Sacrifice Mosquitoes to Rescue Hawaii's Birds?

Paradise would not be paradise without birds. Unfortunately, Hawaii's native bird population has been dwindling since the accidental introduction of mosquitoes in 1826 by a whaling vessel that dumped maggots into a stream on Maui. With mosquitoes came avian malaria, and with avian malaria came bad news for Hawaii's native birds, which had never encountered any disease like it. The U.S. Geological Survey is now saying that extinction seems to be imminent for some native species, especially on the island of Kawaii, which does not have mountains into which birds can retreat from mosquitoes. 

The Hawaiian archipelago is separated by 2,500 miles from the nearest land. It possesses a diversity of species even greater than the Galapagos Islands; and, like on the Galapagos, these organisms developed in such isolation that they weren’t adapted to the threats brought by Western explorers and immigrants. These days, 434 species of plants and animals are listed as endangered by the United States. More than half the native forest birds are already extinct.

A proposed solution is to create mosquitoes genetically engineered to die off before they reach reproductive age. A group of government officials, conservationists, and scientists in Hawaii are discussing the viability of such an idea. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for endangered species, recently said it was looking at different recovery plans for forest birds. Among these is the mosquito method. 

A decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service estimated the cost would be $2.5 billion over 30 years to preserve Hawaii's native forest birds. These plans included buying land and restoring habitats. But genetically modified mosquitoes could be much less expensive.

This is not to say that Hawaiians—or we here at Talkin' Birds, for that matter—are easy with the thought of genetically tinkering with nature. But the fact remains that mosquito technology is a potential fix for human diseases such as Zika. Currently, fighting human disease gets the attention and the funding, but conservation could become just as important a use of this biotechnology.


Preventing Concussions: Learning from Woodpeckers

Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? is not only the title of Mike O'Connor's first book. It's also the driving question behind a new device that could help prevent concussions. Here's the problem: While helmets can prevent skull fractures, they can’t prevent concussions. The brain floats in fluid inside the skull and can therefore slosh around during impact. The solution? Consider the woodpecker. 

Dr. David Smith, CEO of Xennovate Medical, received a bit of advice from an attendee at one of his lectures in 2007. The advice was to investigate how woodpeckers manage to knock their heads against trees all day without suffering any ill effects. Smith appreciated the advice and began studying woodpeckers. 

A woodpecker has a very long tongue. In some species, the tongue is supported by bones that wrap all the way around the head. It appears that the tongue compresses the bones, and therefore the neck veins, as the woodpecker thrusts its head forward. The resulting slight increase in skull fluid volume helps keep the brain from knocking against the skull.

Smith wondered whether the same effect could be reproduced in humans, perhaps with some kind of collar. He contacted Dr. Julian Bailes—yes, the doctor played by Alec Baldwin in the 2015 movie Concussion. Bailes had testified before Congress in 2009 about head injuries in the NFL, having been team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1988-98.

Smith and Bailes designed a collar that gently presses on the back and sides of the neck, leaving the throat unobstructed. The pressure slightly compresses the jugular vein, slowing the blood flow out of the brain. The result: the skull temporarily contains an extra teaspoon of blood. This extra teaspoon of volume, which causes no harm, reduces the amount of sloshing that the brain can do when the head is walloped.

Smith and Bailes tested their first model on rats. It worked well enough that they decided to move on to human subjects. Three years ago, Smith and Bailes invited Dr. Gregory Myer at the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to join their effort. They tested the collar with high school football players. The results will appear in a paper that Myer intends to submit for publication early next year.

Performance Sports Group, which makes Bauer ice hockey equipment and Cascade lacrosse helmets, has committed $7 million toward production of the band. More importantly, CEO Kevin Davis has such confidence in the band’s effectiveness that he’s asked his son to wear it when he plays hockey.

We hope he says "Thank you" to any woodpeckers he sees or hears on the way to practice.