Thursday, December 30, 2010

Species keep coming out of Peru

In the Peruvian Amazon, the rate of "major" animal discoveries is impressive: one new bird a year and one new mammal every four years. There are plenty of invertebrates as well: one find I mentioned in an earlier post was the toothy "Tyrannosaurus leech" (Tyrannobdella reina). As this article points out, the nation is taking meaningful conservation measures, with 15 percent of its lands under some level of protection. It's also a land undergoing rapid development, though, with 16 percent of the territory included in mining concessions. Conservationists are fighting to make sure the most critical spots are saved, noting that there are no doubt more species there we don;t even know about yet.
COMMENT: As in the United States, it's not reasonable to expect all public lands will be protected: economic welfare and conservation will sometimes be at odds. The balancing act will never be simple, although requiring greener methods of extraction and restoration can help.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The South Atlantic Anomaly

Here's another fun Skeptoid post. The South Atlantic Anomaly, unlike the Bermuda Triangle it's sometimes (unsupportably) linked to, is a real phenomenon, a quirk in the Van Allen belts that maintains a cloud of high-energy particles at an altitude low enough to concern the operators of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Some spacecraft have sensitive instruments turned off when they approach the Anomaly. While pseudoscientists link it to the strange 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, that's not supportable, either. Commercial aircraft operate at far too low an altitude to be affected.

What was the Bell Island Boom?

Atmospheric phenomena have always fascinated me. We are still learning about strange, gigantically powerful phenomena like sprites and elfs (not elves) in the upper atmosphere. One awesome phenomenon we have confirmed is the superbolt, a long-lasting lightning bolt from the top of a thundercloud to the ground, with 100 times the power and brightness of a normal bolt. Skeptoid host Brian Dunning here details a superbolt strike, blamed on a secret superweapon by some conspiracy types, that shook Newfoundland in 1978. It destroyed appliances, killed chickens, and left holes in roofs. No wonder it had people puzzled and alarmed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Homo sapiens much older than thought?

The general theory, until recently, was that our own species evolved only some 200,000 years ago, a half-million years after the migration out of Africa. Teeth found in Israel, though, may complicate this picture considerably. According to Israeli researchers, the teeth are from "modern" humans - but are 400,000 years old. While the discoverers are cautious (they will keep digging, looking for skulls and bones that might reinforce their theory) and other anthropologists think the claim isn't proven yet, the find raises the possibility that the first H. sapiens arose in what would become known as the Holy Land. That might mean one group of ancient humans pushing out from Africa settled this region and eventually developed into a new species - us.

More on ancient human from Russia

Readers may remember the announcement made in March that a finger bone from a Russian cave represented a new species of human. Now we have learned more about the "Denisovans," as the writers have nicknamed these people from 41,000 years ago. Among other findings: some of their DNA shows up in modern people from Melanesia. That's a long way from southern Siberia, and complicates questions about human origins and migrations. As one researcher put it, "Instead of the clean story we used to have of modern humans migrating out of Africa and replacing Neanderthals, we now see these very intertwined storylines with more players and more interactions than we knew of before."
COMMENT: Also, this indicates the Denisovans may have migrated south, which increases speculation by cryptozoologists that they may not be extinct, and may represent the almas, reported primates generally described as primitive humans of some sort, from the Pamirs.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book Review: True Giants

Is Gigantopithecus Still Alive?
Mark A. Hall and Loren Coleman
Anomalist Books, 2010

In True Giants, Coleman and Hall tackle a question that's hung around the edges of primate cryptozoology without being fully addressed: Are sasquatch and its ilk (assuming they exist) the tallest primates on Earth, or could there be an additional species, presumably a modern descendant of Gigantopithecus blacki, that forms the basis for worldwide legends of giants 9-20 feet tall? I greatly respect Coleman, and Hall is a researcher of prodigious skill, but this slender volume didn't change my thinking on this.
The authors admit up front that we don't know what kind of skeletal structure works in such an animal. To me, practical knee joints are especially hard to visualize: human knees are problematic even for people of ordinary height and chronically troubled for very tall people. Giraffes manage their True Giant-like height with fairly normal mammalian knees but have four to spread the weight over.
The authors suggest a honeycomb bone structure for lightness, but there's no precedent for a true birdlike honeycomb structure in mammals: you have to postulate a long line of evolution we know nothing about for a change this radical. It seems a stretch even though, given that we have nothing of G. blacki but fossil jaws and teeth and the entire fossil record of the modern species of chimpanzee and gorilla could be held in a man's two hands, our picture of primate ancestry is a long way from complete.
Gigantopithecus is viewed by anthropologists, almost unanimously, as a heavily built knuckle-walker. If this is correct, it would take a lot of evolving to get to any sort of upright ape and a lot more for the True Giant. Giganto's gorilla-like posture is basically implied from the sheer size indicated by its sparse fossils, so this common scientific belief does not quite rise to the level of established fact. The late Grover Krantz argued the spread of the fossil jaws indicated upright posture, but leading Giganto expert Russell Ciochon rejected this, and very few people in the scientific community are open to the idea.
Implausibilities and new structures certainly arise in mammals, but scattered eyewitness reports and footprints are not enough to make me take the True Giant possibility seriously. I commend the authors for tackling a difficult subject and sparking debate, and cryptozoologists should read this book for an understanding of the "high end" of unidentified-primate reports.

Top 10 Cryptozoology stories of 2010

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has released his Top 10 Cryptozoology Stories of the year. They include discovery of two large and impressive new species, a monkey and a monitor lizard: the repeated misdentifications of ordinary animals with mange as something bizarre (not sure those really belong here); publications of new theories, including the DNA results from the pursuit of Sumatra's mystery ape, the orang-pendek; the continued success of Loren's pride and joy, the International Cryptozoology Museum; a new photo from Loch Ness and a spate of sasquatch-type reports from North Carolina; and the capture of a live saola in Vietnam.
COMMENT: I'm sick of the mangy corpses, although Loren has a point in that they do keep making the news.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Von Braun's 1960 lunar plan (and a cool blog)

Larry Klaes has a very interesting blog, Paleo-Future, about predictions of the future from years past (it explains, for example, who predicted the personal jet-pack thing that I still want and can't have.) This example looks at a book by Wernher von Braun, written in 1960 and portraying a near-future lunar mission. Not surprisingly, a lot of it turned out to be right (he was predicting less than a decade, after all, and he was Wernher von Braun). He did think we'd be wearing advanced versions of the close-fitting Mercury-type space suits rather than the much bulkier suits that were really used.
COMMENT: Just plain love this blog. But I still want my flying car, too.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gradeschool kids publish in scientific journal

You're never too young to be a scientist. A group of 8- to 10-year olds in England have published their research on bees. Biology Letters is, in fact, a serious peer-reviewed journal. The scientist who mentored the kids in their study of how bees use a combination of spatial and color cues to determine which flowers to visit writes, "They [the kids] asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data."
COMMENT: Just wonderful stuff. Reviewers wrote that, while the usual degree of statistical rigor and repetition from most papers was absent, the experiment was genuine, well designed and added to knowledge.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hornet's exoskeleton generates electricity

They don't know exactly how the Oriental hornet's exoskeleton generates solar electricity, and they also don't know why. But icthyologists have confirmed that, somehow, the mix of pigments in the exoskeleton takes in sunlight and puts out electricity. It's not an efficient process, but no one knows why it exists at all. Did the hornet evolve this ability so it could carry an iPod? That makes as much sense as anything.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nat Geo's ten weirdest new species

And some of them, like the little purple octopus and the sneezing snub-nosed monkey, are endearingly odd.

Chimp girls play with "dolls"

Among chimps in Kibale National Park, Uganda, some female juveniles use sticks as dolls, caring for them the way their own mothers tend to offspring. Males almost never do the same. Researchers are still working out the implications.
COMMENT: Maybe the boy chimps would get on board if their sticks were called "action figures."

Amino acids found in asteroid meteorites

Scientists have found amino acids, the building blocks of life, in meteorites from Sudan. This is not the first time that's happened, but it is the first time they turned up in meteorites that had been naturally subjected to temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius. There shouldn't have been any organic compounds left, and experts like NASA astrobiologist Daniel Glavin are not certain why. But this does make it more plausible that life COULD have come to Earth from elsewhere.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Bontanist's Christmas: new species of mistletoe

Helixanthera schizocalyx is a new species of mistletoe, found growing wild in Mozambique. Not where you'd expect mistletoe to show up, is it?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New species discovered by Missouri high schooler

I love stories like this. A new species of flower was discovered in China by a visting American high school student. You're never too young to wonder about the world.

It's squidworm!

And it's really bizarre. Teuthidodrilus samae is one of the weirdest looking things on the planet, a marine worm 9cm long with two armlike appendages used for feeding, eight qrmlinke appendages used for breathing (yes, breathing), pink paddlelike appendages for propulsion, and, last but not least, a dozen frondlike sensory organs. You have to take a look at the image: words can't do it justice.

Top Ten New Species of the decade

Conservation International, with an assist from the BBC, has announced ten new species from the last decade. The list is a reminder of how much we're still learning about our world.
Big red jellyfish (Tiburonia granrojo) - a deepsea Pacific jellyfish a meter across.
Chan's megastick (Phobaeticus chani) - a stick insect over half a meter long
Grey-faced sengi (Rhyncocyon udzungwensis) - a comical-looking mammal from Tanzania
Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) - also from Tanzania, the first new genus of monkey since the 1920s
Bamboo shark (Hemiscyllium galei) - a colorful-seafloor-walking species
Giant slipper orchid (Phragmipedium Kovachii) - a striking purple flower, 20cm across, from Peru
Pitcher plant (Nepenthes palawanensis) - a large new species from the Philippines
Langkawi bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus macrotuberculatus)- a forest- and cave-dwelling species from Malaysia
Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) - a swimming sloth from a Caribbean island.

New lemur leaps into view

Primatologist Russ Mittermeier has seen a lot of species, and participated in the discovery of more than one. In Madagascar, some fifteen years ago, he spotted a member of the "fork-marked lemurs" - known for a black stripe on its back that forked on its face. He suspected the species was new, but didn't get to take another look until two months ago. He and his team captured a specimen, took genetic samples, and let it go. Based on an odd structure under the tongue, apparently used for lapping up nectar, Mittermeier thinks he has the world's newest primate species on his hands. The genes will tell.

