A Giraffe of a Different Color

We all know that our hair turns gray as we get older, but did you know that hair color can also change with age in various other species throughout the animal kingdom? The silverback mountain gorilla is one of the most well-known examples, where the hair on a male’s back will change from black to silvery-gray when he matures at around 12 to 14 years of age. These types of coat color changes are one way that researchers can estimate the ages of individuals in a wild population without having to examine them up close, and are considered a type of biomarker.

Thornicroft’s Giraffe
[photo courtesy of Fred Bercovitch]

Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife biologist and professor at the Primate Research Institute and Wildlife Research Center at Kyoto University, along with his colleague Phil Berry, study this phenomenon in a lesser-known color-changing species—giraffes. More accurately, Thronicroft’s giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti), which are a less-common subspecies that live in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

Like all giraffes, these have brown geometric blotches all over their bodies, and each individual has a different pattern of these blotches. However, the markings on male Thornicroft’s giraffes darken and become coal black as the animals age—and according to a new study published in this month’s Journal of Zoology, this darkening, especially in the case of males, occurs within a limited time span as the animals age. This knowledge, in addition to the extensive observations made during the study, can help researchers better construct the animals’ life histories without knowing their exact ages.

“Not all subspecies blacken,” says Bercovitch. “So the ones you’ve seen in zoos might not change color with age.” He explained that as far as he is aware, no zoo in the world has Thornicroft’s giraffes; the most common types in captivity seem to be Reticulated and Masai.

“It’s actually pretty amazing,” he mused, “that people like seeing giraffes in zoos, they like seeing them in the wild, they are famous in the media such as in the movie Madagascar and on the Toys ‘R Us logo, but yet, very little research has been conducted on them in the wild.”

Now, this study is the first of its kind that followed known wild individuals over the course of their lifetimes, in addition to documenting color changes that ended up being especially prominent in males.

The markings on this male Thornicroft’s giraffe are turning black.
[Photo courtesy of Fred Bercovitch]

Bercovitch explained that co-author Berry has been a game ranger, safari guide, and a leader in rhino anti-poaching efforts for over 40 years, among many other jobs. He is also particularly skilled at recording giraffe data, and a lot of the information that he collected, which included relative blotch color of the males, as well as herd size, composition, and a slew of other details over the course of 33 years, were particularly useful in this study. Plus, since most of the collected information is in the form of field notes, the data is unbiased towards this particular study.

There are only a few other ways to tell the age of a giraffe if it is unknown. The first is by looking at the teeth, which erupt as the animal grows and wear down with age, much like horses. Unfortunately in the field, it is extremely hard to see the teeth, so it is really only helpful if you find a dead individual. Another method is looking at the relative sizes of the giraffes. For example, if a male is taller than a female, he is most likely at least 6 years old. If a female is seen nursing a calf, she is also most likely at least 6 to 7 years old. Finally, photographs can be compared. Since each giraffe’s coat pattern is different, if you find an old photo of an animal that matches up with a recent one, you can calculate an estimated minimum age based on when the photos were taken. Bercovitch and Berry also used a large amount of photographic records to identify and determine the ages of individuals.

Based on their long-term extensive observations, the giraffes’ color changes, and analysis of photographic records, Bercovitch and Berry were able to conjecture that male Thornicroft’s giraffes actually don’t live as long as previously thought. They found that they are weaned from their mothers and become independent by 2 years of age, then head out on their own when they are between 4 – 8 years old. Their color begins to darken later in life, when they are about 7 – 8 years old. It then takes another 1 – 2 years for them to completely blacken and become mature around 10 years of age. Most literature has suggested that male longevity is at least 25 years, but it is now known that male Thornicroft’s giraffes rarely live longer than 21 or 22 years, and their average life span is around 16 years of age. Bercovitch and Berry also determined that females on the other hand, can live up to 28 years, and have a longer reproductive life. Their color change however, is not as pronounced.

