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Pathology of Zoo and Wild Animals

Staff in the Department of Pathology at the Smithsonian's National Zoo direct the clinical laboratory for the support of the Zoo's animal collections which includes analysis of blood and other body fluids for cellular and biochemical constituents, and parasitologic and microbiologic examinations for specific infectious agents.

This work is performed in the Zoo’s clinical laboratory which houses the latest equipment and the two highly qualified medical technologists. The pathologists also examine biopsy specimens from zoo animal patients submitted by SNZP’s clinical veterinary staff.

Pathology staff direct and participate in the Zoo’s animal necropsy (autopsy) service in which all animals that die at the Zoo undergo complete systematic post-mortem examinations. Wild animals that die on Zoo grounds are also examined to check for diseases like rabies and West Nile virus. These procedures include microscopic observation of tissues and special testing for infectious agents, nutritional deficiencies, exposure to toxins, and metabolic disorders. The Pathology staff also trains veterinarians in the specialty of zoo and wild animal pathology.

Over the last quarter century, the Pathology Department has amassed a wealth of laboratory and anatomic pathology information and photographic material from a vast array of exotic species. All of this is stored in searchable databases.

Research by the pathology staff has led to the discovery of emerging diseases such as a mouseborn virus that kills golden lion tamarins, and herpesviruses that are fatal to young elephants.

In addition, a new fungus has been recently identified as the cause of an important disease in frogs called chytridiomycosis and found to be one of the causes of the amphibian decline occurring globally.

In accordance with the tenets of the Smithsonian Institution, much of this information has been disseminated in the form of scientific publications that also address health issues important to the well being and conservation of endangered species.