Thursday, May 05, 2016

Cryptozoology in fiction: Kraken

Max Hawthorne has followed up his marine reptile adventure, Kronos Rising, with his shot at truly epic cryptofiction with Kraken
This sprawling novel, the first half of a two-book story, is essentially a kaiju movie in novel form. That's not a bad thing - I enjoy films about Godzilla and his enemies - but every creature in it (except the whales) is much bigger than paleontology accepts, and much smarter, too. Indeed, even the sperm whales seem to think on a human level. ( I will grant an exception to the "too smart" view here for Max's Octopus giganteus: we are still learning how smart octopuses are, and a giant long-lived species might be very smart indeed.) Thirty years after the first novel took place, the loosing of the monster pliosaurs and other beasts has rewritten the rules for human use of the oceans and made hash out of the existing ecosystem, and humanity goes to extreme lengths to regain the illusion of control. 
Kraken is basically about the clash of three giant predator species and the humans who try to study, kill, or weaponize them. It is about massively armed and powerful beasts bashing hell out of each other (the same description might be applied to the novel's apocalyptic main sex scene: you'll see what I mean if you read it.)  
Hawthorne is of course going to be compared to Steve Alten, and he includes a funny reference on p.439 to Alten's competing view of megalodon. There some other laughs here, too. The incompetent admiral who wants to weaponize marine reptiles or get himself killed trying is a good comic foil for the exasperated heroes. The first sex scene is hilarious - I won't spoil it for you by saying why - and Hawthorne has the same talent Alten displays for playing with the pop-culture and media aspects of his creatures. 

I doubt very much there were ever 130-foot pliosaurs or 80-foot sharks. I don't think the energy budgets involved support them, and neither does the fossil record. (Hawthorne makes an argument for titanic pliosaurs based on a fossil nicknamed the Monster of Arramberi, but I'm not aware of any paleontologist who interprets the evidence the same way.) In response to my questioning Peter Benchley's 100-foot squid, though, Richard Ellis wrote me that "Benchley's monsters are fiction, and he can make them any size he wants them to be.") True. Hawthorne's not tryign to write textbook.  
So I can't convince myself his creatures are practical, but the bottom line is that if you want marine monsters, Hawthorne delivers 'em like no one else.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

If it's not zoology, it's not cryptozoology

Repeating my most-discussed post ever: cryptozoology wants to be thought of as a science, a branch of the hard science of zoology. If it's every going to achieve that, some things need to be "included out."

Cryptozoology is not Parapsychology

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Goodbye, Doubtful News (yet it lives!)

We say a fond farewell (for good?) to geologist Sharon Hill's superb Doubtful News site, which over nearly 8,000 posts turned the eye of science on all kinds of claimed weirdness.  
Fortunately, Sharon is continuing her efforts on the DN FaceBook page, She is also running the FaceBook page Group of Fort, which she describes thusly: 
"SMART, knowledgable discussion about Fortean topics, natural anomalies, oddities, cryptids, monsters, ghosts, the unexplained. If you don't know who Charles Fort was, this group is probably not for you. This is not your average Facebook group. It is not a group of believers. I'd like it to be heads and shoulders above that. Therefore, please be cautious about posting speculative stuff. Discussion is curated - please post actually interesting things only."
Press on, Sharon!


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A thought experiment on "ghosts"

I don't believe in ghosts. No one is reaching out from the grave to send you a message or scare you away from an old hotel. But the sheer age and number of ghost stories and legends makes them interesting to think about.  Certainly sane, sober people - most of us surely know at least one - genuinely believe they've encountered something ghostly.
Can one conjure up (hah hah) a situation where something could be "really there" to an observer? I think George Tyrell, in in his book Apparitions, tried the hardest to think this through.
Assume for a moment there is something an objective observer (someone not in a heightened emotional state just due to the location or recent events) perceives as a ghost. The closest thing to a "rational" possibility seems to be that a ghost is some unknown form of energy that lingers near a death and causes the mind of an observer (not the eyes) to perceive a pattern (this is the only idea that offers a semblance of sense about why you'd see a ghost in human form and clothed). There is no consciousness, and it can affect one observer and not another (somehow).
If we further assume this phenomenon exists, then there's the question of what it could and could not do. I can't come up with a thought experiment that lets me see any sort of manipulation of physical objects, like the bouncing flashlight that's making the rounds of the Internet as "proof." However, one could imagine even very small energies doing all kinds of things to the fragile brain, making it manufacture sounds or smells.  
In my mother's childhood home, built in 1790 in Bangor, Maine, was a main bedroom where people occasionally heard a sound like a man's boot being slid off and dropping to the floor (always one, never two). As that bedroom - indeed, that bed - was where an ancestor had died after being invalided out following wounds at the second battle of Bull Run, it wasn't hard to connect the two. There can be all kinds of noises in old houses, though the coincidence in type of sound is certainly interesting. Could energy that is weaker form just a sense impression that isn't visual? 
My wife worked at a Philadelphia hospital with a "haunted room," where apparitions, shadows of people going by the window (on the third floor, at night - Deb saw this one herself) and other things were reported, most interestingly the habit of a printer at the nurses' station (high tech for the 1970s) to produce a strip of vital signs for a patient in that room when there wasn't any patient. Back in the 1980s I write to British "ghost hunter" Peter Underwood on this, and he said he had another report from the same hospital but, due to privacy, could not share it. Deb, a woman of great intelligence (she later added a law degree to her resume) still doesn't know just what to think of her shadow-figure.
Any "ghost energy" wouldn't work at much of a distance (assuming it works like known energies), given the inverse square law and the way energy drops off sharply with distance. My mother was once awakened by a strong smell of raisin toast - my grandfather's unwavering choice of breakfast - on the morning my grandfather died a continent away. A little far for a blip of unknown energy. However, she placed this event in another category: being Catholic, she presumed it was an "I'm ok" sign God had permitted or caused to be manifested for her. Catholic theology warns people to stay away from all aspects of the paranormal as possibly being Satanic (going to a seance out of curiosity is "a very serious sin" according to one official book) but it doesn't rule out God allowing some kind of vision or even contact on a sort of case-by-case basis.
"Ghost energy" also wouldn't work for "phantasms of the living" as the venerable SPR called them. If you think such events are real, there has to be a quite separate explanation. I think we can pretty confidently ascribe this to "mind playing ticks on you," and the same applies for people who meet our hypothetical ghost energy and think it's interacting directly with them, such as by conversing.
That's about as far as I can take this. I don't believe in ghosts - but are we sure we know everything that can cause a person to believe they've met one?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Could a ground sloth be living today?

What is the mapinguari?
It may sound like an exotic dish on a TV cooking show, but no.  It is, according to Brazilian ornithologist David Oren, a huge, prehistoric ground sloth that still breathes in the forested lands of the Amazon basin.  
In the 1990s, Dr. Oren’s fieldwork as the head of zoology at Emilo Goeldi Natural History Museum brought him in contact with many tales of the mapinguari.  South America’s pre-eminent finder of new mammals, Dr. Marc van Roosmalen, had also heard of the animal and was intrigued.
While some cryptozoologists think these tales refer to a huge primate, Oren was struck by the way descriptions of the red-haired beast corresponded with what we know of the mylodontid ground sloths.  There were several species of ground sloths in the Americas.  The largest, Eremotherium laurillardi, reached the size of a respectable elephant at around three tons.  Some South American species were definitely hunted by early humans and are believed to have been alive only 8,500 years ago.   Also in favor of a sloth identity: there’s no evidence for any primate remotely approaching the size of Homo sapiens in the New World, let alone the size of a ground sloth.
Features of the mapinguari reports which match some ground sloths include general size and appearance, tracks showing clawed toes pointed inward, and the color (samples of ground sloth skin, still flexible, have been found preserved in caves).    
According to the people of western Amazonia, the mapinguari is a shaggy animal weighing over 250 kg.  This would make it one of the smaller ground sloths, but it would still be the largest living mammal native to South America.  Oren believes the mapinguari is nocturnal and vegetarian.  It rears up to a height approaching six feet when startled and is supposedly accompanied by a stench which could gag a jaguar.   Whether the animal is still living or has gone extinct very in the last few years is a question Oren cannot answer, but proving either possibility would be a scientific coup.
In 1995, Oren launched his first expedition into the Brazilian rain forest in search of the mapinguari.   This seems an outlandish pursuit for a man with a Harvard doctorate, but Oren found the eyewitness accounts and eleven-inch tracks compelling.  He was also well aware of the publicity that would accompany the discovery of such a spectacular animal – publicity that would lead to increased protection for the hard-pressed rain forest.  He has devoted enormous effort to the project, persevering through several arduous expeditions and a growing thicket of skepticism from his colleagues.  He has also attracted some assistants.  One is writer Marcelo Volcato, who in 1999 located a new witness in the state of Matto Grosso who described a creature with long reddish hair, standing over five feet tall on its hind legs and smelling very bad.  The man was familiar with regular sloths and saw no resemblance, although his description resembles nothing else known in Brazil either. 
Folklore endows the mapinguari with the power to make people dizzy, and sometimes with a second “mouth” in its stomach: Oren suggests the latter is a scent gland that explains the former. 
Scientific opinion is split, with most of it against Oren.  Professor Paul Martin, an expert on megafaunal extinctions, is one of many who has said Oren is wasting his time.  “I’ll eat my share of sloth dung if this animal is alive,” he opined.  On the other hand, Dr. Glenn Shepard Jr., an anthropologist working with a tribe on the Peruvian stretch of the Amazon, heard tales of the animal but didn’t think much of them until a man who’d been to the natural history museum in the capitol of Lima said he’d seen the same animal on display there as a fossil. Shepard was taken aback on finding out this was a ground sloth.


