How The Biggest Animal On Earth Got So Big

A blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, engulfs krill off the coast of California.

Silverback Films/BBC/Proceedings of the Royal Society B

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Silverback Films/BBC/Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Whales are the largest animals on the planet, but they haven’t always been giants. Fossil records show that ancient whales were much smaller than the currently living behemoths.

So when did whales get so big, and how?

A new study suggests it might be due to changes in climate that effected the food that some whales eat: krill and small fish. Instead of being spread throughout the ocean, lots of krill started being packed into a small area. Bigger whales were simply more efficient at eating the dense pockets of krill, and they beat out their smaller cousins.

These whales use filters to feed on the tiny krill. Known as baleens, they include the largest whale on Earth — the blue whale. The baleen filter looks like bristles of a comb and is made up of keratin — the same stuff in our fingernails. To eat, the whale opens its mouth and takes in a huge gulp of water. Then it spits the water back out, and food like krill are caught in the baleen filter. It’s a highly efficient way to eat, allowing whales to pack on the pounds.

But according to Stanford University researcher Jeremy Goldbogen, it can’t be the only reason whales got so big. “Baleen evolved about 20 million years ago, and we didn’t see the evolution of gigantism until about very recently, about 3 million to 5 million years ago.”

Goldbogen’s group looked back to see what was happening in the ancient oceans, and if there were any clues about what caused the massive growth spurt.

They found that around the time baleens began growing larger, the ice ages started. The researchers think changes in climate led to increased runoff and more nutrients pouring into the coasts. At the same time, there was an increase in ocean upwelling, which occurs when wind pushes surface waters off-shore and causing deeper ocean waters underneath surface waters to replace it. Those deep waters are often full of nutrients and food for the whales.

The combination of the ice ages and more upwelling resulted in dense patches of food in the ocean — setting the stage for massive whales to win out.

During upwelling, wind-displaced surface waters are replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water that “wells up” from below.

NOAA

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NOAA

“As animals are getting bigger, they’re getting much more efficient. So for every gulp, they’re getting tremendous amounts of energy” Goldbogen says.

Think about it this way: It takes a lot of energy for a giant whale to open its giant mouth. If a lot of food is packed into a small space, those whales can swallow it up in one big gulp and it’s worth all the energy it takes. But if the food is spread out and the whales have to swim around opening and closing their mouths a lot — then it’s not great to be a big ol’ whale.

So big whales are more efficient at eating the dense patches of food, while smaller whales might be more suited to eating food dispersed throughout the ocean.

The changes in the ocean also allowed to whales to get really big, really fast. The researchers reported in the journal Royal Society B on Tuesday, that the whales increased in body mass from 10 tons to 100 tons in just a few million years.

Although it’s hard to draw a direct connection between whale size and ocean dynamics 3 million years ago, other studies support the hypothesis. “There are cases where food limitation or food production can basically control body size changes on very short time scales,” Goldbogen says referring to a 2013 study published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science. Therefore, “the inference here is that if you have enough food available and very very efficient animals, that perhaps they can evolve larger and larger body sizes.”

Goldbogen is more than a little excited to be studying these ocean giants. “We’re totally living in a time of giants. Unlike no other time in Earth’s history” he says. “We have a unique opportunity to study how the largest animals of all time function in these different ecosystems, and that’s a lot of fun.”

Goldbogen thinks the next question is, “Are whales still getting bigger? If we fast-forward a few million years into the future if food is not limiting, can they evolve even greater body sizes?”

We’ll have to wait to find out.

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Senate Intelligence Committee Presses For Flynn Documents

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn sitting in the White House in February. The Senate Intelligence Committee announced it has subpoenaed two companies owned by Flynn.

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

Leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence say they have issued subpoenas for documents from two businesses operated by former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in remarks to reporters, said the subpoenas were sent to Flynn Intel LLC and Flynn Intel, Inc. with a specific list of documents they are seeking. The senators did not say what to what those documents relate.

As the Two-Way reported, Flynn has invoked the 5th Amendment and has refused to turn over any documents subpoenaed by the committee related to his interactions with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“While we disagree with Gen. Flynn’s lawyers’ interpretations of the taking the Fifth, it is even more clear that a business does not have a right to take a Fifth if it’s a corporation,” said Warner.

One subpoena has been served and another is in the process of being served, he added.

Yesterday Flynn’s lawyers said that the committee’s subpoena was overly broad and that complying with them would “feed the escalating public frenzy against him.”

But Burr disagreed and said the committee has sent a letter to Flynn’s lawyers questioning the legal basis for his refusal to cooperate with the request for documents.

