Thursday, January 31, 2013

New Study: Thylacine never had a chance

According to new research and mathematical modeling, Tasmania's marsupial "tiger" might hvae been on a path to extinction before it even met humans. But once the two species did meet, the ending was grimly predictable.
The thylacine was already set up for trouble in the long run by low genetic diversity.  That itself is survivable: the cheetah has the same problem.  But when humans put bounties on it, converted prime habitat to sheep farms, and wiped out its prey species (a factor not much taken into account by earlier studies - I'd never thought about it), the modeling shows it had nowhere to go but down. A distemper-like disease was suspected because of how fast the "tiger" slid into extinction, with the last definite specimen dying in a zoo in 1936.  But apparently, we needed no help from microbes.
COMMENT: Cryptozoologists still look for this animal, and a trickle of sightings in Tasmania, on the Australian mainland, and in New Guinea give some reason to keep looking.  But while the animal definitely survived past 1936 - I think the evidence is very solid on that - its current chances, while not zero, are tragically small.

History: The family that time forgot

Or rather, they forgot time.  Driven into the wilderness by the Communist purges of the 1930s, this family built a home 150 miles from the nearest village.  They relied on faith and what they could harvest or scrape from the Siberian woods around them for decades, never seeing another human, improvising everything from shoes to cooking stoves with no source of metal, teaching their children to read and write from an old Bible.  A remarkable story. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How many people DON'T see cryptids?

Something I don't think I've ever seen figured out in a cryptozoology article: if X number of people in a position to see something (for example, boating on Loch Ness) have seen the local "cryptid," how many have not, and does the ratio matter? Granted, the number of reports made is the only firm number in such cases, but could a guess be made of how many people boat on Loch Ness, or live and travel on the shores with a view of the water? Surely pretty much all of them are aware there is something famous to look for.
It would take a lot of work (surveys, I guess) to even estimate what the ratio between "Reported" and "Saw Something but did Not Report" is, but it's still an interesting topic, and Loch Ness might be the easiest target for such research.
This has always troubled me with spectacular cryptid creatures.  How many zillion birders do NOT report seeing Thunderbirds in the Ohio Valley, etc.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Discovery's show "Monster Squid"

Well, Monster Squid: The Giant Is Real does ramble a bit, including some peripheral material to stretch it out and build suspense before the big  reveal - the first direct human observation and first video of Architeuthis.  Edie Widder told an interesting story, with very clear video, of filming a six-foot (1.8m) squid off Monterrey Bay that she "couldn't even place in a scientific family." There are good comments from Clyde Roper and Steve O'Shea, who have been after this thing for decades, and Richard Ellis, among others.  Then you get to the big video, and yes- it's everything you can want in a monster. Alien, big (over 8m if the long tentacles had been intact), rippling, flowing, not so much swimming as flying underwater. No creature created for the movies quite conveys the essence of this truly bizarre animal. (The promos for the new documentary Africa looked pretty good, too.) Amazing work!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Name all the species!

These folks opine that it's not quite as overwhelming a task as we'd thought.

What Cryptids Should We Give Up On?

What Cryptids Should We Give Up On?

It might be the toughest, though rarely spoken, question in cryptozoology. Should cryptozoologists forget about some cases?

It’s a hard question for a number of reasons. First, no one has the authority to make a list and dictate to anyone what they should forget about. Second, the evidence for different cryptids can get better over time (or worse, if a hoax is revealed).

Finally, what standards do you apply? If the evidence doesn’t improve for 50 years, say, do you drop the case? A hundred years? A thousand?

I pulled the “50 year” example from the old IUCN standard that a species unreported for 50 years was considered extinct. They no longer use that – it’s now “When there is no reasonable doubt the last individual has died” – but that’s not a perfect standard either. Witness the extinction and subsequent evidence for Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus.)

Sometimes it’s not difficult to give up. If a cryptid fish or lizard or bird, for example, was reported from a restricted habitat, and the habitat has been drained or paved over, ok. But wait. Is even that an easy rule? What about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Almost everyone gave up after the last known habitat, the Singer Tract in Louisiana, was logged out. But the bird was rediscovered (briefly) in the form of a Cuban population written off after its habitat was destroyed, and then again in the U.S. in Arkansas. The bird had been extirpated from its known habitat but found another suitable patch, or it was there all along. (Yes, I think the rediscovery was genuine, but I realize that creates a whole additional layer of judgment/opinion.)

Let’s focus from here on out on the large animals. Draw a line for terrestrial or marine creatures at about 20kg, just because you have to draw a line somewhere. Insects, rodents, small fish, and birds often get around too easily to be sure about. Let’s also set aside reclassifications, when someone making a DNA study, for example, finds that a known group of dolphins should be divided into two species based on genetics. We’ll focus on sizable animals looked for by scientists (calling themselves cryptozoologists or not) in the field. As shown by van Roosemalen’s peccary, such discoveries do still happen, and I’m quite certain that more are coming.

