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Yes, Cold Blooded Creatures Get Fevers Too: Here’s What You Need To Know

What do amphibians, reptiles and fish have in common? They are all ectotherms – cold blooded creatures. They are animals which cannot regulate their own body temperatures (like warm blooded animals can) and they rely on the external environment to change their internal temperatures. 

For long scientists wondered if sickness like cold, flu and fever were the lot of warm blooded creatures . As it turns out – they aren’t. Cold blooded creatures can fall ill too. 

How (?), you may ask. In order to understand this, we need to understand how fevers set in warm blooded creatures. 

All warm blooded creatures have a particular body temperature, which for them is considered normal. For example: 

  • Humans – 98.6°F
  • Dogs – 102.0°F
  • Elephants – 97.7°F
  • Horses – 100.4°F
  • Goats – 103.4°F

If the body temperatures of these animals rises above this limit (as is the case during infections), the body tries to thermoregulate .i.e. bring the temperature back down, to normal. When the body fails to do this and the body temperature continues to rise, fever sets in. 

 

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Cold blooded animals – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

What about cold blooded animals?

Based on this, it’s important to note that for fever to set in, there has to be a biologically-set body temperature. But cold blooded animals don’t have a fixed temperature. Their body temperature falls or rises depending on the temperature of the external environment. 

So, how do they fall ill?

Well, cold blooded or warm blooded, all animals are susceptible to illness. Just as with their warm blooded cousins, cold blooded animals too may get infections from parasites or viruses, which can raise or drop their body temperatures abnormally. Just like warm blooded animals, ectotherm animals’ bodies too can handle only a certain level of heat and cold. If the change in temperature during the infection falls beyond this limit, illness similar to fever sets in. 

But the biggest mystery here isn’t just about how these animals fall ill, but it also includes what these animals do to get back to health. 

Changing behaviours for the sake of wellness

When fish, amphibians or reptiles fall ill, they indulge in what is known as a “behavioural fever“. If the animal is infected by a parasite or virus and experiences signs of ill health, it moves away towards areas which support warmer climates. For example, fish that normally prefer cold waters may swim towards warmer waters when they are ill. 

Why? 

Heat has the ability to deactivate viruses and destroy the proteins which assist in virus duplication. The same goes with parasites – heat can kill them too. 

So, a cold blooded creature that falls ill, will instinctively move towards a warmer place, in order to increase its body temperature, which will in turn help in killing or deactivating the pathogen in their bodies. 

 

Zebrafish
Zebrafish (Image source: Imperial College London)

 

This instinctive “behaviour“, which ectotherms exhibit when they have “fevers“, is called “behavioural fever“.  Scientists speculate this behaviour could stem from the fact that the immune systems of cold blooded animals may actually function better when in warmer climates.

One of the best examples of cold blooded creatures who exhibit behavioural fever are Zebrafish. The moment they fall ill, Zebra fish will change their water-heat preferences and swim to warmer waters. The same goes for Guppies. 

When behavioural fever benefits the host 

For some time, it was assumed that behavioural fever was helpful only for ectotherms who were in the throes of infection & fever. But as it turns out, in some cases, the move to hotter areas benefits pathogens too. 

Schistocephalus solidus, a tapeworm found in the gut of  rodents, fish and fish-eating birds, actually thrive on heat. Once the parasite is in the hot climate, it grows stronger and changes the heat preferences of the fish and manipulate other atypical (and often self-destructive) behaviours in the animal. 

 

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Virus (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Then there is the Cyprinid herpesvirus 3, which is a virus that attacks fish in the Carp family. This virus affects the genetic code of the fish it infects and overrides the genes which stimulate behavioural fever. So, the infected fish doesn’t move towards warmer waters (as it is supposed to), instead choosing to stay in colder waters, where the virus can gain in strength. 

What happens if a feverish ectotherm cannot move to warmer climates? 

Vicious parasites and mind-control viruses aside, the inability to indulge in behavioural fever can have a massive, negative impact on cold blooded animals. This is in fact, very true of pets.

In the wild, cold blooded creatures have a lot of freedom to move to different places, in order to rid themselves of their illness and infection.  But pets stuck in aquariums and enclosures don’t have this luxury. 

