University of Saskatchewan achieves reproductive firsts for wood bison

Veterinary researchers have successfully produced bison calves using in vitro fertilization

University of Saskatchewan veterinary researchers say they have achieved reproductive firsts for the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), a species in which only up to 7,000 remain in the wild.

In early July, four bison calves were born at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Native Hoofstock Center. Three of the calves were born using in vitro fertilization. The fourth calf was produced from a frozen embryo that was taken from a bison cow in 2012 and transferred to a surrogate mother in 2015. Both are reproductive firsts for the bison species, according to the university.

“The babies look great,” said Gregg Adams, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACT, a professor and reproductive specialist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “They’re keeping up with mom, and I’m really happy about it.”

Dr. Adams has conducted reproductive research of wood bison for nearly a decade. Indigenous to Canada, the wood bison are threatened both by disease and loss of habitat. This work is important to conserve a threatened species and to potentially rebuild the herds, according to Adams.

“It is tremendously gratifying to see this,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m hoping all the different interest groups will see this as a real possibility, a solution to the problem.”

While there are many parallels with reproductive work in cattle, bison present their own unique challenges, according to the university. Foremost is the presence of disease in both the plains and wood bison herds. Bison herds are infected with brucellosis and tuberculosis, diseases that were introduced by exposure to infected cattle more than 80 years ago, and that can be spread to both cattle and people.

“Besides a loss of habitat, which has been significant, these diseases have prevented us from getting back and reconstituting the population,” Adams said.

By using advanced reproduction techniques such as artificial insemination, superovulation and in vitro fertilization, researchers can disinfect the egg and sperm of the female and male bison. This minimizes the chances of producing diseased babies or spreading disease, according to the university.

“The whole objective of our program is to conserve the species,” Adams said. “I think what we’re doing with advanced reproductive technologies is really designed to preserve the genetic diversity [of the animals].

“If we can preserve the genetic diversity, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job. That will benefit both the wild populations as well as any livestock producers.”

The next step is to retrieve and preserve genetic material from existing herds, which will provide the groundwork for preservation of the species, the university noted.

Adams noted that four PhD students and a post-doctoral fellow have contributed vital research findings toward this recent achievement. Researchers from the University of Calgary also collaborated on the research project.

Adams also credits the project’s success to financial support from the university, Government of the Northwest Territories, Parks Canada and Saskatchewan’s Agri-Food Innovation Fund.

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