World’s first IVF puppies born to surrogate mother dog
By Helen Briggs
World’s first surrogate puppy
The world’s first “test tube” puppies have been born after years of attempts, say scientists in the US.
The in-vitro fertilisation success paves the way for conserving endangered breeds and could help in the fight against human and animal diseases, say researchers at Cornell University.
The seven beagle and cross-bred beagle-spaniel puppies were born to a surrogate mother.
They were from the same litter but have three sets of parents.
Frozen embryos were implanted in a female dog using techniques similar to those used in human fertility clinics.
Problems with freezing embryos have caused difficulties in the past, but the group say they have perfected this and other techniques.
Lead researcher Dr Alex Travis, from Cornell’s college of veterinary medicine, said: “We have seven normal happy healthy puppies.”
He added: “Since the mid-1970s, people have been trying to do this in a dog and have been unsuccessful.
“Now we can use this technique to conserve the genetics of endangered species.”
The researchers say IVF is a powerful tool to help endangered species of dog such as the African wild dog.
It could also be used in the study of inherited human and dog diseases.
Dogs share many similar diseases with humans – almost twice as many as for any other species.
Dr Travis said the work was an important milestone.
“In vitro fertilisation is a really powerful tool to help preserve endangered species of dog,” he told the BBC.
“IVF is also important for the health of our pets because it opens up the possibility that we could identify certain genes that cause disease and then fix those.”
The puppies were born in the summer.
Their existence was kept secret until the findings were formally announced to the scientific world this week.
They have reportedly been named Ivy, Cannon, Beaker, Buddy, Nelly, Red and Green, and all but one has gone to a new home.
The research, published in the journal PLoS One, has been described as a “major step forward” in medicine.
Prof David Argyle, head of the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh, which was not part of the study, said the new techniques would help understanding of inherited diseases in both dogs and people.
“Importantly, it is becoming apparent that dogs and humans share many common biology, diseases and syndromes, and it is likely that these new techniques could have significant benefit for the study of human diseases as well as canine diseases,” he added.
Scientists are using cutting-edge technology to map dinosaur tracks
Scientists are trying to reconstruct ancient Australian landscapes once roamed by some of the biggest dinosaurs to have ever walked the planet by surveying thousands of fossilised tracks in remote Western Australia.
Along a 100km stretch (62 miles) of coast in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, tens of thousands of dinosaur tracks are fossilised in sandstone.
The 130-million-year-old footprints are virtually the only record of dinosaurs in the western half of the continent.
They date to the Early Cretaceous Period when the continent was still connected by a land bridge to Antarctica and covered in towering conifer forests.
“These tracks are at least 15 to 20 million years older than the majority of dinosaur fossils that have been found at sites in eastern Australia,” says Dr Steve Salisbury, a palaeontologist from the University of Queensland.
“They provide a very detailed snapshot of the dinosaur fauna from a time and place where there’s almost nothing else,” he told the BBC.
Drones and low-speed aircraft sweep over the prints on the rare times they are exposed by the sea
The fossils also hold immense cultural value for local indigenous communities.
Dr Salisbury says they feature in an Aboriginal “song cycle” that extends along the coastline, and that “knowledge of the tracks probably extends back thousands of years”.
He was first invited to the region in 2011 by the Goolarabooloo people who were trying to halt the development of a proposed A$35bn ($24bn; £16bn) natural gas precinct at an area known as James Price Point, 50km north of Broome.
In 2013, two years after a section of the coast was granted National Heritage Status, the development was finally cancelled.
Dr Salisbury is now leading a project to digitally catalogue the fossils and reconstruct the landscapes these dinosaurs wandered through.
‘We’re talking huge, huge tracks’
To date, researchers have identified about 20 different types of tracks. The footprints include three-toed tracks belonging to carnivorous theropods that walked on two legs, as well as tracks believed to have been made by armoured dinosaurs like stegosaurs.
Some of the Broome dinosaur tracks are similar to those found at Lark Quarry in central-western Queensland, which the team recently determined were probably made by a large, two-legged plant-eating dinosaur similar to Muttaburrasaurus.
