Environment Forum

New monkey puzzles scientists: why does it sneeze in the rain?

A monkeynew species of monkey has been found in northern Myanmar, puzzling scientists because of a snub nose that means they are often heard “sneezing in the rain”.

Why would anyone want — let alone evolve – nostrils that fill up with water?

The find of the new type of snub-nosed monkey (story here) coincides with a U.N. meeting in Nagoya, Japan, this week to decide what to do about accelerating losses of species of animals and plants because of human threats, such as loss of habitats to farms or cities or the effects of climate change.

The monkey’s habitat is threatened by logging and a planned Chinese-built hydroelectric dam — conservationists hope it will put pressure on Beijing to protect the rare monkey from an influx of workers. Trees also bind soil together — logging can cause erosion that could silt up the reservoir behind the dam. That means a big economic incentive to protect the monkey’s habitat.

Researchers are mystified by the nostrils.

Local hunters report the monkeys can be located by their sneezing when it’s raining. The monkeys often resort to sitting out downpours in trees face down.

‘Green Games’ look more like ‘Grey Games’ so far

Tourists walk along the Great Wall on a hazy day in Juyongguan, as the opening day of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games approaches, August 4, 2008. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (CHINA)It was a bright sunny morning with hardly a cloud in the sky as our plane from Europe sped across Northwest China.  The skies were blue and the  visibility so great from 10,000 metres up that you could spot houses, huts, trails and even fences on the desert ground below.
But about 30 minutes before landing in Beijing, the earth gradually disappeared beneath a thickening blanket of greenish-yellowish-brownish haze. Clouds? Smog? Who can say for sure?
It reminded me of the unnatural colours of the smog that used to plague Los Angeles decades ago before catalytic converters became mandatory equipment on cars and California authorities took other tough steps to tackle the air pollution problem.

And these are supposed to be the “Green Games”? If Beijing is unlucky, they may be remembered as the ”Grey Games” instead.
“It used to be a lot worse here,” a flight attendant tells me helpfully after we land in Beijing, a city that only became visible through the haze about 5 minutes before we touched down. “Ten or 12 years ago the tissue would turn black if you coughed or sneezed into one. It’s much better now.”
  The sun is seen through haze near the National Stadium, also known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’, ahead of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 4, 2008. REUTERS/Joe Chan (CHINA)
That was encouraging. Sort of. Yet it is still a shock when you step outside the splendid airport terminal and take your first breath of Beijing air.

It’s a strange if faint smell of something burning that fills your nose and senses. You’re not sure you want to open your mouth let alone take a deep breath. It’s not so bad that you feel a need to strap on a gas mask. But it’s bad enough to make you wonder — can this possibly be healthy for people who live here? How is anyone going to run a marathon here?
And is this a glimpse of the world’s future? Will the whole planet look and smell like this after another 100 years of burning fossil fuels?
(( Erik Kirschbaum, a self-confessed fresh-air fanatic, is a Reuters correspondent based in Berlin on assignment in Beijing.))

Olympic Bird’s Nest soup

The Olympics Bird’s Nest National Stadium disappeared into the pollution that enveloped Beijing earlier this week, before emerging as the air cleared on Friday. Each day’s photo was taken from my balcony at 8 a.m.

On a bad day the stadium’s central red stripe is barely visible.