According to a new study, a large number of chimps in Europe have low vitamin D levels, which could have a serious impact on their health. The study, which is the largest of its kind, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. According to the authors, this research will help improve care and nutrition practices for these endangered animals.
Some consider vitamin D deficiency to be a pandemic, affecting up to one billion people worldwide. Vitamin D is well-known for its role in maintaining calcium levels in the body, which is necessary for the proper functioning of bones and muscles. However, vitamin D has a much wider range of biological functions, and prolonged vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a variety of disorders in humans such as heart diseases, cancers, autoimmune diseases, and respiratory infections.
Comparatively little is known about vitamin D in non-human primates. An international team of experts, including academics at the Universities of Nottingham, Birmingham, St George’s, and Hong Kong, as well as zoo veterinarians from Twycross and Perth zoos, have set up a Europe-wide research project to investigate this in our closest animal relatives.
Vitamin D plays an important role in the transcriptional control of pro-fibrogenic and pro-inflammatory factors in the body, so adequate Vitamin D levels are vital for the health of chimps in our care.Professor Kerstin Baiker
The international study discovered that low vitamin D levels are common in European chimps. This, in turn, could be a risk factor for the development of IMF, or Idiopathic Myocardial Fibrosis, a mysterious heart disease that commonly affects them.
The same research team previously investigated IMF in depth and discovered that while the majority of chimps from Europe displayed the characteristic changes of this disease, animals from Africa were unaffected.
Dr Melissa Grant at the University of Birmingham said “This is essential research to further understand the factors contributing to maintaining a healthy in-human-care chimpanzee population for the future of the species. Such a wide range of individuals and locations has not been explored before and this reveals potential new ways to care for these animals.”
During the study, the researchers examined samples from approximately 20% of all chimps in Europe. The samples were collected opportunistically when the animals were anaesthetized for health checks or minor veterinary procedures at 32 European zoos and sanctuaries. The samples were analyzed alongside detailed information about the individual animals and their care practices, as well as their geographical location, to determine which factors might be important for their vitamin D supply.
Sophie Moittié, who led the study originally at Twycross Zoo and is now an assistant professor at the University of St George’s, said: “There is clear correlation between vitamin D status and several diseases in humans. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, therefore we need to assume that they might be at risk as well. It is our responsibility to ensure they get the best care possible, so we can preserve them into the future.”
Their findings show that unlimited outdoor access resulted in higher vitamin D levels, even for those animals living in Northern Europe, where sunny days are rare compared with their natural African habitat. Like in humans, there were also clear differences in vitamin D between seasons, and for many chimpanzees their end-of-summer concentrations may not be high enough to avoid a winter deficiency. Even chimpanzees living in Southern Europe are at risk of becoming vitamin D deficient, similarly to the humans living there.
These findings will now inform how these animals are cared for in zoos and sanctuaries, contributing to continuous improvements in welfare standards.
Professor Kate White from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham said: “This is a really good example of clinical research informing best practice: unlimited outdoor access for these captive animals is likely to be more important than we previously thought.”
“Vitamin D plays an important role in the transcriptional control of pro-fibrogenic and pro-inflammatory factors in the body, so adequate Vitamin D levels are vital for the health of chimps in our care,” said Professor Kerstin Baiker of City University of Hong Kong.
Though vitamin D was once thought to be only important for bone health, its importance is now widely acknowledged. Hundreds, if not thousands, of biological processes in humans and other animals rely on its presence, and a lack of this vitamin may be an important contributing factor to many modern human diseases. Understanding these in other great apes can have a significant impact on their conservation, and we may also learn important lessons for humans.