Friday, May 31, 2013

The Citizen Scientist still matters

The nonscientist, the amateur, whatever term you want to use, the role of the non-degreed scientist has not outlived its utility. Sure, it was easier to make contributions without a scientific position or degree in past centuries - or was it? Thanks to the Internet and improvements in gadgets like telescopes, the amateur can contribute more than ever. Citizen scientists find comets and asteroids, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, count birds and bugs and all manner of creatures, and collaborate on a global scale.  It's pretty cool. 
Here, courtesy of my friend Crystal Kuecker, is the BBC's great collection of links for amateurs in the UK.  (The word "amateur," by the way, means "love of.") In the United States, we have the Great Backyard Bird Count, an indispensable contribution to monitoring the status and migration of bird populations that has now expanded globally. You want science? Try people from 103 countries reporting on 3,144 species of birds. Then we have the Christmas Bird Count to check on our feathered friends in the winter. In fact, amateur bird spotters now contribute rear round to the Audubon Society's eBird. When a spectacular explosion lit the skies of Jupiter last September, it was amateurs who caught it. Through the Zooniverse portal, citizens contribute to a wide variety of disciplines that simply cannot do a good job without the participation of a large body of home-grown naturalists to supplement the work of professionals.
So go do some science!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mammoths rise, bird fossils fly

Quite a week for paleontology. First a mammoth with intact blood is found (seemingly raising the odds of cloning, even though that's still some years off at best). (Some people caution that, while this appears in many news services, it may trace back to Pravda, which has gone from being predictably false under the Soviet regime to being unpredictably crazy at times.)  Then the "first bird," 150MY-old Archeopteryx, was restored to its proper place in the dino-to-bird evolutionary chain thorough comparing characteristics with an even older fossil, a newly described bird from China dating 10MY earlier. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Flying creatures or flying rumors?

This is a fun roundup of some aerial creatures that have, at some point, been claimed to exist.  Some, like the thunderbird of North America, are widespread, with variations from several Native American tribes and from modern sightings.  Others, like Africa's supernatural (and disgusting) popawaba, seem to be purely artifacts of one culture and one origin.
Ah, but are any of them physical animals? I don't think we'll find a thunderbird: sincere witnesses aside, the odds that such a bird has evaded millions of birders and a society of smartphone-camera-carriers have gotten unrealistic.  (There is a sort of side mystery to this: we have not yet definitively solved the case of Washington's eagle, a bird John James Audubon thought differed in size and other characteristics from the bald eagle.  Perhaps a few examples of what might be a striking subspecies hang on, maybe in Alaska, generally mistaken for ordinary bald eagles except in rare closeup encounters? It's not impossible, and it's certainly fun to think about.)
The giant bat reported by Ivan Sanderson in Africa, and its counterparts from that continent and Indonesia, might indicate a real creature somewhere in the legends and exaggerations.  Some "flying fox" bats have wingspans of nearly two meters. It doesn't seem beyond zoological plausibility to suggest a three-meter-wingspan bat, which, even if harmless, would be startling enough to make an observer jump out of his shoes. (Sanderson, an experienced wildlife observer, though his bat nearly four meters across, but I think some exaggeration is almost inevitable in such a scary encounter.) This business has gotten tangled up with the claims for living pterodactyls, which have turned up in many regions of Africa plus New Guinea, the southwestern United States, South America, and, in one instance, France, but a living pterodactyl IS beyond zoological plausibility. Even though there are witnesses, including the late Scott Norman, a cryptozoologist I greatly respected, I think the flying reptile is a collection of flying mistaken observations of known creatures - or, just maybe, a species of really big bat.  We are still discovering bats, like this really cute one.  Watch the skies...

