Friday, June 30, 2006

The Bili Ape Identified

In earlier entries, I've discussed the possibility of an unknown species of African apes, raised by observations near the town of Bili in the Congo. Now an extensive study by a team led by Cleve Hicks from the University of Amsterdam has confirmed the animals involved are chimpanzees, not a new species.
They are, however, very strange chimpanzees, and will bear further study. The Bili animals are considerably larger than normal for chimps, and the males sport sagittal crests like those of gorillas. Some groups act as if they have never seen a human being. Hicks said, "It's fantastic. They surround us and show curiosity - even the adult males."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Following this weekend's Shuttle launch

Best links to keep an eye on what's happening as the momentous and controversial STS-121 mission prepares for launch:

Here's hoping for a success and a safe return.

A vanished bird re-appears

My latest book, Shadows of Existence, recounts three stories of rediscoveries of birds from India which were presumed extinct. Now there's a fourth. A highly respected wildlife researcher, Anwaruddin Choudhury, spotted the Manipur Bush-Quail, missing for over 70 years. India's northeastern state of Manipur is home to this little ground bird, about 25 cm long.

COMMENT: Another reason why we should never give up the search for rare species. At the rate we are still discovering and rediscovering Earth's animal life, I'm going to have to write another book.

THANKS to Kris Winkler for bringing this one to my attention.

The Science of Superman

Alan Boyle's always-fascinating Cosmic Log looks today at the science behind the new incarnation of Superman. Essentially, almost nothing Supe can do is well-grounded in science, but he nevertheless makes a great starting point for discussing everything from gravity to relativity.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

New snake species changes color

The jungles of Borneo - home of an astonishing 361 animal and plant species discoveries in the last 10 years - have yielded up a half-meter-long, venomous snake that can change color from reddish-brown to almost white. The Kapuas Mud Snake, according to WWF researcher Bambang Supriyanto, is "one of nature's best-kept secrets. Its ability to change color has kept it hidden from science until now."

Monday, June 26, 2006

NASA: Counting Down, Fingers Crossed

The Shuttle Discovery remains on schedule for launching in the window opening July 1. Concern about the foam-shedding issue on the external tank (ET) has not abated, however. As ET chief John Chapman at Marshall Space Flight Center puts it, "Foam will come off. There is no way around that. It's the very nature of the material and the way that we use it and the way we apply it." The question is whether the shedding has been reduced to the point that the risk to the vehicle is acceptable. What constitutes an acceptable risk, of course, remains an area of subjective judgment.
There is no way flying such a complex vehicle will ever be "safe" in the sense of "no risk." As Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said, "If you're not scared when we fly the shuttle, you're not understanding what's going on." He does say, "In terms of the foam, we are so much smarter this year than we were last year."
The most extensive array of cameras and sensors ever used to monitor a space launch will try to make everyone smarter.

Other Stories

COMMENT: For all the technology and engineering brainpower being thrown at this problem, it bothers me that NASA is essentially flying four versions of the tank on succeeding flights: the "old" ET carried on the fatal Columbia flight (STS-107), the modified one used on last year's "return to flight" Discovery mission that resulted in more (although not deadly) foam events (STS-114), the one being used on this flight (STS-121), and the one slated for the shuttle Atlantis on the next flight (STS-116), which will have further modifications already decided on. It's not clear to this non-engineer that the accumulation of data from flying four designs isn't so complex it could actually conceal a problem rather than spotlighting it.

Scotland: Track of a Mystery Cat

In addition to the mystery of the Eastern cougar in the US (see earlier posts), there are other feline enigmas around the world. The United Kingdom has far more than its share: sometimes it seems that mystery big cats haunt every moor and wood.
One such case, in Scotland, is backed up by numerous sightings and a videotape of a large black cat. Now the authorities think they have their suspect identified. The animal left pawprints showing it was a leopard, perhaps 18 months old. A police spokesman suggested it was the offspring of animals released into the wild in the 1990s, when a stricter law against keeping exotic pets was enacted and some owners might have dumped their felines.

