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February 2003 Archive

Space shuttle Columbia broke up just minutes before it was scheduled to land this morning, killing all seven astronauts on board. Story and photo gallery.

Space shuttle Columbia broke up just minutes before it was scheduled to land this morning, killing all seven astronauts on board. Story and photo gallery.

Student scientists from Syracuse, New York, say they plan to finish their ants-in-space experiment started aboard space shuttle Columbia in honor of the seven fallen astronauts and their commitment to scientific discovery.

Earth has a history of being struck by asteroids, sometimes with devastating effects such as tsunamis, firestorms, and even large-scale extinction of life. Yet no one knows for sure how many large asteroids are out there and if—or when—one might be headed for us. Now a group of experts has recommended a strategy to prepare a planetary defense.

Continuing the series of excerpts from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture, author Annette Gordon-Reed writes that the black experience in America is along a continuum—from slavery to a gradual move toward citizenship that is still ongoing. Considering it that way, as long as blacks are on the American continent they will be bound to the memories of their forebears who endured the almost unendurable. The chain cannot be broken. Full story and photo gallery:

When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on Saturday, February 1, a group of Colorado-based researchers whose firefighting experiment was on board felt the tragedy all the more deeply because they had worked closely with the astronauts during the previous few days to fix a glitch in the experiment.

The destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in the final minutes of a rare mission purely devoted to space science claimed seven lives. It also dealt a devastating blow to scientists eager to conduct research in the weightlessness of space.

When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on Saturday, February 1, a group of Colorado-based researchers whose firefighting experiment was on board felt the tragedy all the more deeply because they had worked closely with the astronauts during the previous few days to fix a glitch in the experiment.

Researchers have assumed that oddly-shaped 3-D spiders webs may have evolved to catch different types of prey than the classic 2-D orb webs. A new study suggests that 3-D webs may act as an anti-wasp defense system, protecting otherwise vulnerable spiders from attack.

Why are boa constrictors found on Belize's Snake Cayes islands only half the size of their mainland counterparts? Snake researcher Scott Boback wrestles to learn why. His answer could shed light on the puzzling quandary of island evolution. This story airs on the National Geographic Channel.

Despite widespread hunting and habitat loss, chimpanzees are more abundant in Uganda than believed, according to scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), which recently completed a comprehensive census of the nation's chimps.

The fossil of a giant animal—much bigger than modern elephants—has been unearthed on the Greek island Crete. The extinct animal's extremely large nasal opening could have been the inspiration for Cyclops, a race of giants in Greek mythology with a single eye in the middle of the forehead.

A catastrophic die-off of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees at the very heart of their range in central Africa has been reported by scientists. The apes are thought to be dying of Ebola, a virus that can kill humans as well. Full story and photo gallery:

African slaves from a number of different ethnicities and nationalities created something new out of the cultural and material resources found in their new environment. They built their religious and secular rituals, festivals, and social gatherings on the foundations of song, dances, and rhythms they invented to cope with and express their New World realities. Full story and photo gallery:

A big, old Patagonian toothfish found thousands of miles from home is bolstering the theory that large fish can take advantage of very deep, cold ocean waters to cross the tropics from one polar region to the other, swimming under warm water in which they ordinarily could not survive.

Now the third most popular admission-charging tourist attraction in Britain, the Eden Project boasts the largest conservatory in the world and a cornucopia of 4,500 plant species. It's a "green" project that both nurtures and prospers from the environmental movement.

In the final excerpt from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture, author John Hope Franklin discusses the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation signaled an invitation to slaves to take up arms and participate in the fight for their own freedom—more than 185,000 slaves and free blacks joined the battle. Full story and photo gallery:

The current eruption of Sicily's Mount Etna has ended. The bad news is that the two most recent eruptions were among the most explosive of the last several centuries, and that pattern is likely to continue, volcanologists warn.

Soil scientists are concerned that soil fertility and organisms just below the Earth's surface are rapidly degrading because of human activities. These organisms—bacteria, fungi, bugs and worms—are believed to enhance plant growth, assist in water purification, and help regulate the climate.