Giant ground sloths, painted by Charles R. Knight (public domain)

Oren’s work has, at this point, led largely to disappointment despite talking to “a couple hundred” witnesses.  Hair and fecal samples he’s gathered have been identified as those of known animals. (I once talked by phone to an eminent mammologist focused on South America, Dr. Louise Emmons, who was skeptical of the mapinguari and told me concerning one of Oren’s reports, “I can’t believe he didn’t know tapir s--- when he saw it.”) 
Recent years haven’t added a great deal of information. Josh Gates and his Destination Truth team went to Brazil in 2008. They found some new witnesses and heard loud crashing noises, but didn’t get any hard evidence. Biologist Pat Spain took his Beast Hunter show there in 2011, and after earning the trust of a local tribe by passing a ritual involving gloves full of huge, stinging “bullet ants” that had him screaming in pain, was able to talk with numerous hunters who had seen the animal, but that was about it. However, it should be added that Spain was highly impressed by the certainty of the people he spoke with and came away thinking there was some kind of real animal involved.
While Oren has said, “I’ll be the first one to admit the whole idea is rather absurd,” he has also said, correctly, “I’m testing a scientific hypothesis that’s basically reasonable.  This isn’t the Loch Ness monster.”
The beast can’t be said to be disproved yet, not with 5 billion hectares of forest still left in the Amazon basin.  It is unlikely, and the results of 20+ years of work have been disappointing.  But this is one animal in the crypto-zoo that someone, someday, might trip over.  Just hope the giant creature doesn’t trip over you.  

Further Reading: 
Goering, Laurie.  1995.  “Expert says tree sloths have a monster cousin,” Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, January 15.
Holloway, Marguerite.  1999.  “Beasts in the Mist,” Discover, September, p.58.
Holloway, Marguerite. 1993. "Living Legend," Scientific American, December, p.40.
Oren, David.  1993.  “Did ground sloths survive to Recent times in the Amazon region?”  Goeldiana Zoologia (19), (August 20).
Pearson, Stephanie.  1995.  “Load the Stun Gun, Pass the Old Spice,” Outside, November, p.34.
Rohter, Larry.  2007. “A Huge Amazon Monster Is Only a Myth. Or Is It?” New York Times, July 8.  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

No, a "whistleblower" didn't show vaccines are unsafe

Here's a complete, devastating, and convincing takedown of the "CDC whistleblower" claim endlessly repeated by Natural News and its ilk. (Best line I've read concerning Natural News: "There's so much quackery it's like they're cloning ducks over there.")
David Gorski's blog Science-Based Medicine is the place to go for the real science involved in the hype about William Thompson, who was indeed part of CDC studies but has misinterpreted, slanted, and outright lied.
Along the way Gorski shows how idiotic the claims made by one RFK Jr. in this regard really are. Sadly, I don't think the son of a great American leader has ever produced anything on a scientific topic that was not refuted by real scientists.



Monday, April 18, 2016

Thanks to Pikes Peak Writers Club

The annual Pikes Peak Writers Conference was, as usual, a great experience. The emphasis this year was on suspense/thriller writers, like Wendy Corsi Staub and Jeff Lindsay (the Dexter books./series). Four acquiring editors showed up (though none wrote me a giant check, or even a small check), and I learned a lot as always. My particular thanks to Steve Saffel of Titan Books, who (I hope this is OK with him) I think of as my personal Yoda when it comes to tough love and making my work better. So many people here, including authors Kevin J. Anderson and Kevin Ikenberry, spared words of wisdom.
Highlight:  I asked Jeff Lindsay how you get in the head of a character who's overwhelmed by an experience he has no preparation for.  He said, "Smoke some pot and walk into a police station. You'll get it right from then on." (He's not from Colorado, where you can do that and they'll just tell you to stop stinking up the place.)






Thanks to the superb staff and volunteers of the Pikes Peak Writers Club. J.H. Evans, Jason P. Henry, Karen Fox, Laura Hayden (who insists that Alabama and Atlanta accents are different, and so she does not sound like Holly Hunter), and so many more.  It was great to see my old friends  and welcome new ones, including authors like Megan Rutter and Evangeline Denmark I'd known only from FaceBook.

As in all my writing endeavors and activities, thanks are due to my wife, Deb, who encourages and puts up with it all and tended to the houseful of pets who are normally my responsibility on weekends, and to my agent, Cicily Janus, who also believes.

Oh, and if you want to join PPWC, remember it's the only writers' club you're going to find that's FREE.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Yuri's Night

Gagarin’s Night
The night we look at the stars
And remember the first human hand
And human mind
That reached beyond our sea of air
One young man
One mighty effort
One first step
Remembered forever
In a hundred years
When we stand on other worlds
This night

We will still look at the stars.






Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, b.1943, d. 1968
First human in space 
(Photo copyright unknown)





Monday, April 11, 2016

The Methane Dwellers

Methane hydrate is truly strange stuff, basically huge masses of methane locked in ice on the seafloor in a molecular lattice known in the chemical world as a clathrate. It's been proposed as a source of power: indeed, Japan took the lead a few years ago by testing recovery of methane hydrate (sometimes called methane clathrate) for its fuel potential.  The stuff also terrifies some climate scientists: the slow warming of the oceans may melt countless tons of ice and release the methane to make its way, eventually,  into the atmosphere.  
The strangest thing of all, though, is what lives in the icy domain of methane hydrate beds.  In 1997, one of the weirdest animals anywhere - a worm living in the frozen methane - was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Biologist Charles “Chuck” Fisher of Pennsylvania State University and submersible pilot Phil Santos spotted the “wall of worms” from a submersible over 2,000 feet down.



The methane dweller (NOAA)

The worms (they were originally christened Hesiocaeca methanicola, but that name was rejected by the ICZN for some reason in favor of Sircoe methanicola)  are up to five cm long.  They have stubby pink bodies, pink feet shaped like paddles, and tufts of white bristles all over.  They are members of the huge group called the polychaete worms and live in great numbers on brownish-yellow chunks of hydrate, some 2m feet across in this location, which protrude into the water from huge masses frozen under the sea bed.  For a while scientists were puzzled about how the worms gained nourishment.  Apparently bacteria which can metabolize the methane are present in sufficient numbers to be consumed by the worms.   
Said Fisher, "The old view that the deep sea bottom is a monotonous habitat needs to be discarded. These worms are the major players in a new and unique marine ecosystem... If these animals turn out to be everywhere on shallow seafloor gas deposits, possibly worldwide, they could have a significant impact on how these deposits are formed and dissolve in seawater and on how we go about mining or otherwise harvesting this natural gas as a source of energy,"
In other words, everything in the natural world is connected to bigger issues.  Even worms.

Further reading:
Anonymous.  1997.  “Scientists Discover Methane Ice Worms on Gulf of Mexico Sea Floor,” Pennsylvania State University press release, July 29.
Anonymous.  1997.  “Worms in Ice,” Earth, December, p.14.

Pain, Stephanie.  “1998. “Extreme Worms,” New Scientist, July 25.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gardening on Mars

I'm very proud to announce that, thanks to team leader/idea creator Shannon Bohle and other contributors, the first paper I've worked on concerning Martian soil and food production is in print in News and Reviews in Astronomy and Geophysics  Thank you, everyone!


OK,, to read it you have to register (free).  But the ultra-short synopsis: there's a lot of we don;t know, and some of what we do know (radiation, perchlorates, etc.) isn't encouraging.  However, with a species as clever and adaptable as ourselves, there is always a "what if."  It turns out that turning Martian regolith into usable soil for plants isn't as simple as it looked in The Martian, but it's not impossible, either. On to Mars!


