Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Changing Words for Birds

There's a growing movement in the United States focused on changing things likeplace names that have, or are connected to, racist or sexist themes.  These include institutional names like Fort Bragg (why would the Army name a post for Confederate General Braxton Bragg in the first place? Have they READ the guy's combat record?) and localities like Coon Lake in Washington state, now Howard Lake.

Things are moving slower, with more debate, in areas like the names of animals. Concerning birds especially, there's been some movement pushed by several scientific and volunteer bodies to change  some comon names. McCown's longspur has been renamed because McCown was an ornithologist but also a Confederate general. (Photo below bythe Smithsonian.)

Hammond's flycatcher will go soon: Hammond was a Surgeon General who late in the 1800s was still writing that "Indians and Negroes" were subhuman. Scott's oriole, named for General Winfield Scott, despised by Native Americans for directing the forced relocation called the Trail of Tears, may go next. Ornithologists are arguing over the iconic Audubon, a scientific giant who, among other highly offensive actions, once traded slaves. There's a practical reason to not change all the challenged names abruptly: they're how birders and everyone else outside ornithology distinguish birds.   Changes require education and updating of much documentation. 

Some non-bird terms like "squawfish" and "gypsy moth" are also officially out, and oceanographer Kim Martini launched an effort in 2019 urging scientists and media to stop using "Bobbit worm" for a polychaete also known as the sand striker. The overall movement to rename species has been slow, though, because neither governments nor scientific bodies have agreed on what guidelines to apply. It's not just an American problem: in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and New Caledonia, the presence of dozens of indigenous languages makes it a huge challenge to even identify the "local" names. so almost all of the names applied by Western scientists are still in place in scientific and general literature.

A topic that has been raised, if rarely so far, is changing binomial scientific names like Rhynchophanes mccownii. Binomials are supposed to be fixed, forever, for scientific precision. They allow, say, a scientist in Tahiti in 2021 to know exactly what species was meant by an English naturalist in 1780. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) doesn't even have a process for this. Scientists have stopped using names the ICZN has deemed inaccurate (e.g., Linnaeus' Homo ferus, or wild man) or which are no longer valid because the species has been reclassified, but there are procedures for that.

It's easier with modern discoveries: Western scientists have begun asking indigenous people for names (as with the amphibian Tiktaalik rosae, where the genus was suggested by Inuit elders in Nunavut [it's an Inuktitut word for a local fish English-speakers call burbot]), and of course scientists in Africa, Asia, and South America have long been working local names into the binomials.

There's a lot to work out.

Don't forget: now available in all formats! 


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Max Salas's Beautiful Dunk Sculpture

I finally got my hands on a Max Salas Dunkleosteus terrelli sculpture, one of the specimens I’ve always wanted.  This limited-production resin kit may not be the most accurate Dunk representation, but it is certainly a memorable one. I don’t know who assembled and painted this example. The kit is out of production.

Salas made some interesting conjectures about that the Dunk looked like.  The relatively slim, vertically arched body, combined with a prominent forehead and low dorsal, made me think of a cetacean, somewhat similar to an elongated dwarf sperm whale.

Granted, there are Dunk details we don’t know, and there were more when this sculpture was made (mine is dated 2008). Still, there are some questionable choices concerning the anatomy. The fins look reasonable, although I personally suspect the dorsal was bigger. The small second dorsal fin is a conjecture. No other Dunk reconstruction I can find has it, and neither do any other placoderms, including those like Cocosteus cuspidatus and Titanichthys agassizi used to support conjectures about the Dunk's body. The eel-like tail used on the model was once a common idea but today is losing favor compared to a more shark-like tail. There are no lips, a feature still debated although the pro-lip view is gaining ground and makes more sense to me for streamlining.  

Now, for the artistic side: it’s beautiful. The stock kit photo (first photo below) has the armor solid-colored, and the whole animal, with its complex pattern, is gorgeous.  On my copy, it looks like the owner went for an easier approach, so the armor is blended in. The sculpt conveys life and motion in a way so many others (including more technically accurate ones) often fail to do. This thing LOOKS like it’s hunting you down, and you won’t have a prayer…

Matt Bille
Twitter: MattWriter
NEW BOOK: https://www.amazon.com/Books-Beasts-Cryptozoologists-Library/dp/1955471274

Saturday, December 18, 2021

New Species and Of Books and Beasts update

 I enjoy posting on new species, and this paper bearing news from the tropical island of Sulawesi is an interesting one. Scientists surveying the shrews of this very large (174,600 square km) island collected over 1,300 specimens of shrews. When the hard work of taxonomy started, it took years to sort them out.  There were 21 species, an astonishing 14 of them new. The resulting paper named more species than any single paper in the last 90 years. Most people consider shrews unimportant at best and annoying at worst, and they (the shrews) committed the serious offense of "starring" in one of the worst monster movies ever made.  

