Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Primate Problem (from Shadows of Existence)

SInce I'll be appearing on Sasquatch Detective this evening (8PM EST) I thought I would post the following essay (one of four on unknown primates) from my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.

Don't forget to tune in!

Of all the mammals, it is our relatives, the primates, which attract the most popular interest. This is understandable, as is the fascination with the idea that more primates, including large ones related to humans, may still await discovery.
The idea of unknown humanlike primates has been floating around our collective consciousness since humanity’s time began, but a thunderbolt of a discovery from the Indonesian island of Flores, announced October 27, 2004, raised the concept to a new level of awareness. When scientists led by Australians Mike Morwood and Peter Brown and Indonesian Thomas Sutikna found the three-foot human relative, Homo floresiensis, cryptozoologists were almost as excited as anthropologists. H. floresiensis might have lived as little as 12,000 years ago, when it would have coexisted with the larger modern humans. Paleontologist Henry Gee of the journal Nature, which published the report, commented, “They are almost certainly extinct, but it is possible that there are creatures like this around today.” Dr. Gee added, “Large mammals are still being found. I don't think the likelihood of finding a new species of human alive is any less than finding a new species of antelope, and that has happened."
The natives of Flores had tales of the ebu gogo, little men about three feet tall who, the islanders say, was still around only a century ago. From 12,000 years to 100 is a big leap, but it’s hard to call it an impossible one. Some scientists, inevitably, have begun to refer to the dwarf humans of Flores as “Hobbits.” (A humorous note is that, just before publishing the discovery of Flores man, Dr. Gee had completed a book called The Science of Middle-Earth.)
With the shock waves of the Hobbit discovery still reverberating through the world of anthropology, let us turn to the claims that unclassified living primates – some smaller than man, some the same size, some considerably larger – still haunt the Earth.
Such creatures are reported from every inhabited continent except Europe (and even there, are represented in old folklore about “wild men”). This global distribution is one of the major stumbling blocks in obtaining scientific credibility for the present topic. It is one thing to ask a primatologist to accept there is an unclassified ape at large. It is quite another to suggest the planet houses several good-sized bipedal primates, all uncaught and unclassified. Such a claim, made seriously by some cryptozoologists, is extremely difficult to even consider without hard evidence. That, in turn, makes many specialists unwilling to admit that any of these alleged animals could exist, the Flores discovery notwithstanding.
This problem raises the standard by which evidence is judged. The current situation can be stated very simply: the only evidence likely to result in widespread acceptance of any unknown large primate is a type specimen.
As of now, no case meets that standard. The yeti is known mainly from tracks and local traditions, plus a few reports by Westerners. The evidence for other primates, including Africa’s kikomba, Australia's yowie, China’s yeren, Siberia’s chuchunaa, and South America’s di-di and sisemite, is similar or weaker. North America’s sasquatch adds some disputed film evidence and many recent sightings. (The yeti and sasquatch, as the most famous primates in the crypto-zoo, merit more detailed essays later in this section.)
Anthropologist Myra Shackley has put forth a great deal of effort to prove relict Neanderthals, known as almas and by many other names, inhabit Mongolia, the Pamirs, and the Caucasus mountains. Unfortunately, she, too, has turned up no evidence more concrete than footprints and anecdotes. Along the rugged border shared by Pakistan and Afghanistan – a region in the news lately due to the search for terrorist Osama bin Laden – the local “wild men” are known as barmanu. In August 2002, Spanish zoologist Jordi Magraner was searching for these creatures when he was murdered. His death was a sobering reminder that finding new animals in remote regions is neither simple nor safe. (Reportedly, some local men involved in the region’s chronic border conflicts assumed Magraner’s communications gear marked him as a spy.)
Cryptozoologists must be open-minded, and generally hate to write off a seemingly insubstantial story which may prove to have been important. Still, some prioritization is necessary. Researchers must sort through the many reported primates and decide which cases, if any, most plausibly point to a real animal.
Sasquatch or bigfoot is the most widely reported of all such creatures, but is still highly problematical. There are thousands of sightings and footprint reports, and supporters say it would it be impossible to fake them all. As Craig Woolheater of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center put it, "What it comes down to is that if just one (witness) is telling the God's honest truth ... then there's something out there."
