Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lost species that never were

It's hard enough for scientists, with limited means, to find and keep current on the world's many thousands of vertebrate animal species. New ones are found every year. Others, sadly, go extinct, while others just lack recent observations, and may show up on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as "Data Deficient."
In some cases, the data may be deficient because the animal didn't exist.  This is a common concern with extinct species, described from a handful of fossil bone or even from footprints: one-third of dinosaurs may be mistakes.  But there are modern questions, too. 
The mystery bear Vetularctos inopinatus, collected in Canada in 1864, was one of the more spectacular errors: the type specimen, it turned out, was just another grizzly. Africa's pygmy elephant seems to have been a mistake, and almost everyone has written off the pygmy gorilla (Gorilla mayema) as erroneous. De Loys' ape, a paradigm-shaking species (given that there are no confirmed New World apes) allegedly shot in Venezuela in 1920, was a flat-out hoax involving an unfortunate spider monkey.
The great (it's a law, writers have to describe him that way) John James Audubon described Washington's Eagle as a separate species, larger than the bald eagle. It's now generally thought to have been based on an unusually large bald eagle (it doesn't help that the type specimen, collected by the man himself in 1814, has disappeared).  So Falco washingtonii doesn't get a Red List spot at all. Audubon also described Townsend's finch, a bird never confirmed but still debated, and four other mystery species.   Cox's sandpiper, from Australia, is either elusive, extinct, or a hybrid of other species. The dusky seaside sparrow, famous for meeting its end in an enclosure at Disney World,  was real but apparently not a species: any creature downgraded to a subspecies just don't get the same respect.
There are others, as this article describes. Is the Liberian greenbul the world's rarest songbird, or a mistake based on an odd-colored specimen of the icterine greenbul? (The Red List classifies this bird, Phyllastrephus leucolepis as, you guessed it, Data Deficient.) The extinct Hunter Island penguin was, in a sense, always extinct, since it turns out not to have existed. The kouprey, Bos sauveli, the largest new land mammal of the 20th century, is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered but may be a mistake involving wild cattle with a characteristic appearance.  
DNA analysis of type specimens is helping to sort out such creatures, but it's a slow process. It doesn't help when some type specimens go missing, or the animal is a possible hybrid. Taxonomy, even of the vertebrates, is not yet a finished domain of knowledge.

Thanks to Dr. Karl Shuker for posting the original article that got me thinking on this. 

Audubon's painting of his great eagle


  

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Salute to Madison Stewart

Not old enough to drink in the U.S., this young shark conservationist is Australian Geographic's  Young Conservationist of the Year.  Madison Stewart wasn't old enough to drive when she started her work, taking samples of fish at markets for species ID and mercury levels, lobbying against shark netting and shark culls, and generally using every avenue she could find to explain to people that sharks were an essential part of a healthy ocean ecosystem.  She is now living in Florida, and continuing her work on sharks and the safety and sustainability of fish caught for consumption. Her work is featured in a new documentary film, BLUE.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A tough year for whales

This week, the Society for Marine Mammology is meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia (I couldn't attend because of back surgery, and yes, I'm bummed).  The SMM meeting will be discussing a lot of topics including improved whale tracking and automated identification. Members are also discussing a touch year for whales in general.
The vaquita porpoise is a handful of breeding-age females away from extinction. A desperate last-chance effort by Mexican and American experts, using Navy dolphins to help locate the vaquitas, is underway to catch 12 animals and keep them in sea pens. Nothing else has stemmed the losses from bycatch by fish-hunting poachers. 
The humpbacks didn't have a good year on the Atlantic. NOAA declared an"unusual mortality event" as 53 animals died in the last two years, half due to ship collisions. 
The North Atlantic right whales have had it even tougher considering the total population is only 500 or so.  Sixteen whales have been found dead this year. Tightening rules on ship speeds in key areas hasn't helped. Authorities have intensely studied every carcass they've been able to reach, and ship collisions and drifting fishing gear are the top killers.
So here's hoping the SMM meeting will help add new information, analysis,and tools, We've driven way too many cetaceans off the planet. Banning most commercial whaling in 1986 has made a difference, but not enough. It's a grim situation.  Support whale conservation with your votes, your money, and your awareness.  


 
 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jane Goodall and unknown primates

Dr. Jane Goodall needs no introduction anywhere on Earth. No one knows more about studying large primates in the wild.  One thing that piques her interest is sasquatch and similar reported creatures.  She once told an interviewer, of sasquatch, "I'm sure they exist." This article has a really interesting nugget: that she found hunters in Ecuador who, when asked if they had seen "moneys without a tail," responded they had - and the "monkeys" were 1.8m (6 feet) tall. She even speculated sasquatch-type creatures could be Neanderthal in origin.
New World apes do not, so far as we know, exist, either in the fossil record or today.  Apes never made it here.  While Latin America swarms with monkeys, the only large primate ever to reach this hemisphere was, as far as we know, Homo sapiens.  There is some VERY speculative thinking, based on the Cerutti mastodon site in California, that human ancestors, likely a Homo erectus group, showed up first (130,000 years ago!), but that's a long way from being proven. We don't know of Neanderthals coming within thousands of miles of the periodic land bridges that brought modern humans over.  Creatures like sasquatch are reported all over the U.S., Canada, and Latin America, a truly impossible range,but have we ruled everything out?
Goodall is almost alone among primatologists and mammologists in thinking sasquatch possible.  Aside from a few Americans like Dr. Jeff Meldrum, there is a near-consensus that no large animal with no fossil record, no bones, and no dead specimens is really awaiting discovery. Indeed, a lot of very qualified people find the topic ridiculous, especially in North America, where a new rodent is a huge discovery.
The sightings, of course, keep coming in. I have twice written Forewords for books by my friend Lori Simmons, who  believes her dad, Donald Wallace, while rarely glimpsing animals, established a kind of trading relationship, and no less than Touchstone Pictures is developing his memoirs into a film currently titled Underground Giants. I wrote that, while I considered sasquatch unproven and unlikely, the belief in and pursuit of this creature is a fascinating human story.
And there, for the moment, we must leave the topic.  Sasquatch, animal or myth, is pretty durable. We will be back.
(Thanks to the folks at the North American Wood Ape Conservancy for posting the Goodall article.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown
Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science
  • Paperback edition: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books


