Fished to the Edge: How DNA Identification Can Help Fight the Illegal Trade of Threatened Shark Species

Whether your first encounter was peering through the thick glass of an aquarium tank or peeking through your fingers in a darkened theater, there is something about sharks that captures our imagination. These fierce, and sometimes fearsome, creatures have existed in our oceans for over 400 million years, and  survived multiple mass extinction events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs. They are not, however, the vicious, vengeful villain that some movies would have us believe. Sharks are apex predators, who play an important role in the world’s ocean ecosystem by regulating the population of prey species below them.  Unfortunately, they are also part of one of the most threatened group of marine fish in the world. Of the more than 400 species of sharks that exist in our oceans today, approximately 15% are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Continue reading

From Dating Apps to In Vitro Fertilization, the Challenges to Saving the Endangered Northern White Rhino

In April of 2017 a profile appeared on the dating app Tinder. Describing himself as “One of a kind”, the poster was 43 years old, not in great physical shape, and yet so sought after he required around the clock body guards. His name was Sudan, and he was the last living male northern white rhino. His keepers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya weren’t expecting Sudan to find love. They were hoping to raise awareness of the species’ dire situation and money for the research and development of an in vitro fertilization (IVF) method for rhinos.

Northern white rhino

With only two remaining, can we save the northern white rhino? © Matt Caldwell / 123RF Stock Photo.

Northern white rhinos used to range over all or parts of Uganda, Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. In the 1960s there were an estimated 2,360 northern white rhinos left in the wild (1). Civil unrest in the region made conservation difficult, and by 2003 poaching and other pressures had reduced the number of northern white rhinos living in the wild to four individuals living in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There has been no sign of that wild population since 2007 (2), and they are considered extinct in the wild as of 2008. Continue reading

A Big Protective Step Forward for A Rare Bee

A rusty-patched bumblebee on Culver’s root in the UW–Madison Arboretum. Photo Copyright: SUSAN DAY/UW-MADISON ARBORETUM

A rusty-patched bumblebee on Culver’s root in the UW–Madison Arboretum. Photo Copyright: SUSAN DAY/UW-MADISON ARBORETUM

Bees have been in the news many times over the past several years. Much of the concern has been focused on the collapse of honey bee colonies because these bees collect nectar to create honey and can be transported for use as pollinators for farmers. Alongside the plight of the honey bee are the declines in the population of native bees in the United States. These bees include insects like the big, fuzzy bumble bees, tiny, iridescent green sweat bees and dark blue mason bees. The native bees live in different conditions. They may be solitary, have a small colony or even nest close together in a communal arrangement, but never in the numbers likely to be seen for a honey bee colony. These lower-density populations can make seeing a change in native bee numbers more difficult. While honey bees have gained the majority of bee decline attention, native bees have suffered dramatic population loss with long-term consequences for the plants they pollinate and the animals that depend upon those plants.

On January 11, 2017, in a landmark decision by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the one of the rarest native bees called the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) has been listed as threatened, and this designation will go into effect February 10, 2017. This is the first bee in the U.S. that has been placed on the Endangered Species list. The rusty-patched bumble bee derived its name from the rust-colored patch found on its back. Continue reading

Of Elephant Research and Wildlife Crime – Molecular Tools that Matter

Here at Promega we receive some interesting requests…

Take the case of Virginia Riddle Pearson, elephant scientist. Three years ago we received an email from Pearson requesting a donation of GoTaq G2 Taq polymerase to take with her to Africa for her field work on elephant herpesvirus. Working out of her portable field lab (a tent) in South Africa and Botswana, she needed a polymerase she could count on to perform reliably after being transported for several days (on her lap) at room temperature. Through the joint effort of her regional sales representative in New Jersey/Pennsylvania (Pearson’s lab was based out of Princeton University at the time) and our Genomics product marketing team, she received the G2 Taq she needed to take to Africa. There she was able to conduct her experiments, leading to productive results and the opportunity to continue pursuing her work. Continue reading

