Monday, January 30, 2012

Pythons and Cardiovascular Research

The following story by  Jeff Hansen, of  The Birmingham News is being carried by At left, University of Alabama biologist Stephen Secor holds a Burmese python.

University of Alabama biologist Stephen Secor fell in love with snakes in college.

He then spent his graduate years chasing coachwhip snakes and venomous sidewinders across the Mojave Desert, learning what and when they ate. And for the past 15 years, Secor has studied the Burmese python -- a docile ambush-feeder that may eat only every other month or even just once a year in the wild.

The Burmese python, it turns out, is a prime model for intense physiological changes after breaking its long fast, as Secor detailed in a 1998 Nature cover story. Within 48 to 72 hours after swallowing its prey, pythons show intense increases in metabolism -- up to 44-fold -- and rapid growth of organs, including a 40 percent increase in its heart size.

That change in heart size is the focus of recent research at the universities of Alabama and Colorado -- and payoff from the research may lead toward treatment for human congestive heart failure.

In 2006, Secor was contacted by cardiac biologist Leslie Leinwand of the University of Colorado. She wanted to discover what molecular mechanism caused the cells of the python's heart to increase in size so rapidly, and see if that same trigger had an effect in mammals.

One early experiment in their collaboration was simple but startling, and showed that there seemed to be some factor in the blood of the python that made the heart suddenly increase in size.

In the experiment, done by co-author and post-doctoral student Cecilia Riquelme at Colorado, blood plasma from a just-fed python was added to a culture of rat heart muscle cells. The plasma caused a significant increase in the size of the rat muscle cells.

"When they found that, they said, 'Ooo, we've got something,'" Secor said. The hunt for the underlying cause of this increased cell size began.

In a paper published in Science in October, the researchers found that:

The blood plasma of a just-fed python had a superabundance of fatty acids.

That plasma, when fed to a fasting Burmese python, made its heart grow in size, similar to eating a meal.

A mixture of three of those fatty acids given to pythons intravenously duplicated this heart growth.

That same mixture of fatty acids, given to living mice, significantly increased the size of their left ventricles -- the major pumping chamber of the heart -- and the size of their heart muscle cells.

Leinwand is pursuing possible application of this discovery to human heart disease.

"I think congestive heart failure would be the first and most prevalent thing to consider," she said. "It's important that people distinguish between congestive heart failure, which is chronic and debilitating, from a heart attack, which is very different and acute."

About 5 million people in the United States have heart failure, according to the National Institutes of Health, and it contributes to about 300,000 deaths each year.

Secor, meanwhile, has returned his focus to changes in the digestive system of the Burmese python as it begins or ends its meal.

"Hearts are OK," he said, "but it's nothing like the intestine."

The stomach of the Burmese python, for example, stops producing acid within minutes of the snake clearing its stomach. The intestines reduce their size, and their hair-like microvilli shorten dramatically.

"The Burmese python does all sorts of interesting things," Secor said.

The snakes that Secor uses in research studies are usually "no longer than this table," he said, pointing at his desk. Each weighs about one or two pounds.

Secor has done hundreds of snake surgeries over the years. In the experiments to give blood plasma of fed snakes to snakes that have been fasting, for example, he had to place a thin catheter into the liver vein of the snake.

His office shows his roots in general biology.

On the wall he has the 13-foot skin from his former family pet, a Burmese python named Linus. He also has long rows of animal skulls he uses in some of his biology classes. In cages next door he keeps some of the pythons and other animals that he takes during visits to schools.

"I do biology," Secor said, "for the love of biology."

Invasive Pythons Impact Native Wildlife: Evidence from Road Kill

The ecological damage done by the invasive brown tree snake on Guam has mad biologists, conservationists and ecologists paranoid about invasive snakes. In the United States invasive species management is estimated to exceed $120 billion annually. Invasive species, including invasive snakes alter habitat structure, competition between species, reduce native predator populations, alter the trophic structure of ecosystems, and they deplete or extirpate native prey populations. Now, Michael Dorcas and colleagues have documented the impact of the Burmese python, Python bivittatus, on the native wildlife of the Florida Everglades in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Between 1993 and 1999, prior to invasive snakes in south Florida, raccoons, opossums and rabbits were the most frequent road kill. But from 2003 to 2011, road kill surveys found a 99.3%fewer raccoons, 98.9% fewer opossums, and no rabbits or foxes; the surveys also found 94.1% fewer white-tailed deer and 87.5% fewer bobcats. During the 2003 to 2011 time frame annual removals of Burmese pythons rose from less than 50 per year to 300-400 per year. Raccoons, opossums, bobcats, deer and rabbits are all species documented in the diet of the invasive pythons in Everglades National Park. The native mammals are naive to the danger posed by the pythons, making them susceptible to python predation.

While raccoons, rabbits, and opossums are relatively common, concern for the predation pressure placed on endangered birds and mammals in south Florida has been expressed by conservationists and biologists. The entire study can be found on- line.

Dorca, ME, Wilson, JE, Reed, RN, Snow, RW, Rochford, MR, Miller, MA, Meshaka, WE, Andreadis, PT, Mazzotti, FJ, Romagosa, CM, Hart, KM. 2010. Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1115226109

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Endemic Species, Biodiversity Hot Spots & Overlooked and Underestimated Species Diversity

Three undescribed species 
of Plica, with locations and
number of scale rows at 
midbody. Many undescribed
species of reptiles and amphibians
remain to be discovered
Conservation International reports that biodiversity hotspots hold high numbers of endemic species, but their combined area of remaining habitat cover only 2.3% of the Earth's land surface. Each hotspot is considered threatened and has lost at least 70 percent of its original natural vegetation. Over 50 percent of the world’s plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate species are endemic to the 34 biodiversity hotspots.

In a forthcoming paper, Swenson et al. (2012) report the Andes-Amazon basin of Peru and Bolivia as one of the most data-poor, and biologically rich areas of the world. While conservationists and scientists agree the region has extremely high endemism, perhaps the highest in the world, little was known about the geographic distributions of these species and ecosystems within country boundaries. Swenson et al. developed conservation data on endemic biodiversity (~800 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and plants) and terrestrial ecological systems (~90; groups of vegetation communities resulting from the action of ecological processes, substrates, and/or environmental gradients) to conduct a fine scale conservation prioritization across the Amazon watershed of Peru and Bolivia. The authors modeled the geographic distributions of 435 endemic plants and all 347 endemic vertebrate species, from existing museum and herbaria specimens at a regional conservation practitioner’s scale (1:250,000- 1:1,000,000), based on the best available tools and geographic data. They mapped ecological systems, endemic species concentrations, and irreplaceable areas with respect to national level protected areas.  They found that sizes of endemic species distributions ranged widely, from a minimum of about 20  km2 to more than 200,000  km2 across the study area. Endemic bird and mammal species richness was greatest within a narrow 2500-3000 m elevation band along the length of the Andes Mountains. Endemic amphibian richness was highest at 1000-1500 m elevation and concentrated in the southern half of the study area. Of interest, amphibians displayed peaks of endemism (21-29 species per 1-km2 cell) on lower slopes, between 1000 and 1500 m elevation. These areas were concentrated in southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and in an isolated endemic area in the northern Peruvian department of San Martin. In the study region they found 177 endemic species of amphibians in 30 genera. Given that the region is poorly known many species undoubtedly remain to be found and the challenges involved in conserving the biodiversity of this region are considerable.

Thee more undescribed
species of Plica. The
top photo, may be the real, 
Plica plica
While the authors looked at most of the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, for some unknown and unstated reason they left out reptiles. For the past few months I have been looking at some widespread neotropical reptiles and am finding a considerable amount of cryptic diversity that has been overlooked and ignored. An excellent example is the widespread lizard, Plica plica. Some times called the tree runner, these arboreal lizards sit on tree trunks and lap up ants as they march passed. While there are currently three recognized species in the genus (P. umbra, P. plica, and P. luminaria), Plica plica appears to be a superspecies. The most recent discussion of this species is probably Avila-Pires' (1997) account where she reports  Plica plica has 121-162 scales around the middle of the body and 74-95 ventrals. The list of specimens she examined included material from Guyana, Peru, Suriname, as well as Brazil.

