Posts about animals

Using Rats to Sniff Out TB

Apopo’s African giant pouched rats are being used to sniff out mines and TB

In the face of what the World Health Organisation is calling a global TB epidemic, an innovative tech startup named Apopo is attempting to reverse the harrowing statistics, using rodents to sniff out TB in cough and spit samples.

No ordinary lab rats, Apopo’s African giant pouched rats – affectionately named HeroRats – are extremely sensitive to smell, with more genetic material allocated to olfaction than any other mammal species. They are also highly social animals, and can be trained to communicate with humans.

I have written about these wonderful rats previously, Appropriate Technology: Rats Helping Humans by Sniffing Out Land Mines. As I have stated many time I especially enjoy engineering solutions that use affordable and effective methods to help everyone.

Photo of Hero-rat detecting TB in Mozambique with Apopo staff person

Hero-rat detecting TB in Mozambique

A DNA-screening device that takes up to two hours to analyse each individual sample with 95pc accuracy costs $17,000 and thousands more in upkeep. By contrast, a HeroRat costs $6,500 to train, can probe through hundreds of samples every hour [70-85% accuracy rate], and requires only food, water and cages for shelter.

Keep these innovations coming. The USA needs them also given the massively costly healthcare system in the USA.

The TB sniffing rat program was developed through Apopo in Tanzania.

Related: Rats Show Empathy-driven BehaviorBeehive Fence Protects Farms from ElephantsTuberculosis Risk (2007)Dangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat (2012)

US Fish and Wildlife Service Plans to Use Drones to Drop Vaccine Treats to Save Ferrets

Despite significant recovery successes, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Black-footed ferret

Black-footed ferret, photo by J. Michael Lockhart, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a plan to use (UAS) to deliver prairie dog sylvatic plague vaccination.

The primary purpose in this proposal is to develop the equipment, protocols and experience in use of UAS (drones) to deliver oral sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV). It is anticipated that this approach, when fully developed, will offer the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method to apply SPV annually over large areas of prairie dog colonies in support of black-footed ferret recovery.

Plague is a primary obstacle to black-footed ferret recovery. After more than 20 years of intensive reintroduction efforts across 27 reintroduction sites ranging from Mexico to Canada, approximately 300 ferrets were known to exist in the wild at the end of 2015. Ferrets are constantly threatened by plague outbreaks that affect both ferrets, and their primary prey and habitat provider, prairie dogs.

To date, SPV has been applied by hand with people walking pre-defined transects and uniformly dropping single SPV baits every 9-10 meters to achieve a deposition rate of 50 SPV doses per acre. Depending on vegetation and terrain, a single person walking can treat 3-6 acres per hour. All terrain vehicles (ATVs) have been considered but have various problems.

The bait treats are M&Ms smeared in vaccine-laden peanut butter.

Preliminary discussions with people experienced with UAS suggest an aerial vehicle travelling at a modest 9 meters per second could drop a single SPV bait once per second that would result in treating one acre every 50 seconds. If the equipment and expertise can be developed as proposed here, a single UAS operator could treat more than 60 acres per hour.

If the equipment can be developed to deposit 3 SPV doses simultaneously every second, as they envision is possible, some 200 acres per hour could be treated by a single operator. The idea is that the drone would fire the treats in 3 different directions to increase the spread of treats.

The areas to be treated are located in South Phillips County, Montana.

Related: Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless Areas (2014)The sub-$1,000 unpiloted aerial vehicles UAV Project (2007)Autonomous Flying Vehicles (2006)Cat Allergy Vaccine Created (2011)AlienFly RC Mosquito Helicopter (2007)

Backyard Wildlife: Great Tailed Grackle

Great tailed grackle, stalking in grass

I think this is a Great Tailed Grackle, please comment if you think I am wrong. This is taken in my backyard in Arlington, Virginia.

Great tailed grackle, sitting in grass

Related: Red-Shouldered HawkBackyard Wildlife: Fox and DeerBackyard Wildlife: Blue JayBackyard Wildlife – ChimpmunkBackyard Wildlife: Robins Attack Holly Tree

Mountain Lion Roams from South Dakota all the way to 30 Miles from Manhattan

book cover with image of a mountain lion

A Cougar’s Thousand-Mile Quest to Find a Mate

In the late summer of 2009, a young male cougar set off from the Black Hills of South Dakota to look for a mate. And kept going—east across the Great Plains to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and on to New England, through backyards and parking lots, across highways and railroad tracks, driven by the most powerful force on earth.

