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Snakes: Ian Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell

This Snake’s Venomous Powers Morph as It Grows Up

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Snakes: Ian Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell

Our relationship to food changes as we age. Our metabolisms slow. We start carrying antacids when going out to dinner. Sometimes we’ll even intentionally eat vegetables. But our transformation has nothing on the brown snake, whose venom gradually morphs to accommodate its new eating habits. Researchers described the snake’s enviable aging process in the journal Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part C: Toxicology & Pharmacology.

Australian brown snakes (genus Pseudonaja) pack some of the most deadly venom in the world. As the authors of the new paper note, brown snakes are also “responsible for the majority of medically important human envenomations in Australia.” And that's saying something.

To better understand how that venom works, researchers collected samples from adult and juvenile snakes from nine known Pseudonaja species. Then they tested each venom’s effect on blood and other substances.

Eight out of the nine species showed a distinct change in venom action between the snake’s youth and adulthood. Brown snake venom is known for its anticoagulant, or blood clot–preventing, properties, which can lead to deadly strokes in small animals and internal bleeding in humans. But only the grown-ups’ venom contained anticoagulants. The babies’ toxic spit had its own power: attacking the nervous system, causing paralysis.

Juvenile (L) and adult (R) brown snakes.
Snakes: Stewart Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell

The venom’s transformation over time is not random, lead author Bryan Fry, of the University of Queensland, says, but a brilliant adaptation to the snake’s preferred diet at different stages in its life. Baby brown snakes eat tiny lizards, while adults prefer meatier—but scrappier—mammalian fare like rodents. They need a venom that knocks out their opponents fast.

"Young brown snakes may produce clinical symptoms like that of a death adder, as they seek out and paralyze sleeping lizards,” Fry said in a statement. "Once older, their venom contains toxins that cause devastating interference with blood clotting, causing rodent prey to become immobilized by stroke.”

Within the adult snakes’ venom lay another surprise. Scientists knew that brown snake venom worked by converting one blood protein into another, but other snakes do that, too, and their venom isn’t as fast-acting. Some other, hidden process, was going on, and Fry and his colleagues found it.

"Our team discovered brown snakes are potent in activating Factor VII, another blood-clotting enzyme, which is the missing (dark matter) element of brown snake envenomations,” he said. "The feedback loop created by this enzyme would become a venomous vortex and dramatically accelerate the effects upon the blood."

Reminder: It’s not that brown snakes want to be responsible for medically important human envenomations. Like sharks and bears, they’d much rather be left to go about their business. So the best thing for you, and them, is to leave them alone.

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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Animals
Could Imported Sperm Help Save America’s Bees?
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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

It might be time to call in some sexual backup for male American bees. Scientists have started impregnating domestic honeybees with foreign sperm in the hopes that enlarging the gene pool will give our bees a fighting chance.

These days, the bees need all the help they can get. Colonies across the globe are disappearing and dying off, partly due to the increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides and partly from a parasite called the varroa mite. The invasive mite first landed on American shores in 1987, and it's been spreading and sickening and devouring our bees ever since.

Part of the problem, researchers say, is that the American bee gene pool has gone stagnant. We stopped importing live honeybees in 1922, which means that all the bees we've got are inbred and, therefore, all alike. They lack the genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changing conditions or new threats. So when the mites come, they all get hit.

Many apiarists now rely on anti-mite pesticides to keep their charges safe. While these treatments may help keep the mites away, they aren't great for the bees, either—and the mites have begun to develop a resistance. But beekeepers feel like their hands are tied.

"I lost 40 percent of my colonies to varroa last fall," Matthew Shakespear of Olson's Honeybees told NPR. "I'm not taking any more chances. We've already done five treatments, compared with the two treatments we applied this time last year."

But there might be another way. Experts at the University of Washington have started to—how can we put this delicately?—manually encourage drones (male bees) in Europe and Asia to give up their sperm. All it takes is a little belly rub, and the drone, er, donates 1 microliter of fluid, or one-tenth of the amount needed to inseminate a queen bee.

Fortunately, the bees don't mind at all. "They're really accommodating," bee breeder and researcher Susan Cobey told NPR.

So far, the scientists' attempts to crossbreed foreign and domestic bees have been successful. Within their test colonies, genetic diversity is up.

"This doesn't mean they are superior in performance to the other bees," researcher Brandon Hopkins said. "It means we have a better chance of finding rare and unique traits." Traits, Hopkins says, like genetic resistance to the varroa mites—a quality shared by donor bees in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Georgia.

Other beekeepers are opting for a more hands-off approach, introducing imported queens to their domestic hives. Shakespear bought his from Cobey, who reared them from bees she collected in Slovenia.

"Maybe these new genetics can deal with the varroa mites naturally," Shakespear said, "rather than having to rely on chemicals. It's time to start widening our gene pool."

[h/t The Salt]

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Natural History Museum
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Animals
London's Natural History Museum Has a New Star Attraction: An Amazing Blue Whale Skeleton
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Natural History Museum

In January 2017, London’s Natural History Museum said goodbye to Dippy, the Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton cast that had presided over the institution’s grand entrance hall since 1979. Dippy is scheduled to tour the UK from early 2018 to late 2020—and taking his place in Hintze Hall, The Guardian reports, is a majestic 82-foot blue whale skeleton named Hope.

Hope was officially unveiled to the public on July 14. The massive skeleton hangs suspended from the hall’s ceiling, providing visitors with a 360-degree view of the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth.

Technically, Hope isn’t a new addition to the Natural History Museum, which was first established in 1881. The skeleton is from a whale that beached itself at the mouth of Ireland's Wexford Harbor in 1891 after being injured by a whaler. A town merchant sold the skeleton to the museum for just a couple of hundred pounds, and in 1934, the bones were displayed in the Mammal Hall, where they hung over a life-size blue whale model.

The whale skeleton remained in the Mammal Hall until 2015, when museum workers began preparing the skeleton for its grand debut in Hintze Hall. "Whilst working on the 221 bones we uncovered past conservation treatments, such as the use of newspaper in the 1930s to fill the gaps between the vertebrae," Lorraine Cornish, the museum's head of conservation, said in a statement. "And we were able to use new methods for the first time, including 3D printing a small number of bones missing from the right flipper."

Once restoration was complete, Hope was suspended above Hintze Hall in a diving position. There she hangs as one of the museum’s new major attractions—and as a reminder of humanity’s power to conserve endangered species.

"The Blue Whale as a centerpiece tells a hopeful story about our ability to create a sustainable future for ourselves and other species," according to a museum press release. "Humans were responsible for both pushing the Blue Whale to the brink of extinction but also responsible for its protection and recovery. We hope that this remarkable story about the Blue Whale will be told by parents and grandparents to their children for many years to come, inspiring people to think differently about the natural world."

Check out some pictures of Hope below.

 “Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

[h/t Design Boom]

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