Remains of long-extinct cave lion cubs unveiled in Russia

(Vera Salnitskaya/The Siberian Times)

(Vera Salnitskaya/The Siberian Times)

Two well–preserved cave lion cubs, complete with fur, ears, and whiskers, were unveiled Tuesday in Russia. They were discovered in a Siberian ice sheet in Yakutia this past summer, marking the first time humans have seen the extinct species in over 10,000 years.

“The findings of such well-preserved [specimens] is an extremely rare find,” Albert Protopopov, head of the Department of Mammoth Fauna Studies in Yakutsk, told “The new discovery is of great importance to science, as for the first time [we’ve] found the frozen carcasses of an extinct species from more than ten thousand years ago, the cave lion.”

Related: ‘Hobbits’ were a separate species, ancient chompers show

About the size of two fat domestic cats, the baby cave lions were introduced in a presentation at the “Permafrost Kingdom” museum, 3,000 miles east of Moscow. Dubbed Uyan and Dina for the Uyandina River area in which they were found, the cubs have such well–preserved soft tissues that local Academy of Science researchers believe that cloning may be a distinct possibility, though that’s a ways off. For now, the scientists are focusing on inspecting the cubs’ internal organs and DNA with the hope of learning more about the species origins.

Researchers believe that the two cubs were placed in a hole by their mother for protection, only to then be covered by a landslide. From then on the site remained undisturbed until this past summer, when a sudden rise and fall in the Uyandina River resulted in cracks appearing in the ice sheet. A local named Yakov Androsov then found an ice lens containing the two cubs.

Until now, only carcass fragments and skeleton parts of these creatures have been found. As recently as May, an incomplete though excellently–preserved adult postcranial skeleton, as well as a lower jaw and bundle of fur, were found by locals in Yakutia’s Malyi Anyui river basin. However, those discoveries pale in comparison to this latest find, which is giving the modern world a complete look at the cave lion for the first time.

According to Des Moines University fossil field expert Julie Meachen, such finds are extremely rare. “Usually all we find are bones – and if we’re lucky they still have collagen in them,” she explained. “Occasionally we find good dung also, but to find something with skin and organs intact that’s been extinct for the last 11,000 years is absolutely incredible.”

Though many ice age mammals have been found mummified in Alaska and Canada, Siberia has offered the most finds in recent years – particularly Yakutia, which, according to Protopopov, is “the coldest region in the world.”

Related: Prehistoric tooth reveals surprising details about long-lost human ‘cousins’

“Yakutia has yielded some of the most impressive extinct frozen animals to date,” Meachen told “Since it has been continually cold since the Ice Age the preservation is amazing. There really isn’t any other place I can think of with preservation this fantastic.”

Cave lions, which were first identified in 1810, lived between 10,000 and 300, 000 years ago. It’s still unknown how many species there were or whether they were a type of African lion or a tiger species. With more discoveries like the recent mummified cubs cropping up as the permafrost melts in Eurasia, researchers are hoping to unlock mysteries about the cave lions and the Ice Age.

“To date, these are the most complete Pleistocene carnivore remains ever found,” Meachen said. “It is a pretty big deal, especially for scientists like me who study carnivores and big cats.”

Originally  available here

New scary spider found in Brazil named after ‘Lord of the Rings’ character

Iandumoema smeagol sp. n. Live male specimen foraging in its natural habitat, showing detail of the pale yellowish coloration. (ZooKeys)

Iandumoema smeagol sp. n. Live male specimen foraging in its natural habitat, showing detail of the pale yellowish coloration. (ZooKeys)

Scientists have discovered a spider in Brazil so scary they named it after the “Lord of the Rings” character Smeagol.

Writing in the journal ZooKeys, researchers said the new species of troglobitic harvestman spider, landumoema smeagol, is believed to be found only in a network of caves in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. The first blind species of this genus, this looks like something out an arachnophobes nightmare.

