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How do you diagnose pregnancy in a lion?

Many visitors to the Zoo have met our two African lions, John and Imani, in the new Africa exhibit. These two young cats were paired up earlier this year with the hope that they would breed and produce their first litter of cubs in the near future. The good news is that breeding activity has been observed on several occasions this past year, and, after at least one pseudopregnancy, it appears that Imani is now pregnant and due to give birth within the next month. Which raises the question – how do you diagnose pregnancy in a lion anyway?

Imani (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Imani (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Scientists at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) commonly use three methods for pregnancy diagnosis in wildlife species:  ultrasonography, fecal progesterone analysis, and urine relaxin analysis. Ultrasonography remains the gold standard since visualization of a fetus with a strong heartbeat is the definitive proof of pregnancy. CREW frequently uses abdominal ultrasonography to diagnose and monitor pregnancies in our domestic cats (see below). However, this method can be challenging to apply with a potentially dangerous carnivore, like Imani. Through the Zoo’s operant conditioning program, Imani eventually may be trained to allow voluntary abdominal ultrasound exams, but this method is currently not an option with her.

CREW scientists conduct an ultrasound on a domestic cat.

CREW scientists conduct an ultrasound on a domestic cat.

The second approach for pregnancy diagnosis is the use of fecal progesterone analysis. Lions, like other felids, show an increase in fecal progesterone levels shortly after ovulation that is detectable using CREW’s hormone assays. If lions ovulate but don’t conceive, they will have a pseudopregnancy that lasts 50 to 60 days and then progesterone will decline back to baseline levels. If progesterone concentrations stay elevated beyond 60 days post-breeding, then the female is most likely pregnant. Imani’s fecal hormone profile (below) shows progesterone levels increasing coincident with her last breeding activity and staying elevated through at least 66 days post-breeding (the last fecal sample tested).

Imani's fecal hormone profile

Imani’s fecal hormone profile

The third option for pregnancy diagnosis involves measurement of another hormone, relaxin, that is produced by the placenta and excreted in the urine. CREW has helped to pioneer the use of a bench-top relaxin test for pregnancy diagnosis with urine from cats. Our previous research has found that pregnant domestic cats and Pallas’ cats produce high levels of urinary relaxin that are detectable with the bench-top test, but pregnant cheetahs and clouded leopards apparently do not. Imani is the first lion that we have evaluated late in a suspected pregnancy. Urine samples collected from Imani at day 73 and 74 post-breeding were both positive for relaxin (below, circled line in window #2), providing further presumptive evidence of an ongoing pregnancy. In the absence of a sonogram showing a viable fetus, the positive results from the progesterone and relaxin assays provide our best evidence that Imani is pregnant.

Imani's pregnancy test

Imani’s pregnancy test

Hopefully, Imani will confirm our diagnosis in the next few weeks with the anticipated birth of her first litter of cubs. Since Imani will be a first-time mom, she will be provided with a quiet, off-exhibit den area to give birth and bond with her cubs, and likely will remain off-exhibit until early spring when the cubs are a bit older.

October 28, 2014   No Comments

Keeper’s Blog: The Pride of Cincinnati!

If you’ve seen our 3 year-old female lioness Imani on exhibit lately, you may have noticed that she’s getting a little round around the middle. But Imani isn’t just packing on the pounds for winter, there is a chance that she might be pregnant!

Imani's bump

Imani’s bump

John and Imani came to the Cincinnati Zoo back in 2012 with a breeding recommendation from the African lion SSP (species survival plan). The SSP helps zoos to work cooperatively to manage captive animal populations so that we can avoid in-breeding and maintain healthy genetics within our captive populations. Fortunately for Cincinnati, John and Imani were matched up and brought to the Queen City to start a pride together.

You can read more about John and Imani’s first meeting here:


Almost immediately after being introduced to each other, keepers began to see breeding behaviors! Since John and Imani are both young, inexperienced lions, the initial breedings didn’t seem to amount to much. More often than not, Imani would only sit still for John for about 20 seconds, then she would swing around and smack him in the face while snarling. Poor John was receiving some very mixed and confusing signals, and breeding Imani seemed like a very daunting and scary proposition. He stuck with it though, and soon the breeding behaviors began to look more (re)productive! ;)

John and Imani

John and Imani

A little bit of background info on lion breeding. Typically, female lions cycle every 17 days, and they are induced ovulators (meaning they only ovulate, or release eggs, when mating has occurred). Induced ovulation helps ensure that breeding is successful because eggs are not being released and wasted unless breeding (and the possibility of fertilization) has occurred.

