Thursday, September 22, 2016

Science in fiction: The Judas Strain

The Judas Strain by James Rollins

This takes over the #1 slot with me among Rollins novels: it improves on City of Bones with tighter, better-focused action and, I think, more sound science.
What appears to be a natural phenomenon at Christmas Island in the Pacific - a kind of algal bloom that's more deadly than any seen before - turns out to involve the nefarious Guild, a (real) historical mystery going back to Marco Polo, and the quest for the ultimate biological weapon. Some of the "wisdom of the ancients" stuff is still farfetched (they knew about DNA how?) but this novel only relies on it enough to make the story work. The biological science is scary, very scary, and plausible. Rollins works in known parasites like the liver fluke that go through multiple host species and posits a virus with a similar lifestyle that, like some parasites living on insects, rewires the host (human) body to serve its needs.  (One such ant parasite, a fungus, was the genesis for the X-Files episode "Firewalker.")  I'm hardly an expert on virology or infectious disease, but the whole thing struck me as involving reasonable yet terrifying extrapolations.
The technology throughout this novel works fine: a last-chapter connection between continents on a low-power device initially struck me as absurd, but then I started working it out, and realized you could do it, and do it clandestinely, by bypassing the usual military/intel satellites and hiding it in a civilian system like ARGOS. That was reassuring, as I sometimes feel Rollins treats global communications almost as magic. The details of architecture and history are everywhere convincing, and the heroes have to rely heavily on their brains as well as their guns and gadgets to solve the mystery. Also, one of the early chapters wins some kind of ingenuity award for the cleverest use of a natural "weapon" to take out bad guys.  Rollins usually works in some cryptozoology, which in this novel appears in the form of a new but not unlikely species of killer death squid.
Overall, this is the best-written of the Sigma series, one I had an easy time following but a hard time putting down.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

New species name accepted without physical type specimen!

This is a very unusual case. I don't know how broad the ramifications are. But having a physical type specimen was always a requirement to get a new species name accepted by zoologists.  (Two exceptions I know of: a bird that was examined and blood taken, so DNA was retained as the type specimen, and then the bird was set free: and one case (there may be more) using trails on the seafloor as evidence for an unseen invertebrate.)  
Now we have a name accepted based on a photo with no DNA or body in hand.  Cryptozoologists should not start jumping up with photos of Bigfoot because there is a caveat: the specimens were trapped and observed closely while being photographed, but escaped. This could get interesting.   

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 - The Human moment

Amid the stunning carnage of 9-11, what I remember most is a human moment. I'd returned home after a short workday, somewhat stunned, and my ten year-old, Korey, came bubbling up and said, "Yay! Day off from school tomorrow!" Then she stopped smiling and asked why I was crying. I told her her day off was because a lot of kids her age had just lost their moms or dads, maybe both, forever. She said, "One of those kids can live here. They can have my room." 
The most brutal evil cannot overcome simple human love.

I'll get back to whales and space probes next entry. Promise. 




Tom Paxton's song "The Bravest" is a must-listen (done here by
Liz McNicoll).  

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Not one giraffe, but four?

Various attempts to classify giraffe species and subspecies have been made, based on location, coat patterns, number of horns, etc., but zoologists today basically agree they are all part of  the single species Giraffa camelopardalis. Or at least they did agree.  A new DNA analysis indicates that, while the differences in morphology are relatively modest, there are actually four species. 
A study of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of giraffes in Namibia, intended to help differentiate subspecies and thus clarify breeding lineages for conservationists, stunned the scientists involved with its results. The southern giraffe, northern giraffe, reticulated giraffe, and Masai giraffe - the northern being the "original" G. camelopardalis - have been named.  

My friend Dr. Valerie Beason, a genetic expert who didn't work on this study but knows a lot about this area (it was her team that validated the uniqueness of a second species of clouded leopard), commented, "Each day it seems the world of genetics gives us a gift.  This is great news not only for the Giraffes but for those species that share their ecosystems.  As new conservation measures instituted to protect the giraffes will benefit them." 

Nature - it can be wild. 


My kids feeding the reticulated giraffe herd at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. 


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Farewell to the thylacine

The Earth's largest modern marsupial predator was declared extinct 80 years ago today. I'm quite certain it lingered a couple more decades: some good sightings indicate it may have lingered into the 1980s or even the 1990s.  I wrote in both my books that I hoped the animal survived still, and there are a few indications it might somehow have a surviving population on the Australian mainland even if the Tasmanian animals were all gone..  But on balance, I don't have much hope.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

Book Review: Sex in the Sea, by Marah J. Hardt

Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep 
by Marah J. Hardt
St. Martins, 2016

If you're going to understand the ocean ecosystem and its countless living components, you have to understand how marine creatures reproduce. Some species need precise conditions that human actions increasingly interfere with; some synchronize their activities based on cues we've been unable to identify: some produce one offspring at a time, others many thousands.   