Over time he showed up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and in Wisconsin. He disappeared for a couple months, then shows up almost two years later, 30 miles from Manhattan, in Greenwich, Connecticut. In all he probably traveled 2,000 to 5,000 miles, enough to cross the country twice. He forded all the major rivers of the East, navigated highways and an international boundary. It was one of the most spectacular journeys by an animal ever recorded.

image of map showing the cougar's path across usa

In Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America William Stolzenburg provides an exciting tale of the cat’s journey.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: Mountain Lion (2012)Mountain Lions Returning to the Midwest USA for the First Time in a Century (2012)Big Cats in America (2004)USA Designates Large Areas of New Mexico and Arizona as Critical Habitat for Jaguars (2014)

Backyard Wildlife: Fox

photo of a fox in ivy under a holly tree

I have seen this (or another fox) several times recently but this was the first time it stayed visible long enough for me to get a photo. It is fun having backyard wildlife to connect us to nature.

A few years ago another fox enjoyed laying out in the sun in my backyard for a few weeks.

I am amazed how many animals I have seen in my backyard in a very urban area. In the last few weeks, in addition to this fox: possum, raccoon (I’ll post photos later), deer, squirrels, and various birds.

Here is an updated photo of deer, since my first few sightings didn’t result in a good photo.

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Parasite Evolved from Cnidarians (Jellyfish etc.)

This is another instance of science research providing us interesting details about the very odd ways life has evolved on earth.

Genome sequencing confirms that myxozoans, a diverse group of microscopic parasites that infect invertebrate and vertebrate hosts, are actually highly reduced cnidarians — the phylum that includes jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.

“This is a remarkable case of extreme degeneration of an animal body plan,” said Paulyn Cartwright, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas (KU) and principal investigator on the research project. “First, we confirmed they’re cnidarians. Now we need to investigate how they got to be that way.”

images of myxozoans parasite spores and a jellyfish

Not only has the parasitic micro jellyfish evolved a stripped-down body plan of just a few cells, but via data generated at the KU Medical Center’s Genome Sequencing Facility researchers also found the myxozoan genome was drastically simplified.

“These were 20 to 40 times smaller than average jellyfish genomes,” Cartwright said. “It’s one of the smallest animal genomes ever reported. It only has about 20 million base pairs, whereas the average Cnidarian has over 300 million. These are tiny little genomes by comparison.”

Despite its radical phasedown of the modern jellyfish’s body structure and genome over millions of years, Myxozoa has retained the essential characteristic of the jellyfish — its stinger, or “nematocyst” — along with the genes needed to make it.

“Because they’re so weird, it’s difficult to imagine they were jellyfish,” she said. “They don’t have a mouth or a gut. They have just a few cells. But then they have this complex structure that looks just like stinging cell of cnidarian. Jellyfish tentacles are loaded with them — little firing weapons.”

The findings are the stuff of scientific fascination but also could have a commercial effect. Myxozoa commonly plague commercial fish stock such as trout and salmon.

“They’re a very diverse group of parasites, and some have been well-studied because they infect fish and can wreak havoc in aquaculture of economic importance,” Cartwright said.

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Backyard Wildlife: Blue Jay

photo of a blue jay with a berry in its beak

Blue Jay in Arlington, Virginia (in my backyard). See more of my photos.

This is a picture I simply could not have taken before I bought my new camera (a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS Digital Camera with 65 times optical zoom). Birds are still hard to photograph but now at least occasionally I get a decent photo of birds. If you want to get photos of wildlife it is a great camera. And it is a wonderful camera in general.

I like just planting things that will feed and shelter birds (and others) rather than filling bird feeders myself. There is information on how to use your backyard to promote wildlife. I see many birds flying around in my backyard, which is quite nice. Blue jays are some of my favorites.

Blue jays diet is composed mostly of insects and nuts. They especially like acorns.

Young jays may be more likely to migrate than adults, but many adults also migrate. Some individual jays migrate south one year, stay north the next winter, and then migrate south again the next year. No one has worked out why they migrate when they do.

The pigment in blue jay feathers is melanin, which is brown. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: Robins Attack Holly TreeBackyard Wildlife: BirdsBackyard Wildlife: CrowsBackyard Wildlife: FoxBackyard Wildlife: Chimpmunk

Cancer Rates Consistent Across Species Instead of Increasing Due to Body Mass

It would seem sensible to think cancer should be more prevalent in species with a huge number of cells, and thus more cells to become cancerous. But cancer risk doesn’t increase in this way. This interesting, open source paper, sheds some light on what is behind this.

Solutions to Peto’s paradox revealed by mathematical modelling and cross-species cancer gene analysis

Whales have 1000-fold more cells than humans and mice have 1000-fold fewer; however, cancer risk across species does not increase with the number of somatic cells and the lifespan of the organism. This observation is known as Peto’s paradox. How much would evolution have to change the parameters of somatic evolution in order to equalize the cancer risk between species that differ by orders of magnitude in size? Analysis of previously published models of colorectal cancer suggests that a two- to three-fold decrease in the mutation rate or stem cell division rate is enough to reduce a whale’s cancer risk to that of a human. Similarly, the addition of one to two required tumour-suppressor gene mutations would also be sufficient.

