Sunday, December 31, 2017

Snopes collects fake science headlines

Headlines and out things that did NOT happen or were NOT real in 2017: fake news included disproof of climate change, disproof of vaccine effectiveness, proof tumeric prevented dementia, proof of false data about sea level rise, etc., etc.  Snopes has collected a Top 10 of misleading headlines related to science and medicine. (Onions in your socks cure nothing: you knew that, of course, but millions pf people bought that ridiculous advice.)
Snopes also collected the most popular false/debunked conspiracy theories (or at least unproven ones) in circulation and provided a collection of false or mis-attributed photos

A poem for the New Year

In Memorium (Ring Out, Wild Bells)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The white whales (and dolphins)

Ahab and company may have chased the white whale only in epic fiction, but white whales exist. Moby Dick (who was NOT all white, he was sort of marbled with a white hump)  was named for a real-life counterpart, Mocha Dick. National Geographic has printed photos of a solid-white sperm whale.
Albinistic, leucistic, and partial varieties of both pop up in many species. Easily the most famous is Australia's white humpback Migaloo, a draw for locals and tourists every time he appears. Of course, he has a website.  An all-white calf, sometimes nicknamed Migaloo Junior although not related, is also known to be living.
Several white cetaceans, most famously a dolphin named Carolina Snowball, have been kept in captivity. Snowball's story, recounted here, was not a happy one: pursued by an expedition intended solely to capture her, netted along with her baby, she was caught in 1962 and died three years later after drawing big crowds but refusing to learn tricks.
Marine biologist Kate Redman posted the link to this item, on white harbor porpoises and oddly colored common dolphins.
This is just a fraction of the examples in recent literature. An all white-cetacean can do quite well in the wild (witness of course the beluga, an entire species of mono-colored animals).  Now that more and more nations are banning the capture of wild cetaceans, we hopefully will not see a repeat of the Snowball affair.

Migaloo (posted on with no copyright statement)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Anniversary: the strangest of "sea serpents"

The sea serpent doesn't get much respect anymore. It had its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a good number of ocean scientists thought there was something to it.  Now it's been forgotten by science and even largely by cryptozoology, which sometimes seems so Bigfoot-focused it might not pay attention if a sea serpent washed up in its collective front yard. Only Cadborosaurus, the reported denizen of the waters off the Canadian west coast, still draws any interest.
Still, it would be remiss not to note we just passed the 112th anniversary of a persistently odd event. In 1905, two  experienced British naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London, claimed a very good look at a species that doesn't fit in any neat "explainable" category. Indeed, I don't think it's been explained at all.  
Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo published, in  the Zoological Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist, account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" seen from the yacht Valhalla during a research cruise.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll  asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before theValhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
Meade-Waldo offered no theory as to the creature's zoological affinities.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation, and as time goes by and we find more plesiosaur bones and impressions, it grows less and less likely.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin. Still, it gets a little play in the pages of cryptozoological literature, and friendly skeptic Dr. Darren Naish (a paleozoologist) co-authored a paper suggesting that species discovery curves hinted we had a couple of seals out there yet to be classified.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, (A fossil ancestor did turn up, but it was only named in 2014:  this is Megachasma applegatei .)
When Loxton and Prothero in 2013 published their weighty tome Abominable Science, it was this case I wanted to read about more than any other.. Alas, it wasn't there.  The sea serpent chapter was the weakest of the book's dissections of "cryptids." I wrote in my review, "Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent....On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) told me they left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent." I said at the time that I could see the logic, but looking back, I don't: not treating the case was a major error.   
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in myth and hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two witnesses as good as anyone could ask for (all right, we'd prefer marine biologists, but these gentlemen were pretty solid)  described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dr. Colin Groves, R.I.P.

Dr. Colin Groves, a mammologist/anthropologist/taxonomist who was notable for superb scholarship, wide-ranging interests, countless excellent publications, and an open mind, has died at 75.  Groves was Professor of Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, but he was much more than that.  He co-described a new human ancestor, Homo ergaster, and many living species to boot. He was active in Australia's skeptical society but was open to evidence of new species, including cryptozoological ones.  He wrote about everything from pigs to the Flores "hobbits."   (He argued this species was real and not the result of pathological specimens.)  In late 1999, Groves was part of a team that reported the African elephant was not one species, but two, promoting the small forest elephant to full species status. He corresponded with me several times and was helpful in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.    
Dr. Groves was a hero for the global environment, helping us understand and protect the animal kingdom.  He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A fictional digression: Raven's Quest, by Matt and Deb Bille

Lark Ravenlord is an orphan living in the city of Haven, and the only woman ever allowed to tend the great ravens which give Haven a critical edge over the warlike tribes living nearby. The legacy of pre-nuclear war Army genetic experiments to create a smart "living UAV" for reconnaissance, the ravens can each carry a light man for up to four hours.  The honor of riding is reserved to an all-male elite class of warriors - one of whom, Glenn Windrider, is Lark's secret love and is clandestinely teaching her to ride. Neither of them can guess the epic events their decision will set in motion. When Glenn falls ill and Haven is attacked, Lark's courage is put to the test. Her actions to save the city - thus getting her exiled for stealing the great raven Kee-La - is only a precursor to the greatest test of all.  Lark is on her own in the vastness of the Winterland, surviving by grit and invention, until she discovers a  secret about an alien presence and an ancient weapon. She must decide whether to face death by returning to Haven to warn her people and lead a quest across lands no one has ever explored to deactivate a technology she cannot even understand.

