Category Archives: Conservation

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.

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:

The deadliest frog in the world

kermit pixabayAnd the deadliest frog in the world is….

NOT Kermit the Frog. Sorry. Although the idea of a nasty, Russian frog impersonating Kermit is pretty devious, neither Kermit nor the frog masquerading as him in the new Muppets movie hold a candle to the poison dart frog.

golden poison frog pixabayThe golden poison dart frog has enough poison to kill 10 people. It’s believed that their toxicity is related to their diet, as they consume insects that feed on poisonous tropical plants. The frogs absorb this poison and they’re able to secrete it out of glands on their backs when they feel threatened.

I’m definitely a frog lover, so this is fascinating to me! But even if you’re not a fan of these small amphibians, they may affect you more than you realize. By studying the venom of poison dart frogs, researchers are working to develop a synthetic compound intended for pain relief. This non-addictive, non-opioid drug is 200x stronger than morphine. Interested yet?

Frogs, snails, snakes, spiders, centipedes, slugs, and worms may make some people shudder, but the amazing things these animals are teaching us could make a huge difference to you and your loved ones! Some of the deadliest animals in the world helping with some of the deadliest diseases in the world? Unlike Kermit, that’s nothing to laugh at!

Sea turtles… and manicures??

iStock_000007256605XSmallLoggerhead sea turtles are amazing navigators- they can swim up to 15 miles per hour, and incredibly, females will return to the very beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs! This journey is still somewhat of a mystery, though- in the 10 years or so between the time the hatchlings leave the beach and later return as mature adults, we don’t really know what they do.

To get more information about these turtles’ “lost years,” researchers are using satellite tracking tags that were originally developed for birds. The problem? Figuring out a way to attach the tags to the turtles without hurting their shells or affecting their movement. But when the researchers working on this project recognized that turtle shells are similar to human fingernails in the way they shed layers of keratin, they looked for some outside collaboration- and that collaboration was with their manicurist!

With inspiration from fingernails, they used a base coat of acrylic lacquer before gluing the tags to the turtles’ shells. And it worked! The tags safely stayed in place for months, and researchers have already collected important data that is giving them information about these turtles’ behaviors and migrations. Read more!


Are there animals in YOUR medicine cabinet?

Dog and pills.How have animals helped YOU today? If you’re not familiar with research, you might not have any idea. But did you know that most of our medical advances wouldn’t have been possible without animals? It’s amazing to learn about the ways they’ve helped us!

Antibiotic ointment, aspirin, cold medicines, penicillin, anti-depressants, blood pressure and cholesterol medications, insulin, anti-coagulants, anesthesia, HIV drugs, chemotherapy, dialysis, CT scans, MRIs, prosthetics, organ transplants, and thousands of other medications and procedures were developed and determined to be safe for your use, thanks to dedicated researchers and the animals they work with.

The list goes on. I will guarantee that every person reading this has benefited from at least some of these advances. What’s more, I’ll bet your pets have benefited as well! And that’s a wonderful thing! Think of the symptoms we can alleviate due to medications, the life-threatening emergencies that we can SURVIVE, and the illnesses that our children may never get, thanks to vaccines. Polio, measles, cervical cancer, rabies, chicken pox, whooping cough, tetanus, Hepatitis B- and that’s just the beginning of the list!

EMBRACE it. Be thankful for it. The next time you reach into your medicine cabinet, take a minute to think about the scientific advances that led to the development of the medication that’s about to help you!

Prairie dogs and the ultimate game of Marco/ Polo!

iStock_000007957741XSmallMost people don’t have the opportunity to observe prairie dogs hanging out in groups in the wild. But if you did, you’d notice that they are playing an EPIC game- a combination of Marco/ Polo and “the wave” that was so popular at ballparks in the 90s.

Out of nowhere, prairie dogs will hop up on their back legs, stick their little hands up in the air, and yell “wee-oo!” And immediately, their buddies will all begin to answer them with a “wee-oo!” response, starting a wave of this behavior across the group. Seriously, you need to watch the videos of this below- it’s pretty cute.

So… why? It’s not just a fun way to pass the time- it’s also a way to check in on their buddies and make sure that everyone’s doing ok. It’s been described as a “test of their emergency broadcast system,” and as long as the one who called “Marco” gets a lot of “Polo” responses, they chill out. But if their friends fail to respond to the roll call, everyone is more alert for possible danger.

