Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Zoology has good news to share, too :)

Sometimes it seems that news related to animal conservation and zoology in general is all or mostly bad, whether concerning the disappearance of  a species (like the Bramble Cay melomys, a  small mammal being called the first victim of climate change) or the continued unbalancing of ecology (e.g., the invasive and voracious lionfish just swam into the Mediterranean, threatening to unleash its appetite on an already-battered ecosystem). 

The invasive lionfish may be beautiful, but has already wreaked havoc in the Caribbean.  Governments are encouraging fishermen to catch it for consumption. (NOAA)

The bad news is serious, and we must face it and digest it as we try to limit of reverse the damage we've done to the planet.  However, there remain points of light and moments of reassurance when we discover or rediscover a precious piece of the natural world.  Every bit of knowledge added to zoology is a step toward conservation, and should be celebrated, even if the creature involved might be dismissed by the general public as small and not very interesting. There was definite celebration this year in Nepal, at least among bird lovers. The red-faced liocichla (Liocichla phoenicea) has been missing for 178 years. A small bird with yellow-green or blue-gray body plumage  set off by bright flashes of color on the head and wings, it was presumed extinct in that country, although it has fairly stable populations in neighboring nations and Indochina. Nepalese ornithologists applauded the bird's first definite appearance in their nation since the 19th century.  
A known animal in a previously unknown location is another kind of discovery.  Consider an eyeless cave fish, the Mexican blindcat, which was just found for the first time in Texas.  The near-transparent 7.5cm fish's appearance so far north raises the possibility of undiscovered caverns connecting underneath the human-imposed border.  (Insert political jokes HERE.) 
A new species of lizard has been added to the world's known reptiles after discovery of two specimens in China. Ptychozoon bannaense‬ has a body not much longer than the just-mentioned cave fish's, but has a stocky build and a camouflage coloration pattern that make it look bigger and tougher than it is.  A dark, elongated new salamander has turned up thanks to a review of specimens from Honduras, Oedipina capitalina lives near the capital of Tegucigalpa (where my oldest daughter was born). Two new frogs hopped into view in India, and another lizard, Liolaemus parthenos (the species consists entirely of parthenogenic females) is reported from Argentina
We find new things about known species, too. Scientists are constantly taking new looks at known species, even well-known species, and coming away with new insights. Take the case of Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University, who just discovered that old myths about electric eels leaping out of a pond to stun prey are not myths.  

The electric eel cannot be called beautiful, but can certainly be called dangerous. (NOAA)

A big eel-like fish (not a true eel) whose shock can knock a human unconscious should at least stay in the water, right?  Instead it will shoot its forebody above the surface so the sells on its chin make contact with prey.  
I sense a new SyFy electric eel movie is on the way. That would be a kind of bad news all by itself. But the point is, the news is never all bad. There are still discoveries being made, species being saved, and new knowledge being gained. The future is challenging, but it isn't hopeless. 

(To learn about new species discovered in the mid-20th-to early 21st centuries, I naturally recommend Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology. It's lively, fact-packed, beautifully illustrated, and I need the royalties.  Contact me at mattwriter@earthlink.net or go to https://www.amazon.com/Shadows-Existence-Discoveries-Speculations-Zoology/dp/0888396120.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bears and hybrids and more bears

There are few animals more interesting than bears. I've written several times before about them, but I can never resist coming back and looking for some new tidbits. 

They are smart: a bear in California learned how to bounce on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle and pop the doors open.  They are strikingly human-like when de-furred: some Native Americans considered them a brother animal to man. They can be huge: a modern polar bears weighing up to a metric ton are on record, and the biggest brown bears (Ursus arctos) of the Kenai Peninsula and Kamchatka, reach well over half that.  (Mammologist C. Hart Merriam once classified 86 species of brown bears: We now consider them to be one species with just four subspecies). Speaking of grizzlies, everyone who loves them should read Ernest Thomson Seton's Biography of a Grizzly, originally published in 1900: in 1970, it was the basis for a very loose Disney adaptation called King of the Grizzlies.  
A cage-fat male brown bear named Goliath, who died (in a small concrete-floored cage) in a roadside museum/zoo in New Jersey in 1991, reportedly weighted 900kg, which sounds suspiciously on the high side even for a captive. John "Grizzly" Adams biggest-ever captured bear, a California grizzly named Samson, was weighed at 685kg.   The extinct North American short-faced (and long-legged) bear (Arctodus simus) was taller than any known bear - pretty close to horse-height when standing on all fours, and there's a cave in Missouri where an individual left claw marks 4.5m off the floor.  Its  earlier, but larger, South American relative Arctotherium angustidens might have weighed 1,600 kg or more.  
Some mysteries about bears have been solved. We know now the long-puzzling individual called MacFarlane's bear was a grizzly, not a new species. The astonishing-looking golden moon bears have been confirmed as a real phenomenon, but a variant of a known species, the Asiatic black bear. There's still some fuzziness (if you'll pardon the pun) about classification of the smaller Asian bears, and the gigantic, big-footed solid black oddity known to cryptozoologists as Bergman's bear is not quite ready to be filed away with other Kamchatcan brown bears (U. a. piscator), but there are no definite specimens.
Then there are bears that ain't, as an old hunter might say. In 1998, Reinhold Messner published a book identifying the yeti, or chemo as his Tibetan associates called it,  as a new species, or a subspecies of the brown bear. This bear, the mountaineer alleged,  habitually walks upright (standing up to 2.7m) travels by night and communicates by whistling.  The book, though, includes pictures of quite ordinary-looking brown bears Messner was told were chemos. British geneticist Bryan Sykes took a look at the yeti/bear question by testing DNA from alleged yetis and from bears. After a great deal of hype and confusion, though, it appears he didn't make any discoveries about new bears or about yetis.  
One thing  that is happening in the world of bears isn't a good sign. As climate change allows the brown bear to forage further north but limits the ice cover polar bears use, it's essentially squeezing the two species' ranges closer together.  Sometimes this results in war, sometimes in love. The first grizzly-polar hybrid confirmed in the wild was shot in 2006 and another in 2010. A suspected hybrid killed in May 2016 was identified as an extremely light-colored "blond" grizzly bear. Such grizzly bears have also been spotted in Alaska.  The polar bear is not endangered, but it's getting less healthy as a species, thanks to the attrition caused by habitat loss. 