Available at

in ebook formats - coming out in a few months in hard copy.  Join us for a great fantasy adventure suitable for YA, Christian, and adult readers, with a heroine who could hold her own with Katniss Everdeen and company.

A vision of Lark by the talented artist Amber Rae Sherman:

Friday, November 24, 2017

What would "human-smart" dinosaurs look like?

Assume the asteroid misses, the K-Pg event never happens, and evolution nudges dinosaurs toward smarter and smarter forms, until their descendants have (for better or worse) human intelligence.  Writers of fiction and speculative paleontology assumed for a long time that this would produce an animal that looked like a reptilian version of ourselves, with bipedal locomotion, an atrophied tail, and so on.  This didn't seem too unreasonable back when we thought of dinosaurs and birds as very distinct lineages, with only the birds having feathers.  

Most scientists find the whole idea silly.  The evolutionary pressures faced after a missed asteroid event would be very different from what mammals faced,  and evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino (who has made major discoveries about dolphin intelligence) speaks for many when she says, "The notion that some subset of dinosaurs would have evolved into human-like creatures is absurd." We don't know what would have happened: would technology, or intelligence itself, have enough survival value to drive such evolution?  (Paleontologist Brian Ward, quoted in a cool article by Brice Dorminey in Forbes entitled "Why Dinosaurs Would Never Have Built Spaceships," argued the oxygen levels 65MYA simply would not allow for a very large, oxygen-hungry brain to  appear,

"Dinosaurid" by John Sibbick for 1985 book Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman. Reduced here under nonprofit educational exemption to US Copyright. 

But let's assume it did happen.  In this blog post for his always-excellent Tetrapod Zoologypaleozoologist Darren Naish reviews some of the more recent efforts to depict such creatures in documentaries, movies, and TV and finds them wanting. Dr. Naish is much more enamored of the idea the dinosaurs, some of which we know have evolved into very intelligent birds (crows and ravens), and many of which sported feathers, would have evolved a much more birdlike intelligent species: Indeed, Aviosapiens saurotheos (designed by Cevdet Kosemen and one of several such recent concepts) keeps the idea of a body mass similar to humans but looks a good bit like a chicken. 

The image of social dino-birds bonding over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Primate is a bit unsettling, but it's fascinating to think about.  As to the spaceships specifically, here's a thought: We didn't build spaceships because we had to for survival.  While many spacecraft, like remote-sensing satellites, do a lot to make human life better, we didn't build spaceships for humans because we needed to/ We built them because we wanted to.  Would Aviosapiens have the exploring instinct?  Another one for the "we'll never know" pile.  

Fiction Review: Elusive by J.M. Bailey

Elusive: A Forever Journey

  • CreateSpace
  • 196 pp. 

J. M. Bailey rounds out her Elusive trilogy in a very satisfying third act that leaves space for future sequels.  Our hero, Anna, and the Sas-kay she lives with must eventually collide with the human world, and they do, when Anna's troubled but beloved husband comes to find her and when Anna sees a chance to steal some human luxuries and makes the foolish presumption no one will chase her.  This trilogy is the best fiction I've read about contact with sasquatch and one human's effort to bridge a divide many centuries old.  The sasquatch, which are a variant of an ancient human race in this take, sometimes seem a little too "modern-human" in their thoughts, and they have a couple of abilities that no real primate does, but their emotions and superbly portrayed, and in these novels they work as a believable culture of hominids devoted to avoiding our own.  It will surprise no one that Anna ends up in a position where she has to choose the direction of her life,  and I won't spoil the suspense there.  What makes the choice difficult is that Anna herself has evolved from the profane and sometimes self-centered woman of the first book to someone who thinks about the welfare of others -  human and non-human.  Bailey is a sasquatch-hunter herself and an excellent writer, and she works in all kinds of detail about the natural world of the Pacific Northwest and where these creatures would fit into it.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lost species that never were

