Research Programs at the Memphis Zoo

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Conservation & Research Department Team

The Memphis Zoo has a very active conservation department with six full time research positions, crossing a wide range of biological disciplines. In addition to our senior biologists, we also have a close working relationship with many academic faculty from regional universities that we have established research associate positions for similar to an adjunct arrangement.

Full Time Staff

Dr. Andy KoubaDirector of Conservation and Research

Academic background: Ph.D. in Animal Molecular and Cell Biology interdisciplinary program concentration in Reproductive Physiology, University of Florida, FL; M.S. in Animal Physiology, Clemson University, SC; B.S. in Zoology and Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Northwest Missouri State University, MO.

Conservation interests: reproductive ecology, assisted reproductive technologies, restoration ecology, forest health, remote sensing, and climate change

Current research direction/interests: Dr. Kouba has several projects he is actively engaged with including developing assisted reproductive technologies for breeding endangered amphibians, carnivore ecology and conservation in the Pantanal, Brazil, giant panda nutritional ecology, forest and bamboo restoration in the Qinling mountains of China, reproductive monitoring in captivity and the wild for various mammal species, landscape-scale conservation, biodiversity surveys, remote sensing for wildlife, and design of reintroduction programs for amphibians. Dr. Kouba is also developing unique social economic programs to involve local communities in conservation efforts.

Dr. Lu ZhangPost-Doctoral Research Fellow

Academic Background: Ph.D. in Zoology with a concentration in Wildlife Conservation, Peking University, Beijing, China; B.A. in Beijing Technology and Business University, Beijing, China.

Conservation interests: wildlife management, GIS-based habitat modeling, herpetology, forest ecology, conservation policy, wildlife-livestock competition.

Current research direction/interests:

Dr. Zhang is now working in the Chinese Giant Salamander reintroduction project. As the largest amphibian in the world, the salamander is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Although there are few populations remain in the wild, a large number of giant salamanders are bred in farms in China. The reintroduction project includes purchasing salamanders from breeding farms and releasing them into their original habitat, tracking them by Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags and radio transmitters, and analyzing the environmental factors (e.g., temperature, water properties, climate, and forest type) that may affect the movements and survival of reintroduced salamanders. The results of the project will provide guidelines for future reintroduction efforts to maintain Chinese giant salamander populations in the wild, as well as to improve living condition for giant salamanders kept in breeding farms. In the spring of 2013, about 30 giant salamanders will be released into streams in the Qinling Mountain in China, and monitored weekly for more than a year.

Dr. Katrina KnottPost-Doctoral Research Fellow

Academic Background: Ph.D. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Wildlife Toxicology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, AK; M.S. in Zoology studying Nutritional Ecology and Development, University of Alaska Fairbanks, AK; B.A. in Biology, University of Minnesota Morris, MN.

Conservation interests: reproductive physiology, endocrinology, comparative anatomy and physiology, ecotoxicology, physiological ecology, nutritional ecology, histomorphology / pathology, wildlife disease

Current research direction/interests: Dr. Knott’s research examines reproductive hormones and pregnancy biomarkers in mammals for improved knowledge of their reproductive physiology and conservation. These studies include an evaluation of the reproductive cycles in giant anteaters and polar bears by non-invasive sampling and detection of hormone metabolites in feces and urine. Dr. Knott is also helping to monitor the reproductive status of giant panda. This summer, Dr. Knott will also begin a project comparing reproductive physiology of ursids including polar bears, giant panda, sloth bears, and Andean bears. The goal of her research in these species is to increase breeding success and offspring survival of the captive zoo population. Greater knowledge of the reproductive physiology of these species will also be applicable to wild populations by providing information regarding the timing and plasticity of reproductive events for free-ranging animals and insight into the potential causes of reproductive failures. Characterization of reproductive events may also aid in the identification of key time periods when animals are most susceptible to natural (e.g., climate associated changes in habitat, disease transmission) and man-made (e.g., industrial development, environmental contaminants) disturbances that can negatively impact the reproductive physiology and behavior of wildlife.

Beth RobertsResearch Fellow

Academic background: Ph.D. candidate in Wildlife Biology with concentration in Animal Physiology, Utah State University;  M.S. Animal Science with concentration in Reproductive Physiology, University of California, Davis; B.S. in Zoology and Animal Science, The Ohio State University.

Conservation interests: nutrition and social behavior effects on reproductive fitness, endocrinology, assisted reproductive technologies, gamete biology and cryopreservation.

Current research directions/interests: My past research has focused on efforts to understand physiological mechanism that interconnect environmental stimulus to the reproductive system in mammals, using coyotes as a model. I have studied diet effects on the relationship of reproductive and metabolic hormone fluctuations and embryo implantation rates; the connection of early postnatal litter hierarchy status on physical development and sexual maturation; and the correlation of mate choice behavior to reproductive hormones. At the Memphis Zoo, I am assisting with reproductive studies of several species including the Giant Panda. Because these animals have delayed implantation and pseudo-pregnancy, much research has focused on early determination of pregnancy in pandas. I hope to contribute to our understanding of Panda pregnancy profiles by looking at unique and new biomarkers. I am also involved in developing assisted reproductive technologies (ART) for endangered amphibians, including work to further develop and improve sperm cryopreservation and artificial fertilization techniques.  Additionally, I will head up a research team to develop sperm collection, characterization, and storage techniques for large lizard species, using the Crocodile monitor as a model. Nearly 30% of the known reptile populations are listed as endangered in the wild and many of the species in captivity reproduce poorly. We hope to use the work with Crocodile monitor as a foundation for the development of ART for this species and other endangered reptiles in this family including the Komodo dragon.