A lobster courting a female will spread his claws as if bowing and wait until the female approves him by tapping him on each shoulder with a claw: it looks weirdly like being knighted. In the actual act of mating, those lobsters are strikingly tender, while our smiling friends the dolphins may go in for gang rape. In the depths,  there are fishes whose mates are completely absorbed into their bodies: humans sometimes joke about how men are nothing but a pair of testicles, but anglerfish males are exactly that. Bone worm males are so tiny they live in the females' bodies: no dating app needed if your guy is always on call like a bacterium in your own bloodstream.  (To understand the comparative sizes,imagine if humans dispensed with external sex and male babies shrank to the size of aspirin tablets to begin their adult lives.) Ecologist Marah Hardt takes us on a trip from fish orgies to right whale threesomes, from species whose organs are practically invisible to the whale penis that chased researchers around inside a boat (I am not making that up.)



All these details are fun and fascinating, but Hardt never lets us forget they are part of a story: of the endless inventiveness of evolution, of the ever-present drive to survive, and of the interconnectedness of life in great oceans, from the microbes to the monsters.  A terrific and thought-provoking book.  


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Snotbot: the Newest Tool of Cetacean Science

I write often in this space about how we need a better understanding of cetaceans, their habitats, and their needs if we are to conserve the 90-ish species of whales and dolphins around the world.  (New species are still being added.)  I've recently worked on satellite-based sensors, but here's another option - Snotbot.
The spout of a cetacean is not water. It's a complex mix of exhaled breath, some water vapor, and - as in the breath of humans - molecules of mucus and other substances that give a clue to the host's health, respiration, stress, and even exposure to toxins.  But how to capture a whale's exhalations?  Snotbot is a an ingenious solution developed by the Ocean Alliance.  It's a weird-looking contraption, a mini-drone that takes advantage of the explosion in UAV technology to let researchers stay up to a half mile from their sensitive subjects and make passes through their spouts without the whales even noticing.  (If you think about it, why would a surfaced whale ever look up?)
Supported by an army of citizen contributors, including my Project WHALES teammate (see article below) Laurie Baker, Snotbot, with scientists from the Ocean Alliance and volunteers from Olin College, has already been field-tested.
What to know more? Here's a video featuring no less an explorer than Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise.  (Fun Fact: the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation meant Picard to be a descendant of the Piccard family of marine explorers, one of whom made the first dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in 1961).  If you want to follow the first expedition, go here. Snotbot is giving us a window into the lives of whales and dolphins that no other tool can.

Sail on, Snotbot!

The Snotbot logo and its unique tool (image Ocean Alliance)






Friday, August 26, 2016

Novel review: The Bone Labyrinth, by James Rollins

James Rollins
The Bone Labyrinth

I like to review novels that lean a lot on science and technology and tease out fact vs. fiction. The thrillers of James Rollins are definitely in this category.

Rollins is working a familiar formula here - the discovery of ancient knowledge with impact on modern science - but he works it like no one else. Globe-trotting adventure, thrilling escapes, interesting characters, and lots of high-tech gadgets are on plentiful display.  Another thing that distinguishes Rollins from some competitors is sheer writing ability. Rollins has always been good with the action, but in this novel he hits his high point in creating living, breathing characters we feel for. 