Marcus du Sautoy is a math professor at Oxford and an explorer of the numbers behind the universe.  In this book, he probes seven "edges," such as time and consciousness, where science has made great strides but has still more to learn - and may not, in the end, be able to learn everything.  He succeeded Richard Dawkins as the  Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and he is, in my estimation, better at it, able to take concepts from the simple (a single toll of a die) to complex (causation, the beginnings of the universe, the unknowable) without losing the reader. (Also, while he is like Dawkins an atheist, he is able to discuss religious concepts without the sneering condescension of Dawkins.) This is a fascinating journey, beginning to end.  He even gets math across in a way I understand, which is something... 
   

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The first issue of a new cryptozoology journal

International Cryptozoology Society Journal, Volume 1 (2016)
This is a very good recap of the first ICS conference, held in St. Augustine, FL, in 2016: it's essentially the conference proceedings.  I am in here, with my piece on bears and cryptozoology (one sentence on the sun bear is out of place, though that could be my fault).  The photos are in black and white and are somewhat low resolution, although that's no doubt a necessary compromise for cost reasons.  The important part of this journal, of course, is in the meat of the presentation topics, and some of these are excellent no matter what one's view of cryptozoology in general. My favorite (probably everyone's) is TV host Pat Spain, from Beast Hunter (the best crypto series I know of), including his convictions that Brazil's mapinguari, Sumatra's orang-pendek, and the northeast Pacific's Cadborosuarus represent real animals, although some others like the Mongolian death worm do not.  Michel Raynal's overview of the history and changing views of the 1896 "giant octopus" carcass at St. Augustine and Dr. Paul LeBlond's exploration of "Caddy" are my other favorites, though all have something of value.  I'm looking forward to Volume 2!

Inter-generic imitation in cetaceans

OK, that's a boring title, but go with me.  A lot of cetaceans can imitate each other or outside sounds. Luna, a wild orca of the Puget Sound area, became famous for his ability to imitate a motorboat (in a sad irony, he was kileld by a tugboat in 2006).  Now comes the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) who imitates bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). The authors say, "Here we describe the changes in the vocal repertoire of a beluga whale that was housed with a group of bottlenose dolphins. Two months after the beluga’s introduction into a new facility, we found that it began to imitate whistles of the dolphins, whereas one type of its own calls seemed to disappear."

There's an awful lot going on in cetacean brains, and we don't have a handle on it all by a long shot. Safina's book Beyond Words describes how captive dolphins invent new moves or do things their trainers have only talked about, and how handlers get a little spooked by those abilities sometimes.  I'm a believer in phasing out cetacean captivity, although the orcas are most important, as we can't come close to replicating their habitats and often don't try.  But we can learn from them. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Humans in the Americas- When?

I've always had an interest in when humans first stepped on the North American continent.  The needle was stuck at 10-12,000 years before present (YBP) for decades.  The early Clovis people had come across the Bering land bridge and, in an amazingly short time, managed to populate both continents (and, most theories have it, wipe out the megafauna they found in abundance.)

There have always been arguments for sites like Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania ( where a sizable minority of archaeologists accepts 16-19,000 YBP) and Monte Verde in Chile (argued to be from 14,800 to 33,000 YBP), Other sites have generally pushed back the 12,000 YBP consensus to around 14,000, but vigorous debate continues on older sites.  A new paper published in 2017 is sure to spark more debate: it puts remains found near Old Crow, Alaska, back as far as 24,000 years. 

None is as contentious as the Cerutti Mastodon site near San Diego, where a mastodon shows strong signs of being butchered and the long bones broken apart for marrow.  Hammerstones and other human stone implements surround it. How old is it?  According to a letter published in the top journal Nature, 131,000 YBP.  Or to quote the letter, "Th/U [thorium-uranium) radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago."  That's a startling claim indeed.
How would humans have come so far south so early?  While shorelines on Western North America have receded since the Ice Ages, submerging many known and possible sites, we don't have hard evidence that any pre-Clovis people (or, in this case, pre-pre-pre-Clovis people) used boats or rafts to come down the coast, and there's not a chain of known settlements close enough to each other (or dated closely enough) to indicate a land migration. Yet here we are.
If they were really there 130,000 years ago, who were they? Early modern humans (EMH, a term replacing the too-limited "Cro-Magnon" with many scientists)  existed only in Africa.  It wasn't until 100,000 YBP they'd even pushed out as far as Israel.  What are we left with?  As far as we know, the Neanderthals never reached eastern Asia. A surprisingly advanced batch of Homo erectus? The still-mysterious Denisovians, who lived in Siberia and Southeast Asia? With just stones and mastodon bones, we don't have any human DNA to settle this with. 
Critics think the discoverers got the dating right but suggest the human artifacts - if that is what they are - were left in the same area much later.  That raises a host of questions that can only be answered by similar finds - or, to a degree,  by a long search yielding no new finds.   Some of the area archaeologists would like to inspect, though, is buried under suburban homes and parking lots.
A mystery...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Book Review: the classic Prehistoric Animals

Prehistoric Animals
text by Joseph Augusta, illustrated by Zdenek Burian. Translated by Greta Hort. Spring Books, London. 
(Reviewed edition is 1963: numerous versions and reprints exist.).

