A New Role For Zoos: Using Science To Save Wildlife Diversity
Nancy P. Wickemeyer
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Cincinnati, OH
As more and more endangered species are experiencing dwindling numbers in the wild, zoo Officials become increasingly concerned with difficulties in captive breeding among rare and endangered zoo animals. Thus, more and more zoos are establishing scientific research facilities so that the newest biotechnologies can be applied to the maintenance, reproduction, and conservation of threatened species in their zoos and in the wild.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was a forerunner in founding a state of the art research facility known as CREW…. The Center For Research of Endangered Wildlife. It is unique in two ways. First, it has both a Plant and an Animal Conservation Division. Second, it is housed in a 17,000 sq. ft. building specifically designed for education, taking the mystery away from science, opening it up to the public.
Guided tours and the public exhibit allow visitors a glimpse of scientists at work in the glass-windowed laboratories, surgical suites, and the FrozenZoo and Garden.
While CREW scientists are busy in their laboratories evaluating a penguin sperm sample, freezing a gorilla’s embryos, cloning plants, or off to Malaysia to share new Sumatra rhino research, CREW volunteers are busy interpreting the scientific technologies to area high school classrooms, community groups, and zoo visitors.
The challenge we faced was to interpret the science technology in lay terms, in an interesting, understandable, and entertaining format. How we accomplished this challenge will be part of my presentation.
My focus will be threefold:
1. To explain the CREW mission and tell the CREW story.
2. To show the methods and technologies. HOW WE DO IT!
3. To raise docents’ awareness of how modem science can be a positive part of the education and conservation roles of the zoo.
Education is a vital component of CREW. As our 28 interpretive volunteers are educating public groups, our 7 staff scientists are involved in all levels of training, from interns, post-grad students to post-doctorate fellows. On the international level, our scientists regularly travel to train other scientists involved with global conservation. Our docents’ role involves training and educating the public at all levels. About 160 volunteers from all walks of life take special training to assist in procedures and education. Successful completion qualifies them to work in one or more of 3 divisions…. 1. The Public Exhibit 2. Building Tour Guide 3. The Speakers Bureau. My role is leader of the Speakers Bureau, and I hope to show you how effectively this group of twelve volunteer speakers handle the education challenge
In 1984, two volunteers developed the first script and slides named SEEDS FOR THE FUTURE. Since then, it has been constantly updated to reflect the latest research projects and is now enthusiastically presented by twelve speakers. It is much in demand by high school science classes, university biology departments, and community groups. I will present a condensed version with accompanying slides for this summary.
We begin with a global perspective, highlighting the major ecological problems, which have caused the alarming rate of extinction of wildlife, the current rate being up to 10,000 times greater than at any other time in the past history of our planet. I shall spare you the conservation rhetoric that accompanies our next few slides about environmental problems because you are all well aware of them.
Our CREW logo is a life preserver encircling the endangered bongo and trillium plant. It symbolizes the emergency aspect and the dual roles of CREW. Also, it represents world firsts in successful science technology of species from two different kingdoms.
Dr. Betsy Dresser, a well-known animal reproductive physiologist founded CREW in 1981, and gained international recognition for innovative embryo transfer technologies. Our current director, Dr. Terri Roth, came in 1996 with impressive credentials and achievements from the National Zoo. She continues to lead brilliantly in both fields of basic science research and applied technologies. Her emphasis is networking and team collaboration with other organizations on national and international projects. This paper will describe her work, both at the zoo and in the field.
The new mission of CREW has broadened to use science and technology to understand, preserve, and propagate endangered flora and fauna and facilitate the conservation of biodiversity.
The role of zoos has changed drastically in recent years. Traditionally, zoos were organized to display a menagerie collection of animals for public entertainment. When an animal became sick, a vet from the community was called in. When an animal died, another one could be obtained from the wild or from another zoo. Little was known about the physiology and nutritional needs of “most exotics. Until the early 70’s, few zoos even had a staff veterinarian. But by the mid-70’s, clinical veterinary medicine had made’ sophisticated strides, and at the same time the diminishing availability of wild animals was evident. Zoos began to see the need for on-grounds staff in vet care and in research to maintain the health and reproduction of exotic animals. The San Diego, Bronx, and National Zoos were leaders in this early research.
