Fossils In Amber May Provide Link Between Ancient Arachnids And Modern Spiders

Researchers have found a link between today’s eight-legged spiders and an ancient group of arachnids that also possessed tails, according to two studies published in the latest issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Four fossils of the tiny crawlers were found largely intact, encased in Burmese amber that were recovered from Myanmar by researchers. The BBC reports the “cousin” of the spider — called a Chimerarachne yingi — lived about 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.

This 100-million-year-old fossil could fill in a major gap in our knowledge of how spiders evolved:

— News from Science (@NewsfromScience) February 5, 2018

“We have known for a decade or so that spiders evolved from arachnids that had tails, more than 315 million years ago,” Russell Garwood of The University of Manchester, a co-researcher on the study, told the BBC.

But, he continued, “We’ve not found fossils before that showed this, and so finding this now was a huge (but really fantastic) surprise.”

An abstract of the study says the “new fossil most likely represents the earliest branch of the Araneae, and implies that there was a lineage of tailed spiders that presumably originated in the Palaeozoic and survived at least into the Cretaceous of Southeast Asia.”

That would mean that the tailed spider lived for about 200 million years side-by-side with spiders, Garwood, said.

Experts have not ruled out the possibility that some modern day version of the insect may still exist in the rain forests of Southeast Asia but they are so small and their habitat is so remote, there is no evidence that they continue to live there, in or near tree trunks, as their ancestors did.

What makes the fossils so unusual, according to the two teams the leading studies, is that they possess both a tail-like appendage similar to those of other ancient arachnids and multi-segment silk-spinning organs only seen in more modern spiders. And, though it was capable of using its spinnerets to produce silk, it was unlikely to have woven webs.

But that’s as much as the two teams can agree on. Nature Ecology & Evolutionwrites:

“Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Diying Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing and their colleagues analysed two fossils of the animal dating to about 100 million years ago. On the basis of the creature’s tail, they conclude that it belongs to the Uraraneida, a group of spider relatives that was thought to have gone extinct around 275 million years ago. But Bo Wang, also at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing, and his colleagues examined two other fossils of the species and argue that its advanced silk-spinning apparatus shows it was part of a lineage of tailed spiders that survived until at least 100 million years ago.

“Silk-spinning spiders with and without tails co-existed for millennia, the authors agree.”

Paul Brown, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told NPR discoveries like these are becoming more common because Burmese amber is more accessible now than ever before.

“In the last few years, this kind of amber has become much more available and because of its age — it’s a hundred million years old or older — it lets us see really far back into the past,” he said.

Brown says the opening up of the amber market has created a burgeoning new area of potential research. Which is why, he says, “Now, we are seeing evidence of lots of primitive forms of animals that are just starting to become the modern versions that we know today.”

Brown said that’s what researchers found with the Chimerarachne and it applies to many other species of animals.

But the commercialization of the amber trade also has a downside, Brown suspects. He fears potentially significant scientific artifacts could be falling into the hands of collectors, where they will likely remain outside of the scope of research.

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Americans In ISIS: Some 300 Tried To Join, 12 Have Returned To U.S.

Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud is shown in a Columbus, Ohio, courtroom in 2015. He was arrested after traveling to Syria, then returning to Ohio, where he planned to carry out an attack. According to a new report, he’s one of 12 Americans who went to join extremist groups in Syria or Iraq, and then returned back to the U.S. Mohamud was sentenced last month to 22 years in prison.

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An estimated 300 Americans attempted to join the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria, including a small number who rose to senior positions, according to the most detailed report to date on this issue.

So far, 12 of those Americans have returned home, yet none has carried out an attack on U.S. soil, according the report released Monday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

“I think what we were struck with was the few numbers of returnees that we saw,” said Seamus Hughes, one of the report’s authors. “There was always concern that this wave of what the FBI would call ‘the terrorist diaspora’ would come back. In many ways it’s just a trickle right now.”

The exact number of Americans who ran off to join the Islamic State — and their fates — has always been fuzzy. The U.S. military, the intelligence community and the FBI have occasionally offered general numbers, but provided few details.

The report covers the period since 2011, when the Syria war erupted. The Islamic State peaked, in terms of power and territory, in the summer of 2014, when it held large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. then began working with local partners to battle ISIS. The extremist group has now lost virtually all territory it once held, though it is still capable of carrying out deadly attacks in those countries, and has established footholds in several other states.

One percent of foreign fighters

The 300 or so Americans account for about 1 percent of the estimated 30,000 foreign fighters who joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The majority came from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

The George Washington University team scoured online material, reviewed court records, spoke with government officials and interviewed some of those who returned to the U.S. after joining ISIS.

Still, the report could account for just over a third of those who tried or succeeded in joining radical Islamist groups.

“I know the numbers in the intelligence community are much better than mine, as one would expect,” said Hughes. “But we tried to do our best to have the largest public accounting of the phenomenon.”

Around 50 Americans were arrested as they tried to leave the country, and never made it out of the U.S. The report was able to document 64 individuals who did reach Syria or Iraq.

They include Zulfi Hoxha, a New Jersey resident of Albanian descent.

“He was a bit of loner. High school friends describe him as kind of a geek,” Hughes said.

He traveled to Syria in 2015, and U.S. authorities have described as a “senior ISIS commander.” He appears in two ISIS propaganda videos, including one where he beheads a prisoner, according to Hughes.

A dozen return to the U.S.

Of the 12 Americans who returned, nine were arrested and remain in custody, the report said. Two others are known to law enforcement, but have not been detained, it added. The 12th man went back to Syria a second time and carried out a suicide bombing, the report said.

While no American has returned and carried out an attack, one man, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud of Ohio, planned to do so.

He was among a small number of Americans to join al-Nusra in Syria, an extremist group linked to al-Qaida. One of his commanders sent him back to Ohio with orders to attack a U.S. military facility.

Mohamud returned to Ohio in 2015, but was soon arrested. He pleaded guilty to plotting the attacks and was sentenced last month to 22 years in prison.

It’s still not clear what’s happened to thousands of other ISIS fighters as the group lost its self-declared caliphate.

Hard-core fighters are expected to remain and keep fighting. Others may be slipping across the border into Turkey. And some have been detained, though the U.S. has given no indication it is holding ISIS fighters.

In Iraq, the government is putting ISIS members on trial.

In Syria, where the war grinds on, it’s more complicated. The Syrian Democratic Forces, militia fighters aligned with the U.S., are holding hundreds of ISIS fighters, according to U.S. military officials.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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As The Pop World Seeks Accountability, Justin Timberlake Seems Lost In The Woods

Justin Timberlake performs during the Super Bowl LII halftime show on Feb. 4, 2018.

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Justin Timberlake has had an eventful week: He turned 37 on Wednesday, dropped a new album Friday and danced his shoes off Sunday as part of football’s biggest night. The reception to the latter two has been mixed: Man of the Woods is shaping up to be his worst-reviewed solo work by a mile, and his Super Bowl performance unfolded in the long shadow of his 2004 performance with Janet Jackson, when half a second of exposed flesh sparked a major TV controversy and arguably derailed Jackson’s career.

Ari Shapiro spoke with NPR Music critic Ann Powers about why Timberlake, who once rocketed out of the teenybopper world to become a standard bearer of futuristic pop, now seems so out of step with his moment. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.

Ari Shapiro: This is not the first time Justin Timberlake has done the Super Bowl halftime show — of course, his 2004 performance with Janet Jackson was overshadowed by that notorious wardrobe malfunction. No glaring errors this year; what did you think of the performance?

AnnPowers: Well, on the surface it was a success: He played many of his hits, he danced, he sang. He even invoked Prince, the patron saint of Minneapolis, when he sang along with him while Prince’s image was projected on a giant, billowing sheet. But the entire performance was shrouded in the sense of Timberlake not being right for this moment — and the Janet Jackson controversy haunted it. He chose to perform the song “Rock Your Body,” during which the famous wardrobe malfunction took place, and yet he didn’t mention Janet: He didn’t shout her out, and he stopped the song right before the line during which he ripped off her costume. It was almost like he was trying to erase what had happened in the past, but that is just not flying in 2018.

You say “not right for this moment.” Explain what you mean by that.

Justin Timberlake’s entire career and art is based on his ability to be smooth — his ability to be easy, to create music that seduces us with references to the past, with appropriations, with artful mixes, and never quite shows any struggle. But we are living in a moment of struggle, and we want our pop music to also reflect that struggle. And frankly, Timberlake now embodies that phrase so often spoken today: white male privilege. It’s just not a good look for 2018. And it’s really, in some ways, not his fault — it’s just who he is.

A lot of artists recently have used the Super Bowl halftime show as a showcase for new music: Beyoncé did it, Lady Gaga did it. Justin Timberlake dropped a new album on Friday, and performed very little from it in his halftime show.

His new album, Man of the Woods, is almost like three records in one: It’s very ambitious, but most critics are saying an ambitious mess. It feels like he couldn’t make a choice, and maybe that’s why he didn’t cull from the material, because there’s no clear hit or leading element on it.

