Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019: A Momentous Year for the Oceans

It was a momentous year. Not all the moments were bad, but let's take a look.
The conservation website offered its top 10 stories for year about the oceans. 

Top 10 

Writers E listed 1) Climate change, including acidification, which scares me more than warming itself; 2) Youth leadership (not merely by Ms. Thunberg, but globally) 3) Progress toward a global ocean biodiversity protection treaty, with the U.N. hosting promising negotiations), 4) Progress in establishing marine protected areas, 5) A serious oil spill off Brazil that, for all our improved monitoring technology, has yet to be traced to a particular ship), 6) Increasing plastic pollution. with some progress here and there on regulation, 7) Arguments over seabed mining, 8) Progress on ending subsidies for fisheries, 9) Whale news - 10 more washed-up North Atlantic right whales, some glimmers of hope for vaquitas, and a great success story, restoration of the Atlantic humpback - and 10) "Marine Weirdness," a catchall for new discoveries, out of place animals, and so on.  

I don't have any disagreements here, although a couple of things merit a bit of amplification. The amazing comeback of the Atlantic humpback - arguably the most impressive comeback for a protected marine species ever - came despite an Unusual Mortality Event along the U.S. coast that saw 110 whales die of a variety of causes. 
Humpback whale breaching.
Humpback celebrates comeback (photo NOAA)

The vaquita still lives on the thinnest of razor edges.  A handful of 2019 sightings and photographs have indeed given it some hope, but only some. The most endangered of the large whales, the North Atlantic right, continued to take a beating from ship collisions and ghost gear despite increasingly tight regulations. 

North Atlantic right whale breaching out of the water.

N. Atlantic right (NOAA)

There's good evidence that protected areas increase the fish available for human consumption by creating breeding sanctuaries of a sort, with fish populations rising on all sides of the protected area.  The United States, which if often criticized (sometimes properly) on marine protection issues, has been a leader on this one, with huge protected areas being declared by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. On the other hand, Russia and China have blocked an attempt to create a sanctuary in the Southern Ocean, which needs a 24-nation consensus among the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR),  plus the European Union.

Seabed mining has long been a bone of contention. It's  not certain which types of mining for which resources could be made to pay commercially, but countries in need of particular resources (for domestic use or for strategic advantage) may not care about that.  The U.S. in particular, through five Administrations, has never found a treaty the President and Congress would both buy into. The Pew Environmental Trust has a good overview of the topic here

So there's a lot of work to do, but as 2019 closes, we can at least say there's no one who doesn't  KNOW there's a lot of work to do.  

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Air Force historian's review of The First Space Race (and a discount sale!))

This is our favorite of the First Space Race reviews, by a professional aerospace historian.  

Published in government (not subject to copyright) publication High Frontier, Air Force Space Command's professional journal (the journal is now, sadly, extinct: we hope it will be picked up as the AFSPC transition to U.S. Space Force continues).  
(The paperback version is now on sale via Amazon at only $4.85!!!!)

Book Review

The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. 
By Matt Bille and Erika Lishock. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 214. $19.95 Paperback ISBN: 1-58544-374-3

