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 41 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:51 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
More terrifying than Trump? The booming conspiracy culture of climate science denial

Graham Readfearn

Conspiracy websites and hyperpartisan media outlets are building huge online audiences who want to hear climate change is a hoax

AFP
Tuesday 6 December 2016 06.52 GMT

Back in December 2015, Donald Trump gave a 30-minute live interview to the website Infowars.com and its combustible leader, Alex Jones.

“Your reputation is amazing and I will not let you down,” said Trump, who, at the time, was leading in most polls for the Republican presidential nomination.

Jones, a fervent Trump supporter, is a conspiracy theorist writ large. He insists there is “iron clad” evidence that the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US were an “inside job”.

Jones has also said that in 1996 governments deployed a worldwide program to secretly put chemicals into the fuel of aircraft to poison people. These “chemtrails” don’t hurt the “globalists” though, because Jones says they have a “special detox”.

Oh, and Jones also thinks climate change is a hoax.

Climate change is an issue he covers regularly on his shows, where he has interviewed climate science deniers such as Christopher Monckton (a familiar name to Australians given his multiple speaking tours here), Marc Morano and James Delingpole.

While it’s easy to dismiss the conspiracy culture pushed by Jones as pseudoscientific rubbish, it is not so easy to dismiss the size of the audience he has been building. Jones’s website gets 57m page views per month – double where it was six months ago.

According to analytics site Social Blade, the Alex Jones YouTube channel has 1.8m subscribers and just racked up its one billionth (that’s not a typo) video view. (For comparison, the BBC News YouTube channel has 992,000 subscribers.)

Jones’s Infowars site is part of an ecosystem of hyperpartisan media outlets that insist climate change is a hoax. Like Jones, that ecosystem is rapidly building a receptive online audience.

Those sites can now reach hundreds of millions of people with headlines insisting that human-caused climate change is a hoax, that global warming has stopped or that adding CO2 to the atmosphere is good.

One example. The most popular climate change story across social media in the past six months was not some diligently researched piece from one of the many very good science journalists writing for major news organisations around the world.

Rather, the story claimed that thousands of scientists had come forward to declare that climate change was a hoax. The writer was a guy running a website in Los Angeles who worked for eight years for the UK conspiracy theorist David Icke.

Icke thinks the moon might be some sort of spaceship, that the world is controlled by a globalist illuminati and, yes, that climate change is a hoax. Icke is a regular guest on Infowars.

Infowars will often source material from Breitbart – the website that used to be run by Trump’s campaign chairman and soon-to-be chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Many of Breitbart’s most popular climate change items are written by Delingpole, a British polemicist. Guess what he thinks of climate change?

Given that climate science denial has become a part of the Republican party’s identity, it was hardly surprising that the GOP-led House of Representatives committee on science should tweet a link to a Breitbart climate story written by Delingpole (a story based on a deeply misleading article in the UK’s Daily Mail).

Breitbart is also building its audience. According to data from SimilarWeb, the site now gets 168m page views per month, doubling its reach in the past six months.

The Drudge Report – the wildly popular conservative-leaning news aggregator site with 1.7bn page views a month – also helps drive traffic to sites such as Infowars and Breitbart. Its founder, Matt Drudge, was another recent guest of Jones.

Since Trump won the US election, there has been much talk of the influence of “fake news”, with Facebook in particular identified as a key conduit. That encompasses news that is blatantly fabricated but also lounge room content farms that pass themselves off as news. Then there are the hyperpartisan opinion sites.

I’m happy to admit the online growth and reach of climate science denialists and conspiracy theorists terrifies me. Why?

The problem is not that these sites exist but that not enough people seem to know the difference between actual news, fake news, partisan opinion and conspiratorial bullshit. One of those people is the president-elect of the United States.

Either that, or people don’t even care to differentiate between fake and real, especially if what they read taps into their own prejudices.

There is a concerted attempt to cut sensible climate policy off at the knees by building a popular online movement against the science itself.

For decades, the fossil fuel industry and so-called “free market” ideologues at conservative thinktanks have misled the public on the science and the risks of climate change.

Now, the decades of material produced by that climate science denial machinery is finding a new audience. Those talking points are being reheated and screamed, in FULL CAPS.

So what’s the answer? No one seems to know but much appears to be in the hands of Google and Facebook.

Other than that, a crash course in critical thinking and recognising climate science denial brought to you by the illuminati might be the order of the day.

 42 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:48 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The Grand Prix Royal Canin cat show – in pictures

Cats, their owners and visitors descend on Moscow for one of the world’s largest cat shows, where more than 2,000 feline participants mix with 40,000 cat lovers

Monday 5 December 2016 13.32 GMT
Guardian

Click to see all: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2016/dec/05/grand-prix-royal-canin-cat-show-moscow-in-pictures

 43 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:43 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Pet sounds: why birds have much in common with humans

An expert on Australian native species says birds can have empathy, grieve after the death of a partner and form long-term friendships

Gisela Kaplan
Gisela Kaplan is adjunct Professor in Animal Behaviour, at the University of New England
Monday 5 December 2016 19.20 GMT

It is generally quite well-known that kookaburras live in family groups: a bonded male and female, plus a retainer of their offspring. Numbers matter in kookaburra society because a neighbouring tribe may have its eye firmly on the expansion of territory – and may invade a smaller group.

This means the injury and eventual death of one bird – most crucially of one of the parent birds – can have disastrous effects for the remaining group. They could be evicted from their home, which is likely to lead to their death.

I once told all this to a human family of five. The oldest of the three children, a 12-year-old boy, had found an injured kookaburra on the grounds of their own expansive rural property in country New South Wales, and he had taken the bird to his parents, who then rang me for help.

The bird had a fractured wing – and 21 days later, after it was completely healed and able to fly again, I asked them whether they would like to witness the release. They did.

Before the bird re-entered the wild, I told them how important it was to the kookaburra family that they had saved this female – it had potentially saved them all from eviction, and death. I explained that we had to pick our spot well: territories were not usually very large (some 2.5 sq km) and, if released in a hostile territory, the bird could have been killed as an intruder.

