Monday, July 31, 2006

Name Your Own Spider

An interesting addition to the new-species news: the Queensland Museum is selling naming rights to approximately 200 species of spiders recently discovered in Australia. For $5000 (AUS) you can pick the spider and have it formally descibed in a journal with a name incorporating your own name (or whatever moniker you'd like).

COMMENT: This is one of several recent examples of a novel approach to raising money for conservation and research. At least one bird and one monkey have been named by sponsors. It may seem a little crass to some scientists, but it works.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

New Species are Everywhere

There is so much concern about what we are losing in the natural world that we sometimes forget an important story: how much we are still discovering.

The 1990s saw more new mammal species described than any decade since the 1920s. The rate of discovery of new birds and fishes has essentially held steady in the last few decades, and the rates for reptiles, amphibians, and insects and other small invertebrates have increased dramatically.

Some examples:
A new leaf-warbler, not yet named, is now known from Vietnam.

A beautiful new species of black coral (Antipathes dendrochristos) was identified in the Pacific just off Los Angeles.

An earlier post mentioned Rungwecebus kipunji, a new species and genus of
African macaque.

New crustaceans and other invertebrates turned up in a new cave in

Speaking of cave species, a graduate student and a National Park Service researcher have found an unusual new genus of cave cricket in Arizona, along with several other species.

Six new frogs hopped up in

And three new lemurs were identified in

Then there's a newly described shark from the
Gulf of California.

Finally, the prize of 2006 so far may be (Orcaella heinsohni, the
Austalian snubfin dolphin.

Not every new animal is big and spectacular (although some of those do still turn up). The point, though, is that we do not know all the species of the world. Indeed, we may not know half the larger ones, and we probably know only a few percent of the smallest. Exploration, discovery, and description are as alive and vital in 2006 as they were a century ago.

Friday, July 28, 2006

ISS Research in Danger

NASA deputy space station program manager Kirk Shireman has confirmed a report that the agency may stop all US research programs on board the International Space Station for one year to save $100M.

COMMENT: "Shortsighted" is far too mild a word for this. It will take years to get the life sciences and other programs on the ISS running again, no doubt raising costs and damaging research intended to pave the way for longer human space voyages. Maybe "insane" is a better word. If NASA can't find the money, it needs to lobby the Administration to ask for emergency funding unti lthe 2007 budget is approved.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A First: Fossilized Bone Marrow Recovered

Maria McNamara of University College Dublin in Ireland has announced that her team of scientists recovered intact bone marrow ten million years old from from the fossilized remains of salamanders and frogs. This is the first case where fossilized bone marrow was ever found. Coming on the heels of the 2005 report of fossilized red blood cells recovered from a T. rex, this opens up new approaches to the study of extinct animals and how they developed in giving rise to modern-day descendants.

Debating "Natural Cures"

No one challenges that a lot of "natural" health advice - eat your veggies, get your exercise, take your vitamins - is good. But claiming there are "natural cures" for every human ill, cures that the evil axis of pharmacology is keeping a secret, has become a lucrative industry. In this column on, Christopher Wanjek knocks out some of the myths used to support these claims.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mammoth clone attempt failed

Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean scientist disgraced for faking his results concerning human stem cells, says he tried to clone a mammoth. While his project did clone endangered tigers, he says, "We secured mammoth tissues from glaciers and tried cloning three times, but failed."

COMMENT: For an entertaining science fiction treatment of this theme, read Mammoth by John Varney.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sex in Space: Not So SImple

Hey, everyone in the space business thinks about it. What would sex be like, and could humans procreate and produce healthy children? Alan Boyle of MSNBC reports it's a surprisingly difficult proposition (OK, that pun was intended). According to NASA physician Jim Logan, "The fantasy might be vastly superior to the reality."

Space Tourism Industry Developments

A couple of interesting things are happening in the space tourism business. First, Jeff Bezos' company, Blue Origin, has revealed some more details, including the fact its suborbital spaceships will take off and land vertically from the company's base in Texas. Commercial flights could begin in 2010.

