Saint John, New Brunswick

The story below was taken from the Times Globe Newspaper.

Hunting for Answers

A Real Cat Scan

Scientist turns to X-rays and DNA to delve into Eastern cougar

By David Young
Times Globe staff writer

   A 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 controversies.
    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 ago.
    "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 measures.
    In this decade, the debate has heated up once more.

[ 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 waiting.)]

    In November 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 government biologists.
   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 Avenue.
   "We save these things because ideas change, technology changes and we want science to be verifiable," said Mr. McAlpine.
   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 that escaped.
   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.
   Fifty 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 insides.
   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 cavity.
   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.