Sunday, January 26, 2014

New species of river dolphin

There are four living - and one recently extinct - species of river dolphins. Well, maybe there are five.
A new paper in PLOS names Inia araguaiaensis from Brazil.  While some specialists are not yet convinced it's a separate species, it is a big step forward in understanding the diversity and conservation status of South America's river dolphins. It's also a reminder that we don't know all the animals - even all the big animals - on this wide and varied planet.

amed Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:
med Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:
med Inia araguaiaensis, or the Araguarian Boto. Hrbek and his team made the discovery in Brazil’s Araguaia River basin. T - See more at:

Shark species reappears after a century

The saga of Carcharhinus leiodon, the smoothtooth blacktip shark, is a very interesting one. The lone specimen was collected in 1902 from the coast of Yemen and not named until 1985.  Since there were no newer specimens, some experts doubted the species' validity. Others assumed it was extinct.
Both schools of thought were wrong.
Shark specialist Alec Moore spotted something odd in a fish market in Kuwait in 2008: “amongst the many species of whaler shark was one which looked very similar, but different, to a couple of other species.” The smoothtooth blacktip had been rediscovered and validated.
Fish markets have always been good hunting grounds for ichthyologists, teuthologists, and the like in their search for new species. As the linked article points out, fishermen around the world deploy far grater resources than all scientific vessels put together.  They sometime find species that were unknown in a particular location - or unknown altogether. Ask graduate student Paul Clerkin, who found eight potentially new shark species by tagging along with a fishing fleet in the Indian Ocean.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.

The Thylacine: Still Alive?

I've pretty much given up hope for the world's largest marsupial carnivore, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger.  I consider it true - indeed, unarguable - that a few tigers survived the species' official demise in 1936. However, despite a trickle of modern sightings, my best guess is that the survivors didn't make up a viable population and died out around the 1990s. 

Maybe I'm wrong.

British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman is now in northwestern Tasmania looking for it with help from his colleagues of the Centre for Fortean Zoology.  He says, "The area is so damn remote, there are so many prey species and we have so many reliable witnesses who know the bush that I’d say there is a reasonable population of them left."

 Still, experts like the late Dr. Eric Guiler spent decades looking for the thylacine. The odds are not good.
But perhaps they are not hopeless.  I wish Freeman and company all the luck in the world.

Two Gems: Doubtful News and Tet Zoo

A salute to two outstanding sources of information on the creature world. This link to Sharon Hill's Doubtful News includes her nod to Darren Naish's Tet Zoo blog on its 8th birthday.

Now, I don't always agree with these authors, but they do their homework. Sharon might be called a generally skeptical science writer, while Dr. Naish is one of the UK's foremost authorities on extinct reptiles their kin (particularly pterosaurs and sauropods) and countless other animal-related topics. (Sharon also distances herself from the insistence that any skepticism must be coupled with atheism, an annoying strain of thought that crops up a lot in the writings of the many skeptics who love Richard Dawkins. (I never found Dawkins' approach to atheism convincing anyway: he outlines his own idea of what God must be like, then argues that God doesn't exist.)  Daniel Loxton, coauthor of a major recent book on cryptozoology, has an interesting column on this.)

To get back on topic, if you are going to understand cryptozoology, you have to understand these sources. For example, Sharon Hill pretty much destroyed the Melba Ketchum Bigfoot DNA silliness, while Naish's work on "sea serpents" has landed some hard shots against the too-credulous approach while leaving room for the possibility that there just might be (or until recently has been) an undiscovered pinniped at the root of this business. 

So, Sharon and Darren - soldier on!


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Happy Birthday, Buzz Aldrin

All the Apollo 11 astronauts were born in 1930.  Two are still with us. Buzz Aldrin turns 84 January 20. Happy Birthday, Doctor Rendezvous!
Those who know the Buzz mainly from an appearance on Dancing With The Stars may not know his contribution to Gemini and Apollo. He had the first Ph.D. in orbital rendezvous techniques and played a key role in making this crucial maneuver work. (His thesis was titled, "Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous.")

I've met Buzz a few times and always found him approachable, gregarious, and helpful. When I was giving a paper at a space conference in 1996, I noticed him about halfway through.  He'd slipped into the front row, where he was unmistakable in a red blazer and an oversized Buzz Lightyear pin. After the session, I asked him what he thought of my paper, which was on the reuse of surplus ICBMs as space boosters. (This was before today's Minotaur program.) He replied it was a good idea, but the company he was part of had a better one.  (For the record, my idea eventually became a program, though I can't claim credit for that: Buzz's, unfortunately, didn't attract financing and slipped away.)  When I saw him a few years later at the Responsive Space conference, he graciously wrote a note to my daughter's gradeschool class on a calendar and signed it for me.  We still have it.

Photo NASA

Buzz has been pushing space exploration ever since, including numerous publications and concepts for putting people on Mars. He won't make it. Likely, neither will I.  But our kids, or their kids - they will. 