Meanwhile, Of Books and Beasts is getting some very good feedback (not all posted on Amazon reviews yet, but trust me) and is now on Amazon and B&N as well as being available from the 
publisher. Please buy, enjoy, and review!.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

And here it is! Of Books and Beasts

 I waited a bit on posting this until the book was widely available. Notw it's on B&N and Amazon,and in the formats for their e-readers, andit's time to celebrate!  


The first-ever guide to the books of cryptozoology, related sciences, and fiction.  Enjoy! Give feedback! Post reviews! (please) Hangar 1 Publishing did a great job, and I'm proud of it.  


Friday, November 26, 2021

Book Review: The Brilliant Abyss

The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It

Helen Scales (2021: Atlantic Monthly Press, 288pp.)

Scales, a marine biologist and a very busy nature writer, spends the opening chapters of this excellent book explaining the geology and topography of the underwater world. She presents the vertical journey by dropping a marble from a ship and describing the changes of light and life until it hits the bottom of a deep trench six hours later. She highlights a three-year study that photographed 347,000 animals in the Pacific, only one-fifth of which were assignable to known species and genera. She mentions the origins and legends of the abyss (from abyssus, “bottomless pit” in Latin) and its monsters. 

The book goes on to describe the history of seafloor exploration from sampling lines through modern robots and submersibles. Then the author takes us to the seas, where she describes being on a research cruise where sperm whales breach around the ship while the scientists haul up samples from over 2,000 m (6,560 feet) down. She spends a chapter on introducing the sperm whale and its marvelous adaptations, how humans have studied it, and the bizarre bone-eating zombie worms that gather on sunken whale skeletons. On the same voyage, scientists dropped dead alligators to the seafloor and watched how the predators moved in.

We learn about Ernst Haeckel, whose 19th-century work on jellyfishes formed the basis of modern efforts to study the bewildering variety of undersea invertebrates. Scales includes the discovery of a whole new ecosystem, the geothermal vent community. The total of species living in vent communities worldwide is over 700 and climbing. The book includes other discoveries, like octopus nurseries and the Mariana snailfish (documented living 26,500 feet [8,080m] down). 

Next, Scales considers what the oceans mean to us and what we’re doing to them. She explains the function of the oceans in sequestering carbon, the role of photosynthetic algae in generating oxygen, the pharmacological value of marine life, and other benefits. Then she explores the threats: overfishing (notably the rise and fall of the orange roughy population), the destructive trawling of seamount ecosystems, the rise in twilight-zone fishing, and pollution by everything from microplastics to nerve agents, and seabed mining. She argues the deep sea needs to be protected completely by something akin to the International Antarctic Treaty.

It’s a book with a lot of science on fascinating animals, plus thought-provoking arguments and even a couple of cryptozoological lines. “When Yeti crabs were discovered, it would have been poetic if they were found to eat marine snow.” (They don’t.) She writes that plesiosaurs were “extinct oceangoing reptiles that looked like Loch Ness monsters” instead of the other way around. I liked that.  The copious source notes top off the book, serving as an excellent resource.

Matt Bille

website: www.mattbille.com

Twitter: MattWriter

Author, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, due out December 1 from Hangar 1 Publishing 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Cyptids and Comic Books: A Wild Bunch

 I came across this site today. It collects 152 appearances of cryptids in printed comics, and I wish I could read them all.  They range from specialized cryptozoology comics like Monster Hunters to mainstream comics like Hulk and the obvious ones like Scooby-Doo.  Tintin, the Powerpuff Girls, and Bart Simpson have all met cryptids. The specialized cryptid-focused comics are, I think, all gone at the moment. My favorite cryptozoology comic was Cryptid, which lasted one issue.  I still hope someone restarts it.  

