Monday, April 29, 2013

People Who Dig Dunkleosteus

The most fearsome predator of the Devonian has had his own page on FaceBook for a while now, and things are starting to pop a bit.
Dunk was a unique animal, scion of a line that was so far off the evolutionary tree that led to today's bony fishes that, as one authority puts it,  "Modern fish are more closely related to land animals than they are to Dunkleosteus." Steven McCole of the Natural History Museum in Cleveland, which is basically Dunk Central for the United States, has posted a terrific drawing and other material. What's fascinating about this predator, whose now-vanished order invented vertebrate sex (and perhaps the guillotine :)) is that we have so much to learn. We don't know what it looked like aft of the armor. We're not sure why its line failed when some other fishes survived the extinction event that ended the Devonian.  There are only a handful of scientific papers on the species at all. So my Dunk Facebook page, which covers some other paleontological news but focuses mainly on D. terrelli, is about an ongoing journey to uncover the past. 
Come on in, the water's fine!  (Deadly, but fine....)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New species everywhere

A good account of how new species continue, stubbornly, to turn up all over the world.  As I wrote in the review of Marc van Roosmalen's book (see post below), not all the species we're finding are tiny marine invertebrates or tropical beetles.  We're talking about primates, cetaceans, and other vertebrates as well, and the squid are still mysterious enough that we may yet find a few more invertebrates large enough to be as startling as the "elbow" squid was.  We are far from a complete catalog of the passengers on Spaceship Earth.

Rediscovering a giant among fishes

In 1847, a French biologist described a second species of South America’s huge (3m) airapaima, the continent’s largest freshwater fish.  But this species, Airapaima agassizii, was synonymized with the established species A. gigas and forgotten.  Until, that is, Dr. Donald Stewart, professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), got interested in the old literature about airapaimas. In the 1829 monograph that was the foundation of the 1947 description, he found drawings of a fish with visible differences in the teeth, eyes, and fins from the main species. We don’t have the skeleton, originally collected by a German scientist in 1819, used by the great Louis Agassiz to name this species: it was apparently destroyed in a bombing raid on Germany in WWII.  Stewart considers that this passed unnoticed because very few specimens are collected by scientists: the fish, called pirarucu in Brazil, is everywhere endangered and is caught only by local fishermen, who consign it to market or table.  You might say Stewart has gone all in on the pirarucu: not only has he re-described A. agassizii, but he’s resurrected another discounted species and is describing yet a fifth.  He thinks there might be others: there are huge areas of the Amazon basin where no scientists has ever collected a specimen.
Do we still think no large species are awaiting discovery?  One could argue these are cryptic, not cryptid, species: animals that look so much like each other they've not been properly discriminated.  Either way, though, Dr. Stewart has one heck of a fish story to tell. 

Must Reading: Barefoot Through the Amazon

Barefoot through the Amazon - On the Path of Evolution (Kindle Edition)
Marc van Roosmalen, 2013

Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has lived a life you might not even think possible in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: that of an explorer of remote lands who has discovered an incredibly bounty of new species. From a 1976 study of monkeys in Suriname through his long labors in Brazil, van Roosmalen has worked with a minimum of support from the "civilized world" (though he has taken advantage of new tools, from email to websites, as they were available). Staying in brush many times until the local animals and local peoples became used to him, he discovered things no aerial survey or quick river trip, however arduous, could have uncovered. He learned what was edible by testing spider-monkey favorites and went on to become an expert in the plants of the rainforest as well as the animals. This book, taking us chronologically through his adventures in a sumptuously illustrated fashion, includes not just stories of species but detailed yet clear explanations of how the rainforest ecology works. You'll learn all you ever wanted to know about spider monkeys, but you'll also learn that the rainforest plant life: which tends to become a green blur in the minds of those of us who write about it from a distance - is far more complex and colorful than even botanists knew. He tackled the interesting question of why there are no giant (over 300kg) animals here like in Africa, and the primates are comparatively tiny. While there is an endless array of plant species, the "herb layer" favored by African browsers isn't evident: high-energy plant food is more patchy, and this rainforest takes more work to make a living from. What fascinates most readers (such as myself), though, are the new species, and they seem to rain down from the trees for a unique explorer such as van Roosmalen. Here you will find pictures and descriptions of new mammals, and some still undescribed. It was 1996 when a man brought him an undescribed pygmy marmoset that became the first of many species - some of which were given to him with no clue about where they originally came from. He also kept a dwarf porcupine as a pet, uncertain for a while whether it was a new species - it was. He had to rewrite the monkey genus Callicebus to accommodate some of the new forms. You'll meet his new spider monkey, new bright orange-red coati, new giant peccary (wild pig) and his dwarf manatee (some specialists debate whether this is a species, but van Roosmalen argues strongly for it). Then there's the new brocket deer and a species or subspecies van Roosmalen feels he's achingly close to proving: the white-throated solid black jaguar. Van Roosmalen was named a Hero of the Planet by TIME magazine and went through a hellish clash with the Brazilian wildlife agency, which basically felt he was doing a lot of things without permit or sanction and, among other things, destroyed many irreplaceable specimens before the courts finally cleared him. This is a book like no other, about a life like no other.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day - Technology and Tradeoffs

