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San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

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A Successful Giant Panda Workshop

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Dr. Megan Jones (left) and the author (right) had a chance to see how San-Diego-Zoo-born Yun Zi is doing. (Answer: Fantastic!)

Unlike many of my San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) colleagues that have traveled to China, I wasn’t sent there to accompany one of our young pandas on their journey home. Mine was unlike any other China trip. Situated in the heart of China lies a small city with just over 600,000 people. The city of Dujiangyan is in the Sichuan Province, just 45 miles from Chengdu, the country’s 7th largest city by population. The Sichuan province is best known for their extremely spicy food, and one other thing, the giant panda!

This connection was obvious from the moment I stepped off the airplane. Littered throughout the airport are panda souvenir shops, mock habitats filled with plush giant pandas, and tourists decked out in panda garb. Several street corners in Dujiangyan are decorated with oversized giant panda statues arranged in various “panda-like” postures. Just about anything you can imagine has a panda on it. You want a panda pot holder or shower curtain? You got it—you can even pick up panda green tea and panda cigarettes.

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The workshop was held at the Dujiangyan Panda Base hospital in Sichuan.

Late last year, Dr. Megan Jones, a SDZG veterinary pathologist, and I set off to China to teach a Giant Panda Pathology International Exchange training workshop in Dujiangyan. Working with the recently built Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control and Prevention Base, which aims to rehabilitate sick and geriatric giant pandas and red pandas, we were tasked with teaching the first of a series of workshops intended to share knowledge and skills in wildlife disease surveillance, investigation, and research.

The beautiful and green-certified facility is located on 125 acres along the foothills of the bamboo forest and currently houses almost 30 giant pandas. The facility also contains a public education center filled with many creative and unique hands-on activities, including a real giant panda skeleton and—my favorite—a digital, interactive, panda necropsy table complete with an overhead surgical lamp!

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The beautiful facility was just the right venue for participants to sharpen their necropsy skills.

The pathology workshop was comprised of 25 Chinese veterinarians, managers, and technicians from 18 different panda facilities throughout China, as well as 4 interpreters and 9 instructors from various international facilities. The main focus of this workshop was developing necropsy, or post-mortem exam, skills through a series of lectures and hands-on wet labs. Necropsies are an essential tool for making accurate diagnoses and ultimately determining the cause of death, just like a human autopsy. The lab portion of the workshop enabled the participants to hone their necropsy skills using rabbits. These skills include taking accurate measurements and photos, practicing proper tissue sampling techniques for histology and future testing, and ensuring all gross lesions are accurately described and recorded in the final report.

These tools and techniques will help the Chinese determine the best conservation strategies for the giant panda populations in China. This workshop has been in the making for over 20 years! Thanks to the hard work of many experts in the field, including SDZG’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories Director, Dr. Bruce Rideout, as well as the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, disease investigation will become an integral part of panda conservation, a necessity for any conservation plan.

This is just another great example of how the San Diego Zoo is helping the fight against extinction globally.

 

Megan Varney is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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The Art of the Western Snowy Plover’s Nest

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Some snowy plover nests are a simple scrape in the sand, adorned with shells. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Unlike most beach-nesting shorebirds, the western snowy plover has taken nesting to the level of an art form. I have been monitoring this threatened species during the nesting season as part of my job as a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Previously, I primarily searched for snowy plover nests along the Oregon Dunes, as well as California beaches with dune habitat. Our current study site at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Pendleton offers a more diverse habitat.

Because of their nesting strategy, I become more intrigued with snowy plovers the more I get to work with these resilient birds. Before the eggs are laid, the male creates some nests by making various circular scrapes in the sand and the female selects the one she likes best. I have seen some of these simple nests adorned with decorative shells, others that incorporate the available vegetation along the dunes, and even quite a few containing woody debris that can be found concentrated along the creeks.

