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 71 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:27 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Famous Giant Turtle Dies—Only Three Left on Earth

The death of Cu Rua, long revered in Vietnam, brings the critically endangered Yangtze giant softshell turtle one step closer to extinction.

Photograph by ChinaFotoPress, Getty
By Scott Duke Harris
2/8/2015
National Geogrpahic

HANOI, Vietnam—We were packed inside a small taxi—me, my wife, our three kids—and heading past postcard-perfect Hoan Kiem Lake (map) when I noticed a crowd at the water’s edge. On a hunch I directed the cabbie to pull over. 
 
This was early 2011. We worked our way to the water and saw the magnificent, 360-pound (160-kilogram) turtle the Vietnamese call Cu Rua, or “Great Grandfather Turtle,” making a rare public appearance.

Its dark gray-brown head, nearly the size of our toddler’s, was raised above the muddy, polluted water as the 4-foot-long (1.2-meter-long) beast cruised slowly near shore, seemingly struggling to breathe.

Days after, authorities initiated an effort to clean up Hoan Kiem and help Cu Rua, a critically endangered Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei).

And it seemed to work until January 20, when Cu Rua died—leaving only three of the world's largest freshwater turtle species left on Earth.

Last Hope

The stately Cu Rua (pronounced “koo zu-ah”), which was estimated to be more than a hundred years old, had become a distinguished citizen in this city of four million.

Any glimpse of the reclusive Cu Rua was considered good luck, and the grief over his death is widespread.

“It is almost impossible to put into words the significance of this loss,” says Peter Pritchard, a turtle researcher and founder of the Florida-based Chelonian Research Institute. 

Between the 1970s and 1990s, hunting devastated populations throughout China’s Yangtze River and Vietnam’s Red River valleys. Urban development has also damaged the species' habitat.

Now the species has dwindled to three. A male and female live in captivity in Changsa Zoo in China's southern Hunan Province, but the two haven't yet mated.

Naturalist Carlos Romero discusses the rare and ancient Galápagos giant tortoise, which has made its home on Ecuador's Galápagos Islands for millions of years.

The only known wild individual lives about 37 miles (60 kilometers) west of Hanoi in a lake called Dong Mo.

The species is so elusive that determining sex is difficult, and no one knows whether it's a male or female, says Timothy McCormack, director of the Hanoi-based Asian Turtle Program.

But there are efforts underway to find out if the Dong Mo animal is male. If he is, scientists hope to bring him to China and attempt to mate him with the zoo female.

"Something of a Miracle"
   
“To rebuild a population from three animals would be something of a miracle, but certainly not impossible,” says Pritchard.

Like other large soft-shelled turtles, the species lays several dozen eggs in a clutch, he explains.

“With careful husbandry, the majority of these may produce viable adult turtles.”

And it's been done before.

On the Galápagos Islands, scientists have bred the Galápagos giant tortoise, which had been in rapid decline, in captivity since 1971. The program has produced more than 2,000 offspring, and the species is again thriving, he says.

If mating doesn't work, the conservationists' last hope is that other tortoises may still be lurking undiscovered in the wild.   
 
Irreplaceable
 
There's also talk in Vietnam of moving the Dong Mo turtle to Hoan Kiem—for sentimental reasons.

The desire is understandable, says McCormack. Vietnam folklore tells of how a heroic turtle returned a lost sword to a 15th century emperor, enabling him to liberate Vietnam from Chinese invaders. Hoan Kiem translates to "Lake of the Restored Sword."
 
This legend is celebrated at Hoan Kiem with a ghostly white Turtle Tower shrine, erected in the 1880s on an island at one end of the lake.

At the opposite end, a bridge leads to Ngoc Son Temple, where Cu Rua’s former turtle companion, killed in a botched capture attempt in the 1980s, is on display.

Already, there are plans to preserve Cu Rua's remains and display them there.
 
But moving the Dong Mo turtle to Hoan Kiem it would a terrible idea, conservationists say, because the risk of pollution and trauma could compromise its use in the breeding program.

Besides, “could any other turtle replace such an iconic figure?” Pritchard asks. “The answer is a resounding no.”

 72 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:22 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Why Are These Male Fish Growing Eggs?

Fish in wildlife refuges are feminized, probably by hormone-skewing pollution. What does this portend for the health of all creatures—and people?

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
By Lindsey Konkel
2/8/2016
National Geographic

SWANTON, Vermont—Silver maples, lanky and bare, stand on the frozen flood plain at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. Two sets of tracks—fox and mouse—weave across the snowy surface of the river, which is home to bass, muskrats, and beavers. In the fall, more than 20,000 migrating ducks will converge here, and in the summer, one of the refuge’s rarest species, spiny softshell turtles, will bask and forage on its gravelly beaches and sandbars.

Sixty miles south of Montreal, near the U.S.-Canada border, Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most productive and pristine wetland ecosystems in the Northeast. Yet even here, scientists have found an abundance of fish with bizarre abnormalities that suggest exposure to hormone-disrupting water pollution.

Scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey studied fish in 19 national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Northeast, including Missisquoi. Their conclusion: An astonishing 60 to 100 percent of all the male smallmouth bass they examined had female egg cells growing in their testes.

Scientists call this condition intersex, and while its exact causes are unknown, it’s been linked to manmade, environmental chemicals that mimic or block sex hormones.

Over the past decade, feminized male fish have been discovered in 37 species in lakes and rivers throughout North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Experts say the new discovery in protected wildlife refuges is worrisome because it suggests that pollution may be even more pervasive than previously thought.

“There are no truly untouched areas. I think the take away here is that everything we do, everything we use or put on the land, ends up in the water at some point,” says Luke Iwanowicz, a U.S. Geological Survey fish researcher based in West Virginia who led the wildlife refuge study.

What scientists don’t know is what these feminized fish portend for the health of these species, for the environment, and perhaps for humans, too.

“When fish are getting intersex, it’s probably a good indication that something is wrong in the environment,” says Vicki Blazer, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Fish Health Research Laboratory in West Virginia.
Female Eggs in Male Testes

Intersex males don’t look outwardly different than normal males. In fact, federal scientists uncovered the condition by accident in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in 2003. They were conducting a post-mortem examination to determine the causes of a smallmouth bass die-off when they found male fish with female egg cells in their testes. In a follow-up study, they found these intersex conditions in more than three-quarters of male smallmouth bass caught in parts of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in Virginia and West Virginia.

Gender in fish isn’t always straightforward. Some species of fish—including clown fish, grouper, and gobies—are hermaphrodites, meaning they naturally have both male and female sex organs. They are born with the ability to change their gender—it’s a special adaptation that some species have evolved to improve their chances at reproducing.

Intersex is different. It happens in species of fish that aren’t hermaphroditic, and it doesn’t help reproduction. In severe cases, it can make fish sterile.

“Intersex definitely is not normal,” says Don Tillitt, a U.S. Geological Survey toxicologist. The presence of female eggs in male testes indicates some kind of hormonal confusion. Scientists call this phenomenon endocrine disruption.

Mounting evidence suggests that intersex in fish may be the result of exposure to contaminants that encompass a wide range of natural and synthetic chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and personal care products. Some chemicals of concern include estrogens from birth control pills, the plasticizer bisphenol A, and the herbicide atrazine. These chemicals can mimic and in some cases interrupt a body’s normal hormonal processes.

Worldwide, intersex conditions caused by hormonal disruption have occurred in an array of aquatic animals, including alligators, turtles, and frogs.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, researchers found the most evidence of intersex fish in areas with a lot of agriculture and wastewater effluent, and large human populations. Hormonally active chemicals have been shown to flow into rivers and lakes through discharge from wastewater treatment plants and runoff from roads, yards, and farm fields.

“We knew this was going on in the Chesapeake watershed, but we didn’t expect to see issues like this in protected natural areas with far less development,” Iwanowicz says.

A Symptom of Polluted Water

When Iwanowicz and his colleagues examined bass—both largemouth and smallmouth—on wildlife refuges from Virginia to Maine, their goal was to assess potential water quality threats from endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Bass—especially smallmouth bass—serve as indicator species for scientists, meaning they are particularly sensitive to pollutants in the environment.

“One of the roles of the national wildlife refuges is to preserve natural ecosystems, so it’s a management issue for us,” says Ken Sturm, Missisquoi’s refuge manager.  “Water is the blood of this ecosystem. Intersex in fish may be a symptom of larger problems with water quality that we’re just beginning to understand.”

Some of the refuges sampled, such as John Heinz at Tinicum in Philadelphia and Great Swamp in New Jersey, are close to major East Coast urban centers. Others, including Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine and Missisquoi, are more remote—surrounded by forests, farm fields, and small towns.

The researchers found intersex smallmouth bass everywhere they looked. About 85 percent of the males collected in the refuges were intersex. At least some males at every site had female egg cells. It was less prevalent in largemouth bass—about 27 percent.

Surprisingly, the phenomenon wasn’t nearly as widespread in previous testing at eight U.S. river basins, including the Mississippi, Rio Grande, and Columbia Rivers.  In that research, 33 percent of male smallmouth bass were feminized.

Why are there so many intersex fish on the refuges? No one knows.. For most of the refuges, there are no identifiable sources—no sewage treatment plant or industrial facility, for example—putting out pollutants that could explain the phenomenon.

“It’s really pretty staggering to be seeing these percentages in areas we would think of as pristine natural areas,” says Christopher Martyniuk, a fish biologist at the University of Florida who was not involved with the refuge study.

We like to think of the far wilds of northern Vermont or Maine as pristine, explains Iwanowicz, yet the newest study serves as a reality check.

Even protected places are influenced by their surroundings, adds Sturm, who has managed the Mississquoi refuge for five years. The Mississquoi River winds for 80 miles through the northern Green Mountains along the U.S.-Canada border before it pours into Lake Champlain. The area is rural, peppered with dairy farms, small towns, and vacation homes. The refuge is made up of narrow strips of land that stretch like a claw from the river mouth into the lake.

