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Dr. Kersey Travels to China Part 1

This journal is my summary of providing training and setting up research projects at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) Dujiangyan Base (DJY) and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Base) starting May 22nd and ending June 2nd, 2017.

I have long-standing relationships with both facilities/organizations in the capacity of setting up and providing training on hormone monitoring techniques for giant pandas, particularly with regard to breeding.

The purpose of the DJY portion of the trip was to provide follow-up training on endocrine monitoring techniques and set up a study that will permit accurate measurement of hormones in the feces of giant pandas in the wild.

The purpose of the Chengdu Base portion of the trip was likewise to provide additional training on hormone monitoring techniques, set up a study to assess the hormone changes associated with parenthood and breeding, and discuss future research projects.

In my summary below I will provide further detail about the activities for each facility, however before I do so I want to acknowledge that this trip would have not been possible without the generosity of Pandas International (PI).  PI has not only supported efforts for the betterment of giant pandas in China, but have also supported my activities in China; to that end I am deeply appreciative.  Additionally, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help provided by my assistant on this trip, Dr. Jessica Coote.  Dr. Coote worked in my lab when she was a student and was willing to utilize her vacation time to assist me in training and lab work during this trip.  Finally, Western University of Health Sciences continues to support my time in these endeavors, for which I am very grateful.

May 24 – 26, 2017: DJY

Part of the impetus behind this trip came from DJY staff in wanting to conduct hormone monitoring studies of giant pandas in the wild, but in full recognition that there are limitations to such studies.  One such limitation is the degradation of hormones in the feces once voided.  Not accounting for these post-voidance alterations to the hormones would lead to measuring hormone concentrations that reflect degradation, and not physiology of the animal of interest.  Therefore, establishing how hormones degrade in the feces is instrumental to conducting hormone studies in the wild.  To this end, I designed a study that could be carried out at DJY to determine how hormones change in the feces after they are voided.  I spent half a day with the hormone laboratory staff going over all aspects of this study, and tailored a protocol that would allow them to conduct the study.

The DJY staff also requested that I provide additional training on the physiology that underlies ovulation in the giant panda.  They have a solid grasp of the hormone patterns associated with estrus, but wanted a better appreciation of how fertility is related to those changes.  To this request, I provided a half day lecture on the physiological processes that lead to ovulation and the coveted “fertility window” in the giant panda.  By the end of the lecture the staff informed me that they have greater confidence in how they will time breeding for giant pandas in future breeding seasons.

The staff was also concerned about the turnaround in data for timing breeding.  There are inherent limitations to how quickly data can be produced to determine a female’s hormone value as she is in estrus.  Because hormones are the most accurate metric to determine fertility and the period of fertility in giant pandas in only a couple days each year, getting timely information about hormone changes is crucial for optimizing breeding in this species.  I worked with the staff to modify current hormone monitoring protocols to reduce the turnaround time from 3.5 hours to 1.5 hours.  This reduction in time will enable staff to generate more information about the physiological status of a female and better inform animal managers about the optimal time for breeding giant pandas.

Additional training topics included validation of hormone analysis for other species; procedures to increase reliability of measuring sample values over time; and increase precision and accuracy of the calculations needed to conduct hormone analysis.  For these additional training components, I conducted short lectures and Jessica conducted wet labs to demonstrate the practical aspects of the theoretical framework I provided in lecture.

Conclusion of the DJY portion of the trip:  The training provided during this trip was a natural progression of the training I have provided the DJY staff since 2014.  I believe that the staff gleaned the knowledge they requested; however with this additional knowledge they recognized they would likely need another training session to elaborate on validation; a topic that requires considerable attention to fully employ autonomously.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming next week!

CCRCGP Training. Left to right: Yong; Sophie; Strong; Roo; Jenny; David Kersey; Jessica Coote; Ms. Zhou; Nathan Wintle
CCRCGP Training. Left to right: Yong; Sophie; Strong; Roo; Jenny; David Kersey; Jessica Coote; Ms. Zhou; Nathan Wintle