The Nashville Zoo's newest clouded leopard is not only one-of-a-kind, it's the result of a scientific breakthrough that will aide in global conservation efforts.
The zoo's newest clouded leopard cub is the first to be born via an artificial insemination procedure using thawed or frozen semen, according to a Nashville Zoo news release. The male cub hasn't been named.
The procedure was done in cooperation with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
“This is an enormous accomplishment for both Nashville Zoo and the team at the Smithsonian,” said Heather Robertson, director of veterinary services at the zoo. “It means we can collect and preserve semen from clouded leopard populations around the globe and improve pregnancy outcomes from (artificial insemination) procedures in this species.”
Robertson and Nashville Zoo Associate Veterinarian Margarita Woc Colburn used hormones to induce ovulation in a female named Tula who was born and raised at Nashville Zoo, says the release.
The Smithsonian’s research staff, which collected semen a week earlier from a male named Hannibal at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, used a new technique depositing a very small volume of semen into the oviduct where the eggs normally rest after ovulation, according to a news release.
The result was a landmark procedure that produced Nashville's newest and cutest clouded leopard.
Rick Schwartz, Nashville Zoo president, said the genetic diversity among captive clouded leopards had diminished in recent years, Many captive clouded leopards were related because the cats are so notoriously hard to breed. Males are aggressive if they are incompatible with their mate and often injury or kill the female if an introduction goes wrong, he said.
The new technique can help ensure the safety of the animals.
"This could absolutely save or create a self-sustaining captive population," Schwartz said.
After birth, the Nashville Zoo's cub was removed for examination and will be hand-raised by keepers to ensure his survival. By hand-raising the cub, it also lowers animal stress for future hands-on care, Schwartz said.
The cub will stay at Nashville Zoo with plans to eventually introduce him someday to a potential mate. Schwartz said clouded leopards introduced to each other at a young are able to bond, lowering the aggression seen in newly introduced pairs.
"If we raise, socialize and pair before them before six months old we are able to create a strong monogamous pair," Schwartz said.
Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute have a long history of working together on clouded leopard conservation, according to the news release. Since 2000, they also have collaborated with several international groups to develop breeding programs as well as field monitoring projects for clouded leopards in Thailand.
Nashville Zoo & Smithsonian make history with birth of clouded leopard! Join us at noon on March 3 for a Facebook Live event! pic.twitter.com/qTrS40X4tp— Nashville Zoo (@NashvilleZoo) March 2, 2017
The captive clouded leopard population is not self-sustaining, bringing about the need for the procedures, the release says. Clouded leopards are among the rarest of the world’s cat species and one of the most secretive.
“This cub, the first clouded leopard offspring produced with cryopreserved semen, is a symbol of how zoos and scientists can come together to make positive change for animals and preserving global biodiversity,” said Adrienne Crosier with the Smithsonian research team. “Collaboration is the key to conservation of clouded leopards, along with so many other rare and endangered species we care for and study.”
The first successful clouded leopard artificial insemination was performed at Nashville Zoo in 1992 by Smithsonian scientists.
Reach Jason Gonzales at 615-259-8047 and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.