Monday, February 15, 2021

New life discovered - past and present

First, the past. A coelacanth fossil discovered by accident turns out to be amazing.  The coelacanth may be five meters long, far larger than any prehistoric or modern coelacanth (1.5m is a normal adult specimen.)

Speaking of coelacanths, because the modern one looks very much like its ancestor (hence the rather problematic term "living fossil"), its genome has diverged quite a bit from prehistoric examples.  That doesn't make the modern one any less important, but it's very interesting. When the living animal's genome was sequenced in 2013, sceintists thoought it had changed very little.  

Modern coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae (Smithsonian)

As for newly discovered life, news from Antarctica startled pretty much everybody.  Life has pushed into all kinds of unlikely and hostile environments, but no one thought life, especially multicellular life, would turn up at the bottom of a 900-meter hole drilled through the Antarctice ice sheet.  The animals are presumably chemosynthetic, but the details have everyone puzzled, and will until samples are obtained.  Which, of course, is no easy task.  

"Life finds a way." - Dr. Ian Malcom

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Brooding over new Bryde's whale relative

A population of Bryde's whales (pronounced, approximately, Broodus) in the Gulf of Mexico has been determined to be a new species: amazing news. It has received the common name of Rice's whale and may be over 13m in length. 

NOAA's official account, based on a paper in Marine Mammal Science, reports Dr. Patricia Rosel was the key figure in identifying these whales as a new species. It was her examination of a skull, compared via hundreds of measurements to known Bryde's skulls, that provided the final proof of the new whale's uniqueness.  

This capped off more than a decade of work by Rosel and several other scientists.  It all began back in the 1990s with the first observations, by Dale Rice, of what was thought to be a population of Bryde's whales. This group was unusual in that its range appeared limited to the Gulf, which was odd given other populations of this whale (already split into two species, a pelagic and a coastal type) had much larger ranges.  Subsequent work included DNA studies as well as examining skull morphology.  (In one of those incongruities that pops up in the study of nature, the measured whale, the type specimen, is an oddball that wandered all the way up to North Carolina, where it died and drifted ashore.)

So now we have the species called, formally, Balaenoptera ricei.

Dr. Rosel examining the skeletal remains of the type specimen (NOAA)  

Rice's whale is the latest in an astonishing series of discoveries. It's common, and reasonable, to assume we know all the cetaceans. They are big, they must surface to breathe, and we've been "collecting" them for centuries.  

And yet we have ten new species in the current century.   

We know of 23 species of the reclusive, deep-diving cetaceans called the beaked whales. The "23" is still approximate with such hard-to-study animals - some species might eventually be collapsed together, or new ones named. As shown with Rice's whale, it can take a lot of time and work to establish definitively that two similar-looking species are indeed different.

In December 2012, three cetologists on a Sea Shepard Conservation Society described what they'd found on a research cruise off the west coast of Mexico.  They took clear, closeup video and film records of what appears to be a new beaked whale species.  Even more interesting, the scientists involved were there looking for a different whale whose unidentifiable "voice" had been picked up on hydrophones.  This new species does not match that, so who knows what else is down there? 

The last new beaked whale before that (reported at sea by Japanese fishermen but not scientifically identified) washed ashore in Alaska only in 2016. It was formally described in 2019  as Berardius minimus

Now the bad news for Rice's whale: there are perhaps 100 of them.  That's not too small a population to to sustain itself, but it makes the species very vulnerable.  Their habitat is troubled by the usual nemeses of whales: ship collisions, entangling fishing gear, and noise pollution that makes communication and thus family/pod cohesion difficult.  More details are in a good NPR article here.    

If we have, as it seems, three sizable whales announced in the last five years, that's a strong indication humans have not yet catalogued all these intelligent, social, and fascinating co-inhabitants of the Earth.

Hope for Mars

 It's traffic jam month on Mars.

