Saturday, December 29, 2012

Any live moas out there?

(I wanted to title this, "Are there any moa moas?" but the pun was too bad even for me.)
New Zealand's ecosystem was dominated for millennia by birds, especially the giant moas. We mostly think about the giants, the predatory moas who dwarfed ostriches - and the early Maoris, who may have roasted the last giant moa over a campfire.  But what about the smaller ones, especially the meter-tall upland moa, known scientifically as Megalapteryx? Karl Shuker here discusses an impressive sighting from the 1880s and a scattering of other reports and rumors that might indicate the species survived until recent years - or still does. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Doubtful News - Sasquatch 2012

Sharon Hill of Doubtful News rounds up the skeptical viewpoints and weak/silly stories on the Big Guy for 2012.  The year was dominated by claims, from Melba Ketchum and others, that progress was being made on the most important goal of sasquatch-hunters: getting a DNA profile published in a scientific journal. We're not there yet.  Then there are the endless blobsquatches (Loren Coleman  should have trademarked that term:)  ....  she does not mention the interesting nighttime photo from Washington state (not conclusive, but interesting) or the Oxford DNA project, which promises to come as close as we ever have to a definitive Yes or No.  The story strides on....

Free book - NASA at 50

NASA turned 50 in 2008, so this might seem a little dated. But the History Office has made available a download of the book NASA at 50.  The description reads: 
"The 50th anniversary of NASA on 1 October 2008 found an agency in the midst of deep transition. In the closing year of the presidency of George W. Bush, only a month before the presidential election and in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis, the Agency was implementing a new Vision for Space Exploration intended to return humans to the Moon, to proceed onward to Mars, and to study the cosmos beyond.
It was in this milieu that the History Division at NASA Headquarters commissioned oral history interviews to be undertaken with NASA senior management. This volume is the result and provides a snapshot of the thinking of NASA senior leadership on the occasion of its 50th anniversary and in the midst of these sea changes."

If you want to better understand how our space program developed and the thinking of some of its luminaries on the past, present, and future, it's available here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: The Journal of Cryptozoology

The Journal of Cryptozoology
Volume One
November 2012

It’s been over 15 years since there was a peer-reviewed journal of cryptozoology.  The often-excellent pioneering journal Cryptozoology shut down with its patron, the International Society for Cryptozoology, and other attempts have stalled. Now we have a new journal, with the well-known Dr, Karl Shuker as editor. (The peer reviewers are, as standard for a scientific journal, anonymous.)
If the first issue of this slender journal (3-4 papers accepted per issue) is anything to go by, it’s a worthy effort.  After Shuker’s introduction (in which I appreciate that he  specifies the Journal is only concerned with flesh-and-blood animals, no paranormal topics), we get to the first paper, on digital search techniques for finding an unknown object in its most likely range, using a probability map as a starting point for a Digital Search Assistant. This isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll just say it makes sense the way it’s described. Malcolm Smith contributes a paper on identifying a “Queensland Tiger” footprint sketched in 1871.  That seems a slender reed on which to base analysis, but slender reeds are often the starting point for cryptozoologists (and for "mainstream" zoologists, too!), so the “true unknown” conclusion is intriguing. Markus Hemmler writes on “pesudoplesiosaurs,” the oft-reported carcasses of decaying sharks which tend to look like prehistoric or unknown animals. Hemmler explains how varied these carcasses can be and how easy it is to misidentify them, particularly with respect to skull features. Finally, the always-formidable Dr. Darren Naish takes on an odd mammal carcass in Australia and identifies it with certainty as a domestic cat.  
The journal is professionally done, with such features as keywords for each article, well-referenced entries, and drawings and B&W video/film images. It closes with Instructions to Contributors, the most notable of which specify that personal belief in a cryptid isn’t relevant to a scientific paper, and anyone who posits a particular identity for an unknown animal needs to argue scientifically for that identity, not presume it.   
Overall, this journal is a big step in the right direction for cryptozoology as a scientific field of study.  I’ll be getting every issue, and, hopefully, making some contributions in the future.

Monday, December 24, 2012

God and cryptozoology

There are cryptozoologists who think approaching crypto from a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) position leads to the truth, while some other cryptozoologists are adamant that it can't. A very budy thread on this on the Journal of Cryptozoology page has been removed, apparently because it became a repeated volleying of arguments over creation and science.  On cryptozoology itself - that is, searching for new or presumed-extinct species - my point was that one's motivation and viewpoints didn't necessarily have anything to do with the methods used to find animals. From a YEC viewpoint, finding animals that should not, according to the accepted scientific timeline, exist is ammunition for the argument that the timeline is wrong. As a cryptozoological researcher and a Christian who views the Biblical creation as allegory rather than literal, I have no problem with anything we learn from science, and I can't believe God does, either. We can debate  the implications of a discovery AFTER we make the discovery.

33 new spiders from the US

From the deserts of hte Southwest comes a reminder that we don't even know all the species in the US - far from it.  Would you believe 33 new trapdoor spiders?  Arachnologists have gone a little silly with trapdoors lately, naming them for Stephen Colbet, Angelina Jolie, and President Obama, among others. Best name among the new group?  Aptostichus sarlacc for the Star Wars creature you might call the ultimate desert-dwelling underground predator.

A Christmas trove of new species

From the Mekong Delta of Southeast Asia, the WWF announces the results of a recent survey (done in 2011: it takes a while after these efforts to sort out what's new and what's known.)   Here are "126 new species (82 plants, 13 fish, 21 reptiles, 5 amphibians and 5 mammals)." The Delta, which most Americans know as a site of savage fighting in the Vietnam War, also includes parts of China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. 

Remember: that's ONE expedition to ONE area of this still-vast planet.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pygmy right whale finds its family

That's one way to put it.  Media headlines, though, seem to be getting it all wrong. It's always a variation on "Living Fossil Whale Discovered." We need to straighten that out. The pygmy right whale Caperea marginata was discovered in 1846 and has been around ever since.  It's always been rare (it appears on CITES Appendix I, the list of the world's most threatened species) but we've always know it's out there.  What's new is research showing the pygmy should not be lumped taxonomically with the larger right whales (which, incidentally, got their name by being the "right whale" to kill, as they were easy prey for whalers and floated well when dead.)  Instead, the skull morphology points to a family called cetotheres which arose about 15MYA and were thought to have died out about 2MYA.    While scientists generally dislike the term "living fossil" (seeing as it's rather self-contradictory), it means this rare whale is a window into the past of the cetaceans. Here's the actual paper

Pygmy right as photographed by NOAA mammologist Robert Pitman. 

New species: Spider that makes its own decoys

Decoying is not unknown in the animal worlds, but a creature usually decoys an enemy (or food source with part of its own body, as those weird deep-sea anglers do by hanging little "lanterns" to lure prey in.  Actually manufacturing a decoy that looks like the original animal, though, is a new one.  This spider does that.  This species from the genus Cyclosa is only about 6mm across, but it makes a ghostly decoy of itself more like 25mm across.  Arachnologist Linda Rayor said exactly what I would have said.  “That’s really kind of cool."  It's hard to even speculate on what series of events over time led natural selection to produce a creature with this capability buried in a brain the size of a pinpoint.  Hundreds of new spiders are found each year - biologist Jason Bond just named one for his favorite rock star, christening a new trapdoor spider from Alabama Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi - but sometimes it's what a new species does, not how it looks, that's really mind-blowing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Beware the robot swarm (actually, it's ok)

The University of Colorado has developed robots one inventor compared to living cells. The size of ping-pong balls, the 20 robots built so far form a mini-swarm, and cooperative mass like "a liquid that thinks." Future versions have a variety of uses in space, including assembling structures and reconnoitering planets for humans.  As the team points out, what are human beings but masses of cooperating cells - kind of like tiny robots?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

North Korea's first satellite kaput

Here's an excellent article recapping the North Korean satellite launch.  From this article and other sources, here's my FAQ on the launch:
 - Did they get a satellite in orbit? Yes.
 - Was the launch legal? Under a broad reading of the Outer Space Treaty, yes. According to specific UN resolutions, though, No.
 - Did the launch test components for a ballistic missile? Likely the first two stages and some other hardware, probably including the guidance system, were "dual use."
 - Will there be any consequences to North Korea? Not likely.
 - Did it function in orbit? No.
 - Is there any danger to the surface when it reenters? Possible, but unlikely: it's pretty small.

