Friday, April 18, 2014

Keeping Up with New Species

There are so many species being added continually to the nearly 2 million we know about that it's hard to keep up.  One of the sources helpful in this endeavor is at, where a page is devoted fulltime to the new creatures of the world.  The Newfound Species page does not just include the charismatic vertebrates. The beetles, anemones (did you know an anemone lives in the Antarctic ice? No one did, until recently. Meet it here.), corals, spiders, and others are here along with the reptiles, mammals, fish, and birds. (Sorry, amphibians" you're here too.  I don't know why I always leave you out.) Other recent entire here include an orchid, a scorpion, and the recognition of the second species of oncilla, a handsomely spotted Brazilian feline.  
Another site is the species discovery page of Mongabay articles tend to lean more towards the vertebrates, though not entirely - meet the newest mantises here. There is some overlap, but there are plenty of new species to go around.   The same is true for the New Species News page of ScienceDaily, which today features new sponges and bats.  It also includes some related articles about topics like how to name and track endangered species.
Those sites, plus a Google Alert, keep me reasonably up to date.  (Oh, don't forget to follow National Geographic news, including the Wild & Weird blog.) 
There's a lot to catch up on....

Across the last frontier: John C. Houbolt

John C. Houbolt, Unsung Hero of the Apollo Program, Dies at Age 95

 Houbolt, a critical factor in the race to the Moon, has died at 95. I never met him, but as an "Apollo kid" I certainly watched his work. He was instrumental in selecting the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) plan that got us on the Moon in JFK's public timeline.  As Astra, doc.
From NASA press release:
"In the space race of the 1950s and '60s, the leading voices were rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and ... another guy. Household names included Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard and ... oh, you know, the fellow who pushed the idea of a separate crew capsule and lunar lander. America wouldn't have won the race, the Eagle wouldn't have landed in 1969 and the Apollo 13 crew would never have survived if it weren't for an engineer from [the] NASA Langley Research Center. John C. Houbolt."
So reads a feature on written in 2009 about one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. Houbolt may have never become a household name, but his ideas and contributions to Apollo made it possible to achieve the goal of landing a crew on the Moon and safely returning them by the end of the decade. As a member of of Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been studying various technical aspects of space rendezvous since 1959 and was convinced, like several others at Langley, that lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) was not only the most feasible way to make it to the moon before the decade was out, it was the only way. At the time many scientists thought the only way to achieve a lunar landing was to either build a giant rocket twice the size of the Saturn V (the concept was called Nova) or to launch multiple Saturn Vs to assemble the lunar ship in Earth orbit (an approach known as Earth orbit rendezvous).
In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr. Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically "as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt protested LOR's exclusion from the NASA debate on the Apollo mission profile. "Do we want to go to the moon or not?" the Langley engineer asked. "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option--especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights, and Houbolt's brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: Book of Animal Records

You may think all "record" books have "Guinness" in the titles, as kind of a natural law, but this edition of Mark Carwardine's Book of Animal Records is sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.  It's a lot of fun and is often eye-opening, but its utility is limited by the complete lack of references.

The Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records
Firefly, 2013

The book is colorful, readable, and has an intriguing collection of odd records (the fastest-digging monotreme is the echidna, just in case someone asks)   along with the usual biggest, heaviest, smallest, and all that. It adds up to some 900 records from all over the animal kingdom.  Carwardine is a veteran of wildlife books (I have his Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and the touching Last Chance to See, with Douglas Adams) and is qualified to undertake this endeavor.  Most of the time, his details are accurate, and they are certainly interesting.
Since my current area of interest is marine animals, it was cool to spend some time with the largest pinniped (a southern elephant seal caught in 1913 weighed an estimated 4,000 kg) and the fastest of the seals (the leopard seal's ability to leap onto a flow 2m above the water indicates a launch speed of 22km/hr). On the sirenian side, did you know the Florida manatee has been known to migrate 850km? 
When it gets to records, of course, the whales grab most of the superlatives. The biggest sperm whale brain weighed was 9.2kg.  A blue whale caught in 1931 was weighed in pieces: with an estimate added for lost blood (6.5 metric tons) the whole whale weighed a stupendous 199 mt.  Orcas have been known to prey on 25 species of their fellow cetaceans using their speed (timed at 55.5km/h), smarts, and nasty jaws: one of those prey species is the blue whale, which while not swimming for its life communicates with low-frequency calls at 188 decibels, audible 3,000km away.
The dominant ocean vertebrates, in numbers, are are the fishes, and we learn plenty of nuggets about them:  puffer fish kills 30 people a year in Japan, while the top location for shark attacks in the years 2000-2011 is Florida (281). There are 410 species of sharks (a number probably already obsolete) and 42 are "known or suspected" of taking at least the occasional bite out of a human. (I wish there was a list provided: I've never seen an estimate that high.)
There is the occasional moment of clunky writing: e.g., coelacanths "have been dubbed as 'living fossils.'" There is also the occasional mistake. The claim on page 195 that marine biologists in 1963 saw an oarfish 15m long is flat wrong: the animal was a nearly-transparent invertebrate. Speaking of invertebrates, a deep-water crustacean in the genus Gigantocypris has, according this the text, better night vision than any living animal, though you have to read a bit further to learn Carwardine means the most sensitive, in terms of f-number (0.25).  The author gives a maximum weight of 272kg for the Pacific giant octopus, a number disputed in other references, though he adds a cautious note on the cephalopods by  saying there's no evidence for the monster Octopus giganteus once believed to have been stranded in 1896.  Also speaking of the invertebrates, they get short-changed a bit here: there are only 41 pages on them, despite their vastly outnumbering the vertebrates.
The question of dueling sources brings me to the huge problem with this book. There are no sources. No footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography.  While it's understood Carwardine was going for the interest of popular audiences and wasn't trying to write a textbook, having NO references just flummoxes me.  With them, this book could have been terrific: instead, it's always interesting but rarely authoritative. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Farewell, Peter Matthiessen