Can we farm this? Maybe we can. (image NASA)





Monday, March 28, 2016

Those amazing orcas

Orcas, or killer whales, keep doing things that surprise human observers. The latest example: feeding a disabled pod member.  This orca is missing its dorsal fin and one pectoral. It can surface and dive and apparently move well enough to stay with its pod, but can't maneuver nimbly enough to hunt.  But it's doing ok.  One hesitates to apply a human label like altruism, but it's another example of how tight the family bonds are in these fascinating mammals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How many phyla in a kingdom?

As a naturalist - a time-honored if self-appointed title - I am most interested in animals, and this blog often focuses on new or rediscovered species. If we zoom out past the species to the big picture (past the classical names of genus, family, order, and class, not to mention newer additions like "tribe" and "species complex") the animal kingdom is divided into phyla.  How many phyla? 
Right now, the generally accepted answer is 36. Most are grouped in Mollusca, Arthopoda, and Nematoda, with us chordates coming in later at about 60,000 species.  Finding a new phylum is a career-making event for a scientist.
Not surprisingly, the recent additions tend to be small animals. The last one proposed for a large animal - Vestimentifara for the giant tube worms in the genus Riftia - was eventually joined with other species from the old phylum Pogonophora to make up the family called the Siboglinidae in the phylum Annelida (the annelid worms, which include, among other things, the earthworms). 
Little ones, though, have turned up, and some of their stories are interesting.
In 1995, Cycliophora was added.  The species involved in this case, Symbion pandora, passed this imposing test without much difficulty.  Symbion is about the size of the dot on the letter i.  It was discovered three decades ago on the mouthparts of a lobster, but the initial catalogers placed it in a new genus and left it at that.  A reexamination by Peter Funch and Reinhardt Kristensen of Copenhagen University showed Symbion resembled nothing else on Earth. Dr. Simon Morris of the University of Cambridge called Symbion “the zoological highlight of the decade.”
The phylum name is Greek for “carrying a small wheel” and refers to the animal’s round, cilia-fringed mouth.  Most of the press and public fascination has centered around the animal’s strange reproductive habits.  At different stages of its life, Symbion reproduces sexually by “budding off” male and female offspring, or asexually, in which case its digestive tract metamorphoses into a larva.  Even American humorist Dave Barry paid attention to this story, writing, “Zoologists, who don’t get out much, are excited over an animal that basically reproduces by pooping.”
Kristensen said there were probably countless discoveries still to be made concerning tiny marine life.  “This is only the beginning,” he said. “When we have finished, the zoological system will be turned upside down.”
Kristensen had his reasons for making such a bold statement. In 1983, he had named another new phylum, Loricifera, for miniature animals which look sort of like animated pineapples with snouts.  Loriciferans were first identified in 1974 from seafloor samples taken off the coast of France.  They burrow through gravel or sand on the floor of shallow areas of the ocean. The phylum name means "girdle wearer," in reference to the ring of scale-like structures which encircle and protect the animal.  The snouts are mouthparts which can be retracted into the body: indeed, a Loriciferan can retract its entire head.  At least ten species have been collected from depths of fifty feet to 1,500 feet off Europe and North America. If it seems odd that a phylum is erected for a single discovery - kind of like addining a new borough onto New York City because one person moved in - every phylum has to start somewhere, with something, the way a millimeter-wide flat animal that might be ancestral to sponges was cited in 1971 to create the phylum Placozoa, which in English means, guess what, "flat animal." A phylum can also be created by splitting an existing one: Acoelomorpha was split off from rom Platyhelminthes in 2004, I suppose for being too weird even for that collection of animals, which eat and extrete from the same hole and include the goofy-looking Platyhelminthes, the flatworms  you experimented on in school.
In October 2000, Kristensen and Funch proposed yet another phylum.  Micrognathozoa was named to house Limnognathia maerski, a miniscule creature found in the frigid fresh water of wells in Greenland.  Only 1/250th of an inch long, it nevertheless has unusual, complex jaws used to scrape algae from rocks.  The nominate species appeared to consist entirely of parthenogenic females. Must be boring. Meanwhile, scientists are still arguing over the phylum Xenacoelomorpha, another flatworm group proposed in 2016.
I'd go on, but my head is starting to hurt. The point of all this is that animal classification, like animals themselves, continues to evolve, and we probably have not reached the end of splitting existing phyla or discovering new one in the wild, if you call sea-bottom ooze "the wild” – which I presume it is to any animal a millimeter long.   


The world's only known placozoan, Trichoplax adhaerens (Photo credit unknown)

Some further reading
Angier, Natalie.  1995.  “Flyspeck on Lobster Lips Turns Biology on its Ear,” New York Times, December 14.
Anonymous.  1996.  “Life on Lobster Lips,” Discover, March.
Associated Press. 1995.  “Tiny animal in a class by itself,” Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, December 17, p.A20.
Reuters.  2000.  “Scientists Find Completely New Animal in Greenland,” October 12.
Walker, Dave. 1996.  “A Lobster's Microscopic Friend: Symbion pandora - a new life form and a new phylum,” Microscopy UK, http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/articles/pandora.html.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

New species! Get your new species here!

These Live Science folks are good about collecting articles on new species - living and prehistoric.

I'd heard of some of the recent ones, but I didn't know The Martian's botanist character Mark Watney was now the name of a new "bush tomato" plant from Australia!
 Welcome Solanum watneyi.   Co-discoverer Chris Martine explained that he appreciated The Martian for showing that "botanists can be cool, too!"

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Casper the friendly octopus

Octopuses are not normally considered "cute," but it's hard not to apply the appellation to the new species that reminds people of the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost.  (That's better than referring to a problematic James Bond movie title.) The animal was plucked from a rocky shelf 4,290m down by the ROV Deep Discoverer off Hawaii. According to a NOAA scientist, it was the deepest that an octopus of this type (a member of the group called the incirrate octopuses) has been spotted, and among other oddities it has only one row of suckers on its tentacles instead of the standard two.  Even stranger, it lacks chromatophores and can't change color.  Welcome to science, little guy!


The newest octopus species (NOAA)

Octopus discoveries in the recent past are highlighted by the most wonderful species ever. Nothing found under the seas is stranger than a recently discovered Indo-Pacific octopus.  In the shallow waters of three straits off Sulawesi, Indonesia, lives an animal with an armspread of about two feet and an astonishing talent.  The Mimic Octopus, which has long, slender tentacles and is normally dark brown with white stripes and blotches, has powers of imitation unparalleled in the natural world.
The octopus can curl up its tentacles at its sides and darken itself to resemble a stingray, with one tentacle trailing at the back to make a tail.  It can turn tentacles into fake pectoral fins and look like the head and forebody of a jawfish rising from the seafloor.  It can arrange its entire shape and color to mimic a flounder and glide across the bottom.  It can resemble a starfish, a jellyfish, a sand anemone, a sea snake, a snake eel, a lionfish, or a baby cuttlefish.
Where does this little octopus learn such complex behavior, and what is this repertoire used for?  The octopus can imitate both prey species and predators, so it may use this ability as a defensive mechanism or a way to sneak up on prey, as the need arises.  However this behavior arose, and however it is passed on, it is a most impressive example of skill and adaptability among these “lower” animals.
Dr. Mark Norman of James Cook University in Queensland told me in email that he and his colleagues have nabbed no fewer than 150 new species of octopus in the last ten years.  Incidentally, Norman explained why there was a long delay in formally describing the the Mimic Octopus: “Everybody likes them too much to knock one off for formal description.”  He wrote the description of another long-armed species nicknamed "Wonderpus,” an Indonesian native which can mimic sea snakes.  (The Wonderpus and Mimic Octopus are occasionally confused in media reports, but they are two separate types.)  Among other descriptions he's written is that a species with very thin limbs three feet long, known to Norman as “Spaghettiopus.”
Gotta love those octopuses.  We've only started figuring them out. 

Further reading:
Colin, Patrick.  1999.  “Palau at Depth,” Ocean Realm, Summer, p.77.
Quammen, David.  2000.  The Boilerplate Rhino.  New York: Scribner.
Steene, Roger.  1998.  Coral Seas.  Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.
Ross, John.  1999.  “Masters of Mimicry,” Smithsonian, March, p.112.
Turner, Pamela.  2003.  “Uncommon Octopus,” Wildlife Conservation, January, p.20.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Giant Lizard Walks in....