Friday, December 17, 2010

the heavens and the Earth: Apollo 8 reading of Genesis

One of the most thought-provoking videos from the space program: the crew of Apollo 8 reads from the book of Genesis while showing their global TV audience the Moon. It doesn't matter if you're a Christian: the wonder of the moment touches everyone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Two space anniversaries today

Courtesy of fellow space nut Larry Klaes, who points out December 15 is doubly significant:
40 years ago today: the first robotic spacecraft to land on another planet, when the Russian Venera 7 came down on Venus.
45 years ago today: The first time two manned spacecraft made a precise (within a meter or so) rendezvous in orbit, by Gemini 6 and 7.

Book to watch for: The Great Sperm Whale

Thanks to a lovely illustrated Christmas e-card from Richard Ellis, I'm anticpating his next book:
The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature [Hardcover]
The card came, interestingly, while I was re-reading Moby Dick.

This should be a kind of bookend to Ellis' study of the giant squid. I'm definitely looking forward to this one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MicroSpace News: USC's nanosatellite hitches ride on Dragon

When SpaceX's Dragon made its historic flight, it had several little passengers along. One was billed as the first Amy-built satellite in 50 years. Another came from my alma mater.
A nanosat built up of three one-kg cubesats was built by USC's Viterbi School's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and the Department of Astronautical Engineering's Space Engineering Research Center (SERC), with a hand from Northrop Grumman and other companies. USC provided a Cubesat unit called CAERUS (the Greek word for "opportunity"). David Barnhart, who I've worked with before, was one of the leaders of the USC effort.
For more:

Arsenic-based life: How sure are they?

NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who led the team reporting on life that used arsenic as a chemical building block. wrote that she checked her work carefully at every step and was 100% sure when she submitted her paper. Doubters do exist, though. Quite a few doubters, with good credentials of their own, are pointing out where the experiments could have been done better, where contamination could have crept in, and where the results seem odd (the bacteria were grown in water, but arsenic bonds are weak in water.) A NASA spokesperson dismissed criticisms on the web or in blogs, saying they should be published in papers, which raises an interesting question about form v. content making a critique valuable. One of the original paper's authors did agree on this: " The only way this is going to get settled is if people reproduce these experiments on their own.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bizarre big-headed prehistoric dolphin found

Modern dolphins have rounded heads housing their echolocation apparatus. This newly discovered species had a really exaggerated "melon" and forehead. A fisherman named Albert Hoekman pulled up the first known remains of the animal now called Hoekman's blunt-snouted dolphin. Living in what is now the North Sea, it was 6 meters long and possibly ancestral to today's pilot whales.
COMMENT: It looks to me like nothing so much as a dolphin wearing a "Gazoo helmet," sometimes used by American football players who have had concussions or collision-induced migraines. Presumably, the dolphins didn't play football.

New theory on Saturn's rings

The rings of Saturn (which we science writers are required by law to describe as "majestic" - but that's OK, because they are) are 95 percent ice. That posed a problem for scientists tyring to figure out how they formed. If they were bits from colliding moons (the planet has 63), there should be a lot more rock in there. A new theory says that a single, large, ice-covered moon was drawn in by Saturn's gravity, which stripped off the ice layers. The remnants in the rings have actually coalesced to make some of the small rock-and-ice moons we see today. One scientist refers to this as "cosmic recycling."

NASA in FY11: halfway to a budget

Technically, it's not a budget. The House of Representatives has thrown in the towel on a budget and passed a Continuing Resolution to fund the govenrmnet through September 2011. Unusually for a CR, there are some changes in spending: NASA gets a slight increase from $18.7 billion to $18.93 billion. The CR would continue work on the Orion capsule, commercial crew and cargo programs, and heavy-lift vehicle. It would allow NASA to formally end the Constellation program. The CR is in the Senate for debate.

Tourism to begin at Chernobyl

In 1986, Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded in the worst-ever disaster to arise from the nuclear power industry. It effectively froze the industry in the U.S., although American reactors were very different in design. The ruin is still dangerous: a new concrete casement, weighing 20,000 tons, is being built. But you can check the disaster out for yourself next year, when tourism begins at the reactor site. Yep, tourism. Yulia Yershova, spokeswoman for Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry, said, "There are things to see there if one follows the official route and doesn't stray away from the group." Don't sign me up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

MicroSpace news: NASA ejects one satellite from another

Very cool: a small satellite ejects a "nanosatellite" in space. The nanosat will test a tiny solar sail.
UPDATE: Nanosat-D, which was supposed to unfurl a 100-square-foot solar sail ffrom a container the size of a bread loaf, appears to have a probelem. NASA originally said it deployed on schedule for the parent FASTSAT, but it's not transmitting and has yet to be located.
COMMENT: Solar sail experiments seem to suffer from an ongoing jinx. The idea of solar sail propulsion has yet to be tested on orbit despite several attempts.

Eating like a whale

How many calories does a whale need? Well, it takes in a half-million with every "bite."
The largest creature ever to live, the blue whale, strains tons of crustaceans called krill from the sea in every mouthful. In each of those mouthfuls is an average of 457,000 calories. One scientist, Robert Shadwick, says they are the most efficient feeders in the animal kingdom: "When they take a gulp of water, they are filling their mouths with the amount of water equal to their own body mass, so there is nothing that comes close to doing that." This sustains an animal that may weigh over 150 tons, with a heart the size of a small car and arteries a child could crawl through. When whalers were allowed to kill blues, the first step on killing a whale was to slice it open so seawater could sluice through to cool the insides: otherwise, the latent heat of all those tons of muscle would cook the animal.

The stork that hunted hobbits?

The "hobbits" on the island of Flores apparently had an avian predator to contend with: an extinct type of marabou stork that stood 1.8 meters tall. The stork would have towered over the island's human inhabitants and perhaps posed a direct threat to the youngest. The stork appears to have died out about 20,000 years ago.
COMMENT: I couldn't help but think of this exchange: "Mommy, does the stork bring babies?" "No, honey, the stork takes them away."

Ancient civilization under Persian Gulf?

Eight thousand years ago, the water level in the Persian Gulf rose dramatically, an effect of melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. This may be the flood described in the Bible. Recent discoveries of ancient settlements on the current shoreline are surprisingly advanced and permanent. Hence the theory that evidence for an older, widespread civilization is beneath the waters. Jeffrey Rose of the University of Birmingham has published the idea and says he knows what the next step must be: finding an underwater site.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Meanwhile, on Venus

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reports its Akatsuki probe reached Venus on schedule but failed to make orbit. A mechanical failure (possibly, though unlikely) due to a meteorite collision) made the probe miss the planet and keep going. JAXA project manager Masato Nakamura apologized for not meeting the nation's expectations (there's a custom we could import: leaders who are actually sorry when they fail). Engineers think they may be able to try again if the probe, sent on a two-year mission, is viable after another six years, when its trajectory will carry it by Venus again.

And the Dragon has landed

"It's just mind-blowingly awesome. It's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown — but in a very good way." That was SpaceX founder Elon Musk at a press conference after the Dragon capsule was recovered in the Pacific ocean after two orbits. The Dragon becomes the first craft launched into space and recovered by a private company.
SpaceX has a NASA contract to make 12 unmanned cargo flights to the ISS through 2016. Rival Orbital Sciences has a contract for eight flights using a spacecraft still under construction.
COMMENT: Yes, it's a magnificent feat, and important step for space commerce, etc. But most of all, it just darned cool.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We have liftoff

SpaceX's Falcon-9 with Dragon capsule made a beautiful liftoff at 10:43 EST. Watching the live feed, almost every comment heard from mission engineers had the word "nominal" in it. When it passed from the visual field of ground-based tracking systems, the second stage was performing well after the first stage did its job, and the shroud protecting the Dragon capsule had been jettisoned. It's a great start to an important mission.

Where to discover a new plant species?

In a drawer in your local museum, lab, or arboretum, of course. British botanists have made the estimate (highly speculative, of course), that 35,000 species may all have been collected and are just waiting for someone to identify them. Problem: there aren't enough "somebodies" with time and training to undertake the work.

SpaceX, waiting for go....

Space X on Monday: "A decision on whether or not to attempt launch on Wednesday will be provided tomorrow evening... if the nozzle had to be replaced, the company would aim for a Friday launch. SpaceX has a launch window that will remain open until Saturday." It's a nozzle extension used for extra thrust and not needed on this flight, but engineers want to make sure it's not a symptom of more critical cracking elsewhere.
On Tuesday: It all looks good, going for Wednesday liftoff. Trying for two orbits for Dragon and then a water landing.
Thunderbirds are Go!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"My laboratory is under water"

OK, no one actually said that headline, but I'll bet it's a good conversation starter. The Wall Street Journal has a good article, with photos and video of the unique Aquarius facility, 18m (60 ft) under the sea in the Florida Keys. There were once several such labs around the world, but Aquarius is the only one left. The lab lets scientists carry out long-term, continuously observable studies and experiments. Operations director Saul Rosser describes Aquarius by saying, "You're in this reverse aquarium—an air bubble with windows." The lab can handle six people and is in its 18th year of operation.
COMMENT: It seems to me that, with the urgency of marine science in this era of ecological concern and climate change, there should be more than one such lab - a lot more. I understand the competition for scientific resources, but there should be several such labs in different locations at different depths. Robotic vehicles and stations are increasingly capable, but nothing yet replaces the human scientist on the spot for a thorough understanding of an ecosystem.

SpaceX launch slips

SpaceX had planned to launch its Falcon-9/Dragon combination into orbit today, but small cracks were found in the nozzle of the second-stage engine. Company engineers hope a quick fix on the pad will allow a launch Wednesday or Thursday. SpaceX is testing its vehicle for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which funds the delivery of cargo and personnel to the International Space Station.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Falcon-9/Dragon launch coming up

Follow a big day for private space. The Falcon-9 medium-lift booster launch with a reusable (unmanned, for this test flight) Dragon capsule is set for a Tuesday launch. You can follow developments on thie title link at Spaceflight Now or with SpaceX (which has been great at putting all important moments, like test firings, on the Web live) at Best of luck, folks!

Space launch: what's Russian for "Oh, (*$%*$?"