A great writer and conservationist has passed on.  Peter Mattheissen lived 86 years and made full use of every one. He traveled all over the world, writing about the people and the planet with a style that was unmatched for bringing readers into the scene: not just with technical descriptions, but with a spiritual understanding.  I remember him best for the moody, unforgettable Himalayan journey in The Snow Leopard (in which, among other things, he pondered the Yeti mystery), and Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, in which he followed the filming of the groundbreaking documentary Blue Water, White Death. Seeing a white shark up close, he wrote memorably that its black eye was " as "impenetrable and empty as the eye of God." Others know him for his award-winning novels, which I must admit I haven't read. He also took considerable interest in the sasquatch question, attending the first scientific conference on the subject and linking it to Native American folklore about the "Big Man." 
Goodbye to a man who did so much for the world.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Amazing specimen: an albino marlin

A New York woman caught (and released, which this article doesn't make clear) a fish no one had ever seen: an albino marlin. Caught off Costa Rica, the fish was so remarkable a taxidermy company promised her a replica mount for free. 
This was an Atlantic Blue Marlin Makaira nigricans, a fish that can reach 5m in length and over 600kg.  So the albino specimen wasn't any sort of size or weight record, but it was still an impressive fish. Some authorities think this species may swim as fast as 80km/hr (43 knots for us American sailors). Albinos generally don't do well in the wild: not only are they sun-sensitive, which may affect feeding opportunities even for an ocean-going fish, but they stand out to both predators and prey. It was an Atlantic Blue that figured in the most famous fishing novel ever, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a novel I never got around to reading until 2013 but liked a lot. Here's a lovely animated adaptation. (Caution, not sure who has rights to this)

Crab-walking the ocean floor

The number and types of tools we have for probing the oceans grows every year.  Robot tuna, sharkfin cameras, and free-swimming and tethered ROVs are extending our vision and reach into the depths.
One thing we can't do yet is crawl - that is, crawl along the seafloor like a spider would, investigating caves, wrecks, and sea life up close.  This Korean invention is out to change that. Looking like a portable generator that grew legs, the 650-kg Crabster 2000 will give us a view we've never had before. It carries sonar and visual imaging systems, though more sensors and tools will be added later, and specialized versions may be developed. Making future versions able to swim "like turtles" is another objective.  Much depends on how it does in initial sea trials now underway. 
The Crabster 2000 isn't capable of everything. The initial model only goes to 200m and crawls at 10cm.minute.  But it's an interesting concept that may pay off big for oceanography. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Monster Shrimp From Hell

Actually, this thing couldn't hurt you. If couldn't even if it still existed. But it LOOKS like something from a James Cameron movie out to filet swimming humans alive.  Some 520 million years ago, Tamisiocaris borealis was one of the biggest animals on the planet at 70cm in length, and it cut a deadly swath - through plankton, at least. One of the odder results (and that's saying something) of the Cambrian explosion, the new predator was found in Greenland in a formation that, half a billion years ago, was located in the tropics. There was a bloom in the population of shrimplike creatures at the time, so these hard-shelled, appendage-waving creatures grew bigger. The group T. borealis belonged to, the anomalocarids, include species up to a possible 2m long and are most commonly classed as "stem arthropods" - that is, they were on the line leading to the arthropods, which today number over a million species at the very least and include everything from insects to lobsters.  (That's right: the roach you're stepping on is related to the lobster you're about to eat.  Yum.)
Evolution on Earth made so many experiments that we will never catalog them all.  Some fossils will always be too rare, too small, or too fragile, and of course many tiny invertebrates and microbes left no records at all.  But what we can know, and what we do know, is endlessly expanding and endlessly fascinating. 

The Universe Keeps Unfolding

In the spirit of the new COSMOS series (which is great, by the way), we are seeing discovery unfold every day as our telescopes and probes extend our senses into the vastness.

In the last month, this is what's happened:

As we all know, Pluto was demoted to a "minor planet" in a decision that, as we all know, was wrong.  Be that as it may, it's now clear Pluto isn't the minor planet furthest from Earth. 2012 VP113 has that designation.  It's so far out it's not clear how it was ever captured by the gravity of the Sun in the first place: its orbit averages 83 astronomical units (83 times the 93 million mile distance from the Earth to the sun) and, as astronomer Chad Trujillo put it, "Nothing that we currently know in the solar system can make objects that are so distant all the time, that never come close to any of the planets."

Nearer to home, finger-shaped objects that appear and disappear on Mars could - could - be evidence that water flows seasonally on the surface of the planet.   This phenomena was spotted, not by NASA or by a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer, but by undergraduate Lujendra Ojha.  (Keep going, kid: that Nobel Prize could be yours someday.)

Further from home, on the other hand, we have new extrasolar planets - 715 of 'em.  Talk about seeking out new worlds.
Gene Roddenberry, somewhere, is smiling.

Again, this is ONE MONTH of exploration.  Think about that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relaunching The First Space Race

This is cool.  My 2004 book The First Space Race: Launching the first Satellites (co-authored by Erika Lishock, with Foreword  by Dr. James Van Allen, is being relaunched as part of the publisher's expanded line of space books.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Anniversary - Robert Goddard's first launch

88 years ago today, Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket.  For space exploration, this was a moment akin to what the Wright brothers did at Kitty Hawk 23 years earlier.  Goddard's rocket used gasoline and liquid oxygen and solved the problem of stability by the unique device of putting the engine at the top of the rocket instead of the bottom. Goddard would go on to make enormous strides in all areas of rocket technology.  It's tragic that he didn't live to see the first satellites, but NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is only one of many tributes maintained today to the father of liquid-fueled rocketry.  Hats off, Dr. Goddard!

A cold-blooded lizard that likes the cold?

