Showing posts with label Health. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Health. Show all posts

Black Hole Spins at Nearly the Speed of Light

A superfast black hole nearly 60 million light-years away appears to be pushing the ultimate speed limit of the universe, a new study says.

For the first time, astronomers have managed to measure the rate of spin of a supermassive black hole—and it's been clocked at 84 percent of the speed of light, or the maximum allowed by the law of physics.

"The most exciting part of this finding is the ability to test the theory of general relativity in such an extreme regime, where the gravitational field is huge, and the properties of space-time around it are completely different from the standard Newtonian case," said lead author Guido Risaliti, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and INAF-Arcetri Observatory in Italy. (Related: "Speedy Star Found Near Black Hole May Test Einstein Theory.")

Notorious for ripping apart and swallowing stars, supermassive black holes live at the center of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way. (See black hole pictures.)

They can pack the gravitational punch of many million or even billions of suns—distorting space-time in the region around them, not even letting light to escape their clutches.

Galactic Monster

The predatory monster that lurks at the core of the relatively nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is estimated to weigh in at about two million times the mass of the sun, and stretches some 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) across-more than eight times the distance between Earth and the moon, Risaliti said. (Also see "Black Hole Blast Biggest Ever Recorded.")

Risaliti and colleagues' unprecedented discovery was made possible thanks to the combined observations from NASA's high-energy x-ray detectors on its Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) probe and the European Space Agency's low-energy, x-ray-detecting XMM-Newton space observatory.

Astronomers detected x-ray particle remnants of stars circling in a pancake-shaped accretion disk surrounding the black hole, and used this data to help determine its rate of spin.

By getting a fix on this spin speed, astronomers now hope to better understand what happens inside giant black holes as they gravitationally warp space-time around themselves.

Even more intriguing to the research team is that this discovery will shed clues to black hole's past, and the evolution of its surrounding galaxy.

Tracking the Universe's Evolution

Supermassive black holes have a large impact in the evolution of their host galaxy, where a self-regulating process occurs between the two structures.

"When more stars are formed, they throw gas into the black hole, increasing its mass, but the radiation produced by this accretion warms up the gas in the galaxy, preventing more star formation," said Risaliti.

"So the two events—black hole accretion and formation of new stars—interact with each other."

Knowing how fast black holes spin may also help shed light how the entire universe evolved. (Learn more about the origin of the universe.)

"With a knowledge of the average spin of galaxies at different ages of the universe," Risaliti said, "we could track their evolution much more precisely than we can do today."

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Scarred Duckbill Dinosaur Escaped T. Rex Attack

A scar on the face of a duckbill dinosaur received after a close encounter with a Tyrannosaurus rex is the first clear case of a healed dinosaur wound, scientists say.

The finding, detailed in the current issue of the journal Cretaceous Research, also reveals that the healing properties of dinosaur skin were likely very similar to that of modern reptiles.

The lucky dinosaur was an adult Edmontosaurus annectens, a species of duckbill dinosaur that lived in what is today the Hell Creek region of South Dakota about 65 to 67 million years ago. (Explore a prehistoric time line.)

A teardrop-shaped patch of fossilized skin about 5 by 5 inches (12 by 14 centimeters) that was discovered with the creature's bones and is thought to have come from above its right eye, includes an oval-shaped section that is incongruous with the surrounding skin. (Related: "'Dinosaur Mummy' Found; Have Intact Skin, Tissue.")

Bruce Rothschild, a professor of medicine at the University of Kansas and Northeast Ohio Medical University, said the first time he laid eyes on it, it was "quite clear" to him that he was looking at an old wound.

"That was unequivocal," said Rothschild, who is a co-author of the new study.

A Terrible Attacker

The skull of the scarred Edmontosaurus also showed signs of trauma, and from the size and shape of the marks on the bone, Rothschild and fellow co-author Robert DePalma, a paleontologist at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida, speculate the creature was attacked by a T. rex.

It's likely, though still unproven, that both the skin wound and the skull injury were sustained during the same attack, the scientists say. The wound "was large enough to have been a claw or a tooth," Rothschild said.

Rothschild and DePalma also compared the dinosaur wound to healed wounds on modern reptiles, including iguanas, and found the scar patterns to be nearly identical.

It isn't surprising that the wounds would be similar, said paleontologist David Burnham of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, since dinosaurs and lizards are distant cousins.

"That's kind of what we would expect," said Burnham, who was not involved in the study. "It's what makes evolution work—that we can depend on this."


Phil Bell, a paleontologist with the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative in Canada who also was not involved in the research, called the Edmontosaurus fossil "a really nicely preserved animal with a very obvious scar."

He's not convinced, however, that it was caused by a predator attack. The size of the scar is relatively small, Bell said, and would also be consistent with the skin being pierced in some other accident such as a fall.

"But certainly the marks that you see on the skull, those are [more consistent] with Tyrannosaur-bitten bones," he added.

Prior to the discovery, scientists knew of one other case of a dinosaur wound. But in that instance, it was an unhealed wound that scientists think was inflicted by scavengers after the creature was already dead.

It's very likely that this particular Edmontosaurus wasn't the only dinosaur to sport scars, whether from battle wounds or accidents, Bell added.

"I would imagine just about every dinosaur walking around had similar scars," he said. (Read about "Extreme Dinosaurs" in National Geographic magazine.)

"Tigers and lions have scarred noses, and great white sharks have got dings on their noses and nips taken out of their fins. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and [Edmontosaurus was] unfortunately in the line of fire from some pretty big and nasty predators ... This one was just lucky to get away."

Mysterious Escape

Just how Edmontosaurus survived a T. rex attack is still unclear. "Escape from a T. rex is something that we wouldn't think would happen," Burnham said.

Duckbill dinosaurs, also known as Hadrosaurs, were not without defenses. Edmontosaurus, for example, grew up to 30 feet (9 meters) in length, and could swipe its hefty tail or kick its legs to fell predators.

Furthermore, they were fast. "Hadrosaurs like Edmontosaurus had very powerful [running] muscles, which would have made them difficult to catch once they'd taken flight," Bell said.

Duckbills were also herd animals, so maybe this one escaped with help from neighbors. Or perhaps the T. rex that attacked it was young. "There's something surrounding this case that we don't know yet," Burnham said.

Figuring out the details of the story is part of what makes paleontology exciting, he added. "We construct past lives. We can go back into a day in the life of this animal and talk about an attack and [about] it getting away. That's pretty cool."

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Why African Rhinos Are Facing a Crisis

The body count for African rhinos killed for their horns is approaching crisis proportions, according to the latest figures released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

To National Geographic reporter Peter Gwin, the dire numbers—a rhinoceros slain every 11 minutes since the beginning of 2013—don't come as a surprise. "The killing will continue as long as criminal gangs know they can expect high profits for selling horns to Asian buyers," said Gwin, who wrote about the violent and illegal trade in rhino horn in the March 2012 issue of the magazine.

