Feces Saves Species

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest Journals. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

We went behind the scenes at the Endocrinology department at Conservation and Research for Endangered Species, or CRES. Endocrinology, or the study of hormones and their effects on the body, is more important to the conservation of endangered species than you might think.

Much of the work in the endocrinology department is done through noninvasive testing. The most common medium of tests is feces. Before you say “gross”, take these facts into account: It’s easy to obtain, and the animal does not have to be put under anesthesia or contained in any way. It may be smelly work, but it certainly is less stressful on the animals involved. In order to process the feces, it must be dried, and then ground into a fine powder. It is then put through the process of a Radio Immuno Assay, or RIA. This determines the concentration of specific hormones, such as estrogen or testosterone, in the animal.

The amounts of hormones, relative to their normalcy, are dependent on the condition of an animal. For example, if a female animal is going into estrus, then certain hormones will register higher on the scale. These values can be used to plan out breeding efforts for that animal. If an animal can be bred successfully, especially an endangered species, then the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park are doing their job- to aid in the reproduction and the health of endangered species populations.

The cheetah breeding program at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is a great example of intensive breeding efforts to save a species. The cheetahs have bred successfully in the past, but in the last few years they have produced no cubs. There were some false pregnancies, in which the hormones were elevated but there was no embryo. This is one of the many challenges faced by the endocrinology department. Because they deal with such a wide variety of species, keeping track of relative hormone levels and samples can be very difficult. Pandas, for instance, only go into estrus three days out of the year! Fortunately, though, many breeding programs have been extremely successful, making the Zoo world-renowned for its achievements. Many thanks to the endocrinology department for their stinky, yet important work!

Wendy, Conservation Team