Saturday, January 31, 2009

The newest bird debuts in China

The bird is the potato-sized Nonggang babbler, from China's southern region of Nonggang. Birdlife International announced the dark brown bird, first spotted in 2005 and now formally described, has a known wild population of only about 100, making it an immediate candidate for "endangered" status.

Space law documents free on line

A tip of the astronaut helmet to Prof. Joanne Gabrynowicz and company for putting these online:

The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law is pleased to make available, without charge, Selected Space Law Documents: 2008. It is a compilation of space law documents from the year 2008 that were gathered primarily from postings placed on Res Communis from 1 January through 31 December 2008. The postings are supplemented with materials from other sources that were published in 2008 but which were published too late to be posted as a blog entry in a timely manner. The compilation is a special supplement to the Journal of Space Law, the world's oldest law review dedicated to space law. The Journal of Space Law, beginning with the first volume, is available on line through HeinOnLine.

Space law is sure to get discussed more in the coming years, with the Obama administration's emphasis on international cooperation. The President's proposal to "ban space weapons" needs a lot of fleshing out. How do you decide what is a space weapon? Any satellite with maneuvering or station-keeping ability can be maneuvered to collide with another satellite nearby. Even if you ban only dedicated space weapons, how do you enforce it? The honor system? No nation is going to allow foreign nationals to pre-inspect all its space payloads, and the use of on-orbit inspection is difficult, not just financially, but because the inspection satellites might be classified as - you guessed it - space weapons.

As usual, opinions are strictly those of the author as a private citizen. Said author wishes the President good luck in finding a system that actually works.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Wild Blue (5 stars)

Wild Blue: A Natural History of the World's Largest Animal
by Dan Bortolotti
Thomas Dunne Books, 2008

Wild Blue is simply a great book in every way. It introduces us to a mammal we know surprisingly little about, despite said mammal's status as the largest creature ever to live on Earth. The author is outstanding at explaining cetacean biology, scientific principles, technology, and so on without ever losing his sense of wonder. He also introduces us to the key figures in blue whale research and lets us know what motivates them.
Bortolotti tackles the always-present question: how big do they get? While 33m and up has been claimed, he reports that about 30m is the longest validated measurement, with the largest whales approaching 182 metric tons. He also looks into taxonomy (the once-controversial pygmy blue whale has largely been accepted as a subspecies, but there's plenty of debate about how many subspecies there are, what populations live where (and whether they intermix), etc.
Wild Blue is scientifically exacting yet always accessible to the nonspecialist reader like myself. That's a very difficult tightrope for any author to walk, and Bortolotti never loses his balance. This will stand for a long time as the definitive work on its subject.

In Memorium

This is a week for remembering.
We lost a great author, John Updike.
We lost a great man: my father-in-law, George Kanter, age 83. George was a big supporter of my space and other writing endeavors. He was a Marine, wounded in the invasion of Saipan, a polymer chemist with Rohm & Haas, a husband, a father. He led a full life, always looking forward, traveling for his company around the world, earning publication for his photographs of the Great Wall of China and the Sydney Opera House. Sometimes, though, even a full life is much too short.

And this is NASA's week to remember.

"Don't waste too much time mourning the men who died. Rather thank God that such men lived." - General George S. Patton

I repost here a well-phrased press release from the Director, Johnson Space Center:


At 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 29, we will pause to remember the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. I would like to invite all employees to the Astronaut Memorial Grove to observe this moment of silence in honor of their commitment to NASA's space exploration programs and their bravery. These astronauts and their families will always be a part of NASA's family and our Day of Remembrance will commemorate their collective contributions.

-Apollo 1 (January 27, 1967): Astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, and Edward H. White, Jr.

-Challenger (January 28, 1986): Astronauts Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and S. Christa McAuliffe.

-Columbia (February 1, 2003): Astronauts Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

Throughout the day, please feel free to visit the Memorial Grove to celebrate the lives of these great explorers who served their country well.

Monday, January 26, 2009

And since we're still at it...

China's Xinhua news agency reports that expeditions since 2005 have netted 14 new species of plant and animal from Yinggeling Nature Reserve in Hainan Province.
COMMENT: I'll stop with the blizzard of new species posts until a really good one comes along, but I think it important to make this point every once in a while. We don't know all the other creatures on this planet (never mind the plants). We may not know 10 percent of them.

New species: how do you name them?

Peter Etnoyer's article in Deep-Sea News goes into the question of how scientists go about naming something new. I can't improve on his words (although I've edited here for brevity):

"The first option is to name the species after a characteristic. Grandis for big, elongata for long, etc. But this can get boring. There are way too many grandis in the world already. The second approach is to name the animal after a geographic region, hence pacifica, or boat or an expedition, hence Alvinocaris and Sibogagorgia. The third approach is partimonial, to name the species after a colleague, a donor, a girlfriend, or even an enemy (if its particuarly small or ugly)."

Dr. Jon McCosker (a famed shark expert) once wrote of a kind of tongue-in-cheek feud on this last point, where he he named an eel after an old professor and some other scientists named ugly critters mccoskeri.

New species just keep coming

A sea squirt that looks like a transparent funnel when grabbing prey is just one of the oddities from a US-Australian study of the sea off the island of Tasmania. No fewer than 274 new species came out of the expedition into a steep dropoff known as the Tasmanian Fracture Zone.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Miles O'Brien on space exploration

O'Brien, a trusted aerospace reporter lost when CNN stupidly and irresponsibly cut entire units of newsgathering expertise, here weighs in on our failure to follow up Apollo. The worst thing, he notes, was not just that we failed to keep exploring and building on the Apollo achievements, but that we never tried.

Lovely new fish swims into science's view

From Sri Lanka's Onlanka News comes this photo of one of the world's newest vertebrates - Puntius kelumi, a freshwater fish with golden scales and delicate fins. The genus, Puntius, is known from several species in the Southeast Asian/Indian region.

COMMENT: One small fish may not be a huge matter to science, but I thought this was worth blogging on as a reminder that not all the significant work done in animal discovery comes out of world-famous labs or universities and equally famous journals. Vertebrates not charismatic enough to make it onto CNN are being described all the time, and in surprising numbers.

Of course, the Web is a huge help to spreading news of such discoveries. Here's one lesser-known site collecting and exchanging information on new fish:

Here's another good example: a collection of all the new species described in just one order (the catfishes, or Siluriformes) in one year (2004). It's part of the global All Catfish Species Inventory project.

Friday, January 23, 2009

An armored, rock-climbing catfish

That's what has turned up in Venezuela, The new species, dubbed Lithogenes wahari, is taxonomically important as well as just plain weird. It uses its sucker-like mouth and a highly mobile pelvic fin to climb. It combines features found in two known families, the Loricariidae (armored catfishes) and Astroblepidae (climbing catfishes) and may come from a lineage ancestral to both.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NASA Administrator back to "TBD"

Space News apparently got this one wrong. Johnathan Scott Gration was not the choice for NASA Administrator - just a trial balloon that has been shot down. There doesn't seem to be any sort of consensus on who will be nominated.
NOTE to President Obama: if you can't find anyone else, I could be persuaded....

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dedicated amateur discovers new mammal

I love stories like this. The world's newest mammal - a civet from Sri Lanka - was discovered by a banker named Channa Rajapaksa, who was fascinated by civets and spent years pursuing them in the field. The first specimen of Paradoxurus stenocephalus walked into a live-trap Channa was using to study the habits and distribution of known species. Channa's research was reviewed and put into context by Colin Groves of the Australian National University and Kelum Manemandra-arachchi of the Wildlife Heritage Trust. The Linnean Society of London's Zoological Journal published their joint paper.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Japan's giant cephalopod story

It's useful to remember that cryptozoology is not just an interest (or passion) in the United States. Brent Swancer, an American living in Japan, files occasional reports with Cryptomundo on Japanese cryptids. This example concerns Akkorokamui, a creature one might think was invented for a Godzilla movie, except it's actually an old tradition among Japan's indigenous Ainu. A bright red cephalopod alleged to reach up to 110 meters in size, the legendary creature makes its home in Funka Bay on the island of Hokkaido. Is this story an exaggerated version of the North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), or something more?
COMMENT: We're not going to find a cephalopod 110m across. It would have trouble gathering enough food as well as controlling its tentacles (given the limited speed of nerve impulses). Still, given that giant squid reach at least 18m, an octopus larger than known species is hardly impossible.

