Unleash the Science Hounds: Wolves in Yellowstone, COVID-19 research and obesity, and the Arecibo Observatory

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Wolves and deer populations

A current research project focused on the wolves in Yellowstone National Park is studying the impact predators have on the health of prey animals by picking off sick members of the population, known as the “predator cleansing effect.”

Wolves chasing a deer – Image credit: Supercarwaar – CC BY-SA 4.0

So far the research seems to indicate that the role wolves play by eliminating the sickest animals of a given population, in this case, deer infected with what is known as “chronic wasting disease” helps to limit the spread of the disease and helps to keep the herd healthy.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease found in wildlife like deer, elk, moose, other similar animals in the Cervidae family around the globe. There is concern among researchers that eventually the disease could make the jump to the human population.

In an interview with The New York Times, lead researcher, Ellen Brandell, who is a doctoral student in wildlife biology at Penn State University, and is working in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service, points out that there is currently no known or effective management tool for addressing or controlling the spread of the disease. “There is no vaccine. Can predators potentially be the solution?”

Chronic wasting disease is in the same group of diseases like mad cow disease which affects bovines, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The disease is caused by an abnormal cell protein called a prion, which differs from bacteria or viruses, and cooking the meat of animals infected does not remove or kill the prions. This heightens the concerns of the disease infecting humans who hunt deer and other herd animals.

While the origin of the disease is unknown, Andrew P. Dobson, who has studied predator cleansing and is a professor of ecology and epidemiology at Princeton University, believes the disease is largely due to a lack of scavengers and predators. The disease can remain active in the soil from dead animals for as much as ten years.

Others within the field of wildlife preservation and maintenance have doubts as to whether introducing more wolves and predators would be effective since an animal can be sick for as much as two years before it shows signs of the disease. But Brandell points out that wolves may be able to detect a sick animal by smell or other subtle signs that are not observable by humans.

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COVID-19 and obesity
Implications of recent research on the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, indicates that obesity and the impact of the virus on blood vessels and the vascular system may be larger factors than previously thought.

Image credit: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay

ScienceMag.com reported that weight plays a role in severe infections that resulted in hospitalization, being placed on a ventilator, and death.

In an analysis of peer-reviewed papers that combined the pooled results from nearly 400,000 patients, researchers found that individuals considered to be obese compared to patients of average weight were 113% more likely to be hospitalized, 74% more likely to be admitted to the I.C.U., and 48% more likely to die as a result of contracting COVID-19.

Obesity appears to increase the likelihood of chronic inflammation, weakened immune systems, and blood that has more of a tendency to clot. There is also the psychosocial factor that people who are obese may either avoid medical care or wait too long to seek care due to being stigmatized as a result of their weight. All of these factors combined can contribute to COVID-19 being more severe.

Early research published by The New England Journal of Medicine in May of 2020 indicated that the novel coronavirus had a tendency to cause severe damage to the endothelium, the single layer of cells that line all blood vessels in the body. Though the study was small, examining the lungs from just seven patients whose deaths were caused by COVID-19, the results were consistent with what researchers would find in later studies.

A study conducted by a team of international researchers and published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the U. S. National Library of Medicine and a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in July compared lung tissue of those who had died from COVID-19 to those who were deceased from influenza.

The lungs of COVID-19 patients had nine times as much clotting, as those who died from the flu, and also displayed considerable and severe damage of the endothelium or lining of the blood vessels in the lungs.

While researchers are still not sure if the way the virus attacks endothelial cells is the key mechanism for how the virus functions, it does seem to explain the wide range of symptoms seen in COVID-19 patients–rashes, red lesions on toes and extremities, and clotting throughout the body and vital organs. By attacking the endothelium, which is responsible for a number of crucial functions including controlling blood pressure, preventing clotting, and managing the balance of antioxidants, and deterring pathogens, the novel coronavirus essentially causes them to malfunction and attack the very system they are designed to regulate.

The long-term impact of the novel coronavirus on the endothelium and the overall vascular system is still not known, and even a patient who recovers enough to be taken off oxygen, and eventually sent home can still be at a heightened risk of blood clots which can result in a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions like strokes. For this reason, aspirin and other prescription blood thinners are being used more when it comes to treating COVID-19 patients.

How long it takes for the body’s vascular system to fully recover, and the lasting effects of the disease are still unknown.

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The Loss of Arecibo Observatory

Yesterday various sites reported that the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico had collapsed. The observatory which was one of the largest in the world had been in operation since the 1960s and has been key in a number of discoveries.

Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico – Image credit: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) – CC BY-SA 4.0 

Perhaps one of its more notable discoveries, which helped to strengthen Einstein’s general theory of relativity, was the detection of the first binary pulse in 1974. Physicists Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr. were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for their discovery of this new binary pulsar which held significance for the fields of astrophysics and gravitational physics.

The main feature of the observatory was its radio and radar telescope and massive 1000-foot-diameter radio dish with a 900-ton instrument platform suspended 450 feet above it.

In August one the cables securing the platform to the towers holding it in place snapped and left a large gash in the dish.

Initially, engineers were developing a plan to perform repairs but when a second cable broke on November 6, the National Science Foundation (NSF) which oversees the operations of the observatory made the decision to decommission and dismantle it. Unfortunately, the structure collapsed before teams could begin disassembly and remove the instrumentation.

NSF had hoped to keep the visitor center open and continue the use of the observatory’s other facilities as a research and education hub. It is unclear what the future of the site will be now. Scientists and researchers from around the world mourned the loss of Arecibo.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement, “We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt.”

“When engineers advised NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a danger to work teams and Arecibo staff, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved. Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

The Arecibo Observatory was also the backdrop for several films, like the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” in 1993, and “Contact” in 1997.