Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Busy Week for Science

In the last week or so, scientists have:

Found the lost civilization of Tambora, buried in the world's largest known volcanic eruption in 1815:

Discovered a new temple in Egypt with statues of Ramses II:

Uncovered a fossil that puts a specialized, swimming mammal back in the Jurassic era, 100 million years before any such thing was thought to exist:

Discovered "Cueva del Fantasma" ("Cave of the Ghost") near the Aprada tepui in southern Venezuela - a cave so huge two helicopters can fly into it. At least one new frog species has been located there so far.

The frontiers of science still beckon us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Europe: The Rise of Modern Man

In an article in NATURE, Paul Mellars from Cambridge University said a review of radiocarbon dating evidence from across Europe shows modern humans spread across the continent and out-competed the Neanderthals in the period between 46,000 and 41,000 years BP. The event had been placed between 43,000 and 36,000 years BP. In other words, the Neanderthals did not last as long as we thought. There is much we still don't know about Neanderthals and the intersection of their destinies with our own.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reading the DNA of a comet

Scientists have confirmed that dust samples collected by the Stardust spacecraft, whcih returned to Earth in Janaury, are indeed from the comet Wild 2. The samples were collected in January 2004. Comet dust may not be interesting to most people, but it is fascinating to scientists who have their first-ever look at what may be the primordial material of the solar system. It's like finding the fossil of the first living things on Earth. Not to mention that what the Stardust team did - reaching across hundreds of millions of miles to sample a comet and bring its matter back to Earth - is simply astonishing. It's a great step forward in our exploration of the universe we all inhabit.
No matter how pressing our problems on Earth, sometimes people need to be reminded:
"Look up! For wonder awaits."

- Matt Bille

Obituary: Eastern Cougar Researcher

On February 18, 2006, Roger Cowburn, 77, of Potter County, Pennsylvania, passed away. Cowburn spent decades collecting evidence of the continued presence of the cougar (Felis concolor or Puma concolor) in Pennsylvania and surrounding Eastern states and trying to convince the relevant authorities to recognize and protect the animal.
Mr. Cowburn deserves mention because he's an example of the kind of dedicated amateur that science still needs. That does not mean his theory of Eastern cougar survival was correct (although I rather think that it is), but that science owes a continuing debt to all those people, past and present, who devote their own time to exploring the mysteries, great and small, that still surround us.

I salute you, Roger. I hope you have your answers now.
- Matt Bille

Monday, February 13, 2006

Peter Benchley has died

Author Peter Benchley, who started a phenomenon with Jaws and has more recently done extensive work to conserve sharks and other marine life, has died at 65.

Benchley's recent works, like Shark Tales, de-mythologize sharks and explore just how amazing these predators really are. He also discusses discuss topics including the giant squid (he quotes an unnamed teuthologist as saying they may grow to 150 feet), and large, extinct, and/or unknown sharks and other species.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Church and the Laboratory

Pope Benedict has made a very clear statement that the Church welcomes the advances made through science, and that the spheres of science and faith have nothing to fear from one another. He said, "The Church joyfully accepts the real conquests of human knowledge and recognizes that spreading the Gospel also means really taking charge of the prospects and the challenges that modern knowledge unlocks."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Scientists and the Sea Serpent


By Matt Bille
To cryptozoologists, those interested in the unknown and unclassified beasts that may lurk in the forests and seas of the world, an anniversary has just passed. December 2005 was the centennial of the best-documented, most authoritative “sea serpent” sighting in history – a sighting that has still not been explained.
The sea serpent is one of the great puzzles of cryptozoology. Researchers’ files bulge with hundreds of reports going back over a thousand years. Most can be explained as misidentifications or hoaxes, but a minority stand out as true mysteries of the sea. The event that occurred on December 7, 1905, is the most puzzling of all these.

