Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Probing the Antarctic

The great ice-covered continent has been a mystery to scientists in many places, simply because the ice shelf may extend many kilometers into the oceans and there's no practical way to study the waters and land underneath it. Many expeditions with the latest tools have nibbled at the edges, but Nature herself can sometimes lend a hand. Calving evens affecting large chunks of the ice shelf are worrisome to climatologist, but they offer many opportunities for marine biologists and others who want to study the newly-opened areas. This kind of opportunity is being seized now, as the British Antarctic Survey is out to see what the massive iceberg A68 has exposed.  Good luck, chaps! 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Cryptozoology conferences: science and strangeness

Cryptozoology, the search for unclassified or presumed-extinct animals, is a subspecialty some argue is not needed, but, as it's defined by backers, it's not inherently unscientific.  The world is crawling, literally, with unknown species, from ants to dolphins to (just maybe) some large mammals like Sumatra's orang-pendek. The most famous "cryptid," a large North American primate known as Sasquatch or Bigfoot, is certainly a reach, but the premise is at least testable (given adequate time and money).
Cryptozoology conferences range from those trying to stick to science to those openly embracing the paranormal and ideas about shape-shifting or interdimensional beings or apparitions.  One of the better ones, Loren Coleman's International Cryptozoology Museum conference, has completed its second annual event in Portland, Maine. A week later, the larger CryptidCon was held in Frankfort, Kentucky.
I went to the first ICM Conference, had a great time, and found most of the presentations valuable (I covered cryptic bears of the world). I missed this year due to back surgery but hope to make it in 2018.  It sounds like the 2017 conference was interesting: I'm sorry I didn't get to go and meet Bruce Champagne, among others.  The conference presentation list does raise the question of whether animals that cannot exist as described (the "dogmen" of the upper Midwest) belong at a conference that supposedly is focused on finding real animals, but Linda Godfrey has made the point that it's a fact that a lot of people are reporting something like a wolf-like humanoid, even if that's not what they are seeing.  So it's at least a valid folkloric question, if not a zoological one, to ask what sparks such tales.
I've not been to CrypticCon. Sharon Hill, a skeptical writer whom I have always respected even though we've disagreed, filed a report on her Doubtful News blog.
Looking forward to ICM 2018!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book Review: Scientifical Americans

Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers
Sharon Hill
McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC 2017. 248pp. 

This is a book stuffed with information and useful thinking for all those who seek a scientific approach to paranormal phenomena or have an interest in those who do. Hill, a geologist by training, has spent years researching oddities and oddity-seekers.  I've interviewed her before for this blog.  She reports here on her survey and study of amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), mainly concerned with UFOs, ghosts, and cryptozoology.  There are at least 2,000 ARIGs, with ghost-chasers predominating.   

Hill draws a distinction between paranormal (phenomena that might be proved/resolved by science) and supernatural (which can’t, although ghost hunters keep trying).  She argues strongly that groups saying they are “scientific” usually grade out between poor to nonexistent when it comes to sticking with the precepts of good science. While Hill emphasizes there is no simple definition for science or the scientific method, there are many sound principles shared between scientific endeavors.  She does not present science or scientists as perfect, another important point often lost in short articles in the media that tend to go for simplistic believers-v-skeptics stories.  Her analysis of what is and is not scientific and why a lot of perfectly intelligent Americans have trouble with the distinction is worth the price of the book by itself.  Hill suggests some science educators view the public too simplistically, as mere receivers of facts, while a good chunk of the public views science as a static collection of facts and rules.  The influence of the internet and paranormal TV series (almost none of them scientific to any useful degree) has drawn huge numbers of people into paranormal investigation but hasn’t achieved any documented results. Neither the number of investigators nor the increased number of witnesses (also greatly increased by the influence of internet and TV) have done any lasting good:  a larger number of sightings does not add up, scientifically, to a stronger case. That doesn’t mean the sighting reports are useless, but Hill laments the lack of analysis of the sighting files and databases for patterns.  

Hill’s chapters on the three main areas of “study,” ghosts, UFOs, and cryptozoology, are good but necessarily leave out a lot in condensing broad and diverse topics into single chapters. The Bigfoot-focused chapter on cryptozoology misses mention of the enormous influence of the late Dr. John Napier.  Here’s where I wish the book were longer: the brevity of these chapters and the book itself doesn’t allow Hill to tell us much about individuals, aside from a good piece on a pair of ghost hunters and a much shorter bit on two skunk ape hunters.   Still, the research and insights on ARIGs and overall paranormal beliefs make every page worth reading. (Hill mentions “uniforms,” such as the black shirts common among ghost hunters, and notes, “Cryptozoologists typically require a hat…” I found that both humorous and true: I’ve never done any sort of cryptozoological appearance without my low-crowned black Stetson, and hats like the late Scott Norma's fedora and Ken Gerhard's leather cowboy hat are iconic in  the community.)  The ghost chapter and the book’s extensive bibliography do miss what I think is the best book ever on the topic, G.N.M. Tyrell’s Apparitions (1953).  