"Hope," the first space probe built by the UAE entered Mars orbit today.  The journey of exploration goes on, and it's great every time a new participant succeeds.  In this case, it's especially interesting because the UAE program leaders didn't start by doing something relatively easier, like a lunar probe.  They went for broke to study a far more distant object, and the gamble paid off. You can find more details here.

The related news includes the first photograph of Mars by a Chinese probe, Tianwen-1, which was successfully inserted into Mars orbit. Next, coming up on February 18, we have the capper to this very busy month on and around the Red Planet.  At about 3:55 EST, the NASA rover Perseverance will touch down just north of the equator in Jezero Crater, formerly the site of a lake and a likely place to detect any signs of past microbial life.  

In the Apollo days, we thought human feet would touch Mars long before now. It's taking longer than we thought, but the robotic fingerprints of Earth ingenuity are all over Mars. Despite the previous orbiters and rovers, this is a big and complex world.  No one yet knows what we'll find as we keep going.  

Image: Perseverance detaching from the upper portion of the lander (NASA). This "skycrane" approach under power is necessary because parachutes can slow a probe only so much in the thin Martian air. Any human travelers will also have to land using rockets to slow the descent.

Endangered Species: A little good news today

From   "Researchers studying the impact of conservation actions since the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit say that at least 21 species of birds and seven mammals have been saved from extinction through direct human intervention."  

It's all much more complex than that, of course.  In the aftermath of a 1992 conservation conference called the Rio Earth Summit, which emphasized the need to prevent further loss of species, this story says human efforts have saved 21 birds and seven mammals from going extinct.  

There is much, much more to do. We are in the middle of what some scientists call the Sixth Great Extinction in Earth history. We lose documented species at a rate of about one a year, but we're also losing species of plants and animals before they can even be found and named. So every success is something to celebrate. 

Details here

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Book Review: Hope for Animals and Their World

 Hope forAnimals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink

Goodall, Jane, with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson (2009: Grand Central, 392pp.)

In this book, Goodall and her co-authors tell the stories of animals (and a few plants) which might well have become extinct, but survive thanks to human dedication and ingenuity. Some of the stories, like the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), are famous, and others obscure. I’d never read about one of the most fascinating episodes, the recovery of the black robin (Petroica traversi) whose survival came down to a captive breeding effort using the only fertile female left in the world.

Some of the stories include Goodall’s own travels around the world, where she saw such creatures as Pere David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus), Australia’s Rufous Hare-Wallaby (Lagorchestes hirsutus), and the Formosan Landlocked Salmon (Oncorhynchus masou formosanus). She also visits her beloved chimps: a photo of an infant named Flint reaching out to touch her hand will bring tears to eyes of many readers.

Some of the stories concern people who took great risks to save the last of a species. Finding Dryococelus australis, the Lord Howe Island stick insect (by an expedition sent to verify its extinction!) involved great hazards including a seemingly insane climb up a steep, rocky slope in the dark to spot the huge nocturnal insects. 

Goodall doesn’t neglect modern discoveries and rediscoveries of animals. Her chapter on the Lazarus species includes Zino’s petrel (Pterodroma madeira) on the island of Madeira, named for and watched over by three generations of the Zino family.  There’s also the Caspian horse, an ancient breed of small, gentle horses, saved by one determined woman who discovered this forgotten ancestor to the Arabian pulling carts in a remote Iranian village. She looks at resurrections like the coelacanths (genus Latimeria) and the Wollemi pine tree (Wollemia nobilis) (and if you don’t think a story about a tree can be exciting, read it).   The new finds include the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji), a large and unique monkey (it looks intermediate between a mangabey and a baboon) from Tanzania. Co-discoverer Dr. Trevor Jones said of the find, “…one of our team suddenly grabbed me and pointed to a monkey in a tree a hundred meters away. I grabbed my binoculars and nearly fell over. It was a surreal moment.”

