Friday, December 28, 2018

Bring back Steller's Sea Cow?

"De-extinction" is talked about a lot these days, with the woolly mammoth being a favorite candidate.  This 2014 article in the scientific blog SeaMonster just caught my attention.  Could we do it with Steller's sea cow?
This history of the incredible animal named Hydrodamalis gigas is a short one as far as science is concerned. In 1741, naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was shipwrecked on Bering Island.  This is one of the Komandorski Islands,  between Kamchatka and the Aleutians.  There he and his companions met the sea cow.  It was a huge plant-eating mammal, up to 10m long, with a bilobed tail like a whale's and a placid disposition that made it easy to approach or harpoon.  The rough-skinned creatures were also loyal, gathering around an injured animal.  That instinct, while admirable, did little to promote their survival.  
After Steller's crew finally returned to civilization, sealers and other voyagers began stopping off in the sea cow's haunts to slaughter the inoffensive mammals for their meat.   By 1768, the species had apparently been hunted to extinction.
There have been a few reported sightings since then.  Native hunters reported killing them as late as 1780.  Early Russian colonizers of Bering Island reported sighting sea cows in the 1830s.  Fifty years later, the explorer Nordenskiold returned from the region with a sea cow skeleton of unknown age and a tale of a live sighting from 1854.  In 1910, fishermen in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr reported a sea cow stranded on the beach, but the report was never investigated. 
Can we bring it back? The article does not actually say anything about it.  There is some non-fossil skeletal material that can be checked for DNA. One of the lesser surviving cousins, the dugong or the West Indian manatee, would have to serve as surrogates,  My answer would be that we couldn't do it now, but in ten years or so,  we might.  Should we? It would not be tampering with nature, but restoring a species humans wiped out.  Questions about breeding such animals in captivity and re-establishing an ocean population are many, with money being a big one.  But it's food for thought.

Some other sources:
Dietz, Tim.  1992.  The Call of the Siren. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Haley, Delphine.  1978.  "The Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History, November.
Mackal, Roy.  1980.  Searching for Hidden Animals.  New York: Doubleday. 
Stejneger, Leonhard.  1936.  Georg Wilhelm Steller.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

More Biological Discoveries

The International Institute for Species Exploration offers this list of the most interesting finds of 2018.

Protist (Ancoracysta Twista)
Atlantic Forest Tree (Dinizia Jueirana-Facao)
Amphipod (Epimeria Quasimodo)
Baffling Beetle (Nymphister Kronaueri)
Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo Tapanuliensis)
Swire's Snailfish (Pseudoliparis Swirei)
Heterotrophic Flower (Sciaphila Sugimotoi)
Volcanic Bacterium (Thiolava Veneris)
Marsupial Lion (Wakaleo Schouteni)
Cave Beetle (Xuedytes Bellus)
The "Best Name" Award goes to the Baffling Beetle, witch is exactly the size and shape of an ant's abdomen and rides on the real abdomen for transportation.  The new protist made the list because no one knows where it's from (it was found in an aquarium) and it was very hard to classify, having survived from some point way back in the one-celled evolution business.  The new orangutan was a reclassification, being both distinct and very rare (maybe 800 survive). new species of the extinct marsupial lion was another cool discovery (I'm not entirely convinced this lineage has gone extinct: reports of the mysterious yarri keep cropping up...) .  And the tree? Well, it's huge (40m tall) but overlooked in part because there are only about 25 of this Brazilian species in existence.

A whole lotta Nature is still out there... 

Some "amazing" Biological Discoveries of 2018

A leading paleozoologist, Dr. Darren Naish, always has an interesting take on new discoveries.  His old Tet Zoo blog, hosted for years by Scientific American, was discontinued, so he has a new website at with new stories.  
For 2018, he spotlighted three discoveries of interest. One was a large new salamander from the American southeast: one of those cases where lots of people knew it was there but no one had taken a thorough look at it and distinguished it as a species. He has a piece on known and new prehistoric creatures discovered in amber, including, believe it or not, birds.  A new bird, the Rote leaf warbler, is one of three new passerine species described in 2018 and stands out because of a long, curved bill unlike any other bird in its genus. Neanderthal art (we think of Cro-Magnons as the first artists, but they were not) rounds it out. Thanks, Darrren! 

Monday, December 17, 2018

No, we didn't "let" the USSR launch the first satellite

The idea crops up every now and then that the USSR's launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, before any American satellite flew, because the U.S. slowed down its program to assure a Russian "win" that would establish the principle of freedom of space for future U.S. intelligence satellites. Now, in 1958 there were military and CIA people already working to develop the exciting potential of satellite spies.  And once we started launching them, the Russian got nowhere with protests about overflying their territory because they'd already set the precedent. 

This article in National Review is the most recent example of the thinking that we slowed things down, noting that the Army was ordered to ensure its Jupiter-C reentry vehicle tests did not lead to any "accidental" satellites. (When the Navy's Vanguard suffered a failure in December 1957, the Army got the go-ahead to launch what became Explorer 1 on 31 January 1958.)   
The article does not, however, cite hard information, and my letter to the author reads as follows:

