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Mystery rodent in Winnipeg

Mystery rodent in Winnipeg


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I spotted this rodent in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on September 6, 2020.

It is about 10 inches long.

What is it?


That is a Franklin's Ground Squirrel

Winnipeg is part of its range:

Have a look at a gallery of such photos here: https://inaturalist.ca/taxa/179937-Poliocitellus-franklinii/browse_photos


Orthohantavirus

Orthohantavirus is a genus of single-stranded, enveloped, negative-sense RNA viruses in the family Hantaviridae of the order Bunyavirales. [3] Members of this genus may be called orthohantaviruses or simply hantaviruses. They normally cause infection in rodents, but do not cause disease in them. [3] Humans may become infected with hantaviruses through contact with rodent urine, saliva, or feces. Some strains cause potentially fatal diseases in humans, such as hantavirus hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), or hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), also known as hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome (HCPS), [4] while others have not been associated with known human disease. [5] HPS (HCPS) is a "rare respiratory illness associated with the inhalation of aerosolized rodent excreta (urine and feces) contaminated by hantavirus particles." [4]

Human infections of hantaviruses have almost entirely been linked to human contact with rodent excrement however, in 2005 and 2019, human-to-human transmission of the Andes virus was reported in South America. [5]

Hantavirus is named for the Hantan River area in South Korea, where an early outbreak was observed, [6] and was isolated in 1976 by Ho Wang Lee.


Solving the Mystery of an Outbreak Using the One Health Concept

Andrew W. Bartlow, Tanya Vickers Solving the Mystery of an Outbreak Using the One Health Concept. The American Biology Teacher 1 January 2020 82 (1): 30–36. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2020.82.1.30

Zoonotic diseases pass between humans and other animals and are a major global health challenge. Lyme disease, SARS, swine flu, and Ebola are all examples of diseases spilling over to humans from other animals. Students may hear about these outbreaks in the news but learn very little about them in the classroom. We describe an activity designed to teach high school or college students about zoonotic disease outbreaks. This case-based lesson also introduces how habitat disruption can lead to far-reaching impacts on livestock and humans, often indirectly. Collaborative problem solving is used to explore the One Health concept and a real-world spillover event involving Hendra virus. Active learning using a “jigsaw” format to model the value of multiple stakeholders engages students in tracing the path of transmission for a pathogen. The scenario and class activity demonstrate how scientists and health professionals routinely work together to figure out the chain of transmission for a novel pathogen and use this information to limit the spread of disease.

Case-based problem solving fosters critical thinking, builds community in the classroom, and provides an opportunity to model the scientific process while also introducing or reinforcing fundamental scientific concepts. This is especially valuable in science, where lectures and passive learning can dominate the classroom experience. Using cases that are current and that highlight the nature of science is time-consuming and may require more specialized knowledge, which can limit regular implementation of this pedagogical approach in the classroom (Allchin, 2013). While the term zoonosis may be unfamiliar to students, recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika viruses have been highlighted in the media and are likely to be familiar. Complex disease cases that are relevant to humans offer a strong tool for motivating curiosity. Host–pathogen interactions are some of the most fundamental and fascinating interactions in ecology and are used as model systems to understand core concepts in ecology and evolution, including coevolution, population genetics, and community ecology (DiBlasi et al., 2018 Phillips et al., 2018).

The term pathogen refers to biological agents that cause disease. Pathogens can be bacteria, viruses, fungi, or protists. Larger organisms such as helminths, ticks, and fleas are typically called parasites and are generally treated in a manner that is separate from approaches used to control bacteria and viruses. Ticks and fleas can also be vectors for bacteria and viruses, such as Yersinia pestis (a bacterium vectored by fleas that causes plague) and Powassan virus (vectored by ticks). Parasitism is one of three interactions collectively known as symbiotic associations, the other two being mutualism and commensalism. Parasites and pathogens are often ignored as teaching tools in high school classrooms and introductory college biology courses (AAAS, 2011), even though these topics are genuinely interesting to students because of the “gross” factor. Giant worms, parasitic wasps, and leeches evoke comparisons to movies and conjure images of dense tropical jungles. New and less familiar diseases are becoming a problem for humans residing in locations that may be distant from the origins of a pathogen because of globalization, habitat encroachment, and a changing climate (Jones et al., 2008 Thompson, 2013).

