Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MicroSpace News: Colorado students will build space weather satellite

After 50+ years of operating in space, we don't know everything about the space environment and the "space weather" created by solar flares and charged particles.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has put out this press release:
"The University of Colorado at Boulder has been awarded $840,000 from the National Science Foundation for students to build a tiny spacecraft to observe energetic particles in space that should give scientists a better understanding of solar flares and their interaction with Earth's atmosphere."
UC-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) has built several spacecraft and many instruments with student participation. (I've visited up there and was very impressed.) The Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment will be housed in a spacecraft weighing only 2.5kg. The mission will launch around 2012.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pygmy Sea Cow and Manatee news

Loren Coleman has collected two interesting related items. One is the discovery of a fossil dwarf sea cow, related to the immense Steller's Sea Cow but in the wrong hemisphere - near Madagascar, to be exact. Coleman wonders if occasional claims of primate-like sea creatures from this region, usually dismissed as mermaid-type legends, might have an origin in surviving or very recent examples of this species. Coleman also revisits Marc van Roosmalen's recent description of a living species, the Amazonian dwarf manatee. One expert looking at its DNA has rejected the 1.3-m species as merely immature examples of the known Amazonian manatee Trichechus inunguis. Van Roosmalen acknowledged a very close genetic relationship, but to him it showed only that the split between his T. bernhardi and the ancestor species had come recently (less than 485,000 years ago).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The critters of Avatar

Based on my first viewing of James Cameron's epic, I couldn't resist offering some thoughts on the ecosystem of Pandora.
Cameron's Avatar is not a perfect film. The plot is too derivative, not just of Dances with Wolves but of Disney's subpar Pocahontas. It was hard to keep a straight face in some of the talking tree segments.
Cameron, though, has created a visual feast with some terrifically interesting inhabitants, plant and animal. His Pandora has a lower gravity than Earth, enabling trees to grow to stupendous heights and three-meter-tall humanoids to leap and dart about the forest with the grace of spider monkeys. Cameron gives us four-winged semi-reptilian flying creatures, which is not too much of a stretch given that we know one reptile from Earth's fossil record that actually did adopt the four-wing design. It's interesting that some of his animals, such as the flying banshees, have respiration holes seemingly unconnected to the mouth or the organs of smell, wherever exactly those are. This breathing system may be a little less efficient than the multipurpose systems of Earth vertebrates, but the atmosphere of Pandora (not described except as poisonous to humans) might be rich enough in oxygen and other key gases to make it viable.
Most of the animals are hexopods (six-legged). Earth vertebrates don't have six legs because it seems the cost of maintaining extra limbs exceeds their utility, while far smaller creatures such as insects go with at least six legs (which are much simpler in construction and don't add as much to the total nutritional requirements as vertebrate legs do). It may be a combination of plentiful food and plentiful oxygen on Pandora reduces the burden. (Remember, insects got much larger in the days when Earth's atmosphere had a much higher oxygen level.)
Cameron's humanoids, the Na'vi, are an exception to the hexopod design (so are some of his flying creatures). To a degree, Cameron was hemmed in by the need to make the sentient race something human movie-goers can relate to. Really, what are the odds they would laugh and cry exactly like humans to express emotions? Cameron bent to the same necessity in giving the females some features humans would recognize as female, both facially and in having seemingly nonfunctional breasts. I kept wondering what Na'vi elbow joints are like, given that they draw their bows with the drawing hand facing palm out, which is awkward as heck for humans. I also wondered what the Na'vi evolved from: the only smaller primate-type things, the prolemuris, have six legs and not much of a resemblance. (Note to Cameron - the direhorses are too obviously horselike for all their strange features. I hate to say you didn't show enough imagination, but on this point...)
The really interesting part is that everything evolved on Pandora as part of a system: not magical but electrochemical, with trees sending messages over their root systems, the Na'vi being able to "plug" directly into the nervous systems of other creatures, and so on. The entire moon is essentially wired into one living network. There have to be some limits to this (trees wouldn't want herbivores tapping in to find the best trees to nibble on), and it's hard to figure out what evolutionary pressures might have driven this development. I'm going to have to read the Avatar book for more insights. The Na'vi can connect to both the four-legged and six-legged beasts.
Actually, I do have a thought on Pandoran evolution. I wonder if Pandoran life went from free-living microbes through a bottleneck where there was only one common ancestor to higher organisms. This might have been like a slime mold, which is made up of seemingly unrelated single cells but can somehow connect enough to organize into larger structures. Everything that came after somehow found it advantageous to keep and improve on the networking ability.
Oh, heck. Don't worry too much. Just enjoy the movie. It's a hell of a show.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Would Kirk's cannon have worked?

In a classic Star Trek episode, "Arena," Captain Kirk defeated an alien captain in a very bad lizard suit by pounding charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur into gunpowder and turning a bamboo tube into a makeshift cannon. Would it have worked? The Mythbusters guys will try it out on a new episode December 28. The preview here looks pretty cool.
PREDICTION: If they have the right proportions in the gunpowder components and a lot more time than Kirk seemed to have to grind and mix them, they'll get an explosion. But I think an explosion strong enough to propel big diamonds (Kirk's ammunition) with crippling force would likely have blown up the cannon in Kirk's face. Stay tuned!
UPDATE: The cannon was, unfortunately, "busted." The Mythbusters couldn't get the handmade gunpowder to explode, and, when they substituted commercially-made gunpowder, they blew up the cannon. It was a funny touch to put their Captain Kirk stand-in, their dummy Buster, in a red shirt: Kirk never wore a red shirt, but crewmembers who did were quickly offed (as was Buster when the cannon blew up). I always thought Starfleet must have the worst-trained security forces in history, since all they knew how to do was die. Maybe they had the same trainers who failed to teach Imperial Stormtroopers how to hit anything smaller than a spaceship no matter how close the range.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Loren Coleman's Top 10 Cryptozoology stories

Loren Coleman, the most prominent American cryptozoologist, names a Top 10 list of cryptozoological news items every year. The list for 2009 includes discoveries of several new animals, including a civet and the strikingly marked Galapagos iguana, the opening of Loren's own Cryptozoology Museum (it deserves its place: there has, until now, been nothing like a central repository for cryptozoological material), the obtaining of the first images of a juvenile coelacanth, and several cryptozoological expeditions.
COMMENT: Every year, what cryptozoologists want to see on this list is the discovery of a large (say man-sized or bigger) new species. And sometimes we get it (e.g., the Australian snubfin dolphin, van Roosmalen's peccary). Whether anyone has found sasquatch (or ever will) is not nearly as important as the fact that new discoveries, large and small, are still being made around the world.

First evidence for venomous dinosaurs

A turkey-sized raptor from China, otherwise an unspectacular find, appears to have been venomous. The fang-like upper teeth are grooved, as some snakes' are, and there are pockets in the upper jaw that could be for venom glands. The coral snake is an example of a modern reptile that uses such grooved teeth to deliver venom (as opposed to rattlesnakes, where the fangs are actually hollow and can inject venom.) Given that the modern reptiles developed poison armament twice (in the snakes and in the lizards), it's not surprising that dinosaurs, with a variety of forms evolving over 100+ million years, came up with it at least once.

Is Avatar's moon realistic?

The new film Avatar sets its lush world, not on a planet, but of a moon. Astronomers say that's not impossible, despite the barren example our own solar system offers. It worked for George Lucas and those annoying Ewoks on the moon Endor, and it could work in real life.

X-51 hypersonic Waverider passes a test

An umanned test vehicle designed to demonstrate hypersonic flight with ordinary jet fuel (previous demos have used hydrogen) passed its captive-carry test flight. THe Waverider (so named because of the way it "surfs" its bow shock wave) could be a prototype for a reusable first stage for Earth-to-orbit vehicles or for long-range conventionally-armed missiles.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Octopus and the coconut

The video linked to here has to be seen to be believed (and I dare anyone to watch it without laughing). An Australian octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus, to be specific) was seen gathering coconut half-shells discarded by humans and pulling them together to make a full sphere it can hide in.
This article is incorrect in saying this is the first known tool use by an invertebrate: wasps have been seen using a pebble to tamp down dirt. But it's amazing anyway. As one discoverer put it, what's so surprising is how the octopus seems to plan ahead: it will pick up a shell to use later, so "when it's transporting it, it's not getting any protection from it. It's that collecting it to use it later that is unusual."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reviewing the climate email mess

This work by the AP, based on a review of the entire 1-million-word archive of the emails swiped by a hacker from climate scientists, gives the best summary I've seen so far of this much-hyped series of events.
What they do not show is an active conspiracy to mislead people on climate change.
What they do show is unacceptable behavior, including attempts to suppress rather than debate skeptics, hide or destroy data, and sometimes fudge what's presented in the name of making the science look more certain and consistent than it is.
The underlying thread is that some researchers believed the message about the need to address anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is so critically important that it was all right to make science they already believed was solid into science that was completely consistent and beyond any doubt (indeed, so much so as to make skepticism an act of irrationality.)
This, of course, had the opposite effect once the emails were revealed. Skeptics can now say, "If these people were willing to violate ethical scientific behavior in these instances, how do we trust them at all?"

COMMENTS: My own reading of published evidence is that the general trend of the world is toward warming, with many local variations and occasional short-term reversals. It's a big planet with a very complex climate system, or rather a system of systems with all kinds of influences and feedback loops, not all of which we understand. I do think AGW is contributing to this trend, although I don't think we have as good a handle as people like the IPCC insist we do on how much AGW contributes and what immediate measures are needed. That's not an excuse for doing nothing, but it is important when we are weighing what resources to devote to stopping AGW vs. all the other human needs the world faces. (The blithe claims by some on the leftward end of the environmental spectrum that we need to address everything, and there's an endless supply of resources from wealthy countries and businesses we can tap, ignore economics as well as political reality. I also have no patience for the idea it's simple to have a win-win with green technologies solving everyone's problems. There are costs and tradeoffs to every potential part of the overall solution. Don't insult my intelligence by saying all we need are more solar panels and bicycles.)

