Sunday, November 24, 2019

Grab Bag: Odds and Ends About Oddities

Grab Bag: Odds and Ends About Oddities
I like oddities from all areas of science, history, and technology.  A lot of the oddities you find on the internet and in books are fabricated, misinterpreted, or hard to verify. 

What got me on this topic today was seeing FaceBook posts on a weird, very loud sound nicknamed Julia, which NOAA recorded in the Southern Ocean in 1999. The story that keeps being repeated is that NASA’s Apollo 33A5 mission photographed a gigantic shadow in the water there.  While the sound – ascribed to an iceberg rubbing against the seafloor – IS weird, the story immediately falls apart because no NASA mission or experiment ever had a number anything like 33A5 or operated in 1999 (there were 17 numbered Apollo missions, and they ended in 1972.  Anyone with an internet account can falsify it in about 30 seconds. For some reason, that doesn’t work.

Some others:.
No, there was not a Canadian “Eskimo village” whose population disappeared: that seems to have been inspired by the movie The Deadly Mantis. (Watch it, it’s a hoot.)  I once wrote to the RCMP to double-check.
No, there are not fossils/remains of American giants hidden away by "science" Some  19th-century newspaper articles and photos have never checked out as anything but hoaxes.
A farmer named David Lang did not vanish as he was crossing his Tennessee field in 1880. He didn’t exist.
Because a phenomenon is famous, that doesn’t make it real. Spook Hill in Florida is a real place, but the terrain tricks the eye: nothing pulls your car uphill.  Board Camp Crystal Mine in Arkansas draws attention because the owners, who host tourists, claim strange lights circulate while rocks levitate.  Geologist Sharon Hill explains things here.
An interesting example of a proper investigation of an oddity is how Lawrence Kusche demystified much of the “Bermuda Triangle” story by checking weather records and determining that many disappearances were in bad weather even though authors repeated each other as saying the weather had been good. 

So what oddities are worth pondering?
In my favorite oddity topic, cryptozoology, the Nicoll / Meade-Waldo “sea serpent” sighting of 1907 remains a puzzle. There are other hard-to-explain sightings of such things, but if this one was explained, I’d be more willing to dump the subject.  The “yeti” tracks from Eric Shipton and Michael Ward is in this category.  There’s no evidence of a hoax, except that no one has since found tracks as good (or the Yeti), but I’d like to know.  Wilson’s whale, painted from like in Antarctica in 1902, hasn’t been explained. No one’s found the weird screw-like colonial invertebrate (I assume that’s what it is) photographed by underwater camera on an oil rig and nicknamed “Marvin.”
I’ve collected my favorite ocean oddities here and there's some more on the "sea serpent" here.
Some things that are lost to history are interesting, although not “odd” in the fringe/paranormal sense. I write space history, and I learned the Soviet Union had a well-placed spy in Wernher von Braun’s German rocket organization. Stalin read the spy’s reports personally.  Who was he, or she? Seventy-five years on, no one knows. 
The Voynich Manuscript remains undecoded. It has been claimed to be a hoax, although it would be an elaborate and pointless one. Claims of partial translations are, so far, not very convincing. Even if we knew what it said, we wouldn’t know what long-dead hand wrote and illustrated it.
I’ll do more Grab Bags in the future. Just getting this one off my brain. I hope you enjoy it. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Science Fiction Review: Into the Drowning Deep

by Mira Grant (pen name for Seanan McGuire)

438pp, Orbital, 2017
(looks like it's free as an audiobook this week!)

This is a tale I’ve been hoping for for a long time – a great, epic marine creature novel. It tops most competitors in science, characterization, plot, and/or writing skill, and that makes it one satisfying read.

Many authors have tried to turn mermaids into believable creatures, and some have done it well, but no one’s done it like this. The science, the “casting,” and the plot here are almost perfect.

