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Veterinarians and zoo workers didn’t know how to treat Mumbali, a sick female gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Trying anything, vets anesthetized Mumbali to give her another gorilla’s blood.

The team was taking stabs in the dark — it didn’t know whether the two primates had the same blood type, whether the transfusion would work or whether Mumbali would even survive the ordeal.

Mumbali’s story, along with countless others, reveals the lack of data on great ape blood types. But researchers and veterinarians are catching on, as they assist captive primates much in the same way humans help one another — with blood banks.

After Mumbali’s primitive last-minute transfusion, Kathryn Gamble and Jill Moyse started opportunistically drawing blood from other great apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo when the animals were anesthetized during routine checkups.

Last September, the same team announced it had created a project to study the blood types of great apes in captivity. Incorporating this science into animals’ Species Survival Plans, zoos around the world have provided data on roughly 680 captive bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

These efforts highlight a conclusion long suspected, but never explored in its entirety: the striking similarities between human and nonhuman primate blood.

And no, we’re not talking about King Kong’s theatrical operation.

Like humans, apes have distinct immune antigens called agglutinogens on the surface of red blood cells. Blood is not interchangeable between humans and primates, but apes still possess a diversity of blood types similar to humans, including A, B, AB and O. Essentially, this means that some primates have a specific agglutinogen on the surface of the cell, while others have a mixture of A and B or no antigens at all (O type). Because some people and nonhuman primates possess red blood cells with no antigens, their blood is less likely to be rejected by another animal’s immune system, even if that animal has a different blood type.

University of Utah

When vets perform a blood transfusion with little knowledge of the donor and recipient’s blood type, the procedure can end tragically. If there’s no match, the recipient’s immune system will launch an attack on the foreign cells, which will cause the blood to clot and limit the flow of the vital oxygen needed throughout the body.

So far, scientists know that bonobos have Type A blood, whereas orangutans express a range of A, B, AB and O. Unfortunately, genetic sequencing cannot reliably characterize the blood types of gorillas at this time. This type of work isn’t new, but has mostly been limited to species of primates used for biomedical research — such as the rhesus macaque.

The project’s emphasis on collating blood data for the health of the animals, not necessarily humans, makes it unique and heartfelt. As of 2010, approximately half of the primate species in the world faced extinction, according to an International Union for the Conservation of Nature report. It’s clear that ensuring the health and stability of captive populations is necessary for the species’ survival in the long-run.

Losing apes from illnesses — both environmentally-induced and congenital — is not unusual in captivity or in the wild.

For instance, researchers recently discovered that the Simian Immunodeficiency virus (SIV) — the nonhuman primate version of HIV — has spread to nearly 25 percent of chimpanzees inhabiting the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. This is the same population first studied by Jane Goodall.

It will be interesting to see where these data come into play in the future.

Sadly, Mumbali succumbed to her illness on the operating table five years ago. Her transfusion was unsuccessful, but that may not be the case for other apes in the future.

Zoo keepers and researchers now have a starting point for blood transfusions in the future — there’s no more taking stabs in the dark.

Gorilla photo by Dozyg/Wikimedia Commons

Blood surface photo by the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center

(source: Marshall Space Flight Center's Marshall Image Exchange)

Fifty years ago yesterday, donning a custom ape spacesuit, a chimpanzee named Ham was catapulted beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Competing with the Soviet Union’s space program, NASA rushed to launch an animal into space before sending astronauts. Too bad Yuri Gagarin beat them to it.

Ham went up anyway in a Mercury Redstone Launch vehicle, where he came back down into the Atlantic after 16 minutes.

Ham, after landing (source: Great Images in NASA)

Ham wasn’t alone, though. Between the United States and Soviet Union, a handful of animals made the unknowing journey to space (or didn’t make it, sadly), including all of the rhesus macaques named “Albert,” Belka, Strelka and Laika — stray dogs from Russia, and Ham and Enos the chimps. Of course, this list isn’t complete, but it gives you an idea of which animals were used.

Mary Roach‘s recent book Packing for Mars details some of these experiments wonderfully. Some have happy endings, others don’t. She even visited Ham’s supposed grave in New Mexico. In case you’re wondering, Ham died later in life — a happy and chubby chimp.

Roach also points out that some astronauts (namely, John Glenn) were angry at NASA for sending nonhuman primates up first. Thinking chimps didn’t serve a purpose, Glenn thought Ham unjustly stole the spotlight. He wanted nothing to do with the primates.

Au contraire, Mr. Glenn.

Ham, who had no clue (really) where he was headed, inadvertently ensured the safety of these astronauts who followed. The question is: Would I launch animals into space today? Probably not. But it disheartens me to hear that some of these space legends bashed their primate brethren — animals with no idea of what was going on.

If veteran astronauts won’t say it, I will.

This banana’s for you, Ham.

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Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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