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Photo: Dean Paton.
At Sam Wasser’s University of Washington office, maps show where ivory poaching occurs and where the contraband is exported. Dr. Wasser’s DNA work revealed that most ivory comes from east and west-central Africa.

It’s sad to read that gangs with powerful tentacles in every country are deeply embedded in the trafficking of endangered species. But on the other side, you know, environmental warriors have superpowers of their own, powers that go beyond righteous indignation.

Dean Paton writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “When Sam Wasser was a young biologist studying baboons in Tanzania, he never imagined he would one day lead an international force cracking down on the smuggling of illegal goods, from elephant ivory to pangolins and timber.

“Yet fighting transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs in law enforcement parlance, is exactly what he’s doing today, all because of his passion for animals.

“And because he discovered how to extract DNA from elephant poop.

“Today, Dr. Wasser is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. But in 1989 he was observing environmental stresses on baboons when Tanzania launched … a ‘brutal crackdown’ on elephant poaching rings. Tanzania battles a reputation for being among a handful of worst offenders in Asia and Africa that fuel the illegal ivory trade.   

“[The crackdown] had unexpected consequences. ‘All of a sudden our baboons started to be killed by leopards at an incredibly high rate,’ Dr. Wasser says. … The team realized the leopards had mostly ignored the local baboon fare while feasting on the remains of elephants left by poachers, who took only the tusks.  

“The decline in elephant carrion and subsequent decimation of the baboon troops ‘made me realize how significant poaching really was on all levels,’ he says, ‘and on all the other species that were similarly affected by the ecological cascade of events.’

“A self-described ‘animal nerd,’ Dr. Wasser points out that elephants are ‘some of the smartest animals around,’ he says. ‘They can recognize themselves in a mirror. You can put a spot on their forehead, and they’ll look in a mirror and they’ll wipe it off. That’s a high cognitive ability.’ But ‘we lost over 100,000 elephants from 2007 to 2015. There are currently an estimated 415,000 elephants remaining in Africa.’

“Dr. Wasser explains that poachers often go back and kill members of the same elephant families – so frequently that he believes it creates a form of elephant PTSD.

“Elephants also exhibit a strong interest in their dead. ‘They’ll go and they’ll just explore the carcasses of elephants. … It’s just too hard to watch, and the fact that we’re developing ways to potentially stop it – it keeps me going.’

“For the baboon studies, Dr. Wasser used hormones from animal dung to help understand their reproductive successes or failures. That work led Dr. Wasser to think, ‘You know, I could apply these tools to elephants. … You could then go and collect dung samples from elephants across the continent, genotype all the samples, and essentially create a DNA map,’ he explains. ‘And we could then get the DNA from the ivory to match to the map.’ …

“By 1997 Dr. Wasser had cracked the code and published one of the first papers on extracting DNA from elephant feces, and ‘right around the same time we were moving forward to see if we could develop methods to get DNA out of ivory.’

“Dr. Wasser’s team got its first break in 2005: Bill Clark, chair of Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, asked for help analyzing a shipment of ivory intercepted three years earlier in Singapore. It had been the largest seizure of ivory to date, about 6 tons, which included 40,000 carved hankos – also called chops – small pieces of ivory used throughout Asia to ink one’s name or seal on correspondence. Each would fetch about $200 retail, making the hankos alone worth $8 million.

“Until Dr. Wasser and his colleagues employed their emerging science to analyze that seizure, the biologist says ‘everyone’ believed these tusks were coming from all across Africa. But, using their dung-to-DNA analyses, ‘that’s not what we found.’

“Dr. Wasser’s game-changing work helped law enforcement realize the ivory was coming from a small number of specific areas in east and west-central Africa – yet was being shipped out of ports on either side of the continent. …

” ‘People don’t understand the intricate structure in wildlife crime,’ explains Rod Khattabi, a former homeland security agent who now runs the Justice Initiative for the Grace Farms Foundation, which partners with Dr. Wasser to train law enforcement agencies in Africa. … Wildlife criminals operate like independent cells, which makes arresting disparate elements of the syndicate tougher.

