Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: Deep Blue Home

Julia Whitty
Houghton Mifflin, NY 2010 (link above is to a 2011 edition)

Whitty, a writer and environmentalist, gives us a book worthy of its title. She is a wonderful writer – while we have many good nature/science writers (Angier, Safina, et. al.), Whitty and Diane Ackerman are in a class by themselves when it comes to vivid descriptions and marvelous you-are-there evocations of time and place.

Writing in the first person, Whitty begins by taking us back to 1984 and to Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez, a global center of seabird nesting and an example of difficult but successful conservation efforts. Later trips venture into the Pacific, the north Atlantic, and even the high desert of Mexico (the one sequence that failed to hold my interest).

Whitty has a lot to tell us about the creatures of the great waters. Did you know hermit crabs are the basis for a moving community of other invertebrates totaling over 500 species? Or that some Pacific rockfish of the genus Sebastes live over 200 years, a span more than doubled by the quahog Artica islandia?

But it is the language that stays with this reader the most. Hordes of spawning capelin at the Newfoundland shore are “turning the waves into polished silver purses that roll ashore and spill their wriggling treasure onto the beach.”    (Two males clamp onto every female.)  At a cold seep off Oregon called Hydrate Ridge, “the mud on the bottom of the sea is more alive than dead” with an amazing density of invertebrates. Working on a marine research ship, she learns that calling a specimen “interesting” is a cautious yet excited way of saying “possible new species.”

Whitty deals with rough waters, drunken sailors, and a sperm whale that comes right at her while she’s swimming until she has to look up and down to see the whole head, and she thinks for a moment he’s going to crush her before he slips gracefully beneath. Along the way, she shows us not just marine creatures but the people who depend on them and the threats that we have to fight against.

Deep Blue Home is a voyage home, and you’ll enjoy the journey.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: The Road to Loch Ness

Lee Murphy (Defining Moments, 2014)

The last two years have been good for cryptozoology-themed fiction.  We’ve had high-octane thrillers like Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, atmospheric novels like Willis’ The Daedalus and the Deep, chillers like Below, a crypto subplot in a Dan Simmons epic, and the scariest crypto-thriller ever, Joseph Wallace’s superbly researched Invasive Species, just to name a few.  The genre has never been healthier, in quantity or quality.

Now we can add to list the best of Lee Murphy’s George Kodiak novels (available only in e-book format for now, by the way). Murphy is on his game here: the plot, setting, and characters are all terrific.  The author sends his tough-guy cryptozoologist to Loch Ness (and we all knew he’d wind up there eventually, right?) for two futile years of research in a semi-submerged lab which (for reasons that could be made clearer) many local citizens oppose.  The boredom, though, explodes in one short week that sees one of George’s friends get killed, new and old adversaries try to sabotage his scientific venture, and the creature of the loch arise once and for all.  (To avoid being too much of a spoiler, I won’t say what it is Kodiak finds. The solution seems a little less plausible to me than the giant eels of Steve Alten’s The Loch, but it’s more fun, and Lee has done a lot of work to make his creature believable.)
Indeed, Lee has done his homework in every topic touched on in this novel. He might even have done a little too much: as I said of Max Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, the story drags in spots as a character gives an information dump.  Murphy also knows the history of the loch and of cryptozoology, and readers will learn a lot of background to the “real” Loch Ness case.
For the first time in these novels, Kodiak gets a supporting cast as interesting as he is. His friend Rocky, Rocky’s daughter Erika, and a cast of local and international helpers and meddlers are along for the ride. Lee gets better in every book at drawing his people. Kodiak more than ever is a three-dimensional human with foibles and limitations, and the unexpected romance he finds in this novel is genuinely touching.  Murphy also works an environmental message in almost from the beginning of the book, and it’s a powerful one.
Like so many of us readers, Murphy loves the latest in technology (I helped him a bit on some research) and there are plenty of cool gadgets on display. I’ll nitpick only one here: the X-Ray mode on his high-tech diving helmet couldn’t really work with X-rays, which require a target to be between transmitter and receiver, although there is some promising research into a more limited “see through walls” capability using radio waves.   
Lee and I are different writers with slightly different views on the need to stick to the rules of traditional English grammar: I have to take a half-star off my enjoyment level for that, though many readers won’t mind. The sentence structure is clunky in the chapter “Extinction Event,” which feels tacked on. The rest of the book is better, and I enjoyed it even as I groused about the occasional change of tense.
The plotting and pacing here are good, and the reader will find plenty of surprises. This is also the funniest of Lee’s books, with laugh-out-loud moments woven into the life-and-death events. The loch is well described, as are the vessels involved. 
To recap, this is a very enjoyable read. It’s George Kodiak’s most thrilling and satisfying venture into cryptozoology, and it leaves our hero a little bloodied, a little wiser, and, for the first time in his life, willing to admit he might even have a romantic future.  Good job, Lee!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dunkleosteus - Old Bone-Face in Popular Culture

