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China's Art, From Museum Exhibits to Rock Concerts, Moves Online During Coronavirus Outbreak

Smithsonian Magazine

The outbreak of a novel coronavirus has caused weeks of anxiety and quarantine in China. People are staying home to limit the spread of the illness, recently named COVID-19. Venues that normally draw large crowds have shut their doors indefinitely, and events like concerts and an international art fair have been canceled.

But the country’s ban on public gatherings hasn’t completely shuttered China’s cultural landscape. Instead, the action is increasingly moving online. From museum exhibitions to live concerts, the country’s art scene is connecting communities in the digital sphere.

In January, the Chinese government issued a letter directing museums to “enrich the people’s spiritual and cultural life during the epidemic [with] cloud exhibitions” that display previously planned gallery programming, reports Caroline Goldstein for artnet News. At that point, two museum openings in China had been postponed, and Hong Kong had closed all public institutions.

Now, sites including the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, the Chongqing Natural History Museum and the National Museum in Beijing have all opted to increase their digital offerings. Some sites, like the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum, are only accessible from mainland China, according to Maggie Hiufu Wong of CNN. But about 100 online exhibits can be accessed from anywhere via China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration website.

An extensive lineup of special exhibitions had been planned for the Forbidden City’s 600th anniversary. One of those, focused on the Spring Festival, is accessible online in Chinese, as is a 3-D tour of the Forbidden City complex. The terracotta warriors of Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi’an and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall are among the other museums available for virtual visits.

Live concerts similarly shut down by measures to reduce the spread of the virus are also moving online. A legendary punk rock venue called VOX Livehouse came up with the idea of livestreaming a concert, reports Hyperallergic’s Krish Raghav. The concert hall is located in Wuhan, arguably the center of Chinese punk-rock culture—and the city where the new coronavirus was first identified.

VOX’s initial “live-streamed music festival” has sparked a nationwide trend of similar events. As Hyperallergic reports, musicians, record labels, venues and clubs alike are organizing “bedroom music festivals” and livestreamed club nights featuring pop, techno, punk and experimental improvisation.

“It’s like going to a karaoke parlor or being in a mosh pit without leaving your house,” singer He Fan of Beijing band Birdstriking tells Hyperallergic.

Fan’s band performed an acoustic set for a livestream event called “Strawberry Z,” which derives its name from China’s biggest annual outdoor music festival, Strawberry. The event, called “I’m at Home, Too,” in Chinese, is a five-day music festival hosted on the short video app Bilibili. As the video plays, viewers can participate by contributing to the stream of comments floating onscreen. Bilibili has offered 100,000 free memberships to people living in quarantine in the hope of connecting people and alleviating boredom and anxiety caused by the spread of COVID-19.

“Some artists have also been invited to livestream their lives while staying at home during the outbreak such as cooking, exercising, playing games and many other fun ways to kill time,” says a Bilibili spokesman to Variety’s Patrick Frater. “The cooking segments will be streaming during the evening around dinnertime.”

Newly Mapped Koala Genome Unlocks Secrets of Marsupial’s Diet, Susceptibility to Chlamydia

Smithsonian Magazine

Koalas are some of the most beloved creatures in the animal kingdom—with their soft gray fur and cherubic faces, the marsupials exude enough charm to sustain a $1.1 billion tourism industry in their home country of Australia. But beyond these fuzzy exteriors, koalas hide an array of unusual characteristics, from a eucalyptus-based diet (the leaves are poisonous to most other mammals) to a deadly susceptibility to chlamydia.

Now, a consortium of 54 scientists from 29 institutions has assembled the first complete koala genome, unlocking some of the animal’s most enigmatic secrets. The team’s findings, published yesterday in Nature Genetics, map out all 26,000 genes in the koala genome. Comparatively, Matt McGrath notes for the BBC, humans have about 20,000 genes.

Rebecca Johnson, founder of the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics and lead author of the paper, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Deborah Netburn that scientists hope to use the genome to ensure the koala’s long-term survival.

“The ultimate goal is that we won’t have to use ‘emergency room conservation’ and rescue them from the brink of extinction,” Johnson says. “Now we have a really good understanding of the koala genome, and we are in a fantastic position to use that knowledge to help us manage them.”

Current estimates of Australia’s koala population range from 100,000 to 600,000, Johnson tells Popular Science’s Kat Eschner. That may sound like a lot, but the Australian Museum expects these numbers to decline by 50 percent in the next 20 years, Netburn reports.

Two of the major issues precipitating this decline are habitat destruction and an ongoing chlamydia epidemic. Because koalas survive on a diet of eucalyptus leaves, they require specific kinds of habitats—according to Science News’ Tina Hesman Saey, koalas will only eat about 20 of more than 600 species of eucalyptus.

Although the high level of toxins found in eucalyptus would prove fatal to most animals, the newly mapped genome reveals that koalas have extra copies of detoxifying genes. The critters’ picky eating tendencies also come down to genes: Eschner writes that koalas have a strong sense of smell and taste, which allows them to evaluate leaves based on their bitterness and water content, choosing the juiciest ones.

According to Netburn, the koala’s detoxification genes also mean it metabolizes medications such as anti-chlamydia antibiotics faster than most animals, which helps to explain why the disease has been so hard to treat in koalas. Whereas humans might benefit from a single dose of medicine, koalas would require a daily dose for 30 to 45 days. There are additional problems associated with antibiotics, National Geographic’s Alejandra Borunda reports—in some cases, the medicines have reduced koalas’ ability to break down eucalyptus leaves, thereby rendering them unable to digest their main food source.

Chlamydia, a bacterial disease that has ravaged koala populations in Queensland and New South Wales, produces a number of devastating effects. McGrath writes that victims can experience blindness, infertility and “dirty tail,” a painful urinary tract inflammation.

Adult koalas get chlamydia the same way that humans do, reports Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience: through sexual transmission. Immature koalas can become infected when they eat pap, a special kind of feces excreted by koala moms to nourish their joeys.

Although koalas appear to be plagued by a disproportionate number of environmental and genetic issues, the new genome offers hope to koala conservationists worldwide.

“All our efforts in the whole koala research community to develop a [chlamydia] vaccine ... [have] been limited by the fact that we don’t know enough about their immune system,” Willa Huston, a microbiologist at the University of Technology Sydney, tells Borunda. “Now that we have an understanding of the thousands of genes involved in the immune response, we can use evidence and science to craft a targeted vaccine.”

Twitter May Be Faster Than FEMA Models for Tracking Disaster Damage

Smithsonian Magazine

Social media is useful for more than just connecting with old high school friends and sharing cat videos. Twitter has become the go-to platform for breaking news on everything from the Boston Marathon bombing to the flyby of Pluto.

Now, research reveals that Twitter can also be used for rapid damage tracking after natural disasters—possibly even more quickly and expansively than similar assessments carried out by FEMA.

“It turns out the relationship between actual physical damage and the response online is quite strong,” says Yury Kryvasheyeu, a computational social scientist at Data61, an Australian digital and data innovation group. “You can get a quick, free signal that reliably maps the damage.” 

This isn’t the first time Kryvasheyeu and his colleagues have used social media to gain real-world insights. They previously examined unemployment, epidemics and social mobilization through the lens of Twitter and other platforms. But this is the first time they’ve carried out an analysis on such an intensive timescale.

Rapid response in areas hardest hit by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters can save lives and help first responders best allocate limited resources to places that are most in need. But traditional means used to identify high priority locales are surprisingly clumsy and expensive, often requiring personal visits to sites or aerial surveys.

Suspecting that social media could do a better job, Kryvasheyeu and his colleagues homed in on 2012's Hurricane Sandy as a case study. They accumulated more than 55 million geo-tagged tweets posted one week preceding and three weeks following the storm. The tweets included keywords such as "sandy", "frankenstorm", "flooding" and "damage".

The team standardized the data using demographic figures of neighborhood populations, which allowed them to directly compare the number of tweets from places that are heavily populated, like Manhattan, with places that are less densely packed. Finally, they consulted as many sources as possible on actual damage caused by the storm, including insurance claims and FEMA data.

As the researchers report today in Science Advances, combining the social media findings and the damage assessments on a map revealed significant overlap, with hardest hit areas also producing the most chatter on Twitter.

“For me, the biggest surprise was that this actually works so well, and that the signal is so strong,” Kryvasheyeu says.

An intensity map of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New Jersey area (red gradient), together with the hurricane track (solid line). (Yury Kryvasheyeu, Haohui Chen, Nick Obradovich, Esteban Moro, Pascal Van Hentenryck, James H. Fowler, Manuel Cebrian)

The researchers further verified their findings by performing the same exercise on all major disasters declared by FEMA in 2013 and 2014, including floods, tornadoes, a mudslide and an earthquake. They found that the method worked for 11 of the 12 events; the outlier—flooding in Alaska—was likely in an area too sparsely populated to produce a strong signal on Twitter.

The study exemplifies the use of “social media as a mirror reflecting society,” says Kristina Lerman, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the research. Although that reflection is sometimes more akin to “a funhouse mirror, distorting some segments of society,” it is still clear enough in many cases to derive accurate measurements on important topics, she says. 

