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The US Is the Only Country Where There Are More Guns Than People
November 13, 2018 12:01 am|Comments (0)

Americans could be forgiven for becoming numb to the swarm of stories reporting gun massacres. In the last five years, ordinary Americans have been murdered in mass shootings in a synagogue, in churches, at elementary and high schools, at a nightclub, at a bar, at a music festival, at a center for people with developmental disabilities, among countless others. After a shooting in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, The Onion wrote, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The Onion got it right—at least for the “only nation” bit. The US is the only country where this keeps happening. And the US also claims the dubious distinction of being the only rich nation to see so many deaths from firearms, as the chart below shows. (We kill ourselves even more than we kill each other: Worldwide, the US ranks second only to Greenland in the rate of suicides by firearm; when you remove suicides from the equation, the US falls to number 28 worldwide for deaths from firearms, both from violent acts and accidents. But even subtracting suicides, the US’s death rate from guns remains far ahead of every single European nation and nearly every Asian one.)

Most countries that see high rates of gun violence are also economically depressed; El Salvador, for example, which claims the world’s highest rate of deaths from gun violence, has a per capita GDP of around $ 4,000—roughly 7 percent of the earnings per citizen in the US. The chart below shows that, generally, it’s the poorer countries that see high rates of violence, while rich countries—Luxembourg tops the list—tend to lose very few residents to gunfire. The US, again, stands alone for having a relatively high GDP per capita (number 8 worldwide) and a high level of gun violence (number 12 worldwide).

Rich countries that see virtually no deaths from firearms include Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and South Korea, according to data from the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease survey.

Unsurprisingly, firearm deaths are correlated with firearm proliferation. American companies manufacture millions of guns each year and import many more. Domestic firearm manufacturing increased dramatically during President Barack Obama’s first term, in part because of fears that, after eight years of a Republican White House, a pro-gun-control president would take away citizens’ weapons.

That didn’t happen. By 2017 the number of handguns, shotguns, and rifles available in the United States was nearly three times higher than it was two decades earlier, according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Today, the US boasts more firearms than residents.

Canada, for its part, may have a lot of guns as well, as the chart below shows, but its citizens don’t often die from gunfire; the country ranks 72nd in the world for deaths from firearms. Despite having one firearm per every three Canadians, the country’s death rate from gun violence is about one-tenth that of the US (though still four times that of the UK). While mass shootings have been on the rise in Canada, only 223 Canadians died from firearm violence in 2016, compared with more than 14,000 in the US. Prospective gun buyers in Canada must pass a reference check, background check, and a gun-safety course before receiving a firearm license; the country also imposes a 28-day waiting period for new gun licensees. The AR-15 rifle—which was used to kill high school students in Parkland, Florida, moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, and worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, among many others—is a “restricted” firearm in Canada, meaning owners must pass an additional test and obtain a special license.

If Barack Obama had succeeded in passing stronger gun laws, would it have helped save lives? Maybe. On a state-by-state basis, there’s a general correlation between stronger gun laws and lower rates of firearm deaths. A May 2018 paper in JAMA Internal Medicine that sought to evaluate whether strong gun laws resulted in fewer deaths concluded, “Strengthening state firearm policies may prevent firearm suicide and homicide, with benefits that may extend beyond state lines.” Still, a February 2018 analysis by The New York Times found that most weapons used in mass shootings had been obtained legally.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives the states of Alaska and Louisiana a failing grade for their gun-safety laws; those states also claim the nation’s highest per capita rate of deaths from firearms. Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey all receive higher marks for their laws and have comparatively lower death rates from guns.

But as long as it’s easy for firearms to be transported from, say, a gun-friendly state (like Nevada) to a state with strong gun laws (like California), as long as lawmakers fail to enact strong policies to restrict sales to people with mental illnesses or a history of violence, as long politicians continue to take money from the gun industry, as long as the gun lobby continues to pressure medical doctors to stop advocating for their patients with bullet wounds, and as long as a box of ammunition for an AR-15 rifle costs $ 20 for 50 rounds, the shootings will no doubt continue.


