Tuesday, October 20, 2020

NASA grabs asteroid sample

It's still on the edge of science fiction - sending a robot to an asteroid to bring back a sample.  NASA has pulled it off.  I don't know how long it took to come up with the name Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), but it was worth it.  The spectacular, perfect touchdown-grab space feat will return samples of the asteroid Bennu to Earth, some 320 million kilometers away.  The spacecraft is staying on the asteroid until next March, when the optimal trajectory for a fuel-efficient return is available.  Go NASA!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

New Species Still Show Up

 We haven't exhausted the trove of species to classify and study. Not even close.  
This article points out some of the more spectacular recent finds and adds some information about where and how we find species. The author also wrote a very good book, The Species Seekers, which I've reviewed elsewhere.  The money line: "The number of species being found today “compares favorably with any time since the mid-1700s”—that is, since the beginning of scientific classification." 
New mammals get the most attention.  The count of mammal species might double over time, according to Smithsonian mammologist Kristofer Helgen. That's an authoritative source: Helgen has discovered 100 species himself! So keep looking.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

T. rex, King of the Auctioneers

Tryannosaurus Stan, one of the largest and best T. rex skeletons ever found, went to auctions this evening.  It was estimated to be worth $8 million, or (acocuonting for inflation) a couple million less than the famous Sue.  Stan looked down from his three-meter-plus height as the first bid came in at $3 million, followed by one bid after another, until the insane number of $31.8m was reached. Who the bidding firm represented is not yet known, but someone is about to create a great museum exhibit - or have a showpiece that SHOULD be in a museum. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sputnik, 63 years on.

 63 years ago, at a secret Soviet rocket base, Sputnik 1 rose into the night and changed the world forever. Read what Dr. James Van Allen himself called the "definitive account" of two nations reaching for Valhalla. Erika Maurer and I spent two years bringing the story to life, and we'll always be proud of it.


P.S. OK, we made a mistake about a Viking sounding rocket launch taking part of the test stand up with it. We're sorry. Must have sniffed too much oxidizer.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

How many coelacanths?

We all know the basic story. In 1938, a South African trawler pulled up a fish about the size of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the museum curator who spotted the strange blue trophy.  It was a coelacanth, descended from a line of lobe-finned fishes that had supposedly gone extinct 66 million years ago. Latimeria chalumnaewas certainly the most famous piscine discovery of the 20th century. It appeared this one had strayed from the species' usual range,  later confirmed as the area immediately surrounding the Comoro Islands.  In 1999, another species was described, thousands of miles east of the Comoros.  Dr. Mark Erdmann, a biologist, and his wife Arnaz, a naturalist, were on honeymoon   on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, when she saw something odd on a fisherman’s cart.  “Isn’t that one of those fossil fishes?” she asked.  That species is now known as Latimeria menadoensis.  (An African population, although not a new species, was confirmed in 2000.)

Now we have more - or we might.  I missed the announcement of this in January - I've no idea how - but two of the Indonesian populations are separated by some 13 million years. We  may have another species, or a group of related species (there's a LOT to be analyzed concerning the Indonesian coelacanths)  where the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, called a species complex.  A writer for Reef Builders notes, "The evidence comes from genetic analysis of a single sample of a Coelacanth that was fished up from 300 meters deep in West Papua, that was ‘mostly eaten’ before some tissue could be preserved."  So we will see what comes out of this study and efforts to find other specimens to match it..

Oddity: In 1995, reports circulated about a coelacanth being caught off Jamaica. This startling tale made some newspapers, but no one was able to confirm it. The aforementioned George Brown, founder of a coelacanth conservation group, the Society for Protection Of Old Fishes (yes, the acronym is SPOOF), reported he’d heard nothing about it. Dr. Karl Shuker, an English zoologist who also tried to verify the story, believes it was a hoax or a case of mistaken identity. 