During the Cincinnati Zoo’s 125 year history, a great deal has been learned about animal husbandry. We were once referred to as -/ “The Sexiest Zoo,” due to record births of 48 lowland gorillas, 17 black rhinos, and dozens of white tigers. In March of 1998, we ^celebrated the first birth of an Asian elephant calf to be born in Ohio.
Now that I’ve shared our history and mission, it’s time to introduce the Head of the Animal Division, Dr. Bill Swanson. He and his, staff use a set of reproductive tools, which we describe fully in our full presentation. For the sake of brevity, I will list them and give ‘applications to their use. They are: semen collection, embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization, cryopreservation, and artificial insemination.
Semen Collection: Semen may be collected by three methods: 1. necropsy 2. electroejaculation and 3. manual. A slide shows Dr. Swanson using the electroejaculation procedure on a margay cat. The semen is then evaluated under a microscope and processed for the frozen zoo or immediate use for artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization.
Embryo Transfer: A diagram shows how the estrous cycles of both donor and surrogate must be synchronized by hormone injections. A non-surgical flush of an eland antelope embryo resulted in the birth of little “ET” in 1983, the first exotic animal born from a non-surgically transferred embryo. A year later, bongo calves were born to surrogate mothers, one of which was an eland antelope representing an additional milestone – an interspecies transfer. CREW has used domestic animals and non-endangered wild animals like the eland for models. The goal is to learn the technologies to apply to the wild relations in the SSP (Species Survival Plan). Our zoo is a participant in the AZA master plan. We take a look at some of the world’s first babies from CREW’S family album, and at the technologies used in their reproduction.
In Vitro Fertilization takes place outside the body, artificially, when egg and sperm are removed, and fertilization occurs in a petri dish. IVF research in 1988 led to the remarkable birth of “Noah,” an Indian desert cat born to a domestic surrogate mom at CREW. In 1995, IVF technology was expanded to include the successful birth of a lowland gorilla. This remarkable birth involved great team effort and collaboration with the Omaha Zoo. The slide shows the actual sonogram of “Timu” in the uterus, and the story is detailed in the final paper.
Sperm Injection is a yet newer technology which permits only one sperm to fertilize the egg. It was developed for human infertility when sperm count was too low or of poor quality. This procedure adapts to the wild animals who sometimes have the same reproductive problems. We show two lovely kittens born at CREW from the “ICSI” procedure in 1994 – a world first.
Artificial Insemination is another tool for assisting reproduction by placing semen into the female reproductive tract. Although “CREW uses this technology on many species, we use the Scimitar horned Oryx for our slide portrait here. The Scimitar has gone (extinct in the wild. We describe the possibilities of AI technology helping to manage the genetic diversity of surviving populations until habitats can be established for reintroduction. We mention other endangered animals that CREW works with, such as the cheetah project.
Two other tools of assisted reproductive research used effectively by our scientists are Laparoscopy and Non-invasive Hormonal Monitoring. Laparoscopy makes artificial insemination and egg retrieval much easier for the scientist and for the animal, since it requires only two tiny incisions where instruments can be inserted. Sperm or embryos can be deposited directly into the female reproductive tract. This type of surgery also reduces the risk of infection and shortens recovery time. Endocrine Monitoring has proved to be the ‘work horse’ of daily basic research. Many indicating hormones are found in blood, urine, and feces.
Collection and study provide valuable information in determining hormone levels and help to determine pregnancy, estrous cycles and general health factors. By monitoring our pregnant Asian elephant. Dr. Roth helped predict the time of delivery.
The Rhino Story. A series of slides follow which tell the interesting, yet frustrating story of our Sumatra rhino research. The Cincinnati Zoo has the only 3 Sumatra rhinos in the United States. We have 2 females and 1 male. Efforts to breed them anywhere have failed. Our Sumatran rhino research has resulted in much learning and several pregnancies, which, unfortunately, were lost. Dr. Roth is collaborating with 15 other zoological institutions and has even traveled to Malaysia to share rhino research. We are hopeful that by the time this paper is given, there will be good news of a successful pregnancy. Monitoring research studies are also in progress with our black and Indian rhinos. Basic reproductive physiology research is needed to help all rhino species breed naturally. Except for the black rhinos, captive rhino breeding is seldom successful.
