Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Birds in Indonesia: New Species and Supertramps

Way back in the 1970s, leading ornithologists like Dr. Ernst Mayr thought the discovery of bird species was almost complete.  In my 2006 book Shadows of Existence, though, I quoted a South African ornithology, Dr. Phil Hockey. He said, "Ten years or so ago, ornithologists were saying that by now all bird species would be known.  But today new species are popping up all over the place.” They still are.
Now we have two new species from Indonesia. Scientists from universities in Dublin and Sulawesi using "mitochondrial DNA, morphometric, song and plumage analyses" The Wakatobi white-eye and the Wangi-wangi white-eye  come from the Wakatobi Isalnds off the larger island of Sulawesi.  
The formal description includes a term I hadn't heard before: birds living on only one island have long been called "endemics," but the term "supertramps" is used for species that found homes all over the archipelago. I'd missed it: the term apparently dates back to 1974, when it was popularized by Dr. Jared Diamond (a fan of the band Supertramp as well as an ecologist describing a phenomenon)  to mean a generalized species with wide distribution - that is, one colonizes a large area but without specializing enough to form distinct species. (If you think about it, that describes humans very well.)  
Sulawesi is an oddity to begin with, a sort of demilitarized zone where creatures from both sides of the Wallace line separating placental mammals with roots in Asia from the marsupials mingle.   This makes it something of a zoological laboratory for hybrid and new species.  The Wakatobi white-eye is similar to other species on Sulawesi (indeed, it was mistaken for something else until now), while the Wangi-wangi white-eye is a loner, with the closest relative three thousand kilometers (something humans around the holidays can only wish for) And yet, they are allied, both in the genus Zosterops.  This poses both a puzzle and exciting new evidence for scientists trying to play the record revealed through modern species in reverse, so to speak, and understand how birds and other species radiated through this region from the nearest continents. 
The team leader, Dr. Nicola Marples, wrote, “To find two new species from the same genus of birds in the same island is remarkable." And yet here they are, and no one now doubts more birds await the eyes of science.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Book Review: ShukerNature 1, by Dr. Karl Shuker

ShukerNature Book 1Antlered Elephants, Locust Dragons, and other Cryptic Blog Beasts

Coachwhip Publications, 2019: 412pp.

Dr. Shuker’s curiosity about all things zoological is boundless.  In this volume, based on entries in his blog of the same name, the British zoologist plumbs the depth and breadth of of the animal world in fact, myth, and art.  Some topics will be familiar to most readers of cryptozoology, but what makes this such an enjoyable cabinet of curiosities is that many of them aren’t.  Shuker wonders about humans as much as beasts: why we put flying elephants in art, why monks put creatures half cat, half snail in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, and why stories of gigantic spiders drinking from whale-oil lamps popped up in cathedrals. We’ve all seen the silly postcards of a claimed half-man, half-alligator taxidermy fake (Karl loves “gaffs,” as these are called), but he’s uniquely identified how many of these were made (three) and how many he can locate (two).  Shuker explores his childhood fascination, Sea Monkeys™, tales of giant bunny rabbits, and Trunko, the bizarre “seagoing polar bear-elephant” that turned out, thanks largely to Shuker’s determined sleuthing, to be another dead whale.  And what was behind the poisonous “fury worm” classified first-hand by Linnaeus himself, but apparently nonexistent? 
Shuker also revisits the famous ape Oliver. While he agrees Oliver was just a chimp, he thinks the animal’s bipedal gait was too natural to be the result of training and there is still a bit of a mystery.  (I knew the man who gave Oliver sanctuary, Wallace Swett of Primarily Primates, and tried to help him out a bit, but I didn’t know Oliver had been cremated.) Concerning primates of another sort, the author explores legends and folklore about miniature humans from several Native American tribes and whether they are linked to Pedro, the mystery mummy from Wyoming, who has vanished despite serious attempts to track him down.   
Shuker closes with a mystery of his own, the dog-size, bounding mammal he met on a dark road in 2014.  He sifts through suspects and concludes this was likely a coypu, a species from South America that escaped captivity in Britain and bred its way to becoming a massively destructive pest and was supposedly wiped out by equally massive government campaigns. It seems to have slipped through the net. In one way or another, Shuker shows us, many creatures have. This is a book lovers of animals, odditites, and cryptids will wade into with gusto and finish anticipating an equally joyful experience when Book 2 appears. 

