Monday, November 11, 2019

Mammal feared extinct shows up in Vietnam

The silver-backed chevrotain is an unusual mammal.  Picture a rabbit-sized deer, but make the body a little chubby and the legs a bit shorter. Now you've got it. (I haven't found a photo that's clearly in the publicdomain yet, but the link will take you there.) This animal, aka the Vietnamese  mouse deer, has been "missing" from a scientific point of view for three decades. With no confirmed sightings or specimens in that period, zoologists feared it was extinct. Fortunately, new photographs and videos from southern Vietnam, the product of a long and arduous search, hav confirmed it's still around.  The chevrotain was one of the most sought-after of missing species: it's one of 5 rediscovered so far out of the Top 25 speices sought on a list created by Global Wildlife Conservation. So welcome back! 
Hat tip to Erika Maurer for calling this one to my attention. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows

I've mentioned this Nat Geo documentary before (see trailer here), but this is the first time I've watched it. 

This is not another documentary about nature. It's about war. 
The plight of the vaquita porpoise is one of the saddest stories of what happens when nature  encounters the worst in human nature.  The basic thread here is that totoaba fish poaching in the Sea of Cortez is out of control, and the handful of vaquitas remaining (maybe fifteen IF we're lucky, down from a few hundred a decade ago)  are being caught and killed in the fishing nets. The tragedy is that this carnage is comepletely avoidable, because it doesn't have anything to do with catching fish to feed people. It has to do with a trade in totoaba bladders for "traditional medicine" for the Chinese market. 

You expect to see confrontations in any documentary of a poaching situation, but you don't expect to see comabt. The bladder trade is so lucrative it has created its own criminal enterprise and is being pursued by existing drug cartels as well. The money involved is big enough to corrupt many of the officials involved. Fishermen - some criminal, some in debt to the cartels, and some simply trying to survive - are in the middle. A couple of the most startling scenes here are fishermen actually firing at intercepting naval vessels and a mob of local citizens, dependent on the income the bladders bring, besieging a military base until three fishermen arrested for poaching are released - which they are. The Chinese government pays lip service to shutting off the demand, but it seems to only get worse. The totoaba as a species are not doing well, either. The demand may drive two species extinct. 
Conservationists just trying to help the porpoises deal with imminent dangers, including being shot at, while trying to help stop the poaching.  People from Sea Shepherd and other groups remove illegal nets, tons of them, but new nets appear. We see the capture and death of a vaquita, which dooms a desperate effort to keep them alive by creating a captive population.
At the end, we see a bit of hope - an oh-so-rare filming of surviving vaquitas - and declarations of determination by Mexican officials.  Conservationists, too, are fighting to the bitter end, which might still be staved off. It will be a very near thing. The closing text tells us that DNA studies indicate the vaquita could be reestablished even though there are so few.  (There is precedent here: the European bison or wisent was bred back into health from six animals, although there was close management of the breeding.) 
If you want to know more, Brooke Bessenen's book Vaquita is a must-read: the book is here and my review is here

Friday, November 08, 2019

Sea Serpents: the Cryptid that Wouldn't Die

OK, that's an odd headline, but it just appeared in my brain.  I geuss it works for two reasons. One is that "sea serpents," whatever one imagines them to be, have always been reported and I think always will, at least once in a while,  The other is that I still want there to be something to the legend.  It doesn;t have to be a huge long-necked mammal or a plesiosuar: I'll settle for an oversized eel or elongate shark.   
There are a few touchstone cases from the classic sea serpent tales.  There's the Daedalus sighting in 1848,which might have been a whale (might).  There's the 1907 sighting by naturalists Nicoll and Meade-Waldo,which is the gold standard (and still not really explained.) And there's the 1817 Gloucester serpent, which was reported so many times that even the skeptical Richard Ellis, an excellent analyst of such things,  mused thatit's hard to believe nothign unusual was happening.  
Now, to where I was going with all this.  Dr. Darren Naish, whose Tetrapod Zoology blog is a must-read on matters cryptozoologica, reviews here a book by Robert France that I would review myself if I could afford the damn thing ($77). Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent  suggests the "serpent," cannot be disentangled (my words) from the time, place, and culture of the sightings. Those factors contributed to a run of events when people mistook large marine mammals and debris for large  unknown animals. He thinks it's most likely that net-entangled or line-entangled creature giving rise to monster sightings were most often tuna vs mammals, given high speed, quick-turning ability, etc. Naish is impressed, even though he cautions we still don't KNOW.  I hope to read the book at some pont and be impressed as well. Thanks, Darren!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Pink Boots and a Sasquatch: Dr. Mayor searches for Bigfoot

Dr. Mireya Mayor is a prominent primatologist, a very accomplished explorer, and a filmmaker/TV host/science communicator who knows how to get viewers to watch and listen. Her book Pink Boots and a Machete is an amusing, sometimes harrowing story about her explorations. So I was intrigued and a bit puzzled when Travel Channel announced she would be headlining Expedition: Bigfoot.


