Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sasquatch and DNA news - updated

Dr. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian by training, has been chasing sasquatch a long time.  She has submitted a paper to an unnamed peer-reviewed scientific publication which indicates, oddly (as if  the whole notion of sasquatch isn't odd enough) that it's much close to humans than anything else: indeed, the DNA is predominantly Homo sapiens.  Contamination or revelation?  While I've maintained what I think is a logical "show me" attitude toward existence of a huge North American primate, I'm willing to be convinced, and we'll wait and see what the science says. 
UPDATE: There's a heck of a kerfluffle going on, from people defending Ketchum to those calling her nasty names.  Here's Cryptomundo's coverage of Dr. Jeff Meldrum's commentary.   It hit news sources all over the world, some reporting the news with a straight face (see this story), some breathlessly, and some with a side helping of ridicule. Ketchum agrees the news slipped out too soon, given how long the whole peer review and publication process can take even if her findings are unambigiously accurate.  As to the more extreme reactions: folks, we're doing science. Either her findings will be confirmed, or they will be rejected in the peer review process.  Yes, the whole thing seems unlikely, especially the human ancestry. But at least the proper review process is underway. 

Spotting a spotted zebra

Well, partly spotted, anyway.  And VERY distinctive:

"The mane is short and completely black; the hooped markings on its legs are completely different to normal ones; it has the shape of a donkey; it is much darker all over, but those spots are incredible."

So says the wildlife photographer who captured it on film.  Interestingly, other zebra seem to shun him: he has no herd. Could this be due simply to looking odd, or is it an unrelated circumstance? We don't know.

Nature certainly turns out some oddities.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Are sasquatch hunters wasting their time?

Well, this article argues that they are.  Brian Switek doesn't think much of the whole idea, basically arguing that we would have found the species by now.  It's a common argument: I've made it myself.  With each passing year, it does become more odd that a sasquatch hasn't crossed a birder's lens at short range or a hunter's gunsights or wandered across a logging road at the same time a truck was trying to occupy the same point in space. Switek pokes fun at Dr. Jeff Meldrum's idea of searching from a blimp.  (I understand Meldrum's logic, but I doubt he's going to have much success: still, it will be interesting to see him do some trials on known species, like bears, and find out how useful this approach might be for spotting large mammals in forest cover.)  Switek musters some worthwhile arguments from ecology and historical records of species discovery.  The no-fossils argument is important but not by itself definitive given the almost nonexistant fossil record of modern chimps and gorillas.  On balance, he successfully argues sasquatch is very unlikely, but he doesn't quite reach the finish line of proving it's impossible.

New data on old mystery (Flight 19)

In 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo planes on a training mission near Florida, carrying 14 men, disappeared. The US Navy board of inquiry considered various scenarios but couldn't pin down exactly what happened.  That left the field open for theories of the Bermuda Triangle (a term not coined until years later) including UFOs, unknown natural forces, giant undersea gas explosions, time travel, etc., etc. A new book by ex-pilot Jon Myhre suggests we can, using radio transcripts, sighting reports, and other information, reach back in time to solve the mystery. He thinks that when the commander, Lt Charles Taylor, got the flight lost off the east coast of Florida, the other pilots stayed with him for too long, but they did not, as often suggested, ditch all together. According to Myhre, another pilot who had the right bearings broke away and tried to fly home, but by this point they'd used too much fuel, and the planes ended up in five locations - two of which may, he thinks, have been on land - as each ran out of fuel at slightly different times.  There is even a possibility that one aviator survived: he made it to land, contacted his family, but went AWOL from the Navy. 
COMMENT: I grew up with this mystery, so to speak, as a fascinated boy on Florida's East Coast. I've not read the book yet, but the idea that four planes broke off from Taylor makes sense: in the military, you follow your leader, and it's a desperate decision to leave him: If all five planes had survived, breaking up the flight would have led to disciplinary action, so it's understandable the other pilots waited until it was too late before they mutinied. I've not read the book yet, but it's kind of iffy that all Myhre's details work out, even if he has the central event right: his claim that three planes have been found and one raised is contradicted (as was a news item a couple decades ago saying all five had been found) by other sources saying the engine serial numbers were not matched.  Still, I suspect Myhre has the main course of events correct, and following his clues may indeed lead to a definitive discovery in the future.

Will Lonesome George live again?