Cover (1967 edition)


While much of the knowledge in this book is outdated, its influence and the excellence of the writing and illustrations using the information available in 1963 merit the five-star rating. This work enthralled a generation of professional, student, and public readers. Dr. Augusta's text, in this translation from the Czech by Dr. Greta Hort, is clear and informative, although a little dry in spots. He takes his topic from the beginnings of life and provides the full picture: the algae and the gymnosperms and all the other creatures that were such essential links in the evolutionary chain get their moments here. The book is called Prehistoric Animals, but the animals really don't take center stage until page 29 of the 47-page main text. He considers my favorites, the placoderms, "the oldest and most important" of the fishes of the Devonian in an evolutionary sense. He believed all other fishes descended from the placoderms, a point still being energetically debated in 2017. After a run through the animals, we get to the 60 plates, many in color, by the great Zdenek Burian. Starting with the eye-dazzling color plates to the Cambrian and Silurian Seas, on through incredible, photorealistic depictions of early fishes (Dunkleosteus, called by the old name Dinichthys, is wonderfully alive and fearsome even though the fins are, I argue, too small to control this huge, active predator). He presents the dinosaurs (in the old tail-dragging postures) and then addresses mammals like smilodon and the ground sloths (the primitive horses are a high point in a section that's nearly all high points) and finishes with the cave bear Ursus spelaeus.

Looking at the book today, the upright therapods and nearly-submerged sauropods remind us how much paleontology has advanced. This is a snapshot of the science, taken in a time of growth and change hampered somewhat by fixed ideas. But it's a gorgeous snapshot: once you've paged through it, it's as memorable as the dinosaurs and other creatures themselves.


My copy, obtained used online, is a very fragile one, browning at the edges and clearly well-thumbed.  I don't expect to use it much as a reference, but it's a book so stunning and influential, despite the short text, that it's a book you just want to HAVE if you're a paleontology fancier.  Get it any way you can.  


Friday, September 15, 2017

Whales: one stroke backward, one forwards

The North Atlantic right whale is as magnificent as an animal can get. Eubalaena glacialis can weigh over 70 metric tons and stretch 15 meters from its nose to its its deeply notched tail.  It bears distinctive callosities covered with white "whale lice"  on a stocky, black body.   As with all large whales, evolution hasn't really equipped the animal to be wary of still larger objects, like ships. The population, decimated first by whaling (centuries of it, going back to the first great oceanic whalers, the Basques, and  Native Americans, both in small open boats, before modern whalers had their turn), and now by fishing gear entanglement and hip collisions, dipped below 400 at one point before struggling to perhaps 450 (although a European population is functionally extinct). 

Head of right whale, showing distinctive curved jaws and callosities (Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

There was sad news today when a dead whale was spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the 11th carcass found in the Gulf this year. Others have been found off the American coast (they calve off Georgia and Florida). Necropsies of a few (such an effort is not easy to arrange, and many whales are not necropsied) and observations show a split between ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement as the causes. 
The good news is that humans are not letting the species drift into extinction.  On top of existing protections, Canada imposed strict speed limits on ships in the Gulf over 20m long.   Meanwhile, in the eastern Pacific, where blue whales and others have been subject to the same lethal pressures, crabbers are part of a new program to track traps that may be scattered by storms and currents to become "ghost gear," drifting without supervision. Rather than engage in the complex politics of banning crabbers from large areas (a step the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which is filing suit over the issue, says is still needed) skippers fix the position of drifting pots via GPS.  The next step, supported by fishery officials and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, is to pay crabbers $65 for every pot they are able to take on board and return to port, where the original owners are usually happy to cough up $100 to get the $250 pots back.  
The whales are in deep trouble on both coasts, but humans aren't just letting it happen the way we used to.   
THANKS TO environmental scientist Laurie Baker, who keeps me up on much of the whale news. 

Return of the Night Parrot

Australia, home of so much unique fauna, hosts a diminutive parrot called the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis). For 67 years (1912-1979) there was not a single confirmed sighting, and ornithologists feared the green, yellow, and black bird had flown into the abyss of extinction. It survived, however, and was rediscovered in Queensland.  This year, as the result of efforts by four friends who'd spent over six years in the search, there is a photograph of a live night parrot from 2,000 km away in Western Australia. The nation's top authorities have confirmed the bird's presence (WA was the home of the 1912 sighting) and are ecstatic about another healthy population's greatly increasing the species' survival prospects.
It is not a good commentary on human beings, though, that the discoverers gave the exact location only to wildlife authorities in order to protect the species from poachers. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dino DNA after all?

