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Category — Animals

Glass Glass Baby: Birth of Healthy Kittens following Sperm Vitrification for Artificial Insemination

A world leader in small cat reproductive research, our Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) has successfully produced the first non-human offspring – two kittens – using vitrified sperm (semen preserved as glass instead of ice) for artificial insemination (AI).  Dr. Bill Swanson explains the significance of this breakthrough in this video.

Vito and Elsa, kittens produced from vitrified sperm

Vito and Elsa, kittens produced from vitrified sperm

Cryopreservation of cat semen for assisted reproduction can be challenging, requiring technical expertise and specialized equipment for semen collection, processing and freezing. As a simplified alternative to standard semen cryopreservation methods, CREW scientists have been investigating the use of vitrification – the ultra-rapid cooling of liquids to form a solid without ice crystal formation. This approach essentially preserves semen as glass instead of ice.

For vitrification, cat semen is diluted in a chemically-defined medium containing soy lecithin and sucrose as cryoprotectants and, after a five minute equilibration period, pipetted in small volumes (~30 microliters) directly into liquid nitrogen to form tiny glass marbles of frozen sperm.

In initial studies, we found that cat sperm survived vitrification as successfully as that frozen using standard straw freezing methods and that vitrified sperm were capable of fertilizing cat oocytes in vitro. In our first assessment of in vivo viability, eight of these embryos were transferred into three synchronized females. Although one female appeared to have two early implantations, no offspring were produced.

In a follow-up study, artificial insemination (AI) with vitrified sperm was assessed in three additional females. With our laparoscopic oviductal AI technique (LO-AI), only a couple million sperm are required per insemination, allowing the use of the relatively low sperm numbers that are preserved in vitrified semen pellets. Following LO-AI with vitrified sperm, all three females conceived, with two of the pregnancies progressing to term and culminating in the birth of two healthy kittens in early April. These kittens, a male named Vito (short for vitrification) and a female named Elsa (after the character in the movie Frozen), are the first non-human offspring – of any species – produced with vitrified sperm (although three human babies have been born from earlier research).

Vito and his mother, Ebony

Vito and his mother, Ebony

Elsa and her mother, Ivy

Elsa and her mother, Ivy

Our preliminary results with semen from fishing cats and ocelots indicate that vitrification is effective for preserving post-thaw sperm viability and function across cat species. These findings suggest that this fast and simple cryopreservation method may have broad applicability for semen banking of endangered felids housed in zoos and possibly living in the wild.

Jaci Johnson with Elsa and Vito

Jaci Johnson with Elsa and Vito

The study’s lead author, veterinary student Jaci Johnson, has been selected to present these findings at the upcoming American Association of Zoo Veterinarian’s Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon. (Funded, in part, by the Procter & Gamble Wildlife Conservation Scholarship program in collaboration with Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.)

- Reprinted from the Spring 2015 CREW Progress Report

May 14, 2015   No Comments

Dreaming of Africa and a Future in the Wild for African Painted Dogs

The pups are out! The pups are out! It’s been a long time waiting for the weather to break so the African painted dog pups could come outside. For the past few months, only their keepers were allowed to access the holding area. As soon as the rest of us employees heard the pups were finally out, many of us made a beeline for the exhibit like giddy schoolchildren on a field trip!

"What are you doing down there, Mom?" (Photo: DJJAM)

“What are you doing down there, Mom?” (Photo: DJJAM)

As I sat and marveled at the antics of our 10 boisterous, playful pups exploring their outdoor yard for the first time, my thoughts wandered to what it would be like to actually see painted dogs in the wild. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Africa a few times—once to lead an Earth Expeditions course in Namibia, another time to lead a course in Kenya, and also to pick up my daughter whom we adopted from Ethiopia. Each time, I experienced amazing landscapes and wildlife from hippos to rhinos to lions, but never did I encounter painted dogs. This isn’t surprising considering the African painted dog is one of the most endangered carnivores in Africa.

If I were to travel to Africa with the goal of seeing painted dogs, Ruaha National Park and the region surrounding it in Tanzania would be the place to go. Not only does the third largest population of painted dogs live there, it’s also the home base of the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), a conservation program that the Zoo supports.  RCP works with local communities to ensure the survival of carnivores and people in the region.