Goodall has much to say about the broader topic of conservation.  She is sad but blunt about the fact that saving island species, in particular, can require using guns and poison to kill off imported cats and rats when trapping is impossible due to funds or animal numbers. She also discusses the ethics of collecting, the need for a whole-body specimen (she doubts it), the importance of indigenous participation, and the many ways people can support conservation in general or a particular species. 

Don’t just read this book. Treasure it.

“…there is yet this feeling of hope. There are surely plants and animals living in the remote places, beyond our current knowledge. There are discoveries to be made.” – Jane Goodall

Friday, February 05, 2021

Book Review: Peter the Great

 Peter the Great: His Life and World

by Robert Massie

Reviewed edition: Knopf Reprint, hardcover, 2009 (original 1981)

Even very good biographies of complex, influential people sometimes leave you thinking you've watched the person in action, but you haven't met them. In this book, you will meet Peter the Great.

Words like "complex" and "dynamic" might have been invented for him. He was a tireless reformer of Russia, pulling in technology and expertise from around the world. After reading this book, I wondered if any one ruler has ever done what Peter did: essentially raise a backward, insular, agricultural nation to a modern power in in one lifetime.

Peter never lost most of the harsh ways Russian royalty thought were natural. He was capable of great kindness to an individual human being but great cruelty to anyone who might be an enemy. He apparently never thought of the lives of the serfs, changing them only by allowing some people to move from the land to manufacturing: they remained serfs. Building his great capital city of St. Petersburg in swampy land under terrible conditions would cost thousands of lives, and he knew it. He was a very devout church-goer who had no problem watching prisoners broken on the wheel and never rebuked a general who killed 7,000 men, women, and children in razing a village the enemy might use.  

In other ways, though, Peter was atypical from youth.  He escaped the rituals of court by playing soldier, but he played it with uniforms and real weapons, testing tactics, learning to be an artilleryman, and building fortresses. When he unexpectedly became tsar, he was already better at the military arts than some of the generals in Russia's third-rate army, and he reshaped it along European lines. He was a proud Russian but had no problem importing officers and experts from other nations to teach the Russian forces and often command them.

Massie tells us as well of the astonishing range of skills and technology Peter mastered, and how he demanded that his nation master them, too. Building a navy from nothing required, as Peter saw it, personally learning all the trades that went into shipbuilding. It's amusing to read of the agreed-upon fiction that went into pretending the towering (6 feet, 7 inches), well-known Peter was an ordinary workman of the Dutch East India Company shipyard while someone appropriately dressed for a tsar handled protocol. Russian naval cadets followed in Peter's footsteps, and the navy he created was a powerful regional force with modern ships and highly competent crews. 

He went all over Europe learning about the latest scientific and technical advances and buying everything from art collections to clocks to cannons to ship home. He created the first academies to teach military skills to young Russians, and he created centers of learning in a nation that had almost none. He created a professional civil service in a government where corruption was open and blood ties were formerly all that mattered.

He was, always, a man of contradictions.  He philandered, but dearly loved his wife Catherine, and it was for her sake he suffered through official rituals and functions she loved and he endured. Friends and retainers sought his jovial company but feared his violent temper. He loved Orthodox services but attended Quaker meetings when abroad.  He suffered from seizures but nonetheless lived every day with seemingly boundless energy and appetites.  When he died, he left the country far, far different than he found it. With art that is almost magical, Massie succeeds in presenting us with a living, breathing man who contained multitudes.

