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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   1 Comment

A Day in the Life of a Kea Conflicts Coordinator

Here at the Cincinnati Zoo, we care for the largest collection of keas in North America. The kea is a highly intelligent mountain parrot from New Zealand. We are also committed to the conservation of this species and support the efforts of the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT) to conserve wild kea in their natural habitat.

A curious kea at the Zoo (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

A curious kea at the Zoo (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Highly intelligent and neophilic (attracted to anything new), keas are drawn to human areas, activity and property. Their investigative behavior can result in the destruction of human property. Property damage is reported each year by private landowners, tourists, tourist operators and workers. The resolution of human-kea conflict is critical to the successful conservation of the endangered parrot.

To that end, the Zoo supports the KCT’s Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, which is a multi-year community-focused conflict response and resolution program. The goals are to identify the nature of conflict experienced by people living within kea habitat, provide ‘first response’ during conflict situations, help people 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 Cincinnati Zoo support a key personnel position, the Conflicts Coordinator, who responds proactively to conflict situations that arise. Read on to learn more from the Conflicts Coordinator, Andrea Goodman, herself.

Guest blogger: Andrea Goodman, Kea Conservation Trust

It has almost been a year since taking on the ‘Conflict Resolution Position’ for the Kea Conservation Trust. This is indeed a job that is never dull, uses my wits, and is incredibly satisfying. If I can walk away from a site feeling that the kea are  safe, the owner/occupier of the property involved is on-board and feels heard, and we are working together to tackle the kea problem, then I am doing my job. I must admit, visiting my first conflict site filled me with some trepidation… ‘How bad will it be?’, ‘How will the people receive me?’, ‘Will there be anger?’, ‘Can I really do anything?’

Of course there was some anger, plenty of frustration, and a little bravado, but the Nelson Forest crew having kea trouble at a logging site near St Arnaud were fantastic. Up to 10 juvenile keas had been visiting this site for a month, and they were doing the usual kea damage: plucking rubber, damaging wiring on logging vehicles and ripping into seats on bulldozers. Not much fun for the crew involved – costing time and money, and potentially compromising safety. Full credit to the team though, for they were not feeding the birds, they were keeping their vehicles shut and were trying to protect gear using blue tarpaulins. The loader driver had even been pro-active in searching the internet to find solutions to minimize interference from their feathered friends. What struck me most about this visit (leaving an impression as it was my first), is that this is the general attitude of people having kea issues. At every single site visit I have been to, I have encountered the most tolerant, understanding (sure, frustrated too), and helpful people.

The crew at the St Arnaud site went beyond helpful, giving me a hand setting up a diversionary play-gym. The gym is designed to occupy kea and hopefully distract them from expensive logging equipment. The crew then continued to change items on the gym and maintain the cameras we set up to see if our friends visited. Visit they did! However, the frame was not up long enough to see if it made a difference. The crew have since moved to another site, and so far, I have not heard whether kea have made their presence felt.

Setting up the kea diversionary frame at the St Arnaud logging site  with John Henderson – DOC, Brady Clements – Boar Logging, Meg Selby – Natureland Zoo (Photo: Andrea Goodman)

Setting up the kea diversionary frame at the St Arnaud logging site with John Henderson – DOC, Brady Clements – Boar Logging, Meg Selby – Natureland Zoo (Photo: Andrea Goodman)

Kea visiting the diversionary frame at the St Arnaud site (Photo: Andrea Goodman)

Kea visiting the diversionary frame at the St Arnaud site (Photo: Andrea Goodman)

To date, my main ‘clients’ have been forestry companies spread around the top of the South Island. Most have environmental protocols in place, which makes my job a lot easier.

One of the interesting things I see in this job is that altitude is no barrier to having kea visit. While it is always expected that kea may be present at high altitudes, I am regularly hearing of kea visiting properties right down at sea level. Once people realize this is natural for kea – they don’t just live in the mountains – there is almost a visible shift in their expectations.

We are so lucky on the mainland to have these birds. It is surprising how many people are not aware they are only found in the South Island. Armed with a little knowledge of these clowns, and exposing their vulnerable side too – that they are ground nesters – there may be less than 5000 left, they are susceptible to lead poisoning – leaves most people staunch advocates of our kea.

Only last week I had a call from a forestry company needing help with a sick kea at their site. The crew was really worried. They had picked it up and moved it out of harm’s way. This same company has had a rough time with kea, so their behavior really touched me.

