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Will birds go the way of the dinosaurs?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

The first movie that gave me vivid nightmares was 1993’s Jurassic Park. I can still recall being awake in the wee hours paralyzed with dread, waiting for a clever Velociraptor to pop out of my bedroom closet. I guess it’s no surprise that the film that most famously brought dinosaurs to life turned them into classic movie monsters, on par with Godzilla and the eponymous Alien.

But as I’ve learned more about dinosaurs working here at Nat Geo, the thing that scares me most now is losing them. Paleontologists widely accept that the only living dino descendants are birds, and thanks to humans, the body count is high among our avian companions. Recent surveys suggest that bird populations in North America have been in steep decline since the 1970s, in part due to widespread use of a highly damaging pesticide.

We’re not doing much better when it comes to dino fossils, either. Thanks to inconsistent laws, valuable fossils are being sold to the highest bidder, denying scientists access to priceless discoveries and sometimes fueling regional conflict. Some clever humans are finding ways to protect living dinosaurs and to save our fossilized natural heritage, but if we don’t act fast, this scary movie may not have a happy ending.

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Today in a minute

Where did we begin? A controversial new study stirs the debate over where in Africa humankind originated. The study, published in Nature, points to ancient wetlands in Botswana as the start of our ancestors. Says Vanessa Hayes of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia, who led the research: “We all came from the same homeland in southern Africa.” One thing is certain: This won’t be the last word on the subject.

From heat to fire: California's temperature has increased 3 degrees in the last century, triple the global average. "That means that today’s hotter, climate-changed air is much more effective at drying vegetation to a crackle than it was 100 years ago," writes Alejandra Borunda, connecting the dots between climate change and accelerating wildfires in the Golden State.

Where’s the kelp? Here’s how California suffered a catastrophe off its coast as well. Sea stars died out, but the kelp-eating purple sea urchins, which the sea stars had fed on, exploded in numbers. The urchins had to eat, and that’s why 90 percent of the kelp in California and Oregon is gone, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Growth spurt: After the dinosaurs died, mammals went through an extraordinary period of growth, new fossils show. By the time of the dino extinction, the biggest mammals weighed less than a pound. After 300,000 years, some weighed up to 45 pounds.

Weather time machine: Before weather and climate researchers only had accurate reports from the start of satellite reporting four decades ago. But a massive database that includes old ship logs and weather station reporting now can extend scientists day-by-day view of Earth’s atmosphere back to 1836.

Crystal cannibals? The crystals in an abandoned Spanish silver mine are striking—and big, some of them seven feet long. How did that happen? Researchers suspect it’s a combination of ancient climate changes and crystal cannibalism—the bigger crystals feasting on the smaller crystals.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Queen of the Night. This night-blooming cactus rarely blooms, only a handful of times a year, after sunset, with its flowers wilting before first light. Michaela Skovranova’s photo from Australia got more than 400,000 likes on our Instagram page.

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This week in the night sky

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Moons of Jupiter. Gaze toward the low southwest on Halloween night and on Friday night, and catch sight of the waxing crescent moon paying visits with Jupiter and Saturn. Both planets are shining like brilliant, creamy-colored stars and amazing targets for small telescopes, showing off atmospheric details and their largest moons. Even steadily held binoculars will showcase the four largest moons of Jupiter, appearing like a line of dots on either side of the planet. While the moon is only 1.3 light minutes away, sunlight reflecting off the cloud tops of Jupiter takes 49 minutes to reach your eyes. Saturn is so far away that it takes nearly 86 minutes for its light to travel to Earth. —Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

The science of silence. For 35 years, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has picked out some of the world’s rarest nature sounds, such as the inside of the giant log of a Sitka spruce. Silencing the ever-increasing noise surrounding us, Hempton zeroes in on what he calls “the fundamental frequency for each habitat.” What emerges, writes Maria Popova in her Brainpickings blog, “is the embodied awareness that silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form—of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself—can be revealed.” Watch Hempton in this Nat Geo short film.

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In tomorrow’s newsletter, ANIMALS Executive Editor Rachael Bale talks about the dangerous jobs we have our domesticated pets do for us, like hunting down a terrorist leader. Sign up here.

One last glimpse

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Blaze of glory. In 1572, astronomers thought the new bright object in the constellation Cassiopeia was a new star. Actually, the star was dying in the blaze of a supernova. Over the past two decades, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has captured images of the star, unfolding clues of its destruction.

This newsletter has been curated by David Beard. Have an idea or a link? I’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading!