Extracting Facts from Faeces: The Story of my ProjectI am Dr. Gabriella Flacke, wildlife veterinarian and a PhD student at the University of Western Australia. My research subject is not Australian, however, it's the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) of West Africa.
My project will use dung samples to measure reproductive and stress hormones from 28 pygmy hippos living at various zoos throughout the USA.
The data generated from this study will provide essential information to improve captive breeding efforts for this endangered species, and will evaluate stress and potential links to hippo health and reproduction.
The funding goal of AU$ 16,500 will cover costs for travel to each participating zoo for data collection, the lab analysis of 3500+ faecal samples, plus return airfare from Australia to Florida, USA. Any additional funding above this goal will be allocated to ongoing pygmy hippopotamus conservation efforts in captivity and in the wild.
BackgroundWhile the common hippo has been well-known by mankind for millennia, the pygmy hippopotamus wasn't “discovered" until 1844 and has only been kept in zoos since 1912. In contrast to its larger and more conspicuous counterpart, very little is known about the pygmy hippo. Pygmy hippos are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. Pygmy hippos are ranked #28 on the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list of the 100 most critically endangered mammals worldwide.
Pygmy hippos are only found in a very small area of unique tropical habitat in West Africa called the Upper Guinean Rainforest Ecosystem. Threats to survival for wild pygmy hippos include habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, mining and agriculture, lack of adequate legal protection for the few remaining intact areas of habitat, poaching for bush meat, and an often unstable political climate throughout their home range.
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Why is this research important?We do not know for sure how many pygmy hippos remain in the wild, but a commonly accepted estimate is less than 3000. As of the end of 2014, there are approximately 350 pygmy hippos living in a total of 130 zoos worldwide.
Thus, the captive population may represent 10% or more of the total number of pygmy hippos left on the planet. Therefore, we must not only strive to protect this species in the wild, we must also find ways to optimize the health, welfare, and breeding of this precious resource of pygmy hippos in zoos. My research will establish several tools, in the form of hormone assays that can be used to generate vital data for addressing these issues.
How will I conduct my study?If a person feels sick, they go to the doctor and voice their complaints; the doctor takes a blood sample, maybe an x-ray or two, and can usually figure out what ails them. If a woman thinks she may be pregnant, she goes to the local pharmacy and buys a home pregnancy test; a simple yes/no answer pops up within a matter of moments. Diagnosing illness, monitoring health, and determining pregnancy are not so easy in large animals like hippos, and the patients are generally not nearly as cooperative.
Since we cannot easily obtain blood samples from pygmy hippos to measure reproductive hormones or various markers of health or disease, we have to get creative. Fortunately, other bodily fluids also contain the same physiologic markers that can be measured in the blood. Urine, faeces and saliva all contain different variations of the same hormones found in the bloodstream that have been metabolized, or altered chemically, by the body. Fortunately, these other bodily fluids still give us very useful information, with the home pregnancy test for women being a classic example. The same concept can be applied to dung samples, and hippos produce copious amounts of dung on a daily basis!
However, hormone tests developed for use in people unfortunately won't work for hippos. Each species produces different versions, or metabolites, of the same hormones. Therefore, when someone wants to study a 'new' species, the hormone tests first have to be developed and validated. Such laboratory tests have already been established to measure hormone levels in urine and dung of many different species commonly kept in zoos, including elephants, rhinos, chimpanzees, gorillas, African painted dogs, and even the common hippo. However, these tests have not yet been developed for the pygmy hippo.
I have set out to establish which laboratory assays most accurately measure the various different hormone metabolites in pygmy hippo dung. I am working in collaboration with twelve zoological facilities in the USA. Dedicated zookeepers from each of these facilities have assisted with this research by collecting dung samples twice weekly over a one-year period from a total of 28 pygmy hippos. The samples have all been stored at frozen, and there are over 3500 of them (“hippoopsicles," if you will) awaiting my arrival in Florida where I will start laboratory analysis in May of 2015. I will be conducting my study at SEZARC, a laboratory specializing in research, reproduction and conservation of endangered species.
How will my PhD research benefit pygmy hippos?My study will provide a cornucopia of new information about pygmy hippos to help us better manage this species in captivity and to serve as an additional tool for studying these animals in the wild. The expected outcomes of my study include the following:
- A method to effectively monitor reproductive cycles and pregnancy in pygmy hippos using dung samples.
- Fundamental physiological information needed for successful captive breeding and potential future assisted breeding techniques, such as artificial insemination.
- Determining the potential effects of diet, body condition and different husbandry practices on stress levels over time.
- Identifying ways to optimize the health and welfare of pygmy hippos in zoos by reducing chronic stress.
- Baseline data that can serve as a comparison for future conservation research with wild pygmy hippo populations in West Africa.
How the funds will be usedI am asking for your generous support to help me extract vital facts from faeces. Funding will be used to:
- Cover the costs for laboratory tests analysing the hippo dung samples so that we can better understand reproduction and health in this endangered species.
- Support my travel from Perth, Australia to each of the participating zoos for data collection and to Jacksonville, Florida (USA), to conduct the lab work for this study.
Current conservation projects studying the pygmy hippo in West Africa
- BBC Documentary and IBREAM (Ivory Coast)
- Save our Species and Pygmy Hippo Foundation (Liberia)
- Tiwai Island and EDGE Program (Sierra Leone)
Some of my other workThe path I have taken in pursuit of my career goals has been incredibly diverse and rewarding, spanning a broad range of species and topics, and leading me to all parts of the world. However, the hippopotamus has been my favourite animal since I was a small child. More than 30 years later, my career has reached the point where I have an opportunity to fulfil my childhood dream of working with hippos on a professional level.
I received my Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Georgia (USA) in 2003. After several years working as a clinical vet in private practice, I moved to South Africa to conduct field research for a Master's Degree in Veterinary Wildlife Conservation Medicine. My research evaluated the threat of viral diseases carried by domestic dogs to the endangered African painted dog and was funded by the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust. Since completing my Master's degree (Murdoch University) in 2007, I have worked and volunteered in a variety of diverse spheres of veterinary medicine:
- As a locum vet for two zoological facilities on different continents (USA, Australia)
- For a native wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization in the Pacific Northwest (USA)
- With free-ranging species in southern Africa as the clinical veterinarian for the Cheetah Conservation Fund (Namibia)
- Volunteering for high-volume spay-neuter programs in developing countries worldwide
- Participating in surgical and animal welfare teaching clinics (USA; Latin America)
List of all zoos participating in my research:
- Baton Rouge Zoo
- Brownsville Gladys Porter Zoo
- Chicago Brookfield Zoo
- Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo
- Jackson Zoo
- Louisville Zoo
- Montgomery Zoo
- Oklahoma City Zoo
- Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
- Safari Wild/Giraffe Ranch
- Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
- Zoo Miami
Footnote: The identities of the pygmy hippos participating in this study must remain anonymous. They are part of a witness protection program for endangered species. If you would like to visit a pygmy hippo near you, check this list to find out where they live around the world.