So North Korea can legitimately claims to be an orbiting space power, the first new nation to join that "club" since Iran.  But so far, there's not much of significance to the feat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Moon and Sally Ride

NASA ended its GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) missionlunar research mission by crashing two lunar probes, Ebb and Flow, into the moon yesterday. The probes were at the end of their useful lives and added one last data set by hititng the lunar surface, creating seismic shock waves that lunar-surface instruments could "hear" to learn more about the stucture of the moon (which is surprisingly complex for a onetime chunk of Earth that pretty much doesn't so anything except get hit by meteors and stomped on by astronauts).
The impact site was named for a national hero - America's first woman astronaut, Sally Ride. (If you find a new feature on the moon, you get to name it, and the same is true when you create a new feature. ) So it's the Sally K. Ride Impact Site.  Given that her whole life was about making an impact on science and exploration, I think she'd appreciate that. 

Loren Coleman's annual Top 10 Cryptozoology books list

Every year, America's best-known cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman, brings out a list of the ten best books on cryptozoology.  It's said, with some truth, than many cryptozoolgy books spend most of their length rehashing old cases: such historical cryptozoology can be important, but Loren also tried to find fresh material, which makes his list particularly worth reading.

This year:

 Best Cryptozoology Book of the Year : The Beast Of Boggy Creek, by Lyle Blackburn (investigation of the case that started a movie franchise)

Best Cryptozoology Encyclopedias of the Year

All-New: The Bigfoot Filmography: Fictional and Documentary Appearances in Film and Television, by David Coleman

Updated/Revised: The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, by by Karl P.N. Shuker

Best Sasquatch/Bigfoot Book of the Year

Sasquatch in British Columbia, by Christopher Murphy

Best Lake Monster Book of the Year

The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster by Robert E. Bartholomew

Best Sea Monster Book of the Year

Sea Serpent Carcasses: Scotland – from The Stronsa Monster to Loch Ness by Glen Vaudrey

Best Autobiographical Cryptozoological Book of the Year

Monster Diary: On the Road in Search of Strange and Sinister Creatures, by Nick Redfern

Best Cryptozoology Journal of the Year

The Journal of Cryptozoology: Volume One (Matt’s note: I’ll be publishing a separate review of this important publication.)

Best Skeptical Cryptozoological Book of the Year

Investigating the Impossible: Sea-Serpents in the Air… by Ulrich Magnin

Loren adds some regional cryptobooks as well: see the list on

Indiana Jones' journal found?

Well, sort of.  Strange things can be set in motion on eBay!    (EBay is turning up in plenty of fiction, as well. My favorite example so far: Harry Dresden, Jim Butcher's wizard character, is captured by an opportunist who descide to auction off Harry to his many enemies via eBay. If you haven't read the Dresden Files novels, there's no excuse not to: think part Spenser and part Buffy.) 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals

The Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals

By Karl P.N. Shuker

Coachwhip Publications, 2012

Building on two of Shuker’s earlier works, The Lost Ark and The New Zoo, the Encyclopedia deserves its title. This is a mammoth collection of scientific achievements from 1900 to the present. It’s information-packed, sumptuously illustrated, and just plain fun.

Shuker does not, of course, try to include all discoveries, since the beetles alone would merit a library. He goes for creatures which are relatively large or scientifically important, and those are more than sufficient to fill this large-format 368-page book. Shuker is a highly knowledgeable writer (as you’d expect from a Ph.D. who’s been poking into the odd corners of zoology for four decades). He discusses both species and important subspecies (including those where there is some dispute about taxonomy: it’s not clear whether Rothschild’s giraffe is a subspecies, species, or just a local variation.) The zoologically inclined reader will enjoy every page of this romp through monk seals, giant stick insects, megamouth sharks, monitor lizards, and other discoveries simply too numerous to mention.

One thing Shuker does not do is set all the material into a context by showing any species discovery curves or discussing just how many new vs. known species are being found. He does, though, amply demonstrate his main theme: that discovery didn’t end with the “golden age” of the 1800s – indeed, it’s continued at a steady and often surprising pace right up to the present day.

Being a Shuker work, this book has plenty of mysteries along with the definite discoveries. Some are well-known: some, like a slow loris with a thick bushy tail, not yet recognized although it’s been held in captivity and photographed, surprised even a well-read aficionado like myself. Likewise, some of the stories of discovery, like the coelacanth’s, have been told many times (though Shuker always tells them well), but how many know the tragic tale behind the discovery of Flecker’s sea wasp jellyfish, or how Rudie Kuiter saw a flounder swimming along and discovered it was the most amazing mimic in nature: an octopus pretending to be a flounder?

Shuker also includes stories of animals which didn’t quite live up to their hype as new species, like Mexico’s onza (not a new species of big cat, just an odd puma.) He closes with a few words on possible future discoveries, a note on taxonomy, and a bibliography running 33 pages.

There are hundreds of images here to go with the text, ranging from photos to Bill Rebsamen’s wonderful color illustrations.

This is one of the classic books, not just of cryptozoology but of modern zoology and conservation biology. Readers will love it enough to revisit it many times. It’s a great achievement.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saving the slow loris

For those who enjoyed the article on the discovery of a new species of primate, here's the attempt by one of the scientists involved to make the world realize just how much trouble these creatures are in.  The pet trade, hunting, deforestation... the name loris always makes me think of Dr. Suess' Lorax, who said, "I speak for the trees." God bless Professor Anna Nekaris for speaking for the Loris.

Meet a new primate

Yes, we still find new primates! (I say things like that a lot, because I think they bear repeating.)  Meet Borneo's newest known inhabitant, a cuddly big-eyed nocturnal member of the group called the slow lorises.  Nycticebus kayan, take a bow! The lorises are the only primates with poison glands, but they are so cute they're being critically endangered for the pet trade anyway. 

Off topic: The Questions of Connecticut

As a parent, I did my share of crying yesterday. All of us did.  When you get into the policy - and medical/scientific - questions of what to do now, here's one that sticks in my head.   People are calling for gun restrictions and access to mental health services, and I see some merit in both. But turn the clock back 50 years. There was no gun control at all - you could buy a Tommy gun with no ID. There were no public mental health services (and psychiatry was still taking baby steps.) ). All the modern causes of stress: crime, unemployment, illness, poverty - were present. And yet, these kinds of school shootings were not only unheard of but unimaginable. What was different? A more widely shared Judeo-Christian moral system? A belief in self-reliance? The absence of pervasive violence-glorifying media? What prevented such things back then and is no longer working? 
It seems out of place in a blog devoted to science, but it's a day that makes me think about my mother's Catholic belief that the material universe is a fallen world, one where supernatural as well as natural evil has free reign.  We may never "understand" this shooter.  All I can say to my fellow parents is, "Love your kids."  
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ecology: A message from Midway

For those of us who are history buffs, Midway Atoll is a name always associated with the crucial battle in 1942 when the U.S. Navy turned back the Japanese.  Some accounts of the period mention how personnel stationed on  Midway's two islands liked to watch the "gooney birds" - albatrosses, which are designed for life primarily in the air and are humorously clumsy in takeoff and landing.  This film is showing a new battle - one we're not winning.  Midway is Ground Zero for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, maybe the biggest blot we humans have made on the world's oceans, and plastic pollution is endangering the albatross and many other species. This situation is worse - a LOT worse - than I knew.  Filmmaker Chris Jordan is asking for contributions to finish post-production.  
Thanks to Dr. Cherie McCollough for posting this on Facebook, where I first saw it.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Cryptid Canines: Unknown Predators?

This is one of my favorite topics in cryptozoology: I'm not sure why, since the evidence is pretty thin, but maybe I just like dogs and wolves and doglike critters. Karl Shuker writes here of some predators reported across North America, from New Mexico to Greenland. They form a mixed bag of real wolves, spirit wolves, and something called the waheela which has been labeled a dire wolf (Canis dirus) or an amphicyonid, or "bear-dog," which is a really fierce-looking creature kind of like a short-legged wolf after some serious steroids and weight-lifting.  To add confusion, there is the wolf-like, or maybe hyena-like, Shunka Warakin, a stuffed specimen of which has actually turned up, but I can't find any report that testing has been completed.  Chad Arment, in his book Varmints, also chronicles some weird sightings of a scary carnivore from Arkansas.  To summarize, some of these look like giant wolves, some like much more robust canids, and some barely like canids at all.
There may be nothing unusual behind all this business. After all, humans just about wiped out the known wolves, so it's problematical that larger relations could have survived.  But I'm not quite ready to write off all the creatures of this type.  All you need is one big, really remote valley....