The Broome tracks are similar to those made elsewhere by Muttaburrasaurus
There are also large cylindrical depressions stamped into the earth by at least five different types of long-necked, long-tailed sauropods.
These are the only sauropod tracks in Australia and some of the depressions measure longer than 1.5m.
“They’re beyond the size that you normally expect dinosaur tracks to be,” says Dr Salisbury.
“We’re talking huge, huge tracks, probably made by some of the biggest animals to ever walk the planet.”
The tracks are found along coastal rock shelves and reefs, which are subject to some of the most extreme tides in Australia, with water levels rising 10 to 11m daily, he says.
Many are only exposed for a few hours each day, and only a few days each year, meaning the team has to work quickly.
“It’s a dynamic landscape, and we’ve seen tracks disappear altogether in the time we’ve been working there. Some get buried by shifting sands, while others are destroyed by pounding surf,” says Dr Salisbury.
To speed up the process of mapping and imaging the tracks, the team has adopted a range of new remote sensing technologies.
In addition to making physical moulds of the footprints using a rapid-setting silicon rubber and taking photographs on ground-mounted tripods, the team is now using a handheld LiDAR unit developed by Australia’s national science organisation, the CSIRO.
Dr Salisbury and colleagues can work out how the dinosaurs were moving by using the drones to view them from the air
They are also taking aerial photographs of the track sites using a remote controlled drone and a specialised, low-speed aircraft, which is also fitted with LiDAR.
A LiDAR uses pulsating laser light coupled with a global positioning system. It records the points where the laser light reflects off hard surfaces, combining data from multiple passes to generate a detailed 3D map of the coastline, says Prof Jorg Hacker, director of Airborne Research Australia at Flinders University.
Prof Hacker, the other main investigator on the project, says that for a 3km stretch of beach he usually spends about 1.5 hours flying his motor glider, making roughly 30 passes at altitudes between 20 to 100 metres.
Dr Salisbury says his team can now contextualise the tracks over larger geographic areas, and can better understand which direction the dinosaurs were travelling, whether they were walking or running, and if they were interacting or crossing the landscape in groups, searching for food, or trying to escape predators.
“We can, to a degree, accurately reconstruct scenes that happened 130 million years ago. That’s not imagination, that’s piecing it together from the evidence found in the rocks,” he says.
Best in the world?
“It’s a powerful way of bringing these ancient worlds back to life.”
Footprints require favourable circumstances to fossilise but when that happens a broad array of information is captured in the fossils, says Professor Anthony Martin, a palaeontologist from Emory University in the US specialising in animal tracks, who is not involved in the project.
“From a single, well-preserved dinosaur track way, we can determine the approximate type of dinosaur, its size, its speed, gait, and even how it was reacting to other dinosaurs or the landscape around it,” says Prof Martin.
“Once these tracks are properly surveyed, I would not be surprised if this area turns out to be one of the best dinosaur track sites in the world,” he says.
Once the dinosaurs died out Australia was occupied by the Mega Fauna. Wombats the size of a VW Beetle. Twenty foot tall Kangaroos and the largest carnivorous marsupial – Thylocaleo Carnifex – the Marsupial Lion.
Here is the documentary we made with NOVA and NHK on the excavation from a deep cave underneath Australia’s Nullarbor Plane, of the only fully intact thylacoleo skeleton
Stands like a human, seven feet tall, large hairy head, four tusks.
During the early months of 1932, an unknown creature terrorised the inhabitants of Victoria’s high country. It was said to stand like a human being, about 7 feet tall, and had a large hairy head with four white tusks that “gleamed in the moonlight”. And if that wasn’t frightening enough, it was “razor clawed” and “swift and savage in attack”.
Not the kind of animal you want to meet travelling through the bush in the dead quiet of night. But, according to the Muswellbrook Chronicle of 1 March 1932 that’s exactly what one unsuspecting nighttime traveller encountered.
The sensational story appeared under the headline: Mystery Animal Attacks Victorian Settler, Has Four Tusks.