Cold blooded pets like fish, turtles, tortoises, iguanas, lizards and snakes are cooped up inside their temperature-controlled tanks/enclosures for almost their entire lives; where they are subjected to the same temperature day-in-and-day-out. 

 

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Caged animal – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Now imagine these pets fall ill and have a fever. Biologically they are programmed to leave and move to a place that is warmer, to heal themselves. But because they are stuck in their tanks/enclosures, these animals do not get the opportunity to get their bodies at the right temperature to kill the infection. 

When this happens, the fever and the infection only gets worse and in the worst cases, the pet dies. In fact, a large number of fish deaths in aquariums can be attributed to this.

So, what can pet owners do about this? 

Fish owners can set aside a separate tank where they can change the temperature of the water as required. Owners of amphibians and reptiles can create heat spots in corners of the enclosure by using detachable heaters and small light sources. This can give the sick pet an opportunity to self-heal. 

If however, your pet looks worse, it’s best to take him/her to a vet immediately. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Iguana (Source: Pixabay)
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If Poison Were A Colour…

Here’s a short poem before we start:

 

Five Little Crayons

Five little crayons coloured a scene.

Yellow, blue, orange, red and green.

“Look,” said Yellow, “My sun is bright!”

Blue said, “Great! My river’s just right!”

Orange said, “Flowers! I’ll draw something new.”

Red said, “Great, I’ll add some, too!”

“Sigh,” said Green, “I’m tired of trees,

And grass and bushes and tiny leaves.

I think I’ll draw a big green cloud!”

“A big green cloud should be allowed!”

The crayons all smiled and didn’t think twice

A big green cloud sounded rather nice!

 

Pretty fun to sing isn’t it? And a wonderful sight it would be too. Especially in the wild.

Nature has her fair share of spectacularly beautiful animals and plants. Super colourful and oh-so-inviting, your only wish would be to touch the creature and feel it under your fingers. But do so and that may be the last thing you ever do.

If there’s one thing you need to remember about the wild, it’s that Colours = Poison.

Say hello to Aposematism

What do they call an animal that uses bright colours to ward-off danger? An aposematic animal of course. Aposematism is the biological process of using colours as signals to repel predators.

Animals brighten their skin pigments or even change their colours as warning to other animals not to cross their path. Plants, flowers, fungi and seeds use bright colours which indicate high levels of toxicity (which animals learn indicate ‘Don’t Eat’).

Aposematic animals & plants work in weird, but wonderful ways. While some are genuinely poisonous and use unique colours to their advantage, others are non-poisonous and mimic their more dangerous cousins to confuse and scare-off their predators, who otherwise may attack them.

But here you have below the list of 5 animals who really are poisonous and who use colour as a warning sign in the wild. Remember, they may look enchanting and you may want to touch them or pet them. But trust me, it’s better you stay away.

Now, without further ado, here are our top pics for pretty but potent animals in the wild:

1) Amazonian Poison Dart Frog

This one is most certainly the poster boy for ‘colorful but potent’ category in the wild (hence the feature image ;D) 

Poison dart frogs are one of the most toxic creatures on land. Dart frogs don’t make their own poisons, but store the poison of the insects and smaller animals they eat. They then process these poisons and combine them to make a very potent toxin…something which can be severely painful for humans.

Local Amazonian tribes use the tree frog’s poison to coat their darts, which they use to hunt monkeys and birds. The most toxic of all Amazonian tree frogs is Phyllobates terribilis.

Amazon red frog
Red Striped Poison Dart Frog
Amazon blue frog
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Golden Poison frog
Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog
Golden Frog
Phyllobates terribilis aka Golden Poison Frog

 

2) Caterpillars

The Monarch Butterfly and the Pipevine Swallowtail store and use their prey’s toxin as a defence mechanism when they are older. Birds know they can be deadly to eat and avoid them. But other than a handful of these winged critters, most butterflies and moths aren’t poisonous. But the same can’t be said of their offspring.

