Sunday, 21 October 2018

Plague marching west: researchers study bats to stop their demise

Scientists work to stay ahead of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungus that has killed millions of bats in the US and Canada

Kathleen McLaughlin in Monarch, Montana

Thu 18 Oct 2018 09.00 BSTLast modified on Thu 18 Oct 2018 16.59 BST

Nate Fuller was just starting out as a bat scientist nine years ago when he entered a massive cave in rural Pennsylvania to look for live animals. Instead, he found himself wading through a distressing muck, the decomposing bodies of thousands upon thousands of dead bats.

That was in the early years of white nose syndrome, the creeping, lethal fungus that has decimated North America’s bat population, killing millions of bats and sparking frantic research and conservation efforts across the United States and Canada.

In Fuller’s case, that traumatic discovery changed the trajectory of his career and led him here this month, to a remote cave site in central Montana, where he is part of a team of bat researchers led by the Wildlife Conservation Society studying the hibernation of western bat populations.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” Fuller remembered of his Pennsylvania experience.

Today, research related to white nose syndrome, one of the most devastating wildlife diseases of modern times, could be the only way to ensure that bats continue to survive.

Across the western United States and Canada, these scientists are nearing the end of one of the most comprehensive studies ever of the hibernation habits of bats. In three years, they have captured and studied 1,500 bats across seven US states and two Canadian provinces and several species. Most bat studies focus on small, specific populations in fixed areas but this one is tracking a whole region, trying to figure out which bats will make it through the coming plague.

Benny the beluga whale forces firework display postponement

Council in Kent told that disturbing the whale would breach wildlife law

Fri 19 Oct 2018 22.18 BSTLast modified on Fri 19 Oct 2018 22.39 BST

It has attracted plenty of spectators during its stay. But Benny the lost beluga whale, who took up residence in the Thames last month, may end up leaving the crowds disappointed after it was announced that a fireworks display would have to be postponed to protect him.

About 15,000 people were expected to gather for the annual bonfire night celebrations in Gravesend, Kent, on 2 November to see a display set off from a barge on the river.

However, council officials said on Friday that they had been advised to put back the event until the whale, who was first sighted in the Thames more than three weeks ago, left the area.

“While we understand this is also disappointing to the thousands of residents and visitors who enjoy our fantastic fireworks display every year, we have to ensure our special visitor is kept safe and well,” said David Turner, the leader of Gravesham borough council.

Tiny Nanoparticles To Treat Huge Problem: Snake Bites in Tropical Area - via Herp Digest

by Donald G. McNeil, Jr, 10/12/18, New York Times

It’s still a distant dream, but a Californian chemist and Costa Rican venom expert are reporting progress in a novel effort to make injectable nanoparticles that can neutralize snake venom and can be carried in backpacks.

In a recent study in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, their particles protected mice against tissue damage from spitting-cobra venom without triggering allergic reactions.

In wealthy countries, snakes are an abiding threat to an unlucky few, among them hikers, ranch hands, soldiers, zookeepers and reptile collectors.

In the tropics of Africa, Asia and Latin America, however, they are a major cause of death and disability in rural areas: more than 2 million people are bitten each year. About 100,000 of them die, and another 400,000 are left with serious disabilities, including amputations or nerve damage so extensive that a leg or hand is permanently useless.

Snakebite research has been slim, compared to the scope of the threat — and often controversial. Old first-aid maxims — like slitting open the wound and sucking out the venom — are now discredited.

There have been reports of electric shocks, including stun guns, used to break down the poisons. But most reports are anecdotal, and there is no accepted explanation about how they work — if they work.

Antivenins have existed for decades, of course, but they are expensive, potentially dangerous and used only rarely in poor countries. The medicines contain antibodies harvested from the blood of sheep or horses that have been injected with diluted venom and allowed to recover.

The process is cumbersome, and the antibodies must be kept refrigerated. Few drug companies bother to make antivenins, so the prices are high.
Because they contain horse or sheep proteins, antivenins also can trigger life-threatening anaphylactic shock or hemorrhaging. They must be given intravenously in an emergency room, and many bite victims die before they can reach hospitals.

Moreover, anti-venoms are very species-specific: a treatment for cobra bites, for example, will not help against rattlesnake or asp bites. Hospitals must keep many kinds of antivenins on hand, and victims must be able to produce or describe the snake that bit them.
“They have a lot of issues, but they’re the only show in town,” said Kenneth J. Shea, a chemist at the University of California, Irvine.

Dr. Shea’s lab is creating hydrogel nanoparticles coated with polymers — the building blocks of plastics — small enough to attach to proteins.

While screening them against common venoms, he isolated some nanoparticles that bind with and neutralize two poisons produced by snakes like cobras, kraits, coral snakes, sea snakes and mambas.

José María Gutiérrez, a venom specialist at the University of Costa Rica, injected dozens of mice with the venom of the black-necked spitting cobra. He found that Dr. Shea’s nanoparticles significantly reduced tissue damage in the mice. Importantly, the nanoparticles did not appear to interfere with normal proteins or to trigger dangerous allergic reactions.

