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Feb 24, 2018, 08:09 PM
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 31 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:28 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Some Songbirds Have Brains Specially Designed to Find Mates for Life

By JOANNA KLEIN
FEB. 23, 2018
NY Times

If Cupid wanted to make two songbirds fall in love, he’d have better luck aiming at their brains. That’s because songbirds, which form lifelong mating pairs, have brain systems perfectly tuned to fit together.

While you sort through the messages of admirers, deciding who to make your Valentine, consider finches.

Young males in this family of feathered crooners learn the song of their father, perfect it and perform it as adults to attract a lifelong mate. It’s loud, elaborate and precise. With their songs they say “chirp, chirp — my brain is healthy, and my body is strong. That’s something you’re into, right?”

A female finch also learns the songs of her father from a young age, but she doesn’t perform. She’s the critic. She analyzes every detail of a potential mate’s song, compares it to her father’s example and decides if this performer is one she’d like to keep around. If she detects a song is too simple or off in any way, she’ll have nothing to do with its performer. She’s very picky, as she should be, because the mate she chooses will help raise their young — till death do they part.

Over the past decade, researchers looking into the chickpea-sized brains of finches have discovered that each sex uses what’s called its sound control system to convert sound waves to social messages and then use them to find mates, kind of how humans use vocal sounds to communicate. And while these systems are well-developed and finely tuned in both sexes of songbirds, the wiring is different.

Dr. Woolley’s lab has been looking into the acoustic systems of zebra, bengalese and long-tailed finches to see how their brains take in and process sounds — learning, performing and analyzing different parts of them to make sense of songs.

A male’s system is designed to recognize the songs of other males and copy his father’s. If he doesn’t learn, perfect and memorize his father’s song within the first 90 days of life, when his brain is especially malleable, he never will. He still sings, but “he sings a disaster,” said Dr. Woolley. “And the females want nothing to do with him.”

When a female’s brain is young and malleable, she tunes into her father’s song, memorizes it and then stores it as a template for evaluating a mate’s song later. This example reminds her that she didn’t die, and her father helped ensure that. Perhaps something similar will work for her offspring.

Females tend to prefer elaborate songs with more syllables.

How well the birds learn depends on a genetic predisposition to tune into sounds specific to their species. But experience is important too. Because social relationships are so powerful, a baby bird reared by the wrong species, Dr. Woolley has found, can learn the wrong species’ song even if its biological father’s song is audible.

“The magic of the songbird is that vocal learning is incredibly rare to find in animals,” said Dr. Woolley. “No ape can do it (except the human), no monkey can do it, and no rodent can do it.” And she believes that by understanding more about how songbirds use their brains to make sense of sound, she can learn more about how humans use theirs to develop a spoken language early to communicate later in life.

For songbirds that form bonds with members of the same sex for life, songs, though still important message bearers, may be less important for finding a match.

And although some humans may be less interested in words than other aspects like looks, scent, youth, money, power or whatever we find attractive in a partner, birdsongs remind us that good communication, in any pair, makes love possible. “The way that people fall in love, is talking to each other,” Dr. Woolley said.

 32 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:25 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja

‘People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it’: the deer cull dilemma

The Scottish Highlands have a deer problem. Is shooting tens of thousands of them the only solution?

By Cal Flyn
Guardian
23 Feb 2018 06.00 GMT

When we arrive at the cottage, they are already there, watching us from high on the crags overlooking the water. The five of us are still tasting the chill, stale air of the empty building and staking claims on stained mattresses when Julien spots a silhouette through the warped pane of the back window. “They’re up there now,” he says. “Let’s go.”

A minute later we are scrambling up the hillface, gaining height fast. The wind is moving in great currents over the ridge. It comes in waves, smashing against us and then withdrawing, dragging the air from our lungs. Julien and Storm are out in front, goat-footed over the tussocks. I try to copy the way they creep through the heather on their elbows, pressing their abdomens into the mud, all the time scanning the hillside for movement.

After a while they slow to a stop and we bunch together. Storm catches my eye and points hammily beyond the boulder he is using as a windbreak. I nod, coming to rest at his feet, sinking my hands into long dead grass as if it were hair. I wait a beat, then lift my head, bringing my eyes above the stone parapet.

We are close enough to see the deer’s face in detail: her domed, almost Roman, profile. Dark eyes flashing in every direction: suspicious. I drop my head slowly back down behind the rock. Up ahead, Julien cranes forward again from his foxhole then stands up, shaking his head. Gone.

We start picking our way east, towards the narrow gorge, to trace its path back to the house. But then, there they are. Two females and a juvenile on the opposite bank. Like phantoms. They haven’t seen us. Julien twists around and gestures to Adrian: come. They go, crawling across wet earth, and disappear beneath a precipice.

A minute passes, then another. I lie back against the heather, thinking no particular thoughts. A shot rings out, impossibly loud. A moment of confusion. Then Adrian and Julien appear on the ledge below, waving us down. They got her: a crack shot, right through the spine. Dropped straight from the rock face into the water. She’s dead.

It is 13 February, and Julien and Storm have been doing this all winter long. This hind (an older specimen, unusually large, very lean) is their 21st kill of the season. But it’s not enough. Julien has a target he must hit: 30 animals – or “beasts”, as he calls them, a strange word from his French mouth – and very little time left in which to meet it. In Scotland, the hind-shooting season closes at dusk on the 15th.

Until then, here we are – four men and one woman, me – spending our days stalking deer and our nights in an empty house, with a fireplace at each end and little else. No electricity, no running water. We eat stew from a scorched iron pot over the fire, drink water from the peaty burn that runs by the gable end. Hanging from two nails by the door is a shovel that comprises the toilet.

A doorless lean-to slouches heavily against the back wall. It is here we take the dead deer for hanging. Julien throws a length of rope over a rafter and lowers it down, scattering bird droppings and cobwebs upon us as he does. Threading the cord through two slits cut in her hocks, he clips rope to rope and hoists her like a flag.

What was animal is now object. I observe my reactions as if from above, lifting and weighing each thought as it comes to me, alert for squeamishness. There is some. But not as much, perhaps, as I expected.

Julien bends over her rent chest, headlamp illuminating the torso from within, and sets to work again with his knife and a surgeon’s manner. It is easy to trace the path of the bullet: its entry and exit, the single shattered vertebra between. A tragedy in one act. When he’s done, we slide her down the length of the rafter, drawing her like a curtain, to make room for the rest.

No one owns Britain’s red deer. But if you own the land they live on – or graze from, shelter in, pass through – then you assume responsibility for their management. In Scotland, where their numbers have doubled in the past 50 years, such stewardship has come to mean one thing: the annual cull.

And it is in the Highlands where the country’s deer problem can be seen clearly: they gorge themselves upon gardens and crops and vegetable patches, they run blindly into the road as speeding cars approach. The true scale of the problem is hard to gauge, but our best guess is that there might now be as many as 1.5m deer in the UK, at least half of them in Scotland; more than at any time since the last ice age. They roam bare hills in vast herds – in the Cairngorms they have been seen in herds a thousand animals strong, steam rising from their massed ranks. They swarm over the fells like a plague, covering the land like a cloak, picking it clean, moving off as fast as they arrived.

And with the deer comes plague of another sort: cases of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that use the deer as hosts, have rocketed – in some areas reaching epidemic proportions. But perhaps the most pressing concerns are environmental ones. The red deer eat and eat, overwhelming a delicate moorland ecosystem, trampling the ground, shearing the hillside of vegetation and stripping the bark from the trees.

In Glen Affric, not far from Inverness, volunteers from the charity Trees for Life spent many weeks planting native trees in the stark western reaches of the glen. The charity aims to build a forest corridor from east to west coasts, joining up the remaining fragments of the ancient Caledonian Forest. But when the organisation’s founder, Alan Featherstone, returned to the site in 2015, he found their sturdy deer fences flattened by winter snowdrifts, and the saplings inside (birches, willows, rowans) bitten hard back. More than a decade’s growth had been undone in a matter of weeks. Now, until the fences are rebuilt, the shorn stems will struggle to grow: new shoots and leaves nipped off as fast as they appear, their progress arrested indefinitely.

The ascendance of the deer is attributed in part to the disappearance of one of their main predators from Britain: wolves. According to folklore, the last wild wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680, and since then cervids have roamed the country unthreatened by predators. If undisturbed, a herd of 300 has the potential to grow to 3,000 in the space of 13 years. So the role of the predator – the role of the wolf – is what the estate owners of Scotland now cast themselves in.

Around 100,000 deer are killed in Scotland every year, the vast majority of them red deer. Some are killed on traditional sporting estates, where for generations southerners and City types have come, keen to shoot a monarch of the glen. But fewer dream of shooting the hinds – the most effective way of arresting population growth – and so the responsibility falls to the owners.

The conservation lobby are the most vociferous proponents of the culls. Those concerned with woodland and wild flowers argue for an all-out war, pointing to research from the University of East Anglia that mooted a mass cull of 50–60% of all deer in the UK. Wildlife foundations find themselves calling for the deaths of tens of thousands of wild animals.

The prospect of mass deer shooting is one that arouses great passion, although the arguments for and against come from unexpected quarters. If the environmentalists are mounting a war, then the shooting estates – those professional deer-killers – are calling for peace, for the gentle approach. They fear the culls will go too far; that something special will be lost.

Twice yearly, landowners in each region and representatives of the government body Scottish Natural Heritage convene in “deer management groups” to share their targets for the year. The collective approach is necessary, as the deer drift back and forth across the heather moor in tides aligned with the seasons. They cross boundaries between estates on open hillsides, unmarked by fences or walls. In this way, each landowner’s actions impact directly upon his neighbours: if one shirks his duty in the annual cull, numbers across the whole region rebound. It is in their interests to cooperate, then, but with so many clashing views and beliefs, these so-called management groups often grow unmanageable.

Julien, my friend with the rifle, has been in charge of deer management on the East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, a port on the north-west coast, for the last three years. Having come there as a backpacker, looking to work in exchange for accommodation and experience, he fell in love with the middle daughter of the owners, Iona, and together the young couple took over the running of the remote estate.

At first, a neighbour held the rights to stalk deer – and with it the responsibility for carrying out the culling – on their land, but when the lease for those rights came up in 2014, it seemed natural that East Rhidorroch should reclaim them. For Julien, who studied ecology as an undergraduate, it was an interesting way of applying what he had learned in class. Indeed, it was all around him here in the west Highlands, with herds of hinds and stags roaming the hills, and deer-stalkers in bloodstained tweeds riding by on their quad bikes. This was part of the culture of his adopted home – and wasn’t it one of the reasons he had found this place so enchanting?

Inevitably, the reality turned out to be rather complicated. The responsibility of the cull proved onerous for an inexperienced Frenchman who had never before owned a gun. Highland ghillies are often born of stalking families, and have spent their whole lives in the hills. They know how the weather affects the deer’s behaviour, and where they are to be found come sunrise, come noon, come sunset.

But as hard as all of this was to learn, negotiating the politics of deer was harder. Twice a year, the couple are now expected to attend the meetings of their local deer management group – hours-long meetings, held in dreary hotel conference rooms, that never seem to come to a consensus. Last time, Iona tells me, there was more than an hour of fractious back-and-forth before they even got on to the subject of deer.

The sheer expense of it all has been another nasty revelation. Thousands just for the basic equipment: a £600 rifle, a £1,500 scope. A moderator to muffle the gunshot. The camouflaged hunting outfit in heathery tones: smock, trousers, heavy duty boots, balaclava. Training courses. A manner of transporting the dead deer home: by quad bike (£5,000), perhaps, or Highland pony. A game larder, where the meat might be hung and processed. And the days and days that might otherwise be spent farming sheep, instead now passed belly-down in the mud on the mountain.

To begin with, Julien couldn’t get it right, ruining his chances for a kill a different way every time. Walking upwind of the deer. Revealing himself on the skyline. His fingers quivering for too long on the trigger. Often he returned at dusk, empty-handed and so exhausted that at 4pm he would topple into bed and stay there until the rise of the low winter sun over the valley’s sides at 10am the next day, when he would head out all over again.

Then, on one of the coldest days of the year, towards the end of his first winter as a deer stalker, his efforts were rewarded. Heading out alone, camouflaged in a snow-white bodysuit, he finally attained invisibility. In a land of whiteness and silence, he became white, he became silent.

A group of 70 deer moved across the hillside, their eyes sliding past his motionless body in the snow, and came to surround him. “They were everywhere,” he recalls. “Playing and fighting. They had no idea I was there.” He lay like a rock in their midst, sizing them up. He spotted an elderly, underweight hind, a prime target, and steeled himself for action. Seconds passed. If I shoot, he remembers thinking, this beautiful moment will be over for ever. Then he pulled the trigger.

As a teenager growing up in genteel St Andrews, Mike Daniels dreamed of saving the world. He was “hippyish”, he says. Vegetarian. Keen to make his mark. When he was 16, he organised a period of work experience for himself at Creag Meagaidh, a nature reserve in the Cairngorms where woolly willow and saxifrage grow on a gilded mountain plateau; an enclave of dotterel and snow bunting and mountain hare.

On his first day, nervous and excited, he was picked up from the station and driven to where he would be staying, and as they got out of the car, they spotted a deer wandering in the woods nearby. Things moved quickly. The man who was driving leaped out and grabbing his rifle from the back. He shot the deer, gutted it on the side of the road, then lifted it on to the roof. “Blood was dripping down the windscreen,” Mike says. “That was my introduction.”

Though shocking for an idealistic teen, it was a fitting start for a career that has come to be defined by the difficult relationship between the demands of conservation and of the wild deer themselves. Mike sees a similar emotional journey in many of those who have since come to work with him in the field. “They think the deer are lovely, that Scotland is beautiful … and then they learn more about it.” Deer culls, he now believes – having seen the devastation they can wreak first-hand – are a necessary evil. A way of re-establishing the natural order.

