Thursday, October 29, 2009

Toad and lizard come to call

 All text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

I had fun this week. To my joy, I was twice asked to retrieve or rescue a little animal in a bad situation. One was an Anolis lizard on my neighbors' living-room curtain. It took me just a few seconds to nudge her into a little carrying cage. The second was a Fowler's toad trapped in the bottom of a stairwell at the school where I work. The disgruntled toad had dozens of loud students stomping over its hiding place, and long human hairs tangled around its legs.

I took both of them home, just long enough to offer them food and rest. Back in the days when I wrote Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method, and Pet Bugs, and Classroom Critters and so on, I was catching ordinary little animals and bugs almost daily and keeping them just long enough to share with my science classes and write about them for my books. Then let I let them go where I found them, usually with fuller bellies. But I haven't done it much lately. Living on a suburban lot close to downtown, we don't see that many toads, frogs, lizards, snakes, or turtles around my house. I wish we did, I miss them.  The ones we do see are usually squashed on the road. I've gotten pretty good at identifying completely flattened road kill. I know that Brown Snakes (Storeria dekayi) must spend a lot of time sunning themselves in the road, because 95% of the squashed snakes I see are Brown Snakes.

The lizard
The lizard I retrieved from my neighbor's curtain this week was Anolis carolinensis or a Carolina anole. A lot of people call them "chameleons" because they change colors, from green to dark brown. But it's not for  camouflage, like in some African chameleons (below).

The color change in anoles is an indication of their emotional state or their body temperature.When they're calm and relaxed, or warm, they tend to be green. When they're upset about an intruder, or if they're cold, they tend to be dark brown (like the pic below). My anole was not happy in the sleeve cage where I put her, despite the fact that I set it up like a natural habitat with sticks to climb on and leaves, and sprayed it with a mister to provide droplets to drink. (There she is in the sleeve cage, below. I knew it was a female because males have pink skin on the throat for displays.)

Below, you can see the whole sleeve cage, which allows you to move things in and out of the cage without taking the top off.  Especially useful if you have flying insects.

I did a bunch of sweeps through the brush out back with my sweep net (below) to provide a variety of insect prey for the carnivorous little Anolis lizard.

 Ken holds the sweep net (above) so I can show you the size of it. He insisted I not show his face.

In spite of my efforts to provide comfort and a tasty diet, I did not once see the anole eat. I gave her living crickets, leaf hoppers, little spiders, a stilt bug, a beetle - a wide selection of active prey. I put them all in the sleeve cage.

I took her out just once, to have a close look and see what she'd do.  Anoles can get quite friendly, if you keep them for a long time. But I don't encourage anyone to keep wild animals as pets, including myself.  So I let her crawl around on my arm just once for a few minutes, to enjoy watching her, then I took her out to the brush pile between our yard and the field and let her go. I did it reluctantly, but knowing I had to.

The toad
Then I had only the Fowler's toad left.  I had set him up in a big cardboard box.

A jar lid provided water for the toad (below). A thin plastic food container cut in half lengthwise made a little house, which he preferred to the wide open spaces of the box.  I also kept two damp and slightly crumpled paper towels in the box so the toad could go under them if his skin got too dry.  I know from experience that toads will sit in a jar lid of water and take the water into their cloaca if they need moisture. The cloaca is sort of like a bladder and a colon in reptiles, amphibians, and birds, except that it's also the end of the reproductive tract. Three functions in one. I've never seen a toad lap up water into its mouth, I don't think they do that.

I knew this toad was a Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) because those are the most common toads in our area (the piedmont of N.C.)  and because it had a single dark spot on its chest. It didn't have the prominent cranial crests of a Southern toad (Bufo terrestris) nor the 1 to 2 warts per spot of the American toad (Bufo americanus). Most of its spots had 2 or 3 warts, the number typical of Fowler's.

I gave that toad so much to eat. Toads are predators too, so I gave him four fat earthworms from our compost - I know toads eat worms, because I used to have toads that would snatch worms draped across my finger.  I know they love crickets, I've fed crickets to dozens of toads in science classes. Yet for two days this one would not eat the fat mature crickets I put in its sleeve cage, or the earthworms. I could only conclude that both the lizard and the toad were looking for somewhere to hole up for the winter and were no longer interested in eating. Or else it just takes a while for them to get accustomed to captivity before they will begin to eat. Maybe I've forgotten how long that period is.

