Losing One’s Mind in the Amazon

Imagine getting an infection and having your mind taken over, at which point you find yourself in an unknown location, only to die just before a fungus that looks like a plant or a tree grows out of your head for 4-10 days.

Sound far-fetched? Not if you’re an ant or other small insect and happen to call the Brazilian rainforest your home. A few weeks back, scientists announced a new fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani has been found in Brazil, though a very similar fungus has been known about since 1865 and believed to have existed some 48 million years ago, according to fossil research.


(more photos at National Geographic)

The mind control aspect is actually the parasitic fungus changing the ant’s perception of pheromones which makes the ant climb a nearby tree or plant in order that the fungus spores can best pollinate. According to David Hughes, a professor and scientist that has led research teams to study the fungi, “whole graveyards with 20 or 30 ants in a square metre” can be found in certain areas where the fungus grows.

Erection-Giving Spider – Between a Rock & a Hard Place

This news is a bit old (from 2007) but still interesting.

“Brazilian and US scientists are looking into using spider venom as a possible treatment for male impotence. Their investigation follows reports that men bitten by the Phoneutria nigriventer experienced priapism – long and painful erections. A two-year study has found that the venom contains a toxin, called Tx2-6, that causes erection. Further tests are being carried out in the US before the substance can be approved for human use. The results, from the Medical College of Georgia, are expected in a month’s time. The bite of Phoneutria nigriventer, known as the Brazilian wandering spider, is potent and can be deadly in some cases. The Brazilian and US researchers interviewed men who claimed their sex lives had improved after a spider attack. The relevant toxin identified in the venom has been tested successfully on other animals. So far, scientists believe that combining a version of the spider’s venom with an existing drug for erectile dysfunction – such as Viagra, Cialis or Levtra – could produce better results.” – Source

Margay found hanging around in POA

“PORTO ALEGRE – Threatened by extinction, the margay – also known as the gato-maracajá – appeared on Avenida Bento Gonçalves, one of the main throroughfares of Porto Alegre (POA), and quickly became a celebrity. Scared by the gathering of people, the animal was rescued by fire department, although soon enough it should be sent back to its habitat.” – Source

This is just the first little paragraph and already they slipped in little words to guide our perception. In the last sentence, we see the word ‘rescued’ and the phrase ‘sent back to its habitat’ yet no one wonders if where it was found is/was its natural habitat. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we are the ones who should be in trees hiding from the animals but I do think it’s a shame to kill off any species. I just wanted to give a mini-rant for this mini-animal.

The Margay, or Gato-Maracajá as it’s known in Portuguese, is a spotted cat native to Central and South America. It is a solitary and nocturnal animal that prefers remote sections of the rainforest. Although it was once believed to  be vulnerable to extinction, the IUCN now lists it as “Near Threatened”. It roams the rainforests from Mexico to Argentina.

Physical Characteristics

The Margay can weigh about 6.6–20 lbs, have a body length of 18 to 32 in and a tail length of 13 to 20 in. It is very similar to the larger Ocelot, although the head is a bit shorter, the tail and legs are longer, and the spotted pattern on the tail is different. Most notably the Margay is a much more skillful climber than its relative, and it is sometimes called the Tree Ocelot because of this skill. Whereas the Ocelot mostly pursues prey on the ground, the Margay may spend its entire life in the trees, leaping after and chasing birds and monkeys through the treetops. Indeed, it is one of only two cat species with the ankle flexibility necessary to climb head-first down trees (the other being the Clouded Leopard). Its ankles can turn up to 180 degrees, it can grasp branches equally well with its fore and hind paws, and it is able to jump considerable distances. The Margay has been observed to hang from branches with only one foot. The Margay can jump vertically 18 feet and jump horizontally 23 feet.

Here’s a video of a Margay ‘doing Parkour‘ as one commentor stated.

Dengue cure on the horizon?

For those from Brazil, the word ‘dengue’ is more likely than not a household term. Various sprays have been concocted to combat the disease but most mosquitos end up becoming resistant. Scientists in Australia may be found a cure, the story is below…

“Humans could be protected from dengue fever by infecting the mosquitoes carrying it with a parasite which halves their lifespan, say researchers.

Australian scientists, writing in the journal Science, found that Wolbachia bacteria spread well through laboratory-bred mosquitoes.

Only older mosquitoes pass on dengue – so killing them could cut disease.

Experts said it remained to be seen how well the bacteria would spread outside the laboratory.

The virus might also adapt to survive, they added.

Many thousands of cases of dengue fever occur worldwide each year, mainly in warmer tropical countries.

