Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book review: Pink Boots and a Machete

Pink Boots and a Machete
Mireya Mayor
National Geographic (2011)

This is a terrific book, whether you want to read about a great scientist or about great adventures. A top primatologist and discoverer of a new species of lemur, Mayor tells gritty stories of her aventures around the world, leavened with humor and self-reflection. (I wrote about her in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence, although I accidentally called her a Rhodes scholar instead of a Fulbright scholar. Oops.) Most of this book is taken up with field expeditions, and the strongest message is that finding and conserving wildlife in remote regions of the world is still hard. As in "very hard," as in, "you can die," which she almost did on more than one occasion. Radios and modern gear and even rescue helicopters can't get you out of everything. Mayor includes in her gear a little black dress (social skills can be very handy in remote villages) and on one occasion resorts to blatant sex appeal when there's no other way to get something done. I don't think that demeans or diminishes her at all: it's just something extra in her toolkit, so to speak, for accomplishing work that's very important. Mayor is someone I'd very much like to meet, and the kind of role model I hope my daughters will look up to. Her book is superb.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deep Sea News

Great blog/news page.  Ever knew how mantas give birth, why seemingly simple current flows are complex and full of eddies, why bivalves are such tough survivors, that there are lots of ocean-themed songs on a Spotify playlist or that one of the contributors, Dr. Kim Martini (really) says in her bio,  “Quite simply, her goal in life is to throw expensive s**t into the ocean."  Come see the sea as never before.

Friday, September 28, 2012

New fish "hooks up" with mates

A newly discovered freshwater fish seemingly doesn't know how to take "no" for an answer.  It's equipped with - really - four barbed hooks on its genitals.  Gambusia quadruncus, the llanos mosquitofish, diverged from its closest relative about a million years ago, and it's been off by itself evolving its mating equipment. 

Hoax and Double-Hoax

Loren Coleman has a good column on Cryptomundo potining out an important consideration concerning claims a cryptozoological sighting, photo, or film is hoaxed. There are hoaxes, of course - I'm sick of blobby Sasquatch pictures and videos - but it's not automatic that the "whistleblower" is telling the truth.  Coleman's cases are the deathbed confessions of hoaxing the "Surgeon's Photograph" of the Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film. There are others...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's a kangaroo doing in New Hampshire?

In 2008, a kangaroo was captured in Wisconsin. Some years earlier, two cops were slightly injured trying to capture a kangaroo in Chicago. (A version of that sighting made it onto an episode of ER.) Now two skeptics - and I mean Skeptic with a capital S, as they were members of the Granite State Skeptics Society -  describe seeing what they jokingly called a chupacabra but what certainly looked like a kangaroo that hopped across the road in front of their car at night.  The ears were oddly short for a kangaroo, but otherwise it fits and nothing else I - or they - can think of does.  Unless it's a prop left over from a SyFy movie,  someone has lost a big marsupial in a place no big marsupial should be. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Air Force pilot trainer - for space!

The T-38 Talon is soldiering on in its fifth or sixth decade as the USAF's only supersonic trainer.  There was a time, though, when Northrop Grumman suggested it could be much more - a suborbital Mach 3.2 trainer capable of hitting 250,000 feet, where its control surfaces would be useless and student pilots would control it with hydrogen peroxide thrusters.  As often happened in the anything-is-possible 1960s, there were ideas for even more way-out versions.  Amazing. 

UPDATE: This one was so interesting I sent it to friends who were T-38 instructor pilots. Their responses:
Chas Ruth: "Would I want to fly it? Hell, yes! Do I think it would work? Probably not."
Elizabeth Knemeyer Ruth: "I'm not an engineer, so I don't know if they could make it work. But it would certainly be a blast to give it a try."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Awesome ISS and Earth reflected in astronaut's visor

Incredible photo of Earth and the ISS reflected in an astronaut's helmet

Thanks, NASA

Four new bats join the mammals

Yes, we are still finding new manmals - a lot of them. Latest evidence - four odd-looking bats  All are members of the group called horseshoe bats, marked by weird-looking "leafy" noses. A single African species has turned out to be four. One clue: they echolocate on different frequencies.

