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Scientists solve mystery of Chile's massive whale graveyard

Scientists think they've solved the mystery of the massive whale graveyard that was unearthed in Chile in 2010.

The site, called Cerro Ballena, or "Whale Hill," was found by road workers expanding a nearby highway. The area contained "dozens of whale skeletons, along with the remains of other extinct marine mammals and other marine vertebrates." (Via Smithsonian Institution)

It was an exciting find for paleontologists.

"The whale discovery is a discovery of global importance. There has never been a find of this size." (Via BBC)

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The problem: while the Chilean government put the highway project on hold for a while, the work had to continue eventually.

So the researchers quickly began excavating and brought in a Smithsonian 3D imaging team, dubbed the "laser cowboys," to quickly capture the site in digital form. (Via Smithsonian Institution)

"Our job is to preserve as much information as possible, and we had precious little time to document anything scientifically relevant about how those skeletons came to rest." (ViaSmithsonian Institution)

And it seems to have worked. Scientists have been able to catalog the fossils and even believe they know how they wound up there. (Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

Red tide, massive algae blooms that can sometimes be toxic, pop up occasionally near coastlines. (ViaWikimedia Commons / Alejandro DiazNOAA)

The Smithsonian's lead researcher says that's the only explanation that fits: the whales ingested toxic algae, died at sea, and drifted onto the desert shore to be covered and preserved by the sand.

He also had some colorful things to say about the rushed excavation job. "I don't wish a whale skeleton on anyone – it's a logistical nightmare. ... It's a big problem just to excavate one, let alone that number." (Via The Washington Post)

The whale graveyard is thought to be the biggest batch of ancient animal fossils since the La Brea Tar Pits, and the researchers think there may be hundreds more fossils buried along the Chilean highway.