Zoonoses are diseases transmitted from other animals to humans and pose a threat to human health. Most emerging and reemerging zoonotic diseases have occurred recently (Jones et al., 2008), leading scientists to study reasons why. Climate change, deforestation, and new interactions among species are all known to be major drivers of the emergence of these diseases. Anthrax and Zika virus are zoonotic, as are Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Avian (H5N1/H7N9) and swine influenza (H1N1) have recently infected humans, resulting in large outbreaks. In fact, all human influenza viruses are zoonotic in origin. Some of the most virulent human pathogens are zoonotic, such as Ebola virus, Marburg virus, and rabies. Vector-borne diseases (e.g., Lyme disease and plague) can also spill over from other animals into humans. When an outbreak of unknown origin occurs, it is up to doctors, veterinarians, health officials, and epidemiologists to identify the pathogen and trace the path of transmission in order to protect public health by stopping the spread of disease. Teamwork is required to piece together the chain of transmission. Once this information is available, mitigation strategies can be put into place by local, regional, and global health organizations (Jones et al., 2008).

The One Health concept represents an integrated approach to studying human, animal, and environmental health in an effort to identify and solve urgent and complex health issues. A major goal of the initiative is to prevent health issues from arising by promoting interdisciplinary collaborations at local, regional, national, and international scales. The collaborative movement aims to bring together individuals from all aspects of health and environmental sciences. Zoonotic diseases are at the forefront of the One Health mission because they span the human–animal interface and are affected by environmental issues, such as deforestation and climate change (Thompson, 2013). One Health involves the cooperation of doctors, veterinarians, wildlife biologists, farmers, land developers, policymakers, and many other stakeholders (Atlas et al., 2010). Teaching the One Health approach to high school and college students is essential for successfully ushering in the next generation of health professionals, scientists, and policymakers.

Here, we describe an activity that can be readily adapted for high school and college science classes. This activity uses zoonotic diseases as the basis of inquiry and investigation. After completing the activity, students will (1) understand symbiotic interactions, (2) understand pathogens and zoonotic diseases, (3) appreciate how globalization and habitat encroachment increase the risk for spillover events, (4) appreciate the value of collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach in investigating outbreaks, and (5) develop oral communication skills that are relevant to scientific collaboration. This low-cost activity requires minimal preparation and can be completed in one hour or extended over several. It can be done with several different zoonotic disease outbreak scenarios and is scalable so that these concepts can be taught not only to students, but to doctors, veterinarians, and policymakers.


Mystery surrounds ouster of Chinese researchers from Canadian laboratory

Canadian researchers are reacting with puzzlement to the news that a “policy breach” has caused the nation’s only high-containment disease laboratory to bar a prominent Chinese Canadian virologist, her biologist husband, and a number of students from the facility.

On 5 July, officials at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Canada, escorted Xiangguo Qiu, biologist Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of her students from the lab and revoked their access rights, according to Canadian media reports. The Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, confirmed it had referred an “administrative matter” matter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but said it would not provide additional details because of privacy concerns.

A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China. (All of the researchers involved are believed to be Asian.) But Frank Plummer, a former scientific director of NML who left in 2015, says the lab isn’t an obvious target for academic or industrial espionage. “There is nothing highly secret there, and all the work gets published in the open literature,” he says. “I don’t know what anyone would hope to gain by spying.”

The lab works in a wide range of biomedical fields. Qiu is known for helping develop ZMapp, a treatment for Ebola virus that was fast-tracked through development during the 2014–16 outbreak in West Africa. She has repeatedly been honored for her work on that project, including with a Governor General’s Innovation Award last year.

