Thursday, June 27, 2013

New bird species from a most unklikely place

Sometimes, Westerners may wonder whether there's a living thing left in Cambodia, home of the Killing Fields.  There are, fortunately, both people and animals coming back from that cataclysm, but great damage was done to the land as well as the population.  Cambodia is the main home of the kouprey, the last really huge (up to 900kg) completely new species of land animal discovered. (It made its scientific debut in 1937.  Today, though, it may be extinct.  

That there are undiscovered species in Cambodia, then, is a bit surprising, To find a new species of bird in the teeming (1.5 million residents) capitol, Phnom Penh, seems ridiculous.  And yet, here it is, the the Cambodian tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk), first spotted in in 2009 and now formally described, a little gray bird with an orange cap, clinging to life in tiny fragments of foliage within the city.  Obviously, people had seen it before, but no one who had the training or opportunity to describe it.  

Maybe it's a good sign in this ravaged land.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Planet Labs' tiny imaging satellites may change the world

I've followed the microsatellite/nanosatellite industry for a long time, and these people are impressing the heck out of me.  First, there's the technology of putting imagers that can pick out individual trees into 3U CubeSats (satellites built of three 10cm-square CubeSat buses). Second, for their vision of changing the world. Third, because of the quiet way they went about putting the pieces in place: hardly anyone even noticed when they flew their two test satellites. 
Having frequently refreshed imagery of most of the globe available at low cost at the click of a mouse is going to be very, very interesting. This service and others like SkyBox are going to make everyone in the world the equivalent of a mini-intelligence agency. Scientific, environmental, commercial, military... I don't think anyone, not even the Planet Labs geniuses, knows all the applications this will be put to.

Minnesota Iceman resurfaces

OK, we know know where the most famous model in the history of cryptozoology is headed. It's going to the Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX, with a loan planned for half of 2014 to the International Cryptozoology Museum.
The Iceman, as seen today, has some definite differences from the one seen by Bernard Heuvelmans and Ivan Sanderson as a Minnesota carnival exhibit back in 1968. It was off exhibit, then returned to the carnival circuit with changes including the disappearance of the bullet wound to the eye.  This creates two possibilities: a real animal was replaced by a fake, or the fake was altered, for whatever reason, and there never was a real animal.
After missing for decades, this model turned up on, of course, eBay.
OMNI magazine once reported it was a fake made by Hollywood veteran Alan Ball.  The story said he modeled it on Cro-magnon "cave man" illustrations, though cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon points out the eye sockets, with their distinctive semicircular bone arches, match only Neanderthals out of all the known human relatives. 
Two experienced men thought the original creature was real, but frankly we'll never know.  Cryptozoologists often note that the investigators could smell it decomposing, but a canny showman could easily have stuffed a piece of meat in or under the ice-filled case to give it that "air" of authenticity.
There are four stories of its origin
 - Shot in the US by exhibitor Frank Hansen
 - Found floating in a block of ice
 - Shot during the Vietnam war and smuggled home
 - Shot (really) by a Minnesota hunter after the animal raped her (ok, no one thinks this was anything but an attempt to cash in).
Dr. John Napier, the most eminent scientist to ever conclude sasquatch was real, thought this animal an improbable mix of features and thus not a real specimen. (He had essentially similar problems with the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film).  Other experts who've expressed opinions are split. 
Personally? I think it was one of the great carnival hoaxes of all time.  It is, as Sharon Hill points out in Doubtful News, a great piece of American history, and soon everyone will be able to look at it. 

ADDED: This blog gives some interesting background I hadn't heard.  I never realized there was more than one dead-Bigfoot exhibit (which is in addition to the Iceman, which was not initially shown under the name Bigfoot)

Chased by a wolf?

A Canadian motorcyclist says he was chased by a very big gray wolf.  It might just be another story, except, when he realized he could keep ahead of the animal, he stopped for a second to whip out his camera, prodcing the fascinatng photographs here.
Wolf attacks on humans are very rare, though they have happened.  The doesn't read like a case of attempted predation, though.  I would hypothesize the wolf had been domesticated or at least acclimated to humans, maybe even owned by someone who rode on a motorcycle. The other traffic on the road should have scared off an animal who was just playiung, though. For some reason, I speculate, this wolf thaought this person was his pack leader or at least would feed him.
Of course, I could be wrong.

