Friday, April 18, 2014

Keeping Up with New Species

There are so many species being added continually to the nearly 2 million we know about that it's hard to keep up.  One of the sources helpful in this endeavor is at, where a page is devoted fulltime to the new creatures of the world.  The Newfound Species page does not just include the charismatic vertebrates. The beetles, anemones (did you know an anemone lives in the Antarctic ice? No one did, until recently. Meet it here.), corals, spiders, and others are here along with the reptiles, mammals, fish, and birds. (Sorry, amphibians" you're here too.  I don't know why I always leave you out.) Other recent entire here include an orchid, a scorpion, and the recognition of the second species of oncilla, a handsomely spotted Brazilian feline.  
Another site is the species discovery page of Mongabay articles tend to lean more towards the vertebrates, though not entirely - meet the newest mantises here. There is some overlap, but there are plenty of new species to go around.   The same is true for the New Species News page of ScienceDaily, which today features new sponges and bats.  It also includes some related articles about topics like how to name and track endangered species.
Those sites, plus a Google Alert, keep me reasonably up to date.  (Oh, don't forget to follow National Geographic news, including the Wild & Weird blog.) 
There's a lot to catch up on....

Across the last frontier: John C. Houbolt

John C. Houbolt, Unsung Hero of the Apollo Program, Dies at Age 95

 Houbolt, a critical factor in the race to the Moon, has died at 95. I never met him, but as an "Apollo kid" I certainly watched his work. He was instrumental in selecting the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) plan that got us on the Moon in JFK's public timeline.  As Astra, doc.
From NASA press release:
"In the space race of the 1950s and '60s, the leading voices were rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and ... another guy. Household names included Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard and ... oh, you know, the fellow who pushed the idea of a separate crew capsule and lunar lander. America wouldn't have won the race, the Eagle wouldn't have landed in 1969 and the Apollo 13 crew would never have survived if it weren't for an engineer from [the] NASA Langley Research Center. John C. Houbolt."
So reads a feature on written in 2009 about one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. Houbolt may have never become a household name, but his ideas and contributions to Apollo made it possible to achieve the goal of landing a crew on the Moon and safely returning them by the end of the decade. As a member of of Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been studying various technical aspects of space rendezvous since 1959 and was convinced, like several others at Langley, that lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) was not only the most feasible way to make it to the moon before the decade was out, it was the only way. At the time many scientists thought the only way to achieve a lunar landing was to either build a giant rocket twice the size of the Saturn V (the concept was called Nova) or to launch multiple Saturn Vs to assemble the lunar ship in Earth orbit (an approach known as Earth orbit rendezvous).
In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr. Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically "as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt protested LOR's exclusion from the NASA debate on the Apollo mission profile. "Do we want to go to the moon or not?" the Langley engineer asked. "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option--especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights, and Houbolt's brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: Book of Animal Records

You may think all "record" books have "Guinness" in the titles, as kind of a natural law, but this edition of Mark Carwardine's Book of Animal Records is sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.  It's a lot of fun and is often eye-opening, but its utility is limited by the complete lack of references.

The Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records
Firefly, 2013

The book is colorful, readable, and has an intriguing collection of odd records (the fastest-digging monotreme is the echidna, just in case someone asks)   along with the usual biggest, heaviest, smallest, and all that. It adds up to some 900 records from all over the animal kingdom.  Carwardine is a veteran of wildlife books (I have his Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and the touching Last Chance to See, with Douglas Adams) and is qualified to undertake this endeavor.  Most of the time, his details are accurate, and they are certainly interesting.
Since my current area of interest is marine animals, it was cool to spend some time with the largest pinniped (a southern elephant seal caught in 1913 weighed an estimated 4,000 kg) and the fastest of the seals (the leopard seal's ability to leap onto a flow 2m above the water indicates a launch speed of 22km/hr). On the sirenian side, did you know the Florida manatee has been known to migrate 850km? 
When it gets to records, of course, the whales grab most of the superlatives. The biggest sperm whale brain weighed was 9.2kg.  A blue whale caught in 1931 was weighed in pieces: with an estimate added for lost blood (6.5 metric tons) the whole whale weighed a stupendous 199 mt.  Orcas have been known to prey on 25 species of their fellow cetaceans using their speed (timed at 55.5km/h), smarts, and nasty jaws: one of those prey species is the blue whale, which while not swimming for its life communicates with low-frequency calls at 188 decibels, audible 3,000km away.
The dominant ocean vertebrates, in numbers, are are the fishes, and we learn plenty of nuggets about them:  puffer fish kills 30 people a year in Japan, while the top location for shark attacks in the years 2000-2011 is Florida (281). There are 410 species of sharks (a number probably already obsolete) and 42 are "known or suspected" of taking at least the occasional bite out of a human. (I wish there was a list provided: I've never seen an estimate that high.)
There is the occasional moment of clunky writing: e.g., coelacanths "have been dubbed as 'living fossils.'" There is also the occasional mistake. The claim on page 195 that marine biologists in 1963 saw an oarfish 15m long is flat wrong: the animal was a nearly-transparent invertebrate. Speaking of invertebrates, a deep-water crustacean in the genus Gigantocypris has, according this the text, better night vision than any living animal, though you have to read a bit further to learn Carwardine means the most sensitive, in terms of f-number (0.25).  The author gives a maximum weight of 272kg for the Pacific giant octopus, a number disputed in other references, though he adds a cautious note on the cephalopods by  saying there's no evidence for the monster Octopus giganteus once believed to have been stranded in 1896.  Also speaking of the invertebrates, they get short-changed a bit here: there are only 41 pages on them, despite their vastly outnumbering the vertebrates.
The question of dueling sources brings me to the huge problem with this book. There are no sources. No footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography.  While it's understood Carwardine was going for the interest of popular audiences and wasn't trying to write a textbook, having NO references just flummoxes me.  With them, this book could have been terrific: instead, it's always interesting but rarely authoritative. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Farewell, Peter Matthiessen

A great writer and conservationist has passed on.  Peter Mattheissen lived 86 years and made full use of every one. He traveled all over the world, writing about the people and the planet with a style that was unmatched for bringing readers into the scene: not just with technical descriptions, but with a spiritual understanding.  I remember him best for the moody, unforgettable Himalayan journey in The Snow Leopard (in which, among other things, he pondered the Yeti mystery), and Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, in which he followed the filming of the groundbreaking documentary Blue Water, White Death. Seeing a white shark up close, he wrote memorably that its black eye was " as "impenetrable and empty as the eye of God." Others know him for his award-winning novels, which I must admit I haven't read. He also took considerable interest in the sasquatch question, attending the first scientific conference on the subject and linking it to Native American folklore about the "Big Man." 
Goodbye to a man who did so much for the world.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Amazing specimen: an albino marlin

A New York woman caught (and released, which this article doesn't make clear) a fish no one had ever seen: an albino marlin. Caught off Costa Rica, the fish was so remarkable a taxidermy company promised her a replica mount for free. 
This was an Atlantic Blue Marlin Makaira nigricans, a fish that can reach 5m in length and over 600kg.  So the albino specimen wasn't any sort of size or weight record, but it was still an impressive fish. Some authorities think this species may swim as fast as 80km/hr (43 knots for us American sailors). Albinos generally don't do well in the wild: not only are they sun-sensitive, which may affect feeding opportunities even for an ocean-going fish, but they stand out to both predators and prey. It was an Atlantic Blue that figured in the most famous fishing novel ever, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a novel I never got around to reading until 2013 but liked a lot. Here's a lovely animated adaptation. (Caution, not sure who has rights to this)

Crab-walking the ocean floor

The number and types of tools we have for probing the oceans grows every year.  Robot tuna, sharkfin cameras, and free-swimming and tethered ROVs are extending our vision and reach into the depths.
One thing we can't do yet is crawl - that is, crawl along the seafloor like a spider would, investigating caves, wrecks, and sea life up close.  This Korean invention is out to change that. Looking like a portable generator that grew legs, the 650-kg Crabster 2000 will give us a view we've never had before. It carries sonar and visual imaging systems, though more sensors and tools will be added later, and specialized versions may be developed. Making future versions able to swim "like turtles" is another objective.  Much depends on how it does in initial sea trials now underway. 
The Crabster 2000 isn't capable of everything. The initial model only goes to 200m and crawls at 10cm.minute.  But it's an interesting concept that may pay off big for oceanography.