Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Survey of Sloths

Sloths are not what most people think of when they they think of interesting mammals. But did you know there were giant sloths who dug burrows 20m long? Aquatic, sea lion-like sloths? In my second borrowing this week from Darren Naish, I can't resist posting this fascinating item.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Next Round of Hobbit Debate

Scientists are still debating, not always politely, the status of the "hobbit" remains found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. The latest shot: Florida State University anthropologist Dean Falk and his team believe they have disproved the criticism that the only individual (a woman known as LB1) whose cranium has been found was a microcephalic dwarf. Falk has written that, after comparing the skull with those of known microcephalic individuals, the Flores measurements don't fall within the range displayed by that particular deformity. In addition, while there's only one cranium so far, there are two lower jawbones, and they match remains from LB1 and not any type of modern human. In other words, the meter-tall hobbits are once more established as a separate species. Opponents like Robert Martin of the Field Museum. though, are not convinced. This increasingly heated discussion is likely to continue until more examples of distinct Flores skulls can be found. (For whatever it's worth, I'm on the separate-species side.) Further digging at Flores has been held up by a mishmash of scientific and political disputes, but may resume soon.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

One More New Mammal

Joining the mammalian ranks from the cloud forests of Peru is a rather cute squirrel-sized mammal, Isothrix barbarabrownae. This nocturnal critter, related to the spiny rats, is described as medium brown with a much darker "crest" on the head and shoulders. It has a distinctive appearance, with a furry, white-tipped tail, a large head, and a long, thick coat. Bruce Patterson of the Field Museum says, "The new species is not only a handsome novelty. Preliminary DNA analyses suggest that its nearest relatives, all restricted to the lowlands, may have arisen from Andean ancestors. The newly discovered species casts a striking new light on the evolution of an entire group of arboreal rodents."

Friday, January 26, 2007

No Shortage of New Species

New species discoveries in the Earth's remaining wild places are continuing. Just one example is the new sucker-footed bat from Madagascar. Myzopoda schliemanni doubles the number of species known in its genus, and, as a rare exception to discoveries on Madagascar, is not endangered. Field Museum biologist Steven Goodman reports the bat uses its adhesive feet to climb around on broad-leaf plants of the genus Ravenala.

The Next Shuttle Launch

From Tariq Malik's always-handy Space and Astronomy blog on comes the news that NASA will launch STS-117, the next mission for the shuttle Atlantis, on March 15. This is a major ISS construction mission, carrying the Starboard 3/Starboard 4 (S3/S4) segment with two new solar arrays. The payload weighs about 16 metric tons. Three spacewalks will be needed to install the new hardware and fold up an old solar array.

A New Space Power - Iran

Aviation Week reports that Iran plans to join the ranks of space powers with a satellite launch. Iran has built a launcher based on one of its theater ballistic missile designs, and Alaoddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Iran's parliament, says it will launch "soon." The size of the satellite was not given. In recent years, Brazil and North Korea have attempted satellite launches with indigenous vehicles, but neither succeeded.
COMMENT: Iran's program has naturally been viewed with some alarm, since the nation seems bent on developing nuclear weapons, and the satellite launcher could test technology for a longer-range missile, even an ICBM. Iran likely has several aims. The program could simultaneously raise the nation's international prestige, improve its missile technology, and provide a foundation for an independent reconnaissance satellite system, such as Israel has developed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The largest dinosaur ever?

Darren Naish, in his blog Tetrapod Zoology, calls attention to a new paper on what may have been the largest animal ever to walk the Earth. A discovery from 1878 has been reexamined. Result: "Based only on a single enormous vertebra, now lost, Amphicoelias fragillimus has been estimated to have reached a length of 60 m and may have attained a weight of 150 tons!" Naish notes, "If these estimates are valid, then this animal was twice as long as Supersaurus and Diplodocus, and perhaps over four times heavier."

Not so incidentally, Naish's must-read blog is moving to:

Antisatellite fallout

Experts concerned by the capability (and the unknown intentions) behind a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test also have a more immediate worry. The violent destruction of an old weather satellite in sun-synchronous low orbit has left hundreds of pieces of debris, all of them capable on damaging other spacecraft. Even the International Space Staion (ISS), in a lower-inclination orbit, is potentially vulnerable as the space junk crosses its orbital plane and gradually drifts down toward the ISS altitude.