Monday, June 24, 2013

New conservation treaty to protect cetaceans, primates?

This week, we learn that Iceland is resuming hunting fin whales, an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In addition to the CITES listing, the species is protected by the moratorium enacted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).  Iceland is a signatory to CITES and an IWC member nation.  Iceland argues the animals are not endangered, as Norway and Japan argue for the minke whale. (Iceland, like Japan, has also hunted minkes under the IWC's "scientific whaling" loophole.)
What animals should humans hunt? Some argue "none," or "no mammals," as there is always pain for the animal: some argue "none that are endangered" or "none which have displayed possible sentience."
I'd like to condense those ideas into a short, simple treaty that draws a bright line and makes it simple to say what's ok and what is not: Call it the Primate And Cetacean Treaty (PACT).  PACT would essentially rest atop (and cut across) the more complex CITES agreement, which goes into individual species and populations.
PACT is very simple:
 - No hunting of any primate or cetacean for meat, trophies, money, or the conversion of land to other uses.
 - All nation-states halt and ban such hunting, or the products of such hunting, one year from the treaty receiving enough ratifications to be in force.
 - All nations agree to ban trade in primate/cetacean products from non-signatory nations.
 - All nations are pledged to protect these animals in their territories, in maritime zones, and from their own ships and citizens when on the high seas.
 - An exception is allowed for mercy killing (e.g., a stranded whale that can't be refloated.)
 - Indigenous hunting of cetaceans to be phased out over ten years.

Since it's hard to figure out who crosses some threshold of sentience or intelligence (it's not like we know simple ways to judge the brainpower of a spider monkey or an Irawaddy dolphin), let's draw the line where it's easy to enforce. Cetaceans and primates are smart, have family bonds important to their species' survival, and are among the most endangered groups.  Also, no human society is dependent on these species for its existence - not any more.  There will be economic pain and disrupted traditions involving some indigenous societies. (I don't think the effects on Norway, Japan, and Iceland rise to the level of serious economic and cultural impacts, although they would argue differently.)  These impacts are real, and they matter, but there are no non-painful ways to protect the most advanced and endangered species of our fellow mammals. The only way to be sure no primates or cetaceans are being taken or traded is to completely protect those two orders.
You can argue this should be expanded (to elephants, perhaps, as the next addition), but we have to start somewhere, and these are the species we should be able to agree on most easily - that is, if we want to prove we're sentient.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book review: Swordfish

Swordfish: A Biolgraphy of the Ocean Gladiator
by Richard Ellis
University of Chicago Press, 2013

I never thought the billfish, impressive and tasty as they are, were especially interesting except to fishermen. Richard Ellis, as usual in his books on marine life (it's well known I am a fan of his work, so I'll state that up front), shows us differently. The billfish are an amazing bunch, and the swordfish is their king (or queen, since the largest specimens are always female). It is considered the most prestigious trophy in the sportfishing world and has been fished commercially since at least the time of the ancient Romans.

As Ellis demonstrates, this is a fish so perfectly evolved for its niche that is has, aside from humans, no real competition. It has a global range but constitutes only one species, which is the only species in its family. It can dive deep, 900m or more, in pursuit of squid, or it can massacre baitfish at the surface. It carries a weapon unique in the animal kingdom, a true sword with sharp edges used to cut, slash, or disable a wide variety of prey. It has superb vision, with eyes that can be as large as a grapefruit and can pick up tiny flashes of light from prey in the surface waters or in the deeps. It can be well over four meters long (maybe even five) and weigh well over half a ton, and it has a complex heater that warms the brain and eyes to keep the fish "thinking" and seeing at its best whatever the water temperature.