First is my primary interest, the science.  There are two aspects here, the marine science/technology and the mermaids (or “sirens”). I’m a science writer, and I do a lot of open-source research in my day job, and the work that went into this just blew me away.  The research ship Melusine  has been custom-built by the Imagine Network to follow up on the mysterious events on their much smaller ship, the Atargatis, over the Mariana Trench.  Bits of video on the internet from the Atargatis appear to show some kind of amphibious creatures vaulting onto the ship, leaving nothing but a blood-stained derelict. 

The Melusine has everything possibly needed for finding, studying, capturing, and/or killing  new creatures, although most of the scientists aboard don’t expect mermaids: they’re piggybacking on that mission to do a multitude of studies on this patch of the Pacific, from the surface to the Challenger Deep. Cryptozoologist Luis Martines is one who does think they’ll find something, as does his research partner, marine biologist Jillian Toth, whose academic reputation has been pretty much wrecked by her belief in such creatures.  The ship and scientists are described so well you think you’re on board, although I’d be interested in a diagram of the very complex vessel.

Once they get to their search area, things start getting weird. A fatal submersible descent, a crewman yanked over the side, and a bizarre range of sonar and hydrophone readings indicate the mermaids are real, although some of their actions seem inexplicable. Naturally, everyone from the network stays focused entirely on delivering good TV.  Then come more documented (sometimes fatal) close encounters.  Things get really fun here as the author details the rivalry between different scientists with different motivations (some scientific and some very personal), disciplines, and methods, who nearly come to blows over who gets what sample and whose theories make more sense. 

Then the fun is over, as the mermaids decide this weird floating reef full of edible creatures merits an all-out attack. (One aside here: The expedition has research dolphins, and I think the author overreaches in giving them intelligence fully equal to humans, from deal-making to long-range planning to philosophy. But this is a novel about mermaids, after all, so go with it.)

Now we get into the mermaids/sirens. They are nothing you’d expect from Walt Disney. The ancestry, anatomy, and capabilities of the predatory creatures are thoroughly explored, and it all makes sense.  They are almost too perfect, too capable both in body and brains, but McGuire makes you believe.  Again, the research involved simply makes my head hurt. Some things done really well in this section. One is linguistics, as the humans try voice and sign language and attempt to decipher the mermaids' communications, with a clever nod to a famous Star Trek: TNG episode. Another is the appearance of two very intriguing humans, a pair of unethical but superb big-game hunters who describe themselves as “throwbacks” and think everyone else on board is useless, except maybe as bait.  As scientists try to find answers and security plans and equipment (believably) go to hell, the tension goes up and up and up. There was only one spot, about 75% through the novel, where the details of who reported to who and who hated who got a little dense, but it didn’t last. I was on board to the end. I stayed up late to finish this, and for a guy with serious sleep problems and a need for a careful routine, that’s saying something.

McGuire, it should be noted, does not stint on the violence here—and a couple of scenes involving toxins are really yucky—but there’s nothing that feels shoveled in to appeal to violence-lovers. The sex/romance is likewise only what’s needed, with a lot of allusions but only one love affair being even PG-rated.

I’m not calling this book THE definitive marine creature thriller, since I thought there were a few minor flaws, and because someone can always come along and top even a very impressive accomplishment.  But the science here is excellent, all the characters are interesting, and the creatures are very cool.  I had some reservations on whether the sirens would develop the intelligence level they have or be able to find enough large prey, but McGuire is aware of these issues and does the best she can to keep the plausibility level high. She also works in intriguing ideas on everything from deafness to evolution, never preaching but letting the characters speak in ways that make sense. 
If you want a novel that’s all slam-bang creature action, or a tight little thriller like Jaws, this isn’t it. This is a complex novel that’s creates its own very believable reality and maintains it, and that is high praise.

