Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The fate of Steller's sea cow

The known history of Steller's sea cow is well known, tragic, and short.  In 1741, naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was shipwrecked on Bering Island.  This is one of the Komandorski Islands, which lie between Kamchatka and the Aleutians. There he and his companions met the sea cow.  It was a huge plant-eating mammal, up to 35 feet long, with a bilobed tail like a whale's and a placid disposition that made it easy to approach (and to harpoon).   After Steller's crew finally returned to civilization, sealers and other voyagers began stopping off in the sea cow's haunts to slaughter the inoffensive mammals for their meat.   By 1768, the species had apparently been hunted to extinction.
There are a few odd data bits about the sea cow that hint-just hint - it hung on a little longer.  Native hunters reported killing them as late as 1780. Early Russian colonizers of Bering Island reported sighting sea cows in the 1830s.  Fifty years later, the explorer Nordenskiold returned from the region with a sea cow skeleton of unknown age and a tale of a live sighting from 1854.  In 1910, fishermen in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr reported a sea cow stranded on the beach, but the report was never investigated. Other Russian sightings in 1962 and 1977 came to nought.
Now we have some science indicating that the animal's range was, in fact, greater than we thought - although, alas, they don't hint at survival but at an earlier extirpation event.    It extended, not west or south as sometimes suggested, but north to Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. Bones collected from the island were spotted at a handicrafts show in faraway Atlanta, Georgia (USA), having been made into knife handles, and the provenance traced to St. Lawrence.  They were analyzed by the team of Lorelei D. Crerar , Andrew P. Crerar , Daryl P. Domning , and E. C. M. Parsons.  (They also offer some older history I was unaware of: that "According to the fossil record, animals in the genus Hydrodamalis inhabited coastal waterways from Japan through the Aleutian Island chain to Baja California during the Late Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene. Hydrodamalis gigas was still present in the Aleutian Islands and central California less than 20 000 years ago." )  

The St. Lawrence population was apparently wiped out or driven out by Yup'ik  hunters around 900 AD.  So it is that one of the most fascinating animals in modern history met its fate as the hands of hungry humans: not once, but twice.  
Other references: 
Haley, Delphine.  1978.  "The Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History, November.
Mackal, Roy.  1980.  Searching for Hidden Animals.  New York: Doubleday.
Stejneger, Leonhard.  1936.  Georg Wilhelm Steller.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard  Press.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New species swing in

As I like to point out, we get a lot of new species every year. Most are tiny invertebrates you wouldn't notice even if you stepped on them (especially since you would be on the bottom of the ocean and therefore drowning), but the mammals, birds, sharks, etc. keep coming too.

A Field Museum expedition to a white-sands forest - an environment I didn't know existed - came up with three new plants, four frogs, four fish, and a titi monkey of striking coppery appearance  made of which one scientist said, "none of the experts... have seen this coloration before, and there isn't anything like it in the Museum."

Never stop exploring!


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book review: The Species Seekers

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
Richard Conniff
W. W. Norton & Company (2010)

In this excellent book, Richard Conniff introduces us to the scientists, naturalists, dilettantes, and others (from the brilliant to the crazy) who contributed so much to the natural history we know. While the focus is on zoology as developed by European and American seekers, this also works as a history of the natural sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. This period saw hunting for new species raised to a manic level it's never attained before or since. When professional scientists were few, species-hunters came from every walk of life - doctors, sea captains, hunters, and women, who didn't get their due then and don't really get it now. (I had no idea that Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, was a bona fide expert on the fungi who was shunned by organized science in England.) Conniff creates an especially vivid portrait of Mary Kingsley (who died young in 1900), who was as daring a field collector as anyone. 

I've often thought a book could be written strictly on the scientific contributions of missionaries: Conniff does not neglect them, recounting Father Armand David's many daring discoveries in China. The famous names like Darwin are here, of course, but along the way we also meet such men as Walter Rothschild, who proved a hopelessly incompetent banker (the family has basically erased him from its history) but a keen naturalist and a funder of major collecting expeditions: Paul Du Chaillu, who made countless real contributions but also created the myth of ferocity among gorillas, and the men and women who supported the more famous naturalists (one item that sticks in my mind is Sir Richard Owens' wife's diary entry about coming home to find a dead rhinoceros in her no-doubt-immaculate front hall.) 
Some of the naturalists here may have hastened the demise of species by taking specimens seemingly without limit, but others foresaw the need to start protecting the natural world. Their discoveries also contributed greatly to the development of the idea of natural selection and to its subsequent refinement. Conniff presents this in roughly chronological order, and it's fascinating to follow the narrative as naturalists slowly put the pieces together and began to understand such concepts as ecosystems and natural selection pressures.  Conniff gives us these people as they lived, not ducking the racism, sexism and imperialism that plagued even the greatest minds of the day, but not wallowing in it either. This thoroughly researched and superbly written book is a time machine to the great era of species-hunting, and I cannot imagine any student of the natural sciences who will not enjoy the ride immensely.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Skeptic and the Sasquatch

I haven't spent much time on sasquatch lately.  I'd have snorted "impossible" and closed the file a long time ago if it wasn't for the uncomfortable fact that there are sober, intelligent citizens who insist they've gotten a good look at it.
The investigators for the North American Wood Ape Conservancy (NAWAC) (who I always liked, even if their name implies preexisting belief in a "wood ape," for renaming the phenomenon so they could start fresh) didn't get a close look, but they did what is, compared to most of the dreck in this business, a very careful investigation over a four-year period that collected a lot of secondary evidence, from thermal images to rock-throwing, that couldn't be easily explained. I still would have passed it by if it were not for Sharon Hill, a geologist and a well-respected, smart skeptic who runs  the Doubtful News blog. Sharon read the report and agreed that a lot of this was very puzzling and needed answers to questions like (my wording) "Who trekked many miles into the wildest part of Oklahoma just to heave rocks at bigfoot hunters?" She wrote a very good post on it.
She has never, and does not now, endorse sasquatch as a real animal. She looked objectively at the report and agreed the investigators seemed sincere, didn't leap to conclusions, and had genuinely puzzling experiences.  (Here's the report.)
Well, you'd think Sharon had come out foursquare for demon-hunting, poltergeists, and New Age medicine.  Some of the comments from fellow skeptics focused on the report itself ("chock full of assumptions" was one fairly reasonable line) and others dismissed Sharon's seeming indulgence of such nonsense. One skeptic dismissed it with, "I'm astounded that any of this could be considered evidence."  
Now there are a lot of sincere people looking for sasquatch, and there are a lot of publicity-seeking idiots, and there are certainly hoaxers.  And missing one of the largest species in North America seems, on the face of it, not possible.  But the response went a little - well, unscientific.  No one accused Sharon directly of being an idiot, but a lot of them implied it, and, while some did read the original report, others flatly refused to.   (My favorite line posted in defense of the investigation was,  "Drunken hillbillies would have to be little more than brain dead to be hanging out in this very remote area, over a four year period, looking for an opportunity to throw rocks at investigators who are brandishing rifles.") As Sharon put it, “Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real.”
The point I'm getting at here is that Sharon considered the evidence and published a well-reasoned, objective review knowing full well that it would not go over well with some of her friends.  Her approach was scientific, just as it was when she destroyed the Melba Ketchum idiocy. The NAWAC people have not proven sasquatch exists: they have proven they encountered a lot of puzzling incidents. That's all Sharon said. Fellow skeptics shouldn't be taking her to the woodshed for it.
Press on, my friend.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An interview with Cryptomundo.com

One of the most popular cryptozoology sites, host for some great debates, is www.cryptomundo.com.  So I was happy to answer questions posed by moderator Craig Woolheater about my novel The Dolmen, which I think of as horror but certainly has a cryptozoological premise.

Craig carried an announcement when it came out and has now followed up by posting the interview. Thank you!


Monday, March 09, 2015

Seas, Sharks, and Serpents

My current nonfiction project is a tome on the discovery and legends of marine life, covering creatures new, remarkable, and mythical.  The idea is to present the wondrous discoveries we're making in the context of our long and fractious love affair with the oceans themselves.

I was originally hoping for 2014, but that date went by pretty fast. I'd hoped to get it out this year, but no luck: there's just too much recent material to digest. So here we are looking at early 2016.  I hate missing deadlines, but there's a good reason: to make the book better.

Ownards!

Add a new moth to your closet.

Thanks to correspondent Laurence Clark Crossen, I need to add another newly discovered species, the enigma moth of Australia's Kangaroo Island.  The tiny, handsome gold and purple moth is referred to (inaccurately) as a "living dinosaur moth." What's special about it? It carries many "primitive" traits that go tens of millions of years back in moth evolution. So scientists are very happy to see it alive. (I don't know what a "living dinosaur moth" would actually look like - maybe like Mothra in the Godzilla movies? )


Exciting new species - as usual

If this blog has a purpose, it's to remind people there are still discoveries to make in the natural universe, from Earth's jungles to the remotest stars.

So we have some things to celebrate!

First, from Myanmar, welcome back Jerdon's babbler (Chrysomma altirostre altirostre). This bird, perhaps overlooked because it's one of the hundreds of species ornithologists refer to, sometimes despairingly, as LBJs (little brown jobs), vanished 73 years ago.  Scientists have just published the news that they rediscovered the bird last year in the Bago region of Myanmar.  They targeted it by looking for patches of suitable habitat (grassland, in this case)  in the known range that had not been logged, burned, developed, or otherwise ravaged in the interim.

Now we've got even bigger news, a new primate. There are over 30 species of the diminutive monkeys called titis (genus Callicebus) in South America.  The largest are not even a half-meter long, and several species look considerably alike (known as cryptid species), all of which makes discovery a challenge. Nevertheless, the challenge has been met.  Welcome Callicebus miltoni, unmistakable with its long orange tail.

I can't find non-copyrighted photos of either yet, but follow the links and meet our new (and old) neighbors!


I'm back - literally

Friends,

This blog has not been update in some weeks.  I must plead distraction: I was preparing from back surgery and then recovering from it.  I'm back!

And speaking of bones like the ones my surgeon was messing with, here's a great photo my daughter took of the Dunkleosteus skull in the museum on the University of Nebraska campus, where she attends.
Onwards!


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pick a Peck of Paleontology Postings

There's a lot going on in the world of long-dead animals.
There doesn't seem to be an end in finding prehistoric species.  We know, logically, that a limited numbers of species have lived on Earth, but we clearly haven't found them all yet, and they just keep coming.
The last few years have given us the biggest bear (we think) that ever lived, Arctotherium angustiden, the biggest snake (the 12-13m Titanoboa), , and the biggest crocodile, Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni, along with the ancestor of today's sperm whale, who by the way was even more formidable than the modern type.
Then in just the last week we added two discoveries. Scientists exploring the Peruvian area of the Amazon basin found seven species of crocodiles, including three new species, dating back 13 million years (2.5 million years older then the Amazon itself). There have never been as many species of croc living in the same habitat at the same time.  This find dwarfs modern diversity (we don't have more than three crocs in the same area today) and introduced three new animals, including a weird-looking clam hunter with rounded teeth and the snout of a shovel.  As paleontologist Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi put it, "We uncovered this special moment in time when the ancient mega-wetland ecosystem reached its peak in size and complexity, just before its demise and the start of the modern Amazon River system." Wow. Cool.
In the second item passed onto me by my friend Kris Winkler this week, paleontologists are exploring, with exquisite care, a specimen never seen before: a frozen baby woolly rhinoceros. Hunters who found "Sasha" took her for a recent reindeer carcass until they saw the horn. She is estimated at 10,000 years old, and scientists hope she yields high-quality DNA (not to make new rhinos - that is still beyond us - but to sequence the animal's genome and learn far more about it than we know today).   The animal was a contemporary of the famous mammoth, but there's some debate over its appearance.  Not anymore.
Exploration goes in every direction - across time, across space, across the frontiers of the mind. We are privileged to live in  a time with more tools for exploration than any society before us.  We shouldn't waste the opportunity.


