Thursday, July 30, 2015

Time to Howl - it's a new wolf!

Most discoveries of large animals these days (though not all!) are made in the lab, where similar-looking, or "cryptic" species are distinguished from relatives that look much the same.  There are morphological as well as genetic differences behind this identification of a new wolf, though.  The population known as the African golden jackal is, instead, the African golden wolf.  To quote the attached article, "the authors were surprised to learn that African golden jackals are more closely related to grey wolves, even though there are no grey wolves in Africa and even though grey wolves and African golden jackals look dramatically different. "

You'll have to follow the link to see photos, since I try not to post copyrighted material, but it's a beautiful animal and another reminder that we don't know everything about the natural world. 

Here's an old public-domain illustration, which is quite beautiful itself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sea Creatures, Cryptids, and Seals

One of my favorite topics in cryptozoology is "sea monsters" or "sea serpents."  Now, no one believes in giant marine snakes, and very few biological scientists believe in possible sea monsters at all, but there are a lot of people like myself who can't let go of the idea that something peculiar still lurks in the stories and legends of giant, sometimes terrifying creatures from the deep. Some reports are traceable to real creatures, like these oarfish.  And the stories have provided inspiration  for toys, hoaxes - sophisticated or silly - knick-knacks, books, movies, and so on.
The question is - are all such stories dismiss-able?
There's been a spate of recent blog/internet posts on the topic, and some make for intriguing reading.
A common speculation among cryptozoologists is that there's an unknown pinniped (seal) with a long neck.  Seals have surprisingly long necks, though it's often not obvious because there is a lot of fat under the neck fur.  The leopard seal, which is genuinely scary (and it should be, because it's definitely killed humans) looks like a long-necked reptile from some angles.  The species' length is often cited as up to 10 feet, but men from the famed (doomed) exploration ship Endurance killed one as it was attacking and measured it at 12 feet.
I learned that from Karl Shuker's blog. Dr. Shuker (he's one of two Ph.D. scientists in the world who write on the "pro" side of marine cryptids: Darren Naish, much more cautious but still intrigued, is the other), published a two-part blog on the long-necked seal idea.  (Part One, Part Two) He's pretty thorough.  He ends up being very cautious: he notes there's fossil evidence for seals with slightly longer necks than modern ones, but nothing that could be taken for a swan-necked plesiosaur-like animal.  He admits one case really stumps him: a closeup sighting by British lawyer Mackintosh Bell and a cod-fishing crew in 1919.  Bell described his animal so thoroughly at close range that there are only two possibilities: Bell saw a long-necked seal, or the whole account is a lie. (It does not appear the fisherman friends who accompanied him ever set down accounts, so this case does depend on Bell's word, but he stood by it in correspondence with oddities investigator Rupert J. Gould.
Sea monsters are not popular these days: indeed, for most scientists, they never were. (Sir Richard Owen was an early and vociferous critic. I must note his treatment of the Daedalus crew in 1848 was unfair, despite the fact the latter probably saw a giant squid.)  
But the grandfather of modern sea serpent stories, the Gloucester beast, arguably remains not quite explained.  See Craig Woolheater's article for a good review.  The episode started in 1638 and peaked in 1817. It's always been puzzling: it may may forever be puzzling.  Even a cautious authority like Richard Ellis thought something strange had happened.  The oft-invoked (and often true) explanation of "contagion" for "flaps" of odd occurrences seems inadequate: People were reporting big animals of a fairly consistent description that puzzled men who'd spent many years at sea.
In the 21st century, years can pass without a sea serpent report, near Gloucester or anywhere else.  Is whatever animal might be at the basis of sea serpent stories rare, extinct - or was it never real?
I'd like to think it's just rare.  I could be wrong. But I hope I'm not.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sykes' The Nature of the Beast, revisited

The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times
Coronet Books, 2015. 336 pp.

While I write about cryptozoology, I rarely have anything to say about sasquatch: it’s not my area of concentration, and it seems so ridiculous that we’ve missed a huge species in North America that I’d like to write the whole thing off. I can’t quite do that to my satisfaction, though, because intelligent normal humans are still reporting – well, something. This book, though, is so compelling I’m going to analyze it in more depth than I did in my first posting on this subject.

In a field rife with ambiguity, Oxford genetics professor Bryan Sykes tried to do something definitive. He invited sasquatch, yeti, almas, and other assorted unknown-primate hunters to send him their best samples of hair, saliva, blood, etc. (mostly hair), and (using techniques in which he was recognized worldwide as an innovator) he would extract DNA and identify the species. After throwing out obvious known species and samples of doubtful provenance, he had 37 to test and got 30 good results: every one a known species. There was bear, horse, wolf, and human hair (and a raccoon sample from Russia: apparently there was once a release of captured raccoons into this country), but nothing to indicate a nonhuman primate.

