Category: Living World

Cringeworthy Dental Procedures of Ancient Times

By Lauren Sigfusson | January 16, 2018 5:12 pm
After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s.

After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s. (Credit: News Dog Media)

Most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist. There’s just something off-putting about having your mouth wide open while someone’s scratching and scraping your precious chompers. But at least dentists can give you Novocain to make your mouth go numb for the more intense procedures.

You were born in the best of times, because for the majority of the human timeline, our ancestors didn’t have it so easy.

Cavities really started wreaking havoc when humans started farming about 12,000 years ago—possibly even as far as 23,000 years in what is modern-day Israel. Carbohydrates, from our more grain-heavy diet, break down into sugar and feed cavity-causing bacteria that eat away at healthy teeth. Scientists have even unearthed remains that show dental work that predates the agricultural revolution, proving that people have been trying to deal with dental pain for too damn long. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Horses and Humans, Bonded Through Botulism

By Claire Panosian Dunavan, UCLA School of Medicine | January 11, 2018 1:18 pm


Last month, a 1,400-pound horse named John competed with speed and style at the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas.

Fourteen months earlier, John couldn’t even stand without the help of six handlers and a sling.

After qualifying for a 2016 competition, John was found down at his owner’s ranch near Sacramento, felled by botulism. Despite receiving an antidote, he battled paralysis for 26 days. For most of his stay in an intensive care unit, he lay on the floor of his stall. He eventually lost 250 pounds, but he never stopped breathing.

“He definitely has attitude,” says John’s owner and lifelong horseman, Doug Parker. “When I first bought him in 2014, I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘This horse has all the tools, but he’s still a little green.’ As it turned out he was a handful! Much more of a project than I realized.”

That attitude probably helped John to survive.

A long-feared disease of humans, food-borne botulism also sickens birds, chickens and four-footed mammals, but this deadly toxin has also forged a unique bond between horses and humans. Not only do horses model the disease’s worst paralytic features, healthy, hyper-immunized steeds provide a life-saving antitoxin that’s used to treat humans. And in recent years, the development of better diagnostic lab tests for horses has paralleled the adoption of better diagnostics for humans and potentially poisoned foods.

Since 1910, when a German researcher named Leuchs made the first equine-sourced antiserum, horses repeatedly immunized with C. botulinum toxin have helped save human lives. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first equine antitoxin targeting all botulism subtypes. This new heptavalent treatment for humans, which is currently stockpiled by the U.S. government, was hailed as a valuable addition to the nation’s “emergency medicine cabinet” not just for unlucky eaters but possible victims of a future bioterrorist attack. It’s all thanks to our equine companions.

A Potent Killer

Seven botulinum toxins, designated A through G, are currently known to block the release of acetylcholine, an essential neural junction transmitter. The toxins are produced when Clostridium botulinum spores, widely dispersed in nature, encounter perfect conditions for germination: the absence of oxygen, a non-acidic pH, just the right amount of moisture and a warmish temperature (the optimum varies by subtype). Most horses suffer type A or B botulism, which typically occurs after they ingest spoiled or moldy feed. But enormous bales of hay can also spell disaster.

Consider a large outbreak of botulism in Oregon, summarized in a 2010 article in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation. The herd ate from bales of damp, matted bluegrass strewn along a creek bank during an unusually hot February. “After the first horse showed signs of botulism, 20 horses (including the sentinel case) died within three days, and four more horses died over the next six days,” the authors grimly recounted.

Given the warming trends throughout much of the world, I put two and two together.

“Could climate change increase the risk of botulism in horses?” I asked first-author Dr. Amy Johnson, a large-animal internist, neurologist and botulism specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also works in a botulism lab testing animal samples from all over the country.

“I can’t say, ‘No,’” she replied, “but other factors include the economy and the availability of farmland.”


Parker and John competing in October. (Credit: Courtesy UC Davis)

Because huge, round bales of hay are cheap to produce they became increasingly popular following the 2009 economic crash, Johnson went on to explain. Shrinking acreage has compounded the problem by decreasing local production of hay baled as traditional squares.