“ ‘That’s why Sam is so critical – because he can connect the dots,’ Mr. Khattabi says. ‘He’ll tell me, “Rod, this stuff is coming from Rwanda” even if it shipped out of Togo. He can almost pinpoint where the elephant got killed.’ …

“Dr. Wasser’s sleuthing has expanded beyond elephants. ‘The work that we were doing with the illegal ivory trade – we realized it was relevant to all of these other species that are all coming out of Africa,’ he says. ‘Same problem: transnational criminals shipping it on containers – and us needing to really get the transnational criminals.’

“In 2021, with funding from the Washington State Legislature, Dr. Wasser and his colleagues formed the Center for Environmental Forensic Science. ‘There were also other tools that other scientists were using that could complement what we’re doing,’ he says. ‘Now we’ve got over 40 scientists from the University of Washington alone that are part of our center’ using an array of synergistic methods including isotopes, chemistry, and handheld DNA detectors to fight a spectrum of crimes.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
Archaeologists and members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe worked together on a project that revealed the longstanding genetic roots of some of the region’s Native peoples. 

As I learn more about what our dominant culture has done to native tribes, the thing that really gets me is how recent some of the travesties have occurred — and for what stupid reasons. For example, a 1927 California official deciding they “didn’t need land.” Read on.

Jane Recker writes at the Smithsonian Magazine that “for decades, a misperception that the San Francisco Bay Area’s Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was ‘extinct’ barred its living members from receiving federal recognition.

“Soon, however, that might change. As Celina Tebor reports for USA Today, a new DNA analysis shows a genetic through line between 2,000-year-old skeletons found in California and modern-day Muwekma Ohlone people.

“The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, flies in the face of more than a century of misconceptions about the tribe and its people’s long history.

“ ‘The study reaffirms the Muwekma Ohlone’s deep-time ties to the area, providing evidence that disagrees with linguistic and archaeological reconstructions positing that the Ohlone are late migrants to the region,’ write the authors in the paper.

“Members of the tribe, scholars and the public are hailing the work as a chance to correct the record — and perhaps open up opportunities for the tribe to regain federal recognition. …

“The tribe’s history mirrors that of other Native Californians. After more than 10,000 years in the area, Native people were forced to submit to colonization and Christian indoctrination — first by the Spaniards, who arrived in 1776, and then, beginning in the 19th century, by settlers from the growing United States.

“As a result, the Ohlone and other Native groups lost significant numbers to disease and forced labor. Before European contact, at least 300,000 Native people who spoke 135 distinct dialects lived in what is now California, per the Library of Congress. By 1848, that number had been halved. Just 25 years later, in 1873, only 30,000 remained. Now, USA Today reports, there are just 500 members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

“The Ohlone people once lived on about 4.3 million acres in the Bay Area. But federal negligence and anthropologist A.L. Kroeber’s 1925 assessment that Native Californians were ‘extinct for all practical purposes’ caused the federal government to first strip the Muwekma Ohlone of their land, then deny them federal recognition, writes Les W. Field, a cultural anthropologist who collaborates with the Muwekma Ohlone, in the Wicazo Sa Review.

“Even though Kroeber recanted his erroneous statement in the 1950s, the lasting damage from his diagnosis meant the very much not-extinct members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe never regained federal recognition, according to the New York Times’ Sabrina Imbler.

“The new research could change that. It arose after the 2014 selection of a site for a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission educational facility. The area likely contained human remains, triggering a California policy that requires developers to contact the most likely descendants of people buried in Native American sites before digging or building. When officials contacted the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, its members requested a study of two settlement areas — Síi Túupentak (Place of the Water Round House Site) and Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (Place of the Stream of the Lagoon Site).

“Experts from Stanford University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, cultural resources consulting firm Far Western Anthropological Research Group and other institutions led the research. But members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe were involved in every aspect of the study. …

“Researchers and tribe members alike commented on the unique nature of the collaboration.

“ ‘When you’re a student doing the work, it’s not common to have this kind of direct connection to the people who are “the data” that you’re working with,’ says lead author Alissa Severson, a doctoral student at Stanford University at the time of the research, in a statement. ‘We got to have that dialogue, where we could discuss what we’re doing and what we found, and how that makes sense with their history. I felt very lucky to be working on this project.’ …

“The team analyzed the DNA of 12 individuals buried between 300 and 1,900 years ago, then compared the genomes to those of a variety of Indigenous Americans. They found ‘genetic continuity’ between all 12 individuals studied and eight modern-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe members. …

“Tribe members hope the new evidence of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s longstanding connection to the land — and their ancestors — will spur politicians to finally recognize the tribe. According to an official tribal website, Muwekma Ohlone families started the reapplication process in the early 1980s and officially petitioned the U.S. government for recognition in 1995. Despite filing a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe is still not recognized by the U.S. government.