Critics, like anthropologist Kevin Wylie, respond that the problem arises when you examine these reports in detail. To Wylie, none of the sightings or other pieces of evidence is impressive enough to encourage acceptance of something as improbable as a huge, undiscovered North American ape.
Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, although the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate. The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”
The late Dr. John Napier was the most prominent primatologist ever to examine this problem in depth. In his 1972 book Bigfoot, Napier endorsed sasquatch as a real animal, although he doubted all other such primates.
Concerning the almas, it seemed to Napier the inhabitants of its rugged homeland make the animal sound too plentiful, as if it should be easy to find. Napier recounted the story of one Caucasus resident who was asked if the almas was mythical. The man, proud of his people’s rich mythology, was actually offended that anyone would think it included something as common and boring as the almas. It was reported in 1985 that 5,000 almas sightings and fifty footprint reports were on file with the U.S.S.R. Geographical Society.
Some cryptozoologists suggest it is this creature which is represented by Bernard Heuvelmans’ Homo pongoides, the ape-like man. Dr. Heuvelmans did publish a description and identify an alleged type specimen. This was the famous Minnesota Iceman, a hairy corpse six feet tall. Heuvelmans, along with Ivan Sanderson, examined this traveling exhibit (frozen in a block of ice) in 1968. Heuvelmans was convinced the thing was genuine, although his colleague had reservations. The Iceman was being shown by one Frank Hansen, who told at least three different stories of its origin. Heuvelmans believed the Iceman was actually shot in Vietnam during the U.S.-Vietnamese war and then smuggled into this country. However, he had only secondhand reports to substantiate these events. There are ongoing reports of apelike primates in Vietnam (the Ngoi rung, or forest people), but no evidence connecting them to the Iceman.
Interviewed in 2000, Hansen said he never did know what the thing was. “It’s history,” he told a reporter. “I don’t care to get involved in that.” Such a comment, while not constituting a confession, is unlikely to reinforce the Iceman’s credibility. That credibility was already in question thanks to a 1981 newspaper article which claimed the Iceman was a creation of the late Howard Ball, a maker of animal models for Disney. Ball's widow and son supported the story.
Even if the Iceman was not - as seems likely - a clever hoax, the thing’s current whereabouts are unknown. It isn’t unknown for science to accept a description based on missing evidence. After all, no one doubts the validity of Peking Man, whose bones have been lost for over sixty years. H. pongoides, however, represents such a startling claim that the reluctance to accept it is understandable unless the mysterious corpse surfaces again.
Just to further confuse the issue: as noted above, many who accept the Asian ape-man reports believe they concern Neanderthals. Heuvelmans was one of these, and felt his H. pongoides was an example of such a survivor. However, Sanderson, the only other scientist to see the Iceman, strongly dissented. Not only did he feel the Iceman might have been an expertly-made model, but he wrote, "This creature is almost as far removed from the standard neanderthaloid construction as is possible." Heuvelmans' supposition was based on the controversial belief that the common reconstructions of Neanderthals as broad-faced, heavy-browed people are substantially inaccurate.
The yeti is in a state similar to that of the almas. Despite the long-standing local traditions and the efforts of determined cryptozoologists, the beast remains elusive. After a half-century of serious investigation, the best yeti evidence is still the broad, strange-looking footprints photographed by mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951. Reported yeti remains have either been lost or identified as having belonged to known animals.
So the alleged large primates of the world are supported, at best, by an interesting but inadequate collection of local traditions, reports, footprints, and hair samples. For now, the motto of science remains habeas corpus, or “bring the body forth!”
Anonymous. 1982. “Big Foot Fraud,” OMNI, September.
Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon.
Coleman, Loren. 1999. Cryptozoology A to Z. New York: Fireside.
Dalton, Rex. 2004. “Little lady of Flores forces rethink of human evolution,” Nature,
Published online October 27.
Davis, Anthony. 2003. “Searching for Sasquatch,” Texarkana (TX) Gazette, October 20.
Gee, Henry. 2004. “Flores, God, and Cryptozoology,” Nature, Published online October 27.
Hocking, Peter. 1992. “Large Peruvian Mammals Unknown to Zoology,” Cryptozoology (11), p.38.
Napier, John. 1972. Bigfoot. New York: Berkeley.
Sanderson, Ivan. 1969. "The Missing Link?" Argosy, May, p.23.
Sanderson, Ivan. 1961. Abominable Snowmen. Philadelphia: Chilton.
Shackley, Myra. 1983. Still Living? New York: Thames and Hudson.
Wylie, Kevin. 1980. Bigfoot. New York: Viking.
Meryhew, Richard. 2000. “Old tractor up for sale, reluctantly, by owner,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 23, p.A1. (Article on Frank Hansen)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stunning cache of Australian rock art revealed

