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Pigs recorded using tools for the first time

The observations could signal a new cognitive skill previously unknown amid swine, which are well known for their intelligence.

On an October day in 2015, ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein was watching a family of rare pigs at a Parisian zoo when something caught her eye.

One of the Visayan warty pigs—a critically endangered species native to the Philippines—picked up a piece of bark in its mouth and started digging with it, pushing the soil around. “I said, Whoa, that’s pretty cool,” says Root-Bernstein, a visiting researcher at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and a National Geographic Explorer. “When I looked up tool use in pigs, there was nothing.”

Intrigued, the scientist returned to the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes frequently over the following months to try to observe the behavior again, to no avail. She hypothesized that what she’d seen was related to nest-building, which Visayans generally do every six months to prepare for the arrival of piglets. Sure enough, the next spring, a colleague returned to the warty pig enclosure and recorded three of the four animals using tools to complete their nest, an earthen pit filled with leaves.

Though many wild species use tools, from chimpanzees to crows to dolphins, no one has reported the phenomenon in any pig, including the 17 wild pig species and domestic swine. This surprised Root-Bernstein, especially considering the Suidae family’s well-known intelligence.

But because wild pigs are so little studied and, in most cases, either endangered or critically endangered, it may not be so unusual that such innovation has escaped human eyes, says Root-Bernstein, whose study appeared in September in the journal Mammalian Biology.

She says tool use is particularly fascinating to study because it’s a trait shared with humans, as well as one that may highlight a common evolutionary history. “It brings us closer to animals,” she says, “and helps us realize it’s all connected.”

Sequence of events

For the research, Root-Bernstein and colleagues videotaped the pig parents and their two offspring using tools four times in 2016 and another seven times in 2017. Thinking that they might prefer more easily wielded tools, the team also added four kitchen spatulas to the enclosure, though that resulted in only one spatula being used twice. 

Kanzi, a 39-year-old bonobo, became well-known for his language skills. He can communicate using hundreds of symbols that correlate to words.

Vietnamese potbellied pigs are, like all pigs, highly social. Studies show that they use deception to keep other pigs away from their food.

The team noticed the animals—particularly the mama pig, Priscilla—would always use tools in the middle of the nest-building process. According to Root-Bernstein, this consistency in sequence, combined with the fact the pigs’ tools could physically move the soil, meets the scientific definition for tool use: “The exertion of control over a freely manipulable external object (the tool) with the goal of (1) altering the physical properties of another object, substance, surface or medium … via a dynamic mechanical interaction, or (2) mediating the flow of information.”

The scientists suspect that Priscilla may have learned how to use the tool herself, and passed on that knowledge to her mate and offspring.

Root-Bernstein acknowledges her data set is small, and that the behavior occurred in captivity, which can cause animals to act differently than they do in the wild. She notes, however, that most captivity-induced behaviors are marked by frequent repetition, such as pacing, but that this tool use was scarce and occurred only within the specific context of nest-building.

‘The right thing to do’

It’s very possible that wild Visayans use tools, too, she adds. Fernando “Dino” Gutierrez, president of the Philippine conservation nonprofit Talarak Foundation, Inc., which works to protect warty pigs, agrees.

A few years ago, Gutierrez witnessed a group of wild Visayans pushing rocks toward an electric fence to test it. “As soon as they push and the rocks make contact, they would wait for the clicking sound or absence thereof,” he said by email. “Clicking means the wires are hot, and they will back off and not cross; no sounds mean it is safe to investigate what’s beyond the wire.”

They’re “smart little buggers,” he says.

Watch Rare Footage of The Mysterious Giant Forest Hog

Rafael Reyna-Hurtado, a National Geographic Explorer and wildlife ecologist who studies Africa’s giant forest hog, notes the study’s small sample size and captive setting but said the results should motivate wild pig scientists to be on the lookout for tool use—himself included.

In Uganda, for instance, Reyna has observed forest hogs—the world’s largest pig—using their snouts to clear the ground free of debris before sleeping or resting, though he hasn’t seen them using tools.

For Root-Bernstein, many questions remain: Namely, why bother with a tool if a snout is just as efficient? The most likely answer is that there isn’t a clear functional explanation, much like chimpanzees that hold hands during grooming so that the groomer has only one hand free.

“Learned things and cultural things work that way,” Root-Bernstein says. “Maybe,” she adds, “it just feels like the right thing to do.”

Chinese professor accused of stealing tech secrets faces rare espionage trial

U.S. prosecutors say Hao Zhang is a professor-spy who conspired with a colleague from USC to steal and sell American secrets to the Chinese government and military through a shell company in the Cayman Islands.

Zhang’s lawyers will try to show at a trial set for Wednesday in San Jose that his work at one of China’s most prestigious technical universities to develop radio-filtering technology used in mobile phones has always been about advancing scientific knowledge — and not for the benefit of the Chinese state.

The trial comes amid an aggressive U.S. crackdown on Chinese theft of intellectual property that began under President Obama — even before Zhang was arrested in 2015 when he flew to Los Angeles to attend a conference — and has escalated during the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

Zhang could face a lengthy prison term in the U.S. if found guilty of trade-secret theft and an even more serious charge, economic espionage. Such cases rarely go to trial, but Zhang’s is even more unusual because he has elected to defend himself before a judge in federal court instead of in front of a jury.

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The proceeding will last just one or two days, streamlined by the professor’s agreement not to fight evidence weighing against him that a federal prosecutor has described as “overwhelming.”

Zhang is mounting what one legal expert calls a “damage control” defense in which he has conceded evidence including emails that the U.S. says contained trade-secret data and admissions he made while being questioned by the FBI.

“It’s pretty common to only contest elements that are reasonably defensible, to avoid inflammatory or prejudicial evidence coming in on other elements that you are going to lose anyway, but which could color the rest of the case,” said Paul Chan, a lawyer who defends companies and individuals in trade-secret cases.

The secrets Zhang is accused of stealing came from a former employer, Skyworks Solutions Inc., based in Woburn, Mass., and San Jose-based Avago Technologies Ltd., which acquired Broadcom Inc. in 2015. The technology at issue filters out unwanted signals in mobile phones and other devices, which has become more difficult as wireless products have become ubiquitous.

Zhang went to work for Skyworks after earning his doctorate in electrical engineering at USC in 2006. At USC he met Wei Pang, who went on to work at Avago and, according to prosecutors, was Zhang’s key co-conspirator. Both men returned to China to teach at Tianjin University, a premier technical school.

There, the professors used stolen information to refine radio-filter technology, apply for patents in the U.S. and China, and sell it through a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands, prosecutors allege.

In 2015, prosecutor Matthew Parrella told the court that the U.S. has built an “overwhelming case” against Zhang based on email messages with Pang, in some instances containing proprietary information from Skyworks and Avago.

UC San Diego NanoEngineering professor Shirley Meng

The government has proof of “overt act after overt act of this defendant emailing around trade secrets that he took, attempts to hide their business dealings, attempts to move the victim companies to China — it’s extremely clear,” Parrella said.

Zhang is the first of six defendants to go to trial — and probably the only one because the others are in China. U.S. District Judge Edward Davila has yet to rule on whether Zhang’s mentor at USC, professor Eun Sok Kim, can testify about what Zhang’s lawyers call a practice at the school’s laboratory of promoting a “free and open exchange of ideas.”

Zhang “may be seeking to prove that, given the USC lab’s promotion of the ‘free and open exchange of ideas,’ he had no actual intent to benefit a foreign government,” Chan said. Prosecutors must prove the benefit to get enhanced penalties and fines under the economic espionage charge, he said.

Prosecutors have objected to the proposed testimony but apparently haven’t objected to Zhang’s request that Kim also serve as a character witness. The professor has testified once before, in 2015 shortly after Zhang was arrested, to vouch for his former student’s release on bail.

Kim said Zhang was a “reliable, conscientious person who never showed any sign of a deception.”

“He worked with me for four years as he pursued his Ph.D., so I know him quite well, on his personal integrity and his work ethics and his disposition and life objectives — at least as far as I can tell while he was a student with me,” he said. “So I had a pretty good opinion about him.”

China’s Global Times daily newspaper has published numerous stories describing the plight of Chinese scientists, including Zhang, whose careers it says have been destroyed by U.S. prosecutions.

“America has a long history of hunting for Chinese scapegoats as part of their efforts to curb China’s scientific and technological development,” the English-language newspaper said in a December article.

Malaysia fines 80 people and groups accused of receiving 1MDB payments

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s anti-graft agency on Monday ordered 80 people and groups accused of receiving money from the 1MDB state investment fund to pay fines totaling about $100 million.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s brother Nazir Razak, who heads the country’s second-largest bank, was among those listed. So was a former deputy minister, Ahmad Maslan, and the former chief of the federal land development authority, Shahrir Samad.

Branches of Najib’s party and others in the former ruling coalition were also listed, as were 23 companies.