To date I have looked at more than 60 specimens from about 25 localities ranging from Trinidad and Venezuela to Ecuador and southern Peru. My range for scales around midbody is 97 to 202, with a ventral range of 48 to 96. Conservatively, these specimens represent at least 12 species, but probably 14 or 15 species. This is of concern because species like Plica plica are often considered species of least concern,due to their perceived widespread distribution. So, yes biodiversity hot spots are of interest but it appears that much of the rest of the world is also harboring undetected, cryptic biodiversity also.

Avila-Pires, TCS, 1997. Lizards of Brazilian Amazonia (Reptilia: Squamata). Zoologische Verhandelingen 299:1-706.

Swenson JJ, Young BE, Beck S, Comer P, Cordova JH, Dyson J, Embert D, Encarnacion F, Ferreira W, Franke I, Grossman D, Hernandez P, Herzog SK, Josse C, Navarro G, Pacheco V, Stein BA, Timana M, Tovar A, Tovar C, Vargas J, Zambrana-Torrelio CM 2012. Plant and animal endemism in the eastern Andean slope: Challenges to conservation. BMC Ecology 2012, 12:1 (27 January 2012).

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gopher Snake Enters Hawaii Illegally!

HDOA photo of Nimitz snake, Jan. 25, 2012 an on-line news outlet for Hawaii is carrying a story by Wendy Osher titled, "PHOTOS: Snake Captured on Oahu, Ferret Found in Hilo." The article reports an "illegal snake" being weed-whacked to death in Honolulu and an illegal ferret was found in Hilo over the weekend (last weekend). The 24 inch snake was killed by a landscaping crew on Oahu Wednesday morning near the Honolulu airport. A crew from Island Landscaping was cutting grass near a freeway on-ramp, when the snake was injured by the weed-whacker. It died shortly after. Police were notified and the snake was turned over to inspectors with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. Snakes are illegal to possess and transport to Hawaii because of the threat they pose to native animal populations that they would compete with for food and habitat.

The snake is clearly a member of the genus Pituophis, and given the number of flights each day from the lower 48 (particularly the west coast) to the island paradise it is not too surprising that a common snake species like this one arrived in Hawaii as an accidental tourist. Given its proximity to the airport and the emaciated appearance it seems likely a waif as opposed to an escape pet. It is unknown if the landscape crew asked the snake for a passport or visitor ID before attacking it with the weed-wacker. Really - you can't make up stories like this.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Leatherback turtle sanctuary set up on West Coast

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
To the left: The Pacific leatherback sea turtle population has declined 95 percent since the 1980s. Photo: David Wimpfheimer /

Federal regulators designated nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean along the West Coast as critical habitat for the Pacific leatherback turtle Friday, far less than originally proposed but still the largest protected area ever established in American waters.

The protected area is the first permanent safe haven in the waters of the continental United States for endangered leatherbacks, which swim 6,000 miles every year to eat jellyfish outside the Golden Gate.

The designation, by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, was a bittersweet victory for environmentalists, who have been fighting to protect the marine reptiles from extinction.

The 41,914 square miles that the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service protected along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington did not include the migration routes the turtles take to get to the feeding grounds. That means 28,686 square miles of habitat originally proposed for the designation was left unprotected.

"It's a big step in the right direction, but we want protections for migratory pathways," said Ben Enticknap, the Pacific project manager for Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to protecting the world's oceans. "I guess we've got a lot more work to do to get there."

How protection works
The regulations will restrict projects that harm the turtles or the gelatinous delicacies they devour. The government will be required to review and, if necessary, regulate agricultural waste, pollution, oil spills, power plants, oil drilling, storm-water runoff and liquid natural gas projects along the California coast between Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties and off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

Aquaculture, tidal, wave turbine, desalination projects and nuclear power plants will have to consider impacts on jellyfish and sea turtles. For instance, the repermitting of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, in San Luis Obispo, will probably come under scrutiny.

The regulations are a response to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in 2009 by the nonprofit environmental groups Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana. The groups had been trying since 2007 to establish critical habitat for leatherbacks under the Endangered Species Act. They accused the government of failing to protect the reptiles from gill-net and longline fishing, oil drilling and a variety of other activities, including wave-energy projects.

California habitat
The new ruling covers 16,910 square miles along California's coast from Point Arena (Mendocino County) to Point Arguello (Santa Barbara County) to a depth of 9,000 feet. The remaining turtle habitat stretches from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Cape Blanco, Ore. seaward to a depth of a little more than 6,500 feet.

The only other critical habitat established for leatherbacks in U.S. waters is in a small area along the western end of St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. There is also some critical habitat in Puerto Rico for green sea turtles and hawksbill sea turtles, but nothing as large as the new designation.

Turtle advocates are worried that the decision to leave out migratory routes will leave the giant sea creatures vulnerable to long lines and drift nets dragged by oceangoing vessels, which often mistakenly hook and entangle marine mammals and turtles.

Both longline and gill-net fishing are banned along the West Coast during leatherback migration, but Teri Shore, the program director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said the fisheries service is considering plans to expand gill-net fishing for swordfish.

More threats
"Threats to these turtles are increasing, not diminishing," said Shore, whose organization also goes by its Web name, "We don't want to see the leatherback turtles go the way of the grizzly bear and disappear."

Leatherbacks, known scientifically as Dermochelys coriacea, are the largest sea turtles in the world, sometimes measuring 9 feet long and weighing as much as three refrigerators, or more than 1,200 pounds. Their life span is not fully known, but biologists believe they live at least 40 years and possibly as long as 100 years.

The worldwide population has declined by 95 percent since the 1980s because of commercial fishing, egg poaching, destruction of nesting habitat, degradation of foraging habitat and changing ocean conditions. Listed as endangered since 1970 under the Endangered Species Act, there are believed to be only 2,000 to 5,700 nesting females left in the world.

Pacific leatherbacks leave their nesting grounds in Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and swim across the Pacific Ocean to forage along the West Coast in the summer and fall. It is the longest known migration of any marine reptile.

Golden Gate jellyfish
They are often seen feeding on jellyfish in the shipping lanes outside the Golden Gate, in Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay. Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, said Friday that he will introduce legislation designating the leatherback as California's official marine reptile in an attempt to call attention to its plight.

The newly protected zones will extend 200 miles out to sea, but they won't protect the slow-moving creatures from floating plastic bags, which look like jellyfish. A recent study found plastic in the intestinal tracts of 37 percent of 370 leatherbacks that had been found dead.

Multiple Paternity, Green Turtles, & Climate Change

A hatching Green Turtle. Photo credit:
 Kimberly Stokes, University of Exetar.
The mating habits of marine turtle may help protect them against the effects of climate change, according to new research led by the University.

Published yesterday (25 January 2012) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study shows how mating patterns of a population of endangered green turtles may be helping them deal with the fact that global warming is leading to a disproportionate number of females being born.

The gender of baby turtles is determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation, with warmer temperatures leading to more females being born. Higher average global temperatures mean that offspring from some populations are predominantly female. This is threatening the future of some populations and there are concerns that inbreeding within groups due to a lack of males will lead to health problems.

The study focused on a population of the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, nesting in Northern Cyprus, where, due to the high summer temperatures, 95 per cent of babies are female. The study involved a team from the University of Exeter (UK), University of Lefke (Turkey) and North Cyprus Society for Protection of Turtles. Through DNA testing, they were able to ascertain the paternity of baby turtles and, contrary to what they had expected, they found a large number of mating males.

