Thursday, 21 August 2014

Front page story in this month's Fortean Times

My feature on the woodwoses of Suffolk seems to have pushed the Daleks off the front cover of this month's Fortean Times, having been updgraded from a humble Fortean Traveller piece at the back to the cover story! (That's FT 318, September 2014).

It'll be up on this site as soon as the First British Serial rights have reverted to me, ie when the October issue is out.

I note that I'm all over the editorial of this month's FT as well, in which FT claims they "sent" me to my "native" Suffolk. Not strictly correct - I pitched a story to them, and arranged (minimal) expenses for some of the trip and some photocopying at the Suffolk Records Office, and I have been "native" to Suffolk only since I started getting my bank statements sent there, joined the Suffolk Coastal electoral roll and registered as a "temporary resident" with the doctor's surgery there back in May. (Suffolk Coastal's MP has still not replied to my letter on changes to copyright law, which I sent her in June, please note!)

Here, are a couple of my photos of woodwoses similar to the ones in the Fortean Times feature. (They are of woodwoses whose photos do not feature in the article, from St Bartholemew's Orford (top) and a damaged woodwose at St. Peter's, Theberton (bottom).

I also get a mention in this month's FT in Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo section, for which I am grateful to Karl. He bigs up my researches into Baron Maurice de Rothschild's tusk "of enigmatic origin", which was the subject of my recent Weird Weekend talk, and which will be the subject of a future Fortean Times forum piece just as soon as I can find a way to describe it all in 800 words. See Dr Karl's recent blog post on his own researches in this area - he's got further than me, and has much better French!

Oh, and I'm in the "clipping credits" too, for sending in a suitably bizarre news headline. If I recall correctly, it was the Guardian's "Ghost ship packed with cannibal rats not likely to crash into UK, say officials."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Pygmy stegodons in "Twilight Beasts"

My blog post on "Of dwarves and dragons" - pygmy stegondons in the Twilight Beasts blog for "neglected Pleistocene taxons" is here.

Stegodons were, of course, close relatives of today's elephants.

And here is the possibly inaccurate drawing of Stegodon sondaari, a dwarf species of stegodon, legging it from a monitor lizard on the island of Flores, half a million years ago, which didn't make it into the post, but which Twilight Beasts were kind enough to tweet out. As ever, Dr Victoria Herridge corrected me, contributing an update which notes relatively recent research suggesting that the precursors of the Komodo dragons that arrived in Flores, Indonesia, probably from Australasia, didn't change their size much over the years.

The illustrations feature in my book Pygmy Elephants.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Solar flare apocalypse ahoy!

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 312, March 2014

Richard Carrington's illustration to his write-up of his 1859 solar flare observations is now out of copyright

Shortly before the 21 December 2012 end-of-the-world due date, a confident NASA released early its "Why The World Didn't End Yesterday" video. This rubbished the "Mayan prophecy" baktun long count Doomsday scenario, and anticipated the next end of the world panic – solar storms!

We've now just passed the peak of 11-year long Solar Cycle 24, which ends in 2020. The nightmare solar storm scenario would be a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event (named after the Scottish astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed it) was what we now call a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – it sent a burst of charged particles out of the sun and slamming into the Earth's magnetic field. So powerful was the Carrington Event that the telegraph machines of the day caught fire, and continued to type even after they'd been disconnected. The aurora borealis was visible as far south as Cuba, and woke up campers in the Rockies in the middle of the night – they thought they were in daylight.

Back in 1859 there was no heavy reliance on GPS satellites, and little by way of a national grid. There have been warnings of the havoc that 21st century solar storm could wreak

In the "Quebec blackout" of 1989 something – probably a solar storm – crippled a power station and cut power to millions of Canadians, while triggering what NASA now call "electrical anomalies" across the US. There is a danger, it seems, that solar storms can turn the electrical power grid into something like a giant convection heater. And the "Halloween storms" of 2003 disabled instruments on dozens of orbital satellites, some permanently.

With the expectation that the solar cycle would peak around mid-2013, it was predicted that GPS would go down – and that wouldn't just mean motorists losing their way. All sorts of crucially essential stuff from nuclear power stations to some very expensive hospital life support kit, and most technology driving the financial markets, would fail. We could be a single solar storm away from the end of civilization.