A Russian Proton rocket carrying three Glonass navigation satellites into space has instead entered "reef-level orbit" by dumping its cargo into the Pacific. The three satellites were supposed to to complete the 24-satellite constellation, a rival to the U.S. GPS system. The satellites lie 1,500km northwest of Honolulu.
COMMENT: It's never been clear to me what the point is of Glonass or Europe's Galileo system, set up as rivals to an American constellation which provides free service to any user anywhere in the world. I suppose these expensive expressions of national pride at least promote global expertise in space engineering, which may pay other dividends down the road.

China's Unicorn Cow

Technically, it's a three-horned cow, but the third horn, right in the middle, is much more prominent than the other two. "Unicorn" animals have been produced artificially by grafting the horn buds of a cow or goat together (an American experiment by a veterinarian named Dove back in 1940 produced a bull with a really impressive horn), but this seems to be a natural genetic oddity. In China, which has many traditional beliefs regarding animals and good or bad fortune, the unique cow with the 20-cm horn has become a celebrity.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Get your yeti/sasquatch ornaments!

I hope I'm not being repetitive, but no matter what you think of cryptozoology, the International Cryptozoology Museum is a unique collection of artifacts and information on a subject of scientific and popular interest. They are giving out VERY cool yeti or sasquatch ornaments with donations. I got mine and they look great on the tree. OK, my wife looked at me a little funny.... Anyway, hit the title link for a unique way to celebrate.

And the X-37B is home

The Air Force has successfully brought back its uncrewed X-37B mini-spaceplane to a safe runway landing. There are endless speculations on what experiments were on board, but aside from that, the implications for space exploration and commerce are important. The Air Force orbited the winged craft, put it through major changes of orbit, kept it up for over seven months, and then brought it back for re-use, demonstrating advanced autonomous operations, thermal protection, and a host of other things.
COMMENT: First, as a space geek, this is really, really cool. The many spaceplane concepts conceived and abandoned in the last few decades look a lot more practical for the near future. Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (which is actually open to anybody) is once again claiming the US is getting ready for space war. The evidence for that? Umm, there isn't any. And there is NO advance in orbital rendezvous, repair, or operations the UCS would NOT claim was evidence of space war preparations, so I think we should all agree to ignore them on this topic.

Aging an animal backward? Almost

The headline of this article is a bit misleading: scientists did not make mice age backwards. What they DID do, by manipulating an enzyme called telemorase long thought to have a role in aging, was to turn declining, feeble mice into more energetic, healthy, seemingly younger animals. While the genomes of these mice had been manipulated to make them highly suitable for the experiment, the implications for slowing deterioration in humans - either in specific organs or the entire body - are very real. Practical human applications may be decades off, though.
COMMENT: At age 51, it's really annoying that all kinds of advances that could have prolonged my productive life may not be ready until shortly after I'm dead. I'm excited for my kids, though!

Presenting the flying snake

You may have heard of the gliding snakes of Southeast Asia, but here's a supercool video clip of scientists doing experiments in the field on a snake's gliding ability, and then explaining the aerodynamics. What I wonder is why the twising snake doesn't get airsick.

Thanks to my dad, Don Bille, for this link.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Arsenic and Old Life, Part II

NASA confirmed that its big announcement this week was about life - a new species of bacteria from a California lake - that uses arsenic instead of the phosphorus present in every known species of everything in the five kingdoms of life.
"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."
COMMENT: OK, so it was not E.T. And it's not quite as strange as, say, Star Trek's silicon-based Horta. But it's unprecedented evidence that life can be weirder than we thought.

Believe it or not: Albino redwood trees

Coast redwood trees are magnificent by any standard. It's a handful of tiny, slow-growing redwoods that have Stanford geneticists puzzled. The trees are albinos. About 60 exist, and no one is sure how they can. After all, photosynthetic pigments are green. The albinos are dwarfed and are not healthy, but they shouldn't be living at all.

Thanks to Chad Arment for posting this first.

4G networks are a myth

I rarely touch on things as mundane as conumer electronics here, but this one got my notice. Several companies are advertising fourth generation (4G) wireless networks. The problem: there's no such thing, at least not yet. By official definition a 4G is one capable of download speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). The networks using the term are less than half this fast. Networks with faster speeds than the standard 3G are using them term 4G instead of "faster 3G." Upshot: the term is meaningless to consumers. Ignore it and look at actual speeds promised.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

House of Gladiators collapses

Two thousand years ago, Pompeii's House of the Gladiators was where combatants gathered before heading into the arena. The walls were covered with frescoes of combat and military themes. The volcano couldn't knock it down, but it finally collapsed. The event is sparking a debate over who should be in charge of preserving such major (and sometimes expensive to keep up) reminders of the past.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

X-37B spaceplane finishing up mission?

The Air Force isn't saying exactly what the X-37B unmanned spaceplane has been up to, but it's losing altitude and being guided back toward Earth for a landing between December 3 and December 6. The Air Force has pronounced itself very pleased with the project, which has kept the spaceplane in orbit since April 22 and made significant changes of orbit. A second X-37B is under construction for a launch in 2011.
COMMENT: It will be interesting to see if the AF and Boeing have mastered the art of unmanned Shuttle-type reentry and runway landing.

Arsenic and Old Life?

NASA plans a press conference to highlight a new paper on "weird life" and the possibilities arsenic-based life exists on other worlds. And maybe, just maybe, on Earth, although we wouldn't know since nobody's ever looked for it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Well, I'll be - a two-trunked elephant

Seriously. Show in Africa in 2004, this critter would up, where else, in a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum. Reportedly the trunks are both functional, so it's like you or I having two noses. As Karl Shuker said, it can not only make a trunk call, but can reverse the charges.....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quantum physics: even stranger than you think

Physicists are still trying to figure out "spooky action at a distance," in which particles seem to "know" what other particles are doing, whether an electromagnetic field exists even if it's totally shielded off from the particle, or whether the second slit in a double-slit experiment is open. A new theory is that there is not an inexplicable connection between the particles, but that time is running backwards as well as forwards. Confused? If you're not confused, you don't understand the situation. But there are practical as well as purely scientific applications of figuring it out.

If we find the right planet, how do we get there?

Scientists think they have found at least one exoplanet in what's called the "Goldilocks zone" - not too hot, not too cold, in other words at least plausibly tolerant to Earthlike life. This brief but interesting article brings up the problem of how we get there. Conventional rocket? 380,000 years. One possible solution, discussed here by Dana Andrews, might cut it to 40 years.
COMMENT: I worked on a NASA study once that looked at this. There are several ideas for near-lightspeed travel, but they require massive investments of time and money. Still, we should keep looking at them to lay the foundation future generations will build on.

What is the orang-pendek?

Danish zoologist Lars Thomas has been studying hairs collected last year when Sumatra's enigmatic primate, which looks a bit like a short, slight man covered in reddish hair, was last seen. According to Karl Shuker, his report is that the DNA collected was very close to human, but the hair structure was apelike. This is not quite as contradictory as it seems. Shuker points to the strikingly marked "king" cheetah, which is a normal cheetah by DNA but has hairs structured like those of an unrelated species, the leopard. Possible identities for the orang-pendek include an unknown population of orangutans well out of their known range (this would require considerable observer error in the sighting reports, but such human error is hardly unknown), an ape related to the siamang/gibbon line, or some early offshoot from the human line, perhaps related to the Flores "hobbits."
COMMENT: My question was whether the mixed result could indicate it was ape hair accidentally contaminated by humans, but Shuker reports Thomas doesn't think that could have happened. The orang-pendek is very respectable as cryptozoological animals go, with experts keeping an open mind and good witnesses like British conservationist Debbie Martyr describing it in the field. What this result means is that we have not solved the mystery yet.
UPDATE: Lars Thomas has responded that the DNA came from the inside of the sample hairs, where contamination was not possible.

Christmas in orbit for Discovery?

The next launch window for sending the shuttle Discovery to the ISS opens December 17, but it's not clear whether the spacecraft would be ready that date. A mission over Christmas is one possibility, but it's turning out to be harder than expected to find the cause of cracks in the intertank structure on the shuttle's External Tank. Fixing the cracks (not difficult) is no good if they might recur and you don't know why. According to NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier,"We would have liked to have found a most probable cause by now. This is turning out to be a little more complicated from an analysis standpoint....We'll let the data drive where we're heading."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Save the Tiger

At a meeting in St. Peterburg, Russia, actor Leonardo DiCaprio met with President Putin and donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund to protect tiger habit and support anti-poaching activities. Earlier this year, he spearheaded a $20M fund drive. Putin has taken on a personal (if showy) commitment to the tiger, going out himself to tranquilize one for a research program. The Siberian (or Amur) tiger is the only tiger subspecies whose wild population is increasing, although it is far from out of danger.
COMMENT: I sometimes get annoyed when celebrities are ostentatious about their giving, although the publicity they can bring to a cause is also a good thing. So I'll applaud Leonard on this one. The cause needs all the help it can get. Despite heroic actions of wildlife officials and rangers, the wild tiger population is in free-fall, down to about three thousand animals in all the subspecies put together. (Maybe species: some mammologist maintain the Sumatran is a distinct species, although it can mate with other types.) Tiger habitat has to be conserved and patrolled, and people living on its edges need economic support so they are not forced into poaching. That takes money.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ISS passing in front of the Moon

The photographs coming out of the space program still inspire wonder. Or they should.

Scientists amazed at cometary "snowstorm"

The EPOXI spacecraft's close pass by comet Hartley 2 made jaws drop at NASA. Jets of carbon dioxide spewing from the ends of the comet's nucleus envelop it in a continuous envelope of frozen particles, some up to basketball sized. One investigator compared it to seeing a comet in a snowglobe. Indeed, there are two phenomena going on, as EPOXI deputy principal Jessica Sunshine (am I sexist to say that's a wonderful name for a scientist exploring the universe?) explained: "The carbon dioxide jets blast out water ice from specific locations in the rough areas resulting in a cloud of ice and snow. Underneath the smooth middle area, water ice turns into water vapor that flows through the porous material, with the result that close to the comet in this area we see a lot of water vapor."
COMMENT: The more we explore, the more there is to wonder at. I understand other needs, but I cannot understand the argument that spending one half of one percent of our national budget on probing the universe isn't worth it.

