Thursday, November 15, 2018

New microbes are their own "supra-kingdom"

Taxonomy was simple when I was growing up. There were plants (which included bacteria) and animals, and that was it.  Then things started splitting. The fungi got their own kingdom. Then the bacteria. Then it got crazy, with domains and supra-kingdoms and kingdoms, with the broader name "domains" assigned to the bacteria, the archaea, and the eukaryotes (which includes all the plants,  animals, protists, and pretty much everything else most people have ever heard of).  The only thing we knew for sure is that we at least had specimens belonging to all the kingdoms on up, even if we didn't have all the species. 
For more than a century, there were a few microbes kicking around collections that were described by species names and sometimes grouped as a phylum (the level below kingdom) but didn't fit very well with other microbes. Now we know why: they weren't even in the same kingdom as anything else.  Two new species picked up on a Canadian hike by graduate student Yana Eglit provided her and fellow scientists with their first look at living hemimastigotes, and they were so weird there was nothing else to do except give them their own supra-kingdom. As they wrote in Nature (the world's most prestigious scientific journal - heavy stuff for a grad student!) "The previous ranking of Hemimastigophora as a phylum understates the evolutionary distinctiveness of this group." The authors' findings "place Hemimastigophora outside of all established eukaryote supergroups. They instead comprise an independent supra-kingdom-level lineage..."
Mind blown. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Obituary: Environmental Champion Nat Reed.

I can't remember whether I ever met Nathaniel "Nat" Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics as a teenager, he ran for governor. He lost the Republican primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Democrat Lawton Chiles, but that's beside the point.
The obituary from the NY Times gives a good summation. Reed's legacy is one you wouldn't expect from most Republicans these days. He was instrumental in drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration and the establishment of the EPA. As the obituary in the NY Times tells it, Richard Nixon wasn't especially concerned about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it. He gave Reed a relatively free hand, and some real good resulted. Reed also stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation. He remained active all his life, writing, speaking, and otherwise advocating for the environment. He recounted his work in the book Travels on the Green Highway.
Nat Reed was 84 and died in the outdoors he loved, slipping and striking his head on a rock while salmon fishing in Quebec's Cascapedia River.    Goodbye to a good man.

The Extinct and the NY Times

We're all aware of human-caused extinctions, with famous species like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Steller's sea cow as poster creatures. Where are we now in terms of our impact on vulnerable species?
Obviously, a lot of things are better than they were decades ago. In the U.S., the EPA was created with the power to list species at risk and direct preservation efforts. Truly extraordinary efforts saved the California condor, the Florida panther (still very close to the edge) and the whooping crane, but were apparently a little too late for the Eastern cougar, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Eskimo curlew.  
The New York Times makes it easy to see all its stories on this topic.  The "paper of record" is a bit battered these days by controversies inside and out, but the science coverage remains definitely worth reading. Stories the classification of tigers, which is am interesting reminder that DNA evidence, which itself is objective and information-stuffed, still needs to be interpreted by the slightly fuzzy standards of a "species" and the very fuzzy standards of other taxonomic levels. Some say there are only two subspecies of Panthera tigris, while others vote for six. We know the Sumatran, which some experts call a separate species, is extinct,  as is the Javan tiger and maybe the Caspian tiger.  
Balancing this sadness is some rare (very rare) good news on the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal, with a sighting including a calf.  
Other recent articles cover the biodiversity of reef communities, the establishment of Madagascar's extinct elephant birds as the largest birds ever (800kg is a lot of Thanksgiving dinners), and how the Asian market for sea cucumbers threatens species off Mexico. 
Finally, there's an obituary I missed, for an Interior Department official named Nathaniel Reed.  I can't remember whether I met Nat Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics he ran for governor. He lost the primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Lawton Chiles, but that's aside from the point: the point is that he was instrumental in establishing the EPA and drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration.  Richard Nixon didn't particularly care about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it, and he and Reed, to whom he gave a free hand, did some real good.  He stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation.  He was 84.  Goodbye to a good man. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Salute to the Kepler space telescope

Kepler was retired today, after control problems made it untenable to keep the mission running. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has discovered 2,600 planets and looked at half a million stars, giving us a far better (and more enthralling) view of the galaxy than any previous mission.  NASA estimates "that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars." An enormous archive of data (the spacecraft sent 678 gigabits) is yet to be analyzed. Approved in 2001 (the 9-year development is not too unusual for complex science missions), it was seemingly done in 2013 when a reaction wheel failed, but engineers were able to work around it.  In 2016, news reports claimed it had discovered an "alien megastructure" (now identified as a dust cloud moving around a star, important but not admittedly not as much fun.  In 2013, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was launched and has taken over the planet-hunting mission. Congratulations to NASA Ames, JPL, Ball Aerospace, and all others involved.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Review: Vaquita

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
by Brooke Bessensen
Island Press, 2018

The vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean, once numbered thousands of animals in the Sea of Cortez. Then it was hundreds. And then it was a handful so small that every death could be the tipping point to extinction. (The estimate in this book is 15: there is a new study saying it might be as high as 30, but it's small comfort.)  It was only discovered by science in 1958, and it may be the second species of cetacean to be driven extinct.

