Daily Archives: December 13, 2012

Amazingly cute new primate species in Borneo

The Slow Loris (Genus Nycticebus) is a category of prosimian (primates that are neither monkey or ape) that lives in southeast Asia. Most prosimian species live on the island of Madagascar, but there are several African and Asian forms, all of which are nocturnal. The Slow Loris is special because it is the only primate we know of that has a toxic bite.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe total number of nocturnal primates known has increased considerably over the years and I’d wager there are many more to be found. “Technological advances have improved our knowledge about the diversity of several nocturnal mammals,” said Rachel Munds from the University of Missouri Columbia. “Historically many species went unrecognized as they were falsely lumped together as one species. While the number of recognized primate species has doubled in the past 25 years some nocturnal species remain hidden to science.”

Tomorrow, a paper will be released providing the diagnosis of a new species of slow loris. From the abstract:

The slow lorises … once included only two species, but recent taxonomic studies resulted in the description of three additional species; … The Bornean loris in particular is characterized by pelage and body size variation. In this study, we explored facemask variation in the Bornean loris (N. menagensis). Differing facemask patterns, particularly influenced by the amount of white on the face, significantly clustered together by geographic regions, separated by notable geographic boundaries. Our results support the recognition of four species of Bornean lorises: N. menagensis, N. bancanus, N. borneanus, and N. kayan. Genetic studies are required to support these findings and to refine further our understanding of the marked variability within the Bornean loris populations

Previously, one species of Bornean slow loris, with three subspecies, was recognized. The present study elevates the three subspecies to species status and add the fourth as a new discovery. Obviously, this significantly increases our conception of diversity in the nocturnal Bornean rainforest. One of the biggest threats to these animals is the pet trade. “The pet trade is a serious threat for slow lorises in Indonesia, and recognition of these new species raises issues regarding where to release confiscated Bornean slow lorises, as recognition by non-experts can be difficult,” said co-author Professor Nekaris, from Oxford Brookes University.

The study used 25 photographs and 27 museum specimens including the type specimens for two of the previously designated subspecies. A large number of features were examined and measured, of which eight showed variation across the sample, thus showing promise to use as in classification. Here is an example of one of the traits, called “Crown”:

Various fancy statistical analysis were done to produce two “functions” (combinations of variables) that separate the samples as indicated in this graph:

These traits clearly sort out the groups, and these groups have geographical distinctions as well.

Group 1 is on the island of Bangka and in the southwestern portion of Borneo south of the Kapuas River and east to the Barito River; this group’s boundaries appear not to extend all the way east to Barito River. Group 2 is found in central Borneo, north of the Kapuas and Mahakam Rivers. It is often found in higher ele- vations, but is not restricted to them. The boundary of Group 3 overlaps in part with Group 1, as it is found north of the Kapuas River, but its range ex- tends as far east as the Barito River. Finally, Group 4 inhabits the southern Philippines and northern and eastern Borneo, primarily in coastal and low- land areas. It does not range south of the Mahakam River.

So there are now four species: N menagensis, N. bancanus, N. borneanus and N. kayan. That last one is the new designation, and is named for a river flowing through the region in which it lives..

The conservation and research project responsible for this work has a web page with cute pictures, interesting videos, and more information on conservation related matters: Prof Anna Nekaris’ Little Fireface Project

Munds, Rachel, Nekaris, K.A., & Ford, Susan (2012). Taxonomy of the Bornean Slow Loris, with new species Nycticebus kayan (Primates, Lorisidae) American Journal of Primatology, 75, 46-56 : 10.1002/ajp.22071

Two Space Robots To Crash Into Moon Monday

Ebb and Flow, the Twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) Space Ships, which have been employed to provide detailed gravitational mapping of the Moon’s geology, have apparently served their purpose and will be reprogrammed in a few hours from now to crash into the moon on Monday.

PASADENA, Calif. — Twin lunar-orbiting NASA spacecraft that have allowed scientists to learn more about the internal structure and composition of the moon are being prepared for their controlled descent and impact on a mountain near the moon’s north pole at about 2:28 p.m. PST (5:28 p.m. EST) Monday, Dec. 17.

“Controlled Descent” means “Crash Into the Moon.” At least they might have one final glimpse of Moon Santa before their fateful demise.

Ebb and Flow, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission probes, are being sent purposely into the lunar surface because their low orbit and low fuel levels preclude further scientific operations. The duo’s successful prime and extended science missions generated the highest-resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The map will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.

NASA has one hell of a retirement policy. Take note future Space Robots!

“It is going to be difficult to say goodbye,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Our little robotic twins have been exemplary members of the GRAIL family, and planetary science has advanced in a major way because of their contributions.”

If this is what they do to the “exemplary” Space Robots, I’d hate to see what becomes of the slackers.

The mountain where the two spacecraft will make contact is located near a crater named Goldschmidt. Both spacecraft have been flying in formation around the moon since Jan. 1, 2012.

