How Space Technologies are Transforming Wildlife Conservation

The conservation of forests and wildlife is becoming increasingly important around the world due to human interference and the rising number of endangered species.

Currently, many practices involved in the monitoring, tracking and protection of wild animals involve time-consuming, resource heavy processes. New, sustainable solutions for conservation are needed to safeguard wildlife effectively in the current climate.

Projects utilising space technologies such as satellite navigation and imagery and the wireless transmission of data are finding new ways to help protect the health of wild animal populations around the world.

Here, we feature some of the initiatives driving positive change in the sector.


WAMCAM: Monitoring Endangered Species Through AI

The WAMCAM project was originally created to aid researchers studying the native leopard population in Borneo. The process of setting up and checking live animal traps and camera traps in the dense jungle was a long-winded process that didn’t allow for wide scale study.

The solution was the WAMCAM, a battery-powered camera with added AI capabilities to identify the species of animals captured by traps. When an animal triggers a trap, the camera, which is connected to remote devices via satellite, will send a signal to researchers. This allows researchers to only travel through the rainforest when needed and makes tagging and health monitoring more efficient.

Satellite navigation technology can also be used in areas with decreased visibility to locate traps across a wider area for more extensive studies on animal population.

All the information gathered is stored digitally, resulting in clearer, more reliable research data to be shared globally.


Space Applications for Wildlife

This project provides a global service for the monitoring of wildlife habitats and nature around the world. Designed for governments, NGOs, businesses and universities, the project delivers regular wildlife trend reports, wildlife management advice and crisis prevention plans.

The project uses existing data collected by satellites monitoring the earth to provide reports on habitat quality around the world. By comparing historical data from the satellites to current satellite imagery, trends and changes can be detected and plans put in place for the protection of natural habitats.

Light pollution, land ecosystems, marine ecosystems and the quality of animal habitats can all be tracked by this innovative technology. One of the main benefits of this, is that it can be used in any location.


SISMA: Monitoring Domestic and Wild Herds

The SISMA project has been created with herders and agricultural state agencies in mind. One element of this project works to protect the reindeer population in Russia. Due to weak terrestrial communications in Northern Russia, the scheme utilises satellite navigations systems, Earth Observation and satellite imagery to track herds. This technology has the aim of reducing animal loss, preventing disease and managing habitats through remote, accurate monitoring.

The project includes a collar system connected to a mobile app to inform herders of their animals’ location and check for disease via temperature monitoring and alerts.

There is also a ‘disease channel’ for veterinarians to share early warning signs for diseases. The final element is the ‘data centre’ which collects current and historical statistics for further analysis, accessible via cloud services.

Funding Conservation Projects

Finding new, sustainable ways to protect endangered species and monitor the health of wild animals around the world is crucial.

For projects such as these to become more wildly accessible, they need support and funding from governments, local authorities and commercial stakeholders.

These projects have all received essential funding from ESA Business Apps.


ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION:

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an international organisation which organizes European space programs to find out more about the Earth, our solar system and the Universe. ESA is dedicated to encouraging investment in space research and satellite-based technologies and services for the benefit of Europe and the rest of the world.

The European Space Agency: Business Applications (ESA-BA) offers zero-equity funding, access to their network and project management advice to any business looking to use space technologies for new services.

To discover more projects they’ve helped grow, head over to the ESA-BA funding page.

Investigation of Peste des Petits Ruminants Virus in Chitwan, Nepal

Sampling goats in the local village of Lothar.

Gazing up through the foliage for the source of the growing sound, we find a group of Rhesus macaques, all seemingly distressed and aware of a presence in the jungle unknown to us. Suddenly, the reason for the commotion becomes starkly apparent. A full grown leopard darts down from its post in a nearby tree, swiftly landing on the jungle floor; it flees the scene in a matter of seconds. With our judgment slightly impaired from the recent spike in adrenaline and euphoria, we approach the tree to get a closer look. This movement spooks yet another leopard who races off on the same path. Unable to find our words, my guides and I exchange hugs and high fives in response to the amazing encounter we just experienced. This was thirty minutes into a four day trek of Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Wild Bengal tiger spotted at a watering hole in Chitwan National Park.

I considered myself inordinately lucky to have spotted such rare wildlife on my first day. While this is true, Chitwan National Park is a haven of biodiversity, and offers one of the best opportunities in the world to see magnificent macrofauna, such as wild Bengal Tigers, Leopards, and Indian Rhinoceroses to name a few. Not only do these animals reside in the park, but they are flourishing and growing in number. In fact, the park has had to acquire more land to accommodate their growing tiger population, which was recently measured at 235 individuals. The success of the park in their anti-poaching regime represents an exemplary story in conservation. It stems from a partnership between the government, local communities and NGOs. Much of the forests bordering the parks have been granted to the surrounding communities, where the members act as rangers and stewards of their land. In concert with local villages, army presence throughout the park has also proven to be immensely effective in mitigating poaching. The park service deservedly boasts that they have been poaching free of tigers and rhinos since 2011.

