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.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cool archaeology: cannonballs vs. wooden ships

How good were cannonballs against wooden ships? The obvious way to find out is to experiment, but that's very expensive. Israeli researchers found a way to scale down the experiment and test min-cannonballs against a model of a recovered ship with a thick oaken hull. Cannonballs, they learned, were surprisingly effective.

Major science news from Mars

From NASA:
"Data from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander suggest liquid water has interacted with the Martian surface throughout the planet's history and into modern times. The research also provides new evidence that volcanic activity has persisted on the Red Planet into geologically recent times, several million years ago."
COMMENT: We see Mars differently every time we look at it. It's a far more active and complex world than we understood just a few years ago. Humans need to go see it for themselves. I'd volunteer.

Musings on Bigfoot and Bigfooters

Loren Coleman on Cryptomundo asked for thoughts on the most mysterious mammal in North America: Homo sapiens bigfooter, the Bigfoot enthusiast. The variety of this subspecies is amazing, ranging from people with Ph.D.'s to dedicated longtime wilderness hunter/camper/hiker types at home searching the forests to people who could get lost in their own backyards, and there's an awful lot of animosity that doesn't appear to the same degree anywhere else in cryptozoology. My thoughts:

It’s strange the way sasquatch seems to divide people more than any other cryptid. While Pyle’s book Where Bigfoot Walks covered some of this territory, there seems to be as much mystery about Bigfooters as there is about Bigfoot. Maybe it’s just because, since the phenomenon’s focus includes the relatively affluent and populous nation of the USA, there are just more people with interest and opportunity to get involved, and large numbers of people involved means some will inevitably clash. Or maybe it’s because sasquatch, more than any other zoological mystery, brings to mind the idea so many people have that there must be a purer, simpler existence out there somewhere, although we may have no real idea of how to approach it. Maybe it’s the elusiveness of the thing. Science demands exactly the same evidence for sasquatch it does for a new lizard or beetle, no more, no less, and even the most dedicated researchers can’t come up with it. We know there’s a lot of wilderness left on this continent, and a smart, wary animal could elude people a long time, but when every deer, bear, and rodent has been described, the puzzle of sasqautch makes people mentally throw up their hands. (The last North American mammals were an Alaskan shrew species and a Florida rat subspecies, both described decades ago.) Some people are attracted no doubt by the sheer enjoyment of the idea that “perfessors” all over the country would have egg on their faces if our big furry friend turns up. (The vertebrate zoology and paleontology conferences would have blood running in the halls.) And some people are attracted by the simple determination to prove that they are right about what they or others have seen.

Sasquatch would be easily the biggest zoological discovery of the past century, bigger than Vu Quang, the biggest thing since the last large African mammals were hauled into the sunlight of science before WWI. I hope the big guy is out there, even though I doubt it. I salute the dedicated searchers, and I hope someone finds him. For now, I can’t help picturing sasquatch watching with puzzlement and maybe even amusement as people make such a fuss over him.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A favorite nature photo: Dolphins in the maelstrom

Off South Africa is a place called Waterfall beach, where the offshore winds blow against the incoming waves, creating a surreal world of spray and water and light. These bottlenose dolphins seem to be playing in this alien-looking world.

Would you believe: A camel-osauraus?

Nature had over 100M years to play genetic card games with the dinosaurs, so it's not surprising some very strange hands were dealt. Here's another one - a 7m dinosaur from China, a predator with s strange hump in its back. The hump wasn't just fat, the way a camel's is: two extended vertebrate give it support. One paleontologist suggests it was for sexual display, which brings the tastes of female dinosaurs into question...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Would you believe: a furry seagoing elephant? (thought not)

What do you do with a giant blob of a carcass on the beach? The tales told around this photo (just discovered after almost 90 years) turned what was probably a decomposing whale into something like a giant seagoing furry elephant (really). Dr. Karl Shuker, who gave this shaggy dog of a story the nickname "Trunko," identifies it here. Some people writing about cryptozoology actually took seriously the claim of a single alleged eyewitness who described a giant trunked beast battling two whales just offshore, which is the kind of thing that keeps people from taking some cryptozoological writers seriously.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Two men compete to skydive from space

From near-space, anyway. Since USAF Colonel Joe Kittinger parachuted from 102,800 feet 50 years ago, no one has been able to break that record. At least two men have died in the attempt. Before this year is out, two more men will make their attempts. Both plan to rise in helium-filled balloons to 120,000 feet and then step out of their capsules and fall. The successful jumper (if there is one) will be the first human to break the sound barrier without a machine around him. Are rivals Felix Baumgartner and Michel Fournier displaying courage or insanity? No one knows what going through the sound barrier will be like: it could be gentle or deadly.
COMMENT: I don't know where that line between courage and insanity falls, but, like most people, I have a fascination with people willing to hang their lives on the line for the sake of a record. I'll be watching this story.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Did meteor kill the mammoths?

About 13,000 years ago, the giant mammals of North America began a rapid slide into extinction. Why? Climate change and overhunting by early Native Americans have been blamed. A recent theory I liked blamed a meteor impact, based in part on the finding of tiny diamonds that might results from such an impact. A new analysis says these findings were wrong: the "diamonds" were just natural carbon lumps. The original scientists, though, are sticking to their guns.
I never liked the overhunting idea: Africans with hunting technology similar to that of Native Americans never made a dent in their continent's equivalent megafauna (elephants, rhinos, etc.) Hunting plus climate change might have done it, but it still seems inadequate to me.

Art and Science meet in nanoparticles

I love it when art and science go hand in hand. In this article from the new edition of Symmetry magazine (Fermilab's regular magazine on particle physics) an artist who works with nanoparticles has produced some intriguing art and some questions for the physicists based on how her particles are behaving.

NASA tests rocket going nowhere?

The five-segment solid motor of the Ares booster, meant to carry the Orion capsule into orbit, was a success. Such a test adds to our knowledge of how large solid rocket motors behave, but it may have no practical use. The Ares, like the Orion and the whole of Project Constellation, is on the edge of oblivion. Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to test its Dragon capsule on its Falcon 9 rocket on October 23: a new spacecraft and new capsule tested in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost it's taken for NASA and its contractors to get an equivalent system built.

See the spectacular test here:

The "Hobbit" debate will not rest

A few months ago, it seemed like the debate over Homo floresiensis, the "hobbit" species represented by fossils from the Indonesian island of Flores, was over. Professors Robert Eckhardt of Penn State and Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide, have reopened this scientific can of worms by arguing the only skull from Flores - from an individual known as LB1 - is an anomalous modern human skull. This has been postulated before, but these authors are relying on a new line of argument. They say the skull's asymmetry (measurements on one side of the skull show over 6% difference from the other, where 1% is considered normal) points to an abnormal skull whose oddities might also have included the unusually tiny braincase.
COMMENT: For what my opinion is worth (probably nothing) I still come down on the side of a separate species. It now appears this business won't end for good until other skulls similar to LB1 are discovered. It's a fascinating look, though, at a high-stakes scientific debate. Eckert flatly accuses his opponents of being "unscientific" - of being carried away by the excitement of a new species of human.