“While I was there [Qiu] was always highly regarded as a scientist,” says Plummer, adding that he was “shocked and puzzled” when he heard she was being investigated. “She maintained connections with China, but as far as I knew she was a regular Canadian scientist.”

Cheng, Qiu’s husband, also worked as a biologist at NML. And both researchers held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. It says it has terminated their positions and reassigned their students as a result of the investigation.

Neither Qiu nor Cheng could be reached for comment.

The development comes at a sensitive time for relations between Canada and China. In December 2018, Canada arrested Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States. In retaliation, China has arrested two Canadian men on espionage charges and sentenced a third to death for drug offenses.


Ironing out the details: How Using Sustainability as a Design Principle Can Lead to Fundamental Advances and Practical Innovation in Synthetic Chemistry David Herbert Friday, June 25, 2021 3:00 PM – 3:30 PM Virtual Public Science Talk and Q&A Everyone is welcome to join! David E. Herbert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of.

MAY 17, 2021 — Ken Jeffries is an assistant professor of biological sciences in the Faculty of Science who seeks to leverage the use of high-resolution genomics approaches to obtain new insights that will facilitate the rational management of key organisms in aquatic ecosystems. Jeffries is the 2020 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh.


Consider the Rats: On the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of the City’s Most Reviled Rodent

New Yorkers love to hate their rats, shuddering whenever a pointy nose or a scaly tail peeks from behind a trash can or subway rail. So visitors to the First Street Green Art Park on New York’s Lower East Side were surprised one Saturday this past May when they came upon five street artists painting larger-than-life murals celebrating the city’s most reviled rodent—a rat giving the peace sign, a rat snuggled contently amid a vegetable ratatouille, a rat with an NYC baseball cap and a spray can, rats looking, well, cute.

The unusual project, “Street Art for Street Rats,” was intended to bring attention to the research of Fordham biology professor Jason Munshi-South, Ph.D., and his graduate students, who have spent the past four years trying to understand the species that, perhaps more than any other, has adapted itself to live side-by-side with humans in the urban environment.

“You’d think rats are so common, we’d know all about them, but in fact we don’t know very much about their ecology or evolutionary biology,” Munshi-South says.

Biologists don’t even know how many rats live in New York City. Estimates range from 250,000 to 2 million. Yet, argues Munshi-South, rats are as important to study as any other species, if not for their extreme resilience and adaptability, then for the insights into how we can fight back against the damage they cause and diseases they spread.

Fordham evolutionary biologist Jason Munshi-South (Photo by Dana Maxson)

With the help of $670,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, Munshi-South and his students have helped lift the veil of mystery to reveal the inner workings of New York’s rat population.

“The initial idea was to understand what a New York City rat is, from all ecological and evolutionary angles,” says Munshi-South. But the project soon expanded globally to examine where rats were coming from and how they got to New York. The lab put out a call to labs across the globe, and dozens of researchers from as far away as Japan and the Galápagos Islands sent in the genetic signatures of the rats in their neighborhoods—more than 300 samples in all. “It grew into an effort to understand the evolutionary history of rats all over the world,” he says.

A Long Global Journey

Other animals have adapted to live in cities—birds, mice, wild turkeys, and coyotes, for example, have moved into urban green spaces across the country. But rats may be the most successful at exploiting the human environment, says Matthew Combs, a Ph.D. student in Munshi-South’s lab. They’re also highly social animals that, once they establish a colony, reproduce and expand rapidly, learning from one another where to find the best sources of food—and which danger spots to avoid. “They are able to take advantage of all the resources we provide, even in the face of all our attempts to eradicate them,” Combs says.

In order to trace the journeys of rats around the world, the biologists in Munshi-South’s lab have availed themselves of recent advances in genetic research and data analysis.

