."

Ride has always been a hero of mine, and I'm looking forward to starting the book!

My apologies to Lynn and everyone else for a terrible photo.

 
 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meanwhile, the new-species business stays busy

I've not posted on the continuing discoveries of new living species in a while, so let me throw out a few items.

From Bolivia we have four new gopher-like mammals about 30cm long, all grouped by local people under the same name, tuco-tuco,  but now known to science as Ctenomys erikacuellarae, Ctenomys yatesi, Ctenomys andersoni, and Ctenomys lessai. They are an interesting example of speciation occurring when an original species settles in to populations broken up by the valleys and ridges of their local topography. Indeed, the formation called the central Andean backthrust belt, which creates many barriers between populations, is referred to by one scientist as a "speciation engine."

A new species of water mite from the seas off Puerto Rico was named after Jennifer Lopez because the description team was listening to her songs while they worked. So welcome, Litarachna lopezae.

A report from the Zoological Survey of India says that, in 2013, the Indian scientists found 248 new animal species in the subcontinental nation. They did not find any mammals (always the newsiest discoveries, except maybe for sharks), but are happy with 5 amphibians, 2 reptiles, 36 fish, and 181 invertebrates. 

New Zealand scientists looking off the Northland coast report several new areas of distinct habitat communities (such as shellfish beds) that were unknown and likely house new species. This cute seahorse (is there any other kind?), about 3cm long, is the first to be examined for classification and description. The survey technique here is interesting: researchers dropped a trawl studded with commercially purchased GoPro video cameras. A British entomologist discovered a tiny new wasp in a tree on the playground of his son's school, an elephant shrew was found in Namibia, a new moth from the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S. was named in honor of the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans and their great Chief Attakullakulla of the 1700s, a new catfish turned up in Australia, new crabs were reported from Malaysia, and the satirical publication The Onion gets the last word with an article on 43 primates just classified in a subway system. Don't take my word for it - read it yourself.

How Great is the Great White Shark?

OK, now that we're approaching Shark Week, which Discovery Channel has kicked off with a ridiculous hoax about a bull shark in Lake Ontario, we can return to an endlessly fascinating shark question: can Great White Sharks reach 7 meters (23 feet)?
Old records claiming 10m or more have long since been discredited, bet here's an Interesting study.  Ellis and McCosker, for their 1991 book Great White Shark, checked all the records of huge GWS and concluded the probable total length (TL) of the very largest was around 6.5m (just over 21 feet).   I went with this conclusion in my book Shadows of Existence.
However....
 Mollet et. al. in 1996 went back and looked at the information, including how various measurements and estimates were done, and concluded the famous Malta shark from 1987 might actually have touched the 7m mark and the shark caught in the same year from Kangaroo Island, South Australia, could have been, and probably was, slightly over 7m. (The Malta shark was measured while lying on a floor: the Aussie shark was estimated against a boat and body parts kept, but it was too big for the fisherman to get it aboard.)  So maybe the people who suggested South Africa's fabled Submarine could be 7m long are not far off.  I'd be interested to hear what other experts have to say.
("A review of Length Validation Methods and Protocols to Measure Large White Sharks," in 1996 book Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharadon carcharias, Academic Press, NY.)

UPDATE: A FaceBook correcpondent, Caludio Dino Galetovic, sent a 1998 article saying the Malta shark might have been measured over the curves rather than in a direct line head-to-tail. This would make it under 6m.  Well, darn. 

The Great White isn't the human-hating monster of legend, but no one would deny it's formidable
(Photo NOAA)