Nobody should assume the history of American and Soviet space programs during the 1950s has been chiseled in stone. Matt Bille and Erika Lishock [ed: now Erika Maurer] make this perfectly clear in their new book titled The First Space Race
Through thoughtful analysis of events generally familiar to space historians and vigorous pursuit of details obscured by the passage of time, the authors supply new insights to one of the Cold War’s most dramatic chapters. As the legendary James Van Allen admits in the foreword, this volume even provides still-living participants in that race with a “much improved context for their own fragmentary knowledge.” 
It took several centuries to lay the foundations for successful launch of the world’s first artificial, earth-orbiting satellites in the late 1950s. During the 17th century, Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton formulated the necessary theories of motion. Edward Everett Hale and other science-fiction writers in the 19th century inspired serious spaceflight theoreticians like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert Goddard at the dawn of the 20th century. The pace of actual hardware development quickened at mid-century under the leadership of brilliant engineers like Wernher von Braun, Sergey Korolev, Theodore von Karman, and others. 
Long-range rockets built by the US and USSR could travel through outer space to deliver thermonuclear warheads halfway around the globe. 
Informed visionaries recognized the feasibility of using those same rockets to launch satellites that would enhance national security. While long-range rocket and satellite development occurred within the military establishments of the US and USSR, plans for the International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958) committed both countries to launching satellites for scientific research. The Soviet Academy of Sciences created a Commission for Interplanetary Communication, chaired by academician Leonid Sedov, to oversee its IGY satellite program. Meanwhile, a committee headed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Homer Stewart selected the US launcher and satellite from among several proposals by the military services. 
On 4 October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. After the US Navy’s failure to launch a Vanguard satellite on 6 December, the Army put Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, into orbit on 31 January 1958. Both nations commenced “storming the heavens” with civil and military satellites. 
Bille and Lishock drew information from a variety of sources—written and oral, primary and secondary, older and recent— to tell this complex story in a relatively straight-forward, simple style. They discuss how erroneous “facts” have crept into the literature over time. For example, the color scheme on museum models of Explorer 1 differs from the actual flight article. Furthermore, the Goldstone tracker could not have confirmed that Explorer 1 was in orbit, because Goldstone was set up months later to support the Pioneer lunar probes. The authors analyze in depth the Stewart Committee’s choice of the Navy’s proposal over the Army’s, the relationship between early military and civil satellite programs, and the question of whether the US purposely refrained from being the first to launch a satellite. Finally, they surprise readers with a description of NOTSNIK, a “secret competitor” that aimed to place tiny satellites in orbit via a five-stage booster launched from a US Navy fighter aircraft. 
When one considers that neither Bille nor Lishock is an academically trained historian, the rigor of their research methodology becomes all the more remarkable. Anyone wanting to know how these two associates with the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton successfully managed this project should read their article titled “Chronicling Space: Adventures in Space History” in Quest 11:4 (2004), pp. 7-13. The authors explain its genesis and evolution from a manuscript titled “Little Star: The History and Promise of Small Satellites” toward the published work that is the subject of this review. 
Along the way, Bille and Lishock had the good fortune to interview such space luminaries from the 1950s as James Van Allen, Milton Rosen, Ernst Stuhlinger, Fred Durant, and William Pickering. They also learned that obstacles sometimes thwart research plans, that serendipity can play a delightfully rewarding role in the discovery of information, and that the practice of historical writing involves more than merely recording names and dates. 
The First Space Race engages interested readers to the point where they will have difficulty putting it down before turning the last page. Bille and Lishock have achieved a wonderful balance between the American and Soviet sides of the story. Their new research and refreshing analyses correct inaccuracies that have crept into the literature over the decades and prompt space historians to question causal connections they once took for granted. Despite a few editorial errors, this volume offers space professionals a window on how past spaceflight successes might broaden our perspective on future possibilities.
Reviewed by Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Command Historian, HQ Air Force Space Command

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A few favorites from Paleontology

Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett  
Smithsonian, 2016: 224pp.
Naish, a paleozoologist, and Barrett, a paleontologist, have given us an altogether splendid treatment of what, as of just a couple of years ago (this business changes fast, especially regarding feathers) we know about dinosaurs.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a LostWorld by Steve Brusatte
William Morrow, New York, 2018. 404pp.
In Rise and Fall, the latest in dinosaur science is presented in a highly readable science book doubling as a rip-roaring adventure tale. The story of dinosaurs, not just as fossils but as real animals, is masterfully presented

Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005) 488 pages
 Mayor is a scholar of the overlooked chapters of history and prehistory, such as historical Amazons and early automata. Here she asks what Native Americans thought of the fossils in fossil-rich North America, and uncovers a treasure trove of anecdotes, myths, and fossils.

