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Supporting Black-footed Cat Research in South Africa

One of the world’s smallest cats, the black-footed cat is found only in the southern African countries of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. It lives in dry, open habitats such as desert, savanna and scrubland. Due to its extremely shy and evasive nature, little is known regarding the black-footed cat’s status in the wild, though it is considered to be the rarest cat in Africa.

Black-footed cat (Photo: Alex Sliwa)

Black-footed cat (Photo: Alex Sliwa)

The black-footed cat is one of the five small cat species with which the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) works on its Small Cat Signature Project. In addition to conducting zoo-based research on the reproductive biology of the black-footed cat, the Zoo also supports field research in South Africa.

A black-footed cat emerges from its den.

A black-footed cat emerges from its den.

Since 2004, a group of scientists and veterinarians working together as the Black-Footed Cat Working Group (BFCWG) (http://black-footed-cat.wild-cat.org/) have been studying black-footed cats in South Africa. The BFCWG aims to conserve this rare cat species by furthering awareness and conducting multidisciplinary research on the species’ biology, distribution, ecology, health, and reproduction over an extended period.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group search for uncollared cats in South Africa.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group search for cats in South Africa.

Once a cat is captured, researchers take a variety of measurements and samples are taken and fit a radio collar. Over time, this generates valuable data regarding the behavior, ecology, genetics, and health of the wild black-footed cat population.

A camera trap image of a collared black-footed cat.

A camera trap image of a collared black-footed cat.

Additionally, sperm collected from wild males can be imported into the United States (once frozen) and used to artificially inseminate captive females to infuse genetic diversity into the captive population.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group collect samples from a cat.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group collect samples from a cat.

This November, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden helped to send Dr. Jason Herrick, a former post-doctoral fellow with the Zoo now working with the National Foundation for Fertility Research and as a Research Associate with the Denver Zoo, to South Africa to capture and replace radio collars on five male black-footed cats. At the same time, he is taking measurements and collecting samples.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group (Dr. Herrick on the right) prepare to release a newly collared cat.

Scientists with the Black-footed Cat Working Group (Dr. Herrick on the right) prepare to release a newly collared cat.

 

November 17, 2014   No Comments

Giving Thanks: From Turkeys to Keas

As we prepare for Thanksgiving and think about what we are grateful for, I ask you to consider giving thanks to wildlife. Without bees, we wouldn’t have honey. Without snakes, we would be overrun with rodents. And without turkeys, what would we eat for Thanksgiving?

Wild Turkey (Photo: Dan Dzurisin)

Wild Turkey (Photo: Dan Dzurisin)

Believe it or not, wild turkeys were once on the brink of extinction. Due to unregulated hunting, turkeys actually disappeared from Ohio by 1904. Working together, government agencies and the hunting community established protective laws, hunting regulations, restocking programs and reforestation efforts that have enabled wild turkey populations to rebound.

Thank goodness, we didn’t lose the turkey, but there are many other species facing serious threats to their survival today, one of which is a New Zealand mountain parrot called the kea. Highly intelligent and neophilic (attracted to anything new), the kea is well adapted to its harsh, mountainous environment. Food can be hard to come by in heavy snow. Fortunately, the inquisitive kea is an opportunistic omnivore; it will try anything once and has the skill and determination to get it.

Keas (Photo: Andy H. McDowall)

Keas (Photo: Andy H. McDowall)

The traits that allow keas to take advantage of new resources and survive in a harsh environment—intelligence, curiosity and playfulness—are the same ones that get them into trouble with people. Many tourists’ cars have lost their windshield wipers and window sealing at local ski areas to the kea’s curiosity and long, sharp beak. Keas also get into trouble with farmers as they will peck at and feed off of sheep.

Kea "investigating" a car (Photo: Geof Wilson)

Kea “investigating” a car (Photo: Geof Wilson)

Damage done by keas is reported each year by private landowners, tourists, tourist operators and workers. Many more conflict events go unreported as people often deal with their concerns illegally. Although fully protected under the New Zealand Wildlife Act, an unknown number of keas are intentionally and illegally killed each year.

Current legal methods of conflict resolution include the relocation of keas or legal extermination of nuisance kea with a permit. Neither solution is considered particularly effective or sustainable. The resolution of human-kea conflict is critical to the successful conservation of the endangered parrot. However, to ensure success, a concise plan which fosters community support is vital.

The Zoo supports the efforts of the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT) to conserve wild kea in their natural habitat and increase the husbandry standards and advocacy potential of kea held in captive facilities. Collaborative projects include comprehensive population research incorporating satellite and VHF radio tracking, nest monitoring, and use of acoustic recording devices. The Zoo has also supported the development of kea repellents to reduce human-wildlife conflict situations.

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This year, the Zoo is stepping up its efforts to protect keas. Our Project Saving Species program is supporting the KCT’s Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, which is a multi-year proactive community-focused conflict response and resolution program that aims to identify the nature of conflict experienced by people living within kea habitat, provide ‘first response’ during conflict situations, help people deal proactively to prevent problem situations arising in the first instance and research practical methods of conflict resolution in collaboration and partnership with communities and the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC).

Funds from the Zoo support a key personnel position, the Community Volunteers Coordinator (CVC). Having a CVC in place allows staff to respond proactively to conflict situations that arise. Funds will also enable KCT personnel to enhance their skills in conflict resolution by sponsoring staff attendance at the internationally recognized Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration Workshop in 2015. Additionally, Zoo aviculturists will join the KCT team in the New Zealand mountains for kea nest monitoring and field work over the next couple of years.

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

This Thanksgiving, as you gnaw on a turkey leg, take a minute to reflect on all that we have to be grateful to wildlife for and the fact that we can give back by helping those species, like the kea, that are struggling to survive. And then, make plans to come visit the kea at the Zoo this winter during Festival of Lights; Encounters will take place from 5:30pm to 6:30pm, Thursday through Sunday. They love the snow, and will be happy to take your donations to support kea conservation through Project Saving Species.

Kea collecting donations (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Kea collecting donations (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

November 11, 2014   No Comments

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