Toys R Us Dunkleosteus Review

Dunkleosteus Toy, Toys R Us™

Review by Matt Bille

I ordered this toy secondhand – it usually comes with a (modern day!) sea exploration playset. It is what you’d expect, a hard plastic toy with a lot of shortcomings in the realism department, but there are a couple of cool things about it anyway. 

It’s big, about 28cm.  It’s clearly modeled on the Schleich Dunk (shown below with it for comparison.)  It looks like a tank. The front armor is really impressive, like something Jaws’ Chief Brody could shoot at all day with his .357 without being more than a nuisance. There are armor plates (or platelike markings) all over the body, like a swimming ankylosaur. This certainly isn’t right, although this design would explain the Dunk’s disappearance from the fossil record: it couldn’t move. I assume the body armor is there just to keep the skin from looking flat and boring, There are scutes here and there, down the sides but also, weirdly, on the leading edges of the pectoral fins.     The choppers on the business end are appropriately scary-looking. The eyes are yellow with a small pupil (jaundice, or just the age of the toy?) The anal fin was not modeled, presumably to save a couple of cents in production.

Anyway, things I like.  I like the tail: the strong upper lobe indicates development in the direction of a full heteroceral tail, which I think is what they were, at the least, evolving toward. The coolest thing, though, is the action. The toy comes with the jaws wide open (of course), but if you press down on the dorsal fin, the cheek armor swings outward, creating a suction while the jaws close. We know the Dunk did feed this way, at least much of the time (some prey might have been too big), and kudos to the toymaker for including here.

So there we have it. It’s an interesting toy, not accurate but with some redeeming features. I would have LOVED this as a kid.  

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Oceanic oddities

It's 2019.  We've explored the world, right? Fear not, there is some fun to be had in poking under the sea.  
The common claim that 95% or so of the ocean is unexplored is a distortion. According to the blog Deepsea News, this is the percentage of the ocean floor not yet seen by humans or cameras. Still, in 1.39 billion cubic kilometers of ocean, a lot of things can be hiding.