“Anything that goes into the water along the way water flows right through the refuge,” he says.

Too Much Estrogen

Estrogen-like chemicals are the suspected culprits. A higher-than-expected level of estrogen activity was detected in water collected from 79 percent of the sites. However, no tests have occurred yet to identify specific chemicals.

An unusual signature in the blood of fish from the Missisquoi River also points toward environmental estrogens. Researchers found high levels of vitellogenin—a protein involved in producing egg yolk—in many smallmouth bass. In male fish, the gene that tells the body to produce vitellogenin is usually “turned off,” explains Iwanowicz. That gene only “switches on” in the presence of estrogen, a female sex hormone.

“When we find vitellogenin in the blood it’s a pretty clear indication that those male fish were exposed to extra estrogens of some kind,” says Iwanowicz.

One environmental estrogen is ethinyl estradiol—a chemical found in birth control pills.  In laboratory studies, scientists have been able to induce intersex in some fish by exposing males to the compound.

Yet the answers in nature—where fish are exposed to a variety of chemicals and other stressors—are never as clear-cut as in the tightly controlled laboratory environment.

Other environmental factors might contribute to intersex in fish, including low levels of dissolved oxygen and warming water temperatures. Scientists don’t yet understand how some of these other factors may be influencing feminization, explains Tillitt.

Researchers are also probing the consequences of intersex for fish health.

Experiments with minnows suggest that exposure to environmental estrogens may cause problems for fish populations. Very severe levels of feminization—having a lot of egg cells in the testes—can impair sperm quality, impeding a fish’s ability to reproduce. But feminization is a continuum: Males with only a few eggs in their testes may have no trouble at all reproducing.

The intersex findings in bass at the refuges don’t appear to be linked to any population-scale reproductive problems for the popular sport fish.

Nevertheless, Sturm worries about what the findings mean for some of the refuge’s more vulnerable species, such as the spiny softshell turtle. About 200 of the leathery-skinned turtles reside in Lake Champlain, most of them clustering around the mouth of the river. They’re vulnerable to water pollution and other threats, including predation, boating, and fishing hooks. No other population of spiny softshell turtle exists in New England or Quebec, though it is found elsewhere in North America.

“Bass are a sentinel species, but it’s possible that other animals could be affected too,” says Sturm.

Reproductive impairment isn’t the only concern, says Blazer. In the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers, she’s seen an increase in diseases, die offs, and infections in some fish species. Their immune systems are weak. These health problems seem to correlate with levels of intersex.

“It’s possible that the environmental chemicals inducing intersex may also be causing immune system problems,” she says.

Exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in drinking water, food, and household products have been linked to health problems in people too, including reduced fertility, developmental delays in children, and some cancers. But it’s too soon to say whether feminized fish are indicative of health effects for humans too.

“Knowing that environmental chemicals which disrupt endocrine function are out in the environment at concentrations above thresholds for effect should lead us to try to evaluate the risk in a more comprehensive fashion,” says Tillitt.
Along the Missisquoi

On the banks of the Missisquoi, frozen marsh grasses crunch underfoot. A downy woodpecker flits among the wayward branches of an uprooted tree. Muskrat lodges—small mounds made from bulrush and cattail—dot the landscape.

Winters are bleak here, but in a few months, the ice will thaw and the refuge once again will teem with wildlife. Established in 1943 as part of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Missisquoi refuge occupies a prime spot on the Atlantic Flyway—one of North America’s major bird migration routes.

Two years ago, the refuge and the Missisquoi delta were designated a Wetland of International Importance under an international treaty that calls attention to globally important ecosystems. That puts the refuge on a list that includes renowned habitats such as the Florida Everglades and Africa’s Okavango Delta.

While seven miles of trail and other public activities occur at the refuge, much of the refuge’s 7,000 acres are off-limits to people. “Wildlife is our first priority. Humans come second,” says Sturm.

Yet the refuge—and the river itself—are not untouched. Vermont Route 78, a main thoroughfare connecting northern Vermont with New York State—bisects the refuge wetlands, causing wildlife deaths from roadkill. Just south of the refuge, an abandoned dam blocks sturgeon, walleye and other fish species from reaching important spawning grounds in Lake Champlain. In the summer, manure from farm fields upstream trickles into the river, causing smelly algae blooms in Missisquoi Bay.

“As stewards of an internationally important wetlands, we do what we can to protect it, but we don’t have ultimate control over its fate,” says Sturm. “Communities must come together to protect the entire watershed.”

 73 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:16 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Murdered Parks Official Remembered For Anti-Poaching Efforts

Tanzanian Emily Kisamo’s killing came at a critical time during the fight against wildlife crime, say conservationists
Picture of Emily Kisamo

Photo courtesy Wendy Foden
By Maraya Cornell
2/8/2016
National Geographic

In December, in the midst of Tanzania’s ongoing war against poaching, a man some describe as one of Africa’s finest wildlife defenders was murdered. Emily Stephen Kisamo, protection manager for Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), was found dead in the trunk of his car, his throat slit.

