Saturday, July 27, 2019

A new (and amazing) look at Dunkleosteus

All we know for sure about Dunkleosteus terrelli comes from its fossilized skull and armor.  The rest is inferred from smaller placoderms of which we have full impression fossils, notably Coccosteus, a fish that (with all respect to actual paleontologists and paleoicthyologists) I'm getting tired of hearing about because you can't take a half-meter fish and blow it up to eight meters (and roughly 4,096 times the mass) and not introduce some formidable error bars.  Yes, I know,it's the best we have. 
However, a recent paper introduces some fascinating new data. From a Cleveland Shale specimen found in 2008 and recently re-imaged with the newest MRI technology, this is a spinal column section with 18 vertebrae. Skeletal cartilage rarely fossilizes, but calcium accumulates throughout the animal's life and sometimes we get lucky (very lucky in this case, since the fossil was a juvenile about three meters long: the conditions had to be perfect to fossilize this so well.) 
I won't repost the images due to copyright, but take a look at the paper here

Friday, July 26, 2019

Shark Week starts with... a pocket shark?

We're headed into Shark Week on Discovery, the week when we alternate between scientists telling us sharks are misunderstood marvels and assorted bite victims and commentators telling us sharks are brutal nasty mankillers who should be wiped out.  One program on offer in sampling the website announcements is The Lost Shark - Extinct or Alive? It will disappoint some people to learn Carcharhinus hemiodon, the shark in question, is a meter long, not some giant, deadly superpredator, but the scientific question is interesting enough.  
ADDED: Fortunately, one of the opening programs is worth watching. Josh Gates and Expedition Unknown explore the facts and myths around everyone's favorite fish monster, Megalodon. EXPEDITION UNKNOWN: MEGALODON airs 28 July at 8PM Eastern time on  Discovery Channel./

Naturally, other channels, notably National Geographic, are running shark programs too.  Getting a head start tonight is HBO, which is showing MegMegalodon is extinct, of course, but that's no barrier to having silly fun with it in fiction. 

We are still discovering new species of shark. Most are small, and some are hard to call a shark with a straight face, except in the scientific sense. The American pocket shark is smaller than a dollar bill and has a squarish head that makes it look kind of cute, like a toy sperm whale with extra fins. This species, like the only other "pocket shark" (named for a pocket-like feature near the pectoral fins, not because Paris Hilton carries one in a waterproof purse or something), a Pacific specimen, is known from only one individual.

The best shark headline of recent years has to belong to the Huffington Post, which announced, "Shark Nearly Chokes to Death On Moose, Is Saved By Canadian Bystanders." Because spotting a 2.8-meter Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus, one of the sleeper sharks, which are very big, long-lived and totally weird) choking to death on a chunk of moose and rescuing it is very much a Canadian thing to do. Maybe it’s the MOST Canadian thing you can do, except maybe offering the shark maple syrup to go with dinner. 
Image result for greenland shark
Greenland shark, Smithsonian photo

Saturday, July 20, 2019

50 Years ago today: Good Night, Moon

I did a presentation to an audience at work, with employees of all ages, about the origins of the Space Age and the triumphs and challenges of Apollo 11. (Yes, the younger people still think it's cool I was there.) I brought in the newspapers from that day, and several people brought other memorabilia. I closed with, "Thirty or forty years from now, there won't be any eyewitnesses to Apollo. There'll only be the story. You, and your children, and your grandchildren, will own that story. Tell the story. And write some new ones. It matters."

Congratulations to Buzz and Mike, to Neil as he explores new realms, and to the 400,000 people who supported the Apollo program.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

50 years ago today...

I was in a small plane with my dad and brother, watching the greatest adventure of humanity begin.  At ten miles (probably the restricted zone is more like 100 miles these days) even a Saturn V doesn't look very big. What I remember most is the intensity of the yellow-orange flame, the way it burned like the heart of a star as the rocket rose and began its roll and its climb out over the sea.  I have looked for old snapshots and I must have been a bit excited, because the ones I took missed the giant rocket and captured only clouds.  That's all right. I remember. Tennessee Williams said all true stories end in death. He was wrong.  This one was a birth. 

Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Babylon 5:  "Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you'll get ten different answers. But there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and all of this…all of this…was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars."
Footnote:: When is the last time a politician said, "We're going to do this because it's hard?"

