Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Monster Shrimp From Hell

Actually, this thing couldn't hurt you. If couldn't even if it still existed. But it LOOKS like something from a James Cameron movie out to filet swimming humans alive.  Some 520 million years ago, Tamisiocaris borealis was one of the biggest animals on the planet at 70cm in length, and it cut a deadly swath - through plankton, at least. One of the odder results (and that's saying something) of the Cambrian explosion, the new predator was found in Greenland in a formation that, half a billion years ago, was located in the tropics. There was a bloom in the population of shrimplike creatures at the time, so these hard-shelled, appendage-waving creatures grew bigger. The group T. borealis belonged to, the anomalocarids, include species up to a possible 2m long and are most commonly classed as "stem arthropods" - that is, they were on the line leading to the arthropods, which today number over a million species at the very least and include everything from insects to lobsters.  (That's right: the roach you're stepping on is related to the lobster you're about to eat.  Yum.)
Evolution on Earth made so many experiments that we will never catalog them all.  Some fossils will always be too rare, too small, or too fragile, and of course many tiny invertebrates and microbes left no records at all.  But what we can know, and what we do know, is endlessly expanding and endlessly fascinating. 

The Universe Keeps Unfolding

In the spirit of the new COSMOS series (which is great, by the way), we are seeing discovery unfold every day as our telescopes and probes extend our senses into the vastness.

In the last month, this is what's happened:

As we all know, Pluto was demoted to a "minor planet" in a decision that, as we all know, was wrong.  Be that as it may, it's now clear Pluto isn't the minor planet furthest from Earth. 2012 VP113 has that designation.  It's so far out it's not clear how it was ever captured by the gravity of the Sun in the first place: its orbit averages 83 astronomical units (83 times the 93 million mile distance from the Earth to the sun) and, as astronomer Chad Trujillo put it, "Nothing that we currently know in the solar system can make objects that are so distant all the time, that never come close to any of the planets."

Nearer to home, finger-shaped objects that appear and disappear on Mars could - could - be evidence that water flows seasonally on the surface of the planet.   This phenomena was spotted, not by NASA or by a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer, but by undergraduate Lujendra Ojha.  (Keep going, kid: that Nobel Prize could be yours someday.)

Further from home, on the other hand, we have new extrasolar planets - 715 of 'em.  Talk about seeking out new worlds.
Gene Roddenberry, somewhere, is smiling.

Again, this is ONE MONTH of exploration.  Think about that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relaunching The First Space Race

This is cool.  My 2004 book The First Space Race: Launching the first Satellites (co-authored by Erika Lishock, with Foreword  by Dr. James Van Allen, is being relaunched as part of the publisher's expanded line of space books.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Anniversary - Robert Goddard's first launch

88 years ago today, Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket.  For space exploration, this was a moment akin to what the Wright brothers did at Kitty Hawk 23 years earlier.  Goddard's rocket used gasoline and liquid oxygen and solved the problem of stability by the unique device of putting the engine at the top of the rocket instead of the bottom. Goddard would go on to make enormous strides in all areas of rocket technology.  It's tragic that he didn't live to see the first satellites, but NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is only one of many tributes maintained today to the father of liquid-fueled rocketry.  Hats off, Dr. Goddard!

A cold-blooded lizard that likes the cold?

This striking new lizard from Peru prefers an unusual habitat - cold mountain streams.  The article doesn't say how much time the animal spends in the water vs. sunning itself (which it must do), but it's one more reminder that life is endlessly adaptable.  When we have, for example, crabs that live almost entirely on land and get as big as trashcan lids (dustbin lids for you British readers), fish that prefer to be on land (a tiny Brazilian catfish will instantly get out of the water if placed in it), and animals that flourish in superheated, poisoned water around hydrothermal vents, we should always keep in mind that "Life finds a way" isn't just a line from a movie. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