I’ve been impressed by how well the plovers use the resources—both natural and manmade—available to them. Last year, lobster traps sometimes washed up on beaches we were studying in Ventura, California and a plover used one of them as a nest site. The lobster traps looked very much like the mini-exclosures we use to protect nesting birds from predators. Made of wire mesh and shaped like a square (with small openings so the adult plovers can exit when needed); we place an exclosure over a plover nest until the chicks hatch. Apparently, the plovers there had gotten used to the protection offered by the exclosures, and the nesting pair that used the lobster trap did indeed successfully hatch and raise their chicks.

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Western snowy plovers are adaptable, using available resources when nesting. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

In contrast, our study site at MCB Camp Pendleton is more remote, so the birds there must rely on the available natural resources when selecting a nesting site. This year, we have some birds nesting along a creek. I could not believe how well one of the nests blended in with the woody debris and rocks around it—I almost did not see it at first! I feel so good when the birds’ hard work pays off and we get to see their chicks hatch. Hopefully, they will survive and continue in their parents’ footsteps.

Western snowy plovers face many challenges each day. Predators like crows and ravens, intelligent birds that are great problem solvers, are a constant threat to the plovers. It is possible that the plovers are sometimes testing out ways to keep these and other predators from locating their nests. This might seem like an obvious observation, but shrinking habitat availability in critical plover habitat can create the need for the plovers to find new ways to adapt to disturbances. It is vitally important for us as individuals to respect these birds during this busy nesting season on the beach.

I look forward to more discoveries while monitoring the western snowy plovers and their chicks on the beach.

Anjanette Butler is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam

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The Condor Cam chick is currently about the size of a bowling ball!

 

On Tuesday, May 26, our California condor chick received its first health exam. We normally conduct this exam at around 45 days of age. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh the chick.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the parents—father Sisquoc and mother Shatash—don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents will do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen. Shift pens are used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. Other animals at the Safari Park that are moved with shift pens include lions, gorillas, bighorn sheep, and others. That’s why you never see any keepers in the exhibits at the same time with these animals. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering this spot for every meal. On the day of the exam, we shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the health check was completed. From the shift pen, he cannot see the nest area so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Shatash was not shifted, but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Shatash out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 46-day-old chick had ever seen a person, and it was understandably nervous and defensive—hissing and lunging at the intruder. Yet once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinary staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample will be sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research can use the sample to determine if the chick is male or female.

Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. West Nile virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidentally introduced to North America by humans. North American animals, including condors, usually don’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

Then a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. This chip is a form of identification, the same kind you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian.

The veterinarian then did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen.

Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.

While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took approximately 16 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her baby. As previously mentioned, the chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested in and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.

For several minutes, the chick showed defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Shatash. With everyone appearing calmer, Sisquoc was let out of his shift pen. Approximately five minutes later, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and then returned to the shift pen to eat some more. Afterwards, he went back to the nest and fed the chick.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection looked great; the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. The chick weighed  7 pounds (3.16 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 days of Age.

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Tiny Backpacks on Small Owls Helps Conservation

Global_logo_color webConservationists working with the San Diego Zoo Global Institute of Conservation Research are using pint-size data tracking systems to monitor the movements and social systems of burrowing owls in San Diego County.  The tracking mechanisms are placed in tiny backpacks carried by each owl.

“The backpacks are small enough that they are not affecting the birds,” said Colleen Wisinski, lead researcher for San Diego Zoo Global. “The information we are collecting will be critical to scientific management of this species through adding to our understanding of social structure and movement.”

Burrowing owls are small diurnal birds that live in burrows in the ground throughout much of the southwestern United States.  Predatory in nature but small in stature, the cute owls catch insects and small rodents for food.  In recent years, conservationists have become increasingly concerned as populations appear to be shrinking.  San Diego Zoo Global researchers are working to understand the species’ lifestyle so that future conservation efforts can be most effective.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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100-Year-Old Turtle Given Last Chance to Breed; Only 4 Left of Giant Turtle Species

Global_logo_color webA female Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – potentially the last female of her species – has been artificially inseminated at the Suzhou Zoo in China. The procedure, an international effort, brought together top scientists from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), San Diego Zoo Global, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo, Changsha Zoo, Suzhou Zoo and the China Zoo Association, and provides a ray of hope in a continuing effort to save the world’s most endangered turtle.

