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May 2003 Archive

Environmental groups and relief organizations are focusing on the destruction Saddam Hussein wreaked on the wetlands of Iraq. The region, site of the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations, and thought by some to be the basis for ancient stories of a Garden of Eden, is in dire need of help.

National Geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim recalls her 16-hour flight from Beijing to Tennessee with the Memphis Zoo's newest stars: two giant pandas named Ya Ya and Le Le. This story airs tonight on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today.

With fewer than 1,000 pandas left in the wild, the critically-endangered bears are tightly regulated by international and U.S. authorities. The nine pandas on loan to four U.S. zoos are the subject of 80 separate studies, providing researchers with a rare glimpse of the bears' wild brethren.

In an inconspicuous office building in West Los Angeles, far from the turmoil of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Institute for Creative Technologies is developing virtual reality projects for the U.S. military. Its mission is to bring some Hollywood razzmatazz to Army war games and training exercises.

As cities grow worldwide, packing in enormous numbers of residents, the risk of a cataclysmic earthquake is rising, experts agree. The odds of a single quake killing a million or more people may now be as high as one in a hundred years.

North American gray squirrels which invaded the British Isles in the late 19th century now outnumber native red squirrels sixteen to one. New evidence suggests that a deadly virus may have a been an important factor in this decline. The disease may be carried by the grays, who themselves appear to be immune to it.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a Michigan bio-informatics firm developed new supercomputer software to identify victims based on DNA. The program has been remarkably successful in its somber task. Experts say it has rewritten the science of DNA mass identification in the process.

In the Monterey Submarine Trench at depths of 2,100 feet (645 meters) and more, is a world inhabited by strange creatures known as vampire squid and football fish. But now researchers have identified one of the strangest of all—a new species of jellyfish. This story airs tonight on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today.

Conservationists plan to fly chicks from Russia to Britain in a fledgling effort to restore the great bustard to open grassland around Stonehenge. The massive bird, which grows as tall as a deer and weighs up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms), was last seen in the U.K. in Victorian times.

China has an unfortunate history of producing new viral strains, including the microbe behind the latest SARS outbreak. Some virologists believe traditional farming practices in China, where farmers raise ducks, pigs, and fish in one integrated system, may exchange viruses between animals and enable their jump to humans.

At one time, spotting a cougar in the eastern U.S. ranked alongside an encounter with Bigfoot or a UFO. But a steady increase in sightings has prompted enthusiasts to track the evidence on a Web-based map. The picture that emerges suggests the cougar may indeed be returning to eastern states.

They don't sting or bite. They don't cause diarrhea or headaches. They don't even exist in a tangible form. But "digital organisms"—special programs that reproduce, mutate, and adapt—can thrive inside computers, and they are teaching scientists several lifetimes' worth of information about evolution.

National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen spends most of the year taking pictures of dinosaur bones, fossils, and people. But every summer he travels West and utilizes another skill—he is a trained wildland firefighter. Thiessen talks about this second career on Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman.

Following two centuries of persecution from gamekeepers, and three major wildfires at specially protected moorland breeding sites this spring, one of England's most spectacular birds of prey is at the brink of extinction.

In a new biography, author Ed Douglas profiles the life of Tenzing Norgay who, together with Edmund Hillary, became the first human to stand atop Mount Everest. Douglas recently spoke with National Geographic News about Tenzing's life and accomplishment on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his historic climb.

In interior Alaska, the winter temperatures average slightly below zero. Frequently they dip to 20 below, and can dive to 60 below. Yet insects not only survive but thrive there. How? One scientist is harvesting the blood of small green stink bugs to discover the answer.

Three adventure cyclists have completed an epic 49-day, 1,400-mile (2,250-kilometer) bicycle trek along the frozen Yukon River and Bering Sea, pedaling from Dawson City, Yukon, to Nome, Alaska. The expedition sought to relive a vivid chapter of early gold rush history following the trail of two early 20th-century adventurers.