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Intel says more women, blacks in workforce after diversity push
October 30, 2018 12:00 am|Comments (0)

FILE PHOTO: The Intel logo is shown at E3, the world’s largest video game industry convention in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Intel Corp has increased the ratio of women and African-Americans in its workforce after three years of a high-profile effort to improve diversity, the U.S. microchip maker said in a report released on Monday.

Intel still lags behind several large U.S. technology companies in terms of women and ahead of many for African Americans and Hispanics, the report showed. Chronic underrepresentation of minorities has been a source of concern for years at tech companies.

Overall, women comprised 26.8 percent of Intel’s U.S. workforce in 2018, up from 24.7 percent in 2015. Women in leadership positions grew to 20.7 percent from 17.7 percent.

The percentage of African Americans at Intel has risen to nearly 5 percent from 3.5 percent in 2015 and Hispanics rose to 9.2 percent from 8.3 percent.

“Although we are among the leaders in African American representation in the tech industry, we are still not satisfied,” Barbara Whye, Intel’s chief diversity and inclusion officer said by email. The company will continue to work with historically black colleges and the Oakland Unified School District in California, she added.

Without providing figures, Intel said it had reached “full representation” two years ahead of its goal based on skilled minorities in the available workforce.

In 2015, Intel established a $ 300 million fund to be used by 2020 to improve diversity. Whites make up 46.2 percent of the workforce at the company, and Asians 38.9 percent, according to Intel.

Intel’s African American 2018 representation was better than at Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc, and Microsoft Corp, according to the companies’ latest data.

But its female representation was behind Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc , and only ahead of Microsoft.

Reporting By Jane Lanhee Lee; Editing by Richard Chang

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Charter signs up more internet subscribers in third quarter
October 26, 2018 12:00 pm|Comments (0)

FILE PHOTO – A Charter Communications company service van is pictured in Pasadena, California U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

(Reuters) – Charter Communications Inc said it added more internet subscribers than Wall Street had expected in the third quarter, offsetting a drop in video subscribers that was also less severe than expected.

The company added 266,000 residential internet customers in the third quarter, above the consensus estimate of 234,000, according to research firm FactSet.

Net income attributable to shareholders was $ 493 million, or $ 2.11 cents per share, in the quarter ended Sept. 30, compared with $ 48 million, or 19 cents per share, a year earlier.

Total revenue rose 4.1 percent to $ 10.89 billion from $ 10.46 billion. Analysts had expected the company to report revenue of $ 10.94 billion, according to Refinitiv data.

Reporting by Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty

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Facebook Removes More Myanmar Military-Controlled Pages That Incited Violence, Following NYT Report
October 16, 2018 12:00 am|Comments (0)

Facebook responded to a New York Times investigation on Oct. 15 into ethnic violence incited by members of the Myanmar military by banning 13 additional pages with a combined 1.35 million followers. The pages represented themselves as offering beauty, entertainment, and general information, but the Times report said the military controlled the pages, rather than fans of pop stars and national heroes, as the pages alleged.

Facebook announced the move in an update to a blog post about its previous actions to combat the spread of false information via its service in Myanmar that have led to killings and widespread violence against ethnic minorities. Accounts and pages previously banned had about 12 million followers, and included the account for the general in charge of the country’s armed forces.

Facebook received heavy criticism for its slow response to its platform being used for violence, and said as much in August in the initial version of its Myanmar blog post, when it admitted “we have been too slow to prevent misinformation and hate.”

The Times reported that the Myanmar military have engaged in a systemic campaign for five years on Facebook to target the Rohingya, a stateless minority population in the country comprising mostly Muslims. As many as 700 military personnel were involved, the Times said. Facebook confirmed many details for the newspaper. The company did not immediately respond to a request from Fortune for comment.

The spread of fake information ranging from specific false accounts about rapes and murders by Muslims to blanket condemnations of Islam are seen as leading directly to a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. Over 700,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar since August 2017, joining more than 300,000 who had already departed the country, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A report from the agency in August estimates at least 10,000 Rohingya people had been killed in violence, but other observers believe the number could be far higher.