EB is the latest in a number of TV shows about looking for Bigfoot (none of them having found a damn thing worth paying attention to.)  The announcement says her team is "using an advanced data algorithm and groundbreaking science and tools to analyze five decades of Bigfoot sightings and to pinpoint when and where to encounter this elusive beast." A host, a survival expert, and two longtim Bigfoot hunters round out the cast.  
I asked Dr. Mayor via FaceBook what she thought the chances were of finding an unknown ape, mentioning I'd kept up on the subject for 40+ years and given up in the face of negative evidence: no bones, no DNA, no known possible ancestor species in North America.  She replied that we were still finding unknown species and, with thousands of witnesses reporting Bigfoot sightings, only one needed to be right.  
I grant her point, and I wish her and her team the luck that has eluded everyone to date.  I strongly doubt Bigfoot exists, but I very much want it to. The idea that our exploration and exploitation of the planet has missed something so spectacular is a seductive one.  
Mayor has a credential no one else who's looked for Bigfoot has: she has, in fact, discovered a new primate. Granted, it was a "mouse lemur" that weighs in at maybe 55 grams, but Microcebus mittermeieri, or Mittermeier’s Mouse Lemur,.was important, being one of three species discovered by the team she was on. These led to a revision of the mouse lemurs and more understanding of their only habitat, the fast-disappearing forests of MadagascarI wrote about Mayor's find in my book Shadows of Existence in 2006.  
So if I believed there was something to find and had the means to fund an expedition, Mayor is probably the first person I'd want to send looking for Bigfoot.
The idea of using a "new algorithm" and data analysis to look for likely hot spots is a valid one. I recall a pioneering effort from 2003, when herpetologist Chris Raxworthy used specimen locality data and satellite imagery to map the habitats of Madagascar’s chameleons. They found areas of “error” where the predicted distribution did not match the field data. When herpetologists checked these areas in person, they found seven previously unknown species. But the algorithm is only as good as the data, and I look forward to reading or seeing about what sort of database they are using. Cross-checking credible sightings with likely habitat would be interesting, the fly in the ointment being that any analysis of credibility is subjective and therefore suspect.
The show's announcement concludes, weirdly, by spoiling the ending, saying the team finds "a hot spot where inexplicable events occur and one of the greatest pieces of video evidence in Bigfoot history is recorded." That also means, if read between the lines, that they did not find hard evidence of Bigfoot.  Which is really too bad. But I'll try to catch the show anyway to see what they do find.
Papers on the lemur discoveries:
Edward E. Louis; Melissa S. Coles; Rambinintsoa Andriantompohavana; Julie A. Sommer; Shannon E. Engberg; John R. Zaonarivelo; Mireya I. Mayor; Rick A. Brenneman (2006). "Revision of the Mouse Lemurs (Microcebus) of Eastern Madagascar," International Journal of Primatology. 27 (2): 347–389.
Mittermeier, R.; Ganzhorn, J.; Konstant, W.; Glander, K.; Tattersall, I.; Groves, C.; Rylands, A.; Hapke, A.; Ratsimbazafy, J.; Mayor, M.; Louis, E.; Rumpler, Y.; Schwitzer, C. & Rasoloarison, R. (December 2008). "Lemur Diversity in Madagascar" (PDF). International Journal of Primatology. 29 (6): 1607–165.
Other sources not linked to in text:
Tyson, Peter.  2000.  The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Rediscovery in the Lost World of Madagascar.  New York: William Morrow.  374pp. 
"3 new lemurs named in Madagascar," released by Conservation International, 21 June 2006.

Monday, November 04, 2019

A Singapore Snake Sighting

My friend Shannon Bohle tipped me to this one. Her  friend Dr. John van Wyhe has found a specimen of the lined blind snake, aka Ramphotyphlops lineatus, that had been missing and "indeterminate" in status, not having been seen in a whopping 172 years.  Dr. van Wyhe is a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore.  The find occurred in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,where the half-meter snake was found dead. The IUCN Red List entry on the species, last updated in 2012, has almost no information.
The discovery is an important reminder that a species may resurface after presumed extinction - even prolonged presumed extinction. This is the longest period I've heard of for a reptile, although I covered some other animal species in my books.  
It's surprising how many such cases there are. New Zealand's takahe, a colorful, turkey-sized ground-dwelling bird, was declared extinct three times before turning up for good in 1948.  The Bermuda petrel, or cahow, was rediscovered after being presumed extinct for 300 years, a record unlikely to be broken (there were two collected during that time, so maybe there's an asterisk). The Guadalupe fur seal was believed to be extinct three times, despite being a rather prominent mammal weighing up to 140kg, and the Juan Fernandez fur seal was "lost" from 1917 to 1968.  The first specimen of Fraser's dolphin washed up dead in 1895: no one confirmed it in life until 1971 Heaviside's dolphin, a 1.6-m cetacean le from South African waters, is a distinctive animal: except for having a short dorsal fin, it's colored and shaped like a miniature killer whale.  It was missing from 1856 to 1965. The pygmy killer whale, a round⌐headed, beakless dolphin which maybe almost 3m long, was recognized from one skull found in 1827.  One was caught off Japan in 1954.
So congratulations to Dr. van Wyhe.  Keep looking!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Dunkleosteus Review: New Toy in Recur Line