Friday, May 24, 2013

Reflections on Wernher von Braun

This isn't a particular anniversary of much of anything, but an article article by Charlie Petit posted on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker commented on an article from, of all sources, Al Jazeera.  And it was a good one, written by Amy Shira Teitel. 
She asks if German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun was the most controversial man in history.  He doesn't rate "in history," but he was controversial - and, I think, always will be.  The river of time tracing  space exploration runs through Pennemunde - and, unavoidably, its hellish offspring, the Mittelwerk, where prisoners of all types, including POWs (who could not, according to the Geneva Conventions, be put to making war material at all) were worked to death in thousands to build V-2s. 
When Erika Lishock and I did our book The First Space Race, we talked to associates of von Braun including James Van Allen and Ernst Stuhlinger, and I corresponded with Michael Neufeld, who later wrote the definitive biography. Stulhlinger had earlier written a biography laying out the von Braun story as he remembered living it with him.  Von Braun lied even to his close American friend General Bruce Medaris about not knowing the manufacturing conditions: he had nothing to do with the decision to employ slave labor, but he did learn about it, and there are at least a couple of pieces of correspondence with his signature.  Stulinger argued that von Bran and his Army superior, Walter Dornberger, tried to get better conditions but could not persuade the SS, which ran the production plant, to make any changes.
Our judgment call after weighing the various sources was that he probably did argue to the SS commander that the prisoners would produce better work if treated better, but when he was brushed off, he didn't pursue it, and he made no formal protest (nothing in writing). What he could have done, of course, remains forever in doubt. Most likely, he could have done nothing, but that doesn't absolve him of not trying harder.
We would have reached space without von Braun, eventually.  As events unfolded, though, he was pivotal.  His Jupiter-C launched the first American satellite, and his Saturn V took us to the Moon.  By "his," I don't mean he was the sole designer by any means, but he had a way of grasping an overall design and how things would work together - or could be made to work - that engineers deep in a particular technology like propulsion could have missed.  He felt an enginer has to "keep his hands dirty" - keep a hand in the work, and visit the shop floors.  He was also a leader who could rally men (and they were, of course, men in those days) to difficult challenges. Russia's Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, had the same strengths. Each man expressed with wish he could have worked with the other, but in the Cold War, that was not going to happen. 
Von Braun's enthusiasm for space was always genuine, as was his Christian faith, but both were compromised.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Dino parenting, reading the past, and a great explorer

We don't know everything about how dinosaurs protected or raised their young, but we're learning more. It wasn't that long ago we presumed the eggs were just left to survive or not, and we didn't know about herd behavior or nesting grounds.  (Remember, we didn't even have dinosaur eggs until Roy Chapman Andrews, one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones, found them in the Gobi Desert in 1923.)

This interesting tidbit indicates that, while it's not conclusive, it looks like dads, too, watched the nest. This belief is based partly on comparing dinosaur information to our knowledge of their descendants, the modern birds.
Thanks to Julia Vollmers for this article.

To continue for a bit about Andrews, he wrote four books that I devoured repeatedly as a kid - they began a lifelong fascination for me.

All About Dinosaurs (1953)

All About Whales (1954)

All About Strange Beasts of the Past (1956)

In the Days of the Dinosaurs (1959)

 - I wrote to Andrews as a kid: I didn't know he'd died in 1960.
 - Mongolia was as wild as a land could be to a Western explorer when when Andrews was there. There were clashes with bandits (the paleontologists always went armed), Chinese officials, near-starvation, and getting very lost.
 - Andrews tried testing the Jonah story by sliding his body partly down the throat of a dead 60-foot sperm whale.  He could do it, but it was very tight - he wrote that a human would be dead long before he reached the stomach.
- Andrews once saw a whale with two dorsal fins and shouted to the whaling boat captain, "Catch it! If you catch it I'll name it after you!" Alas, it was a mother and calf pressed tightly together
 - Andrews' (unique) opinion was that the Surgeon's photograph from Loch Ness showed the high dorsal fin of a killer whale. 

