Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A supersonic biplane?

MIT researcher thinks it will work

From the "now I've seen everything" school of aviation design comes this supersonic passenger biplane, where the wings join at the tips and the design smooths out the normal supersonic shock waves. There's a lot more research to be done, but analysis of 700 wing configurations has resulted in a design that performs very will - in a computer model.  The real world will take a while.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Large new shark discovered

Looks similar to hammerheads

The best way to hide in nature is often to look like something else.  The yet-unnamed "Xerox(TM)" of the scalloped hammerhead can be told apart only by the number of its vertebrae and differences in DNA. It's not clear yet what the new shark's population is like, but it does mean previous counts of the endangered scalloped hammerhead were likely too high. The "cryptic species"  roams the Atlantic from South Carolina down to Brazil, and perhaps further.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Karl Shuker on Cryptozoology

Interview makes important points on the science

In this excellent interview, Dr. Karl Shuker covers the field of modern animal discoveries and mysteries. He discusses the new Journal of Cryptozoology and suggest the "most likely" discoveries to come: the orang-pendek of Sumatra and the rediscovery of the thylacine. (I agree the former is only a short distance away, but I hold out only slim hope for the latter.) 
COMMENT: Great Work, Karl! Especially important here are the points about recent discoveries, from the 100-kg saola of Vietnam to the Bili ape (which did not prove to be a new species, but its status as a robust and oddly-behaved race of chimps doesn't detract from the fact that reports of a distinctive large ape proved true).

Titanoboa eats New York!

Giant snake amazes

It takes a lot to impress New Yorkers, but a full size-replica of the 15-meter prehistoric snake Titanoboa is stopping commuters in their tracks. Set up at Grand Central Station for a couple of days on a "layover" en route to the Smithsonian, the snake has drawn a crowd.  Living some 60MYA, this South American snake weighed over 1 metric ton and ate crocodiles and pretty much anything else it wanted.
COMMENT: Nature always pushes boundaries of size, variety, and environment.  This is an amazing example.  (Cryptozoologists trailing occasional reports of 10-15m snakes have yet to come up with any hard evidence, but are no doubt heartened by the proof that it's at least possible for snakes to reach Skull Island proportions.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

And Cameron has made it!

Filmmaker reaches new depths

And James Cameron is at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, looking for a pre-dropped probe which included exposed bait for undersea creatures.  The only people who have ever  been at this depth reported a living flatfish, although many authorities consider it a misidentified holothurian (sea cucumber).  Cameron, equipped with a manipulator arm and a "slurp gun," might bring up some entirely new species.

COMMENT: Congratulations, Mr. Cameron!  Now I hope you'll take the next step: broadening this feat into a durable program of exploration and discovery. 

Cameron heads for the depths

Director/explorer makes his dive

James Cameron wants to become the third human to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest known spot on the ocean floor.  His custom-designed sub has almost 7 miles to go. 
COMMENT: Cameron can be an eogtistical celebtrity annoyance at times. But he's not only put his money into this, he's risking his life.  I wish him the best.

New bird from Madagascar

Third species of rail from the "8th continent"

This article oddly refers to the new species of rail from Madagascar as a subspecies, but otherwise it's a good introduction.  We are still discovering new birds all over the world, despite predictions some 20 years back that we had just about all the birds in hand, so to speak.  OK, this one is not really flashy or spectacular, but it IS important, as every new species is!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Afraid of wasps? Be VERY afraid

New species is impressive to say the least

Collected in the 1930s on Sulawesi, this species of digger wasp is huge, mean-looking, and all black - the Darth Vader of wasps.

Photo credit: unknown

Megalara garuda: the King of Wasps

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A different breed of cat

Most beautiful wild cats ever? Judge for yoursein in this photo

Historical mysteries: Where is Earheart?

