Friday, February 26, 2021

A Living Thylacine? Alas, No

 Well, there was a lot of hype, but in the end the much-heralded thylacine photos were not of the "Tasmanian tiger," but of a small kangaroo relative called a pademelon.  We talked about this last night on Untold Radio.  My best guess was we lost the thylacine around 1990.  I always hope I'm wrong about these things, but I'm not wrong often enough for my liking.  (OK, that sounds weird, but I hope it makes sense.)  By the way, did you know you could buy dog jackets that make Rover look like a thylacine? 

I do feel sorry for Neil Waters and his friends in the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia. They've put years into this search.  Take a look at the initial announcement. He's so enthused about it that the result has to be an enormous letdown for him. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Night on Untold Radio

 I had a great time chatting with Doug and Joel at Untold Radio.  My brain glitched a couple of times early on, but we had a good discussion of cryptozoology and books.  I even worked in Dunkleosteus. Thanks, guys! 

Episode 23 – Matt Bille – Author, Historian, and Science Writer – Untold Radio AM

Monday, February 15, 2021

New life discovered - past and present

First, the past. A coelacanth fossil discovered by accident turns out to be amazing.  The coelacanth may be five meters long, far larger than any prehistoric or modern coelacanth (1.5m is a normal adult specimen.)

Speaking of coelacanths, because the modern one looks very much like its ancestor (hence the rather problematic term "living fossil"), its genome has diverged quite a bit from prehistoric examples.  That doesn't make the modern one any less important, but it's very interesting. When the living animal's genome was sequenced in 2013, sceintists thoought it had changed very little.  

Modern coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae (Smithsonian)

As for newly discovered life, news from Antarctica startled pretty much everybody.  Life has pushed into all kinds of unlikely and hostile environments, but no one thought life, especially multicellular life, would turn up at the bottom of a 900-meter hole drilled through the Antarctice ice sheet.  The animals are presumably chemosynthetic, but the details have everyone puzzled, and will until samples are obtained.  Which, of course, is no easy task.  

"Life finds a way." - Dr. Ian Malcom

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Brooding over new Bryde's whale relative

A population of Bryde's whales (pronounced, approximately, Broodus) in the Gulf of Mexico has been determined to be a new species: amazing news. It has received the common name of Rice's whale and may be over 13m in length. 

NOAA's official account, based on a paper in Marine Mammal Science, reports Dr. Patricia Rosel was the key figure in identifying these whales as a new species. It was her examination of a skull, compared via hundreds of measurements to known Bryde's skulls, that provided the final proof of the new whale's uniqueness.  

This capped off more than a decade of work by Rosel and several other scientists.  It all began back in the 1990s with the first observations, by Dale Rice, of what was thought to be a population of Bryde's whales. This group was unusual in that its range appeared limited to the Gulf, which was odd given other populations of this whale (already split into two species, a pelagic and a coastal type) had much larger ranges.  Subsequent work included DNA studies as well as examining skull morphology.  (In one of those incongruities that pops up in the study of nature, the measured whale, the type specimen, is an oddball that wandered all the way up to North Carolina, where it died and drifted ashore.)

So now we have the species called, formally, Balaenoptera ricei.

Dr. Rosel examining the skeletal remains of the type specimen (NOAA)  

Rice's whale is the latest in an astonishing series of discoveries. It's common, and reasonable, to assume we know all the cetaceans. They are big, they must surface to breathe, and we've been "collecting" them for centuries.  

And yet we have ten new species in the current century.   

We know of 23 species of the reclusive, deep-diving cetaceans called the beaked whales. The "23" is still approximate with such hard-to-study animals - some species might eventually be collapsed together, or new ones named. As shown with Rice's whale, it can take a lot of time and work to establish definitively that two similar-looking species are indeed different.

In December 2012, three cetologists on a Sea Shepard Conservation Society described what they'd found on a research cruise off the west coast of Mexico.  They took clear, closeup video and film records of what appears to be a new beaked whale species.  Even more interesting, the scientists involved were there looking for a different whale whose unidentifiable "voice" had been picked up on hydrophones.  This new species does not match that, so who knows what else is down there? 

