Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Microsatellites: Tom and Jerry

To image distant stars and planets with increasingly greater precision, you need a baseline array of two or more satellites looking from slightly different angles (a massive oversimplification, but stay with me here, I admit to not being a space engineer).  The point is that it's very difficult to get satellites into the right formation and hold it without impractical quantities of fuel.  A US/South Korean project is testing it with two CubeSats, one 2u (two unit, 20cm x 10cm x 10 cm), and a 1U (10x10x10 cm) for less than $1M.  Aviation Weeks's overview (may require free registration)  is here, and the launch provider (India) posts its manifest here. NASA's article is here. It's amazing stuff for a tiny spacecraft costing less than a lot of U.S. houses!

image NASA

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Whales Got Very Big, Very Fast

Fast in evolutionary terms, anyway. Today's filter-feeding giants appear only 2-3 million years ago in the fossil record.  Why? According to these scientists, it was pretty simple: unlimited food.  With predators, mainly orcas, getting 8-9 m long and hunting in packs, size provided protection, but getting big is a defense that can only work if there is no shortage of food. As the lush plants of the Mesozoic let plant-eating dinosaurs grow to 30m and more in length, having a "license to krill" (I love that pun, although I did not invent it), let blue whales push the 100 metric ton mark.  

Blue Whale (image NOAA)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fun fiction: Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child

Lincoln Child
Doubleday, 256pp

  This outing for "enigmaologist" Logan offers a lot of fun for his growing number of fans. While it has slow spots and not every twist is a surprise, readers will learn more about Logan in the course of his effort to relax and write a monograph on history at a retreat that is a little too close to some strange, savage murders. Investigating at the behest of a new and interesting character, a philosopher-forest ranger he knew at college, Logan finds a hidden laboratory run by a mad scientist (as in, not so much crazy as literally MAD at everyone) and a local belief in lycanthropy. This sounds cliched, but the Logan novels are out to put a new spin on classic horror tales, and Child keeps it fresh. The atmosphere is wonderfully real and creepy. There is some interesting real science, some way-out invented science, a little bit of the paranormal, and some nods to the old Hammer Films universe as Logan risks his life to figure out who or what is haunting the remote Appalachian forest. As a science writer and a novelist, I appreciate the way Child can meld the real (gene therapy), the speculative (what if full moon effects are not mythical after all, we've just not studied them right?), and the horrific.  

Friday, May 12, 2017

A mind-blowing dinosaur fossil

Fossil news seems to come in too fast to keep track of these days, but this chance discovery pretty much froze paleontologists in their trackways.
One of the best fossils ever
A Canadian fossil of a nodosaur (think the iconic Ankylosaurus with no club tail but some big shoulder spikes) was buried in a shallow sea in fine sediments under conditions that offered extraordinary preservation. Scientists can see where the horn spike ended and the keratin sheath began and extended from it. They can count the scales on its body.  "It looks like a sculpture" seems to be a common comment. Five years of painstaking work, totaling some 7,000 man-hours (not unheard-of in paleontology!)  were needed to free up, clean, and reassemble the front half of the animal. That's all we have, but scientists are happy to take it. The skin is there. Even traces of its coloration remain. It's a marvel. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: Hunting Monsters by Dr. Darren Naish

Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths 

by Darren Naish

(paperback edition, 2017, Sirius)

As a cryptozoological reader of some 40 years and writer of 20+, and a correspondent of Dr. Naish, I looked forward to this book, and I'm hardly disappointed. Naish offers a very good skeptical analysis of the whole cryptozoology business, even if I think it could have been a little better. 
One point a reader will notice early on is that there is so much ground to cover that the author can only touch on many points in passing. Skipping over the Great New England Sea Serpent, a touchstone of the sea monster topic, is an example. 
Naish starts with whether cryptozoology is, or can be, scientific, and agrees it can be but isn't often. He begins and ends with the point cryptozoology exists in a cultural milieu and is influenced by folklore, tradition, etc. as well as modern innovations like the Internet. This isn't entirely original and he credits influences including Dr. Charles Paxton, whose work I greatly admire, and folklorist Michel Meurger, who I've always thought overreached the subject.
Naish is not closed-minded about this. He has himself put forward new species concepts over the years to explain cryptozoological sightings, including a cryptid seal and a giant orangutan, but in his blog Tetrapod Zoology and elsewhere he's uncovered or been offered new information and has generally come to conclude the "star" animals are not physically there. This book explains his reasoning well.
When he offers an explanation, I'm not always entirely convinced: the "finning" seal (a seal waving one flipper in the air for cooling) for the Valhalla sighting, for example, is clever, but I can't look at the first-hand original drawing and get a seal out of it. (As you can tell, I enjoy sea serpent lore more than the rest of the subject these days.) The opposite is true of the HMS Daedalus sighting, which I think we can put to rest.
The subject is vast and Naish can't help that, so the bibliography is essential: it's pretty good but could have been more extensive.

