China Opens Investigation Into Slaughter of Rare Sea Turtle

Authorities in southern China have opened an investigation into the slaughter and sale of a protected leatherback sea turtle by local fishermen, media reported Saturday.

The case grew to national prominence after cellphone video circulated showing the 200-kilogram (440-pound) turtle being sliced into pieces and sold to eager villagers in a fishing village in the southern province of Guangdong. The meat sold for aboujt 70 yuan ($10) per kilogram, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Xinhua that six villagers have been referred to investigators. It said area residents were told by fishermen that the turtle was dead at the time it was caught.

Liang Daichong, a local fisheries policeman quoted by Xinhua, said the incident was the result of “bad eating habits” and simple ignorance of regulations.

China’s growing animal rights movement has sought to raise awareness of abuses ranging from the slaughter of canines for an annual dog meat festival in a southern city to the farming of bears milked for their bile to be used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Social media has played a major role in mobilizing such sentiments, although a push to enact animal protection legislation has made little progress through the national legislature.

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At Least 43,000 Homeless After Aceh Quake in Indonesia

At least 43,000 people have been displaced by the powerful earthquake that hit Indonesia’s Aceh province, authorities said Saturday, as the government and aid agencies pooled efforts to meet the basic survival needs of shaken communities.

The estimate of the number of homeless people continues to grow while relief efforts fan out across the three districts near the epicenter of Wednesday’s magnitude 6.5 quake, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said in a statement

“The basic needs of refugees must be met during the evacuation,” it said.

Humanitarian groups are now coordinating their efforts from a main command post in the worst affected district Pidie Jaya, the agency said.

At least 100 people were killed and hundreds injured in the quake, which also destroyed or damaged more than 11,000 buildings. The displaced are staying in temporary shelters and mosques or with relatives.

On Saturday, sniffer dogs were again used in the search for bodies and possible survivors in the devastated town of Meureudu, where a market filled with shop houses was largely flattened. Four other locations in Pidie Jaya are also the focus of search efforts.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo traveled Friday to worst-hit areas of the province and promised to rebuild communities.

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Discovery of Dinosaur Tail Encased in Amber Sheds Light on Evolution

A dinosaur tail preserved in amber has been discovered for the first time ever, researchers announced on Thursday in a paper published in the scientific journal Cell Biology.

The feather-covered tail is from a dinosaur that lived on Earth about 99 million years ago, according to a news release from Cell Press, which publishes Cell Biology.

PHOTO: This reconstruction image shows a small coelurosaur approaching a resin-coated branch on the forest floor.Chung-tat Cheung
This reconstruction image shows a small coelurosaur approaching a resin-coated branch on the forest floor.

Lida Xing, the paper’s lead author and lecturer at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, chanced upon the “remarkable specimen” while perusing an amber market in Myitkyina, Myanmar, in 2015, Cell Press said.

The dinosaur tail originally could have just ended up “a curiosity or piece of jewelry,” Cell Press said, “but Xing recognized its potential scientific importance and suggested that the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology buy the specimen.”

The finding has helped provide significant insight into dinosaurs’ feather structure and evolution, which can’t be determined from fossil evidence, according to Cell Press.

PHOTO: This image released by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada shows a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber.p itemprop=
” / Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)/AFP/Getty Images
This image released by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada shows a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber.

“Amber pieces preserve tiny snapshots of ancient ecosystems, but they record microscopic details, three-dimensional arrangements and labile tissues that are difficult to study in other settings,” said Ryan McKellar, co-author of the paper and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada.

Researchers have been using CT scanning and microscopic observations to get a closer look at the feathers, Cell Press said. The scientific journal publisher noted that hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen, was found in the amber.

Researchers said they are now “eager to see how additional finds from this region will reshape our understanding of plumage and soft tissues in dinosaurs and other vertebrates,” Cell Press added.

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Could Familial DNA Crack Case of Slain New York City Jogger?

With a DNA profile but no suspect to match in the strangling of a woman who went for a run and met a killer, authorities are looking to an emerging approach: using the DNA to look for the killer’s relatives.

The technique, known as familial DNA searching, has made inroads in some U.S. states and other countries in the last decade, leading to both high-profile arrests and civil-liberties qualms.

Now, New York state officials plan to discuss Friday whether to introduce it after a request from prosecutors and police yearning for a lead in the case of 30-year-old runner Karina Vetrano.