Nope, not a bar joke. If this blog has a theme, it's that we don't know the world around us as well as we think.  On the small Pacific island of Mussau, we've just discovered the top predator, a blue-tailed monitor lizard that lives nowhere else. Varanus semotus can be over a meter long.
While this is the first new monitor from the Papua New Guinea archipelago in 20 years, monitors in general turn up surprisingly often for such large creatures. Interested researchers like German zoologist Wolfgang Boehme have only recently documented just how widespread and  diverse monitors are. A total of sixteen species were from Indonesia and surrounding islands just between 1990 and 2006. Australia’s count has also risen recently, approaching 30 species, with several known but yet to be named.
Smaller monitors are popular as pets, a fact which has led to several recent discoveries.  A 1998 article by Jeff Lemm in Reptiles magazine discussed eight new types, all of which have turned up in the pet trade.  Two species have been formally described, and there may be as many as six more awaiting description.  Lemm wrote that some of these may prove to be subspecies or varieties rather than species.
From the island of Halmahera came Varanus yowoni, the black-backed mangrove monitor, which may be five feet long.  The other described species Lemm mentioned was the smaller, bright-yellow quince monitor, Varanus melinus.  This lizard grows to almost four feet in length and is reportedly a very tractable species in captivity.  It was kept as a pet and even bred in the United States for years before being identified as a species.
In 1999, Dr. Robert Sprackland described another species, the peacock monitor Varanus auffenbergi.  This is a colorful animal, blue with turquoise and orange markings, plus bright yellow spots on its limbs. Smaller than the other new monitors, it was obtained from Roti island in Indonesia.
Some new species are harder to place.  It’s often the case that a type specimen is in hand, but the type location is unknown. Because of the mixing of sources and suppliers in the pet business, it’s uncertain where several recently described species of new monitors originated. Wherever they came from, the most interesting thing is that, until recently, the scientific world had been quite unaware of them.
Some additional references:
Anonymous. 1997.  “At Home in the Rocks, a New Gecko Emerges,” National Geographic, June.
Lemm, Jeff.  1998.  “Year of the Monitor: A Look at Some Recently Discovered Varanids,” Reptiles, September, p.70.
Reptile Exotics.  No date.  “Care Sheet – Varanus melinus,” http://www.reptileexotics.com/melinus.html.
Sprackland, Robert.  1999.  “A new species of monitor from Indonesia,” Reptile Hobbyist, February.
Sweet, Samuel., and Eric Pianka.  2003.  “The Lizard Kings,” Natural History, November, p.40...  .

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Humans and Wildlife: Why We Can't Have a Nice Planet

My thought for today: there is something seriously wrong with human beings.

Think about this dolphin.

Think about this shark.

Think about this dolphin.

Think about this chimp.

We've always felt other animals were there for our consumption.  Meat-eaters and vegans can debate the ethics of that, and we can debate the means by which other animals are grown or harvested, but what shouldn't, what can't, be debated is that inflicting pain for our own pleasure degrades, not the animal involved, but US.  The three marine life cases just mentioned are from different nations, but all involve relatively well-off human beings who don't need food - they decided they needed a sick thrill. And the world's loneliest chimp - well, he just wasn't needed anymore, so let him starve.



Animals as they should never be (copyright unknown)

Raising children who don't respect animals is (sadly) not new, but what this makes me think is that we're doing something likely to be even more damaging in the long term: we're raising generations who are disconnected from nature entirely. It's there for our amusement. It's there for selfies and videos and blog posts. But in a world of smartphones and video games and computers, nature is simply "other" - it's like another planet we can hop over to and use when we want.  It's not the source of our food, our building materials, our medicines - even though it is.

To my fellow parents: dammit, take your kids outside. Not just to the park. Take them to seas, to mountains.  Take them to places with dirt.  Show them how it all works - how animals and plants and geological forces shape the world they are standing in.

Teach them respect.

Teach them, above all, connectedness.

Rant over.


Animals as they should be (NOAA)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Scientific "what-if" thoughts on cryptozoology

Cryptozoology covers a lot of ground (some of it very shaky), but having read everything significant in the field for 40 years, I find myself speculating on two of its poster animals - sasquatch and Nessie - and what their reality may be.  

Idon't think we've missed a large unclassified American ape, and I am quite sure we haven't missed a massive animal in a Scottish lake.  If they were real, though, what might they be?


The best argument for Bigfoot is that pranksters creating hundreds and hundreds of fake footprint events, some made where they might not be discovered at all, seems illogical.  It is illogical, but the best argument against Bigfoot is that we don't have much better evidence by now. 

Some tracks are impressive, like the famous Bossburg "Cripplefoot" prints. If hoaxer Ivan Marx was really behind those, he put a lot of effort into making elaborate fake feet and leaving over a thousand prints with them.  Some prints are more easily be explained.  The "London trackway"  - humanlike 14" prints with a 47" stride - got some early endorsements from major Bigfooters.  However, I did an experiment on muddy ground like that mentioned in the report. I am 6-3” (I was 6-4" before my back screwed up) with long legs (inseam 36). I was able, barefoot, to make 13" tracks 47" apart heel to heel. Now that's on level ground, and I had to stretch as far as I could, but this indicates to me that a human just a fraction taller and larger-footed could have done it. This is just one data point, but it puts the tracks within the human range in my mind. Bigfooters have told me that "human" is now the generally accepted explanation. 

If Bigfoot proved real.. hmmm.  The footprint evidence to me is ambiguous on the "man vs. ape" question because the feet wouldn’t look like the feet of any primate species we know anyway: they’d have to evolve somewhat to carry such a huge body around bipedally. Also, there are countless variations within the Bigfoot track database even if you throw out the ones with other than five toes and the ones that don't look like a primate at all: no one can say definitively that "this is a real track and we can throw out all the ones that don't look like this."   A lot of researchers like Asia's Gigantopithecus blacki as either Bigfoot itself or an ancestor, which has some logic to it as this is the only ape known from the fossil record big enough to fit almost every report and idea of sasquatch.  But we have only teeth and jaws and thus no idea what the feet looked like. Giganto is generally presumed to be an orangutan-like quadruped, but we can't say definitively it never walked on two legs, or that it could not have spun off a habitually bipedal descendant.   

The most famous piece of evidence put forth for Bigfoot remains, after all these years, the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film.  I go with Dr. John Napier, the eminent primatologist who thought it likely sasquatch was a real animal, but that the filmed subject showed a mix of human and ape characteristics that wasn't believable. 
If it was a man in a suit, though, I'd still like to know who made the damned thing.  
I don't think it's a mail-order theatrical costume and I don't think it's a horsehide home-made job (the two theories Greg Long tried and failed to mesh into something believable in his book The Making of Bigfoot.)   There's no detail that screams "fake" unless you count my general impression that the back of the lower legs look pantlike. Someone put skill, effort, and money into this.  While the film rights were valuable, I wonder if the hoaxer went to the trouble because he thought the effort would bring in a lot more value than it ended up doing.  

I  never met Roger Patterson and haven't met Bob Gimlin, but I can't help thinking that Patterson was in on the hoax. I considered the idea that the hoaxer was a third party working through a local contact (like Al Hodgson, the store owner who told them of a nearby track find, or Bob Heironimus, who loaned Gimlin his horse) who knew P and G were looking  for Bigfoot and tipped them off to a likely location, but  I can't really make that work in my head. The guy in the suit would have needed to be a reckless idiot, as  he stood a fair chance of being shot if the two men - or someone else coming across the location which was remote but not unvisited - had decided they needed the specimen.  Indeed, both Patterson and Gimlin said, years later, they wished they had shot it.  While Patterson was a very interested Bigfoot-hunter (I have a copy somewhere of this self-published 1966 book), Gimlin was a less-interested companion who might have been innocent of the whole thing. But the bottom line is I write the whole affair off as a hoax. 


Patterson-Gimlin frame 352 (public domain)

Back to the question of what Bigfoot is, assuming it’s real: I used to like Giganto, too, based on the size factor: we don’t have any other apes nearly that size as suspects, and none of our human ancestors, despite some speculative interpretations of creatures like Paranthropus (aka Australopithecus) robustus, its cousin P. boiesi, or the invalid Homo gardarensis, comes close to being 7 feet or more in height.  

That leads to to an interesting side discussion:  how big does Bigfoot have to be to match the sighting reports? I think it’s safe to lop off the top end of Bigfoot height estimates based on the uncertainty of a startled eyewitness’ getting the height just right, but even if you assume the biggest estimates are in error, I think you need at least a 7-footer. Dr. Matthew Johnson claimed a clear sighting of an animal that was taller than himself, and Johnson is 6'8." Also, it’s definitely broad-shouldered and large in the frame.   It may not weigh 800 pounds or more as some researchers think. but 400+ is, I think, a minimum.  

