Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Discoveries: A Dinosaur's Butt and an Orange Bat

There's always a lot going on, even if most of it is lost in the coverage of riots and disasters. 

I love paleontologists, but maybe they should get out more, given the exitement over the first fossil showing a dinosaur's butthole.  Granted, this is important in understanding the physiology of dinosaurs, but.. (hah)  

Meanwhile, birds of paradise are among the planet's most amazing-looking creatures,and they are not just stylin' but do intricate mating dances. The Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradies (yes, that's the name)  makes 44 species in the family Paradisaeidae. It's black,an almost indescribable black, absorbing almost all the light hitting it, but males reveal a bright blue "chest plate" and do a unique dance which, we suppose, is irresitable.

From Guinea, from the caves of the Nimba Mountains, comes a spectacular orange bat. It's so spectacular it's not clear why it was missed right now, but scientists working in the area knew when they spotted it it was something new.  The linked article gives a good description of the process the discoverers went through to distinguish it from known species (color alone is not enough).  

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Book Review: Out of the Eastern Ice

 Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl

Slaght, Johnathan. (2020: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 348pp.)

Blackiston’s fish owl is the world’s biggest and rarest owl. It has a wingspan approaching two meters and a fluffy, shaggy appearance Slaght likens to a juvenile bear with feathers glued on.  It’s scattered in pockets of Russia, China, and Japan, huddling in sections of old-growth forest with large nesting trees and streams or rivers that don’t freeze over.  The total population is perhaps 2,000.

In Russia, where the species was only found to exist in 1971, it clusters along the Pacific coast.  That’s where Slaght, the son of diplomats and a good speaker of Russian, joined a Russian scientist to find the owls, document locations, and attach GPS tags to as many as possible.

This is a book about five years of hard work in unforgiving terrain where humans keep an eye out for the Amur tiger, the huge brown bear, and the armed and dangerous poacher. Slaght works with a rotating cast including Sergey Surmach of the Federal Scientific Center of the East Asian Terrestrial Biodiversity and Sergey Avedeuk of the Amur-Ussuri Center for Avian Diversity (love the names). They set out using snowmobiles and a massive ex-military four-wheel truck into areas where roads don’t exist and a Western scientist is a sight rarer than the owl.  Here in Russia’s Primorsky Krai (Maritime Territory), they also face dangers from the land itself: fires in summer and freezing in the infamous Russian winters.  They have many failures before devising a trap that works for the wily birds. Equipment fails in the harsh conditions, and Slaght describes their efforts to fashion fixes or alternatives.

He writes, too, of the emotional heights and valleys inherent in chasing something that may be vanishing. Slaght is an excellent writer, and people, owls, and the terrain all come alive in his words.

Much of the owl habitat is being logged, and regulations and enforcement are spotty in this remote area. Deciding that a large wildlife preserve is politically difficult and would affect many people’s livelihoods, Slaght focuses instead on pinpointing the owls’ locations and habitat needs to pursue more focused protection. He negotiates with companies and officials about leaving certain trees and areas alone, and scores some successes. At the end of the book, he is cautiously optimistic.  Slaght, a man who puts his life where his heart is, continues his work today with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia program.

 Field work is often regular repetition of challenging or unpleasant activities, an application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges. – John Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Book Review: Animal Treasure by Ivan T. Sanderson

 Reaching way back in the bookshelf for this one.  

AnimalTreasure: A Naturalist in Search of Strange Creatures

Sanderson, Ivan T. (1937: Viking Press, 325pp.)

The first book by Sanderson, who went on to become an important and controversial figure in zoology and cryptozoology, is a delight for animal lovers of all sorts. Sanderson was part of the generation of Western zoologists that finally abandoned the “collect everything you can shoot” mentality to study animals in situ. This book followed his first major expedition to British Cameroon (now split between Nigeria and Cameroon). Everything here fascinates Sanderson: he pays as much attention to ants as to antelopes. In vivid language, he recounts adventures from being trapped and lost in a cave of bats to trying to befriend a troop of baboons.  The animals pop off the page as if still alive. 

His writing shows some 1930s condescension of Westerners toward the indigenous tribes, although he never says they aren’t his equals as people (in another book, he refers to an African elder as the wisest man he ever met.)   