This site in Australia was used by aboriginal artists starting 12,000-15,000 years ago. Among its thousands of items are depictions of the thylacine, now believed extinct, and a sailing ship painted in the 1600s, well before historians previously thought the Aborigines of this region knew about white visitors. Use of the site continued until the 1950s: it's startling to see a very accurate drawing of a cruise ship in among the images. This was, essentially, a visual library, one maintained by hundreds of generations of artists over millennia. It's simply astonishing, both as art and as a record of a people.

World Science Fest includes way-out thinking

The World Science Festival is coming up in New York. Its organizers are trying hard to fight the "dork" image and reignite America's interest in science - especially the interest of the younger generation. The Festival's originator is a physicist who suggests string theory opens up the possibility we're all holographic projections of information that exists elsewhere in the multi verse. (As Woody Allen would say, "Then I definitely overpaid for my carpet.") Everyone from honoree Stephen Hawking to composed Philip Glass will be on hand for the kickoff on June 2.
COMMENT: Good luck, and sorry I'll miss the show!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bigfoot and the Endangered Species Act

A hunter named Odie Ellis has written to Field & Stream suggesting the government should put Bigfoot on the Endangered Species List, in part to keep hunters who think they see a manlike form from nailing another hunter. The idea is attracting a lot of comment from cryptozoologists.
Over 30 years ago, the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph published an article saying Bigfoot has been put on the Endangered Species List. When I wrote to the USFWS, a staffer wrote back (I still have the letter somewhere) that this “imaginary creature” had never been considered for protection. He added that, if the animal were proven to exist, it might be considered as a candidate for listing. I still don’t know how the article originated. No one I talked to at the paper had any idea.
There’s no reason to think the USFWS implementation of the ESA has changed. Absent an amendment to the law by Congress allowing reported species to be added (not going to happen), Bigfoot is not going on the list until there’s a bigfoot type specimen in hand. (Speculation: IF there is a type specimen available for scientific examination, protection might not wait until the formal species description is published: the Secretary of the Interior has emergency powers that, in a case as remarkable as this, might be used to protect the area the type specimen came from.)
Anyway, if Bigfoot exists, he's on his own as far as the government is concerned.

Alaotra grebe extinct

It's not a good decade to be an alaotra grebe, a waterbird of Madagascar distinguished by its tiny though functional wings. The new IUCN Red List marks it as the first bird species to go extinct in this century. Netting by fisherman and the introduction of predatory fish into the only lake housing the grebe have put paid to the species.
The Red List highlights several other birds whose continued existence is unclear, Cuba's zapata rail may disappear at any time, if it's not gone already. (An unusual note is that the rail was described by American ornithologist James Bond, whose book happened to be in writer Ian Fleming's room when Fleming was trying to think of a good name for a spy. So if British Intelligence is reading this, they might want to send 007 to Cuba to investigate an urgent mystery.)
The IUCN report is not all bleak: it upgrades the status of two birds that have benefited from conservation efforts.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ardi, who art thou?