In 2004, Mike was working for what was then called the Deer Commission when he and his colleagues were called in to conduct an emergency cull at Glenfeshie, an estate owned by a Danish billionaire in the Cairngorms National Park, where deer numbers had been allowed to grow to remarkable levels: an estimated 95 per sq km. Sharpshooters were flown in by helicopter to the estate’s remotest corners, and dozens of contract stalkers were bussed in for an intensive effort. Mike was in the larder, processing the bodies.

Altogether, more than 500 deer were slaughtered. The cull – the first state intervention on a private estate – created an enormous controversy. Animal rights campaigners accused the commission of acting illegally. Local gamekeepers staged a mass protest against the “carnage”, which, they said, went against “our way of life, our morals, our beliefs … and above all our respect for the deer”. Neighbouring landowners and local residents took to the airwaves to voice their disapproval.

Now, as the head of land management of the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to the preservation of Scotland’s wild places, Mike sees those same arguments playing out time and again. As the owner of several sizeable landholdings across the country, the conservation group has been using its power to manage the land in a way that prioritises the environment, specifically by preserving and regenerating fragments of the once-great Caledonian Forest.

To do so, they say, they must significantly increase the number of deer culled on their properties. The alternative – fencing off the vulnerable woodlands – is not an option. Mike sighs when I bring it up: “the F word”. He and the trust both see fencing as “treating the symptoms not the cause”, and it keeps the deer from seeking shelter in the harsh weather of the Scottish winter. They would rather reduce numbers so significantly as to render fences unnecessary.

However sound their reasoning, it does nothing to endear them to the owners of neighbouring sporting estates. Such an estate’s value is partly based on the number of stags available to shoot there each year – a good rule of thumb being around one in every 16 stags on the hill. And those who pay for the pleasure of shooting a stag (or far more, for the pleasure of owning a private deer forest) don’t wish to spend too long fruitlessly roaming the glens without a sighting. But though some estates do make significant income from slaughter tourism, they are in the minority. “It’s a bit like owning a football club. A small few – the Chelseas, the Man Uniteds – are big money-spinners. Generally, though, they run at a loss.”

A Highland truism: you don’t get rich from owning a deer forest; you own a deer forest because you are rich. Either way, the John Muir Trust’s no-holds-barred tactics have made them plenty of enemies. Sporadically, a new skirmish breaks out: in Knoydart, a wild western peninsula accessed only by boat, an argument flared up in 2015 when the trust’s stalkers shot dozens of stags more than their agreed target. Some, shot down in the most far-flung places, were left to rot where they fell, or to be picked over by the eagles.

The language employed by protesters in these cases is emotive: those who conduct the cull are accused of “senseless slaughter”, of creating a “bloodbath”, or a “massacre”. To Mike, these slurs are hurtful and hypocritical: the numbers shot by the John Muir Trust are a fraction of the total culled each year across the country. And many of those levelling the charges are shooting deer themselves.

But the controversy speaks of a deep unease about mass killing among many of those who earn their living on the hill. The gamekeepers protesting at Glenfeshie were not parading their “respect” for their quarry for effect. A specialised strand of folk ethics has grown up among stalkers: the rules are based on perceived sportsmanship, on fairness, on tradition. To them, flying in by helicopter simply feels wrong, like cheating. So does leaving carcasses to rot. So does taking too many in one go.

At what point does a cull turn into a massacre? Big questions, these, to ponder as you stare down the barrel of a rifle.

In a grassy hollow behind the white-sand beach at Achmelvich – a tiny, remote village on the west coast – Ray Mackay, a crofter, lives in a wooden house overlooking a small green lochan dappled with waterlilies. I am sitting at his table, admiring the view, when he appears bearing tea and an A4 folder of grievances. He, and the Assynt Crofters’ Trust, of which he is vice chair, have been fighting an increasingly high-stakes battle with the government over the fate of the red deer on their land.

Their land: that’s the operative term. Back in the early 1990s, the Assynt crofters fought a different battle – a long one and a hard one – when they undertook the first community buyout of a private estate, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy the land they lived on and worked from an absentee landlord with whom they had been wrestling for years.

The case of the Assynt crofters came to symbolise the many inequities of land ownership in Scotland, where just 500 individuals own more than half of the land, and where the pain of mass dispossession in the 18th and 19th centuries still echoes loudly in the culture.

The problem, says Ray, revolves around a remnant of old-growth woodland situated partly on their land. A governmental body, Scottish Natural Heritage, believes it to be at risk from overgrazing, and has advised them to undertake an emergency cull; the Crofters’ Trust disagrees, questioning the population estimates and pointing to abnormalities in the surveys. It is not just the principle of the matter, says Ray. They shoot deer for management reasons every year. For them, the issue is a matter of scale. If they accept the mass cull, they believe they could send the deer on their estate into a precipitous decline.

The crofters have worked hard to escape their debts and to make the community sustainable. “We survived,” Ray says. “That was not a given.” Assynt is not a wealthy area. Small crofting townships of modest, whitewashed cottages and modern bungalows cling to the rugged coastline, linked by winding, single-track roads. The peninsula’s interior is an undulating blanket of peat bog: sodden, stony and ill-suited to agriculture. There are more deer here than people. He shows me the latest accounts: income from stalking and venison sales amounts to nearly a sixth of total profits. Here the deer are an asset rather than a hobby – this is no football team vanity project – and they do not intend to risk the depletion of this natural resource.

Last year the dispute with Scottish National Heritage came to a head. Having declined a voluntary cull, the crofters were threatened with a section 8 order – a forced cull. The crofters would be fined £40,000 for failing to manage deer numbers responsibly, and would have to pay the costs of the operation – a sum that would likely far eclipse the fine.

For the government, such a move would be embarrassing: that these legal powers should be used for the first time against a community group that was once a cause célèbre and darling of the devolved parliament. The dispute gathered column inches; the crofters’ chairman swore that they would go to jail rather than comply. In the end, Scottish Natural Heritage backed down. A compromise agreement that would be acceptable to both crofters and conservationists is still being hammered out. Of all the outcomes, it is perhaps the best one. But it has been an exhausting, frustrating process for all those involved.

There is a certain class of conservationist, says Ray, who are very keen, and their hearts are in the right place – but at a basic, unarguable level, they are usually incomers. When they drive in, making demands, it immediately sets up a tension. “The undercurrent is that they seem to be saying that we are not managing our environment as well as we could. But this is the place where you find the wild cats. The black-throated divers.”

He tells me about a map recently drawn up by the government, which identified the trust’s North Assynt Estate as one of the country’s most extensive areas of wilderness. I nod unthinkingly in approval, picturing the grand, curving aspect of the Assynt landscape. It is a stark, treeless place where golden eagles flash over a wind-scoured moonscape of moor and blanket bog.

“But these are our common grazings!” cries Ray. “One day they decide it to be ‘wild land’, but for us it’s where we work.”

His words recall the writing of the environmental historian William Cronon, who wrote in 1995 that “far from being the one place on Earth that stands apart from humanity, wilderness is quite profoundly a human creation”. To the untrained eye, the wide-open spaces of Assynt appear an untamed, untameable land. To its occupants, they are laced with human history.

Seen through this prism, the question of what is natural and what is unnatural is a tangled one. Is the proliferation of deer the result of human meddling? In all likelihood, yes. Do we then take responsibility for removing the excess, for returning the land to an equilibrium more in line with what went before? What is the better course of action? What is more moral? What is more natural?