I added that once the released kookaburra had landed on a branch, the other members should soon join it, and together they would sing a resounding chorus in triumph of their reunion. And so it was. I released the bird, and, sure enough, other kookaburras soon landed on the same branch and they all sang together.

Years later I learned that this specific release had made a deep and lasting impression on all the family, and had directly led the oldest boy into a career as a veterinarian. The mother explained that the day of the release was as if a whole new world had opened to him; he began to look with new eyes at the natural world and, more importantly, made a connection with it in such a way that he felt he wanted to know and do more.

He was captivated by the fact that the saving of one kookaburra could have been so crucially important – and that birds could have this in common with human families.

In fact, birds – at least some of the species we have studied – have a surprising number of things in common with humans, some of which we have learned only over the last few decades. Both birds and humans can learn how to use their voice, and some birds and humans can even mimic other species – the best proof that vocalisation is a learned behaviour.

Australian magpies and lyrebirds are probably the most outstanding mimics in the world. Both species have pure tone, beautiful sounding song and extensive repertoires.

There are reports of people who, hearing the neighing of a horse where no horse should be, were driven by curiosity to check in the yard. Moving to the source of the sound, they saw a magpie sitting in a tree doing a mighty good imitation of a horse.

The lyrebird male mimics merely to dazzle a female with his artistry. Unlike the lyrebird, magpies have the additional ability to mimic human speech, as do many parrot species.

It has been thought that mimicry is mindless. True, some mimicry may be no more than a repeat of other sounds, without the bird understanding the meaning – but in some cases the mimicry is used in meaningful ways.

An example I have cited often is the brief but telling story of a magpie living on a rural property in inland NSW, which had learned to mimic the name of the resident pet dog. The property also had a pet cat that repeatedly tried to get rid of the magpie. When the cat approached, the magpie called the dog – then the dog came running and chased the cat away.

This anecdote is special in that it suggests that calling the dog was not mindless mimicry but it had become a useful linguistic tool to achieve a specific outcome. This interpretation fits well with our findings that magpies have the beginning of lexicon.

For instance, we discovered some years ago that magpies have specific and designated food calls and “eagle alarm” calls. One can play the alarm call back to them, placing the speakers on the ground, and, without fail, the response of magpies is to look up. If this call sequence did not have any specific meaning, one would expect them to have looked at the sound source instead.


Related evidence also showed magpies even using gestures and pointing when vocal messages seem insufficient in identifying a risk. Incidentally, a true-blue Aussie budgerigar (actually green and yellow in the natural environment) is the Guinness World Records holder among birds in the number of words it can mimic – more than 1,700 English words!

We now know that birds can have multiple and remarkable cognitive abilities. They can also feel, have empathy and even grieve for the death of a partner; magpies in particular, apart from parrots, can form long-term friendships with humans or their dogs.

Once we learn about the inner life of magpies, and what we have in common with them, a whole new world can open up for us too, and may make us more likely to see them as part of our culture and heritatge, and to protect them.

This is certainly one reason why I continue to write about native birds.

 44 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:40 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Keeping time with geese in flight

Claxton, Norfolk They rose and fell, swaying as if one organism were breathing slowly, and as they approached they never made sound

Mark Cocker
AFP
Tuesday 6 December 2016 05.30 GMT

I saw the goose skein as a tentative line in a southern blue sky and, since it was arrowed straight towards me, I rested arms and binoculars on a gate to ease the muscle ache.

One, two minutes must have passed as the skein slowly grew, before it occurred to me that large birds in flight never rush. The wing beats are steady, solemn, self-reliant. I remember once in eastern Turkey watching a line of flamingos like this. There is an almost identical length of neck and leg fore and aft of those pink flamingo wings and, such was their lack of progress, it was a good five minutes before I could even work out in which direction they flew.

My guess is that most large species – flamingos, cranes, geese – in their several million years evolving on Earth have not changed, unlike our own species, by so much as a metre per second in pace. Cranes from the Miocene would keep time with cranes today.

It is one of the things to learn from watching birds: to adjust to their timekeeping. In this field I have several heroes. WH Hudson once lay for five hours to listen to marsh warblers singing. More impressive was the artist Eric Ennion, who lay in a gun punt, hidden under canvas, for seven hours while drawing black-necked grebes. And for the two whole previous days he had done the same and seen nothing.

Only by taking time can one lift aside the common cloth that our senses smother over the daily hours. Only then can we get beneath to the real light-loving fabric of life, whose magic is all here now and nowhere else in that star swarm across the night sky.

My geese arrived: 20 birds in a curve, the lead place switching from the 10th to the 14th. They rose and fell, swaying as if one organism were breathing slowly, and as they approached they never made sound above the merest nub of their true music.

Once they’d passed overhead, however, out poured the oiled-metal ank-ang chorus of pink-footed geese on a north wind.

 45 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:39 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Taronga zoo says it will not fire keeper filmed punching kangaroo

Animal activist groups call for Greig Tonkins to be sacked over footage of him hitting a kangaroo that attacked his dog

Adam Collins
AFP
Tuesday 6 December 2016 03.04 GMT

A zoo worker who punched a kangaroo in a video viewed millions of times will not be sacked despite calls for action against him from animal activist groups.

Taronga Western Plains zoo said there was “no suggestion” Greig Tonkins’s position as an elephant keeper would be terminated following the publication of vision in which he struck a kangaroo that attacked his dog while on a pig hunting trip.

On Monday the zoo in Dubbo, in the central west of New South Wales, pledged to “consider any appropriate action” after the video surfaced, but on Tuesday said it had been “inundated with concern” for the 34-year-old employee.

“Mr Tonkins is an experienced zookeeper and during his six years at Taronga Western Plains Zoo has always followed Taronga’s best practice approach to animal care and welfare,” it said in a statement.

“We continue to work with Mr Tonkins on his conduct in regards to this incident.”

The zoo said it was strongly opposed to humans striking animals, and to the practice of using dogs to hunt. It said Tonkins was not available for comment.

By Tuesday morning the video had been viewed more than 3m times on various video hosting platforms, and featured on CNN’s global news coverage.

It shows Tonkins leaping from a white vehicle towards the kangaroo, which is holding the dog by the chest and neck.