Two British naturalists, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo, might have had the weirdest encounter on record in December 1905. They were experienced scientists, best known for their work in ornithology but with the wide interests and expertise common for naturalists in those days. Both were Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.
The encounter came during a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla. At 10:15 AM, the yacht was off the coast of Brazil, fifteen miles east of the mouth of the Parahiba River. As the two naturalists looked out over the ocean, Nicoll saw something unusual. He asked Meade-Waldo, "Is that the fin of a great fish?"
Meade-Waldo looked and saw a fin he described as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge." The visible part was rectangular, perhaps two feet high and six feet long. The distance between the fin and the observers was approximately a hundred yards.
Meade-Waldo trained “a powerful pair” binoculars on the strange object. As the two naturalists watched, there rose just ahead of the fin a small head on a long neck. Meade-Waldo described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye. It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll wrote, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature." Meade-Waldo recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The encounter lasted several minutes before the animal dropped astern of the Valhalla. Being under sail, the yacht could not come about. Meade-Waldo wrote later, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... "
Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
That was the only time the two men saw the creature. At 2:00 AM the next morning, though, three crewmembers reported spotting the same or a similar animal, almost entirely submerged.
The two men wrote up their encounter, and the Zoological Society's Proceedings carried their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions." Another version appears in Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
There seems no reason to doubt the veracity or the powers of observation of these two men. A century after their encounter, the question remains: what was it that they saw?
Both were convinced it was an animal, but could not say what kind. The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
While Nicoll admitted it was "impossible to be certain," he theorized the creature was a mammal. He wrote, "the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."
Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans wrote he’d seen conger eels rush about with head and forebody above water.  There are a few reports describing what the witnesses thought were giant eels. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915. Three years earlier, Captain Ruser of the German steamship Kaiserin Augusta Victoria had reported a giant eel off England. He described it as eighteen inches thick and twenty feet long. In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of Ruser’s 1912 sighting when he claimed to have seen an eel more than twenty feet long. He described the head as resembling a conger eel’s but four times as large. Smith told an interviewer, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”
There are also reports where the animal involved was not specifically called an eel but was described as eel-shaped. One such case occurred in 1947, when the Grace liner Santa Clara collided with a sea serpent. The ship’s officers described the animal as brown in color and perhaps sixty feet long.
What about Nicoll’s theory of a mammal? To begin with, there is no known mammal, living or extinct, which looks like the creature described in this incident. If we venture into the realm of possible unknown mammals, one option is a huge elongated seal. However, we have no fossil records indicating that a seal with a genuinely long neck ever existed, much less one with a dorsal fin.
Some cryptozoologists suggest sea serpents are surviving prehistoric snakelike whales, or archaeocetes, like those in the genus Basilosaurus. These, while elongated in form, did not have long necks. It’s possible a long-necked form evolved, but the available fossil record points the other way. Whale necks got progressively shorter, not longer, after the archaeocetes.
One group of animals that always come up in sea serpent discussions are the plesiosaurs. These Mesozoic reptiles (reptiles, not dinosaurs) make good sea serpent candidates in one respect: they had necks ranging from long to absurdly long. Will Cuppy, an American humorist, once wrote that plesiosaurs “might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.” We know from fossils that plesiosaurs could not rear their necks high above the water, but the fairly low angle shown in a sketch in Nicoll’s book seems plausible.
Unfortunately, the fossil record for plesiosaurs and the other marine reptiles with similar body plans does not continue past the time of the K-T impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The famous case of the coelacanth has demonstrated that it’s possible for an animal to survive for a long time without leaving a fossil record, or, more precisely, without leaving one in places where humans have looked. A lot of land area remains unexplored by paleontologists, as does the entire sea floor. (Sasquatch proponents like to point out that, according to the fossil record, gorillas do not exist.)
Even if one assumes, though, that very large and widely distributed animals vanished from the fossil record while surviving in the flesh, the dorsal fin poses another problem. We have no fossils of plesiosaur-type beasts – and some of these are amazingly well preserved – which show any sort of dorsal fin. With their broad, turtle-like bodies, plesiosaurs did not need such fins for stability. It’s not impossible that a few species might have developed a fin for sexual display or some other purpose, but there is no evidence this took place.
Meade-Waldo, while he did not compare his animal to any known species, did refer back to the sea monster sighting made from the frigate HMS Daedalus in 1848. Witnesses in that incident described an animal sixty feet long or more, resembling "a large snake or eel."
Richard Ellis, whose 1994 book Monsters of the Sea is an excellent survey of the whole matter of marine cryptids, has offered a relatively conventional explanation for the Valhalla incident. Ellis, an expert on giant squid, theorized that a very large specimen swimming tentacles-first (which squid can do), could present a suitably strange appearance if it was holding one arm above the water. The description of the eye and mouth could result from misinterpretations of details on the arm or merely from imagination, since even expert observers can make errors when excited.
This explanation, as ingenious as it seems, is hard to picture in reality. First, Meade-Waldo must have made a much bigger mistake than just the details on the head, since he specifically described a large body aft of the fin. To offer the appearance Ellis suggests, the squid would have to swim on its side, keeping one fin partly exposed and one limb constantly above the surface. It must have held that unnatural and pointless position for several minutes. It might be possible for a squid to do this (or it might not – we know very little about them), but it seems impossible to explain why it would do so.
Can there be large seagoing animals still unknown to us? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a well-founded and scientific “yes.” Until recently, the Indopacific beaked whale (a.k.a. Longman’s beaked whale), Mesoplodon pacificus, was known from two weathered skulls found on beaches 73 years and thousands of miles apart. No one knew what the living animal looked like, or even if the species still existed, until one beached intact in Japan in 2002. Perrin’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini, was described from stranded specimens in 2002. 
A new beaked whale was found in Alaska in 2016. new species of whale has been discovered based on a body, 7.3m long, that floated ashore on the Pribilof Islands.  This is just marvelous. I follow news of new and unidentified whales all the time, and I never heard a word about this, although it's apparently known to Japanese fishers, so it must have a range that spreads to the west.    This isn't a case where someone had it in hand and decided that its features or DNA warranted a split of a known species, as was the case with Balaenoptera omurai in 2003. This species was confirmed by DNA work, which resulted in reordering of its genus, but it began with a brand-new discovery from the field, when a biology teacher called in a seal researcher he knew who said, "This is weird," and then she called in a cetologist. Other previously collected (misidentified) skeletons have been located. 
The published abstract from Marine Mammal Science begins thus:
Philip A. Morin, et. al.There are two recognized species in the genus Berardius, Baird's and Arnoux's beaked whales. In Japan, whalers have traditionally recognized two forms of Baird's beaked whales, the common “slate-gray” form and a smaller, rare “black” form. Previous comparison of mtDNA control region sequences from three black specimens to gray specimens around Japan indicated that the two forms comprise different stocks and potentially different species...