The researchers found that 28 males sired offspring with 20 nesting females: an average of 1.4 males for every female. This means that each female’s offspring were sired by one or more fathers. The researchers were surprised to find no evidence that any males fathered offspring born in that season with more than one female.

The Cornwall Campus-based research team had thought that one single male might be breeding with multiple females. However, their results suggest that a large number of males are mating with different females at different times. This means that there is less chance of inbreeding.

The team also carried out satellite tracking to discover that males cover thousands of miles of ocean within one breeding season. This suggests they could have also been mating with females at other sites in Turkey or North Africa.

Lead researcher University of Exeter Biosciences PhD student Lucy Wright said: “It is fantastic to know that there are so many males fathering offspring in this population of green turtles. There is great concern that a lack of males could lead to inbreeding in small populations of marine turtles, potentially causing a population crash. However our research suggests that there are more males out there than expected considering the female-biased hatchling sex ratios and that their mating patterns will buffer the population against any potential feminising effects of climate change.”

Corresponding author Dr Annette Broderick added: “Climate change remains a great threat to marine turtles, but our ongoing research will help us focus on where the priority areas are for management that may help them cope with future change.”

The work was funded by a NERC studentship with additional support from NERC Biomolecular Analysis Facility, Sheffield.

L. I. Wright, K. L. Stokes, W. J. Fuller, B. J. Godley, A. McGowan, R. Snape, T. Tregenza, & A. C. Broderick. Turtle mating patterns buffer against disruptive effects of climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2285

Oldest Dinosaur Nursery

UTM professor Robert Reisz and his team unearthed this skull of adult and complete embryo of the Early Jurassic (190-million-year-old) dinosaur Massospondylus in the South African nesting site. Photo courtesy of Robert Reisz.

An excavation at a site in South Africa has unearthed the 190-million-year-old dinosaur nesting site of the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus-revealing significant clues about the evolution of complex reproductive behaviour in early dinosaurs. The newly unearthed dinosaur nesting ground predates previously known nesting sites by 100 million years, according to study authors.

A new study led by University of Toronto Mississauga paleontologist Robert Reisz, with co-author, Professor David Evans of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Royal Ontario Museum, along with a group of international researchers, describes clutches of eggs, many with embryos, as well as tiny dinosaur footprints, providing the oldest known evidence that the hatchlings remained at the nesting site long enough to at least double in size.

At least 10 nests have been discovered at several levels at this site, each with up to 34 round eggs in tightly clustered clutches. The distribution of the nests in the sediments indicate that these early dinosaurs returned repeatedly to this site, a behaviour known as nesting fidelity, and likely assembled in groups to lay their eggs, (colonial nesting), the oldest known evidence of such behaviour in the fossil record. The large size of the mother, at six metres in length, the small size of the eggs, about six to seven centimetres in diameter, and the highly organized nature of the nest suggest that the mother may have arranged them carefully after she laid them.

"The eggs, embryos, and nests come from the rocks of a nearly vertical road cut only 25 metres long," said Reisz, a professor of biology at U of T Mississauga. "Even so, we found ten nests, suggesting that there are a lot more in the cliff, still covered by tons of rock. We predict that many more nests will be eroded out in time as natural weathering processes continue."

The fossils were found in sedimentary rocks from the Early Jurassic Period in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. This site has previously yielded the oldest known embryos belonging to Massospondylus, a relative of the giant, long-necked sauropods of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. (View a video of the excavation.)

"Even though the fossil record of dinosaurs is extensive, we actually have very little fossil information about their reproductive biology, particularly for early dinosaurs," said  Evans (pictured left, bottom, with Reisz, above), associate curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. "This amazing series of 190 million year old nests gives us the first detailed look at dinosaur reproduction early in their evolutionary history, and documents the antiquity of nesting strategies that are only known much later in the dinosaur record."

The study, co-authored by Drs. Hans-Dieter Sues (Smithsonian Institute, U.S.), Eric Roberts (James Cook University, Australia), and Adam Yates (University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa), is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

R. R. Reisz, D. C. Evans, E. M. Roberts, H.-D. Sues, & A. M. Yates. Oldest known dinosaurian nesting site and reproductive biology of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph Massospondylus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109385109

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rattlesnake Roundup in Georgia Switches to Humane Wildlife Festival, Last Remaining Georgia Roundup, in Whigham, Should Follow Suit

EDR, Photo credit D. Bruce Means
The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world. Adults are typically four to five feet long and weigh four to five pounds, but a large individual can reach or exceed six feet in length and weigh 12 pounds or more. Scientific studies over the past decade have documented range-wide population declines and significant range contractions for the eastern diamondback. The Center for Biological Diversity is reporting the following story.

People fear rattlesnakes, but in reality eastern diamondbacks pose a very small public-safety risk. The snakes are certainly venomous, but more people are killed every year by lightning strikes and bee stings. Those most likely to be bitten are snake handlers who either keep the snakes in captivity or work with them professionally. Still, malicious killings by those who perceive the snakes as a threat are contributing to its decline.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Coastal Plains Institute, Protect All Living Species and One More Generation sent a letter to the Evans County Wildlife Club today praising its recent decision to change its rattlesnake roundup in Claxton, Ga., to a wildlife festival where snakes will be celebrated instead of collected by the hundreds and butchered for their meat and skins. In a separate letter, the groups today also presented a petition with more than 5,000 signatures to the Whigham Community Club asking it to make similar changes to its annual rattlesnake roundup in Whigham, Ga., the state’s last outdated roundup.

“We’re so happy the rattlesnake roundup in Claxton is being switched to a humane event that celebrates these great native animals and recognizes the importance of saving them,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who works to protect rare and vanishing reptiles and amphibians. “The Whigham Community Club needs to follow suit — it needs to recognize that massacres of endangered animals are just wrong, and clearly the wrong message to send to young people about our relationship to the natural world.”

The Evans County Wildlife Club is replacing its annual rattlesnake roundup with the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, which will feature displays of the imperiled eastern diamondback rattlesnake and other native wildlife. Educational programs, entertainment and a variety of other activities will be offered at the event, held during the second weekend in March.

“We congratulate the sponsors of the Claxton event for recognizing that all wildlife has a valuable place in nature,” said Dr. Bruce Means, director of the Coastal Plains Institute and an expert on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. “Now we hope to get the sponsors of the Whigham roundup to see the same light.”

“When the rattlers are collected at the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup this weekend, we hope that it will be for the last time,” said Olivia and Carter Ries, student founders of One More Generation. “Participants in the Whigham rattlesnake roundup need to recognize the impact they are having on the environment.”

Rattlesnake roundups are depleting populations of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes: Analysis of data from four roundups in the southeastern United States shows a steady decline in the weights of prize-winning eastern diamondbacks and the number collected. This once-common species is being pushed toward extinction not only by hunting pressure but also by habitat loss and road mortality. In August, the Center and allies filed a petition to protect the snake under the Endangered Species Act.

“Georgia is blessed with a rich natural heritage of animals and plants. All of these species — even the rattlesnakes — should be allowed to exist,” said Bill Matturro of Protect All Living Species. “Rattlesnakes serve an important role in the food chain by controlling rodent populations and should be respected.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

Daboia Envenomation and the Pituitary Gland

The Russell’s vipers (Daboia russelii and D. siamensis) inhabit South and South East Asian, they are large and dangerous and do not hesitate to bite. Tun-Pe et al. (1987) suggested that envenomation by Russell's vipers could produce a disorder that resembled Sheehan’s syndrome. They investigated pituitary function in nine patients that were in shock after envenomation by Russell's viper and another 24 individuals who had been severely envenomed two weeks to 24 years prior to the study. Three out of the nine patients had hypoglycemia and inappropriately low serum cortisol, plasma growth hormone, and plasma prolactin concentrations. Four who died showed pituitary hemorrhage and one had adrenal hemorrhage. Of the 24 who had apparently recovered from bites, seven had clinical symptoms of hypopituitarism and no response in plasma growth hormone or prolactin concentrations to symptom-producing insulin-induced hypoglycemia. Four men with symptoms showed low serum testosterone concentrations; serum thyroxin was also low in these men but not in two women with menstrual disturbances and impaired insulin responses. Of the 17 individuals without clinical evidence of endocrine disease, and four had pituitary hormonal abnormalities.

