Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nature's oddities: Dolores the hairless bear

There always seems to be a kerfluffle on the Internet about discoveries of hairless foxes, canids, and bears.  It gets really silly, but I'll be honest - if I met Dolores in the woods at night, I would wonder what the hell she was, too.  She apparently gets along just fine, but she looks like a werewolf in a sweatsuit.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Iceman Cometh Back

No one in cryptozoology really expected to hear of the Minnesota Iceman again, ever.  This carnival exhibit cause a major flap in the 1960s, when cryptozoologists Ivan Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans, both trained scientists, thought it was likely to be the real body of an unknown higher primate frozen in ice.  After a few years on the carnival circuit, though, it vanished.  People have been debating whether it was a well-made fake creature (a gaff, in carny talk) or a real body ever since.  Some even think there was a real body that was replaced with a model.  OMNI magazine reported the late Disney model-maker Howard Ball built it, modeling it on a Cro-Magnon concept, although the eyes with their semicircular orbits are distinctively Neanderthal-looking.  Dr. John Napier in 1972 rejected it as having too many improbably-collected features from different primates. 
There are at least five stories of the Iceman's origin, which is a red flag big enough to tent a carnival with, but it was, if nothing else, an impressive piece of work. 
Now it turned up. For sale. And it was bought for a reported $19,000 by a known Bigfoot hoaxer.  Darwin only knows what use he'll make of it.  Loren Coleman is annoyed (rightfully) because it was apparently promised at a lower cost to his International Museum of Cryptozoology, which is where it belongs. 

DNA, cryptic species, and classification

DNA and identifying species has been a lot in the news lately.  I found an interesting bit of science here on Deep Sea News about using DNA to identify cryptic species.  Cryptic species are not related (not directly, anyway) to "cryptids" or cryptozoology.  Cryptic species are those which are very, sometimes impossibly, difficult to distinguish from related species.  Birders may grouse (get it?) about all the "little brown jobs," but the situation gets a lot worse when you get to the invertebrates. 
As Dr. Holly Bik explains, "A species is a hypothesis." She then writes, "But that doesn’t mean DNA is a magic bullet. DNA provides a new type of evidence for making decisions about species, but that evidence still has to be robustly analyzed and interpreted in the context of historical knowledge (taxonomic classifications and anatomical features of specimens)." Her example here is a genus of sea slugs everyone had thought were pretty well described.  Scientists applied "four independent methods of molecular based species delineation" and found that they no longer had two species in the genus: they had 12.  There's a good overview here of the process used.
Dr. Bik concludes that the whole species thing is still devilishly hard to sort out (and remember, the species is the most well defined of traditional taxonomic units). It's no wonder people like Dr. Darren Naish advocate giving up on the Linnaen classification system altogether. 
Bik closes: "Next time you hear a “global species estimate”, don’t say you believe it, please don’t say you believe it!" 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Slow loris slow to be found

One of the most interesting areas of cryptozoology is sleuthing the trail of creatures seen only once - but well documented.  As Karl Shuker explains in his latest blog, the tailed slow loris is one of these cases.  The lorises are cute little Asian primates with round heads, big eyes, and vestigial tails.  Except for the specimens documented, with a photograph, in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1908.  Field reports and the photo and descriptions of two captive animals made it clear that, in one small area, the Lushai Hills of India's state of Assam, the lorises had bushy tails. 
And that's it. The trail ends right there.  Freaks, or a very distinctive new species? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Footnote to Apollo: the lunar Bibles

Astronaut Ed Mitchell carried 300 microfilmed Bibles to the lunar service on Apollo 14 as a favor to friends in the Apollo Prayer League, a group of Christians at NASA who prayed for the success of the mission.  A further 212 were carried on other missions.  One that came up for auction fetched $56,000, and thereby hangs a dispute over this fascinating bit of history, when faith and high technology came together.  The minister and his wife who spearheaded the project are elderly and under state care, but a freelance writer who says they authorized her to sell the four in her possession is in a legal dispute with the state and the couples' son.  That part is sad, but the intersection between our spiritual aspirations and exploration is an interesting topic. Explorers have prayed for success as long as there have been explorers, and this continued into modern times, as when Pope Paul VI famously led Catholics in St. Peter's Square in prayers for the Apollo 13 astronauts, or in the prayer service led before human explorers embarked with the aliens in Spielberg's classic film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  As a Christian myself, I believe the exploration of the universe is almost a commandment.  Whether we are or are not the only intelligent species in the cosmos, we are not here to hide on our little rock.  We're supposed to seek, to find, to know, not only for science but also for spiritual growth, for perspective.  And it will be fascinating when (as I think) we do contact aliens, although that's not likely to happen in  my lifetime. Will they have a spiritual life? I strongly suspect they will.  I think any species that evolves self-awareness will look up at the sky and wonder.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Four new whale species from California