Current Research Associates

Dr. Carrie VanceResearch Scientist

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Sciences, Mississippi State University, MS. Visiting assistant professor, Department of Biology, University of Memphis, TN. Field of expertise: spectroscopy, remote sensing, biochemical systems and reproductive ecology. University of Memphis Biology program

Dr. Scott WillardProfessor, Chair Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Sciences

Mississippi State University, MS. Field of expertise: reproductive physiology of domestic livestock (cattle and small ruminants) and non-domestic species, applications of thermal imaging, photonic imaging and image analysis. University of Mississippi Bio Chemistry program

Dr. Frank van ManenResearch Ecologist/Adjunct Professor

U.S. Geological Survey, Leetown Science Center, Southern Appalachian Research Branch/Dept. of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, University of Tennessee. Field of expertise: habitat ecology of mammals, particularly bears and other large carnivores. Apply principles of landscape ecology to predict species distributions, determine wildlife responses to landscape changes, and to examine genetic patterns and population abundance. Click here for the USGS unit webpage.

Dr. Wei FuwenProfessor, Deputy Director, Institute of Zoology

Director, Key Lab of Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology, Institute of Zoology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Field of expertise: ecology, behavior, conservation genetics, conservation biology of engendered species, such as giant panda and red panda.

Dr. Wenyuan DongDean and professor, Bamboo and Rattan Research Institute, Southwestern Forestry University.

Field of expertise: bamboo physiology and ecology.

Dr. George Fahey Jr.Professor of Animal Sciences and Nutritional Sciences and Kraft Foods

Endowed Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois. Field of expertise: comparative nutrition; carbohydrate nutrition; dietary fiber; gastrointestinal tract health; fermentation; pet animal nutrition. Visit website for more info

Dr. Leandro SilveiraPresident, Jaguar Conservation Foundation

Field of expertise: jaguar ecology, management and conservation; carnivore population studies. Leandro coordinates long-term jaguar population monitoring programs in the Cerrado, Pantanal, Amazon and Caatinga, as well as Brazil-wide projects concerning jaguar distribution, genetics, and perception of the species by rural communities.

Past Graduate Students

The Memphis Zoo supports several graduate students that are part of our research associates programs. Our current students and their projects are listed below.

Tiantian Feng – Mammal diversity and its relationship to landscape characteristics in the Qinling Mountains of China. Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Tennessee

Erin Trueblood – Phytochemical analysis of bamboo and impacts on giant panda physiology. Mississippi State University

In addition to our current students we also recognize several outstanding graduate students who have graduated with their Ph.D. or M.S.

Jen Parsons – Disturbance and temporal effects on bamboo nutritional composition and its palatability to giant pandas. Mississippi State University

Erin Weidower – Use of Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy to investigate selection and nutrient utilization of bamboo to monitor the physiological status of giant pandas. Texas A&M University

Wei Wang – Bamboo ecology and regeneration in the Qinling Mountains, China. University of Memphis

Tommy Finley – Giant pandas balance energy budget with metabolic depression; insights from radar detection of heart rates. University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Juli Simms – Understanding the foraging strategy of the giant panda: relationship to bamboo nutritional dynamics. Mississippi State University

Summer Research Internship Program

The Memphis Zoo Department of Conservation will be offering four to five (4-5) student internships in several areas of research including, reproductive physiology, behavioral ecology, chemical ecology, endocrinology, and nutrition. The internships are available for upper level undergraduate students between their sophomore and senior year; post-graduates are also accepted as long as they are within one year of having graduated. This program offers a unique research experience in conservation biology and may qualify for directed independent study or academic credit at many educational institutions. This internship will provide laboratory and analytical experience valuable for many professional careers in the biology, conservation, ecology, and veterinary related science fields. Interns will be exposed to current conservation issues, research methods, and scientific literature. They will present the results of their research project and a summary of their internship program to Zoo staff and will be encouraged to present their work at a professional scientific meeting. Upon internship completion, each intern will receive a final evaluation from the zoo; all training components will need to be met in order to receive a favorable evaluation and/or academic credit with their affiliated institution.

Materials to submit: The application deadline for the Research Internship Program is February 20, 2015. Visit Memphis Zoo Jobs to apply online.

2015 Program Areas

Development of assisted reproductive technologies for endangered amphibians and reptiles.
Successful applicants will be working with model species to test technologies that can be applied to endangered herpetofauna. Technologies such as hormone therapy, semen collection and analysis, cryopreservation, artificial insemination and IVF will be used to increase reproductive output and establish genome resource banks.

Advancement of new technologies for non-invasive monitoring of wildlife.
Successful applicants will be using Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) for remote physiological monitoring of gender, individuals, and pregnancy status in species such as giant panda, red panda, okapi, or leopards. Nutritional studies are also available for analyzing nutritional components of forages using NIRS to study the diet of threatened species. This technology is for applicants interested in chemistry, biochemistry and nutritional ecology.

Reproductive physiology of endangered or threatened mammals.
The applicant will be optimizing non-invasive techniques (enzyme immunoassays) for measuring and tracking reproductive cycles and seasonality in males and females. In addition the applicant will be assessing the use of novel hormones as biomarkers of pregnancy and parturition for study species such as polar bears, giant panda, or large cats.

Data analysis of bamboo plant physiology and giant panda foraging behavior. The applicant will be using bioinformatics, statistical models and meta-data analysis to examine links between bamboo nutritional content and panda foraging. A large part of this project will involve writing and computer work.

*All of these projects are laboratory based and do not involve interaction with the zoo’s animal collection. If you are interested in animal husbandry internships please see the zoo’s job posting section. When applying for a summer research internship, please indicate your first and second choice project area and why.

Read an example of the great success we've had with this relationship.

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