Climate Change? Birds Leave Refuge in Florida

After decades of clamorous nesting birds on Seahorse Key, a 150-acre mangrove island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, the birds have dramatically switched to another island, Snake Key, according to a University of Florida’s Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory website update.

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A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Vic Doig, also told the Associated Press that the birds that moved to Snake Key are only a fraction of those that would normally be on Seahorse Key, according to the Associated Press.

Scientists became aware of the severe quiet in May on Seahorse Key.

The birds that normally nest here–little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, pelicans and others–were gone. Nests sat empty in trees, according to a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“It’s a dead zone now,” said Vic Doig, a USFWS biologist, according to the AP. “This is where the largest bird colony on the Gulf Coast of Florida used to be.”

Seahorse Key has traditionally been a way station for bird species and it is part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, near Crystal River, Florida. It’s accessible only by boat.

“It’s not uncommon for birds to abandon nests,” said Peter Frederick, a University of Florida wildlife biologist who has studied Florida’s birds for nearly 30 years, according to the AP. “But, in this case, what’s puzzling is that all of the species did it all at once.”

In reaction, biologists took action: They tested left-behind bird carcasses for disease or contaminants. Their test results were negative. They found no telltale signs of new predators. They noted an increase in night flights over the area by surveillance planes and helicopters used to combat drug runners–but they think that disruption from the planes’ noise is a longshot, says Doig, according to the AP.

Scientists are concerned about whether the abandonment could have a ripple effect: Is the island refuge lost? Will other animals on the key be affected by the birds’ departure, they asked, according to the AP. 

“Any rookery that’s persisted for decades as one of the largest colonies is incredibly important,” said Janell Brush, an avian researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to the AP. “It’s quite a large colony. There had to be some intense event that would drive all these birds away.”

Greece debt crisis: Greek voters reject bailout offer

With almost all the ballots counted, results from the Greek referendum show voters decisively rejecting the terms of an international bailout.

Figures published by the interior ministry showed 61% of those whose ballots had been counted voting “No”, against 39% voting “Yes”.

Greece’s governing Syriza party had campaigned for a “No”, saying the bailout terms were humiliating.

Their opponents warned that this could see Greece ejected from the eurozone.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said late on Sunday that Greeks had voted for a “Europe of solidarity and democracy”.

“As of tomorrow, Greece will go back to the negotiating table and our primary priority is to reinstate the financial stability of the country,” he said in a televised address.

“This time, the debt will be on the negotiating table,” he added, saying that an International Monetary Fund assessment published this week “confirms Greek views that restructuring the debt is necessary”.

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But some European officials had said that a “No” would be seen as an outright rejection of talks with creditors.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who heads the eurozone’s group of finance ministers, said the referendum result was “very regrettable for the future of Greece”.

Germany’s Deputy Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said renewed negotiations with Greece were “difficult to imagine”.

Mr Tsipras and his government were taking the country down a path of “bitter abandonment and hopelessness”, he told the Tagesspiegel daily.

Analysis: Mark Lowen, BBC News, Athens

The partying by the “No” camp will go well into the night here and the government will be popping open the ouzo. Alexis Tsipras has called the eurozone’s bluff – and it appears to have gone his way.

But the triumphalism won’t last. There is still a sizeable chunk of the Greek nation deeply unhappy with what has happened. And the government will have to unite a divided country.

More than that, a deal with the eurozone has to be struck fast.

Greek banks are running critically low and will need another injection of emergency funds from the European Central Bank.

Given the bad blood of the past two weeks – Greece’s Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, calling the eurozone’s strategy “terrorism” – it will be hard to get back around the negotiating table. And with the banking crisis and tax revenues plummeting amidst the instability, Greece’s economy has weakened again, making a deal even harder to reach.

The eurozone’s tough rhetoric will continue. But Greece’s government will have its answer prepared: we put your demands to a democratic test – and they were rejected.

Greece had been locked in negotiations with its creditors for months when the Greek government unexpectedly called a referendum on the terms it was being offered.

Banks have been shut and capital controls in place since last Monday, after the European Central Bank declined to give Greece more emergency funding.

Withdrawals at cash machines have been limited to €60 per day. Greece’s latest bailout expired on Tuesday and Greece missed a €1.6bn (£1.1bn) payment to the IMF.

Robert Peston, BBC economics editor, Athens


Greek banks have stayed shut for a week

Greek banks are desperately in need of a lender of last resort to save them, and the Greek economy.

And sad to say no banker or central banker to whom I have spoken believes the European Central Bank (ECB) can fulfil that function – because it is struggling to prove to itself that Greek banks have adequate assets to pledge to it as security for new loans.

There are only two options. The Bank of Greece could make unsecured loans to Greek banks without the ECB’s permission – which would provoke a furious reaction from Eurozone leaders and would be seen by most of them as tantamount to leaving the euro.

Or it can explicitly create a new currency, a new drachma, which it could then use to provide vital finance to Greek banks and the Greek economy.

Greece on verge of euro exit

Greek government officials have insisted that rejecting bailout terms would strengthen their hand, and that they could rapidly strike a deal for fresh funding in resumed negotiations.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has said that with a “No” vote, Greek banks would reopen on Tuesday.

He was due to meet senior Greek bankers late on Sunday. State Minister Nikos Pappas, a close ally of Mr Tsipras, said it was “absolutely necessary” to restore liquidity to the banks now the referendum was over.