Many caterpillars have a poisonous coating on their body, which protects them from being eaten by predators when they are young & helpless. While some poisons only knock the predator out for a few hours, others kill. A case in point is the formidable  N’gwa or ‘Kaa caterpillar, which is found in Africa and whose toxin, according to researcher David Livingstone, which is a mixture of snake venom and plant toxin, has the capacity to kill an antelope.

 

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Saddleback Caterpillar
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Stinging Rose Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar

 

3) Hooded Pitohui

Did you ever think a bird would be on this list?

The Hooded Pitohui, scientifically called Pitohui dichrous makes its home in the lush forests of New Guinea. The size of a dove, the Pitohui is the only documented poisonous bird in the world.

It’s toxin is a neurotoxin which numbs and paralyzes the victims. Luckily, this toxin isn’t fatal to humans, although the effects can take hours to wear-off. Sadly, the same isn’t true for its prey which are insects.

The Hooded Pitohui is part of a 3-species family, which also includes the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are poisonous too, but not to the level of toxicity as their hooded cousin. The toxin has been found to be the outcome of the birds’ consumption of the choresine beetle. Such a nuisance is this bird to the surrounding tribes, it had been nicknamed Pitohui or ‘rubbish bird’ by the locals, which then was adopted as its official name.

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Hooded Pitohui
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Hooded Pitohui
Variable pithoui
Variable Pitohui
Brown pitchoui
Brown Pitohui

 

4) Pufferfish

Here’s an animal that can (and has) kill(ed) a human. Puffer fish are one of the most venomous animals on the planet and a single sting can bring down the mightiest of men. Often, human deaths occur when people unwittingly consume puffer fish organs in their meal. In animals though, its often a result of the puffer’s hunting or defence strategy.

The toxin the puffer fish contains is called Tetrodotoxin, which is a highly potent neurotoxin. The toxin slowly blocks all the neural transmitters in the body, essentially paralysing the victim, one organ at a time. At its peak, the Tetrodotoxin closes the wind pipe, slows down the lungs  and stops the heart from working. Soon, the brain dies due to asphyxiation and lack of blood flow, killing the victim. Scientists believe Tetrodotoxin  is 200 times more lethal than cyanide!

Want to know something even more unbelievable? The Japanese have a very special dish called Fugu which is made of puffer fish and is served during very special events. And guess what? Chefs deliberately leave a bit of the poison on the fish as an adrenaline-inducing treat for the guests.

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Guineafowl Puffer Fish
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Blue Spotted Puffer Fish
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Yellow Spotted Puffer Fish
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Diodon Puffer Fish

 

5) Cone snails

They look harmless, inviting even. But pick one up and you’ll be stung faster than you can say ‘Oh no!’. Cone snails are another sea dweller that even humans need to beware of, if they don’t wish to be hurt or worse, dead.

Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, cone snails contain a variety of neuro venoms (depending on the species) and can range in toxicity that’s akin to everything from a bee sting to a fatal hit. These snails shoot out harpoons, which are teeth-like organs which they use when hunting underwater. Any animal that has the misfortune of brushing against the cone snail will be the unfortunate recipient of the harpoon.

One species of cone snail that are extremely potent to humans is the Conus geographus or the Cigarette snail, whose toxin is said to be so quick-acting that victims have only time enough to smoke a small cigarette before dying.

Another gastropod that is poisonous – Nudibranch. You can read all about them here.

Conus geographus
Conus Geographus, aka the Cigarette snail
Marbled cone snail
Marbeled Cone Snail
Cone snail
Types of Poisonous Cone Snails

 

In the next article, we’ll focus on the Top 5 Most Colourful & Poisonous Plants and Fungi.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image: Poison Dart Frog 

 

5 Technologies That Are Inspired by the Wild

Biomimetics, also known as biomimicry, is a branch of science that uses nature as inspiration to find solutions for human problems. One of the biggest uses of Biomimetics is using animal and plant defensive strategies as the foundation for technology. Here are 5 amazing inventions that are inspired by the wild.

  • Sharkskin and catheters

Catheters are so important for a variety of medical treatments. But for long, doctors had to contend with dirty-catheter-induced infections in patients. To combat this problem, scientists looked towards sharks.

Sharks have tiny, V-shaped sharp bumps on their skins called dermal denticles which prevent algae, barnacles and slime from collecting on the shark. This keeps them clean,  healthy and free from dermatological afflictions.