Book: Chasing Science in the Sea

Author Ellen Prager is Chief Scientist for the only operating underwater scientific habitat in the world. That for me was the most surprising fact in the whole book, considering there were dozens of such habitats in the 1960s.
Prager recounts her own adventures and explains the importance of various branches of marine science. She is not a transcendent nature writer like Sy Montgomery, but her enthusiasm comes across well. Page 85 mentions the observation of a yet-unidentified 2m-long squid. A small but surprising error is her claim that we have no submersible vehicle today, manned or unmanned, that can reach the depths Piccard and Walsh pioneered in 1960, but on the very next page she mentions Japan's Kaiko, which does exactly that. Prager repeatedly returns to the need for scientists to gather data in the field and the importance of the scientific method. This slender volume (151 pages of text) is a useful addition to its genre that hopefully will inspire some of the marine scientists of the future.

UPDATE: Dr. Prager wrote in to correct me on the supposed error, reminding me the original Kaiko was lost and the replacement ROV is limited to depths of 7,000m. In 1995, the original Kaiko dove to 10,911m in the Mariana Trench. This is approximately equal to the record established by Piccard and Walsh in their bathyscaph Trieste, with some uncertainty due to improper calibration of the Trieste's instrumentation. Richard Ellis' Deep Atlantic (Knopf, 1996) is one good source for an account of the two vehicles' dives.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Methane on Mars - what does it mean?

The short answer: Mars is either geologically active or biologically active. The latter would be more startling, of course, but the planetary scientists, the first would matter a lot, too.
Scientists inside and outside NASA have spent five years examining the sometimes-fragmentary evidence from spacecraft and telescopes and building the case for methane emissions from the surface of Mars.
As this article in Science puts it, "...Methane-generating bacteria might be living off hydrogen produced by rock...Or, purely inorganic reactions between water and rock rich in the mineral olivine could do it."

Wildlife tracking goes high-tech

How do you follow animals, as individuals or groups, in the wild? How can we get the precise data we need for conservation, such as knowing how many African penguins are meandering around a critical piece of habitat?
This article by a magazine for project managers shows how teams charged with finding out this sort of thing are bringing the newest technology to bear. Penguins are enumerated by computerized cameras that automatically distinguish individuals by the patterns of black spots on their breasts. Rare Arabian leopards are fitted with tiny "black boxes" that monitor their movements. And a network of underwater bioacoustic sensors - developed by students at Cornell University - is tracking the numbers and types of whales swimming off New York.
All very cool, and, potentially, very important.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for this item.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New NASA Administrator a surprise pick

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration is, according to Space News, President-elect Obama's choice as NASA Administrator.
Gration is a former fighter pilot who held a variety of command positions, but never had a space assignment in the military or NASA. (He did spend one year, when he was a White House Fellow, working for NASA official Hans Mark.) He has been an advisor to the Obama campaign. He flew combat missions over Iraq and among other jobs was once Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, Office of the Under Secretary of the Air Force, Headquarters U.S. Air Force.

COMMENT: Hmmm. No real space experience, but a lot of leadership experience and accomplishments. It's difficult to predict how he'll do. Here's hoping he does well.

Not-quite-life created in lab

Life as we know it, even simple life, requires RNA and DNA to "run" an organism. Scientists have never succeeded in getting any form of these molecules to replicate or evolve.
They have now.
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., created RNA molecules that replicate, mutate, and compete, with the "fittest" molecules crowding out those less well equipped. Gerald Joyce and Tracey Lincoln are insistent that they have not created life, but they have created matter that "has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting." Self-replicating RNA molecules are thought to have been predecessors to DNA.