Najib is facing 42 charges of corruption, abuse of power and money laundering in five separate criminal cases linked to the multibillion-dollar looting of 1MDB.

Public anger over the alleged graft contributed to a surprise defeat of Najib’s long-ruling coalition in a May 2018 election.

Najib denies wrongdoing and has accused Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government of seeking political vengeance.

The head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Latheefa Koya, told reporters the fines totaled about $100 million.

The money belongs to the Malaysian public, she said.

She said the fines could be as much as 2.5 times the amount each person or group is accused of receiving from 1MBD.

“We have opened up investigations for all of these people,” Latheefa said. She added that “we hope that by the time they receive this compound notice they will take it seriously and pay up.”

Najib set up 1MDB to promote economic development when he took power in 2009, but the fund amassed billions in debts and is being investigated in the U.S. and several other countries on suspicion of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.

U.S. investigators say more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including the money that landed in Najib’s bank accounts. They say the ill-gotten gains were laundered through layers of bank accounts in the U.S. and other countries to finance Hollywood films and buy hotels, a luxury yacht, art works, jewelry and other extravagances.

Mahathir’s government reopened investigations stifled under Najib and barred him and his wife from leaving the country. Police also seized jewelry and hundreds of handbags and other valuables estimated at more than $264 million from properties linked to Najib.

Here’s How to Actually Thank Veterans for Their Service (USA edition)- Guest Post by Michael Smith (Jr.)

As a Marine veteran, I’ve heard the “thank you for your administration” expression over and over, particularly during a week ago’s Veterans Day festivities. Perhaps I should feel respected, yet more frequently I feel irritated, in light of the fact that multiple occasions it appears to be a vacant signal. I frequently wonder what number of individuals truly think about what administration genuinely implies or have ever conversed with a previous servicemember about existence in the military.

Veterans relinquished not simply in what they did during their time in the military, however in what they didn’t do or have — the common passage level positions or a 9–5 employment that gives vocation progresses, a focused compensation, and time to appreciate quality time with their family and companions.

Time after time we think holding a procession or shaking a veteran’s hand is the degree of our obligation to them. Be that as it may, on the off chance that we truly need to respect veterans, we ought to accomplish something progressively substantive. What you accomplish for a veteran is frequently more significant than what you state.

Here are 10 thoughts on how you can really support veterans and truly express gratitude toward them for their administration.

  1. Compose a check. There are endless veterans associations that could utilize some additional money for projects that help injured warriors, help current servicemembers who are having budgetary challenges and give employment directing to individuals leaving the military. You could investigate an association all alone or approach a veteran for their info.
  2. Give your preferred customer credits. Do you travel a great deal for work or delight? In the event that you gather preferred customer credits, you can give them away. Consider giving some to the Fisher House Foundation’s Hero Miles Program, which enables relatives to be near the bedsides of friends and family who were harmed.
  3. Offer your mastery. You know the familiar adage, time is cash. Rather than simply giving money, you could likewise give a portion of your opportunity to a veterans gathering. Consider which aptitudes you have from your activity which may be gainful. Do you work in development? You could help assemble houses for injured veterans.
  4. Get a veteran speaker. There’s an explanation people say that somebody was telling “war stories.” Veterans have extraordinary knowledge into authority, emergency the executives and individual coarseness. Whenever you’re arranging a corporate occasion, investigate bringing a speaker who served in the military.
  5. Contract a veteran. In the event that you work in any sort of the executives position, you can support your business or charitable improve its veteran procuring rehearses. An extraordinary spot to begin is PsychArmor, a philanthropic association which gives top-class, free online courses on the best way to discover, contract, train and hold veterans and military mates. Join their 1–5–15 Campaign!
  6. Contract a military mate or parental figure. Supporting military families is as significant as supporting veterans themselves. Consider contracting military mates or parental figures at your next employment opportunity. They are frequently fantastically gifted, taught, and proficient.
  7. Give free hours. In the event that you are a legal counselor, give your free hours to a veterans graduate school center or take an interest in a program supporting veterans deprived through your State Bar Association. Numerous powerless vets face lawful difficulties not just identified with their remuneration claims with the VA, yet in addition in regards to updating their releases, landowner/inhabitant issues, criminal protection and chapter 11.
  8. Reserve your gifts. In the event that you give cash to your institute of matriculation, consider reserving your gifts explicitly to help projects and administrations supporting veterans. Additionally consider adding to grants at your college that are put aside explicitly for veterans. Charitable associations, for example, Four Block give basic administrations to understudy veterans as they get ready for temporary jobs and after that occupations in the private division.
  9. Volunteer. On the off chance that you want to concentrate on grass roots endeavors, support and associate with associations, for example, the Veteran Success Resource Group that unites many veterans and relatives in a single evening to meet agents from all the neighborhood government offices that contract and bolster veterans, organizations that need to contract vets or incorporate veteran-claimed organizations in their store network, colleges that give vet administrations and a huge number of veteran help associations.
  10. Utilize a veteran-possessed business. Around nine percent of the 27 million independent ventures in the U.S. are veteran-claimed. You could bolster veteran enterprise by frequenting those organizations or adding them to your organization’s production network.

Lost in the shuffle? Take a deep breath and read this.

When was the last time you felt stuck in a situation, where you didn’t know how to get out of it, and almost felt hopeless?

It may have been a personal relationship that wasn’t going well, a job that you weren’t happy in, or life in general not giving you the sense of fulfillment that you’d like…

Often, when we’re faced with a setback, it’s easy for us to look only on the negatives and dwell on the bad. Everything suddenly seems bleak and it’s hard to see that silver lining.

But, here’s what separates the successful from the average… they are always able to recognize and dig deep within these setbacks, to find hidden opportunities–opportunities can allow them to get back on their feet, and out of their rut.

So how do they do that?

They start by looking at the positives.

First, Focus on the Positive

No matter the situation, positive thinking has been related to so many healthy benefits like increased life span, lower rates of depression, better psychological and physical well-being, and better coping skills during hardships.

We need to accept that suffering is a part of life; it’s inevitable! But, how you decide to come out from each moment of suffering determines the rest of your life journey. So, it’s important to train your brain to find opportunities over limitations.

These obstacles that you face can be turning points for break throughs no matter what role you’re in – a stay home mom, a retiree, a working professional, etc. So if you’re currently feeling somewhat stuck in a certain aspect of your life, why not find one or two positive thoughts that you can think of from that situation?

The Beauty of a Blocker

Another reason why it’s so important to look for the positives in something bad, is because it helps you to shift your mindset towards seeing negatives as something good. This is otherwise known as ‘Post-traumatic growth’, and happens when a person experiences positive changes resulting from a major life crisis.

According to research by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for the good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning.

Finding the beauty in something bad encourages personal strength and boosts self confidence. Once you overcome past challenges, you feel empowered, and you’re more likely to feel confident in taking charge of future challenges.

Besides being a part of life, setbacks also shift our perspective and help us to recognize the good things in life, allowing us to see the value of not suffering, and increases our empathy. This allows us to see the importance of making the most of our lives.

We can also empathize better with those who have also endured hardship, giving us the distinct advantage of seeing circumstances from a new and different perspective, which is ultimately the root of creativity.

Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making.

What’s Stopping You Should Be Your Main Focus (For Now)

Now that you’ve seen the importance of looking at the positives in a bad situation, let’s go back to your current obstacle, whatever it may be. Use this instance as your main opportunity, and not a setback.

This will help you see what to focus on first before tackling other aspects of your goals. I’ll share an example:

My friend Parvathi was recently given a new job opportunity. Parvathi was given a golden opportunity to take up a leadership position at a new regional office in Mumbai (Maharashtra, India), but one of the key job requirements is to facilitate communication between local vendors.

So even though Parvathi has over 10 years of experience in her field, has a strong set of skills that fits the job and is the leading candidate by a large margin, Parvathi doesn’t speak Marathi (the regional language in Maharashtra, India). Which means Sarah Parvathi a pretty significant obstacle with the language difference, as her promotion is conditional given she can prove that she’s able to fulfill the job role despite her limitations.

Instead of focusing on the negative aspect of this job offer, Parvathi chose to turn this setback into an opportunity – an opportunity to prove beyond doubt that she’s the person for this role by gaining working fluency in the Marathi language.

Despite knowing that a large part of her job involves constant interaction with local vendors, Parvathi is still confident that she has what it takes, and believes that her little understanding of Marathi will not get in the way.

So, what did Parvathi do to conquer her obstacle?

She started off by hiring an assistant who was able to converse in fluent Marathi, so that the assistant could act as her translator for the first few months while she was learning the Marathi language.

She also dedicated 1 hour each night to working with a Marathi language tutor, and 1 hour each weekend to watching Marathi dramas. (Marathi plays are seriously underrated)

Six months later, Parvathi is able to speak simple conversational Marathi with her colleagues, and she can even hold meetings in Marathi with little help from her assistant. Of course, there was a lot of goal setting and focus put in by her in order for her to achieve this accomplishment. But the key is that she didn’t let her initial obstacle of not being able to speak a new language get in the way of an amazing career progression.