President George W. Bush memorialized the seven lost Columbia space shuttle crew members by saying that "America's space program will go on." Where, how, and why remain open questions, said Tom Jones, a former astronaut and veteran of four missions, who spoke with the National Geographic Today TV newsmagazine about the future of NASA and exploration.

Scientists at NASA and the European Space Agency are busy developing new tools to aid the search for extraterrestrial life. Some pin their hopes on a new array of orbiting telescopes designed to examine atmospheric chemicals of Earth-like planets for signs of life.

Newfoundlands are large, sturdy dogs known for their intelligence and gentle disposition—and centuries of service rescuing people from drowning. While the hunky breed is better known today as a pet, a few still serve as lifeguards in the United States.

British conservation groups plan to recover rare Scottish blanket bog from thousands of acres of planted forests. The trees were planted during the 1970s and 80s under a U.K. tax incentive plan established to encourage reforestation.

For the first time in 2,000 years, Scots pine, alder, birch, hazel, holly, and mountain ash are set to reclaim a large swath of the Scottish Highlands. A private landowner plans to plant 2.5 million trees over the next five years to create the largest native woodland in Scotland. The effort marks a nationwide move to restore the country's lost woodland.

Each year throngs of scientists circulate through the world's coral reefs, leaving reams of data in their wake. Members of a UN-sponsored expedition to the Belize barrier reef system say much can be gained by better information sharing among research groups and the public. Full story and photo gallery:

The well-kept British lawns and colorfully jumbled herbaceous borders that characterize traditional English country gardens may soon be a thing of the past, victims of a global warming trend that will bring the country longer, drier summers and milder winters. But it's not all bad news for the adventurous British gardener; sub-tropical and Mediterranean species may fill the vacuum.

The buried remains of a 700-year-old garden at Whittington Castle in Shropshire, England, could substantially change historian's understanding of medieval gardens. The garden contained one of the earliest and largest viewing mounts found in the U.K.

One of the world's most potent sources of air pollution the so-called "Asian Express"created by rapid Asian industrialization is driving changes in the Earth's atmosphere. This brown pollution cloud most directly threatens Japan, Korea and Taiwan, but it can blow eastward to the United States in just four to 10 days.

Part of a 27-year-old high security fence that blocked an ancient elephant migration route has been removed to create Africa's largest transfrontier park. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park connects national parks in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The wildlife reserve is expected to benefit the animals, land, and people of all three countries.

Scientists in India have found a way to induce snake antivenin in common poultry eggs, offering the hope of an inexpensive antidote that could save thousands of lives of people bitten by poison snakes each year in India and other countries.

In 1898 a pair of maneless male lions purportedly killed and ate some 135 people during a nine-month rampage near Kenya's Tsavo River. Researchers at Chicago's Field Museum show that environmental circumstances can foster man-eating behavior in lions and that the killer cats may not be as unusual as previously supposed.

In a National Geographic Special Diamonds of War that premiered on U.S. television this week, reporter Dominic Cunningham-Reid went from the streets of Manhattan to the diamond exchanges of Antwerp to the war-ravaged hills of Sierra Leone, investigating the history, culture, and global politics that drive the diamond industry.

It's that time of the year when romance is in the air and people everywhere are planning where and when to plant the perfect kiss. But one thing lovers have little control over is how they'll turn their heads when they go in for the kiss.

Researchers diving in the Great Barrier Reef have photographed a live male blanket octopus for the first time. The walnut-sized males mate with females 40,000 times their size. No living male had been observed alive in the wild before.

The Sixth Annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins in the United States this weekend and volunteer "citizen scientists" are needed across the country.

In extreme cases, brown recluse spider bites produce nasty effects: flesh rots within 24 hours, wounds turn into multi-color lesions. But often these symptoms have other causes, studies suggest. A California arachnologist is on a crusade to clear the bad rap currently entangling the non-aggressive spider.

For Martian astronauts, finding water may be as simple as grabbing an ice pick and getting to work. Research indicates that Mars may have far less carbon dioxide than previously thought, and both polar ice caps probably consist mostly of water ice layers. The finding is a setback for the notion that Mars could be "terraformed" into an Earth-like planet with atmosphere and warm, pleasant conditions for humans.