In 2011, Antonypillai and colleagues found people envenomed by Russell’s vipers suffer coagulopathy, bleeding, shock, neurotoxicity, acute kidney injury and local tissue damage leading to severe morbidity and mortality; and report the unusual complication of hypopituitarism. They described the first case of hypopituitarism following Russell’s viper bite in Sri Lanka. A 49-year-old man bitten and seriously envenomed by D. russelii in 2005 was treated with antivenom, recovered from the acute effects but remained unwell. Three years later hypopituitarism, with deficiencies of gonadal, steroid and thyroid axes was diagnosed and he showed marked improvement after replacement of anterior pituitary hormones. The authors attributed the hypopituitarism to Daboiai envenomation. Russell’s viper venom is known to cause acute and chronic hypopituitarism and diabetes insipidus, possibly through deposition of fibrin microthrombi and hemorrhage in the pituitary gland that result from the action of procoagulant enzymes and haemorrhagins in the venom. Forty nine cases of hypopituitarism following Russell’s viper bite have been described in the literature. More than 85% of these patients suffered acute kidney injury immediately after the bite, but steroid replacement in acute hypopituitarism is lifesaving.

Although the pituitary gland regulates puberty, it continues to function throughout a person's life and damage can result in failure of the gland to produce the needed hormones. Envenomation by Russell's Vipers often result in significant damage to the gland and hypopituitarism or Sheehan's Syndrome, as suggested by these two studies. Both conditions have symptoms, such as a constant feeling of cold and an unusual amount of fatigue, but what distinguishes them is a loss sex drive, fertility, body hair, and muscle mass (especially pubic hair), while women lose their body shape as they lose weight, and some may lose cognitive skills as the condition progresses.

Antonypillai CN., Wass, JAH., Warrell, DA, and Rajaratnam, HN. 2011. Hypopituitarism following envenoming by Russell’s Vipers (Daboia siamensis and D. russelii) resembling Sheehan’s syndrome: first case report from Sri Lanka, a review of the literature and recommendations for endocrine management. Oxford Journal of Medicine, 104: 97-108.

Tun-Pe, Warrell DA., Tin Nu, S. Phillips, RE., Moore, RA. 1987. Acute and chronic pituitary failure resembling Sheehan's syndrome following bites by Russell's Vipers in Burma. The Lancet 330: 763-767.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Invasive Giant Constricting Snakes, News and Comments on Regulations.

Python sebae. JCM
The following is a combined press release from USFW and an opinion piece that was in the Miami Herald.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a rule that would ban the importation and interstate transportation of four nonnative constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems across the United States, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced today. 
The final rule – which incorporates public comments, economic analysis, and environmental assessment – lists the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda, and the northern and southern African pythons as injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act in order to restrict their spread in the wild in the United States. It is expected to publish in the Federal Register in the coming days. 
“Thanks to the work of our scientists, Senator Bill Nelson, and others, there is a large and growing understanding of the real and immediate threat that the Burmese python and other invasive snakes pose to the Everglades and other ecosystems in the United States,” Salazar said. “The Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Florida Everglades, and we must do all we can to battle its spread and to prevent further human contributions of invasive snakes that cause economic and environmental damage.” 
The four species were assessed by the U.S. Geological Survey as having a high risk of establishing populations and spreading to other geographic areas in that agency’s 2009 report, Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Large Species of Pythons, Anacondas, and the Boa Constrictor. 
Sixty days after publication of the final rule in the Federal Register, interstate transport and importation of live individuals, gametes, viable eggs, or hybrids of the Burmese python, northern and southern African pythons and yellow anaconda into the United States will be prohibited. None of these species is native to the United States. 
“Burmese pythons have already caused substantial harm in Florida,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “By taking this action today, we will help prevent further harm from these large constrictor snakes to native wildlife, especially in habitats that can support constrictor snake populations across the southern United States and in U.S. territories.” 
Ashe said the Service will continue to consider listing as injurious the five other species of nonnative snakes that the agency also proposed in 2010 – the reticulated python, boa constrictor, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, green anaconda and Beni anaconda. Once that process is completed, the Service will publish final determinations on those species. 
Most people who own any of these four species will not be affected. Those who own any of these four species of snakes will be allowed to keep them if allowed by state law. However, they cannot take, send, or sell them across state lines. Those who wish to export these species may do so from a designated port within their state after acquiring appropriate permits from the Service.
The Burmese python has established breeding populations in South Florida, including the Everglades, that have caused significant damage to wildlife and that continue to pose a great risk to many native species, including threatened and endangered species. Burmese pythons on North Key Largo have killed and eaten highly endangered Key Largo wood rats, and other pythons preyed on endangered wood storks.
In the Everglades alone, state and federal agencies have spent millions of dollars addressing threats posed by pythons – an amount far less than is needed to combat their spread.  If these species spread to other areas, state and federal agencies in these areas could be forced to spend more money for control and containment purposes.
Interior and its partners, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, South Florida Water Management District, and others are committed to controlling the spread of Burmese pythons and other large nonnative constrictors. For example, FWC recently implemented the use of a “snake sniffing” dog to help in its efforts to find and eradicate large constrictor snakes. This dog was present at the Secretary’s announcement today, along with a 13-foot-long Burmese python. 
Under the injurious wildlife provisions of the Lacey Act, the Department of the Interior is authorized to regulate the importation and interstate transport of wildlife species determined to be injurious to humans, the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, or to wildlife or the wildlife resources of the United States.
For more information on injurious wildlife and efforts to list the four species of snakes as injurious under the Lacey Act, please visit:

Today's Miami Herald is carrying the following commentary by Carl Hiaasen.
Those big snakes are here to stay