Many Hollywood stars retire in the oasis of Palm Springs, California where they while away their golden years splashing paint on canvases, taking leisurely strolls, playing the piano, and flipping through the pages of magazines. Such is the life of 71-year-old Cheeta, the chimpanzee of Tarzan fame who, it is claimed, is the world's oldest chimp.

On the night of Thursday, May 15 the full moon will slip into Earth's shadow and darken to an orange-reddish glow during the first of four total lunar eclipses to occur over the course of the next 17 months. The eclipse will be visible to sky-watchers throughout the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

A California-based marine biologist has uncovered a massive 5,071-pound (2.3-metric-ton) ocean sunfish some nine feet (2.7 meters) long and ten feet (3 meters) tall. The behemoth, caught in 1996 off the coast of Japan, may be the world's heaviest bony fish.

In late March hundreds of meteorites rained down on the Chicago area, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of downtown. This is the first time that a meteor shower has hit such a populated area—the event triggered several weeks of frenzy as scientists, dealers, and museums competed to get the biggest rocks for their collections.

A scientist proposes sending a grapefruit-size communication device into the heart of the Earth by blasting a crack in the surface and pouring in a huge quantity of molten iron. The weight of the liquid metal would crack the Earth for more than 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), carrying the probe to the planet's core in about a week.

Heidi Howkins is a mother in her mid-30s. Her smile comes easy. Her eyes flash with intensity. And she plays in the devil's backyard. How else can one describe her obsession with climbing one of the world's most deadly mountains? This interview aired on the National Geographic Channel's Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman.

Scientists comparing DNA of Neandertals with early modern humans have concluded that it is unlikely that Neandertals contributed to the current European gene pool. The new research strengthens the theory that Neandertals did not interbreed with other early humans and that they may have died out because they could not compete with our ancestors.

90 percent of all the large fish in the ocean, including tuna, swordfish, sharks, cod, marlin, flounder, and halibut, are gone—fished out of existence because of humankind's voracious appetite for seafood, scientists have determined. The need to attempt restoration on a global scale is urgent, they say.

Fishers on the Mekong River in northern Thailand and Cambodia wait expectant, as they have for hundreds of years, for the arrival and harvest of giant catfish. But this year the catfish, which can weigh as much as 650 pounds (300 kilograms), may never come.

The Turtle Conservation Fund has listed the 25 most endangered turtles to highlight the survival crisis facing tortoises and freshwater turtles and to unveil a global plan to prevent further extinctions. Two hundred of the world's 300 remaining species are threatened and require conservation action, the group says.

Birds aren't so much sitting ducks as sitting dodos, conservationists warn. Plummeting bird populations are seen as evidence that the world is suffering the greatest wave of animal extinctions since the dinosaurs disappeared. And a new report says humans are to blame.

Skipper caterpillars have developed an unusual form of waste disposal. An underbelly launching pad enables them to fire their fecal pellets great distances away from their homes. The equivalent distance for a similarly equipped 6-foot human would be around 240 feet. Research suggests the ability protects the caterpillars from predators.

On assignment for National Geographic EXPLORER, veteran filmmaker Gary Scurka spent nearly a month embedded with U.S. Marines in Iraq—living their war experience 24 hours a day. Scurka's unprecedented access to one of the war's most active units enabled him to produce Baghdad Bound: The Devil Dog Diaries, which premiered on Sunday, May 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC.

Mercury levels in the blood and feathers of common loons in Southeast Canada, New York state, and New England are probably some of the highest in animals anywhere in the world. Now scientists are using the loons to understand the impact of mercury-poisoned lakes on waterbirds, fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Champions from every U.S. state and territory have gathered with family and teachers in Washington, D.C., for this year's National Geographic Bee. The competition is stiff, the stakes high. The top prize: a U.S. $25,000 college scholarship and the title of National Champion.