COMMENT: This does not mean we are on the verge of creating living matter from nonliving matter - DNA is a huge step from RNA. It does move us closer to that possibility, as well as giving us a look back in time billions of years to the "primordial soup" (whatever and wherever that really was.) It does make sense that, as with human cloning, we should get some regulations in place (an international agreement, preferably) on what limits we as a species place on our ever-expanding power to create.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sergei Korolev

Today is the Chief Designer's 102d birthday. Korolev was a talented engineer, an extremely talented manager, and a man of indomitable will. An American space program analogy might be that he was that he was Wernher von Braun and Bruce Medaris (or von Braun and James Fletcher) in one man. The Space Age would have unfolded very differently without him.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

MicrospaceNews: CubeSats are go

Cubesats, those handy 1-kg buses invented by by Bob Higgs at Stanford, are not just revolutionizing space opportunities for American educational institutions. This article reports on the Second European CubeSat Workshop, planned for his Second European CubeSat Workshop will take place in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, beginning January 20, 2009. The ESA Education Office is the sponsor. Nine CubeSats have already been manifested on the first flight of ESA's small Vega orbital launcher, scheduled for November 2009.

Exploring cryptozoology

This great article in the Boston Phoenix looks at cryptozoology, where it fits in the human desire to believe in the strange, where it fits in science, and how it's displayed in Loren Coleman's Cryptozoology Museum. Just a great read. It also links to a slideshow with dozens of images.

Keeping up with the roundup

Tanzania counts 17 new species of reptiles and amphibians since 2004 from the ‘virtually unexplored’ forests of the South Nguru Mountains. Asa bonus, this article links to reports on two significant mammal discoveries: the world's largest shrew and a new primate, the Highland Mangabey (Lophocebus kipunji).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Topa, savior of his species

Topa, a California condor, was found injured and taken into captivity in 1967. He didn't see a female of his species until 1982, and when he did, it took him a long time to get the hang of this mating business. Once he figured it out, though, he became one of the linchpins in the salvation of this rare species. Topa, who has lived over 40 years in the Los Angeles Zoo, has sired 21 chicks and is still going strong. Given that his species once hit a low point of 22 birds, all in captivity, the current population of 300+ owes a lot to Topa. Keepers report he has never liked humans and remains a difficult bird to handle, but he is nevertheless a star who may live another three decades.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Sabre-tooth stalks again? Resurrecting ancient beasts

This article in New Scientist reviews the status of ten ancient creatures that, in theory, might be resurrected if we regain more of their genetic material and make some other plausible advances. The include one of my favorites, the terrifying short-faced bear Arctodus simus, along with the sabre-toothed cats, Neanderthal man (though scientists doubt anyone will breach the ethical barrier of asking a modern woman to be the surrogate mother), the Tasmanian thylacine, the dodo bird, the woolly rhinocerous, the armored glyptodont, the giant ground sloth, the Irish elk, the giant beaver, and the moa. (The author also throws in the gorilla as an example of how are rare species might be retrieved of we "lose" it.)
COMMENT: We may never realize most of these possibilities, in part because only a few have ideally suited surrogate mothers to "convert" a recovered genome into an animal. The 800-kg short-faced bear was the giant of the Tremarctine bears, for example, and the last living relative, the spectacled bear of South America. has a body mass 90% smaller. Still, if there is one thing science has taught us, it is to remember this line from Wernher von Braun: "I have learned to use the word 'impossible' with the greatest caution."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

What's a Species, and Why?

A good article by Scott LaFee for the San Diego Union-Tribune tackles these questions in some depth, probing the different mechanisms of speciation and offering examples from fruit flies to copepods. A species, biologist Dan Bolnick notes, remains hard to define by the classic criterion of an interbreeding population. “Even if you use the criterion of reproductive compatibility, how compatible is too much to consider groups separate? What if the interbreeding species hybridize 10 percent of the time? One percent? One hundred percent? The cutoff is arbitrary.”