These scientists, trying to put their work beyond doubt to convince people of the need for action, have done their cause no favors.The same is true for exaggerated estimates of warming and sea rise levels (thank you, Al Gore, who exaggerated predictions and put footage from a terrible disaster film into An Inconvenient Truth and passed all of it off as science), which draw climatologists into sometimes-public conflict. We do need action, and we do need to address this issue now, but this is a complex situation. Trying to misprepresent it as a simple situation is a very bad approach.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Norwegian sky spectacle was Russian rocket

A startling blue spiral that appeared in the skies over Norway has a prosaic explanation - a Russian missile test that went awary. It's amazing the result was so symmetrical, as if some alien intelligence was behind it - which is, of course, a theory still alive on the Web.

Nat Geo names top new species

The Top 10 news species of 2009 (actually, some of the entries concern multiple species), as selected by National Geographic. From the giant rat to the ghost slug, they remind us discovery is happening all the time.

80th anniversary of Science Fiction fandom

Couldn't let this pass without a mention. Eighty years ago today, an American club calling itself the Scienceers met for the first time. They were science fiction fans. Now SF fandom is a global industry. Interestingly, thr group met in Harlem and the president was African-American.

Another visit to the cryptozoology museum

A writer for the Web site BoingBoing visits the International Cryptozoology Museum. An interesting excerpt comes when he asks founder Loren Coleman if he "believes" in creatures like the sea serpent or Bigfoot:

"No, because belief, he has said, "belongs in the providence of religion." He just tries to keep an open mind in order to accept or deny evidence based on examination and investigation."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Virgin Galactic unveils spaceship

For space geeks like myself, Christmas has come early. Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson have unveiled SpaceShipTwo (the first example being christened VSS Enterprise), a six-passenger suborbital spacecraft which, assuming testing goes well, will start carrying passengers in 18 months. Three hundred people have already plunked down cash to buy or reserve a $200,000 ticket for a 2 and 1/2 hour ride that will take passengers up some 100km and include five minutes of microgravity.

COMMENT #1: Would I plunk down $200K for this? If I had the money, I would have already done it.

COMMENT #2: I'm not one of the "private enterprise is always better" ideologues, but in this case... space geeks know of the countless efforts governments have made to do something similar to what Rutan and Branson have done. In less time and with less money than it took NASA and Lockheed Martin to half-develop and then scrap their unmanned X-33, Rutan and company have delivered flight hardware. Test results will be all-important, of course, but it looks like a great leap forward has been made by people of vision. Will governments learn something from this? History doesn't give us much cause for optimism.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Four new species of king crab

From a pile of untagged museum specimens, some over a century old, British Ph.D. candidate Sally Hall has pulled the evidence for four new species of king crabs, members of a family housing some of Earth's largest crustaceans. The four species represent four widely scattered areas of ocean.
COMMENT: This sort of find is important to zoology, more than most people realize. Going through old museum collections has yielded countless new species, including in recent years the world's largest gecko and the world's largest spider, and we don;t know what has been overlooked in museums and private collections around the world.

In case you are wondering, the new guys are:
Paralomis alcockiana, from the Atlantic Ocean,
Paralomis nivosa, from the Philippines,
Paralomis makarovi, from the Bering Sea, and
Lithodes galapagensis , the first king crab species recorded off the Galapagos Islands.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

World's smallest orchid - marvelous

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Even botanists must be thinking poetic thoughts about the newest species of orchid. It is 2.1 millimeters Less than 1/10 inch) across. The transparent petals are one cell thick. It comes from Cerro Candelaria reserve in the Ecuadorian Andes, in a country where over 1,000 - you read that right, 1,000 - species of orchid have been discovered in the last century.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Star Trek film; no science, lots of fun

I was re-watching Star Trek on DVD this morning. Anyone with the barest knowledge of science can't help but wince. (You can drive a ship intact through a black hole? What does that giant predator on the ice planet eat when it can't get humans?) Trek fans have to wonder at the violence done to a Spock character, who, while an officer and an instructor at Starfleet Academy, would permit himself an affair with a cadet. And the sheer ridiculousness of the series of events that make Kirk a starship captain is breathtaking.
Despite all that, it's a heck of a fun movie. Like Independence Day, it makes you overlook its flaws because the cast is obviously having so much fun that you are happy to turn your brain off and take the ride with them. Chris Pine as Kirk is enjoying himself so much you expect him to spontaneously combust. (And his character is a believable incarnation of William Shatner's Kirk in younger form.) The whole cast, for that matter, is perfect. So I give a three-phaser salute to J.J. Abrams and look forward to the sequel.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mars Meteorite: Life After All?

In a 1996 study of the Allan Hills 84001 Meteorite, strongly believed to be of Martian origin, NASA scientists announced the finding of "microfossils" indicating the presence of Martian bacteria. This was controversial, and scientists generally rejected it on the grounds the structures could have been formed naturally. (Not surprisingly, when you claim you have discovered Martian life, the bar for evidence is set pretty high.) A new analysis using high resolution electron microscopy has concluded the microfossils could not have been formed naturally. One of the team members said, "We feel vindicated. We’ve shown the alternate explanation is absolutely incorrect, leading us back to our original position that these structures are formed by bacteria on Mars."
COMMENT: As one cautious scientist observed, results from a single meteorite, however impressive, won't put a question as complex and monumental as Martian life to rest. The next step is to replicate the findings - either from other meteorites or on Mars.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

High-tech semi-submerged vessel proposed

I don't know whether this marine exploration vessel will ever be real, although the French inventor says he's raised half the 35 million Euros needed to build it, and the president of France has endorsed it. The idea is that this vessel, which looks a bit like a giant sail, ship will operate mostly submerged, with divers able to simply walk out of a hatch tens of meters below sea level.
COMMENT: I'm not sure this complex gizmo will be worth the premium it will cost to build and operate compared to a conventional exploration vessel with submersibles, but I can't help hoping it gets its chance to demonstrate its promised utility. It's original and darn cool.

Mysteries of the naked mole rat

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are not just odd-looking little mammals. They are every bit as bizarre as they look.
Where mice and other rodents their size may die of old age at 2, mole rats can live to 30. They don't get cancer. They don't have bone loss until well into old age. Their brains can stand being deprived of oxygen for 30 minutes. (Homo sapiens? Five minutes tops.) They don't even feel pain. That would seem a mixed blessing, given that humans who don't feel pain are always hurting themselves, but it seems to work out OK for the rat.
Naturally, scientists are curious about all these adaptations, most of which have obvious human benefits if (it's always a huge if) they can be replicated in our own species.
COMMENT: So remember, naked mole rats are not just the heroic little pet in my daughter's once-favorite cartoon, Kim Possible. They may actually become heroes of science and medicine in real life.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Astronaut one of NG's "Adventurers of the Year"

John Grunsfeld, the leader on the spacewalk that restored the Hubble Space Telescope to better than new, was honored by National Geographic as an "Adventurer of the Year."
COMMENT: There is a lot of debate about the future of human spaceflight, but there are things that humans, no matter how troublesome and fragile they are as space travelers, can still do better than any robot. One is on-orbit repair: the other is inspiring other people.

Keeping up with new species

James Platt highlights just a few of the new species discovered in 2009, including a chameleon that was discovered when a researcher interrupted the snake that was eating it.

Review: On Thin Ice, by Richard Ellis

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear.
Richard Ellis
2009, Knopf (New York).
Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web.
The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear."
This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, train a polar bear team to pull a sled.
The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands.
Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our willingness to kill adults even when they are not presenting a threat.
Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species.
A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last.
When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action.
Essentially, then, the book has a zoology/history section and a policy section. The zoology/history section is wonderful. The policy section displays Ellis' passion for the bear in a manner that could have been given more context but is nevertheless gripping.
Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sea serpents and coelacanths

While I'm citing Darren Naish, let me put in a link to another of his posts, with an excellent discussion in the Comments following: the possibility of large unclassified marine animals, sometimes reported as "sea serpents," still being out there. Dr. Naish is keeping an open mind. It's a coincidence that I am linking to a post where he recommended bmy books on the topic. (Really, it is.)

