The history of Systematics: Animals in Systema Naturae, 1758 (part 1)

by Piter Kehoma Boll

A long time ago, I wrote a post on how the classification of living beings in kingdoms have evolved since Linnaeus until the modern days. It was a brief introduction, not intended to detail it at levels below kingdom. Here, I intend to start a new series of posts where I’ll present the classification of life forms in lower levels. Each post will present a more recent classification compared to the previous one, so that you can see how things evolved through time.

So, let’s start again with Linnaeus, more precisely with the 10th Edition of his work Systema Naturae. This edition is the starting point of zoological nomenclature and was published in 1758.

In the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus divided “nature” in three kingdoms: Regnum Animale (animal kingdom), Regnum Vegetabile (vegetable kingdom) and Regnum Lapideum (mineral kingdom). As minerals are not lifeforms, we’ll not deal with it here, since this classification does not make sense at all for rocks. Maybe I’ll talk about it later in another post.

At first I would present the whole system here, but the post would become too big. Therefore, I decided to present animals and plants separately, but again there was too much to talk on animals. So, this post will deal only with mammals and birds. Other groups will be presented in subsequent posts.

Animals were defined by Linnaeus as having an organized, living and sentient body and being able to move freely. They were classified in six classes: Mammalia, Aves, Amphibia, Pisces, Insecta and Vermes.

1. Mammalia (Mammals) 

Heart with two auricles and two ventricles; warm red blood.
Lungs breathing reciprocally.
Jaw incumbent, covered.
Penis entering in viviparous, lactating.
Senses: tongue, nostrils, touch, eyes, ears.
Covering: hairs, few for the Indic ones, fewest for the aquatic ones.
Support: four feet, except for the aquatic ones, in which the posterior feet coalesced with the tail.

Mammals included 8 orders: Primates, Bruta, Ferae, Bestiae, Glires, Pecora, Belluae, and Cete. They are shown below with their respective genera.

1.1 PrimatesHomo (humans), Simia (all apes and monkeys), Lemur (lemurs), Vespertilio (bats)

Primates included four genera, Homo, Simia, Lemur and Vespertillio. Pictures by

Four species listed by Linnaeus under Primates (left to right): human (Homo sapiens), Barbary macaque (Simia sylvanus, now Macaca sylvanus), ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) and parti-colored bat (Vespertilio murinus). Credits of the photos to Pawel Ryszawa (macaque)**, Wikimedia Commons user Permak (lemur)**, and Markus Nolf (bat)***.

1.2 Bruta: Elephas (elephants), Trichechus (manatees), Bradypus (sloths), Myrmecophaga (anteaters), Manis (pangolins)

The order Bruta included

The order Bruta included (from left to right) the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), the pale-throated sloth (Bradypus tridactylus), the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). Credits of the photos to Wikimedia Commons user Ji-Ellle (elephant)***, U. S. Department of the Interior (manatee), Fernando Flores (sloth)*, Graham Hughes (anteater)*, and Wikimedia Commons user nachbarnebenan (pangolin).

1.3 Ferae: Phoca (seals), Canis (dogs, foxes and hyaenas), Felis (cats), Viverra (mongooses, civets and skunks), Mustela (weasels and otters), Ursus (bears, badgers and raccoons).

Linnaeus' Ferae included the common seal (Phoca

Linnaeus’ Ferae included (from left to right, top to bottom) the common seal (Phoca vitulina), the wolf (Canis lupus), the domestic cat (Felis catus, now Felis sylvestris catus), the large Indian civet (Viverra zibetha), the European polecat (Mustela putorius) and the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos). Credits to Maximilian Narr (seal)***, Gunnar Ries (wolf)***, Michal Osmenda (cat)*, flickr user tontravel (civet)*, Peter Trimming (polecat)*, and Steve Hillebrand (bear).