The author, with endless determination and at no small risk to herself, explored both the world of the porpoise and a web of greed and corruption as deadly as the gillnets that may be the last thing the last vaquita ever sees.  Illegal fishing for the totoaba, a human-sized fish whose swim bladder is worth more than cocaine on the Chinese market, continues despite official proclamations, laws, and even a unique agreement by Mexico to allow Sea Shepherd ships to confiscate illegal nets. For every effort or official announcement of more protection, there is a corrupt government official, a crime lord, and/or a desperate or greedy fisherman willing to circumvent it.  An astonishing narrative has sprung up among local fishermen: that the vaquita does not exist, being only a prop for some kind of American-Mexican plot to turn the region into an oilfield. A laudable program to pay fishermen to use safer gear or switch to non-fishing businesses is spotty in practice thanks to corruption, endless delays in permits and paperwork, and the unending demand for totoaba (whose population is also shrinking fast).  
Brooke Bessesen explores the world of the local villages, where she meets people who risk everything to save the species and people who simply will not talk about it, plus those who doubt its existence (she notes fairly that many younger fisherman have never seen one, but many who know better have talked themselves into the myth). She chronicles the efforts of conservationists, artists, and educators to support the animal, and the desperate and heartbreaking attempt to save the vaquita by captive breeding.  
Bessesen ends on a determined note: we may or may not save the vaquita (the odds, while not yet zero, are not good), but she will tell its story. She will not let its spirit die. 
If the heroes in this book do not inspire you, you have no heart: if the villainy does not infuriate you, you have no soul.  That's how memorable this book is.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: Spying on Whales

Book Review:  

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Nick Pyenson
Viking, New York.  322 pp.
This is a superbly written one-volume introduction to whales through the personal experiences of the author’s adventures and hard work in studying them, whether the whales in question are fossilized (the author is a paleontologist and the fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian) or living. 
He describes numerous challenges in the fossil-hunting field, like trying to get a stunning bonanza of fossils weighing countless tons out  of Chile before the area was bulldozed, and smaller but memorable moments like having his four-year-old son discover a fossil whale skull. 
He relates his first adventure in trying to tag a whale (he did) and some pioneering work at an Icelandic whaling station. (He wondered if it was ethical to work with a whale “fishery,” and finally decided the whales would be killed no matter what he did, so it would at least give their deaths some meaning if scientists used them to learn about the animals and contribute to knowledge useful for conservation.)  There he and a colleague discovered that, after a century-plus of killing hundreds of thousands of whales, some species had a sensory organ connecting the jawbones at the tip that was not only undescribed in any of the literature, but was a TYPE of organ never described in any animal. (You can think of it as a jelly doughnut with fibers (papillae) inside, all of which grow out of one side and connect to the other side.)  It’s amazing how recent much of our knowledge of whales is and how much we have yet to learn.
When trying to understand the behavior of whales, he discusses a problem I’ve never seen explored in any depth in many years of reading on cetaceans: we don’t know what “natural” behavior for the great whales looks like. No one knows how feeding, diet, migration, ranges, etc., looked like before humans started the wholesale slaughter. The behavior and habits we are still trying to document might be radically different from what they were in, say, 1700. This applies to their only predators, the orcas, too.  Did the orcas which today specialize in salmon or seals always feed on those, or was it different when there were many times (almost a hundred times, for blue whales) the number of baleen whales available to pursue today? What were the deepsea floor communities that gather on “whalefalls” like when thousands more whales every year were dying natural deaths and sinking?
Pyenson effectively traces the failure of conservation efforts until recent decades and the problems whales still face from many human-caused effects. He also recounts being part of the fundamental work of figuring out the nutrients vs. metabolic costs involved in lunge feeding on fish and shrimp by the giant rorquals.  One of the outcomes of this analysis concerns the maximum size of whales: it turns out the largest blue whales are about as big as whales can be. Any bigger, and the energy expended can’t be adequately recouped. Pyenson thinks the measured maximum length for a killed blue of 109 feet is about the limit, while the largest whale ever cut up and weighed piece by piece, at 136.4 tons, is somewhat short of the maximum, as this whale was “only” 89 feet long. (He wrote about this in the New York Times, and I blogged on it here.
His work on this topic is also a reminder of how the sciences can cross-fertilize each other. When trying to understand how whales’ pleated throats expanded to take in swimming pools full of water and then contracted to strain it, the whale scientists brought in Jean Piven, a “particle physicist turned parachute experimenter.” Piven joined with them to help calculate, from his design and testing of many types and sizes of parachutes, how the throat expanded, what the energy expended was, how challenging it was to filter that mass through the baleen, and what the muscles and the tongue had to do to make this system work. Pyenson also describes the information gained from some of his fossils at the Smithsonian, explaining technical biological terms and functions in language non-experts can understand. 
The bottom line: I learned things on every page and had a fascinating time doing so. While Pyenson doesn’t try to cover every species, I ended up with a much better idea of what a whale really is and why whales look and act as they do. A marvelous achievement.    

A scary ride to space

While space travel will never be entirely safe, there has never been a human casualty in orbit or beyond.   Every human life lost in space exploration was lost in ground training and accidents, on reentry, or on launch.  The transition between realms is the scariest part.  (See my review of the heartbreaking yet enriching book Bringing Columbia Home). 
The Soviet/Russian approach to space has been to stick with proven designs, upgrading them gradually, and building dozens of similar capsules and hundreds of boosters that designer Mikhail Tikhonravov would recognize from his 1957-built R-7.
While four cosmonauts were killed in reentry accidents in the Soviet era, launch became routine.  Still, the escape tower on  Soyuz launchers was used twice, in 1975 and 1983, to pull away from malfunctioning boosters, and now we have a third effort.  (No escape rockets on U.S. capsules have ever been deployed, although it's fair to note the Shuttle HAD no escape system when Challenger failed.) 
Then last week, one of the Soyuz's four attached boosters had a problem. The rocket's boosters (liquid-fueled like the main stage) existed because Tikhonravov and engine designer Valentin Glushko could not get large enough engines from Soviet manufacturing and metallurgy of the times to produce very large rocket engines and needed to cluster smaller ones, a process we covered in our book The First Space Race.
Anyway, this 1950s design was still in use thanks to the Russian philosophy of reusing successful designs pretty much forever. One booster apparently had a failed detachment and swiveled into the main body instead of out and away. Cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and astronaut Nick Hague (Colonel, USAF) handled it in the best tradition of space flyers, keeping calm,taking the right actions, running the checklists, as the capsule became a giant, spinning artillery round until the parachutes deployed. 
There is of course an investigation, but the U.S. allowed itself to get into a post-Shuttle world with no way to transport astronauts to the ISS except to buy pricey seats on Russian vehicles.  They will continue to use this route after the booster is declared safe again, because they have no choice: Commercial Crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to be flying, but the budget was stretched out, as was the schedule.   Let's hope the price for that decision isn't too high. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cryptozoology odds and ends