Review: Recur Dunkleosteus

From a Chinese toy company, under the brand name Recur, comes the newest Dunkleosteus.  This vinyl Dunk isn’t an exacting model, but there’s a lot to like about it as a toy.
I bought mine off Amazon for about $18.  The description on the website clearly got confused in translation: “Dinichthyidae Shark Figure Stuffed Sea Animal Fish Replica.” Okay… Among other toys, the company makes a shark which is described as both a great white and a megalodon. Their mosasaur looks seriously cool and well-detailed, and their dinosaurs are pretty nice. 
The first thing I noticed is size.  It’s as big as any of the non-plush Dunkleosteus models or toys, about 30cm long and substantial. Indeed, this particular Dunk was very well fed.  

It’s all molded in one piece, but the manufacturers went to the trouble of coloring the inside of the mouth and the cheek membranes (pinkish) and the biting plates (white).  The shaded green, going to white on the bottom, is a believable color scheme, and there is lots of texture around the armor and the head in general. Also present are little vertical skin-fold lines that give this toy a more lifelike feel than some flat-surface toys. The biting plates could have used a bit of the same attention, though.  
The eyes are too small, I think, and readers know I don’t think the eel-like tail is correct even though it’s a pretty common supposition.   The pectoral fins look small, but not unreasonably so.  The designer went for a very low dorsal fin far back on the body: I think it likely too small for stabilizing a creature of this size.   
Quibbles aside, this is a really nice toy.  It’s big enough and sturdy enough to give a youngster years of enjoyable playtime, and it’s close enough to (likely) reality to serve as part of a school project, although CollectA and some others are out there for more verisimilitude.   

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A new - and really shocking - electric eel discovered

The electric eel, while not technically an eel, has fascinated science and the public for centuries.  It's far from being the only electrcity-discharging fish (there are 250 more in South America alone, although they use their low electrical charges for things like signaling mates) but it's by far the most powerful.  It was always presumed to be a single species (Electrophorus electricus), but a new review of 107 specimens by American and Brazilian scientists has found there are three. One of the new ones, dubbed E. voltai, has upped the record for strongest known electrical discharge from the 650 volts known from E. electricus to 860!
The "eel" species are similar in appearance, but it was still surprising to find there were three. One scientist involved, C. David de Santana, said, "These fish grow to be seven to eight feet long. They're really conspicuous," he says. "If you can discover a new eight-foot-long fish after 250 years of scientific exploration, can you imagine what remains to be discovered in that region?"
Good question.
electirc eel

Electric eel E. electricus (image NOAA: a NOAA page reports they can grow to 10 feet, although no one source is perfect.)

Friday, October 25, 2019

Fossil bonanza in Colorado Springs

Just east of my home town of Colorado Springs, a mind-blowing fossil discovery has been made. Kudos to the people, including my friend Erika Maurer, who stopped the area from being converted to a dirt bike park until it could be checked out. That was three years ago, and it's amazing the museum paleontologists (from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, specifically) were able to keep it secret until they were ready to announce it in a journal and an exhibit. 
It's surprisingly difficult to find fossils from the million years following the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg)  impact. This is going to rewrite what textbooks say about that critical period. The discovery chronicles the critical time when the mammals started to exploit the niches left by the dinosaurs. Nova on PBS will show a documentary, Rise of the Mammals, to accompany a new museum exhibit.  Not-so-BTW, the first paper has appeared in Science, the most prestigious scientific journal in America (whether it's the most prestigous in the world is between them and Nature). 
Image result for kpg impact"
There will be many more papers, articles, new species, and new studies in the years to come. This is amazing stuff.  (Image: National Science Foundation)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Quantum computing era arrives

