What is the Great Ape Heart Project?
Formally established in 2010, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) addresses a critical need within the zoo community to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease (CVD or heart disease) in great apes. The project was founded with the goal of creating and maintaining a centralized database that can help us analyze cardiac data, generate reports, and coordinate cardiac-related research activities, while vastly improving communication among zoos, research facilities and sanctuaries where apes are housed. The data we collect will help individual animals, as well as enhance a body of knowledge that will benefit zoos internationally.
Who are the project partners?
Founding partners include Zoo Atlanta, Milwaukee County Zoo, the Emerging Diseases Research Group of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The GAHP was based at Zoo Atlanta from 2010-2021. As of January 1, 2022, the Great Ape Heart Project is based at the Detroit Zoological Society. The project now involves more than 70 institutions, including veterinarians, cardiologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, animal managers, ape specialists and research pathologists. Read more about our Project Partners here.
The Primary Objectives of the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) and needs of the greater zoo community:
- Bring together essential stakeholders from a wide range of disciplines and communities in order to establish systematic measures for identifying heart disease and to create an accessible system for monitoring and reporting cardiovascular-related illnesses
- Determine normal reference ranges for cardiac structure, function, and electrical conduction in each of the great ape species
- Design an appropriate assessment protocol to investigate CVD in great apes
- Establish reliable, cardiac diagnostics, treatment and prevention strategies.
- Serve as a model for future health investigations
How did the Great Ape Heart Project come to exist?
Since the early 1990’s, assessing and treating cardiovascular disease (CVD or heart disease) has become a growing concern for those caring for great apes. Heart disease is a major cause of mortality in all four great ape genera managed in captivity: western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus, P. abelii, and P. hybrids), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus).
As a veterinary advisor to the gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), Dr. Hayley Murphy began seeing an increase in the number of CVD cases reported in gorillas housed at AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions. At the same time, cardiologist Ilana Kutinksy, D.O., was volunteering her time at the Denver Zoo to assist in cardiac assessments on the zoo’s great apes. When Dr. Kutinsky and Dr. Murphy began discussing gorilla CVD cases, the two quickly realized that a more concerted effort needed to be made to collect, analyze, and compare the cases they were seeing. In 2002, Kutinsky and Murphy began compiling cardiac exam results in what was called the “Gorilla Cardiac Database”. Soon thereafter, Drs. Suzan Murray and Pam Dennis joined the collaboration by including blood sample results from their studies on B-type Natriuretic Peptide (BNP) and other cardiac biomarkers. In 2006, around the same time as the gorilla cardiac database was gaining momentum, Dr. Vickie Clyde began working with a local cardiologist, Dr. Sam Wann, and sonographer, Leann Beehler, to assess cardiac function in bonobos and gorillas at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Since there were only 9 zoological institutions in the United States with bonobos, the Milwaukee group quickly became the go-to source for zoo professionals looking for cardiac health advice on bonobos. Clyde and Beehler acknowledged the limitations of only performing cardiac evaluations during routine anesthetized exams, and so they developed the first protocol for training apes to participate in what are called “awake” or “voluntary” cardiac ultrasounds.
Recognizing that heart disease was not just a problem unique to gorillas and bonobos, the Milwaukee County Zoo (together with the Zoological Society of Milwaukee) hosted the first “Great Ape Cardiovascular Disease Working Group” meeting in October 2009. Many zoos across the country were already working towards improving diagnostic measures for assessing CVD in their collections, so a range of subject matter experts (SMEs) from these institutions took part in the Milwaukee meeting to share their experiences and work towards a finding a collaborative solution to this growing problem. At the 2009 meeting it was decided that someone needed to take the lead and apply for grant funds that would allow for a more centralized project to be established. Hayley Murphy, the veterinary director for Zoo Atlanta, applied for a National Leadership Planning Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) along with Drs. Rita McManamon (The Emerging Diseases Research Group of UGA-CVM), Pam Dennis (Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) and Linda Lowenstine (UC Davis). The IMLS grant application was successful and “The Great Ape Heart Project” based at Zoo Atlanta was officially established in October 2010.
Establishing the Great Ape Heart Project: IMLS & Zoo Atlanta
The 2010 IMLS Planning Grant made it possible for the GAHP to hire a dedicated Project Manager that would organize two collaborative meetings and coordinate communication among Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Dr. Marietta Dindo Danforth was hired as the Project Manager in 2010 and quickly recognized the need to digitize cardiac exam records, expedite communication between cardiac advisors and institutions seeking help with their exam evaluations, and to provide training materials and other resources to the greater GAHP community. The two planning grant meetings brought together a network of subject matter experts (SMEs) and established an Executive Committee for the GAHP that includes: the coordinating chairs, veterinary advisors, and pathology advisors for the ape Taxonomic Advisory Group (ape TAG) and all 4 ape Species Survival Plans (SSPs); 6 cardiologists (2 veterinarians and 3 physicians); a zoo nutritionist; husbandry and behavior experts; and an epidemiologist (see People page). This group of SMEs is committed to learning about cardiac parameters and disease in great apes, and provide expertise to the GAHP.
The original goal of the GAHP (and still a primary objective) was to improve collaboration and communications between institutions that house apes so we could connect zoo vets with these GAHP SMEs. One of the biggest challenges we have faced has not been collaboration and communication- but actually defining cardiac disease and its causes. This is why we have started to develop a” research” component to the project, while keeping the clinical side active. We have always felt strongly that current case management of apes could not wait for the research side to catch up-and that to be successful- we had to provide clinical support and “best practices” (as we know them)- to the veterinarians managing these animals day-to- day. In order for us to take on this larger objective, the Executive Committee determined that the GAHP needed to obtain additional grant funds to develop a robust, web-based medical database for cardiac exams and to continue to support a Project and Database Manager position. Zoo Atlanta agreed to contribute funding towards the Project and Database Manager position and to become the institutional base of the Great Ape Heart Project. In 2021, Dr. Hayley Murphy became CEO & Director of the Detroit Zoological. With her move to Detroit, Dr. Marietta Danforth assumed the role of Project Director and the GAHP formally moved its funding base from Zoo Atlanta to the Detroit Zoological Society.
The Role of the GAHP in AZA, the SSPs and Internationally
Management of great apes in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos is coordinated through Species Survival Plans (SSPs); great ape SSPs are organized within an Ape Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). SSP and TAG advisors volunteer their time to establish husbandry guidelines and medical standards. Since individual animal records are kept locally at zoos, with CVD-relevant clinical and pathologic data collected in a non-standardized manner, the GAHP developed a standard “submission form” as a guideline for ideal cardiac examinations and to streamline the process of forwarding cardiac exam records to the GAHP. A standardized suggested protocol for postmortem evaluation was also disseminated, and cardiovascular-relevant data is extracted from the final necropsy reports to be entered into the database.
Although the GAHP was started in the United States- we currently have several zoos in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and as far as New Zealand that contribute to and rely upon the resources of the GAHP. We also welcome ANY facility looking for assistance in caring for their great apes including research facilities and sanctuaries.