Hill critiques ghost hunters in particular for assuming that the things they can detect (variations in the environment picked up by EM meters or infrared cameras) are automatically considered evidence for things they can't (ghosts themselves). A drop in temperature, say, is is considered significant even though the link between such measurements and the supernatural hasn’t been established. She DOES think amateurs have a role to play in scientific investigations. Hill cites the unknown-primate DNA study of Professor Bryan Sykes, in which amateurs worldwide contributed samples to an expert: the negative results don’t invalidate the approach. 

It all adds up to an excellent book, not only on the primary topic but on the definition and philosophy of science and the role science plays (and should play) in American society. When the main criticism comes down to wishing the book were longer, the author has done a great job. 

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Ad Astra, Captain John Young

Legendary astronaut John Young has died.
The only astronaut to fly Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle was 87. Young walked on the Moon on Apollo 16 and commanded the first mission of the Space Shuttle. He was head of NASA's Astronaut Office and held many other titles and responsibilities including NASA Associate Director (Technical). He was a Navy captain and test pilot with 15,000+ hours in high-performance aircraft. He retired in 2004 after a military/aerospace/NASA career stretching back 52 years.  
"A dreamer born is a hero bred / on Earth and up in heaven." - Mary Chapin Carpenter

Monday, January 01, 2018

Doctor's Notes from integrative medicine conference

I'm not a medical person, but I like to know how things work - and how we KNOW how things work.  Here Dr Chad Hayes  attends an integrative medicine conference and finds IM can be broken into two categories: 1) things doctors already do, and 2) things that have no evidence to indicate they work. 

Doctors Notes

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Snopes collects fake science headlines

Headlines and out things that did NOT happen or were NOT real in 2017: fake news included disproof of climate change, disproof of vaccine effectiveness, proof tumeric prevented dementia, proof of false data about sea level rise, etc., etc.  Snopes has collected a Top 10 of misleading headlines related to science and medicine. (Onions in your socks cure nothing: you knew that, of course, but millions pf people bought that ridiculous advice.)
Snopes also collected the most popular false/debunked conspiracy theories (or at least unproven ones) in circulation and provided a collection of false or mis-attributed photos

A poem for the New Year

In Memorium (Ring Out, Wild Bells)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The white whales (and dolphins)

Ahab and company may have chased the white whale only in epic fiction, but white whales exist. Moby Dick (who was NOT all white, he was sort of marbled with a white hump)  was named for a real-life counterpart, Mocha Dick. National Geographic has printed photos of a solid-white sperm whale.
Albinistic, leucistic, and partial varieties of both pop up in many species. Easily the most famous is Australia's white humpback Migaloo, a draw for locals and tourists every time he appears. Of course, he has a website.  An all-white calf, sometimes nicknamed Migaloo Junior although not related, is also known to be living.
Several white cetaceans, most famously a dolphin named Carolina Snowball, have been kept in captivity. Snowball's story, recounted here, was not a happy one: pursued by an expedition intended solely to capture her, netted along with her baby, she was caught in 1962 and died three years later after drawing big crowds but refusing to learn tricks.
Marine biologist Kate Redman posted the link to this item, on white harbor porpoises and oddly colored common dolphins.
This is just a fraction of the examples in recent literature. An all white-cetacean can do quite well in the wild (witness of course the beluga, an entire species of mono-colored animals).  Now that more and more nations are banning the capture of wild cetaceans, we hopefully will not see a repeat of the Snowball affair.

Migaloo (posted on with no copyright statement)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Anniversary: the strangest of "sea serpents"