So when can we be sure of abandoning a search? Well, some very small lakes in Ireland and Scotland reported to house sizable animals have been cleared with nets and/or dynamite. So I’d forget about those. But those are easy cases, or they should be.

Possible standards: Here are Seven Rules for When to Give Up. These are a bit messy and overlapping, and there are known exceptions to all of them, but we must start somewhere.

- No one has reported the animal in 25 years (somewhat arbitrary, but ½ of the old IUCN standard feels about right: the standard was written when travel and communications were much more limited)

- A large majority of the known or suspected habitat has been destroyed

- Scattered sightings have continued, but the quality of evidence hasn’t changed in 25 years – that is, all we have are a limited number of additional sightings, no hard evidence or good imagery

- The animal is very unlikely based on the habitat, food chain, etc. and there’s no hard evidence

- We have no fossil evidence of it or its recent ancestors in the region in question

- With presumed-extinct species, the opinion of authorities like government bodies, the WWF, and the IUCN is lined up solidly on the “extinct” side

- When the creature was reported once, or in a brief period, and there are no credible sightings since.

An animal meeting one or more of these standards is at risk unless the evidence is good. For example, the fossil rule is helpful but not by itself definitive: all the known chimp and gorilla fossils could go in my hat. We certainly don’t know all the fossil species even on well-trodden continents. But it’s a factor. Even an animal meeting three or more rules might reappear: the Bermuda petrel survived habitat destruction and three centuries without sightings – but it makes it so improbable the limited resources should go elsewhere.

So on to some practical cases. If there was a single global cryptozoological organization, and I was head of it, where would I stop expending resources?

Here are some I would give up on:

Champ. While some of the reports seem compelling, the lake freezes over. If you postulate a reptile or mammal evolved gills, you can argue that – stranger things have happened – but the further out on an evolutionary limb you have to go, the weaker that limb gets. The odds are just too long to make it worth the effort of looking, especially with no decent film/video evidence (the Mansi photo, I think, was of a floating log). Chad Arment pointed out to me the pattern of freezing should allow for significant amounts of air to be trapped beneath the ice, and some seals survive in similar situations, but I can’t see that as a long-term survival strategy: one unusually hard and fast freeze, and the whole species is dead at one blow..

This gets into the tricky business of evaluating eyewitness reports, especially for those of us who have not met the witnesses. But even the most ardent cryptozoologist has to admit that not all the large creatures around the world supported by apparently sincere eyewitness accounts are real. As Frederick the Great once said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Unless the world is swarming with large undiscovered species, you have to throw some of them out. Once you’re past that hurdle, what standard applies? You have to dismiss some animals despite what witnesses swear to, because there’s no other evidence and/or the environmental factors make it unlikely. The reports of sasquatch-like creatures in the British Isles are a good example: we have no evidence for any primate life on the islands ever, the wild habitat has steadily shrunk, the reports are rare and unsupported by any other type of evidence. Whatever people’s experiences, there is no physical giant primate involved.

Live dinosaurs as a group. Yes, the coelacanth proved a Mesozoic creature could exist despite a gap in the fossil record. However, every post-1938 discovery of an animal from that era has been tiny (neopilina, remipedes, graptolites, and so on.) Every one. At some point, you have to quit. No part of the terrestrial habitat went through the K-T event untouched, and no place has been static dino-suitable habitat continually for 60 million years. (See Jacobs’ Quest for the African Dinosaurs (sneering in tone, but scientifically persuasive) concerning the habitat for Mokele-Mbembe. There might still be something, like a big monitor lizard, at the heart of the Mokele-Mbembe tales, but no dinosaur.)

Nessie. Yep, Nessie. It hurts me to write off this beloved myth, but I think it is a myth, or, at best, a lone creature that found its way into the lake as a youngster and has since died. (I do believe there’s at least one elongated marine animal reported as a “sea serpent,” so I’m not contradicting myself here.) I don’t consider all the evidence explained (the Dinsdale film still doesn’t look like a boat to me, although I could be wrong), but there’s been nothing since the 1970s that made me really pay attention, and the ecosystem to support a standing colony or large predators isn’t there. There are few reports and no photographs of anything traversing the River Ness, and the water level rules out an underwater tunnel, so I don’t think we’re dealing with something that comes and goes.

A few years ago, I would have chucked Sasquatch into this Phantom Zone. Missing a huge primate in North America seemed absurd. Frankly, it still does. But a few of the 2000-and-later reports, plus Pyle’s ecological analysis, have moved the needle on my “Real or Imaginary” gauge just a bit. I don’t find any of the imagery to be definitive, not even the PG film, but I want the Big Guy to exist, and maybe, just maybe, he does.