The giant snake Titanoboa swallowing a crocodile 
(NASM exhibit photographed by author) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Goodbye to a hero of science

You can say"heroine" if you want, but I like Sigourney Weaver's argument that a "heroine" is someone who needs rescuing, while the hero is a person who does the rescuing.  Dr. Eugenie Clark tried to rescue the entire ocean system of the planet Earth. The "Shark Lady" was a pioneer of marine biology and exploration, a pathfinder expanding women's role in science, a tireless advocate for conservation, and the woman who brought sharks out of the shadows and showed us how complex and fascinating these "mindless killers" really are.
Clark was born in 1922, of mixed American and Japanese parents.  She grew up in a time when it was hard to be a woman with professional ambitions and even harder to be half-Japanese.  Still, she had a fascination with marine life early on, and her hero was the conservationist and bathyscaphe explorer William Beebe.  By 1950 she was a Ph.D. in marine biology. She had already done her early field work in the South Pacific, where she learned what an important resource local fishermen could be, and at the famed Scripps Institute and the American Museum of Natural History.
That was only the beginning for Dr. Clark.  She published breakthrough work on sharks in professional journals as well as books for popular audiences (I still have an ancient copy of her first, Lady with a Spear),  She was founder and  director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (now the Mote Marine Laboratory)  for shark studies. She took Peter Benchley diving after he published Jaws and helped persuade him to do conservation work to help offset the damage the novel and film have done to sharks. She won an Emmy for her underwater films, cruised with Jacques Cousteau on the Calypso, and taught marine biology at the University of Maryland from 1968 to 1992.  She won countless accolades for her nonstop work on sharks, marine life in general, education, and conservation. Her endless curiosity led to her down such avenues as marine paleontology, riding a 50-foot whale shark, and becoming a founding board member of the International Society of Cryptozoology.

Fair winds and following seas.





Photo More Marine Laboratory


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The puzzling Red Planet

Mars has gotten our attention from the ancient days, when it was Ares, the God of War, to the latest probes by rovers and orbiting spacecraft.  While nowhere near Earth's size, it's the only planet in the solar system that might harbor life similar to Earth life.  Therein lies the fascination.
We know the planet has no canals (remember, the search for"canals" on Mars arose from a misinterpretation of the word "canali," applied by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 to  straight lines that, well, don't exist either).  The human eye and the telescopes of the 1800s had limitations, one of which was a tendency to make separated features look like they were making a straight line.
 Ever since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted slopes and "beds"  that looked like they were made by flowing water, we've been looking for more evidence.  These formations might have contributed to the "canali" appearance, but one Mars scientist, American William Hartmann, had already suggested another explanation: the apparent lines, or segments of them, were plumes of dust blowing off peaks in Martian windstorms.  Because of Mars' thin atmosphere, the plumes were highly visible and the dust blew a long ways. That made sense, and some such plumes have been spotted by the Hubble and other instruments, but they don't really explain what what we're seeing right now.
Amateur astronomers in 2012 were the first to spot two plumes, streaming out hundreds of kilometers long and wide and rising 250 km high.  They may be dust or ice, but either way they shouldn't rise so high in the thin atmosphere and low gravity of Mars before becoming so spread out they are invisible.
I'm not going to try to offer a solution here: it's way out of my depth.  But the point to be made is that this is our closest, most studied, and most Earthlike planetary neighbor, and we still don't thoroughly understand it.  We don't know for sure whether it had flowing water, although most planetary scientists think it did in the distant past. We don't know whether there are still occasional surface water flows. We don't know if it's sterile, if it used to harbor life, or if it harbors life now.
The only way to solve all the mysteries of Mars is to go there. NASA these days talks a good game, and their Orion capsule and Space Launch System may be useful pieces of a Mars expedition, but we're not really doing significant work on long-term habitats for humans or on landers that could carry astronauts.  In other words, they're dreaming about a landing in the next two decades, unless they want to start or at least plan real work on the missing pieces.  
Still, someone, someday, will go.  I volunteer.





Thursday, February 05, 2015

World's scariest fish? The frilled shark

The frilled shark isn't the biggest of sharks. It has a clean record where maneating is concerned.  So why are its rare appearances greeted with such freaked-out responses from humans?
Basically, the 2m frilled shark, like the goblin shark (which looks nothing like it, but engenders similar responses and may by 5m long, to boot) don't fit our picture of what a shark looks like. The frilled shark instead fits our picture (inaccurate though it may be) of what a prehistoric monster looks like.  With a gill "frill" extending around the body, an elongated shape, and a relatively blunt head with 300 teeth, it doesn't look like a medium-sized, harmless animal, even though it is one.  It simply looks weird, and we go crazy over it (hint to SyFy Channel: an 8m frilled shark would make a great centerpiece for a horror movie.)
Oddly, the head and even the teeth of the frilled shark bear an interesting resemblance to those of the leopard seal. This fierce Antarctic predator (with at least one definite human death to its credit) can be 3m long and has no business looking like a shark. But that's convergent evolution for you.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Hail Columbia: A Last Note on NASA's Day of Remembrance

Recollections... Waking on a clear weekend morning here in Colorado, casually logging on to check my Email, seeing the banner, "NASA Loses Contact With Columbia." Turning on CNN. Watching more CNN. Explaining it to my daughter, then 11. Wondering how it had happened, what it would mean.

