Welcoming Two New Post-Doctoral Fellows
Two new post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Lindsey Vansandt and Dr. Anne-Catherine Vanhove, were welcomed to CREW in the fall of 2014.
With funding support from the Joanie Bernard Foundation, Dr. Vansandt will be working with Dr. Bill Swanson, CREW’s Director of Animal Research. Dr. Vansandt obtained her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Missouri and her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Maryland (in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute). Her Ph.D. studies focused on characterization and propagation of spermatogonial stem cells in domestic cats as a model for conserving endangered cat species. Dr. Vansandt also has experience working in veterinary emergency services. At CREW, she will be conducting studies to improve the health and welfare of feral and shelter cats as well as helping to apply oviductal AI for propagation of endangered felids.
With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Dr. Vanhove will be evaluating survival of plant samples in CREW’s Frozen Garden under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Pence, Director of Plant Research. Dr. Vanhove will complete the second phase of the IMLS project, focusing primarily on the survival of shoot tips and gametophytes after long-term storage in liquid nitrogen. She recently received her Ph.D. from the Division of Crop Biotechnics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Leuven, Belgium. Her thesis work with meristem culture, stress physiology, and cryopreservation makes her well suited for the IMLS project.
The University of Cincinnati/Cincinnati Zoo Connection
CREW has had a long-standing collaborative relationship with the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) Department of Biological Sciences, but today it is strengthened by two promising young scientists who split their time between CREW and UC. Corrina DeLorenzo and Megan Philpott are both enrolled in UC’s Ph.D. program under Drs. Ken Petren and Theresa Culley, respectively, but they are conducting much of their dissertation research at CREW.
Corrina earned her bachelor’s degree at Miami University, with a double major in Zoology and Environmental Science. As an undergraduate, she became involved in research evaluating the population genetics of the Italian wall lizard or “Lazarus lizard” in the Cincinnati area. After graduating, Corrina was accepted to CREW’s summer internship program, working with Dr. Erin Curry on the Polar Bear Signature Project. She was recruited into UC’s graduate program in January 2014. Since starting her Ph.D. research, Corrina has identified multiple antibodies that detect specific proteins in polar bear feces in an effort to develop a polar bear pregnancy test.
Megan received her bachelor’s degree from UC in Biology and was also an intern at the Cincinnati Museum Center, managing the Museum’s Philippine Bird Genetics project. Her Ph.D. research is part of the Plant Lab’s IMLS funded project to evaluate samples that have been stored for years in CREW’s CryoBioBank for genetic changes that might have occurred over time. In April, Megan was awarded the Botanical Society of America’s Public Policy award to attend Congressional Visits Day on Capitol Hill. There, she learned about communicating science to policy makers and met with the offices of Ohio Senators and Representatives to request their support for increased federal funding of scientific research, using CREW’s research as an example of the importance of federal funding and support. (Students supported by the UC Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Museum and Library Services and CREW Eisenberg Fellowship.)
P&G Wildlife Conservation Scholars
In 2011, CREW established a partnership with the Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to train veterinary students in conservation sciences with funding support from Procter & Gamble Pet Care. This past summer, two OSU veterinary students, Kelly Vollman and JaCi Johnson, were selected as P&G Wildlife Conservation Scholars.
Kelly worked with Dr. Monica Stoops analyzing urinary testosterone and glucocorticoid concentrations to determine if the pattern of excretion could be used to predict gender, parturition date and assess fetal viability during Indian rhino gestation. Kelly analyzed urine samples collected throughout seven Indian rhino pregnancies that resulted in three male and four female calves. Six of the pregnancies ended with the birth of live calves, whereas one pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, a relatively common occurrence in this rhino species. By learning more about the endocrinology of pregnancy, results from Kelly’s study will help establish physiological markers to improve pregnancy outcome in this species.
JaCi worked with Dr. Bill Swanson to investigate cat sperm vitrification as an alternative to standard slow freezing methods. Vitrification involves ultra-rapid cooling to avoid ice crystal formation and form a “glass” instead. For this study, JaCi collected semen from domestic cats (and one ocelot) and compared vitrification in a sucrose solution, with direct pelleting in liquid nitrogen, to slow freezing with glycerol in straws over liquid nitrogen vapor. Post-thaw sperm motility and acrosome status were similar between methods and 25% of domestic cat oocytes were fertilized following insemination with vitrified
sperm. This simplified approach to cat semen preservation may be particularly useful for field biologists working with felids in the wild.
November 21, 2014 No Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
November 17, 2014 No Comments
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?
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.
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).
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.
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