Despite these incredible gains, the health of wildlife in this region of southern Nepal is not entirely secure. Most notably, transmission of pathogens from domestic livestock to wildlife has proven particularly insidious. Rhinos and elephants have been confirmed dead from tuberculosis, and canine distemper virus remains a looming threat for large cats. With growing human and livestock populations in the buffer zone villages, the threat to wildlife is increasingly imminent. This is why I did my Expanding Horizons Project here.

The focus of my research was to uncover the prevalence of Peste des Petits Ruminants Virus (PPRV) in domestic goat herds of five villages bordering the national park, and from this data, try and make connections between livestock health and risk of transmission to wildlife. PPRV is a disease of immense global importance, and is responsible for $2.1 billion USD in economic losses each year. In Africa, the Middle East and Asia, small holder farmers are often left to bear the brunt of the effects, since their livelihoods are inextricably linked to the health of their livestock.

Receiving the classic Nepali award (Token of Love) after presenting my research at the local Veterinary School.

Through the invaluable aid of my Nepali partners, I was able to sample 218 domestic goats from 64 different households across five villages. For each household, we also conducted a questionnaire to gain information on husbandry, grazing patterns, and previous clinical signs. By pairing this data with the ELISA results from the goat serum, I was able to gather a much clearer picture of the local farming practices and risk factors for PPRV.  The most interesting finding from my work was the link between grazing practices and PPRV prevalence. For villages that communaly grazed, where individuals would take their animals to one or two locations in the forest or national park, PPRV rates showed 38%. However, villages that practiced isolated grazing, in which they would cut grass from the jungle and feed their goats on their property, had a prevalence of 18%. While there is inherently a level of error in my data due to imperfect sampling conditions, bias, and a relatively low sample number, this still remains a striking connection.

My time spent in Nepal was undoubtedly my most edifying experience to date. Not only did I get the opportunity to craft and execute a project in a field of veterinary medicine that I’m deeply passionate about, but I was also able to immerse myself in Nepali culture. All of my partners were local Nepali from the Chitwan region, and as a result, I gained practice in partnership and collaboration in an entirely different cultural context.

I returned from Nepal exhausted, but deeply moved, and with a clearer sense of direction and values. I am fervently committed to continue developing my skills, so that I can effectively promote wildlife health and conservation.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Born and raised in the beautiful rollings hills outside Charlottesville, Virginia, Daniel Foley (class of 2021) attended UVA for his undergraduate.  He was drawn to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine by the university’s opportunities and education in Wildlife Health and Conservation Medicine.  He is particularly passionate about conservation efforts in the interface between livestock and wildlife, and how such issues impact human health and the management of ecosystem resources.

From Sand to Surf

Walk through a harbor on the Pacific coast and more likely than not, you will be greeted by a chorus of barks from California sea lions. Their populations were dangerously declining in the 1960s, but since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, populations have rebounded beautifully. Bolstering these population growths are marine mammal rehabilitation centers along the Pacific coast. This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to work at one such center, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI). Located in Santa Barbara, California, the goal of CIMWI is to positively impact marine conservation through rescue, rehabilitation, research, and education, improving overall ocean health as a result.

Over the course of the summer, I took part in rescues of sick or injured marine mammals, rehabilitation efforts, and ultimately the rewarding experience of releasing rehabilitated patients that had reached an ideal weight and health status to the wild. The majority of patient load were California sea lion pups. On initial intake, body weights were obtained, body dimensions measured with measuring tape, and while one person restrained, another person got a pinprick of blood from the tail vein to check blood glucose levels. Glucose levels would determine whether or not patients needed dextrose supplementation to their diet. Over time I and the rest of the CIMWI team monitored the health of, completed medical records, medicated, and attended to basic husbandry needs (such as cleaning enclosures, feedings, and providing fresh water) for patients.

Watching patients progress over time was truly rewarding as formerly emaciated pups gradually put on weight and energy levels heightened. As pups grew closer and closer to release status they were moved from more isolated enclosures designed to promote a lower stress healing environment to larger outdoor enclosures designated for housing larger groups of healthier animals. Amidst a chorus of barking, patients were lead one by one into an alternate enclosure to facilitate medicating individuals and allowing for cleaning of the formal enclosure. When patients were all gathered in a newly cleaned area, pounds of fatty herring were provided as the animals freely fed in a splashing frenzy. As we cleaned their former enclosures the ruckus dulled as the animals grew satiated and lounged in the afternoon sun.

Finally, nearing the end of my summer, all of our hard work culminated to the gratifying return of our patients to the ocean. The morning of the release, I, along with other members of the CIMWI team, met up with Jennifer Levine, CIMWI’s stranding operations and animal care manager. We loaded rehabilitated patients in transport kennels onto a boat captained by the Channel Islands Packers – a cruise organization that services the Channel Island National Park. Boarding the boat along with campers, hikers and other members of the general public destined for the national park, we answered questions about our sea lion patients and rehabilitation efforts in general. Seeing fellow travelers’ faces light up with interest and concern for these animals and hearing them cheer as the animals dove into park waters reinforced my belief that outreach is key to conservation efforts. Because these individuals had the chance to see those animals released and return to the sea, maybe they were able to get a glimpse of why our oceans are worth saving. By that same vein, it wasn’t just our patients that benefited that day – the dolphins that flanked the boat, the humpbacks breaching on the return trip and every single person on the boat that got to take in the experience – it was a win for all of us.