Massie doesn't quote it, but what came to my mind at the end of Peter's story was Hamlet's line, "I shall not look upon his like again." This book is a monumental work of both history and biography.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Remembering Challenger

 35 years. Coming off a 24-hour stint in a Titan II ICBM solo. Hearing it on the car radio. Rushing home to turn the TV on with my wife. Watching the video/film replays. Pointing to a tongue of pink-orange flame at the lower SRB segment and saying over and over, "That shouldn't be there." Hypothesizing there was a defect in the solid-fuel casting making a crack, and flames had blasted through the casing. Never thinking of joint failure because I couldn't remember ever hearing of one on the solids I knew best. Praying. Watching Reagan quote High Flight. Crying for them all. A morning never to be forgotten. Ad Astra.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

On NASA's Day of Remembrance

 On NASA's Day of Remembrance

The Explorers

Souls departing Earthbound life
Rise to heaven’s plane
Soldier, sailor, priest, or king
The destiny's the same
But in an even higher realm
With stars always in view
Meet those lost in exploration
Remembering how they flew

Komarov toasts to Grissom
While Resnik bonds with Clark
Ramon and Chalwa share a tale
As they look beyond the dark
Adams shares his glory days
With Husband and McNair
And always they watch
And urge us on
To rise above the air

Honor Mother Earth, they’d say
But look up to the stars
God gave us the vision
To cross the celestial bar
We gave our lives
(we don’t regret)
To push back the frontier
Remember us by challenging
And rising past your fears

Patseyev, Onizuka
Anderson and Brown
Salute each new endeavor
That lifts us from the ground
To every new thrust into space
They raise their glasses high
And remind us we were always meant
To reach beyond the sky.

- Matt Bille, space historian, 2014

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Discoveries: A Dinosaur's Butt and an Orange Bat

There's always a lot going on, even if most of it is lost in the coverage of riots and disasters. 

I love paleontologists, but maybe they should get out more, given the exitement over the first fossil showing a dinosaur's butthole.  Granted, this is important in understanding the physiology of dinosaurs, but.. (hah)  

Meanwhile, birds of paradise are among the planet's most amazing-looking creatures,and they are not just stylin' but do intricate mating dances. The Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradies (yes, that's the name)  makes 44 species in the family Paradisaeidae. It's black,an almost indescribable black, absorbing almost all the light hitting it, but males reveal a bright blue "chest plate" and do a unique dance which, we suppose, is irresitable.

From Guinea, from the caves of the Nimba Mountains, comes a spectacular orange bat. It's so spectacular it's not clear why it was missed right now, but scientists working in the area knew when they spotted it it was something new.  The linked article gives a good description of the process the discoverers went through to distinguish it from known species (color alone is not enough).  

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Book Review: Owls of the Eastern Ice

 Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl

Slaght, Johnathan. (2020: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 348pp.)

Blackiston’s fish owl is the world’s biggest and rarest owl. It has a wingspan approaching two meters and a fluffy, shaggy appearance Slaght likens to a juvenile bear with feathers glued on.  It’s scattered in pockets of Russia, China, and Japan, huddling in sections of old-growth forest with large nesting trees and streams or rivers that don’t freeze over.  The total population is perhaps 2,000.

In Russia, where the species was only found to exist in 1971, it clusters along the Pacific coast.  That’s where Slaght, the son of diplomats and a good speaker of Russian, joined a Russian scientist to find the owls, document locations, and attach GPS tags to as many as possible.

This is a book about five years of hard work in unforgiving terrain where humans keep an eye out for the Amur tiger, the huge brown bear, and the armed and dangerous poacher. Slaght works with a rotating cast including Sergey Surmach of the Federal Scientific Center of the East Asian Terrestrial Biodiversity and Sergey Avedeuk of the Amur-Ussuri Center for Avian Diversity (love the names). They set out using snowmobiles and a massive ex-military four-wheel truck into areas where roads don’t exist and a Western scientist is a sight rarer than the owl.  Here in Russia’s Primorsky Krai (Maritime Territory), they also face dangers from the land itself: fires in summer and freezing in the infamous Russian winters.  They have many failures before devising a trap that works for the wily birds. Equipment fails in the harsh conditions, and Slaght describes their efforts to fashion fixes or alternatives.

He writes, too, of the emotional heights and valleys inherent in chasing something that may be vanishing. Slaght is an excellent writer, and people, owls, and the terrain all come alive in his words.