There rests the mystery of coelacanth distribution.  It’s likely there are (or were) populations between the Comoros and Indonesia.  It’s also still possible we’ll find coelacanths in other parts of the globe.  Perhaps this famous fish, while still fascinating and important, isn’t quite as rare as we thought. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review: Devolution by Max Brooks

 Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

Max Brooks: Del Rey (2020) 304 pages

Brooks, who had a bestseller with World War Z, has cooked up a story mixing cryptozoology with classic horror and survival tales and some potshots at modern life.  It’s very interesting, but a bit patchy: I like it but don’t entirely love it.

The setup is fun. People move to the tiny ultramodern eco-community of Greenloop, where everything you want comes daily by drone and everything you do has minimal impact on the environment. One family includes Kate Holland, whose journal forms the core of the story,

If most “creature” tales have the moral “Man is the deadliest animal,” this one goes with “Man can be the deadliest animal, but he’s certainly the weirdest.” A collection of colorful folks with absolutely no idea how the natural world works but also want out of the human world are cut off when Mount Rainer decides it’s been dormant long enough and buries a huge area in volcanic mud.  Amid an enormous national disaster that makes Katrina look like a tea party and ensures no one even thinks about Greenloop, days and then weeks go by while people wonder what they will do without their online-ordered support. They don't even own toolchests, much less guns.  

Meanwhile, Sasquatches who’ve been content to live on veggies and venison begin to get desperate for protein. It does not take them long to figure out one of the few protein sources left in their devastated habit is huddled in Greenloop.

A lot of themes unfold in the weeks after the disaster, although there are some poky stretches before we get there. The humans display a mixture of helplessness and imagination.  If not for an artist who seems to know a lot about war, they’d all be dead.  Some of the people evolve under pressure: some crack.  Meanwhile, the sasquatches lose their normal reticence about getting close to humans and “devolve” into sadistic-predator mode.  Brooks does a good job in giving the sasquatches personalities and family/tribe dynamics rather than being indistinguishable monsters. Brooks has read his Bigfoot literature and  ties this story in with folklore and cryptozoology. Sasquatches are not reported to have narrow waists, quite the contrary, and primates don’t have eyes that gleam red in the dark, but Bigfoot fans will otherwise find little to dispute except the question of whether the famously peaceful creatures would devolve in a situation like this. Hunger does a lot of things to people and Bigfoot alike...  

Brooks’ descriptions and settings, including his blueprint of Greenloop (rim shot), are good throughout. So is his depiction of action.  The series of battles marking the town’s last days is gripping.  Tactics on both sides change as humans learn how much squatches hate fire and squatches learn it’s dumb to underestimate even small opponents if they have pointy weapons. (There are detailed instructions on making a spear out of a kitchen knife, which is only one of the improvised traps and weapons that make this sequence cool. It’s like Home Alone with murderers instead of idiots invading.) 

The ending is very interesting. We don’t know exactly what happened to the survivors, but one possibility offered is that humans, too, can “devolve.”  

Brooks works in a lot of commentary, some of it delivered with a shovel, on human philosophy, the urge to cuddle nature vs. the urge to ignore it, the overdependence on gadgets, etc. Not much of that is new, but Greenloop concentrates it all in one place. There’s a familiar Jurassic Park theme with the isolated humans, and it’s not hard to guess who’s going to die first. 

What really makes this novel go is the sasquatches. I wish one of them had been able to keep a journal, too.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review: A New Human

A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee (2007: Smithsonian, 272pp.)

The Indonesian island of Flores was just another spot in a vast archipelago – until it became the locus of a scientific earthquake.  Lead discoverer Mike Morwood here tells the story of Homo floresiensis from his point of view. The Ling Bua cave and the diminutive LB1, a woman who apparently died only 18,000 years ago [a date since moved back to at least 60,000], is a fascinating tale of intuition, research, scientific and academic rivalry, and grinding hard work. In 2003, the team is elated to find the lower jaw of a “child” – and dumbfounded when they see worn adult teeth.