1.4 Bestiae: Sus (pigs), Dasypus (armadillos), Erinaceus (hedgehogs), Talpa (moles), Sorex (shrews and moles), Didelphis (opossums)

Some species in the order Bestiae: wild boar (

Some species in the order Bestiae (left to right, top to bottom): wild boar (Sus scrofa), nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), West-European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), European mole (Talpa europaea), common shrew (Sorex araneus), and common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis). Credits to Henri Bergius (boar)*, Hans Stieglitz (armadillo)***, Jörg Hempel (hedgehog)*, Mick E. Talbot (mole)***, Agnieszka Kloch (shrew)***, and Juan Tello (opossum)*.

1.5 Glires: Rhinoceros (rhinoceroses), Hystrix (porcupines), Lepus (hares and rabbits), Castor (beavers and desmands), Mus (mice, rats, hamsters, marmots, etc), Sciurus (squirrels)

Six species that Linnaeus classified as Glires (from left to right, top to bottom): Indian rhinoceros (

Six species that Linnaeus classified as Glires (from left to right, top to bottom): Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata), mountain hare (Lepus timidus), Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), house mouse (Mus musculus), red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). Credits to Wikimedia Commons user FisherQueen (rhinoceros), Wikimedia Commons user Quartl (porcupine)***, Alan Wolfe (hare)***, Klaudiusz Muchowski (beaver)***, Wikimedia Commons user 4028mdk09 (mouse)***, and Hernán de Angelis (squirrel)***.

1.6 Pecora: Camelus (camels, llamas), Moschus (musk deer), Cervus (deer and giraffes), Capra (goats and antelope), Ovis (sheep), Bos (cattle)

Among the species that Linnaeus put together as Pecora there are the dromedary camel (

Among the species that Linnaeus put together as Pecora there are (from left to right, top to bottom) the dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), the Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the domestic goat (Capra hircus, now Capra aegagrus hircus), the domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and the cattle (Bos taurus). Credits to Bjørn Christian Tørrisen (camel)***, F. Spangenberg (musk deer)***, Jörg Hempel (deer)***, Wolfgang Stadut (goat)*, Wikimedia user Jackhynes (sheep), and Andrew Butko (cattle)****.

1.7 Belluae: Equus (horses), Hippopotamus (hippopotamuses, tapirs).

The order Belluae included the zebra (

The order Belluae included the zebra (Equus zebra) and the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). Credits to Trisha M. Shears (zebra) and Wikimedia user Irigi (hippopotamus).

1.8 Cete: Monodon (narwhal), Balaena (whales), Physeter (sperm whales), and Delphinus (dolphins)

The order Cete included the following four species (left to right): narwhal (

The order Cete included the following four species (left to right): narwhal (Monodon monoceros), bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and common dolphin (Delphinus delphis).

2. Aves (Birds)

Heart with two auricles and two ventricles; warm red blood.
Lungs breathing reciprocally.
Jaw incumbent, nude, extended, toothless.
Penis sub-entering, without scrotum, in oviparous, calcareous crust.
Senses: tongue, nostrils, eyes, ears without auricles.
Covering: incumbent and imbricate feathers.
Support: two feet, two wings.

Birds included 6 orders: Accipitres, Picae, Anseres, Grallae, Gallinae, and Passeres

2.1 Accipitrae: Vultur (vultures and condors), Falco (falcons, eagles, hawks), Strix (owls), Lanius (shrikes, kingbirds, waxwings)

Accipitres included the Andean-condor (

Accipitres included (from left to right) the Andean-condor (Vultur gryphus), the American kestrel (Falco sparverius), the tawny awl (Strix aluco) and the brown shrike (Lanius cristatus). Credits to Linda Tanner (kestrel)*, flickr user nottsexminer (awl)*, and Charles Lam (shrike)*.

2.2 Picae: Psittacus (parrots), Ramphastos (toucans), Buceros (hornbills), Cuculus (cuckoos), Jynx (wrynecks), Picus (woodpeckers), Corvus (crows and ravens), Coracias (rollers and orioles), Sitta (nuthatches), Merops (bee-eaters), Trochilus (hummingbirds), Crotophaga (anis), Gracula (mynas and grackles), Paradisaea (birds-of-paradise), Alcedo (kingfishers), Upupa (hoopoes), Certhia (treecreepers).