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  • Struggling to advance his agenda in Washington, President Donald Trump traveled to the Midwest on Wednesday for a raucous rally with his loyal supporters — the kind of event he relished before winning the White House. Trump touched down Wednesday evening in rainy Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and headed to a local community college, where he got a look at agriculture technology innovations before leading a campaign rally. He reveled in Georgia Republican Karen Handel's congressional victory in an election viewed as an early referendum on his presidency. 'We're 5-0 in special elections,' Trump said in front of a boisterous crowd that packed a downtown arena. 'The truth is, people love us ... they haven't figured it out yet.' He also applauded Republican Ralph Norman, who notched a slimmer-than-expected win in a special election to fill the South Carolina congressional seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, and mocked Handel's challenger, Jon Ossoff, saying the Democrats 'spent $30 million on this kid who forgot to live in the district.' Trump, no stranger to victory laps, turned his visit to a battleground state he captured in November into a celebration of his resilience despite the cloud of investigations that has enveloped his administration and sent his poll numbers tumbling. With the appearance in Cedar Rapids, he has held five rallies in the first five months in office. The event underscores Trump's comfort in a campaign setting. He laughed off the occasional heckler, repeated riffs from last year's rallies and appeared far more at ease when going after Democrats in front of adoring crowds than trying to push through his own legislative agenda from the confines of the White House. Trump's aides are making a renewed push to get the president out of Washington. The capital is consumed with the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election and Trump's firing of his FBI director. Campaign rallies energize Trump by placing him in front of supporters who have stuck by him and are likely to dismiss the investigations as Beltway chatter. Iowa, with its large share of independent voters, could be a proving ground for whether Trump can count on the support of voters beyond his base. Unaffiliated voters — or 'no party' voters, as they are known in Iowa — make up 36 percent of the electorate, compared with 33 percent who register Republican and 31 percent registered as Democrat. Self-identified independents in Iowa voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 13-percentage-point margin last year, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. That margin helped Trump take the state by nearly 9 points after Barack Obama won it for Democrats the previous two elections. Trump held a Des Moines rally in December as part of his transition-era 'thank you' tour of states he had won, but has not been back to Iowa since. Wednesday night, he touted his administration's efforts to roll back regulations, mused about putting solar panels on a Mexican border wall, derided wind power for killing birds in a state that uses a lot of it and revealed that he urged the Senate to create a health care plan 'with heart. Add some money to it!' He avoided any discussion of the scandals surrounding his presidency, other than one brief reference to the 'witch hunt,' which is what he has dubbed the probes into his campaign's ties to Russia. Trump's evening in Iowa began with a tribute to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whom he had just appointed the United States' ambassador to China. He hailed Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation's history and an early Trump backer, as 'a legend' and 'one great man.' Trump's stop at Kirkwood Community College was intended to draw attention to the school's advancements in high-tech agriculture, but he resisted sitting behind the wheel of a virtual reality device that simulated a giant combine harvester. He was joined by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as part of the administration's latest theme week, this time to highlight the importance of technology. He later touted the wealth of Ross and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, saying: 'Those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense?' But much of Trump's attention was on the suburbs of Atlanta, in the 6th Congressional District race. Democrats had lavished attention and money on Tuesday's special election, hoping for a victory that would underscore Republican worries about Trump and serve as a harbinger of a Democratic wave in 2018. Instead, Handel's victory, in a traditional Republican stronghold that rarely produces a competitive contest, was met with a sigh of relief among the GOP. Trump tweeted several times during the night and capped the night off with a text message to supporters referring to his 'Make America Great Again' slogan: 'The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever. BIG LEAGUE.' ___ Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report. ___ Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire
  • It was a rather pleasant spring and now the first summer month too has been cooler than normal. Hot weather has not lasted more than a couple or few days so far this year. It sure saves the lawn and bushes a lot of stress and saves the watering bill and the A/C bill, so I like it. But I am sure sun tanning fans are not thrilled. It still looks like from today past the 4th of July real hot weather will continue to be hard to come by. Then odds of some heat go up if the new Weekly European Model Ensemble run is right. 1-15 Day GFS Ensemble average temperature departure from normal: End of June-early July rainfall amounts GFS Ensemble and Euro Ensemble: Hope for some drying beyond the current wet spell:      European Model the week ending July 7th: Then the model suggests more upper-level ridging which would bring warmer and drier if correct. The week ending July 14th: The model projects not dry weather in Georgia but less wet to open the new month, as the bigger rains are projected to shift north of here. None-the-less, it looks like odds for rain will be above-normal right into the start of August. So no drought and no extreme heat here. Week ending July 21st: Week ending July 28th: FOLLOW me on Twitter @MellishMeterWSB
  • Save 80% on this telescopic extension ladder! For a limited time, Newegg has this 16.5 ft aluminum extension ladder on sale for just $99.99! This 4-way combination ladder is lightweight and made of anti-corrosive materials. It features wide stiles and rungs plus, an easy locking mechanism with thumb buttons. This 16-step ladder is heavy duty, adjustable and breaks down into a compact size for easy storage. Shipping is free. This deal ends June 27. Other stories you might like from ClarkDeals.com: Homepage Prime members: New sample boxes for $0 net 12 great deals for Kohl's cardholders right now, plus free shipping!
  • Connecticut native Brett Stegmaier shot a 6-under 64 to tie Johnson Wagner for the early lead on opening day of the Travelers Championship. The 33-year-old Stegmaier made five birdies on his front nine, but bogeyed his final hole. He made grew up about 25 miles from the course in Madison. Wagner made birdies on four of his first six holes. Rory McIlroy, playing for the first time at TPC River Highlands, shot a 67. The No. 3 golfer in the world started on the back nine and his lone bogey came on No. 18 when he missed a 13-foot birdie putt by 3 feet, then lipped the cup on his par attempt. The tournament's strong field includes McIlroy, fourth-ranked Jason Day and No. 6 Jordan Spieth. Day shot a 72. Spieth birdied his first two holes.
