Saturday, November 30, 2013

Turtles are doing better: Maui's dolphin is in deep trouble

There are a couple of marine conservation success stories to tout - proof that humans CAN get it right when they come together.
Thirty years ago, there were 62 green turtle nests on the beaches of Florida.  Today there are 35,000.
The leatherback turtle was critically endangered, according to the IUCN.  In this year's Red List, it's been upgraded several steps to Vulnerable.  (The Pacific populations are still in trouble, but Atlantic leatherbacks are rebounding solidly.) The leatherback is the largest and most wide-ranging of the sea turtles: it can weigh a ton, and Hemingway's fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea calls it the "trunk turtle," which is fitting for an animal that does look a bit like luggage.  It is so large it's been implicated in some "sea monster" sightings.
On the other hand, there are 55 adult Maui's dolphins in the waters off New Zealand.  The government is taking conservations measures, but critics call them half-measures, and say the animal is swiftly departing the planet.
Dr Barbara Maas says, "New Zealand's failure to protect the world's smallest and rarest dolphin is a bitter blow to marine conservation." But she insists that, if better protection from fishing nets and other threats is enacted, "They are not doomed to extinction. Genetic variability is still high, they can bounce back but saving them is a race against time."

From Brazil, a new breed of cat

Cryptic species (not to be confused with cryptids) are animals that look very similar but are different species.  This was often impossible to sort out with the pre-DNA morphological method of identifying species.  DNA analysis has, for example, raised important questions about how many types killer whales (Orcinus orca) there are. It has also showed us there's another species of wild cat in Brazil. The handsomely spotted, housecat-sized ocilla is not, as long presumed, one species: it has two populations that overlap ranges but never interbreed.  (This gets into the question of exactly what constitutes a species, and we're not going to wade into that swamp here).  The cats were confused not only because they look similar, but because they are rare and elusive: every photograph is news.
So we bid the world's newest cat a hearty welcome and hope its nine lives can carry it through the environmental challenges of life in a shrinking rain forest.

SpaceX is - well, almost Go!

SpaceX was ready for a milestone, its first launch from Florida and its first commercial launch to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) on its once-flown Falcon 9 v.1.1.  (NOTE to Elon Musk: you can do better for a designation than that.  Advanced Falcon, perhaps)? Anyway, two launch dates have come and gone. Now I'm not blaming the SpaceX folks for caution. This is a "must have" success for a rocket with no GEO deliveries so far and a long fight ahead for US government certification for Defense payloads. Everything has to be right.  We don't have a new launch date yet - "a few days" is the best available.
Do I think they'll get it right? Yes, I do.  They've made huge strides as the first competitor to United Launch Alliance to actually make it to orbit with a medium-lift vehicle. (The Falcon Heavy may flay late next year).  Here's a toast to success!

UPDATE: After postponement, a brilliant success!

SES-8 | Falcon 9 GEO Transfer Mission
SpaceX publicity photo of Falcon 9 launch

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day: The kokako and the saola

The world's most famous "missing" bird is the ivory-billed woodpecker, but there are many species in the same boat (nest?)  The ivory-bill might be the most poignant story, because we got a last glimpse of it in a breif flurry of great excitement over the spotting of at least one bird before the species finally, sadly (I am afraid) slipped out of existence for good. 
That was a long prelude to a short post, but there is, on this Thanksgiving Day, better news on another bird, the South Island kokako.  Of 11 sightings of the "extinct" bird studied by the New Zealand Ornithological Society's Record Appraisal Committee, has validated one, made by Len Turner and Peter Rudolf near the town of Reefton in 2007.  That's not exactly yesterday, but it's a very big deal for a bird that many authorities thought didn't make it out of the 1960s.  When I wrote my newsletter Exotic Zoology (1994-99),  Dr. Karl Shuker gave me a friendly hard time because in two issues in a row I crossed the name up with another rare type, the flightless parrot called the kakapo.  (There are 62 kakapos in the world at last count.)

When big land animals go missing, it's often for good.  But the Vietnamese population of the Javan rhinoceros was rediscovered after a 40-year absence (and hunted back into extinction) and recently we have the first sighting of the Vu Quang ox, or saola, to be confirmed in many years. The species was only discovered in 1992.  Van Ngoc Thinh, Vietnamese director of the World Wide Fund for Animals (WWF), said, “When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes. Saola are the holy grail for South East Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement.” It's not clear whether there are any confirmed sightings since a capture (and death) in 2010, and before that since this episode in 1999. The animal, which may weigh 100kg, is the largest full species discovered in the wild (discounting reclassifications) since the kouprey in 1937: the latter bovid, alas, may be extinct. 