Focus is the way in which you deliberately target your energy to push progress in something you care about. In this case, Parvathi found her focus in wanting to excel in her career.

Because of this, she was able to visualize and set focus objectives that she could work on to reach her goal of speaking Marathi to excel in her job.

So, once you get past your blocker and find your focus, you’ll be well prepared to start checking off other tasks to get you closer to your goal. This is how an obstacle can become a hidden opportunity!

Get Moving to Get Unstuck

In order to get unstuck, you have to move. You have to do something that can allow yourself to come out of the rut, and that’s why you need to create a new goal that can give you focus and motivation to make progress again.

In Parvathi’s case, she could have stayed stuck in her current job, without taking on the new opportunity if she let the obstacle of not being able to speak Marathi get the better of her.

Don’t let your limitations keep you constrained inside a loop as they keep you stuck facing the same problems, having the same choices, and taking the same actions over and over, and over again. Start by getting the right focus.

Try using these guiding statements to help you get moving, and finding your hidden opportunity:

  1. I’m limited by… (obstacle/constraint) because… (why it’s a limitation)
  2. It stops me from…(the thing you want to do)

Once you’ve identified your limitation, you can work on finding the turning point and really assess the possibilities. A turning point is a key obstacle that, if overcome, would open new opportunities that weren’t available before. 

So use the statement:
If only i could… (achievement) then I’d be able to… (the new possibility).

And, with that, you can create your opportunity statement:
I have an opportunity to… (new possibility) by… (the achievement).

Once you’ve found your hidden opportunity, it’s time to get started on pursuing your new goals, and having the right kind of motivation is key to sustaining this progress, in particular, Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic Motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding.

In this case, you’re now doing something for your own sake rather than the desire for some external reward or factor. You’ll be more likely to carry through with your goals as a result of that!

What we lose when animals go extinct

Animals are disappearing at hundreds of times the normal rate, primarily because of shrinking habitats. Their biggest threat: humans.

LIFE, BESIEGED

Most of the animals shown here are among the more than 28,000 species of animals and plants that the International Union for Conservation of Nature says are threatened with extinction. That number actually understates the risk. Since 1964, when the IUCN established a “red list” of threatened species and began compiling data gathered worldwide, the list has become the preeminent global database of endangered life and an essential tool for conservation policy. Yet the IUCN has been able to assess only about 106,000 species of the more than 1.5 million species of animals and more than 300,000 plants that scientists have described and named—which they estimate is less than a quarter of what’s really out there. A recent intergovernmental report on the biodiversity crisis estimated that extinction threatens up to a million animal and plant species, known and unknown. The IUCN hopes to raise the number of species assessments to 160,000 by 2020. Next up on its agenda: a “green list” of conservation successes. It will be much shorter than the red one.

THE BIGGEST THREAT: HUMANS

Habitat loss—driven primarily by human expansion as we develop land for housing, agriculture, and commerce—is the biggest threat facing most animal species, followed by hunting and fishing. Even when habitat is not lost entirely, it may be changed so much that animals cannot adapt. Fences fragment a grassland or logging cuts through a forest, breaking up migration corridors; pollution renders a river toxic; pesticides kill widely and indiscriminately. To those local threats one must increasingly add global ones: Trade, which spreads disease and invasive species from place to place, and climate change, which eventually will affect every species on Earth—starting with the animals that live on cool mountaintops or depend on polar ice. All of these threats lead, directly or indirectly, back to humans and our expanding footprint. Most species face multiple threats. Some can adapt to us; others will vanish.

If we lived in an ordinary time—time here being understood in the long, unhurried sense of a geologic epoch—it would be nearly impossible to watch a species vanish. Such an event would occur too infrequently for a person to witness. In the case of mammals, the best-studied group of animals, the fossil record indicates that the “background” rate of extinction, the one that prevailed before humans entered the picture, is so low that over the course of a millennium, a single species should disappear.

But of course we don’t live in an ordinary time. Everywhere we look, species are winking out. Just in the past decade, two mammal species have gone extinct: a bat known as the Christmas Island pipistrelle and a rat, the Bramble Cay melomys.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than 200 mammal species and subspecies as critically endangered. In some cases, like the Sumatran rhino or the vaquita—a porpoise native to the Gulf of California—there are fewer than a hundred individuals left. In others, like the baiji(also known as the Yangtze River dolphin), the species, though not yet officially declared extinct, has probably died out.

And unfortunately, what goes for mammals goes for just about every other animal group: reptiles, amphibians, fish, even insects. Extinction rates today are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of times higher than the background rate. They’re so high that scientists say we’re on the brink of a mass extinction.

The last mass extinction, which did in the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, followed an asteroid impact. Today the cause of extinction seems more diffuse. It’s logging and poaching and introduced pathogens and climate change and overfishing and ocean acidification.

But trace all these back and you find yourself face-to-face with the same culprit. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson has noted that humans are the “first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.” Many scientists argue that we have entered a new geologic epoch—the Anthropocene, or age of man. This time around, in other words, the asteroid is us.

What’s lost when an animal goes extinct?

One way to think of a species, be it of ape or of ant, is as an answer to a puzzle: how to live on planet Earth. A species’ genome is a sort of manual; when the species perishes, that manual is lost. We are, in this sense, plundering a library—the library of life. Instead of the Anthropocene, Wilson has dubbed the era we are entering the Eremozoic—the age of loneliness.

Joel Sartore has been photographing animals for his Photo Ark project for 13 years. In an ever growing number of cases, animals housed in zoos or special breeding facilities are among the last remaining members of their species. In some instances, they are the only members.

Toughie, a Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog from central Panama, lived at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He became the last known of his kind when a fungal disease swept through his native habitat and a captive-breeding program failed. Toughie died in 2016, and it’s likely the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog is now extinct.

Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog that lives at the natural history museum in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was likewise believed to be a sole survivor. Scientists created an online dating profile for him. It linked to a donation page, and the $25,000 raised helped fund expeditions in the eastern Andes, where the species was once abundant.

Amazingly, the search has revealed five more Sehuencas water frogs, two males and three females. All were taken to Cochabamba; the one female mature enough to breed with Romeo was named Juliet. Whether she will prove a worthy mate and perpetuate the species, no one knows.

Was the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog beautiful? Not in the flashy way of, say, the Spix’s macaw (which is believed to be extinct in the wild) or the Gee’s golden langur (which is endangered). But with its expressive brown eyes and gangly limbs, it had its own kind of charm.

Sartore treats all creatures—great and small, handsome and homely—with reverence. His photos capture what’s singular and, I’d also like to say, soulful about every living thing. One of my favorite images of Joel’s is of a Partula nodosa, or niho tree snail, laying down a trail of slime. There used to be dozens of Partula species in the South Pacific, occupying different islands and different ecological niches. Much like Darwin’s finches, they are the darlings of evolutionary biologists—living, slime-producing illustrations of the power of natural selection. The introduction of carnivorous snails from Florida drove nearly a third of the Partula species extinct; several survive solely thanks to captive-breeding programs.

Precisely because extinction takes place so frequently now, it’s possible to become inured to it. This desensitizing is what makes Sartore’s images so crucial: They show us just how remarkable each species is that’s being lost.

We live in an extraordinary time. Perhaps by recognizing this, we can begin to imagine creating a different one—one that preserves, as much as is still possible, the wonderful diversity of life.

THREAT: DISEASE

Since the 1980s, a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, likely spread through direct contact and by infected water, has ravaged global amphibian populations. More than 500 species have been affected; 90 of these may be extinct. The fungus disrupts transmission of electrolytes through the skin of a frog or toad, ultimately stopping its heart.