WCS China Reptile Program Director and coordinator of the Rafetus swinhoei breeding program, Dr. Lu Shunqing, mediated the program agreement among the partners and has coordinated the program during the past eight years.

“We had to find out if the last known male in China no longer produces viable sperm due to old age or an inability to inseminate the female,” said Dr. Gerald Kuchling, organizer of the artificial insemination effort and Rafetus breeding program leader for the TSA.

There are four Yangtze giant softshell turtles remaining in existence – two in Vietnam (both thought to be males) and two in China at the Suzhou Zoo (a male and female). The male and female—both believed to be greater than 100 years of age—were brought together in 2008 as part of a captive breeding program designed to recover the species. Although the two turtles have displayed courting behavior, eggs laid by the female were infertile.

To determine the cause of the infertility, Suzhou Zoo, Changsha Zoo, and the China Zoo Association requested TSA assemble a team of scientists to conduct a reproductive evaluation of the male, collect semen, determine if he had viable sperm, and, if viable sperm could be demonstrated, artificially inseminate the female.

During the process, the male was determined to have damaged sex organs, perhaps due to a fight with another male decades ago. For this reason, the scientists believe the male incapable of inseminating the female, and therefore, fertilizing the eggs.

“Normal semen parameters for Rafetus are unknown as this was the first attempt to collect and examine sperm from this species,” said Dr. Barbara Durrant, Director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “The semen evaluation revealed that approximately half of the sperm were motile.”

This attempt marks the first time artificial insemination has been tried with any softshell turtle species and, based on results of insemination attempts with other turtles, the odds are not good for success. With natural breeding unsuccessful however, the scientists felt it was time to explore this option. Both turtles recovered from the procedure in good condition.

“This was a great exploration to advance the conservation of Rafetus swinhoei, however, we can not yet determine if the exploration was successful or not,” said Director Chen Daqing of Suzhou Zoo. The female will lay the eggs in a few weeks and in a couple of weeks after that, the scientists will know if the eggs are fertile.

Listed at the top of the World Conservation Union’s Red List, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the most critically endangered turtle in the world. Its status in the wild has long been recognized as grim, but extinction risk now is believed higher than ever. Much of its demise has been attributed to over-harvesting and habitat degradation.

The Turtle Survival Alliance is transforming passion for turtles into effective conservation action through a global network of living collections and recovery programs.  The Turtle Survival Alliance envisions a future with zero turtle extinctions.  To achieve our mission, the Turtle Survival Alliance is restoring populations in the wild, where possible, building capacity to resolve, secure and conserve species within their range country, and securing species in captivity through breeding programs, both in and outside the range country.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on Earth. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in more than 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Bones on the Beach

The team repositions the whale skull for better access for cleaning, measuring, and sample collection.

The team repositions the whale skull for better access for cleaning, measuring, and sample collection.

The Wildlife Disease Laboratories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) have had a long-time working relationship. So when Scott Tremor, the mammologist at SDNHM and a long-time friend of mine, called me in March to tell me about his latest adventure and make an interesting proposition, we were intrigued. A 30-foot-long juvenile humpback whale had died, and the carcass had washed ashore at Pelican Point, on the tip of Point Loma. Humpback whales are relatively rare off San Diego’s coastline, so the museum wanted to preserve the specimen for its collection. It had laid on the beach in the sun for over a month, and Scott was collecting volunteers to help clean the bones.

Having never necropsied a whale and being unfamiliar with the anatomy, I thought it would an amazing experience. This rare opportunity also enticed a few coworkers and two pathologists (Dr. Jenny Bernard, Dr. Andrew Cartocetti, Megan Varney, and Rachael Keeler) to put on their Tyvek® suits and boots and help out. With the warning that the carcass may have washed away overnight and may not be there when we arrived, we met up with other volunteers at the San Diego Natural History Museum and headed to the beach.