“We hope that this [new information] will not only help researchers [better determine giraffe ages] in the wild, but also can provide a basis for comparisons across locations in Africa to see if coat color changes differ depending on where these giraffe subspecies live,” says Bercovitch. In addition, they hope that by using observations of color changes, researchers may be able to gather better and more accurate data on herd composition and general ages of populations which will be important when it comes to conservation management efforts.

Giraffes are generally not considered endangered, but there are actually two other subspecies that are listed as endangered on the IUCN Redlist. These are the Nigerian AKA: West-African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta) and the Rothschild AKA: Ugandan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi). Not only are humans encroaching on their habitats causing there to be fewer and fewer large areas for them to wander across, but they are also poached in many areas.

Bercovitch hopes that this work will stimulate more interest in giraffe research, since not a lot has been undertaken in the past. He explained how important it is to *achem*… stick our necks out for these amazing and truly unique creatures. “Plus,” he said, “if the report stimulates people to go to Africa to see giraffes, that may help inspire them to save them!!”


Good Luck, Horseshoes

Horseshoe Crab by Pos Robert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When the earliest dinosaurs were first evolving around 230 million years ago, horseshoe crabs had already been scuttling along the ocean floor feeding on marine worms and tiny shellfish for at least 100 to 200 million years; maybe even longer. Today, they still remain relatively unchanged—‘living fossils’ that have survived at least 5 mass extinctions throughout the eons and outlived most of their closest relatives, such as the ancient trilobites, whose famous fossils can be seen in museums throughout the world. Perhaps the term “lucky horseshoes” should really pertain to these amazing little creatures who are one of the oldest species on earth.

As a native of New Jersey, I hold a special place in my heart for these unusual animals. Every summer throughout the months of May and June, they arrive in large numbers along the beaches, most famously in the Delaware Bay, to spawn. I like to walk down the shoreline in the early morning to look for them; every now and then helping to right those that had been flipped upside-down by the surf. Since it is currently the peak of their breeding season, I figured I’d write a little bit about them for anyone who has never had the chance to see one in person.

First, I should point out that horseshoe crabs are not really crabs or even considered ‘crustaceans,’ at all. They are actually more closely related evolutionarily to spiders and scorpions, than crabs, lobsters, or shrimp. Millions of years ago, there were many different kinds of horseshoe crabs, though today only four species remain. Limulus polyphemus, is the species that we see most commonly on the eastern shores of North America and in the Gulf of Mexico, but other species can be found from the shores of India to Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, and China when they come ashore to breed.

All horseshoe crab species have the same general shape, with bodies made up of three sections covered by hard armor-like plating; some can even grow up to 3 feet long. The first and largest section resembles a semi-circle or horseshoe-shape, called the prosoma (I like to call this the head). Looking down at the animal from above, this section contains two large compound eyes on each side, but there are also 5 other rudimentary ‘eyes’ that are much smaller and harder to see. Some are sensitive to visible light, while others are sensitive to the ultraviolet range. It is believed that horseshoe crabs see very well at night, and also pick up on contrast better than we can, but this has not been verified.

The “boxing gloves” of a male horseshoe crab.
Image courtesy of http://horseshoe-crabs.com

If you turn the crab over to see the bottom of the prosoma, there are five pairs of legs—the pair closest to the tail of the animal are modified ‘pusher’ legs that they use to propel themselves with, and to clean their gills. Each leg, save for the pusher legs, have pincers at the end. In females, all these pincers look the same, but in males, their forward-most legs, called the pedipalps, are rounded with a little hook on the end that many researchers refer to as ‘boxing gloves.’ These help them hold onto the female’s shell during mating. Females also tend to be much larger than males, which is another way to tell them apart.

