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Study Demonstrates Accuracy of Less Invasive Technique for Monitoring Elephant Health

african elephant standing on the savannah faces the camera head on
Photo credit: Nam Anh.

For Immediate Release

Kimberly Ange van Heugten

A recent study from North Carolina State University finds a technique that uses dried spots of blood to measure health indicators in elephants is comparable to techniques that use larger blood samples and require immediate cold storage – technology that is not always available when monitoring animals in the wild.

“Our study focused on omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can be measured in blood and tell us a lot about an animal’s health,” says Jordan Wood, who recently defended her Ph.D. dissertation at NC State and first author of a paper on the work. “In elephants, these fatty acids are particularly valuable indicators of cardiovascular and reproductive health.”

Conventional techniques for measuring these fatty acids involve collecting samples of whole blood – something that many humans can relate to from doctor’s visits. The samples can then be tested using the whole blood, or plasma or serum from the blood. However, all of these techniques require researchers to either freeze the blood samples very quickly after they are drawn or immediately process the sample. If frozen, the samples then won’t be thawed until they reach a lab capable of performing the relevant tests.

An alternative is “dry blood spot” sampling, or DBS. This technique requires only a few drops of whole blood, which are dried on specialized filter paper.

DBS samples don’t require immediate freezing, which is a big advantage – particularly for researchers doing field work. DBS samples also take up much less space, since small pieces of paper take up substantially less room than freezer equipment containing vials of frozen blood.

What’s more, DBS also requires drawing much less blood from the animal. This is less stressful for the animal and can be important for the health of smaller animals when the blood amount available for collection is very limited.

However, there have been questions about the accuracy of DBS techniques when it comes to measuring fatty acids, particularly in non-human species.

“We know DBS works well for DNA and protein testing,” Wood says. “But fatty acids are less stable when exposed to air and ambient temperatures, so this was an open question. That’s what we set out to address with this study.”

To that end, the researchers took whole blood, plasma, serum and DBS samples from six adult African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the North Carolina Zoo. The researchers then processed each of the samples to see how they compared to each other.

The researchers found that there were very few differences between whole blood and DBS samples, suggesting that elephant researchers can use DBS sampling techniques to assess omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids – and related animal health parameters– in both wild elephant populations and in managed elephant populations.

“This is also tells us that we can compare data collected using whole blood samples to data collected from DBS samples – it’s comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges,” Wood says.

What’s more, the study found that fatty acid data from serum and plasma samples was closer to whole blood and DBS samples than the researchers anticipated.

“They are not as close a match as the DBS samples were to whole blood samples, but they were fairly similar,” Wood says. “This is useful, because it means we can make meaningful comparisons using historical data that was collected using plasma and serum samples. That’s particularly important given that much of that historical data is on wild animal populations, helping us better understand how animal health may have shifted over time and under varying conditions.

“We’re hoping this work will enable the research and conservation community to collect more samples from wild populations, since it will be easier, less expensive and less stressful for the animals. That could help us better understand the health of wild populations and how that compares to the health of managed elephant populations. Ultimately, we think this can help us continue to improve diet and other conditions for managed elephant populations and other species.”

The paper, “Comparison of African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) fatty acid profiles in whole blood, whole blood dried on blood spot cards, serum, and plasma,” is published open access in the journal PeerJ. Corresponding author of the paper is Kimberly Ange-van Heugten, a teaching associate professor of animal science at NC State. The paper was co-authored by Michael Stoskopf, a professor of aquatics, wildlife, and zoological medicine at NC State; Vivek Fellner, a professor of animal science at NC State; Jb Minter of the North Carolina Zoo, who is also an adjunct faculty member at NC State; and Doug Bibus of Lipid Technologies, LLC.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Comparison of African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) fatty acid profiles in whole blood, whole blood dried on blood spot cards, serum, and plasma”

Authors: Jordan Wood, Michael K. Stoskopf, Vivek Fellner and Kimberly Ange-van Heugten, North Carolina State University; Larry J Minter, North Carolina Zoo; and Doug Bibus, Lipid Technologies, LLC.

Published: December 14, 2021, PeerJ

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.12650

Background: African elephants in managed care have presented differences in the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, a situation primarily thought to be due to dietary differences between the managed animals and their free-ranging counterparts. Because of this, circulating fatty acid status is included in routine monitoring of elephant health. A method of blood collection that requires only a few drops of whole blood, dried on filter paper (DBS) and can be used for analyzing full fatty acid profiles offers advantages in clinical application.

Methods: This study compared the use of whole blood, and whole blood DBS, serum or plasma for use in evaluating circulating fatty acid composition in African savannah elephants. Samples from six African elephants (two males and four females) were collected during the same week at the NC Zoo, Asheboro, NC.

Results: Results found only 2 of 36 individual fatty acids and none of the 10 fatty acid groupings were different when comparing the four blood fraction sample types to each other with Mann-Whitney U-Test pairwise comparisons. Myristic acid (14:0) was lower in the DBS samples than in whole blood, serum, and plasma and pentadecaenoic acid (15:1) was slightly more concentrated in DBS and whole blood.

Discussion: Results indicate that fatty acid profile of serum, plasma, whole blood, and DBS are comparable in African elephants. The DBS method offers advantages in acquisition and handling and may be preferable to other methods in both routine health assessment of captive animals and field research on free ranging animals.