Here's my comment from this discussion, which had veered into sasquatch and other cryptozoological topics as well as sea critters:

First, thanks to Darren for mentioning my books. I'm not perfect at this, but I try. I intend to write followup books about every ten years until I depart the planet. The idea is to leave a record of some of the major discoveries in zoology and developments in cryptozoology covering a half-century or so.
The giant crocodile seen from a U-boat is discounted by some cryptozoologists as a hoax. It always bothered me that the account claims the whole animal was thrown clear of the water by an explosion on the target ship after the ship sank. The physics don't work.
Despite the time that's passed since the Nicoll / Meade Waldo case, I think it still stands as important evidence. Maurice Burton wrote that he'd seen a conger eel swim (for some reason) with head and forebody out of water: if you have a giant species (10-15 meters?) that occasionally does the same, it comes close enough to this and and some other SS sightings to have an explanation without postulating the survival of an ancient group. (Such an animal does not explain all the good sightings, and we may yet have a long-necked pinniped out there, although we should have better evidence for it than we do.)
If I had to bet money on sasquatch, I would bet it does not exist. I would not close the file on the grounds of the fossil record, though - the fossil record of the modern chimp and gorilla is so sparse that a couple of missed finds would place it at zero. But hair, dung, and even DNA samples only identify sasquatch if you have known sasquatch specimens to compare them to. Nothing except a whole animal or a significant piece of one is going to suffice for a scientific description.
Posted by: Matt Bille | November 25, 2009 2:18 PM

Startling photos: hippos kill crocodile

Darren Naish posts a couple of really gripping photographs. Apparently a crocodile tried to get at a hippo calf - scrambling over the backs of the hippo herd at one point, it looks like - and it turned out to be a really, really bad idea.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Giant "Dumbo" octopus one of Census of Marine Life finds

"Dumbo" octopuses, a rare gelatinous type with earlike fins used for swimming, were thought to be small as well as primitive. A species discovered this year in a survey of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, though, is two meters long. They appear to live between 1,000 and 3,000 meters deep, a zone where they are one of the larger animals around. This is just one of the continuing trove of weird and wonderful animals emerging from this ongoing survey.
In an unusual sidelight, the comic strip Sherman's Lagoon just ran a timely strip featuring the Dumbo, in which the Census of Marine Life is being carried out by fish swimming around with clipboards. (Oddly, I can't find the Dumbo cartoon on the website at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Hobbits" were a new species: the latest round

A statistical analysis of skull shapes and body dimensions demonstrates the Flores Island "hobbits" were a separate species, according to the latest study offered up as evidence in a controversy ongoing since 2003. Modern humans, microcephalic humans, and the Flores specimen LB1 are all distinct, say William Jungers, Ph.D., and Karen Baab, Ph.D. Babb argues, "Attempts to dismiss the hobbits as pathological people have failed repeatedly because the medical diagnoses of dwarfing syndromes and microcephaly bear no resemblance to the unique anatomy of Homo floresiensis."
COMMENT: As readers know, I have always been on the "separate species" side of this argument. This has been a fascinating example of a scientific controversy, and I doubt the final word has been said.

THANKS to Dale Drinnon for circulating this link.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Image: Martian ice lake

This is a startling image of water ice pooled in a crater at the Martian North Pole. ESA's Mars Express spacecraft has given us this glimpse of a world that, while very cold and a little short on atmosphere, is not quite as hostile as we used to think.

New finch species seen emerging?

One of the problems in explaining and proving evolution has always been that its timescale is too slow for real-time observations by humans, at least where vertebrates were concerned. However, two researches studying the famous finches of the Galapagos report seeing the creation of an apparent new species in action. On an island with only one finch species, the arrival of an oddball migrant in 1981 set off a chain of events which, seven generations later, has produced a finch with a distinct appearance and song. It's not clear whether this reproductively isolated type can breed with other finches (part of the classic definition of a species), but it seems to be well along the path to complete separation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Scientific blogging of all sorts

I suppose you could argue it makes this blog superfluous, but I would be amiss not to point on occasion to the almost limitless resource offered by the site Scientific Blogging. A glance at today's collection of blogs offers stuff from scientists and science writers on topics as diverse as the Higgs boson (nope, still haven't found it), engineering education (it would use some engineering work), mummies, and (of course) science writing. They even sell cool T-shirts.

Siamese crocodiles hid in plain sight

Cambodia's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center houses dozens of crocodiles, most hybrids of the rare Siamese species (Crocodylus siamensis). What no one knew until DNA work was done was that half were not hybrids. They were the world's largest captive population of pure Siamese crocodiles, a highly endangered species. Conservationists are thrilled... and a little embarrassed.

Strange ancient crocodile bore tusklike teeth

A croc that hunted on land, with land-adapted legs rather than the stout, bowed legs we normally expect on a croc, is strange enough. When it had three sets of huge fangs, projecting top and bottom like the tusks of a warthog, that's positively weird. Kaprosuchus saharicusa , a newly described fossil from Niger (only one of three new crocodile species), even added "an armored snout for ramming" to all of this. The discoverer said, "This has never been seen before on any crocodile."

Why would a land animal lose its lungs?

That's the question raised by this bizarre little amphibian. Its ancestors and its near relatives have lungs, but this newly discovered, wormlike cacaelian borrows around breathing through its skin, a method of respiration normally used only in aquatic environments. One scientist suggests the species "lost" its lungs through evolving a narrower body diameter that facilitated burrowing, but admitted that was only a guess.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Isn't this baby cute?

OK, maybe not so much. But it is a very young coelacanth, 31.5cm long, photographed by Japanese researchers in its home environment. The ancient fish, of which Ogden Nash remarked "It doesn't know it's obsolete," is still a mystery to us in some ways, and the finding of juveniles is a step forward in our understanding.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Crikey! New species honors Steve Irwin

A colorfully striped new species of land snail with an unusual habitat - it's found only on mountaintops over 1000m above sea level - has been named to honor another unique Australian, Steve Irwin. Scientists of the Queensland Museum decided the animal needed a new genus as well as a new specific name, so, here it is: Crikey steveirwini.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Water ice on the Moon

"I'll take that on the (Moon) rocks."
The LCROSS probe collision in the lunar south pole region got NASA what they hoped for - evidence of water ice in the resulting debris plume. We don't know if there's enough to significantly help in supporting a human base on the Moon, but we know where to look now.
COMMENT: Someone commenting on this story said that they'd pay a lot for a beer brewed with genuine Moon water. Maybe someday that won't sound so crazy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

European students build lunar orbiter

When college students go to look at the moon, they don't always have engineering on their minds. However, the European Space Agency is sponsoring the European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO) for a launch around 2014. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) will be the prime contractor to integrate all the systems built by groups of students into a lunar mapping spacecrraft.
COMMENT: Wonderful plan. NASA, are you listening? (NASA is already quite good about projects to inspire students, but this takes the idea to a new level - or new orbit, if you will - and mertis a look.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The beauty of the Earth

This fellow has collected the strangest and most beautiful landscapes in the world, from geometric formations that don't look natural at all to ice pillars and enormous crytals.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Lonnie Zamora, UFO Witness

I don't spend much time on UFOs anymore, but the passing of one of history's most famous UFO witnesses deserves a mention. Lonnie Zamora, the New Mexico cop whose report of a landed UFO from April 24, 1964, near Socorro, was one of the best-known cases for a long time, died November 2.
The Air Force investigation of this report, which was mainly based on Zamora's retelling plus some rectangular impressions in the ground and burn traces on the ground and surrounding brush, ruled out an extraterrestrial craft or a secret military device but did not go so far as to declare the case a hoax. UFO skeptic Philip Klass thought Zamora might have been fooled by one of his hypothesized unconfirmed-natural-phenomena class of plasma UFOs, with stray wisps of plasma accounting for Zamora's report of two small figures in white coveralls next to the UFO. Klass later changed his opinion to a probable hoax, with Zamora, well known as an upstanding citizen, pressured by tourist-seeking local officials to provide the focal point. There's no proof of this, either, though. There were other witnesses who reported something flying low and making the jet-like roar Zamora reported, but the police officer was the only person who claimed to have seen the craft while it was on the ground and to have gotten a close look.
COMMENT: One item in Zamora's report, a red half-circle-and-arrow insignia seen on the side of the craft has always bothered me: it has never been reported again on a UFO or anything else, and it seems like something a hoaxer would make up. Still, neither Zamora nor anyone else has ever admitted a hoax, and the case went into the Project Blue Book files as "unexplained."

The Mystery of the Falklands Wolf

When is the only mammal on an island group a large canid, with no mice, rats, or bats to accompany it? There's only one case, that of the now-extinct Falklands wolf. These red-furred, coyote-size animals have always been a puzzle. Now scientists using DNA from preserved specimens have confirmed it was neither a true wolf nor a domestic dog nor a coyote: it was s a relative of the long-legged maned wolf, a unique canid of South America. How did it get to the Falklands, 480km from the mainland, thousands of years before humans made it to the New World? We still don't know.

THANKS to Dale Drinnon for passing on this linke

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Ares-I: now what?

The Orlando Sentinel, a paper which naturally does a lot of space coverage, calls for the demise of Ares-I. With one mostly successful test of a partial vehicle done, NASA believes it's making appropriate progress. The Augustine Commission didn't make a definitive finding on the rocket, instead laying out alternative scenarios, and new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden hasn't weighed in yet. I know a lot of people smarter than me believe in the Ares, but I still lean to the "kill" side. It won't be ready until 2017 or so, at a far later date and higher cost than promised. I'm aware that man-rating a commercial booster is not easy or cheap, but I think it could give us a more powerful, more flexible rocket at least a couple of years sooner.

First-ever photos: sperm whale eating giant squid

These underwater photographs from the Pacific near the Bonin Islands are the first actual record of a sperm whale chomping on a giant squid. The squid in these pictures is about 9m long.

THANKS to Gavin Joth for finding this link.

Farewell to Robert Rines

Robert Rines, a prominent inventor and patent attorney best known for his decades-long effort to prove the existence of large unknown animals in Loch Ness, has died. Rines was 87. Rines and his wife were convinced they saw a "monster" in the Loch in 1971, and he poured considerable money and time into developing sonar and camera systems that would obtain proof. It was his expeditions that obtained controversial underwater photographs in 1972 and 1975, along with some sonar readings that are still unexplained. Rines was still making expeditions to the Loch in his 80s.
COMMENT: Rines never got the unambiguous proof of Nessie (a species he lately feared could be extinct) he was seeking, but his is the story of a determined man who put his money where his heart was and tried to bring a legend into the light of science. The world needs people like Robert Rines, and he will be missed.

UPDATE: The distinguished international news magazine The Economist published an affectionate obituary to the man and the dream.
THANKS to Kris Winkler for that link.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Nothing like it in the world: Crypto Museum Opens

Photos from the opening of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, ME. Pride of place goes to a startlingly lifelike, life-size sasquatch sculpture, but the msueum houses thousands of books and artifacts documenting the influence of cryptozoology on science and culture. There's nothing like it, and there can't be anything like it, given the many one-of-a-kind items stored here.

