Vitamin D and Rhinos

As she was contemplating what to do this last summer, Morgan Young relied on reviews from some of her fellow College of Veterinary Medicine students.

“I heard really good things about the program,” she said. “I had a lot of friends who had good experiences with their projects.”

The program is the Summer Scholar Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine. The program introduces veterinary medicine students to research in a wide array of areas as they investigate specific issues that match their interest and the work of an established researcher.

Young, a third-year veterinary student, spent her summer working with Dr. June Olds, clinical assistant professor in veterinary clinical sciences. In addition to her Iowa State appointment, Olds is the lead veterinarian at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.

Young’s research project looked into the husbandry and environmental influences on circulating Vitamin D3 in black rhinoceros in North American zoos. While there is a lot of Vitamin D research in humans, there is a lack of such studies on in most exotic animals, including the black rhinoceros.

A lack of Vitamin D can cause heart disease, autoimmune diseases, cancers and skin diseases in humans. Black rhinoceros in captivity have many diseases for which veterinarians don’t know the underlying cause.

Young worked with 12 different zoos across the United States. Since a major non-food source of Vitamin D is sunlight, the project surveyed zoos with a “good range of latitudes” including in Hawaii, the southwest, southeast , and throughout the midwest.

The rhinoceros’ diet and daily routine were surveyed and blood samples were taken in the winter, fall, spring and summer.

“I also looked at a database that gives the UV index for every day since 1994,” Young said. “It was a very involved project.”

The study’s preliminary results indicate that season and latitudes do play a significant effect on Vitamin D levels.

“As you might expect, the rhinos in Midwest zoos had very low Vitamin D levels in the winter,” Young said.

But even with the results there is still much more to do on the study Young says.

“We don’t know a lot of things,” she said, “including what are the health issues, if any, related to Vitamin D deficiency and what are even deficient levels of Vitamin D in rhinoceroses.

“This was a really interesting project,” she continued. “I learned so much about Vitamin D that I didn’t know before.”