Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween at the International Cryptozoology Museum

Get a free tour, or come as Bigfoot and get a free book! Readers of this blog know that I often ask people to support the ICM. It does not matter what you think of particular "cryptids" or even cryptozoology in general. There is nothing like this museum in the world, and if it were ever to fail, its collection, including thousands of one of the kind items, would be a terrible loss to both the sociology and the science of cryptozoology/zoology.

You know, I have occasionally thought of dressing as Bigfoot and being seen just as an experiment to see what the news coverage looks like (I'm 6'4" and could do a reasonable sasquatch impression.) But I'm not going to do it because Colorado has a huge population of elk/deer/bear/moose hunters who might not be able to resist the temptation to become famous by nailing a legendary ape.

Amber holds keys to past

What can amber from India, 50 million years old, tell us about our pasts? Ask Dr. David Grimaldi, who's been finding hundreds of insect species in it. He told NPR's Science Friday:
"Well, we can actually see transitional forms between living and other extinct things. So fossils actually are important for evolutionary research. It tells us a lot about the origins of the Asian fauna. And this particular deposit, I find probably the most interesting aspect of it is that the resin, the amber, was actually formed from a type of tree called dipterocarps. And today, these types of trees are the dominant tree in Southeast Asia. And there had been some controversy about the age of tropical forests. And this is a unique discovery in terms of helping to date the age of tropical forests."

No dinosaur DNA (of course, the amber is too young anyway), but the large lumps of amber being pulled out of a lignite mine are time capsules of evolution.

China to launch space lab by 2020

It's often been suggested that China be added to the partners of the International Space Station, but thechnical and political reasons have kept that from happening. The Chinese aren't going to do a full-blown space station, on the scale of the ISS, but they are planning a human-inhabitaed laboratory by 2020, with a test version to be launched by 2016.

Amazon produces a new species every three days

On average, a new species was described out of the Amazon region every three days for the last ten years, according to the World Widlife Fund. Ecologist Meg Symington: "What we say now, and we're very conservative, is one in 10 known species is found in the Amazon." Discovered in the Amazon from 1999 to 2009 were 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals.
COMMENT: And some people STILL say cryptozoologists are wasting their time looking for new animals?

Scientis have fun with Dracula orchids andGoblin spiders

Entomologists and botanists like a cool name as much as anyone. A group of orchids famed for luring fruit flies to pollinate them by looking and smelling like mushrooms (the flies' natural preference) are classified in the genus Dracula. Goblin spiders are a very numerous group of small arachnids. Plenty of new species are being added to the spiders, the orchids have proven attractive to some previously unknown species of flies.
But why Dracula? Lorena Endara of the University of Florida explains, "Carlyle Luer, who later segregated Dracula from Masdevallia, sees these orchids as little bats flying in the forest since the flower faces down and the triangular sepals and the long sepaline tails display parallel to the ground."
Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Non-science digression: farewell to Superman, the last hero

OK, I officially hate what DC is doing to Superman. Do these people remaking him as dark and edgy and angsty have no respect whatever for an iconic character? He may be, as Batman once called him, an "overgrown Boy Scout," but the comics world needs at least ONE hero who still believes in right and wrong and isn't a borderline psycho. You know, someone people would actually look up to? Superman was the last of those heroes. The 12-year-old boy in me weeps.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New "sneezing monkey" discovered

Scientists in the jungles of Myanmar have discovered a new primate called the "sneezing monkey" because its nostrils are turned up, so it sneezes out water when it rains. Seriously. I'm trying to figure out the evolution of that trait.
But it's another reminder that we are still finding new species all over the planet, and not just bugs and mice.

Tardigrades survive in space

I'm sure I did a post on this once before, but I can't find it, and events today brought it to my mind. Tardigrades are strange little multilegged beasties with the ability to survive dehydration and other extremes by essentially curling into a little ball and shutting down like a robot turning itself off until conditions get better. A surprising entry on the list of "Things that WON'T kill Tardigrades" is exposure to outer space. Vacuum and solar/cosmic radiation should kill anything more complex than a basic microbe (or the Andromeda strain, for you Michael Crichton fans), but tardigrades have survived even those conditions. Oh, and nuclear radiation won't kill them either....

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last flight of the Discovery

The space shuttle orbiter Discovery has a date set for its final flight. After some minor repairs induced a launch slip, NASA has set 1 November as the date for the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. Six astronauts will deliver a module for storage and experiments, plus the first human-like robot in space, Robonaut 2. Two EVAs (spacewalks) are planned. Then the orbiter will retire, after 39 successful missions.

Godspeed, Discovery. You've been a great ship.