The best character here, though, is not human - it's a genetically modified gorilla named Baako. Baako's inner thoughts are believable and his interaction with his human friends is not just emotional, it's heart-rending. We share every moment of an ape researcher's despair when a Chinese maniac prepares Baako for vivisection.Along the way to this pivotal scene and the following rescue (you knew there would be one), Rollins introduces mysterious human ancestors and human-ape hybrids (not created by crossing the animals, that's been discredited, but by careful gene editing, adding traits of one to the other, which is scarily plausible.) He does, this being fiction, take it further than fact allows (no, the ancestor once called Meganthropus was not eight feet tall. Or seven. Or maybe even six).  Rollins no doubt knows the name is obsolete, but it's more fun to deal with "Meganthropus"  than with "one more of those endless Home erectus variants." 
Rollins' novels  rely heavily on science and technology. The latter is good as always. The former is a mix. Rollins does enormous research and finds obscure details to ground his narrative (yes, Neil Armstrong really did go on an archaeological expedition to Ecuador.) The challenge for the reader is that Rollins presents both good science and fringe/crackpot science, and he says in his Afterword that he believes at least some of the latter to be true. Even the ultimate crackpot theory, that the Moon is artificial, gets a sympathetic ear, although Rollins doesn't endorse it.  
Another odd mistake is that Rollins surely knows better than to call Gigantopithecus a gorilla when it was related to the orangutan (I tried to find current scientific opinions to the contrary, but could not, except for those who hope Giganto = sasquatch (Rollins does a nice job of teasing a possible Yeti connection).). This confusion, and occasional gaps in the logic (how did they get that vanload of chimps out of China?) forced me in my Amazon review to take off a half-star: I was tempted to give it five for sheer entertainment value.
Despite the inclusion of fringe science, the reader of this book will learn a great deal about the latest in genetics, animal communication, and a dozen other fields. I write science and history, so I have some concept of the research involved here. Every Sigma Force novel shows the results of what must total several man-years of hunting for, reading, and analyzing information. So kudos to Rollins for a world well crafted, especially in this book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Media coverage for Project WHALES

My day-job company was nice enough to fund a look at what space-based resources cab do for whale and dolphin conservation and science.  Project WHALES (Whale/Habitat Advanced Location and Environment Smallsats) examined space-based resources for tracking tagged whales and for advances in environmental science, imaging, and so on that would be of use.

The Marketing and Communications Department found a writer from IDG Connect interested in putting the project in an article, and here we are.
Coverage by existing ARGOS satellites and ground systems: very useful, but with gaps that increase as you approach the equator. (NOAA)

Humpbacks are one of many large species still needing protection.



Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Greenland shark - long-lived behemoth

In nature, large animals tend to be long-lived.  There are exceptions (sponges and clams are among the oldest living animals, and some corals may live over 4,000 years), but whales were the longest-lived vertebrates we knew of. One bowhead whale made it to an estimated age of 211 before (of course) a harpoon ended its career.
Now we find a fish - a shark, to be exact - which lives a low-energy lifestyle in deep cold waters of the Arctic might be the oldest vertebrate anywhere.  The sleeper sharks are probably the world's biggest sharks after the huge filter-feeders, the  whale shark and basking shark.  The Greenland shark, (Somniosus microcephalus) records its age in accumulating tissue layers in the eyeball.  One shark recently tested, a 5-meter giant, was approximately 392 years old. Even more outrageously, that may be the average for Greenland sharks. Somewhere in the dark seas may be a shark 500 years old.
There is some difference of opinion in how many species of sleepers there are (one figure is 17), but they are widespread. The oft-cited website Fish Base says they are found in Arctic, Sub-Arctic, and Sub-Antarctic, waters, plus continental shelves in cold seas, and even in tropical waters.  Pacific sleepers may reach 8m (per a sighting from the submersible Nautile off Japan)  and maybe bigger: if the huge fish sighted by the crew of the submersible Deepstar 4000 in 1968 was, as some authorities think, a sleeper shark, it was estimated at over 10m, maybe over 11.  (If they are wrong - and the crew of two men reported bigger eyes and different tail shape - there is a still-unknown fish the size of a bus out there.)

Kilometers beneath the icy seas off Greenland, the great shark hunts prey near the seafloor. (Image NOAA)

So a tip of the hat to the Greenland shark - and to the animal alive today that might have seen the first post-Columbus Europeans to reach North America sail by.


Monday, August 08, 2016

New mammals keep popping up

Australian scientists are on the verge of pinning down two new species in the Solomon Islands: a previously undiscovered member of the group known as monkey-faced bats and a giant rat.  Some people would say we don't need a new rat, let alone a giant one, but a report by a local chief, Esau, was the inspiration for the current expedition, and it would be a definite gain for science.   The monkey-faced bats are a group of five species indigenous to the islands (according to the article linked: I note there is also an animal called the Fijian monkey-faced bat. Now I've confused myself, thank you very much. See a good article on the critically endangered Fijian bat here. The Fijian and Solomons monkey-faced bats were originally in the same genus, but the Fijian species was moved out of Pteralopex and got its own genus, Mirimiri, in 2005). 
Now where was I? Yes, the Solomon Islands monkey-faced bats.  Dr. Tyrone Lavery notes these bats have "evolved here in Solomon Islands to take on roles that in other places would be occupied by things like monkeys or possums."  Meanwhile, in Gibraltar, a place one would think had been cataloged long ago, the discovery is not a new species, but the news that the Greater Horseshoe Bat   resides on the island is a reminder that  we don't always know what's right under our feet - or right over our heads. 