Underside of a young female horseshoe crab. Notice the mouth between the legs, and the book gills. Image courtesy of http://horseshoe-crabs.com

There are an additional two tiny legs in front of the others called chelicerae, which help push food towards the mouth, which is located between the five sets of main legs. The mouth structure is called a gnathobase, is lined with tiny hair-like spines, and the crab can only swallow food (always whole since it doesn’t chew) if its legs are moving. Spiders, the crab’s distant relatives, also have chelicerae, except they are usually in the form of pointed fang-like appendages that some use to grasp food. They are also often hollow, and/or connected to venom glands. But don’t worry–horseshoe crabs aren’t poisonous at all. They even have two additional light receptors or ‘eyes’ near their mouths, which are believed to help them orient while swimming.

The central section of a horseshoe crab’s body is called the opisthosoma. This is lined with movable spines on each side, and contains the musculature to move the tail as well as the ‘book gills’ underneath. These not only exchange respiratory gasses to allow the crab to breathe, but can also move like a series of fins and can help them swim. In fact, as long as the book gills remain wet, the crab can breathe—hence why they can come out of the water and survive by sitting on the wet sand. They don’t swim often though, usually only if necessary to escape predators like sharks, or to help move in rough surf. When they do, they usually swim upside-down.

The last part is called the telson, which is a fancy name for the tail. Many people think it is a poisonous spine, but this is a common misconception. The horseshoe crab just uses its tail to turn itself right-side up if it gets flipped over. Horseshoe crabs also cannot walk or swim backwards—if one gets cornered or stuck, it must use its tail to flip itself over and swim away. The series of bumps along the top and side of the tail are additional light receptors. Being primarily nocturnal animals, these are very important to help it synchronize with the day and night cycles.

Horseshoe crabs are also relatively long-lived, and it is believed they can survive up to 20 years or more. They grow in stages and molt their shells for about 10 years or so, until they mature. Once fully grown, they stop molting and often gain hitchhikers like mussels or barnacles that begin to grow on them. Each spring, during the high tides of the new and full moon, the males line the shores waiting for the females. Once they arrive, groups of males surround each larger female trying to grab on with their pedipalp. Once one does, he is dragged behind her as she lays up to 20 clutches of eggs in shallow holes that she digs, each clutch containing about 4,000 tiny pastel-green eggs. He fertilizes them as they are laid, and they hatch within 3-4 weeks.

Groups of males crowd around females in hopes to breed by Pos Robert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

These eggs attract huge numbers of shorebirds every year who gorge themselves with them to bulk up for their long migrations. One of the most famous of these birds has one of the longest migration routes known, and it is called the Red Knot. These small birds fly from the very tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego making a pit stop in Brazil, and then fly nonstop to the Delaware Bay to gorge themselves on eggs to prepare for the last leg of their journey—a nonstop flight to their arctic breeding grounds. Their total journey is about 9,300 miles!

Because horseshoe crabs have been hunted excessively in the last century for fertilizer (their bodies were ground up because they are high in nitrogen), and used as bait, the decline in crab numbers has also caused a decline in the numbers of these birds.The crabs have also been harvested in large numbers since the 1960s and 70s for use in the medical industry. Not only are their eyes being studied, but their blue blood is copper-based and contains an interesting substance called limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) which can be extracted and used to detect bacterial toxins.

I suppose by writing this post, I just wanted to raise awareness of these amazing and fascinating creatures, as well as urge people to protect them. They have survived for so long, through such extreme conditions, that I find the fact that humans have done so much damage to their populations in such a short amount of time very disheartening. We are making advances though. Crabs are no longer killed for blood collection, but once they are captured, only about 30% of their blood is taken before they are returned to the ocean. Their blood volume rebounds within a week or so, while research has shown that it takes about 2-3 months for their blood cell count to return completely back to normal. In the past, moratoriums have also been placed on the harvest of horseshoe crabs in certain areas.

Finally, I can’t describe how many times I see kids at the beach picking the crabs up by their tails. This can seriously harm the crabs and parents must urge their kids not to do this. In addition, if there are shorebirds feeding on the beach, please do not disturb them. They need to eat as much as they can so they can make it to the arctic.

