Monday, February 27, 2017

International Polar Bear Day

Cute? Yes. Deadly? Also yes. Nearing extinction? No, but it's declined, and the trends are worrisome.  I repeat here a review from 2009 of a book that explains the ice bear's world in a depth I could not undertake.  

Review: On Thin Ice, by Richard Ellis

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear. 
Richard Ellis
2009, Knopf (New York).
Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web.
The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear."
This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, train a polar bear team to pull a sled.
The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands.
Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our willingness to kill adults even when they are not presenting a threat.
Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species.
A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last.
When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action.
Essentially, then, the book has a zoology/history section and a policy section. The zoology/history section is wonderful. The policy section displays Ellis' passion for the bear in a manner that could have been given more context but is nevertheless gripping.
Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Rare View of the Moon

NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) took this image and accompanying video of the Moon painted by direct sunlight. It looks like a Photoshop compilation, but it's genuine.  It's a universe of wonders out there!  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Awesome Dunkleosteus

I've posted on this before, but I like to reconnect every once in a while with the most awesome prehistoric animal except for my first love, T. rex.  Dunkleosteus terrelli OWNED the seas of the Devonian, "The Age of Fishes."

I maintain the most popular page on the Dunk, here on Facebook.  Over 1,000 Dunk lovers have joined me.

Oddly, there is no book devoted to Dunkleosteus at any level.  It makes several appearances in fiction and popular culture, but it's still getting no respect compared to so many other prehistoric predators. That's a shame.  At a good 8 meters long (claims of 9 or 10 meters don't appear well-supported), the Dunk was a predator the likes of which the oceans never saw until the rise of the great marine reptiles.  The giant biting plates, so sharp one paleontologist said he could practically see himself in them today, constituted an implement of destruction never equaled since. We are talking about the functional equivalent of great sharpened fangs, only the size of traffic cones. The teeth of Megalodon or T. rex or Smilodon never came close.  With a head and forebody protected by bone some 5cm thick and with bone rings around the eyes, everything about the Dunk was built for combat.

Combat with what?

Once a Dunk grew to, say, 4 or 5 meters, the sharks of the day would not have been a threat.  Neither would the lesser placoderms,  Only other Dunks would have provided major competition. While paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish once politely rebuked me for simplifying things down to "placoderms invented sex," they were the first vertebrates we know of to have male-female internal fertilization.  Did males compete for females? We don't know, but a clash between two armored submarines 8 m long must have been a terrifying spectacle.

Everything about the Dunk is scary, mysterious, or just plain awesome.  I hope you'll join me in following news of the study of this predator on Facebook and elsewhere.


My daughter Lauryn photographed this Dunk at the University of Nebraska museum.

Part of my collection of Dunk models and memorabilia.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

What are you doing to encourage the women and girls you know to learn about the universe?

The Snake on the Milk Carton

OK, the long-missing Cropan's boa of Brazil , the rarest boa in the world, was not put on milk cartons, but it was put on posters nailed up all over the Atlantic Forest area.  The snake hadn't been seen alive since the 1950s when two farmers practically tripped over one as they walked the dirt road to work.  They had seen the poster, so they grabbed the 1.7-meter snake and contacted scientists via WhatsApp information on the posters!   Herpetologists had searched the area many times without result.

The handsome female snake, basically brown with black and darker brown markings, was released with a radio tag attached.  The boas, closely related to the pythons, currently count 43 species. We are constantly finding new snake species (31 in 2011) but this rediscovery was celebrated just as much.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Note on the Van Allen belts

In the book The First Space Race, Erika Vadnais and I discussed the discovery by Jame Van Allen and his team of the lower Van Allen belt in early 1958 by a particle detector placed on the Explorer 1 satellite.  There are now known to be two belts, varying in thickness and intensity based on natural events (the Sun pouring out an increased volume of energetic particles) or human-made events ("pumping the Van Allen belts"), an effect most famously seen in the Starfish Prime nuclear test of 1962, which degraded or destroyed several satellites.  In 2013, NASA announced the discovery of a third belt.  The this belt was outside the other two, appeared only when a solar prominence had unleashed a very large flow of particles, and lasted up to four weeks.  It was once feared astronauts could be launched only through the polar regions, where the belt effects were weak or absent, but limiting astronauts' time in orbit and restricting them to an orbital altitude above or below the inner belt works, too.  Only the Apollo astronauts transited the outer belt, and they punched through it rapidly on their way to and from the Moon, limiting the exposure time and thus the exposure in rads to to a level that was survivable.  