A prehistoric biplane?

One of the strangest of ancient reptiles - Microraptor gui, a little dinosaur with feathers on all four limbs, may be stranger than we imagined. The 125-million-year-old reptile fossil, which would have been perhaps 75cm long in life, may have glided through the air with its hind limbs held lower than its forelimbs, creating something resembling a living biplane (or, perhaps more accurately, what we would call a staggerwing).

A rare visitor on video

A Japanese team has caught one of the least-known of large marine animals - a frilled shark, an elusive, primitive dweller in the depths below 600 meters - on video.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Launch Slip for SpaceX

SpaceX's first orbital launch (second launch attempt) has slipped into February after an anomaly was discovered on the second stage of the Falcon 1 vehicle on the launch pad at Kwajalein Atoll. In a December update, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had cautioned that, given the many upgrades to the vehicle since the first launch ended in failure, there could be a series of tests and countdowns ahead before launch.
COMMENT: SpaceX was originally over-optimistic about the timetable for making their low-cost ($6.9M) vehicle operational. However, the company has the backing and the brains to succeed, and I expect it will.

Friday, January 19, 2007

China tests anti-satellite weapon

The first in-space test of an antisatellite weapon in two decades has been accomplished by China, a nation not previously known to have ASATs (suspected, yes, but not known).
The USSR tested numerous ASATs in orbit, but the ASAT capability of Russia has presumably withered away. The US did one test in 1986, then scrapped its own system.
China appears to have used a kinetic kill vehicle separating from a ballistic missile to destroy an old weather satellite in low orbit. The US and Russia have expressed concerns, but the diplomatic fallout is uncertain.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Goodbye to a Great White

It's been a big news week for sharks, with the loss of the Georgia Aquarium star, Ralph the whale shark, followed by a bit of good news. The second great white shark kept successfully in captivity was released into the Pacific. The Monterey Bay Aquarium released the unnamed male, two meters long and weighing 77.5 kg, with a tracking tag attached to let scientists follow him for the next 90 days. The shark was brought to the aquarium after being netted by fishermen on August 31, 2006. The only other great white kept more than 16 days in captivity was also housed at Monterey Bay. Great whites can, in exceptional cases, reach over 7 meters as adults.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Space Show

Follow the link above for the January 9 appearance by myself and colleague Kris Winkler. We spent 90 minutes discussing microsatellites, the Vision for Space Exploration, and related topics. Our thanks to Dr. David Livingston for this opportunity.

Animals on the EDGE

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has launched a new campaign to save the world's most endangered mammals.
The ZSL is drawing attention to 100 Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE )species. Most of these, unlike charismatic icons such as the giant panda, are currently receiving little or no conservation attention. The EDGE program will focus on ten of these species each year.

This year's top 10 is headed by the Yangtze river dolphin, which (as noted in an earlier post) may already be extinct.

The first 10 are:
Yangtze River dolphin
Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna
Hispaniolan solenodon
Bactrian camel
Pygmy hippopotamus
Slender Loris
Hirola antelope
Golden-rumped elephant shrew
Bumblebee bat (usually rated as the world’s smallest mammal)
Long-eared jerboa

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Planet-hunting from your PC

In a project called systemic (no capitalization), hundreds of amateurs around the world are using their PCs to sift through the mountains of data collected by professional astronomers, looking for the tiny gravitational anomalies that could signal undiscovered planets around other stars. Participants download the systemic console software, usable on Mac, Windows, and Linux computers. (See
The Internet has proven to be a way for amateurs to swell the ranks of professionals in this and other scientific endeavors. Global networks of volunteers look for signs of alien intelligence, examine the light around distant stars for additional planetary clues, and even examine an archive of NASA images to detect grains of stellar material brought back to Earth by the Stardust probe.

Some GOOD News on Science Education

It's common, and at least partly justified, to decry the state of science education in the United States. So it's nice to read that the number of high school students taking physics has reached a record high. Moreover, the number of bachelor's degrees in physics has gone up 31 percent since 2000. Continuing a trend that's been visible since 1986, the percentage of high school students taking physics has now hit 30 percent. The percentages of minority and female students are likewise up significantly, with 47 percent of today's physics students being girls. Michael Neuschatz of the American Institute of Physics attributes the increase to wider choice, with more schools offering specialized classes rather than a single broad physics class, and the desire of college-bound students to show challenging science classes on their transcripts.

