Baby Rhino In San Diego Gains Weight, Offers Promise For Saving A Species
Victoria, the doting mom, led little Edward out of their barn into an exercise paddock.
The not quite three-week-old southern white rhino is feisty and keeper Jonnie Capiro says Edward wants mom to play along. He stomps his feet, huffs and then runs at Victoria.
“He’s trying to engage her in play and she just might not be as excited and as playful like a typical mom,” said Jonnie Capiro, a rhino keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Edward took particular pleasure in the muddy area in the middle of the pen.
Capiro smiles as she talks about the recent arrival.
“He’s very bold,” Capiro said. “He’s really silly and playful. He’s a good addition to our rhino family. He fits right in and he’s doing well with his mom.”
Keepers are very pleased with mom, Victoria.
She is particularly attentive, occasionally shielding her son from onlookers. It is a protective spirit that keepers are happy to see.
They are also pleased the calf is packing on the weight.
He was 148 pounds just two days after birth. Now the little rhino weighs 220 pounds and he will add about 25 pounds a month during his first year of life, according to Capiro.
Edward’s playful passion has zoo officials excited, but the Zoo’s chief reproductive physiologist, Barbara Durrant, is mostly pleased that the young rhino is here at all.
“This is our first successful artificial insemination. And it was with frozen semen,” Durrant said. “That’s only happened once before in the whole world. And it’s the first artificially inseminated calf in North America.”
Edward represents an important lifeline in the effort to save the critically endangered Northern White Rhino. Only two are still alive and both are too old to breed.
Edward’s mom, Victoria, is one of six Southern White Rhino females playing a critical role in the extinction struggle facing the northern white rhino.
“Now we know that Victoria is what we call a proven female. We know she can conceive. She can carry a fetus to term. She can give birth and she can take care of it,” Durrant said. “That’s really important for us because in the future, Victoria and the other girls here at the rhino rescue center are going to be surrogates for northern white rhino embryos.”
Scientists are still working out how to create northern white embryos from frozen cell samples and the answer may still be years off.
That gives Durrant time to get each of the six southern whites pregnant twice, once by artificial insemination and once by embryo implantation.
“Once we’re ready with Northern White Rhino embryos these females will each have had two calves so we will know that they’re fully capable,” Durrant said.
Victoria already took that step and another member of this herd is close.
Post Doctoral fellow Parker Pennington says another rhino female, Amani, is about 400 days into her pregnancy, and a person might think she would show it.
“No,” Pennington said as she looked at the rhino, “They’re quite large animals and they don’t show their pregnancy quite so much.”
The yet to be born calf is located in the back half of the belly near the hind legs.
Pennington typically uses an ultrasound wand which gives researchers glimpses of the calf, but she rarely gets a complete picture because the ultrasound is small and the calf is large.
“Because (the calf) does sit so deep into her belly we can actually see it. And we can detect movement on occasion when it's feeling active,” Pennington said.
Amani still has about 100 days to go in her pregnancy, but so far, the animal has tracked right along with the pregnancy that Victoria went through.
The rhinos are helping teach researchers.
“They’re giving us some of the first-ever information like this,” Pennington said. “The rhinos are allowing us access so that we can actually see what’s going on and get some measurements. On occasion, we can measure things like heart or a heart rate. So that’s new information for us.”
With one playful rhino calf already on the ground and another one close, attention is turning to the rest of the herd. There is optimism that two more rhinos will be pregnant before the end of the year.