New species roundup - Vietnam

The end-of-the-year announcements tolling up new discoveries include article from the VietNamNet Bridge, which announces the new species roll for Vietnam as 26 vertebrate species. The latest of these, a handsomely banded cave lizard, is named Cyrtodactylus hontreensis and was announced by a joint team of Vietnamese and American experts.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Three new American fish

New vertebrates from North America are fairly rare. Indeed, it surprises some people to learn there are any such discoveries at all, even those concerning small fish. Here, however, is the tale of three new American darters from the drainage areas of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
We have the The Citico darter, Etheostoma sitikuense, the Marbled darter, E. marmorpinnum, and the most distinctive member of the trio, the Tuxedo darter, E. lemniscatum, distinguished in part by distinct black bands on its fins. The latter's specific name means "adorned with ribbons," which makes one wonder if it is a distant relation to Abudefduf saxatilis, the Sergeant Major. (OK, I admit military icthyological humor is a stretch.)

Another "Sci/Tech" site for your enjoyment

I didn't invent the term "Sci/Tech" or "SciTech" for a blog, although I do like to remind CNN I used it before they did (not that they care). Here is another interesting and informative site, the SciTech Journal blog published from India by Darshan Chande. Darshan answers a lot of popular science questions, from how microwave ovens work to how sloths survive in the wild surrounded by creatures that would seemingly love a tasty, near-immobile mammalian snack. (Answers: a tough hide, the ability to heal quickly, and, most important, really superb camouflage.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

WIRED's Top 10 New Organisms

WIRED names the Top 10 new organisms discovered (or, in one case, rediscovered) in 2008. You've seen most of them in this blog, but it's an interesting collection, ranging from the olive-backed forest robin (Stiphrornis pyrrholaeumus, from Gabon) to a new species of bacteria found alive in a Greenland glacier after being frozen for an estimated 120,000 years. Another weird one is a parasitic nematode worm of Central and South America, Myrmeconema neotropicum, that makes ants' abdomens swell up and turn red to look like berries to attract hungry birds, which then spread the parasite in their droppings.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Terrible reporting in a weird week for NASA

The headlines have been crazy: "Report: Obama May Merge NASA, Pentagon Space Programs" in this version on Fox News. There are even more sensational examples... none of them with a basis in reality.
It all started with a Bloomberg News item saying the Obama administration might turn the mission of launching NASA's Orion capsule from the planned Ares I over to "military rockets" - the Atlas or Delta EELVs - " because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency's planned launch vehicle." Other outlets picked up on Bloomberg and took it to the point of alleging a "merger" without ever noticing the premise was wrong and that no merger is even being contemplated.

The Bloomberg story as spectacularly uninformed. The Atlas and Delta EELVs are not purely military rockets: NASA can purchase them commercially from United Launch Alliance (ULA) any time they want. EELVs carry commercial satellites and NASA payloads like the GOES series. What NASA would have to pay ULA to do is build a man-rated version, which the Pentagon has no interest in. It's also not clear where NASA and DoD ties need to be closer: they cooperate every day on everything from range operations to the significant military support to shuttle launches to missions like Orbital Express and vehicles like the X-43.

All this came during one of the more bizarre NASA news stories - that Administrator Mike Griffin's wife, among others, was openly lobbying the new Democratic administration to retain the Republican appointee. There is even an "internet petition campaign" by another former NASA official, Scott Horowitx, who seems clueless about the fact that Internet petition carry zero weight anywhere in the government (since anyone can just make them up and harvest names from the Internet.)