It has spindly, long legs and a ghostly, golden yellow color.

Related: Goliath encounter: Puppy-sized spider surprises scientist in rainforest

Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha and his colleagues said the area where the spider calls home is largely unprotected and threatened by logging and limestone extraction.The researchers called for long-term studies on the population and the biology of landumoema smeagol, as part of an effort to establish a conservation policy for the species and possibily a protected area surrounding the caves.

Related: How ‘vampire’ spiders could help in the fight against malaria

Smeagol was the name of a fictional character in the stories of J. R. R. Tolkien’s that included “The Lord of the Rings.” Smeagol was corrupted by the One Ring and became Gollum, a cave-dwelling character best known for his pale skin, bulging eyes and habit of making a horrible swallowing noise with his throat.

Originally  available here

Triassic reptile skewered clams with teeth on roof of its mouth

The newly identified species of thalattosaur discovered in China is almost 7 feet long (2.1 meters).

The newly identified species of thalattosaur discovered in China is almost 7 feet long (2.1 meters). (Courtesy of Zhi-Guang Li)

Giant, lizardlike beasts with teeth strong enough to puncture clamshells and equipped with short limbs and a long, paddle-shaped tail populated waterways some 200 million years ago. And now, two new species of these thalattosaurs have been added to the ranks.

The two thalattosaurs, discovered by separate groups of scientists, are from different sides of the world — one from central Oregon and the other from China’s southwestern Guizhou province.

Both species have yet to be named, but researchers shared their unpublished findings with Live Science in October at the 75th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Dallas. [Image Gallery: Ancient Monsters of the Sea]

Thalattosaurs are semi-aquatic, meaning they hunted prey in the water but likely slept on land, much like seals and sea lions.

“They’re kind of known for being weird,” said Eric Metz, a graduate student in the geosciences department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

For instance, some thalattosaurs had no teeth, while others, including the new species in Oregon, sported teeth on the roofs of their mouths, which likely helped them crush mollusks, Metz told Live Science.

Until now, scientists knew of just five species of thalattosaur that lived in North America during the Triassic period. But the new specimens  — there are at least seven in all — bring that tally to six, Metz said.

The North American thalattosaur remains were found in rocks dating to about 235 million to 228 million years ago, making them the oldest known vertebrate remains in Oregon, he said. These thalattosaurs lived on a volcanic island off the coast of Oregon, but that land has since been pushed inland, and now sits in the central part of the state, Metz said.

The finding is “huge” because the thalattosaur remains belong to individuals of different ages, meaning researchers can study how the reptiles changed from youth to adulthood, Metz said. Moreover, the adults are the largest known North American thalattosaurs, measuring about 9.8 feet (3 meters) long from head to tail, he added.

The species also had a downturned snout, which it likely used to break apart reefs made of mollusks and sponges, Metz said.

The other new species of thalattosaur is slightly older, from rocks dating to the Middle Triassic, about 242 million to 235 million years ago. Researchers have found other thalattosaur remains in southwestern China since the 1990s, but this is the first time they have discovered fossils from the genus Xinpusaurus in the city of Xingyi in Guizhou province, said study researcher Zhi-Guang Li, a doctoral candidate of geology at Peking University in Beijing.

The new species was found in 2011 alongside fossils of other marine reptiles, fishes and invertebrates, but it took a few years to analyze the new species of thalattosaur, Li said. It measures 6.9 feet (2.1 m) from its head to its slightly broken tail.

Paleontologists have unearthed other thalattosaurs in Europe, China and North America, but these new finds may help researchers learn more about the ancient reptiles’ geographic range, anatomy and diversity, the researchers on both studies said.

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Shy eel glows bright green, possibly as a ‘sexy charm’

This biofluorescent green eel (lower right corner) surprised scuba-diving scientists, and prompted them to study its glowing proteins.

