Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Cowboy Frog" one of 46 new species

Latest RAP team report

From a Conservation International Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) team in Suriname comes a report of 46 new species.  The headliner is the "cowboy frog," a brown (you could say buckskin-colored) amphibian with white fringes down the backs of its legs and spurs on its heels.  No word about its preference in hats.

Did US down Russia's Mars Mission? No Way

Oberg finds that no part of the Russian theory fits

Russia has been making ominous noises about how the US may have accidentally or deliberately fried its Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars with a radar beam, ostensibly used to track asteroids, from the US Pacific launch site of Kwajalein.  Veteran space reporter James Oberg find that, besides the official US denials, the theory is not physically possible.  The radar at Kwaj is not suitable for asteroid studies and was not turned on.  The Phobos Grunt mission was well over the horizon at teh "suspicious" point. And the the tracking of Russia's probe, which kept raising its orbit when not commanded to do so, indicates an on-board control failure early in the flight had it constantly doing useless thruster burns under the fuel was exhausted. 

Darn, I was hoping for something cool, like UFOs... oh well, that's all over the internet anyway.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Space Launch System: Will it Fly?

Experts divided on super-booster

The SLS is the only major space transportation project NASA has going (industry has others of course, but people pay more attention to a NASA program, especially if it supports human space flight.)  NASA management is bullish on it, but other experts wonder if it's the best approach. A lot of people, myself included, are afraid the very expensive project may be starved of funds and end up getting canceled. Five-flight Shuttle astronaut Scott Parazynski, says, "I worry about this one, in particular, because there's really not a destination with milestones. When you have a rocket, but you don't really know where it's going to take you yet, that becomes discretionary funding that's easily canceled. And that's what I think is going to happen."
Does the President have us on a workable course for human exploration, or would one of the GOP candidates be better? By workable, I don't just mean they would fund good ideas, but would they let the engineers do the work without political interference and constant budget changes?  NASA has staked a lot on this big bird. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fighting over space

Gingrich wants to revive the Bush concept of a lunar base. Romney thinks it's a boondoggle.  Newt asks what people are even doing at NASA HQ anymore, and Ron Paul wants to colonize the moon, but only with politicians. There's some pandering here, of course, but when is the last time space was even discussed at the national level? That's one part of the political slugfest I'll actually be paying attention to. 

Looking back at species found in 2011

Quite a collection

This article celebrated the new species of 2011.  And what a collection they make.  New titi monkey, new tube-nosed bat, that curious ferret-badger. A singing frog. Four new shrews (of the untamed type).  The world's most fearsome wasp, a long-tounged bee, and - a new elephant? Okay, we always knew the forest elephant was there, it's just that we've finally nailed it down as a separate species.  Same with the new dolphin. But the "Spongebob mushroom" and the bee with an extradinarily long tongue, and the orange spider? Brand new.

Humans all over the place?

More than one species - maybe

It used to be thought that only one species of human existed on the planet at any time, if you accept the recent view that we weren't that separate from Neanderthals.  But the Denisovans and the "hobbits" have rather scrambled things up. Oh, and Neanderthals lived alongside the rest of us longer than we thought.  The director of the Gibraltar Museum, on the island where Neanderthals may have made their last stand, looks at what it all means. 

Are we forgetting our biology?

Fewer scientists are out there among the critters

Some scientists complain that too much effort is going into splitting DNA hairs and not enough into finding and classifying stuff in the field - or teaching about it.  I'll explain this one by giving the money quotes:

We are producing "a generation of armchair biologists who can write scholarly essays about species that they would not be able to recognize if they encountered them in the wild."

"...people get very, very specialized. It's not the kind of old-fashioned taxonomy where people had a very broad knowledge."

"There is a huge need for people who can recognize what things are."

New species: 19,232 of 'em

2011 count (actually 2009) is eye-opening

It takes a while to compile all the new species descriptions from all the journals worldwide, so the 2011 report covers the ones described in 2009.  It's pretty amazing.  41 living mammals (mainly rodents and bats, but some bigger ones, too). Seven new living birds.  (I have a journal article from a decade or so back that says new bird discoveries are unlikely.)  626 crustaceans.  And, of course, thousands and thousands of beetles. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The fossils of La Brea

We're learning more all the time

From LA's La Brea tar pits have come a huge trove of fossils, with over 200 vertebrates represented. Mammoths, sabertooths, short-faced bears (one of my favorites) - they're all here.  The point in this article is that this is not just a source for exhibits, but for ongoing investigations using DNA and other modern techniques. Where did the ancestors of these creatures, especially the massive mammals, come from? More importantly for our own time, where did they go?  Why did so many species vanish in such a short time?  Paleontologists are making new findings... and yes, it's still OK for us to look in awe at the exhibits. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Most Curious Cabinet of Curiosities

Mounted Wolfman? Check.