Lest anyone think I'm damning with faint praise, this is an excellent and important book. If it doesn't hunt down every major cryptid, it will make the veteran cryptozoology reader think hard and will give the new reader an excellent starting point grounded in good science.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

A golden sturgeon?

The white sturgeon of the Fraser River is an impressive creature, known to reach over 3 meters and approach 400kg,and claimed to reach 6 meters.  It comes in definite or reported shades of green, brown, or black (never white - go figure).  But a gold sturgeon? It exists, and this video proves it. Fortunately, the two fishermen who caught it did the right thing and released it to continue to grow and, perhaps, enchant people in the future.  

Sometimes it's ok to just look at nature and say, "wow." 

"Normal" white sturgeon (Wikimedia Commons - photo by Joseph Tomerelli)

Don't forget the role of the giant sturgeon in myth and legend, captured by Longfellow in this case of an improbably big and improbably colorful sturgeon (purple fins?)

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
  Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
  On the white sand of the bottom
Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,
Lay the sturgeon, King of Fishes;
Through his gills he breathed the water,
With his fins he fanned and winnowed,
With his tail he swept the sand-floor.
  There he lay in all his armor;
On each side a shield to guard him,
Plates of bone upon his forehead,
Down his sides and back and shoulders
Plates of bone with spines projecting!
Painted was he with his war-paints,
Stripes of yellow, red, and azure,
Spots of brown and spots of sable;
And he lay there on the bottom,
Fanning with his fins of purple,
As above him Hiawatha
In his birch canoe came sailing,
With his fishing-line of cedar.
  "Take my bait," cried Hiawatha,
Down into the depths beneath him,
"Take my bait, O Sturgeon, Nahma!
Come up from below the water,
Let us see which is the stronger!"

  From the white sand of the bottom
Up he rose with angry gesture,
Quivering in each nerve and fibre,
Clashing all his plates of armor,
Gleaming bright with all his war-paint;
In his wrath he darted upward,
Flashing leaped into the sunshine,
Opened his great jaws, and swallowed
Both canoe and Hiawatha.

Death by sea serpent?

Death by Sea Serpent?
In the modern (post-WWII) history of “sea serpent” reports and claims - and there are still reports, albeit rarely - we have only one claim of human fatalities. This story appeared in the May 1965 issue of Fate Magazine and still kicks around in the Internet.
In a first-person account, Edward Brian McCleary claimed to have had a terrifying experience on March 24, 1962 off Pensacola, Florida. McCleary and four friends paddled a life raft out to dive on a wrecked ship. A sudden storm came up, forcing them away from land. At night, a fog closed in on them. In the fog, they hear something moving, and then saw what looked momentarily like a “like a telephone pole about ten feet high with a bulb on top” in the fog. The object was, however, a plesiosaur-like animal. More specifically, “The neck was about 12 feet long, brownish-green and smooth looking. The head was like that of a sea-turtle, except more elongated with teeth. There appeared to be what looked like a dorsal fin when it dove under for the last time. Also, as best I am able to recall, the eyes were green with oval pupils.”
This creature proceeded to kill McCleary’s companions one by one. McCleary alone managed to make it to a protruding mast of the wreck they were diving (the U.S.S. Massachusetts), where he clung until daylight.
The Massachusetts sits today in only 26 feet of water in the Fort Pickens State Aquatic Preserve, with portions of the ship still protruding from the sea. McCleary still lives in Florida, though he apparently has not spoken on the subject of the attack since his article came out. The deaths are real, too, and McCleary did report them, but the Coast Guard found nothing more than a tragic episode of accidental drowning.
What are we to make of this? It's very hard to take seriously even if, as some researchers (myself included) believe, there might still be a huge eel or other creature behind some sea serpent stories, The plesiosaur-like creature striking its victims from the fog sounds like a scene from a bad horror movie. The very plesiosaur-like sketch McCleary made of his creature shows the head joined to the neck at an odd 90-degree angle, and McCleary does not explain by what light he saw enough to describe his creature.

So I'm afraid we have to write this tale off.  The sea serpent is the most romantic (in the Victorian sense) of legendary creatures, and no one wants to let go of it, but no one can catch hold of it, either.  Fortunately, the animals the DO inhabit the oceans are spectacular and curious enough for anyone..

Helm, Thomas. Monsters of the Deep. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co. 1962.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill & Wang, 1968.
McCleary, Edward Brian. “My Escape From a Sea Monster,” FATE, May 1965.
Online sources including,,, and (for the Ray Angerman story)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Echoes from the Ivory-bill

