Monday, November 30, 2009

Mars Meteorite: Life After All?

In a 1996 study of the Allan Hills 84001 Meteorite, strongly believed to be of Martian origin, NASA scientists announced the finding of "microfossils" indicating the presence of Martian bacteria. This was controversial, and scientists generally rejected it on the grounds the structures could have been formed naturally. (Not surprisingly, when you claim you have discovered Martian life, the bar for evidence is set pretty high.) A new analysis using high resolution electron microscopy has concluded the microfossils could not have been formed naturally. One of the team members said, "We feel vindicated. We’ve shown the alternate explanation is absolutely incorrect, leading us back to our original position that these structures are formed by bacteria on Mars."
COMMENT: As one cautious scientist observed, results from a single meteorite, however impressive, won't put a question as complex and monumental as Martian life to rest. The next step is to replicate the findings - either from other meteorites or on Mars.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

High-tech semi-submerged vessel proposed

I don't know whether this marine exploration vessel will ever be real, although the French inventor says he's raised half the 35 million Euros needed to build it, and the president of France has endorsed it. The idea is that this vessel, which looks a bit like a giant sail, ship will operate mostly submerged, with divers able to simply walk out of a hatch tens of meters below sea level.
COMMENT: I'm not sure this complex gizmo will be worth the premium it will cost to build and operate compared to a conventional exploration vessel with submersibles, but I can't help hoping it gets its chance to demonstrate its promised utility. It's original and darn cool.

Mysteries of the naked mole rat

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are not just odd-looking little mammals. They are every bit as bizarre as they look.
Where mice and other rodents their size may die of old age at 2, mole rats can live to 30. They don't get cancer. They don't have bone loss until well into old age. Their brains can stand being deprived of oxygen for 30 minutes. (Homo sapiens? Five minutes tops.) They don't even feel pain. That would seem a mixed blessing, given that humans who don't feel pain are always hurting themselves, but it seems to work out OK for the rat.
Naturally, scientists are curious about all these adaptations, most of which have obvious human benefits if (it's always a huge if) they can be replicated in our own species.
COMMENT: So remember, naked mole rats are not just the heroic little pet in my daughter's once-favorite cartoon, Kim Possible. They may actually become heroes of science and medicine in real life.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Astronaut one of NG's "Adventurers of the Year"

John Grunsfeld, the leader on the spacewalk that restored the Hubble Space Telescope to better than new, was honored by National Geographic as an "Adventurer of the Year."
COMMENT: There is a lot of debate about the future of human spaceflight, but there are things that humans, no matter how troublesome and fragile they are as space travelers, can still do better than any robot. One is on-orbit repair: the other is inspiring other people.

Keeping up with new species

James Platt highlights just a few of the new species discovered in 2009, including a chameleon that was discovered when a researcher interrupted the snake that was eating it.

Review: On Thin Ice, by Richard Ellis

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear.
Richard Ellis
2009, Knopf (New York).
Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web.
The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear."
This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, train a polar bear team to pull a sled.
The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands.
Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our willingness to kill adults even when they are not presenting a threat.
Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species.
A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last.
When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action.
Essentially, then, the book has a zoology/history section and a policy section. The zoology/history section is wonderful. The policy section displays Ellis' passion for the bear in a manner that could have been given more context but is nevertheless gripping.
Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sea serpents and coelacanths

While I'm citing Darren Naish, let me put in a link to another of his posts, with an excellent discussion in the Comments following: the possibility of large unclassified marine animals, sometimes reported as "sea serpents," still being out there. Dr. Naish is keeping an open mind. It's a coincidence that I am linking to a post where he recommended bmy books on the topic. (Really, it is.)

Here's my comment from this discussion, which had veered into sasquatch and other cryptozoological topics as well as sea critters:

First, thanks to Darren for mentioning my books. I'm not perfect at this, but I try. I intend to write followup books about every ten years until I depart the planet. The idea is to leave a record of some of the major discoveries in zoology and developments in cryptozoology covering a half-century or so.
The giant crocodile seen from a U-boat is discounted by some cryptozoologists as a hoax. It always bothered me that the account claims the whole animal was thrown clear of the water by an explosion on the target ship after the ship sank. The physics don't work.
Despite the time that's passed since the Nicoll / Meade Waldo case, I think it still stands as important evidence. Maurice Burton wrote that he'd seen a conger eel swim (for some reason) with head and forebody out of water: if you have a giant species (10-15 meters?) that occasionally does the same, it comes close enough to this and and some other SS sightings to have an explanation without postulating the survival of an ancient group. (Such an animal does not explain all the good sightings, and we may yet have a long-necked pinniped out there, although we should have better evidence for it than we do.)
If I had to bet money on sasquatch, I would bet it does not exist. I would not close the file on the grounds of the fossil record, though - the fossil record of the modern chimp and gorilla is so sparse that a couple of missed finds would place it at zero. But hair, dung, and even DNA samples only identify sasquatch if you have known sasquatch specimens to compare them to. Nothing except a whole animal or a significant piece of one is going to suffice for a scientific description.
Posted by: Matt Bille | November 25, 2009 2:18 PM

