david e. wildt, anju zhang, hemin zhang, zhong xie, donald l. janssen, susie ellis introduction
This book deals mostly with new biological knowledge and the use of that knowledge to benefit the giant panda by enhancing health, reproduction and management. It is an important strategy for modern-day zoo scientists, conducting 'basic research' to learn as much as possible about previously unstudied phenomena in any species, especially those that have received little, if any, attention.
In many ways, a scientist affiliated with a zoo is no different than a university research professor - both study mechanisms by using the scientific method to test hypotheses (Wildt, 2004). What is different about zoo science is the growing emphasis on results having practical uses - addressing issues that are relevant to allowing an animal to be better maintained in captivity, to allow it to thrive, reproduce and help sustain its species. In a perfect world that new knowledge will have duality of purpose, being useful to improving the conservation of in situ as well as ex situ populations. In fact, there now are many examples of 'captive' studies that have been useful for re-invigorating
Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management, ed. David E. Wildt, Anju Zhang, Hemin Zhang, Donald L. Janssen and Susie Ellis. Published by Cambridge University Press. # Cambridge University Press 2006.
or re-establishing wild populations (e.g. golden lion tamarin, scimitar horned oryx, Florida panther, black-footed ferret, red wolf, California condor, among others). But having an in situ benefit is not an essential prerequisite to studying a species because the primary target is always the production of new knowledge - intellectual capital that improves our understanding of the wonders of biology and the natural world.
University- and zoo-based science also differ because zoo scientists still have the opportunity, if not the mandate, to work with whole living animals. By contrast, university investigators are relying more and more on cellular and molecular technologies, largely because knowledge in common species is so advanced that the next logical step is investigating inside cells and genomes. And while these approaches generate valuable information, there is something lost by not working with a whole living animal - a definite advantage to investigators intrigued with zoo-held species.
A third distinctive trait of zoo- and conservation-based research is the importance of an integrative, multidisciplinary approach (Wildt et al., 2003; Wildt, 2004). Research in the biological sciences historically has been rather unidimensional. While in training, a scientist learns a set of scientific skills and then throughout a career applies those tools to test hypotheses in one or several species. While the approach is classic, it limits the value of the resulting knowledge for wildlife management and conservation purposes, the applied targets of good basic research. The successful breeding, management and preservation of any species ex situ (as well as in situ) are enormously complex and not easily achieved using any single discipline (e.g. behaviour versus nutrition versus veterinary medicine). Focus on one discipline and you surely can (and will) miss some other cause-and-effect. Rather, the task of achieving high-quality animal care management can only be achieved by collecting and linking data from many biological angles, relying on a multidisciplinary strategy that exploits various scientific fields simultaneously in ways to address problems most effectively. The paradigm then becomes adding the knowledge of parallel studies in behaviour plus nutrition plus veterinary medicine (as well as the other life sciences) rather than being singularly focused.
This chapter addresses the value and need for integrative approaches in wildlife science, including sharing one example (experience with the cheetah) that was used to develop a foundation for the giant panda. More importantly, this chapter shares the origin of multidisciplinary, cooperative research in China through a vision initiated by Chinese managers of giant pandas and facilitated by one of the most active groups of the IUCN-World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission - the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG).
value of integrative research approaches in zoos:
the cheetah biomedical survey as an example
While the cheetah is best known for high-speed pursuit of prey on the African plains, zoo managers best recognise the species as historically difficult to reproduce (Fig. 2.1). Although maintained in zoos for millennia, the cheetah has never been consistently propagated. An early review suggested that only about 15% of all wild-caught cheetahs have ever reproduced in captivity, with an even lower success rate for zooborn individuals (Marker & O'Brien, 1989). By the late 1980s, these failures were being openly discussed by zoo managers who were distressed because it appeared that the only way of sustaining a captive cheetah population in North America was to continue extracting animals from Africa.