 33 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:21 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Calling citizen scientists: more data needed to protect echidnas

These masters of disguise are some of the world’s oldest surviving mammals, but they are threatened by habitat loss, traffic and feral cats – and they need our help

Alexandra Spring
Guardian
23 Feb 2018 17.00 GMT

They may be one of the world’s oldest surviving mammals – around for at least 25m years – but scientists don’t know much about echidnas. Now researchers believe the remaining Australian population may be threatened and they need citizen scientists’ help to save them.

The short-beaked echidna is found only in Australia and Papua New Guinea. In 2015 the Kangaroo Island echidna, a once significant subspecies, was listed as endangered. While the remaining population is listed as “least concern”, researchers question the listing. As Tahlia Perry, a PhD researcher at the University of Adelaide’s Grutzner Lab, which is studying the molecular biology of echidnas, says: “When you don’t have exact numbers, it’s really hard to give something a listing.”

In September 2017, the lab, in association with the CSIRO’s Atlas of Living Australia, launched the free echidna CSI app to encourage Australians to photograph wild echidnas and collect their scat, or droppings. “What we are hoping to find out is [whether there are] other pockets of populations around the rest of the country that are in the same sort of threat level [as the Kangaroo Island species] because they face the exact same threats,” says Perry.

    They are masters of disguise and hiding and are insanely fast when they want to be.
    Tahlia Perry, University of Adelaide

The main threats to echidnas are land clearing and habitat loss. This was demonstrated on Kangaroo Island when the population shrank as development increased. Echidnas can travel great distances – often several kilometres in a day – they have very large home ranges and so land clearing and rapid developments can cause problems in their ability to travel by removing viable habitat, says Perry. Other major threats include traffic, feral cats and potentially the rapidly changing climate.

What is known about the echidna is fascinating. Like their mammalian cousins the platypus, echidnas lay eggs but keep their young – puggles – in the mother’s pouch. Once they are the size of a cricket ball and their spines begin to develop, they are kicked out of the pouch and left in burrows. And while some echidna populations nurture their young, mostly the puggles are left to figure things out for themselves.

Echidnas are quite smart, though, having the biggest frontal cortex in relation to their body size of all mammals, including humans. They can climb, burrow and run rapidly. They are mostly solitary animals, but the rare times they are seen collectively is when they form “an echidna train”. This is when the female is in season and up to 20 males follow her across great distances, all competing for her attention.

They are robust and are found in wildly different environments, from the desert to the snow, likely to having much lower body temperature than all other mammals - around 30C - which can fluctuate by up to 10C in a single day.

Perry has long been fascinated by the spiky creatures. Asked for a little-known fact, she points out the back feet of the echidnas point backwards to help them dig their burrows. This bewildered the British taxidermists of old who, thinking there must be a mistake, rotated the feet forward. Now hundreds of years later, those feet are being switched back.

With the help of the research project, Perry hopes to discover more about the echidna’s DNA, eating habits and hormones to study breeding patterns.

“You can also measure things like stress hormones to figure out what populations are particularly stressed,” she says. “For instance, [the] ones that are around more suburban areas, it would be interesting to find out if that is affecting them in a negative way or if they don’t care at all.” Anecdotally some echidnas seem terrified of humans – burrowing quickly – while others are more inquisitive.

Their ability to escape stressful situations so quickly is why little is known about echidnas, says Perry. “They can literally dig themselves into the ground within a matter of seconds – they completely disappear in front of your eyes … They are masters of disguise and hiding and are insanely fast when they want to be as well. So they are just not great for a research animal.”

As part of Guardian Australia’s series on endangered species, we’re encouraging readers to take part in the echidna CSI project. Download the free app, then photograph your local echidna or collect a sample of their scat and help to save the echidna.

 34 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:19 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Bats help grow our crops, but climate change has them on the move

Popular Science
23 Feb 2018 at 06:26 ET   

Rising temperatures are shifting bat migration patterns, with possible consequences for farmers.

First, let’s dispense with the myths. Bats aren’t blind. They won’t fly into your hair. The vast majority do not carry rabies. Bats are not flying mice. Only one bat — the vampire bat — drinks blood, and it’s not likely to be yours. Finally, if someone says you have bats in your belfry, it’s an insult to both you   and to bats.

Bats deserve respect. We need them. They feast on insects that destroy crops and leave behind guano, an excellent fertilizer. Bats also pollinate plants like cocoa, banana, mango and agave. The vampire bat produces a powerful anti-coagulant in its saliva that’s used in a human drug to prevent strokes. Oh, and  they just so happen to be the only mammals that can fly.

“Every time you eat corn-on-the-cob, you can thank bats for their role in managing populations of the corn earworm moth,” said Phillip Stepanian, a meteorologist with Rothamsted Research who studies the world’s largest colony of bats at Bracken Cave in southern Texas. “Even if we can’t convince you that bats are adorable, it’s hard to deny their important role in agriculture. Bats really are unsung heroes in our food production systems, and it’s our responsibility to understand the forces that threaten them.”

Today, climate change is one of those forces. It’s prompting bats — like many animal species in recent years — to change their behavior to adapt to a warming planet. Those small changes are sending ripples through ecosystems.

“Ecosystems are a complex web of connections, and it is difficult to change one component of the system without affecting the larger system,” Stepanian said. “When we observe a change in bat behavior, we have to wonder if it is an effect of some other change and whether it will result in additional changes elsewhere in the ecosystem.”

Data from a weather radar indicate that bats are migrating to Bracken Cave from Mexico roughly two weeks earlier than they did in 1995, arriving mid-March rather than late March. Some of them are also hanging around through winter instead of returning south, according to a new study in Global Change Biology authored by Stepanian and Charlotte Wainwright, also a Rothamsted meteorologist.

Global Change Biology

“When the radar detects bats flying out of the cave, it is because the bats are going out hunting for flying insects,” Stepanian explained. “During the winter, we wouldn’t expect to find many insects flying around, which is why most bats migrate back south where temperatures are warm and insects are abundant. When we see bats arriving earlier in the spring, or remaining over the winter, it suggests they have enough food to support them.”

It’s likely that more insects are surviving the winter —supporting more year-round bat residents in Texas— and that warmer overall temperatures are spurring those that do leave for Mexico to return to Texas earlier, according to Stepanian.

This insight into bat behavior was a surprising finding, since the researchers’ initial goal was to see whether they could monitor bat populations remotely without disturbing the colony. Stepanian said the subject is worthy of further study.

“When we observe a change in bat behavior, we have to wonder if it is an effect of some other change, and whether it will result in additional changes elsewhere,” he said. “For example, will changes in the timing of bat migration have an effect on their ability to regulate pest populations? Will farmers have to compensate by using more insecticides — and what further effects would that have on the ecosystem? At this point, we really don’t know.”

Bracken Cave is the summer home of more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), and is the world’s largest bat colony, according to Bat Conservation International (BCI), which manages the cave near San Antonio. “The bats at Bracken Cave are an incredible natural phenomenon, and it is fascinating how we can monitor changes in their behavior over time using weather radar,” said Winifred Frick, BCI’s chief scientist.