Someday, in a house next door, a robot may be playing a game of cribbage with an elderly widow. Companionship may be the first "killer application" for personal robots, says a computer scientist. And they won't require the same level of upkeep as dogs.

After an impressive demonstration of knowledge and poise, the top ten finalists emerged from the preliminary rounds of the 2003 National Geographic Bee, held earlier today at the Wyndham City Center in Washington, D.C. Full story, list of finalists, and image.

In a controversial new study, researchers argue that the similarities between chimpanzee and humans are so great that chimps should be re-grouped with humans on the tree of life. Researchers base their claim on analysis of DNA and our relatively recent evolutionary divergence from chimps.

Seven mountaineers reached the pinnacle of Mount Everest today, the first to summit the world's highest mountain this climbing season. The summit followed days of severe winds that hindered the effort.

A mysterious disease wiping out white-backed vultures in India is now decimating populations in neighboring Pakistan. Recent studies of the migration routes of Eurasian vultures, which winter in India, raise fears that these far ranging birds may spread the disease further to related species in Africa and Europe with devastating consequences.

James Williams, a homeschooled 14-year-old 8th grader from Vancouver, Washington, won the 2003 National Geographic Bee today. Nearly five million students from more than 15,000 schools across the United States participated in the competition. James wins a $25,000 scholarship and lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society. Full Story and Photo Gallery.

The modern world is closing in fast on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Flora Lu Holt has spent more than ten years studying an ancient and remote tribe in Ecuador. She talks about their challenges and her experience living with them on Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman.

While the dramatic effects of war and regime change on the people of Iraq have been broadcast around the world, the picture is less clear for its feathered inhabitants. Biologists are now trying to assess the environmental impact of recent events in a country that is home to many threatened birds.

In the rugged Santa Monica Mountains, less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from downtown Los Angeles, biologists tracked two satellite-tagged mountain lions captured last year. Join science correspondent Chad Cohen as he explores whether man and beast can coexist near LA. This story airs tonight on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today.

Four centuries after the first telescopes were turned towards Mars, the first snapshot has been taken of Earth rom the red planet. The camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor shot an image of our planet a few weeks ago, producing a picture of "a tiny alien world in the vast darkness of space," according to the scientists who processed it.

In an essay for National Geographic News, anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis describes the Society's Ethnosphere Expeditions, a five-year initiative to explore and discover the wonders of diverse cultures around the globe.

Lightning is a killer. It claims more victims each year than do snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. It keeps a low profile as the second largest weather-related killer, usually striking one person at a time. Only floods, which can wipe out towns, kill more people.

It's almost summer and war-weary, economy-embattled Americans will head seaside in their millions. With so much frolicking in the surf there will be a few nips from sharks, experts warn—although bites are statistically extremely unlikely and almost never fatal. Swimming with sharks is not as dangerous as driving to the beach.

As the season of long days and short nights, barbecues and cold drinks, and lakeshore and beachfront retreats is kicked off this Memorial Day weekend, forecasters train their gaze on charts and graphs as they attempt to predict the fickle summer weather.

Starting in the 12th century, scholars flocked to Timbuktu, following the trade routes of salt caravans across the Sahara desert. With them came hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. Today, black market trade in those sacred texts imperils the city's fabled heritage and perhaps a treasure chest of unknown African history. Full story and photo gallery.

For centuries ornithologists denied the importance of birds' sense of smell, looking more to birdsong and flashy plumage as typical means of communication. Now, a new study on the striking-looking crested auklet adds to evidence that smell is as important to birds as to other animals.

From Colombia's jungle to the Walt Disney World Resort, Florida, conservationists are collaborating to save a tiny monkey from extinction in the wild. The cotton-top tamarin, a pet-trade favorite, is threatened by dwindling habitat. Now, an unlikely team has come up with creative ways to protect the minuscule primate.

Climber Peter Athans has stood atop Mount Everest an astonishing seven times, a feat unsurpassed by any Western climber. National Geographic News recently spoke with "Mr. Everest" about the mountain's allure and the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the 50-year anniversary of their historic climb.

