Jan 1, 2010
Scientific Breakthrough May Help Save Tasmanian Devils From Bizarre, Contagious Cancer
C2NN item submitted by Cher
Visit original story in LATimes here
Fierce as they are, Tasmanian devils can't beat a contagious cancer that threatens to wipe them out. Now scientists think they've found the disease's origin, a step in the race to save Australia's snarling marsupial. The furry black animals spread a fast-killing cancer when they bite one another's faces.
Since the disease's discovery in 1996, their numbers have plummeted by 70%.
Last spring, Australia listed the devils as an endangered species. There's no treatment and little hope of finding one until scientists better understand this bizarre "devil facial tumour disease." So an international research team picked apart the cancer's genes and discovered that it apparently first arose in cells that protect the animals' nerves. The surprise finding, reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science, has led to development of a test to help diagnose this tumour.
Next, scientists are hunting the mutations that turned these cells rogue, work they hope could one day lead to a vaccine to protect remaining Tasmanian devils, or perhaps treatments.
"The clock's ticking," lead researcher Elizabeth Murchison of the Australian National University said by phone from Tasmania. "It's awful to think there could be no devils here in 50 years because they're dying so quickly."
The devils, known for powerful jaws, fierce screeches and voracious consumption of prey, are the world's largest marsupial carnivores. They don't exist in the wild outside Tasmania, an island south of Australia.
What triggered this cancer, which causes tumours that grow so large on the face and neck that the animals eventually can't eat?
It didn't jump from another species, said Murchison. Tasmanian devils, for unknown reasons, are prone to various types of cancer. This tumour's genetic signature suggests that probably no more than 20 years ago, mutations built up in some animals' Schwann cells -- cells that produce the insulation, called myelin, crucial for nerves -- and the first devil fell ill with this new type.
Those mutations went far beyond a typical cancer. When one sick animal bites another, it transplants living cancer cells that form a copy of the first animal's tumour.
Murchison's team tested 25 tumours gathered from devils in different parts of Tasmania and found the tumours were essentially identical to one another. It's one of only two forms of cancer known to spread this way, Murchison said; the other is a sexually transmitted cancer in dogs. (That's quite different from people's transmission of a few cancer-causing viruses, including the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer.)
The researchers created a diagnostic test, based in part on a myelin-related protein called periaxin that was present in all the facial tumours but not in other cancers.
Also, the team compiled a catalogue of Tasmanian devil genetic information. Among the next goals is to determine which of those genes most influence the spread and severity of this cancer.
-- Associated Press
Top photo: A Tasmanian devil at Healesville Sanctuary. Credit: Cameron Wells / Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
Bottom photo: A Tasmanian devil reacts in its enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Credit: Mark Baker / Associated Press
More C2NN items submitted by Cher here
Jan 1, 2010
Endangered Species: The Good News and the Bad News
from C2NN, submitted by Cher
Let's start off the new year with some good news: usually when we talk about extinction, we're building a list, but in the last century, thirteen animals were removed from the list.
Thirteen species that were believed to be extinct, some for millions of years, were rediscovered. These so-called "Lazarus species" baffle scientists, who don't tend to declare extinction lightly. With an estimated average that we're losing a plant or animal species every 20 minutes (which is significantly higher than the naturally occurring rate of extinction), these guys are barely a blip on the radar. 4 hours and 20 minutes. Yet, their comeback gives us hope that maybe some of the damage we've done isn't permanent.
Who are the Lucky 13? They range from birds to rodents to bugs:
- the Coelacanth (a huge fish),
- Bermuda Petrel,
- Chacoan peccary (looks a bit like a wild boar),
- Lord Howe Island stick insect (larger than your average stick insect and sometimes referred to as "walking sausages"),
- Monito del Monte (an adorable little marsupial),
- La Palma giant lizard,
- Takahe (a flightless bird),
- Cuban solenodon (who has the distinction of being a rare venomous mammal),
- New Caledonian crested gecko,
- New Holland mouse,
- Giant Palouse earthworm,
- Large-billed reed-warbler,
- Laotian rock rat, who is from a family of rodents believed to be extinct for over 11 million years.