Initially, Kisamo’s family lawyer, Coleman Ngalo, told reporters that Kisamo’s death was ordered by poaching ringleaders, and several TANAPA employees expressed concerned about their own safety. But police have since reported that Kisamo’s gardener confessed to killing Kisamo in his house in order to steal his money. At last report, three others, including Kisamo’s wife, were being held in connection with the murder.

During his 28-year career with the park service, Emily Kisamo helped rural children plant trees to prevent erosion, mediated conflicts between rangers and Maasai warriors, coordinated numerous cross-border investigations into wildlife crimes, collaborated with scientists to map poaching hot spots using ivory DNA forensics, and headed up intelligence in the agency. At the end of his life, he was overseeing all of TANAPA’s anti-poaching efforts.

Kisamo (front right) and his team open crates of seized ivory that underwent DNA analysis in 2006. This was the first time anyone tracked the origin of elephant ivory from a seizure, and Kisamo played an instrumental role in making it happen.
Photograph courtesy Ben Mutayoba

Markus Borner, who headed up the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Africa program for more than 20 years, knew Kisamo professionally since 1996. “I considered him one of the most outstanding, honest, dedicated conservation professionals that Tanzania ever had,” he said.

Lion

Kisamo was born in 1964 in Marangu, a leafy town surrounded by streams and waterfalls in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.

After finishing secondary school and his required year in the National Service, Kisamo was hired as a trainee park warden. Between various posts in TANAPA, he earned a diploma from the College of Wildlife Management and a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Wildlife Ecology from the University of Dar es Salaam.

Kisamo was in his mid-30s when he enrolled in the FitzPatrick Institute’s Masters in Conservation Biology (MSc) program at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

The students formed a lasting bond during the program—“like a new close-knit family,” says Catherine Hughes. Now far-flung researchers and conservation professionals, they shared their grief, remembering Kisamo as “gentle,” “kind,” and exceptionally respectful and caring, one who “took other people's worst problems as his own.”

In 2014, Kisamo spoke at an international training session in Tanzania devoted to interview and interrogation techniques.
Photograph courtesy Bill Clark

Achieving consensus usually required many hours, “but for Kisamo, it was quick and unanimous,” says Foden. “Kisamo was a lion. A great Serengeti male. Calm, regal, watching, powerful.”

Humanitarian

Kisamo was keenly interested in the problems faced by Tanzania’s growing rural populations.

In his master’s thesis, which evaluates the impact of community conservation initiatives in villages around the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, he wrote about conservation in a way that considered the welfare of both humans and wildlife.

Before joining the master’s program, Kisamo was in charge of community conservation for Serengeti National Park, where he had the challenging task of establishing rapport with the herding communities in Loliondo, an area plagued by chronic controversy over land rights.

Retired TANAPA General Director Gerald Bigurube praised Kisamo’s successes in building “very good relations” with these communities in a letter of recommendation he wrote for Kisamo years later. Kisamo even negotiated the peaceful return of an AK-47 captured from park officials by a group of Maasai warriors—a task Bigurube said had seemed impossible.

Kisamo’s discussions with communities about erosion control inspired tree-planting projects all around the Serengeti, according to a 2001 issue of the East African Wild Life Society magazine.

Parents in the area began naming their children after him.

“I think it was this deep understanding of the needs of people as well the needs of the speechless creatures in the wild that made him such a great champion of conservation,” says Markus Borner.

Wildlife Crime Fighter

Shortly after earning his master’s degree, Kisamo was swept into the world of international crime-fighting when he was appointed director of the Nairobi-based Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF).

During his six years as director, he worked closely with Interpol’s Bill Clark on multiple law enforcement sweeps. Kisamo’s “efforts contributed enormously in making these operations successful,” says Clark, “and we measured success in the hundreds of ivory traffickers arrested, scores of illegal firearms recovered, and tons of contraband ivory seized.”

Clark, who has worked in African wildlife law enforcement for more than 35 years, describes Kisamo as “one of the finest wildlife law enforcement officers to accept the enormous challenge of fighting poachers and traffickers in Africa.”

In 2006, Kisamo coordinated the return of a record haul of contraband ivory—6.5 tons that had been seized in Singapore in 2002—back to the LATF’s headquarters in Nairobi for investigation.

According to Karl Karugaba, a field officer in the task force at the time, “Getting such a quantity of ivory back to Africa was unprecedented.” Kisamo even persuaded Singapore to pay for the freight.

He then collaborated with University of Washington researcher Samuel Wasser to sample DNA from the Singapore ivory and compare it to DNA from elephant dung samples collected from around Africa, pioneering a new means of using ivory seizures to identify poaching hotspots. They worked together on the analysis of several other seizures, coauthoring two papers on ivory DNA forensics.

