Saturday, July 31, 2010

Monkeys vs Flying Squirrel!

Japanese macaques were filmed hanging out, doing whatever monkeys do - until a flying squirrel glided overhead. Then they went, well, bananas, screeching in alarm and pursuing the squirrel like it was a deadly enemy. Researchers speculate the monkeys mistook the squirrel for a predatory bird, but another theory is that the males used the occasion to show off to females how alert and brave they were. In other words, they acted more or less like human males when a female is spooked by a harmless rodent or snake. Guys to the rescue!

An inspiring NASA video

In 30 seconds, this video reminds us of why we explore. Too bad that's all forgotten in fights over jobs and politics. But watch it anyway,

Discovery of old ship means much to Canada

Canadian searchers have discovered the wreck of HMS Investigator, a three-masted 400-ton vessel which sank 155 years ago. It was the first ship to survive a transit of the Northwest Passage, even though that's not what it set out to do. The three-masted, 400-ton, 36-meter vessel is described as in very good condition, thanks to the cold Arctic waters. The ship's discovery, according to the government, reinforces Canada's territorial claims in the Arctic (This seems a bit odd, since there's no real dispute about where the vessel traveled (the crew was rescued), only where it sank.) In any event, archaeologists can't wait to explore the discovery further.

Finding new species a walk in the park

Mercantour National Park in southern France is hardly terra incognita. But a recent study reminds us we almost never know all the species in any given spot. A new species of beetle and ten other new small invertebrates turned up, and more are expected.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

From the Moon to McDonalds

The Lunar Orbiter mission results, a scientific treasure trove of images, were little studied and barely saved from trashing. Space entrepeneurs Keith Cowing and Dennis Wingo found the data tapes stored in a defunct McDonald's restaurant and set about retrieving the images. Kudos to these two scientific detectives!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's the worst dinosaur film ever made?

Gosh, there are so many possibilities. Here Smithsonian dino-blogger Brian Switek nominates the 1970s TV movie "The Last Dinosaur" in which idiocy is piled on impossibility. Who knew that a geologist was capable of referring to a mammal as a "ceratopsian," (it's a horned dinosaur - where did you get your degree, anyway?) or that T. rex had a foam-rubber skull that could make a giant rock bounce harmlessly away?

New octopuses equipped for the cold

In 2009 came the news that all octopuses (not just specialized varieties like the deadly blue-ringed octopus) have venom. Now Bryan Fry, the University of Melbourne (Australia) specialist who made that discovery, reports that four new species of octopus from Antarctic waters sport a previously unknown adaptation. The enzymes in cephalopod venom lose their effectiveness at cold temperatures, but the new species employ poorly-understood "biochemical tricks" to keep their venom potent at subzero temperatures. There are "new small proteins in the venom with very intriguing activities, which may be potentially useful in drug design," Fry says.

Surprising things about the male brain

LiveScience reports that male brains are more complex than you females think: we can be empathetic, we're not all natually promiscuous (even though we are hard-wired to look at pretty women), and a lot of men are (gasp) predisposed to committment and marriage... "Believe it... or Not"

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mapping Mars

NASA and Arizona State University researchers have stitched 21,000 images taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on the Mars Odyssey probe into the highest-resolution map of another planet ever made. All features of 100m or greater appear on the map, which visitors on the Internet can navigate using pan and zoom features. So go to Mars!

Dramatic encounter: sailboat vs. whale

A southern right whale, 10m long and weighing 40 tons, chose a bad time to hurl itself out of the water. There was a sailboat of about its own length in the way, and the photos were dramatic. Both sailboat and whale survived. South African authorities are investigating whether the sailboat was steered deliberately to very close quarters with the whale.

COMMENT: One cetologist wrote something interesting about whales' habit of breaching. If a blue whale leaps almost clear of the water and falls back, its head is falling 30 meters or more and hitting incompressible water. Why isn't the whale's brain mashed? We don't know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Moss reproduces with air gun

A common species of moss uses a unique method of reproduction. As the sun shrinks its spore-containing pods, they shrink into am airtight tube shape. When the pressure inside gets too high, the lid blows off, and air comes out in a vortex ring (like a smoke ring) blasting spores upward into the wind at 144 km/h.
Thant's not a misprint. The moss blows its spores into the air at Autobahn speed. It's hard to say moss is cool...but this is cool.

Big African mammals: should there be more?

In this article, Dr. Colin Groves suggests the disputed pygmy elephant can be dismissed. He reviews other mysteries of African wildlife, including why the species known as Reck's elephant disappeared about 700,000 years ago, just before the modern African elephant came on the scene.