There is what I think is a buried masterpiece — maybe masterpiece is strong — but Justin Timberlake could have made a great country album. It’s kind of on there; he collaborates with Chris Stapleton, the current country leading man, and there are several songs that sound so much like the best of mainstream country. But he refused that role, and I think that was a huge mistake on his part.

So it has been an eventful week for him, but maybe not a totally triumphant one.

It’s gotta be confusing for a guy like Justin Timberlake, who is used to making hugely successful and fairly sophisticated pop music, but 2018 is a different time. Right now, the feminist reckoning that’s taking down popular figures is also making us think about art itself differently. That’s how Man of the Woods is being judged. No longer can a star like Justin Timberlake — a white artist who has spent his career connecting with black music and popular culture, a straight male artist who has released countless dance-floor seductions that sometimes veer into pushiness, let’s say — expect for people to just accept this point of view. I’m not trying to sound like a radical feminist, I’m just saying that’s the tenor of our times. It’s got to be super confusing to Timberlake, but it is what it is; this is where we live. We want statements and struggle in our pop music, not just another smooth dance mix.

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After Another Fatal Train Crash, Amtrak Safety Culture Questioned

An aerial view of the site of an early morning train crash on Feb. 4, 2018 between an Amtrak train, bottom right, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce, S.C. The Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train in the early morning darkness Sunday, killing at least two Amtrak crew members and injuring more than 100 people, authorities said.

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After another fatal Amtrak train crash Sunday — the fourth since December — safety advocates and federal investigators are again expressing concern about the slow pace of railroads installing and implementing technology that could prevent some train collisions.

Some are also raising questions about what they contend is a “lax safety culture” at Amtrak, which has now had four fatal train accidents in less than two months’ time.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are on the scene of Sunday’s wreck in Cayce, S.C., trying to figure out why Amtrak train #91 traveling south from New York City to Miami was diverted onto a side track early Sunday morning where it collided head on with a parked freight train at about 2:45 a.m. ET, killing two crew members and injuring more than 100 passengers.

NSTB Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt says a switch on the track had been manually padlocked into a position that steered the Amtrak train from the main southbound line track onto a side track, where the CSX train was parked.

Amtrak’s CEO is wasting time no time in placing the blame on CSX, which owns, operates and controls the tracks Amtrak uses in the area.

Reuters is reporting that in an email message to staff Sunday night, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said the passenger train was “on the track as dispatched by CSX, the host railroad… our crew on 91 was cleared to proceed by CSX dispatch, but CSX had lined and padlocked the switch off the mainline to the siding, causing the collision.”

Regardless of why the train was sent onto the wrong track, Sumwalt says a automatic, GPS-based safety system called Positive Train Control, would have likely kept the two trains from colliding, had it been installed and implemented.

“An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this kind of accident,” said Sumwalt at a media briefing Sunday night.

Back in November, at an NTSB meeting to announce the results of the investigation into a fatal Amtrak crash in April of 2016 outside of Philadelphia, Chairman Sumwalt blasted the railroad for its “lax” attitude toward safety, saying “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again.”

That warning seems prophetic now, as there have been four deadly Amtrak accidents in less that two months time.

Last Wednesday, an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia hit a garbage truck in a crossing near Charlottesville, Va., killing one person on the truck. A North Carolina couple was killed Jan. 14 when their SUV was hit by an Amtrak train. Police say it appeared the driver of the SUV tried to go around lowered crossing gates. And on Dec. 16, 2017, an Amtrak train making its inaugural run down a new route between Seattle and Portland derailed as it entered a curve on a highway overpass speeding along at more than 50 MPH above the posted speed limit. The engineer in that crash says he did not see a key milepost nor a signal warning to a speed reduction shortly before the crash.

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Super Bowl Wrap: Philadelphia Had A Much Better Night Than Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake performs onstage during the Super Bowl LII halftime dhow at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis.

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The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl on Sunday night. You could be forgiven for not expecting it — it’s never happened before. And on this historic occasion, Stephen Thompson and I sat down Monday morning to talk with some of our favorite panelists about the game and the surrounding entertainment. With us is Katie Presley, a New Orleans Saints fan without too much at stake in this game. But also with us is Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch team. Gene is a longtime Eagles fan who had, in terms of fandom, a lot at stake in this game.

We break down the game itself, from the built-in assumptions of Tom Brady’s inevitability to the moment when he lost the ball with just over two minutes left to play. We talk about the halftime show, which conscripted Prince into a duet with Justin Timberlake and proved once again that getting the sound mix right at the Super Bowl is very, very difficult. And we talk about Super Bowl commercials, from the endearing return of our favorite body wash pitch man to the uncomfortable juxtaposition of civil rights activism and selling trucks.

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