Anyway, it's the end of October, time for the toad to burrow down for the winter.  So, today, I took the toad to release it.  I put him in the sleeve cage and walked down into the woods at the school where I work. I followed the creek until I came to place where a lot of dead wood was on the ground near the creek - an acceptable place for a toad to burrow down for the winter. I know they sometimes spend all winter hunkered under logs, because I've found them in such places in the dead of winter. 

I put the toad on a rotted log and away he went. I let the crickets go too. And, happily, when I shook out the damp paper towels in the cage, I noticed that all the worms but one were gone!  He did eat them!  Yay!

Conservation status
Like most wildlife, Fowler's toads are threatened by loss of habitat. Protection of breeding sites for Bufo fowleri is essential to their survival. Most toads breed in shallow waters such as woodland ponds, farm ponds, lake edges, and marshes. The soft permeable skin of toads and other amphibians makes them especially vulnerable to agricultural chemicals, which tend to drain into their breeding ponds. Such wetland areas are also filled-in for housing developments, agriculture, or roads. In the Charlotte multi-county where I live, 41 acres per day are being developed!  Even now, you have to get out in the country really to find toads these days.

Although all natural habitats are diminishing as our population increases, anoles are not as vulnerable as toads and other amphibians. They lay their eggs in moist soil or rotting wood, so they're not exposed to agricultural runoff in shallow pools. However, they do pick up pesticides in the bodies of their insect prey.  Anoles are also impacted by the pet trade. When I was kid, you could buy an anole in a small box at the circus, with no care instructions whatsoever. They are still sold in pet stores everywhere in the Southeast. Housecats are also a menace to all small animals.More than a billion small animals and birds are killed by housecats in the United States every year. I know frogs are among their victims, because I found my neighbor's cat chewing on two of the bullfrogs in my backyard pond (that particular cat is gone now).  But in spite of all that, anoles are still fairly common in the southeastern United States, outside of cities.

Anyway I'm grateful that lizard and toad dropped in for a couple of days. I'm glad they're gone too - finding live insects to feed them every day is a chore.  And they deserve to be free.  I'm glad I was able to let them go in good habitats.  It was the highlight of my week, by a long shot.

Key words:: wildlife Fowlers toads Bufo fowleri Anolis carolinensis lizards anoles animals in captivity Creepy Crawlies Pet Bugs Classroom Critters

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New studies confirm that circumcision saves lives in Africa

 The Swazi chief in the center, surrounded by her family and, on the far right, our friend Sonny

I was intrigued by a story I saw in Science News recently about circumcision and its effect on HIV. Africa has been impacted by HIV more than any other continent. In 2007 and 2009, my husband and I were in South Africa and Swaziland, two of the hardest hit countries. We had the priviledge of visiting the chief of a rural village in Swaziland.  We were welcomed into her family's small round hut with its earthen floor, along with our friend Sonny who lives and works nearby. I asked the chief, with Sonny as translator, how Swazi life had changed during her lifetime (the chief was an older woman). She wouldn't say much, except how the younger generation won't eat traditional foods any more, wanting junk food instead. But as we were leaving, she stopped us outdoors and asked us to pray for her village. She asked us to pray that someone will find a solution to HIV, which is devastating her village and her country.  The sad look of hopelessness on her face haunted me as I read the Science News article last week.

In Swaziland, 22% of adults are infected with HIV. Life expectancy used to be 57 years; now it's 31 years. In the year 2007 alone, 10,000 Swazis died of AIDS.  The country has 56,000 AIDS orphans.  And so get the picture.  In South Africa, the impact of AIDS has been so great that the country's population has stopped the rapid expansion characteristic of most African countries. Life expectancy in 1995 was 64; in 2005 it was 49. See International Data Base (IDB) for more population data.

So what's being done?  As far as research, some big strides have been made, and some of that research has to do with protection offered by circumcision.

In humans, the three most common sexually-transmitted viral diseases are HIV, genital herpes, and HPV (human papillomavirus). All three are incurable.

But all three are are less likely to be transmitted when a male is circumcised.