Visit the Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Moby Dick and the wondrous sperm whale

I'm watching the 2010 miniseries of Moby Dick, which I hadn't given a thought to when it came out.  William Hurt as Ahab has a nice edge of crazed determination tinged with self-assurance: he is not only determined to kill this whale, but he is certain that he's meant to succeed.  Like all other adaptations, this one makes the whale all white, which Herman Melville didn't, but the whale effects are pretty good, and there's the kind of menace you'll remember from the movie Jaws in the way the whale stalks his tormentors.  Humanizing Ahab with the addition of backstory including the captain's wife doesn't contribute a lot (why is it so hard for Gillian Anderson to get roles with some meat on them?), but Hurt's Ahab does have a bit of humanity left in him  The 1998 version of this tale, with Patrick Stewart, had a great performance, but really bad whale effects. Some critics thought Gregory Peck was miscast in the 1956 film, but I always liked that version as well. 
I read Amos Smalley's account in Reader's Digest many years ago.  He was an old harpooner who claimed he that in 1902 he had killed a white 90-foot sperm whale (or Physeter macrocephalus, to be proper) and he was a guest at the 1956 premiere, introduced by John Huston as the man who harpooned the real Moby Dick.  This account is a bit odd. For one thing, no other source records it.  For another, Nature has (sadly) not furnished us with 90-foot sperm whales.  Measurements for whales landed in the 20th century ranged up to about 67 feet long.  There is anecdotal evidence they used to get bigger: the whale that sank the whaleship Essex was claimed to be 80  feet, although it obviously was not caught, and whalemen whose ship has "been stove by a whale" are hardly likely to underestimate their adversary.  Richard Ellis, author of The Great Sperm Whale, the best book on this animal, is cautious about claims of whales of 70-90 feet,  although he mentions teeth 11 inches long in a museum collection and wonders how big their former possessor was: 8 inch teeth would be  normal for an adult male. Whatever the upper size limit, the animal is one of the most remarkable creatures in the oceans, now or ever: that 20-foot nose alone sets it apart! The skull of the largest males is almost exactly the size of the Ford Freestyle SUV in my garage, which is 17.5 feet.
We don't even know what the whale sees.  Its eyes, separated by that nose, can't see an overlapping field like ours can: it scans two separate fields of view. We can't be sure what this looks like to the whale, though. Does the world's largest brain put these pictures together and create an approximation of what may lie between them, or does it examine each view individually? Does it synthesize a single multi-sensory image from its vision and its superb sonar equipment?
Speaking of sonar, if the sperm whale isn't exactly the answer to Dr. Evil's demand for "sharks with frickin' laser beams," it does possess a sonic cannon unlike any other weapon, natural or technological, in the world. (There is some evidence killer whales may have evolved this on a smaller scale.) It uses this apparatus to stun giant squid: these amazing pictures from 2009 show an adult sperm actually carrying a squid trophy in her mouth. We know even less about the squid, of course, although we at least now have video of the animal alive. Video or photography of an actual hunt and capture of the squid by the whale has eluded us, despite efforts that include attaching cameras to the whales.
Hank Searls wrote an interesting novel, Sounding, in an attempt to give us a look into the whale's  brain.  It's a good novel, though it always bothered me that whales somehow seem to know they are part of a group called Cetacea.

Sounding: a sperm whale shows its flukes as it dives. Sperm whales are known to dive well over a mile deep and may approach two miles. (NOAA) 

We have only one species of sperm whale, or cachalot, and there have been only a few hints of unknown types.  Robert Sibbald, the first great authority on whales, believed reports of a version with a high dorsal fin.  He thought this was a separate species, Physeter tursio, though, even if accurately reported, the whale involved seems more likely to have been an oddball (a fluke? even I wouldn't make a pun that bad).   Sperm whales Sibbald examined in person didn't have the dorsal fin.  We do have at least one example from Nature (and the pages of National Geographic) of an all-white cachalot, so they do exist - even if not as big as Amos Smalley claimed.
Overall, the study of this animal doesn't give the cryptozoologists much to do, other than examine the interesting accounts of huge giant squid arms vomited up by these whales in their death throes. A sperm whale also produced the famous Naden Harbor carcass, thought by most biologists to be a decaying basking shark, but odd enough so there is some debate about it being an unknown species of animal.
The sperm whale, though, has no need of mystery bretheren to make it intriguing: it is, complete and by itself, one of the most remarkable animals ever to live.  There is enough mystery to this species to keep cetologists busy for generations to come. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Living Fossils and Undying Jellyfish

