Category Archives: Animal Behavior

Ebola: Can dogs transmit the virus?

iStock_000011963680LargeRecently, there’s been a lot in the news about Ebola and dogs- particularly, about a dog in Spain named Excalibur, who was euthanized on Wednesday, October 8th. Excalibur was the family pet of a nurse’s assistant who is currently being treated after contracting the virus. The question: can dogs carry and transmit the virus?

Wild animals are certainly capable of carrying and transmitting the virus. The World Health Organization recognizes that Ebola is transmitted to people from wild animals, and fruit bats are considered to be the natural host of the Ebola virus. Infection has been documented in wild bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope, and porcupines. However, there are no conclusive studies showing that dogs can transmit Ebola to humans. But there also aren’t any conclusive studies showing that dogs don’t pose a risk, either.

During the 2001-02 Ebola outbreak in Gabon, dogs were exposed to Ebola from eating dead animals that had been infected with the disease. Researchers took blood samples from over 400 dogs, and results suggested that dogs could be infected by Ebola and potentially remain asymptomatic. It’s possible that viral particles could be excreted in urine, feces, and saliva (as has been seen in other animals), potentially putting humans at risk of contracting the virus. But again, no concrete answers. This study shows that the dogs were exposed to the virus and their immune systems responded to it, but it still doesn’t tell us whether or not dogs that have encountered Ebola can shed the virus or not. 

Without conducting specific research into canine infection, at this point, the short answer is that researchers really aren’t sure whether or not dogs can transmit the virus to humans. The decision to euthanize Excalibur has evoked strong emotions and responses, and rightly so. Many are outraged at Excalibur’s death. Some argue that he should have been quarantined and tested to determine whether or not he was a risk to the human population; others are taking the “better safe than sorry” approach. What do YOU think? Should Excalibur have been euthanized? How should companion animals be handled if their owners contract the virus? We’d love to hear your thoughts- please post below.

Invisibility cloaks: Out of science fiction and into reality

iStock_000042489660LargeInvisibility cloaks are becoming one step closer to reality, thanks to cephalopods. Octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish have the ability to change the color and texture of their skin to match their surroundings, and by studying these animals, researchers at MIT and Duke University have created a material that can change color and texture on demand.

In cephalopods, muscle contractions change the shapes of pigment sacs and skin texture into a large variety of colors and patterns. This new octopus-inspired material works by using voltage changes to activate molecules in the elastomer. Essentially, you’d use a remote control to change color and texture. When you turn it off, it returns to its original state. Watch the video in the link here.

Besides being very popular with Harry Potter fans, this technology is really important. A system that can modify its camouflage with a touch of a button could be extremely useful, and even life-saving. Researchers are interested in developing anti-fouling coating for ships, and military camouflage could be revolutionized. Can you think of other applications where changing the texture or color of an object could be useful? Post your ideas in the comments below!

https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/material-changes-color-texture-octopus-0916

See some other ways the octopuses are awesome: http://fbresearch.org/octopuses-are-awesome-see-why/

Premature infants and the benefits of massage

iStock_000013183519LargeThe health of premature infants has been helped considerably by researchers who have been working on a study in rats that started in 1979. The research shows that the health conditions of premature infants can be improved significantly by introducing certain massage techniques.

Using these stimulation techniques, it’s been found that premature infants have been able to be released from the ICU an average of six days earlier than when these techniques weren’t used. Not only is this beneficial for infant health, it’s also a significant cost savings for insurance companies- a win-win for everyone.

Interestingly enough, when the research study started, the original questions that were being asked had nothing to do with premature infants. Instead, researchers were trying to determine how applying moderate pressure to rats could affect a particular brain growth enzyme. Later, it was found that this stimulation also improved brain growth in premature infants. This isn’t the first time that research studies have led to results that led scientists in a different direction. Read about more research with unexpected results here- including Viagra and new medication to improve recovery after heart attacks.

