Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Elephant awareness?

An Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo showed the ability to recognize herself in a mirror. This behavior, indicating at least a basic level of self-awareness, has been seen only in humans and chimps until now. (Results on dolphins are suggestive but not definite.) Some animals ignore mirrors, while others assume the image is another individual. Interestingly, only one of the three elephants clearly understood the test, touching her trunk to her face where the mirror showed a marking.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Another nation resumes whaling

Iceland, citing its centuries-old whaling tradition, has announced it will issue permits for taking a total of 39 fin and minke whales. Iceland stopped commercial whaling when an international moratorium was agreed on in 1989. While the minke whale is relatively abundant, probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands (it has benefited greatly from past hunting that decimated the numbers of larger baleen whales), the "finner" is still listed as an endangered species by the IUCN.

COMMENT: The north Atlantic minke and fin stocks could, from a hard-nosed numerical point of view, survive a limited annual cull without significant harm. HOWEVER, in the bigger picture, this is a very bad idea. First, it further legitimizes whale hunting, encouraging more nations to resume the practice, inevitably leading to larger kills and environmental impacts. Second, the more widespread whaling is, the more it provides cover for the taking of protected species. Numerous samples of humpback, blue, and other rare species have been found in markets selling meat from Japan's "scientific" harvest of minke whales. (How good can their scientists be if they can't tell a humpback from a minke? One sample was even shown to come from a blue/fin hybrid. Try mistaking that for a minke sometime).

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Bionic Dolphin

That's what Thomas "Doc" Rowe calls his invention, but it's more like a sports car for the oceans. Rowe is currently working with regulators on how to license his prototype, which can carry passengers on the surface at 55 miles per hour or dive underneath the waves and manuever like a marine mammal. Projected consumer cost for this ultimate toy: $350,000.

Science and Ghosts

It's Halloween....

We all know someone who has experienced a seemingly ghostly event. Maybe we've experienced one ourselves. But is there any way to prove whether there's a ghost in the room?
Skeptic Benjamin Radford has no doubts: the answer is no. Radford looks at TV "ghost hunters" and complains that, despite their habit of carrying instrumentation like electromagnetic field detectors, they never really find a ghost. Anything anomalous, like a cold spot, is considered to be evidence a ghost is present, but all that's left at the end is a collection of anomalies.. nothing consistent, nothing repeatable, nothing definite.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is Mars getting boring?

Read The Onion's version fo the adventures of the rover Opportunity and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fun with Rockets

Alan Boyle writes, "What do you get when you cross a circus with a space shot? That breed of alien hybrid would probably look very much like the Wirefly X Prize Cup, gearing up at the Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico." The events underway range from flight tests of lunar lander technology to demonstrations of what is pretty likely to be the world's only rocket-powered truck.

Honeybees - Past and Present

News (or buzz) came out almost simultaneously of two discoveries involving that indispensable insect, the honeybee.
First, the genetic blueprint of the honeybee was published. Only three other insects have had their genomes sequenced so far. Among the surprises: two genetically distinct European bee populations are more closely related to African bees than to each other.
Second, a tiny (3mm) amber-preserved specimen 100 million years old was identified as the earliest known bee. Melittosphex burmensis came from a mine in Burma's Hukawng Valley. The ancient insect showed features supporting the idea that bees were then in the process of descending from a wasp ancestor.

Thanks (as usual) to Kris for this item.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Interview with an Explorer

Robert Ballard, whose teams discovered the first known hydrothermal vent ecosystem in 1977 and the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985, is busily working on new robotic technology to open the deep to routine study through "telepresence." He's helping to outfit a new exploration vessel, the Okeanos Explorer, with a next-generation system of remotely operated vehicles dubbed Hercules.
When asked what mysteries of the ocean he would like to solve next, Ballard told an interviewer, "I have no idea. When you make a true discovery, like the hydrothermal vents, we didn't know they were there, we tripped over them. What ocean exploration does and will do is trip over stuff. I can tell you that statistically there has to be stuff there because we've only looked at a small percentage of the ocean floor, and look what we've discovered. There's got to be countless more discoveries to be made."