Last year, Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year was the description of a new species of fossil primate, believed to be on the human line of descent but a million years older than the famous "Lucy." The type specimen of the new find was nicknamed "Ardi."
Now other scientists are challenging the placement of Ardi on the human line, saying it branched off somewhere closer to the common ancestor of humans and apes. Analysis of teeth, skull shape, wrist bones, etc. gets very technical, but the bottom line is some researches want Ardi booted out of the family. The original describers, not surprisingly, are standing their ground.
COMMENT: The important lesson, stressed by everyone involved, is that this kind of debate is normal and healthy in science. In this case (as in the Flores "hobbit" dustup) it may take more specimens, preferably from other locations, to get a definitive answer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How small a population is too small?

People charged with maintaining the populations of endangered species are always worrying about how many animals are needed to make up a viable population. This also applies in nature: a species with only a few individuals is on its way out (the thylacine may be in this state today, if it's not already gone).

A common postulate is the 50/500 rule. The idea is that mammals need 50 genetically contributing individuals (that is, population N minus the nonbreeding animals (too old, too young, etc.) has to = 50 or more) to be viable in the short term, and over 500 to ensure long-term stability in the face of random events like epidemics.
Fewer than 50 animals does not automatically equal death. Northern elephant seal numbers may have dropped to around 20 at one point due to overhunting. Cheetahs passed through a natural genetic bottleneck that may have cut the population down to something similar. The European bison or wisent was reconstituted from six animals, although in this case the population was closely managed by humans to reduce the level of inbreeding.

A 2009 study by University of Adelaide and Macquarie University researchers suggested that neither 50 nor 500 is adequate. They came up with the figure of 2,000 animals in the face of large-scale stresses like climate change and loss of habitat. These factors vary with species and location, but the study is still concerning to wildlife managers. A 2008 study from the University of Boulder had already suggested that models tweaked for individual species, widely used in conservation programs, may be off by a factor of 100. See:

What does that mean for the animals of cryptozoology? If the existence of an animal like the sasquatch is uncertain, its population is more so. If there are only a few dozen sasquatch huddled in the Pacific Northwest, their chances for survival are low but not zero. Primates, which have few offspring and take care of them closely, may be able to adapt to that for a long time. A population in the thousands is much safer, although the likelihood of the existence of an animal for which we have no physical remains would seem to fall if one is postulating there must be thousands of them. It's all more complicated than I am qualified to sort out beyond these general thoughts, as you then get into how many large primates the presumed habitat could support, odds of accidental discovery (hunting accidents, roadkill, etc.), and so on. It varies with every presumed species: for example, the yeti's habitat, the high forested valleys of the Himalayas, is much smaller than potential sasquatch habitat but also sees fewer human residents and travelers.

The point here is that figuring out how many animals a species must include to survive is not an exact science, whether you're dealing with a known or unknown species. The implication is that this whole conservation business is trickier than we thought, and conservation of habitat, the major safety factor, rises even higher in importance. Let's hope we have the wisdom and resources to make it all work.

Me and sasquatch on Internet radio

OK, we're not on the same show together, but I thought this would be fun when I got an invite from Steve Kulls to appear on "The Sasquatch Detective" internet radio show at 8PM EST this Sunday. It should be interesting - I'm skeptical about our big furry friend, but there is a mystery to address here.
So click the title link if you need a diversion ...(shows are also archived so you can play back later).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Farewell, Phoenix and Atlantis

NASA reports that the Mars Phoenix lander, which made a slew of important discoveries since landing two years ago today, is dead. An image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that, as most of the Phoenix's team of scientists and engineers expected, the accumulation of carbon-dioxide ice over the Martian winter has twisted or broken off the solar panels. That was the tradeoff in sending a lander to the high latitudes to study the Martian polar caps.

And the shuttle Atlantis should touch down tomorrow, returning after a highly successful mission to complete the planned configuration of the ISS. In all likelihood, Atlantis, which has logged some 120 million miles in space, will make only one more journey, to a museum. It's silly to get emotional over a machine, but Atlantis has been a magnificent vessel of exploration (like her predecessor, the U.S. government's first oceanic research vessel). It's sad to see her go.

UPDATE: And Atlantis is down safely. Well done, NASA.

