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Cervix-Navigating Robots Are Saving Rhinos From Extinction!

Humans have had a profound effect on the planet.

We have harnessed the awesome resources offered by nature and shaped our world into a wondrous place.

We have figured out how to explore the deepest parts of the ocean…

built skyscrapers…

landed on the moon…

and have even sent robots to another planet…

Humans are amazing creatures, there is no doubt about it.

With the awe, though, comes the shock. While humans have accomplished incredible feats throughout our history, we have also caused unspeakable devastation to the place we call home. One such tragedy is the decimation of the northern white rhinoceros.  

Through a loss of habitat and pointless poaching, the northern white rhino is all but extinct. None of this magnificent creature remains in the wild, and only two barren females are still living in captivity. Meaning the chances of continuing the species by natural means is no longer an option. To add insult to injury, even if a male white rhino still lived, the female rhino’s reproductive system is so uniquely complicated that its design has not done a lot to help perpetuate the species even without human interference. 

Angalifu, a male northern white rhino, died on December 14, 2014, at the San Diego Zoo.
Photo by Heather Paul

The female white rhino’s cervix is something of a natural wonder, comprised of a series of “interlocking ridges or rings that make it look like a number of S’s connected to each other for 8 to 12 inches,” according to Barbara Durant, the director of reproductive sciences at the San Diego Zoo, who likened its appearance to that of Lombard Street in San Francisco. “It’s just back and forth, back and forth.”

A flexible robotic catheter designed to navigate the unusually shaped cervix of the northern white rhino. Photo by: David Baillot/UC Sand Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

While the evolution of the rhino’s cervix may have served its purpose, it is unknown to us why it is designed the way it is, and we can only speculate to the advantage such architecture would entail. That said, the San Diego Zoo and UC San Diego roboticists have teamed up to inspire an interesting solution to combat the demise of these beloved creatures. Together, they have designed a serpentine robot whose intended purpose is to navigate the tumultuous cervix and deposit an embryo directly into the uterus. 

How is this possible, you might ask, when the only two living white rhinos on Earth are both female and are both barren (meaning they no longer have eggs in their reproductive system to be fertilized)? Basically, scientists would reverse engineer living skin cells and reprogram them to replicate into the correct cell types to produce new northern white rhino eggs and sperm. This is a technique that has been tried and tested in mice, so with some tweaking, they are hopeful that the same process will work to produce viable embryos that can be implanted into a surrogate – the southern white rhino, a close relative of the northern white rhino, where the UC San Diego robot we mentioned earlier would come into play.  When all is said and done, we may just see the northern white rhino bounce back from the very brim of extinction and humans can redeem themselves, if only just a little bit, for their part in creating this mess to begin with. 

Southern White Rhino Calf Born At Safari Park

It’s a boy! 🦏 The first southern white rhino to be born through artificial insemination in North America was born at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park Sunday:📹: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Posted by FOX 5 San Diego on Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Victoria, a southern white rhino, welcomed a new calf following a successful artificial insemination attempt at the San Diego Zoo.

However, with the northern white rhino in dire straights, and other rhino populations in jeopardy, it was with great pleasure that the San Diego Zoo announced the arrival of the very first southern white rhino calf conceived through artificial insemination in North America at their Safari Park on Sunday, July 28, 2019. This was the first of its species to have been conceived through artificial means on the continent, and another is expected to arrive sometime in September!

At GoodBulb, we are always looking to find new and innovative ways to give back to our fellow man, and to our planet. We seek out Good Causes at every turn and are humbled to find such good hearts at San Diego Zoo and UC San Diego on a mission to undo the damage caused to these extraordinary animals. To find out how you, too, can help save the northern white rhino, please consider a donation to UC San Diego’s project here