Good as it is, this collection could be bigger. Jonny Quest, Tarzan, the X-Files, Batman, Superman, and many other comics feature heroes encountering cryptids. Marvel's Sasquatch character pops up many times and was on the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, although he never got his own book.  (Marvel's Sasquatch and the one Batman meets [see image below] look almost identical, yet very little like any reported Sasquatch.  Black Panther and the X-Men (some of whom arguably are cryptids) met the yeti. Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner must be sick and tired of meeting sea monsters all the time. There also were horror/science fiction comics like Challengers of the Unknown.

Among comics that are less known today, there was an independent comic ("independent" usually meaning not DC, Marvel or maybe Dark Horse) called Teddy and the Yeti. Champion of the Pines was a ten-issue indie comic featuring the Jersey Devil. There was Gold Key's run of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the indie The Battle of the Sea Titans, a project that produced a gorgeous 20-page preview and was never seen again. The comic book version of Beany and Cecil featured the world's nicest sea serpent, A special hat tip to comic artist Steve Bisssette, who offered free Swamp Thing art to support cyrptozoologist Loren Coleman a few years ago when Loren had surgery. (I'm sorry I overlooked it at the time.)  

The team in Sea Devils (35 issues in the 1960s, and revived a few times between then and 2009) met sea monsters a lot (indeed, I'm not sure they had any other plots), and numerous war comics had someone meeting a monster, usually on a Pacific island.  Donald Duck met Nessie, and Dark Horse ran a 2012-2013 four-issue series of the uniquely titled Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities and the Orm of Loch Ness. I'm going to find that one for myself.

I'm sure I'm missing a couple of hundred more examples, but much of the fun with comic books is digging up overlooked or forgotten gems. Keep looking!


Cover art copyright belongs to the respective comics. Shown here as educational illustrations, not for profit: they will be removed if I'm notified of an objection.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

New Species Keep Coming

 The parade of new species shows no signs of ending. 

Many people miss this because popular media covers only discoveries that are spectacular, extremely cute, or extremely scary.  A sizable new shark will turn up on the news services, as will a cute monkey and the occasional colorful bird, but the only sure things is a large land mammal, and those have been limited to reclassifications. Some of these do make the news: the Sundaland clouded leopard, split off from tits Bornean cousin in 2007, drew some attention. I almost forgot the beaked whales, which offer something new every few years - indeed, I wonder when they will STOP showing up. A new species drifted onto an island off Alaska in 2016 (as is not uncommon, it turned out there were some museum specimens) and scientists are actively searching for a beaked whale videotaped by a Sea Shepherd expedition in 2020.  But when is the last time you saw a story about a new mouse? Or lizard? Or frog? Or fish?

Rice's Whale (Balaenoptera ricei Image NOAA

There's a nice sampler in this article on Discover.com from June 15. Writer Brianna Barbu listed seven finds from the first half of the year (there were many more).  Among them are the Emperor Dumbo Octopus, with its ear-like fins, from 1,300 meters beneath the Pacific: the biggest species of the year, Rice's whale from the Gulf of Mexico, split off from Bryde's whale: and a deadly Chinese snake decked in handsome black and white scales, Suzhen’s krait.  Discovery rates for most classes of animals, including vertebrate animals, are still going up.  It's still a big planet. 

Countdown to Of Books and Beasts

 Only ten days now!  

Links published soon!

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Welcome a colorful bird

Five decades ago, Dr. Ernst Mayr wrote that we'd found almost all the birds.  The great evolutionary biologist (1904-2005) was happy to learn he'd been wrong, and new birds are still showing up. This spectacular yellow tanager is the newest example. The range of the Inti tanager (Heliothraupis oneilli) is within the Yungas bioregion, which straddles Peru and Bolivia.   The bird, first spotted in 2000 but languishing scientifically in the absence of a specimen, was unique enough to justify creating a new genus. 

In most bird species, the males are more spectacular, but what does that mean when both sexes are already eye-grabbing? Here the male does its best to show off by adding a black head stripe and a modest crest. 

Photograph Louisiana State University: Nonprofit/educational fair use claimed 

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents


This is one of the foundational works of cryptozoology, published in English in 1968. How does it hold up?

In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents 

Heuvelmans, Bernard (1968: Hill & Wang, 645pp.)