To learn more about horseshoe crabs and the shorebirds that depend on them, feel free to check out the following links:

Horseshoe Crab History, Biology, Research, and Conservation

The Red Knot

Video: A Tale of Two Species

Of Shuttles and Star Parties


The space shuttle Discovery aboard its transport, Tuesday 4/17/2012. I totally stole this photo from my classmate, Jay Thompson, who was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C. to take this picture!

After the space shuttle Discovery was ferried across the sky on the back of a specially-equipped 747 from The Kennedy Space Center to its new home at the Smithsonian, I was filled with a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. I grew up along with the shuttle program, as well as anything else that had to do with NASA and space. I probably watched close to every launch on the news if I wasn’t in school when they occurred.

If you asked most little girls in my kindergarten class what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would generally get a range of answers from ballerina to teacher, while a select few would opt for attorney or doctor. But, I was the only one who wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. This desire and love of all things space and flight-related was in part later fostered by my amazing fourth grade teacher who not only started and headed my elementary school’s ‘Young Astronaut’ program, but also built a ¼ size scale model of the space shuttle’s cockpit. She expertly attached white and black plastic sheets together that could be essentially blown up with big fans, like a giant balloon, and reinforced with plastic tubing so that it maintained its shape. We could crawl in and out of this “inflatable shuttle,” which we had to blow up in the gym because it was so big, and would have mock missions inside of it after school. It was a thing of beauty, and I don’t think any other classroom in the world had anything like it.

Anyway, aside from Mrs. Greenstein, my dad had always been a major role model in my life first and foremost. He used to be a pilot, and I always remember seeing him fly over my house in his little Piper Archer II. I would know it was him because he would quickly bank the plane back and forth, essentially wiggling the wings; a pilot’s wave from the air. I would point him out to my friends- that was MY dad and he was the coolest. He also has always been an amateur astronomer, and on summer evenings we would set up the telescope and spend the night looking at whatever we could find. He would even wake my mom and me up at whatever super early hour in the morning to see a meteor shower, and helped me put those little plastic glowing stars on my ceiling based on real constellations illuminated from his mini star projector.

These memories are some of the fondest of my childhood. In fact, Mrs. Greenstein would often invite him to come to our Young Astronaut meetings and talk about what it was like to be a pilot, and then he would also talk about how airfoils worked. Another fond memory was a tradition that we all did every year, where my classmates and I, along with our parents and Mrs. Greenstein, would get together at some point in the summer and have what we called a “star party.”

One of the reasons I am writing this post is to spread the idea if you haven’t heard of star parties already- they really are a lot of fun. We would go out to a field in a local park on a nice clear evening, bring as many telescopes as we could find, and aim each at something different in the sky. We would bring snacks, hot chocolate, and flashlights covered with red cellophane to reduce their brightness. We would spend the evening marveling at what we saw, while the adults taught us lessons about the cosmos. It was a humbling experience- realizing just how small we were in the vast scheme of things, and just how amazing the universe is when you are out there looking at it in all its splendor.

This sense of wonder as well as camaraderie has always inspired me to pursue science in school in one form or another. Whether from the grand scale of the universe to the microscopic scale in a biology lab, science has been a part of who I am. However, the National Center on Education Statistics has shown that only a small percentage of high school and college students choose to major in what they call ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. According to their research, students in these majors make up only 16% of all students throughout the country. The main reason that they feel this is the case is due to the sheer difficulty of these fields and the ensuing lack of interest due to this. The center also fears that soon there will be such a lack of students in these fields that the number of people available upon graduation will not be sufficient to meet the U.S. workforce demand.