COMMENT: The implication (supported by numerous other cases) is that the UK has one or more breeding (or interbreeding) populations of big cats. We have definitely not heard the last word on this subject. The best book on the topic is Karl Shuker's Mystery Cats of the World, which is, sadly, out of print and difficult to find.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lemurs and More from CI

Conservation International (CI) is posting a blog from its annual Global Symposium, held this year in Madagascar. The blog entry as of today showed two items of special interest.

First, a new study of Madagascarene waters, combined with information from a study in 2002, resulted in doubling the number of fish species known pre-2002, up to a new figure of 849.

Second, everyone loves stories about cute, fuzzy animals, and Mittermeier's mouse lemur is the latest. About the size of a hamster and looking a bit like one, too, the primate has been christened Microcebus mittermeieri after CI's president, Dr. Russell Mittermeier. This is one of three new mouse lemurs described in a paper by primatologists Mireya Mayor and Edward Louis. Mayor said, “Here we are in the 21st century discovering a new primate, one of our closest living relatives. It shows the urgency for protecting these areas.”
Mittermeier was flattered. "I've had a couple of frogs and an ant named after me. This is different."

Self-serving promotion alert: The continued discoveries of new animals on Madagascar, and the mysteries surrounding some large mammals that might still be found there, are covered in my book Rumors of Existence (1995) and brought up to date through 2005 in the new book Shadows of Existence (available in a week or so.)
All those interested in this topic should also read a really superb book by Peter Tyson, The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar.

Wrapup of the IWC meeting

The contentious meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has closed out with no significant changes to whaling regulations. The Australian delegate, Federal Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell, complained the IWC process was corrupted. There have been allegations of of bullying and vote-buying, with fingers mainly pointed at Japan. The writer of a useful blog for fins magazine notes that next year's meeting is going to be a lot rougher.

Shuttle launch questions

Tariq Malik of has updated the debate on Space Shuttle safety. The dissents of two key officials, accordingly to NASA, were based on the risk to the orbiter (that is, largely the risk that it could not reenter and would have to be abandoned in orbit) and not the risk to astronaut safety on launch.

Chief engineer Christopher Scolese and safety officer Bryan O'Connor, who both voted "no go" on the launch, now have said they did not think the Discovery STS-121 launch posed unacceptable risks to the astronauts. The 12-day ISS resuppply mission is scheduled for 1 July.

COMMENT: It still sounds like NASA is trying to spin a questionable decision: to override two "no go" votes in order to get flying again.

Microspacecraft Launch

A Delta II launch on June 21 from Cape Canaveral carried the first microsatellites intended for transfer to geostationary orbit (GEO). The MiTEx upper stage, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) will carry the MiTEx satellites and release them in GEO as part of a microsatellite technology experiment led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) evaluate the military utility of small satellites.

COMMENTS: It looks like this is a welcome step forward for an area of space technology I've long felt was underused. Microspacecraft (roughly, those of 100kg or less, though some are larger) will not replace large spacecraft for missions like bulk communications traffic, but they could well be a useful part of a "high-low-mix" of military spacecraft. Micros don't offer the cost-effectiveness of large spacecraft for missions like comm, but they offer lower total mission cost and faster responsiveness.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Mother of all Birds?

A pigeon-sized waterfowl, represented by 110-million-year-old fossils from China, is the oldest "modern-looking" bird known to science and is considered a major step toward understandign the avian family tree. Matthew Lamanna of the Carnegie Natural History Museum said of Gansus yumenensis, "Every bird living today, from ostriches ... to bald eagles, probably evolved from a Gansus-like ancestor."

NASA Approves Shuttle Launch over objections

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has affirmed the decision to launch the STS-121 Shuttle mission in the window beginning 1 July. During the Flight Readiness Review needed to approve the mission, both the Office of the Chief Engineer and the Safety Office registered objections. They felt the possible loss of insulting foam from the brackets holding external lines in place on the external tank (ET) - brackets that had been shielded from the turbulence of launch by the now-removed protuberance air-load (PAL) ramps - was a danger not yet mitigated.

