Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Giant Lizard Walks in....

Nope, not a bar joke. If this blog has a theme, it's that we don't know the world around us as well as we think.  On the small Pacific island of Mussau, we've just discovered the top predator, a blue-tailed monitor lizard that lives nowhere else. Varanus semotus can be over a meter long.
While this is the first new monitor from the Papua New Guinea archipelago in 20 years, monitors in general turn up surprisingly often for such large creatures. Interested researchers like German zoologist Wolfgang Boehme have only recently documented just how widespread and  diverse monitors are. A total of sixteen species were from Indonesia and surrounding islands just between 1990 and 2006. Australia’s count has also risen recently, approaching 30 species, with several known but yet to be named.
Smaller monitors are popular as pets, a fact which has led to several recent discoveries.  A 1998 article by Jeff Lemm in Reptiles magazine discussed eight new types, all of which have turned up in the pet trade.  Two species have been formally described, and there may be as many as six more awaiting description.  Lemm wrote that some of these may prove to be subspecies or varieties rather than species.
From the island of Halmahera came Varanus yowoni, the black-backed mangrove monitor, which may be five feet long.  The other described species Lemm mentioned was the smaller, bright-yellow quince monitor, Varanus melinus.  This lizard grows to almost four feet in length and is reportedly a very tractable species in captivity.  It was kept as a pet and even bred in the United States for years before being identified as a species.
In 1999, Dr. Robert Sprackland described another species, the peacock monitor Varanus auffenbergi.  This is a colorful animal, blue with turquoise and orange markings, plus bright yellow spots on its limbs. Smaller than the other new monitors, it was obtained from Roti island in Indonesia.
Some new species are harder to place.  It’s often the case that a type specimen is in hand, but the type location is unknown. Because of the mixing of sources and suppliers in the pet business, it’s uncertain where several recently described species of new monitors originated. Wherever they came from, the most interesting thing is that, until recently, the scientific world had been quite unaware of them.
Some additional references:
Anonymous. 1997.  “At Home in the Rocks, a New Gecko Emerges,” National Geographic, June.
Lemm, Jeff.  1998.  “Year of the Monitor: A Look at Some Recently Discovered Varanids,” Reptiles, September, p.70.
Reptile Exotics.  No date.  “Care Sheet – Varanus melinus,”
Sprackland, Robert.  1999.  “A new species of monitor from Indonesia,” Reptile Hobbyist, February.
Sweet, Samuel., and Eric Pianka.  2003.  “The Lizard Kings,” Natural History, November, p.40...  .

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Humans and Wildlife: Why We Can't Have a Nice Planet

My thought for today: there is something seriously wrong with human beings.

Think about this dolphin.

Think about this shark.

Think about this dolphin.

Think about this chimp.

We've always felt other animals were there for our consumption.  Meat-eaters and vegans can debate the ethics of that, and we can debate the means by which other animals are grown or harvested, but what shouldn't, what can't, be debated is that inflicting pain for our own pleasure degrades, not the animal involved, but US.  The three marine life cases just mentioned are from different nations, but all involve relatively well-off human beings who don't need food - they decided they needed a sick thrill. And the world's loneliest chimp - well, he just wasn't needed anymore, so let him starve.

Animals as they should never be (copyright unknown)

Raising children who don't respect animals is (sadly) not new, but what this makes me think is that we're doing something likely to be even more damaging in the long term: we're raising generations who are disconnected from nature entirely. It's there for our amusement. It's there for selfies and videos and blog posts. But in a world of smartphones and video games and computers, nature is simply "other" - it's like another planet we can hop over to and use when we want.  It's not the source of our food, our building materials, our medicines - even though it is.

To my fellow parents: dammit, take your kids outside. Not just to the park. Take them to seas, to mountains.  Take them to places with dirt.  Show them how it all works - how animals and plants and geological forces shape the world they are standing in.

Teach them respect.

Teach them, above all, connectedness.

Rant over.

Animals as they should be (NOAA)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Scientific "what-if" thoughts on cryptozoology

Cryptozoology covers a lot of ground (some of it very shaky), but having read everything significant in the field for 40 years, I find myself speculating on two of its poster animals - sasquatch and Nessie - and what their reality may be.  

Idon't think we've missed a large unclassified American ape, and I am quite sure we haven't missed a massive animal in a Scottish lake.  If they were real, though, what might they be?

The best argument for Bigfoot is that pranksters creating hundreds and hundreds of fake footprint events, some made where they might not be discovered at all, seems illogical.  It is illogical, but the best argument against Bigfoot is that we don't have much better evidence by now. 

Some tracks are impressive, like the famous Bossburg "Cripplefoot" prints. If hoaxer Ivan Marx was really behind those, he put a lot of effort into making elaborate fake feet and leaving over a thousand prints with them.  Some prints are more easily be explained.  The "London trackway"  - humanlike 14" prints with a 47" stride - got some early endorsements from major Bigfooters.  However, I did an experiment on muddy ground like that mentioned in the report. I am 6-3” (I was 6-4" before my back screwed up) with long legs (inseam 36). I was able, barefoot, to make 13" tracks 47" apart heel to heel. Now that's on level ground, and I had to stretch as far as I could, but this indicates to me that a human just a fraction taller and larger-footed could have done it. This is just one data point, but it puts the tracks within the human range in my mind. Bigfooters have told me that "human" is now the generally accepted explanation. 