A new kind of cloud?

Clouds have been around for billions of years. The modern classification system was completed in 1951.  Or was it? It seems absurd we haven't properly classified all the cloud types, but maybe.... A very strange type called the agitated wave cloud - or undulatus asperatus - has been proposed as a new "species" deserving addition to the cloud "zoo." This dramatic swirly/wavy formation wasn't even photographed officially until 2006.  See here for dramatic pictures

When my daughter was in third grade, she pointed out cumulus clouds to me and said, "I'm just telling you this because they probably didn't know it when you were in school." She may not have been entirely wrong.

Next big step in private space

SpaceX is about to make its first regular resupply run to the ISS, following the success of their trial run. This time, their Dragon capsule will carry a full load of supplies up and carry used equipment back down.  The date: October 7 (ONE DAY after my birthday - Elon, couldn't you speed it up a bit?)

SpaceX's press release:


NASA and SpaceX have announced October 7, 2012 as the target launch date for SpaceX’s first resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is scheduled for 8:34 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral, Florida. October 8 is the backup date.

The launch represents the first of 12 SpaceX flights to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, and follows a successful demonstration mission in May when SpaceX became the first private company ever to attach to the ISS and return safely to Earth.

The SpaceX CRS-1 mission also represents restoration of American capability to deliver and return cargo to the ISS—a feat not achievable since the retirement of the space shuttle. SpaceX is also contracted to develop Dragon to send crew to the space station. SpaceX’s first manned flight is expected to take place in 2015.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ig Nobel prizes are out!

Ever wonder about the dynamics of coffee sloshing in a cup? About whether residual brain activity goes on in a dead fish? (Surprisingly, the answer is Yes.)  About how to shut up an annoying speaker who drones on forever? Well, the Ig Nobel prizes, given for scientific work that cannot or should not be repeated, have been handed out (by real Nobel winners, incidentally).  It's hard to top the dead-fish one, although for sheer uselessness the question of why the Eiffel Tower looks shorter if you lean to your left offered stiff competition.   Who says science has no sense of humor?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Zoological oddity: Thomas Helm's sea creature

In spring 1943, radio broadcaster, naturalist, and nature writer Thomas Helm was cruising with his wife in a small sailboat off Florida's Gulf Coast.  (Helm had been invalided out from the Navy after being severely wounded at Pearl Harbor).  What he says he saw very clearly was a beast so odd he couldn't even suggest an identity. Helm was thoroughly familiar with seals, sea lions, and mustelids like otters: indeed, short of a degreed biological scientist, you couldn't have had a much better witness.  A round head - like that of a tiger without visible ears - covered in chocolate brown fur and sitting atop a four-foot neck appeared in the water in front of him.. He had plenty of time for a good look, and altered course at one point to keep from coming too close (he originally saw it at 30-40 yeards, but does not say what his closest approach was.)  Helm was insistent this was no known pinniped (seal or sea lion) - among other things, it had a relatively flat face with eyes looking forward, not on the sides, and this is what reminded him of a cat. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans classified this as an example of his “Merhorse” type of sea serpent, although the head shape doesn't fit, while modern cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon writes it off as a normal pinniped.  A pinniped, though, seems wrong to me.  A seal or sea lion's head might give this appearance if the witnesses had had only a brief view straight on, but not when they had several minutes to watch it as they sailed by - they didn't see it from just one angle.  
Helm's description and drawing of the face remind me a bit more of a manatee more than a pinniped, but it seems an impossible error to describe a nearly-neckless manatee as showing four feet of neck of smaller diameter than the head.  There is no question this was a mammal - not only did it have fur, but definite whiskers.  Helm thought the head was about the size of a basketball.
Helm insisted in his book Monsters of the Sea that, prior to the incident, he gave no thought to "sea serpents" of any kind.  He asked local commercial fishermen if they'd seen anything like his animal, and they had not (though he noted almost all had their own tales to tell of odd sea creatures.)  Neither they nor scientists he approached could tell him anything useful.

