Thursday, July 28, 2016

Join me on Arcane Radio next week

Arcane Radio is a program focused mainly on the paranormal, but I'll happily go anywhere to talk about the discoveries and mysteries of the animal world.  Join me!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Amazing news - Entirely New Whale from Alaska!

A new species of whale has been discovered based on a body, 7.3m long, that floated ashore on the Pribilof Islands.  This is just marvelous. I follow news of new and unidentified whales all the time, and I never heard a word about this, although it's apparently known to Japanese fishers, so it must have a range that spreads to the west.    This isn't a case where someone had it in hand and decided that its features or DNA warranted a split of a known species, as was the case with Balaenoptera omurai in 2003. This species was confirmed by DNA work, which resulted in reordering of its genus, but it began with a brand-new discovery from the field, when a biology teacher called in a seal researcher he knew who said, "This is weird," and then she called in a cetologist. Other previously collected (misidentified) skeletons have been located. 

Here's the published abstract from Marine Mammal Science:

Philip A. Morin, et. al.
There are two recognized species in the genus Berardius, Baird's and Arnoux's beaked whales. In Japan, whalers have traditionally recognized two forms of Baird's beaked whales, the common “slate-gray” form and a smaller, rare “black” form. Previous comparison of mtDNA control region sequences from three black specimens to gray specimens around Japan indicated that the two forms comprise different stocks and potentially different species. We have expanded sampling to include control region haplotypes of 178 Baird's beaked whales from across their range in the North Pacific. We identified five additional specimens of the black form from the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, for a total of eight “black” specimens. The divergence between mtDNA haplotypes of the black and gray forms of Baird's beaked whale was greater than their divergence from the congeneric Arnoux's beaked whale found in the Southern Ocean, and similar to that observed among other congeneric beaked whale species. Taken together, genetic evidence from specimens in Japan and across the North Pacific, combined with evidence of smaller adult body size, indicate presence of an unnamed species of Berardius in the North Pacific.

Readers of this blog know of Dr. Robert Pitman, who's done so much work with orcas and beaked whales. Of this find, he said, "It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long. It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us."
It does indeed. 
Thanks to Ron Pine for pointing me to this item. 
Photograph by Karin Holser, who helped identify the species in the field: I believe this is educational / scientific "fair use" but am endeavoring to get in touch with her to confirm permission. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A step forward for the vaquita

But is it in time?

The U.S. and Mexican governments have agreed to permanently ban gillnetting throughout the range of the world's smallest and rarest porpoise.  Nighttime fishing is also banned. Still, there are maybe 80 individuals - but that's probably high. One leading cetologist, Dr. Robin Baird told me he thought it closer to 50.  

NOAA photo

The story of the vaquita is worth revisiting. When I wrote Rumors of Existence in 1996, I called it “the world's newest and rarest porpoise.” Its tale begins with a single skull found on the beach in the Gulf of California.  That discovery was made in 1950, but another eight years passed before Kenneth Norris and William McFarland had enough information to present the vaquita, or Gulf of California porpoise, to the scientific world.
At five feet long or less, and never weighing much over a hundred pounds, the vaquita was indeed tiny by cetacean standards.    Its size may have helped it keep hidden: so, undoubtedly, did its shyness.  The animal generally avoids boats, an unusual trait for a porpoise (but a wise one).  Local fishermen did know it existed, and it was they who called it vaquita, or "little cow."
 This porpoise is mainly light gray, although the color usually darkens from the dorsal fin to the tail.  The belly is white, and there are dark ovals around the eyes.  In addition to accidental catches in gillnets, the porpoise has declined as the Gulf's ecology has suffered due to overfishing and agricultural runoff, and the food supply is dwindling.  The vaquita is unusually vulnerable to such threats because it does not migrate: in fact, it has the most restricted range of any marine mammal in the world.   
When I wrote that book, the population was estimated at 200 to 400.  Think about how sharply it's declined despite the actions of conservationists, scientists, and governments.  It's pretty scary. And the newest measures may or may not be in time.   
Some early sources I used:
Brown, Martha.  1987. "Searching for the Vaquita,"  Defenders, May-June
Mulvaney, Kevin,et. al.. 1990.  The Greenpeace Book of Dolphins. New York: Sterling Publishing Company.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