I don't call myself a cryptozoologist anymore: the field once looked like it was on the verge of applying widespread scientific rigor, but now only a minority of cryptozoologists seem to approach the business with both of the mindsets necessary: curiosity and skepticism. The latter gets left out too often, and I run the other way when people try to explain lack of physical evidence by invoking something never proven to exist, apparitions. (If it's not zoology, it shouldn't be cryptozoology, and if's there's no evidence after prolonged searches, the logical conclusion is the thing doesn't exist.).
Nonetheless, I like cryptozoologists for their sheer stubborn optimism, and I keep an eye open for developments. Here are 10 items from January to October 2018.

  1. First, a reminder that there is only one real museum for the field, the International Cryptozoology Museum (ICM)in Portland, Maine. The ICM does try to collect all the hard evidence available, as well as media coverage, pop culture, etc. 
  2. Loren Coleman and company at the ICM have added a CryptoStore where you can buy anything from a plush Bigfoot to a cryptozoology books to action figures. 
  3. Some coverage of last year's conference at the Museum. Another article here and a TV report here.  
  4. Next year's conference will be in the spring: the Museum is doing some fund-raising here.
  5. The University of Utah's Chronicle is running a "cryptid of the week" storyline.  The example here is, of course, Bigfoot, in a short article written by Marshall Faulkner.
  6. Cryptozoologists hate hoaxes, of course. This one of a Georgia "carcass" created by an artist got a lot of press.
  7. There's a fun-looking animated film out I haven't seen yet, about finding a tribe of yetis and being the outsider as a human. It's called Smallfoot. Cryptozoologists will note there are almost no reports of white yetis, and that's not surprising.  Yetis, if they existed, would not live in the snowfields and high passes, just cross them while going between valleys where's actually food, so white would not be an advantage. The snow-white Yeti, though, is embedded in pop culture now. 
  8. A fun news article on the cryptids of Saskatchewan, including sasquatch and the lake creature named (unfortunately) Ogopogo. "Ogopogo" is a fun name, but not one that will help the topic be taken seriously by the scientific world.  (Of course, we have bandicoots and wallaroos, and the fish called the sarcastic fringehead sound pretty funny, too.)
  9. Cryptozoology has become a common enough part of the culture to be used as an introduction to other topics - even, in this case, to dog-headed demon sculptures. 
  10. There are more and more cryptozoology-themes events around the country, including this one, the Bigfoot Bonanza
  11.  I get one to add one self-promotional item in every list. My well-reviewed cryptozoological novel The Dolmen is still available! 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Book Review: Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First Americans
Adrienne Mayor

  • 488 pages
  • Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005)

  •  Mayor is a scholar of the overlooked chapters of history and prehistory, such as historical Amazons and early automata. Here she asks what Native Americans thought of the fossils in fossil-rich North America, and uncovers a treasure trove of anecdotes, myths, and fossils.

  • The Native contributions to fossil lore were long overlooked, and most are lost. Early fossil hunters sometimes paid Indians to lead them to fossils, but few thought the locals had anything to offer as far as understanding or even interest, dismissing them as mere curiosity collectors or primitive object-worshipers. (The great George Gaylord Simpson, writing in 1942 and 1943, was especially harsh on the idea the peoples who'd been on the continent longest had learned anything useful.) Mayor, though, finds interest in fossils existed over the continent. If Native Americans lacked the European-American scientific method to put things into context, many tribes considered fossils very important. They gathered fossils, traded them, incorporated them in sacred and everyday art, and speculated about what kind of beasts had left them behind. It was logical to attribute them to monsters of legend, since there was no other cultural context to put them in, at least after the human conquest of the continent had (according to somewhat disputed orthodoxy) wiped out mammoths and other beasts. They understood these bones came from many types of giants/animals, which various tribes identified as including the great thunderbirds and both land and water monsters. Storytellers filled in the background with legends about how these creatures killed each other or, rarely, were killed by humans. 
  • Fossils are kept even today in medicine bundles and other Native-held artifacts, although many more have been taken to museums (sometimes with the consent of local tribes and sometimes not: Mayor reports some tribes considered them part of the story of the earth, and removing them was disrespectful or would lead to misfortune). An early point of contention was that bones eroding away in the air had to be removed, according to scientists, for preservation, while some Indians objected this was interfering with a natural cycle. Mayor went to great lengths to talk with paleontologists, tribal historians, old shamans, and others who could shed light on the connections of the past. The controversies continue into the present, with the battles over Tyrannosaurus Sue and other specimens. While it's possible to wonder whether Mayor puts a bit too much stock in Native understanding of the fossils, she takes time to deconstruct such frauds and myths as the cave full of red-haired mummified giants in Nevada that conspiracy-lovers (and some sincere cryptozoologists) think were hidden or destroyed. She notes there are a few Native claims of unfossilized dinosaur bones, although these may be due more to linguistic / translation difficulties than to reality. 
  • My main nitpick in this book is illustrations. While maps of each region Mayor covers are provided, it would help the reader to see some of the crucial small areas mapped in more detail. There are many photographs and drawings here, but I found myself wanting more: perhaps a companion volume of art and photography would be an interesting future project.
  • If the book's not perfect, it is a (literally) groundbreaking work that shows how much we've overlooked that is still accessible. Mayor knows how to document: the Index and Notes take up 100 pages, so there are plenty of additional sources to delve into. Hopefully this book creates more respect for Native Americans and for the fossils of dinosaurs and ancient mammals they saw and gathered. Much has been lost, but much remains to be explored.

