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Pushing the Envelope on Frozen Semen Fertility with Gek the Pallas’ Cat

Back in the early 1990s, an eager young post-doctoral fellow was hired to study cat reproduction at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. One of his first projects involved a small-sized, little-known Central Asian felid called the Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).

Pallas' cat (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Pallas’ cat on exhibit in Night Hunters (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

At the time, there was a grand total of one male Pallas’ cat in all U.S. zoos – a wild-born Mongolian cat named Gek. The post-doc dutifully collected and evaluated Gek’s semen every two months for almost two years and, for the first time, documented the extreme reproductive seasonality typical of this species. Concurrently, he froze Gek’s semen for long-term storage.

Fast forward 22 years later. That post-doc, Dr. Bill Swanson, is now CREW’s Director of Animal Research, and in early 2015, found himself in desperate need of frozen Pallas’ cat semen. Fortuitously, he previously had acquired Gek’s samples from the National Zoo. Frozen semen from Gek and two other males was used for laparoscopic oviductal artificial insemination (LO-AI) of four Pallas’ cats at three U.S. zoos (Cincinnati, Columbus, Pueblo). Two of those cats appeared to conceive; however, only the Columbus Zoo female subsequently gave birth. Her single kitten was fully developed, but, unfortunately, stillborn.

Dr. Swanson with his little buddy Gek in 1993

Dr. Swanson with his little buddy Gek in 1993

Notably, the father of that kitten was … (drum roll, please) …Gek! The pregnancies and birth were the first ever with frozen semen in Pallas’ cats but also established a new longevity record for frozen semen fertility in any wildlife species. Additional LO-AIs using Gek’s frozen samples are planned for 2016 – hopefully followed by the birth of healthy kittens this time around. Long-live Gek!

(Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services)

February 12, 2016   2 Comments

Gorillas: Wet N’ Wild

In the early years of wild gorilla research it was observed that they did not utilized bodies of water much and got most all of their moisture from the succulent vegetation they consumed.  Most of this information came from research being conducted with mountain gorillas. (Gorilla beringei beringei).  Of course a life in the rainforests meant they would frequently get very wet but never were they seen to submerge portions of their bodies into deeper water.  This was very true of mountain gorillas as they lived on very hilly terrain where large pools could not form.

Gorilla Tool use

To the contrary, zoo gorillas have been known for many years to enjoy a dip in their habitat water features and even submerge their heads at times.  One of the classic stories from the vast Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden (CZBG) gorilla history recounts a time when an expecting female gorilla “Amani” climbed down into the shallow water moat in front of the gorilla exhibit out of sight.  When she climbed back up she was carrying her newborn baby.  This baby was named “Kubatiza” which means “baptism” in Swahili.  There have been many enriching episodes involving zoo gorillas and water over the years but it wasn’t until the 90s that more in “depth” (pun intended) observations of wild western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)( the same species housed in zoos) revealed  that gorillas actually do frequent pools of water.

Chewie in the moat at Cincinnati Zoo

Chewie in the moat at Cincinnati Zoo

The longest running research project show casing gorilla water usage is the Mbeli Bai Study in the Republic of Congo. Bais are naturally occurring marshy clearings in the rainforests.  Gorillas come to these bais to wade out into the water to feed on the very mineral rich vegetation floating on the surface, primarily hydrocharis. They spend hours in at the Mbeli Bai  selectively harvesting choice pieces and then carefully stripping it down to eat the tasty pith.

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While congregating in the open clearings, gorillas use the time to work on their social game as well.  Many times two family groups will mingle while the silverbacks representing each group posture and try to impress each other and the ladies of the other’s group.  Sometimes lone bachelor males  show up to spar with other silverbacks through audacious chest beat  displays, augmented with dramatic water splashing.  Occasionally, these swooning efforts pay off and a female might decide to migrate to a different silverback or at least consider the invite until their next meeting.

Chewie 06 8Gorilla splashing

Gorilla splashing

Additionally, the first recorded case of wild gorilla tool use was documented by the Mbeli Bai Study, when a female gorilla modified a stick and used it to measure the depth of the water prior to entering.  Of course as with water play, zoo gorillas have been using sticks and other items as tools to manipulate food out of puzzle feeders for many years but to see this done in the wild with no human influence or prompting was a huge discovery.

Dinka  Watussi

Over the years researchers have identified over 300 different individual gorillas that frequent Mbeli Bai, along with forest elephants, yellow-backed duiker, sititunga antelope, buffalo, red river hog, colobus monkeys, crocodiles, otters, African fishing eagles and many other species. They are learning important behavioral and demographic information critical to conserving them and their very threatened Central African rainforest habitat.  CZBG is proud to have supported and partnered with the Mblei Bai Study and related research efforts in North Congo for 15 years.

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Please enjoy this recent update from Mbeli and this video depicting a marshy, muddy, young gorilla seemingly a little put off by being wet and then kind of embracing the fact!

February 10, 2016   No Comments

Bom dia from Brasil!

Lindsey Vansandt, post-doctoral scientist at CREW, with tigrina kitten at AMC. (photo: Bill Swanson)

 For more than 20 years, Dr. Bill Swanson (CREW’s Director of Animal Research) has been working in Brazil to conserve Latin American felids (animals in the cat family). I was fortunate to get to travel with him to Associação Mata Ciliar (AMC), a non-profit organization that promotes the conservation of over 300 plant and animal species. AMC’s Centro Brasileiro para a Conservação Dos Felinos Neotropicalis (Brazilian Neo-Tropical Feline Conservation Center) is the largest feline conservation center in the country, which houses eight of the ten cats endemic to Latin America. Habitat loss and poaching have threatened most of these species with extinction in all or part of their natural ranges. Specifically, we’ve come to AMC to work with jaguars and tigrinas, but more on that later.

(photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

(photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

The Associação Mata Ciliar is a non-profit organization founded in 1987 dedicated to developing projects for conservation. CREW has been partnering with AMC for 16 years to conserve Latin American Felids.

The eight wild cat species of Brazil. (photos: Associação Mata Ciliar):

Jagur & Puma

Jagur & Puma

Jaguarundi & Geoffroy’s cat

Jaguarundi & Geoffroy’s cat

Ocelot & Margay

Ocelot & Margay

Tigrina  & Pampas cat

Tigrina & Pampas cat

Also under the AMC umbrella is the Centro de Reabilitação de Animais Silvestres (Wildlife Animals Rehabilitation Center), offering medical treatment and care to injured wildlife from all over the São Paulo region. Many of the injuries are the result of vehicle strikes, wildfires, or hunting. Other animals come to the center because they were confiscated from wildlife traffickers. AMC gives these animals a chance to return to their natural habitat and contribute to the survival of their species, a powerful tool for the imperiled wildlife of Brazil.

Stay tuned for more updates from Brazil!

AMC often cares for wild-born kittens that are confiscated from wildlife traffickers or displaced from their homes due to habitat loss.

Mila (ocelot)

Mila (ocelot) (Photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

Haika (jaguarundai)

Haika (jaguarundai) (Photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

Jade (tigrina)

Jade (tigrina) (Photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 9, 2016   1 Comment