Startling photos: hippos kill crocodile

Darren Naish posts a couple of really gripping photographs. Apparently a crocodile tried to get at a hippo calf - scrambling over the backs of the hippo herd at one point, it looks like - and it turned out to be a really, really bad idea.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Giant "Dumbo" octopus one of Census of Marine Life finds

"Dumbo" octopuses, a rare gelatinous type with earlike fins used for swimming, were thought to be small as well as primitive. A species discovered this year in a survey of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, though, is two meters long. They appear to live between 1,000 and 3,000 meters deep, a zone where they are one of the larger animals around. This is just one of the continuing trove of weird and wonderful animals emerging from this ongoing survey.
In an unusual sidelight, the comic strip Sherman's Lagoon just ran a timely strip featuring the Dumbo, in which the Census of Marine Life is being carried out by fish swimming around with clipboards. (Oddly, I can't find the Dumbo cartoon on the website at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Hobbits" were a new species: the latest round

A statistical analysis of skull shapes and body dimensions demonstrates the Flores Island "hobbits" were a separate species, according to the latest study offered up as evidence in a controversy ongoing since 2003. Modern humans, microcephalic humans, and the Flores specimen LB1 are all distinct, say William Jungers, Ph.D., and Karen Baab, Ph.D. Babb argues, "Attempts to dismiss the hobbits as pathological people have failed repeatedly because the medical diagnoses of dwarfing syndromes and microcephaly bear no resemblance to the unique anatomy of Homo floresiensis."
COMMENT: As readers know, I have always been on the "separate species" side of this argument. This has been a fascinating example of a scientific controversy, and I doubt the final word has been said.

THANKS to Dale Drinnon for circulating this link.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Image: Martian ice lake

This is a startling image of water ice pooled in a crater at the Martian North Pole. ESA's Mars Express spacecraft has given us this glimpse of a world that, while very cold and a little short on atmosphere, is not quite as hostile as we used to think.

New finch species seen emerging?

One of the problems in explaining and proving evolution has always been that its timescale is too slow for real-time observations by humans, at least where vertebrates were concerned. However, two researches studying the famous finches of the Galapagos report seeing the creation of an apparent new species in action. On an island with only one finch species, the arrival of an oddball migrant in 1981 set off a chain of events which, seven generations later, has produced a finch with a distinct appearance and song. It's not clear whether this reproductively isolated type can breed with other finches (part of the classic definition of a species), but it seems to be well along the path to complete separation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Scientific blogging of all sorts

I suppose you could argue it makes this blog superfluous, but I would be amiss not to point on occasion to the almost limitless resource offered by the site Scientific Blogging. A glance at today's collection of blogs offers stuff from scientists and science writers on topics as diverse as the Higgs boson (nope, still haven't found it), engineering education (it would use some engineering work), mummies, and (of course) science writing. They even sell cool T-shirts.

Siamese crocodiles hid in plain sight

Cambodia's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center houses dozens of crocodiles, most hybrids of the rare Siamese species (Crocodylus siamensis). What no one knew until DNA work was done was that half were not hybrids. They were the world's largest captive population of pure Siamese crocodiles, a highly endangered species. Conservationists are thrilled... and a little embarrassed.

Strange ancient crocodile bore tusklike teeth

A croc that hunted on land, with land-adapted legs rather than the stout, bowed legs we normally expect on a croc, is strange enough. When it had three sets of huge fangs, projecting top and bottom like the tusks of a warthog, that's positively weird. Kaprosuchus saharicusa , a newly described fossil from Niger (only one of three new crocodile species), even added "an armored snout for ramming" to all of this. The discoverer said, "This has never been seen before on any crocodile."

Why would a land animal lose its lungs?

That's the question raised by this bizarre little amphibian. Its ancestors and its near relatives have lungs, but this newly discovered, wormlike cacaelian borrows around breathing through its skin, a method of respiration normally used only in aquatic environments. One scientist suggests the species "lost" its lungs through evolving a narrower body diameter that facilitated burrowing, but admitted that was only a guess.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Isn't this baby cute?

OK, maybe not so much. But it is a very young coelacanth, 31.5cm long, photographed by Japanese researchers in its home environment. The ancient fish, of which Ogden Nash remarked "It doesn't know it's obsolete," is still a mystery to us in some ways, and the finding of juveniles is a step forward in our understanding.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Crikey! New species honors Steve Irwin

A colorfully striped new species of land snail with an unusual habitat - it's found only on mountaintops over 1000m above sea level - has been named to honor another unique Australian, Steve Irwin. Scientists of the Queensland Museum decided the animal needed a new genus as well as a new specific name, so, here it is: Crikey steveirwini.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Water ice on the Moon

