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15 Useful Facts About Lyme Disease

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As summer nears and you spend more time outdoors in one of the many beautiful natural spots in the United States, be sure to dress for the season—tick season, that is. Some experts say 2017 may be an especially tick-infested year. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry a bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an infection from a bacterium that coils waiting in their insect bodies. Lyme-carrying deer ticks are especially prevalent in the upper East Coast, the upper Midwest, northern California, and the Oregon coast. While not every tick carries the bacteria that lead to infection—and some carry other pathogens—it’s best to take precautions to prevent bites, and seek medical attention if you have been bitten. The infection can cause long-lasting damage if not treated early. Here are 15 facts you need to know about Lyme disease.

1. LYME DISEASE IS CAUSED BY COILED BACTERIA.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete, or tightly coiled bacterium that looks like a tiny spring under a microscope. Spirochetes are very simple, slow-replicating bacteria that require a mammalian or avian host to survive. According to Timothy Sellati, chair of the infectious diseases department at Southern Research, a nonprofit research institution in Birmingham, Alabama, “It takes on the order of 18–20 hours for a single spirochete to divide into two.” That’s incredibly slow, compared to other bacteria like E. coli, which can replicate every 20 minutes. Because Borrelia replicates so slowly, and they don’t reach high numbers, “They do not show up easily in a blood test,” Sellati says.

2. TICKS PREFER A LONG MEAL.

Sellati explains that ticks are very different feeders from mosquitoes, which he calls “hit-and-run feeders.” Ticks will feed over a period of three to five days before they become fully engorged. Female ticks generally only take three “blood meals,” he says, in the duration of their lifespan. They take one blood meal after hatching from their egg into the larval stage, another after they molt into their nymphal stage—the stage where they are most likely to bite you—and a final “big meal” in preparation for laying thousands of eggs. Adult male ticks generally don’t feed, he says.

3. THEY ARE A VIRULENT DISEASE VECTOR …

When an infected tick bites a human, the waiting spirochetes—which live essentially dormant in the tick’s gut until environmental cues such as changes in temperature and oxygen availability awaken them—travel from the tick’s gut to its saliva glands. “From the saliva glands they can literally be spat into the bloodstream that the tick is feeding on,” Sellati says. Once they enter the bloodstream, spirochetes travel to various body tissues, because if they stay too long in the bloodstream, they’ll get killed by their host's immune system. “Once it gets away from site of inoculation, it shows a bias toward joints, heart, central nervous system,” Sellati says.

4. … WHICH LEADS TO INFLAMMATION.

“The bacteria has components that are very effective at eliciting an inflammatory response,” Sellati explains. While Borrelia don’t produce toxins like other bacteria, they do incite inflammation in sensitive parts of the body such as the joints, heart, and brain. “That inflammatory response is important to help kill and clear the spirochetes, but it causes collateral damage as well.”

5. INFECTIONS MAY BEGIN WITH A BULL'S-EYE.

The first symptom to look for in about 80 to 90 percent of Lyme cases is a telltale rash of an infected tick bite, called an erythema migrans (EM) rash, which looks a lot like a red bull's-eye, and usually appears at the site of a tick bite within seven to 14 days, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation. However, the rash does not appear in every instance of Lyme disease, so if you’re bitten, you should visit a doctor immediately. You may also experience flu-like symptoms or joint pains in the first month after the bite.

6. DON'T WAIT TO GET TREATMENT.

If you don't see the tick bite, and don't treat early symptoms, the spirochetes continue to spread throughout your body and can cause more severe symptoms, including fatigue, stiff or aching neck, tingling or numbness in your extremities, and even paralysis of your face. Even more debilitating symptoms of later-stage Lyme disease can include severe headaches, painful arthritis and swelling of joints, cardiac abnormalities, and central nervous system debilitations leading to cognitive disorders.