Example of one of the Solomon Islands monkey-faced bats. P. atrata, shows why the genus has its popular name (illustration credit unknown)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

I missed Neil Armstrong's birthday...

Shame on me. Neil Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, and died August 25, 2012. He's obviously most famous for his time with NASA as an astronaut but he was also an engineer and test pilot for its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (trivia: the acronym was pronounced n-a-c-a, never "nacka" ).  Neil became part of NASA when it was created in 1958, and the rest is history.  
The photo below shows the young test pilot in the Bell X-14 experimental vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft in the 50s. 



Ad Astra.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Happy Birthday, Melville

Herman Melville was born 1 August 1840. He was, of course, the sperm whale's great popularizer. He also recorded much of what was known about whales and whaling in those days (and lifted  passages from at least one previous author on the subject.)  He based his narrative on what really happened in 1820 on the whaleship Essex.  Some scientists have been wary about the Essex narrative: would a sperm whale really ram its head, containing its great sonar sensor/cannon, into a ship? Recent study, though, indicated it could have done so safely.
Melville wondered if the whale as a species could long endure "so remorseless a havoc" as the 19th century whaling fleets were inflicting.  It turns out, though, the Yankee whalers were amateurs.  The killings of that century were nothing compared to what giant, motorized whaling fleets, including the Japanese and Scandinavians but most especially the Soviets, would do in the 20th century. From 1947-1972, in Antarctic seas alone, Russian fleets killed over 63,000 sperm  whales. The species, amazingly, survived even this kind of "havoc" and is the most numerous of the great whales, the major baleen species all having been decimated before a 1986 moratorium.
The sperm whale remains one of Nature's giants, with records from 68 to 84 feet accepted by various authorities. It is also a species about which we still have many questions. We don't even have a universally accepted figure on how many of these deep-diving squid-hunters exist.  We don't know why they strand on the shore. We know they communicate, but we don't know how detailed their "talk" is, or what they are saying.  Maybe for now we'll just settle for awe and wonder.


The Great Sperm Whale, in life and death
(Top: NOAA. Bottom: out of copyright)



Thursday, July 28, 2016

Join me on Arcane Radio next week

Arcane Radio is a program focused mainly on the paranormal, but I'll happily go anywhere to talk about the discoveries and mysteries of the animal world.  Join me!


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Amazing news - Entirely New Whale from Alaska!

A new species of whale has been discovered based on a body, 7.3m long, that floated ashore on the Pribilof Islands.  This is just marvelous. I follow news of new and unidentified whales all the time, and I never heard a word about this, although it's apparently known to Japanese fishers, so it must have a range that spreads to the west.    This isn't a case where someone had it in hand and decided that its features or DNA warranted a split of a known species, as was the case with Balaenoptera omurai in 2003. This species was confirmed by DNA work, which resulted in reordering of its genus, but it began with a brand-new discovery from the field, when a biology teacher called in a seal researcher he knew who said, "This is weird," and then she called in a cetologist. Other previously collected (misidentified) skeletons have been located. 

Here's the published abstract from Marine Mammal Science:

Philip A. Morin, et. al.
There are two recognized species in the genus Berardius, Baird's and Arnoux's beaked whales. In Japan, whalers have traditionally recognized two forms of Baird's beaked whales, the common “slate-gray” form and a smaller, rare “black” form. Previous comparison of mtDNA control region sequences from three black specimens to gray specimens around Japan indicated that the two forms comprise different stocks and potentially different species. We have expanded sampling to include control region haplotypes of 178 Baird's beaked whales from across their range in the North Pacific. We identified five additional specimens of the black form from the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, for a total of eight “black” specimens. The divergence between mtDNA haplotypes of the black and gray forms of Baird's beaked whale was greater than their divergence from the congeneric Arnoux's beaked whale found in the Southern Ocean, and similar to that observed among other congeneric beaked whale species. Taken together, genetic evidence from specimens in Japan and across the North Pacific, combined with evidence of smaller adult body size, indicate presence of an unnamed species of Berardius in the North Pacific.

Readers of this blog know of Dr. Robert Pitman, who's done so much work with orcas and beaked whales. Of this find, he said, "It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long. It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us."
It does indeed. 
Wow. 
Thanks to Ron Pine for pointing me to this item. 
Photograph by Karin Holser, who helped identify the species in the field: I believe this is educational / scientific "fair use" but am endeavoring to get in touch with her to confirm permission. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A step forward for the vaquita

But is it in time?