Even in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy, long-planned NASA missions continue. The first post-Columbia flight, an unmanned rocket, lifted off last Thursday from White Sands, New Mexico. As early as next week, NASA will send an unmanned rocket to probe the shimmering spectacle of the aurora borealis.

It's Valentine's Day, a day when the age-old questions naturally arise: "What do women really want?" "Who's in charge of the mating game?" and "Is beauty really only skin deep?" A presentation tonight on the National Geographic Channel (U.S. cable television) might surprise you. When it comes to courtship and mating, it's all a matter of biology, the experts say.

Birds have long been associated with St. Valentine's Day. Medieval Europeans believed February 14 was the date when birds began to mate, so it became traditional for sweethearts to declare their love for each other on this day. Yet some scientists believe bird behavior can say more about darker human passions: Those that lead to heartbreak and divorce.

Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian warrior and conqueror, may have left more than terror and destruction in his wake; he could have left his genes as well. An international group of geneticists studying Y-chromosome data, say there may be as many as 16 million men in the world today who can claim descent from one of history's most famous fighters.

As editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Keith Bellows roams the world professionally and personally. So he has a pretty good idea of the best places to go for a romantic getaway. We asked him to give us his personal list—from the entire world—of the best places to go for people in love. Whether looking for a bargain or ready to splurge, Bellows gives us his recommendations for adventure, escape, dining, cruise, and most idyllic beach.

On February 4, 2003 the parliaments of Serbia and Montenegro voted to dissolve the nation of Yugoslavia under terms of a process brokered a year ago by the European Union. While the vote seemed to take much of the world's media by surprise, the cartography department of the National Geographic Society has been awaiting the name change for about a year.

An outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Republic of Congo has claimed at least 64 lives. Knowing how many people may have initially contracted the virus has given medical experts a jumpstart on the epidemic. But the larger question remains. Where does the deadly Ebola virus hide between outbreaks?

The phrase "out of Africa" has been used so often that it has become part of our cultural vocabulary. But where did it come from? Two researchers track the origins of the phrase and its evolution from a Greek proverb in the 4th century B.C. to its current place in our lexicon.

At a chilly, morgue-like repository adjacent to London's Natural History Museum lies one of the world's more unusual—and scientifically important—collections. The Spirit Collection contains 22 million specimens preserved in alcohol, among them pygmy hippos and flying fish.

Why did modern humans suddenly leave Africa around 50,000 years ago to populate the rest of the world? The debate is complicated by differing interpretations of the small amount of archaeological evidence available. There is also a definitional problem: What exactly are "modern" behaviors? Paleoanthropologists meeting in Denver, Colorado, this past weekend tackled the question.

Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge has yielded an impressive pile of fossilized bones and stone tools that may reshuffle the evolutionary tree of the early hominids and shed light on the behavior of some of humankind's earliest ancestors.

A growing influx of international tourists visits Cuba each year, including an estimated 40,000 Americans who flout a U.S. ban on travel to the island each year. National Geographic Books recently issued a new guidebook to the island, National Geographic Traveler: Cuba. National Geographic News spoke with guidebook author Christopher Baker about his impressions of Cuba, the U.S. ban on travel to the country, and legal avenues to visit the island.

Elephants communicate with one another in a number of ways, including sound, sight, touch, and scent. But it is the noises they make—a repertoire of rumbles, roars, trumpets, bellows, cries, screams, and snorts that spans almost ten octaves, including sounds that humans cannot hear—that scientists find the most challenging to comprehend. In Disney World, Florida, researchers are listening carefully, trying to decipher what their elephants are saying. With audio files

For 27 years Joyce Poole has lived among savanna elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park studying their behavior and methods of communication. She has found that they use more than 70 kinds of vocal sounds and 160 different visual and tactile displays in their day-to-day interactions.

For thousands of years nomadic tribes of the Middle East have bred a hunting hound called the saluki. A fearless hunter of hare and gazelle, the dog is thought by historians to be the oldest breed in the world with archaeological evidence dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.

Most ospreys that live in the eastern United States swing through Cuba on their way south starting in July, and then again on their way back in the spring, between January and April. The birds seem to especially like eastern Cuba's Sierra Maestra Mountains, where they may rest for three weeks or more. Some like it so much they stay there the whole winter.

