Thursday, October 31, 2013

No Australian Nessie and no mermaids, either

There have been "sea serpent" reports off Australia before, as well as this bizarre seagoing chimera called the moha-moha (a pretty obvious hoax report if you ask me. Or ask any biologist who ever lived.)  This is, of course, not to be confused with the blimp of the fish world, the mola mola, which if you just hear a description probably sounds like a hoax - but isn't.
The latest report is this one, accompanied by a photograph.  While it looks monstrous, Australian cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy suggests it was the bow of a sunken dragon boat.  Gilroy has a habit of erring on the credulous side of cryptozoology, so when he believes in a prosaic explanation for a report, I suspect he's right. Especially since, in this case, the plesiosaur shape just "bobbed" in the water.  Darn.
Then from Deepsea News we have this analysis of why mermaids don't exist.  Sheanna Steingass explains that mermaids of the classic variety would freeze, be unable to reproduce, and would have a variety of other anatomically-based problems.  Now, I have never met anyone who thinks such a thing actually exists, but it is one of the sea's most charming legends.

My dad, a folk singer, still performs this one.

The Eddystone Light (traditional)

Me father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light,
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
Out of this union there came three,
A porpoise and a porgy, and the other was me!
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

One night, as I was a-trimmin’ the glim
And singing a verse from the evening hymn
I see by the light of me binnacle lamp,
Me kind old father lookin’ jolly and damp.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

A voice from starboard shouted, “Ahoy!”
And there was me mother sittin’ on a buoy
Meanin’ a bouy for ships what sail,
And not a boy what’s a juvenile male.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

Well, what became of me children three?”
Me mother then she asked of me.
Well, one was exhibited as a talking fish,
The other was served as a savory dish.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

The phosphorous flashed in her seaweed hair
I looked again and me mother wasn’t there,
But her voice came echoing out of the night,
“To hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!”
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

The Kraken of Doom

Squid don't fossilize well (only the calcified "pen" and maybe the beak turn up), so we don't know as much as we'd like about their evolution, including just when they got to be really big.  The modern giant squid can approach (maybe even, in long-tentacled examples, exceed) 18m.  But was there a giant squid in the days of the dinosaurs? This paper says there was - and not only was it monstrous, it decorated its den with the skeletons of its victims.  Not surprisingly, most paleontologists think this idea a bit preposterous.  A piece of a squid's pen from 218 million years ago belonged, one paleontologist says, to a species at least as big as modern giants. 
It's a very unlikely possibility, but it's fun to think about. Maybe the giant seagoing reptiles had equally giant rivals?  We don't know when this "kraken" species, if it's being correctly identified at all, appeared, or how and when it went extinct.  We just know there's a bit of a controversy here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Lost World" is an overused term, but...

"Lost World" owes its popularity as a term to the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, THAT A. Conan Doyle),  with a modern boost from the Jurassic Park films and some really bad films of Doyle's novel.  Biologists are careful about using it for every newly investigated patch of forest or mountain yielding new species, but the press loves it, and the scientists sometimes go along. 
The latest use concerns a plateau in Australia's Cape Melville Range never properly surveyed by biological scientists. While no dinosaurs turned up, the herps of this region offered plenty of surprises.  One scientist called the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko the "strangest new species to come across my desk in 26 years working as a professional herpetologist." The 20-cm lizard has long legs, big eyes, and a camouflage pattern that's astonishing effective: it just disappears against many backdrops. A golden skink and a rather pretty frog completed the initial haul. Dr Conrad Hoskin of  James Cook University commented, " be able to walk into a new mountain range and find several new animals immediately shows that there must be very many more out there."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Something with poison..."

