Sunday, September 27, 2020

How many coelacanths?

We all know the basic story of the coelacanth, the animal the term "living fossil" came to be most identified with.  

In 1938, a South African trawler pulled up a fish about the size of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the museum curator who spotted the strange blue trophy.  It was a coelacanth, descended from a line of lobe-finned fishes that had supposedly gone extinct 66 million years ago. Latimeria chalumnaewas certainly the most famous piscine discovery of the 20th century. It appeared this one had strayed from the species' usual range,  later confirmed as the area immediately surrounding the Comoro Islands.  In 1999, another species was described, thousands of miles east of the Comoros.  Dr. Mark Erdmann, a biologist, and his wife Arnaz, a naturalist, were on honeymoon   on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, when she saw something odd on a fisherman’s cart.  “Isn’t that one of those fossil fishes?” she asked.  That species is now known as Latimeria menadoensis.  (An African population, although not a new species, was confirmed in 2000.)

Now we have more - or we might.  I missed the announcement of this in January - I've no idea how - but two of the Indonesian populations are separated by some 13 million years. We  may have another species, or a group of related species (there's a LOT to be analyzed concerning the Indonesian coelacanths)  where the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, called a species complex.  A writer for Reef Builders notes, "The evidence comes from genetic analysis of a single sample of a Coelacanth that was fished up from 300 meters deep in West Papua, that was ‘mostly eaten’ before some tissue could be preserved."  So we will see what comes out of this study and efforts to find other specimens to match it..

Oddity: In 1995, reports circulated about a coelacanth being caught off Jamaica. This startling tale made some newspapers, but no one was able to confirm it. Dr. George Brown, founder of a coelacanth conservation group, the Society for Protection Of Old Fishes (yes, the acronym is SPOOF), reported he’d heard nothing about it. Dr. Karl Shuker, an English zoologist who also tried to verify the story, believes it was a hoax or a case of mistaken identity. 

There rests the mystery of coelacanth distribution.  It’s likely there are (or were) populations between the Comoros and Indonesia.  It’s also still possible we’ll find coelacanths in other parts of the globe.  Perhaps this famous fish, while still fascinating and important, isn’t quite as rare as we thought. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review: Devolution by Max Brooks

 Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

Max Brooks: Del Rey (2020) 304 pages

Brooks, who had a bestseller with World War Z, has cooked up a story mixing cryptozoology with classic horror and survival tales and some potshots at modern life.  It’s very interesting, but a bit patchy: I like it but don’t entirely love it.

The setup is fun. People move to the tiny ultramodern eco-community of Greenloop, where everything you want comes daily by drone and everything you do has minimal impact on the environment. One family includes Kate Holland, whose journal forms the core of the story,

If most “creature” tales have the moral “Man is the deadliest animal,” this one goes with “Man can be the deadliest animal, but he’s certainly the weirdest.” A collection of colorful folks with absolutely no idea how the natural world works but also want out of the human world are cut off when Mount Rainer decides it’s been dormant long enough and buries a huge area in volcanic mud.  Amid an enormous national disaster that makes Katrina look like a tea party and ensures no one even thinks about Greenloop, days and then weeks go by while people wonder what they will do without their online-ordered support. They don't even own toolchests, much less guns.  

Meanwhile, Sasquatches who’ve been content to live on veggies and venison begin to get desperate for protein. It does not take them long to figure out one of the few protein sources left in their devastated habit is huddled in Greenloop.

A lot of themes unfold in the weeks after the disaster, although there are some poky stretches before we get there. The humans display a mixture of helplessness and imagination.  If not for an artist who seems to know a lot about war, they’d all be dead.  Some of the people evolve under pressure: some crack.  Meanwhile, the sasquatches lose their normal reticence about getting close to humans and “devolve” into sadistic-predator mode.  Brooks does a good job in giving the sasquatches personalities and family/tribe dynamics rather than being indistinguishable monsters. Brooks has read his Bigfoot literature and  ties this story in with folklore and cryptozoology. Sasquatches are not reported to have narrow waists, quite the contrary, and primates don’t have eyes that gleam red in the dark, but Bigfoot fans will otherwise find little to dispute except the question of whether the famously peaceful creatures would devolve in a situation like this. Hunger does a lot of things to people and Bigfoot alike...  

Brooks’ descriptions and settings, including his blueprint of Greenloop (rim shot), are good throughout. So is his depiction of action.  The series of battles marking the town’s last days is gripping.  Tactics on both sides change as humans learn how much squatches hate fire and squatches learn it’s dumb to underestimate even small opponents if they have pointy weapons. (There are detailed instructions on making a spear out of a kitchen knife, which is only one of the improvised traps and weapons that make this sequence cool. It’s like Home Alone with murderers instead of idiots invading.) 