Launch vehicles that weren't

This site, invaluable to space historians, collects launch vehicles, especially reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), proposed from 1963 to 2001. RLVs seem much more logical than throwaway boosters, but it turns out actually building one is very, very hard. Planners who hope to build them in the future need to apply all the lessons learned (often expensively) in the past.

Launch vehicle makers think they'll win either way

The President's proposed NASA overhaul, and the alternatives argued in Congress, tend to have one thing in common: they will lead to more types of Earth-to-orbit spacecraft that need rides. In the debate over what types of spacecraft to send where, the launch vehicle side can be overlooked. The only American players are Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX. As this article outlines, they all think the future looks bright.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hard to keep up with NASA changes

First President Obama called for a radical restructuring of NASA, especially the human spaceflight segment, and killed the Constellation vision of a return to the Moon and a lunar base in favor of a decades-off mission to Mars (which had actually been part of Constellation from the beginning, though everyone seemed to have forgotten this). Then a near-violent storm of support vs. opposition, which of course had nothign to do with whose jobs were at risk in which state or Congressional district) broke out. Then Obama backed off a little on points like completing a form of the Orion capsule. Then both sides trotted out the astronauts, scientists, Congresspersons, Hollywood personalities, and random citizens who favored their positions. (Surprisingly, no one has claimed to have held a seance with Wernher von Braun.) Then NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made the statement on live TV that the "foremost" mission he had been charged with by the President was to make Muslim nations "feel good about" their contributions to science and technology. Then the White House said no one had ever told Bolden any such thing and the ex-Marine, straight-arrow Administrator was somehow making up a new mission on his own. Then the White House version was endorsed as believable by an all-star panel including space luminaries Luke Skywalker, James Kirk, and Marvin the Martian. Then a Senate committee laboring on the FY11 NASA budget produced a draft bill closer to the old Constellation program than to the President's vision. Now former astronaut and Senator John Glenn, who favor extension of the Shuttle, is meeting with the President. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that a new heavy-lift rocket - to be paid for in the future, of course, - is important. (Oh, and now someone claims they did try to explain it all to von Braun via a seance, but they say all the great rocketeer's spirit did was utter a string of oaths in German and then break the connection.)

The real version of events - to the extent anyone can figure it out - is not much saner than this one. It may, arguably, be even stranger. The bottom line: no one knows yet what is going to happen with American spaceflight. All I can say is, whatever your position, make it heard, because the times they are a-changing.

AS ALWAYS, only more so than always, this blog is purely the author's personal expression as a citizen.

Mayan tomb holds startling discoveries

Some 1,600 years ago, a Mayan king died in the Guatemalan city of (really) El Zotz. Professor Stephen Houston, the researcher from Brown University who led in the discovery and exploration of his tomb, found it filled with offering of the best of Mayan textiles, carvings, and pottery - and the bones of six children who appear to have been sacrificed. The tomb had been sealed so so well that even the smells of the bodies and other contents remained. Houston said, “These items are artistic riches, extraordinarily preserved from a key time in Maya history. From the tomb’s position, time, richness and repeated constructions atop the tomb, we believe this is very likely the founder of a dynasty.”

Rediscovery of a shy primate

The Horton Plains slender loris, a 20-cm primate with huge eyes, was thought to have vanished from its habitat in the trees of Sri Lanka some time during WWII. A claimed sighting in 2002 sparked a serious effort to find it again, and the animal's first-ever photograph has just been released. The rediscovery was a joint effort by scientists from the Zoological Society of London, the University of Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Update on the great Atlantic plastic hunt

To follow up on science writer David Lawrence's cruise with the "Plastics at SEA" expedition, David now reports, "I survived the SEA expedition without getting voted off the boat -- though there were discussions of heaving me overboard at times." Samples collected by the ship in 128 net tows included almost 48,000 pieces of plastic. Not very heartening, but, of course, correcting a problem starts with understanding its magnitude.

REP names Greenest Republicans in Congress

Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group I belong to which seeks to reclaim for the GOP the conservation heritage of Teddy Roosevelt (yeah, I know, he shot large numbers of everything in Africa except meerkats, but he was still instrumental in protection of land here in the US) has issued its annual scorecard of "greenest" GOP members of Congress. Three Congressmen from NJ scored top honors: Leonard Lance (7th District), Frank LoBiondo (2nd District), and Christopher Smith (4th District).