We don’t have to dismiss all the large land animals. New populations of very large land animals have been found recently, and that’s not very different from finding new species. We have the mainland population of the Javan rhinoceros (soon re-exterminated by poachers), the distinctive-looking Asian elephants of Nepal’s Bardia National Park, and the spectacular discovery of an estimated 100,000 or more western lowland gorillas in 2007. It’s been a while since a new species of land animal over the 100kg threshold was found (Vu Quang ox, 1992), but there are quite a few examples since then of smaller but still substantial animals and the aforementioned new populations. So we don’t have to forget about all large cryptids on the basics that all large animals have been found. They may well not have. The orang-pendek and van Roosmalen’s jaguar (the latter likely being a subspecies) are examples of such animals likely to be confirmed soon.

Online Discussion Results

When I put this out on FaceBook pages, I got some interesting suggestions. First, Matt Wetzel pointed out that investigations of remote areas normally produce some useful scientific data even if no cryptid is found, or if it’s a known animal that was outside its known habitat or activities (the ri case comes to mind), and that’s true as far as it goes. Ian C. Thomas suggested this rule: “Definitely once an environment that purportedly supported the species is gone.”

Karianne Muckle on MonsterTalk offered a helpful response: “When your lack of evidence (and evolutionary evidence against) your subject is so overwhelming that it can no longer be ignored.”

Kyle German added a point I hadn’t thought of: “When it appears and disappears within a very short timeframe, say twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Think of the Dover Demon and the Enfield Horror. Both creatures that have yet to reappear.” I added that one to my Rules.

Skeptical writer Ben Radford felt that “if something hasn't been reported in decades (such as the thylacine), it's probably safe to assume that it's no longer alive, even if it was recently.” In fact there have been a few recent thylacine sightings, but the point is valid, and I already had a version of it in my rules.

Someone (I can’t find the post) suggested, “When your book about it no longer sells.” Oft in laughter is the ring of truth: when you can’t spark any interest outside the small circle of cryptozoologists, you may still be right, but it is cause for reflection. As someone said, “To claim the mantle of Galileo, you must not only be suffering ridicule: you must also be provably right.”

Now, what about recent extinctions? I’ve written separately about the fact that cryptozoologists must understand there may never be a solution to every mystery. The Queensland marsupial tiger or yarri is an example of an animal that may well have existed (there are fossils of thylacoleonids that might fit the bill) but might now be gone. The suggestion of “one and done” sightings of now extinct animals has been offered in other cases, such as Steller’s sea monkey and the predator photographed by Rilla Martin in Australia in 1964 (which might in fact be the yarri, though the match to descriptions of the living animal is problematical.) Discovering that an animal did recently exist (for example, finding thylacine remains from the late 20th century) can be a significant scientific find. So some searches are worth doing even if no one is sure a species is still breathing. I wonder if the yeti might turn out to belong in this category.

Some people will find this list too harsh, too skeptical. Others might think the opposite.  But I repeat, these are indicators I'm offering.  No one rule suffices to declare a species beyond the pale.  But the fact is we do have limited resources, and that is true of any branch of science.  No one, astronomer or zoologist, has all the resources he or she might desire.  So hopefully, I'll start a worthwhile conversation.

There ARE new animals out there, and some will be spectacular.  Keep exploring!

Top 10 lists - new species of 2012!

There are plenty of Top 10 lists of new species or of animal discoveries.  A lovely box jelly, a monkey with an upturned nose, a millipede with 750 legs, a blue tarantula, a toothless rat... some of these actually reach back to 2011, but here's the lesson... never stop exploring!

Popular Science

International Institute for Species Exploration

National Geographic

The Week

TIME (one of those including fossil discoveries, like the "shield croc")

Have fun!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cool Cats in Colorado

We are so worried about the state of so many species that's it's a refresher to take a moment and appreciate a conservation success, especially when it's this beautiful.  Steve Chaney, a retired National Parks Service ranger, in the southwest of my home state of Colorado.  Lynx were thought, 40 years ago, to be extirpated from the state (About that time, the same situation was declared for the Colorado grizzly bear population, although a trickle of evidence continues to suggest that might be wrong.)  Anyway, in 1999 an aggressive reintroduction program began, eventually totaling some 200 animals.  There have, through 2010, been at least 141 kittens born to this population.  Tthis view of two lynx crossing a snowy road has gained impressive popularity, with thousands of views and Reddit upvotes, whatever those may be. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Neanderthal Cloning" = media ignorance of science

The guy who is widely reported to be looking for a mother for a cloned Neanderthal baby is doing nothing of the kind.  George Church, a Harvard geneticist, was quoted accurately in the magazine Der Spiegel when he speculated about whether such a thing could be done.  But this led immediately to global headlines saying he was going to do it and was looking for a suitably adventurous woman to carry the baby. 
There was a thread on the National Association of Science Writers group I belong to complaining scientists talk less to the media than they used to.  Well, this episode illustrates why.
This item on LiveScience explains how hard this would actually be, and how unlikely it is with near-term technology.  Because we have sequenced Neanderthal DNA doesn't mean we can jump from that to a clone. We can't, at present.  And a really troubling point is that, even if we could, we'd have dozens of failures for every success.  There's no ethical way to think about that.
Of course, if someone really WERE looking for a surrogate mother, in this age of people doing anything to be on reality TV, someone would do it. And it would be televised.
Finally, Isaac Asimov wrote a very touching story, The Ugly Little Boy, about a woman asked to be caretaker for a Neanderthal boy, albeit one brought back through a time-sampling device. It was later expanded into a collaborative novel.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A thought on "living dinosaurs"