The follwing 16 species were all included in the order Picae:

The follwing 16 species were all included in the order Picae (left to right, top to bottom): African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus), white-throated toucan (Ramphastos tucanus), common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla), green woodpecker (Picus viridis), common raven (Corvus corax), European roller (Coracias garrulus), wood nuthatch (Sitta europaea), European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus), smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani), common hill myna (Gracula religiosa), greater bird of paradise (Paradisaea apoda), common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops), and Eurasian treecreeper (Certhia familiaris). Credits to Wikimedia user Fiorellino (parrot)***, Marie Hale (toucan)*, Wikimedia user locaguapa (cuckoo)***, Carles Pastor (wryneck)***, Hans Jörg Hellwig (woodpecker)***, Alan Vermon (raven)*, flickr user Koshy Koshy (roller)*, Paweł Kuźniar (nuthatch and treecreeper)***, Pellinger Attila (bee-eater)***, Charles J. Sharp (streamertail and ani)***, Wikimedia user Memset (myna)***, Andrea Lawardi (bird-of-paradise)*, wikimedia user Joefrei (kingfisher)***, Arturo Nikolai (hoopoe)*.

2.3 Anseres: Anas (ducks, geese and swans), Mergus (merganser), Procellaria (petrels), Diomedea (albatrosses and penguins), Pelecanus (pelicans, cormorants, gannets, boobies and frigatebirds), Phaethon (tropicbirds), Alca (auks), Colymbus (loons and grebes), Larus (gulls), Sterna (terns), Rynchops (skimmers).

Eleven species listed by Linnaeus under Anseres:

Eleven species listed by Linnaeus under Anseres (left to right, top to bottom): mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), common merganser (Mergus merganser), white-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis), wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), razorbill (Alca torda), black-throated diver (Colymbus arcticus, now Gavia arctica), common gull (Larus canus), common tern (Sterna hirundo), and black skimmer (Rynchops niger). Credits to Andreas Trepte (mallard)**, Dick Daniels (merganser and skimmer)***, Ron Knight (petrel)*, JJ Harrison (albatross)***, Nino Barbieri (pelican)***, Charles J Sharp (tropicbird)****, Steve Garvie (diver)*, and Arne List (gull)*.

2.4 Grallae: Phoenicopterus (flamingoes), Platalea (spoonbills), Mycteria (wood stork), Tantalus (the wood stork again!), Ardea (herons, cranes and storks), Recurvirostra (avocets), Scolopax (woodcocks, ibisis, godwitts, etc), Tringa (sandpipers, lapwings and phalaropes), Fulica (coots, moorhens and jacanas), Rallus (rails), Psophia (trumpeters), Haematopus (oystercatchers), Charadrius (plovers), Otis (bustards), Struthio (ostriches, rheas, cassowaries, and dodoes).

Fifteen species that Linnaeus put in the order Grallae: American flamingo (

Fifteen species that Linnaeus put in the order Grallae (left to right, top to bottom): American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), wood stork (Mycteria americana), the wood stork again (Tantalus localator), grey heron (Ardea cinerea), pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola), Eurasian coot (Fulica atra), water rail (Rallus aquaticus), grey-winged trumpeter (Psophia crepitans), Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), great bustard (Otis tarda), and ostrich (Struthio camelus). Credits to Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (flamingo)*, Andreas Trepte (spoonbill and avocet)**, Dick Daniels (woodstork)***, JJ Harrison (heron)***,  Ronald Slabke (woodcock)***, Wikimedia user Alpsdake (sandpiper)***, Axel Mauruszat (coot), Pierre Dalous (rail)***, Robin Chen (trumpeter)***, Wikimedia user TomCatX (oystercatcher)**, Wikimedia user Estormiz (plover), Francesco Varonesi (bustard)*, and Wikimedia user Nicor (ostrich)***.

2.5 Gallinae: Pavo (peafowl), Meleagris (turkeys), Crax (curassows), Phasianus (pheasants and chickens), Tetrao (grouse, partridges and quails).

Linnaeus' Gallinae included (from left to right) the Indian peafowl (

Linnaeus’ Gallinae included (from left to right) the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), the great curassow (Crax rubra), the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), and the wood grouse (Tetrao urogallus). Credits to Wikimedia user Appaloosa (peafowl)***, Arthur Chapman (curassow)*, Lukasz Lukasik (pheasant)***, and Wikimedia user Siga (grouse)***.

2.6 Passeres: Columba (doves and pigeons), Alauda (larks and pipit), Turdus (thrushes, warblers and mockingbirds), Loxia (crossbills, cardinals, bullfinches, etc), Emberiza (buntings), Fringilla (finches, canaries, sparrows, tanagers, etc), Sturnus (starlings), Motacilla (wagtails, redstarts, warblers, wrens, robins, etc), Parus (tits and manakins), Hirundo (swallows and swifts), Caprimulgus (nightjars).

Eleven species considered as belonging to the order Passeres: wood pigeon (

Eleven species considered as belonging to the order Passeres (left to right, top to bottom): wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), skylark (Alauda arvensis), blackbid (Turdus merula), red crossbil (Loxia curvirostra), yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), common starling (Sturnus vulgaris), white wagtail (Motacilla alba), great tit (Parus major), barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). Credits to Nick Fraser (pigeon)***, Daniel Pettersson (skylark)**, Andreas Eichler (blackbird)***, Andreas Trepte (yellowhammer)**, Wikimedia user Thermos (chaffinch)***, Pierre Selim (starling)***, Malene Thyssen (wagtail)***, flickr user chapmankj75 (tit)*, Martin Mecnarowski (swallow)***, and Dûrzan Cîrano (nightjar)***.

Among the most peculiar things that we can highlight here are:

  • Bats were put together with the primates!
  • Rhinos were put together with rodents! This happened because Linnaeus based his classification of mammals on their teeth and the front teeth of rhinos resemble somewhat those of rodents.
  • Hippos and tapirs were put in the same genus! The South American tapir was called Hippopotamus terrestris!
  • Giraffes were classified as deers, and badgers and raccons as bears.
  • Several passerine birds, such as the kingbirds, were considered birds of prey (Accipitres).
  • Albatrosses and penguins were in the same genus!
  • Storks, herons and cranes were all in the same genus too.
  • On the other hand, the woodstork appears twice, as two species from different genera!

As one can see, Linnaeus was not so familiar with animals. He was, afterall, a botanist, but he did his best.

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Reference:

Linnaeus, Carl. 1758. Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Nature…

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Friday Fellow: Kipling’s Acacia Spider

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Spider are famous for being horrible creatures, atrocious predators with terrible venom and creepy webs. But that’s not quite true once you start to know them well, but, anyway, they used to be considered a group of animals composed solely by predators.

That’s not true anymore. In 2008, it has been found that a small jumping spider is predominantly vegetarian! Its name is Bagheera kiplingi, or the Kipling’s Acacia Spider, and it is our newest Friday Fellow.

A male Bagheera kipling feeding on a Beltian Body. Foto by M. Milton extracted from Meehan et al. (2009).

A male Bagheera kiplingi feeding on a Beltian body. Foto by M. Milton extracted from Meehan et al. (2009).

The Kipling’s Acacia Spider is found in Central America, in Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala. It’s a jumping spider (family Salticidae), the most diverse family of spiders.

Living on acacia trees, the Kipling’s Acacia Spider feeds mainly on Beltian bodies, small structures at the tip of the Acacia’s leaflets that are rich in proteins, sugars and fats. The Beltian bodies are a food source for ant species of the genus Pseudomyrmex that live in a mutualistic relationship with the acacias, protecting the trees from herbivores.

Our spider most likely became an oportunist by exploring a resource that was not designed for it. And more than that, sometimes the spider can attack and eat the ants, especially their larvae, so becoming a kind of annoying disturbance to the mutualistic relationship between ant and tree.

