Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The fate of Steller's sea cow

The known history of Steller's sea cow is well known, tragic, and short.  In 1741, naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was shipwrecked on Bering Island.  This is one of the Komandorski Islands, which lie between Kamchatka and the Aleutians. There he and his companions met the sea cow.  It was a huge plant-eating mammal, up to 35 feet long, with a bilobed tail like a whale's and a placid disposition that made it easy to approach (and to harpoon).   After Steller's crew finally returned to civilization, sealers and other voyagers began stopping off in the sea cow's haunts to slaughter the inoffensive mammals for their meat.   By 1768, the species had apparently been hunted to extinction.
There are a few odd data bits about the sea cow that hint-just hint - it hung on a little longer.  Native hunters reported killing them as late as 1780. Early Russian colonizers of Bering Island reported sighting sea cows in the 1830s.  Fifty years later, the explorer Nordenskiold returned from the region with a sea cow skeleton of unknown age and a tale of a live sighting from 1854.  In 1910, fishermen in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr reported a sea cow stranded on the beach, but the report was never investigated. Other Russian sightings in 1962 and 1977 came to nought.
Now we have some science indicating that the animal's range was, in fact, greater than we thought - although, alas, they don't hint at survival but at an earlier extirpation event.    It extended, not west or south as sometimes suggested, but north to Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. Bones collected from the island were spotted at a handicrafts show in faraway Atlanta, Georgia (USA), having been made into knife handles, and the provenance traced to St. Lawrence.  They were analyzed by the team of Lorelei D. Crerar , Andrew P. Crerar , Daryl P. Domning , and E. C. M. Parsons.  (They also offer some older history I was unaware of: that "According to the fossil record, animals in the genus Hydrodamalis inhabited coastal waterways from Japan through the Aleutian Island chain to Baja California during the Late Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene. Hydrodamalis gigas was still present in the Aleutian Islands and central California less than 20 000 years ago." )  

The St. Lawrence population was apparently wiped out or driven out by Yup'ik  hunters around 900 AD.  So it is that one of the most fascinating animals in modern history met its fate as the hands of hungry humans: not once, but twice.  
Other references: 
Haley, Delphine.  1978.  "The Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History, November.
Mackal, Roy.  1980.  Searching for Hidden Animals.  New York: Doubleday.
Stejneger, Leonhard.  1936.  Georg Wilhelm Steller.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard  Press.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New species swing in

As I like to point out, we get a lot of new species every year. Most are tiny invertebrates you wouldn't notice even if you stepped on them (especially since you would be on the bottom of the ocean and therefore drowning), but the mammals, birds, sharks, etc. keep coming too.

A Field Museum expedition to a white-sands forest - an environment I didn't know existed - came up with three new plants, four frogs, four fish, and a titi monkey of striking coppery appearance  made of which one scientist said, "none of the experts... have seen this coloration before, and there isn't anything like it in the Museum."

Never stop exploring!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book review: The Species Seekers

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
Richard Conniff
W. W. Norton & Company (2010)

In this excellent book, Richard Conniff introduces us to the scientists, naturalists, dilettantes, and others (from the brilliant to the crazy) who contributed so much to the natural history we know. While the focus is on zoology as developed by European and American seekers, this also works as a history of the natural sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. This period saw hunting for new species raised to a manic level it's never attained before or since. When professional scientists were few, species-hunters came from every walk of life - doctors, sea captains, hunters, and women, who didn't get their due then and don't really get it now. (I had no idea that Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, was a bona fide expert on the fungi who was shunned by organized science in England.) Conniff creates an especially vivid portrait of Mary Kingsley (who died young in 1900), who was as daring a field collector as anyone. 

I've often thought a book could be written strictly on the scientific contributions of missionaries: Conniff does not neglect them, recounting Father Armand David's many daring discoveries in China. The famous names like Darwin are here, of course, but along the way we also meet such men as Walter Rothschild, who proved a hopelessly incompetent banker (the family has basically erased him from its history) but a keen naturalist and a funder of major collecting expeditions: Paul Du Chaillu, who made countless real contributions but also created the myth of ferocity among gorillas, and the men and women who supported the more famous naturalists (one item that sticks in my mind is Sir Richard Owens' wife's diary entry about coming home to find a dead rhinoceros in her no-doubt-immaculate front hall.) 
Some of the naturalists here may have hastened the demise of species by taking specimens seemingly without limit, but others foresaw the need to start protecting the natural world. Their discoveries also contributed greatly to the development of the idea of natural selection and to its subsequent refinement. Conniff presents this in roughly chronological order, and it's fascinating to follow the narrative as naturalists slowly put the pieces together and began to understand such concepts as ecosystems and natural selection pressures.  Conniff gives us these people as they lived, not ducking the racism, sexism and imperialism that plagued even the greatest minds of the day, but not wallowing in it either. This thoroughly researched and superbly written book is a time machine to the great era of species-hunting, and I cannot imagine any student of the natural sciences who will not enjoy the ride immensely.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Skeptic and the Sasquatch