Note to cryptozoology friends: if you're considering a purchase, the author is very sympathetic to cryptozoology, both in this novel and elsewhere – she went on Twitter recently to state her belief the thylacine still exists. (She also, when we've met a conferences, loved my Dubnjkleostus collection, so I'm not unbiased. Trust me, though.  This is a crypto-epic done right. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Mammal feared extinct shows up in Vietnam

The silver-backed chevrotain is an unusual mammal.  Picture a rabbit-sized deer, but make the body a little chubby and the legs a bit shorter. Now you've got it. (I haven't found a photo that's clearly in the publicdomain yet, but the link will take you there.) This animal, aka the Vietnamese  mouse deer, has been "missing" from a scientific point of view for three decades. With no confirmed sightings or specimens in that period, zoologists feared it was extinct. Fortunately, new photographs and videos from southern Vietnam, the product of a long and arduous search, hav confirmed it's still around.  The chevrotain was one of the most sought-after of missing species: it's one of 5 rediscovered so far out of the Top 25 speices sought on a list created by Global Wildlife Conservation. So welcome back! 
Hat tip to Erika Maurer for calling this one to my attention. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows

I've mentioned this Nat Geo documentary before (see trailer here), but this is the first time I've watched it. 

This is not another documentary about nature. It's about war. 
The plight of the vaquita porpoise is one of the saddest stories of what happens when nature  encounters the worst in human nature.  The basic thread here is that totoaba fish poaching in the Sea of Cortez is out of control, and the handful of vaquitas remaining (maybe fifteen IF we're lucky, down from a few hundred a decade ago)  are being caught and killed in the fishing nets. The tragedy is that this carnage is comepletely avoidable, because it doesn't have anything to do with catching fish to feed people. It has to do with a trade in totoaba bladders for "traditional medicine" for the Chinese market. 

You expect to see confrontations in any documentary of a poaching situation, but you don't expect to see comabt. The bladder trade is so lucrative it has created its own criminal enterprise and is being pursued by existing drug cartels as well. The money involved is big enough to corrupt many of the officials involved. Fishermen - some criminal, some in debt to the cartels, and some simply trying to survive - are in the middle. A couple of the most startling scenes here are fishermen actually firing at intercepting naval vessels and a mob of local citizens, dependent on the income the bladders bring, besieging a military base until three fishermen arrested for poaching are released - which they are. The Chinese government pays lip service to shutting off the demand, but it seems to only get worse. The totoaba as a species are not doing well, either. The demand may drive two species extinct. 
Conservationists just trying to help the porpoises deal with imminent dangers, including being shot at, while trying to help stop the poaching.  People from Sea Shepherd and other groups remove illegal nets, tons of them, but new nets appear. We see the capture and death of a vaquita, which dooms a desperate effort to keep them alive by creating a captive population.
At the end, we see a bit of hope - an oh-so-rare filming of surviving vaquitas - and declarations of determination by Mexican officials.  Conservationists, too, are fighting to the bitter end, which might still be staved off. It will be a very near thing. The closing text tells us that DNA studies indicate the vaquita could be reestablished even though there are so few.  (There is precedent here: the European bison or wisent was bred back into health from six animals, although there was close management of the breeding.) 
If you want to know more, Brooke Bessenen's book Vaquita is a must-read: the book is here and my review is here

Friday, November 08, 2019

Sea Serpents: the Cryptid that Wouldn't Die

OK, that's an odd headline, but it just appeared in my brain.  I geuss it works for two reasons. One is that "sea serpents," whatever one imagines them to be, have always been reported and I think always will, at least once in a while,  The other is that I still want there to be something to the legend.  It doesn;t have to be a huge long-necked mammal or a plesiosuar: I'll settle for an oversized eel or elongate shark.   
There are a few touchstone cases from the classic sea serpent tales.  There's the Daedalus sighting in 1848,which might have been a whale (might).  There's the 1907 sighting by naturalists Nicoll and Meade-Waldo,which is the gold standard (and still not really explained.) And there's the 1817 Gloucester serpent, which was reported so many times that even the skeptical Richard Ellis, an excellent analyst of such things,  mused thatit's hard to believe nothign unusual was happening.  
Now, to where I was going with all this.  Dr. Darren Naish, whose Tetrapod Zoology blog is a must-read on matters cryptozoologica, reviews here a book by Robert France that I would review myself if I could afford the damn thing ($77). Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent  suggests the "serpent," cannot be disentangled (my words) from the time, place, and culture of the sightings. Those factors contributed to a run of events when people mistook large marine mammals and debris for large  unknown animals. He thinks it's most likely that net-entangled or line-entangled creature giving rise to monster sightings were most often tuna vs mammals, given high speed, quick-turning ability, etc. Naish is impressed, even though he cautions we still don't KNOW.  I hope to read the book at some pont and be impressed as well. Thanks, Darren!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Pink Boots and a Sasquatch: Dr. Mayor searches for Bigfoot