Ellis shows, too, there are still mysteries surrounding this conspicious fish. While some rammings of boats (and humans) seem unintentional, there are cases where a swordfish has deliberately rammed something (like a whale) it can't kill, let alone eat. Swordfish have also attacked huge inanimate objects - ships, floating bales of rubber, and, most famously, the submersible Alvin (which surfaced with the wriggling swordfish still lodged in its hull joint). We simply don't know why. Ellis also dismantles some myths. We now know the swordfish does not impale prey using the sword tip, at least not deliberately.

Along the way, Ellis drops tidbits of interesting data: I never knew that all the swordfish in the film The Perfect Storm were props, or that Frank Mundus (the model for Quint in Jaws) wore different colored socks so (he told clients) he could remember port from starboard. He discourses on other well-armed fish, such as the sawfish and the other billfish, and also looks at the narwhal, possessor of the only weapon more impressive than the swordfish's (although it doesn't normally use its tusk as a weapon at all).

Ellis hits on the themes of overfishing and conservation several times in the book, and returns to the matter in detail at the end. This part doesn't always flow well: Ellis will drop a statistic or a fact and return to it a page or two later after talking about something else. The chapter on mercury levels seemed out of place, coming too early in the book rather than being placed with the other environmental discussions. (The only actual (if trivial) mistake I spotted in the book was a reference to "Captain Aronnax" watching swordfish from Jules Verne's Nautilus: I was unaware that a mutiny had occurred and Nemo had been deposed.)

Ellis doesn't think we're as concerned about the fish as we should be. The IUCN doesn't consider the species Threatened, and the catch in the North Atlantic has rebounded after a shutdown for mercury posioning and several environmental campaigns. Ellis argues we should be more alarmed, though, by the drastic drop in the average size of landed fish (down to a miniscule 90 pounds) and notes that government regulations on minimum sizes don't help: it just means more dead fish are discarded from the longlines used in swordfishing. While some giants are still hooked, there's no question the total global biomass is down to a fraction of what it was a century ago, and the situation is drastic in the Mediterranean.

If the swordfish needed a biographer, it was lucky to get Ellis. This may not be a perfect book, but I was, well, hooked firmly enough to read it through twice. I came away with a much greater appreciation for one of Nature's marvels. The 27-page biography adds to the value of this accessible and well-researched work.

Book Review: The Bountiful Sea

The Bountiful Sea
Seabrook Hull
Prentice-Hall, 1964

Why review a book on the oceans written in 1964?  Well, as I spend more time reading the literature on marine life and the oceans, I've come to appreciate a lot of past work. Because we have infinitely more data today than we did in 1964 doesn't make this book useless: Good science writing is still worth reading.

This is a surprisingly valuable book even in 2013. The over-optimism of the author's era is here, of course. We don't have submarine freighters or elaborate seafloor bases (such bases never made sense for the military, and civilian researchers found cheaper ways via robotics). The seas don't offer an unlimited food supply no matter how we manage them and what the mix of wild and farmed production is. But this is an excellent book to pick up if you want to understand how marine science and military applications developed up to the early 1960s. Hull's explanations of marine research, food chains, ocean minerals, and submarine technology are well-researched and very well expressed: he's excellent at presenting technical concepts in non-specialist language. Most impressively, for the era in which it was written, this book is ahead of its time for its firmly expressed convictions that, vast as the oceans are, we were doing real damage, extent unknown but serious, with industrial pollution and the practice of dumping radiative waste at sea.

Good job, Mr. Hull.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

First woman in space - 50 years ago

A belated salute to Valentina Tereshkova, who 50 years ago became the first woman in space.
On the one hand, it was a political stunt. Her 48 orbits in a Vostok capsule (call sign: Seagull) were a demonstration of the supposed equality of women under Communism. She didn't have to meet many of the requirements of the Soviet men and didn't have as much training.  Once she succeeded, the female cosmonaut group was disbanded, all mention of its existence vanished from Soviet media, and, while Tereshkova was paraded fpor many years as a national hero (at one point telling an international meeting that she was going to be on a mission to the moon), no Soviet woman flew again until one was rushed into space to beat the U.S.'s Sally Ride.  (Ride was arguably the first-ever qualified female astronaut, the first who'd been through all the training and qualifications required for men in her ocuntry's program.) 
On the other hand, it still took a hell of a lot of courage for a woman whose previous flight-related experience was as a sports parachutist to climb into the tiny capsule atop the R-7 booster and be hurled into space, knowing that her options in the event of a serious malfunction were basically limited to dying, as was true with all the astronauts and cosmonauts of that period. She was the first, and that standing can never be taken away from her.  So raise the vodka glass.  Zuh Vahs! 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cougar - the cat's coming back

