Chinese marathon dog

It’s not Monday, but I think this story deserves a special honorary ‘Tuesday Awesome’ title.

A small stray dog has reportedly run almost 1200 miles (I think that’s about 2000km) across  China accompanying a group of cyclists who were undertaking a 3 week cycling trip.

Xiaosa – marathon dog. Image via UK Telegraph

I saw this first on the ABC News website, where they have some raw footage that has no translation, so I don’t know what the guy was saying about the dog. However, I found more info via the UK Telegraph. Apparently, one of the riders fed the dog one day and it started to follow the group. The cyclists figured it might follow them for a while, and then lose interest but it didn’t stop – it just kept going alongside them…. so it became part of the team. And, it now has a new home because the guy who fed it and carried it on his bike when it got tired is going to keep it. Nothing like weeks on the road to create new bonds!

According to the Telegraph report, the dog partook in 12 mountain climbs over 13,000 feet and ran for about 30-40 miles (~60km) each day. That’s a massive, awesome effort for a little dog.

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Analysis: Badgers and bovine TB. (Or, Everything eventually comes back to parasites)

Badgers! Image via BBC News website

I’ve been interested in the ongoing debate around the culling of badgers in the UK as a control method for bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis). European badgers (Meles meles) have been known to be infected with bovine TB since the 1970s, and other British wildlife have also been identified as carriers, e.g., deer, foxes and rats (Gallagher & Clifton-Hadley 2000). Close proximity of badgers and cattle can result in bovine TB being spread back and forth, usually via eating contaminated grass, or inhaling bacteria released via aerosol (e.g., sneezing). Bovine TB is an important disease of livestock, with around 4% of the national cattle herd infected. It has cost the UK around 500 million pounds to control bovine TB over the past 10 years (stats from www.defra.gov.uk).

Now, that ongoing debate about culling. The UK government wanted to conduct a pilot study to see how culling of badgers would reduce rates of bovine TB, but the plan is currently being reviewed by the High Court. Wales has already decided against culling, instead opting for vaccination of badgers to reduce the spread of the disease. Vaccinating would take longer and involve higher costs for materials and manpower than culling, which would be faster and cheaper. So why not just cull?

Because badgers are territorial, and have varying sized home ranges. In areas where badgers are not culled, they move around less, whereas badgers who have fewer neighbours are more likely to move around. So, if an infected badger is not culled, but its neighbours are, it may end up with a larger home range and still be busily infecting any cattle that also exist in its range. Modifications to badger home ranges caused by culling strategies that remove small proportions of badger populations means that it is less likely that long-term benefits on cattle health will be observed (Woodroffe et al. 2006).

A key aspect of control is understanding the movement of the pathogens of the disease through a population. Cows can infect badgers TB, and the badgers can return the favour to other, uninfected cattle. Testing cattle herds for the presence of bovine TB is one measure that can be used to monitor the spread and prevalence of the infection, in order to manage it. Identification of carriers of TB is conducted by the single intradermal comparative cervical tuberculin (SICCT) test (Claridge et al. 2012), where a small amount of tuberculin (= M. bovis bacteria) is injected under the skin of the neck of a cow (or person). The immune systems of infected cattle (or people) will mount a response in the region of the injection, causing swelling.

Now comes the part about the parasites. One pathogen that has been implicated in compromising the sensitivity of the SICCT test is the cattle liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica. This fluke is common in the UK, and has had quite a spectacular increase in distribution over the past 10-20 years (due, in part to climatic changes) (Kenyon et al. 2009). Infection with F. hepatica causes an anti-inflammatory response in the host, which not only increases host susceptibility to infection with other pathogens, but would also interfere with tests that involve the immune system function as an indicator. New research published in Nature Communications indicates that cattle infected with F. hepatica are less likely to produce the typical immune system response to the SICCT test, thus producing a false-negative result (Claridge et al. 2012).

What on earth does this all mean?

This means that, when considering appropriate control of a disease such as bovine TB, it is important to understand as much of the problem as possible. It is well-known that badgers can transmit TB to cattle, yet a straight-out cull may not be the answer as this may actually compound the problem via the changes to the movements of the un-culled badgers. Further, understanding the infection rate and prevalence of cattle infected with TB is also integral to controlling the spread of the disease. Cattle that are falsely negative for TB because their co-infection with F. hepatica masks the immune response of the SICCT test may be moved around and potentially infect new herds, or badgers. Culling wildlife is always controversial. This is an example of how important it is to understand all the interacting factors of a particular problem before making a decision.

References

Claridge et al. (2012) Fasciola hepatica is associated with the failure to detect bovine tuberculosis in dairy cattle. Nature Communications 3, doi:10.1038/ncomms/1840

Gallagher and Clifton-Hadley (2000) Tuberculosis in badgers: a review of the disease and its significance for other animals. Research in Veterinary Science 69, 203-217.

Kenyon et al. (2009) Sheep helminth parasitic disease in south eastern Scotland arising as a possible consequence of climate change. Veterinary Parasitology 163, 293-297.

Woodroffe et al. (2006) Effects of culling on badger Meles meles spatial organisation: implications for the control of bovine tuberculosis. Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 1-10.