Concerning your recent article on the space race being "fixed," I can't help noting you did not cite any document or any participant in those decisions.  You will not find them.
Erika Maurer and I looked at this extensively for our 2004 book The First Space Race. While the "fix" idea has been around before - even NASA Historian Dr. Roger Launius floated it at one point, although being careful to say it was speculation, not fact - It doesn't fit the known events. We talked to Ernst Stulinger from the von Braun team, every surviving Vanguard official, include the Technical Director, the chief engineer of Explorer, General Medaris' aide, etc. and asked everyone about this idea. 
The "do not launch" order for the Jupiter-C test flight was given because Project Vanguard was THE official US project to launch the first satellite, announced publicly as such by the President himself, and DoD wanted nothing to upstage it.  (We asked Army historians to help locate the original teletype or letter that gave Medaris those instructions: they could not find it, but it could have been a telephoned or couriered order. Medaris in his memoir confirmed he did receive the order but didn't say how.)      
Vanguard ended up late, launching our second satellite, but that was a matter of persistent technical and cost overrun problems.  The issues of overflight were being talked about, and the spy satellite efforts had begun, but there is just no evidence of a related slowdown in U.S. satellite launches. Everyone from Ike on down had simply assumed the U.S. would be first - there was some "the Russians are backward" thinking there.  After the Sputnik 1 launch, Ike called his military R&D chief, Donald Quarles, on the carpet and read him the proverbial riot act for not warning him the Soviets might launch first.    If Ike or someone under him had been slowing the program down (Quarles would have known) this meeting makes no sense.  What IS true is that Quarles pointed out the Russians had unintentionally done the American spy satellite program a good turn by establishing freedom of space.  
It was a chaotic time, and it's not surprising that people interpret events differently.  But this item we can be sure about.
(I'll send you a copy of the book if you like.)

Matt Bille 

Prepare for Smallsat Conference 2019!

My favorite space conference, and the one I've presented to more than any other, is coming up.  Abstracts are due February 1st.  This has become a wildly popular conference, with 3,000 people attending all or part of it.  It's the premier conference in the world for smallsats and microsats. 
Small Satellite ProductionDRIVING A REVOLUTIONAugust 3-8, 2019 | 33rd Annual Conference on Small SatellitesCall For Papers
During the 33rd AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, we will explore the technical issues, development considerations, and new opportunities that result from an ever-growing trend toward missions using tens, hundreds, or even thousands of small satellites to achieve revolutionary effects.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A milestone for private space flight

The Virgin Galactic spaceplane, a SpaceShipTwo model named Unity, designed for carrying tourists on suborbital flights, had it fastest and highest flight yet, reaching an altitude of 82 km (271,268 feet).    Congratulations! 

Here's a good video clip.
It's pretty awesome to think about this. A private company, with no government support, built a spaceplane that goes higher and faster than any such craft built by any government in the world, with the sole exception of the X-15, of the 1960s, which was also air-launched.  (NASA did put four experiments on board.) The SpaceShipTwo craft carried a crew of two pilots and a mannequin representing a passenger.

Now, was it "in space?" Depends on your definition.  There is no international agreement setting the boundary between air and space.  The US Air Force has always used 50 miles above sea level as the basis for awarding astronaut wings.  The FAA picked up that definition: astronaut wings are on the way for the pilots.  Most authorities on spaceflight point to the von Karman line, 100km (62 miles) as the boundary. 

For Virgin Galactic, which has 600 people signed up to fly at a quarter of a million dollars each, they made it. 

The press release stated, in part: "The historic achievement has been recognised by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who announced today that early next year they will present pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony in Washington DC. CJ, as a four-time Space Shuttle pilot, will become the only person to have been awarded NASA and FAA wings."

Oh, and the passengers could theoretically toast with champagne. The French (who else?) have designed and tested a champagne bottle under spaceflight conditions.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Dolmens: Discoveries and Riddles

Dolmens, the ancient stone tombs and/or ritual constructions, continue to interest me. Readers will remember I wrote The Dolmen, a very well reviewed horror tale whose lesson is, "If you're going to illegally import and entire dolmen, direct and all, you'd better sift through the dirt."
We keep finding new dolmens and new things about them. They were built over thousands of years, from England to Korea and south into the Middle East.    The basic dolmen, usually three vertical stone slabs with a capstone, had many variations, some much more elaborate.  Why are they found over such a range? Probably the same reason pyramids are: if you want to raise something that will last, pyramids and dolmens are two types that don't require much in the way of construction techniques.  (The best-known Egyptian pyramids show a very sophisticated system of design and construction, but there are cruder pyramids all over the world, many built of nothing but tramped-down earth.) Similarly, all you need to build a dolmen is four stone slabs and a HUGE amount of manpower.  
A dolmen reported last year from Galilee is decorated with rock art, a very unusual find: there is none like it anywhere in the Middle East.  The structure, with an interior chamber measuring about 6 square meters. is dated to approximately 4,000 years BP.  It is one of some 400 in a field near Kibbutz Shamir, but it's the largest, the most elaborate (surrounded by a boulder heap about 20m across and four smaller dolmens) and we have only fragments of knowledge about the people who built it. Israeli archaeologist Gonen Sharon notes the field of dolmens means, "a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project.” Some stones weigh 50 tons.  
A cryptic message from the Bronze Age, only now being deciphered.  Is it any wonder I made one the center of a novel?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Welcome to Mars, Insight

The Insight lander, braking by aeroshell, parachute, and retrorocket into Mars' thin atmosphere, stuck the landing yesterday to send its first photos from the surface.  The eighth successful landing on the Red Planet since the Space Age began, Insight hopes to (or is hoped to: it's advanced, but I don't mean to grant it sentience) learn much more about Martian geology, internal temperatures, Marsquakes, and many more areas that will advance our knowledge of the planet and provide more clues in the search for life. Kudos to NASA, especially JPL, to Lockheed Martin and the other contractors, and to international partners (the seismometer , for example, is French.) Go Earth!  

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book review: Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters

Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters: A What-It-Is History of Bigfoot in the 1970s
by Daniel S. Green  
Coachwhip Publications, 2018, 1188 pp.

This is a unique Bigfoot book, and not only because you could stop a charging apeman by bonking him on the head with this monster-sized tome.  As the author says, the 1970s were the real heyday of Bigfoot / sasquatch / etc., when the modern interest sparked by the Jerry Crew report in 1958 had been raised to another level entirely by the Patterson-Gimlin film and the topic crew massive public interest and came close to scientific respectability.  Green has uncovered seemingly every significant report, sighting flap, footprint claim, book, movie, whatever and presents a year-by-year chronicle of North America’s favorite monster.  Scattered throughout are tidbits for the determined researcher as well as the casual curiosity-seeker. The Sasquatch Festival of 1938 is our (little-known) kickoff point for a short pre-1970s history, and then we get into the reactions to the P-G film and the real fun begins.  We see the sightings all over the country (a new one to me was a report by three Marines in 1973: young Marines like their jokes, but making a hoax official report? Hmmm.)    Green covers the first films and documentaries, especially the shoestring hit film The Legend of Boggy Creek, and of course the Minnesota Iceman first described in print in 1969 and the constantly changing stories attached to it.  The scientists who took an interest (pro or con, with a bit more attention here to the “pro”) are covered, as is the first serious scientific book, Napier’s 1973 Bigfoot, and the major tomes that preceded and followed it up through anthropologist Kenneth Wylie’s 1980 Bigfoot. Green introduces us to many of the colorful characters, like hunter/hoaxers from the late Jon Beckjord (who seems to have been busier than I remember – yes, I remember the 70s) to the still-at-it Tom Biscardi, the completely serious if not always scientific searchers for knowledge, and the people like Stan Gordon who connected Bigfoot to UFOs and other “high strangeness.” (One takeaway is that it is frankly astonishing that no one was ever shot in the swarm of armed amateur expeditions and hunting parties attending many major sighting events.)

The sheer weight of material Green presents here is enough to make anyone wonder whether there is in fact a real species behind all this, even as the nationwide distribution and endless differences in descriptions and footprints makes it hard to reconcile with a believable animal (or even more than one animal).   Publications others have largely overlooked, like the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (still publishing today), are used as Green chases the tale all over North America, from Alaska down to the Honey Island Swamp Monster and the Florida Skunk Ape. He takes us through the initial wave of conferences and meetings, the beginnings of the “kill-no kill” debate, and of course more sightings, from Ogden, Utah, to Powderly, Texas (Green’s best section headline, without doubt, is “The Tunnel Monster of Cabbagetown.”)
Green doesn’t try to wrap all this up into any personal overall views at the end (I wish he had), but he leaves us with over 100 pages of annexes, blogography, notes, and do forth. The amount of research done for this book makes my head ache.   Green’s evenhanded, sometimes bemused approach and mass of data may not make many converts one way or the other, but he has created a cultural history of our favorite monster’s most famous decade in a volume that will not and probably cannot be surpassed. For those who can manage the hefty price of this hefty book, it’s a must-have reference for anyone interested in North American primate claims, cryptozoology, and the cultural phenomenon that was, and still is, Bigfoot himself, both monster and myth. 

A different kind of wolf?

Fascinating: this discovery of a unique Arctic wolf population doesn't establish a new species, but it does indicate the usefulness of DNA studies and the differences in populations of a worldwide species.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A thought about H.G. Wells

When I was a kid I read everything, including some of the earliest horror/SF novels. H.G. Welles is known as a pivotal AF author, but I have a soft spot for the horror fiction he based on science as it was then known. 
Wells' The Invisible Man was pretty effective: written in 1897, it had some of the tropes which recurred throughout horror fiction: the scientist who experiments on himself, the inability to control the results, and the efforts to reverse the process and be normal again. He'd already written The Island of Dr. Moreau, wherein a mad scientist's advances don't work out at all as he foresaw (shades of Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man) among countless other examples.
The science is always fun to review from a later perspective: Wells' invisible man wouldn't have been able to see if light didn't reach his eyes, a point made by a physicist in 1913. The idea of transforming vertebrate species via surgery looks pretty silly now, when we have all our advances in genetics and DNA manipulation and still can't do such a thing.
But Wells made good use of what was then known in science (he trained in biology), prefigured still-ongoing debates about scientific morality, displayed great imagination, and wrote interesting main characters (secondary characters don't fare as well, getting little development in these short novels). These novels were only part of Wells' contribution to the canons of science fiction and horror, but they were lasting, even if movie and TV projects inspired by them have not fared well.
To mention a few I've seen, David McCallum's 1975 Invisible Man series was interesting but never found an audience, while its successor Gemini Man was just silly, I haven't seen the SyFY series, which lasted two seasons: an interesting sidelight was that the hormone which caused invisibility came from the corpse of a sasquatch, explaining why the big ape hadn't been discovered.  There was a decent version of Island with Michael York, although there's nothing memorable about it: it was simply competent.  he bizarre tale of making the incomprehensible version with Marlon Brando has become a film in itself. But Herbert George Welles' place is secure.
Read his work for yourself at Project Gutenberg. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

New microbes are their own "supra-kingdom"

Taxonomy was simple when I was growing up. There were plants (which included bacteria) and animals, and that was it.  Then things started splitting. The fungi got their own kingdom. Then the bacteria. Then it got crazy, with domains and supra-kingdoms and kingdoms, with the broader name "domains" assigned to the bacteria, the archaea, and the eukaryotes (which includes all the plants,  animals, protists, and pretty much everything else most people have ever heard of).  The only thing we knew for sure is that we at least had specimens belonging to all the kingdoms on up, even if we didn't have all the species. 
For more than a century, there were a few microbes kicking around collections that were described by species names and sometimes grouped as a phylum (the level below kingdom) but didn't fit very well with other microbes. Now we know why: they weren't even in the same kingdom as anything else.  Two new species picked up on a Canadian hike by graduate student Yana Eglit provided her and fellow scientists with their first look at living hemimastigotes, and they were so weird there was nothing else to do except give them their own supra-kingdom. As they wrote in Nature (the world's most prestigious scientific journal - heavy stuff for a grad student!) "The previous ranking of Hemimastigophora as a phylum understates the evolutionary distinctiveness of this group." The authors' findings "place Hemimastigophora outside of all established eukaryote supergroups. They instead comprise an independent supra-kingdom-level lineage..."
Mind blown. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Obituary: Environmental Champion Nat Reed.