Much of the owl habitat is being logged, and regulations and enforcement are spotty in this remote area. Deciding that a large wildlife preserve is politically difficult and would affect many people’s livelihoods, Slaght focuses instead on pinpointing the owls’ locations and habitat needs to pursue more focused protection. He negotiates with companies and officials about leaving certain trees and areas alone, and scores some successes. At the end of the book, he is cautiously optimistic.  Slaght, a man who puts his life where his heart is, continues his work today with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia program.

 Field work is often regular repetition of challenging or unpleasant activities, an application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges. – John Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Book Review: Animal Treasure by Ivan T. Sanderson

 Reaching way back in the bookshelf for this one.  

AnimalTreasure: A Naturalist in Search of Strange Creatures

Sanderson, Ivan T. (1937: Viking Press, 325pp.)

The first book by Sanderson, who went on to become an important and controversial figure in zoology and cryptozoology, is a delight for animal lovers of all sorts. Sanderson was part of the generation of Western zoologists that finally abandoned the “collect everything you can shoot” mentality to study animals in situ. This book followed his first major expedition to British Cameroon (now split between Nigeria and Cameroon). Everything here fascinates Sanderson: he pays as much attention to ants as to antelopes. In vivid language, he recounts adventures from being trapped and lost in a cave of bats to trying to befriend a troop of baboons.  The animals pop off the page as if still alive. 

His writing shows some 1930s condescension of Westerners toward the indigenous tribes, although he never says they aren’t his equals as people (in another book, he refers to an African elder as the wisest man he ever met.)   

Two wildlife incidents are especially memorable. On one occasion, men who wanted to show Sanderson they were better fishermen than a rival tribe dragged ashore a stingray over 11 feet (3.4 m) long. Sanderson had no idea such giants lived in African rivers. This is also Sanderson’s initial account of a giant black bat that swooped toward him at head level. He describes it here as the size of an eagle. [He wrote much later that he and fellow witness Gerald Russell later compared their diaries and agreed it was 12 feet (3.6 m) across.]  He closes by saying he was sorrowed by the destruction of the forest, a thought rare in 1937.

Sanderson became one of the first TV nature series hosts and wrote many more books.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Significant Events in Cryptozoology in 2020, as marked by Loren Coleman

 End of Year Cryptozoology, as documented by Loren Coleman

Loren, founder and director of the International Cryptozoology Museum, has taken on the very difficult job of trying to impose a little structure on the controversial and sometimes chaotic world of cryptozoology.   While there’s no governing body for this colorful group of scientists, amateurs, writers, and assorted devotees, Loren is probably the best-known American cryptozoologist, knows everyone, and tries to look over the global cryptozoology scene and pick out the people and things cryptozoologists everywhere should know about.  Loren and I have disagreements, with me doubting most of the creatures he’s sure are out there, but  he's one of the most dedicated cryptozoologists anywhere and is devoted to collecting and preserving knowledge. His museum is a unique resource for cryptozoologists, zoologists, folklorists, and others, with countless thousands of items from all over the world.

First, Loren awards the Golden Yeti statue for Cryptozoologist of the Year and Lifetime Achievement. The top award this year went to Dr. (M.D.) Marie-Jeanne Koffmann of France. She spent decades recording sightings and gathering other evidence in the Caucasus concerning the humanlike cryptid called the almasty or almas, a mystery I don’t think has been definitely solved.   Lifetime Yetis went to longtime Canadian Bigfoot researcher / writer / publisher / popularizer Christopher L. Murphy and Canadian sea creature expert Dr. Paul LeBlond (deceased in February, alas - he was a great guy and I’m glad we got to meet). One thing I remember about Paul was he was scientifically-minded enough (in a field where a lot of people aren’t at all) to admit there was room for interpretation of a sea creature drawing even though it was done under his direction from something he studied on film. Most people would be adamant that “that’s the real creature, exactly.”