Sehuencas water frog, Telmatobius yuracare (vulnerable)
For 10 years this frog, called Romeo, was thought to be the last of his kind. But on a 2018 expedition in Bolivia, scientists captured five more—including three potential mates.Kayra Center, Alcide D’orbigny Natural History Museum, Bolivia

Andersson’s stubfoot toad, Atelopus palmatus (critically endangered)
This Ecuadorian native, plagued by chytrid fungus, is also losing habitat to agriculture and urbanization. Its population has declined more than 80 percent over the past decade.Jambatu Center For Research And Conservation Of Amphibians, Ecuador

Espada’s marsupial frog, Gastrotheca testudinea (least concern)
A rare tree frog from the eastern Andes of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, Espada’s is less vulnerable to the fungus because, unlike most frogs, it doesn’t lay its eggs near water. The female hatches them in a pouch on her back.Jambatu Center For Research And Conservation Of Amphibians, Ecuador

Silver marsupial frog, Gastrotheca plumbea (vulnerable)
Habitat fragmentation and loss from agriculture and fire have hit this Ecuadorian mountain frog particularly hard.Jambatu Center For Research And Conservation Of Amphibians, Ecuador

Tabasara robber frog, Craugastor tabasarae (critically endangered)
Though chytrid fungus has nearly wiped this species out, researchers still report hearing it in Panamanian forests.El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, Panama

THREAT: INVASIVE SPECIES

Kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus (endangered)
Like many island species, the nearly flightless kagu, native to the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, was seriously affected by the arrival in the late 1700s of European settlers and their animals. Roughly chicken size, the kagu continues to fall prey to non-native pigs, cats, and dogs. The birds nest on the ground, and rats eat their eggs. Recent population estimates suggest fewer than a thousand kagu survive. Scientists nevertheless have some hope for the future: Decades of successful captive breeding have resulted in the reintroduction of the birds to the wild, and predator control has allowed some populations to rebound. Houston Zoo 

THREAT: FRAGMENTATION

Mhorr gazelle, Nanger dama mhorr (critically endangered)
This subspecies of the dama gazelle was once widespread across the western Sahara. Now there are fewer than 300 damas combined in Mali, Chad, and Niger. Their range is broken up by grazing lands for livestock, and they’re at risk from hunting. Reintroduction of captive-bred animals has had mixed success. Budapest Zoo 

THREAT: HABITAT LOSS

Butterflies can fly long distances and feed on many types of flowers, but caterpillars are locavores, eating plants they hatch on or near. As those plants are lost to development or farming, butterflies disappear. The ones here aren’t listed by the IUCN—which has evaluated only 8,100 insect species—but are considered at risk by other authorities.

Atossa fritillary, Speyeria adiaste atossa (not evaluated)
This California butterfly lost habitat to grazing and drought and is considered to be extinct. The last live one was seen in the wild in 1960.Mcguire Center For Lepidoptera And Biodiversity, Florida Museum Of Natural History

Atala butterfly, Eumaeus atala (not evaluated)
In the mid-1900s this butterfly from Florida and islands to the south and east was considered extinct. Now its host, a palmlike plant called coontie, has become popular in ornamental gardens, and the butterfly is starting to rebound.Mcguire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus(not evaluated)
Some migratory monarchs depend on habitat in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada for their life cycle, which means conservation requires international cooperation. The milkweed their larvae eat is being lost to industrial farming and development; illegal logging in Mexico threatens their winter range.National Botanical Garden, Dominican Republic

Schaus’ swallowtail, Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus (not evaluated)
A Florida native, the Schaus’ swallowtail was down to as few as four individuals by 2012 due to habitat loss. Conservation has raised numbers to around a thousand; continuing threats include hurricanes, insecticide use, and climate change.Mcguire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History

Florida leafwing butterfly, Anaea troglodyta floridalis (not evaluated)
The only surviving population of this critically endangered species lives in Everglades National Park.Mcguire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History

Malayan tree nymph, Idea lynceus (not evaluated)
Though not yet on the IUCN Red List, this large butterfly has been the focus of Malaysian conservation efforts. They include programs to breed the insect as well as the rare plant the caterpillar feeds on.Malacca Butterfly & Reptile Sanctuary, Malaysia

THREAT: POACHING

Asian elephant, Elephas maximus (endangered)
Early in the 20th century, perhaps 100,000 elephants roamed across Asia. Since then, their population likely has been cut in half. They’re killed not just for their ivory tusks but also for their meat and hides—and sometimes in retaliation for the damage they do to crops. Los Angeles Zoo 

THREAT: DEFORESTATION

For tree-dwelling lemurs, there’s no life without the forest—or Madagascar, their only home. Yet the island nation has lost 80 percent of its trees to development, charcoal production, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Lemurs are squeezed into limited protected areas; 38 species are critically endangered. Fuel-efficient stoves are being introduced to encourage people to reduce wood use and protect forest habitat.

How Are Weather Forecasts Made?

Meteorologists are better at their jobs than you might think. Here’s how heaps of data are turned into a forecast relevant to you.

Expect rain. Those two simple words can ruin picnic plans or herald rescue for drought-stricken crops. Few things in our lives are as universal as the weather. 

“It’s what’s going on in the atmosphere all around us all the time,” says Russ Schumacher, Colorado State climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center. “Storms and all the other interesting things that Earth’s atmosphere brings us have this big effect on our daily lives in a lot of ways.” But even though we tune in to local news stations or check apps to find out what the weather will bring, we don’t always trust the forecasts. You’ve probably heard the joke: Meteorology is the only occupation where you can be wrong all the time and still get paid for it.

In reality, weather forecasts have improved in leaps and bounds in just the past few decades. And meteorologists in pursuit of an ever-more-perfect forecast continue to push what’s possible toward its theoretical limit.

Anatomyofastorm

Making the Weather

Before we can predict the weather, we have to understand where it comes from. To do that, we must look to the sky.

Earth is enveloped in an atmosphere of mostly nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor. This air, like liquid water, behaves as a fluid. As air flows from one place to another, it carries its properties with it, changing the temperature, humidity and more. Weather is simply the byproduct of our atmosphere moving heat from one place to another.

Cooler air is dense and can’t hold much moisture; warmer air is less dense and can hold more water. When regions of air with different temperatures and densities meet, the boundary is called a front. Sometimes these cloudy clashes can cause rain, as the cooling warm air is forced to drop its water.

It’s not just fronts that can make it rain; convection can also drive precipitation. As warm, moist air rises, it also cools, and its water condenses onto airborne particles such as dust. These droplets are carried aloft by rising air, growing larger and larger until they become too heavy and fall back to Earth.

When that happens, grab your umbrella. Once a storm has formed, if there’s nowhere for it to get more moisture from the ground or the air, it will peter out as it lumbers along. If it finds more warm air and moisture — like a hurricane does as it moves across the ocean — it will grow and grow.

Forecasting Basics

With so many factors involved, it may seem impossible to predict what weather is on the horizon. But that’s far from the case. “Weather forecasting is one of only a few fields where we can accurately forecast the evolution of a system. We cannot do that in economics or sports,” says Falko Judt, a research meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Doing so depends on reliable observations. Scientific weather observations began in the Renaissance, when barometers and thermometers were invented. European scientists of old, like Galileo, used these instruments to take the types of measurements that would one day explain weather events. By the late 1800s, rudimentary weather maps had come into common use.

But early forecasts were limited and relied on persistence, or the assumption that a system’s past would dictate its future behavior. “If a storm system is in Kansas one day and Missouri the next, then by persistence you can say it’ll be in Illinois the next day,” explains Bob Henson, a meteorologist who writes for Weather Underground. Persistence is an OK way to predict the weather when conditions are constant — when a storm trundles along without breaking up or the local climate changes little day to day, say, in Southern California.

But this simple technique doesn’t account for changing conditions, such as storms that form quickly through convection (typical for thunderstorms) or moving fronts that change the temperature. Luckily, we have newer, better ways to predict the future. Today’s weather forecasts aren’t made by people looking at weather maps and yesterday’s highs and lows — they’re made by machines.

Modern Weather Prediction

Meteorologists use a process called numerical weather prediction to create forecasts by inputting current conditions — which they call the “nowcast” — into computer models. The more current and accurate information available to these models, the better the forecast will be. Ground radar, weather balloons, aircraft, satellites, ocean buoys and more can provide three-dimensional observations that a model can use. This allows meteorologists to simulate what the atmosphere is currently doing and predict what will happen in the next few days or, for some models, hours.

Weather models divide a region, say a single state or even the whole globe, into a set of boxes, or cells. The size of these cells — the resolution of the model — affects its forecasting accuracy. Large boxes mean poor resolution, or the inability to tell what’s happening over small areas, but a broad picture of large-scale weather trends over long timelines. This big-picture forecast is helpful when you want to know how a big storm will move across the U.S. over the course of a week.

Smaller boxes mean higher resolution, which can forecast smaller storms. These models are more expensive in terms of computing power, and only run to the one- or two-day mark to tell people whether it might storm in their local area. Although all models are based on the same physics, each translates those physics into computer code differently, says Judt. Some models might prioritize certain kinds of data — such as wind speed, temperature and humidity — over others to generate predictions, or simulate physical processes slightly differently than another model. That’s why two models might spit out slightly different results, even with exactly the same starting observations.

Weather Models 101

Computer models are essential to create weather forecasts. Meteorologists use these tools to predict what the atmosphere is about to do. Next time you see that rainy icon on your weather app, remember it took supercomputers and quadrillions of calculations to make sure it’s what you’ll actually see in the sky.

How do models work?

A weather model is a bunch of equations that track and simulate changes in Earth’s atmosphere over time. They rely on data from satellites, radar, balloons and more.

Calculations

To make the model, the atmosphere is divided up horizontally and vertically, into a 3D grid that spans the planet.

Each grid cell is populated with data about the current conditions, such as temperature, pressure, humidity and wind.

The real-time weather in a single cell constantly changes.

When the model runs, it uses the starting conditions to calculate how the weather is expected to change in each cell.The model generates predictions about how and when it thinks these changes are likely to occur, leading to a weather forecast.

rainsleetsnow

Roen Kelly/Discover

The Human Touch

With computers now running the show, what’s left for human forecasters to do?

In terms of day-to-day weather like temperatures, perhaps not much. “For a lot of the routine weather, the forecast models are so good now that there’s really not that much that the human forecasters are going to add,” says Schumacher, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.

But don’t think humans are unnecessary just yet. “A forecaster might tweak what the computer tells you if they know their area really well and they know that models struggle with a certain kind of weather situation,” says Henson.

One such situation is precipitation, which is more challenging to forecast than temperature, says Matt Kelsch, a hydro meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “Temperature is a continuous field, meaning there’s a temperature everywhere,” he explains. “But precipitation is a discontinuous field, meaning there’s a lot of places there is none, and then some places that it can be raining or snowing very hard.” And local geography — mountain ranges, coastlines or the Great Lakes — can affect precipitation in ways that models may not handle well. Particularly for forecasts within 24 to 36 hours, Kelsch says, a meteorologist’s experience with the forecasting area comes into play.

Forecasting high-impact situations such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods is more challenging and comes with much higher stakes. “Especially when it comes to extreme weather, human judgment is really important,” Henson says.

What Are the Chances?

The further in the future your picnic is scheduled, the harder it is to predict rain or shine. But since the 1950s, ever faster computers have been producing increasingly accurate weather forecasts. “Many of the world’s largest and most powerful supercomputers are devoted to atmospheric research — to forecasting [weather] and to studying climate change,” Henson says.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, today’s five-day forecast is accurate about 90 percent of the time. The seven-day forecast is correct 80 percent of the time, and a 10-day forecast reflects the weather that actually occurs about 50 percent of the time.

What about major events? Based on National Hurricane Center forecasts since 2010, a hurricane’s eye made landfall, on average, just 47 miles from where a prediction 24 hours earlier said it would. That’s only about one-sixth of an average hurricane’s total size. “Twenty-four hours before a hurricane strikes land, we’ve already pretty much nailed down where it will go,” says Judt. Going out to five days, the error in the forecasts since 2010 is about 220 miles.

These stats are more impressive when you consider how much meteorologists have improved the number of days out to which an accurate forecast can be made. For instance, today’s five-day hurricane forecast is more reliable than the four-day forecast in the early 2000s, and more reliable than a three-day forecast in the 1990s. And a 2015 Nature paper revealed that three- to 10-day forecasts have been improving by about a day per decade — meaning a modern six-day forecast is as accurate as a five-day forecast 10 years ago.

Chaos Rules

As forecasts improve, one question naturally arises: How much better can they get?

Unfortunately, the chaotic nature of our atmosphere seriously limits our ability to model it — and therefore to predict what it will do next. You’ve probably heard that a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong might cause the weather to change in New York. The idea of this “butterfly effect” — in which minuscule changes can have huge impacts on the development of a dynamic system — was coined in 1972 by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz.

In practice, this means that a single weather model run more than once with even the most subtle differences in starting conditions can produce very different predictions. Since no measurement is perfect — every observation has an associated uncertainty — these small imperfections can cause big changes in what a model predicts. These changes get bigger and bigger the further ahead you try to predict.

Because of this, the potential predictability limit of weather is about two weeks, says Henson. “[Lorenz] essentially said there’s just no way you can predict weather features beyond that time because those little butterfly wing flaps and countless other little things will add up to so many big changes, and there’s so much uncertainty beyond that range, that it’s just impossible to say anything,” he says.

Judt, whose work focuses on the theoretical limit of accuracy in weather forecasting, says we’ll never be able to predict thunderstorms more than a couple of hours in advance, regardless of how good observations become. For hurricanes and winter storms, which are much bigger and therefore easier to spot in advance, the theoretical limit is two to three weeks — “so there’s still a couple of days to be gained, if not a whole week,” he says.

“We could forecast perfectly if we had perfect knowledge of the atmosphere and if we had perfect weather models,” Judt says. But we will never be able to measure everything about every point in the atmosphere all the time with ultimate precision, and our models will never be flawless. “So we will never be able to actually achieve perfect forecasts.”

Building a Better Forecast

There are more ways to improve forecasts than taking better observations and improving our weather models. Understanding how people use forecasts and warnings allows meteorologists to provide information in the most useful way.

One of the biggest challenges for meteorologists is condensing a forecast, which represents a spread of possible weather conditions to expect, into a single icon or a few sentences that appear in your weather app.

Take, for instance, today’s chance of rain in your area. This could mean slightly different things coming from different meteorologists, but in general, it’s not simply the odds that you, personally, will witness rain that day. Most forecasters calculate this number by multiplying their confidence that rain will occur by the area in which the rain might happen. So a 40 percent chance of rain might be a 100 percent chance in 40 percent of your county, or, a 60 percent chance across 70 percent of your county.

palm-trees

In addition, what this number doesn’t tell you is how much it will rain, how hard, when or for how long. So the next time you see a low chance of rain in your forecast, check the full weather report before you leave the umbrella at home.

“The science has outrun our communications skills and knowledge, to a certain extent. So a lot of the challenge now is, how do we get people what they need?” says Henson. That’s because more information isn’t always the best way to communicate. “If people don’t understand it, then it doesn’t help,” he says.

NOAA is working with social scientists to develop forecasts that are more relevant and better targeted. This is especially important because of how the internet has changed the way people obtain and share information, Kelsch says.

For instance, when creating the official forecast, meteorologists account for uncertainties by running a model several times. Each time, the model will give a slightly different result, but most results will be very similar. This ensemble of predictions is what becomes the official forecast.

But outlying, low-probability results occur in the ensemble, too. Since these data are accessible to the public, there’s always a risk the data will be shared out of context on social media. “That’s not a challenge that’s going away,” says Kelsch.

And though forecasts have improved dramatically, meteorologists are still blamed when they are wrong. “We always need to remember that there never will be perfect forecasts, but we’re still improving them,” Judt says.

Because for all of us, “the most salient weather forecast is the one that was wrong — when you expected something and you were surprised, those are the ones you remember. You don’t remember all the times that it was just as we expected because that’s not news,” Henson says.

For meteorologists, then, the end goal is to make almost every day’s forecast an utterly forgettable one.

Where the Magic (Forecast) Happens

In many countries, a single public weather service is typically the only source available for forecasts, warnings and alerts. These meteorologists work for public (government) organizations or universities. By contrast, the United States has strong public, private (commercial) and university-based weather observation and forecasting programs.

 “We also are a large country and a populous country, and one with a great deal of weather variation. I think all those things have strengthened our interest in weather and our support for weather research and forecasting,” says Weather Underground’s Bob Henson. In other words, the U.S. is a bit of a weather powerhouse. Here, most forecasts originate at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). 

These centers are part of the National Weather Service (NWS), which itself is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NCEP runs weather models, then disseminates the results — as well as forecasts — to NWS offices, which may customize the forecasts for their region. 

weatherserviceforecasters

For long-term, large area predictions, the most popular U.S. model is the Global Forecast System, or GFS. On June 12, NOAA announced its first major upgrade for GFS in nearly 40 years. The upgrade incorporates a new dynamical core, which is the model’s description of how the atmosphere behaves. The new system, called GFS-FV3, is better at modeling moisture and clouds, allowing meteorologists to forecast storms with greater accuracy than ever before.

Commercial weather providers typically have some weather modeling capabilities of their own. For example, Weather Underground refines the official forecast to a neighborhood scale by adding information from its network of over a quarter-million personal weather stations. This gives you accurate weather information for your exact location when you open the service’s app, rather than what the weather is doing across town. Each company fills a different niche, providing different forecasts that focus on, say, surfing conditions, fire conditions or transportation concerns, based on specific observations and models that refine the broad public-sector data. These differences are also why you might prefer using one app or service over another.

Go underwater into the overlooked world of freshwater animals

Freshwater makes up less than three percent of Earth’s water supply but is home to almost half of all fish species.

Although freshwater environments, from creeks to rivers, brim with more than 10,000 species of fish, we may never get the chance to see many of these mysterious creatures as their populations decline. Currently, more than 20 percent of known species are imperiled or already extinct. That’s why David Herasimtschuk doesn’t just photograph fish for fun; he’s a professional photographer dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation of freshwater environments and the wildlife that live in them.

Picture of Tennessee Dace
Picture of saffron and Tennessee shiners

Herasimtschuk is the photographer and cinematographer for Freshwaters Illustrated, an Oregon-based nonprofit that seeks to educate the public about freshwater ecosystems and inspire people to protect them. For almost a decade, he’s worked with Freshwaters Illustrated to document creek and river life across North America, from the mountains of Colorado to El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. These environments not only are habitats for a range of aquatic plants and animals, but they support a whole web of terrestrial wildlife too, from the birds that nest in riparian areas or stop over on migrations to animals like beavers that use rivers for travel to predators who eat river-dwelling creatures.