Griffin said of the dissenters: "Looking at their specific discipline areas, they would recommend that we stand down. But there are larger considerations. If we stand down, now we back up station assembly flights. One of the areas that surfaced during the CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) investigation was the issue of schedule pressure on NASA. Now schedule pressure for us is a fact of life, but it has to be balanced. I do not want to make decisions today which are going to result in having all the schedule pressure in creating station assembly in the last year or two." Griffin did acknowledge the stakes involved: "If we lost another vehicle I will tell you right now that I would be moving to shut the program down."

COMMENT: While I've noted before I am not a technical expert on the Shuttle, this decision has a very bad feeling to it. The admission that schedule pressure does matter, even though Griffin couched it in terms of making sure NASA had a workable flight rate between now and the program end in 2010, is sure to make some Shuttle veterans very concerned. According to an article in (which also has a longer version of Griffin's comments), loss of foam on the ice/frost ramps appears in NASA's risk matrix in a box labeled "probable/catastrophic." (See All I can say as a believer in human spaceflight is that I hope for a safe flight, but I wish I could say I felt confident of it.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

IWC Meeting news

At the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting (see earlier posts), Japan failed to garner enough votes to exempt smaller cetaceans from the IWC's agenda and to implement a secret ballot, which Japanese officials believed would bring out more votes from nations which want to participate in whaling but shy away because of political and diplomatic implications.

Pro-whaling nations did get a one-vote (33 to 32) majority to approve a resolution stating that the 1986 ban on commercial whaling was meant to be temporary and could be lifted. A three-fourths majority is needed to actually lift the ban, though, and that is not in sight.

Delegates from Greenland surprised the meeting by asking that Greenland Inuit, who are allowed to hunt a limited number of minke and fin whales, also be allowed to take howheads and humpbacks. No action has yet been taken on this request.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Small Cetaceans on the Agenda at IWC

As mentioned in an earlier post, the annual International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting is underway in the Bahamas. Today, Japan and its allies lost a 32-30 vote on a motion to remove from the IWC's agenda the conservation of small cetaceans (smaller whales, dophins, and porpoises). Pro-whaling nations argued the IWC was created to regulate only the great whales (the large baleen whales and the sperm whale). The smaller species are not covered by the 1986 moratorium on whaling, but the vote means the IWC can proceed with discussing whether they need protection.
The BBC has a good article here about why Japan is pressing for an expansion of whaling:

In other cetacean news, a beluga whale was found dead on the bank of the Tanana river south of Fairbanks, AK. Scientists are puzzled as to what drove the animal to push nearly 1,000 miles upriver from the sea. See

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Genesis mishap laid to human error

NASA reports that the Genesis mission, which collected the first samples of the solar wind, crashed into the desert in September 2004 instead of parachuting because sensing switches were installed backwards. The "G-switch sensors," according to NASA's investigation board, were not properly installed and tested for a number of reasons, including the mistaken belief that they were "heritage" (that is, already proven) hardware and the pressure to meet a launch schedule. The Board's recommendations included "establishing appropriate levels of budgetary and schedule reserve" as well as new oversight and testing procedures.

COMMENT: According to an aviation safety book by Robert J. Serling (Loud and Clear, 1970), at least two airline crashes have been laid to the aviation version of Murphy's Law, which states; "If it is physically possible to install an airplane part incorrectly, sooner or later someone will install it that way."

Images of an "extinct" animal

The Laotian rock rat, presumed long extinct, has been photographed in its homeland. A single specimen of the squirrel-sized animal was trapped, photographed, and released.
The animal known locally as kha-nyou and scientifically as Laonastes aenigmamus was originally discovered when carcasses were spotted for sale in a meat market. The interesting thing about the critter, scientifically, is that it comes from a lineage whose known fossil record stops 11 million years ago. The term "living fossil" may not apply precisely, as it's not clear how far back this particular species goes, but scientists were thrilled when analysis of the new species noted strong similarities, especially in the skull, jaws, and teeth (the most critical points in mammal identification) proved almost identical to a fossil from China.