""Here, we report using a processor with programmable superconducting qubits to create quantum states on 53 qubits ... While our processor takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of the quantum circuit 1 million times, a state-of-the-art supercomputer would require approximately 10,000 years to perform the equivalent task." .... (original paper here).
Scientists and engineers from Google and NASA Ames Research Center have published a paper (accidentally released and quickly yanked a few weeks ago) that shows they have achieved quantum supremacy, the first goal in a worldwide race to exploit quantum technology for computing, communication, cryptography, materials design, and potentially a lot more.
A normal bit in a computer is either in state value 0 or 1.  The qubit (a photon or electron) can be in any number of states: it's not a 0 or 1 (although it could be) but a matter of probabilities. . One way to look at it is that conventional or "classic" computing is ordinary multiplication and division, while quantum computing is calculus.   The quantum machines on the market now, called quantum annealers, are a kind of hybrid that helps with certain problems, notably optimizations (the classic traveling salesman problem), but on any scale, like the organizing of 5,000 microsatellites for optimal coverage and collision avoidance.  Quantum supremacy means building a computer that solves a problem no conventional computer could do within even the longest of useful time frames. 

Dr. Richard Fenyman was one of those who first laid out the challenge decades ago: “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly, it’s a wonderful problem because it doesn’t look easy.”

It's not easy.  A true all-purpose quantum computer needs thousands of time as many qubits as the Google making, but what matters is that the concept has been proved. The Google geniuses made a quantum computer that, as noted in the excerpt above, performed in 200 seconds a computation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years.  The  uses will come along slowly, not in a flood, and we don't know yet all the uses the computer could - and could not - be used for. 
One of the possible uses, cryptography, is the one that scares everyone.  Encryption is, in its simplest form, done with a numerical key (either identical (symmetrical encryption) or different (asymmetrical encryption) at each end.  Multiplying very large numbers together creates a mess a classical computer has to hack through by trying every possible combination (a " brute force'" attack), and some such encryptions will take the best of super computers millions of years to unravel  A quantum computer, with enough size/power (qubits) and adequate error correction capability (very important with the fragility of qubits) can do it in hours.   Quantum computers can be used both to factor (decrypt) existing codes and to create their own, which in turn will be hard for even quantum computers to decrypt.  
Quantum computers won't replace the ones in your smartphone or laptop: that would be like using a Ferrari engine to power a wagon.  But there's no question we've stepped into a new universe.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Some amazing art of Dunkleosteus and company

Prehistoric art is a fascinating topic.  Artists apply an enormous range of styles. materials, and knowledge to depict creatures we can't see in the flesh. Some try to get every detail down in a photorealistic approach: others turn up the "vividness" dial with an eye-grabbing palette to emphasize how amazing these animals were. 
Joe Winans is in the latter school, and his results are wonderful.  He does modern animals and other topics too, but his work on prehistoric types, especially (to me) Dunkleosteus, is breathtaking. Joe notes the Dunk work was done under the supervision of one of the real experts on this creature, Dr. Michael Williams of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  The animal's form looks pretty realistic to me: I think he has the always-problematical tail just right.  

See his work on Etsy here

And here's what I mean: a pastel drawing of an awesome creature.  (copyright Joe Winans: reproduced by permission.) 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Alexei Leonov, Explorer and artist

Farewell to the first man to walk in space, a two-time cosmonaut, the designated first moonwalker in  the eventually-canceled Soviet effort to land on the Moon, and an artist who spent much of his life trying to convey what he experienced.  I have this litho, thanks to co-author Erika Maurer from The First Space Race. Godspeed, Alexei.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Seals we no longer see

Mammals have invaded the sea many times. (Interestingly, this never worked the other way: no pure sea mammal has evolved into a land-dweller.)  Mostly, they've been successful.

 The sea otters made themselves at home on seas, shores, and in kelp forests, and the sea mink was doing fine until humans exterminated it for the “mink” part. The sirenians, the manatees and dugongs, are threatened but not yet critical, unless you count Steller's sea cow, which lasted only a few decades after humans found it.  The cetaceans have produced some 90 living species, with one definite human-caused extinction (China’s baji dolphin), and one species reduced to a dozen animals or fewer (the vaquita, of which I’ve written elsewhere). 
The pinnipeds - the seals and sea lions – were mostly doing all right about a century ago despite longtime hunting of some species. The Guadalupe fur seal was even declared extinct twice and refused to leave the stage: it’s rebounding and well protected today.  It’s been suggested in a few papers and articles that we don’t know all the pinniped species yet, and cryptozoologists have many times hypothesized a long-necked seal as the cause of “sea serpent” stories.  (I once had some hope for this myself, but no longer think it plausible.)