The Great Monkey Escape

Some 80 monkeys inhabit an enclosed patch of forest on the grounds of Kyoto University's primate research Center. Faced with an electric fence more than 5 meters high, one group of monkeys pulled off an escape by using springy tree beanches to catapult themselves over it! However, the monkeys didn't know where to go once outside: they hung around, and researchers armed with peanuts were able to lure them back in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tasmanian tiger video? Hmmm, probably not

This 2009 video form Australia is making the rounds, attached to the interesting question of whether it might be a surviving thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger). When I saw it, I wrote: "Interesting, clearly not a dog from the tail, possibly a big fox," although the color seemed a little light for a fox (it was taken from too great a distance to see if there were any stripes). Expert opinion is tending toward a fox, but it's raised the question of whether the world's largest modern marsupial predator might still be alive. My read: thylacines absolutely persisted after the official extinction date of 1936, but how long? I think, based on sightings, a few hung on in Tasmania into the 1980s, maybe the 1990s. It is not impossible some survive today, either on Tasmania or from an unrecorded introduction to the Australian mainland, but I can't work up any real hope.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A tiny bat may not be there anymore

Discovery of a new mammal species is always a big deal. That's true even for this tiny bat from Ecuador, which weighs a mere 3.5 grams. The problem: it was found as a tagged specimen in the collection of the Río Palenque Scientific Center (RPSC), and no one knows if live ones still exist anywhere.

Wild photos: croc grabs elephant

This wildlife encounter was one never before recorded on film. A crocodile (who you might say had eyes bigger than his stomach) grabbed an adult elephant by the trunk. The elephant reared back, pulling the croc into the air and then onto the bank. The elephant shook off the reptile, and everyone split the scene.

A glowing deep-sea squid

A new species of squid, 70 cm long and studded with light-producing organs, has turned up in the southern Indian Ocean. A six-week IUCN-sponsored expedition to the region trapped or observed some 70 species of squid, or one-fifth of the known species, which is really something. It's also thought there are more new species among the expedition's haul.

Three new amphibians hop into view

From western Columbia come the newest amphibians known to science. An effort to find possible extinct frogs and toads, launched by Conservation International, instead turned up the new species. Currently awaiting formal description are a new type of "rocket frog" (I don't know the origin of the term, member of a group where the parents carry newly hatched tadpoles to water on their backs: a beaked toad only 2cm long, which lays eggs on the forest floor which develop directly into mini-toads; and toad with striking red eyes. Herpetologists haven't figured out the last one's genus yet: it may require erection of a new one.

Will NASA make Commercial Crew impossible?

NASA supports (or has been told to support) the idea of letting commercial vehicles carry crew members to the ISS. Not surprisingly, there are different levels of support for this radical idea within the agency.
NASA, very properly, wants to impose standards for "man-rated" launch vehicles, much as the FAA certifies airliners. This is not new for NASA: it did the same thing for the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan II boosters in the 60s when rockets developed outside NASA were adapted to carry astronauts. Former Shuttle program head Wayne Hale, though, thinks NASA's new proposed standards are so burdensome no one may be able to meet them. Hale writes:
"The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements. Most disappointing, on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed, in whole or in part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document." The questions raised by Hale and the commenters on his blog is whether NASA is setting the bar so high that its standard cannot be met.
COMMENT: It's hard to decide whether this apparent overregulation hides malicious intent or just reflects an abundance of caution in an agency where all the people who have done this job before have retired. Either way, NASA needs to, and presumably will, take comments from industry and may do some modifying to get the job done without making the job impossible

Monday, November 15, 2010

T. rex: Does my tail look fat?

It's been some years now that paleontologists have been volleying back and forth the idea that Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest (ok, there are a couple other dino-predators in the same size range), meanest-looking carnivore ever to stomp the earth, was primarily a scavenger. Among the points cited are the small forelimbs and analyses indicating it wasn't fast enough to chase prey.
One researcher at the University of Alberta says this latter point isn't correct. He looked at the tail structure of T. rex vs. modern analogues like the komodo dragon and concluded the dino's tail was much more muscular than people had been assuming. The muscles at the base of the tail is a clue to how much muscle there was in the thighs, and together they can give us an idea how fast the animal moved. The answer: fast enough to run prey down, and faster than needed for a scavenger.
COMMENT: All predators will scavenge whenever the opportunity arises, but I never liked the arguments that T. rex did so almost exclusively. The animal is just over-equipped, ridiculously big and well-armed, for the job.

New lizard species: available for lunch and dinner

Discoveries of new species are made in many ways: in the field, among hunters' trophies, in museums. Charles Darwin once shot a bird and ate most of it before it dawned on him he didn't recognize its species. A weasel once dropped a new South American rodent at Dr. Louise Emmons' feet. Kathryn Fuller of the World Wildlife Fund once discovered a new species of any when it walked out of a potted plant on her desk and asked visiting entomologist E.O. Wilson to take a look. The latest fluke discovery comes from a Vietnamese restaurant, where a lizard that was well known locally but unknown to science was being served up as a blue plate special.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The science of Godzilla

I've mentioned this before, but it's too much fun not to return to. Dr. Darren Naish has updated his exploration, abetted by two other paleontologists, of the scientific problems with the greatest of the giant monsters. One of the fun points is that, while the American film Godzilla looks much more reasonable as a real animal, the titanic (impossible, really) demands of gravity on any such beast make the Japanese type, with his tree-trunk legs, at least a little more practical. The American version does win a point for eschewing the atomic bad breath.
COMMENT: This stuff is endlessly fascinating to me, even if we know none of the giant creatures would work. If Godzilla is impractical, we can certainly forget about the spindly yet even bigger Cloverfield monster. Peter Jackson's King Kong looked marvelous, as Jackson took a gorilla and meticulously scaled him up by a factor of 4 (some sources say 4.4) but Kong, too, would suffer from impossible weight-bearing demands on his skeleton, among other things.
But in the end, who cares? Just enjoy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology
Dr. Darren Naish
CFZ Book,s 2010

Dr. Darren Naish, a British paleontologist, runs THE most fascinating blog on the Internet, Tetrapod Zoology. Naish is an expert on dinosaurs (having described a new British sauropod and written a book called The Great Dinosaur Discoveries) but his curiosity embraces everything: what happens when an animal dies while grasping a perch, what's so cool about the amphibians called slow-worms, and why the largest pterosaurs probably did not snap up prey while skimming the ocean and instead spent most of their time walking around like giant storks. There isn't space here to list even a fraction of the topics presented, but Naish's collection of zoology, cryptozoology, and paleontology never failed to hold my attention. He has strong opinions on matters of scientific controversy, and defends them vigorously. When it comes to cryptozoology, Naish is skeptical in the best sense of the word: he well aware there are important undiscovered animals out there, and he is is open-minded but insists on scientific standards of evidence. (Naish contributed important material on mystery whales to my book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006.)
The lay reader of Tetrapod Zoology may occasionally stumble over a dense tangle of technical language, but won't be dissuaded: there's just too much information here to stop reading. If you are interested in the animal-related sciences, this is a unique collection you will have to own.

GEMINI, a cool science magazine from Norway

One of the perks of being in the National Association of Science Writers is that publishers will sometimes send you stuff. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology is sending an enjoyable popular science magazine, GEMINI. You may not think of Norway as a hotbed for scientific and technical advances, but a lot of interesting research is going on. The latest issue had articles on understanding pain, geothermal energy, genetic differences between humans and chimps, and an imaging system that lets a mechanized weed-killing machine squirt herbicide directly on weeds instead of spraying a whole cornfield. Not surprisingly for Norway, there's also a lot of marine science in every issue. The writing is clear and the illustrations great. My thanks to the publishers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo

Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo
by Dr. Karl Shuker, with Forewords by Bob Rickard and David Sutton
CFZ Press, 2010. 390pp.

Dr. Karl Shuker's latest book is a compilation of his regular columns in Fortean Times magazine, with some updates and "bonus features" thrown in. I've had it for a week and have read it twice through.
Hundreds of entries in this fascinating book cover everything from surviving thylacines to new lizards to alleged pterodactyl-type creatures. But the animals themselves are not the whole of the book. Shuker's interests in folklore, culture, and art lead him down many interesting pathways. He looks at everything from an unknown bird shown in a Gauguin painting to the mix of exotic feathers, fakes, and the occasional palm frond that have been passed off as feathers from the wings of angels.
Some items that could be updated have not been: the weird horizontal-tailed fish from California was a mystery I solved a long time ago by talking to a state fishery biologist who identified it as a bizarrely mutated channel catfish.
I would be more skeptical than Karl at times. I would have great trouble being open-minded about the man who saw a sauropod dinosaur step across a fence - in New Mexico! Shuker, ever even-handed, posts it without editorializing and asks readers for further information.
Shuker shows the complexity involved in tracking down, or even defining, animals mentioned in local reports: Indonesia's orang bati is variously reported to be a bat, a flying human(!) and a small, primitive semihuman tribe.
Karl's collection, like all good cryptobooks, leaves us with some solutions and some more mysteries. We now know a famous sketch of a lake monster in Russia was just support for a tall tale. We wonder what became of animals once presumed to exist, such as Washington's eagle, a giant bird shot and described by Audubon himself but hardly reported since.
Shuker provides references with each entry and an index (a bit sparse) at the end. The book sometimes leaves you wanting more, but it will not disappoint you. It's very well worth your money.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shuttle Discovery: Oh, (*&%#Y

Well, it's not just a crack in the insulation of the shuttle Discovery. There are two cracks in the aluminum underneath. NASA hasn't put out a decision as of this moment, but they have never fixed damage of this type on the pad, so we're all going home for a while. The cracks are in the intertank section of the aerodynamic outer skin, where they can't damage the tanks, but this is going to slip the launch way past the latest hoped-for date of early December.
COMMENT: The Shuttle system, remarkably for a new space system, did not greatly overrun its R&D budget when it was under development. The problem is that our space leaders back in the 70s traded off R&D costs for operational costs and reliability by not developing the planned fully reusable two-stage system. Despite the great things achieved by the Shuttle, its astronauts, and its support crew, there is still a melancholy knowledge that the craft could have, and should have, been safer and cheaper to operate.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Burt Rutan comes in for a landing

As a new factory opens to produce his SpaceShipTwo design for Sir Richard Branson and his suborbital space tourism venture, legendary designer Burt Rutan is planning his retirement next April. Rutan is 67, and the Experimental Aircraft Association intends to honor him with a gathering of Rutan-designed aircraft at the equally legendary Oshkosh fly in. The EAA Museum is gathering planes including "VariViggen and VariEze prototypes, the Amsoil racer, Grizzly, Voyager fuselage mock-up, Solitaire, Williams V Jet II, and the SpaceShipOne feathering mock-up." Rutan practically gave birth to the homebuilt "kitplane" industry and put the first manned suborbital vehicle since the X-15 into space as a private venture.
Clear skies, Burt.