Van Allen belts (in yellow) in 2013 illustration released by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center 

Wiley J. Larson and James R. Wertz (Editors), Space Mission Analysis and Design, 3rd Edition, Section 8.2, "Hardness and Survivability Requirements," 1 October 1999.
Fox, Karen. “NASA's Van Allen Probes Discover a Surprise Circling Earth,"
NASA press release, 28 February 2013.

Bille and Lishock, The First Space Race (Texas A&M), 2004.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Prophet of Bones

Prophet of Bones
Ted Kosmatka
St. Martin's Griffin, 2014 edition

This is the first novel I've read from Kosmatka, and I seriously couldn't put it down. Wow. Thrills, terror, science, and politics are all dexterously mixed in a world with one great difference from our own: science has proven religion is true and the Earth is 6,000 years old (or has it)? Kosmatka's novel is sort of like what you'd get if you mixed the writing brains of Scott Sigler, James Rollins, and the late Michael Crichton and then added even more talent. Kosmatka takes as his real-life point of departure the Flores "hobbit" bones, and the plot rockets forward from there.  As a science writer and novelist, I kept finding myself stopping just to marvel at the way the author had taken one of the more difficult sciences, genetics, and illustrated it in many different ways (including the explanation from an autistic scientist who visualizes genetic codes as a musician does music) along the way to probing the mysteries of human origins. The solution to this thriller is wholly original, the characters fascinating, and the plot a clever take on science vs. religion, only turned backwards and sideways from the way it's usually presented. The science will be too heavy for some readers, and I barely kept up myself, but I learned things all along the twisting journey of our heroes toward a destination they have no idea exists. This is a marvelous book in every respect. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

My simple take on the current EPA policy

It's not taking a political position at all - left, right, Democratic, or Republican - to assert that taxpayers should have open, direct, and transparent access to all research funded BY taxpayers that is not a critical military secret.

The loneliest whale?

Is this whale really lonely? Or does he just sing a little differently from everyone else? For all we know, this unique animal's 52Hz song might be irresistible to females, and he might have more company than he can handle. But no one can resist the image of a sad wanderer in the depths who  may be a hybrid, the only one of his kind.
Or maybe he just flunked music in his school.  (OK, a group of whales is a pod, but the pun is what's irresistible to me)

On NASA's Day of Remembrance

Since the Space Age began 22 astronauts and cosmonauts have died in flight or preflight.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

New crab species named for Potter characters

There are so many species being discovered, there's plenty of room to get creative. This new crab from Guam honors Harry and his nemesis, Professor Snape, with the name Harryplax severus.  No word if any are destined for the Hogwarts kitchens.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Happy Birthday, Tet Zoo!

Dr. Darren Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology is like nothing else: an always-lively exploration of topics in zoology, paleobiology, and cryptozoology (Naish keeps an open mind about the latter but is not at all impressed with its results).    He can get very technical (he loves temospondyls) or very "pop" (exploring the idea of sea serpents.)  Even his most technical work, though, is understandable thanks to clear writing and deep knowledge of all his topics.  (In case you, too, are wondering, temospondyls are a subclass of unusual prehistoric beasts once classified as reptiles. I remember owning a set of plastic toy dinosaurs that included Eryops, a splendid example of the group.)
Before he was with the blog network of Scientific American, Naish's blog was a standalone enterprise, and this entry (on, what else, temospondyls) is an example of that iteration.  Many of the early items were collected in this book.  Whether the topic is Britain's largest dinosaur (discovered by Naish), the re-imagining of cryptooology as "speculative biology," the plausibility of Godzilla, or reports of giant orangutans, Naish will keep a science buff reading for hours, or days, or weeks.

Finally, I should note Darren contributed a great deal to the chapters of my book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology that concern hybrid, reported, or speculative cetaceans, and I am forever grateful.

Happy birthday, Tet Zoo!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Farewell, Gene Cernan

Goodbye to the last man on the Moon.
"I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Ad Astra, Gene.

When did the first Americans get here?

This problem has always nagged at me. While I'm far from an expert and have taken no relevant classes, old estimates of human arrival in North America of 12,000-14,000 year BP, in my layman's mind, didn't seem to allow for all the human activity that went on in every corner of two vast continents. That included not only establishing populations but wiping out megafauna that withstood the onslaught of many large mammalian predators, from saber-tooth cats to the American lion to the largest and tallest bears that have ever lived (and the wiping out of the predators themselves). This date of 24,000 years BP seems in some ways more reasonable. It's also interesting to speculate how the very first people got here: was the ocean a barrier or a highway? Remember that humans went by boat to Australia some 50,000 years ago.

Traditional theory (NIH/US government illustration)

Does this paper have the real answer?


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Hawai'i's Dolphins and Whales

The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation

  • Robin W. Baird
  • University of Hawaii Press, 2016 (352pp.)

    This look at the cetaceans that live around the Hawai'ian chain is amazing in every way.  Well organized, well written, and stunningly illustrated with memorable photographs, it's the definitive book on its subject. 
    I've had the honor of talking with Dr. Baird about a paper I'm writing on cetacean tracking, and he's done extensive work in this area.  He includes contact maps that show which species are likely to be where (whether in the shallows or 3,000 meters down) and which are resident and which only transit the islands.
    Landlubbers, even relatively well-read ones like myself, then to think of one patch of an ocean as pretty much like another and an island as a big rock that merely supports some terrestrial and coastal species.  Baird opens by explaining clearly that things are a lot more complex. This area of the Pacific is a kind of desert and the island chain an oasis which alters currents, temperatures, phytoplankton populations, and other aspects of the surrounding sea.  This in turn greatly influences the suitability of the areas to its many species of cetaceans. 
    Seven species of baleen whales have been spotted around Hawai'i (only Bryde's whale appears to have a resident population), along with eighteen species of toothed whales (including dolphins), eleven of which have gone native. Baird, along with colleagues and volunteers, has been studying these animals since 1999, and every season spent in the islands has brought new knowledge of the individual species and the ecosystems they influence and inhabit. There's a good explanation of how cetaceans are studied in the area, including one tool I didn't know about: a laser that puts spots on a photographed animal 15 cm apart so size can be judged.
    Then come the species descriptions, every one of which offers something new. I had no idea that false killer whales not only engage in a game of “pass the dead fish" with prey but include visiting humans in the game, or that pilot whales sometimes grab humans to BE the playtoy, or that a sperm whale once deliberately rammed and sunk a 40-foot yacht for reasons completely unknown.  The descriptions of the enigmatic beaked whales are especially informative.
    Baird covers the conservation status and threats to each species as part of his descriptions: none of the Hawai’an population is in imminent danger of extinction, but many bear watching, and the impact of sonar and other human activities is worrying at best and needs more research,
    The photographs, some from above the water (e.g., a melon-headed whale's dorsal fin with a round hole bit clean through by a cookie-cutter shark) many underwater (e.g., an oceanic whitetip shark following close behind pilot whales) are all excellent, and some are jaw-dropping. 
    Baird writes with obvious technical expertise, but clearly enough for the interested nonscientist to follow, so this book will hopefully spread the knowledge of Hawai’ian cetaceans to a broad audience.  This is a magnificent achievement. 

    Wednesday, January 11, 2017

    The latest new primate - "Skywalker" gibbon

    Gibbons are the most numerous of the apes, being split into four families and 17 species living in southern Asia and Indonesia.   Gibbons enjoy life in the treetops, swinging using their long arms with abilities that would put Tarzan to shame. They can make an incredible 50km/hour this way when in a hurry.    (They can also do a bipedal walk on the ground, but clearly don't like it much, as they have to use those arms to balance the way tightrope walkers use poles.)  

    Incidentally, a ground-dwelling gibbon might exist in Sumatra, where it's known as orang-pendek: it's one of the most probable animals in cryptozoology, but that's not our story today.

    Our story is about a brand-new species.

    Zoo gibbon (unknown species) 

    The discoverers of a new gibbon from China, it appears, are fans of the Star Wars films.  It was known that gibbons lived in the forests of Yunnan province, but no one had taken a close enough look until now to determine they were a separate species. The Skywalker hoolock gibbon has a scientific name which, in Chinese characters, translates as "heavenly movement." Skywalkers, alas, are few and  far between, like Jedi: there may be only 200 of the apes.

