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.