New Species all over

A new wasp from Los Angeles (title link) reminds us that discoveries are everywhere waiting to be made.

Then we have "the Bigfoot of ants," rediscovered after 60 years. It was found when a biology graduate student who specializes in ants spotted two on a rock near his apartment.

I once before mentioned Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli), which, this New Scientist piece claims, is the first carnivore described in 24 years. I'm not sure that's right, I seem to remember some Vietnamese weasel, but I'll have to look that up...

An oversized extinct penguin, five feet tall and gray and reddish-brown (casual wear?) was found after 36 million years. Where? In the Peruvian desert. If it came to the waters for its health, it was misinformed.

And a weird googly-eyed fish pulled out of Great Slave Lake (Canada's second-largest lake) turns out to be not a new species, as first guessed, but one in a new habitat. stories/papers/oct1_10cs.html

Monday, November 08, 2010

Slaver ants attack strong, not weak colonies

If you're an ant and your anthill wants some new slaves, you attack the weakest colony you can find, right? Weirdly, no. German researchers found that one slave-making species they studied picked difficult targets, even thought these would inevitable result in more casualties among the attackers. Why? For Protomognathus americanus, which has small colonies of its own to begin with, it appears that losing scouts probing a lot of possible targets is a serious matter. Making fewer raids on nests with more pupae to steal is actually the lower-risk tactic for the colony as a whole.
COMMENT: It would be interesting to look into how this compares to the historical tactics of human slavers: Arab and African slavers would attack whole villages to get captives, either for their own use or to sell to Europeans and Americans. Did they pick bigger targets, like the ants?

LHC creates "mini-Big Bang"

Well, the world didn't end.
By smashing together lead ions, far larger and heavier than the protons used so far, the Large Hadron Collider created a miniature (WAY, WAY miniature) version of the Big Bang (the creation event, not the wonderful TV show). Temperatures were described as "a million times hotter than the center of the sun" (or around ten trillion degrees C: and, no, "trillion" is not a misprint). It's one more big step on the way to understanding the most basic questions about the makeup and origin of the universe. Well done, folks.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

And ALSO from Colorado....

I blogged on the fossil finds in Colorado but somehow missed this one, so a tip of the Stetson to Loren Coleman for posting it on Cryptomundo - with a side reference to me :)
The dug which has produced bison, mammoth, and mastodon bones has also produced the first Colorado fossil of Jefferson's ground sloth. I'll quote Loren's excellent write up here:
"The species was the subject of the first and second scientific articles on fossils ever published in the United States. The generic name Megalonyx was proposed by future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1797, based on fossil specimens of what later came to be called Megalonyx jeffersonii that he had received from western Virginia."
So, as someone pointed out, we have pretty much the whole cast of the Ice Age movies on hand.

Friday, November 05, 2010

From Colorado, a herd of ancient elephants

Here in Colorado, paleontologists are salivating over the ski slopes - but not for skiing. A dig in the Snowmass area to uncover bones chanced upon during a construction project has already yielded a Columbian mammoth, three mastodons, and bone from an ancient bison. Representatives from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have been marveling over this trove. A spokesman said, "We'll be here until the snow drives us out."

Meanwhile, near the town of Morrison, there's another find - tracks of a baby sauropod. In 1877, this area was home to the discovery of the famous Apatosaurs, formerly known as Brontosaurus. Famous paleontologist Robert T. Bakker said, "The latest discovery by the Morrison Natural History Museum is a tribute to Director Matt Mossbrucker and his crew of sharp-eyed volunteers. Never before has science given us such an intimate glimpse of baby brontosaurs - a window into Jurassic Family Values."

Shuttle launch news: ouch

A leak of hydrogen gas and a seven-inch crack on the foam insulation over the External Tank (ET) will slide the space shuttle Discovery's last flight to the end of the month. Interestingly, it won't take that long to repair things, but certain days are unsuitable for the launch because the sun angle means the shuttle would be overheated in its orbit connected to the ISS.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

AWWWWW time: New baby panda

The only thing cuter than a panda (I said cute, not cuddly): these specialized bears have occasionally inflicted major injuries on keepers) is a baby panda. Zoo Atlanta has the only such baby born in the U.S. this year. Yes, we dote too much on this single species, but there are under 2,000 pandas left, so every baby has scientific importance as well as bringing in huge audiences. The baby won't be on display until spring, but the title article has a link to a "Panda Cam" to give everyone a cuteness fix.

Snuggling close to a comet

NASA's EPOXI spacecraft (relaly, that's the name), will pass within 700km of a comet today. CNN reports that "Live coverage beginning at 9:30 a.m. ET from mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be broadcast on NASA Television's Media Channel." NASA hopes for imagery that will be cool as well as informative.

What's the election mean for NASA?

Well, NASA's purpose is to explore the unknown, so here we go again. There's a general presumption that GOP leadership is more favorable to space spending than the Democrats, but it's not always true: for the last few decades, NASA's budget has been essentially stagnant. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) was very good at getting money for NASA, but he's out of Congress and on trial for something or other, and Rep John Boehner, who will be the new Speaker of the House, is focused on cutting deficits more than anything else. Some of the new Republican leaders have criticized President Obama's overhaul of the agency's missions, especially in human spaceflight, but returning NASA to a Constellation-type program takes money, and even the $19B authorized for the agency may not be what is actually appropriated, whenever Congress gets around to the months-overdue appropriations legislation. Hang on tight, space-lovers.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Wow - photo of a spotted lioness

This African lioness has retained the spors all cubs bear. Some lions bear faint spotting all their lives, but this has to be the most pronounced example ever recorded.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Cool new robot follows life underwater

It's hard to study marine phenomena because the ocean is not only big but constantly in motion. The new Tethys robot is a leap forward, a machine that can follow phenomena like algal blooms for months, sending back data all the while. Jim Bellingham, chief technologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) says the highly efficient new design can go "from Monterey to Hawaii on a single charge."

Climate science: words of a skeptic

There is close to a consensus among climate scientists that man-made global warming is real. But there remain dissenters, which advocates constantly attack for being corporate tools. But Dr. Judith Curry is one who insists scientific doubt is legitimate. She says, "Yes, there's a lot of crankology out there. But not all of it is. If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent because we have just been too encumbered by groupthink." She doesn't think enough work is going into refining climate models and thinks historical trends are being drawn despite scant data for periods decades or centuries ago.

COMMENT: I'm no climate scientist, and I suspect some degree of warming is indeed happening. But I don't think we've got either the causes or the right responses down as completely as some people think, and I can't accept that legitimate doubt is impossible.

Robonaut 2 readies for work in space

The shuttle Discovery, now slated for a Wednesday launch, will carry the first humanoid (from the waist up, anyway) robot in space: Ronbonaut 2, known of course as R2. Its gold visor shields four visible light cameras and one infrared camera (actually located in the mouth), providing stereoscopic vision and depth perception. Its padded five-finger hands will handle tools as an astronaut would. Engineers will experiment to see how well R2 can handle tasks on the outside of the ISS. Followons are expected to drastically cut the need for spacewalks, or EVAs, which are costly and hazardous.

COMMENT: R2 cost $2.5 million, which really isn't at all bad for the leap in technology it represents. Robots will have other uses, both on Earth and in space, so the money is well worth it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween at the International Cryptozoology Museum

Get a free tour, or come as Bigfoot and get a free book! Readers of this blog know that I often ask people to support the ICM. It does not matter what you think of particular "cryptids" or even cryptozoology in general. There is nothing like this museum in the world, and if it were ever to fail, its collection, including thousands of one of the kind items, would be a terrible loss to both the sociology and the science of cryptozoology/zoology.

You know, I have occasionally thought of dressing as Bigfoot and being seen just as an experiment to see what the news coverage looks like (I'm 6'4" and could do a reasonable sasquatch impression.) But I'm not going to do it because Colorado has a huge population of elk/deer/bear/moose hunters who might not be able to resist the temptation to become famous by nailing a legendary ape.

Amber holds keys to past

What can amber from India, 50 million years old, tell us about our pasts? Ask Dr. David Grimaldi, who's been finding hundreds of insect species in it. He told NPR's Science Friday:
"Well, we can actually see transitional forms between living and other extinct things. So fossils actually are important for evolutionary research. It tells us a lot about the origins of the Asian fauna. And this particular deposit, I find probably the most interesting aspect of it is that the resin, the amber, was actually formed from a type of tree called dipterocarps. And today, these types of trees are the dominant tree in Southeast Asia. And there had been some controversy about the age of tropical forests. And this is a unique discovery in terms of helping to date the age of tropical forests."

No dinosaur DNA (of course, the amber is too young anyway), but the large lumps of amber being pulled out of a lignite mine are time capsules of evolution.

China to launch space lab by 2020

It's often been suggested that China be added to the partners of the International Space Station, but thechnical and political reasons have kept that from happening. The Chinese aren't going to do a full-blown space station, on the scale of the ISS, but they are planning a human-inhabitaed laboratory by 2020, with a test version to be launched by 2016.

Amazon produces a new species every three days

On average, a new species was described out of the Amazon region every three days for the last ten years, according to the World Widlife Fund. Ecologist Meg Symington: "What we say now, and we're very conservative, is one in 10 known species is found in the Amazon." Discovered in the Amazon from 1999 to 2009 were 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals.
COMMENT: And some people STILL say cryptozoologists are wasting their time looking for new animals?