What brings all this to mind? Just over 11 years ago, though, the Caribbean monk seal was declared extinct.
Monachus tropicalis survived the first pinniped driven extinct by humans, the Japanese sea lion (Zalophus japonicus), by a few decades. This species became commercially extinct in the late 1940s after decades of uncontrolled hunting in its range in and around the Sea of Japan to harvest skins, oil, and other parts. Its demise was likely assisted by fishermen who, like many fishermen around the world in those days, shot their “competitors” whenever the chance arose.   The animal may have been eliminated as early as 1951, although it seems to have lingered into the 1970s, and a few unconfirmed sightings occurred in the mid-80s.  That was it. A search announced by South Korea in 2007 produced nothing, An International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List re-assessment in 2014 agreed with the consensus of extinction.     
The monk seal was the only pinniped endemic to the Caribbean, and the first New World mammal recorded by Christopher Columbus.  Columbus’ men killed eight of the abundant, large (up to 200 kg or more), curious animals they called “sea wolves.”   Unfortunately, other humans found them vulnerable too.  (Homo sapiens is not coming off well in this article.)
In 1911, the last large colony – about 200 seals on islands off Yucatan – was slaughtered.  A lone individual was killed near Key West, Florida, in 1933.  A small group of seals on islands off Jamaica was observed until the early 1950s, but vanished.  Except for scattered individual sightings, that was it, seemingly. The U.S. government, for one, lists no confirmed sightings after 1952.
In 1997, the last major survey effort was carried out. It offered some renewed hope. When 93 Haitian and Jamaican fishermen were interviewed about marine mammals, 21 included the monk seal, and 16 said they’d seen one within the last two years. 
Since then, however, there’s been nothing. The U.S. dropped it from the Endangered Species List in 2008 due to extinction. It’s been suggested some reports of Caribbean monk seals could be caused by California sea lions (Zalophus califonianus) from oceanic parks along Florida’s Gulf Coast. California sea lions are normally darker than monk seals, but their size ranges overlap, and the two could certainly be confused at a distance.  Some sightings may involve wayward members of other species.  In my first book (1996), I wrote hopefully of the Caribbean monk seal’s chances for survival.  In my second book (2006), I was still hopeful. But I’m convinced now it’s gone. In 2019, the expeditions have ended; the conservationists have long gone on to other species they can still save; the scientists, priests of knowledge, have written their obituaries.  The best way to honor this seal’s passing is to save its fellow marine mammals - while we still can. 

Adam, Peter, and Gabriela Garcia. 2003. “New information on the natural history, distribution, and skull size of the extinct (?) West Indian Monk Seal, Monachus tropicalis,” Marine Mammal Science, 19:2, p.297.
Boyd, I.L., and M.P. Stanfield.  1998. “Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies,” Oryx, 32, p.310.
IUCN, “Zalophus japonicus,”, accessed 5 October 2019.
The Monachus Guardian (on-line journal) (2),
Naish, Darren. 2009. “Statistics, seals and sea monsters in the technical literature, Tetrapod Zoology blog,
Rice, Dale. 1998.  Marine Mammals of the World.  Lawrence, KS: The Society for Marine Mammalogy.
Swanson, Gail.  2000. “Final Millennium for the Caribbean Monk Seal,” The Monachus Guardian 3(1),
Walters, Mark.  1997. “Ghost of a Monk Seal,” Animals, November/December, p.23.
Seal image found, believed out of copyright

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"Sea of Shadows" coming to TV

The urgent, compelling documentary Sea of Shadows, on the last-ditch fight to save the vaquita porpoise, moves from theaters to National Geographic TV on November 9. Don't miss it.  

Appalling Disrespect for Written History - Redstone Library Closing -UPDATE!

Libraries of all kinds, all over the country, are cutting back their physical collections because of the absurd idea everything important is online. It's appalling, though, to see a library whose parent organization knows the physical collection is irreplaceable, indispensable, and one of a kind to go that way.
The research library at Redstone Arsenal, where 60 years of space history and knowledge are archived, is vanishing, to be replaced with online access to a fraction of the materials.
I have no words, except for short one-syllable types I try to avoid using in this blog.  I hope there is some chance US Space Command, the Air Force Academy, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, or SOMEONE will step in and preserve this.

UPDATE! I talked to the hsitory office at Air Froce Space Command, which has offered to take the entire collection.  Dr.Sturdevant there contacted his Army counterpart, who assured huim the Army had decided not to turn the physical records over to disposal: they will be maintained for up to a year until the Army decides whether to open a branch library, send it all to AFSPC (which currently has the History responsibility for the new US Space Command) , or find some other solution.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Shooting a rocket from Mars

Returning a sample of Martian soil has been seriously discussed at least since the Viking landers in the 70s.  But there's no really simple way to solve it.  Landing a rocket on Mars big enough to take a sample directly back to Earth means shipping a lot of mass to Mars, which by one estmate costs a good $1M per kilogram. Doing it any other way means a rendezvous in Martian orbit.  That's where NASA is headed now: the Mars 2020 rover will collect and study samples and take them to a surface point where another spacecraft (not yet built) with a rocket will land, and then the rocket lofts the samples or dock with an orbiter and send them to Earth.  (It's almost enough to make you think it's easier to just send astronauts, although that option still seems far off at out current rate of progress.)   There are a host of challenges here, and this article is a good introduction. (image NASA)
NASA rocket

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Happy 30th birthday to Space News

"On Sept. 18, 1989, SpaceNews published the first of four monthly preview issues to test the waters for a trade publication focused exclusively on space..."