This report seems to be a little breathless and premature, but a pregnant female T.rex fossil has been found to have a medullary bone - a structure containing concentrated calcium for the work ahead - in good shape. This is unusually protected, beuing within the structure of the femur (also, this, hard to find).  Professor Lindsay Zanno at North Carolina State University, "We have some evidence that fragments of DNA" may be preserved in such bones.

Cooollllll.....

Flood of New Species from Amazon Basin

I like to report on new species, which still turn up pretty often. But 381 of them? Yes.  According to the WWF and Brazilian scientists, that's how many have been discovered recently. More than half are plants (which are important, just not as fascinating to me as animals) but add in 92 fish, 51 herps, a bird, and 18 mammals (plus two fossil ones).   Here's a video report if you want to have a look at some.

Monday, August 28, 2017

More and more missions for microsats

Some people still say microsatellites (under 100kg) and nanosatellites (under 10kg to some people, 1kg to some) have no operational missions. I'm not sure how that view endures in the modern era. Sure, the uses were limited into the 1980s or so, but then electronics got orders of magnitude smaller and missions and capabilities expanded. In the new century, they exploded.We have globe-girlding miscrosat missions for messaging (Orbcomm), for imagery (Planet) and a horde of demonstration missions showing other applications. Many of these come from small manufacturers and/or universities, not traditional space programs.  The latest is tracking aircraft . The CAN=X nanosat, mass only 3.5kg, carried the  Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) to receive signals from aircraft transponders.  Director Robert Zee at Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto reports, “The ADS-B instrument on CanX-7 has received and decoded 3.6 million signals from aircraft in less than six months. This mission proves that global real-time aircraft tracking can be achieved with a low-cost, responsive constellation of small satellites.”
One small step at a time...

Very elusive monkey pops up again

The winner of the primate hide and seek competition (if you don't count Bigfoot) may be the bald-faced Vanzolini saki.  This large, long-tailed monkey was  collected and named in 1936 in Columbia, then vanished in a puff of leaves and was never seen again.

Until now.

An expedition led by Dr. Laura Marsh spotted the animal swinging in the trees beside the Eiru River. The habitat is in pretty good shape, but like virtually all primate habitat, requires intelligent protection from illegal logging, hunting, and deforestation to preserve the saki and its co-inhabitants. 
Nice to get a win for conservation!  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

New shrimp from unusual place

Octopuses, we know, eat shrimp. So what was going on when a new species of shrimp was found living in the den of a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris)? In False Bay, South Africa, local divers, a filmmaker, and a scientist collaborated to find three new shrimp species, but the first was the most interesting. In addition to dwelling with the octopus and, for some reason, not being devoured, 
Also of note: the scientist involved, Charles Griffiths, is no newcomer to new species, He has, in fact, described over 100!  Leave some for the rest of us, Charles...




Common octopus (NOAA)


Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Favorite thoughts on writing

C.S. Lewis:

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

Eric Burns:
It's not enough to create magic. You have to create a price for magic, too. You have to create rules. 

Jesse Stuart:
Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it. 

John Irving:
The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything. 


Monday, August 07, 2017

Looking towards space in the new Administration

The Trump administration requested $19.092B for NASA in FY18, essentially the same amount the agency has in FY17.  The relevant House and Senate committees have approved significantly higher amounts.  (About $19.5B in the Senate and over $19.8B in the House.)   The issue has yet to go to a conference committee.
One of the bones of contention is science, which includes Earth science, which includes climate monitoring and climate change research.  With this issue a political hot potato, The Predient and GOP Congressional leaders generally want a reduction in the science budget, but amounts vary enormously, as does controlling language about how the money can be spent.
The Administration is very much in favor of increased private participation and increased human spaceflight funding.  The President at one point promised "American boots on Mars" during his second term.  This probably is not doable even if the budget was unlimited, which it most certainly will not be. The Space Launch System and the Orion capsule which would be part of such a mission have not even flown.
The other touchy topic is NASA's Office of Education.  The President requested only $37M for Education - just enough to shut down the office and most educational programs.  While NASA education programs do include materials explaining and warning of climate change, the complete elimination of the office took NASA-watchers by surprise.  Congress has put its collective foot down to block this move: the House wants $100M for education in the new year.
Some of this confusion exists because it's not clear who will run the agency or how oversight will work.  The revised National Space Council (a good idea) has yet to meet, or to schedule a meeting: the Administration has not yet named its NASA Administrator.  The President presented himself as a big fan of space exploration, especially human  spaceflight, so it's quite puzzling the Administration has not even tried to fill the Administrator post.
On the positive side, the agency can rest assured it will not take an overall cut and will continue the Office of Education.  On other matters, though, the space telescope image is rather murky.  Here's hoping the officials involved get that straightened out and give the Agency a course to set.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