I've never been quite convinced the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is extinct.  
It may be wishful thinking, or it may be that a story I heard 20 years ago lingers in my mind.  I was in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science talking to a woman sculpting an elk.  The story she told me is that years after the last supposed confirmation of the ivory-bill (1950, Florida) she'd been a girl of about 10 hiking in the Singer Tract in Louisiana. Her father put a finger to his lips to shush her and pointed to a magnificent red, white, and black bird on a stump in front of them. The witness, Ruth Laws (or Lowes: I didn't write down the spelling and haven't been able to locate her) said her father whispered, "That is an ivory-billed woodpecker. Take a good look, because you'll never see one again." She never did.
This bird may be extinct. It may very well be functionally extinct - that is, there are some individuals, but not enough to continue the species.  People like Michael Collins of the Naval Research Laboratory spend years of their lives searching for the birds.
Collins thinks he's found them
His videos, according to other experts, are not definitive: the birds in them could be ivory-bills, but they are too far from the camera to tell, so they might also be pileated woodpeckers, although the behavior certainly fits.
There are good reasons we all want the bird to be found. The nickname "Lord God bird" was applied based on the exclamations of countless witnesses. One admiring  expert, ornithologist Dr. Lester Short, wrote that, "If the woodpecker world had royalty, the ivory⌐bill would be king."
The bird had a specialized diet, based on beetles living in dying or recently dead trees in Southern forests. When these forests were cleared, the birds had a difficult - maybe impossible - task in adapting to secondary growth. 
Still, reports lingered - in Florida, in Arkansas, and in other states. Ornithologist John V. Dennis had a good sighting in East Texas in 1966.  Dr. Jerome Jackson got responses to recordings of ivory-bills in 1987 and 1988.  In Cuba, a bird was conclusively identified in 1986, although an extensive search in 1993 found nothing, and that seems to have been the last of the Cuban birds (sometimes considered a separate subspecies).  (Or was it? Ornithologist Tim Gallagher led an expedition to the island in 2016, although proof remained elusive.) 
In April 1999, David Kulivan, a graduate student in wildlife biology, spotted a pair in Louisiana's Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. The sighting was convincing enough to result in a major search, without luck. The Louisiana  Ornithological Society put out an ivory-bill T-shirt captioned, "I Want To Believe," a mantra from the The X-Files.In 2004, a sighting and video from Arkansas led to the official announcement of the bird's rediscovery by U.S. government authorities. (The result, published in the leading journal Science, might be the most famous paper ever published about birds.) The identity of the bird in the video has since been questioned, though and the species, once again, seems to have disappeared.   
And so it goes - scattered reports, calls, distant images and videos. The ivory-bill has become the sasquatch of the bird world - widely sought, wiedely believed in, but not quite there in evidence the scientific world can widely accept.
I think it's still there.
Because I want to.

A partial ivory-bill bibliography:

Anonymous.  1993.  "Ivory-billed woodpecker extinct," Oryx, October.
Editors, “The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba,” Audubon, April 11, 2016,
Cadieux, Charles L.  1991. Wildlife Extinction. Washington, D.C.: Stonewall Press.
Caras, Roger A.  1966.  Last Chance on Earth. Philadelphia: Chilton Books.
Cokinos, Christopher.  2000.  Hope is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds.  Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. 
Discovery News, "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Search Ends," April 15, 2010,
Fitzpatrick, John, et. al., “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America,” Science, June 3, 2005, v.308, p.1460
Hoose, Philip. 2004.  The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
Jackson, Jerome. 2004.  In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian. 
Jackson, Jerome. 2002.  “The Truth is Out There,” Birder’s World, June, p.40
Lammertink, Martjan, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, John W. Fitzpatrick, M. David Luneau, Jr., Tim W. Gallagher, Marc Dantzker. “Detailed analysis of the video of a large woodpecker (the "Luneau video") obtained at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas, on 25 April 2004,” February 8, 2006,
Louisiana Ornithological Society.  2000.  "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Sightings at Pearl River WMA?" LOS News, February.
Martel, Brent.  2000.  "Birder Says He Saw Rare Woodpecker," Associated Press, November 4.
Mayell, Jillary.  2002.  “’Extinct Woodpecker Still Elusive,” National Geographic News,, February 20.
Short, Lester.  1993. The Lives of Birds. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Short, Lester, and Jennifer Horne.  1986.  "The Ivorybill Still Lives," Natural History, July.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

U.S. Science Funding: FY17 does well

Sources including SCIENCE magazine have parsed the funding in the new continuing resolution covering FY17, and it's not terrible - in most ways.

The big cuts feared by science advocates are not in this bill.   NASA does more than ok with $19.653 billion for the whole fiscal year. Indeed, NASA does a lot better overall than was projected by the last Obama budget, with the biggest increase coming in the Exploration account, which includes human exploration, a favorite of the new  President. Planetary science went up, and Earth science, a likely future target, gets the same amount as in FY16.

Basic and applied research goes up, and both military and civilian agencies benefit. The EPA's research budget took a major hit, though, and the Department of Energy's fusion-power research was hammered, which has international implications given the consortium on the ITER experiment would have to push out their deadlines (at best) without U.S funding.  (Also, my personal opinion is that anything that moves us closer to fusion power needs a MAJOR increase, not a cut.)   The Congress controlled by the President's party poked him in the eye, sharply, with a $2 billion increase for NIH.  

President Trump's FY18 budget is another matter: it's the one that slashes much more funding for the EPA and biomedical research, among other things.

So the major battles lie ahead...