The Wicked Witch of the West had a point. Poison is very handy when it comes to survival, and two recent discoveries have told us more about venomous animals. 
First, an obvious question for paleontologists is when poison first evolved.  The apparent answer popped up in 2009.  (OK, you can argue whether that6's "recent," but I'm working on a theme here.) Half a billion years ago, tiny jawless proto-vertebrates called conodonts evolved strange-looking teeth. (Teeth without jaws were pretty fashionable back then).  Polish scientist Hubert Szaniawski reported, "Many of them are characterized by possession of a deep, longitudinal groove, usually associated with sharp edges or ridges. A comparative study of the grooved elements and venomous teeth and spines of living and extinct vertebrates strongly suggests that the groove in conodonts was also used for delivery of venom." So this poisoning has been going on a long time. (Weird fact: baboon,s which are not venomous, have such grooves for no apparent reason.)
The crustaceans, however, never saw the need for poison, opting to develop better claws and other weaponry.  Or we thought they did. Among seventy thousand species, maybe there had to be an oddball.  London scientists Bjorn von Reumont has found that primitive crustaceans called remipedes, which look a little like swimming centipedes, have, in one species  (Speleonectes tulumensis), developed toxic fangs. The venom is, as might be expected, odd: it mixes a neurotoxin to make its prey helpless and a heavy does of digestive enzymes to get into the prey's body and start breaking it down.
Nature, once again, proves stranger than ...well, anything else. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Meanwhile, in Suriname...

Another batch of new species.  Sixty of them, to be exact.  In this case, researchers had a rare untrammeled habitat to examine. Dr. Leeanne Alonso, an entomologist who led a recent expedition for Conservation International, said, "I have conducted expeditions all over the world, but never have I seen such beautiful, pristine forests so untouched by humans. Southern Suriname is one of the last places on earth where there is a large expanse of pristine tropical forest. The high number of new species discovered is evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have only just begun to uncover."
Does modern technology make these expeditions easy? Easier, yes. Easy" Hell, no.  Dr. Trond Larsen's blog about a flooding river drowning the expedition's camps and nearly drowning him makes compelling reading.
He adds his own thoughts on the findings: "...we were surprised and uplifted to discover so many frogs potentially new to science, including a stunningly sleek “cocoa” tree frog. Among the new fishes, we found a gorgeous, miniature tetra with a golden body and red eyes, similar to the head-and-tail-light tetra so popular among aquarists."

Flood of new species from the Amazon

I can't say it often enough: We have not found all the new species on Earth, not even the "major" ones like primates.  The Amazon has amazed us with many new discoveries, and a new report from the WWF collects 441 of these from 2010 through the present.    The adorable caqueta titi monkey (Callicebus caquetensis), purrs like a kitten when young. The monkey was the only mammal mentioned in this particular report, which is a bit odd since Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has found several more recent mammals.  There are, to go with however many mammals, 18 birds (authorities once thought the birds had almost all been discovered), 84 fish, 58 amphibians, and 22 reptiles, with the rest being plants.  The title of "weirdest new discovery" might go to the vegetarian piranha, which  can weigh up to 4 kilograms.
It's easy to sit here in middle-class North American comfort and say, "They need to protect the habitat." "They" do need to protect it, but "we need to help them, with money, with know-how, and with monitoring the activities of corporations based up here.  It is said the forests are "lungs" of planet Earth.  We're down to about half a lung.  However you take action, whether it's sending money or writing Congress or being part of a conservation, organization, discoveries like these remind us of the urgent need to do what we can.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Start planning: 2014 Pikes Peak Writers Conference

The highlight of the writing year out here in Colorado is in the planning stages.  The dates are set 25-27 April 2014.  The keynote speakers are on board, and a revamped writer's context (the Zebulon) is under way.  Start making plans!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

46th anniversary of most famous "crypto" footage ever taken

It was 46 years today
That Patty taught the band to play
Squatch is going in and out of style
But it's guaranteed to raise a smile
So let me introduce to you
Still puzzling after these years
Patty Bigfoot's lonely creature band!

OK, that's guaranteed to be the worst Beatles parody ever written.  Be glad I don't sing. 

Today in 1967, at Bluff Creek, California, Roger Patterson, a rodeo rider and general odd-job man, and his pal Bob Gimlin went looking for Bigfoot.  Against seemingly stupefying odds, they found her. and Patterson shot what is probably the second most analyzed amateur film ever taken (after the Zapruder film of JFK). 