“Kisamo was pivotal in helping us launch and apply this methodology,” Wasser says. “I will always remember his warm smile and positive demeanor, while fighting the hard fight.”

Exacting Boss

According Gerald Bigurube, Kisamo transformed the task force from a poorly performing organization “into a very modern, credible institution.”

Retired Zambian Wildlife Authority Officer Clement Mwale served as an intelligence officer in LATF while Kisamo was in charge. He agreed. Kisamo “wanted the job done, and he wanted it done properly,” Mwale said.

It was no different after Kisamo returned to Tanzania National Parks in 2009.

Fidelis Kapalata, who had been working as Kisamo’s assistant protection manager since last May, recalls, “When I became his assistant, right away he started giving me a lot of responsibility, encouraging me to be confident.”

But, Kapalata says, Kisamo did not tolerate late or sloppy work. “I can give myself as an example. So I learned—and I changed myself to work hard like him.”

Demanding though he was, Kisamo was loved and respected. “The organization itself is missing his efforts to combat poaching,” Kapalata says. “But also, people individually are missing him.”

Dedicated Conservationist

At the University of Cape Town, Benis Egoh often studied with Kisamo. She believes he saw his master’s degree as a small part of a lifetime of conservation work. “While most of us were thinking about doing a PhD and going forward with studies,” she says, “he was focused on going back to work and stopping species extinction.”

I asked Clement Mwale, who kept up with Kisamo after they both left LATF, how he thought Kisamo would have wanted to be remembered.

At first, Mwale demurred, not wishing to guess at his friend’s private thoughts. But after a pause he said, speaking carefully, “I think he wanted to be seen as one of the people who contributed to the conservation of wildlife.”

Emily Kisamo was 51 when he died. He is survived by a wife, two children, and a grandchild.

 74 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:12 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

Let’s Not Force Eagles to Fight Rogue Drones

A thrilling viral video looks great from a police officer's point of view, but what about the eagle's?
Bald eagles deserve better than being conscripted into an endless war against evil flying robots.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative
By Nicholas Lund
2/8/2016
National Geographic

Watching a giant eagle streak out of the sky to capture a rogue drone is undeniably cool. A story has been sweeping the Internet about how the Dutch National Police are training eagles to be a new avian air force that will protect us from evil flying robots.

The idea that eagles could be turned into an efficient and effective drone-catching squadron makes a certain amount of sense. I've spent a lot of time observing eagles, and as any birder knows, they’re big, tough birds with big, strong talons and great eyesight. And it’s not surprising that police forces would turn to live birds to help them capture errant drones. Other anti-drone efforts are expensive and unwieldy, such as weird guns that shoot radio waves or bigger drones that shoot nets at rogue drones.

What’s surprising is that people think using live eagles to hunt drones is a good idea. It’s not. It’s not a good idea at all.

The Netherlands-based company behind the police training video, Guard from Above, is evidently using bald eagles as its drone attackers. I give the company the benefit of the doubt that it acquired its birds legally, but for reference, bald eagles are not native to Europe, and it’s illegal in the U.S. to possess one without a permit. (The company’s website says it’s been training birds of prey for 25 years.) But I really don’t think being drafted into a robot-fighting army is in the best interest of America’s national bird.

The biggest problem is the very obvious danger to the eagles. As demonstrated by the Mythbusters crew, who are among the preeminent scientific experimenters of our time, drone blades, especially carbon fiber ones, can cause serious damage to an animal. If an eagle were to midjudge its attack, or if the drone operator were to take evasive or defense maneuvers, a bird could be struck by the blades and seriously injured or killed.

Despite Guard from Above’s claim that it is relying on birds’ “natural hunting instincts” to take out drones, bald eagles do not normally take prey out of the air in the wild. “Bald eagles are not bird predators,” says Kent Knowles, president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, “they eat fish and carrion. Bald eagles are not falconry birds.” This type of hunting isn’t natural at all. “It’s dangerous because drones are not like anything bald eagles or other birds of prey find in nature,” Knowles says. “I don’t think they have any understanding of what drones are.”

Even if birds are well trained and are unexpectedly effective at avoiding rotors, how many eagles are we willing to risk if something goes wrong?

Seriously, bald eagles have been through enough. Bald eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List less than ten years ago, which is about 15 minutes in evolutionary time. Humans nearly wiped them out through a combination of pesticides (primarily DDT), habitat destruction, and illegal shooting. In 1963, bald eagles hit a population low in the United States of just 487 pairs. Since then they’ve battled back and are just now repopulating old territories and establishing a stable population.

So after all that, now we’re going to force them to fight flying robots? How about this for an idea: Let’s just leave eagles alone. Let’s give them some trees to perch on and some salmon to eat and just let them be. What’s next, taking cheetahs out of Africa to chase down jaywalkers? Using giraffes to peer over the border fence to look for smugglers?  Wild animals belong in the wild, not in our police stations. Please let’s leave eagles alone.

 75 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:09 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink: How Do Animals Flirt?