Thanks to Kris Winkler and Chris Orrick for independently pointing me to this article.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Renewed Whale Hunting?

Conservationists fear the pro-whaling nations will have a majority at next week's International Whaling Commission meeting in the Bahamas. A majority is not enough to lift the ban on commercial whaling, but could broaden the loophole of so-called "scientific whaling" and ease retrictions on trading in whale goods. Japan has already resumed "scientific hunting" of the endangered fin whale as well as the non-endangered minke. Pro-whaling nations cite economics and tradition in support of hunting whales, while opponents cite the economic benefits of whale-watching businesses.

COMMENT: I think the "nos" have it. The whaling done for "scientific" purposes is barely disguised commercial whaling, with the meat winding up in restaurants and the supposed research never getting published. Meat from protected species of which no hunting is allowed somehow still turns up in Japanese markets. Finally, some species of great baleen whales, which are very slow to breed and mature, remain critically endangered, with the giant blue whale as the outstanding example. If we lose one through a badly advised expansion of any whaling, by whatever name, the planet has lost a treasure forever.

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed. A vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer. But when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again." - William Beebe

Bigfoot found - in museum

The Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocotello is opening a large exhibit on the state's legendary occupant, Bigfoot ot sasquatch. According to curator Linda Deck, the museum is not taking any position on the creature's reality. In addition to artifacts related to the Patterson/Gimlin Bigfoot film, the exhibit includes art and sculpture of Bigfoot, from old Native American cultures to the present day and a variety of casts, hair samples, etc.

COMMENT: I've always thought that science educators are missing an opportunity by shying away from or dismissing the sasquatch question. Even if you consider the animal's existence to be a long shot (as I do) or outright silly and impossible, it still works as a teaching tool. Students could, for example, study the environment of the Pacific Northwest and analyze the climate, available nutrition, etc. in the process of determining whether suitable ape habitat exists or what kind of ape might be adapted to the conditions there.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Stephen Hawking on Why We Must Explore Space

The renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, speaking to the press in Hong Kong, said, ""It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species." He forecast a permanent lunar base in 20 years and a Martian colony in another 20. Citing the threats of nuclear war and environmental disasters on Earth, Hawking argued that both necessity, not just the desire to explore, will spread the human race to other celestial bodies. (Hawking was initially dismissive of NASA's Vision for Space Exploration, but seems to have rethought the issue.) He did add the caution that, "We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system."

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Eastern Cougar mystery

My father used to sing an old folk song that included the lines,

Very next day, the cat came back
Thought he was a goner but the cat came back
‘Cause he couldn’t stay away…

The eastern cougar of the United States, believed wiped out in the middle of the last century, seems to keep popping up. In recent years, tracks, scat, and photo and video evidence have been added to the hundreds of sighting reports. There is, of course, the potential for confusion caused by escaped or released exotic pets, and some reports are no doubt mistakes involving dogs, but the idea that one or more relict populations of Puma concolor have hung on seems to be slowly gaining credibility.

According to a New Jersey paper, the Courier-Post, nine cougar sightings have made enough of an impression on the NJ Department of Environmental Protection that wildlife cameras have been set up to try to photograph the shadowy feline. Possible Eastern cougar sightings tend to rank low on the priorities of wildlife agencies, but two clear daylight sightings by police officers have made this case an exception. A DEP spokeswoman did caution, "At this point, no one from (the state) has confirmed a sighting.”