Support the Museum - buy a really cool T-shirt!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Future engineers too good in pumpkin contest

My day job employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, sponsors a contest for student engineers called the Pumpkin Launch. This year, one team did too well. Their cannon shot a pumpkin the length of a football field and through the stadium scoreboard.
COMMENT: You have to be careful turning smart young people loose on anything.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bears love honey, right? Umm, no.

Wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers has spent years socializing with a family of black bears. Among his findings: they have no special affinity for honey. And they'd pass up a pile of roots and berries to break open an ant hill.

Chasing sasquatch

The intrepid souls of Sasquatch Watch of Virginia are out hunting for their target beast in the Allegheny Mountain within the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia. Good luck, chaps.
COMMENT: If sasquatch exists at all, it's hard to believe it has a wide distribution. I suppose it's not impossible that, IF there's a large primate hanging out in the Pacific Northwest, there are isolated pockets of animals elsewhere as relics from a past when the species was more numerous. I do not think these fellows are going to find what they're seeking, but I applaud amateurs with the conviction to go out and actually look, rather than just theorize.

Ares I-X is a go

With 725 assorted sensors attached, NASA's Area I-X text vehicle flew very well today. It's a long road to an operational vehicle - only the first stage of the rocket was live on this suborbital test. However long it takes to get to an operational Ares (assuming the booster is not scrapped, and I still lean toward thinking it should be), this is a valuable learning experience. Congratulations to NASA, ATK, and the rest of the team involved.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Unicorn fly" was a mini-monster

Back in the Jurassic, there were plenty of "monsters" roaming the Earth. One of the weirdest, though, was no dinosaur. It was a tiny fly - a fly with a horn on its head and three eyes at the tip of the horn. Zoologist George Poinar, Jr. said of the newly discovered insect Cascoplecia insolitis, "No other insect ever discovered has a horn like that, and there's no animal at all with a horn that has eyes on top."
COMMENT: Would make a great science fiction monster...

Tiger conservation is cause for worry

When I wrote my first book, Rumors of Existence, in 1995, I quoted a tiger conservationist as saying, "The end of the tiger is in sight, possibly within ten years." It hasn't been quite that bad, but the latest meeting of the world's tiger conservationists reports from Nepal that things are not much better. There are only an estimated 6,000 tigers in the wild. None of the extant subspecies is in sustainable shape, and the Sumatran subspecies is on the brink of following its Javan relative to extinction.

Ares booster test slips due to winds

NASA's Ares I-X, the first launch to use significant hardware from the Ares I booster intended to lift the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, slipped from its 0800 EST launch time due to high winds at the Cape, but is still expected to go today.
Some of those who think the Ares is a costly step in the wrong direction see no point in the test. The Augustine Commission report out last week didn't really clarify the road ahead for human spaceflight boosters. I'm not a fan of the Ares I myself. But my view is that we built the hardware, and you always learn a lot, good and bad, by flying new rocket technology. So let 'er rip.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How abominable is the snowman?

Where did a silly-sounding term like "abominable snowman" come from, and how did it stick to our friend the yeti? As Loren Coleman explains in Cryptomundo, it appears to be a mistranslation of a Sherpa term for the presumed beast, metch kangmi, made by explorer Henry Newman way back in 1921. (The first word of that term is also rendered, more accurately, as meh-teh or meh-to. The whole term can be translated as "filthy snowman," which is actually not too far off.)
Confused yet? Not surprisingly, cryptozoologists who think there's a serious possibility the yeti exists find the colorfullly mistranlated term (one of a host of local names for the beast, such as by the way) to be, well, abominable in itself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Musings on Gould's Wonderful Life

Stephen J. Gould argued in his book Wonderful Life that if you "replayed the tape" of evolution a million times, you would likely never hit on the combination of events which produced humans. Now Gould was a smart guy, no doubt smarter than me (and much more educated and focused), but I think there are a couple of important points to make.
One is that, the more unlikely we are, the more likely it appears that Someone had a hand in our emergence. After all, this is the only planet we know of suitable for higher life forms, and here we are - that's a 100% success rate, albeit one based on our still-limited data set. (Science has confirmed only a few hundred exoplanets, none in the habitable zone. When we know about 10,000 planets, things may look different.)
The other point is that I think Gould took too lightly the fact that that intelligence is always an advantage in evolutionary competition. (Not an unmitigated advantage - intelligence requires support for a large brain, with all the requirements that imposes - but an advantage nonetheless.) In a harsh enviornment like Mars, things may well stop at the microbe level (I won't be surprised if we eventually confirm such life on Mars), but Earth is a big, diverse place, and intelligence has a chance to come into play.
I suspect that, even if no one was influencing evolution, if it ran long enough on a planet of diverse environments like ours, you would eventually produce - every time - a species with an intellectual level sufficient to make the breakthrough to consciousness and an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life. I think the evolutionary game is intended to produce such species - and, even if it's not intended, it will anyway.
So, Gould's admitted brilliance notwithstanding, I think there is something else going on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rediscovered: The case of the missing crow

The bird of the day is Indonesia's Banggai Crow, also known as Corvus unicolor - the name denoting its solid blackness. The bird was known by two specimens described in 1900, and that was it until 2007. It's rare and considered critically endangered, but endangered beats extinct any day.

Ida not a "missing link"

Scientists hate the inaccuracy of calling anything a "missing link," but they don't mind the publicity involved. Remember Ida, the cat-sized primate ancestor christened with that title, with so much fanfare, last year? Well, Ida's not our ancestor. Not unless the reader happens to be a lemur.


Biggest web-spinning spider discovered

And we mean big. Newly described from from dead specimens found in Africa, some fro the field and some from a museum, the new species of golden orb-weaver named Nephila komaci is almost 4cm in body length and 10-12cm in leg span. The big specimens are females: the males are about five times smaller. Good luck, guys.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lemurs, Range, and Reporting

It was recently discovered that the greater bamboo lemur, missing and feared extinct for over 100 years before a sighting in 1972, has a much greater range than we thought. The authors of the blog Cryptomundo post that bit of good news here and take a jab at the venerable Agence France-Presse (AFP) for running the story with a picture of the wrong species.

DARPA unveils blob robot

The idea gang at DARPA, with help from the Roomba creators at iRobot, have unveiled a proof of concept robot that appears to have no structure. The blob-like ChemBot can inflate or deflate parts of its body to change shape, passing through cracks or climbing over or squeezing through bad terrain, building rubble, etc, in ways a more conventional robot could not. It's likely years away from an operational descendant, but this is the kind of stuff DARPA is supposed to do - advance the state of the art and see what happens.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A shot LCROSS the Moon's bow

OK, that's a heck of a contrived headline, but the point is that we have more information coming in from the LCROSS lunar probe collision. There was indeed a plume, just not one bright enough to match the PR NASA had created and encouraged about the project. Scientists are very excited about the results, which should enable them to confirm the presence or absence of water with a few more weeks of analysis.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cryptic Cougars in Pennsylvania

The last official cougar kill in Pennsylvania? 1874. The last reported sighting? Well, they're coming in all the time. Are they real? I tend to think they are.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Coleman's museum makes its move

This site offers a print version and a video news report on the movement of Loren Coleman's crypto collection to the new home of the International Cryptozoology Museum. As Coleman points out in the report, whether one values cryptozoology or not, it can be a "gateway science" that gets kids interested in the natural world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Predatory pterosaur grabbed in-flight meals

Darwinopterus modularis, a flying reptile from China, appears to have been adapted to grab smaller pterosaurs, the earliest gliding mammals, and feathered reptiles (the ones on their way to being birds) while in flight. The creature had a long tail for balance and quick maneuvering, a flexible neck, sharp teeth, and a skeleton that indicates it would have been a hapless hunter on the ground. The species is dated to the Jurassic, 160MYA.

Earth and Moon as seen from Mars

This hauntingly beautiful image was captured from a spacecraft 142 million kilometrs from the Earth-Moon system.

NASA lends a hand for reusable launchers

The toughest problem in all of the space launch field is developing a practical, affordable, reliable Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) capable of putting payloads into orbit. It seems obvious that a reusable ship would be better than expendable ones (we don't junk airliners after each flight), but making that notion work in practice has been terribly difficult. NASA, the Air Force, other nations' space agencies, and commercial firms have all tried different approaches since the partly-reusable Shuttle was built. The result so far: billions of dollars spent, with no RLV. Now NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory have joined to develop a "technology road map" to build on the emerging (slowly emerging) suborbital RLV industry toward an orbital craft.
COMMENT: Something like this has been done before, but technology continues to advance since the first spate of RLV proposals in the 1980s, and the suborbital ships now nearing test flight are pushing it further. Let's hope this new partnership really takes the idea somewhere.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No HSK, but lots of data from lunar collision

The HSK (Horrendous Space Kablooie) is a term I borrowed from Calvin and Hobbes for a major celestial collision. (Calvin suggested it as a much better name for the Big Bang, and he was right.) In this case, the double collision event involving NASA's LCROSS probe and the Centaur upper stage didn't produce the huge visible debris plume NASA expected (and, from a PR point of view, hoped for). But it did produce a mass of data, which will take a couple of weeks to reduce, on the composition of the soil at the bottom of the target crater in the south polar region of the Moon, hopefully including the signature of water ice.

Not UFO, but weather effect wows Moscow

I thought it would be fun to post the tabloid-story version of this sighting over Moscow. It looks like something orchestrated to advertise a science fiction film, but neither networks nor alien visitors are at fault. It's a rare and striking cloud pattern, apparently involving colliding weather fronts and just the right solar angle to create the image of a giant ring over the Russian capitol.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fly me to the moon... WHAM!

From NASA:

"The LCROSS Centaur and Spacecraft impacted the moon at approximately 4:30 a.m. PDT. Scientists are reviewing the initial data and will report what they know at a Post Impact News Conference at 7:00 a.m. PDT / 10:00 a.m. EDT on NASA TV."

