OVC Guest Lecturer: Nucharin Songsasen

OVC Guest Lecturer: Nucharin Songsasen

Educates about Canid Conservation

The Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) hosted Dr. Nucharin Songsasen, a visiting guest lecturer from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) on June 16, 2014.  Songsasen, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kasetsart University in Thailand, received an MSc in Biomedical Sciences and a PhD in Cryobiology from the University of Guelph in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

“I love coming back to Guelph,” explained Songsasen during her hour-long lecture. “Guelph is like my second home.”

Songsasen began her research with the SBCI after spending two years working on conservation efforts with the government of Thailand. At the SCBI, she has been involved with both ex situ and in situ conservation efforts, studying canids in natural, foreign, and controlled environments.

For much of her lecture, Songsasen discussed her efforts to study canid reproduction in order to preserve the populations of wild canids, like the South American maned wolf and the Asian wild dog.

The unique oocyte biology associated with canids has been an especially challenging obstacle to overcome. Dogs have an unique reproductive cycle, involving a prolonged proestrus and estrus cycle (the periods before and during menstruation), as well as an obligatory diestrus period. The diestrus period (the time following mating) involves similar hormones levels between pregnant and non-pregnant females.

In humans, non-pregnant diestrus hormones return the body to its baseline state; in dogs, diestrus hormones often induce pseudo-pregnancy during which non-pregnant females display weight gain, mammary gland development, and milk production.

During her lecture, Songsasen explained the predicament associated with attempting to grow a canid oocyte in order to preserve valuable genetic information.

“Everything takes longer with dogs,” explained Songsasen. “Oocyte maturation doesn’t work [because] the follicles are very small…when we get ovaries from clinics, we see oocytes that haven’t completely matured. So we tried to grow the [ovarian follicles] instead.”

Ovarian follicles are the basic unit of female reproduction. Containing an immature oocyte (also called an egg or an ovum), these follicles grow the egg until it can be released during ovulation.

Songsasen’s efforts eventually paid off once her team started using agarose gel to grow the follicle.

“After 15 days of growth, agarose gel shows higher survival of follicles,” explained Songsasen. “So we got rid of the other two methods and started using agarose gel.”

Alongside follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), the protein complex activin showed potential for follicular growth and healthy oocyte production.

While discussing on-site conservation efforts, Songsasen explained that the main threats to most canid species is habitat loss and human involvement. The Asian Wild Dog, for example, is an endangered species with an estimated population of 3,500 left in the world. The Asian Wild Dog often approaches farms to search for food, and is subsequently killed by farmers attempting to secure crop safety.

Songsasen emphasized the importance of unity and participation across countries and scientific groups.

“It’s about building partnerships and training the next generation of researchers,” explained Songsasen. “I train young scientists so they can help save the species.”

In an attempt to explain the importance of educating the public and reviewing policy, Songsasen also mentioned the different attitudes American and Thai citizens had towards her research and the government’s involvement with species conservation.

“People in America are less trusting of their government, while people in Thailand are more open to listening to researchers and scientists,” explained Songsasen.