Monday, October 01, 2018

To the Vaquita, on the edge

The vaquita porpoise is slipping away. A few years ago, there were a hundred. Two years ago, there were 50-60. Now the best estimate is 12.

Apology to the Vaquita

All you ever wanted
Was a space of your own
One little patch of ocean in the endless ocean
One place without nets and sudden, drowning death
We could have given you
That space of your own
We could have carved it out
Of our fishing and our wealth
Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve
Cared sooner, cared more
We care now
I hope we haven’t seen the last spout
The last calf
The last tail-flip
“We’re sorry” Isn’t nearly enough
“We learned” seems more important
Your legacy is a lesson
Like the ones you taught your calves in a bright-blued sea
We’re sorry
It cost your lives to learn our lesson
Have we learned it?
Is still in session.

-          Matt Bille, 2018

Saturday, September 29, 2018

And one more new bird...

This one from Africa. An international team of ornithologists found the western square-tailed drongo (Dicrurus occidentalis), a gray or black insect-eater whose range lies in Guinea and Nigeria.  
Here's the formal paper. The new species was visibly unique in its bill and the distinction was confirmed by DNA.  Specifically, by " possessing a significantly heavier bill and via substantial genetic divergence (6.7%) from its sister-species D. sharpei."  
Congratulation and keep loosking, folks! 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blockbuster of a dinosaur

The great sauropods we think are the biggest land animals ever, like Argentinosaurus, hadn't come on the scene yet when this early Jurassic critter was stomping around South Africa. The article says that, while it was related to sauropods, "...the fossil shows that it evolved earlier, and independently, of sauropods." It weighed about 11.8 metric tons and was named Ledumahadi mafube, or "a giant thunderclap at dawn" in the local Sesotho language.  The fossil is about 200 million years old.
What is most peculiar are the legs: the bones are thicker than those on sauropods and indicate it retained a bit of a crouched, reptile-like posture instead of using the plan known sauropods' bodies did and standing directly over straighter legs.   It was an experiment that, as far as we know at this point, Nature played with for a while and then forgot.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The latest little bird

This stunning-looking hummingbird, the blue-throated hillstar ( Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus,) was just described from the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.  It is, in a sad but not surprising development, already endangered: there might be 750 individuals at best, thanks largely to habitat loss.  

From the abstract:
"The geographic distribution of the new species seems to be restricted to cordillera Chilla-Tioloma-Fierro Urcu, in the southwestern highlands of Ecuador, an area historically poorly explored by ornithologists. Thus, based on its restricted distribution, apparently low population size, and lack of protection of its habitat, we evaluate it as critically endangered."

It survived to be found because much of its habitat (which extends only 100 square km) is on rugged ground. Ecuadorian biologist Francisco Sornoza had the first sighting and took the first photograph in 2017: he brought in more scientists and made a thorough study before formally describing the species in the journal The Auk.  I can't reproduce the photo here (copyright), but see the references: the blue-green "collar" of the male bird's throat is VERY striking. 

Nature still has her hidden treasures, if we find them in time. 

Here's the full citation:
Francisco Sornoza-MolinaJuan F. FreileJonas NilssonNiels Krabbe, and Elisa Bonaccorso (2018) A striking, critically endangered, new species of hillstar (Trochilidae: Oreotrochilus) from the southwestern Andes of Ecuador. The Auk: October 2018, Vol. 135, No. 4, pp. 1146-1171.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book review: Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator

by Jason M. Colby, Oxford University Press, 2018

This is a unique and very important book, one that fills in a chapter that’s been missing from the battle over captive cetaceans. It’s one thing to condemn orca-catching now, and most Americans do, but what did the men who created the industry think, and how did their actions affect the species and whales in general? Colby, whose father caught orcas, talked to the now-old men like Ted Griffin (capturer of the original Namu and the first man to swim with captive orcas) who created the industry. Some now oppose it: almost all consider it something that was acceptable in the 1960s. Most provocatively, many of the subjects, and Colby himself, discuss to the great irony in the orca story: that capture was traumatic and sometimes deadly to these intelligent, social animals, and yet played an important role in making humans consider the orca a creature worth protecting. While orca capture today may be, as Colby says, considered an unmitigated evil, it’s hard to argue with the belief that meeting orcas changed people's thinking. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, there were few documentaries, no modern media to spread information, and a lot of fear (I was born in 1959 and remember how they were portrayed as vicious man-killers).  One story included here is of a town which emplaced a heavy machine gun to exterminate orcas coming in to “steal” salmon, while fishermen shot them at every opportunity and the U.S. Navy waged an extermination campaign in Iceland.
Colby does not stint on describing the harm to the whales.  The various techniques for capturing orcas were all risky to the animals,even though the obvious goal was to bring them in unharmed. Many whales drowned in nets being used to capture them at sea or pen them into coves. Explosives were routinely used to herd them.  Orcas were often kept in tiny facilities with staff who knew little about them: accidents, illness, and death were consequences. Also, there was no understanding of family groups or differing populations (Colby recounts the beginnings of scientific awareness here): mixing and matching orcas led to more stress and harm.
Colby traces the modern controversy up through the Keiko/Free Willy controversy, the film Blackfish, and other recent developments, but others have also written of those things.  Colby’s real contribution here is to record how captive orcas came to be “a thing” and how their image evolved as a result.    He is resolutely even-handed, presenting the people involved as they were and are, not judging them.  This is what the best historians do, and it took some courage: I’m sure Colby will get some passionate letters for not condemning capture and the orca-hunters more than he does.  (To reveal my own bias, I think orca captivity should be phased out everywhere as quickly as practical.)  To read a cetologist's view, here is Dr. Robin Baird's review from Science.
If I have a nitpick, it's that Colby could have gone into more depth (hah) about more recent science, such as the discovery of ecotypes, to show just how limited our knowledge was in the 1960s and how this knowledge has evolved. (as mentioned above, he touches on this, but I wanted a little more). 
This outstanding book needs to be read by everyone interested in the topics of captivity, cetacean science, and human-cetacean relations. 