Well, there it is - and there it rests. We have a solid witness (accompanied by another adult) and a description not only impossible to reconcile with a known animal but with any of the "sea monster" sightings I can think of in which the head was described.  Dr. Roy Mackal has suggested for some sea and lake monsters a kind of long-necked sirenian (a member of the group made up of the manatees and dugongs.)  IF such an animal exists - and the evidence is scant - then Helm's animal could reasonably be placed in that category.  As with so many cryptozoological sightings, this tale resides in a most unsatisfying limbo. It may be there forever.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Who flew first?

Wrights are challenged again.
It's not news that there are other claimants to the title "first in flight." Some people, like Maxim, certainly achieved short hops.  The Wrights, though, were first in controlled, practical flight. They were the first to develop, methodically, the aerodynamics behind their craft, test wing shapes in a wind tunnel. and reshape the wing to control flight.  Gustave Whitehead no doubt did some hops (maybe even some impressively long ones), but I think the Wrights stand supreme in the invention of controlled flight.

Monday, September 17, 2012

John McCain on Neil Armstrong's walk

I thought I had finished my tribute to Armstrong, but this is a unique coda to his story.  Senator John McCain, in 1969, had no idea Armstrong had landed on the Moon.  How he found out, and what it meant to him and his fellow POWs, is a very moving story

Friday, September 14, 2012

Farewell, Neil

Neil Armstrong, per his wishes, was buried at sea. The former Navy pilot's remains were consigned to the deep with proper honors from the U.S.S. Philippine Sea.

We had heroes once / and we will again / why shouldn't we? - Mary Chapin Carpenter

Looking askance at weird news

I have my conflicts with CSICOP and sometimes disagree with Sharon Hill, but she's one of the livelier writers on science and skepticism, and what she says here about teaching kids to think critically is well-phrased and important. She recounts helping them pick apart a "giant owl" photograph that made the rounds of the Internet even though you could see there was something not right about it. (Speaking of a class with Lawrence Krauss (author of The Physics of Star Trek, a great read), she also highlights one of my favorite themes: kids can still be fascinated by science if it's done right.)  In her Doubtful News, this week she corrects some media hype about "living cells" being found in a frozen mammoth (they were no such thing, only well-preserved.)  She's always worth a read.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Latest new primate looks like... well, us

New monkey from Congo

The newest priamte is colorful and downright fascinating.  It looks like a long-nosed old professor.  The lesula, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, "looks right back at its beholder, calm and pensive, examining you as you examine it," a human observer noted.  Check out the photo in the attached article. 

And it is, of course, yet another reminder that we don't know all the animals, not even all the primates, in this still-big world of ours.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

JFK and the Moon: 50 Years ago today

President Kennedy gave his Moon speech (which included other goals, such as telecommunications satellites) 50 years ago today. "A man on the Moon in this decade"  was an audacious goal to set: there was no certainty, even in NASA (Wernher von Braun probably excepted: love or hate the man, he never lacked confidence), that it could be done before 1970. 
NASA's celebration

View entire speech

Indeed, JFK wondered about it even after he set the goal. He had a continuing interest in desalinating the oceans, and probably would have made that our top technical goal if it had been more feasible.  But he stuck by Apollo, and Johnson and Nixon did so after him, and we made it. 

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Annual article post: 9/11 and science

Demolition? No.

Good article on why the "truthers," sincere though they may be, are wrong on every claim about the physics involved in demolition claims concerning 9/11. Remember also that any complex event, especially one that has never happened before, will produce oddities, both material and in human perceptions. Believe the science. Honor the heroes based on the real events.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Expert comment on my book Shadows of Existence

Dr. Marcus van Roosmalen, whose new adventure travel idea I discussed below, also had the time to read my 2006 book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology.  His take:
"Yur book is excellent and trustworthy - considering the fact that you depicted and described the white-throated black jaguar so realistically. No sensationalism."
Dr. Van Roosmalen is certain the white-throated jaguar exists and is not just a melanistic specimen like the black jaguars you can see at your zoo.  The cat reported from Brazil is a solid black (with none of the hidden rosettes you can spot in your zoo janguar when the lighting is right - with a white underside and throat. Why is he so sure? Well, he has seen it.
""I just read Matt Bille's 2006 Shadows of Existence. I was flabbergasted to see the 'onca-cangucu' or white-throated black jaguar, the pictorial evidence I am after already for more than 15 years, so accurately depicted on page 65 - exactly the beast that I was so fortunate to get a glimpse of in the wild, not long ago."

