Friday, September 21, 2018

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

by Jason M. Colby, Oxford University Press, 2018

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

What happens at International Whaling Commission meetings?

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

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Bringing Columbia Home

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

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

Snailfish creep (swim) into view

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Debunking Conspiracy Claims

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

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

Monday, September 03, 2018

"They conceal information like that in books."

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

Friday, August 31, 2018

A dove back from the dead

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

Sunday, August 26, 2018

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

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

Humpback whale (NOAA) 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Tree Kangaroo rediscovered by tourist

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

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Meg movie: Soggy science, decent fun

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

From the Conference on Small Satellites

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Cetacean hybrid a bit mixed up

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

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

A few of the sources I used:

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

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Coming up on the Conference on Small Satellites

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

A cool mini-doc on the placoderms

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

My article on Dunkleosteus is out

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

(Get your very own at

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sleek little shark species named for pioneer Eugenie Clark

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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

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

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

More smallsats for big science jobs

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

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

See you at the Conference on Small Satellites!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Book Review: Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved

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

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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Birding in the South Pacific

The South Island of New Zealand, has long been home to a beautiful black and white cormorant with the cool name of Otago shag (Leucocarbo chalconotus).  Birders and scientists wondered for a long time whether a mistake had been made in the 1800s when classifying the birds as one species: there were differences in plumage, skeleton, and more.  In 2016, the record was straightened out by naming  the Foveaux shag (Leucocarbo stewarti).  
By some estimates, about two-thirds of new vertebrates come from museum drawers or reclassifications, rather than being newly identified in the field. That doesn't mean we are not still spotting new ones all over the place - just less often, in fewer places, than in the last century.  The Australian snubfin dolphin and Omura's whale are recent reclassifications of large to VERY large animals, and orcas of course continue to drive cetologists to distraction: there may be ten valid "ecotypes," which may or may no be species or incipient species.
Speaking of new birds and wonderful names, the birds of paradise have captivated humans since earliest times (which included some later times when ladies wore them for hats, not a good deal at all for the birds).  Anyway, over in New Guinea in 2018, a new species was identified by, among other things, having a different courtship dance than the bird it had been lumped in with.  From the west end of the island, in an area known as the Vogelkop ("Birds Head") region, the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise has been named.  The original species, the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, also got an upgrade to make the names more distinct, to the Greater Superb Bird-of-Paradise. Those are pretty fancy labels to live up to. I hope the birds are polishing their dance steps.
Link above is on this bird is to Science Daily: The original journal article is 
Edwin Scholes, Timothy G. Laman. Distinctive courtship phenotype of the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise Lophorina niedda Mayr, 1930 confirms new species statusPeerJ, 2018; 6: e4621 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4621 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Why ARE whales that big?

This fascinating bit from Dr. Nick Pyenson in the New York Times explores why whales, which have an earliest-known ancestor not much bigger than my dog (although probably less neurotic) became the giants they did.  We're generally conditioned to think of giants as things of the past (e.g., dinosaurs), but whales are the biggest they've ever been.  Dr. Pyenson believes whales exploded in size (cue joke about that exploding sperm whale in Taiwan) when the first Ice Ages changed the way their favorite prey was distributed, concentrating it in warming waters and essentially giving them such a buffet that limited food was never a factor. (See the study he and co-authors did on that here.)
So could they get bigger? He thinks not, citing studies indicating that the biggest blue whales are about as big as they can get and function physiologically. I think of airplanes as an analogue: you can design a 1,000-ton airplane, but the limits of materials, potential maximum engine efficiency, and so on mean you couldn't build a workable example. 
Pyenson also notes whalers cropped the biggest giants for a long time, and modern species might be a BIT smaller than they might have been.  While some big whales are doing ok, some are not (big animals are more likely to get hit by ships, caught in fishing gear, etc.)  and smaller cetaceans are still in serious trouble: one example, the little porpoise called the vaquita, is facing extremely steep odds of survival after a captive breeding venture failed and  the population has  been estimated as low as 12. We can still save most species, if we choose to.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Smallsat Conference is coming