On Earth Day, there are two things to remember. One is that fossil fuels are limited and have consequences - very serious ones - concerning their continued use.  The other is that everything involves tradeoffs.  Wind power does cost us scenic vistas (you have to put the mills where the wind is) and, to some degree unavoidably, adds noise pollution and a major bird hazard.  Solar requires major extraction and manufacturing industries which themselves have significant footprints, not to mention land in sunny spots and backup/storage systems including conventional power.  I'm not saying we should not keep pushing these technologies - we absolutely should - but we have to be realistic.  Meanwhile, the best thing we can do for Mother Earth is press research on commercial fusion power. (The second-best thing is recycle our plastics - easy to do, but easy to forget about.  Look up the documentary Midway and you'll never forget again.)

Finally, I have sometimes looked askance at authors who use every occasion to push their own books, but - well, here I go anyway, because I think mine do fit the spirit of this occasion.  On Earth Day, we should all recognize just how diverse the animal kingdom is, how many species we are still discovering, and how many are still out there to find.  There are still mysteries to solve. 

Rumors of Existence (1995, Hancock House)
Shadows of Existence (2004, Hancock House)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skepticism, Strange Ideas, and Context

Random skeptical thought... I wonder if people are too quick to believe things largely because they don't think about the context. 
Example One:  I've met people who think Hitler reorganized Germany's finances for the better.  Context: He was a failed painter who knew no more about banking or economics than my dog. How could he have done this? He couldn't.  He stabilized the economy with massive military production. 
Example Two: Many people think we recovered alien technology at Roswell.  Context: Would we have discovered that and done nothing with it? Sure, the government could have kept it secret, but would it be losing thousands of soldiers and maintaining a staggeringly expensive logistics effort in far-flung ground wars if we had alien-based skycraft and perhaps weaponry?  (Same context applies to claims of Tesla death rays: the idea the government did nothing with them is absurd: we can document step-by-step, expensive, time-consuming development of today's still-experimental energy weapons. Would we have done that if we had the basic tech in the 1940s???).  

The 150th birthday of John Muir

John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club (with whom I differ on some specifics but agree on philosophy) and a conservationist/naturalist who made an enormous impact on our environment and our country.  His explorations, writing, and activism spurred Teddy Roosevelt's conservation program and led or contributed to the protection of our most sacred spaces, including the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Sequoia, and the Petrified Forest.

I liked this quote from the Sierra Club's website:
"People think, 'Oh, Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president.' BS. It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping. It was Muir, an activist, a single person." -- Patagonia founder and outdoor enthusiast Yvon Chouinard 

A tip of the hat to a great American.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nessie (or the Nessie legend) turns 80