World's largest bony fish discovered

Seriously. In the 21st century, an Australian postdoc and her associates found the biggest bony fish in the world, a new species  (the fourth known) of the great ocean sunfish.
The sunfish is one of the strangest fish in the sea. Imagine a half-deflated circular blimp the size of a car.  It looks like a fish the Almighty got halfway through designing and then lost interest and just stuck the tailfins on.  It spends countless hours lying on its side, basking at the surface, slurping up jellyfish (and, unfortunately, plastic bags - thanks, humans) or diving to find them in deeper waters.. Its cartilage-underlayed-skin is so thick and hard it's difficult to harpoon one, so Pacific fishing cultures have generally left the animal alone.  The third species, still referred to simply as Mola Species C, was only found in 2009, by the way.
DNA collections from sunfish stranded, caught, or tagged indicated there were most likely four species of the fish (the signature one being Mola mola), but only three had ever been described. Maryanne, Nyegaard confirmed this oddity while examining known DNA records for the PhD dissertation. Once she'd determined there was a missing sunfish, she set about roaming beaches and museums to confirm a specimen. She kept it up for three years.  Fishermen sent her photos and DNA of an odd-looking sunfish they had caught, and then four such fish stranded in New Zealand, and Nyegaard was ready to write her name in scientific history along with the enigmatic Mola tecta. (She found other specimens in museum collections, where scientists had logged them in without noticing their oddities.) Sunfish are known for surpassing a metric ton in weight, but M. tecta is at the top of the scale, and appears to have the largest average size of any species. The longest specimen identified was 2.42 meters (just short of eight feet).  It lacks a protruding snout and a bumpy region on the back that other sunfish species develop as adults.
So welcome to the biggest bony fish in the world, a monster harmless to humans but startling in size and appearance, and outweighed among fishes only by the largest of sharks. It's about time you showed up.



The earliest known species, Mola mola (NOAA).



Monday, July 17, 2017

Top 10 New Species of 2017

Yes, it's only July, but these folks always publish their Top 10 list for the year early (to beat the holiday rush, or something?)
The ESF Top 10 list from the International Institute for Species Exploration has something for everyone. There's a spiny ant - and we mean really spiny - christened Pheiodole drogon - yes, for Drogon, the black dragon in Game of Thrones, because the creature's well-defended back looked like the dragon's to the scientist involved. We have a spider with a body shaped like the Hogwarts sorting hat - so here is Eriovixia gryffindori. There's a new katydid with an astonishing resemblance to a leaf. The Sulawesi root rat Gracilimus radix is unique among its kind for enjoying veggies in addition to meat. (Maybe this was the species that showed up in Ratatouille.)  A California millipede adapted for an all-liquid diet (I don't want to know what liquids) made the list, which celebrates scientific importance of the species selected rather than size or mass appeal. Potamotrygon rex is a ray from Brazil sporting spectacular yellow or orange sport stretching well over a meter in length and weighing up to 20 kg. Southeast Asia contributes a big (20 cm), poisonous (of course) centipede (as Odgen Nash said, "a bug we do not really need") with amazing swimming and diving abilities: it can walk on the bottom, using stored oxygen.  The bush tomato is a spiky little Australian fruit whose name was chosen with input from 150 7-th grade students in Pennsylvania. An orchid from Columbia sports reproductive parts looking like the head of the traditional devil. And Xenoturbella churro is a deep-dwelling marine worm that, to someone who is a very sloppy cook, looks sort of / kind of / approximately like a churro.
Bigfoot,is seems, has escaped for another year, but the list is important as a reminder of how many species we have yet to find, and how badly we need to protect them.  Several are already in danger. 

Climate Change: Realism is Important - in both directions

By that I mean there is that ignoring climate change is unrealistic, but stating the extreme worst cases as fact damages the efforts at education and boosts the chance people will ignore the topic, either because the exaggerations cast aspersions on all the scientific claims or because people may say "oh well, we're doomed."  A recent New Yorker article proclaiming we're all going to die sparked a series of scientific points and counterpoints, all nicely summarized in this blog post by Tabitha Powledge. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

A salute to Joe Howlett

A hero for the planet

"He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.


He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all. " 

-Coleridge 



Thursday, July 06, 2017

Amelia Earhart claim: not impressive

The fuss being made online and on the Un-History Channel is over one newly discovered photo.  It shows a woman, her back to the camera, and a man who resembles her navigator Fred Noonan.  While the man looks like Noonan, and short-haired women wearing pants were a bit unusual, we don't even know the date of the photo.  This atoll in the Marshall Islands was unreachable with the fuel Earhart had, and the people in the photo are not under arrest or confinement....  Just not impressed. Too many questions are raised, and none have good answers.

UPDATE: It appears the photo is dated 1935, which confirms it's a mistake to link it to Earhart. .


Impressive new parrot species from Mexico

The blue-winged Amazon parrot, found on the Yucatan peninsula in 2014, reportedly "sounds more like a hawk than a parrot."  It was spotted by a veterinarian who noted both appearance and call were different than those of known parrots. The species was immediately listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN: we don't know how many there are, but it's rare, and its habitat is under constant pressure. Poachers roam the area, too (although the exact spot of the discovery is being concealed.)   But this discovery is still good news: the first step in conservation is to know that a species exists to be conserved.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The missing link in whale evolution

One large whale (the unique sperm whale) has teeth, and all the smaller whales and dolphins do. The rest, the mysticetes, ranging from medium-size to titanic, use baleen to strain out fish or crustaceans. When did the split from the early toothed ancestors occur? Now we know. This whale, 28 million years old, has a sieve made out of teeth, a huge and heretofore undocumented change in the cetacean lifestyle.  To my fellow Christians who think the world is young and the fossil record lacks transitional specimens, I would say you can't ask for a better transitional fossil than this one. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book Review; When Fish Got Feet

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs 
Paperback –  2009
by Hannah Bonner

Amazon data:
  • Age Range: 10 and up 
  • Grade Level: 5 and up
  • Paperback: 48 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books; Reprint edition (September 8, 2009)

This book offers a unique and delightful look at the Silurian and Devonian periods, suitable for school children but including some funny bits and cool facts that will help adults learn or recall the main events of this pivotal time in our planet's history.  It also is the only book I've seen for kids that provides some information on my favorite predator, Dunkleosteus, incidentally playing it conservative and assigning a length of 6m where some books say 8 and a few old ones say 10.  There are short, clear explanations of everything from the creation of soil to the adaptations needed for plants and animals to invade the dry land environment.  Recommended to my by no less than Matt Mossbrucker and Dr. Robert Bakker, this is just a terrific book: order one for your kid's library and another for yourself.  