First responders can begin using the method—using Twitter to identify hotspots during a disaster—immediately, Kryvasheyeu says, as implementing it requires nothing more than Twitter, openly available Census Bureau demographic data and some basic computer programming skills. More than that, though, Kryvasheyeu and his colleagues hope that Twitter itself may take up the effort in-house, as Google has done to help UNICEF map the spread of Zika virus. 

“There’s a trend now of big technology companies helping NGOs, because they have better engineers, computers and data,” says study co-author Manuel Cebrian, also a computational social scientist at Data61. “Our hope is that this is something Twitter can do in collaboration with emergency managers.”

Vial, Botulism Anti-Toxin

National Museum of American History
First Flight was a thoroughbred horse that was transformed by scientists into a living factory to produce botulism antitoxin from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

Originally a race horse, First Flight later worked as a caisson horse in military funerals at Arlington National Ceremony. After serving for a time in this capacity, he was found to be too skittish. In 1978, at the age of 10 years, First Flight was transferred to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Scientists at USAMRIID undertake defense research against biological weapons, and while there First Flight participated in efforts to produce a countermeasure against attack with botulinum toxin. As the most powerful natural poison known to exist, botulinum represents one of the greatest threats for biological warfare. Produced by the bacteria Clostradium botulinum, the toxin is responsible for botulism, a disease which results in paralysis and often death if not treated. (The powers of botulinum are also put to work in the popular drug Botox, which, when injected, reduces the appearance of wrinkles by paralyzing facial muscles.)

Researchers harnessed the power of First Flight’s immune system to produce the antitoxin. They injected him with altered less-toxic forms of the botulinum toxin in order to induce his body to produce antibodies against the attack. Antibodies are small, disease-specific proteins the body produces in order to recognize and help fight invading infectious agents. After First Flight produced sufficient botulinum antibodies to protect himself, scientists injected him with the real toxin, which boosted his production of antibodies even further.

First Flight was then carefully bled to obtain the antibodies from his blood. These antibodies, contained in his blood plasma, made up the key ingredient in antitoxin serum. Once purified, the serum could be injected into humans suffering from botulism in order to neutralize the effects of the botulinum toxin. This form of treatment, known as serum therapy, has been practiced since the late 19th century, when it was important in the fight against rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, and other illnesses.

In 1980 First Flight moved to a new home at the University of Minnesota Medical School, which specialized in harvesting horse antibodies. Nearly 16,000 liters of blood were removed from First Flight during his time at Minnesota, and he became the nation’s sole source of antitoxin against all seven forms of botulinum toxin. With the start of the Gulf War in 1991, First Flight’s antitoxin was shipped to Saudi Arabia to be at hand should Saddam Hussein order the use of botulinum toxin to attack U.S. troops. Thankfully, the serum did not need to be used.

First Flight eventually retired from service and returned to Fort Detrick, where he died at age 31 in his paddock on May 17, 1999, of natural causes.

Sources:

Accession File

“Race for a Remedy.” Crowley, Carolyn. Smithsonian Magazine. December 2000.

“Botulinum Toxin (Botulism) Fact Sheet.” University of Pittsburg Medical Center for Health Security. http://www.upmchealthsecurity.org/website/our_work/biological-threats-and-epidemics/fact_sheets/botulinum.html

Forbidden City and Parts of Great Wall Close Temporarily in China to Limit Spread of Coronavirus

Smithsonian Magazine

On January 24, authorities in China announced the closing of various tourist sites, including a high-traffic section of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City in Bejing and Shanghai Disney Resort. The decision is an effort to limit the spread of the so-called Wuhan coronavirus, Channel News Asia reports.

Public transportation has been stopped in 18 cities in Hubei province, and travel has stopped entirely out of Wuhan, the province’s capital and biggest city, per Asia Times. The disease—also called the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)—was first discovered in the city in December and originally linked to a wet market. However, a new study on the first 41 cases of the disease gives evidence that the virus may have jumped to humans days or weeks before the market, reports Jon Cohen at Science magazine.

The virus spreads through airborne droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so large crowds would pose a risk. Crowds are especially common this time of year, when people are travelling to see family and celebrate the Lunar New Year.

The Forbidden City is normally packed with tourists during the Lunar New Year festival, per CNA, and Shanghai Disneyland sold out last year, selling around 100,000 tickets during last year’s festivities, Reuter’s Judy Hua and Cate Cadell report. The Juyongguan section of the Great Wall has been closed, and the wall's temple fair was cancelled. Festivals in Wuhan and Beijing that normally attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually were also cancelled to limit spread of the disease.

But people are still travelling—even to Wuhan—to visit their families. One man who arrived in the outbreak’s epicenter by train told Reuters, “What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family.”

Over 4,400 cases of 2019-nCoV have been identified in China, with more than half of those in Hubei, and 106 deaths have been confirmed, per Time’s Sanya Mansoor. The disease has also been confirmed in more than a dozen countries, with five cases confirmed in the United States.

Other measures taken in China include cancellations of film premieres and the suspension of McDonald’s business in five Hubei cities. China also extended the national New Year holiday to encourage people to stay home. Hong Kong has closed its borders to travel with China, and the World Health Organization is sending a delegation to China to better understand the outbreak. Last week Thursday, the organization said it was “too early” to designate the outbreak an emergency of international concern.

“The mass involuntary quarantine in Wuhan and its neighboring cities is counterproductive,” Georgetown University Law School public health expert Lawrence Gostin tells Reuters. “A lockdown of Wuhan will drive the epidemic underground, provoking fear and panic.”

Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has urged the country to forego New Year gatherings, asking them to instead stay home until all is clear, per Asia Times.

“There’s so much news, so much data, every 10 minutes there’s an update,” Lily Jin, who lives in Wuhan, told Reuters by phone. “It’s frightening, especially for people like us in a severely hit area.”

A Pioneering Force of Harlequin Frogs Set Out to Help Save Their Species

Smithsonian Magazine

A green and black frog crawls up a steep rock. Though a collection of drab electronic circuits is secured around his waist by a thin cotton belt, the amphibian handles the ascent with easy agility. This Limosa harlequin frog is part of an experiment to find out if captive-bred endangered frogs can be successfully released into the wild and tracked with radio transmitters.

Amphibians all around the world are rapidly disappearing because of the deadly chytrid fungus. Infected animals slow down, stop eating and frequently die. Zoos and aquariums have stepped in to preserve many of these endangered species by maintaining them in captivity. Between 2008 and 2010, as chytrid was killing off the amphibians, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project rescued a population of breeding animals and held them captive for their own safety. But the researchers want to know if those animals that were reared for generations in captivity will ever be able to go back into the wild.

Researchers from Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)  and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are trying to answer that question by releasing 90 Limosa harlequin frogs into their native habitat, the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama and tracking them with tiny radio transmitters.

Sixty of the frogs were given "soft releases," which involved being kept in cages in the field for a month before release. This allowed them to acclimate to wild conditions and feed on invertebrates while being protected from predators. Another 30 frogs were released to set out as pioneers into the wild without an acclimatization period. Researchers will compare the relative success of each group to find out whether one method works better than the other.

“Our primary question for this study is how can we transition frogs from captivity to a wild situation in a way that is going to maximize the chances that these frogs are going to survive,” says Brian Gratwicke, a conservation biologist at SCBI and international program coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “So if they were to all get eaten in one day by a hungry snake, or a raccoon, or something, then we would need to be able to study the effects of disease in these animals.”

Sixteen of the frogs (eight from each group) have been outfitted with radio transmitters weighing only a third of a gram. While radio collar studies on larger animals have been state-of-the-art for decades, this kind of ultra-small technology for tracking frogs did not exist until relatively recently. In any collar study, important consideration has to be given to how the tracking apparatus may interfere with the animal's movement and ability to evade predators. Smithsonian scientists initially tested the devices on frogs in captivity before deploying them in this first field test.

The least disruptive place to attach the tracking device was around the waists of the frogs, like a utility belt. The belt is made of thin cotton cord that will naturally fall apart after about a month, ensuring that the frogs aren't stuck wearing these devices long after the batteries have died. To prevent the string from cutting into the frogs' skin, the researchers ran it through a section of soft plastic tubing. The result doesn't seem to interfere with the frogs' lives at all.

“One of our colleagues who was working on this has photos of two frogs [of a different species] mating with the transmitters on,” Gratwicke says. “These harlequin frogs are easy to put transmitters on because their skin is not slippery. . . so far none of the transmitters have come off.”

Gratwicke says that maintaining a species like this in captivity requires between 200 and 300 adult animals that are evenly represented from about ten original pairs. They only need to keep up to 20 eggs from any one clutch for the breeding program. With limited space to raise tadpoles and frogs, they can't risk being overwhelmed and don't want the population to become overly skewed towards one genetic sub-group.

“We had a single clutch of eggs that we reared for this experiment,” Gratwicke says. “Five hundred and thirty of them. That means that clutch is over-represented in captivity.”

