The National Zoo’s Cat Conservation Project studies reproduction of cats to create scholarly knowledge and to facilitate management and conservation.
|Asian fishing cat|
|Cheetah produced by
When natural reproduction fails, National Zoo scientists are leaders in using modern technologies, often originally developed for combating human infertility. A high priority is maintaining or increasing genetic diversity in small populations to avoid inbreeding, which causes poor fertility and increased disease susceptibility. Our scientists work closely with zoos worldwide to develop assisted reproduction techniques, including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and cryopreservation (freezing) of sperm and embryos. Such approaches provide managers alternatives for improving reproduction. The use of cryopreserved sperm has animal welfare implications. For example, shipping sperm from one location to another to facilitate breeding is less stressful than transporting animals.
Significant accomplishments may have little to do with producing young. They may involve correcting a fertility problem that allows a valuable animal to naturally reproduce. It may involve developing a frozen repository of sperm, tissue, blood and DNA in a foreign country to help safeguard wild populations. It may involve developing new technologies to rescue the sperm or eggs from the tissues of valuable animals that die unexpectedly. It may include developing new technologies and methods for cryopreserving sperm, eggs and tissues that one day—generations from now—can be used to create life. It may simply involve motivating and training an enthusiastic young student in Thailand or South Africa—someone who has never before considered wildlife reproduction as a career.
Felids (cats) have fascinated and inspired people since the beginning of recorded history. There are 37 cat species, and 23 of these (or their subspecies) are threatened with extinction. Scientists in the Zoo's Department of Reproductive Sciences are pioneers in felid biology, including using cutting-edge technologies to protect and preserve genetic diversity.
The first step to ensuring species survival is a better understanding of reproductive biology—the essence of species survival. Our highest priority is state-of-the-art scientific study of reproductive phenomena in cats. Answers to questions—such as why does a cheetah produce so many abnormally shaped sperm or what is the normal reproductive cycle of a snow leopard—are fundamental to understanding biology and developing conservation strategies for species in zoos and in nature.
Hormones control reproductive success. Knowing an animal’s hormone patterns allows understanding its biology and diagnosing and correcting infertility. Historically, measuring hormones was done by taking blood samples in anesthetized animals—the only safe way. Our scientists have pioneered methods to measure critical hormones without even touching the animal. This is done by analyzing hormones in feces. Therefore, what was once considered a daily “waste product” now has become a valuable “research resource,” a virtual storehouse of biological information on reproductive cyclicity, the time of ovulation, pregnancy and impending birth. This cutting edge technology has been used to study the cheetah, clouded leopard, fishing cat, jaguar, Pallas’ cat, tiger, margay, ocelot, puma, and snow leopard, among others. This technology has been key to developing assisted breeding, helping advance hormone therapies to stimulate ovarian activity and improving the timing of artificial insemination. Particularly exciting are recent advances to measure “stress” hormones, which can be used to help enrich zoo environments, thereby improving reproduction and animal well-being.