This needs to change. I feel that if students can be properly inspired, they will have more of a drive to do well in STEM fields. I also feel that a love of science doesn’t just develop overnight. Perhaps an interest may, but a deep love is something that is nurtured over time. Let us find more teachers like Mrs. Greenstein and people like my dad to inspire kids to love science and to want to do well in it. Let parents get more involved in their kids’ education. Let the next generation experience and understand the sense of wonder that I felt throughout my childhood and want to strive to learn more. Maybe it can all start with star parties.

GPS Demystified


Image courtesy of Digitalart, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me she was planning on taking a long road trip to visit some national parks. I asked her if she had all her maps, and she laughed and said, “Oh I have my trusty GPS.”

“What if it doesn’t always work?” I responded.

She looked at me questioningly. “Why would it not work?”

I realized then how blindly we rely on technology today, and just how little many of us actually know about it. “Do you know how it works?” I asked.

“Um, I think it has something to do with a satellite, right?”

This is the conversation that inspired this blog post. Ancient travelers used to navigate based on the positions of the stars and constellations. Nowadays, many people use a different kind of constellation to find their ways, and most that I have spoken to don’t know that it even exists or how it really works. They view their GPS devices as pseudo-magical objects, and although I am by no means a total expert on the science, I do know the basics of how they work and hope to help explain it so that it is a little more understandable. This is the super-simplified answer.

Let’s start with a few definitions. “GPS” stands for the Global Positioning System, which is a combination of satellites and their ground stations that enable users to navigate if they have a receiver (for most people, it’s that piece you carry or put in your car). There is a network of 24 satellites with an additional 4-6 in reserve that act as ‘spares’ and form what is considered a ‘constellation’ that orbits the earth. These satellites are pretty far out—about 12,500 miles up. To put this in perspective, the International Space Station is only about 185 miles up, and the Hubble Space Telescope is about 365 miles up. Despite this distance, they move very quickly, and it takes each GPS satellite roughly 12 hours to circle the earth one time.

The GPS’s ground-based stations monitor where each satellite is at all times, how well each is working, as well as make corrections to the signals being transmitted from them and coordinate which ones are running at a given time. The master control station is at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, but the other stations are located in Hawaii and Kwajalein in the Pacific Ocean, Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as Cape Canaveral and Colorado Springs.

This constellation of satellites also has a name: NAVSTAR. This stands for “Navigation System using Timing and Ranging.” This is a very important concept. Each NAVSTAR satellite is equipped with an atomic clock, and each emits its own unique radio signal that can be picked up and identified by a receiver on earth. The receivers have their own clocks too.

Your receiver’s clock is synched with the ones on the satellites as closely as possible. However, since atomic clocks are extremely expensive and super accurate, the average consumer receivers typically have to have the next best kinds. These clocks may not be quite as accurate, so there is usually a miniscule difference between the ones in the receivers and the satellites. Usually, the more expensive your device, the better the clock can keep time compared to the satellite and/or correct for any inconsistencies.

The receiver makes note of the time it was when a signal left a satellite compared to the time it receives it. Based on this information and the speed of the radio signal transmission itself, it can then calculate how far away each satellite is that it gets a signal from. If your receiver’s clock is not too accurate, the reading can sometimes be a little off. This typically doesn’t affect someone who is trying to get from one place to another, but it may if you are trying to get exact coordinates of a specific location.

Then, the receiver does some figuring. For example, if it is known that you are 10,000 miles away from a particular satellite, you can be anywhere on earth within a circle of that distance from it. But if you are also 11,000 miles from another nearby satellite, you would thus have to be at one of the two points where the two circles overlap on the ground, like a Venn Diagram. This narrows your location down significantly, but it is not precise. This is why if your GPS receiver says there are “only two satellites in range,” it won’t work well if it works at all. You need a third that would narrow it down even further and intersect one of the two points to confirm where you are, and the more satellites you have sending signals, the more accurate your receiver will determine your location. There usually is a minimum of 3 satellites needed at all times, which is why this is called trilateration.