The recent surge in poaching has been fueled by a thriving market in Vietnam and China for rhino horn, used as a traditional medicine believed to cure everything from hangovers to cancer. Since 2011, at least 1,700 rhinos, or 7 percent of the total population, have been killed and their horns hacked off, according to the IUCN. More than two-thirds of the casualties occurred in South Africa, home to 73 percent of the world's wild rhinos. In Africa there are currently 5,055 black rhinos, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, and 20,405 white rhinos. (From our blog: "South African Rhino Poaching Hits New High.")

Trying to snuff out poaching by itself won't work, said Gwin. The South African government is fighting a losing battle on the ground to gangs using helicopters, dart guns, high-powered weapons—and lots of money. (National Geographic pictures: The bloody poaching battle over rhino horn [contains graphic images].)

"Every year they get tougher on poaching, but rhino killings continue to rise astronomically," said Gwin. "Somehow they have to address the demand side in a meaningful way. This means either shutting down the Asian markets for rhino horn, or controversially, finding a way to sustainably harvest rhino horns, control their legal sale, and meet what appears to be a huge demand. Either will be a formidable endeavor."

Hope and Hurdles

The signing in December of a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and Vietnam to deal with rhino poaching and other conservation issues raises hope for some concrete action. Observers say the next step is for the two governments to follow through with tangible crime-stopping efforts such as intelligence sharing and other collaboration. The highest hurdle to stopping criminal trade, though, is cultural, Gwin believes. "In Vietnam and China, a lot of people simply believe that as a traditional cure, rhino horn works." (Related: "Blood Ivory.")

The recent climb in rhino deaths threatens what had been a conservation success story. Since 1995, due to better law enforcement, monitoring, and other actions, the overall rhino numbers have steadily risen. The poaching epidemic, the IUCN warns, could dramatically slow and possibly reverse population gains.

The population growth is also being stymied by South Africa's private game farmers, who breed rhinos for sport hunting and tourism and for many years have helped rebuild rhino numbers. Many of them are getting out of the business due to the high costs of security and other risks associated with the poaching invasions.

Those who still have rhinos on their farms will often pay a veterinarian to cut the horns off—under government supervision—to dissuade poachers, but the process costs more than $2,000 and has to be repeated when the horns grow back every two years. Even then the farmers are stuck with horns that are illegal to sell—and which criminals seek to obtain.

Room for Debate

Rhino killings and the trade in their horns will be a major topic at a high-profile conference, the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which opens in Bangkok March 3. What won't surprise Gwin is if the issue of sustainably harvesting rhino horns from live animals comes up for discussion.

"It's an idea that seems to be gaining traction among some South African politicians and law enforcement circles," he said, noting that the international conservation community strongly opposes any talk of legalizing the trade of rhino horn, sustainably harvested or not. The bottom line for all parties in the discussion is clear, said Gwin: "The slaughter has to stop if rhinos are to survive."

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A History of Balloon Crashes

A hot-air balloon exploded in Egypt yesterday as it carried 19 people over ancient ruins near Luxor. The cause is believed to be a torn gas hose. In Egypt as in many other countries, balloon rides are a popular way to sightsee. (Read about unmanned flight in National Geographic magazine.)

The sport of hot-air ballooning dates to 1783, when a French balloon took to the skies with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. Apparently, they landed safely. But throughout the history of the sport, there have been tragedies like the one in Egypt. (See pictures of personal-flight technology.)

1785: Pioneering balloonist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and pilot Pierre Romain died when their balloon caught fire, possibly from a stray spark, and crashed during an attempt to cross the English Channel. They were the first to die in a balloon crash.

1923: Five balloonists participating in the Gordon Bennett Cup, a multi-day race that dates to 1906, were killed when lightning struck their balloons.

1924: Meteorologist C. LeRoy Meisinger and U.S. Army balloonist James T. Neely died after a lightning strike. They had set off from Scott Field in Illinois during a storm to study air pressure. Popular Mechanics dubbed them "martyrs of science."

1995: Tragedy strikes the Gordon Bennett Cup again. Belarusian forces shot down one of three balloons that drifted into their airspace from Poland. The two Americans on board died. The other balloonists were detained and fined for entering Belarus without a visa. (Read about modern explorers who take to the skies.)

1989: Two hot air balloons collided during a sightseeing trip near Alice Springs, Australia. One balloon crashed to the ground killing all 13 people on board. The pilot of the other balloon was sentenced to a two-year prison term for "committing a dangerous act." Until today, this was considered the most deadly balloon accident.

2012: A balloon hit a power line and caught fire in New Zealand, killing all 11 on board. Investigators later determined that the pilot was not licensed to fly and had not taken  proper safety measures during the crash, like triggering the balloon's parachute and deflation system.

2012: A sightseeing balloon carrying 32 people crashed and caught fire during a thunderstorm in the Ljubljana Marshes in Slovenia. Six died; many other passengers were injured.

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Sharks Warn Off Predators By Wielding Light Sabers

Diminutive deep-sea sharks illuminate spines on their backs like light sabers to warn potential predators that they could get a sharp mouthful, a new study suggests.

Paradoxically, the sharks seem to produce light both to hide and to be conspicuous—a first in the world of glowing sharks. (See photos of other sea creatures that glow.)

"Three years ago we showed that velvet belly lanternsharks [(Etmopterus spinax)] are using counter-illumination," said lead study author Julien Claes, a biologist from Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain, by email.

In counter-illumination, the lanternsharks, like many deep-sea animals, light up their undersides in order to disguise their silhouette when seen from below. Brighter bellies blend in with the light filtering down from the surface. (Related: "Glowing Pygmy Shark Lights Up to Fade Away.")

Fishing the 2-foot-long (60-centimeter-long) lanternsharks up from Norwegian fjords and placing them in darkened aquarium tanks, the researchers noticed that not only do the sharks' bellies glow, but they also had glowing regions on their backs.

The sharks have two rows of light-emitting cells, called photophores, on either side of a fearsome spine on the front edges of their two dorsal fins.

Study co-author Jérôme Mallefet explained how handling the sharks and encountering their aggressive behavior hinted at the role these radiant spines play.

"Sometimes they flip around and try to hit you with their spines," said Mallefet, also from Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain. "So we thought maybe they are showing their weapon in the dark depths."

To investigate this idea, the authors analyzed the structure of the lanternshark spines and found that they were more translucent than other shark spines.

This allowed the spines to transmit around 10 percent of the light from the glowing photophores, the study said.

For Predators' Eyes Only

Based on the eyesight of various deep-sea animals, the researchers estimated that the sharks' glowing spines were visible from several meters away to predators that include harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), and blackmouth catsharks (Galeus melastomus).

"The spine-associated bioluminescence has all the characteristics to play the right role as a warning sign," said Mallefet.

"It's a magnificent way to say 'hello, here I am, but beware I have spines,'" he added.

But these luminous warning signals wouldn't impede the sharks' pursuit of their favorite prey, Mueller's bristle-mouth fish (Maurolicus muelleri), the study suggested. These fish have poorer vision than the sharks' predators and may only spot the sharks' dorsal illuminations at much closer range.

For now, it remains a mystery how the sharks create and control the lights on their backs. The glowing dorsal fins could respond to the same hormones that control the belly lights, suggested Mallefet, but other factors may also be involved.