“Anytime a population undergoes major changes, when it shrinks or expands or mixes with other lineages, it leaves a residue in the genome,” explains Munshi-South, who has been teaching at Fordham since 2013. To detect those residues, the lab uses a “big data” approach. Rats have some 2.7 billion base pairs in their genome. Using techniques developed for the Human Genome Project, the researchers are able to show through successive subtle gene variations which rats are related to which others, tracing their progression across both time and space.

The New York rat is known by many names, including the common rat and the brown rat. But its official name, the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), is a misnomer. Emily Puckett, a postdoc in Munshi-South’s lab who analyzed more than 300 rat DNA samples from 30 countries, discovered that the species actually originated in Mongolia, transitioning from forests to farms to villages as they adapted to human food sources—probably thousands of years ago, with the advent of agriculture. From there, they expanded both east to Japan and western North America, and west to Europe, where in the 1700s they stowed away on British ships bound for the bustling port of New York.

A Feisty, Unwelcoming Breed

To examine the history of rats closer to home, Munshi-South and Puckett got permission from the American Museum of Natural History to extract DNA from 100-year-old rat skulls and skins as a supplement to the samples they gathered from all over the city. They published their findings, the first in-depth study of its kind, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the flagship biological journal of the U.K.’s Royal Society.

While Munshi-South expected to see evidence of many waves of rat immigrants mixing in New York over time, mirroring the story of its human immigrants, that turned out not to be the case. In fact, all of the rats of New York can be traced to that initial wave in the 18th century, with little mixing with new arrivals since.

“We think that once rats get established and build big, healthy colonies, it’s hard for new rats to integrate and breed into the population,” he says. In other words, New York’s rats are so aggressive they fight off any newcomers. “That’s good news” for humans, he continues. “We are not at risk of novel diseases from a lot of new rats mixing with the local population.”

Combs has picked up the trail from there, looking at how rats are moving within New York. On any given day, he can be found setting and checking traps in every ZIP code of Manhattan, a difficult task given how adept rats are at avoiding danger. So far, he and his colleagues have caught more than 550 rats and produced genetic data for 250 of them since the start of the study.

“Most of the rats I trap are juveniles, only a couple weeks or a couple months old,” he says. “Those are the only ones foolish enough to walk into my traps.”

Fordham doctoral candidate Matthew Combs at the “Street Art for Street Rats” event he organized to help educate the public about the ecology of rats. (Photo by B.A. Van Sise)

To find his quarry, Combs targets out-of-the-way spots behind trash cans and in the corners of parks, looking for telltale signs of burrows, pellets, or the greasy smudge marks from sebum, oil of their fur that marks well-traveled pathways. He often receives help from residents hanging out on sidewalks or stoops who are only too happy to tell him where the rats live in their neighborhoods—sometimes even letting him into their backyards to trap them.

Once he traps the rats, he brings them back to the lab where he extracts DNA samples and analyzes them for differences. So far, his research has revealed rats to be creatures of habit, rarely venturing more than 30 to 150 meters from their colonies. When they do stray, they tend to head north and south, possibly following the long, unobstructed paths of sewers and subway lines. As a result, a subtle north-south genetic gradient exists along the island, with a break in midtown.

“There seems to be an uptown group of rats and a downtown group of rats, with less movement around the midtown region,” says Combs. That break may be due to the neighborhood’s lack of residential buildings and green space, impeding their progress.

The next step in the research is to use computer models to ask what environmental attributes—such as water sources, open soil, sewers, and subway lines—determine how rats are distributed within the space. In addition, Combs will look at demographic patterns of rats’ human neighbors to see if, for example, rats are more prominent in socioeconomically depressed areas, as some research suggests.

