Thursday, May 31, 2007

Two new species of wolf?

Wolves are the world's most widespread wild mammal, or they were before Homo sapiens decided that they had to go. All wolves are usually considered a single species, Canis lupus, with numerous subspecies. There is a debate about some types, like the tiny, supposedly extinct Japanese wolf (either Canis lupus hodophilax or C. hodophilax). Now a paper published in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolution argues that two populations in India are, based on their mitochondrial DNA, distinct both from each other and from other wolf populations. They are therefore proposed as new species, C. himalayensis and C. indica. This finding, if verified, tells us canine evolution and relationships may be much more complex than we thought.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Megafauna Murder Mystery

I've always been fascinated by how early North America was peopled and by what happened to all those really cool mammals - mammoths, mastodons, lions, and many far stranger species - that roamed the continent in prehistory. A new theory indicates that people may be innocent, or at least partly innocent, of the megafuna murder.
Numerous experts have supported the idea that all those megafauna were essentially hunted to extinction. I've always had a problem with the idea that this is the whole answer. Where, in historical times, is one example where we can say with certainty that indigenous people have hunted a an entire ecosystem of large, wide-ranging species to extinction? If all the largest animals in N. America were wiped out, along with their predators, why did Africa (until modern poaching) teem with elephants, rhinos, hippos, and the predators that fed on them? Humans had perhaps 2 million years to spread out and hunt in Africa, but only 13,000 years or so in N. America.

OK, enough editorial comment. Read for yourself why, according to a team led by James Kennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, it looks likely a celestial body, most probably a comet, had a hand in the mass extinctions. I'm not sure from reading that that I would call it established fact, but it's certainly an intriguing possibility.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New home for Tetrapod Zoology Blog

Dr. Darren Naish's superb blog, Tetrapod Zoology, has moved to a new address. Click on the title link above to keep up on the most interesting stuff from zoology and paleontology.

Meanwhile, on Mars....

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log has a great roundup of new from and about the Red Planet. This includes the work of rovers Spirit and Opportunity, various plans for new missions and eventual human settlement, and an update on what appear to be giant sinkholes in the Martian surface. Steven Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Mars rover programs, was just honored by the National Space Society with its annual Von Braun Award.

Monday, May 28, 2007

All Creatures Great....

Experts with a U.S.-funded wildlife conservation program in war-ravaged Sudan have found a treeless island in the nation’s southern swamps that is home to “hundreds” of elephants. One participant, Tom Catterson, said, "We flew out of a cloud, and there they were. It was like something out of Jurassic Park.” The poachers who have ravaged Sudan’s elephants and other wildlife apparently never knew of this remote spot, whose location is being kept secret.

COMMENT: OK, this episode concerns a chaotic, poor, war-torn nation where travel was difficult and wildlife officers were few. But still… hundreds of elephants living unknown until now? The example will bring smiles, not only to wildlife conservationists, but to cryptozoologists who speculate on what else we might have missed.

...and Small

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise.”

The words of King Solomon come to mind amid new research on how army ants move efficiently over terrain which, from an ant’s point of view, is full of holes and other obstacles. The answer: living pothole-fillers. Scott Powell and Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol reported that ants of the species Eciton burchellii fill holes by climbing into them, adjusting their bodies to fit, and letting their sisters march over them. If the hole is too big, several ants will climb in. The behavior observed in Central and South America was duplicated in the laboratory, where ants marching over boards with holes drilled into them essentially took individual action to make the march of the colony more efficient. When the horde has passed, the “filler” ants clamber up and rejoin the march.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dinosaur find - a swimming predator

Dinosaur trackways leading into water have been found before, but these have always belonged to herbivores. Was the water a refuge from predatory species? A 125-million-year-old fossil from northern Spain indicates otherwise. A trackway on what used to be a lake bed indicates at least one (still not identified) species of theropod (a member of the group including everyone's favorite. T. rex), could indeed swim after prey. Loic Costeur of France's Universite de Nantes led a team which just published its studies of tracks made in water about 3.5 meters deep, leaving marks of the dinosaur's clawed feet on the bottom. Costeur told CNN in an email that, "The animal used a pelvic paddle motion, much like living aquatic birds."

