When an orangutan at the Seneca Park Zoo recently had an echocardiogram, there was both a veterinarian and a cardiologist who normally treats humans at his side.
The exam of 16 year old Denda was part of the Great Ape Project, a national effort investigating cardiovascular disease in great apes.
"Ape hearts are so similar to humans', so using a human cardiologist is a good way for us to have a really accurate cardiac exam," said Dr. Louis DiVincenti, the zoo's director of Animal Health and Conservation.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in great apes in captivity, but it's not clear why.
"It's interesting because, you know, they're not eating cheeseburgers," DiVincenti said, "so what is causing their cardiac disease versus causes and associations with heart disease in people?" One potential factor might be diet. Great apes in zoos were once given a diet that was mostly made up of fruit, but further research indicated that apes in the wild eat Asian fruit that has a sugar and fiber content more similar to broccoli.
"So we shifted away from fruit and now we feed them lots of vegetables," said DiVincenti. Fruit is now a treat, not a main component of the apes’ diets.
Denda’s heart appeared to be in good health when he underwent his test earlier this month. The thickness of the heart muscle looked normal and the valves were working properly. The more great ape hearts veterinarians study, the more they understand about what a normal, healthy ape heart should look like, DiVincenti noted.
Dr. Gerald Gacioch, a cardiologist at Rochester Regional Health who assisted in Denda’s exam, said the striking similarity of ape and human hearts means the research will not only extend our knowledge of the orangutan’s heart, but also help cardiologists better understand human evolution.
The Great Ape Heart Project is based at Zoo Atlanta and includes more than 70 institutions and specialists such as veterinarians, cardiologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, animal managers, ape specialists and research pathologists.