It turned out there was definitely room for a weekly newspaper (now a monthly magazine in a hard copy, although daily online) to cover the space community - military, civil, commercial, technology, government, and all the rest.  It's done a  terrific job of ceverage, remained balanced, and even quoted me and printed a couple of op-eds from me (how classy can you get)?  They've kept it pretty nonpartisan in anindustry which has ferocious partisans (put the ULA fans and the SpaceX fans in a paintball game, and its possible no one will come out alive) and open to all points of view.

I've had sucsriptions whenever I could afford them and kept up online, via work, etc. whenever I couldn't.  They do special issues for the Space Symposium and the Conference on Small Satellites, other special events, and did a good job on the Apollo 11 anniversary, although they normally leave history to other publications, like QUEST (which also publishes me now and then).  

Happy birthday, and keep doing a great job!

Japan's wolf: Almost forgotten, but not gone?

A howl recorded in Japan has renewed interest in the Japanese wolf, believed exticnt as early as 1905.  Some researchers have never lost hope.  There is no recording of its howl, although it was universally reported to be amazingly loud for an animal that was less that 40 cm at the shoulder: indeed,the animal was known as "the Howling God." (One might say the country famous for the subcompact car also produced the subcompact wolf.)
Now a howl identified byexperts as slightly higher-pitched than that of a timber wolf and matching  no other animal known in Japan has enthusiasts excited again.  A television documentary featuring that sound and modern sightings, which include some photographs, is in work in Japan.  
Are there nights when, on Japan's loneliest mountaintops, the Howling God still speaks? 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Vaquita still hanging on

The vaquita porpoise is easily the most endangered marine mammal on Earth. The smallest of the porpoises, the chunky little cetacean with black rings around its eyes was nicknamed "little cow" by local fishermen in Gulf of California a long time ago.  Now a lot of fishermen (though certainly not all) nickname it something a lot harsher and wish it would vanish so they could poach totoaba fish, whose bladders are worth tens of thousands of dollars each. (To be fair, even fishermen who want to catch something else are under the gun, literally, from drug smugglers - the bladders are worth as much as the drugs.)
Extinction is almost here. The estimates of numbers have been down as low as 12, which isn't a viable population in the wild even under perfect conditions. I wouldn't have been surprised at all if it hit 0 this year.
And yet, the species has been hanging on, just barely. Every sighting is cherished and every calf is cause for a champagne celebration among conservationists, so an expedition sighting 6 animals was very good news.  The latest estimate of 30 offers, if not celebration, at least hope.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Fiction Review: Fathomless

by Greig Beck, 2016 edition (paperback)

The Megalodon shark pretty much deserves its own shelf in the fiction aisle at Barnes Noble.  From its mention in Jaws to a raft of novels to its appearance in Meg and a couple of terrible faked “documentaries,” the big lug has been popular for a long time.

That make it harder to write original Meg novels, although authors like Briar Lee Mitchell (Big Ass Shark) have pulled it off to stand out from the dreck of hundreds of self-published novels by people who have never seen a shark (or an editor).  Now Grieg Beck, master of the lost-world novel, has turned his attention to the supershark, hanging out in a subterranean Alaskan sea. While most authors zoom past the “how did it survive” question with impossible or rushed-through scenarios, Beck expands that part to give our heroes not one great adventure, but two. The obligatory showdown on the open sea is here, but man, did these characters go through a lot to get there!
I can nitpick the science (e.g., Meg was not closely related to the modern Great White, and “sharks don’t get cancer” is an ad slogan, and a false one.). The adventurers need many happy coincides to survive, but this is a thriller, and everyone needs a few of those moments.  Questionably accurate Meg behavior can be glossed over because the animals had had millions of years to evolve, although I hated the “this one fish will destroy all commerce in the Pacific Ocean” thought when it came up in Steve Alten’s Meg, and I’m not a fan of seeing it again here.  Countering that, any book that slips Dunkleosteus in for a cameo is fine by me.
Beck’s characters are interesting, three dimensional, and generally act in character. Kudos to Beck for a cast you can believe in, plus a stunt early on making you miss-guess who a particular villain is (I won’t spoil it).   
Do I believe this could happen? No. The undersea ecosystem has too many big animals and no source of outside energy (like sunlight or really massive thermal vent colonies) to make it keep going.   But is it entertaining? Hell, yes. This is a great book for someone who wants to spend a few evenings reading of brave American scientists, mysterious Russians, a deadly monstrosity, some exotic marine life, a cool high-tech minsub, and a geology lesson to boot.  