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Review: Shoot for the Moon is a great read on space history

Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11
James Donovan
  • 464 pages
  • Little, Brown and Company, 2019

You might think there is no point in more Apollo books: there are more such books than there are rocks on the moon.  But stories can always be told better.  Robert Kurson's Rocket Men: The Odyssey of Apollo 8 is a good example. This is another.There are several things a good space history must weave together. It must integrate human drama with technical information, political and social context with the skills of engineers and the courage of astronauts.  Also, it must be correct on the countless small details that space aficionados will call "BS" on if any are wrong.  Fortunately, Donovan is up to this task in almost every way.  He gives a brief explanation of how the Space Age began and how it ended up being a race to the moon.  These first two chapters are where my nitpicks lie. Donovan says German rocket work was undertaken to circumvent the Treaty of Versailles, which Michael Neufeld (whom Donovan has read) has shown is incorrect. Von Braun's Jupiter-C was never a missile, and the Atlas wasn't developed to be a booster. Once out of the 1950s, though, Donovan's research is on sounder footing, and his narrative captivating. He accurately sketches the competition between the superpowers and what we knew and didn't know about Soviet problems: it was a bit like a poker game (analogy by my coauthor Erika Maurer), but with the U.S. playing stud poker, cards exposed, while Russia played draw, and Donovan shows how this disparity of information affected the decisions of American leaders.Donovan explains the crew dynamics on the Apollo missions and the personal differences: he writes of the engineering-focused Aldrin, "Small talk was a foreign language to Buzz." He incorporates the drama on the ground and the challenges of the mission controllers and engineers as well as the actions of the famous administrators and astronauts. While some writers reduce Neil Armstrong to a nice guy with good flying skills: Donovan recounts his determination to not only complete the mission but to complete it in accordance with his own judgment, When it comes to the climactic landing, this book puts you in Mission Control and in the Lunar Module, feeling the tension and following the decision processes. You know how it comes out, but you are riveted anyway.

The references and bibliography are extensive, and the quality of the sources is good to excellent. This is a book well worth making room for on your shelf of space histories. 

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Book Review: Gold Rush in the Jungle

I'm quite embarrassed now that I had this book in the house for a couple of years before I read it. It's amazing and very important. 
The "gold rush" of large mammals in and around the Vu Quang region of Vietnam and Laos in the early 1990s was like nothing zoologists had seen since before World War I.  New species of mammals had become rare (although not as rare as most people think), but the Vu Quang ox or Saola was not just a new species but a new genus and an animal with no close living relatives. It is, easily the largest (100kg) new mammal from all of Eurasia since the Kouprey in 1937.  New deer (belonging to a group of relatively small species, the muntjacs), a mysterious bovid with high-rise horns like motorcycle handlebars, new or rediscovered monkeys, a rediscovered wild pig, the identification of the world's biggest turtle in a shallow, polluted lake in the midst of Hanoi - nothing seemed too outlandish.   

Dan Drollettte Jr. undertook in 1998 his first of several trips into Vietnam, meeting with the Western and Vietnamese scientists and lay researchers trying to identify and protect the remnants of the closest thing the Earth still has to offer to a genuine "lost world." In this book he visits sites from the Hanoi Hilton prison to the Endangered Primate Research Center, trying to understand the modern nation of Vietnam, its culture, and how those factors affect the mixed attitudes toward wildlife.    Some animals draw crowds to see them in preserves or in the wild: others are ruthlessly poached. Some Vietnamese furiously condemn poaching as a destruction of their natural treasures, while others aid poachers for money.  A tiger can be worth 250,000 dollars, which explains why the tiger may well be extinct in the country. And it's not only about money: some elites have an attitude that everything in Vietnam is theirs to eat. Making this all more complex is the lingering damage from Agent Orange and other defoliants, bug killers, and byproducts of war.  
Drollette loves especially Vietnam's endemic species of langur monkeys but also devotes chapters to several unique cases. These include the bizarre discovery of a giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake; the kouprey, which some scientists now doubt is a species vs. a hybrid of other cattle, and whose current status in its Cambodian homeland is a mystery: the rediscovered Vietnamese population of the Javan rhinoceros, quickly hunted back into to extinction: and the nguoi rung, the upright ape that has not been proven to exist but is not dismissed - it may be a species of orangutan, or something much stranger. (Drollette notes it's had to dismiss anything in an area that has seen an average of two new species discovered each week for ten years. )    
The author also offers perspectives from world-leading scientists and conservationists about habitat protection vs species protection, zoos vs. original habitats and reserves, and captive breeding. The late Dr. Alan Rabinowitz told Drolette he hated zoos, but when numbers of an animal like the rhino drop into single digits, you have very little choice left: in most cases: it must be brought in. 
In Drollette's recounting of his travels though this fast-modernizing nation, he discusses everything from the status of women to the Vietnamese attitudes toward Americans (generally benign 30+ years after the war: the Vietnamese fought China for a thousand years, and the war with the U.S. was hardly a blip on that timeline) to the country's favorite karaoke song (it's John Denver's "Take Me Home,Country Roads," and he has no idea why.)  
Drollette closes on a cautiously hopeful note. Vietnamese children are now being taught the value of wildlife and the richness of Vietnam's heritage, and a new generation of rangers and scientists is expanding the conservation efforts of the nation.  
A thorough reference section, with a glossary, bibliography, and index round out this indispensable book.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Checking in on Bigfoot

No one, regardless of beliefs on the subject, can resist checking in on America's real (?) King Kong once in a while. If there's an iconic American monster, Sasquatch is it.  While very few scientists think we have a population of big primates (I thought it possible a long time, ago: I would bet heavily against it now, but I hope I would lose every dime.  (Of course, I could bet my house and the winner would get to deal with my mortgage...)  

Thousands of sightings, countless novels (the best is Eric Penz' Cryptidhere's an interview with the author)  probably dozens of movies and equally fictitious YouTube "documentations," con artists, hoaxers, sincere monster-hunters, cryptozoologists, eyewitnesses, and plain folks have been part  of this business for over 60 years now. 
There's no physical evidence of Bigfoot that has been scientifically verified, but no one doubts the best chance the Big Guy had for widespread recognition was when Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin filmed Bigfoot or something that certainly looked like it in California in 1967.  Patterson died without ever hinting at a hoax, and Gimlin swears by the tale to this day, but what's actually in the frame? 

I'd bet "suit:" it looks baggier the more versions I see of it, and 52 years without anything remotely as intriguing is too much for me. I don't know who hoaxed who and who might be telling the truth and who might be lying, but I don't like it as an unknown primate. 

This comes up now because of a lot of discussion over a YouTube video where a man signing himself "Bigfoot Al" has used modern software to smooth out the film and give us a better look at our creature. Now, the troujble with enhancing or enlarging this beastie is that it was shot on 16mm film and the image is 1.8mm high. there's a limit to what you can do because there is limited data captured on the film. People get fooled by TV shows where grainy surveillance footage is sharpened up to reveal details like scars that were not on the original footage.)  Anyway, this effort doesn't make it any better for me: indeed, it looks lumpier, less well-defined, and thus more like a suit.    It always bothered a lot of viewers that the bottom of the foot was lighter in color than the rest of the fur or skin, not known to happen with apes: here it's more apparent.   

One commenter on a FaceBook thread remarked the PG suit (it it is one) looks better than the suits created by John Chambers for the movie Planet of the Apes, which were the pinnacle of spe-suit wizardry at that time.   That overlooks the facts, though: the Apes suits were filmed with the highest-definition professional cameras and most skillful cameramen available and included close-up shots, all projected on huge screens: of course you could pick out flaws if you looked for them. If you shot one of those suits at the distance of the PG film with a 1967 16mm hand-held and the lens Patterson had, I'm sure it would look at least as convincing, probably a lot more so. That's the experiment I'd like to see: take one of the more distant ape shots from the Planet film and degrade it to what Patterson's camera could pick up at that range, then put it side by side.

Planet of the Apes POSTER Movie (30 x 40 Inches - 77cm x 102cm) (1968) (UK Style A)
Fair use claimed

Id the film definitively, once and for all, disproven? No, because it can't be, unless maybe someone fiunds a picture of a man putting on a suit.  But we are close to it, and in any event that's not where the burden of proof lies.  It looks more to me like a suit in the various enlargements and enhancements, but I can't see a zipper pull (which ,if it existed, would likely be smaller than a spot of emulsion grain and thus undetectable anyway).  

I hope Bigfoot is out there.  And maybe it's best if we never find out. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Movie: Jurassic World: Fallen Scriptwriters

I don't know why I'd waited so long to watch Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but it turns out I didn't miss as much as I thought.' I only watched about an hour, starting with the beginning of reactivating the search function. It's hard to get into it from the beginning, because despite our heroes being partly at fault for countless human deaths, nothing seems to have happened to them, and no one has gone back to the island and nuked it - but Mother Nature has plans...
Kudos to the filmmakers for using more animatronics than last time, and the inclusion of new dinosaur species is nice. The CGI versions of the dinosaurs, though, despite nice attention to details like kicking up dirt and debris as they ran, didn't quite let me turn off my brain and accept them as real. (The state of the current art of giant creatures is, to me, the new Godzilla, where Ghidorah is just amazing.)
Chris Pratt isn't capable of a bad performance, but the other humans didn't give him much help, and neither did the script. To cite just one absurd bit out of many, how is Pratt inches away from advancing lava and the heat doesn't bother him the tiniest bit, let alone bake him? Or set all the vegetation on fire? Or burn the wooden LOG he sheltered behind? It's so obviously CGI'd in that it's painful to watch.
Also, what the heck would you do with a "weaponized dinosaur?" It might be cool and intimidating to keep one around your secret lair (Blofeld would probably have a couple to chase James Bond around), but surely it's cheaper to get a few more henchmen than what is basically a giant guard ostrich needing specialized and costly veterinary services. 
Interesting article here on the dinos, with comments from paleontologists about what is and isn't (mostly isn't) believable.  (Vulcanologists, by the way, were generally not thrilled with the volcano's role in all this, although there are differences of opinion.).
The next one is supposed to brign back our paleontological heroes from the original Jurassic Park.  Now that might be interesting. It might even be good.