Western popular culture loves prehistoric beasts, especially dinosaurs. Indeed, dinosaurs crowd out almost everything else.  Exceptions are the mighty shark Megalodon, which has its own subculture of books, movies, and other stuff, and marine reptiles, which share space with the dinosaurs (and are often incorrectly called dinosaurs) as well as having some properties of their own and cross-fertilizing with the interest in sea monsters and lake monsters. I caught a traveling exhibit on marine reptiles way back in 1991 at the Fort Worth (TX) Museum of Natural History, where one display asked “Is Nessie a Plesiosaur?” (The answer, in case you were wondering, was a politely argued “no.”)  

Now, on to Dunkleosteus: there are many species, but D. terrelli was by far the largest, and is the only one I’m concerned with.  Dunkleosteus is a genus name now widely accepted, after being untangled from the older and once-conflated Dinichthys (still a good genus of its own) and the latter’s proposed synonym or replacement, Ponerichthys. I think I have all that right.
Despite its enormous size (9-10 meters!) and fearsome appearance, though, the Dunk doesn’t appear much at all in pop culture compared to the plesiosaurs and tyrannosaurs of the Cretaceous. 

Dunkleosteus terrelli (image public domain)

Here’s my first attempt at a list:

The cheap and stunningly awful 2002 film Megalodon includes a baby Dunk: a character says the species grew to 12 feet long, a rare understatement. (I saw the baby prop on an online sale years later for $50 but for some reason didn’t pursue it.)

In the 1984 French-Italian horror film Monster Shark, the Dunk is (I swear I’m not making this up) one of the “parent” species used to breed a monster by crossing it with an octopus.  If the film is notable at all, it’s for presaging the “Sharktopus” and other idiotic hybrid creatures on the SyFy Channel.
I was mainly looking at Western culture, but the 2008 Studio Ghibli animalted film Ponyo includes a Dunk among its varied cast of fishy creatures.    

TV (nonfiction):
Start with the BBC series Sea Monsters (a.k.a. Chased by Sea Monsters, where the seven most dangerous seas in history included, in fifth place, the Devonian world of the Dunk.  There’s terrific CGI of the Dunk scaring hell out of a time-traveling explorer in a shark cage.

Dunkleosteus appeared in the second episode of Animal Armageddon on Animal Planet.

There’s an effort described on FaceBook to raise money for a new documentary and for a film called Dunkleosteus the Devilfish.  Not much seems to be happening, though. Another independent feautre called Dark Earth would also use Dunks, if funded to completion.

TV (fiction):
Some online sources mention the Dunk appearing in the ITV science fiction series Primeval, but I can’t find a definitive reference. 

Books (fiction):
The Dinotopia series of books, made into a TV miniseries, included “The Fish,” a Dunk that guarded the underwater entrance to a cavern.

In the Bas-Lag fantasy  novels of China MiĆ©ville,  Dunks are called "bonefish."

There’s a novel on Kindle called The Twelve Seas: Deep Lagoon, by Lenore Langland, that features the Dunk, and the animal makes an appearance in Steve Alten’s popular Megalodon series in the 2009 novel Meg:Hell’s Aquarium. It pops up again the recent Meg: Nightstalkers.

Finally, there’s a 1969 novel for young readers, Corey’s Sea Monster, by Rutherford George Montgomery, that centers on a  Dunkleosteus (here called  Dinichthys).