Last Mission for Atlantis

In September 2008, the Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis will fly a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the greatest Shuttle-enabled science triumph in NASA's history.
Then the orbiter will retire, the first of NASA's shuttles to pack in in as the program heads for shutdown in 2010. Atlantis will be used as needed as a source of parts for the last two orbiters. Its fate after 2010 is undecided.
There no longer seems any doubt the controversial decision to retire the Shuttle in 2010 will be executed. Remaining missions, except the Hubble flight, are all taken up with service and support of the International Space Station (ISS). Soon, work will begin to convert one Shuttle launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Pad 39B, for the Ares rocket booster that will fly the new Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Friday, January 12, 2007

RIP, Ralph the Shark

Ralph, the 7-meter whale shark who entranced audiences at the Georgia Aquarium, has died of unknown causes. Ralph was one of four whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the aquarium. It's the only facility in the United States, or indeed anywhere outside of Asia, that maintains a population of the world's largest fish. The whale shark is capable of growing to 15 meters or more. The aquarium's other three whale sharks, Norton, Alice, and Trixie, appear fine.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Catfish named for a Batman

A new species of South American catfish has been named Otocinclus batmani.
The 4-cm fish, from rivers in Columbia and Peru, has a tail marking resembling a black "bat" symbol. Ichthyologist Pablo Lehmann wrote, "The name batmani, alludes to Bob Kane's hero Batman of the comic adventures, which had a bat shape for his symbol, referring to the single W- or bat-shaped vertical spot on the caudal fin."

The Space Show

I and co-author Kris Winkler are on the syndicated radio program The Space Show tonight to discuss microspacecraft and NASA's Vision for Space Exploration. They have podcasts and audio files if you miss the live show.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

An Island of Ice - sign of climate change?

One of the six large ice sheets in the Canadian Arctic has broken free near Ellesmere Island. This is the first time in 30 years such a large Arctic shelf this size (25 square miles) has been observed to break loose. One scientist observed, ""This is a dramatic and disturbing event. It shows that we are losing remarkable features of the Canadian North that have been in place for many thousands of years. We are crossing climate thresholds, and these may signal the onset of accelerated change ahead." This event has obvious implications for climate change as well as, eventually, posing a hazard to shipping if the ice mass stays intact and floats south. It punctuates the series of Arctic ice cover losses discussed in earlier posts, which have raised much concern about polar bears and other animals of the region.
(It should be noted that ascribing this activity to human-caused global warming is not universally accepted. A scientist at the libertarian Cato Institute ( argues the Arctic ice cover was at an unusual peak in the 1970s, and the losses since then may indicate, at least partly, a normal cycle.)
COMMENT: There has been too quick a rush at times to ascribe everything from Hurricane Katrina to the cherry blossoms in the Northeast this month to human-caused climate change. Proponents of quick action on climate change do need to avoid oversimplifying and thus weakening their case. While warming is definitely occurring, the Earth's climate is one heck of a complex system, and that has to be addressed in any scientific understanding of the issue.

Did we miss life on Mars?

There is no proof the 1976 Viking landers missed finding life on Mars. There is, however, an intriguing new theory about how they could have.
Geology professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch has published a paper suggesting that the VIking experiments could actually have killed life isntead of finding it. By adding water to Martian soil and then warming it - a logical way to look for Earth-type microbes - Schulze-Makuch suggests the experiments may have drowned and/or baked life forms with significantly different chemistry.
In the cells of Earth-based life forms, the basic internal liquid is some variant of salt water. On the cold, dry Red Planet, a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide may have evolved instead. Astrobiologist Mitch Sogin, a member of a National Research Council committee on alien life, said, "I'm open to the possibility that it could be the case." Future probes carrying more sophisticated experiments may settle the question.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A meteorite crashes the party

Freehold Township, New Jersey, 50 miles south of New York City, is not the place for big science stories. Not until this week, when a celestial visitor ripped through the roof of a two-story house and embedded itself in a wall of the upper floor. Puzzled homeowners found a metallic rock weighing 377 grams and about the size of a lopsided golf ball. Geologists from Rutgers University, with the help of an independent metallurgist, identified the visitor as a meteorite. The sample was unusually iron-rich, indicating a possible origin in the interior of an asteroid smashed by a cosmic collision. Legally, it's the property of the unnamed family whose property it landed in. Their plans for it are unknown. This is, after all, a situation only a few homeowners in recorded history have had to deal with.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A would-be astronaut's quest