“Co-author Alan Leventhal, a tribal ethnohistorian and archaeologist who works with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, tells USA Today he’s hopeful this new research will help cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape that’s been delaying the tribe’s petition.”

There’s more at the New York Times, where Sabrina Imbler notes, “The Muwekma can trace their ancestry through several missions in the Bay Area and resided on small settlements called rancherias until the early 1900s, Leventhal said.

“The tribe had once been federally recognized under a different name, the Verona Band of Alameda County. But it lost recognition after 1927, when a superintendent from Sacramento determined that the Muwekma and more than 100 other tribal bands did not need land, effectively terminating the tribe’s formal federal recognition, Mr. Leventhal said. ‘The tribe was never terminated by any act of Congress,’ he added. …

” ‘The cost of living is pushing us out,’ Ms. Nijmeh, the tribe’s chairwoman, said. ‘Recognition means that we will be able to have a land base and have a community village and have our people stay on our lands in their rightful place.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here, and at the Times, here.

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Photo: Houston Chronicle.
Ron Wooten of Galveston is a guy with a heavy dose of curiosity. His determination to learn more about the pack that killed his dog led to a surprising scientific discovery.

You may have already heard about the discovery in today’s story, but for me, the real story is about an ordinary guy and his insatiable curiosity.

After his dog was killed by a pack of coyotes, Ron Wooten went out searching for the pack, observed they looked different from normal coyotes, began a hunt to collect their DNA, and spent years trying to convince scientists that he had discovered something new. A true citizen scientist.

Emily Anthes wrote about him at the New York Times.

“From a distance, the canids of Galveston Island, Texas, look almost like coyotes, prowling around the beach at night, eyes gleaming in the dark.

“But look closer and oddities appear. The animals’ bodies seem slightly out of proportion, with overly long legs, unusually broad heads and sharply pointed snouts. And then there is their fur, distinctly reddish in hue, with white patches on their muzzles.

“The Galveston Island canids are not conventional coyotes — at least, not entirely. They carry a ghostly genetic legacy: DNA from red wolves, which were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

“For years, these genes have been hiding in plain sight. … Their discovery, which came after a determined local resident persuaded scientists to take a closer look at the canids, could help revive a captive breeding program for red wolves and restore the rich genetic variation that once existed in the wild population.

“ ‘It doesn’t seem to be lost any longer,’ said Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, referring to the genetic diversity that once characterized red wolves. …

“Ron Wooten, a Galveston resident, never paid close attention to the local coyotes until they ran off with his dog one night in 2008. ‘A pack took him and carried him off,’ recalled Mr. Wooten, an outreach specialist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“He found the pack, and what remained of his dog, in a nearby field. He was horrified, and he blamed himself for his dog’s death. But as his flashlight swept over the coyotes’ red muzzles, he found himself fascinated.

“Determined to learn more, he posted a message on Facebook asking his neighbors to alert him if they spotted the animals. Eventually, a friend came through: There was a pack near her apartment building.

“Mr. Wooten raced over with his camera, snapping photographs as he watched a group of pups chasing each other. ‘They were just beautiful,’ he said.

“But when he looked more carefully at the photos, he began to wonder whether the so-called coyotes were really coyotes at all.

‘They just didn’t look right,’ he said. ‘I thought at first that they must have bred with Marmaduke or something because they had super-long legs, super-long noses.’

“Mr. Wooten, a former fisheries biologist, started reading up on the local wildlife and stumbled across the history of red wolves. Once abundant in the southeastern United States, the wolves had dwindled in number during the 20th century — a result of habitat loss, hunting and other threats.

“In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a last-ditch effort to save the species, traveling along the Gulf Coast and trapping all the red wolves it could find. Scientists selected some of the animals for a breeding program, in hopes of maintaining the red wolf in captivity.

“Mr. Wooten became convinced that the creatures that had taken his dog were actually red wolf-coyote hybrids, if not actual red wolves.

