‘Terror bird’ was vegetarian

A giant “terror bird” deemed to have been one of Earth’s top predators after the demise of the dinosaurs was in fact probably a plant-loving herbivore, German scientists say.

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Palaeontologists have wrangled for years about Gastornis, a huge flightless bird that lived between 40 million and 55 million years ago.

Up to two metres high, Gastornis had a massive beak with a hooked top – a feature that looks so ferocious that many experts conclude the creature must have been a meat-eater, hence the “terror bird” monicker.

“The terror bird was thought to have used its huge beak to grab and break the neck of its prey, which is supported by biomechanical modelling of its bite force,” said University of Bonn geochemist Thomas Tuetken, who took part in a new assessment.

“It lived after the dinosaurs became extinct and at a time when mammals were at an early stage of evolution and relatively small.

“The terror bird was thought to have been a top predator at that time on land.”

Tuetken and his colleagues, though, reassessed the bird’s diet. They began to forge a pro-veggie opinion after they measured calcium isotopes in fossilised Gastornis bones found in a former open-cast brown-coal mine in Saxony-Anhalt, eastern Germany.

The residual signal of these isotopes is a telltale of what proportion of the animal’s diet came from meat versus plants.

The indicator gets “lighter” as the isotope passes down the food chain.

In theory, the bones of a supposed apex predator like Gastornis should have sent a strong signal.

But the team found the isotope levels were weak, similar to those of herbivorous mammals and dinosaurs held in museum collections. Carnivores, including the Tyrannosaurus rex, had a far stronger signature.

The work was showcased on Thursday at an annual international meeting of geochemists called the Goldschmidt Conference taking place this year in Florence, Italy.

The vegetarian view of Gastornis has had other recent backing from evidence in the United States.

Footprints from the American cousin to the Gastornis suggest that its feet did not have sharp claws, which are characteristic of predators.

And its big size meant that it may have been quite unable to hunt for small and nimble early mammals, which for carnivores were the food du jour, say some experts.

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Saints beat Dockers in AFL clash

Fremantle AFL coach Ross Lyon knew he was taking a risk by resting a third of his side for Saturday’s dead-rubber clash with St Kilda but he’s confident the ploy will pay dividends.

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Lyon’s men have qualified in third spot for the finals series despite suffering their fifth loss of the season as third-bottom side St Kilda recorded an emotion-charged victory 16.16 (112) to 6.5 (41) at Etihad Stadium.

Nick Dal Santo (34 disposals), Jack Steven and Leigh Montagna (47 each) led St Kilda’s dominance against Fremantle’s under-strength midfield as the Saints staged a fine farewell for retiring trio Stephen Milne, Justin Koschitzke and Jason Blake.

Milne kicked two goals and regular defender Blake scored one. Koschitzke in his 200th game booted four behinds, much to the disappointment of the crowd of 22,476.

Fremantle made 10 changes on Thursday and also pulled out Garrick Ibbotson and Chris Mayne before the game on Saturday in a bid to keep star players fresh for next week’s return trip to Victoria to play second-placed Geelong in a qualifying final.

Geelong were one-point winners over Brisbane at Simonds Stadium on Saturday. A loss for the Cats would have left Lyon to face questions over why he rested so many players when a full-strength Dockers’ lineup would have been likely to beat the Saints and claim second spot and a home final next week.

Lyon was quizzed on the topic during his post-match media conference on Saturday and news came through that the match in Geelong had ended and the Cats had won.

“That’s nice, see? Good judgement,” Lyon said.

“I understand everyone’s interest.

“We leave ourselves open to criticism. That’s okay.”

Lyon said beating the Cats in Victoria was difficult but not impossible.

“I like the Leigh Matthews (line). If it bleeds, you can kill it,” he said.

He said resting players was risky, but that’s life.

“It is significant to do it (Perth to Melbourne and return) back to back,” Lyon said.

“When you’re on alternate weeks the whole year, it doesn’t really stack up that in your first final you would like to go back to back. Hence the management.”

The Dockers were forced to substitute Clancee Pearce off early in the first term because of a calf injury.

Scoreless in the first term, Fremantle kicked four goals in the second quarter and trailed by 33 points at halftime and 46 at the last change.

“We had a priority to rotate our guys who are regulars and it put some pressure on the younger ones and some other guys,” Lyon said.

“Overall, Leigh Montagna and Nick Dal Santo, their class just shone.”

Lyon says the next week is an exciting time for the Dockers with the double chance in their pocket.

“The pretend season’s over and the real one starts,” Lyon said.

St Kilda coach Scott Watters was thrilled his retiring trio were sent off in the right manner.

“Our side was very good today, under the burden of a fair bit of emotion,” he said.

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Retail spending stays weak

Australian economic growth is still subdued, with retail spending staying weak.

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Retail spending rose 0.1 per cent in July, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported, worse than the 0.4 per cent rise economists were expecting.

Spending in June was unchanged (0.0 per cent) and only rose 0.2 per cent in May.