The technical answers have long since been settled. The human answers, as always, were not as simple. They drift out in fragments over the course of history, debated, challenged, finally settling but never quite settled.
Worth it? Of course it was not, in a logical sense, worth losing seven people for a science mission whose returns would not have been of great importance. Death, as Ulysses Grant once said of war, "is cruelty and you cannot refine it." Nor can you romanticize it. Nor, when there gross errors in judgment made, can you excuse it.
I submit, however, that any calculation about the worthiness of the voyage is incomplete, nay, unfair, unless it takes into account the desires and motivations of the voyagers. The seven people on Columbia did not just accept the risk of venturing, in a craft built by fallible humans, into the most hostile realm we know. They sought the risk. They spent years training, competing, and demanding the right to take the risk.
Whatever judgments we might make on the costs vs. the returns of their efforts as explorers, the explorers themselves had no doubts. Every one of them was a bright, accomplished, highly educated human being. Not one was foolish enough to think there was no risk. Not one hesitated.
Indeed, they did everything they possibly could to qualify themselves to stand out among their peers and earn the chance to risk their lives in a cause they deemed worthy.
By that standard alone, they were the best our species had to offer. They were sent forth into the last unknown ocean, explorers in an age when most people in their society place high value on safety, comfort, and surety.
Godspeed, Columbia.



Thursday, January 29, 2015

The biggest things in the sea

There's a lot of fun (as well as science) involved in wondering just how big various types of marine life can grow. 


Take sharks, for example - specifically, great whites. The maximum size of the great white is a recurring theme on every marine life website (and always will be: people sometimes seem ready to punch each other over a difference of centimeters), but the "McCosker-Ellis Limit" (there, I just named it)  of approximately 7m/22 feet still stands for physically measured sharks.  (Ellis was the first author on the book just cited: somehow, putting it the other way sounds better when I say it. No offense meant, Richard.)
However, I finally took the time to dig up a reference I'd used in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence, an article from Science where Dr. John Randall (who gets credit for being conservative based on his cutting in half the estimates for the extinct giant C. megalodon) reported that bites on a whale carcass indicated a shark of about 7.5m.


This terrific image, this Nat Geo article, and the paper they were based on looked at the biggest creatures of various types (it didn't look at all the orders or families: no one cares what the biggest cycliophoran is, no matter how important is it to science.)  (OK, the answer is about 350 millionths of a meter.)


Everyone will get a bity of an eye-opener: I didn't realize (or had forgotten) that southern elephant seals could weigh a mind-boggling 5mt, or that a whale shark had been measured at 18.8m.  On the other hand, the authors shrunk the giant squid, widely reported at 17-18m, to 12m: the longer figures, they believe, were based on bad measurements and the tendency of observers to stretch the tentacles on stranded specimens out far too much. I am still inquiring about the nearly 24m sperm whale: other sources put the record at 20.7m, ascribed to a bull killed in 1950. Ellis' book The Great Sperm Whale mentions that there are two teeth 28cm/11in long in a museum, where the normal length is 20cm/8 inches: perhaps they were extrapolating.


We think of invertebrates (besides the octopus and squid) as small, but there are jellyfish 2m across, barrel sponges 2.5m wide, and isopods (think of the biggest roach you ever saw, give it gills, and blow it up in size) 50cm long. Someone in the comments on the Nat Geo site noted the absence of siphonophores, which are longer than blue whales, but I suppose colonial creatures don't count as one unit.


As an extra note on jellyfish, cryptozoological literature often contains a description of a monster jellyfish weighing at least a metric ton washed onto the bow of the steamer Kuranda in the South Pacific in 1973: the steamer could not get free of it and had to be rescued by a seagoing tug, the Hercules, which washed the mess off with high-pressure hose.  Despite claims a sample was scientifically verified to be a jellyfish, I've given up on this report: it all traces back to a newspaper clipping and nothing else, and all I can document from Web searches is that the Hercules, at least, was a real ship, and that doesn't get us very far. (Author Richard Weiner claims to have seen a 15-m jellyfish while scuba diving on the other side of the world, but that seems to be the only such report, and I set that one, too, aside.) I'm ready to accept around 2m as the max for a jellyfish. 




The authors note these are maximum sizes, and the average is usually much smaller.  But everyone, including me, is fascinated by the upper end.  I went to the Whales: Giants of the Deep museum exhibit and watched children crawl through a blue whale's heart.  For me, the amazement never ends


.





Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Challenger

All those years ago...29 to be exact... I was driving home after a 27-hour shift as commander of a Titan II ICBM crew in Little Rock, AR, when I heard it on the news. The shuttle Challenger had exploded.
I raced home, and my wife had the TV on. I watched the launch about three times, thinking in missile-man terms about what was happening with the engines, boosters, etc.  Then I pointed to a pink-orange glow between the solid-fuel booster and the main tank.  "That shouldn't be there," I said. I wasn't sure what it was: I remember saying repeatedly, "It shouldn't be there." Then I decided, "It's either a burn-through from the booster joint or some kind of hydrogen leak." A few more viewings and the stream of expert and non-expert commentary narrowed it down.  I wondered if the solid fuel had been mispoured or mishandled so there was a crack in it.  It didn't occur to me at first that joint was bad: I'd seen a lot of solid-fuel rockets and missiles, in person and on TV, and I'd never seen or even read about a problem with a joint.
It turned out almost no one suspected the joint. Almost.
Goodbye Ellison, Christa, Greg, Judy, Mike, Dick, and Ron.    It may be presumptuous to call them by their first names when I never met any of them.  But we all knew them. 
They were us.
Ad Astra.





Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Celebrating Tetrapod Zoology's 9th Birthday!