Credit for the stunning illustration goes to the highly talented Bill Rebsamen, premier artist of cryptozoology. 

Update: Hunting New Mammals with Marc van Roosmalen

Dr. van Roosmalen has created a poster showcasing his proposed trips in search of "cryptid" mammals (so far undocumented species.) This is a topic Marc knows better than anyone else in the world, and this kind of trip offers a chance at scientific immortality: being part of the discovery of new speices.  It's a new spin on adventure travel. 

NY City has created its own ant species

I don't know if the newest species of ants use their chemical signals and antennas to say, "Hey, I'm WALKING here!" but they are denizens of New York City. In fact, they have a very restricted range reported as "traffic medians on Broadway between 63rd and 76th streets." Aside from the burning question of whether these creatures are Giants or Jets fans, it appears to be an example of adapting to a very specific environment. Insect species endemic to tiny environments, such a single tree, may be common in Brazil, but they don't normally emerge from US cityscapes. Or maybe they are normal, and we just haven't looked enough.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

New species: a wild (and impressive) insect

This is the world's newest stick insect - not the biggest, although still impressive. Definitely the most visually arresting, though, and strikingly unlike most stick insects. This one is multicolored, built relatively low to the ground, and wingless.  It needed a new genus to classify it.  Oh, and it sprays an offensive liquid like a skunk when threatened.  Fresh from the Phillipine island of Mindoro, welcome Conlephasma enigma.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Why some groups have more species than others

Why are there hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of species of beetles but only 23 known crocodilians? these scientists have found it has nothing to do with how old a lineage is. Instead, there are ecological limits - "adaptive zones" in time and physical habitat - where space, resources, and competition dictate how a given type of animal is more or less likely to move into new niches, which are likely to encourage the development of new species.  Essentially, it doesn't take much habitat, or many individuals, to sustain a beetle species. Beetles in a place like Brazil can speciate all they want without having to have some other species vacate a habitat.  Crocodiles may not have the opportunity unless an existing species dies out. This, Michael Alfaro explains, means, "If adaptive zones control biodiversity at the broadest scales, then the rate of species growth will be a good explanation of species richness only right after a lineage has entered into a new adaptive zone. Once the adaptive zone has filled up, then, no matter how much time goes by, the number of species will not change much...Most of the groups that we studied have hit their limits."

What's the implication for discovery of new species? Well, it's not a particularly earth-shaking finding that we are more likely to describe new mosquitoes than new crocodiles or mammals. It's harder to apply it to any specific habitat. There are oddities, overlaps, and evolutionary changes that create exceptions to the rules.  But this is a step toward understanding why evolution has come out the way it has. 

Aviation history - the Vulcan

As an aviation history buff, I appreciate the planes that took aerospace engineering in a new direction. The Royal Air Force's Vulcan's creation in 1952 is one of the unique moments, when a nation in search of a nuclear deterrent commissioned a radical new bomber. The four-engined Avro/Hawker Siddeley Vulcan was to soldier on, first in strategic and then tactical roles, until its retirement after service in the Falklands War. Today an enthusiats' club on shoestring financing keeps one Vulcan flying.  I saw one at an air show in the mid-70s when the RAF was still flying it, and I remember the giant delta-wing was amazingly maneuverable for its size.  It was also suprisingly quiet while it was approaching you - but it made a heck of a roar when it passed. Its only surviving contemporary is the USAF's B-52, which may soldier on until the airframe has 100 years on it, like like some sailing warship of the 18th century.  (Britain, alas, no longer has the capability to build any type of warplane indigenously: the US can build a new bomber, but it keeps losing budget dogfights before it can even reach the design stage.) . Here's to a great old bird.

