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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.”
Titled “Life and Death on Alcatraz Island: The Secret Life of Nesting Birds on ‘The Rock’” and hosted at 201 Fort Mason by the National Park Service, our biologists will share their knowledge from 20-plus years of research on Alcatraz.
We’ll focus in particular on the black-crowned night-heron, a secretive, twilight hunter that’s particularly useful in environmental contaminant studies, due to its position in the food chain. Additionally, herons have to coexist with nesting gulls and ravens on Alcatraz… and can often end up as raven food.
- Blogpost: http://www.werc.usgs.gov/outreach.aspx?RecordID=110
- News Release: http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3011
- Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=203249386407172
Interestingly, a lot of these nest monitoring surveys requires the use of remote cameras hooked up to — you guessed it, DVRs.
So we’ve pretty much got these birds on TiVo and have to sit through a bajillion hours of footage to quantify behavior…
Fun activities for educators and kids include:
- Owl pellet dissections (from which kids get to keep the bones and goodies), which are similar to what we do to study raven diets.
- Ask a biologist Q&A session on what field work is like.
- Field work tools and props that kids can touch and hold, including the remote nest cameras and DVRs that we use to monitor nest behavior.
- Coloring sheets of some of the seabird species we work with.
For the more advanced geeks, we’ll have some technical posters and reprints of research articles on hand. Some of this data also will be presented at The Wildlife Society 2011 Annual Meeting the following week.
The first-ever Bay Area Science Festival has already made a big splash this week, and USGS will also host other hikes and even science pub crawls later next week. Details at the USGS news release.
Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks, Washington, this week to capture some fanged predators. They are definitely cute and they have great hair, but their seafood-breath should cut short any romantic fantasies.
We’re talking about sea otters, of course.
Researchers from the USGS Pacific Nearshore Project will spend the next three weeks studying the health of local sea otters to assess the condition of Washington’s nearshore ecosystem. The expedition team will set up base camp at the Olympic Natural Resource Center, while the daily sampling missions will depart out of La Push. They’ll board the research vessel Tatoosh of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and work the waters near Olympic National Park, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Washington Island National Wildlife Refuge.
This is the third trip this summer for the Nearshore Project crew, which has already spent weeks in Southeast Alaska and recently returned from Vancouver Island. They will once again post photos and field journals as the carry out the Washington expedition.
- Read the USGS press release
- Read the field blogs from 2011 Alaska and Vancouver Island expeditions
- Download sea otter photos from past expeditions
- Visit the Pacific Nearshore Project homepage
- Read a Washington Post story about the Nearshore Project
“We’ll be temporarily capturing and releasing sea otters for physical exams, biopsies and blood tests, observing sea otter feeding behavior, and collecting samples from fish and other species that hold clues to ecological health,” says Shawn Larson, a Seattle Aquarium sea otter biologist on the August expedition. Larson will assist verterinarian Dr. Mike Murray of the Monterey Bay Aquarium with sea otter biopsies and sample processing, and also conduct otter feeding behavior observations.
And how does blood figure into all this?
Blood and tissue samples drawn from each sea otter will be analyzed with the gene transcription technique developed by WERC, which can show whether a sea otter has been exposed to oil, parasites, disease or other types of stress. The gene transcription analysis will be conducted by scientists Keith Miles and Liz Bowen of WERC Davis Field Station.
Researchers also will extract a tooth sample to determine the age of each sea otter. Rounding out the sea otter health exam are measurements like body girth, dental and gum checks and whisker samples.
“Sea otters are the perfect health indicators of our nearshore waters,” says James Bodkin, the project’s chief scientist and a sea otter biologist at the USGS Alaska Science Center. “They’re entirely dependent on nearshore marine habitats and they are keystone species in kelp forest food webs. Some populations are abundant and stable, while others are either declining or struggling to reach healthy numbers. Can these differences be explained by ocean influences, or by human impacts to the adjacent watersheds? That’s what we’re hoping to learn.”
WERC sea otter biologist Tim Tinker will be sitting out of the Washington capture. Tinker will be attending the 2011 Ecological Society of America conference in Austin, Texas, to present findings on diet specializations by individual sea otters.
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.”