Thursday, November 30, 2006

Baby Alligators Hatch in Dorset (UK)

A type of alligator has been bred along the Jurassic coast of Britain for the first time in about 30 million years, a breeder said today. Two tiny Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman - a type of alligator - have already hatched and nine more viable eggs are on their way in Dorchester, Dorset.
Reptile expert Jerry Cole said: "Fossil records indicate it's about 30 million years since they were last breeding along the Jurassic coast in Dorset, give or take a few million years. I'm also probably the first private person to breed the crocodilians in the UK."
The 10 inch babies are being fed goldfish and insects to help them grow up to 1.5 metres, when they will feast on rodents. Their natural habitat is the Amazon, and Mr. Cole, of BJ Herp Supplies, plans to keep a couple, with the rest going to zoos and specialist private collectors.
"The babies are miniature versions of the adults, able to do everything from the moment they hatch," said Mr. Cole. "They could give you quite a nasty nip." Mr. Cole has one male and two females, including the mother. He was also the first breeder in the UK to hatch Fiji banded iguanas, earlier this year.
The Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman, Latin name Paleosuchus palpebrosus, is a crocodilian reptile from South America. It is found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela. It is also the smallest species of the alligatoridae family, reaching up to 1.5 meters long.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Monster Fish Crushed Opposition With Strongest Bite Ever

Chomping champion ... The dunkleosteus measured up to 10 metres long, weighed 3600 kgs and had armour-plating around its head.

Chomping champion ... The dunkleosteus measured up to 10 metres long,
weighed 3600 kgs and had armour-plating around its head.
Photo: Reuters / Source: Sydney Morning Herald

Meet Dunkleosteus, a four-tonne, 10-metre, armour-plated fish that was arguably the first king of the beasts. The monstrous fish cruised the oceans [long] ago, preying on creatures much larger than itself, its blade-like fangs adept at tearing its quarry in two.
Using fossilised skull remains, scientists have built up a biomechanical model of the fish's powerful jaw and surrounding musculature, and they say it had the strongest bite of any fish ever to exist.
Philip Anderson's team at the University of Chicago found that the predator's jaws snapped shut with a force of more than five tonnes. The jaws were articulated by a unique mechanism based on four rotational joints working in harmony, they report in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, published yesterday.
Dunkleosteus was the first known large predator, pre-dating the dinosaurs. It belonged to a diverse group of armoured fish, placoderms, that dominated the oceans in the Devonian period. Its formidable bite allowed it to feast on other armoured aquatic animals, including primitive sharks and smaller creatures protected by bone-like casings. "Dunkleosteus was able to devour anything in its environment," Dr Anderson said.
While lacking true teeth, the fish used two long, bony blades in its mouth to snap and crush nearly any creature unfortunate enough to encounter it. The bladed jaws, which enabled the beast to take on prey much larger than its mouth, are a feature sharks did not develop until [much] later.
"It kind of blows sharks out of the water as far as bite force goes," Mark Westneat, the curator of fishes at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and co-author of the paper, said. "A huge great white shark is probably only capable of biting at about half that force." He added: "The most interesting part of this work for me was discovering that this heavily-armoured fish was both fast during jaw-opening and quite powerful during jaw-closing. This is possible due to the unique engineering design of its skull and different muscles used for opening and closing. And it made this fish into one of the first true apex predators seen in the vertebrate fossil record."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

New Species of Snake Found in North Bengal

Twenty nine species of snakes, including eight new and ten very poisonous [sic] kinds, have been found in Jaldapara and Chilapata forests of North Bengal in an on-going survey.
The survey, being conducted by snake expert Mintoo Choudhury and a group of forest personnel, also found a number of rare species of snake in the two forests, divisional forest officer, Cooch Behar, Manindra Biswas said today. The new species of snakes found would be sent to Kolkata, he said.
A rare species of snake named 'Trinkle' found during the search at Shiltorsha Forest was last seen about 26 years ago, he said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Disease Threat From Exotic Pets Could Rival Terrorist Attack

Exotic animals captured in the wild are streaming across the U.S. border by the millions with little or no screening for disease, leaving Americans vulnerable to a virulent outbreak that could rival a terrorist act. Demand for such wildlife is booming as parents try to get their kids the latest pets fancied by Hollywood stars and zoos and research scientists seek to fill their cages.
More than 650 million critters — from kangaroos and kinkajous to iguanas and tropical fish — were imported legally into the United States in the past three years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. That's more than two for every American. Countless more pets — along with animal parts and meats — are smuggled across the borders as part of a $10 billion-a-year international black market, second only to illegal drugs.
Most wildlife arrive in the United States with no quarantine and minimal screening for disease. The government employs just 120 full-time inspectors to record and inspect arriving wildlife. There is no requirement they be trained to detect diseases. "A wild animal will be in the bush, and in less than a week it's in a little girl's bedroom," said Darin Carroll, a disease hunter with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While exotic pets from Africa, Asia and South America can be cute and fashionable, scientists fear that bacteria and viruses they carry can jump to humans and native animals. Recent statistics raise the alarm.

Zoonotic diseases — those that jump to humans — account for three quarters of all emerging infectious threats, the CDC says. Five of the six diseases the agency regards as top threats to national security are zoonotic, and the CDC recently opened a center to better prepare and monitor such diseases. The Journal of Internal Medicine this month estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died. U.S. experts don't have complete totals for Americans, but partial numbers paint a serious picture:

  • Hantavirus, which is carried by rodents and can cause acute respiratory problems or death, has sickened at least 317 Americans and killed at least 93 since 1996.
  • More than 600 people have been sickened since 2000 with tularemia, a virulent disease that can be contracted from rabbits, hamsters and other rodents. At least three people have died.
  • Three transplant patients in New England died last year after receiving organs from a human donor who had been infected with the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus from a pet hamster. There have been 34 U.S. cases since 1993.
  • More than 210,000 Americans were sickened between 2000 and 2004 with salmonella, and at least 89 died. Most infections come from contaminated food — but up to 5 percent have been linked to pets, especially such reptiles as iguanas and turtles. And last year, at least 30 people in 10 states were sickened with a drug-resistant form linked to hamsters and other rodent "pocket pets."

Some of the scariest diseases to emerge since 2001 also have been tied to exotic animals: One of the first times the deadly Asian bird flu reached the West was in eagles smuggled aboard a plane to Europe. Likewise, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is believed to have jumped to people from caged civet cats in a Chinese market. The cats are believed to have gotten the virus from bats.

Carroll, the disease hunter, knows the dangers well. For the past three years, he has traveled the globe tracing the origins of a monkeypox outbreak in 2003 that sickened dozens of adults and children in the U.S. Midwest. That disease, related to smallpox, is believed to have spread to people from rodents imported from Africa as pets. While no victims died, scientists are eager to understand the disease so they can stop a future outbreak.
Another newly discovered threat involves a current rage among exotic pet owners: a small carnivorous mammal with sharp teeth called a kinkajou. The nocturnal, tree-dwelling animals originally from Central and South America's rain forests have a dangerous bite — as Paris Hilton recently learned. The actress used to carry her pet kinkajou named "Baby Luv" on her shoulder as she partied. This summer, Hilton landed in an emergency room when Baby Luv bit her on the arm. The concern about a bite is real.
In 2005, a kinkajou bit a zookeeper in England on the wrist. The keeper's hand became infected, and she almost lost her fingers, said Dr. Paul Lawson, a University of Oklahoma microbiologist who first identified a new bacterium specific to kinkajous. The first antibiotics doctors prescribed didn't work, so a combination of several was used to stop the aggressive infection. Scientists worry that most Americans are ignorant of the threats, and the government's defenses are limited.