The ending is very interesting. We don’t know exactly what happened to the survivors, but one possibility offered is that humans, too, can “devolve.”  

Brooks works in a lot of commentary, some of it delivered with a shovel, on human philosophy, the urge to cuddle nature vs. the urge to ignore it, the overdependence on gadgets, etc. Not much of that is new, but Greenloop concentrates it all in one place. There’s a familiar Jurassic Park theme with the isolated humans, and it’s not hard to guess who’s going to die first. 

What really makes this novel go is the sasquatches. I wish one of them had been able to keep a journal, too.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review: A New Human

A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee (2007: Smithsonian, 272pp.)

The Indonesian island of Flores was just another spot in a vast archipelago – until it became the locus of a scientific earthquake.  Lead discoverer Mike Morwood here tells the story of Homo floresiensis from his point of view. The Ling Bua cave and the diminutive LB1, a woman who apparently died only 18,000 years ago [a date since moved back to at least 60,000], is a fascinating tale of intuition, research, scientific and academic rivalry, and grinding hard work. In 2003, the team is elated to find the lower jaw of a “child” – and dumbfounded when they see worn adult teeth.

The archaeology and paleontology involved is described thoroughly and understandably.  Morwood explains why this area was interesting, geographically and geologically, as a place to look for the first Asians to island-hop to Australia.  He also takes us through the customs and cultures of this vast archipelago, from a ritual contest using bullwhips to minibuses that vie to be the loudest means of transportation on Earth. 

Morwoord’s team's claim of a new human species, one that looks like none other and challenges not just our history but what it means to be human, sets off an international carnival.  LB1’s brain size was mid-range for a chimpanzee. It wasn’t possible for primates with 380 cc of grey matter [one later paper says 417] to build fires, make stone tools, and undertake cooperative hunting of large animals – except they did. An apparent example of “island dwarfing,” which once gave the world pony-sized elephants, apparently reshaped a species more closely related to its African ancestor than to the only known early hominid of Indonesia, Homo erectus.     

One of the interesting post-discovery episodes here is the path to publication. It can take months to run the peer-review gauntlet and well over a year to publish in a journal like Nature. But as whispers curl around the edges of their closely-held story, threatening to ignite it and let someone else name the species first, Morwood and the editors at Nature do things on an unprecedented schedule, ramming the paper through peer review in three weeks and publishing it in October 2004, seven months from the time Morwood first approached them.  (Morwood’s team considers the species name hobbitus, chortling about academic conferences discussing hobbits, but is eventually dissuaded.)

LB1 (there were bits of 12-13 individuals found, but LB1 had the only cranium, and there was only one other lower jaw) lived a hard life, but nothing could have prepared her for this.  Unconvinced scientists describe her as a Homo sapiens with microcephaly or one of three other suggested maladies.  As nationalist and academic feelings clash, bones are taken without authorization for dating; an Indonesian institute lets underskilled preparers take latex molds, damaging the priceless bones; Morwood’s US-British-Australian-Indonesian team is accused of “neocolonial” fossil-hunting; and Moorwood hears intriguing tales of the Ebu Gogo, the little people who supposedly inhabit Flores to this day. 

By the end of the book, the reader will, along with Morwood, experience relief when the species is established and the intellectual arguments won, even though the bones remain contested and locked away.  Morwood died of cancer in 2013, having seen his species widely accepted after much controversy.  The search for more “hobbits” goes on.

(There is also an updated edition of this book, which came out in 2009.)

Musings: At a cryptozoology conference, biologist/TV host Pat Spain told us Morwood had evidence the species survived into the 1920s. Morwood’s papers are still locked up in Indonesia, science held hostage to disputes about ownership and jurisdiction.  This is a well-told tale of an epic discovery, and readers will learn about much more than just a skeleton.

Other sources:

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

A Cryptozoologist's Library


I’m doing a project I call “A Cryptozoologist’s Library” (ACL).  The idea was to pull all my book reviews over the last 30 years and collect and publish those I think taught me the most about cryptozoology, It has, of course, gotten more complicated, but I should say what I’m NOT trying to do is establish a best-books canon.  Doing that right could take a couple of years.  Getting something people can use in 2020 means they’re getting the view of someone who’s been reading the topic for 45 years.  My intent is to put out a low-cost e-book anyone interested in cryptozoology can afford.

Why just books? Books are important in any field, but they have a special importance in cryptozoology. Magazines, newspapers, letters, etc. are ephemeral, and despite the huge efforts made by people like Loren Coleman, much is lost to us. Books have survived. They’ve been written and carried all over the world.  One other proven means of sharing information is scientific journals, but cryptozoological work is rarely submitted and very rarely passes muster, while cryptozoological journals have struggled.  So books are the backbone of cryptozoology’s body of shared knowledge. Many of the books in ACL are available as e-books, but I’m a traditionalist, and every book here is available (new or used) as a physical book I’ve had in my possession.