In John’s case, however, warm, matted hay was not the culprit fueling the crisis, according to his owner. Parker is far more suspicious of a grain-plus-molasses “treat” fed to his 11-year old American quarter horse gelding. That same mix scooped from the bottom of a lidded can repeatedly re-filled with 50-pound bags of grain was also fed to two other horses from Parker’s herd who suffered botulism a few weeks before John went down.

The first victim—a “tough little horse,” in Parker’s words—survived for less than 24 hours before succumbing to her disease; the second horse was hospitalized for only three days, then returned home. In each case, the afflicted animals were given roughly a liter of antitoxin-containing plasma (which can arrest but does not reverse botulism) as soon as they reached the University of California, Davis veterinary hospital.

“Before last year, I never heard of botulism in horses,” Parker said. “Now I’m thinking a lot more horses have it than are ever reported or even seen by vets.” Parker also knows that, unlike UC Davis, many veterinarians do not keep antitoxin on hand, further delaying treatment and worsening outcomes.

In addition to the speedy administration of neutralizing antibodies, what determines an individual horse’s survival remains a topic of ongoing interest and concern among vets and owners alike. In Johnson’s mind, there’s no doubt that psychological factors contribute.

“It’s very scary for a horse not to be able to get up. Some wear themselves out just trying,” she says.

“John was obviously as amazing athlete with real spirit and grit,” echoed Dr. Gary Magdesian, a UC Davis equine specialist who has personally cared for 15 to 20 horses with botulism over the last two decades.

Spirit aside, no adult horse with full-blown respiratory failure has yet been reported to beat botulism. Unlike in humans, in full-size equines, mechanical ventilation is simply too laborious, costly, and fraught with complications. On the other hand, what can make all the difference is a quick diagnosis along with the prompt infusion of antitoxin (the best commercial preparation currently available for horses covers types A through C) plus experienced supportive care.

Back to Roping

Once John was back on his feet, Parker gave him a couple of months to recover, then took him to Arizona for a roping tryout. “It felt like he was ready, but he wasn’t.” At that point, the rancher removed John’s shoes and put him out to pasture to gain more weight. “I’m not going to bring him back until he has two big old rump-cheeks,” he told himself.

The decision clearly paid off. Although Parker didn’t win prize money in Las Vegas, it wasn’t because of John. “I missed three steers I should have roped and broke a barrier,” he shrugged. “John was in as good a shape as ever.”

The final question—whether rates of equine botulism are currently climbing—is impossible to answer. Unlike their riders, there is still no mandatory reporting of horses with botulism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Crying Elephants, Giggling Rats and Other Surprisingly Sentient Animals

By Emily Birch, Nottingham Trent University | January 11, 2018 10:08 am

Motherly love. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Years ago, we believed that we weren’t animals and that animals were here solely for our use. Indeed, a cow was just a walking burger, a Sunday roast, keeping itself fresh and tasty ready for when we were hungry.

Luckily, for their sake, things have progressed significantly from then and now we recognize that animals (including our “superior” human selves in that category) can experience emotions from more simple ones such as happiness and sadness to more complex ones such as empathy, jealousy and grief. Animal sentience is defined as the ability to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. In other words, it’s about emotions and feelings and in some respects, having an awareness that “you are you”. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Why Do We Even Wear Pants?

By Sarah Scoles | January 9, 2018 12:40 pm

(Credit: Seinfeld/YouTube screengrab)

From far above, the area around Yanghai cemetery looks like a collection of ground-dwelling wasp dens, drilled into a gravelly desert. It gets hot in this region of remote western China — up to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and dry. That’s a hard-knock climate, but it’s perfect for preserving ancient artifacts. And if you zoom in on the region, and dig in, as archaeologists have, you’ll find tombs with well-kept secrets. Inside two of them, scientists found not just human remains but the remains of what covered those humans.

I’m talking about clothes, and not just any clothes: pants. These are the oldest pants (discovered) on Earth — more distressed than any jeans Gap can offer — dating back some 3,000 years. They’re tailored wool, and constructed from sewn-together pieces of uncut fabric. If Project Runway had magically predated television by about 2,930 years, the designer of these leg covers would have had a shot at the win. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

The Banana As We Know It Is Dying…Again

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 27, 2017 3:24 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The bananas your grandparents ate were different than the ones you eat today. And the bananas your grandchildren know will probably be entirely different as well.