Monday Awesome: Ryder Hesjedal wins Giro d’Italia

In an awesome display of nominative determinism, Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal has won the Giro d’Italia. This is the first time a Canadian has won a grand tour, so I bet there are lots of Canadians celebrating. He snatched the lead on the final stage of the race – the time trial. That’s embodiment of the phrase ‘go hard or go home (empty-handed)’.

Here’s a picture of him in his new pink jersey, with his trophy (photo from ABC news):

Harry Potter spoiler alert…

…he’s not real.

But you already knew that, as did I. He’s a fictional character – Frodo Baggins isn’t real either, and gasp, neither is James Bond. So imagine my surprise when I read a news piece about a literary conference on Harry Potter, going on in Scotland this week.

At first I thought it was tongue-in-cheek, because things like ‘politics of goblins’ was listed as a discussion topic and presentation, but then other topics were listed – such as the influence of various fiction writers on, presumably, popular culture – which led me to think that it was actually serious. The latter could make sense – there is nothing wrong with analysing the way in which certain events and items change our lives. Many events and conferences have surely been held to discuss the way the Suffrage Movement affected society. But I can’t help feeling a bit uneasy about a conference that may well have academic merit being billed as a bunch of people in wizard hats talking about the aerodynamics of the golden snorch* (or whatever it’s called – I’m not really au fait with the world of the Potter).

At the end of the day, no matter how much the Potter books are perceived to have changed our society, they remain a series of books for children. They aren’t exactly War and Peace, or Les Miserables. The conference organiser defends the conference by noting that the books are really long and therefore could generate lengthy discussion. The point that the books were works of fantasy aimed at kids seems to have been missed. There’s a gap in logic there – long-winded and high-selling does not necessarily equate to sophisticated literature. Heavens, if that was the case, we’d be running conferences on the Da Vinci Code – which was not real either, but nevertheless sold like crazy and had a movie made of it too.

I’m uneasy because there is a public perception that many academics are out of touch with reality, or don’t deserve funding because the research they do is not seen to be ‘useful’. If this was a serious academic conference, it should have been pitched as such. If it actually was a bunch of adults in wizard hats mulling over whether the goblins were mistreated by their owners, well, that’s just silly.

*edit: It’s a snitch, not a snorch, apparently. This is a snorch:

credit: real monsters wiki

Monday Awesome: Baby honey badger!

Last year, I included the badass honey badger on a Monday Awesome. Now, I’m presenting the sequel: Baby Honey Badger! It’s only a baby, but is learning to not give a shit – “soon she’ll be digging and smacking around cobras!”

Enjoy:

Post-script: according to my stats page, this was my 100th post on IncreasingDisorder. Thanks to everyone who’s taken a moment to read my posts. 🙂

Science round-up: what has interested me this week?

photo credit: belizar / Fotolia

Not a lot, actually. I’ve been distinctly unimpressed with the offerings of new science bits on the interwebs lately. However, I have found some things that have piqued my interest. Some highlights for this week have included:

  • deep-sea floor microbes are really, really old; and
  • naked mole rats live for years (and are completely awesome, but we already knew that).

Microbes!

From work newly published in Science, we have some interesting insight into just how long microbes can live for. Researchers took sediment cores from the mud under the seabed in the Pacific Ocean, and measured the amount of available oxygen in each of the mud strata. Because they could plot the amount of oxygen that diffused through the mud strata, they could determine how much of it had been used by respiring microorganisms (ie, the amount of oxygen that was absent from the available amount). It turned out that samples had oxygen available 28 metres below the seabed, because the microbe communities were too sparse to consume all the available oxygen. It’s been 86 million years since those microbes were actually on the seabed itself. There have been many, many layers of mud deposited on top of them, yet they’re still there. Slowly consuming oxygen. Cool.

Naked mole rats!

I like naked mole rats. Apart from their really bizarre looks and ecology, they are also very useful models for human medicine as they have some amazing biological properties (they don’t seem to get cancer, for a start). One new aspect is their ability to get old, which for small rodents, is not usually an option. Many rodents have short lifespans, and for an animal of their size, the mole rats should not really live for very long – maybe 3-5 years. But they tend to live for about 30 years. And, instead of getting increasingly decrepit as they age, they stay healthy and sprightly.

We now have a better understanding of how they do that, thanks for research published in the journal Aging Cell. Researchers have found that naked mole rats don’t seem to have the same levels of decline in a growth factor called NRG-1 as observed in mice and humans as they age. What this means is that the brains of the naked mole rats seem to benefit from the ongoing protective aspects of having appropriate amounts of the brain growth factor – suggesting that it might not be increasing oxidation or other detrimental effects that cause reduction in brain function and lifespan, but rather the decline of the protective factors that allow it to happen. Either way, this further reinforces my assertion that naked mole rats are awesome critters.

Monday Awesome: tiny DIY burgers.

Today’s Awesome comes via Mr IncreasingDisorder, who saw this on Steven Fry’s twitter feed.

It is a video of a miniature (edible) hamburger meal, made from a kit. I can’t tell if it’s for the subset of society who: a) like tiny things and the challenge of building scale model planes just isn’t enough anymore; b) have too much time on their hands; c) like to watch inane videos on YouTube; or d) just love all the weird stuff that can be bought in Japan. You be the judge: