Rabid Groundhog Attack

 

If you started to read this post because the title promised the sort of droll tale you expect from John Cleese or Stephen Fry I’m sorry to disappoint you! It’s a story about a gentle dog walk that turned into a rabid animal attack.

You might ask how I knew it was rabid. Was it tested for the rabies virus? [No] Have I encountered a rabid animal before? [No] I only had symptoms to go on, as well as familiarity with normal groundhog behavior. They often visit our yard to check if the veggie garden is ready for a nocturnal raid, but whenever I encounter them they run, and always in the opposite direction. So, what happened this morning?

I let the two dogs off the leash in a large meadow bordering the historic area of Jamestown Island, which we visit most weeks of the year. While the dogs were scampering a hundred yards ahead I noticed a large ball of brown fur in the grass and wandered over to examine it. I assumed it was a dead animal that scavengers hadn’t found yet, because I passed two dozen black vultures gorging on the carcass of a road-kill deer thirty minutes earlier.

Groundhog ready to charge

When I was less than six feet away and bending over for a closer look at the body it suddenly unrolled and sprung to its feet in obvious fury, baring its incisors and making a strange gurgling sound. It was a large groundhog in a very bad way. Its coat was unkempt, not sleek from grooming, and its short tail looked like a chimney brush instead of a bushy duster. This groundhog had been fighting.

I expected it would run away but it ran at me, nipping at my loose trouser leg. It was crazy! When I stepped back it came again and again. I started to run until it flagged, and then stopped to take its photo with my cell phone from a cautious distance. It was a pathetic sight, and if there was a heavy object at hand I would have killed it humanely.

I hurried over to warn the ranger station, passing dozens of kids who had poured out of a bus to tour the historic area, but first I gathered and leashed the dogs. Had they encountered the beast I would be telling another story because one or more of our trio would have been bitten.

This first encounter with a symptomatic rabies victim will remind me in future to beware of mammals behaving uncharacteristically, and I mean any mammal because all are vulnerable to rabies.

Next Post: No-till and Cover-up

Hellbender

Sounds like a rock group, but hellbenders are mute, cryptic, and uglier than any band! I imagine some American pioneer naming them after turning over a rock in a mountain stream and recoiling in horror at the sight of something looking like it crawled out of H***. But hellbenders are among nature’s innocents (despite their jaws) and, like the Elephant Man, they should draw our sympathy because we, too, would want to hide under a rock if we had the ugliest mugs in the world.

Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman (Public domain)

A hellbender’s body extends two to three feet behind its slimy head, sprouting two pairs of stumpy legs before reaching the tail. They live in rivers like the Greenbrier and Cheat in West Virginia that drain pristine water from the mountains and harbor the diet of crayfish (“crawdads”). Hellbenders are giant salamanders, and the Appalachian mountain chain is the redoubt of more of their species than anywhere else in the world, over seventy in all, mostly small, dainty, and colorful.

I have never found a Big Sal under a rock, but Nick and Tim grab one on their excursion to West Virginia in this video.  They are slippery characters that are best left alone like other protected species with dwindling numbers.

Elk River, WV. Hellbender homeland

Hellbenders like a quiet life, but their home stretches can quickly change temper after a storm, turning a gentle stream into a raging torrent that tosses slimy torsos against rocks, crushing and tearing their flesh. And yet deep skin wounds almost never go septic in salamanders because they evolved ways of repairing traumas and consequently live for 30 to 50 years, longer than almost every other animal in the forest except some large birds.

A family of small peptides called defensins help to protect them against infection by latching on before bacteria, fungi and viruses snuck into cells. We, too, have defensins for boosting our innate immunity by drinking our mother’s milk during the most vulnerable weeks of our young lives.

There are related peptides encoded in our genome, but they are shams because their pseudogenes have premature stop codons that produce truncated peptides that don’t work for us throughout life. Perhaps they were useful long ago, but we now depend on cells in the immune system to guard against microbes, and for the past eighty years have counted on the penicillin family when needed. I say “past” because overuse of these drugs is creating microbial resistance that could turn us back to the pre-antibiotic era. If defensins help to preserve salamanders in a turbulent environment perhaps we can synthesize analogous molecules as backups for penicillin.

These four-legged aquatic animals with a long tail look too alien to inform medical science, but their body plan and tissue architecture are not so foreign to our own. There is one huge, enviable difference. They have an amazing ability to regenerate amputated limbs that we lost way back in evolution along with the services of some defensins. If we could mimic their biology millions of patients could throw away prosthetic hands, arms and legs, and repair damaged internal organs by drawing on the regenerative potency that rests unbidden inside our bodies.

When part of a salamander’s body is lost a blastema forms at the site of injury containing stem cells and other cells that lose their specialized character as they ready themselves for a reconstruction job. Careful anatomical studies have shown that when limbs are regrown they become perfect copies of the originals. This process fails in us because of an absence of blastemas and scar tissue getting in the way.

But we are getting accustomed to surprises in biology, and there are grounds for hoping that the plasticity of cells can be harnessed one day for regenerating our bodies. If you see a salamander squatting in a glass tank in a lab you may think it is a scientist’s pet or a grotesque throw-back to the Cretaceous Era, but perhaps you are looking at the future, at something that will help to improve human lives, and revise your judgment of the beasts from Hell.

Next Post: Cover Crop and No Till