So we have many losses, but also some reasons for hope.  So Happy Thanksgiving to conservation and all the heroes working all over the world to keep rare species from disappearing. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: A thorough guide to marine mammals

Whales, Dolphins, and Other Marine Mammals of the World (Princeton Field Guides)

A very special dinosaur book - All Yesterdays

All Yesterdays - Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, 2012

This slender book will show you dinosaurs in a way you never thought of before.  C.M. Kosemen, John Conway, and Darren Naish (two paleoartists and a paleontologist)  have explored the ways in which current reconstructions of dinosaurs may vary from the real thing.  Along the way, they post some unique questions, like "How did stegosaurs have sex?" (Think about it.  Your first notion may be that it wasn't possible, only it obviously was.)  Uniquely colored and shaped dinos are presented to make the point that many reconstructions, with muscles "shrink-wrapped" about the skeleton, don't reflect the way most animals really appear.  A dinosaur we think of as sleek could have been pudgy or one we think of as dull could have been garish.  For added fun, the authors wonder how future paleontologists might reconstruct a baboon (all legs and teeth) or a cow (a svelte, fast-moving animal).   This is the kind of book that not only shows you something new, but makes you think about things you considered settled and familiar. 
So buy this one for the dinosaur lover in your family. They might be startled, but they won't be disappointed. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Record for multiple satellite launches lasts one day

Last night, an American Minotaur 1 carried 29 satellites, almost of them the tiny type called CubeSats, into orbit.  Today, a Russian Dneper launcher carried up 32.  Interestingly, both launchers are based on retired ballistic missiles. 
This isn't just a numbers game.  Earth has put up more satellites in two days than in the first four years of the Space Age.  We are in a second Space Age - one where college and high school students routinely work on satellite hardware, and a kid with a soldering iron and a credit card can order a satellite kit and become his own space agency.  The launch demand is still not being satisfied nearly as cheaply as we'd like: the CubeSats can cost $100,000 to get a single kilogram into orbit.  There's major room for improvement. 

Microsat fleet launches into space

Readers will know I take a major interest in the potential of miniaturized satellites, called microsats, nanosats, or picosats depending on side. (There is even a proposal for "femtosats" smaller than your fingernail: the ChipSat project is testing prototypes in space now.)
The most common "form factor," as the engineers say, is the CubeSat.  CubeSats are 10 cm (4 inches) on a side, the size of a square Kleenex box, and are being built in increasing numbers by everyone from the National Reconnaissance Office to high schools.  The successful Minotaur I launch, arranged by the Defense Department's Operationally Responsive Space Office and Space Test Program with coordination from NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, used a booster based on retired ICBM stages to put no less than 29 microsats, hte vast majority CubeSats, in orbit along with the larger STPSat-3. (When I say high schools I'm not kidding: TJCubeSat is from Thomas Jefferson High School.)  The launch set a record for most satellites launched on one mission. CubeSats do real science and even military testing along with being a boon for STEM education. A new generation will grow up having worked on actual satellite hardware in high school and college, and we don't even know the implications of that yet.  Go Micro! (Photo credit NASA)

Liftoff took place at NASA's Wallops FLight Facility's Pad-0b at the Mid_Atlantic Regional Spaceport about 45 minutes into the launch window. Contrary to some reports, the launch was not delayed due to solar activity. Photo Credit: NASA

Monday, November 18, 2013

MAVEN: Launching to Mars

The lastest (and, given cuts to Planetary Exploration, one of the last firmly scheduled) of America's Mars missions is due to launch in about 40 minutes.MAVEN will study the planet's atmosphere to determine its composition, history, and evolution in much greater detail than previous probes.  That information will make MAVEN dresults one more piece in the puzzle of possible Martian life, part or present.  On to Mars!

Quote for the Day is from Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX: "I would like to be born on Earth and die on Mars - although not at the point of impact."

Follow the Launch Live

And MAVEN is off.  Congrats to NASA, United Launch Alliance, and all others involved.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dunkleosteus and company

The Devonian period, sometimes known as the "Age of Fishes," might be defined as the "Age of Sorting Out," as the countless creature types from the Cambrian explosion either evolved into something adapted for the long term or, in many cases, died out.  The trilobites might have dominated the biomass, as they crawled over the sea floor in billions, and they were not all small - this species was over two feet long.  but the highlights are still the fish, which evolved into some spectacular types.  Dunkleosteus is still king, though there was one species nearly as large - this guy.

So it would have been an interesting time to get in a little fishing....