The archaeology and paleontology involved is described thoroughly and understandably.  Morwood explains why this area was interesting, geographically and geologically, as a place to look for the first Asians to island-hop to Australia.  He also takes us through the customs and cultures of this vast archipelago, from a ritual contest using bullwhips to minibuses that vie to be the loudest means of transportation on Earth. 

Morwoord’s teams’ claim of a new human species, one that looks like none other and challenges not just our history but what it means to be human, sets off an international carnival.  LB1’s brain size was mid-range for a chimpanzee. It wasn’t possible for primates with 380 cc of grey matter [one later paper says 417] to build fires, make stone tools, and undertake cooperative hunting of large animals – except they did. An apparent example of “island dwarfing,” which once gave the world pony-sized elephants, apparently reshaped a species more closely related to its African ancestor than to the only known early hominid of Indonesia, Homo erectus.     

One of the interesting post-discovery episodes here is the path to publication. It can take months to run the peer-review gauntlet and well over a year to publish in a journal like Nature. But as whispers curl around the edges of their closely-held story, threatening to ignite it and let someone else name the species first, Morwood and the editors at Nature do things on an unprecedented schedule, ramming the paper through peer review in three weeks and publishing it in October 2004, seven months from the time Morwood first approached them.  (Morwood’s team considers the species name hobbitus, chortling about academic conferences discussing hobbits, but is eventually dissuaded.)

LB1 (there were bits of 12-13 individuals found, but LB1 had the only cranium, and there was only one other lower jaw) lived a hard life, but nothing could have prepared her for this.  Unconvinced scientists describe her as a Homo sapiens with microcephaly or one of three other suggested maladies.  As nationalist and academic feelings clash, bones are taken without authorization for dating; an Indonesian institute lets underskilled preparers take latex molds, damaging the priceless bones; Morwood’s US-British-Australian-Indonesian team is accused of “neocolonial” fossil-hunting; and Moorwood hears intriguing tales of the Ebu Gogo, the little people who supposedly inhabit Flores to this day. 

By the end of the book, the reader will, along with Morwood, experience relief when the species is established and the intellectual arguments won, even though the bones remain contested and locked away.  Morwood died of cancer in 2013, having seen his species widely accepted after much controversy.  The search for more “hobbits” goes on.

(There is also an updated edition of this book, which came out in 2009.)

Musings: At a cryptozoology conference, biologist/TV host Pat Spain told us Morwood had evidence the species survived into the 1920s. Morwood’s papers are still locked up in Indonesia, science held hostage to disputes about ownership and jurisdiction.  This is a well-told tale of an epic discovery, and readers will learn about much more than just a skeleton.

Other sources:




Tuesday, September 08, 2020

A Cryptozoologist's Library


I’m doing a project I call “A Cryptozoologist’s Library” (ACL).  The idea was to pull all my book reviews over the last 30 years and collect and publish those I think taught me the most about cryptozoology, It has, of course, gotten more complicated, but I should say what I’m NOT trying to do is establish a best-books canon.  Doing that right could take a couple of years.  Getting something people can use in 2020 means they’re getting the view of someone who’s been reading the topic for 45 years.  My intent is to put out a low-cost e-book anyone interested in cryptozoology can afford.

Why just books? Books are important in any field, but they have a special importance in cryptozoology. Magazines, newspapers, letters, etc. are ephemeral, and despite the huge efforts made by people like Loren Coleman, much is lost to us. Books have survived. They’ve been written and carried all over the world.  One other proven means of sharing information is scientific journals, but cryptozoological work is rarely submitted and very rarely passes muster, while cryptozoological journals have struggled.  So books are the backbone of cryptozoology’s body of shared knowledge. Many of the books in ACL are available as e-books, but I’m a traditionalist, and every book here is available (new or used) as a physical book I’ve had in my possession.