In whale news - a little GOOD news

Whales are among my favorite creatures.  They were, perhaps, the first truly intelligent mammals to emerge on this planet - we primates took far longer to come up with big brains. The whales inhabit their own kingdom, one humans originally invaded with only malicious intent, but now try to understand.  We drove several of the largest species to near-extinction, and one of the smallest is now extinct (Yangtze River dolphin) and one on the brink (vaquita porpoise.)
So, all good news is welcome.  The mangnificent and unique humpback has several favorite mating grounds, one of them off the coast of Brazil.  In 1996, there were only a thousand of these whales left. In 2002, the Humpback Whaling Institute counted 3,000 in the region. The estimate 10 years later is nearly 10,000.   That doesn't approach the historical numbers of this species in the pre-whaling days, but it's a big nonetheless.  All victories in whale conservation matter, and this is a victory.
Meanwhile, in my old home state of Florida, a lot of effort by experts and volunteers going into rescuing stranded whales. We still don't understand the causes of stranding well, and often the animals can't be refloated: they just beach themselves again. Recently, 22 pilot whales beached themselves. Seventeen could not be saved, but in a small but heartening example of interspecies cooperation, five were brought to Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Institute for rehabilitation. This took the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to get them off the beach, a large staff at the Institute, and veterinary help from Sea World. The wales are doing better, and researchers hope they can be released soon. Bravo, rescuers!

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Crypto-Expeditions with Marc van Roosmalen

Dr. Marcus van Roosmalen, one of the world’s best-known primatologists and its most prolific discoverer of mammals, has a new idea to get cryptozoologists involved up close and personal in his discoveries while also funding further work. As he explained it to me in an online conversation on 8/31/2012, his notion is to offer the cryptozoologist community organized boat expeditions he would into the 'Lost World' of the Amazon. He’d take 2-6 cryptozoologists paying for it (at, notionally, about 5,000 Euro each) on 2-3 week trips to capture on digital photo/video one or more of the cryptomammals he’s seen in the wild. He asked, “With digital scouting cameras to be placed along a freshly cut trail through the matrix high forest I think it must be feasible to capture images of the black white-throated jaguar - the onca-cangussu. Wouldn't that be something for any cryptozoologist?” (By the way, he honored me by praising my book Shadows of Existence, and he thought Bill Rebsamen had done a very good job of capturing the onca-cangussu in his illustration).

Van Roosmalen is as busy as ever. He says, “I hope to publish more novelties (e.g., dwarf manatee, fair brocket, giant paca, another peccary, four big monkeys) in the peer-reviewed Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Science.” He added, “I have been on a riverboat trip up the Rio Negro, Branco and Demeni/Araca with ten undergraduates from SUNY universities and upstate NY Colleges during the last two weeks. Unexpectedly, I discovered a new species of tamarin!”

He told me, “I might go on organizing these expeditions for many years, as it will be fun, but also productive." Since his legal troubles (allegations of biopiracy), despite his exoneration by Brazil's Supreme Court, he can't  get the proper license to take a type specimen from the wild to establish any of the 40(!) mammals on his discovery list, and he is afraid of being jailed if he transports any holotype material, dead or alive, to accomplish the DNA testing needed to describe new species in the peer reviewed literature. He hopes these expeditions will result in more video and sighting evidence to pass along to government agencies and other scientists who can help him protect endangered habitat and collect the needed holotypes to properly describe more animals. .

He would appreciate feedback (email him through Facebook at or go to his website at about how many cryptozoologists might be interested in this kind of work. I can’t do it in the short term (back problems and family obligations), but he describes it as a relatively comfortable trip made mainly on his well-equipped riverboat.

Who’s on board? Let Marc know if this interests you, even hypothetically.

The Invaders: New Bee Species are Parasitic

Five new species of bees have been reported - and all are strange. They are parasites, stealing into other bees' nests and depositing their own eggs in the nurseries.  Jakub Straka of Charles University (Prague) and Michael S. Engel of the University of Kansas reported the bees from the islands of Cape Verde. The invades (or "cuckoo bees") choose times when most of the target colony is out foraging and it's easier to slip in unnoticed.  Their fast-incubating eggs hatch, and the larvae wipe out the unhatched eggs around them.  Fiendish!