This was how Smithsonian was able to risk experimentally releasing 90 frogs from the captive adult breeding population of only 220. They allowed far more eggs than usual to hatch from a single clutch.

Eventually, the fungus is expected to kill off the descendants of the released frogs. But there is hope for the long run.

“One of the ideas out there is that when the epidemic came through, there was so much of the fungus that built up from so many frogs dying that it was detrimental,” Gratwicke says. “But after chytrid is endemic for a while, those rates kind of drop and stabilize and perhaps it might be a situation where frogs can become infected and then clear an infection.”

Gratwicke and his team have found that the frogs tend to stay right in the immediate area where they were released. Even the 74 frogs without transmitters have been relatively easy to keep track of and locate. Mostly.

“So far we've only had one frog that has been eaten,” Gratwicke says. “We're not sure what ate it. Our guy in the field found a guilty-looking scorpion next to the frog's carcass.”

BLK Vol. 1 No. 4

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The fourth issue of BLK magazine, published March 1989. It is printed in black and white and the cover features an image of adult film performer Randy Cochran. Cochran sits facing the camera, smiling as he looks directly into it. He wears a light-colored suit with a stripped necktie. Tree branches can be seen in the background behind him. Close to the bottom of the page, the magazine’s logo [BLK] is printed in large, bold, uppercase white letters, surrounded by a solid black rectangle. Below the letters (within the box), the issue number and date appear [Number 4, March 1989]. There are 23 pages in total, with articles, advertisements, classifieds, black and white photographs, and cartoon illustrations originally from Ebony Magazine with new captions written by BLK.

The issue opens with a [Letters to the Editor] section, followed by a calendar of the month's events. The feature articles in this issue include an article on the National Black Gay and Lesbian Conference titled [Integrating Ourselves / Building bridges and coalitions to create wholeness], an interview with Randy Cochran titled [Randy Cochran / One of America’s prominent porn stars talks about his profession], and [Keeping the IRS Happy / Income tax reminders for lesbians and gay men].

There are 13 articles in the [Community News] section. They are: [500 Attend Los Angeles Leadership Conference; Watson, Waters, Cole Address Black Gay Group], [Gay, Lesbian jazz Org Forms in Los Angeles], [Minorities to Receive Increase in Services], [Whoopi Goldberg’s Dad Comes Out of Closet], [Odoms, Emery to Head GLCSC Committees], [Ugandans Flee AIDS Medical Researchers], [Ex-Junkie Works to Stem AIDS Epidemic], Women’s Group Slates Programs for March], [Parker, Clarke to Speak at Cal State, Bookstore], Kenya Ranks 16th with 4, 495 AIDS Cases], [List February Stats on AIDS Cases in U.S.], [BWMT Receives $131K AIDS Education Grant], [Kimberly Miller New MECLA Office Head] and [Magazine Finds Some Condoms Defective]. Following the news section is a gossip column by Preston G. Guider titled [Read My Lips]. The magazine concludes with the classifieds. The back cover is a full page advertisement for Midtowne Spa.

Is This the Bag That Held Sir Walter Raleigh's Mummified Head?

Smithsonian Magazine

Four hundred years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh, the poet, soldier and favorite courtier of Elizabeth I had his head chopped off after he was convicted on charges of conspiring against the monarch's successor, James I. Legend has it that Raleigh’s widow, Bess, was so distraught that she took the head and had it embalmed, then kept it near her in a bag the rest of her life. Now, West Horsley Place, where Raleigh’s third son, Carew, lived, says they have found a bag that could have held Raleigh’s head, as David Batty at The Guardian reports.

In a real Halloween headliner (sorry), West Horsley Place broke the news of the find on its website, explaining the discovery was made after the estate's attic was cleared out for emergency repairs in 2014. There, a red velvet bag was discovered, just the right size for an embalmed human head. Mark Wallis, co-director of a company that makes historical costumes and expert on period clothing took a closer look at the bag earlier this month, determining that it dates to the time of Raleigh’s death.

“It’s clearly a bag of the period. Whether it held the mummified head, I couldn’t say. But that Lady Raleigh lived there means that it’s much more likely than it would be otherwise,” he tells Batty. “If it did hold the head it would have been when it was mummified, and not covered in blood and gore. I doubt this was the bag that Lady Raleigh took away from Whitehall where he’d been executed.”

Raleigh’s fall from grace is a long, complex tale, but the favorite confidante and advisor of Elizabeth (except when he wasn’t) made no attempt to ingratiate himself to the monarch next in line, James, who had ruled Scotland as James VI, before Elizabeth died. When James ascended the throne, he stripped Raleigh of his royal station and turned him out of his home. Raleigh and several other notables were then accused of conspiring with Spain to kill James and put his cousin Arabella on the throne in a scheme called the Main Plot.

Though Raleigh was hated by the public and they threw stones and pipes at him as he was carted to the courthouse, their ire soon changed. His personal defense was eloquent and a master class in law, theater and logic, climaxing with the presentation of statement in which his sole accuser recanted his accusation. Even though the guilty verdict and sentence of execution was a forgone conclusion, Raleigh won over the public and many courtiers, which caught the attention of authorities. His writ of execution was stayed by the king and Raleigh returned to the Tower of London until 1616 when he was tapped to lead a gold-hunting expedition to South America. Raleigh, however, violated the king’s orders and attacked a Spanish fort. To calm down the Spanish, James finally had Raleigh’s head lopped off in 1618, 15 years after he was declared legally dead.

According to West Horsley, there is some evidence that Bess did, indeed, keep her husband’s dismembered head with her. Accounts of Raleigh’s execution state that the head was displayed to the crowd before it was presented to Bess in a red velvet or red leather bag. The widow had the head embalmed and brought her husband with her when she moved in with her son Carew and his family at West Horsley.

After Bess’ death in 1647, family lore alleges the head was placed in a cupboard under the stairs (which is, probably, the creepiest place to store your severed heads). In 1660, after Carew's three children all died during an epidemic, the family decided to bury their grandfather’s head along with them at nearby St. Mary’s Church. In 1703, the story was partially corroborated when a diary entry made after the family plot was dug up during another burial, noted that Raleigh’s head was found, with no other bones and no room for other bones.

Peter Pearce, director of the Mary Roxburghe Trust which supports the House says that it was assumed the bag that contained it was buried, too, but the find opens up the possibility that it was not. The velvet bag is currently out for analysis to look for signs that it once held an embalmed head.

Cultural historian Anna Beer, author of the new book Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh, tells Batty that she doubts the story and says she has not come across any eyewitness accounts that Bess kept a mummified head in her possession. She points out that there are many apocryphal stories about Raleigh, including the story that he brought the first potato to Europe and that he once placed his cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth I. “It’s almost definitely not the bag,” she says. “Almost every source on Raleigh’s execution has wonderful detail of the full horror of it, and that Lady Raleigh took his head away in a red leather bag.”

There is one way to find out for sure: on Halloween night, get out a Ouija board, light some candles and look into the bag at the stroke of midnight. Then turn on the lights, adjust your glasses and read the lab report to see if they found any traces of Raleigh’s head.

As Temperatures Rise, Malaria Will Invade Higher Elevations

Smithsonian Magazine

Temperatures and environmental conditions are changing, causing the spread of disease to shift. How those changes and shifts will play out, however, is the subject of debate. It’s impossible to build a computer model that perfectly mimics the real world and can thus predict, say, where mid-latitude regions will become warm enough for tropical diseases to thrive or wet enough to enhance the spread of water-borne pathogens. But research does suggest that—similar to shifts in animal and plant distributions as climate changes—some places will see rates of certain diseases drop, while others will see an increase or introduction of those diseases.

Shifting patterns of disease do not apply only by latitude, however. Just as how the distribution of desert cacti is slowly creeping into Arizona's hills or how lowland insects are moving into mountains in Borneo as climate warms, diseases can also broaden their distributions by reaching higher and higher elevations. And according to a new study published by American, British, Ethiopian and Colombian researchers in Science, it’s already happening.

The authors of the study turned their attention specifically to malaria, which infects an estimated 300 million people each year. Malaria might be particularly susceptible to changes in distribution due to warmer temperatures, they explain, because the Anopheles mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite can only live in warm environments.

The researchers focused on the highlands of western Colombia (50 to 2,700 meters) and central Ethiopia (1,600 to 2,500 meters), which historically have been cool year-round but have experienced a flux of warmer and cooler seasons in recent years. To see how malaria might or might not have been affected by those climate variations, they compared records of malaria incidence from 1990 to  2005 in Colombia, and from 1993 to 2005 in Ethiopia, with temperature data from each of those years. 

(original image)

In warmer years, they found, malaria incidence did indeed occur at significantly higher elevations than in the cooler years. In Ethiopia’s Debre Zeit region, for example, an increase in 1ºC corresponded to an average of more than 2,100 additional cases during the transmission season, from September to December.

"This is indisputable evidence of a climate effect," said Mercedes Pascual, a theoretical ecologist at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study, in a statement.