"MacGyver" of Bioluminescence

Several other species use bioluminescence as a warning signal, including marine snails (Hinea brasiliana), glowworms (Lampyris noctiluca) and millipedes (Motyxia spp.).

Edith Widder, a marinebiologist from the Ocean Research and Conservation Association who was not involved in the current study, previously discovered a jellyfish whose bioluminescence rubs off on attackers that get too close.

"It's like paint packages in money bags at banks," she explained.

"Any animal that was foolish enough to go after it," she added "gets smeared all over with glowing particles that make it easy prey for its predators."

Widder also points out that glowing deep-sea animals often put their abilities to diverse uses. (Watch: "Why Deep-Sea Creatures Glow.")

"There are many examples of animals using bioluminescence for a whole range of different functions," she said.

Mallefet agrees, joking that these sharks are the "MacGyver of bioluminescence."

"Just give light to this shark species and it will use it in any possible way."

And while Widder doesn't discount the warning signal theory, "another possibility would be that it could be to attract a mate."

Lead author Julien Claes added by email, "I also discovered during my PhD thesis that velvet belly lanternsharks have glowing organs on their sexual parts."

And that, he admits, "makes it very easy, even for a human, to distinguish male and female of this species in the dark!"

The glowing shark study appeared online in the February 21 edition of Scientific Reports.

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Picture Archive: Dorothy Lamour and Jiggs, Circa 1938

Dorothy Lamour, most famous for her Road to ... series of movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, never won an Oscar. In her 50-plus-year career as an actress, she never even got nominated.

Neither did Jiggs the chimpanzee, pictured here with Lamour on the set of Her Jungle Love in a photo published in the 1938 National Geographic story "Monkey Folk."

No animal has ever been nominated for an Oscar. According to Academy Award rules, only actors and actresses are eligible.

Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from last year's best picture winner, The Artist, didn't rate a nod. The equines that portrayed Seabiscuit and War Horse, movies that were best picture contenders in their respective years, were also snubbed.

Even the seven piglets that played Babe, the eponymous star of the best picture nominee in 1998, didn't rate. And the outlook seems to be worsening for the animal kingdom's odds of ever getting its paws on that golden statuette.

This year, two movies nominated in the best picture category had creatures that were storyline drivers with significant on-screen time. Neither Beasts of the Southern Wild (which featured extinct aurochs) or Life of Pi (which featured a CGI Bengal tiger named Richard Parker) used real animals.

An Oscar's not the only way for animals to get ahead, though. Two years after this photo was published, the American Humane Association's Los Angeles Film & TV Unit was established to monitor and protect animals working on show business sets. The group's creation was spurred by the death of a horse during the filming of 1939's Jessie James.

Today, it's still the only organization that stamps "No Animals Were Harmed" onto a movie's closing credits.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of pieces that looks at the news through the lens of the National Geographic photo archives.

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Elderly Abandoned at World's Largest Religious Festival

Every 12 years, the northern Indian city of Allahabad plays host to a vast gathering of Hindu pilgrims called the Maha Kumbh Mela. This year, Allahabad is expected to host an estimated 80 million pilgrims between January and March. (See Kumbh Mela: Pictures From the Hindu Holy Festival)

People come to Allahabad to wash away their sins in the sacred River Ganges. For many it's the realization of their life's goal, and they emerge feeling joyful and rejuvenated. But there is also a darker side to the world's largest religious gathering, as some take advantage of the swirling crowds to abandon elderly relatives.

"They wait for this Maha Kumbh because many people are there so nobody will know," said one human rights activist who has helped people in this predicament and who wished to remain anonymous. "Old people have become useless, they don't want to look after them, so they leave them and go."

Anshu Malviya, an Allahabad-based social worker, confirmed that both men and women have been abandoned during the religious event, though it has happened more often to elderly widows. Numbers are hard to come by, since many people genuinely become separated from their groups in the crowd, and those who have been abandoned may not admit it. But Malviya estimates that dozens of people are deliberately abandoned during a Maha Kumbh Mela, at a very rough guess.

To a foreigner, it seems puzzling that these people are not capable of finding their own way home. Malviya smiles. "If you were Indian," he said, "you wouldn't be puzzled. Often they have never left their homes. They are not educated, they don't work. A lot of the time they don't even know which district their village is in."

Once the crowd disperses and the volunteer-run lost-and-found camps that provide temporary respite have packed away their tents, the abandoned elderly may have the option of entering a government-run shelter. Conditions are notoriously bad in these homes, however, and many prefer to remain on the streets, begging. Some gravitate to other holy cities such as Varanasi or Vrindavan where, if they're lucky, they are taken in by temples or charity-funded shelters.

In these cities, they join a much larger population, predominantly women, whose families no longer wish to support them, and who have been brought there because, in the Hindu religion, to die in these holy cities is to achieve moksha or Nirvana. Mohini Giri, a Delhi-based campaigner for women's rights and former chair of India's National Commission for Women, estimates that there are 10,000 such women in Varanasi and 16,000 in Vrindavan.

But even these women are just the tip of the iceberg, says economist Jean Drèze of the University of Allahabad, who has campaigned on social issues in India since 1979. "For one woman who has been explicitly parked in Vrindavan or Varanasi, there are a thousand or ten thousand who are living next door to their sons and are as good as abandoned, literally kept on a starvation diet," he said.

According to the Hindu ideal, a woman should be looked after until the end of her life by her male relatives—with responsibility for her shifting from her father to her husband to her son. But Martha Chen, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University who published a study of widows in India in 2001, found that the reality was often very different.

Chen's survey of 562 widows of different ages revealed that about half of them were supporting themselves in households that did not include an adult male—either living alone, or with young children or other single women. Many of those who did live with their families reported harassment or even violence.

According to Drèze, the situation hasn't changed since Chen's study, despite the economic growth that has taken place in India, because widows remain vulnerable due to their lack of education and employment. In 2010, the World Bank reported that only 29 percent of the Indian workforce was female. Moreover, despite changes in the law designed to protect women's rights to property, in practice sons predominantly inherit from their parents—leaving women eternally dependent on men. In a country where 37 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, elderly dependent relatives fall low on many people's lists of priorities.

This bleak picture is all too familiar to Devshran Singh, who oversees the Durga Kund old people's home in Varanasi. People don't pay toward the upkeep of their relatives, he said, and they rarely visit. In one case, a doctor brought an old woman to Durga Kund claiming she had been abandoned. After he had gone, the woman revealed that the doctor was her son. "In modern life," said Singh, "people don't have time for their elderly."

Drèze is currently campaigning for pensions for the elderly, including widows. Giri is working to make more women aware of their rights. And most experts agree that education, which is increasingly accessible to girls in India, will help improve women's plight. "Education is a big force of social change," said Drèze. "There's no doubt about that."

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Space Pictures This Week: Space Rose, Ghostly Horses


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Great Energy Challenge Blog

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Oldest Known Wild Bird Hatches Chick at 62

Wisdom, the oldest known wild bird, has yet another feather in her cap—a new chick.