The Pinta Island subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise was represented for decades by a single animal known as Lonesome George.  Two attempts were were made to mate him with females from a closely related subspecies. One he ignored: the other he drowned.  No second dates for George.  Anyway, he died last June, but experts have determined at least 17 living tortoises have some of the Pinta Island genetic makeup. As this article (which sloppily mixes species and subspecies) explains, the good news is that George's subspecies can be brought back in nearly pure form. (The article says 100% pure, but I can't see how that math works: even crossing two turtles with 99% of the right genes won't give you 100%, although the remnant would be so small as to be irrelevant.) The bad news is it would take 100 to 150 years. We're not breeding hamsters here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Describing new species a slow business

New species are collected all the time.  But unless they are big and spectacular, resulting in instant attention, they languish in museum collections and elsewhere for years or more - on average, about two decades.  Why? Money. Expertise.  Scientists like Terry Irwin may collect new beetles at a rate of thousands a year, but only an estimated 200 specialists are qualified to determine their taxonomic affinities and write descriptions on them. An item I saw in the 1990s said 600 new mollusks were being described each year, but two-third of those were from museum specimens rather than being in the field. 
The trouble with this is that we can't make intelligent conservation decisions without current knowledge of what's been discovered.  As Benoit Fontaine of Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris says, "Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now -- just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore."
Cryptozoologists often wonder what exists in old museum collecting rooms, maybe crumbling to dust.  So, it turns out, do biologists.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Australia's Vanishing Animals

One bat may not seem like a big deal.  Mammologist Tim Flannery, though, thinks the extinction of one bat species - the Christmas Island pipistrelle - bodes ill for Australia's animals. In this touching and unnerving article, the discoverer of two tree kangaroo species, argues that Australia's unique fauna is on a steep downward slide that will see many more extinctions, including numerous mammals.  (Since mammals are, as a rule, the easiest types of animals to convince humans populations to conserve, a bad time for the mammals normally means an even worse fate for other orders.) He makes the interesting note that, in large regions of the country, the medium-sized fauna - between the size of a rat and a kangaroo - is simply missing.  Only one species (the salt-water crocodile) has recovered after being placed on Australia's equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species List, and Flannery believes that many species of all types are sliding into extinction because of government inaction. The bat galls him because he believes he presented a sensible, affordable plan for its salvation to the government, which essentially could not be bothered.  One species  Flannery thinks is in imminent danger, the bridled nailtail wallaby, was in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence as a case of rediscovery after presumed extinction.  The celebration may have been premature.

Friday, November 16, 2012

How Well Can Big Land Animals Hide?