A highlight of the year for me (when I get there: I can't always make it) is the Conference on Small Satellites, held in August at Utah State University in Logan, UT.  For over 25 years, this meeting has gathered the experts in smallsats, microsats, and nanosats from around the world.  
Microsats (to lump everything under one name) were tiny scientific or amateur satellites until the 1980s and early 90s, when advancing technology and funding from DARPA sparked the first wave of new applications. The MacSat-2 that delivered logistics orders to and from a Marine force in Operation Desert Storm was an example.  Today, there are applications for licensing for constellations totaling (this is not a misprint) 18,000 satellites.  High schools around the world have build CubeSats, those endlessly useful 10cm-cubes.  Continuing technical advances are behind this (ask any engineer in the 1990s if it was possible to get 3m imagery from a 5kg satellite: they would have laughed at you) and don' show any signs of hitting a wall.    
So I'll be there this year, talking about the use of microsats as a possible solution for improving the tracking of whales.  It will, I'm sure, be a lot of fun. It always is.  

Army SMDC communications microsat (5 kg) 

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Zanzibar leopard: Extinct or (maybe) alive?

The new TV show "Extinct or Alive" has apparently bagged its first big finding: that the Zanzibar leopard, presumed extinct, is still around. Here's a story with video clip.  Host Forrest Galante thinks the small island leopard is what was filmed - a leopard imported from the African mainland would be bigger. 
That puts "Extinct or Alive," in its first season, way ahead of "Finding Bigfoot' which taped 100 episodes without finding - well, anything. Every finding of a presumed-extinct species is a little bit of hope when we are living through Earth's sixth mass extinction.  (Elizabeth Kolbert's superb book on the big picture of this ongoing catastrophe is here.)  

Friday, June 08, 2018

What's on Mars? not life - yet

We have not discovered life on Mars. But we've discovered a tantalizing mystery - or mysteries - that need solutions. 
First, NASA has confirmed that Mars does have a methane cycle. On Earth, that's connected to the existence of of quintillions (or whatever) of living organisms, from microbes to roses to whales, doing their things as they respire, pass gas (yes, that definitely matters if you have enough life forms, which we do), dump waste, and die. The Martian cycle is far less robust, only a whisper of Earth's you might say. There are non-living processes that could be involved, but the LACK of a cycle would most likely mean there is no present life analogous to Earth-type life.  
Second, Curiosity, the not-so-little rover that could (we tend to think of it as desk-size, but it is in fact the size of a small car and weighs 900kg), has drilled into the surface and uncovered complex organic molecules.  Again, these are not by themselves proof of life, nor are they unquestionably endemic to Mars (they could be deposit from a meteorite or comet strike), but they are what we would find if microbial Martians had been - or still were - buzzing about under the surface. The source rocks, in the Gale Crater, are believes to be about 3 billion years old. 
There were preliminary discoveries on both these topics made in 2014, but this, to scientists, is much stronger evidence, derived from different locations, and basically the exobiologists are partying hard.  To them, the $2.5 billion dollars spent on this mission has been justified a dozen times over. 
Fingers crossed.
Below: NASA images: Curiosity: Methane cycle with possible inorganic and organic sources.  

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Denver ComiCon looks great this year

Yes, it's time for Denver ComiCon, 15-17 June at the Denver Convention Center.  

I will be on two great panels 

Letters Written from Hell - The Horror Writing Process — Friday 1:30pm - in Room 405 (DeAnna Knippling (MOD), Emily Godhand, Matt Bille, Shannon Lawrence)
Creating Believable Monsters — Saturday 12:30pm - in Room 405 (Veronica R. Calisto, DeAnna Knippling, Sue Mitchell, Emily Godhand, Matt Bille (MOD), Shannon Lawrence)

NASA and other have science/education panels, with scientists and SF writers interacting in some.  DCC is very education oriented, and there are educational programs and an award for Educator of the Year, 

See you there!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Steve Brusatte
William Morrow, New York, 2018. 404pp.