Books (nonfiction):
Countless books on fossils, fishes, etc. have at least brief mentions of the Dunk. A 2005 example - this one for young readers -  is  Dragons of the Deep: Ocean Monsters Past and Present by Carl Wieland and Darrell Wiskur. Deep Alberta: Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs by John Acorn (2007) is of special interest because Alberta has produced some of the best Dunk fossils.  The Dunk also appears in companion books to the above-mentioned TV documentaries, like the 2004 volume Chased by Sea Monsters by Nigel Marven and Jasper James. It appears only momentarily in Richard Ellis’ book Sea Dragons, but that's long enough for Ellis to create the definitive description by likening the animal’s jaws (in a memorable line I’ve been borrowing ever since) to a giant staple remover.  A unique angle on the Dunk and its relations appears in the 2012 book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long. The placoderms were the first animals we know of to have actual sex (internal fertilization), and palentologists are still discussing just how sex was possible with all that armor: the male may have had to shove the female face-first into the seabed, which kind of takes the romance out of it.

The Dunk appears briefly in ParaWorld and plays a bigger role in E.V.O. Search For Eden and Ecco the Dolphin. On Android phones, you can choose the Dunk as your prey in the game Dinosaur Assassin Pro.  There’s also an old PlayStation game called Aquanaut's Holiday that includes the Dunk.

So that’s Dunkleosteus in popular media. It’s not much of a record compared to the dinosaurs, but it’s enough to introduce the world to one of the most remarkable creatures of all time.
We can do better, though. I’m working on it


Thanks to some fans on FaceBook and the Comment below, I can now make some additions.  The Jurassic Park Builder games do indeed allow you to raise your own Dunkleosteus. nd, going way back into the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons included a Dunkleosteus, known in the game as Dinichthys.
Sources: In addition to the sources linked above, I am indebted to a Wikipedia user named Resident Mario for a list posted here on Wikipedia in 2009.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Vaquita's Last Breath?

Science was unaware the world’s smallest cetacean existed until 1950, when a single skull was found on the beach in the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez.  In 1958, Kenneth Norris and William McFarland formally described the Gulf of California porpoise, known to local fishermen as the vaquita or "little cow." The local name has become the most commonly used, but it may soon be spoken only in the past tense.
About a meter and a half long at most, and never much over 50kg, the light grey vaquita is indeed tiny by cetacean standards.   The animal tended to avoid boats, an unusual trait for a porpoise and one that made it harder to study.  This shyness, however, hasn't kept the species from becoming endangered - in fact, nearly extinct. 

Many animals have been killed accidentally in gill nets.   The Gulf's ecology has suffered due to overfishing and agricultural runoff, and the surviving porpoises' food supply is dwindling.   The authoritative global source on species status, the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), lists the animal as “Critically Endangered.”  This, alas, is an understatement. The vaquita, at this writing, is in terrible straits. The Mexican government sponsored the  International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (or the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacion de la Vaquita (CIRVA)), estimated the animal’s numbers had dropped from 245 individuals in 2008 to a mere 97 in 2014.   The species’ future rests with no more than 25 females of reproductive age. Restrictions on gillnet fishing haven’t been enough to stem the decline, and the species doesn’t exist in captivity.  It may not exist at all by 2020.
In 2006, China's freshwater baiji Lipotes vexillifer was declared extinct (a lone individual was videotaped sometime later, but there is, sadly, no doubt the species is beyond hope). Scientists led by Samuel Turley wrote, "This represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity."
Unless the call for immediate and drastic action is heeded, the vaquita will be the second cetacean species to be driven extinct by human activity.
I wish I could be optimistic that humanity won't let another cetacean vanish. Sadly, I'm not.


NOAA and NASA: It's not either-or

This story on is getting a lot of sharing. It's misleading because the one fact being cited has nothing to do with exploration of Earth's oceans. The Europa project, which is $2B spread over many years, is part of the smallest budget (with inflation taken into account) NASA has had since 2004. NASA has less than half the budget it had 50 years ago (FY1964). NASA's $18B budget is 1/2 of one percent of the Federal budget, the lowest share since 1960. NASA's budget isn't even as much as it seems, because Congressional patronage forces the agency to keep more centers than it needs (it has the same centers it had at the height of Apollo) and to run projects based on maximum jobs impact (the poster child being the Space Launch System: SpaceX and United Launch Alliance can build launchers almost as capable for a much lower investment by the federal government.)

NOAA, at $5.5B, is underfunded and always has been, but NASA isn't the cause. We have two realms to explore, and BOTH matter to our future.

