Sunday, March 31, 2013

A two-headed shark?

Yep... this is a fetal bull shark from the Gulf of Mexico, the first of its species found with two heads.  There have been two-headed sharks of other species, including a blue shark from the Indian Ocean in 2008.  Here's a publication on that one.   I only remember one other off the top of my head, from David Stead's book, I believe.  That was caught alive in Australia's Botany Bay several decades back.  This one is getting linked on the Internet to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but as its discoverer notes, there's no evidence of that.  It's just an extreme oddity, apparently. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A piece of planet Mercury?

Cosmic collisions can knock pieces off planets, and these can even wander into the gravitational well of Earth. We have lunar meteorites (tektites) and some from Mars (one famous for containing structures some scientists felt showed a biological origin). This rock from Morocco, though, is apparently unique - the first piece known of the planet Mercury.  Cool!

Global Coverage
Mercury, as imaged by NASA's Messenger spacecraft.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Half human, half Neanderthal?

This is a fossil archaeologists have been looking for for a long time, with varying expectations.  It is, according to a paper just published, a hybrid between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens  neantherthal.  (Interestingly, this was a plotline on the TV show Bones earlier this season.)
According to the researchers, both the jaw structure and DNA analysis bear out the hybrid identity. The remains are, speifically, those of the offspring of a “female Neanderthal who mated with a male Homo sapiens.” This doesn't mean everyone else will agree with the identification, but it is certainly, as the famous paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall said, "very intriguing and one that invites more research.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Give up on "Lake Monsters?"

Cryptozoologists - myself included - love the idea that large undiscovered animals lurk almost at our doorsteps, in the lakes and rivers.
I no longer believe that they do.  With some qualifications, I think they are mythical.  I could be wrong, and I hope I am.  But as decades pass with no better evidence, we ought to take a very hard look at this business.

I know there are many respectable people who are certain what they have seen in Okanagan and Champlain and Loch Ness.  But there are many sources of error.  And what do we make of the fact that, after decades of modern cryptozoological investigation, we have not a single piece of hard evidence from any location?
We have some suggestive things, to be sure. The Folden film from Okanagan, the Dinsdale film from Ness, that really odd piece of video like a moving underwater pipe from Champlain.  Dinsdale's film still doesn't look like a boat to me, although I can't say for certain it isn't.  Some of the sonar and hydrophone work in Ness and Champlain is intriguing. But "unexplained" and "proof of a large unknown animal" are not quite the same thing.
(By the way, I am making an exception for Lake Iliamna, where the creatures are clearly fish: this may prove to be the case in several other lakes as well.)
I am arguing here that the Holy Grail of lake monsters - a viable population of very large creatures unknown to science - is not going to be found.
We have lake monsters reported from around the world. All of them cannot be real.  As we try to draw the line at lakes with an impressive collection of sightings and discard the rest, it's pretty fuzzy. Where do we draw it? If we dismiss seemingly solid reports from Lake X, do we have to dismiss the ones from Lake Y? No, not necessarily, but it's a difficult judgment call.
There are rare things in the world that only a few people have been lucky enough to see, like ball lightning, Mesoplodon Species B, the kouprey, the (I think this one is valid) orang-pendek.  But despite the size of our lakes, we're dealing with restricted areas with increasing populations of boaters, fisherfolk, and so forth, with almost everyone in developed nations now carrying a camera-capable cell phone. 
I can't give any credence, despite a handful of sightings, to the idea basilosaurids or plesiosaurs can haul out on land, so it's okay that we have not caught any lake monsters on the shore. But that also  means I don't think lake monsters elude us by crossing land between lakes, where they are likely to be spotted and certain to leave evidence of their passing..
We also have no eggs or nests, so we are considering only possible animals that bear live young in the water.    Again, this could be the case. 
I happen to believe there is at least one large unknown, maybe two, behind "sea serpent" reports. And I grant that the occasional sea creature (be it sea elephant, shark, or unclassified giant eel) can wander far up rivers and into lakes.  So some sightings may be, in fact, and individual of a species unknown to science.  But if we go back to the question of a breeding colony of giant animals in a lake, the case for that eventuality does not convince me.  
We're talking about creatures who have existed for centuries, and what do we have? Eyewitnesses, sincere ones to be sure.  But no bodies. No fish with big unexplained teeth marks on them. No definitive film or video.  Not (so far as I am aware) a single sighting from the air in any of the "major" monster lakes outside Iliamna.  No scales or other residue from a collision.  Some broken fishing lines and torn nets, but we can't say from what.  If we could somehow, from a God's-eye view, remove all the cases caused by sturgeon, swimming moose, seiche waves, and so on, what would we have left? Some intriguing stuff, to be sure, but convincing evidence for overlooked colonies of huge animals?  Again, aside from the occasional wayward sea creature, known or unknown, I don't think what's left is convincing.
Some may think me illogical, since I believe in an oceangoing unknown of which there are NO photographs (the Mary F pictures are completely unconvincing, and videotape from  Chesapeake Bay is intriguing but inconclusive.) But there's a difference between a breeding population in 139 million square miles of ocean and one in a lake, even a big lake. 
I salute and encourage the efforts of those who try to find creatures in such lakes. I wish you amazing success.  You may find something that's wandered up form the oceans: it can happen with known animals, it can happen with unknown ones. You may find an outsized specimen of a sturgeon or other freshwater fish, But I'm not anticipating you'll find any endemic lake creatures.  Years pass bringing more evidence, but never bringing hard evidence.  I think it's a gap that will never be closed.

atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon
In this photo you see the Atlantic sturgeon (top) and Shortnose sturgeon (bottom) (or Acipenser oxyrinchus and Acipenser brevirostrum), both showing the ridged backs with their dermal scutes that can make these fish look, at the surface, like a row of fins or humps following a prehistoric-looking head. (NOAA)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Recovering Apollo

Apollo went to the Moon on a Saturn V booster whose first stage was powered by five Rocketdyne F-1 engines, the most powerful engines ever flown.  These were dumped in the Atlantic Ocean 580 km from shore in water 4.35 km deep. They were forgotten by NASA - but not by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.  Bezos funded a year-long effort to recover the F-1s. It's not yet certain that these are from Apollo 11 - it will take some study of serial numbers and other information - but it's a great day for space historians.

COMMENT: I watched Apollo 11 from a Piper plane my Dad flew up for a good look.  I can still picture it.  Dad, that was the coolest thing you ever did. 

... Picture Gallery - Manned Systems/NASA Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch
Apollo 11 launch, 1969 (NASA)
I was there, but my amateur photo attempts were, shall we say, not very successful.

Really cool new lizard species x2

These two newly discovered lizards from Peru are some of the neatest-looking lizards on the planet: they could have been used as dinosaurs in those cheesy horror movies of the 50s where they used normal creatures "blown up" optically (and sometimes blown up physically by the heroes). (I'm looking at YOU, Giant Gila Monster.)  What's scientifically interesting is that these two green-brown-black-patterned reptiles share the same range except for a slightly divergent preference in altitudes. It doesn't take a complete separation, it seems, for one species to evolve into two.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Calling on Dr. Ketchum to Retract Her Sasquatch Paper

That's my opinion.  If Dr. Melba Ketchum thinks there is serious research to be done in the field of sasquatch, and that there may actually be an unknown North American primate, then she needs to improve the credibility of the field by accepting that something, somehow, went very wrong in her efforts, and make a retraction.

Consider two recent DNA stories, both announced outside the peer-reviewed journal system. (While I understand Dr. Ketchum's frustration with the exhausting process of scientific publication,  her never-published, self-owned journal, carrying nothing but her own paper, does not impress.)

The other recent DNA-related story was the announcement, based on work carried out mainly by volunteer  enthusiasts and announced in the press vs. a journal, on the finding of Richard III's remains.  There are both similarities and differences in the two cases.

