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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

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

bowler

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

Small Cat Conservation Gets a Big Boost with a Federal Grant

You probably already know that the Cincinnati Zoo is committed to the conservation of lions, tigers and cheetahs, but did you know that we are also leading the way in small cat conservation? And our Small Cat Signature Project just got bigger! Our Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) recently received a Museums for America Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to improve our ability to maintain healthy captive populations of five small cat species across the country—the Brazilian ocelot, the Pallas’ cat, the black-footed cat, the Arabian sand cat and the fishing cat.

Ocelot (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Ocelot (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Pallas' cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Pallas’ cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Black-footed cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Black-footed cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Sand cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Sand cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Fishing cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Fishing cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Unfortunately, none of these small cat populations are considered sustainable through natural breeding alone. That’s where Dr. Bill Swanson, CREW’s Director of Animal Research and the world’s leading expert on small cat reproduction, comes in. Working in partnership with Dr. Jason Herrick of the National Foundation for Fertility Research and the Species Survival Plan coordinators for each species, Dr. Swanson will direct the project with a focus on three goals: 1) Collect and freeze semen from the most valuable cats for each species, 2) Produce viable offspring using artificial insemination in recommended breeding pairs that fail to reproduce naturally, 3) Produce offspring with frozen-thawed semen from genetically valuable or under-represented males.

CREW Scientists perform an artificial insemination procedure on a Pallas’ cat. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

CREW Scientists perform an artificial insemination procedure on a Pallas’ cat. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Arabian sand cat kittens produced through artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

Arabian sand cat kittens produced through artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

Building on CREW’s decades of ground-breaking research on small cat reproduction, successful completion of this project will greatly enhance the sustainability and stewardship of small cat collections in AZA zoos. Now that’s big news!

October 9, 2014   1 Comment