The sea serpent doesn't get much respect anymore. It had its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a good number of ocean scientists thought there was something to it.  Now it's been forgotten by science and even largely by cryptozoology, which sometimes seems so Bigfoot-focused it might not pay attention if a sea serpent washed up in its collective front yard. Only Cadborosaurus, the reported denizen of the waters off the Canadian west coast, still draws any interest.
Still, it would be remiss not to note we just passed the 112th anniversary of a persistently odd event. In 1905, two  experienced British naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London, claimed a very good look at a species that doesn't fit in any neat "explainable" category. Indeed, I don't think it's been explained at all.  
Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo published, in  the Zoological Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist, account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" seen from the yacht Valhalla during a research cruise.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll  asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before theValhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
Meade-Waldo offered no theory as to the creature's zoological affinities.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation, and as time goes by and we find more plesiosaur bones and impressions, it grows less and less likely.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin. Still, it gets a little play in the pages of cryptozoological literature, and friendly skeptic Dr. Darren Naish (a paleozoologist) co-authored a paper suggesting that species discovery curves hinted we had a couple of seals out there yet to be classified.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, (A fossil ancestor did turn up, but it was only named in 2014:  this is Megachasma applegatei .)
When Loxton and Prothero in 2013 published their weighty tome Abominable Science, it was this case I wanted to read about more than any other.. Alas, it wasn't there.  The sea serpent chapter was the weakest of the book's dissections of "cryptids." I wrote in my review, "Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent....On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) told me they left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent." I said at the time that I could see the logic, but looking back, I don't: not treating the case was a major error.   
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in myth and hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two witnesses as good as anyone could ask for (all right, we'd prefer marine biologists, but these gentlemen were pretty solid)  described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dr. Colin Groves, R.I.P.

Dr. Colin Groves, a mammologist/anthropologist/taxonomist who was notable for superb scholarship, wide-ranging interests, countless excellent publications, and an open mind, has died at 75.  Groves was Professor of Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, but he was much more than that.  He co-described a new human ancestor, Homo ergaster, and many living species to boot. He was active in Australia's skeptical society but was open to evidence of new species, including cryptozoological ones.  He wrote about everything from pigs to the Flores "hobbits."   (He argued this species was real and not the result of pathological specimens.)  In late 1999, Groves was part of a team that reported the African elephant was not one species, but two, promoting the small forest elephant to full species status. He corresponded with me several times and was helpful in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.    
Dr. Groves was a hero for the global environment, helping us understand and protect the animal kingdom.  He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A fictional digression: Raven's Quest, by Matt and Deb Bille

Lark Ravenlord is an orphan living in the city of Haven, and the only woman ever allowed to tend the great ravens which give Haven a critical edge over the warlike tribes living nearby. The legacy of pre-nuclear war Army genetic experiments to create a smart "living UAV" for reconnaissance, the ravens can each carry a light man for up to four hours.  The honor of riding is reserved to an all-male elite class of warriors - one of whom, Glenn Windrider, is Lark's secret love and is clandestinely teaching her to ride. Neither of them can guess the epic events their decision will set in motion. When Glenn falls ill and Haven is attacked, Lark's courage is put to the test. Her actions to save the city - thus getting her exiled for stealing the great raven Kee-La - is only a precursor to the greatest test of all.  Lark is on her own in the vastness of the Winterland, surviving by grit and invention, until she discovers a  secret about an alien presence and an ancient weapon. She must decide whether to face death by returning to Haven to warn her people and lead a quest across lands no one has ever explored to deactivate a technology she cannot even understand.

Available at

in ebook formats - coming out in a few months in hard copy.  Join us for a great fantasy adventure suitable for YA, Christian, and adult readers, with a heroine who could hold her own with Katniss Everdeen and company.

A vision of Lark by the talented artist Amber Rae Sherman:

Friday, November 24, 2017

What would "human-smart" dinosaurs look like?

Assume the asteroid misses, the K-Pg event never happens, and evolution nudges dinosaurs toward smarter and smarter forms, until their descendants have (for better or worse) human intelligence.  Writers of fiction and speculative paleontology assumed for a long time that this would produce an animal that looked like a reptilian version of ourselves, with bipedal locomotion, an atrophied tail, and so on.  This didn't seem too unreasonable back when we thought of dinosaurs and birds as very distinct lineages, with only the birds having feathers.  

Most scientists find the whole idea silly.  The evolutionary pressures faced after a missed asteroid event would be very different from what mammals faced,  and evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino (who has made major discoveries about dolphin intelligence) speaks for many when she says, "The notion that some subset of dinosaurs would have evolved into human-like creatures is absurd." We don't know what would have happened: would technology, or intelligence itself, have enough survival value to drive such evolution?  (Paleontologist Brian Ward, quoted in a cool article by Brice Dorminey in Forbes entitled "Why Dinosaurs Would Never Have Built Spaceships," argued the oxygen levels 65MYA simply would not allow for a very large, oxygen-hungry brain to  appear,

"Dinosaurid" by John Sibbick for 1985 book Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman. Reduced here under nonprofit educational exemption to US Copyright. 