In this massive volume, Heuvelmans laid the foundation of marine cryptozoology, as he did for land cryptids in On the Track of Unknown Animals. It wasn’t the first good book on the subject, but was the most comprehensive, and remains so as I write this in 2021. After throwing out many reports as vague or mistaken, he identified 358 cases as offering good information. Heuvelmans provides a worthy starting point for all researchers of the topic. As one example of a case, he suggests the famous 1907 Valhalla sighting by two British naturalists involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water, and he might be right about that one. 

Heuvelmans concluded there were at least seven unknown species involved (five mammals, a reptile, and an eel): he includes two others here, a giant turtle and an anomaly called the yellow-belly, but omitted them in his later works. Understandably, Heuvelmans’ fellow zoologists found the idea of a whole zoo of huge unknown animals hard to swallow. It didn’t help that he went out on a limb with the science, suggesting the ancient whale Basilosaurus had armor and side-fins (highly speculative in 1965 and known to be incorrect now) and saying that “eels are powerful constrictors,” which they are not.

Alas, as with On the Track, no new species have been found that fit any of Heuvelmans’ types. His brief tour of mystery cetaceans notes a few sightings that may match now-identified types lie the tropical bottlenose whale, and this was my first introduction to Wilson’s whale, an Antarctic animal which remains a genuine mystery. He focuses on the unknown species, though, and any that exist are still undiscovered. Nevertheless, this book is a trove of information, gathering most of the known sightings going back centuries. Heuvelmans tries to match these to order and family, even though his proposed genus and species names are invalid without holotypes (physical type specimens used in the formal description of species). 

Subsequent cryptozoologists have proposed both more and fewer categories in their own views. One common approach has been to collapse his mammals down to one possible species, as I did in Shadows of Existence (Hancock House Publishers, 2006) and Rob Cornes and Gary Cunningham did in The Seal Serpent: the Search for a Long-necked Pinniped (Independently published, 2019). But In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents remains essential reading for those studying the unknown animals of the deep.

This review is from Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, coming soon from Hangar 1 Publishers.  

Matt Bille

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Fun with FanExpo

 Yesterday I dropped in on Denver FanExpo, formerly Denver Pop Culture Convention, formerly ComiCon. I said hi to other writers, handed out ads for the new book, met one other Harry Dresden, and won a LARP fight (staff vs sword, three touches to two, and the experienced guy half my age CLAIMED he didn't go easy on me.)  After a year of canceled meet-ups like this, it was good to renew the inner nerd!, 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Rare African Owl: First photo in wild ever!

This is really cool, Shelly's eagle-owl (Bubo shelleyi) (aka the dark eagle-owl) was described in 1872 from a single specimen and remained very hard to find. Twenty specimens were collected over 150 years, but photos of the live owl were nonexistent, save for those of a specimen held in the Antwerp Zoo in the 1970s. The IUCN estimated the population as low as 1,500 when the species was assessed in 2018.  In October 2021, two scientists took photos in Ghana that captured the barred, brownish owl's yellow bill, black eyes, and impressive size (up to 61 cm / 24 inches long). Congratulations!

The photos are not reproduced here for copyright reasons, but Johannes Gerardus Keulemans painted it in 1875.  

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

GONE: a haunting book on vanished species

 Gone: A Search for What Remains of The World's Extinct Creatures

Blencowe, Michael (2021: Leaping Hare Press, 192pp.)

What remains of a species after it has gone extinct? In this moving book, Blencowe introduces us to 11 extinct species. He offers a history of how each one became extinct and travels to see for himself what remains have been preserved. Most memorably, he goes to a Danish museum to look in the eyes – just the eyes, preserved in a jar – of the last two Great Auks ever to live.  (Their hearts are there, too, but the skins went to other museums.) In another museum (there’s a list and map in the backmatter), Blencowe looks at the head and foot that comprise the only soft tissue remains of the dodo. 

Most of the extinctions are famous ones, like the dodo and Steller’s sea cow, but at the end he adds Ivell’s sea anemone, an almost-transparent invertebrate only 20mm long.  It lived on one English lagoon, where Blencowe searched for it on a child’s inflatable alligator. (Field work is not always dignified.)  

