The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

A Very Ukrainian Christmas

As the story goes, many years ago a widow of little means and her children lived in a small, cold hut.  This family did not have much in the way of fancy things or even not-so-fancy things it seems.  One day a tree outside their home dropped a pinecone and it took root in the home.  Excited about having a tree for Christmas the children tended and cared for the tree.  As the holiday approached the family was sad that they had no way to decorate the tree.

Hearing the sobs of the young children the spiders of the household worked together and come morning the children had quite a surprise.

“Mother, mother wake up and see the tree. It is beautiful!” The children exclaimed!

The mother roused herself and saw the shining, gleaming tree before her.  The spiders had spun their intricate webs all over the tree and as the sun rose over the hillside the rays struck the silken strands creating changing them from silk to silver and gold!  From that day on, the widow and her family never wanted for anything.

To this day, in remembrance of this Christmas miracle, Ukrainians decorate their trees with artificial spider webs; welcoming in good luck and fortune for the coming year.

 

To learn more about The Ukraine and Ukrainian traditions check out their webpage.

Scorpion Venom: Let’s Paint Your Brain

Imagine this.  You’re a twenty or thirty-something (or whatever age) parent and an MRI shows your child has a large mass in their brain.  Pretty terrifying right?  Probably beyond terrifying.  Now imagine that the doctors know there’s something there but that MRI can’t find it.  Successful operations depend upon being able to see those cells.  When people talk about finding a cure for cancer what they don’t realize is there is no single “cancer”.  There are many different kinds of cancer with many different potential causes.  I have a grandmother who smoked like a chimney for years and doesn’t have cancer (last I checked) and an aunt (daughter of same grandmother) who has had cancer four times and she never smokes and rarely drinks.  For them, it’s all in their genes.  For others it’s environmental.  The husband of a good friend of mine suffered for quite a long time (I was there helping with care for the last month) as a result of asbestos exposure.  It was long. Painful. And he, his wife, and I desperately wished our state had approved doctor assisted suicide at that time.  Thankfully it since has been legalized.

But I’m getting off track.  My point is this.  Cancer…all of the kinds…F&@king Sucks.  But little by little we are making advancements to help doctors and patients.  Some times from places you wouldn’t expect.

Deathstalker scorpion

Arthropods as a medical boon is nothing new.  But this is quite a doozy.  Scientists in Seattle, WA (home state represent!) have found a way to turn the venom of scorpions – in this instance, the Israeli death stalker scorpion…terrifying name – into a tool with the potential to help save lives.  This story has been floating around for a couple of days and contrary to what some claim or are passing this off as anyway, this technique does NOT cure cancer.  By using molecular techniques to modify the scorpion venom these researchers have been able to illuminate the cancer cells.  Those cells are not always visible on MRI’s and it is imperative that doctors are able to see the correct tissue.  Not only will they be able to remove the affected tissue but they will be able to avoid the normal, healthy tissue.  Not only has this been demonstrated to be useful for brain cancer, but also for breast, colon, prostate, skin, and potentially more.

At about the 8 minute mark (see full 20 min video here) he tells of an instance (in mice) where a location ‘lit up’ but visually appeared to be simply a cluster of fat cells.  Upon removal what was discovered was indeed, it was the fat cells but also a lymph channel ran through that cluster which, inside contained approximately 200 cancer cells.  This detection is about 100,000x’s more sensitive than best MRI’s.  What does this mean?  Surgeons are currently unable to identify all potential locations cancer cells could be present.  By using this fluorescent molecule they could find and remove tissue that would otherwise be missed, thus leaving potentially malignant cells to come back later.

I need to be clear that this is still in the pre-clinical stage but will be progressing to human testing in Australia soon.  This work has been conducted on mice and dogs so far.
Why does this seem to work?  Well, they don’t exactly know.  Something about the paralytic properties of this particular scorpions venom makes it amenable to this process. This question, and discoveries uncovered as a result have led these researchers to look into other products derived from similar sources.  This is of course, not new either.  Aspirin is just willow.  Not the little guy from that awesome 80’s movie.  But actually willow.  Insects and other arthropods have been used before, and will continue to be the source of who knows how many advancements.

So at your family holiday shindig, when your drunk uncle asks you what on earth a degree in Entomology is good for just tell him “curing cancer” and walk away.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Catching (Fire) Bugs: Cinema & Entomology

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I paid way to much to see the opening showing of Catching Fire.  It’s been a while since I’ve done such a thing but here I am.  Sitting in the theater.  But, it’s a Double Feature!!!!  Never mind that I can see The Hunger Games on Netflix any time I want….It’s on Imax!!