Authorities see the technique as a powerful, precise investigative tool. And to Vetrano’s family, the case for the search is clear.

“Our only goal in life is to find out who did this to our daughter,” said her mother, Cathy Vetrano. “So if there’s any method available to do that, we want it done.”

But critics view the technique as a DNA dragnet that can single out otherwise law-abiding people for scrutiny because of family ties.

“A policy that implicates New Yorkers in a criminal investigation solely because they are related to someone with DNA in the state’s databank is a miscarriage of justice,” said Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s executive director.

Ten states, including California, Texas and Florida, conduct familial DNA testing. Ohio on Monday announced its first effort yielded an arrest in the kidnapping and rape of a 6-year-old girl and the attempted abduction of a 10-year-old girl.

But at least two jurisdictions, Maryland and the District of Columbia, have prohibited the practice.

Authorities have long worked to identify suspects by matching crime scene evidence to convicted offenders’ DNA. Familial DNA testing goes further, seeking people similar enough to be closely related to whoever left the crime scene DNA.

Investigators can then explore whether such people have family members who fits as suspects. If so, they need other evidence, possibly a match to a suspect’s own DNA, to bring charges.

Familial DNA famously led to an arrest in Los Angeles’ “Grim Sleeper” serial killings, which spanned from 1985 to 2007. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was convicted and sentenced to death this year.

After Vetrano’s beaten body was found Aug. 2 in a marshy park in her quiet Queens neighborhood, investigators developed a DNA profile of the probable attacker from material under Vetrano’s fingernails and on her neck and phone, but it didn’t match anyone in law enforcement DNA databases.

Meanwhile, police chased down 85 tips, interviewed runners, looked for clues in Vetrano’s personal life and examined surveillance video and even panhandling reports from areas nearby.

“This tragic murder has been exhaustively investigated using every tool currently available,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Thursday in asking the state Commission on Forensic Science to authorize familial searching.

Commissioners intend to discuss the topic at a meeting Friday. It’s not clear when or what they’ll decide, but spokeswoman Janine Kava said Thursday they’ll continue working to provide law enforcement with “cutting-edge tools” to solve crimes “without compromising individual protections.”

Concerns about familial DNA searching hit home for New Orleans filmmaker Michael Usry in 2014, when police showed up with a warrant to get his DNA as a possible suspect in a 1996 killing in Idaho.

A crime scene DNA sample was similar to that of Usry’s father, who’d voluntarily given it for a nonprofit genealogy project; police had gotten the data from a website that acquired it. The baffled filmmaker spent a month worrying about what would happen before further testing cleared him.

“It was a very weird situation,” he said earlier this year.

Cases like his trouble the technique’s critics. So does the idea of training an investigative lens on offenders in law enforcement databases to scrutinize relations with clean records.

“We don’t subject some people to disparate treatment because of taint of blood,” says Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor who has studied the issue. “It’s a violation of some of our foundational principles.”

Supporters say familial DNA investigations can be structured to pursue only strong leads and do it discreetly. California, for instance, strives to investigate them without letting on to the potential suspects or their family members.

“The idea that we’re rousting relatives, innocent people, it’s a fabrication,” says Rockne Harmon, a retired California prosecutor and prominent voice for familial DNA searching.

Cathy Vetrano has her own assessment.

“If any person who thinks it’s unfair was in this situation,” she says, “I think they would be feeling differently.”

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Michigan Lets Autonomous Cars on Roads Without Human Driver

Companies can now test self-driving cars on Michigan public roads without a driver or steering wheel under new laws that could push the state to the forefront of autonomous vehicle development.

The package of bills signed into law Friday comes with few specific state regulations and leaves many decisions up to automakers and companies like Google and Uber.

It also allows automakers and tech companies to run autonomous taxi services and permits test parades of self-driving tractor-trailers as long as humans are in each truck. And they allow the sale of self-driving vehicles to the public once they are tested and certified, according to the state.

The bills allow testing without burdensome regulations so the industry can move forward with potential life-saving technology, said Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed the bills. “It makes Michigan a place where particularly for the auto industry it’s a good place to do work,” he said.

The bills give Michigan the potential to be a leader by giving the companies more autonomy than say, California, which now requires human backup drivers in case something goes awry.

Here are answers to some questions about the laws:

Q: Companies are making a lot of the decisions in putting the cars on public roads. Why does the state think they’ll be safe?