Shark denticles
Shark dermal denticles (Image Source)

Using the sharkskin concept, a company called Sharklet Technologies developed a specialized plastic wrap with sharp bumps along the surface, which could be coated on catheters. Once coated, the wrap prevented the accumulation of germs and pus on the catheter, reducing the threat of infections in patients.

These denticles also reduce drag in shark and help them preserve energy when swimming. That’s why swimming costume and bodysuit manufacturers are using the same concept to create efficient sportswear for athletes.

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Sharklet, the technology derived from the shark denticles (Image Source)
  • Tardigrades and live vaccines

Suspended animation is a concept that’s enthralled us for decades. Movies like Space Odyssey and Avatar have further rejuvenated our interest in the concept.  While humans are still experimenting with suspended animations, one animal has been living the concept for centuries.

Tardigrades are tiny, microscopic eight-legged animals that resemble arthropods. They’re called water bears or moss piglets because they spend their entire lives in water. If however, the water dehydrates, tardigrades find it difficult to survive. But instead of dying out, the tardigrades go into a state of suspended animation and remain in this state until their environment becomes re-hydrated. They do so by coating their DNA with a type of sugar-protein.

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Tardigrade (Image Source)

Scientists have used this concept to develop a method to preserve vaccines that expire in very short periods of time. They wrap the vaccines in sugar proteins similar to the ones used by tardigrades, putting them in a frozen state (without actually refrigerating them), which keeps them in perfect condition for up to 6 months. This ensures that the vaccines remain ‘live’ and ‘fresh’ much longer.

You can see tardigrades in the flesh here. If you want to find your own tardigrade, be sure to check out this video.

  • Butterflies and e-reader colour display

E-readers have renewed the habit of reading in many parts of the world. One of the best features that set e-readers apart from other technology is the colour display – light that enables users to read in extreme glare and in the dark.

It would come as a surprise to many that e-reader colour display has been inspired by butterflies. The iridescence of butterfly wings has inspired the development of the Mirasol, a full-colour e-reader that can churn out high-quality LCD-worthy colour pictures and text.

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Butterfly whose sheen wings inspired the Marisol (Image Source)

Butterfly wings shine in the sunlight by reflecting light off themselves, instead of absorbing and transmitting light. The display of the Marisol is based on this very feature. Sunlight is reflected off the screen ensuring that glare is reduced and the colours appear brighter and sharper; as opposed to in LCD screens where light is transmitted from within to produce colour.

  • Beetles and water harvesting

Found in the dry Namib desert in Africa, the Namib beetle is a master at collecting water. Living in an environment that faces a dire shortage of hydration, the beetle has evolved to keep itself hydrated even in the face of the most scorching summer.

The beetle’s shell is made of a flexible, waxy Teflon-like material which contains tiny grooves capable of trapping fog and condensing it into the water. The beetle indulges in what is known as ‘fog-basking’; where it turns it’s back towards the wind/fog and collects the fog in the grooves on its back.  The fog condenses into water and is pushed-off the slippery waxy-back and directed towards the beetle’s mouth.

Darkling beetle on the sand
Namib beetle (Image Source)

Following the beetle’s ingenious water collection methods, researchers have developed water collection nets and drinking bottles (Dew Bank Bottle) whose surface resembles the beetle’s grooved back. These technologies are used in the arid Chilean and Israeli desserts to collect water for indigenous residents.

  • Boxfish and automobiles

When Mercedes-Benz was designing its new state-of-the-art energy-efficient Bionic car, it derived its design inspiration from a small, uniquely shaped fish. The boxfish, found in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, is a fish that has a honeycomb-like triangular/squarish-shaped body. But its shape isn’t the only thing unique to the boxfish. Its body is covered with bony plates called ‘carapace’ which reduce the drag underwater, while the fish swims.

Image Source

This unique body structure with its almost snout-like mouth makes the boxfish extremely aerodynamic. Underwater currents move over the fish’s body, reducing turbulence and allowing it to move fast.