No one can resist dinosaurs. Even more than dragons (see post from a few days ago), dinosaurs hold our imagination because they were the real dragons - and European and Chinese chroniclers of dragonlore never invented anything more impressive. 
Dinosaurs, it is almost universally thought, disappeared 60M years ago following the so-called K-T impact, when the world changed, the dust clouds and cold descended, the dinosaurs died off (not instantly, but pretty quickly in geological terms) and the way was cleared for the ascendancy of mammals and birds.  Occasional claims of post K-T dinosaur fossils are written off as mislabeled or reworked from older deposits as land folds, rises, or recedes under the pressures of millions of years' worth of geological processes.
Dr. Karl Shuker, always worth reading on this subject, offered a Top Ten claims of surviving dinosaurs. Some are easy to dismiss: there's no evidence motorists in Chile in 2004 saw velociraptors, or that a "stegosaur" bas-relief carved in Cambodia shows anything except a boring old tapir in front of a bush.  Stories from South America and Australia are, in general, sourced from one person, or someone claiming to quote indigenous people who are now long dead.  Trying to overturn the dinos-are-dead paradigm with this material is like charging an elephant armed with a broom handle. 
The one that pops up as relatively well-sourced is mokele-mbembe, known by several other names as well and described from various places in the Congo River basin in Africa.  I say "relatively" because there are some 20th-century sighting reports, and there are some photographs and videos, taken (either unfortunately or expectedly, depending on your point of view) from too far away to show anything useful. Dr. Roy Mackal, who went on an arduous expedition but didn't see the creature, thought it could be a small sauropod or possibly a huge monitor lizard.  He wrote an undeniably intriguing book on the subject. 
And yet - many expeditions later, we don't have a good sighting by an outside scientist, a good image, any remains of an animal.  Paleontologist Louis Jacobs, in the only book on African dinosaurs, ridiculed it, arguing this area is not a "lost world" unchanged since the Mesozoic. 
My take? We're not going to find a dinosaur. Not in Africa, not anywhere.  I think we are going to find more large land animals, but if we've already seen the best evidence, we haven't seen enough to support anything as science-shattering as living dinosaurs.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Manatee Nebula: A wonder in the cosmos

Officially, it's called W50.  What's that, a lubricant?  Boring.  Fortunately, astronomers, like the rest of us, can be moved by the beauty, however coincidental, of a natural wonder. So here we have the Manatee Nebula. 18,000 light years from Earth, the remnants of a star that exploded 20,000 years ago have swirled into this picture - surrounding a black hole.  So why can we appreciate beauty, anyway? There's no evolutionary advantage to it?  Is it - dare I say it - a spiritual gift? 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tigers of Korea and Sumatra

Wandering through the world of the tiger, the most magnificent cat that ever lived....

The tiger is believed extinct on the Korean peninsula, although there are occasional sighting reports.  Now Korean scientists, while speaking of their nation's tiger in the past tense, report they have identified its proper classification and affiliation. Studies from tiger remains up to a century old indicate the Korean specimens were of the same subspecies as the Amur tiger, which is still hanging on (about 400 survive in the wild)  in eastern Russia.  Professor Lee Hang takes heart in this: "The fact that the Amur tiger and the Korean tiger are of the same bloodline means the Korean tiger is still alive."
There was an article linked to on FaceBook recently saying a Javan tiger had been caught in a camera trap, but I can't locate it now, and it was likely old or incorrect: that would have been worldwide news, as the Javan tiger is widely considered to have joined the Bali and Caspian tigers in the darkness of extinction in the 20th century. The Sumatran tiger isn't doing much better.  it exists, but under extremely precarious conditions. So, as I wrote a few days ago, the global tiger population is up a bit, with some bright spots for subspecies like the Bengal tiger, but other populations (the aforementioned Amur, for example, and the South China tiger as well as the Sumatran) are still in deep trouble.
Everyone says William Blake's poem about the tiger was really about the Industrial Revolution or something, and Blake was a mystic who often melded themes, but has there ever been a better description? "Tiger, tiger burning bright / in the forests of the night / what immortal hand or eye / could frame thy fearful symmetry?" 

This was the Caspian tiger, photographed on exhibit in Berlin in 1899.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Major Ferret Find!

