The terrifying case of the Saiga antelope
Picture a warm spring morning. You’re standing out in the grasslands you just recently migrated to, watching over a couple of calves as the rest of the herd is grazes.
Oh, and you're an antelope. Imagine that too.
Today is not your best day. Your stomach is bloated and a sharp stabbing cramp has settled in around your intestines. You've felt this feeling before. It's what humans call diarrhea, but your antelope brain has no concept of the classification of pain. Pain is pain. You feel it and continue trying to survive.
Some of your herd mates look uncomfortable as they graze, with many opting to sit and rest instead. It's a dangerous position to put themselves in. Humans have hunted your kind since the stone age. The wolves have been at it even longer.
A male somewhere in the herd bellows out. It's a deep guttural sound, followed by a gurgle, followed by silence.
There's a sense of unease in the herd. This spring has seen the loss of more calves than is normal.
The pain in your gut grows worse.
You decide to sit, the pain now unbearable.
Your mouth feels strange too. You're thirsty in spite of the light dribble of saliva bubbling from your mouth.
Lying down in the grass helps.
You don't get back up again.
What does it all mean
The Saiga antelope are a critically endangered species of antelope that inhabit parts of Russia and Kazakhstan.
You should have already guessed that the little role play above played out the last day of a single Saiga antelope.
As a Saiga, your most distinct feature is a strange tubular nose, almost as if someone stuck a couple of cannelloni on the front of your face. For the males this strange looking nose is accompanied by two large twisting horns that protrude from their foreheads.
You joined the herd as they grazed during the spring of 2015, not long after the first calves of the year had been born. There was nothing exceptional about this particular spring other than the fact that it felt both warmer and wetter than most.
However this year was not a good year for the Saiga.
It was the year that nearly every Saiga on the planet died suddenly (~200,000 of them).
At first the cause was unknown, with many suspecting that the cause of death was linked to their diet. That they had been eating too many easily fermentable plants.
The real reason behind their death is, however, both more surprising and shocking than a poor diet.
Inside these antelopes lives a harmless bacteria called Pasteurella multocida and it was this bacteria that killed them.
What many scientists believe happened was that the warming climate changed the behavior of this bacteria. That unseasonably warm and wet conditions triggered the bacteria to enter the animals blood stream, where it became septic.
So why am I writing about this story?
Other than the fact that it is both interesting and terrifying it highlights a very important point.
Inside every human being is around 100 trillion bacterial cells. This means that our bodies contain more bacterial cells than actual human cells. We are more bacteria then we are human.
We know very little about this microcosm that exists inside our bodies, though we're learning more. For example, the bacteria in our gut can have a direct impact on our mental health or trigger skin conditions such as psoriasis.
It is entirely possible that as the planet warms this bacteria will change its behaviour, just like it did within the Saiga antelope...
We are approaching unknown territory.
We have no idea what will happen if the global temperature rises by two degrees (almost certain to happen) or four degrees (we're on track for this).
Basically the point is this:
We don't know how bad things could get and we should be doing our best to not find out...