    It's another reminder that we don't know all the animals on Earth - and another reminder that so many animals are in precarious situations.

    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!

    Wednesday, November 30, 2016

    Dunkleosteus - the older it got, the meaner

    Our favorite prehistoric fish, Dunkleosteus terrelli, was the apex carnivore of the Devonian.  Up to 9 meters long by some estimates (others make it 6 to 8), it had the ultimate set of choppers: guillotine-like biting plates growing directly from the jawbone.
    So what did it eat? While the standard answer is "anything it wanted," new research covered in this article by David Moscato shows that the animal's jaws got heavier and its forward "fangs" sturdier as it got older. That implies a feeding strategy, seen today in the largest non-mammal predator in the world, the great white shark, of switching to bigger, slower prey as it gets older. For the Dunkleosteus, that may have included the largest fish available - other Dunks.  Cannibalism is not definite, though, as the bites found on the armor of Dunks may have come from intraspecific competition for mates (the arthodires pretty much invented modern male-on-female sex).
    The Dunk remains one of the most awesome marine predators ever. The largest mosasaurs and megalodons may have been bigger, but they couldn't copy the Dunk's best feeding strategy - opening those jaws and letting the prey faint dead away from sheer terror.

    Follow Dunk news on

    Dunk figures from (top) Wild Safari and (bottom) Jeff Johnson. 

    Tuesday, November 29, 2016

    Microsatellites - Revolution in Orbit (Chapter 1)

     I've been an observer and sometime participant in the microsatellite business since 1992, 
    when I wrote my first paper on the topic.  The field grows and changes so fast it's very hard to keep up
     with the basic news, let alone all the accomplishments being logged. But where did it begin?
    This is an intermittent series poking through some of the information I (and some co-authors like Erika Vadnais) have picked up in many years of looking at this topic, talking to the entrepreneurs and the engineers, and writing.  (Not included is information I/we developed on company time at our employers’ expense: companies get touchy about that.)  However, as authors of The First Space Race (NASA/Texas A&;M, 2004) (which developed out of a microsat history book project called Little Star, which we may actually get back to one of these years) we learned lot on our own time: enough to provide some historical context to a fast-moving industry.  

    We'll go back to the earliest days in later installments, but I wanted to focus this time on the decade that is easily forgotten but was absolutely pivotal: the 1990s.
    First. what's a microsatellite?  I like the common (but not universal) standard of 100kg or less for a microsatellite and 10 kg or less for a nanosatellite.   Back in the 90s, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) referred to “smallsats” as under 1,000kg or 500kg, either of which is hopelessly antiquated after decades of shrinking electronics and other components.  For a long time it was generally accepted a microsat would be single-string (no redundant components) and single-mission, but relentless miniaturization is slowly moving us away from those norms. 
    I’m going to focus in this first segment on military satellites, because truly commercial microsatellites are a relatively recent development.  The pioneering Orbcomm UHF constellation by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) (which also flew the first small booster developed in the U.S. in decades, the air-launched Pegasus) orbited its first satellite, the pioneering Orbcomm-X (or Datacomm-X) in 1991, but Orbcomm for many years had commercial microsats to itself.   
    To get back to the topic, the microsat didn't emerge out of nowhere. 
    The first satellites, like America's pioneering Explorer I and Vanguard I of 1958, were small because they had to be (and military because no one else had the money and expertise).  Explorer I, America’s first response to the much larger Sputniks, was built into the fourth stage of the Jupiter-C launch vehicle. The satellite portion was only 84 cm long and 15 cm in diameter.  This section was made of 410 stainless steel, its bare sandblasted surface marked with white stripes of aluminum oxide.  Explorer 1 weighed 6.35 kg on its own and 14 kg if the fourth stage of the booster (which remained attached) was counted.