This is a most enjoyable bit of silliness.  A person using the name Alex C.F. has prepared or obtained a marvelous collection of taxidermy mounts and models of fabulous creatures.  Some of these look really good, and the "history" accompanying them is likewise a lot of fun.  Who knew Rasputin and Dante were cryptozoologists?

Friday, January 20, 2012

'Extinct' monkey rediscovered

Miller's Grizzled Langur

From Wehea Forest in East Kalimantan, Borneo, comes a bit of good news for conservation.  Aside from having an interesting name, Miller's Grizzled Langur was known for being possibly extinct.  This large gray monkey, we now know, is hanging on to existence.  It's still on the list of 25 most endangered primates, but 'rare' is an improvement on 'extinct.'

How tall can trees grow?

Redwoods are pushing it

Here's a fun little bit of nature trivia: how tall can a tree get. Trees are driven (or pulled) upward as they attempt to outgrow competitors in the search for sunlight, but there is our old nemesis, gravity, holding them back. Researchers who have worked out the engineering here suggest there's a maximum between 122 and 130 meters. That's taller than the current champ, a coast redwoodreaching to 115m. (there are people who still search the forests for an overlooked record-breaker).

There are claims that coast redwoods exceeding 130m were felled in the early 20th century, and there are several claims for felled Australian mountain ash up to 150m!  None of those records are documented photographically, although some include the claim that they were actually measured by a government or logging company surveyor after they fell. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Giant tortoise may not be extinct

Missing reptile's recent offspring found
It's hard to misplace a Galapagos tortoise, an animal that looks like a Volkwswagon beetle, only slightly smaller.  Charles Darwin described one such, Chelonoidis elephantopus, from Floreana Island.

It was thought extinct for some 150 years now, but hybrid tortoises on a nearby island were sired by the Floreana type only 15 years ago, an eyeblink in a tortoise's lifetime.  So the search is on for the species once again. 

First photo of new monkey

Hi, I'm a snub-nosed monkey from Myanmar

It was the most recent primate discovery (well, the most recent that's bigger than a mouse lemur, of which incidentally we just found a brand-new one.)
Loren Coleman writes:
"Jeremy Holden of Flora & Fauna International has shared with me, for release on Cryptomundo, the first photographs of the new primate now known as the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey."  Very cool.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Creating a supersoldier ant

Tinkering Produces Exceptional Ants

Remember those giant ants in 1950s movies? Well, we're not there yet. But scientists have shown they CAN bring out some genes that make for a super-soldier ant.  Let them explain it: 'We uncovered an ancestral development potential to produce a novel supersoldier subcaste that has been retained throughout a hyperdiverse ant genus that evolved 35 to 60 million years ago.' In other words, compared to other ants, this is a monster. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Australian Sharks Are Hybridizing

57 Hybrid Sharks Found
Australian scientists report something they have never found in the wild - hybrid sharks. Two species of blacktip shark have not only produced hybrids, but are producing a lot of them - 57 caught and identified so far.  The fraternization may be due to a depleted habitat with fewer blacktips of each species, or to a change in one species' range, but either way it's a surprise to icthyologists. The classic definition of a species is a population that breeds only with its own kind. While that's pretty elastic, the rule is that different species mate only under unusual conditions. In a picture of evolution in action - possibly giving rise eventually to a new species - the unusual is becoming common.

Monday, January 02, 2012

GRAIL explores the Moon

NASA spacecraft get in position

From NASA "The second of NASA's two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft has successfully completed its planned main engine burn and is now in lunar orbit. Working together, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B will study the moon as never before...During GRAIL's science mission, the two spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features such as mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly...Scientists will translate this information into a high-resolution map of the moon's gravitational field. The data will allow scientists to understand what goes on below the lunar surface."

Almost as exciting: The probes each carry a camera, which will be trained on areas selected for study by middle-school students across America.  (Sally Ride conceived this project.) A student contest is also underway to pick new names for the spacecraft.


Add four new sharks to 2011 discoveries

More sharks than we thought
A new sawshark - often called a "sawfish" - was discovered in 2011, along with two smaller lantern sharks from Taiwan and an angel shark from the Philippines. But here's the money quote from this article: "Over the last ten years there’s been some 200 new shark and ray species described, whereas less than 200 in the previous 30 years."  The more we explore, the more we learn, and the more we learn the more we realize how little we knew.