Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

  • The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil-Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution
  • 408 pages
  • Columbia University Press; 2015

I'm almost through reading Donald R. Prothero's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.  It's a genuinely excellent book, focusing mostly on  the key transition fossils between groups but also including some crowd-pleasers like T.rex.  He includes very well-written accounts of the human beings, like Mary Anning, who did so much to bring the past to life.  For the cryptozoologists, he takes a swipe at Loch Ness (a bit too harsh on the witnesses, but his scientific points are valid) and another at the supposed African sauropod mokele-mbembe (again, right on the science, harsh on the people),  He visits the endlessly interesting question of how big certain animals, like everyone's favorite giant shark C. megalodon, got to be. He is very insistent that the maximum sizes accorded in popular media are exaggerated, sometimes hugely: examples include pliosaurs, plesiosaurs (except for the long-necked elasmosaurs, he doubts any marine reptiles exceeded 13m), and fishes like Leedsichthys, which was once accorded a length over 25m but now seems about a third that size, placing Meg as the largest fish of any type ever in his reckoning. He does not include gigantopithecus, which I thought should be here on account of its displaying the size limit for primates, but there's plenty in this book for the paleontologist, the cryptozooloogist, and the general enthusiast of all things zoological.   The section of fossils, presented in timeline order, explains how each major group we know today (and some no longer with us) evolved, and how strong the transitional fossil record is - half-turtles, half-snakes, half-plesiosaurs, etc. abound in these well-illustrated pages.  Everyone, even those of us laypeople who think ourselves well-read,  will learn a few things: I didn't realize that the idea of feathers as modified scales had a competing theory.

A few nitpicks: the icthyosauyrs certainly did not have a speed limit of 1.2 km an hour - some kind of misprint there. And Loch Ness was searched by sonar, not radar - a very different thing.  When talking of sauropods, he doesn't address the recent attempt to resurrect Brontosaurus as a proper name.
This is a great Christmas present for any natural-history lover on your list.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Martian and much more

Well, I finally saw The Martian, and, as someone who devoured the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's hard to make a movie like this, where one character has three-fourths of the screen time: the actor has to be perfect. Fortunately, Matt Damon was exactly right for Mark Watney. The movie's many omissions compared to the book were generally well-chosen, given that so much material had to be edited out, There were only a couple of oddities (Wouldn't his first question to NASA have been "Is the crew alive?" Wouldn't NASA have brought his parents in once communication was established?).
Unlike most space films, there are no imperious bureaucrats on Earth: Jeff Daniels as the NASA Administrator has to make hard choices and does his best.  My favorite moment, though, is when he decides not to risk a rescue because the program is bigger than one person: the Mars mission  chief says, "No, it's not."  Exploration is still about PEOPLE.
The astronauts and the rest of the cast are multiethnic and international,but a crew voting without hesitation to extend their voyage and risk their lives to get Watney back is a distinctly American film moment. Not that people in every nation don't risk their lives for each other - they certainly do - but the willingness to  do so in this fashion appears throughout American culture and history, be it fact or fiction, until it became rarer in in our cynical age. Shoot me if you want to, I liked seeing the archetype's return.
The science is sound, although the explanations are necessarily brief. The rendezvous at the end has a vanishingly small chance of working, but this is a movie that earns its triumphant ending.The whole cast is great and the NASA dynamics as believable as Watney's gardening.    (I knew the hydrazine bit wouldn't end well, but... well, you have to see it for yourself.)
NASA, not surprisingly, loves the film.  A search on for "Watney" (I figured that was the most distinct single term) turns up a couple of dozen hits - mostly images, but with some good articles and clips, including Damon talking to NASA people about making the film. You can even follow Watney's journey on the surface on the MarsTrek portal. (Although it's perturbing to see what's on NASA's main site about growing plants on Mars like in the movie - a single image (seriously, that's IT) with a link to a YouTube video of plant growth on the ISS.)  I'd give the movie 4.5 out of 5 stars, and a bit lower grade to how well NASA's capitalized on it.

