Thursday, January 29, 2015

The biggest things in the sea

There's a lot of fun (as well as science) involved in wondering just how big various types of marine life can grow. 

Take sharks, for example - specifically, great whites. The maximum size of the great white is a recurring theme on every marine life website (and always will be: people sometimes seem ready to punch each other over a difference of centimeters), but the "McCosker-Ellis Limit" (there, I just named it)  of approximately 7m/22 feet still stands for physically measured sharks.  (Ellis was the first author on the book just cited: somehow, putting it the other way sounds better when I say it. No offense meant, Richard.)
However, I finally took the time to dig up a reference I'd used in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence, an article from Science where Dr. John Randall (who gets credit for being conservative based on his cutting in half the estimates for the extinct giant C. megalodon) reported that bites on a whale carcass indicated a shark of about 7.5m.

This terrific image, this Nat Geo article, and the paper they were based on looked at the biggest creatures of various types (it didn't look at all the orders or families: no one cares what the biggest cycliophoran is, no matter how important is it to science.)  (OK, the answer is about 350 millionths of a meter.)

Everyone will get a bity of an eye-opener: I didn't realize (or had forgotten) that southern elephant seals could weigh a mind-boggling 5mt, or that a whale shark had been measured at 18.8m.  On the other hand, the authors shrunk the giant squid, widely reported at 17-18m, to 12m: the longer figures, they believe, were based on bad measurements and the tendency of observers to stretch the tentacles on stranded specimens out far too much. I am still inquiring about the nearly 24m sperm whale: other sources put the record at 20.7m, ascribed to a bull killed in 1950. Ellis' book The Great Sperm Whale mentions that there are two teeth 28cm/11in long in a museum, where the normal length is 20cm/8 inches: perhaps they were extrapolating.

We think of invertebrates (besides the octopus and squid) as small, but there are jellyfish 2m across, barrel sponges 2.5m wide, and isopods (think of the biggest roach you ever saw, give it gills, and blow it up in size) 50cm long. Someone in the comments on the Nat Geo site noted the absence of siphonophores, which are longer than blue whales, but I suppose colonial creatures don't count as one unit.

As an extra note on jellyfish, cryptozoological literature often contains a description of a monster jellyfish weighing at least a metric ton washed onto the bow of the steamer Kuranda in the South Pacific in 1973: the steamer could not get free of it and had to be rescued by a seagoing tug, the Hercules, which washed the mess off with high-pressure hose.  Despite claims a sample was scientifically verified to be a jellyfish, I've given up on this report: it all traces back to a newspaper clipping and nothing else, and all I can document from Web searches is that the Hercules, at least, was a real ship, and that doesn't get us very far. (Author Richard Weiner claims to have seen a 15-m jellyfish while scuba diving on the other side of the world, but that seems to be the only such report, and I set that one, too, aside.) I'm ready to accept around 2m as the max for a jellyfish. 

The authors note these are maximum sizes, and the average is usually much smaller.  But everyone, including me, is fascinated by the upper end.  I went to the Whales: Giants of the Deep museum exhibit and watched children crawl through a blue whale's heart.  For me, the amazement never ends


Wednesday, January 28, 2015


All those years ago...29 to be exact... I was driving home after a 27-hour shift as commander of a Titan II ICBM crew in Little Rock, AR, when I heard it on the news. The shuttle Challenger had exploded.
I raced home, and my wife had the TV on. I watched the launch about three times, thinking in missile-man terms about what was happening with the engines, boosters, etc.  Then I pointed to a pink-orange glow between the solid-fuel booster and the main tank.  "That shouldn't be there," I said. I wasn't sure what it was: I just remember saying repeatedly, "It shouldn't be there." Then I decided, "It's either a burn-through from the booster or some kind of hydrogen leak." A few more viewings and the stream of expert and non-expert commentary narrowed it down.  I wondered if the solid fuel had been mispoured or mishandled so there was a crack in it.  It didn't occur to me at first that joint was bad: I'd seen a lot of solid-fuel rockets and missiles, in person and on TV, and I'd never seen or even read about a problem with a joint.

It turned out almost no one suspected the joint. Almost.
Goodbye Ellison, Christa, Greg, Judy, Mike, Dick, and Ron.    It may be presumptuous to call them by their first names when I never met any of them.  But we all knew them. 
They were us.
Ad Astra.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Celebrating Tetrapod Zoology's 9th Birthday!

Dr. Darren Naish has published his blog, now carried by Scientific American, for nine years now. In that time, Tetrapod Zoology has opened countless drawers in the great vault of Nature, presenting us with current, insightful analysis of new animal discoveries, mysteries, cryptozoological claims, advances in taxonomy, and controversies. He has T-shirts (throughout Western civilization, T-shirts are an important mark of having arrived!), podcasts, and even a comic series with Ethan Kocak that explores  topics you and I have never thought to write a comic about, from the name of the white rhino (which is decidedly not white) to the antics of a sloth that likes to break into outhouses and eat the contents (really).  There's also a book taken directly from the blog and other books contributing to new views of dinosaurs and of the creatures of cryptozoology.  Oh, and in his not-so-secret identity as a dedicated paleontologist, he's also found time to describe a new species of sauropod dinosaur among other scientific papers created or contributed to.  His publication list is darned impressive..

Darren can be blunt about lousy science, he can be funny, he can be wrong (and admit it), and he can be sternly dismissive (as with the wilder claims of cryptozoology).  He can also, however, embrace the mysterious and the weird.  He holds open the possibility there is an undiscovered long-necked pinniped behind some "sea serpent" tales, has speculated on a giant form of orangutan behind unknown-primate reports in SE Asia,  and is always open to new ideas.  That makes him one of the few Ph.D's willing to listen to everyone in the complex, cacophonous, overlapping worlds of zoology, cryptozoology, and paleontology.

So congratulations, Darren, and many more years! 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

New species of 2014

There are several collections of species described in 2014, but here is the International Institute for Species Exploration's list of the Top 10. Keep in mind this is 10 out of approximately 18,000! 
Pride of place goes to the impossibly cute Olinguito  (Bassaricyon neblina), a round-faced, furry raccoon relative from the Andes (Columbia and Ecuador).  Scientists complain that too much attention is given to "charismatic species," mostly mammals, but the fact is you can get people to contribute money to save habitat for pandas, and you can't do that for a new earthworm, so a new poster animal is welcome. 
The only other vertebrate on the list is the leaf-tailed gecko.  The others are small invertebrates, with the striking exception of Kaweesak's Dragon Tree from Thailand - a beautiful tree that can be 12m tall. 
Return to a moment to that figure of 18,000 and remember that this is pretty typical. We haven't run out of new creatures to find. What we are running out of, in far too many cases, is time. 

Olinguito (photo Smithsonian)

Event for Colorado readers: Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea is a superb book: I gave it five stars on Amazon.  These authors are in Boulder tonight and at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science tomorrow night. Weather permitting, I'll be at the Museum meeting!