I can't remember whether I ever met Nathaniel "Nat" Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics as a teenager, he ran for governor. He lost the Republican primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Democrat Lawton Chiles, but that's beside the point.
The obituary from the NY Times gives a good summation. Reed's legacy is one you wouldn't expect from most Republicans these days. He was instrumental in drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration and the establishment of the EPA. As the obituary in the NY Times tells it, Richard Nixon wasn't especially concerned about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it. He gave Reed a relatively free hand, and some real good resulted. Reed also stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation. He remained active all his life, writing, speaking, and otherwise advocating for the environment. He recounted his work in the book Travels on the Green Highway.
Nat Reed was 84 and died in the outdoors he loved, slipping and striking his head on a rock while salmon fishing in Quebec's Cascapedia River.    Goodbye to a good man.

The Extinct and the NY Times

We're all aware of human-caused extinctions, with famous species like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Steller's sea cow as poster creatures. Where are we now in terms of our impact on vulnerable species?
Obviously, a lot of things are better than they were decades ago. In the U.S., the EPA was created with the power to list species at risk and direct preservation efforts. Truly extraordinary efforts saved the California condor, the Florida panther (still very close to the edge) and the whooping crane, but were apparently a little too late for the Eastern cougar, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Eskimo curlew.  
The New York Times makes it easy to see all its stories on this topic.  The "paper of record" is a bit battered these days by controversies inside and out, but the science coverage remains definitely worth reading. Stories the classification of tigers, which is am interesting reminder that DNA evidence, which itself is objective and information-stuffed, still needs to be interpreted by the slightly fuzzy standards of a "species" and the very fuzzy standards of other taxonomic levels. Some say there are only two subspecies of Panthera tigris, while others vote for six. We know the Sumatran, which some experts call a separate species, is extinct,  as is the Javan tiger and maybe the Caspian tiger.  
Balancing this sadness is some rare (very rare) good news on the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal, with a sighting including a calf.  
Other recent articles cover the biodiversity of reef communities, the establishment of Madagascar's extinct elephant birds as the largest birds ever (800kg is a lot of Thanksgiving dinners), and how the Asian market for sea cucumbers threatens species off Mexico. 
Finally, there's an obituary I missed, for an Interior Department official named Nathaniel Reed.  I can't remember whether I met Nat Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics he ran for governor. He lost the primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Lawton Chiles, but that's aside from the point: the point is that he was instrumental in establishing the EPA and drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration.  Richard Nixon didn't particularly care about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it, and he and Reed, to whom he gave a free hand, did some real good.  He stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation.  He was 84.  Goodbye to a good man. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Salute to the Kepler space telescope

Kepler was retired today, after control problems made it untenable to keep the mission running. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has discovered 2,600 planets and looked at half a million stars, giving us a far better (and more enthralling) view of the galaxy than any previous mission.  NASA estimates "that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars." An enormous archive of data (the spacecraft sent 678 gigabits) is yet to be analyzed. Approved in 2001 (the 9-year development is not too unusual for complex science missions), it was seemingly done in 2013 when a reaction wheel failed, but engineers were able to work around it.  In 2016, news reports claimed it had discovered an "alien megastructure" (now identified as a dust cloud moving around a star, important but not admittedly not as much fun.  In 2013, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was launched and has taken over the planet-hunting mission. Congratulations to NASA Ames, JPL, Ball Aerospace, and all others involved.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Review: Vaquita

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
by Brooke Bessensen
Island Press, 2018

The vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean, once numbered thousands of animals in the Sea of Cortez. Then it was hundreds. And then it was a handful so small that every death could be the tipping point to extinction. (The estimate in this book is 15: there is a new study saying it might be as high as 30, but it's small comfort.)  It was only discovered by science in 1958, and it may be the second species of cetacean to be driven extinct.

The author, with endless determination and at no small risk to herself, explored both the world of the porpoise and a web of greed and corruption as deadly as the gillnets that may be the last thing the last vaquita ever sees.  Illegal fishing for the totoaba, a human-sized fish whose swim bladder is worth more than cocaine on the Chinese market, continues despite official proclamations, laws, and even a unique agreement by Mexico to allow Sea Shepherd ships to confiscate illegal nets. For every effort or official announcement of more protection, there is a corrupt government official, a crime lord, and/or a desperate or greedy fisherman willing to circumvent it.  An astonishing narrative has sprung up among local fishermen: that the vaquita does not exist, being only a prop for some kind of American-Mexican plot to turn the region into an oilfield. A laudable program to pay fishermen to use safer gear or switch to non-fishing businesses is spotty in practice thanks to corruption, endless delays in permits and paperwork, and the unending demand for totoaba (whose population is also shrinking fast).  
Brooke Bessesen explores the world of the local villages, where she meets people who risk everything to save the species and people who simply will not talk about it, plus those who doubt its existence (she notes fairly that many younger fisherman have never seen one, but many who know better have talked themselves into the myth). She chronicles the efforts of conservationists, artists, and educators to support the animal, and the desperate and heartbreaking attempt to save the vaquita by captive breeding.  
Bessesen ends on a determined note: we may or may not save the vaquita (the odds, while not yet zero, are not good), but she will tell its story. She will not let its spirit die. 
If the heroes in this book do not inspire you, you have no heart: if the villainy does not infuriate you, you have no soul.  That's how memorable this book is.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: Spying on Whales