Loren publishes a list of the Top Ten cryptozoology stories of the year.  These may include fieldwork results, zoological discoveries, cryptozoology gatherings, and popular-culture items.  Examples this year include reports of Vietnames “rock apes,” a possible new species of coelacanth, a new monkey, a Loch Ness hoax, and a wave of new cryptid toys/models on the market.

He also publishes a detailed list of the Top 20 Cryptozoology Books every year (said the humble recipient of the top Historical Cryptozoology Book in 2006 for Shadows of Existence, still available on Amazon!).  

Book of the Year went to The Bigfooter’s Atlas by Zach Bales. Loren wrote, “This enjoyable, accessible, well-written, nicely illustrated atlas of various Sasquatch-oriented locations is the bright shining light for how 2020 needs to be remembered – as a roadmap to future adventure.” There are books on specific creatures or categories: Bigfoot of course, but also sea serpents, bunyips, etc., with Karl Shuker’s superb, encyclopedic Mystery Cats of the Word Revisited: Blue Tigers, King Cheetahs, Black Cougars, Spotted Lions, and More being my personal pick. There are books on regional cryptozoology activity and on zoological discovery (topped this year by Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght).

Loren also provides a list of significant deaths among cryptozoologists: this is a field with a lot of people working singly all over the world, and such news is often missed. The most significant this year include Dr. LeBlond, dedicated Florida cryptid-hunter Scott Marlowe, and Dr. Bryan Sykes, who brought modern DNA analysis to bear on alleged cryptid-hominid hair samples (finding, unfortunately, no unidentifiable ones).

Keep up with Loren's blog at

See the Museum at

 Keep up the good work, my friend!



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Farewell to a Leader of Space, Gil Moore

 My friend R. Gilbert Moore has died. Gil Moore was an engineer of rockets and satellites and a relentless proponent of space education, from his first job as a rocket builder in 1947 to the microsatellites of today. He never ran out of ideas. He was key source for our book The First Space Race (and let me know it when I misread notes form an interview and made a mistake in the book). He was hatching new ideas for satellites and educational programs throughout his life. (I swear he had more energy at 90 than I did at 20.) He cofounded the Conference on Small Satellites, the premier conference in the world. His career spanned the history of small satellites from one of the first to launch (Vanguard 1, 1958) into the modern era where small satellites blanket the Earth providing imaging and communications. He lives on in the many satellites and programs he helped launch and in the thousands of students he inspired.

Ad Astra, Gil. You were one of a kind.

Bob Pearlman at CollectSpace wrote this heartfelt obituary

Monday, December 28, 2020

Propelling Dunkleosteus



By Matt Bille

This is one interested amateur’s view. I’m the creator of the FaceBook Dunkleosteus terrelli site and author of the article “Dunkleosteus: First King of the Ocean,” in the Summer 2018 Prehistoric Times (which, ironically, had an editing error by me that swapped mentions of upper and lower tail lobes).  I have fiction and nonfiction projects related to Dunk in progress, I’ve talked to a lot of the experts, and I've looked at fossils and at models from toys to life-size museum exhibits.

The three tail options:

Eel-like tail: 

Despite its presence in some illustrations and some scientific papers, I never liked it.  I’ve never studied hydrodynamics, but I took a course in aerodynamics and have worked a bit with plane and missile designers. The main difference is that water is 830 times denser, and any propulsive movement that has to displace water is more difficult. That also means drag is worse.

If you look at big eels like congers, the head isn’t much bigger than the body, and they’re not supporting any big, heavy structure at the front end.  Wolf eels aren’t much different.  I think the eel body plan works for a larger creature than known eels (I’ve suggested that an eel of 8 or 9 meters might cover some still-puzzling “sea serpent” reports), but not something like a Dunk. You’re pushing a lot of water to move that front end. This tail is common on some smaller placoderms, like Diandongpetalichthys and the cool armor-plated Acanthothoraci, but nothing with the layout or mass of a Dunk. I just don’t think that tail surface is big enough. I think there are also stability and leverage problems stretching the body out well past the center of mass: it might balance while static, but the front end is so much more dense than the rear end that it’s hard for the latter to move the former.