7. IF CAUGHT EARLY, IT'S USUALLY HIGHLY TREATABLE …

When the disease is caught in its early stages, and treated with antibiotics, it’s curable, Sellati says. Even later stages of the disease can be treated, but the longer an infection goes untreated, the more severe the symptoms and damage can become.

8. … BUT SOME PATIENTS EXPERIENCE SYMPTOMS FOR MUCH LONGER.

Scientists are not entirely sure why a subset of patients have recurrent symptoms of the illness in the months and even years following treatment, known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. “It’s not clear if there is a persistence of live replicating bacteria in some immune privileged niche where they’re protected from exposure to antibiotics,” Sellati says, or if it’s simply the subsequent inflammation stirred up in the body that refuses to go back to normal. “What drives that is not entirely clear.”

9. YOUR GENETICS MAY DICTATE YOUR TREATMENT.

Sellati’s lab has been exploring whether genetics plays a role in who recovers after treatment and who doesn’t. “We have some evidence that your genetic makeup can actually predispose you to developing post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome," Sellati says, and adds it will require more research. They believe they might be able to isolate genetic markers that will tell doctors if antibiotics alone will work, or if the patient might need additional treatment.

10. FEAR THE ENGORGED TICK (BUT DON'T PANIC).

The good news is, even if a tick bites you, if it isn’t yet fully engorged on your blood, chances are good it hasn’t been there long enough to transmit the spirochetes that lead to infection. However, it’s always better to be safe, and pay attention to any symptoms that occur thereafter. “The sooner you can remove a tick from your body, whether it’s feeding or not, the better. If the tick is feeding for less than 24 hours, the likelihood of being infected with Borellia is significantly reduced,” Sellati says.

11. AREAS WITH MICE HAVE MORE LYME DISEASE.

Wherever you find mice and deer you’re very likely to find ticks as well. In fact, Sellati says, mice in all forms—but especially the white-footed mouse—are what infectious researchers call a “maintenance reservoir.” Sellati says. “They maintain the bacteria in the wild so that new ticks can acquire it.” Since spirochetes tend to stay in the bloodstream of mice much longer than they do in humans, that’s how ticks have such an endless supply of the bacteria. “If you got rid of all the mice in the world, you would either come very close to or significantly reduce the population of Borellia in the environment. You’d have a significant decrease in Lyme,” he emphasizes.

12. YOU CAN TAKE SIMPLE STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF.

Wear clothes with the most coverage possible. Spray yourself with anti-tick sprays. But no matter what, always do a tick check after you return from the outdoors just to be safe. And if you start to feel any of the symptoms mentioned earlier within a month of a tick bite, don’t wait to visit your doctor.

13. CHECK YOUR CREVICES.

Ticks are not opposed to biting you wherever they can reach, but they have a preference for your warm, moist crevices, such as armpits, backs of the knee, groin, base of the head, and nape of your neck.

14. SKIP SOME OF THOSE "TIPS" FOR REMOVING TICKS THAT YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT.

No matter how many YouTube tutorials you’ve watched, Sellati recommends that you do not use heat, like a match or a lighter, to burn a tick off. The same goes for “goops” such as petroleum jelly, alcohol, or hand sanitizer. Since the spirochetes are transmitted through tick saliva, Sellati warns, “If you try to do those things, you’re only going to piss the tick off, and a pissed-off tick spits a lot, and you're more likely to get more bacteria into your bloodstream.”

15. INSTEAD, USE SLOW, STEADY PRESSURE—AND SOME TWEEZERS.

Take a small pair of forceps or tweezers, Sellati instructs, and gently grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible, “then pull the tick straight up slowly, which pulls the mouth part out of the skin, and then just dab the area with alcohol to disinfect.” A tick’s mouthparts are like tiny barbed hooks, designed to pierce the skin and stay there. “Then they have secretions that cement the mouthparts to the skin, because they have to feed over a long time and they don’t want to be knocked off while they sit and sip.”

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science
What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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Animals
11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales
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iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

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