It's hard enough for scientists, with limited means, to find and keep current on the world's many thousands of vertebrate animal species. New ones are found every year. Others, sadly, go extinct, while others just lack recent observations, and may show up on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as "Data Deficient."
In some cases, the data may be deficient because the animal didn't exist.  This is a common concern with extinct species, described from a handful of fossil bone or even from footprints: one-third of dinosaurs may be mistakes.  But there are modern questions, too. 
The mystery bear Vetularctos inopinatus, collected in Canada in 1864, was one of the more spectacular errors: the type specimen, it turned out, was just another grizzly. Africa's pygmy elephant seems to have been a mistake, and almost everyone has written off the pygmy gorilla (Gorilla mayema) as erroneous. De Loys' ape, a paradigm-shaking species (given that there are no confirmed New World apes) allegedly shot in Venezuela in 1920, was a flat-out hoax involving an unfortunate spider monkey.
The great (it's a law, writers have to describe him that way) John James Audubon described Washington's Eagle as a separate species, larger than the bald eagle. It's now generally thought to have been based on an unusually large bald eagle (it doesn't help that the type specimen, collected by the man himself in 1814, has disappeared).  So Falco washingtonii doesn't get a Red List spot at all. Audubon also described Townsend's finch, a bird never confirmed but still debated, and four other mystery species.   Cox's sandpiper, from Australia, is either elusive, extinct, or a hybrid of other species. The dusky seaside sparrow, famous for meeting its end in an enclosure at Disney World,  was real but apparently not a species: any creature downgraded to a subspecies just don't get the same respect.
There are others, as this article describes. Is the Liberian greenbul the world's rarest songbird, or a mistake based on an odd-colored specimen of the icterine greenbul? (The Red List classifies this bird, Phyllastrephus leucolepis as, you guessed it, Data Deficient.) The extinct Hunter Island penguin was, in a sense, always extinct, since it turns out not to have existed. The kouprey, Bos sauveli, the largest new land mammal of the 20th century, is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered but may be a mistake involving wild cattle with a characteristic appearance.  
DNA analysis of type specimens is helping to sort out such creatures, but it's a slow process. It doesn't help when some type specimens go missing, or the animal is a possible hybrid. Taxonomy, even of the vertebrates, is not yet a finished domain of knowledge.

Thanks to Dr. Karl Shuker for posting the original article that got me thinking on this. 

Audubon's painting of his great eagle


Thursday, November 02, 2017

Salute to Madison Stewart

Not old enough to drink in the U.S., this young shark conservationist is Australian Geographic's  Young Conservationist of the Year.  Madison Stewart wasn't old enough to drive when she started her work, taking samples of fish at markets for species ID and mercury levels, lobbying against shark netting and shark culls, and generally using every avenue she could find to explain to people that sharks were an essential part of a healthy ocean ecosystem.  She is now living in Florida, and continuing her work on sharks and the safety and sustainability of fish caught for consumption. Her work is featured in a new documentary film, BLUE.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A tough year for whales

This week, the Society for Marine Mammology is meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia (I couldn't attend because of back surgery, and yes, I'm bummed).  The SMM meeting will be discussing a lot of topics including improved whale tracking and automated identification. Members are also discussing a touch year for whales in general.
The vaquita porpoise is a handful of breeding-age females away from extinction. A desperate last-chance effort by Mexican and American experts, using Navy dolphins to help locate the vaquitas, is underway to catch 12 animals and keep them in sea pens. Nothing else has stemmed the losses from bycatch by fish-hunting poachers. 
The humpbacks didn't have a good year on the Atlantic. NOAA declared an"unusual mortality event" as 53 animals died in the last two years, half due to ship collisions. 
The North Atlantic right whales have had it even tougher considering the total population is only 500 or so.  Sixteen whales have been found dead this year. Tightening rules on ship speeds in key areas hasn't helped. Authorities have intensely studied every carcass they've been able to reach, and ship collisions and drifting fishing gear are the top killers.
So here's hoping the SMM meeting will help add new information, analysis,and tools, We've driven way too many cetaceans off the planet. Banning most commercial whaling in 1986 has made a difference, but not enough. It's a grim situation.  Support whale conservation with your votes, your money, and your awareness.  


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jane Goodall and unknown primates

Dr. Jane Goodall needs no introduction anywhere on Earth. No one knows more about studying large primates in the wild.  One thing that piques her interest is sasquatch and similar reported creatures.  She once told an interviewer, of sasquatch, "I'm sure they exist." This article has a really interesting nugget: that she found hunters in Ecuador who, when asked if they had seen "moneys without a tail," responded they had - and the "monkeys" were 1.8m (6 feet) tall. She even speculated sasquatch-type creatures could be Neanderthal in origin.
New World apes do not, so far as we know, exist, either in the fossil record or today.  Apes never made it here.  While Latin America swarms with monkeys, the only large primate ever to reach this hemisphere was, as far as we know, Homo sapiens.  There is some VERY speculative thinking, based on the Cerutti mastodon site in California, that human ancestors, likely a Homo erectus group, showed up first (130,000 years ago!), but that's a long way from being proven. We don't know of Neanderthals coming within thousands of miles of the periodic land bridges that brought modern humans over.  Creatures like sasquatch are reported all over the U.S., Canada, and Latin America, a truly impossible range,but have we ruled everything out?
Goodall is almost alone among primatologists and mammologists in thinking sasquatch possible.  Aside from a few Americans like Dr. Jeff Meldrum, there is a near-consensus that no large animal with no fossil record, no bones, and no dead specimens is really awaiting discovery. Indeed, a lot of very qualified people find the topic ridiculous, especially in North America, where a new rodent is a huge discovery.
The sightings, of course, keep coming in. I have twice written Forewords for books by my friend Lori Simmons, who  believes her dad, Donald Wallace, while rarely glimpsing animals, established a kind of trading relationship, and no less than Touchstone Pictures is developing his memoirs into a film currently titled Underground Giants. I wrote that, while I considered sasquatch unproven and unlikely, the belief in and pursuit of this creature is a fascinating human story.
And there, for the moment, we must leave the topic.  Sasquatch, animal or myth, is pretty durable. We will be back.
(Thanks to the folks at the North American Wood Ape Conservancy for posting the Goodall article.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown
Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science
  • Paperback edition: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books

Marcus du Sautoy is a math professor at Oxford and an explorer of the numbers behind the universe.  In this book, he probes seven "edges," such as time and consciousness, where science has made great strides but has still more to learn - and may not, in the end, be able to learn everything.  He succeeded Richard Dawkins as the  Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and he is, in my estimation, better at it, able to take concepts from the simple (a single toll of a die) to complex (causation, the beginnings of the universe, the unknowable) without losing the reader. (Also, while he is like Dawkins an atheist, he is able to discuss religious concepts without the sneering condescension of Dawkins.) This is a fascinating journey, beginning to end.  He even gets math across in a way I understand, which is something... 