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend my gratitude to the Channel Islands Marine Wildlife Institute Board of Directors, including President Dr. Samuel Dover DVM and Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Dover, for allowing me to have this experience. I’d also like to thank Strandings and Animal Care Manager, Jennifer Levine, and all the dedicated volunteers and colleagues that worked alongside me for their continued support and efforts in marine rehabilitation.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nycole Cole, Class of 2020, is interested in aquatics and conservation. originally from the west coast, she hopes to one day work in marine conservation or in government work. she enjoys running with her friends and dog, and surfing with her brother.

 

 

 

Updates from the Belize Zoo: A Case Study on a Tapir

In 2011, Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and The Belize Zoo partnered under the guidance of Jay Hyman Professor of Zoological Medicine, George Kollias Jr, DVM DACZM. Since then, Cornell has sponsored veterinary students and faculty on over ten trips to Belize. I had the worthwhile opportunity to be on the June 2018 trip with seven other veterinary students as well as faculty, residents, and technicians from the CUHA sections of Dentistry and Oral Surgery, Anesthesia, and Zoological Medicine. As an aspiring zoo and wildlife veterinarian, this trip was a wonderful chance to receive personalized instruction and gain hands-on experience with a diverse group of Central American species. 

Upon entering the Belize Zoo, we were immediately consumed by the sights and sounds of local flora and fauna, becoming fully immersed into a jungle-like setting. All of the bio-parks’ animal residents are indigenous to the country and unfortunately, are non-releasable for a multitude of reasons. The Belize Zoo provides animals such as the kinkajou, harpy eagle, crocodile, boa constrictor, and tapir with a safe, comfortable home and sponsors them as educational ambassadors for their wild-counterparts. We were welcomed into the Belize Zoo Clinic, where we were introduced to our cases for the week. Cases included: a mass removal procedure on a Tayra (Eira barbara), physical exams and tuberculin tests on five Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta pigra), a root-canal on a jaguar (Panthera onca), and venipuncture on toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus).

My favorite case was a newly acquired Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) requiring a physical exam and pregnancy evaluation. The Central American Tapir is the national animal of Belize and is the largest land mammal in the country; this species of “mountain cow” ranges from Southern Mexico to Northern Colombia and is endangered throughout its natural range due to hunting and deforestation. “Lourdess”, as the zoo staff named her, was a female intact, Central American Tapir estimated to be in her late adult life. She was acquired by the zoo after she was found to be thin and distressed in an area outside her natural habitat. Dr. Kollias led the well-orchestrated, multi-disciplinary examination in the animal’s off-exhibit enclosure. It was our hope that she could be examined and rehabilitated if possible.

Dr. Andrew Cushings teaches students how to conduct a ultrasound-guided pregnancy check on “Lourdess” the Tapir.

Lourdess was sedated with a combination of ketamine and detomidine intramuscularly by anesthesia resident and faculty member, Dr. Erika Militana and Dr. Jordyn Boesch, respectively. When she was sedated, students began monitoring her vital signs such as respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, and pulse oximetry. Respiratory rates varied between 20-32 breaths per minute while her heart rate remained fairly constant at approximately 40 beats per minute, consistent with past studies regarding chemical restraint in tapirs. In order to reduce stress, the physical exam was split into teams. The head, neck, and oral cavity of Lourdess were assessed by dentistry and oral surgery resident and faculty member, Dr. Lindsey Schneider and Dr. Santiago Peralta, respectively. Meanwhile, Dr. Andrew Cushings, professor from the University of Tennessee (former Zoological Medicine resident at Cornell), conducted an ultrasound-guided pregnancy check to evaluate whether her uterus was gravid. Blood and a fecal sample were also obtained by wildlife technician Tina Hlywa. This procedure was done efficiently in less than 45 minutes, leaving Lourdess with her keeper to wake up peacefully inside the enclosure. Students continued to monitor her recovery from the gate.  

After Lourdess returned to her normal behavior, we returned to the clinic to debrief on her physical exam and diagnostics. As a previously free-ranging tapir, she was found to have moderate changes in her eyes, likely due to age, as well as significant discharge in both ears. Nose and nares were considered normal. On oral examination, there were abnormalities on her maxillary cheek teeth, so intraoral radiographs were performed. Heart and lung sounds demonstrated no abnormalities. Her limbs and feet were normal, with some scarring lesions in her axillary region. Overall, ultrasound confirmed that she was not pregnant. Body condition score was a ⅖. Initial diagnostics of the blood work demonstrated a Packed Cell Volume (PCV) of 26% and TP value of 6.6 g/dl , both of which were within normal limits compared to studies of the same species of tapir in Costa Rica. Recommendations were made to increase her free choice diet, offer supplements, and schedule a follow-up dental exam and probable cheek tooth extraction in January.  Since her exam, she has been doing well and gaining weight. In such a short amount of time, the other students and I were able to practice necessary clinical skills such as using an ultrasound probe to evaluate the heart and monitor the vitals of a sedated animal. One of my favorite skills was learning how to consult the literature on species-specific reference intervals to determine if certain values were considered normal or abnormal.   