Two wildlife incidents are especially memorable. On one occasion, men who wanted to show Sanderson they were better fishermen than a rival tribe dragged ashore a stingray over 11 feet (3.4 m) long. Sanderson had no idea such giants lived in African rivers. This is also Sanderson’s initial account of a giant black bat that swooped toward him at head level. He describes it here as the size of an eagle. [He wrote much later that he and fellow witness Gerald Russell later compared their diaries and agreed it was 12 feet (3.6 m) across.]  He closes by saying he was sorrowed by the destruction of the forest, a thought rare in 1937.

Sanderson became one of the first TV nature series hosts and wrote many more books.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Significant Events in Cryptozoology in 2020, as marked by Loren Coleman

 End of Year Cryptozoology, as documented by Loren Coleman

Loren, founder and director of the International Cryptozoology Museum, has taken on the very difficult job of trying to impose a little structure on the controversial and sometimes chaotic world of cryptozoology.   While there’s no governing body for this colorful group of scientists, amateurs, writers, and assorted devotees, Loren is probably the best-known American cryptozoologist, knows everyone, and tries to look over the global cryptozoology scene and pick out the people and things cryptozoologists everywhere should know about.  Loren and I have disagreements, with me doubting most of the creatures he’s sure are out there, but  he's one of the most dedicated cryptozoologists anywhere and is devoted to collecting and preserving knowledge. His museum is a unique resource for cryptozoologists, zoologists, folklorists, and others, with countless thousands of items from all over the world.

First, Loren awards the Golden Yeti statue for Cryptozoologist of the Year and Lifetime Achievement. The top award this year went to Dr. (M.D.) Marie-Jeanne Koffmann of France. She spent decades recording sightings and gathering other evidence in the Caucasus concerning the humanlike cryptid called the almasty or almas, a mystery I don’t think has been definitely solved.   Lifetime Yetis went to longtime Canadian Bigfoot researcher / writer / publisher / popularizer Christopher L. Murphy and Canadian sea creature expert Dr. Paul LeBlond (deceased in February, alas - he was a great guy and I’m glad we got to meet). One thing I remember about Paul was he was scientifically-minded enough (in a field where a lot of people aren’t at all) to admit there was room for interpretation of a sea creature drawing even though it was done under his direction from something he studied on film. Most people would be adamant that “that’s the real creature, exactly.”

Loren publishes a list of the Top Ten cryptozoology stories of the year.  These may include fieldwork results, zoological discoveries, cryptozoology gatherings, and popular-culture items.  Examples this year include reports of Vietnames “rock apes,” a possible new species of coelacanth, a new monkey, a Loch Ness hoax, and a wave of new cryptid toys/models on the market.

He also publishes a detailed list of the Top 20 Cryptozoology Books every year (said the humble recipient of the top Historical Cryptozoology Book in 2006 for Shadows of Existence, still available on Amazon!).  

Book of the Year went to The Bigfooter’s Atlas by Zach Bales. Loren wrote, “This enjoyable, accessible, well-written, nicely illustrated atlas of various Sasquatch-oriented locations is the bright shining light for how 2020 needs to be remembered – as a roadmap to future adventure.” There are books on specific creatures or categories: Bigfoot of course, but also sea serpents, bunyips, etc., with Karl Shuker’s superb, encyclopedic Mystery Cats of the Word Revisited: Blue Tigers, King Cheetahs, Black Cougars, Spotted Lions, and More being my personal pick. There are books on regional cryptozoology activity and on zoological discovery (topped this year by Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght).

Loren also provides a list of significant deaths among cryptozoologists: this is a field with a lot of people working singly all over the world, and such news is often missed. The most significant this year include Dr. LeBlond, dedicated Florida cryptid-hunter Scott Marlowe, and Dr. Bryan Sykes, who brought modern DNA analysis to bear on alleged cryptid-hominid hair samples (finding, unfortunately, no unidentifiable ones).

Keep up with Loren's blog at http://www.cryptozoonews.com/

See the Museum at https://cryptozoologymuseum.com/

 Keep up the good work, my friend!



