A Bit of a Backlash?

Many apologies for the delay in postings, other work has gotten in the way, but I promise to be better in the future. 

It has been an incredibly busy few days in Yemen from people lighting themselves on fire in al-Baydah to everyone's favorite ex-jihadi, Tariq al-Fadhli, burning everything he could think of, including (apparently) every flag he had in his house (Yemen, US, and a few others) and a handful of pictures. 

Yemen handed down sentences to journalists today.  And, of course, Inspire magazine put out a new issue.  There was much less breathlessness about this one in the media, although, and again, of course, Anwar al-Awlaqi's fatwa took top billing.  My thoughts on him are, I think, out there enough that I don't need to re-argue the case here.  However, I said earlier and I will say again, we are only going to see AQAP push him forward more and more in the future.

I was interested in Adil al-Abab's ruling as well, although (hopefully) more on that later.  What I want to discuss (briefly, because it is late and I have long day tomorrow) is the article in Inspire entitled "The Jihad in Abyan."  This stood out to me for a couple of reasons, first I was interested to see that the fighter, Abu Zakaria al-Eritiri, states specifically that he went to Abyan on orders of the amir, which is Nasir al-Wihayshi.

Second, I was fascinated by his description of the fighting, particularly the interactions between different tribes around Mudiah, where the assassination of a security official he is talking about took place. 

A few posts ago, I mentioned that AQAP had largely avoided civilian casualties and were hitting what they aimed at - namely soldiers and security officials.  (See 'Abab's ruling in Inspire for their rationale for this.)  It seems AQAP is getting some push back - again see 'Abab's ruling, as well as the story from Abu Zakaria about the tribe descending on some of the AQAP members. 

All of this brings me to today's news.  Earlier this week, a deputy criminal investigator, Atiq al-Amari, was killed in what many believe to be an AQAP strike.  (Ar) His tribe, Al Amari, it seems is not so happy about this.  Roughly 100 men from his tribe have descended on the town where he was killed and are refusing to leave, essentially staging a sit-in and refusing to bury the body until the "perpetrator" is revealed.  (Ar)

All of these things: Abab's ruling, the story from Abyan, and the sit-in in Shabwa are interesting fragments of a much larger and still moving picture of how AQAP handles its relationship with the tribes. 

All we have are these fragments, and so it is important not to read too much into too little, but a bit of tribal push back and the fact that al-Abab felt the need to justify the practice are all good signs. 

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Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

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  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.

The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

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  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

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13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.