HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN
FUN STUFF · NEW
The story below was taken
from the Times Globe Newspaper.
A Real Cat
Scientist turns to X-rays
and DNA to delve into Eastern cougar
By David Young
Saint John scientist is turning to the awesome power of modern biotechnology in
an effort to shed light on one of the province's most enduring wildlife
Don McAlpine, curator of zoology at the
New Brunswick Museum, has asked microbiologists to analyze the DNA found in a
small sample of feces thought to be from an Eastern cougar.
The cougar, or panther, is on the province's list of
endangered species, but many biologists believe they became extinct decades
"For a long time there has been a debate about
whether the Eastern cougar survived, and the general feeling among wildlife
biologists is that they hadn't," explains Mr. McAlpine.
The debate has raged on so long that even in the last century, experts couldn't
agree if the cougar existed in New Brunswick. Believers have even accused the
government of covering up cougar evidence to avoid costly protection
In this decade, the debate has heated up once
[ The stuffed big cat was
brought to the Saint John Regional Hospital this week for an X-ray. (The bill
will be sent to the museum, by the way, and no human patients were kept
of 1992, J.D. Irving Ltd. employee Tom O'Blenis was working near McKiel Lake,
east of Juniper, when he noticed cat-like tracks on a logging road. He called
After following the tracks in the
snow for about 2.5 kilometres, the, team found some cat scat. By analyzing the
tracks and having hair samples from the scat examined in Ottawa, Rod Cumberland
and Jeffery Dempsey concluded that the animal was a cougar, although they
couldn't say what kind of cougar.
"That seemed to be
proof positive that the cougars were in New Brunswick," Mr. McAlpine said.
Such important physical evidence was not to be lost. The
feces was shared among scientists.
A dried sample is now
officially part of the collection at the national museum in Ottawa. Another
specimen sits in glass vial the basement of the New Brunswick Museum on Douglas
"We save these things because ideas change,
technology changes and we want science to be verifiable," said Mr.
But he has wondered if he could find out more.
Do the feces hold clues about where the animal came from?
After all, a few years ago, DNA evidence showed that a cougar
shot in Quebec was actually of Chilean stock and believed to be an exotic pet
DNA is a long molecule, similar to two
interwoven strings of beads. Found in every cell, the beads are like a code
which dictates what the animal, person or plant will look like. One code of
beads inside an egg will make a cougar; another will make a Coopers hawk;
another a human.
By taking some tissue and extracting the
DNA, and then deciphering a short sequence of the "beads," scientists can tell
- to an extent - what species the DNA came from. For example, they can tell a
cougar from a house cat, and even distinguish a North American cougar from the
South American variety. Researchers may be able to tell a Western cougar's DNA
from an Eastern cougar's.
Mr. McAlpine sent off some
feces to labs in California and Maryland for DNA analysis. In the meantime, he
has turned his attention to a much older sample.
years ago, in 1938, a cougar was killed in the Lac Saint John area near
Madawaska. The animal was collected, stuffed and added to the museum's
collection as the last hard evidence of an eastern cougar in New Brunswick.
Mr. McAlpine said it is important to know conclusively if
this animal is indeed an Eastern cougar. But because the hide is tanned there
is little usable -DNA left in the skin. So Mr. McAlpine has turned to the
With the help of the X-ray department at the
Saint John Regional Hospital, Mr. McAlpine has found original pieces of skull
inside the animal. He will now look for left-over pieces of soft tissue around
the skull. Maybe he'll get a ligament, maybe some tissue in the nasal
Once he finds something, he will send it to the
American labs again.
While this degree of investigation may seem to some as
an exercise in indulging scientific curiosity, it also has a practical
implication. By law, wildlife biologists must protect the animal if it exists.
If there are breeding populations, the government must develop management plans
to sustain the cougars.
HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN
FUN STUFF · NEW