  • Protections that have been in place for more than 40 years for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area will be lifted this summer after U.S. government officials ruled Thursday that the population is no longer threatened. Grizzlies in all continental U.S. states except Alaska have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1975, when just 136 bears roamed in and around Yellowstone. There are now an estimated 700 grizzlies in the area that includes northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the population has recovered. 'This achievement stands as one of America's great conservation successes,' Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. Grizzly bears once numbered about 50,000 and ranged over much of North America. Their population plummeted starting in the 1850s because of widespread hunting and trapping, and the bears now occupy only 2 percent of their original territory. The final ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of endangered and threatened species will give jurisdiction over the bears to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by late July. That will allow those states to plan limited bear hunts outside the park's boundaries as long as the overall bear population does not fall below 600 bears. Hunting bears inside Yellowstone would still be banned. The bears roam both inside and outside the park, and their range has been expanding as their numbers have grown. The Obama administration first proposed removing grizzlies as a threatened species by issuing an initial ruling in March 2016. The 15 months that have passed since then have been used to by federal officials to evaluate states' grizzly management plans and respond to themes of concern generated by 650,000 comments from the public, including wildlife advocates and Native American tribal officials who are staunchly opposed to hunting grizzly bears. Some 125 tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal. Thursday's ruling is certain to be challenged in court by conservation groups that argue the Yellowstone bears still face threats to their continued existence from humans, climate change and other factors. Tim Preso, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice, said his organization will look closely at the rule. 'We're certainly prepared to take a stand to protect the grizzly, if necessary,' he said. 'There's only one Yellowstone. There's only one place like this. We ought not to take an unjustified gamble with an iconic species of this region.' Matt Hogan, the deputy regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service's eight-state Mountain-Prairie Region, said he is confident that the science behind the decision and the management plans the states will follow will withstand any lawsuit. 'We feel like this species is more than adequately protected in the absence of (Endangered Species Act) protections,' Hogan said. Endangered Species Act protections set strict rules meant to protect species from being killed or their habitat being harmed, as opposed to state management practices that can include hunting or trapping as a means to keep an animal's population in check. Wildlife officials in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been managing the bear population alongside federal government officials for decades. Those states have submitted management plans that have been approved, and will follow strict regulations to keep a viable population of above 600 bears, Hogan said. Scientists also studied the effects of climate change on grizzly bears and their food sources, such as the nuts of whitebark pine trees, which are in decline. 'They found grizzly bears are extremely resilient, extremely flexible and adaptable,' Hogan said. That adaptation has meant switching from nuts to a meat-based diet. That carries the risk of bringing the bears into greater conflict with ranchers protecting livestock and hunters searching for elk and deer, and grizzly deaths caused by human conflicts are on the rise, said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the wildlife advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. 'Added to those threats will be trophy hunting,' she said. The federal agency will continue monitoring the grizzly population over the next five years, and certain factors would prompt a new federal review of the bears' status, such as a high number of female deaths for three consecutive years. The ruling does not directly affect other populations of grizzlies that are still classified as threatened but which wildlife officials consider recovered, such as the estimated 1,000 bears in the Northern Continental Divide area of Montana and Idaho. Federal resources used to prepare the final rule on Yellowstone's bear population will be shifted to planning for lifting protections for the bears living in the Northern Continental Divide, Hogan said.
  • Americans have long had a complex relationship with guns. Now, a new study shows that the country's deep political divide is reflected in attitudes toward gun control. The Pew survey released Thursday found a sharp drop in overall support for gun control despite common ground on some key issues. For example, when people were asked whether it was more important to protect gun rights or control gun ownership, 51 percent favored gun control and 47 percent favored gun rights. Compare that with responses in 2000, when two-thirds of those surveyed said they supported gun control measures. People in the new survey were in broad agreement when asked about specific gun control measures. Some 89 percent supported preventing the mentally ill from buying guns and 84 percent of all adults supported background checks for private sales and at gun shows. Barring gun purchases for people on no-fly lists won support from 83 percent, while 71 percent of adults, including a small majority of gun owners, supported a federal database tracking gun sales. The survey showed wide disparities in how people view firearms along political, gender, racial and geographic lines. The gaps come at the start of President Donald Trump's term. He is seen as one of the most gun-friendly presidents and could be supported by a GOP-controlled Congress, although there has been little action on gun issues since January. About half of the public said making it more difficult to purchase a firearm would mean fewer mass shootings, while a little over one-third said it would have no impact. Most people attribute gun violence to the ease in illegally getting access to a firearm, and the public can't decide whether making it easier to legally purchase a firearm would lower or raise the crime rate. Republicans have made the most significant shifts on guns while Democrats have remained consistent in their views, said Kim Parker, Pew's director of social trends research. 'This reflects that the issue has really become more polarized, more driven by partisan attitudes,' Parker said. The study also showed that people in the United States, whether they own a firearm or not, have broad exposure to guns. At least two-thirds have lived in a household with guns and about 70 percent have fired a gun. The main reason most cited for wanting to own a gun? Protection. Two-thirds of gun owners say they own a gun to protect themselves or loved ones. Nearly one-third of gun owners have five or more. Still, just one-quarter of them said they usually carry a firearm outside the home. That willingness to purchase a firearm is despite the fact that 44 percent of adults said they personally know someone who was shot and about one-quarter say they or a family member have been threatened or intimidated by someone with a gun. The Pew Research Center sought to better understand Americans' 'complex relationship' with firearms. Researchers wanted to see people's views on various policy issues — from safe storage of firearms around children to limits on who and where someone can carry a gun.