“Myrtleford, in the Mount Buffalo district, has a mysterious animal, which stands like a human being, and is described as being 7ft high, with a large round hairy head, carrying four tusks. Search parties tried to capture the creature, but an all-night search failed to locate it. That the animal does exist and that it is savage is vouched for by Mr. William Nutall of Myrtleford.
“He was returning home from Brighton with his sister and a companion, when, nearing Europa railway station, he alighted from his horse to adjust the saddle gear, the others riding on. Suddenly, he said, he was attacked by the strange animal. It snarled at him and charged, tearing his shirt to ribbons.”
While the startled rider’s horse managed to break free, poor Nutall was chased onto the railway line. Luckily, for Nutall, the animal was prevented from continuing the pursuit by a wire fence, through which the terrified man made good his escape.
Runs like a clumsy deer, lurks in shadows & leaps on passing horsemen
Perth’s Sunday Times on 28 February 1932 reported in Mystery Animal Roaming Mountain Ranges that: “A mystery animal, shaggy and powerful, is terrorising dwellers in the mountain ranges between Bright and Yackandandah. Already the bush prowler has made three attacks on wayfarers and prints of a giant have been found in soft soil.
“Among many theories he is described as a grizzly bear, an old man kangaroo and a gorilla. Five men have seen it and each has his own ideas. It is claimed it walks by night, it is seven feet high, it has a hairy head, razor claws, four white tusks, it runs like a clumsy deer, and it lurks in shadows and leaps on passing horsemen.
“It was first heard of about a month ago by one of the Cherry brothers, farmers at Running Creek, who was going home about ten o’clock on a still, moonless night. He came to a gate and bent from the saddle of a horse to lift the catch. The gate opened and then there was a grunt and a scuffle and a bulky beast leapt at the horse’s head. The horse bolted with Cherry clinging to its back.
“Next morning he went down to the gateway and examined the ground. In a jumble of footmarks he discerned prints that suggested the foot of a grizzly bear. Other men claim to have had similar experiences. Bushmen are scouring the country in search.”
The following day, The Daily News reported that a search by horsemen during the weekend discovered no clue as to the creature’s hiding place.
“Myrtleford, near which the marauder made his last appearance, is in a panic, and townsmen are not resting until he has been captured. He has appeared four times since February. Twice he has attacked horse men. Once he leapt at a jinker in which two men were driving, and once he was seen in a farm paddock.”
While no clue as to the creature’s hiding place was found, its footprints were.
“Mr. A. Wilkie, Curator of the Melbourne Zoo, who has been given an imprint of the mystery animal’s foot, believes the animal is a small American black bear, probably an escapee from a travelling circus. No Australian animal makes a footprint exactly like the one described. ‘Ordinarily,’ said Mr. Wilkie, ‘the American bears do not attack a man unless in a devil of a humor. When it rushes on its prey it makes a snorting noise, strikes the victim a paralysing blow on the back of the neck, and rips with its teeth and claws.’ Mr. Wilkie added the terror might be a Himalayan or Java bear. These types stand 5ft. high. They walk on all fours but attack from an upright position, striking with the fore-paws.”
The Advocate of Burnie in Tasmania also ran the story on the same day in Mystery Beast Haunts Country Districts. Seven Feet High!
“Fear still haunts the Myrtleford Ranges between Bright and Yackandandah, and at dusk an unknown ‘terror’ sends women and children — and men, too — hurrying to the safety of their homes and barred doors.
“The mystery beast, which is said to be seven feet high, shaggy, razor clawed, and swift and savage in attack with its four great tusks, which gleam in the moonlight, has been lying low over the week-end, but local inhabitants are convinced that it is still prowling the district!
“The ‘terror’ was first seen months ago by a farmer of Running Creek named Cherry. It attacked him one night with a grunt and a scuffle, leaping at his horse’s head. The man and horse fled, and the next morning the print of a huge paw, like that of a grizzly bear, was claimed to have been seen in the soil.
“Since then two more men have been attacked, and the climax was reached last Thursday night, when a drover named Nutall was pursued by the ‘terror,’ which he described as being something like a gorilla.
“Yesterday afternoon a party of three horsemen, armed with rifles, went out to look for the marauder, but found no traces.