The black-footed ferret was declared extinct at least twice before being rediscovered by a mixed-breed dog named Shep who dropped one on the porch of his house in Wyoming.  Conservation biologists have put enormous effort into breeding them in captivity (there's a colony at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo here in my hometown of Colorado Springs) and releasing them into the wild.  A biologist from Columbus, Ohio has found something  startling and potentially very important: a new wild population.  Over fifty miles from any relocation site, Mike Gutzmer found three ferrets on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  While the status of the ferrets is still being double-checked, the chance of introducing new genes into the population - all known ferrets are descended from 18 animals taken into captivity in a last-ditch effort to save the species - is exciting biologists. A "population bottleneck" is never a healthy thing, since the individuals bred from a small group will likely share some genetic weaknesses.  Gutzmer may have made a giant step toward the permanent survival of the little black-masked outlaw of the prairies.

R.I.P., Ivan Mackerle

Anyone outside cryptozoology will likely be unfamiliar with this name.  Ivan was a cryptozoologist, certainly the most eminent in the Czech Republic, but anyone can be "a cryptozoologist." What mattered, and why Macklerle mattered even though he never found a new species, is that he put his life where his mouth was.  Over four decades, he traveled, paying out of his own pocket, to New Guinea, Australia, Brazil, Madagascar, and other far-flung places.  He wanted to see everything for himself, look with his own eyes, follow up reports in person. Science depends on such people, be they amateur or Ph.D.  Read Karl Shuker's tribute here.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cryptozoology is not Parapsychology

There's always been a little disturbance in the force known as cryptozoology, one that gives the field some of its difficulties in achieving scientific credibility.  Some zoologists look askance at the whole endeavour because of the perceived focus on animals such as sasquatch which are perceived as highly unlikely, if not absurd.  I have no problems here: as long as the chance of finding an animal is not zero, people can look without making the field scientifically invalid.  In science, most long shots don't pay off, but some do.  The key is whether searching is being done in a scientific manner, proceeding from the evidence to gather more evidence and meeting Popper's classic criteria of the falsifiable hypothesis.  (There can be disagreement on how much negative evidence, or how strong a logical case, is needed to falsify a given hypothesis, but the point is that a hypothesis like "There is a large unknown primate in North America" is perfectly scientific.  The means to search every possible chunk of forest habitat definitively are not available, but the reasoning is fine.)

Then we get into another problem: the allegedly paranormal/psychic/parapsychological nature proposed for some cases.  I don't mean to pick on Nick Redfern, a very dedicated researcher, and a most enjoyable and often thought-provoking writer, but having just read his book Monster Diary, he is the example that comes to mind when thinking of people who class things that look like animals under cryptozoology, even if they are clearly not physical animals.  I'm well aware that sane and sober people have reported apparitions, and I have no particular insight into what mix of causes is behind that phenomenon.  It's not my field.  But here's the part where I and Nick depart ways.  He and other other like-thinking investigators argue that apparitions of animals are part of cryptozoolgy, and, as Nick puts it in his book, cryptozoologists in some cases will go on chasing sightings without results "unless the field of cryptozoology wakes up and and realizes that there needs to be a new approach to the subject."

I would flip that around.  My position is that, if there is no physical animal, or no reasonable chance of one, the case no longer pertains to cryptozoology or any kind of zoology.  If someone believes they saw a sabretooth tiger that disappeared into thin air, for example (and this happened, as Nick recounts) , then the fact that the apparition was in the form of an animal doesn't put the event under the heading of cryptozoology. It can be parapsychology or any other field one may think appropriate, but if it's not zoology, it's not cryptozoology.  People who thing sasquatch is so elusive because it's not a material creature are welcome to hold that opinion, but they shouldn't call that topic part of cryptozoology.  It's part of the whole business of apparitions and spirits and the paranormal. It also, critically, is not a falsifiable hypothesis (you can never prove such a belief to be wrong) and therefore is not part of the physical sciences.  If a definitive search (in the cases where it's possible) fails to find an animal, then it's because the animal either did not exist in the area, has gone extinct, or has migrated elsewhere.  

An animal is by definition a physical thing of flesh and blood. It's there or it's not.  I don't dismiss the possibility of a nonmaterial reality: as a Christian, I believe strongly that the material universe is not all that exists.  But an apparition is not an animal, any more than it can be a human being.  It may be reported sincerely to look like one, or even act or sound like one, but that's not the same thing.  

I wrote in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence that I was dismayed that a very good book by Healy and Cropper on Australian mystery animals spent a chapter on "zooform phenomena" after spending the rest of the book scientifically discussing unknown creatures. I feared that zoologists would dismiss the whole book because of this direction.  I don't know how to take a survey on this, but I have no doubt I was right, and still am.  Cryptozoology will never get the respect of zoology if paranormal entities are part of it. 

And, if cryptozoology is the search for hidden ANIMALS, then they should not be.  The experiences of people who see a big cat seemingly dive into the ground and vanish, or a small herd of camels appearing where none can be, are not beneath our notice. They are simply part of another field of study.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Death Star remains fiction: What about NASA?

