This is the first of a four-part blog series on the ways animal research helps animals.
Endangerment and extinction are impacting several species of animals globally. From deforestation and urbanization, to poaching, pollution, and incurable disease, many argue we humans bear some responsibility and have a moral duty to help animals from becoming endangered or extinct. Whether the research is examining illnesses or studying reproduction to assist with breeding, animal research is one avenue by which scientists are helping to protect endangered animals.
EEHV and Elephants
Asian elephants, both in captivity and in the wild, are highly susceptible to a deadly strain of the herpes virus called EEHV, which can kill young elephants in a matter of days. However, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are working to learn more about the virus to save elephants in zoos and in the wild. Studies in mice and rabbits are examining antibody responses to EEHV proteins, which are important for developing diagnostic tools and treatments for affected elephants. In June, they successfully sequenced the virus’ genome, which will help researchers better understand the disease. With this increased knowledge, scientists can move toward the development of an EEHV vaccine. Such a vaccine would help both endangered Asian elephants in the wild facing EEHV, as well as those in zoos.
White-Nose Syndrome and Bats
A destructive fungus is responsible for wiping out entire bat colonies while they hibernate. Called white-nose syndrome (WNS) for the way bats’ muzzles and wings become coated in white fuzz, it affects various bat species, including both the endangered gray bat and the Indiana bat. In 2011, researchers were able to pinpoint the cause of WNS by exposing 15 healthy brown bats to the fungus. Previously, researchers thought only animals with dysfunctional immune systems could be affected by fungal infections. But this new information about the fungal cause of WNS led to a significant finding that could save bat colonies throughout North America. Because of animal research, scientists now have a better handle on how to treat WNS to prevent bat populations from further decline.
Nonhuman Primates and Ebola
Humans haven’t been the only primates affected by an Ebola outbreak. In 1994, roughly a quarter of the members of a wild chimpanzee community died of the disease. From 2002 to 2003, another study showed a massive die-off of gorillas in the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, with 5,000 killed by Ebola. Fortunately, in 2014, researchers at the University of Cambridge were able to test an Ebola vaccine on a group of captive chimpanzees. The study was an immense success, saving the lives of these critically endangered primates and giving researchers hope that more conservation-related vaccines will soon be developed. Animal research has and will undoubtedly continue to play a vital role in the development of lifesaving vaccines for both people and animals.
Animal research is also helping to prevent the extinction of endangered species through advanced reproductive techniques. For example, research into assistive reproductive technology – ranging from in vitro fertilization to cloning – creates the potential for endangered species to be bred in captivity and then released into the wild. The National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., has such programs for endangered cats and endangered canids. It is also creating a genome resource bank to protect and preserve biodiversity. Understanding the physiology of endangered species and improving conservation technology will be critical to preventing further endangerment and extinction.
Animal research plays a significant role in helping endangered animal populations. From assistive reproductive technology to vaccines for Ebola, animal research is greatly benefitting species that may otherwise disappear due to disease or man’s interference with the natural, delicate balance of the world’s ecosystem.