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The first issue of a new cryptozoology journal

International Cryptozoology Society Journal, Volume 1 (2016)
This is a very good recap of the first ICS conference, held in St. Augustine, FL, in 2016: it's essentially the conference proceedings.  I am in here, with my piece on bears and cryptozoology (one sentence on the sun bear is out of place, though that could be my fault).  The photos are in black and white and are somewhat low resolution, although that's no doubt a necessary compromise for cost reasons.  The important part of this journal, of course, is in the meat of the presentation topics, and some of these are excellent no matter what one's view of cryptozoology in general. My favorite (probably everyone's) is TV host Pat Spain, from Beast Hunter (the best crypto series I know of), including his convictions that Brazil's mapinguari, Sumatra's orang-pendek, and the northeast Pacific's Cadborosuarus represent real animals, although some others like the Mongolian death worm do not.  Michel Raynal's overview of the history and changing views of the 1896 "giant octopus" carcass at St. Augustine and Dr. Paul LeBlond's exploration of "Caddy" are my other favorites, though all have something of value.  I'm looking forward to Volume 2!

Inter-generic imitation in cetaceans

OK, that's a boring title, but go with me.  A lot of cetaceans can imitate each other or outside sounds. Luna, a wild orca of the Puget Sound area, became famous for his ability to imitate a motorboat (in a sad irony, he was kileld by a tugboat in 2006).  Now comes the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) who imitates bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). The authors say, "Here we describe the changes in the vocal repertoire of a beluga whale that was housed with a group of bottlenose dolphins. Two months after the beluga’s introduction into a new facility, we found that it began to imitate whistles of the dolphins, whereas one type of its own calls seemed to disappear."

There's an awful lot going on in cetacean brains, and we don't have a handle on it all by a long shot. Safina's book Beyond Words describes how captive dolphins invent new moves or do things their trainers have only talked about, and how handlers get a little spooked by those abilities sometimes.  I'm a believer in phasing out cetacean captivity, although the orcas are most important, as we can't come close to replicating their habitats and often don't try.  But we can learn from them. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Humans in the Americas- When?

I've always had an interest in when humans first stepped on the North American continent.  The needle was stuck at 10-12,000 years before present (YBP) for decades.  The early Clovis people had come across the Bering land bridge and, in an amazingly short time, managed to populate both continents (and, most theories have it, wipe out the megafauna they found in abundance.)

There have always been arguments for sites like Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania ( where a sizable minority of archaeologists accepts 16-19,000 YBP) and Monte Verde in Chile (argued to be from 14,800 to 33,000 YBP), Other sites have generally pushed back the 12,000 YBP consensus to around 14,000, but vigorous debate continues on older sites.  A new paper published in 2017 is sure to spark more debate: it puts remains found near Old Crow, Alaska, back as far as 24,000 years. 

None is as contentious as the Cerutti Mastodon site near San Diego, where a mastodon shows strong signs of being butchered and the long bones broken apart for marrow.  Hammerstones and other human stone implements surround it. How old is it?  According to a letter published in the top journal Nature, 131,000 YBP.  Or to quote the letter, "Th/U [thorium-uranium) radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago."  That's a startling claim indeed.
How would humans have come so far south so early?  While shorelines on Western North America have receded since the Ice Ages, submerging many known and possible sites, we don't have hard evidence that any pre-Clovis people (or, in this case, pre-pre-pre-Clovis people) used boats or rafts to come down the coast, and there's not a chain of known settlements close enough to each other (or dated closely enough) to indicate a land migration. Yet here we are.
If they were really there 130,000 years ago, who were they? Early modern humans (EMH, a term replacing the too-limited "Cro-Magnon" with many scientists)  existed only in Africa.  It wasn't until 100,000 YBP they'd even pushed out as far as Israel.  What are we left with?  As far as we know, the Neanderthals never reached eastern Asia. A surprisingly advanced batch of Homo erectus? The still-mysterious Denisovians, who lived in Siberia and Southeast Asia? With just stones and mastodon bones, we don't have any human DNA to settle this with. 
Critics think the discoverers got the dating right but suggest the human artifacts - if that is what they are - were left in the same area much later.  That raises a host of questions that can only be answered by similar finds - or, to a degree,  by a long search yielding no new finds.   Some of the area archaeologists would like to inspect, though, is buried under suburban homes and parking lots.
A mystery...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Book Review: the classic Prehistoric Animals

Prehistoric Animals
text by Joseph Augusta, illustrated by Zdenek Burian. Translated by Greta Hort. Spring Books, London. 
(Reviewed edition is 1963: numerous versions and reprints exist.).

