Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
What do a fertility clinic, a veterinary hospital, and a Burmese python hunt in Florida all have in common? Believe it or not, the answer is sperm! On our most recent InternQuest adventure, my fellow students and I visited the Reproductive Physiology Lab at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) to learn about all of the science it takes to make those cuddly little zoo babies.
As it turns out, the complexities of the world of reproduction go way beyond the standard facts of life, especially when endangered species are involved. Say you work at the San Diego Zoo, and you’re trying to breed a pair of animals. Sometimes, the animals in question just won’t cooperate. When you’re trying to save a species that has had its numbers drastically reduced and finding other individuals for your breeding program simply isn’t possible, you have to work with what you’ve got. But if “what you’ve got” is a pair of very uninterested pandas, you can’t just wait around and hope for a cub.
Fortunately, the scientists before you (including those at the ICR) have created fantastic processes dealing with things like sperm collection and artificial insemination. But before we can get to the fancy stuff, we have to start out with a basic understanding of the sperm that we’re going to be dealing with. How can we freeze it for storage without killing it? How can we tell if we have killed it by accident? How long does it last when frozen? The questions are virtually endless but there is only so much panda sperm in the world for you to perfect your techniques with. Also, nonprofits have limited budget. The solution to these problems brings me back to the unlikely combination of institutions that this blog post began with: the fertility clinic, the vet hospital, and the python hunt.
Incidentally, the sperm of the everyday house cat is very similar to the sperm of the more exotic felines, and the sperm of dogs is not only similar to that of other dog-like creatures (such as wolves and foxes), but also to bears. This is awesome for scientists like Dr. Barbara Durrant, Nicole Ravida, and Carly Young. These three women all work in the Reproductive Physiology Lab that we visited. Dr. Durrant is the Director of the Reproductive Physiology Division, while Ms. Ravida and Ms. Young are Senior Research Technicians. They have formed partnerships with many diverse organizations to collect resources used in their research. If your pet has been spayed or neutered in San Diego, there’s a chance that their removed ovaries or testes may have gone to the Zoo. They collect such organs that would otherwise be discarded from animal shelters, vet clinics, and feral cat centers and use these samples to help endangered species. Recently, they’ve even been able to start studying snake reproduction from organs collected from the Florida pythons. The government of Florida instigated a hunt of this invasive species in January of 2013, and the Reproductive Physiology scientists were allowed to take samples from the gathered pythons. They also get tools and other resources from human fertility clinics.
I was really surprised to hear that the ICR collaborates with other organizations in this manner, but it makes more sense when you think of the researchers and their conservation mission as a start-up company. They’re learning how to create a better product by tinkering with things that other “companies” cast off or have worked with in the past. Organizations dedicated to helping animals, however, are less inclined to be competitive with each other than those in the corporate world, and more inclined to help each other reach similar end goals. In a world where everyone’s bottom line is a better future for animals, innovative partnerships like these can thrive.
As my fellow interns and I discovered, many other innovative techniques in the lab have been developed specifically for studying sperm. Ms. Young showed me how scientists use a counter and a grid pattern, along with a five-point scale, to assess the motility (meaning the movement and speed) of thawed sperm. There’s a type of dye called eosin/nigrosin stain that, when combined with semen and examined under a microscope, will color dead sperm pink but leave live sperm their typical whitish color. There’s even a method of speeding up sperm motility by adding caffeine to semen! The scientists in the Reproductive Physiology Division are definitely putting their acquired resources to good use, and the San Diego Zoo has had lots of little chicks, cubs, and pups to show for it.
Next time I visit Xiao Liwu, the Zoo’s newest panda cub, I’m definitely going to have a different perspective. So much research goes into such a little ball of black and white fluff! And while all of this is amazing, a part of me wishes that all this wasn’t so critical. Don’t get me wrong, science is fun! But how did we get to this point? It’s fantastic that such partnerships exist, that such cutting-edge science is being used to save species. But maybe, if we as a people had stepped in earlier to curb things like habitat destruction, species like the panda wouldn’t be at the point where only the most advanced science can save them. Looking into the future, it’s just not possible to do breeding programs in zoos for all the species that are close to extinction. This means that if we really want to protect them in the long term, we need to do more for protecting their wild habitat in conjunction with the cutting-edge research in field like Reproductive Physiology.
Deforestation in particular devastates species and destroys entire ecosystems, but we all have our own small power as consumers to make a change. If you ever happen to be looking at bamboo floors, for example, ask a bit about their source’s sustainability. While scientists will do what they can (and then some), it’s also up to the rest of us to make our own partnerships within the business community, and support those who go out of their way to protect our planet and the other creatures that live here. I think that if we can come together with the python hunters, the reproductive physiologists, and the bamboo flooring installers, serious and meaningful change can happen for our planet.
Cameron, Real World Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2013