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.