The paw of a polar bear attests to the animal's size (NOAA)

A hybrid sun bear/Asiatic black bear, meanwhile, has turned up in Cambodia. It's hardly surprising. It's not so much a case of the habitats being compressed, as in North America, but the sheer brutal annihilation of Southeast Asian wildlife   - described heartbreakingly in Sy Montgomery's book Search for the Golden Moon Bear -  means bears if any species may get desperate for mates. 

 (Gary Galbreath, who led the team describing the hybrid, coauthored Moon Bear. I have an admiration for Dr. Galbreath, though we've never met: I don't know how he or other scientists deal with sadness on such a scale while fighting long odds to save species. Cryptozoologists also know Galbreath for his proposed sei whale identification of the famous 1848 Daedalus sea serpent. Also for his 2006 paper arguing the kouprey, the largest land mammal discovered in the 20th century, was a  feral hybrid rather than a new species. He's a prolific guy.) 

So concludes this week's visit with the bears.  There's a lot more to discuss abotu them, and a lot we still don't know. They have a lot to teach us - if we can keep them alive.  

A few bear references:
Day, David. 1990. The Doomsday Book of Animals. New York: Viking Press.
Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. New York: Facts on File.
Galbreath, Gary, et. al. 2008. "An Apparent Hybrid Bear From Cambodia." Ursus 19:85-86
Goodwin, George. 1946. "Inopinatus the Unexpected," Natural History, November.
Halfpenny, James. 1996. “Tracking the Great Bear: Mystery Bears,”  Bears, Spring.
Montgomery, Sy.  2003.  Search for the Golden Moon Bear.  New York: Simon and Schuster.
Woolford, Riley. 2007. "White Black Bears and Blond Grizzlies: Alaska Bears Wear Coats of Many Colors," Alaska Fish & Wildlife News, September.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Dory and saving the seas

It looks like "Finding Dory" is a whale of a hit.  Great news for a warm, funny family film, not so good for the real fish.  Conservationists fear a repeat of the zoom in demand for clownfish 13 years ago, which basically wiped out some local populations.  Saltwater aquarium owners are being warned that blue tang are hard to keep healthy and are not a hardy species: people are asked to make sure their Dorys are captive-bred.

Danger for the Blue Tang

Regal blue tang (copyright unknown)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cryptozoological fiction: Steve Alten's MEG: Nightstalkers

OK, I finished my first read of MEG: Nightstalkers. 

Alten's latest is full of creature action, indeed a little overstuffed, and the chemosynthetic ecosystems presented would have to be orders of magnitude more productive than known examples to support a food chain allowing for giant-predator populations. (I'll give him a pass on the last such ecosystem we visit, though, because he's conjured up some invertebrate predators that may be unrealistic but are among the creepiest, scariest things in all of monster fiction). There is also a science fiction thread that makes sense only if you've read his novel Vostok.  
I always nitpick mistakes in technology in fiction.  I recently worked on whale-tracking technology, and the tech to track a whale 13,000 feet down, or under an ice sheet, in real time (as opposed to using pop-up tags that archive data) is too much to ask: marine tracking devices have very low power, under 1 watt, because otherwise they'd drain the batteries too fast. A character says at one point (correctly, that they can't track a whale in a subterranrean river deep under an ice sheet, then says on p.318 that they can).   
The old characters are all here, of course, and the game of "who will get eaten?" remains suspenseful to the end. Overall, the characterization is a bit below that in Alten's best novels, Sharkman and The Loch
There's kind of an arms race between Alten and Max Hawthorne over who can write the biggest creatures. Hawthorne's latest novel takes a a funny poke at Alten's "puny" Megalodons, and Alten pushes back by making his Liopleurodon not only bigger than Hawthorne's but saying it  surprised scientists because the fossil evidence is for creatures only half as large.  Hawthorne has been arguing that one fossil supports a gigantic pliosaur,  so this could be a dig on Alten's part. I'm not sure whether this is deliberate, but it's a fun connection to make. In general, I have the same criticism of Alten and Hawthorne I always do: even if you set side the implausible circumstances needed for undiscovered survival up the present day, I think the creatures are too big, too smart, and too emotional. But if all you want to do is enjoy the adventure, you can set that aside as being within the purview of a novelist and go with it.  
In sum, this is a crowd-pleaser for Alten (and  Hawthorne) fans: exotic locations, giant predators, lots of blood, and a mix of heroic and stupid characters (who are sometimes the same person) getting in and out of hair's-breadth scrapes. Alten turns his fondness for pop culture and reality TV up to 11, and that's always fun, and my favorite predator of all time, Dunkleosteus, gets a couple of pages. If what you want is a slam-bang, ocean-spanning monster adventure, you'll enjoy diving into this one. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hybrids Among the Whales