Dr. Darren Naish has published his blog, now carried by Scientific American, for nine years now. In that time, Tetrapod Zoology has opened countless drawers in the great vault of Nature, presenting us with current, insightful analysis of new animal discoveries, mysteries, cryptozoological claims, advances in taxonomy, and controversies. He has T-shirts (throughout Western civilization, T-shirts are an important mark of having arrived!), podcasts, and even a comic series with Ethan Kocak that explores  topics you and I have never thought to write a comic about, from the name of the white rhino (which is decidedly not white) to the antics of a sloth that likes to break into outhouses and eat the contents (really).  There's also a book taken directly from the blog and other books contributing to new views of dinosaurs and of the creatures of cryptozoology.  Oh, and in his not-so-secret identity as a dedicated paleontologist, he's also found time to describe a new species of sauropod dinosaur among other scientific papers created or contributed to.  His publication list is darned impressive..


Darren can be blunt about lousy science, he can be funny, he can be wrong (and admit it), and he can be sternly dismissive (as with the wilder claims of cryptozoology).  He can also, however, embrace the mysterious and the weird.  He holds open the possibility there is an undiscovered long-necked pinniped behind some "sea serpent" tales, has speculated on a giant form of orangutan behind unknown-primate reports in SE Asia,  and is always open to new ideas.  That makes him one of the few Ph.D's willing to listen to everyone in the complex, cacophonous, overlapping worlds of zoology, cryptozoology, and paleontology.


So congratulations, Darren, and many more years! 



Wednesday, January 07, 2015

New species of 2014

There are several collections of species described in 2014, but here is the International Institute for Species Exploration's list of the Top 10. Keep in mind this is 10 out of approximately 18,000! 
Pride of place goes to the impossibly cute Olinguito  (Bassaricyon neblina), a round-faced, furry raccoon relative from the Andes (Columbia and Ecuador).  Scientists complain that too much attention is given to "charismatic species," mostly mammals, but the fact is you can get people to contribute money to save habitat for pandas, and you can't do that for a new earthworm, so a new poster animal is welcome. 
The only other vertebrate on the list is the leaf-tailed gecko.  The others are small invertebrates, with the striking exception of Kaweesak's Dragon Tree from Thailand - a beautiful tree that can be 12m tall. 
Return to a moment to that figure of 18,000 and remember that this is pretty typical. We haven't run out of new creatures to find. What we are running out of, in far too many cases, is time. 

Olinguito (photo Smithsonian)

Event for Colorado readers: Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea is a superb book: I gave it five stars on Amazon.  These authors are in Boulder tonight and at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science tomorrow night. Weather permitting, I'll be at the Museum meeting! 

http://www.dmns.org/learn/adults/after-hours/the-extreme-life-of-the-sea/

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Loss of two coelacanth conservationists

Every year, American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman posts a list of the most significant deaths related to cryptozoology.  This year, he also published an update (link here) which included two deaths I wasn't aware of. 
Leading South African diver and conservationist Peter Timm, who discovered the South African population of the coelacanth in 2000, died 18 June 2014 along with his dive partner, Adele Steegen,  in an accident while trying to recover lost scientific equipment in 58m of water. Both divers had done important work in filming and protecting coelacanths in the years since Timm's discovery.  
The coelacanth was an enormous scientific find in 1938 and, in essence, the founding fish of cryptozoology, since it's been used ever since as an example of an animal of significant size that dropped out of the fossil record 60M years ago and reappeared in the modern era. (There are two claims now of post-Mesozoic coelacanth fossils.)  The coelacanth has actually been cited too much, in my opinion, by cryptozoologists - as important and startling as it was, no other large fish has been discovered after such a long absence. Nor has any other type of marine or terrestrial vertebrate. Still, the Javan and South African populations of the coelacanth (the Javan being classed as a separate species) both rank as very important discoveries and welcome news to conservationists who feared the modern coelacanth was confined to one population.
Farewell, Mr. Timms and Ms. Steegen.  You did your part for the future of planet Earth. 



Coelacanth (MarineBio.org)
 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Inquiring Minds Book Awards


MATT BILLE’s INQUIRING MINDS BOOK AWARDS FOR 2014 IN SCIENCE, HISTORY, and FICTION

The Matt Bille Inquiring Minds Awards cover my special interests and are limited to the books I’ve read personally. Since this is the first year I’m presenting these, I’ve allowed in a couple of pre-2014 books that were new to me. 
Categories:

Nonfiction: Science Book of the Year / Zoology/Paleontology / Natural History / Cryptozoology / Space History / General History.
Fiction: Scientific Thriller / Cryptozoology Thriller / Horror.

NONFICTION

Science Book of the Year: J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen, The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years (U of California).

Zoology/Paleontology: S.R. and A.R. Palumbi, The Extreme Life of the Sea (Princeton).   Runner-up: Helen M. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean; The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (Belknap: Foreword by Sylvia Earle).

Natural History: I mean “natural history” in the old-fashioned sense of a naturalist’s personal observations, and I made this category up specifically for Julia Whitty’s magical Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean (2011, Mariner).  Runner-up: Diane Ackerman’s marvelous collection of mostly nature-themed poems, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter.  

Cryptozoology: John Conway, John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish, Cryptozoologicon Volume I (Lulu). Runner-up: Karl Shuker, The Menagerie of Marvels.
(Comment: this category was stuffed with sasquatch books, but most focused on reinterpretations of previously documented events: When Roger Met Patty (William Munns, CreateSpace) is the most interesting of these. Personal-experience books, like Lori Simmons’ Tracking Bigfoot, add to the rich folklore of the subject, but there have been so many sasquatch books that I want bones or DNA to recommend a new one as must-reading.)

Space History: Chris Impey and Holly Henry, Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration (Princeton). Runner-Up: John Young and James Hansen, Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space (U of Florida).

