Heart to heart

Two chimpanzees have become the first in the UK to be fitted with special heart monitoring devices as part of a pioneering procedure at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

The Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) veterinary team, together with Cardiff Metropolitan University, have fitted chimps Phil and Nikki with tiny implantable heart monitors that are able to measure the pair’s heart rhythms and check for potential problems.

The two young males, Phil and Nikki, were selected for the procedure as they were closely related to two young adult male chimpanzees that were diagnosed with cardiovascular abnormalities thought to be genetic. The procedure was shown on ITV1 documentary The Zoo on 10 July 2013.

Whipsnade Chimp Heart Operation

As part of the International Primate Heart Project (IPHP), ZSL are working with partners to research why the defects happen, if it's something that can be prevented and how it can be treated.

A semi-permanent heart monitor is placed under the skin on the chimpanzee’s back under a general anaesthetic. This allows monitoring of the heart to occur whilst the chimps are awake. Keepers then train the chimps to present their backs so they can download information from the device. This data will be analysed over a period of time in order to give experts a better understanding of heart disease in great apes.

Nic Masters, ZSL’s Head of Veterinary Services, explains: “Until now we’ve only been able to monitor Phil and Nikki’s hearts when they’ve been sedated, but these devices mean we can monitor them when they’re awake and active, which should give us a much clearer idea of what’s going on.

“Heart disease, which may be related to an irregular heartbeat, is a common problem in great apes, so fitting the devices is a big step forwards for us, and we’re really pleased with how it went. Phil and Nikki are back to their normal cheeky selves, settling into the group quickly and playing in their chimpnasium,” adds Nic.

Professor Rob Shave, Professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology at Cardiff Metropolitan University says: “As part of the International Primate Heart Project we use similar tools as those used to screen athletes for heart defects prior to competition. The use of the implantable heart recorders in Nikki and Phil is an exciting next step.

"The team at ZSL are great - whilst the IPHP can provide the clinical expertise, the implantable recorders are only useful if the chimps are trained for the downloads, the keepers and vet team have done an amazing job in training Nikki and Phil."