Creatures great and small

Animals and basic science research

As the home to a world-leading community of biologists, zoologists and genome scientists—and Western Canada’s largest medical school—you might expect animals to play an important role in UBC’s research efforts. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a leading university anywhere in the world where animals do not play a critical role in life sciences research.

Yet for most people, the definition of animal research begins and ends with laboratory science.

At UBC, this definition is much broader and more interdisciplinary. Research with (and on behalf of) animals contributes to improvements in human health and animal welfare, a greater appreciation of the ethics of animals in society, species conservation and biodiversity, and a better understanding of our relationships with animals.

What isn’t always apparent is how these avenues of research serve the interests of both humans and animals.

UBC President Stephen Toope and Vice President, Research & International John Hepburn have committed to advancing greater transparency around animal research and to enabling a respectful dialogue among members of the UBC community. Solid information is essential to both these goals, and in this spirit UBC has published initial statistics on its animal research web site (, revealing that 97 per cent of research animals at UBC are rodents, fish, reptiles and birds.

But it’s not just about the numbers or the species involved—it’s about the context, the goals, the results, and the impacts of the research.

With this issue, UBC Reports embarks on an in-depth, multi-part series to better understand basic and applied animal research on our campuses.  In our July issue, we will address medical research involving animals, and later, we will explore how animal research is governed in Canada and at UBC.

We begin the series here, with a sample of scientific studies that involve animals. Basic or curiosity-driven research accounts for two-thirds of the rodents, fish, reptiles and birds used at UBC each year—in the wild, in labs, and on farms. Here are four such projects that are helping us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. •

Hazy to the rescue

 If Steller sea lions had super heroes, Hazy would be one of them. Along with marine biologist Andrew Trites, she’s helping save her species from extinction.

Hazy and other Stellers work with UBC researchers and Vancouver Aquarium trainers to investigate the unexplained decline of their counterparts in the wild brethren.

“Populations in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands have declined by 85 per cent. That’s more than 200,000 sea lions that have disappeared under our watch,” says Trites, whose team has been meticulously documenting Hazy’s foraging behaviour and food consumption for 15 years, since she
was a pup.

Now, outfitted with a harness carrying a camera and tracking equipment, Hazy regularly travels on the Steller Shuttle boat to the open and frigid waters near Indian Arm, a glacial fjord in southwestern B.C. There, she dives to catch fish at different depths while the research team monitors her heart rate, breathing patterns and other vital signs.

“Contrary to popular belief, we’ve learned that Steller sea lions actually expend more energy when foraging near the surface,” says Trites. “So it’s not a matter of having to dive deeper to find fish that’s killing them.”

As it turns out, a low-calorie diet does not a happy sea lion make.

“Sea lions require oil-rich fish, such as salmon and herring, to meet their caloric needs,” says Trites. “Instead they’re eating primarily low energy fish such as pollock, and their stomachs are full before getting enough calories.

“It’s like you or me surviving on a diet of popcorn or celery,” says Trites, who adds that the results from the project will help build smart fisheries management strategies to effectively help the species recover. •

 High altitude flying wonders

They may look unremarkable to the untrained eye, but bar-headed geese have long caught the attention of scientists with their ability to fly over the Himalayas with apparent ease.

Although they can be bred in captivity, wild bar-headed geese migrate annually between India and the plateaus in China and Mongolia, flying over the world’s highest mountains on their way—the human equivalent of running a marathon as high as 5,000 to 9,000 metres above sea level.

“Flying requires up to 20 times more energy—and an equal increase in oxygen consumption,” says Zoology Prof. Bill Milsom. “And the bar-headed goose can do it at altitudes where there is as little as one-third of the oxygen at sea-level. How they do this is a great mystery that baffles us.”

Compared to low-altitude waterfowl, bar-headed geese have larger lungs and approximately six- to 10-per-cent more aerobic muscle fibres. Each fibre also has more blood vessels surrounding it to provide it with oxygen-rich blood cells—and these blood cells pick up oxygen more readily from the environment.

Among unanswered questions, says Milsom, is whether these finely tuned physiological features, adapted over millions of years, will be affected by climate change.

“To conserve the wild population, we need to understand how the warming climate would impact high-altitude performance of these birds and their ability to migrate,” says Milsom. “This species suffered greatly from the avian flu outbreak in China in 2008, and understanding how their physiology dictates migratory routes will also give us a better handle on the spread of the flu along those routes.”

To get a closer look at how oxygen is utilized during flight, a small number of geese raised by a postdoctoral fellow in Milsom’s lab have been trained to wear tailor-made oxygen masks and tiny “backpacks” to monitor their temperature, heart rate, oxygen usage, and blood oxygen levels while flying in UBC’s wind tunnel.

“It’s like monitoring an Olympic runner on a treadmill,” says Milsom. “Except the geese are just doing what they do naturally—with a little encouragement from their human ‘mother.’”