But let's assume it did happen.  In this blog post for his always-excellent Tetrapod Zoologypaleozoologist Darren Naish reviews some of the more recent efforts to depict such creatures in documentaries, movies, and TV and finds them wanting. Dr. Naish is much more enamored of the idea the dinosaurs, some of which we know have evolved into very intelligent birds (crows and ravens), and many of which sported feathers, would have evolved a much more birdlike intelligent species: Indeed, Aviosapiens saurotheos (designed by Cevdet Kosemen and one of several such recent concepts) keeps the idea of a body mass similar to humans but looks a good bit like a chicken. 

The image of social dino-birds bonding over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Primate is a bit unsettling, but it's fascinating to think about.  As to the spaceships specifically, here's a thought: We didn't build spaceships because we had to for survival.  While many spacecraft, like remote-sensing satellites, do a lot to make human life better, we didn't build spaceships for humans because we needed to/ We built them because we wanted to.  Would Aviosapiens have the exploring instinct?  Another one for the "we'll never know" pile.  

Fiction Review: Elusive by J.M. Bailey

Elusive: A Forever Journey

  • CreateSpace
  • 196 pp. 

J. M. Bailey rounds out her Elusive trilogy in a very satisfying third act that leaves space for future sequels.  Our hero, Anna, and the Sas-kay she lives with must eventually collide with the human world, and they do, when Anna's troubled but beloved husband comes to find her and when Anna sees a chance to steal some human luxuries and makes the foolish presumption no one will chase her.  This trilogy is the best fiction I've read about contact with sasquatch and one human's effort to bridge a divide many centuries old.  The sasquatch, which are a variant of an ancient human race in this take, sometimes seem a little too "modern-human" in their thoughts, and they have a couple of abilities that no real primate does, but their emotions and superbly portrayed, and in these novels they work as a believable culture of hominids devoted to avoiding our own.  It will surprise no one that Anna ends up in a position where she has to choose the direction of her life,  and I won't spoil the suspense there.  What makes the choice difficult is that Anna herself has evolved from the profane and sometimes self-centered woman of the first book to someone who thinks about the welfare of others -  human and non-human.  Bailey is a sasquatch-hunter herself and an excellent writer, and she works in all kinds of detail about the natural world of the Pacific Northwest and where these creatures would fit into it.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lost species that never were

It's hard enough for scientists, with limited means, to find and keep current on the world's many thousands of vertebrate animal species. New ones are found every year. Others, sadly, go extinct, while others just lack recent observations, and may show up on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as "Data Deficient."
In some cases, the data may be deficient because the animal didn't exist.  This is a common concern with extinct species, described from a handful of fossil bone or even from footprints: one-third of dinosaurs may be mistakes.  But there are modern questions, too. 
The mystery bear Vetularctos inopinatus, collected in Canada in 1864, was one of the more spectacular errors: the type specimen, it turned out, was just another grizzly. Africa's pygmy elephant seems to have been a mistake, and almost everyone has written off the pygmy gorilla (Gorilla mayema) as erroneous. De Loys' ape, a paradigm-shaking species (given that there are no confirmed New World apes) allegedly shot in Venezuela in 1920, was a flat-out hoax involving an unfortunate spider monkey.
The great (it's a law, writers have to describe him that way) John James Audubon described Washington's Eagle as a separate species, larger than the bald eagle. It's now generally thought to have been based on an unusually large bald eagle (it doesn't help that the type specimen, collected by the man himself in 1814, has disappeared).  So Falco washingtonii doesn't get a Red List spot at all. Audubon also described Townsend's finch, a bird never confirmed but still debated, and four other mystery species.   Cox's sandpiper, from Australia, is either elusive, extinct, or a hybrid of other species. The dusky seaside sparrow, famous for meeting its end in an enclosure at Disney World,  was real but apparently not a species: any creature downgraded to a subspecies just don't get the same respect.
There are others, as this article describes. Is the Liberian greenbul the world's rarest songbird, or a mistake based on an odd-colored specimen of the icterine greenbul? (The Red List classifies this bird, Phyllastrephus leucolepis as, you guessed it, Data Deficient.) The extinct Hunter Island penguin was, in a sense, always extinct, since it turns out not to have existed. The kouprey, Bos sauveli, the largest new land mammal of the 20th century, is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered but may be a mistake involving wild cattle with a characteristic appearance.  
DNA analysis of type specimens is helping to sort out such creatures, but it's a slow process. It doesn't help when some type specimens go missing, or the animal is a possible hybrid. Taxonomy, even of the vertebrates, is not yet a finished domain of knowledge.

Thanks to Dr. Karl Shuker for posting the original article that got me thinking on this. 