This striking new lizard from Peru prefers an unusual habitat - cold mountain streams.  The article doesn't say how much time the animal spends in the water vs. sunning itself (which it must do), but it's one more reminder that life is endlessly adaptable.  When we have, for example, crabs that live almost entirely on land and get as big as trashcan lids (dustbin lids for you British readers), fish that prefer to be on land (a tiny Brazilian catfish will instantly get out of the water if placed in it), and animals that flourish in superheated, poisoned water around hydrothermal vents, we should always keep in mind that "Life finds a way" isn't just a line from a movie. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

FIRST legislation not a good prescription for science

I rarely mention anything about politics or legislation in this space, but this rates an exception: not just because my good friend. Dr. Cherie McCollough, whose thinking I greatly respect, sent me an alert on this, but because it'll shape U.S. government science-related polities for years to come.
The House is debating a new act to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, but the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186) includes some questionable provisions that have a whole lot of scientists upset. 
A lot of the hubbub concerns a major cut to the social and behavioral sciences.  As valuable as these can be (although everyone has a "silliest grant" story), I'll let other people fight that one: the right balance between social science and hard science funding is beyond my expertise.
There are some logical things in the bill: the need for a "no fraud" statement from each researcher might be seen as duplicative, but I like having it clearly in law.   There are also head-scratchers: what's the relevance of saying "A maximum of five citations in any grant proposal?" But my major problems are twofold:
1.  The bill doesn't give the NSF and NIST the needed growth ("topline" in Washington parlance) to keep pace with research and educational needs in a fast-changing, technology-driven world.  Even granting there are competing needs and yawning deficits, NSF/NIST funding has to be protected and at least modestly boosted if we're going to be a leading nation in science, technology, and commerce.   
2. The biggest puzzler is the access provisions. If the taxpayers fund work, the taxpayers should get access to it, free or at cost.  There's an existing understanding that publishers of papers can withhold free access for 12 months, but this bill would extend that to two to three years instead of reducing it. That's crazy.

Here's an interview with the author, Rep. Lamar Smith, where he explains his thinking. He seems to focus entirely on some questionable grants to the exclusion of the bigger picture, although the interviewer could have done a better job of probing for specifics.  
If you agree he's gotten it wrong, here's his contact information.  Tell him what you think. Don't be shy. Last I checked, Congress still works for us.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peruvian Mystery Cats: strange-looking jaguars after all

Are there undiscovered big cat species in the world?
It's possible, but one very promising lead has been run to ground.

This is a case I worked on myself: I took Peter Hocking, the discoverer of one and possibly two possible new cats in Peru, to Denver to meet with a mammologist several years ago, but all we had were photographs of a skull, and Dr. Cheri Jones, the expert at the Denver museum, thought that inconclusive.  Hocking thought his “speckled tiger” might actually a be a jaguar, but a previously unknown color morph, while the “striped tiger” (reportedly rufous in color with white vertical stripes) was more likely to be a new species.  If this proved true, Hocking would have had the first new big cat species described in nearly a century and a half.  

If only.

Now another friend of mine, Darren Naish, has taken up the case. He and his collaborators, including Hocking, have been disappointed.  It appears the Peruvian finds must have been unusual jaguars - VERY unusual, in terms of reported coat color, but otherwise that trail has petered out.   When reading this paper, also note the excellent recap of recent mammal discoveries and discovery trends. We have by no means catalogued all the mammals of Earth.
Here's the paper!


Friday, March 07, 2014

Sailing another 20,000 Leagues?

Disney's film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a masterpiece 60 years ago and has held up pretty well.  Two TV remakes in 1997 tried to outdo each other for sheer awesome stupidity and general suckiness (they had some decent actors, but what they did with them...ugghh.)  

There was almost another remake, and it looked darn good.  The concept artist whose work is reproduced here designed a terrific submarine using 19th-century ideas, forgoing the iconic nature of Disney's sub for something more Vernian. The Disney sub is terrific to look at, both menacing and artistic, but it must have had, based on the sets in the film, an interior far bigger than its exterior, making it sort of an unintentional pre-Doctor Who seagoing TARDIS.  The squid-faced sub in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels was very cool, while the ocean-liner-size craft in the film version of League was as ridiculous as the rest of the movie.  Here's a great page collecting all the Nautilus designs from Verne's day onwards.

Verne used a lot of sea creatures, most of them depicted inaccurately even for the knowledge of his day and some of them terribly wrong (I still want to see a shark streaming phosphorescence).   But the novel was a work of genius, and it still is.  If there's a another remake - and it's rather inevitable there will be one - I hope it not only reflects the rousing storytelling of Verne's original, but all we've learned about the ocean and its creatures - some of them beyond knowledge or even imagination for an author writing in 1870. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Awesome video - wolves and ecology in Yellowstone

How wolves change the state of rivers.

OK, wolves are awesome all by themselves.  But this short video illustrates what happens when you remove a key piece from an ecosystem.

It really is all connected.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Wrapping up my thoughts on Ketchum-Sasquatch affair

I'd actually written this topic off, but I posed a question to Dr. Ketchum on FaceBook, and she was polite enough to engage in an exchange. I appreciate that.  But I came away  dismissing the entire topic.

I'm not an expert on the genetics, but exactly one person who is (Dr. Swenson) has endorsed the work, while every other qualified person has either ignored it, dismissed it, or is (if supportive, as Melba Ketchum claims some are)  has remained anonymous.  She sees this as irrational fear and rejection of good evidence. I can't see it that way: it's too overwhelming. 

Dr. Ketchum also insists that some samples were taken directly from a living sasquatch under close observation.  Here's where I had, to, with great reluctance, reach the personal opinion that she and others involved are not just reaching incorrect conclusions or using flawed evidence, but that at least some people involved here are not telling the truth.    

If you have a sasquatch under close observation, there are only three possibilities:
1. You're motivated by money. In this case, you'd have taken clear video to a major media outlet a long time ago.
2. You're motivated by science. In this case, you'd take clear video and more samples to an academic or government office. (If you're not believed, you'd bring in reporters.)
3. You're motivated by the sincere belief that the best thing you can do for the species is to keep it secret. I could understand this, but, if this were your logic, you'd never release ANY samples or video.

Concerning the people observing the alleged specimen, Dr. Ketchum's last comment was, "It is not my place to comment on somebody else's business."  When I posted the analysis above, she made a post saying that, if I was calling these people liars, then I was calling her a liar.  That post was quickly deleted.  She insisted that the video released was poor quality due to technical difficulties. (No one outside the community of existing sasquatch believers thinks it's in any way genuine.) She added, "I repeat, I do not have any control over the footage so it is a moot point to discuss it. Yes, the samples were controlled and the DNA testing matched the physical attributes of the one in the film."

Very well.  She has made her position clear: and, again, I appreciate her time. However, my thought as a science writer who has tried to keep an open mind on this and on sasquatch in general is that there is no fact behind all this kerfluffle, and nothing that advances science or conservation will ever come of it.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Putting the kibosh on prehistoric survivors?