(by Matt Bille with help from Dr. Darren Naish and Richard Ellis)
From Shadows of Existence, 2006, Hancock Houe
Unusual cetaceans are most often thought to be anomalous individuals of a known species or members of an unknown species. In some cases, there is a third alternative: the animal might be a hybrid. There are a surprising number of cases in which different species of cetaceans have interbred, with some striking results.
For example, the skull from a whale killed in Greenland in 1986 or 1987 appears to be evidence of a hybrid between the two known monodonts, the beluga and the narwhal. The skull was spotted in 1990 by Mads P. Heide-Jorgensen of the Greenland Fisheries Research Institute. It was sitting on the roof of a tool shed in the settlement of Kitsissuarsuit.
Hunter Jens Larsen, who killed three identical whales of the type the skull came from, recalled the animals seemed very strange to him. They were a uniform grey color, showing neither the distinctive white of a beluga nor the mottled back of a narwhal. Their tails looked like a narwhal's, which has distinctive fan-shaped flukes with convex trailing edges, but their broad pectoral flippers resembled a beluga’s. While these cetaceans had no horns, analysis of the skull indicated two teeth showed growth patterns resembling the spirals of a narwhal tusk. These teeth may have protruded outside the mouth.
Hybridization is also known to have occurred between the two largest animals on Earth, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and the fin whale (B. physalus). In a 1998 article in Marine Mammal Science, Martine Berube and Alex Aguilar reported finding five such examples documented in scientific literature. The authors devoted most of the article to a hybrid caught off Spain in 1984. This animal showed features intermediate between the two parents. The whale was four years old, and, at sixty-three feet in length, “anomalously large” for its age. Another instance, described in the Journal of Heredity in 1991, concerned a similar hybrid caught off Iceland in 1986. In the 1986 case, the whale turned out to be a pregnant female. Analysis of the fetus indicated the father was a blue whale. This was the first case in which such a hybrid was proven to be fertile.
These hybrids tend to be dark grey and are usually mistaken for fin whales. Curiously, an author named A. H. Cocks, writing in 1887, stated there were three kinds of giant baleen whales caught off the Norwegian coast. One type appeared intermediate between the blue and fin whales, so much so that Cocks called it the “bastard” and suggested all such animals were hybrids. If this is an accurate deduction, hybridization between these two species has been going on for a long time.
Such a hybrid has figured in the controversy over the continuation of whaling for “scientific research” in Japan. While meat from the minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) taken in this program is sold legally in Japanese markets, the government has always denied that meat from any protected species is sold or imported. This was disproved when a sample purchased in a Japanese market in 1993 was traced to a specific whale killed off Iceland in 1989. This was possible because the whale involved was so distinctive – a blue/fin hybrid. Such animals are still reported off Iceland. Indeed, a recent hybrid sighting near that island nation is even mentioned in promotions for a whale-watching tour company.
More recently, a new kind of hybrid was reported. A calf spotted near Tahiti in 2000 with its mother, a humpback whale, looked like a hybrid between a humpback and a blue. The calf was abnormally large, yet with pectoral fins that were shorter than normal for its species (the humpback is the only member of its genus, Megaptera, which is named for the whale’s oversized pectoral fins). The calf also displayed the coloration of a blue whale. The parents are not just from different species but different genera. Intergeneric hybrids are freakishly rare and always unexpected. Mammologist Michael Poole speculated that, with blue whales still rare and thinly spread out over the oceans, loneliness may have driven a male blue to seek an unusual mate.
In a Japanese aquarium, a male Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) produced calves with three different bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). In 1979, the Whales Research Institute in Tokyo used a photograph of one of these intergeneric calves on a Christmas card. Richard Ellis, who is well-known as both a writer and an artist specializing in cetaceans, wrote, “…when I opened the envelope and saw a shiny grey, short-beaked cetacean, I was struck dumb: I had been studying pictures of these animals for years, and before me was an animal I couldn’t even begin to identify.” In 1981, another aquarium in Japan reported a male false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) and a female bottlenose had produced a calf.
While the blue whale-humpback whale mentioned above is the most spectacular example of an intergeneric cross reported in the wild, there have been a few other incidents. Robin Baird wrote in 1998 that a fetus recovered from the corpse of a Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) proved to have an unusual father: a harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). Baird found this particularly intriguing because there are several other reports of unusually pigmented cetaceans with the general size and form of Dall’s porpoises. Although Dall’s porpoises are notably variable in their pigmentation, Baird suggests some of these cases are due to ongoing hybridization with harbor porpoises. Another intergeneric hybrid, this one between the long-beaked dolphin (Delphinus capensis) and the dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) was nabbed off Peru.
In 2001, an apparent hybrid between a dusky dolphin and a southern right whale dolphin, Lissodeplhis peronii, was photographed among a school of duskies. This very unusual-looking animal was about seven feet long, larger than normal for a dusky. It sported a solid black upper body and was completely white underneath, lacking the intermediate shades normally present on a dusky’s body. On the other hand (or flipper), it had black pectoral fins, whereas the right whale dolphin’s are white, and it had a small triangular dorsal fin. Right whale dolphins have no dorsal fin at all.
Finally, three odd-looking dolphins which washed up on an Irish beach in 1933 were identified by one expert as hybrids between the bottlenosed dolphin and Risso's dolphin. While the match between these two species was proven viable by the incident from captivity described above, not all cetologists accept the hybrid interpretation in this case.
The popular bottlenose seems to be the main instigator of hybridization in captivity. One paper recorded twenty-one incidents in which a Tursiops mated successfully with another species. It’s true there are more bottlenose dolphins in captivity than any other cetacean, but that’s still quite a surprising record. To indulge in a completely illogical, yet human, thought, it's enough to make people wonder what's behind this animal's famous "smile."