Despite the unsuitability of human ancestors, though, I’ve come to think they are perhaps preferable to Giganto. We have no evidence Giganto (or any large ape) ever made it north of the bamboo forests in what is now China, whereas we do have direct evidence of one human species making itself at home in cold climates and then making the trip all the way to North America.  (See this article for a good anti-Giganto argument.) Plus, as humans evolved, we became more habitually bipedal, while the apes produced knuckle-walking or fist-walking large species.  What offshoot of the human branch produced a tall, hairy, and apparently rather dim (no good evidence of fire-making, sophisticated tools, etc.) species? Again, I think the answer is “none:” I just find it slightly less incredible than a giant ape. 

Nessie evidence is a little like Bigfoot minus the tracks. There are some odd sonar traces, and I still haven't completely filed away Tim Dinsdale's film: it might be a boat, but it looks like it submerges at one point.  The rest of the filmed evidence doesn't grab me the way it used to.
This came to mind due to a FaceBook thread on the "giant eel" idea. While this occasioned Steve Alten's best 'creature" novel, it's never been proven that 20-30-foot conger eels exist anywhere.  Still, if we assume for a moment there's a large unidentified animal species which inhabits Loch Ness for part or all of its lifecycle, the eel idea has its charms. Nessies are not airbreathers: we'd have more and better pictures. Invertebrates are out based on size. That leaves fish. I can imagine a giant conger, with its relatively thin forebody, lumpy midsection, and observed unusual behavior (as Maurice Burton wrote, it can zoom around with head and forebody out of water or (seemingly pointlessly) undulate on its side at the surface) a decent candidate. Ness expert Dick Raynor points out an eel doesn't match most of the known photos, but, as I said earlier, I don't think much of any of the still-photo evidence these days.  A giant conger could look at times like a swimming lump or a raised head/neck (even if that "neck" was sometimes the tail). I think eels could look a little more Nessie-ish than the other main fish candidates, the sturgeon or the wels catfish.  It's not so much a great solution as the only one I can sort of imagine. 


As I said in the title, these are random notes. They don’t really lead anywhere, except to my usual comment when I doubt cryptozoological creatures’ existence: I hope I’m wrong. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Explorer 1 57th Anniversary!

Fifty-seven years ago, the U.S. joined the Space Age with a little satellite ingeniously built into the fourth stage on Wernher von Braun's Jupiter-C booster (we purists don't use the later name "Juno.")

How to learn the full story?

From 1998 to 2004, I spent most of my spare time on telling the story of the Sputnik-Explorer-Vanguard competition to launch the first satellite. With help from coauthor Erika Maurer Vadnais (nee Lishock), and cooperation from space historians and living veterans of all three American programs, we wrote the first book to trace the Space Age from ancient times through the 1950s. The Foreword was the last thing the late James Van Allen ever wrote for publication. With NASA sponsoring publication through Texas A&M, we delivered a book we're still proud of - an original take on this pivotal era, with some corrections from previous histories and some new information from our interviews. It's also the first book ever to tell the story of the Navy's shoestring NOTSNIK, the world's first air-launched satellite. As we celebrate the 57th anniversary of Explorer 1, I hope you'll give it a look. Available from the publisher, Amazon, B&N, or the authors!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Poem for the fallen astronauts (and cosmonauts)

This is the time of year when NASA remembers the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.  It's become an international occasion, too, with thoughts of the cosmonauts of Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11.
You were the best our species had to offer.  We honor you.

I wrote this in 2014.

A poem for space - The Explorers

The Explorers
(written on the occasion of the loss of SpaceShipTwo)

The souls departing Earthbound life
Rise to heaven’s plane
Soldier, sailor, priest, or king
The destination is the same
But in an even higher realm
With stars always in view
Meet those lost in exploration
Remembering how they flew


Komarov toasts Gus Grissom
And Resnik talks with Clark
Ramon and Chalwa share a tale
As they look beyond the dark
Adams shares his glory days
With Husband and McNair
And always they watch
And urge us on
To rise above the air.

Don’t cling to mother Earth, they’d say
God has given us the stars
There’s a reason we aspire
To cross the celestial bar
We gave our lives
We don’t regret
To push back the frontier
Remember us by challenging
And rising past your fears

Patseyev, Onizuka
Anderson and Brown
Salute each new endeavour
That lifts us from the ground
To every new thrust into space
They raise their glasses high
And remind us we were always meant
To reach beyond the sky.
- Matt Bille, space historian, 2014 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Rare finds in the Pacific

"Living fossil" is an overused term (heck, a self-contradictory one) but it's always cool when something turns up alive that we know only from paleontology.  A reef in the Coral Sea, famed for the pivotal battle in World War II when the U.S. first checked Japan;s naval advance, was explored by an international team in 2009.  It's not unusual for the data from an expedition to take a year or two to sift through. In this case it took 7, which is a little long, but it included very interesting stuff including corals never known to exist in the region and some new species of glass sponge along with rare footage of the chambered nautilus, the "living fossil" that launched a hundred newspaper headlines.  The scientists used a ROV that went down 800m.  One noted, "At 800 meters the water is cold and dark, and the environmental conditions really haven't changed much for millions of years."  

In other marine life news, two large, deep-diving, and completely weird sharks, the goblin shark and the frilled shark, went on display at a Japanese aquarium. The former has a ridiculously oversized snout, while the latter looks almost like a thick-bodied mutant eel.  It's very rare to see either in an aquarium, but in Yokahama you can now see both.  



Goblin shark (U. of Florida)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thanks for a great COSine

I couldn't attend every part of the Colorado Springs science fiction convention, COSine, but if you missed it entirely, and are a local science writer or SF fan, you need to make this a regular event on your calendar.  Robin Minogue and the rest of the staff pulled off a great event, Guest of Honor Jim Butcher (who is moving to Colorado!) was gracious, encouraging, and informative, all the panels I served on or attended were lively and full of insight, I met a lot of great people.  Thanks to my publisher, Carol Hightshoe, of Wolfsinger Publications as well.  See y'all next year!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

COSine is here!

Can we colonize Mars? Find out in the panel I moderate here in Colorado Springs at 3PM local time on Friday.  It's part of the COSine Science Fiction Convention, with special guest Jim Butcher (yes, THE Jim Butcher).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Eva Saulitis, moonshots, and cancer

We've lost one of the most eloquent of nature writers, poet, marine biologist, teacher, and author Eva Saulitis. I knew her only from internet correspondence, but her orca book, Into Great Silence, made a deep impression on me. It is one of the great books in terms of personalizing nature and making us understand another species.
Saulitis’ book  tells much about what we’re learning and what we don’t know concerning orcas.  She followed a transient pod, originally of 22 animals which traveled in smaller, intermingling groups, and pairs,  in and around Prince William Sound from 1987 (thus watching the devastating effects of  the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill) until, a quarter century later, there were seven, most having died or vanished, the calves no longer coming.   We don’t know how many species of orca there are, or whether they are part of a highly variable species (similar to, say, humanity).  She wrote that a stocky type with a tall fin, known as Biggs’ killer whale, appears in transient populations from four separate regions, which never cross paths. 
The author watched an incredible scene where four orcas chased and harried a fleeing Dall’s porpoise. Suddenly, as if a whistle had blown, all five animals simple stopped where they were.  Two minutes later, the chase started again, the orcas taking turns breaching beneath the porpoise and throwing it in the air, until the prey was finally grabbed and eaten. On another occasion, though, a Dall’s porpoise attached itself to an orca pod and was tolerated. It hung out with them for months.  Was the porpoise in the chase “game” perhaps unaware the orcas were serious?
She describes her interest in conservation as dating from seeing the 1972 cartoon The Last of the Curlews.  (I’ve seen it, and it was very touching.)  She wrote about the neurobiology term “origin moments,” those times when we experience something remarkable for the first time. The mind tends to remember even the smallest details.  For me, for example, one was the pillar of fire that split the night sky when Apollo 17 left for Moon while we watched from a beach miles away. For her, it was her first encounter with orcas.   

She died of cancer, a malady that has claimed far too many. We all know about David Bowie and Alan Rickman. My friend and agent, Cicily Janus, has been batting it for over a year.  (Please give here: I have.)




President Obama's launch of a "moonshot" initiative against cancer is a worthy cause, one I am willing to be taxed to support.  I have no special knowledge of medicine, but I do have some of space history, and I have to caution that his comparison to putting a man on the moon is a misleading one. President Kennedy's challenge to land an American on our natural satellite was a huge technical endeavor, but there was never any doubt about how to do it (namely, rockets), even though countless details needed to be worked out.  Cancer is a complex phenomenon with some 400 variations. It won't be cured with any single approach.  It will take time, money, and cooperation, and progress will be incremental.  But it's worth doing.




Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cryptozoology coverage follow-ups

Actually, the fallout on my coverage of the International Cryptozoology Museum conference was pretty good. Sharon Hill of Doubtful News, a skeptic of most cryptozoological claims, covered it on  her site here.  There are good discussions on FaceBook coming out of it.  I sent it to the "Talk" thread on the National Association of Science Writers site (I belong to the NASW), but didn't raise a response.  Science writers in general have their own survival to think about these days as well as science, so I'm not too surprised.
Dr. Paul LeBlond, president of the new International Cryptozoology Society, was kind enough to look at my treatment for a 10-part series on marine life and legends, called Argosy (think Cosmos meets Jacques Cousteau) and suggest some folks to submit it to.
I also gathered some data for my next book, Seas, Sharks, and Serpents, which I swear WILL come out next year.
Onwards!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Conservation success: the manatee

Manatees are, as a friend of mine from Florida remarked, like floating sofas: they are about the most inoffensive critters imaginable, sort of like aquatic Schmoos. I saw a rescued one in the Miami Seaquarium around 1975 and remember it as simply hanging there in the water, not particularly interested in anything.
Nevertheless, they were endangered by human activity, mainly habitat loss and injury by ships and boats that used to run over them. The U.S. species, technically known as the West Indian manatee, dropped to under 1,300 in 1972 and were listed as "Endangered."   It took a long time, a great deal of professional and volunteer human help, and laws about everything from pollution to "go slow" boating zones, but the big lugs have improved significantly.  There are well over 6,000 animals today, and the government has recommended that they can be downgraded to "Threatened." If the action is completed, it will still be illegal to kill them, but some regulations may be removed. There are some environmental organizations who think the downgrade is premature, and there's a comment period and many other activities and processes ahead before action is taken.
Photo USFWS


The sirenians in general have had a hard time with humans. Dugongs are threatened or endangered throughout their tropical ranges, and the most spectacular, Steller's sea cow, lasted only a few decades between discovery and extinction. All the more reason to praise a success story.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Full report on the International Cryptozoology Museum conference

International Cryptozoology Museum Conference, Night 1
January 4, 2016

I like cryptozoologists.  Even though I don’t use the term for myself anymore (too much TV baggage), I like the people I meet in the business.  I like their stubborn optimism, their enthusiasm, and their determination. Except for the hoaxers, they’re a great bunch to hang out with.  I critique the field a lot for its collective habit of endorsing particular “crypids” before the evidence justifies it, but science needs amatuers (which most cryptozoology researchers are), even in 2016, and it needs optimists, even wild-eyed ones.

So here I am at the inaugural ICM Conference in St. Augustine, FL.  Loren Coleman, founder of the ICM in Portland, Maine, ably seconded by his effervescent wife Jenny, has gathered some of the most active people in the field.  He hoped for 100+ attendees to create one of the leading conferences on the subject, but it’s the first year, and maybe half that have gathered. What they lack in numbers, though, they make up for in energy, and the white-bearded Coleman is as enthusiastic as they come.

I wish I could describe all of Night 1, but I spent the opening social on the road after a two-hour delay in Atlanta to fix a fuel pump in the airplane and re-top the tanks. This was annoying but ok with us passengers: a retired Navy pilot sitting next to me commented that the only time a plane can have too much fuel is when it’s on fire.
So what I missed was the awarding of the Golden Yeti, a rather intimidating-looking statuette that went to the Cryptozoologist of the Year. The awardee was Jeremy Efroymson, a film-maker, attorney, writer, and philanthropist who I honestly hadn’t heard of, but he’s been important: as Loren wrote, “Jeremy is bestowed this honor for his quiet but steady support of serious cryptozoological pursuits. Jeremy and the Efroymson Family Foundation have awarded grants and funds since at least, 2012, to such grantees as the Virtual Footprints Archive at Idaho State University, the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, and the International Cryptozoology Museum.”  Cryptozoology doesn’t exactly top the list for National Science Foundation grants, so the field is fortunate to have Jeremy.

The Golden Yeti


I did make it to the presentation on the Florida Skunk Ape, a subject of interest since I grew up down the coast from here in Vero Beach.  I heard only rumors of sightings as a kid, but I knew what it was, or was supposed to be.
(Quick aside: I was volunteering on a political campaign in 1976 when a newspaper from the town of St. Cloud headlined a "900-lb Hairy Creature Stalking Reedy Creek Area." I pinned it to the wall with the note that we now knew where our opponent was campaigning. It was funny at the time.)

Tonight’s presenter was Rob Robinson.  I’ve used the word “enthusiastic” a lot, but I had to use it again here.  He was an infectious speaker, weaving a great story with bits of humor like the time he was scared out of his wits by a large nocturnal animal that turned out to be a cow. He debunked some recent photo and video hoaxes but showed some images no one present had seen before. (Still too distant, too dark, etc., although a video of a dark figure gliding easily through a swampy spot where you'd think a human would normally walk with great difficulty was interesting despite the poor quality of the image.)  When I asked him the standard question – why isn’t there better evidence, when we have roadkills and photos of the extremely rare Florida panther – he replied he thinks the evidence is mounting, even if mostly fuzzy “blobsqatch" imagery and footprints so far – as people become more aware. He thinks a small population of smart primates very wary of humans could hide in Florida wilderness a long time. Despite my skepticism on all things squatch-related, I can’t really say that’s impossible, although there's still the huge problem of how a large primate got to North America, when, and from where.  His belief Florida supports two anomalous primates, Bigfoot and the smaller (and smellier) Skunk Ape, is even harder to accept, but his belief there is SOMETHING going on is intriguing.

On the subject of another cryptid, or near-cryptid, Rob commented on my mention of the Florida panther by reporting he and his wife watched a black Florida panther walk right in front of their car in daylight. There aren’t supposed to be black (melanistic) panthers in Florida, but there aren’t supposed to be any in Maine, either, and my dad is pretty certain about the one he saw 60 years ago. Biologist Jeff Corwin described his own Florida panther sighting thus: “It was darker than the panthers I'd seen in photos, more charcoal than sage.” So I’ve never ruled out black, or at least dark, panthers, although Florida wildlife authorities blew Rob off when he said “black.”
There was an interesting documentary showing after that meeting, but I had work to do for my day job and had to beg off. But I enjoyed Night 1, as brief as it was, and look forward to Day 2, including my own talk on bears.
It’s all off to a howling good start.

International Cryptozoology Museum Conference
Day 2
January 5, 2016

Today was the full day of presentations here at the ICM conference. Not to throw in a plug, but the Casa Monica is a great old hotel, updated with all the amenities, and Loren Coleman of the ICM did a great job in picking the hotel and getting everyone an affordable rate at the height of tourist season.





I’d forgotten how touristy Florida was: the tackiness is so assertive that a kind of grandeur creeps into it.  It’s different from the tackiness you see in most tourist spots, though: in Florida, it’s an affectionate kind of tacky, where everyone, locals and visitors, is in on the joke and no one takes it too seriously.  This is the first European city in the Americas, and there’s a lot of real history showing its face amid the T-shirt shops. 

Anyway, today was all about presentations. I am a skeptic of most cryptozoolgical claims: it would take more than we have now to make me believe in huge unknown American primates or Mongolian death worms.  But the level of science in the presentations was frankly higher than I’d expected, and I came away understanding much better WHY the convinced people are convinced.  People who are sure cryptozoology has nothing to offer science should spend more time with these folks.  At the very least, their work tells us more about folklore, beliefs, and the way we view nature. At the most, it may yet point the way to some major discoveries. (By the way, these are in the order I wrote them up, not exactly the order they were presented in.)

My presentation on bears was very well received. I pointed out mysteries that still exist with bears (the reported giant black variety of the Kamchatka brown bear) while arguing that other questions, such as the identity of the odd grizzly known as MacFarlane’s bear, can be put to rest. Bears offer many lessons for cryptozoologists, from the ways they are tracked and studied to the attitudes of officialdom toward inconvenient reports.  (I reported on a good witness who told me first-hand about seeing a Colorado grizzly bear, which is supposed to be extinct, and the state wildlife people dismissed it order to - seriously, someone told him this - avoid the huge hassle of closing off the area while they investigated.)  I gave the presentation to Loren and will share it with anyone who asks.