Not a sunspot, but another solar phenomenon, a "sun dog", observed in the sky over Saxmundham, Suffolk, September 2013. Photo copyright Matt Salusbury

And such geomagnetic storms could knock planes out of the sky. (Delta Airlines admitted at the end of 2013 it had – at some expense – diverted 12 transpolar flights away from the Poles that year, fearing solar storms.)

Given the readiness of so many people to get excited about some misunderstood Mesoamerican calendars, it was puzzling how extraordinarily blasé the world was about the impending civilization-ending Solar Cycle 24 peak.

Lika Gukathakurta, head of NASA's Living With a Star Program, reassured the world in the "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday" video that "this is the wimpiest solar cycle of the last 50 years, reports to the contrary are exaggerated." But strangely, the world didn't need any reassuring. Here was the very real possibility of the End of Civilization no one seemed even to have heard of it, let alone care about it.

Where were the tin-foil hat brigades, ranting their misanthropic solar storm rants in the bus stations and shopping centres? Nothing. Perhaps Armageddon fatigue had set in after the Great Mayan Prophecy Disappointment. Or the solar storm scenario's technological aspects had made doom prophets wary, causing recollections of the Millennium Bug that never was.

Rather than heading for the hills, the vast majority of people weren't even aware of the absolutely gigantic X9 solar storm that erupted from the sun on 9 August 2013. ("X" denoting the strongest class of solar storm.) Fortunately for us, the burst of plasma it spewed out was on a trajectory that was "not Earth-directed", as Joe Kunches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the website. "We did luck out," added Kunches. (Another, earlier, weaker CME in April of that year also failed to be "earth directed, but dealt the Curiosity rover a harmless glancing blow as it travelled on its way to Mars, after Mission Control had temporarily switched off Curiosity as a precaution.)

We also appeared to luck out on October 25 2013, when two "monster" X-class solar flares left the sun, but in the event weren't up to much and were widely unnoticed.

While did report some VLF and HF radio blackouts, the dearth of CME-based apocalypse-mongering turns out to have been right on the money. By the end of 2013, Stanford University's Leif Svalgaard told the American Geophysical Union, "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle." In the course of Solar Cycle 24's peak, we had learned that the lower than usual pressure of the heliosphere – the mass of charged particles and magnetic fields surrounding the sun, meant that CMEs were able to expand more as they shot through space, dissipating their strength by the time smacked into our own atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the aurora was visible in the Essex summer skies of 2012, and a travel agent promised "with astronomers predicting the peak of the solar cycle and incredible sightings already reported, winter 2013/14 looks likely to be the best time to see the magical Aurora Borealis." The end of the world was cancelled instead we got the world's greatest light show.

Fear not, disappointed apocalypse watchers! The Met Office has announced that, as of Spring 2014, it would run space weather forecasts to "allow government and businesses to take swift action to ensure services are maintained." The Met Office warned it wasn't over yet – the "largest impacts can occur at any time during its 11 year cycle" up to 2020.

Some Doomsday enthusiasts may be losing faith in the capacity of solar storms to frazzle us back into the Stone Age. They may take comfort in 2013 TV135, a "massive asteroid" identified by the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in October as heading our way – to arrive with a force of some 2,500 megatons on 26 August 2032. Hurrah! Until you read the small print – the chance of it actually striking the Earth is around one in 63,000. The End of the World ain't what it used to be. (Time magazine 17 October 2013; The Guardian 13 October 2013)

© Matt Salusbury

Monday, 23 June 2014

Weird Weekend, "Tooth of enigmatic origin" crowdsourced identification

Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Generale, 4th series, volume VII, October 1907 (for non-commericial purposes)

Copyright Horniman Museum & Gardens, used with permission. THe specimen at the bottom is accession no. NH.A3008

The "Tooth of enigmatic origin" in the drawing at the top was found in the ivory market at Addis Ababa in 1904 by Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition will be the subject of my talk at Weird Weekend 2014 this August. See the programme for Weird Weekend 2014.

I'm on at 12 noon on Sunday 17 August, so if you're going, don't go getting too much of a hangover on Weird Saturday. For background, see my short article on the "enigmatic" tooth here.

My talk is down on the programme as "Baron Maurice de Rothschild's dionthere caper". At the time CFZ director Jon Downes and I put together the "pitch" for the talk, an article in the journal La Nature from 1910 suggested the "tusk of enigmatic origin" resembled that of a long-extinct group of elephant relatives, the dinotheres. Closer examination shows a misidentification may have been at work. Jon and I agreed to keep the title, it may not be a dinothere anymore but it's still a caper.