Two British naturalists, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo, were the witnesses. They were experienced scientists, best known for their work in ornithology but with the wide interests and expertise common for naturalists in those days. Both were Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.
The encounter came during a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla. At 10:15 AM, the yacht was off the coast of Brazil, fifteen miles east of the mouth of the Parahiba River. As the two naturalists looked out over the ocean, Nicoll saw something unusual. He asked Meade-Waldo, "Is that the fin of a great fish?"
Meade-Waldo looked and saw a fin he described as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge." The visible part was rectangular, perhaps two feet high and six feet long. The distance between the fin and the observers was approximately a hundred yards.
Meade-Waldo trained “a powerful pair” binoculars on the strange object. As the two naturalists watched, there rose just ahead of the fin a small head on a long neck. Meade-Waldo 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 wrote, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature." Meade-Waldo recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The encounter lasted several minutes before the animal dropped astern of the Valhalla. Being under sail, the yacht could not come about. Meade-Waldo wrote later, "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.’”
That was the only time the two men saw the creature. At 2:00 AM the next morning, though, three crewmembers reported spotting the same or a similar animal, almost entirely submerged.
The two men wrote up their encounter, and the Zoological Society's Proceedings carried their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions." Another version appears in Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
There seems no reason to doubt the veracity or the powers of observation of these two men. A century after their encounter, the question remains: what was it that they saw?
Both were convinced it was an animal, but could not say what kind. The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
While Nicoll admitted it was "impossible to be certain," he theorized the creature was a mammal. He wrote, "the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."
Any cryptozoologist interested in looking up a report on sea creatures automatically turns first to the landmark work on the subject, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by the late Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans noted that, for reasons unknown, conger eels have been observed to swim at the surface with head and forebody held above the water. (Congers, which reach at least nine feet in length, have also been known to undulate on their sides at the water’s surface, which makes the animal look like a small serpentine monster.) Accordingly, Heuvelmans suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish.
In the aforementioned sea monster files are several reports describing what the witnesses thought were giant eels. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915. Three years earlier, Captain Ruser of the German steamship Kaiserin Augusta Victoria had reported a giant eel off England. He described it as eighteen inches thick and twenty feet long. In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of Ruser’s 1912 sighting when he claimed to have seen an eel more than twenty feet long. He described the head as resembling a conger eel’s but four times as large. Smith told an interviewer, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”
There are also many reports where the animal involved was not specifically called an eel but was described as eel-shaped. One such case occurred in 1947, when the Grace liner Santa Clara collided with a sea serpent. The ship’s officers described the animal as brown in color and perhaps sixty feet long.
What about Nicoll’s theory of a mammal? To begin with, there is no known mammal, living or extinct, which looks like the creature described in this incident. If we venture into the realm of possible unknown mammals, one option is a huge elongated seal. However, we have no fossil records indicating that a seal with a genuinely long neck ever existed, much less one with a dorsal fin.
Some cryptozoologists suggest sea serpents are surviving prehistoric snakelike whales, or archaeocetes, like those in the genus Basilosaurus. These, while elongated in form, did not have long necks. It’s possible a long-necked form evolved, but the available fossil record points the other way. Whale necks got progressively shorter, not longer, after the archaeocetes.
One group of animals that always come up in sea serpent discussions are the plesiosaurs. These Mesozoic reptiles (reptiles, not dinosaurs) make good sea serpent candidates in one respect: they had necks ranging from long to absurdly long. Will Cuppy, an American humorist, once wrote that plesiosaurs “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.” We know from fossils that plesiosaurs could not rear their necks high above the water, but the fairly low angle shown in a sketch in Nicoll’s book seems plausible.
Unfortunately, the fossil record for plesiosaurs and the other marine reptiles with similar body plans does not continue past the time of the K-T impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The famous case of the coelacanth has demonstrated that it’s possible for an animal to survive for a long time without leaving a fossil record, or, more precisely, without leaving one in places where humans have looked. A lot of land area remains unexplored by paleontologists, as does the entire sea floor. (Sasquatch proponents like to point out that, according to the fossil record, gorillas do not exist.)
Even if one assumes, though, that very large and widely distributed animals vanished from the fossil record while surviving in the flesh, the dorsal fin poses another problem. We have no fossils of plesiosaur-type beasts – and some of these are amazingly well preserved – which show any sort of dorsal fin. With their broad, turtle-like bodies, plesiosaurs did not need such fins for stability. It’s not impossible that a few species might have developed a fin for sexual display or some other purpose, but there is no evidence this took place.
Meade-Waldo, while he did not compare his animal to any known species, did refer back to the sea monster sighting made from the frigate HMS Daedalus in 1848. Witnesses in that incident described an animal sixty feet long or more, resembling "a large snake or eel."
Richard Ellis, whose 1994 book Monsters of the Sea is an excellent survey of the whole matter of marine cryptids, has offered a relatively conventional explanation for the Valhalla incident. Ellis, an expert on giant squid, theorized that a very large specimen swimming tentacles-first (which squid can do), could present a suitably strange appearance if it was holding one arm above the water. The description of the eye and mouth could result from misinterpretations of details on the arm or merely from imagination, since even expert observers can make errors when excited.
This explanation, as ingenious as it seems, is hard to picture in reality. First, Meade-Waldo must have made a much bigger mistake than just the details on the head, since he specifically described a large body aft of the fin. To offer the appearance Ellis suggests, the squid would have to swim on its side, keeping one fin partly exposed and one limb constantly above the surface. It must have held that unnatural and pointless position for several minutes. It might be possible for a squid to do this (or it might not – we know very little about them), but it seems impossible to explain why it would do so.
Can there be large seagoing animals still unknown to us? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a well-founded and scientific “yes.” Until recently, the Indopacific beaked whale (a.k.a. Longman’s beaked whale), Mesoplodon pacificus, was known from two weathered skulls found on beaches 73 years and thousands of miles apart. No one knew what the living animal looked like, or even if the species still existed, until one beached intact in Japan in 2002. The Peruvian, or Lesser, beaked whale (Mesoplodon peruvianus), was completely unknown to science until a skull was found in Peru in 1976. The species was described, based on specimens netted or stranded after that first discovery, in 1991. Perrin’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini, was described from stranded specimens in 2002.
The megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios), up to sixteen feet long, was unknown until 1976, when one was snagged accidentally in a sea anchor. In this case, “unknown” means “completely unknown.’ Despite its size, its slow speed, and its distinctive appearance (the megamouth looks like a living blimp and resembles no other shark) there were no sighting reports, no strandings, nothing before that chance encounter.
Other sizable marine animals are apparently still at large. The two men on the submersible Deepstar 4000 in the San Diego Trough in 1966 reported a bony fish thirty feet or more in length, with a rounded tail like a grouper’s and “plate-sized” eyes. The distinctively marked beaked whale called Mesoplodon “Species A” has been seen many times and even photographed, but no one has captured a specimen, and no confirmed dead examples have drifted ashore. (Marine ecologist Robert Pitman has suggested Species A sightings are due to mature individuals of M. peruvianus, with the diagnostic light-colored “chevron” marking fading when the animal dies, but this has yet to be confirmed.) Pitman has twice spotted a mystery of his own, a beaked whale he calls “Species B.” This is a dark gray animal with a strikingly long snout and a pale spot behind the eye. A bizarre deep-sea squid, over 20 feet long with very thin, spindly tentacles, has recently been captured on videotape but has never been caught or classified.
In 1998, employing a statistical technique used in biology to estimate the diversity of animal populations, Oxford University’s Dr. Charles Paxton calculated the likely number of marine animals measuring two meters (six and a half feet) or longer still awaiting classification. While Paxton admitted this technique is inexact, based as it is on the discovery rate and total number of such species found so far, his estimate of 47 species was an eye-opener.
Paxton thought the oceanic types still to be found included mainly whales and sharks, although he allowed for the possibility that some might be totally new types of animals. Meade-Waldo and Nicoll, were they here to speak to us, would no doubt agree on that point.
It all comes down to this. One hundred years ago this past December, two well-qualified men of science encountered a strange creature which remains unidentified. The animal could be a fish, a mammal, or a reptile (in what appears to be a descending order of probability.) It might still be awaiting discovery, or it might be extinct. We must wait and see what answers the next hundred years will bring.