More at risk of extinction, but we know how to help

A new report saying one of every five vertebrates (fish excepted) is at some degree of risk also highlights success stories. The authors of the study, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, estimate 18% more species would be at risk without conservation efforts. Success stories include the whooping crane, Przewalski's horse, the California condor, and humpback whale. The best way to help: habitat conservation. It can be expensive, but it does work. As Ana Rodrigues of France's Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive put it, "Conservation is working, there is just not enough of it. Now is the time to scale up conservation."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

American buys thylacine pelt at yard sale

Bill Warren paid five dollars for an old striped pelt at a yard sale. It turns out he bought what appears to be one of the few extant pelts from the thylacine, a dog-sized carnivorous marsupial believed extinct in 1936. Warren has no idea how old the pelt might be, beyond the fact the previous owner bought it 32 years ago. If genuine, it's worth thousands on dollars. One hitch: he can't sell it, because the US government has never taken the animal off the Endangered Species List.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A lot more water on the Moon

Last year, NASA's LCROSS experiment crashed an Atlas rocket stage into a crater near the lunar south pole. It took a long time to analyze the resulting data, but here it is. And the ejecta thrown up by the collision was five percent water that had been locked in icy soil. It's another important find indicating we can go back and establish a long-term scientific presence on our satellite - if we want to.

Progress toward international space cooperation

There have been important strides lately, and here are some more.

First, an international standard for docking rings and ports has been announced by the International Space Station Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB), including NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency; the European Space Agency; and the Canadian Space Agency: and two agencies from Japan.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency has charted its own path for future exploration:

Canada is fleshing out its role in accordance with 2007's "The Global Exploration Strategy (GES)," being coordinated through the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). Canada produced the GES along with agencies of Russia, the US, the UK, Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, and ESA. European representatives are meeting now to follow suit

Renaming or un-naming dinosaurs?

Are Triceratops and Torosaurus the same or different species, and why does it matter? Paleontologist Jack Horner thinks they are the same, which poses a problem for the famed Peabody Museum - where visitors are greeted by a life-size sculpture identified as Torosaurus. It points up the challenge of naming species from often-fragmentary fossils. Yale paleontologist Nick Longrich, for example, is convinced Horner is wrong. Are the lumpers or the splitters right?

New species evolution in progress

One criticism of evolutionary theory is that we don't see species appearing. Well, not really so. We can trace recent explosions of diversity, like Africa's cichlid fishes, even if no one person could see it happen. Some experts think orcas of the Pacific Northwest are incipient species; that is, we have three populations of killer whales that are getting more and more different. Very surprisingly, the same species in the Antarctic may be doing the same thing. Now we have two species evolving so quickly humans are catching it in the act. Unfortunately, they are malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Passenger pigeon's relationships figured out posthumously

The passenger pigeon, often thought more closely related to the mourning doves than to other pigeons, was the most abundant bird in the world, maybe in all of history. Native Americans and, on a much larger scale, European settlers harvested this seemingly unlimited resource. If a flock took three days to pass overhead, what harm could nets, arrows, or even shotguns really do?
In a tragic lesson of conservation, we learned that no species is immune to overpredation. I've personally visited Martha, last of her species, now a sad, stuffed exhibit in the Smithsonian.
Long after the 1914 extinction (there are scattered reports indicating Martha was not the last, but there's no question the bird is gone for good), scientists have studied the species' DNA and found where it really belonged - with the other New World pigeons, but not very close to them. Ornithologist Kevin Johnson says, "This bird is pretty diverged from its nearest relatives, meaning it had a unique place in the world. It represented a unique lineage that's now gone."

New genus of tree described

While there are countless unknown plants and animals, you would think we at least had a pretty thorough catalog of the trees by now. Nope. A new genus of tree in the Aptandraceae family, a relative of the sandalwoods, has beend described from Honduras. The new genus Hondurodendron was described by American and Irish botany professors based on specimens from Honduras' El Cusuco National Park.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sasquatch "Patty" is 42 today

42 years ago, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin produced film of a female sasquatch, nicknamed Patty. Their 16mm film is the most scrutinized amateur film in history except maybe for the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination. I still get stuck on the argument by the eminent late primatologist, Dr. John Napier (who thought sasquatch was likely real) that this film shows a creature whose lower half is humanlike while the upper half is apelike, and that's hard to accept despite the fact no one's ever found decent evidence of a hoax. This is either a tall guy walking deliberately oddly in an expertly made costume (not off the shelf) or the primate equivalent of a platypus (which does not make it impossible, only hard to accept). Neither explanation is clearly true to me, yet one of them must be....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A turtle from Antactica?

OK, not a live one. But 45M years ago, back in the Eocene, Antarctica was much warmer than today. Among its fauna, as documented by this recent find, were turtles. No modern turtles, or any other reptiles or amphibians, live on or near the southern continent. The only turtle that's really cold-adapted is the massive sea-going leatherback, which is seen high in the northern latitudes.

