Bacteria living on the skin of frogs could save them from a deadly virus

European common frogs – credit Chris Sergeant (ZSL)

Bacteria living on the skin of frogs could save them from a deadly virus, new research suggests.

Ranavirus kills large numbers of European common frogs – the species most often seen in UK ponds – and is one of many threats facing amphibians worldwide.

Scientists from the University of Exeter and ZSL’s Institute of Zoology compared the bacteria living on frogs – known as their “microbiome” – from groups with varying history of ranavirus.

They found that populations with a history of outbreaks had a “distinct” skin microbiome when compared to those where no outbreaks had occurred.

“Whether a population of frogs becomes diseased might depend on the species of bacteria living on their skin,” said Dr Lewis Campbell.

“Ranavirus is widespread, but its presence in the environment doesn’t necessarily mean frogs become diseased – there appears to be some other factor that determines this.

“The skin is often the first infection point in ranavirus, and the first stage of the disease can be skin sores.

“It’s possible that the structure of a frog’s microbiome – the mix of bacteria on its skin – can inhibit the growth and spread of the virus so it can’t reach a level that causes disease.

“While the results of our study demonstrate a clear link between the frog skin microbiome and disease, further research will be need to understand the exact mechanisms which cause this relationship to form.”

Laboratory trials will help establish whether a history of ranavirus infection causes the microbiome differences, or whether these are pre-existing differences that predispose some populations to infection.

The scientists tested the skin bacteria of more than 200 wild adult European common frogs (Rana temporaria) from ten populations.

They found that the microbiome of individual frogs is usually most similar to that of others in the same population (those living in the same geographical area), but that populations with the same disease history were more similar to each other than to populations of the opposite disease history.

Even though amphibians can partially “curate” their microbiome by producing proteins that benefit specific bacteria, they are limited to those bacteria which are available in their environment.

Ranavirus can wipe out entire common frog populations and, though the new findings need further investigation, the researchers hope their work could help the species.

Dr Xavier Harrison said: “There’s growing evidence that skin bacteria may protect amphibians from lethal pathogens such as chytrid fungus, and that we can develop cocktails of probiotic bacteria to prevent vulnerable individuals from contracting disease.

“Our work suggests that given enough effort and research, similar probiotic therapies may be effective against ranavirus.”

Learn more: Skin bacteria could save frogs from virus


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Can forensics save the world’s most-trafficked mammal?

A pangolin, phataginus tricuspis. via Tim Wacher, ZSL

A pioneering new project trials fingerprinting techniques to battle pangolin poaching.

Forensic fingerprinting techniques will now be used in the battle against illegal wildlife trade as new methods of lifting fingermarks from trafficked animals, are announced today.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London), with support from the UK Border force, developed the technology with one particular animal in mind – the pangolin.

Pangolins – also known as scaly anteaters because of their appearance – are found throughout Asia and Africa, but their numbers are dwindling as a result of poaching for international trade.

Around 300 pangolins are poached every day, making these unusual animals the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. Their meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, while their scales are used in traditional Asian medicine. They are also used in traditional African bush medicine. All trade in pangolin meat and scales is currently outlawed under the international CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) agreement.

This new method uses gelatine lifters with a low-adhesive gelatine layer on one side, which are used universally by forensic practitioners for lifting footwear marks, fingermarks and trace materials off various objects in criminal investigations.

In a preliminary trial, the researchers tested the usability of gelatine lifters for visualising finger marks on pangolin scales. Using 10 pangolin scales from several species, supplied by Grant Miller and Tim Luffman of UK Border Force, each scale was gripped by five participants. A gelatine lifter was applied to the scale, removed and scanned using a BVDA GLScanner system which provided 100 fingermarks (one from the front and one from the back of the scales).

The fingermarks were then graded for the presence of ridge detail on the University’s BVDA gel imaging scanner and 89 per cent of the visualised gelatine lifts examined produced clear ridge detail. This means that law enforcement agencies will, potentially, be able to use the mark to identify persons of interest who have come into contact with the scale.

A scanned pangolin scale with a finger-mark visible.

Dr Nicholas Pamment, who runs the Wildlife Crime Unit at the University of Portsmouth, said: “This is a significant breakthrough for wildlife crime investigation. Wildlife trafficking is a significant factor in the loss of habitats and species. While forensic science techniques are being used as part of the investigation process, there is a lack of research looking at ‘what works’ in the context, or within the limitations of the wildlife crime investigation and in the environments where the investigations take place.