General History: Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin).

FICTION

Scientific Thriller: Preston and Childs, The Lost Island. Runner-up: Steve Alten, Sharkman. 

Cryptozoology Thriller: Joseph Wallace, Invasive Species (Berkley). Runner-up: Matt Willis, Daedalus and the Deep (Cortero)
(This was a very busy category this year: Readers who like novels about new/rediscovered species will also enjoy  Ryan Lockwood’s Below, Max Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, J.M. Bailey’s Eve and its sequels, Greig Beck’s The First Bird, and Briar Lee Mitchell’s Big Ass Shark (which gets a special Truth in Advertising Award for the title.))

Horror novel: A double win for Invasive Species. I haven’t shuddered so much reading a novel since Rosemary’s Baby.  Honorable mention, because these are my awards and it’s my book: The Dolmen (Wolfsinger).

Friday, December 19, 2014

A thought for this time of year


Two thoughts, actually.

"Can miles really separate us from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?"
 
"Don't be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends."
 
- Richard Bach
 author, Illusions; Stranger to the Ground; Jonathan Livingston Seagull

OK, one more:
“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting to space is hard, Chapter 356

Robert Heinlein once observed that space is only an hour away if you could drive your car straight up.  Well, that might be easier than the way humanity accesses space now.  The news is flying thick and fast, and about half of it is making access to space easier. A recap:

Another Atlas V success for United Launch Alliance.  Good for them: it's a superb record, even if it costs (by some published estimates) about $400M (total program costs divided by launches) to get to orbit.

A daring plan by SpaceX: Elon Musk and company are going to launch their Falcon 9v1.1 next week, bring the first stage back, and land it on a barge. Nothing like this has been done: it hasn't even been tried. Musk thinks the reusability will enable steep cost cuts: we'll have to see if that works out, technically and financially.  Anyway, the grid-like fins on the first stage look really cool.

The NASA Space Launch System is in more trouble: technical challenges have pushed the first launch back to 2018.  The GAO isn't at all sure NASA can make that, even though NASA funding in the just-passed omnibus bill got a plus-up.

RD-180: Congress has ordered DoD to phase out the Russian RD-180 (which the Atlas V depends on - Delta uses the US-made RS68, and SpaceX builds it own engines).  Congress also appropriated funding to start building an American-made replacement.  Earlier this year, a DoD panel said a new engine could be ready in 2022.  I'm at a loss to understand why it would take longer to build a new engine than it took to not only build the F1 engine, but build the Saturn V and fly the whole thing to the Moon.


So... we have two positives (Atlas success and SpaceX test: it may or may not work, but they get major props for being willing to try something radical), and two negatives.  We can get to space: we can't get there quickly or cheaply. There's a lot more work to do. 

NASA SLS. The agency is being disingenuous by showing it with the Saturn V paint scheme: it will not be painted. (NASA)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The most puzzling "sea serpent"

109 years ago today, the most intriguing "sea serpent" sighting of all time was made. The circumstances were perfect, the witnesses well-qualified, and the animal very strange-looking. So  what really happened?

Here's the relevant chapter from my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.
 
 
THE BRITISH NATURALISTS' SEA MONSTER

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best single piece of evidence to date on this question came from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.

The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.

On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 

The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 

As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."

Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 

In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent,  Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... "  Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”

What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.

The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.

Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  

Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 

There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.

Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct,  fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's  conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.

Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel"  with a visible length estimated at sixty feet.

There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was… “a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”

The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.

Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”

While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was only discovered when caught by accident in 1976.  A unique feature of the megamouth case is that this species - a slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder which became the sole inhabitant of a new family - was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared.  Finally, in recent times, at least one type of whale was generally accepted by cetologists well before there was any physical evidence.

We are left with this simple fact: on December 7th, 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no satisfactory explanation has been presented.  Their report strongly indicates the oceans hold (or held at that time) at least one spectacular creature still evading the probes of science.

Ellis, Richard.  2003.  Sea Dragons. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Ellis, Richard.  1998.  The Search for the Giant Squid.  New York: Lyons Press.

Ellis, Richard.  1994.  Monsters of the Sea.  New York: Knopf.

Gould, Rupert T.  1930.  The Case for the Sea Serpent.  London: Philip Allan.

Harrison, Paul.  2001.  Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles.  London: Robert Hale.

Heuvelmans, Bernard.  1968.  In the Wake of the Sea Serpents.  New York: Hill and Wang.

Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906.  "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.

Nicoll, Michael J.  1908.  Three Voyages of a Naturalist.  London: Witherby and Co.

Molloy, R.  1915.  “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28.  Available at http://www.clubi.ie/dalkeyhomepage/ee.html.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Archaeology: an amazing axe

As someone of Danish ancestry (there is still a Bille family castle), I keep an eye on science stories out of my little homeland.  This was a surprising one.  An axe found during a road tunnel excavation project is made of stone and 5,000 years old - and the handle is still on it.
The flint axe was found in anaerobic silt that preserved its handle and other wooden artifacts, like paddles.  Museum archaeologist Anker Sørensen reacted as if, well, she'd been hit with an axe handle: "Finding a hilt axe that is so well preserved is absolutely incredible," she said. 
It's only been two weeks since another exciting find in the same excavation: the footprints of two people who'd apparently been tending a fish-trap. 

Museum Lolland-Falster released this photo of the axe before it was taken to a preservation lab.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New and Improved Amazon Author Page is up

Well, here we are. My horror novel, The Dolmen, is selling decently and getting great reviews, and there are good prices on my books on space history and zoology.  So enjoy the Author Page!