The U.S. and Mexican governments have agreed to permanently ban gillnetting throughout the range of the world's smallest and rarest porpoise.  Nighttime fishing is also banned. Still, there are maybe 80 individuals - but that's probably high. One leading cetologist, Dr. Robin Baird told me he thought it closer to 50.  

NOAA photo

The story of the vaquita is worth revisiting. When I wrote Rumors of Existence in 1996, I called it “the world's newest and rarest porpoise.” Its tale begins with a single skull found on the beach in the Gulf of California.  That discovery was made in 1950, but another eight years passed before Kenneth Norris and William McFarland had enough information to present the vaquita, or Gulf of California porpoise, to the scientific world.
At five feet long or less, and never weighing much over a hundred pounds, the vaquita was indeed tiny by cetacean standards.    Its size may have helped it keep hidden: so, undoubtedly, did its shyness.  The animal generally avoids boats, an unusual trait for a porpoise (but a wise one).  Local fishermen did know it existed, and it was they who called it vaquita, or "little cow."
 This porpoise is mainly light gray, although the color usually darkens from the dorsal fin to the tail.  The belly is white, and there are dark ovals around the eyes.  In addition to accidental catches in gillnets, the porpoise has declined as the Gulf's ecology has suffered due to overfishing and agricultural runoff, and the food supply is dwindling.  The vaquita is unusually vulnerable to such threats because it does not migrate: in fact, it has the most restricted range of any marine mammal in the world.   
When I wrote that book, the population was estimated at 200 to 400.  Think about how sharply it's declined despite the actions of conservationists, scientists, and governments.  It's pretty scary. And the newest measures may or may not be in time.   
Some early sources I used:
Brown, Martha.  1987. "Searching for the Vaquita,"  Defenders, May-June
Mulvaney, Kevin,et. al.. 1990.  The Greenpeace Book of Dolphins. New York: Sterling Publishing Company.



Thursday, July 21, 2016

More sharks than we ever imagined

How many kinds of sharks inhabit the oceans?
When I was reading everything I could find about nature as a kid in the 1970s, I remember seeing the figure 300 a lot, as in 300 total species. Figures like 320-330 was pretty common.  But no one - not an amateur, not an ichthyologist - in those days would have claimed there were 500+. 
Well, one official count stands at 512. That may be a little high or low, given the differences of opinion in what's a separate species.  But Douglas Long, writing in DeepSea News, counted six new species in 2015 alone.  These include the small but incredibly cool ninja lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi), of the deep waters of the eastern Pacific.  In addition to looking like an evil robot submarine with a black paint job and striking blue eyes (really), it's even cooler because it was named for Peter Benchley, the late Jaws author who turned ardent shark conservationist.  
A "new" species many not be one never seen before. It could, like the half-meter long dark freckled catshark from Brazil, have spent many years being mistaken for a known species. Or it might be a museum specimen never tested genetically before. 
The Dusky Snout Catshark Bythaelurus naylori is an example of a "brand new" species, unseen or at least unnoticed until 2012. It's one of many recent discoveries that turned up in the bycatch of fishing trawlers. No fewer than 41 examples of this species were collected from fishing on Indian Ocean seamounts.  It is, ironically, bad news that some of these are being found, since it reminds us the oceans are being fished out. That's not an exaggeration: read Ellis' The Empty Ocean if you want to be scared to death on this topic. We keep fishing deeper and taking smaller fish, and that has a limit.  
Shark conservation is not a minor issue, either. Species like the basking shark are at risk wherever they occur, but especially in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, to feed the sharkfin soup trade. A recent bust in Ecuador netted three criminals in possession of 100,000 shark fins. That is not a misprint. No animal can withstand this kind of assault. National and international laws are much tougher than they were even ten years ago, but sharks are still in major trouble. One estimate is that humans are killing 200,000 sharks a day


The fast, powerful shortfin mako has the classic look people think of when they hear "shark." (NOAA)

I started this post to celebrate the diversity of the shark world, so let's go back there.  No one doubts there are more sharks to be discovered, both in genetics labs and in the oceans.  Most new species will be small, deep-water varieties, but the oceans encompass a billion cubic kilometers of water. Shark ecologist Paul Clerkin recently found 10 new species in a single two-month cruise with a fishing trawler. It won't be surprising if a few big fish are yet to be landed by science.  Willy Ley, in his 1941 book The Lungfish and the Unicorn, wrote that Timor Sea islanders islanders reported a large bottom-dwelling shark, 3-4 meters long, which he suggested was one of the carpet sharks or wobbegongs. No one has caught one, but there's nothing unreasonable about the story.  The sharks still have some surprises for us.