The virus is passed to humans when mosquitoes carrying it feed on their blood, and while there have been efforts to eradicate them using insecticides, these have been fraught with problems, including the ability of the mosquito to become resistant to the chemicals used.

The potential of Wolbachia as a way of controlling mosquito populations has been suggested for some time, but the latest study offers hope – albeit under laboratory conditions – that it might work.”

The rest is here on BBC.

Piranha in Simple English

Since people seem to love the vampire fish of the amazon which I have posted on and mentioned recently. Just now I had an idea to write about more Brazilian animals, etc so I looked up Piranha on Wikipedia and while I was reading I saw an option for a ‘Simple English’ version of the article. Here it is…(see the part I highlighted at the bottom, lol). Very objective, Wikipedia…

Word to the wise, be careful how you use ‘piranha’ in Portuguese, it also means ‘prostitute’.

Lazy Animals – The Sloth

The living sloths (bicho-perguiça in Portuguese, meaning lazy animal) comprise six species of medium-sized mammals that live in Central and South America. Most scientists call the sloth suborder Folivora, while some call it Phyllophaga. Both names mean “leaf-eaters”; the first is derived from Latin, the second from ancient Greek. Tribal names include Ritto, Rit and Ridette, mostly forms of the word “sleep”, “eat” and “dirty” from Tagaeri tribe of Huaorani (Ecuador).

Ecology

The living sloths are omnivores. They may eat insects, small lizards, and carrion, but their diet consists mostly of buds, tender shoots, and leaves, mainly of Cecropia trees. They have made extraordinary adaptations to an arboreal (tree-living) browsing lifestyle. Leaves, their main food source, provide very little energy or nutrition and do not digest easily: sloths have very large, specialized, slow-acting stomachs with multiple compartments in which symbiotic bacteria break down the tough leaves. As much as two-thirds of a well-fed sloth’s body-weight consists of the contents of its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete. These facts tell us that sloths are not only slow-moving, but slow in most other aspects as well.

Although unable to survive outside the tropical rainforests of South and Central America, within that environment sloths are outstandingly successful creatures: they can account for as much as half the total energy consumption and two-thirds of the total terrestrial mammalian biomass in some areas. Of the six living species, only one, the Maned Three-toed Sloth, has a classification of “endangered” at present. The ongoing destruction of South America’s forests, however, may soon prove a threat to other sloth species.

Physiology

Sloth fur exhibits specialized functions: the outer hairs grow in a direction opposite from that of other mammals. In most mammals, hairs grow toward the extremities, but because sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities in order to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down. In moist conditions, the fur hosts two species of symbiotic cyanobacteria, which provide camouflage. The bacteria provide nutrients to the sloth when licked during grooming. Sloth fur is also host to algae; this algae colors the coat green and acts as camoflauge. Because of this algae, sloth fur is a small ecosystem of its own, hosting many species of non-parasitic insects.

Sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly: they have about half as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator (4.5 m or 15 feet per minute), but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. 

They are particularly partial to nesting in the crowns of palm trees where they can camouflage as coconuts. They go to the ground to urinate and defecate about once a week. They go to the same spot each time and are vulnerable while doing so. The reason for this risky behaviour is unknown.

Borrachudo – Flying Under the Radar

In conjunction with my recent posts on Brazilian bugs, here’s the Borrachudo (aka Black Fly in English).

A black fly (sometimes also called pium in Brazil) is an annoying little bug, much like the mosquito, although more silent. There are over 40-50 known species of black flies in Brazil. The majority of species belong to the immense genus Simulium. Like mosquitoes, to which they are related, most black flies gain nourishment by sucking the blood of other animals, although the males feed mainly on nectar. They are usually small, black or gray, with short legs and antennae. They are a common nuisance for humans, and many U.S. states have programs to suppress the black fly population. They are able to spread several diseases, including river blindness in Africa and the Americas. 

They generally fly close to the ground, therefore biting your ankles or hands, assuming they are at your side. The bite mark is bigger than that of a mosquito and in my experience, usually only itches (and it itches a lot) days after instead of the moment after they bite. For this reason, its hard to notice them when they do bite. In Brazil, they stick to wetter areas such as forested regions and especially near waterfalls.

Chagas Disease – Devolution in the Tropics

Chagas’ disease is a human tropical parasitic disease which occurs in the Americas, particularly in South America (see map below). It is transmitted to humans and other mammals mostly by blood-sucking assassin bugs (Trypanosoma cruzi). Other methods of transmission are possible, such as ingestion of food contaminated with parasites, blood transfusion and fetal transmission. 