The last new beaked whale before that (reported at sea by Japanese fishermen but not scientifically identified) washed ashore in Alaska only in 2016. It was formally described in 2019  as Berardius minimus

Now the bad news for Rice's whale: there are perhaps 100 of them.  That's not too small a population to to sustain itself, but it makes the species very vulnerable.  Their habitat is troubled by the usual nemeses of whales: ship collisions, entangling fishing gear, and noise pollution that makes communication and thus family/pod cohesion difficult.  More details are in a good NPR article here.    

If we have, as it seems, three sizable whales announced in the last five years, that's a strong indication humans have not yet catalogued all these intelligent, social, and fascinating co-inhabitants of the Earth.

Hope for Mars

 It's traffic jam month on Mars.

"Hope," the first space probe built by the UAE entered Mars orbit today.  The journey of exploration goes on, and it's great every time a new participant succeeds.  In this case, it's especially interesting because the UAE program leaders didn't start by doing something relatively easier, like a lunar probe.  They went for broke to study a far more distant object, and the gamble paid off. You can find more details here.

The related news includes the first photograph of Mars by a Chinese probe, Tianwen-1, which was successfully inserted into Mars orbit. Next, coming up on February 18, we have the capper to this very busy month on and around the Red Planet.  At about 3:55 EST, the NASA rover Perseverance will touch down just north of the equator in Jezero Crater, formerly the site of a lake and a likely place to detect any signs of past microbial life.  

In the Apollo days, we thought human feet would touch Mars long before now. It's taking longer than we thought, but the robotic fingerprints of Earth ingenuity are all over Mars. Despite the previous orbiters and rovers, this is a big and complex world.  No one yet knows what we'll find as we keep going.  

Image: Perseverance detaching from the upper portion of the lander (NASA). This "skycrane" approach under power is necessary because parachutes can slow a probe only so much in the thin Martian air. Any human travelers will also have to land using rockets to slow the descent.

Endangered Species: A little good news today

From   "Researchers studying the impact of conservation actions since the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit say that at least 21 species of birds and seven mammals have been saved from extinction through direct human intervention."  

It's all much more complex than that, of course.  In the aftermath of a 1992 conservation conference called the Rio Earth Summit, which emphasized the need to prevent further loss of species, this story says human efforts have saved 21 birds and seven mammals from going extinct.  

There is much, much more to do. We are in the middle of what some scientists call the Sixth Great Extinction in Earth history. We lose documented species at a rate of about one a year, but we're also losing species of plants and animals before they can even be found and named. So every success is something to celebrate. 

Details here

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Book Review: Hope for Animals and Their World

 Hope forAnimals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink

Goodall, Jane, with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson (2009: Grand Central, 392pp.)

In this book, Goodall and her co-authors tell the stories of animals (and a few plants) which might well have become extinct, but survive thanks to human dedication and ingenuity. Some of the stories, like the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), are famous, and others obscure. I’d never read about one of the most fascinating episodes, the recovery of the black robin (Petroica traversi) whose survival came down to a captive breeding effort using the only fertile female left in the world.

Some of the stories include Goodall’s own travels around the world, where she saw such creatures as Pere David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus), Australia’s Rufous Hare-Wallaby (Lagorchestes hirsutus), and the Formosan Landlocked Salmon (Oncorhynchus masou formosanus). She also visits her beloved chimps: a photo of an infant named Flint reaching out to touch her hand will bring tears to eyes of many readers.

Some of the stories concern people who took great risks to save the last of a species. Finding Dryococelus australis, the Lord Howe Island stick insect (by an expedition sent to verify its extinction!) involved great hazards including a seemingly insane climb up a steep, rocky slope in the dark to spot the huge nocturnal insects. 