My dad (a folksinger now living in Seattle) used to play us a tune with the refrain:

"Very next day the cat came back
Thought he was a goner but the cat came back
'Cause he couldn't stay away"

Klandagi, Lord of the Forest (as the Cherokee called it) used to have a nationwide range in the United States. Reports of cats outside the shrunken WWII-era range of the Western US and Florida - in other words, members of the supposedly exterminated Eastern population - kept trickling in, and they continue up to the present day.  Most are mistakes, but some are intriguing, and a few are seemingly undeniable.  Ecologist Chris Bolgiano wrote from her home in Virginia that "Sometimes it seems I am the only person I know who hasn’t seen a panther.” She added in her book on the animal that, while she was very cautious in accepting cougar reports, "“I myself have seen a home video filmed in western Maryland in 1992 that showed an unmistakable cougar stepping momentarily between trees in a forest.”
In this article, the NYT examines the slow return of the cougar.
"There are increasing reports of sightings in 11 Midwestern states, as well as in Arkansas and Louisiana. A young male tripped a trail camera in the Missouri Ozarks on Feb. 2, and dogs treed one in Minnesota in March."
Actually, there's a lot more going on than that.  It's not clear the Eastern cougar was ever extinct, despite the official position of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) (which oddly got around to declaring extinction only in 2011) and many state agencies.  Consigned to oblivion (or to cryptozoology, which to some experts is the same thing) since 1938, the Eastern cougar just might have hung on. A wildlife biologist reported a good sighting in New Jersey in 1958.  A private effort, the Eastern Puma Research Network, reports 11,000 (!) sightings since 1965.  Despite the very conservative attitude of the FWS, an old agency fact sheet said evidence from the  Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1970s indicated “there were an estimated three to six cougars living in the park.”   (One wonders where these five or six cougars were supposed to have gone when the declaration of extinction came 36 years later.)
It's true that genuine cougar sightings may be of released or escaped exotic pets, as this New York fact sheet says. The FWS says it has tracked 110 sightings to cougars which were not native. A cat which left tracks in Rhode Island in 1998 foraged in a garbage can, unknown behavior for a wild cougar. A cougar killed in Tennessee in 1971 may also have been domesticated.  It can be hard to tell, even with DNA, because there's not a clear distinctinction between cougar subspecies. An Eastern cougar is an Eastern cougar because it lives naturally in the East.
Tracks, hair, and droppings found in New Brunswick in 1992 were identified by wildlife officials as belonging to a cougar. A deer definitely killed by a cougar was found in New York in 1993.  The FWS confirmed that droppings found in Vermont in 1994 were from a mother cougar and two kittens.  A farmer in Virginia was compensated by the government in 1998 after a cougar apparently killed his goats.
Most recently and famously, a  wild cougar from South Dakota (according to DNA) was killed in Connecticut last year. Granted, this animal, having made a cross-country trek, didn't qualify as an Eastern cougar (maybe you'd call him a tourist?), but demonstrated again there was suitable cougar habitat in New England. To the north, the Departnment of Natural Resources in Ontario, Canada, still believes there are cougars in that province even though there have been no kills since 1884. 
My opinion?
I'm pretty conservative on large cryptozoological land animals. I don't accept the mass of sasquatch sightings, for example, as proving sasquatch.  But I think sighting evidence is more persusive when you're talking about an animal you know DID inhabit an area of interest. Given that the white-tailed deer, almost wiped out in the late 1800s, is now so abundant it's called "the long-legged rat," and the competing wolves are largely long gone, the remaining wilderness areas in the Eastern cougar's range are more than sutiable - they are pretty much cougar paradise, where the wary cats would never need to approach human dwellings and would be seen only by chance. 
So I suspect that the Eastern cat has not come back... because it was never gone. 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Bonanza of Bird Species