Just as with people, gifts, perfumes, and displays of affection win wild hearts.

Photograph by Richard Du Toit, Minden Pictures/Corbis
By Liz Langley
2/8/2016
National Geographic

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we couldn’t resist Iris Mimih’s question: “Do animals wink at their amours to show interest?”

The answer is mostly no, but for Saturday’s Weird Animal Question of the Week, we investigated the various ways that animals signal interest in one another.

Pheasant Dance

Birds are the most well-known flirters, and among them, peacocks, bowerbirds, and birds of paradise usually steal the show.

Until, that is, you see the male great argus, a type of pheasant that puts on possibly the most impressive display. The great argus flashes long, eyespotted feathers in a dazzling dance to woo females. (We fell in love with it, too, so the flirting must work on humans).

Sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers these pheasants near-threatened in their native habitat of the Malay peninsula.

Bottlenose Bros

Male bottlenose dolphins also turn up the charm by forming “cooperative alliances,” Quincy Gibson, a biologist at the University of North Florida, says via email. 

The male dolphins will swim and break the surface in a “highly synchronous” way, even leaping around, in what may be an effort to impress the ladies.

If not they have other tricks up their, um, blowholes.

From learning English symbols to teaming up to trick their prey, dolphin intelligence continues to surprise researchers

“Dolphins are very tactile animals, and males and females will pet and rub their close associates frequently using their pectoral fins and other body parts as a way to bond and/or show affection,” Gibson says.

A Tall Drink of… Urine

Now that we have some dancing, how about some perfume?

Male giraffes will explore a female’s rump and genital area, and if she likes him (wink!) she’ll voluntarily produce urine which he’ll sniff and taste, to see if she’s in estrus.

“Males cannot afford to waste time and energy trying to court a female who is already pregnant or not yet in estrus,” Rachel Brand, an independent behavioral ecologist in Namibia, says via email. She added that many animals do the same.

(See “Wild Romance: Animal Courtship and Mating Rituals.”)... http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/14/wild-romance-weird-animal-courtship-and-mating-rituals/

Mating can be “a pretty precarious business,” Brand adds.

"A male has to rise quite high on his hind legs and raise his forelegs a long way off the ground," she says. If he makes an attempt to climb on top of her and she walks away, “he could be in for quite a fall!”

So he’ll keep checking if she’s interested by “pressing lightly on her rump with his chest.”

But she may also be stalling until a better suitor arrives.

Wooed With Food

Insects do the best gift baskets, says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona.

Males often bring females presents of dead prey, “the insect equivalent of a box of chocolates.” (See “Female Peacock Spiders Underwhelmed by Disco Dancing Suitors.”)

Male scorpion flies may risk their lives swiping a dead insect from a spider’s web to offer a female as a nuptial gift. Or he may offer a blob of his own protein-packed spit, a nice nutritional supplement to help his sweetheart produce eggs.

Thank goodness we’re not scorpion flies.

 76 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 06:01 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor
   
How the March asteroid flyby shows Earth on alert

Asteroid 2013 TX68 will soon buzz past Earth, providing a window into how NASA handles threats from space.

By Corey Fedde, Staff February 8, 2016   

Earth can expect an asteroid flyby in March, NASA says.

A 100-foot asteroid will complete its second trip past the Earth in March. Asteroid 2013 TX68 first flew past Earth roughly two years ago, but never got closer than 1.3 million miles. This year, scientists expect the small asteroid to come much closer: between 11,000 miles and 9 million miles above the surface.

Why the enormous range? Uncertainty over the asteroid's precise trajectory.

But scientists are certain that the asteroid will stay in space: “There is no possibility that this object could impact Earth” in 2016, says a NASA press release. (But 2017 is another story: the risk increases to a 1-in-250 million chance of an impact.)

With no immediate threat of an asteroid Armageddon, why does Asteroid 2013 TX68’s flyby matter?

Because it demonstrates a growing awareness of the risk from space objects.

“Asteroid detection, tracking, and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said in January.

"The 2013 Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the recent 'Halloween Asteroid' close approach remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky.”

In 2013, a meteor exploded in the sky above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, the blast was likely one of the first of its kind to be recorded from every angle and to take place over a dense urban center. The shockwave from the explosion shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured more than 1,000 people.

"I was driving to work and suddenly there was this flash that lit everything up like bright sunlight," one witness from Chelyabinsk told the Monitor. "The shock wave nearly drove me off the road."

With little warning from the Russian military, who cited expectations the asteroid would break up in the atmosphere, the blast acted as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by space objects colliding with the Earth.

Since the Chelyabinsk fireball, asteroids and other objects have received much greater attention, including Spooky the Halloween asteroid, which passed Earth in October 2015, and a 2015 Christmas asteroid that prompted reports of asteroid-induced earthquakes.

In January, NASA announced the creation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, continuing the work that the Near-Earth Object Program has performed since 1995. The new department is tasked with tracking objects that could threaten Earth and preventing the threat.