A: Michigan Transportation Director Kirk Steudle says the laws put Michigan ahead of most other states with the possible exception of Florida in specifically allowing tests without a human driver. Companies, he said, will make the decision as to when the cars are ready for that, based on more than a century of experience of testing cars on public roads. Automakers have a long history of testing cars on public roads in Michigan with few, if any, incidents, Steudle says. The cars also have to comply with federal safety standards and may have to be certified as roadworthy by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration if proposed federal guidelines are adopted. “I don’t want to regulate the vehicles. There is nobody in state government that has any knowledge to be able to say that vehicle is ready to go on the road,” Steudle said. If the vehicles crash, Steudle says they would be governed by Michigan’s no-fault insurance laws that require each driver’s insurance to pay for damage. The companies also could be sued under product liability laws, he says. The self-driving laws also allow only reputable companies such as automakers and tech companies to do tests, Steudle says. “These are responsible parties,” says Snyder.

Q: Does this put the state ahead in allowing self-driving vehicles on public roads?

A: Michigan Transportation Director Kirk Steudle says the laws put Michigan ahead of most other states with the possible exception of Florida in specifically allowing tests without a human driver. Companies, he said, will make the decision as to when the cars are ready for that, based on more than a century of experience of testing cars on public roads. Steudle says yes because the laws specifically authorize use without human drivers. He also says Michigan has an advantage over Florida and warm-weather states because companies can test in snow. But Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who tracks the technology, says Florida has almost no restrictions. Other states, he said, don’t expressly prohibit such testing and have agreements with individual companies to do it. Michigan’s laws also make defining who is a driver ambiguous, he said. Drivers could be companies running autonomous taxi services, engineers who start autonomous vehicles, passengers who ride in the cars and the automated systems themselves, he said.

Q: Unlike California, Michigan isn’t tracking autonomous car crashes. How will the state spot problems?

A: Police will investigate any crashes and presumably would report any trends to the state, which could suspend a company’s manufacturer license plates and end the tests, Steudle says. He concedes that there will be crashes and probably a fatality involving autonomous cars. But the technology can eliminate human errors that cause 94 percent of crashes and cut the 100 highway deaths in the U.S. every day, he said. “It’s a risk worth taking because the future of the technologies we know are going to help reduce those crashes and reduce those fatalities,” Steudle said.

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Japan Launches Much-Needed Supplies to Space Station

A Japanese capsule blasted off with much-needed supplies for the International Space Station on Friday, a week after a Russian shipment was destroyed shortly after liftoff.

The Russian rocket accident and the grounding of one of NASA’s commercial suppliers make this delivery all the more urgent. The spacecraft should arrive at the station Tuesday.

“Have a safe flight,” French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said in a tweet from the space station. “Looking forward to your arrival!”

The capsule — called Kounotori, or white stork — contains nearly 5 tons of food, water and other supplies, including six new lithium-ion batteries for the station’s solar power system. Astronauts will conduct spacewalks next month to replace the old nickel-hydrogen batteries that store energy generated by the station’s big solar panels.

This is Japan’s sixth shipment to the 250-mile-high outpost, currently home to Pesquet, two Americans and three Russians. It launched from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

Launches by SpaceX, meanwhile, have been on hold since a September rocket explosion on the pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The helium pressurization system in the rocket’s upper stage was breached, resulting in a massive fireball.

The company hopes to resume flights next month from Southern California. Iridium Communications satellites will be aboard that initial launch. A space station supply run is supposed to follow a few weeks later from Cape Canaveral.

In a televised interview from the space station following Friday’s launch, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson said there are already enough supplies to last until spring. The Japanese shipment will stretch that out even further. The Russians lost a spacesuit in the Dec. 1 launch accident, among many other items, she noted.

“Spaceflight’s not an easy thing,” Whitson said. “We just have to keep pressing ourselves to do the right thing, make sure we’re doing all the right tests … so that we don’t have these problems.”




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Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Hit by Sustained Hacking Attack

German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp says it suffered a “massive” and sustained cyberattack aimed at stealing industrial secrets.

The company said Thursday it was “a professional attack which according to our information can be attributed to a group in Southeast Asia.”

ThyssenKrupp says the attackers targeted its Industrial Solutions unit and some data appeared to have been stolen.

The Essen-based company says that particularly sensitive departments, such as its naval and power plant units, are specially protected and weren’t affected by the attack.

German weekly WirtschaftsWoche reported that the attack lasted six months before it was successfully fought off.