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Farewell to a Leader of Space, Gil Moore

 My friend R. Gilbert Moore has died. Gil Moore was an engineer of rockets and satellites and a relentless proponent of space education, from his first job as a rocket builder in 1947 to the microsatellites of today. He never ran out of ideas. He was key source for our book The First Space Race (and let me know it when I misread notes form an interview and made a mistake in the book). He was hatching new ideas for satellites and educational programs throughout his life. (I swear he had more energy at 90 than I did at 20.) He cofounded the Conference on Small Satellites, the premier conference in the world. His career spanned the history of small satellites from one of the first to launch (Vanguard 1, 1958) into the modern era where small satellites blanket the Earth providing imaging and communications. He lives on in the many satellites and programs he helped launch and in the thousands of students he inspired.

Ad Astra, Gil. You were one of a kind.

Bob Pearlman at CollectSpace wrote this heartfelt obituary

Monday, December 28, 2020

Propelling Dunkleosteus



By Matt Bille

This is one interested amateur’s view. I’m the creator of the FaceBook Dunkleosteus terrelli site and author of the article “Dunkleosteus: First King of the Ocean,” in the Summer 2018 Prehistoric Times (which, ironically, had an editing error by me that swapped mentions of upper and lower tail lobes).  I have fiction and nonfiction projects related to Dunk in progress, I’ve talked to a lot of the experts, and I've looked at fossils and at models from toys to life-size museum exhibits.

The three tail options:

Eel-like tail: 

Despite its presence in some illustrations and some scientific papers, I never liked it.  I’ve never studied hydrodynamics, but I took a course in aerodynamics and have worked a bit with plane and missile designers. The main difference is that water is 830 times denser, and any propulsive movement that has to displace water is more difficult. That also means drag is worse.

If you look at big eels like congers, the head isn’t much bigger than the body, and they’re not supporting any big, heavy structure at the front end.  Wolf eels aren’t much different.  I think the eel body plan works for a larger creature than known eels (I’ve suggested that an eel of 8 or 9 meters might cover some still-puzzling “sea serpent” reports), but not something like a Dunk. You’re pushing a lot of water to move that front end. This tail is common on some smaller placoderms, like Diandongpetalichthys and the cool armor-plated Acanthothoraci, but nothing with the layout or mass of a Dunk. I just don’t think that tail surface is big enough. I think there are also stability and leverage problems stretching the body out well past the center of mass: it might balance while static, but the front end is so much more dense than the rear end that it’s hard for the latter to move the former.

Heterocercal tail with a large upper lobe and a small or nonextant lower one with a fin (I call this the scimitar tail): 

The most common in scientific and popular works, and it may be correct. Still, you’re sweeping with a fin well aft of the body, and there’s a lot of water to push: for a predator that has to move fast (at least in spurts) and has maybe a ton of weight at the head, the surface and the musculature are both questionable. This one is so common because, with no impression fossils of Dunk to tell us what the tail looked like, the logical supposition is that it looks like a smaller placoderm of similar layout (Coccosteus cuspidatus) enlarged.  

It’s a sensible approach: if you take a foot-long dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) and blow it up the size of a whale shark, it’s still the same body plan and instantly recognizable as a shark. However: I don’t think our giant dogfish would move well, with the long, slender tail stock (peduncle) of the regular dogfish.  That’s where I wonder about projections for the Dunk. It looks, generally, like Coccosteus, but Coccosteus is a foot long: blow it up to match a 20-foot Dunk and you have 20x20x20=800 times the mass.   The body will not be identical. 

It may be a reach, but what comes to mind is an anaology from aircraft and aerodynamics. You can look at a small jet, like a two-place Air Force T-37 (29 feet long, 3,800 pounds), and the C-17 Globemaster (174 feet, 500,000 lbs with moderate load).  The latter is about 6 times longer and 132 times heavier. You can see they are both airplanes and both are designed to the same principles, but they’re very different in layout, proportions, materials, etc.  An enlarged T-37 wouldn’t work: the drag's too much, the propulsion's too weak, the structure won't hold up.

There are a lot of variations in the scimitar tail, of course: I think the ones with the tail lobe rising at a more acute angle are more likely to work.

It goes without saying that this stuff has been worked on and modeled by icthyologists and  paleoicthyologists with a zillion times my knowledge and sophisticated tools, and I’m just spitballing, but if I had to bet I’d say that tail is wrong.

The tail problem is also related to the reason I don’t like the fin “wrist” joints outside the body: I don’t think the leverage is good.  This configuration appears in some scientific papers, and again I could be wrong, but the analogous modern fish in length and bulk are big sharks like the great white, and the fins look quite different: the joint is closer in to the pelvic girdle to reduce the “stroke length.” The pelvic fins are moving a lot of water .

