Neb. woman uses knowledge of livestock reproduction to impregnate elephants
The road that began in Creston, Neb., for reproductive physiologist Dr. Kari Morfeld, has led to the Smithsonian, numerous times to Africa, and right back to Nebraska. She is now using her knowledge of reproduction, learned in the context of cattle and hogs, to work toward a successful pregnancy in a female elephant in a zoo.
Morfeld earned her undergraduate degree at Nebraska Wesleyan, went on to earn her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She made the decision to leave Nebraska briefly to earn her Ph.D from George Mason University in Washington D.C. The program is in collaboration with the Smithsonian, where she was able to take her Nebraska-borne knowledge of biology and reproduction and apply it to elephants. A two-year post-doctorate, also at the Smithsonian, in endocrinology allowed her further expertise.
“It hasn’t been the straight and narrow path by any means but that was kind of the point, to pave the trails for others,” she said. “There are a lot of people with similar interests to mine but there’s the roadblock that the path doesn’t exist.”
Paving the way, she said, is about ensuring that people don’t have to leave Nebraska to follow a less traditional calling. She values Nebraska for the people and places, the things they hold dear, and as a place to raise her two young daughters. Being able to contribute to elephants from her home state is priceless. She’s now in the process of establishing a graduate program, making the path even more accessible, especially with scholarships, tuition waivers and agreements with universities.
Morfeld said the parallels between elephants and cattle exist and the technology can be adapted to work for elephants. The basic processes, like assessing semen quality, are the same although sample size differs with cattle samples at about 5 mLs and elephants bulls at 30 to 300 mLs with a sperm count of one million per mL. Collection on the 10,000-pound elephant bulls is accomplished using manual rectal massage, which can take up to an hour and multiple people to make the collection. Samples are checked throughout the process and samples must be extended within 15 minutes to conserve motility.
“I do everything I’ve learned for cattle, equine, and swine and tried those methods on elephants to see if it works,” she said. “That’s in terms of specific semen extenders and that sort of thing. The thing that’s the same is the process, the basic characteristics are the same, it gets different when you look at the details.”
The major adaptation she must make is in terms of scale, to accommodate the much larger size of elephants. For comparison, a heifer’s cervix is about 4 inches long and the size of a man’s finger, whereas an elephant cow’s cervix is about 15 cm but the tract is about 4 meters long, making reaching the cervix a challenge.
Many companies have been happy to help design larger equipment for her from ultrasound machines better able to penetrate the thick skin of an elephant, endoscopes, collection tubes and other equipment.
The companies willing to do this, she said, are gracious to do so since she is the product’s only potential market so they are typically excited to play a role in her work.
Part of the challenge facing elephants is flatliners, cows who should be but aren’t cycling in zoos without a bull present. About half of cows in zoos are flatliners and much of her initial research was aimed at this problem. Cows don’t need a bull to cycle but she said the main factors in a zoo that determine whether or not a cow will cycle include social standing among females in the herd and body condition. Not all zoos have bulls on site and the transportation of bulls from one zoo to another is time consuming and expensive. Artificial insemination, where much of Morfeld’s research lies, isn’t yet perfected.
Body condition score, long a standard in the cattle industry, is something she was able to define for elephants and her scale is now used by zoos across the country. She used ultrasound measures of fat to put metrics behind the scores to give scientific meaning to the differences.
“That was taken directly from the livestock industry even so much as the ideas of where elephants put on body fat,” she said. “I utilize the livestock industry all the time because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”
Morfeld said the body condition of an elephant in the wild fluctuates through the seasons and she’s now trying to promote a seasonal change in feeding for zoo elephants knowing its importance to the reproductive health of an elephant. Convincing zoos to allow their elephants to shed body weight for a few months and then regain it as the seasons change is a tough sell but is key to triggering reproductive hormones.
The last factor that plays an important role in reproduction in zoo elephants is the females’ mental and physical engagement within their zoo habitat.
“We’ve found that zoos that have a more enriching environment, one where they’re not just fed hay or pellets on the ground, but the hay is in hanging hay nets or puzzle feeders and the elephants have to work for their food like they would in the wild, promotes an elephant to have a normal reproductive cycle,” she said.
In the wild, elephants eat about 20 hours per day, but the old school method of feeding zoo elephants relied on a zookeeper’s schedule of twice per day. Implementing automatic feeders has helped eliminate this challenge without increasing the volume of feed, only the time during which it is accessible. The automatic feeders deliver feed throughout the night but the timers must be programmed differently each day to mimic a more natural environment.
This speaks volumes, she said, to just how complicated elephants are and how significant a role a diverse exhibit design in terms of feeding mechanism and a social herd are in reproductive health. Social standing in elephants, she said, mirrors the same role in hogs, another aspect parallel to livestock.
In the end, it’s a careful balancing act to combine technology with the natural history of elephants in Africa.
“The contacts I made here 20 years ago growing up are still the contacts I use to help elephants which is fantastic,” she said. “It’s fun to have that close and it shows the willingness of people in Nebraska to support something that’s new and unique and not necessarily benefitting their industries.” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.