Dr. David Kersey kept a journal while he was in China in October to set up an endocrine lab at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base. We’ll be featuring his notes over the next three weeks. His trip was sponsored by Pandas International and we can not thank him enough for the work he has done and continues to do on behalf of the pandas.
Here is his first entry:
My name is David Kersey, and I have been involved in giant panda research for 13, going on 14, years. My research has focused on the reproductive biology of the species. Over the years I have published several studies that have improved the collective knowledge of giant panda reproduction and have been involved in several successful artificial inseminations (AI).
The purpose of my trip was to set up a hormone lab at the Dujiangyan Base and provide training for the staff that will operate the lab. The lab will be used for determining reproductive status of females in heat and also serve as a center for field studies looking to understand hormones of animals, not just giant pandas, in the wild. Although measuring hormones has been done for years, this new lab will employ new techniques that will be more efficient than previous methods. Additionally, with greater interest in understanding the biology of animals in giant panda habitat, this will be the first lab of its kind to service those studies – a very exciting prospect. Collectively, this lab will function like none other before, serving as a hub of hormone research and reproductive assessment for the benefit of giant panda conservation and species that share its expansive habitat.
There is much more to discuss about the new lab, but I must acknowledge the generosity of a few organizations before I go any further. First, Pandas International (PI) is leading supporting not only my effort to set up the lab and train the staff, but also supply and equip these very important labs. Under the leadership of Suzanne Braden, PI is leading the charge to provide the necessary tools and training to make such an important conservation goal possible. Additionally, I want to acknowledge the technical assistance on this trip of Morgan Maly and the support of David Wildt, Adrienne Crosier, and Copper Aitken-Palmer of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). Morgan is generously lending her time to help me in my activities. And last but not least, my own institution, Western University of Health Sciences, for supporting me on these endeavors.
This was the first day at the Base. The Base is located about a 30 min drive from the heart of the city on a rural road.
My objective today was to get a lay of the land; figure out what was in the labs and get things set up. However, before I did so, I was introduced to the lab staff in a brief meeting.
The labs (a endocrine lab and a noninvasive sample processing lab) were well equipped and supplied, largely with thanks to PI. With help from the staff, we were able to get the labs set up and organized.
Today we began by processing giant panda fecal samples. For the uninitiated, feces contains a wealth of information about hormones. For more than 30 years feces has been used to elucidate the reproductive and hormone biology of many rare and endangered species, including giant pandas. Feces is also an ideal sample to collect in the wild as it is usually plentiful and one does not need to disturb the animal to collect it. Therefore, many of the studies planned for species in the giant panda habitat will collect feces. However, to be analyzed for hormones there are several procedures to extract the hormones from the feces.
Today was step one, preparing the samples for freeze drying. Freeze drying is an essential step in conducting fecal hormone analysis, as it stabilizes the samples (prevents bacterial and fungal degradation) and once dried, samples can be homogenized and weighed as a powder. However, before being placed in a freeze drier the surface area of the feces must be maximized to expedite the drying process (usually a several day event in a freeze drying machine). The trainees were able to get this done without a problem and the samples were loaded into the freeze drier, to be retrieved on Monday for extraction.
The rest of the day was spent making the buffers and solutions for the assays. When humans get their hormones measured from blood, kits are used to measure the hormones. However those kits are not very effective for measuring the hormones in the feces. Therefore all components of the hormone analysis must be made in the lab rather than purchased in a kit. Making the buffers is a very important step in setting up the hormone lab.