Now that federal regulators have outlawed the importation of humongous, gator-eating pythons, all Floridians can breathe a grateful sigh of relief. Finally we are saved from this insidious reptilian plague!
Sorry, but no. We might as well try to ban fleas.
As anybody who knows anything about the Everglades will tell you, the giant Burmese python is here to stay. If last year’s hard freeze didn’t kill off the tropical snakes, nothing short of a nuclear disaster will do it.
The import ban on the Burmese and three other species of constrictors — which was announced last week — is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory for Florida’s native environment. In reality, it’s just a classic lesson of how Washington mulls and stalls until things are out of hand. 
That there was an actual debate about the invasive snake crisis is incredible to the point of satire. Some reptile dealers and breeders, joined by a few clueless Republican lawmakers (none of whom had experienced a 15-foot python in their swimming pool), claimed that a ban on imports and interstate sales would be “job killing.” 
As one who once collected and bred snakes, I cannot overstate how laughably bogus that position was. The realm of commercial reptile dealing, which has always had a sketchy element, is full of clever folks who always find ways to market different exotic species when one becomes unavailable. Not one real job would have been lost. 
Still, the “herp” industry — wholesale and retail herpetology enthusiasts — hired lobbyists to fight the proposed ban, and the big-snake argument dragged on for six ridiculous years. During that period, untold thousands of baby pythons were hatched in the wilds of South Florida and dutifully commenced to devour the local fauna. 
By the time the ban was approved, the government’s original list of “injurious” snake species had been politically pared to four — the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and two species of African pythons. 
Spared from the blacklist was the common boa constrictor, one of the most popular species among pet owners, and one of the most likely to be turned free when it becomes a little too interested in the family poodle. Boas don’t grow as hefty as pythons, but they are equally fond of our sunny climate and tasty bird population. 
The fact is, there are already so many of these snakes being captive-bred in this country that a ban on imports is essentially meaningless. Most serious reptile dealers buy from U.S. breeders who specialize in extravagantly hued strains, the product of years of genetic tinkering. 
It’s true that certain exotic species won’t mate in captivity, and must be caught in the wild and then shipped here. However, that’s not the case with the four snakes named in the new federal ban. 
Pythons and yellow anacondas reproduce exuberantly, with no shyness, in robust, rat-like numbers. The time is long past when their importation is necessary to the trade. 
The significant part of the federal ban, which takes effect in March, is the illegalizing of interstate sales of Burmese pythons, their eggs and hybrids. That will sure impact the sales of some reptile dealers, but there’s nothing to prevent a customer from purchasing as many snakes as they want from an in-state breeder. 
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a reptile fancier in South Florida or North Dakota. If you’ve got a nice warm room in your house and a lovestruck pair of pythons, you will have bushels of fertile python eggs. 
The snakes that now roam the Everglades are most likely descended from those set loose when Hurricane Andrew flattened rural reptile farms in the summer of 1992. The jumbo specimens might well be original refugees from that storm, their love lives spiced by chance encounters with ex-pet pythons whose owners had lost (or purposely ditched) them. 
So ubiquitous is the python presence that the notoriously slug-like Florida Wildlife Commission last year took steps that practically bans private ownership of the Burmese and seven other species, for new collectors. Herp lovers who already owned the snakes could keep them if they bought a permit and agreed to implant microchips before July 2010. 
When it comes to environmental protections, rarely does the state of Florida take a leading role over the feds. The delay speaks to the embarrassing gridlock in the nation’s capital, where even a pernicious snake infestation generates pious, ideological fuming. 
Sen. Bill Nelson and others worked long and hard to get the Department of Interior to do something, and a ban is a probably a good thing to have on the books as a precedent before the next invasive species settles in. 
But as a way of containing the Burmese python, it’s way too little, way too late. They’re here, they’re hungry, they’re happy — and they’re getting it on. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Time to Death - Boas Monitor Prey's Heartbeat During Constriction

A threatening Boa constrictor. JCM
The 19th century literature on constriction by snakes often describes the prey as being crushed. And, for many years it was thought that constricting snakes killed their prey by preventing the prey from breathing. A coil from the snake's body was tightened each time the prey exhaled, gases returning the the prey's lungs would have to be exhaled, so when the prey exhaled the snake tightened its hold, making it impossible for the prey to inhale. There was another hypothesis that was overlooked. In 1912 Frank Wall proposed snakes induce asphyxia by essentially stopping blood flow to the heart.

 A new study by Scott Boback and colleagues suggests that constriction may be more sophisticated than previously thought. Killing prey by constriction is both energy expensive and potentially dangerous to the snake, constriction requires and significant increase in aerobic respiration and the prey may retaliate and injure the snake. The authors tested constricting boa constrictors to see if they adjusted their hold on prey. They developed a method of isolating a rat's heartbeat as a potential cue, by implanting a simulated heart in a dead rat that replicated the size, rate and stroke volume of a rodent heart. They then tested how the constriction effort varied as snakes constricted rats with: a simulated heartbeat throughout constriction; a simulated heartbeat for the first half of constriction and then shut off, and no heartbeat. The results suggest tightness and duration of a constricting snake’s coils are timed to perfection, matching the heartbeat and weakening state of the snake’s prey.

Snakes constricting dead prey with a simulated heart beat constricted for a much longer time than in previous studies (averages of 12 vs 23 minutes). The authors propose that longer constriction times may have been required prior to the evolution of endotherms (birds and mammals) because ectotherms have slower metabolisms and can survive for longer periods of time with reduced amounts of oxygen.

S. M. Boback, A. E. Hall, K. J. McCann, A. W. Hayes, J. S. Forrester and C. F. Zwemer. 2012. Snake modulates constriction in response to prey's heartbeat. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1105.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Joseph T. Collins, 1938-2012

Joe Collins studies a 64-inch Western rat snake during the Kansas Herpetoligical Society's Spring 2003 Field Trip at the Wilson State Fishing Lake and Wildlife Area. During the field trip, at least 35 species of snakes and reptiles were gathered. That is nearly a third of the 98 species found in Kansas.

The following story is being reported by the Kansas City Star.

As far as Joe Collins was concerned, snakes have had a bad rap ever since the Garden of Eden.

Mr. Collins’ passion for herpetology inspired generations of students and outdoors enthusiasts.

“For 60 years, I have been obsessed with herpetology,” Mr. Collins said in a video shot by Dan Krull. “I make no apologies for it ... the thrill of discovery just can’t be beat.”

Mr. Collins, who founded the Center for North American Herpetology and was a former instructor at the University of Kansas, died Saturday of a heart attack in Florida. He was 72.

Mr. Collins and his wife, Suzanne, were on their annual five-week trip to document wildlife – such as snakes, turtles and alligators – when he was stricken.

“He was a great mentor to students of all ages, from the very smallest student who might come to him with a tiny little snake to Ph.D. students working on their dissertation,” Suzanne Collins said.

As news of his death spread, many of those who considered Mr. Collins a mentor offered tributes to him on Facebook.

“I remember all these excited kids (including me) running up to Joe with pillow cases full of snakes and lizards, and Joe being equally excited to educate them about what they found,” Mike Zerwekh of San Diego wrote in a forum dedicated to Mr. Collins. “Since then, I’ve made a lot of friends and had some great adventures finding the animals I love. If it wasn’t for Joe, I’m not sure any of that would have happened. He was a true inspiration ... ”

Snakes have a reputation for being evil, which Mr. Collins blamed on the biblical story. But he loved telling audiences how beneficial snakes are to the environment, Suzanne Collins said. They eat enormous numbers of insects and disease-carrying, crop-eating rodents.

“He considered reptiles and amphibians to be his animals,” she said. “He was so passionate and dedicated his life to it.”

Travis W. Taggart, curator of herpetology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University, said Mr. Collins’ enthusiasm was infectious.

“He really had an eye for people who were wide-eyed about herpetology,” Taggart said. “He was really good at nurturing it and feeding those interests.”

Most people have hobbies, Taggart said, but Mr. Collins didn’t. He was focused at all times on herpetology.

“He woke up thinking about it, and he went to bed thinking about it,” Taggart said.

While Mr. Collins often said he disliked writing, he wrote numerous books. By his own count, he wrote more books about Kansas wildlife than anyone in the history of the state. That’s because he knew books were a vital way to convey information, said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

Perhaps Mr. Collins’ proudest writing accomplishment was serving as co-author for a Peterson Field Guide: “Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America.” Snake enthusiasts consider it the bible of herpetology.

“He was one of those special people that could bridge the academia world with the hobbyist,” Gress said. “He brought interest to the masses.”

Taggart said he would talk to Mr. Collins frequently – about every other day – about one thing or another.

“I’ll miss those conversations,” he said. “You tend to take it for granted. There was a whole lot of wisdom there to tap into.

“It’s a little scary going forward not having that insight and that push.”

Taggart said his herpetology decisions will be guided by a simple question going forward: What would Joe have done if he were still here?

Mr. Collins’ legacy will continue to blossom in the years ahead, he said.

“He’s touched so many people, it can’t help but go on,” Taggart said. “He had so many great ideas and got so many things started.”

A memorial service will be held in Lawrence, Suzanne Collins said, but details haven’t been finalized.

Biosensor Technology for Snake Venom

The following story by T. Nandakumar is from The Hindu, originally published in November 1, 2011 and was sent by Dr. A. Buji Kumar.
Naja naja, JCM
A team of researchers at the State Inter-University Centre for Excellence in Bioinformatics (SIUCEB) under the University of Kerala is working on the development of a biosensor for identification of snake venom that could help bring down the mortality rate of snake bite victims in the country significantly.

