Tag Archives: Genetics

How genetics is helping the snow leopard

Brrr! The snow is still falling here in Oxfordshire and has all but the bravest of us confined to our homes.

Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale blue/green or grey in colour.

One animal that doesn’t mind the cold however is the majestic snow leopard.

Found throughout the major mountain ranges of Central Asia, including the remote Himalayas, the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is among the most elusive of all the big cats.

Unlike us, snow leopards have a number of perfect adaptations for living in a cold mountainous environment. Their bodies are short and stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which helps to minimise heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better when walking on snow, and their tails are thick due to storage of fats and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when they sleep.

Curiously the snow leopard cannot roar, and instead, much like a domestic moggy, they hiss, chuffle, mew, growl and wail.

Sadly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, the snow leopard is listed as an endangered species by the IUCN, the largest global conservation network. Just 3,000 to 7,500 individuals are believed to exist, although given its secretive nature it has been difficult for conservationists to work out exactly how many of these beautiful animals there are left in the wild.

Can you spot the elusive snow leopard? Yes, there really is one there!Image courtesy of Kim Murray, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science

Can you spot the elusive snow leopard? Yes, there really is one there! Tip: look just below the rocky outcrop on the left…
Image reproduced from: snowleopardblog.com/spot-the-snow-leopard, courtesy of Kim Murray, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science

This is where genetics has been invaluable in helping the conservationists estimate the numbers of wild snow leopard in certain areas.

Scientists in Nepal collected samples of “scat” (snow leopard poo to you and me) and, using the same genetic techniques we do in creating your PlayDNA portrait, profiled the ‘poo’ to work out how many individual snow leopards were in each area, and even what gender they are.

This is really important information to a conservationist as it allows them to see how human activity might be affecting snow leopard populations, identify areas of high conservation priority and assess the effectiveness of any potential conservation action. All with minimal interference to the snow leopard.

Let’s hope their efforts are rewarded by a resurgence in the numbers of these magnificent beasts.

– written by Dr Samantha Decombel, Founder (PlayDNA)




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Too many sweets? Have some halloween science fun!

So it’s Halloween, and the trick and treater’s are out in force tonight. Sweets and chocolate seem to be the favourite ‘treat’ option, but when the kids trek home with a bucket full of candy, what to do with it all?!

Well, why not try out this quick and entertaining science experiment with your kids? It’s a great excuse to combine a bit of science fun with munching your way through all those sweets!

Take it in turns to try chewing a flavoured sweet while holding your nose – can you tell what flavour it is without looking at the wrapper? Let go of your nose and – voila! The flavour becomes apparent! Why not try it with different flavours to see if you can tell the difference?

This experiment neatly (and tastily!) demonstrates that smell and taste are very closely linked. Over 90% of what we think of as ‘taste’ is actually smell.

Want a healthy option to play this game? You can also try it with different fruit, although the distinctive textures can be a give away (a tip: telling the difference between apple and potato can be tricky!). We’d love to hear what other food you found this works with too!

Did you know? Our Personal DNA Portrait will reveal whether you have the gene for ‘bitter-tasting’ and as a result can taste the bitter compounds found in many green vegetables – a genetic reason for avoiding the Brussels Sprouts this Christmas. Yes, really!

Find out more about our unique DNA Art here: http://www.playdna.co.uk/personal-dna-profile.php

Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

– Dr Sam

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Proud to be a Neanderthal?

Did you catch the first part of the BBC2 documentary Prehistoric Autopsy last night with Professor Alice Roberts and Dr George McGavin?

It was fascinating stuff as the experts took us through the process of how they examine ancient and often incomplete skeletal remains to determine what their owners once looked like and how they might have lived. We were also treated to the unveiling of a fleshed-out model of a Neanderthal, who looked uncannily like a scruffy Chuck Norris!

Chuck or Neanderthal man?

Anatomy ace Alice is currently the Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, which is coincidentally the same institute where I completed my PhD studies and have also lectured on evolutionary genetics. While doing some research on the origins of modern humans I came across the following Neanderthal facts I thought I would share with you:

  • They were short

You would probably have towered over a Neanderthal, who were generally much shorter than modern humans, and more thick set and stocky.

  • They were redheads

Genetic research on DNA extracted from the remains of two Neanderthals has shown they carried a particular version of a gene called MC1R that leads to red hair. This is not a version that is seen in modern humans though, so no reason to believe redheads are any more Neanderthal than the rest of us!

  • They could talk like us

Genetic research has also confirmed that Neanderthals shared a gene called FOXP2 with us, a gene associated with speech and language in modern humans. Humans differ from chimpanzees at two key points in the FOXP2 gene but Neanderthals shared these same variations. “There is no reason to believe they couldn’t speak like us,” said Prof Svante Pääbo, the man behind the research.

  • We probably bred with them

Researchers have compared the DNA of modern humans with that of the Neanderthals. The results show that people of European and Asian origin have more DNA in common with Neanderthals than people from Africa do. The most likely explanation for this is that mating occurred between Neanderthals and the ancestors of present-day Eurasians. This must have taken place just as people were leaving Africa, while they were still part of one pioneering population, most likely in North Africa, the Levant or the Arabian Peninsula.

  • They so nearly made it

The Neanderthals finally died out around 28,000 years ago, just a blink of an eye in geological time. The most recent population we are aware of were found around caves near Gibraltar, perhaps driven south by the harsh glacial weather.

Thanks to popular culture, the typical view of a Neanderthal is that of the dim-witted knuckle-dragging brute. Yet Neanderthals were no doubt ‘another kind of human’ with a culture not so different to our own. They made advanced tools, prepared and wore clothing, and there is evidence to suggest they were among the first humans to bury their dead. So why did the Neanderthals die out, while we went on to conquer the earth? This is a question that may never be answered, but is likely due to a whole host of factors including climate change and increased competition from modern humans. Maybe it was just pure luck that we survived and they didn’t.

We can’t wait for episode two tonight, when the experts will be reconstructing one of the earliest humans, Homo erectus!

-Dr Sam

If you missed it, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00xfdmt

Want to know more about Neanderthals? I’d recommend a great book by Clive Finlayson, poignantly called ‘The Humans Who Went Extinct’: http://goo.gl/hWzfJ


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