Summit called

Some European officials sounded conciliatory.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni tweeted: “Now it is right to start trying for an agreement again. But there is no escape from the Greek labyrinth with a Europe that’s weak and isn’t growing.”

Belgium’s finance minister said the door remained open to restart talks with Greece “literally, within hours”.

Eurozone finance ministers could again discuss measures “that can put the Greek economy back on track and give the Greeks a perspective for the future,” he told the VRT network.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was consulting the leaders of eurozone member states, and would have a conference call with key EU officials and the ECB on Monday morning.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are scheduled to meet in Paris on Monday. A summit of eurozone heads of state has been called for Tuesday.

The European Commission – one of the “troika” of creditors along with the IMF and the ECB – wanted Athens to raise taxes and slash welfare spending to meet its debt obligations.

Greece’s Syriza-led government, which was elected in January on an anti-austerity platform, said creditors had presented it with an “ultimatum”, using fear to put pressure on Greeks.

The Greek government’s opponents and some Greek voters had complained that the question in Sunday’s referendum was unclear. EU officials said it applied to the terms of an offer that was no longer on the table.

The projected turnout in Sunday’s referendum was about 62%.

As the result became clear, former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who had campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the referendum, resigned as leader of the centre-right New Democracy party.

Wooly Mammoth and Asian Elephants: Genetic Sequencing

Wooly mammoths, with their curly hair and presence in snow and ice, were quite different than current-day Asian elephants. In fact, there was likely a suite of genetic differences between the two, say scientists from Penn State, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the University of Chicago. Their findings were published recently in the journal Cell Reports.

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In looking at whole-genome sequences of two wooly mammoths and three modern Asian elephants, the researchers first predicted the function of genetic differences found only in the mammoths, then went a step further than many previous studies, to validate the predicted functions of genes that had been reconstructed in the lab, said a release.

“I’ve been trying for a long time to show that ancient genomes can be sequenced as accurately as extant genomes, and the woolly mammoth seemed like an ideal species for demonstrating this capability. The Asian elephant genomes were needed for comparison in the subsequent analyses,” said Project co-leader Stephen Schuster, formerly of Penn State and now at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, according to the Penn State release.

The study worked with the genes of two wooly mammoths that died about 20,000 and 60,000 years ago, respectively, the Penn State release said.

In order to weed out errors, the researchers read each letter in the mammoth’s genomic alphabet an average of 20 times, before comparing the sequenced genomes of the three Asian elephants and the more-distantly related African elephant, according to the release.  

Amid the intricate reading of letters, the research team found about 33 million places where the nucleotides (the letters) varied among the three species. They found 1.4 million genetic variants in which the two mammoths were the same for one variant and the Asian and African elephants shared a different, likely even more-ancient variant, according to the release.

Among the amino-acid variants shared between the two mammoths but not found in living elephants, the researchers found many changes in genes relating to hair development and how the body stores and processes fats, and how it senses temperature, according to a release.

In other words, the findings showed that wooly mammoths were adapted to endure cold, and even possibly relished it, said Vincent J. Lynch, of the University of Chicago, according to a release. 

The researchers would like to see further study of the mammoths and elephants continue in labs, and say that their report shows how to proceed with this, a release said. 

Follow Catherine at @TreesWhales 

Attacks on Egyptian checkpoints signal escalation in Isis capabilities

Islamic State appears to have made small but unprecedented advances in Egypt, killing dozens of soldiers as it attacked multiple military checkpoints and attempted for the first time to control a small pocket of territory in the Sinai desert.

Wilayat Sinai, a jihadi group that declared allegiance to Isis last autumn, attacked the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, a few miles from Egypt’s borders with Gaza and Israel, on Wednesday morning.

It overran several army checkpoints and by local accounts had taken control of several buildings. By midday the group said it had surrounded Sheikh Zuwaid’s police station, a move reportedly confirmed by the station’s commander in a phonecall with a local newspaper.

Officials tried to downplay the number of military casualties, admitting only that 10 soldiers had died. But several local newspapers quoted far higher numbers, with the main state news website, al-Ahram, reporting at least 20 dead, and news agencies placing the total at nearly 40.

Isis also claimed it had seized other parts of the town, releasing a statement that read: “We have total control of many sites, and have seized what was in them.”

If true, even for a brief period, the move marks an escalation in the group’s strategy and capabilities in Sinai.

Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsular – most notably this January and last October. But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.

Asked by the Guardian about the situation in Sheikh Zuwaid, an army spokesman would not comment.

A health official at a local hospital said his colleagues had treated at least 30 civilian casualties. He added that survivors had described the scene as a full-scale battle. Militants were “firing weapons from the rooftops,” the source said. “We’re hearing that it’s street warfare.”

To what extent Isis had succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsular’s southern tourist resorts.

But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.

“It would be different to the January events when there were multiple simultaneous attacks – but then [the militants] disappeared.”

Jihadis in north-eastern Sinai have attacked Egyptian forces for years, but the scale and frequency of the violence rose markedly after the army ousted Egypt’s first elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013.

An extremist group that had been active before Morsi’s overthrow, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, began claiming responsibility for more attacks – and just over a year later it declared allegiance to Isis, and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai.

Apart from a string of major attacks in the winter of 2013-14 on the Egyptian mainland, the group’s activity has been largely limited to north-eastern Sinai. But on Monday unknown militants assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor in Cairo, and no one has yet claimed responsibility for his death.

Additional reporting: Manu Abdo