Damaris B. Sarria, an engineer on the space shuttle program, is aiming higher. She wants to be an astronaut. In this blog, she is chronicling her current career at NASA and her efforts to prepare for the astronaut selection process and eventually fly on the Crew Exploration Vehicle now under development. She began her blog in May 2005 and will continue it for however long it takes (no one knows when NASA will select another astonaut class, as there are mroe than enough people to fly the Shuttle through its 2010 retirement).

I wish her the best of luck. Per ardua ad astra.

Unveiling the private spaceship

The Goddard, the technology testbed for the suborbital passenger-carrying spaceship being built by Jeff Bezos' company, Blue Origin, has been unveiled on video. Bezos, founder of, has been keeping his plans as quiet as possible, but has now released clips of his test vehicle's first flight on November 13, 2006. The heritage from the successful McDonnell-Douglas DC-X test vehicle will be apparent to space buffs.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Nepal loses a herd of rhinos

Nepal introduced 72 Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) to a nature reserve in the southwest of the country starting in 1984. They can't find a single one. While 23 are known to have died, an "extensive search" has turned up no trace of the others, except for one skeleton. The Babai Valley was abandoned by forestry personnel in 1999 due to a guerrilla conflict, but, now that things have calmed down, the government is still looking for the rhinos, or for remains of the bodies left by poachers (who would have taken only the horn). An official said, "Where did they go? I have no answer. It is a mystery."

COMMENT: While this is obviously bad news for conservation, the species is fortunately doing well in India and elsewhere in Nepal. What this story highlights is the difficulty of keeping track of animals, even large ones, or finding their remains. It was only in December 2005 that the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) was confirmed to be living in Vietnam, years after it was written off as extinct.

Matt Bille

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Florida's Bigfoot

If it's unlikely the Pacific Northwest harbors an undiscovered ape, it would seem absurd to think the much-traveled state of Florida could have a population of similar creatures. Yet, there have been sightings of what's often called "the Skunk Ape" going back decades, at least.
Now film students at Florida International University have trekked through the swamps and woods to produce a documentary on the story. They did not find the Skunk Ape, but as one student said, "'There are a lot of things going on in the Everglades, a lot of reports of smells and sightings and a whole bunch of things. Who are we to say because we didn't see it, it doesn't exist? Maybe there is something out there.''

It would be nice to think so.

ADDITIONAL COMMENT: Back in 1976, I was doing campaign research for a fellow running for Florida state legislature in what was then District 48, centered around Vero Beach ( about an hour south of Canaveral on the east coast). We naturally combed all the newspapers printed in our district. One, I believe from the town of St. Cloud, was headlined "800-Pound Hairy Creature Stalking Reedy Creek" and discussed a Skunk Ape sighting in that very rural area. We made a lot of jokes about it being our opponent out campaigning, but I never did read anything more about it. There was even a rumor going around the high school that some students had a sighting about the same time near Vero, on the banks of the Indian River (which is really a lagoon), though I never tracked it to a first-hand account.
The sightings in those days did lead to a bill introduced the next year in the Legislature making it illegal to "molest or annoy" a skunk ape. As I remember it, one legislator brought up the topic and asked, "Mr. Speaker, would you tell me why anyone in his right mind would annoy a giant eight-foot-tall ape?" (I was a page in the Florida House at the time and witnessed the exchange on what must have been a slow legislative day. This was on the floor of the full House, but I'm not certain whether the bill had actually made it out of committee or was just brought up as a point of interest for discussion. I do know it didn't pass.)

Astronomy can be really cool

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has sent a team to Antarctica to explore the universe.
The team launched a giant helium balloon carryng a two-meter telescope weighing 2,000 kg. The BLAST (balloon-borne large aperture sub-millimetre telescope) has been floating since December 21, 38km above the surface of the Earth. According to CSA, BLAST will "identify large numbers of distant star-forming galaxies, study the earliest stages of star and planet formation, and make high-resolution maps of diffuse galactic emissions."