Brazil has a lot of birds. It has, in fact, a lot more than we knew of just five years ago.  In that short time, no fewer than fifteen new species have been described.  One of the most interesting is the crooked-beaked woodcreeper, known locally as Arapa├žu-de-bico-torto, a rusty-colored bird with a comically long, drooping bill.  All fifteen species (sorry this last link is in Portugese, but it does have photos and maps) have ranges that overlap at least partially with the "deforestation arc," a range across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia conservationists consider highly threatened. Many of these had not been described because their appearance is similar to known birds.  Ornithologist Luis Silveira explains, “Describing new species is not a trivial task. We considered a bird as a new species when at least two of the three criteria — plumage, voice, and genetics — were consistently different from some previously known and closely related, already described species.”  I remember writing about this Brazilian find - another bird found and essentially declared endangered in the same breath.  I described others in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence. In the 1970s (sorry I don't have the reference at hand), a prominent ornithologist said he thought we had almost all of the world's bird species in hand. But two to three a year have turned up steadily ever since.  There are still more out there - if we can preserve the lands they live in. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Writings of the Sea

I’m browsing a book from 1968 called Under The Sea: A Treasury of Great Writing about the Ocean Depths, edited by Gardner Soule.  I used it as a source on marine life when writing my previous books.  In it I find photocopies from another book and little notes like “Copeia no.3, p.584, 1989 (2 new dogsharks).” That’s kind of nostalgic. I love having the wisdom (and stupidity) of the world at my fingertips on the Net, but I also miss the days of prowling sometimes-musty stacks of magazines and scientific journals, going back a century or more, at whatever university I was near (Purdue, Utah State, University of North Dakota, University of Arkansas, and so on) led to little nuggets of information that you couldn’t find elsewhere, and that no one had stitched into a pattern.
Inside this book I find a photocopied page from the 1989 Smithsonian book Sharks in Question, which says a great white shark definitely over 24 feet long has recently been caught in Australia and the jaws saved.  This one seems to have been forgotten or disproven.  Why was it well regarded in a book that was scrupulously conservative in saying there were no 22-foot white sharks on record?
Back to Under the Sea. There’s a discussion of what’s a dolphin and what’s a porpoise.  We learn that a dolphin named Keiki trained to swim fast to get fish rewards never exceeded 14.5 knots, although much higher speeds are reported in the wild. There is a geophysicist’s argument that continental drift isn’t possible. There is an account of a ship called the Oceaneer trying to catch a sea monster (or a monstrous sleeper shark). A report that the whale shark has “credibly” been reported at 60 feet long. (Modern authorities knock off 10 or 15 feet.)
There is an article about recent pioneering work in bioacoustics, and the discovery that not just whales but fish make a variety of noises. There is research on kelp by William Beebe and later a writer gushing over how the Great Barrier Reef is primeval, unchanging, a permanent source of delight. (We’ve sadly found it may not be so permanent.) There is a study of how the carcasses of long-dead fish in the Antarctic could have worked their way to the TOP of the ice in one spot.
Here we learn about a new phylum, Pogonophora, consisting of worms that had been tossed overboard as annoying “fibers.” The discoveries roll on: the pygmy angelfish, the living fossil Neopilina.
There is another of my handwritten notes: “1960 new sawshark Pristiophorus schroederi.” Named for the pianist in Peanuts? Probably not.
The rousing (and inaccurate) giant squid scene written by Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is here. Then there’s Sir Arthur Grimble’s first-hand tale of horror at having a reef octopus fasten itself to his face and neck, though the beast was too small to do him great harm. There are accounts of octopuses using stones or shells as tools, an ability that seemed to fade from the literature, being only recently restored with claims the first tool-using had been seen.
The book moves on to submarines and then to waves, with an account of the U.S.S. Ramapo’s trangulation of a wave 112 feet tall. The Ramapo was in the conjunction of three low-pressure centers (the perfect storm!) with a barometer down to 28.4 inches. The method of triangulation and why it was accurate even in terrible conditions is carefully explained here. Following items note waves splashing over 133 feet on lighthouses, being measured by a weather ship at 80 feet, and smashing up the liner Michelangelo, breaking bridge windows 81 feet above the waterline.
There's a folded scrap from an ancient email to my AOL address, in the prehistoric days of the 1990s. from British zoologist Karl Shuker, telling me I had crossed up the names of two exotic birds in the newsletter called Exotic Zoology that I used to write.  He was right, of course.
Soule's book contains a plan for a glass diving bell able to descend to 35,000 feet and a submarine to track ocean fish for the Bureau of Fisheries. The designer was Bill McLean of what is now the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, who I’ve written about in conjunction with the Project Pilot air-launched satellite program. Another scientist from the same institution describes a manned station to be built under rock on the seafloor!
Ah, when we could still be awed by Nature – and surprised by notes in books!