Last month Deutsche Telekom suffered a large-scale outage after its network was attacked by a so-called botnet comprised of millions of hijacked internet-connected devices, including fridges, televisions and heating systems.

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Pebble Discontinuing Smartwatches After Its Sale to Fitbit

Pioneering smartwatch maker Pebble is no longer manufacturing or selling any of its devices after the bulk of the company was bought by Fitbit.

Palo Alto, California-based Pebble says its devices will continue to work as normal for now but might lose functionality in the future.

San Francisco-based Fitbit announced the deal to acquire Pebble on Wednesday. Terms weren’t disclosed.

Pebble’s first smartwatch was launched in 2012, three years before the Apple Watch.

The company had raised more than $10 million for the project through a Kickstarter campaign. It raised more than $20 million through the site for an updated version of the watch last year.

Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky calls the sale “bittersweet.” He says many Pebble employees will be joining Fitbit.

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Drought, the South’s Unwelcome Guest, Stays Despite Rains

Recent showers and storms have slightly eased the South’s severe drought, but experts say it wasn’t enough to make up for months of dry conditions before the rain finally fell.

Nearly the entire region remains abnormally dry, and much more rain is needed before the drought’s demise can be declared, said Mark Svoboda, who directs the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The center’s weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday, describes some improvement due to recent rains, but its map shows the South stubbornly covered in oranges, reds and browns, which is bad news for a region becoming accustomed to wildfires.

“It takes a long time to go into a drought and it takes a long time to get out of it, and this one has been a doozy,” Georgia State Climatologist Bill Murphey said.

A large brown area of “exceptional drought” — the very worst conditions — still covers large swaths of Georgia and Alabama. That’s surrounded by red, indicating “extreme” drought, in parts of Tennessee and the western Carolinas. Orange, for “severe” drought, stretches from Louisiana eastward to the Carolinas.

Any rain is welcome, helping firefighters control more of the wildfires burning in a region that has lost much of its customary humidity. The two largest fires in the South, which both began in the north Georgia mountains, are both 95 percent contained, national fire managers reported.

The third-largest — which started in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and killed 14 people in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee area — is more than 80 percent contained, authorities said.

Abnormally dry conditions began showing up in March in parts of the South, and intensified through the spring, summer and fall. Large parts of the region got only half their usual rainfall during the past six months.

“Another 10 inches is what we really need in the next few weeks,” said John Christie, Alabama’s state climatologist.?”My rule of thumb is that if you have over an inch of rain a week, you’ll have some help against the drought.” ?

But too much, too fast won’t help much in the South, where clay soils need time to absorb precipitation. With some of the recent thunderstorms, “quite a bit of it was heavy so there was a tremendous amount of runoff,” Christie said. “It just came too fast to soak in.”

The flow of streams also can help show what’s happening with the drought. Unfortunately, “I’m seeing many of the streams now fall back below average,” Christie said.

Lakes also remain low. Lake Lanier, a main source of drinking water for metro Atlanta, is nearly 9 feet below its normal full capacity for this time of year, Murphey said.

Conditions generally improved in areas that saw at least 3 inches of rain in the past couple weeks, including eastern Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the report shows.

Now, the weather pattern is showing some positive signs and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico could soon produce more rains across the South, forecasts are showing.

“The good news is that the Gulf is opening up and has been opening up,” Murphey said.

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Spread by Trade and Climate, Bugs Butcher America’s Forests

In a towering forest of centuries-old eastern hemlocks, it’s easy to miss one of the tree’s nemeses. No larger than a speck of pepper, the Hemlock woolly adelgid spends its life on the underside of needles sucking sap, eventually killing the tree.

The bug is one in an expanding army of insects draining the life out of forests from New England to the West Coast. Aided by global trade, a warming climate and drought-weakened trees, the invaders have become one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in the United States.

Scientists say they already are driving some tree species toward extinction and are causing billions of dollars a year in damage — and the situation is expected to worsen.

“They are one of the few things that can actually eliminate a forest tree species in pretty short order — within years,” said Harvard University ecologist David Orwig as he walked past dead hemlocks scattered across the university’s 5.8-square-mile research forest in Petersham.

This scourge is projected to put 63 percent of the country’s forest at risk through 2027 and carries a cost of several billion dollars annually in dead tree removal, declining property values and timber industry losses, according to a peer-reviewed study this year in Ecological Applications.