Scientis have fun with Dracula orchids andGoblin spiders

Entomologists and botanists like a cool name as much as anyone. A group of orchids famed for luring fruit flies to pollinate them by looking and smelling like mushrooms (the flies' natural preference) are classified in the genus Dracula. Goblin spiders are a very numerous group of small arachnids. Plenty of new species are being added to the spiders, the orchids have proven attractive to some previously unknown species of flies.
But why Dracula? Lorena Endara of the University of Florida explains, "Carlyle Luer, who later segregated Dracula from Masdevallia, sees these orchids as little bats flying in the forest since the flower faces down and the triangular sepals and the long sepaline tails display parallel to the ground."
Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Non-science digression: farewell to Superman, the last hero

OK, I officially hate what DC is doing to Superman. Do these people remaking him as dark and edgy and angsty have no respect whatever for an iconic character? He may be, as Batman once called him, an "overgrown Boy Scout," but the comics world needs at least ONE hero who still believes in right and wrong and isn't a borderline psycho. You know, someone people would actually look up to? Superman was the last of those heroes. The 12-year-old boy in me weeps.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New "sneezing monkey" discovered

Scientists in the jungles of Myanmar have discovered a new primate called the "sneezing monkey" because its nostrils are turned up, so it sneezes out water when it rains. Seriously. I'm trying to figure out the evolution of that trait.
But it's another reminder that we are still finding new species all over the planet, and not just bugs and mice.

Tardigrades survive in space

I'm sure I did a post on this once before, but I can't find it, and events today brought it to my mind. Tardigrades are strange little multilegged beasties with the ability to survive dehydration and other extremes by essentially curling into a little ball and shutting down like a robot turning itself off until conditions get better. A surprising entry on the list of "Things that WON'T kill Tardigrades" is exposure to outer space. Vacuum and solar/cosmic radiation should kill anything more complex than a basic microbe (or the Andromeda strain, for you Michael Crichton fans), but tardigrades have survived even those conditions. Oh, and nuclear radiation won't kill them either....

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last flight of the Discovery

The space shuttle orbiter Discovery has a date set for its final flight. After some minor repairs induced a launch slip, NASA has set 1 November as the date for the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. Six astronauts will deliver a module for storage and experiments, plus the first human-like robot in space, Robonaut 2. Two EVAs (spacewalks) are planned. Then the orbiter will retire, after 39 successful missions.

Godspeed, Discovery. You've been a great ship.

More at risk of extinction, but we know how to help

A new report saying one of every five vertebrates (fish excepted) is at some degree of risk also highlights success stories. The authors of the study, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, estimate 18% more species would be at risk without conservation efforts. Success stories include the whooping crane, Przewalski's horse, the California condor, and humpback whale. The best way to help: habitat conservation. It can be expensive, but it does work. As Ana Rodrigues of France's Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive put it, "Conservation is working, there is just not enough of it. Now is the time to scale up conservation."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

American buys thylacine pelt at yard sale

Bill Warren paid five dollars for an old striped pelt at a yard sale. It turns out he bought what appears to be one of the few extant pelts from the thylacine, a dog-sized carnivorous marsupial believed extinct in 1936. Warren has no idea how old the pelt might be, beyond the fact the previous owner bought it 32 years ago. If genuine, it's worth thousands on dollars. One hitch: he can't sell it, because the US government has never taken the animal off the Endangered Species List.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A lot more water on the Moon

Last year, NASA's LCROSS experiment crashed an Atlas rocket stage into a crater near the lunar south pole. It took a long time to analyze the resulting data, but here it is. And the ejecta thrown up by the collision was five percent water that had been locked in icy soil. It's another important find indicating we can go back and establish a long-term scientific presence on our satellite - if we want to.

Progress toward international space cooperation

There have been important strides lately, and here are some more.

First, an international standard for docking rings and ports has been announced by the International Space Station Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB), including NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency; the European Space Agency; and the Canadian Space Agency: and two agencies from Japan.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency has charted its own path for future exploration:

Canada is fleshing out its role in accordance with 2007's "The Global Exploration Strategy (GES)," being coordinated through the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). Canada produced the GES along with agencies of Russia, the US, the UK, Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, and ESA. European representatives are meeting now to follow suit

Renaming or un-naming dinosaurs?

Are Triceratops and Torosaurus the same or different species, and why does it matter? Paleontologist Jack Horner thinks they are the same, which poses a problem for the famed Peabody Museum - where visitors are greeted by a life-size sculpture identified as Torosaurus. It points up the challenge of naming species from often-fragmentary fossils. Yale paleontologist Nick Longrich, for example, is convinced Horner is wrong. Are the lumpers or the splitters right?

New species evolution in progress

One criticism of evolutionary theory is that we don't see species appearing. Well, not really so. We can trace recent explosions of diversity, like Africa's cichlid fishes, even if no one person could see it happen. Some experts think orcas of the Pacific Northwest are incipient species; that is, we have three populations of killer whales that are getting more and more different. Very surprisingly, the same species in the Antarctic may be doing the same thing. Now we have two species evolving so quickly humans are catching it in the act. Unfortunately, they are malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Passenger pigeon's relationships figured out posthumously

The passenger pigeon, often thought more closely related to the mourning doves than to other pigeons, was the most abundant bird in the world, maybe in all of history. Native Americans and, on a much larger scale, European settlers harvested this seemingly unlimited resource. If a flock took three days to pass overhead, what harm could nets, arrows, or even shotguns really do?
In a tragic lesson of conservation, we learned that no species is immune to overpredation. I've personally visited Martha, last of her species, now a sad, stuffed exhibit in the Smithsonian.
Long after the 1914 extinction (there are scattered reports indicating Martha was not the last, but there's no question the bird is gone for good), scientists have studied the species' DNA and found where it really belonged - with the other New World pigeons, but not very close to them. Ornithologist Kevin Johnson says, "This bird is pretty diverged from its nearest relatives, meaning it had a unique place in the world. It represented a unique lineage that's now gone."

New genus of tree described

While there are countless unknown plants and animals, you would think we at least had a pretty thorough catalog of the trees by now. Nope. A new genus of tree in the Aptandraceae family, a relative of the sandalwoods, has beend described from Honduras. The new genus Hondurodendron was described by American and Irish botany professors based on specimens from Honduras' El Cusuco National Park.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sasquatch "Patty" is 42 today

42 years ago, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin produced film of a female sasquatch, nicknamed Patty. Their 16mm film is the most scrutinized amateur film in history except maybe for the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination. I still get stuck on the argument by the eminent late primatologist, Dr. John Napier (who thought sasquatch was likely real) that this film shows a creature whose lower half is humanlike while the upper half is apelike, and that's hard to accept despite the fact no one's ever found decent evidence of a hoax. This is either a tall guy walking deliberately oddly in an expertly made costume (not off the shelf) or the primate equivalent of a platypus (which does not make it impossible, only hard to accept). Neither explanation is clearly true to me, yet one of them must be....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A turtle from Antactica?

OK, not a live one. But 45M years ago, back in the Eocene, Antarctica was much warmer than today. Among its fauna, as documented by this recent find, were turtles. No modern turtles, or any other reptiles or amphibians, live on or near the southern continent. The only turtle that's really cold-adapted is the massive sea-going leatherback, which is seen high in the northern latitudes.

Science center fakes unicorn (it is fake, right?)

The Ontario Science Center in Toronto acts like it's taking this amateur video of a unicorn seriously, with a Unicorn Hotline to report sightings. It is, not surprisingly, all in good fun - a promotional gimmick for an exhibit about animals dubious and mythical. Our cryptozoological friends like sasquatch and Nessie are included along with unicorns, dragons, and the like in this exhibit. As a cryptozoological researcher, I can be dismayed when animals actually being looked for are lumped with those who never existed, but anything that draws people to a science center - and encourages them to think about the mysteries of the animal world - is a good thing. And the video is nicely done.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Step forward in commercial space flight

First manned drop test of Rutan's SpaceShipTwo design.

A look at the Soviet lunar program

A nice article on the Soviet effort to beat the US to the Moon. The Soviet plan looked a bit like the Apollo version, except the lunar lander was a one-man craft using the same engine for ascent and descent. They gave up the race after the US won (and put out the propaganda, repeated by Walter Cronkite among others, that they had never tried. It's interesting that this seems to be a sore spot so many years after the USSR: much of the surviving hardware is off limits to most visitors, and some is mislabeled.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mysteries of American big cats

Dr. Darren Naish here presents one photo I've seen before and a much older one I had not, both showing adult American pumas (Puma concolor) with spots. Normally, pumas have spots only as babies, but the genetic card deck deals some odd hands every once in a while. Naish goes on to explore the extinct American cheetah and what might be the connections between the cheetahs (two species), the puma, and that odd puma variant called the onza. (Watch out for linguistics: In the Honduran National Museum in Tegucigalpa I saw a stuffed ocelot labeled "onza." ) One cat Naish does not mention is Ivan Sanderson's "ruffed cat," represented by three skins (two now destroyed, while the third's whereabouts are unknown) from South America which showed full spotting and a neck ruff. One species of the American cheetah has recently been likened more to a snow leopard than to a cheetah. Is this the ruffed cat?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Life on every planet (in fiction)

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific offers an annotated collection of science fiction with good science in it. What I found most intriguing is that there is no planet in the solar system where clever science fiction writers (many of them scientists), have NOT managed to come up with a plausible kind of life. From an intelligence in the Sun to a being adapted to frozen planets with a body of ice and a liquid-helium compound for blood, there's no limit to where the scientific imagination has taken us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Debunking a non-mystery: "Chemtrails"

There is a lot of internet chatter about the US government testing or poisoning its population via "Chemtrails" left by aircraft both military and commercial. I think there are many unsolved mysteries in the world, but this is not one of them. I looked at some of the websites and came away unimpressed. There's no reason to assume they are anything but contrails, which may drift, spread, change colors, start and stop abruptly with atmospheric changes, and even form changing patterns as winds at different altitudes make them move relative to each other. We have no evidence of spraying equipment installed on planes, no reasonable proposals about purpose, etc, etc.... and as always it would have to be a big conspiracy where no one with any meaningful access ever talks.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Giant laser takes a step toward fusion power

Fusion is (in my humble opinion) the optimum power source for large-scale electrical generation - clean, running on unlimited fuel (hydrogen), and extremely powerful. With nature, though, there is always a "but," and the but in this case is that it's a huge task (and expensive as hell) to create that star-interior conditions needed to initiate a controlled fusion reaction (uncontrolled fusion is used to destroy entire continents, so we'd like to avoid it). The National Ignition Facility has taken a step forward with its first firing at nearly full power. It uses 192 lasers fired into a spherical chamber 9m across that reminds me in this photo of the old Irwin Allen TV series, The Time Tunnel. We are still years away from the first productive fusion reaction and decades away from the "hydrogen future," but every step matters.