Much more research needs to be done, Dr. Shea said, but the goal is to create a cocktail of particles that could be loaded in an injector like an Epi-Pen.

It would not completely replace antivenins. But since the nanoparticles are relatively easy to make and need no refrigeration, they could be carried in the field and injected into the site of a bite, reducing tissue damage and stopping the poison from spreading. That would buy time to reach better treatment.

Asked about the source of his funding, Dr. Shea said, “Well, right now I don’t have any money for this.”

The military expressed initial interest, he said, and so has the veterinary industry. But he also hopes to attract the attention of groups that fund global health research, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Wellcome Trust.

The path to regulatory acceptance may be a long one. Use of nanoparticles in medicine is relatively new, and for clinical trials involving snakebites, “there aren’t many volunteers,” Dr. Shea said.

This Week in History: Invasion of the European Wall Lizard - via Herp Digest

By: Veronica Cooper 10/13/18, Victoria B.C. 

Invasive species are a global problem, says Gavin Hanke, curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Royal BC Museum.

According to Hanke, here in southwestern BC the mild climate makes us particularly vulnerable to invasion by exotic species.

About 50 years ago, a dozen or so European Wall Lizards were released near Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island, and that small population has now grown to an estimated 500,000.

“The northernmost record is now Campbell River.  We have an isolated population up there” says Hanke.
“They’re on Denman Island, there’s one record in Duncan, Nanaimo, Mill Bay, Shawnigan Lake, and then from the Swartz Bay terminal all the way down to Metchosin.”

The creatures have also been spotted on the mainland.
“One record in Vancouver” says Hanke, “and we’ve got one record in Osoyoos now.

“The specimen in Osoyoos actually was a stowaway in a shipment of grapes, from Vancouver Island to Osoyoos. Luckily that lizard was caught, so it is now out of the population.”

The wall lizard is similar to Vancouver Island’s alligator lizard.
“A lot of people have trouble telling the wall lizard from our native alligator lizard” says Hanke.

“The wall lizard is about the same size, but much more slender.  The tail is more slender, the legs are longer, whereas the alligator lizard has a stocky, thick tail and short little legs.”

There is also a difference in colour.

“The wall lizards generally have a wash of green on them, or they’re vivid green, and the alligator lizards are usually coppery to grey brown” says Hanke.

Hanke is learning everything he can about this invasive species.

“The wall lizard does really well in urban environments.  That’s why its exploded over our region, because we just develop more and more housing districts.  It’s perfect for them.”

He’s grateful for the public’s input about these creatures.

“This is something that’s impacting our daily lives. Just this morning I got an email on lizards in Nanaimo.

“Citizen science is huge. It’s one of the best ways to get observation. I can’t be everywhere, but everyone can contact me.

“I get a lot of information just from ‘who’s found them in their yard, and when they first saw them’ and then they phone me, or email years later to say how the population’s building in their garden. It’s actually a lot of fun, and it’s great to build those connections with the community.”

Hanke wants to learn about their impact on other species, starting with what they eat.

“I’ve seen them eating ants, probably spiders, beetles, flies…actually, I got a photograph of a wall lizard that’s eating wasps, which is really neat.”
So can this invasive species be removed?

“I think we’re stuck with them” says Hanke.

“The original population was from north-central Italy, so, the climate there is just like this.  It’s a Mediterranean climate.

“These guys can actually survive with almost 30 percent of their body water freezing!  They’re remarkably resistant to winter, so this climate is perfect for them.

“It’s almost like they were pre-made for this area.  It’s very lucky for them that [Brentwood Bay is] where they got released.”

Hanke hopes the European Wall Lizard can be contained to Vancouver Island.

“I’m just hoping that we don’t get them in the BC mainland, because they could spread far and wide, and south into the US.”
If you would like to email Dr. Hanke about a wall lizard sighting in your area, you can reach him at

Friday, 19 October 2018

A Parasite Spread by Cat Poop Is Infecting (and Probably Killing) Whales in Canada

By Brandon Specktor, Senior Writer | October 18, 2018 02:32pm ET

Whales have it hard. For a century, they were hunted to a mere fraction of their preindustrial populations, and they now face constant threats from pollution, climate change and ongoing human meddling in the planet's waterways. It's a lot for a cetacean to worry about, and now, according to recent research, whales can add "cat poop" to their list of concerns.

In the new study, published online Sept. 27 in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, a team of marine researchers from Canada tested the brain and heart tissues of 34 beluga whales. The animals died in Quebec, Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary between 2009 and 2012. The researchers were looking for parasites — in particular, Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled parasite is commonly found in cats and is notoriously good at spreading to other animals, usually through feces. The team found that 15 of the whales (about 44 percent of the samples) tested positive for T. gondii.

Still, these findings don't prove that the whales died from this parasite, study co-author Stéphane Lair, a professor of veterinary medicine at the Université de Montréal, told the CBC. Rather, "it means [that the parasite was present] either in their heart or their brain." 

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