She and her colleagues predict that these results would also apply to other countries and regions that suffer from malaria, although studies will have to be undertaken in those places to confirm that assumption. "The main implication is that with warmer temperatures, we expect to see a higher number of people exposed to the risk of malaria in tropical highland areas like these," Pascual added.

A permanent 1ºC temperature change in Ethiopia could mean three million more malaria cases per year in people under 15-years old alone, the authors estimate. Around 43 percent of the country's population currently lives in rural areas historically protected from malaria due their elevations of 1,600 to 2,400 meters, but which now fall within the potential danger zone for hosting the disease as climate warms.

"Our latest research suggests that with progressive global warming, malaria will creep up the mountains and spread to new high-altitude areas,” said Menno Bouma, a clinical lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-author of the study. “And because these populations lack protective immunity, they will be particularly vulnerable to severe morbidity and mortality."

Malaria’s shifting distribution is certainly a cause for alarm. According to the United Nations, the disease causes around 2 million deaths annually—most of which are children—and acts as a significant burden to countries, keeping poor regions poor by reducing worker productivity and thus economic growth.

The study authors point out that their research is a heads-up about what will likely become an even greater problem in the future. They note that nonprofits, governments, and other groups interested in curbing the spread of malaria will need to establish intervention methods in places where they were previously not needed before, including at higher altitudes. Mapping where malaria may strike under different regimes of climate change "should further contribute to the early warning of epidemics and assist global malaria elimination,” they write. 

One of Nature’s Most Extreme Dads, the Darwin’s Frog, Is Going Extinct

Smithsonian Magazine

A Darwin’s frog daddy, of the southernly species. Photo by Claudio Soto-Azat

In 1834, Charles Darwin discovered a strange animal during his exploration of Chile’s southern coast. The creature, a small frog, was shaped like a leaf with a pointed nose, but appeared puffed up as if had been blown full of air, like a balloon. As it turned out, those fat male frogs hadn’t been gorging themselves on too many mosquitoes, but instead were enacting duties that earn them distinction as one of nature’s best dads. They were incubating several of their squirming babies in their vocal sac.

These peculiar animals, known as Darwin’s frogs, are today divided into two species, one that occurs in northern Chile, and another that lives in southern Chile and Argentina. When a female Darwin’s frogs lay her eggs, her mate keep a careful watch until the tadpoles hatch. The eager dad then swallows his young, allowing the babies to safely grow within his vocal sac until they turn into frogs and are ready to strike out on their own. Here, you can see a dutiful papa frog seemingly vomit up his living young:

Northerly Darwin’s frogs, however, have not been spotted in the wild since 1980. Researchers are nearly certain the species is extinct. Meanwhile, their southerly cousins are in steep decline and seem to be heading down extinction’s death row as well. For once, it seems that humans are not entirely to blame for these biodiversity disasters (unlike the western black rhino, which bit the dust a couple years ago after enduring decades of poaching for its valuable but medicinally worthless horn, used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine). Instead, the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus, researchers report today in PLoS One, is likely to blame.

The chytrid fungus has popped up in amphibians in North and South America, Europe and Australia. The fungus infects the animals’ skin, preventing them from absorbing water and other nutrients. The fungus can rapidly decimate amphibian populations it comes into contact with, and has been called (pdf) “the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

To identify chytrid as the likely culprit behind the Darwin’s frogs disappearance and decline, researchers from Chile, the UK and Germany conducted a bit of historical sleuthing. They dug up hundreds of archived specimens of Darwin’s frogs and closely related species dating from 1835 until 1989, and then tested them all for fungal spores (the problematic form of chytrid fungus was first recorded in the 1930s and reached epidemic-status around 1993, but researchers aren’t certain of when it first emerged). They also took around 800 skin swabs between 2008 and 2012 from 26 populations of still-living southern Darwin’s frogs and other similar frog species that live nearby.

Leaf look-alike. Photo by Claudio Soto-Azat

Six of the old museum specimens, all collected between 1970 and 1978–just before the northern Darwin’s frog’s disappearance–tested positive for the disease. More than 12 percent of the living frogs tested positive for the fungal spores. In places where the Darwin’s frog has gone extinct or is experiencing drastic declines, however, rates of infection jumped to 30 percent in other amphibian species.  Although these events don’t prove that the fungus killed the northern Darwin’s frogs and are now wiping out the southern species, the researchers strongly suspect that is the case.

Despite evidence that the disease has spread throughout the Darwin’s frog’s range, the researchers are not giving up on hope to save one of the world’s greatest dads from extinction. “We may have already lost one species, the Northern Darwin’s frog, but we cannot risk losing the other one,” Claudio Soto-Azat, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. ”There is still time to protect this incredible species.”

The Whole Gory Story: Vampires on Film

Smithsonian Magazine

With Halloween on the horizon, I had to check out the "Vampires on Film" lecture, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. The speaker was movie maven and scholar Max Alvarez. It was a well-attended, three-hour tour of horror flicks that make for—more often than not—painfully bad cinema. Yet, after kicking off his lecture by decorating his podium with several heads of garlic, Alvarez lent a gravitas to these movies, elevating them from mere midnight movie schlock to a study in cultural currency—meaning that vampire stories change and evolve with new images and metaphors for each generation viewing them.

In Western culture, tales of vampirism begin in the plague-addled Europe of the middle ages where newly buried bodies were exhumed and those considered not sufficiently decomposed were desecrated—by way of beheading or a good ol’ stake through the heart—for fear that the undead would spread disease among the living. (Trick or Treat?)

What’s worse is that some persons were prematurely interred—hence, their "as yet not-dead bodies" were in fabulous condition—and they ultimately met excruciatingly violent ends. Hands-down, this was the scariest part of the lecture.

By the late 1800s vampire stories are seen in print and theatrical incarnations (such as the 1828 opera Der Vampyr and the 1872 novella Carmilla). But it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula that sets the gold standard for the genre and captures the imaginations of people across the globe. Like its folkloric antecedents, Dracula is a sign of the times, dealing with issues of sex (which was strictly repressed in Victorian society), xenophobia and, in lieu of plague, syphilis, the dreaded STI du jour.

It is Stoker’s vision of the vampire that first makes it to the silver screen, the earliest surviving adaptation being F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, but the one that set the world on fire was Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula—starring Bela Lugosi—and kicks off a craze. Like its literary inspiration, Dracula and its string of cinematic spinoffs dealt with those things that you generally don’t bring up in polite conversation—namely human sexuality—and titillated audiences.

After a hiatus in the 40s and 50s, the genre was rekindled in the 60s. With sex becoming less taboo, vampire movies had to start exploring new frontiers. Of note is the 1973 film Blood for Dracula wherein the Count is exposed to impure blood and becomes gravely ill, as if the film were anticipating the AIDS epidemic that would sweep the world in the 1980s. Indeed, as a character in cinema, the vampire was evolving from a one-dimensional villain into a multifaceted character that could even be seen working for the forces of good (such as in Blade or Underworld).

While the genre has lost much of the subtlety and gothic trappings of the classic horror films, vampires endure as fodder for high octane action flicks, jam-packed with as much violence and gore as an R rating can withstand. However, they can also be seen in more playful fare as well. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyone?)

What's your favorite vampire film? What interesting things do you see happening within the genre that keeps it from going six feet under? Do you have high hopes for the upcoming film adaptation of the best-selling novel, Twilight? And why do you think we infrequently see vampire stories frequently told by way of animation?

Snapshot: Deer Isle

Smithsonian Magazine

Origins: People have lived on Deer Isle and its dozens of rocky surrounding islands since at least 11,000 B.C. Around 8,000 B.C., a culture arose that included sophisticated tools, land and sea trade, and made extensive use of the islands' rich clam and mussel beds. Lore, if not the archaeological record, suggests that Vikings explored the islands in the 11th century A.D. By the 16th century, several Algonquin-speaking groups had settled the area, most of whose members left or fell to disease or battle after the first white settlers arrived in 1762.

The appeal: Lobstering, rather than tourism, remains Deer Isle's primary economic engine. And thanks to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, which draws artists from all over the world—dozens of whom have made the island their home—art may be the second-largest industry. Stonington, the island's largest town, reflects that balance with an old-fashioned harbor crowded with lobster boats and a main street dotted with galleries. Perhaps because of this balance, Deer Isle remains a place to enjoy natural beauty rather than a tourist Mecca filled with t-shirt shops and noise. The air, cooled by the Atlantic and filtered by dense woods of white pine and birch, energizes visitors who hike its many trails or explore its coves and islands by kayak or sailboat, as well as those who choose to simply sit and enjoy the quiet. Bald eagles, osprey, a panoply of duck species and other water birds make frequent appearances. Harbour porpoises are also known to summer here. The bracing air (and chilly waters) rouse big appetites for the local bounty. Deer Isle is known around the world for its sweet Maine lobsters and fat clams. Natives and veteran visitors seek out succulent rock and peekytoe crabs. In recent decades, organic farms and dairies have added to the feast. Sheep and goat farming, practiced here since the late-18th century, continue to provide fresh cheese, wool and meat. And of course, wild Maine blueberries are everywhere during the summer.

