Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hoping for better in 2017

Tennyson said it best.

Ring Out, Wild bells: by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Last chance for the vaquita

To mix metaphors, the world's smallest cetacean is essentially swimming off a cliff into oblivion. Twenty years ago, there were over 500 vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California. A year ago, when I started a study of satellite tracking requirements, there were officially 80-90, but Dr. Robin Baird warned us that was too high - there might be only 50. Now there may only be 40.  Entanglement in nets set illegally for the totoaba - a fish whose bladder is prized in China - has driven the species to the brink. Since humans exterminated China's baiji in 2006, the vaquita is the rarest, most endangered cetacean in the world.

Netted vaquita (NOAA)

A succession of measures (described here)  by the Mexican government and nonprofit agencies has failed to stem the decline. Now the government is going for the last resort: capture of vaquitas to be maintained in open-water pens, where they will hopefully survive until the Gulf can be cleared of poachers (if that's possible) or create a viable captive population.
This is very chancy stuff: the vaquita has never been maintained in captivity. Cetacean-keeping is still something of an art, and a controversial one. It is possible to maintain captive populations, the outstanding example being the bottlenose dolphin.  Bottlenoses, though, mate easily in captivity (and not just with their own species, but with anything they can entice or coerce, producing a dizzying array of hybrids) and we have decades of experience maintaining them.  We don't know if vaquitas will take well to a restricted pen and unusual conditions.  We don't know how many breeding females there are to begin with.

Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) (NOAA)  

But I don't think there's an alternative, given the way so many anti-poaching measures have fallen short - at least, no alternative less drastic than the extreme of flooding the Gulf with military forces with shoot-to-kill orders, the military is lending a hand, as U.S. Navy dolphins are among the forces being deployed now to find and bring in the vaquitas.  The rest of us can only cross our fingers and wish the vaquitas good luck.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

It's not nice to read Mother Nature

The online world is, of course, full of crap that sometimes seems destined to drown out real information. "Natural News" may be the worst of the worst: nothing in it is news and very little is nature, unless you count human nature (grasping for money).  From a source I'm always happy to recommend, Sharon Hill's' DoubtfulNews, comes another example - not as bad as Natural News, but concerning.  Sharon writes, "Mother Nature Network (MNN) a site that takes real science stories and rewrites them, getting them wrong in the process." Case in point: no, there is no river of molten iron flowing from Russia to Canada that's about to flip the Earth's poles. There's a really interesting science story buried in here, related to a real paper about magnetic anatomies indicating real movements of Earth's not-so-solid innards, but Ms. Hill, a geologist, notes this is part of a trend of simplifying and torqueing science into clickbait. 

When I have time to try to catch up on science online, I usually read the breezy LiveScience and the more technical Science Daily and the BBC for a broad range of headlines and stories, Scientific American, the New York Times, Nat Geo, and Smithsonian for depth, and, and a handful of others. There are many more good sites, but there are an increasing number of bad ones: do your research and pick the ones in your area of interest that you can consistently trust!  

Handy biology dictionary goes online

Dr. Christopher Chen aims to put definitions for common biology terms at everyone's fingertips, and he wrote me asking me to take a look at his site.  A quick glance over his Biology Dictionary is very promising. Dr. Chen's explanation of three sample terms I checked (species, chordate, and sexual reproduction) are very clear. The writing is good, there are hundreds of terms here, and on the whole this looks like a great resource.  The only nit I can pick is that the  writing isn't quite flawless: Dr. Chen occasionally drops an "s," writing "scientist" when he meant "scientists," That, however, is a VERY minor issue.  I'm happy to recommend his site.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

New Species of 2016

I can never say it enough: there is still much to explore.

In 2016, science introduced us to some more amazing creatures.  

A tiny bioluminscent octopus. A flatworm named for the President and a mantis named for a Supreme Court justice.   Two new species of flower named after being trapped in amber for 15 million years.  From the fossil record, a new tyrannosaurid and a river dolphin.  Oh, and we realized there were four living giraffe species instead of one.  

image NOAA

And, of course, the fossil of the decade: a dinosaur's feathered tail trip, trapped in amber. No DNA to clone from, but a wealth of information. 
Go, science!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: Still in Search of Prehistoric Survivors

  • Still in Search of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?  by Karl P N Shuker Coachwhip Publications  - 2016
  • Karl  Shuker, one of the few Ph.D. zoologists who spends time in cryptozoology-land, has assembled in this 600-page magnum opus the most ambitious single volume on cryptozoology since Bernard Heuvelmans' original "On the Track of Unknown Animals." It's also the most sumptuously illustrated cryptozoology book ever, thanks to several artists but most prominently the superb Bill Rebsamen. 

