Conservationists’ War on Rats.
Isolated islands throughout the world have served as ideal habitats for untold generations of seabirds. But when human explorers began visiting these islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought with them unwanted guests: rats. Rats are a major threat to the seabird populations of such islands as South Georgia island in the Antarctic region, Lord Howe Island, Australia and Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Now, conservationists are embarking upon an ambitious campaign to right an old wrong. They are attempting a complete eradication of the rats that were imported centuries ago in an attempt to restore the seabird populations to their former numbers.
White Nose Syndrome.
For several years now, the North American bat population has been plagued by a disease called white nose syndrome (WNS). The fungus responsible for the epidemic was identified in 2009. While no cure has been found, a new effort is underway to study the “molecular toolkit” of the fungus that kills millions of North American bats. By studying close relatives of the fungus, some of which can be found in Europe where the disease is less lethal, it may be possible to devise future treatments.
International Tiger Day.
July 29th has been designated as “international tiger day.” It represents the efforts of several organizations and national governments that are dedicated to saving the wild tigers of Asia. Today, only 7% of natural tiger habitat remains. There are an estimated 3,200 wild tigers remaining in isolated pockets where they face increased pressure from an active Asian black market for their skins and body parts and poachers who have easier access to the animals. One of the more ambitious plans is to double the remaining tiger population by 2022.
In Alberta, Canada a hidden camcorder captures how wildlife behaves when no humans are present. Watch what happens when the power of suggestion takes over and bears flock to a tree that acts as a favorite scratching post.
Mouse Memory Engineering.
A recent experiment conducted at MIT has unleashed an avalanche of speculation about the future of memory control in human beings. The MIT scientists used genetically engineered mice whose brains contained neurons that could be labeled when they formed specific memories. The memories themselves could be turned on and off using a chemical switch and a beam of light. The scientists then produced an unpleasant fearful memory for the mice in one environment and then, by using these switches, had the mouse experience the same fearful but false memory when it was in a different environment.
Monogamy’s Origins Still Unclear.
Unlike most animals, monogamy is somewhat common in primates. The question how it evolved as a behavior has been debated for many years. Two recent scientific papers provide new insights, although they don’t reach the same conclusions. One paper from British anthropologists from University College, London, among others, theorizes that caring for big-brained socially adept offspring was such a time intensive task, that it required two parents and that involving the male parent also prevented the risk of infanticide, which occurs when males kill infants not their own to drive the female back into estrus. But Zoologists at the University of Cambridge have at the same time posited a different theory: that it is the wide dispersion of female primates—reflecting the difficulty in finding adequate food—that led to the collateral consequence of monogamy.
New “Monster” Ant Species.
A University of Utah biologist has discovered 33 new ant species in Central America and the Caribbean. The ants are predatory and when viewed under a microscope they appear truly frightening. Recognizing this fact, and also to show that biologists have a sense of humor, he named the ant species after several mythical Mayan demons. As a result, one ant species has been named for a crocodile—like Mayan monster—while two others are named for death gods and the underworld they were believed to inhabit. There could be as many as 100,000 different ant species on earth.
How Wolves Help Bears.
In a sort of accidental alliance, researchers have found that the wolves of Yellowstone Park are actually assisting the grizzly bear population in a couple of ways. Wolves are responsible for a large number of elk killings. Bears are sometimes the beneficiaries, since if they can reach the elk carcass in time, they will relieve the wolves of their kill and gain valuable nutrition for themselves. Then there are the berries. Berries are not particularly numerous in Yellowstone Park because elk and deer feed on them extensively. However, when wolf packs are around, the elk and deer stay on the move leaving more berries, and more nutrition, for the bears.
New discoveries of life on earth continue to surprise us. Recently, researchers at the Aix-Marseille Université’s Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory in France described a class of new viruses that sets a world record for size. Called pandora viruses, they are immensely larger than other known viruses. Studies of the genetics of the pandora viruses show that their genes are unlike anything found elsewhere in the plant or animal world. This has led to speculation that the viruses might someday be categorized as a new and distinct “fourth domain of life.”
Negotiating With Your Microbes.
You take a prescribed medication and you assume it will enter your bloodstream as planned. But your intestinal microbes might have other plans. New research shows that some individuals have a strain of bacteria that can deactivate medications. In the study, the commonly prescribed heart drug digoxin was deactivated by a particular strain of gut bacteria that only some people harbor. However, which genes are active in gut bacteria can be changed by chemical intervention. Thus, when lab mice with the active digoxin gobbling strain were given an amino acid that deactivated the gene, the digoxin levels remained higher. The takeaway is that in the future, prescriptions will have to take into account a patient’s microbial state.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.