Sunday, May 16, 2021

Nature's Never-ending Parade of New Species

 Ah, an update on my favorite subject: the discovery of new species.  
I just received an amazing book by David Brewer entitled Birds New to Science: 50 Years of Avian Discoveries (Helm, 2018). After quoting Ernst Mayr's prediction from the 1940s that there were probably under 100 bird species left to find, Brewer lists 288 for 1960-2018.  He then lists 50 "future species" well observed or photographs but not yet described.  So around 6 species per year. (They're not spaced out like that, of course.)  I'll do a full review on this book later. 
Meanwhile, on to sawsharks. Sawsharks are tropical-ocean denizens, up to 1.5m long, with snouts that look like a cross between a sawfish and a gharial (narrow-jawed crocodile) with a little catfish thrown in (it has whiskers).  We thought there was one species (Pliotrema warreni) of the type known as the six-gilled sawshark, but after 2020 we know there are at least three.  British scientists working with fishers in Zanzibar realized their sawsharks didn't look like the type they knew, and so Pliotrema annae was described. Meanwhile (ok, not strictly 'meanwhile," but you know what I mean), snouts collected in Madagascar were matched with specimens in museums in London and elsewhere, so science already had Pliotrema kajae on ice, as it were, and no one had made a close enough study to distinguish the species. The paper describing the new species is here.
Meanwhile, three species of luminescent sharks, one 1.8m long, were found in depths of 200-1,000 meters off a feature called the Chatham Rise off New Zealand in one expedition. 
To close out the fish stories for now, an international team led by Dr. Kim Andrews of the University of Idaho found in the Indo-West Pacific area a new snapper, a gorgeous pink-orange bottom dweller over 1m long. A link to the paper is here.
In mammals, there's news from the top and the bottom of the size scale here in 2021.  In the Caribbean, NOAA scientists separated Rice's whale as a species distinct from the similar Bryde's whale.  Indian scientists on a volcanic island called Narcondam found a new species of shrew.  
We haven't touched on the reptiles, amphibians, cephalopods, and so son, but there's plenty to look at in a future post.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: Monsters & Marine Mysteries

 Monsters & Marine Mysteries

Hawthorne, Max. (2021: Far From The Tree Press, 342pp.)

Hawthorne, champion sportfisherman and author of the Kronos Rising series about surviving prehistoric predators, here collects items from his blog and YouTube channel along with some new writings about sea monsters and other ocean-dwelling oddities.  

Hawthorne includes some personal encounters with the paranormal, but that’s not the focus of this review.  He also includes many stories about big fish and the sometimes-bigger ones that got away. I love these sorts of stories: when he reports fish bigger than the official records, there’s no reason to dismiss them.  It's doubtful we have the biggest one of anything. There are interesting stories of huge sharks, too.  He discusses and names four gigantic great whites he believes hang around specific locations.  As in his fiction, Hawthorne's descriptions of fishing and the ocean environment  are evocative.

Moving on to actual monsters, I have numerous disagreements. On the one flipper, he includes some interesting accounts, particularly of giant cephalopods, I didn’t know about.  On the other, he includes the U-28 hoax as fact. He is certain the 1969 Garry Liimatta video is proof of a giant, shell-less turtle he calls the Super Predator. I still see a blob, and identifying this rather brawny creature with the "lamp post" head/neck claimed in the 1962 McCleary case doesn't convince. Hawthorne is open to conventional explanations in some cases: his theory the 1918 Port Stephens monster shark was a light-colored whale shark, not a surviving Megalodon, is reasonable (assuming the case is not a hoax, as some cryptozoologists now believe).

Two chapters go to a monstrous mosasaur-like creature reported by a cruise ship sailor in 2014, a tale which illustrates a common problem in cryptozoology.  To the author, the case is buttressed by having several witnesses. However, we have only the single witness who claims the others existed: apparently none has ever written or spoken about the case. That’s not a multiple-witness sighting unless proof surfaces that it was. It doesn't help the witness took only one picture, never backed it up or sent it anywhere, and later lost his iphone  Hawthorne admits this bothers him.  As says on several cases like this, he's presenting what he has and "You be the judge." 

Hawthorne spends a lot of the book reconstructing predator attacks on whales and sharks. Some he attributes to enormous great whites, others to mosasaurs or the Super Predator. He goes through his reasoning about each case in detail, and some of the damage photographs are really startling. I do wonder how sure he is about the bite shapes when the targets were flexing, writhing animals at the moment of impact. His belief that giant squid get bigger than we’ve measured is reasonable: his interpretation of old sighting claims as enormous squid attacking adult whales and bludgeoning them with the long tentacles is much harder to believe. 

Hawthorne gives some sources in the footnotes, although of varying quality, and he gets points for interviewing witnesses extensively.  But there’s too much speculation here, and too much reliance on questionable incidents. A couple of allegations that evidence has been suppressed are strange, as he agrees that a motive eludes him. 

The book falls well short of convincing this reader there are sea monsters. But Hawthorne does tell great fish stories.  

Monday, May 10, 2021

Book review: Assured Destruction

Assured Destruction: Building the Ballistic Missile Culture of the U.S. Air Force   

by David Bath (2020: Naval Institute Press, 238pp.)    