“The big buck actually has a hold of the dog, not the other way around,” the narrator says.

After the dog escapes from the kangaroo Tonkins shapes up in a conventional boxing stance, throwing a right-cross that appears to leave the kangaroo stunned. The commentary says he did so “to save himself”, suggesting the man could otherwise have been the “next victim”.

The Humane Society International Australia said Tonkins should have been shown the door by the zoo.

“It is very disturbing of someone of this character has a position there they would have no trouble filling it with someone who respects animals,” Verna Simpson, a director at the animal welfare organisation, told Guardian Australia.

“We are over rescuing circus elephants in India and we can’t even look after our own species here,” she said, expressing dismay that Tonkins’ action had received acclaim at home and attention abroad.

The campaign coordinator of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Claire Fryer, told Australian Regional Media that “punching a kangaroos in the face is neither brave nor funny”, but was in fact illegal.

“The man in this video should be prosecuted instead of being made out to be a national hero,” she said.

The internet is littered with videos of humans boxing with kangaroos, including a pantomime bout with a heavyweight champion in the 1930s and Woody Allen taking to the ring in a mid-1960s comedy skit.

“They used to take them to the United States in droves, it was a shocking thing,” Simpson said. “We are opposed to animals in entertainment across the board because for animals to perform there has always been cruelty.”

 46 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:36 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Inside the Private Lives of Orangutans

Scientists are gaining vital insights into the red apes at a time when they face a precarious future.

By Mel White
National Geographic
Photographs and Videos by Tim Laman
12/6/2106

    This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve chosen the most difficult thing in the world to study,” Cheryl Knott tells me as we sit beneath the rain forest canopy at her orangutan research station in western Borneo. The high-pitched, dental-drill sound of cicadas fills the air, at times forcing us to pause our conversation. As we talk, Knott’s associates are at work in the surrounding forest of Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park with GPS units and iPads, following orangutans in their daily wanderings, recording what they’re doing, what they’re eating, and how they’re interacting with others of their species.

Unlike gorillas and chimpanzees—fellow great apes that live in groups and can be followed and observed relatively easily—orangutans live mostly solitary lives. They spend nearly all their time in the treetops, they wander widely, and for the most part they inhabit rugged forest or swampy lowland that’s hard for humans to traverse. As a result, orangutans long remained among the least known of Earth’s large land animals. Only during the past 20 years or so has scientific evidence begun to outweigh speculation as a new generation of researchers has tracked the elusive apes across the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the only places orangutans live.

For more than two decades Knott has supervised the research at Gunung Palung, looking at many aspects of orangutan life history but focusing especially on the way the availability of food affects female hormones and reproduction. “At the time we started here, no one had really worked on hormones in wild apes,” she says. “People said I was crazy.”

Knott’s studies have special significance because female orangutans give birth only every six to nine years. No other mammal has a longer interval between births. And there’s no telling what her research might mean for our knowledge of human fertility; we and orangutans are so similar that Knott can use standard drugstore test kits on urine from female orangutans to determine whether they’re pregnant.

Typical of many forests in southeastern Asia, the trees at Gunung Palung produce little or no fruit in most seasons. Then, every four years or so, trees of various species simultaneously bring forth massive amounts of fruit in a process called masting. The phenomenon led Knott to wonder about the connection between food abundance and orangutan reproduction.

Knott discovered that researchers could collect and preserve urine from female orangutans on filter paper so that the samples could be tested for hormones later. Her work has shown that reproductive hormones in female orangutans peak when fruit is most abundant in the forest—an adaptation to the boom-and-bust environment.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Knott says. “They’re putting on weight during these high-fruit periods, and then they live off that during the low-fruit periods. During these high-fruit periods, females are more likely to conceive.”

Tempted by the fruit of a strangler fig, a Bornean orangutan climbs 100 feet into the canopy. With males weighing as much as 200 pounds, orangutans are the world’s largest tree-dwelling animals.

It's an exciting time for Knott and other orangutan researchers, as advances in technology (including the possibility of using drones to find and follow orangutans in rugged terrain) mean that the pace of discovery, already far more rapid than it was just two decades ago, will almost certainly increase. This assumes, of course, that there will still be orangutans left to study in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

In the 1980s and ’90s, some conservationists predicted that orangutans would go extinct in the wild within 20 or 30 years. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Many thousands more orangutans are now known to exist than were recognized at the turn of the millennium.

This doesn’t mean that all is well in the orangutans’ world. The higher figures come thanks to improved survey methods and the discovery of previously unknown populations, not because the actual numbers have increased. In fact, the overall population of orangutans has fallen by at least 80 percent in the past 75 years. It’s indicative of the difficulty of orangutan research that scientist Erik Meijaard, who has long studied the species’ population trends, is willing to say only that between 40,000 and 100,000 live on Borneo. Conservationists on Sumatra estimate that only 14,000 survive there. Much of this loss has been driven by habitat destruction from logging and the rapid spread of vast plantations of oil palm, the fruit of which is sold to make oil used in cooking and in many food products.

    Preserving old-growth rain forest is crucial, but the human-altered landscape is also vital to orangutan survival.

There’s another factor at work as well. A 2013 report by several top researchers said that as many as 65,000 of the apes may have been killed on Borneo alone in recent decades. Some were killed for bush meat by people struggling to survive. Others were shot because they were raiding crops—or protecting their young. The expressive, heart-melting faces of baby orangutans make them highly valuable in the black-market pet trade, within Indonesia as well as smuggled out of Borneo or Sumatra to foreign destinations. The ferocious protectiveness of female orangutans means that the easiest way to obtain a baby is to kill the mother—a compounded tragedy that not only removes two animals from the wild but also eliminates the additional offspring the female would produce during her lifetime.

At rehabilitation centers such as International Animal Rescue near Gunung Palung, the steady influx of orphaned orangutans shows that this killing remains a serious problem. More than a thousand orangutans now live at rehab sites, and though the goal is to release as many as possible back into the forest, attempting to teach survival skills to young orangutans is challenging and unproven.

Threats to orangutans come as the recent boom in research is revealing a surprising range in their genetic makeup, physical structure, and behavior—including the beginnings of cultural development that could help us understand how we transitioned from ape to human.