In addition, the reading on the receiver may not be as accurate if the satellites happen to be clumped in the same general area of the sky, as opposed to being more spread out. Think of a bunch of circles being drawn on top of each other rather than being spread out enough to see where they actually overlap. This is called the Positional Dilution of Precision (PDOP), which can be another reason why your GPS receiver may not always work well.

But ultimately, once your receiver has figured out your location, it compares that to pre-loaded maps of roadways, etc. and displays them together. That is why you are supposed to periodically update your maps, though I don’t know anyone who actually does.

Finally, you may sometimes lose a radio signal in the event that a satellite moves behind a tall building or mountain that blocks it. If you have more than three satellites in range, this isn’t a problem, but I know my receiver gets confused when I drive in a city or through a tunnel. Some newer models can actually plan ahead—if they know based on the pre-loaded maps that a tunnel is coming up for instance, they can calculate your future trajectory and take that into account, so it never appears that the signal is lost in the first place.

Fun Fact:

Civilian GPS units weren’t always as accurate as they are today, but it was on purpose. Selective Availability was a term coined by the US military for their intentional degradation of the satellite signals accessible to the public for national security reasons, which would ensure a receiver’s reading would be at least 300 feet off. In the year 2000, President Bill Clinton ordered Selective Availability to be turned off because he and the government felt that it would be for the greater good. What do you think?

Catching Puppies

This was it—go time. Standing poised but slightly crouched like a football player about to spring into action, our eyes were on the clock. My hands were beginning to sweat within the latex gloves I was wearing and I nervously adjusted my face mask to bide the time.

“Okay guys, here we go,” I heard the surgeon say as my fellow ‘team mates’ stood in line behind me at the ready, and we counted down the seconds in our heads as he did so aloud in front of us. Hey, this was my first time doing something like this after all—and I couldn’t help but be a little nervous, not to mention I had only just been hired. I would NOT mess this up.

Standing at the door of the surgical suite, I looked at the patient. She had been secured upside-down on her back, and was being remarkably well-behaved—luckily for all of us, as it’s not always the case. Her enlarged abdomen had been shaved and scrubbed with antiseptic, and the orange-yellow sheen of betadine was apparent thanks to the bright overhead lights. The look on her face was curious, and not panicked in the least. The perfect patient.

“5…4…3…2…1… BEGIN!”  The exact time was noted by another technician as the patient was sedated, intubated, and hooked up to an anesthesia machine—the surgical team had moved as if part of a well-choreographed dance, while the familiar beeping of the electrocardiogram machine began to echo eerily in the room like a metronome as it helped monitor her condition. Beep… beep… beep… 

The surgeon’s skill was evident as within just minutes, a newborn baby puppy was tossed gently through the air, and I caught the little blob of flesh in the warm towel I held in my outstretched arms. I dashed with the precious cargo to a station that we had prepared in advance, and started cleaning mine up— followed closely by the other catchers with their own puppies in tow.

We removed each one from their amniotic sac, used a suction bulb to remove fluid from their mouths and noses to clear their upper respiratory tracts, and rubbed each one clean as the mother would, which stimulated them to breathe and cry. Although it’s no glamorous task, hearing that puppy cry is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. Then, once the puppy was clean, dry, and stable, we each tied off our puppy’s umbilical cord with suture material, cut off the rest of the placenta, and placed the baby in a pre-warmed incubator until mom was recovered enough to take care of them.


Radiograph image of canine fetuses in utero, courtesy of the Animal Hospital of Pasco (http://www.pascovets.com). Can you count how many puppies there are?

As you may have guessed, before I was a Science Writing student here at Hopkins, I had worked for a few years as a veterinary technician at an animal hospital back home. As a ‘vet tech,’ I was responsible for assisting the veterinarians in a similar manner to the way that nurses assist doctors in human hospitals. Since I always tell crazy animal stories to my classmates, we all thought my first post on this new blog should have something to do with animals, and perhaps one of the lesser-known procedures that are performed at an animal hospital. If you haven’t guessed by now, this is a canine or feline cesarean section.