Heterocercal tail with a large upper lobe and a small or nonextant lower one with a fin (I call this the scimitar tail): 

The most common in scientific and popular works, and it may be correct. Still, you’re sweeping with a fin well aft of the body, and there’s a lot of water to push: for a predator that has to move fast (at least in spurts) and has maybe a ton of weight at the head, the surface and the musculature are both questionable. This one is so common because, with no impression fossils of Dunk to tell us what the tail looked like, the logical supposition is that it looks like a smaller placoderm of similar layout (Coccosteus cuspidatus) enlarged.  

It’s a sensible approach: if you take a foot-long dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) and blow it up the size of a whale shark, it’s still the same body plan and instantly recognizable as a shark. However: I don’t think our giant dogfish would move well, with the long, slender tail stock (peduncle) of the regular dogfish.  That’s where I wonder about projections for the Dunk. It looks, generally, like Coccosteus, but Coccosteus is a foot long: blow it up to match a 20-foot Dunk and you have 20x20x20=800 times the mass.   The body will not be identical. 

It may be a reach, but what comes to mind is an anaology from aircraft and aerodynamics. You can look at a small jet, like a two-place Air Force T-37 (29 feet long, 3,800 pounds), and the C-17 Globemaster (174 feet, 500,000 lbs with moderate load).  The latter is about 6 times longer and 132 times heavier. You can see they are both airplanes and both are designed to the same principles, but they’re very different in layout, proportions, materials, etc.  An enlarged T-37 wouldn’t work: the drag's too much, the propulsion's too weak, the structure won't hold up.

There are a lot of variations in the scimitar tail, of course: I think the ones with the tail lobe rising at a more acute angle are more likely to work.

It goes without saying that this stuff has been worked on and modeled by icthyologists and  paleoicthyologists with a zillion times my knowledge and sophisticated tools, and I’m just spitballing, but if I had to bet I’d say that tail is wrong.

The tail problem is also related to the reason I don’t like the fin “wrist” joints outside the body: I don’t think the leverage is good.  This configuration appears in some scientific papers, and again I could be wrong, but the analogous modern fish in length and bulk are big sharks like the great white, and the fins look quite different: the joint is closer in to the pelvic girdle to reduce the “stroke length.” The pelvic fins are moving a lot of water .

Sharklike Tail: 

So this is what I’ve thought for a long time, and I was delighted to see real experts with real tools come out with this in 2017:

“Ecomorphological inferences in early vertebrates: reconstructing Dunkleosteus terrelli (Arthrodira, Placodermi) caudal fin from palaeoecological data”

Humberto G. Ferrón​, Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Héctor Botella

Their modeling follows the shark analogy and concludes the tail is sharklike.  I think they’re right.  It takes major muscle mass to move a fin quickly through water in a two-ton animal: I think convergent evolution is going to work its magic here.  “…body design of fishes is determined, to a large extent, by their swimming mode and feeding niche, making it possible to recognize different morphological traits that have evolved several times in non-closely related groups with similar lifestyles.” They produced logic similar to what I’d always guessed about: “Our proposal suggests a caudal fin with a well-developed ventral lobe, narrow peduncle and wide span, in contrast to classical reconstructions founded on the phylogenetic proximity with much smaller placoderms known from complete specimens.”

NOTE: I've looked for any response questioning this article and have not found one yet.

That’s why I think the Paleozoo model hits it on the head.