Ever since Charles Darwin coined the term "living fossil," it's been bandied around very loosely.  One creature that desrves the label more than most is the coelacanth, which hasn't changed a whole lot in 300 million years. Sequencing its DNA tells us why: its genes don't evolve very fast. Those of reptiles and mammals evolve at twice this rate. Why? We're not sure.
We're not sure about this critter either - the immortal jellyfish. When it ages, it collapses into a pile of goo and starts the life cycle over again.  James Cameron never imagined anything so weird on Pandora.   

Fusion - one strike so far

A subject I touch on every now and then is my belief that fusion reactors are not the primary way to power Earth's future, but the only way to produce massive quantities of power for industry while eliminating fossil fuels (solar and wind are increasing their contributions, but on nothing close to the scale needed to power a global industrial society (or post-industrial, if you prefer) affordably).  So it pains me to report this: the National Ignition Facility has spent $3.6B, both for maintaining the reliability of nuclear weapons without actually blowing up any continents and for pursuing laser-enabled fusion for the production of energy.  So far, this excellent roundup of information indicates it's doing its job for the nuclear stockpile, but has not, and may never, achieve its goal of practical fusion (meaning more energy comes out than goes in). There are other approaches to fusion power which may prove more fruitful, and the NIF itself may yet find the right formula, but so far we're not getting there. That said, we still need to invest in those other approaches. One thing that is still in good supply is human ingenuity. We need to solve this problem, and we can. The math works: we've just not translated it into the right hardware yet.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Zuiyo Maru carcass: Big Discovery or Basking Shark?

One topic that never fails to intigue cryptozoologists is that of large unidentified marine animals, for which we are pretty much stuck with the name "sea serpent" even though no one thinks there are giant snakes involved.  A logical question is why we have no carcasses of such animals.  There are large animals, mainly beaked whales, known from a very few strandings, but shouldn't we have at least one definite set of remains if there's a plesiosaur or giant long-necked seal or whatever at large? Reported sea serpent carcasses have either been identified as known animals (cetaceans or basking sharks) or have disappeared before being examined by a scientific authority.
One of the carcass reports that continually resurfaces, so to speak, in cryptozoology is the one netted on April 25, 1977, off New Zealand by the Japanese fishing boat Zuiyo Maru. The surviving photographs show something that does look like a plesiosaur - but also like a decaying basking shark.  In this case, the carcass was not kept, but there are the photographs and, even more important, tissue samples.
My view: this is a case we should dismiss. 
One online paper, John Goertzen's, claims it cant't be a shark because it has small upper fins above the pectorals. That's not what is looks like to me, though - it just looks like the remains of a dorsal fin is visible on the near side - and no animal in all history, of any type, had such fins. There are a number of anatomical reasons why this is not a plesiosaur, one being that the ribs are far too short.   While the overall shape  looks somewhat similar to a plesiosaur, again, all rotting basking sharks do. The tissue samples were given to the boat's owner, the Taiyo Fish Company, whose biochemist said the samples were shark tissue. The samples contained elastoidin, which exists only in sharks and rays.
In the interests of debate, here's a Video in which one expert argues for an "unknown" identity (although the reasoning is not clear to me).  But I think this paper by Gary Kuban is the definitive one on the subject. 
Finally, a comment by Dr. Darren Naish, a British paleobiologist who is not by any means close-minded on cryptozoological subjects, posting in response to an arugment by cryptozoologist Scott Mardis: "It is a rotting basking shark. Yasuda's assertions are irrelevant and his 1978 paper is based on allusions to gross aspects of anatomy that aren't useful in working out the identity of the carcass: you >cannot< look at a very obviously rotting carcass and assume that it represents the original, genuine body shape. Given the strength of the shark hypothesis, I do find it misleading to keep implying that the true identity of the carcass is potentially up for grabs..."
The bottom line: I wish this was a plesiosaur, but I'll bet my house it wasn't.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Arr, it's a plunderfish!