My focus is physical, scientific cryptozoology. I don’t discount parapsychological phenomena out of hand, but this is my project and to me, “If it’s not zoology, it’s not cryptozoology.”  If cryptozoology is ever going to prove the existence of mystery animals in a way that gets them (the animals) proper protection and adds to human knowledge, it has to be by scientific methods and results.  

Having said that, what is cryptozoology?  

Having read many definitions, this is mine.

Cryptozoology is a scientific endeavor that uses the methods of zoology (investigation, archival research, talking to indigenous/local people about animals, etc.) to search for new and presumed-extinct animals, but broadens the aperture to consider cases where the evidence has not been strong enough, or the circumstances (habitat, etc.) favorable enough, to draw significant attention from most zoologists.

The draft of ACL has already climbed past 220 entries.  To keep it from getting out of hand, I’ve set a limit of 200, and I think it will look like this: 130 books about, or mainly about, cryptozoology, 35 books from my related science reading (paleontology, zoology, etc.), 20-25 novels, and 10 slots for oddities. I include novels because they, too, have special importance in cryptozoology. Not only can good novels get people thinking about the unknown creatures of the world, they provide a means for scientifically-minded authors to work out the details of how, say, Ogopogo might eat, reproduce, stay hidden, etc.  (That rules out the horror novelists who go straight to the teeth and claws, however fun they may be.)

The numbers mean some books already reviewed will be deleted. I have orders out for only about four more that might be added.  Thanks to everyone for the recommendations of all sorts.  I’m mentioning this project publicly so I have to follow through: I’m bad about that.  There may also be a book sale when I’m done, as I’ve read a lot more books than I can shelve.  

As I said, it’s not a canonical list (that would be a huge project that would require some level of return, while the ACL book is planned to be affordable).  

Despite starting this as a low-input endeavor to suggest books I’ve found valuable; it’s grown a little more complex.  To wit:

1.                  I have to decide where to draw a draw a fuzzy line about how much paranormal content rules out a book that provides worthwhile information on physical cryptozoology.  For example, Healey and Cropper’s Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia has one chapter on apparitions, but the rest is good: it definitely qualifies.   

2.                  Where do some books go? A book on the Tasmanian tiger would normally fall in Science, but as cryptozoologists still seek it, I put a couple that seemed to fit in the cryptozoology section.

3.                  The Science section is the only one where I thought, “I should have one book on A and at least one on B.”  Since there are 30-35 slots, I’ve focused on books that seem useful to cryptozoological pursuits, meaning vertebrates get most of the space (the cephalopods being an exception).   Books won’t make anyone a field expert, and I’m not one myself, so the focus here is on foundational science vs. how to build a sasquatch trap or take witness statements.  Examples making the cut so far include: A New Human, by Morwood and van Oosterzee; Evolution, by Carl Zimmer; The Lost Species, by Christopher Kemp; and World Ocean Census, by Crist, et. al.)  

So, I’m progressing.  I’m pondering looking for someone who already understands e-books to work with: it will take a little longer if I actually have to learn a business, I should have learned a decade ago.


Monday, September 07, 2020

Review: The Lost Species by Christopher Kemp

The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums

 Christopher Kemp (2107, University of Chicago, 250pp.)

 Early in this fascinating book, Kemp writes that “Taxonomists and biologists describe about eighteen thousand new species each year.”  He mentions later that over 1,000 species were named from New Guinea in a decade.

Many of these (most, for some orders) are discovered in museum collections, not in the field.  As Kemp shows, those aren’t just obscure frogs or small invertebrates. Stories of museum discoveries (some supplemented by fieldwork once the specimens were uncovered), include all types. For mammals, we have the impossibly cute olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a raccoon relative from Columbia and Ecuador), the little black tapir, the Arfak pygmy bandicoot, frogs, turtles, tarantulas, etc. It gets crazy when we get to the beetles: collections in American institutions alone include approximately one billion specimens, with thousands of species yet to be described.

