Five-legged frogs and other abnormalities

I once lived for four months in a Zoological Museum in a small room just under the roof of the building. The great advantage of that abode was that I did not have to pay any rent for staying there; the disadvantage was that the toilet was in the cellar. Therefore, if I needed to go there it required careful planning in advance. First down a narrow flight of stairs, then through the storage area, past the huge stuffed bison, along the displays of various skeletons, down to the taxidermically prepared monkeys and birds, silent and motionlessly in their glass cages, to finally descend into the dark vault of the cellar’s WC. It was an afternoon when a man entered this museum, wanting to see the Director. Since he wasn’t there, I offered to help. The man had with him a five-legged frog he wanted to donate to the museum.

It was a fully grown male frog with a third front leg between the two regular legs. Interestingly the extra leg also possessed the typical nuptial thumb pad that male frogs develop during the mating season to help them cling to a slippery female. Despite its extra leg the frog seemed normal enough and obviously had been able to grow into a mature individual. Together with Professor Juergen Koebke I carried out an anatomical and ultrastructural study on the extra leg’s muscles, blood supply and nerves. We found that the extra leg’s muscles were normal and could contract, but that joints between the bones showed little wear, because the leg did not actively participate when the frog jumped. The question was: what could have caused the development of the extra leg. That there was “a second individual” somehow involved (as with conjoined twins or a partially absorbed twin) was outrightly dismissed. An injury during the tadpole stage to a leg bud resulting in a growth of an additional leg seemed a possibility and that the extra leg might have been the consequence of an exposure to ionizing radiation or the response to a parasitic  trematode attack (because such cases had been described before) were other possibilities.

Abnormalities such as these have always alarmed as well as fascinated humans and when present in humans were (in the past) usually linked to superstitions blaming either the mother, the devil, weather phenomena, or God. More recently we see connections with various kinds of pollutants and for this reason had started to monitor abnormal growths like skin cancers and reduced or increased numbers of limbs and toes in Japanese newts in one specific region of Japan over a period of 10 years. This kind of research that involves field and laboratory work is labour-intensive and despite its importance was unfortunately discontinued. However, what we did find was that the incidences of abnormalities in the newt population had not changed in the 10 years we monitored them. That this should not lead us to be complacent is self-understood, especially with regard to the rise in plastics and their residues in the environment, but it could also suggest that a certain small percentage of abnormalities is a “normal” feature of a natural population. However, to distinguish an abnormality from a variety (e.g., regarding respective wing or feather colours in insects and birds) is not always clear.

Although humans with cyclopia, or cows with two heads or chickens with four-legs etc. are sometimes referred to as “monstrosities”, for humans at least such terminology is unacceptable and efforts are made to identify (and then eliminate) the causes of malformations. This requires collaborations between geneticists, toxicologists, biochemists and scientists of various other disciplines. What I personally find sad is that goldfish monstrosities and Folded Ear cats (even if the genetic defects are known to have serious consequences for their health) are ‘celebrated’ and given prizes in breeder competitions. Isn’t it a bit abnormal to love such abnormalities when one knows that the animals are suffering? 

Take some Bile once in a While

It’s versatile, but will it make you smile?

One of my ethnobiological research projects deals with traditional uses of zootherapies. In many parts of the world animals, their tissues or their products are used as medicines in the form of solids, potions, powders and soups to be ingested, as lotions and creams to be applied and even as steams and fumes. One of the most widely used animal-derived treatments involve bile, i.e. the green fluid in the gall bladder of vertebrate animals produced by the liver. Bear bile has been used for perhaps thousands of years by the Chinese as a remedy for a wide range of ailments and bear farms exist in China, where bile is collected from live bears without killing them. Elsewhere, wild animals and not just bears are used.

What makes bile so special? The bioactive compound in bear bile has been identified as ursodeoxycholic acid. But as with biles from other vertebrates such as humans and fish, the fluid consists of mostly water (ca. 98%) plus a variety of bile salts, the pigment bilirubin, small amounts of cholesterol, fatty acids and lecithin. Bile is released from the gall bladder into the small intestine (the duodenum) in humans, where it acts as an emulsifier and surfactant upon the fatty components of the food. Without the bile most of the ingested fats would be wasted and not available to the body for growth and maintenance; the bile therefore has a very important function. Whether it is that understanding or the observation that bile medicines can apparently exert a positive effect on a sufferer from an illness, injury and allergy that have made bile therapies so popular, is difficult to know, but fact is millions believe in bile remedies.