The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)—62 years old at least—recently hatched a healthy baby in the U.S. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, her sixth in a row and possibly the 35th of her lifetime, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) North American Bird Banding Program. (Related: "51-Year-Old Albatross Breaks N. American Age Record [2003].")

But Wisdom's longevity would be unknown if it weren't for a longtime bird-banding project founded by USGS research wildlife biologist Chandler Robbins.

Now 94, Robbins was the first scientist to band Wisdom in 1956, who at the time was "just another nesting bird," he said. Over the next ten years, Robbins banded tens of thousands of black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) and Laysan albatrosses as part of a project to study the behavior of the large seabirds, which at the time were colliding with U.S. Navy aircraft.

Robbins didn't return to the tiny Pacific island—now part of the U.S. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—until 2002, when he "recaptured as many birds as I could in hopes that some of them would be the old-timers."

Indeed, Robbins did recapture Wisdom—but he didn't know it until he got back to his office at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, and checked her band number in the database.

"That was real exciting, because we didn't think the chances of finding one that old would be that good," Robbins said Wednesday in an interview from his office at the Patuxent center, where he still works.

Chandler Robbins counts birds.

Chandler Robbins counts birds in Maryland's Patuxent Research Refuge.

Photograph by David H. Wells, Corbis

Albatrosses No Bird Brains

Bigger birds such as the albatross generally live longer than smaller ones: The oldest bird in the Guinness Book of Animal Records, a Siberian white crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus), lived an unconfirmed 82 years. Captive parrots are known to live into their 80s. (See National Geographic's bird pictures.)

The Laysan albatross spends most of the year at sea, nesting on the Midway Atoll (map) in the colder months. Birds start nesting around five years of age, which is how scientists knew that Wisdom was at least five years old in 1956.

Because albatrosses defend their nests, banding them doesn't require a net or a trap as in the case of other bird species, Robbins said—but they're far from tame.

"They've got a long, sharp bill and long, sharp claws—they could do a job on you if you're not careful how to handle them," said Robbins, who estimates he's banded a hundred thousand birds.

For instance, "when you're not looking, the black-footed albatross will sneak up from behind and bite you in the seat of the pants."

But Robbins has a fondness for albatrosses, and Wisdom in particular, especially considering the new dangers that these birds face.

Navy planes are no longer a problem—albatross nesting dunes were moved farther from the runway—but the birds can ingest floating bits of plastic that now inundate parts of the Pacific, get hooked in longlines meant for fish, and be poisoned by lead paint that's still on some of Midway Atoll's buildings. (Also see "Birds in 'Big Trouble' Due to Drugs, Fishing, More.")

That Wisdom survived so many years avoiding all those hazards and is still raising young is quite extraordinary, Robbins said.

"Those birds have a tremendous amount of knowledge in their little skulls."

"Simply Incredible"

Wisdom's accomplishments have caught the attention of other scientists, in particular Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, who said by email that Wisdom is a "symbol of hope for the ocean." (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Earle visited Wisdom at her nest in January 2012, where she "appeared serenely indifferent to our presence," Earle wrote in the fall 2012 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

"I marveled at the perils she had survived during six decades, including the first ten or so years before she found a lifetime mate. She learned to fly and navigate over thousands of miles to secure enough small fish and squid to sustain herself, and every other year or so, find her way back to the tiny island and small patch of grass where a voraciously hungry chick waited for special delivery meals."

Indeed, Wisdom has logged an estimated two to three million miles since 1956—or four to six trips from Earth to the moon and back, according to the USGS. (Related: "Albatross's Effortless Flight Decoded—May Influence Future Planes.")

Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program, called Wisdom's story "simply incredible."

"If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years—yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean," he said in a statement.

Bird's-Eye View

As for Robbins, he said he'd "love to get out to Midway again." But in the meantime, he's busy going through thousands of bird records in an effort to trace their life histories.

There's much more to learn: For instance, no one has ever succeeded in putting a radio transmitter on an albatross to follow it throughout its entire life-span, Robbins noted.

"It would be [an] exciting project for someone to undertake, but I'm 94 years old," he said, chuckling. "It wouldn't do much for me to start a project at my age."

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NASA's Mars Rover Makes Successful First Drill

For the first time ever, people have drilled into a rock on Mars, collecting the powdered remains from the hole for analysis.

Images sent back from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Wednesday confirmed that the precious sample is being held by the rover's scoop, and will soon be delivered to two miniature chemical labs to undergo an unprecedented analysis. (Related: "Mars Rover Curiosity Completes First Full Drill.")

To the delight of the scientists, the rock powder has come up gray and not the ubiquitous red of the dust that covers the planet. The gray rock, they believe, holds a lot of potential to glean information about conditions on an early Mars. (See more Mars pictures.)

"We're drilling into rock that's a time capsule, rocks that are potentially ancient," said sampling-system scientist Joel Hurowitz during a teleconference from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

A Place to Drill

The site features flat bedrock, often segmented into squares, with soil between the sections and many round gray nodules and white mineral veins.

Hurowitz said that the team did not attempt to drill into the minerals or the gray balls, but the nodules are so common that they likely hit some as they drilled down 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters).

In keeping with the hypothesis that the area was once under water, Hurowitz said the sample "has the potential of telling us about multiple interactions of water and rock."

The drill, located at the end of a seven-foot (two-meter) arm, requires precision maneuvering in its placement and movement, and so its successful initial use was an exciting and welcome relief. The rover has been on Mars since August, and it took six months to find the right spot for that first drill. (Watch video of the Mars rover Curiosity.)

The flat drilling area is in the lower section of Yellowknife Bay, which Curiosity has been exploring for more than a month. What was previously identified by Curiosity scientists as the dry bed of a once-flowing river or stream appears to fan out into the Yellowknife area.

The bedrock of the site—named after deceased Curiosity deputy project manager John Klein—is believed to be siltstone or mudstone. Scientists said the veins of white minerals are probably calcium sulfate or gypsum, but the grey nodules remain something of a mystery.


To the team that designed and operates the drill, the results were a triumph, as great as the much-heralded landing of Curiosity on the red planet. With more than a hundred maneuvers in its repertoire, the drill is unique in its capabilities and complexities. (Watch video of Curiosity's "Seven Minutes of Terror.")

Sample system chief engineer Louise Jandura, who has worked on the drill for eight years, said the Curosity team had made eight different drills before settling on the one now on the rover. The team tested each drill by boring 1,200 holes on 20 types of rock on Earth.

She called the successful drilling "historic" because it gives scientists unprecedented access to material that has not been exposed to the intense weathering and radiation processes that affect the Martian surface.


The gray powder will be routed to the two most sophisticated instruments on Curiosity—the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin).

SAM, the largest and most complex instrument onboard, operates with two ovens that can heat the sample up to 1,800°F (982°C), turning the elements and compounds in the rock into gases that can then be identified. SAM can also determine whether any carbon-based organic material is present.

Organics are the chemical building blocks of life on Earth. They are known to regularly land on Mars via meteorites and finer material that rains down on all planets.

