Monitoring health and reproductive status of olms (Proteus anguinus) by ultrasound

Susanne Holtze, Maja Luka, Ivan Cizelj, Frank Mutschmann, Robert Hermes, Frank Go, Stanton Braude, Anita Szentiks
PloS one2017
The olm (Proteus anguinus) is a troglomorphic, neotenous amphibian with extraordinary life expectancy and unique adaptations that deserve further investigation. A low reproductive rate and habitat decline render it threatened by extinction. Establishing captive populations for maintenance and artificial breeding may one day become crucial to the species. Longitu- dinal, in-vivo assessment of inner organs is invaluable to our understanding of reproductive physiology, health, and behavior. Using ultrasound, we measured heart rate and assessed health and reproductive status of 13 captive olms at Zagreb Zoo. Heart rate averaged 42.9 ± 4.6 bpm (32–55 bpm), as determined via pulsed-wave Doppler at 4–12 MHz. By using frequencies of up to 70 MHz (ultrasound biomicroscopy), inner organs were visualized in detail. Assessment of the gastrointestinal tract provided insights into feeding status and digestive processes. Several subclinical pathologies were detected, including biliary sludge, subcutaneous edema, ascites, and skin lesions. Detection of skin lesions by ultrasound was more sensitive than visual adspection. Olms with ultrasonographically detected skin lesions tested positive for Saprolegnia and were treated. Three of the four affected individuals sur- vived and subsequently tested negative for Saprolegnia. Sex was reliably determined; only one individual proved male. The reason for this extreme female-biased sex-ratio remains unknown. However, as most of the individuals were flushed from the caves by strong cur- rents in spring, the sample may not be representative of natural populations. In female olms, different stages of ovarian follicular development were observed with diameters ranging between 0.1 and 1.1 mm. Results were confirmed by comparing ultrasound, necropsy, and histological findings of one dead specimen. In summary, ultrasound proved a valuable tool to support conservation and captive breeding programs by allowing non-invasive assess- ment of physiological parameters, clinical condition, and reproductive status in olms.

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