Now many of you may scoff, thinking a c-section on animals? Well it’s actually more common than you might think. There are a number of reasons as to why it might have to be performed, such as the animal is way past her due date with no sign of parturition (birth), she is somehow too weak to give birth naturally, she is straining too much or having some kind of trouble (dystocia), the baby is stuck or improperly positioned near the birth canal (breeched), and so forth. In addition, some breeds almost always have to have cesarean sections performed because they have been bred to a point where their heads/hips are too oddly-shaped for natural birth to be possible. This is often the case with dogs that are extremely small, as well as pugs and other brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs. It is almost impossible for bulldogs to be born naturally for this reason, and practically every pregnant female of this breed will have to have this procedure done.

I hope to never see a human doctor toss a newborn human baby to a nurse so she can catch it in a towel, but there actually is some science behind it when done with dogs and cats. After reading my first-person account, you may be slightly horrified and wonder why on earth a veterinarian would toss sweet little newborn puppies or kittens at his assistants rather than just handing them over. I spoke with Dr. Michael Petranto, a veterinarian with a special interest in animal reproduction and who is also the medical director at Twin Rivers Animal Hospital in East Windsor, New Jersey to shed some light on the subject.

He explained that the purpose of the toss/catch procedure, which is done during all veterinary c-sections, is mainly for speed. Plus, the entire surgery itself is carefully timed. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is to resuscitate the pups or kittens as quickly as possible, get them warm and stable, and then get them nursing once mom is strong enough after surgery.” This is important because they must drink the mother’s “first milk” or colostrum, a substance rich in nutrients, proteins, and vital antibodies, which is only produced within 8 hours after birth.

The entire process can be done even faster when other technicians form an assembly-line, as opposed to the same person catching a baby, resuscitating it, and running back for another—that would take too long and some babies take longer than others to stabilize. This way the surgeon can just take each puppy or kitten and quickly toss one after another to a waiting technician who can give all their attention to the one they have.

If the mother is calm enough and behaves well, she will be prepped for surgery while she is awake. Usually for most other procedures, an animal’s surgical site is shaved and cleaned with antiseptic while they are under anesthesia in order to make it easier for the technicians, and to cause less stress for the animal. With c-sections, there is a concern for both the mother and her unborn litter, who can all be affected by the anesthetic drugs if they’re in the mother’s system for too long. The same holds true with people. Speed is the key.

The surgeon also has to remain sterile throughout the procedure. If the catchers get too close, they could run the risk of contaminating the doctor, as well as the surgical table and equipment if they were to accidentally touch anything. This could lead to the mother developing a dangerous infection. The doctor gently tosses the newborns one by one, which is only the distance of a few feet at most, in order to avoid this.

Dr. Petranto explained that in all his years of practice, he couldn’t remember a technician ever dropping a puppy or kitten during one of these procedures—they really have it down to an art. But, he said that even if one was dropped, natural birth would have been more traumatic. “Think about a Great Dane,” he said. “When a female is whelping [giving birth], those puppies are going to fall about the same distance if she happens to be standing. Plus the mothers pick them up, lick them, move them around and so forth. They get shaken up quite a bit and are pretty resilient.”

Interestingly, he also mentioned that many people ask if there is a different bond that forms between a mother and her litter after a cesarean section versus a natural birth, and the answer is that there may just be. As a matter of fact, there is a pheromone that the mother is stimulated to produce during natural birth that she does not during a c-section. Referred to as Appeasing Pheromone, it was only recently discovered within the last few years, and helps to calm the babies and reassure them. It also helps them become more confident and by so doing, encourages them to start exploring their surroundings as they get older. However, more research is needed at this point to determine if the lack of this pheromone in female animals who have had cesarean sections significantly affects their offspring in a negative way.

From what I have seen with my own eyes though, the mothers and their litters tend to turn out just fine.