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Newest whale species described

In 2016, as I reported in this post, a beaked whale stranded on the cost of Alaska was determined to be a likely new species.  It now becomes the third whale formally described from its genus. Leading U.S. cetologist James G. Mead and several colleagues from Japan wrote the description.  Berardius minimus is distinguished from its cousins by "...remarkably smaller body size of physically mature individuals, proportionately shorter beak, darker body colour…" 
Japanese whalers and fishermen knew of the smaller, darker beaked whalefor a long time and had their own name for it, “kuro-tsuchi." A specimen 6.2m was stranded in Hokkaido in 2012 but was misidentified as an existing species. Indeed, the scientists who wrote the description used "three individuals from Hokkaido and one additional individual from the United States National Museum of Natural History collection."   
The whale's big leap into recognition began when a stranded specimen in Alaska's Prilobof Islands was seen by a biology teacher, who thought it was significant and called a seal researcher he knew, She in turn decided it was significant, not to mention odd, and called n a cetologist, and it went on from there, through the long, hard work of comparing it to identified and unidentified skeletal material and testing its DNA.   So this case is a good reminder that "collected" doesn't always mean "classified," and "identified as a new species" takes a while to become "described." 
This makes 22 species in the enigmatic group known as the beaked whales, and no one can be sure we know them all.  
Photograph from 2016 by Karin Holser, who helped identify the species in the field: I believe this is educational / scientific "fair use." I emailed Holser about it but did not hear back. Note the specimen had been stranded long enough that its characteristic dark coloration has faded, although Mead et. al. note the color is not 100 percent distinguishing from Berardius bairdii, whose range it overlaps.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Small Problem With Bigfoot Sign

In the local newspaper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, a guest column appeared the other day from Barry Fagin, a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver and a prominent skeptic.  He argued the "Bigfoot Crossing" sign on the Pikes Peak Highway is an embarrassment that makes us look like idiots and spreads pseudoscience.  Here's his column.   
I see his point.  I've spent a lot of time looking into Bigfoot over the years, and I went into it at length in my second book on zoology/cryptozoology., Shadows of Existence. My judgment is that the species does not exist: we've gone too long without bones or other hard evidence, or even DNA.  And the non-existence of the fossil record for any higher primates in the Americas is pretty hard to get around.  I've talked to smart, sane, sober people who are certain they have seen Bigfoot. I don't know what they saw, but I still think mistakes are more likely than apes.  (Yes, I was trying for a rhyme there between "mistake" and "ape," but I can't make it work.)  
Still, I would give the ape a break. Government agencies very rarely display a sense of humor, and I applaud it when they do. The sign warns people of a creature that likely isn't there, but I don't see the harm. There are "cryptid" signs and statues all over the country, some, like this one, on public property. Lake Champlain, to give just one example, has made a major tourist attraction of their local critter.  No one's trying to vote their selectmen, or whatever they have, out of office for supporting it, even if lake biologists are pretty much 100 percent on the side of "There ain't no such animal."  (In case you are curious, I once asked the local branch of Colorado Parks and Wildlife Agency whether they take Bigfoot reports (yes) and whether they do anything with them (no).  
As to the scientific aspects, one can in fact make a science lesson out of an animal that isn't there. Getting students interested in working out the food supply and habitat needs of a hypothetical ape could interest those who might not get excited over Preble's jumping mouse and hopefully spark interest in conservation science.  
So let the big guy have his sign. It's a bit of local color and kinda cool.  

Photo from City of Colorado Springs website

Dunkleosteus: A Little Rubber Toy from Japan

Since I review every Dunkleosteus toy and model I can find, here's a toy from Japan, manufacturer uncertain, bought from a Hong King seller on eBay.  As a toy, it gets points for being rubber instead of plastic: as an accurate Dunk representation... well, it's toy. You don't expect a lot.  It's kind of cute despite the mouth.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Small Satellites Finally Gain Respect

Small satellites and microsatellites (the spacecraft, not the genetic term) have moved into the mainstream.  After decades of being dismisses as toys or R&D vehicles, satellites under 500kg (small) and 100kg (micro) and 10kg (nano) are launching in the thousands. That's not an exaggeration. See this piece from Space News predicting 8,500 satellites in this decade.
Just from the Conference on Small Satellites this year, we have new on military CubeSats (1 kg cubes) remote sensing / geospatial data advances (trust me a small radar satellite resolving details under 1 meter in diameter is incredible), ups and downs in the launch industry (SpaceX is making more room for affordable secondary payloads on its large rockets, while small launch firm Vector seems to have gone belly-up). 
I hate it when a smallsat launcher company fails, because the staffs are so full of enthusiasm and often work crazy hours for peanuts to try to reach space, but there are way too many competitors for the available launches right now (a couple of years from now, when even more smallsats are on orbit and start needing replacement, it may look quite different.) Vector has two ordered launches on the books, and I hope it can scrape through under new CEO John Garvey, a veteran of this chancy business.  Much depends on whether future birds and their replacements are put up singly or in small bunches vs. in wholesale lots from large rockets. Speakign of large rockets, NASA has opened up Cubesat slots on the second launch of their giant SLS booster.