Book Review:  

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Nick Pyenson
Viking, New York.  322 pp.
This is a superbly written one-volume introduction to whales through the personal experiences of the author’s adventures and hard work in studying them, whether the whales in question are fossilized (the author is a paleontologist and the fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian) or living. 
He describes numerous challenges in the fossil-hunting field, like trying to get a stunning bonanza of fossils weighing countless tons out  of Chile before the area was bulldozed, and smaller but memorable moments like having his four-year-old son discover a fossil whale skull. 
He relates his first adventure in trying to tag a whale (he did) and some pioneering work at an Icelandic whaling station. (He wondered if it was ethical to work with a whale “fishery,” and finally decided the whales would be killed no matter what he did, so it would at least give their deaths some meaning if scientists used them to learn about the animals and contribute to knowledge useful for conservation.)  There he and a colleague discovered that, after a century-plus of killing hundreds of thousands of whales, some species had a sensory organ connecting the jawbones at the tip that was not only undescribed in any of the literature, but was a TYPE of organ never described in any animal. (You can think of it as a jelly doughnut with fibers (papillae) inside, all of which grow out of one side and connect to the other side.)  It’s amazing how recent much of our knowledge of whales is and how much we have yet to learn.
When trying to understand the behavior of whales, he discusses a problem I’ve never seen explored in any depth in many years of reading on cetaceans: we don’t know what “natural” behavior for the great whales looks like. No one knows how feeding, diet, migration, ranges, etc., looked like before humans started the wholesale slaughter. The behavior and habits we are still trying to document might be radically different from what they were in, say, 1700. This applies to their only predators, the orcas, too.  Did the orcas which today specialize in salmon or seals always feed on those, or was it different when there were many times (almost a hundred times, for blue whales) the number of baleen whales available to pursue today? What were the deepsea floor communities that gather on “whalefalls” like when thousands more whales every year were dying natural deaths and sinking?
Pyenson effectively traces the failure of conservation efforts until recent decades and the problems whales still face from many human-caused effects. He also recounts being part of the fundamental work of figuring out the nutrients vs. metabolic costs involved in lunge feeding on fish and shrimp by the giant rorquals.  One of the outcomes of this analysis concerns the maximum size of whales: it turns out the largest blue whales are about as big as whales can be. Any bigger, and the energy expended can’t be adequately recouped. Pyenson thinks the measured maximum length for a killed blue of 109 feet is about the limit, while the largest whale ever cut up and weighed piece by piece, at 136.4 tons, is somewhat short of the maximum, as this whale was “only” 89 feet long. (He wrote about this in the New York Times, and I blogged on it here.
His work on this topic is also a reminder of how the sciences can cross-fertilize each other. When trying to understand how whales’ pleated throats expanded to take in swimming pools full of water and then contracted to strain it, the whale scientists brought in Jean Piven, a “particle physicist turned parachute experimenter.” Piven joined with them to help calculate, from his design and testing of many types and sizes of parachutes, how the throat expanded, what the energy expended was, how challenging it was to filter that mass through the baleen, and what the muscles and the tongue had to do to make this system work. Pyenson also describes the information gained from some of his fossils at the Smithsonian, explaining technical biological terms and functions in language non-experts can understand. 
The bottom line: I learned things on every page and had a fascinating time doing so. While Pyenson doesn’t try to cover every species, I ended up with a much better idea of what a whale really is and why whales look and act as they do. A marvelous achievement.    

A scary ride to space

While space travel will never be entirely safe, there has never been a human casualty in orbit or beyond.   Every human life lost in space exploration was lost in ground training and accidents, on reentry, or on launch.  The transition between realms is the scariest part.  (See my review of the heartbreaking yet enriching book Bringing Columbia Home). 
The Soviet/Russian approach to space has been to stick with proven designs, upgrading them gradually, and building dozens of similar capsules and hundreds of boosters that designer Mikhail Tikhonravov would recognize from his 1957-built R-7.
While four cosmonauts were killed in reentry accidents in the Soviet era, launch became routine.  Still, the escape tower on  Soyuz launchers was used twice, in 1975 and 1983, to pull away from malfunctioning boosters, and now we have a third effort.  (No escape rockets on U.S. capsules have ever been deployed, although it's fair to note the Shuttle HAD no escape system when Challenger failed.) 
Then last week, one of the Soyuz's four attached boosters had a problem. The rocket's boosters (liquid-fueled like the main stage) existed because Tikhonravov and engine designer Valentin Glushko could not get large enough engines from Soviet manufacturing and metallurgy of the times to produce very large rocket engines and needed to cluster smaller ones, a process we covered in our book The First Space Race.
Anyway, this 1950s design was still in use thanks to the Russian philosophy of reusing successful designs pretty much forever. One booster apparently had a failed detachment and swiveled into the main body instead of out and away. Cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and astronaut Nick Hague (Colonel, USAF) handled it in the best tradition of space flyers, keeping calm,taking the right actions, running the checklists, as the capsule became a giant, spinning artillery round until the parachutes deployed. 
There is of course an investigation, but the U.S. allowed itself to get into a post-Shuttle world with no way to transport astronauts to the ISS except to buy pricey seats on Russian vehicles.  They will continue to use this route after the booster is declared safe again, because they have no choice: Commercial Crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to be flying, but the budget was stretched out, as was the schedule.   Let's hope the price for that decision isn't too high. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cryptozoology odds and ends

I don't call myself a cryptozoologist anymore: the field once looked like it was on the verge of applying widespread scientific rigor, but now only a minority of cryptozoologists seem to approach the business with both of the mindsets necessary: curiosity and skepticism. The latter gets left out too often, and I run the other way when people try to explain lack of physical evidence by invoking something never proven to exist, apparitions. (If it's not zoology, it shouldn't be cryptozoology, and if's there's no evidence after prolonged searches, the logical conclusion is the thing doesn't exist.).
Nonetheless, I like cryptozoologists for their sheer stubborn optimism, and I keep an eye open for developments. Here are 10 items from January to October 2018.

