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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jaguar Genetics

This female jaguar, Zassi, is enjoying a fish embedded Popsicle at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. She is wild-born, on loan from the country of Guyana, South America, and extremely important to the Species Survival Plan (SSP) population. She had a single male offspring on the first of January, 2009, and if he breeds, Zassi will be a "founder." Ideally, she will need to produce four offspring that all contribute offspring, thus, mathematically, 93.75% of her genetic material will pass on to the captive population.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has a long history with jaguars, including the prolific Zorro, a black male from the early seventies, who passed on his melanistic gene into the population. (All black jaguars in this country can be traced back to Zorro.) In 1998, the zoo imported 1.2 (one male and two females) jaguars from Venezuela. This was the first time wild-born jaguars had been brought legally into the US in well over a decade.

At that time, the scientific community believed that there were at least three and maybe four different subspecies of jaguars represented in Venezuela. The Zoo was very careful to select three animals that originated from the same part of the country (the Llanos), so that they would be "pure."

Unfortunately, the male had no interest in breeding and there have been no offspring from any of the Venezuela cats. As it turned out, the efforts to identify animals from one region were not necessary. Newer DNA evidence shows that there are eight subspecies of jaguar and only one from Venezuela: Panthera onca onca.

The two surviving Venezuelan jaguars are too old to breed naturally, but the Zoo has not given up on them. The veterinary department has been collaborating with scientists on artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. This cutting edge research is providing answers to many questions about the reproductive physiology of the jaguar.

Photo by D. Bear-Hull

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pronghorn Antelope Exam

The Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City, Kansas was well known for its productive pronghorn antelope herd when I worked there several years ago. Every year, the group was caught up for annual exams, a process that was as efficient and stress-free as possible. Unlike a scenario using chemical tranquilizers, the Kansas pronghorn were processed by bold, experienced keepers who knew how to move quickly and firmly.

The first photo is of the "catch" crew who enter an empty stall where a single animal has been shifted (each antelope is separated to be worked; the rest of the herd is visually separated and remains calm). The catch team use a "baffle" board, which can be seen in the middle left. The baffle board is a four by eight foot sheet of plywood, with handles on one side. It is used as a mobile squeeze chute, where, in seconds, the animal is pushed against the stall wall. Sometimes, pronghorns react to this by dropping to the ground, which this particular animal has done. Staff on the right are reaching down over the board to secure the head.

The second image shows the keepers quickly moving the animal outside of the stall. The head and feet are secured, although this animal was not really struggling. In the third photograph, the exam takes place in the hallway, with the barn doors closed. One of the secrets for hoofed stock handling was a thick mattress, which was comfortable for the animals (and staff!), and seemed to have a calming effect. Note that the head and legs are firmly held (here, the antelope's left front leg is the critical one that must be restrained to prevent her from standing) and that all staff work from behind the pronghorn, to prevent injuries from kicking.

The Lee Richardson zoo vet checked teeth, took blood, vaccinated, and examened each antelope. They were weighed and the hooves were trimmed. One of the benefits of annual checkups is that there can be incidental findings, such as the thick pus-like material oozing from above and between the claws of a hoof. It smelled strong and we all thought it was some kind of infection, possibly from a foreign body in the foot. A gentle squeeze of the other feet showed the same whitish ooze, in exactly the same place! The other pronghorn were similiar -- the material was natural, coming from a scent gland used to mark territory.

In addition to the nasty foot gland odor, pronghorn have a curious body smell that many found objectionable. To me, especially the male seemed sweetish, almost like he was drenched in maple syrup perfume. Pronghorn stiff, hollow (for insulation) hairs are coated with a brownish red oil. When they were worked up, this herd was shedding, so greasy hunks of hair came out by the handfuls, and stuck everywhere.

Everyone had a job to do, and the operation went smoothly. The average time on the mattress was five minutes, and four animals were processed in less than one hour. With experienced handlers, the hand restraint of selected species can be done safely and successfully. Another reason for the success with these particular pronghorn is that they were hand reared by keepers from one day of age and returned to the herd at two months of age. This "imprinting" technique reduced the startle reaction of a species that depends on sight to identify predators. The animals integrate successfully with the herd, and breed, but they do not react violently to people and man-made commotion.

The pronghorn, from the western North American plains, is the sole represenative of its family. It is known for its sprints of over 50 miles per hour and is theorized that a cheetah like cat, now extinct, would have preyed on the pronghorn. Both sexes have bone-cored horns that are shed every year. The pronghorn is known for its brilliant white rump patch which it erects to signal danger. It cannot jump fences, but chooses to crawl under them, and conservation-minded ranchers will use a smooth wire on the bottom rung of barbed-wire fences.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Money That Encircled the Planet

These are cowrie shells, from a mollusk (Cypraea moneta) found in the Indian ocean. Cowries represented the first and the most widespread currency (the American dollar is a contender for the golbal title today). The trade is no longer in existence, but the items above show how cowries were used as decoration in Africa. The object is a knife sheath, and consists of two pieces of wood encased in a woven fiber envelope and studded with glass beads and cowries.