A Great White on display

A great white shark - perhaps the hardest creature to keep alive in captivity - is wowing the crowd at the Outer Bay Exhibit, a million-gallon tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium designed with great whites in mind. The inhabitant is a male, about a year old and about 5 feet 8 inches long. It's not what people normally think of when they picture a great white - we all have the maneating monster from Jaws planted in our minds - but people are flocking to see the animal just the same. "We're not trying to display a large 18-foot animal," curator Jon Hoech told USA Today. "We believe starting small gives us our best chances."

"Lucy" fossil to be exhibited in the U.S.

One of the pivotal finds in the study of human evolution - the 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a female hominid known as "Lucy" - will be joining other items showcasing Ethiopia's heritage in an 11-city tour of the United States. The exhibit will open in Houston next September.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Life finds a way

Two miles beneath the surface of the Earth, in a South African gold mine, scientists have discovered a bacterial ecosystem that needs no connection, not even indirectly, to the Sun. Sulfur and hydrogen, of geological origin, are the only nutrients required. Other "chemoautotrophic" ecosystems, like those at deep-sea vents, still use, at least in part, some nutrients that can be traced to the photosynthetic world. One of the discoverers, Douglas Rumble, observed, "It is possible that communities like this can sustain themselves indefinitely, given enough input from geological processes. Time will tell how many more we might find in Earth's crust, but it is especially exciting to ponder whether they exist elsewhere in the solar system."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cyprus mouse not as unique as claimed

Every article I've seen on the new species of mouse from Cyprus (see earlier post) includes the discoverers' statement that this is the first new mammal described from Europe in over a century. Paleobiologist Darren Naish wondered if that was true. It turns out to be way off. Naish counts no fewer than 29 new species of moles, voles, mice, bats, and other odds and ends described from the world's most densely populated continent in that time frame. It's a good reminder that just because a qualified scientist says something is true, and presumably believes it's true, does not guarantee he or she has done the homework before putting out the claim.

Thanks to Darren Naish

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Dog-Sized Buffalo?

Such a buffalo (part of the Asian buffalo family, not related to the American bison) once lived in the Philippines. On the island of Cebu, the buffalo formed an isolated population whose members shrank in size by about two-thirds over time, resulting in an animal shorter than the largest domestic dogs and weighing about 350 lbs. The bones of the only known example were found fifty years ago in a phosphate mine by engineer Michael Armas, who kept them without thinking much of them until he showed them to specialists in 1995. Estimated at ten to twenty thousand years old, the remains are now the basis for a formally described species, Bubalus cebuensis. The buffalo is an important example of "island dwarfism," a phenomenon in which island populations develop smaller size compared to their counterparts in mainland environments. (In an amusing example of the vagaries of evolution, the feet of B. cebuensis did not shrink as much as the rest of the animal, so it has disproportionately large feet.)
The concept of island dwarfism has been most famously debated in the case of the proposed hominid species, Homo floresiensis, the "hobbit" from the Indonesian island of Flores.

Still Roving the Red Planet

This article includes an awesome photograph: an image taken by one spacecraft (the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) of another space voyager (the rover Opportunity) at the edge of the Victoria Crater on Mars. Opportunity has so far traveled 9.4 kilometers on our most intriguing planetary neighbor.

COMMENT: I will always remember one great cartoon published during the Mars Pathfinder mission... it showed the little Sojourner rover crossing the Martian sands, leaving human footprints.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

New National Space Policy unveiled

For the first time since 1996, the basic statement of American space policy has been updated. The new policy approved by President Bush reinforces the view, expressed in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, that resources in space are not subject to commercial or governmental appropriation. It states in slightly stronger terms than the 1996 policy the US intent to maintain freedom of action in space for uses such as reconnaissance satellites. Most importantly, from a scientific point of view, the old policy said NASA should study human expansion to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The new policy, in line with the Vision for Space Exploration the President announced in 2004, makes it clear the nation's intent is to carry out such exploration, not just study it.

