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 http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 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 http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com 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 http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 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 http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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Telltale Signs in Snow, Mud and Sand

The tracks that animals left behind  

Winter is the season of concerts, ballet performances, rich food and winter sports, but you don’t need to be a skier to enjoy a walk in the snow. There’s a lot to see and even though I used to get cold when on a winter forest walk with my grandfather, he always found something exciting to show me in the snow (and at the end of the walk there always was the hot bouillon in the restaurant). The footprints in the snow (so aptly celebrated in a song by Bill Monroe) left by various animals can actually tell stories. “Here, a marten has chased a squirrel”, my grandfather would point out to me. A little further we’d notice footprints of a deer and then some wild pig. The fox’s prints and the rabbits are the easiest, I remember. And the tiny little ones with a thin line are from rats or mice with their long tails.

Footprints are not restricted to snow, but also visible in sand (Australian Aborigines and African Sān are the world’s best ‘readers’) unless the wind covers them or the rain washes them away. When I was in North Korea I saw a newly married couple write their vows with their fingers into the wet sand of the beach, only to see their semi-secret wishes get erased by the next wave. But there are, of course, beaches that have footprints that did not become erased, but became lithificated, which means they became fossil footprints. Originally made by heavy animals in wet sediments, e.g. mud, they hardened and became preserved and are now visible in various places on Earth. In Scotland the island of Skye is famous for its 165 million year old dinosaur footprints visible at low tide and on the beach near the town of Broome in Western Australia there must have been a real stampede of dinosaurs who left more than 1000 footprints on sandstone 130 million years ago when there was a river delta in that region. The largest ever seen footprint of 1.7 m in diameter probably belonged to a Brontosaurus. It is amazing to read that some ‘collectors’ even tried to dig out some of these prints, which is a highly illegal activity.

Footprints of animals that lived millions of years ago are found in all regions of the world, but apart from the sites mentioned above, those from Portugal, the Andes, Arizona and Sth. Korea are particularly well studied. Several criteria are used to match the footprints and the animals that made them. To determine the age and the type of the sediment is important; size and shape of the imprint are also important and number and lengths of the toes can be a “giveaway”. Web-footed tracks are known from South Korea and three-toed prints (the middle toe being the longest) are typical of the prints from the Scottish island of Skye. The prints not only tell the palaeontologist who has walked along a particular area how many million years ago, but they also provide information on the type of gait used by the animal and whether an individual was a member of a group, was chased by a predator or perhaps was an injured and limping individual. Fossil footprints are known from dinosaurs, birds, mammals, lizards, and even arthropods. Fossil prints from Sth. Korea have even shown that some crocodiles might have moved around on 2 legs.

Of course, all the footprints are the result of depressions in the substrate (one should think). But I observed something peculiar when in Antarctica: my footprints did not leave depressions in the snow, but turned into the opposite: positive, raised footprint reliefs! The reason was that the Polar snow was so fine and powdery that it was immediately blown away by the wind except for the area where the weight of my foot had compressed it. Raised footprints in the snow: a unique feature of Antarctica!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2020.
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 http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.