WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA) - Two male gorillas at the National Zoo are taking part in a study that will help veterinarians better detect and treat heart disease in gorillas.
The same device used to detect early warning signs of heart disease in humans will now benefit 12-year-old Kwame and 10-year-old Kojo, who are the first western lowland gorillas to participate in the study by the Great Ape Heart Project. Heart disease is leading cause of death of male gorillas in human care.
On Feb. 2, Zoo veterinarians inserted an Implantable Loop Recorder beneath Kojo's skin and between his shoulder blades. Kwame's procedure took place on March 14. About the size of a USB drive, the ILR records electrocardiogram waves and allows animal care staff to analyze trends in the gorillas' heart rates, rhythms, strengths and timing of electrical pulses.
Kwame and Kojo are considered ideal candidates for this study; they are clinically healthy, yet the odds that they will develop heart disease later in life are high because of how common the disease is in gorillas. The Great Ape Heart Project chose them for another reason, as well: the Zoo's training program allows animal care staff to monitor an animal's health, administer medical procedures and provide preventive care without the use of anesthesia or restraints.
Kwame and Kojo willingly present their backs to keepers Amanda Bania and Becky Malinsky on cue as part of everyday training. This ensures veterinarians will be able to scan the ILR, collect data and monitor trends in the gorillas' health. The data will be shared among institutions and facilities that care for these primates. In addition, keepers will continue behavioral research projects and look for physical changes in Kwame and Kojo's health.
The notion of using ILRs in gorillas was first introduced by Dr. Ilana Kutinsky, co-director of the Great Ape Heart Project. As a cardiac electrophysiologist whose expertise lies in human medicine, she has seen ILRs save human lives.
Kutinsky attended Kojo's surgery and assisted Zoo veterinary staff. Murray and Kutinsky are two of the four scientists who have been at the forefront of gorilla heart disease for over a decade. The other doctors are Hayley Murphy and Pam Dennis.
In human care, western lowland gorillas can live to be upwards of 50 years joold. In its native tropical forests of Western and Central Africa, a gorilla's lifespan is about 35 years. Increased hunting, outbreaks of the Ebola virus and poorly regulated development projects threaten these great apes as well as their habitats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the western lowland gorilla as critically endangered.
Visitors to the Smithsonian's National Zoo can see Kwame, Kojo and the other four members of the gorilla troop at the Great Ape House.