Cover (1967 edition)

While much of the knowledge in this book is outdated, its influence and the excellence of the writing and illustrations using the information available in 1963 merit the five-star rating. This work enthralled a generation of professional, student, and public readers. Dr. Augusta's text, in this translation from the Czech by Dr. Greta Hort, is clear and informative, although a little dry in spots. He takes his topic from the beginnings of life and provides the full picture: the algae and the gymnosperms and all the other creatures that were such essential links in the evolutionary chain get their moments here. The book is called Prehistoric Animals, but the animals really don't take center stage until page 29 of the 47-page main text. He considers my favorites, the placoderms, "the oldest and most important" of the fishes of the Devonian in an evolutionary sense. He believed all other fishes descended from the placoderms, a point still being energetically debated in 2017. After a run through the animals, we get to the 60 plates, many in color, by the great Zdenek Burian. Starting with the eye-dazzling color plates to the Cambrian and Silurian Seas, on through incredible, photorealistic depictions of early fishes (Dunkleosteus, called by the old name Dinichthys, is wonderfully alive and fearsome even though the fins are, I argue, too small to control this huge, active predator). He presents the dinosaurs (in the old tail-dragging postures) and then addresses mammals like smilodon and the ground sloths (the primitive horses are a high point in a section that's nearly all high points) and finishes with the cave bear Ursus spelaeus.

Looking at the book today, the upright therapods and nearly-submerged sauropods remind us how much paleontology has advanced. This is a snapshot of the science, taken in a time of growth and change hampered somewhat by fixed ideas. But it's a gorgeous snapshot: once you've paged through it, it's as memorable as the dinosaurs and other creatures themselves.

My copy, obtained used online, is a very fragile one, browning at the edges and clearly well-thumbed.  I don't expect to use it much as a reference, but it's a book so stunning and influential, despite the short text, that it's a book you just want to HAVE if you're a paleontology fancier.  Get it any way you can.  

Friday, September 15, 2017

Whales: one stroke backward, one forwards

The North Atlantic right whale is as magnificent as an animal can get. Eubalaena glacialis can weigh over 70 metric tons and stretch 15 meters from its nose to its its deeply notched tail.  It bears distinctive callosities covered with white "whale lice"  on a stocky, black body.   As with all large whales, evolution hasn't really equipped the animal to be wary of still larger objects, like ships. The population, decimated first by whaling (centuries of it, going back to the first great oceanic whalers, the Basques, and  Native Americans, both in small open boats, before modern whalers had their turn), and now by fishing gear entanglement and hip collisions, dipped below 400 at one point before struggling to perhaps 450 (although a European population is functionally extinct). 

Head of right whale, showing distinctive curved jaws and callosities (Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

There was sad news today when a dead whale was spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the 11th carcass found in the Gulf this year. Others have been found off the American coast (they calve off Georgia and Florida). Necropsies of a few (such an effort is not easy to arrange, and many whales are not necropsied) and observations show a split between ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement as the causes. 
The good news is that humans are not letting the species drift into extinction.  On top of existing protections, Canada imposed strict speed limits on ships in the Gulf over 20m long.   Meanwhile, in the eastern Pacific, where blue whales and others have been subject to the same lethal pressures, crabbers are part of a new program to track traps that may be scattered by storms and currents to become "ghost gear," drifting without supervision. Rather than engage in the complex politics of banning crabbers from large areas (a step the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which is filing suit over the issue, says is still needed) skippers fix the position of drifting pots via GPS.  The next step, supported by fishery officials and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, is to pay crabbers $65 for every pot they are able to take on board and return to port, where the original owners are usually happy to cough up $100 to get the $250 pots back.  
The whales are in deep trouble on both coasts, but humans aren't just letting it happen the way we used to.   
THANKS TO environmental scientist Laurie Baker, who keeps me up on much of the whale news. 

Return of the Night Parrot

Australia, home of so much unique fauna, hosts a diminutive parrot called the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis). For 67 years (1912-1979) there was not a single confirmed sighting, and ornithologists feared the green, yellow, and black bird had flown into the abyss of extinction. It survived, however, and was rediscovered in Queensland.  This year, as the result of efforts by four friends who'd spent over six years in the search, there is a photograph of a live night parrot from 2,000 km away in Western Australia. The nation's top authorities have confirmed the bird's presence (WA was the home of the 1912 sighting) and are ecstatic about another healthy population's greatly increasing the species' survival prospects.
It is not a good commentary on human beings, though, that the discoverers gave the exact location only to wildlife authorities in order to protect the species from poachers. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dino DNA after all?

This report seems to be a little breathless and premature, but a pregnant female T.rex fossil has been found to have a medullary bone - a structure containing concentrated calcium for the work ahead - in good shape. This is unusually protected, beuing within the structure of the femur (also, this, hard to find).  Professor Lindsay Zanno at North Carolina State University, "We have some evidence that fragments of DNA" may be preserved in such bones.


Flood of New Species from Amazon Basin

I like to report on new species, which still turn up pretty often. But 381 of them? Yes.  According to the WWF and Brazilian scientists, that's how many have been discovered recently. More than half are plants (which are important, just not as fascinating to me as animals) but add in 92 fish, 51 herps, a bird, and 18 mammals (plus two fossil ones).   Here's a video report if you want to have a look at some.