Though such diseases can spread to humans in many ways, the exotic pet trade is a growing concern because of its lack of government oversight and its reliance on animals caught in the wild. The legal wildlife trade in the United States has more than doubled in the past 15 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Last year alone, there were more than 210 million animals imported to the United States for zoos, exhibitions, food, research, game ranches and pets. The imports included 203 million fish, 5.1 million amphibians, nearly 1.3 million reptiles, 259,000 birds and 87,991 mammals. Imported mammals caught in the wild range from macaque monkeys and chinchillas to wallabies and kangaroos. Only wild birds, primates and some cud-chewing wild animals are required to be quarantined upon arriving in the United States. The rest slip through with no disease screening, except for occasional Agriculture Department checks for ticks. "Taking an animal from the wild and putting it in your child's bedroom is just not a good idea," said Paul Arguin, a CDC expert on exotic animal imports. "We just don't know a lot about the diseases these animals carry."

The known diseases that can jump from exotic pets to humans are many:

  • Rodents can carry hantavirus as well as Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, which causes high fever, muscle pain and severe bleeding in humans and can lead to death.
  • Quarantines in 1989 and 1990 helped lead to the discovery of a new strain of the hemorrhagic disease Ebola in some primates. The primates either died or were killed.
  • Then there are the mystery diseases, which scientists have yet to understand.

During the 1990s, desert jumping rodents called jerboas were imported to Texas from Egypt as pets, according to Alan Green, a wildlife expert. Many new owners fell ill with a strange rash that defied treatment.

Loopholes abound with legal imports, even when screening and quarantine occurs. For instance, the thousands of monkeys that are imported each year for research from countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam are quarantined for at least 31 days. While the monkeys are checked for tuberculosis, they aren't tested for other diseases unless they show signs of sickness.
However, monkeys can carry dangerous viruses and bacteria that don't make them sick but can harm people. For example, herpes B virus is a pathogen carried by 80 to 90 percent of adult macaques. The virus may not harm the macaques, but humans can be infected and suffer severe neurological damage or death.
In 1997, a 22-year-old researcher at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta died from herpes B virus weeks after a caged monkey splashed something in her eye. Though the CDC has prohibited importation of most monkeys as pets since 1975, some macaques imported for research are now being sold on the open market. "Whatever researchers are using and importing in great numbers is what we see in the pet trade," said April Truitt of the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholas, Ky. The government acknowledges it doesn't track where animals go after quarantine.

Illegal trade presents another challenge. "If you can think of it, you can get it," said Mira Leslie, a disease expert in Washington state. Smugglers have been known to tape small tubes filled with birds on their legs to smuggle them through airports or to cut deep boxes into car seats filled with exotic wildlife to drive across the Mexican border. Inspectors have been on heightened alert looking for smuggled birds since a man in 2004 smuggled two Crested Hawk-Eagles on a flight from Bangkok, Thailand, to Brussels, Belgium. He had wrapped them in white cloth and stuffed them into handmade, wicker tubes that he carried in a handbag.
Officials later learned that a well-known bird collector ordered the eagles for thousands of dollars. When the birds were tested, they were found to be infected with a strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus. Fortunately, no human was infected.

America's defenses are a bureaucratic nightmare. Laws are outdated and no single agency is responsible for pre-empting the next outbreak.

  • The CDC is in charge of human health and the quarantine of imported monkeys.
  • The Agriculture Department has primary responsibility for livestock health and the quarantining of wild bird imports and wild cud-chewing animals.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with stopping smuggled wildlife and enforcing laws that protect exotic and endangered species.
"The three agencies don't work together," said Cathy Johnson-Delaney, a veterinarian who advised the Agriculture Department during the early 1990s. "We should be screening all critters coming into the U.S. We aren't doing this." The CDC's Arguin acknowledges oversight of wildlife imports is reactive at best, noting that civet cats were banned from sale only after the SARS outbreak and the increased screening of birds occurred only after H5N1 started sweeping through Asia.

Jasen Shaw, president of U.S. Global Exotics, one of the largest American wildlife dealers, opposes banning exotic animal imports but acknowledges, "It doesn't do the industry any good to have diseases slip through."Quarantine for all mammal imports — which are more likely to carry diseases that jump to humans — could be a solution. Shaw said, however, that the industry would be wary of regulations that were too restrictive. Mass quarantining would be very expensive, he added.
Marshall Meyers, of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents the $30-billion-a-year pet industry, advocates a risk-based system. Disease threats posed to humans by other mammals is far greater than those posed by fish, he explained, so tighter regulation on certain species might be warranted.
The CDC convened a meeting this spring to examine the lack of oversight, exploring options but making no recommendations. With no government action imminent, some support a private solution. "We should shift the burden to importers to prove that the animal imports are safe," said William Karesh, a zoonotic disease expert who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He suggests exotic importers take out insurance to foot the bill if their animals cause an outbreak."Why should you and I bear the cost of an outbreak when the industry makes all the money off this trade?"

Saturday, November 25, 2006

NIU's ‘snake lady' Gets National TV Exposure

Northern Illinois University doctoral candidate Kristin Stanford shows off some of the endangered water snakes she is working with in Ohio. Provided ph
They bite her and they smell, but Kristin Stanford is the biggest cheerleader for the Lake Erie Water Snake. The Northern Illinois University doctoral candidate said she became the “Island Snake Lady” by chance.
When she was working on her master's degree in biology, she spent a summer working with small mammals in Chile and the next summer with garter snakes.
The next year, NIU biology professor Rich King offered her an opportunity to work in Ohio on a project with the water snakes. The project would be another student's dissertation and she would be a field assistant. “He said it would be a good summer job and I'd get involved with some research,” she said.
The students were to put transmitters in the endangered snakes, which are indigenous to an island in Lake Eerie. They would later use a radio to find out the snakes' patterns. But when the other student dropped out of school, King asked her to take over the project.
When I came out to Ohio (in 2002) it was funny because a lot of residents knew the snake project was going to start,” Stanford said. “They knew it was a student named ‘Terry,' and she was going to be the ‘Snake Lady.'
Stanford, who is now the recovery plan coordinator for the endangered Lake Erie Water Snake, hadn't even seen a Lake Erie Water Snake, but area residents were calling her the “Island Snake Lady” when she arrived. “Now I am the expert on them,” the 30-year-old Mount Prospect native said with a laugh. “Anyone with water snake questions contacts me.
The snake is restricted to the island in the western basin of Lake Erie. The area where they live is less than 30 kilometers in diameter, she said. “I had never been to the Lake Erie Islands,” she said. “I didn't even know about them until I came here to work.” And her work is dirty - so dirty it will be featured on Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs.”
The show features host Mike Rowe taking on the duties of viewers who submit information about their dirty jobs. Episodes have featured Rowe working with exterminators and roadkill collectors, and on various construction jobs. Stanford said she e-mailed the show after her fianc√© Matt Thomas and she watched a show that featured Rowe cleaning up on an Ostrich farm. “He said, ‘your job is dirtier than that,'” she said and laughed. She e-mailed one night and the show's producers called her the next day wanting to know more.
(The snakes) are definitely not the most charismatic,” she said. “They are fairly aggressive and smelly, hence “Dirty Jobs” is coming out and doing a story about it.” The snakes eat bottom dwelling fish and aquatic amphibians. They live along the shore and go into the water to feed. They are about 4 feet long and weight a couple of pounds each.
I was warned that they were a little more aggressive than garter snakes,” she said. “I was like, OK. It's going to bite me. As long as it's not venomous I can deal with it.” And for the past four year she has because she wants to keep them from becoming extinct. That species of snake is listed as endangered in Ohio.
Part of that ... is that the Lake Erie Islands is a tourist attraction and development equals habitat destruction,” Stanford said. “People would see them and typically want to kill them. They were destroying the snake population.
In August, the camera crew filmed Stanford and Rowe for about 12 hours collecting snakes, which are taken back to a lab to be weighed, measured and tagged with tracking chips. They sometimes have the snakes regurgitate to learn about their diets. And if that's not gross enough, when the snakes are collected they spray their captors. “When you grab them they are musking,” she said. “It means they are pooping and barfing. It's their defensive behavior. When we pick them up there's a combination of poop, urates - their version of urine - and musk on one end and you're being bit on the other end.
She said the segment, which will be featured on Tuesday's 8 p.m. show on the Discovery Channel is about 15 minutes long. “I'm, like, ‘oh my gosh, what 15 minutes are they going to pick?'” she said. “I hope they don't pick something I said that was really stupid.