Wilson's whale. Note the white underside in the top picture.(I believe the picture, copied from Heuvelmans here, to be out of copyright: if anyone knows differently, please tell me). 
File:Killer Whale Types.jpg
Type D (Wikimedia Commons)

The full description with  the full scientific name has not yet been published. 

The megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios), up to sixteen feet long, was unknown until 1976, when one was snagged accidentally in a sea anchor. In this case, “unknown” means “completely unknown.’ Despite its size, its slow speed, and its distinctive appearance (the megamouth looks like a living blimp and resembles no other shark) there were no sighting reports, no strandings, nothing before that chance encounter.

Other sizable marine animals are apparently still at large. From my book Shadows of Existence (2006)
Two researchers who manned the submersible Deepstar 4000 on a 1966 probe of the eastern Pacific, for example, had an uncomfortably close encounter with an awesome denizen of the deep.  They were motoring along at a depth of 4,000 feet in the San Diego Trough when a dark-colored, mottled fish estimated to be thirty to forty feet long swam right up to the eighteen-foot sub.  The fish studied the craft with eyes "as big as dinner plates," then moved off, much to the relief of the startled aquanauts. 
Automatic cameras lowered into the same area took pictures of a large fish identified as a rare Pacific sleeper shark.  If this was what the Deepstar met, it would be, by far, the largest sleeper shark ever seen. 
The witnesses, pilot Joe Thompson and oceanographer Dr. Eugene LaFond, doubted their visitor was a shark.  Both men described a round tail like a grouper's rather than a sharklike tail.  Additionally, the eyes described were much too large for a sleeper shark.  
In the fascinating new book Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling (Da Capo Press, 2008) Andrew Darby chronicles the long and often bloody interactions between humans and whales. He also includes this item in his discussion of the now-closed whaling center on King George Sound in Albany, Western Australia. In the 1970s, when whalers like Captain George Cruikshank followed sperm whales with sonar, they often watched something they couldn’t identify in the 4000-meter-deep Albany Canyon.
"'The mystery bugger,' they called it...They would pick it up always at the same spot, and follow it by sonar as it cruised through the canyon, leaving a larger imprint on the screen than a whale. The creature would almost break the surface and then disappear. It was no air breather. It might have been a giant squid, or a giant shark. They never found out." (p.96)
Then we have Marvin. Off a Shell Oil rig near Santa Barbara,in 1966, a colonial invertebrate (that's the best guess) was filmed by an underwater camera. It was estimated at 15 feet long and moved by turning itself so its screw-like shape could pull it through the water. That sounds incredible, but here's the film (copyright unknown, fair use claimed) 