This biofluorescent green eel (lower right corner) surprised scuba-diving scientists, and prompted them to study its glowing proteins. (Copyright Jim Hellemn)

When scuba-diving scientists serendipitously spotted a glowing green eel in January 2011, they had no idea what caused it to light up like a brilliant neon sign.

But now, after hours spent studying the fluorescent proteins of two eels, the researchers have solved the mystery. These proteins, found throughout the eels’ muscle and skin tissues, actually originated in vertebrate brains more than 300 million years ago, a new study finds.

“It started as a brain protein and then became this fluorescent protein in muscle,” said study lead researcher David Gruber, an associate professor of biology at Baruch College in New York City. [See Photos of the Glowing Green Eels]

Once the protein made its switch from a neural to a fluorescent protein, it spread like crazy throughout the eel population. Natural selection favored it so much, it’s likely fluorescence plays a crucial role in the eel world, Gruber said.

For instance, maybe it helps them spawn the next generation, he said. One anecdotal report of such spawning describes a “big, green fluorescent mating event” with a dozens of eels getting it on under a full moon in Indonesia, Gruber said. Typically, these eels are reclusive and shy, spending most of their lives hiding in the holes and crevasses around coral reefs and sea grass beds. But maybe the moonlight stimulates their fluorescent proteins, making them more visible to potential mates, he said.

“We’re hoping to witness one of these spawning events to see what they’re doing,” Gruber told Live Science. Moreover, the fluorescence may also play a role in eel communication, predator avoidance or even prey attraction, like the anglerfish’s glowing ‘fishing rod,’ which lures in fishy meals, according to Gruber.

Eel expedition

After seeing the stunning 2011 photo, the researchers wanted to learn more about the little green eel. They found two eels (Kaupichthys hyoproroides and another species of Kaupichthys) during an expedition in the Bahamas, and brought both back to Gruber’s lab in New York City.

K. hyoproroides is small — no longer than two human fingers — about 9.8 inches (250 millimeters) long, Gruber said. It’s likely that the other eel is a new species in the Kaupichthys genus, he added, but the specimen wasn’t in good enough condition to describe it, he said.

A tissue analysis showed fluorescence throughout the eels’ muscle and skin. But a protein analysis didn’t yield any green fluorescent protein (GFP) — a protein famously identified in a hydrozoan jellyfish in 1962. Nor did it match fluorescent proteins found in other glowing sea creatures, such as some fish and sharks, Gruber said.

Instead, it bore a resemblance to a fluorescent protein found in Anguilla japonica, an eel species used in sushi whose proteins can fluoresce a weak green color when bound to bilirubin. (Bilirubin is a yellow waste product that comes from broken-down red blood cells. People with jaundice have yellowish skin and eyes because of increased levels of bilirubin in their blood.)

The protein from the Kaupichthys eels also needed bilirubin to fluoresce, but a key part of the chemical makeup of this protein was different from the sushi eel’s proteins. “It turns out that every one of these new proteins that has this key little region in it has the ability to glow, and glow very bright,” Gruber said. [Images: Fish Secretly Glow Vibrant Colors]

Intrigued, Gruber and his colleagues teamed up with Rob DeSalle, a curator with the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. DeSalle is an expert in evolutionary biology, and determined that the eels’ fluorescent protein is a newly identified family of fluorescent proteins, Gruber said.

DeSalle also studied the evolutionary history of the Kaupichthys protein. He saw that it was closely related to a fatty acid-binding protein found in the brain of most vertebrates. This protein likely plays a role in fatty-acid uptake, transport and metabolism in the brain, and may help young neurons migrate and establish cortical layers in the brain, DeSalle told Live Science.

However, over time this genetic code for this brain protein underwent three duplication events, meaning there were more copies of the protein available for the organism to play around with, DeSalle said. The duplicated genes for these proteins could then mutate over time, eventually leading to the fluorescent, bilirubin-binding protein that glows bright green in certain eels, the researchers said.