Sykes is strongly critical concerning the tendency of cryptozoologists to seize on hair samples that are not identifiable or ignore evidence of contamination, as with the orang-pendek reports that got some people (including me) genuinely excited. The orang-pendek sample was claimed to be halfway between human and ape, an unsupportable and indeed meaningless statement. He finds the work of Dr. Melba Ketchum to be a mess of sloppy amateurism and impossible conclusions. Along the way we learn a lot about genetics and a little about the odd corners of said science: surprisingly, Sykes thinks fabled human-chimpanzee crosses would be infertile but not quite 100% impossible, even though his description of a region called 2T implies strongly that they are. Sykes identified the Russian “ape-woman” Zana as fully human, of southern African descent, apparently almost mute and horribly ill-used. He does wonder if such an exceptionally tall and healthy woman (apparently she was almost 2m tall and extraordinarily athletic) might be descended from an unrecorded African migration tens of thousands of years ago, rather than being a recently escaped slave or the daughter of such (slaves normally being poorly nourished and unhealthy). Such a radical idea, though, needs much more support than Sykes can offer to get any consideration by the larger scientific community.

When it comes to anecdotal evidence, Sykes starts off telling eyewitness stories as fairly as possible, from the viewpoint of the teller. He doesn’t even throw Justin Smeja’s “Sierra Kills” story into the “absurdity” pile, even though most sasquatch-hunters do. He tells of some interesting fieldwork alongside my friend Lori Simmons (of which more later). But when it comes to hard, cold science, he’s adamant: no one sent him a sample of any kind of nonhuman primate, even though he clearly WANTS there to be something incredible behind all this hominid-hunting. Sykes may be stern in his insistence on better science, but he is a friend to cryptozoologists. He did turn up some samples that seemed to be of a very odd bear (a polar bear or brown-polar hybrid in the Himalayas, to be exact), which set off a furor of its own (also discussed below).

Now, back to his work with Lori Simmons, which I use here to highlight what a fascinating, multifaceted cultural phenomenon sasquatch is. Lori takes him to a tree whose roots apparently cover an underground den used by a sasquatch she calls the Big Guy, who her late father discovered. While she has barely glimpsed the Big Guy, she believes she’s communicated with him by leaving food, by stamping her foot (which draws sharp knocks and sometimes growls) and by accustoming him to the sound of her voice: she talks soothingly, as one might to a nervous horse. Sykes is quite taken by all this and wonders if he’s in real danger.

Sykes sets sticky-tape traps around the site but gets only a sample of Lori’s own hair. He visits the tree again with a ranger named Sage Bohme who suggests that a spot about 50 feet up where a big branch on one trunk knocks against another in a way that could send knocking noises down the trunk and mislead people about their place of origin. He wrote to Lori that this seemed plausible but that he was still puzzled by two aspects of the case, the reported growls and the apparent response to Lori stamping her foot are puzzling.

Sykes doesn’t believe Lori’s making things up (nor do I: I don’t know how to interpret some things Lori reports, but I’ve gone on record as denying she’s a hoaxer. Lori has invited me out to try the stomp-and-knock communication in person, and I’ll take her up on that when I can. Definitely not hoaxer behavior). Still, as Sykes notes, it’s easy to ascribe woodland sounds and activities to a creature you think is there, even when you can’t be certain.

Lori, commenting on the book for me, is steadfast, noting Sykes agreed there are still some problems and adding, “I thought Sage's theory was going to be dismissed. The food we left out was taken and consumed on the site. Also in some instances, by the creature having to unwrap chocolate, etc., in order to do it. In one experiment (cryptozoologist) Adam Davies did, it had to unwrap an egg from tissue paper. The egg was consumed, the paper intact. It does not explain the growling, the knocks on the ground, or the increase in intensity in response to our behavior. Also, the frequency of the growls is not dependent on the weather. There was even a time back in March of 2013 at dusk I saw what I believe to be a Bigfoot/Sasquatch only yards from the den.” Lori’s next book, Tracking Bigfoot: the Journey Continues, will tell her side of the adventure.