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

As it happened, the same day the pups first went out on exhibit, we also had a visit from RCP’s Director, Amy Dickman, who updated us on the latest news on the project. Amy is phenomenal and a very charismatic and inspiring leader, so much so that she was one of three international finalists for the prestigious Tusk Conservation Award last fall. This award recognizes individuals who have undertaken outstanding, inspirational conservation work throughout Africa. Although Amy did not win the award (this time), she did get to have afternoon tea with Prince William and it generated a lot of attention for the project, including this fabulous short film.

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

As mentioned in the film, Amy has done a fantastic job winning the trust and participation of the local Barabaig people. It used to be one of the few ways to gain status and wealth in the tribe was to kill lions, but that’s changing. RCP has found a way to provide tangible benefits of protecting carnivores to the community. RCP provides education scholarships and materials, veterinary supplies and health care clinics, and those villages that can show they have the most wildlife in their area receive the greater rewards.

How exactly do they determine which areas have the most wildlife? It’s ingenious, really. RCP has started giving villagers their own camera traps and training them how to set up and manage them. For each predator or prey species captured on camera, they receive a certain number of points – 2,000 points for an eland, 3,000 for a hyena, 4,000 for a lion, 5,000 for a painted dog, and so on. And if the picture has a whole pack of painted dogs in it like the one below, they get 5,000 points for each individual dog!

African painted dogs in Ruaha

African painted dogs in Ruaha

Villagers are now more motivated to find ways to coexist with carnivores. Instead of killing carnivores to keep them from attacking their livestock, for example, they are building better bomas, or corrals, and using guard dogs to prevent depredation.

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

In just five years, Amy’s work has resulted in a 60% decline in livestock depredation, a significant rise in people recognizing benefits from wildlife, and most importantly, an 80% decline in carnivore killing. Amazing! As RCP looks to the future, I hope the Zoo continues and strengthens its relationship with the project.

As for me, I may never see African painted dogs roaming the African savannah (though I’m not giving up hope), but knowing that we support great programs like RCP makes me optimistic about their future in the wild. For now, I am content to watch our pups trip over their paws and grow into their giant ears here at the Zoo. I hope you will join me!

"My ears are bigger than yours!" (Photo: DJJAM)

“My ears are bigger than yours!” (Photo: DJJAM)

p.s. The Zoo sponsors one of RCP’s field cameras. In return, RCP posts images taken by our Cincinnati Zoo Cam on a dedicated Facebook page; like the page to follow along!

 

April 20, 2015   2 Comments

The Importance of CREW’s Domestic Cat Research

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy student, Jane Collins

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is famously known to the world for its hard work on saving endangered plants and animals. Whenever people learn about CREW, they hear about the projects on polar bears, Sumatran rhinos, wild cats, and many plant species including autumn buttercup, four-petal pawpaw, and Avon Park harebells. You learn a lot about how important these projects are, but I believe there is one important aspect of CREW that is not as well known to Zoo visitors as it should be. I’ll give you a hint, re-read the title!

That’s right. I’m talking about cats. I don’t mean the wild African lion, cheetah, or tiger that you may have been thinking about. I mean domestic cats. CREW’s Domestic Cat Research is actually important to saving endangered big cats in the wild. These special cats help CREW with a number of things, including testing a contraceptive vaccine and conducting oviductal artificial inseminations and embryo transfers.

Three of the CREW cats - Taneshia, Beth and Paige

Three of the CREW cats – Taneshia, Beth and Paige

The cats in this program are given vaccines for common diseases and are spayed and neutered when at the appropriate age so they are completely cared for. CREW volunteers take the time to socialize with the cats also so they are very affectionate cats and are never neglected.

As a Zoo Academy student, I personally have had the opportunity to spend time with the cats and see up close how well they are treated.  Washing cat dishes, litter pans, animal carriers, and a few other responsibilities may have not been the finest experience, but I liked that I was making even the smallest contribution to the care of the cats. I also was able to spend quality time with most of the cats playing and relaxing, whichever the cats preferred for the day.  I had a great time learning a few of the cats’ individual personalities. One cat physically demands love and affection by climbing right into your lap. Another is very vocal. And another cat even loves water.

My favorite cat was a three-year old grey tabby with black stripes. He was the largest male domestic cat I have ever seen and looked like he belonged deep in a dark jungle rather than at a zoo. At end of my time at CREW, he was up for adoption. I couldn’t bring myself to part with him and decided to take him home. His new name is officially Chaz. He likes to follow me around EVERY square inch of my house and cries when I’ve gone too long without petting him. He is a loving member of my family. It is very cool to have a cat from the Cincinnati Zoo that has contributed to research that helps to save endangered wild cats.

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

April 8, 2015   1 Comment