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Making a House Call: Carefully Caring for Endangered Animals

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With over 32,000 individual animals representing more than 1,500 species under our care at Shedd Aquarium, you never know what the day will bring. Our patients come in all shapes and sizes - "From snails to whales" we sometimes say. And it's true! I personally have had the privilege and responsibility of doing surgery on a snail as well as a whale (and all sorts of interesting species in between).

Today I want to take the opportunity to introduce you to one of the newer members of the Shedd healthcare team. Dr. Matt O'Connor recently joined us following the successful completion of a three-year residency training program. As Friday, May 20 marks Endangered Species Day, Dr. Matt shares below one of his recent encounters with an unusual - and endangered - patient in a unique exam room. I hope you enjoy getting to know them both! - Dr. Bill Van Bonn

How do you perform a medical procedure on a critically endangered fish that has a 3-foot long razor-sharp snout and is more than 14-feet long? You make a house call.

At Shedd Aquarium, we're constantly developing new techniques to care for our animals. Recently, this occurred with our appropriately nicknamed longcomb green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) "Ginsu". It's an impressive species, an adult can reach weights close to 770 pounds, and the sharp comb - which can be thought of as a nose or snout - alone can measure 5 feet long. While it looks like a shark, the sawfish is actually a ray, distinguished by a flattened body and wide pectoral fins. Native to the Indo-West Pacific waters from the west coast of Africa to Taiwan and Southern China, this critically endangered species remaining populations are now mostly found near the northern portion of Australia.

Most of the animals inside Wild Reef - where Ginsu resides - receive routine yearly exams, accomplished by a trained diver in a wet suit and SCUBA gear that make a house call to the animal. During one of Ginsu's most recent exams, we noticed a skin mass on her left pectoral fin. Just like in humans, the best way to identify a skin mass is to take a tiny piece - called a biopsy - and send it to a pathologist. But how do you extract a piece of skin from a fish that's hundreds of pounds and has a large, sharp comb? Very carefully.

Shedd vets and animal husbandry team members in Wild Reef developed a plan: Wait until Ginsu was resting comfortably in one of her favorite "beds" at the bottom of her habitat, and have a diver carefully sneak behind her to collect a small piece of the mass using a pair of forceps. As you can see in the video above, Ginsu barely even noticed!

The sample was submitted to the University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program, and was diagnosed as a papilloma, or, a wart. Often times, these can be caused by viruses such as papillomavirus or herpes. Many of these viruses have evolved with their hosts over thousands of years, but no one has ever diagnosed a sawfish before. We sent another sample to the University of Florida's Aquatic Animal Health Program for further identification. It's another example of how multi-institutional collaborations can help us identify the causes of some of these health problems that may affect our animals, and share our knowledge with the greater aquarium community that house sawfish and gain knowledge of the species in the wild.

In addition to identifying ailments on our own sawfish, the species faces greater threats in the wild. The sawfish's large size and comb makes them particularly prone to becoming by-catch in gillnets and trawl nets from fishermen. One of the many challenges with studying an oceanic species that ranges as far as sawfish do is to reliably quantify their populations in the wild. By the time field researchers notice there is a problem, we sometimes have to play catch-up to protect and preserve the species.

Fortunately, everyone can do their part to conserve these remarkable endangered species in the wild. For sawfish, avoid purchasing species of fish that are harvested with unsustainable practices such as gill and trawl nets. A good reference is Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app, a great free tool that can help guide you in determining the best seafood choices. Healthy oceans with balanced ecosystems are necessary to provide future generations with continued economic and recreational activities.

Endangered Species Day is a reminder that we all have a role to play in caring for the animals that share our world. At Shedd, you can see 48 species that are listed as threatened or endangered by local, national and international governments. They are a powerful reminder that even small changes in behavior - like driving less and reducing waste output - can make an impact on these species populations and chances for survival.

And be sure to stop by the wild reef exhibit the next time you visit the Shedd Aquarium and say "hello" to Ginsu. You might just see one of the veterinarians diving in to give her a checkup!