Kemp opens this superb book with an explanation of why fleshing out the taxonomy of museum specimens is so important.  Whether a frog lives on both sides of a river or the frogs on the other side have developed into a new species provides a great deal of information on speciation, the environment, and steps for conservation biology.

In the case of the little black tapir, a student in a Brazilian institution came to her supervising scientist with a tapir skull, telling him this one looked different from its drawer-mates. It was. It was eventually matched to a tapir skull Theodore Roosevelt (who also noticed it was odd) had collected in 1903, and then to research in the wild to study live specimens,  The American Museum of Natural History has 250,000 specimens of just one mammalian order (Chiroptera, the bats) and no one knows how many species that might add to the 1,300 now described. There is a trading network humming all the time between institutions, where photos, 3D images, CAT scans, specimens themselves, and facts and opinions about them go back and forth.

This is arduous work. Many specimens, especially older ones, may have been mislabeled in the field, or mislabeled when they arrive, or simply left to look at later: decades or centuries may lapse. The care and inventory of collections is underfunded and some specimens are literally piled up, Biologist Laura Marsh set out to revise the saki monkeys (genus Pithecia) after some peculiar sightings in the field. She went to 36 museums in 17 countries to study 876 skins and 690 skulls. One stop was the Zoologische Staatssammlung in Munich, where a curator pointed to a pile of monkey skins six feet high and told her to look through it - and these included type specimens. (March ended up revising the whole genus, adding five new specimens and reviving three disputed or synonymized ones.)

Then there’s expertise. In particular, there are not nearly enough people who can differentiate insects.  Kemp visits two scientists who had\ve developed, through decades of work, an almost mystical ability to recognize new or different species from thousands of specimens. They can’t really explain how they do it, although one is helping develop a computer program to help automate the process.

 Kemp devotes one chapter to fossils (countless dinosaur bones are still in their plaster jackets, and no one knows if they’re labeled correctly, when they are labeled at all).   Another chapter shows us it’s not always the specimen itself that is the discovery. A shell collected in Indonesia around 1894 was next examined in 2007 by a scientist who found an artificial pattern of scratches on it: it is 500,000 years old and the first evidence of pre-humans making art.

Kemp makes an important point about indigenous reports. Cultures dependent on hunting know their local animals well, but they don't categorize them the same way a scientist would. Their categorization is based on practicality.  A hunter in Brazil may differentiate two monkeys and give them different names based on the best times and places to hunt them.  It's no matter to him whether they are separate species or differing populations of the same species. Kemp reports that leads to what is, to taxonomists, overcategorization. If our hunter has six names for local monkeys, a visiting scientist may assume he's talking about six species, when he could be talking about one, two, three, or even seven or eight.  .  

A few more tidbits: American zoologist Kristofer Helgen, who found the holotype olinguito skull in a Field Museum collection, was part of the team that named the skywalker gibbon (Hoolock tianxing) in 2017 from a holotype collected by Roy Chapman Andrews in 1913. A paleontologist at the British Geological Society opened an old cabinet in 2011 and found specimens on glass slides never inspected in the 160 years since Charles Darwin collected them. Collections thus hold not only specimens, but much of the history of the biological sciences. Old specimens are often where cryptic species are spotted or confirmed, as when one giraffe species was split into four. 

Kemp closes with another explanation of the importance of preserving and studying these collections in a time when we are losing species rapidly. The patterns of collection (in location and time) matter, too. Collections can identify what the historic range of a species was and how it’s changed. Species most affected by climate change can indicate when conditions in their habitat changed.  Finally, patterns can tell us of extinctions.

Last note on content: Helgen also says he knows of 50 mammals in collections that haven’t been described yet.

This is an important and accessible book: Kemp’s writing and his explanations are good enough that I never once had to stop and look up a term.  There are thorough endnotes.  I was puzzled by the absence in his examples of the famous giant gecko (Hoplodactylus delcourti) discovery, and I wanted many more illustrations. Overall, though, I loved this book. 