The Dolmen, from Wolfsinger Publications.  Enter a lost world... if you dare

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Update: Philae Goes Quiet - for now

The Little Lander That Could is in deep sleep mode on its cometary home on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko half a billion kilometers from Earth.  We saw it touch down - and we actually heard it (I didn't realize it had acoustic sensors until after the fact.)  That little audio clip told project scientists it his a soft layer (dust?) that was very thin and then a hard layer (rock or ice).  The lander tried hammering into the surface (it didn't get far, but that, too, is valuable data) and it detected organic molecules.  For a lander with so short a life, Philae did a lot of science.
Also, it landed on a comet.  Don't forget how amazing that is after a ten-year journey from Earth.
Philae may come back. The comet is headed for the Sun, with its closest approach coming next August.  More sunlight on the solar panels may result in more data as the probe returns to life and contacts us through Rosetta, which will be hovering (ok, orbiting) around until at least December 2015.
It's an amazing story. And it may not be over.

Our first panoramic view of the surface of a comet (ESA)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book Review: The Walking Whales

The Walking Whales
by J.G.M. "Hans" Thewissen
University of California Press
256pp. (Hardcover)



I've read a lot of good books lately on marine life and its prehistory, but Thewissen's stands out.  The veteran paleontologist, a specialist in whale ancestry, simply does everything right in this slender but fact-packed volume.
His discussions of the science are clear and well-illustrated, and his adventures as a paleontologist in India and Pakistan present the risks, the tedium, and the thrill of discovery. Science is, after all, a human story.  One crucial discovery was made by accident when a bone was broken in the lab, and I found that very interesting. Despite all our modern tools, science still depends partly on luck.
The author leads us, with very good explanations, through the complicated business of how evolution transformed land animals into aquatic ones. There were more whales than anyone suspected when the author began his own excavations and searches.  Just twenty years or so ago, whales were often pointed to by young-Earth creationists as an example of seemingly huge change in a relatively short time but with no transitional forms. Now we know that whales are not only fascinating creatures, but offer one of the most complete evolutionary records of any modern group, with many transitional forms we can use to trace the development of particular traits. (The author makes a humorous but insightful comparison to whale evolution by asking readers to imagine the Batmobile being given to a group of engineers with orders to use its parts to build the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.) I wanted a little more explanation of how the diet developed (the whales' closest relatives on land are, after all, vegetarians), but I was fascinated to learn that teeth are in fact present in fetal baleen whales, and traces sometimes show up in adults.
Overall, this book is everything I could have hoped it was. Excellent job!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Riding a Comet

...and they are breathing again in the European Space Agency's operations center!

The little Philae lander (100kg, 21kg of which is instruments) left the Rosetta mothership and plunked itself down safely on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Garasimenko. Or pulled itself down: the lander fired mini-harpoons into the surface and winched its way to contact.  The mission was launched ten and a half years ago. Flight controllers had tense moments as they waited out the 28-minute signal delay from the distant comet. NASA was a partner in areas including maintaining deep-space communications.
Congratulations ESA!

(Artist concept - credit ESA)

Friday, November 07, 2014

The brain of the mammoth

Aficionados of extinct animals are sorry we just missed (or hunted to extinction) beasts like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, and the wooly rhinoceros. But, unlike the dinosaurs, the great mammals have left us some startling specimens frozen in soil and permafrost.
The mammoth called Yula is 39,000 years old and hails from Russia - the shores of the remote Laptev Sea, to be precise. Found in 2010 and now in the hands of the Russian Geographic Society, Yula (a youngster 6 to 9 years old) turned out to have a remarkably preserved brain, showing folds, blood vessels, etc.  Paleontologists are ecstatic about having a look at what made the mammoth tick. 
Are rhinos more your thing? Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology blog explores what we know- and what we think we know.  It seems the woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis), usually depicted as resembling a modern rhino in a mink coat, instead might have had a whiff of musk ox about its stocky, long-furred, humped appearance. Or maybe not - prehistoric artists in France depicted it both ways, and Naish suggests the coat, at least, varied with the seasons.  They apparently had low-hanging heads and huge horns, and another British paleontologist envisioned them chomping their way through grasses "like giant furry lawnmowers."
A very large and complete woolly rhino skull was just found in Cambridgeshire in the UK, so that's another piece of evidence under study.  Finally, there's another recent find of note: a spear, about 13,000 years old, made of rhino horn. It was found in Siberia and still looks lethal. It's the first known spear of its type and comes from a place where humans were not previously thought to have lived in that era.
The northern plains of old North America and Eurasia must have been very impressive places. While the mammoth-based economy in the movie 10,000 BC is ridiculous (as are occasional claims the mammoth survives to this day - alas, it does not), these were really big lawnmowers.

 
The mammoth, Mammoth primigenius, on a recent Russian postage stamp.

Sunday, November 02, 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

Alas, SpaceShipTwo

We've had the second bad day in a week for a privately built space vehicle, and this one has cost us a brave and skilled man
Michael Alsbury was an experienced test pilot, designer, and engineer.  Pilot Peter Siebold survived the destruction of SS2, and my prayers are with both families. 
A lot of speculation has focused on the hybrid engine, using a propellant combination never flown before (although ground-tested). I won't add my speculation to the quota at this point. It's far too early.  A couple of interesting facts are that the engine housing looks intact except for the nozzle and that Siebold was able to eject - we don't know yet why Alsbury could not. 
Richard Branson, who funded the program through his Virgin Galactic, says the program will go on. The second SS2 is under construction. Here's hoping they will press on.  You may call it a toy for the rich, but it could greatly broaden our knowledge of flight in high-speed suborbital regimes as well as popularize the idea of citizen space travel for the future.

