At First Light: Meeting Sweet Baby Jane

As the lights gradually came on at sunrise behind the scenes at the Detroit Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee on Saturday, July 14, 34-year-old chimpanzee Abby made her way over to the mesh that separates the neighboring stall. She knocked on the door and vocalized to the other chimpanzees, who were slowly starting to wake up. Curious chimps approached the mesh to greet Abby, and as they looked, they could see a tiny newborn chimpanzee in her arms. Abby greeted her friends and showed them her baby while keeping a safe distance to protect her from any inquisitive poking fingers.

The little one was born just after midnight on what was coincidentally the first World Chimpanzee Day. She was named “Jane” after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, in honor of the anniversary of her first visit to what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study the social interactions of wild chimpanzees.

During the first few days, Abby remained separated from the rest of the chimpanzee troop to allow her to rest and bond with Jane and for Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff to monitor them. While Abby is an experienced mother, having given birth to daughter Chiana 24 years ago (who is a mother herself to 4-year-old Zuhura) it is important for staff to observe a chimpanzee mother and her infant. DZS staff immediately began documenting the frequency that Jane nurses, which should be in short durations every 60-100 minutes. They’ve also been recording maternal behaviors – some of which are simply adorable, such as when Abby holds up her baby, looks at her and then hugs her to her chest. Animal care staff are cautious to not disturb Abby as they make their observations, sitting quietly in the aisle of their holding area with mesh in between them. In those first few days, with Jane sleeping soundly on her mother’s chest between nursings, Abby’s tired eyes would grow heavy and she’d gently give Jane a few comforting pats on her back before falling asleep herself.

Jane’s grip grows stronger each day. She is now holding on tightly to her mom’s chest with both hands and feet, only occasionally needing a little extra support. After a few days of observations, staff determined that Abby and Jane were ready to move to the dayroom of the indoor habitat and meet some of the other chimpanzees. Abby greeted her friends Trixi and Tanya and began to groom with them by the windows while Jane slept in her arms. Abby denied Tanya’s request to touch Jane’s hand, so Tanya settled with looking closely at Jane while she made her nest nearby.

Over the next few days, Abby was reunited with the remaining chimpanzee troop members, including Jane’s father, Imara. They had a chance to see – and try to touch – Jane for the first time. Some were curious, including youngsters Ajua and Akira, who stared in apparent amazement and couldn’t take their eyes off of little Jane, while others such as Nyani barely seemed to notice the infant. Formerly the youngest of the group, Zuhura, almost 5, appeared unsure of what to think of Jane. Zuhura followed Abby everywhere in demand of the attention of her grandmother and curiously wanting to see Jane. Zuhura would repeatedly – and gently – reach out to touch Jane, but Abby would turn away and hold onto the little one tightly while trying to distract Zuhura with some playful tickles. With all 11 of the chimpanzees now together, they often are seen eagerly grooming in the sunlight by the windows, a way that chimpanzees maintain positive relationships with one another.

Abby and Jane ventured into their outdoor habitat for the first time just shy of Jane’s 2-week-old mark. Dad Imara escorted his family on a few investigative laps around the habitat before Abby decided it was time to lay down and rest again. With plenty of space, Abby has yet to identify a preferred spot to rest with Jane, but she can often be seen in and below the trees, as well as at the windows looking into the public viewing area.

It’s difficult to believe since she is still so tiny, but Jane has grown quite a bit in these last few weeks and is hitting all of her development milestones. After three weeks, Jane is awake more often and starting to look around and focus on her surroundings. She has been holding on to Abby’s chest tightly, rarely needing the support of her mother’s hand on her back, and can pull herself up and push with her legs to adjust her position if she is hungry. Although Jane will still appear small as the weeks go on, she will be making strides in her growth and development. We are all eager to watch her continue to grow and for her personality to begin to shine.

– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Baby Jane’s Prenatal Check-ups

While newborn photos of a female baby chimpanzee have gone viral on our social media accounts, they weren’t the first images taken of little Jane. During mom Abby’s 33-week pregnancy, Detroit Zoological Society staff performed eight ultrasounds of the baby, who is named after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.

Staff works diligently with the great apes who live at the Detroit Zoo to develop behaviors that allow us to monitor their health. The gorillas and chimpanzees open their mouths to let us look at their teeth, show us their hands and feet and lean against the mesh to allow the administration of vaccines. Most of the chimpanzees will press their chests toward the mesh so we can take images of their hearts with an ultrasound probe.  Abby quickly learned to position herself and allow us to put the probe on her belly so that we could monitor her growing fetus. After a few practice sessions, we invited an OB (obstetrical) ultrasound technician to the Zoo to take the standard measurements collected during pregnancy in human women.

Abby was a cooperative patient and always appeared excited to see us. She would prop herself on a ledge and eat peanuts during each exam, allowing the peanut shells to pile up on her growing belly.  There are limits to the ways we can position the probe, and we were not always able to get every measurement at every visit. In the early months, we were able to measure the length of the fetus from the crown to the rump; as the baby grew, we measured the circumference of the head and abdomen and length of the long bones, including the femur and humerus. We were also able to see the position of the fetus and measure the heart rate. With each exam, we added data to our growth charts, and were pleased to see steady growth and development. We also became increasingly confident that the baby was a girl.

Abby is the third chimpanzee mom that has allowed us to conduct obstetrical ultrasounds, and since 2008 we have been able to collect measurements from three pregnancies, including youngsters Ajua and Akira. Using these measurements and data from two scientific publications, we were able to make a solid prediction of Abby’s due date – July 14, the date of the first annual World Chimpanzee Day! As this date approached, animal care staff began round-the-clock checks to look for signs of labor. Just three days before the due date, we performed a final ultrasound exam. We were pleased to see that the baby was still growing according to expectations. We could see her face and watch her open and close her mouth and wiggle her arms and legs. Most importantly, we could see that the baby had a strong heartbeat and was positioned with her head down, which is the correct position for a normal delivery.

Anyone who has anticipated the delivery of a baby knows that due dates are not an exact science. But Abby delivered her baby at 12:01 a.m. on July 14, one minute into the day predicted as her due date, and the delivery was without complication. Being able to monitor babies during pregnancy allows us to prepare for any issues that might arise, and to intervene if needed. Abby is a wonderful mom, and is taking good care of Jane. She seemed excited to show off her new baby to the other chimpanzees, and held her against the window for everyone to see. We look forward to watching her grow and thrive in her habitat at the Great Apes of Harambee.

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

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.