My focus is physical, scientific cryptozoology. I don’t discount parapsychological phenomena out of hand, but this is my project and to me, “If it’s not zoology, it’s not cryptozoology.”  If cryptozoology is ever going to prove the existence of mystery animals in a way that gets them (the animals) proper protection and adds to human knowledge, it has to be by scientific methods and results.  

Having said that, what is cryptozoology?  

Having read many definitions, this is mine.

Cryptozoology is a scientific endeavor that uses the methods of zoology (investigation, archival research, talking to indigenous/local people about animals, etc.) to search for new and presumed-extinct animals, but broadens the aperture to consider cases where the evidence has not been strong enough, or the circumstances (habitat, etc.) favorable enough, to draw significant attention from most zoologists.

The draft of ACL has already climbed past 220 entries.  To keep it from getting out of hand, I’ve set a limit of 200, and I think it will look like this: 130 books about, or mainly about, cryptozoology, 35 books from my related science reading (paleontology, zoology, etc.), 20-25 novels, and 10 slots for oddities. I include novels because they, too, have special importance in cryptozoology. Not only can good novels get people thinking about the unknown creatures of the world, they provide a means for scientifically-minded authors to work out the details of how, say, Ogopogo might eat, reproduce, stay hidden, etc.  (That rules out the horror novelists who go straight to the teeth and claws, however fun they may be.)

The numbers mean some books already reviewed will be deleted. I have orders out for only about four more that might be added.  Thanks to everyone for the recommendations of all sorts.  I’m mentioning this project publicly so I have to follow through: I’m bad about that.  There may also be a book sale when I’m done, as I’ve read a lot more books than I can shelve.  

As I said, it’s not a canonical list (that would be a huge project that would require some level of return, while the ACL book is planned to be affordable).  

Despite starting this as a low-input endeavor to suggest books I’ve found valuable; it’s grown a little more complex.  To wit:

1.                  I have to decide where to draw a draw a fuzzy line about how much paranormal content rules out a book that provides worthwhile information on physical cryptozoology.  For example, Healey and Cropper’s Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia has one chapter on apparitions, but the rest is good: it definitely qualifies.   

2.                  Where do some books go? A book on the Tasmanian tiger would normally fall in Science, but as cryptozoologists still seek it, I put a couple that seemed to fit in the cryptozoology section.

3.                  The Science section is the only one where I thought, “I should have one book on A and at least one on B.”  Since there are 30-35 slots, I’ve focused on books that seem useful to cryptozoological pursuits, meaning vertebrates get most of the space (the cephalopods being an exception).   Books won’t make anyone a field expert, and I’m not one myself, so the focus here is on foundational science vs. how to build a sasquatch trap or take witness statements.  Examples making the cut so far include: A New Human, by Morwood and van Oosterzee; Evolution, by Carl Zimmer; The Lost Species, by Christopher Kemp; and World Ocean Census, by Crist, et. al.)  

So, I’m progressing.  I’m pondering looking for someone who already understands e-books to work with: it will take a little longer if I actually have to learn a business, I should have learned a decade ago.


Monday, September 07, 2020

Review: The Lost Species by Christopher Kemp

The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums

 Christopher Kemp (2017, University of Chicago, 250pp.)

 Early in this fascinating book, Kemp writes that “Taxonomists and biologists describe about eighteen thousand new species each year.”  He mentions later that over 1,000 species were named from New Guinea in a decade.

Many of these (most, for some orders) are discovered in museum collections, not in the field.  As Kemp shows, those aren’t just obscure frogs or small invertebrates. Stories of museum discoveries (some supplemented by fieldwork once the specimens were uncovered), include all types. For mammals, we have the impossibly cute olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a raccoon relative from Columbia and Ecuador), the little black tapir, the Arfak pygmy bandicoot, and then you get to the non-mammals like frogs, turtles, tarantulas, etc. It gets crazy when you get to the beetles: collections in American institutions alone include approximately one billion specimens, with thousands of species yet to be described.

Kemp opens this superb book with an explanation of why fleshing out the taxonomy of museum specimens is so important.  Whether a frog lives on both sides of a river or the frogs on the other side have developed into a new species provides a great deal of information on speciation, the environment, and steps for conservation biology.

In the case of the little black tapir, a student in a Brazilian institution came to her supervising scientist with a tapir skull, telling him this one looked different from its drawer-mates. It was. It was eventually matched to a tapir skull Theodore Roosevelt (who also noticed it was odd) had collected in 1903, and then to research in the wild to study live specimens,  The American Museum of Natural History has 250,000 specimens of just one mammalian order (Chiroptera, the bats) and no one knows how many species that might add to the 1,300 now described. There is a trading network humming all the time between institutions, where photos, 3D images, CAT scans, specimens themselves, and facts and opinions about them go back and forth.