14 April 1933: the first publicized sighting of the Loch Ness Monster starts a scientific mystery, a local industry, and a legend.
I was sure about Nessie for a long time. The Dinsdale film, the sonar traces, the Rines photographs - how could you doubt it?
Theses days, I more than doubt it. But I'm not happy about consigning Nessie to the mists of time.  I wanted the monsters to be there. I still do.  But there's not nearly enough food for a colony of large predators to eat. There's no tunnel to the sea.  There's no logical construct by which a group of creatures, cut off as the ocean receded and Ness' connection to the sea dried up, bred successfully for thousands of years and were hardly ever seen until the modern era and evaded every tool of science applied in the quest for definitive proof.
I agree there are oddities. The Dinsdale film doesn't look to me like a boat, and all the enlargements and enhancements have failed to resolve its identity.  Some of the sonar traces are still anomalous.  But that's about it.  Beyond that, all we've done is pile more accounts on top of each other.  Some of these accounts are unquestionably sincere, A graduate student I knew whose opinion I took very seriously saw a roundish head pop up behind her tour boat.  (She thought it looked orange-ish, which I assume was some trick of the light... orange monsters are too much to expect even from the ever-inventive Mother Nature.)
Now, a thousand sighting reports didn't all spring from nothing. Dr. Charles Paxton of the University of St. Andrews is doing a new statistical analysis now, looking for patterns.  But he doesn't expect a real creature to pop out of them.
I no longer believe in the monster. But the legend, and the continuing hint of mystery, and enough for now.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

52 Years since Yuri

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a young, smiling fighter pilot personally selected by Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, crammed himself into a metal sphere and was hurled into orbit by Korolev's R-7, a variant of the world's first ICBM.  Gagarin completed just short of a single orbit (the Soviets maintained for decades it was a complete orbit) and became world-famous.  He wasn't allowed to fly again for several years, as the government feared the public relations nightmare of losing him.  (He also apparently annoyed some people with his critiques of the later Soyuz 1 flight, in which cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed.) He did extensive engineering work on long-duration space flights and reusable space vehicles, a subject near and dear to my heart. 
He finally argued his way back to flight status and was training when his jet crashed in 1968.
Gagarin himself was a great public face for his country but not one of the more poetic astronauts/cosmonauts: there are few memorable quotes from the first man in space. He was a highly motivated pilot and cosmonaut, diligent in training,  excellent in the mathematics of space flight. He was also, importantly, 5 feet 2 inches tall.  Soviet officials tended to indicate he's noted there was no God visible in space, but Gagarin apparently never said anything on the subject and at home observed some Christian traditions.
So farewell, Yuri, wherever you are. 
For the events leading up to human spaceflight, read (of course)
The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites
(Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, 2004)
"This represents the best narrative available synthesizing this story. The authors also make some key contributions that have not been explored before."  -- Dr. Roger D. Launius, National Air and Space Museum

Note on Illustrations in This Blog

A rare administrative note: I like well-illustrated sources.  I don't use as many illustrations in this blog as I'd like to, though.  I'm not criticizing anyone else's approach, but I'm a writer, and I don't like my copyrighted material used without permission, so I extend the same courtesy to artists and photographers.  I wrote on this subject for the National Association of Science Writers and also researched and taught it in my "day job" consulting firm classes. So I avoid illustrations from private websites or commercial media sources unless I have permission or know they are not copyrighted, and I read "Fair Use" narrowly since this blog does serve the commercial purpose of promoting my books along with being educational.  These folks at Copyright Clearance Center are the experts.

Must reading: The Ghost with Trembling Wings

Scott Weidensaul, The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
North Point Press, NY, 2002. 352 pp.

Weidensaul, an award-winning science writer, explores, in touching and sometimes poetic launguage as well as scientific exposition, the extinction of creatures of the land and air (he spendsrelatively little time on life aquatic). Some of his examples are famous (he treks through Louisiana swamps looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker) and some are less so (e.g., the golden toad), but all are well explored in the context of the overall extinction crisis. Successes like Gilbert's potoroo and the Congo bay owl are here, too, as the author probes the human stories of people who spend their treaure, their time, and sometimes their lives in searches for the missing. He also considers (if he does not always reach conclusions about) the dilemnas of putting huge resources into saving, finding, or resurrecting charismatic species while many lesser-known creatures could be saved with a relatively small effort.

On cryptozoology, he is a bit harsh in lumping all of the amatuers in the field into one unscientific lot, but he has a point about the scientific rigor needed to sift the species from the legends.
He adds:
"If cryptozoology is ever going to hit pay dirt, the jackpot is most likely to be marine. Even inshore waters are a mystery, and it is the height of hubris to think we’ve uncovered all the big surprises. It’s certainly conceivable – perhaps not likely, but conceivable – that one or more large unknown species that fit the old “sea serpent” mold are hiding out there, too, ready to shock and delight us one of these days. "

It's an absorbing and important book, none the worse for the 11 years since its publication. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New species: world's cuddliest bat?

