Zoo Atlanta uses implantable device to study orangutan's heart

Satu, a 17-year-old male Bornean orangutan, received an Implantable Loop Recorder (ILR) that will monitor changes in his heart rhythm. (Photo courtesy of Zoo Atlanta)

There's more for scientists to learn about the behaviors of great apes and what might lead to heart disease. 

One Zoo Atlanta orangutan may play a crucial part in some of those medical discoveries. Satu, a 17-year-old male Bornean orangutan, received an Implantable Loop Recorder that will monitor changes in his heart rhythm. 

The procedure, which the Zoo said he is trained to voluntarily participate in, is part of the Great Ape Heart Project headquartered at Zoo Atlanta. 

Satu's family has a history of heart disease. The orangutan presented with an irregular heartbeat during an awake echocardiogram, zoo staff said.

"The Great Ape Heart Project was formed to address a specific need in the zoological community. It has since become an effort on a multi-institutional scope that is able to use advanced technology to continue to collect data that has been previously unavailable. This data can help to save lives," said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Deputy Director at Zoo Atlanta and the Director of the Great Ape Heart Project. "This is just the beginning of what the project is capable of, with a goal of improving the health of all great apes in human care." 

Human cardiologist Ilana Kutinsky from Beaumont Michigan Heart Rhythm Group assisted the Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team in implanting the listening device. Kutinsky has headed up similar procedures in other apes at different zoological facilities. 

The Great Ape Heart Project targets heart disease — the primary cause of death among great apes in zoos — in gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Zoo Atlanta staff said the examination requires advanced understanding of diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of affected individuals, as well as adaptation of techniques already in use in humans and domestic animals.    

Zoo Atlanta has been at the forefront of studying heart disease in great apes. The zoo has one of the largest orangutan and gorilla populations in the world. In 2009, Zoo Atlanta was the first in the world to obtain voluntary blood pressure readings from a gorilla. 

Gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are all considered endangered or critically endangered in the wild.

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