Despite a flood of books, there is still some mystery here.
If it was a hoax, it was a well done hoax.  None of the countless enhancements and enlargements done since then has shown any obviously artificial detail like a zipper.  Neither the simplistic theatrical costume alleged by Greg Long in The Making of Bigfoot nor the homemade costume others skeptics have attributed to Patterson would have measured up.  There are lots of rumors attributing the costume to John Chambers of the Planet of the Apes films, and he probably could have done it, but has said he didn't, and how would he have hooked up with P-G anyway?
If it's an animal, it has just as many problems.  Dr. John Napier, the most eminent primatologist ever to endorse sasquatch's reality, thought it was an unacceptable hybrid - top half like an ape, bottom half (despite the fur) quite distinctively human.  No one has been able to get any footage nearly as good in 46 years despite the explosion of people and money poured into the phenomenon by TV.  No one has found the animal itself, for that matter, or even a piece of it, even a DNA sample that hasn't been shredded by scientific critics.

My thought? The nays have it.  Probably.  The only thing that keeps me from closing the sasquatch file entirely is some of the seemingly clear and puzzling witness reports, but I've closed the file on the film.  I'd bet my house, here and now, that it was a hoax.  (You would, too, if you had my mortgage.) But there are mysteries about who made it and how.  I'd like someone to solve those.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On being named an Associate Fellow of the AIAA

My friends: on the occasion of my having been named an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, I'd like to thank everyone who'd collaborated with me, critiqued me, encouraged me, or simply put up with me.   This reflects some 30 years of membership, publications, and participation.  I can honestly say I earned it, but I can't say I earned it alone.

God bless you all. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

And the Sykes DNA reveals... no new species

Professor Bryan Sykes' tests on putative sasquatch and yeti DNA samples sent from around the world has yielded... not a lot.  Even the specimens he thought most unusual are, it appears,  brown bears. 
You might say it's a little more interesting than that, given that the specimens most precisely matched a polar bear, which harkens back to when the two species were one.  That's odd, given there haven't been any polars in the Himalayas forever (as in, never), and Sykes suggests there might be a subspecies that branched off just at the brown/polar split and has remained basically unchanged.  So maybe there's something of real zoological interest. I hope so.  But no yetis, no sasquatches, no new primates at all.  That's kind of depressing, really. 

Update: Here's a good recap of the latest by Loren Coleman.  More information has come out about how and where these specimens were obtained.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

New Species (OK, almost new): Laos' giant flying squirrel

What's Lao for "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat"?

I missed this one when it first came out. Laos, it seems, has a very impressive flying squirrel, the second in its enigmatic genus, discovered at a market in 2012.  With a total length of over a meter (very impressive, even if it's mostly tail), the squirrel is one of the world's largest. Biswamoyopterus laoensis a close relative to Biswamoyopterus buswasi, itself known from only one specimen, found in 1981 in India. 
As I wrote in Shadows of Existence, the trendline of new mammal species discoveries is sloping up, not down.  Part of that is differentiating similar species via DNA and other techniques, but we're a long way from exhausting possible discoveries in the wild.  A new species and genus of rat, Halmaheramys bokimekot, just turned up in Indonesia, five new bats were found in Senegal, and the list just goes on. 
Are we done with finding distinct new species of large land mammals (say, 25kg or larger)? I think not.  Marc van Roosmalen's spectacular black and white jaguar may be a new species (given that van Roosmalen is the greatest living discoverer of Amazonian mammals, his certainty about this is nothing to dismiss).  The evidence for a new primate in Sumatra, the Orang Pendek, is pretty good if not yet definitive. Either would bring major headlines if confirmed. 
There may be many more headlines before we're done cataloging the mammals of the world.

