Takin Pregnancy Test
The Science Behind the Takin Births
How do you monitor a female takin’s reproductive cycle? And how can you tell when she’s pregnant?
Long before the recent births of two male takins at the zoo’s Antelope & Zebra Area, animal care staff, veterinarians and scientists sought answers to these questions.
The zoo’s Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endrocrinology often helps make such determinations to support breeding programs—in this case, breeding recommended by the Sichuan Takin Species Survival Plan®, a shared conservation effort by zoos throughout the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Takins are burly goat-antelope herbivores that have become vulnerable due to hunting and habitat loss in their native eastern Himalayan range in China, Tibet and Myanmar.
By analyzing hormones in animals’ fecal samples over a period of time, researchers can measure levels of progesterone, a hormone associated with female reproductive cycles. This helps them deduce if an animal is pregnant, when conception occurred and when the birth is likely to take place.
The takins were born within a few days of each other to two different mothers. Mei Li, a 5-year-old female born at the zoo in 2007, became a first-time mom on January 31. Eight-year-old Jinse, who arrived at the zoo in late November 2006, delivered her second son on February 9. Her first, born March 6, 2007, is a male named Bao who currently resides in a yard next to the one occupied by the rest of the herd.
Synchronicity prevailed for the two recent births. Davee Center researchers were able to deduce that both became pregnant in mid-June of 2012. To reach that conclusion, they combined hormonal analyses, species research, and animal care staff’s observations of breeding behavior.
For example, researchers have monitored Mei Li’s reproductive hormones since she became sexually mature in 2009. “So we knew what her progesterone values were for her reproductive cycles,” says Santymire. “When progesterone didn’t return to low levels—baseline values—we knew she was pregnant.” The gestation period for female takins averages 7–8 months.
Determining takins’ cyclical breeding patterns isn’t a simple matter. In 2012, Santymire, General Curator Dave Bernier (who also serves as the Sichuan Takin SSP Coordinator) and Angie Adkin, a former Antelope & Zebra Area keeper, helped clarify that knowledge. They published a paper on their joint study, begun in 2006, that characterizes the behavior and reproductive biology of zoo-housed Sichuan takins. They used non-invasive fecal-hormone monitoring and behavioral observations to collect their data.
“We found out takins are seasonal breeders, only reproductively active from June/July to December/January. Cycles stop from February to June,” says Santymire. “Then we determined the values of progesterone that characterized pregnancy.”
They included males in the study. “We examined their testosterone levels to see if there was a seasonal pattern with them too,” says Santymire. “Yes, there is! Testosterone starts to rise in March and drops before the end of the breeding season–around October. Males have to ramp up reproduction before the females because they have to produce sperm. Testosterone needs to rise a couple of months before the female starts to cycle.”
Planning and achieving successful animal propagation in zoos takes teamwork, says Santymire.
“The Population Management Center [hosted at the zoo in partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums] determines the best matches genetically,” she says. “Animal care staff monitor behavior and develop appropriate husbandry practices. Vets safeguard the animals’ health. Scientists monitor what’s going on inside the animals to fine-tune all those practices and help maintain our animals’ health and well-being.”
Craig Keller • Published February 27, 2013
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Baby Takins at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
There's a double dose of play in Lincoln Park Zoo's Antelope & Zebra Area, where the Sichuan takin herd has welcomed two babies!