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ZTE given temporary reprieve from U.S.; removes more executives
July 4, 2018 6:31 am|Comments (0)

NEW YORK/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s embattled ZTE Corp (0763.HK) has received a temporary reprieve from the U.S. government to conduct business needed to maintain existing networks and equipment as it works toward the lifting of a U.S. supplier ban.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of China’s ZTE Corp is seen at the lobby of ZTE Beijing research and development center building in Beijing, China June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

ZTE (000063.SZ), which makes smartphones and networking gear, was forced to cease major operations in April after the United States slapped it with a supplier ban, saying it broke an agreement to discipline executives who conspired to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

The authorization seen by Reuters from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Services runs from July 2 until Aug. 1.

It allows China’s No.2 telecommunications equipment maker to continue operating existing networks and equipment and provide handset customer support for contracts signed before April 15. It also permits limited transfer of funds to or from ZTE.

On Tuesday, ZTE also announced the departure of 1 senior executive in a stock exchange filing, while a source who saw an internal memo told Reuters seven others were removed. As part of its settlement agreement reached in June with U.S. authorities, ZTE had promised to radically overhaul its management.

The company also agreed to pay a $ 1 billion penalty and put $ 400 million in an escrow account as part of the deal to resume business with U.S. suppliers – which provide almost a third of the components used in ZTE’s equipment.

ZTE said in exchange filings late on Tuesday that Xu Weiyan, a shareholders’ representative supervisor in the company’s supervisory committee, has resigned due to personal commitments with immediate effect and no longer holds any position in the company.

An insider source told Reuters a memo was sent out on Tuesday announcing the removal of seven other executives, without providing a reason. They included vice presidents Wang Keyou, Xie Jiepeng and Ma Jie, who were in charge of the legal, finance and supply chain departments, respectively.

Reuters could not immediately contact them for comment. The source declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

As part of the deal to lift the supplier ban, ZTE had agreed to remove all members of its leadership at or above the senior vice president level, along with any executives associated with the wrongdoing within 30 days.

It is not immediately clear whether the eight departures on Tuesday were related to ZTE’s compliance violation.

ZTE announced a new board last week in a radical management shakeup. Li Zixue was appointed the new chairman while the previous board led by Chairman Yin Yimin resigned with immediate effect.

Despite the agreement reached almost a month ago, the ban is yet to be lifted amid strong opposition among some U.S. politicians. ZTE has made the $ 1 billion payment but has yet to deposit the $ 400 million in escrow, according to sources.

The uncertainty over the ban amid intensifying U.S.-China trade tensions has hammered ZTE shares, which have cratered around 60 percent since trading resumed last month following a two-month hiatus, wiping out more than $ 11 billion of the company’s market valuation.

ZTE’s Hong Kong shares were down 0.5 percent on Wednesday, while its Shenzhen shares were up more than 4 percent.

Jefferies on Monday upgraded ZTE to a “buy” rating from “underperform”. Its analyst, Edison Lee, said in a note on Tuesday that the temporary reprieve was “a very positive indication that ZTE is on track to a full lifting of the export ban”.

A representative for ZTE declined to comment. The U.S. Department of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Karen Freifeld, Anirban Paul and Sijia Jiang; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Leslie Adler and Marguerita Choy

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Panasonic to consider more investment in Tesla's Gigafactory if asked: executive
July 2, 2018 6:28 am|Comments (0)

OSAKA (Reuters) – Panasonic Corp would consider further investment in Tesla Inc’s so-called Gigafactory if requested by the U.S. electric vehicle maker, an executive at the Japanese conglomerate said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: The Tesla logo is seen at the entrance to Tesla Motors’ new showroom in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in New York City, U.S., December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

The investment would come on top of the $ 1.6 billion Panasonic is contributing to the automotive battery plant, which it jointly operates with Tesla in the U.S. state of Nevada.