I think if people are having issues with kea, the best thing is to get on to it as soon as possible. The Kea Conservation Trust, with support from the Department of Conservation, does not advocate the translocation of troublesome kea. Instead, together we can look at areas where we can minimize damage and try to discourage kea hanging around. Sometimes it may be a really simple solution that can make a huge difference. We are here to help.

February 3, 2016   2 Comments

It’s Good to be a Three-year-old Gorilla!

It’s hard to believe, but Gladys the gorilla turns three years old today!  Since arriving at the Cincinnati Zoo as a one-month-old orphan, we have had one fun and fulfilling adventure with her.  However, Gladys has a lot of adventures still to come on her long road to adulthood.

Soon to be three years old, it's Gladys! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Soon to be three years old, it’s Gladys! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

As with people, gorillas take a long time to grow up. For females, it takes about 10 years to mature, and for males, it takes 13 to 15 years!  During these years, they go through several stages, each one building on the previous stage.  Until they are three years old, gorillas are referred to as babies and they are dependent on their mothers for nourishment.  They will start sampling solid foods by around one to three months old, but will nurse from mom for three to four years.  The amount they nurse will gradually flip-flop with solid consumption over those years.

Gorillas are born with very little natural instincts. Unlike a snake or spider that pretty much know everything they will need to survive the second they hatch, gorillas have many learned skills they must acquire over many years. Gorillas have over 13 different vocalizations and inflections, along with many facial expressions and body postures that form a complex language. They start learning this language from day one.  They have rules of social etiquette to learn as well as survival skills about where to go or not go, what to eat and what to embrace or fear.  Baby gorillas build their motor skills and strength during this stage as well, all setting the foundation for the next phase.

Gladys hangs with her bestie, Mona (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys hangs with her bestie, Mona (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Between three and six years old, a gorilla has pretty much moved out of the “baby” phase and is considered a juvenile. They are no longer dependent on their mothers for milk and rely solely on solid foods.  Although they still need their mothers and families for comfort and protection at times, three-year-old gorillas have more confidence to explore even further and spend long periods away from mom. They enjoy a new level of relatively carefree freedom while learning a few harder life lessons along the way.  Their personalities begin to become more defined during this stage.

Between six and 10 years old, gorillas are referred to as sub-adults. They are still not fully grown physically.  The carefree playfulness of being a juvenile is augmented by more adult-like interactions and experiences.  Sub-adults learn to shape breeding postures though regular wrestling and playing bouts, although females do not reproduce in the wild until they are about 10 years old.  By now, they have very distinctive personalities formed by previous experiences that will greatly influence their futures.  There is a clear hierarchy within gorilla society.  The pecking order is set based on many factors including the status of their mothers, intelligence, physical size and political savvy.  During the sub-adult stage, young gorillas work very hard to establish their social status through both positive interaction and aggression as they define their individuality even more.

Gladys, just relaxing (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys, just relaxing (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

By 10 years old, gorillas are considered adults.  Females may have migrated from their natal groups to improve their social life with a new family. They become new mothers and begin teaching young gorillas how to become adults.  At 10 years old, males most likely have been driven from their natal group by their father as they have become too rambunctious and challenging to the cohesiveness of the family.  Ten-year-old males are keenly interested in breeding, but are not quite mature or physically impressive enough to attract females so they go through an extra stage called “blackback”.  During this stage, blackbacks may live as solitary males or find other blackbacks to hang out with in a bachelor group, kind of like a gorilla YMCA.

By the age of 15 years, blackbacks have grown into their full size and are now called silverbacks.  All male gorillas become silverbacks.  Silverbacks, of course, get a silver coloration on their backs and develop large musculature on their heads.  This enhanced sagittal crest and large body size, combined with a silverback’s specific personality, can attract females.  Once a gorilla has reached a full silverback stage, he can acquire females in his group and start his own family.

Gladys is so excited about her birthday! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys is so excited about her birthday! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

So as Gladys reaches the juvenile gorilla stage milestone, it’s fun to review where she has been and look forward to what is in store on her long road to becoming an adult. We’ll watch her personality take further shape through positive and challenging life experiences. The bottom line is three years old is a great age to be a gorilla, especially when you have two younger sisters to go on the adventure with!

January 29, 2016   4 Comments