Controlling Threats, Debunking Myths

In addition to its intrinsic value in understanding a species that lives so closely with humans, the project has public health implications. Rats can be a menace, damaging infrastructure and spreading diseases such as salmonella and leptospirosis to dogs and humans. If city officials are better able to understand where rats are coming from and how they get around, they can better control how they spread. Munshi-South has been collaborating with the New York City health department to help officials refine their strategy for exterminating rats. While much of that work remains confidential, Munshi-South says that part of the project is locating major reservoirs of rat colonies from which the rats might be spreading.

At the same time, Munshi-South’s lab has continued collaborating with researchers in other cities. Just as humans have built different urban environments, so too might rats adapt to them differently, following different patterns of movement in the open spaces of New Orleans, the parks of Vancouver, or the favelas of Salvador, Brazil. Researchers from all three cities have recently visited Fordham to compare notes and research techniques that will help tease out the ecological differences of rats, which may be just as pronounced as the cultural differences of the humans they live with.

The recent “Street Art for Street Rats” event was conceived by Combs as a way to help educate the public about the ecology of rats in all its complexity. The spark came when he ran into Jonathan Neville, a friend from his undergrad days at Hamilton College, who is a co-founder of the Centre-fuge Public Art Project, which works to “transform neighborhood eyesores” with vibrant murals.

Graffiti artist Yu-baba with her mural in progress at “Street Art for Street Rats.” (Photo by B.A. Van Sise)

While the artists were painting, Munshi-South, Combs, and others from the lab were on hand to teach passersby about how they use genetics to trace the journeys of rats around the city. And they debunked some common myths, such as the misconception that there are more rats than people in New York (actually, they say, there are 250,000 to 2 million rats, compared to 8.4 million humans) or that rats are able to squeeze their skeletons flat (though they can fit in tight spaces). Even so, they realize there are limitations to the average New Yorker’s tolerance.

“A lot of people do respect them and think they are fascinating,” says Combs, who likes their feistiness and adaptability. “But if someone thinks they are a scourge and is just interested in getting rid of them, I won’t try and change their mind.”

—Michael Blanding is a journalist and the author of two books, including The Map Thief (Avery, 2014).


Looking to the future

Although our knowledge of spiny mouse reproductive biology is in its infancy, what we do know is very encouraging.

This study is further proof for the unique reproduction of the spiny mouse and adds to the growing list of reproductive traits we share with this fascinating species. Not only do spiny mice have human-like menstruation, but this recent study demonstrates similarities of endometrial growth, receptivity and the critical role of spiral arteries during early pregnancy of menstrual species.

Further research into spiny mouse reproductive biology may reveal new treatment options for pregnancy complications. In turn, this could change how we treat and monitor pregnancy and lead to better outcomes.


Death by irony: The mystery of the mouse that died of smoke inhalation, but went nowhere near a fire

I looked through the microscope at the insides of a dead smoky mouse, and could barely believe my eyes. Thousands of tiny smoke particles lined its lungs. But the mouse had been kept more than 50 kilometers from the nearest bushfires. How could this be?

As it turned out, the critically endangered mouse had died from smoke inhalation. Some 45 had been held at a captive breeding facility near Canberra. Nine ultimately died—the first recorded wildlife in the world killed by bushfire smoke far outside a fire zone.

The deaths were a blow for conservation efforts. But in recent weeks, there's been good news: smoky mice have been spotted at seven sites burnt in the fires. For now, at least, the species lives on.

A unique, bulgy-eyed rodent

The smoky mouse is shy, gentle and small—usually about nine centimeters in body length, plus its tail. They are rather cute, with bulgy eyes and very soft gray fur which inspired the species' name.

In the wild, the smoky mouse is limited to a few sites in Victoria's Grampians and East Gippsland, as well as in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. It lives in underground communal nests, in heath and forest habitats.

Ancestors of the smoky mouse arrived in Australia more than five million years ago when the Australian continent finally drifted close enough to Southeast Asia for rodents to raft across.

The smoky mouse case shows bushfire smoke can affect wildlife far from the fire zone. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

These ancient rodents diversified into more than 50 species. Many, like the smoky mouse, are in decline. Others, like the white-footed rabbit-rat have already become extinct.