At 150 meters (500 feet) below the ocean surface, all is dark. As Alvin—the submersible that located the Titanic—approaches the slope, the outboard light reveals an undersea world of giant spider crabs and deep-sea corals that cling to the rocky slopes of a volcano—the Patton seamount—in the Gulf of Alaska. The mission is part of an ambitious program to investigate unexplored regions of the oceans.

Research shows that huge colonies of marauding army ants use simple movement rules to minimize congestion along forest trails. The 200,000 or so foraging ants that make up a prey-seeking raiding party can organize themselves into several different traffic lanes, smoothly speeding in opposite directions.

Israeli scientists have devised a computer that can perform 330 trillion operations per second, more than 100,000 times the speed of the fastest PC. The secret: It runs on DNA.

Analysis of sediments at two grave sites at Lake Mungo confirms that Australia is the site of the world's oldest known burial with red ochre and the oldest cremation, and provides additional evidence that early humans first reached Australia about 50,000 years ago.

They survived catastrophic asteroid impacts and outlived the dinosaurs. But leatherback sea turtles are now on the brink of extinction, and scientists question whether the marine species will survive into the next decade.

Catching poisonous snakes comes naturally to India's Irula tribe. For generations these hardy folk earned a living by hunting serpents—until wildlife protection laws made it illegal. But a group of the traditional snake rustlers has formed a cooperative to collect venom and protect their way of life.

Four years after a mysterious collapse in vulture numbers was monitored by researchers, India has made its first steps towards a recovery program.

Irish is slowing ceding ground to English as the language of daily discourse in Ireland's Gaeltacht, the seven, historically Irish-speaking regions scattered about the country's western seaboard. Experts say English-speakers moving into Gaeltacht regions have been one of the main causes of the change. Full story, audio, and photo gallery:

Superstition coupled with greed may be threatening South Africa's embattled vultures. Large numbers are being harvested for their heads, which are believed to be magic charms that can bestow riches by helping gamblers "see" upcoming national lottery numbers.

The highly social and complex world of ants is not void of selfish acts. Worker ants of the species Formica fusca apparently can distinguish who their closest relatives are and kill their more distant relations.

A National Geographic expedition sails Saturday to find and photograph the Argentine warship General Belgrano, sunk by Britain's Royal Navy during the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war. The cruiser is believed to lie 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) in international waters.

Florida wildlife managers may shift the manatee's status from endangered to threatened later this year. While this move would not change protections for the manatee, some scientists worry that down-listing the manatee might change public perception of its status.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys form a cold, barren desert stretching for 1,853 square miles (4,800 square kilometers) in southeastern Antarctica. It is the frozen continent's largest ice-free area and has become a focal point of scientific research in the 100 years since its discovery.

A new map shows that forests and marine resources in Central America and southern Mexico have a better chance of survival when indigenous people inhabit them. The map is part of an effort to bring the tools of cartography to indigenous cultures.

A Japanese team publishing in this week's journal Science reports on a skull found in 2001 in central Java. They conclude that Javanese Homo erectus populations living 25,000 to 50,000 years ago were quite isolated and had very little to do with the ancestry of modern humans.

Scientists have long praised the lotus leaf, better known as the water lily, for its water-resistant and self-cleaning properties. For years they have tried to mimic its structure. A team of Turkish researchers has finally achieved success.

Statues from a highly advanced African civilization that thrived for 1,200 years along the banks of the Nile River have been uncovered by a team of archaeologists working in Sudan.

The small Himalayan city of Leh, in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, awakes to the sound of Muslim and Buddhist prayers broadcast from the main mosque and temple. Elsewhere in Kashmir a 50-year conflict rages between India and Pakistan. But Leh, with its Buddhist heritage, hardly seems to notice.

David Doubilet is one of the world's leading underwater photographers. He has traveled to the Red Sea, Pearl Harbor, the South Pacific, and beyond, capturing groundbreaking images. His most recent book, The Great Barrier Reef, was published last year. Full story and photo gallery:

The century-old research vessel looks more like it belongs to Barbary pirates than to contemporary scientists. But a Spanish husband-and-wife team of marine biologists refitted the Norwegian fishing vessel to study dolphins, porpoises and whales in the Alboran Sea. This story aired on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today. logo