The U.S. government lists the basking shark, a harmless filter-feeder the size of a small bus, as a "species of concern" because of exploitation for its fins. (NOAA)


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On the Moon

And so we look back 47 years and marvel at Apollo 11. The courage, the ingenuity, the engineering and organizational genius that was Apollo 11.

As someone said, the most important thing was not even that we stood on the Moon: it was that we looked on Earth from another world and got a perspective no other experience would provide.

R.I.P., Neil.  Godspeed, Buzz and Mike.  I salute you and the thousands of people on Earth who made it all happen.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Man Named Armstrong (song)

Geoff Robertson's great version of John Stewart's Armstrong. Stewart, one of America's great songwriters. has explained that he wasn't denigrating Apollo: it was both a tribute and at the same time a protest song asking why "We get an A in space and and F on Earth." Robertson revised the lyrics at the end to make the "tribute" part clearer.





Saturday, July 16, 2016

Apollo 11 - I was there

47 years ago today, my father rented a small plane from the Piper Aircraft plant where he worked and flew my brother and I north to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Apollo 11. (We were, of course, a outside the 10-mile air exclusion zone, but it was plenty close enough.)   I will always remember that I watched humans leave for the Moon with my own eyes, What bothers me is that my children haven't seen us leave for another world, and a lot of shortsighted politicians have made it very uncertain when they might have that chance. Godspeed Neil, Buzz, and Mike. You were the best of us.


It may have been one small step for (a) man, as Neil said with a slight flub, but it really was a giant leap.  
Neil, one one of my heroes I never got a chance to meet, has left us.  Mike and Buzz are still telling the story: I've met Buzz several times, and he's a great guy: my daughter still has the calendar he signed for her gradeschool class.  
I do believe there are entirely practical reasons for us to develop a civilization that includes outposts in space: new resources, new technology, the protection of our world from asteroids, and so on. But I believe in the romantic side of space exploration, too. Civilizations that don't look beyond horizons  recede from them, eventually into nonexistence. 
We need dreams. Sure, we've got a lot left to do on this planet, but we're not meant to stay on it. We're meant to keep reaching beyond.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Monday, July 04, 2016

Juno counts down to Jupiter

Two more hours until Juno hits or misses...

I only have one line in this article, but I've never been in Scientific American before. The point I made to George Musser was that if we could make a probe function under conditions prevailing near Jupiter, we could handle any environment in the solar system.


Go NASA!

Update: they did it!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Big amphibious poisonous centipede discovered

I often celebrate new species in this blog. But there are some species we look at and say, "OK, I 'm sure it fills some niche in nature, but I also think the planet would continue to rotate perfectly well without it."  Take this thing. Please.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Schleich's new Dunkleosteus model

I have the latest Dunkleosteus model on the market, and it's pretty amazing visually, even if the science causes a bit of head-scratching.
The new model from Schleich boasts multipart construction with an articulated lower jaw and detailed mouth inside and out.  The armor is likewise done in great detail, complete with countless scratches from Dunk-to-Dunk combat: we know the species was cannibalistic, so there was some fighting, although this individual is more heavily scratched than any fossil.
The model is studded end to end with surface details: vertical winkles on the right side of the body and left side of the tail (the fish is shown with the body bending, and the wrinkles match up).
The model is big, over 22 cm long, and studded with either tiny bones (osteoderms) or scales all over. (The animal probably had neither, but it adds a great deal of texture and character to the model).



The amazing new Schleich Dunkleosteus

We don't know what the tail looked like, but the model-makers had to pick something, so they went with a tail with a large fin on the bottom.    Likewise, we know it had to have pectoral fins, and these are large and well-detailed. We don't know if dorsal or caudal fins were large or small. And the line of scutes along the sides (meant to suggest a lateral line, perhaps? If so, they are really overdoing it) are an invention as far as we know. Finally, we don;t know how much of the armor was visible vs being covered with skin/muscle: some scientists opt for a more streamlined Dunk.

A dunk expert, Gavin Hanke of the Royal BC Museum, weighed in on my post of this in FaceBook.  He wrote:  "...the reinforced spine like edges to the fins is fiction,.....all the arthrodires I have seen show tubercles in predictable patterns, sutures, lateral line canals, and straight cracks if present are taphonomic artefacts. I have not seen any papers detailing such scratches in any placoderm species." 


So I agree, the model should be more realistic It remains really cool, and the sculptors did put great effort into giving it more detail than the vinyl Favorite Co. model or the smaller Wild Safari competitors. At $20, it's a little more more expensive than those, but completely worth it. 