Nope, a plunderfish is not a pirate. It's part of a genus of oddball fish, and the newly discovered hopbeard plunderfish is one of the oddest as well as having the best name.  They are mottled brown animals with a chunky, sort-of-tadpole shape, barbels protruding from their chins, and a penchant for the deep waters - up to a mile deep - off Antarctica.  Antarctic sea life is still being explored - the Census of Marine Life hauled up an array of new invertebrates, and the surface waters contain huge masses of tiny crustaceans along with the biggest animal ever, the blue whale, which loves to scoop up the crustaceans that appear in such abundance  (in other words, Antarctic blues have a license to krill. You wondered where I was going with that...) The bizarre, transparent no-hemoglobin icefish (96 species of them!) form about 95 percent of the fish biomass in this region. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Some interesting graphs on climate change

I haven't written much on climate change, mainly because it's incredibly complex (simplistic Al Gore movies aside) and I'm hardly qualified to tease it all out. But it's a topic I needed to think about for my upcoming book on marine life. Among the sources I've perused, this is a very helpful one.  A couple of graphs in this story have been useful in grasping the basic thrust of what's going on. The first lists the hottest years on record, and there's an irregular but dominant trend of such years clustering toward our present day, The second is the slowdown in the rise of surface temps, the Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index. 
These obviously seem to be at least partly contradictory. The current belief among most climatologists is that the heat is being absorbed by the deep oceans and is gradually warming the subsurface water, not the surface where we do our measuring. 
I posted a comment asking why the "switch" from surface warming to ocean warming might have taken place: The article here says Pacific wind circulation is most likely to blame: see the ADDED note below for another response.

There are a few other things I understand so far, or at least I think I do.
One opinion I've formed is that climatologists can be their own worst enemies. Things like the East Anglia climate emails seem to me to indicate a desire to make good science look like perfect science, to take a public view that all questions were settled when they are not.  I agree the overall trend of the last century or two (how's that for precision) is toward a slow warming, and I agree that human activity is playing a role. It's not believable, though, to read a boiled-down statement that warming will increase X degrees and that human activity accounts for Y of those degrees when there are all kinds of variables. Some publications explain this, others do not.  Part of that is the media summarizing complicated reports by bodies like the IPCC in a paragraph or a headline, but I think I detect an underlying feeling that "If we tell people there are doubts and variables, they'll dismiss the whole subject." Science is often messy. 
This is a big planet under a myriad of intertwined and complex influences. No trend will be unambiguously clear. We should expect temporary flattening out, even the occasional reversal, of any tendencies in global temperature graphs. We should also expect very disparate local effects (such as some areas of Antarctica gaining sea ice while others lose it) regardless of what the big picture is. 
These graphs are helpful in getting that big picture.  But they also remind us that modeling something as complex as climate is not yet an exact science. No one predicted the recent leveling out in surface temperatures: those temperatures should, according to climatologists, have been rising more quickly if anything. Certainly models should be adjusted for real-world input: when the real world doesn't match the model prediction, you have to find out why and use that to improve the model.  But you shouldn't have advertised the modeling publicly as near-perfect in the first place - even if you thought it was pretty good. Climatologists have tended to do that.
By the way, there's no excuse for labeling everyone who argues with the theory a corporate tool and a "denier" equavelnt to "Holocaust deniers" and saying they should be put on trial (which people I previously thought sane have actually advocated).  Sometimes deniers have raised good questions. Honest dissent in science is as vital as free speech in politics.
One thing that is not deniable is that we are, in Carl Sagan's words, conducting a giant experiment on ourselves. There is no control group, no spare planet, just a one-time experiment with pumping combustion products into the atmosphere and seeing what will happen.
Logic is on the side of those who advocate restricting that experiment as much as possible.  But they have to admit, as James Hansen tends not to, that there are real human costs in every course of action as well as benefits. There's not an inexhaustible sum of money in the "rich people" or "the developed world" that can be redirected with no negative impacts.  Everything has costs and tradeoffs. Put $50M into converting a coal plant to natural gas, or put it into mosquito nets and vaccinations? Give electricity to rural Ghana, or forgo it if the economics require it be fossil fuel generated? This is hard stuff, and political leaders are not good at hard stuff.  Everyone, scientists and Presidents and Congressmen and Prime Ministers and industrialists, have to agree that there is a problem AND that the answers require difficult choices. 