For centuries, scientists considered all orangutans to belong to one species, but in the past two decades new insights have led researchers to see Bornean and Sumatran orangutans as distinct species, both of which are critically endangered. Surprisingly, researchers have found that a recently discovered population at a site called Batang Toru in western Sumatra is actually closer genetically to Bornean orangutans than to other Sumatran populations—possibly the result of differing waves of migration to the islands from mainland Asia.

    The expressive, heart-melting faces of baby orangutans make them highly valuable in the black-market pet trade.

The Batang Toru orangutans are believed by some researchers to diverge from others enough to constitute a third species. Numbering as few as 400 individuals, they’re threatened by a proposed hydropower project that would fragment their habitat and open the area to more human intrusion, including illegal hunting.

What’s more, several populations on Borneo are now deemed to be separate subspecies, based on factors such as differing body types, vocalizations, and adaptations to the environment. The diversity of orangutans extends even further—into differences whose origins continue to resist scientific understanding.

From his perch high in the rain forest canopy of Sumatra, a big male orangutan known as Sitogos jumps to the trunk of a dead tree and, using all his 200 pounds, rocks it back and forth until it snaps at the base. At the last moment Sitogos leaps to a nearby limb, while the tree falls toward me with an enormous crash.

Orangutans do this a lot when they’re mad, and they’re very good at it. The tree couldn’t have been aimed any more accurately if it had been laser guided.

Sitogos means “the strong one” in the Batak language of northwestern Sumatra. True to his name, the big male stares down at me, shakes the branch he’s holding, and gives a guttural, bubbling call. There may be Sumatran tigers and sun bears roaming the forest floor, he seems to say, but up here in the treetops, I’m the king.

Acting Out

Orangutans display resourcefulness, cunning, and intelligence through complex behaviors. Observe wild orangutans as they show their stuff. Video by Tim Laman, Trevor Frost, Robert Suro, and the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project

Stretching his arms to their full span of seven feet, Sitogos moves through the canopy by using his long-fingered hands and dexterous feet to clamber from branch to branch. A young female, Tiur (“optimistic”), follows his every move, approaching closely whenever he pauses. Much smaller and more delicately built, she persists in her pursuit even though he seems indifferent. They sprawl on a branch together, eating flowers and breaking off cuplike fern fronds to drink the water inside. When he leans forward against a limb, Tiur grooms his back.

Sometime in the recent past, Sitogos had undergone an astounding transformation. He’d spent years hardly larger than Tiur. Then, with testosterone flooding his body, he’d grown powerful muscles, longer hair, fleshy pads called flanges on the sides of his face, and a massive throat sac to amplify his calls.

The sybaritic scene in the forest canopy—the devoted attention of Tiur and access to her and other females for mating—is Sitogos’s reward, but his physical change has a price too. From somewhere in the distance comes the call of another male orangutan. Sitogos stands up, transfixed, and begins moving toward his challenger.

A male Bornean orangutan known to researchers as Niko moves along the floor of the Tuanan swamp in Central Kalimantan. Although orangutans spend most of their time in the trees, some males climb down often and walk significant distances on the ground.

The males of many species of animals undergo major physical changes as they mature, but for orangutans the process is especially intriguing. Not all males develop the massive bodies, facial flanges, and throat sacs shown by Sitogos. Many retain smaller bodies long after they reach sexual maturity, transforming years later than other individuals. Some remain undeveloped their entire lives. The mechanism behind this divergence, called bimaturism, ranks among the greatest mysteries of zoology.

In the forests of northern Sumatra, only one dominant flanged male maintains control over a local group of females. Many males in the area retain smaller bodies and don’t develop flanges, thereby avoiding the confrontations that inevitably occur when several males try to assert dominance (until they themselves can try to move into the dominant role). For the smaller males, the only chance to pass on their genes is to watch from the sidelines, out of reach of the boss, sneaking in for mating whenever possible.

In Borneo, by contrast, nearly all males develop flanges. They wander across large areas, with no one male maintaining an associated group of females. A male’s best chance at mating is to grow strong and join the competition, leading to more confrontations and injuries.

Among the Orangutans

Orangutans learn most of the behaviors illustrated here from their mothers before reaching adolescence around age 12. Some of the behaviors are ubiquitous. Others occur only in certain areas, suggesting there could be regional cultures.

On a trail not far from Knott’s research station, I see evidence of these conflicts. A male orangutan named Prabu sits high in the branches of a strangler fig, occasionally peering down to reveal a fresh puncture wound on his forehead and a lower lip missing a chunk of flesh. Obviously Prabu had been in a fight, but was he the winner or the loser?

As I watch, he rises up and gives the loud series of sounds known as a long call: a complicated and thrilling medley of deep rumblings and bubbling hoots that can carry a mile through the forest. Usually males’ long calls last less than a minute, but Prabu’s continues for more than five minutes. Bloody but defiant, Prabu still proclaims his power to rival males and potential female mates alike.

Some scientists believe the dichotomy between male orangutans arose in part because of the differing geologic histories of Sumatra and Borneo. Sumatra is more fertile than Borneo, where ancient, weathered soil lacks plant nutrients, and many forests see the boom-and-bust cycles of masting fruit trees, leading to periods of low food availability. Orangutans on Sumatra don’t have to travel far to find enough food, and female density is higher. This gives males the ability to remain in a single place and develop associations. The relatively poorer environment of Borneo has created a free-for-all in which individuals roam over large areas, finding food and mating opportunities where they can.

Smoke from forest fires blanketed much of Borneo in late 2015. Fires set illegally to clear trees for oil palm and other crops burned more than six million acres across Indonesia, damaging or destroying large swaths of orangutan habitat.

360° Orangutan School: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X0oAFdl4A4

This may explain why the development of dominant male characteristics differs between the islands. But it brings up a far more difficult question.

“How does a Sumatran male know that if he grows flanges and he’s not the boss, he’s not going to be successful at mating?” Carel van Schaik asks as we talk in his office in Switzerland, at the University of Zurich, where he and his colleagues have published dozens of scientific papers on orangutan research from both Sumatra and Borneo.