Cold-War Bunkers Enlisted in the Fight Against Cold-Loving Fungus: More on the White-Nose Syndrome Story

Bunkers at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge. photo credit: USFWS/Steve Agius

Bunkers at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge. photo credit: USFWS/Steve Agius

A lot has happened since I first wrote about White-Nose Syndrome, the fungal disease that has devastated bat populations in North America. The disease, caused by the cold-loving fungus Geomyces destructans (now renamed Psuedogymnoascus destructans), has been identified in many more places, including most recently confirmed cases in Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois and Missouri in the United States and Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Controlling the spread of this disease is a tremendous problem, because as I indicated in a previous blog post, keeping a hardy fungus from spreading among a population of densely packed small animals in tiny, cold damp areas is not a simple task.

This problem is going to require creative solutions, and scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may have come up with a great idea that answers two questions: How do you control the spread of White-Nose Syndrome and what do you do with 43 unused Air Force bunkers? Continue reading

From White Rhinos to Snow Leopards: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Offer Hope for Endangered Species

As an animal lover who has been passionate about genetic conservation approaches since I first heard about the “Cheetah papers” over twenty years ago, I am excited at the work highlighted in two papers published in the last year that have begun the process of applying induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technologies to endangered animals (1,2). Continue reading

The Devil is in the Details: Genetic Diversity and the Endangered Tasmanian Devil

If you are of a certain age, the name “Tasmanian Devil” most likely conjures up an image of a ferocious brown hairy cartoon character that traveled in the center of a tornado of chaos. Sometimes, as in this case, the truth is much less strange than the fiction. The real Tasmanian Devils (Sarcphilus harrisii) are relatively small, somewhat cuddly looking, marsupials found only on the island of… you guessed it, Tasmania. Despite their diminutive size, they are the largest living carnivorous marsupial.  Unfortunately, these terrier-sized animals are also in danger of becoming extinct, largely as a result of a deadly, infectious transmissible cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Continue reading

Satellites and Sea Turtles: Can We Save the Last Member of the Genus Dermochelys?

Let me start out by saying: I love sea turtles.  I can’t explain why, but they fascinate me. I have sweatshirts, bags and artwork with sea turtles on them. I even make jewelry with sea turtle themes. Ask anyone who knows me; I have a thing for sea turtles. So when I came across the article “Tracking leatherback turtles from the world’s largest rookery: Assessing threats across the South Atlantic” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (1), all thoughts of writing about anything else were readily dismissed. How could I NOT write about leatherback sea turtles? Continue reading

The Latest On: When Five Hundred Tigers Are Not Enough

Bengal tiger growling

It is sad but true that the latest news has not been promising for wild tiger populations. In September, an article published in PLoS Biology (1) estimated that the best hope of saving the wild tiger population would be to shift focus to source sites, which are “…at spatially well-defined priority sites, supported by proven best practices of law enforcement, wildlife management, and scientific monitoring.” The authors estimate the cost to save these sites at $82 million (U.S). At the time of publication, $47 million had been committed by governments and other groups. It isn’t difficult  math to figure out there is a deficit.   Continue reading

When a Cold, Wet, White Nose Isn’t a Good Thing

Affected bats in a cave in MA. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Affected bats in a cave in MA. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

On February 16, 2006, a recreational caver exploring Howes Cave in Albany, New York, photographed a bat with an unusual white growth on its muzzle. In the few years since that picture was snapped, hundreds of thousands of bats in North America have died from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS; 1,2).

The disease affects hibernating populations of bats, and has been found in the northeastern and eastern United States, as far south as Tennessee, as well as in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario (2).

Some suffering bats are emaciated with little or no body fat and have a characteristic white fungal growth on their wing membranes, ears and muzzles, hence the name “White-Nose Syndrome.” Instead of hibernating all winter, these bats can be seen active in the snow, when there is virtually no food available for them (1,2).

The white fungal growth observed on the bats is the result of infection with a previously undescribed cold-loving fungus, Continue reading