This is an interesting experiment. Under lunar conditions, the plume of debris from the impacts could soar 10km high, offering an unparallelled opportunity to analyze its composition.

COMMENT: I don't expect they will find water ice in sufficient quantities to support a lunar base for humans, but any water will be a major discovery.

Then for comic relief, we have conspiracy theorists who claim we are testing a new kind of bomb. Guys... wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to test a bomb on Earth rather than spend thousands of dollars per kg to haul it to the Moon?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Meet Ardi - a common ancestor?

The tired and inaccurate phrase "missing link between humans and apes" has been discarded by scientists, mainly because evolution is much messier than that - it's more of a branching bush than a nice straight-climbing family tree. Still, Ardipithecus ramidus, a 1.2-meter, 50-kg primate estimated to have roamed Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago, appears to have been important to both modern groups. Mindful of the need to tell a story in presenting complex science, researchers have assembled the most complete skeleton, a female, and put her front and center of this important discovery. They call her "Ardi."

Nobel for mastery of light

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics went to three men who developed breakthrough technology we now take as routine: American Drs. Willard Boyle and George Smith for inventing the charge-coupled device (a.k.a. "camera on a chip)," used in everything from digital cameras to space telescopes, and Dr. Charles Kao, who worked in the UK and Hong Kong, for critical contributions to the development of fiber optics.

THANKS TO Linda Dodson for flagging me when this article came out.

MicroSpace News: Academy's next satellite ready

US Air Force Academy cadets are finishing up the integration of their latest student satellite, a space weather microsat dubbed Falcoln 5. Several instruments on the satellite will characterize the flow of charged particles around the bird, providing important information for all satellite designers as a result of the $11M mission. Launch is scheduled as a secondary payload on a Minotaur IV booster in mid-2010.

Cosmic wonders never cease

The Spitzer space telescope has found a new and very different ring around Saturn: a diffuse halo tilted 27 degrees from the planet's known ring system. The particles in the new ring orbit in the opposite direction from those in all other Saturnian rings. Planetary scientists will be working on this one for a long time.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Biggest dino footprints ever

Sauropod dinosaur footprints found recently in France are two meters across. Let me say that again: TWO METERS. Is this a sauropod or the animal from Cloverfield? One meter is big for a sauropod track. Half a meter is respectable for an elephant. The article does not say whether the species of dinosaur has been identified, but the old derivation of the word "dinosaur" from "thunder lizard" (as in making the ground thunder when they walked) seems appropriate in this case.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Our MESSENGER to Mercury

Dr. Jeff Goldstein passes along his latest updates on a mission of special interest to him, the MESSENGER probe of Mercury. MESSENGER snapped some great images on its third flyby of the Toasted Planet. The gravitational assist from that flyby will enable the probe to go into orbit on March 11, 2008.

American, Russian space administrators meet

A very interesting image, almost more so for the background than for the men in the foreground.

"NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Left, and Head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov turn to pose for a photograph at Mission Control Center Moscow in Korolev, Russia shortly after the successful docking of the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) marking the start of Expedition 21 with Flight Engineer Jeffrey N. Williams, Expedition 21 Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev, and Spaceflight Participant Guy Laliberté, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. Lalibreté will return to Earth with the Expedition 20 crew on Oct. 11, 2009."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Tequila to Diamonds? Ig Nobel Awards are out

Why don't pregnant women topple over? Will a full or empty beer bottle do more damage to your skull in a bar fight? Can you make diamonds out of, yes, tequila? Those questions were answered by the researchers who garnered the 2009 Ig Nobel Awards, given for work "that can not or should not be repeated."

New shark has sex on its brain

Women always say men have sex (or a specific organ) "on the brain." The newly described Eastern Pacific black ghostshark (Hydrolagus melanophasma) does, to a degree. While the genitals (claspers) are in the usual position underneath the shark, an organ that looks like a spiked club on the forehead appears to stimulate and help hold on to the female of the species. I suppose there's nothing to add (beyond pondering the taste of female ghostsharks) but that we have one more example of the infinite possibilities that pop up over the huge timescales of evolution.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Reply from Orang-pendek expedition leader

Adam Davies, leader of the orang-pendek expedition, posted a response on Cryptomundo to the various questions he received in that forum. Read the whole text by following the title link. Here I'll just quote his response to my question about identity:

" Matt Billie asked a very good question as to whether it could have been a Lars Gibbon. I am used to seeing Gibbons in the jungle, and Sahar is a really experienced guide. I am certain he would not mistake an Orang-Pendek for a Gibbon, and his astonished reaction compounds that view. The physical descriptions by both eyewitnesses do not match Gibbon. "

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Weather on planet is... rocky?

COROT-7b is the first rocky (as opposed to gaseous) exoplanet discovered. Five times the mass of Earth, it is locked with the same face always toward its (very close) star. That side maintains a constant temperature over 2,000 degrees Centigrade. The result? The atmosphere is full of what might be called "vaporized stone" and a weather front might cause it to "rain" aggregations of that stone - in other worlds, rocks developing the way hailstones do on Earth and falling from the sky.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The physics of zombie movies

Clever scientists often use pop culture to illustrate serious principles. This article reports on a paper analyzing how long a mobile target (for example, you) could survive in a structure with zombies bumbling around at random hoping to bump into you. The answer: get into the most complex, irregular structure you can find. The movie convention of hiding in shopping malls is a good strategy: the chance of being grabbed by a zombie drop off sharply compared to standing your ground in an isolated farmhouse. The author says the paper uses zombies as a model for many "random walking" type behaviors in fields like fluid dynamics.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on that orang pendek sighting

Ther'es a good discussion, with some new information, going on at Cryptomundo about the report of an unclassified ape from Sumatra. My comment on that list:

The lack of a clear close-up view of the whole animal in the sighting report is disappointing. Just from the description, I wonder if an exceptionally large lar gibbon (Hylobates lar) can be ruled out.
I tossed out on the National Association of Science Writers list the question of whether you’d get a refereed journal to publish a formal species description on the basis of a DNA sample. [Researchers gathered hair samples and a piece of rattan the observed animal had been chewing on.] In the case of other species (two monkeys, one shrike) that were accepted on DNA samples, the samples were taken, along with clear closeup pictures and measurements, while the animal was in hand. The type specimen was then released back into the wild. This has become acceptable, but my colleague John Gever suggested DNA from hairs and rattan could always be challenged as contaminated unless the samples were gathered under laboratory conditions - meaning you had the whole animal to start with.
There doesn’t seem to be a precedent for a formal species description, and certainly not one of a vertebrate, based on a wild-gathered DNA sample alone. If anyone knows of exceptions, please let me know.
(And while I agree 100% with the suggestion that any name eventually established should honor Debbie Martyr, it might be premature to put it in the genus Pongo - while I agree that’s the likely identity, right now we can’t be sure it doesn’t belong in Hylobates or even rate its own genus.)

New species down under Down Under

The most extensive study yet of organisms living in caves and subterranean water flows under the continent of Australia has yielded 850 new species. Blind fish and eels, crustaceans, arachnids - the list includes some very weird things. And researchers estimate they've only found 20 percent of the creatures living down there.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I missed this one: great piece on Neil Armstrong

This Washington Post profile, I think, does a great job of understanding the enigmatic Neil Armstrong. For those who lack the time to read the only authorized biography, The First Man, (or those who have read it), it's must reading about the triumph of achievement, the human cost, and the different ways men act when they achieve greatness or have it thrust upon them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New species from the Mekong

The WWF's Asian Species Conservation program has announced a flood of new species from the Mekong River basin of SE Asia. Included are one bird, two mammals, 14 amphibians, 18 reptiles, and over 100 plants. My favorite: the Cat Ba leopard gecko. With its colorful skin and huge, orange-ish eyes, this reptile would have looked great if optically "blown up" for one of those 1950s giant-creature movies.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Intriguing report from Indonesia

I blogged earlier about an expedition from the Centre for Fortean Zoology headed for the Indoensian island of Sumatra. They were looking for the orang-pendek, a primate which, as cryptozoological topics go, is highly respectable, even if the evidence still falls short of what's needed to publish a description.

An expedition member named Dave Archer and a local guide named Sahar are certain they spotted the animal from behind as it sat in a tree. It was broad-shouldered, about 110 cm from the waist to the top of the head (they measured the tree it had been sitting in after it jumped down and escaped), dark brown and had a "heavy coat like a mountain gorilla's" This sounds a bit off from the average orang-pendek description (it's often called reddish), but doesn't fit any of Sumatra's known primates either. What elevates this report over just another sighting is that the expedition gathered both hairs and a piece of rattan the ape was chewing on, which would be expected to yeild DNA. Clear footprints were also photographed. Stay tuned.

COMMENT: Something that will raise a red flag with some scientists is that, as seems peculiarly common in cryptid sightings, no photograph was taken. In this case, Dave Archer had a camera but was trying to get to a better viewpoint before using it, and the animal didn't cooperate. If DNA is recovered and properly analyzed, though, there won't be any doubt.

Friday, September 25, 2009

MicroSpace News: India launches 6 nanosats

Six nanosatellite payloads went into orbit along with India's 960-kg Oceansat-2 yesterday. Four are free-flyers, while two remain attached to the PSLV-C14 booster's upper stage, also in orbit. In a nice example of the international cooperation that has always been strong in the small-spacecraft community, Cubesat 1, 2, 3 and 4 and Rubin 9.1 and 9.2 were technology test payloads from European universities. They weigh from two to eight kg.

Water on the Moon!

