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Category — CREW

International Red Panda Day: Zoos Make a Difference for Red Pandas

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

Happy International Red Panda Day! It’s virtually impossible not to smile when you watch this fuzzy Asian mammal frolic. It’s no surprise that two years ago a video of our red pandas playing in the snow went viral and made international news.

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Of course, there’s a lot more to red pandas than just being cute. Like so many animals, they face daunting, often human-made threats to their existence. Red pandas are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is proud to help save red pandas through research and breeding as well as through support of Red Panda Network, the conservation organization behind International Red Panda Day.

“While Red Panda Network’s primary focus is on conservation efforts in native red panda habitat in Nepal, zoos in other parts of the world are some of our most important allies in the fight to save this wonderful animal. Deforestation and poaching now sadly mean that home is not safe for these animals, and keeping a population in a managed habitat monitored and protected by people has become necessary for some of them. These captive populations allow researchers and keepers to observe the animals’ behavior. The more we know about how these animals act, the better we can develop effective conservation strategies.” – Red Panda Network

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Scientists at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) have devoted years to studying red panda reproduction. They’ve produced data that support the theory that red pandas can display “pseudo-pregnancy,” or a false reading based on hormone levels previously used to diagnose pregnancy.

Over the past few years, our researchers have successfully diagnosed red panda pregnancies using trans-abdominal ultrasound. Although the procedure requires animal training and comes with a high price tag, it has proven more accurate than hormone tests. In 2015, we bred the first red panda cubs with birth dates accurately predicted using a combination of ultrasonography and hormone monitoring.

Currently, we have a pair of cubs, Harriet and Hazel, born to mom, Lin, in June. At three months old, they are just starting to venture out on exhibit. Our red panda exhibit also houses two adult females, and soon we’ll receive two new males for future breeding. Stop by their exhibit and look for them; you might spot them in the trees. And go ahead, say it: “They’re soooo cute!”

Harriet and Hazel the red panda cubs (Photo: Angela Hatke)

Harriet and Hazel the red panda cubs (Photo: Angela Hatke)

Not in Cincinnati and want to know where you can go to see red pandas near you? Check out this worldwide search tool.

September 17, 2016   No Comments

A Case Study to Conserve Trillium: Can The Seeds Survive Drying?

Guest blogger: Courtney Dvorsky, CREW Plant Lab Intern

Growing up in Cincinnati, my love for conservation research grew each time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.  As a kid, I attended summer camps, and in 2008 and 2009, I was a VolunTeen.  Now, seven years later, I had the amazing opportunity to be an Intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) plant division!  The project I worked on, funded by the Association of Zoo Horticulture (AZH), focused on determining if seed banking could be an option to help conserve some of the endangered trillium species.

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

There are many species within the Trillium genus of spring wildflowers, most of which are native to North American woodlands. With three petals, three sepals and three leaves, they are commonly called trinity flowers. Many trillium species, including the Ohio state wildflower, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), still thrive in the wild. There are others, however, that are threatened or endangered such as the persistent trillium (Trillium persistens).

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

My first task was to set up germination trials to compare germination in soil with germination in vitro (in tissue culture) for several different trillium species.  Many trillium seeds have a double dormancy, meaning they need two cold periods to germinate entirely.  Thus, it takes about two years for a seed to germinate into a trillium seedling.  Unfortunately, as a result, I won’t see germination while I am at CREW.

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

My second task was to determine if the seeds could withstand drying in order to be seed banked.  Seeds that are banked must be under 20% moisture content so we began by analyzing the initial moisture in the seeds directly out of a fruit pod.  We then dried the seeds to different moisture levels using air, silica gel, and three humidity levels created in containers with three different saturated salt solutions (NaCl, MgCl, and LiCl).

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

After the seeds were dried, we analyzed them for moisture content and viability using a stain known as TTC (triphenyl tetrazolium chloride). If the seed is still viable, it will stain red. If the seed is not viable, it will not stain at all. So far we succeeded in drying the seeds to under the 20% moisture content needed for seed banking; however, they are often not viable. CREW is running more tests to try to repeat these results in the months to come.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Unfortunately, my time as an intern has come to an end. Luckily, I will be just a short distance away working on my PhD at Miami University of Ohio, so I will be able to check in on my seeds. Here’s hoping for some germination!

August 18, 2016   5 Comments

CREW Plant Lab Intern Helps Save Endangered Oaks

Guest blogger: Christina Del Greco, CREW Plant Lab Intern

Hi!  My name is Christina Del Greco. I’m a college sophomore studying biology at the University of Notre Dame. Thanks to a grant from the Association of Zoological Horticulture (AZH), I had the wonderful opportunity to be a plant lab intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) this summer.

Christina Del Greco

Christina Del Greco

As a CREW intern, I worked on the oak tree conservation project. Scientists store seeds in seed banks for many plants, especially endangered ones, as a precaution in case the wild population of a plant gets too low. However, you can’t do that for oak trees, as the acorns don’t stay viable if they are frozen. This means that there has to be another way to build up a bank of oak tissue. CREW has been pursuing oak stem tip culturing, in which the tips of oak seedlings are put into test tubes filled with media meant to help the plants grow. This way, we can store test tubes of seedlings instead of acorns.

The problem is there are so many different types of media with different concentrations of various nutrients the plants need, and each species grows differently than the others. My main project was to work on a Design of Experiments (DOE—a statistical method of setting up experiments) project in which 26 different types of media are used for four different oak species to compare growth on different media and gather data in order to compare them.

Oak shoots after one month of growth on different media

Oak shoots after one month of growth on different media

I took pictures of each of the plants after one month in culture, and then again after two months in culture. I also kept track of things such as whether the plants were infected by bacteria or fungus, how tall they grew, if the medium they were in turned brown, if any leaves were growing, and more.  All of these variables are able to potentially tell us something about what makes the oaks grow better or worse.

The data is sent to a collaborator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who knows far more about statistics than I do, and he can use the results to determine if any of the particular nutrients had a noticeable effect on the growth of the oaks. In the future, once all of the statistical results come back, we can use that data to create what we hope to be the optimal medium on which an oak shoot can grow.

Oak seedlings in the CREW greenhouse

Oak seedlings in the CREW greenhouse

I worked on a few smaller side projects as well. One was to try and determine at what point you should trim off the tip of an oak seedling to put it in the medium. Generally, we clip off the stem tips relatively early in the plant’s development, but there has never been any consistency, so I chose three relative stages in three different species and put them in culture to see which one grew best.

I also started a few petri dishes to try to initiate somatic embryogenesis, which is a process in which we try to force plants to make embryos by placing non-embryonic parts of the plant (somatic tissue), such as small leaves, on a special medium in the dark to try and force an embryo to form on its own.

Small oak leaves used to initiate somatic embryogenesis

Small oak leaves used to initiate somatic embryogenesis

And, when an incredibly old red oak tree fell in the middle of the Zoo, I had the opportunity to collect samples to see if there was any way we could regrow the tree in the future, allowing me the opportunity to use all of the methods I had learned about at once.

I learned so much over this internship. Besides learning all sorts of new lab techniques, I had no idea there were so many different ways to try and conserve different species of plants. I also didn’t know that there are so many different endangered oak trees. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to work at CREW for the summer and learn all about conservation efforts both here and at zoos and botanical gardens all over the world.

August 16, 2016   2 Comments