The study researchers didn’t pinpoint when the three duplication events happened, but DeSalle estimated that the first two happened between 450 million and 300 million years ago, in the common ancestor of jawed vertebrates. The third duplication led to the creation of the newly identified fluorescent protein, DeSalle said.

There’s still much to learn about fluorescent proteins, but the discovery of fluorescence in eels and other fish suggests that they played a large role in marine vertebrate evolution, said Matthew Davis, an assistant professor of biology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, who was not involved in the study.

“The surprising aspect of this study is that the fluorescent fatty acid-binding proteins may have impacted the evolution of this lineage of marine eels, and they also expand the suite of fluorescent probes available for experimental biology in other disciplines,” Davis told Live Science in an email.

The study was published online Nov. 11 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Honeybees sweetened life for Stone Age humans

File photo - A bee collects pollen from a sunflower in Utrecht July 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Michael Kooren)

File photo – A bee collects pollen from a sunflower in Utrecht July 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Michael Kooren)

Stone Age people may have satisfied their sweet tooth with honey, new research finds.

Humans have been using the products of bees for nearly 9,000 years, according to the study, published Nov. 11 in the journal Nature. The chemical residues on pots that prove this are from beeswax, so researchers can’t say for sure whether Neolithic people used beeswax alone or both beeswax and honey. But, it does appear that honeybees and humans go way back.

“It seems that the first farmers in every single area of Europe were exploiting beeswax from the beginning of farming,” said study researcher Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom. [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

Old food

The new history of honeybees was a sweet side project for Roffet-Salque, who has been working with University of Bristol biogeochemist Richard Evershed on a long-term project analyzing shards of pottery for chemical traces of food, cosmetics and other substances. Over two decades of research on more than 6,400 pottery fragments, Evershed and his team have come across a few dozen marked with the signature chemistry of beeswax. (Honey, a sugar, degrades much faster than oily beeswax and isn’t detectable.)

Stone Age people may have eaten honey and used beeswax for cooking, as well as for making cosmetics and fuel, the researchers wrote. The oldest discovery of beeswax-lined pottery dated back to the 7th millennium B.C. in Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey. The sites where this beeswax was found are also the homes of the oldest-known pottery in Europe or Eurasia. Thus, the presence of honey seemed to spread along with the presence of farming, Roffet-Salque said — from the Near East north and west, reaching the modern-day United Kingdom in roughly 3500 B.C.

In between, beeswax residues were found on pottery shards in northwest Anatolia dating back to 5500 B.C., and in the Balkan Peninsula between 5500 B.C. and 4500 B.C. Sites in Greece dating from between 5800 B.C. and 3000 B.C. yielded pots that once held beeswax. In fact, the Balkan Peninsula was the richest in beeswax, with 5.5 percent of 1,915 Stone Age pot pieces from the region showing beeswax biomarkers, the researchers reported.

Honey in Europe

Stone Age people in today’s Austria and Germany were using bee products by 5500 B.C., the researchers found, and bee products were being used in France by the second half of the fifth millennium. Seven fragments with beeswax on them were found in southern Britain; the most northerly bee products were in Denmark, about 5 degrees latitude north of those sites.

“Above 57 degrees latitude we’ve not found any beeswax in pots at all, and we’ve tried hard,” Roffet-Salque said. “We’ve analyzed something like 1,000 sherds from Scandinavia and Scotland and we found lots of lipids and animal fats, but no evidence for beeswax.”

Most likely, it was simply too cold for bees to thrive above 57 degrees latitude, Roffet-Salque said.

“We think it’s the ecological limit of honeybees in prehistory,” she said.

The researchers can’t say whether people were beekeeping or simply hunting honey and collecting beeswax from wild hives. It’s not very difficult to keep a beehive, Roffet-Salque said, but there’s no way to prove that Neolithic farmers did so. However, in 2010, archaeologists announced that they’d discovered clay beehives at a site in Israel dating back 3,000 years. A mural on a tomb in Egypt dating to 2400 B.C. also depicts hives and beekeepers, Roffet-Salque said. Humans may also have been using honey and beeswax even before these pots reveal, she said; it’s just that earlier people left no record behind.