  1. First, a reminder that there is only one real museum for the field, the International Cryptozoology Museum (ICM)in Portland, Maine. The ICM does try to collect all the hard evidence available, as well as media coverage, pop culture, etc. 
  2. Loren Coleman and company at the ICM have added a CryptoStore where you can buy anything from a plush Bigfoot to a cryptozoology books to action figures. 
  3. Some coverage of last year's conference at the Museum. Another article here and a TV report here.  
  4. Next year's conference will be in the spring: the Museum is doing some fund-raising here.
  5. The University of Utah's Chronicle is running a "cryptid of the week" storyline.  The example here is, of course, Bigfoot, in a short article written by Marshall Faulkner.
  6. Cryptozoologists hate hoaxes, of course. This one of a Georgia "carcass" created by an artist got a lot of press.
  7. There's a fun-looking animated film out I haven't seen yet, about finding a tribe of yetis and being the outsider as a human. It's called Smallfoot. Cryptozoologists will note there are almost no reports of white yetis, and that's not surprising.  Yetis, if they existed, would not live in the snowfields and high passes, just cross them while going between valleys where's actually food, so white would not be an advantage. The snow-white Yeti, though, is embedded in pop culture now. 
  8. A fun news article on the cryptids of Saskatchewan, including sasquatch and the lake creature named (unfortunately) Ogopogo. "Ogopogo" is a fun name, but not one that will help the topic be taken seriously by the scientific world.  (Of course, we have bandicoots and wallaroos, and the fish called the sarcastic fringehead sound pretty funny, too.)
  9. Cryptozoology has become a common enough part of the culture to be used as an introduction to other topics - even, in this case, to dog-headed demon sculptures. 
  10. There are more and more cryptozoology-themes events around the country, including this one, the Bigfoot Bonanza
  11.  I get one to add one self-promotional item in every list. My well-reviewed cryptozoological novel The Dolmen is still available! 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Book Review: Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First Americans
Adrienne Mayor

  • 488 pages
  • Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005)

  •  Mayor is a scholar of the overlooked chapters of history and prehistory, such as historical Amazons and early automata. Here she asks what Native Americans thought of the fossils in fossil-rich North America, and uncovers a treasure trove of anecdotes, myths, and fossils.

  • The Native contributions to fossil lore were long overlooked, and most are lost. Early fossil hunters sometimes paid Indians to lead them to fossils, but few thought the locals had anything to offer as far as understanding or even interest, dismissing them as mere curiosity collectors or primitive object-worshipers. (The great George Gaylord Simpson, writing in 1942 and 1943, was especially harsh on the idea the peoples who'd been on the continent longest had learned anything useful.) Mayor, though, finds interest in fossils existed over the continent. If Native Americans lacked the European-American scientific method to put things into context, many tribes considered fossils very important. They gathered fossils, traded them, incorporated them in sacred and everyday art, and speculated about what kind of beasts had left them behind. It was logical to attribute them to monsters of legend, since there was no other cultural context to put them in, at least after the human conquest of the continent had (according to somewhat disputed orthodoxy) wiped out mammoths and other beasts. They understood these bones came from many types of giants/animals, which various tribes identified as including the great thunderbirds and both land and water monsters. Storytellers filled in the background with legends about how these creatures killed each other or, rarely, were killed by humans. 
  • Fossils are kept even today in medicine bundles and other Native-held artifacts, although many more have been taken to museums (sometimes with the consent of local tribes and sometimes not: Mayor reports some tribes considered them part of the story of the earth, and removing them was disrespectful or would lead to misfortune). An early point of contention was that bones eroding away in the air had to be removed, according to scientists, for preservation, while some Indians objected this was interfering with a natural cycle. Mayor went to great lengths to talk with paleontologists, tribal historians, old shamans, and others who could shed light on the connections of the past. The controversies continue into the present, with the battles over Tyrannosaurus Sue and other specimens. While it's possible to wonder whether Mayor puts a bit too much stock in Native understanding of the fossils, she takes time to deconstruct such frauds and myths as the cave full of red-haired mummified giants in Nevada that conspiracy-lovers (and some sincere cryptozoologists) think were hidden or destroyed. She notes there are a few Native claims of unfossilized dinosaur bones, although these may be due more to linguistic / translation difficulties than to reality. 
  • My main nitpick in this book is illustrations. While maps of each region Mayor covers are provided, it would help the reader to see some of the crucial small areas mapped in more detail. There are many photographs and drawings here, but I found myself wanting more: perhaps a companion volume of art and photography would be an interesting future project.
  • If the book's not perfect, it is a (literally) groundbreaking work that shows how much we've overlooked that is still accessible. Mayor knows how to document: the Index and Notes take up 100 pages, so there are plenty of additional sources to delve into. Hopefully this book creates more respect for Native Americans and for the fossils of dinosaurs and ancient mammals they saw and gathered. Much has been lost, but much remains to be explored.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

And one more new bird...