SLS payload manager Renee Cox shows a model of the accommodations (NASA)

There's a great deal of buzz in the smallsat world about the new Space Development Agency and its focus on multipurpose layers of smallsats (an interesting papaer prefiguring this notion is found here), while commercial firms like Planet and Spire launch nanosatellites that blanket the Earth to collect imagery, weather, and other information.

A space agency used to be a giant government organization. Now data-producing satellites can be built by high schoolers and launched for as little as $100K, and a student in Myanmar with an internet connection can download umpteen megabits of images and measurements. No one knows where all this is leading, but it's going to be exciting. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

"Polly want a cracker... NOW!"

Parrots the size of toddlers are weird to visualize.  Looking at images of this newly found extinct species is a little like seeing a Komodo dragon and not being able to process a lizard the size of an alligator.  Living in New Zealand 16 million years ago, the species dubbed Heracles inexpectatus stood a meter tall and weighed almost 7kg. The bird was probably ground-dwelling or perhaps a very limited flyer, but it was a beast to be reckoned with for other birds and ground-dwelling animals smaller than itself. One scientist observed, "This was Squawkzilla."

Friday, August 02, 2019

Naish on Shuker's Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Note on an important review)

It's a little odd to make a blog post just to point to someone else's review of someone else's book, but Dr. Darren Naish's very thorough review of an amazing book by Dr. Karl Shuker deserves it. Plus, I get mentioned.  Darren also noted something I'd been wondering about: a report from Brazil of a catfish that had taken to a land-based existence, mentioned in Shuker's earlier work and cited by me in Rumors of Existence. I know, it's all getting kind of circular, but the point I wanted to quote here was "The incredible semi-terrestrial catfish discovered in Manaus by Peter Henderson still has yet to be formally described..."  I believe it still hasn't.  A shame.  

Here's the actual topic, Karl's Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.

And here's my review of that. 
(Please pardon some formatting problems, I'll be back to fix those.)

Building on two of Shuker's earlier works, The Lost Ark and The New Zoo, 
the Encyclopedia  deserves its title. This is a mammoth collection of scientific 
achievements from 1900 to the present. 
It's information-packed, sumptuously illustrated, and just plain fun.
Shuker does not, of course, try to include all discoveries, since the 
beetles alone would merit a  library. He goes for creatures which are 
relatively large or scientifically important, and those are 
more than sufficient to fill this large-format 368-page book. S
huker is a highly knowledgeable writer  (as you'd expect from a Ph.D. 
who's been poking into the odd corners of zoology for four decades). 
He discusses both species and important subspecies (including those 
where there is some dispute  about taxonomy: it's not clear whether 
Rothschild's giraffe is a subspecies, species, or just a local variation.) 
The zoologically inclined reader will enjoy every page of this romp 
through monk seals,  giant stick insects, megamouth sharks, monitor 
lizards, and other discoveries simply too numerous to mention.
One thing Shuker does not do is set all the material into a context by 
showing any species  discovery curves or discussing just how many 
ew vs. known species are being found. He does,  though, amply 
demonstrate his main theme: that discovery didn't end with the "golden 
age"  of the 1800s - indeed, it's continued at a steady and often 
surprising pace right up to the present day.

Being a Shuker work, this book has plenty of mysteries along with 
the definite discoveries.  Some are well-known: some, like a slow loris 
with a thick bushy tail, not yet recognized although  it's been held in captivity
 and photographed, surprised even a well-read aficionado like myself. 
Likewise, some of the stories of discovery, like the coelacanth's, have 
been told many times  (though Shuker always tells them well), but how 
many know the tragic tale behind the discovery of Flecker's sea wasp 
jellyfish, or how Rudie Kuiter saw a flounder swimming along and discovered 
it was the most amazing mimic in nature: an octopus pretending to be a 
flounder? Shuker also includes stories of animals which didn't quite 
live up to their hype as new species,  like Mexico's onza (not a new 
species of big cat, just an odd puma.) He closes with a few words 
on possible future discoveries, a note on taxonomy, and a bibliography 
running 33 pages.There are hundreds of images here to go with the text, 
ranging from photos to Bill Rebsamen's  wonderful color illustrations.
This is one of the classic books, not just of cryptozoology 
but of modern zoology and  conservation biology. Readers will love it 
enough to revisit it many times. 
It's a great achievement.

December 16, 2012