Dogs ripped kids to pieces in N.Korean camp: ex-guard
By Nina Larson21 hours ago
Geneva (AFP) – Ahn Myong-Chol witnessed many horrors as a North Korean prison camp guard, but few haunt him like the image of guard dogs attacking school children and tearing them to pieces.
Ahn, who worked as a prison camp guard for eight years until he fled the country in 1994, recalls the day he saw three dogs get away from their handler and attack children coming back from the camp school.
“There were three dogs and they killed five children,” the 45-year-old told AFP through a translator.
“They killed three of the children right away. The two other children were barely breathing and the guards buried them alive,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a Geneva conference for human rights activists.
The next day, instead of putting down the murderous dogs, the guards pet them and fed them special food “as some kind of award,” he added with disgust.
“People in the camps are not treated as human beings… They are like flies that can be crushed,” said Ahn, his sad eyes framed by steel-rimmed glasses.
The former guard is one of many defectors who provided harrowing testimony to a UN-mandated enquiry that last week issued a searing, 400-page indictment of gross human rights abuses in North Korea.
North Korean soldiers take part in training with military dogs at an undisclosed location, April 6, …
After fleeing the country two decades ago, Ahn worked for years at a bank in South Korea but gradually got involved in work denouncing the expansive prison camp system in the isolated nation.
Three years ago, he quit his bank job to dedicate all his time to his non-governmental organisation, Free NK Gulag.
“It’s my life’s mission to spread awareness about what is happening in the camps,” he said.
There are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea, a nation of 24 million people.
Ahn, who today is married with two daughters, knows all too well the brutal mentality of the camp guards.
When he, as the son of a high-ranking official, was ushered onto the prestigious path of becoming a guard in 1987, he says he was heavily brainwashed to see all prisoners as “evil”.
Graphic on North Korea’s prison camps outlined in a UN mandated report (AFP Photo/Adrian Leung/J …
– ‘Horrors still happening’ –
At his first posting at camp 14, north of Pyongyang, he was encouraged to practice his Tae Kwon Do skills on prisoners.
And he recalls how guards were urged to shoot any prisoner who might try to escape.
“We were allowed to kill them, and if we brought back their body, they would award us by letting us go study at college,” he said.
Some guards would send prisoners outside the camp and kill them as escapees to gain access to a college education, he added.
Ahn said he had beaten many prisoners but said that, to his knowledge, he had never killed any of them.
North Korean soldiers patrol along the Yalu River at the North Korean town of Sinuiju on February 12 …
Although he witnessed numerous executions, starving children, and the effects of extreme torture, it was not until he was promoted to be a driver, transporting soldiers back and forth between camps, that he began to question the system.
During his travels he sometimes struck up conversations with prisoners and was astonished to find that “more than 90 percent” of them said they had no idea why they were in the camp.
Ahn had stumbled across North Korea’s system of throwing generations of the same family into prison camps under guilt-by-association rules.
He got a taste of that rule himself. On leave in 1994, he returned home to find that his father had committed suicide after making some drunken, negative remarks about the country’s leadership.
Ahn’s mother, sister and brother were detained and likely sent into camps, although he is not sure what became of them.
Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector who has given the U.N. panel harrowing accounts of his life and escape from a prison camp, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul February 10, 2014. After a year of investigation, the United Nations is set to release a detailed report on human rights violations in North Korea, but defectors from the country and experts are deeply sceptical it will have any effect on the regime in Pyongyang. Picture taken February 10, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA – Tags: POLITICS)
Though Ahn returned to work, he feared he too would be dragged off. So he drove his truck to the shores of the Du Man River and swam across to China, having to dump the heavy weapons he was carrying to avoid drowning.
Once he got involved in the NGO work in South Korea, he was uneasy about meeting former prisoners who had also managed to defect, like Chol Hwan Kang.
Kang was sent to Camp 15 — where Ahn once served — with his whole family when he was nine and spent 10 years there to repent for the suspected disloyalties of his grandfather. Ahn remembered him from his time as a guard there.
But Kang, like most survivors, understood he had not chosen his job and had accepted his plea for forgiveness.
“He met me with a gentle handshake,” Ahn said.
A United Nations Human Rights staff points to the title of a drawing describing North Korean labour camp no 18, a gift made in December 2012 by survivor Kim Hye Sook, in Geneva February 17, 2014. The Commission of Inquiry will release its report on human rights in North Korea later on Monday. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (SWITZERLAND – Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Last week’s UN report was vital to spreading awareness about the reality of the camps, Ahn said, comparing what is happening there to the Soviet-era Gulags.
“The difference is that in North Korea we are still talking in the present tense. These horrors are still happening,” he said.
Mummy Murder Mystery Solved: Incan Woman’s Head Smashed
By By Tia Ghose, Staff Writer4 hours ago
A mysterious mummy that languished in German collections for more than a century is that of an Incan woman killed by blunt-force trauma to the head, new research reveals.
A new analysis shows that the mummy was once an Incanwoman who also suffered from a parasitic disease that thickens the heart and intestinal walls, raising the possibility that she was killed in a ritual murder because she was already on the brink of death.
The story began in the 1890s, when Princess Therese of Bavaria acquired two mummies during a trip to South America. One was soon lost, but the other somehow made its way to the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich.