Sharklike Tail: 

So this is what I’ve thought for a long time, and I was delighted to see real experts with real tools come out with this in 2017:


“Ecomorphological inferences in early vertebrates: reconstructing Dunkleosteus terrelli (Arthrodira, Placodermi) caudal fin from palaeoecological data”

Humberto G. Ferrón​, Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Héctor Botella

Their modeling follows the shark analogy and concludes the tail is sharklike.  I think they’re right.  It takes major muscle mass to move a fin quickly through water in a two-ton animal: I think convergent evolution is going to work its magic here.  “…body design of fishes is determined, to a large extent, by their swimming mode and feeding niche, making it possible to recognize different morphological traits that have evolved several times in non-closely related groups with similar lifestyles.” They produced logic similar to what I’d always guessed about: “Our proposal suggests a caudal fin with a well-developed ventral lobe, narrow peduncle and wide span, in contrast to classical reconstructions founded on the phylogenetic proximity with much smaller placoderms known from complete specimens.”

NOTE: I've looked for any response questioning this article and have not found one yet.

That’s why I think the Paleozoo model hits it on the head.


There is, by the way, considerable debate on the skin covering of the Dunk and its close relatives. The Paleozoo model used denticles. The CollectA Dunk, one of my favorites, used more prominent denticles borrowed from the modern wolf fish.  Predator fish today use denticles (sharks) or scales of varying sizes (easily visible on barracuda and tarpon, very small on tuna). The popular but problematic Scheich Dunk adds a row of huge scutes based on.. well, I don't know what. We many never be certain.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Farewell to Barry Lopez

 Barry Lopez, ascientist-poet who wrote memorably about humanity and nature, died yesterday of cancer.  He was 75. Lopez' book Arctic Dreams is my favorite of his works. I never met him or heard him lecture: friends tell me I missed something special.  God bless.  


“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

“At the heart of this story, I think, is a simple, abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well. And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.”

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

“I lay there knowing something eerie ties us to the world of animals. Sometimes the animals pull you backward into it. You share hunger and fear with them like salt in blood.”

“Without intending to, they [human ancestors] separated themselves from the galaxy of African wildlife and emerged as something else, not yet the founders of civilization but no longer truly wild. These were the first creatures to shimmer with intentionality.” 

A new (to me) Dunk model reviewed

This is the latest Dunk model I've seen (I put up a hasty post with a rotten photo last night, sorry :)) Anyway, this one from Animal Paradise is a little under 6" (15cm). The coloration is clearly borrowed from the larger, popular Schleich Dunk. It's a toy and the sculptor didn't put in a lot of detail, but what's here isn't bad. It does have an odd, deep groove in each side of the body running back where the Schleich model has scutes, as if this were modeled by someone looking at an unclear picture of the latter. It's handsome nonetheless. I obtained mine from Amazon.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Dunkleosteus Christmas

 Thanks to my family for understanding my fascination with this species.  They had the sweatshirt and mug made up online and my daughter made the desk calendar.  

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

New Whale Species! (bonus: a glowing sponge)

Three cetologists on a Sea Shepard Conservation Society expedition off the west coast of Mexico have spotted something slightly less surprising but definitely more "splashy." We know of 23 species of the reclusive, deep-diving cetaceans called the beaked whales. The 23 is still approximate with such hard-to-study animals - some species might eventually be collapsed together, or new ones named. The biggest event in life sciences, though, is finding something new in the wild, and these folks may have done it.  

Here's Markus Bühler's illustration, reproduced by permission. 

Copyright 2020, all rights reserved by Markus Bühler

For comparison, below is M. perrini 
(from a NOAA-produced pamphlet, so I believe in public domain. I will pull it anyone knows differently)

Markus' page on FaceBook

Markus' blog

The actual photography (not shown here for copyright reasons, so see the link) and video is superb.  Some experts are cautioning that it might be a known species, Mesoplodon perrini, but the scientists involved are sure it isn't. The placement of the two prominent teeth on the adult male (in almost all species)  is a key differentiator between species, and the teeth on these were observed and noted to be in the wrong place for M. perrini.  