The new Belize Zoo Vet Clinic

This opportunity would not have been possible without the the Belize Zoo staff such as Director, Sharon Matola, and General Curator, Humberto, in collaboration with Dr. George Kollias. Our group was privileged to be able to witness the unveiling of the Belize Zoo Clinic on Friday afternoon, at the end of a busy work week. The Belize Zoo Clinic has been in the works for many years and received funding from a variety of sponsors including Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. At its opening, the zoo staff and donors honored Dr. Kollias for all of his hard work in advocating on the clinics’ behalf with a plaque next to the clinic’s double doors. Once just a hopeful idea, this clinic is now fully functional with a working pharmacy, intake area, and surgery suite. This is just one example of how the Belize Zoo works diligently to provide the best care to its animal residents.j

Acknowledgements

Thank you to all of the faculty, residents, and students that I learned from on this trip. Special thanks to Dr. Kollias and the staff of the Belize Zoo. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Victoria Albano, class of 2021, is a veterinary student from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor’s from Cornell University in May of 2015, with a major in Animal Science. She is excited about zoo medicine working in conjunction with conservation education. She hopes one day to work  as a zoo or wildlife veterinarian. If anyone has any questions or would like to talk more about this opportunity, please feel free to email her – vra23@cornell.edu

 

The Bioethics of Wildlife Intervention

A young springbok prancing in the air, a behavior known as “pronking.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A one-day-old springbok rises on his gangly legs — the shriveled umbilical cord still dangling from his ventrum — and begins to boing around his new surroundings. There is plenty to discover in the vast African bushveld, which he proceeds to do with reckless abandon.

Suddenly, a group of jackals saunters from behind an acacia tree and one of them seizes the “bokkie” by the neck. Within seconds, a game reserve employee dashes out of his safari vehicle to shoo away the jackals, gingerly picks up the injured springbok, and races to the wildlife clinic. Thankfully, no puncture wounds are detected, only bruising — the bokkie is later returned to the original site. The veterinarian waits from afar, hoping the youngster will rejoin his springbok herd.

Adult male sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A month later, an adult male sable is seen hobbling on three legs due to a severe hoof infection. Darting supplies and medications are loaded onto a helicopter, from which the sable is safely anesthetized. After sedation is achieved, the hoof is examined and subsequently treated with saline flush and antibiotics. A reversal drug is then injected into the thigh muscle, upon which personnel are instructed to vacate the premises expediently. Meanwhile, the veterinarian remains on-site to verify the antelope’s full recovery.

Clearly, there is never a dull day in wildlife medicine. As an aspiring wildlife veterinarian who plans to pursue conservation medicine, I have frequently encountered this bioethical issue in both my academic studies and fieldwork. The aforementioned circumstances were experiences I witnessed during my summer in Namibia, where I was conducting research and shadowing the resident veterinarian on a wildlife reserve. Although these individual scenarios involved many factors worth analyzing, the veterinarian plays a prominent role in each situation, often deferred to for coordinating the remedial actions taken and their outcomes.

The aftermath of the above scenarios: the sable gradually improved post-treatment, whereas the springbokkie was never seen again — and thus, presumed dead.

That begs the question: Was it right for the employee to painstakingly pluck the baby springbok from his herd after being attacked by jackals? Were his actions compassionate or officious? Although the infant was promptly returned, it was possible the bokkie was rejected from his herd since the human handling had now covered him in foreign scent. After failing to be adopted back into the group, he was left vulnerable to the pesky jackals once more.

As health care professionals, veterinarians are uniquely positioned to address complex ethical issues involving human, animal, and ecosystem health — a concept aptly known as “One Health.” This initiative governs the core of conservation medicine and reflects the interrelationship and transdisciplinary approach needed to ultimately ensure the wellbeing of all.

The history of human-wildlife relations has experienced some challenges and backlash, but handling these interactions involves balancing valid concerns, prioritizing values, and adopting a hybrid perspective. We regularly wrestle with whether our actions are restorative or destructive, and reflect on a track record of gratifying wins and unsavory losses to learn from. Given our substantial roles in the fate of conservation, it is imperative to debate the significance of interventional efforts and whether they can be rationalized.

While the veterinary profession certainly paints a noble picture of treating injured and sick animals, conducting mass rescues, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict, the interventional aspect entailed in all these tasks suggest, to some, the controversial idea of “playing God.” Are the measures taken regarded as dutiful obligation or self-righteous interference?

On a more abstract level, such apotheosis is inevitable for any professional practicing contemporary medicine. However, the hubris of playing God is arguably heavier for veterinarians since more stakeholders fall within their jurisdiction. As an arbiter for animals, humans, and the environment, veterinarians are constantly confronted with clinical decisions involving life and death and must calculate the associated risks and benefits for multiple constituents. Tampering with the system may result in inadvertent consequences. Conversely, just because resources are available does not necessarily mean they should be used.