More Wonders from the Deep

Robotic cameras lowered into the depths off Australia's Great Barrier Reef have revealed spectacular views of the inhabitants, including many believed to be new species. New high-tech imaging devices gave the first clear views of marine life over two kilometers down.
Some of those pictured in the title link include a brilliant red jellyfish of the genus Atolla, hatchetfish and angler fish, and the nightmarish viperfish. Other animals spotted include countless invertebrates, many of them unknown to science, and large six-gilled sharks, ancient predators whose kind saw the great marine reptiles and the the monster Megalodon come and go. One researcher said, "We simply do not know what life is down there...One of the things that we're trying to do by looking at the life in the deep sea is discover what's there in the first place, before we wipe it out."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The fall of the mountain lion (timeline)

The Mountain Lion Foundation offers an informative timeline on the widespread extirpation (and, nearly, extermination) of the cougar in the U.S. The tolls taken by bounty hunters and government-paid hunters are staggering - over 7,700 animals in just one state (Arizona). That's in addition to unreported kills and sport hunting (figures for the latter are also given here). The timeline also shows a couple of recent reappearances. (When a cougar was shot and killed in Iowa in 2009, there was no prohibition against it because the animal was simply presumed not to exist in the state.)
COMMENT: I'm not opposed to allowing sport hunting as a properly regulated wildlife management tool, nor to killing of animals that take too much of a liking to cattle or humans as prey. However, the war waged by the US and state governments was close to insane, with cougars being killed in states like Arizona long after they'd been so thinned out they posed no real threat to anyone.

Thanks to Terry Colvin for passing this along.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The enigmatic Atlas bear

In this fascinating column, wildlife enthusiast and illustrator Joseph Ortega sketches the history and origins of a still-mysterious bear: the Atlas bear of norther Africa. This subspecies of the brown bear began with an ancestry shrouded in controversy and ended with an equally uncertain fate. It held out in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco seems to have been driven extinct sometime in the 19th century, although a few authorities think it could have lingered into the 20th.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Politics and science: not just a Bush Administration problem

Some scientists are complaining to the Los Angeles Times that the changes promised by the "science-friendly" Obama Administration from the allegedly anti-science G.W. Bush Administration have not occurred. I don't doubt the President was sincere when he embraced freedom of speech for government-funded scientists and freedom from political interference, but the real world doesn't seem to be there yet.
It's a good reminder that a) government-funded science and politics are not easy to untangle, and b) nothing changes quickly. I think western grasslands biologists have complained (whether justifed or not) of science officially slanted toward the cattle industry under every Administration for the last half-century.
Another thought: It's easy to promote speech that agrees with your policies. Bush took heat from climate scientists who claimed their work had been edited to downplay the evidence for anthropogenic global warming. What would the current Administration do if someone under government pay came up, for example, with research that showed the Administration's policies on halting climate change would not work? Would that research see the light of day? I've no idea of the answer, but it is only fair to ask the question.

A European probe shows us a new world

The press release says it well: "The European Rosetta spacecraft has achieved a further milestone on its journey to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On 10 July 2010 at 17:45 CEST, the orbiter flew past asteroid Lutetia on its second and final pass of the asteroid belt at about 15 kilometres per second - 54,000 kilometres per hour - merely 3162 kilometres from the asteroid. The confirmation was delivered at 18:10 CEST to ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt."
This asteroid had been only a point of light for astronomers using telescopes. Now this world, looking a bit like a battered potato, emerges into the light of science. Click the title link to see the crystal-clear images.

New species: striking photos

This National Geographic page offers arresting and beautiful images of new invertebrates from the depths of the Atlantic. An orange basket star, looking more like a mobile plant than an animal, and a jellyfish that seems assembled by an artist from neon tubing are two of the most memorable.

A unique source of books: Coachwhip Publications

I wanted to mention a unique publishing company. Chad Arment's Coachwhip Publications puts out books on zoology, herpetology, cryptozoology, and mystery stories, among other things. In all these genres, Chad not only publishes new works but republishes books that had long since gone out of print. Where else can you find time travel fiction dating to the 17th century, the book Raptors of the Northwest, and Chad's own indispensable study, Cryptozoology: Science and Speculation? There's a lot of great stuff here.
Chad's latest is called Varmints. In this hefty tome, Chad collects stories, most fro newspapers, of out of place or unidentified predators, large and small, from across the United States. From Alaska to Vermont, from wandering bears to odd-looking wildcats, it's a fascinating compilation. One that especially caught my eye was an article collecting accounts from Arkansas of a large, scary predator that people who knew their local animals described as neither wolf, bear, or feline. Reading this book is a most entertaining, and sometimes chilling, way to spend an evening.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Book review: Jeff Corwin, 100 Heartbeats