In Rise and Fall, the latest in dinosaur science is presented in a highly readable science book doubling as a rip-roaring adventure tale. The story of dinosaurs, not just as fossils but as real animals, is masterfully presented here by paleontologist Steve Brusatte.  I've been reading dinosaur books for 50 years (they were, literally, the first books I ever read), and this volume belongs on the desk of every dino-lover.

The first thing Brusatte does, superbly, is to put the dinosaurs into context. From the end-Permian extinction through the first phase of the Triassic period, the dinosaur-to-be lineage was one of several vying for dominance, and not as the favorites. Dinosaurs ascended through adaptability and luck, radiating into niches all over Pangea. They left the sea and, initially, the sky to reptilian cousins, but their dominance of the land became absolute. As the world transformed several times over the next 150 million years, the dinos changed with it. They developed thousands of species (a new one is described, on average, every week, one of many things I didn't know before reading this book), culminating in the monstrous predators like T. rex and the stupendous sauropods of South America that grew longer than blue whales. In modern-day China and elsewhere, they also produced relatively tiny forms that adapted to flight and endured as birds.  Brusatte interweaves his science with dramatic tales of the great adventures and colorful lives that unfolded as people sought out new fossils and argued over what they meant. We also meet today's leading dinosaur palentologists in quick, incisive sketches that explore the frontiers of dino-science.
T. rex is the only dinosaur that gets its own chapter (and why should it not)? Brusatte weighs in on the controversies over whether T. rex had feathers and whether it hunted in packs, arguing for "yes" and "yes." (Also, did you know young rexes grew at the rate of 5 pounds per day? Neither did I.)
At the end, he takes us on a harrowing journey with the last dinosaurs as they watch death bloom from the sky.  Brusatte mentions other theories about dinosaur extinction but is adamant the global disappearance of fossils in the same era, geologically speaking at the same moment, is decisive.
The author reminds us repeatedly that dinosaurs are not merely skeletons or film stars (taking several shots at Jurassic Park along the way: indeed, he's a little too harsh, given the modern dinosaur-science revolution was far from mature). They were dynamic, evolving, living, breathing animals that ruled the Earth for a thousand times as long as modern humans have been dominant. The science will continue to evolve, but it's hard to imagine a better treatment of dinosaurs in a mere 350 pages of text is on the horizon. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Alan Bean and Sally Ride

Today we say farewell to Alan Bean, aviator, moonwalker, and artist, dead at 86.  The date also reminds us of the loss of his fellow explorer, Sally Ride, who would have been 67 years old today. 

Bean, uniquely among the moonwalkers, was an artist in his space time. After retiring from NASA, he took up painting full-time.  John Glenn said, "He saw the same monochromatic world everyone else did. But he, with his artist's eye, was able to see the intrinsic beauty." I won't post any images of his paintings here, due to copyright, but they are amazing, many with the marks of the rock hammer and a mold of a boot he wore on the moon.
See them on his website here
His NASA biography is here.
Sally needs no introduction: the first American woman in space, and the first woman ever whose flight was earned and not a propaganda stunt (with all due respect to the courage of the two Soviets who preceded her, they were sent up to upstage rival America.)  Post-NASA, she dedicated herself to science education and died of cancer in 2012.
Her official NASA biography is here.

With apologies to Willie Nelson:

My heroes have always been astros
And they still are, it seems
Forever in search of
And one step ahead of
The world and its best hopes and dreams.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The monster waves are out there

A century or so ago, scientists were skeptical about sailors' tales of truly enormous waves. They're not skeptical today: there are debates about just how high waves can get, but no doubt that monsters can lurk in the oceans.  

An instrumented buoy just recorded a wave almost 24 meters (78 feet) high in the Southern Ocean some 700 km south of New Zealand. This was the largest wave ever definitively measured in the  Southern Hemisphere.  As with most such waves, it was formed in a storm, where the complex mathematics of wave science show the occasional monster arises when the force of several waves combines into one.  The sailors' saying that every seventh wave is a giant hasn't been borne out by science, but there's a titanic amount of energy in play.  By the way, the popular term "rogue wave" doesn't have a precise definition: according to NOAA a rogue wave is any wave that's  "large, unexpected, and dangerous." 

Swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw once wrote that "What's the biggest wave you've ever seen?" is a dumb question because captains are a little busy during big-wave conditions: they just divide sea states into "'This sucks" and "This really sucks." Nevertheless, the biggest wave on record was measured with surprising calmness and precision.  This king of waves was spotted in 1933, when officers on the bridge of the oiler USS Ramapo triangulated a wave at 112 feet (34.1m) from trough to crest during a severe Pacific storm. This wasn’t a wild guess: as laid out carefully in the captain’s account, it involved a bridge officer sighting a horizon-filling wave dead astern and lining its top up with a boom on the mainmast. It sounds clinical, but it must have been terrifying even to a 477-foot ship. (Given the conditions, the measurement was still not "exactly exact," and the wave may have been a few feet shorter - or taller.)

A 90-foot-ish wave was photographed crashing over the deck of the supertanker Esso Languedoc in 1980. The wave that hit the RMS Queen Elizabeth II during a hurricane in the Atlantic in 1995 was estimated at 95 feet (29m). In 2000, the British research ship RRS Discovery measured a wave of the same height in the Atlantic west of Scotland. A few years later, the RMS Queen Mary took a hit from a rogue wave estimated at 92 feet high. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan fostered a wave in the Gulf of Mexico that, according to pressure sensors deployed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, was in the 90-foot range. 

Many huge waves are seen but unmeasured: famed explorer Ernest Shackelton, in a small vessel in the Southern Ocean in 1916, saw a wave so large  "I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, 'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.'" They survived, barely.

Waves that strike a seaside cliff or lighthouse will wash much higher than the wave's actual height, making the wave size a guess, but it must have been an extraordinary wave  that hit the Eagle Island lighthouse off Ireland in 1861. According to contemporary claims, the wave smashed windows 66m (220ft) above the normal sea level, 40m of which was a cliff and the rest the lighthouse itself. A wave hitting the Fastnet Lighthouse in the same region in 1985 splashed 47m (154ft) above sea level. 

Waves not born of storms can become huge, too, mainly in certain areas of the world where bottom topography, shorelines, and/or reefs can concentrate incoming water. One such place is Nazaré in Portugal, where last November a Brazilian surfer named Rodrigo Koxa rode a 24.4 meter (80-foot) wave. There are requirements for photography and documentation for official records, and Koxa's wave is the largest ever confirmed as such a record even though there are online videos claiming to be of larger conquests.  Surfing legend Laird Hamilton rode a wave at Cortes Bank in the Pacific he told author Susan Casey (see her book, The Wave) looked to be not only past the 100-foot mark but closer to 120 (36.5m), but there were few witnesses and no photographs. 

Fortunately for mariners, the 200-foot (over 60 m!) waves described in the Preston-Childs thriller The Ice Limit don't exist, despite those authors' normally praiseworthy efforts to put in correct scientific detail.  It's hard to imagine they could, given the sheer mass of water that would have to pile up and the force or gravity tearing it down.  But we used to think 112-footers didn't exist, either. 

(The Ramapo account is from Lt Cmdr R.P. Whitemarsh, Proceedings, August 1934. Reprinted in Gardner Soule, Under the Sea, Meredith Press, NY 1968)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Kangaroo rat un-extinct

When scientists suspect an animal has gone extinct, they desperately hope they are wrong.  Sometimes, happily, they are wrong. No one had seen the ridiculously adorable San Quintin kangaroo rat (Dipodomys gravipes) of Baja California since 1994.  About 12cm long, it was a once-populous species ground down by habitat destruction and other factors until there wasn't anything left of it. 
Now we know they are still there, thanks to four specimens trapped in 2017.    It's good to have the little critter hopping around in the desert again. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Thanks to the PPWC Staff and Guests

The Pikes Peak Writers Conference is in the books, as they say, and I'm prepaid for next year (as always).  We had a great time with new friends, old friends, and guest faculty. The speakers were all excellent. As for personal high points, well, three publishers asked to see the manuscript of my current novel, Apex Predator, and two agents are looking at queries.  Not bad.  Onwards!