The Bagnold Dunes of Mars (NASA)

It's a heck of a time to be in space, especially in the United States. You could write a scorecard for this past wee..
 - United Launch Alliance announces it will give free launches to student CubeSats. Access to space has been the only thing holding back even wider use of the most popular "form factor" ever for satellites.
 - SpaceX and Beoing received contracts to carry astronauts to the ISS. This will be the first time contractors directly launch US astronauts, although all crewed rockets have been built and operated with contractor assistance.
 - Blue Origin successfully tests its reusable suborbital rocket. The instrumented capsule came down on parachutes while the rocket state landed safely.
 - Elon Musk, who I admire, does a weird Twitter bit putting down Blue Origin.

Not a bad week at all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Where did whales come from?

Not so many years ago, whales were the favorite taxon of young Earth creationists (YECs) who were quick to point out the lack of transitional forms and the apparently very rapid appearance of whales (that is, nearly modern whales like Basilosaurus (formerly Zegulodon) just sort of popped in without much in the way of ancestry. 
Whales, in the 21st century, are among the best documented of evolving mammalian lines. It's technically not possible to have every transitional form - you'd need the fossil of every individual that had a beneficial mutation - we have a better lineage for whales than palentologists even hoped for a half-century back.  There's a good description and diagram here.  Whales are much better documented than, say, chimpanzees or gorillas, which is interesting given their habitat: the entire collection of modern chimp and gorilla fossils could fit in a file drawer despite there being hundreds of thousands of them walking around. The saving grace for whales has been the transition of ancient seas to modern land masses. Whale paleontologists have been both lucky and good. The book to read is Hans Thewissen's The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years. I gave it a five-star Amazon review, also featured on my blog here. (I still like the author's illustration of the evolutionary process: he compares the changes involved by asking readers to imagine the Batmobile being given to a group of engineers with orders to use its parts to build the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.) One of the "walking whale" species, Pakicetus, achieved a unique kind of fame by appearing in bestselling author James Rollins' enjoyable thriller Ice Hunt.  (Rollins had to fake the science allowing for mammals to be frozen in ice for millions of years, and the animals are bigger and nastier than we'd expect, but hey, it's fiction.) 
Whales get several chapters in each of my books on animals. One of my favorite bits was reporting mammologist Karin Forney's description to me of her sighting of an unidentified beaked whale in Rumors of Existence (1995) and reporting on the identification of said whale (Perrin's beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini) in Shadows of Existence (2006).  
One of the most recent finds of an ancient whale was announced in the 2008 publication concerning a new species, Georgiacetus vogtlensis, the Georgia whale. The story of this 3- to 5-meter protowhale is told here. It was the most advanced whale of its time and may have been the ancestor of every modern cetacean. Its nostrils were halfway between the tip of the snout and the location of modern blowholes: the "movement" of the nostrils had been a bone of contention among YEC advocates. An even more spectacular find is the enromous toothed ancestor of the sperm whale, Leviathan melvillei (2010). It has its own documentary, although not yet its own book, unless you count novelist Steve Alten's use of the species in his most recent novel, Vostok. More authors will no doubt use it in fiction: I might do it myself some day.  
Whales are among my favorite animals, and I'll visit them again in my next book.  Until then, enjoy the marvels of whales past and present - in a book, on a whale-watching trip, or in videos and documentaries. They never get boring. 

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology issue featuring the Georgia whale
(Copyright JVP, educational nonprofit use)