Dirty Jobs

“Dirty Jobs,” featuring Northern Illinois University research associate and doctoral candidate Kristin Stanford's work with the Lake Erie Water Snake, airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on the Discovery Channel.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Smuggled Reptiles Intercepted at Manila Airport

The Philippine Star
A Hollywood thriller almost became a reality when a 41-year-old woman bound for Bangkok was arrested after more than 100 snakes and other deadly reptiles were found in her luggage by Customs and airport security personnel at the Manila airport. Erlinda Vergara of Bacolod City was arrested at a baggage check-in counter at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Centennial Terminal at around 10 a.m. Tuesday. She was booked on Philippine Airlines flight PR 730.
Air travel marred by vicious reptiles is a new type of nightmare popularized recently by the movie "Snakes on a Plane’’ starring Samuel Jackson. Customs examiner Cairoden Mangaron said he noticed something suspicious and seemingly moving inside Vergara’s big suitcase when it passed through a baggage x-ray machine. When he opened the bag, Mangaron found 52 plastic bottles containing different kinds of snakes and reptiles. Some of the creatures were dead.
A partial inventory by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Wildlife Trafficking Monitoring Unit agents at the NAIA Terminal II showed the creatures consisted of 50 monitor lizards, 39 cobras, two iguanas, 16 big vipers, and eight small vipers. Theodore Agir of the NAIA-DENR-WTMU said the inventory was incomplete because some of the seized creatures were venomous and required expert handling.
Vergara later told police the suitcase was only entrusted to her by a friend from Bacolod City, whom she declined to name. Vergara, it was learned, arrived at NAIA Terminal II on a domestic flight from Bacolod City, early in the morning. Agir said the security procedures at the Bacolod City airport should be reviewed because of the failure of security authorities there to stop Vergara’s smuggling attempt. Vergara faces criminal charges for illegal trafficking of endangered animals and for violation of Customs laws.
Agir said the seized reptiles are classified as endangered species under the Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species and Wildlife. International law bans the cross border transport of such creatures unless an importation permit is secured from authorized agencies such as the DENR.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Snake Venom Used to Help Stroke Patients?

Saint Louis University Tests Medicine Made from Snake Venom to Treat Stroke Patients
( ST. LOUIS -- Can a medication made from snake venom help a patient recover from a stroke? Saint Louis University is participating in a clinical trial designed to find the answer to the question. Currently, patients who have had a stroke must act quickly and get to the hospital within three hours to receive tPA (Tissue Plasminogen Activator), which is the only FDA-approved treatment that dissolves blood clots for those who have had ischemic strokes.
The medication under investigation at Saint Louis University – ancrod – will be given to patients within six hours of their stroke, which may double the time window when they can be treated. Those patients who can’t receive tPA may qualify for ancrod, which may be given longer after the onset of a stroke.
Ancrod reduces the amount of fibrinogen, a sticky protein that binds molecules together to form blood clots, in the body. Clots in blood vessels block the flow of blood into the brain and cause ischemic strokes. Researchers are testing the medication derived from the venom of the Malayan pit viper because it specifically attacks fibrinogen.
Reducing the fibrinogen in the blood reduces clot formation and also improves blood flow within and to the brain,” says Salvador Cruz-Flores, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Saint Louis University and the principal researcher for the study. “Some evidence suggests that ancrod’s action on fibrinogen also may prevent stroke-causing clots from extending and indirectly may help destroy them. By stopping clot formation and destroying clots that already have formed, we hope to improve the blood flow to the part of the brain suffering a stroke. The idea is to protect the brain tissue and limit injury and disability.
Saint Louis University is recruiting six stroke patients at Saint Louis University Hospital to participate in the clinical trial. Half will receive an intravenous infusion of ancrod and half will receive a placebo. Both groups will otherwise receive the same standard of care. Both groups of patients will be followed for 90 days; then researchers will compare how well they function in daily activities. A total of 650 participants are being recruited worldwide.
Stroke is the third-leading cause of death and leading cause of disability in the US.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sea Turtle Tracking Reveals Migration Routes

by Earth & Sky
In the summer of 2006, 14 healthy sea turtles were released into the surf on Cape Cod. These turtles — from populations listed as endangered or threatened — had been rescued after strandings on New England beaches the previous fall.
They’d spent the winter in local aquariums. Connie Merigo is the marine animal rescue program coordinator at the New England Aquarium. She told Earth & Sky that five of the turtles were fitted with tags attached to their shells that let the turtles’ locations be tracked by satellite. Merigo wants to learn about turtle migration routes. She wants to know how well the aquarium’s rehabilitation methods are working. "Are these animals surviving, or are they going back out into the wild and within a month or a few months or weeks are they dying?" asks Merigo.
Merigo told us that the rehabbed turtles seemed to be doing well. Then, suddenly the tags stopped transmitting. Still, Merigo said she’s not too concerned. "Maybe the turtles are spending a lot more time underwater and when they come up, they’re only coming up and sticking their noses out and not clearing the whole tag. The entire tag has to actually clear the water so the saltwater switches will click on, and that’s what tells the tag to send a message to the satellite."
If you want to track turtles online, visit Original podcast.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Alligator Found in Andover Woods (MA)

