Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book Review: Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, 1965

 An old book to review, but worth it!

Sea Fishes of Southern Africa

Prof. J.L.B. Smith (1965 edition, text 1953(?), South Africa Central News Agency, 580pp.)

This is a 5th edition, dated 1965 but almost unchanged in the text from earlier editions.  The first edition in 1949 is a landmark in that it was not only the most comprehensive reference on the topic but included Smith’s discovery, the coelacanth, as a species.  The text here was written after only the second specimen (20 December 1952) had been obtained, and when Smith considered the Comoros coelacanth a different species than the example from South Africa. Since the third specimen (24 September 1953) is not mentioned, that dates the text to between those events.

Looking back at this from 2020, it’s still very much a book worth having.  I’m still looking for an earlier edition, but it’s been reissued enough that you can find used copies. 

First there is the sheer mass of data. Smith counts 1,325 species known from seas off the southern half of Africa.  With help from his with his scientific assistant / wife / artist Margaret (who did about half of the 1,320 illustrations) he catalogued fishes by classification and added notes such as range, preferred environment, rarity, edibility, and so on: the number of details written into this book is hard to visualize. Two Appendices add some species not covered in the first edition.  Despite the age of the book, Smith’s explanations of such things as fish classification, anatomy, the environmental effects of fishing, even how to preserve a specimen are all good and not too technical for us amateurs. Side note: there is a dual biography called The Fishy Smiths.

On to some major entries. The big one, of course, is the coelacanth. Smith explains why it was surprising and why it was important, and noted his division into two species might not be clear-cut, as the Comoros specimen was damaged and the fins may not reflect their appearance in life. [All coelacanths on the African side of the Indian Ocean are now one species, with the second being from Indonesia.] 

One of the most famous fishes of South Africa is the great white shark. This entry is really interesting. At the time Smith wrote, Otodus megalodon was not clearly distinguished from C. carcharias.    While Megalodon had been classified by Agassiz in 1843, ichthyologists of Smith’s time generally put it in the genus Carcharodon, and Smith apparently considered the two sharks conspecifics. He gives the maximum length of the great white shark as 40 (!) feet [a figure due to gross overestimates and possibly misidentified basking sharks].  He writes. ”Teeth 5 in. long have been dredged from the depths, indicating Sharks of 100 ft., with jaws at least 6 ft. across. These monsters may still live in deep water but it is better to believe them extinct.” He mentions they are claimed by sailors to develop a taste for human flesh, but adds, “This sounds rather speculative and one would prefer not to test it out.”  He notes, “Only one species in our area.” Which is also interesting, implying there were claims of other species at the time. 

On the thresher sharks, Smith writes, “This Shark is stated to take part with Killer-Whales in attacks on whales, but positive evidence is lacking.” Hammerhead sharks, we learn, were also known as mallet sharks. The length given for basking shark is only 25 feet, an underestimate: in many species, such as swordfish, Smith sticks to relatively conservative estimates and avoids wild claims (assuming he knew of them). The whale shark is estimated at 50 feet and probably more but is so are that he adds a request that any specimen be reported to a museum. Smith includes a lot of fish in this book, those known from one or a few specimens, for which he makes the same plea.

Things have changed since this was written – species found, species reclassified, species demoted, etc. Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, though, remains a classic that gives a baseline for modern ichthyologists to work from, and it’s just plain interesting for any aficionado to browse through.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

NASA grabs asteroid sample

It's still on the edge of science fiction - sending a robot to an asteroid to bring back a sample.  NASA has pulled it off.  I don't know how long it took to come up with the name Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), but it was worth it.  The spectacular, perfect touchdown-grab space feat will return samples of the asteroid Bennu to Earth, some 320 million kilometers away.  The spacecraft is staying on the asteroid until next March, when the optimal trajectory for a fuel-efficient return is available.  Go NASA!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

New Species Still Show Up

 We haven't exhausted the trove of species to classify and study. Not even close.  
This article points out some of the more spectacular recent finds and adds some information about where and how we find species. The author also wrote a very good book, The Species Seekers, which I've reviewed elsewhere.  The money line: "The number of species being found today “compares favorably with any time since the mid-1700s”—that is, since the beginning of scientific classification." 
New mammals get the most attention.  The count of mammal species might double over time, according to Smithsonian mammologist Kristofer Helgen. That's an authoritative source: Helgen has discovered 100 species himself! So keep looking.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

T. rex, King of the Auctioneers

Tryannosaurus Stan, one of the largest and best T. rex skeletons ever found, went to auctions this evening.  It was estimated to be worth $8 million, or (acocuonting for inflation) a couple million less than the famous Sue.  Stan looked down from his three-meter-plus height as the first bid came in at $3 million, followed by one bid after another, until the insane number of $31.8m was reached. Who the bidding firm represented is not yet known, but someone is about to create a great museum exhibit - or have a showpiece that SHOULD be in a museum. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sputnik, 63 years on.

 63 years ago, at a secret Soviet rocket base, Sputnik 1 rose into the night and changed the world forever. Read what Dr. James Van Allen himself called the "definitive account" of two nations reaching for Valhalla. Erika Maurer and I spent two years bringing the story to life, and we'll always be proud of it.


P.S. OK, we made a mistake about a Viking sounding rocket launch taking part of the test stand up with it. We're sorry. Must have sniffed too much oxidizer.