That’s “Goldschmidt” as in “Hermann Goldschmidt, a nineteenth century astronomer and painter famous for discovering a bunch of asteroids. I don’t think he saw this coming.

They were named by elementary school students in Bozeman, Mont., who won a contest. The first probe to reach the moon, Ebb, also will be the first to go down, at 2:28:40 p.m. PST. Flow will follow Ebb about 20 seconds later.

Clearly, it is not a good idea to name farm animals or Space Robots.

Both spacecraft will hit the surface at 3,760 mph (1.7 kilometers per second). No imagery of the impact is expected because the region will be in shadow at the time.


Ebb and Flow will conduct one final experiment before their mission ends. They will fire their main engines until their propellant tanks are empty to determine precisely the amount of fuel remaining in their tanks. This will help NASA engineers validate fuel consumption computer models to improve predictions of fuel needs for future missions.

So, their last job is to be a pair of glorified gas station inspectors.

“Our lunar twins may be in the twilight of their operational lives, but one thing is for sure, they are going down swinging,” said GRAIL project manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Even during the last half of their last orbit, we are going to do an engineering experiment that could help future missions operate more efficiently.”

Because the exact amount of fuel remaining aboard each spacecraft is unknown, mission navigators and engineers designed the depletion burn to allow the probes to descend gradually for several hours and skim the surface of the moon until the elevated terrain of the target mountain gets in their way. The burn that will change the spacecrafts’ orbit and ensure the impact is scheduled to take place Friday morning, Dec. 14.

That’s interesting. So it’s going to be more of a Wiley Coyote thing, then.

“Such a unique end-of-mission scenario requires extensive and detailed mission planning and navigation,” said Lehman. “We’ve had our share of challenges during this mission and always come through in flying colors, but nobody I know around here has ever flown into a moon mountain before. It’ll be a first for us, that’s for sure.”

Boys and their toys.

The NASA press report is here.

How to draw birds

Tired of merely watching birds? Ever consider trying to draw them? There’s a method to do so. John Muir Laws is very good at this and he’s written a book that can help you get started, maybe even become good at it yourself:Laws Guide to Drawing Birds .

In case you were wondering, Laws’ name does not connect him genealogically to the famous John Muir; his parents named him that. But apparently, there is a connection between names and what people do, and John Muir Laws is in fact a naturalist.

This book covers all the usual methodology of illustration but with birds. There are a gazillion “chapters” each one or two pages or so in length, divided into sections: Bird Drawing Basics, Mastering Bird Anatomy, Details and Tips for Common Bird, Birds in Flight, Field Sketching, and Materials and Techniques.

In teaching physical anthropology, anatomy, or archaeology, I’ve found it to be very useful to require students to draw things. Even if they don’t become master scientific illustrators (that is a rare bird indeed) they learn about the objects that are central to the study in a more intimate and details way than possible by just looking. I would be willing to bet that the average bird watcher can improve his or her birdwatching skills by taking a bit of time drawing their quarry. In the old days, of course, this was done by first shooting the bird so it stops moving, then drawing it in the studio. This is no longer recommended, but that makes it harder. Instead, Laws recommends “spending time with living bird in natural conditions” which will “help you develop an intuitive feeling for and kinship with the living animal that you cannot get from photographs alone.”

By the way, of you need a source of photographs to help you in your drawing efforts, check out the blog 10,000 Birds, especially the Galleries section.

Laws is also the author of Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.

Happy sketching.

Religious Politics and Secular Values

Why is the inclusion of creationism and “intelligent design” still a viable proposal for American biology curricula? What other secular policies are at risk of religious intrusion? NCSE board member Barbara Forrest dissects the issue with a panel of experts, including Barry Lynn, Chris Mooney, and John Shook. Where: Center for Inquiry, Washington, DC. When: 10/22/2011

The Hobbit and Science

The Hobbit, the movie, opens tomorrow in a theater near you. This is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins. To many, this constitutes a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which many read (or saw in movie form) before finding out about The Hobbit; this prequel-esque aspect of The Hobbit is reified in the production of the movie following the distribution of the Lord of the Rings movie. Notably, however, The Hobbit was written first, and The Lord of the Rings is a proper sequel. (Interestingly, the Hobbit was revised to accommodate The Lord of the Rings.)

This entire story takes place in Middle Earth, a richly described fantasy universe that has become the interest, sometimes obsession, of many minds since Tolkien. If you find Middle Earth interesting (and you should) then there is a book you absolutely must read about it. I’m talking about Henry Gee’s “The Science of Middle Earth: Explaining the science behind the greatest fantasy epic ever told.” Henry Gee wrote this book a few years back and you may have read it then, perhaps like me you have a dog eared paperback version of it on the shelf next to your copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But Henry has produced a second edition of the book, available for the Kindle, and at present, sold in the Amazon UK store (at the link provided above).