Mercedes-Benz applied the boxfish’s anatomical structure to their Bionic car which was quirky to look at and extremely aerodynamic. The car’s structure also made it extremely energy efficient. Today, the Bionic is one of the most talked-about cars.

NISHA PRAKASH

5 Deadly Diseases That Are Wiping Out Animal Populations Across The World

Animals can catch a cold, they can also get arthritis and obesity-related illnesses. But here are 5 scary diseases plaguing animals in the wild, which resemble something right out of a horror movie. If we don’t act fast, we may end up losing these animals for good. 

 

All living creatures fall ill. But for the most part, knowledge about animal diseases is scarce. Research into this niche area has always been challenging. For one thing, scientists need to know what clues to look for, when diagnosing an animal with a disease. For another, enough numbers in the species need to exhibit the same symptoms, for the illness to be even considered an illness and not a chance affliction.

Here is a list of 5 animal diseases that scientists didn’t know existed, but which now are changing the face of science and animal conservation:

  • Chytridiomycosis

Species affected: Frogs

Considered to be the deadliest disease in recorded animal history, Chytridiomycosis is caused due to exposure to the chytrid Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungi. They are a type of zoosporic fungus which infects frog species and causes hyperkeratosis i.e. thickening of the skin.

Frogs breathe, drink and consume electrolytes through their skin and when the fungus causes the skin’s pores to clog and the skin to thicken, the only available airway of the animals closes. This causes skin infections, cardiac arrests and finally results in death.

As of today, Chytridiomycosis has resulted in the extinction of almost half the frog population in the world. Any colony that faces this disease sees a 100% mortality rate within a few months. Unfortunately, scientists don’t know why or how this disease spreads, leaving us without any means to protect our amphibious brethren.

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Image: Top – A Healthy Frog; Bottom: A Frog Infected With Chytridiomycosis
  • Snake fungal disease

Species affected: Snakes in Midwestern and Eastern USA

Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, aka, Oo is a fungus that not many know about. A keratinophilic fungus from the family Onygenaceae, it feeds on keratin, a substance that makes up fingernails, rhino horns and snakeskin.

The epidermis of the snake is covered with scales which are made of keratin. The Oo attacks the snake when it’s at its most vulnerable, infecting it with a fatalistic disease. Snakes tend to have a very weak immune system post-hibernation and it is then that the Oo enters the body of the body and eats away at the scales. Without the scales, the snake’s skin starts to disintegrate, exposing it to harsh weather and other infections.

This fungus has been recorded as having decimated massasauga and timber rattlesnake populations by 50% and has also put these animals on the endangered species list. Not much is known about this fungus and its impact on other snake species.

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Image: A Snake Infected With Fungal Disease
  • Sea star wasting syndrome

Species affected: Starfish

The 1980s saw starfish populations facing a fatal infection. Lesions appeared on their arms, leading to severe infection. This infection caused the arms to fall off, making their bodies turn into a mushy, paste-like substance. A few days after the lesion first appeared, starfish wound up on the beach, wasted away to death.

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Image: A Starfish Afflicted By The Wasting Syndrome

The sea star wasting syndrome has since the 1980s been a cause for concern for scientists. For long, there was no known cause visible to them. But in 2014, researchers discovered a virus they named ‘sea star associated densovirus’ on the bodies of the starfish. But studies of starfish fossils show that the species have been living with this virus for millennia. Research is still ongoing to understand if this virus is the cause of the disease or not.

As of now, the virus has led to the extinction of 3 American starfish species and has culled the population of 19 other species by half. The worst part, this disease has now spread to sea urchins, which are the starfish’s prey.

starfish wasting
Image: Time Frame Within Which Wasting Happens; In This Picture, Wasting Occurs Within 4 Hours
  • Colony collapse disorder

Species affected: Bees

Bee colonies around the world have been dying out and the reason isn’t clear why. The colony collapse disorder results in the traditionally conscientious worker bees deserting the queen bee, nurse bees and larvae, leaving them to fend for themselves. Unable to find sustenance and protection after food runs out, the queen, nurses and larvae die, leading to a complete collapse in the colony.