Anonymous. 2000. “Loneliness might have prompted whale mis-match,” Australian Broadcasting Company report, September 1.
Baird, Robin, et. al., 1998. “An intergeneric hybrid in the family Phocoenidae,” Abstract, posted to MARMAM@UVM.UVIC.CA mailing list, March 12.
Baird, Robin. 1997. Personal communication, March 28.
Berube, Martine, and Alex Aguilar. 1998. “A New Hybrid Between a Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus, and a Fin Whale, B. physalus: Frequency and Implications of Hybridization,” Marine Mammal Science 14(1), January, p.82. Carwardine, Mark. 1995. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.
Ellis, Richard. 2000. Personal communication, March 10.
Ellis, Richard. 1989. Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Heide-Jorgensen, Mads, and Randall R. Reeves. 1993. “Description of an Anomalous Monodontid Skull From West Greenland: A Possible Hybrid?” Marine Mammal Science 9(3), July, p.258.
MICS Research. No date. “Blue Whale Research Session in Iceland with Richard Sears,” http://www.roqual.com/iceland.htm
Naish, Darren. 2001. Personal communication, September 28.
O’Neill, Michael. 1999. “DNA Breakthrough May Aid Monitoring of Commercial Whaling Ban,” BioBeat, http://www.appliedbiosystems.com/molecularbiology/BioBeat/115-99/whale.html, January 15. Redmond, Ian. 1993. “Beluwhales break out,” BBC Wildlife, November, p.12.
Rice, Dale. 1998. Marine Mammals of the World. Lawrence, KS: The Society for Marine Mammology. Spilliaert, R., et. al. 1991. “Species Hybridization between a Female Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and a Male Fin Whale (B. physalus): Molecular and Morphological Documentation,” Journal of Heredity 82(4), p.269.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Book Review: Beyond the Ice Limit

Beyond the Ice Limit
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing, 2016, 384pp.

I love the science-heavy thrillers of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (although Agent Prendergast is sometimes tiring.)   Beyond the Ice Limit is a very good addition to their canon (I like the co-written books better than either author's solo thrillers).  If it's not quite in the top tier, it's still an excellent thriller. Two of the duo's most intriguing characters, engineering genius Eli Glinn and the multi-talented adventurer Gideon Crew, join forces to seek out and destroy the alien organism whose enormous "seed" was planted in the seabed in The Ice Limit. Glinn, who thinks he can predict and engineer anything and any one, not surprisingly thinks this is a task only he is qualified to perform. He outfits a ship with ROVs, submersibles, and a nuclear warhead. The alien organism, though, is far different, far more powerful, and more difficult to deal with than even Glinn envisioned. The gigantic creature they nickname "the Baobab" is in many ways the most interesting, if terrifying, character in the book. The alien is brilliantly imagined, the suspense constant, and the pacing perfect as scientists and crew (no pun intended) race against a threat that is not about to sit there and let itself be nuked. As always with these authors, the technological aspects are superbly described.
I have two nitpicks, one small and one large. The small one is that the warhead they describe would not have come from the very large Soviet-era missile they ascribe it to: it would have been a tactical missile like the SS-21. The big one is an issue that threatens to mess up this whole fictional universe. The all-purpose medicinal root discovered in The Lost Island would have changed the whole world. If everyone got it, people would stop dying, likely leading to ecological catastrophe: if only some people had it, there would be constant violence and wars over access to it. Yet no one in this book ever MENTIONS it except for its effects on Eli and Gideon.If you can overlook that, you'll like everything else about this book: good characters, good gadgets, and nonstop thrills. Great work, gentlemen!

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

EMF, Cell Phones, and Laying Fears to Rest

I'm not a medical researcher. I'm not a doctor. But I'm a parent (both now in college) and I can read. So can we all, but sometimes we read misleading things.

We parents should celebrate when we learn there is no risk in something - when we learn GMOs are safe, vaccines are safe, and there's zero or almost zero chance electromagnetic fields (EMF) have any health effects.  Sometimes we're so concerned for our kids we can't let go once we've heard of a threat. That's human. But you can't worry about everything. You have to prioritize,  So we should stop worrying about GMOs - they are safe, one discredited rat study notwithstanding. Vaccines are safe, one lying "whistleblower" notwithstanding.
Here's the science on GMOs.
Here's the science on the "whistleblower" claim. (Remember, claiming a vaccine conspiracy means you believe doctors and pharmaceutical researchers would rather put their own children at risk rather than break the conspiracy.)

And EMFs are safe, at least in any power level we are likely to encounter in the normal course of life.  The recent cell phone study brought forth panicked, sensationalized headlines about a study that's not even published yet. Blasting rats with cell phone radiation for two years, nine hours a day, may have produced a very slight effect. Or it may have caused nothing but statistical noise. But there's no cause for panic.
This article by Sharon Hill explains it well.
The same thing is true of EMFs in general, such as those produced by power systems, transformers, and transmission towers.  This article by Julie Frantsve-Hawley covers the topic thoroughly.  This post adds to the evidence.

So let's focus on things we need to worry about. Disease and crime and poverty and toxic spills are real things that can threaten our kids.  (Although multiple chemical sensitivity is NOT. Same for amalgam dental fillings.) Let's focus our efforts on the real dangers. We can't worry about everything - and the good news is, we don't have to.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When is absence of evidence evidence of absence?