Finding a new species in palentology, just like finding a new living animal, is painstaking stuff.  In paleontology, first you have to find the remains, then you have to excavate them (which can take years), then you have to get them in the lab and prepare them (also possibly years), and then you have to do laborious comparisons with other species' remains to see if what you have is new.  That's why it's so remarkable that, from the site of a single human activity in California (cutting through old rock to make a new road) we have four new species of whales. According to paleontologist Meredith Rivin of the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center in Fullerton, California, these are dated 17 to 19 million years ago (the Miocene epoch). These four species collectively represent the youngest known fossils of the toothed mysticetes - the animals that lost those teeth and developed into today's baleen whale.  (I didn't know that fin whales still develop proto-teeth in the womb before reabsorbing them and growing their baleen!)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Yes, Amateurs Still Matter!

One of my favorite themes is the important of amateurs to science in this age of billion-dollar supercolliders and Mars missions. 
That asteroid that just missed us? Found by an amateur - a Spanish dentist.
Countless species of new animals? Found by amateurs. This article gives us a retired mathematician with seven new beetles to his credit.  The article reports that 6 of 10 new species from Europe are discovered by amateurs. 
Even the famous can get in on the act: Japan's late Emperor Hirohito, an avid amateur marine biologist, found a new crab.
As I wrote in my Rumors of Existence, one of the important "living fossils," a kind of small house-building invertebrates called graptolites, was discovered by a London opthamologist, Noel Dilly, who became so well known that professional scientists sent him collections of sea floor animals to study.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bigfoot DNA paper: I'm not impressed.

I WANTED to be impressed.  I wanted Dr. Melba Ketchum's paper on Bigfoot DNA to be persuaive.  It's not.  It's just weird.  A viable species sired by two parent species, one so unknown it has no known fossil ancestors or descendants?  And then there is the journal - it has never published (it's Web-only, which isn't necessarily a problem - there are very legitimate Web journals - except that anyone can do it, so we have only the author's word that the paper was peer reviewed). Dr. Ketchum says she did not self-publish, she only acquired the journal and execised no influence.  That's not an explanation.  How does one acquire a journal that did not exist prior to this paper? And the video clip floating around of a sleeping sasquatch doesn't impress, either: you can't see any detail that would help to determine if it's a real animal or a person in a suit.
Granted, I am not a DNA expert.  I can't critique the description of the genome.  But everything else feels wrong.
  Doubtful News has a good recap. 

A Flock of Flying Squid

Seriously. These oceanic squid launch themselves with their water-jet propulsion, then spread out their fins and arms into gliding surfaces.  They can fly over 30 meters in the air, presumably eaving their water-bound predators behind.  The photo here is amazing.  The behavior had been reported before, but never photographed or scientifically verified. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When should we see sea serpents?

A thought experiment... I'm one person who suspects there is still, after all these years, a grain of truth behind the sea's most magnificent legend, that of an unknown creature misleadingly but universally called the "sea serpent."  There are many hundreds (maybe thousands) of sightings, and, in the consideration of two experts writing decades apart, around 350 interesting ones.  

Sea serpent reports have definitely dropped off in recent decades, to less than one per year.  But how often should they be sighted, if there is a real animal involved?

I caution at the outset there are no good numbers for many of those figures, and I chose numbers that seemed reasonable and made the math simpler. So this is a simplification of a complex situation using arbitrary numbers, but one has to start with something, and the problem of how often humans might be expected to spot a possible sea serpent niggled at me until I had to try something.

