Okapi Project

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We have just completed our summer fellowships, and we’d like to update everyone on our summer Okapi Project!  (See previous posts, Okapi Activity Patterns  and Okapi Study: Who Are You?) Our study focused on two components: observing okapi behavior and monitoring stress hormone levels (glucocortiocoids) over time.

As a team, we split our time between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and managed to observe and monitor the biology of eight of the okapis in our collection. We observed each animal in turn to find out if the simulated presence of another okapi would effect their daily behavioral routines and levels of stress hormones over time. This “simulation” involved placing okapi urine-soaked wood shavings in their exhibit area and observing their reactions, as well as noninvasively monitoring their stress hormone (glucocorticoid) levels from fecal samples.

Our methods were as follows:

  • Behavioral data was collected by observing okapi individuals for three hours per day over an eight-week period. The first four weeks of observations gave us our baseline for “typical” okapi behaviors, which we then compared to behaviors seen once they were exposed to the urine-soaked wood shavings placed in the exhibit.
  • During the same time period we also collected fecal samples from each of our study animals so we could analyze their stress hormone levels both before and after exposure to the wood shavings. Hormones were extracted and assayed in the Endocrinology Lab of the Behavioral Biology Division from daily fecal samples. We ended up running a lot of samples (eight okapis for eight weeks is a lot of poop to process!).

We are still examining our results, but our preliminary findings show that while okapi behaviors don’t appear to change a great deal as a result of exposure to a simulated individual (the urine-soaked wood shavings), hormone profiles for each individual okapi suggest a rise in stress hormone levels. This information will be useful for future management and maximizing the care of our okapis. 

At the conclusion of our fellowships, we realized how much we’ve gained. Both of us have had an incredible experience this summer working for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and found it tough to say goodbye! Although we may disagree on our favorite okapi (Lizzy says the 15-month-old “baby” Uche, Jay says the 2-year-old Zuri), we both learned a tremendous amount about the science of behavioral biology and endocrinology and will surely carry the knowledge learned into our future careers, whatever they may be!

Jay Schoen is the Frabotta Endowed Summer Fellow and Lizzy Lopez is the Bonner Endowed Summer Fellow with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.