However, despite the fact that it also feeds on ant larvae, Bagheera kiplingi has the Beltian bodies as its main food source. Ironically, the name Bagheera comes from Rudyard Kipling’s character Bagheera, which is a black panther. The specific epithet, kiplingi, honors Rudyard Kipling himself.

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References:

Meehan, C. J.; Olson, E. J,; Reudink, M. W.; Kyser, T. K.; Curry, R. L. 2009. Herbivory in a spider through exploitation of an ant-plant mutualism. Currenty Biology, 19(19):R892-R893. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.08.049

Wikipedia. Bagheera kiplingi. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bagheera_kiplingi&gt;. Access on February 02, 2016.

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The tegu lizard and the origin of warm-blooded animals

ResearchBlogging.org by Piter Kehoma Boll

Warm blood is the popular way to refer to endothermy, the ability that certain animals have to maintain a high body temperature by the use of heat generated via metabolism, especially in internal organs. Mammals and birds are the only extant groups in which all representatives are endothermic, but some fish also have this feature.

Tunna fish are truly endoothermic fish, similar to mammals and birds.

Tunna fish are truly endothermic fish, similar to mammals and birds. Photo by opencage.info**

In order to maintain a high body temperature, endothermic animals need a much higher amount of daily food than ectothermic animals (the ones that rely on environmental sources to adjust their body heat). There must be, therefore, a considerable advantage in endothermy to explain such a increased consumption of resources. The advantages include the ability to remain active in areas of low temperature and an increase in efficienty of enzimatic reactions, muscle contractions and molecular transmission across synapses.

The origin of endothermy is still a matter of debate and several hypothesis have been erected. The main ones are:

1. A migration from ectothermy to inertial homeothermy and finally endothermy.

According to this hypothesis, animals that were initially ectothermic grew in size, becoming inertially homeothermic, i.e., they retained a considerable constant internal body temperature due to the reduced surface area in relation to the their volume. Lately, selective pressures forced those animals to reduce in size, which made them unable to sustain a constant internal temperature and therefore their enzimatic, muscular and synaptic efficiency became threatened. As a result, they were forced to develop an alternative way to maintain a high body temperature and acquired it through endothermy.

Initially considered a plausible explanation due to the body size of the ancestors of mammals in fossil record, new phylogenetic interpretations caused a complete mix of large-bodied and small-bodied animals, so that currently fossils don’t support this idea anymore.

2. A large brain heating the body

The brain in endothermic species produces much more heat than any other organs. This led to the assumption that maybe a large brain generating heat was the responsible for the later development of full endothermy. However, evidence from both exant and extinct species point to the opposite. It seems more reasonable that a large brain evolved after endothermy and not the opposite.

3. A nocturnal life needs more heat

This idea states that the development of endothermy happened as a way to allow animals to be active during the night. The fact that most primitive mammals appear to have been nocturnal seems to support this hypothesis, but in fact many extant nocturnal mammals actually have a lower body temperature than diurnal mammals. Other aspect that counts against this hypothesis is that the ancestors of mammals already showed evidences of an increase in body temperature despite the fact that they most likely were not nocturnal.

4. Heat to help the embryos to develop

As you may know, in many ectothermic vertebrates, such as reptiles, eggs need to be incubated at a constant temperature in order to develop adequately. Endothermy, therefore, could have evolved as a way to allow parents to incubate the eggs themselves and have a higher control on temperature stability. One fact that support this theory is the dual role of thyroid hormones in reproduction and in the control of metabolic rate.

Endothermy may have evolved to incubate eggs at a constant temperature.

Endothermy may have evolved to incubate eggs at a constant temperature. Photo by Bruce Tuten**

5. Aerobic capicity leading to the heating of internal organs

According to this hypothesis, endothermy evolved after the increase of aerobic capacity, i.e., the first thing to happen was to increase the ability of muscles to consume oxygen in order to release energy, which helped the animal to move faster, among other things. This increased aerobic capicity was attained by increasing the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, which led to higher body temperature in the muscules and consequently a higher visceral temperature. Despite fossils indicating that mammal ancestors developed morphological adaptations indicating increased aerobic capacity, it is not possible to afirm that endothermy was not already present in those species.