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Curse of losing cursive writing

My friend Shannon Bohle has pointed out something in her blog I hadn't thought about. While I deplored the loss of penmanship in school because it taught discipline and precision, she notes that this is leading to an inability to read cursive well, and thus to loss of access of countless documents from Presidential letters to patents and scientific papers. Until the mid-1800s, everything was written in cursive, and we're sliding down a slope toward a world where much of humanity's treasure trove of thought and action will be accessible only to specialists.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Gravity: A movie you won't forget

I finally saw Gravity. It gets a middling grade at best on physics and orbital mechanics, but A's for Sandra's performance, for the indelible visuals, and for getting the feel of being in space right. An amazing film.
I suppose you could give it a D- or an F for the orbital mechanics, if you were minded to be picky: the Shuttle, Hubble, and two space stations are shown in near-identical orbits, with each spacecraft visible from the other, and what orbit was that debris in so it came around every 90 minutes (a low orbit) yet somehow included taking out communications satellites, which operate in far higher orbits?
(Someone pointed out another oddity, which is not really about this film but about our spacefaring culture: there is a lot of irony in making a science fiction film about machines we have already sent to museums.)
All that said, the director did his best to reflect the reality of space travel within the needs of the story.  Anchored by Sandra Bullock and, in a brief but memorable role, George Clooney, with Ed Harris (who else?) as the voice of Mission Control, the human drama of voyaging though the most inhospitable realm imaginable - on where you are denied even the normal feeling of falling because there's nothing to fall TO - is brought to life as never before.  The technical wizardry is amazing: even when you know how a shot was done, you can't see it.  Some of it really could have been filmed on orbit. 
It is, in the end, not a space film but a film about survival.
It's about being human.
It's a film about US.

A Digression: Veterans' Day

This poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow needs no introduction.

A Nameless Grave

"A soldier of the Union mustered out,"
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Book Review: Dan Simmons' The Abominable

This is epic novel writing
Like most Simmons books, the detail is astonishing: you'll feel like an expert in 1920s mountain climbing, among other things, and Simmons knows how to pace things so the details never stop the story.
Climbing Mount Everest, we learn, was grueling beyond the imagination of most of us armchair adventurers.  Even after supplemental oxygen was introduced, there's a reason all pre-WWII expeditions failed to summit, the reason being that the mountaintop is a frozen, wind-lashed hell.  Simmons pits four climbers against a larger, far better armed party determined to stop them from finding a lost climber's body and the secret the dead man was carrying.  The history of mountaineering is told in the buildup to a deadly cat and mouse game in a realm where humans need every bit of stamina and grit just to stay alive, and yet must also fight for their lives.
Those wanting to learn about the yeti will not find a lot of detail, but the subject is pivotal at two points. To keep from spoiling it, I won't say whether Simmons' novel presents the metohkangmi as real animals.
My only moment of disappointment was in the end result of the larger geopolitical story that frames the deadly chase on Everest.  Again, trying to avoid spoiling the experience, I'll just say that the good guys would have used their secret information long before they did, an odd mistake by an author who works so much history into his novels.
That was one bad moment in a superb book, though.  If you are interested in tackling a long and unique novel with some cryptozoological bits, The Abominable (which is, itself, heavy enough to anchor a climbing rope or clobber a yeti with), you won't be disappointed. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Plastic Ocean

You've heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and probably the Texas-sized concentration of Japanese flotsam headed for the US Pacific Northwest.  (That one is to some degree exaggeration - it's not a solid floating mass - but there's a lot of debris on US beaches and a lot more heading out way. According to NOAA, about 1.5 million tons of such debris floated out to sea in the wake of the tsunami.) A messenger from the oceans (albeit a tragic one) was a gray whale that beached and died near Seattle.  In the stomach of this bottom-scraping filter feeder were "more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic pieces, duct tape, and a golf ball." The gray was a male 12 meters long. A biologist commented: "While debris has been found in the stomachs of some previous gray whales found dead in Puget Sound, this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously."
It's not just Puget Sound. It's not just the Pacific.  It's everywhere, and we have to stop it now.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Can a leopard change its spots - to stripes?

A striped leopard is a contradiction in terms, but Nature is full of contradictions.  One is the striped/blotched King Cheetah, originally thought to have been a distinct species, now known as a recurring genetic abnormality. There is a similar abnormality, which, in handful of even rarer cases (one writer says about a dozen are known), produces this amazing striped leopard.   
A lovely creature, isn't it?
NOTE: I  searched, but I can't find a copyright notice for this image: if I'm violation, I'll take it down.

Second new Australian dolphin

Hot on the flippers of the Australian snubfin dolphin  (Orcaella heinsohni) discovery comes the second new Australian dolphin in a decade: the newest member of a group called the humpback dolphins. The species, still not named, is the fourth known in the genus Sousa and lives off northern Australia.  (Humpback dolphins have a hump below the dorsal fin which is sometimes prominent enough to make the animal look like it's toting a small aqualung.) The new species doesn't look much different from its genus-mates, but study of 180 skulls and 235 tissue samples were involved in determining its distinctness. We don't know about its population or conservation status.  Dolphins in general are having a hard time of it even after the mass slaughter involved in tuna fishing has been drastically reduced. The baji (Lipotes vexillifer) is likely extinct, and four other species are in extreme danger.  Here's a good overview of the 5 most endangered cetaceans.