Pelican Point is a relatively narrow beach surrounded by a high cliff. This beautiful spot, part of Cabrillo National Monument, is closed to the public—the only way to reach it is down a cliff wall using a knotted rope. We timed our excursion to coincide with low tide, so we could access the beach and the whale. There, we were met by Southwest Fisheries Science Center employees, who are responsible for testing tissues and collecting measurements on all beached cetaceans. Dr. Thomas Deméré, curator of paleontology at the SDNHM, led us through the process. One of his areas of expertise and interest is in the evolutionary history of baleen whales, also known as the mysticetes. He explained that baleen species (humpback, fin, blue, minke, right, and grey whales) are filter feeders, but have all evolved different feeding strategies. Fossil evidence shows that all baleen species evolved from toothed whales. In studying today’s mysticetes , scientists have discovered that baleen whale embryos develop upper and lower teeth that simply never erupt. At some point the teeth are reabsorbed and baleen is formed. Because baleen is made of keratin, it rarely fossilizes and has not been studied much—making it important on this excursion to comb the beach in search of the sloughed baleen in addition to recovering the whale’s bones.

When we arrived, the whale looked like a white-grey mound. The goal of the day was to disarticulate the skull from the body and move it to the base of the cliff. Naturally, the tide washing over the carcass had removed some of the flesh exposing some bone, but there was still a lot of work to be done. The soft, rubbery flesh was hard to cut through and the sand dulled our knives immediately. Tom was amazing at directing us the best way to maneuver the skull so we could cut away the muscles. In the end, the strength and endurance of so many people accomplished our goal; we separated and lifted the 300-pound skull to a safe place on nearby rocks. All the while, a pleasant breeze of fresh ocean air kept the smell away. It wasn’t until later in the car ride home we realized we smelled like the hold of a fishing boat!

As you would expect, Scott and his volunteers made many more trips to the beach to recover as many bones as possible, stacking them at the base of the cliff. On April 14, the skull was placed in a sling, and the U.S. Coast Guard airlifted it first to a nearby parking lot, then on to a spot where it was buried so local insects could finish cleaning the bones. All of the other bones were carefully moved assembly-line style by a group of volunteers. It was front-page news in the local media that day! What a great opportunity we had collaborating with our neighbors at the San Diego Natural History Museum to turn a tragedy into valuable learning experience.

 

April Gorrow is a senior pathology technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, Nature’s Excellent Engineering Feat: The Egg.

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Transparency Leads to High Rating for San Diego Zoo Global Fiscal Management

Global_logo_color webFor the third year in a row San Diego Zoo Global has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for its fiscal management and commitment to accountability. A three-year, four-star rating is achieved by only 12 percent of the 8,000 organizations surveyed. The rating system serves as a guide offering information for philanthropy.

“We are proud to be a trusted destination for conservation philanthropy,” said Douglas G. Myers, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global. “We work hard to ensure that money raised for our mission goes immediately into the important work saving species from extinction.”

Over the last three years San Diego Zoo Global has committed more than $500 million for animal care, exhibits, education programs and conservation initiatives. Significant programs include its ongoing work to recover the California condor, head-starting and reintroduction programs for Caribbean iguanas, contribution to knowledge about giant pandas and support for fieldwork on six continents.

Charity Navigator works to help charitable givers make intelligent giving decisions by providing information on more than 8,000 charities nationwide and by evaluating their financial health. It calculates each charity’s score based upon several broad criteria, including how much is spent per dollar raised, what percentage of funds goes to programs vs. administrative and fund-raising expenses, and the organization’s long-term financial health. It then assigns a rating from one to four, with four being the best rating. San Diego Zoo Global has received a four-star rating through this system seven times in the last eight years.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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For World Wildlife Day: Talking Trafficking

We think the tusks look better on the elephant, don't you agree?

We think the tusks look better on the elephant, don’t you agree?

