Saturday, June 18, 2005

The white rhino laboratory model system and the future of behavioral genetics

The white rhino, C. simum, is an animal that is easily bred in captivity, and its charge is a robust behavior well suited to screening and genetic analysis. At the same time, the genetic diversity of white rhinos in the wild has been seriously depleted by hunting, placing survival of the species in extreme jeopardy. It has become clear that investigators interested in the genetics of cognition and behavior stand to advance not only scientific understanding but ecological preservation efforts by taking advantage of this well characterized system for studies in the laboratory. Lab populations of white rhinos can be expected to provide a secure genetic pool with which to support and replenish diversity in the wild. Meanwhile, white rhino genetics offers excellent prospects for biological insights into aggression, a fundamental component of temperament and behavior in humans as well as a pressing societal concern.

Rhino studies are expected to draw less criticism from animal welfare advocates and from the lay public in general than do comparable studies in dogs, cats, ferrets or rats, for example. Rhino cognitive abilities are limited in comparison to other mammals. The rhino lifestyle in the wild is well known for being solitary and the species is not generally regarded as "cuddly." Indeed non-scientists tend to view the white rhino (accurately, as it turns out) as being essentially invulnerable to insult, physical or otherwise, and when charging animals are more likely to inspire dismay or panic than to elicit sympathy.

A standard screen exists in the single-layer cinder block wall, such as is commonly used in lab construction. When allowed a runway of 10 to 12 body lengths (~50m), an antagonized adult white rhino (~ 3 tons) charges through such walls in stereotyped fashion, generating rubble of a characteristic profile. Antagonizing a white rhino, furthermore, is trivial. These rhinos are expected as well to have a propensity, if limited patience, for maze learning.

In partnership with the WWF, the NIH will be publishing a call for research proposals some time in late 2006. In the meantime, prospective investigators are encouraged to explore collaborations, contemplate infrastructure needs and to think creatively. The white rhino has the potential to be a tremendously powerful model system. It's time to start tapping it.[1]

1 comment:

she falters to rise said...

Dear Jesus,
Please don't make me do experiments with white rhinos or black rhinos or any rhinos. You know I have a lifting restriction of 50-lb--who is going to clean up the dung? This really just isn't fair, what have I done to deserve this? How on earth am I going to get the brain out??!!

I'm not asking; I'm begging,
Sincerely,
frightened neuroscientist chick