Lapses in sanity aside I wanted to take this little 30 minute break between HG and CF to write a little note about personal project that I’ve been working on for some time.  It should come as no surprise that I really like bugs.  I really love cats too (remember, I’m *that* person) but I really like insects and other arthropods.  I also happen to love movies and television.  I find movies and television can tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture.  We don’t only look to cinema for escape, we also look to it for clarity in ourselves.  That, and things blow up…which is freaking cool (I can’t even tell you how excited I am for the next Avengers film…but I digress…

So what’s my personal little project?  Glad you asked….It’s a sort of combination of those things, bugs and movies/tv.  And as I wait for Catching Fire to start up I thought I’d point out a few things that you might have missed from The Hunger Games, both the book and the film.  The film is a rather faithful adaptation to the novel and it succeeds where a number of adaptations fall flat (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I’m looking at you).  Like a lot of films that incorporate arthropods into the script, ours appear as a villain.  But contrary to popular portrayals, the Tracker Jackers double as savior too.  Those stung by these four-winged, stinging villains will suffer terrible hallucinations, pain, and possibly death.  Katniss manages to suffer only troubling visions, unlike some of her competitors. – Is this the point where I should say “Spoilers”? – They also saved her from a potentially deadly situation.  These deus ex machina death-wasps also exemplify an all too common phobia among Western audiences.  Admittedly, this phobia is warranted in some cases (if you’re “deathly” allergic to wasps, it’s not a phobia…it’s legit fear)  Death and insects are paired more than once in the filmic adaptation of Hunger Games.

Chopping down a Tracker Jacker nest.

This may be the point where you get confused.  More than one entomological player in The Hunger Games?  Yup.  But you might not have noticed it.  In fact, the entomologists I’ve talked to about this didn’t even notice it.  This tells me that I’m just that nuts and notice useless information.

The book doesn’t feature this other insect but the filmmakers seemed to make a discernable effort to feature it.  Or, as Mr. Plinkett would say, “You might not have noticed it…but your brain did.”  As Katniss takes her first moments to breathe and settle into the trauma of the arena she sits and surveys her bag.  As the absence of a soundtrack fills the theater we are reminded that she is in a place and time that will see no escape for her.  I say no escape because even if she survives, she will forever carry the experience and themes of the arena with her. – A point made clear throughout the rest of the books and hopefully films. – Death is now her only consistent companion and this is where our little friendly insect comes into play.  She sits.  She absorbs.  And then the cannon.  “The familiar sound of the cannon that marks the death of another tribute” we hear the announcer say.  Paired to the sound of the cannon and the announcers’ cheery tone Katniss finds a butterfly.  A simple black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes: Nymphalidae: Lepidoptera)…female at that.  Butterflies and moths have a long history of being harbingers of death and guides for the dead.  Once again, that purpose is being served.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

 

Screen shot from The Hunger Games.

And, now a little quick note post Catching Fire.  If you’re interested in a review I’ll post one here at RottenTomatoes.  I noticed an interesting continuation of the entomological portrays in this film as well.  When in the jungle environment we see and hear the buzzing of anonymous insects.  But what really struck me was again, a butterfly.  Or rather a lot of butterflies.  **Spoilers???**  As Effie begrudgingly, and sorrowfully reaches for the names from the glass bowls her outfit is another stunning portrayal of the excesses of the Capitol…and of that ancient metaphor for the passing of the soul and harbinger of death.  A dress made completely of butterflies.  The butterflies that adorn her, guide shield her as she is soon to adorn and guide her tributes to the coming slaughter.

So there you have it.  My two cent psychological assessment of the bugs in a couple of movies.  If you think I had fun with this, you can’t imagine the field day I’ve had with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Perils of Air Travel…or, How I got to be put on one of those Do Not Fly lists

As I write this I am (somehow) on the plane flying home.  The Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America was great as always, with many amazing presentations and the spread of arthropophilia (if that’s not a word it should be so Bam!…it is) to young and old.  But that’s not what this little post will be about.  This little post is about my current frustration and experience at a display of arthrophobia and how its pervasiveness almost led to me being kicked off this flight.

