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A Case Study to Conserve Trillium: Can The Seeds Survive Drying?

Guest blogger: Courtney Dvorsky, CREW Plant Lab Intern

Growing up in Cincinnati, my love for conservation research grew each time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.  As a kid, I attended summer camps, and in 2008 and 2009, I was a VolunTeen.  Now, seven years later, I had the amazing opportunity to be an Intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) plant division!  The project I worked on focused determining if seed banking could be an option to help conserve some of the endangered trillium species.

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

There are many species within the Trillium genus of spring wildflowers, most of which are native to North American woodlands. With three petals, three sepals and three leaves, they are commonly called trinity flowers. Many trillium species, including the Ohio state wildflower, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), still thrive in the wild. There are others, however, that are threatened or endangered such as the persistent trillium (Trillium persistens).

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

My first task was to set up germination trials to compare germination in soil with germination in vitro (in tissue culture) for several different trillium species.  Many trillium seeds have a double dormancy, meaning they need two cold periods to germinate entirely.  Thus, it takes about two years for a seed to germinate into a trillium seedling.  Unfortunately, as a result, I won’t see germination while I am at CREW.

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

My second task was to determine if the seeds could withstand drying in order to be seed banked.  Seeds that are banked must be under 20% moisture content so we began by analyzing the initial moisture in the seeds directly out of a fruit pod.  We then dried the seeds to different moisture levels using air, silica gel, and three humidity levels created in containers with three different saturated salt solutions (NaCl, MgCl, and LiCl).

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

After the seeds were dried, we analyzed them for moisture content and viability using a stain known as TTC (triphenyl tetrazolium chloride). If the seed is still viable, it will stain red. If the seed is not viable, it will not stain at all. So far we succeeded in drying the seeds to under the 20% moisture content needed for seed banking; however, they are often not viable. CREW is running more tests to try to repeat these results in the months to come.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Unfortunately, my time as an intern has come to an end. Luckily, I will be just a short distance away working on my PhD at Miami University of Ohio, so I will be able to check in on my seeds. Here’s hoping for some germination!

August 18, 2016   3 Comments

The Power of Connections: Endangered Species Day

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

There are currently 16,306 plants and animals listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s more people than visit our Zoo on a typical spring day.

It’s Endangered Species Day, so you might hear a lot of shocking numbers like this, which could understandably put a damper on your day. If you wanted to make a difference, which of the 16,000+ would you even choose to start with? Well, you don’t have to choose. All plant and animal life is interconnected, which means that by taking small actions that support a healthy ecosystem, you can benefit all species, including our own!

If you’re visiting our blog, you’re probably passionate about animals and the environment. That passion gives you power. Let’s look at how you can harness your power to make Endangered Species Day the start of significant change.

What does “endangered” actually mean?

It’s a good idea to first understand what we mean by the term. In the 1990s, the IUCN developed the Red List of Threatened Species™, widely recognized as the standard for evaluating a plant or animal’s risk of extinction. They rank species along a continuum from “least concern,” to “vulnerable,” followed by “endangered,” the more serious “critically endangered,” and finally, “extinct.” Watch this video to learn more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of endangered species, as do state and local agencies. Around our Zoo and others, you might see signs that display an animal’s IUCN classification. For example, you’ll see that the red pandas are considered “vulnerable,” while the black rhinos are “critically endangered.”

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Taking action

As we’ve said, one positive environmental action holds the potential to affect a lot of different areas. We’re all living on the same planet, so shopping with reusable bags here in Cincinnati really does have ripple effects for polar bears in the Arctic!

Here at the Zoo, you can bring us your old cell phone for recycling, which reduces the need for mining metals in endangered gorilla habitat to make new ones. Go a step further by collecting phones at your school or around your neighborhood.

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

You can also support our many conservation field efforts. Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, and keas are just a few of the species we’re actively involved with conserving in the wild. When we work to protect these animals’ habitats, we also benefit countless other species with whom they share space.

You don’t need to limit your choices to those you can carry out at the Zoo. Change can begin in your own backyard…literally. Plant native plant species in your yard. They’ll attract native insects which, in turn, will attract other native species that eat them, and native species that eat them. More pollinating insects means more native plants and, you see, the cycle really gets going!

Good news

As a team, organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), like ours, have made strides in restoring more than 30 species to healthy wild populations, including the American bison, the California condor and a variety of aquatic species. (Read more about AZA efforts here.)

There has been good news just over the past year. In 2015, the IUCN moved the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to the less severe “endangered.” The Guadalupe fur seal went from “threatened” down to “least concern.” The global community has taken new interest in restricting trophy hunting thanks, in part, to the publicity surrounding Cecil the lion’s tragic death. Change can happen.

And just last week, we received good news for a critically endangered species that is near and dear to our hearts, the Sumatran rhino. A female rhino calf was born on May 12 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia. The calf’s father, Andalas, was born here at the Zoo in 2001 and moved to the SRS in 2007. With fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet, this birth is significant for the species, and we are proud to have played a part in it.

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

There are infinite choices you can make to promote positive change, but you’ll be most successful if you start with one or two that really speak to you. You’ll help ensure that currently endangered animals are still around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and, more importantly, you’ll improve life on Earth for all of us.

And be sure to tell your friends and family. The power of your passion is contagious!

“The quality of our life on this earth is dependent on how we treat the rest of life on Earth. We have a moral responsibility to look after the rest of the world, the future of which now lies in our hands.”  –David Attenborough

May 20, 2016   2 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