As a backup plan to prevent species extinction, a federal agency has started harvesting reproductive organs from dead Key deer. The animals, only found in the Lower Keys, suffered a heavy blow to their population over the last few months from the flesh-eating New World screwworm.
While the screwworm eradication effort has prompted the release of millions of combative sterile flies and Key deer deaths due to the parasite have halted as of late, federal wildlife managers are taking no chances when it comes to survival of the protected species.
The Big Pine Key-based National Key Deer Refuge has been sending reproductive organs it gathers from recently dead Key deer found still intact to a partnering non-profit. This includes deaths from screwworm as well as vehicular accidents, which refuge officials say are on the rise.
Known as the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation, the organization collects and preserves genetic material from endangered animals as well as performs assisted reproductive techniques. It’s based in Yulee, Fla.
For collection and preservation, when it comes to Key deer, that includes storing testes and ovaries in liquid nitrogen. For reproduction, that could include, if needed, artificial insemination with a female Key deer or in vitro fertilization with a surrogate species for population sustainability.
SEZARC has worked in the past with the protected Florida panthers to sustain its endangered population, which included introducing eight Texas female cougars, which are genetic cousins of the panther, into South Florida to bolster the dwindling local population. The organization also works with sand tiger sharks and stingray, among other animals.
As of last week, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission representative said 21 testes and two ovaries from deceased Key deer had been sent to SEZARC. They send the reproductive organs from each one that is found to be harvestable. They teamed up with the organization just a short time ago.
“We don’t know what the long-term plan is [with this process],” FWC public information officer Candice Stevenson told the Free Press last week. “We will just continue to send them as we find them though.”
The estimated Key deer population, encompassing 11 islands, is at roughly 875, according to a recently-produced study. Old reports had the herd somewhere around 1,000 to 1,200. The refuge’s latest report shows that 132 of the animals — 122 males and 10 females — have perished from the screwworm since their presence was found in the Keys in July.
Aside from sterile flies and harvesting organs, the refuge has administered more than 5,000 anti-parasitic doses of medicine to the population on a daily basis there through volunteer efforts as well as feeding trays placed around the area.