As custodians of over three-quarters of Britain, farmers have a huge impact on the country's biodiversity. Much depends on how they manage their land. An independent study now suggests it's those farmers who support foxhunting and game-bird shooting who do most for wildlife conservation.

In 2000, rock climbers Beth Rodden,Tommy Caldwell, and companions traveled to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan for an ultimate climbing test. Instead, they were kidnapped by armed rebels. Beth and Tommy discuss the six-day ordeal that pushed their limits on Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman.

Following trade routes dating to the Middle Ages, camel caravans laden with salt cross the trackless Sahara to the fabled city of Timbuktu. For the nomadic tribesmen who make the perilous journey, the quest is spiritual as well as economic. But today trucks threaten the centuries-old trade and culture. Full story and photo gallery:

Players of video games develop exceptional visual skills, researchers have found. A study of college students who are "expert" players suggests that games are so effective that they could be designed to train soldiers for combat and as therapy for people with visual impairments.

Images of some of the exquisite treasures once housed in Baghdad's Iraq Museum—photographs made for National Geographic magazine but never published—have been released as part of the National Geographic Society's contribution to locating and preventing illegal trade in the artifacts. Two photo galleries.

White House correspondent Ken Walsh has flown on Air Force One more than 200 times. He talks about his book, Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, and what he has learned about the aircraft and those who used it for political, diplomatic, and personal ends.

Despite centuries of strife brought by outsiders, the Dogon of Mali, West Africa, preserve their cultural ways. Hidden in their cliff-side villages, the people who claim to be the conduit between heaven and Earth have evolved a keen sense of cultural survival. Full story and photo gallery:

First there was Dolly, the sheep. Now, scientists at the University of Idaho have successfully cloned a mule. Born on May 4, Idaho Gem is the first member of the horse family to be cloned.

Strong evidence of water on Mars has propelled NASA to launch rovers to investigate. Robots destined for two different locations are tested in the "sandbox," at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which simulates the Martian landscape. Science correspondent Chad Cohen gets a Martian preview tonight on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today.

In the debut episode of Ultimate Explorer, host Lisa Ling travels to China to report on budding NBA star Yao Ming and the changing face of his home country. National Geographic News recently spoke with Ling about her new television show and basketball phenom Yao Ming.

From the archive: An extremely rare two-headed tortoise has been found living in South Africa. The heads appear to function independently of their shared body, with both able to feed normally. It is only when they sometimes disagree on which direction to walk that they have a problem.

Before creating their film Finding Nemo, Pixar Studios animators first had to submerge themselves in the underwater world, visiting aquariums and diving in Hawaii. A series of in-house lectures from a fish zoologist turned into a virtual graduate course on oceanography.

As a young clownfish named Nemo enchants moviegoers with his epic adventure from the ocean to a fish tank and beyond, the nine-year-old actor whose voice brings the animated character to life is helping get the message out that the demand for aquarium fish should be met with environment-friendly standards.

Barren 12,000-foot (3,650-meter) peaks rise sharply around La Paz, Bolivia, the world's highest capital at 11,200 feet (3,400 meters). On Cerro Cumbre, a mountain clearing that La Paz residents call holy ground, the wind carries the smoke—and smell—of animal sacrifice from the Witches' Market or Mercado de las Brujas.

Barren 12,000-foot (3,650-meter) peaks rise sharply around La Paz, Bolivia, the world's highest capital at 11,200 feet (3,400 meters). On Cerro Cumbre, a mountain clearing that La Paz residents call holy ground, the wind carries the smoke—and smell—of animal sacrifice from the Witches' Market or Mercado de las Brujas.

At seven feet five inches (226 centimeters), NBA phenom Yao Ming is a giant both on and off the basketball court. The Chinese sensation has become a marketing powerhouse and symbol of a rapidly changing China. This story also airs tonight on Ultimate Explorer. logo