Bombings and geographic moves destroyed any documentation of the mummy, so little was known about its origin, said study co-author Andreas Nerlich, a paleopathologist at Munich University.
Credit: Panzer et al, PLOS ONE 2014
The mummy wore hair bands made of alpaca and lllama hair, suggesting she came from South America.
To learn more about the enigmatic remains, Nerlich and his colleagues put the mummy through a computed tomography (CT) scanner.
From the outside, the mummy’s head looked fairly normal, but the frontal bones of the skull were completely destroyed.
“She must have received a couple of really severe hits by a sharp object to her skull just before her death,” which killed her, Nerlich told Live Science. “The skull bones that had been destroyed fell into her brain cavity, and they are still there today,” he added.
After the woman died, she was buried shallowly, likely in the bone-dry Atacama Desert, where the parched sand and air quickly sucked all the fluids out of her body, halting decomposition and naturally mummifying her, Nerlich said. [In Photos: The 10 Driest Places on Earth]
Distinctive Incan bones
Credit: Panzer et al, PLOS ONE 2014
The skulls also had charateristic “Wormian” bones often found on South American populations but not in European ones.
Several lines of evidence point to the woman’s Incan origin.
She had the characteristic skull deformation associated with Incan head flattening and skull bone structures found in South American populations but not European ones. Scientific testing revealed that the woman lived sometime between A.D. 1451 and 1642. The mummy was also wearing hair bands made from alpaca or llama hair — another indication of her South American origin.
Different foods contain different proportions of carbon and nitrogen isotopes (atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons), so the ratio of these two isotopes in the mummy’s hair revealed her origins.
Credit: Panzer et al, PLOS ONE 2014
The mummy’s face looked fairly normal from the outside, but inside, its skull bones were crushed
Based on those isotopes, the woman likely lived near the coastline in what is now Peru or Chile, and ate a diet high in seafood and maize, a New World crop, Nerlich said. She was between 20 and 25 years old when she died.
Any theories about why the woman died violently are highly speculative, Nerlich said. Combined with a DNA analysis of parasites taken from rectal tissue, the CT scan results suggest that from infancy, the woman suffered from Chagas disease, which is caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi. As a result, she probably had trouble with breathing and digestion, Nerlich said.
One possibility is that she was killed in a ritual murder, just as other Incan mummies were.
Credit: Panzer et al, PLOS ONE 2014
A closer look using a CT scan revealed that her frontal skull bones were completely smashed.
“She might have been chosen as a victim for a ritual murder, because she was so ill and it might have been clear that she might have lived only for a relatively short period,” Nerlich said.
The findings on the mummy, which will be on exhibit at the Archaeological Collection of the State of Bavaria in Munich until mid-August, were published today (Feb. 26) in the journal PLOS ONE.
Thickened heart wall
Credit: Panzer et al, PLOS ONE 2014
The mummy also showed signs of thickened heart wall and a distended bowel, which was probably caused by Chagas disease.
Buddha’s hand sliced where all the fingers are splitting off the main fruit. (Courtesy of Flickr user Craig Damlo)
It’s the kind of item you stop to get a good look at in the grocery store. It runs at about $24 per pound and it looks like the Edward Scissorhands of the citrus family. A Buddha’s Hand Citron (var. sarcodactylis) looks like a lumpy lemon with fingers and smells like heaven.
Its ancestor, the citron, may have been brought to China from India by Buddhist monks and cultivated in ancient China near the Yangtze Valley. In China and Japan, the hybrid, also known as the Fingered Citron, is served around the new year because it is believed to symbolize happiness, wealth and longevity. Historically, the powerful lavender scent also made the plant attractive for ornamental purposes.
Today, Chinese farmers grow at least six distinct types of Buddha’s Hand on 5,000 acres just south of Shanghai. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late ’80s that the fruit was commercially grown in California, and as of 2008, there were at least 25 acres dedicated to cultivating the fruit. The tree that grows the Buddha’s Hand is equally crazy; the fingered canopy can range between six and 12 feet in height.
Because the fruit has little to no flesh (pulp) and no seeds, like most commercial fruit trees, it must be grafted to propagate. But just because it’s a lot of rind doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it! Here are a few examples of what to do with your newly-purchased, creepy lemon hand.
1) Put it in your cocktail
The aromatic rind of the Buddha’s Hand infuses perfectly in alcohols like vodka or gin. Choose your base spirit (something strong, high in proof, works best) and add sliced citron in an air-tight jar. Shake up the contents a few times and let it sit for a week or two, depending on how strong you’d like flavor to be. When it’s ready, use a strainer to separate the alcohol from the citron. Muddle some fresh basil, add your new gin infusion and a splash of club soda. Or try a new take on the Meyor Lemon Drop.
2) Try it candied or as a marmalade
Unlike most citrus, the rind of the Buddha’s hand isn’t bitter but sweet and candies well—it’s been a popular way to serve the fruit for centuries. Women would cut the Buddha’s hand citron into the form of flowers or birds and would then simmer them in honey for use as centerpieces on a banquet table, according to Frederick J. Simoons’sFood in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. By 301 A.D., the citron plant made its way to Rome, according to researchers at the University of California Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. Records show that “their sales prices were officially fixed by Diocletian at values ranging from twelve to sixteen times the price of melons.”
A related recipe takes some of the same ingredients, but suggests a marmalade instead—it’s simple to make and has hints of cardamom and balsamic vinegar.
