Vitamin D deficiency is currently considered by many as a pandemic, affecting over one billion people worldwide. This vitamin is well-known for its major role in maintaining calcium levels in the body, contributing to the proper functioning of bones and muscles. However, its range of biological functions is much wider, and prolonged vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a variety of health conditions, such as heart and autoimmune diseases, cancers, and respiratory infections.
While vitamin D’s function in humans has been widely explored, comparatively little is known about its role in non-human primates. Now, an international team of scientists and zoo veterinarians has set up a Europe-wide research project to investigate the presence and role of this vitamin in chimpanzees. Their analysis revealed that inadequate vitamin D levels are widespread in chimpanzees living in Europe, which could turn out to be a significant risk factors for the development of Idiopathic Myocardial Fibrosis (IMF), a mysterious heart condition that commonly affects them.
“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,” said study co-author Melissa Grant, a senior scientist at the University of Birmingham.
The researchers analyzed samples from around 20 percent of the chimpanzees living in Europe in 32 zoos and sanctuaries, and found significant vitamin D deficiencies in many of these samples. However, the findings showed that unlimited outdoor access resulted in higher vitamin D levels, even for animals living in Northern Europe, where sunny days are relatively rare. Moreover, there were also differences in vitamin D between seasons – as it happens in humans too. Yet, for many chimpanzees their end-of-summer vitamin D levels are usually not high enough to avoid winter deficiencies.
“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 chimpanzees in our care,” said study senior author Kerstin Baiker, a pathologist at the City University of Hong Kong.
These findings could inform how chimpanzees are cared for in zoos and sanctuaries, hopefully contributing to improvements in welfare standards. “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,” concluded co-author Kate White, an expert in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nottingham.
The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
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