It has been reported that tribal people in Burkina Faso treat earaches with the bile of a hedgehog, but from Brazil it is known that some people purchase the vulture bile, dry it and then turn it into a powder, which is put it into the drink of an alcohol addict to cure his addiction. According to E. Costa-Neto there are reports that this works. Wild cat bile apparently acts upon the liver and helps in cases of cirrhosis, as has also been reported for bear bile. The latter is used for so many different maladies and afflictions that it is difficult to list them all, but just like the bile of many other animals it is supposed to help against malaria, stomach ache, dysentery and even rheumatism. Most commonly bile is mixed with boiling water and drunk, but carp bile may be swallowed raw to lower a fever and porcupine bile soaked in rice to fight dysentery is used by North-East Indian tribals. Naga people use the bile of the mithun ox mixed with rice and eaten twice a day for a week to treat asthma. Cat bile and that of the flying squirrel are also said to have anti-asthma properties and that of a large monitor lizard (taken orally and raw) is meant to work as an antidote to spider bites. Porcupine bile helps in cases of impotence, but enlarged spleens are said to need pangolin bile treatment (but sadly it won’t help this globally most trafficked of all wild animals).

The big question is how one bodily secretion (the bile) can have so many different therapeutic functions and effects.  It is of course possible that pre-treatments like drying, smoking, mixing with rice, herbs or minerals and different kinds of uses like external application or ingestion with or without water at specific day times may liberate and/or activate separate bioactive chemicals in the bile. They could then possibly act directly or indirectly by activating the recipient’s defence systems.  As sad and awful these traditional bile uses are, they seem to have stood the test of time and we must find the reason for that. Once we have the answer, we may be able to save the animals that supply the bile  -and let them live and smile.  

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Blind as a Bat: Certainly Not

And also not bad or beastly   

In the early 1980s in Finland I met a bat researcher who explained to me a device called the bat detector which works by changing the high frequencies of a bat’s cry, inaudible to humans, into audible lower frequencies. That device allows the researcher to look for the bats that s/he then knows are around. Sadly, that very bat researcher died in 1985 after being bitten by a bat that had transmitted the rabies virus to him. This was such a rare and isolated case in Finland that it made headlines and led to a hiatus in Finnish bat research. Despite the fact that bats can indeed harbour loads of viruses and other pathogens (but don’t get sick themselves) and may be pestered by parasitic flies of the families Nycteribiidae and Streblidae (because of the bats’ habit to be colonial, which involves close contact between individuals), they are, generally, of absolutely no danger to humans. Their life is an alien life that can last 40 years, a life in the dark, a quiet and secret life (except that of the thousands of fruit bats in Australia roosting in trees of parks and gardens). However, bats are absolutely fascinating mammals and earlier I already pointed out some of their remarkable reproductive adaptations with suspended pregnancies and (in some species) milk-producing “father bats” helping “mother bats” in parenting.

There are at least 1200 species of bats, which means 20% of all mammals can fly. Their sizes range from that of a bumblebee to that of a small dog but none of them is blind; a fossil Burrowing Bat from New Zealand is estimated to have weighed 40 kg. Their food habits are amazingly varied: some tropical species are important pollinators and visit flowers, others munch leaves or attack fruits; many species feast on insect pests like moths and beetles that fly around at night and some (the fish-eating bats) have even become accomplished piscivores. The notorious vampire bat of Central and South America is the only mammal that depends on blood for its diet, but although that may not be very nice, their habit of sharing a blood meal through a kiss with a colony member that hadn’t been able to find a food source shows an altruistic side. It is well known that bats form friendships with other bats and that bat orphans will be adopted by not even genetically closely related individuals of a colony. Bats are not blind but locate obstacles and food in the dark by echolocation (which I mentioned in an earlier blog).

Scientifically referred to as Chiroptera (from Greek “cheir” = hand and “pteron” = wing), bat wings are the result of a thin membrane between four of their fingers and are thus analogous to bird wings. Being able to fly, bats colonized far away islands like New Zealand, Hawaii and Galapagos, but being nocturnal only a handful species could survive in northern Finland despite the abundance of mosquitoes and other insects in the summer (only daylight in summer nights). The cold and long winters are no problem: many species enter into a state of torpor and hibernate in caves or other sheltered places. To rest and roost, most bats hang upside down, which required special adaptations with regard to their hind extremities, joints, muscles, tendons and circulatory system (a human would die if in an upside-down position for too long). An exception, as Daniel Riskin & Paul Racey could show in 2010, are sucker-foot bats like the Madagascar Myzopoda aurita: it clings head-up to leaves using specialized pads on its wrists and ankles.

I’m not aware of bats other than the large fruit-eating species being consumed as food by humans, but falsely accused of being a symbol of evil in many western societies, people should focus on the charming side of bats and revere them as harbingers of Good Luck and Prosperity as in some parts of China where bats often adorn wedding cards. Actually, in Europe killing a bat can result in hefty fines – that’s a start.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.