The Dusky Seaside Sparrow; Anniversary of Extinction

It will soon be June 17, a sad anniversary in conservation. It was on that day in 1987 that the last dusky seaside sparrow died. If God truly sees the sparrow fall, then that day must have broken His heart.
Several American birds have come to an ignominious end, with the last known specimen dying alone in a zoo.  Thiw was the fate of the passenger pigeon and then of the Carolina parakeet, which officially passed away in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 and 1918 respectively. (There were several sightings of each species and one finding of parakeet eggs after the official extinction dates, but the birds didn't survive much longer if at all.)
The dusky seaside sparrow died out in something of the same manner. A victim of development and mosquito control efforts that eliminated its habitat on Florida's east coast, the dusky's struggle for survival was carried on in the shadow of the ultimate symbol of progress, the gantries of Kennedy Space Center.
The bird's numbers had been dwindling for a long time before a wildlife refuge was established in 1971.
Even then, fires and pesticide use continued to shrink the population, and every year brought fewer sightings.
Ornithologist Herb Kale felt the bird's fate was sealed when, in 1973, it was reclassified from a species to a subspecies. Much more effort is likely to be spent on an animal if it's considered a species, and therefore unique. In addition, bird watchers, an important constituency, lose interest, because subspecies don't count on a birder's "life list." That this reclassification has since been proven correct doesn't change much.

Painting by John James Audubon

In 1979, in a last effort to save the dusky, ornithologists captured five of the six birds they could find. All, including the one who eluded capture, were males. With no dusky females, the rescue team tried to preserve the bird's genes by crossbreeding the males with their closest relative, the Scott's seaside sparrow. This happened in a facility provided by a symbol of development, Walt Disney World, in a gesture mixing altruism and public relations. (Disney at some point proposed the dusky⌐Scott's hybrids be designated a new subspecies called Ammospiza maritimus disnei.)
The last known dusky seaside sparrow, "Orange" (named for his leg band), died on June 17, 1987. Two years later, a storm damaged the roof of the research compound, and the four living dusky⌐Scott's hybrids died or escaped. That was Disney’s version, at least. Author Mark Walters, in his book A Shadow and a Song, wrote that rats actually got into the cage and killed at least two birds. One or two sparrows escaped or were released, and Disney told the storm story to keep from appearing negligent.
If this little bird is genuinely extinct (and the IUCN classified it in 1990), then the moment of its passing is known with saddening precision.

Avise, John C., and William S. Nelson. 1989. "Molecular Genetic Relationships of the Extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow," Science, February 3. Bergman, Charles. 1990. Wild Echoes. New York: McGraw-Hill. \Cadieux, Charles L. 1991. Wildlife Extinction. Washington, D.C.: Stonewall Press.
Walters, Mark J. 1992. A Shadow and a Song. Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
"Dusky Seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens)," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  no date. For Joel Sartore’s image of the last dusky, see this link.