Shutdown and Science

OK, the government is shut down. For the first few days, we were all joking, "How can we tell?"  Not funny any more.  Regardless of one's position on the issues, it takes the House, Senate, and President together to negotiate seriously, and our leaders are pretty darn slow in coming around to that.  So next time I vote, my slogan is, "A plague on all your Houses.  And White Houses. And Senate Chambers."
I think leaders of agencies deserve some brickbats, too, for assuming until the end that this wouldn't happen and not having more arrangements in place to keep critical research going through standby agreements with universities, agreements to share essential personnel across agencies, etc. It would still be terrible, but maybe a little less so.  Now we have NASA unable to do much of anything except keep the ISS astronauts supported, researchers in the Antarctic with no money to continue science but somehow enough money to bring them home, and nuclear labs closing (aren't those sort of essential by definition?) (The NASA article, BTW, came to my attention via a post by Shannon Bohle, who has a great blog here.) And the NIH unable to enroll new patients in trials that might, you know, save their lives. 
And pandacams shut down.  Seriously? How many cents a day did it cost to run the pandacams? I'll pay for it. 
Reminder to DC: Despite all the turmoil in America, we voters still have one power: we can still send every one of your butts home.  And maybe we should.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ad Astra, Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter was one of the Mercury Seven, the knights America sent into the skies to contest the Soviet Union.  If that romantic picture has faded over the years with the discovery that the astronauts were (surprise) human beings with feeling and failings, the fact remains that these young men undertook an incredibly dangerous adventure. Their motivations included patriotism, love of adventure, and the determination among test pilots to fly faster and farther than any of their brethren.  As Tom Wolfe wrote, "Scott was the only one with a touch of the poet about him," the only one of the seven who talked much about the philosophical implications of pushing humanity into a new frontier. He was also the only one to join John Glenn in urging his fellows to watch their public images and behavior.  He wrote an exciting and moving autobiography, For Spacious Skies. As a final touch of uniqueness, Carpenter turned to another frontier, becoming a pioneering aquanaut in the Navy's SeaLab program. 
I've never met any of the Seven: I would still like to meet Glenn, the last living example, but the other one I'd have loved to meet was always Carpenter.  Farewell.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

DNA of whales and... unknown primates?

The species known as Bryde's whale may be 16m long, but it is very little studied. The IUCN says there's not even enough data to know whether it's endangered. Actually, we don't even know if it's one global population or has distinct units.
Or we didn't.  Now we know there are two distinct subpopulations, or subspecies.  The smaller, coastal form has only one matriarchal DNA line: in other word,s there's very little variation.  In addition, the larger, ocean-going type is split into three sub-sub populations.  This may seen academic, but the conservation implications are big. Now we can study how each group is doing and tailor efforts to protect them..

Meanwhile, recall I rejected Dr. Melba Ketchum's claims about sasquatch DNA.  I said it was my final word, and it was.  But something potentially more interesting is going on. Prof Brian Sykes  offered to test "unknown primate" DNA samples, and he got them from all over the world.  He went through a lot of trash but apparently had significant results.
Sykes is a credentialed authority - what he has to say will be interesting.
But I'm troubled.  Apparently, while the findings are still going through peer review, there will be a documentary and a book.  The only comparable recent discovery (if this is a discovery) would be of the Flores "hobbit" people, and that one was done right: the peer review came first, and the discovery was announced in NATURE, the world's most prestigious and trusted journal.  That's the way to do it.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Wandering by Loch Ness

No, I haven't wandered by the lake in person,  I've always wanted to: I still do.  And I want the Loch to have a monster in it, even though I no longer think it does.
In the 1970s, Nessie was looking really good.  Photos and sonar readings were drawing serious interest from "mainstream" marine biologists and zoologists.  New Scientist and Limnology and Oceanography carried articles.  (There is, believe it or not, a paper by Carl Sagan on the sighting probabilities in Loch Ness, albeit a bit tongue in cheek.)  It seemed like the 1960 film by aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale might have been a real record of a real animal.
In 2013, as when I wrote about this in my book Shadows of Existence in 2006, I'm struck by the lack of new evidence.  Not sightings: there are still sightings, some hoaxed, some sincere.  But when this photo hoax (I admit, I didn't know what it was when I first saw it) is the biggest news in years, what's key is that are no new kinds of evidence.  People have spent over 80 years watching the loch and the same types of evidence: distant photos and eyewitness reports - keep piling up.  But is there anything  else?
Alas, no.  No good video, no recent sonar traces, no physical remains.  Some cryptozoologists think the creature (ok, everyone agrees there is not "a" monster, there has to be a breeding colony) occasionally emerges on land.  But it never leaves a trace.  Ness is the most-studied lake, I would wager, in all the British Isles.  And yet not only do we have no proof of a monster, but we have no proof there are enough fish in the lake to feed a colony of monsters: indeed, Dr. Roy Mackal's earlier work arguing there was enough has been pretty broadly dismissed as unwarranted extrapolations based on minimal evidence, and any predator is unlikely to be an unknown species: sightings of live animals, Adrian Shine and others argue, concern sturgeon or the occasional wandering seal (the seals are well documented: the sturgeon are speculative). 
I hate saying goodbye to Nessie.  She got me interested in cryptozoology in the first place.  I still think cryptozoology has something to contribute - even if there are no Nessies (or sasquatches, for that matter) lurking in just out of our sight. 