    An Explorer 1 model with transparent display version of front section (NASA)

    As boosters became more powerful from the early 1960s on, the U.S. military moved to orbiting increasingly larger and more capable payloads. In the decade from 1978 to 1987, for example, only six military microsats were launched.  (Four of these belonged to the Navy’s Transit navigation series, which operated from 1962 through 1996.)  
    Beginning in 1987, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) (known for part of its history as ARPA), led a resurgence of interest  which resulted in  military proof-of-concept satellites of the late 80s and early 90s with clunky acronym-ed names like GLOMR, MACSAT, DARPASAT, LOSAT-X, and the MicroSat constellation. The most notable one of the early 1990s was the UHF store-and-forward communications bird called MACSAT, one of which was pressed into operational use in the first Persian Gulf War.  Despite this success, the Navy's proposal for a follow-on constellation, ARCTICSAT, was canceled. For the rest of the decade, the largest U.S. military space service, the USAF, basically laughed out loud at the idea these toys could be useful.  (OK, an organization cannot physically laugh, but the Air Force came as close as possible.)

    Two MACSATs stacked for launch (DARPA)

    NASA never abandoned microsats completely: the Explorer series moved from its original Army home to  NASA and continues today, and the Particles and Fields Subsatellite (PFS) series put tiny satellites into orbit around the Moon from Apollo missions.  NASA entered a new era in 1995 when MicroLab-1 (later turned over to the contractor, OSC, and redesignated OrbView-1) demonstrated that a microsat could provide environmental data.  The 68-kg satellite mapped thunderstorm activity and created moisture and temperature profiles by measuring the occultation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals received through the atmosphere.
    Military communications, as well as commercial telephone, broadcasting, and other applications, was generally provided since the 1960s by large high-capacity satellites in the geostationary belt.  Microsats were not going to add much here, but there’s another way to do commemorations. Low-orbiting satellites can receive comm over a theater and downlink it to a headquarters and vice versa (store-and-forward) or provide continuous “bent-pipe" communications with a constellation of spacecraft to ensure that at least one satellite will always be in contact with the user.  Such smallsat constellations were orbited by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s.  The concept was tested again by DARPA in 1991 when a single launch vehicle orbited seven 23-kg UHF MicroSats, creating a constellation providing continuous voice and data communication within a footprint about 5000 km wide. The entire system, including launch, cost under $20 million (M) in 1998 dollars. 
    After Congress denied DARPA requests for $30M in Fiscal Year (FY) 1993 and $24M in FY 1994 requests for related projects, the DARPA "lightsat" program was essentially dead. This was despite the 1994 Air University study Spacecast 2020, which made another point in favor of such satellites.  If a large satellite has a nominal 10-year life and a microsat two years, the microsats  are able to go through five generations of technology improvement for every one generation of the largesat.  This has become more important as time and technology have progressed: every large satellite launched is essentially behind the technology curve thanks to years in preparation.  In 1998, Air Force Chief Scientist Daniel Hastings gave a strong endorsement to "smallsats."  While cautioning that “moving to smaller, distributed satellites is not a panacea for all problems,” he said, “The potential exists for really revolutionary changes in respect to moving to smaller systems.” He had no idea how right he was.
    Other countries made experiments in this decade, too, and not only in communications.  One of the most interesting was France's 50-kg CERISE, launched in 1995.  This spacecraft monitored HF emissions to validate technology for a future operational signals intelligence microsat called Clementine (no relation to the U.S. lunar probe of the same name.)
    The commercial world didn’t lack for pioneering entrepreneurs, but for quite a while Orbcomm was the only one that got serious traction. One of the pioneering commercial firms, predating Orbital, was AeroAstro, led by visionary/evangelist Rick Fleeter. Fleeter had no patience with approaches that just tried to shrink conventional satellites a little. He once observed that the military “thinks a small satellite is 900 kilograms. We think it’s 9.”  AeroAstro tried to shrink satellites drastically in the late 90s, marketing the 1-kg Bitsy spacecraft bus.  It was advertised as costing under $100,000 (plus payload), being customizable for applications including remote sensing, communications, space science, and technology testing, and taking nine months from ordering to delivery to a launch pad.  The vision, though, as so often happens, was ahead of the market. Useful payloads small enough and using only a few watts of electricity just were not ready yet, except for UHF radios. No Bitsy ever flew.   
    One of the reasons microsats were dismissed in the 1990s was their inability to take anything but very low-resolution images.  This was considered a hard limit: the relationship between mirror size and image resolution (equivalent to the pixel size in electronic images) was inviolate. If you wanted a satellite that could spot a car (much less read the proverbial license plate), you needed a mirror diameter measured in meters.   In the 1990s, inventions like “folded optics” and the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) imager began a revolution which would lead eventually to the Planet (formerly Planet Labs) microsatellites in orbit today, in which images with three-meter resolution are taken from a satellite with a once-ridiculous aperture diameter of 10cm.      
    Other advances drove miniaturization, including the reduction of computers to single chips and composite-based construction.  FORTE, a 215-kg satellite built by Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and launched in 1997 to watch for the electromagnetic signatures of nuclear tests, flew the first frame made entirely of graphite-epoxy composites.  Compared to an all-aluminum structure, this reduced the weight from 64 to 42 kg.