Science center fakes unicorn (it is fake, right?)

The Ontario Science Center in Toronto acts like it's taking this amateur video of a unicorn seriously, with a Unicorn Hotline to report sightings. It is, not surprisingly, all in good fun - a promotional gimmick for an exhibit about animals dubious and mythical. Our cryptozoological friends like sasquatch and Nessie are included along with unicorns, dragons, and the like in this exhibit. As a cryptozoological researcher, I can be dismayed when animals actually being looked for are lumped with those who never existed, but anything that draws people to a science center - and encourages them to think about the mysteries of the animal world - is a good thing. And the video is nicely done.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Step forward in commercial space flight

First manned drop test of Rutan's SpaceShipTwo design.

A look at the Soviet lunar program

A nice article on the Soviet effort to beat the US to the Moon. The Soviet plan looked a bit like the Apollo version, except the lunar lander was a one-man craft using the same engine for ascent and descent. They gave up the race after the US won (and put out the propaganda, repeated by Walter Cronkite among others, that they had never tried. It's interesting that this seems to be a sore spot so many years after the USSR: much of the surviving hardware is off limits to most visitors, and some is mislabeled.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mysteries of American big cats

Dr. Darren Naish here presents one photo I've seen before and a much older one I had not, both showing adult American pumas (Puma concolor) with spots. Normally, pumas have spots only as babies, but the genetic card deck deals some odd hands every once in a while. Naish goes on to explore the extinct American cheetah and what might be the connections between the cheetahs (two species), the puma, and that odd puma variant called the onza. (Watch out for linguistics: In the Honduran National Museum in Tegucigalpa I saw a stuffed ocelot labeled "onza." ) One cat Naish does not mention is Ivan Sanderson's "ruffed cat," represented by three skins (two now destroyed, while the third's whereabouts are unknown) from South America which showed full spotting and a neck ruff. One species of the American cheetah has recently been likened more to a snow leopard than to a cheetah. Is this the ruffed cat?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Life on every planet (in fiction)

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific offers an annotated collection of science fiction with good science in it. What I found most intriguing is that there is no planet in the solar system where clever science fiction writers (many of them scientists), have NOT managed to come up with a plausible kind of life. From an intelligence in the Sun to a being adapted to frozen planets with a body of ice and a liquid-helium compound for blood, there's no limit to where the scientific imagination has taken us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Debunking a non-mystery: "Chemtrails"

There is a lot of internet chatter about the US government testing or poisoning its population via "Chemtrails" left by aircraft both military and commercial. I think there are many unsolved mysteries in the world, but this is not one of them. I looked at some of the websites and came away unimpressed. There's no reason to assume they are anything but contrails, which may drift, spread, change colors, start and stop abruptly with atmospheric changes, and even form changing patterns as winds at different altitudes make them move relative to each other. We have no evidence of spraying equipment installed on planes, no reasonable proposals about purpose, etc, etc.... and as always it would have to be a big conspiracy where no one with any meaningful access ever talks.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Giant laser takes a step toward fusion power

Fusion is (in my humble opinion) the optimum power source for large-scale electrical generation - clean, running on unlimited fuel (hydrogen), and extremely powerful. With nature, though, there is always a "but," and the but in this case is that it's a huge task (and expensive as hell) to create that star-interior conditions needed to initiate a controlled fusion reaction (uncontrolled fusion is used to destroy entire continents, so we'd like to avoid it). The National Ignition Facility has taken a step forward with its first firing at nearly full power. It uses 192 lasers fired into a spherical chamber 9m across that reminds me in this photo of the old Irwin Allen TV series, The Time Tunnel. We are still years away from the first productive fusion reaction and decades away from the "hydrogen future," but every step matters.

The amazing crystal caves

These caves filled with giant gypsum crystals don't even look real in photographs. They look like someone blew up a photo and then pasted in tiny human images. In these caves, the temperature is 48 C and the humidity is 90%. In other words, they are so miserable that scientists have to wear ice-cooled suits just to get in there. Geologists didn't believe crystals of this size and type were even possible... but there they are.

Far out: a signal from the new exoplanet?

Gliese 581g is a big deal, the first known exoplanet in its star's "habitable zone." Do we already know something about life on it? Australian astronomer Ragbir Bhathal claims that, two years ago, he detected a sharp pulse of laserlike light from the same general area of the sky.
COMMENT: Not buying this as evidence of ET? Me neither. Bhathal never saw his pulse again, and no one else saw it even once. By the way, there's no official name for this planet, just the designation. I vote for "Krypton" - a habitable world with several times Earth's gravity.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why people become physicists

This item from Graphjam (see title link) gives a humorous answer to the questions - or is it humor? The #1 reason on this graph seems like a good one to me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Twins to meet in space

No, we're not talking about the Gemini program, although kudos to you if you remembered it. The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft docked at the ISS carrying two Russian cosmonauts and and one American astronaut. American Scott Kelly will have a unique experience when his twin brother, Mark Kelly, comes up on the March 2011 flight of the shuttle Endeavour. The Kelly are the only twins in any nation's astronaut program, and this will be the first time twins have met in space.