Understanding how the geese can soar so high without suffering hypoxia could also help develop better strategies to curb the permanent damaging effects of stroke and heart attacks, characterized by the lack of oxygen delivery to vital organs.

Of mice and men

Rodents and humans have more in common than you’d think, just ask neuropsychologist Catharine Winstanley.

In 2009, she developed the world’s first rat experiment to successfully model human gambling—and assess drugs to moderate the addictive behaviour. In the experiment, rats had a limited amount of time to “gamble” for sugar pellets. High-risk options offered more rewards and the greater probability of longer “timeout” periods where no reward is earned. In order to maximize rewards, rats must learn to avoid risky options.

Winstanley then tested the effects of drugs currently being explored as treatment options for gambling addiction.

The study, published in the high-impact Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology, found that rodents treated with drugs that reduced serotonin levels—a naturally occurring chemical associated with impulse control in humans—could no longer “play the odds.” Meanwhile those treated with drugs that reduced their dopamine levels—a chemical associated with pleasure in humans—exercised better judgment.

The results, consistent with human clinical trials, further validated the technique as a viable model for studying the neurological aspects of human gambling behaviours and treatment.

But Winstanley wasn’t surprised.

“Rodents and humans share a similar brain anatomy and use the same neurotransmitters and receptors,” she says. “More importantly, we share the same mechanism that builds neurological pathways that ultimately lead to decision-making and impulse control.”

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimates that 680,000, or two per cent of Canadians, suffer from gambling problems. Better understanding the neurological underpinnings of gambling addiction could impact millions more.

“The inclination of pathological gamblers to make risky decisions has been observed in substance abusers and those with frontal brain damage,” says Winstanley. “Similar impaired judgment has also been documented in people suffering from schizophrenia, personality disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

One in five Canadians suffer from a mental health problem or illness, costing our economy $50 billion a year, according to a report released last month by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

One of Winstanley’s latest studies, also published in Neuropsychopharmacology, shows that rats, like humans, have natural inclinations to be keeners or slackers—and that stimulants affect them differently.

“The study shows that mental attention—a cognitive process also governed by chemistry in the brain—may be a factor in how stimulants affect brain chemistry,” says Winstanley, adding that stimulants are often used by patients with brain injuries and attention deficit hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to combat drowsiness and fatigue.

“And this points to greater need for personalized treatment and monitoring.”

 A race against time on the Fraser

 Fraser River sockeye productivity has been in decline since the mid-1990s, with the 2009 return of 1.4 million being the lowest return in more than 50 years. Scientists and fisheries managers were mystified in the following year, when 34 million made their way up the Fraser, marking one of the highest returns on record.

In addition to providing food and ceremonial values to First Nations communities, the five species of Pacific salmon generate more than $1 billion annually for the economy, supporting more than 10,000 jobs in communities throughout the province.

By linking large-scale telemetry observations with physiological and genomic assays on thousands of migrants, and by conducting lab swimming performance and thermal tolerance experiments, Scott Hinch and Tony Farrell are identifying key factors to inform conservation and fisheries management.

In one study, published in the journal Science, researchers biopsied tissues and implanted telemetry tags into salmon in the ocean and in the Fraser.

“We were able to predict survivorship of salmon based on a gene expression recorded more than 200 kilometres before they enter the Fraser River,” says Hinch, Director of the Pacific Salmon Ecology and Conservation Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Forest Sciences.

“This gene expression profile is consistent with an immune response known to be associated with exposure to pathogens and viruses,” says Farrell, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Canada Research Chair in Fish Physiology, Culture and Conservation.  “This tells us that disease can be a very important factor limiting successful spawning.”

In another study, featured on the cover of Science, researchers measured the swimming ability of adults from eight populations by monitoring metabolic and heart rates as they swam in an experimental “fish treadmill”—a tunnel capable of producing various water speeds and temperatures.

They found that populations with the longest and most arduous migrations were more athletic, displaying superior swimming ability and specialized heart adaptations than coastal populations.

They also found that the optimal water temperature for a population—the temperature at which the fish performed the best in the treadmill—matched the historical river temperatures encountered by each population on its migration routes.  In water temperatures above their optimal, the salmon’s swimming ability declined. Some populations, like those that spawn at Chilko Lake, were very resilient to high temperatures whereas others were less able to cope.

“This gives us critical knowledge to prioritize populations that require the most urgent protective measures,” says Hinch.

“The Fraser has experienced two degrees Celsius summer warming compared to 60 years ago—with nearly half of that warming occurring since the early 1990s—and water temperatures in 13 of the past 20 summers have been the warmest on record,” says Hinch.

“Currently, the Fraser River’s peak river temperatures during the summer months exceed the optimal temperatures for every population studied and cardiovascular collapse is clearly one explanation for migration mortality at high temperatures.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 6 | Jun. 6, 2012

Populations of the Steller sea lion have declined by 85 per cent. NNehring/iStockphoto Photograph

Populations of the Steller sea lion have declined by 85 per cent. NNehring/iStockphoto Photograph

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