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Crew queues zoo for a thermal review

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Assessing the health of wild animals is a difficult task. It’s hard to explain to an echidna, also known as a spiny anteater, that you need it to sit still so that you can measure its heart rate — if you can even get to within explaining distance of its quills.

Researchers at The Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), conveniently located at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, took advantage of their location to conduct a study on using infrared thermography to assess animals’ health — without having to use a stethoscope. Infrared thermal imaging offers a noninvasive method to assess vital signs — such as heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature — from a safe distance.

Thermal images of a porcupine enjoying a snack (top), and a sloth (bottom) at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo.
Thermal images of a porcupine enjoying a snack (top), and a sloth (bottom) at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo.


Thermal images of a porcupine enjoying a snack (top), and a sloth (bottom) at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo.

In collaboration with the Cincinnati Zoo and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the team at CREW plans to validate the technology for assessing the health of at least 50 different species, from birds and reptiles to large mammals. Thermal imaging was previously used in a 2019 study to collect heart rate measurements of wild cetaceans, an order of aquatic mammals that includes whales and dolphins. The data collected could not be validated, however, because it was not possible to gather comparable measurements of the sea animals’ vital signs through conventional, direct methods. Wild cetaceans are as reluctant as timid echidnas to sit still for a stethoscope.

Zoo animals are more accessible than sea animals, however, which will allow the research crew to validate the efficacy of thermal images by cross-referencing them with health data collected during routine checkups. In addition to obtaining heart and respiration rate via thermal imaging, the researchers will also correlate images to known variables relating to the reproductive status specific to each animal.

The work may not only make routine medical checkups at the Cincinnati Zoo less awkward, it could eventually provide the basis for thermal imaging to be used to effectively monitor the health and reproductive status of animals in the wild.

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2022
Lighter Side

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