Saturday, September 30, 2006

Still Roving Mars

Twenty-one months into its impressively long mission, the NASA rover Opportunity has reached its newest target. Victoria Crater is an impressive half-mile-wide hole in the Martian surface, but what excites scientists are the walls showing layers of exposed rock. The mission's Principal Investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell, describes the crater as "a geologist's dream come true...Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago. We especially want to learn whether the wet era that we found recorded in the rocks closer to the landing site extended farther back in time. The way to find that out is to go deeper, and Victoria may let us do that."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Grizzly bears survive in Colorado?

The grizzly, Ursus arctos horribilis, was officially extirpated from the state of Colorado in the 1950s. A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the Colorado-Wyoming Academy of Science arguing that sighting reports indicated a few bears were hanging on in the southwestern quarter of the state, though I didn't think a viable population was indicated. Now a sighting by hunters near Independence Pass, concerning a female with two cubs, has been considered credible enough by the Division of Wildlife that a helicopter was sent to conduct a search. SO far, no supporting evidence has been collected, but the story could have major implications for other "extinct" or unconfirmed animals. If it turns out we missed 800-lb predators in Colorado, what else might be out there... ?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Florida Ivory-bill Paper

Following up on the Auburn University researchers' report of Florida ivory-bills:

You can download the paper presenting the evidence from the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, at:

(Thanks to Chad Arment for locating the paper)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ivory-bills in Florida?

Auburn University researchers believe they have sighted the world's most elusive woodpecker in the Panhandle region of Florida. The Auburn researchers say their data, including 14 sighting reports and many recordings of woodpecker calls and double-rap tree drumming sounds, is actually better than the evidence from Arkansas that caused such a flap (no pun intended) last year. Very very exciting, it proves to be true... they do not have any photographs or videotapes, however. While some ornithologists are cautious, team leader Geoff Hill is certain. "I am one hundred percent positive that I saw an ivory-bill," he said.

Monday, September 25, 2006

For Saturn, a new ring

As a reminder that there's more going on in solar system exploration than the rovers on Mars, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is making important discoveries around the distant, majestic world of Saturn. When the planet recently passed in front of the sun (from the spacecraft's perspective), Cassini's camera spotted a hitherto unknown ring. The new ring intersects the orbits of two moons, Janus and Epimetheus.

Amazing undersea image collection

OK, "amazing" is an overused word. But nothing else works in this case. The winning entries from the BP Kongsberg Underwater Image Competition 2006 cover marine fauna, environments, and technology in a way that words can't express.

Friday, September 22, 2006

NATURE's science newsblog

In the "always worth reading" department is this newsblog from the editos of the prestigious science journal NATURE. This week, it coveres everything from super-cheap space launch ideas to why socialites need more sleep.

Final Final Verdict: No Face on Mars

New Scientist reports that European space scientists have new images of the Cydonia region of Mars, including the so-called "Face," from the Mars Express spacecraft. The result is - surprise - just like NASA found in earlier missions, the mystery object is merely a hill. Will this quiet the conspiracy buffs? Not a chance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Child 3M Years Old

Scientists today released information on what may be the fossil find of the decade: the skeleton of a 3-year-old female from Africa who lived, it is estimated, 3.3 million years ago. The child is an amazingly complete specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, the ancient hominin most famously known from the fossil named "Lucy." Will Harcourt-Smith of the American Museum of Natural History said, "It's a pretty unbelievable discovery... It's sensational." Scientists have spend five painstaking years freeing remains from the sandstone that encased them, and have years of additional work still to go. The fossil may settle many questions, including whether this species retained some of its ancestors' tree-climbing adaptations.

Teleportation, of a sort

German physicists report they have, for the first time anywhere, "teleported" the combined quantum state of two photons. Quantum teleportation does not transfer matter, but it does transfer information, in this case the quantum state of a particle's properties, such as polarization. In theory, this can be the basis of instant transference of almost infinite amounts of data.
COMMENT: It will be a long time before that theory pays off, but your grandchildren may think nothing of holding interactive video conferences and sending massive files back and forth with no time lag between their Martian colony and their Earthbound teacher.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

52 new species from Indonesian seas

Two surveys of the seas around the Bird's Head peninsula at the western end of New Guinea by scientists from Conservation International have revealed 52 new species of animals. Twenty-four, including two 1.2-meter epaulette sharks, were fish. The head of this enterprise was Mark Erdmann, famous for the episode in which he and his wife discovered the world's second known species of coelacanth. Other fish include new "flasher" wrasse, unusual species in which the males go through sudden color changes and maintain "harems" of females. Invertebrates catalogued included new species of corals and shrimp. Erdmann is arguing for increased protection of this area, which is biologically rich and diverse but threatened by illegal fishing methods including the use of dynamite.

A Towering Tree

The tallest living thing on Earth has gone undiscovered until now. At an undisclosed location in northern California, two amateur naturalists identified a redwood tree which, according to laser height-finding instruementaion, is 378.1 feet tall. The tree has been named Hyperion. Scientists plan to confirm the record the old-fashioned way: a brave and talented climber will ascend to the top of this natural skyscraper and drop a tape measure.

Oldest writing in the New World

The Olmecs built a mighty civilization in Mesoamerica while the Aztecs and Mayas were not even a gleam in the eyes of their gods. Now a stone from the Mexican state of Veracruz is giving us an idea how sophisticated these people were. Discovered in 1999 by two Mexican archaeologists, this block of serpentine, about the size of two thick encyclopedia volumes, contains the oldest known writing from the Western Hemisphere. The stone is over 3,000 years old, some 400 years older than any previous New World writing examples. The inscription on the stone includes 26 distinct symbols, although it's not clear yet what the unknown Olmec scribe meant to communicate.
American archaeologist Stephen Houston commented, "This reveals the Olmecs, in many ways the first civilization in a vast part of the ancient Americas, were literate, which we did not know for sure before, and hints that they were capable of the same large-scale organization assisted by writing like you saw in early Mesopotamia or Egypt."

How do you Classify a Kouprey?

The folks at provide a good summary of a new controversy in the mammal world.
One of the poster animals of cryptozoology is the Southeast Asian wild ox called the kouprey(Bos sauveli). It was described only in 1937, and no larger land mammal has been found since. (We'll set aside for the moment the debate over whether the African elephant is actually two species.) The kouprey has been on the edge of extinction almost since it was found, and there have occasionally been fears it was gone altogether, save for some hybrid animals that included domestic cattle blood.
Now three biologists have claimed that genetic analysis shows the kouprey was never anything but a hybrid between the banteng (Bos javanicus) and the zebu (Bos taurus indicus). Two French scientists immediately responded that, while "pure" koupreys may be hard to find, they do (or did) exist. The whole episode, which is far from resolved, is a reminder that taxonomy, even when it concerns creatures we know as well as we do our fellow mammals, is still not an exact science.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Success in Space

As the STS-115 shuttle mission winds down, the crew of the shuttle Atlantis and their counterparts on the International Space Station (ISS) have a lot to be proud of. After several long and strenuous spacewalks, the visitors from Earth will leave the ISS with much more power and capability than it had a week ago. Congratulations to all.

COMMENT: The ISS was expensive, and sometimes poorly managed: it will never produce the level of science return originally hoped for. That said, it gives us experience in two areas that will be very important in the future. One is long-duration human spaceflight. The other is the construction of large assemblies in space, something impossible to replicate precisely on Earth. Both will be critical to our aspirations to go beyond this planet - first with machines, as we do today, but someday with human explorers.

The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire. - Buzz Aldrin

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Neanderthals' Last Stand

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from Neanderthal hearths in a cave on Gibraltar has documented what may be the last Neanderthal settlement to exist anywhere. Known as Gorham's Cave, the site revealed what are known as Mousterian stone tools, from the final era of the Neanderthals. Seven years of work by a team led by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum produced "raw" (uncalibrated) radiocarbon dates ranging from 23,000 to 33,000 years B.P. It remains to be seen whether other scientists accept or repeat these findings, but for now, it lends credence to the idea that Neanderthals lingered here and perhaps at other southern European sites after modern humans had come to dominate the continent.

Xena, We Hardly Knew Ye

The solar system inhabitant that started the whole "what is a planet" debate has an official name. Dubbed 2003 UB313 but widely known by its nickname Xena, this body is now named Eris, after the Greek goddess of chaos and strife. The new name was announced by the International Astronomical Union, which also approved naming Eris' moon (known until now as Gabrielle) Dysnomia. Dysnomia was Eris' daughter and was another famed troublemaker in Greek mythology. Eris joins Pluto and the former asteroid Ceres in the new category of "dwarf planets."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

India's First New Bird in Half-Century

And it's a colorful new species, too.

The man who found India's newest bird is an astronomer and amateur birder named Ramana Athreya, a member of Mumbai's Natural History Society. The new species, Liocichla sp., comes from the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It sports a bright yellow patch around the eyes, a a black cap, and yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wings.
(Thanks to Darren Naish for a correction on this post.)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Atlantis makes orbit

After two weeks of frustrating delays, the space shuttle Atlantis, Mission ST-115, is in orbit. There was no evidence of significant foam shedding from the external tank, and no problems with the power unit and fuel sensor that forced the launch to slip. The six crewemembers have an ambitious shcedule ahead of them, as they make major additions to the International SPace Station (ISS). Good luck to Commander Brent W. Jett Jr., Pilot Christopher J. Ferguson and Mission Specialists Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, Joseph R. Tanner, Daniel C. Burbank and Steven G. MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Most dinosaurs are still undiscovered

A statistical analysis based on rates of discovery indicates that 71 percent of all dinosaur genera have yet to be discovered. The estimate by Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania and Steve Wang of Swarthmore College means, as Dodson says, "It's a safe bet that a child born today could expect a very fruitful career in dinosaur paleontology."

Monday, September 04, 2006

The "Crocodile Hunter" dies at 44

Steve Irwin, the Australian-born wildlife enthusiast known worldwide as The Crocodile Hunter, has died. In a freak incident, he was diving on the Great Barrier reef and passed just above a stingray, which thrust its barb up into into his chest. Most stingray events involve wounds in the feet or lower legs and are likely to be survivable, but Irwin died before he could be taken to a hospital.
COMMENT: Irwin was not a scientist, but he was a tremendously successful popularizer of science. Some scientists dismissed him as a showman who added no new knowledge and exploited animals, but science needs its showmen. Irwin showed millions of people how complex and interesting animals from crocodiles to snakes and spiders really were. He also made good use of his fame in the cause of conservation. Farewell, Steve. We'll miss you.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A "Smart" crash on the Moon

The European SMART-1 spacecraft completed its mission to study the Moon and was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface. Unique images are available here on the website of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.