This research has earned a Golden Goose Award, which will be awarded near the end of September 2014. This is a great recognition- and also a reminder that the support of basic research is extremely important! Who knows where it could lead next?

Read more about it here: http://www.dukechronicle.com/articles/2014/09/11/golden-goose-award-presented-duke-researchers-rat-study

Salamanders: The future of wound healing

salamanderSalamanders are pretty awesome. They can regenerate limbs that have been lost, and they’re able to heal body parts even after pretty significant damage. So it’s not a stretch to think that these small amphibians are providing some inspiration for the next generation of wound healing therapies in humans.

Researchers discovered a peptide in salamander skin called tylotoin that promotes wound healing. In laboratory studies, this peptide also promoted wound healing in mice with skin wounds. Tylotoin works by increasing the motility and production of certain types of cells, and as a result, skin cell regeneration and tissue formation around the wound occur more quickly.

Pretty amazing! And this type of research illustrates the importance of animal models in several different ways. Researchers were able to isolate this specific protein from the salamander AND prove its effectiveness on the mouse. Hopefully, unlocking the salamander’s secrets will also be able to help humans recover from injuries more quickly. Read more about it here:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/foas-ssp090214.php

Teaching fish how to walk teaches us about evolution

google free bichirIn an incredible research study, scientists studied juvenile bichir (a type of fish) on land to understand the evolutionary changes that may have taken place about 400 million years ago. That’s right- teaching fish how to walk is teaching researchers about evolution! These African fish are unique because they have lungs AND gills, and juveniles will sometimes walk on their fins. Researchers believe that bichirs walk in a way that is similar to early tetrapod ancestors.

When scientists looked at the differences in walking ability between bichirs raised in an aquatic environment versus bichirs raised in a terrestrial environnment, they found that the terrestrial animals became much more efficient at walking. What’s more, their anatomy began to change to facilitate walking!

Watch the video here- it’s interesting!

This research suggests that organisms’ anatomy is changed in response to environmental changes. This is called developmental plasticity. The theory is that developmental plasticity gave early ancestors of tetrapods the ability to walk onto land. Once in a terrestrial environment, the animals were forced to evolve more quickly to keep up with the environment.

This research is amazing, because scientists pretty much created a snapshot of evolution right in the laboratory! They also provided a pretty good basis for the argument that plasticity was important in the evolutionary steps that led to walking. Read more about it here: http://www.nature.com/news/how-fish-can-learn-to-walk-1.15778

Sheepdogs and robots- there’s a connection!

google free sheepdogsWhat do sheepdogs and robots have in common? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but actually, there’s a real connection! By studying sheepdogs and understanding the way they manipulate herds of sheep, researchers are learning how to create models that will mimic these strategies and improve the efficiency of robots.

Researchers fitted sheep and sheepdogs with GPS devices on harnesses to attempt to develop a mathematical model for herding. They found that sheepdogs use two main rules when working: 1) collect the sheep when they’re scattered and 2) move them forward when they’re all together. It’s surprisingly simple- and it’s more efficient than many current models that have been attempted! The dogs are constantly reviewing the situation in front of them to determine if the sheep are gathered together enough to drive forward, and if not, they herd them closer together. Using these two rules, a dog can herd over 100 individual animals, but current robot models can only handle groups of about 40. The understanding gained from these dogs may change that!

Learning from sheepdogs can likely make a big difference in the development of computer models and robots created for herding, cleaning the environment, and crowd control. As usual, I’m amazed at the knowledge that we’re able to gain by studying man’s best friend!

Read more about this research here and here.

Hummingbirds, helicopters, and hovering

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (archilochus colubris)Animals can be extremely helpful to researchers as they are trying to understand human disease. But now, a tiny bird is teaching researchers about hovering- and they hope to use hummingbirds as an inspiration to build more efficient helicopters!

They found that a particular micro helicopter is about as efficient as the average hummingbird, which is pretty amazing. But there’s still room for improvement. By visualizing airflow around hummingbird wings, researchers were able to measure the drag and lift force exerted at various angles and speeds. They also studied the hummingbird’s wing aspect ratio (the ratio of wing length to wing width) to determine how performance could be improved. It’s possible that understanding the ways that these birds change direction quickly and remain steady in strong winds can help researchers improve the efficiency of current helicopters.