On the "difference" side, the announcement by Richard III researchers produced data that appeared reasonable on its face (that is, it matched with historical accounts and the appearance of the remains well enough to be plausible). It was an interesting finding, but, if true, would be nothing radical, whereas Ketchum's work (as well she knew) was going to be a major challenge to orthodoxy and thus needed to be near-flawless.
Similarities: the Richard III work has NOT been universally accepted, as other scientists cautioned about contamination and noted that matching mitochondrial DNA does not narrow the remains down to a particular individual or even, with certainty, a family. So the data and interpretations were critiqued along with the method of publication.
Dr. Ketchum's analysis of her own data initially indicated an evolutionarily implausible scenario, involving an ancestor related to no known primate that seemingly appeared one time and then disappeared. I've seen one outside scientist who thought it deserved examination vs. many who thought it absurd. Then came news that the unknown ancestor was related to lemurs, which moved her theory from implausible to impossible.  No trace of lemurs exists in the New World or anywhere closer than Africa, and the finding guarantees no one will take her case seriously as anything but the results of contamination, despite her protests that all precautions were taken. A human and a large lemur-related primate are from different suborders, let alone families or genera. They have the same chance of producing a baby that a dog and a cat would - none whatsoever. She told an interviewer that the result doesn't fit with Darwin's theory of evolution.  That's correct, and that means it will not be supported by any qualified scientist. (There's a huge difference between arguing we have the details of primate evolution wrong and arguing the entire concept of Darwinian evolution and the present concept of DNA development must be thrown out.)

I wanted Dr. Ketchum to be right. I think she is sincere, but right? I don't believe there is any chance that she is, and the scorn of outside scientists has convincing reasoning behind it, even if some of the language is intemperate.

Thanks to Terry Colvin for the email post that raised the question of comparing the two events.
Another piece of the puzzle here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Resurrection - maybe not so far off?

As this item reports, there's considerable theorizing, and even some serious lab work, directed at  establishing the possibility of "de-extinction." DNA can be used as a tool to guide back-breeding of animals like the aurochs, which in the past had to be based on the looks of the animals, and the idea of reassembling a genome from whole or partial DNA samples and making a living mother able to carry a fetus to term is edging out of science fiction.  It's being done first with a frog, which is fairly easy.  There are many other candidates, but everyone's favorite is the mammoth.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The artist who saw the future

Chesley Bonestell was proof that artists can not only envision the future, but help to shape it.  The premier artist of space travel - in his lifetime or ever - was born in 1888 and lived to see Apollo and the Space Shuttle.  His photorealistic art, especially in the pivotal years of the 1940s and 1950s, showed us space in such detail that his images were sometimes mistaken for photographs by people who didn't realize that there were no photographs of space yet.  (One of his techniques, though, was to build extremely detailed models, photograph them, and then paint over the photos.)   His most important work was for a series in Collier's magazine done with Werhner von Braun.  If some of the technology shown didn't represent the directions we actually took (the giant wheel space station and von Braun's huge winged ships were never built) his evocative work helped generate public support for the space program. Bonestell learned space technology so well that he corrected concepts from von Braun, the actual engineer.  (Prints of the amazing work displayed on this io9 site (link above) are still available here.)  When Bonestell died at 98, there was a work in progress on his easel. 

Third of marine species still unknown

How many species of plant and animal inhabit the oceans - and how many have we missed? 
Bruce Robison of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said some years back that we were probably missing a third of the large animals in the ocean (he didn't define large) and added, "it could be half." Charles Paxton estimated by species discovery curves that around 47 species two meters long or more might remain to be found.  Most of these may be sharks: we keep adding new species to the 350-plus we know of, and an interesting data point is that one reference published in 1986 listed fourteen species known from a single specimen each.  This is significant if one remembers that the difference between one specimen and none is usually mere chance.  Darren Naish and two co-authors in a 2009 paper in Historical Biology estimated three large, long-necked pinnipeds reported as "sea serpents" could be out there.  When I was writing Shadows of Existence (2006), I corresponded with the leading researchers on beaked whales. They were unanimous in believing there were still undescribed species.
The Census of Marine Life tried to count everything - and also tried to estimate what was still being missed, of any size.  Examining data including discovery rates and the number of species collected but undescribed in museum collections, the Census came up with 700,000 species known and a million or so total.   You can look at the information at the World Register of Marine Species website.
Remember:  “The reality is we know more about Mars than we know about the oceans” - Dr. Sylvia Earle

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Saving the great white shark

The great white is in trouble, and scientists need to learn more about the species' habits.  But this is a little hard to explain to a 900-kg shark, so how do you get its participation?  You use the M/V OCEARCH, a research vessel from which one can hook a great white and then guide it onto a hydraulic platform that can bring the whole shark, as gently as possible, out of the water.   This article describes the adventure of a 4-meter shark named Lydia, with a link to track her (the biggest great whites are always females).
Then you can use the Global Shark Tracker to keep tabs on her. 