Though many have applauded scientific achievements such as GMOs, assisted reproductive technologies, and instrumental surveillance, others have perceived these fields as an exercise of human dominance. The idea of wildlife intervention engenders similarly conflicting sentiments. When physicians and scientists employ these seemingly “unnatural” methods, public fear arises around their potential negative — albeit unintended — consequences. Such discomfort may reflect an underlying mistrust of science and technology in favor of a powerfully unpredictable force of nature as the ultimate source of authority. When working on a free-ranging wildlife reserve that actively promotes conservation, there are various instances in which human intervention is utilized, sparking discussion of the decision-making principles that are applied and the degree of success achieved.

On one hand, the “Circle of Life” argument is commonly cited against wildlife intervention. Such critics support a laissez-faire policy that enables Mother Nature to take her course. Any meddling on the veterinarian’s part would thereby violate this principle. Despite one’s desire to aid the patient and provide necessary care for its survival, that may interfere with the operative principle of natural selection. In retrospect, with the bokkie case, a passive approach may have been best. Simply put, there are predator species and prey species; animals must eat to survive, and we cannot disrupt this instinct.

However, the “Circle of Life” argument fails to extend to veterinary work conducted with domestic pets — namely, preventative medicine. For example, routine vaccination protocols that keep our companion animals healthy are also employed in wild animals to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. If an emerging disease threatens an epidemiological crisis — especially if the pathogen is zoonotic, i.e. can be transmitted between animals and people — this must be addressed on a population level to prevent a mass mortality event.

Generally, the guideline regarding wildlife intervention is to act when the problem presented is due to human impact. Whether it’s gunshot wounds, lead toxicity, or hit-by-car cases, we are obligated to treat accordingly. We bear a responsibility to rectify anthropogenic consequences wrought on wildlife, simply because we caused them. Moreover, other factors warrant intervention, particularly if there is monetary value attached to a certain animal or species in need of saving. In fact, this factor supported the decision to intervene with the adult sable, who was one of three males on the entire reserve. For the purposes of his health and tourism value, treating this sable was deemed permissible.

As stewards and advocates of nature, we understand the precautionary principle of playing God, its inextricable social and ethical implications, and the requisite, evidence-based risk management of any impending decisions. While there is no absolutism with these difficult situations and exceptions can occasionally be made, moral reflection, consideration of all stakeholders, and development of our own self-knowledge may help us navigate this complex terrain.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on Mongabay on October 8, 2018.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

Salamander Genetics: Conservation Research on a Molecular Level

Beck Turcios (’21) working in the Wildlife Health Lab.

How do you manage to survey a population of a small, endangered species that lives underground for most of the year? Capture-and-release, radio tracking, and other traditional methods of surveying populations might be too expensive and time-consuming. It’s an interesting conundrum that wildlife biologists and veterinarians face when trying to track animals like the Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum).

Like most endangered species, the Eastern Tiger Salamander has felt the impacts of anthropogenic activity. Habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and pesticide use have threatened its livelihood and decimated its populations. Despite having a pretty broad distribution throughout the United States, it is listed as an endangered species within the state of New York. Population surveys are a bit outdated, and because Eastern Tiger Salamanders are small and spend most of their lives underground, it’s difficult to get a better understanding of changes in geographic distribution. Thankfully we can address this challenge using quantitative PCR (qPCR) to detect the DNA that these animals shed into their environments. Detecting this environmental DNA (eDNA) has been used to track movements of invasive and endangered species. Now, conservationists want to use qPCR assays to detect the presence of various species from environmental samples. The Wildlife Health Lab at Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center has been working on developing qPCR assays for many aquatic and semiaquatic species. This past summer, I joined the lab to develop a prototype assay for the Eastern Tiger Salamander.

The Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum).  Credit: Peter Paplanus

Although these salamanders spend most of their time underground, they migrate once a year to breeding ponds to find mates and lay eggs. For the brief period of time they’re in the water, they shed cells from their gastrointestinal tract and secretions. DNA within these salamander cells can be collected, extracted, and detected with qPCR.

The way qPCR works can be a little complicated. In a nutshell, the goal is to massively replicate a part of the animal’s DNA sequence, attach a fluorescent probe to it, and then have a machine measure the amount of DNA that was amplified. Successful amplification means that there was a level of fluorescence that exceeded the reaction’s threshold for significance. In order for the test to work, I had to identify a part of the Eastern Tiger Salamander’s DNA sequence that isn’t found in any other living organism on the planet. Sounds like a daunting task, but thankfully the National Center for Biotechnology and Information has developed the program BLAST and the database GenBank to make it easier to identify these unique parts of the genome. While some students interested in wildlife conservation spent their time exploring the outdoors, I spent my time shifting through the Eastern Tiger Salamander’s mitochondrial genome.

Once my points of interest were discovered, I designed primer-probe combinations and then ordered the assay that was most biologically stable and least likely to react with other species’ genomes. Finally! After months of digging through thousands of nucleotide base pairs, it was finally time to test the assay. The Wildlife Health Lab had collected samples of tissue from the Eastern Tiger Salamander and some of its closest relatives. On a leap of faith we tested all these tissues against my qPCR assay. 

Above is the amplification plot with the Eastern Tiger Salamander’s tissue samples in blue and purple. The plot shows that the qPCR assay was able to amplify the DNA of the Eastern Tiger Salamander but not the DNA of related species. The assay was therefore successful.