100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species, by Jeff Corwin
Rodale Press, 2009
I thought of Corwin as a good TV host and knowledgeable zoologist and didn’t know he was also a good writer.
This book presents his experiences with some of the world’s rarest wildlife. (The title refers to the “100 Heartbeats Club” – the species with less than 100 known survivors.)
Corwin organizes the book, not by animal type but mainly by the type of threats to animals – pollution, habitat loss, etc. From this structure, he recounts his own experiences and plenty of scary reports and statistics. He covers some causes and effects we might not always think of, like what the popularity of plastic wine corks means for the Spanish lynx.
One anecdote that stands out to me is his almost spiritual chance encounter with a Florida panther (“It broke through the leaves and, seemingly in slow motion, floated to the ground. It was darker than the panthers I’d seen in photos, more charcoal than sage…” )
There are stories of hope here, too. I knew the Mauritius kestrel had just barely been saved from extinction, but I did not know the International Council for Bird Preservation had given up on it – they sent a scientist to shut down their effort, and he found a way to revive it instead. Corwin’s account of a Ugandan army officer who saved a wounded chimp he could have sold is as heartwarming as his tale of the Tasmanian tiger’s extinction is grim. (The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is a favorite of mine: I wrote in my book Shadows of Existence (Hancock, 2006) that a few living ones might linger, but Corwin seems sure they do not, although he allows himself a wistful bit of hope about someday resurrecting it from DNA.)
Corwin ends by asking everyone to look around for ways they can contribute to conservation. “Most things start small,” he writes.
This is a book written with scientific accuracy and presented for a broad audience. Corwin can occasionally be a little condescending (we know what an icebreaker is, Jeff), but that’s a quibble. A glossary, thorough endnotes, and a bibliography complete a book that’s an important and well-supported appeal to both reason and emotion.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Early humans had wider range than thought

Early humans - very early - pushed beyond the warmth of the equatorial belt and the Mediterranean region. A cache of stone tools found northeast of London showed people braved the more arduous climes of the British Isles at least 800,000 years ago, more than 100,000 years earlier than anthropologists had thought any humans reached the British Isles at all. The British climate then was a little colder than it is today. University College London scientist Simon Parfitt said, "What we found really undermines traditional views about how humans spread and reacted to climate change. It just shows how little we know about the movement out of Africa."

Solar plane stays aloft 24 hours

Switzerland's experimental Solar Impulse plane made a record 24-hour test flight that showed the goal of flying around the world was not out of reach, as the plane's massive lightweight solar collectors (spread on a wing 63m in span) can collect and store enough energy in the day to keep flying at night to stay aloft all night.
COMMENT: This is going to be really neat. You won't see solar airliners, but there are applications in many other areas. For the Swiss, though, the immediate goal is just surmounting the challenge of doing what's never been done.

Monday, July 05, 2010

If sasquatch exists, should a type specimen be killed?

This is an old debate in cryptozoology, just renewed on Cryptomundo. My thoughts as posted there:

First, concerning historical reports of unknown-primate bodies: a report of a body is the same as a report of a live animal sighting. It may or may not be accurate, but it doesn't add anything to scientific proof if the body is not around to validate the account.
There are exceptions, but they are rare: the evidence for "Peking Man" isn't in any doubt, but the bones were examined by qualified experts and photographed before they were lost. No one outside cryptozoology seems to have accepted the "sea serpent" Cadborosaurus willsi (described by two qualified scientists, but the type specimen put forth was only a photo of a misplaced carcass) or Grover Krantz's description of a living Gigantopithecus blacki (where he argued that sasquatch footprints were acceptable as a type specimen).
One important case involves a species for which there are some physical remains, but they are too degraded for DNA. Octopus giganteus, described over a century ago by A. Hyatt Verill based on photographs, witness descriptions, and tissue specimens from a stranded body, was resurrected and seemed headed for acceptance before some scientists disputed it on the basis of tests of the surviving tissue samples: I don't think the question is entirely closed, but it's still accurate to say teuthologists as a group have dismissed it.

