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Why Is The Cincinnati Zoo Taking Thermal Pictures Of Its Animals?

Rico the porcupine doesn't know it but a researcher at the Cincinnati Zoo is capturing is heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature all with an infrafred camera.
Ann Thompson
Rico the porcupine doesn't know it, but a researcher at the Cincinnati Zoo is capturing is heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature all with an infrafred camera.

An MIT researcher is at the zoo to validate the technology, which could eventually be used in the wild.

Cincinnati Zoo animals seem happy to cooperate as an MIT researcher studies the accuracy of thermal imaging to determine baseline health.

During a demonstration for WVXU, Rico the Brazilian porcupine gripped a wooden log and chewed on banana chips while Ph.D. candidate Caroline Rzucidlo used an infrared camera to capture Rico's heart and respiratory rate and body temperature.

Up until this point, she says, thermal imaging has mainly been used on people and cows.

“The idea is that once we validate it, we can use it on zoo populations," she says. "But we also hope to use it on wild populations. We could attach it to a drone and fly it over a wild population of animals and then get some basic health metrics without having to disturb them.”

Cincinnati Zoo reproductive physiologist Erin Curry had the camera and was looking for somebody to do the research. She spoke to Rzucidlo’s professor and that’s how the contact with the doctoral student was made.

The way researchers will determine the accuracy of the thermal imaging is to compare the camera readings to those from a digital stethoscope. For animals who have too-thick skin to get a heart rate, like Fiona the hippo, Curry says the zoo will try out doppler and ultrasound to capture it.

Harley the macaw is camera shy, so her handler had to be careful as Rzucidlo approached slowly. Ideally, she says you really want to be one meter away.

“So this camera is really great because each pixel stores all the temperature information by its pixel," Rzucidle says. "So, I can go in and I can change things like the humidity in the room, how far away I am from the animal, things like that and adjust accordingly.”

Curry points out zoos can be a unique laboratory to validate technologies like this. As a reproductive physiologist for CREW, she has a vested interest. “We want to look to see if body temperature changes around the time of ovulation and around the time of embryo implantation so that we can better study the reproductive process.”

The most common method for determining that now is through the collection of fecal samples.

In a few weeks, Rzucidlo will take the infrared camera to the Louisville Zoo to work with the seals there to see how their blubber will affect the thermal imaging.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.