Interesting historical facts: Deer Isle granite was used in the Manhattan Bridge, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and John F. Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, among other notable sites. The Defender, which won the first America's Cup in 1895, was crewed entirely by Deer Isle residents.

Famous sons or daughters: Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, and famed park architect Frederick Law Olmsted spent summers on Deer Isle.

Deer Isle was also home to the woman considered to be Maine's oldest. Born in 1800, Salome Sellers, a direct descendant of the Mayflower settlers and stoic matriarch of an island family, lived through two wars and several epidemics. She died in 1909 at 108. Her farm house is now a museum.

Who goes there? Deer Isle has about 3,000 year-round residents. Perhaps twice that number visit between May and October. In addition to the scions of families that have been summering here since the industrial revolution, Deer Isle draws nature-loving vacationers from all over the world, as well as hundreds of artists and art-lovers who support Haystack, the island's 40 or so galleries, and the Opera House, which produces live performances and serves as the islands' only movie theater. Unlike many holiday destinations, the pace on Deer Isle is resolutely mellow and friendly. At the entrance to the Island Country Club, the sign says, "Public Welcome." Visitors to Deer Isle are happy to leave the cocktail-party circuit to Kennebunkport and the honky-tonk bar scene to other points south.

Then & Now? In 1792, Nathaniel Scott started a ferry service to bring people to and from the mainland. The Scott family ran the ferry until 1939, when the suspension bridge that still connects Deer Isle to the rest of Maine was completed.

Siobhan Roth is a regular Smithsonian.com contributor.

Image by Stacey Cramp. Wild sweet peas take root beyond the waterline along a rocky Deer Isle beach. A walk along any path in summer can double as a harvesting session for sweet peas, purple lupines, and other flowers, as well as rose hips, raspberries, a never-ending abundance of blackberries, and of course, wild blueberries. (original image)

Image by Patricia Roth. The east side of Deer Isle is called Sunshine and is home to beautiful vacation houses, as well as some of the country's largest lobster-holding tanks. Sylvester Cove is in Sunset, on the island's western side, which is also home to the Island Country Club, where the roadside sign proclaims "public welcome." (original image)

Image by Stacey Cramp. The line for coffee at the Harbor View Store on the Stonington waterfront forms at 4 a.m., and by dawn, most of Deer Isle's lobster boats are miles from shore, the lobstermen already hauling the first of the day's traps. In summer, the workday can end by early afternoon. During winter, though, 16-hour days are common. (original image)

Image by Deer Isle Historical Society. Historical photo of Deer Isle pier (original image)

Image by Deer Isle Historical Society. Salome Sellers (original image)

A Strange Case of Dancing Mania Struck Germany Six Centuries Ago Today

Smithsonian Magazine

Six-hundred and forty two years ago today, citizens in the German city of Aachen started to pour out of their houses and into the streets where they began to writhe and whirl uncontrollably. This was the first major outbreak of dancing plague or choreomania and it would spread across Europe in the next several years.

To this day, experts aren't sure what caused the frenzy, which could drive those who danced to exhaustion. The outbreak in Germany was called St. John's dance, but it wasn't the first appearance of the mania or the last, according to The Black Death and The Dancing Mania, originally published in 1888. In the book, Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker imaginatively describes the spectacle of St. John's dance as follows:

They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.

The "disease" spread to Liege, Utrecht, Tongres and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium, up and down the Rhine river. In other times and other forms the mania started to be called St. Vitus' dance. During the Middle Ages, the church held that the dancers had been possessed by the devil or perhaps cursed by a saint. Called Tarantism in Italy, it was believed the dancing was either brought on by the bite of a spider or a way to work out the poisons the arachnid had injected.

More modern interpretations have blamed a toxin produced by fungus that grew on rye. Ergot poisoning, or ergotism, could bring on hallucinations, spasms and delusions thanks to the psychoactive chemicals produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, writes Steven Gilbert for the Toxipedia.

But not all of the regions affected by the strange compulsion to dance would been home to people who consumed rye, points out Robert E. Bartholomew in an article for the July/August 2000 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Furthermore, the outbreaks didn't always happen during the wet season when the fungus would have grown.

St. Vitus' dance later came to mean Sydenham chorea, a disorder that struck children and did cause involuntary tremors in the arms, legs and face. However those twitches were not the kind of dancing described in the outbreaks of dancing mania.

Another notable epidemic broke out in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. It started in July when a woman called Frau Troffea began to dance. Within a month, 400 people joined in the madness. This plague in particular was probably worsened by apparently well-meaning officials who thought that the victims just needed to dance it out and shake it off. They set aside guild halls for the dancers, hired professional pipe and drum players and dancers to keep people inspired, writes John Waller for BBC.com.

Madness is ultimately what some experts think caused such a bizarre phenomenon. Waller explains that in 1518, the people of Strasbourg were struggling to deal with famine, disease and the belief that supernatural forces could force them to dance. In 1374, the region near the Rhine was suffering from the aftermath of another, true plague: the Black Death. Waller argues that the dancers were under extreme psychological distress and were able to enter a trance state—something they would need to dance for such a long period of time. He blames the dancing mania on a kind of mass hysteria.

Bartholomew disagrees. He points out that records from the time claim that the dancers were often from other regions. They were religious pilgrims, he posits. He writes:

The behavior of these dancers was described as strange, because while exhibiting actions that were part of the Christian tradition, and paying homage to Jesus, Mary, and various saints at chapels and shrines, other elements were foreign. Radulphus de Rivo’s chronicle Decani Tongrensis states that “in their songs they uttered the names of devils never before heard of . . . this strange sect.” Petrus de Herenthal writes in Vita Gregorii XI: “There came to Aachen . . . a curious sect.” The Chronicon Belgicum Magnumdescribes the participants as “a sect of dancers.”

Once the first dancers started their strange ritual, other people perhaps joined in, claiming to be overwhelmed by a compulsion. Societal prohibitions against such unrestrained behavior could then be cast aside.

Ultimately, the cause of choreomania seems to be mystery, but it will never cease to be a fascinating part of European history.

Lead Shank for "First Flight"

National Museum of American History
First Flight was a thoroughbred horse that was transformed by scientists into a living factory to produce botulism antitoxin from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

Originally a race horse, First Flight later worked as a caisson horse in military funerals at Arlington National Ceremony. After serving for a time in this capacity, he was found to be too skittish. In 1978, at the age of 10 years, First Flight was transferred to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Scientists at USAMRIID undertake defense research against biological weapons, and while there First Flight participated in efforts to produce a countermeasure against attack with botulinum toxin. As the most powerful natural poison known to exist, botulinum represents one of the greatest threats for biological warfare. Produced by the bacteria Clostradium botulinum, the toxin is responsible for botulism, a disease which results in paralysis and often death if not treated. (The powers of botulinum are also put to work in the popular drug Botox, which, when injected, reduces the appearance of wrinkles by paralyzing facial muscles.)

Researchers harnessed the power of First Flight’s immune system to produce the antitoxin. They injected him with altered less-toxic forms of the botulinum toxin in order to induce his body to produce antibodies against the attack. Antibodies are small, disease-specific proteins the body produces in order to recognize and help fight invading infectious agents. After First Flight produced sufficient botulinum antibodies to protect himself, scientists injected him with the real toxin, which boosted his production of antibodies even further.

First Flight was then carefully bled to obtain the antibodies from his blood. These antibodies, contained in his blood plasma, made up the key ingredient in antitoxin serum. Once purified, the serum could be injected into humans suffering from botulism in order to neutralize the effects of the botulinum toxin. This form of treatment, known as serum therapy, has been practiced since the late 19th century, when it was important in the fight against rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, and other illnesses.

In 1980 First Flight moved to a new home at the University of Minnesota Medical School, which specialized in harvesting horse antibodies. Nearly 16,000 liters of blood were removed from First Flight during his time at Minnesota, and he became the nation’s sole source of antitoxin against all seven forms of botulinum toxin. With the start of the Gulf War in 1991, First Flight’s antitoxin was shipped to Saudi Arabia to be at hand should Saddam Hussein order the use of botulinum toxin to attack U.S. troops. Thankfully, the serum did not need to be used.

First Flight eventually retired from service and returned to Fort Detrick, where he died at age 31 in his paddock on May 17, 1999, of natural causes.

Sources:

Accession File

“Race for a Remedy.” Crowley, Carolyn. Smithsonian Magazine. December 2000.

“Botulinum Toxin (Botulism) Fact Sheet.” University of Pittsburg Medical Center for Health Security.

http://www.upmchealthsecurity.org/website/our_work/biological-threats-and-epidemics/fact_sheets/botulinum.html

Notre-Dame Restoration Pauses Amid France's Two-Week Lockdown

Smithsonian Magazine

Restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which suffered devastating damage during an April 2019 fire, has been postponed indefinitely as France takes drastic measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, reports Bernadette Sauvaget for French daily Libération.