New species from the Gulf of Maine

Within the story of the Census of Marine Life are countless smaller stories of how particular locales were studied and what was found. This account from my birth state of Maine relates how said Lewis Incze from the University of Southern Maine coordinated a study involving some 200 researchers led the effort in the Gulf of Maine. Identified were 13 new species and 4,000 named species, more than half of which had not been known to exist there. Incze points out the Census was not just about finding new species, but finding more about every species: one aspect of his own research looked at the interactions between plankton and baleen whales and found subsurface "waves" around a seamount created patterns in plankton distribution that the whales had learned how to take advantage of for maximum feeding opportunities.

Chinese scientists search for apelike creature

Every continent has its legends and reports of unclassified large primates. In the case of China, a huge nation which, despite its population, still harbors large areas of wild forests and mountains such creatures are called yeren. Is this animal for real? Well, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, some unidentified hairs, and some footprints: hardly proof, but some Chinese scientists think it's worth investigating. A new search, drawing on international as well as Chinese expertise, is underway in Hubei Province.

Friday, October 08, 2010

NASA's long year of exploration

NASA has dubbed an upcoming series of solar system probes "The Year of Exploration." The period NASA describes actually spans 23 months. However, this is a year on Mars, so the space agency gets a pass on that (or even a thumbs-up for clever marketing). Probes to Jupiter, Mars, the moon are on tap, along with a solar sail and a microspacecraft exposing microbes and organic compounds to the stresses of space. To Infinity and Beyond!

What's going on in the brain?

Psychologist Steven Pinker writes that the question of consciousness can be divided into the Easy Problem (how do we switch between conscious and subconscious information processing?) and the Hard Problem (how does all this neural activity give rise to what we call "self" and "consciousness"?) Pinker argues this has all been solved but the details and there is no self, and really no Hard Problem, just an illusion. He then goes on (and to me this is jarringly unsubstantiated) that this knowledge creates a source for morality.
COMMENT: I'm not impressed. Knowing better how the machine works does not explain why we feel and do things not connected to the mundane processing of information. Why do we appreciate beauty? Why do we feel the need to explore spirituality? Why do people altruistically risk their lives to save strangers? And why would a certainty that there is no self lead to any moral code except "maximize pleasure inputs"?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

I join the "Men of Cryptozoology"

Loren Coleman, the best-known of North American cryptozoologists, has put up a little salute to me on my 51st birthday as part of a profile series called "Men of Cryptozoology." I humbly accept the honor. Thanks, Loren!

Finds in New Guinea include "Yoda bat"

An expedition to New Guinea has tallied 200 new species, from insects to mice. The icing on the cake was the sighting of a very rare mammal, the tube-nosed fruit bat (Nyctimene sp.), also known as the Yoda bat. Look at the photo in the title link and you'll see it: the critter does indeed look something like a wise old Muppet, although not green.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Census of Marine Life: amazing finds, much work remains

THe Census of Marine Life has taken 10 years and cost $650 million dollars. It's first-decade report, issued today, finds the over 16,000 fish species have been described - but estimates 5,000 remain to be found. Some 250,000 marine species of all types have been described - a quarter of the estimated 1,000,000 out there. Ninety percent of the species in European waters are known, but only an estimated 20 percent off Australia. Think about that and marvel.

See the whole report at:

Friday, October 01, 2010

Earthlike planet thought likely to harbor life

The exoplanet Gliese 581g, 20 light-years from Earth, is the first confirmed planet in another solar system which lies in its star's habitable zone: the range conducive to liquid water and to life as we know it. Perhaps the most excited scientist on the discovery team is Professor Steven Vogt of the University of California, who went so far as to say, "Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent."

COMMENT: Wow. I can't go with 100 percent, there are way too many variables. But this is an exciting, memorable discovery. If we can ever determine Gliese 581g does harbor life, this will turn out to be one of the historic moments in the human experience.

One-third of "extinct" mammals are rediscovered

A bit of positive news - conservationists can sometimes be wrong when declaring an animimal missing or extinct. According to Dr Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland, Australia, of 187 mammals which have been thought missing since 1500, 67 have turned up. Scientists in the 20th century have been wrong more often than their earlier counterparts - although, in this case, being wrong is a good thing.