Several threats are reducing smoky mouse numbers, but feral cats and foxes are a major cause.

Some 119 animal species were identified for urgent conservation intervention following the fires. The smoky mouse was among them. Modeling showed 26% of its distribution overlapped with burnt areas, and in NSW more than 90% of the species' habitat burned.

I am a wildlife health and pathology expert based in Wagga Wagga in NSW, and part of my job is to diagnose why animals have died. The first dead smoky mouse I encountered had come from a Canberra breeding facility. It was sent by a vet and arrived via courier in mid-January.

Baby smoky mice photographed in 2017 at the captive breeding facility. Credit: Office of Environment and Heritage

In a note attached, the vet suggested bushfire smoke had killed the smoky mouse—and asked, in a nod to the species' name, if this was a case of "death by irony."

Canberra, like many other cities and towns, was shrouded in thick smoke in January. But the breeding facility was more than 50 kilometers from the nearest fire zone, so I thought the vet's theory was unlikely.

When I and other veterinary pathologists examined organs of the mouse under the microscope, the only abnormality we could find was fluid and congestion in the mouse's lungs.

Over the following month, eight more smoky mice died. I inspected the lungs of one—to my shock, it contained thousands of brown smoke particles. Once I knew the distribution of particles to look for, I found them in most of the other dead mice too.

The mice didn't die immediately after inhaling the smoke. They hung on, but when temperatures in Canberra spiked at more than 40℃, they went into respiratory distress and died.

  • Through the microscope: smoke particles in the lungs of a smoky mouse suffering smoke inhalation.
  • Seven smoky mice have been spotted in the wild since the bushfires. Credit: Museums Victoria

Death from smoke inhalation has long been suspected in wildlife. But it's poorly recorded because after bushfires, the bodies of dead animals are usually incinerated or too decomposed to make a diagnosis.

The smoky mouse case shows bushfire smoke can damage wild animals far beyond fire zones. That means the impact of bushfires on wildlife may be greater than we thought.

There is hope for the smoky mouse. Motion-sensing cameras set up in Kosciuszko National Park after the fires have recorded smoky mice at seven burnt sites. Over the next year, more sites will be surveyed to better understand how many individuals remain, and where they live.

Most smoky mice at the Canberra captive breeding facility survived, and there are plans to release some into the wild. This captive breeding program has also been identified as a priority for federal funding.

But as global warming escalates, fires in Australia are predicted to become even worse. Now more than ever, the future of the smoky mouse, along with many other Australian animals, hinges on decisive climate action. Captive breeding programs and blind hope will not be enough.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Mystery Mammals of Japan’s Rivers

The waterways of Japan have long been home to many mysteries, with a large number of accounts of various strange creatures lurking in the depths of Japans rivers, lakes, and coasts. Among such bizarre reports as reptilian serpents, merbeings, and giant fish, we can find a particular grouping of water cryptids in Japan that seems to sit in a category all its own mysterious animals that, due to their behaviors or appearance, seem to most closely match some kind of mammal in nature.

The possibility of a new large mammal lurking so close to civilization is a tantalizing one, and worth investigating, so here we will look at a sampling of such creatures seen in the rivers of Japan.

In 1973, one such creature found an apparently temporary home in the Edo River near the city of Matsudo, in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. During this period, there were over a hundred sightings of a mysterious seal-like creature lurking in the river that affectionately came to be known as the Matsudodon. The creature was said to be around 2 meters (around 6.5 feet) long and similar to a seal in appearance, although with longer limbs, more pronounced claws, and a cat-like face. The tail was also said to be a bit longer and thinner than that of a usual seal.

An artist’s representation of the Matsudodon

The mysterious animal was reputed to be not particularly shy, and even displayed what can only be described as almost playful behavior on occasion. One fisherman described how the creature emerged from underwater right in front of him and seemed to watch him for several minutes as it casually swam back and forth while spinning in the water before apparently losing interest and slipping back under. Although certainly unnerved by the encounter, the fisherman described how he did not feel particularly threatened at the time.