The State-funded project, essentially an amalgamation of biology and electronics, will enable targeted treatment of snake bite victims by precise detection of the type of snake. The sensor under development is a gadget like a glucometer that can read a strip laced with the body fluid of a snake bite victim and provide a read out on a screen. The blood, urine or fluid from the bite site can be used to analyse the specific type of venom. The prototype of the biosensor is expected to be ready in eight months.

According to WHO estimates, India has the highest number of deaths (35,000 to 50,000 a year) due to snake bites. The States with the largest number of snake bite cases include Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

In India, the conventional clinical practice is to administer polyvalent anti-snake venom (ASV) which comprises antibodies of four different species (Big Four), namely the Spectacled (Indian) cobra, the Common krait, Saw-scaled viper and Russell's viper, that account for most of the bite cases.
The polyvalent method accounts for the high incidence of snake bite deaths in India. It often causes severe allergic reaction in the victim, (seen in up to 30 per cent of the recipients worldwide) demanding secondary treatment.

Australia has the highest number of venomous snakes, yet the number of death cases is less because the country follows the targeted monovalent technique based on identification of species using a snake venom detection kit.

“The polyvalent treatment method results in collateral damage, affecting internal organs. To confirm a snake bite, doctors often wait for symptoms like dizziness, nausea or imbalance, typical of neurotoxins, or anti-coagulation of blood that is characteristic of haemotoxins. The delay can lead to complications or death,” says R. Dileepkumar, Post Doctoral Fellow at SIUCEB and principal investigator of the project.

The biosensor, based on ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay) technology, will obviate the need to wait for symptoms and avoid the complications inherent in administering polyvalent antivenom.

The project team at SIUCEB is currently raising antibodies in mammalian models against the Big Four species that account for the maximum number of snake bites in India.

The sensor is expected to overcome many limitations in the conventional approach like cross reactivity and sensitivity, says Mr. Dileepkumar. “It can also be used to quantify the extent of envenomation (to determine the dose of monovalent ASV required) and to monitor the venom clearance from the body,”

When a snake bite victim is brought to the hospital, the doctor or technician collects body fluids from the person and applies them to the strips coated with species-specific antibodies. The unreacted materials in the fluid are washed off and the strips are administered with enzyme-labelled secondary antibody that can generate electrons measurable as electric current for a reaction. The strips are then inserted into the biosensor to give a reading that can be classified as one of the Big Four venoms.

While the technical design of the biosensor is complete, the biological study is on. Mr. Dileepkumar says efforts are on to tie up with research institutions in the Middle East for sourcing more stable antibodies raised from the camel. This, he says, would avoid the need to store the strips at low temperature.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vava Suresh of Thiruvananthapuram

According to one article in The Times of India, five out of the ten best cities to live in India are located in Kerala. This Indian state is a popular tourist destination for multiple reasons, including its spectacular scenery, world class yoga, and Ayurveda treatments. Not mentioned in the article is the state's exceptionally rich snake fauna - it’s difficult to understand why this was overlooked. One Kerala man is exceptionally well known for his efforts to conserve snakes, Vava Suresh of Thiruvananthapuram. Locally he is known as the 'Snake Man' and is estimated to have rescued and conserved 5000 snakes which have strayed into the human world in and around Trivandrum. Vava Suresh attributes his passion for snakes from childhood experiences which started at about age twelve. He is well known for rescuing and releasing endangered species of snakes and collecting eggs and protecting them during incubation, and then releasing the neonates into natural habitats. One recent article about him included the following, "Time and again, he has paid the price for flirting with danger. Hardly a few months ago, he was battling for life in a hospital ICU after being bitten by an enraged cobra. The skin on his hands bears the mark of several viper bites." The photos below show Vava Suresh's snake handling and education efforts as well as documenting his encounter with a Russell's viper. The photos were recently sent to me by Dr. A. Biju Kumar at the University of Kerala.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Serpent Handling in America

Crotalus horridus is frequently used in Appalachian snake handling ceremonies
There are two endemic cultures in America that have snake handling rituals. The oldest is of course the Hopi Indians in northeastern Arizona. The Hopi snake dance takes place every year, usually in late August and it has been closed to the public for many decades. The ceromony is a prayer for rain and the snakes are the emissaries for the prayer to the rain diety. The second snake handling practice occurs in Appalachia and is the subject of a new, six part Animal Planet series, and its purpose is quite distinct from the Hopi ceremony. is a media website for the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. It is carrying a story by Mary Barnett about the new Animal Planet series Snake Man of Appalachia. And, features contributions from Dr. Ralph Hood, Professor of Psychology of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). The six-part series follows Verlin and Reva Short, an Appalachian family deeply involved in religious snake handling who keep more than 40 rattlesnakes and copperheads used in religious services. Hood specializes in studying serpent handling religion and has befriended and studied the Shorts for many years as part of his research into the psychology of religion. Hood has accompanied Short on snake hunts and considers him as a close friend, and acted as a consultant for the series. Getting factual information to the public is one of Hood's roles as he studies the snake handlers. The serpent handling ritual is the result of Pentecostal traditions that take the Gospel of Mark literally and seriously. Hood said there are still many people who identify themselves as "sign followers," who believe, follow and practice signs in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:17-18 states, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Hood is often called to testify on behalf of serpent handlers, a practice that is illegal in every state but West Virginia. "There is a real interesting prejudice in American culture that a religious practice can't contain risk. You have an absolute right for religious belief, but you don't have an absolute right for religious practice," he said. Hood argues that just like other high-risk activities, such as professional football or hang gliding—which are not legislated by the courts—consenting adults aware of the risks of handling snakes should be allowed to practice what they believe, even it means risking their own lives.

While I have not had an opportunity to view the first episode it promises to provide a unique insigt into human behavior and Homo sapiens obsession with snakes. The serpent handling practices of Appalachia have been previously studied and written about by Weston La Barre in his now classic text, They Shall Take Up Serpents (Waveland Press).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Smallest Vertebrate, Paedophryne amauensis (Microhylidae)

Above is the world's smallest vertebrate, Paedophryne amauensis. What follows is a press release from LSU. At the bottom of the post is a video and the journal reference and link.

LSU’s Chris Austin recently discovered two new species of frogs in New Guinea, one of which is now the world’s tiniest known vertebrate, averaging only 7.7 millimeters in size – less than one-third of an inch. It ousts Paedocypris progenetica, an Indonesian fish averaging more than 8 millimeters, from the record. Austin, leading a team of scientists from the United States including LSU graduate student Eric Rittmeyer, made the discovery during a three-month long expedition to the island of New Guinea, the world’s largest and tallest tropical island.

“It was particularly difficult to locate Paedophryne amauensis due to its diminutive size and the males’ high pitched insect-like mating call,” said Austin. “But it’s a great find. New Guinea is a hotspot of biodiversity, and everything new we discover there adds another layer to our overall understanding of how biodiversity is generated and maintained.”

Austin, curator of herpetology at LSU’s Museum of Natural Science and associate professor of biological sciences, is no stranger to discovering new species, having described numerous species previously unknown to science, including frogs, lizards and parasites.

The research, which will be published in the Public Library of Science One journal, or PLoS, on Jan. 11, includes a second species of diminutive frog newly named Paedophryne swiftorum that is only slightly larger than Paedophryne amauensis, averaging only about 8.5 millimeters in body size.

Austin’s work, supported by the National Science Foundation, highlights an interesting trend among the discovery of extremely small vertebrates.

“The size limit of vertebrates, or creatures with backbones, is of considerable interest to biologists because little is understood about the functional constraints that come with extreme body size, whether large or small,” said Austin.

With more than 60,000 vertebrates currently known to man, the largest being the blue whale with an average size of more than 25 meters (75 feet) and the smallest previously being the small Indonesian fish averaging around 8 millimeters, there was originally some thought that extreme size in vertebrates might be associated with aquatic species, as perhaps the buoyancy offers support and facilitates the development of extremism. However, both new species of frogs Austin described are terrestrial, suggesting that living in water is not necessary for small body size.