“We would of course consider additional investment if we are requested to do so,” Yoshio Ito, chief of Panasonic’s automotive business, said at a media roundtable, responding to a question about the possibility of further investment, given the chance.

Panasonic’s initial investment in the Gigafactory is almost complete, and the Japanese electronics maker has not made any decisions on whether to pledge further funds, Ito said.

The comments come after Tesla hit its target of producing 5,000 Model 3 electric sedans on Sunday morning, several hours after the midnight goal set by Chief Executive Elon Musk, two workers at the factory told Reuters.

Production of the Model 3, which began last July, has been plagued by a number of issues, including over-reliance on automation creating bottlenecks in battery production.

Meanwhile, the U.S. firm has been burning through cash as it tools up its assembly line and works on projects such as its Model Y crossover sport utility vehicle.

Its free cash flow – a metric of financial health – widened to negative $ 1 billion in its latest reporting quarter from negative $ 277 million three months prior, excluding costs of systems for its solar business.

Musk has said Tesla it will not need to seek cash in 2018 but Wall Street analysts anticipate a capital raise this year.

Panasonic is the exclusive battery cell supplier for Tesla’s current production models, making them in Japan as well as at the $ 5 billion Gigafactory.

Ito said last week at Panasonic’s general shareholders meeting that a pickup in production of the Model 3 has resulted in occasional battery cell shortages.

Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki; Additional reporting by Sayantani Ghosh; Editing by Christopher Cushing

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NASA’s New Plan: Do More Science With Small Satellites
June 21, 2018 6:10 pm|Comments (0)

Small satellite makers have promised to do a lot of things: change the way we communicate, change the way we see our planet, change the way we predict the weather. They’re cheaper, faster to develop, and easier to update than their bigger and more sophisticated counterparts. But for all the revolution and disruption, they tend to keep their focus close, and largely cast their eyes down.

A new NASA program, called Astrophysics Science SmallSat Studies, aims to turn their gaze outward, toward the cosmos. Early this year, NASA asked scientists how they would turn smallsats into tiny (but mighty) telescopes. Answers are due by July 13.

While the space agency has other smallsat science programs, they have mostly hemmed themselves within the solar system. “The Earth is bright; the sun is bright,” says Michael Garcia, the program officer. “So small telescopes can see things very easily.” But trying to see the dim light from objects beyond our neighborhood usually demands much bigger telescopes. See: Extremely Large Telescope, Very Large Array, Large Binocular Telescope.

In space, above the blurring of the atmosphere, telescopes don’t have to be quite as huge to do the same job as an Earthbound observatory. But they are usually bigger than smallsats. That’s why, in the call for proposals, NASA emphasizes that the new smallsat program “is intended to capitalize on the creativity in the astrophysics science community.” And, indeed, it looks like that community does have some ideas for how to do more science with less instrument.

Last year, NASA sent a call out to scientists, asking if they had ideas that required more funding than a suborbital project, and less satellite than the smallest orbital missions. The agency wasn’t offering money, or collaboration, or anything. They just wanted a five-page paper about what astrophysicists would hypothetically do if, say, they hypothetically found a wallet containing between $ 10 million and $ 35 million and had to build an astro-studies smallsat with it. “We got 55 responses,” says Garcia. “We realized, ‘Wow, people really are interested in this.’”

Scientists, for instance, could use smallsats to do time-domain astronomy: watching for bursts and flares and flashes and pulses and all the other kinds of light-waves that appear and then vanish. Those phenomena work well for smallsats because, as their names connote, they’re often bright. Astronomers could also use the instruments to do surveys—to look at the whole sky in one wavelength band, for example—or to give brighter or nearby objects the attention that other telescopes may lavish on more distant and foreign bodies.

Knowing the interest was there, the agency pushed forward and put out this February request for proposals. The winners—six to 10 of them—will together get a total of $ 1 million of sweet NASA cash and six months to design a smallsat that could get astrophysical.

“We wanted to prime the pump,” says Garcia. Because next spring, soon after the six-month study of studying ends, the agency will ask tiny telescope dreamers to submit another proposal—but this time to actually build something.

That’s already three agency requests, before anyone gets started building. But this is still faster than NASA’s normal timelines. Its bigger missions can take many years in development, and have to work exactly as planned—or else. And when you know a complicated scientific instrument has to work or else, you’re going to use tried and true technology in tried and true ways.

On smallsats? Worth mere millions? With mere months of development? “You can take more risk than something that’s big and expensive,” says Garcia. For the suborbital program, which shot instruments to near-space, for instance, the agency aimed for an 85 percent success rate.

That’s not NASA’s usual goal. For more substantial observatories or human spaceflight, the agency needs to see A+s, not Bs. But the cool thing about these reckless smallsats is that they can carry aboard technology that may eventually make it into premier missions. They can test experimental new circuitry and sensors and software. And if they fail—oh well, there goes a few million. But if they work, engineers can bring them aboard fancier missions, faster, and perhaps disrupt some of our current understanding of the cosmos.


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Elon Musk Calms Down, and More From Tesla's Shareholder Meeting
June 6, 2018 6:00 am|Comments (0)

When Elon Musk was a kid, he had so much trouble managing his time, that his younger brother Kimbal would lie to him about the bus schedule. Elon would show up a few minutes after the supposed arrival—and have just enough time to hop aboard. A few decades on, the whole world knows about Elon’s habit of blowing deadlines. And he admits it can be a problem.

“This is something I’m trying to get better at,” he said from the stage of Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum on Tuesday afternoon, at Tesla’s annual shareholders meeting. “I’m trying to recalibrate these estimates.”

A few days after a Twitter rage fest aimed at the media, a month after refusing to answer questions about Tesla’s financial state during an investors’ call, and two months after getting in a public spat with the feds investigating a deadly crash in one of his cars, Musk’s attitude when he appeared before his fellow shareholders was conciliatory. He even seemed emotional at times. “We build our cares with love,” he said, with a slight quaver in his voice. And he noted how brutal the auto industry can be, especially to newcomers. “It’s insanely hard just staying alive.”

For an hour and a half, Musk patiently fielded questions on just about every part of Tesla’s sprawling business. He said the Model 3 production rate will hit the long-promised 5,000 cars a week rate later this month, predicted an enormous increase in battery production, announced upgrades to the Autopilot semi-autonomous system, and even appeased PETA. If you missed the meeting, here are the key takeaways.

Elon Retains the Reins

The official business of the meeting included voting on the reelection of venture capitalist Antonio Gracias, Elon’s bus-catching brother Kimbal, and 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch to Tesla’s board of directors. (Only a third of the nine board members come up for election at a time—it’s like the US Senate that way.) Last month, activist investor the CtW Group urged Tesla shareholders to replace the trio with people who had automotive and manufacturing expertise. Another investor, Jing Zhao, filed a proposal to strip Musk of his position as Tesla’s chairman, which he has held since 2004 (he took the CEO job in 2008). But the shareholders stuck with Musk, reelecting the board members and nixing the leadership change by an overwhelming majority. (Tesla will file the exact vote count with the SEC in the next few days.)

The loss didn’t surprise CtW executive director Dieter Waizenegger, who argues control of Tesla is too concentrated in people tied to Musk. “This opinion is shared by a significant number of shareholders of Tesla,” he says. “We expect the final vote tally to reveal that.” Even if he’s right, Musk remains fully in charge.

More Model 3

Musk’s acknowledgement of his timeline trouble didn’t stop him from announcing that, by the end of the month, Tesla will be building 5,000 Model 3 sedans every week, which should be enough to start turning a profit on the car. The uptick is thanks to Tesla’s rebalancing of the workload between humans and robots in its factory in Fremont, California, where the company is adding a third Model 3 production line. It is also planning to open a factory in China, to go with its plants in Fremont and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Tesla is gradually expanding options for Model 3 owners, who so far have been limited to the version with an upgraded battery and premium interior, which starts at $ 56,000. By the end of this year, Musk hopes to start production of the version closer to the car’s $ 35,000 base price, with the smaller battery pack. Also coming soon: right hand drive.