Great whites: there's a reason they impress us.  (NOAA)

Science gets it from both sides

The American media spend a lot of time claming (sometimes accurately) that the political/religious right is hostile to science.  As this eSkeptic issue demonstrates in a review of an important book,  the political left is just as guilty, only on different issues.  . 

Champ: Bringing Out the Big Puns

In e-Skeptic this week, an article on the lake monster "Champ" which will forever be remembered for a really painful title: "Weak are the Champ Puns."  (And as a name, Champ is better than, say, Ogopogo.)  The subject is Robert E. Bartholomew's book on the subject, a generally good effort which put the lake monster in context, not so much going deep into zoology as into such topics as the fracture lines within cryptozoology and the history of the Mansi photograph (which I think is a real photo, but most probably of a log.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Extinct animal rebirth - can we and should we?

A good discussion here of the broader questions in bringing back extinct species (would they behave like their ancestors? Would they be able to survive?) and the techniques in genetic manipulation. The passenger pigeon has a better chance than the oft-talked-about thylacine, because the former has a much closer living relative.  The author also talks about back-breeding Eurasia's ancient wild cattle, the aurochs - oddly, the writer seems completely unaware the Heck brothers already tried this. 

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Dunkleosteus - biggest (non-shark) fish ever?

Where did my favorite predator, Dunkleosteus, rank among the largest fish ever?

Answer: it should make the top 5.

There’s some doubt here, because all we have of Dunkleosteus is the armored skull and forebody. The rest is conjectural. (I talked to a fossil seller once who said he’d seen a fossil slab with a whole baby Dunk on it, but he hadn’t bought it and didn’t know who had it.) If we assume the largest estimates are correct, the Dunk was up to 10m (33 feet) long and weighed about four tons.

The modern day record holder for largest fish is the whale shark, which reaches a confirmed length around 12.65m (41.5 feet). This specimen, from Pakistan in 1947, weighed a reported 21.5 metric tons, although it’s hard to believe it was actually weighed vs. being estimated. A 20m, 34mt shark was reportedly landed in Taiwan in 1987, and an extreme estimate of a 23m (75-foot) shark is given in Michael Bright’s book There are Giants in the Sea. Settling for the proven records, the whale shark reigns as the largest of all time,

The modern second place goes to the basking shark: a generally accepted record from Canada from 1851 12.27m (40.3 ft), and an estimated 19mt. Again, the claims go much larger. Third place goes to the great white shark, with a maximum length of about 7m (22feet). Then there are two prehistoric contenders. The extinct Carcharodon megalodon reached at least 15m: while claims of 30m and up are no longer taken seriously, 17-18m is possible. Then we have Leedsichthys problematicus, a filter feeder from the Jurassic period which was the subject of wild estimates up to 27m (approaching blue whale territory.) Dr. Darren Naish argues these were far too high, based on extrapolations of measurements from incomplete skeletons, and an average size of 9m was more likely. Still, we have to put an asterisk here when we class Dunkleosteus is the bigger fish.

So we have Dunkleosteus claiming to be the biggest non-shark fish (albeit from an extinct class, Placodermi) and Leedsichthys the largest bony fish (though from an extinct order, the Pachycormiformes, in the extant superclass Osteichthyes (yes, the proper rank and composition of this group here is debated, and no, I'm not qualified to pronounce on it)).

(There is an element of doubt among the sharks, because experts are debating a shark named Edestus giganteus from the Carboniferous period. Parahelicoprion mariosuarezi of the Permian times may also have been longer than the Dunk, though most reconstructions of the latter picture it as elongate, thus making it uncertain where it ranks in weight/mass. So we’re setting both of those aside for the moment.)