As you can see from the amplification plot, this test was able to successfully replicate and detect DNA from the Eastern Tiger Salamander’s genome and not replicate the DNA from closely related species. Success! Now we can use this prototype assay to start optimizing it for efficiency and sensitivity. Hopefully, my lab can start testing it against samples of water collected from areas where we think the Eastern Tiger Salamander might be hiding.

Although we got a working prototype going, there is still much more that needs to be done. My hope is that we’ll one day have a test that can help us collect field data on the geographic distribution for many amphibian species. Once the data is generated, biologists and veterinarians can begin to map out plans for the protection of our amphibian diversity along the Northeastern coast.

Joining the Wildlife Health Lab’s eDNA project was a fantastic way to be exposed to novel diagnostic techniques and new approaches to wildlife conservation. I look forward to working with them more in the future to continue exploring other unique avenues of conservation research. Hopefully the diagnostic tool that I have helped developed will elucidate the whereabouts of one of our rare salamander species and contribute to its preservation.  If its application is successful, we will be one step closer to preserving all of our local salamander biodiversity.

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Beck Turcios, class of 2021, is a veterinary student at Cornell University who is interested in wildlife pathology. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 where she studied biology and philosophy. Her experiences and interests revolve around conservation education and captive wildlife management.

LESSONS I’VE LEARNED FROM CRITTERS I’VE KNOWN

1.) EVERYBODY NEEDS A FRIEND SOMETIMES

Right in the middle of the Busy Baby Season, I was loaded up with babies. I had just filled my last Baby Box (a cozy, insulated carrier) with a Southern Flying Squirrel—eyes not quite open, a little underweight, and snuggled tight in the nest I made. And, of course, since I was out of room, I got an emergency call about a baby deer mouse. I tucked him in to a smaller box and put him with the flyer. The goal was to keep them as separate as possible. When I woke up in the morning, their heating pad had gone cold. I opened up the box, worried about what I might find with two babies having been left unheated overnight…

THE LESSON: Everybody needs a friend sometimes, especially if times are tough.

 

2.) NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE UNDERDOG

Baby bunnies are the HARDEST. We have a really hard time getting them to pull through, and that’s when they’re healthy! This little guy had been snuggled peacefully in his nest when a ROTOTILLER turned him up. He had some worrisome damage… a tilted head and some incoordination. I was sure that he wouldn’t be a Happy Ending Story.

This crooked little bun ate better than any baby rabbit I’d ever had! He would suck down formula like a little vacuum, and he romped and wrestled with his foster siblings with gusto… He often won! He ended up getting released to the wild.

THE LESSON: Never think that the underdog doesn’t have a fighting chance—sometimes, they’ll surprise you.

 

3.) BEING TOUGH WILL GET YOU MUCH FARTHER THAN BEING CUTE (BUT BEING CUTE DOESN’T HURT)

This story actually has 2 lessons. I got a call about a nest of naked baby chipmunks. “Bring them in,” I said, quietly in a panic. I’d never raised chipmunks before, but I was willing to give it a shot. They had no hair, they had been without mom for a while, and I wasn’t at all sure how it would go. But I got them started on formula, bottle-feeding every 4 hours, and they started growing… and growing… and GROWING. I’ve never seen critters sprout up so quick. And they were CUTE. Adorable, velvety little nuggets. As soon as their eyes opened, I learned the second lesson of this story: CHIPMUNKS BITE. And I’m not talking about the “Oh, I’m scared, let me defend myself” biting. Or the “Please don’t touch!!” biting. I’m talking about constant, violent little nibbles (I think it’s how they show affection?). My hands were nipped to bits, and those lovely little demons got weaned QUICK.

THE OVERALL LESSON: Having an attitude might get you what you want faster, but being cute will make sure you have some help along the way.

The Cheetah Chronicles: The Next Generation

“Teacher! Teacher!” a bundle of children would exclaim as I pedaled along the fence of the schoolyard and parked my bicycle at the front gate. These high-pitched utterances would engender a variety of sentiments on my part: melting my heart to be greeted so warmly every morning, crawling over to read a picture book with them in a pillow fort, clapping with joy at their mastery of multiplication tables, or closing my eyes in dread over the spilled juice on the classroom carpet.

While the primary purpose of my summer placement in Namibia was to conduct intensive research on cheetah nutrition to enhance my clinical understanding of wildlife species, it was a tremendous honor to collaborate with the AfriCat Foundation to rewardingly extend that knowledge through educational outreach. AfriCat’s teaching philosophy is based upon the following quote from Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught.” The program itself aims to increase the students’ awareness of environmental issues, develop a sense of agency regarding their roles and the sustainable living practices they can engage in, and empower them to harness their strengths and passions to become ambassadors for wildlife.

Naturally, lessons were catered to the age group of the students. With kindergarteners, we created an arts & crafts activity to illustrate diversity in nature. Using a zebra as our teaching model and emphasizing the fact that no two individuals share the same stripes, we highlighted the beauty of difference and the importance of embracing and preserving that aspect in both the animal and human kingdoms. With middle schoolers, we would take the students out on nature walks and teach them about the bushman way of life. Bushmen are members of the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups that were regarded as the first inhabitants of various Southern African countries, including Namibia. I was amazed when learning about their sheer survival ingenuity, their profound respect for animals, and the deep spirituality that connected them with nature. Whether it was hollowing out an ostrich egg and repurposing it as a water flask, fashioning the fibers of the Sansevieria plant into a rope with exceptional tensile strength, or igniting a fire purely from dry grass and friction, the Bushman culture and its traditions are actively preserved by the Namibian people. Despite increasing modernization of society, the Bushman values, rich history, and practices continue to be shared with others.