Very recently, it has been found that the tegu lizards (Salvator merianae) from South America increase their body temperature during the reproductive season, achieving as much as 10°C above the environment temperature at night. Thus, it seems that they are able to increase heat production and heat conservation in ways similar to the ones used by fully endothermic animals.

The tegu lizard Salvator merianae is a facultative endotherm.

The tegu lizard Salvator merianae is a facultative endotherm. Photo by Jami Dwyer.

As such an increase in body temperature happens during the reproductive cycle, it supports the hypothesis of endothermy evolving to assist the development of embryos, as explained above. Also, it indicates that ectotherms may engage in temporary endothermy and perhaps permanent endothermy may have evolved by using this path.

Further studies on the tegu lizards are needed to clarify this interesting phenomenon and expand our knowledge on endothermy evolution in mammals and birds.

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References:

Kemp, T. (2006). The origin of mammalian endothermy: a paradigm for the evolution of complex biological structure Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 147 (4), 473-488 DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2006.00226.x

Tattersall, G., Leite, C., Sanders, C., Cadena, V., Andrade, D., Abe, A., & Milsom, W. (2016). Seasonal reproductive endothermy in tegu lizards Science Advances, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500951

Wikipedia. Endotherm. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endotherm&gt;. Access on February 1, 2016.

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Friday Fellow: Red Panda

by Piter Kehoma Boll

One of the cutest animals on the world, or perhaps the cutest in fact, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is today’s Friday Fellow.

"Hello! I'm the cutest thing you've ever met!" Photo by Wikimedia user Kuribo.*

“Hello! I’m the cutest thing you’ve ever met!” Photo by Wikimedia user Kuribo.**

The red panda is endemic to temperate forests of the Himalayas in Nepal, China, India, Bhutan and Myanmar. It has, therefore, a considerably small range and prefers areas with a higher bamboo cover.

Despite its cuteness, the red panda’s wild population is declining, with less than 10 thousand individuals remaining, although a more accurate measurement is hard to achieve because local people tend to confuse other small carnivores with the red panda, which may lead to an overestimation of the population size. It is listed as an endangered species in the IUCN’s Red List and the main threats to its survival are habitat loss and fragmentation, inbreeding depression and poaching.

As the giant panda’s, the red panda’s main food is bamboo, but it also eats fruits, eggs and small animals, such as insects and small mammals.

Red pandas love bamboo. Photo by Wikipedia user Colegota.*

Red pandas love bamboo. Photo by Wikipedia user Colegota.*

The taxonomic classification of the red panda was a headache for a long time. It has been placed among the bears (Ursidae) and the raccoons (Procyonidae), but molecular studies indicated that it belongs to its own family, Ailuridae, which is closely related to Procyonidae, Mustelidae (weasels) and Mephitidae (skunks).

Being so cute and only slightly larger than an average domestic cat, as well as easily adaptable to live in captivity, it’s strange that the red panda has not become popular as a pet.

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References:

Pradhan, S.; Saha, G. K.; Khan, J. A. 2001. Ecology of the red panda Ailurus fulgens in the Singhalila National Park, Darjeeling, India. Biological Conservation, 98(1): 11-18.

Wikipedia. Red Panda. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_panda&gt;. Access on January 28, 2016.

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Zika virus and the negligence towards health research in poor countries

ResearchBlogging.org by Piter Kehoma Boll

About a year ago, almost nobody on the whole world was aware of the existence of a virus named Zika virus and the illness it may cause in humans, the Zika fever or Zika disease. But is this a new, previously unknown virus? Where did it come from and why is it suddenly of so much concern?

The Zika virus, or ZIKV, is a virus in the genus Flavivirus, which also include other viruses, such as the ones responsible for the dengue fever and the yellow fever. The name Flavivirus means “yellow virus” in Latin, due to the yellow fever. All the three diseases are transmitted to humans throughs mosquitoes, especially the widespread Aedes aegypti.