Water plume on Europa's surface and hydrothermal plume in an Earth ocean. Let's explore them both... 

(images NASA, NOAA)


Thursday, August 07, 2014

It's National Sea Serpent Day (seriously, it is)

OK, NSSD is a creation of persons unknown, promoted by bloggers such as Jay Cooney (see his   blog Bizarre Zoology), and taking off in cryptozoology circles.  Sea and lake creature aficionado Cooney (Jay Bizarrezoo Cooney on Facebook and elsewhere) is one of the enthusiasts who thinks our most enduring legend of the seas deserves a day, and it does.  Whether one thinks the whole topic is, to quote Fred Flintstone, a "silly old myth," or whether you think there might still be something real behind the stories, the sea serpent has been with us from many centuries B.C. into the present day, with a major presence in toys, cartoons, terrible movies, and other areas of society. Some serpents, like Chessie and Caddy, have followings of their own. (Other nicknames for sea serpents off the U.S. coasts have included Slimy Slim and Colossal Claude.)
August 7 commemorates (if not precisely) two of the three most famous sightings in history, the third being the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo incident of December 7, 1907. In August of 1817, the first sightings of the Gloucester serpent were reported. He, she, they, or it appeared many times over that summer, with over a hundred witnesses. Even the usually conservative marine chronicler Richard Ellis wrote in his classic Monsters of the Sea that something unusual was apparently going on. The various conventional explanations (like the one in the article just linked to) don't really nail it for me, either.  Read June O'Neill's terrific book The Great New England Sea Serpent for the best account of the whole business. There's a song, too!
On August 6 in 1848, the crew and captain of HMS Daedalus saw a huge serpentine animal and made a formal report. The Daedalus serpent may have been a giant squid behaving strangely, but the date is immortal in cryptozoology in any event.

Personally, I think it likely that, buried in a mound of data of varying reliability, there is still a very large eel or eel-shaped fish (like the frilled shark) at the bottom of this enduring legend.  I have no hope for even cooler things, like surviving Mesozoic reptiles, but I'll take a 10m eel any day as a "sea serpent." Maybe I'm wrong, and there's nothing left except mistaken observations and the occasional hoax, but the sea serpent, animal or myth, will endure forever.

So celebrate!

Want to know more? (and do you get that movie reference?) There are a number of good books. Ellis' is one: Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpent is THE classic. I spent several chapters on marine creatures in Shadows of Existence, and will treat them in more depth in my upcoming book Seas, Sharks, and Serpents.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Space propulsion: no miracles yet

Has NASA validated a radical new type of propulsion?

There’s certainly a lot of media attention being paid to the claim that NASA researchers have validated a new type of superefficient thruster (in theory, it needs no propellant at all, just a source of electrical power).  I'm very, very cautious.
NASA hasn't officially put a stamp on this: One NASA team says they see a very small but consistent effect. As for me, I want to see it replicated independently. Even if that works, then I want evidence it can be scaled up to a useful thrust level. So it’s very interesting, but this minuscule effect (if it’s proven to be real at all) isn’t ready for flight time.

Here's another thought. Assume the effect is real and can be scaled up enough to put a small thruster on a nanosatellites, like one of the popular CubeSat-based models. If you can deploy enough solar cells, you can use that on inner Solar System missions without violating the laws of thermodynamics, since you are putting in more power than you take out (Given the size of the effect as measured by NASA, there's clearly a major loss of energy in the system). For larger thrusters, though, or for missions beyond Earth, you'd have to carry a power source for the electrical energy needed. Does the mass of the power source (RTG, fission, whatever) cancel out the gain of using this effect for propulsion? It might still work, especially on science or cargo missions where it's ok to take a long time to accelerate. We're still around Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2 here on NASAs scale of 1-9 (see the diagram below).  Arguably, this idea still has one foot in Technology Readiness Level 1, since the basic research needed to understand the nature of the propulsive phenomena is far from mature.
With very tiny effects, even highly qualified researchers can see what they want to see. (This is precisely what happened with the Podkletnov antigravity disk, which NASA put at least $650K into before figuring out the effect was imaginary. Some smart people at NASA believe there's something to Andrea Rossi's e-cat cold fusion device, but it slips year after year without producing the kind of demo that skeptics can't refute as error and/or fraud. )
I'd put a modest amount of money into this to see what an unrelated group of engineers could do about replicating it. Replication is always Step One.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Jurassic Shark

OK, everyone uses that weak pun, so why shouldn't I get into it? I use worse puns than that every day. And now that we are headed into Shark Week (cue Jaws music), I put together a few interesting tidbits.