With high school and university students, we would integrate more scientific concepts into the lesson plans and explain the evolutionary adaptations of animals we would spot on a safari drive. We often had comparative discussions between the big cat species and how their anatomical differences contributed to their distinct survival strategies. For example, the characteristic black tear tracks that run down every cheetah’s face is present in order to reduce the amount of light that gets reflected into their eyes. This is to facilitate their hunting endeavors, since cheetahs search for prey during the day. On the other hand, leopards have a noticeably bulkier skull due to the attachments of massive muscles of mastication. While cheetahs are built for speed, leopards rely on stealth and incredible bite force to strike their prey.

Though days were long and filled with instruction, there were definitely more laid-back, reflective moments as well. We would watch the brilliant sunset over a placid dam, roast marshmallows over a crackling campfire, and lie underneath the African night sky to identify constellations as our bodies rested gently in the sand. On some evenings, we would convene for dinner and do a traditional “braai,” a social barbeque feast where everyone gathered around a firepit to grill sausage and game meat as the Milky Way glowed above.

The educational outreach aspect was an invaluable part of my experience in Africa, as I truly enjoyed immersing in the local Namibian culture and building relationships with children of all ages, many of whom were inspired to pursue careers in conservation. Through such education and awareness in the Namibian youth, we ultimately hope to build a future generation that can one day competently manage the carnivore populations in Namibia, devise practical solutions to human-wildlife conflict, and balance the needs of endangered species with the economic livelihood of farming communities. Although tourism generates an appreciable amount of revenue to fund conservation projects, big cat populations are still threatened by shootings due to farmland encroachment, a response that mainly stems from a lack of education about how both parties can coexist peacefully. By inspiring young students, several of whose families actually own farms, to see the value of wildlife and ignite their passions for conservation, we are addressing the imperative that saving these carnivore species undoubtedly requires investing in the youth of Africa.

 

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on September 3, 2018.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: Boma or Bust

“This is a dangerous operation. Are you prepared for death?”

“Yes,” I nod foolishly.

The game manager delivered the signal on his walkie-talkie, and within moments I heard a helicopter approaching. I walked past a tall, tarp curtain, gingerly stepping over a series of taut ropes, and assumed my designated position. I concealed myself within the folds of the curtain, keeping part of my head exposed so I could still surveil the landscape, and awaited further instructions. Minutes later, a group of men were shouting and running frantically while tugging on the ropes, dragging one side of the curtain along the zipline. The voices quickly stopped, and the manager beckoned me to come forward, motioning to hide with him behind a tree. The helicopter suddenly arrived and started to descend. When it hovered directly above, it enshrouded us in a sandstorm cloud in which our key senses were temporarily disabled by the chalky dust and deafening whirr of the chopper blades. Once everything cleared, a female oryx appeared, looking less than thrilled. My next move was critical—it determined the success of the operation and my own survival.

There is never a dull day in the field of wildlife medicine. One of our principal duties consists of mastering the art and science of animal capture. Such tasks are necessary in order to relocate certain species for management purposes, exchange animals with other reserves or facilities, or temporarily isolate an animal in order to perform annual health exams or surgeries. Evidently, wild animals do not exhibit the same level of compliance one can achieve with domesticated pets. Veterinarians have various ways to conduct such captures; the choice of method depends largely on the type of animal being sought and what procedure is being performed. Chemical capture via darting is one of the more common techniques, in which remote drug delivery equipment is used to sedate an animal from a safe distance. However, an alternative and perhaps more adrenaline-packed method is the use of a boma.

A boma is a large enclosure assembled with four solid walls that is traditionally used for livestock. The boma technique is sometimes preferred since it does not require chemical immobilization of the animal involved. However, this aspect is only suitable if the situation does not entail an intricate procedure or warrant major animal safety concerns. Additionally, if mass capture is the task at hand, bomas will usually be employed since it is not feasible to dart and sedate numerous animals at once within a limited timeframe. Bomas exist in several styles, but the ones constructed in the Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia consisted of tarp curtains strewn along a square wired perimeter. Some bomas can even be designed to attach to chutes, so as animals are guided into the boma, they continue to shuffle through the chute, from which they can load directly onto a livestock trailer. They can then be safely transported offsite without the added complications of having to sedate them.

After a boma is erected, game managers must then condition the resident animals—mainly hoofstock—to enter the boma. By leaving the curtain open and placing feed troughs inside the boma, the animals grow more familiar with entering this intriguing structure to eat. Once the desired animal is located within the boma, the curtain is slid closed and the individual is passively “captured.” The boma operation at Okonjima, which relied on coordination between air pilots and a grounds team, utilized a helicopter in order to obtain an aerial whereabouts of the desired animals, then goad them into the boma from there. Some animals can be particularly savvy and seem to possess an uncanny ability to intuit what you are trying to coax them into; they either persistently stay just outside the perimeter or start moving in the opposite direction.