3) Make life zesty
Buddha’s Hand citron can really be used as substitute for most other recipes involving citrus zest. A great way to dress a winter salad is with a citron vinaigrette—food blogger Todd Porter puts his zesty dressing atop an arugula and prosciutto salad. It’s as easy as mixing together olive oil, salt, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, minced thyme, garlic and a little Buddha zest. For best results, allow the dressing to marinate overnight.
4) Make some Buddha Waffles
This recipe adds some citron zest to a basic buttermilk waffle for a pretty delicious-looking breakfast. If your alarm clock doesn’t wake you up, the cintron’s perfume will. Sounds like a pretty zen way to start the morning.
5) Do your laundry
We’re not joking about the aroma of the Buddha’s Hand—it smells good. So good, that it’s presence in a home is better than potpourri. “One reads of people carrying Buddha’s-hand citron in their hands or placing them on tables for their strong, delicious odor; of their being used to perfume clothes when pressed; and of washing fine linen in citron juice,” Simoons writes. If the people in ancient china washed their clothes with it, why can’t we? And while you’re at it, dab a little bit of the citrus oil under your arms, would you?
Nature got it right with the cranes. They have been around since the Eocene, which ended 34 million years ago. They are among the world’s oldest living birds and one of the planet’s most successful life-forms, having outlasted millions of species (99 percent of species that ever existed are now extinct). The particularly successful sandhill crane of North America has not changed appreciably in ten million years. There are 15 Gruidae species, and in all the human cultures that experience the birds, they are revered.
In my travels I have encountered cranes on three continents. Tibet, November 1995: Driving along the Yarlung River, we spot a flock of black-necked cranes in a marshy flat, but when we try to sneak closer on foot with our cameras, they see us from a long distance and, slowly lifting themselves up into the air on their enormous wings, take off. There are only 6,000 or so black-necks. These are making their way south, to spend the winter foraging on agricultural residue in Bhutan. Three hundred black-necks return each December to Phobjikha Valley, where in the morning and evening, as they take off to eat and dance and return for the night, they circle repeatedly around a monastery called Gangtey Gompa. The local Bhutanese believe them to be reincarnations of departed monks, and have for centuries performed elegant crane dances, tilting and sweeping long white wings attached to their arms. Cranes are the Bolshoi of animal dance. They dance at the drop of a hat, for all kinds of reasons, not just courtship.
Neolithic peoples in Turkey in 6500 B.C. imitated the dances of cranes as part of marriage rituals. Dance is one thing cranes are credited by many societies with giving us. Another is language, perhaps because they are so vocal and a single crane’s calls, amplified by its saxophone-shaped trachea—the windpipe in its long neck—can carry a mile. And unlike geese, with their disciplined, purposeful vees, cranes fly in loose, drifting, chimeric lines that are constantly, kaleidoscopically coming apart and forming, the ancient Greeks imagined, many letters. Crane hieroglyphs were applied to the Temples of Karnak 4,000 years ago.
Fully spread wings with black tips on display is a basic move in the crane dance repertoire. (Melissa Groo)
In 1990 my wife and I were married in her village in southwestern Uganda. The festivities went on for three days, and all the while a couple of dozen gray-crowned cranes, with regal bonnets of sun-shot yellow feathers, were pecking and padding around in the adjacent savanna. The gray-crowned crane is my wife’s clan totem, so their presence was auspicious. Once common all over East Africa, this species is taking a terrible toll from local poachers who are selling them to the international pet trade. Only 30,000 gray-crowned cranes are left in all of Africa.
The sandhill cranes of North America are the most abundant crane species. Migrating sandhills come in three basic sizes—greater, lesser and the mid-size Canadian. I’ve seen the resident sandhills in Florida, three of them pecking for worms on a lawn outside Orlando, and several members of another resident population in Mississippi, which has just 25 breeding pairs. The Eastern population has rebounded dramatically from near extinction in the 1930s and is now up to more than 80,000. I saw a couple of big sandhills on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, just above the mouth of the Saguenay River, a few summers ago.
Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This staging is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on a par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou. It takes place in three waves of four to five weeks each, beginning in mid-February and ending in mid-April, during which birds that arrive emaciated from wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Chihuahua, Mexico, gain 20 percent of their body weight.
For sandhills, descent for landing is a slow, steep affair that demands a dramatic (and awkward) shift in body position. (Melissa Groo)
It usually peaks in the last week of March, which was the case in 2013. Wildlife photographer extraordinaire Melissa Groo and I hit it just right.
Traveling west from Lincoln on I-80, we begin to see masses of the stately birds in the rows of corn stubble flickering by. Ranging in height from three to four feet, they are moving on black stiltlike legs (their “knees” are modified heels, so they actually walk on their toes), with their necks bent down, stabbing at the stubble with long daggerlike beaks, flipping cow pies, crunching up insects, snails, frogs and snakes. The adults have bare red foreheads that expand when they are worked up and compact feathers covering their ovoid torsos—except for their bustles, the loosely stacked tips of their wing feathers that extend past the short tail and flare up when they are agitated.
At the height of the northward migration, 10,000 birds will pack into a half-mile stretch of river. (Melissa Groo)
Not only the cranes, but some 20 million other migrating birds belonging to 300 or so species stop over on the Platte, including 280 of the remaining whooping cranes, 90 percent of the white-fronted geese that ply the midcontinent, thousands of endangered piping plovers, 30 percent of the northern pintails, 50 percent of the mallards, as well as bald eagles and some two million snow geese. Soon after we travel under Kearney’s Gateway (to the Great Plains) Arch, we pass a depression—an old borrow pit—smothered with maybe 20,000 milling snow geese, like a blanket of snow. The geese come earlier than the cranes and clean out many of the cornfields near the river, but there is plenty of waste grain in the central Platte valley to go around. Michael Forsberg, a Lincoln-based wildlife photographer, calls this stretch of the Platte “the pinch in the hourglass” for all these converging northbound migrants.
By combining the dance with curtsies, jumps and face-offs or simply holding the wings in place, cranes can call for attention and convey their arousal. (Melissa Groo)
To Forsberg, the sandhill crane is the ambassador of the plains. Some 70,000 crane watchers flock to the Platte annually, last year from every state in the union and 47 foreign countries, injecting $11 million into the local economy. People tend to think of Nebraska as a fly-over or drive-through state, he says, but there is incredible beauty, only it’s subtle—except when the cranes are here.
Crane-watching consists mainly of taking in three activities: when they wake up and take off from the sandbars on the rivers, when they come back to them to roost, and during the day when they are out foraging in the cornfields and doing their dances. The most popular place to see the sandhills on the river is the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, just outside Fort Kearney. One morning at 5, I tiptoe into a viewers’ blind at Rowe with a score of other tourists and we station ourselves and our cameras at its little windows. No flash or LED lights are allowed. It is bitter cold, ten degrees with the windchill. As day begins to break, we see that a 100-foot channel of the river, with shards of ice on its surface, is gliding silently by right below us. Its pebbly bottom is only a foot or two down. Across the channel is a sandbar on which the faint gray forms of several thousand lesser sandhills, still sleeping on their feet with heads tucked under a wing, become increasingly apparent. They are headed to the Kuskokwim Delta in the Yukon and western Alaska, some all the way to Chukotka, in eastern Siberia. The smaller the crane, the farther it flies to its nesting grounds, and the shorter and more needle-line its beak.
Cranes are among the world’s oldest living birds and one of the planet’s most successful life-forms, having outlasted millions of species. (Melissa Groo)
The midcontinental sandhill population has four “breeding affiliations,” two of which overlap. This was discovered by Gary Krapu, a wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey, who netted and tagged 153 sandhills on different stretches of the Platte and satellite-tracked them from l998 to 2003. Most cranes take over the same section of river each year. This is not unique to cranes. We have a yellow-bellied sapsucker that returns to our cabin in the Adirondacks each spring from wherever in Central America or the Caribbean it wintered and drives us crazy drilling on the roof to attract a mate. The bigger cranes, from the other affiliations, have staked out the sandbars downstream, all the way to Wood River. Some are headed to Hudson Bay and the Canadian boreal, with its mazes of bogs and muskeg to nest in.
George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, thinks the first ancestral cranes were likely from the New World. The crane’s closest relative is the limpkin, a New World tropical wading bird. Crowned cranes, the oldest lineage of Gruidae, radiated to Africa, where the only two species survive. Fifteen-million-year-old crowned crane eggs and a skeleton have been found in northeastern Nebraska. According to the fossil record, the sandhill migration has been going on for millions of years. “During the ice ages their range was constricted, and as the ice retreated to the north they developed these long migrations,” explains Archibald. “They followed the ice north. Nebraska is at the southern edge of the last glaciation. What they may have been doing during previous interglacials there is no way of knowing.” To this day, cranes are often described as birds that “follow the edge of winter.”
Entire conversations unfold on the Platte with just a few well-orchestrated wing beats. (Melissa Groo)
The cranes on the sandbar begin to stir and purr contentedly. They sound like a chorus of drawn-out rolled French r’s, like their French name, grue, and their English one, “crane,” from the Proto-Indo-European gerh, meaning to cry hoarsely. Some of the cranes step out into the water.
Margery Nicolson, an elderly woman who is volunteering as a docent, whispers to me, “Around the bend, it’s packed solid with cranes for a mile upriver. The white-cheeks are the adults.” Nicolson comes every year from Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles to be with the cranes. The visitor center is named for her late husband. Another docent, volunteering from Tucson, whispers to a couple taking in their first cranes, “They start coming on Valentine’s Day and leave in time to pay their taxes.”
Sandhills fully extend their necks during flight, with legs trailing straight behind. (Melissa Groo)
The murmur of contentment, the fricative purr, spreads among the cranes and grows louder. Some of them begin to flap their wings, whose underside tips are black, and a contagious frisson of flapping and rolled r’s ripples through the flock, particularly along its edges, where the hormonally pumped adolescent colts are. (For some reason crane nomenclature is borrowed from horse terms. A mother crane is called a mare, the dads are roans. The terminology sounds like it was created out West.) A male starts braying, likely calling for its mate. The collective purr is punctuated by unison calls between bonded pairs, during which the male points his bill straight up to the sky and the usually shorter female points hers at a 45-degree angle and gets in twice as many (and higher-pitched) calls as he does.
When the sun hits the flock and turns it gold, they all take off, peeling out in extended-family groups of 15 to 40, fanning out in every direction—except for scattered maverick late risers and one that Nicolson picks up in her binoculars that is lying down. “It must be injured,” she whispers. “That guy’s a goner, I’m afraid.” Two bald eagles are perched in a cottonwood tree a few hundred yards upstream. They will not fail to spot the injured bird and make quick work of him.
The sandhill cranes of North America are the most abundant crane species. Migrating sandhills come in three basic sizes—greater, lesser and the mid-size Canadian. (Melissa Groo)
A few small groups return to the sandbar, floating down with their open wings cupping the air like parachutes and their landing gear (legs dangling down) deployed. The deafening hysterical chain reaction of thousands of them taking to the sky at once makes it clear that these are highly social, gregarious birds who take cues from one another.
Bill Taddicken, Rowe’s director, tells me that the Platte has lost 80 percent of its width and 70 percent of its flow to hundreds of diversions—including eight major dams on the North Platte and 20 on the South Platte (the two forks meet upstream at North Platte)—that siphon it off for municipal and agricultural use. Fifty miles of crane staging habitat has been lost to dams and “reclamation”; only the 80 miles from Overton to Chapman remain. In spring flood the Platte used to be two miles wide in places and the floodwaters used to scour the vegetation off the sandbars, but the spring runoff is barely a dribble now. Rowe staffers go out on the bars with tractors and disk the overgrowth, including acres of solid purple loosestrife and phragmites that aren’t even native.
Crane movements can also convey aggression. Here a crane takes a threatening stance, directed at another crane off camera. (Melissa Groo)
Downstream is the Wood River, where the Crane Trust, founded in l978 with federal money to keep the whooping crane going, has 5,000 acres, and where tens of thousands of greater and Canadian sandhills, mainly—bigger birds in bigger numbers—are already slumbering on the sandbars. At the crack of dawn Melissa and I are in the trust’s main viewing blind, which overlooks a series of large sandbars on which 15,000 or 20,000 close-packed inert sandhills are standing. Their bodies are glazed with a white film of frost. We feel that we are in the presence of something extraordinary, the abundance that was once everywhere. What is left in the bird world that’s anything like this? The pink flamingos on Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, some years in the millions, the South American flamingo species that pack several lakes in the Andes. I am filled with a mixture of awe, nostalgia, gratitude and remorse.
Around the bend there’s another congregation of 40,000 to 80,000 cranes, says a big genial guy in the blind named Brad Mellema, former director of both the Rowe and the Crane Trust nature center and now director of the Grand Island visitors bureau. What do you call these huge assemblages? In the Middle Ages there was a murder of crows, and a sedge or siege of cranes or herons. “We say a flock or a bunch,” Mellema explains.
During the day, cranes forage in the grasslands and farms around the Platte. Leftover grain makes up some 90 percent of their diet. (Melissa Groo)
Paul Johnsgard, the 82-year-old éminence grise of popular writing about the cranes, who has published more than 60 books, calls the staging a “congruence,” punning on the crane family’s Latin name (Gruidae). Melissa suggests “confluence:” the four affiliations converging on the Platte. Congregation, conclave, convention, hoedown, powwow, shindig, gathering of the clans, ornithological Burning Man. Aldo Leopold, who was instrumental in getting the confab on the Platte protected, puts it in his lyrical “Marshland Elegy,” “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
“Our birds come earlier than Rowe’s,” Mellema continues. “These particular ones we know from radio telemetry are from the Gulf Coast and headed for Hudson Bay. The ones at Rowe come from the Texas Panhandle and go up to Fairbanks. Hear the juveniles trilling like cheap gym whistles? Their voices haven’t changed yet. These birds are contented. They’ve been eating for two weeks.” The purr of contentment, which Mellema describes as a chortle and “the sound of the Pleistocene,” never dies down completely during the night, and as the sun hits the birds and brings them to life, the 10,000-bird chorus builds and there is antiphonal quaking back and forth between different parts of the mob. These birds are in no hurry to take off. At 10:30 most of them are still there, but contagious dancing is going on around the edges. Some have moved out into the water, so they can alert the others if an eagle or coyote approaches, Mellema surmises. “There’s always a sentinel. A sandbar is like a hallway in junior high school. Multigenerations come back year after year, and it’s entirely learned. The juveniles play the singles scene.” Archibald says that even if colts separate from their parents here, they return to their natal area rather than being led astray by other cranes. Like elephants, cranes have excellent memories and wear their hearts on their sleeves. Like us, they mate for life but sometimes cheat and divorce. There’s a delightful, moving YouTube video of Archibald dancing with a whooper to stimulate egg production. I know a striking six-foot woman who dances like a crane but has never seen one. We are all on an evolutionary continuum. “I am the walrus,” the Beatles sang, “I am he as you are he as you are me.”
A family of six takes off. Mellema points out how the rhythm of their wingbeats is different from that of geese, which is up and down, one two, one two, same beat, while cranes’ downbeat is slower, twice as long as their upbeat, as they force the air down with their long, powerful wings.
As the sun rises on a section of the Platte, cranes roost in the sandbars and shallow waters. (Melissa Groo)
Melissa and I drive from the trust down South Alda Road to the Alda Bridge over the Platte, a magical stretch of road. There is an observation deck at the river with a sign that explains how the Platte Valley formed four immigrant routes, the Oregon, California, Mormon and Bozeman trails. “Nebraska” comes from the Omaha name for the river, Flat Water.
