Science digest | Birds may have been dead drunk
It's a case fit for wildlife CSI: 55 robins, all dead within a few nearby backyards in Portland's Mount Tabor neighborhood. Toxic spill spill? Mystery...
PORTLAND — It's a case fit for wildlife CSI: 55 robins, all dead within a few nearby backyards in Portland's Mount Tabor neighborhood.
Maybe not. The leading theory is the birds were fatally intoxicated, said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland's wildlife care center, where the birds ended up last week.
That's right: The birds drank themselves to death.
Not from a bottle, though. The birds' bellies were chock full of holly berries, skins and seeds. Sallinger isn't dismissing other explanations yet, but the current thinking is that the birds ate aged and fermented berries that killed them.
Lethal doses of ethanol may have formed in the berries as natural sugars fermented over the fall and winter.
Holly berries are not a prime robin food, Sallinger said, but the birds could have turned to them as a last resort when last week's icy weather froze the ground and made it tough to dig for worms and other preferred meals.
The robins travel in flocks this time of year, so they could have gobbled the berries together last week.
They may have died from ethanol poisoning directly or dropped into such a stupor and died of exposure.
Transplant recipients growing older
Transplant surgeons are increasingly pushing age limits and putting organs into older and older bodies as the baby boomers seek, and demand, cutting-edge care.
"Twenty years ago, if you had asked me to transplant a 70- or 75-year-old with a kidney, I would have said no. Now we transplant people into their early 80s," says Michael Shapiro, a transplant surgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center and vice chairman of the ethics committee for the United Network for Organ Sharing.
"If you look at what has happened in all organs over the past 25 years, we have broadened our horizons," Shapiro says.
The dilemma, he says, is doctors must often decide whether to give an organ to a person who has lived a full life or to a younger patient with potentially more life to live.
A study published Monday in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery presented one solution — giving older patients imperfect organs — that has been worked out by lung-transplant surgeons at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Their elderly patients had "acceptable" survival rates according to the study, which found that 73.6 percent of their elderly lung recipients were alive three years after surgery, compared with 74.2 percent of younger patients.
The study also points to changes that might raise elderly patient survival.
"This is the first report to suggest that the idea that younger patients do better than older patients may not be valid in 2008," says Abbas Ardehali, one of the study authors and director of the UCLA Lung Transplant Program.
"In the rest of medicine, we don't discriminate due to age. In transplant, we have to because of the limited organ supply."
The team reviewed medical records of 100 patients who received lung transplants between March 2000 and September 2006 as the percentage of elderly patients getting transplants rose at UCLA.
The study found that surgeons usually gave elderly patients one lung instead of two and that they transplanted less-than-perfect lungs into the elderly patients.
The elderly patients consented to getting an organ that was often not considered good enough for a younger patient.
"We try to take organs we would not use in a younger patient," Ardehali says. "That is how I can morally justify this to myself."
The study found the largest difference in survival between the two age groups within the first year.
The researchers say that appears to point to the need to change the drug regimen for older lung recipients.
Cattle affliction nearly wiped out
WASHINGTON — A disease that can sicken cattle and cause them to abort their calves is nearly eradicated in all 50 states, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Considered one of the most serious livestock diseases, brucellosis is a contagious disease that can spread from animals to humans.
Its main threat is to cattle, bison and swine — causing decreased milk production, infertility, lameness and loss of young. There is no known treatment.
The Department of Agriculture announced that Texas was the last state to become "brucellosis free" last week, saying it is the first time in 74 years that all states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have reached that status for commercial herds.
Still, the disease could pose threats in the West, where the presence of brucellosis in free-ranging bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park could affect herds in surrounding states.
If brucellosis is found in more than one herd of cattle in a brucellosis-free state within two years, the state loses its brucellosis-free status and may face restrictions on interstate cattle movement.
Montana discovered the disease in a herd in May 2007.
Black Death preyed upon the weak
The Black Death ravaged Europe in the middle of the 14th century, killing as much as half of the population in some areas.
Many experts have thought the plague was so deadly that it killed indiscriminately, taking the strong as often as the weak, but new research is challenging that notion.
Sharon DeWitte of the University at Albany and James Wood of Pennsylvania State University analyzed 490 skeletons excavated from the East Smithfield cemetery in London, which was established exclusively to bury victims of the plague.
The researchers determined the health of the victims by examining defects in their bones, features that can indicate other health or nutritional problems. They compared the skeletons with those of 291 similar individuals buried at a Danish cemetery shortly before the plague began.
Although healthy people did die from the plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the researchers found that the epidemic was more likely to kill people made vulnerable because they were already ill or malnourished, according to a report published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although this finding seems unsurprising, some global epidemics, such as the 1918 flu, have taken an unusually high toll among young, healthy people.
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