Prehistoric Animals.  Text by Joseph Augusta, illustrated by Zdenek Burian. Translated by Greta Hort. Spring Books, London. (Reviewed edition is 1963: numerous versions and reprints exist.).
While much of the knowledge in this book is outdated, its influence and the excellence of the writing and illustrations enthralled a generation of professional, student, and public readers. Dr. Augusta's text is fine and the 60 plates, many in color, by the great Zdenek Burian are classic.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The starry night frog and other rediscovered species

Rediscovery of a species missing for decades. This is one of those cases where scientists could have rediscovered it much earlier, but they neglected to ask the locals in Columbia about it., or asked the wrong one.

Here's an article from a couple of years ago listing five more rediscoveries. While the Javan elephant  may not count (that case is about identifying the ancestry of a known population), it's a good reminder that hope can be abandoned too quickly when a species goes missing. 

Collected Reviews: Books on Zoology and the Environment

Books are the best Christmas gifts, right? The best idea is to buy my books, but if you don't, here are some I liked from the past two years.  I'll collect the ones on other topics in upcoming posts. 

Vaquita, by Brooke Bessesen
The tragic, infuriating story of how humans are driving the vaquita to extinction.

Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson
One of the truly great books on cetaceans, with the latest research.

Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator   
by Jason M. Colby 
A unique book tracing the beginnings of the orca's transition from the target of fear and hatred to an (unwilling) performer.  

David C. Xu, Coachwhip 

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear
Richard Ellis,  Knopf  
A biography of the world's most remarkable bear and its conservation

The Bountiful Sea
Seabrook Hull, Prentice-Hall, 1964
Revisiting an old classic on how humans would explore and live in the sea

Gold Rush in the Jungle
Dan Drollette, Jr
Amazing book on the discoveries of new mammals in Southeast Asia and the reports of still-mysterious ones

The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation
Robin W. Baird, University of Hawaii Press 
  • Gorgeously photographed and stuffed with the latest information, including some eye-openers like false killer whales including humans in a game of "pass the dead fish."

Monday, December 09, 2019

Rhino rumblings

I missed World Rhino Day on September 22 this year.  I don't think much about rhinos, and I'm not sure why. Maybe they just don't have the grandeur of elephants. The other giants, the hippos, don't press either of my buttons (possible new species or endangered status), except for the intiguing possibility a small hippo lived on Madagascar into historical times. 
The Javan rhino has one population and 72 individuals, which is a terrible situation but at least, for the moment, a stable one. Four new calves spotted by camera trap in the last six months have perked up conservationists a bit, and the species is up from a count of 50 a decade ago. Conservationists are discussing moving a few to establish a second population outside Ujung Kulon National Park, although that's on hold right now.  The Javan used to live on the Asian mainland, but the last one, in Vietnam, died a lingering death in 2010 after being shot by a poacher.
The Sumatran rhino is in a similar state, with perhaps 80-in the world, nine of which are in captivity: captive breeding efforts haven't yielded any results yet.  
There are the two smallest and most primitive of rhinos, and the hairiest, with their hides encasing them like plates of clumsy armor. They are being sustained by extraordinary human effort, and their survival is not yet assured.  
The most famous rhino these days is the one in the new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian. It may lay eggs and have a terrible temper, but it's clearly a variation on Earth's extinct woolly rhinocerous. Coelodonta antiquitatis is probably most famous as the star of cave paintings. It got a boost toward extinction by, you guessed it, humans. Let's hope we don't have any more such extinctions.  

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Grab Bag 2: Odds and Ends About Oddities

Here we are, the end of 2019, and it's been an interesting year full of mysteries and monsters. But let's set aside the current events and turn to science for a bit.
There are end of year ten-best lists popping out: here's the first one I noticed. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read any of these picks for best science and nature books of the year. Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, I think, is at the top of my list. 

I like new animals, living and prehistoric. Some of Nature’s experiment turn out to be really crazy.    A flying squirrel with a 5-foot (1.5m) wingspan? Yes. We have Petauristatetyukhensis, found near Vladivostok and estimated at 30,000 years old.  It easily dwarfs its largest relatives, which are impressive enough. I’ve written elsewhere about how Pakistan's woolly flying squirrel, the largest squirrel in the world, was discovered in 1888, vanished soon after, and stayed missing until 1995. The animal, which is up to two feet long not counting its two⌐foot tail, was found by two dogged amateurs after eluding repeated searches by professional zoologists.