“The ecosystems these extremely small frogs occupy are very similar, primarily inhabiting leaf litter on the floor of tropical rainforest environments,” said Austin. “We now believe that these creatures aren’t just biological oddities, but instead represent a previously undocumented ecological guild – they occupy a habitat niche that no other vertebrate does.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Rediscovery of Chelonoidis elephantopus

'Extinct' for 150 years, an iconic Galápagos giant tortoise species lives.

Representatives of a giant tortoise species that had apparently been driven to extinction by humans more than 150 years ago must be alive today, if in very small numbers. Researchers reporting in the January 10 issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, have come to this conclusion based on the "genetic footprints" of the long-lost species Chelonoidis elephantopus in the DNA of their hybrid sons and daughters.

"To our knowledge, this is the first report of the rediscovery of a species by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring," said Ryan Garrick of Yale University. "These findings breathe new life into the conservation prospects for members of this flagship group."

The Galápagos tortoises are famous for their influence on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution by natural selection. But they are also impressive in their own right: individuals can weigh nearly 900 pounds, reach almost six feet, and live for more than 100 years in the wild. Today, several of 13 remaining species are considered highly endangered.

C. elephantopus was originally found only on Floreana Island, where they were presumed extinct soon after Darwin's historic voyage to the Galápagos Islands in 1835. Still, genes from recently extinct species can live on in the genomes of individuals of mixed ancestry. The Yale group had earlier detected the first traces of the "extinct" C. elephantopus within eleven individuals that otherwise belonged to another species, C. becki, living on an active volcano on Isabela Island.

In fact, movement of tortoises from one island to another by pirate and whaling ships was not uncommon during the 1800s, Garrick says, and his team suspected that individuals from Floreana had been translocated to northern Isabela years before. Those eleven hybrids appeared to be the last genetic vestiges of a unique evolutionary lineage in the wild.

That earlier finding inspired Garrick and his colleagues to take a closer look at what was happening on Isabela Island's Wolf Volcano, home to a large population of perhaps 7,000 tortoises, mostly C. becki. They've now sampled about 2,000 of those tortoises to find evidence that purebred C. elephantopus must live.

Comparisons of living tortoises and museum specimens indicate that the genomes of 84 of the newly sampled individuals can only be explained if one of their two parents were C. elephantopus. Those purebreds apparently exist at numbers so low that researchers would have to be incredibly lucky to sample one of them, Garrick says.

Even if purebred individuals of C. elephantopus are never found, their direct descendants could prove to be key in the giant tortoises' conservation. "Hybridization is considered largely deleterious to biodiversity conservation," Garrick says. "But in this case, hybrids may provide opportunities to resuscitate an 'extinct' species through intensive targeted breeding efforts."

Garrick, R. C. 2012. Genentic rediscovery of an 'extinct' Galapagos giant tortoise species. Current Biology 22:R10-R

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Python molurus Can Survive Brackish and Salt Water for Extended Periods

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Invasive Burmese python hatchlings from the Florida Everglades can withstand exposure to salt water long enough to potentially expand their range through ocean and estuarine environments, according to research in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.

This recent study, based on lab experiments conducted by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, provides initial evidence that pythons may be able to survive in marine and estuarine environments such as bays, inlets and open seas. The results raise concerns that the invasive constrictor may invade nearby islands, such as the Florida Keys, said Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study.

“Because reptiles, in general, have poor salinity tolerance, it was hoped that salt water would naturally hinder pythons’ ability to expand their range beyond the Everglades,” Hart said.” Unfortunately, our results suggest salt water alone cannot act as a reliable barrier to the Everglades python population.”

Before the study, Burmese pythons had been found in brackish margins of the Everglades, the expansive and predominantly freshwater wetland that is home to the only known wild-breeding population of Burmese pythons in the United States. Yet, no information was available to indicate how long the snakes could persist in saline environments.

The issue of salinity tolerance is critical for understanding the risks of the giant constrictors spreading beyond the Everglades, given the Everglades location on the southernmost end of the South Florida peninsula.

"The fact that this study has ruled out one of the most hoped-for forms of physical barriers, salt water, as preventing the spread of invasive pythons in Florida puts even more onus on human action to prevent the spread of these damaging reptiles," explained USGS director Marcia McNutt. "This study demonstrates the distinct possibility that pythons could spread to new suitable habitats one estuary at a time.”

In the lab, researchers tested how long hatchling pythons could survive with only salt water to drink. They found that, when given access only to water with salinity levels equivalent to full marine water, hatchling pythons straight out of their eggs lived about a month. At salinity levels comparable with estuaries, the hatchlings survived about five months.

The USGS research demonstrated, however, that varying salinity levels did affect the snakes, as reflected in significant survival differences between pythons exposed to freshwater, marine, and estuarine salinities in the lab. However, because hatchlings are considered the most vulnerable stage of the python’s life, it’s likely that adult snakes could persist even longer in saltwater environments, Hart and her colleagues noted.

By comparison, pythons in the study displayed a saltwater tolerance level near that of the native mangrove snake, a salinity-tolerant native snake found in high-salinity environments in and around the Everglades.

Although the study didn’t account for the effect that access to food in saltwater environments would have on survival, lab conditions were designed to provide a conservative estimate of snake tolerance to salinity, by not allowing for the possibility that snakes could access freshwater from rain.

Hart, KM, Schofield, PJ, and Gregoire, DR. 2012. Experimentally derived salinity tolerance of hatchling Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) from the Everglades, Florida (USA). Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 413:56-59.

Suzio Report- Unplugged

Howdy Herpers, 4 January 2012

First off, my HUGEST apologies for signing up on Facebook. I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into. And now that I've done it, I have NO IDEA how to get back out of it. I knew not what I did, and know not what I'm doing now that I did it!

For now, I'm ignoring the problem. So, if you asked to be my friend, and I haven't responded, please don't get all butt hurt. As soon as I find someone else to blame for this,it will be behind me.

Jeez Louise! Who has time for this stuff? 8-)

Ok, the very cold and wet winter weather finally broke, and we faced a gradual warm up. By 30 December, we were approaching 80 degree F temps. While I was sincerely wishing for more rain, mother Repp never raised a child so foolish as to waste a perfect day.

On 30 December, I decided to go to the Suizos unplugged." That is, leave the tracking gear behind, and see what can be gooned up without it. Like me, the herps did not waste a gorgeous day either.

Pics 1 and 2: I checked a known Gila Monster den that resides in the west center of the Suizo Range proper. Some of you may remember some images I sent out of Hans-Werner Herrmann dragging a Gila Monster out of a hole by its lips. This would be that honey hole. I was astounded to see this HUGE monster. Yes, he's sleeping, and he never knew I was there.

Pic 3: A visit to AD4 on Iron Mine Hill yielded this atrox out basking in a well known lean-to near the den. My fondest memory of this lean-to is of me asking Kent Jacobs to stick a thermometer into this spot. Kent dumbly proceeded to try to what was asked of him, and nearly jammed the thermometer into the snout of an unseen snake. "YEOW! There's a rattlesnake in here Roger!"

Pic 5: A visit to AD5 yielded this atrox packing the narrow crevice. There is actually a transmittered tiger rattlesnake in that crevice, somewhere behind him.

Pic 6: Is actually from another unplugged trip made on 2 January 2012. My wife Dianna, and our friends Patti and Gene accompanied me to Hill 97. we said hi to the Lazy M monster, and got this image of an atrox basking on the apron of a den we call "The Main Den." This den also contains an active beehive. This photo was achieved with great potential for peril!

There was much more that happened this weekend, but that will have to do for now.