The Coastlines of Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its 31st radar mapping pass of Titan, Saturn's giant moon, and produced the startling image of a coastline with bays, channels, islands, and so forth that could well have been taken of Earth. The "water" is an inhospitable mix of methane and ethane, but the similarity of processes at work on two totally different worlds is amazing. See the title link above for the image.

Deep-sea surprise

It's not surprising to discover a new species on marine invertebrate, but scientists sending their ROV to explore the Pacific floor reported a new sea anemone from a very odd habitat. The new species has been found only in one place: living on a "whale fall," the carcass of a dead whale. Found 3,000 meters down, the small, dead-white species Anthosactis pearseae was compared in size to a human tooth. It's hardly a big or spectacular find, but it filled in a pixel, so to speak, in our very incomplete image of life in the depths. No anenome has ever been found on a whale fall, which creates a colony that may last 60 to 100 years as the bones slowly decompose.

The Sound of Little Dinosaur Feet

Paleontologists working just a couple hours' drive from my house, in Morrison, Colorado (west of Denver) report an exciting and unusual find: tracks of baby dinosaurs, in this case some species of Stegosaurus. The tracks are about the size of a U.S. half dollar and indicate the critters were somewhere around the size of human babies at that point. Morrison Natural History Museum director Matthew Mossbrucker says,"The tracks are so crisply preserved that I can imagine the sound of tiny feet splashing up water when the baby dinosaurs came to this ancient river to drink and cool down."

Note to readers

I hope you're still out there. You take a few days off for travel followed by illness, and you realize and awful lot of science has passed you by.

I promise to be more faithful about keeping you up to date on the wide world of science and technology.

By the way, we are coming up quickly on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik (October 4). That is two days before my birthday, and I always wish Mom has been able to rush it just a bit so I could share in the occasion. Anyway, the July issue of Air&Space includes a list of 50 ways to celebrate the occasion. I wrote them a letter reminding them they had missed the obvious: Read a book! Naturally, I recommend the most complete, yet concise explanation of those years:
The First Space Race
by Matt Bille and Erika Lishock
Foreword by Dr. James A. Van Allen
Texas A&M University Press
Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Life in the Wedell Sea

Hundreds of new species of invertebrates have been discovered in the Wedell Sea of Antarctica. Three German expeditions from 2002 to 2005, trawling at depths between 1,000 and 6,000 meters, found the marine life to be far richer than anyone expected. There are nearly 600 new species from just one group, the isopods (which resemble marine woodlice).

Accompanying the article above in The Economist is an editorial discussing just how complex this whole business of describing species really is. Whether a scientists uses morphology, reproductive isolation (aka the Biological Species Concept or BSC) or DNA, classifying and bounding a species remains a fuzzy business.

New Evidence: Past Water on Mars

The NASA rover Spirit, currently prowling Mars' Gusev Crater, has found a patch of sand that strongly indicates water was present at the site. The soil is 90 percent pure silica. Project scientist Steve Ruff of ASU explained that, on Earth, "the only way you can achieve that level of enrichment is by pumping water through rocks." Steve Squyres of Cornell University added, "It was astonishing."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Eagle Soars

Amid all the bad news about extinction and conservation, we should not forget the successes. The American bald eagle has done so well it may be removed from the "Endangered" species list and downlisted to "Threatened."


Jonathan McDowell produces an informative and insightful chronicle of what's happening in space. In this entry, he reports on the status of two interesting smaller spacecraft, NASA's AIM science satellite and the MDA's NFIRE mission, along with the launch of two large new communications satellites.
(Okay, I put this in just so I could write that headline...)

New hummingbird from Latin America

Ornithologists with The Hummingbird Conservancy have a described a new species from Columbia, the very colorful Gorgeted Puffleg Eriocnemis isabellae. Actually, they were conducting a general biological survey and not specifically looking for new birds. As one co-discoverer remarked: “Though we expected to find new species of amphibians and new ranges for birds, the discovery of a new hummingbird was completely unexpected.” The species is threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture and the expansion of coca fields.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bear kills moose - in driveway

Folks in Alaska are used to wildlife. (A story is that the air traffic controller at the Anchorage airport once told a taxiing pilot, "Bear left at the taxiway," and the pilot replied, "I see him.") But waking up to find a 500-lb grizzly (more properly, brown) bear killing an adult moose in the driveway. The Lyons of Homer, Alaska, found just that. This entry on Cryptomundo links to the videos the witnesses posted on the Internet.