Cascade of new species

Are we finding new species? Heck yes. The California Academy of Sciences alone described 137 in 2012.  In environments from California to China, CAS scientists described  83 arthropods, 41 fish, seven plants , an amphibian, a reptile, and.four sea slugs. The descriptions came in 29 papers and included the first new spider family from North America in a century and a small deep-water shark nicknamed the "jaguar catshark" because of its similarity to the fictitious "jaguar shark" from the movie The Life Aquatic

Friday, December 07, 2012

The strangest ever "sea serpent"

It's the 107th anniversary of the most authoritative and puzzling sighting of all time concerning what appeared to be a long-necked unknown species of large marine animal (a sea serpent, if you must).  The only suggestion that this thing, well attested to by two British naturalists of major accomplishments and repute in a scientific journal, might be a known species is Richard Ellis' notion in his excellent 1994 book Monsters of the Sea that a giant squid might have been swimming tentacles first (they certain do that when approaching  prey) and might have been holding one tentacle out of the water (a possible but puzzling notion).  I think this one is still unexplained, and highly suggestive of something we still have not caught or classified. 

Bigfoot and Big Confusion

Well, the Bigfoot DNA thing is not about to quiet down. Dr. Ketchum asks everyone to calm down:  "The paper is still under review and the rumormongering is counterproductive. The science will speak for itself once the manuscript publishes."  OK, I say yes to that, but some people think the process is over, or will be soon.  Doubtful News reports the paper was rejected by one journal. Igor Burtsev in Russia, who keeps popping up in this thing, says it was rejected in the US and is now in submission to a Russian journal.   Unfortunately, he also has hauled out the "science refuses to give sasquatch a fair shake" card.  I'm tired of that one. Yes, the bulk of scientific opinion can be very conservative, even unreasonable: but if your evidence is undeniable, you will eventually "win." 
I don't know what's left to do here except hope some form of publication gets the data out.  Now Ketchum says she has good Sasquatch video to go with this, but I can't figure out any reason to not release the video now - it would make reviewers take her paper much more seriously. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sasquatch DNA Circus continues

There seems no end to the articles and comments in the online world on the claims about sasquatch DNA.  Sharon Hill's always-worth-a-read Doubtful News is one example.  Most coveraged has leaned to the skeptical: not just because of doubts sasquatch can exist, but because of the atmosphere of oddity that surrounds the project.
Here is my unsolicited advice to Dr. Ketchum and everyone else involved in the current sasquatch DNA kerfluffle: go quiet. Drop off the radar. Don't even give interviews. If you think you have something important, keep working keep gathering data, but do it with no reality-TV cameras, no press conferences. Be patient. Let the peer review process and the Oxford DNA study work, and make no more announcements about anything until final, hard, unquestionable results - one way or the other - come out. Peer review isn't perfect or sacred, but it should at least tell us whether there's any foundation for new investigations. Likewise the unrelated Oxford work: those folks will be cautious and only publish results they think will stand up. Being patient is hard if you genuinely think you have something earthshaking, but it's the right course if you want the end result to be respected.

Touring Loch Ness

People often send me links to their business or books, and ask me to post them.  (OK, not all that often - this isn't here). Anyway, Tony Harmsworth sent his collection of links on Loch Ness, and I found them to be a lot of fun. Tony runs the kind of tours I'd like to take if I ever get over there. He has a judicious eye for monster hoaxes, a broad knowledge of the local history and culture, and the good sense to not guarantee you a sighting of any strange creatures.  He has been doing this for a long time and so has many tales to tell.  Enjoy!

Tony's message:
I have a number of Loch Ness websites including: my Loch Ness Information website my book and info about me a way to read my book free of charge.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Lazarus species... back from the abyss

I'm not sure how the author picked a Top 10, but the species on this inventory of rediscoveries are a good mix, demonstrating that extinct species can reappear on any continent (the Bavarian pine mole, missing for almost 40 years, qualifies) and after very long times - over a century in some of the cases here.  (The all-time champ among warmblooded animals, the Bermuda petrel or cahow, is not mentioned here - it spent some 300 years on the "presumed extinct" list. )   The record here belongs to the La Palma Giant Lizard Gallotia auaritae, which had been thought extinct for as much as 500 years before it was found in 2007.  We should never give up. 

Cryptozoology: Some mysteries will never be solved

Cryptozoologists, concerned as we are with the rare and the missing species of the world, have a very unsettling dilemma on our hands. And it’s not one we’ll ever solve. More than anyone else, even the mainstream of zoologists and biologists and paleobiologists and so on, we live in a world where some answers will never be found.

Cryptozoologists have a habit of endlessly mulling over some classic cases of animal sightings that don’t fit known species. The Shipton yeti tracks, the Valhalla sea serpent, Steller’s sea ape, and other examples of encounters that, in and of themselves, are compelling, but have never followed up by better evidence, or in some cases, any good evidence for continued survival.

Take one of my favorite cases, the Valhalla sea serpent. Two well-qualified naturalists, members of the Zoological Society of London, got a good look, directly and through binoculars, at an animal which didn’t fit – remotely – with any known species. Despite my respect for Richard Ellis, his suggestion of a squid behaving bizarrely doesn’t convince me at all. This is either an unknown animal or – well, there really isn’t another explanation. It’s a better case than any of the individual sea serpent reports before or since.

But if it’s an unknown species, why have we gone 107 years without proof? It may be this is a huge deepwater eel seen only on rare and fortunate occasions. I tend to think it is. But there’s another explanation: it’s a rare species, already on the way out when encountered. If, as one witness suggested, it was a mammal, I think it likely there are few of them left, and maybe none. Dr. Roy Mackal once wrote that the long-necked sea serpent, presumably related to the pinnipeds, might be an ascending species. He may have had the animal right but its status wrong. If so, cryptozoologists a hundred or a thousand years from now may still be debating the animal’s existence.

That’s the conundrum cryptozoologists must exist with. That no matter how hard we work, we won’t resolve every case. In some situations, no one will ever be certain.

It’s our duty to science, though, to think about such things. If we don’t run the risk of exploring what may be blind alleys, we run the bigger risk of writing some important discoveries – and that includes discovering a species is recently extinct.  Finding that yarri skull, or the skin of one of those parrots in a museum, will still tell us much. Even negative investigations matter in science. If a given creature did not survive in a given era or environment, that tells us something about nature as well.   Still, there have been, by one count, 13 recent mammal rediscoveries. Another study found only 36 percent of reported mammal extinctions were definite. So if it was there – whether established by a type specimen, or only hinted at by sightings—it may still be there. And that’s why we keep looking.

North Korea at it again?

Those wacky North Koreans.  Now they are going to launch a polar-orbiting satellite.  It will, of course, be "peaceful."  I would not bet my losing Powerball ticket on their chances of success.  They have failed repeatedly to launch a lower-inclination satellite, and a polar one is harder, not least because you are giving up roughly 1000 miles per hour from the Earth's rotation that you get as a free bonus of you launch eastward. So the rocket needs to be more powerful for the same payload weight.  (Israel, for political reasons, has to launch west, or retrograde, over the Mediterranean, so their Shavit booster has to add power to overcome what is in essence a 1000-mph headwind.) Also, an Earth observation satellite is going to be more complex and presumably heavier than the little propaganda-broadcasting satellites they've already dumped in the Pacific (I call this achieving CLO, or Clam-Level Orbit.)  So I think they have approximtely the same chance I do of being named the next Secretary of Defense (if you're reading this, Mr. President, I actually would take that job.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sasquatch and DNA news - updated

Dr. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian by training, has been chasing sasquatch a long time.  She has submitted a paper to an unnamed peer-reviewed scientific publication which indicates, oddly (as if  the whole notion of sasquatch isn't odd enough) that it's much close to humans than anything else: indeed, the DNA is predominantly Homo sapiens.  Contamination or revelation?  While I've maintained what I think is a logical "show me" attitude toward existence of a huge North American primate, I'm willing to be convinced, and we'll wait and see what the science says. 
UPDATE: There's a heck of a kerfluffle going on, from people defending Ketchum to those calling her nasty names.  Here's Cryptomundo's coverage of Dr. Jeff Meldrum's commentary.   It hit news sources all over the world, some reporting the news with a straight face (see this story), some breathlessly, and some with a side helping of ridicule. Ketchum agrees the news slipped out too soon, given how long the whole peer review and publication process can take even if her findings are unambigiously accurate.  As to the more extreme reactions: folks, we're doing science. Either her findings will be confirmed, or they will be rejected in the peer review process.  Yes, the whole thing seems unlikely, especially the human ancestry. But at least the proper review process is underway. 

Spotting a spotted zebra

Well, partly spotted, anyway.  And VERY distinctive:

"The mane is short and completely black; the hooped markings on its legs are completely different to normal ones; it has the shape of a donkey; it is much darker all over, but those spots are incredible."

So says the wildlife photographer who captured it on film.  Interestingly, other zebra seem to shun him: he has no herd. Could this be due simply to looking odd, or is it an unrelated circumstance? We don't know.