I go down to the river and sit under a cottonwood listening to the raucous, exultant, quaking din downstream of two huge flocks, neither of which is visible. They sound like two baseball stadiums erupting when a ball is hit out of the park, and the roars are answering each other antiphonally. Even in Kearney when I step out of the Best Western, the sky is filled with crane calls. They drown out the whoosh and whine of semis on the Interstate 200 yards away. For two months every year cranes own the soundscape. Archibald says 16 separate vocalizations have been recognized, and they mean different things in different situations and intonations, depending on whether they are made once or several times. So sandhills definitely have a language.
Melissa and I drive into an area of nothing but cornfields. The gently rolling landscape is, as Melissa puts it, “lousy with cranes”—flocks of 50 to 200 or more variously known as creches, survival groups and extended families. These birds are skittish. The moment we pull up to one group, however slowly and quietly, they all take off. Sandhills are protected in Nebraska, but hunted in the majority of the U.S. and Mexican states and Canadian provinces they fly in. An estimated 33,000 a year are shot by hunters, who extol the cranes as “the rib-eye of the sky.” The birds seem to have a warning call that says, as one cranewatcher parses it, “Humans! Let’s get out of here!” Some of the groups just become agitated, and a few cranes start dancing. This is what Archibald calls “ambivalent behavior. They’re nervous, but not enough to fly, so they do something, anything.”
By combining the dance with curtsies, jumps and face-offs or simply holding the wings in place, cranes can call for attention and convey their arousal. (Melissa Groo)
“I wish they knew they were safe,” Melissa moans. As in, Whew. I crossed the state line. No one can shoot us.
In the Nicolson Center at the Rowe Sanctuary, I had picked up the pocket-size Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary, by George Happ and Christy Yuncker-Happ, a must-have craniac resource on the basic moves of crane ballet. We tick them off as we see them performed by the birds that settle down and more or less accept our presence. Object-tossing, usually a corncob or a stick, is common. There’s the tall-investigative stance, when there is no threat but the bird is vigilant. Within a group of foraging cranes several usually assume it. They are the sentinels. If there is a visible threat, the bird goes into tall-alert, staring intently. Then intent-to-fly, leaning like pointers. We see 20 of them doing this, following a large bird that is moving through the rest of the pack.
Behind a scrim of cedar on a rocky point jutting into one field, serious dancing is going on. Dancing facilitates pair-bonding and ritually confirms decades-old bonds, allows rivals to assess each other and to ritually dissipate aggression. Pre-adult cranes practice dancing for three years before they mate. Parents educate their chicks by dancing with them. The bow is done after mating and as a threat when landing in a crowd of cranes. I wonder if the Japanese got their custom of bowing to each other from the cranes.
We don’t see the cloacal kiss, the actual deed, which takes only a few seconds, but we do see precopulatory behavior, a female facing away from the male and flattening her back and fanning out her wings to form a slanting ramp that he can mount, and the male approaching her in parade march. But they don’t do it. Maybe this is practice. Mating does happen on the Platte, and at the wintering grounds, Archibald says, though most of the courtship and copulation happen in the summer breeding grounds.
Crane feathers often get caught in the stubble around the Platte. Others are left behind deliberately: As part of a display dance, a crane will pluck and fling one, watching it float to the ground. (Melissa Groo)
We see a confrontational crouch-threat, a ground-stab, which means look at me and let’s dance. And at afternoon’s end, 20 or 30 birds dance up a storm on a ridge against the sky.
I asked Archibald why the whooper has to be danced into egg production, and he said the presence of the mate you are paired to is very important. The two of you have to dance for a month or two, two, three times a day as reinforcement, before anything happens.
“The chemistry of attraction is as mysterious with cranes as it is with humans,” Brad Mellema told me. “Size doesn’t seem to matter. A pint-size male can yank a big female’s chain.” Leading scientists think the female has a gland on her back that emits seductive pheromones if she is receptive to a male’s advances.
Karine Gil-Weir, who was the Crane Trust’s population ecologist for five years, tells me from her home in Texas that she once saw a bonded pair of sandhills touching bills, kissing, which “has never been reported, and I never saw it again, but I saw a painting of two doing it at the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island,” she says. “The rituals are symbols of how to keep a family strong.”
Allison Hedge Coke, a poet of Cherokee, Huron, métis and European descent, has been doing fascinating research on Native American crane clans. They were responsible for keeping the history of the people. The hieroglyphs you see at Petroglyph National Monument, for instance, across the Rio Grande from Albuquerque, look like chicken-scratch, but they are actually crane-scratch. The Hopi had a crane clan; the Mojave and Anishinaabe-Ojibwe still do.
In the evening I go out to the Nature Conservancy’s blind, upstream from the Alda Bridge, with Hedge Coke and a tall, regal Omaha poet named Renee Sans Souci and her four kids. Hedge Coke tells us to cover our heads and to walk in a weaving line, which she does and we fall in behind her, so as to be respectful and not spook the cranes. Soon we are in a non-European ritual space, doing our own dance. This is the native way, how the children are taught to honor the cranes.
A lot of the old crane knowledge and animism have been lost, casualties of Manifest Destiny and the European colonizers’ imposing their religion. Hedge Coke calls herself a cultural reclamationist. “The Pawnee lived on the Platte but were forced to move down to Oklahoma in the years following the Homestead Act. The Pawnee in this region had secret societies connected with the belief in supernatural animals. I am trying to find out their insights into the cranes.”