The decision comes as restoration workers at the site were scheduled to begin removing the 250 tons of scaffolding currently weighing down the structure, according to the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris. Measures enacted last August to contain the threat of lead contamination are now in conflict with strict measures announced on Monday to reduce the virus’ impact in France.

An official involved in restoration efforts tells Libération that the removal of scaffolding cannot continue without workers violating “security measures relating to the coronavirus epidemic.”

When authorities confirmed lead levels in the area surrounding the historic church last July, restoration was halted for three weeks as project leaders developed new procedures to reduce the spread of lead dust throughout nearby neighborhoods. As Christa Lesté-Lasserre reports for Science magazine, the protocol requires restoration workers and scientists to step into changing areas and don disposable safety wear—down to paper underwear—as well as wear protective masks while working.

After at most 150 minutes of work, restorers have to remove their gear, shower and put on a new set of disposable clothes.

“We’re taking five showers a day,” Thierry Zimmer, assistant director of the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory, tells Science. He compares the press of people navigating the showers to “the Métro at rush hour.”

Beginning Tuesday afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered residents to stay home except for essential trips like grocery shopping and acquiring medicine, reports the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger. The announcement marks the most stringent measure taken in France, where locals defied earlier warnings calling for social distancing.

For now, the Notre-Dame cathedral remains monitored by sensors, crack detectors and lasers that will warn restorers if the fragile structure becomes unstable. The scaffolding was originally erected last spring for planned restoration of the cathedral’s spire. Fifty-thousand metal tubes welded together in the April 15 fire must be removed to make the building safe for further restoration.

The scaffolding removal project, which was originally scheduled for completion this April, will only continue after a “new order” changes France’s COVID-19 management strategy. When the project continues, wrote Francesco Bandarin, an architect and former senior official at UNESCO, for the Art Newspaper in December, “[T]elescopic crawler cranes ... will allow roped technicians to descend into the forest of pipes.” These technicians will then “gradually cut them away after having coated them with a protective layer to avoid spreading the pollution caused by the melting of the lead roof.”

In December, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, rector of the Notre-Dame, told the Associated Press’ Jeffrey Schaeffer and Angela Charlton that experts remained uncertain whether removing the scaffolding would cause further damage to the structure.

“Today we can say that there is maybe a 50 percent chance that it will be saved,” he said. “There is also a 50 percent chance of scaffolding falling onto the [building’s] three vaults.”

Florida Authorities Investigate a Disorder Affecting Panthers' Ability to Walk

Smithsonian Magazine

A mysterious affliction is crippling Florida’s panthers, leaving some members of the endangered species unable to walk without stumbling or toppling over.

As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced Monday, the disorder—believed to affect the big cats’ ability to coordinate their back legs—has struck at least nine panthers and two bobcats to date. According to a press release, trail camera footage captured in Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties shows eight panthers (mainly juveniles) and one adult bobcat struggling to walk to varying degrees. Another panther photographed in Charlotte County could also be affected.

The FWC further confirmed the presence of neurological damage in one panther and one bobcat examined after dying of unrelated causes. According to the Washington Post’s Morgan Krakow, the bobcat sustained injuries during a fight and was subsequently hit by a car, while the panther was euthanized after she was struck by a vehicle and contracted an infection.

Neither animal tested positive for feline leukemia or commonly seen infectious diseases, but as spokeswoman Michelle Kerr of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute notes, “We wouldn’t say infectious diseases are ruled out completely.”

Krakow writes that potential explanations for the big cats’ condition range from infection to nutritional deficiencies, exposure to heavy metals, and toxins such as rat poison and toxic algae. It’s possible the panthers contracted a disease by preying on infected animals or drinking contaminated water, but it remains too early to know for certain.

“While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue,” Gil McRae, director of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, explains in the statement. “Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined.”

According to Joshua Sokol of the New York Times, the agency first learned about the disorder when a local submitted video footage of an affected kitten in 2018. A review of photographs from the previous year yielded another instance of the ailment, but reports only started ramping up recently. “It was not until 2019 that additional reports have been received, suggesting that this is a broader issue,” spokeswoman Carli Segelson says to the Times.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Florida’s panther population was dangerously low during the 1970s and ‘80s, when just 20 to 30 of the big cats roamed the state. Thanks to heightened conservation efforts, including the introduction of gene pool-diversifying Texas cougars in the 1990s, this number has risen steadily. As Amber Crooks, environmental policy coordinator for the nonprofit Conservancy of South Florida, tells the Miami Herald’s David Goodhue, around 120 to 230 panthers now live across Florida. Still, Crooks notes, “The population is already facing many … threats”—among others, urban development, cars, habitat loss and territorial disputes—“so this [new disorder] is concerning.”

To gain a better understanding of the mysterious crippling condition, the FWC is deploying extra trail cameras, consulting with federal authorities and experts, and appealing to the public. In particular, Sokol reports for the Times, researchers are hoping to confirm whether the disorder is limited to several counties along the state’s Gulf Coast or indicative of a more widespread problem. Locals can submit video footage of potentially affected animals through an online portal or via email at Panther.Sightings@MyFWC.com.

Speaking with the Post’s Krakow, Samantha Wisely, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida, says authorities will need to investigate multiple potential explanations for the epidemic.

“When you don’t have a good sense of what it is,” she concludes, “you really want to cast your net widely.”

Adding Faint Scents to Healthy Food Could Make it Taste Better

Smithsonian Magazine

Scientists have known for a long time that smell and taste are intricately connected. Now, food scientists are trying to figure out if very faint scents can trick your brain into tasting something that isn’t there.

It all started with salt and sugar.

The amount of salt and sugar Americans eat has skyrocketed over the last few decades, contributing to the obesity epidemic and other health problems.  So in recent years, the United States Department of Agriculture and other government agencies have increasingly pressured food companies to cut back on how much salt and sugar they put in their products.

Unfortunately, though, salt and sugar are delicious.  And as the food companies cut back, customer satisfaction and sales fell, Jenny Chen writes for The Atlantic.

Some researchers think the answer might lie in the way food smells, not its ingredients. These scientists are trying to figure out whether barely-perceptible "phantom aromas" can make food taste differently, Chen writes.

“When you are tasting food you are perceiving several sensory dimensions—smell, taste, texture—and the brain is making a synesthetic perception,” study author and flavor scientist Thierry Thomas-Danguin tells Chen. “When you are exposed to one dimension, your brain is reconstructing all the flavors and all the sensory dimensions, even if they aren’t there.”

Of all the senses, taste is one of the most complex, relying on information from both the nose and tongue to decode flavor. People who have lost their sense of smell often report food tasting more bland; on the other hand, experiments on rats have shown that turning off their sense of taste also dampens their ability to recognize scents.

"If you hold your nose and start chewing a jelly bean taste is limited, but open your nose midway through chewing and then you suddenly recognize apple or watermelon," Tom Finger, who studies taste and smell at the University of Colorado told Maggie Koerth-Baker for Live Science.

But what happens if you smell something that isn’t actually there? One study found that food infused with the aroma of a salty food made it taste saltier, while other tests suggest that sweet odors can make food seem sweeter.

By infusing foods with subtle scents, flavor company FONA International’s vice president of research and development, Robert Sobel, has reduced the amount of salt in food like chips, soup and sauce by 10 percent, Chen reports. And based on recent research, people like Thomas-Danguin believe phantom aroma could reduce the salt used by as much as 35 percent.

But some in the food industry see phantom aromas as a distraction from the real problem: Companies have spent years overloading their products with salt and sugar. For people like food consultant Michael White, the solution shouldn’t be to put more additives in our meals.

“I don't want to sound like a luddite, but the vast bulk of our salt intake comes from salt added by food processors who have so corrupted America's tastebuds,” White tells Chen.

Phantom aromas are still a new field and there’s a lot more research to be done on whether smells could help make healthy food taste better. But if they can trick people into eating better, a little smell could go a long ways.

Lice That Can Resist Drugs Have Infested Half the States in the U.S.

Smithsonian Magazine

Head lice season has begun—the time of year when millions of creepy, crawly itchy bugs take up residence in kids’ scalps. A parent's immediate reaction to a lice epidemic might be to head to the drugstore for a fine-tooth comb and an over-the-counter remedy. But one biologist begs you to reconsider.

Kyong Sup Yoon at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has devoted much of his career to figuring out how to tackle the lice infestation that’s been picking up steam in the U.S. in recent years. According to his preliminary numbers, at least 25 states play host to lice that are resistant to commonly available over-the-counter treatments.

The trouble is widespread use of pyrethroids, a family of insecticides used to kill indoor and outdoor pests from mosquitoes to bed bugs. The more often insects get exposed to these compounds, the greater the chances some will mutate and develop resistance to the drugs, then go on to pass that resistance to their offspring. In fact, says Yoon, it's hard to come by lice that lack pyrethroid resistance these days.

“Do the math,” says Yoon: Just one louse that manages to survive a pyrethroid treatment can live for up to a month and lay five eggs a day. “Multiply that by an elementary school, a community, and soon you’ve got plenty of resistant lice.”