Nature certainly turns out some oddities.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Are sasquatch hunters wasting their time?

Well, this article argues that they are.  Brian Switek doesn't think much of the whole idea, basically arguing that we would have found the species by now.  It's a common argument: I've made it myself.  With each passing year, it does become more odd that a sasquatch hasn't crossed a birder's lens at short range or a hunter's gunsights or wandered across a logging road at the same time a truck was trying to occupy the same point in space. Switek pokes fun at Dr. Jeff Meldrum's idea of searching from a blimp.  (I understand Meldrum's logic, but I doubt he's going to have much success: still, it will be interesting to see him do some trials on known species, like bears, and find out how useful this approach might be for spotting large mammals in forest cover.)  Switek musters some worthwhile arguments from ecology and historical records of species discovery.  The no-fossils argument is important but not by itself definitive given the almost nonexistant fossil record of modern chimps and gorillas.  On balance, he successfully argues sasquatch is very unlikely, but he doesn't quite reach the finish line of proving it's impossible.

New data on old mystery (Flight 19)

In 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo planes on a training mission near Florida, carrying 14 men, disappeared. The US Navy board of inquiry considered various scenarios but couldn't pin down exactly what happened.  That left the field open for theories of the Bermuda Triangle (a term not coined until years later) including UFOs, unknown natural forces, giant undersea gas explosions, time travel, etc., etc. A new book by ex-pilot Jon Myhre suggests we can, using radio transcripts, sighting reports, and other information, reach back in time to solve the mystery. He thinks that when the commander, Lt Charles Taylor, got the flight lost off the east coast of Florida, the other pilots stayed with him for too long, but they did not, as often suggested, ditch all together. According to Myhre, another pilot who had the right bearings broke away and tried to fly home, but by this point they'd used too much fuel, and the planes ended up in five locations - two of which may, he thinks, have been on land - as each ran out of fuel at slightly different times.  There is even a possibility that one aviator survived: he made it to land, contacted his family, but went AWOL from the Navy. 
COMMENT: I grew up with this mystery, so to speak, as a fascinated boy on Florida's East Coast. I've not read the book yet, but the idea that four planes broke off from Taylor makes sense: in the military, you follow your leader, and it's a desperate decision to leave him: If all five planes had survived, breaking up the flight would have led to disciplinary action, so it's understandable the other pilots waited until it was too late before they mutinied. I've not read the book yet, but it's kind of iffy that all Myhre's details work out, even if he has the central event right: his claim that three planes have been found and one raised is contradicted (as was a news item a couple decades ago saying all five had been found) by other sources saying the engine serial numbers were not matched.  Still, I suspect Myhre has the main course of events correct, and following his clues may indeed lead to a definitive discovery in the future.

Will Lonesome George live again?

The Pinta Island subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise was represented for decades by a single animal known as Lonesome George.  Two attempts were were made to mate him with females from a closely related subspecies. One he ignored: the other he drowned.  No second dates for George.  Anyway, he died last June, but experts have determined at least 17 living tortoises have some of the Pinta Island genetic makeup. As this article (which sloppily mixes species and subspecies) explains, the good news is that George's subspecies can be brought back in nearly pure form. (The article says 100% pure, but I can't see how that math works: even crossing two turtles with 99% of the right genes won't give you 100%, although the remnant would be so small as to be irrelevant.) The bad news is it would take 100 to 150 years. We're not breeding hamsters here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Describing new species a slow business

New species are collected all the time.  But unless they are big and spectacular, resulting in instant attention, they languish in museum collections and elsewhere for years or more - on average, about two decades.  Why? Money. Expertise.  Scientists like Terry Irwin may collect new beetles at a rate of thousands a year, but only an estimated 200 specialists are qualified to determine their taxonomic affinities and write descriptions on them. An item I saw in the 1990s said 600 new mollusks were being described each year, but two-third of those were from museum specimens rather than being in the field. 
The trouble with this is that we can't make intelligent conservation decisions without current knowledge of what's been discovered.  As Benoit Fontaine of Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris says, "Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now -- just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore."
Cryptozoologists often wonder what exists in old museum collecting rooms, maybe crumbling to dust.  So, it turns out, do biologists.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Australia's Vanishing Animals

One bat may not seem like a big deal.  Mammologist Tim Flannery, though, thinks the extinction of one bat species - the Christmas Island pipistrelle - bodes ill for Australia's animals. In this touching and unnerving article, the discoverer of two tree kangaroo species, argues that Australia's unique fauna is on a steep downward slide that will see many more extinctions, including numerous mammals.  (Since mammals are, as a rule, the easiest types of animals to convince humans populations to conserve, a bad time for the mammals normally means an even worse fate for other orders.) He makes the interesting note that, in large regions of the country, the medium-sized fauna - between the size of a rat and a kangaroo - is simply missing.  Only one species (the salt-water crocodile) has recovered after being placed on Australia's equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species List, and Flannery believes that many species of all types are sliding into extinction because of government inaction. The bat galls him because he believes he presented a sensible, affordable plan for its salvation to the government, which essentially could not be bothered.  One species  Flannery thinks is in imminent danger, the bridled nailtail wallaby, was in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence as a case of rediscovery after presumed extinction.  The celebration may have been premature.

Friday, November 16, 2012

How Well Can Big Land Animals Hide?

This is an important question for the sasquatch researchers, of course, but it applies to many other areas of cryptozoology. In 2012, how well can big land animals evade us? (Note I specified land animals: I'm quite certain at least a few large marine species are out there.)
The best data to start with is of course recent discoveries of big land animals. If we start about 20 years ago, we have the parade of new animals from Vu Quang, a couple of which are still known only as partial specimens (the slow-running deer and the black deer).  The Vu Quang ox is, I think, the last new full species to be accepted that can exceed 100kg.  (Van Roosmalen's giant peccary from Brazil averages maybe half the size of the 100kg standard, but it's still important to note as a distinctive and pretty big new animal.)
There are, however, several cases of large populations of known species, some of them distinctive, and these certainly count in trying to assess what new species could still be hiding.  We have the giant sable antelope of Angola: the odd-looking Asian elephants of the Bardia Royal National Park in Nepal: the mainland population of the Javan rhinoceros in Vietnam: the very distinctive Bili apes, the largest and strangest of the chimpanzees: and huge populations of two African giants, lowland gorillas and elephants. 
Seriously, we missed a hundred thousand gorillas.  Searchers for the dinosaur-or-whatever Mokele-Mbembe might be have not found the animal, but they have demonstrated how damned hard it still is to search the least-known regions of the world.  So reports of big animals in Africa and South America, like the true pygmy elephant, African mystery apes (those in particular, given the recent primate finds there) and Van Roosmalen's black-and-white jaguar, can at least be seriously considered, although the standard of a widely accepted holotype (see here about the elephant) has yet to be met. Certainly there are some areas on the Asian mainland, in Siberia and the Pamirs to cite two examples, where's it's not impossible further large species are hiding.
(I am, BTW, setting aside here the new species described from reinvestigations/reclassifications of existing specimens. New wild pigs pop up a lot this way.)
Than we get to the specific case of North America.  After throwing out the most recent of the 86 species of brown/grizzly bear the splitters of past centuries erected, we have exactly zero species new large animals from the 20th or 21st centuries. The best we can do for recent rediscoveries is the population of wood bison found in 1957 in Canada: significant, certainly, but having occurred 65 years ago, not nearly as significant as it used to be. Gerald Wood, in the popular (and still most enjoyable) book Animal Facts and Feats, told of an unusually large strain of grizzly bears found in Alberta in 1960, but I can't find a more scientific source on that.  You could sort of argue that finding brown/polar crosses in the wild, first done in 2006, is sort of like finding a new animal, but we don't know when those crosses began to occur, so I'm setting that one aside, too. A little better case could be made that the onza counts: while this strange-looking, long-legged puma has in fact been DNA-typed as a strange-looking, long-legged puma, it is an animal with a distinctive look and was reported many times from Mexico and dismissed until there was a specimen in hand in 1986.
And this brings us to sasquatch. There are other large cryptid species reported or suspected from various regions of North America, from the giant beaver to the dire wolf, but in none of these cases is the evidence remotely comparable to the hundreds of sightings of sasquatch. I realize I'm going in to opinion here after sticking to hard facts, but the chances of big hidden mammals existing on this continent is inevitably a judgment call, and I don't think it looks very likely.   I think that if we are going to find any new species of large mammal on this continent, it will be sasquatch - the others, aside from the occasional curious report, are not well supported and are going to fade out. (Where are the giant beaver lodges and dams? Why would the dire wolf have survived the rise of such successful modern predators as the wolf and the puma?)  If sasquatch is not hiding in N. America, no big animal is. 
We have large forested patches, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, where the trees stretch many miles over rough terrain and few humans have yet trodden.  I'll accept Pyle's book Where Bigfoot Walks as answering one big question - is the habitat suitable for a reported type of animal?  (The answer: it's not perfect, but Pyle argues an omnivore might survive in pockets against its major competitors, humans and bears.) But hiding gets hard.  It gets harder over time.  Despite our wilderness areas, this is not Africa or the Amazon basin (which are, themselves, increasingly intruded on).  The U.S. not only has increasing numbers of loggers, foresters, hunters, birders, and developers going into the woods, but there are no towns or hamlets and few houses in this country exempt from instant electronic communications with larger populations: phones and internet are nearly ubiquitious, and roads suitable for autos connect even the most rural habitations. Of course, witnesses may see sasquatch, think about possible ridicule, and not report it, but the stigma is fading as TV and internet bring more programming on cryptozoology in general and squatch in particular. My feeling is theat the likelihood of a good sighting without a followup, though this is unprovable without a massive surveying effort, is going down. 
This doesn't mean sasquatch can't still be hiding. There are unsolved sightings. There are some intriguing footprint trails. But I think on balance there is either one big hidden mammal in North America, or there are none.  I am hoping for one.