ADDED: John Holman wrote back to me thus: "Ocean Heat Content Anomaly - It's the amount of energy being added to the oceans each year. The imbalance at the top of the atmosphere results in more energy coming into the earth system than leaving; hence, warming. In general, once heat is stored in the deep ocean it will not come back out until the imbalance at the TOA reverses: like in an ice age. What Trenberth means by "coming back out" is a period where of the amount of energy coming in, less goes into the ocean and more warms the atmosphere, and then goes back to outer space: a lower OHC anomaly and a higher SAT anomaly. Also known as periods of ocean dynamics that tend to warm the SAT. The atmosphere does not store much energy. That is why running trend lines off of 1998, or any other hottest year, is as stupid as it gets."
Thanks, John!

Intersection of science and art

Fascinating article about making a documentary on invertebrates - inspired by an artist's works in glass. 

Time to let the orcas go

I've been to aquarium shows several times to watch the orcas, or killer whales, in their performances. I always enjoyed the shows and was fascinated by the animals themselves. For many years, I've felt the captivity of some whales was essentially more than worth it to the species and to whales as a whole. Captive orcas taught people that these are not mindless killers but intelligent, family-centered animals worthy of protection.
But it's time to let them go.
The horrific events at SeaWorld, detailed in the powerful book Death at SeaWorld, are reason enough. Of course, any large predatory animal is dangerous to keep captive: ask the lion keeper at the zoo.  But orcas have an especially hard time with captivity, and "angry" and self-destructive behavior is almost inevitable.  They are very large animals and often have lifestyles that can't be matched in captivity (transient populations that specialize in eating marine mammals are especially unsuited - we can't do a sea lion show and then throw the sea lion to Shamu, can we?) They have to circle in tanks that are, for them, very small, and often featureless inside, which for a creature that uses its sonar for much of its understanding of the world is like being in a roomful of mirrors.
There's no doubt the trainers and vets at these aquaria love the animals. They knock themselves out to provide the best care they can under the circumstances, and I'm the first to agree that, if we are determined to keep smart, gregarious animals in enclosures, the "tricks" are certainly more stimulating for the animals than just letting them swim around. And I've no doubt that some orcas, especially those born in captivity,  do find their interactions with trainers to be genuinely fun.
There may be some older orcas that can't be rehabilitated for a full ocean existence, like aging captive-born lions that wouldn't last two days in the wild.  In all cases, though, the animals can at least be moved to seaside pens where the trainers can be employed to teach them how to be wild orcas and sort out those animals that can't make the adaptation. Orcas in such situations can still be a source of income, as people can use walkways, live Web-feed cameras, and maybe even boats to observe them, though from distances that won't affect their retraining. At the same time, the orca tanks can be turned over to the smaller cetaceans, the dolphins and belugas, to give them more room and allow them to be kept in larger groups. (We may eventually decide we should let all cetaceans go, but for now, let's focus on the orcas as the least suited to captivity.)  I imagine that a lot of people would chip in for the rehabilitation process, "adopting" a whale and being kept up on its progress the way the world was captivated by "Willy" (Keiko) a few years back. 
I'm not, by any stretch, a marine mammal expert, just a naturalist with a longtime interest. There may be good counter-arguments, though I've not found any that are convincing to me.  We have indeed learned a lot about orcas from the close examination of captives, and millions of people have come to care about them. But the orcas have done all the good they can as ambassadors for the species, and we'll eventually have more tragic events that detract from that good. The orcas have made a great deal of money for the aquaria, certainly enough to recompense them for the money that might be lost from phasing them out. It's time to let killer whales punch the clock and go home. 