NASA scientists studying results from a NASA instrument on an Indian lunar probe, combined with overlapping data sets from different instruments on two earlier NASA probes, have declared the evidence is very solid for water on the Moon. Water is concentrated near the poles and scattered in molecules throughout the surface material (regolith). A ton of lunar soil would yield about a liter of water, so there's no sense tyring to live off it. Still, while this is not enough water to support a human outpost, it is evidence of processes taking place to maintain water on one of the least likely habitats imaginable.

Oh, and while we're at it: new evidence of more ice on Mars! (Where there might actually be enough to provide some support to a long-term stay by H. sapiens). We knew there was water there, but water ice exposed by meteor impacts at mid-latitudes expands the known resources of the Red Planet.

Can life evolve backwards?

Science fiction writers have often played with the idea that life, under the right conditions, can evolve backward into an ancestral form. Biologists have been fascinated by this, too, but it's hard to test. Now an American scientific team has found a way to examine it on the molecular level, looking at the proteins and receptors needed to build a life form, and the answer is a qualified "no." Over time, "genetic blockades" develop that appear to forbid any backwards steps.
COMMENT: It's not clear, at least to me, whether this is a hard rule at the organism level - could an organism evolve ways around these blocks? It would no longer be precisely the ancestral organism, of course. Speculation is always fascinating...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Science: Breakthroughs on the Basics

This is an interesting article about how things we thought we understood can throw us a scientific curve when we examine them closely.
One team at MIT looked at the molecular structure of concrete, which everyone assumed was crystalline. It's not: it's part crystal and part an "amorphous frozen liquid." You'd think we had studied the basics of concrete at some point since the Romans invented it, but it turns out no one has. We knew how it worked, we used it, and no one, apparently, saw the value in breaking it down further. Now that we have, it'll be much easier to develop variations on the forumula to produce better concrete for particular applications.
Likewise, what can be magnetized? Well, a lot of solids can. But could a gas be made to act like a magnet? The thought seems silly - but the answer is yes.
Science will never reach its end. There will always be new discoveries - if someone puts the effort into looking in odd or presumably-solved problems like these.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Radical proposal: Let Pandas Go Extinct

British wildlife expert Chris Packham says we've devoted too much money to captive breeding of pandas and not enough to habitat conservation - to the point where there's not enough wild habitat left to sustain the species, and we should just let the animal go.

The point has been made before about how charismatic species suck up most of the resources available for conservation, and the degree of effort which should be devoted to captive breeding is the subject of never-ending debate. However, it is because of the charismatic species that habitat often gets conserved. And the symbolism of letting the panda go extinct is unthinkable - if we can't save the world's most beloved mammal, is there any hope for the bugs?

A couple of data points: The California condor was saved from certain extinction by captive breeding and is now re-established in the wild. The ivory-bill sighting a few years ago led to a big tract in Arkansas being conserved. Even though I fear we have lost the fight for the ivory-bill (if I had to bet, I'd say a few are still alive, but not a viable population), the mere possibility of its survival led to the saving of important habitat for countless species.

So, my response to Chris is: NO WAY. We need the panda. We need it to be a success story like the condor and the bald eagle and the whooping crane. We may not be able to save every species, but we're committed on this one. May the panda live forever!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Every Living Thing

Every Living Thing: Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys by Rob Dunn (Smithsonian, 2008)

This is a book that does what great science writing is supposed to do - explain the universe while enthralling the reader. In exploring how the definitions and scope of the living world have been expanded over and over again by dedicated researchers, Rob Dunn gives us compelling portraits of biological scientists who have proposed "crazy" theories, made inconvenient observations, and otherwise risked their reputations and sometimes their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Dunn shows that, while being laughed at by a majority of one's scientific colleagues is no guarantee of being right, it's far from a surefire indicator of being wrong.
One of the themes I push hard in my blog and my books on zoological discoveries and mysteries is that we don't know all the animals in the world, not by a long shot, and it's not just the little arthropods that are still being discovered. Dunn explores this theme and many related ones here. He anchors the book in his own experiences in the Amazon, where no one has any idea of the number of animal and plant species present, let alone what to name them. (He also passes along the intriguing story of what may be an unknown and very large type of spider monkey, which is intriguing because cryptozoologists have collected numerous reports of something with the same description.)
Dunn closes with the fascinating discoveries being made in the "deep biosphere" - the microbes that live miles beneath the Earth. Life on the surface, he notes, may in some ways be the exception.
This is a profound work, not just concerning the biological sciences, but concerning science as an enterprise.

US space budgets show slight increase

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has a snapshot of the President's Budget (PB) requests for the three major U.S. space budgets: NASA, DoD, and NOAA. For FY10, it's not bad - NASA up 5%, NOAA 2.5%, Defense 3%. The AIA applauds this but warns about the flat NASA budgets after 2010. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) would get $112 million - up $2M over the FY09 request, but down $74M from what Congress appropriated last year.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Japan's new transfer vehicle makes it to ISS

In another step forward for space cooperation, Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), an unmanned resupply craft, is docked with the International Space Station. The HTV, a one-time-use craft which brings material up to the station and then incinerates in the atmosphere after being loaded with ISS trash, was captured by an American astronaut using a Canadian-built robot arm. See the title link for some very cool video.

Speaking of Star Trek

Here, up for auction, is the seemingly ancient Macintosh Plus Apple Computer gave to Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. This is upgraded from the basic 128K model, so who knows what wonders it could perform? Assuming you can still find any software for it, of course.

"640K of RAM is enough for anybody." - Bill Gates

Another step toward the holodeck

Japanese engineers have developed holograms that respond - or appear to respond - to human touch. Using ultrasound to track the movement of the human hand involved, their system makes the hologram respond as though it were a physical object being handled directly. The creators say they can visualize numerous practical applications in letting humans operate cotnrols without actually having to be in contact with their machines. Star Trek fans, of course, will see it as one small step toward the series' holodeck. The holodeck is an extremely difficult, maybe impossible, technolgy, but you never know what those clever Earthers will come up with.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I'll be a little more erratic than usual this week

This is "move our daughter to college in another state while parents cry a lot" week. So I may be less than perfect at keeping up on science and technology.

Reading this new book. Great, great book on the origins and classification of life, and the people who have devoted their lives to understanding it.

Every Living Thing: Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys by Rob Dunn

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another step in space cooperation

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency signed a new accord to cooperate on civil space exploration. Since it's easy to find news about NASA and the U.S. space leadership, I'll use this space to quote our international partner, CSA President Steve MacLean: "The United States has been a critical partner for Canada ever since the launch of the Alouette-1 satellite in 1962. From these early beginnings, we have worked together to forge a space alliance that has become a catalyst, driving generations of space expertise, innovation, science, and technological excellence through our participation in space projects that continue to serve the interests of both our nations."

Cryptozoology Museum opening

Loren Coleman's International Cryptozoology Museum, for a long time housed in his home, is moving to a dedicated location in downtown Portland, Maine and will open November 1. This is great news. Coleman has gathered thousands of artifacts, books, and other materials in this one-of-a-kind collection. (Examples: the 3.5-meter pterodactyl from the TV series Freakylinks and a life-size Sasquatch, along with a life-sized model of a coelacanth, the Museum's totemic animal.) I hope everyone will consider giving the Museum financial support. It doesn't matter whether you think cryptozoology is an exciting new science, an idiotic waste of time, or something in between. This is a collection about an enduring mystery of science and a topic of interest to millions of people. It the Museum ever fails, this collection will be scattered, and I don't see how it could ever be brought together again. Kudos to Loren for the many years of dedicated work it took to make this happen.

UPDATE: Loren asked me to add the musuem link for donations. Happy to. And, yes, I'm putting my own money where my blog is.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ever seen a pink grasshopper?

Eleven-year-old English schoolboy Daniel Tate found exactly that in Devon. And it's not pinkish. It's bright, flaring, Pepto-Bismol pink. It's amazing this extremely rare mutation of a common species ever made it to near-adulthood.

COMMENT: Genes are like a deck of millions of cards - sometimes they just fall funny. Still, I can't help forming this mental picture of God in a whimsical mood, pulling a paintbrush out of thin air and saying, "Let's see if anybody notices."

THANKS to Andrew Gable for posting this link on Facebook.

Speaking of ocean mysteries...

There's a promising new tool on the way to explore them: a two-person submersible able to reach even the very bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. Since Deep Flight II is expected to be much lighter than older deep-diving submersibles, it won't need a heavily modified launch ship like the famous Alvin does. Here's hoping it works as well as advertised.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some thought about "sea serpents"

There was an interesting exchange on one of the cryptozoology lists about whether there are surviving prehistoric whales (Basilosuarus sp.) and/or other large, spectacular marine animals still undiscovered. A summary of my inputs on this:

I do believe there is at least one, and maybe two, species of large marine animal behind the hard-to-explain "sea serpent" reports. The one I am quite certain of is a huge eel or eel-shaped fish. The less certain one is a long-necked type that is most likely a large unknown seal or sea lion. I think the usual factors of mistake, exaggeration, etc., combined with sexual and perhaps geographic differences, in these two species would account for enough of the more convincing "sea serpent" reports so as to explain the whole business.

I don't agree with those scientists, eminent though they are, who consign said "whole business" to legend. There are just too many impressive reports by ship's officers and other witnesses who, if they were not marine biologists (and remember that Messrs. Nicoll and Meade-Waldo, famous for a clear sighting in 1905, were in fact well-qualified biologists), could still be relied on to know a whale from a giant elongated "something." We know from well-qualified observers there are at least two species of beaked whales for which we have no specimen and no scientific name. The ocean is still a big place.