NASA Probes Renamed to Honor Van Allen

James Van Allen is someone I never met but will always appreciate. When the father of atmospheric physics and discoverer of the radiation belts was contacted in 1999 about our book The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, he couldn't have been more helpful to authors he had never heard of: doing a phone interview, then sitting down with my coauthor for a daylong discussion (we still have the tape somewhere), writing a Forward, and sending us a laudatory letter after the book was published.

So it's always nice when someone else remembers Dr. Van Allen.  NASA has renamed its latest probes to the Earth's magnetosphere, originally the Radiation Best Storm Probes (which was a pretty cool name already) to the Van Allen Probes.  The twin satellites went up on August 30, 2012, and have just been commissioned (declared operational).  There is an awful lot we don't know about the space immediately surrounding around our planet, and the Van Allen Probes should answer some very important questions. Good job, NASA. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nala, is that you? The maned lioness

Odd things happen in our best-known animal species. Take lions. We have white ones, black-maned ones, and the occasional maneless male.  But I've never seen this one before.  A lioness with a mane? Apparently, they are not unknown, and here are some photos.  The same touch of male hormones that result in a mane also result in infertility, which makes it interesting that the mutation keeps recurring. 

Do we need a cockroach with a nightlight?

Apparently, Nature is unsure whether a bioluminescent cockroach was really necessary.  This newly described species, with a back surface configured to host glowing bacteria in a pattern reminiscent of a poisonous species, the click beetle, may already have been made extinct by a volcanic eruption.
On the one hand, the biomimicry going on here is really impressive. And everything that has evolved has some more or less useful niche in the Great Circle of Life.
On the other (unscientific) hand, I grew up in Florida, and one less species of cockroach really doesn't  make me weep. 
That mimicry is impressive, though. I suppose I hope the species survived.  But if one of these comes anywhere near me, I will still reach for the Raid. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Heinlein invention validated on Shark Tank

I was watching a taped episode of Shark Tank last night, and two guys came in with an invention: a gyroscopically stabilized unicycle.  You could rise it up to 15 mph and you could not make it fall over.  This is exactly - exactly - what Robert Heinlein, 60 years ago, called a tumblebug in his story "The Roads Must Roll." It's a shame it took so long to invent: it looks like a lot of fun, simpler and cheaper than a Segway and needing only a space the size of the user's body. there have been prototypes for self-balancing unicycles before, but these guys look like they have gone beyond the interesting toy to the practical transport.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Can an eagle kill a cow?
One of the debated points in ornithology is whether raptors can carry off large prey, even small human children.  As Darren Naish points out in this brief note, they can certainly kill large animals. I didn't know the berkut (golden eagle) of Russia had been trained to kill wolves, or that there are records of its American cousin killing cattle (although obviously not flying off with them.)
The most famous and bizarre story of this type is the 1970 report that two large eagles of unknown type, apparently escaped or released exotics from another continent, attacked 70-lb Marlon Lowe of Illinois, and one actually got him off the ground.  As crazy as it seems, this event seems to have been real - the clawed boy and his torn clothing were evidence - though I do wonder if the part about actually lifting the child and starting to carry him off before dropping him was a product of the two panicked human witnesses (Lowe and his mother) perceiving things to be even scarier than they were.  This would mean Lowe was running as one or both eagles grabbed him and slashed at him, and but his feet may have only momentarily been off the ground. (I will note that Lowe's mother has denied she could have been mistaken on this point, but the physics don't seem to allow for any other answer.)  While most accounts of eagles lifting smaller children have been dismissed as folktales, a couple were well-attested and might have happened.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Tyson helps Superman find Krypton

OK, I gotta get this comic book.
Superman turns to Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to help pinpoint exactly which star (a real star readers can look for) which the "distant planet Krypton" orbited. 
Very, very cool idea.  Might even het a few kids curious about astrophysics.

Least-known whale appears in the flesh

It was a tragedy for the whales, but a gift for science: a mother and son (calf) of the world's least-known cetacean species, (Mesoplodon traversii) or the spade-toothed beaked whale, died in 2010 after stranding on a New Zealand beach.  They were presumed to be a common species until a new DNA study pegged them as a species previously known from 3 skulls.  It's a good reminder that the oceans are still vast, and they can shield even a large animal from all but chance detection. 
It's not at all certain, though, that this is the least-known whale.  Cetologists I talked to in the writing of my 2006 Shadows of Existence  thought there was at least one type, nicknamed Mesoplodon species B, that had never been caught or its remains found, and there may be a couple more after that.  (That is, of course, if you accept the identification of the long-enigmatic Mesoplodon species A with the pygmy/Peruvian beaked whale.  I admit I have not read the latest research, but that wasn't very convincing to me.)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

More birds - ALL the birds

A family tree covering all the 9,993 known species has been unveiled in the journal Nature after three years of work.
This is not going to solve arguments over just how many species there are, how many of those described are valid, or even how to classify them - bird classification is a cauldron of conflicting theories, modern DNA tools notwithstanding. But this massive effort has given us our best idea ever of how birds evolve and form new species. Some lineages produce species faster than others, but ornithologists were surprised by the steadiness of bird speciation, averaging 0.74 species every mission years. Most classes tail off in the rate of new species formation: Aves does not, perhaps because of birds' abilities to colonize new ranges more effectively than ground-bound species. 
So, birdwatchers, get to work!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A peek at the world of birds

Most of us don't think much about the birds we see every day.  But even common species produce majestic moments, if the right photographer is at hand.  Whether it's a pair of hummingbirds in courtship display, a penguin peering through the mists, or the wonderfully named Marvellous Spatuletail in flight with its tailfeathers streaming like kites, birds offer sights that sparkle like diamonds embedded in the fabric of Nature's gown.  ( might think that simile is a reach, but I'll think on a better one while you peruse these spectacular photos.) 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why no flightless bats?

Darren Naish's never-boring Tetrapod Zoology blog asks why, if brids have evolved flightlessness at several different points in space and time, why have bats, a lineage believed to be 50 million years old, never evolved a flightless form?  The answer may be that bats, which are preyed upon by nocturnal raptors, have never found an environment where they were free to go flightless,  I think his reasoning here is that poorly-flying intermediate forms would be at a huge disadvantage, unsafe on the ground or in the air. Maybe, Naish speculates, birds have to vanish before bats can take the emu's niche.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Jane Goodall on Bigfoot

The world's best-known primate researcher has her own take on sasquatch.  While puzzled by the lack of a body (or even a definite piece of one), she says, "I'm not going to flat-out deny their existence."  She is "fascinated" by the topic and hopes the species is out there. 

COMMENT: It's interesting that, for someone with so many years' experience studying apes in their habitats, she apparently doesn't feel the "poor ape habitat" argument for dismissing sasquatch is compelling.  

"Hobbit" actor searches for new creatures

Dominic Monaghan met plenty of weird creatures playing a hobbit in the Lord of the Rings movies.  In real life, he has launched a new British TV series, Dom's Wild Things, about the strangest and scariest creatures.  He has already participated in some searches of remote areas for new species. He hasn't found one yet, but he says,  "I just wanna keep exploring and I'd like to find a species that has not been known to science before and then maybe call it after my family name."