Meanwhile, pioneering firm Space Adventures, which has sent several people to the International Space Station via agreements with Russia, is now advertising that for a $15M premium on top of its usual $20M space-tourist rate, the buyer can experience an EVA. This is news to NASA. An EVA is a major event at the ISS, requiring the participation of all on board, and the company is going to have to work things out before - and if - it can deliver on this offer.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Shadows of Existence, my second book on the newest, rarest, and most mysterious animals of the world, is out after multiple delays in publication. There remain some minor publisher-induced glitches in the text, and we disagreed on whether to put the most relevant or the most spectacular illustrations in, but the important thing is Hancock House is now shipping the book.
Shadows continues the scientific detective work of its predecessor, Rumors of Existence (Hancock, 1995). The book includes four sections:
- New Creatures (discovered from 1990 through 2005)
- In the Shadows of Extinction ("extinct" species which have been or may be rediscovered)
- The Classic Mystery Animals (an open-minded review of sasquatch, sea serpents, and the like)
- Miscellanea, which reports on such topics as the possible identity of several whales which have been spotted, but not classified.)
What sets this book apart, I hope, is not only the text, but the Resources section, with its 95 pages of books, periodicals, websites, and end notes. It there is anything readers want to know about new species, rare species, or cryptozoology, I think I've provided a good starting point.
I'm very proud of this book. It's available from the publisher at and should soon be in the major online bookstores as well.

Flores humans: more evidence of a new species

In a new paper for the Journal of Human Evolution, four experts led by Debbie Argue and including Colin Groves maintain that the remains excavated from Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores do indeed represent a new species, Homo floresiensis. The authors refute the claim that the bones of the main find, a partial adult skeleton called LB1, represent only a microcephalic modern human. Noting archaic traits from the LB1 skull, they Argue (sorry, there's an unavoidable, or at least irresistable, pun there) that, "Based on these comparisons, we conclude that it is unlikely that LB1 is a microcephalic human, and it cannot be attributed to any known species."

This debate can be followed on an excellent source, Dienekes' Anthropology Blog,

A Delta-Winged Reptile

In the "really cool paleontology" department, studies of the only known fossil of the tiny Triassic glider Sharovipteryx mirabilis, along with data from analogous modern creatures, computer modeling, and wind-tunnel tests, indicate the animal may have had delta (triangular) wings. Irish paleontologist Gareth Dyke and his colleagues report one possible shape of the wing membranes was a double-delta plan in which large triangular wings were based on the hind legs and attached along the body almost to the forelimbs, while a smaller set sprouted from the forelegs and attached to the body in front of them.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Neanderthal Genome

Scientists from the American company 454 Life Sciences Corp. and Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are out to map the DNA of Neanderthal man. 454's Michael Egholm says, "The Neanderthal is the closest relative to the modern human, and we believe that by sequencing the Neanderthal, we can learn a lot." The project is expected to take two years.

Precarious rulers of the animal kingdom

This interesting article by Bjorn Carey analyzes why it's the largest animals who often have trouble surviving over the long term. The outstanding example, of course, is the dinosaurs, but there are many contemporary ones as well. A related article by Carey in the same online publication( reports on the importance of apex predators, normally the largest predators in the food chain, and how they, too, often end up on the endangered list. (For modern top predators, the answer usually is that humans opt to remove them from the ecosystem, often with no idea of the consequences.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

And we have touchdown, Houston....

The space shuttle Discovery is on the ground after a highly successful mission. Discovery's crew accomplished several objectives, including the all-important flight test of recent safety modifications and an EVA to repair a rail cart on the outside of the International Space Station. Next up: The shuttle Atlantis, on an ISS assembly mission that could launch as early as August 27. Hats off to the shuttle program and all of NASA.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Something in the air this summer?

