Science & Health

Forget Butterfly Nets; Today’s Naturalists Capture Specimens on Phones.

A smartphone app lets citizen scientists help professional scientists track changes in the natural world as urbanization, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change shake up ecosystems worldwide.

More than 100,000 users on all seven continents are snapping pictures of plants and animals they find and uploading the images using an app called iNaturalist. Those geotagged photos are giving researchers an unprecedented amount of information about what lives where, and how that’s changing with humanity’s expanding footprint.

On a spring afternoon in Arlington, Virginia’s Barcroft Park, a half-dozen eager onlookers huddle around a plywood board on the forest floor, waiting for the big reveal. Spray-painted on the board are the words, “wildlife study.”


As one volunteer lifts the plywood board, Arlington natural resources manager Alonso Abugattas spots a pair of snakes coiled underneath.

“Northern brown, northern brown,” he calls.


Another volunteer leans in with smartphone clicking. He uploads the photos to iNaturalist, where crowdsourcing soon confirms Abugattas’ identification.

WATCH: App lets citizen scientists help professional scientists

That observation, tagged by date, time and location, is now part of a growing database of nearly 5 million species finds all over the world.


“Everyone knows that if you want to protect something, you’ve got to know what you have,” Abugattas said.


Visitors to the iNaturalist website can search an annotated Google map for what lives in their neighborhood. Or search for where others have found a particular species.


As he works to protect Arlington County’s natural spaces, Abugattas will be looking for how iNaturalist data gathered on this day-long photo safari compare with earlier surveys.


“Are some things that we had then no longer here? Are some things that we never knew we had now popping back up?” he asks. “That will give us a gauge of how good or how poorly we’re doing as far as being stewards.”

Data + excitement

The app came about as a collaboration between biologist and software developer Ken-ichi Ueda and environmental scientist Scott Loarie.


Loarie was studying methods to gather more data for wildlife conservation, while Ueda “was looking for a way to connect people to nature and find ways to use technology to get people excited about the outdoors,” Loarie said.


“That’s one of the great things about citizen science. It achieves both those goals,” he said.

And it comes at an important time.

“Species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “We’ve only begun to understand exactly how those ecosystems contribute to our food system, or human health, all these things that we depend on.”

There’s a popular analogy in the field: it’s like pulling rivets off the wing of an airplane while it’s in flight.  


“We don’t know exactly which rivet is going to cause the wing to fall off, but it’s probably not a good idea to go around popping rivets off the plane,” Loarie said.

Butterflies, snails and mushrooms

So far, iNaturalist data has been a part of studies on monarch butterflies, bats that may carry Ebola, and more.


An iNaturalist user snapped a picture of a rare snail on an island off the coast of Vietnam.


“It’s never been collected. It’s never been photographed. It’s only been drawn. And it was drawn on one of Captain Cook’s voyages,” when the 18th-century explorer sailed around the world, Loarie said.

Back in Arlington, the group logged more than 450 species, including some rare plants and the biggest puffball mushroom anyone had seen, as big as a mid-sized dog.


“If you just open up your eyes to the natural world, you’d be amazed at what’s out there,” Abugattas said.

Economy & business

Trump Administration Considers Air Blasting in Atlantic in Search for Oil, Gas

The Trump administration is considering letting companies use seismic air guns to look for oil and gas deposits below the Atlantic Ocean, outraging environmentalists and coastal towns and resorts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it has gotten five separate requests to carry out the operations.

NOAA admits using the high-powered guns may “incidentally but not intentionally harass” marine mammals and reptiles. If the permits are approved, NOAA says companies must carry out a number of strict rules.

Observers would keep watch

They include placing observers on board ships to watch out for protected species and shut down operations if they are spotted. They also must listen for vocal communications between marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins.

The air guns use incredibly powerful blasts of air to look for oil and gas deep under the ocean floor.

The companies propose searching for possible drilling sites off the Atlantic coast from Delaware south to central Florida.

Environmentalists are furious. They say noise from the guns is one of the loudest man-made sounds created and can kill and injure millions of whales, dolphins, turtles, and other sea animals that depend on sound to communicate and survive.