    By the end of the 1990s, the microsatellite revolution, despite halting and sometimes shaky progress, was advancing on a broad front.  Imaging, communications, electronic intelligence, weather, and other proof of concept satellites had established the potential utility of microsats, and the advance of technology – much of it in the consumer electronics industry – was enabling leaps in capability.  The stage was set for the real revolution – one that would be permanent. 

    Tuesday, November 22, 2016

    Shadows of Existence - 10 Years On

    I published my last book on zoology and cryptozoology, Shadows of Existence, 10 years ago.  Hancock House, the small publisher in Washington State specializing in zoology, bird lore, and Western history, among other topics, had brought out my 1995 Rumors of Existence and offered a contract for this one, too.

    What did I get right and wrong?  Here, in no particular order, are 20 things I thought in 2006 and how they have turned out..  

    1. I wrote that I didn't expect any new hard evidence for any of the big stars of crypotozoology - sasquatch, yeti, and Nessie.  I was right. 

    2. I had hopes something would emerge from the "sea serpent" data, perhaps an elongated eel. In fact, I was pretty sure of the eel or eel-like fish.  So far, no luck finding it.  

    3. I expected many more new species of vertebrates, including mammals. I was right, although I suppose that was kind of general, so I don't get much credit for it.  

    4. I held out a little hope for the Caribbean monk seal. That one I've given up on. Ditto Schomburgk's deer. Ditto the Tasmanian tiger: people still report it, but there's nothing new to go on.  

    5. I was pretty certain we'd find better evidence of the survival of the Eastern cougar. A swing and a miss, and now the slow infiltration of cats from the West may be obscuring this question. 

    6. I was hopeful about the Japanese wolf. I've not given that one up yet, but the case hasn't advanced much. 

    7. I dismissed the Minnesota Iceman, a position that I feel is much stronger now that the model has turned up.  

    8. I plumped for an unknown population of sturgeon for the "monster" of Lake Iliamna.  I still think that one's on the money.

    9. I didn't think any of the famous "lake monsters' would be proven. So far, they haven't.  

    10. I was unsure about the identification of the mysterious Mesoplodon Species A as the adult form of the Peruvian beaked whale, but scientists are pretty unanimous on this one.  

    11. I argued Wilson's whale likely represented an unknown cetacean, and I still think it does, or did. 

    12. I thought at least one of Peter Hocking's big cats from Peru would prove to be a new species. I was, alas, wrong. 

    13. I wrote that it was time to bury the giant octopus, and it seems to have been. 

    14. I thought one or two more species would come out of Vu Quang. They haven't, but unexplained horns are still unexplained: there is, or was, at least one more species.

    15. South Africa's mapinguari intrigued me. It still does - somewhat.

    16. Ditto for Sumatra's orang-pendek, which has a stronger case - a very strong case, really. I think we'll find it.

    17. I agreed with authorities who thought new beaked whale species were still out there.  They have turned out to be right, and I don't think we've met all the cetaceans quite yet.  

    18. I thought a strikingly marked manta that turned up in footage from the TV show Survivor might be linked to the elusive maybe-species called Beebe's manta.  I no longer think so, having learned that manta markings are more varied than I'd realized. 

    19. I thought the "Bloop" sound could represent an unknown and very large species of animal. Apparently not. 

    20.  I suggested more coelacanth populations would be found. I was right on that one. 

    It's not a bad record, really. I was proud of the book, and still am.  It got very good reviews, including an excellent one from Sharon Hill's highly respected Doubtful News blog.  Bill Rebsamen's vibrant illustrations helped bring it to life. Bill went on to create a great creature and a great cover for my cryptozoological horror novel The Dolmen.    

    So, I am moving on, with more nonfiction and fiction projects related to the mystery animals of the world. These have taken much longer than I thought, but stay tuned!