09 04/09/2017

Meet Alice Clark: Endocrinology Intern

Alice is a Masters student from the University of Glasgow who came to Chester Zoo to do her industrial placement year. During her degree she went on various scientific expeditions doing fieldwork but wanted to try something different and applied for a placement in our endocrinology lab.

Alice doing some fieldwork in Bolivia as part of her degree. 
The project Alice worked on during her year at the zoo was following up on one of our 2012 intern’s study. The student at the time had looked at the differences between progesterone and oestrogen during pregnancy of the Przewalski’s horse and the onager and found that progesterone looked like it could be a more reliable indicator of pregnancy.

Alice’s project, Non-Invasive Pregnancy Detection in Captive Equids, intended to carry on that study but this time looking at four different equid species: Przewalski’s horse, onager, Grevy’s zebra and domestic horse.

Now that her placement year is reaching an end, we asked Alice to reflect on her year at Chester Zoo.

Could you please tell us a bit more about your project?

“The 2012 intern found that progesterone looked like it might be a more reliable indicator of pregnancy in two equids species but there was not enough data to really do a comparative study. I obtained samples from domestic horses as a model species and then also from the Grevy’s zebras at the zoo so we had four species instead of two species. We tested all four species for progesterone, oestradiol and oestrogen conjugates over a period of 13 months which is the average gestation for equid species. We had samples collected over the entire gestation period and other samples collected over 12 months from non-pregnant individuals so we could compare pregnant vs non-pregnant.
Dilution of faecal extracts during sample preparation.

“We found that from the second trimester onwards, which is month five, in every single species, progesterone in pregnant individuals rose higher than in non-pregnant individuals. We couldn’t see as clear a pattern for either of the oestrogen assays. It shows that progesterone is a very reliable indicator of pregnancy from month five onwards which can be used to non-invasively diagnose pregnancy as we use faecal samples, so we don’t have to draw blood.

“Such a protocol could potentially be used in the field as well, you can just follow a herd of animals from a distance and then after they moved on, collect the faecal samples and take them back to the laboratory to assess how many individuals in your population are pregnant.”

What was the biggest challenge you encountered during your research?

“With any laboratory work there is a lot of difficulty sometimes to get everything to work exactly the same way! So it was slower than I had expected sometimes but I think overall it was fine because I did plan to have a few months of buffer in order to get everything done. Also overall there was a huge number of samples. In total I analysed over a 1000 faecal samples and that was a lot to get through but Rebecca Mogey, the Conservation Physiology Technician, was a huge help. She really helped me designate my time in the laboratory.”
Standard preparation for comparison against unknown samples.

How is this year going to help you with your degree and future career?

“I learnt a whole new subject essentially as I hadn’t done much endocrinology research in my zoology course! I had to jump in at the deep end and learn how the reproductive systems of a lot of different mammals work. I also realised the importance of having a laboratory like this in a zoo.

“Having the capacity to test your samples on site, to have real time answers for what’s going on and help to manage when animal should be bred together is incredible. A huge thing we do here at Chester Zoo is monitor the oestrus cycle so we are able to say that animals should be bred on this exact day because we know that they are more likely to get pregnant.”

Performing an immunoassay for the detection of hormone metabolites.

What is your best memory from this year at Chester Zoo?

“This sounds very cliché but my best memory was the birth of the two baby elephants a month apart of each other followed by the baby rhinos born a week apart from each other. They are two such important species and I genuinely felt really proud knowing that we helped the team by telling them when they were going to be born. It’s a very satisfying job and for a zoologist this is the most satisfying type of laboratory work you can get, because it’s all about baby animals!” 

Elephant calves, Indali and Aayu, born a month apart of each other.