strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

  • Advertisements

The Next Big Thing #1: Wildlife Probiotics

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013

A few years ago, herpetologist Reid Harris of James Madison University was puzzling over the strange way in which some female salamanders weave in and out among the eggs in their nests. It turned out that the mama was inoculating the eggs with antifungal bacteria from her skin—and that this probiotic treatment protected them from a common egg fungus.

It made Reid and a colleague, Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State University, contemplate using microbes to fight chytrid fungus, an epidemic killer of amphibians worldwide. When this deadly blight strikes, fungal spores enter the animal’s skin, block normal respiration, and cause listlessness and lingering death. Over the past few decades, the fungus has contributed to the extinction of an estimated 100 amphibian species, with many more to come—possibly including California’s endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs.

Following Reid’s example, Vredenburg found that yellow-legged frogs also carry an antifungal bacteria species on their skin—but not always enough of it to defeat the chytrid fungus. He began to brew up the bacteria in his lab, producing buckets of purple liquid. Then he briefly dipped lab-reared yellow-legged frogs into this probiotic bath and, a few days later, exposed them to the chytrid fungus. In the group that received the probiotic treatment, all of the frogs survived. In the untreated control group, 80 percent died.

smooth cells The Next Big Thing Is Really Really SmallThe right microbes could also be the key to keeping some species alive and breeding in captivity. For instance, tamarins and marmosets in zoos are prone to callitrichid wasting syndrome, characterized by diarrhea, loss of hair, and paralysis of the hind limbs—ending in death. Researchers have generally suspected that the choice of food is the problem. But maybe what these monkeys really lack are the microbes necessary to digest it, the authors of a recent editorial in the journal Conservation Biology suggest. The idea of managing the microbiomes of animals still seems strange and unlikely to zoos. But that’s how physicians felt about the human microbiome a few years ago. New discoveries about how microbes shape animal health will take hold in the care of captive animals, much as they have in the treatment of human illness.

Microbiome research is simultaneously frustrating and tantalizing: microbial communities are astonishingly diverse and can vary dramatically from place to place—or species to species. This means that getting microbial conservation methods to work will require patience and a high degree of precision. The tantalizing part is that sequencing technology is now cheap enough to make that kind of precision practical.


2 Responses to “The Next Big Thing #1: Wildlife Probiotics”

  1. […] « The Next Big Thing #1: Wildlife Probiotics […]

  2. […] species around the world, has arrived in the motherlode: Madagascar. I’ve written here before about attempts to encourage preventive use of a beneficial bacteria with antifungal properties that’s found in some amphibian species.  Last I heard, the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s