Earlier studies have shown that male circumcision reduces the risk of acquiring HIV by up to 60%.

Another article, published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports that circumcision also provides partial protection against both genital herpes and HPV. This study, funded by Bill & Melinda Gates and the NIAID, involved 3,393 Ugandan males ranging in age from 15 to 49, all of whom wanted to be circumcised and none of whom had herpes. Half the males were circumcised right away, and half had the procedure deferred for two years. After the two years, the earlier-circumcised volunteers were 1/4 less likely to have genital herpes and 1/3 less likely to have a dangerous form of HPV. Because circumcision provided only partial protection, the researchers cautioned that it "should not be considered a full shield."

Even so, the partial protection could have a major public health benefit, says the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.  Human herpes ulcers make a man more vulnerable to HIV infection. Dr. Fauci says that circumcision not only reduces the incidence of HIV infection outright, but by protecting against genital herpes, circumcision increases the protection against HIV infection.  This is a significant finding: in Kenya, where 4/5 of the people infected with HIV are also infected with genital herpes, says Dr. Robert Bailey of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Although much of the research centers on protection of men, women benefit too. Yet another study in South Africa reports that circumcised men are 1/3 less likely to have a dangerous form of HPV that can cause cervical cancer when transmitted to female partners.

A research team in Kenya is nearing publication of their study of circumcision's effect on STDs. One scientist in the research team has said the results show similar effects to the already published studies.

An Overwhelming Game Changer

Says Dr. Judith Wasserheit of the University of Washington, "I think this trio of trials is certainly a landmark in prevention, not only of HIV but of these other sexually transmited infections. These new data really are a game changer."

Dr. Thomas Quinn of Johns Hopkins University says that the medical evidence of long-term benefits to male circumcision "is now overwhelming."

Good News, But Is It Being Used?

Unfortunately, this information is so far having little effect on the transmission of these diseases in Africa.  According to, an international AIDS nonprofit, "only one clinic in South Africa currently offers free male circumcisions, with public facilities only offering the service for medical reasons. The government is reviewing evidence on circumcision, but has yet to issue further guidance on the practice."

One hindrance toward progress in South Africa is the amazing quantity of misinformation among the general public about the transmission of HIV.  While in Johannesburg, we read an editorial in the city's major newpaper about the common folklore regarding how a man can determine whether he has HIV or not. If he has sex with a virgin and she does not become infected, then he can assume he is uninfected himself.  If he has sex with a virgin, and she does become infected, then she must be a witch. I hate to relay such nonsense about a country I love passionately, but every country has its own damaging dogma. My sympathy in this situation lies with the young girl who's used as meaningless litmus paper, and perhaps paying with her life.

Some of the schools we visited in South Africa showed us herb gardens where they're growing herbs to prevent or treat HIV. Beet root has been a well-known "cure" in the country for years, even promoted as such by the government in earlier years.  I'm not aware that any herbs or plants offer protection against this disease.

My hope is that Bill & Melinda Gates or NIAID will invest some of their billions into building free circumcision clinics and distributing information about real-life diagnosis and protection - as well as promoting development and distribution of the promising new vaccine, which appears to offer protection to 1/3 of those who receive it (see NY Times article cited below).

And if you're wondering whether to circumcise your own newborn son, it appears that doing so could offer him some protection against some STDs. Although condoms could most likely provide a higher degree of protection, without the cutting that some object to.

1. Nathan Seppa. "Many benefits to circumcision: Operation in males fends off three common viral STDs." Science News, April 25, 2009.

2. Nathan Seppa  "Defense Mechanism: Circumcision averts some HIV infections."  Science News,  October 29, 2005

3. Aaron, A.L. et al. "Male Circumcision for the Prevention of HSV-2 nad HPV Infections and Syphilis." New England Journal of Medicine, March 26, 2009.

4. Averting HIV and AIDS. "HIV and AIDS in South Africa."

5. Donald G. McNeil Jr. "For First Time, AIDS Vaccine Shows Some Success," New York Times, Sept. 24, 2009.

6. International Data Base.

Key words:: circumcision HIV AIDS Africa Swaziland STDs

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My daughter says elderberry got rid of her H1N1 virus

Sadie with little Henry

Written by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of This post is now on and is a Google News link.