Best to all, and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More on Invasive Pythons & Legislation to Control Them

This morning's Miami Herald is carrying the following story by Curtis Morgan. It does a good job of discussing the issues surrounding invasive constricting snakes. 
When Burmese pythons began slithering across Everglades levees in increasingly alarming numbers, state water managers petitioned the federal government to crack down on the pet trade's sale of the giant snakes. In the five years since, a string of studies, congressional hearings, articles and nature shows - not to mention bad sci-fi movies - have painted the python as a monstrous ecological menace that threatened to spread to other states. But the proposal to ban the import and interstate sale of Burmese pythons and eight other large exotic snakes has stalled, swallowed up in White House bureaucracy for nearly a year. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has written letters urging the Obama administration to approve the snake ban. Despite the pressure, the effort to declare the snakes "injurious species" through a cumbersome administrative process called the Lacey Act remains in doubt. The proposal has been buffeted by surging anti-regulatory fervor in Washington and scientific controversy over whether the snakes really pose much of a risk beyond South Florida. The fact that the snakes acquired lobbyists may explain a few things as well. The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, backed by a small but passionate group of snake breeders and collectors and a New York law firm, has mounting a campaign shrewdly positioning the python restrictions as "job-killing" federal red tape based on shaky science. "This thing has tons of problems and no redeeming qualities," said ARK President Andrew Wyatt. "A Lacey Act listing isn't going to change one thing on the ground in South Florida now. It is going to put people out of work." The Obama administration's delay has befuddled and frustrated proponents of a measure supported by Everglades National Park managers, federal wildlife agencies, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and many scientists and environmental groups. "What this has shown is that any little segment of industry can hire a lobbyist, get an economic study done and hold up just about any regulation," said Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species, comprised of environmental and science groups. "If we can't push this over the finish line, what the hell can we regulate?" No one - including reptile breeders - disputes Burmese pythons are a big problem in South Florida. In the Everglades and its surrounding farm and wild lands, a population estimated in the thousands has eaten everything from alligators to endangered wood rats. Two months ago, in the latest gruesome find, South Florida Water Management District workers captured a 16-footer swollen with a 76-pound deer inside. Florida wildlife managers have moved swiftly on the snake threat, last year effectively banning personal ownership of Burmese pythons and seven other constrictors as pets. Snakes whose owners had obtained $100 annual licenses and implanted them with microchips before July 2010 were grandfathered in. Reptile breeders, dealers, researchers and exhibitors also can continue operating under a separate permit program, as long as they agree to strict storage and transport rules. But it's proven far more difficult to secure sweeping nationwide curbs on the pet trade, which many scientists blame for first unleashing pythons into the Everglades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 1.8 million of the nine species of large constrictors - pythons, boas and anacondas - that it wants declared "injurious" were imported between 1999 and 2008. The agency also estimated that more than 50,000 domestically bred snakes had been sold during the same period. A 2009 bill to ban Burmese python imports filed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., never got far - though he clearly got his colleagues' attention when he unrolled the skin of a 17-footer killed in the Everglades during one hearing. Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Lacey Act proposal to declare the seven species "injurious" - which could be enacted without congressional approval - has been hung up since March in the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the OMB, which analyzes the economic impacts of proposed administrative rules, said in an email that the office doesn't comment on pending rules but extended reviews aren't "uncommon." Parties on both sides believe the snake ban has lost steam in a Washington political climate that has cooled to new environmental rules. "I think the White House got jittery that somehow this was fitting into a frame of regulatory over-reaching," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has joined environmental groups in lobbying for approval of the python import ban. With continuing pressure led by Florida lawmakers, Pacelle said he is optimistic the OMB will back the snake restrictions. "I think we've turned a bit of a corner on this," he said. Wyatt, ARK's president, disagrees. "The White House is sitting on it," he said. "They're kind of hoping it will just go away." By Wyatt's estimate, ARK has spent more than $400,000 on its lobbying campaign over the last three years - a huge sum for a North Carolina-based group that claims only 12,000 members but a fraction of what proponents have poured into vilifying the constrictors, he said. "Basically, we were getting killed on this thing because we didn't have an advocate," he said. ARK's New York law firm, Kelley Drye & Warren, produced an economic study claiming the injurious species listing would cost the $1.4 billion reptile industry about 10 percent of its revenue every year - $104 million - and cost thousands of cottage industry jobs. Jenkins, the environmental coalition attorney, dismissed the data as "completely bogus." A federal analysis, for instance, predicted far less impact - no more than 300 jobs and $11 million in losses, a figured dwarfed by $100 million a year that one agency alone, the U.S. Interior Department, was spending on controlling the pythons and a host of other invasive species. Eleven Florida lawmakers, joined by 14 other congressional members, have written the White House, saying the delay was costing taxpayers millions of dollars annually and exposing wider areas to colonization by large, powerful snakes. In her letter, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., cautioned against weakening the restrictions on dangerous snakes that are difficult and expensive to control in the wild, can disrupt the natural balance of the Everglades and from time to time prey on their owners. The invasive species coalition has pinpointed 13 deaths from pet pythons over 20 years. "To offer a half measure, by restricting just a small number of the snakes, would result in the trade shifting from one dangerous species to another and would not achieve any lasting policy solution," she wrote. Python dealers have their champions as well. In a July letter, four Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, urged the OMB to dump the proposal they described as overkill, a "generalized solution to a localized problem." In September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee - whose chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has long railed at environmental regulation - pointed to the python proposal as prime example of "broken government" manipulated by environmentalists, lawyers and others. Critics have also attacked studies critical to seeking the nationwide ban - particularly a risk assessment produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2009. It found that based on climate alone, South Texas and tropical islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico were at high risk but a few of the hardier species also could potentially make a go of it in the warm southern belt of the U.S. David Barker, a Texas breeder and python expert who sells expensive color "morphs" to collectors around the country by mail, has been among the most savage critics, accusing a "rogue band" of federal scientists of exaggerating the threat to secure millions of dollars in research support and scoffing at the idea of snakes somehow learning to survive outside South Florida. Barker also believes Hurricane Andrew's destruction of breeder facilities in South Miami-Dade is the most likely suspect in the Everglades invasion - a theory federal scientists have rejected. "There is just no evidence that there is a steady stream of release animals from pet owners," Barker said. It's not just breeders who have questioned the federal risk assessment. Other scientists also have been skeptical about the climate analysis. Frank Burbrink, a biology professor at City University of New York, co-authored one paper concluding that the python threat was likely confined to South Florida or very small, very hot spots and that there nothing to suggest they could adapt to more northern climes. "Over 90 million years they haven't done it in their home range," Burbrink said, "So why would you expect them to do it after 10 years in the United States?" Florida's record cold snap in 2010 provided more ammunition, knocking back - though not out - the Glades population of pythons by an estimated half or more. The 130 captured through October this year are only about a third of the pre-freeze 2009 total captured. That same 2010 freeze also killed 10 pythons that were part of a climate experiment in South Carolina, as well as seven of nine in another experiment in Gainesville. Still, Gordon Rodda, a USGS biologist who co-authored the risk assessment and follow-up study rebutting critics, said nothing has emerged to invalidate its findings. "There isn't a serious map out there as far as I know that doesn't show all of Florida at risk," he said. Rodda acknowledged on-going debate about the potential national impact of the snake. Scientists are still trying to understand its impact on Glades wildlife. "Are there people in the community that have a different sense of the climate match? Undoubtedly," he said. "You don't get three scientists together and not have three different opinions." Michael Dorcas, a biology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has authored science journals and a book about invasive pythons, said critics focus too much on the end result of the cold studies. In the South Carolina study, which he oversaw, snakes that had adapted to the steamy Everglades managed to survive a dozen nights no warmer than 41 degrees before dying in a freeze that also killed native animals. That suggests, he said, a potential range for hardier constrictors beyond South Florida. He laughed at suggestions scientists were hyping the threat to free up funding. "I just find it ironic that people who talk about our 'money-driven' agenda are the one who make their living selling pythons," he said. "The fact remains the pythons are here because of the pet industry. Whether they were released accidentally or intentionally - at this point, it really doesn't matter."