The answer to van Schaik’s question, of course, is that the male doesn’t “know,” in the human sense. “It’s not something they can learn,” van Schaik says. “There has to be a switch, the sensitivity of the switch has to be different for different populations, and it has to be somehow genetic.”

This question of how male development is triggered remains unanswered, in part because of the same challenge that faces orangutan researchers on so many fronts: Their subjects are just so difficult to study.

In addition to their physiological diversity, orangutans exhibit differences in behavior that are passed from individual to individual and generation to generation in ways that can legitimately be called cultural.

“At one of our sites we’ve heard a call used by mothers when they reassure their kid,” Maria van Noordwijk, a member of the Zurich team who studies primate maternal care, told me. “We call it the throat scrape. We had a female that we knew pretty well before she gave birth for the first time. The day after giving birth she already gave that call. It had never been heard before from her. It’s clearly something she learned from her mom.”

“Primates aren’t supposed to do vocal learning,” says Carel van Schaik. “And yet, unless you believe this is genetic, which we think we can reject, then it’s very likely that it’s cultural. What orangutans do isn’t like the human voice, but the comprehension and learning and imitating of sounds is there.”

Researchers see more than just animals’ behavior when they watch orangutans. After all, these scientists (and you and I) took only a slightly divergent route on the great-ape evolutionary highway than did their arboreal subjects. Behind the field notes and data points is the question of what orangutans can tell us about humans.

Unlocking all the secrets contained in the brains and bodies of these great-ape relatives means preserving the entire spectrum of adaptations. “If every group is unique, it’s not good enough to say we’ll protect them at just a few spots,” Knott says. The loss of any single population brings an end to any chance to learn from its unique environmental and cultural adaptations.

I spent time in the field with Marc Ancrenaz, who since 1996 has directed an orangutan research and conservation project on the Kinabatangan River, in the Sabah region of northeastern Borneo. Here several hundred orangutans live in a narrow corridor of degraded habitat along the river, among villages that themselves are surrounded by a sea of oil palm. The patchy woodland is nothing like the “virgin rain forest” usually associated with orangutans.

“Of course we would prefer primary forest, but this is what we have,” Ancrenaz says, as we take shelter from a storm in a hut at his study site. Outside, the muddy ground is dotted with the circular footprints of Borneo pygmy elephants. “Twenty years ago science thought orangutans couldn’t survive outside primary forest. We were very surprised here. How come orangutans are in a place where they are not supposed to be?”

Ancrenaz is among several researchers who see the human-altered landscape as vital to orangutans’ survival. “I think this is the future of biodiversity,” he says.

In western Borneo, Knott has set up an organization to work with local communities to develop sustainable alternative livelihoods, reduce illegal logging and poaching, and provide conservation education in areas surrounding Gunung Palung National Park. In the same spirit, Ancrenaz has established conservation education programs in Sabah schools and communities, trying to find ways that people and nature can coexist. He partners with people living along the Kinabatangan, helping them make money from orangutans and other wildlife through ecotourism and related enterprises. His hope is that residents will become invested in the survival of animals. “Remote villages are the front line for wildlife conservation,” he says. “If we don’t incorporate local people into our plans, I think we’re going to fail.”

For orangutans to survive in their present diversity, governments and conservationists must make smart choices about where to establish preserves, how to manage them, and how to use limited resources. They must find ways for the species to coexist with humans on two islands where habitat is constantly shrinking.

“I see a lot of people trying to do conservation with their heart, with their feelings, which is fine,” Ancrenaz says. “But conservation has to be backed up with strong science. The goal of people doing research is to produce better knowledge, better understanding of orangutan ecology and genetics. The rest is actually using this knowledge to impact land use and communities. This is where conservation takes place.”

In the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutan behavior determined by millions of years of evolution endures: Males challenge each other with their calls, young males wait for their chances to assert dominance, and females teach their young how to survive in the treetops. Some of the mysteries of their lives have been revealed. What else we learn will depend on the success of this teaming of science and conservation, seeking answers about the links between humans and these apes that seem so like us when we look into their eyes.

“As a scientist you’re supposed to be objective,” Knott says, as we talk at her camp deep in the Borneo rain forest. “But you’re also human, and that connection is why I’m here.”

 47 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:23 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
EPA chief voices cautious hope as Trump inauguration nears

Although Trump and Obama agendas differ, some forces tilt toward continuity, Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Mark Trumbull
CS Monitor
   
December 5, 2016 Washington—Outgoing EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sounded a note of hope Monday in response to concerns that US environmental policy could face upheaval as control shifts from a Democratic to Republican presidency.

She pointed to two key factors – the momentum of marketplace forces and the tendency of all Americans to support clean air and water – that could tilt the Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump toward a bit more continuity than many observers may be expecting.

"EPA's mission is a nonpartisan mission," Ms. McCarthy said at an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. "It's just about public health. People like clean air and clean water and healthy land."

She voiced hope that even the Trump team, though so far voicing little love for things like action on climate change or limits on fossil fuels, will have an EPA influenced by those public concerns.

"They'll figure it out," McCarthy said in one of her first public appearances since Mr. Trump's election. "I'm not going to make judgments [on people] based on what was said during the campaign. I think we have to respect the right of the next administration to make its own choices."

Those choices, she added, will be influenced not just by ideology or personal opinions but by a marketplace in which renewable energy has been growing increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.

All this doesn't mean the incoming Trump administration can't and won't chart its own course on energy and the environment. In fact, McCarthy noted that “just one individual” from Mr. Trump’s transition team has contacted the EPA before Thanksgiving.

“We have not heard from them since,” she said.

Mr. Trump is considering a handful of candidates to replace McCarthy at EPA who have fought many of the regulations the Obama administration has crafted. The Republican candidates include Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt; Kathleen Hartnett White, the former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer (and, until recently, lobbyist) at Bracewell Law who was the EPA air chief under former president George W. Bush.

McCarthy, however, downplayed concerns that her successor might throw her work at the agency into the dustbin.

“I don’t think you can evaluate anybody looking for the administrator’s position by anything that’s stated in a campaign until folks govern. And I’m not going to make judgments on individuals on the basis on what was said during a political campaign,” McCarthy said. “The next administration has to do their job as well and follow the science and the law. And that’s how they’re going to be judged.”