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” If this isn’t the most-quoted maxim in cryptozoology, I don’t know what is.  But let’s think about it a bit.

It’s not always true and not always false.  There’s a sliding scale with some subjective judgments involved.  I’m going to make a qualification here: I’m defining AOEINEA as evidence in addition to, or in lieu of, eyewitness reports.  That’s not always true and not always fair, but interested scientists may accept some eyewitness reports and dismiss others depending on the perceived probability of the animal (if you say you saw a new rodent, maybe you did: if you say you saw a fire-breathing dragon, you didn't, because they're impossible, and AOEINEA is not going to help you.) So let’s talk about other types of evidence. These are, of course, my opinions: if you don't like them, feel free to open fire.  

We will take a few hypotheticals, going from one end of the scale to the other. I am NOT arguing for the existence or nonexistence of particular animals: I’m examining whether the AOEINEA paradigm works for them or against them. There is some point, with any animal, where absence of evidence does become evidence of absence, but it’s not as clear-cut as all of us would like.
If I report seeing an odd-looking fish in the ocean, it can hardly be argued it doesn’t exist because we don’t have a specimen (specimens being doubly important in the ocean, where a creature doesn’t leave footprints or half-eaten meals or anything else behind it.)  A biologist will usually say, correctly, “We need a specimen to classify it,” but she has no a priori reason to argue it does not exist unless there is some major incongruity, such as me saying it has four pairs of fins.  Some of William Beebe’s reported fishes are dismissed because they are fairly large but have never been seen again: I would argue, though, that AOEINEA still applies because of the sheer size of the relevant habitat.
If I report that fish from a lake where humans have been studying and fishing for a long time, the AOEINEA paradigm is harder to apply, but not impossible: as in the shoal bass of the United States, it may just be that no one has looked hard enough at the evidence. If I think I saw a new kind of trout, ichthyologists may or may not consider it plausible.
If I report a small bird that doesn’t match any known type, absence of evidence is not to be held against it if I see it in a thinly populated region. Birds are elusive: they are easy to see but not to get specimens of unless you find a nest. They also have distinctive cries or songs, which are important evidence in ornithology.  Birds can even hover under the radar where you’d think the evidence should be there – my favorite example is the Brazilian ovenbird that nested yards from a major highway. 
Small mammals are pretty elusive, too. It’s been decades since a new species was described from the wild in the United States, but if I approach a mammologist with a good description of an odd-looking rodent, he’s likely to take some interest.  AOEINEA applies.

A new article from Audubon magazine describes the arduous search for the Cuban population of the ivory-billed woodpecker by making the bird's double-knocks and waiting for a reply thus:   "To get one to do so on this trip in a territory this large, he [ornithologist Martjan Lammertink] conceded to the photographer, would be very lucky. To not get one proves nothing."

If I report a very big fish from a known lake, it gets chancy.  I have argued that AOEINEA applies well to Lake Iliamna because 1) the eyewitness reports are good and pretty consistent, and 2) there is a known species in adjoining waters (white sturgeon) that has an unimpeded path to the lake if it has chosen to make the trip. 
If I report the most spectacular type of new species - a large land mammal -  it’s somewhat type-dependent, and somewhat location-dependent. If I see a new tapir in the Amazon, science will want a specimen but won’t dismiss it out of hand: there’s a lot of virgin forest left, and new species come out of it all the time.  If I report a small ground sloth, that’s harder to swallow, but I’ll stand by AOEINEA as long as there’s adequate food, an ecological niche where it won’t be hopelessly out-competed (as the mainland thylacine of Australia seems to have been by the numerous, fast-breeding dingo) and  room for a population to hide away from humans.

Now let’s graduate to lake “monsters.” If witnesses report a big animal in a lake that may or may not be a known species, we can point to our friends the sturgeon, gar, wels, or other large freshwater fish and argue AOEINEA if we’re in or near their reported range. Again, Lake Iliamna is a good example, If witnesses get a good look at such an animal and are certain it can’t be a known species, then things get complicated. The AOEINEA paradigm does not cease to apply, but it’s not as firm:  there should be fossil evidence of large creatures, evidence of predation, etc. even if there are no catches or carcasses.  Granted that the fossil record is very much incomplete, you can argue AOEINEA, but there’s a caveat. If the creature we postulate has a very sparse fossil record, that should be ok, but if it has a rich fossil record that stops dead millions of years back, our creature is in trouble.  It can happen (cf the coelacanth) but is less likely.  Complete absence of fossils, paradoxically, may be easier to swallow: that sounds highly illogical, but consider that we have no fossil evidence for the saola, just the live animal wandering around Vietnam and Laos, and until a few years ago there was no evidence for chimps despite many thousands of them being alive and probably millions having died in years past.  If there is a fossil record, we know the animal lived under conditions where it coulod fossilize and in a place where fossils could be found, so the question of why they should stop is a very troubling one.  

Now habitat comes back into play. If we have good sightings of a new ape in Sumatra, which we know is good ape habitat and still has large wild areas, AOEINEA stands up pretty well.  If we have them in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, most scientists would say that 50+ years of looking indicates absence, although AOEINEA isn’t quite dead as long as there is plenty of untrodden forest. If we have a similar sighting from New York’s Central Park, AOEINEA doesn’t work: while a few animals could hide briefly in the park, the idea of a long-term population leaving no hard evidence doesn’t work, and even the most romantic-minded cryptozoologist is not going to argue differently.