I haven't spent much time on sasquatch lately.  I'd have snorted "impossible" and closed the file a long time ago if it wasn't for the uncomfortable fact that there are sober, intelligent citizens who insist they've gotten a good look at it.
The investigators for the North American Wood Ape Conservancy (NAWAC) (who I always liked, even if their name implies preexisting belief in a "wood ape," for renaming the phenomenon so they could start fresh) didn't get a close look, but they did what is, compared to most of the dreck in this business, a very careful investigation over a four-year period that collected a lot of secondary evidence, from thermal images to rock-throwing, that couldn't be easily explained. I still would have passed it by if it were not for Sharon Hill, a geologist and a well-respected, smart skeptic who runs  the Doubtful News blog. Sharon read the report and agreed that a lot of this was very puzzling and needed answers to questions like (my wording) "Who trekked many miles into the wildest part of Oklahoma just to heave rocks at bigfoot hunters?" She wrote a very good post on it.
She has never, and does not now, endorse sasquatch as a real animal. She looked objectively at the report and agreed the investigators seemed sincere, didn't leap to conclusions, and had genuinely puzzling experiences.  (Here's the report.)
Well, you'd think Sharon had come out foursquare for demon-hunting, poltergeists, and New Age medicine.  Some of the comments from fellow skeptics focused on the report itself ("chock full of assumptions" was one fairly reasonable line) and others dismissed Sharon's seeming indulgence of such nonsense. One skeptic dismissed it with, "I'm astounded that any of this could be considered evidence."  
Now there are a lot of sincere people looking for sasquatch, and there are a lot of publicity-seeking idiots, and there are certainly hoaxers.  And missing one of the largest species in North America seems, on the face of it, not possible.  But the response went a little - well, unscientific.  No one accused Sharon directly of being an idiot, but a lot of them implied it, and, while some did read the original report, others flatly refused to.   (My favorite line posted in defense of the investigation was,  "Drunken hillbillies would have to be little more than brain dead to be hanging out in this very remote area, over a four year period, looking for an opportunity to throw rocks at investigators who are brandishing rifles.") As Sharon put it, “Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real.”
The point I'm getting at here is that Sharon considered the evidence and published a well-reasoned, objective review knowing full well that it would not go over well with some of her friends.  Her approach was scientific, just as it was when she destroyed the Melba Ketchum idiocy. The NAWAC people have not proven sasquatch exists: they have proven they encountered a lot of puzzling incidents. That's all Sharon said. Fellow skeptics shouldn't be taking her to the woodshed for it.
Press on, my friend.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An interview with Cryptomundo.com

One of the most popular cryptozoology sites, host for some great debates, is www.cryptomundo.com.  So I was happy to answer questions posed by moderator Craig Woolheater about my novel The Dolmen, which I think of as horror but certainly has a cryptozoological premise.

Craig carried an announcement when it came out and has now followed up by posting the interview. Thank you!

Monday, March 09, 2015

Seas, Sharks, and Serpents

My current nonfiction project is a tome on the discovery and legends of marine life, covering creatures new, remarkable, and mythical.  The idea is to present the wondrous discoveries we're making in the context of our long and fractious love affair with the oceans themselves.

I was originally hoping for 2014, but that date went by pretty fast. I'd hoped to get it out this year, but no luck: there's just too much recent material to digest. So here we are looking at early 2016.  I hate missing deadlines, but there's a good reason: to make the book better.


Add a new moth to your closet.

Thanks to correspondent Laurence Clark Crossen, I need to add another newly discovered species, the enigma moth of Australia's Kangaroo Island.  The tiny, handsome gold and purple moth is referred to (inaccurately) as a "living dinosaur moth." What's special about it? It carries many "primitive" traits that go tens of millions of years back in moth evolution. So scientists are very happy to see it alive. (I don't know what a "living dinosaur moth" would actually look like - maybe like Mothra in the Godzilla movies? )

Exciting new species - as usual

If this blog has a purpose, it's to remind people there are still discoveries to make in the natural universe, from Earth's jungles to the remotest stars.

So we have some things to celebrate!

First, from Myanmar, welcome back Jerdon's babbler (Chrysomma altirostre altirostre). This bird, perhaps overlooked because it's one of the hundreds of species ornithologists refer to, sometimes despairingly, as LBJs (little brown jobs), vanished 73 years ago.  Scientists have just published the news that they rediscovered the bird last year in the Bago region of Myanmar.  They targeted it by looking for patches of suitable habitat (grassland, in this case)  in the known range that had not been logged, burned, developed, or otherwise ravaged in the interim.

Now we've got even bigger news, a new primate. There are over 30 species of the diminutive monkeys called titis (genus Callicebus) in South America.  The largest are not even a half-meter long, and several species look considerably alike (known as cryptid species), all of which makes discovery a challenge. Nevertheless, the challenge has been met.  Welcome Callicebus miltoni, unmistakable with its long orange tail.

I can't find non-copyrighted photos of either yet, but follow the links and meet our new (and old) neighbors!

I'm back - literally


This blog has not been update in some weeks.  I must plead distraction: I was preparing from back surgery and then recovering from it.  I'm back!

And speaking of bones like the ones my surgeon was messing with, here's a great photo my daughter took of the Dunkleosteus skull in the museum on the University of Nebraska campus, where she attends.