Monday, August 28, 2017

More and more missions for microsats

Some people still say microsatellites (under 100kg) and nanosatellites (under 10kg to some people, 1kg to some) have no operational missions. I'm not sure how that view endures in the modern era. Sure, the uses were limited into the 1980s or so, but then electronics got orders of magnitude smaller and missions and capabilities expanded. In the new century, they exploded.We have globe-girlding miscrosat missions for messaging (Orbcomm), for imagery (Planet) and a horde of demonstration missions showing other applications. Many of these come from small manufacturers and/or universities, not traditional space programs.  The latest is tracking aircraft . The CAN=X nanosat, mass only 3.5kg, carried the  Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) to receive signals from aircraft transponders.  Director Robert Zee at Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto reports, “The ADS-B instrument on CanX-7 has received and decoded 3.6 million signals from aircraft in less than six months. This mission proves that global real-time aircraft tracking can be achieved with a low-cost, responsive constellation of small satellites.”
One small step at a time...

Very elusive monkey pops up again

The winner of the primate hide and seek competition (if you don't count Bigfoot) may be the bald-faced Vanzolini saki.  This large, long-tailed monkey was  collected and named in 1936 in Columbia, then vanished in a puff of leaves and was never seen again.

Until now.

An expedition led by Dr. Laura Marsh spotted the animal swinging in the trees beside the Eiru River. The habitat is in pretty good shape, but like virtually all primate habitat, requires intelligent protection from illegal logging, hunting, and deforestation to preserve the saki and its co-inhabitants. 
Nice to get a win for conservation!  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

New shrimp from unusual place

Octopuses, we know, eat shrimp. So what was going on when a new species of shrimp was found living in the den of a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris)? In False Bay, South Africa, local divers, a filmmaker, and a scientist collaborated to find three new shrimp species, but the first was the most interesting. In addition to dwelling with the octopus and, for some reason, not being devoured, 
Also of note: the scientist involved, Charles Griffiths, is no newcomer to new species, He has, in fact, described over 100!  Leave some for the rest of us, Charles...

Common octopus (NOAA)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Favorite thoughts on writing

C.S. Lewis:

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

Eric Burns:
It's not enough to create magic. You have to create a price for magic, too. You have to create rules. 

Jesse Stuart:
Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it. 

John Irving:
The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything. 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Looking towards space in the new Administration

The Trump administration requested $19.092B for NASA in FY18, essentially the same amount the agency has in FY17.  The relevant House and Senate committees have approved significantly higher amounts.  (About $19.5B in the Senate and over $19.8B in the House.)   The issue has yet to go to a conference committee.
One of the bones of contention is science, which includes Earth science, which includes climate monitoring and climate change research.  With this issue a political hot potato, The Predient and GOP Congressional leaders generally want a reduction in the science budget, but amounts vary enormously, as does controlling language about how the money can be spent.
The Administration is very much in favor of increased private participation and increased human spaceflight funding.  The President at one point promised "American boots on Mars" during his second term.  This probably is not doable even if the budget was unlimited, which it most certainly will not be. The Space Launch System and the Orion capsule which would be part of such a mission have not even flown.
The other touchy topic is NASA's Office of Education.  The President requested only $37M for Education - just enough to shut down the office and most educational programs.  While NASA education programs do include materials explaining and warning of climate change, the complete elimination of the office took NASA-watchers by surprise.  Congress has put its collective foot down to block this move: the House wants $100M for education in the new year.
Some of this confusion exists because it's not clear who will run the agency or how oversight will work.  The revised National Space Council (a good idea) has yet to meet, or to schedule a meeting: the Administration has not yet named its NASA Administrator.  The President presented himself as a big fan of space exploration, especially human  spaceflight, so it's quite puzzling the Administration has not even tried to fill the Administrator post.
On the positive side, the agency can rest assured it will not take an overall cut and will continue the Office of Education.  On other matters, though, the space telescope image is rather murky.  Here's hoping the officials involved get that straightened out and give the Agency a course to set.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

World's largest bony fish discovered

Seriously. In the 21st century, an Australian postdoc and her associates found the biggest bony fish in the world, a new species  (the fourth known) of the great ocean sunfish.
The sunfish is one of the strangest fish in the sea. Imagine a half-deflated circular blimp the size of a car.  It looks like a fish the Almighty got halfway through designing and then lost interest and just stuck the tailfins on.  It spends countless hours lying on its side, basking at the surface, slurping up jellyfish (and, unfortunately, plastic bags - thanks, humans) or diving to find them in deeper waters.. Its cartilage-underlayed-skin is so thick and hard it's difficult to harpoon one, so Pacific fishing cultures have generally left the animal alone.  The third species, still referred to simply as Mola Species C, was only found in 2009, by the way.
DNA collections from sunfish stranded, caught, or tagged indicated there were most likely four species of the fish (the signature one being Mola mola), but only three had ever been described. Maryanne, Nyegaard confirmed this oddity while examining known DNA records for the PhD dissertation. Once she'd determined there was a missing sunfish, she set about roaming beaches and museums to confirm a specimen. She kept it up for three years.  Fishermen sent her photos and DNA of an odd-looking sunfish they had caught, and then four such fish stranded in New Zealand, and Nyegaard was ready to write her name in scientific history along with the enigmatic Mola tecta. (She found other specimens in museum collections, where scientists had logged them in without noticing their oddities.) Sunfish are known for surpassing a metric ton in weight, but M. tecta is at the top of the scale, and appears to have the largest average size of any species. The longest specimen identified was 2.42 meters (just short of eight feet).  It lacks a protruding snout and a bumpy region on the back that other sunfish species develop as adults.
So welcome to the biggest bony fish in the world, a monster harmless to humans but startling in size and appearance, and outweighed among fishes only by the largest of sharks. It's about time you showed up.