The smaller Wild Safari dunk (still cool)



(Thanks to Aurora Rayn for giving me the heads-up the moment this new model was posted for sale and to Gavin Hanke.)


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Zoology has good news to share, too :)

Sometimes it seems that news related to animal conservation and zoology in general is all or mostly bad, whether concerning the disappearance of  a species (like the Bramble Cay melomys, a  small mammal being called the first victim of climate change) or the continued unbalancing of ecology (e.g., the invasive and voracious lionfish just swam into the Mediterranean, threatening to unleash its appetite on an already-battered ecosystem). 


The invasive lionfish may be beautiful, but has already wreaked havoc in the Caribbean.  Governments are encouraging fishermen to catch it for consumption. (NOAA)


The bad news is serious, and we must face it and digest it as we try to limit of reverse the damage we've done to the planet.  However, there remain points of light and moments of reassurance when we discover or rediscover a precious piece of the natural world.  Every bit of knowledge added to zoology is a step toward conservation, and should be celebrated, even if the creature involved might be dismissed by the general public as small and not very interesting. There was definite celebration this year in Nepal, at least among bird lovers. The red-faced liocichla (Liocichla phoenicea) has been missing for 178 years. A small bird with yellow-green or blue-gray body plumage  set off by bright flashes of color on the head and wings, it was presumed extinct in that country, although it has fairly stable populations in neighboring nations and Indochina. Nepalese ornithologists applauded the bird's first definite appearance in their nation since the 19th century.  
A known animal in a previously unknown location is another kind of discovery.  Consider an eyeless cave fish, the Mexican blindcat, which was just found for the first time in Texas.  The near-transparent 7.5cm fish's appearance so far north raises the possibility of undiscovered caverns connecting underneath the human-imposed border.  (Insert political jokes HERE.) 
A new species of lizard has been added to the world's known reptiles after discovery of two specimens in China. Ptychozoon bannaense‬ has a body not much longer than the just-mentioned cave fish's, but has a stocky build and a camouflage coloration pattern that make it look bigger and tougher than it is.  A dark, elongated new salamander has turned up thanks to a review of specimens from Honduras, Oedipina capitalina lives near the capital of Tegucigalpa (where my oldest daughter was born). Two new frogs hopped into view in India, and another lizard, Liolaemus parthenos (the species consists entirely of parthenogenic females) is reported from Argentina
We find new things about known species, too. Scientists are constantly taking new looks at known species, even well-known species, and coming away with new insights. Take the case of Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University, who just discovered that old myths about electric eels leaping out of a pond to stun prey are not myths.  



The electric eel cannot be called beautiful, but can certainly be called dangerous. (NOAA)

A big eel-like fish (not a true eel) whose shock can knock a human unconscious should at least stay in the water, right?  Instead it will shoot its forebody above the surface so the sells on its chin make contact with prey.  
I sense a new SyFy electric eel movie is on the way. That would be a kind of bad news all by itself. But the point is, the news is never all bad. There are still discoveries being made, species being saved, and new knowledge being gained. The future is challenging, but it isn't hopeless. 

(To learn about new species discovered in the mid-20th-to early 21st centuries, I naturally recommend Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology. It's lively, fact-packed, beautifully illustrated, and I need the royalties.  Contact me at mattwriter@earthlink.net or go to https://www.amazon.com/Shadows-Existence-Discoveries-Speculations-Zoology/dp/0888396120.












Friday, June 24, 2016

Bears and hybrids and more bears

There are few animals more interesting than bears. I've written several times before about them, but I can never resist coming back and looking for some new tidbits. 