These efforts have sped up the spread of information about close asteroids. Where the Chelyabinsk asteroid went without mention until the explosion, Asteroid 2013 TX68’s trajectory has been shared months ahead of its March flyby.

"The possibilities of collision on any of the three future flyby dates are far too small to be of any real concern," said Paul Chodas, manager of CNEOS. "I fully expect any future observations to reduce the probability even more."

 77 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 05:59 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Are drought conditions in the American Southwest here to stay?

A new study suggests that extremely dry conditions may now be standard in the central and western US, as precipitation and storms there have seen a marked decrease through the past decades.

By Ben Thompson, Staff February 8, 2016   

A new study suggests that dry conditions in the southwestern United States, including the ongoing California drought, may become standard.

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, analyzes weather types to demonstrate how the American Southwest has already shifted to a much drier climate system than it once had, along with showing a downward trend in overall precipitation. The research, which uses data from 1979 to 2014 collected from across the contiguous United States, could show that the dry pattern will continue into the future.

“A normal year in the Southwest is now drier than it once was,” said Andreas Prein, the leader of the study and a research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), in a release from the center.

“If you have a drought nowadays, it will be more severe because our base state is drier,” he said.

To gather information on precipitation processes, the researchers analyzed daily sea pressure, atmospheric water depth, and wind speeds over a period of 35 years. Trends in five US regions – the Northwest, Southwest, Midwest, Northeast, and South – were studied, with each area divided into three subregions where the precipitation analyses were performed.

The data showed that areas such as the Pacific Southwest were especially reliant on only a few weather types, and were markedly affected by changes there. The weather types that provide almost two-thirds of the precipitation to that region, for example, were the ones that “significantly decrease[d] in frequency” over the period of study, leading to the dry conditions throughout the Southwest.

“The weather types that are becoming more rare are the ones that bring a lot of rain to the southwestern United States,” said Dr. Prein. “Because only a few weather patterns bring precipitation to the Southwest, those changes have a dramatic impact.”

While the final trends showed an increase in precipitation frequency and intensity throughout much of the Atlantic coast and Northeast, the Central Plains and most of the western US were shown to have a decreasing trend decade-over-decade in weather type frequency, although some of the region saw an increase in intensity. Even so, without a steady source of water, even the bigger, stronger storms may still not be enough to provide the necessary water to western regions. And with the added warming effects of climate change, less precipitation further aggravates drought conditions.

“As temperatures increase, the ground becomes drier and the transition into drought happens more rapidly,” said Greg Holland, one of the study’s co-authors and a senior NCAR scientist. “In the Southwest the decreased frequency of rainfall events has further extended the period and intensity of these droughts.”

So while a variety of factors have led to the ongoing drought, “Weather type frequency shifts are the dominant driver for decreasing precipitation in the US Southwest,” and the conclusions of the researchers “support projections of climate models that show a pronounced increase of droughts and aridity in the Southwest during the latter half of the 21st century.”

California recently extended its emergency water conservation measures through the fall, and the effects of this year’s El Niño storms still unknown. But experts are hoping the intense rain and snowfall will aid in hydrating the state’s land and resources, at least for the time being, and the new information brought forward by the NCAR study could help the region prepare for the coming years of dryness.

“Understanding how changing weather pattern frequencies may impact total precipitation across the US is particularly relevant to water resource managers as they contend with issues such as droughts and floods, and plan future infrastructure to store and disperse water,” said Mari Tye, an NCAR project scientist and co-author on the study.

 78 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 05:56 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
February 8, 2016

NASA experiments with new revolutionary ‘Green Propellant’ rocket fuel

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

NASA, in partnership with the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB), has successfully demonstrated the loading of a new Swedish-developed “green propellant” that’s powerful enough to propel a satellite, but is far less volatile than similar fuels—it smells like glass cleaner and looks like chardonnay.

Part of an international agreement with the SNSB,  simulation of a vehicle loading operation with the new propellant formally named LMP-103S "Green Propellant", was led by NASA at the Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia. Henry Mulkey, the NASA engineer who led the simulation, says this is the first demonstration of its kind conducted on a United States range.

The demonstration was done near the end of 2015, but two other tests will be carried out this year, including a fracture test assessing the strength of a cracked tank filled with the new propellant and a test fire of two spacecraft thrusters powered by LMP-103S.

The goal of these tests is to demonstrate that in addition to being more “green”, this new propellant performs better, is less expensive, and is safer than hydrazine, a conventional propellant so toxic that anyone handling it must wear full-body protective gear. The new green propellant is much safer-- Mulkey claims he mixed the new fuel using only sparse protective gear like safety goggles.

The Stockholm, Sweden company ECAPS AB began developing this propellant twenty years ago using ammonium dinitramide. Five years ago, the propellant was used for the first time by the Swedish spacecraft PRISMA. Since then, 70 thrusters powered by LMP-103S have been built and used, and now, NASA may hop on board, as the space agency investigates this propellant’s use for their Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

NASA is also looking at another green hydrazine alternative—AF-M315E. This fuel was developed at the U.S. Air Force Research Lab and is expected to be tested in 2016, where five engines or thrusters will burn this fuel to see how efficiently it performs in various applications.

