Oregon Zoo partners with OSU on 'Beaver Genome Project'

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Filbert the beaver aids researchers seeking to better understand Oregon's state animal

With an assist from Filbert — a furry, buck-toothed denizen of the Oregon Zoo's Cascade Stream and Pond habitat — scientists at Oregon State University are preparing to sequence the genome of our state animal, the North American beaver.

Researchers say results of the Beaver Genome Project could help us better understand population dynamics of this iconic Northwest animal, which has evolved to play a key role in maintaining the habitat complexity of wetland ecosystems.

"This kind of research can tell us things like how many populations of beaver there used to be and even give us clues as to their size," said Dr. David Shepherdson, the zoo's deputy conservation manager. "It can also give some indication of how connected and genetically diverse our current wild populations are."

"Beavers are important to the ecology of the region, and understanding their genome is an important part of understanding their behaviors and role in the ecosystem," added Dr. Stephen Ramsey, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at OSU. "There is a lot of interest in exploring the genetics of wild beaver populations throughout the Northwest, but we lack the reference genome that would really facilitate those kinds of studies."

Enter Filbert, a North American beaver at the Oregon Zoo. Since zoo veterinarians were conducting the animal's routine physical exam and blood-work panel this month, they offered to set aside a small blood sample for OSU's genome project.

On Aug. 18, Ramsey and other OSU researchers traveled to Portland to collect the sample from the zoo's veterinary medical center, transporting it back to the university's Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing.

Once funding for their project has been secured, Ramsey and his team will begin to extract and analyze DNA and RNA from the sample in order to assemble a draft genome and predict the locations of genes.

"We hope it will help us understand why beavers have some of their unusual traits and abilities," Ramsey said. "They can eat and digest wood, and they have incisors that allow them to cut through a 3-foot-wide tree in a matter of hours."

At the conclusion of the project, OSU researchers plan to share the genome sequence and gene annotations with the broader scientific community via GenBank, the National Institute of Health's genetic sequence repository.

The Oregon Zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, Western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
 
The zoo relies in part on community support through donations to the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs. The zoo is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26 at exit 72. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Find fare and route information online or by calling TriMet Customer Service at 503-238-RIDE (7433).
 
General zoo admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $4 per car is also required. Additional information is available by calling 503-226-1561.

Media contact: 

Hova Najarian | 503-220-5714 | hova.najarian@oregonzoo.org

Jeannine Cropley | 541-737-3678 | jeannine.cropley@cgrb.oregonstate.edu