Cincinnati Zoo Tests New Technology to Assess Animal Health from a Distance

Posted August 16, 2021

Scientists work to validate use of thermal imaging for non-invasive check ups

 CINCINNATI, OH (August 16, 2021) — The Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, in collaboration with scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is working to validate the use of remote infrared thermography (IRT) to determine baseline health.

“We are using thermal imaging to collect body temperature and heart/respiration rates on a variety of animals, including birds, reptiles and mammals,” said Dr. Erin Curry, reproductive physiologist at CREW.” At the same time, we are using traditional methods to obtain vital signs and comparing the results.”

IRT has been used, and proven to be accurate, to measure heart rate in humans and domestic large animals, but this is the first time that the technology is being evaluated in threatened and endangered species. Zoos offer unique opportunities to develop new technologies that may ultimately be used monitor populations wildlife. The team’s goal is to collect data from at least 50 different animal species at the Cincinnati Zoo, enough variety to confirm that the technology works, accounting for variables such as fur length, head size, and the presence of fat and blubber. So far, results are promising, with heartrates validated in a gorilla, bongo, sloth, and tenrec.

“Once we validate it, we can use it in zoos for non-invasive health checks,” said Caroline Rzucidlo, M.S. WHIO.  “We also hope to attach it to a drone and fly it over wild populations of animals to get some basic health metrics without having to disturb them. We can compare those metrics over time to monitor animals’ responses to environmental changes.”

Another goal is to use IRT for reproductive monitoring. Pregnancy diagnosis, estrus detection, and changes in testicular thermal signatures may provide insight into the reproductive status, improve animal management, and facilitate more accurate timing of artificial insemination and semen collection procedures.

“Projects like this reinforce the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s reputation as a global leader in innovative conservation research,” said Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard. “I hope this technology will eventually be used to improve the health of animal populations all over the world, in zoos and in the wild!”