Assumed to be a rare occurrence at firsts, scientists were shocked to see the disorder affecting thousands of colonies in North America and Europe. Researchers believe this disorder could have occurred due to a variety of reasons, starting from invasion by parasitic mites called varroa destructor to a change in the chemical constitution in the bees’ bodies due to a viral infection. Scientists have also speculated that pesticides containing neonicotinoids may also be a reason for this disorder.

The colony collapse disorder has far-reaching consequences apart from the loss of billions of bees. The thread that rejuvenates the ecosystem, bees help humans in multiple ways. With the worker bees’ refusal to indulge in their normal behaviours, we may find ourselves in serious trouble.

  • Hemorrhagic septicemia

Species affected: Saiga antelope

Saiga antelope, renowned for their unique appearance, have made headlines again. But this time, it’s for a rare disease that’s wiped out one-third of the species in the past few years. This is a cause for concern, as the species population is teetering on the edge of extinction. More than 15 years of poaching and habitat loss have resulted in the death of 95% of the saiga population in the wild.

Assumed to be caused by a virus or a tick, the saiga antelope suffer from hemorrhagic septicemia or blood poisoning that results in internal haemorrhaging. This disease was noticed to have spiked during the calving season, a time when both mothers and calves are at their most vulnerable. The deadly disease took out almost 134,000 mothers and calves within a span of two weeks.

Thankfully, research has been able to confirm the exact cause of the disease and now we know the culprit is the Pasteurella multocida type B bacteria. Studies show that the bacteria reside in the antelope’s noses from birth. But the humid conditions in the nostrils act as a fertile breeding ground for the bacteria, leading to the formation of large colonies in the saiga’s bodies. These bacteria release deadly toxins into the animal’s bloodstream, resulting in blood poisoning and then death.

 

Saiga Mother and calf
Image: A Saiga Mother and Calf Die Due to Septicemia

 

Armed with this knowledge, we may finally be able to save this critically endangered species from extinction. Now, all we need to do is find a solution for the other diseases and lend a helping hand to these endangered creatures.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: Thousands of saiga antelopes lie dead in a field in Khazakstan of blood poisoning.

The Illuminating World of Animal Necropsies

There’s something intrinsically disturbing at the thought of an animal lying on a gurney, its insides cut open for the entire world to see. Something unsettling at the thought of seeing what they last ate for lunch or how their hearts look, underneath all that fur and feather. Welcome to the underbelly of science – animal autopsies, aka, necropsies.

 

Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, made his entry into the National Museum of Natural History, Manila in November 2011. Everything seemed to be going well at the outset. Staff who worked closely with Lolong was elated at how well he had adapted to life in captivity.

 

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Image: Lolong, the World’s Largest Crocodile in Captivity

 

This is why everyone at the Museum had been shocked when in February 2013 Lolong was found dead in his enclosure. His necropsy (animal autopsy) report showed that he had succumbed to congestive heart failure. The report also revealed that he had lipidosis in his liver, had fungal pneumonia and suffered from kidney failure.

But the most significant results of the necropsy report had nothing to do with the illnesses. The reports helped researchers understand why exactly Lolong developed these problems and helped them find ways to prevent the same happening to other crocodilians.

What is a necropsy?

Autopsies are performed on people to identify the cause of death. Necropsies are autopsies performed on animals.

As with human autopsies, necropsies start with an external examination of the specimen’s body to understand if there are any indicators of the cause of death. Next, the body is dissected and each organ is examined systematically. Tissue samples are collected from all major organs, the stomach contents are checked to understand diet (and if the food was poisoned) and the blood is tested to understand what enzymes and chemicals are present and in what quantities.

 

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Image: Skeletal Display of Whale at the Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

In some animals, like whales and elephants, the skeleton is preserved and is sent to museums and veterinary schools for further study and display. Specimen organs may also be preserved for further tests.

3 Benefits of animal necropsies

Necropsies may sound gruesome and morbid (they certainly look so), but they have a number of benefits:

They help understand little-known creatures

In 2014 a completely-intact colossal squid was brought into the New Zealand Museum in Te Papa Tongarewa. This was just the second fully-intact colossal squid specimen in the world; a rare specimen and an even rarer opportunity to take a better look at these mysterious creatures.