Finding species by looking at old specimens with labels like “Argentina, 1900” isn’t as exciting as tramping through Queensland looking for reported marsupial tigers, but sometimes it’s where the action is.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

How Big Did Megalodon Get?

 The Meg, star of page and screen, is everybody's favorite extinct shark because it simply dwarfs every other predatory shark that ever lived. So how big was it? Estimates of about 14 meters (m) all the way to 18m and larger have been made, with it getting larger in fiction: Steve Alten's Meg is a sardine compared to the 200-foot (!) shark in a novel by Charles Wilson called Extinct

The most thorough analysis done to date on Otodus megalodon (formerly Carcharodon megalodon) is now out.  Scientists Jack Cooper, Catalina Pimiento, Humberto Ferron, and Michael Benton went beyond earlier reconstructions based mainly on teeth and scaling up the Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) and folded in analysis of  "extant macropredatory lamniforms," the order that includes the mako shark.  The lamniforms are the closest living relatives to Meg: the great white is a more distant cousin.  This analysis allowed them to get a sense of the body proportions common to such fish.  

They came out with a max length of about 16m (52.5 feet). Other dimensions: "Our results suggest that a 16 m †O. megalodon likely had a head ~ 4.65 m long, a dorsal fin ~ 1.62 m tall and a tail ~ 3.85 m high." (The great white, easily the biggest predatory shark of today, tops out arouind 6.5 m for proven specimens, with possibly 7 m for an extreme outlier.) 

It's not the mosnter we saw in the recent film, but it will do!

(Image: Smithsonian)

Friday, August 28, 2020

Shark Week: two bites, lots of chum

 Shark Week has come and gone. And most of it won't be missed. The celebrity gimmick shows are just painful.  It's cruel to make humans watch that.  It's cruel to make SHARKS watch that.  The search for an individual shark, inevitably dubbed "monster," or "killer" something,  occasionally produces some good footage (there was a great shot of a really big hammerhead in "Monster Under the Bridge") but not much else.  

One of the keepers was Extinct or Alive? Land of the Lost Sharks.  Forrest Galante took us in search of three sharks (two sharks and a skate, actually), on the southeastern coasts of Africa.   The diving shots are really nerve-wracking.  This seems to be the place the term "shark-infested waters" was born for. Sometimes you can hardly see the divers.  But success is theirs: the quarry is caught on video in all three cases, and we learn a lot as we go.  

Pacific Sleeper Shark
Pacific sleeper shark (not from Shark Week show)  (NOAA)

The other one was Alien Sharks, which has been the only reliably informative show from this school. Sure there's slightly overdone narration and a reminder of who can be the prey here (I never knew a human had been bitten by a cookie-cutter shark: it's not pretty.) Dr. Mareike Dornhege and a Japanese crew look for the utterly weird goblin and frilled sharks,among other rare deep-water species. The little-known longnose dogfish stole the show by giving birth in a tank on the boat. 

The biggest deepwater shark is the sleeper shark, reaching 8 m or more, and Paul Clerkin and Taylor Chappel lead an expedition to Alaskan waters to study them. (Kudos for featuring Dornhege and Clerkin: I'm not an advocate of saying "we need a black guy on this show and an Asian woman on this one," but lineups of these events all too often imply all shark scientists are white guys.)

Clerkin finds his sleeper shark, and adventure ensues as they put the first-ever video tag on a sleeper shark and get a look at its world.  Actual science! (more on Aalskan shark science here)

Oh, and my dad sent over this reminder that, yeah, sometimes we are prey.  We kill millions of sharks a year, but they don't take it personally. Usually. And when a human does get bitten, we need to remember they are just being sharks.  If you're on the Serengeti plains, you watch out for lions... 

Hoping for more good stuff next year. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Book Review: Monsters of the Deep

 Monsters of the Deep

Nick Redfern (2020, Visible Ink, 366 pp.)    

(NOTE: the blog program changed its interface and I'm having a little trouble getting the colors to come up right, so please forgive the odd appearance of this post!)