Blencowe spares no words in describing exactly what humans did to make each species vanish. Sometimes it was development (California’s Xerxes blue butterfly, killed off when the plant necessary to its diet was bulldozed), sometimes thoughtless overhunting (surely no sailor harpooning a sea cow thought they were limitless, but he faced hunger right now), and sometimes just not caring (releasing goats on Pinta Island – handy for visiting sailors but death to the island’s tortoises. 

Some of these cases are understandable because of the eras in which they happened, but understanding why sailors valued a permanent food supply over tortoises doesn’t make Blencowe’s visit to Lonesome George’s grave any less poignant.

Blencowe drives home, not in speeches but in with poignant words, that every one of these species is a warning because they didn’t have to be extinct, and the ruins of their once-vibrant bodies should remind us we can allow no more. Get the hardcover edition for more wonderful illustrations by Jade They.


Twitter: MattWriter

Friday, October 01, 2021

Meet you at MileHiCon

Writer friends: I'll be at MileHiCon, the conference for lovers of literary science fiction, in Denver this weekend to appear on two panels: Saturday at 4 is "The Year in Science News," and Sunday at 10 is "Why we Love Dinosaurs." Hope to see as many of you as possible there. I will, of course, be pressing postcard ads for my new book (out December 1!) on everyone who will take one. https://milehicon.org/


Twitter: MattWriter

email: MattBille@gmail.com

Thursday, September 30, 2021

23 Species Including Ivory-Bill Declared Extinct

Exactly one day after I wrote a post holding out some hope for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the US government has spoken: there isn't any.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared 23 species of fish and birds are gone.  

The ivory-bill, of course, is the star example.  Should it be declared extinct? The last officially confirmed sighting was in 1944, but sightings, bark damage characteristic of the ivory-bill, and recordings of the tin-horn "kent" call have sparked numerous searches and a slender thread of hope.  

There's another consideration, one I hadn't thought of. A Cornell University bird biologist named John Fitzpatrick thinks so.  As quoted on ecowatch.com and other media, he said, "Little is gained and much is lost," by such a declaration. "A bird this iconic, and this representative of the major old-growth forests of the southeast, keeping it on the list of endangered species keeps attention on it, keeps states thinking about managing habitat on the off chance it still exists."

Maybe an off-chance is all we can ask.

One of the last known ivory-bill photos from the wild, taken in Louisiana in the 1930s (out of copyright) 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Any hope for the ivory-billed woodpecker?

 Is there hope? A little bit. Maybe an extremely little bit. But for myself, I haven't quite closed the file. 

Audubon published this article on sightings and unfortunately long-range video tapes. Michael Collins (not the late astronaut) has spent many years in pursuit of the bird and thinks he's nabbed it, but his evidence so far, including sound recordings, hasn't been enough.


Artist unknown, Marked free for use on Wikipedia Commons

I know of two sightings not recorded officially, although neither is in the post-rediscovery-post-extinct-again era.  One was by an ex-forest ranger in the 80s in Arkansas that unfortunately did not impress the ranger she talked to. The other is haunting. I once met a woman named Ruth Laws, or Lowes, by chance in a museum in Denver. She'd been 10 or 11, hiking with her dad in the Singer Tract in the early 50s. Her father shushed her and pointed to a "magnificent red, white, and black bird" sitting on a stump. Her dad whispered, "That is an ivory-billed woodpecker. Take a good look, because you'll never see one again." They watched it for a couple minutes before it left. I talked to a prominent ornithologist who asked for her contact information, but I didn't have it and couldn't find her again. 
Is it out there? The chance is tiny. But tiny isn't the same as zero.

Now there's a book arguing the case

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Taunting Extinction: Survival in the Modern Era by Guy G. Luneau  

The book is based largely on sighting in Louisiana.  

Is the bird out there? The chance is tiny. But tiny isn't the same as zero. 

Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library

 Coming Soon! Out on all platforms December 1. The date it's available for preorders has not yet been set by the publisher. Enjoy 380 reviews of books on zoology, cryptozoology, related sciences, and fiction. There's never been a book like this.  

Friday, September 24, 2021

21,000-year old footprints in the Americas!


I never liked the "Clovis first" hypothesis that placed the first people in the Americas only 10-12,000 years ago.  The populating of two huge continents with three million people, as well as the extinction of the megafauna, always seemed likely to take longer than that.  Remains found in Alaska dated to 11,500 years pushed the envelope a bit.   The dates kept creeping backwards, to 14,000, then 14,500 (Chile) and then to 16,000, but all those remined somewhat in dispute. 