I think I see a skink

New lizard from Australia

A new lizard species isn't a huge deal, particularly when it's only 6cm long. But the Coastal Plains Skink reminds us of two things: the seemingly endless parade of new species on a planet many mistakenly think is thoroughly known; and the threats to wildlife of all kinds (the new lizard is already endangered.) 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Everyone loves smart dinosaurs

A minor industry in paleontology is speculating what dinosaurs would look like if the asteroid had missed us and the dinosaurs had continued to rule and evolve. Dale Russell and Ron Seguin started this 30 years ago by postulating a strikingly humanoid dino descendant. As Darren Naish points out, though, even the smartest dinos were around ostrich-level intelligence, and it's not certain they would have gone much further. Even if they did keep getting smarter, we know dinosaurs were evolving in the direction that produced modern birds, and there's no reason to presume a "dinosauroid" of human intelligence would look like a human, instead of like a big ground-dwelling bird, feathers, long tail, and all.  This is endlessly fascinating speculation and has spun off many a science fiction story.  We'll probably never leave the subject entirely. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Heard about the talking whale?

The beluga known as NOC (why, I'm not sure) managed to make sounds surprsingly like human speech.  I say "managed" because it's not like a whale has a vocal structure remotely resembling a human's: NOC had to work hard at this.  Just amazing. 

First film ever of Shepherd's beaked whale

Here it is, the first video ever of one of the most elusive large mammals on the planet. Tasmacetus shepherdi was thought to be solitary, but a team studying blue whales off Australia happened across a pod of 10-12.  A great stroke of luck for science.  So we have this very big, visually distinctive animal that moves in pods - and a pod had never even been reported before.  It's a good reminder just how vast the oceans are. What else might still be eluding us?

Italian scientists guilty for imperfect science

This is terrifying.

Some people have been known to use the term "playing God" for ambitious scientists.  These people in Italy were convicted of not being God - not being perfect about the imperfect science of earthquakes.  Think of the consequences if we can hold any scientist to criminal penalties for not being omniscient. Science as a whole would clam up, issuing only the most vanilla statements instead of informing public discourse. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Dolphin Confidential

Dolphin Confidential
Maddalena Bearzi
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (April 15, 2012)

Bearzi's touching memoir of her scientific work is mostly about dolphins, but there's a great deal more here. First is her personal journey. The author doesn't start with a data dump on dolphins: rather, we see through her eyes as she progresses through her degrees and practical work to learn about animals (graduating from lizards up through sea turtles to cetaceans). She cautions about over-humanizing other animals, but admits the temptation is sometimes irresistible. An incident where a group of dolphins stopped feeding and took off at high speed to (apparently) lead researchers to an isolated and drowning human makes her wonder. As her studies and conservation efforts take her from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, we not only learn about creatures and ecosystems but dire environmental threats. Everyone (hopefully) knows we are damaging the marine ecosystem with garbage and pollutants, but Bearzi brings it home in a personal way no reader will forget. If you want detailed breakdowns of species, ranges, etc., there are better books for that, but this author's personal journey into the world of the dolphin is unforgettable.

Tesla/Edison - both human

Ever since the death of the brilliant, eccecntric, and very important inventor Nikolai Tesla, his idealizers have raised him to the status of a demigod who invented everything important in modern life, and many futuristic things, but was constantly thwarted or robbed by Edison, Westinghouse, and, on occasiona, evil government agents.  In response to a recent Tesla-worshiping (indeed, really hyperbolic) comic, this article makes some corrections about the Edison-Tesla mythology.  As the writer says, "Tesla wasn’t an ignored god-hero. Thomas Edison wasn’t the devil. They were both brilliant, strong-willed men who helped build our modern world. They both did great things and awful things." Not all of Tesla's ideas were brilliant (tracking submaries with radar was...ummm...downright silly) and some of his claimed inventions were ideas that never could have worked. With 70 years of additional development and knowledge of physics, no one has come close to sending huge  amounts of electrical power through the air - because you can't.  (OK, you can do it in huge lightning-like sparks, wich Tesla experimented with, but you can't direct it, and it's deadly, not useful.)  Tesla made huge improvements in AC current devices, but did not invent them, just as Edision didn't invent the light bulb, he made it practical. History is always more complicated than we remember it.
Another take is here.
The comic is here.

Life in Lake Vostok? Nyet

Russan explorers drilled through kilometers of ice to a huge lake of liquid water beneath Antarctica, known as Lake Vostok. They hit the lake's surface in February, though pressure under the ice caused a 40m column of water - which, of course, immediately froze - in the borehole.  So they augured out the ice and brought it to the surface.  Evidence of ancient microscopic life? Disappointingly, the word so far is no.  There are plans to sample other areas and greater depths. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Big Bigfoot Photo Discussion

Readers will know I am skeptical of Bigfoot. While Robert Pyle's book Where Bigfoot Walks convinced me a large primate in N. America wasn't impossible from an ecological point of view, it still seemed unlikely that we have missed such a species, even if it's smart, wary, and rare.  Since the Patterson/Gimlin film of 1967 (still hotly disputed) there have been countless fuzzy films and photos - Loren Coleman calls them "blobsquatches" - that I took one look at and dismissed.
But one from Washington is kind of interesting. 
For one thing, I know one expedition member, Lori Simmons, who was a local addition to the cryptozoologists led by Adam Davies. The one thing I can testify to is that Lori is honest and this wasn't a hoax on her part. 
They were camped at a public campground, with an infrared camera trap in place, and something walked through the frame, bent over the sleeping-bagged expedition members, and moved on.   The shape is about five feet high. I'd class it as human except its brightness on the infrared is fairly even all over the body which tends to indicate the consistent surface temperature of a warm body, and I'd assume a human in a hoodie or parka would show at least a small change where the pants begin.   I don't have the expertise to be definitve, though. 
The original links published with this post are no longer operative. The Bigfoot News post here dismisses the incident completely.  
(EDITED 2021 with updated links and text) 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Update on latest new primate species

First seen in 2007
This striking new monkey was found - as other species in Africa and South America have been - kept as a pet in a small village.

The headline from the UK Register is hard to top:

New monkey species with massive blue arse found in Africa

Possibly record-breaking buttocks stun boffinry world   How do I top that?   The discoverers warn: "The challenge for conservation now in Congo is to intervene before losses become definitive. Species with small ranges like the lesula can move from vulnerable to seriously endangered over the course of just a few years."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

One more bit on DNA

The first-ever podcast of Monster Talk, saved here in a transcript, includes a well-qualified scientist explaining what you do with possible sasquatch (or other cryptid) DNA and how you determine what it may be close to. 

More on DNA testing project

Here's a site with some additional information, including a TODAY show interview with Dr. Bryan Sykes.  If his project finds nothing, that will not prove the NON-existence of unknown primates, but I think it will lead to most scientists writing it off (even more than the number who write it off now.)

On the other hand....

Let's take an example: possible sasqutch hair sent in from North America.

The challenge in establishing that a hair sample is from sasquatch is that we don't have a proven sasquatch specimen to compare it to. And certainly it's not surprising that some hair could be mixed: if a bigfoot used an old bear den, for example.

But if Sykes comes back and says something like, "This is a clean, uncontaminated sample with good recoverable DNA, and the DNA is different from all known North American mammals," that will be a very big deal, I expect. At the least, it should create more interest and get more evidence gathered and tested.

I did a little logic exercise here where I tried to imagine what could be the cause if good DNA of an unknown animal was proven.

A ruling of "unknown" could mean only four things:

1. It's sasquatch.

2. The test was messed up. This is unlikely given Sykes' expertise and who he works for.

3. It's a sample from some little-known non-native animal, a South American monkey for example, that someone, for unknown reasons, went and planted way out in the woods. That would be pretty hard to believe, because unless the hoaxer knew exactly where and when a search was happening, any hair sample planted in the woods would be likely to blow away long before anyone found it. Very, very unlikely.

4. There is some OTHER unknown mammal in the area. That's very, very, VERY unlikely.

So I am waiting with everyone else :)

Seeking sasquatch in the lab

Even if unknown hominids exist and are wary or lucky enough to avoid having corpses found so far, you can't move through the forests without leaving evidence. Hair, saliva, feces, etc. can all provide DNA evidence if studied by a modern lab with the proper tools. And so the  Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project, the brainchild of researchers from Switzerland and the UK, is underway. Bryan Sykes of Oxford says, "It’s one of the claims by cryptozoologists that science does not take them seriously. Well, this is their chance. We are calling for people to send us their evidence, and we will test it through DNA analysis." So the evidence is on its way in - from Asia, from, from North America, from seemingly everywhere - as cryptid-hunters share their best evidence.  We will watch and wait... and, even the most hardened skeptics, will agree, we'll all hope for something spectacular. 

