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How a litter of puppies could help save endangered animals

As conservationists struggle to save endangered species, a litter of adorable puppies -- and the secret behind their birth -- might provide a helpful breeding tool. The puppies, born in July, are the first successful examples of in vitro fertilization in canids, a technique that paves the way for future interventions for threatened wolves. Science producer Nsikan Akpan reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But first, now to another scientific breakthrough.

    The planet is currently in the midst of an extinction crisis. As global climate changes and habitats disappear, species all over the world are at risk of being lost. Breeding these endangered animals is one of the tools researchers can use to combat this decline, but that can be difficult to accomplish.

    A recent innovation here in the U.S. has given new hope for some wolf species.

    NewsHour science producer Nsikan Akpan has the story of the young puppies that may help save the rest of the pack.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    It may be hard to believe, but these adorable puppies and how they came into the world might be the key to saving a whole host of endangered species.

    At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, scientists are developing state-of-the-art reproduction techniques to try and save endangered species. At the institute, you will find everything from cheetahs to black-footed ferrets.

    The scientists here are perfecting tools like artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization to help the breeding of those endangered animals. A marquee case is the maned wolf. They're an endangered member of canid the family, which includes wolves, foxes, and dogs. They're from South America.

    Smithsonian conservation biologist Nucharin Songsasen says most of the wolves' forest habitat has been lost to farming and human development.

  • NUCHARIN SONGSASEN, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute:

    Right now, we estimate about 15,000 of them in the wild. But the problem with this species is that their habitat is gone, that 85 percent is lost. And only 2 percent of their natural habitat is protected.

    So, the population in the future is not looking very bright, because that's no home for them.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    To save the species, she and her colleagues are trying to breed the wolves in captivity for future reintroduction to the wild, but she says that's tricky.

  • NUCHARIN SONGSASEN:

    We hope they will breed naturally, but sometimes that's not always the case. Sometimes, they have these incompatibilities, and they may not like each other, and they will not want to have anything to do with each other.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    Maned wolves are monogamous, and females tend to be very particular when it comes to choosing a boyfriend or partner.

    That's why scientists need breeding tools like in vitro fertilization, or IVF. IVF is commonly used in humans. It first involves harvesting an egg from the female and putting it into a dish. You then insert the male sperm into the egg, creating an embryo, which is then implanted into the mother.

    But reproductive biologist Jennifer Nagashima says that, for decades, scientists have struggled to make IVF work with dogs and wolves.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute:

    So, I like to say that dogs are a little bit weird. They have a unique reproductive physiology and that's part of why IVF has really been a challenge to develop over the past 40 years.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    Nagashima says that's in part because canid reproductive systems have some particular quirks, like the fact that females just don't produce that many eggs.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    Female dogs only cycle once or twice a year, and this is even more dramatic in wild canids who are seasonal. So you only have a population event once a year.

    And even when that egg is ovulated, it requires another two to three days in the reproductive tract, or the oviduct, to mature and become fertilizable. So, the result of these two things means that aren't that many mature eggs available to develop technologies such as IVF.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    So, what Nagashima and her colleagues did was to troubleshoot the entire reproductive process. They started with basic dog breeds like beagles and cocker spaniel, and then they figured out the best way and time to harvest the eggs.

    They even found a way to give male sperm a little boost by adding magnesium.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    So, when we added magnesium back in, it actually promoted the motility of the sperm, so the ability of it to swim.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    So, you just sprinkle a little bit of magnesium, makes it a better swimmer.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    Yes. Yes. Exactly.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    The resulting embryos were then frozen. From there, the team had to determine the best time to implant the embryos into a surrogate mom.

    Here's why. The would-be moms had to be exactly in synch with the development of the embryos. Yet, even after implantation, the team had to constantly monitor the health of the surrogates to make sure nothing went wrong with their pregnancies.

    And two months later, success. Seven healthy puppies were born.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    The puppies were born July 10 of 2015, and so they're just over five months old right now, and they are adorable, healthy bundles of terror and joy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    The final technique was published in the journal "PLOS ONE." And the story of the puppies received worldwide attention.

    Nagashima says these young dogs are proof the technique can work. And so now the hope is to use it on threatened species.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    The hope for the maned wolves and other endangered canid species is that we will be able to use this technology to help their reproduction, so to produce pups where otherwise we may not be able to.

    So, for example, a lot of times in these very small populations, if you have a female that passes away before she's been able to breed, we would really like to be able to take her ovaries, collect the eggs, mature them, and then use IVF to produce embryos that would represent her as a mother.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    Most of the litter were adopted by the researchers themselves, because, A, who wouldn't want one of these scientific marvels? And, B, just look at them.

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    This is Cannon. He is a cocker beagle spaniel — cocker spaniel-beagle mix.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    This is Buddy. He is a little bunch of joy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JENNIFER NAGASHIMA:

    OK.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    Do you tell your beagle what he might mean for the survival of future relatives?

  • NUCHARIN SONGSASEN:

    Actually, I do. I tell him every day that he is very important, he is a superstar. And — but, you know, he's still a puppy. I'm not really sure that he understands what that means yet. But, hopefully, one day he will understand.

  • NSIKAN AKPAN:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nsikan Akpan, in Front Royal, Virginia.

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