New study finds connection between elephant, whale hearts

Published 3:23 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2018

HARROGATE, Tenn. — Just in time for Valentine’s Day, faculty from Lincoln Memorial University-College of Veterinary Medicine (LMU-CVM) are working to preserve the heart of the world’s largest land animal, the African elephant.

The heart is in the final stages of the silicone plastination process which involves preserving biological tissue by replacing water or fat with a polymer like silicone to produce a preserved specimen for anatomical study. It should be completed by spring of 2018. The plastinated heart will be used to teach comparative anatomy of large animals to first-year veterinary students at LMU-CVM.

The LMU-CVM faculty involved in the comparative anatomy project include Dr. Bob Henry, professor of veterinary anatomy, Dr. Paul Nader, assistant professor of veterinary anatomy, Dr. Ismael Concha, assistant professor of veterinary anatomy and Dr. Joshua Rowe, assistant professor of veterinary anatomy.

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In 2017, Henry and Nader worked on an international research project with Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and Dr. Gunther von Hagens of Gubener Plastinate GmbH in Germany, to help preserve the world’s largest heart, one of a 76.5-foot blue whale.

Through the plastination process of the elephant heart, LMU research faculty have found that the African elephant and blue whale have similarly shaped hearts. The group’s anatomical research hopes to discover why the largest of terrestrial mammals, elephants, and the largest of the aquatic mammals, whales, share a similar heart anatomy. Both animals display the heart shape of a broad apex with both ventricular chambers of nearly equal dimensions. In addition, both hearts appear to be compressed from a dorsal to ventral perspective.

“As new discoveries are revealed about these charismatic mammals and their dramatic heart anatomy, even more questions arise and require investigation,” said Nader. “Our intent is to publish our findings from these comparative anatomy projects, and ultimately to learn even more about these incredible mammals.”

LMU-CVM faculty are planning a cooperative study using plastination of mega-vertebrates hearts to further study the comparative anatomy between terrestrial and aquatic mammal species over the next several years. The collaborative partners will include The Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, the California Academy of Science, the Alaskan North Slope Borough – Department of Wildlife Management, the White Oak Conservation Center and the Oregon State University – Marine Mammal Institute.

LMU-CVM faculty plan to continue anatomical research with investigations of the heart anatomy from various mega-vertebrates including whales, elephants, rhinoceros and seals and sea lions. A crucial preservation method to enable the long-term study of these soft-tissue organs will be silicone-impregnation or plastination of the hearts. Fortunately, plastination is a specialty of the LMU-CVM anatomy team. With these future comparative anatomical specimens the LMU-CVM students will become more knowledgeable and skilled with wildlife and zoological anatomy.

“Elephants have big hearts and are full of charisma. The more the world understands about them, the more we will want to protect them,” Nader said.