More sharks than we ever imagined

How many kinds of sharks inhabit the oceans?
When I was reading everything I could find about nature as a kid in the 1970s, I remember seeing the figure 300 a lot, as in 300 total species. Figures like 320-330 was pretty common.  But no one - not an amateur, not an ichthyologist - in those days would have claimed there were 500+. 
Well, one official count stands at 512. That may be a little high or low, given the differences of opinion in what's a separate species.  But Douglas Long, writing in DeepSea News, counted six new species in 2015 alone.  These include the small but incredibly cool ninja lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi), of the deep waters of the eastern Pacific.  In addition to looking like an evil robot submarine with a black paint job and striking blue eyes (really), it's even cooler because it was named for Peter Benchley, the late Jaws author who turned ardent shark conservationist.  
A "new" species many not be one never seen before. It could, like the half-meter long dark freckled catshark from Brazil, have spent many years being mistaken for a known species. Or it might be a museum specimen never tested genetically before. 
The Dusky Snout Catshark Bythaelurus naylori is an example of a "brand new" species, unseen or at least unnoticed until 2012. It's one of many recent discoveries that turned up in the bycatch of fishing trawlers. No fewer than 41 examples of this species were collected from fishing on Indian Ocean seamounts.  It is, ironically, bad news that some of these are being found, since it reminds us the oceans are being fished out. That's not an exaggeration: read Ellis' The Empty Ocean if you want to be scared to death on this topic. We keep fishing deeper and taking smaller fish, and that has a limit.  
Shark conservation is not a minor issue, either. Species like the basking shark are at risk wherever they occur, but especially in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, to feed the sharkfin soup trade. A recent bust in Ecuador netted three criminals in possession of 100,000 shark fins. That is not a misprint. No animal can withstand this kind of assault. National and international laws are much tougher than they were even ten years ago, but sharks are still in major trouble. One estimate is that humans are killing 200,000 sharks a day

The fast, powerful shortfin mako has the classic look people think of when they hear "shark." (NOAA)

I started this post to celebrate the diversity of the shark world, so let's go back there.  No one doubts there are more sharks to be discovered, both in genetics labs and in the oceans.  Most new species will be small, deep-water varieties, but the oceans encompass a billion cubic kilometers of water. Shark ecologist Paul Clerkin recently found 10 new species in a single two-month cruise with a fishing trawler. It won't be surprising if a few big fish are yet to be landed by science.  Willy Ley, in his 1941 book The Lungfish and the Unicorn, wrote that Timor Sea islanders islanders reported a large bottom-dwelling shark, 3-4 meters long, which he suggested was one of the carpet sharks or wobbegongs. No one has caught one, but there's nothing unreasonable about the story.  The sharks still have some surprises for us.

The U.S. government lists the basking shark, a harmless filter-feeder the size of a small bus, as a "species of concern" because of exploitation for its fins. (NOAA)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On the Moon

And so we look back 47 years and marvel at Apollo 11. The courage, the ingenuity, the engineering and organizational genius that was Apollo 11.

As someone said, the most important thing was not even that we stood on the Moon: it was that we looked on Earth from another world and got a perspective no other experience would provide.

R.I.P., Neil.  Godspeed, Buzz and Mike.  I salute you and the thousands of people on Earth who made it all happen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Man Named Armstrong (song)

Geoff Robertson's great version of John Stewart's Armstrong. Stewart, one of America's great songwriters. has explained that he wasn't denigrating Apollo: it was both a tribute and at the same time a protest song asking why "We get an A in space and and F on Earth." Robertson revised the lyrics at the end to make the "tribute" part clearer.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Apollo 11 - I was there

47 years ago today, my father rented a small plane from the Piper Aircraft plant where he worked and flew my brother and I north to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Apollo 11. (We were, of course, a outside the 10-mile air exclusion zone, but it was plenty close enough.)   I will always remember that I watched humans leave for the Moon with my own eyes, What bothers me is that my children haven't seen us leave for another world, and a lot of shortsighted politicians have made it very uncertain when they might have that chance. Godspeed Neil, Buzz, and Mike. You were the best of us.

It may have been one small step for (a) man, as Neil said with a slight flub, but it really was a giant leap.  
Neil, one one of my heroes I never got a chance to meet, has left us.  Mike and Buzz are still telling the story: I've met Buzz several times, and he's a great guy: my daughter still has the calendar he signed for her gradeschool class.  
I do believe there are entirely practical reasons for us to develop a civilization that includes outposts in space: new resources, new technology, the protection of our world from asteroids, and so on. But I believe in the romantic side of space exploration, too. Civilizations that don't look beyond horizons  recede from them, eventually into nonexistence. 
We need dreams. Sure, we've got a lot left to do on this planet, but we're not meant to stay on it. We're meant to keep reaching beyond.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Monday, July 04, 2016

Juno counts down to Jupiter

Two more hours until Juno hits or misses...

I only have one line in this article, but I've never been in Scientific American before. The point I made to George Musser was that if we could make a probe function under conditions prevailing near Jupiter, we could handle any environment in the solar system.


Update: they did it!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Big amphibious poisonous centipede discovered

I often celebrate new species in this blog. But there are some species we look at and say, "OK, I 'm sure it fills some niche in nature, but I also think the planet would continue to rotate perfectly well without it."  Take this thing. Please.