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Biologists from the Papua New Guinea National Museum and the U.S. Geological Survey have discovered a new species of gecko, adorned like a bumblebee with black-and-gold bands and rows of skin nodules that enhance its camouflage on the tropical forest floor.
Specimens of the lizard, which measures about 5 inches from head to tail, were collected in May 2010 in Sohoniliu Village on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Herpetologists George Zug of the Smithsonian Institution and Robert Fisher of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center described the new species in a report published in Zootaxa this month.
“The discovery of a new species from deep in the forests of New Guinea is a cause for celebration, adding one more chapter to ‘The Book of Life,’” remarked USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Now the real work begins! To fill those pages with the wonders of this new creature, its place in the forest ecosystem, its adaptation to its environment, and perhaps even novel strategies for coping with disease from which we will ultimately benefit.”
“We’ve officially named it Nactus kunan for its striking color pattern — kunan means ‘bumblebee’ in the local Nali language,” says Fisher. “It belongs to a genus of slender-toed geckos, which means these guys don’t have the padded, wall-climbing toes like the common house gecko, or the day gecko in the car insurance commercials.”
A common parasite may be worth investigating as a risk factor for brain cancers, according to a new geographic analysis by researchers from a French infectious disease institute and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Led by disease ecologist Frédéric Thomas of the French infectious disease research institute MIVEGEC and parasite ecologist Kevin Lafferty of USGS, the study analyzed 37 countries for several population factors, notably the incidence of adult brain cancers and the percent of people infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii — a single-celled organism found worldwide in at least one-third of the human population.
The analysis showed that countries where Toxoplasma gondii is common also had higher incidences of adult brain cancers than in those countries where the organism is not common.
“The study does not prove that Toxoplasma gondii directly causes cancer in humans, and the study does not imply that an infected person automatically has high cancer risk,” says Lafferty, who is based at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “However, we do know that Toxoplasma gondii behaves in ways that could stimulate cells towards cancerous states, so the discovery of this correlation offers a new hypothesis for an infectious link to cancer.”
Toxoplasma gondii is well-known to ecology and medicine: Toxoplasma gondii can be found in a variety of warm-blooded animals — ranging from whales to rodents to birds — and infectious stages of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can only be transmitted via cat species, including bobcats, mountain lions and the domestic cat. USGS has a long history of research on toxoplasmosis as part of its mission to understand zoonotic diseases — diseases which intersect wildlife health and human health.
However, the main risk for exposure to Toxoplasma gondii is poor hygiene and consumption of undercooked meats. Both the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) already list the disease toxoplasmosis in their online index, with prevention practices to limit infection, such as proper hygiene practices and minimum food cooking temperatures to limit exposure to expectant mothers and individuals with weak immune systems.
Once it enters a host, a “bradyzoite” cyst stage of Toxoplasma gondii can latently persist for a host’s lifetime in the host’s brain and other tissues. According to past studies on infected cells of laboratory mice, these cysts can provoke cell inflammation and inhibit natural programmed cell death — both conditions that can stimulate host cells towards cancerous states.
Brain cancers as a whole are rare — annual risks are only a few individuals per 100,000 persons, even in persons infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Furthermore, the correlation between Toxoplasma gondii and brain cancers is far from perfect, and there are likely to be many factors besides Toxoplasma gondii that influence the risk of developing brain cancer.
“Nevertheless, given how common toxoplasmosis is in the global human population and how its biology may be associated with tumor formation, we were curious if national rates of brain cancers were linked to the parasite,” says Thomas. “Our results suggest that Toxoplasma gondii potentially increases the risk of brain cancers in humans, and we hope this hypothesis stimulates further research on individual risk of cancers and of toxoplasmosis.”
An old theory in ecology is that in any ecosystem, a small-sized animal species will be more populous than a large species.
All you need is a summer picnic to prove the point: your barbecue might end up attracting thousands of tiny ants — but only a few rotund squirrels.
Equations based on ecological theories like this one help scientists and wildlife managers predict resource abundance and the health of animal populations, such as to understand which species are naturally rare and approximately how rare they should be. But a new analysis published today in the journal Science has revised this particular rule of thumb.
“The theory should really also say ‘depending on your position in the food chain,’” says Ryan Hechinger, lead author of the study and an associate research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Hechinger conducted the study along with Kevin Lafferty, a lead scientist at WERC’s Santa Barbara/Channel Islands Field Station, and colleagues from other universities.
Animal populations are often limited by their food supply and metabolic rate. A tiny animal burns fewer calories than a big animal, says Hechinger, so it needs to consume less food than a large animal to stay alive. “This is why small animals are usually more common than big ones,” adds Hechinger. “But the food chain is also important. There’s less food to go around the higher up the food chain you go. This is why top consumers like mountain lions are relatively rare.”
But ecologists know that despite being tiny, parasites also feed high up in food chains. “For example, a tapeworm that infests a deer feeds at the same food chain position as a mountain lion,” Hechinger says. “So we wondered whether parasite populations might be less common than you’d expect given the old rule.”
To explore whether tiny parasites exhibit the abundance patterns of top consumers, Hechinger, Lafferty and colleagues studied three estuary ecosystems: Carpinteria Salt Marsh in Santa Barbara County, CA, and Estero de Punta Banda and Bahía Falsa in Baja California, Mexico.
They counted and weighed parasites and other animals before confirming that parasites were indeed less populous than other similarly sized animals.
“But once we accounted for the food chain factor, a single, revised equation was able to explain observed population patterns for both parasites and other animals,” says USGS ecologist Kevin Lafferty, the study’s second author.
The findings also led to another profound revelation: regardless of species body size, species occupying the same position in the food chain can have the same rate of biomass production — annual yields in terms of weight. By this logic, a deer tapeworm population biomass and a mountain lion population biomass can grow at similar rates.
I was helping one of my researchers today to edit a press release draft that he had written. When I was writing out the standard formula for a press release in an email explanation, I kept wanting to gesticulate and say that a good press release should deliver the facts quickly and succinctly — essentially six quick bullet points that form a story. Then, a particular idea suddenly struck me:
(Please let me know if this already has been used/suggested by someone else… I plead innocence through shared creativity! I also plead guilty to muddled and morbid analogies/examples, if so judged…)
Death by Six-Shooter: A press release should knock your reader over like six quick shots that deliver the facts and importance of your story. Humor the following example:
- The lede: What’s the news? I got shot!
- The nutgraph: Where/when/tell me more! I got shot in the gut when I was in line to buy a caramel decaf mocha at the 15th and J Starbucks!
- The pithy quote: The news and its importance, in your own words: “It really hurts, and this has significant implications for my lifespan.”
- The detailed description: Paint me a picture of the story: There’s now blood everywhere and that might be the duodenum peeking out. No one got a look at the shooter, who was last seen with a venti Americano before fleeing the scene.
- The background and signficance: Here’s what else you need to know: I’ve always hypothesized that I’d bite it from a coronary from eating too much KFC. Most people have a 0.01 percent chance of dying from a gunshot at Starbucks versus a 0.09 percent chance from KFC cardiac episodes. But surprisingly, I got shot instead – making this a most unusual finding.
- The last word: A pithy statement/quote to sum it up, once more, with feeling: “Getting shot was unexpected and a hell of a way to go. But this gives us more clues as to whether getting shot while ordering coffee is a new trend for kicking the bucket.”
Feel free to improve upon this… post your versions in the comments!