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3.3 Million Year Old Fossil Sheds Light On How The Spine Evolved

This is a vertebrae of the Selam skeleton.

Zeray Alemseged, University of Chicago

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Zeray Alemseged, University of Chicago

A remarkably complete fossil of a young child suggests that key elements of the human spinal structure were already in place in an ancient human relative 3.3 million years ago.

The child, about three years old, likely died suddenly and quickly drifted into a body of water, where she was covered in sediment that eventually hardened to sandstone, Zeray Alemseged of the University of Chicago tells The Two-Way.

His team found the well-preserved fossil in 2000 in Dikika, Ethiopia, and for years they have been painstakingly excavating it, revealing what they say is the only known backbone with completely preserved bones of the middle and upper back dated prior to 60,000 years ago. Their findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Now, Alemseged says this shows “that the human type of segmentation and numbering of our backbone emerged 3.3 million years ago, and this fossil provides us for the first time the hard evidence, the fossil evidence, to confirm that indeed the structure is as ancient as we’re claiming it now to be.”

The fossil is nicknamed Selam, which means “peace” in Ethiopian Amharic. She is from an early human relative species called Australopithecus afarensis. The famous Lucy fossil is also from this species.

The full skeleton of Selam, including the spinal column.

Zeray Alemseged, University of Chicago

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Zeray Alemseged, University of Chicago

The spines of our early ancestors have been mysterious. They are not well preserved in the fossil record, Alemseged explains, because they are much more fragile than other parts of the animal, like teeth.

This specimen is particularly unique, because it belongs to a child whose individual vertebrae are “still in the process of fusing and forming.” He says that’s why “the data is so unique, shedding light on one of the key milestone events in human evolution and that is the transition from the more ape-like arrangement of the backbone to the more humanlike arrangement of the backbone.”

The specimen has the same number of neck (seven) and mid-back vertebrae (12) as modern humans, while African apes have 13 mid-back vertebrae.

It is well-established that this species walked upright on two legs (though there’s some debate about how much time they spent climbing). But this backbone sheds more light on how they moved.

“The specimen says yes, they had the ability to walk like we do today, like humans, but there are some minor differences,” Alemseged says. “Particularly the transition from the middle part of the backbones to lower part of the backbone, showing that they may have been good walkers, upright like us, but they were clearly not the runners and the endurance walkers that humans are today.”

That’s because they “don’t seem to have the ability to rotate their backbone, even though they had the ability to extend and flex their backbone,” he says.

Scientists spent 13 years working on the fossil at Ethiopia’s National Museum; it later traveled to Grenoble, France, for high-resolution imaging.

“It’s a good example of how much effort you have to put in to get high-quality and reliable information,” says Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the research. “It’s an excellent piece of science.”

He described the fossil found at Dikika as the “gift that keeps on giving,” because its completeness allows researchers to be quite sure about their conclusions. It’s high praise for research on ancient fossils, where findings are often highly controversial.

Richard Potts, the director of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, echoed the sentiment, calling it an “excellent job of analysis and interpretation.” At the same time, he stressed that other, less-complete vertebrae, such as fossils found in Sterkfontein, South Africa, have previously suggested that a humanlike species more than 2 million years old had some of the same spinal features.

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This Land Is … Cut Under Trump's Budget?

Desert lands run by the U.S. Department of Interior in Utah.

Kirk Siegler/Kirk Siegler

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Kirk Siegler/Kirk Siegler

Rural communities dependent on U.S. public lands for everything from outdoor recreation to hunting to livestock grazing could be hit hard under the Trump administration’s latest budget proposal unveiled Tuesday.

Still subject to approval by Congress, the president’s budget includes a roughly $1.4 billion cut to the Department of Interior and far deeper cuts to the Department of Agriculture: combined the two agencies own and manage more than 700 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West.

Here are three items of note in the Department of Interior budget alone that aren’t generating much attention so far. But they could disproportionately hit rural communities, many of which tended to support President Trump in last year’s election.

As a congressman representing Montana, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was a vocal supporter of the Land and Conservation fund. But at a budget briefing for reporters Tuesday he appeared to sound a different tune on future land acquisition and conservation more generally.

“Rather than simply adding more land, we want to make sure we take care of what we have,” Zinke said.

Like many of his predecessors, Secretary Zinke has articulated a broad, if sometimes complicated, vision for the future of public lands management. On the one hand, he’s pledged to be a conservation champion in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. But he’s also promised to boost the economies of rural American towns by increasing mining and other development on public lands that surround them.