Europe's first new mammal in a century

Scientists used to think the little gray mouse roaming the island of Cyprus was just a house mouse brought by human settlers nine or ten thousand years ago. As it turns out, they were very wrong. Mus cypriacus , the first new species of mammal described from Europe in 100 years, shows an affinity to fossils dated well before the human colonization. It is, in fact, the only pre-human rodent still living on Cyprus. The term "living fossil" is overused, but, to mammologists, the mouse is a window to the long-ago development of the region's mammalian fauna.

Thanks once again to Kris Winkler, who could put me out of a job if she started her own blog :)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A stunning view of Saturn

This NASA image from the Cassini probe shows the ringed planet with a "string of pearls" formation, seemingly circling the entire atmosphere. The pearls are clearings in one layer of Saturn's cloud cover. Scientists are still a long way from understanding this phenomenon.

COMMENT: While I try to take a scientific view of the world, I can't work out why evolution alone would equip us with the capacity to look on a sight like this and feel, not just curiosity or scientific interest, but awe, wonder, and beauty. There is something in the human spirit that evolutionary biology alone has not yet explained. I don't think it ever will.

Whether outwardly or inwardly, whether in space or time, the farther we penetrate the unknown, the vaster and more marvelous it becomes.

— Charles A. Lindbergh

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another colorful feathered friend

From Columbia comes word of a snazzy-looking new species, the bright yellow and red-crowned Yariguies brush-finch. Add this to the discovery from India (see earlier post) and it's been a good month for ornithologists. The new brush-finch dwells in the cloud forests on the eastern side of the Andes.

A "camelephant" from ancient Syria?

Researchers have unearthed 100,000-year-old remains of a camel the size of an elephant from the central region of Syria. According to Jean-Marie Le Tensorer of the University of Basel, "The camel's shoulders stood three meters high and it was around four meters tall; as big as a giraffe or an elephant. Nobody knew that such a species had existed."
The find is important in another way, too. "It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago," Le Tensorer added.
It's not yet clear whether the camels were hunted by early humans, although the two species did coexist. The human remains found at the site are puzzling in themselves: it's not clear whether they belong to modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) or H. s. neanderthalensis, and further study is underway.

Thanks to the ever-vigilant Kris Winkler for pointing me to this article.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Irwin's Turtle Discovery Endangered

The Sydney Morning Herald reports, "A rare turtle named after the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin could be under threat of extinction if a dam planned for construction in its habitat goes ahead. Elseya irwini is named as a species at risk in a Queensland Government environmental impact report."
The first person to catch a specimen of E. irwini was Steve Irwin's father, Bob, in 1990. Steve could not identify the animal, so he took pictures and sent them to turtle expert John Cann. "I saw the photos and jumped on the telephone because I knew it was a new species," Cann said. "I think if someone discovers something they should have a reward for it. It's a good legacy for Steve."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Time for the Ig Nobel Prizes

The Ig Nobels are given each year for scientific (or kind of scientific) research that "cannot or should not be repeated." The prizes have been handed out at a Harvard University ceremony every year since 1991. Some people have traveled from other nations to accept their Igs, which are handed out by real Nobel laureates. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) 2006 Igs include an award for figuring out why we hate the noise of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Another went to Harry Stapleton for inventing the Mosquito "teenager repellent" device, which emits annoying noise at a frequency teens can hear but most adults can't. Then there was Dr. Ivan Schwab, who figured out why woodpeckers don't get headaches. This is no doubt of great interest to the Bayer Aspirin people, whose sales to woodpeckers have been far short of projections. There are times science could definitely use a dose of humor, and the Annals of Improbable Research, which hands out the Ig Nobels, definitely does its part.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Collision in Space

Around the Earth orbit thousands of pieces of debris, from dead satellites to screws, bolts, and paint flakes. Despite being spread out over the vast expanse of near-Earth space, this junkyard poses a threat to every spacecraft. On its last mission, the Space Shuttle Atlantis was hit by a tiny piece of debris that left a hole about a tenth of an inch (2.5mm) in the right payload bay door radiator. This impact posed no threat to the Shuttle and crew, but illustrates one more hazard that must be accounted for in our plans for the final frontier.