“They came back before nightfall! Further search parties will be organised during the week.”
But they never did find that shaggy-haired creature that was said to stand like a human 7 feet tall, and possessed razor sharp claws and 4 fearsome tusks that gleamed in the moonlight.
Here’s a clip from an Animal X Yowie expedition in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia.
Mars lost much of its atmosphere over time. Where did the atmosphere–and the water–go? The MAVEN mission’s hunt for answers will help us understand when and for how long Mars might have had an environment that could have supported microbial life in its ancient past.
Beware the Mars Hoax
From NASA Science News
There’s a rumor about Mars going around the internet. Here are some snippets from a widely-circulated email message:
“The Red Planet is about to be spectacular.”
“Earth is catching up with Mars [for] the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history.”
“On August 27th … Mars will look as large as the full moon.”
And finally, “NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.”
Only the first sentence is true. The Red Planet is about to be spectacular. The rest is a hoax.
Here are the facts: Earth and Mars are converging for a close encounter this year on October 30th at 0319 Universal Time. Distance: 69 million kilometers. To the unaided eye, Mars will look like a bright red star, a pinprick of light, certainly not as wide as the full Moon.
Disappointed? Don’t be. If Mars did come close enough to rival the Moon, its gravity would alter Earth’s orbit and raise terrible tides.
Sixty-nine million km is good. At that distance, Mars shines brighter than anything else in the sky except the Sun, the Moon and Venus. The visual magnitude of Mars on Oct. 30, 2005, will be -2.3. Even inattentive sky watchers will notice it, rising at sundown and soaring overhead at midnight.
You might remember another encounter with Mars, about two years ago, on August 27, 2003. That was the closest in recorded history, by a whisker, and millions of people watched as the distance between Mars and Earth shrunk to 56 million km. This October’s encounter, at 69 million km, is similar. To casual observers, Mars will seem about as bright and beautiful in 2005 as it was in 2003.
Although closest approach is still months away, Mars is already conspicuous in the early morning. Before the sun comes up, it’s the brightest object in the eastern sky, really eye-catching. If you have a telescope, even a small one, point it at Mars. You can see the bright icy South Polar Cap and strange dark markings on the planet’s surface.
Above: Painted green by a flashlight, astronomer Dennis Mammana of California points out Mars to onlookers on Aug. 26, 2003, the last time Mars was so close to Earth. Photo credit: Thad V’Soske.
One day people will walk among those dark markings, exploring and prospecting, possibly mining ice from the polar caps to supply their settlements. It’s a key goal of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration: to return to the Moon, to visit Mars and to go beyond.
Every day the view improves. Mars is coming–and that’s no hoax.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
10 Need-to-Know Things About Mars
If the sun were as tall as a typical front door, Earth would be the size of a nickel, and Mars would be about as big as an aspirin tablet.
Mars orbits our sun, a star. Mars is the fourth planet from the sun at a distance of about 228 million km (142 million miles) or 1.52 AU.
One day on Mars takes just a little over 24 hours (the time it takes for Mars to rotate or spin once). Mars makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in Martian time) in 687 Earth days.
Mars is a rocky planet, also known as a terrestrial planet. Mars’ solid surface has been altered by volcanoes, impacts, crustal movement, and atmospheric effects such as dust storms.
Mars has a thin atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2) and argon (Ar).
Mars has two moons named Phobos and Deimos.
There are no rings around Mars.
More than 40 spacecraft have been launched for Mars, from flybys and orbiters to rovers and landers that touched surface of the Red Planet. The first true Mars mission success was Mariner 4 in 1965.
At this time in the planet’s history, Mars’ surface cannot support life as we know it. A key science goal is determining Mars’ past and future potential for life.
Mars is known as the Red Planet because iron minerals in the Martian soil oxidize, or rust, causing the soil — and the dusty atmosphere — to look red.
Prof. Metin Sett at Harvard University is look at animals for ways to best get about on Mars. It’s called bio inspiration and he has come up with some amazing findings.