FIRST legislation not a good prescription for science

I rarely mention anything about politics or legislation in this space, but this rates an exception: not just because my good friend. Dr. Cherie McCollough, whose thinking I greatly respect, sent me an alert on this, but because it'll shape U.S. government science-related polities for years to come.
The House is debating a new act to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, but the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186) includes some questionable provisions that have a whole lot of scientists upset. 
A lot of the hubbub concerns a major cut to the social and behavioral sciences.  As valuable as these can be (although everyone has a "silliest grant" story), I'll let other people fight that one: the right balance between social science and hard science funding is beyond my expertise.
There are some logical things in the bill: the need for a "no fraud" statement from each researcher might be seen as duplicative, but I like having it clearly in law.   There are also head-scratchers: what's the relevance of saying "A maximum of five citations in any grant proposal?" But my major problems are twofold:
1.  The bill doesn't give the NSF and NIST the needed growth ("topline" in Washington parlance) to keep pace with research and educational needs in a fast-changing, technology-driven world.  Even granting there are competing needs and yawning deficits, NSF/NIST funding has to be protected and at least modestly boosted if we're going to be a leading nation in science, technology, and commerce.   
2. The biggest puzzler is the access provisions. If the taxpayers fund work, the taxpayers should get access to it, free or at cost.  There's an existing understanding that publishers of papers can withhold free access for 12 months, but this bill would extend that to two to three years instead of reducing it. That's crazy.

Here's an interview with the author, Rep. Lamar Smith, where he explains his thinking. He seems to focus entirely on some questionable grants to the exclusion of the bigger picture, although the interviewer could have done a better job of probing for specifics.  
If you agree he's gotten it wrong, here's his contact information.  Tell him what you think. Don't be shy. Last I checked, Congress still works for us.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peruvian Mystery Cats: strange-looking jaguars after all

Are there undiscovered big cat species in the world?
It's possible, but one very promising lead has been run to ground.

This is a case I worked on myself: I took Peter Hocking, the discoverer of one and possibly two possible new cats in Peru, to Denver to meet with a mammologist several years ago, but all we had were photographs of a skull, and Dr. Cheri Jones, the expert at the Denver museum, thought that inconclusive.  Hocking thought his “speckled tiger” might actually a be a jaguar, but a previously unknown color morph, while the “striped tiger” (reportedly rufous in color with white vertical stripes) was more likely to be a new species.  If this proved true, Hocking would have had the first new big cat species described in nearly a century and a half.  

If only.

Now another friend of mine, Darren Naish, has taken up the case. He and his collaborators, including Hocking, have been disappointed.  It appears the Peruvian finds must have been unusual jaguars - VERY unusual, in terms of reported coat color, but otherwise that trail has petered out.   When reading this paper, also note the excellent recap of recent mammal discoveries and discovery trends. We have by no means catalogued all the mammals of Earth.
Here's the paper!


Friday, March 07, 2014

Sailing another 20,000 Leagues?

Disney's film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a masterpiece 60 years ago and has held up pretty well.  Two TV remakes in 1997 tried to outdo each other for sheer awesome stupidity and general suckiness (they had some decent actors, but what they did with them...ugghh.)  

There was almost another remake, and it looked darn good.  The concept artist whose work is reproduced here designed a terrific submarine using 19th-century ideas, forgoing the iconic nature of Disney's sub for something more Vernian. The Disney sub is terrific to look at, both menacing and artistic, but it must have had, based on the sets in the film, an interior far bigger than its exterior, making it sort of an unintentional pre-Doctor Who seagoing TARDIS.  The squid-faced sub in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels was very cool, while the ocean-liner-size craft in the film version of League was as ridiculous as the rest of the movie.  Here's a great page collecting all the Nautilus designs from Verne's day onwards.

Verne used a lot of sea creatures, most of them depicted inaccurately even for the knowledge of his day and some of them terribly wrong (I still want to see a shark streaming phosphorescence).   But the novel was a work of genius, and it still is.  If there's a another remake - and it's rather inevitable there will be one - I hope it not only reflects the rousing storytelling of Verne's original, but all we've learned about the ocean and its creatures - some of them beyond knowledge or even imagination for an author writing in 1870. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Awesome video - wolves and ecology in Yellowstone

How wolves change the state of rivers.

OK, wolves are awesome all by themselves.  But this short video illustrates what happens when you remove a key piece from an ecosystem.

It really is all connected.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Wrapping up my thoughts on Ketchum-Sasquatch affair

I'd actually written this topic off, but I posed a question to Dr. Ketchum on FaceBook, and she was polite enough to engage in an exchange. I appreciate that.  But I came away  dismissing the entire topic.

I'm not an expert on the genetics, but exactly one person who is (Dr. Swenson) has endorsed the work, while every other qualified person has either ignored it, dismissed it, or is (if supportive, as Melba Ketchum claims some are)  has remained anonymous.  She sees this as irrational fear and rejection of good evidence. I can't see it that way: it's too overwhelming. 

