There’s something intrinsically disturbing at the thought of an animal lying on a gurney, its insides cut open for the entire world to see. Something unsettling at the thought of seeing what they last ate for lunch or how their hearts look, underneath all that fur and feather. Welcome to the underbelly of science – animal autopsies, aka, necropsies.
Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, made his entry into the National Museum of Natural History, Manila in November 2011. Everything seemed to be going well at the outset. Staff who worked closely with Lolong was elated at how well he had adapted to life in captivity.
This is why everyone at the Museum had been shocked when in February 2013 Lolong was found dead in his enclosure. His necropsy (animal autopsy) report showed that he had succumbed to congestive heart failure. The report also revealed that he had lipidosis in his liver, had fungal pneumonia and suffered from kidney failure.
But the most significant results of the necropsy report had nothing to do with the illnesses. The reports helped researchers understand why exactly Lolong developed these problems and helped them find ways to prevent the same happening to other crocodilians.
What is a necropsy?
Autopsies are performed on people to identify the cause of death. Necropsies are autopsies performed on animals.
As with human autopsies, necropsies start with an external examination of the specimen’s body to understand if there are any indicators of the cause of death. Next, the body is dissected and each organ is examined systematically. Tissue samples are collected from all major organs, the stomach contents are checked to understand diet (and if the food was poisoned) and the blood is tested to understand what enzymes and chemicals are present and in what quantities.
In some animals, like whales and elephants, the skeleton is preserved and is sent to museums and veterinary schools for further study and display. Specimen organs may also be preserved for further tests.
3 Benefits of animal necropsies
Necropsies may sound gruesome and morbid (they certainly look so), but they have a number of benefits:
They help understand little-known creatures
In 2014 a completely-intact colossal squid was brought into the New Zealand Museum in Te Papa Tongarewa. This was just the second fully-intact colossal squid specimen in the world; a rare specimen and an even rarer opportunity to take a better look at these mysterious creatures.
A necropsy was conducted to understand their diet, mating habits and hunting strategies. The physiology of the squid was analyzed to understand if the animal had any special features which made it different from other squid species. The necropsy was also used to understand why the colossal squid grows to mammoth proportions and how it sustains itself in deep waters.
They help pinpoint and stop epidemics
2009 saw the Tasmanian Devil being listed on the Endangered Species list. This wasn’t due to poaching. Researchers discovered that the marsupials suffered from an unusual, highly-fatalistic and extremely contagious form of face cancer, called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Cancerous tumors would form on the face and neck of the animals, leaving them physically unable to hunt or eat. A few months into the illness, the Tasmanian Devils died of starvation and weakness.
Necropsy reports showed how the cancerous tumors spread across the body and how they looked and felt structurally. Blood tests gave scientists insight into the chemical changes taking place in the bodies of afflicted animals. The reports helped conservationists plan the Devil Ark project, which sought to breed 1000 genetically clean Tasmanian Devils with an immune system that was pre-designed to recognize and eliminate the DFTD. Recent research shows how human cancer treatment drugs may be able to treat DFTD.
They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice
We assume that zoos are the right places for displaced and orphaned animals. But little do we know of the horrors that take place behind closed doors. The Cleveland Zoo found itself in the midst of controversy when the chief of veterinary services was caught asking members of the zoo community to support medical experimentation on animals.
This isn’t the only time zoo authorities have abused their power. Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary was found having subscribed the Humboldt penguins in their care anti-depressants because of the birds’ inability to adapt to the zoo’s climate. While the authorities claim that the penguins are healthier and happier than before, if not used judiciously, this could lead to an overdose and then death.
Necropsies conducted by court-authorized pathologists help uncover the hidden truths behind these animal-friendly facades. They help act as evidentiary support in medico-legal cases.
The messy nature of necropsies can overshadow the good they do for animals, wild and captive. But, with awareness, we can begin to accept and appreciate their role in conservation.
Image Sources: Feature image