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Scientists set out to investigate a mystery horse illness in Australia

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Posted November 26, 2015

People often expect scientists to always do cool researches and to reach amazing results. But the truth is that for the most part scientists have to solve problems. Although a lot of researches last for many years, some have to be done quick and out of necessity rather than simple interest. For example, this year Australia faces an unusual problem – 14 horses were struck by a mysterious illness in South Australia. Now scientists have to figure out what illness it is.

Malva parviflora is the first suspect of the research. It is not known to kill horses, but it does poison other animals and horses may eat it when there is nothing better offered. Image credit: Harry Rose via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Malva parviflora is the first suspect of the research. It is not known to kill horses, but it does poison other animals and horses may eat it when there is nothing better offered. Image credit: Harry Rose via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

These horses became ill suddenly after winter months. All of them experienced similar symptoms – sweating, rapid breathing, muscle trembling, weakness and sometimes loss of coordination. Eight of these horses died, while others managed to recover. The disease was spread in 10 different locations across South Australia. Now scientists are looking for similarities between all separate cases and are seeking to create a protocol which can be used to examine future cases if illness strikes again.

Scientists are already thinking about plants that could have poisoned the horses. In particular, they are suspecting the weed marshmallow, Malva parviflora or small-flowered mallow, which is a naturalised plant in southern Australia. Usually it grows in poor land, which is made bare by heavy brazing or drought.

However, the case is not so simple, as the plant has been there for a long time and there have not been any confirmed fatal cases of marshmallow poisoning of horses in Australia. However, there have been recorded cases of poisoning and in some cases horses may eat it because there is nothing much else in the paddock and it tastes sweet.

However, this is only an initial guess and further research needs to be done. Now scientists are collecting data: information about diet and clinical signs of the disease. They will try to identify commonalities between the cases and the common pathology. The next goal is to create a protocol, which will include registration of clinical signs, blood and urine testing and autopsy. All of this should help to prevent such sudden outbursts in the future.

This goes to show how science is always in response to problems and has to act here and now. Not all researches may be ground-breaking or cool to read about, but even those that are not are necessary.

Source: adelaide.edu.au

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