Sharon Hill, geologist, skeptic, and Sounds Sciencey columnist, has given the boot (boot? Hill? Get it?)  to the claims that prehistoric survivors are still roaming around causing cryptozoologists to get all excited.  She has a number of major points, one being that the coelacanth is  not enough to make a logical link with any claims of living  plesiosaurs. (Actually, I'm almost getting tired of Old Fourlegs, a marvelous discovery, but one that apparently be trotted out forever in arguments over cryptozoology.) Hill notes that neither Central Africa nor any other spot on Earth is unchanged since the Mesozoic era, a point hammered home in the African case by Louis Jacobs in his book Quest for the African Dinosaurs.

She dismisses two of the most famous corpses in sea serpent history, noting they were in advanced stages of decay.  I had to push back a little there:  the 1937 Naden Harbor "Cadborosaurus," while clearly beat up, was not described in the contemporary accounts as being in "an advanced state of decomposition." There's still something odd about that damned thing: while it does resemble a decayed basking shark, it puzzles me that the vertebral column would have stayed intact for so long while the whale was digesting it, given the combination of chemical and muscular processes going on.. (While I wrote in 2006 that there are no accounts of sperm whales swallowing basking sharks, Richard Ellis mentions one in his book on the sperm whale, a 14-foot shark to be precise, so we can agree such a swallowing can happen.) It probably was a known creature of some sort, and Bousfield and LeBlond overreached in making it the type specimen of a new reptile. It's just not resolved quite as definitely as I'd like. 
The article raises and interesting question: if there is a decent body of sightings of a large animal, is it more likely to be a survivor which has left no fossil remains for a very long time, or a more recent development which has somehow left no remains at all?

Hauling in a giant squid

It was possible, only 20 years ago, for Richard Ellis to write that confusion of "sea serpents" and giant squids was made all the more possible by the fact that no one alive had ever seen a live giant squid for certain, so how they would look and act near the surface was open to question.  Sightings of giant squid are still extremely rare - I count one confirmed underwater sighting by humans and two videos, plus a few instances of catches on the surface - so they are still newsworthy.
Here's a new one, a catch made by a Japanese fisherman who got a rope on the squid and hauled it in still alive (it died shortly thereafter). It was about 4m long and would have been twice that if the long tentacles had been intact.  Mr. Okamoto is a shell diver who had the weirdly unsettling experience of a having a giant squid swim above him - as in, between an unarmed human and the nice normal world of the surface. Fortunately, it apparently was in no shape to cause trouble.
Fatal interactions between humans and giant squid (fatal to the human, that is), are stuff of legend, but may have happened, especially in a World War II incident in the Atlantic, where survivors reported that people had been pulled from makeshift rafts: one fellow turned up on the old Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World TV show to display dime-sized scars on his leg.
So giant squid are  still mysterious.  Good for them :)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mixed news for Microsatellites

A number of interesting things have been happening the world of microsatellite.

First, Skybox Imaging, which built its first two 100-kg imaging satellites (which offer stills and video) , will contract the next 13 to Space Systems/Loral.  It's interesting because SS/L has never built microsats. Will they bring in fresh ideas? Or will they try to build them the way they do large satellites (which will not end well)? Stay tuned!

Then Northrop Grumman delivered its modular MSV microsat bus to the government.  What they don't say in their press release is that the mission has no approved payload, budget, or launch date... nothing against the smart folks t NG, I am sure they delivered quality, but with existing budgets and plans, what they delivered is a high-tech coffee table.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Antechinus envy

Would you like to be an antechinus?  They are cute little creatures.

OK, you're not cool with being a mouselike Australian marsupial.  We now know there are 13 species, with two more descriptions on the way. Some of those species are threatened.

The discoverer of the newest species says, that Australia has 360 known mammal species and adds, "A further two dozen species have become extinct since European settlement but there are likely many other species waiting to be discovered - while the majority may be out in the bush, some could be within close reach.''

And while antechinus males don't live long, they go out in a blaze of - well, something. The males of most species go into a frenzy where they do nothing except mate and battle other males over mating.  And I mean, they do NOTHING else.  They don't sleep, they don't eat, they don't groom.  They essentially have sex and get into fights until a rival kills them or they simply drop dead, exhausted. 

There's a lesson in that.  I think.

Whale sharks in wholesale (and retail) trouble

The most magnificent fish in the oceans is, bar none, the whale shark.  Only the sperm whale and the largest of the rorquals are bigger.  They can exceed 15m in length, and claims over 20m have been made.  They are global in distribution, and we're still learning about their migration and reproductive habits.  They are protected on CITES Appendix II, and many nations have taken action to establish protected areas, ban trade in their fins, and otherwise try to keep the whale shark off Appendix I. 

China, however,  has not gotten the memo, and doesn't seem to want to.  While Chinese authorities state that illegal fishing of whale sharks can bring a jail sentence, this factory seems to operate with impunity.  I don't know what the answer is, but there has to be one, and publicizing this crime is Step 1.
Whale sharks are harmless filter-feeders (image NMFS)


Friday, February 14, 2014

Step Forward in Fusion

Fusion energy is the ultimate solution for the Earth's energy problems - if we can make it work. We still can't, but a major step forward was announced. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility have gotten more energy out of the fuel in their experiment than they put in.  We're still a long way from a commercial machine, but this event caused some jubilation among physicists, not normally thought of as party animals.
I'm hardly a physicist, and I don't know how close we are to fusion. But as long as we are making progress, it's worth the investment.
Unproven claims from certain people selling something called the e-Cat (never tested without its inventor present) notwithstanding, this is the path to the future.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Where have all the Nessies gone?

The Loch Ness monster, whatever you think he/she/they/it may be, has been a pretty consistent sight in its home lake for the past 80 years.  Gary Campbell, a local enthusiast who keeps a register, says no one has seen Nessie in 18 months. William Hill, the bookmaking firm that offers a cash prize for best Nessie sighting of the year, records three claims, but all were dismissed as easily explained. 
Nessie sightings before the 1930s were separated by many years, and some items put into this category were irrelevant (e.g., St. Columba's supposed dismissal of a monster in the River Ness), while others were poorly supported or fraudulent.  Still, there have been over a thousand sightings by Campbell's records, most recently in 2012. Campbell hopes 2014 will be a better year.  In other news, American television loon Charlie Sheen says he's going to look for himself. 
Good luck, Charlie. I've given up believing there's a large unknown creature in the Loch, but given Sheen's well-publicized  pharmaceutical habits, he might see one anyway.