Gee covers what you would expect. Elf magic, Orc reproductive biology, Dragon pyrophysiology, Middle Earth social networking and communications technology (such as seeing-stones) and so on. But Gee takes also takes a broader view of “Science” than one might find in a typical “Science of some book or movie” treatment. For example, he interrogates Tolkien’s linguistics very closely, and carries out what amount to Anthropological and Ethnographic studies of Middle Earth Culture.

Here’s a sampling of some silmarillion science:

Elvish science reached its peak in the First Age with Fëanor, universally regarded as the brightest and most powerful of all the Elves…who created the Silmarils, the great jewels over which the first wars against Morgoth were fought. The … Seeing Stones were givts from the Elves to the Faithful of Numenor, having been made long before in Valinor …. It was Celebrimbor of Holin, a descendant of Fëanor, who forged the Three Rings of Power…

The Lord of the Rings contains many passing references to the relative hardness of materials, but this hardness has a mythic quality in that it directly correlates with technological sophistication of the smiths associated with that substance. For example, the Ents easilyidetroy the country rock that forms the outbuildings and walls of Isengard, but they are unable to ake a dent in Orthanc, a tower built by th elong-vanished Numenoreans, a tower with Gandalf says cannot be destroyed from without… But when Wormtongue tosses the palantir of Orthanc from an upstairs window, it makes a distinct chip in the Numenorean step on wich it falls — a step against which the rage of Treebeard has had no effect at all.

Gee addresses the idea that Tolkien had an anti-science bent, and turns that idea on its head, or at least, its pointy ear, and grounds that discussion in both scientific and literary context. Relating this question to Orc reproductive physiology:

In terms of science, these various grades of Orc-human mixture can be read as a savage critique on evolution itself – or, at least, the view of evolution as ‘progressive’, leading to inexorable improvement in form and function. This is the view of evolution that would have been current in the first half of the 20th century, and most especially between 1900 and the end of the Second World War, encompassing Tolkien’s most productive years as a writer. I have shown elsewhere that this view of life is profoundly antithetical to what we now understand of the Darwinian model of evolution by natural selection, and has indeed been exposed as illogical by theorists working from the 1950s onwards…

And here is a sample of Henry’s linguistic and anthropological treatment:

When technical papers on incontinence, authored by a Dr. Splatt and a Dr. Weedon, were drawn to the attention of New Scientist magazine, its readers were invited to send in other examples of what became known as ‘nominative determinism’.   This Jungian phenomenon illustrates how satisfying it can be when a name is more than a label, but illustrates some property of the thing named. Nominative determinism is amusing because it points up a distinction we usually take for granted. That is, that the name and the thing named are actually different things; that the effort of connecting the two is greater than we might imagine; and so it is satisfying when a person has a memorable name that records some distinctive property of the thing named, making it more than an arbitrary combination of sounds. Tolkien was as sensitive to this distinction as anyone: even in the first few pages of The Hobbit, Gandalf castigates Bilbo for remembering the name ‘Gandalf’, while forgetting that he, the wizard, ‘belonged’ to it.

There is a branch of science in which correct nomenclature is everything, and on which the whole of natural history is based. That discipline is taxonomy. The job of taxonomists is to provide names for species of living creatures. In ages past, the lack of any standard nomenclature made it hard for scientists to get the measure of the natural world. When the same creatures were known by host of names in different languages, it was impossible to know whether the same creature was being referred to in each case: as Elrond offers several names for Bombadil, Gandalf offers several names for himself, giving the origin of each. Gandalf is his name only among Men of the North, but he is called ‘Incanús’ in the South, ‘Tharkûn’ by the dwarves, ‘Olórin’ in the ancient West, and so on…. We know that all these names refer to the same person only because Gandalf tells us that this is so, not by some external reference. Were we to meet a southerner who mentioned having met Incanús, for example, we should only discover that we were talking of Gandalf by comparison of his attributes: both Gandalf and Incanús would have a staff, bristling eyebrows, a pointy hat and a silver scarf, suggesting (but not proving) that we were talking of one and the same person. But if Gandalf were known by the same name everywhere, this confusion should never arise, preferably by a name that reflected one or other of his attributes. As an aside, Tolkien got the name Gandalf from the Icelandic Völuspá —the same source for all the Dwarf names in The Hobbit. The name Gandalfr, however, seemed to stand apart, as an argument could be made for its meaning ‘Wand-Elf’ —in other words, a Wizard, rather than a Dwarf

This new edition of The Science of Middle Earth is not heavily revised from the first edition, but there are corrections and minor changes throughout. Most notably, it is the eBook edition (there is no eBook form of the earlier edition). Also notably, and thank you Henry for this, it is quite inexpensive.

Henry Gee is a member of the Tolkien Society and editor of it’s journal, Mallorn. He also works for another journal you may have heard of (“Nature”) where among other things he edits the regular science fiction feature “Futures.” Most recently, he authored the highly acclaimed science fiction work: The Sigil Trilogy.