The White House has responded to a petition by declaring it will not put a Death Star into the budget anytime soon.  Paul Shawcross wrote that the government is not into blowing up planets and can't find room for the $850,000,000,000,000,000 necessary.  Shawcross went on to point out there are some really interesting space hardware items already out there, including the ISS and the Mars rovers. "Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe."
Shawcross doesn't mention a lot of htings, though. Like the U.S. being dependent on Russia for human access to space for the next few years. Like the Administration's goal of eventually (long after it has left office) landing on an asteroid being rejected by nearly everyone in the space and science communities as a bizarre detour from an intelligent program to explore the Moon and Mars.  Like the savage budget cutting of the planetary sciences program: the spacecraft now up there or now under contruction are essentially all there is.  The Administration and Congress have determined that NASA's one half of one percent of hte Federal budget is some kind of indulgence rather than a future-oriented driver of technical and scientific progress with very real economic benefits.  Darth Vader would find this lack of faith disturbing. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Giving up on China's Wildman?

The buzz about a "wildman" (presumed to be an unknown upright primate) in the undeveloped regions of China has  periodically made it into the popular, and even the sceintific, press, as hairs or body parts not immediately identified have been found and eyewitness reports collected.  Now, though, an anthropologist who has followed the topic for half a century reports "...a Chinese Wildman of biological significance still has not been shown to exist, and simply may not exist." All the biological samples in Bejing anthropologist
Zhou Guoxing's collection have turned out to be from known creatures, and he classes the most detailed eyewitness accounts as fabrications.  His disappointment is evident - he was once an enthusiastic field investogator of Wildman tales - but this is where the evidence has led him. 
COMMENT: Darn.  There were times when this case looked really intriguing.

A better look at "hobbits"

Just over a meter tall, the "hobbits" of Flores weren't very impressive physically. They had longer arms than legs, and their sloping foreheads and chinlessness made them look less like us than we might picture.  However, they were still, as further confirmed by new fossils, genuine humans, as in a species in the genus Homo.  While their brains were the size of, or at least not much larger than, those of chimpanzees, those brains were developed enough to allow them stone tools and the use of fire.  (Intelligence is correlated with brain size and brain-to-body-size ratio, but isn't directly equivalent - the structure of the brain matters more.)   The tool-making is interesting, because their wrists and hands were more "primitive" (essentially, more apelike) than ours, but they managed. It seems too much to ask of "hobbits" that they should have oversized feet, but they actually did.  So where did H. floresiensis come from? The popular theory is that they were an "island dwarfed" population of Homo erectus, although H. erectus fossils show some features more advanced. DNA studies on the bones haven't been done yet, and we still have only one complete cranium, so there's a lot more to learn. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The first great predatory reptile

What replaced the fearsome Dunkleosteus terrelli as top predator of the seas? The sharks survived the Permian extinction, but the large marine reptiles arose much more quickly than we previously thought. This 8-meter monster appeared at least 244 million years ago. It was shaped something like an oversized four-flippered dolphin, but the head is unmistakeably that of an apex predator.  Thalattoarchon saurophagis ("lizard-eating ruler of the sea") was the first of the icthyosaurs, which would go on to produce giants three times this length - or more. 

Giant Squid - coming on Discovery Channel!

Not many years ago, Richard Ellis, writing on the subject of giant squid being taken for "sea serpents," notes one problem was a lack of comparative observations: "No one has ever seen a healthy giant squid doing anything." While we now have video of a hooked squid and various other observations, what we still don't have is video of Architeuthis hunting in its natural habitat.  Well, now we do, and it's coming to Discovery Channel on January 27.  The squid was about three meters long and was videotaped at a depth of 640 meters.  (It would be "more giant" than 3m, but it was missing its two long tentacles, presumably bitten off by a whale or shark.)  A Japanese expedition got the footage by using a custom-designed camera that operated on a wavelength of light that squid can't see. 
Here's the question we still don't have the answer to: how giant does the giant squid get? Confirmed lengths  of 18-20 meters are probably not the uppermost end of the scale. There are several 25-30m claims, and one of nearly 55m (OK, I'm writing that one off.)  But the appellation "giant" still fits in any case.

Tune in!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Tigers: A little Good News

Tigers, as a whole, have taken it hard fro m humanity for the last two centuries. The Javan tiger is extinct; the Sumatran and South China tigers are on the edge; continued poaching and habitat destruction have ground down the remaining populations.  So it's very nice to see this article. While the The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates there are only 3,200 tigers in the wild, that's actually an uptick.  Years of all-out effort by the WCS, the government of India, and other conservation organizations have resulted in a surplus (from a total population of 600 or so) of tigers in the region containing the Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks. Efforts in China, Russia, and Thailand are making progress, including rising or at least stable tiger populations thanks to increased arrests and stiffer punishments of poachers. 
I was pessimistic in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence, quoting the IUCN's Peter Jackson (not the filmmaker) as saying, “It is my belief that the end of the tiger is in sight, probably within ten years."  The situation is still critical, especially for the Sumatran subspecies (or species, depending on which authority one references), but we've shown that we can do some good for tigers in the wild.  We need to keep it up.