Keepers were seeing pretty regular estrus cycles from Imani every 17 days or so for the first few months that the lions were together. At each cycle, we observed breeding from the lions. Then, at the beginning of August, we anticipated an estrus cycle that never came. Since that time, keepers have been collecting and submitting fecal samples from Imani to our research department over at CREW (the zoo’s center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife). CREW analyzed the progesterone levels in Imani’s feces to help us determine that ovulation HAD occurred during the last observed breeding cycles. Even more exciting, Imani’s elevated progesterone levels were a good indication that she might be pregnant!

Now before we start planning a baby shower or registering for baby gifts, we should note another important and fascinating aspect of lion reproduction: pseudopregnancy. Pseudopregnancy (or “false” pregnancy) can cause the female’s body to exhibit signs and symptoms of pregnancy even if she’s not actually pregnant. For this reason, we are not saying “Imani’s pregnant!”. Instead, we are saying “Imani might be pregnant!” We will only know if there has been a true pregnancy if and when Imani delivers her cub(s) sometime this November.

In preparation for possible cubs, keepers have been working around the clock to ensure that Imani has a safe, secure and comfortable place to give birth. We are setting up a special “denning area” complete with full privacy, a cozy nest area, and even video surveillance cameras so that keepers can monitor Imani from a distance.  Since Imani will be a first time mom, much of the decision-making that happens from this point on will be based on Imani’s comfort level. Maintaining a sense of security and comfort for her during this pivotal and exciting time is our top priority! We ask for your patience and understanding as one (or both) lions may be spending less time on exhibit during the next month or so leading up to the possible arrival of cubs. As always, thank you for the amazing love and support you’ve shown our lions so far and stay tuned to learn if and when we add new lion cubs to our Cincinnati pride!

Wendy Rice
Africa Keeper
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

October 28, 2014   3 Comments

Bowling for Rhinos was a Smashing Success!

All five living species of rhinos are threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching for their horns, which are worth more than their weight in gold on the black market. Poaching rates have soared sky high, but there are thousands of dedicated, passionate rangers standing in between the rhinos and the poachers – and they need our help.

Each year, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) raises funds through Bowling for Rhinos (BFR) events held across North America to support critical rhino conservation projects in the wild. This year, the Greater Cincinnati AAZK Chapter organized its inaugural BFR fundraiser, which took place on October 11 at Stone Lanes.BFR Logo


The turnout was fantastic! More than 160 people registered to bowl and even more showed up just to take part in the festivities. Even J.J. Hoover and Logan Andrusek of the Cincinnati Reds came out to show their support!

Logan Ondrusek and JJ Hoover pose with the rhino mascot

Logan Ondrusek and JJ Hoover pose with the rhino mascot

Beyond bowling, there were plenty of other opportunities for fun and fundraising. The chapter held a silent auction and raffle and sold t-shirts, chocolate bars and shot glasses, and the bar even offered special rhino-themed drinks. The Zoo’s Sumatran rhino mascot even showed up to meet and greet the bowlers.

T-shirts for sale!

T-shirts for sale!

Bidding at the silent auction

Bidding at the silent auction

Bowlers posing with the rhino mascot

Bowlers posing with the rhino mascot

In addition to the Zoo and Stone Lanes, the event drew in several other local businesses and individuals as sponsors. A huge thank you goes out to:

  • Mac Paran
  • Riverside Topsoil
  • White Crane Tattoo
  • The Emily and Mark Frolick Foundation
  • Solid Training
  • The Wallace Group Dentistry for Today
  • Nancy Haas
  • Liquid Sasquatch Pottery
  • Listermann Brewery
  • North College Hill Chiropractic Center
  • T.J. Williams Electric Co.
  • Norwood City Schools
  • Gary’s Professional Dog Grooming
  • Mike Dulaney
  • Jeff Mitchell

All in all, the event pulled in more than $8,500! Every penny earned through BFR goes directly to field conservation efforts to protect all five endangered species of rhino. For example, in Indonesia, funds raised support Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) that safeguard Javan and Sumatran rhino populations in national parks. Dedicated wildlife rangers patrol the forests, arresting poachers and destroying snares and traps. And in Kenya, funds raised support the Lewa Conservancy’s Rhino Conservation Programme, which has been extremely successful in protecting black and white rhino populations.

Rhinos on the Lewa Conservancy

Rhinos on the Lewa Conservancy

The chapter is quite pleased with how the first annual BFR turned out. Thanks to all who showed their support. We hope you will come out and join us next year!

October 27, 2014   No Comments