Two films Colby wrote about which shaped public opinion were the 1966 family film Namu (which depicted orca behavior accurately, with Ted Griffin and the original Namu in the swimming sequences) and the 1977 Jaws ripoff Orca
(images: fair use claimed) 

Monday, September 17, 2018

What happens at International Whaling Commission meetings?

Conservationists regard this year's meeting of the IWC as a success, as the main agenda item - a proposal from Japan to renew commercial whaling - was defeated handily.
The IWC through the 1970s was sort of a "whaler's club," setting quotas that were too high to sustain (and sometimes too high for whalers to even fill).  But the agency formally and supposedly permanently banned commercial whaling of large whales in 1986. Here are the current rules: IWC Commercial Whaling.  This has probably saved some species, most definitely the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), from extinction. There are some exceptions for indigenous peoples with whale-hunting traditions.

When the IWC gathers, as they just did in Brazil, there's a lot of politicking. Japan has sponsored admission of several small nations that didn't whale in the first place to stem the increasing tide of anti-whaling nations.  Japan sent a delegation of 66 people, while most nations send only a few (or one). It didn't help: the number of anti-whaling nations just keeps rising, with Australia and the U.S. consistently leading an anti-whaling bloc. Note the ban does not apply to smaller cetaceans: there the IWC does more study and advising than it does regulation.  In 2016, though the IWC established a Conservation Management Plan for a the Franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei). The plan for this inhabitant of South America's Atlantic coast was the first small cetacean to be so regulated.  
And here, courtesy of the American Cetacean Society (I'm a member) and ACS National Board Member, Sabena Siddiqui, is how those meetings unfold.  
Humpbacks (image NOAA)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Bringing Columbia Home

The Columbia disaster was a horrible day in history, made worse by the knowledge it was preventable.  The authors tell that story, but they also tell the story of hope and dedication and that old-fashioned and much-maligned thing called the American spirit.  

When it became clear the Shuttle's debris - and crew - had come to Earth in East Texas and Louisiana, people responded in their thousands. Entire towns became recovery centers, giving up buildings and vehicles and and everything they had to the searchers who volunteered from the recovery area and from all over America. Astronauts, farmers, truckers, rangers, engineers, Native American fire crews, and  office workers, some paid and some unpaid, swarmed over the extremely difficult terrain, swamp, and forest to find pieces that might be smaller than a dime but still mattered.  While a few jerks tried to steal pieces, and a few bad decisions were made (NASA workers had to use their vacation time for the search - that one is inexcusable), the overwhelming message is about resilience in the face of tragedy.  The authors chronicle how the mission of Columbia became a new mission for just plain folks who cooked, cleaned, refused to take NASA employees' money in their stores, and left a legacy of selfless determination and hope. 
The authors also take us to a faraway hangar, where engineers began putting the shuttle's story together, using the pieces flowing in from the field (especially those from the critical left wing)  to reconstruct the accident, learning the cause and learning the many lessons for the Shuttle program and spaceships of the future.  You'll read a lot of compelling stories of individuals, of resilience and its limits, and even a seemingly mystical event involving a stray white dog. You'll read how many different sorts of finds were important - a cassette tape in the branches of a tree, a finger-sized piece of tile from a reservoir, a watch with accident time still showing, a control panel bent so the positions of the switches from astronauts' last efforts to save the ship were preserved. One thing I didn't realize is that the mission isn't over: bits of debris can still go to carefully-vetted researchers and university programs to study the behavior of materials under stresses that can't be duplicated in test facilities. 
If you don't cry a few times reading this book, I don't know what to say to you except "Go back and read it again." Anyone interested in the history, present, or future of the space program needs to read this book.

Snailfish creep (swim) into view

They are called snailfish, and they almost deserve it. With hardly any more solid structure than an invertebrate (only the teeth and inner-ear bones are hard), these scavengers play an important roles in the deep biosphere.  They have to stay there: adjusting to the pressure means they have all-jelly bodies that fall apart at the surface unless captured at depth and brought up in a close container  (so the whole ecosystem in Meg is... yep, impossible. Only without it there's no story, so just wave the "needed fictional element"  wand and go on).  
These three new species add to our knowledge of this enigmatic and little-studied group.  Over 6,500m down, they go on their way, no more aware of the surface world than we are of alternate universes.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Debunking Conspiracy Claims

9-11, a day of remembrance and honor, might also go down in history as "I Hate Conspiracies Day."
Facts are real things. 

Snopes isn't always right, but they are convincing here. The Pentagon conspiracy thing is especially annoying since I know people who were there.

Monday, September 03, 2018

"They conceal information like that in books."