A necropsy was conducted to understand their diet, mating habits and hunting strategies. The physiology of the squid was analyzed to understand if the animal had any special features which made it different from other squid species. The necropsy was also used to understand why the colossal squid grows to mammoth proportions and how it sustains itself in deep waters.

They help pinpoint and stop epidemics

2009 saw the Tasmanian Devil being listed on the Endangered Species list. This wasn’t due to poaching. Researchers discovered that the marsupials suffered from an unusual, highly-fatalistic and extremely contagious form of face cancer, called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Cancerous tumors would form on the face and neck of the animals, leaving them physically unable to hunt or eat. A few months into the illness, the Tasmanian Devils died of starvation and weakness.

Necropsy reports showed how the cancerous tumors spread across the body and how they looked and felt structurally. Blood tests gave scientists insight into the chemical changes taking place in the bodies of afflicted animals. The reports helped conservationists plan the Devil Ark project, which sought to breed 1000 genetically clean Tasmanian Devils with an immune system that was pre-designed to recognize and eliminate the DFTD. Recent research shows how human cancer treatment drugs may be able to treat DFTD.

 

 

Tasmanian Devil Cancer
Image: Tasmanian Devil With DFTD

 

They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice

We assume that zoos are the right places for displaced and orphaned animals. But little do we know of the horrors that take place behind closed doors. The Cleveland Zoo found itself in the midst of controversy when the chief of veterinary services was caught asking members of the zoo community to support medical experimentation on animals.

This isn’t the only time zoo authorities have abused their power. Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary was found having subscribed the Humboldt penguins in their care anti-depressants because of the birds’ inability to adapt to the zoo’s climate. While the authorities claim that the penguins are healthier and happier than before, if not used judiciously, this could lead to an overdose and then death.

Necropsies conducted by court-authorized pathologists help uncover the hidden truths behind these animal-friendly facades. They help act as evidentiary support in medico-legal cases.

 

The messy nature of necropsies can overshadow the good they do for animals, wild and captive. But, with awareness, we can begin to accept and appreciate their role in conservation.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image Sources: Feature image

 

Halloween’s Mascots: A Guide to Scary Critters

Certain animals just have bad juju…or do they?

Black cats lurking in the corner, bats screeching across rooftops and black widows spinning silken death traps…all symbols of witchcraft and the demonic. For ages, certain animals have been associated with the dark arts. From witchy cats to satanic bats, a lot of these critters have developed a bad reputation. But why is this so? Are these animals truly a mark of the devil or are they just misunderstood creatures? This Halloween, we find out the answer.

To the Dark and Beyond

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which was celebrated every year on November 1st. The night before the festival was a day associated with the undead. People believed that their loved ones would rise in the form of ghosts and haunt them. To keep these ghosts at bay, revelers would place food and wine offerings outside their doors as “treats”. They would don masks and costumes while going out, to “trick” the ghosts into thinking they were fellow-ghosts.

pumpkin

Soon, the traditions of Samhain were adopted by the Church and the festival was renamed as All Hallows Day; and the night before as Hallow’s Eve. Today, we know and celebrate this important day as Halloween.

Over time, inspired by books and movies, Halloween began to take on a darker image. References to witchcraft were written in into the (actually) harmless festival. Symbolism was drawn to exaggerate the “claims” of the presence of dark magic.

Considering that Halloween was a festival of the night, anything associated with the night soon began to assume a darker shape. As a consequence, animals that were predominantly nocturnal and predatory became symbols of Hallow’s Eve.

Creepy Crawlies

When it comes to animals with a dubious reputation, nothing beats the ones we have listed below. While some are traditionally associated with Halloween, others have such a fearsome and frightening reputation that they’ve made the cut. Take a look at some of the most dangerous and bloodthirsty beasts of the festival of the night:

  • Aye Aye

Known as the harbinger of evil, the aye aye has a fearsome reputation. Although not traditionally associated with Halloween, they are feared by locals in Madagascar.

The world’s largest nocturnal primate (a lemur), aye ayes are extremely shy and docile creatures. They feed on berries and bugs and spend a major portion of their lives on trees and away from human eyes.

A fun fact about aye ayes – they are the only primate species which use echolocation to find prey.