ADDED: Dick Raynor, a highly competent investigator,  sent along a reminder that he regularly posts Nessie news here

Not impressed by pseudoarcheology

Sharon Hill's Doubtful News here dismantles the absurd claims that cranial deformation in South American skulls indicates some are nonhuman, or only partly human.  All we have are claims to the press and YouTube videos that the DNA is unusual - without the kind of details a real scientist would provide so others can check the work.  Dr. Melba Ketchum is one of the "geneticists" involved, which makes me automatically consign the thing to the trash heap, but one of the commenters on Hall's blog, a person with the screen name Spookyparadigm, actually gives the most important information by pointing out that real science has already given us our answers. He or she provided the following links:

Diseases of the Skull in Pre-Columbian South American Mummies

Intentional Cranial Deformation: A Disappearing Form of Self‐mutilation

Effects of different kinds of cranial deformation on the incidence of wormian bones;jsessionid=48B1AFB06CE805CDA5C244F5354C2961.f03t03?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

Exploring artificial cranial deformation using elliptic Fourier analysis of procrustes aligned outlines

Cranial Vault Modification and Ethnicity in Middle Horizon San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

New World Cranial Deformation Practices: Historical Implications for Pathophysiology of Cognitive Impairment in Deformational Plagiocephaly

Others point out that the specimens in question are apparently only shared with Ketchum and other believers, not with independent scientists -and that the specimens may have been exported from Peru illegally after being uncovered by tomb robbers, not scientists.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A whale of a new species

When I was researching my book Shadows of Existence, Dr. Merel Dalebout told me she thought there were still new species of beaked whales to be discovered.

According to the paper she just co-wrote for Marine Mammal Science, she was right.

OK, the first specimen of this new whale was found in 1963 and misidentified as a known type. OK, it's a cryptic species: we didn't miss it because no one saw it: we missed it because it looked like another species (several other species, in fact).
BUT STILL: It's a new freaking WHALE.

Welcome to the genus, Mesoplodon hotaula!

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The first American step into the Space Age

Eighty-four days. That's all it took from the time General Bruce Medaris and Dr. Wernher von Braun got the go-ahead to launch a satellite in the wake of Sputnik 1 and the failure of our own Vanguard TV-3 to the launch of Explorer 1.  That launch took place 56 years ago yesterday.

For the insider story, read a book that, while not flawless (we tried hard for flawless, but didn't quite get there), was the first ever to trace the three-legged Vanguard-Sputnik-Explorer race - and the first to discuss the fourth competitor, NOTSNIK, aka Project Pilot.

Erika Lishock and I talked to all the leaders of the U.S. programs we could locate. Most helpful were James Van Allen, JPL head Bill Pickering, Ernst Stuhlinger of the von Braun team, and Milt Rosen, Technical Director of Project Vanguard.  (All are gone now except Rosen: I talked last week to Pete Wilhelm of the Naval Research Laboratory, who told me Milt is still alive but no longer seeing people.)

So check out The First Space Race!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

New species of river dolphin

There are four living - and one recently extinct - species of river dolphins. Well, maybe there are five.
A new paper in PLOS names Inia araguaiaensis from Brazil.  While some specialists are not yet convinced it's a separate species, it is a big step forward in understanding the diversity and conservation status of South America's river dolphins. It's also a reminder that we don't know all the animals - even all the big animals - on this wide and varied planet.

amed Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:
med Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:
med Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:

Shark species reappears after a century

The saga of Carcharhinus leiodon, the smoothtooth blacktip shark, is a very interesting one. The lone specimen was collected in 1902 from the coast of Yemen and not named until 1985.  Since there were no newer specimens, some experts doubted the species' validity. Others assumed it was extinct.
Both schools of thought were wrong.
Shark specialist Alec Moore spotted something odd in a fish market in Kuwait in 2008: “amongst the many species of whaler shark was one which looked very similar, but different, to a couple of other species.” The smoothtooth blacktip had been rediscovered and validated.
Fish markets have always been good hunting grounds for ichthyologists, teuthologists, and the like in their search for new species. As the linked article points out, fishermen around the world deploy far grater resources than all scientific vessels put together.  They sometime find species that were unknown in a particular location - or unknown altogether. Ask graduate student Paul Clerkin, who found eight potentially new shark species by tagging along with a fishing fleet in the Indian Ocean.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.

The Thylacine: Still Alive?

I've pretty much given up hope for the world's largest marsupial carnivore, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger.  I consider it true - indeed, unarguable - that a few tigers survived the species' official demise in 1936. However, despite a trickle of modern sightings, my best guess is that the survivors didn't make up a viable population and died out around the 1990s. 

Maybe I'm wrong.

British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman is now in northwestern Tasmania looking for it with help from his colleagues of the Centre for Fortean Zoology.  He says, "The area is so damn remote, there are so many prey species and we have so many reliable witnesses who know the bush that I’d say there is a reasonable population of them left."

 Still, experts like the late Dr. Eric Guiler spent decades looking for the thylacine. The odds are not good.
But perhaps they are not hopeless.  I wish Freeman and company all the luck in the world.

Two Gems: Doubtful News and Tet Zoo

A salute to two outstanding sources of information on the creature world. This link to Sharon Hill's Doubtful News includes her nod to Darren Naish's Tet Zoo blog on its 8th birthday.

Now, I don't always agree with these authors, but they do their homework. Sharon might be called a generally skeptical science writer, while Dr. Naish is one of the UK's foremost authorities on extinct reptiles their kin (particularly pterosaurs and sauropods) and countless other animal-related topics. (Sharon also distances herself from the insistence that any skepticism must be coupled with atheism, an annoying strain of thought that crops up a lot in the writings of the many skeptics who love Richard Dawkins. (I never found Dawkins' approach to atheism convincing anyway: he outlines his own idea of what God must be like, then argues that God doesn't exist.)  Daniel Loxton, coauthor of a major recent book on cryptozoology, has an interesting column on this.)

To get back on topic, if you are going to understand cryptozoology, you have to understand these sources. For example, Sharon Hill pretty much destroyed the Melba Ketchum Bigfoot DNA silliness, while Naish's work on "sea serpents" has landed some hard shots against the too-credulous approach while leaving room for the possibility that there just might be (or until recently has been) an undiscovered pinniped at the root of this business. 