In recent years, the cave has come under increasing stress from urbanization. BCI bought the land where the cave is located in 1992, and — with donations from its supporters — has continued to buy surrounding land to protect the bats and other native species from encroaching subdivisions.

“The nightly emergence of bats from Bracken Cave is a wondrous sight,” Frick said. “Millions of bats fly out of the cave and take to the night skies. Watching millions of bats fly out en masse is a spectacular event that is hard to describe, but one that you never forget once you’ve witnessed it.”

Stepanian agreed. “People don’t often encounter bats, certainly not as often as birds or butterflies, so they often get lumped in with other mysterious things that go bump in the night,” he said. “But public perception is changing. We often don’t get a chance to experience the epic scale of natural phenomena in our everyday life, and it’s easy to forget how spectacular our world is.

“These mega bat populations in the south-central United States give people access to a natural wonder,” he added. “After witnessing millions of bats taking flight into the sunset — just as they’ve done for thousands of years — it’s easy to appreciate how important they are.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

 35 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:18 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Bats help grow our crops, but climate change has them on the move

Popular Science
23 Feb 2018 at 06:26 ET   

Rising temperatures are shifting bat migration patterns, with possible consequences for farmers.

First, let’s dispense with the myths. Bats aren’t blind. They won’t fly into your hair. The vast majority do not carry rabies. Bats are not flying mice. Only one bat — the vampire bat — drinks blood, and it’s not likely to be yours. Finally, if someone says you have bats in your belfry, it’s an insult to both you   and to bats.

Bats deserve respect. We need them. They feast on insects that destroy crops and leave behind guano, an excellent fertilizer. Bats also pollinate plants like cocoa, banana, mango and agave. The vampire bat produces a powerful anti-coagulant in its saliva that’s used in a human drug to prevent strokes. Oh, and  they just so happen to be the only mammals that can fly.

“Every time you eat corn-on-the-cob, you can thank bats for their role in managing populations of the corn earworm moth,” said Phillip Stepanian, a meteorologist with Rothamsted Research who studies the world’s largest colony of bats at Bracken Cave in southern Texas. “Even if we can’t convince you that bats are adorable, it’s hard to deny their important role in agriculture. Bats really are unsung heroes in our food production systems, and it’s our responsibility to understand the forces that threaten them.”

Today, climate change is one of those forces. It’s prompting bats — like many animal species in recent years — to change their behavior to adapt to a warming planet. Those small changes are sending ripples through ecosystems.

“Ecosystems are a complex web of connections, and it is difficult to change one component of the system without affecting the larger system,” Stepanian said. “When we observe a change in bat behavior, we have to wonder if it is an effect of some other change and whether it will result in additional changes elsewhere in the ecosystem.”

Data from a weather radar indicate that bats are migrating to Bracken Cave from Mexico roughly two weeks earlier than they did in 1995, arriving mid-March rather than late March. Some of them are also hanging around through winter instead of returning south, according to a new study in Global Change Biology authored by Stepanian and Charlotte Wainwright, also a Rothamsted meteorologist.

Global Change Biology

“When the radar detects bats flying out of the cave, it is because the bats are going out hunting for flying insects,” Stepanian explained. “During the winter, we wouldn’t expect to find many insects flying around, which is why most bats migrate back south where temperatures are warm and insects are abundant. When we see bats arriving earlier in the spring, or remaining over the winter, it suggests they have enough food to support them.”

It’s likely that more insects are surviving the winter —supporting more year-round bat residents in Texas— and that warmer overall temperatures are spurring those that do leave for Mexico to return to Texas earlier, according to Stepanian.

This insight into bat behavior was a surprising finding, since the researchers’ initial goal was to see whether they could monitor bat populations remotely without disturbing the colony. Stepanian said the subject is worthy of further study.

“When we observe a change in bat behavior, we have to wonder if it is an effect of some other change, and whether it will result in additional changes elsewhere,” he said. “For example, will changes in the timing of bat migration have an effect on their ability to regulate pest populations? Will farmers have to compensate by using more insecticides — and what further effects would that have on the ecosystem? At this point, we really don’t know.”

Bracken Cave is the summer home of more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), and is the world’s largest bat colony, according to Bat Conservation International (BCI), which manages the cave near San Antonio. “The bats at Bracken Cave are an incredible natural phenomenon, and it is fascinating how we can monitor changes in their behavior over time using weather radar,” said Winifred Frick, BCI’s chief scientist.

In recent years, the cave has come under increasing stress from urbanization. BCI bought the land where the cave is located in 1992, and — with donations from its supporters — has continued to buy surrounding land to protect the bats and other native species from encroaching subdivisions.

“The nightly emergence of bats from Bracken Cave is a wondrous sight,” Frick said. “Millions of bats fly out of the cave and take to the night skies. Watching millions of bats fly out en masse is a spectacular event that is hard to describe, but one that you never forget once you’ve witnessed it.”

Stepanian agreed. “People don’t often encounter bats, certainly not as often as birds or butterflies, so they often get lumped in with other mysterious things that go bump in the night,” he said. “But public perception is changing. We often don’t get a chance to experience the epic scale of natural phenomena in our everyday life, and it’s easy to forget how spectacular our world is.

“These mega bat populations in the south-central United States give people access to a natural wonder,” he added. “After witnessing millions of bats taking flight into the sunset — just as they’ve done for thousands of years — it’s easy to appreciate how important they are.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

 36 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:13 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja

A Stargazer’s Guide to Protected Dark Skies

By Sabine Bergmann
Ecowatch
2/23/2018

For millennia, human beings have gazed into the firmament and been awed by the thousands of stars, galaxies, nebulae and other cosmic wonders visible to the naked eye. But in recent generations, much of humanity has become divorced from these marvels. Today, at least 80 percent of people living in the United States and Europe are so inundated with light pollution that they can't even see our own Milky Way, let alone our neighboring galaxies like Andromeda.

In response to this creeping celestial blindness, conservation groups around the world have designated dark-sky parks, preserves and sanctuaries—places where light pollution remains at a minimum and it is still possible to see an unblemished night sky. As with all conservation efforts, appreciation is key: We only work to protect what we know and love.

Here are some of the best places around the world to take in the stars.

Colorado Plateau, United States

By day, the Colorado Plateau delights visitors with its many national parks and monuments that boast unique rock formations and dramatic vistas: The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Canyon de Chelly. At night, Red Rock Country fades to black and the spectacle moves overhead. A dazzling night sky requires remoteness, and with 130,000 square miles of largely uninhabited desert across the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau delivers. The place is speckled with what the International Dark-Sky Association calls "gold-tier" dark-sky parks—areas that actively protect their starscapes from light pollution. One of these, Natural Bridges National Monument, was the first dark-sky park ever designated: It is arguably the darkest national park unit in the Lower 48, and hosts astronomy ranger programs throughout the summer.

Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, United States

In December, the International Dark Sky Association designated more than 1,400 square miles of Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness as the United States' first dark sky reserve. Like dark sky parks, reserves protect the night skies with light pollution controls, though they also include pristine "core" dark zones, which makes them even rarer. Central Idaho's reserve is one of only 12 in the world. Around its periphery, dark sky ordinances require shields atop street and residential lights. But in the core, rugged terrain has warded off development and manmade light is practically nonexistent. By day, visitors enjoy vistas of the Rockies and their glacial lakes and perennial snow fields. By night, stargazers marvel at interstellar dust clouds, where our galaxy's planets and stars are born.

The Outback, Australia

The outback encompasses much of mainland Australia, and its two and a half million square miles of arid, largely uninhabited land is almost completely free of light pollution. This is one of the best places to admire the sky in the Southern Hemisphere. The prevalence of starlight is so great in the Australian outback, that some aboriginal peoples identified patterns not in the stars themselves, but in the darkness between them. If you head out during Milky Way Season (that's March through October, no matter which hemisphere you're gazing from), you'll be able to look straight into the center of our galaxy. Pitch your tent at Ayers Rock Campground—only 10 miles from the spectacular sandstone formation of Uluru—to take in the sky from the outback's center. If you want magnification, head to Milroy Observatory in New South Wales: It's the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere that's open to the public.

Grasslands National Park, Canada

Just north of Montana, amid the Saskatchewan prairie, is one of the darkest stargazing spots in all of Canada—which, considering Canada has more than half of the world's dark sky preserves, is saying something. On the Bortle Scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky, Grasslands National Park measures at 1, which is as good as it gets. Out there, the sky bedazzles visitors with celestial objects like nebulae that are visible to the naked eye. Astronomers say the Milky Way is so bright in Grasslands National Park that it casts shadows on the ground. Venture to the park's East Block for the darkest of skies.

Atacama Desert, Chile

High, dry, and with a near-guaranteed clear sky, Chile's Atacama Desert has the weather and the altitude to deliver top-notch starscapes. It's one of the driest places on Earth, which means celestial objects are extra-crystal-clear (humidity has the opposite effect). Because of this, astro-tourists aren't the only ones looking to the sky: The Atacama region boasts a slew of observatories, from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array to the Very Large Telescope. Head south to the Elqui Valley and you'll find the AURA Observatory, the world's first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. This designation is only given to the remotest of starry skies—places where starlight conservation is of the utmost importance.

Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada

Situated along the boundary of the Northern Territories and Alberta, Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest dark-sky preserve on the planet, boasting a staggering 11 million acres of protected land—an area larger than Denmark. Given its outstanding ecological and biological value, it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting bison and whooping cranes as well as starlight. If you want a chance to marvel at the northern lights, Wood Buff is the place to do it: The park's latitude and flat, open plains often lead to shimmering displays of green. It's not too crowded, either, which means you can take in the aurora borealis in peace. Unless, that is, you prefer to share the merriment of the night-sky light show, in which case you should go in August, for the park's Dark Sky Festival.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, United States

When it comes to stargazing, the only thing better than the remoteness of an open ocean is the dry, high altitude of land. The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island offers both. Lighting restrictions on the island minimize light pollution, as does the fact that Hawaii sits in the midst of the vast (and dark) Pacific Ocean. And what about the humidity so common in the tropics? Thanks to a tropical inversion cloud layer that's 2,000 feet thick, the upper stretches of the mountain are kept dry and largely clear. It's such an ideal spot that the summit boasts the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy. And not far below, at an elevation of 9,200 feet, the Mouna Kea Visitor Center offers stellar views and free stargazing programs each night.

Save Your Starlight

Claiming your right to starlight starts with seeking out dark skies like the ones mentioned above. You can also use tools like the Dark Sky Finder, which maps out where stars are most visible. Bring friends and family with you, so you can further cultivate awe for the heavens.

To learn about starlight-friendly practices, and to get information on outdoor lighting ordinances that protect starscapes in your area, go to the International Dark Sky Association's website: darksky.org

Happy stargazing!

Sabine Bergmann is a professional writer, traveler and conservation activist. She writes for a dozen publications and is the managing editor of the Adventure Collection travel blog, which publishes award-winning writers from around the world.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

 37 
 on: Feb 23, 2018, 05:09 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Scientists discover 'aging clock' that can predict when you're likely to die

Scientists had been working to come up with an accurate 'aging clock' as our biological age can predict our health condition and mortality.

February 23, 2018 08:24 IST
IBT

Age is not just a number, it can tell a lot about your health and can also predict your mortality, but we aren't talking about the chronological age here which is counted on the basis on the number of birthdays we've celebrated.

A far more accurate predictor of these is our biological age. It can vary due to various factors like lifestyle choices that include diet, exercise, habits like smoking and drinking, stress and genetics.

This is the reason why sometimes people look older than their age or some look fit at the age of 60. Since biological age can predict our health condition and mortality, for years, scientists have tried to come up with an accurate 'aging clock' to measure it and now, they have finally achieved it.

Artificial Intelligence scientists at Insilico Medicine analyzed blood data from 130,000 South Koreans, Canadians, and Eastern-Europeans – the largest blood pool ever used in a health study and invented the most accurate Aging Clock -- a clock and a free website that will tell you your biological age. It can tell you if you are growing old too quickly and when are you likely to die. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Gerontology.

Dr Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Insilico Medicine and the 'brain' behind the Insilico Medicine Aging Clock, told IBTimes India: "We age differently at different rates at every level of the organization, from the atomic level, molecular level, cellular level, same goes for the tissues, organs, organ systems, the entire body and even human psychology (we behave differently as we grow older)."

And, the 'aging clock' measures the rate of aging at each of these levels and assesses the current snapshot of the process.

Though the idea of the aging clock is not new, scientists had not reached the accurate way to measure it until now because most of them tried to assess the biological age using just one data type - for example, by looking at DNA methylation or a level of specific protein in the blood.

Dr. Zhavoronkov explained: "So, when the revolution in deep learning started, our team started training the deep neural networks to predict the age of the person in the more or less healthy state using many data types."

Their team first started experimenting with very simple data types like common blood and urine tests and expanded into gene expression, protein expression, and more exotic data types that can provide a lot of biological insights into the most important factors that transpire during aging.

They used AI to analyze and compare the data from so many thousands of people in their study helping them to create a computer algorithm regarded as the first reliable aging clock for humans.

Dr. Zhavoronkov said: "In the future, we would like to show people what do they need to do to look and feel younger."

He added: "We even started performing a sort of neurosurgery on the deep neural networks trained on millions of samples to identify what mechanisms we can target with drugs and other interventions to reverse the aging clocks and prevent diseases. This is on-going work."

He further went on to say: "At this point in time, we cannot claim any medical benefits and provide this test as a game for people to track their age predictions over time and see what makes them older or younger as they journey through life. Think of it as PokemonGo, where you play, but also learn and exercise."

Though Dr. Zhavoronkov wants the users to take it just like a game he believes, if they find that their bodies are aging faster they should have a proper check-up.

Individuals interested in knowing their biological age can visit the website Young.AI, where subscribers can get to know their biological age for free. They will be asked to upload at least 18 parameters that appeared in their latest blood test.

They will also be asked to upload a photo, allowing another Insilico AI-driven algorithm, one that recognizes signs of aging in photographs, to make the user's biological aging estimate even more precise. The report will appear within seconds after the blood work data and the photo is uploaded to the website.