Thoughts on Lake Iliamna

Lake Iliamna, Alaska, is the size of Rhode Island and at least 250 meters deep.  It has the largest salmon run in the world, is still so isolated no roads lead to it, and has seven times the volume of Loch Ness.  It would be surprising if such a lake did not have "monster" stories surrounding it, originally told by the Alaska Natives (Tlingit, Dena'ina, Yup'ik, and others) who have lived there for centuries beyond count.  What's interesting is that its legend is unique. Iliamna (despite one fakey YouTube "monster" video) is not claimed to have the plesiosaur-like monsters of other lakes, but a colossal fish.   It's probable this legend (well fortified by modern sightings) concerns an undocumented population of white sturgeon, but it's impossible for us romantic natural history types to avoid speculating on what else it might be.

For details, see this article by yours truly. 

Images of Lake Iliamna taken by University of Washington scientists 

The white sturgeon (a baby: they approach 4 meters long and maybe even 5). US FWS photo

Lake Iliamna monsters? (low-res version of image provided by artist Bill Rebsamen for my book Shadows of Existence)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Kicking off the Pikes Peak Writers Conference

OK, Jim Butcher had to cancel, but a great cast of editors, agents and speakers are here. I'll put away my Harry Dresden duster and staff until Denver ComiCon. If you're in Colorado Springs, PPWC is THE annual event!
2017 with agent Donald Maas (dressed as the "story hook').

Friday, April 20, 2018

Dropping in on the Space Symposium

The Space Symposium (formerly the National Space Symposium) comes to Colorado Springs every April. The gathering, arranged by the nonprofit Space Foundation, has become enormous, filling all available space (hah-hah) at the extensive (and expensive) Broadmoor hotel/resort/convention  facility on the city's southwest corner. The 34th Symposium brought VP Mike Pence, who talked about the Administration's commitment to human spaceflight and to a bigger role for commercial firms. It brought in space leaders, public and private, from all over the world, and a galaxy of generals, who talked in frank (VERY frank) terms about their views on the perceived need to prepare to defend space assets and access in a realm that was no longer a sanctuary.  
I wasn't there the first day, but on the second and fourth days (when I visited the Exhibit Hall a lot: attendance to the main sessions is pricey) I saw zero protesters, which was odd. The  groups nervous about increased military presence in space group (whose concerns I understand but whose targeted train may have left the station already) is a fixture. There's usually a dedicated handful of die-hards sticking it out the whole way through, sometimes with a guitar-bearer doing 1960s and 1970s protest songs. (Side note: My dad, who is in his 80s but has never stopped singing Pete Seeger-style music in Seattle, feels no one has written a really good protest song since the 70s.)  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who will FINALLY be replaced with President Trump's choice after a one-vote Senate confirmation, was there of course.
The person most prominently NOT there was SpaceX's Elon Musk.  Indeed, SpaceX had no exhibit space, no meeting rooms, nothing.  That is, in a sense, the kind of prominence SpaceX has achieved: if you want to talk, you go to them.  We can't all be Tony Stark and run into him in a restaurant. I wonder if Musk feels he can't really be productive at these things because his celebrity status warps the time and space around him to create his own gravity field, the way Stan Lee (alas, it seems, no more traveling) did at a ComiCon.  
The exhibit space was stuffed with everyone else, though, from giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to startups, some of them just making a better cable or release bolt and some with eye-opening stories, like small-booster makers Rocket Lab and Firefly and Earth-i's newest video observation microsatellites.  
It was an eventful, event-filled symposium, and next year is already being organized. See y'all then. 

Photographic high points

The Naval Research Laboratory showed off their Poppy electronic intelligence microsatellite from the early 1960s. This was a classified program for decades, and this is the first time I've ever seen one. 

Gil Moore, still going strong at 90, was on the Viking booster and Vanguard satellite programs in the 1950s and continues his work on the student built Project Starshine.
The Vanguard satellite, launched in 1958 (the original remains in orbit). Its contribution to the larger Poppy satellite above is obvious.