The Living Desert is involved in a variety of conservation projects. Some require us to travel far distances while others occur right here at the zoo. At the Tennity Wildlife Hospital and Conservation Center we have worked with researchers from MIT in studying the ear canals of sand cats and identifying the sounds they are able to detect (while visiting the hospital you can see molds made of the ear canals during that project).
In another project we collected biopsies from the stomachs of our cheetahs to study the helicobacter organism and its effect on the stomach. We continue to collect samples each year during the cheetah’s annual exams.
The Living Desert has the largest collection of sand cats in the country, and in 2004 a group of researchers from The Cincinnati Zoo asked us to participate in a reproductive study in sand cats. The project started by collecting genetic material from male sand cats to see if it could be stored for future use. This progressed to collecting genetic material from the females and later to fertilizing their eggs with fresh and stored sperm from the males. Each step continued to show success, so we attempted our first in-vitro fertilization in September 2008. Unfortunately we had some unexpected complications, which affected our ability to properly incubate the fertilized eggs.
One of the challenges facing zoos when working with endangered species is the ability to maintain genetic diversity. This often requires shipping animals around the country to breed with other animals, thus reducing the affects of inbreeding. If we are successful in this project, we may have a new tool for managing sand cat populations in zoos around the world.