Blood tests have been only used to diagnose disease and monitor our health but now, they can now also be used to give us a preview of what lies ahead. If the aging clock test shows that the user is not aging well, it can be used to alter our lifestyle and might even change our fate.

 38 
 on: Feb 22, 2018, 06:36 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja

Myanmar government 'bulldozing Rohingya mass grave to hide evidence'

Rights group says site of massacre in Rakhine state is being flattened on government orders after exposés of two other mass graves

Emanuel Stoakes
Guardian
22 Feb 2018 14.10 GMT

The government of Myanmar is bulldozing over the site of a Rohingya mass grave in an effort to destroy evidence of a massacre committed last year by the military, according to a rights monitoring group.

The claim follows investigations conducted by the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, which revealed evidence of other mass graves.

The Arakan Project, which uses on-the-ground networks to document abuses against the Rohingya community in western Rakhine state, Myanmar, provided the Guardian with a video of the grave site before its destruction. The footage shows half-buried tarpaulin bags in a forest clearing, with a decaying leg visibly protruding from one of the bags.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said the bulldozing appears to be part of an effort to hide evidence of the grave permanently following the exposés that appeared in the press.

“Two of the mass graves sites we know about have appeared in the media, but on Thursday one of the other mass grave sites was bulldozed. This means that evidence of the killings is being destroyed,” she said.

“Private companies are doing the bulldozing. They come from central Myanmar, not Rakhine,” she said. “It’s clear this is happening under the orders of government.”

The reported site of the mass grave, in Maung Nu, Buthidaung township, in northern Rakhine state, was the location of a massacre that rights groups report took place in August last year. Human Rights Watch said survivors had told them the army had “beaten, sexually assaulted, stabbed, and shot villagers who had gathered for safety in a residential compound” in the village. Dozens were said to have been killed. Satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch showed that Maung Nu had been razed in the aftermath.

The Rohingya are a largely stateless Muslim minority primarily located in Rakhine. Rights organisations say they have suffered decades of systematic persecution and three “ethnic cleansing” campaigns since 2012, a charge the government denies. The group are not recognised by the government as a native minority of Myanmar and are often referred to as “Bengalis” in official discourse, a term implying that they are foreigners.

Thousands of Rohingya are estimated to have been killed during a military crackdown which began in August 2017, following an attack on security outposts by an insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa). Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled to nearby Bangladesh during the violence.

Last week, Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, said the crisis had the “hallmarks of genocide”.

The government of Myanmar has denied claims that the military conducted ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. An army investigation into its own conduct during the 2017 crackdown exonerated itself of any blame. However, in a surprise move last month, the military admitted that Rohingya found in a mass grave at the village of Inn Din had been killed by its soldiers.

A UN fact-finding mission has been denied access to Myanmar while the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights has been barred from entering the country.

“We’ve heard about the allegations of the destruction at Maung Nu and we’re concerned that this could be part of broader efforts to conceal the atrocities committed by Burmese security forces,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, told the Guardian.

Other parts of Rakhine state appear to have been bulldozed, according to an AFP report last week, which contained aerial photography showing former Rohingya villages completely flattened. The bulldozing appeared to target villages that had been razed during the military crackdown last year, the report said.

“The bulldozers are destroying not just parts of some villages that were burned but also parts where houses were abandoned but still intact,” Lewa observed.

When asked about the reported bulldozing of Rohingya villages, government spokesman Zaw Htay objected to use of the word Rohingya, saying: “No Rohingya – Bengali, please.”

He followed this by saying, “Local government is clearing that area. No villagers there. No housing. Only plain land.”

“We have to construct new villages there,” he said, for the “resettlement” of returning Rohingya.

When asked about reports of the destruction of the mass grave, he said: “I want to know what evidence you are talking about? Was it Arsa terrorist group? Bengali people around the world?

“Please give me the reliable, concrete, strong primary evidence, please – not based on the talking story of Bengali people around the world, Bengali lobbyists,” he added.

 39 
 on: Feb 22, 2018, 06:33 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
GOP senator issues dire warning about Trump triggering ‘one of the worst catastrophes in history’

Noor Al-Sibai
Raw Story
22 Feb 2018 at 14:40 ET                   

During a weekend meeting, a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that President Donald Trump’s increasingly hostile stance towards North Korea may have historically catastrophic results.

The Intercept reported Wednesday that Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) told the Munich Security Conference that Trump has “at his fingertips” the ability to trigger “one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization.”

Trump, the Idaho Republican warned, is poised to start a “very, very brief” offensive war with North Korea to prevent their leader from “developing the capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. via an intercontinental ballistic missile,” the Intercept noted.

Rather than utilizing diplomatic measures, the president may cause “mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen,” Risch continued.

“There is no more dangerous place on the earth than the Korean peninsula right now,” the senator told the German conference. “The president of the United States has said, and he is committed to, seeing that Kim Jong-un is not able to marry together a delivery system with a nuclear weapon that he can deliver to the United States.”

The report went on to note that Risch is likely to become the chair of the Senate’s foreign relations oversight panel if Republicans maintain control of the Senate and the current chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), retires.

**************

US hate groups proliferate in Trump’s first year, watchdog says

Reuters
21 Feb 2018 at 14:46 ET                   

The number of U.S. hate groups expanded last year under President Donald Trump, fueled by his immigration stance and the perception that he sympathized with those espousing white supremacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center said on Wednesday

There were 954 hate groups in the country in 2017, marking a 4 percent increase over the previous year when the number rose 2.8 percent, the civil rights watchdog said in its annual census of such groups.

Since 2014, the number has jumped 20 percent, it said.

Among the more than 600 white supremacist groups, neo-Nazi organizations rose to 121 from 99. Anti-Muslim groups increased for a third year in a row, to 114 from 101 in 2016, the report said.

Last year brought “a substantial emboldening of the radical right, and that is largely due to the actions of President Trump, who’s tweeted out hate materials and made light of the threats to our society posed by hate groups,” Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told reporters.

Trump, who took office in January 2017, was elected in November of the previous year. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded in 1971, defines hate groups as organizations with beliefs or practices that demonize a class of people.

In the past, some groups have criticized the Alabama-based organization’s findings, with skeptics saying it has mislabeled legitimate organizations as “hate groups.”

In August, Trump came under fire for saying “both sides” were to blame for violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia where a counter-protester was killed.

The Republican president was also criticized for a string of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments, including using a vulgar term to describe Haiti and African countries last month.

In a backlash to Trump, the number of black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam increased by 20 percent last year, to 233, the non-profit’s report said. It added two male supremacy groups to its census for the first time.

A separate investigation by the group showed that people linked to the alt-right killed 43 people in the last four years, including 17 in 2017. The alt-right movement believes that white identity is under attack by multicultural forces.

The report identified 689 groups associated with the anti-government “Patriot” movement, with about 40 percent of them armed militias.

SPLC acknowledged that its report likely failed to capture the full extent of hate-group activity. It said many of them, especially from the alt-right, operate mainly online.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)

*************

MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle connects the dots in latest Mueller indictment to tie Trump directly to Putin

David Ferguson
Raw Story
22 Feb 2018 at 12:45 ET                   

On Wednesday, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle laid out how special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is becoming “clearer by the indictment.”