“We don’t have the pots, so we can’t tell,” Roffet-Salque said. “But we can say that early farmers were using hive products.”

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Fossils of rats as big as dogs found in Southeast Asia

Julien Louys holds the jaw bone of a giant rat species discocvered on East Timor, up against a comparison with the same bone of a modern rat. (Stuart Hay, ANU)

Julien Louys holds the jaw bone of a giant rat species discocvered on East Timor, up against a comparison with the same bone of a modern rat. (Stuart Hay, ANU)

The rats in the New York’s subways may be scary but they would have been no match for their distant relatives who once lived in Southeast Asia.

Those rats, according to archaeologists with The Australian National University (ANU) who discovered fossils of seven giant rat species on East Timor, were up to 10 times the size of modern rats. That would make them the largest rats ever known to have existed.

Related: New Study Finds Rats May Plan for the Future While Dreaming

“They are what you would call mega-fauna. The biggest one is about five kilos, the size of a small dog,” said ANU’s Julien Louys, who is helping lead the project, in a statement.

“Just to put that in perspective, a large modern rat would be about half a kilo (2.2 pounds),” he said of the findings that were presented to the Meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology in Texas last month.

Related: NYC rats carrying fleas linked to bubonic plague, study finds

The work is part of the From Sunda to Sahul project, which is looking at the earliest human movement through Southeast Asia. Researchers are now trying to work out exactly what caused the rats to die out and what role humans might have played in their demise.

Louys said the earliest records of humans on East Timor, a tiny country that became independent in 2002, date to around 46,000 years ago. They lived with the rats for thousands of years, he said.

Related: KFC says DNA shows ‘fried rat’ was chicken

“We know they’re eating the giant rats because we have found bones with cut and burn marks,” he said. “The funny thing is that they are co-existing up until about a thousand years ago. The reason we think they became extinct is because that was when metal tools started to be introduced in Timor, people could start to clear forests at a much larger scale.”

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Gator gal: Texas woman tames ‘Godzilla,’ male-dominated business

The only thing more impressive than the 900-pound alligator named “Godzilla” caught prowling a Texas shopping center Sunday may be the woman who tamed it.

Christy Kroboth, a 30-year-old self-described animal lover and dental assistant, is one of a few female professional alligator trappers in the state.

“Whenever I show up on scene, the police department or animal control always says, ‘You’re the alligator trapper? We were expecting some guy!'” she told

Kroboth received a phone call at 6:20 a.m. Sunday about a 7-foot gator roaming the parking lot of the First Colony Commons Shopping Center in Sugar Land. Kroboth, who earned her alligator handler license two years ago, said she thought the capture would be fairly routine: secure a catch pole around the gator’s neck and load the animal into the backseat of her Honda SUV.

But the caller miscalculated this gator’s size.

Sunday’s capture set a record for Kroboth — and possibly the state. The 50-year-old gator waiting for Kroboth weighed nearly 1,000 pounds and measured at 13-feet — with part of its tail missing.

“Nobody thinks I’m the trapper when I show up.”

– Christy Kroboth

“He’s probably the biggest live-caught alligator in Texas,” said Kroboth, who lives in Stafford, near Houston, and whose assigned area includes Fort Bend County, which has one of the largest alligator populations in the state.

Kroboth used a blindfold, duct tape and a forklift borrowed from Home Depot to load the alligator — named Godzilla — into a truck. The giant reptile — blind in one eye and partially blind in the other — was released Monday into a protected alligator sanctuary where Kroboth says, “He’ll have a happy life.”

“He might be able to see only shadows, so he probably got lost and ended up in the parking lot,” said Kroboth, who works for the Houston-based Gator Squad. “He was scared and laid down and needed help.”