Another eyewitness strolling along a riverside trail reported seeing the creature out in the water doing playful rolls and slapping its tail against the water. One jogger also reported seeing it apparently playing with a piece of floating garbage, batting the refuse around with its nose and tossing it up in the air.

In addition to startling fishermen and being seen frequently by people out for a walk, one remarkable sighting happened near a bridge where a crowd of people looked on in astonishment as the strange animal leisurely cavorted in the water below and let out cat-like mewling noises.

Rarer sightings were made of the creature out of the water on the river bank, apparently basking in the sun.

The Matsudodon was only seen during a short period during 1973, after which sightings abruptly stopped and it apparently just disappeared. No one knows what became of it after that. This has led to speculation that it most likely was a creature from the sea, perhaps some sort of unknown pinniped that had become lost and made its way up the river before moving on or even perishing.

Not all such creatures had the apparently harmless disposition of the Matsudodon. An older account from 1834 tells of a group of samurai who were attacked by an unidentified monster in the Inba marsh area of Chiba prefecture.

The men were digging a canal when they they stumbled across a large, seal-like creature in the reeds and muck of the marsh. It was described as being around 5 meters (16.5 feet) long, with a heavy set and muscular seal-like body, thick leathery skin, and clawed flippers. The face was said to be like that of a monkey, with a squashed nose, heavy brow, and a mouth full of formidable fangs.

Whatever the monstrous thing was did not want to be found, and it turned out to be highly aggressive. According to the account, upon being found it immediately sprang up out of the mud and reeds with startling speed to savagely attack the group, killing twelve armed samurai in the process.

The stunned group of samurai reportedly fought back and were eventually able to drive the thing off, leaving bloodied bodies and grievously injured men in its wake. A subsequent search was attempted to locate and kill the beast after the men had regrouped, but they were unsuccessful. They found only crushed reeds from the creature’s escape and blood from either an injury it had incurred during the confrontation or from the men it had killed or mauled.

Not to be outdone in terms of ferocity, an unidentified river in Japan was once said to be inhabited by a population of strange seal-like creatures said to attack and disembowel anyone who came across them yet leave the bodies uneaten, possibly due to being attacks out of territoriality rather than for food. The animals were described as being 4 to 5 feet long, with scaly, fish-like bodies and human looking manes of hair on their heads and necks. They were said to often haul themselves out of the water to congregate on the banks of the river where they would engage in rowdy, boisterous behavior, playing and fighting amongst themselves while filling the air with their barking cries.

While many of these accounts of unidentified mammalian river creatures seem to describe something almost like some sort of pinniped, this is not always the case.

During the 1960s and 70s, there were a good number of reports of what startled eyewitnesses described as aquatic creatures that resembled giant rats the size of large dogs along various rivers in Japan. The creatures were always seen in or nearby rivers and mostly seen at night, with some reports mentioning eyes that reflected light like those of a cat.

Although mostly said to have the appearance of very large rats, the creatures were very proficient swimmers and were mostly sighted in the water. When seen on land, some eyewitnesses claimed that the creatures would hiss loudly if surprised before scurrying into water to dive into the depths.

It is now mostly believed that what people were seeing were most likely nutria, also called coypu (Myocastor coypus), which are very large rodents originally native to South America that typically live along rivers and in marshlands. Although not native to Japan, nutria were introduced here in 1910 as a source of fur. When fur prices dropped, many of the fur farms which had sprouted up around the country went under and subsequently released the nutria into the wild. Since that time, the population of wild nutria in Japan has skyrocketed and they are considered to be a real threat to wetland habitats all over the country.

Are these reports merely sightings of nutria or is there a possibility of an as yet undiscovered creature roaming Japan’s rivers? Whether the reports describe nutria or something more mysterious, coming across a giant hissing rat emerging from the inky depths of a nighttime river is certainly a chilling thought.