The mosquito Aedes aegypti is currently the main vector of the Zika virus. Photo by James Gathany.

The mosquito Aedes aegypti is currently the main vector of the Zika virus. Photo by James Gathany.

The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in Uganda in a febrile rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest, hence the name. From 1951 on, serological studies indicated that the virus could also infect humans, as antibodies against the virus were found in the blood of humans in several African and Asian countries, such as Central African Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 1968, in Nigeria, the virus was isolated from humans for the first time. During the following decades of the 20th century, the virus was detected via serological evidence or isolated directly in many humans. However, despite the confirmation of this virus in humans, research developed very slowly, most likely because the affected countries don’t have enough resources to conduct the necessary studies and richer countries are not at all interested in the health of the poor ones.

There was a small increase in concern over the virus after it was detected outside Africa and Asia for the first time, in 2007, in the Yap Island, Micronesia. After that, some epidemics occurred in several archipelagoes in the Pacific.

Since last year, the Zika virus has been dectected in South America and started to spread rapidly across the countries. It was suggested that the virus reached Brazil in 2014 during the World Cup. (Thanks, FIFA!). By November 2015, the disease has reached Mexico, which means it is about to reach the United States! Now suddenly it started to be of a major concern worlwide.

Currently known distribution of the Zika virus in humans. Map of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently known distribution of the Zika virus in humans. Map of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Common symptoms of the Zika fever include mild headaches, fever, joint pains and rash. It was not considered a serious disease, as it usually fades quickly after a week, until recently, when it was linked to the development of microcephaly in fetuses of mothers infected by the virus during the first trimester of pregnancy.

I wonder how many children were born with microcephaly in Africa and Asia during the last decades because there was no investment to study the virus. Now that it suddenly became a worldwide threat, there is no vaccine, no adequate treatment and most physicians are unable to identify the illness through the symptoms.

And there are a lot of other viruses forgotten in poor tropical countries just waiting for the right opportunity to spread and scare North America and Europe. No one cares while they remain among poor African and Asian people, but global warming is here and tropical diseases love it more than anything else.

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References:

Gatherer, D. & Kohl, A., (2015). Zika virus: a previously slow pandemic spreads rapidly through the Americas Journal of General Virology DOI: 10.1099/jgv.0.000381

Hayes, E. B. 2009. Zika Virus Outside Africa. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15(9): 1347-1350.

Vasconcelos, P. (2015). Doença pelo vírus Zika: um novo problema emergente nas Américas? Revista Pan-Amazônica de Saúde, 6 (2), 9-10 DOI: 10.5123/S2176-62232015000200001

Wikipedia. Zika virus. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zika_virus&gt;. Access on January 25, 2016.

 

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Friday Fellow: Taq

by Piter Kehoma Boll

It’s time for us to start to look at the tiny little creatures living with us in this world. We haven’t featured any bacterium yet, so here comes the first one, the magnificent Taq!

Taq stands for Thermus aquaticus, the bacterium’s scientific name. It was initially discovered in hot springs of the Yellowstone National Park, but certainly no one could guess how it would impact science as a whole.

The Great Fountain Geyser in Yellowstone National Park is located near the place where Taq was first found. Photo by Paul Kordwig.*

The Great Fountain Geyser in Yellowstone National Park is located near the place where Taq was first found. Photo by Paul Kordwig.*

Usually with a small rod shape less than 1 µm in diameter and up to 10 µm in length, Taq can also reach more than 200 µm in length when acquiring a filament shape. Living in hot springs all around the world, it thrives at about 70°C. It produces its own food via chemosynthesis by oxydizing inorganic elements in the environment, but it can also associate with some cyanobacteria living in the same habitat to obtain food from their photosynthesis.

Taq under the microscope. The scale corresponds to 1µm. Photo by Diane Montpetit.

Taq under the microscope. The scale corresponds to 1µm. Photo by Diane Montpetit.