Rivers are also primary sources of drinking water for humans. They control flooding; they provide irrigation for crops; they’re harnessed for hydropower. Despite the critical role they play for both humans and in nature, they’re often overlooked.

“People know more about a clown fish in the coral reef than a minnow that lives 10 minutes from their house,” Herasimtschuk says. “You’re essentially exposing people to a whole new world, but it’s a world that a lot of times is right in their own backyard.”

UNIQUE BEHAVIORS

Several places that Herasimtschuk has photographed, such as southern Appalachia, harbor some of the most diverse freshwater ecosystems in the world. The region sustains roughly 300 to 400 native species of fish.

Southern Appalachia is also home to Herasimtschuk’s favorite amphibian: the hellbender, a giant aquatic salamander native to North America. Herasimtschuk says that if you patiently linger around these two-foot long salamanders, they’ll eventually interact with you and “accept you into their world.” That’s how he captured what may be the only photograph of a hellbender attempting to eat a snake, which earned Herasimtschuk a Wildlife Photographer of the Year award from the Natural History Museum in London. The scene was unexpected, as hellbenders tend to hunt for smaller prey. When the snake tightened around the salamander’s head, the hellbender tried to reposition its bite, giving the northern water snake the chance to escape.

Through his lens, Herasimtschuk has witnessed many rarely seen behaviors, like shiner minnows and Tennessee dace transform into a spectacle of color when they spawn. He’s seen a river chub spend days searching for suitable rocks to build a nursery. He’s swum among longnose gar, ancestral fish that he says resemble “underwater dinosaurs,” and watched a female gar lay 30,000 pea-sized eggs—some of which stuck to his camera. And it took him eight years and thousands of attempts to properly document rough-skinned newts congregating to mate in Oregon’s Willamette River.

IN THE RAIN

Weather conditions can significantly impact how long it takes to capture the perfect moment. Many freshwater species spawn in elevated areas during spring and winter, so Herasimtschuk can easily spend eight to 10 hours in frigid water while he snaps hundreds of pictures.

He says he can handle the cold in his dry suit, but if it rains, the photo shoot comes to an end. In the world of freshwater photography, precipitation is both a friend and foe. For example, rain attracts salmon, as it helps them move upstream. But it also turns the water into a murky abyss. It’s not the rain itself that creates the haze but rather the pollution that drains into the water during a storm.

“When you see this water that looks like chocolate milk coming into a creek, you really get a sense of how that could smother creatures,” Herasimtschuk says. The EPA actually calls sediment the most common pollutant in rivers and lakes—about a third is from natural erosion, but the majority is from erosion that’s been accelerated by human activity, such as construction.

Despite the demanding nature of his work, Herasimtschuk persists, because one day, documenting these animals may no longer be possible. Dams make it difficult for certain species to travel along critical migration routes, and issues like sedimentation and pollution destroy their habitats. Herasimtschuk has even seen discarded car batteries decomposing in a river and federally protected areas littered with trash.

This isn’t just a problem for aquatic life; it’s a red flag for humans, too. Animals such as hellbenders are barometers of river health. Their presence in a river is a good sign that the water is clean and drinkable. But hellbenders are beginning to disappear, as are several other animals in Herasimtschuk’s photographs. Nevertheless, he hopes that his images will educate people and compel them to care.

“Many of these species have been around for millions of years, and it’s only in the last hundred that they’ve started to vanish,” Herasimtschuk says.

Earth’s magnetic field flips much more frequently than we thought

The planet’s magnetic poles swapped places at an astounding rate about 500 million years ago, which offers clues to core formation and hints at the effects on early life.

YVES GALLET BALANCED on a steep rocky slope in northeast Siberia, a turquoise river leisurely wending across the undulating landscape that sprawled below. But Gallet, of France’s Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, had his face turned toward the rocks with one goal in mind: deciphering the history of Earth’s magnetic field.

This protective bubble shields Earth from radiation that’s constantly streaming from the sun. In the planet’s 4.6-billion-year history, the field has frequently flipped, swapping magnetic north and south, and some research suggests that another flip may be on the geological horizon. While fears of a looming geomagnetic apocalypse are overblown, a magnetic reversal could have many damaging impacts, from increased radiation exposure to technological disruptions, which makes understanding these historic flips more than just a scientific curiosity. 

Now, Gallet and his colleagues have uncovered evidence of one of the highest rates of field reversals yet recorded. During this stunningly chaotic time, detailed in a recent publication in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the planet experienced 26 magnetic pole reversals every million years—more than five times the rate seen in the last 10 million years.

The result joins a mounting set of evidence that suggests the planet’s magnetic field is capable of flipping more frequently than once thought possible, says Joseph Meert, a paleomagnetist at the University of Florida who was not part of the study team. Such research is slowly filling in Earth’s spotty magnetic record, which could help scientists better understand the timing and reason behind these geologic gymnastics—and may even hint at the effects ancient periods of hyperactivity had on early life.

Earth’s restless poles

Earth’s magnetic field is charged by the churn of the molten iron and nickel of our planet’s outer core, some 1,800 miles below the surface. Over the years, the field’s turns and tumbles have been captured by iron-rich minerals attuned to magnetic influences, which can become trapped in place as sedimentary rocks form or lava cools, like tiny compass needles frozen in time.

Based on this rocky record, our poles haven’t switched places in some 780,000 years, but they’ve been restless in the past, reversing every 200,000 years or so. There are also prolonged periods when the poles largely stayed put, such as a 40-million-year block of time during the Cretaceous period some 100 million years ago.

How fast can these reversals get? For answers, Gallet and his colleagues ventured by helicopter, inflatable raft, and foot to precarious cliffs that date to a sparsely sampled period in the Middle Cambrian, some 500 million years ago. The sands that built this region were laid down in what was once a warm, shallow sea, with magnetic minerals trapped in place as sediments drifted to the quiet ocean floor and compacted to form new rock layers.

Gallet and his colleagues first visited the site in the early 2000s, collecting around 119 samples from the nearly vertical face of rock. This work revealed a period during the Middle Cambrian that saw at least six to eight field reversals every million years.

“We did not expect such a high reversal frequency,” Gallet writes in an email, emphasizing that at that time, anything exceeding four or five reversals was considered high. The fast rate left him and his colleagues with a nagging suspicion that they needed to collect more samples. In the summer of 2016, they returned to do just that, cutting some 550 small blocks of rock every four to eight inches. Analysis of the magnetic signatures confirmed their suspicion: Over the three million years captured in their samples, they detected a striking 78 field reversals.

“We expected a very high magnetic reversal frequency, but of course not with such a high value,” Gallet says. And 22 of the samples record only one reversal, he notes, hinting that perhaps the true rate is even higher.

Flipping out

For now, the new study offers more questions than answers. It’s unclear why the field was so hyper at that time and, even more intriguingly, why it settled back down quickly.

One possibility is that these early flips are tied to the cooling and crystallization of the planet’s solid inner core. While many studies suggest this likely began 600 or 700 million years ago, perhaps the intense flipping in the Middle Cambrian came from a late period of inner core formation. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty.

“It’s very difficult to know anything about the core and its behavior,” says geologist Annique Van der Boon of the University of Liverpool, who wasn’t part of the study team. “We can’t see it, we can’t go there.”

The only other time period with comparably high reversals, known as the Ediacaran, occurred some 550 to 560 million years ago, a time that intriguingly lines up with a mass die-off of life, Meert notes. Studies suggest that the flip-flopping magnetic field of the Ediacaran was extremely weak, which might have exposed early life on Earth to punishing surface conditions.

“To use Star Trek parlance, our shields came down and allowed bombardment of cosmic and other radiation to the surface of the Earth,” Meert says. Perhaps this excess exposure killed off the soft and squishy Ediacaran critters, many of which couldn’t move to shelter from the sun.

But no mass extinction coincides with the newly proposed hyperactive flipping in the Middle Cambrian, when life was blooming in a myriad of forms. Maybe evolution gave those creatures a helping hand, he suggests, resulting in the burst of burrowers and other animals who could seek shelter from harmful solar rays. But at this point, he says, it’s all conjecture.

Magnetic questions

One curious pattern is that there seems to be some cyclicality to the changes, with prolonged periods without flips happening roughly every 150 million years. Between these delays, the field seems to flip at a rate as fast as five times every million years, and these periods are then punctuated with hyperactive spurts.

Based on these rough cycles, it seems Earth’s magnetic field might be headed toward another period of hyperactivity, Meert says, but he cautions that much remains uncertain. And even if a reversal is on the horizon, each one happens in slow motion from our perspective, with the poles shifting places over several thousand years.

“It’s not like a movie where you wake up one day and your magnet is pointing north and the next day it’s pointing south,” Meert says.

