Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Dinosaur Day

This past weekend I got to observe some wild turkeys up close at the Schlitz Audobon Center. While I had some vague knowledge that birds are descended from dinosaurs, when watching a wild turkey it really hits home - that tiny head bobbing on that long neck, that bulbous body and large thighs, those scaly three-toed feet, walking though the underbrush.
Happy Dinosaur Dissection Day! Thanksgiving is upon us—a time to reflect, cope with loved ones, and stuff ourselves silly with theropod meat. While the turkey on the table may not seem quite as fierce as the Cretaceous “terrible claw” Deinonychus, they are both feathered dinosaurs, cousins separated by about 110 million years. Birds were the only lineage of dinosaur to survive the catastrophe that wiped out their relatives 66 million years ago. Of course, our species wasn’t the first to dine on dinosaur. We’re continuing a longstanding tradition. From armor-encased ankylosaurs to the terrible tyrannosaurs, dinosaurs were smorgasbords for other species millions and millions of years before the first Thanksgiving...Even now, dinosaurs remain on life’s playbill in avian garb, and thanks to countless gustatory investigations, we know they’re quite tasty—so much so that we’ve organized a national holiday around picking flesh from their skeletons. I hope you enjoy your annual dinosaur dissection today, and when you snap the turkey’s delicate wishbone, remember to give thanks for the theropod on the table and all of its extinct dinosaurian kin.
Enjoy a Delicious Dinosaur on Thanksgiving (Slate)  And why don't we eat turkey eggs? Because turkeys lay far less eggs, they eat more, and they take up more space. Thus we see how economic reasons have constrained our once-varied diet to a monoculture of what can be produced "cheaply." In hunter-gatherer societies, food is what nature can provide, not what you can pay for. Early humans ate a well-rounded and varied diet. Our market economy actually works against this.
Turkey eggs used to be a menu staple in North America. Wild turkeys roamed the continent before the arrival of humans, and archaeologists have found turkey-egg shells at the encampments of pre-Columbian Americans. Hopi Indians consider the eggs a delicacy. (The Navajo ate only the flesh of turkeys, however, European settlers noted.) Europeans took domesticated turkeys across the Atlantic in the 16th century, and turkey eggs were soon a part of Old-World cuisine, particularly in England. Americans also served them until fairly recently. Turkey egg omelettes were a regular offering at New York’s legendary Delmonico’s restaurant in the late 19th century...The average turkey egg is 50 percent larger than a chicken egg, but contains nearly twice as many calories and grams of fat and four times as much cholesterol. Duck and goose eggs also contain more fat and protein than chicken eggs do, which is one reason why most people find “exotic” eggs more flavorful than the ubiquitous chicken egg.
White or Dark, but Never Scrambled (Slate) As I pointed out last year, the turkeys we eat are also a victim of industrial monoculture. And in a Plagues and Peoples vein, the colonization of North America was facilitated by the spread of old-world diseases, including an infection spread by rat urine which is still around today:
Where had all the people gone? As the Pilgrims thanked God for their luck, they were unaware that the previous tenants had died of a gruesome infectious disease. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford was already aware of the death toll from “Indean fever.” His scouts had ventured inland and noted “sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould.” It’s estimated as many as nine out of 10 coastal Indians were killed in the epidemic between 1616 and 1619.

What killed so many people so quickly? The symptoms were a yellowing of the skin, pain and cramping, and profuse bleeding, especially from the nose. A recent analysis concludes the culprit was a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria. Spread by rat urine.

Leptospirosis is what’s known as a zoonotic disease. The bacterium lives in animal hosts and is transmitted between animals and to people via urine in fresh water. Its favorite host is the black rat, Rattus rattus (the rat so nice they named it twice), a nonnative species that was inadvertently transported to North America on explorers’ ships. For unknown reasons, it’s the only animal whose kidney can sustain continuous leptospira infections. The tubules of an infected rat’s kidney are lousy with bacteria and excrete hundreds of thousands in every drop of urine (10 million leptospira per milliliter, according to one study). Meanwhile, just 10 bacteria, injected into the abdomen, will send a laboratory hamster to violently hemorrhagic death within days. Leptospira is in a family of spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, along with the bugs that cause syphilis and Lyme disease.

Like Pilgrims in the New World, leptospira must first penetrate the host. Invisible in water, the bacterium enters the eyes, the nose, or scrapes in the skin. Then it disseminates, looking to colonize the kidney. Humans are a dead end; our kidneys aren’t the right environment for them to set up and multiply. Like colonies at Jamestown, Roanoke, and Popham, the bacteria get ambushed or die of starvation, and the infection is usually cleared within a month if it isn’t fatal.

According to the hypothesis, infected ship rats landed in the New World and excreted leptospira, infecting raccoons, mink, and muskrats whose urine further contaminated any standing fresh water. It is unclear why this particular infectious disease should afflict Native Americans and not subsequent European colonists. Prior exposure does not necessarily result in immunity because there are a number of different infectious strains.

A clue might lie in the way these different cultures interacted with natural environments. The Wampanoag gathered sharp-edged clams, skinned pelts from beaver and deer, canoed through streams, and were much fonder of bathing than were Europeans of that era. And they likely spent time hand-picking wild cranberries from bogs on Cape Cod. Wampanoag have long had seasonal feasts of thanksgiving, one of which celebrates the cranberry harvest. There is some evidence that cranberries were also used medicinally—raw, ground into a poultice, and applied to open wounds. Although modern research suggests that cranberries can be a potent antimicrobial, that might not have been enough to slay the spirochete. The more leptospira that initially invade the bloodstream (possibly via direct contact with berries), the more likely the disease is to be fatal.

While experts have an academic discussion, many modern Wampanoag have no doubt that the 1616-1619 epidemic was real. Robert Charlebois, a Canadian Abenaki Indian who works at Plimoth Plantation 2 miles down the road from Plymouth Rock, is well aware of the leptospirosis hypothesis. He is certain it is true. Moccasins are water permeable, he says, and being in touch with the land and nature exposed the Wampanoag in ways that Pilgrims, with their thick-soled boots, would not have encountered.
The Pilgrims Should Have Been Thankful for a Spirochete (Slate)

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