Five-year effort produces a registry of blood types for captive great apes

By William Mullen
Monday, January 3, 2011; 11:12 PM

CHICAGO - In April 2005, an adolescent gorilla named Mumbali was dying of a mysterious infection at Lincoln Park Zoo.

In a last-ditch effort to save her life, veterinarians and keepers anesthetized both Mumbali and Kwan, a male gorilla, then laid them side by side to send Kwan's blood directly from his arm into hers.

It was a crude procedure, similar to the way transfusions were once done for humans.

There was little to go on in the veterinary literature, which had nothing about whether gorillas have A-B-O blood groups like humans or whether they needed to have blood matched to their own for a successful transfusion. "It's one of the most basic pieces of knowledge we need for the care of our animals, and it simply wasn't there," ape-keeper Jill Moyse said.

Mumbali died despite the emergency intervention. Afterward, Moyse told her colleagues that the gorilla's death "could only make sense if we can make something good come out of it." Five years later, Moyse and Kathryn Gamble, the zoo's chief veterinarian, have created a new body of literature on great-ape hematology and produced an international registry to record the blood types of captive apes on four continents.

The registry represents all four great-ape species: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. In North America, it encompasses nearly every healthy male and female adult of the species that could donate blood if another ape of its species needed a transfusion.

"These are small populations, so emergency calls for blood are pretty rare," said Gamble, who recently published the project's research in the journal Zoo Biology. "But when you need it, you really, desperately need it."

Gamble and Moyse sent out small, chemically coated cards to North American and European zoos and to African and Asian sanctuaries. A small smear of blood on the cards almost instantaneously reveals the ape's blood type. Eventually the cards returned to Chicago from around the world.

The project has verified that ape blood isn't interchangeable between species or humans, she said. It found that bonobos have only type A blood, while orangutans have all four types, A, B, AB and O.

"Gorillas so far are somewhat confusing and frustrating," said Gamble. "Although all of their cards came back as type O, it is clear from genetic evaluation from our collaborators at the University of Chicago that gorillas don't in fact have all the same blood type."

Because chimpanzees are frequently used as stand-ins for humans in medical research, their usual blood type, type A, was already known.

Thomas Meehan, who heads the gorilla species survival plan veterinary board for all North American zoo gorillas, said the project may result in new, lifesaving surgical procedures for apes because the registry allows for blood supplies that "will enable us to utilize more advanced procedures."

- Chicago Tribune

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