This Marco/Polo game shows that prairie dogs are cognizant of the mental states of individuals in their group- and understanding more about their social behavior is pretty cool!

Polar bear pregnancy test- from a beagle!

iStock_000002835475XSmallDogs giving pregnancy test results that rival over-the-counter accuracy? Yes! Keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo are working with a beagle named Elvis to determine polar bear pregnancy. Veterinarians found that ultrasound and progesterone monitoring are unreliable in determining pregnancy in these animals, so they turned to another option- and Elvis is pretty accurate!

Trained dogs are becoming more and more popular for medical applications. In addition to detecting the onset of seizures and variations in blood sugar levels, dogs have also been used to detect cancer- see an earlier post about dogs detecting ovarian cancer here:

Elvis is showing about 97% accuracy in determining pregnancy after sniffing fecal samples (pretty close to over-the-counter pregnancy tests for humans)! Earlier this year, his trainers were using samples from previously pregnant polar bears, so it will be interesting to see if Elvis’s predictions regarding this year’s potential moms are correct.

This is the first time that sniffer dogs are being used in biomedical research in wildlife species, and the applications are interesting- could sniffer dogs help researchers determine the reproductive health of other animals, both in captivity and in the wild? Read about it here:

Sea turtles and climate change: a new understanding

iStock_000007256605XSmallClimate changes definitely have an effect on loggerhead sea turtle populations- but for different reasons than researchers earlier suspected.

Earlier studies suggested that climate changes impacted hatchling survival. But new research shows that climate changes affect sea turtles in a different way. When climate changes affect turtles’ foraging areas in the year or two before their nesting years, breeding females aren’t able to reproduce successfully… thus, fewer nests.

Sea turtles can have extremely long lifespans. Unfortunately, less than .2% of hatchlings survive to breeding age. But those that do survive to breeding age (approximately 31 years) can have a successful breeding lifetime of over 25 years!

This study suggests that protecting juveniles and adults should be a higher priority than hatchlings. Not to say that protecting nests and hatchlings isn’t important, but since so few hatchlings survive, efforts should be focused on protecting the ones who do make it closer to breeding age in order to help the species more effectively.

These research studies are important because they give scientists clues as to how to channel conservation efforts. Check out this link for more information:

Zombie starfish and the researchers trying to save them

iStock starfishZombie starfish? Not what you’d expect to see on the California coast- but descriptions of this massive, unknown outbreak refer to a “zombie wasteland” and starfish with ”detached arms crawling away from their bodies.” An unknown wasting disease is turning starfish into goo, literally within hours, and is now affecting multiple species of sea stars, sea urchins, and lobsters. And this isn’t the first time this has happened- outbreaks in 1983 and 1997 were similar to this one, but nowhere near as extensive.

The big question: Why? What’s causing this, and what can researchers do to stop it?

By working to map this disease along the Pacific coast, researchers are hoping to find some clues as to the disease’s origins. As this is a pretty extensive project, reports from local citizens are also important in data collection- talk about collaborative research!

The most likely culprits at this point are low oxygen levels in the water and warmer temperatures, but further research will hopefully give researchers some clues as to the exact cause of the disease and how it spreads.


Resurrecting extinct species?

We’re not talking about Jurassic Park, but there are plenty of species that have recently gone extinct due to human interference. Deforestation, hunting, and human expansion have been the cause of countless species’ extinction, and many people believe that we have a moral obligation to attempt to do something about it.

Scientists have already used knowledge gained through research- including IVF, genetic testing, and novel tracking and census methods- to save species that were on the brink of extinction, including Bald Eagles, Grizzly Bears, Green Sea Turtles, Giant Pandas, the White Rhino, the Siberian Tiger… the list goes on and on.

Some researchers want to take these efforts even further. The Centre for Research and Food Technology of Aragon in Spain is starting a new project to look at frozen cells of the burcado, an extinct type of ibex, to see if the cells are viable enough to potentially bring this species back. While plans are in the early stages, it’s exciting to think that we could potentially ‘resurrect’ species that have recently gone extinct due to human actions. The Tasmanian tiger, Western Black Rhino, Javan Tiger, Japanese Sea Lion- what would you bring back if you could? What do you think about bringing extinct animals back?