Thailand’s tourism goes green

Responsible tourism has created an exciting new realm of natural and cultural experiences in Beung Kan, Thailand.

Thailand, a country known for both its cultural and natural splendors, is keenly aware of the effects of tourism. Upwards of 34 million people visit the country from abroad every year. With that yearly influx of people comes a need to ensure that the natural and cultural wonders that Thailand is known for are protected.

Tourism, as great as it can be for local businesses and communities, comes with a price. Well-meaning travelers can sometimes bring unintended harm to the places that they visit: from the destruction of a natural wonder to the intrusion on the lives of the locals.

The need to protect natural and cultural splendors is more important now than ever before. There’s nothing quite as tragic as visiting a spot you’ve heard about, only to discover that too many years of overtourism has stripped it of its magic and beauty.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) developed the 7 Greens initiative in 2011 with the goal to promote sustainable tourism throughout the country.

These guidelines are helping to create carefully managed tourism attractions that allow tourists to continue to see for years to come, the unrivalled beauty and unique cultures that Thailand has to offer. They are built around the idea that if we travel with sustainability in mind, these places won’t succumb to overtourism.

Bueng Kan, Thailand’s newest province, is an excellent example of the kind of destinations that TAT hopes to conserve and protect by promoting the 7 Greens. Located in the northeastern part of Thailand, 466 miles (751 kilometers) away from Bangkok, Bueng Kan is a haven of immersive cultural experiences and staggering natural beauty.

Hin Sam Wan (Three Whale Rock)

Hin Sam Wan, which means Three Whale Rock, is a 75 million-year-old rock formation jutting majestically out of the mountains. It earned its name because from the right perspective, it looks like a family of whales.

Aerial view of the Three Whale Rock.
Seen from above, the Three Whale Rock looks like a family of whales. Photograph courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand 

Reachable by an extensive network of trails, a hike to these impressive stone leviathans makes for a breathtakingly memorable, not to mention eco-friendly way for visitors to explore the amazing views and surrounding forests.

From the vantage point atop these “whales”, you can see the beaches of the Mekong, the mountains in Pakkading district of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Phu Wua Forest. 

Fisheye view of Three Whale Rock and surrounds.
A surreal landscape awaits travelers to the Three Whale Rock. Photograph courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand 

It’s very easy to dedicate an entire day to the Three Whale Rock. Visitors can choose from nine different routes to hike. On these hikes, you can find waterfalls, a wide variety of plant and animal life, and even a little bit of peace and quiet. While here, stay for the sunset if you have the time. There’s nothing quite like watching the sun go down over Thailand from the back of a giant stone whale.

The Life Community Museum

For those who like to dive into local culture, the Life Community Museum is a great way to immerse yourself in the way of life in Beung Kan, in a manner that doesn’t intrude on the local Isan people. It is a living museum that allows visitors to participate in the Isan culture without interfering with the community outside. Founded by a Thai food stylist whose father lives on the premises, the museum was established as a partnership between 45 families living in the surrounding community.

Picture of the community that runs the Life Community Museum.
Run by locals, the Life Community Museum creates a way for tourists to engage with the local Isan community in a non-invasive, responsible way.Photograph courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand 

The Life Community Museum occupies 12 rai of land (almost five acres) and includes a house built in the Isan architectural style, a market and an area dedicated to street art.

Picture of Naga spirits at the Life Community Museum in Beung Kan, Thailand.
Stylized representations of the Naga, Mekong River spirits, can be found throughout the village. Photograph courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand 

The local street art showcased here includes unique representations of the Naga, the guardian spirits of the Mekong River. Painted on corrugated metal sheets in the market and other buildings throughout the museum property, the art is particularly amazing and make for great photo opportunities.

The market itself is not to be missed. Local food growers, artisans and craftsmen bring their wares out on Saturdays to sell. It presents a wonderful opportunity to find souvenirs and get to know the locals a little better. The stories the locals tell while people look at their goods stick with you long after the trip ends. 

Photograph of an Isan meal in progress at the Life Community Museum in Beung Kan, Thailand.
In addition to the cultural artifacts on display, live community experiences such as the partaking of an Isan meal, are featured at the Life Community Museum. Photograph courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand 

A local temple also opened their doors to help visitors to the Life Community Museum explore the spiritual side of Isan culture. The temple houses a room dedicated to the handicrafts of the Isan Buddhists that depict the journey from life to death. 

Please enjoy responsibly

Reducing mankind’s negative impact on the world is an important responsibility we all must shoulder in today’s world.

By treating the places we visit and the people who live there with respect, we can continue to visit them for generations to come. In the end, it all comes back to the saying: take only photographs, leave only footprints.

What made this ancient society sacrifice its own children?

Some 500 years ago, the Chimú in what is now Peru ritually killed hundreds of their young in the largest mass child sacrifice events known in world history. Now archaeologists are trying to understand why.

The young victim lies in a shallow grave in a vacant lot strewn with trash. It’s the Friday before Easter here in Huanchaquito, a hamlet on the north coast of Peru.

The throb of dance music, drifting up from seaside cafés a few hundred yards to the west, sounds eerily like a pulsing heart. It’s accompanied by the soft chuf, chuf of shovels as workers clear away broken glass, plastic bottles, and spent shotgun shells to reveal the outline of a tiny burial pit cut into an ancient layer of mud.

Two college students—archaeologists in training, wearing hospital scrubs and masks—splay on their stomachs on either side of the grave and begin digging with trowels.

The first thing to appear is the crest of a child’s skull, topped with a thatch of black hair. Switching from trowels to paintbrushes, the excavators carefully sweep away the loose sand, exposing the rest of the skull and revealing skeletal shoulders poking through a coarse cotton shroud. Eventually the remains of a tiny, golden-furred llama come into view, curled alongside the child.

Gabriel Prieto, a professor of archaeology from the National University of Trujillo, peers into the grave and nods. “Ninety-five,” he announces. He’s keeping a running tally of victims, and this one, labeled E95, is the 95th dug up since he first began investigating the mass burial site in 2011. The grim count from this and a second sacrifice site nearby will ultimately add up to 269 children between the ages of five and 14 and three adults. All of the victims perished more than 500 years ago in carefully orchestrated acts of ritual sacrifice that may be unprecedented in world history.

“This is something completely unexpected,” exclaims Prieto, shaking his head in bewilderment. The words have become a kind of mantra as the archaeologist and father struggles to make sense of the harrowing discovery at a site called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas. In our time and culture, the violent death of even one child rends all but the most callous hearts, and the specter of mass murder horrifies every healthy mind. And so, we wonder: What desperate circumstances might account for an act that’s unthinkable to us today?

Archaeologists have found evidence of human sacrifice in all parts of the world. Victims may number in the hundreds, and often they’re deemed to have been prisoners of war, or casualties of ritual combat, or retainers killed upon the death of a leader or the construction of a sacred building. Ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible, attest to the practice of child sacrifice, but clear evidence of mass killings of children is rare in the archaeological record. Until the discovery at Huanchaquito (pronounced wan-cha-KEE-toe), the largest known child sacrifice site in the Americas—and possibly the entire world—was at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), where 42 children were slain in the 15th century.

Prieto grew up in Huanchaco (pronounced wan-CHA-co), the town that encompasses Huanchaquito. As a child, he hunted for beads outside the 16th-century Spanish colonial church that perches on the town’s highest hill. He recalls spending afternoons on the southern edge of town exploring the adobe ruins of Chan Chan, the ancient capital of the Chimú people. At its peak in the 15th century, Chan Chan was one of the largest cities in the Americas, the seat of power for an empire that stretched some 300 miles along the Peruvian coast.

Those childhood experiences inspired Prieto to become an archaeologist, and while earning a doctorate from Yale, he returned to his hometown to excavate a 3,500-year-old temple.

Then in 2011 the owner of a local pizza shop shared startling news: His children—and the neighborhood dogs—were finding human bones sticking out of the sand of a nearby vacant lot. He implored the archaeologist to investigate.

At first Prieto thought the site was simply a long-forgotten cemetery. But after recovering the remains of several children wrapped in shrouds—remains that radiocarbon analysis dated to between A.D. 1400 and 1450—the archaeologist realized that he had stumbled onto a much bigger discovery.

The burials, Prieto noticed, weren’t typical of the Chimú. The children were interred in unusual positions—prone on their backs or curled on their sides instead of sitting upright, as was customary—and they lacked the adornments, pottery, and other grave goods commonly found in Chimú burials.

Instead, many were buried alongside very young llamas and possibly alpacas. As vital sources of food, fiber, and transport, these Andean animals were among the Chimú’s most valuable assets. And finally there was this: Many of the children and animals had visible cut marks across their sternum and ribs.

To help make sense of the clues, Prieto called John Verano, a biological anthropologist and forensic expert at Tulane University. Verano has decades of experience analyzing physical evidence of ritual violence in the Andes, including a 13th-century Chimú massacre of some 200 men and boys at the site of Punta Lobos.

