March 15, 2009

Vet Tech Finds New Life Form At Texas Zoo

A Texas veterinarian technician has discovered a new life form during a routine exam of an Attwater Prairie Chicken.

"I actually found it in April of 2007," said Casey Plummer, who discovered the protozoan parasite.

"It took almost a year to determine it was a new protozoan. When I found out, I was so excited! When they told me it had never been identified before, I was over the moon about it, really," she said during an interview with the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

At just 29 years old, Ms. Plummer's achievement is rare.  She grew up in Whitehouse, Texas, and received degrees from both Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler before landing her position at the Caldwell Zoo in Texas in 2004.

"It was during a routine fecal exam of our Attwater's Prairie Chickens that I saw something and thought, 'Wow. I've never seen this before,'" she said.

Since the organism was a protozoan parasite, Ms. Plummer had to first positively identify the organism and then quickly begin treating the chickens to eradicate it.  The first task was a challenge, given that no one, including experts in parasitology, had ever before identified the organism.

The protozoan was ultimately named Eimeria Attwaterii after the critically endangered chickens, and was the first new life form ever discovered at the zoo. Technicians have not found the parasite in any other species to date.

"It is something people will keep an eye on," the Tyler Morning Telegraph quoted her as saying.

"I am one of those people who wouldn't just let something like that slide. I hadn't seen it before, so I checked it out."

Although Ms. Plummer enjoys recounting her discovery, she prefers telling the history of the chickens and why it is so important to keep them healthy.

"I cannot say I have a favorite animal here, that would be impossible to answer," said Ms. Plummer.

"But I do feel strongly about the preservation of Attwater's chickens.

"So many people have no idea they even exist, but they have been endangered since 1967. Only five zoos have programs for captive propagation and re-releasing. We hope to have an exhibit open to the public this spring."

The Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 60 miles west of Houston, is one of the largest remnants of coastal prairie habitat left in southeast Texas.  The area is home to one of the last populations of the endangered chickens, which formerly occupied
6 million acres of coastal prairie habitat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The chickens were once one of the most abundant birds of the Texas and Louisiana tall grass prairie ecosystem.  But now, only 200,000 acres of coastal prairie habitat remain, leaving the birds scattered throughout just two Texas counties.

Those grim details make Ms. Plummer's discovery even more significant, as parasites can often cause serious problems that can lead to the death of the chickens. 

"You know, when I first told people about what I found, they asked me if I was going to get any money for it," Ms. Plummer said with a laugh.

"I am NOT getting any money for it, but it is still exciting."

"My sister was so proud of me that she had a T-shirt made that had a picture of the protozoan that said, 'I discovered this species. What have you done?' I loved it!"

Additional information on the Attwater's prairie chicken or education programming at the Caldwell Zoo can be viewed at www.caldwellzoo.org.

Image Credit: Wikipedia


On The Net:

U.S Fish and Wildlife Reserve

Attwater Prairie Chicken