The Birds and the Bats

Two groups of modern vertebrates, the birds and the bats, have mastered flight. They do it very differently, though. Geoffrey Spedding, a University of Southern California professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering (in other words, a professor at my alma mater), reported on wind tunnel studies by writing, "Bats seem to be mostly specialized for agile and maneuverable flight in complex environments." Bats have a complex twisting motion that provides some lift on the upstroke, while birds rely almost entirely on the downstroke.

Discoveries on distant planets

Scientists have succeeded in a new level of analysis of extrasolar planets, measuring the temperature on one gas giant at over 2,000 degrees C and mapping the swirling winds of another.

Spectacular death of a star

Some 240 million light-years from Earth, and thus about 240 million light years ago, a supermassive star (perhaps 150 times the mass of the Sun) exploded in a burst of energy whose brightness is startling to astronomers. The supernova in the constellation Perseus was not only huge but extraordinarily bright in the visible spectrum, leaving scientists scrambling to adjust their models for a new type of stellar death.

Beaming Scotty Down

A suborbital rocket carried ashes from over 200 people, including astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, famous as engineer Scott on the original Star Trek series, into space almost two weeks ago. The Space Services, Inc. rocket came down in the mountains of New Mexico. Searchers haven't been able to find it.
They eventually will, of course, but I think Doohan would appreciate the irony of the situation. Cooper, whose metaphysical pursuits made him a bit of an oddball among the technically-minded astronaut corps, would definitely love it.

The Encyclopedia of Life

The latest and most ambitious effort to catalog all life on Earth is headed for the Web. The $100M Encyclopedia of Life project aims to include a Web page for every species on the planet. The project is concentrating first on animals, plants, and fungi, with the microbes to follow when resources permit.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


A little-known but long-running and important experiment involves a truck-sized habitat called Aquarius, 60 feet beneath the ocean surface off the Florida Keys. The habitat, owned by NOAA and operated in partnership with NASA under a program called NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) puts "aquanauts" including NASA astronauts in the habitat to study people and technology in an environment with some similarities to a space mission. The mission beginning tomorrow focuses on medical experiments, including remote operation of surgical robots. This story by SpaceRef includes links to live webcams showing the NEEMO mission.

Restructuring the Atmosphere

Current models about global warming, weather, etc. assume we understood the structure of the atmosphere. Well, not exactly. NASA reports that perhaps 60% of the atmospheric volume considered "cloud-free" actually has a kind of extremely thin haze - a transition zone where aerosol particles absorb water and where incipient clouds are starting to form or existing clouds have dissolved. Our models of the atmosphere will need to be adjusted as more data is gathered about a widespread phenomenon we did not know existed.

Orbital Express delivers

The Denver Post highlights the involvement of Colorado companies, including Ball Aerospace, in the Orbital Express robotic docking/servicing mission for DARPA. The online version of this story includes an animation of the delicate "dance" between automated spacecraft traveling 18,000 mph.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Strange sea creature filmed off Florida

OK, it's not a sea serpent. It's only two or three meters long. But that's very big for an invertebrate, and this grayish wormlike creature remains unidentified. Veteran videographer Jay Garbose, who has worked for Discovery Channel and National Geographic, shot the puzzling tape off the town of Juno Beach, Florida. He sent it to the Smithsonian, whose experts have not been able to pin a label on the beast.
Just one more reminder the sea holds more for us to discover...

R.I.P. - Astronaut Wally Schirra

Astronaut Walter M. ``Wally'' Schirra, age 84, has passed away. Schirra was the only man to fly in space in all three of the first US space programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
Schirra was a naval officer, a combat pilot in Korea, and later a test pilot before being picked for Project Mercury. He said of his Mercury comrades: "We shared a common dream to test the limits of man's imagination and daring."

Godspeed, Wally.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Spidey vs. Spiders

The staff at offers an entertaining look at how the powers of "Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman" compare to those of real arachnids. Answer: the web stuff - well, it really could support a guy swinging through Manhattan. "Spider sense" is, alas, fiction.

Mystery cat from India

Black leopards are known from India, but wildlife officials are not sure that's what they captured on film recently. The animal is being referred to as a "black panther," with one expert making it clear that was meant as a generic term for a large black feline, species unknown. The animal is in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, and forestry personnel there, along with experts from the Wildlife Institute of India, will be going back to get a closer look at the enigmatic cat.