Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Walking with Moose


Just back from an interesting weekend in Alberta, all of it related in some way to moose.

It started with a wedding. I’m not going to show wedding pics – I’ll leave that to the happy couple, but the bride is the daughter of a former student and long-time friend. He is Dr. Jack Williams, who graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 1978 and one of the highlights (so he tells me) of that final year was a trip to Rochester, north of Edmonton, where I took him to help with a moose research project. In this very short video clip, edited out from a longer one that you can find here on Youtube, you can see Jack (he turns to smile at the camera) as we walk a moose out of heavy bush so that we can weigh him and have more room to change his collar.

One of the stories told at the wedding of Jack’s daughter Ashley was of how he had almost tried to commit suicide by walking backwards along the body of the helicopter towards the tail rotors. He says that had I not rugby tackled him he would have been chopped up. The wedding would certainly never have taken place, because at that time there was no Ashley.

Naturally this story will appear in my new book Of Moose and Men

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Moose wrestling


If you have returned to this blog you will now have an inkling of what my new website will look like. I hope it will be up within a week or ten days, certainly by the end of the month.

Yesterday I posted a 3 minute video to Youtube. It tells, without the benefit of a continuity staff member, how we used to capture moose for research purposes in the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays almost all moose excpet the huge Alaskan moose, appropriately called Alces alces gigas are captured using net guns. I'll let you have a look at it at the end of this post, but here are a couple of is a teaser photos.

I developed this walking with moose technique after learning something about wildlife capture and darting in Africa and applied it to moose when we needed to weigh them and would often be working in fairly heavy bush where we could not get the helicopter near them.

Here I have put a small piece of the video because the blog cannot handle too much band width. The whole thing is on Youtube.

Of course the method will also get a description in the new book I am working on. It looks as if my title will be Of Moose And Men.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Marburg Virus and Fruit Bats


Just over a year ago, on July 11th 2008, there was a report on the important ListServ Promed Ahead and some other news outlets that told the terrifying story of a Dutch tourist who had died in Holland after being in contact with fruit bats in Uganda. She had visited the Maragambo Forest in Queen Elizabeth National Park, like thousands of others before her. These thousands included me, my wife and at least fifty of my students. We had gone there because there is a cave there that is home to thousands,
if not tens of thousands of Egyptian Fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) and it is mesmerizing to watch them flit in and out of the roost, never mind to see them clinging to the rock in their serried ranks.

There was an added bonus of attraction at the cave. A pair of African Fish Eagles had taken up residence just outside the entrance – grub to go as it were. Furthermore there was a resident python. In fact the last group of students had seen two pythons. So it is probable that a little biology 101 had been taking place. No exercise need for their packed lunches!

As you can imagine, the park authorities have closed the cave to tourists. The last thing they need is another catastrophe.

The Dutch doctors who cared for the dying patient and identified the cause of her death could not be absolutely certain where the virus came from, but the evidence has now mounted and seems conclusive.

The first suggestion of the link between fruit bats and Marburg, which is closely related to the better known Ebola virus, seems to have been made in 2007, as this BBC report shows.

Then came the recent (Aug 2nd 2009) report in ScienceDaily titled
'Ebola Cousin' Marburg Virus Isolated From African Fruit Bats. To quote:- “A paper published in the open-access science journal PLoS Pathogens provides new insight into the identity of the natural host of this deadly disease.”

As the authors of the PLoS article state, this brings the identification of the natural host of Ebola one step closer, as fruit bats are also strongly suspected in this disease. The first indication of this may have been in a 2005 paper in the prestigious journal Nature that can be found here.

There is one more important part of this chain. Fruit bats are a major source of bushmeat in the forests of central Africa. They are also pretty easy to catch when they return to their roosts during the day.
How many human forest dwellers have died of one of these deadly diseases and not even been noticed?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gorillas and AIDS


News that a newly discovered version of the virus that causes AIDS has cropped up in a woman from Cameroon has hit several new outlets. This is no surprise. They include Wildlife Disease News Digest, Promed Ahead and the BBC web site.

The original article was published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine. Lead author Jean-Christophe Plantier and his eight colleagues describe the finding of SIV [simian immunodeficiency virus] in a gorilla. They state that the virus
"is closely related to gorilla simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVgor) and shows no evidence of recombination with other HIV-1 lineages. This new virus seems to be the prototype of a new HIV-1 lineage that is distinct from HIV-1 groups M, N and O. We propose to designate it HIV-1 group P."

It has already been established that the two most important versions of the virus (so far) are HIV1, which crossed into humans from chimpanzees some time in the last 100 years somewhere in the Congo basin and HIV2 which came from a small nondescript monkey called the sooty mangabey, a small, almost uniformly grey monkey whose range is restricted to Upper Guinea in West Africa. In humans these two viruses are genetically less closely related to one another than they are to their original primate sources. The SIV counterparts of these two forms of HIV have been introduced into humans on at least seven different occasions.

That gorilla SIV should have crossed into a human should not surprise anyone who has followed the history of the bushmeat trade. In his 1963 autobiography On Safari Armand Denis published several remarkable photographs of gorillas that had been hunted by large gangs of Ituri hunters deep in the forests of the Congo basin. He had accompanied pygmies on a well-orchestrated hunt in the forest.

However, the Cameronian woman was living in Paris and had never been in contact with bushmeat. The article’s authors suggest that she must have acquired the infection from someone else who was carrying it. While this is the first finding of its kind, it seems likely that others will now be made. The patient was not ill, but that does not mean she will not develop AIDS.