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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

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

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