Blog on the continuing problems with captivity
Media information from SeaWorld

To learn more about orcas, two must-reads are:
Into Great Silence, Eva Salutis' memorable book following an orca pod in the wild
Orca: The Whale Called Killer, a  classic that taught the world so much about orcas

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Space and Zoology Book Giveaway


I have published three books, a well-received history of the early satellites (The First Space Race) and two books on discoveries and mysteries of the animal kingdom (Rumors of Existence, 1995, and Shadows of Existence, 2006). I am GIVING AWAY two free signed copies of each, shipped to you at no charge. The only catch: You must promise to write an Amazon review (you can be honest) as soon as you’ve finished the book. I am posting this on all my pages and blogs. In 48 hours (Tuesday evening), I will write down all the names who requested each book and let my unbiased daughter pick them from a bowl. I’ll then get back to the winners to ask their mailing addresses. So answer with your name and which book you’d prefer!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Sea serpents on film? Not much of a record.

The photographic record for "sea serpents" - that is, photos, movies, or videos which show clearly undescribed species of large animals - is not good. Arguably it's non-existent (and no one is sadder about that than I am). 
The first "sea serpent" photo is dated 1908, supposedly from the San Francisco Examiner, although some people who have looked can't find the issue. We do have the picture, which was republished in 1933 in a less-cropped version. The object looks weird, sort of a big black arched thing that might not even be part of the same original photograph. Smithsonian herpetologist George Zug, who was open to cryptozoological claims, thought he could see a tow rope at one end. 
Sea serpents assiduously avoided cameras after that, which is a mark (not a damning one, as there are few or no photos of some beaked whales at sea, but an important one) against their existence.
(The 1908 photo is shown here: as far as I can tell, copyright has expired)
i-dbde941fb19c31c3d9127b76451e98d4-Prof Sharpe photo from Dwight & Mangiacopra 2001.jpg
The "Mary F" photographs allegedly taken off Cornwall in 1976 by a semi-anonymous person made for some press, but the case is not even a good hoax. The "animal" looks like nothing that ever lived and sits absurdly high in the water.
The videotape of "Chessie" in Chesapeake Bay (1982) is more intriguing.  It shows a dark animate object low in the water, and it's not immediately identifiable as anything known. Zug thought it was definitely animate but not clear enough and close enough to say for sure it was an unknown animal, either.  A swimming python or anaconda has been suggested, though what it was doing in the bay is a good question. All we can say is that it MAY show a new species.
There are a variety of "carcass" photographs, but  they are universally identified as known animals (usually basking sharks, though some look like cetaceans).  I'm not aware of a single exception unless perhaps it's the Naden Harbor carcass photograph of 1937, of an animal recovered from a sperm whale's stomach.  It  was even used as the basis for a formal species description (Cadborosaurus willsi) (which technically isn't valid: you have to have a physical type specimen, not a photo, and no one knows what happened to the original.).  Also, it's subject to counter-arguments that it was a shark.  Given that's I'm not an expert in marine anatomy, I will only say that I can't take one look and say "shark" the way even I very often can. It bothers me how well the spinal column has held up inside the digestive efforts of the whale, and he head looks odd.   I could be wrong on both points, though, so I'll admit this may be just a peculiar shark carcass.
At 12 feet or so, it's well within shark size: I wrote in one of my books that sperm whales were not known to prey on basking sharks, but Richard Ellis in his book The Great Sperm Whale mentions a case of 14-foot basking shark taken from a whale's stomach.  (Philip Hoare, in his book The Whale, says an intact 30-foot shark was recovered from a sperm whale, but I don't see how that's even possible. I suspect a misprint or mistranslation of measurements.)
The only closeup photos offered for a sea serpent, shot by Robert le Serrac in 1965, are distrusted by everyone: the photographer all but admitted to a hoax, and the photos likely show an inanimate object either discovered or deliberately manufactured for the occasion.
This video from Norway is kind of interesting, but it is shot in a lake, and I'm going to confine myself to sea animals today: I mention it because the term "sea serpent" is used a lot in media mentions.
This new item from Ireland (allegedly from an arm of the sea called Lough Foyle) originally struck me as a towed object, although I suppose a whale isn't out of the question - there's hardly a minute of footage, so a cetacean might not blow or show flukes in that span.  A reporter, though, has matched the background to a site 130 miles from the alleged sighting - a huge red flag.
And that, frankly, is about it. One disputed photograh, one intriguing but not definitive videotape, and that's it.  For an animal reported since before photography began (way before) that's a pretty paltry record. 
Have I missed any cases?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Talking fish? Body language makes predators work together

My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light

He slept with a mermaid one fine night

From this union there came three

A porpoise and a porgy and the other one me!

"Tell me what has become of my children three?"

My mother she did ask of me.

One was exhibited as a talking fish

The other was served on a chafing dish.

- From "The Eddystone Light," traditional sea shanty

OK, maybe I went too far just to squeeze that lyric in, but I like it, and it's my blog... Anyway, fish of different species don't normally cooperate, uncless you count the way cleaner wrasse de-verminize bigger fish. New research shows an amazing exception. A coral grouper can recruit other, more specialized predators, the moray eel and the Napoleon wrasse, to help it chase prey that's hiding in a coral reef - and it does it by signaling with body wriggles. How did this ever evolve? How does anything with the brain of a grouper understand how to make these signals, and why do the other fish understand it?  We don't know. 

AAS looks at new NASA budget - likes little of it

The American Astronomical Society looks at the FY14 NASA budget and, in large part, cringes. No new planetary missions. No educational outreach. Most of the budget for exploration continues to be swallowed by the ever-expanding Webb telescope.
Also - no American astronaut on an American rocket before 2017.  SpaceX, I should note, is determined to launch a private astronaut using its Falcon 9 booster and Dragon capsule around 2014 - for far less than we're payign Russia for a few Soyuz seats.  He has to prove it, of, course, but I'd bet on success.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Distinctive big cats - and we're not lion

OK, that pun was bad even for me, but this is intriguing stuff.

Lions in general are in trouble, down over 60% in the wild in this century, and two types are gone: the Cape lion and the Barbary lion, both famous for enormous manes.  A few Barbary descendants have been found in captivity and breeding efforts exist to bring back the "pure" animal. (Another type of lion, Kenya's small, spotted marozi, is a mystery: the two specimens shot might have been oddballs, but you never know...)

Ethiopia's late Emperor Haile Selassie kept a large private menagerie including lions.  His lions were wild-caught, though the locations aren't well-documented, and their descendants survive in deplorable conditions in Addis Ababa.   When experts from Leipzig, the Ethiopian capital's sister city, came to help improve the condition of the animals and help design a new facility (scheduled to open this year), they noticed these lions were pretty odd-looking, Their body mass is below the norm for East African lions, but their manes are not: males have luxuriant manes that continue all the way down the ventral side of the body. 
The Ethiopian lions apparently don't belong to either the Cape or Barbary subspecies. Among other morphological differences, they are too small: those "lost" types were among the largest of lions.  However, genetic analysis agrees with the visual evidence indicating these lions are a distinct type of their own that specialists really didn't know about until now. Thanks to all the scientific attention, their future is looking much brighter. 

P.S. I don't know who wrote this Wikipedia entry on the marozi, but it's very good: this might be the first time ever I've cited to Wikipedia in this blog.