Large numbers of European chimpanzees suffer from a lack of vitamin D, says new study — ScienceDaily

A new study has found that a large number of chimpanzees living in Europe suffer from insufficient vitamin D levels, and the widespread problem could have a major impact on their health.

The study, which is the largest of its kind, is published in the journal Scientific reports. The authors say this research will help improve the care and nutrition practices of these endangered animals.

Vitamin D deficiency is described by some as a pandemic, believed to affect up to 1 billion people worldwide. Vitamin D is well known for its importance in maintaining calcium levels in the body, which is essential for bone and muscle function. However, vitamin D has a much wider range of biological functions, and long-term vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a variety of disorders in humans such as heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and respiratory infections.

Comparatively little is known about vitamin D in non-human primates. An international team of experts, including academics from the universities of Nottingham, Birmingham, St George’s and Hong Kong, as well as zoo vets from Twycross and Perth zoos, have started a European research project to investigate this in our closest animal relatives.

The international study found that insufficient vitamin D levels are widespread in chimpanzees living in Europe. This, in turn, can be a risk factor for the development of a mysterious heart disease that often affects them: IMF or Idiopathic Myocardial Fibrosis.

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The same research group has previously investigated IMF in detail and found that a majority of chimpanzees from Europe showed the characteristic changes of this disease, but animals from Africa were not affected.

Dr Melissa Grant of the University of Birmingham said: “This is important research to further understand the factors that contribute to maintaining a healthy chimpanzee population in human care for the future of the species. Such a wide range of individuals and locations have not been explored before and this reveals potential new ways to care for these animals.”

During the study, the team analyzed samples from around 20% of all chimpanzees living in Europe. The samples came from 32 European zoos and sanctuaries and were collected opportunistically when the animals were anesthetized for health checks or minor veterinary procedures. The researchers analyzed the samples along with detailed information about the individual animals and their care practices, as well as their geographic location, to understand which factors might be important for their vitamin D supply.

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Sophie Moittié, who led the study originally at Twycross Zoo and is now an assistant professor at the University of St George’s, said: “There is a clear link between vitamin D status and several diseases in humans. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, so we must assume that they may also be at risk. It is our responsibility to ensure that they receive the best possible care, so that we can preserve them in the future.”

Their results show that unlimited outdoor access resulted in higher vitamin D levels, even for the animals living in northern Europe, where sunny days are rare compared to their natural African habitat. As in humans, there were also clear differences in vitamin D between seasons, and for many chimpanzees their late summer concentrations may not be high enough to avoid winter deficiency. Even chimpanzees living in southern Europe are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, in the same way as the people who live there.

These findings will now inform how these animals are cared for in zoos and sanctuaries, contributing to continuous improvements in welfare standards.

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Professor Kate White from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham said: “This is a really good example of clinical research informing best practice: unrestricted outdoor access for these captive animals is likely to be more important than we previously thought. “

Professor Kerstin Baiker, lead pathologist for this study from the City University of Hong Kong said: “Vitamin D plays an important role in the transcriptional control of profibrogenic and pro-inflammatory factors in the body, so adequate vitamin D levels are essential for the health of the chimpanzees in our care .”

Although vitamin D was long thought to be important only for bone health, its relevance nowadays is considered very profound. Hundreds, if not thousands, of biological processes depend on its presence in humans and other animals, and deficiency of this vitamin may be a major contributing factor to many modern human diseases. Understanding these in other great apes can both provide significant benefits for their conservation, and we can also learn important lessons for humans.

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