A Quarterly Round Up: What has Everyone at SEZARC Been Working On?

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By: Rebecca Gibson, On The Wing

This week was the SEZARC quarterly meeting, where the whole team gathered together and discussed their current projects. It was fascinating to hear what everyone has been studying, from rhinos to tiny newts.

Research Lab Manager Cayman Adams has been working on several projects over the past few months. As well as assisting Jen with sand tiger sharks and Lara with bison, she has been down in the Florida Keys collecting coral sperm. Corals are fascinating and very special animals; some are hermaphrodites and possess both male and female characteristics. Even more interestingly, others spend one season as male and the next as female! Cayman’s work is essential, as disease has seriously affected the site where she has been collecting samples. The situation is so bad that it could wipe out that particular reef as soon as next year, so every sample Cayman can collect will be invaluable.

Recently, Cayman has also been busy running summer camps for aspiring young veterinarians. One of her sessions was zombie apocalypse-themed, where the children had to prevent a single zombie animal turning the whole herd into zombies! It was a brilliantly creative way of learning the importance of preventing the spread of disease among herds, and was met by great enthusiasm among the young scientists. 

Kim Daly-Crews has been hard at work with newts at Jacksonville Zoo. Striped newts have faced a rapid decline over the past twenty years, and the newts at Jacksonville are part of a breed and release programme. The zoo’s breeding pairs have been producing fewer offspring each year, so Kim optimized a method to measure the newts’ reproductive hormones and see how they affect breeding. She places the newts into beakers of water and analyses the hormones found in the water samples, comparing mature females and juveniles to determine whether the main breeders are producing less oestrogen and therefore fewer eggs. Water-borne hormone monitoring is a brand new project for SEZARC, so Kim’s research is vital for conserving the species.

Jen Wyffels is SEZARC’s Aquatics Scientist, and has been studying a range of species including sand tiger sharks. In order to prevent inbreeding in managed care, it is essential to study relatedness of animals across aquaria. One of Jen’s projects has involved analysing sand tiger genetics to find out which animals are closely related (siblings or parents and offspring) and which can be bred without a risk of genetic inbreeding.

Jen has also been studying stingrays to try and discover why reproductive disease is more common among aquarium rays than wild rays. I recently joined her in Tampa to perform ultrasounds on female southern stingrays at the Florida Aquarium and take a look at their uterus and ovary. It is thought that being overweight increases a ray’s chances of developing reproductive disease, so we also had a look at the size of the liver, where rays store their fat. It is hoped that finding links between nutrition and disease will help reduce the number of females developing these problems in managed care.  

During this quarter, most of Lara Metrione’s time has been spent on large, grey and brown animals. As a white rhino specialist, she has been studying a particular female at Jacksonville Zoo who was recently artificially inseminated. By monitoring the female’s progesterone levels, Lara is trying to work out whether or not the rhino is pregnant. This is particularly challenging, especially as rhinos don’t develop an obvious bump like humans do. In fact, pregnant females barely show until the final few weeks before birth, which is many months after conception!

Lara’s other main project is studying bison and how their glucocorticoid hormones are affected by the quality of their food. Glucocorticoids are important hormones involved in metabolism and energy regulation. So far, it has become apparent that as the quality of pasture increases, more energy is available to the bison and the level of glucocorticoids increases. Lara is studying the effects of different feeds to assess how these continually affect bison at a range of sites across the US.