Frolicking seal creatures, samurai slaying beasts, giant river rats, all of these have in common the fact that they seem to describe aquatic or at least semi-aquatic mammals. In the last 100 years, there have been various discoveries and significant developments concerning large creatures of the deep.

We have the rediscovery of the coelacanth in 1938, the discovery of the megamouth shark in 1976, the first ever video footage, or any photographic evidence of a live specimen ever for that matter, of a live giant squid in 2001, the list goes on. However there are very few new large mammals on that list indeed. It is exciting to think that perhaps one is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.


Mystery solved: Where the penis comes from

It’s not a question a lot of scientists ponder out loud, but it’s key to much of life on Earth: Exactly how does the penis form? Today, two teams of researchers report having solved one part of this mystery, pinpointing how the organ gets its start in snake, lizard, mouse, and chick embryos. Now that they understand the penis’s origin, researchers can track its development in more detail to understand what drives it to follow a different path in females and become a clitoris. The finding doesn’t just answer a biological conundrum it could also help millions of people born with genital malformations.

In the first study, Harvard University developmental biologists Cliff Tabin, Patrick Tschopp, and colleagues traced penis development in mouse, lizard, chick, and snake embryos. They also analyzed the gene regulatory networks that orchestrate this process. They pinpointed the cells destined to become the penis, but those cells differed depending on the species studied, they report online today in Nature. In snakes and lizards, the penis arises from what will become—or, in snakes, would have been—the beginnings of the back legs, whereas in mice, some of the cells destined to become the tail take on that task. Penis formation in the chicken involved cells from the would-be tail and the would-be hindlimb, the team reports.

What was common to all of these animals was the role of the cloaca, a cavity destined to become the lower part of the gut. Signals from the cloaca initiate penis formation in each animal. But as in real estate, location is everything. The rodent cloaca is back by the tail-to-be and taps some nearby cells for the penis, whereas the snake cloaca is close to where two limbs used to sprout. Hence, the snake gets two penises instead of just one, (though it uses just one at a time during mating), Tschopp says. When the researchers attached cloacal tissue to other parts of the chick embryo, they saw the buds indicative of penis growth where they should not have otherwise formed. They did not let the chick develop beyond this point. “Wherever you put the cloaca, that determines what cell types you recruit,” Tschopp explains. The work “highlights the important role of the cloaca in the earliest events involved, which I think has been underappreciated,” adds Marty Cohn, a developmental biologist at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, who performed a separate study.

In that work, he and UF colleague Ana Herrera tagged different cells of a chick embryo with a fluorescent marker and followed those cells as they proliferated. They discovered that the ones that turned into either a penis or a clitoris started out as two groups of cells on opposite edges of the embryo when it was still a flat sheet. As that sheet curls up and joins to close the body wall and make a 3D embryo, the two sets of cells meet in the middle, the duo reports today in Scientific Reports. Each group of cells forms a bud, and these two buds merge in the chick to form a single penis. In snakes, the buds may remain separate to form their dual penises. In people, defects in the genital organs may arise when the body wall doesn’t close properly, Cohn says.

The two groups agree that the cells that form the penis start out at the outer edge of the embryo and that they are closer to the tail in the mouse and chicken than in the snake. But they don’t agree on whether those first cells are part of the pool of cells destined to become a limb or tail or whether the cells belong to a separate, nearby pool that is already specialized to become the penis. “I think they are adjacent populations,” Cohn says.

Regardless of this difference of opinion, these new insights into how the penis gets started in the embryo are impressive, says Gunter Wagner, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University who was not involved with either study. “It’s seems like a pretty complete story to me.” For him, the work begins to address the question of how novel anatomical structures arise in evolution. And in that respect, he adds, “it’s a big advance.”

Elizabeth Pennisi

Liz is a senior correspondent covering many aspects of biology for Science.


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