Professor, student explore stress factors in wolves

imageA professor and student at SUNY Oswego are performing a study that could impact how wolves and other animals are raised at zoos and in captivity around North America.

Diane Chepko-Sade, assistant professor of zoology, and honors student Michael Mastromauro are trying to determine differences between captive wolves raised socialized to human contact versus those raised primarily by their parents. Their work is funded on a campus level by a $2,500 Student/Faculty Collaborative Challenge Grant. A three-year $60,000 grant from Merck and the American Association for the Advancement of Science also supports their work.

“The larger issue is when we keep an animal in captivity, we want to create conditions where they are not stressed,” Chepko-Sade. “This is a challenge for carnivores who travel large distances and, by their nature, avoid humans.”

A promising technique at Wolf Park in Indiana involves rearing young wolves with human contact from the time the cubs are 5 days old to 14 weeks. The Oswego project seeks to verify whether that will lower stress to the wolves.

“The behavioral indicators suggest that those animals appear much less stressed than animals that are parent-reared,” Chepko-Sade said. For instance, animals that will lie down, play and interact with each other in the presence of humans appear less stressed than those that stand around, watch humans or hide from people.

Stress can lessen the length and quality of an animal’s lifespan by suppressing the immune system, making it more susceptible to infection and disease, and suppressing reproduction, Chepko-Sade said.

Mastromauro will test stress levels chemically by measuring the amount of cortisol, a hormone produced by stress, in fecal samples collected from wolves socialized to humans and from parent-reared wolves.

Observation and fecal sample collection will take place at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park in Watertown and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse by a team that includes keepers at both zoos, Mastromauro, SUNY Oswego seniors Gwen Cruz and Melanie Groff and students in Jefferson Community College’s animal management program.

The question, Chepko-Sade explained, is where the cortisol levels of parent-reared wolves will fall. If they are high, like those of wolves in the wild, that would lend credence to the socialization method being a healthier way to rear wolves.

Since zoos are developing best practices for raising animals in captivity, the research may prove applicable to other carnivores and impact the wider zoological field, she added.

“It’s better for animals and visitors as well,” Mastromauro said. “It would allow zoo visitors to enjoy the animals more if they aren’t stressed and are used to humans.”

For Mastromauro, a junior zoology major and chemistry minor, the project “was a good way to combine my interests in biology and chemistry,” he noted. “It has applications in the lab and beyond.”

His cortisol analysis will take place in SUNY Oswego’s Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Center, an interdisciplinary research and teaching lab in Snygg Hall. The data will be double-checked at a lab in Toronto.

The collaboration provides more intensive readings and experience than would be available through most undergraduate classes. “I wouldn’t have learned as much about the lab work from the class, and certainly not as hands-on,” said Mastromauro, who is interested in continuing his studies in veterinary medicine. “We want to develop a protocol before we do all the testing.”

Mastromauro will present his findings next year at Quest, the college’s research symposium, and perhaps at larger scientific conferences, as well as submit it for journal consideration.

Oswego’s Challenge Grants are supported in part by a donation from Timothy Murphy, a 1974 Oswego graduate and the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the SUNY Research Foundation.

This is Chepko-Sade’s first Challenge Grant, though she often works with undergraduates on research projects. She measured fecal cortisol levels for captive wolves during earlier projects with students Beulah Sherwood and Julie Preston-Fulton, supported last year by student grants for scholarly and creative activity.

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WOLF PACK—Michael Mastromauro, a junior zoology major at SUNY Oswego, and faculty member Diane Chepko-Sade are collaborating on a study of stress levels in captive wolves through a campus Student/Faculty Collaborative Challenge Grant. Their work could ultimately impact best practices zoos use for raising carnivores in captivity, Chepko-Sade said.

(Posted: Apr 05, 2006)

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