At the meeting, as happens every year the company BioQuip was there selling their normal wares including beautifully pined, and live specimens.  On opening night I found myself crowding around with the other fascinated folk, ogling the tarantulas, scorpions and millipedes.  Like many of the attendees, I’m arachnophobic.  Believe it or not, that extra pair of legs can make all the difference in the world.  To be honest, it’s probably more honest to say I am an aranaeaphobe as I don’t mind scorpions, whip scorpions, and such, just the spiders.  So while I was there and feeling the fervor of it all I decided to buy a tarantula.  Not just any tarantula, I purchased a little pink toe.  I also decided to snag a vinegaroon (whip scorpion) whom I promptly named Balsamic.  After chatting with the salesman about transportation considerations I felt confident that getting them home would be no problem and thus began my exciting (but short) tenure as a spider owner.

This is what my very young specimen would have grown to be. Full grown it would be about palm-of-your-hand size

Vinegaroon. Again, mine was small, about a 1.5 inch long body.

I was told that I could technically carry it on or check it but it would probably be better to check it.  The banging around shouldn’t be a problem for them as they were mailed to the conference to begin with and that had to be a heck of a bouncy ride, right?  Still, I was nervous about that and when I returned to my hotel sent an email to TSA asking about traveling through with the tarantula and vinegaroon**.  Their form-letter reply told me that it wouldn’t be a problem, I just had to declare it to the TSA when I got there and comply with requests by the TSO’s (Transportation Security Officers, just fyi) about carrying them and such.  Great!  Right!?!  Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if it had all been that simple.  As it turns out, the Airline gets to trump the TSA on some counts and Southwest refused to let me fly with them…carry-on or checked.

Because I tried to be a good little scientist I asked the Southwest check-in-lady what she recommended, checking or carrying.  After conferring with her boss she said that (or at least my interpretation of what she said) was that they couldn’t check it and TSA wouldn’t let it through.  Well, I had an email from TSA saying the contrary so I figured I would just go on through.  Silly me…..

Once I made it through with no problem I was called over to a Southwest counter and told that “since you went through after being told not to” that I was not going to be flying at all today.  I also had to find some other way to handle the specimens as they were not going to be going on the plane.  I could be booked for the following day but, no spider and no vinegaroon.  A colleague flying on American offered to carry them for me if they would allow it.  American would not.  What about FedEx?  They had a location somewhere in the Austin airport, perhaps I could mail them overnight.  While on the phone with them to set up an account (an insane series of steps that requires you to essentially have your credit report memorized) they told me they would not transport live [sic]  “insects”.  Really?  “We’ve shipped live maggots for forensic analysis through FedEx.  It’s the official service we use per protocol.  You’re not going to ship these?”  – “No.  We cannot ship live animals like that.”  (Post-flight lesson: FedEx will do it for research/institutions only.  UPS ships them no prob).

By this point I think the Southwest boss-type people were feeling bad for me or just frustrated and wanted to get rid of me (leaning more towards the latter on that one) and had relented, saying I could travel today if I figured out what to do with them.  However, at the same time the only things I could think to do with them, whether I traveled today or tomorrow, was to throw them away and to be honest, the thought of that started me tearing up a bit.  What can I say, I can get a bit emotional when it comes to the image of an animal – creepy-crawly or not – being squished by a trash compactor.

So how did I come to be sitting here on a bouncy airplane?  The manager of the Southwest boss-lady said he would take them…and now he has a pet Pink Toe tarantula with no name (Spider-that-shall-not-be-named?) and a Balsamic Vinegaroon.  And I’m spiderless and balsamicless.  A number of lessons have potential to be learned this day, let’s run through those, shall we class:

The responsible thing would have been to contact airline directly when I did the TSA and gotten their point of view.  If I had done this, I wouldn’t have been in this predicament at all and could have found another method of travel for them.

Or

I could have done what the rest of the people probably did; Not say a damn thing and just check them. (this idea was confirmed when a fellow ESA traveler told me and the Southwest-Boss people that a number of his students did the same thing and that he was expecting a FedEx shipment of caterpillars that next day when he got back to his office.)

I’m sure there are other lessons but that’s all I got right now.  Basically I’m out seventy bucks, am spiderless and balsamicless and I’m probably on some Do-Not-Fly list now.  Great.

And here is why I write this…it’s not just to bitch, which I am gladly doing even though I know full well this whole thing could have been averted by taking a simple ten extra steps.  No, why I write this post is the following: There was absolutely NO reason that a fully contained tarantula could not go on a plane.  Southwest will only accept cats and dogs on the planes.  I imagine American is similar.  The tarantula and vinegaroon were securely stored in sealed containers inside my sealed bag.  The odds of them escaping from those containers, crawling through the mass of clothing and out through the hard case are quite small.  I might win the lotto first.  However, the dog behind me in a flimsy cage on my flight down to Austin easily could have if not properly trained/handled.  A dog or cat that is in a heightened state of anxiety (and let’s face it, we’re all in a heightened state of anxiety when we fly, aren’t we?) is far more dangerous than that spider ever could have been.  Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE dogs and cats.  Seriously…I am irrationally in love with cats.  I am THAT person.