The 5-foot, 6-inch Kroboth is able to hold her own in a male-dominated business in which she is often underestimated.

“Nobody thinks I’m the trapper when I show up,” said Kroboth. “They ask, ‘You sure you can handle this?'”

Kroboth has handled many alligator captures since receiving her license from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where she learned the rules and regulations about alligators before basic handling skills.

“If you don’t get bit, you pass,” said Kroboth, who is among at least four other female professional handlers in the state, according to Texas wildlife officials.

Kroboth said she receives about five to six phone calls a week — typically during nighttime or early morning. During peak season in the spring, the volume is much greater — with Kroboth getting about 30 to 40 calls a week.

After securing a catch pole around the reptile’s neck, the alligator typically does a spinning maneuver Kroboth called the “death roll,” an instinctive behavior often used to catch and kill its prey.

Once the animal tires from the spinning and its mouth is securely tied, Kroboth said she puts the backseat down in her SUV, curls up the alligator’s tail and loads it into her vehicle with the trunk closed.

“I’ve had a lot of gators try to come up and drive the car with me,” Kroboth quipped. “We make quite a pair.”

Kroboth said her love for animals — including those often misunderstood — led her to become a professional alligator trapper.

“People tend to be afraid of them,” she said. “And I thought by going into this, I can give them a different perspective.”

Cristina Corbin is a reporter for Follow her on Twitter@CristinaCorbin

Originally available here

Watch cute panda cub Bei Bei take his first steps

(Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

(Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Smithsonian’s National Zoo has released adorable footage of panda cub Bei Bei taking his first steps.

“One small step for panda…one adorably wobbly moment for all of us—‎Bei Bei’s first steps!” explained the Washington D.C. zoo in a post accompanying theYouTube video.

Related: Cute zoo babies

The zoo added that Bei Bei took his first steps around 4:50 p.m. ET on Monday under the watchful eye of his mother Mei Xiang. “Now that he’s got all four paws under him, Bei Bei will begin to wander around and leave the den on his own to explore the indoor enclosure,” it said.

Bei Bei is the survivor of a pair of panda twins born on Aug. 22. The cub’s twin died on Aug. 26.

The 10-week old panda’s name means “precious treasure” in Mandarin.


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Can world’s biggest shark help humans?


Whale sharks have caught the attention of medical researchers who are now studying the genome of the world’s largest fish.

“If you sequence any extreme — the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the heaviest — all of these animals are interesting to biologists,” said Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium, the only facility in North America to house live whale sharks. “They provide sort of the goal posts on where biology of this animal can occur. And so this is a terrific species to study because it’s so much bigger than all the others.”

Dove collaborated with Tim Read, a professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, to sequence the whale shark genome.

The researchers hope their ongoing analysis of whale shark genetics will lead to a better understanding of the threatened species and, perhaps, humans as well.

“Sharks are the first group of vertebrates to have antibodies in their blood to specific diseases,” Dove said. “So, if we want to understand where our own immune systems come from and how we come to have this ability to fight off the flu or other diseases, looking in the DNA of sharks is a great place.”

Read added that the research could also lead to a better understanding of autoimmune diseases in humans (such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus).

“Ideally you want to target invading microorganisms and avoid self targets,” Read said. “We’re going to see how the whale sharks may have solved that problem.”

Although whale sharks grow as long as 40 feet, they feed on tiny organisms, such as plankton, and pose no threat to humans. For an extra fee, visitors at the Georgia Aquarium can swim with the popular Atlanta attraction’s four whale sharks.

“They’re really indifferent to the presence of people, and essentially it’s the same when you see them in their natural setting out in the ocean,” Dove said. “They’re the largest fish in the world. They really don’t have a lot of natural predators. So, we represent very little threat to them at all.”

Humans may even prove helpful to whale sharks as they learn more about these gentle giants.