The original title for the talk had the wrong Rothschild - Walter, he of the zoo at Tring, and not Maurice (better known for racehorses, his art collection and being a Senator of the Republic of France.) As I plough slowly through the 50+ pages of the original French that is "Tooth of enigmatic origin", it has become apparent that Walter Rothschild does feature after all. He expressed enthusiasm for Maurice's find, and reportedly gave a presentation on this to the Zoological Society of London in September 1905. The ZSL library are on the case, but it's all still on card indexes so it'll take a while.

As a result of a Twitter appeal some crowdsourced identification of the "enigmatic" tooth has come in from three zoologists and a professor of paleonotology. I don't want to give away too much away ahead of the Weird Weekend talk, except to reproduce here, by kind permission of Paolo Viscardi, natural history curator at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, a photo (above) of their specimen of a walrus tusk (bottom of photo) compared to a hippo tooth (top of photo).

Meanwhile, there was a report on Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition in book form, Voyage du Baron Maurice de Rothschild en Afrique orientale 1904–1905, and a very rare English language edition, Maurice de Rothschild’s Journey to East Africa 1904–1905. This is so rare that the British Library don't have a copy, the only place that has it is the Rothschild Archive in the City of London.

(Fortean Times are interested in a short "Forum" piece on this.)

Friday, 6 June 2014

Can anyone help identify this "tooth (tusk?) of enigmatic origin"?

Above is a sketch of "a tooth of enigmatic origin ("une dent d'origine énigmatique" in the original French). It was obtained by Baron Maurice de Rothschild and Henri Neuville (he worked on the preparation of specimens at the National Museum of National History, Paris, and was a comparative anatomist and by some accounts an anthropologist too.) It was bought from Indian ivory merchants in the ivory market at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1905. Its discoverers do refer to it as a "tusk" ("defense"), but they hesitate to describe it even as a tusk in most of their write-up, which is in the Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Generale, 4th series, volume VII, October 1907.

The Indian ivory merchants from whom Rothschild and Neuville bought the tusk had no idea of its origin, and had trouble selling it as it was smaller than most elephant tusks that came their way. (The drawing is "life size" and is just under 60cm, or 24 inches, across.) Neuville said that he had talked to Somali herders and hunters who told him that it was from a big animal with an "aquatic" lifestyle, "of singular strength" and "of great size more or less comparable to a hippo" that lived in the bigger lakes of that region. Mention was made of Lake Marguerite (now known as Lake Arbeya, and a lake on the Kenya-Uganda border.

The above quotes are from my own translation, which I am still working on (it's a work of over 50 pages.) A glance at the photographs suggests that Neuville compared the tusk to numerous "anomalous" elephant tusks, mostly from the Natural History Museum London's collection, and that it didn't look anything like the tusk of a hippo, elephant or any kind of pig, and that the tusk "does not resemble any tooth of a fossil or living animal up to the present." It was not fossilised.

Other photo captions in the article suggest that a cross-section of the tusk under a microscope did not match the "grain" of a hippo, elephant or any kind of pig either.

Michel Raynal, of the Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie, told me he'd been in touch with Bernard Heuvelmans about this enigmatic tusk some 20 years ago, and that Heuvelmans had told him the Museum in Paris had a "numero de registration" (presumably an accession log number) for the specimen, but that "the piece was not there (lost??)"

The enigmatic tusk will be the subject of my talk at Weird Weekend this August.

Any suggestions as to the tusk's possible identity greatly appreciated. Any tips as to who to approach at the Natural History Museum, Paris also appreciated. (I understand French well, and with the help of a French-speaking colleague at work I can put a letter together, if I know what to ask.) And any offers to write a letter for me explaining what I am researching, for the benefit of the Rothschild Archive in the City of London would also be gratefully received. They need two letterheads from academics to let me look at their archive, which has a copy of the English edition of Voyage du Baron Maurice de Rothschild en Afrique orientale - so rare that the British Library don't have a copy.