This nails it.  Who came over land bridges and who came down the coast by raft or boat., and exactly when, may never be completely determined. The Pacific coast has receded and the ocean has advanced, destroying much evidence and putting some sites forever out of reach. But we know - and it looks like independent researchers are almost, although not entirely, on board here - that a group of humans lived in New Mexico at least 21,000 years ago, and maybe earlier. 

Vie as of 2015, published by UC Berkley, marked by Google Images as free for use

First Americans, published by UC Berkley in 2015, marked by Google Images as free for use 

It's a triumph for science.  And, for my friends in cryptozoology, it's the death knell to the belief held by a fringe group that "science" hides evidence that would contradict established theories and maybe make older scientists look bad.  The textbooks need some rewriting.  

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Congratulations to SpaceX and Inspiration4

I want to go to space. Always have, always will.  So the first mission to orbit with non-professional astronauts was really, really cool.  The apogee of 585 km (364 mi) was the fifth-highest altitude ever for a crewed orbital flight.  Inspiration4 raised funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, with St. Jude's Physician Assistant Hayley Arceneaux on board. After a reportedly perfect mission (except for a "minor waste management problem" - that doesn't sound like fun) that included research on space radiation at that unusual altitude, the crew splashed down Saturday evening off the Florida coast. Not many details or video clips have been released yet, but given that Elon Musk does space publicity like no one else, a lot more is forthcoming.  Congratulations to all!  

Yes, I still want to go.

SpaceX Crew Dragon at ISS docking. The Inspiration4 mission used a modified capsule with a panoramic window in place of the docking post. (photo NASA)

(no images included from this mission because all are copyright SpaceX: see the mission link above)

Also in space:

The memorable book by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward, Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew will get the documentary film treatment. The authors are partners in the production. No director or release date has been announced. 

Here's the review I wrote when the book came out.

Matt Bille

Website: www.mattbille.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MattWriter

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A bit of self-promotion: The Dolmen

Sometimes Amazon reviews of The Dolmen make my day. I set out wit this novel to create a new and plausible "monster," something readers could believe in and maybe even sympathize with. After reading a lot of folklore, I picked the korrigan. The word korrigan can refer to three different entities in European folklore, including a red-haired elf-like creatures, but I picked one that corresponded with some other legends such as kobolds. I've had some good comments indicating I made it plausible, so I'm happy with that. Link below to buy!

Friday, September 10, 2021

Cryptozoology Radio Show Appearance 9/13 8PM EST


I’ll be on Colin Schneider’s cryptozoology radio show on Monday the 13th at 8PM Eastern. I’ll be announcing the publisher and release dates for my new book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist’s Library, which reviews 380 books on cryptozoology, related sciences cryptozoologists should be familiar with, and fiction. We’ll also visit one of my favorite topics, the mysteries of whales. Join us! Links.
You may want to tune in a minute early, since it goes through the network’s web page. Chatroom opens 30 minutes before the show.
There will be an archive link for later listening.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Dunkleosteus Model: Gorgeous New One from PNSO


Review: PNSO Dunkleosteus

PSNO is a scientific art shop in China, and their new Dunk is certainly a work of art. This vinyl model, just over 25 cm (~10 inches), was created at approximately 1/24 scale (PNSO does not specify). It's wonderfully organic-looking: suspend it in a fish tank, and people who don’t know fish well may assume it’s one of the live inhabitants.  The head, in particular, is a terrific piece of work. The head tilts up while the lower jaw swings down, offering a more realistic simulation of the Dunk’s feeding mechanism than any other model.

The paint job is lovely and believable. The subtly textured skin, with larger wrinkles where they should be, is another feature making this look like a moving, living animal.  The surface texture is carried all over the model, with no skimping on the underside, and the armor, muscles, and other structures under the skin look realistic as well.

The fins are ok, given that we don’t know their exact shape or location on the living animal. I think the pectoral fins look just a few millimeters too far forward, but there are other models and illustrations showing them like this.  The pecs also have a plausible near-triangular look instead of the weird coelacanth-like shapes we see on some models. I think the sharklike tail is almost right, just a bit unbalanced. I would have made the upper lobe a little shorter vertically and the lower lobe slightly  larger and stouter.  EDIT: I've been informed by a paleontologist Christian Klug that fossils from Morocco show the dorsal fin starts right behind the pectoral girdle, so it SHOULD be further forward.  