How big was the biggest bear?

How big do bears get - and how big did they use to get?

The 500-kg range seems about the upper limit for modern brown bears, with polars getting a little bigger.  There are always stories of bigger ones (the best attested being a polar bear who weighed roughly a metric ton) and we have, of course, the prehistoric giants. My favorite, the short-faced bear, was longer and taller than any modern bear, although there is disagreement over whether he was heavier. Recent fossils from S. America, though, indicate he had still bigger relatives, bears that would make a huge modern Kodiak poop in his fur.  This researcher has collected a lot of the accounts of outsized modern Kodiaks and polars.  It's not all scientific data - skins are stretched,  weights get exaggerated, and so on - but it's pretty darned eye-popping. 
He leaves out Samson. Samson was a bear trapped alive by John (not James) "Grizzly" Adams and hauled to antebellum New York to be exhibited.  He made a sensation.  He was the biggest bear Adams had ever seen in many years of hunting grizzlies, and when put on a hay scale he weighed 1,503 lbs.  (It's possible he had gained some "cage fat" by this point, but still, Adams' description of him as a "moving mountain" seems justified.  I've never read what happened to his remains. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Mapping Bigfoot

How do you map a creature not proven to exist? It's not easy. It inevitably involves subjective judgments about which sightings, footprints, etc. are considered credible enough to include. 
But this fellow has put an enormous amount of effort into the attempt, and I salute him for that. The sightings he includes reflect human population in many areas, notably Florida and the Northeast.  The Pacific Northwest has, as you'd expect, a cluster of sightings that exceeds what you'd see if sightings were strictly a reflection of human population density or numbers. 
This map shows one of the problems with Bigfoot in general. It is impossible - not unlikely, impossible - that a large unknown mammal exists in nearly every US state and Canadian province.  A range covering most of North America, including the most populous areas, argues against the chance such a species exists at all: the odds of it going undiscovered are too great.
IF Bigfoot turns out to be real, I'd expect a cluster of up to a few hundred in the Northwest, possibly with some small relict populations as geographical outliers, reflecting a wider distribution thousands of years ago.  Despite the number of sightings and the dedicated efforts of searchers, I'd be stunned if anyone ever turned up solid proof of such an animal in the Northeastern or Southeastern US. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Humans, Be Not Proud: Last Vietnamese rhino extinct

One of the startling large-mammal discoveries of the recent years was the finding that the critically endangered Javan rhinocerous, long presumed extinct on the Asian mainland, survived in Vietnam. 
Well, not anymore.
The Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhino was down to one animal in  Cat Tien National Park in 2009. Someone should have made the decision to take it into captivity: in April 2010, it was shot by a poacher and its horn stolen.
There are maybe three dozen Javan rhinos left in Indonesia.
Sometimes I want to resign from my species.

Physics: reaching impossible temperatures

It's sometimes said that the politics of the extreme right and the extreme left merge, creating a circle rather than a continuum.  Could the same be true of temperatures?
Well, no. When all atomic motion is stopped, absolute zero (0 Kelvin) is reached, and you can't go any further.
Only you can.
It turns out that a situation can be created where atoms are impossibly cold. At the same time, they are impossibly hot.  Negative temperatures - essentially temperatures for which the all-inclusive Kelvin scale does not exist - have been demonstrated in a lab.  Atoms in this state attract each other.  This state can only exist at negative pressure.  It is, in other words, impossibly weird.
In theory, this could one day be put to use, with engines that are more than 100% efficient.  Can's wrap your mind around that?  Me neither. Such engines would not only absord energy from hotter regions, but colder ones as well.  It's way off.  But it's only the beginning of theorizing about a realm we thought could not exist. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Where be dragons?

Everyone loves dragons. Fictitious ones.  As Ben Radford notes here, there are some bits of fact mixed with the fun.  One comes from paleontology: bones of dinosaurs and giant prehistoric mammals were naturally ascribed to monsters, especially those already established in such sources as the Bible's Old Testament.  Another source is the exaggeration of real creatures, such as crocodiles.  Naming the world's largest lizard the Komodo dragon is a demonstration of the fascination we have with such creatures. (Douglas Adams wrote that his mind reeled when seeing one on display-  "...ten feet long and a yard high is entirely the wrong size for a lizard to be.") In modern fiction,  J.R.R. Tolkien gave us Smaug, plus occasional references to "worms" with names like Scatha and Ancalagon the Black.  Anne McCaffery gave us the Dragonflight books, and dragons appear in countless other stories (to cite one of the more obvious examples, see the Dungeons and Dragons games and  books).  In Chinese folklore, dragons were wise and snakelike: in European tales, they had batlike wings and died out at the hands of Saint George and his kind. (The European dragon, incidentally, is almost always drawn with unrealistically small wings for any living creature, compared to the body size: when Chinese dragons fly, they do it by magic and dispense with the whole business of wings.)
Real modern dragons? Well, without dinosaurs in the world (with apologies to some fellow cryptozoologists, we're not going to find live dinos of any sort in Africa or anywhere else), crocodiles and Komodos are the best we have.  And occasional "dragon photographs" circulated on the Net are beyond silly.  The sirrush, that odd dragonlike creature on Babylon's Ishtar gate, is interesting, though there's no reason to suppose it real. Maybe it, too, was born of the imaginative interpretation of dinosaur bones.  Modern studies of dinosaurs have given us creatures so fantastic that they outshine their make-believe counterparts. 
So we had dragons. We just came along too late to see them. 
P.S. In addition to a new book Ben mentions, Karl Shuker wrote a splendid dragon book.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The onza - a success for cryptozoology