Accordingly, any boma operation entails the utmost strategic planning, precise timing, and quick reactivity. Even details boiling down to one’s outfit must be carefully considered. To avoid attracting the wariness of especially astute animals, all staff must wear colors that blend in with the surrounding terrain—hence, your classic tan/khaki safari color scheme.

As it was wintertime at Okonjima and we were undergoing a drought period, we realized grass was becoming scarce and wanted to relocate several animals to a different section of the reserve. Another rationale for conducting this high-stakes boma procedure was to address the overgrazing that had occurred. While browser animals (e.g. giraffe, oryx) were content to munch on high-growing vegetation like leaves and tree bark, the more numerous grazers (e.g. zebra, kudu) populating the area had completely foraged the limited grass available. Shifting a proportion of these browsers and especially grazers to a different, unused patch of land would not only give them access to a more abundant food supply, but also enable the grass to regrow at the original site.

After briefly corralling the surly oryx and getting notified that all curtains had been slid closed, our next task was simply to get out of the enclosure. I then calmly and quickly sneaked past the curtains to escape an interior now teeming with rambunctious hoofstock, then continued to run a couple meters further before I finally relaxed. The reason behind my exit strategy: a still-fuming oryx could continue to charge at the barrier with its famously long, straight horns and impale an unsuspecting person leaning on the other side.

 

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on September 2, 2018.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

Diseases are Wild! A Zoo Pathology Summer Experience

Pathology is a branch of medicine related to the study of diseases, pathogens, and their effects on the afflicted animals. Pathologists can play an important role in many aspects of animal health, including detecting infectious diseases in farm animals, revealing details about animal abuse cases, and elucidating the origin cell type of a tumor from a biopsy. Some pathologists investigate diseases in wildlife species, many of which are influenced in some manner by anthropogenic factors.

For the past few summers, I have worked as a research assistant for the Zoological Pathology Program, a research and diagnostic laboratory of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. This laboratory mostly operates in conjunction with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, John G. Shedd Aquarium, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The Zoological Pathology Program also provides diagnostics for a large number of local, national, and international conservation organizations. The faculty of pathologists in this lab are world-renowned experts in their field and serve as lead pathologists for various Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs and conservation initiatives around the globe. I am interested in the key role that pathology can play in zoo management and wildlife conservation. You can imagine, then, that I was extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work in this lab.

Throughout the three summers during which I worked in this lab, I had a wide variety of responsibilities and experiences. This work involved cataloging their extensive collection of research samples, performing molecular biology research, and observing and assisting with necropsies.

I was involved in two major research projects through the Zoological Pathology Program. One of these projects involved parasitic agents that can infect passerine, or perching, bird species. Detection of this specific infectious agent can play a particularly important part in conservation efforts involving reintroduction of captive birds, specifically the Bali Mynah. Using a diagnostic tool developed by the lab, I worked on a project aimed at determining the shedding patterns of the pathogen. The results will allow us to determine the most efficient and effective protocol for diagnostic sampling.

The other major project was a collaborative study with the Shedd Aquarium’s Microbiome Project. We investigated the efficacy of various aquarium tank disinfection techniques on the maintenance and control of atypical Mycobacteria.  Mycobacteria are common pathogens in aquatic systems and can cause fatal infections in fish. The goal of this research was to determine which disinfection techniques were better at decreasing overall loads of Mycobacterium sp. in the aquarium environment and if those disinfection techniques also altered levels of normal beneficial bacteria within these environments.  These research projects not only improve our understanding the fundamental nature of these pathogens, they also can be used as a guide to inform animal care and prevent sometimes-devastating disease outbreaks in both captive and wild populations.

In addition to those two projects, I was given the opportunity to observe and assist with necropsies of both captive and wild animals. Necropsies are the animal equivalent of forensic autopsies in humans. Although some of these necropsies (particularly those of wildlife animals) involve investigating potential criminal activity, most of the necropsies performed for zoo and wildlife animals aim to uncover infectious or management-related disease. Zoo necropsies serve to help prevent the spread of infectious disease within a zoo population, and to inform management practices to ensure optimal animal health. Information we learn about zoo animals can also inform our understanding of disease in their wild counterparts.  During my time with the Zoological Pathology Program, I participated in necropsies of various captive mammal, bird, reptile, fish, and amphibian species.  I also assisted with necropsies involving long-term seasonal assessment of disease in wild fish and reptile species in various lakes and parks. This type of study can reveal geographical patterns of disease prevalence and can potentially uncover trends associated with anthropogenic changes to the local environment.

It is our duty as animal health professionals to better understand problems to which humans contribute and to minimize their effects on wild populations. I am extremely grateful for my experiences at the Zoological Pathology Program, and I am excited to pursue a career in anatomic pathology!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Carmen Smith is a current Cornell veterinary student (class of 2021) and Cornell undergraduate alumnus from the suburbs of Chicago.  He plans to pursue a career in zoo and wildlife pathology. He is interested in wildlife and public health, and hopes to work at the intersection of disease and conservation.