By Jessica Benson , Staff writer

The alligator was so out of place in the woods, it didn't look real. Never thinking she'd see a real alligator in Andover, Mass. in the middle of November, Laurie Farrell automatically assumed it was a toy - until it moved. "I saw what I thought was a rubber alligator," she said yesterday. "I saw it move and I just bolted."
Farrell found the reptile while on a hike with her husband and two dogs Saturday morning. The alligator was close enough to the Andover Village Improvement Society trail she was on - half on the trail and half to the side of it - that Farrell almost stepped on it. "I was, like, inches from it," she said. The couple's two dogs, a coon named Cooper and Xena, a pug, did not notice the alligator, and walked right by it.
A creature more at home in the subtropical swamps of Florida than in the woods of Andover, the alligator has since been brought to an undisclosed facility where it will likely be used in educational programs. Experts said the alligator, about 30 inches in length, was most likely someone's pet that escaped or was intentionally released. "He definitely had been a pet," said Dr. Hamilton Lincoln, the veterinarian who treated the alligator at the Andover Animal Hospital. "There's no way that it could have come from the wild." Lincoln said keeping an alligator for a pet is not a good idea. Adults reach 8 to 10 feet and sometimes grow bigger.
Fearing that no one would believe her tale of an alligator in New England, Farrell made her husband, John, keep watch over it while she went home to call police. Police found it in the wooded area behind the Wyndham Andover hotel, off Old River Road and near both the Merrimack River and Interstate 93.
Officers picked up the alligator by hand, allowing Farrell to snap a picture before they took it to the animal hospital. Police Lt. Arthur Ricci said officers Brian Blouin and Jonathan Gagne had little trouble handling the alligator due to its small size. "It wasn't real, real big," Ricci said. "It wasn't a large Crocodile Dundee-type alligator." Still, doctors at the veterinarian hospital were surprised by their patient. "We've had all sorts of (animals)," said Diane Tower, the hospital's owner. "But never an alligator." When it was brought in, the alligator was suffering from the cold, felt like an "ice cube" and was close to death. The alligator was released from the hospital later on the same day and brought to a reptile facility where other professionals can take care of it. Though the location was not being disclosed to protect the alligator from too much unwanted attention, Lincoln issued assurances that it will be better off where it is then outside on its own. "It would never have survived the winter," he said.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Risks From Animal Diseases Growing

Diseases Spread by Animals Affect Millions of People a Year, Study Shows

Diseases spread by birds, mosquitoes, cattle, and other animals are a growing problem for humans -- affecting millions of people a year, according to a new study. The recent outbreaks of bird flu and mad cow disease have raised awareness of the danger of diseases spread by animals to humans, known as zoonotic viruses, the researchers say.
Although those two new diseases have affected a relatively small number of people, more common zoonotic diseases like dengue fever and rabies kill tens of thousands of people each year worldwide and appear to be on the rise, the researchers write.

For example, during the study period from 2000 to 2005:

  • Rabies, spread by infected dogs, bats, rats, and other animals, killed an estimated 30,000 people.
  • Dengue virus affected 50 million people and killed approximately 25,000.
  • Japanese encephalitis virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, was responsible for an estimated 50,000 illnesses and 15,000 estimated deaths.
  • Lassa fever, a serious viral infection spread by contact with the feces or urine of infected rodents, affected up to 300,000 people and killed about 5,000.
  • SARS, believed to have originated in palm civets and/or horseshoe bats, killed 774 of the 8,102 people infected.

"There has been a global resurgence in the dengue virus -- which is transmitted between monkeys in the jungle by the mosquitoes that feed on them," says researcher Jonathan Heeney, in a news release. "The cycle can move into nearby urban areas, where it can then be transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes," says Heeney, chairman of the department of virology at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in the Netherlands. "This has been attributed to regional population growth around large cities, increased transportation, and failing public control measures." Even zoonotic viruses for which there are preventive vaccines -- like yellow fever -- continue to pose a threat and affect an estimated 200,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Growing Threat
Viruses spread among animals become a serious threat to humans when they adapt for human-to-human transmission. About a quarter of the diseases originally spread only among animals are capable of readily spreading from human to human, such as measles and HIV.
In the study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, the researchers analyzed the number of deaths and illnesses worldwide caused by diseases spread by animals from 2000 to 2005. The results showed one of the most widely publicized emerging zoonotic diseases, H5N1 bird flu, killed nearly half of the 145 people infected with the virus during the study period. Though most of the attention has focused on the potential for human-to-human transmission of the bird flu virus, researchers say the risk posed by diseases currently spread from animals to humans is also great. Many have no known vaccine or cure.

Preventive Effort Needed
To prevent emerging zoonotic diseases from becoming major public health threats, Heeney calls for greater cooperation between health and medical experts from various fields. "The early identification, control, and prevention of re-emerging viral zoonotics lie not only with clinicians and public health experts but, more importantly, with veterinarians, animal scientists and wildlife ecologists," he says. "They are in the best position to identify trends and patterns, such as increases in the number of deaths of wild or domestic animals. Awareness and surveillance of eco systems will play a key role in identifying and controlling new, emerging, and re-emerging viral zoonotics," Heeney says.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Radio Transmitters Used on Florida Pythons

The Washington Post / AP
Wildlife managers in Everglades National Park typically spend hours trying to catch nonnative Burmese pythons that have invaded the swamp. On Monday, they set one free.Using a radio transmitter implanted in the 10-foot snake, biologists hope to track its movements and find other snakes for removal.
Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia but have been appearing in large numbers throughout the park as pet owners find them too large to maintain at home and illegally set them free. The snakes can grow up to 20 feet long and live 25 years. "These snakes are mating out there in the wild," said Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, which is working with the park and several other agencies on the radio transmitter project to help eradicate the snakes from the Everglades.
In 2003, biologists removed 23 pythons from the park. In 2005, they removed 95 snakes. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5,968 Burmese pythons have been imported as pets through the Port of Miami in the last three years, alone, Yglesias said. It's a problem that gets very little attention and money, said Skip Snow, a park wildlife biologist. He said park officials are seeking additional funds from the federal government to help eradicate the snake.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Giant Frogs of Lake Titicaca

by Pete Oxford / BBC UK
Photo by Renee Bish

Since Jacques-Yves Cousteau's adventures in Lake Titicaca brought images of a giant frog into my childhood living room, I'd always planned one day to meet this monster face to face. Now, nearly 30 years later, only a thin sheet of glass separated our noses as I peered into the boggly eyes of the most bizarre amphibian I'd ever seen.
Its skin sagged like the baggy trousers of a before-and-after weight-loss advertisement. Indeed, its scientific name, Telmatobius culeus, translates as 'aquatic scrotum.' It absorbs most of the oxygen it needs across its skin; the highly folded surface serves to double the area available for oxygen uptake. The larger the frog, the more exaggerated the pleats and folds, to keep up with the increased respiration demands.

Disappearing giants
Rene√© [Bish] and I had come to the edge of the highest navigable lake in the world to investigate rumours that these gentle giants were rapidly disappearing. Set at 3,815 metres above sea level, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Lake Titicaca has a surface area of more than 8,500km² and spans both Peruvian and Bolivian territories.
In the early 1970s, Cousteau's team reported frogs up to 50cm long, with individuals commonly weighing a kilogram, making these the largest aquatic frogs in the world. But such giant individuals have long gone, and now the frogs are not nearly as common.

The frogs have long been considered by the indigenous community to have special powers. In some parts, they are used as 'rain-makers' - in times of drought, a large frog is carried in a ceramic pot to a hilltop, where its distressed calls are interpreted as its cries for rain. When the rains come, the pot overflows, allowing the sacred frog to escape.