First we had the flight of the world's first human-carrying ornithopter (see the post from July 9). Now a group of Japanese students has built the first piloted airplane powered by household batteries - 160 AAs. The plane had a 31m wingspan, but weighed only 44kg without the pilot. It flew for a distance of 391m.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book of the Month: FIRST MAN

James R. Hansen's First Man (Simon and Schuster, 2005) is the first authorized biography of Neil Armstrong, and is likely to remain the definitive one. This 769-page tome does an excellent job of acquainting readers with Armstrong the man as well as Armstrong the astronaut and, most often overlooked, Armstrong the engineer, a man who made a major contribution to the revolutionary development of digital fly-by-wire control. This biography hits all the highlights of Armstrong's career, but goes beyond earlier efforts be explaining how he reached those highlights and why. Armstrong's personal life is detailed - not excessively, but enough to help readers understand a man who has tried to maintain some distance between himself and Armstrong the icon. This is a superb achievement.

Human v. Insect

It's very hard to think of a practical use for this, but a clever grad student named Wim van Eck has developed a Pac-man game that a cricket can play. The cricket, motivated at appropriate times by its dislike for vibrations, transits a Pac-Man maze rigged with sensors and gadgets to vibrate the floor wherever a Pac-Man "ghost" would appear. There's no word in the article about how insect and humans fare in a head-to-antennas matchup.

The fascinating world of meerkats

Scientists have just described how meerkats (Suricata suricatta), everyone's favorite African mammals, teach their young in a way few animals do. An older "helper" meerkat will teach a young one how to eat scorpions by bringing a scorpion to them and removing the stinger, then helping the youngster kill it. Once the pup can handle "de-stung" scorpions on its own, the helper brings the arthropods intact for the pups to disable and then destroy.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The "Demon Duck of Doom"

I couldn't resist that headline.

Scientists at the University of New South Wales report they have found fossils of new and bizarre creatures, including a saber-toothed carnivorous kangaroo and the colorfully nicknamed "demon duck of doom," a bird standing three meters high and weighing 200 kg. The kangaroo's enlarged killing teeth, by the way, projected from the lower jaw, not the upper as in saber-toothed cats, creating a truly bizarre appearance.

COMMENT: A saber-toothed kangaroo that gallops instead of hops reminds one of Robin Williams' line, "Does God get stoned? I think so. Look at the platypus."

Paralyzed Man controls computer with thoughts

A team led by Dr Leigh Hochberg of Massachusetts General Hospital reports a paralyzed man using a new brain sensor has been able to move a computer cursor, open e-mail and control a robotic device simply by thinking.

COMMENT: This is potentially a huge advance in all kinds of fields, with telerobotics just as one example.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

West African rhino population extinct

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) announced the West African black rhinoceros has likely gone extinct. This subspecies survived only in Cameroon, were a recent survey found no trace of it. The IUCN blames poaching. The population of the northern white rhino, in the Congo, is down to four known individuals and is likely to vanish as well.
Africa has two rhino species, white and black, divided into six subspecies - two of which are gone or likely to be.
The news is only partly offset by success in conserving and slowly increasing the numbers of other black rhinos. There has also been a spectacular recovery by the southern white rhino, from 50 to 14,000 individuals over the last century.

Private space venture launches habitat prototype

The Genesis 1 prototype of an inflatable habitat, developed by the private firm Bigelow Aerospace, was launched successfully into low Earth orbit (LEO). Bigelow envisions a space tourism industry with people flying to orbit and staying aboard "hotels."
COMMENT: This is a major step toward determining how viable the orbital space tourism industry may be. Congratulations to Bigelow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

News from Deep-Sea Biology

The 11th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium is underway, and there's a lot to talk about.

A new objection is being raised to whaling. Scientists have recently identified no fewer than 28 new species that depend on the mini-environments created when naturally dead whales drift down to the seafloor. Meanwhile, a strange disease is wreaking havoc on mussel colonies around deep-sea vents, and there's a new understanding of why, although most deep-sea creatures are very small, there are a few abyssal giants like the squid Architeuthis.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Flight of the Ornithopter

A team lead by Dr. James DeLaurier, a University of Toronto engineering professor who has been working on the problem of human flight via mechanically flapping wings for 30 years, has finally done what seemed, even to other engineers, to be impossible. They have flown an ornithopter. The altitude was only two meters, the distance only about a third of a kilometer, but the darn thing flew.