Monday, November 16, 2015

A thought on finding unknown animals

How does one find unknown animals, and do stories/anecdotes help?
Zoologists follow many lines of evidence - folklore, reports by local hunters, the finding of physical evidence (always the goal, but sometimes this just happens out of the blue (Dr. Alan Rabinowitz found at least one new species after seeing horns on display in a hunter's home in Laos)) ,  Ancillary evidence like footprints can also be involved, although not by itself definitive (when Dr. Grover Krantz described sasquatch as a known fossil species, Gigantopithecues blacki, very few of his fellow scientists saw value in it: he named, based only on footprints, a species of which we had no fossils except jaws and teeth.)
The hardest things to evaluate are stories told by individuals. Anecdotal evidence can't support a paper in NATURE describing a new species.  But that doesn't mean anecdotal evidence has no value.  
An individual's story (whether fresh or handed down) can be important to the search for unknown animals in two ways: 1) Stories can point to an animal that might be discovered if physical evidence is searched for as a result of the stories: Rabinowitz found evidence for some animals that way, and so did Dr. Marc van Roosmalen when he found the largest new species of land mammal of the 21st century so far, Roosmalen's tapir. . 2) On the other hand, if an animal is reported in a given area, if there are NO stories about it by indigenous people, that is highly suspicious and important negative evidence. It's the reason the chupacabra can be rejected out of hand - the animal just sort of appeared in the 1990s, Attempts to dig out old, fragmentary, and vague stories that might refer to it are unconvincing.
So listen to stories. Or lack of stories. Either might be important .

Dr. Marcus van Roosmalen, who has found several new monkeys as well as his tapir by using local stories as the starting point for a search. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: Discovering Cadborosaurus

Discovering Cadborosaurus
Dr. Paul LeBlond, John Kirk, Jason Walton
Hancock House, 2014

LeBlond and his colleagues are quite convinced there’s a large unidentified marine animal off the coast of British Columbia and points north and south.  They don’t quite convince me of that in this book, but they do argue strongly that there’s a puzzle here.
The authors open by emphasizing (correctly) that marine zoologists expect many more species from the sea, though most will be tiny invertebrates. The evidence for Caddy is mostly anecdotal, and the authors list sightings from 1791 to 2013 they consider valid.
What are people seeing? To put my skeptic glasses on, some of the sightings they consider good may be mistakes: the head in Alan Chikite’s 1987 sketch looks like a swimming moose (indeed, a lot of Caddy descriptions and the best-known illustrations show a rather moose-like head: even the 1937 Naden Harbor carcass LeBlond and Ed Bousfield considered their type specimen for Cadborosaurus willsi has bit of that look in its downturned snout, although it’s obviously not a land mammal.)   Horns or ears are commonly reported. Another item reported several times is Caddy chomping, or trying to chomp, on birds either on the surface or flying.
The authors start with Native American traditions of sea creatures (several to choose from) and take the story through the 1930s, when “Caddy” became famous (and named), thanks in large part to newspaperman Archie Wills. They continue through the modern era of books and TV specials and more sightings, including John Kirk’s own in 2010.
A lot of the Caddy evidence is discussed in the context of the Naden Harbor carcass. While the item fished out of a sperm whale’s stomach has been dismissed as a fetal baleen whale (clearly wrong, as the authors demonstrate with a photo of a real one) and a basking shark, it is odd how well it held together under the circumstances, and it’s not certain anyone has ever found a basking shark in a sperm whale. (Richard Ellis mentions a case in one of his books, but only in passing without a reference.) The authors imply the carcass suffered only the slight decomposition caused during the time between the whale’s being caught and its stomach being opened to search for ambergris, although it could have been in the whale considerably longer.  
They also look at the controversial Kelly Nash video from 2007.  The video unquestionably shows a number of living creatures, but their identity is not clear, and the best part – the part that Kirk and LeBlond insist shows a definite camel-like head with bulging eyes on a long neck – has been taped over since they saw it. There’s no reason to doubt the authors’ veracity, but the “missing evidence” thing pops up so often in cryptozoology that we’re all jaded about it. In this case, it reduces what might have been definitive evidence to effectively another sighting report, albeit with good witnesses.
Some of the sightings, taking into account the human inability to be precise about distances and object sizes over water, could be swimming moose or deer, others otters or seals. Two photos included from Cameron Lake look like nothing more than wave/wake action to me. But there’s a core here that remains intriguing. 
The authors wisely don’t attempt to assign a zoological identity, saying correctly that the animal needs to be proven first. They do think the saltwater and freshwater accounts from the region may collectively point to more than one animal. (If I’d been writing this, I would have excluded the freshwater accounts, given that large unknown animals in lakes are even less likely than similar creatures in the ocean, but it’s their book and their call.) You need more than one animal, though, if you accept most of the sightings here as accurate: the solid-body animal with a humped back and the “coiled” animal so slender that daylight can be seen under the “arches” are not compatible.  I’m inclined to think the solid animal is more likely and the coiled one a series of mistakes: the thermoregulation and locomotion of a coiled animal are highly problematic to me, even if you set aside the question of what they might have evolved from. 
Is it possible such a large, striking, and unique creature has evaded science? there are strong reasons to doubt it (see Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science), but it's not impossible, and the authors try hard to steer the conversation toward there being a real mystery. They do a good job of buttressing the anecdotes with maps, photographs, and drawings.  They provide references and a good bibliography. They have, in short, assembled the best case they currently can for a large unknown “monster.” If that case is not proven, it’s also hard to lock it away as “solved.” 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Veterans Day Salute to the men and women of Titan II

