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 for 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. Also, 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
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,”
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.) 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Cryptozoology in fiction: Kraken

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

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

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

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

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

Cryptozoology is not Parapsychology

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Goodbye, Doubtful News (yet it lives!)

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A thought experiment on "ghosts"

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Could a ground sloth be living today?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

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

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thanks to Pikes Peak Writers Club

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Yuri's Night

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

We will still look at the stars.

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Methane Dwellers

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

The methane dweller (NOAA)

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gardening on Mars

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

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

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Those amazing orcas

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How many phyla in a kingdom?

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

New species! Get your new species here!

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

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

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Casper the friendly octopus

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

The newest octopus species (NOAA)

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

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