The onza, the mysterious big cat of Mexico, is a cryptozoological success story.
That may sound funny, considering the only whole specimen examined was a definite member of the known species Puma concolor, the puma, panther, or cougar.  But bear with me. 

First, the story. Inhabitants of western Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental region were  reporting a strange big cat since Aztec times. Records left by Europeans go back to the Spanish conquest, when the invaders saw both a puma and a leaner, unrecognized type of "lion" in Montezuma's royal zoo. 
     The onza was generally consigned to folklore, despite reports from Americans such as Dale Lee.  Lee, a professional hunting guide who had shot nearly 500 panthers, reported killing an onza in 1938.  He wrote that the slender, long-eared animal "differs from any of the cat tribe I ever saw."   J. B. Tinsley, in his 1987 book The Puma, reproduces photographs of this cat and of a similar beast killed by a trapper named Ruggles in 1926.
     The onza story languished until  1985, when Mexican rancher Andres Murillo shot a cat he didn't recognize.  Fortunately, the man had heard of the legendary onza and was curious enough to contact an interested friend who knew American zoologist/cryptozoologist J. Richard Greenwell.  Greenwell teamed up with a leading mammologist and puma expert, Auburn University's Dr. Troy Best, and the two brought the carcass in for study. They also tracked down two other onza skulls.  One of these dates from 1938 (it is not from Lee's specimen, so it seems two onzas were killed that year) and the other from about 1975. The onza, from the specimen, looked like a panther, but with longer legs and
a slimmer build.  The ears were long, and on the inside of the tawny cat's front legs were dark horizontal stripes.  The type specimen, a female about four years old, weighed less than 60 pounds, considerably less than a normal panther its size.  The researchers wondered at first whether the specimen was starving or diseased, but it proved to be healthy and well-fed.
     As Dr. Best explained to me even before the studies were complete, one specimen and two skulls don't provide enough material for a conclusion about the onza's classification.  I wrote in 1995 that "We may be dealing with a panther subspecies, a local variation, or even just a recurring abnormality born of normal panther parents.  A complication is that there are few "normal" puma specimens from that region of Mexico to compare the onza with."
     Well, eventually a full analysis was done and published, and there was no longer any doubt about the puma identity.  It wasn't even named as a new subspecies.  It appears to be an oddball, born occasionally the way the strikingly marked "king " cheetah of Africa is, to normal-looking parents.  We don't know how common an occurrence this is, but it certainly isn't frequent: no one has claimed a new onza specimen since.
     So why was this a success? Because the animal was identified. A proper scientific  investigation was done.  And, most importantly, in the late 20th century on a relatively well-known continent, a strikingly different animal reported by witnesses recent and historical was confirmed to exist. That the appearance is essentially skin-deep, and the animal wasn't a new type, is secondary. Like the elephants of Bardia National Park (huge, dome-headed specimens of the Indian elephant), the most crucial thing is that witnesses who said they saw a weird-looking large mammal were right. Such witnesses are not always right, but they were this time. Mother Nature, it turned out, still had her secrets.

Bille, Matt.  1995. Rumors of Existence. Hancock House.
Best, Troy.  1993.  Personal communication, January 15.
James, Jamie.  "Bigfoot or Bust,"  1988. Discover, March. 
Greenwell, J. Richard. 1992. Personal communication, July 7.
Marshall, Robert E.  1961. The Onza.  New York: Exposition Press.
Shuker, Karl.   2012. The Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals. Coachwhip Publications.
Tinsley, Jim Bob.  1987.  The Puma.  El Paso: Texas Western Press.

Is this life?

Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow thinks it's close. He's developed iCHELLS, small bubbles based on "large polyoxometalates derived from a range of metal atoms, like tungsten" that duplicate some functions of life, like letting in "nourishment" and maybe, soon, evolution in response to their environment.  Oh, and a kind of photosynthesis is in the early, but promising, stages. 
COMMENT: Life? No.  What he's created, to me, is more of a micro-robot that functions by aping some life processes.  And evolution by itself is something many software programs have demonstrated.  But that's not to knock the rather fascinating experiments going on here.  I wonder if these bubble cells, tweaked for different environments, can be used in an adaptive swarm to explore or, eventually, terraform other bodies like asteroids.