“What we have done is to create a quick, easy and usable method for wildlife crime investigation in the field to help protect these critically endangered mammals. It is another tool that we can use to combat the poaching and trafficking of wild animals.”

Christian Plowman, Law Enforcement Advisor for ZSL, said: “This project is a great example of how multiple organisations are working together to not only develop methods that work, but to optimise the methods for use in wildlife crime investigations.

“The initial catalyst for this project were Dr Brian Chappell (University of Portsmouth) and I, both former Scotland Yard detectives, now working in conservation law enforcement for ZSL and the other in academia. This point of uniqueness underlines and enhances credibility for the project and for both organisations.”

Grant Miller, Head of the UK’s National CITES Enforcement Team, said: “We know how prized pangolins are by those engaged in wildlife crime. I am delighted that Border Force has been able to play its part in the development of this method of lifting fingermarks from pangolin scales, technology which will help bring poachers and smugglers to justice.”

The researchers have now developed gelatine lifter packs for Wildlife Rangers in Kenya and Cameroon to help in their fight against illegal poaching of pangolins. Each pack contains 10 gelatine lifters, scissors, insulating packs, evidence bags, a roller and a simple pictorial guide for the Rangers to follow. The field packs for the Kenyan wildlife service were initially provided for the examination of poached elephant ivory and dead elephants killed by poachers.

Jac Reed, Senior Specialist Forensic Technician at the University of Portsmouth, said: ““What is fundamental to this method is its application, it is easy to use and employs low-level technology. This is so important for rangers in the field who need to be able to get good quality fingermarks very quickly to ensure their own safety. It is also important for law enforcement in developing countries who may not have access to more advanced technologies and expensive forensic equipment.”

Learn more: Off the scale: Can forensics save the world’s most-trafficked mammal?



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Space-eye-view could help stop global wildlife decline

Satellite view of Western Australia. Image (c) NASA.

Satellite view of Western Australia. Image (c) NASA.

Conservation scientists need to collaborate with space agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), to identify measures which help track biodiversity declines around the world.

Scientists, led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), UK, and University of Twente, Netherlands, are calling for urgent cooperation, according to a comment published in Nature.

In a move that previously proved successful in helping to monitor climate change on a global scale, scientists believe that space technology could help track biodiversity across the planet. Satellite images can quickly reveal where and how to reverse the loss of biological diversity. Vegetation productivity or leaf cover can, for example, be measured across continents from space while providing information about biodiversity levels on the ground.

Publicly-funded space agencies, including NASA and ESA, already collect and regularly provide open-access to satellite data. However, a lack of agreement between conservation biologists and space agencies on a definitive set of variables to track, as well as how to translate such information into useful data for conservation, has meant that so far this game-changing resource has remained untapped.

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, co-author of the comment and researcher at ZSL, said: “With global wildlife populations halved in just 40 years, there is a real urgency to identify variables that both capture key aspects of biodiversity change and can be monitored consistently and globally. Satellites can help deliver such information, and in 10 years’ time, global biodiversity monitoring from space could be a reality, but only if ecologists and space agencies agree on a priority list of satellite-based data that is essential for tracking changes in biodiversity.

“So far biodiversity monitoring has been mostly species-based, and this means that some of the changes happening on a global-scale may be missed. Being able to look at the planet as a whole could literally provide a new perspective on how we conserve biological diversity.”

Dr Andrew Skidmore, lead author and Professor at ITC University Twente, said: “Satellite imagery from major space agencies is becoming more freely available, and images are of much higher resolution than 10 years ago. Our ambition to monitor biodiversity from space is now being matched by actual technical capacity. As conservation and remote sensing communities join forces, biodiversity can be monitored on a global scale. High tech satellites can assist in conserving biological diversity by tracking the impact of environmental policies worldwide.”

Read more: Space-eye-view could help stop global wildlife decline


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Global bird conservation could be four times more cost-effective

A new map showing the regional effects of climate change when integrated with existing vegetation loss. The most vulnerable regions are a light cream colour via

A new map showing the regional effects of climate change when integrated with existing vegetation loss. The most vulnerable regions are a light cream colour

Targeting conservation efforts to safeguard biodiversity, rather than focusing on charismatic species, could make current spending on threatened birds four times more effective, a new study has shown.