Goodall doesn’t neglect modern discoveries and rediscoveries of animals. Her chapter on the Lazarus species includes Zino’s petrel (Pterodroma madeira) on the island of Madeira, named for and watched over by three generations of the Zino family.  There’s also the Caspian horse, an ancient breed of small, gentle horses, saved by one determined woman who discovered this forgotten ancestor to the Arabian pulling carts in a remote Iranian village. She looks at resurrections like the coelacanths (genus Latimeria) and the Wollemi pine tree (Wollemia nobilis) (and if you don’t think a story about a tree can be exciting, read it).   The new finds include the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji), a large and unique monkey (it looks intermediate between a mangabey and a baboon) from Tanzania. Co-discoverer Dr. Trevor Jones said of the find, “…one of our team suddenly grabbed me and pointed to a monkey in a tree a hundred meters away. I grabbed my binoculars and nearly fell over. It was a surreal moment.”

Goodall has much to say about the broader topic of conservation.  She is sad but blunt about the fact that saving island species, in particular, can require using guns and poison to kill off imported cats and rats when trapping is impossible due to funds or animal numbers. She also discusses the ethics of collecting, the need for a whole-body specimen (she doubts it), the importance of indigenous participation, and the many ways people can support conservation in general or a particular species. 

Don’t just read this book. Treasure it.

“…there is yet this feeling of hope. There are surely plants and animals living in the remote places, beyond our current knowledge. There are discoveries to be made.” – Jane Goodall

Friday, February 05, 2021

Book Review: Peter the Great

 Peter the Great: His Life and World

by Robert Massie

Reviewed edition: Knopf Reprint, hardcover, 2009 (original 1981)

Even very good biographies of complex, influential people sometimes leave you thinking you've watched the person in action, but you haven't met them. In this book, you will meet Peter the Great.

Words like "complex" and "dynamic" might have been invented for him. He was a tireless reformer of Russia, pulling in technology and expertise from around the world. After reading this book, I wondered if any one ruler has ever done what Peter did: essentially raise a backward, insular, agricultural nation to a modern power in in one lifetime.

Peter never lost most of the harsh ways Russian royalty thought were natural. He was capable of great kindness to an individual human being but great cruelty to anyone who might be an enemy. He apparently never thought of the lives of the serfs, changing them only by allowing some people to move from the land to manufacturing: they remained serfs. Building his great capital city of St. Petersburg in swampy land under terrible conditions would cost thousands of lives, and he knew it. He was a very devout church-goer who had no problem watching prisoners broken on the wheel and never rebuked a general who killed 7,000 men, women, and children in razing a village the enemy might use.  

In other ways, though, Peter was atypical from youth.  He escaped the rituals of court by playing soldier, but he played it with uniforms and real weapons, testing tactics, learning to be an artilleryman, and building fortresses. When he unexpectedly became tsar, he was already better at the military arts than some of the generals in Russia's third-rate army, and he reshaped it along European lines. He was a proud Russian but had no problem importing officers and experts from other nations to teach the Russian forces and often command them.

Massie tells us as well of the astonishing range of skills and technology Peter mastered, and how he demanded that his nation master them, too. Building a navy from nothing required, as Peter saw it, personally learning all the trades that went into shipbuilding. It's amusing to read of the agreed-upon fiction that went into pretending the towering (6 feet, 7 inches), well-known Peter was an ordinary workman of the Dutch East India Company shipyard while someone appropriately dressed for a tsar handled protocol. Russian naval cadets followed in Peter's footsteps, and the navy he created was a powerful regional force with modern ships and highly competent crews. 

He went all over Europe learning about the latest scientific and technical advances and buying everything from art collections to clocks to cannons to ship home. He created the first academies to teach military skills to young Russians, and he created centers of learning in a nation that had almost none. He created a professional civil service in a government where corruption was open and blood ties were formerly all that mattered.

He was, always, a man of contradictions.  He philandered, but dearly loved his wife Catherine, and it was for her sake he suffered through official rituals and functions she loved and he endured. Friends and retainers sought his jovial company but feared his violent temper. He loved Orthodox services but attended Quaker meetings when abroad.  He suffered from seizures but nonetheless lived every day with seemingly boundless energy and appetites.  When he died, he left the country far, far different than he found it. With art that is almost magical, Massie succeeds in presenting us with a living, breathing man who contained multitudes.

Massie doesn't quote it, but what came to my mind at the end of Peter's story was Hamlet's line, "I shall not look upon his like again." This book is a monumental work of both history and biography.