This is arduous work. Many specimens, especially older ones, may have been mislabeled in the field, or mislabeled when they arrive, or simply left to look at later: decades or centuries may lapse. The care and inventory of collections is underfunded and some specimens are literally piled up, Biologist Laura Marsh set out to revise the saki monkeys (genus Pithecia) after some peculiar sightings in the field. She went to 36 museums in 17 countries to study 876 skins and 690 skulls. One stop was the Zoologische Staatssammlung in Munich, where a curator pointed to a pile of monkey skins six feet high and told her to look through it - and these included type specimens. (March ended up revising the whole genus, adding five new specimens and reviving three disputed or synonymized ones.)

Then there’s expertise. In particular, there are not nearly enough people who can differentiate insects.  Kemp visits two scientists who had\ve developed, through decades of work, an almost mystical ability to recognize new or different species from thousands of specimens. They can’t really explain how they do it, although one is helping develop a computer program to help automate the process.

 Kemp devotes one chapter to fossils (countless dinosaur bones are still in their plaster jackets, and no one knows if they’re labeled correctly, when they are labeled at all).   Another chapter shows us it’s not always the specimen itself that is the discovery. A shell collected in Indonesia around 1894 was next examined in 2007 by a scientist who found an artificial pattern of scratches on it: it is 500,000 years old and the first evidence of pre-humans making art.

Kemp makes an important point about indigenous reports. Cultures dependent on hunting know their local animals well, but they don't categorize them the same way a scientist would. Their categorization is based on practicality.  A hunter in Brazil may differentiate two monkeys and give them different names based on the best times and places to hunt them.  It's no matter to him whether they are separate species or differing populations of the same species. Kemp reports that leads to what is, to taxonomists, overcategorization. If our hunter has six names for local monkeys, a visiting scientist may assume he's talking about six species, when he could be talking about one, two, three, or even seven or eight.  .  

A few more tidbits: American zoologist Kristofer Helgen, who found the holotype olinguito skull in a Field Museum collection, was part of the team that named the skywalker gibbon (Hoolock tianxing) in 2017 from a holotype collected by Roy Chapman Andrews in 1913. A paleontologist at the British Geological Society opened an old cabinet in 2011 and found specimens on glass slides never inspected in the 160 years since Charles Darwin collected them. Collections thus hold not only specimens, but much of the history of the biological sciences. Old specimens are often where cryptic species are spotted or confirmed, as when one giraffe species was split into four. 

Kemp closes with another explanation of the importance of preserving and studying these collections in a time when we are losing species rapidly. The patterns of collection (in location and time) matter, too. Collections can identify what the historic range of a species was and how it’s changed. Species most affected by climate change can indicate when conditions in their habitat changed.  Finally, patterns can tell us of extinctions.

Last note on content: Helgen also says he knows of 50 mammals in collections that haven’t been described yet.

This is an important and accessible book: Kemp’s writing and his explanations are good enough that I never once had to stop and look up a term.  There are thorough endnotes.  I was puzzled by the absence in his examples of the famous giant gecko (Hoplodactylus delcourti) discovery, and I wanted many more illustrations. Overall, though, I loved this book. 

Finding species by looking at old specimens with labels like “Argentina, 1900” isn’t as exciting as tramping through Queensland looking for reported marsupial tigers, but sometimes it’s where the action is.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

How Big Did Megalodon Get?

 The Meg, star of page and screen, is everybody's favorite extinct shark because it simply dwarfs every other predatory shark that ever lived. So how big was it? Estimates of about 14 meters (m) all the way to 18m and larger have been made, with it getting larger in fiction: Steve Alten's Meg is a sardine compared to the 200-foot (!) shark in a novel by Charles Wilson called Extinct

The most thorough analysis done to date on Otodus megalodon (formerly Carcharodon megalodon) is now out.  Scientists Jack Cooper, Catalina Pimiento, Humberto Ferron, and Michael Benton went beyond earlier reconstructions based mainly on teeth and scaling up the Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) and folded in analysis of  "extant macropredatory lamniforms," the order that includes the mako shark.  The lamniforms are the closest living relatives to Meg: the great white is a more distant cousin.  This analysis allowed them to get a sense of the body proportions common to such fish.  

They came out with a max length of about 16m (52.5 feet). Other dimensions: "Our results suggest that a 16 m †O. megalodon likely had a head ~ 4.65 m long, a dorsal fin ~ 1.62 m tall and a tail ~ 3.85 m high." (The great white, easily the biggest predatory shark of today, tops out arouind 6.5 m for proven specimens, with possibly 7 m for an extreme outlier.) 

It's not the mosnter we saw in the recent film, but it will do!

(Image: Smithsonian)