In the soup
In places such as Lima, Tacna and Arequipa in Peru, the demand for Titicaca frogs seems to be growing. A recent Peruvian television report stated that 150 live frogs were needed daily to satisfy Lima's latest fad - frog juice. Known locally as Peruvian Viagra, live frogs are stripped of their skin and dropped into a household blender with water, a local tuber and sometimes honey. The locals lay great claim to its prowess as an aphrodisiac.
The frogs are legally protected in Peru, but, in practice, this means limited control during their transportation by road to the cities, and Peru's frog juicers are blatant and unpunished. Bolivia has no legal statute specific to the Titicaca frogs. With a growing public awareness of the potential of a community-based project, locals seem to be showing more interest in the well-being of the resource. Hopefully, co-operation between the two nations bordering Lake Titicaca will mean that the frog population will not be allowed to sink into the depths of oblivion.
Read the original Natonal Wildlife Federation article by Pete Oxford; or another article on Living . See more photos of the Titicaca frog here.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New Species of Fish, Frogs and Birds a Boon to the Eco-tourism Sector

The team also discovered the Eschatoceras a species reportedly new to science.
Starbroek News

Biodiversity wonders have unfolded in the Konashen District after Conservation International (CI) Guyana led a team of scientists on an expedition into the area's unexplored and unstudied areas.
"We found remarkable biodiversity in that area," scientist, Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, told a gathering at the Hotel Tower about the findings. "We see huge potential for eco-tourism if the Wai Wai community decided to go this way. People will really, really flock to this area," he told guests, including Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, Minister of Amerindian Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues and members of the diplomatic corps, while giving them a glimpse of the preliminary results from the Rapid Assessment Programme (RAP) of Konashen's biodiversity. A team of ten international and local scientists comprising two Guyanese, two Venezuelans, four Americans, a Colombian and six local para-biologists; including Naskrecki, Dr. Maya Trotz, Dr. Theodore Schultz, Jeffrey Sosa, Brian O'Shea and Dr. James Sanderson discovered several new species and recorded data about mammals and birds in the area they were undocumented.
The expedition, conducted from October 3 to 27 was in keeping with a tri-partite agreement between the Wai Wai community, the government and CI inked on November 1, 2004. With documentation of the districts' biodiversity the Wai Wais will be able to balance their economic needs with conserving the 625,000 hectares of titled land they own in the Southern Guyana. This is the largest amount of land owned by any indigenous group. Naskrecki, Director of Invertebrate, Diversity Initiative, and CABS-CI proclaimed Konashen one of the last remaining pristine forests. The RAP was carried out along the Essequibo, Kamoa, Sipu and Acarai rivers; the Acarai Mountains, creeks and the lowland forests of Masakenari and Akuthopono.
The scientists monitored insects (ants, beetles and grasshoppers), crustaceans (crabs, shrimp), reptiles, birds, amphibians and mammals. No sampling of mammals was conducted. Trotz investigated the quality of the water by conducting mercury and other tests of samples taken from Waynakako and Kanaperufor. Though the results for the mercury tests are still to be analysed the ph of the water was measured at 4.74 to 6.24, which indicates that it is lower than the drinking water standard and turbidity clarity was found to be higher than the drinking water. The water was also found to be free from human industrial pollution. On the other hand, the findings showed that the drinking water from Masakenari and Akuthopono should be monitored for contamination from waste products.

This new species of catfish was one of 100 types of fish recorded.

Sixty ant samples were also taken from the area. Ants are the soil producers and predators of the rainforest. The samples were taken from wood and leaf litter. Shultz, from the Smithsonian Institute Department of Entomology, said his focus was on conducting an ant survey across Guyana. Ants, he said, make up 15% to 20% of the living organisms in the forest. The results of the ant surveys conducted are still months away.
Schultz and Sosa's surveys of beetles found 100-200 species extracted from litter samples; 33 genera in the Acarai Mountains and 22 genera in the Kamoa River. The Mycetarates which was known only from the Brasil amazon, was recorded for the first time in Guyana. Approximately 70 species of dung beetles (waste removers and dead wood decomposers) were recorded and one, possibly new to science, was found in the Kamoa. No flightless endemic species were recorded.
About 70 species of Katydids (herbivores and predators for mammals, reptiles and birds) were also recorded, at least two are new species to science. Naskrecki, who carried out the Katydids survey said they are most sensitive to disturbance and their presence is testimony to the pristine forest. The Katydids were sampled at night using ultra violet and mercury vapour light. The scientists also found at least 30 species recorded as new to Guyana.
Naskrecki said fish is the most important group of freshwater animals. He said they recorded 100 species of fish and about 200 species are expected to be found in the areas being monitored. He said three of the species are new to science and 50 species have the potential for aquarium trade as the population could support such. The presence of three species of crabs and four species of shrimp indicated the good water quality and food source.
With regard to amphibians, Naskrecki said 21 species of frogs, toads and caecilians were recorded, but there are probably more than 70 species in the Acarai Mountains. Of the toads found, there is the possibility that one is new to science. Twenty-nine species of reptiles were recorded, and the Wai Wais said an additional ten could be found in the area. Two species of Caimans and one tortoise species were also recorded. The team also found an Emerald Boa. The snake feeds on birds and is not poisonous.
O'Shea said about 40% of the nation's bird population can be found at Konashen. 318 species of birds from 50 families were recorded. O'Shea said evidence was collected using surveys, including sound recordings, camera traps and exercises conducted along rivers. Twenty-five per cent of the birds are endemic to the Guiana Shield. The Flat bill, a bamboo specialist and a new species to Guyana, was also found. The Black Curassow, which is hunted by the Wai Wai, also had a healthy population. Naskrecki said the area is a bird watcher's paradise and Konashen could be an eco-tourism destination. Sanderson, with assistance from the Wai Wais conducted a survey of the large mammals in the area. Through interviews with the villagers, camera trappings, tracks and dung evidence Sanderson recovered 21 species in a population he said was healthy but the density low. The scientists said this finding was not unusual.
Sanderson said in 2002, CI signed an agreement to lease 80,000 hectares of rainforest in what is called the Upper Essequibo Conservation Concessions. Under the terms of the agreement, CI pays the government acreage fees and royalties, but instead of cutting trees the area is protected and kept in its pristine state. A partnership for funding is currently being developed between Save Your World, LLC (formerly Mate'Life), an organic bath and body products company based in Portland, Oregon, which is expected to donate a sum of money from the sale of their products.
Heather Wright, RAP manager of CABS-CI said the RAP was established in 1990 and the information gathered has been used to protect many threatened areas. She said RAPs conducted over the years have led to the discovery of over 1000 species of plants and animals. CI's Manager of Conservation Science, Eustace Alexander, who was also a member of the RAP team, said six persons from the Masakenari area were taught to collect data on the biodiversity and to replace film and monitor the camera traps set up in the area. Less than 200 people reside in the area.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Lizard King

Bret Wilson parlays his affection for reptiles into an unusual vocation.

