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Slashing through limits

Lila Szweda, Exhibit Interpreter

Zoo Atlanta is part of a thriving community. Behind the animals and the team members you see on grounds, there is a team of researchers dedicated to advancing the welfare of animals in zoological and wild settings. Despite being a geographically smaller zoo, Zoo Atlanta is a research powerhouse. A 2017 study quantifying the contributions of zoos and aquariums to peer-reviewed scientific research found us to be the seventh most productive AZA institution for research. 

Our success arises from our partnerships with governmental and collegiate organizations. We collaborate most often with Emory and Georgia Tech. However, some of our most famous projects were with other institutions, including international zoos, universities, conservation organizations, Atlanta Botanical Garden, and UC San Francisco (Mendelson, 2023). 

Heading these partnerships is Dr. Joseph Mendelson, one of the foremost experts in the field of Herpetology. When he isn’t teaching students or monitoring animals challenged by their latest puzzle, he is sharing stories. Most famous are his “immobilized jeep” stories. I recently sat down with Joe to listen to his experiences. 

“I was looking for this frog,” Joe begins. “I saw this preserved frog in a museum and thought it might actually be a new species. So, I headed to Mexico to find one. I looked forever. No frog. Well, we heard there was a storm coming, and I just knew we had to get away from our site. We didn’t. The roads washed away, and the ground opened up into a sinkhole, swallowing our Jeep. I got out and sat on the Jeep, wondering how I would get out of this mess. Just then I noticed a small frog passing by.” 

“No,” I said. “That frog couldn’t be…” 

“Yes,” he said smiling. “I call that frog my guardian frog, and yes, it was a new species. I gave it a scientific name that translates to ‘guardian forest toad.’” 

Next, Joe described his process for considering proposed projects. First, he identifies the benefit of the study. Would the study advance our understanding of an animal’s traits? Would the findings of the study help solve pressing environmental, societal, or medical issues? By illustrating an animal’s importance, Zoo Atlanta drives further interest in a species’ survival.  Then he asks if the study would hurt the animal. If the answer is no, he moves forward to the last question: Is this project financially feasible? 

Using this paradigm, Zoo Atlanta, along with many other zoos and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, helped prevent the extinction of Panamanian golden frogs. The Central American frogs were being wiped out by an unknown pathogen.  Zoo Atlanta researchers and their colleagues set out to study the overall problem affecting the species and determined the culprit to be an invasive fungus brought over from Southeast Asia through globalization. 

Southeast Asian frogs are unaffected by the fungus as they have a special skin that deters fungal infection. Since Central American frogs lack this adaptation and don’t have that special skin, they are at high risk of infection. Researchers determined the frogs couldn’t be saved and drastic action was needed. The team brought back many frogs to their own institutions, including Zoo Atlanta, and established a conservation-breeding facility in Panama. These frogs became the “founders” of an assurance population while we wait for the disease to run its course in their native range. Inspired by the collaborative efforts to save this species, Zoo Atlanta co-led efforts to create Amphibian Ark, an IUCN organization that supports and informs global captive breeding efforts for amphibian conservation (Mendelson, 2023). 

This paradigm also helped Zoo Atlanta support a cardiovascular study involving Komodo dragons. Cardio-geneticist Dr. Benoit Bruneau at UC San Francisco knew that lizards have only a three-chambered heart, making their cardiovascular system similar to that of humans with heart valve defects. Despite this defect, lizards are still able to engage in feats of strength and stamina with one another. Bruneau was interested in learning about lizard genetics to identify the reason behind their surprising strength, in the hopes that he could better help his heart patients. He wondered if he could have some blood samples from Slasher (1992-2013), the iconic Komodo dragon at Zoo Atlanta (Mendelson, 2023). 

Bruneau submitted the proposal to the Zoo Atlanta Scientific Research Committee for consideration and potential approval. Dr. Joe considered his request. Would the study help us learn more about Komodo dragons or provide findings that could benefit society? Yes. Connecting lizard research to heart research would provide more reasons to save the lizards and help us learn more about them too. Would the study hurt the Komodo dragon? No, Joe reasoned. Our Vet Team could take a few extra blood drops during Slasher’s annual health check-up. Finally, was it financially feasible? Yes. He told the doctor he would have to wait until Slasher’s next annual blood test, but then, yes, Zoo Atlanta could help him out (Mendelson, 2023). 

Nine years later, the results of the study came through. It turns out, Komodo dragons have a special gene enabling oxygen-rich blood to be pumped out quickly, so it doesn’t mix with the oxygen-poor blood. In short, they have a special heart pump. It seems the lizards also have enhanced mitochondria, a tiny little “factory” in our cells that creates energy for us (Claiborn & Langelier, 2019). Dr. Bruneau’s team hopes their findings will help doctors one day prevent or treat incurable heart diseases (Lind et al., 2019). And Slasher? Well, Slasher remains the hero of the story, oblivious that his heartfelt donation might one day help the hearts of others. 

There are hundreds more examples of Zoo Atlanta participating in innovative research. In fact, our team has contributed to over 300 scientific papers! By keeping those three questions in mind, each time Zoo Atlanta embarks on a research journey, we create opportunities to defy the boundaries that limit us and wildlife.  

 

Sources: 

  • Claiborn, K. & Langelier, J. (2019, July 29). Dragon Heart. Gladstone Institutes. https://gladstone.org/news/dragon-heart  
  • Lind, A. L., Lai, Y. Y. Y., Mostovoy, Y., Holloway, A. K., Iannucci, A., Mak, A. C. Y., Fondi, M., Orlandini, V., Eckalbar, W. L., Milan, M., Rovatsos, M., Kichigin, I. G., Makunin, A. I., Johnson Pokorná, M., Altmanová, M., Trifonov, V. A., Schijlen, E., Kratochvíl, L., Fani, R., Velenský, P., … Bruneau, B. G. (2019). Genome of the Komodo dragon reveals adaptations in the cardiovascular and chemosensory systems of monitor lizards. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(8), 1241–1252. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0945-8 
  • Mendelson, J. (2023, March 31). Zoo Atlanta. Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 

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