Meanwhile, at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, a spate of cougar sightings brought a news release from the National Parks Service, saying the events were being investigated and providing safety tips for people who encountered a cougar – just in case.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fun with cryptozoology

Here's a unique source of wisdom: The Cryptozoo Crew, Allan Gross' mini-media empire. The Crew publishes comic books and graphic novels featuring the adventures of cryptozoologist Tork Darwyn (gotta love the name). Tork is knowledgeable, dedicated, brave, and as dense as uranium, which is why wife Tara usually has to save the day when he's adventuring in search of cryptids that he usually ends up just missing. It's very good stuff.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

New Book on Cryptozoology

Cryptozoology and the Investigation of Lesser-Known Mystery Animals, by Chad Arment (editor) is now out and available through Amazon and other sources. I contributed a chapter on the newly-discovered and still-unconfirmed wild pigs of the world, of which there are a surprising number. Other topics in the book, by Chad and various contributors, include luminous spiders, possible new coelacanths, "flying snakes," a Pacific Island mystery bird, freshwater cephalopods, and folkloric animals of New Mexico. This is a fun and informative read for all those interested in new and strange animals and tales thereof.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Shuttle Problems: ET and Schedule has a report on how external tank (ET) issues threaten the schedule for the launch of the next shuttle and how new or revised procedures are being developed to keep the launch of STS-121 on track.

COMMENT: OK, I'm not an engineer. I never worked on the Shuttle. But this story, if accurate, reeks of the "schedule pressure" factor that was cited as a contributor to Shuttle safety problems, and it makes me nervous as hell.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Universe Stranger Than We Can Imagine

Two recent articles from New Scientist highlight the fact that our universe remains, despite all our advances, a complex place with many mysteries yet to be unraveled.

First (see title link above) Japan's Hayabusa probe to the asteroid Itokawa shows it's a "loosely packed pile of rubble" resulting from a collision between larger asteroids. The problem is that it's too small (only 535 meters long) and too loose - it has a porosity of 40% (meaning that much of its volume is empty space) and appears racked by internal stresses and quakes as well as further collisions. That leaves scientists stumped as to just why this thing, with its fragmented structure and miniscule gravity, is still holding together.

Meanwhile, Slava Turyshev of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is trying to solve another mystery - the Pioneer Anomaly. The space probe Pioneer 10, at last contact in 2003, was about 400,000 km off course, and Pioneer 11 (still in contact) shows a smaller deviation, even after factors like the gravitation of the Sun and planets, pressure of sunlight, the outgassing of onboard materials, and all the other factors in the amazingly complex world of deep-space trajectories were apparently accounted for. Turyshev will "refly" the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions virtually, using computer models, in an attempt to see where the course deviation began and look for hitherto-unsuspected causes.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Slew of Life Sciences Discoveries

It's been a very busy month in the world of biology - testament to the complexity of our living planet and to the limits of our current knowledge.

First (see the title link above), Israeli researchers have found an ancient, sealed-off ecosystem in a cave beneath a quarry. Ayalon Cave is over two kilometers long. New species of strange arthropods are all over the place. Scientists estimate the cave has been isolated for "millions of years."

Second, the Indonesian species of the coelacanth, discovered only in 1998, has been documented in new underwater footage. The actual video has not been released, but the ever-alert folks at have an advance report and a still image:

Third, from the same part of the world, there is more news about the Flores humans (a.k.a. "hobbits"). A team led by Adam Brumm of the Australian National University reports these creatures have overturned previous thinking about the relationship between large brains and tool-making. He said, "Homo floresiensis was capable of making stone tools and therefore the standard story of the relationship between brain size and behavioral complexity in human evolution may be less straightforward than currently assumed."

Two books on the Flores discovery are coming out. For younger readers, there is Linda Goldenberg Atkinson's Little People and A Lost World (Lerner Publishing Group). Co-discoverer Mike Moorwood of the University of New England in Australia has written a book with Penny van Oosterzee with the long title, The Hobbit's Tale: Discovery, Significance and History of a New Human Species on the Island of Flores, Indonesia. (Thanks to Loren Coleman for passing on the advance news of this book, which he received via email from Morwoord.) Both books should be out later this year.

COMMENT: In 1884, naturalist Charles Gould wrote,
"Can we suppose we have at all exhausted the great museum of nature? Have we, in fact, penetrated beyond its antechambers?"
What would no doubt astonish Gould is that his words are still accurate over 120 years later.