There are cryptozoologists, some more qualified scientifically than I am, who argue that several animals are evidenced by the sighting reports. I have difficulty, though, with the idea that a plesiosaur, a long-necked pinniped, a basilosaur, a giant crocodile and a mosasaur are still out there. The body of sea-serpent reports convinces me at least one animal must be undiscovered, but does not convince me that several types of such animals remain unknown to science. Not with no unquestionable bodies found, no post-Mesozoic fossil records verifiable, no specimens having swum into fishing nets, none ever being harpooned (and only a couple even spotted) by whalers, etc. (Allegedly lost, misidentified, or "suppressed" evidence is not worth anything as evidence, because it doesn't matter why we don't have it. All that matters is that we do or do not have it. And a report of a carcass found and lost is no stronger or weaker evidence than an individual sighting report. It is a sighting report, it's just of a dead animal.)

(As an aside, it's actually a bit odd how the vertebrate world seems to have almost given up on long necks. A few mammals, a few turtles, no other reptiles, no amphibians. Only the dinosaurian-derived birds seem to put much stock in long necks anymore.)

Science follows (or should follow) where the evidence leads, without preconceptions. The question is how strong the evidence is, and, unless you've got a carcass in your office, there's no avoiding some degree of subjective judgment on that. The probability of discovery does factor into that judgment. If we had, for example, several seemingly good accounts of 21st century mammoths in North America, I'd still discount them, because the chance of the animals remaining hidden until now is so close to zero. The chance that science has missed every one of several breeding populations of large bipedal primates on four continents (N America, S America, Europe, and Australia) (and on most of Asia), a position held seriously by some experienced cryptozoologists, likewise seems to me very close to zero. I think we will find at least one (Sumatra's orang-pendek), and one or two others are at least possible. But not a whole zoo of them.

Since this is my blog, let me toss in my opinon about the recurring belief of some cryptozoologists that evidence once reported and now unavailable may have been "suppressed by science." I'm not saying that all evidence is viewed dispassionately and treated properly. Let's say a paleontologist finds a plesiosaur vertebra that appears only 20M years old, when the established wisdom is that all such animals died out 60M years ago. I could imagine her talking herself out of publishing about it because there's such a strongly established body of thinking behind the 60M year date. She may think "It must be my mistake" or "I'm not putting this out there unless I have a dozen more like it and three other paleontologists who have duplicated my dating results and will say so in print."

A scientist with a dead plesiosaur (or whatever form of "sea monster") in his museum is another thing. A recent carcass will hold up to any storm of criticism or ridicule while making the discoverer famous for all time. I'm quite firmly convinced that no dead sea monsters (or sasquatches or Homo erectus specimens or whatever) are stuffed in vaults because someone found them inconvenient.

All that said, there are still compelling zoological mysteries still to be solved. I hope we will solve them. I won't be disappointed, though, if there are some we never do. I think that's good for us.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Hubble's deeper view of our universe

After this year's repairs by adventurous (and dexterous) astronauts, the Hubble Space Telescope has brought in a stunning array of new views of the universe. My first reaction to some of these was to add the caption, "God's Christmas ornaments decorating the cosmos."

Augustine Commission: to Mars, eventually

The summary of the Augustine Commission report is in, and the panelists thought NASA's plan for a near-term return to the Moon was (depressingly, but not surprisingly) unaffordable on politically realistic budgets. The Commission suggested NASA let private industry increasingly take over the Earth-to-orbit portion of the space business while the agency develops cutting-edge technology and pursues a "flexible" strategy for human spaceflight. The eventual goal for humans would be Mars, but the steps and timelines would develop gradually, as technology allowed. The Commission felt NASA's Ares I booster program was unlikely to provide enough value in this private/public mix to be worth continuing.
COMMENT: It will be very interesting to see how the Obama administration and new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will factor this report into the real world - directives and budgets. Personal opinion: I'd expect the Administration to interpret "flexible" as "keep the budgets flat." That doesn't mean no good will come of this. The cancellation of Ares and the increased contracting out may - may - mean more money for science missions (an Administration priority), a broader space technology base, and the kind of technological advances needed for missions to Near Earth Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations. Like I said, it'll be interesting.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Giant rat discovered

An expedition filming a BBC documentary series, Lost Land of the Volcano, discovered a new species of enormous rat in Papua New Guinea. The 1.5 kg animal is 82cm long, making it one of the largest true rats - if not the largest - in the world. The species, known informally as the Bosavi woolly rat, awaits its formal description.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The quest for the Orang-pendek

Press release from Britain's Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ):

A group of British explorers and scientists from the Devon based Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ), the world's largest mystery animal research organisation, are about to embark on an expedition in search of a yeti-like creature in Indonesia. The four-man team will search the jungles of Sumatra for what locals call the 'orang-pendek'. The powerfully built, upright-walking beast may be related to both the orang-utan and the much larger yeti of mainland Asia. In the same island chain remains of the tiny hominid known as Homo floresiensis were unearthed in 2003.
The Kubu people - an ancient race who were the first inhabitants of Sumatra - will aid the team. The tribe and their chief have seen the creature in their poorly explored jungle homelands.
Westerners have sighted the orang-pendek too, including Englishwoman Debbie Martyr, now head of the Indonesian tiger conservation group, and wildlife photographer Jeremy Holden.
You can follow the group's adventures on line at the CFZ website on"

COMMENT: The orang-pendek is very respectable as cryptozoological quests go, and has been remarked upon by "mainstream" experts as intriguing. I've corresponded with conservationist Debbie Martyr, internationally known for her tiger work, and she is certain of her sightings of an animal larger than the local gibbons and habitually bipedal. The only photograph is too blurry to be widely accepted, but there is good reason to believe the animal will be found - if not by this expedition, then sooner or later. Martyr fears for the species in the face of widespread illegal logging, though. So good luck to Freeman and company!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mars still beckons us

What Ray Bradbury calls "homestead Mars" is still the right long-term goal for humanity, according to a new NASA report. (This is not to be confused with the Augustine Commission report on human spaceflight programs, which is leaking out all over the place but not yet final.) The report's conclusion is that, even though we will not go to Mars (or anywhere else) on the optimistic schedule proposed a few years back in the Vision for Space Exploration, it should remain our eventual goal to set human footprints on the Red Planet.
"NASA must remain the world leader in human spaceflight and lead humankind to prepare for missions to Mars. We are going to Mars because it is civilization's next major challenge."
COMMENT: There is something, even if romantic, which calls us to the only other world in the solar system that might host and sustain a human population. We should not overlook other goals and other needs, and we should continue the wildly successful robotic exploration of Mars and other worlds. Still, there is something that standing on another planet will teach us about the universe and ourselves. Getting there has to be a gradual process, constrained by the real world of technology development and budgets, but the report is right: we need a goal for the long term, and Mars will wait for us.
Someone once proposed this:
"Would you sign up for a mission to explore Mars if you knew it would take two years and you'd have a twenty percent chance of not returning?"
My response:
"Where do I sign up?"

"I had the ambition to not only go farther than man had gone before, but to go as far as it was possible to go." - Captain James Cook

This one looks worth reading

I've not gotten ahold of it yet, but here's a review of what looks like a fascinating new book on how we perceive and name the creatures around us. The book is called Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, and the author is the always-worth-reading Carol Kaesuk Yoon. (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009)

More wonders from down under

WWF Australia is releasing a new report on discoveries of fauna and flora in a continent still not completely known. A large bat, the snubfin dolphin, a carnivorous pitcher plant that grows a meter high, a new possum - all kinds of interesting new species are popping up.
There are still mysteries about the larger ground fauna of Australia, too. There are, without question, confirmed sightings of some sort of large feline-looking predator which may be a population of cougars bred from abandoned animals imported from the U.S. There is the continuing mystery of the yarri, a large marsupial predator, and persistent reports of surviving thylacines, which were supposedly out-competed on the Australian mainland by the human-introduced dingo thousands of years ago.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Apollo 12 landing site - great image

This image taken from lunar orbit shows everything on the Apollo 12 landing site - the descent stage of the Lunar Module Intrepid, the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, the old Surveyor probe the astronauts visited, and preserved on the airless Moon, the unmistakable trails made by the walking astronauts.
It won't kill the "moon hoax" claims, but, in a rational world, it would.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Evolution tells us how, but why remains fuzzy

An interested exchange of dueling thought on science and religion.
First came Robert Wright with his book The Evolution of God, applying psychology and game theory to examine our evolving idea of the divine.
Then came biologist Jerry Coyne with a sharply negative review in The New Republic, saying essentially that Wright's book was pointless because the very idea that a divinity was at work in the universe had been disproved by science.
Here Jim Manzi argues back: "The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them."
In other words, we are learning more every day about the HOW, but science can't tell us the WHY, and can't prove or disprove the existence of a WHY.
COMMENT: I'm with Manzi here. I didn't find Coyne's argument or Richard Dawkins' famous bestseller "disproving" God convincing. Dawkins argued convincingly that God as Dawkins defined Him did not appear to exist, but that's not the same thing.

New species: the view from Sikkim

One of the things I like most about the internet is the way it lets me scan news sources from around the world and get the local angle on stories that I'd otherwise see only through the prism of major global news outlets - or miss out on altogether.
I mentioned the WWF report a little while ago that showed 353 new species of plants and animals from the eastern Himalayan region. Here, the Press Trust of India reports that Sikkim is "the country's richest state in terms of biodiversity." Nineteen of the new species are found in Sikkim, including five orchids and three fish.

P.S. Also today, I see we have three new frogs from Peru:

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New Species from a dark world

Beneath Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, is the world's longest known underwater lava tube, stretching more than 1.5km. It's no surprise that an environment as strange as the Tunnel de la Atlantida should harbor new species. A recent dive netted three, all of them eyeless: two tiny worms and a 2.5cm-long crustacean from the primitive group known as remipedes. The crustacean is almost transparent and is equipped with poison fangs.
COMMENT: These animals may seem insignificant, but the point is that we find new species everywhere we look: on land, in the seas, underground, in caves, etc. The explosion of life that began so long ago reached all over the globe, into every place life could exist (and some, like seafloor vents gushing superhot, mineral-laden water, where we would have thought it could not exist.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Why do some things evolve, and some don't?