"I'll take that on the (Moon) rocks."
The LCROSS probe collision in the lunar south pole region got NASA what they hoped for - evidence of water ice in the resulting debris plume. We don't know if there's enough to significantly help in supporting a human base on the Moon, but we know where to look now.
COMMENT: Someone commenting on this story said that they'd pay a lot for a beer brewed with genuine Moon water. Maybe someday that won't sound so crazy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

European students build lunar orbiter

When college students go to look at the moon, they don't always have engineering on their minds. However, the European Space Agency is sponsoring the European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO) for a launch around 2014. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) will be the prime contractor to integrate all the systems built by groups of students into a lunar mapping spacecrraft.
COMMENT: Wonderful plan. NASA, are you listening? (NASA is already quite good about projects to inspire students, but this takes the idea to a new level - or new orbit, if you will - and mertis a look.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The beauty of the Earth

This fellow has collected the strangest and most beautiful landscapes in the world, from geometric formations that don't look natural at all to ice pillars and enormous crytals.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Lonnie Zamora, UFO Witness

I don't spend much time on UFOs anymore, but the passing of one of history's most famous UFO witnesses deserves a mention. Lonnie Zamora, the New Mexico cop whose report of a landed UFO from April 24, 1964, near Socorro, was one of the best-known cases for a long time, died November 2.
The Air Force investigation of this report, which was mainly based on Zamora's retelling plus some rectangular impressions in the ground and burn traces on the ground and surrounding brush, ruled out an extraterrestrial craft or a secret military device but did not go so far as to declare the case a hoax. UFO skeptic Philip Klass thought Zamora might have been fooled by one of his hypothesized unconfirmed-natural-phenomena class of plasma UFOs, with stray wisps of plasma accounting for Zamora's report of two small figures in white coveralls next to the UFO. Klass later changed his opinion to a probable hoax, with Zamora, well known as an upstanding citizen, pressured by tourist-seeking local officials to provide the focal point. There's no proof of this, either, though. There were other witnesses who reported something flying low and making the jet-like roar Zamora reported, but the police officer was the only person who claimed to have seen the craft while it was on the ground and to have gotten a close look.
COMMENT: One item in Zamora's report, a red half-circle-and-arrow insignia seen on the side of the craft has always bothered me: it has never been reported again on a UFO or anything else, and it seems like something a hoaxer would make up. Still, neither Zamora nor anyone else has ever admitted a hoax, and the case went into the Project Blue Book files as "unexplained."

The Mystery of the Falklands Wolf

When is the only mammal on an island group a large canid, with no mice, rats, or bats to accompany it? There's only one case, that of the now-extinct Falklands wolf. These red-furred, coyote-size animals have always been a puzzle. Now scientists using DNA from preserved specimens have confirmed it was neither a true wolf nor a domestic dog nor a coyote: it was s a relative of the long-legged maned wolf, a unique canid of South America. How did it get to the Falklands, 480km from the mainland, thousands of years before humans made it to the New World? We still don't know.

THANKS to Dale Drinnon for passing on this linke

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Ares-I: now what?

The Orlando Sentinel, a paper which naturally does a lot of space coverage, calls for the demise of Ares-I. With one mostly successful test of a partial vehicle done, NASA believes it's making appropriate progress. The Augustine Commission didn't make a definitive finding on the rocket, instead laying out alternative scenarios, and new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden hasn't weighed in yet. I know a lot of people smarter than me believe in the Ares, but I still lean to the "kill" side. It won't be ready until 2017 or so, at a far later date and higher cost than promised. I'm aware that man-rating a commercial booster is not easy or cheap, but I think it could give us a more powerful, more flexible rocket at least a couple of years sooner.

First-ever photos: sperm whale eating giant squid

These underwater photographs from the Pacific near the Bonin Islands are the first actual record of a sperm whale chomping on a giant squid. The squid in these pictures is about 9m long.

THANKS to Gavin Joth for finding this link.

Farewell to Robert Rines

Robert Rines, a prominent inventor and patent attorney best known for his decades-long effort to prove the existence of large unknown animals in Loch Ness, has died. Rines was 87. Rines and his wife were convinced they saw a "monster" in the Loch in 1971, and he poured considerable money and time into developing sonar and camera systems that would obtain proof. It was his expeditions that obtained controversial underwater photographs in 1972 and 1975, along with some sonar readings that are still unexplained. Rines was still making expeditions to the Loch in his 80s.
COMMENT: Rines never got the unambiguous proof of Nessie (a species he lately feared could be extinct) he was seeking, but his is the story of a determined man who put his money where his heart was and tried to bring a legend into the light of science. The world needs people like Robert Rines, and he will be missed.

UPDATE: The distinguished international news magazine The Economist published an affectionate obituary to the man and the dream.
THANKS to Kris Winkler for that link.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Nothing like it in the world: Crypto Museum Opens

Photos from the opening of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, ME. Pride of place goes to a startlingly lifelike, life-size sasquatch sculpture, but the msueum houses thousands of books and artifacts documenting the influence of cryptozoology on science and culture. There's nothing like it, and there can't be anything like it, given the many one-of-a-kind items stored here.

Support the Museum - buy a really cool T-shirt!