A comment Lori adds from her dad is worth mentioning: “October 2008: A very deep, guttural sound came from off to my right and near the creek. It kind of resembled an irate brahma bull only with a deeper sound. This sounded very dangerous-what a horrible change after it had been so quiet and peaceful earlier. I stayed still for a few minutes-no sound- so I decided to go against my better judgment and walk slowly towards where I had heard it. I only got about halfway to the creek when I heard a knock sound back and below where I'd just come from: so I did an about-face and headed in that direction, slowly. I went over a small ridge and into a mini valley. It's expertise in camouflage, hiding and superb stealth in the forest or elsewhere, and possible (in my opinion) great strength. Seeing some hardwood trees broken off about twelve feet high convinced me. But, even more impressive was how the big guy jarred the ground I was standing on and could actually make the ground tremble.” You can attribute this to a mix of natural events like storms damaging trees and maybe a bear, but it kind of raises the hackles on your neck.

To go back to Sykes, he published his theory about bears and came under immediate skeptical fire. Writing in Skeptical Inquirer, taxonomists Ron Pine and Eliecer Guiterrez strongly dismissed this work, arguing Sykes was relying on a short DNA sequence that was within the variability of modern brown bears. Sykes took a shot in reply at the overuse of statistics and bioinformatics, and I’m not going to try to work out those arguments, but suffice to say that interest in a potential hybrid bear as the Yeti seems to have dropped off.

Some cryptozoologists have complained that Sykes tested only about a third of the “good” samples (those that were not immediately ruled out on the grounds of unverifiable provenance, obvious artificiality, etc.), but Sykes is on solid ground here: he chose the samples that seemed most likely to represent an unknown primate. He wanted to find such an animal. He did not.

Despite the flaws, this book is an important one. Sykes has taken the best evidence offered by unknown-primate hunters worldwide and shown that it is, without exception, not up to snuff. That doesn’t mean Bigfoot cannot exist, but it means the bar has been raised. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Sykes’ work shows we don’t have it.

In addition to Sykes’ book, sources consulted include:

Personal communications with Lori Simmons: personal communications between Bryan Sykes and Lori Simmons, shared with permission; FaceBook posts by Pine and Sykes: Sharon Hill, “Sykes’ reputation and his Yeti project get slammed,” Doubtful News, April 5, 2015: and Pine and Guiterrez, “No Reason to Believe That Sykes’ Yeti-Bear Cryptid Exists,” Skeptical Inquirer v.39#4, July/August 2015.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Arriving at life's Plutonian shore

We're here. And Pluto, with its huge basic, few craters, and odd color, looks nothing like we might have expected.  So much to learn....

"These are the voyages of the starship NASA.  Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before! "

Congratulations to the New Horizons team!

Hey Mate, you don't don't want to know what we found off Australia

Well, yes, we do.  They're fish apparently designed specifically to look as scary as hell.  A government research vessel with new instrumentation, exploring the bottom off New South Wales, encountered small but totally alien-looking new species.  Have a look. They were exploring a newfound patch of undersea volcanos and were surprised, among other things, to find many larval forms that it was thought developed entirely in coastal waters. Even a science writer is tempted to think, "No, fish like that shouldn't exist."

Friday, July 03, 2015

Pluto - a big surprise (and more to come today)

We expected Pluto to be a ball of frozen rock.  It is, but it's an interesting-looking ball of frozen rock.  The New Horizons spacecraft is giving us our first closeups of the planet (and yes, I will refer to it as a planet, now and forever), It's moon Charon has still-unexplained light-colored patches, and Pluto, which we knew was generally brownish-reddish because the frozen rock is covered in goop called tholins raining from the methane atmosphere, has spotty markings that are oddly regular.  Cue the UFO buffs and the "giant alien bases" claims...

Update: New Horizons has lost contact and gone into "safe mode."  This happens with deep space probes, and many recover, but there's not too much time if we're going to get a closer flyby out of this voyage.)

The faces of Pluto (NASA)
UPDATE: "We're here!"  It's flyby day!  Go, NASA!

Details, answers, and more questions for a planet that appears more complex the closer we get.

For July 4, an explosion of new species

We don't know all the species on this planet.  But how fast are we discovering them? It's still true, as the Times of India quotes a British WWF scientist, that,  "The more scientists look, the more they find."
This particular  compilation covers the discoveries in the Amazon basin over 2010-2013, a total of 441 species. Adorable purring monkeys? Got 'em.  Vegetarian piranha?  We have one of those, too.  Two hundred and fifty-eight plants to go with 84 fish, 22 reptiles, 18 birds, a mammal, and 58 amphibians? Sounds about right.And again, those are just the plants and vertebrates. It's nearly impossible to keep up with the invertebrates: at the high end, entomologist Terry Erwin, whole collects insects so fast he assigns alphanumeric codes because there are too many species to award scientific names as they are found, thinks there could be 30 million tropical beetles, with a huge share of those in the Amazon.

This image from NASA breaks down the many types of habitats found in this area rich in plant and animal life.