Tuesday’s guilty plea by Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan, she said, reveals direct connections between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Van der Zwaan, 33, is married to the daughter of Russian oligarch German Khan, a close Putin confederate and ally. He formerly worked at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which lobbied U.S. officials on behalf of exiled Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych — at the request of former Trump 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort.

“I want to bring your attention to the men outlined in red,” Ruhle said, indicating George Papadopoulos, Mike Flynn, van der Zwaan and Rick Gates. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that Gates will soon join the other three men in entering guilty pleas to Mueller’s investigation.

Van der Zwaan’s father in law, German Khan is the head of Russia’s Alfabank, which was named in the Steele dossier as a major launderer of Russian mob money.

Flynn, Ruhle said, lied about his contacts with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, “but we don’t even need to go that far. Flynn attended a paid speaking event in Russia without getting permission from the proper authorities.”

At that engagement — also attended by the Green Party’s Jill Stein — Flynn sat at the same table as Pres. Putin.

Watch the video: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6f3j2j

**************

Trump's solution to school shootings: arm teachers with guns

‘It is the gun, it’s the person behind the gun and it’s about helping people before they ever reach that point,’ said a mother whose son died at Sandy Hook elementary

David Smith in Washington
Guardian
22 Feb 2018 22.39 GMT

Donald Trump has said he will consider a proposal to arm school teachers in an attempt to prevent mass shootings, a move certain to prove fiercely divisive.

The US president, holding a listening session at the White House with survivors of last week’s Florida school shooting and others affected by gun violence, claimed that allowing airline pilots to carry and conceal guns had demonstrated the measure could be a success.

“It only works when you have people very adept at using firearms, of which you have many,” Trump said during an emotionally searing session that, extraordinarily, was broadcast live on national television. “It would be teachers and coaches.”

Referring to Aaron Feis, a football coach who used his body as a shield to protect a student during the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, the president continued: “If the coach had a firearm in his locker when he ran at this guy – that coach was very brave, saved a lot of lives, I suspect.

“But if he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run, he would have shot him, and that would have been the end of it. This would only obviously be for people who are very adept at handling a gun. It’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone. Gun-free zone to a maniac, because they’re all cowards, a gun-free zone is: ‘Let’s go in and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us’.”

Trump added: “An attack has lasted, on average, about three minutes. It takes five to eight minutes for responders, for the police to come in, so the attack is over. If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.”

Knowledge of this would act as a deterrent to a would-be attacker, Trump claimed. “You know, a lot of people don’t understand that airline pilots now, a lot of them carry guns, and I have to say that things have changed a lot. People aren’t attacking the way they would routinely attack and maybe you would have the same situation in schools.”

The president asked for a show of hands in the room over the proposal: some were in favour, others were against. “We can understand both sides and certainly it’s controversial,” he acknowledged, promising to discuss it seriously.

It emerged after the shooting at Parkland that there was an armed security guard on site but he did not get the chance to engage the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, on the sprawling campus. In May 2016, during the presidential election, Trump tweeted: “Crooked Hillary [Clinton] said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!”

Nicole Hockley, whose six-year-old son Dylan died at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, spoke out against the idea of arming teachers. “It’s not personally something that I support. Rather than arming them with a firearm, I would rather arm them with the knowledge of how to prevent these acts from happening in the first place,” she told Trump.

Safety assessments programmes and interventions for troubled children are vital, she added. “Let’s talk about prevention. There is so much that we can do to help people before it reaches that point, and I urge you please stay focused on that as well. It is the gun, it’s the person behind the gun and it’s about helping people before they ever reach that point.”

Earlier during the session in the state dining room, where some speakers were tearful but composed as they recalled their experiences, Hockley also issued a challenge to the president. “This is not difficult,” she told him. “These deaths are preventable. And I implore you: consider your own children. You don’t want to be me. No parent does.”

During the meeting Trump also asserted that he would be “very strong” on background checks for gun buyers as well as mental health issues. He sat in the middle of a semi-circle listening intently as six survivors of last week’s shooting and bereaved parents from Parkland, Columbine, and Sandy Hook took turns to address him.

    Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

    Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!
    May 22, 2016

Sam Zeif, 18, a Parkland student whose text messages with his brother during last week’s shooting went viral, fought back tears as he told Trump: “I turned 18 the day after. Woke up to the news that my best friend was gone. I don’t understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war, an AR. I was reading today that a person 20 years old walked into a store and bought an AR-15 in five minutes with an expired ID. How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon? How are we not stopping this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, sitting with a mother that lost her son? It’s still happening.”

Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed at Stoneman Douglas, reflected the candid anger of many when he took the microphone. “We’re here because my daughter has no voice – she was murdered last week, shot nine times,” he said. “How many schools, how many children have to get shot? It stops here, with this administration and me.”

Pollack, his voice rising with raw emotion, added: “It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it, and I’m pissed because my daughter, I’m not going to see again.”

************

'I hear you' - Trump uses cue card to remind him to listen to shooting survivors

The US president was pictured holding a briefing note that appeared to be a reminder for him to show empathy to school shooting survivors visiting the White House

Martin Belam
Guardian
Thu 22 Feb 2018 09.44 GMT

Briefing notes captured by photographers at US president Donald Trump’s White House listening session with survivors of gun violence show that he needed to be reminded to say “I hear you”.

Close-up pictures of the note revealed that it had five points, of which the first was a reminder to ask the question: “What would you most want me to know about your experience”. The second question listed is “What can we do to make you feel safe?”

The president’s note also prompted Trump to ask survivors for their ideas, or what resources they think might be needed.

But it is the final note - “I hear you” - that has attracted the most criticism, with the implication that without a prompt the president would be unable to show sympathy towards those affected by school shootings, some of whom had travelled from Florida for the occasion.

The meeting at the White House was attended by survivors of last week’s Florida school shooting. At the meeting, Trump suggested that he would consider arming teachers as a measure against school shootings. “It only works when you have people very adept at using firearms, of which you have many. It would be teachers and coaches.”

During the election campaign in 2016, Trump tweeted that opponent Hilary Clinton was lying when she suggested that Trump would put more guns in schools.

    Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

    Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!
    May 22, 2016

The close-up photograph of the note also revealed that Donald Trump was wearing a shirt with “45” embroidered onto the cuff.

Trump did not appear to directly use any of the questions or phrases on the card at the meeting, but did thank those who had attended. “Thank you for pouring out your hearts,” Trump said “because the world is watching and we’re going to come up with a solution.”

 40 
 on: Feb 22, 2018, 06:18 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja

Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children

Defectors reveal crippling extortion by Islamist terror group and ‘brainwashing’ of boys, as it suffers apparent crisis of morale

Jason Burke Africa correspondent
Guardian
22 Feb 2018 05.00 GMT

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.

Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.

Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.

The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.

In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.

Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.

UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.

Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.

One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.

    Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both

The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.

In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.

A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.

“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.

According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.

Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.

Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.

A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.

    Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them

“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”

Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.

“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”

The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.

Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.

In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.

“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”

Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”

Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin

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