Saturday, January 26, 2019

New species all over

"Marbled crayfish are a globally expanding population of parthenogenetically reproducing freshwater decapods."  
OK, that's almost scary. It sounds like an old science fiction movie. However, not science fiction, just science, one of the never-ending rush of new species of all types.  The crayfish ranks, for example, added these two from Indonesia,among many others in the past year.  
The big splash of the last couple of years (yea, I'm cheating by expanding the timeline) was the Tapanuli organutan, a population of several hundred orangs in northern Sumatra overlooked until 1997, then identified in 2017 as a separate species.  They are highly endangered, which unfortunately is not a big surprise.  A Chinese-run company's new dam will rip up a good portion of the animals' habitat. Pongo tapanuliensis is the third species of orangutan. Dr. Marina Davila-Ross, who co-authored the description, remarked, “I was surprised about the extent to which the Tapanuli orangutans differed genetically, morphologically as well as behaviorally from the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans."  Alas, the other two she mentioned are not in any better shape, conservation-wise. 
You'd think the heavily populated modern nations are about picked over, but even where new species seem unlikely, they are not unheard of.  This recap by the BBC on the finds of naturalist Steve Trewhella notes a new wasp (2014) worms, etc., among other critters, in the UK.  In the U.S., a charmingly named new slug (Hemphillia skadei) - Skade being the daughter of the two Idaho biologists who turned it up.  The year 2017 brought a real rarity for the U.S., a new bird, also from Idaho, a crossbill named  Loxia curvirostra (for a curved beak used for probing into pine cones for seeds( by ecologist Craig Benkman.  

Crossbills occur over most of the world, and there are many species, but the most poetic thing about them, is, well, this poem, by Longfellow.

The Legend of the Crossbill

On the cross the dying Saviour
Heavenward lifts his eyelids calm,
Feels, but scarcely feels, a trembling
In his pierced and bleeding palm.

And by all the world forsaken,
Sees he how with zealous care
At the ruthless nail of iron
A little bird is striving there.

Stained with blood and never tiring,
With its beak it doth not cease
From the cross 't would free the Saviour,
Its Creator's Son release.

And the Saviour speaks in mildness:
'Blest be thou of all the good!
Bear, as token of this moment,
Marks of blood and holy rood!'

And that bird is called the crossbill;
Covered all with blood so clear,
In the groves of pine it singeth
Songs, like legends, strange to hear. 

What lurks beneath Antarctic ice?

The first answer, of course, is "a continent."  Get out to the huge ice shelves, though, and the sea in places goes down to 4,000m or So. This interesting article, though lacking in examples and scientific detail, recounts how Aussie scientists probed those depths and found, not only the expected collection of weird fish and invertebrates, but species that seemed to have evolved there into something a little different than their counterparts in other oceans.  That was unexpected;  although we have interesting Antarctic examples like the antifreeze-blooded fishes,  it's generally been held that warm, food-rich waters are the best places for evolution and speciation. Mother Nature springs another surprise... i'll have to look for some more detailed articles from the scientific press. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Book Review: Rocket Men

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon 
Robert Kurson

It's hard to express how much I enjoyed Rocket Men. I was an "Apollo kid" and something of a space historian myself, so I knew the story, but what the author does here is make us FEEL it. The astronauts, of course, take center stage (including Anders, who is kind of the forgotten man on this mission), but the key Earth-based figures, including the administrators who argued and finally approved (with fingers crossed) a very rushed first mission around the Moon, the families, and others - all are brought to life. The technical aspects are well explained and very clearly described. There's an odd point where we switch to the views of unnamed cosmonauts and back in the same paragraph, and the background events of a turbulent year, which are very well described, could have been better tied in to NASA activities. These are quibbles, though. The author, not a space expert by training, puts us into the capsule with excellent descriptions of life for three men in a can. A couple of memorable bits to me were 1) the Saturn V liftoff (except for the wording that there were "explosions" of fuel and oxidizer, which might just have been a bit of hyperbole). I have seen a Saturn V launch, albeit from 10 miles, and I understand the booster technology, and I think he nails it, and 2) the description of an oft-overlooked bit of most space voyages, the recovery: this book captures the drama and the humor of the events that started with the scary but very clean reentry. Well done, sir, VERY well done. Everyone interested in space history and the lunar race will want this book.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thoughts on cryptozoology

As I've said before, I like cryptozoologists, although I don't count myself as one.  Their resolute optimism can be contagious.  I wish those hunting sasquatch or Nessia all the luck in the world.  I also wish, though, that they did things a little differently. 