When we slot every fish that ever lived in a row, Dunkleosteus gets fourth place after the three biggest sharks, and second place among predatory fish. Not bad for an animal that appeared so early (380 MYA) and vanished too soon (for me, anyway).

Richard Ellis, Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea, 2001.
Gerald Wood, The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats, 1983.
Darren Naish, Tetrapod Zoology,
“Summary of Large Whale Shark Rhincodon typus Smith, 1828.”

Dunkleosteus, as rendered by an expert artist for the Smithsonian and un-rendered by my own inexpert photography.

Starry, Starry Frog

The starry frog, named for the spots on its back, was found in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1853.  Naturalist Edward Keleert took a specimen home to Europe and did the appropriate scientific writeup of Pseudophilautus stellatus. But then something funny - yet hardly unprecedented - happened.  The frog disappeared.  No one saw a starry frog for 160 years.  Was it extinct? A reasonable assumption, especially given that, during a lot of this period, the IUCN rule to classify an animal extinct was that it hadn't been seen in 50 years. The newer rule, "When there is no reasonable doubt the last individual has died" - really didn't make the starry frog look in any better shape.
And yet, when conservationists probed the most inaccessible, rarely visited areas of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary on the island nation and looked up, there in the canopy were frogs, A new species, they originally thought.  No. As L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe wrote in the formal paper reintroducing the frog to the world,  “These quite stunning frogs were observed perched on leaves in the canopy. They were slow moving, we collected samples which we thought were new species. But after reviewing past work, [especially] extinct species, it was evident that this was Pseudophilautus stellatus."
One frog may not be a huge deal when we search for endangered and unknown amphibians.  But it's not every day you hop back into the spotlight after a century and a half.   And it's one more example of how determined scientists keep finding the rare, the unknown, and the missing when they probe the still-wild areas of the world.

Friday, March 08, 2013

"Sea serpents" - just a few good sightings?

Thinking about "sea serpents" today.  Bernard Heuvelmans may have come up with 358 reports, but how many would you be willing to introduce in, say, a court trial, with serious stakes involved (however that might happen)?

We all agree the gold standard for sea serpent reports is the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, but what else would you consider grade-A eyewitness evidence? The Daedalus, given the watch officer's sketch that makes the animal much smaller and further from the ship than the famous Illustrated London News picture, might have been a squid...
My top additional sightings?  HMS Fly's encounter is pretty inexplicable, as is the SS Umfuli's.  The French sightings off SE Asia around 1898 seem compelling, but all we have is Heuvelmans' description of them - to my knowledge, the original naval reports have never been translated into English.  HMS Hilary (1917) and Stimson Beach (1983) qualify as unexplained.  Mackintosh Bell's sighting of what seems like a giant long-necked seal is another one I'd consider positive evidence.  Finally, the New England Sea Serpent of 1817-on is impressive by the sheer mass of the evidence: even the very cautious Richard Ellis thinks something peculiar was going on.

I believe there is at least one real creature behind "sea serpent" sightings, but I have a hard time filling out a Top 10 list of what I think are unexplainable sightings.  None of the strandings, carcasses, or photos hold up as something not otherwise explainable.  Carcasses that were not thoroughly examined don't count, only ones that were see by someone with scientific training and confirmed as an unknown species... and there have been no such incidents. 

Do we have other nominations to go in a Top 10?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Neanderthals: Back to the Future?