Everyone likes finding new examples of those other flying vertebrates, the birds. A widespread group called the honeyeaters, the Alormyzomela (fancy scientific name Myzomela prawiradilagae), was announced earlier this month from the Indonesian island of (of course) Alor.  As is too often the case, the scientists describing a new species recommended it immediately be declared endangered thanks to habitat degradation.    A handsome little brown and grey creature with a mostly red head, it has a call described as “tssip” or “vick.” 
Then there’s the new crocodile. Really! While New Guinea has a well-established freshwater crocodile, described 91 years ago, it apears that population is split, and what’s now called Crocodylus halli is a different breed of reptile. There were even specimens in captivity, at Florida’s St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.  I’ll stop by sometime and see them in a while…
And if you’re not sure what species something is… there’s anapp for that. 
The source is, which describes itself “a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe.”
My favorite critters include the tardigrades, near-microscopic six-legged beasties that look kinda cute and are some of the toughest multicellular organisms on Earth. Freeze, them, dry them, heat them, starve them – they don’t care.  Some of them lived after exposure to empty space, cosmic rays, and brutal temperature changes in a box mounted on the outside of the International Space Station.  There’s a very cool Twitter account at Some sceintists has raised the idea of integrate tardigrade DNA with humans.  Ummm… that’s how you get a cross between Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers. There was an article in one of those old men’s magazines, like TRUE, that had a blown-up picture of one claiming NASA had photographed this "unknown alien creature" on Mars or in space. 
Speaking of space. I used to spend a lot of time pondering UFOs.  The term stinks, of course: there’s no way to know whether something in the sky is an “object” or “flying.”  Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) is used by, among other organizations, the U.S. Navy, which had some publicized sightings in the last few years. 
I’m talking about the philosophy of the topic and not individual sightings here.  I mention it not because I think aliens are visiting us - I don’t – but because there’s a residue of UFO reports that stubbornly stick in the “unidentified” category.  A couple of more skeptical commenters, Robert Schaeffer for one, have written that, if 95% of UFO sightings could be explained (and everyone agrees on some number in the 90s), then why not 99%? Why not 100%?  I find this a bit unscientific.  No one doubts ball lightning exists, but everyone agrees many sightings are mistaken.  A police hotline may hear from 1,000 people that they saw the murderer whose picture was on TV: 99% may be mistaken and 1% correct, and police still use such tiplines and do get genuine sightings. Thousands of sightings of the Eastern cougar have led to a few genuine cougars (relict, released, or rambling in from other states is not always clear, but the point is 99 percent can be wrong and the thing can still be there,
Going back to our space motif, there are quite a few reports from space by astronauts, who you’d think would be good observers of phenomena in space if anyone is. However, James Oberg had had no trouble explaining them, especially because low Earth orbit (LEO) is filled with debris of all shapes and sizes. ( There are also hoaxes, like an altered Apollo 11 transcript.)
Continuing to ramble, UFO documentaries tend to be low quality at best. One called Unacknowledged, which ran on Netflix, was built around encounters by military personnel and astronauts. So far, so good, but it turns out the astronauts were quoted out of context, some of the military men held way-out fringe beliefs and space and aliens, and the whole ends up pretty weak.  
Groups like MUFON solider on, and not entirely without reason. Alien spaceships are not here, but aerial phenomena, both explainable and not-explained yet, are here.  The discovery of massive discharges of energy, spires and elfs, is recent: The late Aviation Week editor Phil Klass’ old idea about plasmas, large, longer-lived cousins to ball lightning, still has some validity in it. A friend of my father’s, a pilot on duty in postwar Japan, chased a reddish disk that was translucent – he could make out clouds through it – that his P-51 couldn’t catch.  That sounds more like a natural phenomenon than a spaceship, but what sort of phenomenon?  We don’t know. 
And there you have the starting point for all scientific investigation: “We don’t know.”