Check out this slow-motion video of a hummingbird in action- it’s pretty neat! Read more about this research here:

http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/11/99/20140585.abstract

Mosquito bites could become ancient history

tiger-mosquito-49141_640Now that summer’s here, have you noticed that the mosquitoes are out in full force? Did you know that mosquitoes cause more human suffering and disease than any other organism on the planet? Over 750,000 people a year die from mosquito-borne illnesses, and it’s not just humans that are affected! Mosquitoes spread dog heartworms, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other diseases that affect our pets and local wildlife. But there might soon be a solution!

Researchers have figured out a way to genetically engineer mosquitoes that could dramatically reduce or eliminate some mosquito-borne illnesses. In these mosquitoes, when sperm is produced, the X chromosome that the male would normally pass on to its female young is destroyed, so 95% of the time they only have male offspring. Why does this matter? Well, male mosquitoes don’t bite- the females do. Females spread disease, and one female can lay up to 3,000 eggs over the course of her lifetime.

Hopefully, this type of pest control could eliminate many mosquito-borne illnesses. But could this type of gender control work in other species? Could this research have applications in the understanding and management of X-linked diseases? What do you think?

Read more about it here:

http://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/boys-only-experiment-could-end-biting-mosquitoes-n126806

Sea otters helped by artificial clams

iStock_000032380552SmallIn the last five years, 24 sea otters have stranded and died in the Monterey Bay area. Veterinarians noticed a strange yellow coloration to the animals, so they performed necropsies and determined that the cause of death was something pretty unexpected- microcystin.

Microcystin is a cyanotoxin produced by algae, and because it’s generally found in freshwater, deaths in ocean mammals are particularly troubling. Investigation led researchers to a nearby freshwater lake, where they used ‘artificial clams’- small bags of polystyrene beads- to give them some answers. The bags can be left in the water for periods of time, and much like real clams, they passively absorb toxins. Later, they can be analyzed to determine toxin levels over a period of time.

Researchers confirmed that the lake was the source of the problem. They found that a combination of natural phosphorous in the underlying rock combined with chemical runoff from local agriculture created the perfect environment for the algae that produces microcystins. When the lake water fed into the ocean, invertebrates such as clams and mussels in the ocean collected the toxin and concentrated it. When sea otters fed on the toxic clams, they were slowly poisoned.

They’ve found the source, but now it’s a question of how to address it. Researchers are working on potential treatments for microcystin poisoning (with the help of rats!), and hopefully, this will lead to treatments that can help marine animals as well as humans.

http://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/39864/title/Sea-Otter-s-Scourge/

Fertility may be affected by a woman’s perception of her environment

Beautiful pregnant woman relaxing in the parkIs it possible that a woman’s fertility is affected by her perception of the safety of her environment? Researchers are trying to figure out how to answer this question, and you’re not going to believe which tiny animals are helping them. Roundworms!

Roundworms reproduce by themselves by carrying around their own sperm AND eggs. And it turns out that when the worm’s environment is favorable (enough nutrition, not too much competition), they reproduce better. A chemical trail from the worm’s nose to its ovaries ramps up production of prostaglandins, which help guide the sperm to the eggs.

Roundworms are a good model for this type of research, because the worm’s skin is transparent, so sperm motility is easy to observe. Now, researchers are expanding on these studies by looking at prostaglandin levels in human patients to see if they’re correlated with fertility. But the thought that smell and the perception of the environment could alter fertility is interesting, and it could possibly lead to therapies that could help humans and animals with fertility problems!

Research in these worms indicates that the production of prostaglandins might be possible in more ways than previously thought, and in addition to possibly answering some questions about fertility, roundworms might be able to give researchers insight into different targets for pain management and cancer treatments. Read more about it here:

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-05-roundworms-fertility.html