The Pallas Cat Story. Once ranging from Russia to Asia, the illusive and endangered Pallas cat is an example of one of the small feline species whose basic reproductive physiology is under CREW scrutiny. Only 25 of these thick-coated, flat-faced cats exist in United States zoos. Dr. Swanson is involved in endocrine monitoring with the two females and one male at our Zoo. Working again in collaboration with scientists at the National Zoo, he has unraveled some of the mystery of the Pallas cats’ ability to propagate in captivity. We learn the meaning of reproductive seasonality, as this story will reveal.
From Rhinos To Toads. CREW is not overlooking the little guys, the amphibians, who are not as charismatic, but are an extremely endangered indicator species. Successful assisted reproductive technologies worked with the Puerto Rican crested toad, and CREW was able to actually return a large number back into the wild. Current research with the American toad is underway to set the protocol for the endangered Wyoming toad.
The Plant Conservation Division
Four laboratories and a greenhouse on the ground floor of CREW house the Plant Conservation Division, whose goal it is to preserve and propagate rare and endangered plants. In order to interpret the technologies of plant research, the Speakers Bureau developed a second slide talk show called “An Evergreen World.”
Following are excerpts from this interesting program.
Since 1986, Dr.Valerie Pence and her small staff have led in research to achieve a remarkable array of successful projects dedicated to reserving endangered plant species. We begin the “Evergreen World” with remarks and slides to heighten the public awareness of he intricate relationships that exist between the plants and animals, and the dual role of CREW to save the flora as well as the fauna. There are two major categories of plant research: Propagation and Preservation.
Propagation: The goal here is to use “tissue culture” to propagate species when other methods such as growing from seed or cuttings have failed. Tissue culture is a method of growing small bits of plant tissue into a whole plant on sterile medium and in a container such as a test tube. Test Tube Plants! The cultured plant is the exact genetic copy of the original plant. In a word, a clone! As we continue, we show colorful examples of some of the many world-first plants CREW has successfully propagated. It is important to note that each species requires a tailored protocol to meet its individual needs.
Again, as with the animal research, plant scientists collaborate with other botanical garden scientists. CREW is currently working with 9 other botanical gardens to propagate 20 nationally endangered species. This work is clarified in our presentation.
Preservation: This aspect of research deals with methods of long term storage and here, as with the animals, cryopreservation becomes the main tool.
Cryopreservation – The Frozen Garden! Living material from plants is stored in liquid nitrogen at -96 degree C for extended periods of time — a forest for the future. We further explain the cryopreservation technology, and folks are fascinated by the Frozen Garden. They are especially delighted to know that one of CREW’S successes was with the freezing of the cacao embryo from which we get chocolate. The frozen plant specimens serve as a backup against loss of species in the wild, just as with the animals whose diversity of gnomes can be saved as a backup for losing a species.
In Vitro Collection (IVC): Our scientists, and even some of our volunteers, do travel to tropical countries for live plant tissue collection, called “in vitro collection.” A frequent site has been Trinidad. An innovative method for collection involves a “high tech” tool – a paper punch! Tiny circles of leaf tissue can be punched out of a leaf without even disturbing the plant, and are then transported back to the Zoo laboratory in sterile medium in tiny vials. Our volunteers are critical to the preparation of all the medium required for these projects. Much has been learned from these collections and is summarized in the program.
In conclusion, CREW plant and animal scientists are playing a new but important role in the total effort of conserving wildlife, which we believe will take a multifaceted approach, including the saving of habitats, tackling environmental issues and working together. Science can be effective in saving wildlife diversity. We mention a few of the growing number of Zoos who are establishing scientific research roles in their zoos. Some of the most prominent ones are: San Diego, Acres at Audubon, Riverbanks Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, Bronx Zoo, National Zoo, and the Henry Doorly Zoo. In our last slide, we show a lone cheetah walking down a road, away from us and into the sunset, and it is our greatest hope that some of the scientific research in progress at CREW and these other institutions may contribute to saving a valuable species like the cheetah — the toad — or the Venus flytrap!