Some experts, speaking at a panel following the Monitor event, also saw pressures that could give a nudge toward the political center.

Nuance for Obama, and now for Trump?

"The Trump administration is actually going to inherit a really strong energy system," and a nation that has seen "unexpected reductions in energy use," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He sees a path by which the Trump administration might be a sort of mirror image of the Obama one.

Mr. Grumet said Obama oversaw a ramp-up of action on climate change and investment in clean energy, while attempting not to "mess up" the nation's overall energy production that includes fossil fuels. Trump has positioned himself as a booster of fossil fuels, but may seek not to "mess up" the progress on greenhouse-gas reductions, Grumet said.

With many corporations concerned about the risk that climate change poses to their investments, "I think this is going to be a little bit less of an extreme change than you might have been led to imagine," Grumet said.

Scott Segal, an expert on environmental policy at Bracewell Law in Washington, added that he expects the Trump administration “is going to be very helpful to the nuclear sector.”

Nuclear power, while not the favorite clean energy among environmentalists, is seen by many energy experts as a vital piece of an overall strategy for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in the news, and noted by the panelists: The president-elect’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has voiced support for taking action on climate change. Her influence could become a force that counterbalances some of those on the Trump team who have been skeptical of the need to curb emissions.

Donald and Ivanka Trump discussed climate change with former vice president Al Gore, a leading advocate on the issue, in a meeting Monday in New York, with Mr. Gore saying afterward that it was "extremely interesting ... and to be continued," according to news reports.

A key uncertainty: Clean Power Plan

The fate of Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) remains a central question to be resolved. That effort by the EPA to set state-level targets for emission reductions is in court, being challenged by many states that argue it’s federal over-reach.

McCarthy touted the CPP as a directive that followed down a path that market forces were already taking the country – thanks to the switch from coal toward natural gas, and the rising appeal of solar and wind power. But she also said the CPP had played an important role, as policy, in showing the US could credibly promise to make emission cuts as part of a global treaty.

US and Chinese leadership helped push the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate over the finish line, with the bulk of the world signing on and then moving to ratify the accord.

“It’s a signal of the US commitment on leadership, and it’s made a big difference in terms of our ability to get an international deal of great significance,” McCarthy said. “It was exciting to watch."

“Right now if you just look at it as a whole, looking at the emissions in 2015, you will see that the emissions across the country are already below the levels we anticipated in our first compliance period in 2022, seven years ahead,” she said. “They’re lower than what we would have anticipated in 24 states, already beating those levels, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Dakota.”

Mr. Segal, however, said larger macroeconomic and technological trends provided a stronger signal than the CPP. He also noted that the CPP doesn’t permit a truly free energy market. That’s because it created a forward march toward less carbon-intensive energy by setting enforceable targets, pushing utilities and states to invest in those fuels no matter what that energy cost.

“Now, so what is the ... purpose of the CPP? Well, here is the answer: It is to lock in what the market is doing,” Mr. Segal said. “And I want to suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that is not how a free market works.”

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McCarthy said it’s possible for the US to meet its Paris promises even if the CPP were no longer in place.

But the fate of that initiative, both in court and in the hands of a Republican-controlled White House and Congress, could be very important, Segal and others say.

With or without the CPP, though, people involved in climate policy are going to have to rethink how the US can cut emissions to meet the targets that climate models say are necessary to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change, said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and a former deputy EPA administrator.

“I think that there are many different ways to deal with greenhouse gases. I think what we need is a robust discussion on how to do it,” Mr. Perciasepe said. “It’s coming, regardless. The Clean Air Act cannot get us there to the middle of the century the way it is now.”

 48 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:21 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Protesters' Dakota pipeline win may be both short- and long-lived

The decision to block construction of a controversial portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline could be overturned by Donald Trump. But it could also kindle new activism. 

Henry Gass
CS Monitor   

December 5, 2016 —The Dakota Access Pipeline could get rerouted, but Wilma Teton’s friends are still on their way to join the protest opposing it.

The US Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction of a key section of the Dakota Access Pipeline Sunday, marking a monumental – though likely short-term – victory for Native American protesters and thousands of allies who have flocked to North Dakota to protest the project this year.

It is this sense of only temporary relief – with the Army Corps of Engineers pledging to look at alternative routing for a project that's already mostly built – that has Ms. Teton’s friends heading from across the country.

With the mercury plunging and the North Dakota snows deepening, Teton and her husband, who live in nearby Fort Yates, N.D., have been making almost daily visits to the camp to bring food, firewood, and clean laundry. There are thousands at the camp, the Shoshone tribe member says, "and more people are coming."

The protesters' fight isn’t over, but winning a halt to the existing route has undeniably emboldened them. And, although it’s too soon to know, it appears possible that they have not only drawn sympathy and support from beyond the Great Plains, they may also be inspiring a new generation of environmental activism from Indian country to the political left.

True, the circumstances here are unusual. The stand-off on the Missouri is partly a moment where a narrative aligned in a rare way that captured national attention. The struggle combined the simple goal of protecting water, the urgency of the pipeline bearing down on the river, and the resonance of historically disenfranchised native Americans on horseback confronting armored police.

But in the process, it has also energized people beyond state or national boundaries, and shown what some see as a potential model.

“The good thing for me about the protest was framing it as a water versus oil issue, rather than a local issue, because that will be a confrontation we have over and over again,” says Kevin DeLuca, an associate professor at the University of Utah who researches environmental movements.

“All those explorations of oil threaten water at same time that water is becoming a more precious and endangered resource for people,” he explains. And where climate change may seem like a distant threat, access to clean drinking water is one of the most pressing problems a human can face.

“If you can’t have safe water, if you have lead in your water, nothing else matters at that point,” Professor DeLuca says.

Larger than one tribe

The planned route would have seen the Dakota Access pipeline cross under the Missouri River less than a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Members of the tribe, whose leaders fear the pipeline could rupture and contaminate a key water source, have been camping and protesting nearby since February, calling themselves “water protectors.”

But the protest has grown larger than one tribe. Thousands have joined them at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, including members of indigenous tribes from around the world, to create perhaps the largest gathering of Native American tribes in modern history.