That examination, by more than a dozen experts, found that hundreds of pests have invaded the nation’s forests, and that the emerald ash borer alone has the potential to cause $12.7 billion in damage by 2020.

Insect pests, some native and others from as far away as Asia, can undermine forest ecosystems. For example, scientists say, several species of hemlock and almost 20 species of ash could nearly go extinct in the coming decades. Such destruction would do away with a critical sponge to capture greenhouse gas emissions, shelter for birds and insects and food sources for bears and other animals. Dead forests also can increase the danger of catastrophic wildfires.

Today’s connected world enables foreign invaders to cross oceans in packing materials or on garden plants, and then reach American forests. Once here, they have rapidly expanded their ranges.

While all 50 states have been attacked by pests, experts say forests in the Northeast, California, Colorado and parts of the Midwest, North Carolina and Florida are especially at risk. Forests in some states, like New York, are close to major trade routes, while others, like in Florida, house trees especially susceptible to pests. Others, like New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, are experiencing record warming.

“The primary driver of the invasive pest problem is globalization, which includes increased trade and travel,” Andrew Liebhold, a Forest Service research entomologist in West Virginia. “But there are cases where climate change can play an important role. As climates warm, species are able to survive and thrive in more northerly areas.”

The emerald ash borer, first found in 2002 in Michigan, is now in 30 states and has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees. The gypsy moth, discovered in 1869 in Boston, is now found in 20 states and has reached the northern Great Lakes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Native bark beetles have taken advantage of warming conditions and a long western drought to rapidly range from Mexico into Canada. An outbreak in Colorado spread across 3.4 million acres of forest from 1996 to 2013, according to the Forest Service, and in California 100 million-plus trees have died in the Sierra Nevada since 2010.

Though small, bugs can easily overwhelm big trees with sheer numbers.

“They drain the resin that otherwise defends the tree,” said Matt Ayres, a Dartmouth College ecologist who worked on the Ecological Applications study. “Then, the tree is toast.”

Forest pests in the era of climate change are especially concerning for timberland owners, said Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.

“We’re dealing with pests we’ve never been around before, never had to manage around before,” Stock said. “It’s something we’re going to be dealing with forever.”

Urban forests, too, are at risk from outbreaks. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of about 180,000, an Asian longhorned beetle infestation in 2008 resulted in the removal of 31,000 trees.

“You would leave for work with a tree-lined street, and you come back and there was not a tree in sight,” recalled Ruth Seward, executive director of the nonprofit Worcester Tree Initiative. Most trees have since been replaced.

Though trees can die off quickly, the impact of pests on a forest ecosystem can take decades to play out. Dead hemlocks, for example, are giving way to black birch and other hardwoods. Gone are favorite nesting spots for two types of warblers, as well as the bark that red squirrels love to eat, Harvard’s Orwig said. The birds won’t die off, he said, but their ranges will be restricted.

“It’s a great example of how one species can make a difference in the forest,” Orwig said.

As pests proliferate, scientists seek to contain them.

Among the methods are bio controls, in which bugs that feed upon pests in their native lands are introduced here. Of the 30 states with emerald ash borer outbreaks, the USDA says 24 have released wasp species to combat them. Some scientists worry about introducing another pest; others complain they aren’t effective because they can’t eat enough of the fast-breeding pests to make a difference.

“With all bio controls, the hope is to create balance — balance between predator and prey,” said Ken Gooch, forest health program director for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Genetic modifications also offer promise.

On a research farm in Syracuse, New York, are rows of 10-foot chestnut trees tweaked with a wheat gene to make them resistant to chestnut blight, a fungus that came from Japan more than a century ago and killed millions of trees. Genetic engineering could likewise be applied to fight insects, said William Powell, a State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry professor directing the chestnut research.

An alternative strategy, also a slow one, is to plant trees 50 or 100 miles away from their normal range so they can escape pests, or adapt to a more favorable climate, said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University.

“Mother Nature knows best,” he said. “It’s assisted migration.”

To stop the next pest from entering the country, researchers like Gary M. Lovett, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, propose measures such as switching from solid wood shipping material that can harbor insects and restricting shrub and tree imports.

Nonetheless, Lovett said new pests are inevitable. “We have this burgeoning global trade,” he said, “so we will get a lot more of these.”


Whittle reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press writer Michael Hill in Syracuse, New York, contributed to this report.


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This story has been updated to correct a spelling to the Worcester Tree Initiative, instead of Worchester.

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