“They’re extremely mysterious,” Read said. “We know so little about the ecology of whale sharks in the wild. And actually one of the aspects of this work I’m particularly interested in, as well as immunology, is the conservation genomics — using the genome sequencing to understand what is the population of the whale sharks and what are the differences between whale shark populations in different (parts) of the world.”

Jonathan Serrie joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in April 1999 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Atlanta bureau.

Originally available here

Caterpillar gives woman hives

Caterpillars’ cute and fuzzy looks may make them seem harmless, and they usually are. But that wasn’t the case for one woman in Arizona: Her left shoulder quickly erupted in an itchy, red rash after a brush with one of these critters.

The 42-year-old woman was in her backyard under a mesquite tree in October 2014, when a caterpillar landed on her back, just beneath her left shoulder, where her skin was exposed because she was wearing a tank top. She felt a stinging sensation and numbness, and within minutes, her skin in this area broke out in hives.

The woman went inside her house and took a picture of the skin reaction, which, by that point, had blossomed into good-size welts. She then returned to her yard to snap an image of the possible culprit. It was later identified as a tricolor buckmoth caterpillar (Hemileuca tricolor), according to a report of the woman’s case, published online today (Oct. 28) in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Unsure about what to do, and wondering whether the caterpillar responsible for her rash was a poisonous species, the woman called the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center for advice, and also sent her photographs.

Dr. Daniel Brillhart, an emergency medicine physician, was on duty when the woman called the poison center, and was a co-author of the case report. After looking at the photos and speaking with the woman, he determined that her skin rash was the result of an allergic reaction to the toxic substance that coats the hairs on the caterpillar’s body, Brillhart said. [8 Strange Signs You’re Having an Allergic Reaction]

When these toxin-coated hairs make contact with the skin, they trigger an immune-system reaction and can cause hives in most people, he said.

If a caterpillar falls onto a person’s skin, it can cause more of a reaction than if it crawls onto the skin because fewer toxin-coated hairs are dislodged when acaterpillar crawls, Brillhart said. In addition, the woman in this case may have had a more severe reaction because the caterpillar fell onto her back, and the skin there is thinner than the skin on the hands or legs, he explained.

Had the caterpillar hairs landed in her eyes, the woman could have developed conjunctivitis, a common eye infection also known as pink eye. And if the hairs had been released into the air and she breathed them into her lungs, it might have caused wheezing and difficulty breathing, said Brillhart, who is now a physician at Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas.

Close encounter

Most caterpillars are harmless, Brillhart told Live Science. But the larger and fuzzier they appear, and the closer to the equator they are found, the more likely caterpillars are to cause allergic reactions, he said.

That’s why, Brillhart said, he wouldn’t advise children to play with caterpillars or for adults to pick them up with their hands. A stick or gardening gloves can be used to remove a caterpillar if it lands on a person’s body or clothes.

Although they can cause allergic reactions, “caterpillars do not bite,” Brillhart said. “Their mouths are not designed to pierce the skin,” he said.

When Brillhart spoke with the Arizona woman on the phone, she told him that she had already washed her skin with soap and water, which helped to remove the caterpillar hairs. (Some poison control websites recommend gently applying and removing tape to strip away the hairs before washing the area.)

To calm her rash, which is also known as caterpillar dermatitis, he advised her to use cold compresses and apply an over-the-counter antihistamine cream. This treatment helped to clear up her irritated skin in a few days, according to the case report.

The woman recovered from her close encounter with a caterpillar with only telephone advice from the poison control center.

That is one of the advantages of U.S. poison control centers, Brillhart said. “They are designed to prevent doctor’s visits for problems that can be managed at home,” he noted.

However, if a person has difficulty breathing or weakness, or feels lightheaded after being exposed to a caterpillar, he or she should go to the nearest emergency room, Brillhart said.

If the exposure involves just a rash, then calling a poison control center at 800-222-1222 is a great option for obtaining advice on how to treat the skin reaction at home or determining whether it’s necessary to see a doctor, he said.

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