French cryptozoologist Michael Raynal couldn’t attend in person or by Skype link, so Loren Coleman did his presentation on the giant octopus of St. Augustine. It was a fascinating presentation, with a lot of old news clippings and photos, with Dr. Paul LeBlond (see below), a Canadian oceanographer, helping out by translating some verbiage from the French. The carcass that came ashore in 1896, was, very probably, a sperm whale’s blubber/skin/connective tissue, but as long as we’re not absolutely certain, some mystery – and some fun – remains. (Or I hope it does: personally I write this off now as a whale. As usual, I hope I'm wrong.) Terry Cullen, a herpetological genetics expert in attendance, suggested the newest tests should be done on the bits of tissue that still remain as samples. Loren made the interesting point that the tourist mecca of St. Augustine has somehow missed making any financial hay out of this event: indeed, local shops hold nothing about it at all. (I checked across the street at the Lightner museum of local history: the gift shop staff, at least, had never heard of it.)  


Dr. LeBlond, a physicist and oceanographer whose curiosity drew him into the “Caddy” business some years ago, opened by describing two recurrent “sea monster” motifs of First Nations people in the British Columbia and adjoining areas. What’s come to be called “Caddy” is also well known locally, and LeBlond has amassed a large collection of sightings which he believes make the two most important criteria: 1) Clearly an animal, and 2) not a KNOWN animal. Plotting these by length from 10 feet (noting that 10-footers could be seals), to 100-footers (mistaken whales?) yields a cluster at 40-59 feet.   He notes that sighting areas do not stay static over time: that is, you can have a run of sightings in one area, then a gap of several years before that area produces another sighting. On the complex issue of the Nash video of numerous animals which appear to be harassing a pod of belugas, he notes the animals turned back when they neared a fishing boat’s nets, and, while features like flippers were never seen, the front ends seemed to have a profile something like a Boeing 747 with its bulbous nose section. At one point, in a video segment which is either lost or taped over, LeBlond and cryptozoologist John Kirk (viewing it separately) saw a head, a bit like a seal’s but more oval in horizontal cross-section when seen from the front and with a narrower neck, pop up and look toward the camera. I discussed with him afterward the question of how sure he was that a drawing of this, circulated widely in the cryptozoological community and in his latest book, was accurate. He was cautious about it: it matched what he remembered, but with he and Kirk contributing what they thought the tape showed at a considerable distance to an artist, the final drawing is “about five steps removed” from what the actual animal looks like, and there is some margin for error.

Archaeologist/anthropologist Kathy Strain gave a very thought-provoking presentation about the prevalence of Sasquatch-type creatures in Native American lore.  I knew there were a lot of legends, stories, and, supposedly, history about such creatures, but I had no idea how ubiquitous it was. “Hairy Man” type creatures exist in art, basketry, songs, dances, totem poles, and oral histories, much of it pre-Columbian.  While there are many variations, a common and amusing one was that females carried baskets and swept up bad children to take them away to eat, while males, often half-human (the females were claimed to prefer human men to their own kind), sort of blundered around eating mostly nuts and shellfish.  Strain showed old films of dances, showed pictographs of Hairy Man people weeping (because humans were afraid of them), and played back a haunting song from one tribe that only women were allowed to sing (it asked the Hairy Man to come take away the spirits of the dead at a funeral.)  Since many Western stories are about real animals endowed with fanciful characteristics, she argues, these kinds of beliefs don’t mean the animals are not real. When I asked how a non-expert could differentiate between spiritual and physical creatures in Native American tales, she explained that a creature could be either or both, just as Christians and others believe we are both body and spirit/soul. The art object she showed that stuck with me was a centuries-old Haida mask decorated with horsehair that looks so much like an ape that she is stumped to suggest what else it could be, and I had the same reaction. While many cultures can tell visitors what they want to hear, either to please them or to pull their legs, Strain believes the unbroken continuity of countless tribes’ beliefs across ages indicate that recent additions don’t detract from the essential point that those who lived here before Columbus widely believed such creatures were real, and many believe they are here still. (Native Americans believe that, however their own ancestors arrived in North America, the hairy ones were already here just as all the other animals were.) None of this adds up to hard evidence of existence, but collectively it's a bit challenging to just dismiss as myth.

Bigfoot-hunter Cliff Barackman gave a very good tutorial on footprints, focusing mostly on mystery primates but with other examples. He stressed that a footprint is not an image of the foot: it is an image of the damage the foot did to the ground, which may be quite different.  Indeed, two footprints made in succession by the same animal can look different, and footprints' origin can be disguised by various forces: for example, overlapping bear tracks can look surprisingly human.  A common trait in fake sasquatch feet is the lack of flexibility: Barackman argues the real primate he believes exists has very flexible feet (some experts say there is a mid-tarsal break, essentially an extra joint, but Cliff doesn’t go that far). He dismisses three- and four-toed impressions as hoaxes.  He argues several sets of “real” tracks have very clear dermal ridges, although he did not really address how wide the variation is in what are deemed by various researchers to be authentic five-toed sasquatch tracks.  On the rarity of apparent juvenile impressions, he and others at the conference have noted that genuine juvenile footprints might be taken for bare human feet.  Whatever one thinks of sasquatch, he imparted a great deal of useful information, especially for us suburban folk trying to understand technical discussions over footprints. 
He has collected some 50 impressions of Sumatra’s mystery ape, the orang-pendek and, while he believes this is a real animal, doesn’t believe it’s related to the diminutive fossil humans known as the Flores Island  “hobbits” – the widely separated big toe is distinctly ape-like.
I asked him about one of the most puzzling footprints of all time, the “yeti” track photographed in the snows of Everest by Shipton and Ward, and he felt this was not related to sasquatch-type creatures or the orang-pendek: if it was a genuine print, it belonged to some other species.

Biologist and TV host Pat Spain of the series Beast Hunters stood up, and I'm glad he was late in the day because following his act would have been impossible. Funny, personable, and persuasive, he explained how a biologist who started by studying shellfish (he once submitted a paper on stresses in oysters subtitled  "Sprat Pain by Pat Spain") ended up chasing cryptids all over the world. Along the way, he discovered that watching a Westerner use the latrine is entertainment in a remote Cameroon village and that young female orangutans are capable of molesting a human male in the most intimate, uncomfortable, and embarrassing ways possible.
He felt at least two animals, “living dinosaur” mokele-mbembe and the poisonous Mongolian death worm, were cultural constructs, and explained what purpose each legend served in its respective culture. He also noted that with mokele-mbembe, the common tactic of showing locals pictures of different animals has been gamed by local entrepreneurs: people looked to the guides for nods on whether they should say a certain animal lived in their area.
Spain didn't see an orang-pendek but is convinced they exist. The local people he worked with in Sumatra not only seemed truthful but a bit awed by the animal's humanlike locomotion: while it may be a type of gibbon, it walks bipedally by nature, without the usual gibbon arm-balancing. He emphasized the people he talked to knew every detail of the lives of gibbons, orangutans, and other local primates.  Most memorably, he reported a conversation with Dr. Mike Morwood, the discoverer of the 18,000-year-old Flores "hobbits," who told Spain he had hard evidence, which he planned to publish, showing that species was alive into the 1920s! The evidence was apparently lost or misplaced with the scientist's premature death of cancer in 2013, although it may lie somewhere in his archives awaiting rediscovery. Someone really needs to push this hard and find out what he had.
Likewise, the certainty of a tribe Spain befriended in the Amazon (by going through an incredibly painful ritual involving wearing gloves filled with huge stinging ants) about the mapinguari made him feel some kind of surviving ground sloth was a distinct possibility.  He also thinks some form of large sea creature exists within the data for the British Columbian sea serpent known as Cadborosaurus, or “Caddy.”  He doesn't know what it is, but the number of sincere witnesses he talked to, given the fact that "every marine scientist believes there are some large animals left undiscovered," makes him fairly certain something is afoot.
Spain argued hard that cryptozoology and "mainstream" biology are mutually supporting: his work on Caddy included looking at the oarfish as a candidate and funded the first-ever CAT scan of an oarfish, producing a trove of data on that very strange creature.
I asked Spain about the use of cryptozoology in science education, something I've proposed a panel on for the June 2016 Denver ComiCon. He thinks it's very valuable and described how he's gotten young people to learn about the woods by suggesting they look for Bigfoot and along the way studying animal tracking, ecology, and the food chain. Loren Coleman asked him if mokele-mbembe might be, not a reptile, but a semi-aquatic rhino: Spain is certain, though, that the area he examined houses nothing exceptional. (The geology of the area, he noted, also ruled out any underground or underwater caves. He did add that he did not go to one other site with monster reports, Lake Tele: it's unreachable due to ongoing conflicts.) I wanted to talk with him about my idea for a marine life documentary series, but he had to run: all I could do was give him a card.

