This Snake’s Venomous Powers Morph as It Grows Up

Snakes: Ian Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell
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.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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