All the snakes are named after leather goods, all the frogs have French names and all the lizards are named after the food that they most remind me of,” says Bret Wilson. “This is what happens when you fail as a comedian; you take it out on your pets.” In a studio apartment of a no-pet building in Hollywood, Wilson lives with about 20 roommates who are the main attraction of his Lizard Boy’s Mobile Zoo.
Wilson’s fascination with reptiles began at an early age. The Sacramento native bought his first snake at age 17, even when his family didn’t exactly understand his interest. “Dentistry is my background,” explains Wilson, who has two brothers following their father’s footsteps as a Dentist and a younger brother who is a chiropractor; “Family of doctors and Lizard Boy,” declares Wilson with a smile.
For 10 years he worked in a dentist office, but his dyslexia made him think he could not get through all the years of school to become a doctor. Reptile education, however, was an entirely different matter: “There wasn’t a day in my 20s when I didn’t have a book with me on reptiles,” he says.
One day of no particular importance, a school teacher came in for an appointment at the dentist office Wilson worked in. They began talking, Wilson says, and the conversation casually drifted to the subject of lizards. The teacher was giving a lesson on how to care for a pet lizard, and asked Wilson to come in with his pets and give a little chat. “I fell in love with it,” he says. From then on, Wilson called up a different school every week and gave a free presentation of his personal collection of pets to students.
Bitten by the acting bug, Wilson moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to quickly find out that he had “no aptitude for that,” so like any other aspiring actor in this city, Wilson began going through a wide variety of jobs that ranged from a paid radio caller to vampire fangs distributor. The weirdest job, he says, was selling cemetery plots for a Catholic organization: “Part of their sales program was playing on Catholic guilt,” Wilson says, “not being Catholic and not being a big fan of guilt, I didn’t do very well.
Through the friend of a friend, Wilson discovered a company dedicated to give presentations on reptiles that needed a temporary replacement; the job description was exactly what Wilson had been doing in Sacramento for school children. “People pay you for this? I only did it because I liked it,” he says. Immediately it became clear to him what he needed to do. At age 30 Wilson took a job climbing communication towers to raise money in order to buy reptiles and amphibians. The job, he says, was a great experience that allowed him to see most of the country through a considerably high — 705 feet — perspective. Eight months later, Wilson bought his first zoo member.
Volkswagon, a Red-foot tortoise, was no bigger than a silver dollar when Wilson got her. Today, she is a bit smaller than a football, and she has to share her balcony room with a bigger Red-foot, Goat. “[Goat] is solely responsible for more destruction in this apartment than all the other animals combined,” says Wilson, who calls Goat his “problem child.” Each animal in the studio apartment is considered part of the family and comes with a name, a designated “room” and a unique personality.
Among them there’s Curry, a Crested Gecko, Wallets, a three-year old Burmese Python, Pierre, a white Tree Frog and Toupee, a Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula. Most of the animals come from Animal Control or pet shops, and in the process of acquiring them and finding the ones who are most docile to work with children, Wilson has bumped into a couple of surprises, of which the most noticeable is a scar on his left jaw bone.
It all began when one of his friend’s neighbors in Sacramento decided to get rid of her pet iguana. Wilson quickly found a home for him, but after a while the new owner returned the iguana because it bit her. As Wilson was keeping the iguana in his apartment as a temporary guest, the animal began going through its mating period, in which it’s natural for the animal to get defensive. One day the iguana caught its tail on the side of a shelf, and when Wilson came to help it, the iguana bit him on the side of his face. Very calmly, he put the skin that was hanging back in place and held a paper towel to his bleeding cheek as he called a friend to take him to the hospital. “I walked downstairs and sat on the steps, ‘cause I was bleeding like crazy. I figured, if I pass out, someone is going to find me,” says Wilson.
The nurse laughed at first when she read on the primary complaint of the chart “Lizard tried to eat my head,” but she immediately apologized once she turned and looked at Wilson, he says. 18 stitches later, he was going back to his reptile-filled apartment. Still, Wilson makes sure to keep his presentations safe: “In 15 years of doing this I’ve never had a kid injured in a show,” or an animal for that matter. A strict policy in his business is “never work an animal that is not feeling well.
Like with every business, Wilson makes sure to compensate his employees. “Doing payroll” for this particular businessman, however, includes a lot less paper and a lot more rat meat. “Feeding is usually done in the evenings,” explains Wilson, “the big snakes eat on Sunday, the big lizard eats Wednesdays and Sundays, and then all the herbivores eat every single day.
At $200 per hour and an average of four to five shows per week — except Halloween week, which this year brought 14 shows — Wilson is not one to worry about job-related stress. “I have more money than I need, which to me, isn’t that the point?” he says.
Although he lives in a studio apartment, Wilson is in no rush to find a more spacious place; he has lived in the no-pets building for nine years, and has never locked his front door. The entire building, which only has 14 units, looks on the inside like a college dorm: Pictures hanging on the hallways, neighbors walking into each other’s apartments, and pets roaming free. “On any given day it isn’t unheard of to see a lizard roaming the hall (not mine, either) along with a rabbit and a cat,” says Wilson. “My job is my favorite thing in the world to do, so I win."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Frog Skin Toxin Keeps Mosquitoes Away

By Ed Edelson
HealthDay Reporter

Certain tropical frogs may want flies to get close enough to eat, but not too close. According to new research, the skin of these amphibians contains a powerful and natural mosquito repellent. But that's only part of the story.
The toxin, dubbed pumiliotoxin 251d, is one of thousands of alkaloid chemicals on the skins of tropical frogs in central and South America, explained researcher John W. Daly, a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), in Bethesda, Md. "I'm interested in this compound because of suggestions that it might have value in finding a treatment for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes," Daly explained.
His team published the findings in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Daly is famous in his field. For four decades, he has done field work in nine countries, "looking at frogs and finding more unique substances," he said. He has identified molecules that have the same heart-boosting effect as digitalis and have become the subject of intense research by major pharmaceutical companies.
Unhappily, that research has flagged recently, said Thomas F. Spande, a research chemist as NIDDK, who took part in the mosquito study. "Some compounds were very effective in regulating the function of the heart," Spande said. "They were being tested, but nobody ever went with it. Maybe [the companies] were put off by the name 'toxins.'" It's highly unlikely that the molecule described in the new study will be put to use as a mosquito repellent for human use, Spande added. "We certainly don't want to create the impression that this is the world's best repellent for human use," he said. "It's way too expensive and way too toxic."
The new study is the latest in a series looking at the toxins found on the skin of tropical frogs, Spande said. "Naively, we first thought they were there primarily to deter predetation -- to give the predator such a reaction in the mouth that he would spit [the frog] out," he said. But, "it seemed strange that if the main role was to deter predation, the frog would have so many of these alkaloids -- 20 or 30 different kinds," Spande said. "So we started working on other roles." The study used a test in which mosquitoes were exposed to a pipette coated with a diluted solution of the molecule taken from frogs' skins. The natural version was "many times more effective" than a laboratory-created version, Spande said.
There are still more properties of the toxins to be explored, he said. "Certain of these alkaloids are antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral," Spande said. "Many of these frog skin alkaloids are being investigated in neurochemistry in blocking certain receptors." But it appears that the NIDDK scientists will soon lose their role in such investigations. "Our program is being terminated," Spande said. "I hope we can move to another institute."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Two-headed Snake Picks Up Corporate Sponsorship

By Joel Currier
St. Louis' acclaimed albino, two-headed black rat snake has affirmed its celebrity status. In We's 7-year lifetime, the hermaphrodite snake has been bought and sold, decorated, displayed, abducted, rescued and returned, primed for breeding, put up for bidding and even considered for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Now, We, who has lived at the World Aquarium at the City Museum since infancy, has begun a career in marketing. "I think We is probably the most famous snake on the planet," said Leonard Sonnenschein, president of the World Aquarium.
We has been adopted by Florida-based biopharmaceutical company Nutra Pharma as its mascot and brand icon. The company uses snake venom to develop scientific treatments for HIV-AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other neurological and muscular diseases.
The World Aquarium has signed a six-month, $15,000 sponsorship deal with the company. The money will be used to support conservation and other programs and to sponsor an environmental concert series, scheduled for next summer in Liberty, N.Y.
The aquarium acquired the snake in 1999 for $15,000. The snake was stolen and then recovered in 2004. In January, the World Aquarium put We up for sale in hopes of raising $150,000. But We lured no bidders. And this summer, We mated with another two-headed albino black rat snake named "Golden Girls." No word yet if a pregnancy resulted. Asked whether We is satisfied with the sponsorship deal, Sonnenschein joked, "We is getting extra mice now."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wildlife Photographer of the Day - Luo Hong

Today, the Reptile Related News Blog invites you to celebrate the photography of wildlife from around the globe. I chose Luo Hong as the recipient of the Wildlife Photographer of the Day. Here is a brief biography, along with a couple of Hong's photos.
Luo Hong, born in 1967 in Southwest China's Sichuan province, is the president of Holiland,China's biggest cake bakery. As a well-known photographer, he has taken photos while flying over almost all western regions in China. He has also taken pictures of Africa from the sky over ten times. His official website is
I encourage you to take the time to visit China Daily for a look at 22 pages of photos taken by the talented Mr. Hong. Pay particular attention to the aerial photography, which is not often seen in such vivid colors. It's also worth the time to visit Mr. Hong's website. His words, as well as his photography, speak volumes about the creation God has entrusted to us.