In 1989, zoo managers involved in the North America Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP, a consortium under the umbrella of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, AZA) came to a rather radical conclusion: the cheetah population held in AZA-accredited zoos should be designated for research, to be studied to understand how to better manage and reproduce the species in captivity. The first step was to understand the well-being and physiological status of the existing North American cheetah population. Because empirical causes of poor reproductive efficiency were unknown, it was logical to establish first the reproductive and health status of the extant population, information that would be critical for making subsequent research and management decisions. In a crucial meeting, the managers agreed to evaluate every available cheetah to learn as much as possible about the health and reproductive status of the existing population. Thus was born the first large-scale, ex situ Biomedical Survey for an endangered species.
More than 125 cheetahs distributed across 18 institutions throughout the continental USA were offered by zoos for examination. There was a need for a specialist team that could commit substantial time (sometimes consecutive weeks) to travel, collect and interpret data at cheetah-holding facilities. These scientists were required to create standardised protocols and mobile laboratory methods that allowed data to be gathered in a single fashion. Only by using consistent methods would it be possible to compare findings among institutions and across age groups of animals. The scientific team also had to excel at communication, making sure their hosts were comfortable with plans and procedures that would involve risky manipulations of valuable specimens. The survey would only be successful with the full cooperation of the partners - more than 100 scientists, curators, animal care and veterinary personnel who would be required to dedicate serious time to the project while simultaneously ensuring animal (and people) safety. And, of course, there were substantial costs associated with travel, the shipping of mobile laboratory equipment, the actual animal evaluations and subsequent data analysis.
The dedication of cheetah aficionados made this first interdisciplinary Biomedical Survey a success (Wildt et al., 1993). Thousands of dollars were generated by financial donations to the SSP and in-kind support from local institutions. One hundred and twenty-eight cheetahs (60 males and 68 females) were evaluated, of which only 21% had ever reproduced.
Curators and animal-care staff were interviewed on topics ranging from husbandry practices to each animal's unique behavioural predilections and health conditions. Each animal was then anaesthetised for collecting morphometric and biomedical data. The results were no mortalities and no adverse, post-survey events, despite using rigorous manipulatory protocols which included serial blood sampling, semen collection in all males and laparoscopy of every female. Fourteen animals reproduced within less than a year after the Survey. Most striking was a 6-year-old male and 3-year-old female which had never mated or produced young. Within 17 days of evaluation these cheetahs mated with each other, and the female produced seven cubs. In another case, the team laparoscopically examined a female, which unbeknown to the host zoo staff was pregnant. Despite anaesthesia and the surgical manipulations, this female delivered three live cubs 66 days later.
Most importantly, this multidisciplinary, multi-institutional survey helped to sort out which biological and management factors needed further study and which required no further attention. For example, there were consistent abnormalities such as a very high incidence of ovarian inactivity - half of the adult female cheetahs were not reproductively active. Such findings provided a blueprint for designing later research projects. In the case of quiescent cheetah ovaries, this finding was incentive for Brown et al. (1996) to develop faecal hormone monitoring techniques that eventually proved that most female cheetahs were only sporadically reproductively active. This discovery, in turn, motivated a study by Wielebnowski et al. (2002) which linked a shutdown in ovarian activity to reproductive suppression due to inadequate management. Without the original Biomedical Survey there would have been no guideposts for Brown and Weilebnowski to develop their experimental designs.
This is only one example of the many subsequent research and management actions that emerged from the Cheetah Biomedical Survey, all of which involved one or more related disciplines - infectious disease, pathology, nutrition, behaviour, genetics and reproduction, efforts that continue to the present day (see review in Wildt et al., 2001). The result is that our collective wisdom about the life science of the cheetah is more extensive than for any other rare wildlife species. The Biomedical Survey was the initial driving force, but was spurred on by the satisfaction of people working together across diverse disciplines - both scientists and managers - and institutions. There was something special and exciting about combining forces to solve a management/
conservation challenge. The Cheetah Biomedical Survey demonstrated, for the first time, that it could be feasible and practical to conduct a continent-wide, highly manipulatory survey of an endangered species. As you will see, lessons learned from the cheetah were important in creating a plan of action to assist the equally enigmatic giant panda.
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