It's taken scientists decades to untangle the beaked whales, and the job may not be done. The last new beaked whale (repoorted at sea by Japanese fishermen but never identiifed) washed ashoe in Alaska only in 2016.  The people who found the newest whale were looking for a different whale whose unidentifiable "voice" had been picked up on hydrophones.  This new species does not match that, so who knows what's down there?

“For marine life, the age of discovery is not over.” –Jesse Ausubel, founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life

Free Bonus Sponge!

 Until the 1990s, no one knew there were carnivorous sponges that didn't just sit there but used tendrils to snag food.  Now we know there's one that glows.  A submersible from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute (MBARI) plucked the sample from the Pacific seafloor 4,000 meters down in 2017, but the description has just been published. Presumably it uses the light to draw in food.  That's sometimes a low-percentage business on the seafloor, where a light can also signal, "Here I am, come eat me," but a sponge has to make a living, right? 

Monday, December 07, 2020

Anniversary of a Still-Puzzling "Sea Serpent" Incident

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best eyewitness evidence of this possibility came 111 years ago today from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.

The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, 
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Book Review: Naming Nature

 NamingNature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

Carol Kaesuk Yoon (2009:  W.W. Norton & Co., 341pp.)

With the advent of increasingly sophisticated and quantitative approaches to taxonomy, we overlook the ways different cultures label and group animals.  Biologist and top-flight science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon set out to write a book on the science of taxonomy and found a landscape much more varied than she’d imagined. She embraces the concept of a near-universal human way of perceiving nature, the umwelt, originating from our ancient hunter-gatherer experience.   The Linnean approach is a bedrock technique for imposing order on the umwelt by deciding what animal goes where, and she gives a lively history of the major figures while foreshadowing the advent of cladistics.   This continues through Darwin and into the twentieth century, where taxonomy became strictly the province of experts as the lumpers and splitters continued their often-uncivil war.  (There were, at one point, 2,600 named genera of birds according to lumpers, while splitters saw over 10,000 genera, more than the number of species we accept today.)  Darwin thought natural selection would perfect taxonomy and end disputes: he couldn’t have been more wrong.  Evolutionary taxonomy was fully as acrimonious as any other version.  Other conflicts, such as the worth of taxonomy itself, carried on, as did the never-ending dispute over how to define a species.  Ernst Mayr’s Biological Species Concept held for several decades, but it was challenged by Simpson’s revision of the evolutionary species concept and more recently by the rise of DNA and then cladistics, both useful and widely used but not yet dominant. [In October 2020, the American Museum of Natural History reported new research, surprisingly not based on DNA but on morphology, suggesting the 9,000-ish species of birds is far too low: the figure might be double that. One for the splitters?]    

In other cultures, Yoon reports, people tend to use Linnaeus’ binomial structure in their own way: there is a name for a group and a name for each type.  Concerning the 137 known birds of paradise, not only do the locals of Australia and New Guinea know and distinguish almost all, but their groupings are very close to Mayr’s.   Different cultures classify things for different reasons – what mushrooms are edible, what animals live within hunting distance, etc. – but the naming conventions, based on the umwelt refined by accumulated practical knowledge, are not nearly as dissonant as most of us would think.

We are, Yoon thinks, hard-wired to think about animals and nature a great deal, even as small children, and notice types. A toddler who has seen only a few dogs of very different breeds can still tell a newly-seen dog is dog and not a cat. Where animals are lacking, imaginary ones or other things (like brand names) receive the benefit of this innate ability: her daughter's first word was "kiki," which she said while pointing at the Cookie Monster.

Animals, too, can distinguish between types of other animals: witness the fact that monkeys have different cries to warn of different predators. Even the simplest life forms have some faculty to distinguish between their predators and their prey. 

Yoon goes n to describe the new methods from Robert Sokal’s computerized analysis of characteristics (species definition had long been a matter of judgment, and in some ways still is),  through the birth of molecular taxonomy based on the chemistry of each organism, and then RNA and DNA, then to cladistics. All of them, Yoon thinks, are valid, but also move us further from the umwelt and into realms where comparing two animals visually becomes irrelevant. She explains some of this very handily by assuming an ultra-simple animal, a blob, and showing how some species diverge widely from the ancestor species and some little, and how these developments can essentially be studied backwards to analyze both evolution and relatedness.