This is an important question for the sasquatch researchers, of course, but it applies to many other areas of cryptozoology. In 2012, how well can big land animals evade us? (Note I specified land animals: I'm quite certain at least a few large marine species are out there.)
The best data to start with is of course recent discoveries of big land animals. If we start about 20 years ago, we have the parade of new animals from Vu Quang, a couple of which are still known only as partial specimens (the slow-running deer and the black deer).  The Vu Quang ox is, I think, the last new full species to be accepted that can exceed 100kg.  (Van Roosmalen's giant peccary from Brazil averages maybe half the size of the 100kg standard, but it's still important to note as a distinctive and pretty big new animal.)
There are, however, several cases of large populations of known species, some of them distinctive, and these certainly count in trying to assess what new species could still be hiding.  We have the giant sable antelope of Angola: the odd-looking Asian elephants of the Bardia Royal National Park in Nepal: the mainland population of the Javan rhinoceros in Vietnam: the very distinctive Bili apes, the largest and strangest of the chimpanzees: and huge populations of two African giants, lowland gorillas and elephants. 
Seriously, we missed a hundred thousand gorillas.  Searchers for the dinosaur-or-whatever Mokele-Mbembe might be have not found the animal, but they have demonstrated how damned hard it still is to search the least-known regions of the world.  So reports of big animals in Africa and South America, like the true pygmy elephant, African mystery apes (those in particular, given the recent primate finds there) and Van Roosmalen's black-and-white jaguar, can at least be seriously considered, although the standard of a widely accepted holotype (see here about the elephant) has yet to be met. Certainly there are some areas on the Asian mainland, in Siberia and the Pamirs to cite two examples, where's it's not impossible further large species are hiding.
(I am, BTW, setting aside here the new species described from reinvestigations/reclassifications of existing specimens. New wild pigs pop up a lot this way.)
Than we get to the specific case of North America.  After throwing out the most recent of the 86 species of brown/grizzly bear the splitters of past centuries erected, we have exactly zero species new large animals from the 20th or 21st centuries. The best we can do for recent rediscoveries is the population of wood bison found in 1957 in Canada: significant, certainly, but having occurred 65 years ago, not nearly as significant as it used to be. Gerald Wood, in the popular (and still most enjoyable) book Animal Facts and Feats, told of an unusually large strain of grizzly bears found in Alberta in 1960, but I can't find a more scientific source on that.  You could sort of argue that finding brown/polar crosses in the wild, first done in 2006, is sort of like finding a new animal, but we don't know when those crosses began to occur, so I'm setting that one aside, too. A little better case could be made that the onza counts: while this strange-looking, long-legged puma has in fact been DNA-typed as a strange-looking, long-legged puma, it is an animal with a distinctive look and was reported many times from Mexico and dismissed until there was a specimen in hand in 1986.
And this brings us to sasquatch. There are other large cryptid species reported or suspected from various regions of North America, from the giant beaver to the dire wolf, but in none of these cases is the evidence remotely comparable to the hundreds of sightings of sasquatch. I realize I'm going in to opinion here after sticking to hard facts, but the chances of big hidden mammals existing on this continent is inevitably a judgment call, and I don't think it looks very likely.   I think that if we are going to find any new species of large mammal on this continent, it will be sasquatch - the others, aside from the occasional curious report, are not well supported and are going to fade out. (Where are the giant beaver lodges and dams? Why would the dire wolf have survived the rise of such successful modern predators as the wolf and the puma?)  If sasquatch is not hiding in N. America, no big animal is. 
We have large forested patches, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, where the trees stretch many miles over rough terrain and few humans have yet trodden.  I'll accept Pyle's book Where Bigfoot Walks as answering one big question - is the habitat suitable for a reported type of animal?  (The answer: it's not perfect, but Pyle argues an omnivore might survive in pockets against its major competitors, humans and bears.) But hiding gets hard.  It gets harder over time.  Despite our wilderness areas, this is not Africa or the Amazon basin (which are, themselves, increasingly intruded on).  The U.S. not only has increasing numbers of loggers, foresters, hunters, birders, and developers going into the woods, but there are no towns or hamlets and few houses in this country exempt from instant electronic communications with larger populations: phones and internet are nearly ubiquitious, and roads suitable for autos connect even the most rural habitations. Of course, witnesses may see sasquatch, think about possible ridicule, and not report it, but the stigma is fading as TV and internet bring more programming on cryptozoology in general and squatch in particular. My feeling is theat the likelihood of a good sighting without a followup, though this is unprovable without a massive surveying effort, is going down. 
This doesn't mean sasquatch can't still be hiding. There are unsolved sightings. There are some intriguing footprint trails. But I think on balance there is either one big hidden mammal in North America, or there are none.  I am hoping for one.

NASA Probes Renamed to Honor Van Allen

James Van Allen is someone I never met but will always appreciate. When the father of atmospheric physics and discoverer of the radiation belts was contacted in 1999 about our book The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, he couldn't have been more helpful to authors he had never heard of: doing a phone interview, then sitting down with my coauthor for a daylong discussion (we still have the tape somewhere), writing a Forward, and sending us a laudatory letter after the book was published.

So it's always nice when someone else remembers Dr. Van Allen.  NASA has renamed its latest probes to the Earth's magnetosphere, originally the Radiation Best Storm Probes (which was a pretty cool name already) to the Van Allen Probes.  The twin satellites went up on August 30, 2012, and have just been commissioned (declared operational).  There is an awful lot we don't know about the space immediately surrounding around our planet, and the Van Allen Probes should answer some very important questions. Good job, NASA. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nala, is that you? The maned lioness

Odd things happen in our best-known animal species. Take lions. We have white ones, black-maned ones, and the occasional maneless male.  But I've never seen this one before.  A lioness with a mane? Apparently, they are not unknown, and here are some photos.  The same touch of male hormones that result in a mane also result in infertility, which makes it interesting that the mutation keeps recurring. 

Do we need a cockroach with a nightlight?