Nazis, Mengele, twins.... fiction

A National Geographic special probing the alleged role of Dr. Josef Mengele, ex-Nazi, in the birth of numerous sets of blond twins has come up with no link stronger than folklore.  While one Brazilian town of 7,000 does have an anomalously high rate of twins (the blond part is not so surprising, since many Germans fled there), wild claims of Nazi experiments can now be dismissed. 

COMMENT:   Mengele had nothing to do with this for the same reason he had nothing to do with the fake aliens of Area 51 alleged in a recent book.  Not only was the science required a generation (at least) ahead of his time, but he had no idea how to do science.  His barbaric tortures were on the most primitive level (injecting dye into the eye to see if they changed color, for example). So we're down to environmental contaminants (possible) or the effects of one or two families with genes predisposing them to a high twin rate becoming established in the lightly-populated region around Cândido Godói and having a disproportionate influence on future births. We don't even know that Mengele was ever there, although some witness recollections indicate he may have visited.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Endangered primates: 25 too many

Newest list of 25 on the edge

The International Union for Conservation of Nature released its list of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. (Sadly, that's not all the endangered ones.) Six are lemurs: the attention brought to lemurs by the Madagascar films (although they have been beneficial) have not taken them off the endangered list. As one conservationist said, "Lemurs are now one of the world's most endangered groups of mammals, after more than three years of political crisis and a lack of effective enforcement in their home country, Madagascar." Asia, though, is first with nine species on the list. Dr. Russell Mittermeier adds, "Amazingly, we continue to discover new species every year since 2000."

The full report is here.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can a chimp understand what a photograph is?

When a friend asked me this, my first thought was "no." I'd never read of it, and recognizing a photo requires some abstract thinking beyond what we usually ascribe to even the smartest nonhuman mammals.  Well, it looks like I was wrong.  Chimps have associated a photo with a human in studies that concluded "Results indicate that the chimpanzee is able to recognize individual humans from novel photographic representations." Other studies who chimps can recognize each other in photos. There is even IgNobel Prize-winning research (done in California - why does that not surprise me? ) that shows a chimp can recognize another chimp from a photo of its butt.  It can also tell the sex of another chimp from a butt photo.  I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from that. Maybe a chimp could tell me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Who knew? The vampire squid is boring

Any creature whose scientific name translates as "vampire squid from hell" is supposed to be lethal and scary, even if it's small.  But it turns out our friend the vampire squid doesn't go for "lethal." Unlike practically every other creature in the whole octopus/squid group, it fishes little bits of detrius from the organic "snow" that falls through the oceans from the carnage of predators and prey above.  What a waste.  So to speak.

An interesting "sea serpent" tale

This is from the blog of cryptozoologist Malcolm Smith.  He heard it from a single witness, though the man said he had a companion. It's unusual in that it was an underwater report, of which there are very few, of an elongated marine creature of unknown type.  The witness, Mike Cleary, told Malcolm that he was diving in a bell at some 500 meters depth to look at oil-drilling sites in the early 1990s (This is a point I'll look up - I thought everyone used submersibles these days?)  In any event, Mr. Cleary said a creature some 8m long, elongated, with a dorsal fin like an eel's swam into view. Well, I am one who is of the opinion there is a giant eel or eellike fish behind some "sea serpent" reports, but this report is odder than usual because the animal had two sets of limbs, vs. the single pair of all known eels, and - here's the really hard part - Cleary was insistent these were webbed limbs and not fins.
So there we have it.  Was the witness making it up? Possibly, but it's the other possibility that is more interesting to contemplate - that Cleary saw a real animal. A very elongated pinniped? A freak giant eel with extra limbs?  None of these is very likely, but the sea is a very big place even in the modern world.....  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

E.T., phone your publisher

On the 30th anniversary of Spielberg's marvelous film, reviews a commemorative book that contains all kinds of stuff I didn't know.  Harrison Ford actually shot scenes (later cut) as the school principal? Melissa Mathison had to be begged and practically mugged into writing the screenplay? The new item I like best, though, is Spielberg's statement that he hoped to foster the desire to explore space:  "If the government won't fund the space program, to allow people's imagination to soar, then all I can do is make movies that bring space down to earth and make it more accessible to the imagination."'
I met Spielberg once, or at least hung around him, when I was an extra on the film 1941.  He's one of these rare people that seems to have this aura around him that makes the air crackle, telling you "This is THE BOSS MAN." 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

SpaceX, We've had a problem

I'm a big fan of SpaceX, the Apple Computer of the space launch world, the upstarts who are turning that industry on its head. Inevitably, though, there are glitches on the road to doing something this complicated. While the Dragon capsule is on its way to the ISS, a secondary mission, putting an Orbcomm 2 communications satellite in orbit, was compromised. It looks like when the Falcon 9 lost an engine, the second stage had to help correct the trajectory, and in so doing put the secondary payload, the Orbcomm, in an orbit much lower than planned.  Much of the satellite's function can be saved, since it was a test model for a constellation to follow, but it's a reminder that space flight is still hard and even the most brilliant engineers are still human.  SpaceX remains a big success story so far: they'll just have to try a little harder.

UPDATE: We have docking! Dragon has docked with the International Space Station. Good job, everyone!

Farewell, Shuttle: 15 great photos

This is from 2011, but I missed it then, and I certainly don't care :)  This collection of 15 stunning photographs of the Shuttle, from the crowds camped out at Edwards AFB to see the first return (I was there!) to awesome in-space photos to a poignant reminder of the risks of space flight, is wonderful.  Only a couple have been widely circulated, which makes this collection worth perusing for any space buff. 

Monday, October 08, 2012

Revisiting Air Force's flying saucer idea

Way back in the 1950s, the USAF looked at jet-powered saucers and initially thought they might work. Project 1794, though, was a complete fizzle: it produced nothing but a prototype called the AvroCar that was just an inefficient hovercraft.  This story is being trumpeted as news, as here, but in fact it's been known since the early 60s at least. All that is new is declassification of a specific document. The Air Force's idea never went anywhere for the same reasons no one (Nazis included) ever made a flying saucer work: it's a terrible shape to control in the atmosphere, offering no advantage over conventional aircraft.  While a saucer would work fine in space, where shape doesn't matter, that's no reason to build one.  An interesting sidelight, though, is that a round, nearly flat shape works nicely for aerobraking in the transition to planetary atmospheres. That's why Apollo capsules were such broad cones and the Mars orbiter Curiosity looked very much like a flying saucer to an observer on Mars.

SpaceX Dragon makes orbit despite losing engine

The video is pretty dramatic.

One reason behind SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher's being designed with 9 engines was to allow "engine-out capability." (Another was to allows mass production of small engines for the cost advantages.)  This one is not just a shutdown, though - you can see substantial pieces of an engine bell (nozzle) flying off.  NASA will no doubt want some more analysis and assurance despite the success.  The other medium-lift rocket builders, Boeing and LockMart, have proven they can build superbly reliable rockets, although at very high prices. SpaceX is trying to prove it can build equally reliable rockets at much lower prices. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

SpaceX heads for ISS again

SpaceX, the upstart company that presents the first serious challenge in many years to the US medium/heavy launch giants (Boeing and Lockheed Martin), has launched its second Dragon capsule bound for the space station. The first Dragon mission to the ISS was almost perfect. If NASA's experiment in private contracting pans out, private firms will take over "routine" launch of people and cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and NASA can concentrate on its planetary probes and (hopefully) astronaut missions beyond LEO.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Common ancestor of birds and mammals??!!?

There is no doubt birds descended from reptiles: we have good transitional fossils, a host of skeletal characteristics, and so on. Yet a few scientists have wondered: could we have it all wrong? Could some characteristics birds share with mammals (most notably the fully divided four-chambered heart) indicate the birds and mammals had a common ancestor?
As Dr. Darren Naish argues here in his marvelous Tetrapod Zoology blog, we certainly do not have it all wrong, but the idea of a bird-mammal clade (originally called Haematothermia by 19th-century naturalist Richard Owen, who seems to have originated the idea) isn't quite 100% dead.  There have been some modern papers published on it. As Naish notes, you have to pretty much ignore all the fossils to support this conclusion.  As I note, it does demonstrate that radical papers do get published in the peer-reviewed literature.
There's even a cool drawing here of what a bird-mammal ancestor might have looked like.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Meanwhile, in Sulawesi....