But what impact did it have in science? Well, because it lives in such high temperatures, Taq’s proteins need higher temperatures to denature, so they are useful to perform biochemical processes in high temperatures, such as in DNA amplification.

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is a process used for amplifying short segments of an organism’s DNA. It needs to be performed in high temperatures in order to denaturate the DNA chain so that the primers can align. Primers are very short modified DNA fragments that determinate the beginning and the end of the segments that one wants to amplify. Amplifying a DNA segment means producing a large amount of copies of that segment. The problem in earlier PCRs was that the high temperatures needed to denaturate the DNA also denature the enzyme that produces the copies, called DNA polymerase. As a result, there was a need to add enzyme after every cycle of thermal denaturation. The DNA polymerase of Taq, called Taq polymerase, can resist the high temperatures of denaturation, so that it needs to be added only once.

Thanks to Taq polymerase, DNA amplification has become a much more efficient process, accelerating researches in molecular biology.

Sometimes revolution beginns with the tiniest things.

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References:

Brock, T. D. 1997. The value of basic research: discovery of Thermus aquaticus and other extreme thermophiles. Genetics, 146(4): 1207-1210.

Wikipedia. Thermus aquaticus. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermus_aquaticus&gt;. Access on January 21, 2016.

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The blacker the better… especially in Chernobyl

ResearchBlogging.org by Piter Kehoma Boll

We all know that plants use chlorophyll and other pigments to harvest energy from light and store it in synthesized molecules, a phenomenon called photosynthesis. It’s chlorophyll that makes plants (all well as some bacteria and algae) green. This ability to create their own food via photosynthesis is what separates cyanobacteria, algae and plants from other organisms, such as animals, fungi and protozoan, as the latter are usually seen as unable to harvest energy directly from the medium.

This view is changing, however, especially for fungi.

As most organisms, fungi also have pigments, and one of the most important ones is melanin (yes, the same pigment that makes our skin, hair and eyes dark). For some time it is known that fungi living in areas with a higher incidence of solar radiation are richer in melanin than those in less illuminated areas. It happens, for example, in the black mould, Aspergillus niger, a species that attacks many vegetables, but also exists all over the world in the soil.

Aspergillus niger, the black mold, is a melaized fungus found worldwide and that seems to love ionizing radiation. Photo by wikimedia user Y_tambe.*

Aspergillus niger, the black mold, is a melaized fungus found worldwide and that seems to love ionizing radiation. Photo by wikimedia user Y_tambe.*

The simple fact that fungi exposed to higher radiation levels are darker could simply mean that they are protecting themselves using melanin from the nocive light striking them. After all, that’s what happens in animals, including humans, right?

But that’s not the case. Melanized fungi actually seem to thrive in environments with high levels of ionizing radiation (ultraviolet, x and gamma rays), which is usually seen as very dangerous to life. The walls of the damaged nuclear reactor of Chernobyl are covered in melanized fungi and they also are found living very happy on board of the Internation Space Station. Experiments showed that these melanized species of fungi seem to benefit from radiation, increasing their growth and germination.

How could this happen? Well, the only reasonable answer seems to be that melanin is acting like a photosynthetic pigment, allowing fungi to use ionizing radiation as a source of energy! And several experiments confirmed that!

Aspergillus niger growing on an onion. Image extracted from gardener.wikia.com.*

Aspergillus niger growing on an onion. Image extracted from gardener.wikia.com.*

So, the next time you see a big black mold growing somewhere, remember that it’s color is as important to it as the green is for the plants. They are really able to use melanin as plants use chlorophyll and yet they can do it using radiation that would be lethal to other lifeforms.

In the end, fungi are more similar to plants than we thought when we used to considered them to be plants too.

Too bad that we cannot use the melanin in our own skin for the same purpose…

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Reference:

Dadachova, E., & Casadevall, A. (2008). Ionizing radiation: how fungi cope, adapt, and exploit with the help of melanin Current Opinion in Microbiology, 11 (6), 525-531 DOI: 10.1016/j.mib.2008.09.013

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