The amazing crystal caves

These caves filled with giant gypsum crystals don't even look real in photographs. They look like someone blew up a photo and then pasted in tiny human images. In these caves, the temperature is 48 C and the humidity is 90%. In other words, they are so miserable that scientists have to wear ice-cooled suits just to get in there. Geologists didn't believe crystals of this size and type were even possible... but there they are.

Far out: a signal from the new exoplanet?

Gliese 581g is a big deal, the first known exoplanet in its star's "habitable zone." Do we already know something about life on it? Australian astronomer Ragbir Bhathal claims that, two years ago, he detected a sharp pulse of laserlike light from the same general area of the sky.
COMMENT: Not buying this as evidence of ET? Me neither. Bhathal never saw his pulse again, and no one else saw it even once. By the way, there's no official name for this planet, just the designation. I vote for "Krypton" - a habitable world with several times Earth's gravity.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why people become physicists

This item from Graphjam (see title link) gives a humorous answer to the questions - or is it humor? The #1 reason on this graph seems like a good one to me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Twins to meet in space

No, we're not talking about the Gemini program, although kudos to you if you remembered it. The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft docked at the ISS carrying two Russian cosmonauts and and one American astronaut. American Scott Kelly will have a unique experience when his twin brother, Mark Kelly, comes up on the March 2011 flight of the shuttle Endeavour. The Kelly are the only twins in any nation's astronaut program, and this will be the first time twins have met in space.

New species from the Gulf of Maine

Within the story of the Census of Marine Life are countless smaller stories of how particular locales were studied and what was found. This account from my birth state of Maine relates how said Lewis Incze from the University of Southern Maine coordinated a study involving some 200 researchers led the effort in the Gulf of Maine. Identified were 13 new species and 4,000 named species, more than half of which had not been known to exist there. Incze points out the Census was not just about finding new species, but finding more about every species: one aspect of his own research looked at the interactions between plankton and baleen whales and found subsurface "waves" around a seamount created patterns in plankton distribution that the whales had learned how to take advantage of for maximum feeding opportunities.

Chinese scientists search for apelike creature

Every continent has its legends and reports of unclassified large primates. In the case of China, a huge nation which, despite its population, still harbors large areas of wild forests and mountains such creatures are called yeren. Is this animal for real? Well, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, some unidentified hairs, and some footprints: hardly proof, but some Chinese scientists think it's worth investigating. A new search, drawing on international as well as Chinese expertise, is underway in Hubei Province.

Friday, October 08, 2010

NASA's long year of exploration

NASA has dubbed an upcoming series of solar system probes "The Year of Exploration." The period NASA describes actually spans 23 months. However, this is a year on Mars, so the space agency gets a pass on that (or even a thumbs-up for clever marketing). Probes to Jupiter, Mars, the moon are on tap, along with a solar sail and a microspacecraft exposing microbes and organic compounds to the stresses of space. To Infinity and Beyond!

What's going on in the brain?

Psychologist Steven Pinker writes that the question of consciousness can be divided into the Easy Problem (how do we switch between conscious and subconscious information processing?) and the Hard Problem (how does all this neural activity give rise to what we call "self" and "consciousness"?) Pinker argues this has all been solved but the details and there is no self, and really no Hard Problem, just an illusion. He then goes on (and to me this is jarringly unsubstantiated) that this knowledge creates a source for morality.
COMMENT: I'm not impressed. Knowing better how the machine works does not explain why we feel and do things not connected to the mundane processing of information. Why do we appreciate beauty? Why do we feel the need to explore spirituality? Why do people altruistically risk their lives to save strangers? And why would a certainty that there is no self lead to any moral code except "maximize pleasure inputs"?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

I join the "Men of Cryptozoology"

Loren Coleman, the best-known of North American cryptozoologists, has put up a little salute to me on my 51st birthday as part of a profile series called "Men of Cryptozoology." I humbly accept the honor. Thanks, Loren!

Finds in New Guinea include "Yoda bat"

An expedition to New Guinea has tallied 200 new species, from insects to mice. The icing on the cake was the sighting of a very rare mammal, the tube-nosed fruit bat (Nyctimene sp.), also known as the Yoda bat. Look at the photo in the title link and you'll see it: the critter does indeed look something like a wise old Muppet, although not green.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Census of Marine Life: amazing finds, much work remains

THe Census of Marine Life has taken 10 years and cost $650 million dollars. It's first-decade report, issued today, finds the over 16,000 fish species have been described - but estimates 5,000 remain to be found. Some 250,000 marine species of all types have been described - a quarter of the estimated 1,000,000 out there. Ninety percent of the species in European waters are known, but only an estimated 20 percent off Australia. Think about that and marvel.

See the whole report at:

Friday, October 01, 2010

Earthlike planet thought likely to harbor life

The exoplanet Gliese 581g, 20 light-years from Earth, is the first confirmed planet in another solar system which lies in its star's habitable zone: the range conducive to liquid water and to life as we know it. Perhaps the most excited scientist on the discovery team is Professor Steven Vogt of the University of California, who went so far as to say, "Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent."

COMMENT: Wow. I can't go with 100 percent, there are way too many variables. But this is an exciting, memorable discovery. If we can ever determine Gliese 581g does harbor life, this will turn out to be one of the historic moments in the human experience.

One-third of "extinct" mammals are rediscovered

A bit of positive news - conservationists can sometimes be wrong when declaring an animimal missing or extinct. According to Dr Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland, Australia, of 187 mammals which have been thought missing since 1500, 67 have turned up. Scientists in the 20th century have been wrong more often than their earlier counterparts - although, in this case, being wrong is a good thing.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A swarm of sharks

This item from the Bahamas Tribune reports on efforts to survey the local shark population. While many sharks are endangered, the number of species, at least in this area is very healthy, with six survey attempts netting 25 sharks of six species, the longer being a four-meter sixgill shark. The smallest was described by one scientist as "a Springer's sawtail catshark. This species was only described in 1998 and there are relatively few records of it anywhere in the world so I am incredibly excited to encounter it in Eleuthera."

Naming dinos - not an exact science

Is the great paleontologist one who names a lot of species? Is getting it wrong - naming species which turn out to be minor variations or otherwise invalid - a serious blow to a scientific reputation? This enjoyable article notes that prolific dinosaur-namers do get a substantial portion wrong, but that such errors alone don't diminish reputations.

Sign up for eSkeptic (and a cryptozoology note)

SKEPTIC magazine offers a free eSkeptic weekly newsletter to be delivered to your inbox. It gives (of course) a skeptical viewpoint on things ranging from "mad gasser" folklore to psychics.
COMMENT: The problem I have with most avoewdly skeptical publications is that they lump cryptozoology in with ghost-hunting and all the other "pseudoscientific" phenomena. Not accurate. However unscientific the methods of some amatuer cryptid enthuiasts may be, cryptozoology deals in falsifiable hypothetheses and is therefore a science. You can never disprove the theory "There are ghosts haunting some old houses" but you CAN (assuming adequate resources) disprove "There is an apelike monster in those woods" or "There is a large unidentified creature in this lake." (Whether the resources are in fact available has nothing to do with whether the hypthesis meets science philosopher Karl Popper's time-tested falisfiability postulate.) Cryptozoologists have gone out into the field and disproven some cases, like the presence of unnautrally large predators in small Irish lakes and the claim of a mermaid-like creature off New Guinea called the ri. So I repeat - cryptozoology is logically a science, even if not always practiced as one. Unscientific activities no more invalidate cryptozoology than Fleishman and Ponds' unwarranted cold fusion claims invalidated nuclear physics. You can argue cryptozoology isn't needed, since people in "mainstream" fields of zoology are investigating reports and finding new species all the time (much more than most people realize), but again that doesn't invalidate the logic here. My view of cryptozoology is that it's a branch that applies scientific methods to discovery of new species but broadens somewhat the types of data considered to get an investigation started in the hopes of assuring we don't miss anything.

We have a NASA bill, sort of

Well, Congress has at least done something with NASA.

IRATE COMMENT: No, not pass a 2011 budget: that would be too much to ask, right, with Congress adjourning almost FIVE WEEKS before the election so they can campaign? They passed an Authorization bill, which tells the agency how to spend money but doesn't actually give it any. The billed directs the termination of Ares I but directs continued work on a heavy lift launch vehicle. Congress passed a two-month continuing resolution to fund the government at 2010 levels until it can get around to the job it was elected for.

Was that a pink hippopotamus?

Yes, it was, and you have not been drinking.... A hippo's sweat is red, and the animal can look pink under the right conditions. But this young one from Kenya's Masai Mara appears to be a genuine pink hippo, or at least mostly pink. A partial albino is one possibility, but wildlife photographer Will Barrard-Lucas reports the hippo is "leucistic," meaning it has greatly reduced pigment but doesn't go all the way to albinism. Such animals may not grow up, as they are more visible to predators and more prone to sunburn than normal hippos.
Thanks to Loren Coleman for the pointer to this item.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wow - celestial fireworks

This exploding star, thanks to a phenomenon called a "light echo," put on one heck of a show. V838 Monocerotis looks to be expansing at almost light speed, and it boggles the mind to look at the sequence of photos.

Even sea slugs need respect

"The shallow-water nudibranch fauna of Southern California especially is well known, so it was pretty exciting to find a new species right under our noses here in Santa Barbara County," says Jeff Goddard. The marine scientist plucked a new species of sea slug, a colorful animal with orange-tipped spines, out of a tide pool in 2008. The 3-cm slug, named Flabellina goddardi by one of Goddard's colleagues who wrote the formal description, is one more reminder that new species are everywhere.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Animal mysteries in the Pikes Peak area

Courtesy of crypotozoologist Loren Coleman comes this roundup of animal oddities from my own locale, the Colorado Springs area. He includes escapes from the zoo (and a buffalo processing plant!) exotic animals of unknown origin, a link to our local sasquatch tales, and the "Colorado Springs lion" episode from 2008. The "lion" was taken seriously by authorities, but they never found a big cat, and the fuzzy cellphone photo was written off as a large Chow dog. (Although they never found a dog, either.)

Sylvia Earle pushes marine parks

Sylvia Earle has been studying the oceans for 50 years. Now she's pushing an equivalent of the parks many people are familiar with on land. The natucal versions are called marine protected areas (MPAs). We do have man ysuch areas around islands and reefs, but Earle eants to extend the idea to "fencing off" critical areas on the high seas from exploitation. The Sargasso Sea - "the golden rain forest of the sea" - is her leading example. See others in the web pages at the title link.
COMMENT: This isn't an idea, it's an imperative. Conservationists are sometimes unrealistic about what can be accomplished, but we're reached the point where this HAS to be accomplished.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Claims of UFO interference with ICBMs

Some former USAF personnel have gone public with claims UFOs were able to take control of Minuteman ICBMs, or at least interfere with them. Here's why I think memories are playing tricks, or something.
Several people say things happened, but hundreds of thousands have served in ICBM units without reporting any such thing, and no official documents have leaked. UFO sightings? Sure, they've happened in missile fields (they are mainly of the nocturnal lights type, which often prove to be astronomical phenomena or aircraft lights magnified by unusual atmospheric conditions).
But taking control? I'm not at all convinced. In the first place, I don't think
it's physically possible. Even advanced aliens have the same laws of physics governing propagation of radio signals, etc. The capsules, buried several stories deep, are grounded and hardened against any type of interference (MIJI) or (much more powerful) EMP from a nuclear near miss. A beam of EM energy powerful enough to penetrate earth and shielding would have left physical traces, like melted insulation.
If it somehow happened anyway, the investigations would have been immediate and extensive, and they would have been followed by emergency control system modifications to increase resistance to interference. These actions couldn't have been kept to a small circle (granted, the brass would have tried to do that, but I'm pretty certain it wouldn't have worked).
Matt Bille (another former USAF ICBM officer)

Constellation never had a chance

Veteran NASA program manager Wayne Hale, who had an inside view of the birth and slow death of NASA's Constellation program, writes that there was never a real chance for the program given two factors: the decision of the Bush administration and Congressional leaders not to up NASA's budget, and the fact it took much longer and cost much more than expected to return the Shuttle to service following the Columbia accident.
COMMENT: The government essentially expected NASA and its contractors to pull off a miracle: developing new high-tech systems with a much smaller budget than they needed. That strategy almost never works, and this time was no exception.

Florida panthers better thanks to Texas girlfriends

The Florida panther's numbers may have gone as low as 20 animals in the 1990s. The subspecies seemed doomed despite extensive conservation efforts. Fifteen years ago, the the US Fish and Wildlife Service brought in eight females from Texas and set them loose. (Panthers don't bond as mated pairs, so you don't need as many males as females.) The Texas animals are a different subspecies, but the differences are very minor, and the hybrid kittens have proven much fitter than those produced by the severely inbred Florida cats.
So here's to a successful rescue of one of America's rarest mammals.

A unique bird rediscovered

This rediscovery came a few years ago (2004), but it still caught my attention because Venezuela's recurve-billed bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii) is such a unique species. Its stout bill curves upward, looking as though it was stuck on upside down. The "smiling" bird also breaks the usual avian rule about colorful males and drab females: the female is a coppery reddish color, while males are gray. One of Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) teams rediscovered the bird and got the first photographs.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding lost amphibians: a success story

The world has lost numerous amphibian species, including Australia's unique gastric brooding frog and several of Central America's colorful poison-dart frogs. Scientists with Conservation International and the IUCN decided to take a list of 100 known extinctions and see if the animals were unquestionable gone. The answer" not necessarily. So far, three species have been rediscovered: the Mount Nimba reed frog of the Ivory Coast, the Omaniundu reed frog of the Congo, and Mexico's cave splayfoot salamander. All had been missing for over 30 years (the salamander was collected just once, in 1941).
COMMENT: Ann Murray once had a hit with a song which ran, "We sure could use a little good news today." It's nice when dedicated scientists, do, in fact, give the conservation world a little good news.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hidden technology: the Tesla Fallacy

This thought came up as I was perusing some posts in rec.aviation.military, where a couple of people tend to post a lot about assumed accomplishments of Nazi engineers. Now, engineers in Nazi Germany made some surprising advances, but because they created the first practical jet fighters and the first ballistic missiles doesn't mean they solved antigravity, supersonic aircraft, electromagnetic propulsion, etc.

I have grandiosely decided to name this line of thinking, because I don't think anyone else has. I call it the Tesla fallacy. Because Tesla was a bona fide genius who produced many advances (most notably alternating current), some aficionados assume he must also have been right when he believed that death rays, long-distance wireless power transmission, etc. were possible (and their application has been suppressed by evil government or corporate interests, of course). Not necessarily so.

(For example, MIT engineers have found that wireless power transmission is possible for low power levels over very short distances (anything more and you're sending EM energy everywhere, messing up whatever other electronics are in the vicinity and driving the power needs of the transmitter to impractical levels.)

The point is that even proven authority in a given field of endeavor does not guarantee further accomplishment, even in the same field. Maybe it's not a wholly original thought, but it seemed worth writing down.

Unknown population of tigers caught on video

A BBC camera crew investigating reports of tigers appearing well above the altitudes where they normally roam visited the highlands of Bhutan and came away with video proof of the endangered cats. Automated camera traps captured tigers hunting as high as 4,100 meters. The population in this highland valley may not be large, but every addition to the shrinking wild population of tigers is a major victory. Interestingly, this valley is the only place in the world shared by leopards, snow leopards, and tigers.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Whale beneath the San Diego Zoo?

Yep. The land-based institution doesn't keep whales, but it was sitting on one. Construction workers digging a hole for a new water tank found a whale fossil three million years old. The whale's skeleton was intact and in good condition.

New species of ape described!

It is perhaps the rarest event in zoology: the description of a new species of ape. From the still little-known rainforest area where Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia meet comes the northern buffed-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus annamensis), the sixth known species in its genus. Gibbons are the most prolific apes in terms of species, with the newcomer making (by some, but not all, counts) a 17th species. The rarity of the new species is not clear yet, although some gibbon species are fewer than 200 heartbeats from extinction.

Thanks to Loren Coleman for the initial pointer to this story.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Inside the world's coolest company (SpaceX)

Forget Apple and Google. SpaceX is trying to take civilization to space faster, cheaper, and more routinely - eventually, says founder Elon Musk, to Mars. Having developed the medium-lift Falcon 9 much faster and on a smaller budget than NASA and its contractors have needed to plod toward the less capable Ares I, SpaceX will now test its Dragon capsule in unmanned mode on the second Falcon 9 launch, set for October 23. In this article, SpaceRef's Ken Kremer takes us through the preparations.

A New Shrew: Elephant shrew discovered in Kenya

The world's newest mammal species (if confirmed as such) is a gray 600g rodent with a long (indeed, rather silly-looking) nose. Galen Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences said, "It is always exciting to describe a new species - a necessary precursor for ensuring that the animals are protected." This would be the 18th species of elephant shrew, or sengai.

The Saola: Rarest of Large Mammals Encountered

The saola, or Vu Quang ox, is one of the rarest of large mammals. It was described in 1992, the most spectacular of several finds from the Vu Quang region along the border of Vietnam and Laos. At 100kg, it was the largest full species of land mammal confirmed since the kouprey in 1936. The species is so rare, in fact, that it was last spotted by a trailcam in 1999. So it was a big deal when villagers in Laos captured a live adult. Scientists zoomed to the remote area as quickly as the could, but the animal lived only days.
One of the leading experts on the species, Dr. Pierre Comizzoli, said much good science would still come from studying the freshly dead specimen. He said, "Our lack of knowledge of saola biology is a major constraint to efforts to conserve it," noting that, "At best a few hundred survive, but it may be only a few dozen. The situation is critical."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

US Government challenged on science policy

What do you think of when a policy on science says political appointees may revise scientific findings "for clarity to aid decision-making" and can fire scientists who let data out before it's been reviewed by agency heads? You'd think that was the much-criticized policy of the George W. Bush administration, right? These are indeed the points that brought the Bush Administration harsh rebukes from the scientific community, but the directive involved is from President Obama's Department of the Interior. The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and its head, John Holdren, have rushed to point out this is just a draft, but why was such language put in a draft (a year-late draft, BTW) by an Administration that promised there would NOT be policies like that?
COMMENT: The desire to control the message is not a liberal or conservative desire, but a universal one in governments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Saving the tiger

In 1995, one expert predicted wild tigers would be gone in 10 years. They are not gone, thankfully - some 3,500 remain - but their numbers keep dropping despite heroic conservation efforts. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations have now proposed shrinking the protected ares to key breeding zones whose boundaries can can be successfully enforced. But would smaller sanctuaries just be outdoor zoos? There's no lack of debate over the best way to save wild tigers. But it's clear we need to do more than we're doing now.

NASA Lost in Politics

The Obama administration proposed a radical restructuring of space efforts, especially human spaceflight. The House generally went along, but the companion Senate bill diverged sharply from the President's wishes. When this happens, the two Houses schedule a Conference Committee and come up with a compromise. Except when they don't even try. That appears to be the fate of NASA, as elections loom and Congresspersons want to get to important stuff, like campaigning. NASA seems likely to have to stumble on for months in that disorienting vision of hell known as a Continuing Resolutions, which says "keep doing what you did last year, unless we tell you different, and by the way you're not important enough for us to do our jobs."

"To Incomprehensibility and Beyond!"

A squad of new frogs

Here the site Treehugger presents a slide show of 10 pictures representing newly discovered or rediscovered anurans (frogs and toads). Here is an Ecuadorian toad with the kind of long, suction-cupped fingers one expects with tree frogs; a Bornean frog, yellow-brown and sitting on a pencil point; an Indonesian frog with a long nose that inflates; and a 2009 report from Madagascar of a research effort that netted at least 129 new species of frogs - and as many as 221. Add in a fanged frog that can eat birds and ten new species from Columbia, including a wild-looking rain frog with spiky skin and a camouflage suit of green, brown, and orangeish splotches, and you have enough to make any herpetologist happy.

New species: a lovely little fish

In a lake in West Papua, in the exotic region we call Indonesia, sites colorful little rainbowfish newly named Melanotaenia fasinensis. It was found in a stream leading off Lake Ayamaru by an expedition which also rediscovered its relative M. ajamaruensis. missing and feared extinct.