Balancing rocks trace history of ‘jumping’ earthquakes
By Jonathan WebbScience reporter, BBC News
The researchers spent 10 years collecting measurements of balancing rocks
US scientists say they have solved the riddle of why a collection of balancing rocks near the San Andreas fault has never been toppled by earthquakes.
Their decade-long study concludes that quakes can stop or “jump” due to interactions between the San Andreas and the neighbouring San Jacinto fault.
Models show that these interactions sent the biggest vibrations around the rock stacks, leaving them intact.
But the connected nature of the faults has implications for quake planning.
The study of precariously balanced rocks was begun in the 1990s by Jim Brune, now an emeritus professor at the University of Nevada and a co-author of the new paper.
“He realised that [these rocks] could be a check on seismic hazard maps, and give long-term indications of ground shaking,” said the study’s lead author Prof Lisa Grant Ludwig, from the University of California, Irvine.
“They are kind of natural seismoscopes – but you have to read them indirectly.
“They don’t tell you an earthquake happened, they tell you ‘an earthquake strong enough to knock me down did not happen’.”
Generally, balancing rocks are not seen within 15km of major faults. But 10 years ago Prof Brune and his colleagues found two sizeable collections of such stones just 7-10km from the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults, in the San Bernardino mountains of California.
The teetering rocks sit less than 10km from two major faults
In the new study, due to be published in the journal Seismological Research Letters, these rocks were carefully catalogued and measured.
Importantly, the team calculated how much force it would take to tip each of the rocks over.
“There are two methods of doing that, one of which is actually trying to tip the thing,” Prof Ludwig said. This meant some nerve-wracking fieldwork, gently pushing the rocks until there was some movement, but not actually tipping them over.
“If my mother had known I was doing that, she would not have been happy,” Prof Ludwig confessed. “You never want to be on the downhill side when you tip it.”
The second method, for rocks too dangerous or difficult to tip, was “photomodelling”: using views from multiple angles to build a 3D model of the balanced stone and calculate its centre of gravity, mass, and so on.
Both these methods, along with some “shake table” simulation experiments, showed that the rocks should have fallen over during quakes as recent as 1812 and 1857.
The famous San Andreas fault stretches 1,300km across California
But various measures can tell us exactly how long the stones have perched in their places – and it is millennia, not centuries.
“One of my former postdocs did an age study of one of the rocks. And it’d been in that position about 18,000 years,” said Prof Ludwig.
So how did these precarious rocks withstand the tens or hundreds of earthquakes that shook the region during that time?
Network of fractures
“The inescapable conclusion was that the ground motions had to be lower than you would expect from typical earthquakes on the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults,” Prof Ludwig explained.
The team’s best explanation for that surprisingly small ground movement – and one supported by computer modelling of big earthquakes – is an interaction between the two faults.
Precarious rocks, like this one in Nevada, can act as natural measures of earthquake strength over time
Precarious rocks, like this one in Nevada, can act as natural measures of earthquake strength over time
“The San Andreas and San Jacinto faults come very close together; they’re only about 2km apart. And it’s been well established, through other earthquakes and modelling studies, that a rupture can jump across [a gap like that]. It’s what’s called a stepover.
“What if the rupture jumped across, or alternatively, stopped at this junction, or started at this junction? All three of those cases would produce lower ground shaking in the area where we found the rocks.”
It is crucial to consider the faults together, Prof Ludwig said – not just to explain the baffling, balancing rocks, but also in order to plan safely for future earthquakes.
“These are really networks of fractures in the earth. Just because we give them different names doesn’t mean that they behave independently.”
Dr Lucy Jones is a long-serving seismologist and a science adviser for risk reduction at the US Geological Survey. She said the paper would have “pretty significant implications” for earthquake planning in California.
In particular, Dr Jones said the findings might impact the “ShakeOut scenario” – in which she and others modelled a major San Andreas quake, to support safety drills and procedures.
“I think that this study actually makes the particular ShakeOut scenario less likely, but I’m not sure it means that we’re definitely going to get less ground motion,” Dr Jones told the BBC.
“It isn’t a clear-cut answer as to whether we’ll be better off or worse off. We’re going to need time to look at the permutations.”
