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Guns, bats, and cash

"Plop!" You drop one in the pot of boiling coconut milk. The delicate aroma of wings and fur rise into the air. While not everyone's ideal food choice, the Chamorro people of Guam regard the flying fox - a type of bat that can grow up to a four foot wingspan as a delicacy. Mostly consumed by men, the entire animal, including the fur and all the insides, are eaten during social gatherings and certain important events. Women sometimes eat the bat as well, but only the breast meat. Yet, this delicacy may have been a leading cause of death for Chamorro adults in the 1940's.

For many years Guam has been the focus of major studies, as a neurological disease known as ALS-PDC, which exhibits itself with symptoms and fatigues in common with Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease. The presence of the disease in the population of the Chamorro increased at alarming rates, and then just as mysteriously, decreased. Investigations have looked at everything from the water they drink to the air they breathe, but no solid evidence has been linked to the disorders.

Earlier studies that showed the toxins of the cycad plant caused neurological disorders. The Chamorros knew of the plant's toxicity as well. Although they ate part of the cycad in the form of flour in tortillas, the plants were washed repeatedly, and the amount of toxin they were exposed to was minimal, even on a repetitive bases.

Paul Cox, Director of the National Botanical Gardens in Kauai Hawaii, and Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, first proposed a connection between the disease and flying foxes in a recent paper in the journal Neurology, where they hypothesized that the consumption of flying foxes may be the source of the ALS-PDC disorder. The bats are known to forage on cycad seeds, which contain much higher levels of neurotoxin then the rest of the plant. According to Cox, "when the people consume the animals, the effects of the toxin could
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Contact: Annie Drinkard
annie@esa.org
Ecological Society of America
8-Aug-2002


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