Sympathizers have rallied in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities nationwide. And most recently, an estimated 2,000 military veterans have descended on the snow-blanketed hills near Bismarck, N.D., willing to serve as human shields as protesters faced possible eviction from federal land.

Recent months have seen increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police. The Army Corps announcement headed off the potential for another clash Monday, the deadline set by the Corps for protesters to leave the land it controls on either side of the Missouri.

An Army Corps statement said that "the best way to complete that [pipeline] work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."

Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault II issued a statement that struck a conciliatory tone: "When it comes to infrastructure development in Indian Country and with respect to treaty lands, we must strive to work together to reach decisions that reflect the multifaceted considerations of tribes.” And by video, he said the Army Corps decision prevents the company from trying to drill under the river, as the options are being reviewed, so “it’s OK to go home” during the bitter winter weather.

What happens next

Many protesters want to see construction canceled outright. Yet the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline was scheduled to be finished last month and is 92 percent completed. Expected battles over its completion could set the stage for one of the first challenges of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company developing the pipeline, blasted the announcement as "a purely political action" taken by the Obama administration to curry favor with "a narrow and extreme political constituency."

We "are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting," the company added in a statement. "Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way."

But the determination of pipeline opponents has also become clear. The main Oceti Sakowin camp has been growing in recent weeks as the pipeline inched closer to the Missouri, including the recent influx of military veterans.

Climate activist Bill McKibben has said Standing Rock could mark a turning point in climate activism, writing that indigenous groups have “managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist."

“This is a big step forward in showing what can happen when tribes step up and stand up for their rights collectively,” says Garrit Voggesser, national director for tribal partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation.

Tribes “have always been involved, but we’re seeing a real increase in the weight of their positions,” he adds. “It’s really attracting more people and getting more people active.”

First Nations groups are already discussing forming “Standing Rock North” in response to the Canadian government's recent approval of an oil pipeline running to the coast of British Columbia. Tribes recently scored a victory there blocking the construction of a large coal export terminal.

The widespread public outcry that ultimately led President Obama to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last year was one thing, but this latest pipeline win was on another level, according to Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

"Previous success on pipelines in Canada and the United States has been accomplished in the permitting process of projects. This is one that’s being put into the ground right now," he told the Monitor in October. "We're making history right now."

Where Trump stands

The pipeline, which seeks to connect North Dakota oil fields to an existing pipeline nexus in Illinois, would transport up to 570,00 barrels of oil a day to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Energy Transfer Partners has also said the project would create thousands of local construction jobs and millions in tax revenue.

Its fate could rest in the hands of President-elect Trump, who spoke during his campaign of supporting the fossil fuel industry, and said last week that he supports completing the pipeline.

He also appears to have financial interests in the pipeline. He once owned between $500,000 and $1 million of shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company building the pipeline, but has since sold the shares, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. And as of his most recent disclosure statement in May, he owned $100,000 to $250,000 of stock in Phillips 66, which has a 25 percent stake in the pipeline, The Washington Post reported.

If Trump does continue to support the pipeline, he will be applauded by Americans, including many in North Dakota, who see oil and gas development as a source of jobs and economic growth. But he’ll also confront a diverse opposition, one now emboldened by the belief they can not only fight but win.

"It's not just Indians that are coming to this realization that we've got to secure our drinking water," Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, told the Monitor in October, referencing the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich. "It's just where the country and the planet is moving now."

Mr. Voggesser points to data showing that almost two-thirds of Americans are concerned about global warming, the highest proportion since 2008.

“We have questions about what’s going to happen in the new administration, but the data does show that people are aware of climate change,” he says. “That awareness is something that any administration is going to have to consider.”

 49 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:19 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Elusive fishers return to Pacific Northwest

The rare weasel species is making a comeback in Washington state, thanks to the coordinated
conservation efforts of government and tribal groups.

By Phuong Le, Associated Press December 6, 2016

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — The elusive weasel-like mammal poked its head out of the wooden crate, glanced around and quickly darted into the thick forest of Mount Rainier National Park – returning to a landscape where it had been missing for seven decades.

One by one, 10 Pacific fishers that had been trapped in British Columbia were set free at the park south of Seattle as part of a multiyear effort to reintroduce the native species to its historical range.

A large crowd gathered Friday to herald the return of the dark-brown member of the weasel family with its lush fur and bushy tail. They cheered, clapped, and hooted, and First Nations and American Indian tribal members sang and drummed, as each crate door was lifted and a fisher streaked out of sight across the snowy ground.

"We're correcting something that we mismanaged a long time ago before we knew enough to manage wildlife populations," said Jeffrey Lewis, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Now we can fix that because we know how to. We know we've got a lot of habitat here. All we were missing were the fishers."

Fishers historically were found throughout much of the forested areas of the West Coast. But they declined in numbers due to trapping in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the loss of forest habitats.

By the mid-1900s they were eliminated from Washington state. The solitary animal, which hunts snowshoe hares, rodents, and small mammals, were listed as state endangered species in 1998. They're one of the few predators of porcupines and are found only in North America.

While common in the Northeast and Midwest, they're rare in the Northwest. Population estimates of West Coast fishers today are anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand, mostly in southern Oregon and Northern California. More recently, West Coast fishers have faced threats from illegal pesticide use by marijuana growers and other threats.

But they're slowly making a comeback in Washington through reintroduction efforts involving WDFW, Conservation Northwest, the National Park Service and other partners.

"These animals were here before us and so it's our duty to take care of them," Hanford McCloud, a Nisqually Indian Tribe council member, said during a ceremony before the fishers were released on park land designated for the tribe's use. Several First Nations people traveled with the fishers, some that were captured on First Nations land in British Columbia.

The first fishers, about 90 in all, were reintroduced in Washington state in Olympic National Park starting in 2008. Those animals are reproducing and expanding the species' geographic range.

The second phase of the project involves relocating fishers from British Columbia into the southwest Cascade Mountains and later into the North Cascades. The goal is to reintroduce 80 fishers to each region.

"We feel like we're making headway and we're getting good positive results. It's too early to say that we're establishing a self-sustaining population but it sure is looking positive," said Mr. Lewis.