"Our Chinese is used to the world
in the beautiful scene is called 'the world heaven',
Yes, when I place oneself to this 'the world heaven',
In my heart has filled to the divine creative force,
to sentiment of the natural gratitude:
Thank God, grants us so wonderful all!"

Monday, November 06, 2006

Fire Tears Through Orlando Alligator Park

By TRAVIS REED / Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. — A three-alarm fire broke out in one of central Florida's oldest attractions early Monday morning, killing three animals but injuring no one at Gatorland. The blaze charred the concrete alligator mouth tourists walked through to enter the park — an old Florida icon that has appeared in movies, magazines and countless tourists' pictures. Gatorland spokeswoman Michelle Harris said two 8-foot-long pythons kept in a holding pen near the gift shop were dead, as was a 5-foot-long crocodile.
Another crocodile named Mr. O, who kept in the same area was feared dead, but was later found alive, she said. He had managed to stay safe by dipping underwater in a pond, Harris said. The other few thousand of the park's animals were kept in pens away from the fire or in enough water to protect them.
The fire, reported at 5:55 a.m., destroyed the park's 7,000-square-foot gift shop, entrance and some administrative offices. Other office space, and the places where Gatorland entertainers perform were not damaged. The park opened in 1949 and attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. It features exhibitions of people wrestling gators, a "jumparoo" show where the big reptiles leap for food, and "up close" encounters where guests can hold snakes, scorpions, spiders and birds. Orange County Fire Battalion Chief Vince Preston said the souvenir store was engulfed in flames when the first crews arrived. "It had already been through the roof; it was obvious that this was going to be an extended operation," he said. Preston said it took about two hours to get the blaze under control. It was finally declared out, despite some nagging hot spots, at about 12:30 p.m.
The fire destroyed the park's main entrance and marred its most distinctive feature: a giant, concrete gator head, whose jaw is now blackened with soot and full of debris. The mural facade around it, which had just been given a fresh coat of paint in a $1.5 million overhaul, was torn and burnt. The cypress and palm trees lining the outside were singed and limp. Harris said the giant gator mouth was still potentially salvageable. She said officials would try to reopen the park as soon as possible, but it was unclear how quick that may be. They will have to devise another entrance for guests. "This park is like an old alligator. Gators fight, they get scarred up, they get beat up, they tear each other up, but they're resilient," Gatorland official Tim Williams said. "This park's been here for 57 years. We're not going anywhere. It's the alligator capital of the world. It's got a few scars and smudges on it, but we'll clean it up."

~ UPDATE: 11/08/06 ~
State Fire Marshal Det. Bill Newman just reported that a reptile heating pad in the snake exhibit at Gatorland caused the fire Monday that destroyed the attraction's main entrance, gift shop and other administrative offices. The fire was ruled accidental, Newman said, and based on evidence in the fire rubble was traced to the snake exhibit where two pythons died in the blaze reported at 5:55 a.m. Monday. One dwarf crocodile also was killed.
Newman said the fire raged out of control so quickly because the building was mostly made of wood and because of the amount of clothing and other fire fuel in the gift shop. "The debris pile was at least three to five feet high," Newman said of the scene. Orlando Sentinel

China's Gobi Desert has Fringe-toed Lizard

James Cornett
Special to The Desert Sun

Coachella Valley residents are well aware that sand dunes cover only a small portion of the desert. On my recent trip to China's Gobi Desert, however, all the Chinese with whom I spoke considered desert to be synonymous with sand dunes. Ask a Chinese driver to take you to the desert, and he will drive you to the nearest dunes.
There are many sand dune complexes scattered across the Gobi. One of the most impressive is located immediately south of Dun Huang, a desert city of about 150,000 inhabitants. The dune system here is nearly 50 miles wide with piles of sand reaching 500 feet in height. The golden dunes provide a spectacular backdrop to the city. It's not surprising that visiting the dunes and riding Bactrian or "two-humped" camels to the top is one of the town's chief Chinese tourist attractions.
It was on my first afternoon on the dunes that I encountered a lizard. It scurried away from the camels on which my guide and I were riding. I told him that I wanted to dismount quickly so that I might chase and capture the fast-moving reptile - easier said than done. Dismounting a camel does not happen rapidly as it is an awkward series of movements for the camel, particularly when carrying a human with absolutely no experience as a camel jockey. But my guide finally got the protesting animal down and I was off across the dunes on foot.
The lizard dodged all of my awkward lunges, much to the amusement of the guide. Finally taking pity on my efforts, he hopped off his camel and joined me in the pursuit. No doubt we resembled old-time "Keystone Cops" as we scampered about the dunes desperately trying to corral the agile reptile. I had the last laugh when the lizard shoved itself into sand head first and quickly disappeared.
I suspected the lizard might use this escape tactic. It was the same behavior practiced by our own Coachella Valley fringed-toed lizard, now an officially threatened species. I had seen the exact spot where my Gobi Desert lizard had entered the sand and never took my eye off it.
The guide was confused and had no idea where the lizard had gone. This was not surprising. Never before had a foreigner expressed an interest in, of all things, a lizard. He saw these "sand" lizards every day but had never tried to capture one. "The lizard become the sand," he said to me. I assumed he meant that the lizard's color and pattern enabled it to blend in perfectly with the sand substrate on which it lived. It was so well camouflaged that it had to move before it could be seen.
I shoved my hand into the sand and to his amazement pulled out a wiggling four-inch reptile. It was an agamid lizard, a member of a large family of Old World lizards found from Africa through Asia. I recognized it from its roundish head and relatively narrow neck. I had no idea what species of agamid it was. I would not be surprised if no one else did, either. Naming, classifying and mapping the ranges of all the plant animal species in China is a daunting task involving large sums of money and technical personnel. Considering that China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, is the most populated nation on Earth, I strongly suspect the government has higher priorities.
As my guide and I examined the lizard, I noticed some strange protrusions from the toes on its hind feet. They were elongated scales that looked like fringes. This agamid lizard had developed enlarged scales on its hind toes to increase its traction on sand, just like our own Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, the one on the other side of the planet.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Real Snake Pit - New Jersey State Reptile Rescue