Friday, June 16, 2017

New mammal from Alaska

New mammal species in North America are very rare - years can go by without finding a new rodent (they pretty much all are rodents these days.)  However, here's something a bit more spectacular - a new flying squirrel. Humboldt's flying squirrel is a bit smaller and darker than the close relative is used to be mistaken for.
Discovery never ends...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Looking Back: Little Living Fossils

              
Everyone is fascinated by the idea of "living fossils," which isn’t a precise scientific term but is a popular way to refer to animals which have survived unchanged while the evolving world passed them by.  I looked at a lot of these in Rumors of Existence, my first book, and they still interest me.
The coelacanth is the most famous: others include the tuatara, a lizardlike New Zealand reptile whose three eyes (the third is degenerate but functional) watched the dinosaurs come and go.
The term "living fossil" is not reserved for vertebrates.  Among the myriad specimens dredged up by the famous Galathea expedition in the early 1950s were ten limpet-like shelled animals.  They came from sea-bottom mud over 3,000, t beneath the surface off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.    What were they?  No one was sure.  The new discoveries had pale yellow shells with an oval shape, about four cm long and one cm  high.  A large foot (colored pink and blue) was surrounded by five pairs of primitive gills.
                While the shell and teeth said "mollusc," the gill regions showed a segmented construction resembling annelid worms.  Was the new animal either of these, or was it something entirely unique?  It most resembled a model that biologist Brooks Knight had created showing what the ancestor of today's molluscs might have looked like.  But that hypothetical animal - no actual fossil had ever been found -  was presumed to have died out 350 million years ago.  Neopilina  galathea filled an important gap in the evolutionary record.  Taxonomically, the little critter was literally placed in a class by itself.  Since then, more Neopilina species have been dredged from the depths.  The scientific detective work of finding more examples and determining their exact place in the parade of evolution goes on.



Neopilina (Harvard)

                The great pioneering undersea vessel, the submersible Alvin (still working today!) pulled in one of its many notable discoveries in 1979.  Near a hydrothermal vent in the eastern Pacific, researchers on the sub collected a strange-looking stalked barnacle, the stalk serving to allow these normally fixed creatures some degree of mobility.  It had never been seen before, even as a fossil, but apparently belonged to a group which flourished before the dawn of the Age of Reptiles.
                The waters off New Zealand produced a similar surprise in 1985.  Clinging to sunken logs a thousand meters below the surface was a round animal barely over a centimeter wide.  Named the sea daisy, it appeared to be a distant relative of the starfish, even though only vestiges of the classic five-pointed starfish design were apparent.  That was enough to put it into same phylum, the echinoderms, but it proved very difficult to classify this diminutive invertebrate more precisely. The sea daisy is spiny on top, and its underside is covered by a flat membrane that biologist Michael Bright compares to plastic wrap stretched over an upside-down saucer.  The sea daisy, too, was assigned its own class (now the infraclass Concenticloidea, in which it inhabits the order Peripodida. Two other speies have been added).  When it was discovered there was just nothing like it, except for fossils predating the dinosaurs.  
                Fossils from the same period included the graptolites, tiny colonial creatures who built homes of collagen secretions layered in strips like mummy bandages.  At one end of each 2.5cm-long long communal house, a peculiar sharp spike rose like a TV antenna.  Graptolites were presumed to be related to modern homebuilders called pterobranches, but pterobranch dwellings lacked the characteristic spike.
                After an apparent absence of 300 million years, graptolites resurfaced.  In 1992, French researchers sent a sampling of seafloor specimens to Dr. Noel Dilly, a London ophthalmologist whose "hobby" of studying pterobranches grew on him until he became one of the leading experts on the animals.  Dilly's first reaction was, "Not another boring collection to hack through."  His second was, "I don't believe this."  He was looking at characteristic graptolite dwellings, spikes and all.
                The graptolite is a reminder that not all animals evolve: some just find a comfortable ecological niche and settle down for a long stay.
                There an awful lot of little creatures like this to be found.  In the mid-1980s, Frederick Grassle of Rutgers University led an effort to collect over two hundred core samples of the Atlantic seafloor.  When all the sediment had been sifted, the somewhat flabbergasted scientists found they had collected 460 new invertebrates. 
                 The littlest animals offer many surprises, and no one thinks the surprises are over.

SOME FUN READING
Batten, Roger L.  1984.  "Neopilina, Neomphalus and Neritopsis: Living Fossil Molluscs," in Eldredge, Niles, and Steven M. Stanley (eds). Living Fossils.  New York: Springer Verlag.
Bright, Michael.  1987.  The Living World.  New York: St. Martin's Press.
Cromie, William J.  1966.  The Living World of the Sea. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Huyghe, Patrick.  1993.  "New Species Fever," Audubon, March-April.
Kaharl, Victoria A.  1990. Water Baby: the Story of Alvin.  New York: Oxford University Press.
Soule, Gardner (ed.)  1968. Under the Sea. New York: Meredith Press.
Svitil, Kathy.  1993.  "It's Alive, and It's a Graptolite," Discover, July.
Taylor, Mike.  1993.  "Home and Away," BBC Wildlife, March.

Wilson, Edward O.  1992. The Diversity of Life.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Friday, June 02, 2017

We can't ignore climate change - or our role

The President, as Presidents can do, withdrew from an executive agreement signed by his predecessor.  OK, that's legal. It does not make it wise.
In the Industrial Age, we have poured 600 billion tons of carbon products and compounds into the atmosphere.  Now, the atmosphere weighs about 5.5 quadrillion tons, so it's not like we've replaced the whole shebang, but chemical reactions are tricky things.  Just as you cannot ignore 25 µg of LSD in your 80kg body (it will probably kill you), you can't ignore 400 ppm of carbon compounds.  We haven't had that much in hundreds of years, and climate scientists are almost universal in their agreement this is enough to be really, really scary.  It's not that 400 is a magic number that tips us into a pit of no return.  But as one JPL expert. Dr. Michael Gunson, puts it, "Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels. These were the targets for 'stabilization' suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone." As another NASA expert, Dr. David Crisp, says,  (400ppm) "brings home the fact that fossil fuel combustion, land use practices, and human activities have increased the CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere by more the 20 percent since I was born."
It's not a conspiracy.  There has never, in human history, been a situation where 95 percent (or so) of scientists in a given field were all in on a conspiracy.  A large majority of scientists can be wrong (see: continental drift), and the self-correction mechanisms of science work a lot slower and clunkier than we would like, but we're talking about decades of near-consensus despite bringing online more and more accurate tools and measurements without budging the needle one bit on the "consensus-o-meter." We're talking about research that's gone on long enough that a new generation of climate scientists has come in since the early alarms were sounded, eager to find new things, and what they found was the same thing - only worse.
We have to act.  Yes, some of the hand-waving about the magic of renewables is wishful thinking: we cannot change the global economy easily or painlessly.  Any time you see a headline like "Germany Ran On 100 percent Renewables Today" it's always a result of cherry-picked data. The task ahead of us is orders of magnitude harder than putting up more windmills.  But we still have to address it.  

One GOP Congressman said God will fix it. Le'ts talk about God for a minute. I believe in God, although I don't read the Old Testament literally.   God did do something: he gave us the brains to solve our problems if we muster the will.  
Let's take Exodus. Whether you think the flight through the Red Sea is literally true or is a story written to emphasize God's love for His people, the lesson is that same.  If Moses was going to get everyone across that sea before it closed in on the Egyptians, he had the sense to hurry, to leave behind possessions, to help the old and slow keep up, and otherwise to get organized really fast under pressure and execute the plan he needed to execute. If God wields the power He displays in parting the sea, it must also be true that He could have reached down, made the escape route permanent, and crushed the Egyptian army so Moses could take his time. But God doesn't do that: He creates just enough of an opportunity that Moses and company could take advantage of it if they did all they could for themselves.  They did, and we can do no less. A common Christian precept is "God has no hands but ours." We are entrusted with the stewardship over the planet and our fellow creatures, and no one is going to save them if we don't. 

The President is not entirely wrong when he says the U.S. is called on to do more sacrificing than most nations. We are. But that's because we have the means.  Just as the U.S. needed to take a leading role against the Axis in WWII, because we had the industrial might to do more than the outnumbered British or the conquered French, we have to take a leading role against this enemy.  In some ways, it's not fair.  But the facts on the ground don't change.  Those who can do the most have to do the most.  The President doesn't like the idea of the U.S. surrendering some sovereignty, but we are really not: as the accords are not binding, we can choose how much to contribute or how much to change. The other nations can't force us to, say, contribute $200 billion over the next whatever vs. $100 bliion (or $300 billion).   We can and msut take a leadership role, but we decide the details of that role.

Let's forge on. 


Scary graph from NASA

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Microsatellites: Tom and Jerry

To image distant stars and planets with increasingly greater precision, you need a baseline array of two or more satellites looking from slightly different angles (a massive oversimplification, but stay with me here, I admit to not being a space engineer).  The point is that it's very difficult to get satellites into the right formation and hold it without impractical quantities of fuel.  A US/South Korean project is testing it with two CubeSats, one 2u (two unit, 20cm x 10cm x 10 cm), and a 1U (10x10x10 cm) for less than $1M.  Aviation Weeks's overview (may require free registration)  is here, and the launch provider (India) posts its manifest here. NASA's article is here. It's amazing stuff for a tiny spacecraft costing less than a lot of U.S. houses!

image NASA



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Whales Got Very Big, Very Fast

Fast in evolutionary terms, anyway. Today's filter-feeding giants appear only 2-3 million years ago in the fossil record.  Why? According to these scientists, it was pretty simple: unlimited food.  With predators, mainly orcas, getting 8-9 m long and hunting in packs, size provided protection, but getting big is a defense that can only work if there is no shortage of food. As the lush plants of the Mesozoic let plant-eating dinosaurs grow to 30m and more in length, having a "license to krill" (I love that pun, although I did not invent it), let blue whales push the 100 metric ton mark.  