But researchers suspect the intense radiation on the Martian surface destroys any organics on the surface. Scientists hope that organics within Martian rocks are protected from that radiation.

CheMin shoots an X-ray beam at its sample and can analyze the mineral content of the rock. Minerals provide a durable record of environmental conditions over the eons, including information about possible ingredients and energy sources for life.

Both SAM and CheMin received samples of sandy soil scooped from the nearby Rocknest outcrop in October. SAM identified organic material, but scientists are still trying to determine whether any of it is Martian or the byproduct of organics inadvertently brought to Mars by the rover. (See "Mars Rover Detects Simple Organic Compounds.")

In the next few days, CheMin will be the first to receive samples of the powdered rock, and then SAM. Given the complexity of the analysis, and the track record seen with other samples, it will likely be weeks before results are announced.

The process of drilling and collecting the results was delayed by several glitches that required study and work-arounds. One involved drill software and the other involved a test-bed problem with a sieve that is part of the process of delivering samples to the instruments.

Lead systems engineer Daniel Limonadi said that while there was no indication the sieve on Mars was malfunctioning, they had become more conservative in its use because of the test bed results. (Related: "A 2020 Rover Return to Mars?")

Author of the National Geographic e-book Mars Landing 2012, Marc Kaufman has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including the past 12 as a science and space writer, foreign correspondent, and editor for the Washington Post. He is also author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, published in 2011, and has spoken extensively to crowds across the United States and abroad about astrobiology. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, Lynn Litterine.

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Florida Python Hunt Captures 68 Invasive Snakes

It's a wrap—the 2013 Python Challenge has nabbed 68 invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, organizers say. And experts are surprised so many of the elusive giants were caught.

Nearly 1,600 people from 38 states—most of them inexperienced hunters—registered for the chance to track down one of the animals, many of which descend from snakes that either escaped or were dumped into the wild.

Since being introduced, these Asian behemoths have flourished in Florida's swamps while also squeezing out local populations of the state's native mammals, especially in the Everglades. (See Everglades pictures.)

To highlight the python problem, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners launched the 2013 Python Challenge, which encouraged registered participants to catch as many pythons as they could between January 12 and February 10 in state wildlife-management areas within the Everglades.

The commission gave cash prizes to those who harvested the most and longest pythons.

Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida and scientific leader for the challenge, said before the hunt that he would consider a harvest of 70 animals a success—and 68 is close enough to say the event met its goals.

It's unknown just how many Burmese pythons live in Florida, but catching 68 snakes is an "exceptional" number, added Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Snakes in the Grass

Finding 68 snakes is impressive, experts say, since it's so hard to find pythons. For one, it's been unusually warm lately in Florida, which means the reptiles—which normally sun themselves to regulate their body temperature—are staying in the brush, making them harder to detect, Krysko said.

On top of that, Burmese pythons are notoriously hard to locate, experts say.

The animals are so well camouflaged that people can stand right next to one and not notice it. "It's rare that you get to see them stretched out—most of the time they're blending in," said Cheryl Millett, a biologist at the Nature Conservancy, a Python Challenge partner.

What's more, the reptiles are ambush hunters, which means they spend much of their time lying in wait in dense vegetation, not moving, she said.

That's why Millett gave the hunters some tips, such as looking along the water's edge, where the snakes like to hang out, and also simply listening for "something big moving through the vegetation."

Even so, catching 68 snakes is "actually is a little more than I expected," said Millett.

No Walk in the Park

Ruben Ramirez, founder of the company Florida Python Hunters, won two prizes in the competition: First place for the most snakes captured—18—and second place for the largest python, which he said was close to 11 feet (3.4 meters) long. The biggest Burmese python caught in Florida, nabbed in 2012, measured 17.7 feet (5.4 meters).

"They're there, but they're not as easy to find as people think," said Ramirez. "You're not going to be stumbling over pythons in Miami." (Related blog post: "What It's Like to Be a Florida Python Hunter.")

All participants, some of whom had never hunted a python before, were trained to identify the difference between a Burmese python and Florida's native snakes, said Millett. No native snakes were accidentally killed, she said.

Hunters were also told to kill the snakes by either putting a bolt or a bullet through their heads, or decapitating them-all humane methods that result "in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain," according to the Python Challenge website.

Ramirez added that some of the first-time or amateur hunters had different expectations. "I think they were expecting to walk down a canal and see a 10-foot [3-meter], 15-foot [4.5-meter] Burmese python. They thought it'd be a walk in the park."

Stopping the Spread

Completely removing these snakes from the wild isn't easy, and some scientists see the Python Challenge as helping to achieve part of that goal. (Read an opposing view on the Python Challenge: "Opinion: Florida's Great Snake Hunt Is a Cheap Stunt.")

"You're talking about 68 more animals removed from the population that shouldn't be there—that's 68 more mouths that aren't being fed," said the Florida museum's Krysko. (Read about giant Burmese python meals that went bust.)

"I support any kind of event or program that not only informs the general public about introduced species, but also gets the public involved in removing these nonnative animals that don't belong there."

The Nature Conservancy's Millett said the challenge had two positive outcomes: boosting knowledge for both science and the public.

People who didn't want to hunt or touch the snakes could still help, she said, by reporting sightings of exotic species to 888-IVE-GOT-1, through free IveGot1 apps, or

Millett runs a public-private Nature Conservancy partnership called Python Patrol that the Florida wildlife commission will take on in the fall. The program focuses not only on eradicating invasive pythons but on preventing the snake from moving to ecologically sensitive areas, such as Key West.

Necropsies on the captured snakes will reveal what pythons are eating, and location data from the hunters will help scientists figure out where the snakes are living—valuable data for researchers working to stop their spread.

"This is the most [number of] pythons that have been caught in this short of a period of time in such an extensive area," said the University of Florida's Mazzotti.

"It's an unprecedented sample, and we're going to get a lot of information out of that."

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Confirmed: Dogs Sneak Food When People Aren't Looking

Many dog owners will swear their pups are up to something when out of view of watchful eyes. Shoes go missing, couches have mysterious teeth marks, and food disappears. They seem to disregard the word "no."

Now, a new study suggests dogs might understand people even better than we thought. (Related: "Animal Minds.")

The research shows that domestic dogs, when told not to snatch a piece of food, are more likely to disobey the command in a dark room than in a lit room.

This suggests that man's best friend is capable of understanding a human's point of view, said study leader Juliane Kaminski, a psychologist at the U.K.'s University of Portmouth.

"The one thing we can say is that dogs really have specialized skills in reading human communication," she said. "This is special in dogs." (Read "How to Build a Dog.")

Sneaky Canines

Kaminski and colleagues recruited 84 dogs, all of which were more than a year old, motivated by food, and comfortable with both strangers and dark rooms.

The team then set up experiments in which a person commanded a dog not to take a piece of food on the floor and repeated the commands in a room with different lighting scenarios ranging from fully lit to fully dark.

They found that the dogs were four times as likely to steal the food—and steal it more quickly—when the room was dark. (Take our dog quiz.)