New Products

Even as it struggles to build the Model 3, Tesla is planning on three new vehicles: the Semi truck, the revived Roadster, and the still mysterious Model Y. Musk told shareholders he’s hoping to start production of all three in the first half of 2020, though he has yet to specify where he’ll do that, or how. He’ll unveil the Model Y in March (it will be “something super special”), and expects the truck and the sports car to deliver better specs than the already very impressive numbers he announced last fall. Oh, and he’ll never build an electric motorcycle.

Autopilot Advances

Without getting into details, Musk said Tesla is making steady progress to improve its Autopilot feature, and is now working on adding the ability to change lanes and handle highway on- and off-ramps (Musk noted he was testing new software around 1 am this morning). For drivers who aren’t sure they want to spend $ 5,000 on the feature, Tesla will soon start offering free trials. Musk also reaffirmed his distaste for lidar, the laser shooting sensor most autonomous vehicle developers say is key to building a safe, capable robo-car.

SuperChargers

Tesla now runs nearly 10,000 Supercharger stations around the world, the stations where its drivers (and no one else) can plug in and charge a depleted battery to about 80 percent in 30 minutes. And Musk is working to keep improving charge times, saying a three- or four-fold improvement is possible. (That’s only true for relatively new cars, he added, disappointing the 2012 Model S owner who asked him about it.)

Going Vegan

Unlike many automakers, Tesla has been offering leather-free versions of its cars for years, appealing to its vegan and vegetarian fans. But it’s still using some leather in its steering wheels, and a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rep took the mic to press Musk on it. He explained Tesla can make leather-free steering wheels, but the work has to be done it its design studio, making it something of a pain. But he promised it’ll be easier once the Model Y comes around. Now he’s just gotta hit that 2020 goal.


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Amazon Is Expanding Whole Foods Perks to More Areas. Here’s Where
May 30, 2018 6:08 pm|Comments (0)

Amazon is quickly ramping up its efforts to bring more perks to Prime members shopping at Whole Foods stores.

The tech giant on Wednesday announced that it was expanding its Whole Foods discounts to an additional 121 stores across 12 states, including California, Colorado, and Texas. The perks will also be available at all the Whole Foods Market 365 stores across the U.S.

When Amazon Prime members buy products at participating locations, they’ll get a 10% discount on all sale items. Amazon said that the discounts typically apply to hundreds of products in the store and will change each week. This week, for instance, Prime members can get the discount on raspberries, crackers, and probiotics, among other products.

If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, you’re out of luck. In addition to Whole Foods discounts, Prime subscribers get free two-day shipping and discounted one-day shipping on their Amazon purchases, among several other perks.

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Amazon launched its discount program earlier this month in Florida, where it did a trial of the discounts. It said at the time that it would launch the program to additional states over the summer. Amazon didn’t say in its statement on Wednesday when the Prime perks might be available to Whole Foods locations in other states.

To take advantage of the new Whole Foods offer, you’ll need to download the Whole Foods Market app. Once you sign in with your Amazon account and scan the app’s Prime Code at checkout, you’ll receive your discount.

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Climate Change Made Zombie Ants Even More Cunning
May 29, 2018 6:00 am|Comments (0)

Raquel Loreto is a zombie hunter, and a good one. But traipsing through dried leaves in a hot forest in Sanda, at the southern end of Japan, she needed a guide. Just a few months before, she’d been on the internet and come across the work of artist Shigeo Ootak, whose fantastical images depict humans with curious protrusions erupting from their heads. She got in touch, and he invited her to Japan for a hike to find his inspiration.

Ootak knew precisely where to look: six feet off the ground. And there in a sparse forest, that’s where they found it: the zombie ant, an entrancing species with two long hooks coming out of its back. By now you may have heard its famous tale. A parasitic fungus, known as Ophiocordyceps, invades an ant’s body, growing through its tissues and soaking up nutrients. Then it somehow orders its host to march out of the nest and up a tree above the colony’s trails. The fungus commands the ant to bite onto the vein of a leaf, then kills the thing and grows as a stalk out of the back of its head, turning it into a showerhead raining spores onto victims down below.