They are smart: a bear in California learned how to bounce on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle and pop the doors open.  They are strikingly human-like when de-furred: some Native Americans considered them a brother animal to man. They can be huge: a modern polar bears weighing up to a metric ton are on record, and the biggest brown bears (Ursus arctos) of the Kenai Peninsula and Kamchatka, reach well over half that.  (Mammologist C. Hart Merriam once classified 86 species of brown bears: We now consider them to be one species with just four subspecies). Speaking of grizzlies, everyone who loves them should read Ernest Thomson Seton's Biography of a Grizzly, originally published in 1900: in 1970, it was the basis for a very loose Disney adaptation called King of the Grizzlies.  
A cage-fat male brown (Kodiak)  bear named Goliath, who was born in Alaska and died (in a small concrete-floored cage) in a roadside museum/zoo in New Jersey in 1991, reportedly weighted 900kg, which sounds suspiciously on the high side even for a captive. A bear named Clyde who died in the Dakota Zoo in 1987 was listed at over 900kg and was claimed by the zoo director to have hit an astonishing 1,090kg.  Here in my hometown of Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo reported in 1955 the death of a male Kodiak weighing 757kg.   
John "Grizzly" Adams' biggest-ever captured bear, a California grizzly named Samson, was weighed at 685kg.  A Kodiak killed in the wild in 1894 was reportedly weighed in at 751 kg.  Estimated weights of over 700kg have been reported for a bear killed at Cold Bay, Alaska, in 1948 and for a another Alaskan bear killed in 1916. 
The extinct North American short-faced (and long-legged) bear (Arctodus simus) was taller than any known bear - pretty close to horse-height when standing on all fours, and there's a cave in Missouri where an individual left claw marks 4.5m off the floor.  Its  earlier, but much bulkier, South American relative Arctotherium angustidens might have weighed 1,600 kg or more.  Indeed, this animal was probably the biggest mammalian land carnivore of all time: it must have terrified everything in its world.
Some mysteries about bears have been solved. We know now the long-puzzling individual called MacFarlane's bear was a grizzly, not a new species. The astonishing-looking golden moon bears have been confirmed as a real phenomenon, but a variant of a known species, the Asiatic black bear. There's still some fuzziness (if you'll pardon the pun) about classification of the smaller Asian bears, and the gigantic, big-footed solid black oddity known to cryptozoologists as Bergman's bear is not quite ready to be filed away with other Kamchatcan brown bears (U. a. piscator), but there are no definite specimens.
Then there are bears that ain't, as an old hunter might say. In 1998, Reinhold Messner published a book identifying the yeti, or chemo as his Tibetan associates called it,  as a new species, or a subspecies of the brown bear. This bear, the mountaineer alleged,  habitually walks upright (standing up to 2.7m) travels by night and communicates by whistling.  The book, though, includes pictures of quite ordinary-looking brown bears Messner was told were chemos. British geneticist Bryan Sykes took a look at the yeti/bear question by testing DNA from alleged yetis and from bears. After a great deal of hype and confusion, though, it appears he didn't make any discoveries about new bears or about yetis.  
One thing  that is happening in the world of bears isn't a good sign. As climate change allows the brown bear to forage further north but limits the ice cover polar bears use, it's essentially squeezing the two species' ranges closer together.  Sometimes this results in war, sometimes in love. The first grizzly-polar hybrid confirmed in the wild was shot in 2006 and another in 2010. A suspected hybrid killed in May 2016 was identified as an extremely light-colored "blond" grizzly bear. Such grizzly bears have also been spotted in Alaska.  The polar bear is not endangered, but it's getting less healthy as a species, thanks to the attrition caused by habitat loss. 




The paw of a polar bear attests to the animal's size (NOAA)





A hybrid sun bear/Asiatic black bear, meanwhile, has turned up in Cambodia. It's hardly surprising. It's not so much a case of the habitats being compressed, as in North America, but the sheer brutal annihilation of Southeast Asian wildlife   - described heartbreakingly in Sy Montgomery's book Search for the Golden Moon Bear -  means bears of any species may get desperate for mates. 

 (Gary Galbreath, who led the team describing the hybrid, coauthored Moon Bear. I have an admiration for Dr. Galbreath, though we've never met: I don't know how he or other scientists deal with sadness on such a scale while fighting long odds to save species. Cryptozoologists also know Galbreath for his proposed sei whale identification of the famous 1848 Daedalus sea serpent. Also for his 2006 paper arguing the kouprey, the largest land mammal discovered in the 20th century, was a  feral hybrid rather than a new species. He's a prolific guy.) 

So concludes this week's visit with the bears.  There's a lot more to discuss abotu them, and a lot we still don't know. They have a lot to teach us - if we can keep them alive.  

A few bear references:
Day, David. 1990. The Doomsday Book of Animals. New York: Viking Press.
Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. New York: Facts on File.
Galbreath, Gary, et. al. 2008. "An Apparent Hybrid Bear From Cambodia." Ursus 19:85-86
Goodwin, George. 1946. "Inopinatus the Unexpected," Natural History, November.
Halfpenny, James. 1996. “Tracking the Great Bear: Mystery Bears,”  Bears, Spring.
Montgomery, Sy.  2003.  Search for the Golden Moon Bear.  New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wood, Gerald L. 1983. The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats.  Sterling Publishing Co.
Woolford, Riley. 2007. "White Black Bears and Blond Grizzlies: Alaska Bears Wear Coats of Many Colors," Alaska Fish & Wildlife News, September.  
Discussion thread at http://shaggygod.proboards.com/thread/474/guinness-world-record-kodiak-bears