The initial furor over the Neanderthal cloning idea (in which the media displayed the common sense of primordial ooze, given that no project or even proposal ever existed) has died down, but here's a good overview of where we are concerning our knowledge of our ancient cousins and how we might learn more about them.  Scientists are not thinking about re-creating whole Neanderthals (although here they indulge in some interesting speculation - would you let a Neanderthal kid play sports?) but about re-creating individual cells to study the differences in such things as our immune systems.  We'll never lose our fascination with this ancient branch of the family tree, even if the speculative cryptozoologists who think they might have lingered into historical times - or into our time - are all wrong.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Mystery of Megamouth

The Mystery of Megamouth

Marine biologists have rarely been stunned by a new species the way they were absolutely thrilled in 1976 when a Navy vessel cruising off Hawaii came up with a weird-looking and totally unknown fifteen-foot shark tangled in its sea anchor. Megachamsa pelagios proved to be not only a new species but the sole member (so far as we know) of a new family. The shark is a harmless filter feeder with an oversized head and a gaping mouth which turns down sharply at the corners, giving it a perpetual grimace. It's a chunky, slow-swimming, shy creature, hardly fitting the usual picture of a shark at all.

It was eight years before a second specimen was netted. Four more turned up through 1990, including one in Australia and two in Japan. The 1990 shark was was caught alive off California. The 1200-pound fish was measured (sixteen feet, three inches), photographed, and finally released with two miniature transmitters embedded under its skin. These revealed the animal is a vertical migrator, rising and falling every day in conjunction with its food, a layer of tiny animals called zooplankton, strained out by 236 rows of very small teeth. At night the shark remains at a relatively shallow depth of about 40 feet. At dawn, it descends to 500 feet or deeper and stays there all day. This behavior, unknown in any shark until now, undoubtedly played a role in the megamouth's avoiding human contact for so long. We are now up to 54 specimens, including a 2009 catch  netted 200 meters down.

But that hasn’t solved the mysteries around this species. Where was it for so long? This fish wasn’t just unconfirmed. It was unguessed-at. There were no unexplained sightings, no accidental nettings, no identification of corpses found ashore. There were no stories or legends among Pacific islanders, even though the washed-up specimens found since 1976 show it does occur relatively close to coastlines. Why had it never encountered humanity, vertical migrator or not?

Logically, if there specimens washed ashore since 1976, they must have washed ashore before that, also. Presumably some were in remote localities, while others were just cut up for bait or otherwise disposed of. But it’s still weird. Several dozen have now been found or caught, dead or alive.  And before 1976, nothing, not even fossils of possible ancestors. 
The megamouth was the biggest wholly new marine animal (as opposed to the recent beaked whales and dolphins, of which we had some sightings or other clues) found in the last few decades. We've gone 37 years without a big animal that was quite as surprising. But its remarkable tale should make us all keep our eyes on the oceans.

Other big things may still be there….

Megamouth (photo NOAA)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

How small can a lizard get?

Very small indeed.

These four new species of chamelon from Madagascar don't even look like reptiles.

Sunday Buffet: Zoological Finds

Top Ten lists:

From Arizona State University - Top 10 new species from 2012.  Plants and animals, including a giant millipede and a blue tarantula.  A little different from the usual mammal-centric lists.

From, the Weirdest 10 Animal Discoveres of 2012.  Bizarre ancient animals, a lmur practicing cannibalism, the awesome Pliosaurus funkei, a fish that carries ite penis on its head - C'mon, how much weirder could you want?

The Top 10 from Popular Science includes the weird-nosed "sneezing monkey" from Myanmar (Rhinopithecus strykeri was popular on Top 10 lists), and Tamoya ohboya

Space Station, meet the Dragon

In another success for the Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule, a second private resupply mission has docked to the International Space Station.  After a day's delay caused by thruster problems (a stuck valve or blocked line kept the spacecraft from using all its maneuvering/positioning thrusters), the Dragon  has made its docking. The mission was a triumph for the Falcon 9, which, on its last mission, had accomplished its main objective but had one of its 9 engines pretty much come apart.  Congrats to SpaceX!

Dance of the Manta

Anything that promotes conservation and awareness is good, and in this case, conservationists concerned about the giant manta (being hunted, often illegally,  for the Asian medicinal  market)  achieved their objective. Borrowing a technique from whale lovers, Blue Sphere Media sent a human model (obviously a talented diver/breath holder) down to film this dance
We don't even have a complete scientific picture of this fish yet. A second species was described just a few years ago, and there may be others. The Kon-Tiki raft crew described passing mantas on the surface "the size of the floor of a room," and claims have been made for matas much larger than the 8m or so accepted as the maximum "wingspan."