So, Sharon and Darren - soldier on!


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Happy Birthday, Buzz Aldrin

All the Apollo 11 astronauts were born in 1930.  Two are still with us. Buzz Aldrin turns 84 January 20. Happy Birthday, Doctor Rendezvous!
Those who know the Buzz mainly from an appearance on Dancing With The Stars may not know his contribution to Gemini and Apollo. He had the first Ph.D. in orbital rendezvous techniques and played a key role in making this crucial maneuver work. (His thesis was titled, "Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous.")

I've met Buzz a few times and always found him approachable, gregarious, and helpful. When I was giving a paper at a space conference in 1996, I noticed him about halfway through.  He'd slipped into the front row, where he was unmistakable in a red blazer and an oversized Buzz Lightyear pin. After the session, I asked him what he thought of my paper, which was on the reuse of surplus ICBMs as space boosters. (This was before today's Minotaur program.) He replied it was a good idea, but the company he was part of had a better one.  (For the record, my idea eventually became a program, though I can't claim credit for that: Buzz's, unfortunately, didn't attract financing and slipped away.)  When I saw him a few years later at the Responsive Space conference, he graciously wrote a note to my daughter's gradeschool class on a calendar and signed it for me.  We still have it.

Photo NASA

Buzz has been pushing space exploration ever since, including numerous publications and concepts for putting people on Mars. He won't make it. Likely, neither will I.  But our kids, or their kids - they will. 

So I'm wishing you a great day, Doc.

Pinnacle Island: the mystery rock from Mars

It's about the size of a jelly donut. It's whitish and irregular, with distinct peaks. It's a Martian rock.
Oh, and it wasn't there one day, but it was the next.

Investigate Pinnacle rock

The easy explanation is that it was kicked up by one of the NASA rover's wheels.  The more fun one is that's it's a crumpled piece of paper, a memo dropped by the director of John Carter, and it says, "This movie is really going to suck."

No rock (left): Pinnacle Island (right)
Photos NASA
My backup idea - that Martian teenagers are pelting the rover with rocks - probably isn't true either.
But the episode is a reminder that space missions, even in area we thought we new, and going to be filled with surprises.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Petition: Open Lab notebooks?

I rarely mention petitions: I don't know whether they have impact. But my friend Shannon Bohle has brought up an interesting issue here. She argues that, if the taxpayers fund research leading to a patent, then all the records, including lab notebooks, should be public. Seems logical to me.

See the Petition Here

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Miniature imaging constellations - everyone's eyes in the sky

Planet Labs' breakthrough invention - a global constellation of imaging satellites the size of bread loaves - is almost in operation.  The 28 "Flock 1" Dove satellites are on board the International Space Station (ISS) and ready to be kicked overboard. With a revisit time of a few hours, the satellites will deliver on-demand imagery with a resolution of 3 to 5 meters: the kind of capability once restricted to billion-dollar intelligence satellites, now available to everyone worldwide.  That's a little dizzying.  SkyBox Imaging will soon follow with a constellation of larger microsatellites that will bring the imagery commercially available on a similar basis down under 1 meter. (In other words, you can't read the license plate, but you could target the car.)  It also offers video on demand: in fact, its site has posted the first such privately-taken video. 
Skybox "First HD Video from Space": awesome.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Animal Hoaxes - we'll always have them

Hoax animals go back, probably, to near the beginnings of civilization.  Find a little dye from the right seashell, find a carcass, and pow, you probably get a campfire story something like, "That nothing.  Ooog kill PURPLE monkey last week. Show you for two shiny rocks." 

Flying reptiles? Got 'em. Some from Photoshop, some from the brief paranormal TV show Freakylinks, some from...well, somewhere.  Sharon Hill mentioned it here along with other "paranormal" hoaxes. The life-sized pterodactyl made for Freakylinks has ended up, as it should, in the International Cryptozoology Museum. (Scroll down on this ICM page for some other hoax creatures, the most famous being Barnum's Feejee Mermaid. )
Most recently, we have the "giant giant giant" squid from California, blamed on mutating radiation.  (I've sometimes wondered if all of California could be blamed on mutating radiation.) There is, however, no endless supply of calamari to draw from. See Snopes for an explanation of how a dead whale photograph and a dead squid photograph were morphed into a Ray Harryhausen-level monster.

Photo copyright unknown, but when you publish a hoax, I'm not likely to ask you for permission.

And, finally, we have not one but two "dead bigfoot" stories making the rounds. The odds that Rick Dyer has a dead sasquatch (you remember Dyer, right? He showed off a fake at a press conference years ago), or that Justin Smeja killed two sasquatches and collected absolutely no evidence are approximately equal to the odds my dog has a live squatch cornered in my living room. 
Hoax animals can be a lot of fun to create and fun to talk about.   Sometimes there are other agendas involved, derived from religious literalism or from "ancient alien" beliefs.
These come into play in some of the endless "ancient human giant" hoaxes, which use real skeletons shown in forced perspective or blown up through Photoshop, or in one case a giant finger that could be a tree root for all I can tell.  My response to those is always "Try this homework assignment: Design a workable knee joint for a 20-foot-tall biped in Earth's gravity.  HINT: This is not possible."

King Kong, or King PhotoShop?

Giving history the finger

These are related to the endless repeats of old U.S. newspaper clippings about human giants discovered but of course covered up by the scientific establishment.  Boy, do those get tiring.  Try to imagine a scientist with a gigantic cranium on his desk says, "Despite this being irrefutable evidence anyone can come and see for themselves, I'll forego the Nobel Prize so as to not rock the boat."

Karl Shuker collects some eye-popping hoaxes here, including terrific "rogue taxidermy" animals that would be genuinely startling/puzzling if you didn't know the context.

The Internet, of course, has made hoaxing a million times more fun for the hoaxers and a million times (I'm presuming there is some scientific formula for calculating this, but math is not my thing) more exasperating for real scientists who have to waster time pointing out what's going on.  But we'll always have hoaxes. If we find animals on other planets, the hoaxers will be right behind the scientists. It seems to be human nature.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

How much of the sea has been explored?