Aviatrix (I love that word) Amelia Earhart vanished en rout to remote Howland Island in a flight around the world in 1974.  A huge search found no trace of Amelia, her Lockheed Electra, or navigator Fred Noonan.  People have been searching and theorizing ever since.  (A conspiracy theory that Amelia was on a spy mission and landed on a Japanese-held island, where she was executed, is impossible: the Electra did not have the gas to reach any Japanese territory from her last known position.) 
There are a few islands she could have reached. Did she possibly, in the vastness of the Pacific, see tiny Nikumaroro and ditch the Electra just offshore? A photograph taken on the island in 1937, enhanced with modern techniques, shows an odd object that might be a landing gear.  A privately funded project, with endorsements from the U.S. government, is now heading out to track down that possibility.  Can they? Even if the Electra landed there, waves, tides, and silt might have dismantled and buried it.  And who knows what could have happened to two human bodies, assuming they survived the landing at all?   But I wish the searchers luck. A woman that special deserves a proper sendoff.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Journal of Cryptozoology

New peer-reviewed journal

There hasn't been a per-reviewed scientific journal dedicated to cryptozoology since the demis of Cryptozoology these many years ago.  Now the new Journal of Cryptozoology, with Dr. Karl Shuker as editor and a panel of heavyweights like Dr. Darren Naish and Dr, Charles Paxton doing the peer review, is about to launch.
What kinds of animals qualify for articles in the new journal?  They are:

1) A species or subspecies apparently unknown to science, including alleged prehistoric survivors (e.g. mokele-mbembe).
2) A species or subspecies presently unknown to science in the living state, but which is known to have existed in historical times and allegedly still persists today (e.g. thylacine).

3) A species or subspecies known to science but allegedly existing as a natural occurrence in a location outside its scientifically-recognised current geographical distribution (e.g. puma in the eastern USA).

Good luck to the Journal!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Skydiving record - how daring can you get?

Remember that jump from the upper limits of the atmosphere in the last Star Trek movie? We might get close. 
The actual skydiving record, set by US Air Force balloonist Joe Kittinger during the Excelsior project, is  31 kilometers (102,800 feet).  Daredevil jumper Felix Baumgartner has now jumped from 21.8 kilometers (where the temperature is - 70 C)  and lived.  His goal: become the highest jumper of all time this summer, when he soars to over 36 km in his Red Bull-sponsored balloon and steps out of the capsule. 

COMMENT: Felix, you're crazy.  But I wish you luck.

Stunning photos from the edge of space

Kittinger: Courage in the service of science

The littlest lizards?

Four new species push the limits
The four new species of chameleons from Madagascar raise the perennial question of just how small a vertebrate can get.  (I would say "Not as small as the people in 1950s movies who got shrunken to insect size," but there are definitely insects much bigger than these lizards.)   One species has a anout-vent-length (in other words, head and body length) of 16 millimeters, about two-thirds of an inch.  They live on a tiny islet, making them perhaps a super-extreme example of the "island dwarfsim" phenomenon. 

Are the Iliamna creatures getting restless?

Stirrings in Alaska
One cryptozoological tale I always thought had a real creature behind it is the record of giant fish sightings from Lake Iliamna, Alaska.  It's most likely an undiscovered population of sturgeon, but we can't be sure without a specimen.  Here Loren Coleman notes the recent earth tremors from the Iliamna Volcano area and wonders whether a possible eruption would disturb the lake's "monsters." (Answer: well, would a volcano in your back yard discomfit you?)  While Jeremy Wade did a very good investigation on his show River Monsters, there's still an air of mystery about Alaska's largest lake.  (A lake oddly overlooked on a lot  of "biggest lake in the U.S." lists - it's larger than any lake wholly within the U.S. except Lake Michigan. )

Who were the Red Deer Cave people?

A new human?

Ancient people (and other primates) have called China home for a long time. First there was "Peking man" (H. erectus). Then there was the great ape Gigantopithecus.  Now we have the Red Deer Cave people.  Who were they? Well, we're a long way from being sure. Their skulls show an odd mix of "archaic" and modern features. As a press release from the Australian-Chinese team investigating four sets of human remains puts, it, ""Dated to just 14,500 to 11,500 years old, these people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China's earliest farming cultures were beginning." They could be a new species, an unknown early offshoot of H. sapiens from the days when we first moved out of Africa, or, one cautious scientist says, just an example of how H. sapiens populations vary.  The first fossils were found in 1979, but it's taken until now for them to be properly examined, which makes one wonder what the heck else is still lying in a museum somewhere, waiting to turn our current theory of human development on its ear.

