Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Program on Reptiles a Popular Attraction

By Carol Malley / MassLive Photo by John White
Clayton J. Yanowsky was just discovering reptiles and amphibians when the Boston Museum of Science brought its reptile traveling program to Granby. The timing was perfect for the seventh-grader, who is home-schooled by his mother, Echo Cooke-Yanowsky. "We were just learning about reptiles and amphibians, so this was perfect," she said. "We have two dogs and a cat, but no snakes yet," she said. But "he wants one." she added.
Yanowsky, a seventh grader, took pictures of the Northern water snake, salamander, and a 30-pound common snapping turtle brought to the Church of Christ parish hall for the program sponsored by the Granby Public Library. The reptile show attracted a full house. "We had room for 145, and we filled it," said Janice M. McArdle, youth service librarian. "Shows that feature live animals are usually popular."
McArdle said the show was held at the church because the library didn't have the facilities to accommodate it. Kayla M. Graves, 11, of Easthampton didn't hesitate when Matt Pacewicz, educator at the Museum of Science, asked for volunteers. He asked a series of questions, geared toward how to tell if an animal is a reptile. Once it was established that reptiles have scales, Graves was asked to feel the skin of a small creature as part of a test to determine if it was a reptile. She described the skin as smooth and sticky, which ruled out reptiles and allowed the creature to be identified as a salamander. Nicholas A. Tosoni, 10, and his brother, Nolan J. Tosoni, 7, said they like looking at snakes and other reptiles. "We found a snake before," Nolan said, "and once we saw a salamander climbing on a tree."
Hands-on interaction with the live exhibits was limited to protect both the exhibits and the audience, Pacewicz said, but he involved his audience of children and adults in an exchange of information about the exhibits, and he brought a rock python skin from the museum for handling. "We're very pleased with the program and the response to it," McArdle said.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

RTM Set to Vote on Animal Ordinance - Wildlife Management Activities, Rodent Control Violate Town's Current Policy

by Hoa Nguyen / Staff Writer
Until the laws get changed, shooing seagulls away from a picnic table, hazing Canadian geese in town parks and even trapping mice in a home could be considered violations of town ordinances, according to Representative Town Meeting members scheduled to vote on the legal changes at this week's meeting. The RTM, which is scheduled to meet tomorrow at Central Middle School, is being asked to change municipal ordinances that say "no person shall molest, harm, frighten or harass any animal, reptile or bird" and "no person shall give or offer or attempt to give any animal, reptile or bird any poison or any other known noxious substance."
"The reason it's being changed is the town recognizes it was violating its own ordinances," said Franklin Bloomer, a retired lawyer who chairs the RTM's Land Use Committee, which has asked for further revisions to the ordinances. In 2005, the town began a program to deter the dozens of nonmigratory geese from inhabiting Bruce and Binney parks and leaving their droppings everywhere. At first about 20 geese were captured and eventually gassed and donated as meat to a food bank. Then the town initiated a nonlethal program, which is still going on, to use dogs to scare the geese and volunteers to "oil" goose eggs to prevent the geese from nesting.
All of these activities were permitted under federal and state laws allowing officials to manage wildlife. But after learning of the town ordinances, Conservation Director Denise Savageau asked the RTM to change the laws to allow those activities to be allowed as part of "wildlife management." But RTM members who reviewed the ordinances are recommending additional changes be made after realizing the laws prohibit many other everyday activities, such as shooing seagulls from a picnic table at the beach. "The main thing they wanted to do was to make legal what they are doing," Bloomer said of conservation officials. "They didn't stop to think that the other stuff was illegal."
For instance, although the statutes are in a section that deals specifically with town parks, the ordinances could be construed to apply to activities on private property, such as trapping and killing rodents in a home, Bloomer said. "The way it reads, there are no geographic limitations to that section," he said. RTM members also are recommending that the word "maliciously" be added to the section. "If you shoo away a squirrel or a seagull while you are having a picnic, well that is OK," Bloomer said.
They also are proposing to change a section that prohibits someone from carrying a firearm on town property, allowing a person to carry a gun or rifle as long as it is while in transit, Bloomer said. For instance, that would allow a duck hunter who has a permit to carry a firearm to bring it onto a boat docked at town-owned Grass Island and go hunting offshore in Long Island Sound, Bloomer said. "We tried to fix some of the most important stuff," he said.
The land use committee's amendments have won the support of the Health and Human Services Committee, which held a discussion Tuesday night, said committee chairman Gerald Isaacson, a District 5/Riverside representative. "A lot of it was trying to understand what these amendments would do to strengthen it and the general feeling was they would be very helpful," he said.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Roboboa - The Robotic Snake

And now for something completely different -- a toy, robotic snake...
Roboboa When it comes to robot toys, no one does it better than WowWee. The company has got a range of cool new models coming out soon and we’re particularly taken with this one, the wonderfully-named Roboboa.
You can control the robot snake by means of a remote control, program in 40 different moves, or just leave it to its own devices. It’s partial to music and likes a boogie, swaying in time to the tune.
To complement this disco routine, Roboboa has a head full of lights which it can flash on and off in an hypnotic manner (Robocobra would have been a more accurate name, but not as catchy). You can watch a (poor quality) video of Roboboa in action here.
The synthetic snake can also be used as an iPod speaker, alarm clock and room sentry. Motion sensors allow it to track intruders and shine its beady gaze on them as they move about. Get a room full of these and you’ll have the stuff of nightmares.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Iguana tale - Drue Sokol's slithery, scaly animal companion as cuddly as a pup