“Eager to prove his hypothesis, he began looking for dead canids by the side of the road. ‘I was thinking that if these are red wolves then the only way they’re going to be able to tell is with genetics,’ he recalled.

“He soon found two dead animals, collected a small patch of skin from each and tucked them away in his freezer while he tried, for years, to pique scientists’ interest. …

“Eventually, in 2016, Mr. Wooten’s photos made their way to Dr. vonHoldt, an expert on canid genetics. The animals in Mr. Wooten’s photos immediately struck her. They ‘just had a special look,’ she said. ‘And I bit. The whole thing — hook, line and sinker.’ …

“Dr. vonHoldt and her colleagues extracted DNA from the skin samples and compared it to DNA from coyotes, red wolves, gray wolves and eastern wolves. Although the two Galveston Island canids were mostly coyote, they had significant red wolf ancestry; roughly 30 percent of their genetic material was from the wolves, they found. …

“Mr. Wooten was thrilled. ‘It blew me away,’ he said.

“Even more remarkable, some of the genetic variants, or alleles, the Galveston animals carried were not present in any of the other North American canids the researchers analyzed, including the contemporary red wolves. The scientists theorize that these alleles were passed down from the wild red wolves that used to roam the region.

“ ‘They harbor ancestral genetic variation, this ghost variation, which we thought was extinct from the landscape,’ Dr. vonHoldt said. ‘So there’s a sense of reviving what we thought was gone.’ “

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Natasha de Vere & Col Ford, Barcode Wales, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Samples of an organism’s genome are obtained in the field, before being brought back to the lab for the barcoding process.

Some years ago, I learned that students at High Tech High, which involves kids in real-world projects (click here), were helping rangers in Africa to identify poached meat with a DNA test they had developed. Turns out, using DNA that way was just the beginning of its possibilities for the environment.

According to the radio show Living on Earth, the 1.3 million species that have been identified and recorded on Planet Earth are just a small fraction of what exists. So host Steve Curwood decided to look at how DNA is helping to catalog many more.

“CURWOOD: To make it easier to identify species, the International Barcode of Life Consortium is using a technique known as DNA barcoding. It can give a quick readout that tells whether a sampled organism is known to modern science, and if not, provide a marker to register it as a newly discovered life form. Paul Hebert is the molecular biologist who developed DNA barcoding.

“Paul, welcome to Living on Earth. Take us through the process of DNA barcoding. You find an organism you want to identify, and then?

Photo: LarissaFruehe, Wikimedia Commons.

“HEBERT: [You] might just touch it … and pick up enough of its DNA. [But] in the case of smaller organisms, where we may be prepared to sacrifice them, and where we want to have a voucher specimen in a collection that we can look at and photograph and analyze in other ways, we might remove a tiny piece of tissue. If it were an insect, six legs, remove one of those legs and extract the DNA from that. That’s a fairly simple process. When you do that DNA extraction, of course, you get all of the DNA in the genome. … In the case of an insect, it might be 500 million base pairs. And we just want to read 500 of them. And you can think of the whole genome as sort of a book of life. And we want to read just one of those pages. So to do that, we use the polymerase chain reaction, which basically Xerox copies a selected page in that much larger book of life. And that prepares [for] sequencing the DNA. …

“CURWOOD: Where can that information go from there? And what can it do? …

“HEBERT: It was important to develop an informatics platform that’s now been adopted by the global community. It’s a platform called the Barcode of Life Data System, acronym ‘BOLD’. And basically, all of the data from each individual specimen go into that database, together with an image of the specimen and where it was collected, and by whom; all of the details. And so, let’s say you begin by sequencing an American Robin, next time you were to encounter a feather on your lawn that happened to derive from that bird species, you would get a connection to that reference sequence in the bar code library, in BOLD. …

The idea is to build up this reference library, so it has representative sequences for every species on our planet. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing now.

