Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 10, 2009

Today was a very warm day at Punta San Juan. Peru is in the southern hemisphere, so we are visiting in the middle of their summer. The weather had been pleasantly warm, but became hot today which is a challenge for our work here. Mike and I have to make sure that the fur seals don’t become overheated while working with them. Fur seals have a thick layer of blubber designed to keep them warm in the very cold water of the Pacific Ocean. The water temperature today was about 52°F. If we were to go swimming in the ocean, we could only stay in the water a few minutes before becoming hypothermic. The reverse is true for the fur seals. They get hot quickly when they are out of the water. To prevent this, we keep them cool by pouring buckets of ocean water on them while we are working and we try to be as quick as possible. We worked hard today to be very efficient and kept the time each animal was under our care short. We also took a break during the hottest portion of the day as a snack break and just watched the fur seals in their natural habitat.

Each fur seal gets a complete physical examination which includes listening to their heart and lungs, making sure they have normal structure and function of their muscles and bones, bright eyes, clear noses and ears and a normal temperature. We examined a few pups that were only a few days old. These pups still had portions of the umbilical cord which is the connection from the dam which provides nutrients to the pups before they are born. In these pups, we examined the umbilicus for evidence of infection and cleaned the area well. Several members of the team were lucky enough to actually witness a pup being born today. It was a very special treat. Of course, we left that mom and pup alone to get acquainted and to minimize any disruption to their first day together. They seemed to do very well.

A physical exam helps us identify health problems that show up externally or cause a fever, but there are other parameters we need to evaluate to get a more complete picture of health. Blood tests help us identify many diseases in the animals. A complete blood count (CBC) looks at the number and type of red and white blood cells in the blood. When an animal is ill, often the white blood cells are higher in number and certain types of white blood cells become more prevalent. Anemia, or a low number of red blood cells, is another fairly common sign of disease. The normal number of red or white cells present in the blood varies from species to species, so part of the work we are doing here is to determine what is normal in these animals. Another test we run on the blood samples is a biochemistry panel, which measures the amount of proteins in the blood from different organs. When these proteins rise or fall, it may indicate injury or poor functioning of a specific organ system. Monitoring these things over time can help determine the health of the population and tell us when disease may be impacting the population or a portion of the population (like the pups). We are also able to run serologic testing against a variety of different diseases. These tests measure antibodies in the bloodstream and not only tell us if an animal has an active infection, but can provide information about whether the animals have ever been exposed to a disease. This knowledge of what diseases may be present in the population can help us predict what diseases may be threats or concerns in the future.

Mike and I have to spend about an hour in the lab for every 2 animals we look at in the field. At about 5 o’clock we leave the beach and head to the lab. Some portions of the blood tests must be run right away and others we prepare for special freezing which enable us to run the test at a later date. The longest part of the project will take place after our return to the US. Many of the disease testing and toxicology testing will be run in the US. We will run statistical analyses on the data we’ve collected (the results of our blood tests and physical exams) to try to determine normal parameters for these animals. In order to share the knowledge we gain, we will publish the results in a peer reviewed medical journal which may take up to a year. It is a lot of work, but completely worth it to protect the fur seals of PSJ.

Gwen Jankowski, DVM
Veterinary Resident – Chicago Zoological Society