The cladistics revolution began with Willi Hennig, a German fly specialist. The biggest impact of cladistics, to the lay reader, is the seemingly insane claim that there’s no such thing as “a fish,” only superficially similar tertrapods that may have had very different ancestries. The lungfish (her example) may be closer to the cow than the salmon.  This technique not only supports now-common view that birds are dinosaurs, but suggests a reason to completely throw out existing taxonomy except where it aligns with cladistics. 

The abandonment of the umwelt, Yoon writes, brings precision but loses the connection between humans and the natural world. She accepts the importance of continually improving the science of taxonomy but argues the now-dominant science of comparing molecules or DNA “has left us blind to our own view of the living world.” If animals are reduced to molecules and proteins, how much will we care to protect them? While taxonomy as practiced by societies historically living closer to nature is invariably local, with Aristotle a pioneer in trying to collect information from foriegn lands, there are reasons it continues to exist. 

She discusses as an example the way people once thought of whales as fish [one need only consult Melville for an example]. This view, while scientifically inaccurate, has value in itself in understanding the umwelt and should not be forgotten. Yoon also defends fish and considers that species are, to human senses, “the things we cannot help but see.” 

There’s much more in this book, from the loss of ability to recognize living creatures in brain-damaged humans to various thought experiments, and it adds up to a great deal to think about.

For my friends in cryptozoology, the book contributes to the longstanding debate about how well local cultures know their animal neighbors.  There are published examples of indigenous groups, especially farming-centered as opposed to hunting-centered societies, whose members don’t know all the local fauna. Yoon offers numerous examples to the contrary, although she recognizes that need is a major driver of delineation. Indigenous cultures in Indonesia and the Philippines recognize 600 groups, which she considers equivalent to genera, of animals and plants. A striking example Yoon reports concerns the Tzeltal Mayans, among whom it's usual for four-year-olds to distinguish and name almost a hundred plants.  

Many taxonomists, probably most (partitculary cladists, who Yoon more than once calls "rabid") will object to her phrasing of "science vs. the umwelt." I don't agree with it either, although I can also read her as not calling for the abandonment of science but for understanding that other concepts offer insights into animals and the people involved.   

Yoon in this book does not just describe a science: she makes us think about what science is and how it affects us. It’s a very important work.

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Dunkleosteus-focused visit to Sea Monster Cove

I bought a trial membership in Meg author Steve Alten’s online venture, Sea Monster Cove (https://seamonstercove.com) to check it out. The basis is that there’s an island site where all the creatures from Alten’s fiction have been brought: there are tours, viewing opportunities, a trailer for a Web TV series, and even hotels with underwater views. I’m not going to review the science here, as my readers know (as Mr. Alten does) that I’ve critiqued him on that a lot. Today, though, I just wanted to see if there’s Dunk-related fun to be had.

The content is still limited. but there is some fun. An online game and more exhibits are promised soon.
The Education Center focuses on the background to Alten’s Lost Sea, where many of his creatures hang out, and discusses the ways (real and speculative) his fish and reptiles could adapt to deep-sea dwelling. The Dunkleosteus shown in the Species Research Center comes with an interesting description: “Overconfident hunter, hard hits on low-level danger prey.” “Overconfident” seems a funny word for the unchallenged apex predator of the Devonian, but it probably makes sense in the predator-stuffed Lost Sea. (Science aside, Alten knows how to make scary toys for his undersea sandbox and have fun with them.) The Dunk’s evolved reproductive characteristics are weird, although far from the weirdest things in this resort.
The Dunk here looks like the model shown at the top of my FaceBook Dunk page, while the animated Dunk, Barkley, is based on a different reconstruction. Barkley has very prominent “wrists” to the fins and what I call the “scimitar” tail. Both look odd to me, but they do appear in some scientific illustrations, so no foul. The viewing opportunities, including one from a shark cage, are fun, and there are snippets of events like Barkley’s mother arriving at the Cove.
My main suggestion (besides, of course, more Dunk experiences) is that expanding the Education Center could do a lot of good. Many of the visitors to a science fiction site like this may want to know more about the real science. The only resource I see is a reference to a shark museum run by Keith Cowley, who’s listed as this site’s Education Director. Links to sites, books, and experts could help them learn about Dunkleosteus, sharks, paleontology, and all the other topics touched on in Alten’s work.
I’ll drop in again at some point and see what shows up next.
(P.S. the online store needs a cooler Dunk hat.)
Top image: Barkley. Bottom: profile in Species Research Center. Used by permission.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Progress on Cryptozoology Library book

 For those interested, my project on a book of cryptozoology book reviews is humming. I intended to cap it at 200 books, but it'll be about 280. I've done all the acquiring / borrowing / etc. and "called a lid" as they say in politics. As it grew, my hope of having it out this year has faded: I'm shooting for January but might not make it. I'm still aiming for low cost as objective #1. Also, I WILL be having a book sale after this is done.