The research, by Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is the first to link the costs of protecting threatened species with their genetic distinctiveness, measured in millions of years of evolution. It identifies the top 20 birds for safeguarding maximum biodiversity with minimum spend, of which number one on the list – Botha’s Lark – currently receives no conservation spending at all.

The researchers focused on some 200 birds categorised in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered, in a study published today [January 5] in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

They found that if conservation spending on these birds continues along current lines, only 85.9 million years of evolutionary history will be safeguarded, compared to a potential impact of 340 million years.

Dr James Rosindell, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, explains: “We found that, spent wisely, £1 can preserve 26 years of bird evolution whilst in the worst-case scenario, it costs £2485 to save just a single year.  So for the cost of a cup of coffee you could probably save a branch of evolution as long as your entire life.  However, if you choose to spend your money poorly, you might only save a few hours’ worth, not much longer than the time it took you to drink the coffee.”

By adapting an approach already in use by ZSL, the researchers categorised the birds in terms of their risk of extinction and their evolutionary distinctiveness, looking not only at how far they had diverged from other species, but also the relative extinction risk of their relatives. For each species they then calculated the number of years of evolutionary history that could be safeguarded for 50 years by conservation action on that species. Finally, they combined these results with the estimated cost of reducing each species’ extinction risk by at least one Red List category within ten years.

The results gave the team a list of the top 20 birds on which conservation efforts should be targeted to maximise the impact of the spend in safeguarding evolutionary biodiversity.

Top of the list was the little known Botha’s Lark, a small brown bird that is only found in a restricted part of South Africa and on which no conservation efforts are made at all. Although not the most genetically diverse of the 200 birds, it gains top place because it would require little investment to protect it, making it a very cost-effective species to target.

The tooth-billed pigeon – a large pigeon with a hooked bill, found only in Samoa – gains second place because it is both evolutionarily distinct and the costs required to protect it are relatively low, although still three times the current spend.

Dr Samuel Turvey of ZSL stresses that this isn’t about stopping work on more high profile species, but about highlighting the benefits of better allocation of resources: “Our study looked at overall global spending for each species, and of course, the situation on the ground is much more complex, with conversation targets chosen for many different reasons. However, if we do believe that preserving biodiversity should be part of our conservation goals, then our study shows that current spending is fundamentally at odds with what we want to achieve.”

Read more: Global bird conservation could be four times more cost-effective


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Conservationists have developed a novel way of choosing perfect new homes for species struggling in changing climate


SCIENTISTS at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have devised a novel method to identify suitable new homes for animals under threat from climate change.

Conservation scientists used their knowledge on species ecology to create habitat suitability maps and correctly identify sites that will remain viable in the future regardless of changing climate. However, the key for success is to understand, and account for, the link between variation in species population size, climate and how the climate may change.

Almost half of all bird and amphibian species are believed to be highly vulnerable to extinction from climate change. Species in extreme or rare habitats such as the emperor penguin in the Antarctic and American pika in the USA have already experienced drastic declines in populations due to the impact of climate change on their home.

As climate changes, many species will need to move to a different location in order to survive. For species that aren’t able to do this naturally, the only chance of survival is a helping hand through the use of translocations.

The research is published today (6 September) in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, ZSL’s climate change coordinator and senior author on the paper, says: “Climate change poses a worrying threat to many animals, and relocating vulnerable species to new and more suitable habitats may be the only way to protect them. However, this is an extreme conservation action, which needs to be thoroughly justified, and requires clear guidance on where threatened populations should be moved. Our research shows how these key requirements can be met.”

The team used the hihi bird as an example because of the conservation success which came after efforts put into its relocation since the 1980s. Yet, despite large investments into its protection, climate change is now posing a significant threat to its future survival.

Dr Alienor Chauvenet, lead author of the study, says: “All current hihi populations are surrounded by either a large stretch of water or unsuitable habitat such as farmland or cities with plenty of non-native predators. This isolation makes it very perilous for them to move and individuals attempting to relocate naturally are unlikely to survive.

“Our work shows that assisted colonisation may be the only way to guarantee the survival of this unique species under climate change,” Dr Chauvenet added.

Read more . . .


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