Friday, August 28, 2020

Shark Week: two bites, lots of chum

 Shark Week has come and gone. And most of it won't be missed. The celebrity gimmick shows are just painful.  It's cruel to make humans watch that.  It's cruel to make SHARKS watch that.  The search for an individual shark, inevitably dubbed "monster," or "killer" something,  occasionally produces some good footage (there was a great shot of a really big hammerhead in "Monster Under the Bridge") but not much else.  

One of the keepers was Extinct or Alive? Land of the Lost Sharks.  Forrest Galante took us in search of three sharks (two sharks and a skate, actually), on the southeastern coasts of Africa.   The diving shots are really nerve-wracking.  This seems to be the place the term "shark-infested waters" was born for. Sometimes you can hardly see the divers.  But success is theirs: the quarry is caught on video in all three cases, and we learn a lot as we go.  

Pacific Sleeper Shark
Pacific sleeper shark (not from Shark Week show)  (NOAA)

The other one was Alien Sharks, which has been the only reliably informative show from this school. Sure there's slightly overdone narration and a reminder of who can be the prey here (I never knew a human had been bitten by a cookie-cutter shark: it's not pretty.) Dr. Mareike Dornhege and a Japanese crew look for the utterly weird goblin and frilled sharks,among other rare deep-water species. The little-known longnose dogfish stole the show by giving birth in a tank on the boat. 

The biggest deepwater shark is the sleeper shark, reaching 8 m or more, and Paul Clerkin and Taylor Chappel lead an expedition to Alaskan waters to study them. (Kudos for featuring Dornhege and Clerkin: I'm not an advocate of saying "we need a black guy on this show and an Asian woman on this one," but lineups of these events all too often imply all shark scientists are white guys.)

Clerkin finds his sleeper shark, and adventure ensues as they put the first-ever video tag on a sleeper shark and get a look at its world.  Actual science! (more on Aalskan shark science here)

Oh, and my dad sent over this reminder that, yeah, sometimes we are prey.  We kill millions of sharks a year, but they don't take it personally. Usually. And when a human does get bitten, we need to remember they are just being sharks.  If you're on the Serengeti plains, you watch out for lions... 

Hoping for more good stuff next year. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Book Review: Monsters of the Deep

 Monsters of the Deep

Nick Redfern (2020, Visible Ink, 366 pp.)    

(NOTE: the blog program changed its interface and I'm having a little trouble getting the colors to come up right, so please forgive the odd appearance of this post!)

Nick is an indefatigable seeker of oddities natural and supernatural, and his many interests leave the title topic a bit obscured.  As he knows, I'm an aficionado of strictly physical cryptozoology. If I have an official quote on the topic, it's "If it’s not zoology, it’s not cryptozoology.”  Nick's approach is that,  although “high strangeness” reports don’t concern physical cryptozoology, there are such reports about famous cryptids like Bigfoot, and that to him is worth investigating. I don’t dismiss parapsychology out of hand, but don't expect a comprehensive book on sea serpents and their ilk.  

The book does collect interesting reports on lake and sea monsters, some new to me. It ranges much farther afield, though,  all the way to man-eating trees, a giant snake killed in Bolivia by the CIA (actually, this one is really interesting), and so on.  But scientific credibility on zoology per se is left behind at hte first mention of reptilian shape-shifters.  Creature reports from Loch Ness are interesting, but pages devoted to Alastair Crowley (while a fascinating story of human weirdness)  seemingly have no bearing on whether there are plesiosaurs in a Scottish lake.

Many pages of this book are taken up by multi-paragraph quotes from old books and recent websites.  That’s not always a bad thing: most notably, Redfern shows how fundamental the work of Henry Lee (Sea Monsters Unmasked, 1883) is to the still-quoted body of “sea serpent” evidence.   The most interesting original investigation is Nick’s accounts of modern reports of creatures in small bodies of water in England and speculate what could be there and why it was only recently noticed (he fingers a small released crocodilian, no doubt dead by now, as one culprit). 

Redfern brings this to a close with a quick review of the classification schemes proposed for sea monsters, although I wished he’d diagrammed them for comparison. He makes the valid point, though, that these are ventures aren't very useful without more evidence. He goes on to his own thoughts about cryptids.  He and cryptozoologist Richard Freeman suggest some are material animals and some emerge from a deep memory of ancient-predator archetypes that come up when the brain is disturbed (should Carl Jung get partial credit here?). The book ends with a bit about how pollutants are producing mutant animals and might have a role in some oversize or odd-looking creatures reported as “monsters.”  A recent example given here concerns deformed frogs in the U.S. The 1.3-meter frog reported here is a bit harder to fit to this paradigm. 

There are no chapter notes or endnotes, so it’s up to the reader to figure which account might be tied to which source in the 10-page bibliography.  There are also some editing mistakes: an account by a Loch Ness researcher is repeated verbatim in two chapters.  That and the long quotes give the book a disjointed feel. I'm not sure whether the publication was rushed or just that Nick is such a prolific writer that wanting to share his latest thoughts occasionally trips him up. 