That’s how it all goes down in South American forests, where Loreto had already spent plenty of time. But the zombie she found on her hike in Japan was different. First of all, the fungus had driven it higher up a tree. And two, it hadn’t bitten onto a leaf, but had wrapped itself around a twig, hanging upside down.

See, in the tropics, leaves stay on trees all year—but in Japan, they wither and fall. Same goes for zombie ants in the southern United States. By ordering the ant to lock onto a twig, the fungus helps ensure it can stay perched long enough to mature and rain death on more ants. In a study out today in the journal Evolution, Loreto and her colleagues show that divergence between leaf-biting and twig-biting seems to have been a consequence of ancient climate change. So who knows, modern climate change may also do interesting things to the evolution of the parasite.

Come back in time with me 47 million years to an unrecognizable Germany. It’s much hotter and wetter. As such, evergreen forests grow not only up through Europe, but all the way up to the arctic circle. One day, a zombie ant wanders up a tree and bites onto the vein of a leaf, which conveniently enough gets fossilized. Time goes on. The climate cools, and Germany’s wet forests turn temperate.

Almost a decade ago, Penn State entomologist David Hughes looked at that fossil leaf and noticed the tell-tale bite marks of a zombie ant. “Given the fossil evidence in Germany, we know leaf biting occurred then,” say Hughes, a coauthor on the paper. “We suspect that it was also present in North America, and as those populations responded to climate change and the cooling temperature, we see a shift from biting leaves to dying on twigs.”

David Hughes

As vegetation changed from evergreen to deciduous, the fungus found itself in a pickle. But evolution loves a pickle. Ophio adapted independently in Japan and North America to order the ant to seek out twigs, which provided a more reliable, longer-term perch. The fungus grows much slower.

Loreto and Hughes know this thanks to the work of Kim Fleming, a citizen scientist who discovered zombie ant graveyards on her property in South Carolina. She’s been collecting meticulous data for the researchers, scouring the forest for the zombies and marking them with colored tape. “I made a map for myself so I wouldn’t get lost and leave some out,” says Fleming. (For her efforts, she’s now got a species of her very own: Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae.)

What Fleming helped discover is that while in the tropics the fungus reaches full maturity in one or two months, in temperate climes like hers, the fungus sets up its zombie ant on a twig in June, but doesn’t reach maturity until the next year. In fact, the fungi may actually freeze over the winter. If it were attached to a leaf, it’d tumble to the ground in the fall.

“So it’s almost as if they’ve decided that nothing is going to happen this year, I’m just going to have to sit around because I don’t have time to mature and get spores out,” says Hughes. Plus, the ants hibernate in the winter anyway. Even if the fungus shot spores, there’d be no ants to infect—they’ll all chilling underground in their nest.

Opting for twigs does come with a downside, though: It’s really tough to get good purchase. Until, that is, the fungus initiates a second behavior, ordering the ant to wrap its limbs around the twig, sometimes crossing the legs on the other side of the twig for extra strength. “The hyphae of the fungus growing out of the legs works as glue on the twig as well,” says Loreto. “Sometimes they would even slide down the twig, but they wouldn’t fall.”

It’s hard to imagine how a fungus with no brain could figure this all out, but that’s the power of evolution. And it goes further: In June in temperate climes, the forest is still full of both twigs and leaves, yet the fungus directs zombie ants to lock onto twigs exclusively. And in the Amazon, where it’s lush all year round, they only ever lock onto leaves. “How in the name of … whoever … does the fungus inside the body know what the difference between the leaf and the twig is?” Hughes asks. It always has both options, yet only ever “chooses” one—the best strategy for its particular surroundings.

And so a parasitic manipulation that already defied human credulity grows ever more incredible, far beyond any work of zombie fiction. Your move, Hollywood.


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