The proof demanded of sasquatch is the same as for any other animal, a type specimen. It's been established in recent cases that a type specimen does not have to be dead or kept in long-term captivity. Relatively brief observation and filming of a captive specimen and the taking of blood for DNA will do. Of course, if sasquatch does indeed exist, getting a captive specimen is likely to be even harder than getting a body: we're not talking about trapping a bird in a mist-net here.
The question is whether anything short of either shooting or live-trapping a big, dangerous animal is going to suffice. The question is complicated by the hoaxes of photographs and other evidence. A new photo or video, no matter how good, is not going to do it unless backed up by DNA and/or close observation by independent experts.

Unless the animal obliges us by losing a finger in a bear trap or some similarly unlikely circumstance, I think it comes down to this: if the animal can't be captured, killing a specimen might be what it takes to get the animal and its habitat protected. I say that even though I am certain that, if I personally had a bead on a sasquatch, I could not bring myself to pull the trigger. But I would not condemn the person who did if their motivation was the belief this was the only way to get the species protected.

Brunei expedition to Borneo

Reminding us that studying the natural world is truly a global endeavour: an expedition from a Brunei university is headed to Borneo to spend two years studying, rare, endangered, and possibly new wildlife. One scientist is pretty sure about a new bat, and other new species are suspected.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Tracking the Atlantic's Plastic Problem

David Lawrence, a fellow member of the National Association of Science Writers, is out on the Atlantic Ocean, writing this log of the day-to-day effort to analyze the plastic debris in an area analogous to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The news is unremittingly grim, but his reports and this site are written in an educational fashion understandable to everyone.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Three books on cryptozoology

I've recently read three books related to (or partly related to) that odd little subspecialty called cryptozoology. Cryptozoology, when approached scientifically, is a valid pursuit: it does, after all, deal in falsifiable hypotheses, the basic test of a science. That is, cryptozoological hypotheses can be proven false, even though the resources needed to disprove a proposition like "there is an unknown Himalayan ape species" may not be available. Some arch-skeptics lump it with ghost-hunting or chasing UFOs, which is logically unsupportable. We can never prove there are no ghosts or no visiting aliens, but we can prove (and, in some cases, have) that there is or is not a specific type of creature in a specific habitat.

A book focused entirely on cryptozoology is Michael Woodley's In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans (CFZ Press, 2008). The title comes from Heuvelmans' book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents and examines several alternative schemes used by that author and others to group sightings of large unknown marine animals in ways that may point to a particular type of creature. Although such a study is necessarily incomplete with no actual creatures to examine, it does have value as an intellectual exercise to help focus our thinking on the subject. Woodley summaries theories about "sea serpents" in general and goes through Heuvelmans' classifications, the types of creatures that might be behind them, and the way other researchers have classified the same types of reports (as Woodley acknowledges, Heuvelmans' bestowing of scientific names on creatures with no type specimens is invalid, although he uses some such names for convenience). Woodley offers thoughts on the plausibility of of Heuvelmans' types and suggests modifications to his categories. The whole effort is well written, although I have some quibbles about what cases Woodley thinks are worth including. The report of the ship Pauline, which describes a huge serpent wrapped around the body of a sperm whale, makes no sense as zoology - no eel, frilled shark, or other elongated marine creature is a constrictor, and there's no reason to think a giant form would be. I would toss this report aside as either a fabrication or a very confused sighting of a giant squid/whale battle. Another is the story from the German submarine U-28, which many cryptozoological researchers (of which I am one) dismiss. Still, the point of this book is the big picture, not the individual reports, and from that perspective Woodley's book was well worth my time.

Ken Gerhard and Nick Redfern's Monsters of Texas (also from CFZ Press) is a fun read, setting down reports of giant birds, sasquatch-type things, and other Texas oddities, The authors present what people have claimed in a straightforward fashion, leavened with humor though applying a little less skepticism than I would have used. Their most important contribution, I think, is documenting that there may be a grain of truth hidden in the chupacabras myth, since coyotes and coyote hybrids with long hind legs, prominent fangs, and hair loss seem to turn up in Texas often enough to hint there may be some recurring genetic anomaly presenting itself.

The authors do take with some seriousness stories of zoologically impossible or improbable things they think may be apparitions, and these turn up a lot more in Redfern's book Memoirs of a Monster Hunter (New Page Books, 2007).