This question popped into my head when a cryptozoology group host, anthropologist Dale Drinnon, relayed a report about Mongolia's "death worm," reportedly some kind of burrowing animal with a lethal electrical charge. I suggested there might be an undescribed species of burrowing snake, presumably venomous, with a lot of exaggeration and myth added to it. Dale speculated that it would only take one case of a startled person being bitten by a snake and dropping of a heart attack to create folklore about the snake having something more potent than venom.

Cryptozoology in general invites a lot of fun speculation about what has evolved, what has not, and why.

In this example, we don't know of any wholly terrestrial animals of any kind which can use electricity as a defense system or weapon. This may be due entirely to the inefficiency of earth and air as transmission mediums, or also to the fact that electrical sensing apparatus is likewise most useful in water, and this is what electrical weapons or defense systems evolved from.

I like to think about these things in quasi-engineering terms. Evolution is a clumsy engineer that goes off in a lot of unproductive directions and takes seemingly forever to get on the right track (also true of some human engineers), but eventually comes up with ingenious solutions. Sharks in particular have always struck me as beautifully integrated weapon systems, with powerful armament, a striking array of sensors, and various other adaptations all packaged in a streamlined, damage-resistant skin. (As a Christian, I think the eventual rise of an intelligent, self-aware being with a sense of spirituality may be somehow inherent in all evolutionary systems which run for a long enough time, but that's irrelevant here.)

To think about electricity again, an electric eel's weapon system is a terrific dual-purpose (offense and defense) gadget, although there's a cost in giving over much of the body mass to "storage batteries" and keeping them charged. I wonder that no animal ever evolved an extendable electric weapon - an octopus could use a specialized tentacle (or equip the tips of all its tentacles, with the batteries mostly in the body) for offense or defense. It may be that powerful electric cells are something so specialized and complex that, even with the hundreds of millions of years multicelled animals have had to multiply, mutate, and adapt, such cells evolved only once, in the bony fishes.

I've read several attempts at explaining why mammals haven't evolved green fur, seeing as how it would be useful in many environments, and it sort of comes down to "Well, it just hasn't happened yet." The genetic cards have just not fallen, so far, into a set that would yield green fur. Or maybe such a mutation did happen, but the animal lived in rocky terrain and the color was a disadvantage. If we found a green mammal, there would be a lot of buzz about it, but no serious damage to current thinking on mammalian biology or evolution.

I once sparked an interesting discussion on the National Association of Science Writers group by pondering why there are no six-legged vertebrates (including no cases of three paired limbs in fishes). Six legs could come in handy in endeavours like climbing trees, and would increase survivability if a limb was lost. The consensus of the considerable brainpower in that group was that, for a vertebrate, unlike a small arthropod, growing and maintaining a limb is a major investment, and the advantages just weren't worth it. You might say that spider monkeys hit on a compromise by developing a prehensile tail functionally equivalent to a fifth limb.

(And while we're at it, why no color-changing mammals?)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another cartoon: Science news cycle

Brilliant and sad.

Science reporting in two cartoon panels

As a two-panel summary of how science news gets reported, this is masterful.

(Yes, there is a further link to a full six-panel version, but I think the two-panel exerpt is actually better. There's something to be said for conciseness.)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Our first look at a molecule

IBM researchers using an atomic force microscope have given us our first close-up image of an individual molecule. This is a molecule of pentacene, a compound used in making solar cells whose molecules include 14 atoms of hydrogen and 22 of carbon.
COMMENT: One of the interesting things is how close common physical models are to the actual image. We humans are impressively good at figuring things out when we want to.

Finding the missing birds

The conservation organization BirdLife International has taken up a new cause - searching for 47 species of birds that dwell in the twilight of uncertainly. These are birds which have not seen seen in years and may or may not be extinct. BirdLife wants to nail down their status so scientists can either help the species recover or sadly write it off. The list includes famous avians like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and its even more spectacular cousin, Mexico's Imperial Woodpecker, Bachman's Warbler, the Eskimo Curlew, and the Pink-headed Duck, along with other birds whose fate puzzles ornithologists, such as the Jamaican Petrel, Hooded Seedeater, and Himalayan Quail.

Naturalist Charles William Beebe once said, "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."
That's why the search goes on.

Salute to the Shuttle

The space shuttle Discovery, after two delays which remind us that this technology, while marvelous, is getting old and cranky, blasted off Friday for the ISS. NASA reports no foam was seen coming off the External Tank, so that's a good start to the mission. Aboard is a treadmill named for comic Stephen Colbert, one of NASA's more clever bits of PR after Colbert-lovers flooded a poll about what to name the newest module on the ISS. The module became Tranquility, while the treadmill (vital for zero-G exercise) became the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).

Blogging the Universe

Dr. Jeff's Blog on the Universe is meant to inspire students, teachers and parents to explore science and the universe. There are news items, quizzes, commentaries, and much more. My favorite feature in this rich site is "Teachable Moments in the News." Go check it out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Extinct birds rediscovered

Beck's petrel, a species not confirmed in the wild since the 1920s has been found alive. The announcement was made based on the study of photographs taken of some 30 birds in the summer of 2008 by an Israeli ornithologist, who also collected one dead specimen. The bird was spotted in the Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands famous in World War II as a battle site in the southwestern Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Tasman booby was also thought extinct. British scientists investigating its case didn't find live birds, but they did nail down the fact that it's not technically an extinct species because it was really a subspecies of something else all along. As Dr. Tammy Steeves put it, ""What was once considered to be an extinct species, the Tasman booby (Sula tasmani), turns out be a subspecies of a living species, the masked booby (Sula dactylatra fullagari). And now these charismatic seabirds have a new name - Sula dactylatra tasmani."
COMMENT: This is not nearly as much fun as announcing news of a new or rediscovered species, but it is important. Proper identification and taxonomy helps us decide where to concentrate our conservation efforts as well as telling us more about the evolution of all the bird populations involved in a case like this. The Tasman booby had some obvious physical differences from its shorter-winged relation, so the similarity of the DNA brings up interesting questions.

THANKS TO Chad Arment for passing these links on to Dale Drinnon, who reported them in a crypto email list.

Another monster (fake but fun)

The head of the Sugar Flat Road monster is there for everyone to see in an antique shop window in Lebanon, TN. There's a brochure and a local mythology about it, although the apelike head itself fails to impress (most taxidermists can get teeth in straight, a d the skin looks like a bit like paper-mache, or at least not much like primate skin, in the available photo.)
COMMENT: There used to be more of these sorts of good-natured hoaxes scattered across the USA. I was delighted to learn this example is still around.

Blogger Brent K. Moore posted this item on his site, and anthropologist Dale Drinnon posted it to a cryptozoological mailing list, so thanks to both.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Loch Ness Google Monster?

Has Google Earth captured the "Loch Ness Monster?" Well, the image shows an obvious boat, which some people have inexplicably called the monster. There is, though, to port and behind the boat, something odd-looking at or just under the surface of Scotland's most famous lake. Without either video or eyewitnesses, though, no one can tell whether it's part of an actively moving animal or is just drifting debris, the latter, sadly being the more likely.
COMMENT: I've about given up on Nessie, as the last three decades have failed to uncover any new type of evidence. Still, I don't think Tim Dinsdale's 1960 film has ever been satisfactorily explained (it's either a big creature or a boat, but various enhancements and enlargements have failed to bring out any telltale boat features), and some of the sonar recordings are puzzling. So the file is almost closed... but not quite.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

South Korea's space launch - still a partial success

South Korea's first attempt at orbiting a satellite was mixed bag. The Naro-1 launcher, a joint project with the Russian firm Khrunichev, worked well, but the satellite was released late and missed orbit. Disappointing, but it's still a step toward the indigenous space capability the nation is building.

NASA knows how the Koreans feel, as today's Shuttle launch was scrubbed due to a bad hydrogen fill/drain valve.

Who's tops at evolution?

If you measure evolutionary success by what group produces the most new species at the fastest rate, the mammals and the birds win. One group of fishes stands (so to speak) on the podium as well.
Scientists who studied animal divergence report that crocodiles have had 250M years to diverge and produced only 23 species, while mammals have produced over 5,000 species in less than half that time. The study leader commented that it's a mystery "Why these evolutionary losers are still around."
COMMENT: WHat I take away from this is that evolution is tricky, messy, and complicated. For all we know, some of the "losers" may be around long after we furry creatures have passed from the scene.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Depicting the extinct

This is an interesting example of the question of how ancient beasts are reconstructed and how they are depicted, both in science and in popular culture. In this column from Cryptomundo, the specific example is whether the giant marine reptile Tylosaurus had any form of crest running down its back. Early paleontologists thought they saw evidence of a low crest, and depicted the animal that way. Later artists sometimes increased the size of the crest, mainly because it made the beast look more like that powerful creature of myth, the dragon. Modern paleontologists think any evidence for crests was misinterpreted, and they now depict Tylosaurus with a featureless back. Without an actual Tylosaurus, though, we don't know if that's precisely correct either.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who killed the giant grizzly?

A reward is being offered by the US Fish and Wildlife service for the poacher who killed the grizzly bear believed to be the largest in Montana. Maximus, as he was commonly known, weighed over 800 pounds, vs. the average for Montana grizzlies of 600 pounds. While an 800-pounder wouldn't win the Ursus arctos heavyweight title in Alaska, Max was a monster by Lower 48 standards. He was only 11-12 years old and had plenty of time left to add more of his obviously robust genes to the pool supporting his endangered species.
COMMENT: FWS says they found the body - meaning someone just shot Maximus and left him there. Sometimes being a member of Homo sapiens is nothing to crow about.