In the minds of Drue Sokol's high school classmates and friends, girls like furry pets and scaly animals are for boys. Then they met Drue -- and Zelda. "People say, 'Where did you get your scratches? A kitty cat? A dog?' " says Drue, rubbing the faint red marks on her arms. "No, a four-and-a-half-foot iguana."
Other children beg for a puppy, a kitten or a bunny. Drue, coming from a reptile-loving family, always wanted an iguana. So when her grandfather -- a long-time reptile owner -- gave her the salamander-sized baby Zelda more than a half-dozen years ago, she was as happy as a lizard lounging in the sun.
For Drue, Zelda isn't as good as her friends' and neighbors' pets. She's better. The green iguana -- a type indigenous to Mexico, southern Brazil, Paraguay and the Caribbean Islands -- cuddles up to Drue when she's at her laptop. She plops her long, slithering body on the keyboard at just the moment Drue begins tackling a serious math problem or huge paper. "She has a keen sense of knowing when I'm doing something really important," Drue says. "She just sits in the middle."
Drue, a straight-A 15-year-old student at Albany Academy for Girls, doesn't mind the occasional distraction. When the reptile isn't feeling frisky, she can be good homework company, scooting up alongside Drue and resting there for an hour or more. If the teen steps away for a snack or to take a phone call, Zelda lies by the computer watching the screen saver, an ocean scene. Drue used to carry Zelda upstairs, and the girls would hang out in Drue's room -- but now that Zelda's so big, the 5-foot-4 Drue trips on Zelda's tail going up the stairs, a painful experience for both. So they stick to the first floor, where Zelda is free to roam -- when someone's home. Zelda also loves curling up on Drue's lap for a little TV. Animal Planet is the girls' favorite channel. It's one of the few times Zelda -- whose brain is smaller than a nut -- looks alert and completely clued in. The other time is dinner.
Zelda's diet consists of leafy greens, kale and bananas. She inhales each of her three meals in less than a minute. Her favorite family members are the ones who feed her. She shies away from men, like Drue's dad, who is the medicine deliverer and nail clipper. "I used to think it was love," says Drue. "But one day I realized she's more excited to see me when she's knows I'm going to feed her." Despite her voracious appetite, Zelda only uses the bathroom a couple times a week. She uses a litter box, a skill she picked up after only a few tries. She was so successful, that it led the family to believe Zelda may actually be pretty smart. Then Zelda falls off her indoor, window-side perch out of sheer fear of the lawn mower two houses away or can't figure out how to get out of her climate-controlled habitat, despite its exit. "I try to show her that there is an open door in which she can get out of," says Drue. "But once she walks out, she walks right back in and is amused for another fifteen minutes or so." Then she starts clawing at the wall again, unable to find her way out.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Species Of Lizard Found In Borneo

Chris Austin, along with colleague Indraneil Das from the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, will publish their findings and photos of the new species in the prestigious Journal of Herpetology. (Image Credit: Dr. Chris Austin / courtesy of Louisiana State University)

Science Daily Chris Austin, assistant curator of herpetology at LSU's Museum of Natural Science, or LSUMNS, and adjunct professor in biological sciences, recently discovered a new species of lizard while conducting field research in Borneo. Austin, along with colleague Indraneil Das from the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, will publish their findings and photos of the new species in the prestigious Journal of Herpetology. The article, which will contain the currently embargoed scientific name of the species, is slated for publication in March, 2007.
"We actually found four specimens at once," said Austin. "One of the best methods for finding lizards in the rainforest is to look under logs. We found two individuals of the new species under one log and two more under another." With more than 15 years of fieldwork experience behind him, Austin knew immediately that he had found a new species. After collecting the lizards, he and Das began the difficult work of proving what they already knew.
"Determining that a species is new to science is a long and laborious process," said Austin. "Natural history museums and their invaluable collections are critical in that they allow scientists to examine known biodiversity in order to determine a species is new." He and Das examined specimens from a slew of museums around the world. Natural history collections, such as the more than 80,000 specimens in the LSUMNS reptile and amphibian collection, are important because taxonomy -- the science of describing, naming and classifying organisms -- has implications for basic and applied fields of science. "We can't conserve what we don't know we have. It is imperative that we know what species exist in order to preserve them for future generations," said Austin.
He used the cutting-edge molecular genetics lab at the LSUMNS to decipher the genetic code of the lizards. "We sequenced the DNA of this new species and several other closely related species in order to help our diagnosis," he said. "Using DNA to help describe new species is becoming one of the most important tools for scientists to use in documenting and describing biodiversity." The global decline of biodiversity has become a major public issue recently, and the use of modern molecular methods is proving to be fundamental in gaining a better understanding of the situation.
The new species is distinguishable from its closest cousin, a type of skink found in the southern Philippines, in several distinct ways:

  • different color patterns;
  • its structure, or morphology;
  • differences in scale count, which is one of the basic ways scientists distinguish between species;
  • and significant genetic variations.

These traits combined to confirm the original hypothesis that the lizard was, in fact, an entirely new species. Austin spent the entire summer of 2006 in New Guinea, his geographical area of expertise, conducting fieldwork with graduate students.
He is currently working on research funded by the National Science Foundation to understand why New Guinea, called a megadiverse region, has such a high level of biodiversity. "While we were there, we collected what we think is a new species of snake, a new species of lizard and probably two or three new species of frogs," he said. "But the process of certifying a new species takes so long that it will be awhile before we're certain."
Austin has been at LSU since 2003, coming from post-doctoral positions in Australia and Japan. "What attracted me to the university the most was LSUMNS and its international reputation for excellence," he said. Access to the LSUMNS genetics lab makes that aspect of identifying a new species much easier, giving Austin and his graduate students at-home resources that many other researchers have to travel to reach.

For more information on Austin and his research, please visit

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Zebrafish Study Yield Novel Genes Critical In Organ Development

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have identified a group of novel genes that are critical in organ development. The scientists studied the roles of genes in the zebrafish secretome. This group of genes makes proteins that are located on the surface or outside of cells in the body, and are responsible for directing "patterning" in the body, or ensuring that cells divide, differentiate and migrate to properly form vital organs in the correct places during development.
The research is published online in the current issue of the Public Library of Science journal ONE. Using a technique developed at the University in 2000 that allowed them to knock down, or turn off, specific genes, the researchers identified new genes that are implicated in the development of different systems and processes, such as blood and blood vessel development, formation of the eyes and ears, and metabolism of lipids, or fats.
In addition, instead of just examining what happens with one specific gene if it is turned on or off, they were able to directly compare the effects of removing different genes on organ formation and function."The different gene phenotypes found in the collection give us a new level of resolution for how these organs develop," said Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., associate professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and lead author on the international multi-institutional study that includes scientists from the Max-Planck Institute of Immunology in Freiburg, Germany, and the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Baltimore, Maryland.
For this particular journal article, they examined 150 genes, and they will continue to work their way through all 4,000 that make up the secretome. Zebrafish are a good model for studying how the vascular system develops. They study genes that are "conserved" between zebrafish and humans. This means the genes exist and have the same function in both zebrafish and humans.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Plan May Put Squeeze on Snake Owners

Tighter rules urged as exotic pets adapt to Florida's wild
By David Fleshler / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Photo by steelrain of
With giant snakes battling alligators in the Everglades, the state wildlife commission has proposed sharp restrictions on the owners of Burmese pythons and four other non-native reptiles, including a requirement to implant their slithery pets with computer identification chips.
Florida's climate has made the state a congenial home for species from Africa, Asia and South America let loose by their owners after they become too big or too high maintenance. A breeding population of Burmese pythons has been discovered in Everglades National Park, where the constrictors have been killing native birds, mammals, and in one notorious incident, an alligator. Elsewhere in the state, trappers routinely catch pythons and other large non-native snakes.
The new rules would limit sales of constricting snakes that grow to at least 12 feet, specifically Burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, African rock pythons, amethystine or scrub pythons and green anacondas. The rules also would restrict sales of Nile monitors, carnivorous lizards that can grow as long as 6 feet and already have established a breeding population in the Cape Coral area on Florida's Gulf Coast.
At the moment, anyone can walk into a pet shop and walk out with a python. Under the new rules, buyers would have to be 18 years old, complete a questionnaire, apply for a state permit, submit a plan for keeping the animal secure in case of a hurricane or other disaster, and have the reptile implanted with a computer chip. The rules would go into effect Jan. 1, 2008. They would be retroactive, although owners would have until that July 1 to comply with the chip requirement.
Commonly used to help return lost dogs, cats and birds, the computer chip identifying a reptile's owner would be implanted by a vet. If wildlife officials later catch the snake in the wild, they could check the chip, find the owner and charge him or her with a second-degree misdemeanor for allowing the non-native animal to get loose, said Capt. John West of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The maximum penalty would be a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Assuming -- and hoping -- that many owners of the big snakes would find these rules too onerous, the state plans to set up amnesty programs that would allow people to drop off unwanted reptiles at sites yet to be determined--no questions asked. "We don't know how many are out there," West said. "We have a suspicion it's a high number. We're hoping a lot of people will say they don't want to do this and turn them in." The restrictions would have to be approved by the wildlife commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor. The commission initially will consider the proposals in February.

EDITORIAL: The government should not be involved with pet ownership in this manner. The potential complications of the implanted chip, along with expense, are unnecessary. While I do agree that owners should be at least 18 years of age, this type of knee-jerk reaction to large reptile ownership is onerous to those of us who are responsible pet owners. Anyone who dumps a pet in the Everglades (or elsewhere) should be fined. BUT, forcing the bureaucracy of state permits and tracking chips is much too Orwellian. I urge you to fight this tactic -- in Florida AND in your state.