Just Who Is Swimming In SeaWorld’s Gene Pool?

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Correction 5/19/11:  I received the following message from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute:  “…we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit marine research organization. While SeaWorld has been a long time partner and supporter of ours we are a completely independent organization. To reiterate, our research efforts at Hubbs are not connected to SeaWorld’s AI [Artificial Insemination]program.”  References to the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute have been omitted.
What do you call a cross between a whale and a cow?  A ‘whow’?
When scientists managed to take the sperm from a dead minke whale and successfully fertilize a cow’s egg ,  people weren’t just saying ‘whow’, they were asking why.  Then the story behind SeaWorld’s artificial insemination program surfaced when their prime sperm source, Tilicum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau last year. Recently the fact that SeaWorld collects the gonads from dead whales and dolphins was brought under scrutiny.
What is going on in those labs, anyway?

(Courtesy Inventor Spot)

Mixing cow eggs and whale sperm in a petri dish seems so bizarre that even Dr. Frankenstein would have had a tough time coming up with the idea, but there are two things to consider:
First, the scientists in the whaling nations have to come up with something to justify their continued ‘research whaling’; by the end of the 90’s they had completed the basic justifiable research and moved into the labs (where they first grew tiny little minke whale embryos before deciding to try crossing whales with cows (abstract)).
Second, in some cases researchers are forced to use what is available to them – so even though they they may be looking for ways to eliminate genetic problems in humans, for instance, they do the early research with other species . In the cow/whale experiment, they were developing a ” heterologous fertility test”, which is used to test the fertility of sperm in animals.
SeaWorld’s research, though, is focused on breeding an ideal population of captive whales and dolphins. At this time they are only able to manipulate the sex of the fetus, but they are working on being able to mix together eggs and sperm (most likely from dead wild animals), and then to successfully implant the embryo into a captive female of the same species. The resulting calf would bring SeaWorld entirely new genetic lines for their breeding program.  What is holding them up?  In their own words:

The immediate challenge for the development of oocyte and embryo
technologies in cetaceans is the lack of access to post-mortem tissue, and when
available, access within a timely manner after death.

In the meantime, SeaWorld gives whales and dolphins synthetic hormones to synchronize their breeding cycles, they collect sperm and select for the gender that they want, and inject the sperm all the way into the female’s uterus – often without anesthesia and at times taking the dolphins out of the water for up to 30 minutes.

The first pre-sexed zoological species, the bottlenose dolphin, was born in 2005 (O’Brien & Robeck, 2006) and the technology has since been integrated into a global reproductive, genetic and social management program for the species (O’Brien et al., 2009) resulting in a total of 14 pre-sexed bottlenose dolphin calves to date.

The question at this point is how will we know if SeaWorld injects captive females with sperm from dead wild males?  Or when they create test tube whales?  And what is to stop them from further manipulating the genes for the qualities they think are desirable?
Before choosing to donate to any of SeaWorld’s  research entities, it might be a good idea to look into what they are really doing with the money.

Reference:  http://www.comparativepsychology.org/ijcp-2010-3/02.obrien_robeck__FINAL.pdf

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