Blue Whale (image NOAA)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fun fiction: Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child

FULL WOLF MOON
Lincoln Child
Doubleday, 256pp


  This outing for "enigmaologist" Logan offers a lot of fun for his growing number of fans. While it has slow spots and not every twist is a surprise, readers will learn more about Logan in the course of his effort to relax and write a monograph on history at a retreat that is a little too close to some strange, savage murders. Investigating at the behest of a new and interesting character, a philosopher-forest ranger he knew at college, Logan finds a hidden laboratory run by a mad scientist (as in, not so much crazy as literally MAD at everyone) and a local belief in lycanthropy. This sounds cliched, but the Logan novels are out to put a new spin on classic horror tales, and Child keeps it fresh. The atmosphere is wonderfully real and creepy. There is some interesting real science, some way-out invented science, a little bit of the paranormal, and some nods to the old Hammer Films universe as Logan risks his life to figure out who or what is haunting the remote Appalachian forest. As a science writer and a novelist, I appreciate the way Child can meld the real (gene therapy), the speculative (what if full moon effects are not mythical after all, we've just not studied them right?), and the horrific.  



Friday, May 12, 2017

A mind-blowing dinosaur fossil

Fossil news seems to come in too fast to keep track of these days, but this chance discovery pretty much froze paleontologists in their trackways.
One of the best fossils ever
A Canadian fossil of a nodosaur (think the iconic Ankylosaurus with no club tail but some big shoulder spikes) was buried in a shallow sea in fine sediments under conditions that offered extraordinary preservation. Scientists can see where the horn spike ended and the keratin sheath began and extended from it. They can count the scales on its body.  "It looks like a sculpture" seems to be a common comment. Five years of painstaking work, totaling some 7,000 man-hours (not unheard-of in paleontology!)  were needed to free up, clean, and reassemble the front half of the animal. That's all we have, but scientists are happy to take it. The skin is there. Even traces of its coloration remain. It's a marvel. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: Hunting Monsters by Dr. Darren Naish

Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths 

by Darren Naish

(paperback edition, 2017, Sirius)


As a cryptozoological reader of some 40 years and writer of 20+, and a correspondent of Dr. Naish, I looked forward to this book, and I'm hardly disappointed. Naish offers a very good skeptical analysis of the whole cryptozoology business, even if I think it could have been a little better. 
One point a reader will notice early on is that there is so much ground to cover that the author can only touch on many points in passing. Skipping over the Great New England Sea Serpent, a touchstone of the sea monster topic, is an example. 
Naish starts with whether cryptozoology is, or can be, scientific, and agrees it can be but isn't often. He begins and ends with the point cryptozoology exists in a cultural milieu and is influenced by folklore, tradition, etc. as well as modern innovations like the Internet. This isn't entirely original and he credits influences including Dr. Charles Paxton, whose work I greatly admire, and folklorist Michel Meurger, who I've always thought overreached the subject.
Naish is not closed-minded about this. He has himself put forward new species concepts over the years to explain cryptozoological sightings, including a cryptid seal and a giant orangutan, but in his blog Tetrapod Zoology and elsewhere he's uncovered or been offered new information and has generally come to conclude the "star" animals are not physically there. This book explains his reasoning well.
When he offers an explanation, I'm not always entirely convinced: the "finning" seal (a seal waving one flipper in the air for cooling) for the Valhalla sighting, for example, is clever, but I can't look at the first-hand original drawing and get a seal out of it. (As you can tell, I enjoy sea serpent lore more than the rest of the subject these days.) The opposite is true of the HMS Daedalus sighting, which I think we can put to rest.
The subject is vast and Naish can't help that, so the bibliography is essential: it's pretty good but could have been more extensive.




Lest anyone think I'm damning with faint praise, this is an excellent and important book. If it doesn't hunt down every major cryptid, it will make the veteran cryptozoology reader think hard and will give the new reader an excellent starting point grounded in good science.



Saturday, May 06, 2017

A golden sturgeon?

The white sturgeon of the Fraser River is an impressive creature, known to reach over 3 meters and approach 400kg,and claimed to reach 6 meters.  It comes in definite or reported shades of green, brown, or black (never white - go figure).  But a gold sturgeon? It exists, and this video proves it. Fortunately, the two fishermen who caught it did the right thing and released it to continue to grow and, perhaps, enchant people in the future.  

Sometimes it's ok to just look at nature and say, "wow." 




"Normal" white sturgeon (Wikimedia Commons - photo by Joseph Tomerelli)

Don't forget the role of the giant sturgeon in myth and legend, captured by Longfellow in this case of an improbably big and improbably colorful sturgeon (purple fins?)

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
  Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
 
  On the white sand of the bottom
Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,
Lay the sturgeon, King of Fishes;
Through his gills he breathed the water,
With his fins he fanned and winnowed,
With his tail he swept the sand-floor.
  There he lay in all his armor;
On each side a shield to guard him,
Plates of bone upon his forehead,
Down his sides and back and shoulders
Plates of bone with spines projecting!
Painted was he with his war-paints,
Stripes of yellow, red, and azure,
Spots of brown and spots of sable;
And he lay there on the bottom,
Fanning with his fins of purple,
As above him Hiawatha
In his birch canoe came sailing,
With his fishing-line of cedar.
  "Take my bait," cried Hiawatha,
Down into the depths beneath him,
"Take my bait, O Sturgeon, Nahma!
Come up from below the water,
Let us see which is the stronger!"

  From the white sand of the bottom
Up he rose with angry gesture,
Quivering in each nerve and fibre,
Clashing all his plates of armor,
Gleaming bright with all his war-paint;
In his wrath he darted upward,
Flashing leaped into the sunshine,
Opened his great jaws, and swallowed
Both canoe and Hiawatha.