Cold-blooded orphans warmly welcomed here
By Paola Loroggio / Star-Ledger Staff
Photo from Smithsonian
Behind the cozy appearance of the Fetzkes' well-kept, brown-brick home in Sayreville lies a slithery secret. William Fetzke, 28, has turned his family's basement into a reptile rescue center, currently housing more than 20 snakes, a handful of iguanas and a few wayward lizards. He's dubbed the operation New Jersey State Reptile Rescue and opened up shop three months ago with a pet store license from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"They're just like cats and dogs," said Fetzke, as two Colombian red-tail boas wrapped around his tattooed forearm. "They get abused and abandoned." Many of the reptiles that inhabit the Fetzke basement were former pets that grew beyond their owner's expectations and were set loose. Fetzke nurses the sometimes injured or neglected reptiles back to health and cares for them until they are adopted. "It's a passion," Fetzke said, standing among gigantic terrariums used to house his charges.
The largest snake he's rescued to date is a nearly 14-foot-long, 120-pound Burmese python named Bear Bear, whom it takes three people to handle. Bear Bear is not up for adoption. The python has become an unofficial mascot for the rescue and is too dear to Fetzke's heart for him to give up. He acknowledges, however, that finding new homes for pets that lack the cute-and-fuzzy draw of puppies and kittens can be a challenge, particularly with the tough Hollywood image that movies like "Snakes on a Plane" project.
John Bergmann, director of the Popcorn Park Zoo in Forked River, Ocean County, said reptiles have seen increasing popularity in pet stores in recent years, leading to a spike in abandonments. The zoo is already at capacity with 27 iguanas up for adoption and has been looking for other groups to share the burden for reptiles, which are traditionally difficult to place, Bergmann said. "There's practically no demand," Bergmann said. "I wish there was."
Fetzke said larger reptiles require lots of room, equipment and attention. So far, he's found new homes for a couple of reptiles using adoption Web sites like and, he said. "It's a seven-day-a-week job," said Fetzke, who also runs a salvage yard and works at a Brooklyn bar to fund his rescue. The rescue costs about $250 a week to run, primarily for food costs, though he also receives donations from the Snake Pit store in nearby East Brunswick.
Fetzke's parents have supported the rescue, but his dad, William, said the basement is now off-limits to him. He hasn't ventured downstairs since his son began harboring the reptiles. "As long as (the snakes) stay down there, it's okay," said the senior Fetzke, 53. The neighbors feel much the same way. "It's only a problem if something shows up on my lawn," said Steve Kieselowsky, 43. Kieselowsky said he was surprised, though, that Fetzke was not required to notify others in the neighborhood about the rescue effort. "When I put up a porch, I had to notify everyone within 250 feet," he said. "They have a basement full of snakes and they don't have to tell anyone?"
More than a dozen glass terrariums with labels like "Kitten," "Monty," and "Lunchbox" to keep track of the snakes, now line the small wood-paneled basement room. Fetzke has also been caring for former pet rats, some the size of a football, in a second basement room. Fetzke said Sundays are his busiest day. That's when he and two volunteers feed the snakes. Dylan Preston, 17, and Amanda Walker, 22, help clean the reptiles' tanks, change their water and remove their sheddings.
The weekly cleaning and feeding starts at 10 a.m. and often lasts well into the evening, they said. The volunteers -- both sporting bites, scratches and "scale-burn," a rash caused by rubbing scales against the grain -- said the snakes need to be cuddled on a daily basis. "It helps keep them calm and friendly," Preston said. Fetzke, Preston and Walker bring reptiles to local events and flea markets in an attempt to boost adoption rates, they said. The trio has seen grown men run away and "little girls run up and hug the snakes' tails," Fetzke said.
Fetzke said he wants to show the public that snakes are safe, affectionate pets when the proper care is given. He even dreams of someday opening a cafe-like storefront that would allow people to get familiar with snakes and dispel fears unfairly associated with reptiles. "People put up pictures of their cats and their dogs," he said. "But you never hear anyone say, 'Check out what my snake did today.'"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

'Only 50 Years Left' for Sea-fish Say Researchers

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the century if current trends continue, according to a major scientific study.
Stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of sea fisheries, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Writing in the journal Science, the international team of researchers says fishery decline is closely tied to a broader loss of marine biodiversity. But a greater use of protected areas could safeguard existing stocks. "The way we use the oceans is that we hope and assume there will always be another species to exploit after we've completely gone through the last one," said research leader Boris Worm, from Dalhousie University in Canada. "What we're highlighting is there is a finite number of stocks; we have gone through one-third, and we are going to get through the rest," he told the BBC News website.
Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University in California, one of the other scientists on the project, added: "Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood."

Spanning the seas
This is a vast piece of research, incorporating scientists from many institutions in Europe and the Americas, and drawing on four distinctly different kinds of data. Catch records from the open sea give a picture of declining fish stocks. In 2003, 29% of open sea fisheries were in a state of collapse, defined as a decline to less than 10% of their original yield.
Bigger vessels, better nets, and new technology for spotting fish are not bringing the world's fleets bigger returns - in fact, the global catch fell by 13% between 1994 and 2003. Historical records from coastal zones in North America, Europe and Australia also show declining yields, in step with declining species diversity; these are yields not just of fish, but of other kinds of seafood, too. Zones of biodiversity loss also tended to see more beach closures, more blooms of potentially harmful algae, and more coastal flooding.

We should protect biodiversity, and it does pay off through fisheries yield
Carl Gustaf Lundin

Experiments performed in small, relatively contained ecosystems show that reductions in diversity tend to bring reductions in the size and robustness of local fish stocks. This implies that loss of biodiversity is driving the declines in fish stocks seen in the large-scale studies. The final part of the jigsaw is data from areas where fishing has been banned or heavily restricted. These show that protection brings back biodiversity within the zone, and restores populations of fish just outside. "The image I use to explain why biodiversity is so important is that marine life is a bit like a house of cards," said Dr Worm. "All parts of it are integral to the structure; if you remove parts, particularly at the bottom, it's detrimental to everything on top and threatens the whole structure. And we're learning that in the oceans, species are very strongly linked to each other - probably more so than on land."

Protected interest
What the study does not do is attribute damage to individual activities such as over-fishing, pollution or habitat loss; instead it paints a picture of the cumulative harm done across the board. Even so, a key implication of the research is that more of the oceans should be protected.

Nets on tuna boat. Image: Wolcott Henry 2005/Marine Photobank
Modern fishing methods such as purse seine nets are very efficient

But the extent of protection is not the only issue, according to Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of the global marine programme at IUCN, the World Conservation Union. "The benefits of marine-protected areas are quite clear in a few cases; there's no doubt that protecting areas leads to a lot more fish and larger fish, and less vulnerability," he said.
"But you also have to have good management of marine parks and good management of fisheries. Clearly, fishing should not wreck the ecosystem, bottom trawling being a good example of something which does wreck the ecosystem." But, he said, the concept of protecting fish stocks by protecting biodiversity does make sense. "This is a good compelling case; we should protect biodiversity, and it does pay off even in simple monetary terms through fisheries yield."
Protecting stocks demands the political will to act on scientific advice - something which Boris Worm finds lacking in Europe, where politicians have ignored recommendations to halt the iconic North Sea cod fishery year after year. Without a ban, scientists fear the North Sea stocks could follow the Grand Banks cod of eastern Canada into apparently terminal decline.
"I'm just amazed, it's very irrational," he said. "You have scientific consensus and nothing moves. It's a sad example; and what happened in Canada should be such a warning, because now it's collapsed it's not coming back."

Schematic map of research used.
1. Experiments show that reducing the diversity of an ecosystem lowers the abundance of fish
2. Historical records show extensive loss of biodiversity along coasts since 1800, with the collapse of about 40% of species. About one-third of once viable coastal fisheries are now useless
3. Catch records from the open ocean show widespread decline of fisheries since 1950 with the rate of decline increasing. In 2003, 29% of fisheries were collapsed. Biodiverse regions' stocks fare better
4. Marine reserves and no-catch zones bring an average 23% improvement in biodiversity and an increase in fish stocks around the protected area

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