Nick is an indefatigable seeker of oddities natural and supernatural, and his many interests leave the title topic a bit obscured.  As he knows, I'm an aficionado of strictly physical cryptozoology. If I have an official quote on the topic, it's "If it’s not zoology, it’s not cryptozoology.”  Nick's approach is that,  although “high strangeness” reports don’t concern physical cryptozoology, there are such reports about famous cryptids like Bigfoot, and that to him is worth investigating. I don’t dismiss parapsychology out of hand, but don't expect a comprehensive book on sea serpents and their ilk.  

The book does collect interesting reports on lake and sea monsters, some new to me. It ranges much farther afield, though,  all the way to man-eating trees, a giant snake killed in Bolivia by the CIA (actually, this one is really interesting), and so on.  But scientific credibility on zoology per se is left behind at hte first mention of reptilian shape-shifters.  Creature reports from Loch Ness are interesting, but pages devoted to Alastair Crowley (while a fascinating story of human weirdness)  seemingly have no bearing on whether there are plesiosaurs in a Scottish lake.

Many pages of this book are taken up by multi-paragraph quotes from old books and recent websites.  That’s not always a bad thing: most notably, Redfern shows how fundamental the work of Henry Lee (Sea Monsters Unmasked, 1883) is to the still-quoted body of “sea serpent” evidence.   The most interesting original investigation is Nick’s accounts of modern reports of creatures in small bodies of water in England and speculate what could be there and why it was only recently noticed (he fingers a small released crocodilian, no doubt dead by now, as one culprit). 

Redfern brings this to a close with a quick review of the classification schemes proposed for sea monsters, although I wished he’d diagrammed them for comparison. He makes the valid point, though, that these are ventures aren't very useful without more evidence. He goes on to his own thoughts about cryptids.  He and cryptozoologist Richard Freeman suggest some are material animals and some emerge from a deep memory of ancient-predator archetypes that come up when the brain is disturbed (should Carl Jung get partial credit here?). The book ends with a bit about how pollutants are producing mutant animals and might have a role in some oversize or odd-looking creatures reported as “monsters.”  A recent example given here concerns deformed frogs in the U.S. The 1.3-meter frog reported here is a bit harder to fit to this paradigm. 

There are no chapter notes or endnotes, so it’s up to the reader to figure which account might be tied to which source in the 10-page bibliography.  There are also some editing mistakes: an account by a Loch Ness researcher is repeated verbatim in two chapters.  That and the long quotes give the book a disjointed feel. I'm not sure whether the publication was rushed or just that Nick is such a prolific writer that wanting to share his latest thoughts occasionally trips him up. 

As someone who thinks of cryptozoology as strictly a wants-to-be hard science devoted to finding real animals, the book wasn't what I'd hoped for:  the side trips sap the impact of the zoology. Nick is the author and he of course writes what interests him, just as we all do, and he can write clearly and well. If your interests match his, there’s a lot here to keep you turning the pages.    

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Taxonomy - Sounds boring, but it's in trouble

Taxonomy, the naming of living things, is not something most of us need to think about often. Ok, a Tyrannosaurus rex (still one of the coolest names ever) means "tyrant lizard king," and the moose is Alces alces, and humans are Homo sapiens ("intelligent man," or so we hope). There's a genus (group) name and a species name (making a "binomial"), and it all fits into a larger classification scheme of families and phyla and other things you may have learned a  mnemonic for back in school. This is standard "Linnaean" classification. It's gotten more complicated in the age of DNA, cladograms, and disputes over who had the right to name something, but it's still the dominant way to refer to animals and plants.  A published name sticks even if there is something wrong with the name itself. The discoverer of an ancient whale thought it was a marine reptile and gave it the genus name Basilosaurus. Even though we know now it's a mammal, its stuck with a name including "lizard" for all time.  