It's a pretty amazing group of creatures -- check out their photos
See more of Cher's stories here
Jan 1, 2010 6:53pm
Dec 8, 2009
Should Wild Animals Become Pets to Ward Off Extinction?
C2NN story submitted by Cher
In February 2009, Australia's Environmental
Minister, Peter Garrett made a depressing
announcement. The Christmas Island pipistrelle
bat— an inch-long winged creature no heavier
than five grams — was about to go extinct.
Articles about its imminent demise were accompanied by photos of the bat's miniscule body, barely big enough to embrace the full diameter of a human finger...One was seen fluttering around the island in August, but there have been no sightings since.
If the Christmas Island pipistrelle is truly gone,
it will be the 23rd Australian mammal species
to have become extinct in the past 200 years.
The last to perish was the CRESCENT NAIL-TAIL WALLABY — a miniature wallaby the size of a hare — which disappeared from western and central Australia in 1956. Twenty years earlier, in what was perhaps Australia's most infamous extinction, the TASMANIAN TIGER met its end.
The accumulation of tragedies like these has
given Australia the shameful distinction of
having the worst mammal extinction record
in the world. Half of the mammals that have
vanished from the planet in the last two
centuries have been in Australia.
And though the continent is hardly the only place grappling with die-offs — many biologists have conceded that a mass wave of extinctions is now sweeping the globe — as the list of Australia's endangered species continues to grow longer, scientists here are looking for ways to put an end to the trend.
MIKE ARCHER, a professor at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), has long been a proponent of domesticating Australia's unique wildlife to keep it from disappearing.
Archer has had SUGAR GLIDERS employ his shoulder as transport, shared a bed with a cucumber-loving QUOLL, and battled a SWAMP WALLABY over a roast chicken. While he concedes that not all native animals make great pets (WOMBATS and KOALAS come to mind), others do, and Archer's hoping that the government will start to legalize ownership of more native pets.
PICTURED BELOW: An Eastern quoll pictured in
Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania, Australia
Archer said, "No animal that has ever entered
[humans'] inner circle has become extinct.
When you value something and have an
emotional connection with it... it simply
It's a strategy that has worked before in Australia, albeit on a smaller scale. In 1987, RAINBOW FISH were considered to be forever-gone from the lakes in northern Queensland — their sole habitat. In a move to save them, fish enthusiasts collected the species for their personal aquariums, and when the Queensland fisheries caught on, the pet fish were used to start breeding programs.
Today, most Australians' interactions with the continent's native species are limited to zoos — many wouldn't know a QUOLL from a BANDICOOT, or a NUMBAT from a BILBY.
But Archer's plan seems to be gaining some traction. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), a federal government organization, will release a study next year considering the potential to use threatened EASTERN QUOLLS — native, cat-sized marsupials with white spots and bushy tails — as household pets, on the basis that they are rare, and could be suited to an urban habitat.
ROSALIE CHAPPLE, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the UNSW a key author of the RIRDC report, cautions about the implications of utilization of wild animals as pets...
"It should be based on a conservation
imperative and not a commercial industry
imperative. The wellbeing of the animal
must be taken into account."
A native mammal pet industry would need guidelines on living and food requirements for quolls, as well as a lot of paperwork for licensing and regulation.
Chapple is also wary about contributing to an overloaded pet industry.
In the Australian state of New South Wales alone, over 63,000 cats and dogs are abandoned every year, and...
...a recent bill brought before NSW state
parliament sought, unsuccessfully, to ban
the sale of cats and dogs from pet shops.
"With cats and dogs, we already see gross welfare issues,"
...says DANIEL RAMPS, a senior research fellow with the Australian Wetlands and River Center at UNSW who is vehemently opposed to keeping quolls as pets.
"Quolls have much more specific requirements… They need a lot of space. By encouraging a pet industry you are essentially opening quolls up to abuse. [The quoll] is a predator. Its instincts aren't able to be maintained in a captive environment," Ramps said.
Archer dismisses the argument.
"When I was given a Western quoll as a kitten, we had a very strong bonding experience. It was so cute, covered in little white spots with these huge eyes," he recalls. And while he feels quolls and people would get along just fine, he is blind to the charms of less exotic housemates while his cause gains more traction.
No Christmas for the Pipistrelle
Dec 8, 2009 10:48pm
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