Let’s go back again to lakes.  If a creature of crocodile size or larger is reported from a small pond, and searchers cannot find it, then absence of evidence pretty solidly does mean evidence of (current) absence.   If it’s in a big lake, then AOEINEA applies until the lake is well searched. But what is “well?” Different definitions can be offered.  To take the biggest example, Loch Ness, I would argue AOEINEA applied in the early days, certainly up into the 1970s. Then things got problematic. In 2016, I think AOEINEA is dead for Loch Ness: if it existed, we would have better evidence from a large lake searched many times with different technologies.  We wouldn’t be arguing over photographs and sonar tracings 40 or 50 years old, because newer and better evidence would have superseded them.
Jumping over to Lake Champlain, I think the lack of evidence is a killer because of the habitat: the lake freezes over, yet no animals come out, knock big air holes in the ice, etc.  If you say it hibernates, unlike every other large marine animal known to science, this may be worth thinking about but becomes special pleading pretty quickly if no one can find nest sites, caves, overhangs with air pockets, etc. 
Of other famous cryptids, the yeti has much less evidence than sasquatch but a better plea for AOEINEA because of the remoteness of its habitat. “Sea serpents” can find some shelter under the postulate: while actual serpents are ruled out, we’re still finding sharks and beaked whales and the roiling habitat of 321 million cubic miles could still shelter a huge eel or elongated fish or -well, something.  Thunderbirds don’t get to use AOEINEA because they are extremely conspicuous in flight but seemingly invisible to tens of thousands of birdwatchers and a hundred million plus cameras. The evidence, not just photos but things such as huge nests and eggs, should be better. Likewise for primates in populated areas of North America, which also have to overcome, not only lack of fossils for their own species (which might be ok), but lack of any fossil apes anywhere in the New World.  Mokele-mbembe has passed the AOEINEA point with searches of its habitat combined with its size and visibility and its high degree of improbability – the habitat is not a “lost world” unchanged since the Mesozoic, and the fossil record for the dinosauria stops dead at (or microscopically close to) to the K-Pg boundary.

The Cuban population of the ivory-billed woodpecker: lost for decades, found in 1986, now back on the missing list.

On balance, AOEINEA has some utility but is not universally true.  (By the way, I reject, for cryptozoology, that other maxim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – the evidence required to publish a scientific description of a sasquatch is exactly that required for a new mouse, a type specimen.)  You could easily create a list of cases (woodland bison, Itombwe owl, etc.) where AOEINEA was proven to be a good approach and many more where it got us nowhere.  In so many cases, this is still a judgment call and people are going to differ for a long time yet.  If you think that’s a wishy-washy conclusion you’re right: I’m not very satisfied with it myself. But that’s the real world for you.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was born 65 years ago this day. As the world's first female astronaut whose flight was NOT a rushed publicity stunt, Ride has earned her place in history.  In her astronaut days and her continuing life as a scientist and educator, she brought us closer to the Star Trekkian future of equality and the wise use of advancing science and technology.  A woman who originally aspired to be a professional tennis player (she joked that she became an astronaut because of "a weak forehand"), she ended up leveling playing fields for everyone.  Ad Astra, Sally.

Sally Ride (NASA)

Friday, May 20, 2016

GMOs: Stop the Fear

I'm not an expert on GMOs, and when I'm not an expert, I listen to the people who are. That's what all of us should do.  
That's why this new material from the National Science Foundation is such important stuff. As far as the actual scientists of the world are concerned the debate about safety of GMOs- which often let farmers use less pesticides and weedkiller - is over, if it ever existed. If you postulate a conspiracy, you now have to involve THOUSANDS of scientists all over the world, not just Monsanto and company. (BTW, if you see that meme about "37 countries have banned GMOs!" ask for a list, because it's a fabrication. And do you really think evil corporations own the NSF, the CDC, and other top scientific bodies all over the world?) There are plenty of real problems to tackle: let's focus on those and forget this pointless fear.

Today's corn has already been so genetically altered through cross-breeding and other "traditional" techniques that Squanto wouldn't recognize it as the plant he showed the Pilgrims.  GM techniques speed up the improvement of crops and increase the selection of tools (genes) agricultural scientists have to work with (photo USDA).

The scientific score is currently one discredited rat study and some bits and peices of slipshod predetermined "science" vs massive efforts by farmers, labs, universities, and governments all over the world that all reached the same conclusion: this is safe. The republication of the revised rat study was released with a claim it had been peer-reviewed, but this was a lie.)   Labeling and "No GMOs!" campaigns just build fear. Labeling corn because it was improved with GM techniques is no different than labeling meat "Contains Protein!" 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

If it's not Zoology, it's not Cryptozoology

What is cryptozoology?

There has always been a troublesome subtopic bubbling through the already troublesome topic of cryptozoology.  Cryptozoology is described most famously as the search for hidden animals.  Does that, some ask, include animal like things which are clearly not animals at all?

Now, some zoologists (ok, most) look askance at the whole cryptozoological endeavor because of the focus on animals such as sasquatch which are perceived as highly unlikely, if not absurd.  I have no problems here: as long as the chance of finding an animal is not zero, people can look without making the field scientifically invalid.  In science, most long shots don't pay off, but some do.  The key is whether searching is being done in a scientific manner, proceeding from the evidence to gather more evidence and meeting Karl Popper's classic criteria of the falsifiable hypothesis.  (There can be disagreement on how much negative evidence, or how strong a logical case, is needed to falsify a given hypothesis, but the point is that a hypothesis like "There is a large unknown primate in North America" is scientific in the sense Popper described: falsifiable in theory even if not always in practice.  The fact that no one has the resources to search every possible chunk of forest habitat doesn't damage the reasoning. Sharon Hill and other smart people dispute me on this, but I have not been reasoned out this position. Not yet anyway.) 