This book mixes topics I normally wish writers would not mix. I don't automatically dismiss as nonsense the accounts of people who think they've seen non-physical entities - it's a big, strange universe, and there's a lot we don't know about how the human brain perceives and responds to different phenomena. To me, though, poking into such topics is parapsychology, not cryptozoology, and including the two in any book makes the cryptozoological part (or the whole book) more likely to be dismissed by those trying to think scientifically about real animals. Of course, Redfern has written a memoir, and thus is entitled to include everything he has investigated that he personally believes has some basis in reality. He writes with characteristic humor and spins a good tale. His accounts of his adventures filming TV shows are especially fun.
I found myself sometimes thinking, "Wait, you needed to think some more about that." When Redfern visits a spot where a weird two-legged creature has been reported and finds a tepee-type arrangement of broken branches, he connects it to similar reports by others investigating Bigfoot and never seems to consider that normal human kids build such structures (I remember doing it myself), and whether an area is supposed to be open to visitors or not may not make any difference.

So that's my take on these books. All could have done with better bibliographies, and the last two are not skeptical enough for the science writer in me. (I have no special training or other claim to monopolize the term "science," so I will admit others may read things differently.) But I had a good time reading these and learned some things. So thanks, folks.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Royal Navy's sea monsters

Here's a good article recapping some reports of weird sea creatures from logs kept in Britain's National Archives. As cryptozoologists know, there were a surprising number of instances, mainly in the age of sail but some in the 20th century, where Royal Navy or merchant captains logged detailed accounts of strange, elongated marine animals. That a captain vouches for a given report doesn't rule out observational error (for example, the famous encounter involving HMS Daedalus may have been a giant squid), but it's significant nonetheless. People in positions of great responsibility have put their reputations on the line to insist "there be monsters" on the high seas. Marine biologists have never been able to confirm these acocunts, but they should not dismiss them either.

50-year anniversary of von Braun team's joining NASA

On July 1, 1960, the space-related programs, functions, and personnel of the Army Ballistics Missile Agency were transferred to NASA to form the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. This included Wernher von Braun and most of the engineers who came over to the US in Operation Paperclip. The ABMA team had launched America's first satellites, Explorer I, and followed that up with more satellite and Pioneer lunar probes. Work done at ABMA on boosters included the development of Redstone (which lofted Alan Shepherd into space), Jupiter, Jupiter C (the modified Redstone used for Explorer I) and the beginnings of that became the Saturn series that took humans to the Moon.

Primatologist battles for Madagascar's future

Patricia Wright has discovered two new species of lemur in the forests of Madagascar. But she also has a broader mission - saving enough forest for the island's creatures to survive in. Things looked promising in 1991 when she helped get the 106,000-acre Ranomafana National Park created and designated as a World Heritage Site. A coup in 2009, though, brought a new government for which forest protection was a much lower priority than the short-term economic boost which could be obtained from felling the island's remaining hardwood trees. Wright has fought back through the global media, through the United States and European Union governments, and through local activists. The result has been some restrictions on logging, but with inadequate enforcement. So Wright keeps fighting.
"It's a beautiful rain forest that's being pillaged," she says, "where 13 to 15 species of lemur live, and the chameleons come from. Many of Madagascar's endemic birds live here, too. This used to be the biggest tract of pristine forest in the eastern rain forest. But thousands, maybe millions, of logs came out of there last year."

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The evolution of space law

Here's an excellent overview of the space legal situation, which affects countless issues today, from arms control to asteroid mining. Written by leading space law scholar Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz (and, starting, as my friend Joanne so often does, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson), "One-Half Century and Counting: The Evolution of U.S. National Space Law and Three Long-Term Emerging Issues" (4 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. 405 (2010)) notes that decisions based on commerce may soon eclipse those which originated in Cold War ideology.

A milestone in conservation: Yosemite protected

Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group dedicated to reclaiming the conservation heritage of Teddy Roosevelt, reminds us that, on this day in 1864, President Lincoln signed legislation to protect the Yosemite wilderness. For more on REP, to which I have belonged for many years, see

Video of the new leviathan

Nature Video Channel on YouTube offers this 7-minute minifilm on the newly discovered Leviathan melvillei . Unlike the modern sperm whale, which basically inhales prey, this ancestor used two jaws full of 36-cm teeth (as I mentioned before, larger than the teeth of the sperm whale, the orca, the megalodon shark, or Tyrannosaurus rex) to chomp the hell out of anything it came across.

New species from 2009

This author's choice of the most interesting new species, with great photography, includes the imperial pigeon, the blossom bat, and the world's longest stick insect.

New species of porpoise from China?

Recent studies of the finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), which ranges from the Persian Gulf to Japan, produced a surprise. A population of under 1,000 animals which occupies China's Yangtze River forms a distinct genetic group, which may qualify as a separate species. If it is a species, it is - sadly but not surprisingly - a highly endangered one.