Lice prevention is nothing new. Archaeologists have found evidence of lice combs at pre-Columbian sites in Chile, and U.S. pioneers made lice combs out of bone in the early 19th century. A 1916 medical journal even recommends dousing the head in “gasoline, or kerosene and vinegar, equal parts” to get rid of head lice.

To collect the thousands of modern lice needed for his research, Yoon turned to the professionals. With the help of expert Katie Shepherd, who trains people in the art and science of lice removal, Yoon created a nationwide network of volunteer pickers, who use combs and ethanol-filled vials to collect samples and record demographic information. Yoon and his team then study the lice in the lab to look for drug-resistant mutations.

While Yoon’s team has confirmed resistance in only 25 states, they believe the reality is likely much worse, as they report in a paper presented today at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. In 104 out of 109 lice populations already analyzed, they found high levels of gene mutations that make lice indifferent to drugstore treatments. The team is still analyzing data from the other 25 states.

Lice populations in the states in pink have developed a high level of resistance to some of the most common treatments. (Kyong Yoon, Ph.D.)

“Parents who go to the drugstore to treat lice are part of the problem,” cautions Yoon. Overuse—and occasional misuse—of the same drug type only ups the odds that resistant bugs will develop and thrive. “Resistant genes are oversaturated in this nation.”

He acknowledges that newer, non-pyrethroid treatments are more expensive and more difficult to obtain; parents can only purchase them with a prescription from lice pros and dermatologists. But he adds that while body lice act as a disease vector, head lice do not. Getting them probably won’t give a kid much more than a case of the itchies and a day off of school, so it's worth it to take the time to seek prescription treatments. At the same time, we need to make sure our best weapons stay effective. Even now, Yoon’s colleagues are exploring ways to improve access to newer lice treatments without watering down their efficacy over time.

Next, Yoon and his team will focus on whether drug-resistant lice in the United States have also developed metabolic changes that can make future outbreaks even harder to control. He won’t be surprised if those changes are already well underway. After all, says Yoon, when humans overuse head lice remedies, they contribute to real change in the bugs' genes—no matter how good our itchy intentions. 

Fentanyl Has Outpaced Heroin as Drug Implicated Most Often in Fatal Overdoses

Smithsonian Magazine

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is now the drug most often involved in fatal overdoses across the United States, according to a new report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The document implicates the powerful drug in nearly 29 percent of all overdose deaths—more than 18,000 of the year’s 63,000 fatalities—in 2016.

Nadia Kounang of CNN writes that this figure represents a startling jump from 2011, when fentanyl was involved in just 4 percent, or about 1,600 instances, of fatal overdoses. That same year, oxycodone—a semi-synthetic opioid prescribed as a legal painkiller but often abused due to its addictive qualities—was the deadliest drug, popping up in 13 percent of all U.S. overdose deaths.

Between 2012 and 2015, heroin surpassed oxycodone, but as The Huffington Post’s Erin Schumaker points out, fatal overdoses involving fentanyl rose about 113 percent per year from 2013 to 2016. Heroin use also increased during this time, with heroin-related deaths skyrocketing from 4,571 in 2011 to 15,961 in 2016.

More than two-thirds of fentanyl-related deaths involved at least one other drug—a trend likely linked to the fact that drug dealers often lace heroin and cocaine with fentanyl in order to increase potency at a low cost, reports NPR’s Laurel Wamsley. And, according to CNN’s Kounang, the report further shows that in 2016, two out of five cocaine-related overdose deaths also involved fentanyl, while nearly one-third of fentanyl-related fatalities also involved heroin. More than 20 percent of methamphetamine overdose deaths also mentioned heroin.

The scale and seriousness of the national drug crisis is evident in these numbers, but opioids aren’t the only substances contributing to the epidemic, reports Katie Zezima for The Washington Post. Cocaine and methamphetamine, stimulants once believed to be lessening in popularity, are not fading. Between 2011 and 2016, overdose deaths from cocaine increased by around 18 percent each year.

Earlier this month, the CDC published three separate reports detailing a worrying downward spiral in Americans’ average life expectancy. The Washington Post's Lenny Bernstein reports that the steady decline—a three-year drop that represents the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan since the tumultuous period of 1915 to 1918—to “escalating drug and suicide crises.”

In 2017, drug overdoses claimed 70,237 lives, while suicides claimed more than 47,000. Both of these figures rose between 2016 and 2017. Interestingly, Schumaker of The Huffington Post explains that these figures are reflected in the latest CDC report, which found certain drugs more likely to be implicated in either unintentional overdoses or death by suicide. In 2016, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine were most frequently cited in overdoses, while prescription and over-the-counter medicines such as oxycodone and hydrocodone were most frequently recorded in suicides.

Combined, the quartet of December reports present a stark portrait of the drug and suicide crises’ increasingly deadly toll. Still, the newest report’s lead author, Holly Hedegaard of the National Center for Health Statistics, tells Schumaker that the findings could help experts and policymakers better understand the patterns underlying both public health emergencies.

Hedegaard concludes, “For folks who work in prevention, having information helps them think about what prevention tactics to use or approaches that might be effective.”

UN Report Finds Finland Is the Happiest Country in the World

Smithsonian Magazine

Good cheer might abound in Naples, Florida, but as a whole, the United States is lagging behind comparably wealthy nations when it comes to its residents’ happiness. As Maggie Astor reports for the New York Times, the U.S. ranked 18th out of 156 countries surveyed in the World Happiness Report of 2018. The top spot went to Finland.

The World Happiness Report is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and it draws on data from on Gallup International surveys conducted between 2015 to 2017. The surveys asked thousands of people across the globe to place themselves on a ladder with steps numbered from zero to 10, with 10 representing the best possible life—a method known as the Cantril scale.

Finland scored an average of 7.632. Other Nordic nations also ranked high on the list of happiest countries; after Finland, the top nine spots were occupied by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

The report evaluates six variables: GDP (or gross domestic product) per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption and generosity. Most of the top 10 countries are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and an editor of the report, tells Astor. This political philosophy, he adds, is very different from that of the United States.

Though the economy in America is strong, its place in the ranking fell four spots from last year’s report. In an interview with Patrick Collinson of the Guardian, Sachs explained that “America’s subjective wellbeing is being systematically undermined by three interrelated epidemic diseases, notably obesity, substance abuse (especially opioid addiction) and depression.”

Burundi placed last in the ranking, with an average score of 2.905. Second from last was the Central African Republic. Both countries are plagued by political instability and violence. Though most of the bottom ten spots are occupied by African nations, Togo is one of this year’s biggest gainers: the country ranked last in 2015, but rose 18 places in the 2018 report.

One of the major themes of this year’s report was the intersection of migration and happiness, and countries were also ranked based on the happiness of their immigrants. Strikingly, the authors of the report found that immigrant happiness scores were almost identical to the scores of the population at large. Finland, for example, also came first in the ranking of immigrant happiness, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

“The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live, illustrating a general pattern of convergence,” the authors of the report write.

The authors also considered a Gallup index that measured how accepting countries are of migrants. A higher value for migrant acceptance was linked to greater happiness among both immigrants and native residents “by almost equal amounts,” the report says.

“Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live,” the authors of the report add. “The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.”

Revamp Your Christmas Playlist with These Unsung American Carols

Smithsonian Magazine

Elizabeth Mitchell’s new album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy, features new renditions of traditional American Christmas carols. Cover artwork by Brian Selznick

Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, released by Smithsonian Folkways for this holiday season, features new recordings of traditional American carols rescued from obscurity by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother) in her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. These simple devotionals evoke, as Ruth Seeger put it, the “old-time American Christmas. . .not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.”

“That’s what we did in our house,” says Ruth’s daughter, Peggy Seeger, who is featured on the album, along with Joan Osborne and Natalie Merchant. We spoke with Peggy about her contribution to the recording as well as her memories of her mother and Christmastime.

Which tracks did you record on The Sounding Joy?

I was asked to do “Christmas in the Morning,” and I chose to do “Mother’s Child” because it was one that I sing a lot in concerts and I absolutely love the tune. But I didn’t care for the original words, “a child of god,” so I “I’m a mother’s child,” which any religion can sing.

So it was important to you that these songs appeal to all faiths?

Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely.

How did it feel to return to these songs?

I love them. The collection is very interesting because my mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and she was pretty atheistic. My father was a combination of an agnostic and an atheist. And I’m very surprised that so many of the songs mention God and the Lord. These are terms that I kind of tried to avoid. Now that I live in England, which is very multicultural, I avoid them even more than I would in the United States.

My mother had a real ear for picking songs. She got an awful lot of these, most of them off of the Library of Congress recordings. She brought home these 16-inch aluminum records and listened to them with a thorn needle—I’m talking about the mid-1940s, early ’50s, and the only way you could listen to those records was with a thorn needle because a steel needle would ruin the tracks. It was our job, the children’s job, to keep the needle sharp using a sparkler. You’d put the needle into a little clamp and then you whizzed a wheel around it that put sandpaper on it, and that sharpened it again.