My daughter Sadie, in her 20s, got sick a few days ago with a flu-like illness.  We didn't figure out for a couple of days, after talking to a nurse, that her affliction was almost certainly swine flu.  Fever of 102 degrees, headache, severe body aches, fatigue, sore throat and cough, slight sniffles. On Monday she was too sick to go to work. One of her housemates came home with some elderberry capsules from a natural-foods store.  Sadie (my daughter) took 800 mg capsules, 3 times a day, on Monday and Tuesday. I talked to her on Wednesday and she said she was 100% recovered with no symptoms whatsoever. Maybe the flu had just run its course and she would have felt fine even without the elderberry.  But I was curious enough to look it up on the internet, and was astonished at the volume of credible articles I found about black elderberry as a treatment for the flu. My daughter's whole household is taking elderberry now, to avoid getting what Sadie had, including elderberry in syrup form for the baby.

Now, I'm not a health professional, and I am not recommending a particular flu treatment to anyone. Flu can be dangerous. But I am saying these articles on the internet are interesting.  Have a look for yourself. A few of them are listed below. You can find many more by googling "elderberry flu" or "elderberry H1N1."

Tamiflu, an antiviral commonly prescribed for flu, is very expensive. It only shortens the duration and may reduce the severity of the flu. It also has common side effects that can include vomiting and headache. Of course, there are flu cases where reducing the severity even a little can be life-saving, so I'm not knocking Tamiflu.

Articles about elderberry and flu:
Paul Fassa.  "Elderberry Trumps Tamiflu for Flu Remedy". Natural, May 30, 2009 

Cathy Wong. "Flu remedies." Alternative Medicine. Dec 4, 2007.

Chris Bolwig. "Flu cure found in the elderberry."  Ice News - Daily News. Nov 12, 2007.

Elderberry extract prevents H1N1 infection in vitro.   The Medical News. September 11,. 2009.

Teresa Koby.  Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Herb News, Herb Research Foundation. August 28, 2009.

Nicky Blackburn. "Study shows Israeli elderberry extract effective against avian flu."  Israeli21c: Innovative News Service. January 29, 2006.

Key words:: alternative medicine elderberry flu H1N1 herbal medicine herbal remedies swine flu

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ground beef: a risky choice for families and the planet

Story by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

The New York Times reported on October 11 that eating ground beef is still risky. Well, yes, but what's new about that? Of course it's still risky. Every now and then the media decide to write up something about the hazards of beef as though it were new, but the situation remains as it has been for some time.

The New York Times article focused on E. coli, a short name for the bacterium Escherichia coli. We all have E. coli in our intestines; most strains of E. coli are harmless. But one strain can be deadly to humans, causing bloody diarrhea and kidney failure. That strain is E. coli 0157. It lives in the bowels of half of the beef cattle in the United States. A very small number of these bacteria can kill you - some say as few as ten bacterial cells.

 A beef-cattle feedlot in photo above. Photo courtesy of

Virtually all cattle in feedlots spend their days and nights standing around in manure, and so their coats are usually contaminated with E. coli 0157. Keeping the bacteria out of their meat is a challenge. After cattle are killed in a slaughterhouse, the carcasses pass through a hot-steam area, then are sprayed with a disinfectant to get rid of E. coli 0157. In some slaughterhouses and processing plants, the carcasses are irradiated. The radiation kills bacteria, although there is some debate about effects that irradiated food may have on human consumers.

Young Dancer Paralyzed by E. coli

In the U.S., there are occasional outbreaks of E.coli 0157 poisoning, where several people in one town will become extremely ill and a few may die. Since children eat half the hamburgers sold in the U.S., the victims are often children. The poisoning is usually traced to a single hamburger restaurant that has a batch of meat contaminated with E. coli 0157. The New York Times article featured a children's dance instructor, Stephanie Smith, who was left paralyzed at the age of 22 after ingesting a hamburger contaminated with E.coli 0157 in 2007.

Before the advent of feedlots, dangerous E. coli from cattle could not survive in human digestive tracts because our stomachs were too acidic for them. But the unnatural corn diet fed to beef cattle in feedlots, to marble their flesh and increase their weight gain, increases the acidity of cattle's stomachs so that it's more similar to ours. So the cattle's E. coli 0157 have adapted to a more acidic stomach and now can survive in our stomachs too.