"They conceal information like that in books."
Remember that line from the movie Lake Placid, when someone asks how a crocodile could swim across the ocean? Well, that was in Maine, so no crocodile has (or would) swim there. But we now know the biggest crocodiles in the world swim long distances, and they are smart enough (ok, instinctive enough) to use the ocean currents.  
Saltwater crocs (which can be monsters: a big one may weigh a metric ton)  are spread over many islands of the southeastern (or southwestern, if you're looking from the United States and want to put it that way) Pacific ocean, plus the coasts of Australia, India, Malaysia, etc. They are, surprisingly, not great swimmers. But they have endurance: they can devote weeks to a sea voyage, according to satellite tracking,chomping fish or turtles along the way. One that ventured out to sea from Australia's Kennedy River stayed in the ocean for 25 days and traveled 590km, thanks to a boost from the currents. 
So that's how they swim across the ocean. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

A dove back from the dead

Brazil's Blue-eyed Ground Dove, Columbina cyanopis, seemingly vanished in 1941. It was a pretty olive/tawny, red, and blue bird (the blue appears in spots on the wings like a soldier's rank).  It was detected again by its unique song in 2015.  
Its rediscovery led to one of those momentous decisions that's inevitable when a species is found but has only a tiny population (about 12 in this case): what's the best thing to do? Protect its habitat and hope it survives? Capture it and hope it breeds in an aviary? There are never unlimited resources available, and there are hard choices - and a lot of finger-crossing and prayers - when the staff of organization with responsibility makes the call. In this case: the conservation organization SAVE Brasil bought the land where the bird still existed and created the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove Nature Reserve. 
Fingers crossed. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A giant collection of whale news (and the most curious of whales)

These folks have put together a huge and ongoing compilation of news on our friends the cetaceans. 
Among other recent news is some good stuff: this item on B.C. humpbacks proves humans can get together and set rules that enable heavily whaled populations to rebound. 
And speaking of humpbacks, don't forget out Australian friend Migaloo
Humpbacks are something very unusual. They have a genus to themselves, Megaptera ("giant wing") after those huge, knobby pectoral fins.  The fins are the can't-miss field mark of this species: no other whale, even the giant blue, has a fin that size.  Despite their genetic separation from other whales, they can create hybrids: there is a documented hybrid with the much larger blue whale and a reported hybrid with a grey whale. So say hi to the humpbacks and cheer their comebacks, and don't forget to wave. 

Humpback whale (NOAA) 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Tree Kangaroo rediscovered by tourist

Cheers for the rediscovered kangaroo and for this reminder of the still-important role of observant amateurs in science. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Meg movie: Soggy science, decent fun

Review: The Meg
As a lover of monster movies and creature movies and anything involving marine life, I have finally watched the Meg. It’s not great, but I feared worse. It’s a good summer popcorn flick. 
The differences between the film and Steve Alten’s novel are so huge they make for two very different stories, but for the purposes of a film, the decision to shrink the timeline down to about three days and keep all the action in one patch of the Pacific works well. The pacing is very good and the visuals are terrific throughout.
Having said I enjoy the film, I will now put on my science writer hat and grumble about it.
First, the shark(s).  The shark looks a little odd, with the longitudinal strakes of a whale shark and pronounced caudal keels, but it basically works.  The CGI beast is good while it’s in the water, but never looks right when the animal is jumping (why does a shark from a deep trench cruise the surface so much, anyway)? Its appearance in the ridiculous final Jonas-v-shark shot is terribly cartoony (as is the whole shot, but the book’s way-out ending was probably unfilmable). They have, of course, opted for the largest possible version of Meg, about 75 feet: most experts make it shorter these days, but, again, it’s not enough of a problem to sink the film.
The underwater technology all looks cool as heck, but except for one scene the aquanauts seem to operate submersibles in and out of the Mariana Trench as though they are in much shallower waters. The idea the Meg can destroy a nuclear missile submarine is pretty silly, and the idea the crew is still alive at depths many times such a submarine’s crush depth really requires you to turn off your brain.  Nor can I figure out why crushed submarines explode like they were filled with nitroglycerin: you could say the big sub had torpedoes, but the entire length of the thing explodes.  The premise about the chemical layer giving the Trench a false bottom isn’t workable, but IS necessary for the story, so I’ll give that a pass.  
The reason the ecosystem below 11,000 meters has schools of fish that look just like those in near-surface waters is… what?  
The actors all look like they are having fun in their roles, which is what you want in a monster movie.   Jason Statham strikes the only false note: when he tries to be amused, his face looks like it will break. I think he was trying to convey what Jonas Taylor had been through, and how real mirth (as opposed to drunken banter) was a thing he was just starting to rediscover, but Statham overdoes underacting, if that’s possible.  The cast all works except the insanely precocious/cute child, whose presence feels forced in EVERY scene she’s in – it’s not the actress’ fault, but few of the emotions or actions in her scenes ring true for such a young child.   The rest of the cast works, though, and there’s fun to be had in the ensemble playing as egos and opinions bounce around. 
There’s no attempt to work in real science so the audience goes away with some new knowledge. Granted, that’s not the purpose of the film, but they could have done it.  For example, someone could have offered a theory of why and how a shallow-water shark switched to living under tremendous pressure how it survived the abrupt change to very slight pressure.  The one attempt at an environmental point (the evil of shark finning) is another thing that feels forced in, and nowhere is it explained why the shark is attacking random boats, which it doesn’t know have any food, and in practice the food return is very limited for a predator this size (I commented on the trailer saying the shark didn’t look the same size in all shots, but I stayed away from reading reviews and didn’t realize I was looking at two sharks.)   
The dialogue has some quippy one-liners: my favorite exchange comes when someone says, “We should seek out non-lethal options” and the reply is something like “For it or for us?” Taylor’s Finding Nemo joke is hilarious. But there are also endless cliché lines about man and nature and some real clunkers: actor Page Kennedy is saddled with stock “big black guy” lines that just HURT.
The tone is about right, but the horror moments are undercut by the PG-13 minimization of the damage done to humans, sharks, and other creatures.  There’s a reason the greatest shark movie ever (nodded to several times in this film) was an R.  If you want to scare an adult audience with sharks, they need to create the carnage real monster sharks would. 
Now, you may be saying: “Wait, I thought you LIKED this film!”  I did. It’s fun to watch, the cast is pretty good, the direction is good, and the shark has some great moments.  Just don’t use it in a marine biology class and expect an A.