“CURWOOD: Now, of course, this is a very handy approach in academia with nice big laboratories. What about somebody who’s in the field? How useful is this? …

“HEBERT: In Kruger National Park, [the rangers who] normally are involved in suppressing poaching of rhinoceroses joined in a massive collection program that gathered up about a million specimens from that largest national park in South Africa … and we then translated those specimens into barcode records and built a DNA barcode reference library for Kruger National Park. … In the future, [you’re] going to be able to take a walk through the woods with your kids or your grandkids and see an organism and simply touch it and from its DNA barcode sequence, gain its identity. …

“CURWOOD: What’s your biggest surprise now, in this project? …

“HEBERT: For a very long time, it has been argued that beetles were the most diverse group of insects, the most diverse order of insects. … But it turns out that’s wrong. Barcoding revealed that flies are by far the most diverse group of insects. And [one] particular group of flies, gall midges, are hugely diverse, more diverse than all of the beetles on our planet. [And] one of the earliest studies that we did in Costa Rica involved a beautiful iridescent blue butterfly that for the last 200 years has been regarded as a single species. [When] we barcoded that species, we found that in fact, it was 10 species, not one. There’s a lot of hidden diversity, even within the large species that we share on this planet, when you move down to the small stuff, it’s massive discovery.

“CURWOOD: Now, the International Barcode of Life Consortium has this mission of identifying each and every species on Earth using barcoding. What is the ultimate goal of the project? …

“HEBERT: Creating that reference sequence library for all species on the planet is going to place us in a position where it’s going to be possible for us to set up global bio surveillance system. So we can track what humanity is doing to the other life forms. … I see detailed information on the shifts in biodiversity that are happening on our planet motivating humanity to take the action needed to do better. …

“CURWOOD: Paul Hebert is a molecular biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, and science director of the International Barcode of Life Consortium. Thank you so much, Paul, for taking the time with us today.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock.
This is a Bryde’s whale, related to the newly described whale species called Rice’s whales. Rice’s whales were previously believed to be a population of Bryde’s but were recently found to be a whole new species.

Lately, I’ve noticed how many mainstream publications reuse stories from other publications, which helps me feel less guilty sharing others’ work at Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog. As a former magazine editor myself, I am pretty scrupulous about providing links and credits and not using the whole original piece.

And if the use of a photo is blocked, I try to find a different photo elsewhere. But I must say that blocking your photo reduces the number of ways people online can find your article.

In an article from Hakai magazine (an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems), Joshua Rapp Learn reported on a unique whale. I learned about it from a reprint at the Guardian.

“Genetic analysis and a close examination of the skulls from a group of baleen whales in the north-eastern Gulf of Mexico have revealed that they are a new species.

“ ‘I was surprised that there could be an unrecognized species of whale out there, especially in our backyard,’ says Lynsey Wilcox, a geneticist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who helped uncover the new species. ‘I never imagined I would be describing a new species in my career, so it is a very exciting discovery.’

“The newly described whales weren’t exactly hiding in plain sight. With a population estimated at fewer than 100, the new whales – which researchers have dubbed Rice’s whales after American biologist Dale Rice – aren’t commonly seen even in the corner of the Gulf of Mexico they call home. It doesn’t help that the whales, previously believed to be a population of Bryde’s whales, have a feeding strategy that takes them deep under the water around DeSoto Canyon, about 100km south of Mobile, Alabama.

“Researchers have long known that this group of Bryde’s-like whales in the Gulf of Mexico was different. They seemed to mostly stay put in the north-eastern corner of the gulf, and didn’t mingle with Bryde’s whales, which … typically forage near the surface.

“But it’s difficult even for experts to tell large baleen whales apart in the field – so much so that Bryde’s whales sometimes get confused with fin whales, says John Hildebrand, a biological oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego who was not involved in the recent study. …

“Wilcox’s colleagues first began collecting tissue samples from Rice’s whales in 2000, eventually collecting samples from 36 different individuals.

Comparing their genes with Bryde’s whales, Wilcox says she and her colleagues ‘noticed that they weren’t quite what was expected.’

“To compare their morphologies, the scientists inspected skeletons held in museums. Then, in January 2019, an 11-meter-long Rice’s whale washed up on a key in the Florida Everglades. Examining the whales’ skulls revealed some differences in the shape and size of the bone material around the blowhole. …

“Rice’s whales are already considered endangered by the United States. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act as a population of Bryde’s whales in April 2019, and the discovery that they are a distinct species is unlikely to change much – other than requiring an update of their name. Living in the Gulf of Mexico, the whales face threats from oil spills, ship strikes, ocean noise and entanglement in fishing gear.

“Hildebrand says the whales are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes because they have the ‘unfortunate habit’ of sleeping at night just under the sea’s surface. … Hildebrand speculates that the whales might once have been more widespread in areas with deeper water, but they are now holing up in an area that sees less ship traffic.