Dr. Mireya Mayor is a prominent primatologist, a very accomplished explorer, and a filmmaker/TV host/science communicator who knows how to get viewers to watch and listen. Her book Pink Boots and a Machete is an amusing, sometimes harrowing story about her explorations. So I was intrigued and a bit puzzled when Travel Channel announced she would be headlining Expedition: Bigfoot.


EB is the latest in a number of TV shows about looking for Bigfoot (none of them having found a damn thing worth paying attention to.)  The announcement says her team is "using an advanced data algorithm and groundbreaking science and tools to analyze five decades of Bigfoot sightings and to pinpoint when and where to encounter this elusive beast." A host, a survival expert, and two longtim Bigfoot hunters round out the cast.  
I asked Dr. Mayor via FaceBook what she thought the chances were of finding an unknown ape, mentioning I'd kept up on the subject for 40+ years and given up in the face of negative evidence: no bones, no DNA, no known possible ancestor species in North America.  She replied that we were still finding unknown species and, with thousands of witnesses reporting Bigfoot sightings, only one needed to be right.  
I grant her point, and I wish her and her team the luck that has eluded everyone to date.  I strongly doubt Bigfoot exists, but I very much want it to. The idea that our exploration and exploitation of the planet has missed something so spectacular is a seductive one.  
Mayor has a credential no one else who's looked for Bigfoot has: she has, in fact, discovered a new primate. Granted, it was a "mouse lemur" that weighs in at maybe 55 grams, but Microcebus mittermeieri, or Mittermeier’s Mouse Lemur,.was important, being one of three species discovered by the team she was on. These led to a revision of the mouse lemurs and more understanding of their only habitat, the fast-disappearing forests of MadagascarI wrote about Mayor's find in my book Shadows of Existence in 2006.  
So if I believed there was something to find and had the means to fund an expedition, Mayor is probably the first person I'd want to send looking for Bigfoot.
The idea of using a "new algorithm" and data analysis to look for likely hot spots is a valid one. I recall a pioneering effort from 2003, when herpetologist Chris Raxworthy used specimen locality data and satellite imagery to map the habitats of Madagascar’s chameleons. They found areas of “error” where the predicted distribution did not match the field data. When herpetologists checked these areas in person, they found seven previously unknown species. But the algorithm is only as good as the data, and I look forward to reading or seeing about what sort of database they are using. Cross-checking credible sightings with likely habitat would be interesting, the fly in the ointment being that any analysis of credibility is subjective and therefore suspect.
The show's announcement concludes, weirdly, by spoiling the ending, saying the team finds "a hot spot where inexplicable events occur and one of the greatest pieces of video evidence in Bigfoot history is recorded." That also means, if read between the lines, that they did not find hard evidence of Bigfoot.  Which is really too bad. But I'll try to catch the show anyway to see what they do find.
Papers on the lemur discoveries:
Edward E. Louis; Melissa S. Coles; Rambinintsoa Andriantompohavana; Julie A. Sommer; Shannon E. Engberg; John R. Zaonarivelo; Mireya I. Mayor; Rick A. Brenneman (2006). "Revision of the Mouse Lemurs (Microcebus) of Eastern Madagascar," International Journal of Primatology. 27 (2): 347–389.
Mittermeier, R.; Ganzhorn, J.; Konstant, W.; Glander, K.; Tattersall, I.; Groves, C.; Rylands, A.; Hapke, A.; Ratsimbazafy, J.; Mayor, M.; Louis, E.; Rumpler, Y.; Schwitzer, C. & Rasoloarison, R. (December 2008). "Lemur Diversity in Madagascar" (PDF). International Journal of Primatology. 29 (6): 1607–165.
Other sources not linked to in text:
Tyson, Peter.  2000.  The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Rediscovery in the Lost World of Madagascar.  New York: William Morrow.  374pp. 
"3 new lemurs named in Madagascar," released by Conservation International, 21 June 2006.

Monday, November 04, 2019

A Singapore Snake Sighting

My friend Shannon Bohle tipped me to this one. Her  friend Dr. John van Wyhe has found a specimen of the lined blind snake, aka Ramphotyphlops lineatus, that had been missing and "indeterminate" in status, not having been seen in a whopping 172 years.  Dr. van Wyhe is a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore.  The find occurred in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,where the half-meter snake was found dead. The IUCN Red List entry on the species, last updated in 2012, has almost no information.
The discovery is an important reminder that a species may resurface after presumed extinction - even prolonged presumed extinction. This is the longest period I've heard of for a reptile, although I covered some other animal species in my books.  
It's surprising how many such cases there are. New Zealand's takahe, a colorful, turkey-sized ground-dwelling bird, was declared extinct three times before turning up for good in 1948.  The Bermuda petrel, or cahow, was rediscovered after being presumed extinct for 300 years, a record unlikely to be broken (there were two collected during that time, so maybe there's an asterisk). The Guadalupe fur seal was believed to be extinct three times, despite being a rather prominent mammal weighing up to 140kg, and the Juan Fernandez fur seal was "lost" from 1917 to 1968.  The first specimen of Fraser's dolphin washed up dead in 1895: no one confirmed it in life until 1971 Heaviside's dolphin, a 1.6-m cetacean le from South African waters, is a distinctive animal: except for having a short dorsal fin, it's colored and shaped like a miniature killer whale.  It was missing from 1856 to 1965. The pygmy killer whale, a round⌐headed, beakless dolphin which maybe almost 3m long, was recognized from one skull found in 1827.  One was caught off Japan in 1954.
So congratulations to Dr. van Wyhe.  Keep looking!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Dunkleosteus Review: New Toy in Recur Line

Review: Recur Dunkleosteus

From a Chinese toy company, under the brand name Recur, comes the newest Dunkleosteus.  This vinyl Dunk isn’t an exacting model, but there’s a lot to like about it as a toy.
I bought mine off Amazon for about $18.  The description on the website clearly got confused in translation: “Dinichthyidae Shark Figure Stuffed Sea Animal Fish Replica.” Okay… Among other toys, the company makes a shark which is described as both a great white and a megalodon. Their mosasaur looks seriously cool and well-detailed, and their dinosaurs are pretty nice. 
The first thing I noticed is size.  It’s as big as any of the non-plush Dunkleosteus models or toys, about 30cm long and substantial. Indeed, this particular Dunk was very well fed.  

It’s all molded in one piece, but the manufacturers went to the trouble of coloring the inside of the mouth and the cheek membranes (pinkish) and the biting plates (white).  The shaded green, going to white on the bottom, is a believable color scheme, and there is lots of texture around the armor and the head in general. Also present are little vertical skin-fold lines that give this toy a more lifelike feel than some flat-surface toys. The biting plates could have used a bit of the same attention, though.  
The eyes are too small, I think, and readers know I don’t think the eel-like tail is correct even though it’s a pretty common supposition.   The pectoral fins look small, but not unreasonably so.  The designer went for a very low dorsal fin far back on the body: I think it likely too small for stabilizing a creature of this size.   
Quibbles aside, this is a really nice toy.  It’s big enough and sturdy enough to give a youngster years of enjoyable playtime, and it’s close enough to (likely) reality to serve as part of a school project, although CollectA and some others are out there for more verisimilitude.