Dr. Ketchum also insists that some samples were taken directly from a living sasquatch under close observation.  Here's where I had, to, with great reluctance, reach the personal opinion that she and others involved are not just reaching incorrect conclusions or using flawed evidence, but that at least some people involved here are not telling the truth.    

If you have a sasquatch under close observation, there are only three possibilities:
1. You're motivated by money. In this case, you'd have taken clear video to a major media outlet a long time ago.
2. You're motivated by science. In this case, you'd take clear video and more samples to an academic or government office. (If you're not believed, you'd bring in reporters.)
3. You're motivated by the sincere belief that the best thing you can do for the species is to keep it secret. I could understand this, but, if this were your logic, you'd never release ANY samples or video.

Concerning the people observing the alleged specimen, Dr. Ketchum's last comment was, "It is not my place to comment on somebody else's business."  When I posted the analysis above, she made a post saying that, if I was calling these people liars, then I was calling her a liar.  That post was quickly deleted.  She insisted that the video released was poor quality due to technical difficulties. (No one outside the community of existing sasquatch believers thinks it's in any way genuine.) She added, "I repeat, I do not have any control over the footage so it is a moot point to discuss it. Yes, the samples were controlled and the DNA testing matched the physical attributes of the one in the film."

Very well.  She has made her position clear: and, again, I appreciate her time. However, my thought as a science writer who has tried to keep an open mind on this and on sasquatch in general is that there is no fact behind all this kerfluffle, and nothing that advances science or conservation will ever come of it.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Putting the kibosh on prehistoric survivors?

Sharon Hill, geologist, skeptic, and Sounds Sciencey columnist, has given the boot (boot? Hill? Get it?)  to the claims that prehistoric survivors are still roaming around causing cryptozoologists to get all excited.  She has a number of major points, one being that the coelacanth is  not enough to make a logical link with any claims of living  plesiosaurs. (Actually, I'm almost getting tired of Old Fourlegs, a marvelous discovery, but one that apparently be trotted out forever in arguments over cryptozoology.) Hill notes that neither Central Africa nor any other spot on Earth is unchanged since the Mesozoic era, a point hammered home in the African case by Louis Jacobs in his book Quest for the African Dinosaurs.

She dismisses two of the most famous corpses in sea serpent history, noting they were in advanced stages of decay.  I had to push back a little there:  the 1937 Naden Harbor "Cadborosaurus," while clearly beat up, was not described in the contemporary accounts as being in "an advanced state of decomposition." There's still something odd about that damned thing: while it does resemble a decayed basking shark, it puzzles me that the vertebral column would have stayed intact for so long while the whale was digesting it, given the combination of chemical and muscular processes going on.. (While I wrote in 2006 that there are no accounts of sperm whales swallowing basking sharks, Richard Ellis mentions one in his book on the sperm whale, a 14-foot shark to be precise, so we can agree such a swallowing can happen.) It probably was a known creature of some sort, and Bousfield and LeBlond overreached in making it the type specimen of a new reptile. It's just not resolved quite as definitely as I'd like. 
The article raises and interesting question: if there is a decent body of sightings of a large animal, is it more likely to be a survivor which has left no fossil remains for a very long time, or a more recent development which has somehow left no remains at all?

Hauling in a giant squid

It was possible, only 20 years ago, for Richard Ellis to write that confusion of "sea serpents" and giant squids was made all the more possible by the fact that no one alive had ever seen a live giant squid for certain, so how they would look and act near the surface was open to question.  Sightings of giant squid are still extremely rare - I count one confirmed underwater sighting by humans and two videos, plus a few instances of catches on the surface - so they are still newsworthy.
Here's a new one, a catch made by a Japanese fisherman who got a rope on the squid and hauled it in still alive (it died shortly thereafter). It was about 4m long and would have been twice that if the long tentacles had been intact.  Mr. Okamoto is a shell diver who had the weirdly unsettling experience of a having a giant squid swim above him - as in, between an unarmed human and the nice normal world of the surface. Fortunately, it apparently was in no shape to cause trouble.
Fatal interactions between humans and giant squid (fatal to the human, that is), are stuff of legend, but may have happened, especially in a World War II incident in the Atlantic, where survivors reported that people had been pulled from makeshift rafts: one fellow turned up on the old Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World TV show to display dime-sized scars on his leg.
So giant squid are  still mysterious.  Good for them :)