This one from Africa. An international team of ornithologists found the western square-tailed drongo (Dicrurus occidentalis), a gray or black insect-eater whose range lies in Guinea and Nigeria.  
Here's the formal paper. The new species was visibly unique in its bill and the distinction was confirmed by DNA.  Specifically, by " possessing a significantly heavier bill and via substantial genetic divergence (6.7%) from its sister-species D. sharpei."  
Congratulation and keep loosking, folks! 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blockbuster of a dinosaur

The great sauropods we think are the biggest land animals ever, like Argentinosaurus, hadn't come on the scene yet when this early Jurassic critter was stomping around South Africa. The article says that, while it was related to sauropods, "...the fossil shows that it evolved earlier, and independently, of sauropods." It weighed about 11.8 metric tons and was named Ledumahadi mafube, or "a giant thunderclap at dawn" in the local Sesotho language.  The fossil is about 200 million years old.
What is most peculiar are the legs: the bones are thicker than those on sauropods and indicate it retained a bit of a crouched, reptile-like posture instead of using the plan known sauropods' bodies did and standing directly over straighter legs.   It was an experiment that, as far as we know at this point, Nature played with for a while and then forgot.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The latest little bird

This stunning-looking hummingbird, the blue-throated hillstar ( Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus,) was just described from the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.  It is, in a sad but not surprising development, already endangered: there might be 750 individuals at best, thanks largely to habitat loss.  

From the abstract:
"The geographic distribution of the new species seems to be restricted to cordillera Chilla-Tioloma-Fierro Urcu, in the southwestern highlands of Ecuador, an area historically poorly explored by ornithologists. Thus, based on its restricted distribution, apparently low population size, and lack of protection of its habitat, we evaluate it as critically endangered."

It survived to be found because much of its habitat (which extends only 100 square km) is on rugged ground. Ecuadorian biologist Francisco Sornoza had the first sighting and took the first photograph in 2017: he brought in more scientists and made a thorough study before formally describing the species in the journal The Auk.  I can't reproduce the photo here (copyright), but see the references: the blue-green "collar" of the male bird's throat is VERY striking. 

Nature still has her hidden treasures, if we find them in time. 

Here's the full citation:
Francisco Sornoza-MolinaJuan F. FreileJonas NilssonNiels Krabbe, and Elisa Bonaccorso (2018) A striking, critically endangered, new species of hillstar (Trochilidae: Oreotrochilus) from the southwestern Andes of Ecuador. The Auk: October 2018, Vol. 135, No. 4, pp. 1146-1171.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book review: Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator

by Jason M. Colby, Oxford University Press, 2018

This is a unique and very important book, one that fills in a chapter that’s been missing from the battle over captive cetaceans. It’s one thing to condemn orca-catching now, and most Americans do, but what did the men who created the industry think, and how did their actions affect the species and whales in general? Colby, whose father caught orcas, talked to the now-old men like Ted Griffin (capturer of the original Namu and the first man to swim with captive orcas) who created the industry. Some now oppose it: almost all consider it something that was acceptable in the 1960s. Most provocatively, many of the subjects, and Colby himself, discuss to the great irony in the orca story: that capture was traumatic and sometimes deadly to these intelligent, social animals, and yet played an important role in making humans consider the orca a creature worth protecting. While orca capture today may be, as Colby says, considered an unmitigated evil, it’s hard to argue with the belief that meeting orcas changed people's thinking. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, there were few documentaries, no modern media to spread information, and a lot of fear (I was born in 1959 and remember how they were portrayed as vicious man-killers).  One story included here is of a town which emplaced a heavy machine gun to exterminate orcas coming in to “steal” salmon, while fishermen shot them at every opportunity and the U.S. Navy waged an extermination campaign in Iceland.
Colby does not stint on describing the harm to the whales.  The various techniques for capturing orcas were all risky to the animals,even though the obvious goal was to bring them in unharmed. Many whales drowned in nets being used to capture them at sea or pen them into coves. Explosives were routinely used to herd them.  Orcas were often kept in tiny facilities with staff who knew little about them: accidents, illness, and death were consequences. Also, there was no understanding of family groups or differing populations (Colby recounts the beginnings of scientific awareness here): mixing and matching orcas led to more stress and harm.
Colby traces the modern controversy up through the Keiko/Free Willy controversy, the film Blackfish, and other recent developments, but others have also written of those things.  Colby’s real contribution here is to record how captive orcas came to be “a thing” and how their image evolved as a result.    He is resolutely even-handed, presenting the people involved as they were and are, not judging them.  This is what the best historians do, and it took some courage: I’m sure Colby will get some passionate letters for not condemning capture and the orca-hunters more than he does.  (To reveal my own bias, I think orca captivity should be phased out everywhere as quickly as practical.)  To read a cetologist's view, here is Dr. Robin Baird's review from Science.
If I have a nitpick, it's that Colby could have gone into more depth (hah) about more recent science, such as the discovery of ecotypes, to show just how limited our knowledge was in the 1960s and how this knowledge has evolved. (as mentioned above, he touches on this, but I wanted a little more). 
This outstanding book needs to be read by everyone interested in the topics of captivity, cetacean science, and human-cetacean relations. 

Two films Colby wrote about which shaped public opinion were the 1966 family film Namu (which depicted orca behavior accurately, with Ted Griffin and the original Namu in the swimming sequences) and the 1977 Jaws ripoff Orca
(images: fair use claimed) 

Monday, September 17, 2018

What happens at International Whaling Commission meetings?