It looks like this:

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Tardigrades: Now Even Weirder!

 I like tardigrades, the microscopic "water bears" that are most famous for being hard to kill. (You may recall some survived in a habitat stuck on the outside of the International Space Station. Vacuum, extreme temperatures, cosmic rays... yawn.)   A newly discovered species glows blue in ultraviolet (UV) light.  One of the effects of this is that UV light levels used to sterilize surfaces, able to wipe out bacteria, virus, nematode worms, etc.) don't kill it.  It seems you're just giving it a spin in a tanning bed.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book Review: Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, 1965

 An old book to review, but worth it!

Sea Fishes of Southern Africa

Prof. J.L.B. Smith (1965 edition, text 1953(?), South Africa Central News Agency, 580pp.)

This is a 5th edition, dated 1965 but almost unchanged in the text from earlier editions.  The first edition in 1949 is a landmark in that it was not only the most comprehensive reference on the topic but included Smith’s discovery, the coelacanth, as a species.  The text here was written after only the second specimen (20 December 1952) had been obtained, and when Smith considered the Comoros coelacanth a different species than the example from South Africa. Since the third specimen (24 September 1953) is not mentioned, that dates the text to between those events.

Looking back at this from 2020, it’s still very much a book worth having.  I’m still looking for an earlier edition, but it’s been reissued enough that you can find used copies. 

First there is the sheer mass of data. Smith counts 1,325 species known from seas off the southern half of Africa.  With help from his with his scientific assistant / wife / artist Margaret (who did about half of the 1,320 illustrations) he catalogued fishes by classification and added notes such as range, preferred environment, rarity, edibility, and so on: the number of details written into this book is hard to visualize. Two Appendices add some species not covered in the first edition.  Despite the age of the book, Smith’s explanations of such things as fish classification, anatomy, the environmental effects of fishing, even how to preserve a specimen are all good and not too technical for us amateurs. Side note: there is a dual biography called The Fishy Smiths.

On to some major entries. The big one, of course, is the coelacanth. Smith explains why it was surprising and why it was important, and noted his division into two species might not be clear-cut, as the Comoros specimen was damaged and the fins may not reflect their appearance in life. [All coelacanths on the African side of the Indian Ocean are now one species, with the second being from Indonesia.] 

One of the most famous fishes of South Africa is the great white shark. This entry is really interesting. At the time Smith wrote, Otodus megalodon was not clearly distinguished from C. carcharias.    While Megalodon had been classified by Agassiz in 1843, ichthyologists of Smith’s time generally put it in the genus Carcharodon, and Smith apparently considered the two sharks conspecifics. He gives the maximum length of the great white shark as 40 (!) feet [a figure due to gross overestimates and possibly misidentified basking sharks].  He writes. ”Teeth 5 in. long have been dredged from the depths, indicating Sharks of 100 ft., with jaws at least 6 ft. across. These monsters may still live in deep water but it is better to believe them extinct.” He mentions they are claimed by sailors to develop a taste for human flesh, but adds, “This sounds rather speculative and one would prefer not to test it out.”  He notes, “Only one species in our area.” Which is also interesting, implying there were claims of other species at the time. 

On the thresher sharks, Smith writes, “This Shark is stated to take part with Killer-Whales in attacks on whales, but positive evidence is lacking.” Hammerhead sharks, we learn, were also known as mallet sharks. The length given for basking shark is only 25 feet, an underestimate: in many species, such as swordfish, Smith sticks to relatively conservative estimates and avoids wild claims (assuming he knew of them). The whale shark is estimated at 50 feet and probably more but is so are that he adds a request that any specimen be reported to a museum. Smith includes a lot of fish in this book, those known from one or a few specimens, for which he makes the same plea.