  • Shuker, in this massive rewrite and expansion of a previous book, does not cover all reported cryptids. He is interested in those which may be unrecognized survivors from past eras (this eliminates, for example, the intriguing giant fish of Lake Iliamna, and sasquatch and yeti get only brief treatments). Shuker makes the most persuasive case for Australia's marsupial cat, the yarri, a possible survivor from the genus Thylacoleo. I agree with him completely that this animal existed into the 20th century and just maybe still does. Shuker does not accept every survivor theory: he doubts the late survival of the magnificent Irish elk, the mammoth, or the American lion Panthera leo atrox. However, he seems accepting, to my mind, of a few too many. He makes the strongest case possible for the African sauropod, known as mokele-membe among other names, but I think he falls short: widespread similarities in stories and art can exist even with completely mythical animals, such as the European and Chinese dragons, and he dismisses too quickly the argument of the dean of African dinosaur paleontology, Louis Jacobs, that the area involved is not a "Lost World" untouched since the Mesozoic. Also, I sometimes find Shuker is too quick to accept the word of sole long-ago eyewitnesses as most likely truthful, where a little more caution is called for. ( These are my opinions: I sincerely hope they are wrong in every case!)
  • All that said, this is a magnificent compendium of information, and Shuker is to be commended for his exhaustive research and clear writing. While I am myself a cryptozoological reader and writer with decades of experience, Shuker here offers a great deal that is new to me. Notable examples are reports of the North American waheela (a really nasty predator like a wolf on steroids, which hasn't been reported recently but may have been a late survivor of the "bear-dogs" or Amphicyonidae ) and several African and Chinese animals. Some of the subjects are famous, and some you've never heard of. Shuker builds interesting cases for lesser-known cryptids ranging from several large Indonesian birds to (relying a great deal on Prof. Christine Janis' work) a pig-sized hyrax from China.
    I doubt we will find more than a few of these animals alive, but I will be surprised if we don't find any. Shuker has poured many years of his life into this work, and the result is one of the foundational works of cryptozoology.

Microsatellites: CYGNSS takes wing

One of the advantages of microsats is that you can deploy them affordably in constellations to measure a given phenomenon from many points at once, or to make sure one satellite is always over a given area beneath the orbital planes.  Orbital's really cool Pegasus launcher (the first private launcher in the US and the first aircraft-launched space booster known to be a success)   placed 8 29-kilogram CYGNSS hurricane-watching satellites in orbit today. Congratulations to Orbital, to the satellite builders (SWRI and University of Michigan, with Sierra Nevada building the deployment mechanism), and to NASA.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A spider named for a sorting hat

The world has at least 35,000 known species of spiders, with some sources putting it all the way up to 43,000 or even 50,000 (zoological counting is not the exact science you'd think it is: scientists can have varying opinions on what descriptions are valid, which are duplicates, which can't be verified, etc.).    There is no question many more remain to be found: no one would be shocked if a (currently unaffordable) complete census of every spider living somewhere on the planet topped 100,000.
Some of those spiders are downright weird. Whether it's catching birds or ballooning on silk threads or locomoting underwater, spiders are an adaptable bunch. Many species use some kind of camouflage. Now a newly discovered species from India which seeks to imitate a dead leaf has received a unique name. The disguise involved a cone-shaped body that looks a little like rolled-up dried leaf and nothing like a spider. It does, however, look like a certain famous magical hat.  And so we have the Harry Potter Sorting Hat spider, Eriovixia gryffindori.   J.K. Rowling has tweeted that she's honored.

"50 points for Gryffindor!"

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Farewell to a Hero: John Glenn

Once we had people called "heroes." They weren't Hollywood or sports or recording stars. They didn't get rich. When their country called them to war, they went. When asked to risk their lives on the farthest frontiers of exploration, they went.  When they saw opportunities to make their country better, they stepped up.  

Remember that song, "We Don't Need Another Hero?" Well, we do. We need more people like this.

Godspeed, John Glenn

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The most puzzling "sea serpent" of all time

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best eyewitness evidence of this possibility came 111 years ago today from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.
The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, 
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Remembering Vanguard

On this day in 1957, America's first attempt to orbit a satellite ended in a spectacular fireball. But Project Vanguard, even though it was beaten to orbit by the Army's Explorer 1, was NOT a failure. Read the book that set the record straight, with answers from the people who were there.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Huge new species of freshwater fish

Arapaimas may be 3 meters long and weigh 200kg - and there are more species than we thought.  New research on these fish in the rivers of the Amazon basin has identified specimens with "highly distinct" genetic markers.  It was only in 2013 that new research confirmed long-reported (but dismissed) evidence of a second species. Now we have a third.
Even in fresh water, we don't know all the fishes. We don't even know all the big ones for sure!