There is, by the way, considerable debate on the skin covering of the Dunk and its close relatives. The Paleozoo model used denticles. The CollectA Dunk, one of my favorites, used more prominent denticles borrowed from the modern wolf fish.  Predator fish today use denticles (sharks) or scales of varying sizes (easily visible on barracuda and tarpon, very small on tuna). The popular but problematic Scheich Dunk adds a row of huge scutes based on.. well, I don't know what. We many never be certain.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Farewell to Barry Lopez

 Barry Lopez, ascientist-poet who wrote memorably about humanity and nature, died yesterday of cancer.  He was 75. Lopez' book Arctic Dreams is my favorite of his works. I never met him or heard him lecture: friends tell me I missed something special.  God bless.  


“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

“At the heart of this story, I think, is a simple, abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well. And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.”

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

“I lay there knowing something eerie ties us to the world of animals. Sometimes the animals pull you backward into it. You share hunger and fear with them like salt in blood.”

“Without intending to, they [human ancestors] separated themselves from the galaxy of African wildlife and emerged as something else, not yet the founders of civilization but no longer truly wild. These were the first creatures to shimmer with intentionality.” 

A new (to me) Dunk model reviewed

This is the latest Dunk model I've seen (I put up a hasty post with a rotten photo last night, sorry :)) Anyway, this one from Animal Paradise is a little under 6" (15cm). The coloration is clearly borrowed from the larger, popular Schleich Dunk. It's a toy and the sculptor didn't put in a lot of detail, but what's here isn't bad. It does have an odd, deep groove in each side of the body running back where the Schleich model has scutes, as if this were modeled by someone looking at an unclear picture of the latter. It's handsome nonetheless. I obtained mine from Amazon.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Dunkleosteus Christmas

 Thanks to my family for understanding my fascination with this species.  They had the sweatshirt and mug made up online and my daughter made the desk calendar.  

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

New Whale Species! (bonus: a glowing sponge)

Three cetologists on a Sea Shepard Conservation Society expedition off the west coast of Mexico have spotted something amazing. We know of 23 species of the reclusive, deep-diving cetaceans called the beaked whales. The "23" is still approximate with such hard-to-study animals - some species might eventually be collapsed together, or new ones named. The biggest event in life sciences, though, is finding something new in the wild, and these folks may have done it.  

Here are Markus Bühler's terrific illustrations of the new whale (above) and a comparison species, Mesoplodon perrini.  Copyright 2020: reproduced by permission on this blog, no commercial re-use.  

Markus' page on FaceBook

Markus' blog

The actual photography (not shown here for copyright reasons, so see the link) and video is superb.  Some experts are cautioning that it might be a known species, Mesoplodon perrini, but the scientists involved are sure it isn't. The placement of the two prominent teeth on the adult male (in almost all species)  is a key differentiator between species, and the teeth on these were observed and noted to be in the wrong place for M. perrini.  

It's taken scientists decades to untangle the beaked whales, and the job may not be done. The last new beaked whale (reported at sea by Japanese fishermen but never identified) washed ashore in Alaska only in 2016 and was formally described in 2019 as Berardius minimus.  The people who found the newest whale were looking for a different whale whose unidentifiable "voice" had been picked up on hydrophones.  This new species does not match that, so who knows what's down there?

“For marine life, the age of discovery is not over.” –Jesse Ausubel, founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life

Free Bonus Sponge!

 Until the 1990s, no one knew there were carnivorous sponges that didn't just sit there but used tendrils to snag food.  Now we know there's one that glows.  A submersible from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute (MBARI) plucked the sample from the Pacific seafloor 4,000 meters down in 2017, but the description has just been published. Presumably it uses the light to draw in food.  That's sometimes a low-percentage business on the seafloor, where a light can also signal, "Here I am, come eat me," but a sponge has to make a living, right? 

NOTE Text was updated after the comments below from Markus.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Anniversary of a Still-Puzzling "Sea Serpent" Incident

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best eyewitness evidence of this possibility came 111 years ago today from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.

The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, 
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.