Much of the native dancing in the flyway is inspired by cranes. The Choctaw wear a white crane feather on their baseball caps to indicate ability. The Lakota wear a red adornment called a pesa that is like the forehead of a sandhill. Cranes are guardian birds, keepers of knowledge all over the world, and this is the epicenter.
“Listen,” she whispers, “a location call. The cranes behind the cottonwoods across the river are calling to their scout, Where are you?, asking if they can approach, and now the scout is going to give the OK call, and the cranes are going to start coming in.” The arrival is carried out with military precision. Once the all-clear has been given, groups start flying in from every direction and floating down on the sandbar on gossamer wings until there are so many we can’t even see the sand anymore.
Karine Gil-Weir told me, “This gathering is getting more problematic every year because of climate change, extreme weather, competition with snow geese and drought in the south.” This year 5,000 sandhills did not return to their wintering grounds but hunkered down on Mormon Island, on the Crane Trust’s property. If the drought and heat waves in the heartland continue, more will undoubtedly join them. But will the midcontinental sandhills become totally residential on the Platte like the Florida and Mississippi sandhills, or like the Canada geese, 60 percent of which no longer migrate? Archibald doesn’t think so. There’s not enough shallow wetlands on the Platte for them to breed in, and global warming is also increasing the length of time they can stay at their nesting grounds in the north from the 40 to 50 days they have to grow their fist-size chicks to full-size, flight-ready birds (one of the fastest growth spurts in the animal kingdom) and is giving their breeding season more flexibility. Archibald thinks sandhills are starting to stay on the Platte because of conditions being better in the north. “All over the world birds that used to winter farther south are wintering farther north due to global warming. Eurasian cranes that used to winter in Spain now winter in the north of France. These central-flyway sandhills will still have to go north because they need aquatic food with proper protein to raise young. And once fields are plowed and replanted in the spring, the ones that stay are going to be in trouble,” Archibald said. “I think the staging on the Platte will continue. However the Platte is almost dead. The whole environment is manipulated. But the sandhills seem to be doing fine. Their population has been stable for the last 10 to 15 years.”
And how many things can that be said about? But global warming is also melting the glaciers in the Rockies where the Platte rises, and in 2012 the tornado season arrived three months early; in March there was a cluster of monster tornadoes only 100 miles west of the staging. In l990 a flock was shredded by a twister into what looked to one witness like “bits of newsprint.” But the cranes are highly adaptable. They wouldn’t have lasted this long if they weren’t. I imagine they will learn to give tornadoes an even wider berth than they do humans, if they haven’t already.
A brain tumor in an infant was found to contain teeth. One the left, a brain scan of the boy’s tumor. On the right, an image of the teeth that were removed during brain surgery.
A 4-month-old infant in Maryland may be the first person to have had teeth form in his brain as a result of a specific type of rare brain tumor, according to a new report of the case.
The boy is doing well now that his tumor has been removed, and doctors say the case sheds light on how these rare tumors develop.
Doctors first suspected something might be wrong when the child’s head appeared to be growing faster than is typical for children his age. A brain scan revealed a tumor containing structures that looked very similar to teeth normally found in the lower jaw.
The child underwent brain surgeryto have the tumor removed, during which doctors found that the tumor contained several fully formed teeth, according to the report. [14 Oddest Medical Cases]
After an analysis of tumor tissue, doctors determined the child had a craniopharyngioma, a rare brain tumor that can grow to be larger than a golf ball, but does not spread.
Researchers had always suspected that these tumors form from the same cells involved in making teeth, but until now, doctors had never seen actual teeth in these tumors, said Dr. Narlin Beaty, a neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who performed the boy’s surgery along with his colleague, Dr. Edward Ahn, of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
“It’s not every day you see teeth in any type of tumor in the brain. In a craniopharyngiomas, it’s unheard of,” Beaty said.
Craniopharyngiomas commonly contain calcium deposits, “but when we pulled out a full tooth…I think that’s something slightly different,” Beaty told Live Science.
Teeth have been found in people’s brains before, but only in tumors known as teratomas, which are unique among tumors because they contain all three of the tissue types found in an early-stage human embryo, Beaty said. In contrast, craniopharyngiomas have only one layer of tissue.
The boy’s case provides more evidence that craniopharyngiomas do indeed develop from the cells that make teeth, Beaty said.
These tumors are most often diagnosed in children ages 5 to 14, and are rare in children younger than 2, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The boy is progressing well in his development, the researchers said. However, because craniopharyngiomas are tumors of the pituitary gland — a gland in the brain that releases many important hormones — they often cause hormone problems.
In the boy’s case, the tumor destroyed the normal connections in the brain that would allow certain hormones to be released, Beaty said, so he will need to receive hormone treatments for the rest of his life to replace these hormones, Beaty said.
“He’s doing extremely well, all things considered,” Beaty said. “This was a big tumor right in the center of his brain. Before the moderate surgical era this child would not have survived,” Beaty said.
The teeth were sent to a pathologist for further study, Beaty said, and generally, these types of tissue samples are saved for many years in case more investigation is needed.
The report is published in the Feb. 27 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Scientists pinpoint exotic new particle called quantum droplet
By Will Dunham6 hours ago
By Will Dunham
A microscopic “quantum droplet” – a new quasiparticle discovered by JILA physicists – is pictured in this artist’s conception obtained by Reuters February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Baxley/JILA/Handout
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the field of quantum physics, you could call this a droplet in the bucket.