So I'm wishing you a great day, Doc.

Pinnacle Island: the mystery rock from Mars

It's about the size of a jelly donut. It's whitish and irregular, with distinct peaks. It's a Martian rock.
Oh, and it wasn't there one day, but it was the next.

Investigate Pinnacle rock

The easy explanation is that it was kicked up by one of the NASA rover's wheels.  The more fun one is that's it's a crumpled piece of paper, a memo dropped by the director of John Carter, and it says, "This movie is really going to suck."

No rock (left): Pinnacle Island (right)
Photos NASA
My backup idea - that Martian teenagers are pelting the rover with rocks - probably isn't true either.
But the episode is a reminder that space missions, even in area we thought we new, and going to be filled with surprises.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Petition: Open Lab notebooks?

I rarely mention petitions: I don't know whether they have impact. But my friend Shannon Bohle has brought up an interesting issue here. She argues that, if the taxpayers fund research leading to a patent, then all the records, including lab notebooks, should be public. Seems logical to me.

See the Petition Here

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Miniature imaging constellations - everyone's eyes in the sky

Planet Labs' breakthrough invention - a global constellation of imaging satellites the size of bread loaves - is almost in operation.  The 28 "Flock 1" Dove satellites are on board the International Space Station (ISS) and ready to be kicked overboard. With a revisit time of a few hours, the satellites will deliver on-demand imagery with a resolution of 3 to 5 meters: the kind of capability once restricted to billion-dollar intelligence satellites, now available to everyone worldwide.  That's a little dizzying.  SkyBox Imaging will soon follow with a constellation of larger microsatellites that will bring the imagery commercially available on a similar basis down under 1 meter. (In other words, you can't read the license plate, but you could target the car.)  It also offers video on demand: in fact, its site has posted the first such privately-taken video. 
Skybox "First HD Video from Space": awesome.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Animal Hoaxes - we'll always have them

Hoax animals go back, probably, to near the beginnings of civilization.  Find a little dye from the right seashell, find a carcass, and pow, you probably get a campfire story something like, "That nothing.  Ooog kill PURPLE monkey last week. Show you for two shiny rocks." 

Flying reptiles? Got 'em. Some from Photoshop, some from the brief paranormal TV show Freakylinks, some from...well, somewhere.  Sharon Hill mentioned it here along with other "paranormal" hoaxes. The life-sized pterodactyl made for Freakylinks has ended up, as it should, in the International Cryptozoology Museum. (Scroll down on this ICM page for some other hoax creatures, the most famous being Barnum's Feejee Mermaid. )
Most recently, we have the "giant giant giant" squid from California, blamed on mutating radiation.  (I've sometimes wondered if all of California could be blamed on mutating radiation.) There is, however, no endless supply of calamari to draw from. See Snopes for an explanation of how a dead whale photograph and a dead squid photograph were morphed into a Ray Harryhausen-level monster.

Photo copyright unknown, but when you publish a hoax, I'm not likely to ask you for permission.

And, finally, we have not one but two "dead bigfoot" stories making the rounds. The odds that Rick Dyer has a dead sasquatch (you remember Dyer, right? He showed off a fake at a press conference years ago), or that Justin Smeja killed two sasquatches and collected absolutely no evidence are approximately equal to the odds my dog has a live squatch cornered in my living room. 
Hoax animals can be a lot of fun to create and fun to talk about.   Sometimes there are other agendas involved, derived from religious literalism or from "ancient alien" beliefs.
These come into play in some of the endless "ancient human giant" hoaxes, which use real skeletons shown in forced perspective or blown up through Photoshop, or in one case a giant finger that could be a tree root for all I can tell.  My response to those is always "Try this homework assignment: Design a workable knee joint for a 20-foot-tall biped in Earth's gravity.  HINT: This is not possible."

King Kong, or King PhotoShop?

Giving history the finger

These are related to the endless repeats of old U.S. newspaper clippings about human giants discovered but of course covered up by the scientific establishment.  Boy, do those get tiring.  Try to imagine a scientist with a gigantic cranium on his desk says, "Despite this being irrefutable evidence anyone can come and see for themselves, I'll forego the Nobel Prize so as to not rock the boat."

Karl Shuker collects some eye-popping hoaxes here, including terrific "rogue taxidermy" animals that would be genuinely startling/puzzling if you didn't know the context.

The Internet, of course, has made hoaxing a million times more fun for the hoaxers and a million times (I'm presuming there is some scientific formula for calculating this, but math is not my thing) more exasperating for real scientists who have to waster time pointing out what's going on.  But we'll always have hoaxes. If we find animals on other planets, the hoaxers will be right behind the scientists. It seems to be human nature.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

How much of the sea has been explored?