If Bigfoot proved real.. hmmm.  The footprint evidence to me is ambiguous on the "man vs. ape" question because the feet wouldn’t look like the feet of any primate species we know anyway: they’d have to evolve somewhat to carry such a huge body around bipedally. Also, there are countless variations within the Bigfoot track database even if you throw out the ones with other than five toes and the ones that don't look like a primate at all: no one can say definitively that "this is a real track and we can throw out all the ones that don't look like this."   A lot of researchers like Asia's Gigantopithecus blacki as either Bigfoot itself or an ancestor, which has some logic to it as this is the only ape known from the fossil record big enough to fit almost every report and idea of sasquatch.  But we have only teeth and jaws and thus no idea what the feet looked like. Giganto is generally presumed to be an orangutan-like quadruped, but we can't say definitively it never walked on two legs, or that it could not have spun off a habitually bipedal descendant.   

The most famous piece of evidence put forth for Bigfoot remains, after all these years, the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film.  I go with Dr. John Napier, the eminent primatologist who thought it likely sasquatch was a real animal, but that the filmed subject showed a mix of human and ape characteristics that wasn't believable. 
If it was a man in a suit, though, I'd still like to know who made the damned thing.  
I don't think it's a mail-order theatrical costume and I don't think it's a horsehide home-made job (the two theories Greg Long tried and failed to mesh into something believable in his book The Making of Bigfoot.)   There's no detail that screams "fake" unless you count my general impression that the back of the lower legs look pantlike. Someone put skill, effort, and money into this.  While the film rights were valuable, I wonder if the hoaxer went to the trouble because he thought the effort would bring in a lot more value than it ended up doing.  

I  never met Roger Patterson and haven't met Bob Gimlin, but I can't help thinking that Patterson was in on the hoax. I considered the idea that the hoaxer was a third party working through a local contact (like Al Hodgson, the store owner who told them of a nearby track find, or Bob Heironimus, who loaned Gimlin his horse) who knew P and G were looking  for Bigfoot and tipped them off to a likely location, but  I can't really make that work in my head. The guy in the suit would have needed to be a reckless idiot, as  he stood a fair chance of being shot if the two men - or someone else coming across the location which was remote but not unvisited - had decided they needed the specimen.  Indeed, both Patterson and Gimlin said, years later, they wished they had shot it.  While Patterson was a very interested Bigfoot-hunter (I have a copy somewhere of this self-published 1966 book), Gimlin was a less-interested companion who might have been innocent of the whole thing. But the bottom line is I write the whole affair off as a hoax. 

Patterson-Gimlin frame 352 (public domain)

Back to the question of what Bigfoot is, assuming it’s real: I used to like Giganto, too, based on the size factor: we don’t have any other apes nearly that size as suspects, and none of our human ancestors, despite some speculative interpretations of creatures like Paranthropus (aka Australopithecus) robustus, its cousin P. boiesi, or the invalid Homo gardarensis, comes close to being 7 feet or more in height.  

That leads to to an interesting side discussion:  how big does Bigfoot have to be to match the sighting reports? I think it’s safe to lop off the top end of Bigfoot height estimates based on the uncertainty of a startled eyewitness’ getting the height just right, but even if you assume the biggest estimates are in error, I think you need at least a 7-footer. Dr. Matthew Johnson claimed a clear sighting of an animal that was taller than himself, and Johnson is 6'8." Also, it’s definitely broad-shouldered and large in the frame.   It may not weigh 800 pounds or more as some researchers think. but 400+ is, I think, a minimum.  

Despite the unsuitability of human ancestors, though, I’ve come to think they are perhaps preferable to Giganto. We have no evidence Giganto (or any large ape) ever made it north of the bamboo forests in what is now China, whereas we do have direct evidence of one human species making itself at home in cold climates and then making the trip all the way to North America.  (See this article for a good anti-Giganto argument.) Plus, as humans evolved, we became more habitually bipedal, while the apes produced knuckle-walking or fist-walking large species.  What offshoot of the human branch produced a tall, hairy, and apparently rather dim (no good evidence of fire-making, sophisticated tools, etc.) species? Again, I think the answer is “none:” I just find it slightly less incredible than a giant ape. 

Nessie evidence is a little like Bigfoot minus the tracks. There are some odd sonar traces, and I still haven't completely filed away Tim Dinsdale's film: it might be a boat, but it looks like it submerges at one point.  The rest of the filmed evidence doesn't grab me the way it used to.
This came to mind due to a FaceBook thread on the "giant eel" idea. While this occasioned Steve Alten's best 'creature" novel, it's never been proven that 20-30-foot conger eels exist anywhere.  Still, if we assume for a moment there's a large unidentified animal species which inhabits Loch Ness for part or all of its lifecycle, the eel idea has its charms. Nessies are not airbreathers: we'd have more and better pictures. Invertebrates are out based on size. That leaves fish. I can imagine a giant conger, with its relatively thin forebody, lumpy midsection, and observed unusual behavior (as Maurice Burton wrote, it can zoom around with head and forebody out of water or (seemingly pointlessly) undulate on its side at the surface) a decent candidate. Ness expert Dick Raynor points out an eel doesn't match most of the known photos, but, as I said earlier, I don't think much of any of the still-photo evidence these days.  A giant conger could look at times like a swimming lump or a raised head/neck (even if that "neck" was sometimes the tail). I think eels could look a little more Nessie-ish than the other main fish candidates, the sturgeon or the wels catfish.  It's not so much a great solution as the only one I can sort of imagine. 

As I said in the title, these are random notes. They don’t really lead anywhere, except to my usual comment when I doubt cryptozoological creatures’ existence: I hope I’m wrong.