Now we come to one of my favorites, Wilson's whale.
Dr. Edward A. Wilson was a painter/naturalist on board the 1901-04 Discovery expedition to the Antarctic, led by Robert Falcon Scott. In 1902, Wilson painted an unknown whale with a high, slender dorsal fin and a solid black back, with no orca-type eyepatch observed. (One image does indicate a white underside.) I wrote in the chapter on mystery cetaceans in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence that the distinctive markings of an orca could not have been overlooked, and Richard Ellis and Dr. Darren Naish reviewed that chapter for me without objecting to that statement. Now I wonder. 
What made me wonder was the paper by Pitman, et. al., on an orca called Type D.  Type D, it seems, is a rarely observed but very distinctive orca that may be a separate species.  It's relatively small for an orca, and has  a tiny eyepatch and no gray dorsal "cape" marking.  In other words, it's not a perfect match to Wilson's whale - he'd have had to miss the eyepatch in his observations -  but it looks more like it than any creature yet documented.  

The dates of sighting are given as 28 and 29 January: Discovery stopped at Cape Crozier on 22 January and reached and named King Edward Land on 30 January, so my amateur reckoning puts them between 76 and 77 South. This creates a problem. The Type D has not definitely been identified below 60, and Robert Pitman told me in correspondence he can't imagine it goes below 65 or so - the water is just too cold for it. As for the visual match, Pitman writes, "Intriguing speculation but it would be difficult to say with any certainty - just not quite enough in the illustrations to be convincing."  He doesn't have an opinion on what Wilson's whale was, though he notes that, at the time, there was thought to be just one species of orca (heck, a hundred years after Wilson that's still what we thought) and it wasn't clear whether Wilson was saying his whale was not an orca (I have to get Wilson's book on the expedition).Anyway, Wilson's whale is a mystery. I thought for a bit there I'd solved it, but no.  If it was a Type D orca, it was way out of its range, and if it was some other orca, then Wilson could hardly have missed the markings.  So what was it? An odd orca of another type, one with minimal markings? An unknown type orca? Something else entirely?   

In 1998, employing a statistical technique used in biology to estimate the diversity of animal populations, Oxford University’s Dr. Charles Paxton calculated the likely number of marine animals measuring two meters (six and a half feet) or longer still awaiting classification. While Paxton admitted this technique is inexact, based as it is on the discovery rate and total number of such species found so far, his estimate of 47 species was an eye-opener.
Paxton thought the oceanic types still to be found included mainly whales and sharks, although he allowed for the possibility that some might be totally new types of animals. Meade-Waldo and Nicoll, were they here to speak to us, would no doubt agree on that point.
We must wait and see what answers the next hundred years will bring.

Anonymous. 2003. “Whale species is new to science,” BBC News World Edition,, November 19.
Australian Museum. 2003. “Longman’s Beaked Whale,” Fact sheet.
Baker, Mary L. 1987. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co.
Carwardine, Mark. 1995. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Doring Kindersley.
Dalebout, Merel. 2003. Personal communication, October 28.
Dalebout, Merel, et. al. 2003. “Appearance, distribution, and genetic distinctiveness of Longman’s beaked whale, Indopacetus pacificus,” Marine Mammal Science 19:3, p.421.
Dalebout, Merel, et. al. 2002. “A new species of beaked whale Mesoplodon perrini sp. n. (Cetacea: Ziphiidae) discovered through phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences,” Marine Mammal Science 18:3, p.577.
Ellis, Richard. 2003. Personal communication, November 22. Also 2000, March 10.
Ellis, Richard. 2003. Sea Dragons. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Ellis, Richard. 1998. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: Lyons Press.
Ellis, Richard. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Knopf.
Gould, Rupert T. 1930. The Case for the Sea Serpent. London: Philip Allan.
Harrison, Paul. 2001. Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles. London: Robert Hale.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. NY: Hill and Wang.
Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906. "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Nicoll, Michael J. 1908. Three Voyages of a Naturalist. London: Witherby and Co.
Molloy, R. 1915. “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28. Available at
Pitman, Robert. 2003. Personal communication, October 27. Also 1997, April 3.
Pitman, Robert, 1999. “Sightings and Possible Identity of a Bottlenose Whale in the Tropical Indo-Pacific: Indopacetus pacificus?” Marine Mammal Science 15(2), p.531.
Pitman, Robert. 1987. “Observations of an Unidentified Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon Sp.) in the Eastern Tropical Pacific,” Marine Mammal Science 3(4), October, p.345.
Ralls, Katherine, and Robert L. Brownell, Jr. 1991. "A whale of a new species," Nature, April 18.
Taylor, L.R., Compagno, L.J.V., and Struhsaker, P.J. (1983). “Megamouth - a new species, genus, and family of lamnoid shark (Megachasma pelagios, family Megachasmidae) from the Hawaiian Islands,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, vol. 43, p.87.
Urban-Ramirez, Jose. 1992. “First Record of the Pygmy Beaked Whale Mesoplodon Peruvianus in the North Pacific,” Marine Mammal Science, October, p.420.
Wood, Gerald L.  Animal Facts and Feats.  Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1977.
Yamada, Tadasu. 2002. “On an unidentified beaked whale found stranded in Kagoshima,” paper from the National Science Museum, Tokyo, December 25.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Beautiful New Dunkleosteus model from Mojo

