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Category — CREW

Say Cheese! Plant Movement Revealed Through Time-Lapse Photography

The Plant Division at CREW is now using time-lapse photography to capture the growth of plants in vitro. Using a digital SLR camera, we program the camera to take a photograph of the plants every 30 minutes.

Camera set up for time lapse photography

Camera set up for time lapse photography

In general, it takes about two months before the test tube plants need to be subcultured onto fresh media. Now we can condense weeks of growth images into a 1-minute video. Watch the awned meadowbeauty (Rhexia aristosa), a flowering perennial from the Eastern United States,grow!

We initially observed the plants responding to the daily 16-hour light/8-hour dark cycle in the growth chamber. The leaves of the plants appear to “pulse” upward as the light automatically turns on each morning. The “sleep movements” of plants are well documented in terrestrial settings, but until now we had not observed them in plants grown in vitro at CREW. Time-lapse photography has also been a useful tool in comparing different types of media. We photograph a single species on different media to detect changes in growth patterns depending on the medium.

To date we have completed time-lapse videos of three species. The goal is to create a video for every species in the growth chamber. Since a single sequence can take up to six weeks to complete, we have our work cut out for us to create videos for the 35 to 50 species in the growth chamber!

(Reprinted from the Fall 2015 CREW Review)

March 2, 2016   No Comments

CREW Scientists in Brazil – Wild Times with Pumas & Snakes

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, which you can read about in my previous blog post!

Two experiences from the last few days on the road in Brazil stand out.  One, collecting semen from a puma, was planned and part of the reason for our visit.  The other was an unexpected encounter with a boa constrictor.

A Cat by Any Other Name…..

The puma has many aliases: cougar, mountain lion, panther, and catamount to name a few. Why so many? The puma has a vast range across the Americas, from high in the mountains to lowland deserts. Thus, this extremely adaptable cat has encountered many different cultures which call it many different names (even in Portuguese, at least two names exist: onça-parda and suçuarana).

Faced with fragmented habitats and dwindling wildlife prey, puma populations are currently on the decline in Brazil. Here, pumas are considered near threatened, with certain subspecies classified as vulnerable. During our visit, we helped AMC start a semen bank for pumas. First, the male is anesthetized so we can collect semen.

Lindsey collecting semen from a puma. (photo: Bill Swanson)

Lindsey collecting semen from a puma. (photo: Bill Swanson)

Next, the sample is processed with a specialized medium that contains cryoprotectants and loaded into “straws”. Finally, the straws are frozen and stored in a liquid nitrogen tank for future use.

Our makeshift lab at AMC. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Our makeshift lab at AMC. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Loading semen into a straw.  (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Loading semen into a straw. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Storage tank at AMC. The tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen, keeping the samples at -321°F.  (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Storage tank at AMC. The tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen, keeping the samples at -321°F. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

Historically, if a male dies before he has a chance to breed, his genetic contributions are lost forever. This semen bank represents an important safeguard against that loss, preserving the puma’s genetic diversity within a liquid nitrogen tank. The semen bank can facilitate gene exchange between pumas at different locations without the need for animal transport. Because semen can be stored in liquid nitrogen for decades, centuries, or perhaps even forever; semen banks can expand gene exchange across time, allowing a puma to contribute to the gene pool indefinitely.

Why did the snake cross the road?

Local authorities often contact AMC to assist with distressed wildlife. In this case, the county police rescued a boa constrictor that was located dangerously close to a highway. Once at AMC, veterinarians draw blood to screen for ectoparasites and other diseases.

AMC Wildlife Coordinator Cristina carefully removes snake from transport box. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

AMC Wildlife Coordinator Cristina carefully removes snake from transport box. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

AMC veterinarian Jessica prepares to take a blood sample. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

AMC veterinarian Jessica prepares to take a blood sample. (photos: Lindsey Vansandt)

The snake was then transported to Serra do Japi, a 350 square kilometer (135 square mile) nature reserve of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest), located in a mountain range just outside the city of Jundiaí. Five hundred years ago, the Atlantic Forest spanned across 330 million acres of Brazil. Today, it’s estimated that less than 15% of this once vast forest remains. Despite being only a fraction of the size of its more famous neighbor the Amazon rainforest, the Atlantic Forest remains lush with endemic species and rivals the biodiversity of the Amazon.

Japi was classified as a Reserve of the Atlantic Forest Biosphere in 1994. To help preserve wildlife, access to Japi is extremely limited and the general public is not allowed inside. Indeed, we were only granted access to release the snake. Once inside, I was astounded by the beauty of Serra do Japi. Such a stark contrast to the crowded city of Jundiaí, Japi is a beautiful reminder of what this area used to look like:  trees thrust upwards creating a lush green canopy above, and a series of rivers and waterfalls carving out the rocks below.

Serra do Japi. Mountaintop view. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

Serra do Japi. Mountaintop view. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

Serra do Japi. Overlooking a waterfall. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

Overlooking a waterfall. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

Serra do Japi. For most people, this is as close as they will ever get to Serra do Japi. Locals often gather here at the guarded entrance to enjoy the beautiful view. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

For most people, this is as close as they will ever get to Serra do Japi. Locals often gather here at the guarded entrance to enjoy the beautiful view. (Photos: Lindsey Vansandt).

After driving down a windy road for about 15 minutes, we decided on our release location. Despite my fear of snakes, Cristina (veterinarian and Wildlife Coordinator at AMC) was kind enough to let me help with the release. Also helping were AMC trainees Gabriel (a veterinary student) and Natahlia (a biology student) who clearly did not share my snake phobia. Gabriel carried the transport box to the side of the road and we slid the lid open. Gabriel coaxed the snake out with a hook and off he (or perhaps she) went!

Lindsey and AMC trainees Gabriel and Natahlia release boa constrictor back into the wild. Lid is removed from transport box. (Photos: Bill Swanson).

Lindsey and AMC trainees Gabriel and Natahlia release boa constrictor back into the wild. Lid is removed from transport box. (Photos: Bill Swanson).

Lindsey and AMC trainees Gabriel and Natahlia release boa constrictor back into the wild. Snake is gently coaxed out. (Photos: Bill Swanson).

Snake is gently coaxed out. (Photos: Bill Swanson).

Lindsey and AMC trainees Gabriel and Natahlia release boa constrictor back into the wild. You’re free! (Photos: Bill Swanson).

You’re free! (Photos: Bill Swanson).

There is something truly beautiful about releasing an animal back into the wild, particularly in a case like this when not only did we prevent an almost inevitable occurrence of a vehicle strike, but we also relocated this snake to a beautiful (and protected!) area far away from the urban sprawl of Jundiaí.

Serra do Japi nature reserve. (Photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

Serra do Japi nature reserve. (Photo: Lindsey Vansandt)

February 16, 2016   No Comments

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   3 Comments