Illustrating eyewitness reports - a problem for cryptozoology

There are many famous sightings of "cryptids" whose fame is due largely to an impressive drawing of the creature. Some of these are made by witnesses themselves, while others are drawn under their supervision or even just from the text of an account. In addition to the skill of the artist, though, the accuracy of these images depends on how good a look the witness(es) got and how much is accurately remembered.
Mike Dash of Fortean Times just posted this blog, which I helped a bit on the research with, looking at several cases where an illustration, however well done, may not have been a very good match to what the witnesses saw.
I've worked with superb illustrators for my books, and they were excited by the challenge of drawing an animal based on text or old sketch. Some of the results, such as Bill Rebsamen's working of the Valhalla sea-serpent, have been superb and match other data very well. In the Valhalla case, two highly qualified witnesses watched the animal, wrote down a detailed description, and produced a very competent sketch Bill could work from. That's not always true.
Craig Gosling, who did excellent work for my first book, drew the two-finned cetacean reported by Quoy and Gaimard, but the witnesses never saw the animals' heads, and Craig had to make an educated guess at the head shape and the snout based on other cetaceans. The resulting drawing may (assuming the animal exists, of course) be very accurate or far off. If it's off, that's no detriment to Craig: he simply had to conjecture to fill in what was not reported.
On the other hand, Craig's drawing from that book of Steller's "sea monkey" has been licensed for two other publications and is probably the best we are going to get. Steller's description was a thorough one, written down by an experienced observer or marine life, so Craig's talents have likely given us something very much like what the naturalist reported.
I've rambled on here, but the point Dash makes is important. We have to consider not only the features shown in an illustration but what the illustration was based on. As Dash notes, Loch Ness witness Arthur Grant reported a weird animal crossing the road at night: his own drawings and those of others have gotten far more detailed over the years. So be careful. An illustration, however evocative and however well the illustrator knows animals and their anatomy, can be only as good as its origins.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book review: Hack the Planet

Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe (Hardcover)
~ Eli Kintisch - Wiley - 2010

Geoengineering or "planet hacking" is the emerging field of developing large-scale schemes to control the Earth's climate and negate the effects of global warming. In one of the first books on this important topic, Eli Kintisch has provided a highly readable introduction for a broad audience.
Planet-hacking was long dismissed by climate scientists as either an unfeasible solution or a subversive one being pushed to enable us to keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere. As Kintisch shows, highly respected climatologists are coming around to the idea that geoengineering must be studied even though it's a very risky last resort, something to be considered only if we fail to reduce our carbon output - or if we've already passed the tipping point.
The author takes us through the variety of schemes proposed - sowing the atmosphere with sulfur compounds to reflect sunlight, sowing the oceans with iron to make plankton bloom (sequestering more carbon in an enhanced ocean food web), and even more daunting projects like maintaining huge fields of mirrors in orbit. Kitisch talks with all the major figures (many of them as interesting as the ideas they study), takes us through scientific meetings in the U.S. and Europe, and shows a growing consensus that geoengineering must be better understood, even as we hope never to deploy it. Every geoengineering concept has side effects and unknowns, and none of them are without serious political, financial, and technical challenges. There are worries about individual nations taking unilateral actions that could affect the whole planet and even about the possibility geoengineering could be weaponized.
Kitisch has no doubts about anthropogenic global warming and provides alarming statistics to show how serious a threat it's becoming. This, he argues, is why geoengineering must be studied despite its risks: because a day may come when the uncertain risks of geoengineering are outweighed by the certain risks of continuing climate change.
People may differ about how immediate the climate threat is and exactly how much human activity affects global temperatures. What can't be debated, though, is that our enormous conversion of carbon via fossil fuels amounts to an uncontrolled experiment on our own species. Kitisch and the scientists he interviews think we damn well better be aware of our options if that experiment puts us in imminent danger. His well-written book offers clear explanations and examples to bring readers up to speed on a subject that may determine our future on Earth.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Top 10 New Species announced

Every year, the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University picks a Top 10 of recently described species. This year (covering discoveries in 2008) they had 18,225 new species to consider. That's not a typo. 18,225. Two plants and eight animals made the top 10 list. A favorite: the wildly-colored, flat-faced Psychedelic Frogfish.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More new monitor lizards

Adding to the recent cascade of species descriptions, here are two new species of monitors from the Philippines, one identified from two overlooked specimens in the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen.
COMMENT: It is surprising but true that the largest lizards on the planet have produced so many recent discoveries. The grand-daddy of all living lizards, the Komodo, was only described in 1912, and many species have turned up in the pet trade before herpetologists even heard of them.