The Titan II was a remarkable bird. The two-stage rocket, over a hundred feet tall and using storable hypergolic propellants (meaning automatic-igniting - don't try this for you hobby rocket)  was designed as a missile and served 20+ years as a bulwark of cold war deterrence. But it also had two other lives. It was tapped early on the split of a "man-rated" version that carried Gemini spacecraft to orbit. No operational Gemini launch ever failed.  At the end it its career, it was converted into a launcher for DoD satellites - and again, it never failed.

I knew it intimately as a missile crew member, so herewith my Veterans Day salute.


by Matt Bille, formerly Captain, USAF, Titan II Missile Combat Crew Commander

They called them the Titans
Like the giants of old
And giants they were
Standing deadly and cold
They in their silver
And we in our blue
Alongside them we watched
And the enemies knew
We were there

We felt oft-ignored
Without glory we served
We relied on each other
And we stood by our word
In a life without rhythm
Lived by the clocks
Let it never be said
That we failed on the watch

So we passed the long hours
In silence we watched
No silhouettes painted
No gunbelts to notch
No medals or trophies
No break to the night
But the oath-keepers’ vigil
Let others have light

In the core of the Earth
In the armored command
Power undreamed of
In our keys and our hands
They called it a cold war
And cold it was kept
We knew that behind us
The citizens slept
They didn’t think of us
Or they wished us away
But we kept the watch
To give them the day

We still know each other
Hair silver and grey
The Titan’s proud comrades
We are to this day
We know what we did
We know what it was worth
And brothers we are
Until we return to the Earth
No more the sirens
Or the tick of the clocks
Let it read on my tombstone

“He kept the watch.”

Monday, November 09, 2015

Large, colorful new fish species: the "Blue Bastard."

New fish pop up all the time, and sometimes it turns out we knew about them for a while and scientists hadn't had the time or inclination to think about them. The shoal bass of the United States (Micropterus cataractae, described 1999) is an example.  Another, must more distinct from the related fishes, is the blue bastard.  Australian fishers had tales for a long time of a blue fish up to a meter long that was rare and hard to catch. Finally, someone sent good photographs to the Queens Museum.  It turns out 17 specimens were in museums already, labeled as other members of the so-called "sweetlips" family, which do indeed have big rubbery lips.  As Queens Museum scientist Jeff Johnson explained, the fish is now formally named Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus. “Careleo is blue. And nothus is bastard." he said. 

(Photograph Queens Museum, Presumed available for nonprofit/educational postings.) 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Super Strypi - latest small launch vehicle (UPDATED)

Our newest launch vehicle will fly at 8 PM Eastern from Hawaii:

Super Strypi is the latest attempt to build a smaller, more responsive satellite launcher (although it was proposed in 1998 and just flying now.. but that's bureaucracy, not rocket science.) It has 13 tiny university satellites on board. It will fly south into a 94 degree inclination. It's the first American attempt (the first anywhere I know of) to launch a spin-stabilized, unguided rocket into orbit since NOTSNIK/Project Pilot in 1958.  It's a project of the University of Hawaii, the Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office, and other agencies. Go Strypi!

A sad update: complete loss of vehicle. That's hardly unusual for the first flight of a new booster, but depressing nonetheless. I always feel bad for the student experimenters who have worked years on their satellites.