COMMENT: The immediate practical applications of this thing may be zero, but DeLaurier has done a great service to everyone who still believes that, with enough effort and brains, the human race can do just about anything.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

New Inventions - Useful and Otherwise

The science magazine New Scientist has an interesting column by Barry Fox which keeps track of recent inventions, some of which look extremely useful, while others... well, let's say they are tributes to the human spirit of creativity. Among the recent items spotlighted are:
-- A cheap, throwaway parachute made of polypropylene, very useful for dropping military or relief supplies
-- An electronic system, using an LCD watch, that keeps the members of a handbell choir in tune by telling them when to ring, very useful for... well, something.
-- A "fermented coffee beverage" that pours and foams like beer, has the smell and caffeine of coffee. Nestle apparently plans to inflict this on the market.
-- A car navigation system (brought to you by Microsoft) that turns navigating into a video game - the driver pursues a cartoon car on the navigation screen.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What color is a mammoth?

They may have come in several colors, including red and blond. That news from Holger Roempler of the University of Leipzig in Germany, whose team extracted DNA from a bone 43,000 years old. Mammoth DNA included the gene that codes for a protein which allows mammals (humans, for example) to have several different colors of hair. So we don't know if there were blond mammoths, but there might have been.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

And we have liftoff...

The Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off smoothly on schedule at 1438 EST. The STS-121 crew will spend 13 days in space, mainly to service the International Space Station.

Everyone is breathing again.

Godspeed, Discovery.

Birds and Extinctions

There is news on new studies of avian extinctions. One study focused on the general topic, the other on its most famous example.

Stuart Pimm's team reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that we have approximately 10,000 known bird species and 130 known examples of extinction, most concerning Pacific island birds. Pimm warns, though, that we are undercounting extinctions, in part due to overlooking the new examples of extinct species being identified from fossil and subfossil remains. He calculates the rate of bird extinctions may be about one species per year. For what it's worth, that rate, says Pimm, would have tripled if not for recent bird conservation efforts.

Meanwhile, there's news about the most famous symbol of extinction caused by human activity, the dodo bird of Mauritius. Scientists studying the largest cache of dodo remains ever found report the population took a severe hit from a natural disaster long before humans got there in the 16th century. A cyclone and/or flood created a disaster that left the dodo population in a precarious state. Humans are still guilty of the final execution of the species, but it's important to understand all the factors involved in any extinction, and now we have a much clearer picture of this one.

News of the final frontier

A great deal has been happening in addition to the marquee event in space exploration, the delayed and somewhat controversial launch of the shuttle Discovery on the STS-121 mission. Discovery should launch today at 1438 EST.
See title link above for the latest.

Meanwhile, acoustic-environment testing of ESA's next major contribution to the International Space Station, and no doubt to programs beyond that, was completed successfully in the Netherlands. The 20-ton Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle appears able to handle the sound and vibration it will get as a payload on the Ariane 5 heavy launcher.

Finally, on the small end of things, the three 25-kg satellites of NASA's Space Technology 5 (ST5) program have completed their 90-day mission and have been shut down. As NASA puts it, "The mission demonstrated the benefits of using a constellation of spacecraft to perform scientific studies of the beautiful auroral displays that occur near Earth's polar regions. The spacecraft simultaneously traversed electric current sheets and measured the magnetic field using miniature magnetometers."
"Taking measurements at the same time in different locations allowed scientists to better estimate the thickness of current sheets and how they vary over time," said Guan Le, mission project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. "This could not have been done with a single spacecraft, no matter how capable."
It's another step toward utilizing the full capability of microspacecraft.
COMMENT: It's too bad NASA could not, instead of shutting these spacecraft down, have handed them over to a university or other lab, some of which do have their own satellite control centers. Unfortunately, nothing in NASA releases indicates this was considered.