We heard these songs in the house as was transcribing them, from a very early age. Grew up with them. I know them all. I always loved accompaniments. They’re not easy to play, actually. To play and sing these songs with her accompaniments needs a lot of concentration. It’s not just ump-chump-chump-ump-chump-chump, and it’s not just chords with the left hand. There’s a lot of contrapuntal countermelody going on there.

Why are these songs still relevant? What can modern audiences gain from this recording?

They have choruses that a lot of people can sing. A lot of repeated words. And for many people now, religious or not religious, Christmas is a time to get together. Having some new songs to sing at Christmas is a very nice idea. . . . Many of songs sprang out of people singing together. That’s why there’s so much repetition. Often you have to repeat it for people to learn it and catch up with it, and for them to be able to feel themselves singing together, feel the edges of the room, as it were.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Not anymore. . . . I’ve kind of lost interest in Christmas, with the horrifying commercialization. I don’t want to go into the stores anymore at Christmastime. I don’t want to hear all of the Christmas songs which you hear over and over ’til you are sick of them. . . .

The best Christmas I ever had was when I was about 7. It was a sad time for some people because there was an epidemic of polio in Washington, D.C, so we didn’t go into town to get presents. We stayed home and made presents for each other in the house. My brother, who was 9, got a little carpentry set before Christmas so he could make little cradles for our dolls. My mother taught me how to crochet and I crocheted things for my sisters’ dolls. My mother loved Christmas. She adored it.

The Whole Gory Story: Vampires on Film

Smithsonian Magazine

With Halloween on the horizon, I had to check out the "Vampires on Film" lecture, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. The speaker was movie maven and scholar Max Alvarez. It was a well-attended, three-hour tour of horror flicks that make for—more often than not—painfully bad cinema. Yet, after kicking off his lecture by decorating his podium with several heads of garlic, Alvarez lent a gravitas to these movies, elevating them from mere midnight movie schlock to a study in cultural currency—meaning that vampire stories change and evolve with new images and metaphors for each generation viewing them.

In Western culture, tales of vampirism begin in the plague-addled Europe of the middle ages where newly buried bodies were exhumed and those considered not sufficiently decomposed were desecrated—by way of beheading or a good ol’ stake through the heart—for fear that the undead would spread disease among the living. (Trick or Treat?)

What’s worse is that some persons were prematurely interred—hence, their “as yet not-dead bodies” were in fabulous condition—and they ultimately met excruciatingly violent ends. Hands-down, this was the scariest part of the lecture.

By the late 1800s vampire stories are seen in print and theatrical incarnations (such as the 1828 opera Der Vampyr and the 1872 novella Carmilla). But it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula that sets the gold standard for the genre and captures the imaginations of people across the globe. Like its folkloric antecedents, Dracula is a sign of the times, dealing with issues of sex (which was strictly repressed in Victorian society), xenophobia and, in lieu of plague, syphilis, the dreaded STI du jour.

It is Stoker’s vision of the vampire that first makes it to the silver screen, the earliest surviving adaptation being F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, but the one that set the world on fire was Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula—starring Bela Lugosi—and kicks off a craze. Like its literary inspiration, Dracula and its string of cinematic spinoffs dealt with those things that you generally don’t bring up in polite conversation—namely human sexuality—and titillated audiences.

After a hiatus in the 40s and 50s, the genre was rekindled in the 60s. With sex becoming less taboo, vampire movies had to start exploring new frontiers. Of note is the 1973 film Blood for Dracula wherein the Count is exposed to impure blood and becomes gravely ill, as if the film were anticipating the AIDS epidemic that would sweep the world in the 1980s. Indeed, as a character in cinema, the vampire was evolving from a one-dimensional villain into a multifaceted character that could even be seen working for the forces of good (such as in Blade or Underworld).

While the genre has lost much of the subtlety and gothic trappings of the classic horror films, vampires endure as fodder for high octane action flicks, jam-packed with as much violence and gore as an R rating can withstand. However, they can also be seen in more playful fare as well. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyone?)

What's your favorite vampire film? What interesting things do you see happening within the genre that keeps it from going six feet under? Do you have high hopes for the upcoming film adaptation of the best-selling novel, Twilight? And why do you think we infrequently see vampire stories frequently told by way of animation?

Image from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922)

This 1,500-Year-Old Skeleton May Belong to the Man That Brought Leprosy to Britain

Smithsonian Magazine

In the early 1950’s workers digging for gravel uncovered skeletons of people interred in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery a century and a half before. At the time, the team noted that the bones of one man in particular had joint damage and the narrow toe bones typically caused by leprosy. When researchers recently reanalyzed those same bones using modern techniques they realized the man may have had the first case of the disease in Britain. On top of that, other tests show that he was probably from Scandinavia, not Britain.

The researchers were able to gather some bacterial DNA from the bones and sequence it, reports Maev Kennedy for The Guardian. They genetic fingerprint they found was that of a leprosy strain belonging to the lineage 3I, which has been found at other burial sites in Scandinavia and southern Britain but at later dates. The man likely died in the 5th or 6th century. 

“The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods," says Sonia Zakrzewski, of the University of Southampton in a press release. "This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future.”

The research team also analyzed elements in the man’s teeth. Specifically, they looked at several isotopes — element can different numbers of neutrons, each of variation is a different isotope. They measured the ratio oxygen isotopes, which reflect those found in the water he drank, and strontium isotopes found in his enamel, which reflect the geology of his homeland, explains Maddie Stone for Vice. This analysis told the researchers that the man likely came from Scandinavia. He may have carried the disease to Britain from there. When he died, he was in his 20s, the researchers report. They published their findings in PLOS One

The 3I leprosy strain is one of five strains found around the world. It not only gave rise to the leprosy of the British Isles, but that in the southern U.S. (where it’s often carried by armadillos) and in the U.K. even today. However, the leprosy epidemic didn’t peak in Europe until the 13th century. If the man had seen a physician in his new country, they wouldn’t have recognized the deformations and scaly skin of a leprosy infection. Perhaps he would have escaped the social stigma that later arose around the disease too.

This man isn't the first person in the world to get leprosy, explains Stone. "There are a handful of cases worldwide that predate this young man, including several from second century BC Egypt, first century AD Israel, and 1st through 4th century AD Uzbekistan," she writes. But he is the first known case in Britain. 

The team’s project leader, Sarah Inskip of Leiden University told Stone: “We plan to carry out similar studies on skeletons from different locations to build up a more complete picture of the origins and early spread of this disease.” 

What a 6,000-Year-Old Knee Can Teach Us About Arthritis

Smithsonian Magazine

The human joint is a wonderfully flexible and durable evolutionary innovation, but like any good machine eventually it wears down. And in many people, this wearing is thought to cause arthritis.

Pain from arthritis strikes some 54.4 million U.S. adults, and is "one of the most common chronic conditions in the nation," according to the Centers for Disease Control website. The disease causes stiffness, swelling and pain in the joints and has been found in humans for thousands of years. (Scientists even identified evidence of arthritis in Nefertari's mummified knees.) But researchers have long assumed that arthritis rates have spiked in recent years as people live longer and populations grow heavier. Now, as Mitch Leslie reports for Sciencea study of ancient knees has finally provided evidence to support the trend, and suggests that arthritis may not be an inevitable fate of old age.

To tease out the history of arthritis, Harvard University biologist Ian Wallace studied skeletons of middle-aged and elderly people from various time periods of America, including specimens from Native Americans up to 6,000 years old. He thought that perhaps in the early days of humanity—when when walking was the main way to get around and many people spent their lives hunting, farming or fighting—the rates of arthritis would actually be fairly high due to the joint stress from all this activity.

But this wasn't the case.  

Instead, it appears that osteoarthritis of the knees affects far more Americans today than even just a few decades ago, Leslie reports. And after controlling for weight and age, the results suggest that these factors have no effect on how many people develop the disorder. Strikingly, the rate of osteoarthritis has more than doubled among Americans just since 1940. Wallace and his team pubished their results earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were able to show, for the first time, that this pervasive cause of pain is actually twice as common today than even in the recent past," Wallace says in a statement. "But the even bigger surprise is that it’s not just because people are living longer or getting fatter, but for other reasons likely related to our modern environments.”

The study doesn't make any conclusions for why this spike has occurred, but study co-author Daniel Lieberman suggests that the epidemic of sitting in mondern-day America could be affecting how our joints are formed and maintained, leading to more arthritis, Richard Harris reports for NPR. Changing diets and the rising rates of injuries from sports among children and adults could also play a role.

Though cause is still unknown, the study's results suggest that the disease may not be as inevitable as once believed.  “We should think of this as a partly preventable disease," Lieberman says in a statement.

Today, there is no true "cure" for arthritis, only management of pain, such as taking medications, wearing splints and losing weight. In 2003, Americans spent some $80.8 billion on diagnosis and treatment of the disease. But researchers hope to eventually stem the flow of that money. The latest study gives hope that with continued testing of treatments and ways to prevent osteoarthritis, we can eventually beat this ancient ailment.

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