We surveyed mammalian genomes and did not find a positive correlation of tumour-suppressor genes with increasing body mass and longevity. However, we found evidence of the amplification of TP53 in elephants, MAL in horses and FBXO31 in microbats, which might explain Peto’s paradox in those species. Exploring parameters that evolution may have fine-tuned in large, long-lived organisms will help guide future experiments to reveal the underlying biology responsible for Peto’s paradox and guide cancer prevention in humans.

Elephants in Kenya

Elephants in Kenya by John Hunter. See more photos from my trip to Kenya.

In another way it would make sense that large animals would have hugely increased risks of cancer. As they evolved, extremely high cancer rates would be a much bigger problem for them. Therefore it wouldn’t be surprising to find they have evolved a way of reducing cancer risks.

Despite these limitations, we found genes that have been dramatically amplified in specific mammalian genomes, the most interesting of which is the discovery of 12 TP53 copies in the genome of the African elephant. We subsequently cloned those genes and identified 19 distinct copies of TP53 in African elephants and 15–20 in Asian elephants [1]. Another potential lead for solving Peto’s paradox is MAL, which is found to have eight copies in the horse genome and two in microbat. This could be an example of convergent evolution where a large animal (horse) and a small, long-lived animal (microbat) both evolved extra copies of the same gene to overcome their increased risk of cancer. Further analysis and experimentation would need to be performed to determine the function of these copies and whether or not they provide enhanced suppression of carcinogenesis.

The researchers have found an interesting potential explanation for how that has been accomplished.

Related: The Only Known Cancerless Animal (the naked mole rat)Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellResearchers Find Switch That Allows Cancer Cells to SpreadCancer Vaccines

Backyard Wildlife: Deer

deer in woods

Deer in backyard by John Hunter – see more of my nature photos

Deer populations have been exploding across the USA in the last century. Before that deer populations had collapsed largely due to hunting. In the last 10 or 20 years populations of deer have been largely stable (though varying quite a bit by area).

The deer populations had increased (many predators were largely wiped out and with a dramatic decline in hunter) so much that more and more complaints were being made to local governments of problems with deer grazing on property and damaging cars when the cars hit deer crossing the road.

My neighborhood is urban and I have never seen deer in the neighborhood. About 5 blocks away there is a bike path with a tree lined strip of nature where I have very occasionally seen deer. The deer in the photos I imagine got here from that strip of habitat. There is a small area (next to a school which has trees that wouldn’t be so bad for a deer for 1 night). I figured the deer would leave.

But a few days later I saw new evidence of a deer eating some small trees in my backyard – though I wasn’t sure if I missed it before. Then a couple nights later I saw a deer grazing after dark in my backyard.

I have posted about other interesting wildlife in this backyard previously: Backyard Wildlife: Fox and Backyard Wildlife: Sharpshinned Hawk (see more below).

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Chimpanzees Use Spears to Hunt Bush Babies

Video replaced with new one because original was removed 🙁

Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools by Jill D. Pruetz and Paco Bertolani

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these.

Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

The full paper, from 2007, was available as a pdf when I visited (I don’t really trust these publishers and what articles by professors they will block access to later when they don’t clearly say it is open access – in fact the journal broke the link on the post I made about this in 2007 now that I checked – sigh).

The full paper isn’t filled with overly complex scientific jargon (as scientific papers can be). In that sense it is an easy read; it is a bit graphic for those that are squeamish.

Dr. Jill Pruetz maintains an interesting blog the Chimpanzees she studies: Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project

Related: Chimps Used Stones as HammersOrangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishCrows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

Virgin Births in the Animal Kingdom

Spectacular and Real Virgin Births

Scientists are discovering that virgin births occur in many different species; amphibians, reptiles, cartilaginous and bony fish and birds and it happens for reasons we don’t quite understand.

Initially, a virgin birth, also known as parthenogenesis, was thought to be triggered by extreme situations; it was only documented among captive animals, for example, perhaps by the stress, or isolation. A way to continue the bloodline when all other options had gone, when there was no other choice.

Not necessarily. It now appears that some virgin females produce offspring even in the presence of males.

Another interesting area of research for scientists. The value of sex to aid a species’ success is well understood. The value of being able to produce offspring when no males are around seems obvious also. But how this all works is quite interesting and again shows how much we have to learn.

Related: Fungus-gardening Ant Species Has Given Up Sex Completely (2010)Some Female Sharks Can Reproduce All by Themselves (2007)Amazon Molly Fish are All Female (2008)Bdelloid Rotifers Abandoned Sex 100 Million Years Ago (2007)

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