Coastal towns oppose air guns

“Coastal communities have the most to lose, but unfortunately their overwhelming opposition may be ignored by the Trump administration,” said Nancy Pyne of the conservation group Oceana.

She calls it the first step towards offshore drilling and points to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as a major reason this should not be allowed to happen. Officials and business owners in coastal towns up and down the Atlantic also oppose the air guns.

NOAA has given the public 30 days to comment for or against the proposal.

Former President Barack Obama had rejected permits to air blast in the Atlantic. But President Trump signed an executive order in April expanding the search for oil and gas in the Atlantic to help make the U.S. more energy independent.

Arts & Entertainment

‘Wonder Woman’ Gross Revised Up to $103.1 Million

Wonder Woman was even mightier than expected. Warner Bros. has revised the film’s weekend estimate up to $103.1 million.

The studio on Monday said the tickets sold on Sunday turned out to be even higher than it estimated over the weekend. Warner Bros. previously had announced a $100.5 million North American haul.

The nearly $3 million swing, Warner Bros. said, was due to an unusually small drop in audience from Saturday to Sunday. That indicates that the well-reviewed film’s strong word of mouth is giving Wonder Woman more momentum than usual.

The Patty Jenkins-directed film became the biggest opening for a film directed by a woman and, by the far, the most successful female-led superhero release.

Arts & Entertainment

Saint’s Relics Are Miraculous Must-see in Secular Russia

In the three weeks since St. Nicholas came to Moscow, more than 300,000 people have stood in huge lines for up to 10 hours to visit a gilded ark thought to carry his bone fragments. Yet the queues stretching down the Moscow River embankment from Christ the Savior Cathedral are something of their own marvel.

 The massive turnout to see the saint’s relics, which are on loan from their home in Bari, Italy for the first time, underline how strongly the Orthodox Church has become a part of Russians’ sense of themselves a quarter-century after the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union.


“It was tough, but you got a chance to think about your life, all the problems and the sins you have committed,” economist Svetlana Dzhuma, 24, said after exiting the cathedral in a state of elation.


President Vladimir Putin, who says he was secretly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church as an infant, paid his respects to the relics on the day they arrived in Moscow, where photos of him kissing the ark were widely featured in Russian media.


Although Russians remain predominantly secular and have opposed church-backed initiatives such as a ban on abortions or public school classes on Orthodox Church teachings, the overwhelming majority of them strongly identify as Russian Orthodox.

Christian revival

Nicholas, who died in 343, never set foot in the territory that became Russia. But he has become the Russian Orthodox Church’s most popular saint, credited with miracles and with preventing catastrophes in Russia. His prominence in the church has made the relics something of a must-see even for people who are not regular church-goers.


Russia has witnessed a Christian revival since the crumbling Soviet state began to loosen its grip on religious life in the late 1980s. The percentage of Russians calling themselves Christian Orthodox shot up from 17 percent to around 77 percent, Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center polling and research organization, said.

Stable 7 percent


However, roughly 40 percent of those who identify as Orthodox Christians say they do not believe in God or eternal life, and the number of churchgoers who take communion is stable at around 7 percent.

Gudkov described the thinking as “a very superficial change in identity: I’m a Russian, therefore Orthodox. It’s a change from the Soviet identity to an ethnic Russian and religious one.”


Putin in his third term as president has evoked Russia’s Christian roots and relied on the church to provide the ideological backing for his policies at home and abroad. Among his justifications for Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine was that the ancient settlement of Chersonesus there is as important to Russians as Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is to Jews, Muslims and Christians.


The Orthodox Church got permission to host the St. Nicholas relics after Patriarch Kirill met with Pope Francis last year in the first such meeting between the leaders of the two religions since the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split about a millennium ago. The ark will be on display, first in Moscow and later in St. Petersburg, until the end of July.

Resurgence of faith

Speaking after a prayer celebrating the relics’ arrival, Kirill referred to the crowds of believers waiting to see the relics as a sign of the resurgence of faith.

“If someone has the energy to stand seven, eight hours or longer on the street, in the heat, in the cold, under the rain, it speaks of a very strong faith,” he said.