Review: Mojo Dunkleosteus
By Matt Bille

As founder of the coolest site on FaceBook and a fanatical Dunkleosteus terrelli fan, I am pleased to report the newest Dunk on the market is a beautiful model.  At under 8 inches long, it’s about the same size as the Safari dunk but smaller (and less expensive) than the CollectA Dunk I consider the gold standard for mass-produced models.  It has no articulated parts but is done in a swimming pose that, added to careful detailing, gives it a lifelike appearance.  As with the CollectA fish, this is clearly an organic living creature, unlike some Dunk illustrations we’ve all seen that look like an armored head with the boring parts sort of stuck on. 
I need to start with the usual disclaimer: I’m not an ichthyologist, paleontologist, or (God knows) an artist. So my comments are thoughts and suggestions, not a hard-science critique. I have messaged the maker twice to ask questions and never heard back, so let’s go. 
The handsome green and yellow body with some countershading, a little reminiscent of a speckled trout, is plausible and looks great. It resembles Charles R. Knight’s classic painting of the critter.  As in most Dunk models, the artist set the rounded dorsal fin well back on the body.  The mouth is open, as is the law for all Dunk models (why make them if you don’t show off God’s own staple remover)?  The biting plates and head look great, although the sclerotic rings might have been set half-a-millimeter deeper.
There comes a point in any Dunk modeler’s life where he or she must make judgement calls, and some of the ones on display here are especially interesting.  The striations or folds on the body, indicating the allowance for movement by the skin, are carried considerably further back (all the way to the region of the anal fin), than in most Dunks. Indeed, most models either show these only at the cephalic joint (as with the with CollectA) or not at all.  No one has enough information to say “this is what Dunk skin looks like," so let's accept it as a maybe. The striations are sculpted, as every bit of this model (such as the fin rays) is, with precision. This Dunk has none of the pebbly-osteoderm-laden appearance of the CollectA or Schleich types, and no hint of the very large scutes on the Schleich model (the online information for a seller of that Dunk says, "authenticated model by the paleontologists of the Museum of Natural History," but I really would like to ask that artist about the scutes). 
The paired fins show the “wrists” reaching out further from the body than in all the other models I have.  There are illustrations of D. terrelli showing it this way, but they are definitely in the minority. However, we don’t have a Dunk fin, nor the cartiliginous skeleton of one, nor the outline of one, and some articles describe the pectoral fins as stenobasal (narrow based), so again the choice is reasonable. The pectoral fins are set a bit further back than the CollectA artist chose to place them.
On the tail, I do have strong opinions. I’ve never liked the symmetrical or almost-symmetrical eel-like tail idea: it just doesn’t seem to have enough surface area for the speed and maneuverability this heavily armored predator needed to catch prey like sharks. The most recent paper on this plumped for a more heteroceral tail, which I think more likely to be correct.  But we don’t KNOW this for sure, and some specialists still think this type of model is accurate. You could say the tail here is eel-like with just enough asymmetry to hint Dunk evolution might have started on the path to a more prominent upper lobe when the Frasnian-Famennian extinction event punched the arthrodires in their armored noses and the Hangenberg event left them on the bone heap of history.  I am also not a hydrodynamicist, but I know something of aerodynamics, so I’m big on control surfaces, given that the fins and tail had to propel/maneuver a head and forebody that by itself could weigh a ton.
The bottom line is that I don’t think anything, except perhaps the tail, is wrong with this Dunk, and again it’s just gorgeous.  Artists and scientists have many different interpretations of the species’ body plan and appearance, and unless we find impression fossils of something closer to the Dunk than its ubiquitously-cited little cousin Coccosteus, it’s going to stay that way. You might say it's now my favorite small model: the Safari Dunk is lovely, too, but this has more texture, and I think the dorsal armor on the Safari goes a little too far back, to where it might impede vertical movement.)  This is a great toy and display model, and, selling at only $11.95 on Amazon, a major addition to anyone’s lineup.

