18 November 2021
An aging rhinoceros at the Zoo has contributed to the conservation and care of her own species, even after her death.
Tissue samples, taken at the post-mortem of a 40-year old, Southern white rhino named Clara, will be used for a wide range of veterinary research and conservation projects, including a bio-bank of live cells, designed to help protect the species against future extinction.
After elderly white rhino, Clara, stopped eating properly, and began to lose weight, a veterinary examination revealed that her condition was deteriorating and was not going to be treatable by ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s expert team of vets. She was put to sleep on Wednesday 10 November, and the post-mortem that followed was photographed by the Zoo to allow the public insight into the rigorous, scientific work that goes on after the death of one of its animals.
ZSL’s wildlife veterinary pathologist, Dr Simon Spiro said: “Doing a post-mortem in an animal doesn’t just aid our understanding of a disease in that individual animal, it also aids our understanding of the species in the wild. It can help our vets increase their understanding of new syndromes, potential threats to other animals, and clinical decision-making.
“What we found in Clara was some really quite nasty dental disease, all very age-related. Her dental problems were severe and were stopping her from being able to eat, and could not have been rectified. She was unable to properly digest food. This is often the cause of death in older rhinos. It was the right decision by the veterinary team to euthanise Clara before she experienced pain from the condition.”
As well as knowledge of her condition, a post-mortem like Clara’s enables the Zoo to take tissue samples. In Clara’s case, over 70 different samples were taken for use in veterinary and conservation scientific research projects.
Dr Spiro continued: “With the future of rhinos in such jeopardy, ZSL’s own DNA bank will keep a copy of Clara’s genome to store indefinitely, and the specialist programme The Rhino Fertility Project at the University of Oxford is working to develop ways to grow immature eggs from Clara's ovary and generate mature eggs from them so that they can potentially be fertilised to produce white rhino embryos in the future.”
“Meanwhile, a skin sample from Clara’s ear will be treated and cryopreserved by partner organisation Nature’s SAFE, a living biobank, who store cell lines from endangered animal species. Clara’s cells will be used to create an immortal cell line, so that her cells can be used to study white rhino biology and genetics for years to come.”
A third collaboration, this time with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, will use Clara’s tissue to investigate the genetics of aging. Clara, at 40, was the equivalent of an 80 or 90 year-old human, so may have accumulated genetic mutations throughout her life.
Dr Spiro continued: “By studying her cells to see if they have mutated, scientists may be able to see if rhinos age the same way as humans age, whether they are better or worse at resisting aging, and use that information to better understand the development of cancers and heart disease.”
All of the findings from post-mortems like Clara’s are stored on the Zoo Information Management System, or ZIMS, so that vets and zoos around the world can share knowledge and understanding of the threatened species in their care.
Dr Spiro continued: “Even in death, there can be life. While it is very sad for all of us that Clara’s gone, her tissues will influence the way we look after and protect this incredible species in the wild for years to come. In that sense, Clara will be part of the future conservation of this incredible species in a way that will live on forever.”
To find out more about the amazing world of wildlife pathology, and discover how it can be used to improve the welfare and conservation of animals both in zoos and in the wild, catch up on our online Science and Conservation event "Revealing the unseen", featuring Dr Spiro alongside three other ZSL experts. And keep an eye out for our next ZSL Wild Science podcast episode on this fascinating topic coming soon.