Trypanosoma cruzi is a member of the same genus as the infectious agent of African sleeping sickness and the same order as the infectious agent of leishmaniasis, but its clinical manifestations, geographical distribution, life cycle and insect vectors are quite different.

Symptoms

The symptoms of Chagas’ disease vary over the course of the infection. In the early, acute stage symptoms are mild and are usually no more than local swelling at the site of infection. As the disease progresses, over as much as twenty years, the serious chronic symptoms appear, such as heart disease and malformation of the intestines. If untreated, the chronic disease is often fatal. Current drug treatments for this disease are generally unsatisfactory, with the available drugs being highly toxic and often ineffective, particularly in the chronic stage of the disease.

History

The disease was named after the Brazilian physician and infectologist Carlos Chagas, who first described it in 1909, but the disease was not seen as a major public health problem in humans until the 1960s (the outbreak of Chagas’ disease in Brazil in the 1920s went widely ignored).

Chagas’ work is unique in the history of medicine because he was the only researcher so far to describe solely and completely a new infectious disease: its pathogen, vector, host, clinical manifestations, and epidemiology. Nevertheless, he believed (falsely) until 1925 that the main infection route is by the bite of the insect – and not by its feces, as was proposed by his colleague Emile Brumpt in 1915.

It has been hypothesized that Charles Darwin might have suffered from Chagas’ disease as a result of a bite of the so-called Great Black Bug of the Pampas. The episode was reported by Darwin in his diaries of the Voyage of the Beagle as occurring in March 1835 to the east of the Andes near Mendoza.

Alternative Infection Route

Researchers suspected since 1991 that the transmission of the trypanosome by the oral route might be possible, due to a number of micro-epidemics restricted to particular times and places (such as a farm or a family dwelling), particularly in non-endemic areas such as the Amazonia (17 such episodes recorded between 1968 and 1997). In 1991, farm workers in the state of Paraíba, Brazil, were apparently infected by contamination of food with opossum feces; and in 1997, in Macapá, state of Amapá, 17 members of two families were probably infected by drinking açaí palm fruit juice contaminated with crushed triatomine vector insects. In the beginning of 2005, a new outbreak with 27 cases was detected in Amapá. Despite many warnings in the press and by health authorities, this source of infection continues unabated. In August 2007 the Ministry of Health released the information that in the previous one year and half 15 clusters of Chagas infection in 116 people via ingestion of açaí have been detected in the Amazon region.

In March 2005, a new startling outbreak was recorded in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, that seemed to confirm this alternative mechanism of transmission. Several people in Santa Catarina who had ingested garapa (sugar cane juice) by a roadside kiosk acquired Chagas’ disease.

Candiru – Vampire Fish of the Amazon

The candiru, also called the carnero fish, is a tiny parasitic catfish that inhabits the waters of South America. They can reach lengths of 1-2.5 in (2.5-6 cm) with a width of 3.5 mm. Their diminutive size and nearly transparent body makes them very hard to locate (not that you would want to). The candiru has sharp bones with a series of spines located around the head used while feeding.

Habitat

The candiru is found only in the Amazon and Oranoco Rivers of South America. They do not like the sun and tend to burry themselves in the mud and sand of the river bottom underneath logs and rocks.

Food

The candiru has a voracious appetite for blood and will parasitize fish, mammals, and humans. One scientist, while holding a candiru, accidently let it enter a small cut on his hand. It could be seen writhing under the skin towards the vein.

To find a fish, the candiru first tastes the water, trying to locate a water stream that is coming from the gills of a fish. Once such a stream is detected, the candiru follows the stream to its new host and inserts itself inside the gill flap. Spines around its head then pierce the scales of the fish and draws blood while anchoring the candiru in place. The candiru then feeds on the blood by using its mouth as a slurping apparatus and while rasping the long teeth on its top jaw.

When candirus parasitize humans, it is usually only when they are skinny-dipping while urinating in the water. The candiru tastes the urine stream and follows it back to the human. It then swims up the anus and lodges itself somewhere in the urinary tract with its spines. Blood is drawn, and the candiru gorges itself on both the blood and body tissue, its body sometimes expanding due to the amount of blood. This is all said to be very painful for the poor person who has this happen to him or her. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible to remove due to the spines. Amputation of the private areas is the cheapest, and most life-changing, way to remove the fish. Actual surgery is extremely expensive and involves inserting the Xagua plant and the Buitach apple up the urethra. These two plants kill and even dissolve the parasitic fish. If surgery is not done in time, the blockage of the urinary tract will prove fatal. The candiru is the only known vertebrate to parasitize humans.

Enemies

The candiru has few, if any, enemies at all, as they are feared throughout their geographic range and are given a worse reputation than the pirhana.