Looking beyond individual quakes, Dr Jones said the new study fits into a “pretty well accepted picture” that in the long-term, seismic activity is gradually shifting from the southern stretch of the San Andreas fault across to the younger San Jacinto fault.
“This study is a really cool piece of evidence that maybe the jump is a little further along than we assumed,” she said.
Did you know that pets can often detect ear quakes before they happen? Here’s a story from Animal X about some such pets.
A 113-million-year-old fossil from Brazil is the first four-legged snake that scientists have ever seen.
Several other fossil snakes have been found with hind limbs, but the new find is estimated to be a direct ancestor of modern snakes.
Its delicate arms and legs were not used for walking, but probably helped the creature to grab its prey.
The fossil shows adaptations for burrowing, not swimming, strengthening the idea that snakes evolved on land.
That debate is a long-running one among palaeontologists, and researchers say wiggle room is running out for the idea that snakes developed from marine reptiles.
“This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it’s pretty clearly not aquatic,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath, one of the authors of the new study published in Science magazine.
Tetrapodophis amplectus: Clinching the argument for terrestrial snake evolution?
Speaking to Science in Action on the BBC World Service, Dr Longrich explained that the creature’s tail wasn’t paddle-shaped for swimming and it had no sign of fins; meanwhile its long trunk and short snout were typical of a burrower.
“It’s pretty straight-up adapted for burrowing,” he said.
When Dr Longrich first saw photos of the 19.5cm fossil, now christened Tetrapodophis amplectus, he was “really blown away” because he was expecting an ambiguous, in-between species.
Instead, he saw “a lot of very advanced snake features” including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine – and even snake-like scales.
“And there’s the gut contents – it’s swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature.
“It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It’s just got little arms and little legs.”
At 4mm and 7mm long respectively, those arms and legs are little indeed. But Dr Longrich was surprised to discover that they were far from being “vestigial” evolutionary leftovers, dangling uselessly.
“They’re actually very highly specialised – they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think [these animals] are doing is they’ve stopped using them for walking and they’re using them for grasping their prey.”
The 20cm snake lived about 113 million years ago, at the same time as many dinosaurs
That comparatively feeble grasp, which may have also been applied during mating, is where the species gets its name. Tetrapodophis, the fossil’s new genus, means four-footed snake, but amplectus is Latin for “embrace”.
“It would sort of embrace or hug its prey with its forelimbs and hindlimbs. So it’s the huggy snake,” Dr Longrich said.
In order to try to pinpoint the huggy snake’s place in history, the team constructed a family tree using known information about the physical and genetic make-up of living and ancient snakes, plus some related reptiles.
That analysis positioned T. amplectus as a branch – the earliest branch – on the the very same tree that gave rise to modern snakes.
Neglected no more
Remarkably, this significant specimen languished in a private collection for decades, before a museum in Solnhofen, Germany, acquired and exhibited it under the label “unknown fossil”.
It was there that Dr Dave Martill, another of the paper’s authors, stumbled upon it while leading a student field trip. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 they were principally visiting to see the museum’s famous Archaeopteryx fossil.
“All of a sudden my jaw absolutely dropped, when I saw this little fossil like a piece of string,” said Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth.
As he peered closer, he managed to spot the four tiny legs – and immediately asked the museum for permission to study the creature.
As if these scary-looking creatures weren’t terrifying enough in the water, they’re now falling out of the sky in Alaska. For real.
Locals in Fairbanks have been finding lampreys, foot-long eel-like fish with horrifying teeth, around the town after dropping out of the sky.
One was found in a shop’s car park, while another was found in someone’s garden. Eww.
And why is this horror happening? We hear you cry. Well, it’s all thanks to the local birds, apparently.
According to Seattle’s CBS Local, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game explained what was happening on its Facebook page, writing: “Gulls are picking them out of the Chena River with their bills and then dropping the squirming critters while in flight.
“Arctic lampreys spawn in the Chena River, and live in the mud underwater as juveniles for several years. However, many lifelong Alaskans have never seen one of these fascinating fish up close because their body shape and feeding habits make them difficult to catch.”