As someone who thinks of cryptozoology as strictly a wants-to-be hard science devoted to finding real animals, the book wasn't what I'd hoped for:  the side trips sap the impact of the zoology. Nick is the author and he of course writes what interests him, just as we all do, and he can write clearly and well. If your interests match his, there’s a lot here to keep you turning the pages.    

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Taxonomy - Sounds boring, but it's in trouble

Taxonomy, the naming of living things, is not something most of us need to think about often. Ok, a Tyrannosaurus rex (still one of the coolest names ever) means "tyrant lizard king," and the moose is Alces alces, and humans are Homo sapiens ("intelligent man," or so we hope). There's a genus (group) name and a species name (making a "binomial"), and it all fits into a larger classification scheme of families and phyla and other things you may have learned a  mnemonic for back in school. This is standard "Linnaean" classification. It's gotten more complicated in the age of DNA, cladograms, and disputes over who had the right to name something, but it's still the dominant way to refer to animals and plants.  A published name sticks even if there is something wrong with the name itself. The discoverer of an ancient whale thought it was a marine reptile and gave it the genus name Basilosaurus. Even though we know now it's a mammal, its stuck with a name including "lizard" for all time.  

To name something you need a holotype, an original example other scientists can look at. According to International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) Recommendation 16C, Preservation and deposition of type specimens,  "Recognizing that name-bearing types are international standards of reference (see Article 72.10) authors should deposit type specimens in an institution that maintains a research collection, with proper facilities for preserving..."

That doesn't mean holotypes are always available. Some years  back, scientists at the Museum of Zoology QCAZ, Quito, Ecuador, looked for invertebrate holotypes deposited there and couldn't find proof 16 holotypes and 51 paratypes ("sibling " specimens deposited with the holotypes), had ever been deposited. This added up to "...some 20% of all invertebrate type material for the country..." Holotypes get lost in transit, lost in museum moves, destroyed, and occasionally stolen.  In 1981 and 1983, Russian mammologists described two new species of killer whales, or orcas, Orcinus nanus and Orcinus glacialis. However, one never had a proper holotype and the other can't be found, so no one uses the names.  

A holotype does not have to be a stuffed or skeletal specimen, although that's the preferred method. Species have entered general scientific use (practically speaking , the closest thing there is to a formal acceptance) through descriptions based on DNA samples, fragmentary specimens, and, controversially, photographs when the photographs are clear and taken under conditions ensuring they are genuine (such as of a captive animal that is released, or a worm that conveniently crawls over the viewport of a submersible and is captured from an inch away).  Dr. Grover Krantz' publication of a name for Bigfoot was based on footprints: it found little acceptance and it was invalid anyway because someone had previously proposed a name. 

So, to get where I was going, the rules here seem pretty clear, but as paleozoologist Darren Naish explains here, things can go sideways. The first publication of a description of a creature carries the name (assuming it's available) fixed until and unless invalidated (a name can be disputed in other publications). Add to that the fact it's understood different scientists have different ideas of where to classify a new beetle or shark or whatever, and the rules written back when everything was done through peer-reviewed journals allow for weird results in the internet age.  People can publish in pay-to-play journals, public access journals, blogs, etc. Practically anything is a publication available anywhere in the world.  Finally, this isn't limited to scientist with some qualifications: anyone can do it.  Dedicated, careful amateurs have published names universally accepted.  BUT...

We have a situation Dr. Naish calls "taxonomic vandalism." He refers to one incredibly busy amateur herpetologist named Hoser who has named "well over 100 supposedly new snake and lizard genera, this individual has also produced taxonomic revisions of the world’s cobras, burrowing asps, vipers, rattlesnakes, water snakes, blindsnakes, pythons, crocodiles and so on. But, alas, his work is not of the careful, methodical, conservative and respected sort that you might associate with a specialised, dedicated amateur; rather, his articles appear in his own, in-house, un-reviewed, decidedly non-technical publications.." The diagnostic characteristics Hoser cites in distinguishing the holotype of a new species from its relatives are mostly unimportant, accidental (a damaged specimen), or within the bounds of known species (like counting a snake with two more rows of scales on its head as a species). Scientists used to be, in general, "splitters" who named species based on minor stuff: a hundred years ago there were 86 species of brown bear. This was eventually reduced through the work of other scientists to one, with four subspecies.  But Hoser is taking splitting to new levels, naming animals for pets and relatives (honoring people is normal, but ...pets?)  and generally making a hash out of existing herp taxonomy.  

So when you see a new species named, pay some attention before you celebrate it or refer to it. Is the publication legitimate? Dr. Melba Ketchum's "Bigfoot DNA" paper was published in a self-produced journal that never published a second issue.  Has anyone published a disputing article or letter (easy to find with the internet)? Is the journal peer-reviewed? Peer review is not a guarantee of anything, but it means the description has been critiqued by other specialists who know the topic.  

Also, see what the person has published before. Has she done articles in journals, or has she published screeds like Hoser's attacking the evil anti-truth scientists who've rejected the work? See this doozy.  

Thousands of new species are named every year, and we have (it's estimated) hundreds of thousands of beetles alone to find and name.  A new species is always accompanied by some form of publication, but the species has to furnish the foundation for the publication, not the other way around.