You often hear sharks called "living fossils." Well, that depends how you define the term.  There are no shark species today that saw the dinosaurs come and go, but there are many of long lineage (up to tens of millions of years). The bizarre goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni), for example, can trace back its family about 125MY.  The frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus)  is almost as weird and may be as old. There's no questioning that sharks, as a group, are survivors. They are older than dinosaurs, older than flowers, older than mammals, older than trees. 

One of the challenges in tracing the lineage of sharks is that they don't fossilize well.  Shark teeth fossilize wonderfully, but the shark's skeleton is all cartilage.  When enough calcium has built up in the skeleton, most often in an older shark, you can find the vertebrae partially preserved. For a full, articulated shark fossil, you need fine-grained sediments and a great deal of luck.

There are few remains of everyone's favorite fossil whale-chomper, Carcharocles megalodon (formerly put in the genus Carcharodon with the great white) except teeth. They are some teeth, up to 17cm or more in length, finely serrated, and often found well-preserved enough to cut your hand on.  The lack of other remains has contributed to the uncertainty about Megalodon's size.  Scientists have found two partial spinal columns, with vertebra up to 23cm across.

Epic Megalodon

Megalodon jaws (considerably oversized)

A famous reproduction of the jaws, using a modern great white as a model, led to speculation of sharks 30m (100 feet) long or even more.  However, this assumed the teeth were the same size all through the jaws and thus got the size of the jaws and the overall shark much too large.  Modern estimates tend to cluster around 15m - 18 on the outside - which is still, well, one giant shark. They may be larger than the current champion, the harmless whale shark.  The great white is still "great" by anyone's standards, but it's been whittled down from estimates of 10 or even 12m to around 6.5m for the biggest females (males are smaller). Seven meters has been claimed for one Australian catch (estimated in the water - it was too big to get in the boat) and for a never-caught South African shark nicknamed "The Submarine." Seven meters is not impossible, but likely represents the extreme upper bound.

Meg lived from about 28MYA to perhaps as late as 1.5MYA, though it's pretty firmly in the "Extinct" category, which is too bad.  It was presumably outcompeted by the nimbler (perhaps smarter) great whites and the pack-hunting orcas, which popped up in the last few million years of its reign (orca beginnings are rather fuzzy.) Meg lived at the same time as the sperm whale ancestor Livyatan melvillei, which was about the same size: their battles must have been awesome spectacles.

Steve Alten used the hundred-foot size in his popular Meg novels: Charles' Wilson's Extinct, which in my opinion is the inferior of the two, makes them much larger. (I was pretty hard on Alten for his science, but I agree he's gotten better, and Wilson's was so bad I gave it away after one reading.) I just downloaded a new novel with the truth-in-advertising name Big Ass Shark, but haven't read it yet.

Male Great White Shark, Farallone Islands, 2010 (NOAA)

There are sharks that beat the odds and fossilize very well.  The  Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Manitoba knew they had an 80-90 million year old fossil of a Squalicorax or crow shark but didn’t look closely at it until 2014, when they realized they had the largest specimen ever found (3m) as well as one of the most complete set of remains of this modern-looking shark. Peter Cantelon, Executive Director, said, “With shark fossils… what you'll typically find are just the teeth. In this instance, we have an entire shark from tip to tail. The spine is visible all the way through; we can see a large portion of its skull, jaw, possible fin material, gill material. It's incredible how well this was preserved."

So as you watch Shark Week (a mixed bag of very good shows, average shows, and terrible fake Megalodon "documentaries"), remember that these really are incredible creatures, worth of respect, fascination, and protection. (They have more to fear from us than vice versa. Sharks may kill ten people a year: people may kill 10,000 sharks an hour.)   There are some 400 species and counting - a single researcher who traveled with a commercial fishing fleet turned up as many as eight new species (not yet confirmed and described) in the "bycatch."

Now, time to watch Sharknado 2! I'm waiting for the obvious sequel - Sharknado 3: Megalodon.