Science Explains Why Your Lab Is Always Hungry

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Dogs love food. Some love it more than others, and some of those are Labrador retrievers—the bottomless pits of the canine world. Scientists announced today that they’ve found a gene variant in labs that may explain that constant state of "Please Feed Me." The findings were published last year in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Dog obesity isn't something we talk about a lot, but there sure is a lot of it. In the U.S. and other wealthy countries, between 34 and 59 percent of dogs are overweight. And yes, fat dogs are cute, but they’re also in danger of some serious health problems. Canine obesity can cause heart disease, strain on a dog’s joints, diabetes, and can even shorten a dog’s lifespan.

Some breeds, like black labs, chocolate labs, and golden retrievers, are more obesity-prone than others. This is likely because, like many of us, they are highly motivated by food. Labs’ human companions learn quickly that a treat is the trick to getting their dog to behave. But those treats add up.

The domesticated dog, Canis familiaris, is a single species with a lot of variations. Great Danes and Chihuahuas are both dogs, but their bloodlines, and therefore their genes, are dramatically different. And all those differences within a single species make dog breeds a great resource for scientists studying genetics.

Researchers recruited nearly 400 adult Labrador participants. Of those dogs, 310 were pets recruited through an email invitation from the UK Kennel Club, and 80 were part of an assistance-dog breeding colony. Some of the dogs were fat, while others were not, but all of them were healthy, with no pre-existing conditions.

First, the dogs were weighed. Then the scientists collected drool samples from 33 of the dogs and sequenced the DNA within. The dogs’ owners then completed a survey about their labs’ eating habits.

As relatives, of course, the labs had a great deal of genetic material in common with each other and with other dog breeds. But they also had one gene variant that stood out: the deletion of 14 base pairs from a gene called pro-opiomelanocortin, or POMC. Previous studies of this POMC variant have shown a relationship with appetite and a feeling of fullness.

Each dog could have one copy of the POMC variant, two copies, or none. The more copies a dog had, the fatter and more food-motivated it was. And about 23 percent of labs are carrying at least one copy of the variant.

"People who live with Labradors often say they are obsessed by food, and that would fit with what we know about this genetic change," Cambridge University metabolism expert and lead author Eleanor Raffan said in a press statement.

Her co-author, Stephen O’Rahilly of the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Institute of Science, says these findings have implications beyond kibble. "Common genetic variants affecting the POMC gene are associated with human body weight and there are even some rare obese people who lack a very similar part of the POMC gene to the one that is missing in the dogs. So further research in these obese Labradors may not only help the well-being of companion animals but also have important lessons for human health."

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

Virginia Zoo Is Auctioning Off the Chance to Name Its New Red Panda Triplets

bbossom/iStock via Getty Images
bbossom/iStock via Getty Images

The red panda population at the Virginia Zoo grew significantly earlier this summer, The Virginian-Pilot reports. On June 18, mother Masu and father Timur welcomed a brood of triplets into the world, bringing their total number of offspring up to five. The three red panda babies are currently without names, but the zoo is giving a few lucky bidders the chance to change that.

Red pandas are endangered, with fewer than 10,000 of them living in their natural habitat in the Eastern Himalayas. Red panda breeding programs, like the one at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, are a way for conservationists to rebuild the species's dwindling numbers.

In 2017, Masu relocated to Virginia from the Denver Zoo as a juvenile. Zookeepers paired her with a male red panda there named Timur, and in June 2018, she delivered twin cubs named Adam and Freddie. Red pandas typically breed in the spring and summer months and usually have just two babies at a time. But when Masu gave birth again this past June, she had three tiny cubs.

The three new red panda babies each weighed about 5 ounces when they were born and weigh roughly a pound today. Masu has been moved to a private, climate-controlled den to care for her young and will be returned to her original exhibit with her cubs sometime this fall.

By the time they make their debut, the youngest red pandas at the Virginia Zoo will have names, chosen not by the zoo, but by members of the public. Starting yesterday, August 19, and ending August 30, the zoo is holding an online auction for the naming rights of each of the three red panda cubs. As of press time, the honor of naming the two boy red pandas has already been sold for $2500 each, and the current bid for the girl stands at $1000. All the money that's raised will be donated to the Zoo’s conservation partner, the Red Panda Network.

Perhaps due to the results of previous public naming contests, the Zoo did lay out a few stipulations for the winning bidders. It won't accept any repeat names of red pandas that have lived there in the past. Additionally, "any racial, religious or ethnic slurs, explicit language, obscene content, reference to alcohol, drugs or other illicit substances or otherwise unlawful, inappropriate, objectionable, or offensive content" will be rejected. All name submissions from the winners are due to the zoo by September 9.

[h/t The Virginian-Pilot]

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