Solving a Rhino Mystery

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To ensure a future for black rhinos, a network of the world’s top minds are seeking the answer to this question: How does a black rhinoceros’ diet influence its health?

Black rhinos are “specialized browsers”—meaning they are selective about food, and those decisions have been proven to result in healthy individuals in the wild. For conservation scientists, an understanding of normal gut microbial diversity in wild rhinos might be critical in the fight to save the species from extinction.

In partnership with SANParks, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, George Mason University, and George Washington University, a Smithsonian team led by esteemed veterinarian Dr. Budhan Pukazhenthi is launching a three-year, Conservation Nation-funded project to compare black rhinos’ diets and gut microbial diversity at zoological institutions across the country with the results from wild rhinos. As a partner, the International Rhino Foundation is funding analysis on populations in human care. With all these players working together, researchers will be able to describe the normal gut microbial diversity of wild rhinos and recommend an appropriate diet or probiotics to keep black rhinos in human care healthy.

The data could also prove helpful as climate change rapidly impacts wild habitats—providing the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow with clear-cut information about how the diet of wild rhinos influence gut microbial composition. With this knowledge, future efforts to bolster the species or rewild populations on a warming planet might be more successful, as scientists will know how the plants wild rhinos eat influence gut microbial diversity and function.

According to Dr. Pukazhenthi, more than 50 wild black rhinos will be studied in total; already fecal samples of 25 wild rhinos have been gathered by partners in the field. “Once all samples are collected, we will begin analyses. The latter steps are likely to take some time because we use complex analytical approaches—genome sequencing [and] bioinformatics.”

Dr. Pukazhenthi emphasizes the importance of understanding diet and gut microbial composition in endangered species as we seek to combat a mass-extinction event. “We often hear, ‘We are what we eat.’ This is true. What we eat influences the gut microbial composition, diversity and/or function. … As a result, nutrients or factors derived from the diet, as well as the microbes, influence our overall health.”

Data from this project could serve to help the team understand the diets of other species who are choosy about what they eat in the wild, including tapirs, giraffes and other ungulates.

In addition to partially funding the cost of analysis, Conservation Nation also is making it possible for a researcher to travel within the next year to Kruger National Park in South Africa to process the samples collected by collaborators at South African National Parks Service.

Maureen Kamau, B.V.M.

Dr. Kamau is a veterinary research fellow in One Health with the Global Health Program, which takes a One Health approach to improve the lives

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Suzan Murray, D.V.M.

Dr. Suzan Murray is a board-certified zoo veterinarian at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and serves as both the program director of the Global Health

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