Physicists in Germany and the United States said on Wednesday they have discovered an exotic new type of particle that they call a quantum droplet, or dropleton.
Writing in the journal Nature, they said it behaves a bit like a liquid droplet and described it as a quasiparticle – an amalgamation of smaller types of particles.
The discovery, they added, could be useful in the development of nanotechnology, including the design of optoelectronic devices. These include things like the semiconductor lasers used in Blu-ray disc players.
The microscopic quantum droplet does not dawdle. In the physicists’ experiments using an ultra-fast laser emitting about 100 million pulses per second, the quantum droplet appeared for only about 2.5 billionths of a second.
That does not sound like much, but the scientists said it is stable enough for research on how light interacts with certain types of matter.
A previously known example of a quasiparticle is the exciton, a pairing of an electron and a “hole” – a place in the material’s energy structure where an electron could be located but is not.
The quantum droplet is made up of roughly five electrons and five holes. It possesses some characteristics of a liquid, like having ripples, the scientists said.
Quantum physics is a branch of physics that relates to events taking place on the tiniest scale. It is essential in describing the structure of atoms.
Particles are the basic building blocks of matter. They include things like subatomic entities such as electrons, protons, neutrons and quarks. Only rarely are new ones found.
The scientists in Germany worked with a team led by physicist Steven Cundiff at JILA, a joint physics institute of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.
It was in Boulder where the laser experiments were performed using a semiconductor of the elements gallium and arsenic, revealing the new particle, albeit fleetingly.
“Even though this happens so rapidly, it is still useful to understand that it does happen,” Cundiff said by email.
The scientists foresee practical value in the discovery.
“The effects that give rise to the formation of dropletons also influence the electrons in optoelectronic devices such as laser diodes,” physicist Mackillo Kira of the University of Marburg in Germany, one of the researchers, said by email.
Examples of optoelectronic devices include LED lights and semiconductor lasers used in telecommunications and Blu-ray players.
“For example, the dropletons couple particularly strongly to quantum fluctuations of light, which should be extremely useful when designing lasers capable of encoding quantum information,” Kira added.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Jan Paschal)
Sultan of Schwing: How Moroccan Ruler Could Sire 1,000 Kids Revealed
By Charles Q. Choi, Live Science Contributor | February 25, 2014 01:37pm ET
Sultan Moulay Ismaïl of Morocco, “The Bloodthirsty,” reigned from 1672 to 1727 and reputedly sired hundreds of children and perhaps more than a 1,000. (Shown here in a photographic reproduction of artwork.)
Credit: Public Domain
Sultan Moulay Ismaïl of Morocco, “The Bloodthirsty,” reputedly sired hundreds of children and perhaps more than a 1,000. Now computer simulations suggest this could have been possible if the ruler had sex about once a day for 32 years.
Ismaïl, who reigned from 1672 to 1727, was the first great sultan of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty, the current royal house of the kingdom. He was Sharifian — that is, he claimed descent fromMuhammad, the founder of Islam.
Ismaïl’s rule was the longest in Moroccan history, and toward its end he controlled the country with an army of more than 150,000 men. Ismaïl was infamously ruthless — his reign is said to have begun with the display of 400 heads at the city of Fez, most of them from enemy chiefs, and over the next 55 years it is estimated he killed more than 30,000 people, not including those in battle. [Photos: The 10 Epic Battles That Changed History]
Any suspicion of adultery against Ismaïl was severely punished. The women were either strangled by the sultan himself, or their breasts were cut off, or their teeth torn out. Men who merely looked at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Ismaïl fathered 888 children, the greatest number of progeny for anyone throughout history that can be verified. Based on reports by Dominique Busnot, a French diplomat who frequently traveled to Morocco, the sultan may actually have had 1,171 children from four wives and 500 concubines by 1704. At that time, Ismaïl was 57 and had ruled for 32 years.
Some researchers claimed it was unlikely Ismaïl could have fathered that many offspring, noting that women are only fertile for a small window each month, that sperm usually do not fertilize eggs, and that infertility often afflicts women, especially in the developing world. However, other scientists argued women are more fertile than those doubting Ismaïl had said.
To solve this question, scientists developed computer simulations to see how many times Ismaïl had to have sex each day to have 1,171 children in 32 years. They found the sultan could have set this record.
“We were as conservative as possible with our calculations, and Moulay could still achieve this outcome,” study lead author Elisabeth Oberzaucher, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna, told Live Science.
The simulations suggest Ismaïl needed to have sex an average of 0.83 to 1.43 times per day in order to father 1,171 children in 32 years. Moreover, the sultan did not need a harem of four wives and 500 concubines to sire that many offspring — the researchers suggest he needed a harem of only 65 to 110 women.
Although the models of conception the researchers employed ultimately all found that Ismaïl could have actually had all these children, “the results from them were all quite different from each other,” Oberzaucher said. “This really emphasizes to us how important it is to choose the right model for studies of reproduction — you really want to know what kind of women you actually are doing your calculations with, thinking about where women are in their life cycles and the sexual habits of women.”
Oberzaucher and her colleague Karl Grammer detailed their findings Feb. 14 in the journal PLOS ONE.