Now, for the real issue: the allegedly paranormal/psychic/parapsychological nature proposed for some cases which, it is argued, are part of cryptozoology.   An example of a researcher/writer who thinks this way is Nick Redfern. Nick commendably goes out into the field, interviews people, and otherwise makes a good effort to research things, but his bookMonster Diary is one example of classing things that look like animals under cryptozoology, even if they are clearly not physical animals.  (Some of his older books, like  There's Something in the Woods, explore similar manifestations.)  Another example of conflating the two is Newsweek's generally awful Bigfoot special issue, where psychic abilities are discussed side by side with  things like tracks which can at least be scientifically examined.

I'm well aware that sane and sober people have reported apparitions, and I have no insight into what mix of causes is behind that phenomenon.  But considering apparitions of animals to be part of cryptozoology does not make sense to me.  It does to some people like Nick, who has written that cryptozoologists will not get results in many cases "unless the field of cryptozoology wakes up and realizes that there needs to be a new approach to the subject." I disagree.   

I wrote in Shadows of Existence back in 2006 that I was dismayed that a very good book by Healy and Cropper on Australian mystery animals spent a chapter on "zooform phenomena" after spending the rest of the book scientifically discussing unknown creatures. I feared that zoologists would dismiss the whole book because of this direction.  I can't find any record of someone taking a survey on this, and I've no idea how to take one, but I have no doubt I was right, and still am.  Cryptozoology will never get the respect of zoology if paranormal entities are part of it.  
The experiences of people who see a big cat seemingly dive into the ground and vanish, or a small herd of camels appearing where none can be, are not beneath our notice. They are simply part of another field of study.  I'm not disparaging any other people here, but this is my thinking (and my blog) and I believe this point is important. My advice to anyone trying to validate cryptozoology is to keep the focus where it belongs: on zoology.

Bill Rebsamen's depiction of a thoughtful-looking Sasquatch, as published in 2006 in Shadows of Existence

(A side note to the side note: some books by Ivan Sanderson, Dr. Karl Shuker, and others (like those enjoyable old card-file dumps by Frank Edwards) include both physical and paranormal beasties, although they don't actually make the argument that the latter also belongs in cryptozoology.  Ken Gerhard, in Encounters with Flying Humanoids, likewise mixes physical maybe-animals (although some of these are "physically" not possible - flying humanoids tend to have grossly inadequate wings) with the supernatural: he does not claim the latter are cryptozoology, but it always concerns me when both are in the same book. We get into personal preference here: I wish authors who wanted to write on these two areas would write separate books, although obviously that's up to them, to keep some distance between (to put it one way) beasts that leave footprints and those that don't.)
My position is that, if there is no physical animal, or no reasonable chance of one, the case no longer pertains to cryptozoology or any kind of zoology.  If someone believes they saw a sabretooth tiger that just disappeared, for example (this report appears in one of Nick's books), then the fact that the apparition was in the form of an animal doesn't put the event under the heading of cryptozoology.. It can be parapsychology or any other field one may think appropriate, but if it's not zoology, it's not cryptozoology.  People who think sasquatch is so elusive because it's not a material creature are welcome to hold that opinion, but they shouldn't call that topic part of cryptozoology.  It also, critically, is not a falsifiable hypothesis (you can never prove such a belief to be wrong) and therefore is not part of the physical sciences.  If a definitive search (in the cases where it's possible) fails to find an animal, then it's because the animal either did not exist in the area, has gone extinct, or has migrated elsewhere, but it didn't walk through a portal into another dimension.   
An animal is by definition a physical thing of flesh and blood. It's there or it's not.  I don't dismiss the possibility of a nonmaterial reality: as a Christian, I believe strongly that the material universe is not all that exists.  But an apparition is not an animal, any more than it can be a human being.  It may be reported sincerely to look like one, or even act or sound like one, but that's not the same thing.   (Yet another side note: believing in one thing doesn't require you to believe in another: that fact that I and many other people believe in a supernatural God doesn't logically mandate that we accept ghosts or curses or apparitions of apelike animals as "real.") 

My views on this and related topics are e further detailed in my second book on cryptozoology.

So to summarize: if anyone wants to have cryptozoology taken seriously, it's my opinion (not as a trained zoologist, but as a reader/researcher/writer going back 40+ years with good work in science and history under my belt) that a definition restricting it to physical zoology is a necessity.  It's hard enough to get zoology to consider as science a branch that includes implausible (even if not impossible) creatures like sasquatch: it's impossible if it also includes apparitions, ghosts, or whatever term you have for things outside zoology.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Curious About Cats