To name something you need a holotype, an original example other scientists can look at. According to International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) Recommendation 16C, Preservation and deposition of type specimens,  "Recognizing that name-bearing types are international standards of reference (see Article 72.10) authors should deposit type specimens in an institution that maintains a research collection, with proper facilities for preserving..."

That doesn't mean holotypes are always available. Some years  back, scientists at the Museum of Zoology QCAZ, Quito, Ecuador, looked for invertebrate holotypes deposited there and couldn't find proof 16 holotypes and 51 paratypes ("sibling " specimens deposited with the holotypes), had ever been deposited. This added up to "...some 20% of all invertebrate type material for the country..." Holotypes get lost in transit, lost in museum moves, destroyed, and occasionally stolen.  In 1981 and 1983, Russian mammologists described two new species of killer whales, or orcas, Orcinus nanus and Orcinus glacialis. However, one never had a proper holotype and the other can't be found, so no one uses the names.  

A holotype does not have to be a stuffed or skeletal specimen, although that's the preferred method. Species have entered general scientific use (practically speaking , the closest thing there is to a formal acceptance) through descriptions based on DNA samples, fragmentary specimens, and, controversially, photographs when the photographs are clear and taken under conditions ensuring they are genuine (such as of a captive animal that is released, or a worm that conveniently crawls over the viewport of a submersible and is captured from an inch away).  Dr. Grover Krantz' publication of a name for Bigfoot was based on footprints: it found little acceptance and it was invalid anyway because someone had previously proposed a name. 

So, to get where I was going, the rules here seem pretty clear, but as paleozoologist Darren Naish explains here, things can go sideways. The first publication of a description of a creature carries the name (assuming it's available) fixed until and unless invalidated (a name can be disputed in other publications). Add to that the fact it's understood different scientists have different ideas of where to classify a new beetle or shark or whatever, and the rules written back when everything was done through peer-reviewed journals allow for weird results in the internet age.  People can publish in pay-to-play journals, public access journals, blogs, etc. Practically anything is a publication available anywhere in the world.  Finally, this isn't limited to scientist with some qualifications: anyone can do it.  Dedicated, careful amateurs have published names universally accepted.  BUT...

We have a situation Dr. Naish calls "taxonomic vandalism." He refers to one incredibly busy amateur herpetologist named Hoser who has named "well over 100 supposedly new snake and lizard genera, this individual has also produced taxonomic revisions of the world’s cobras, burrowing asps, vipers, rattlesnakes, water snakes, blindsnakes, pythons, crocodiles and so on. But, alas, his work is not of the careful, methodical, conservative and respected sort that you might associate with a specialised, dedicated amateur; rather, his articles appear in his own, in-house, un-reviewed, decidedly non-technical publications.." The diagnostic characteristics Hoser cites in distinguishing the holotype of a new species from its relatives are mostly unimportant, accidental (a damaged specimen), or within the bounds of known species (like counting a snake with two more rows of scales on its head as a species). Scientists used to be, in general, "splitters" who named species based on minor stuff: a hundred years ago there were 86 species of brown bear. This was eventually reduced through the work of other scientists to one, with four subspecies.  But Hoser is taking splitting to new levels, naming animals for pets and relatives (honoring people is normal, but ...pets?)  and generally making a hash out of existing herp taxonomy.  

So when you see a new species named, pay some attention before you celebrate it or refer to it. Is the publication legitimate? Dr. Melba Ketchum's "Bigfoot DNA" paper was published in a self-produced journal that never published a second issue.  Has anyone published a disputing article or letter (easy to find with the internet)? Is the journal peer-reviewed? Peer review is not a guarantee of anything, but it means the description has been critiqued by other specialists who know the topic.  

Also, see what the person has published before. Has she done articles in journals, or has she published screeds like Hoser's attacking the evil anti-truth scientists who've rejected the work? See this doozy.  

Thousands of new species are named every year, and we have (it's estimated) hundreds of thousands of beetles alone to find and name.  A new species is always accompanied by some form of publication, but the species has to furnish the foundation for the publication, not the other way around.