"We were thinking what affected the dog was whether they saw the human, but seeing the human or not didn't affect the behavior," said Kaminski, whose study was published recently in the journal Animal Cognition.

Instead, she said, the dog's behavior depended on whether the food was in the light or not, suggesting that the dog made its decision based on whether the human could see them approaching the food.

"In a general sense, [Kaminski] and other researchers are interested in whether the dog has a theory of mind," said Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard University, who was not involved in the new study.

Something that all normal adult humans have, theory of mind is "an understanding that others have different perspective, knowledge, feelings than we do," said Horowitz, also the author of Inside of a Dog.

Smarter Than We Think

While research has previously been focused on our closer relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—interest in dog cognition is increasing, thanks in part to owners wanting to know what their dogs are thinking. (Pictures: How smart are these animals?)

"The study of dog cognition suddenly began about 15 years ago," Horowitz said.

Part of the reason for that, said Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Lab and author of The Genius of Dogs, is that "science thought dogs were unremarkable."

But "dogs have a genius—years ago we didn't know what that was," said Hare, who was not involved in the new research. (See pictures of the the evolution of dogs, from wolf to woof.)

Many of the new dog studies are variations on research done with chimpanzees, bonobos, and even young children. Animal-cognition researchers are looking into dogs' ability to imitate, solve problems, or navigate social environments.

So just how much does your dog understand? It's much more than you—and science—probably thought.

Selectively bred as companions for thousands of years, dogs are especially attuned to human emotions—and, study leader Kaminski said, are better at reading human cues than even our closest mammalian relatives.

"There has been a physiological change in dogs because of domestication," Duke's Hare added. "Dogs want to bond with us in ways other species don't." (Related: "Dogs' Brains Reorganized by Breeding.")

While research reveals more and more insight into the minds of our furry best friends, Kaminski said, "We still don't know just how smart they are."

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Meet the Meteorite Hunter

Michael Farmer is one of the world's only full-time meteorite hunters. Since the 1990s, the 40-year-old Tucson, Arizona, resident has been scouring the world for pieces of interstellar rock, racing to be the first one on the scene and selling his finds to museums and private collectors. On Friday, as Russians reportedly scrambled to collect fragments from a passing meteorite that injured hundreds, Farmer spoke with National Geographic about his unusual line of work.

Why are so many people in Russia busy gathering up meteorite fragments?

It's a historic event. This will be talked about forever. Everyone wants to have a little piece of it. And scientifically, we want to study it. We want to know what's out there, and we want to know how big it is, and we want to know what damage it can cause. The preliminary data from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says about 7,000 tons landed.

How many meteorite fragments are known to be on Earth?

There are a couple of hundred thousand known meteorites. Of course, there's millions and millions on the planet; we just have to find them. Most of the Earth is inhospitable—heavy forest, jungle, ocean. Meteorites that fall in the ocean are just gone, disappeared to the bottom.

How many other full-time meteorite hunters are there?

Dedicated, serious meteorite hunters? There are maybe 20 of us. If you add in the part-timers who go somewhere whenever [an impact is] close to them, then you might approach a hundred.

How did you become a meteorite hunter?

Here in Tucson right now we have the world's biggest mineral show going on. I bought a meteorite at this very same show 20 years ago, and I was absolutely obsessed and hooked. Since then I've been around the world more times than I can count—four million miles on American Airlines alone.

How many countries have you been to?

About 70 countries, by my last count. About 50, 59 trips to Africa—a lot of work in Africa. The Sahara and other deserts there make meteorites easier to find than on other terrains, and also keep them well preserved.

What are the challenges you face when you're on a hunt?

Well, you're usually going into a kind of chaotic scene where nobody really knows much. In Africa and other places I go [the locals] don't usually understand what's happening, and most of the time they don't care. They're more concerned with eating that day. But the instant some guy shows up and says, "I'll pay you to find this rock," the whole village empties—and then lots of rocks show up.

Related: Best Meteorites for Tourists

It can be dangerous work. I've been robbed, put into prison. For example, I was in prison two years ago in the Middle East, in Oman—actually sentenced, convicted, and put in prison for three months for "illegal mining activity." Not a very nice time. And the same year, 2011, in the fall I went to Kenya three times, after a major meteorite fell. On the third trip over I had a robbery where they ambushed us and almost murdered me. I was down on my knees, with a bag over my head and a machete on my throat and a gun at my head, being beaten. Luckily they decided to just take everything and leave instead of killing us. It's a dangerous line of work because it involves money, and people want that money.

What's the most valuable meteorite you've found?

Well, I've found three separate moon rocks in the Middle East. [Moon rocks are considered a type of meteorite that came loose from the lunar surface and fell to Earth.] And one of them I sold for $100,000 a week later. It was just a small piece—the size of a walnut. But the best meteorite I found was with my three partners up in Canada. It was actually discovered in 1931, but we went back to the location and discovered 53 kilograms [117 pounds] more. It's an extremely rare type of meteorite called a pallasite, and it's about 4.5 billion years old. We sold it to the Canadian government for just under a million dollars. Now it's in the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, and it's considered a national treasure.

Where else do you sell your wares?

Well, I do shows around the world, in France, Germany, Japan. I go to expos, like this one here in Tucson, which is the biggest mineral show in the world and lasts for three weeks. And museums are always calling me.

Related: Archival Photos of Meteorite Recovery

It's a small market. It's not like I need a shop or anything. People call me or email me or go to my website and check it out. The market these days is so ravenous for anything new that when I get a new meteorite, it's usually sold in hours. I don't even have to work anymore. I just make phone calls to a few people, and it's all gone.

Where do you store your collection?

I have multiple storage sites—never put all your eggs in one basket. And I have lots of bulk material. Sometimes I buy this stuff by the ton, and it goes into storage and I sell it off one piece at a time.

What's the verification process like?

Any meteorite, anything that we want to have an official name, has to go to a laboratory, where it gets sectioned and studied by scientists. For example, I'd guess this meteorite in Russia yesterday will be in a lab in Moscow, being researched within hours.

Related: History's Big Meteorite Crashes

In the collector market, we work collaboratively with the scientists. I supply them with rocks, and they supply me with data, both of which I need to make money. People want to know what something is before they buy it.

Are there legal or ethical implications to meteorite hunting?

There always are. Certain countries have passed laws. But when I was arrested in Oman, they actually had no law—they were just very upset that we were taking lots of meteorites. The only law they could charge us with was illegal mining operations—basically running a company in the country without government licensing. But I won on appeal because we had no mining equipment. We were picking up rocks off the surface of the desert. And a judge said, "If a child could do it, then it's not mining." And I was immediately released and sent home.

But there's always friction between the collecting market and the scientific market. There are scientists out there who believe that no meteorite should be in private hands. Well, I tell you, I've been on hunts all over the world and I've only run into scientists a couple of times. They don't have the time or money to do it. So if it wasn't for us, 99 percent of these meteorites would be lost to science.

What about this meteorite strike—do you think scientists will go to Russia?

I guarantee there'll be scientists from everywhere in the world going to this one.

Are you catching the next flight to Moscow?

Well, of course as a meteorite dealer, I want to own this. I woke up this morning to a hundred e-mails from people begging me to get on a plane and go get it so they can buy a piece.

But I'm probably not going. Getting into Russia can be complicated. I'll just buy some from the Russians when it comes out.

Of course, if this had happened in China or somewhere in Africa, I'd be packing my bags right now and getting on a plane, figuring it all out when I get there.

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Picture Archive: Making Mount Rushmore, 1935-1941

Photograph from Rapid City Chamber of Commerce/National Geographic

There's no such thing as Presidents' Day.

According to United States federal government code, the holiday is named Washington's Birthday, and has been since it went nationwide in 1885.

But common practice is more inclusive. The holiday expanded to add in other U.S. presidents in the 1960s, and the moniker Presidents' Day became popular in the 1980s and stuck. It may be that George Washington (b. February 22, 1732) andAbraham Lincoln (b. February 12, 1809) still get the lion's share of attention—and appear in all the retail sale ads—on the third Monday in February, but the popular idea is that all 44 presidents get feted.

Mount Rushmore is a lot like that one day a year writ large—and in granite. It's carved 60 feet (18 meters) tall and 185 feet (56 meters) wide, from Washington's right ear to Lincoln's left.

The monument's sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, grew up in Idaho, a first-generation American born to Danish parents. He studied art in France and became good friends with Auguste Rodin. Borglum mostly worked in bronze, but in the early 1910s he was hired to carve the likenesses of Confederate leaders into Stone Mountain in Georgia.

He was about to be fired from that job for creative differences about the same time that a South Dakota historian named Doane Robinson had an idea. Robinson wanted to have a monument carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, maybe Western historical figures like Chief Red Cloud and Lewis and Clark, each on their own granite spire. (Plan a road trip in the Black Hills.)

Robinson hired Borglum and gave him carte blanche. Borglum was looking for something with national appeal, so he chose to depict four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Borglum wanted to represent the first 150 years of the nation's history, choosing four presidents as symbols of their respective time periods. He took a tour of western South Dakota, searching for an ideal canvas.

The sculptor was looking for three things: a surface strong enough to sculpt, a mountain big enough to hold several figures, and a mountain face that received morning sunlight. Mount Rushmore fit the bill and was already part of a national forest, so it was easy to set aside as a national memorial.

Work started in 1927. Calvin Coolidge attended the dedication ceremony. It took 14 years to finish the carving, conducted mostly in summertime because of the area's harsh winters.

There were approximately 30 workers on the mountain at any give time. In total about 400 had worked on it by the time the monument was finished. Though the project involved thousands of pounds of dynamite and perilous climbs, not a single person died during the work.

Borglum himself died of natural causes in 1941, though, just six months before the project was declared "closed as is" by Congress that Halloween. His son Lincoln—named for his father's favorite president—took over.

In the photo above, a worker refines the details of Washington's left nostril.

About 90 percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite, which could get within 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 centimeters) of the final facial features. For those last few inches, workers used what was known as the honeycomb method: Jackhammer workers pounded a series of three-inch-deep holes followed up by chiselers who knocked off the honeycomb pieces to get the final shape. Then carvers smoothed the "skin's" surface.

—Johnna Rizzo

February 16, 2013

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Why the Dog Show Winner Looks Like a Monkey

Standing less than a foot tall and easily cradled in one of trainer Ernesto Lara's arms, Banana Joe made big news for a small dog when he became the first affenpinscher to win the Westminster Kennel Club dog show on Tuesday.

His short stature and flattened face might not make Banana Joe look like a typical winner: The name "affenpinscher" is German for "monkey terrier," and its mug is definitely simian in appearance. Now this lesser known breed is basking in the spotlight, monkey face and all. (Read "How to Build a Dog" in National Geographic magazine.)

Why the Flat Face?

People like dogs whose faces kind of look like people, with a squished-in nose and forward-facing eyes: Pekinese, bullmastiffs, and affenpinschers, to name a few. "It's mimicking the way humans appear," said Jeffrey Schoenebeck, a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health who has analyzed the development of shortened canine snouts. Several centuries ago, breeders probably sought out parents with a flat face. (Genetics note: Gene BMP3 likely contributes to a flat face in toy breeds.)

And so Banana Joe's mug reflects centuries of genetic manipulation. There's no advantage for the dog, Schoenebeck notes, except that humans would crave it more as a companion. (Related: Gallery of Dog Pictures.)

What About That Tongue?

Banana Joe sticks out his little pink tongue a lot. Maybe more than your run-of-the-mill canine. The reason may be the flat face. "There's probably less room in their mouth" for the tongue, said Schoenebeck. "It's hanging out."

Why so Small?

"The Affenpinscher comes from a terrier background," explained NIH senior staff scientist Heidi Parker, and like all terriers, it was bred to chase. The early affenpinschers' specialty was hunting down rats and other vermin for its owners. Breeding for a small size came later, as ladies started bringing affenpinschers into the home as lap dogs-and to keep away vermin that might otherwise hide in corners or under long skirts. Today's affenpinschers are in the 6-to-13 pound (3-to-6 kilogram) range.

But the dog's size hasn't given it an inferiority complex. "Most of these little guys do not realize they're as small as they are," Parker says. Toy dogs have been known to chase birds and other animals that rival them in size.

What Comes After Westminster?

Dog lovers may crave an affenpinscher. And that could cause problems if breeders try to produce more pups.

"You'll see some breeds go through sudden explosions, where they'll go from small numbers to really large numbers," says Parker. "Usually that means an increase in genetic diseases." There aren't a lot of potential parents for a purebred litter, so the odds of inbreeding, and its related diseases, go up.

And What About Banana Joe?

Now that he's made us aware of his breed, Banana Joe will retire from competition and live with his Dutch owner, free to fulfill his heritage as a lap dog.

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Why We Walk … and Run … And Walk Again to Get Where We're Going

You have to get to a bus stop to catch the once-an-hour express ... or to a restaurant to meet a friend ... or to a doctor's office. You've got maybe a half a mile to cover and you're worried you'll be late. You run, then you stop and walk, then run some more.

But wait. Wouldn't it be better to run the whole way?

Not necessarily.

A new study by an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State University tests the theory that people subconsciously mix walking and running so they get where they need to. The idea is that "people move in a manner that minimizes energy consumption," said the professor, Manoj Srinivasan.

Srinivasan asked 36 subjects to cover 400 feet (122 meters), a bit more than the length of a football field. He gave them a time to arrive at the finish line and a stopwatch. If the deadline was supertight, they ran. If they had two minutes, they walked. And if the deadline was neither too short nor too far off, they toggled between walking and running.

The takeaway: Humans successfully make the walk-run adjustment as they go along, based on their sense of how far they have to go. "It's not like they decide beforehand," Srinivasan said. (Get tips, gear recommendations, and more in our Running Guide.)

The Best Technique for "the Twilight Zone"

"The mixture of walking and running is good when you have an intermediate amount of time," he explained. "I like to call it 'the Twilight Zone,' where you have neither infinite time nor do you have to be there now."