What makes a good currency? It needs to be portable, durable, easily divisible, difficult to counterfeit and from a limited source. Cowries met these criteria, although they were relatively heavy in bulk (in Africa, humans carried them across the continent). They are tiny and could be used as "small change" (in the 1700's, it took 25 to 32 cowrie shells to equal one farthing, the smallest currency in Britain).

There is evidence of export of cowries in the years BC, to China. The cowrie in China was so scarce that it was imitated in stone, jade, and gold. It was called "ant nose money" and used as an insert in the dead at burial, to prevent ants from entering the nostrils. Expanded export from the Maldive Islands began around the tenth century and shells were sent by the millions to Asia, Africa, and even Europe and to North America (although they were not used as money), The first cowries may have traveled as ballast in Arab dhows to the eastern coasts of Africa. In later years, the Portuguese and Dutch traded in cowries.

The Maldive Islands are a tiny country of over 1,100 islands, of which only 200 are inhabited. The total land surface of the Maldives is only one and a half times the size of the District of Columbia. The islands are located north of the Equator, south west of India.

The harvested and processing of cowries started with bundles of coconut fronds that were laid out in shallow lagoons. The rotting material collecting on the fronds attracted the mollusks to feed. Then the bundles were pulled out and spread in the sun to kill the animal inside the shells. Then, the cowries were buried in sand to decompose. Finally, the emptied shells were cleaned and shipped to foreign lands. The estimate is that there were 25 million pounds of cowries sent to the African continent between 1700 and 1800.

As other currencies, such metals coins and forged objects became popular, interest in cowries began to decline in the 18th century, although some tribes, such as the Bakuba of central Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) appreciated the porcelain beauty of the shells. They continued to use cowries in their art, attaching them to belts, tapestries, rugs, and masks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kinshasa Market Scene

The Polaroid camera I gave to the market informants enabled me to get snapshots of how business was transacted in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The upper left was of three stolen logs loaded in a metal cart. It would be sold to market women for firewood to brew the hard alcohol called lotoko.

In the top right, the smoked fish in the woven vine basket came from tributaries off of the Zaire River. Each basket weighed from 35 to 45 pounds and cost 650 million Zaires. At a rate of one million Zaires per US dollar, that was just over 72 dollars.

The lower left picture shows another scene at the market: a man has been hired to climb a palm tree to collect the palm nuts. In public places, a tree was "owned" and the fruits belonged to an individual or family. The last picture shows Kela, who sold potted plants and dried arrangements. He had other business on the side -- at the time of this picture he was trying unsuccessfully to sell monkeys to the Russians who were at the port in Matadi.

Friday, July 24, 2009


This is tanapox, photographed in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While sampling animals for monkeypox virus, I also collected mosquitoes along the banks of the Zaire River in the town of Lisala, where tanapox was seen. The theory was that the tanapox reservoir rested in small mammals (possibly monkeys) and mosquitoes were the vectors.

Tanapox was first described in the late '50s along the Tana River in Kenya, where several hundred people were afflicted. It is found throughout tropical Africa, but is rarely seen. The virus can be cultured only in monkey and human tissue. A near identical disease is found in laboratory monkeys.

Like monkeypox, tanapox is a zoonosis, meaning that it is transmitted from an animal host. It is a double-stranded DNA poxvirus that starts with a fever, followed by a single hard nodule, usually on the extremities. Sometimes there are a few lesions, with a maximum of a dozen. Fortunately, patient recovery and resolution of the lesion(s) is the outcome. Tanapox occurs in males and females, of all ages and is not readily transmitted between people.

Only five cases of tanapox have been seen in the United States. Three of these came from contact with a laboratory animal, and one was a traveler from Sierra Leone. The most recent case was a 21 year-old college student who cared for orphaned chimpanzees for two months at a sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo. She exhibited a fever, swollen lymph glands and a lesion on an elbow and leg. She was first treated for malaria and then a local doctor attempted to aspirate material from a nodule, but it was solid.

Two weeks later, she returned to the states, where tanapox was suggested as a tentative diagnosis, which was confirmed by polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR).

Photo by World Health Organization

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Old Kinshasa (Leopoldville) Map

This old map (someone wrote "1956" on it) was of the city I knew as Kinshasa, Zaire. The country was called the Belgian Congo and the city was then Leopoldville. It is still Kinshasa today, but the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997, after a military coup.

The top image of the map is of the west (towards the Atlantic ocean) and the bottom is the eastern portion, including the downtown and the ports along the Congo River (seen as the grey area labeled Fleuve Congo) . The term used for the outlining shantytowns was cite indigene and this is the origin for the word cite,with an accent on the "e." All of the terrain that was blank on the map in the '50s is now occupied by the slums that stretch for miles and miles past the original borders of Kinshasa.

One landmark seen in the middle right section of the bottom map is the small airport called Sabena (for the Belgian airline). This is now the Ndolo airport which has small aircraft and cargo planes. This was also the scene of one of the most disastrous airline accidents ever, in January, 1996. On take-off, an overloaded Russian Antonov overshot the runway and plowed into a nearby market, killing roughly 300 people.