Today is World Wildlife Day! The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed this day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as an important one to highlight one of the most serious threats to wildlife across the globe: the illegal trade in wildlife, also called wildlife trafficking.

Wildlife trafficking is the illegal sale or trade of animals or plants, in part or in whole. For some wildlife, trade is legal: harvesting fish from the sea to feed people is a common practice. In the western world, it typically occurs in accordance with regulations and quotas to ensure that this commercial enterprise does not doom the fish to extinction. Your kitchen may contain mushrooms or morels that were harvested from the wild for your consumption. Some medicinal plants harvested in the wild might infuse your cup of tea. These are legal examples of trade in wildlife and plants.

This black rhino was fortunate to not be one of the more than 1,200 killed for its horn in 2014. How long will its luck hold?

This black rhino was fortunate to not be one of the more than 1,200 killed for its horn in 2014. How long will its luck hold?

Illegal trade in wildlife occurs when local and international laws are broken for the purpose of commercial enterprise. Often, the laws come about to support CITES, whose objective is to prevent commerce from threatening the survival of plant and animal species. Typically, laws are broken when that commerce proves exceptionally lucrative, as has proven to be the case for species like elephants and rhinoceros. Unfortunately, elephant ivory and rhino horn can bring big financial returns for poachers and the crime syndicates who fund them. Ounce for ounce, rhino horn is worth more than drugs like cocaine on the black market, drawing as much as $60,000/kilogram. This is the primary reason that rhino populations are suddenly experiencing steep declines, as poachers slaughtered 1,215 across the globe in 2014. That’s one rhino killed every eight hours for the purpose of making money for criminal organizations. And elephants are victims, too. Killed for their ivory tusks, about 96 elephants a day fall victim to illegal trafficking. These deaths draw both rhinos and elephants closer to the threat of extinction.

As stated by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “Illegal wildlife trade undermines the rule of law and threatens national security; it degrades ecosystems and… combating this crime is not only essential for conservation efforts and sustainable development, it will contribute to achieving peace and security in troubled regions where conflicts are fueled by these illegal activities.” This is a serious conservation issue. Its time we all get serious about wildlife trafficking.

Know before you buy, and don't purchase ivory items or anything made from rhino horn.

Know before you buy, and don’t purchase ivory items or anything made from rhino horn.

What can you do? Start by informing yourself. Though China is one of the primary destinations for most trafficked goods, you might be surprised to learn that the US is the second leading recipient of illegal ivory. So take the next step: refuse to buy trafficked goods. Never, ever buy ivory statues or jewelry, or rhino horn products and powders. Ending the demand for these items is an important part of the offensive to end the slaughter of rare wildlife across the globe, and a crucial part of preventing extinction.

San Diego Zoo Global is in the business of ending extinction. Combating illegal wildlife trafficking is an important part of meeting that objective. We hope you’ll join us this World Wildlife Day by getting serious about wildlife crime.

Suzanne Hall is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Who You Calling Sloth?.

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Strategy to Save Northern White Rhino Is Launched; New Genetic Technologies Offer Hope for Species

Global_logo_color webWith support from the Seaver Institute, geneticists at San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are taking the initial steps in an effort to use cryopreserved cells to bring back the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction. Living cells banked in the Frozen Zoo® have preserved the genetic lineage of 12 northern white rhinos, including a male that recently passed away at the Safari Park. Scientists hope that new technologies can be used to gather the genetic knowledge needed to create a viable population for this disappearing subspecies.

  “Multiple steps must be accomplished to reach the goal of establishing a viable population that can be reintroduced into the species range in Africa, where it is now extinct,” said Oliver Ryder Ph.D., Director of Genetics for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “A first step involves sequencing the genomes of northern white rhinos to clarify the extent of genetic divergence from their closest relative, the southern white rhino.”

The next step would require conversion of the cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo® to stem cells that could develop into sperm and eggs.  A process to do this was successfully developed in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute and published in 2011.