Things have changed since this was written – species found, species reclassified, species demoted, etc. Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, though, remains a classic that gives a baseline for modern ichthyologists to work from, and it’s just plain interesting for any aficionado to browse through.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

NASA grabs asteroid sample

It's still on the edge of science fiction - sending a robot to an asteroid to bring back a sample.  NASA has pulled it off.  I don't know how long it took to come up with the name Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), but it was worth it.  The spectacular, perfect touchdown-grab space feat will return samples of the asteroid Bennu to Earth, some 320 million kilometers away.  The spacecraft is staying on the asteroid until next March, when the optimal trajectory for a fuel-efficient return is available.  Go NASA!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

New Species Still Show Up

 We haven't exhausted the trove of species to classify and study. Not even close.  
This article points out some of the more spectacular recent finds and adds some information about where and how we find species. The author also wrote a very good book, The Species Seekers, which I've reviewed elsewhere.  The money line: "The number of species being found today “compares favorably with any time since the mid-1700s”—that is, since the beginning of scientific classification." 
New mammals get the most attention.  The count of mammal species might double over time, according to Smithsonian mammologist Kristofer Helgen. That's an authoritative source: Helgen has discovered 100 species himself! So keep looking.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

T. rex, King of the Auctioneers

Tryannosaurus Stan, one of the largest and best T. rex skeletons ever found, went to auctions this evening.  It was estimated to be worth $8 million, or (acocuonting for inflation) a couple million less than the famous Sue.  Stan looked down from his three-meter-plus height as the first bid came in at $3 million, followed by one bid after another, until the insane number of $31.8m was reached. Who the bidding firm represented is not yet known, but someone is about to create a great museum exhibit - or have a showpiece that SHOULD be in a museum. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sputnik, 63 years on.

 63 years ago, at a secret Soviet rocket base, Sputnik 1 rose into the night and changed the world forever. Read what Dr. James Van Allen himself called the "definitive account" of two nations reaching for Valhalla. Erika Maurer and I spent two years bringing the story to life, and we'll always be proud of it.


P.S. OK, we made a mistake about a Viking sounding rocket launch taking part of the test stand up with it. We're sorry. Must have sniffed too much oxidizer.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

How many coelacanths?

We all know the basic story. In 1938, a South African trawler pulled up a fish about the size of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the museum curator who spotted the strange blue trophy.  It was a coelacanth, descended from a line of lobe-finned fishes that had supposedly gone extinct 66 million years ago. Latimeria chalumnaewas certainly the most famous piscine discovery of the 20th century. It appeared this one had strayed from the species' usual range,  later confirmed as the area immediately surrounding the Comoro Islands.  In 1999, another species was described, thousands of miles east of the Comoros.  Dr. Mark Erdmann, a biologist, and his wife Arnaz, a naturalist, were on honeymoon   on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, when she saw something odd on a fisherman’s cart.  “Isn’t that one of those fossil fishes?” she asked.  That species is now known as Latimeria menadoensis.  (An African population, although not a new species, was confirmed in 2000.)

Now we have more - or we might.  I missed the announcement of this in January - I've no idea how - but two of the Indonesian populations are separated by some 13 million years. We  may have another species, or a group of related species (there's a LOT to be analyzed concerning the Indonesian coelacanths)  where the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, called a species complex.  A writer for Reef Builders notes, "The evidence comes from genetic analysis of a single sample of a Coelacanth that was fished up from 300 meters deep in West Papua, that was ‘mostly eaten’ before some tissue could be preserved."  So we will see what comes out of this study and efforts to find other specimens to match it..

Oddity: In 1995, reports circulated about a coelacanth being caught off Jamaica. This startling tale made some newspapers, but no one was able to confirm it. The aforementioned George Brown, founder of a coelacanth conservation group, the Society for Protection Of Old Fishes (yes, the acronym is SPOOF), reported he’d heard nothing about it. Dr. Karl Shuker, an English zoologist who also tried to verify the story, believes it was a hoax or a case of mistaken identity. 

There rests the mystery of coelacanth distribution.  It’s likely there are (or were) populations between the Comoros and Indonesia.  It’s also still possible we’ll find coelacanths in other parts of the globe.  Perhaps this famous fish, while still fascinating and important, isn’t quite as rare as we thought.