The world’s oceans cover139,000,000 square miles (statue miles). A variety of Web sources give figures of 12,000 to 90,000 vessels on the oceans at any moment.  Let’s use a high number, 50,000, which covers (we are presuming) everything large enough to have a lookout (small pleasure craft, for example, would be excluded for the moment). A lookout can see 1.17 times the square root of his or her eye height above the ocean, in nautical miles (note the diversion in units here: you'll see it's not enough to matter), so from an arbitrarily chosen 49-foot spot on a mast or bridge that’s 8.19 miles.  An object rising above the water essentially raises the horizon: you could, in perfect conditions, spot the head/neck of an animal rearing 9 feet out of the ocean 8.19 + 3.51 miles away, or 12.7 nm.     
In practice, no one can identify much of anything at that range, especially if sea serpents are sometimes wont to stick only the head or a small section of body or neck (if it has a neck) above water. Let’s say you can definitively identify a sea serpent (assuming there is such a thing) and rule out debris or known marine life at one half a statute mile.   There’s no way to calculate the average eye height of the lookouts of all the ships at sea (and not every ship will have a lookout at all), not to mention who’s carrying what binoculars, so this business quickly gets rather silly, but if we assume, say, a ship can watch a circle of ocean a mile in diameter (area 3.14 miles) for sea serpents, and there are 50,000 ships with lookouts, then you get a figure of 157,000 square miles being observed.  If there are 139 million square miles of ocean, then 1/874th (0.1129 percent) of the surface would be under observation, and a population of 1,000 sea serpents showing themselves for, say, five percent of their time at the surface (it could be far lower), 20 might be visible somewhere, and if they are identifiable in an area of 3.14 square miles, you get an area of 62.8 square miles, or 1/221338 the area of the sea (or 0.0005 %) showing sea serpents at any time, and if you try to calculate the likelihood of these areas intersecting  the other the math goes from extremely hypothetical to absurd (any readers care to take a crack at it?).  Actually, it’s worse than this: half the time it’s dark, a considerable percentage of the time there is a sea state that makes identification harder, or it’s raining, or it’s foggy, and the fact that lookouts on the open sea spend most of their time looking forwards… well, you get the picture.  Or no one gets any pictures.

Comments and brickbats welcome.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

New fish from New Zealand

Every once in a while, it's important to remind ourselves we're still finding stuff.  Take this eelpout. Please.  A decent-sized fish by deepsea standards.
Dr. Alan Jamieson sent a press release that celebrated the find and added, "A voyage such as this is testament to how feasible scientific research in the deep sea has become. It is no longer the inaccessible, out of reach, part of the world it once was. The technological challenges of the past no longer exist.." it's hard to agree the challenges no longer exist. A world of complete darkness and crushing pressures is always going to be a challenge.  But we're getting better.  

Thursday, February 07, 2013

African tragedy: Elephant poaching zooms again

A decade or so ago, conservation authorities thought a ban in trading ivory had helped them get a handle on African elephant poaching.  Sadly, it didn't last.  Concentrating on the forest elephants of Gabon, whose hard, pink-tinged ivory is in (mostly illegal) demand in Asian markets, poachers have killed 11,000 elephants in the last eight years. In the protected national park of Minkebe, 44 to 77 percent of the elephants have been wiped out. (Forrest elephants are hard to count precisely, being smaller than their savannah cousins and residing in, of course, forests.)

The World Wildlife Fund has asked people to sign this petition. I have always been unsure of the impact of such petitions, but it's worth a try. Scientists hope an upcoming CITES meeting will be persuaded to close loopholes allowing the ivory trade to ocntinue.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Loren Coleman's new online digs

Loren, perhaps the most prolific American writer of cryptozoology, has left the site and oepned a new blog here at CryptoZoo News.  He has archived about four thousamd (!) posts from Cryptomundo and a variety of other forums.  It's well worth your perusal!

Dinosaurs, Cryptozoology, and all that from Darren Naish

Dr. Naish is a major contributor on cryptozoology as well as the describer of several new species of dinosaurs and their relatives. Here he has gathered all his publications, most available online or as pdfs. If you like donosaurs, flying reptiles, icthyosaurs, or sea serpents, enjoy.