RBC Capital Markets senior economist Su-Lin Ong said the likely sub-trend pace of economic growth in the June quarter is continuing into the September quarter.

“We were particularly surprised by the weakness in retail sales,” she said. “We had thought the school kids bonus would boost retail activity, but that was not the case.

“It was another disappointing result, sales themselves remain pretty lacklustre.

“When you look at the breakdown, you can see weakness in some key categories, particularly department stores.”

The ABS also released trade and international investment figures which showed the current account deficit widened to $9.35 billion in the June quarter.

Ms Ong said the international trade figures were also quite weak.

“Net exports are pretty much not going to make a contribution to growth,” she said.

“It will confirm this below trend pace of economic activity.

“A pretty weak set of numbers all-around.”

Ms Ong said her forecast of 0.5 per cent economic growth for the June quarter is staying unchanged.

The gross domestic product data will be released by the ABS on Wednesday.

CommSec chief economist Craig James said consumer caution ahead of the federal election, along with a warm winter, had contributed to flat retail spending in June.

“Clearly the election has had a big influence in terms of slowing down the desire for consumers and businesses to spend,” Mr James said.

“We have to wait until the election is out of the road to see how the economy responds to low interest rates.”

Mr James also said the international trade figures pointed modest economic growth in the June quarter.

“The contribution of net exports to GDP in the June quarter was effectively zero, and then you’ve got government spending which is actually going to detract from GDP growth – it suggests a very modest outcome in terms of the economy for the quarter,” Mr James said.

“It suggests that for the first time in a long time, we could see the US economy growing at a faster rate than Australia, which is just quite remarkable.

“The positive is that the trade sector is not restraining or detracting from economic growth in a big way but the other side of the equation, the bad news, is that exports are not adding to growth at the moment.”

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Musharraf facing fresh murder charges

Pakistan police have registered murder charges against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in connection with the death of a radical cleric during the siege of a mosque in 2007.

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It is the latest in a series of charges dating back to Musharraf’s 1999-2008 rule, which the retired general has faced since returning from self-imposed exile in March.

Radical cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was one of more than 100 people killed after Pakistani troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad on July 10, 2007. Ghazi’s brother, Abdul Aziz, escaped in a burqa.

The operation opened the floodgates to a Taliban-led insurgency that has killed thousands of people in Pakistan.

“The High Court ordered Islamabad police to register murder charges against Musharraf on a petition filed by the son of Rashid Ghazi,” said Tariq Asad, a lawyer who represented Ghazi in court, on Monday.

“The court ordered police to register the case earlier as well but their instructions were not followed. Today, the court made Islamabad police officials write the case inside the court room and comply with the orders right there,” he said.

Police confirmed that the charges had been registered.

“We have booked Musharraf under section 302/119 of the law, which deals with murder charges,” Qasim Niazi, a senior police official, told AFP.

An anti-terrorism court last month charged Musharraf with the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who died in a gun and suicide attack after a political rally in December 2007.

It was the first time a head of Pakistan’s army has been charged with a crime, challenging beliefs that the military is immune from prosecution and threatening to fan tensions with civilian institutions.

While murder will be difficult to prove, it may embolden efforts to try Musharraf for treason for seizing power in 1999 and for violating the constitution by sacking judges and imposing emergency rule in 2007.

Treason can carry the death penalty.

Musharraf also faces murder accusations over the 2006 death of Baluch rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

Musharraf has been under house arrest at his plush villa on the edge of Islamabad since April.

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Williams calmly prepares for US Open

With four US Open titles already salted away, women’s top seed Serena Williams could be ready to coast psychologically at this year’s event.

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But the world number one who was shocked last weekend with a finals loss in Cincinnati by second-ranked rival Victoria Azarenka says that while her competitive fires burn as strongly as ever, she still has the satisfaction that she has accomplished almost everything possible in the sport.

“I don’t need to do anything, that’s the beauty of my career,” said the 16-time grand slam winner as she prepared for a Monday start in the first round against former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.

“I don’t need to do anything at all, everything I do from this day forward is a bonus,” said the 32-year-old 16-time grand slam champion.

“Everything for me is just extra.”

But at the same time, the chance to defend her New York title is also driving her current game after winning eight WTA titles this season.

Williams may now rightly be wary of Azarenka after her Cincinnati defeat while holding a lead in the final set of a roller-coaster match.

The Belarussian, now settled in the same Manhattan Beach Californian costal neighbourhood as Maria Sharapova – missing from the Open with a shoulder injury – and newly arrived resident Williams has won only three times in their 16 meetings.

But of the victories occurred this season, in Doha and Cincy in hardcourt finals.

Joining Williams on court Monday will be elder sister Venus, who faces a tough ask at age 33 against Belgian 12th seed Kirsten Flipkens.

Polish third seed Agnieszka Radwanska plays Silvia Soler-Espinosa while China’s Li Na starts against Olga Govortsova and young American Sloane Stephens, who knocked Williams out in the Australian Open quarters, plays Mandy Minella.

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