It's common to read figures like "95 percent of the ocean is unexplored." Is that right? What does it even mean?
Well, "the ocean" is millions of cubic kilometers that is always in motion.  It doesn't stand still to be explored, but we're mapping currents and zones and thermoclines and stuff, so we're doing our best. But the only place you could make any kind of percentage assessment is on the seafloor.
Dr. Craig McClain in  this source tries to figure it out for the deep seabed.  He takes the deep sea as meaning the areas past the relatively well-known continental shelves, so we're talking about the bottom under water 200m or more deep, and that works out to 106 million square kilometers. His rough estimate of how much we've sampled using ROVs, submersibles, cores, and trawls (as opposed to just mapping contours with sonar, an important effort but one that misses a lot of detail), is about 1650 square km.  That works out to an explored area of 0.0016 percent.
So you could say the seafloor is well over 99.9 percent unexplored.

We've got a lot of work to do.

Next big new species is.. a crocodile?

Yes. The slender-snouted crocodile, to be exact.  It had been presumed to be one somewhat variable species  Mecistops cataphractus all over Africa.  It's not. The Western and Central African populations are very disctinct species that have not interbred, according to DNA, in seven million years.  This is an example of cryptic species, those with a close enough resemblance to each other to be confused (for 150 years), in this case. (There ARE physical differences, they were just considered minor enough to overlook until the DNA reinforced the distinctions.) It's very important for conservation: one way to put it is that, in any tinkering, you have to know what the pieces are.  The existing species name, by the way, fits a type specimen from Central Africa: the new western species, which is critically endangered (a scientific survey found only 50), still needs it own name. In a hurry.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

More musings on cryptozoology

This article brings up some of the concerns with cryptozoology (although someone failed to tell the author that practically no one takes Australia's Rex Gilroy seriously). 

I wrote in response on the Science Writers LinkedIn board:

I don't think we'll find anything as far out as an ape in North America, or a plesiosaur in a lake, but a few of the "major" species of cryptozoology are ecologically possible and still might prove valid.
The article mentions the yarri or Queensland marsupial tiger: there are some impressive sightings, but they've tailed off: it may be one of the species in the genus thylacoleo lingered until very recenty.
The orang pendek, an ape of Sumatra and neighboring regions, usually reddish and habitually bipedal when on the ground, has a good sighting record and some unidentified hairs: No less an authority than Dr. John MacKinnon reported its tracks. While mostly bipedal, it's unknown whether it's more closely related to the gibbons (some of which are habitually bipedal on the ground) or the orangutans, which would require a more drastic evolutionary modification. (Speculation on a connection with the Flores hobbits is at the outer bound of possibility but would be really cool.)
None of the famous "lake monsters" seems plausible or even possible. There is, though, an interesting case in Alaska's Lake Iliamna: sturgeon have never been caught closer than the Gulf of Alaska, but good sightings, including aerial observations, indicate there may be an overlooked population with some very large individuals.
I still suspect there could be an extremely large eel or eel-like fish as the bottom of some of the "sea serpent" stories. A conger the size of an oarfish could explain some of the more puzzling sightings, most notably that by two British naturalists from the yacht Valhalla in 1905. Congers have been seen rushing about at the surface with head and forebody out of the water and lying sideways at the surface, appearing to undulate vertically: A very prominent zoologist, the late Dr. Maurice Burton, observed these activities but had no explanation for them.
Many people who call themselves cryptozoologists are terrible scientists, erecting whole species on the basis of a few reports (sometimes one) regardless of whether the proposed animal has any fossil record or makes any sense ecologically. Still, the hypothesis "there is an unclassified ape in Sumatra" is a perfectly good falsifiable (Karl Popper style) hypothesis, even though the resources to falsify it may not be available.
So no Nessie, no sasqtach... but as the discovery of a new tapir, new peccary, new beaked whale, and two new dolphins in the last few years remind us, it's still worth looking. 

Friday, January 03, 2014

The strangest recent animal discoveries

LiveScience updates its compilation of the weirdest recent discoveries from the animal kingdom. These include new species and discoveries about species we knew - or thought we knew.
There are the extinct animals: a tulip-shaped creature that filtered water through its head and a tiny beast what was wholly preserved even though it had no bones: in other words, a very rare discovery of a soft-tissue fossil. There was also "Predator X," Pliosaurus funkei,T a mosasaur 12-13m loing with teeth that dwarfed T. rex's.
There are the new discoveries concerning known animals: no one knew the cute little gray mouse lemur was a cannibal.
There's a 3-cm-long millipede with 750 legs. There are snakes with sensing tentacles on their heads, a Vietnamese fish with its penis on its face, a carnivorous sponge that looks like a beautiful living harp, a mouthless zombie worm, a two-headed shark (ok, that one was a fluke), and a charming video of a boa constrictor eating a howler monkey - whole, of course. 
If you greatly speeded up evolution into some kind of time-lapse movie, you'd see Nature seemingly throwing around DNA at random - sometimes hitting a dead end, but sometimes doing rather crazy things.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eyewitness accounts and finding new animals

This is not a new topic for me (or anyone who dabbles in cryptozoology) but it came to my attention when a thread began in the FaceBook group Cryptozoology, where one writer suggested that, not only are eyewitness reports insufficient to prove an animal exists, but that, by themselves, they are meaningless.

I think that's taking it one step too far  Eyewitness descriptions are, and have always been, one of the three major ways zoologists are led to new animals. There are really ONLY three ways (countless variations, but three main categories of events) in which a new animal CAN be discovered by science. They are 1) discovery of body parts (bones, trophies, things made from the animal's skin, etc); 2) scientific surveys where scientists are in the field looking for every animal in a targeted area; and 3) eyewitness accounts (either fresh or traditional) that alert scientists or explorers to the possibility of an animal and inspire expeditions to find it. Most of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz's mammal discoveries, for example, came from asking local hunters about their animals. Sometimes they could show him a trophy: other times, they described an animal they had seen and told him, or guided him, to where it could be found. As I said, there are many variations on these categories, but the idea that eyewitness encounters have not been crucial to important animal discoveries is certainly not valid.

(By the way, if you are curious what Dr. Rabinowitz has been up to, he's in the fight of his life: battling cancer while trying to save the tigers of Myanmar.  I'm in awe of the man.)

Such sightings serve as a starting point for investigators: they are not "proof" of a creature, but they can prompt us to ask interesting questions which we can then approach with the modern tools of science. The sightings of the chevron-marked beaked whale called  Mesoplodon Species A are a good example, leading eventually to an identification (which frankly still seems a little weak to me, but I have to yield to experts like Robert Pitman and company here) of this animal as the adult form of the pygmy beaked whale. Cryptozoology, properly understood, is the application of zoology, scientifically and objectively, to the discovery of new animals: the distinction is that cryptozoology opens the aperture a bit to open files on cases which are not quite as well attested as those leading to, say, the finding of the Vu Quang ox and company

What is the eyewitness report is not followed by anything more substantial? At what point do we toss it out?

Let's say it's 1908 or so, and you open a sea serpent file based on the report made by two naturalists on the yacht Valhalla. Interesting sighting, just published in the Royal Society's Proceedings - perfectly logical thing for a scientist to do. Then you wait. Do you close the file if twenty years pass without the animal being found? Probably not - the sea is a big place. Fifty years? Maybe - 50 years without a sighting was the old IUCN standard for extinction. 100 years? Well, depressingly, it's entirely logical to close the file. (I haven't quite, but I recognize I'm on shaky ground). In other words, how long does it take for absence of evidence to become evidence of absence? Maybe there should be a 50-year standard, but the cahow or Bermuda petrel was rediscovered 300 years after extinction. Some of it depends on whether the habitat can be searched: small lakes have been thoroughly searched (and dynamited) and the hypothesis (in Karl Popper’s sense of the falsifiable hypothesis being the basis of science) that there were creatures in those lakes have been properly falsified. It would take enormous and unavailable resources to falsify the hypothesis "There is an unclassified North American ape," but you can do it in theory. For the hypothesis, "There is an unclassified elongate marine species sometimes called a sea serpent" you could still falsify it in theory by active searching, but the task is too vast to even consider. Can the lack of followup evidence be considered falsification, and after what period of time? You inevitably end up in the world of opinion.

It’s not true that “my opinion is as good as yours” (see the Pitman example above).  But it’s also true that every researcher needs to use their own judgment – hopefully skeptically (in the proper sense of that word) – when evaluating witness reports. Witnesses can be right, they can be wrong, or somewhere in the middle. But I do hold they very often give science the starting point in discovery of a new animal.   

Tennyson: Ringing out 2013

Wherever you are, whatever you believe, this is the greatest poem ever written about looking to the New Year with hope.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Reviewing a top scientific thriller: Invasive Species

Invasive Species
Joseph Wallace
Berkley, 2013

Joseph Wallace has done everything right in this thriller: good characters, a killer premise, well-researched locations, and gruesomely scary details.  But what really separates this from the pack is that Wallace, unlike many authors, has the science down cold.  His "thieves" are several evolutionary steps beyond any known insect, but you can work out why they would have evolved this way, and the result is terrifyingly plausible.  The hive-mind intelligence gets a little far out when the hive mind is connecting individuals separated by entire continents, but even here Joseph isn't just hand-waving it: he grounds the thieves' capabilities in what we know about hive minds and mentions the genuine scientific questions we still have about how they might work.  His concepts of how parasitic hosts exploit and control their prey have real analogues in nature, including those hellishly alien fungi that control the minds of ants.
As a writer, Wallace has a lot working for him: his pacing is perfect, his descriptions are thorough without being overly detailed, and he creates characters we care about and yet is never afraid to kill anyone in the service of the story.  It's clear no one is safe in this chillingly realistic novel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman wraps up 2013

Loren Coleman, indefatiguable chronicler of cryptozoology, has published his accounts of significant deaths in the field in 2013, his nomination of cryptozoologist of the year (Dr. Bryan Sykes, who disproved most yeti'sasquatch hair evidence but apparently has discovered there was a brown/polar bear relative in the Himalayan region within historical times and maybe still extant), and the Top Ten Events in cryptozoology in 2013. 

Coleman's Top Ten are:

1. Discovery of the Kobomani Tapir (Tapirus kabomani) and other new creatures (a huge discovery, both in size and in scientific importance.)
2. Sykes' "snow bear" (which may still be a living species: there are mysteries about the bear populations of Asia.)
3. Sightings of "Little people" (may be related to the "hobbits" of Flores and/or the orang-pendek, the almost-proven ape of Sumatra, though these new reports seem to concern creatures SO little (20 inches tall) as to be hard to accept as any real animal.)
4. Mystery hominids found through DNA to have interbred with ancient humans
5. A spate of lake monster sightings, plus a "sea serpent" off Maine (I didn't find anything new or compelling in the lake monster cases, some of which were hoaxes: The Maine sea creature is kind of interesting, though it MIGHT have been a swimming moose "blown up" by excitement and the difficulties of estimating sizes across water.)
6. An out of place animal of unknown origin, a leopard, killed in Indiana (a good reminder that people reporting animals that "can't be there" can be right.)
7. Person shot while running around looking for Bigfoot (I'm amazed this didn't happen long ago.)
8. Discovery Channel's fake Megalodon shark documentary, which a lot of people still think was real
9. Interesting "snowman" footprints from Russia (In this entry Coleman mentions a related topic, the ridiculous Ketchum sasquatch DNA claims.)
10. Another sign of crypotozoology in popular culture: Safari Ltd's "Cryptozoology Toob" of small animal models.

Loren does a lot of things with his Top Ten that I like. He doesn't restrict it to events which marked progress: he picks out the most newsworthy even when they involve casting doubt or disrepute on crypytozoology.  He doesn't focus narrowly on reports and evidence: he understands that, however many of us like to think about this in scientific terms, the fact is that science, culture, and media are inextricably intertwined in the modern world.  While Loren tends to be more accepting of sighting reports than I sometimes think warranted (he classes about 80% as mistakes and hoaxes: I think the figure works out to be higher), and we disagree on the possibility of some creatures (we will not, ever, find a giant long-necked mystery animal in a lake), he is more cautious than some cryptozoologists and is willing to call out a hoax as a hoax (e.g., Ketchum). 

So congratulations, Loren, and Merry Christmas!

ADDED: Loren pointed out a a couple of mistakes I'd made in this post (my fault: I didn't quality-check it) and asked if I really thought I could be so certain about long-necked lake monsters. I am, and the rejection of that possibility is now, according to Loren, known as Bille's Dictum.  I''ll "own that," as my daughters would say.  Thanks, Loren.