Apparently, Nature is unsure whether a bioluminescent cockroach was really necessary.  This newly described species, with a back surface configured to host glowing bacteria in a pattern reminiscent of a poisonous species, the click beetle, may already have been made extinct by a volcanic eruption.
On the one hand, the biomimicry going on here is really impressive. And everything that has evolved has some more or less useful niche in the Great Circle of Life.
On the other (unscientific) hand, I grew up in Florida, and one less species of cockroach really doesn't  make me weep. 
That mimicry is impressive, though. I suppose I hope the species survived.  But if one of these comes anywhere near me, I will still reach for the Raid. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Heinlein invention validated on Shark Tank

I was watching a taped episode of Shark Tank last night, and two guys came in with an invention: a gyroscopically stabilized unicycle.  You could rise it up to 15 mph and you could not make it fall over.  This is exactly - exactly - what Robert Heinlein, 60 years ago, called a tumblebug in his story "The Roads Must Roll." It's a shame it took so long to invent: it looks like a lot of fun, simpler and cheaper than a Segway and needing only a space the size of the user's body. there have been prototypes for self-balancing unicycles before, but these guys look like they have gone beyond the interesting toy to the practical transport.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Can an eagle kill a cow?
One of the debated points in ornithology is whether raptors can carry off large prey, even small human children.  As Darren Naish points out in this brief note, they can certainly kill large animals. I didn't know the berkut (golden eagle) of Russia had been trained to kill wolves, or that there are records of its American cousin killing cattle (although obviously not flying off with them.)
The most famous and bizarre story of this type is the 1970 report that two large eagles of unknown type, apparently escaped or released exotics from another continent, attacked 70-lb Marlon Lowe of Illinois, and one actually got him off the ground.  As crazy as it seems, this event seems to have been real - the clawed boy and his torn clothing were evidence - though I do wonder if the part about actually lifting the child and starting to carry him off before dropping him was a product of the two panicked human witnesses (Lowe and his mother) perceiving things to be even scarier than they were.  This would mean Lowe was running as one or both eagles grabbed him and slashed at him, and but his feet may have only momentarily been off the ground. (I will note that Lowe's mother has denied she could have been mistaken on this point, but the physics don't seem to allow for any other answer.)  While most accounts of eagles lifting smaller children have been dismissed as folktales, a couple were well-attested and might have happened.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Tyson helps Superman find Krypton

OK, I gotta get this comic book.
Superman turns to Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to help pinpoint exactly which star (a real star readers can look for) which the "distant planet Krypton" orbited. 
Very, very cool idea.  Might even het a few kids curious about astrophysics.

Least-known whale appears in the flesh

It was a tragedy for the whales, but a gift for science: a mother and son (calf) of the world's least-known cetacean species, (Mesoplodon traversii) or the spade-toothed beaked whale, died in 2010 after stranding on a New Zealand beach.  They were presumed to be a common species until a new DNA study pegged them as a species previously known from 3 skulls.  It's a good reminder that the oceans are still vast, and they can shield even a large animal from all but chance detection. 
It's not at all certain, though, that this is the least-known whale.  Cetologists I talked to in the writing of my 2006 Shadows of Existence  thought there was at least one type, nicknamed Mesoplodon species B, that had never been caught or its remains found, and there may be a couple more after that.  (That is, of course, if you accept the identification of the long-enigmatic Mesoplodon species A with the pygmy/Peruvian beaked whale.  I admit I have not read the latest research, but that wasn't very convincing to me.)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

More birds - ALL the birds

A family tree covering all the 9,993 known species has been unveiled in the journal Nature after three years of work.
This is not going to solve arguments over just how many species there are, how many of those described are valid, or even how to classify them - bird classification is a cauldron of conflicting theories, modern DNA tools notwithstanding. But this massive effort has given us our best idea ever of how birds evolve and form new species. Some lineages produce species faster than others, but ornithologists were surprised by the steadiness of bird speciation, averaging 0.74 species every mission years. Most classes tail off in the rate of new species formation: Aves does not, perhaps because of birds' abilities to colonize new ranges more effectively than ground-bound species. 
So, birdwatchers, get to work!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A peek at the world of birds

Most of us don't think much about the birds we see every day.  But even common species produce majestic moments, if the right photographer is at hand.  Whether it's a pair of hummingbirds in courtship display, a penguin peering through the mists, or the wonderfully named Marvellous Spatuletail in flight with its tailfeathers streaming like kites, birds offer sights that sparkle like diamonds embedded in the fabric of Nature's gown.  ( might think that simile is a reach, but I'll think on a better one while you peruse these spectacular photos.) 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why no flightless bats?

Darren Naish's never-boring Tetrapod Zoology blog asks why, if brids have evolved flightlessness at several different points in space and time, why have bats, a lineage believed to be 50 million years old, never evolved a flightless form?  The answer may be that bats, which are preyed upon by nocturnal raptors, have never found an environment where they were free to go flightless,  I think his reasoning here is that poorly-flying intermediate forms would be at a huge disadvantage, unsafe on the ground or in the air. Maybe, Naish speculates, birds have to vanish before bats can take the emu's niche.