The scientific paper describing all this is titled, "Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians." Read it here.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tyson talks NASA

The American space program (human and robotic) is in trouble.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson testified to Congress in no uncertain terms:

""Currently, NASA's Mars science exploration budget is being decimated, we are not going back to the Moon, and plans for astronauts to visit Mars are delayed until the 2030s --on funding not yet allocated, overseen by a congress and president to be named later."

There is no plan for NASA to go to Mars. There is, in fact, no approved plan to go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit.  Not to the Moon or L1 or an asteroid: NOTHING.  And there is not ONE approved mission for the new Space Launch System.  While NASA Administrator Bolden says the murderous 2013 budget proposal will "enable NASA to execute the balanced program of science, space exploration, technology, and aeronautics agreed to by the President and a bipartisan majority of Congress," it does no such thing. Congress is already complaining the Administration has eviscerated the program laid out in the last NASA Authorization Bill. 
Space exploration is more than NASA, but NASA is the "prime mover," the world's largest space agency. And it's in deep trouble indeed.

New shark species from the Galapagos

Distinctive species spotted in the field

 Many discoveries these days come from examining old museums and other resources to restudy old type specimens.  This is important, but, let's face it, boring compared to spotting something new and distinctive in the wild.  That's where John McCosker and Carole Baldwin sighted and caught the first specimens of this new catshark.  All specimens obtained sop far are juveniles less than half a meter long. Larger adults were seen but proved elusive.  The animal is a bottom-dweller with very sharp teeth and, to judge from the photos, a handsome spotted appearance with a mostly-olive background. 

COMMENT: This is a well-explored area - or so we thought.   But the vast majority of the ocean floor isn't explored at all, just mapped by sonar.  There are more sharks out there - and who knows what else?

Well, there is this new sea snake from Australia....

How to name a shrimp

A new species' journey

Alvinocaris komaii is a hydrothermal vent shrimp. The "Alvin" in the name is indeed a genus name based on the submersible Alvin, which played a huge role in the discovery and exploration of these vent communities. Biologist Kevin Zelnio came across this type quite by accident, and in this blog he gives a nice step-by-step  guide from the first suspicion of a new species to the formal publication.  He also explains why line drawings are still important in this day of digital imagery. 

How does a four-winged reptile impress the ladies?

Microraptor had raven-like plumage

Microraptor was one of the all-time strangest creatures - a reptile sporting four wings, yet unable to fly. Now scientists studying superbly preserved examples from China say they can determine it had iridescent black plumage like a crow or raven. 
If you can't fly, what's the point of snazzy-looking feathers?  Best guess: they were for showing off to the opposite sex.  Biologist Matthew Shawke puts it this way: “Iridescence is widespread in modern birds, and is frequently used in displays. Our evidence that Microraptor was largely iridescent thus suggests that feathers were important for display even relatively early in their evolution."

Now if only we could clone one...

Read more:

Monday, March 05, 2012

New species - for a cause

NZ Environmentalists hope to block mine

Environmentalists in New Zealand - an army of 150 of them, under miserable conditions - are scouring the Dennison Plateau for new species.  Their hope is that such discoveries will cause a court or government agency to shut down a proposed mine until new animals can be studied.
Without taking a position on the mine issues, since I know almost nothing of them, this is the first time I've heard of looking for new species with that specific goal. Looking for endangered/known species is more common.  Here in Colorado we've had anti-development activists looking for the threatened Preble's Jumping Mouse (our local news columnist says "named for the famous Native American zoologist Joe Jumping Mouse") to stop development, mid rumors (never proven, to my knowledge) that some of the found specimens might be planted.
Whatever the bigger issues, the finding of new species is always a good thing.  So far in NZ, researchers think they have a possible new gecko, a snail, and several species of insects. 

Friday, March 02, 2012

"Ghost dragon hunter" reptile from China

A striking-looking critter

China has produced many of the most memorable discoveries of dinosaurs and other ancient reptiles in the past two decades.  Who can forget the giant killer chicken?  Well, this one is almost as memorable. Guidraco venator was a pterosaur with a really startling collection of teeth so long they bend out to the sides and extend above or below the opposite jaw. It looks like the head of a crocodilian, not a flying reptile.  This dentition would make a natural trap for fish (which were found near the fossil) or even small land animals.
COMMENT: Of all the things I like about Mesozoic reptiles and their relatives, perhaps the best is that there's always room for them to get stranger....