Everything you need to know about Hispanic Heritage Month

The U.S. has formally honored Hispanic heritage for more than 50 years, but people of Hispanic descent have influenced American history and culture for centuries.

From exploring the Western frontier on horseback to developing an early color transmission system for televisions, people of Hispanic descent have been helping to shape the history of the United States since centuries before the Declaration of Independence was ever signed. To celebrate the contributions of the nearly 60 million Hispanics who live in the country today, as well as the countless who came before them, the United States recognizes National Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall of each year.

U.S. House Representative George E. Brown first suggested that the country formally recognize Hispanic contributions in 1968. At the time, Brown represented East Los Angeles and much of the San Gabriel Valley, where his constituents were largely Hispanic.

Brown’s proposed law would authorize the sitting President to annually proclaim the week of September 15 and 16 National Hispanic Heritage Week. The two September dates were a nod to when many of the U.S.’s Hispanic neighbors gained independence from Spain: Mexico in 1810, and Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in 1821.

After passage through Congress, the resolution was sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson for approval the same year. Earlier in Johnson’s career, he taught at a small Hispanic school near the Mexican border and was supportive of Hispanic rights. He signed the resolution into law and on the same day issued the first National Hispanic Heritage Week proclamation. Twenty years after the first National Hispanic Heritage Week, in 1988, President George Bush extended the week’s celebration to a month: September 15 through October 15.

It is with special pride that I call the attention of my fellow citizens to the great contribution to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent—not only in the fields of culture, business, and science, but also through their valor in battle.

Proclamation 3869, President Lyndon B. Johnson

Explorers on the American frontier

In 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the first permanent European settlement in what would become the United States. The trade routes, forts, and cities the Spanish created as they expanded southwest still influence America’s geography, most visibly in the place names they left behind, such as Los Angeles (Spanish for “angels”), Montana (for “mountain”), and Florida (for “flowery”).

Congressional trailblazers

There are currently 42 Hispanic members in Congress, the largest class of Hispanic legislators in history. The first Congressional delegate of Mexican decent was José Manuel Gallegos in 1853. Although he could not read, speak, or write English, he introduced three pieces of legislation and pushed for language accessibility on Capitol Hill.

Decorated soldiers

Today more than 136,000 Hispanic soldiers serve in the U.S. military and 60 have won the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military award. After World War I, the most decorated soldier in Texas was Private Marcelino Serna, an immigrant from Mexico. During the war, he followed a German sniper into a trench and single-handedly captured or killed 50 enemy soldiers. For his actions he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award in the Army.

Civil rights leaders

Hispanic workers are the fastest growing labor force in the United States. For farm workers, their improved working conditions are thanks in large part to Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. In the 1960s and 70s, she negotiated laws in California granting farm workers the right to organize and collectively bargain for better working conditions. Huerta was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Inventors and space explorers

America can thank Hispanic inventors for the modern ballpoint pen, CAPTCHA, oral contraceptives, and color television. Scientist Ellen Ochoa holds three patents for optical-related inventions, but is most known for being the first Hispanic woman in space. She is now the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, home of the astronaut program.

Appointed officials

Although the U.S. has yet to have its first Hispanic president, for the last thirty years they have filled top positions in federal government. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic citizen to serve on the highest court when she was nominated by President Barack Obama. She has written opinions from the bench on indigenous rights and affirmative action.

National Geographic journalist shot in leg working in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — An American journalist with National Geographic was discharged from a Mexican hospital Saturday after being shot in the leg while interviewing a purported drug dealer in Ciudad Juarez, the city just south of El Paso.

Jorge Nava, attorney general for the northern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, said in a video message the journalist appeared to have been caught in an ambush Friday evening that resulted in a shootout. A purported drug dealer died at the scene, while another died in a hospital.

He said the attackers appeared to be female.

Nava said the wounded American journalist was accompanied by three other journalists. He said all four left Mexico for El Paso early Saturday after making statements to authorities about the incident.

He described the journalists’ plan to interview members of organized crime as “obviously risky” and said that two people — allegedly members of criminal groups — had been killed in April at the same house where the journalists had set up television cameras for the interview.

The topic of the report, said Nava, was violence in Ciudad Juarez.

Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. The Committee to Protect Journalists says five journalists have been killed in the country this year.

Brave new world: Simple changes in intensity of weather events ‘could be lethal’

Faced with extreme weather events and unprecedented environmental change, animals and plants are scrambling to catch up — with mixed results. A new model helps to predict the types of changes that could drive a given species to extinction.

Hurricane Dorian is the latest example of a frightening trend. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, more severe and more widespread as a consequence of climate change. New research from Washington University in St. Louis provides important new insights into how different species may fare under this new normal.

Faced with unprecedented change, animals and plants are scrambling to catch up — with mixed results. A new model developed by Carlos Botero, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, and Thomas Haaland, formerly a graduate student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, helps to predict the types of changes that could drive a given species to extinction.

The study, published Sept. 27 in the journal Ecology and Evolution, challenges the idea that species previously exposed to more variable conditions are more likely to survive extreme events.

“It is difficult to predict how organisms will respond to changes in extreme events because these events tend to be, by definition, quite rare,” Botero said. “But we can have a pretty good idea of how any given species may respond to current changes in this aspect of climate — if we pay attention to its natural history, and have some idea of the climatic regime it has experienced in the past.”

Unexpected vulnerabilities

Researchers in the Botero laboratory use a variety of tools from ecology and evolutionary biology to explore how life — from bacteria to humans — copes with and adapts to repeated environmental change.

For the new study, Botero worked with his former student Haaland, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, to develop an evolutionary model of how populations respond to rare environmental extremes. (Think: 500-year floods.) These rare events can be tricky for evolution because it is difficult to adapt to hazards that are almost never encountered.

Through computer simulations, Haaland and Botero found that certain traits and experiences emerged as key indicators of vulnerability.

Specifically, they found:

  • Species that breed a single time in their lifetime tend to evolve conservative behaviors or morphologies, as if they were expecting to experience an environmental extreme every time.
  • In contrast, species in which a single individual can reproduce multiple times and in different contexts (say, a bird that nests several times in a season and in different trees), evolution favors behaving as if environmental extremes simply never happen.

The key insight of this new model is that species belonging to the former, “conservative” category can easily adapt to more frequent or widespread extremes but have trouble adjusting when those extremes become more intense. The opposite is true of species in the latter, “care-free” category.

Haaland and Botero also found that factors speeding up trait evolution are generally likely to hinder — rather than favor — adaptation to rare selection events. Part of the reason: High mutation rates tend to facilitate the process of adaptation to normal conditions during the long intervals in between environmental extremes.

“Our results challenge the idea that species that have been historically exposed to more variable environments are better suited to cope with climate change,” Botero said.

“We see that simple changes in the pattern and intensity of environmental extremes could be lethal even for populations that have experienced similar events in the past. This model simply helps us better understand when and where we may have a problem.”

Applicable to many environmental extremes

The simple framework that Haaland and Botero describe can be applied to any kind of environmental extreme including flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, cold spells, tornadoes and hurricanes — any and all of which might be considered part of the “new normal” under climate change.

Take extreme heat as an example. The model can be used to predict what will happen to animal or plant species when there are more heat waves, when heatwaves last longer, or when typical heat waves affect larger areas.

“Regions in which heat waves used to be rare and patchy are likely to host primarily species that do not exhibit conspicuous adaptations to extreme heat,” Botero said. “Our model indicates that the biggest threats of extinction in these particular locations will therefore be more frequent or widespread heat waves, and that the species of highest concern in these places will be endemics and species with small geographic distribution.

“Conversely, areas in which heat waves were historically common and widespread can be expected to host species that already exhibit adaptations for extreme heat,” Botero added. “In this case, our model suggests that the typical inhabitants of these places are likely to be more vulnerable to hotter temperatures than to longer or more widespread heat waves.”

Informing conservation actions

The new model gives wildlife managers and conservation organizations insight into the potential vulnerabilities of different species based on relatively simple assessments of their natural histories and historical environments.

For example, a 2018 study by Colin Donihue, visiting postdoctoral fellow at Washington University, found that Anolis lizards in the Caribbean tend to evolve larger toepads and shorter limb lengths in response to hurricanes because these traits help them cling better to branches during strong winds. The new model suggests that while these lizards are unlikely to be affected by more frequent hurricanes, their populations may nevertheless face a significant threat of extinction if future hurricanes become more intense. A possible solution to this problem might be to provide wind refuges across the island to allow parts of the population escape winds of very high intensity, Botero suggested.

“While this simple conservation action is unlikely to completely shift the balance from a ‘conservative’ to a ‘care-free’ evolutionary response to extreme events, it may nevertheless reduce the strongest vulnerability of these ‘conservative’ lizard populations,” Botero said. “It might just buy them enough time to accumulate sufficient evolutionary changes in their toes and limbs to meet the new demands of their altered habitat.”

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