The recovery efforts, however, come as conservation groups have sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging the federal agency failed to consider the best scientific evidence when it decided not to provide the fisher protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish and Wildlife had proposed listing the forest-dwelling mammal as threatened in 2014 over concerns about logging practices, illegal pesticide use by marijuana growers and other threats.

In April, the agency acknowledged the creatures no longer occur in their historical ranges in Washington, Oregon, and California but concluded they were not in danger of extinction. The agency said the best available science showed current threats aren't causing significant declines in West Coast populations. It also cited conservation measures such as reintroduction efforts in Washington.

"Since 2008, WDFW and its partners have relocated a total of 113 fishers from British Columbia to federal forestlands in Olympic National Park and, more recently, the southern Cascade Mountains," WDFW announced in a statement in late April.

"Last winter, the department expanded its reintroduction efforts to the southern Cascades with the release of 23 fishers south of Mount Rainier. The reintroduction plan calls for releasing a total of 160 fishers throughout the Cascade Range by 2018," the statement went on to say.

"We know the fisher population in the Olympic National Park is reproducing and expanding geographically," said Penny Becker, WDFW wildlife diversity division manager, in the statement. "We have high hopes for the new group in the south Cascades, and this is our first opportunity to see how they're doing."

Still, some conservationists say that more should be done to protect the elusive species.

"We're heartened by reintroduction efforts, but they alone are not going to be sufficient to save the fishers," said Tom Wheeler, Environmental Protection Information Center, one of the groups that sued. He said the animals need greater federal protections because they still face ongoing threats.

Tara Chestnut, a Mount Rainier park ecologist, said the return of fishers to the Cascade Mountains will restore biodiversity to the ecosystem.

"But there's also cultural significance," she said. "Fishers are part of our natural history and our natural heritage. There are also spiritual aspects of their return that are really important."

 50 
 on: Dec 06, 2016, 06:14 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Mysterious gap in the four-legged fossil record might not be a gap at all

When vertebrates grew four limbs and adapted to move out of the oceans and onto the land, it was a huge leap in evolution that set up terrestrial life as we know it. But scientists have long been missing data from that crucial period of time – until now.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer December 6, 2016

A fish sprouts four limbs, wriggles onto dry land, begins to walk around, and then, BAM!, animals are living on land: It's a classic image of a key moment in evolution, oft repeated in comic strips.

But, as popular as that image is, scientists actually don't really know what that crucial evolutionary transition looked like. A 15-million-year gap in the tetrapod fossil record, called Romer's Gap, made that classic tale more of an estimation than something set in stone – until now.

An interdisciplinary team of paleontologists, geologists, and other specialists describe five new tetrapod species from fossils dating within just that gap, from about 360 million to 345 million years ago, in a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. And these new fossils are already revealing insights into the deep evolutionary history of life on Earth.

Some vertebrates (animals with backbones) had already begun to sport four limbs that may have made them capable of moving onto land by the end of the Devonian, around 360 million years ago. But these animals were still mostly aquatic and had many other fish-like features. In the fossil record on the other side of Romer's Gap, the four-limbed animals had already become well-adapted to life on land, with long, five-digit-tipped limbs, and the ability to breathe air. And the life forms were quite diverse, suggesting that the early evolutionary radiation of these modern animals had already happened.

"That was the time during which these animals must have first become terrestrially capable and were used to walking on land," study lead author Jennifer Clack, a vertebrate paleontologist at Cambridge University in Britain, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "But we didn't know how they did it or when they did it or what adaptations they had to allow them to do this."

Michael Coates, the chair of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, who was not part of the new research, describes it as "a bit of a blackbox. We know what comes in, we know what comes out, but we don't know what's going on within the blackbox," he says in a phone interview with the Monitor.

But now the picture is beginning to take shape.

The fossils that Dr. Clack and her colleagues describe sit right at the beginning of the gap, just a few million years after the end of the Devonian. Already, the tetrapods were diverse. In the new paper, the researchers describe five new species and at least seven other fossils that are too fragmentary to be categorized yet.

Of the five described, the researchers identify two of the species as early amphibians. The other three, they say, are more distantly related tetrapods. This would suggest that amphibians and amniotes (the group that eventually yielded mammals, birds, and reptiles) had already diverged by this time, making the evolutionary history of the two groups older than previously thought.

"This is a really useful contribution," Dr. Coates says of the new paper. "This is helping us to understand the structure of modern biodiversity."

It's not just the fossils themselves giving the researchers clues into the tetrapods' transition from water to land. By studying the rocks that encase the ancient animals' carcasses, geologists can glean clues about the environment in which the tetrapods lived.

"We have found tetrapod remains in different kinds of sediments representing different kinds of environments, but mostly they have been found in what have been called sandy siltstones," Clack says. The sandy siltstones, she explains, have been found on top of fossil soils that would have had plants growing out of them. "We think what happened is that the animals were living on this land surface and the silky sandstones represent flood deposits that came and washed them away and preserved the bones."

The researchers think that this kind of consistently changing environment, with streams and rivers continually disappearing and forming in different locations, promoted evolution in these newly terrestrial animals. The tetrapods would have diversified as they had to adapt to this changeable environment.

It had been suggested previously that perhaps Romer's Gap was the result of low atmospheric oxygen levels at the end of the Devonian and beginning of the Carboniferous, which meant fewer and a lower diversity of tetrapods. But, along with the new fossil finds, the research team analyzed fossilized charcoal across the period and found that oxygen levels remained stable.

The researchers have also spotted more diversity across other groups of animals during the supposed gap, too. Taken together, this suggests "there almost certainly wasn't a gap in the fossil record at all," Clack says. "Or if there was, it's much shorter than people realize."

"It's a case of going to look in the right places, in the right kind of rocks," she says.

Understanding this period of time, called the Tournaisian, is important because when those four-legged, backboned animals evolved to live on land, they set the groundwork for the groups of animals that live today.

"We are descendants of the survivors from that time," Clack says. "All the flora and fauna of the Earth was changed during that period. And what survived is, largely speaking, what survives to this day: the foundation for modern floras and faunas."

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