Newswise — The conservation of rare and endangered species is a problem that is worldwide and is increasing in importance, and when these threatened animals encounter reproductive difficulties, it’s up to researchers to figure out the puzzle.

That’s why the University of North Florida is partnering with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation and assisting in research to help breed rare and endangered species at zoos around the country. UNF is the only university in the world that has a partnership with the organization as well as a working reproductive hormone lab on its campus.

SEZARC, a non-profit group based at White Oak Conservation Holdings LLC in Yulee, Fla., is comprised of 10 zoos, conservation centers and aquariums across the country that are working together to try and solve reproductive challenges in many zoo species.

“We are helping threatened animal populations’ sustainability. If we don’t save them, there won’t be any left,” said Dr. Lara Metrione, SEZARC research associate. “You remove one little cog from the system and the system falls apart.”

With so many unique species, like white rhinos and red pandas, sometimes it’s difficult for animal managers to tell when it’s the right time during a female’s cycle to put animals together for breeding or whether breeding has been successful and the female is pregnant. Sometimes there is an unknown disease in an animal, or the animal could be overweight, which can make it difficult to reproduce. UNF is partnering with the reproduction non-profit organization to help find out this information and assist in this vital research.

SEZARC has established a collaborative working laboratory at the university, which is important because it provides the group easy access to UNF Department of Biology faculty, but more importantly, students get hands-on experience with hormone research in a lab where the results are being utilized on a daily basis to help zoos and aquariums make decisions about how to manage their animals.

“The work UNF students are doing for SEZARC is critical. We have such a demand from our institutions all wanting to know what’s happening with their animals, so having these students assist us with this research really speeds up the results we can get out to these institutions,” said Dr. Linda Penfold, SEZARC director.

SEZARC researchers take fecal samples from captive animals and, along with biology students at UNF, study hormone levels from the animals’ waste to determine when a creature is in its prime time to have a baby. At that point, they can move forward in mating the animals, and then SEZARC researchers can help monitor the pregnancy from the hormones as well.

“We take the feces and look at the levels of hormones in them,” said UNF junior Kelly Hensley, a biology major and SEZARC intern. “We can determine when they’re sexually mature, how stressed the animals are and we can look at their reproductive cycles, so we can know the best time to put them with other animals to reproduce.”

While the same information could be gleaned from blood samples, obtaining voluntarily (and frequently) deposited fecal samples from the threatened animals is a completely non-invasive alternative. The reproductive hormones are easily extracted from these samples due to their solubility in ethanol. UNF students have had the opportunity to work with samples from a diversity of species, such as white rhino, red panda, klipspringer and various primates, including gorillas, lemurs, colobus and mandrills.

The partnership between the two organizations is a win-win. At UNF, students get access to real-world job training with endangered species, and SEZARC gets access to academic expertise and extra hands to conduct research.

“Our students are learning cutting-edge techniques for hormone analysis and reproductive technologies, but they are also getting a chance to work with animals they wouldn’t have had the chance to without this partnership,” said Dr. Dan Moon, UNF biology professor and chair of the Department of Biology.

“The partnership with UNF lends an academic dimension to the work we do,” said Penfold. “It provides us with expertise in areas such as genetics, shark and stingray biology and nutrition, thereby increasing the scope of what we can offer our zoos and aquariums.”

SEZARC, established in 2010, provides the zoo and conservation community with expertise to solve reproduction issues that challenge effective breeding of rare and endangered animals. Services include fertility checks, semen collection and assessment, contraception and breeding plans, as well as establishment of investigative research projects to understand more about the natural biology of rare species.

The University of North Florida in Jacksonville is a nationally ranked university located on an environmentally beautiful campus and offers students who are dedicated to enriching the lives of others the opportunity to build their own futures through a well-rounded education.