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.