The earliest known species, Mola mola (NOAA).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Top 10 New Species of 2017

Yes, it's only July, but these folks always publish their Top 10 list for the year early (to beat the holiday rush, or something?)
The ESF Top 10 list from the International Institute for Species Exploration has something for everyone. There's a spiny ant - and we mean really spiny - christened Pheiodole drogon - yes, for Drogon, the black dragon in Game of Thrones, because the creature's well-defended back looked like the dragon's to the scientist involved. We have a spider with a body shaped like the Hogwarts sorting hat - so here is Eriovixia gryffindori. There's a new katydid with an astonishing resemblance to a leaf. The Sulawesi root rat Gracilimus radix is unique among its kind for enjoying veggies in addition to meat. (Maybe this was the species that showed up in Ratatouille.)  A California millipede adapted for an all-liquid diet (I don't want to know what liquids) made the list, which celebrates scientific importance of the species selected rather than size or mass appeal. Potamotrygon rex is a ray from Brazil sporting spectacular yellow or orange sport stretching well over a meter in length and weighing up to 20 kg. Southeast Asia contributes a big (20 cm), poisonous (of course) centipede (as Odgen Nash said, "a bug we do not really need") with amazing swimming and diving abilities: it can walk on the bottom, using stored oxygen.  The bush tomato is a spiky little Australian fruit whose name was chosen with input from 150 7-th grade students in Pennsylvania. An orchid from Columbia sports reproductive parts looking like the head of the traditional devil. And Xenoturbella churro is a deep-dwelling marine worm that, to someone who is a very sloppy cook, looks sort of / kind of / approximately like a churro.
Bigfoot,is seems, has escaped for another year, but the list is important as a reminder of how many species we have yet to find, and how badly we need to protect them.  Several are already in danger. 

Climate Change: Realism is Important - in both directions

By that I mean there is that ignoring climate change is unrealistic, but stating the extreme worst cases as fact damages the efforts at education and boosts the chance people will ignore the topic, either because the exaggerations cast aspersions on all the scientific claims or because people may say "oh well, we're doomed."  A recent New Yorker article proclaiming we're all going to die sparked a series of scientific points and counterpoints, all nicely summarized in this blog post by Tabitha Powledge. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

A salute to Joe Howlett

A hero for the planet

"He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all. " 


Thursday, July 06, 2017

Amelia Earhart claim: not impressive

The fuss being made online and on the Un-History Channel is over one newly discovered photo.  It shows a woman, her back to the camera, and a man who resembles her navigator Fred Noonan.  While the man looks like Noonan, and short-haired women wearing pants were a bit unusual, we don't even know the date of the photo.  This atoll in the Marshall Islands was unreachable with the fuel Earhart had, and the people in the photo are not under arrest or confinement....  Just not impressed. Too many questions are raised, and none have good answers.

UPDATE: It appears the photo is dated 1935, which confirms it's a mistake to link it to Earhart. .

Impressive new parrot species from Mexico

The blue-winged Amazon parrot, found on the Yucatan peninsula in 2014, reportedly "sounds more like a hawk than a parrot."  It was spotted by a veterinarian who noted both appearance and call were different than those of known parrots. The species was immediately listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN: we don't know how many there are, but it's rare, and its habitat is under constant pressure. Poachers roam the area, too (although the exact spot of the discovery is being concealed.)   But this discovery is still good news: the first step in conservation is to know that a species exists to be conserved.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The missing link in whale evolution

One large whale (the unique sperm whale) has teeth, and all the smaller whales and dolphins do. The rest, the mysticetes, ranging from medium-size to titanic, use baleen to strain out fish or crustaceans. When did the split from the early toothed ancestors occur? Now we know. This whale, 28 million years old, has a sieve made out of teeth, a huge and heretofore undocumented change in the cetacean lifestyle.  To my fellow Christians who think the world is young and the fossil record lacks transitional specimens, I would say you can't ask for a better transitional fossil than this one. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book Review; When Fish Got Feet

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs 
Paperback –  2009
by Hannah Bonner

Amazon data:
  • Age Range: 10 and up 
  • Grade Level: 5 and up
  • Paperback: 48 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books; Reprint edition (September 8, 2009)

This book offers a unique and delightful look at the Silurian and Devonian periods, suitable for school children but including some funny bits and cool facts that will help adults learn or recall the main events of this pivotal time in our planet's history.  It also is the only book I've seen for kids that provides some information on my favorite predator, Dunkleosteus, incidentally playing it conservative and assigning a length of 6m where some books say 8 and a few old ones say 10.  There are short, clear explanations of everything from the creation of soil to the adaptations needed for plants and animals to invade the dry land environment.  Recommended to my by no less than Matt Mossbrucker and Dr. Robert Bakker, this is just a terrific book: order one for your kid's library and another for yourself.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