Also from the Philippines, the nation's most prominent herpetologist, Angel Alcala, shares his memories from a lifetime of discovery including 50 new species. See:

Monday, May 17, 2010

New mammals, bird added to Indonesian fauna

It's hard to keep up with new species discoveries. One day after I did a roundup article on several of the most recent, out comes this report from Conservation International. The bag of a single expedition: a new tree kangaroo, a new woolly rat, a new pigeon, and a long-nosed frog called Pinocchio that was nabbed by hand when it simply hopped up onto a bag of rice the explorers' camp, seemingly presenting itself to science. It will take some work to confirm these are all new species (the pigeon, for example, might be a new color morph of a known type) but the point is the same as always: we are still discovering nature.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"River Monsters" strikes out in Iliamna

As I've written before, one "lake monster" story I always suspected had something to it was the tale of Lake Iliamna, Alaska. Iliamna, remote, sparsely inhabited, and covering 1,000 square miles, has a long tradition of "giant fish" stories that intrigued me because of persuasive eyewitness reports. I appeared (briefly, as it turned out) on Discovery Channel's "Monsters and Myths of Alaska," in which a couple of fishermen did hook into and lose something seemingly larger than the normal fish known to inhabit the place.
Now Jeremy Wade of Animal Planet's "River Monsters" has taken his turn at fishing in the lake. Result: zip.
In both cases, one problem was the fishing efforts were one-shot deals lasting 12 hours or less. If there is an unknown population of white sturgeons - or something more unusual - in Iliamna, it's not surprising these programs didn't find it. If something has gone for decades - or centuries, as Alaska Natives have it - it's going to take a more systemic approach to solve the mystery.

"Best Quirky Museum" award goes to ICM

Yankee magazine, well known in New England, gives out annual “Best of New England” Editor's Choice Awards this time every year. Honored as "Best Quirky Museum" is the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, ME. Congratulations to founder Loren Coleman.

COMMENT: The ICM is the ONLY cause I regularly beseech readers of this blog to support, whether that support is monetary or in the form of exhibits or archived materials. Whether you think cryptozoology is scientifically important, a silly nuisance, or something in between does not actually matter here. The ICM houses tens of thousands of items, from full-size animal models to newspaper clippings, making up a one-of-a-kind collection about humanity's fascination with animal mysteries.
For more,see:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

NASA, Space, and all of us

The major change in direction of American space exploration being floated by the Obama administration has raised one heck of a ruckus in Congress, in states housing NASA facilities, and among space policymakers and devotees of all kinds. Keith Cowing of the blog NASAWatch has collected a few reminders of an important point: as we debate how we explore, don't forget the big question of why we explore.

"Why our space program? Why, indeed, did we trouble to look past the next mountain? Our prime obligation to ourselves is to make the unknown known. We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are."
- Gene Roddenberry, Executive Producer of "Star Trek"

New species roundup

The discovery and description of new species of animals from around the world continues apace. Actually, it continues at a pace that would surprise, even startle, most people.

The big recent news, mentioned earlier on this blog, is the colorful new monitor from the Philippines, almost 2m long and from a populated area where no one would expect a large new species. If you missed it, see this link:

A little less celebrated is the "torch monitor," so called in Indonesia for its bright orange head. Varanus obor, attired mostly in glossy black, lives only one one small island, Sanana, one of the Moluccas. Monitor lizards are often the top predators on such islands, with the famous Komodo dragon being the biggest and nastiest of the group. See the title link for this one.

