News Column

Fertility lab looks to tackle zoo, aquarium breeding problems

May 30, 2014

By Meredith Rutland, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville



May 30--In the world of endangered animals, having babies is the name of the game. But when animals have problems that no amount of romantic candlelight can solve, it's up to researchers to figure out the issue.

To tackle fertility diseases and difficulties in captive and wild animals, fertilization non-profit South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation (SEZARC) set up its second fertility lab on the First Coast.

Months into the partnership, researchers continue to tackle reproductive problems plaguing animals at zoos and aquariums across the country.

The alliance set up a lab at the University of North Florida last fall to allow biology students to get hands-on experience with hormone research. The organization also set up a research lab at White Oak Conservation Foundation in Yulee in 1997 to help endangered and rare animals reproduce.

The biggest barrier in fertility isn't a finicky female or a stubborn disease. It's money.

Fertility treatments at zoos and aquariums were once a staple at most organizations, but like many other long-term needs, some small- and medium-sized organizations reduced or eliminated their reproductive departments once the recession hit.

The money for reproductive services that remained often went toward big-name species such as pandas, cheetahs and other animals that draw public attention, said Dan Moon, UNF department of biological sciences chairman.

"For some of the other species," he said, "it's a bit harder to get people excited about working on them and answering some of those questions, from a funding perspective."

The alliance has a cost-sharing business model, said Linda Penfold, alliance director. Institutions provide the space for research, and the alliance provides the employees and lab materials.

At the University of North Florida, students get access to hands-on job training, and the alliance gets a few extra hands to do research, Moon said. "It provides a way to do this research without some of the multimillion dollar awards or grants that other species get," he said.

The fertility and conservation alliance, which partners with nine zoos, aquariums and conservation initiatives in the US, started in 2010 in the hopes of filling the emerging need for reproductive services at zoos.

A former employee at the White Oak Conservation Foundation, Penfold started the alliance when she saw other organizations eliminate reproductive services in a frantic shuffle to keep afloat during the recession.

"There's an obvious niche for this, and we're filling it," Penfold said. A lack of fertility experts "makes the organization less efficient, and ultimately that translates into dollars."

Animals can have trouble reproducing for a number of reasons.

Sometimes handlers put two animals together at the wrong time in the female's cycle, the wrong time of year or even the wrong time of day. Sometimes there's a disease the zoo staff doesn't know about. Sometimes animals become overweight in captivity, which makes reproduction difficult.

Sometimes, an animal produces babies faster than a zoo can house them, and zookeepers need to figure out the right type of contraception to give it.

Researchers start by taking feces samples from captive and wild animals to measure hormone levels. These hormones tell researchers when an animal is sexually mature, the length of a female's menstruation cycle and whether animals are too stressed out to reproduce.

Penfold said her organization helped a mandrill at the Jacksonville Zoo get pregnant, diagnosed a pregnancy in a zoo giraffe that gave birth in February and figured out the zoo's male colobus monkey was having a hard time reproducing.

"We got asked about a naked mole rat contraception problem the other day," Penfold said. "So there's all sorts of thorny problems."

Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161

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(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)


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