December 20, 2011

Animal headlines of 2011

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

As many news outlets publish their usual end-of-year wrap-ups, it’s interesting to see how many newsworthy events in 2011 involved animals. There were the mysterious bird deaths in Arkansas (that were later blamed in fireworks) and the continuing disappearance of honeybees.

In the world of animal science and production, many headlines were shaped by natural disasters and changing public perception. Here are some of the animal headlines that caught my eye this year.

The drought this year is also estimated to have killed around 500 million trees in Texas. Photo from the Texas Farm Bureau

Devestating drought hits American South and Midwest. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more continuous land area in the U.S. experienced exceptional drought this year than ever before in recorded history. With the drought came increased feed prices, and many ranchers chose to sell cattle earlier in the season. The dry conditions got even worse in July and August, when heat waves swept across the country and many animals suffered from heat stress. With the dip in cattle numbers, some wonder about the strength of the U.S. cattle market in 2012.

Tsumani leads to fears of contaminated food. On March 11, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan, leading to meltdowns in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While Japanese officials say the power plant is stable, many worry about long-term contamination of food from the region. Beef cows raised in the contaminated area are not allowed in the market. Many ranchers in the contaminated area are wondering when and if farming will be allowed. 

Australia bans live cattle exports to Indonesia. In June, after a public uproar over a video of “inhumane” cattle slaughter by Indonesian abattoirs, Austalian Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig banned live cattle exports to Indonesia. Many Australian ranchers agreed that the cattle in the video were mistreated, but they argued that the actions of one group of abattoirs shouldn’t have to damage the national cattle industry. The ban was lifted in July, but some producers are still worried about their relationships with the Indonesian market.

Can you spot the glowing pig? Cells from this genetically engineered pig are easily tracked throughtout the body and can help pinpoint cell locations during stem cell treatments. Photo from Hsiao et al. in the Journal of Animal Science.

Animal models lead to new discoveries in human health. How can we learn to treat asthma, ocular TB, or heart disease? There were many examples this year of how scientists used animals as models for human disease. At the University of Texas, medical researchers studied mice to better understand a possible cause of asthma in children. At Johns Hopkins, researchers used guinea pigs to study the progression of TB-related blindness. And a group of Taiwanese scientists used pigs engineered to produce a green flourscent protein to better understand how stem cells heal the body after a heart attack. Using animal models to study human health is nothing new, but this year, the public was exposed to many more stories about this vital area of research.

Biologists discover new species. Scientists around the world discovered quite a few undescribed species this year. There were fanged snakes in China and tiny frogs in Papau New Guinea. With each new species comes new knowledge of biology and evolution around the world!

What would you nominate as an animal headline of 2011? Let me know on Twitter @CritterChatter.