Something that should be discussed in cryptozoology is how much background or work someone needs to be credible. (This may apply in other fields - Philip Klass once complained that people thought a few evenings of reading made a UFO expert - but cryptozoology is my favorite oddity, so that's where I'm going.) I ruminate on this this because a lot of people write/post on cryptozoology who are smart and curious but don't know things like ecology and evolutionary biology. Lack of classes in such things has obviously not stopped a lot of people, including me, from writing on the topic. I've written on other topics, like microsatelltie design and Martian soil, where I have no degrees or recent classes, either.  So I'm not saying, "Only write if you're a zoologist."
 My suggestion is that, if you are planning to write on cryptozoology, you owe it to all those interested in the topic to do some reading or talk to some scientists or take some relevant science classes - in short, to do some research outside cryptozoological books and websites and be able to address why a species is likely to exist, where it might plausibly exist, etc. Otherwise, don't waste your time or readers' time. 

The other thing that strikes me about cryptozoology is: Is there any field of endeavor in which people spend so much time re-debating old claims/evidence? P-G film, McNab’s Nessie photo, on and on.... there ARE old things that still puzzle some people. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take the Valhalla sea creature out of the “Unexplained ” file. But you reach a point where everything that could reasonably be relevant has already been said. Log it as a data point and move on to what’s new. Maybe someone will discover something that explains this old sighting or that old photo (the sea creature nicknamed "Trunko," a longtime discussion topic laid to rest by recent discovery of old newspaper accounts, is a great example). If that happens, great,  but well-discussed evidence fifty or a hundred years old is not, by itself, going to yield new insights. Many smart, capable people get caught up in re-debating old stuff forever. 

There ARE plenty of undiscovered animals out there. New birds, sharks, and even mammals are described every year. So let's search for new worlds.  

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Pretty Amazing Space: 2019 Starts With Succcesses

This year has kicked off with amazing feats in space exploration. Above are NASA images of the asteroid Bennu and the weird little rock/ice conglomeration called Ultima Thule.  

How did we get them, and what else was going on this month in space? Glad you asked.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) Osiris-Rex reached the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and sent back spectral analysis (which proved the existence of water), stunning photos, and, soon, a sample of the surface, which will leave the asteroid’s minuscule gravity for a long journey to arrive on Earth in 2013.  It’s in orbit surveying the asteroid to help engineers plan out the tricky phase of approach and landing.  (That gravity is so minuscule the spacecraft can orbit as close as 1.4 kilometers, a record for close orbit of any natural object.) 

I’ve already written of how NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) control room went nuts on New Years’ Day with the arrival of the New Horizons probe at a little bilobate object (it has basically one round object stuck on top of another, giving it sort of a bowling-pin appearance) in the Kupier belt known as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule.   New Horizons studied Pluto in 2015 and kept going, a tribute to the program’s engineers and technicians. 

There have been a few oddly negative comments made in the media by people who felt 1) there was too much national pride (flags, etc.) about New Horizons, and 2) the use of "Ultima Thule" was wrong because the term had been adopted by a handful of white-supremacy morons.  I don't get either one: New Horizons was paid for  by American taxpayers and built by Americans, and the fact space exploration benefits all humankind doesn't make it wrong to recognize the nation that made it happen. As to the Roman-era term Ultima Thule (rougly, "most distant land"), there's no way to prevent ANY term from being appropriated by racists.  There's no reason or point to carping about it. 


China, meanwhile, soft-landed a probe and rover on the far side (NOT THE DARK SIDE!) of the Moon.  The Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft to pull off a soft landing on the side of the Moon away from human sight (and direct radio communication).  The China National Space Administration (CNSA) reported the vehicle, which launched four weeks ago, entered lunar orbit December 12 in preparation for the landing. Once down, it deployed a suite of instruments to study the lunar surface, radiation, etc., sending back some great pictures at the same time.  Then it sent out the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit 2: Jade Rabbit had been landed by the e Chang’e-3 spacecraft in 2016, but was short-lived) to explore further.  The lander kept in touch with Earth via Queqiao, a Chinese relay satellite already parked at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2.  Designers of Chang’e-4 even made space for a sealed biology experiment with two kinds of seeds (including, of course, potato "eyes") and silkworm cocoons.  Pretty impressive.

To infinity and beyond!

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

NASA reaches the "Ultima" destination

NASA's New Horizons probe has extended human reach to a place never explored: Ultima Thule, a Kupier Belt object shaped like a big bowling pin.  In addition to the close flyby and the photos and data, one thing to remember is that the solar system may be big, but this is well beyond the normally accepted boundaries, over 6.5 billion km from here.   It's about 20km long, and it was intercepted (remember, you have to HIT a spot marked from Earth as only a dot on a telescope photo) a good 10 hours, as light/radio travels, from the receiving stations here at home.  We humans can do some remarkable stuff.. Let's do more.