You many not think bats are cuddly.  There is, after all, something creepy about them to most people. But check this little guy out. The world's newest bat species, unique enough to require its own genus, this species from South Sudan looks a little like a big fuzzy bumblebee with its black body and cream-yellow stripes.  Study of a recently netted specimen found that someone had found the the species before, in 1939, but gave it an erroneous classification, and mammologists seem to have pretty much forgotten about it.  It's

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Cool blog: DeepSea News

Not many people write in their biographies that their ambitions include this gem “Quite simply, her goal in life is to throw expensive s**t into the ocean." Dr. Kim Martini is one of several bloggers who populate an indispensable Web site for those curious about the life aquatic.  The lead item as of 4/9/2013? That charming little nudibranch with the disposable penis. 

NOAA Photo Library Image - expl2790

A recent NOAA photo of a weird critter - a "fuzzy" starfish.

Albino rays, yes - but three species?

Albinism shows up in all the vertebrates from time to time.  What's interesting about these rays - three captured in the North Sea or adjoining English Channel over a three-year period - is that all were from different species.  The first ever record of albinism in skates, and it turned up in three species in two years.  A coincidence, presumably, but certainly an odd one.
Thanks to Chad Arment for the original post of this item.

Latest mammal waddles in from Brazil

New mammal species? Yes, we keep finding them.

The latest is this new porcupine from Brazil.

The animal is from the "Pernambuco Endemism Centre in the Atlantic coast of northeastern Brazil north of the São Francisco river, one of the most important known biodiversity hotspots." It's distinguished from other porcupines mostly by the coloration of its quills.  That may seem kind of nitpicky, but it seems to matter to the porcupines.

OK, a new porcupine is not sasquatch. It's not even the giant peccary or the Australian snubfin dolphin.  But the important point is that every year brings the description of several new living mammals.  We don't know all of our closest cousins yet. The exhaustion of the mammal discovery business has been predicted many times, as it has for birds.  Isn't happening. 

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Two "missing" sharks discovered by studying weapons

People living by the sea have always made use of shark's teeth as points in various kinds of weapons. Scientists of the Field Museum of Natural History studied 120 weapons collected from the Gilbert Islands.  Attached to the clubs, lances, spears, and really awesome three-bladed swordlike weapons were the teeth of eight species of sharks.  All were known species, but two - the dusky and spotfin sharks - are found nowhere near the Gilberts.  Since the islanders didn't travel far, the most likely explanation is that these sharks were extinct in the areas - apparently before the first European explorers came along.   It may have been the Gilbertese liked their teeth a little too much. 

Monday, April 01, 2013

Next Book: Seas, Sharks, and Serpents

I’ve never announced a book before I had a draft done, but I have a bad habit of starting projects and then getting drawn away, so I wanted to make a public commitment to this one.
So…I’m embarking on my next nonfiction work, on the marvels of marine life. Seas, Sharks, and Serpents (working title) will explore whether there could be an unknown behind some “sea serpent” reports, but I want to put the subject in context. Sea serpents, whether we find them or not, are just one marvel amid countless marvels, and countless animals, including sharks and whales, are still being discovered or await discovery. That context includes exceptional marine creatures (based on size, uniqueness, or critical role in the ecosystem) from the Devonian through the present day. I’m not a biologist, so this won’t be highly technical, but a naturalist trying to convey vey the awe and wonder of the seas along with sound science. The subject is broad, so any book will be a little of a “highlight reel,” but I aim higher than that: for a readable work that will draw a broad audience to the discoveries, mysteries, and conservation challenges of the seas. (I've decided I like "naturalist" as a self-description: for hundreds of years, it has included the dedicated amateurs as well as the degreed experts who pursue knowledge of the natural world.)

I’m already deep (ha-ah) in the research, starting with the well-known sources on these topics and then trawling (get it?) for updates, new discoveries, and new perspectives. What I’m asking for is any information you’d like to share that my searches of publications/websites/libraries might miss: lesser –known but credible books, articles, web pages, and accounts concerning new species, possible new species, and other advances in marine zoology. I can only offer Acknowledgements and my promise to make the book something worth contributing to. (I am also, of course, happy to reciprocate by sharing my own material on anything you are looking into.)  Thank you!

NOAA Photo Library Image - map00329
"Bathymetrical Chart of the Oceans - Showing the "Deeps""
 by Sir John Murray, 1899 (NOAA)