DISCLAIMER: As with all my posts, these are solely the personal opinion of a freelance writer and do not represent the views or policies of any agency or company.

I spent four years in the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) culture involved here, so I was eager to read this when I saw it.  This is an academic study, so there’s a bit of dry reading in spots, but Bath has poured a wealth of information and insight into this book. This is the first book to analyze the missile culture from the beginning through the 1960s. It’s a short book as well, since the notes and index take up 87 pages. Despite that, and despite my being a missile officer and something of a historian myself, there’s plenty here I didn’t know.  

The section on building the first missiles and getting them into units is the most fascinating. There was no consensus in the 1950s about whether ICBMs would work or how long it would take to make them useful. The Air Force’s General Curtis LeMay, though not quite the irrational missile-hater of legend, was one of many officers who thought it folly to divert significant resources to what they saw as an unproven, inaccurate weapon that would never have the flexibility of airpower. (To be fair, it still doesn’t.) Despite sentiments like these, by mid-decade the nation was on course to deploy long-range ballistic missiles, and the Army, Navy, and Air Force all wanted to field them.

Considering the author’s extensive background, it’s really odd to read here that Vanguard, strictly a satellite launch vehicle, was a “missile,” and that the first military satellite launch was the Atlas-based Project SCORE in December 1958: in fact, the Army had already orbited three Explorers with modified Redstone missiles. (I can’t help noting that, to get these right, he could have just read my book The First Space Race.)

With the Army limited to shorter-range missiles and the Navy pursuing its own Polaris, the Air Force’s rush to get the first Atlas declared operational (done on 31 October 1959) resulted in shortcuts, confusion about command relationships, and constant changes and fixes. All this eventually led to the logistical nightmare of having three variants in use simultaneously. The system was commanded by pilots pulled from the bomber force as a rotational tour, not a career.  The Atlas force never quite erased the effects of its various birth pains before it was retired in 1965.    

Air Force ICBM forces as of January 1962 had a mere 23 missiles on alert. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, that was increased to 132 with superhuman efforts to make even training and test missiles ready by any means, including bypassing tests and safety features. After the crisis, though, missileers found they had not changed many minds in Air Force leadership about their value. 

The 1960s were as tumultuous for missiles as they were for the rest of the military. As pilots were pulled from everywhere to go to Vietnam, the experience and rank of crewmembers plummeted until second lieutenants did what had been thought the jobs of majors.  As Bath documents, the dominance of aviation in the Air Force’s command structure grew even stronger, leaving missile officers with few career options and an extremely small chance of being promoted past colonel. There was no consideration to publicly, organizationally, or financially recognizing missile crews for arduous duty or to give them the status of “rated officers” like pilots. (We all felt when I was on crew that that this second-class status existed, so it's nice to know Bath agrees.)  I expected a bit more discussion about how the culture was shaped by the responsibilities of handling nuclear weapons. My experience was that no two people dealth with this exactly the same way, but we knew what we were doing: by the time I went through training in 1982, at least, they showed us graphic images of the victims of nuclear destruction in Japan.   

Bath’s account of the missile force, oddly, almost entirely ignores the Titan II system I served in. All the post-Atlas discussions of morale, training, and operations are about Minuteman units.  The Titan II was a very different system, with its complex liquid-fuel missiles and its mixed crews (two officers, two enlisted) and it provided the nation’s hard-target kill force until retired in the 1980s. Every day in the history he traces, there were 216 crewmembers on duty in Titan, 200 in Minuteman.  It’s a puzzling oversight as well as a personal annoyance. 

Bath concludes the Air Force erred enormously by leaving the missile field essentially static and definitely secondary to airpower for essentially the entire history of ICBMs.  He notes some UAV/RPA pilots have the same feeling today, despite the fame of weapons like Predator. ICBMs will be on duty until 2050 and probably longer. Bath’s book will hopefully be widely read and will help leaders understand better the uniqueness of  the ICBM force.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Movie: Ammonite



Very good performances - both leads were superb - with wonderfully bleak direction/ cinematography and a compelling sense of time and place.

I didn't mind they built it around an invented love affair that didn't happen. It's certainly not the first time romances, central or peripheral, have been used in a "history-inspired" movie (there's even a flirtation in the 1960 war film Sink the Bismarck, which is about battleships. No, not the movie Battleship. That iceberg wreck of a film never existed).
Anyway, we get a great sense of Mary's bare-bones life and the harsh coast she lives on. The fossils are a way to make a living: she doesn't express any special liking for what she does. It doesn;t help that the only person who talks to her much, naturalist/fossil buyer Roderick Murchinson, is a jerk who dismisses his wife as suffering "melancholia." Any cheating that goes on, he deserves. As for Mary, it's only when she has a chance for a very different life that we see she is where she really belongs.
Writer/Director Frances Lee has made an involving movie about relationships, and ok, it's her movie. As a history/paleontology lover, what I minded here is that the affair crowded out everything else: except for having credit stolen for the Icthyosaur, and two lines of dialogue about identifying fossils, the viewer learns nothing whatever about why she was so important to science, not even why the icthyosaur was important, and what her discoveries led to. (See a very good article on that here.) They could have added ten minutes to show her scientific legacy and how much her work on those windswept rocks really mattered.