Audubon's painting of his great eagle


Thursday, November 02, 2017

Salute to Madison Stewart

Not old enough to drink in the U.S., this young shark conservationist is Australian Geographic's  Young Conservationist of the Year.  Madison Stewart wasn't old enough to drive when she started her work, taking samples of fish at markets for species ID and mercury levels, lobbying against shark netting and shark culls, and generally using every avenue she could find to explain to people that sharks were an essential part of a healthy ocean ecosystem.  She is now living in Florida, and continuing her work on sharks and the safety and sustainability of fish caught for consumption. Her work is featured in a new documentary film, BLUE.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A tough year for whales

This week, the Society for Marine Mammology is meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia (I couldn't attend because of back surgery, and yes, I'm bummed).  The SMM meeting will be discussing a lot of topics including improved whale tracking and automated identification. Members are also discussing a touch year for whales in general.
The vaquita porpoise is a handful of breeding-age females away from extinction. A desperate last-chance effort by Mexican and American experts, using Navy dolphins to help locate the vaquitas, is underway to catch 12 animals and keep them in sea pens. Nothing else has stemmed the losses from bycatch by fish-hunting poachers. 
The humpbacks didn't have a good year on the Atlantic. NOAA declared an"unusual mortality event" as 53 animals died in the last two years, half due to ship collisions. 
The North Atlantic right whales have had it even tougher considering the total population is only 500 or so.  Sixteen whales have been found dead this year. Tightening rules on ship speeds in key areas hasn't helped. Authorities have intensely studied every carcass they've been able to reach, and ship collisions and drifting fishing gear are the top killers.
So here's hoping the SMM meeting will help add new information, analysis,and tools, We've driven way too many cetaceans off the planet. Banning most commercial whaling in 1986 has made a difference, but not enough. It's a grim situation.  Support whale conservation with your votes, your money, and your awareness.  


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jane Goodall and unknown primates

Dr. Jane Goodall needs no introduction anywhere on Earth. No one knows more about studying large primates in the wild.  One thing that piques her interest is sasquatch and similar reported creatures.  She once told an interviewer, of sasquatch, "I'm sure they exist." This article has a really interesting nugget: that she found hunters in Ecuador who, when asked if they had seen "moneys without a tail," responded they had - and the "monkeys" were 1.8m (6 feet) tall. She even speculated sasquatch-type creatures could be Neanderthal in origin.
New World apes do not, so far as we know, exist, either in the fossil record or today.  Apes never made it here.  While Latin America swarms with monkeys, the only large primate ever to reach this hemisphere was, as far as we know, Homo sapiens.  There is some VERY speculative thinking, based on the Cerutti mastodon site in California, that human ancestors, likely a Homo erectus group, showed up first (130,000 years ago!), but that's a long way from being proven. We don't know of Neanderthals coming within thousands of miles of the periodic land bridges that brought modern humans over.  Creatures like sasquatch are reported all over the U.S., Canada, and Latin America, a truly impossible range,but have we ruled everything out?
Goodall is almost alone among primatologists and mammologists in thinking sasquatch possible.  Aside from a few Americans like Dr. Jeff Meldrum, there is a near-consensus that no large animal with no fossil record, no bones, and no dead specimens is really awaiting discovery. Indeed, a lot of very qualified people find the topic ridiculous, especially in North America, where a new rodent is a huge discovery.
The sightings, of course, keep coming in. I have twice written Forewords for books by my friend Lori Simmons, who  believes her dad, Donald Wallace, while rarely glimpsing animals, established a kind of trading relationship, and no less than Touchstone Pictures is developing his memoirs into a film currently titled Underground Giants. I wrote that, while I considered sasquatch unproven and unlikely, the belief in and pursuit of this creature is a fascinating human story.
And there, for the moment, we must leave the topic.  Sasquatch, animal or myth, is pretty durable. We will be back.
(Thanks to the folks at the North American Wood Ape Conservancy for posting the Goodall article.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown
Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science
  • Paperback edition: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books

Marcus du Sautoy is a math professor at Oxford and an explorer of the numbers behind the universe.  In this book, he probes seven "edges," such as time and consciousness, where science has made great strides but has still more to learn - and may not, in the end, be able to learn everything.  He succeeded Richard Dawkins as the  Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and he is, in my estimation, better at it, able to take concepts from the simple (a single toll of a die) to complex (causation, the beginnings of the universe, the unknowable) without losing the reader. (Also, while he is like Dawkins an atheist, he is able to discuss religious concepts without the sneering condescension of Dawkins.) This is a fascinating journey, beginning to end.  He even gets math across in a way I understand, which is something...