Friday, August 10, 2018

From the Conference on Small Satellites

The annual Conference on Small Satellites, my favorite event next to Denver ComiCon, is history. 
I got a great reception for the paper on smallsat-enabled whale tracking. A lot of people just liked that it was different from the parade of engineers discussing the specifications of their multispectral sensors or whatever.  The topic and the Booz Allen Hamilton OceanLens(TM) visualization software embedded in the presentation woke people up a bit even after the long lunch break.  I asked for partnerships in making a better system worldwide, and a lot of people had ideas. We will see where it goes. Thanks to the great staff at Utah State University and the Space Dynamics Lab. 

Here's the paper (this version has a couple editing mistakes I missed when uploading). 
Here's the full program.

There were a lot of good presentations from government, military and civilian, all emphasizing how serious people are getting about making the most of the ever-increasing capabilities of small satellites.  NASA is dedicating $100M in investment, DARPA has a $10M small-launcher challenge on, and everyone is talking (I hope seriously) about changing old cultures to emphasize speed and flexibility. (One of the things smallsats offer is that agencies can afford to refly a mission is the launcher or spacecraft fails.)   There were plenty of industry participants, from large companies and small (or smaller companies bought by larger ones. The highly innovative Orbital Sciences is now part of Northrop Grumman.
The NG presenter on the state of the small launcher industry stunned even me by counting up over 100 launchers in development or proposed. Only a fraction of these will become operational, but for a while (after NASA retired the Scout and SpaceX moved on from the Falcon 1)  there were only a few very expensive small launchers on the market. That's clearly in the past.
A record 2,800 people attended some part of the conference.  The vibe is still there, though: the experimental, what-the-hell spirit that still exists alongside the corporate interest in hard numbers.
I can't wait for next year.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Cetacean hybrid a bit mixed up

It's an animal produced by parents, not only of different species, but different genera, but Dr. Robin Baird cautions the popular word "wholfin" for a hybrid cetacean spotted in the Pacific is not accurate. The animal, a cross between a  melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin, is still a dolphin, because the "melon-headed whale" is also a dolphin, technically.  "Calling it something like a wholphin doesn't make any sense."  Also incorrect are articles calling this one animal (male, BTW), a new species: as Baird says, "There's no evidence to suggest it's leading toward anything like species formation."
This article says it's only the third confirmed hybrid between species in the family Delphinidae in the wild. That surprised me, but I looked up my own work on this, and it may be right, as I see this:

Robin Baird wrote in 1998 that a fetus recovered from the corpse of a Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) proved to have an unusual father: a harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena).   Baird found this particularly intriguing because there are several other reports of unusually pigmented cetaceans with the general size and form of Dall’s porpoises.  Although Dall’s porpoises are notably variable in their pigmentation, Baird suggests  some of these cases are due to ongoing hybridization with harbor porpoises. Another intergeneric hybrid, this one between the long-beaked dolphin (Delphinus capensis) and the dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) was nabbed off Peru.
In 2001, an apparent hybrid between a dusky dolphin and a southern right whale dolphin, Lissodeplhis peronii, was photographed among a school of duskies.  This very unusual-looking animal was about seven feet long, larger than normal for a dusky.  It sported a solid black upper body and was completely white underneath, lacking the intermediate shades normally present on a dusky’s body.  On the other hand (or flipper), it had black pectoral fins, whereas the right whale dolphin’s are white, and it had a small triangular dorsal fin.  Right whale dolphins have no dorsal fin at all. 
Finally, three odd-looking dolphins which washed up on an Irish beach in 1933 were identified by one expert as hybrids between the bottlenosed dolphin and Risso's dolphin.  While the match between these two species was proven viable by the incident from captivity described above, not all cetologists accept the hybrid interpretation in this case.

A few of the sources I used:

Baird, Robin, et. al., 1998.  “An intergeneric hybrid in the family Phocoenidae,” Abstract, posted to  MARMAM@UVM.UVIC.CA mailing list, March 12.   Baird, Robin.  1997.  Personal communication, March 28.   Carwardine, Mark.  1995.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises.  London: Dorling Kindersley.
Ellis, Richard.  2000.  Personal communication, March 10.   Ellis, Richard.  1989.  Dolphins and Porpoises.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 
Naish, Darren.  2001.  Personal communication, September 28

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Coming up on the Conference on Small Satellites

I've been to several space-related conferences, but Smallsat (August 6-9 for the main conference this year) is my first and favorite, my home base. While it's grown about 10-fold over the last 20 years, this is still a conference with a unifying theme - all the experts in the world, practically, on smallsats, microsatellites, and nanosatellites are in one place to talk about one thing, and that one thing has changed the world. From being looked at as toys or test vehicles, smallsats are now blanketing the planet with new capabilities in imaging, communications, weather monitoring, etc., etc.  Since the introduction of the CubeSat, a standardized 10-cm cube that allows organizations and schools all over the world to have access to space at a launch cost as low as $100K, we are growing the biggest-ever generation of young minds with space experience.  
This is the conference where you hear really amazing ideas, most of which are actually practical because smallsats have brought the cost and technology of space within reach and enabled affordable experimentation, including the ability to refly failed missions (try THAT with the Hubble Telescope). Because it's a single-track conference, everyone hears all the ideas, and the people at Utah State and its Space Dynamics Lab who put this on are amazing.
When I first went in the mid-90s, smallsats were a small pond.   For a few years there, I knew everyone in the business.  Little startup firms like the now-giant SpaceX and the now-absorbed Spectrum Astro showed up alongside the big outfits. This is still the place students and space nerds can go and ask questions of the best minds in the field, and where new ideas can be tested by presenting them to all those minds and seeing what feedback you get.  
I'll be back this year after a lamentable absence, presenting innovative thinking on the tracking of whales and dolphins using small satellites. That's another nice thing about this meeting.  Not every idea has to be worth a billion dollars. Some just make people think "We didn't know about this problem," or "That's innovative, could we help?"
So I hope you all make it, and don't miss the presentation on "Microsats and Moby Dick" on Tuesday afternoon.  See you there. 

