HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) – A timely response, cutting-edge science, and the right partnerships are making it possible for an ocelot’s genetic material to be used for artificial inseminations months after it was struck by a vehicle.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR) is home to less than 20 ocelots. That population in the United States, estimated to be only 60-80 individuals, is at constant risk due to habitat loss and vehicle strikes. With the decimated population, every individual is important for the conservation of the species.
Last May, a nine-year-old male, named OM283, was struck by a vehicle just outside the LANWR. Biologists at the refuge had been monitoring the feline since 2013. This ocelot frequently ventured off the refuge due to possible territorial competition.
Wildlife Biologist with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Dr. Hilary Swarts, says the joint effort between them, TxDOT, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to complete wildlife underpasses may have contributed to the OM283’s survival during his lifetime. The underpasses allow animals to cross under roads safely.
“He had been really exciting to watch because he was also one of the ocelots that were documented using the wildlife underpasses that were recently completed,” said Dr. Swarts. “We were seeing him somewhat regularly using those crossings, unfortunately, he got hit by a car on another road that didn’t have those protections.”
It was Dr. Swarts who responded to the phone call about OM283 in the early morning and went out with an ice chest to recover the body. The body was driven to the Gladys Porter Zoo to be quickly processed by Senior Veterinarian, Dr. Thomas de Maar.
Dr. de Maar performed an orchiectomy, which is the removal of the testes so that they could be frozen and sent to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) for possible use in artificial insemination.
Director of Animal Conservation Research at the CREW, Dr. Bill Swanson says the sample made it to the zoo after 36 hours, which made all the difference in being able to use the sample of genetic material.
Throughout the course of 25 years, there have been nine pregnancies as a result of artificial insemination, three of which were from frozen samples, but this will be the first time that a sample has been recovered from a deceased ocelot from Texas.
“There aren’t any more ocelots coming [into zoos] from the wild. The ocelots that we have now are descendants of ocelots that came into zoos 30 years ago. So, we haven’t been able to introduce new genetics into that population for a very long time,” said Dr. Swanson in a press release. “Considering what the male went through, the frozen, thawed sample is excellent.”
The sample was processed into 20 straws that can each be used for one artificial insemination; until plans for their use are made, they will be preserved in CREW’s storage tanks.
Before the end of this month, the first sample will be used at the ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, New Mexico to inseminate a zoo-housed female ocelot. If successful, the kittens born in October will be the first produced by a sample from a wild ocelot.
Recently, the LANWR acquired 4,800 acres of land to add to the refuge. Much of the additional land is the thorn scrub habitat preferred by ocelots.
“What they need is space so the acquisition of 4,800 acres of new space for these cats is such positive news for this population,” said Swarts. “When you put together the additional land, the installation of the underpasses, the examination of how we can improve the genetics, I think all of those things are really to be celebrated in the progress of ocelot population recovery in south Texas.”
In a press release, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said you can help ocelot populations by driving slowly and carefully to avoid hitting wildlife.
If you see a road-killed ocelot, please take a photograph – only if you can do so safely – and call U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dispatch (956-784-7520) to report it with as much specific information about the location as possible.