Diet of Captive Gorillas Could Be Killing Them

Heart disease is rampant in zoo populations but nearly unheard of in wild
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 7, 2018 3:55 PM CST
Updated Mar 11, 2018 6:57 AM CDT
Diet of Captive Gorillas Could Be Killing Them
This undated photo provided by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo shows a male silverback gorilla named Mokolo. Showing signs of heart disease, Mokolo now receives regular ultrasounds--with green beans as a reward.   (Kyle Lanzer/Cleveland Metroparks Zoo via AP)

In 1911, Madame Ningo, the first gorilla in North America, arrived at the Bronx Zoo, where she was fed hot, meat-centric meals from a nearby restaurant. Being an herbivore, Madame Ningo refused to eat and was dead within two weeks. A century later, the ways zoos feed gorillas may still be killing them in a more insidious way, the Atlantic reports in a long look at a crisis facing captive gorillas the world over. In 2006, three seemingly healthy male gorillas in American zoos died from heart disease—a condition almost nonexistent in wild gorillas. Scientists have since determined that 70% or so of adult male gorillas in North America have heart disease, and it's the leading killer of captive male gorillas worldwide.

After a decade of work, researchers may finally be nearing an answer to the mystery—the first step was convincing 400-pound gorillas to stand still for ultrasounds—and it isn't found in the apes' hearts. "The gut dictates everything," a biological anthropologist says. Even with advances in feeding, scientists believe gorillas are still getting too much sugar and grain—and too little fiber—and it's changing the microbes in their guts. It's possible that, as in humans, gut microbes play a role in the health of systems throughout the body. Zookeepers in Cleveland are now trying out a new diet, though it will take a generation to tell if it works. “We brought these animals into zoos,” says a veterinary epidemiologist. “If how we manage them is the cause of heart disease, then I think we’re responsible to figure it out and fix it.” Read the full story here. (Read more Longform stories.)

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