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  • Bats

Heard of blood-sucking vampires? I’m sure you have. But a fact that you may not know is that vampire bats are tiny and they seldom feed on anything other than cattle and pigs. As of today, there have been no recorded “attacks” on humans by vampire bats.

Another interesting fact about bats is that not all are bloodthirsty carnivores. Some are completely vegetarian and feed on berries!

Here’s a final tidbit about bats. Hammerhead bat males from Central Africa converge together during the mating season and produce a unique honking noise to attract females. They couple this with a unique dance and try to vie for the maiden’s attention.

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  • Black Cats

The most iconic symbols of Halloween, black cats are regarded as the vehicles of witchcraft. In reality, black cats are regular cats that just happen to be black. The brilliant black of their fur, coupled with their stunning irises, make them look hypnotic.

In some places, black cats are believed to bring power, glory and love to the owner. Irrespective of whether this is true or not, black cats are some of the most gorgeous animals you can house as pets. They are as friendly as any cat can be and will fit perfectly into your household.

Additionally, recent research has shown that the gene that colors the cats’ fur black is the same which gives them disease-resistant power. In fact, these genes are similar to the genes that are HIV-resistant in humans. For all we know, black cats may be the key to finding a cure to HIV and Aids.

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  • Demon Stinger

Wow…even the name is scary. The Bearded Ghoul, aka the demon stinger, is a species of fish that is part of the family which is home to the infamous stonefish. Lying buried in the sand, these fish launch a surprise attack like torpedoes and bring a swift end to crustaceans and fish alike. Their unique beard-like spines filled with toxic venom give them their name.

Residing in tropical reefs, the bearded ghoul is extremely venomous and is particularly dangerous to humans. With a potent mixture of hemotoxins and neurotoxins, this fish really does put the “sting” in “stinger”.

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  • Halloween Snake

With “Halloween” in its name, you may think this reptile is harmless. While with its black body and orange stripes it certainly does look harmless, in reality, it isn’t. Found in rocky places, you can see this critter crawling amidst the craggy mountains of Central and South America. Highly dangerous to humans, they can give a nasty bite.

Want to know the worst part? Halloween snakes, just like other coral snakes, don’t have venom sacks at the base of their fangs. To inject venom, they latch on to their prey for a long time and slowly administer the poison. A bite from this creepy crawly will definitely leave you in a world of pain.

The good thing though, these snakes are highly reclusive and move away at the slightest indication of danger. So unless you’re actively looking for them, chances are you won’t find them.

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  • Spiders

Ah! The infamous black widow spider – the true Daughter of Danaus of the arthropod world. Much has been said about the black widow – how she kills her own mate after copulation and how a single bite can kill a grown man with ease. In reality…well, all of this is true (although human deaths happen rarely if treatment is immediate).

Spiders, with their secretive ways and beautiful webs have fascinated us for centuries. The sheer number of spider species (40,000!) coupled with their unique lifestyles and poisons of varying levels of toxicity have enthralled us for ages.

In reality, apart from a handful of spiders, not many are truly poisonous and none of them actively attack humans. But, just like other animals if threatened, they will hurt you.

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  • Suriname Toad

Not really a venomous creature, the Suriname toad made this list for a completely different reason – a truly back-breaking achievement. Found in the waters in and around South America, this amphibian has a very unique way of giving birth.

While most toads and frogs lay eggs in the water, the Suriname toad retains its eggs in its body and grows them on its back. As the eggs develop into tadpoles, the toad’s back turns into a sort-of honeycomb-shaped maze. When the tadpoles hatch, they break open through these pockets, creating holes in the mother’s back.

The cycle repeats when the mother sheds her mottled skin and grows a new unmarked one that isn’t so hol(e)y.

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Strange and Wondrous

The world of animals is filled with such unique and fascinating examples. While some facts about these creatures are clear as day, others are as dark as night. In retrospect, this is probably why the animals on this list and a few off them have secured such a formidable reputation.

Strange as these animals are, they are even more wondrous. Halloween’s special animals have “tricked” us with their unique abilities. At the same time, they have “treated” us to a spectacular display worthy of commemoration.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH
*Representative images only
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