A unique thing is that this model, being vinyl and sturdy and thus suitable as a toy as well as a collectible, has a backstory. Its name (the sex is not given) is Zaha. Zaha, the text tells us in first person, is about 6 m long and considers itself, justifiably, the invincible ruler of the seas. It wonders, though, why its friends (it's odd to imagine a Dunk with friends) are getting fewer.

This is a magnificent addition to the fleet of Dunks available today.  It may be my new favorite among all the vinyl models.

Book Review: The Last Unicorn

 The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures

deBuys, William (2015: Little, Brown and Company, 364pp.)

Anyone pondering trekking into the wild after a rare or reported animal will learn what it’s like in deBuys’ account of his travels in search of the saola. The saola or Vu Quang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) was discovered only in 1992.  With a small team led by conservation biologist William Robichaud, journalist deBuys sets off to survey the watershed of a river called Nam Nyang, a place no Westerner has ever seen.  The team wants to examine probable saola habitat, understand the health of the ecosystem, collect as much information as they can to support conservation, and remove the snares and traps of poachers when they can. The journey by boat and foot into central Laos includes an unending series of dangers, including unreliable companions, treacherous terrain, and unexploded bombs. Yet the author finds, and memorably chronicles, human friendship and natural beauty even in the most trying of circumstances.  

Elsewhere in this book, deBuys chronicles the discovery and confirmation of the saola and the other new mammals from Vietnam and Laos. He explains how little science knows about the needs, range, habits, and characteristics of wild-living saolas. Occasional kills or lucky captures, plus some camera-trap photos, are all science has to go on. 

The author also describes the precarious context, natural, economic, and political, in which the animal and its remaining habitat exist. The saola's already-tiny population appears to be shrinking.  Poachers don't target saolas, but snares are indisciminate, and legal and illegal resource extraction is nudging deeper into the remote and relatively undisturbed regions of the country.

One Laotian guide mentions the phi kong koy, a red-haired, humanlike primate known as nguoi rung in Vietnam. Everyone, it seems, believes in this animal, although deBuys meets no eyewitnesses.

The party ends its trip without seeing a saola, but accomplishes its other objectives, and one of the fortunate legacies is this gripping and informative book.   

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Book Review: Anthropology and Cryptozoology

 Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures

Hurn, Samantha (editor) (2016: Routledge, 263pp.)

This is a rare academic tome on cryptozoology and a very useful book indeed. There's a lot in here, most based on years of fieldwork, about how different cultures see cryptids and how cryptozoology interacts with anthropology and other fields of study. The authors take cryptozoology seriously, with some praising Bernard Heuvelmans for his work defining the field. There's some jargon ("…the processes of becoming that are co-created through ingestive relationships...") but most of it's accessible. Subjects include the hairy "bush dwarves" of Africa and the Zanzibar leopard (Authors Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman held out a slim hope for the "extinct" population two years before it was caught on videotape. They also recorded there were 21 names in Swahili for leopards or leopardlike animals in the area).  There's a very thorough dissection of a cat reported from the famed island of Flores, which includes notes on the enigmatic “little people,” the ebu gogo, and the fact local people showed scientists the Komodo dragon lived in areas where it had never been officially recorded. Also included are several broader discussions of cryptozoology and the zone between the physical and the mythical. Does cryptozoology include physical animals only (my view) or does it include those which are factual to certain cultures even though they'll never be caught?   Finally, it's superbly referenced.  

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Farewell, Scott Mardis

 My friend Scott Mardis has died. Scott was a cryptozoologist who might have been more dedicated to his investigations than anyone else I know. While he never convinced me his beloved Champ or other "lake monsters" existed, it never affected our friendly relationship or our discussions of cryptozoological lore. I appeared on his internet program The Haunted Sea and greatly enjoyed it. He came back to Lake Champlain year after year with new tools and new ideas. His enthusiasm was infectious and his determination unrivaled. He loved every day of his quest. Goodbye, Scott. I hope you have your answers now. If anyone ever does discover a lake cryptid, I hope they name it after you.

Here's a much more detailed obituary by Loren Coleman.