Understanding Cardiac Health in Great Apes

Cardiovascular disease isn’t just the leading cause of death for humans, it is also a health issue faced by great apes. These majestic creatures – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – share 98 percent of human DNA. As is the case with humans, it is apparent that we need to investigate and understand the cardiac health of these animals.

Fifteen years ago, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) began to form in order to address this responsibility – two zoo veterinarians, a human cardiologist and a veterinary epidemiologist put their heads together around the topic. Early on, they recognized the critical need for a multidisciplinary approach to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in these special animals. In the years since, they have enlisted the help of a number of passionate and hard-working medical experts and scientists – the team now consists of zoo veterinarians, human and veterinary cardiologists, ultrasonographers, human and veterinary pathologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, geneticists and zookeepers. They use clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treatment of cardiac disease in all of the ape species, with the ultimate goal of reducing mortality and improving the health and welfare of captive great apes.

Members of this project recently convened at the Detroit Zoo for what was the largest working group meeting the GAHP has held to date.

Much progress has been made over the years – with generous funding from Zoo Atlanta and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP has been able to hire a project manager to move their initiatives forward and coordinate the development of an extensive database to store the information needed to unravel this complicated health issue. A website has been developed, containing all of the information needed for veterinarians to understand how to contribute to the project and provide feedback about their patients. Additionally, normal cardiac parameters for gorillas and chimps have been established, which is an important step toward early recognition and treatment. Human and veterinary pathologists have worked together to improve tissue collection techniques and agree upon the terminology used to discuss findings. Together, they’ve been able to identify aspects of heart disease that are shared between great apes and humans, and this has helped inform future directions for research.

This team has demonstrated that a small group of very committed people can make tremendous strides toward improving the health and well-being of animals in our care. At the Detroit Zoo, we’ve been at the forefront of research, using implantable loop recorders to understand the impact of cardiac arrhythmia on heart disease in chimpanzees and gorillas.

A thousand dollars in proceeds from our recent Pool for Primates fundraising event was donated to the GAHP by the Detroit chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. The Detroit Zoological Society is committed to contributing to this important work and ensuring that great apes worldwide live longer, healthier lives.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.