That ability to shift modes served ancient humans well. "It's basically an evolutionary argument," Srinivasan said. A prehistoric human seeking food would want to move in a way that conserves some energy so that if food is hard to find, the hunter won't run out of gas—and will still be able to rev it up to escape predators.

The study, published on January 30 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, doesn't answer that question of how we make such adjustments.

Runners: Take a Break if You Need It

The mix of walking and running is also something that nonelite marathoners are familiar with. Covering 26.2 miles might take less of a toll if the runner stops running from time to time, walks a bit, then resumes a jogging pace. "You use less energy overall and also give yourself a bit of a break," Srinivasan noted. (Watch: An elite marathoner on her passion for running.)

One take-home lesson is: Runners, don't push it all the time. A walk-run mix will minimize the energy you expend.

Lesson two: If you're a parent walking with your kid, and the kid lags behind, then runs to catch up, then lags again, the child isn't necessarily trying to annoy you. Rather, the child is perhaps exhibiting an innate ability to do the walk-run transition.

Potential lesson three: The knowledge that humans naturally move in a manner that minimizes energy consumption might be helpful in designing artificial limbs that feel more natural and will help the user reduce energy consumption.

The big question for Manoj Srinivasan: Now that he has his walk-run theory, does he consciously switch between running and walking when he's trying to get somewhere? "I must admit, no," he said. "When I want to get somewhere, I just let the body do its thing." But if he's in a rush, he'll make a mad dash.

"Talk to you tomorrow," he signed off in an email to National Geographic News. "Running to get to teaching now!"

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Are Honeybees Losing Their Way?

A single honeybee visits hundreds, sometimes thousands, of flowers a day in search of nectar and pollen. Then it must find its way back to the hive, navigating distances up to five miles (eight kilometers), and perform a "waggle dance" to tell the other bees where the flowers are.

A new study shows that long-term exposure to a combination of certain pesticides might impair the bee's ability to carry out its pollen mission.

"Any impairment in their ability to do this could have a strong effect on their survival," said Geraldine Wright, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University in England and co-author of a new study posted online February 7, 2013, in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Wright's study adds to the growing body of research that shows that the honeybee's ability to thrive is being threatened. Scientists are still researching how pesticides may be contributing to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a rapid die-off seen in millions of honeybees throughout the world since 2006.

"Pesticides are very likely to be involved in CCD and also in the loss of other types of pollinators," Wright said. (See the diversity of pollinating creatures in a photo gallery from National Geographic magazine.)

Bees depend on what's called "scent memory" to find flowers teeming with nectar and pollen. Their ability to rapidly learn, remember, and communicate with each other has made them highly efficient foragers, using the waggle dance to educate others about the site of the food source.

Watch as National Geographic explains the waggle dance.

Their pollination of plants is responsible for the existence of nearly a third of the food we eat and has a similar impact on wildlife food supplies.

Previous studies have shown certain types of pesticides affect a bee's learning and memory. Wright's team wanted to investigate if the combination of different pesticides had an even greater effect on the learning and memory of honeybees.

"Honeybees learn to associate floral colors and scents with the quality of food rewards," Wright explained. "The pesticides affect the neurons involved in these behaviors. These [affected] bees are likely to have difficulty communicating with other members of the colony."

The experiment used a classic procedure with a daunting name: olfactory conditioning of the proboscis extension reflex. In layman's terms, the bee sticks out its tongue in response to odor and food rewards.

For the experiment, bees were collected from the colony entrance, placed in glass vials, and then transferred into plastic sandwich boxes. For three days the bees were fed a sucrose solution laced with sublethal doses of pesticides. The team measured short-term and long-term memory at 10-minute and 24-hour intervals respectively. (Watch of a video of a similar type of bee experiment.)

This study is the first to show that when pesticides are combined, the impact on bees is far worse than exposure to just one pesticide. "This is particularly important because one of the pesticides we used, coumaphos, is a 'medicine' used to treat Varroa mites [pests that have been implicated in CCD] in honeybee colonies throughout the world," Wright said.

The pesticide, in addition to killing the mites, might also be making honeybees more vulnerable to poisoning and effects from other pesticides.

Stephen Buchmann of the Pollinator Partnership, who was not part of Wright's study, underscored how critical pollinators are for the world. "The main threat to pollinators is habitat destruction and alteration. We're rapidly losing pollinator habitats, natural areas, and food—producing agricultural lands that are essential for our survival and well being. Along with habitat destruction, insecticides weaken pollinators and other beneficial insects."

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Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate, With or Without Congress

If there were anything in President Barack Obama's State of the Union to give hope to wistful environmentalists, it was the unprecedented promise to confront climate change with or without Congress, and to pursue new energy technology in the process.

Following his strong statements in his inaugural address about the ripeness of the moment to address a changing climate, Obama outlined a series of proposals to do it. Recognizing that the 12 hottest years on record all occurred in the last decade and a half, Obama said his most ambitious goal would be a "bipartisan, market-based solution," similar to the cap-and-trade system that died in Congress during his first term.(See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

But without legislative action, Obama threatened to act himself using executive authority. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," he said. That will translate, White House officials said earlier in the week, to new regulations for existing coal-burning power plants and directives to promote energy efficiency and new technology research. (See related story: "How Bold a Path on Climate Change in Obama's State of the Union?")

The effort isn't one that can be stalled, he noted. Not just because of a warming planet, but also because of international competition from countries like China and parts of Western Europe that have gone "all in" on clean energy.

Energy experts signaled support of Obama's comments on energy security, including a plan for an Energy Security Trust to use revenue from oil and gas production on public lands to fund new energy research. "Clean energy businesses commend the president for reaffirming his commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address the damaging and costly impacts of climate change," Lisa Jacobson, president of Business Council for Sustainable Energy, said in a statement. The influential League of Conservation Voters perked up to Obama's vow to act on climate change, even if alone.

Noticeably unmentioned in the speech was the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the refining centers of Texas. Environmentalists have urged Obama to reject the project's application for federal approval in order to hold the line against carbon-intensive production from the oil sands. (See related blog post: "Obama and Keystone XL: The Moment of Truth?") Energy analysts believe Obama is likely to approve the project in the coming weeks, yet at the same time offer new regulations on domestic oil and natural gas development.

Other environmental analysts took Obama's remarks as simple talk, so far not backed by action. “How many times do we have to have the problem described?” David Yarnold, president of the Audubon Society said after the speech. “Smarter standards for coal-fired power plants are the quickest path to a cleaner future, and the president can make that happen right now.”

Obama's path toward accomplishing those goals will likely be lonely. In the Republican rebuttal to Obama's speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio sidelined climate change as an issue of concern and highlighted the deep partisan distrust. "When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air," Rubio said. He echoed the long-held Republican concern that remaking an economy may not be the wisest way to confront the problem of extreme weather.

Central to Obama's efforts will be his nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in his second term. Both roles were at times attacked over his first term, notably when EPA instituted new air and water regulations and DOE was caught making a bad investment in the now-defunct solar manufacturer Solyndra. If the tone of his State of the Union offers a blueprint, he'll choose people unafraid to act.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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