Cats are mysterious. All peoples, including the Egyptians who sometimes worshipped them as gods (something cats take as their due), seem to think so. My house has three – the old queen, Flutz, the grouchy black and white Hodgins, and the young gray Siamese cross known as Asher the Destroyer, whose cuteness and ability to lay waste to paper towel rolls and the like has garnered him a following on FaceBook.  Despite 30 years of living with cats, I don’t really understand them: the way the dominance hierarchy among cats seems to be in constant flux is most curious. It also interests me to observe that Asher is the only one of the three who takes much interest in where humans are or what they are doing: the others happen upon us mainly by chance. 
 The wild cats have their mysteries, too, and we’re still learning about them.  A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Valerie Beason, had the honor of the most recent discovery of a new species of large  wild cat (2006), when her genetic analysis showed the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) was not one species but two: the animals on Borneo and Sumatra were darker, smaller-spotted, and longer-fanged than those on the mainland, and DNA proved there had been a long separation between the two. Accordingly, she and her colleagues established the new species Neofelis diardi. (Dr. Ron Pine, formerly of the Smithsonian, has pointed out to me that N. diardi was not an entirely new species: indeed, it was named by Cuvier in 1823, but the name fell into disuse as only one species of Neofelis was recognized.  I think the restoration using a new line of evidence and new technology still counts as a major discovery: the beaked whale Mesoplodon traversii was a similar case.)
Some cat mysteries, of course, have been solved. I helped missionary/cryptozoologist Peter Hocking get two unusual cat skulls from Peru examined (that effort was not definitive, but one led by Dr. Darren Naish was).  These turned out to be fairly normal jaguars.  Hocking thought one was a jaguar in a previously unknown speckled color pattern, and it could still be so: there is 19th-century illustration of such a beast, although the background looks more tawny than the grayish coat witnesses described to Hocking Tales of a large tiger-striped cat, though, appear to be just tales (or tails? You know I’d make that pun in here somewhere.).) The Mexican mystery cat, the onza, proved to be a puma with a few minor oddities.
Thinking more about cats… we don’t know if there are any Eastern panther survivors (as opposed to wandering visitors and released pets), although I rather think there are a few. We don’t know if such a thing as a black cougar (aka “black panther” exists): there’s no hard evidence, although there are an awful lot of reports.  I’ve mentioned before that my dad is still sure about the one that crossed in front of his car 60 years ago on a forest road in Maine, and Florida cryptozoologist Rob Robinson and his wife recently watched one at very close range. In Florida, it’s conceivable a black big cat could be a leopard, or its descendants: I remember in the 1970s, when I was growing up there, you could still see such cats in numerous (and awful) roadside zoos in the state. There is not proof that enough of these were turned loose to establish a viable wild population, but I don't think it would surprise anyone. Black bobcats are also known from Florida and offer another possible source of mistaken identity, if one assumes the animal is at a sufficient distance, or in sufficient foliage, to hide the lack of a tail.
Another thing about cats: did we miss a North American species? Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America all have small, long-tailed wild cats.  None exist north of Texas (where the jaguarundi id sometimes found), although we do have the bobcat and lynx. There’s no reason North America had to have a long-tailed type, but it just might have had one anyway. Newspaper clippings and letters from the 19th century, gathered by cryptozoologist Chad Arment, leave a bit of a mystery. Hunters in  Pennsylvania reported a true wild cat very unlike domestic cats.  Chad built on the work of folklorist Henry Shoemaker, who had collected numerous accounts of a (fairly) consistently described cat being killed, trapped, or exhibited.  The animal in question was reportedly larger than a domestic cat and had a gray or brown body, turning to buff or whitish on the underside, with a variety of black markings which were sometimes strong enough to give the cat a tiger-striped appearance.  It had prominent, sometimes tufted, ears, a relatively flat face, and a long tail ringed in black.  The cat was always described as rare, and there have been no such reports in decades, but ….?

Bill Rebsamen's awesome illustration of van Roosmalen's jaguar. (Copyright Bill R, 2006)

Dr. Marc G. M. van Roosmalen, namer of many new mammal species (even if not all have been accepted), is dead certain there’s a black jaguar morph with a white throat and a tuft on its tail like a lion’s.  It’s not just an offshoot of the known melanistic jaguars: those have rosettes visible if you look at the coat from the right angle, while this animal is solid black. It reportedly runs to the large end of the jaguar size range and hunts in pairs.  There have been occasional reports of such a “black tiger” from Brazil going back to the 1700s, when naturalist Thomas Pennant illustrated it as described today.  It makes me think of the “king” cheetah, a recurring genetic abnormality that is different not only in coat pattern but in the structure of its hairs from normal cheetahs, and was once thought a separate species.  Bill Rebsamen did an illustration of the black jaguar cat for my book Shadows of Existence, and Roosmalen pronounced it precisely accurate.

This is far from a complete list.  There are other claims for unusually colored cats or entire new species, ranging from saber-toothed cats to (really) a green lion.  Karl Shuker’s book Mystery Cats of the World and its 2012 sequel (see below) collects most of these, but the cats, I think, will need another entry in this blog soon.

THANKS TO Dr. Ron Pine for a long post on FaceBook which amplified and corrected several points here. 

Further Reading
Alderton, David.  1993.  Wild Cats of the World.  New York: Facts on File.
Arment, Chad.  2004. Cryptozoology: Science and Speculation.  Landisville, PA: Coachwhip.     
Bolgiano, Chris. 1995.  Mountain Lion.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Buckley-Beason, Valerie A., et. al., 2006. “Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinctions in Clouded Leopards,” Current Biology 16, 2371–2376, December 5.
Naish, Darren, et. al., 2014. “‘Mystery big cats’ in the Peruvian Amazon: morphometrics solve a cryptozoological mystery,” PeerJ 2:e291 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.291
Shuker, Karl. 2012. Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery. cfz press.
Shuker, Karl.  2003.  The Beasts That Hide From Man.  New York: Paraview.
Shuker, Karl P.N.  1989.  Mystery Cats of the World.  London: Robert Hale.
Van Roosmalen, Marc.  2003.  Descriptions on Web site, “New Species from Amazonia,” http://www.amazonnewspecies.com/index.htm.
Van Roosmalen, Marc. 2013. Barefoot through the Amazon - On the Path of Evolution: Amazon Digital Services.

(I also should thank Shuker, van Roosmalen, Beason, Naish, Arment, and Loren Coleman for personal correspondence from 2000-2015 over some of these topics.)