It's common to read figures like "95 percent of the ocean is unexplored." Is that right? What does it even mean?
Well, "the ocean" is millions of cubic kilometers that is always in motion.  It doesn't stand still to be explored, but we're mapping currents and zones and thermoclines and stuff, so we're doing our best. But the only place you could make any kind of percentage assessment is on the seafloor.
Dr. Craig McClain in  this source tries to figure it out for the deep seabed.  He takes the deep sea as meaning the areas past the relatively well-known continental shelves, so we're talking about the bottom under water 200m or more deep, and that works out to 106 million square kilometers. His rough estimate of how much we've sampled using ROVs, submersibles, cores, and trawls (as opposed to just mapping contours with sonar, an important effort but one that misses a lot of detail), is about 1650 square km.  That works out to an explored area of 0.0016 percent.
So you could say the seafloor is well over 99.9 percent unexplored.

We've got a lot of work to do.

Next big new species is.. a crocodile?

Yes. The slender-snouted crocodile, to be exact.  It had been presumed to be one somewhat variable species  Mecistops cataphractus all over Africa.  It's not. The Western and Central African populations are very disctinct species that have not interbred, according to DNA, in seven million years.  This is an example of cryptic species, those with a close enough resemblance to each other to be confused (for 150 years), in this case. (There ARE physical differences, they were just considered minor enough to overlook until the DNA reinforced the distinctions.) It's very important for conservation: one way to put it is that, in any tinkering, you have to know what the pieces are.  The existing species name, by the way, fits a type specimen from Central Africa: the new western species, which is critically endangered (a scientific survey found only 50), still needs it own name. In a hurry.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

More musings on cryptozoology

This article brings up some of the concerns with cryptozoology (although someone failed to tell the author that practically no one takes Australia's Rex Gilroy seriously). 

I wrote in response on the Science Writers LinkedIn board:

I don't think we'll find anything as far out as an ape in North America, or a plesiosaur in a lake, but a few of the "major" species of cryptozoology are ecologically possible and still might prove valid.
The article mentions the yarri or Queensland marsupial tiger: there are some impressive sightings, but they've tailed off: it may be one of the species in the genus thylacoleo lingered until very recenty.
The orang pendek, an ape of Sumatra and neighboring regions, usually reddish and habitually bipedal when on the ground, has a good sighting record and some unidentified hairs: No less an authority than Dr. John MacKinnon reported its tracks. While mostly bipedal, it's unknown whether it's more closely related to the gibbons (some of which are habitually bipedal on the ground) or the orangutans, which would require a more drastic evolutionary modification. (Speculation on a connection with the Flores hobbits is at the outer bound of possibility but would be really cool.)
None of the famous "lake monsters" seems plausible or even possible. There is, though, an interesting case in Alaska's Lake Iliamna: sturgeon have never been caught closer than the Gulf of Alaska, but good sightings, including aerial observations, indicate there may be an overlooked population with some very large individuals.
I still suspect there could be an extremely large eel or eel-like fish as the bottom of some of the "sea serpent" stories. A conger the size of an oarfish could explain some of the more puzzling sightings, most notably that by two British naturalists from the yacht Valhalla in 1905. Congers have been seen rushing about at the surface with head and forebody out of the water and lying sideways at the surface, appearing to undulate vertically: A very prominent zoologist, the late Dr. Maurice Burton, observed these activities but had no explanation for them.
Many people who call themselves cryptozoologists are terrible scientists, erecting whole species on the basis of a few reports (sometimes one) regardless of whether the proposed animal has any fossil record or makes any sense ecologically. Still, the hypothesis "there is an unclassified ape in Sumatra" is a perfectly good falsifiable (Karl Popper style) hypothesis, even though the resources to falsify it may not be available.
So no Nessie, no sasqtach... but as the discovery of a new tapir, new peccary, new beaked whale, and two new dolphins in the last few years remind us, it's still worth looking. 

Friday, January 03, 2014

The strangest recent animal discoveries

LiveScience updates its compilation of the weirdest recent discoveries from the animal kingdom. These include new species and discoveries about species we knew - or thought we knew.
There are the extinct animals: a tulip-shaped creature that filtered water through its head and a tiny beast what was wholly preserved even though it had no bones: in other words, a very rare discovery of a soft-tissue fossil. There was also "Predator X," Pliosaurus funkei,T a mosasaur 12-13m loing with teeth that dwarfed T. rex's.
There are the new discoveries concerning known animals: no one knew the cute little gray mouse lemur was a cannibal.
There's a 3-cm-long millipede with 750 legs. There are snakes with sensing tentacles on their heads, a Vietnamese fish with its penis on its face, a carnivorous sponge that looks like a beautiful living harp, a mouthless zombie worm, a two-headed shark (ok, that one was a fluke), and a charming video of a boa constrictor eating a howler monkey - whole, of course. 
If you greatly speeded up evolution into some kind of time-lapse movie, you'd see Nature seemingly throwing around DNA at random - sometimes hitting a dead end, but sometimes doing rather crazy things.