We ended up at a theater watching Revenge of the Creature, the slightly inferior but still impressive sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Lagoon films remain surprisingly effective and affecting: the creature's loneliness and his torment at being shocked by scientists studying his learning capability come through well, and the suits remain superb even on close examination. Seriously, we had it on a big screen and I looked hard at the suits: I spotted a small rip on the leg in one scene, but that was it. What craftsmen those old makeup guys were.
 And so ended a very, very interesting day.




ICM Speakers: Kathy Strain, Rob Robinson, me, Pat Spain, Paul LeBlond, Loren Coleman, Jerome Hamlin, uncertain(?), Lyle Blackburn.





Organizer Loren Coleman


Lyle Blackburn, Pat Spain





Dr. LeBlond



ICM Conference, final day

Day 3
January 6
Today included two presentations followed by a tour of Marineland and the approximate area where the 1896 “giant octopus” beached.  I wasn’t able to make the afternoon activities, but the morning had plenty to offer. 

First off was an important bit of business. Loren Coleman announced the kickoff of the International Cryptozoology Society, with an online peer-reviewed journal and regular conferences.  I asked him to describe how the ICS would be different from existing organizations – what new value would it bring? He answered that, while the ICS mission statement is still being written, its intent was to carry on the work of the International Society for Cryptozoology, which tried hard to put scientific principles to work in cryptozoology back in the 1980s.  The ICS will be headed by Dr. LeBlond as the first President, while an advisory panel including several PhD’s is being set up but is not yet announced (Coleman added that the scientific world won’t listen to you unless you have several PhD’s around, and he has a point.) Loren and the ICM Deputy Director, Jeff Meuse, will do the day-to-day work of running the ICS. The first conference is planned for Portland, Maine, site of the new/expanded museum, in 2017. 

Loren described the ICS as being strictly scientific and said that “true believers and debunkers” were not welcome. I understand what he’s aiming for, but this statement brings up some challenges that will have to be worked out.  Does “true believers” count all the people who think sasquatch is an apparition or assign it psychic abilities? (There’s no way to avoid framing questions in terms of sasquatch, despite the large number of potential cryptids all over the world: Bigfoot is the predominant topic in most of cryptozoology these days, and the one that attracts significant money from the TV world.) Even more difficult, what qualifies as a “debunker”?   I assume it encompasses those who think the whole field is a pseudoscience, but those people usually make some points worth considering if cryptozoology is to shed the “pseudoscience” label.  Does it include people who think the field has some value but are heavily critical of its methods and findings? How does one differentiate between reasonable and unreasonable degrees of skepticism? It is logically possible to be irrational about a negative view as a positive one, but the terminology is getting boggy/ The word "believer" doesn't have much of a role in science anyway, does it? 
If it were me trying to sort this out,, I’d invite everyone in, excluding only those people who might be there exclusively to mock others. On the other end,of the specturm  I would allow anyone who was not disruptive to join but make it clear that there will be no publications or leading roles for anyone who thinks the solutions are to be found in the paranormal. As a Christian, I believe by definition that the material universe is not all that exists, but cryptozoology is trying to establish itself as a science and needs to leave all matters outside the material to the parapsychologists.  I think Loren is sincere in his desire to create a reputable organization, and I'll provide my input in as a member and see what Loren and LeBlond and other leaders work out as guidelines.

OK, presentations:

Jerome Hamlin, one of the world’s leading coelacanth experts and founder of the Dinofish.com site, reported on his adventures in search of new populations. He began by chronicling the known history, returning to this topic later to describe the numerous failed attempts to make some kind of tank that would keep the deep-dwelling fish alive after a catch.  While the lungfishes and not the coelacanths are the fish in our direct line of ancestry, the coelacanth remains a much sought after scientific prize. Particularly sought are juvenile examples: Hamlin mentioned only one he knew of, and ichthyologists don’t know where the fish grow up.
The original discovery off East London, South Africa, has been followed by new populations as far north as Kenya and Tanzania and as far east as Indonesia.  Following an email alleging the fish was known in the Solomon Islands, Hamlin made four trips to islands in the Solomons, other nearby chains, and Papua New Guinea to the south and west.  One aspect of this with lessons for all of cryptozoology is how carefully he tried to avoid cuing people to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. He classed the responses he got into three groups:
   1.       Trying to please him
   2.       Truthful but inaccurate
   3.       Both accurate and true.

The results were less than he’d hoped for. One some islands, no one had ever seen a similar fish: one islander got his hopes up but brought him specimens of a kind of jack, although the fit wasn’t very close. The stories Hamlin heard of caught coelacanths seemed straightforward, but didn’t lead to any new populations. Fishermen who had seen one, or heard of one, all emphasized this was a very rare fish, and no one had caught one in the last couple of years: many catches were distant memories.  If truthful, these men were probably referring to stray individuals, as no one knew of a good place to catch them regularly. One man did tell him the fish was blue in life but turned brown in death, a fact Hamlin had avoided mentioning, so he was encouraged to think there were at least occasional catches. After his expeditions, a Japanese team did discover a new population off Biak, an island just north of Papua.

 I asked whether his visits to fishing villages and surveys of fish markets had led to any new species of fish, but he said no: the fish being brought in and/or sold looked pretty run of the mill.

Lyle Blackburn made the day’s Bigfoot presentation. Lyle, a Texan, has spent many months in neighboring Arkansas researching the Fouke monster, famous due to the 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek (most of the events in the original film were reported as true, although the funny scene of a guy minding his business on the toilet and having a giant furry hand reach in through the window was invented.) Lyle emphasized the area was still almost as undeveloped as it had been in 1972, and that sighting records stretched from 1908 to 2015. 
I pointed out that a common critique of cryptozoologists (hammered at repeatedly in Loxton and Prothero's influential book Abominable Science) is that they already have their solution in mind and consciously or unconsciously cue witnesses to tell them things that fit the preconceived narrative.  I asked how he tried to avoid this. Lyle’s response was that he went after the story thinking of himself as an investigative journalist who wants to solve the mystery, saying “I’m not out to prove Bigfoot,” although he certainly believes the creature exists. He lets the witnesses tell their story without interrupting before he starts questioning. He always asks whether the subject could have been a person in costume (and is usually told the witness thinks not.)

Closing thoughts
First and foremost, the Conference was valuable: I learned a lot. I didn’t change my mind on any major cryptid, but as I said yesterday, I have a much better understanding of the people who endorse those North American primates and other creatures and why they endorse them.  I will join the new ICS and wish it the best of luck.
The Conference could have added someone from the Florida wildlife departments to talk about local creatures and activities of interest, such as the Florida panther, the known and suspected colonies of escaped monkeys (and reportedly apes), and the persistent reports that other out of place mammals, like the jaguarondi, may have become established. This should be standard practice wherever future conferences are held: take advantage of the local wildlife and the expertise available to discuss it, such as getting someone from Maine in to talk about what they think happened to the state's panthers and why they think recent reports are erroneous.   While I know Loren tried to get quite a few people who could not make it, the meeting also could have used a speaker or two more skeptical of the major cryptids.  
I would have like an anthropologist to review the ideas about possible ancestors and routes of travel for sasquatch ancestors’ arrival in North America, a topic none of the sasquatch-related speakers addressed. This was the conference’s most significant omission, scientifically. I should have pressed more on it, but the presenters were talking about what they think IS, rather than how it came to be.  

Late thought: Maybe the solution to finding cryptids is to not look for cryptids: to undertake field investigations with the idea that only known species exist. Then you look for evidence of any animal being present, then consider only the known species, and then only if you are completely stumped do you consider what kinds of animals might have caused the evidence. I know I'm the research guy, not the field investigator, but maybe some version of this approach would help bridge the cryptozoology-zoology gap.


Overall, though, I’d like to say again that this meeting was valuable, and that people who think cryptozoology is a complete waste of time should come to the next one and listen and discuss and debate: we’d all be better off for that. From my experience with this crowd, such a person would generate a lot of discussion but wouldn't have to fear being ostracized or dunked in a river: certainly I didn't get anything but polite argument when I expressed concerns about the science.  I was impressed by the depth and breadth of knowledge on display, even if I disagree about some of the conclusions.  I had a great time.  See ya’ll in Portland, I hope!

ADDED: After some lively discussions on FaceBook and email, I think "debunker" isn't an accurate word in this context. A "debunker' should be one who exposes a hoax or fraud: It's the right term, for example, if you're exposing one of the many Bigfoot hoaxes, but it's not accurate for someone who questions the validity of a proposed or actual field of inquiry. So I think that, in my own writing, I'm going to retire that word.