For the moment, we are in the age of the Cavendish, a banana cultivar that accounts for 99 percent of imports to the Western world. But the Cavendish is in trouble. Like its predecessor the Gros Michel, the Cavendish may soon pass from our lives, potentially taking with it an entire industry. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: agriculture

A Semi-Autonomous Cricket Farm to Feed the World

By Carl Engelking | December 19, 2017 4:12 pm
A feeding bot rolls through the racks of crickets at Aspire Food Group's test farm in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Aspire Food Group)

A feeding bot rolls through the racks of crickets at Aspire Food Group’s test farm in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Aspire Food Group)

When Gabe Mott, Shobhita Soor and Mohammed Ashour proposed building a commercial-scale cricket farm optimized with robots and data, the idea earned the McGill University students the $1 million Hult Prize, the largest student competition for social good, in 2013.

But when it came to launching the concept, they needed to leave convention behind, including most of what had been written in science journals about rearing billions of crickets. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: food, sustainability

Jane Goodall, Redux

By Mark Barna | November 7, 2017 1:58 pm
Jane Goodall in Gombe,

Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park, circa 1965. (Credit: The Jane Goodall Institute)

Jane Goodall has been a flashpoint in science circles. Was her years-long study of chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania real science? Or was it too subjective to have scientific value?

The questions arise anew in the wake of a new documentary, Jane, that looks back at Goodall’s career and how she became a household name in the 1960s. In 1965, her CBS special Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees was watched by 25 million people in North America. A paper published last month in Scientific Data on an aspect of her research has also added to the conversation. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

When Wealth Inequality Arose

By Mark Barna | October 20, 2017 12:30 pm

Anthropologist Teresea Fernandez-Crespo examined megaliths, or stone burial sites, in north-central Spain to learn more about how farmers lived in the Late Neolithic. (Teresea Fernandez-Crespo)

We’ve heard how great times used to be, and I don’t mean in 1950s America.

For eons, our hunter-gatherer ancestors shared their spoils with one another, didn’t own much and had very little social hierarchy. Sure, it wasn’t all kumbaya and high-fives. But the fact that individuals had so few personal possessions took the bitter dish of economic inequality off the table.

So how’d we get to a world today where 1 percent of the population controls so much of the wealth? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Brazil’s Moon Tree Warrior

By Andrew Jenner | October 2, 2017 3:46 pm

Vilso Cembranel tends to the moon tree he saved from the brink of death. (Credit: Andrew Jenner)

On a warm, windy August day in 1981, a crowd gathered at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa for the final event of the soybean fair that’s held every other year in the small city in southern Brazil.

Schools had let out so local students could attend, along with curious fairgoers and a collection of bigwigs whose rank rose all the way up to João Figueiredo, then the president of Brazil. Speeches were made, the national anthem played, and then, around 1 p.m., a small tree was planted to symbolize a new ecological consciousness that was stirring in the heart of Brazilian farm country.

“The moment the tree was planted, all the city’s church bells started ringing,” recalls Nilso Guidolin, president of the 1981 soybean fair. “It was a joyful moment.” And it was a very special tree: a Sequoia sempervirens, or California redwood, grown from a seed that had traveled to the moon. After being planted with much fanfare, this symbolic tree was forgotten, neglected and abused over the following years. It almost died. It needed a hero. Read More

How Vulnerable Are Societies to Collapse?

By Jim O'Donnell | September 28, 2017 12:28 pm

Research findings on three early Native American cultures from the southwestern United States show how each responded to environmental challenges in different ways that dramatically altered their people’s futures. (David Williams/SAPIENS)

Along the cottonwood-lined rivers of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the Mimbres people did something unique: By the year 1000, these farmers were producing stunning ceramics decorated with naturalistic images of fish, people, and rabbits, as well as magical creatures and elaborate geometric patterns. And then, rather abruptly, they stopped.

After roughly a century of higher than normal rainfall, the area the Mimbres inhabited suffered a powerful drought, as indicated by the archaeological record. Big game—already scarce—became even less abundant, and it became harder to grow the beans, corn and squash that the Mimbres relied on. By about 1150 the Mimbres were no longer making their signature pottery. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

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