Anonymous. 2003. “Whale species is new to science,” BBC News World Edition, http://news.bbc.co.uk, November 19.
Australian Museum. 2003. “Longman’s Beaked Whale,” Fact sheet.
Baker, Mary L. 1987. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co.
Carwardine, Mark. 1995. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Doring Kindersley.
Dalebout, Merel. 2003. Personal communication, October 28.
Dalebout, Merel, et. al. 2003. “Appearance, distribution, and genetic distinctiveness of Longman’s beaked whale, Indopacetus pacificus,” Marine Mammal Science 19:3, p.421.
Dalebout, Merel, et. al. 2002. “A new species of beaked whale Mesoplodon perrini sp. n. (Cetacea: Ziphiidae) discovered through phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences,” Marine Mammal Science 18:3, p.577.
Ellis, Richard. 2003. Personal communication, November 22. Also 2000, March 10.
Ellis, Richard. 2003. Sea Dragons. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Ellis, Richard. 1998. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: Lyons Press.
Ellis, Richard. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Knopf.
Gould, Rupert T. 1930. The Case for the Sea Serpent. London: Philip Allan.
Harrison, Paul. 2001. Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles. London: Robert Hale.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. NY: Hill and Wang.
Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906. "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Nicoll, Michael J. 1908. Three Voyages of a Naturalist. London: Witherby and Co.
Molloy, R. 1915. “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28. Available at http://www.clubi.ie/dalkeyhomepage/ee.html.
Pitman, Robert. 2003. Personal communication, October 27. Also 1997, April 3.
Pitman, Robert, 1999. “Sightings and Possible Identity of a Bottlenose Whale in the Tropical Indo-Pacific: Indopacetus pacificus?” Marine Mammal Science 15(2), p.531.
Pitman, Robert. 1987. “Observations of an Unidentified Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon Sp.) in the Eastern Tropical Pacific,” Marine Mammal Science 3(4), October, p.345.
Ralls, Katherine, and Robert L. Brownell, Jr. 1991. "A whale of a new species," Nature, April 18.
Taylor, L.R., Compagno, L.J.V., and Struhsaker, P.J. (1983). “Megamouth - a new species, genus, and family of lamnoid shark (Megachasma pelagios, family Megachasmidae) from the Hawaiian Islands,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, vol. 43, p.87.
Urban-Ramirez, Jose. 1992. “First Record of the Pygmy Beaked Whale Mesoplodon Peruvianus in the North Pacific,” Marine Mammal Science, October, p.420.
Yamada, Tadasu. 2002. “On an unidentified beaked whale found stranded in Kagoshima,” paper from the National Science Museum, Tokyo, December 25.

New Discoveries from New Guinea

A Conservation International (CI) expedition team of U.S., Indonesian, and Australian scientists exploring the little-known Foja Mountains of western New Guinea has discovered a stunning variety of new and rare species. These include frogs, butterflies, plants, and a new bird - the orange-faced honeyeater, the first new species discovered on the island in over six decades.

"There are more things in heaven and earth..."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Orcas bait traps for gulls

Orcas, or killer whales, have been seen spitting fish onto the surface of the sea, then submerging and waiting for a gull to come down for lunch. The gull then becomes a snack. Once one whale being studied had used the trick for a while, his relatives copied it - another example of learning by these highly intelligent predators.

Comment: Given how insubstantial a mouthful a gull makes for an orca, I wonder if this is not a meal-getting device at all. Orcas are well-known for having fun, including downright silly stunts like carrying a dead salmon on their heads. The gull-trapping game might be exactly that - a game.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Second-Guessing the Ivory-Bill

A leading ornithologist, Jerome A. Jackson, has published an article in the journal The Auk casting doubt on the evidence for the biggest wildlife story of last year - the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Whether one agrees or disagrees with Jackson (this amateur disagrees, in case anyone cares), this is an interesting example of how top specialists can differ on the interpretation of evidence. It's also a case of a scientific controversy being played out the way it should be, in well-written articles in professional media. The Auk has made the entire article available online.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hail Columbia

It was three years ago the Shuttle Columbia failed during re-entry, taking with it seven of the finest examples of humanity our species had to offer. Death cannot be romanticized, but it can be remembered, and learned from. Daryl Cagle's poignant collection of editorial cartoon about the disaster is a unique way to recall what the nation felt on that day.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

New Solar System Object Larger than Pluto

German scientists have determined the odd object well past Pluto, 2003 UB313 (discovered, as one would think, in 2003) has a diameter of 3,000 kilometers. That's 700 km larger than Pluto, the smallest planet. 2003 UB313's orbit averages nearly nearly 9 billion miles from Earth.
So, is this thing the Solar Systems' 10th planet, or is Pluto not a planet? The IAU will have to sort that out.
And what's it called, anyway? Co-discoverer Mike Brown of Cal Tech hates the clumsy designation 2003 UB313. He said, "It can't get an official name until it has an official status and right now it doesn't have an official status, so it can't get a name." Stay tuned.