If you don't know where Sulawesi is, that's understandable, but zoologists have the island high on their "hot spot" list for discovery of new species. A recent expedition funded by the funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, one of the few to visit the Mekongga mountains reserve since 1932, has turned up a new mammal - Margaretamys christinae, a rather cute rat with a white-tipped tail. The genus name makes it the fourth species in its group, and the species name - well, that's for the discoverer's girlfriend.  Other recent finds from this area include Megalara garuda, a really big, mean-looking wasp.  I'd pick the rat as a pet.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book review: Pink Boots and a Machete

Pink Boots and a Machete
Mireya Mayor
National Geographic (2011)

This is a terrific book, whether you want to read about a great scientist or about great adventures. A top primatologist and discoverer of a new species of lemur, Mayor tells gritty stories of her aventures around the world, leavened with humor and self-reflection. (I wrote about her in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence, although I accidentally called her a Rhodes scholar instead of a Fulbright scholar. Oops.) Most of this book is taken up with field expeditions, and the strongest message is that finding and conserving wildlife in remote regions of the world is still hard. As in "very hard," as in, "you can die," which she almost did on more than one occasion. Radios and modern gear and even rescue helicopters can't get you out of everything. Mayor includes in her gear a little black dress (social skills can be very handy in remote villages) and on one occasion resorts to blatant sex appeal when there's no other way to get something done. I don't think that demeans or diminishes her at all: it's just something extra in her toolkit, so to speak, for accomplishing work that's very important. Mayor is someone I'd very much like to meet, and the kind of role model I hope my daughters will look up to. Her book is superb.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deep Sea News

Great blog/news page.  Ever knew how mantas give birth, why seemingly simple current flows are complex and full of eddies, why bivalves are such tough survivors, that there are lots of ocean-themed songs on a Spotify playlist or that one of the contributors, Dr. Kim Martini (really) says in her bio,  “Quite simply, her goal in life is to throw expensive s**t into the ocean."  Come see the sea as never before.

Friday, September 28, 2012

New fish "hooks up" with mates

A newly discovered freshwater fish seemingly doesn't know how to take "no" for an answer.  It's equipped with - really - four barbed hooks on its genitals.  Gambusia quadruncus, the llanos mosquitofish, diverged from its closest relative about a million years ago, and it's been off by itself evolving its mating equipment. 

Hoax and Double-Hoax

Loren Coleman has a good column on Cryptomundo potining out an important consideration concerning claims a cryptozoological sighting, photo, or film is hoaxed. There are hoaxes, of course - I'm sick of blobby Sasquatch pictures and videos - but it's not automatic that the "whistleblower" is telling the truth.  Coleman's cases are the deathbed confessions of hoaxing the "Surgeon's Photograph" of the Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film. There are others...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's a kangaroo doing in New Hampshire?

In 2008, a kangaroo was captured in Wisconsin. Some years earlier, two cops were slightly injured trying to capture a kangaroo in Chicago. (A version of that sighting made it onto an episode of ER.) Now two skeptics - and I mean Skeptic with a capital S, as they were members of the Granite State Skeptics Society -  describe seeing what they jokingly called a chupacabra but what certainly looked like a kangaroo that hopped across the road in front of their car at night.  The ears were oddly short for a kangaroo, but otherwise it fits and nothing else I - or they - can think of does.  Unless it's a prop left over from a SyFy movie,  someone has lost a big marsupial in a place no big marsupial should be. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Air Force pilot trainer - for space!

The T-38 Talon is soldiering on in its fifth or sixth decade as the USAF's only supersonic trainer.  There was a time, though, when Northrop Grumman suggested it could be much more - a suborbital Mach 3.2 trainer capable of hitting 250,000 feet, where its control surfaces would be useless and student pilots would control it with hydrogen peroxide thrusters.  As often happened in the anything-is-possible 1960s, there were ideas for even more way-out versions.  Amazing. 

UPDATE: This one was so interesting I sent it to friends who were T-38 instructor pilots. Their responses:
Chas Ruth: "Would I want to fly it? Hell, yes! Do I think it would work? Probably not."
Elizabeth Knemeyer Ruth: "I'm not an engineer, so I don't know if they could make it work. But it would certainly be a blast to give it a try."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Awesome ISS and Earth reflected in astronaut's visor

Incredible photo of Earth and the ISS reflected in an astronaut's helmet

Thanks, NASA

Four new bats join the mammals

Yes, we are still finding new manmals - a lot of them. Latest evidence - four odd-looking bats  All are members of the group called horseshoe bats, marked by weird-looking "leafy" noses. A single African species has turned out to be four. One clue: they echolocate on different frequencies.

A new kind of cloud?

Clouds have been around for billions of years. The modern classification system was completed in 1951.  Or was it? It seems absurd we haven't properly classified all the cloud types, but maybe.... A very strange type called the agitated wave cloud - or undulatus asperatus - has been proposed as a new "species" deserving addition to the cloud "zoo." This dramatic swirly/wavy formation wasn't even photographed officially until 2006.  See here for dramatic pictures

When my daughter was in third grade, she pointed out cumulus clouds to me and said, "I'm just telling you this because they probably didn't know it when you were in school." She may not have been entirely wrong.

Next big step in private space

SpaceX is about to make its first regular resupply run to the ISS, following the success of their trial run. This time, their Dragon capsule will carry a full load of supplies up and carry used equipment back down.  The date: October 7 (ONE DAY after my birthday - Elon, couldn't you speed it up a bit?)

SpaceX's press release:


NASA and SpaceX have announced October 7, 2012 as the target launch date for SpaceX’s first resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is scheduled for 8:34 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral, Florida. October 8 is the backup date.

The launch represents the first of 12 SpaceX flights to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, and follows a successful demonstration mission in May when SpaceX became the first private company ever to attach to the ISS and return safely to Earth.

The SpaceX CRS-1 mission also represents restoration of American capability to deliver and return cargo to the ISS—a feat not achievable since the retirement of the space shuttle. SpaceX is also contracted to develop Dragon to send crew to the space station. SpaceX’s first manned flight is expected to take place in 2015.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ig Nobel prizes are out!

Ever wonder about the dynamics of coffee sloshing in a cup? About whether residual brain activity goes on in a dead fish? (Surprisingly, the answer is Yes.)  About how to shut up an annoying speaker who drones on forever? Well, the Ig Nobel prizes, given for scientific work that cannot or should not be repeated, have been handed out (by real Nobel winners, incidentally).  It's hard to top the dead-fish one, although for sheer uselessness the question of why the Eiffel Tower looks shorter if you lean to your left offered stiff competition.   Who says science has no sense of humor?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Zoological oddity: Thomas Helm's sea creature

In spring 1943, radio broadcaster, naturalist, and nature writer Thomas Helm was cruising with his wife in a small sailboat off Florida's Gulf Coast.  (Helm had been invalided out from the Navy after being severely wounded at Pearl Harbor).  What he says he saw very clearly was a beast so odd he couldn't even suggest an identity. Helm was thoroughly familiar with seals, sea lions, and mustelids like otters: indeed, short of a degreed biological scientist, you couldn't have had a much better witness.  A round head - like that of a tiger without visible ears - covered in chocolate brown fur and sitting atop a four-foot neck appeared in the water in front of him.. He had plenty of time for a good look, and altered course at one point to keep from coming too close (he originally saw it at 30-40 yeards, but does not say what his closest approach was.)  Helm was insistent this was no known pinniped (seal or sea lion) - among other things, it had a relatively flat face with eyes looking forward, not on the sides, and this is what reminded him of a cat. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans classified this as an example of his “Merhorse” type of sea serpent, although the head shape doesn't fit, while modern cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon writes it off as a normal pinniped.  A pinniped, though, seems wrong to me.  A seal or sea lion's head might give this appearance if the witnesses had had only a brief view straight on, but not when they had several minutes to watch it as they sailed by - they didn't see it from just one angle.  
Helm's description and drawing of the face remind me a bit more of a manatee more than a pinniped, but it seems an impossible error to describe a nearly-neckless manatee as showing four feet of neck of smaller diameter than the head.  There is no question this was a mammal - not only did it have fur, but definite whiskers.  Helm thought the head was about the size of a basketball.
Helm insisted in his book Monsters of the Sea that, prior to the incident, he gave no thought to "sea serpents" of any kind.  He asked local commercial fishermen if they'd seen anything like his animal, and they had not (though he noted almost all had their own tales to tell of odd sea creatures.)  Neither they nor scientists he approached could tell him anything useful.

Well, there it is - and there it rests. We have a solid witness (accompanied by another adult) and a description not only impossible to reconcile with a known animal but with any of the "sea monster" sightings I can think of in which the head was described.  Dr. Roy Mackal has suggested for some sea and lake monsters a kind of long-necked sirenian (a member of the group made up of the manatees and dugongs.)  IF such an animal exists - and the evidence is scant - then Helm's animal could reasonably be placed in that category.  As with so many cryptozoological sightings, this tale resides in a most unsatisfying limbo. It may be there forever.