Monsters from the Ancient Seas

Norwegian scientists are describing new species from a huge cache of marine reptile fossils. The fossil "graveyard," dating back 150 million years, was found on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. Fishlike icthyosaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs, and short-necked pliosaurs once roamed the area. One pliosaur skeleton has been nicknamed "The Monster." The Monster's skull is almost three meters long, and still sports teeth the size of bananas. One scientist exclaimed, "What's amazing here is that it looks like we have a complete skeleton. No other complete pliosaur skeletons are known anywhere in the world."

Meanwhile, Canadian researchers found a new species of ichthyosaur in a unique place - under a ping-pong table. At the University of Alberta, researchers renovating their lab space moved an old ping-pong table and looked into the boxes they found underneath. There, untouched since someone had stashed them in 1971, were the 100-million-year-old remains of a new species of icthyosaur. Michael Caldwell, who co-authored the paper naming the new species, said, "I did my undergraduate work here and I was studying specimens right on top of this table."

THANKS TO: Kris Winkler for noticing the first article, and to Angela (I know her only by her MySpace name) for the second.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Solving the Monarch Mystery

How do monarch butterflies find their way thousands of miles to places they have never seen?
Dr. Orley Taylor of the University of Kansas has enlisted a small army of butterfly hunters - many of them children - in solving this conundrum. Dr. Taylor's Monarch Project is tagging thousands of butterflies in an effort to trace their migration patterns. The monarchs are not like salmon, who return to the stream where they were born: these colorful orange insects make a multi-generational trip across Mexico, the United States, and Canada. At the end, they somehow manage to locate roosts in Mexico where their great-grandparents originated. Do they use light? Magnetic fields? Scent? Scientists are divided. All we know for sure is, as Ian Malcolm liked to say in Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way."

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

George Schaller: Conservation and Cryptozoology

In this interview with a leading Indian newspaper, The Hindu, Dr. George Schaller has a lot to say. Schaller, one of the world's best-known conservationists and a biologist of great accomplishment, makes, as one would expect, a passionate plea for conservation of species like the tiger and lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What may be surprising is his view of a very controversial topic, cryptozoology.
Schaller has played a role in describing several new or extremely rare species of mammals. He thinks the yeti and sasquatch are, while seemingly doubtful, still worthy of study. "There are so many human-like creatures in different places. But after all these years there is not a single bone, a single hair. There is no physical evidence other than tracks. There is one film, taken in 1960, and it has been played endlessly for years analyzed, but they can't say it is fake. A hard-eyed look is absolutely essential." [Editor's note: Either Schaller misremembered, or a typo crept into the story, since the film he is referring to is from 1967.]
"I'm not one to say that something does not exist. Look at the Himalayan area. ...People said that the Javan Rhino was extinct. We started talking to local people and one of them said that a rhino was killed recently. He brought out a horn that was selling for a very high price. Local people know a lot, you have to ask the right questions."

Web journals vs. Peer Review

There's a revolution coming in science. Will it be good or bad?

The first Web-based "open peer-review" journals are appearing. Traditionally, a paper is scrutinized (sometimes savaged) by qualified reviewers before it appears in a print journal or its online counterpart. But the Public Library of Science is launching its first open peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE, which will appear on the Web and then be subject to review from anyone who puts forth the effort. Will it lead to a flowering of new and innovative ideas? Or will the result be a flood of shoddy work unleashed on the public? Opinions differ, but the idea of open web journals can't be stuffed back in a box. It's going to happen - for good or ill.