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.