 79 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 05:55 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
February 8, 2016

New human-driven virus is devastating bee populations; What can be done?

by Susanna Pilny
Red Orbit

Bee populations are plummeting again, and this time not because of neonicotinoid pesticides: Now, a virus is taking hold worldwide, and it looks like humans are to blame for its spread.

The disease—called the deformed wing virus—is especially deadly when carried by the parasitic Varroa mite. Together, the mite and the virus wiped out millions of bees within a few decades, as the Varroa mites feed on bee larvae and the virus it carries kills off bees of all ages.

Which means that the bee populations are devastated twice over—bringing new concerns about the fate of the little creatures that pollinate $16 billion worth of crops per year in the US alone.

What’s the buzz?

According to the paper published in Science, the virus isn’t just spreading naturally, but instead is being driven by human movement and bee transportation. To reach this conclusion, the researchers examined the phylogeography—simply speaking, genetics and geographic locations—of Varroa mites and the deformed wing virus.

Through this work, they discovered that the virus seems to have spread from one main region: Europe. From there, it has reached North America (Hawaii in particular), Australia, Asia, and New Zealand.

In terms of the spread of the mites and virus, there appears to be some forward and backward movement of the virus between Asia and Europe, but none between the geographically closer Australasia and Asia; it’s unidirectional in those cases, mostly just being carried over from Europe. The researchers believe this suggests that the virus does not spread normally, but it carried such distances via human methods.

“This is the first study to conclude that Europe is the backbone of the global spread of the bee-killing combination of deformed wing virus and Varroa,” said coauthor Lena Wilfert, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, in a statement.

“This demonstrates that the spread of this combination is largely man-made—if the spread was naturally occurring, we would expect to see transmission between countries that are close to each other, but we found that, for example, the New Zealand virus population originated in Europe. This significantly strengthens the theory that human transportation of bees is responsible for the spread of this devastating disease.”

More bees, please

The solution, then, to saving the global populations of pollinators seems clear—although it may sting a little.

“We must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not,” said Wilfert. “It’s also really important that beekeepers at all levels take steps to control Varroa in their hives, as this viral disease can also affect wild pollinators.”

But researchers believe that, with such controls, we can turn things around.

“The key insight of our work is that the global virus pandemic in honey bees is manmade not natural,” says senior author Mike Boots, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Exeter. “It’s therefore within our hands to mitigate this and future disease problems.”

 80 
 on: Feb 08, 2016, 05:54 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
February 8, 2016

New human-driven virus is devastating bee populations; What can be done?

by Susanna Pilny
Red Orbit

Bee populations are plummeting again, and this time not because of neonicotinoid pesticides: Now, a virus is taking hold worldwide, and it looks like humans are to blame for its spread.

The disease—called the deformed wing virus—is especially deadly when carried by the parasitic Varroa mite. Together, the mite and the virus wiped out millions of bees within a few decades, as the Varroa mites feed on bee larvae and the virus it carries kills off bees of all ages.

Which means that the bee populations are devastated twice over—bringing new concerns about the fate of the little creatures that pollinate $16 billion worth of crops per year in the US alone.

What’s the buzz?

According to the paper published in Science, the virus isn’t just spreading naturally, but instead is being driven by human movement and bee transportation. To reach this conclusion, the researchers examined the phylogeography—simply speaking, genetics and geographic locations—of Varroa mites and the deformed wing virus.

Through this work, they discovered that the virus seems to have spread from one main region: Europe. From there, it has reached North America (Hawaii in particular), Australia, Asia, and New Zealand.

In terms of the spread of the mites and virus, there appears to be some forward and backward movement of the virus between Asia and Europe, but none between the geographically closer Australasia and Asia; it’s unidirectional in those cases, mostly just being carried over from Europe. The researchers believe this suggests that the virus does not spread normally, but it carried such distances via human methods.

“This is the first study to conclude that Europe is the backbone of the global spread of the bee-killing combination of deformed wing virus and Varroa,” said coauthor Lena Wilfert, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, in a statement.

“This demonstrates that the spread of this combination is largely man-made—if the spread was naturally occurring, we would expect to see transmission between countries that are close to each other, but we found that, for example, the New Zealand virus population originated in Europe. This significantly strengthens the theory that human transportation of bees is responsible for the spread of this devastating disease.”

More bees, please

The solution, then, to saving the global populations of pollinators seems clear—although it may sting a little.

“We must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not,” said Wilfert. “It’s also really important that beekeepers at all levels take steps to control Varroa in their hives, as this viral disease can also affect wild pollinators.”

But researchers believe that, with such controls, we can turn things around.

“The key insight of our work is that the global virus pandemic in honey bees is manmade not natural,” says senior author Mike Boots, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Exeter. “It’s therefore within our hands to mitigate this and future disease problems.”

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