Space: The Historic Frontier

Space history is one of my specialties, so I apologize for being overly distracted this past week: October 4, of course, is Sputnik Day: It marks 56 years after the Space Age began.  NBC News has some new stuff on what it was like to watch the first orbital launch.  While Sputnik 1 did NOT start the nationwide panic some writers have assumed, it caused some serious concern, as it should have.  After all, the Russians were backward barbarians, right?
Wrong.  Americans should have looked back to the war years, when Russia produced superb weapons like the T-34/85 tanks and the Yak-9 fighter.  The difference between the nations was that manufacturing know-how, the latest alloys, and then-advanced machine tools  were present throughout US industry, while in Russia they were in more limited supply and a program had to get top-level attention to compete for the resources it needed.   Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Chief Designer, was a master of politics as well as engineering.  He got what he needed.  And, fueled in equal parts by patriotism and the desire for exploration, he put the world into space. (The R-7 booster he and his colleagues produced is still in service in modified form.)
Just short of a year later, on 1  October 1958, NASA was born after President Eisenhower chose a civilian, rather than a military body to lead space exploration.  (The Sputnik program was always military, with the Academy of Sciences as a figurehead: Russian spokesmen, asked whether Sputnik 1 was military or civilian, insisted it was simply "a Soviet satellite." )

The definitive English-language biography of Korolev this one by James Harford.. 

As a look back at the history of history, here's how the always-excellent Alan Boyle covered the 40th anniversary in 1997

The best book on the early Space Age? Well, you could nominate Asif Siddiqi's momentous Challenge to Apollo.  But we have a soft spot for a more modest effort called The First Space Race.

History Note: The Civil War in color

Some painstaking work has resulted in colorized versions - as accurate as surviving Civil War gear, contemporary paintings, and old accounts could make them - of what the Civil War would have looked like if color photography had existed.  This set includes two of the people I most admire from this era, the oft-overlooked George H. Thomas (the masterful Union general no one could stop) and my fellow Mainer, Renaissance man Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  Here too are the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer, the reflective President Abraham Lincoln, and a striking camp-tent portrait of Union Brigadier General David M. Gregg and his staff, showing the differing shades of blue in the Union uniforms.   (There actually were color photos in those days, but the art of capturing color was at an embryonic state of experimentation: no color photos of the battlefields exist.)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The last gasp of the Ketchum-Erickson "sasquatch" claims

I tried to be very, very fair to Dr. Melba Ketchum in the slim hope she really had discovered an unknown North American primate.  But the DNA, despite positive interpretations by her and some of the labs she used, has been shredded by people with far more expertise.  And she tied it, repeatedly and explicitly, to "high-definition" video of a sasquatch nicknamed Matilda taken by a group called the Erickson Project.

My personal opinion, in precise scientific terms: it's all crap.  The article from Doubtful News sums it up pretty well.  The much-hyped footage looks like cheap theatrical costumes, the face looks like Chewbacca, and footage of sasquatches on the move looks, in ever ycase, like a like a human, with human body proportions, in a suit.  Even other cryptozoological enthusiasts are dismissing this all as a hoax, and not even a good one.  Ask Jay Michael Cooney, who deconstructed it some time ago in the just-linked blog, or John Kirk, who shreds it here.  And it's all become tangled up with a bizarre, obvious hoax called the "Sierra Kills" where a guy claims to have shot sasquatches and collected no body parts whatsoever, and for a reason beyond comprehension, some people believed him. 

Could there still be a Sasquatch? Despite the odds, I can't quite say "impossible." There are still reports by sincere people who claim they saw one closeup, and the Oxford-Sykes DNA project results are still out. 

But the Ketchum-Erickson-Sierra-Olympia mess will get no more attention from me.  It's time to waltz Matilda off the stage of cryptozoology forever.