As if "swine flu" wasn't bad enough, Scientific American is reporting that the Ebola virus has been detected in domestic pigs in the Philippines. The particular strain of the virus, Reston ebolavirus, is not known to cause fatal haemorrhagic fever in humans, but is still rated a class 4 pathogen by the US Center for Disease Control (it's highest rating) because of the extreme fatality rate and absence of effective treatment of the disease caused by other Ebola viruses. One farmhand who worked with the pigs has also tested positive for R.ebolavirus, but is asymptomatic.
In this case it seems like most likely that the pigs caught the disease from the human rather than the other way round. However that pigs can catch and potentially pass on the organism to humans is an unexpected, and worrying, development. Michael McIntosh of the Department of Agriculture expressed concern not only that the Reston strain might mutate into something more deadly in its new host, but that the other disease-causing strains might also be using pigs as a reservoir. "What is the level of risk?" said McIntosh, "We really don't know" (Scientific American Article) (Paper in Science).
Many people joke about it, and there is even a dessert named Death by Chocolate, but it is no laughing matter. A man working at a chocolate processing plant in New Jersey lost his footing, fell into the large melting vat, and was hit in the head by the agitator.
It's hard enough to catch a bite to eat when your prey consists of relatively quick moving land animals. But when you're dealing with tiny, lightning fast fish, what can you do to improve your odds that you'll get a meal? Turn yourself into a tentacled water snake. Scientists at Vanderbilt University used high-speed video to capture images of the snake performing an unusual trick in order to force prey to swim directly into its mouth. The snake will lie motionless, its body in a "J" shape, and wait for prey to swim close. When a fish swims by the curve of the "J", the snake flexes the lower part of its body. The fish senses the movement and turns to swim away from the perceived threat... only to end up directly in the snake's mouth. You can see the slow motion video here. And you can read all about the study here.
Time to point our telescopes of weirdness at "the old country", methinks.
Speaking of old, recent research carried out by the University of Michigan has revealed that US seniors are smarter than their UK counterparts. The study, lead in the US by Kenneth Langa, measured the recall abilities of over 8000 elderly Americans and over 5000 elderly Brits, and found that the yanks scored 1.4 more on the memory tests, out of a possible 24. Langa suggests that part of the difference was due to higher average levels of education and income in the US group, and higher levels of depression in the UK sample, but points out that nothing is certain at the moment. "It's like a view from 30,000 feet" said Langa (New Scientist).
And it's not just British brains that are shrinking, the UK's sheep are getting smaller as well. Because of a trend towards milder weather believed to be due to climate change, Sheep on the Outer Hebridean island of Soay are getting smaller at the rate of 100g/year, say researchers from Imperial College, London. Though it might seem that warmer winters and a greater abundance of food might make for bigger sheep, Tim Coulson, the professor leading the study, points out that fewer weaker and smaller lambs will die over winter, bringing down the average size (Telegraph).
Now, in some good news, UK campaigners have won a second victory in a three-year battle... to bring back a chocolate bar. The "Wispa Bar", made by European confectioners Cadbury, was introduced in 1995 along with a caramel laced version called the "Wispa Gold", only for both to be discontinued in 2003. This prompted some die-hard fans of the bubbly chocolate bar to start a petition to have it go into production again, resulting in a "limited edition" run of the original Wispa last year. When the 40 million bars produced sold out in just 18 weeks, Cadbury decided to relaunch the brand. Not satisfied with just one bar, campaigners have kept up the pressure, causing Cadbury to start producing Wispa Golds "for a limited period," as before. However to some commentators, this latest move looks more like slick PR than grassroots victory (Sky News).