“ ‘They are the most endangered, or nearly the most endangered, baleen whales in US waters,’ Hildebrand says. ‘In terms of the responsibility for the health of the whale, it really does fall on us.’ ”

Read some really wonderful stories about sea life at hakaimagazine.com.

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Photo: University of York
A UK lab is learning what the DNA in old books has to tell us about the past. Even the beeswax used in seals is rich with data, including the flowers that grew in that region year to year.

Do you know what set you on your career? As an oldest child, I spent a certain amount of time explaining things, and I liked making a school for my dolls. Although I ended up as an editor for many years, I started my worklife as a teacher and am now back to volunteer work as a teacher.

The scientist in the following story got launched on his passion after watching the movie Jaws.

Sarah Zhang writes at the Atlantic, “It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

“Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. …

“In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence has enriched — and complicated — stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death. It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn’t just interested in human remains. He’s interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.

“That’s why he was studying DNA from the bones of livestock — and why his lab is now at the forefront of studying DNA from objects such as parchment, birch-bark tar, and beeswax. … With ample genetic data, you might reconstruct a more complete picture of life hundreds of years in the past.

“Collins splits his time between Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, and it’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of -ologist he is. He has a knack for gathering experts as diverse as parchment specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, archivists, economic historians, and protein scientists (his own background). ‘All I do is connect people together,’ he said. …

“Collins began his scientific career studying marine biology, thanks to a formative teenage viewing of Jaws. He specialized first in marine fossils and, later, in the ancient proteins hidden inside them. This turned out to be a dead end. For the most part, the fossils were too old and the proteins no longer intact enough to study. He was forced to look at younger and younger material, until he crossed from paleontology into archaeology. He applied the techniques of protein analysis to pottery shards, in which he found milk proteins that hinted at the diet of the people who used those pots.

“Collins quickly realized that DNA held even more potential than ancient proteins, which can be ‘a blunt tool compared to DNA.’ The DNA of any single animal is, after all, a library coding for all the proteins their cells can make. …

“When Collins embarked on the parchment project, he gathered a team that included geneticists as well as archivists, bookmakers, and historians.

“It didn’t take long for the group to hit their first culture clash. In science and archaeology, destructive sampling is at least tolerated, if not encouraged. But book conservators were not going to let people in white coats come in and cut up their books. Instead of giving up or fighting through it, Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoctoral research fellow working with Collins, shadowed conservationists for several weeks. She saw that they used white Staedtler erasers to clean the manuscripts, and wondered whether that rubbed off enough DNA to do the trick. It did; the team found a way to extract DNA and proteins from eraser crumbs, a compromise that satisfied everyone.”

Read how the research evolved, here.

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It’s amazing what you can learn from DNA. Recently, scientists have been collecting insights from camel DNA about how camel ancestors were used on ancient trade routes.

Victoria Gill writes at the BBC, “Scientists examined DNA samples from more than 1,000 one-humped camels. Despite populations being hundreds of miles apart, they were genetically very similar. Scientists explained that centuries of cross-continental trade had led to this ‘blurring’ of genetics.

“The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“One of the team, Prof Olivier Hanotte, from Nottingham University, explained that what made the dromedary so biologically fascinating was its close link to human history.

” ‘They have moved with people, through trading,’ he told BBC News. ‘So by analysing dromedaries, we can find a signature of our own past. … Our international collaboration meant we were able to get samples from West Africa, Pakistan, Oman and even Syria.’ …

” ‘People would travel hundreds of miles with their camels carrying all their precious goods. And when they reached the Mediterranean, the animals would be exhausted.

” ‘So they would leave those animals to recover and take new animals for their return journey.’

“This caused centuries of genetic ‘shuffling’, making dromedaries that are separated by entire continents remarkably similar.

“Crucially, this has also ensured that the animals maintained their genetic diversity — constantly mixing up the population. This means that dromedaries are likely to be much more adaptable in the face of a changing environment. …

” ‘The dromedary will be our better option for livestock production of meat and milk. It could replace cattle and even sheep and goats that are less well-adapted.’ ”

More at the BBC website, here.

Photo: Mark Payne/Gill/NPL
Ships of the desert: camels provide transport, milk and food in arid, hostile environments

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