Yulia Kamolova, a 34-year-old accountant, got up at 5 a.m. and stood in line for nine hours to see the relics “to cleanse myself” and to show them to her 12-year-old son. Retired pharmacist Svetlana Timonina said Nicholas, known in Russia as “the wonderworker,” was her favorite saint and that he had answered her prayers in the past.

Many in the line spoke of the miracles for which they prayed. Andrei Olenko, 52, said he traveled from Crimea hoping for a turnaround for the former farming collective where he works.

“Our farm is falling apart, and we would like (St. Nicholas) to help the farm,” Olenko said.

Blind faith

The Levada Center’s Gudkov said “this craving for a miracle, craving for a cure,” is becoming noticeable as the country’s disillusioned people have started pinning their hopes for a better future to a blind faith in the supernatural instead of on the ideal of a democratic government.

“People were waiting for a miracle, that once they gave up the Soviet ideology and Soviet state they will get prosperous — and then it didn’t happen,” he said.

Xenia Loutchenko, a Moscow-based commentator on church affairs, said it would be an oversimplification to dismiss those lined up to visit the relics as ignorant or superstitious, as many of Moscow’s atheists have.

What fuels this craving for a miracle is that with standards of living falling, Russians have little faith in a positive change from social institutions or the government.

“The thing is, people don’t have much to hope for with the current state of our health care, what people hear from doctors and bureaucrats: They have nothing else to rely on, other than to go and pray.”


Arts & Entertainment

Bill Cosby Goes on Trial, His Legacy and Freedom at Stake

Bill Cosby went on trial Monday on charges he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman more than a decade ago, with prosecutors immediately introducing evidence the 79-year-old TV star once known as America’s Dad had done it before to someone else.


The prosecution’s opening witness was not the person Cosby is charged with violating, but another woman, who broke down in tears as she testified that the comedian abused her in the mid-1990s at a hotel bungalow in Los Angeles.


Cosby is on trial on charges he assaulted Andrea Constand, a former employee of Temple University’s basketball program, at his suburban Philadelphia mansion in 2004. His good-guy reputation already in ruins, he could get 10 years in prison if convicted.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Kristen Feden noted that the “Cosby Show” star previously admitted under oath that he gave Constand pills and touched her genitals as she lay on his couch.


“She couldn’t say no,” Feden said. “She can’t move, she can’t talk. Completely paralyzed. Frozen. Lifeless.”


Cosby attorney Brian McMonagle countered by attacking what he said were inconsistencies in Constand’s story. McMonagle also disputed that Constand was incapacitated and made the case that she and Cosby had a romantic relationship. McMonagle said Cosby gave her the cold and allergy medicine Benadryl only after she complained she couldn’t sleep.


The defense lawyer said Constand changed the date of the encounter from mid-March to mid-January of 2004. And he said Constand initially told police that she and Cosby had never spoken afterward, when, in fact, phone records show the two talked 72 times after mid-January — with 53 of those calls initiated by Constand.


Constand, 44, of the Toronto area, is expected to take the stand this week and tell her story in public for the first time.


The trial’s first witness was Kelly Johnson of Atlanta, who worked for one of Cosby’s agents at the William Morris Agency. She described an encounter she said took place in 1996 at the Hotel Bel-Air when she was in her mid-30s.


Prosecutors are trying to show Cosby’s treatment of Constand fit a pattern of predatory behavior.


They had wanted to call as many as 13 women who say Cosby sexually assaulted them — out of more than 60 accusers in all. But Montgomery County Judge Steven O’Neill, in a victory for Cosby, said jurors could hear only from Constand and Johnson.


Johnson testified that Cosby pressured her to take a large white pill that knocked her out, and when she woke up he put lotion on her hand and forced her to touch his genitals.


“My dress was pulled up from the bottom, and it was pulled down from the top, and my breasts were out,” she said, crying. “And I felt naked.”


Cosby’s lawyer argued that Johnson was seeking a payout from the TV star. He also said Johnson had a six-year relationship with Cosby despite a company ban on dating clients.


Cosby arrived at the courthouse in the morning carrying a wooden cane and holding his spokesman’s arm for support as he walked past dozens of cameras.


Cosby’s wife, Camille, was not in court. But actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played his daughter Rudy on the top-rated “Cosby Show” in the 1980s and ’90s, was at his side as he made his way into the building. She told reporters she was there to support her TV dad.


“I want to be the person that I would like to have if the tables were turned,” she said. “Right now it’s the jury’s job and the jury’s decision to determine guilt or innocence. It’s not mine or anyone else’s.”


Cosby built a wholesome reputation as a father and family man, on screen and off, during his extraordinary 50-year career in entertainment. He created TV characters, most notably Dr. Cliff Huxtable, with crossover appeal among blacks and whites alike. His TV shows, movies and comedy tours earned him an estimated $400 million.


Then a deposition unsealed in 2015 in a lawsuit brought by Constand revealed that Cosby had a long history of extramarital liaisons with young women and that he obtained quaaludes in the 1970s to give to women before sex. Dozens of women soon came forward to say he had drugged and assaulted them.


The statute of limitations for prosecuting Cosby had run out in nearly every case. This is the only one to result in criminal charges against the comic.


Feden, the prosecutor, warned the jury not to fall into the trap of confusing celebrities with the characters they play.


“We think we really know them,” she said. “In reality, we only have a glimpse of who they really are.”


Gloria Allred, the celebrity attorney who represents several of Cosby’s accusers and showed up for the first day of the trial, told reporters she is hopeful “there will be justice in this case.”


“This case is not going to be decided on optics,” she said. “It’s going to be decided on the evidence, and finally, it’s Mr. Cosby who’s going to have to face that evidence and confront the accusers who are against him.”

Constand filed a police complaint in 2005 over the encounter at Cosby’s home. The district attorney at the time said the case was too weak to prosecute. But a new set of prosecutors charged Cosby a year and a half ago after the deposition became public and numerous women came forward.


Cosby’s lawyers tried repeatedly to get the case thrown out. They said Cosby testified in the lawsuit only after being promised he could never be charged.


And they argued that the delayed prosecution makes the case impossible to defend, given that witnesses have died, memories have faded and Cosby, they say, is blind.


The AP does not typically identify people who say they are sexual assault victims unless they grant permission, which Constand and Johnson have done.


Economy & business

Justices Side With Religious Hospitals in Pension Dispute

Religious hospitals don’t have to comply with federal laws protecting pension plans, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case that affects retirement benefits for roughly a million workers nationwide.

The justices sided with three church-affiliated nonprofit hospital systems being sued for underfunding their employee pension plans.


The hospitals — two with Catholic affiliation and one with Lutheran ties — had argued that their pensions are “church plans” that are exempt from the law and have been treated as such for decades by federal officials.


Workers asserted that Congress never meant to exempt massive hospital systems that employ tens of thousands of workers. They said the hospitals are dodging legal safeguards that could jeopardize their benefits.


Pension plans are required to be fully funded and insured under federal law, but Congress carved out narrow exemptions for churches and other religious organizations. The hospitals claimed the law also exempts plans associated with or controlled by a church, whether or not it was created by a church in the first place.


Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said a pension plan operated by a religiously affiliated hospital is exempt from the law “regardless of who established it.”


The federal government has long agreed with the hospitals’ understanding of the law. Agencies including the IRS and the Labor Department have assured them for more than 30 years that they are exempt from traditional pension rules.


But three federal appeals courts had ruled against the hospitals — California-based Advocate Health Care Network, Illinois-based Dignity Health and New Jersey-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. The hospitals appealed, warning that the rulings could expose them to billions of dollars in liability.


Together, the three hospitals employ about 100,000 workers. But about a million workers around the country work for similar nonprofits that have been exempt from pension funding requirements.


In one of the cases, workers allege that Dignity Health — the fifth-largest provider of health care in the country — has underfunded its pension plan by $1.2 billion.


Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the ruling, which was argued before he joined the court.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Apple Unveils ‘HomePod’ Speaker, First New Product in Years

Apple nodded to several up-and-coming technology trends, unveiling a new “smart” home speaker and device features touching on virtual reality, online privacy and a form of artificial intelligence called machine learning.


The “HomePod” speaker unveiled Monday is similar to devices from rivals, some of which have been on the market for years. Like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, the HomePod will play music while also helping people to manage their lives and homes. Siri will be voice activated to respond to requests for information and other help around the house.


