Sep. 1, 1998 By Sarah Carey
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---In a procedure never before performed on a bird, University of Florida veterinarians -- with help from a human hand surgeon -- have implanted a fingerlike, artificial joint in a rare Siberian crane.
The 20-year-old crane, Eduard, was recuperating well from the four-hour operation August 20 at UF's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
Siberian cranes are the third rarest of all cranes and arguably the most endangered, with only about 3,000 known to exist in the wild in three distinct populations. Roughly 100 Siberian cranes exist in captivity worldwide, with 17 at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wis.
Eduard is an important member of North America's captive breeding flock for this endangered species and suffers from severe arthritis in the tarsal joints, or hocks, of both legs, said Dr. Julie Langenberg, staff veterinarian with ICF. The hock is a major joint in long-legged birds.
"This chronic, progressive problem has been compounded by severe arthritis in his left foot," Langenberg said. "This bird is extremely lame, to the point that both pain-killing and anti-inflammatory medications are not enough to keep him comfortable."
UF's Dr. Avery Bennett, an assistant professor of wildlife and zoological medicine, and Dr. Eugene "Tom" O'Brien, a human hand surgeon from San Antonio with extensive experience in finger joint replacements, performed the surgery.
"Basically, the joint in this bird is equivalent to the human ankle joint," Bennett said. "Normally, the ends of the bone have cartilage on them, which cushions the joint, but when you have arthritis, the cartilage is often worn off, so there is bone rubbing against bone. Our goal in surgery was to solve this problem by cutting off the ends of the bones at the top and bottom of the joint and replacing the middle portion with a hinged plastic device."
About the size of a clothespin, the flexible implant is used as an artificial joint for the human big toe.
"It is very similar to the device used in finger joint replacements, but slightly larger," said O'Brien, a longtime friend and mentor of Bennett's.
"He's been involved all along, and agreed to fly to Gainesville to help with the implantation," Bennett said. The experimental procedure may be only a first step in managing the crane's medical problems, as Eduard still has disease in both legs, Langenberg conceded.
"Even with a perfectly successful surgery, it is unlikely that Eddie will have many more years of breeding," she said. "However, what we can learn from this could be very important. We have lots of other important breeding Siberian cranes who may need this surgery while they are still good candidates for success. Eddie is our first test case."
Eduard's problem is not uncommon among captive Siberian cranes, many of which develop arthritis at a young age, said ICF veterinary technician Nancy Businga, who accompanied Eduard to Gainesville from Wisconsin. Siberian cranes can live 40 to 50 years in captivity.
Wild Siberian cranes are highly aquatic and spend most of their time in soft, mushy marshes, she said, adding that many believe captive Siberian cranes develop leg joint arthritis as a result of standing on surfaces that do not provide the same cushion.
Eduard has grown up in captivity at ICF, where he was brought as an egg from a wild nest on the tundra in eastern Siberia. He has sired seven eggs that were sent back to Russia and hatched, reared and released to bolster the endangered wild Siberian flocks. Another two of his chicks were released in Iran and India. In addition, Eduard has sired seven other chicks who have joined captive breeding programs in the United States, Germany and Belgium.
UF veterinarians and ICF representatives will monitor Eduard's condition at UF until he is well enough to return home.
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