A cool mini-doc on the placoderms

While we are on Placoderm Week (more fun than Shark Week!) here's a great episode from PBS' Eon series, exploring the development of life over, well, eons.  This interesting program posits that placoderm armor was not just for defense, but provided a reservoir for calcium the body needed by the cartilage skeleton couldn't store.  I'm not sure about this, given that sharks get along just fine without any bone, but it's an intriguing idea, and the whole show is very cool.  

Friday, July 27, 2018

My article on Dunkleosteus is out

Here it is, folks! I just received my first copy of the Prehistoric Times with my Dunkleosteus article in it. Somehow I made an editing mistake swapping out mentions of the upper and lower tail lobes in placoderms (embarrassing! the upper was almost certainly the larger) but Mike Fredericks and company did a great job of fitting all my text in along with thanks and sources. I tried to work in all the latest science on this fascinating, fearsome predator.  

(Get your very own at

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sleek little shark species named for pioneer Eugenie Clark

Eugenie Clark, the Shark Lady, was a pioneer, not only for women in marine biology, but in her many discoveries concerning sharks.  (she was, among other things, the first scientist to puncture the myth that all sharks need to keep swimming or they'll suffocate.)  Now Clark (who died a few years ago at 92) has her name on a shark, a new dogfish with a sleek silver body and startlingly large eyes.  I think the founder of the famous Mote Marine Laboratory would like that.  

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A couple of blogs (Safina and Dino Toy: different but worthy!)

It's not true that this blog is so wonderful you don't need to read any others, especially since I'm not the best at posting frequent updates. But between the brilliant posts here, there are some other things to read.
For conservation, the Safina Center blog is one of the more authoritative spots ton which to alight. Dr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words, a book I absolutely loved, is one of the most important scientists on the planet when it comes to telling us all about the health of said planet.  (Read my review here.) 
For something completely different... the Dinosaur Toy Blog is a unique resource for all of us who love dinosaurs and their representations in models, toys, etc.  It will bring out the kid in you even as it informs.  The authors keep up on the science and critique the newest offerings of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, etc. with an expert eye. 

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

More smallsats for big science jobs

NASA is putting more of its bets on small satellites as it tries to do as much science as possible while (this part is unspoken) navigating around the budgetary gravity wells of the Space Launch System and James Webb Space Telescope.  I'm not calling those programs bad ideas, but they are the financial centers of today's NASA universe: everything else has to fit around them.
Anyway, NASA leaders are betting that small satellites can be used for an increasing number of science missions and they can accept risk: a mission success rate of 85 percent is acceptable, whereas large missions simply can't fail.  NASA went down a bit of a similar path in the 1990s with the Faster-Better-Cheaper paradigm, with mixed results, but the technology of very small spacecraft has advanced by generations, and the philosophy is more different than it might appear.  Whereas FBC could be summed up as "take a conventional spacecraft and shrink it," the new paradigm is more about "what science can we do with technology that's already been shrunken?"

It's going to be an exciting future for the smallsats, microsats, and nanosats (many of them using the CubeSat technology that's revolutionized access to space), and it's not going to be a wave of interest this time: it's going to become part of the foundation of future space science and exploration. 

See you at the Conference on Small Satellites!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Book Review: Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved

Darren Naish and Paul Barrett
Smithsonian, 2016: 224pp.

Naish, a paleozoologist, and Barrett, a paleontologist, have given us an altogether splendid treatment of what, as of just a couple of years ago (this business changes fast, especially regarding feathers) we know about dinosaurs.  This isn’t a competitor to Steve Brussate’s 2018 The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, with which it will often be compared: rather, these books are complementary.  
Where Brusatte presented a highly readable story, beginning to end, Naish and Barrett dig (literally) into the meat and bones of dinosaur evolution.  Barrett’s book chronicles what happened, mixed with discovery stories and asides on the science: Naish and Barrett tell why and how it happened. Dinosaurs starts with an overview chapter, then goes into the complexities of the family trees, then chapters on anatomy and on biology, ecology, and behavior.  They provide a fascinating chapter on the origin of birds and how they survived and thrived up to the present day, showing what we know of Mesozoic-era birds and what features survived into the birds of today. Birds also offer clues we can trace back to look at dinosaurs:  those sluggish reptiles we saw in our childhood books can in part be blamed on an overreliance on modern reptiles as the models. These two scientists draw on both models, as appropriate, as they make clear how countless dinosaur features, from feathers to femurs, evolved and worked.  
The book is sumptuously illustrated, drawing heavily for photos on the collection of the Natural History in London but including vivid artistic depictions.  Clear line drawings explain the anatomical features and how researchers have figured them out (or, in some cases, why they are still puzzling.)  Another valuable bit is the authors' ability to explain how we know so much from fossils, what kind of clues (like tooth wear demonstrating feeding habits) we can get through traditional and modern exam techniques.  
American readers need not fear the British authors have slighted our favorite dinos: Triceratops and T. rex and the other North American denizens of the Mesozoic, especially the Cretaceous, get full treatment here. The authors close with a thorough examination of the extinction event and the aftermath.  
The authors get just a little too dry in spots for this nonscientist dino aficionado, and the structure of the book lends itself to too many “we will look in detail at this later” statements.  These are quibbles, though.  If you hand this book and Brusatte’s to your favorite dino-lover, you’re not going to see that person again for a week.