Now, SHOULD the new Administration look at replacing the Ares I?
Ares I, based on Shuttle SRB segments, seemed very sensible when proposed. However, it reminds me more and more of the Vanguard booster, which was sold as a simple and affordable solution using existing stages and turned into an entirely new rocket that remained a marginal design even while driving program costs from $20M to $110M (in 1950s dollars). We did eventually make Vanguard work, and the program paid for itself in technical advances, but will Ares I be as fruitful?
It may be Ares I is still the right solution, but a lot has changed since NASA made the original trade studies. Given that plus the way launcher selection affects all other decisions for Constellation, it makes sense to do one more review at this point. A well-funded team including NASA and independent experts should look at Ares compared to man-rated Atlas, Delta, and Falcon solutions. Future contributions to a heavy-lift vehicle for Constellation would be part of the value considerations, but top priority would be to find the optimal Orion launcher based on criteria supporting safety, performance, schedule, and cost objectives.

Bees really buzz on cocaine

Australian scientists have mimicked addictive behavior in humans by dripping freebase cocaine on to the backs of honeybees, where enough is absorbed to get the bees high. The bees continue their job of searching for food, but do the "waggle dance" indicating a food source to the hive much more enthusiastically. Cut them off from the drug, though, and the foragers lose interest in discovering food, let alone announcing it. Both responses have close human analogies, despite the differences in neurobiology.
Study co-leader Andrew Barron said,“What we have in the bee is a wonderfully simple system to see how brains react to a drug of abuse. It may be that when we know that, we’ll be able to stop a brain reacting to a drug of abuse, and then we may be able to discover new ways to prevent abuse in humans.”

Rise of the pink iguanas

"Pink iguanas" may sound like the name of a girl-group rock band, but scientists discovered only in 1986 that the Galapagos Isalnds were home to a population of iguanas with a distinct pinkish hue offset by black stripes. Now a new scientific study the lizards have been formally described as a separate species. Study leader Gabriele Gentile of the University Tor Vergata in Rome thinks the lizards also mark an important adaptive radiation, similar to Charles Darwin's famous finches from the same islands. (Darwin's visit did not include the islands of these fashionably attired reptiles). Gentile wrote, "So far, this species is the only evidence of ancient diversification along the Galapagos land iguana lineage and documents one of the oldest events of divergence ever recorded in the Galapagos."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Any good "creature" films in 2009?

Welcome to 2009!

Keeping an eye out for creature films in the new year is a fun sidelight of cryptozoology. I like creature films, dramatic or light-hearted, when they are done well, and zoological plausibility is not always required for a good film.
There have been enjoyable almost-kinda-plausible examples, like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Harry and the Hendersons, as well as fun-although-impossible ones like The Fly (Goldblum version) and Cloverfield. (Think about how long it would have taken nerve impulses to travel from the Cloverfield behemoth's brain down the limbs and back, or what its blood pressure would have to be.)

It's odd there have been few really good dramatic/thriller films about cryptozoological themes, given that remote locales, personal quests and conflicts, scientific (and commercial) issues, exotic creatures, and the wonder of discovery can all be elements of great drama.

Loren Coleman started a thread on Cryptomundo about 2009, noting there is a remake of Creature and a new Wolf Man due out this year.

As always, we'll have to see what actually shows up on the screen. The people behind Wolf Man make it sound promising, but when was the last time a remake of a creature film was good? Aside from Peter Jackson's King Kong (a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in excess), the most recent example I can think of is The Fly, and that was made 23 years ago. Still, Wolf Man might break the drought. The Creature remake, though, sounds like it will be heavy on the eco-preaching (the animal is not a "missing link," but a mutant creatured by dumping of pharmaceutical waste).

Others due in 2009, from Wikipedia and a quick trawl of other movie sites: There’s another chapter of Underworld due out for werewolf fans, plus a new animated Ice Age film and a movie about an albino sign-language-capable gorilla, also for a young audience (the title, Vanilla Gorilla, is a giveaway there).
Cool creatures will no doubt be on display in the next Harry Potter and in James Cameron’s Avatar.
Then there is Piranha 3-D, set in Arizona. Really.
Cloverfield seems likely to have a sequel, but it's unlikely to make a 2009 release date.