For sure, this reflects the often competing “multiple use” mission of DOI agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management. But Zinke predicted that reversing Obama-era policies restricting off-shore drilling alone could bring revenue back for many of the restoration and conservation programs currently facing cuts.

“Some of it has been due to oil and gas pricing, but not all,” Zinke said. “A lot of it is uncertainty that we have not been a good partner with industry.”

Still, many influential sportsmen and public lands groups say the administration’s budget is directly at odds with many of the conservation values Mr. Zinke espouses.

“When you talk about on the one hand, increasing access, and then you cut out the very tool to do that, it’s hard to reconcile,” said Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Tawney says the DOI’s budget proposal is reflective of a broader trend that he says has been building in Washington in recent years: “when you starve these agencies of their budgets, you make them look sick, so we can [then] think about divesting in them.”

As much of the rural West in particular has been transitioning from a resource-based economy to one more dependent on outdoor recreation, groups like Tawney’s have flexed their political muscle recently. They say they plan to press Congress in the coming weeks as well, if the administration’s budget proposal moves forward.

Meantime there is early and widespread speculation that much of the budget stands little chance of passing Congress, at least in its current form, even with the president’s party in control of both the House and the Senate.

For his part Tuesday, Secretary Zinke seemed to view the latest budget proposal as a conversation starter, even if it’s controversial. He argued that many federal land agencies need to be overhauled and updated with a longer term vision.

“I view this as a reorganization to look at how best to manage, protect and use our public lands in the next 100 years, given that we have a number of challenges,” Zinke said.

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Trump Budget's Paid Parental Leave Plan Could Mean Higher State Taxes

US Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump holds two babies after his Town Hall address at the Gallogly Events Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on July 29, 2016.

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JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

When the Trump administration previewed its budget last March, it called it the “hard power” budget. The latest details show that it greatly increases spending on defense, veterans and homeland security, and slashes funding for major social safety net programs such as Medicaid and SNAP (also known as food stamps).

Yet amid all that, the budget introduces a new entitlement: six weeks of paid parental leave. And that program could end up requiring states to raise their unemployment taxes.

Here’s the broad outline of what the budget says about the plan:

  • It’s a departure from what Trump proposed on the campaign trail — back then, he called for paid maternity leave. This plan would also cover fathers and new adoptive parents.
  • Parental leave would be mandatory, but not uniform: “States would be required to provide six weeks of parental leave and the proposal gives states broad latitude to design and finance the program,” the administration wrote in its budget.
  • The program would cost around $18.5 billion over 10 years, and according to the budget would be entirely paid for — but that could require some states to raise taxes. Under the plan, the government would set minimum levels for states to maintain in their unemployment trust funds. And if they don’t hit that? “States that are currently below this minimum standard are expected to increase their State UI taxes to build up their trust fund balances,” the budget says. Applying these minimum levels to trust funds would pay for $12.9 billion of the plan, according to the administration.
  • The budget also includes other savings: eliminating improper unemployment insurance payments and implementing programs to get people back to work more quickly could potentially pay for $6.2 billion, which could offset some unemployment insurance taxes.

Still, there are a lot of blanks to fill in if this is really to be viable. The Trump administration has said that the details will be worked out in budget negotiations, according to the New York Times, and that states will design their individual programs.

Here are a few of the questions that the administration and the states will have to answer if this plan is to move forward.

How much leeway will states have?

Unemployment insurance is funded by both state and federal payroll taxes, and administered by the states. And while paid parental leave will be a federal mandate, the Trump budget says states will have “broad latitude” to determine what their programs look like.

Unemployment insurance itself varies by state, in terms of who is eligible for benefits and how big those benefits are. So given the “broad latitude” here, there’s no way of knowing right now exactly what this program would look like and who would get which benefits (and how much).

Could it pass Congress?

Some Republicans will balk at the possibility of a new social program. For example, Idaho Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, has said he is opposed to the government providing paid leave.

Still other Republicans may favor different approaches. And House Speaker Paul Ryan told the New York Times he favored another plan, by Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, who wants employees to be able to save up their overtime pay toward paid leave.

And while the plan does call for cutting “improper payments” from the unemployment program — which the budget says could allow some states to cut unemployment taxes — it could also, as we said above, require states to raise unemployment taxes. Those taxes are paid by employers. The potential for raising taxes on employers is something that would definitely give congressional Republicans some pause.

“This [proposal] seems very doable,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who first pointed out the potential tax hike to NPR. “It’s just surprising to see them put forward a tax increase.”

Were Trump to push this proposal, he may find some allies across the aisle: Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York is one major proponent of paid family leave. Recently, she pushed a proposal to give federal workers six weeks of leave and said she was open to working with the Trump administration on it.

Then again, the plan is by no means generous in the context of what many family leave proponents want; it doesn’t provide paid leave for caring for aging family members, for example, and many proponents believe leave should extend beyond six weeks.

Still, the fact that paid leave is even a policy consideration is a big deal, says Shabo — even while she maintains that there are major problems with this proposal.

“I think it’s remarkable that it exists in the context of a Republican presidential budget,” she said. “But that only gets you fairly skin deep when you think about the drastic harmful dramatic cuts and limitations in access to other vital supports.”

Will this be enough money for families?

Unemployment insurance isn’t nearly a full replacement for a worker’s wages — that’s simply how it’s designed. Because this plan is based off of the unemployment insurance system, the question is how much this plan would pay out, and whether that would be enough to cushion new parents who take time off from work.

In 2016, unemployment insurance replaced around 46 percent of worker pay on average, according to the Labor Department. Given that level, as well as the differences in unemployment insurance by state — the maximum weekly payout is $235 in Mississippi, compared to well over $700 in Massachusetts — and given that “broad latitude” we mentioned, it’s not clear how much families would receive.

“I would like a little more uniformity in terms of eligibility rules — in terms of knowing how much they would get if they have to take that leave,” said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a bit puzzling doing it through unemployment insurance, not having a clear stream of what that means for funding, what that means for how the states are actually going to implement it.”

How does this fit with the rest of the president’s budget?

In terms of spending, this is relatively small, at around $18.5 billion over 10 years, and it would be paid for in part by creating savings in the unemployment insurance program. Unanswered is which states could have to raise unemployment insurance payroll taxes, and by how much.

In terms of philosophy, there appears to be a disconnect between this program and the budget’s other massive changes. The Trump budget makes major cuts to other social safety net programs. It would cut $616 billion over a decade to Medicaid and $190 billion to SNAP, most notably.

But then, family leave has been championed by Ivanka Trump, which likely explains its inclusion among all the other sweeping changes.

“They’re going after all these low income programs, and it is a striking contrast that in the end we are actually going to talk about paid leave, which really isn’t the theme of the rest of the budget,” Mathur said.

That could mean helping families financially during one stage of life while potentially leaving them hanging during another stage — once that weeks-long parental leave period is over — according to Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“You can’t suggest that working families should have a small parental leave benefit on the one hand and at the same time potentially take health insurance away from them and their families,” she said, referring to the big Medicaid cuts in the budget.

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PM Raises Threat Level To 'Critical' In U.K., Says Attack 'May Be Imminent'

One day after a bombing claimed at least 22 lives at a concert venue in Manchester, England, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced the U.K. is raising its terror threat level. The move declared Tuesday evening means members of the British military will be deployed throughout the country to supplement its police forces.

“It is a possibility we cannot ignore that there is a wider group of individuals linked to this attack,” May said. “It is now concluded, on the basis of today’s investigations, that the threat level should be increased for the time being — from ‘severe’ to ‘critical.’ “

She added: “This means that their assessment is not only that an attack remains highly likely, but that an attack may be imminent.”

Members of armed forces to be deployed across the UK as terror level raised – PM Theresa May https://t.co/I7YngSds2Cpic.twitter.com/x9t9t1PRTs

— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) May 23, 2017

The announcement comes just hours after police identified a suspect — 22-year-old Salman Abedi — and ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing, which also wounded dozens of concertgoers.

Greater Manchester Police also announced Tuesday that they had “arrested a 23-year-old man” in connection with Monday’s bombing.

The BBC reports this is only the third time the U.K. has reached the highest terror threat level under its alert system — and the first since 2007.

NPR’s Bill Chappell has more on the Manchester attack — everything that we know, as of Tuesday evening — right here.

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Congress and Farmers Are Shocked By Proposed USDA Cuts

A tractor pulls a planter through a field as corn is planted in Princeton, Ill.

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Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Top officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t even try to act enthusiastic as they unveiled details of their agency’s proposed 2018 budget, which includes drastic cuts in spending. “We’re going to do the best we can,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “It’s my job to implement that plan.”

The broad outlines of this budget, with its 20 percent cut in the USDA’s discretionary spending, had been released two months ago. This week, it became clear exactly what the Trump administration wants to cut: agricultural research, food aid for the poor, and programs that benefit small rural communities.

The budget also includes a surprise that’s particularly unwelcome to big Midwestern farmers. It proposes new restrictions on government-subsidized crop insurance, a program that is particular favorite of grain farmers. The changes, which would require congressional approval, would limit the ability of large farmers to take advantage of those programs and cut government subsidies by more than $2.5 billion each year.