Conservationists regard this year's meeting of the IWC as a success, as the main agenda item - a proposal from Japan to renew commercial whaling - was defeated handily.
The IWC through the 1970s was sort of a "whaler's club," setting quotas that were too high to sustain (and sometimes too high for whalers to even fill).  But the agency formally and supposedly permanently banned commercial whaling of large whales in 1986. Here are the current rules: IWC Commercial Whaling.  This has probably saved some species, most definitely the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), from extinction. There are some exceptions for indigenous peoples with whale-hunting traditions.

When the IWC gathers, as they just did in Brazil, there's a lot of politicking. Japan has sponsored admission of several small nations that didn't whale in the first place to stem the increasing tide of anti-whaling nations.  Japan sent a delegation of 66 people, while most nations send only a few (or one). It didn't help: the number of anti-whaling nations just keeps rising, with Australia and the U.S. consistently leading an anti-whaling bloc. Note the ban does not apply to smaller cetaceans: there the IWC does more study and advising than it does regulation.  In 2016, though the IWC established a Conservation Management Plan for a the Franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei). The plan for this inhabitant of South America's Atlantic coast was the first small cetacean to be so regulated.  
And here, courtesy of the American Cetacean Society (I'm a member) and ACS National Board Member, Sabena Siddiqui, is how those meetings unfold.  
Humpbacks (image NOAA)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Bringing Columbia Home

The Columbia disaster was a horrible day in history, made worse by the knowledge it was preventable.  The authors tell that story, but they also tell the story of hope and dedication and that old-fashioned and much-maligned thing called the American spirit.  

When it became clear the Shuttle's debris - and crew - had come to Earth in East Texas and Louisiana, people responded in their thousands. Entire towns became recovery centers, giving up buildings and vehicles and and everything they had to the searchers who volunteered from the recovery area and from all over America. Astronauts, farmers, truckers, rangers, engineers, Native American fire crews, and  office workers, some paid and some unpaid, swarmed over the extremely difficult terrain, swamp, and forest to find pieces that might be smaller than a dime but still mattered.  While a few jerks tried to steal pieces, and a few bad decisions were made (NASA workers had to use their vacation time for the search - that one is inexcusable), the overwhelming message is about resilience in the face of tragedy.  The authors chronicle how the mission of Columbia became a new mission for just plain folks who cooked, cleaned, refused to take NASA employees' money in their stores, and left a legacy of selfless determination and hope. 
The authors also take us to a faraway hangar, where engineers began putting the shuttle's story together, using the pieces flowing in from the field (especially those from the critical left wing)  to reconstruct the accident, learning the cause and learning the many lessons for the Shuttle program and spaceships of the future.  You'll read a lot of compelling stories of individuals, of resilience and its limits, and even a seemingly mystical event involving a stray white dog. You'll read how many different sorts of finds were important - a cassette tape in the branches of a tree, a finger-sized piece of tile from a reservoir, a watch with accident time still showing, a control panel bent so the positions of the switches from astronauts' last efforts to save the ship were preserved. One thing I didn't realize is that the mission isn't over: bits of debris can still go to carefully-vetted researchers and university programs to study the behavior of materials under stresses that can't be duplicated in test facilities. 
If you don't cry a few times reading this book, I don't know what to say to you except "Go back and read it again." Anyone interested in the history, present, or future of the space program needs to read this book.

Snailfish creep (swim) into view

They are called snailfish, and they almost deserve it. With hardly any more solid structure than an invertebrate (only the teeth and inner-ear bones are hard), these scavengers play an important roles in the deep biosphere.  They have to stay there: adjusting to the pressure means they have all-jelly bodies that fall apart at the surface unless captured at depth and brought up in a close container  (so the whole ecosystem in Meg is... yep, impossible. Only without it there's no story, so just wave the "needed fictional element"  wand and go on).  
These three new species add to our knowledge of this enigmatic and little-studied group.  Over 6,500m down, they go on their way, no more aware of the surface world than we are of alternate universes.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Debunking Conspiracy Claims

9-11, a day of remembrance and honor, might also go down in history as "I Hate Conspiracies Day."
Facts are real things. 

Snopes isn't always right, but they are convincing here. The Pentagon conspiracy thing is especially annoying since I know people who were there.

Monday, September 03, 2018

"They conceal information like that in books."

"They conceal information like that in books."
Remember that line from the movie Lake Placid, when someone asks how a crocodile could swim across the ocean? Well, that was in Maine, so no crocodile has (or would) swim there. But we now know the biggest crocodiles in the world swim long distances, and they are smart enough (ok, instinctive enough) to use the ocean currents.  
Saltwater crocs (which can be monsters: a big one may weigh a metric ton)  are spread over many islands of the southeastern (or southwestern, if you're looking from the United States and want to put it that way) Pacific ocean, plus the coasts of Australia, India, Malaysia, etc. They are, surprisingly, not great swimmers. But they have endurance: they can devote weeks to a sea voyage, according to satellite tracking,chomping fish or turtles along the way. One that ventured out to sea from Australia's Kennedy River stayed in the ocean for 25 days and traveled 590km, thanks to a boost from the currents. 
So that's how they swim across the ocean. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

A dove back from the dead

Brazil's Blue-eyed Ground Dove, Columbina cyanopis, seemingly vanished in 1941. It was a pretty olive/tawny, red, and blue bird (the blue appears in spots on the wings like a soldier's rank).  It was detected again by its unique song in 2015.  
Its rediscovery led to one of those momentous decisions that's inevitable when a species is found but has only a tiny population (about 12 in this case): what's the best thing to do? Protect its habitat and hope it survives? Capture it and hope it breeds in an aviary? There are never unlimited resources available, and there are hard choices - and a lot of finger-crossing and prayers - when the staff of organization with responsibility makes the call. In this case: the conservation organization SAVE Brasil bought the land where the bird still existed and created the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove Nature Reserve. 
Fingers crossed.