On the provisional programme for Weird Weekend, I got the wrong Rothschild. Maurice was best known for owning winning racehorses and for his art collection, and for being a Senator of the Republic of France. Apart from a specimen collecting trip in Egypt, his East Africa expedition was his only zoological venture. He did sent flea specimens to his distant cousin Charles Rothschild, and I have found a reference to correspondence between Maurice de Rothschild's team and Walter Rothschild's Zoological Museum in Tring (now the Natural History Museum, Tring.)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Haringey Paleontology Museum in reduced circumstances

The Museum's glass display cases from the side

The Haringey Paleontology Museum's collection of over 300 scale model dinosaurs (and skeletons, and other prehistoric animals that aren't dinosaurs) has been forced to move from its current accommodation in Haringey, just round the corner from The Salisbury pub.

Sauropods (left), Cetiosaurus (in dark blue, a British sauropod, by Invicta, for the Natural History Museum, centre) and one of the Haringey collection's more recent acquisitions, a Siberian mammoth skeleton. Photo from a couple of weeks ago, when they were all still on display.

Birds and dino-birds from the Haringey collection, including a 1980s "terror bird" in purple and an Archaeopteryx, with some miscellaneous armoured dinosaurs (bottom, centre).

The Hall of Therapods. The big one is a Gigantosaurus, and the grey-green one on the left with the narrowish snout and the ridge along its back is a rare Acrocanthosaurus model. There are also overflows from the iguanodonts (front, to the left) and from the Hall of Mammals, including Andrewsarchus (the one that looks like a dog) and a modern aardvark.

Well over a dozen Dimetrodons, left, including one dating from the early 1960s that I found in the garden. Other non-dinosaur reptiles are shown, including a rare Longisquama model from Poundland, Moschops (a licensed Marx retread from Dapol from their factory shop in Llangollen, and several takes on mammal-like reptile Cynognathus. And some modern reptiles.

In the centre is a rather expensive Kaidyo model of a Camarasaurus all the way from Japan.

The diplodocus annex.

Iguanadonts, some in the kangaroo-like pose of early 1970s reconstructions. Centre left is a rare Camptosaurus model by Mini-Machines.

Numerous ceratopsians and iguanadonts.

Top left: headbutting dinosaurs including Stygmoloch, centre: terror birds, bottom right: ankylosaurs, nodosaurs, Scelidosaurus, armoured dinosaurs. Background right: standing Diplodocus model by Safari. The big, mostly white long-necked mammal is a very expensive indriocothere (aka Baluchitherium).

The Hall of Marine Reptiles

The Pterosaur Wing

Therapods, including "strange therapods", Baryonyx, and a scratch-built Crylophosaurus conversion (with yellow crest,from a pound shop Dilophosaurus). In the background in various shades of grey is an obscure Delta Dromeaosaurus

Top left: Camarasaurus, case of therapods at the top, top right: an obscure ceratopsian and a Natural History Museum Troodon, in the case at the bottom left: giant ground sloth (a Marx Toys knock-off?), Brontotherium (ditto?), Saltasaurus, Triceratops, head of a Plateosaurus.

The collection, some of whose dinosaur models date to the early 1960s, was mostly built-up when cheap dinos flooded the market in the wake of the first Jurassic Park film. A surprising number of really obscure species of dinosaur turn up as models on sale in poundshops to this day.

Negotiations are currently under way for a limited Haringey Museum of Paleontology display, that will eventually be established in Finsbury Park. In its new form, it will be a rotating display, with - for examples - "This month: therapods" or "This month: Dimetrodons" or "This month: prehistoric probiscidians", or "This month: Dinosaurs from Africa" or some such.

Some of the Museum's collection already boxed up for the move.

For another Haringey Museum facing homelessness,the Haringey Museum of Egytpology for Under £5, see here.

Belief in genies ‘helps English’

From the EL Gazette archives. This appeared in EL Gazette back in 2012.
(My recent news stories for EL Gazette are now here).

TRADITIONAL BELIEF in djinns – genies or supernatural beings created out of ‘smokeless fire’ and mentioned in the Koran – is helping candidates pass English exams in the Klang Valley surrounding the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, according to national newspaper the Star, quoting the local Harian Metro newspaper.

For 350 Malaysian ringgit (£72), local bomoh (shamans) reportedly sell a charm made from a betel leaf, which they claim contains the spirit of a djinn.

A student giving his name as Azman testified to djinn’s power in getting him through English exams at the unnamed institute of higher learning where he studied, saying, ‘It does not matter if others believe in it or not. But for my friends and I, the results proved it is effective.’

Another student, ‘Rashid’, said djinn charms had improved his English exam performance from the ‘borderline passes’ he previously achieved, and knew of ten other satisfied djinn charm customers.