New mammal from Alaska

New mammal species in North America are very rare - years can go by without finding a new rodent (they pretty much all are rodents these days.)  However, here's something a bit more spectacular - a new flying squirrel. Humboldt's flying squirrel is a bit smaller and darker than the close relative is used to be mistaken for.
Discovery never ends...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Looking Back: Little Living Fossils

Everyone is fascinated by the idea of "living fossils," which isn’t a precise scientific term but is a popular way to refer to animals which have survived unchanged while the evolving world passed them by.  I looked at a lot of these in Rumors of Existence, my first book, and they still interest me.
The coelacanth is the most famous: others include the tuatara, a lizardlike New Zealand reptile whose three eyes (the third is degenerate but functional) watched the dinosaurs come and go.
The term "living fossil" is not reserved for vertebrates.  Among the myriad specimens dredged up by the famous Galathea expedition in the early 1950s were ten limpet-like shelled animals.  They came from sea-bottom mud over 3,000, t beneath the surface off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.    What were they?  No one was sure.  The new discoveries had pale yellow shells with an oval shape, about four cm long and one cm  high.  A large foot (colored pink and blue) was surrounded by five pairs of primitive gills.
                While the shell and teeth said "mollusc," the gill regions showed a segmented construction resembling annelid worms.  Was the new animal either of these, or was it something entirely unique?  It most resembled a model that biologist Brooks Knight had created showing what the ancestor of today's molluscs might have looked like.  But that hypothetical animal - no actual fossil had ever been found -  was presumed to have died out 350 million years ago.  Neopilina  galathea filled an important gap in the evolutionary record.  Taxonomically, the little critter was literally placed in a class by itself.  Since then, more Neopilina species have been dredged from the depths.  The scientific detective work of finding more examples and determining their exact place in the parade of evolution goes on.

Neopilina (Harvard)

                The great pioneering undersea vessel, the submersible Alvin (still working today!) pulled in one of its many notable discoveries in 1979.  Near a hydrothermal vent in the eastern Pacific, researchers on the sub collected a strange-looking stalked barnacle, the stalk serving to allow these normally fixed creatures some degree of mobility.  It had never been seen before, even as a fossil, but apparently belonged to a group which flourished before the dawn of the Age of Reptiles.
                The waters off New Zealand produced a similar surprise in 1985.  Clinging to sunken logs a thousand meters below the surface was a round animal barely over a centimeter wide.  Named the sea daisy, it appeared to be a distant relative of the starfish, even though only vestiges of the classic five-pointed starfish design were apparent.  That was enough to put it into same phylum, the echinoderms, but it proved very difficult to classify this diminutive invertebrate more precisely. The sea daisy is spiny on top, and its underside is covered by a flat membrane that biologist Michael Bright compares to plastic wrap stretched over an upside-down saucer.  The sea daisy, too, was assigned its own class (now the infraclass Concenticloidea, in which it inhabits the order Peripodida. Two other speies have been added).  When it was discovered there was just nothing like it, except for fossils predating the dinosaurs.  
                Fossils from the same period included the graptolites, tiny colonial creatures who built homes of collagen secretions layered in strips like mummy bandages.  At one end of each 2.5cm-long long communal house, a peculiar sharp spike rose like a TV antenna.  Graptolites were presumed to be related to modern homebuilders called pterobranches, but pterobranch dwellings lacked the characteristic spike.
                After an apparent absence of 300 million years, graptolites resurfaced.  In 1992, French researchers sent a sampling of seafloor specimens to Dr. Noel Dilly, a London ophthalmologist whose "hobby" of studying pterobranches grew on him until he became one of the leading experts on the animals.  Dilly's first reaction was, "Not another boring collection to hack through."  His second was, "I don't believe this."  He was looking at characteristic graptolite dwellings, spikes and all.
                The graptolite is a reminder that not all animals evolve: some just find a comfortable ecological niche and settle down for a long stay.
                There an awful lot of little creatures like this to be found.  In the mid-1980s, Frederick Grassle of Rutgers University led an effort to collect over two hundred core samples of the Atlantic seafloor.  When all the sediment had been sifted, the somewhat flabbergasted scientists found they had collected 460 new invertebrates. 
                 The littlest animals offer many surprises, and no one thinks the surprises are over.

Batten, Roger L.  1984.  "Neopilina, Neomphalus and Neritopsis: Living Fossil Molluscs," in Eldredge, Niles, and Steven M. Stanley (eds). Living Fossils.  New York: Springer Verlag.
Bright, Michael.  1987.  The Living World.  New York: St. Martin's Press.
Cromie, William J.  1966.  The Living World of the Sea. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Huyghe, Patrick.  1993.  "New Species Fever," Audubon, March-April.
Kaharl, Victoria A.  1990. Water Baby: the Story of Alvin.  New York: Oxford University Press.
Soule, Gardner (ed.)  1968. Under the Sea. New York: Meredith Press.
Svitil, Kathy.  1993.  "It's Alive, and It's a Graptolite," Discover, July.
Taylor, Mike.  1993.  "Home and Away," BBC Wildlife, March.

Wilson, Edward O.  1992. The Diversity of Life.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.