In a statement, the American Farm Bureau Federation said that “this budget fails agriculture and rural America.” Similar criticism came from the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association.

The impact of those cuts, however, is dwarfed by proposed restrictions on the SNAP program, which helps the poor buy food. Those changes would cut SNAP spending by $4.6 billion in 2018, increasing to more than $20 billion annually by 2022.

The budget reduces funding for the Agricultural Research Service by $360 million, or 26 percent. This would mean closing the doors at 17 research centers.

It also completely eliminates the country’s flagship program of international food aid, called Food For Peace. The current USDA budget includes $1.7 billion for that program.

All of this, of course, is merely a proposal for Congress to consider, and by all indications, Congress is inclined to reject much of it. The Republican chairmen of the agricultural committees in both the Senate and the House released a muted joint statement that said nothing at all about the proposal itself, but promised to “fight to ensure farmers have a strong safety net.” They also pledged “to take a look at our nutrition assistance programs to ensure that they are helping the most vulnerable in our society” — a signal that they hope to revive the rural-urban coalition in Congress that has traditionally defended a package of food aid and farm subsidies.

Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN) said in a statement that “this budget is going nowhere on Capitol Hill but it is still a statement of priorities and should be of concern to all rural Americans.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) called it “harsh and short-sighted.”

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Duterte Declares Limited Martial Law As Bloodshed Breaks Out In Marawi City

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews guards just outside Moscow late Monday. He announced Tuesday night he would be cutting his Russia visit short due to violence on Mindanao, where he declared martial law.

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Pavel Golovkin/AP

Gunfire erupted between Philippine security forces and militants in Marawi City in the mid-afternoon Tuesday. By the time the sun had set on the small southern city, President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law in the region and vowed to end his diplomatic trip to Moscow early.

In the hours between, violence and confusion consumed the community, as armed men linked with the Maute Group occupied the Amai Pakpak Medical Center and several other major buildings. Philippine Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who is in Moscow with Duterte, told a news conference that militants even set fire to some of those buildings — including the city’s jail, a local Catholic church and Dansalan college.

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Lorenzana said the confrontation opened at about 2 p.m. Tuesday, when government forces attempted to arrest a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an extremist organization with ties to the Islamic State. They had learned Isnilon Hapilon was in the area, but according to Lorenzana, the military had not expected him to be backed up by “more or less 100 fighters” — many of whom were members of another ISIS-linked organization, the Maute Group.

It was not a lapse in military intelligence that caused the clashes, Lorenzana said, but rather a failure to “appreciate” the intelligence collected.

Gunfights ensued, killing at least two soldiers and one police officer and injuring 12 other members of the security forces. Meanwhile, photographs purporting to show buildings aflame and black flags raised above public buildings hit social media.

The PNP-ARMM confirms Marawi City Jail and Dansalan College are on fire. #MarawiClash | via Greanne Mendoza

(Courtesy: Arsad, React Marang) pic.twitter.com/hV37nJf6qx

— ABS-CBN News (@ABSCBNNews) May 23, 2017

Philippine authorities assert the situation is under control — though they have told residents in Marawi City to remain indoors and summoned reinforcements from neighboring regions to redouble their efforts to reclaim the city Wednesday morning.

For now, “the whole of Marawi City is blacked out,” Lorenzana said. “There is no light and there are Maute snipers all around.” He noted that militants still occupy a central street in the city.

Hapilon, the man whom Philippine soldiers had sought at the start of the operation, “allegedly served as deputy or second in command for the foreign terrorist organization, Abu Sayyaf Group,” according to the FBI. The bureau has placed him on its own list of Most Wanted Terrorists.

The New York Times reports that both Abu Sayyaf and Maute, a relatively new offshoot of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have pledged allegiance to ISIS and vowed further violence against the majority-Catholic country.

Or, as Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano put it Tuesday: They are groups that “have been auditioning for recognition in ISIS.”

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that as of 10 p.m. local time, Duterte had declared martial law for all of Mindanao, the southern island that has both Marawi City and Davao — the president’s home city — reside. The restriction, which suspends habeas corpus, is set to last about 60 days.

As the Philippine news service Rappler reports, the declaration of martial law actually fulfills a warning made by the president just days ago.

“Please do not force my hand into it. I hate to do it. I do not want to do it,” Duterte said in a speech last Friday in Davao, according to Rappler. “But if there will be loss of lives needlessly, and without reason, just to kill, kill, and kill, I will declare martial law in Mindanao.

“And if I declare martial law in Mindanao, I will solve all that ails the island.”

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