It is the first new device Apple has announced in almost three years. It unveiled the Apple Watch in September 2014.


Apple “can’t afford to yield valuable real-estate in the heart of people’s homes to Amazon, Google and others,” said Geoff Blaber, research analyst at CCS Insight. That’s especially important because people are starting to access information, entertainment and search in a more “pervasive” way that’s less dependent on smarthphones, he said.


The speaker will sell for about $350 in December in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Amazon sells the main version of the Echo for $180; Google’s Home speaker goes for $130.


The Echo, released in 2015, and Google Home, released last year, were the first entrants in a promising market. The research firm eMarketer says than 35 million people in the U.S. are expected to use a voice-activated speaker at least once a month this year, more than double its estimate from last year.


Keeping It Real With VR


New iMacs unveiled Monday at Apple’s annual conference for software programmers are getting better displays and graphics capabilities. Apple said that makes the Mac a great platform for development virtual-reality “experiences.”


But Apple is late to the game on VR. Samsung and Google already have VR systems centered on their smartphones. Facebook, HTC and Sony have high-end VR systems, too.


Virtual reality has been described as the next big thing for decades. But so far, interest has been strongest among gamers, developers and hardware makers rather than everyday users.


Apple’s entry into the market could change this. Its entry into digital-music sales with iTunes, and into the smartphone market with the iPhone, upended those industries and gave them mass appeal.


New iPhone Features


New features coming to iPhones and iPads include messages that sync to Apple servers in the cloud. These devices will only keep the most recent messages in local storage.


For photos, Apple is turning to a “high efficiency” format to replace the widely used JPEG standard. Although the format is not exclusive to Apple, it’s not yet clear how well the photos will work with non-Apple software and devices, which mostly use JPEG.


Apple is also bringing the ability to send money to friends or other people through its payment service, Apple Pay. So far, the service has limited payments to purchases of products and services from companies and other organizations.


The free software update for mobile devices, iOS 11, is expected in September, when Apple typically releases new iPhones.


Mac Gets an Upgrade


Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for Mac computers. Called High Sierra, it recognizes more faces automatically, which should make it easier to organize photos, and will offer more photo editing tools.


Safari, Apple’s web browser, seeks to make users’ online experience smoother and less annoying. It will allow users to automatically block auto-play videos by detecting videos that shouldn’t be playing when you open a webpage to read an article, for example.


The browser’s new “intelligent tracking prevention,” meanwhile, will use machine learning to identify and block digital-ad trackers in order to keep advertisers from following and profiling users. It will not block the ads themselves, though.


Sizing Up the iPad


Apple is introducing an iPad Pro in a new size in an attempt to revive interest in its once hot-selling line of tablets. The new 10.5-inch model offers room for a full-size keyboard, something the 9.7 inch model couldn’t. Yet it isn’t as bulky as the 12.9-inch model.


With consumers less interested in buying new tablets, Apple has increased its focus on designing tablets for professionals to do much of the same work that they usually perform on a laptop computer. It’s also what Microsoft is targeting with the Surface Pro; a new model comes out on June 15.


The new iPad Pro also comes with a better camera — the same one found in the iPhone 7 — along with more storage, a better display and faster refreshing of moving images. The new model starts at $649 and will start shipping next week.


Watch the Watch


Apple is also updating the operating software for its Apple Watch, including new watch faces, more personalized alerts that use machine learning to tailor information to you based on your routines and tastes.


It also enhanced its workout app to, for instance, support high intensity interval training. It will also be possible to exchange data between gym equipment and the watch.


In a nod to Amazon streaming fans, Apple is also bringing Amazon Prime to its Apple TV app.

Economy & business

US Probes Air Bag Computer Failures in 2012 Jeep Liberty

The U.S. government is investigating complaints that air bag control computers in some Jeep Liberty SUVs can fail, preventing the air bag system from operating properly in a crash.

The probe covers about 105,000 of the vehicles from the 2012 model year.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says in documents posted Monday that it has received 44 complaints about the problem involving a computer that detects crashes and controls air bag deployment. No related injuries have been reported.


Many drivers told the agency that an air bag warning light came on. In some cases the problem was corrected by replacing the computer, while others kept driving their SUVs with the light on.