A Possible Solution

It doesn't have to be this way. According to a study by Dr. James Russell at Cornell University, feeding cows their natural diet of hay instead of corn for only five days before slaughter will reduce the acidity in their stomachs and get rid of the acid-loving and dangerous E. coli 0157. Any remaining E. coli would not be able to survive in our acidic stomachs and so would not be dangerous to humans..

Of course, if cows were not fed corn in the first place, but were fed hay or allowed to graze, then we wouldn't have any problem at all with the dangerous E. coli 0157. So, remind me, why is it that cattle are fed corn? Oh yes, it's that familiar corporate incentive: shaving pennies from production costs to maximize profits. Because corn-fed cattle gain more weight and gain it faster, they make more money for beef producers. And we Americans have gotten used to that fat-laced meat and now prefer it.

Is beef worth the risks, and the ecological down-side? You might be surprised at how fast you can get used to a life without beef. Aside from the E. coli issue, consider that a recent Worldwatch document declared beef and dairy products to be the two ecological "hot spots" in our diet - that is, the two diet items whose production does the most long-lasting damage to the planet.

Anyone for a Tofurkey sausage? All plant-based and indescribably delicious.

Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel. 2005. Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. Fulcrum Books.

BBC Online Network. "Change of Diet Could Defeat Killer Bug."

Sarah DeWeerdt. "Is Local Food Better?" Worldwatch Institute

Michael Moss."E. coli path shows flaws in beef inspection." October 11, 2009. New York Times.

Photo courtesy of 

Key words:: beef feedlots E. coli health meat cattle diet hot spots

Thursday, October 08, 2009

New study: chicks can add and subtract

This post now on Google News (10/9/09)

Chickens get a pretty bum rap as the dumbest of animals. Maybe that's why few people have much sympathy for the plight of chickens in our food industry. Take, for example, the hatcheries that produce the hens that lay our table eggs. Male chicks from these hatcheries are superfluous, since table eggs are infertile. The egg industry needs females only, for the most part. So male chicks are tossed, alive, into dumpsters. Take a look at the film Peaceable Kingdom by Tribe of Heart for clear footage of this interesting phenomenon. Or the photos in Animal Factories by Jim Mason and Peter Singer.

Live male chicks in a dumpster. Photo courtesy of

Anyway - this post is good news about chicks! Interesting news. I read in Science News that chicks only 3 or 4 days old show evidence of adding and subtracting. Italian scientist Rosa Rugani and her colleagues from the University of Trento Center for Mind/Brain Sciences designed experiments that involved adding and removing objects from little piles hidden behind screens. She reports in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that the chicks did a pretty good job of keeping track of the objects, equivalent to problems such as 4 - 2 = 2 and 1 + 2 = 3.

Rugani says this is the first demonstration of adding and subtracting in young animals other than humans. Other animals, such as dogs and chimps, have demonstrated mathematical talents as adults. Karen Wynn, of Yale University, says that Rugani's work is "compelling evidence that numerical understanding comprises a built-in system of unlearned knowledge."

So why would chicks need to know how to count? Chicks hang out in groups. As youngsters, they'll even hang out with little plastic balls about the same size as a chick. In the experiment, each chick watched as an experimenter hid balls behind two screens, then moved some of the balls from one screen to the other. When the ball-moving was over, each chick was allowed to wander. Around 75% of the time, the chicks scampered over to the screen that wound up with the most balls - indicating that they'd been keeping track of the adding and subtracting.

Photo courtesy of Science News and Rosa Rugani et al.

I have serious reservations about animal experiments in general. But behavioral experiments such as these, that demonstrate animal intelligence, are valuable. I can't help but hope that some day more people will "get it." Animals, especially vertebrates, are sentient beings that deserve a lot more consideration than we give them.

Susan Milius. Hatchlings may add, subtract: results point to built-in numerical understanding. Science News, April 25, 2009.

Jim Mason and Peter Singer. Animal Factories.

Tribe of Heart. Peaceable Kingdom.

Tom Regan - Animal Rights

Key words: chickens animal rights animal intelligence chicks can count