Ultrasound Exams

This past Tuesday I got to tag along and help out with a couple of ultrasound exams. It was a really great day. It’s really exciting when you detect a pregnancy. Every time we did another ultrasound it felt like playing the lottery: is it a winner? Any kind of baby animal is good news in my book, and it’s especially exciting with endangered animals. A lot of the time zoos have trouble getting animals to reproduce, and for certain species a birth in captivity is a rare thing.

We started at 8:30am driving around the facility. Unlike the Zoo in DC, SCBI is very spread out. There are lots of different barns with pastures for grazing and fields for growing grass(hay) and alfalfa. Most of the hay needed to feed the animals both here and at the Zoo is grown here. We went to the areas for Eld’s deer, Persian onagers and P. Horses to check out a few females that the keepers had seen interacting with males and believed might be pregnant.

P. Horses are Przewalski’s horses, pronounced ‘Chevalsky’s horses’. They are the only species of horse that has never been domesticated and were once extinct in the wild. If you’ve ever seen a cave painting of a horse, that’s pretty much what they look like. Onagers look a bit like donkeys, are a little bit smaller than P. Horses and are native to Asia. Eld’s deer are native to Asia as well, and collectively between their three subspecies have only about 2,000 individuals left in the wild.

Neither the Onagers nor the P. Horses are comfortable being handled by humans, but instead of having to use anesthesia for veterinary procedures, there is a clever sort of chute system that they use to be able to do procedures safely while the animal is awake. To get from the barn to the field, the animals have to walk through these chutes, sort of like narrow hallways. They go through them every day, so they are accustomed to it. Partway down the chute, there is a hydraulic device that is essentially two heavily cushioned walls that close around the animal and lift it a little bit off of the ground. Once the animal is immobilized one can conduct medical check-ups like taking blood, applying medicine, or in this case, performing an ultrasound exam.

For the Eld’s Deer it is much easier. Most of the Eld’s deer here were hand raised or desensitized to people, so they are very comfortable around humans. Two of the keepers gently held the deer still and we shaved a bit of fur from the abdomen to get direct skin contact.

I can’t say here what we found—the Zoo gets to inform the public when there are new babies, not me. But anyway, it was a really great experience. I’m glad to have the opportunity to participate in things like this while I’m here.


Welcome to the Smithsonian

I’ve been here at SCBI about a month now. Coming to work here is a pretty involved process: background check, fingerprinting, the works. This is a closed facility and the general rule is no posting information or pictures of the campus on social media, but I’ve been given permission to write under the condition that I have all of my posts approved first, so I’ll start things rolling and see how far they go.

This is actually my second time working here at SCBI. The first time was two years ago, right after my freshman year at Juniata. I was the youngest back then and I still am. Most of my co-workers are working on their Master’s degrees or PhDs. It gives me good perspective into where I want to go with my career after undergrad, but sometimes I feel a little out of my league.

My first time here I was working on improving the cryopreservation technique for Grevy’s Zebra and Przewalski’s Horse spermatozoa. Cryopreservation is when you freeze living tissue to prevent it from degrading, so that it can be thawed and used later on. The cells of each species are different, so the same freezing and thawing temperatures, freezing media, etc. won’t work the same for one species as another, so you have to tweak the protocol for each species for the cells to actually survive the freezing process. The end goal is to have a sperm bank, a kind of frozen reservoir gene pool, for as many endangered species as possible, so that when individuals die their genes aren’t lost from the population. This is particularly important for endangered species, where inbreeding can become a big problem. The first few weeks of this summer I continued work on this project, this time with Persian Onagers.

In the last few weeks I’ve joined a new project. Now I am helping to develop a method of differentiating gonocytes in neonatal testicular tissue into mature spermatozoa. It happens sometimes that animals die when they are still babies, and when it comes to endangered species this is particularly tragic because every animal that dies without breeding is another set of genes lost from an already limited gene pool. The method mentioned in the previous paragraph doesn’t work for babies because they don’t have any mature sperm to freeze. This method takes testicular tissue, keeps it in culture for several weeks with all the necessary hormones, and makes the immature germ cells differentiate into mature sperm. Or at least, that’s the plan. Working towards that.

I’ll keep you updated on the goings on and all that. Thanks for reading.