“If we can take reprogrammed cells and direct them to become eggs and sperm, we can use in vitro fertilization to generate a new animal,” said Jeanne Loring, Director of Regenerative Medicine for the Scripps Research Institute. “Bold new initiatives are required to save endangered species, and we recognize the application of stem cell technology using cells in the Frozen Zoo® provides hope for preventing extinctions, with scientific innovation helping to lead these efforts.”

Researchers at the Safari Park have been working for decades to breed the species but had only four aged individuals to work with. After the recent death of the male rhino, Angalifu, reproductive physiologists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research collected and cryopreserved 200 vials of sperm and 75 vials of testicular tissue.  This sperm, along with previously collected semen saved in the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo®, will be utilized for future assisted reproduction efforts.

“The reproductive system of rhinos is very complex and there is still so much we do not know,” said Barbara Durrant Ph.D, reproductive physiologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “We will meet the challenge to save this beautiful animal by combining recent advances in genetic and reproductive technology with our expertise in animal care and welfare.”

The Seaver Institute has awarded San Diego Zoo Global $110,000 to fund whole genome sequencing of northern and southern white rhinos in an effort to characterize genetic diversity. Understanding the genetic differences between rhino species will allow scientists to determine what assisted reproduction mechanisms may be used for future conservation.

“The Seaver Institute supports fundamental research and innovative inquiry for particular projects that offer the potential for significant advancement in their fields,” said Victoria Dean, President for the Seaver Institute. “We are interested in supporting this project which will take advantage of the, until now, theoretical value of the Frozen Zoo.”

Only one northern white rhino, an elderly female, remains at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not reproduced.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents.  The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide.  The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
 

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Little Green Guards Excitement!

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The feeling of love and empathy for animals is very much influenced by one’s culture and upbringing. How can people conserve endangered animals if they do not love them? How do people come to love and appreciate animals? These are the kinds of questions I often ponder, and I am eager to find ways to help people, especially children, bond with animals.

Over the last five years, I have been exploring the topic of love and empathy toward animals and learning how to cultivate these sentiments in children who are in my Little Green Guards program. Little Green Guards are children living in conservation priority areas that have an underdeveloped economy and education system. The goal of the program is to build a strong and lasting love for animals in children, ultimately empowering them to become conservation stewards of their natural heritage.

Because personal experience can create deep impressions, it is important to include many field trip opportunities for Little Green Guards to fall in love with animals and nature. In Fanjingshan, China, my collaborators and I recently used our camera-trap research project as a way to introduce local schoolchildren to wildlife that may be difficult to see in the nearby forest.

Before going to the field we explained the science behind our camera-trap research to the children, how the cameras have helped us understand the “secrets” of many amazing animals, some active in the day and some at night. We then tantalized the children with our best photos and the “surprises” we discovered. The children would “Ooh!” and “Aah!” as they looked at the photos—the excitement for camera-trapping was escalating!

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Out in the forest, we selected a relatively flat area with a sturdy tree. We then showed the kids how to properly install batteries and the memory card, program the settings, and finally mount the camera. When all the preparation was done, the children practiced taking “selfies,” one by one, by triggering the sensor in front of the camera and saying “Qiezi!” (the Chinese version of “Cheese!”). Beyond just having fun, this Little Green Guards lesson allowed us to teach the children not only about animal biology and caring for their wildlife neighbors but also essential life skills so they can develop healthy self-esteem, despite their rural circumstances.

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

The success of the Little Green Guards program will require long-term efforts and reaching out to as many communities as possible around Fanjingshan and other protected areas in China as well as in Vietnam and Madagascar. As the citizens who live adjacent to natural habitats form the front line of defense in protecting local biodiversity, we imagine that our Little Green Guards program may have a substantial positive influence on people’s attitudes toward conservation. We hope that one day every child in the Little Green Guards program will develop affection for wildlife so that when that day comes, we can all smile and say “Qiezi!”

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a senior scientist in the Conservation Partnership Development Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Have Camera Trap, Will Travel.