The irrational perception of arthropods (be it a spider, whip scorpion, butterfly, or crab) that our society has makes it difficult to have logical conversation and interactions with many people about topics ranging from pest control to gardening and agriculture, to keeping a bloody pet.  I used to be one of those terrified of anything-and-everything spider kind of people, but with experience and education I have learned so much about these creatures that my fear has diminished. – Diminished…not gone –

One of the Southwest boss-ladies asked what I did/planned to do with them: “Besides being “pets” I use them for educational programs, teaching adults and kids about these creatures, helping them understand science and our world.”  I probably didn’t state it that eloquently, but I did my best to get that point across.  The irrational fear of these creatures leads to poor understanding about many aspects of our natural world.   Arthropods are EVERYWHERE!  They are involved in every aspect of our lives, we just don’t think about it.  Be it the mites that keep us clean, the wasps that control cockroaches or garden pests, to the wasps in your Fig Newtons (best part of the Newton if you ask me).  They are everywhere.

I have always liked Southwest and have racked up a decent number of miles with them.  I understand that when it comes down to it I was clearly in the wrong today.  They were just doing their jobs and I do appreciate them letting me on the plane.  What I’m pretty sure I won’t appreciate will be the frequent pat downs that I am undoubtedly going to be receiving every time I travel in the future.

And, for the record, the TSO’s were great and did their jobs well.  Don’t harp on them.  For the other record, I call them Boss-ladies because I have absolutely no idea what their official title was.  I’m sure she told me but I was too frustrated and anxious that I didn’t retain that information.

I hope that guy takes good care of my critters.

**These specimens are cleared as pets and therefore are not subject to in-country regulation the way we control for unknown and known pests.  There is a big difference between bringing a tarantula (which can be purchased at most pet stores) and bringing an unknown caterpillar.

Miss me? Come see me in Austin

Slide2To say I’ve been slacking would be incorrect but I understand you all may be feeling neglected.  I’m about to head to Austin for the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America where I will be presenting both a ten minute talk and a poster.  Let this be a lesson to you my faithful readers…never agree to do both a talk and a poster.

For those who care the talk will be Monday morning some time (I should look that up before it’s too late) and I’ll be rambling about these little caterpillars which cause problems in lawns and golf courses. Yup.  Exciting stuff, eh?  The poster will be up for most of Wednesday and I’ll be there at some point (again, should look into that) to answer your questions.

Sod webworm larvae on bentgrass turf

The poster is an interesting thing.  The way the ESA has their submission process, you submit the abstract and title five to six months prior to the event and once it’s submitted, that’s it.  So you can have the best of intentions, or think you know where things are going to take you…and then you find out that’s not the way things are heading.  The topic of my poster relates to an issue I have regular experience with; Delusory Parasitosis.  I will blog more about this in the days to come but essentially it’s the belief that you are being infested/bitten/attacked, etc. by insects, mites or some other organism.  There are many causes of this phenomena and as an Entomologist I am of course not able to diagnose any of them.  We just look at the signs we can observe and get a good feel for what the situation may be.  One of the hallmarks of this situation is the individuals refusal to accept that the problem could be psychological and thus, will not ever consider the forms of treatment that can bring relief to them.  Making matters worse is the shuffling around of them from doctor to doctor, with entomologists being contacted to confirm the presence (or lack thereof) of some arthropod related cause.  It is both a heartbreaking and headache inducing cycle that seems to have no solution.  At least no apparent solution to fit with current practices.

Slide1

Typical sample submitted by individual appearing to have delusory parasitosis/infestation. Tip I learned early on in my nursing days: if it’s wet and not yours, wear gloves. The same applies to Entomology.

Will a little poster at a silly conference make a difference?  Probably not.  Is it even a good poster?  Probably not.  – Hey…complete doubt of ones abilities is a key graduate student survival component. –  What I hope is to spark interest in finding more applicable solutions.  We can report the same data again and again but what good is that doing anyone?  We know what sorts of samples we receive.  We know who are most likely to come to us with these signs and we know that most likely, nothing we tell them will make them feel better or safer.  What we know, but have thus far been unable to do is get this information out to be used in meaningful and applicable ways.  Maybe I can be a part of changing that.