July 15, 2024

But for two University of Saskatchewan (USask) scientists, members of the Camelid family have earned their place in the spotlight for another reason: they’re fascinating models for reproductive research.

The Camelid family of species, which includes camels, guanacos, vicuñas, alpacas and llamas, are even-toed, ruminant mammals with three-chambered stomachs. These animals are a valuable source of milk, meat, wool, and transportation for people throughout North Africa, South-West and Central Asia, Oceania, and South America. 

Camelids initially originated from North America, but they died out during the height of the last Ice Age, after survivors had migrated to South America (New World camelids) and Asia (Old World camelids). Thousands of years later, alpaca and llama populations are growing again in North America because of an increased interest in using their wool fibres for creating textiles. More people are also purchasing these camelid species as companion animals for humans, horses, sheep, and other mammals.

“The camelids are back in North America to stay,” said Dr. Gregg Adams (DVM, PhD), a veterinarian and reproductive biology professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “But how they will find their niche in the livestock economy versus companion animals remains to be seen.” 

Besides their value as sources of wool fibre, meat and companionship, camelids are helping researchers learn more about reproduction in mammals—including humans. Adams and his WCVM colleague, Dr. Jaswant Singh (BVSc&AH, PhD), are part of the USask One Reproductive Health Group. Its members include a diverse group of scientists from veterinary medicine, human medicine, animal science, mathematics, and other disciplines to better understand reproductive health in animals and people.

Adams and Singh have conducted numerous One Health studies related to reproductive health and are among a very small handful of scientists in Canada whose reproductive work includes llamas and alpacas. Camelids are unique reproductive research subjects because they’re considered “induced ovulators,” meaning that the females only ovulate (release eggs from their ovaries) in response to mating. In comparison, mammals such as dogs, cattle, horses and humans are categorized as “spontaneous ovulators” in which females ovulate at regular intervals regardless of mating. 

Many smaller mammals, such as cats, rabbits, koalas, skunks, and weasels are induced ovulators, but the evolution of this mechanism of ovulation remains a mystery. As the largest of species belonging to the induced ovulator category, the camelids’ size, their ease of handling and their availability combine to make them an ideal model for studying this biological phenomenon.

“It’s really just an interesting new model where I could actually understand the induced ovulating mechanism, which we didn’t understand very well [before],” Adams said.

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