Ad Astra, Michael Alsbury.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Unfortunate accident, worse reporting

The Antares rocket that failed the other night has been subject to a lot of misreporting.  One repeated claim on CNN was that there was "classified equipment" on board.  All launch vehicle companies encrypt their telemetry so no one unauthorized can read or affect the data stream.  We're talking about commercially available stuff here. 
I saw an article on one website claiming "5 Astronauts Dead" even though it was seemingly universal knowledge that the flight was un-crewed, taking a robotic supply vehicle up for the ISS. And there was constant chatter about a "NASA rocket." No, it was a private rocket under contract.  Then there were people commenting online that we ought to go back to "NASA rockets" vs. private ones. News flash: every U.S. orbital booster ever was built by contractors. 
The rocket's owner, Orbital Sciences (a company I know and admire, though I've never worked for them) IS very fortunate no one was hurt. That was one heck of an explosion.  Kerosene, liquid oxygen, hydrazine from the upper stage, detonation charges set off by Range Safety Officer - enough to run everyone's day. Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is in bad shape.  Repairs will take months and cost millions.
Space flight will never be entirely routine. This failure comes after a long run of American successes (including over 60 from United Launch Alliance), but it does bring to mind Wernher von Braun's comment after the Apollo 1 fire: "This should remind us that we are not in the business of making shoes."

Good luck, Orbital, and I hope you solve this soon.


Monday, October 20, 2014

The fun (and science) of giant arthropods

How big can jointed-legged animals (arthropods) get? Well, the answer (at least the answer for land animals) is all over the internet, and it's pretty darn scary.

A Goliath spider commonly described as "puppy-sized" freaked out even the scientist who found it: "I couldn't understand what I was seeing."
Everyone likes a really big insect, spider, or crab when the film script calls for a monster.  From the insectoid MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) in the last Godzilla movie to the claims of a "Crabzilla" photographed off England, giant arthropods things have sparked our fears and imaginations.  As a kid, I loved the giant ants in Them! (a good movie, really) and The Deadly Mantis (not that bad a movie, despite being savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Peter Jackson's King Kong remake was crowded with outsized arachnids, which fortunately were vulnerable to being shot away from a person's body by a writer who had never handled a submachine gun before.  (All us writers want submachine guns on occasion.)
Such creatures appear in written fiction, of course, as well; Greg Beck recently wrote a pretty good thriller called The First Bird which included spiders big enough to trap and poison humans and centipedes big enough to... umm, you really don't want to know.


The Goliath spider, Theraphosa blondi (Wikimedia Commons)


So, how big can such creatures actually be? The answer is as much in the realm of engineering as in biology.  An animal is essentially a machine taking in oxygen and some form of fuel convertible to fats, sugars, etc. It needs enough of these inputs to fuel the digestive system and spin off energy to run all the other processes (growth, mating, thinking, etc. - all the things that make the being autonomous (the word "autotroph" having come into widespread use thanks to The Big Bang Theory.) )
There are limits to practical sizes of all animal types, just like there are of man-made machines.
To look at an artificial example, we can build big tanks, but we couldn't scale a Tiger tank up to the size of a blue whale: the power-to-weight ratios of internal combustion engines and the strength-to-weight ratios of metals are inadequate. (To get picky, you might conceptualize a movable object that size with using a fission reactor and nanomaterials, but it would be a totally different type of machine design: the point is that the tank "order" long ago reached its limits. )
In the natural world, said blue whale, of which giant specimens may push 100 metric tons, is probably the practical limit for all animals, Godzilla notwithstanding. There's only a certain percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, and mammalian lungs are the most efficient way devised to extract it.  The spiracles and book lungs used by arachnids just are not nearly as good, and making them larger doesn't make them better. (The movie Mimic, with its human-sized cockroaches, had the beasts evolve lungs: that film was especially scary to us former Floridians who have seen them almost that big.)
Another killer is the weight of an exoskeleton and the effects of gravity. The square cube law says that, if you double an animal's size in all three dimension, the resulting beast has eight times the weight. The blue whale uses an internal skeleton and the support of water, from which it can't emerge without internal collapse and death. Crabzilla, a photoshop job claimed to be over 15m across, simply couldn't have dragged that massive armored skeleton anywhere even if the respiratory system could support it. A truly awful novel called Spider Legs, by Clifford Pickover, with co-authorship by Piers Anthony, who I'm told was brought in late as a "book doctor," went through all kinds of contortions describing the artificial enhancements (not one of which would have actually worked) by an unscrupulous scientist/breeder to create a monster crustacean.
Anyway, the biggest known arthropod ever to live was a Devonian-age sea scorpion or eurypterid  called Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It may have been 2.5m long and would scare the daylights out of anyone. 

 
Jaekelopterus rhenaniae (Wikimedia Commons)

Today we have to make do with the American lobster (up to 20 kg in exceptional specimens) and, for land-dwellers, the bizarre coconut crab (about 4kg).  And we have the Goliath spider, of course.
There are some oddities in the cryptozoological literature.  A bizarre animal reported off Florida and nicknamed Specs for its protruding eyes was suggested by zoologist Karl Shuker in a book to be a possible surviving sea scorpion, but there was only one witness and no one has reported it since. Then you have the spiders. There are at least two reports of a "small dog"-sized or larger spider (complete with web) from Papua New Guinea, one of similar-size spiders from Vietnam, a "washtub sized" spider in the United States, and an even bigger species from the Congo. (Shuker has thoughtfully collected these here.)
No matter how you slice the engineering, spiders the size of coffee tables and crabs the size of small yachts, just don't work. But giant arthropods will always be with us in fiction. And they'll always be scary.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tomorrow... The Dolmen will be opened

My first novel, The Dolmen, will be out on October 15 from Wolfsinger Publications as an ebook, available in paperback by October 24.  This blend of horror and police procedural, sprinkled with a little bit of science, will take you into an English megalithic tomb and ask, "Is it wise to illegally import a dolmen for a private museum?"  The answer is "No" - and it's not just because lawyers get involved.  Something else was imported, too.. something that threatens to turn the City of Angels into the gates of hell.