Photos by Matt Bille, Mojo and CollectA Dunkleosteus
(use of Steve Brusatte's superb book on dinosaurs is meant as a homage and is not an endorsement)


Lauren Cole Sallana and Michael I. Coatesa,”End-Devonian extinction and a bottleneck in the early evolution of modern jawed vertebrates,”  PNAS,

Neil Shubin, et. al., “The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb,” 2006, Nature volume 440, pages 764–771

Zerina Johanson, “Vascularization of the osteostracan and antiarch (Placodermi) pectoral fin: similarities, and implications for placoderm relationships,” Lethaia, 02 January 2007,

"Dunkleosteus Schleich Dinosaur Scale Model,"

G. C.Yioung, “The relationships of placoderm fishes,” September 1986, Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Can light go faster than light?

We all know the speed of light is universal.  You can slow it down a bit by passing light through selected materials in a lab, but you can't affect its velocity in free space. You can't make it speed up. And you certainly can't make it go backwards.  
The science gang at University of Central Florida says, "Yes, you can."  
We're far from knowing all the applications of this yet, but maybe that Star Trek faster-then-light "subspace" communication system? Wouldn't it be cool if we could do that in regular space, keeping contact with future starships traveling near light speed? 
(I know, getting to a significant fraction of light speed is a long way off. But I've been to the DARPA 100-year Starship conference and listened to very smart people who are sure it can be done, and in more ways than one.) 
In the meantime, this could bring breakthroughs in communications and a lot of other fields. Also, it's just cool.  

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Hooray for Rocket Lab

The lack of an affordable small launcher has been a huge hindrance in development of small satellite and microsatellite capability.  While the 10cm CubeSats can be launched for as little as $100k thanks to companies like NanoRacks (which ships them to the International Space Station, where they are ejected overboard), larger microsats (defining those here as under 100kg) have fewer options, and almost always as a secondary payload. Secondaries launch when the primary payload is ready and go to a similar orbit. That's fine for basic experiments like radiation measurement, but it crimps the possible utility of satellites needing specific orbital altitudes and inclinations, and it prevents timely launch to add coverage for a natural disaster, a military crisis, etc.  Being the primary payload will often cost much more than the satellite: the innovative Pegasus, which in the 1990s gave us relatively affordable and very flexible aircraft-based launch, is still available, but rarely flies, in part because the Pegasus XL costs over $40M. Other small launchers have struggled: I think the count of failed proposals and ventures in the last two decades is likely to top 100. 
Now Electron, from Rocket Lab, has its first Defense Dept business, for $5.7M to launch three microsats. Hopefully this is a breakthrough. There is only room for a few of the many current ventures, and carrying U.S. military payloads successfully is a major mark of prestige and reliability for a new launcher. The Air Force, for the first time ever, requested money in the FY19 budget to fly payloads on small launchers. A recent attempt to build a small airlaunched vehicle by DARPA ended in disaster when the untried propellant exploded, but the agency has established the Small Launch Challenge, which will hopefully fly payloads on short notice this year.  (I never got the need for relying on a nasty new propellant: the Navy proved in 1958 you could do the same thing with solids.)
Whatever comes, the small launcher sector looks like it's finally on the way to being an established industry. Fingers crossed.