They also posted more pictures of the creepy creatures. Look if you dare:
Lamprey latched on to the fish tank glass in Fairbanks ADF&G office.
Scientists probe mysterious wave of antelope deaths
By Rory Galloway
BBC Science writer
Around 120,000 Saiga antelope have died so far
Around half of the world’s critically endangered Saiga antelope have died suddenly in Kazakhstan since 10 May.
An unknown environmental trigger is thought to have caused two types of normally benign bacteria found in the antelopes’ gut to turn deadly.
The animals die within hours of showing symptoms, which include depression, diarrhoea and frothing at the mouth.
Because it is calving season, entire herds of female antelope and their new-born calves have been wiped out.
“They get into respiratory problems, they can’t breathe easily. They stop eating and are extremely depressed; the mothers die and then the calves are very distressed and then they die maybe one or two days later,” said Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College in London.
Prof Kock spoke to the BBC’s Science in Action programme after joining an international team in Kazakhstan studying the causes of the die-off.
The Saiga antelope is a species adapted to cope with the extremes of temperature found on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan. They are about the size of a large sheep and once roamed in their millions from Great Britain to northern China.
Populations have fallen repeatedly due to hunting, reaching a low of around 50,000 individuals after the fall of the Soviet Union. This rendered the species critically endangered.
Hunting brought Saiga numbers to a low of 50,000 in the 1990s
Conservationists have made great progress with Saiga in recent years, due to international efforts to reduce poaching and monitor their populations.
This die-off is a severe setback to the conservation effort because it has wiped out four of the six calving herds in the largest remaining – and best protected – “Betpak-dala” population, in central Kazakhstan.
Steffen Zuther, head of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), was monitoring calving in one of the herds containing thousands of affected animals.
“Over two days [in the herd I was studying] 80% of the calving population died,” he told the BBC.
The whole herd then died within two weeks.
Steffen Zuther has been monitoring herds of antelope in Kazakhstan
About 120,000 individual antelope have died, from a global population of approximately 250,000. Fortunately, mortality rates are now dropping, although the deaths continue in some populations.
“What we’re seeing is sort of a perfect storm of different factors,” Prof Kock explained.
Two different bacteria, pasteurelosis and clostridia, have been found in every dead animal studied. These bacteria are naturally found in the animals’ respiratory and gut systems, so something must have reduced the immunity of the animals.
One possible trigger is climatic. This year a very cold winter was followed by a wet spring, and this may have affected the immune competence of the animals, making them more vulnerable to the bacteria.
This, or some other trigger, pushed the animals past a threshold at which the bacteria overcame Saiga immune defences and became deadly enough to transmit to their calves.
dead antelope and calf
Because of its timing, the wave of deaths has claimed mothers and calves
“There’s no infectious disease that can work like this,” said Prof Kock. He added that the wave of Saiga deaths was not unprecedented. “[This] die-off syndrome has occurred on a number of occasions.”
In 1984, 2010 and 2012 there were massive die-offs, but none of these claimed such a massive proportion of the population. ‘Doesn’t make sense’
Despite these huge losses, Saiga antelope are surprisingly well adapted to recover quickly from population crashes.
“Its strategy for survival is based on a high reproductive rate, so [the Saiga] produce triplets and have the highest foetal biomass of any mammal. It’s built, in a sense, to recover from collapse,” Prof Kock said.
The Saiga’s natural habitat has dramatic temperature fluctuations. “In a very severe winter… you could lose 90% of the population.”
But losing 100% percent of some populations within two weeks “doesn’t make any sense” from a biological or evolutionary perspective, Prof Kock said.
There are five main populations of Saiga remaining in central Asia
Saiga antelope have been a conservation success story after recovering from their critical low in the 1990s. The animals now exist in five locations across central Asia, but all individuals affected by the sudden die-off are from the largest remaining Betpak-dala population in Kazakhstan.
This population consists of six major herds, of which four have been completely wiped out.
Steffen Zuther is going back into the field to investigate more remote populations. He hopes to identify what triggered this population collapse, so he can work to stop it happening again.