Then say hello to this brightly colored frog, orange with black markings, found in a tiny area at 3,000 meters altitude in the Western Ghats mountain range of India. To herpetologists, it's Raorchestes resplendens. It has unusually short legs for a frog and some other features that resemble those of toads.

I always love stories about the contributions of amateurs to science. A truly tiny moth (wingspan: 6mm) has been identified from England after an amateur naturalist in Devon spotted a caterpillar he didn't recognize and showed it to entomologists. Bob Heckford has the permanent satisfaction of knowing Ectoedemia heckfordi is fluttering about the countryside.

Every species we discover, large or small, is another piece of important knowledge in the mosaic of life. As this final article from Switzerland points out, we really don't have enough taxonomists to understand things as quickly as we need to for effective study and conservation. Here's hoping more people will realize how vibrant a field this is and join the effort to understand life on Earth.

It's all about the DNA

DNA analysis has demonstrated that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred at some point. But is it correct to call them one species, or should they be separate? Scientists have gone back and forth over this for over 150 years. Are we dealing with Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis? That's only one of the mysteries further analysis promises to unlock. Another is the migration patterns of ancient humans and their ancestors.
COMMENT: It must be one heck of an exciting time to be an anthropologist. Maybe the most exciting time ever to be one.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reminder how strange genetics can be

Strange and seemingly cruel... Brooke is a girl from the UK and at age 17 is only 75cm tall, but her condition is not dwarfism. In many ways, physical and mental, she hasn't aged past about 6-12 months. She has not developed the ability to speak, and she still has her baby teeth. Prof. Richard Walker is leading the effort to sequence her genome: not just to possibly aid Brooke, but to unlock the secrets of aging. He explained, “Our hypothesis is that she is suffering from damage in the gene or genes that co-ordinate the way the body develops and ages. If we can use her DNA to find that mutant gene then we can test it in laboratory animals to see if we can switch if off and slow down the aging process at will."

THANKS to Kris Winkler for this item.

Last flight of Atlantis

Here we go. Friday is the last mission for the space shuttle Atlantis. Sad to see it... Godspeed, y'all.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Whatever is a gray whale doing here?

The North Atlantic gray whale population was wiped out centuries ago. The animals survive only in the Pacific. So what is one doing in the Mediterranean?
Cetologists are as flustered by that question as everyone else. Is it from some overlooked remnant of the Atlantic population? Did it come through the Northwest Passage and then swim south (as is considered most likely)? Did it head southwest and come up unnoticed through the Suez Canal? If it swam for thousands of miles to get to a place its species has never lived, why?
It's tempting to shriug and say Mother Nature likes to stump us once in a while. Scientists, of course, cannot stop there. This whale will have a lot of human company for a while.

THANKS to Drs. Charles Paxton and Darren Naish for passing on items about this sighting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How manatees crossed the ocean

Sirenians (manatees and dugongs) exist in widely scattered locations. Dr. Darren Naish asks the logical question of how animals that are basically floating blimps managed to cross oceans (they seem to have originated in South America). The answer is, essentially, that currents and the Amazon river flow helped them to swim thousands of miles: and they must have made the journey because, well, there they are. Their extinct relation, Steller's sea cow, even made it to the Bering Sea.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

MicroSat News: New experiments with SPHERES

The SPHERES microsatellites, three of them, have been tested inside the ISS. Now NASA and DARPA have launched a new program, International Space Station Spheres Integrated Research Experiments (InSPIRE) which seeks new uses for SPHERES to test advanced technology and increase participation by students and other groups in ISS experiments. The program manager at DARPA, Paul Eremenko (who I worked with on a paper on the agency's F6 interlinked-satellites program) emphasizes the importance of putting space technology to work in educational outreach.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

A little Neanderthal in us - or most of us

The most extensive study of the topic to date indicates that humans and Neanderthals - well, dated. A little. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig report most humans include in their genome between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA. Oddly, the interbreeding doesn't seem to have occurred in Europe, where Neanderthal lasted the longest and coexisted with modern humans the longest. Instead, it happened in the Middle East and ended 60,000 years ago. Some Homo sapiens carried Neanderthal genes into Europe, others to East Asia. No trace appears in modern Africans. The findings are preliminary and are likely to change as more Neanderthal DNA is analyzed.

Species diversity plans aren't helping

The news is grim. A global conference in 2002 agreed the loss of species must be stemmed. 2010 was set as the target year. It's not working out. When the the Convention of Biological Diversity meets this October in Japan, the tone is going to be dire. The easiest numbers to understand are those concerning the most visible creatures: 20% of the mammals, 12% of the birds, and 30% of thee world's amphibians are in some category of threatened species.

An idea: maybe it's time for the most critical "hot spots" to be managed as international parks: not by fiat from New York or Zurich, but as Megacommunities which bring together government, business, and nonprofit entities with a shared objective. (See "The Megacommunity Manifesto," at )
(Full disclosure: some of the leaders at my day job came up with this concept, but the point is, it works where top-down efforts fail.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Fun article from 1959 on Vanguard II

This article, focusing on the cloud cover experiment carried on Vanguard II, makes the interesting prediction that more advanced satellites will make weather forecasts 100% accurate.
We were optimistic about a lot of things in the 50s.

Pat Flannery, who posted this on the newsgroup, also found this link to a cool model kit of the satellite.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Latest "grolar" bear was 2nd-Gen Hybrid

I blogged earlier on a story that a grizzly-polar bear hybrid, the second such animal confirmed from the wild, was shot on April 8. Now we know something more: this bear was a second-generation hybrid, the result of a male grizzly pairing with a female hybrid. No one has reported shooting that maternal hybrid, so she is likely still out there.
It's getting to look like the hybridization of grizzly (technically brown) bears and polars is not a one-off event but part of a small but potentially significant trend. It's been postulated that such hybrids will show up more often as human settlement on the south and diminishing ice to the north increasingly causes the ranges of the two bears to overlap. (Actually I postulated that on the 2008 Giant Bears episode of MonsterQuest: I'm sure I was not the first to have the thought, but it was original to me at the time. I'm gratified that people with actual qualifications have independently picked up the same thread.)

THANKS TO Gavin Joth for circulating the linked article.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

How did dinos hold their necks?

It used to be thought the great sauropod dinosaurs held their necks high as they waded through the swamps. Then we figured out they didn't live in the swamps. Then came the idea, as shown in the series Walking with Dinosaurs, that the long necks were held out level to the ground, or even slanting downwards, balancing those long tails. Dr. Darren Naish, who never has a problem challenging paleontological orthodoxy, argues that no animal has ever evolved a long neck for low-level browsing only. Living animals like giraffes and saddle-backed giant tortoises use long necks to enable them to look around for food and enemies and to browse high vegetation. So, he and his colleagues argue, did sauropods.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Is cold fusion really dead?

Cold fusion is the vampire of the world of physics. No matter how many times it's staked through the heart, it keeps popping up. This report concerns a new symposium looking at several varieties of reported cold fusion reaction.
COMMENT: I've never known what to think of this topic. Certainly I don't have the background to pronounce on it with any kind of authority. But it's interesting there are a handful of people with doctorates who are willing to run the gauntlet of ridicule to report on what they think are important results. They may still be wrong, but what if they're not?

Sasquatch: invading a theater near you!

In fact, invading theaters over and over. There are, believe it or not, seven sasquatch-themed films now in production, most from independents but a couple from semi-major studies.

My favorite title so far? "Sasquatch vs. Chupacabra." (This could be a funny movie with the right tongue-in-cheek attitude. Think of the camp classic “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Most of these filmmakers end up going the “babes and blood” route, though.)

The funny thing is that, if you think of the drama and the philosophical themes inherent in the sasquatch legend, there is room for a very good film on the subject. It's never been done. (When I was a kid, "The Legend of Boggy Creek" seemed pretty cool, but it doesn't hold up.)

The Razzies (the anti-Oscars) should give an award for “Worst Sasquatch Costume in a Motion Picture.” Think of the number of worthy (?) competitors.